Chapter 1: Learner's Permit
Despite being somewhat popular among his peers Jim doesn't consider most of them close friends. His phone has outgoing calls to about four people, and one of them is his mother. He's never complained about a lack of friends, and deep down he knows his temper is the reason his phone isn't constantly blowing up with texts, and that's fine , really. He'd rather have just a few close friends than a dozen or so shallow ones.
Right now though he'd rather have zero friends, but only because he can't imagine who else would call now.
It's around two, and he's blinking awake, bleary eyed and exhausted from staying up too late. His phone is lit up, screeching at him from across the room where it's charging, and he watches it vibrate and ring until it topples off his desk and eventually goes silent. Then after about a minute the light goes back on, and the ringing resumes, and Jim groans as he forces himself out of bed and across the room to his desk.
He kicks his desk chair and swears, grumbling as he bends down and picks up his phone, scowling at the bright light as he tries to read.
When he registers the name “Ed Nashton” on his screen Jim feels an icy cold slip down his back and settle into his gut. He blinks, now wide awake, and answers quickly, sitting in his chair and whispering, “hello?”
“Jim,” he says, voice thick and a bit muffled, like he's talking through a stuffed up nose, “you were asleep, weren't you. I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I shouldn't, you should sleep. Go back to sleep. It's fine, I just-”
“Ed what's going on?” Jim keeps his voice low, not wanting to wake his parents, and slips off his chair to grab his shoes. “Do you need me to come get you?”
“I shouldn't have bothered you,” Ed says, somehow thicker, and sniffling. “I'm sorry, I'm so stupid, I just, I know you didn't mean any time but I just, I'm sorry. I'll let you sleep.” His breath shudders, loud in Jim's ear. “Please, I didn't mean to bother you-”
“Ed I'm coming over,” Jim says. He tugs on a pair of sneakers and grabs a sweatshirt before moving to his door and slowly making his way down the hall. “Are you at home?”
“Yes, but Jim-”
“I'm coming , Ed, okay? Just sit tight.” Jim hesitates by the front door and shifts his weight, then he grabs the set of keys for his mom's beat up four door. “Do you want me to stay on the phone?”
“I don't want to get you in trouble,” Ed whispers. “It's nothing serious, please don't go to too much trouble.”
“Are you outside?” Jim asks. He slips out of the house and to the driveway, unlocking the car and starting it up. Ten and two, press the brake before changing the gear, and don't get pulled over.
“Yes,” he sniffs. “Thank you, really, I, I'm, you have,” he gets somewhat inaudible between trying to be quiet and failing to not cry, and Jim swallows around a lump in his throat. He sets his phone in his lap and slowly, and very carefully, puts the car into reverse.
He's driven in the parking lot at his mom's work a dozen or so times, and for a few hours on some of the back roads, but never at night, and not alone. But Jim is determined, and he's moving slowly, keeping both hands glued to the steering wheel as he drives about five under at two in the morning with his brights on. He forgot how to turn them off; it feels immaterial to him now.
Jim doesn't want to call attention to Ed's parents so he parks the car on the opposite side of the street and leans out the driver's side window, waving Ed over and telling him to, “hurry up Ed, come on,” into the phone. “I'll take you to my place just get in .”
Ed walks quickly, favoring one side and wheezing a little, and he avoids looking directly at Jim until he's already seated in the passenger seat. His glasses are gone and Jim fears the worst based on Ed's bruised eye. He takes in his swollen cheek and bleeding nose, and he has a very hard time staying seated instead of running into Ed's house and giving them a taste of their own medicine. He looks away from Ed and grips the steering wheel, then he punches it twice, swearing when the impact hurts his hand. Once he manages to turn back to Ed he finds him cowering in the seat, one hand on his side and the other covering his unbruised eye.
“Sorry,” Jim whispers. He takes a few calming breaths and closes his eyes. “Are you okay?”
“I just want to leave,” Ed whispers back. “Please?”
“Do your ribs hurt?” Jim's cracked a few before in a fight. It hurts like hell but he knows how to treat them.
“Only a little. Can we just go?” Ed pleads. “I'm sorry, I'm grateful, really. I just want to go.”
“You should buckle up. I don't have my license yet and I don't want to get pulled over.” Ed sobs, and Jim turns and watches while he cries, shoulders shaking. He puts a hand on Ed's knee, rubbing his thumb across his kneecap and letting him work through his feelings. Once he's calmed down a little Jim asks, “do you need a doctor?” Ed shakes his head emphatically. “My mom's a nurse, so she can look at you if you want.”
Ed doesn't answer, instead he starts crying harder. Jim leans over and carefully buckles him in, mindful of Ed's left side and pausing long enough to give him a loose, one armed hug. Ed leans against him for a moment, temple to temple, and then he leans back, sniffling through tears and maybe a little more blood. Jim doesn't try to make him talk again, opting to just sit quietly until the worst has passed, and by the time he starts driving away Ed is down to some stray tears trailing down his face and the occasional sniffle.
Jim drives slower than he did on the way to Ed's, wary of every other vehicle they see, but they make it back to his home undetected. Jim parks the car more or less where he found it and gets out first, motioning for Ed to follow, but he has to help Ed out of the passenger seat after he squeaks in pain. Jim is as patient as he can be, hands rubbing up and down Ed's arms to try to soothe him. He shushes Ed gently, begs him to keep it together until they're down the hall, and the two make their way to the bathroom closest to Jim's bedroom.
Inside the bright room Ed's nose looks worse, there's dried blood under his nose and on his shirt, but it's no longer bleeding. His eye is swelling along with his cheek, and Jim has to take a few more breaths to stop himself from doing anything stupid.
“You can sit on the counter if you want,” Jim says. Ed doesn't move and Jim shrugs, moving to wet a washcloth before gently wiping at Ed's face, clearing away the dried blood and checking Ed for any sign of a head injury. There’s no blood anywhere on his head, and he doesn't seem confused or in any excess pain, at least.
“Can I see your ribs?” he asks. Ed nods and pulls his shirt up and over his head, wincing when it tugs on his sore nose, and Jim surveys Ed's torso with a steady building rage. Nothing looks all that bad on its own, but the sheer number of bruises on his torso about send Jim into a fit. He huffs out a breath through his nose, and another, then he leaves the bathroom and storms to the kitchen to get an ice pack and maybe punch one of the more sturdy walls of the house, seething quietly when something in his hand makes an unnerving popping noise. His hand still works afterward, but he grabs an extra ice pack from the freezer for himself just in case.
“Hold this on your eye,” Jim instructs Ed. He sets the extra pack down on the counter and moves to the sink. “I'll get you some pain meds.”
“I don't have any allergies,” Ed says. “Except maybe lactose.”
“You drink milk all the time.”
“I take supplements,” Ed mumbles. “I prefer aspirin,” he says even quieter. “Three.”
Jim says nothing and fills a small glass with water, then he digs through the medicine cabinet until he finds a small bottle of aspirin. He dumps three pills into his palm and hands them over to Ed, and he swallows them dry, only deciding drink the water after seeing Jim's pained expression. Ed hugs an arm around himself, the other still busy holding up the ice pack to the swollen side of his face. He shivers, partly from the cold and maybe because Jim can't stop staring at all the bruises.
“Some of these are old,” he says, indicating a nasty yellowed patch on Ed's hip, and another on his right shoulder. He puts the ice pack on his hand to keep himself from touching any of the angry marks.
Ed curls his shoulders inward. “He's been home a lot this week.”
“I fucking hate your dad,” Jim growls. “Where was your mom?”
“She was there. I mean, not like, right there, but she was home.” He moves the ice pack off his face and gingerly touches some of the swelling. “They've been arguing more recently.”
Ed shakes his head. “I don't think it would be different if it was about me though.”
“Why can't we call the police?” Jim pleads. “Ed you're bleeding . And all this,” he gestures to Ed's torso, “is actual proof . You didn't even do anything wrong . But even if you did, Jesus Ed you don't deserve this.”
“I can't Jim, please just drop it.”
“I don't see why you think you have to put up with this. My parents would help . So would Oswald’s mom.”
“I’d have to move,” he whispers. “I did some research a couple years back. I have an uncle out of state. I barely know him, but that's where I'd be sent , because he's still family. I don't want to leave you both behind.” Ed's fragile composure breaks, tears start welling in his eyes and he sniffs. “Or, or they'd find a way to blame some bully, and it wouldn't help anything, and then it would just get worse. ”
“What happens if it gets worse anyway?” Jim asks. “This is already way worse. I don't think it's worth it, Ed. You can make more friends, and it's not like we couldn't talk or hang out on weekends.”
“No.” Ed shakes his head. “People don’t like me. You're both outliers, and I consider us close but I never expected you to come get me,” Ed whispers. He sniffles, voice getting thick again, and he says, “you actually came , and, and I know I'm just this, this annoying weirdo . But you're both still my friends anyway and you actually came and -”
“You aren't a weirdo.” Jim shushes Ed before he self deprecates too much. Ed sobs in response. Jim sets aside his ice pack again, watching it plop into the sink as he holds his arms out and lets Ed situate himself against his chest for a hug. Ed's hands move up Jim's back, clutching at handfuls of his sweatshirt and he hides his face against Jim's shoulder. Jim sees Ed's back in the mirror, at the bruises mottling his skin, and he closes his eyes, holding Ed tighter and rocking him a little. “I’ll try to always come, okay? I'll do my best. And I won't make you call the police, not if you really don't want to.”
Ed doesn't say anything and Jim doesn't push. He rubs his hand over Ed's back, feeling his eyes droop now that his adrenaline is fading. Ed starts getting heavy in his arms, and when Jim makes him stand up straight Ed snorts in surprise, eyes blinking slowly. “Did you fall asleep on me?”
“I'm tired,” Ed says though a yawn. “I'm sorry I woke you up.”
“Don't worry about it. Come on,” he says, grabbing Ed's hand and leading him the short way to his bedroom. His alarm blinks at him from the bedside table, 3:45 am. “School's in like, three hours,” he groans.
“I'm sorry,” Ed mumbles. He stands in the center of Jim's bedroom, hands knotted together and bare shoulders hunched.
“It's not your fault. Here.” Jim digs out a pair of sweats from his dresser and hands them to Ed. “They're going to be too short on you.”
“It's fine,” he says. Ed changed out of his pants and into the sweatpants, which stop well above his ankle, but he looks comfortable, and the addition of one of Jim's baggy sweatshirts gets him to stop huddling so much. Jim crawls back into his bed and holds up the blanket until Ed nods, slipping in beside him and scooting until his head is just barely touching Jim's shoulder. “Thank you.”
“Anytime,” Jim yawns, and he rolls so his arm is across Ed's back. “I mean it. Or, maybe instead you could just sleep over in the first place.”
Ed is silent for a minute, and Jim moves his hand lazily across his back. When he speaks again it's quiet, cowed, but also hopeful. “Your parents wouldn't mind?”
“Nah,” he yawns. “Hell, maybe my grades would go up if we did homework together more often, and I'd rather not have to be a nurse again.” Ed doesn't reply, and Jim's expression goes from relaxed to mildly worried. “I mean, if I had to I would, okay? Ed?”
He snores softly, already asleep, and Jim laughs once to himself. “Guess it's okay.”
Chapter 2: Bluejays and Cardinals
canonical character death offscreen
Oswald dodges his fellow classmates, feinting left and right as he maneuvers down the hall towards the lunchroom, hands clasped on the straps of his backpack and a determined scowl on his face. Despite the crowd, and his diminutive stature, he sees Ed quickly, towering above most of the other sophomores, one hand clutching the handle of his lunchbox and the other adjusting his glasses as Oswald comes into focus.
“Where’s Jim?” Oswald asks as he comes to a stop in front of Ed.
“He’s in the office.”
“Still!? You said he got called there during third period!” Oswald stamps one foot in irritation. “What did he do this time?”
“I don’t know.” Ed shrugs. “The student runner didn’t say, she just handed over the note.”
“Well, we’re going to find out , then.” Oswald grabs onto Ed’s free hand and starts dragging him along behind him down the hall. “He at least owes us an explanation.”
“You know, the minute he left phys ed I got hit in the head with a volleyball. I think intentionally. It’s a good thing I wear my old pair of glasses during class because if they’d broken-”
“Shh,” Oswald stops abruptly and pats Ed on the chest, “hold on a minute, Ed, do you see what I see?”
Ed bites his lip and squints, moving his glasses up to see properly. “Is that his mother?”
“It can't be,” Oswald says. “She's never the one to come in.”
But they can easily see into the office through the large indoor windows. She's standing in the center of the open office, one hand scribbling at some forms attached to a clipboard. Currently Jim is nowhere to be found.
“Maybe he had an appointment?” Ed shrugs when Oswald's eyebrows go up in question. “She'd have to sign him back in.”
“Well he could have warned us is all I'm saying.”
“You just don't want to wait in line.”
“Do you blame me!? It's a long line!” he shouts, drawing attention to the two of them. Mrs. Gordon glances their way, and upon seeing her son's friends flapping about and making a small spectacle of themselves she smiles softly. Ed waves to her, a bright blush overtaking his face as Oswald rants about the inequality of making him wait in line for the crummy reduced cost lunches when everyone else gets the regular meals.
“And another thing, the quality of a student, no, a child's meal, the fuel that helps them succeed, shouldn't change just because my mother can't afford the fancy, whole cost meals.”
“I think you already argued this in debate,” Ed says, “and I agreed with you then.”
“Well the point hasn't reached the ears that make a difference, so I'm going to, oh, Mrs. Gordon!” Oswald calls out to her and waves frantically as she and Jim leave the office. She smiles back and Ed hides his face in his hands, willing to smudge his glasses if it means she won't see the blush. “Jim! Jim, you were supposed to meet us by Ed's locker.”
“Oswald,” Ed tries to pull him back. The regular lunch crowd is starting to mill about, filling the hallways and clogging the space between them and Jim. “Oswald stop calling from over here.”
“Well if he'd just come over I wouldn't have to yell.” Oswald grabs Ed and pulls him across the space to Jim and his mother. “Jim, you didn't come to Ed's locker for lunch.”
Jim shrugs, scowling at the floor and hunching his shoulders. He doesn't appear to have been in a fight; his hooded shirt isn't dirty or scuffed and his face isn't bruised or scraped. “Not hungry.”
“I'll go start the car,” Jim's mother says, squeezing her son's shoulder and patting him on the back before she goes.
“Oh, well,” Ed frets over his lunchbox and the uneaten food inside. “Usually you sit with us either way.”
“Are you getting suspended?” Oswald blurts out.
“No,” Jim's scowl deepens.
“But you're leaving,” Ed points out.
“Just go get lunch without me.” Jim says, curt, voice clipped and raspy.
“Jim if someone's treating you unfairly you should tell us,” Oswald says. “Or you can get your dad to come yell at the principal again. Most of the time you're just defending us , so-”
“Just leave me alone!” he shouts, fists clenched, “don't be such a baby! You can survive one lunch without me!” Oswald blinks, backing away until he bumps his back into Ed, and Jim shouts something unprintable, angrily stalking away and out the door to the front drive.
Ed puts a hand on Oswald's shoulder, and mumbles, “we can go eat on the back steps.”
“He snapped at me,” Oswald says, dazed. “He never snaps at me.”
They're at Oswald's tiny house, because they're always over at someone's, but right now Jim's isn't an option. Oswald's been to the Nashton home exactly once in his life, and he'll join track team before he even dreams of setting foot there again.
Ed's on the floor, lying on his stomach while reading a book for school, and Oswald's doing the same while lying in his twin bed, or at least he's trying to read along with Ed, but he keeps seeing Jim's angry face, the barely visible but still painfully there rage Jim keeps just under the surface was directed at him , and he tosses the book aside without bothering to save his place.
“You should finish reading. We have a quiz tomorrow on chapter one,” Ed says, flipping the page into chapter five. “It's about fifteen pages. The chapter, not the quiz. This book doesn't even have enough substance for a fifteen page final exam.”
“Jim yelled at me today.”
“I was there,” Ed says, not agreeing or disagreeing, just reminding Oswald of his presence. “I don't think he got in a fight.”
“That doesn't explain why he left , or why he got so angry.” Oswald rubs his eyes. He's proud to say he didn't cry over this, at least not until they got to the back stoop where no one would see. But the stinging redness around his eyes decided to persist long enough for his mother to see, and to worry. He'd lied and told her his allergies were acting up and she gave him a wet washcloth to clear away pollen; Ed managed to wait until she was out of earshot before correcting her logic.
“Jim is always angry.”
“Yes but not at me. Not at us. ” Oswald rolls so he's on his side, watching Ed as he speed reads another set of pages before flipping to the next. “Why aren't you scared?”
“I am,” Ed says. “I'm just better at hiding it.” Ed bookmarks his page at the end of the fifth chapter and sits up. “Can I sleep here?”
“You don't have to ask,” Oswald says. He knows Ed usually sleeps at Jim's house during the week. “My bed is getting a bit too small to share.”
“We're just too big,” Ed says. He moves so he's resting his back against the box spring. “Or I am, at least.”
“Hey,” Oswald fakes being offended and hits Ed in the chest with his pillow. “I grew half an inch last month. You're just part giraffe or something.”
“I don't think-”
There's a soft knock on the door and Oswald's mother pokes her head inside, smiling at the two boys and saying, “Oswald sweetheart, your little friend is at the door.”
Oswald sits up straight and looks at Ed, who's also looking confused, and then back to her. “Okay?”
“I'll send him in,” she says. She blows Oswald a kiss and he smiles briefly, then he turns to Ed.
“Do you think it's Jim?”
“I can't imagine anyone else it would be,” Ed says. “Perhaps, oh, hello.”
Jim stands in the doorway, just behind the seam separating Oswald's carpet from the hallway. He bites his lip, keeping his head down as he says, “sorry.”
“You’re forgiven, obviously. Think nothing of it,” Oswald says as if he didn't spend the entire afternoon agonizing over what he or Ed could have done to make him so angry.
“You aren't in trouble, right?” Ed asks.
Jim shakes his head. “I wasn't suspended.”
“You weren't in English,” Ed says. “We have to read that book,” he gestures to his copy in the middle of the floor. “It's painfully boring but a fast read.”
“I won't be in class tomorrow,” Jim says. He's still avoiding their eyes, and he still hasn't actually entered the room.
“But you weren't suspended,” Oswald clarifies.
Jim looks up at the two of them. His eyes are red and irritated, and now that he isn't hiding under his hood quite so thoroughly they can see how blotchy and red his face is. Jim bites his lip and crosses the small space into Oswald's room and shuts the door to the hall.
“Jim, are you alright?” Ed asks, standing, the pillow falling to the floor with a soft plop.
“My dad died,” he says abruptly, and he shudders, exhaling a raspy, choppy breath and sobbing. He doesn't even try to hide, arms limp at his sides as tears stream down his face.
Ed reacts first, rushing to close the gap and pull Jim to his chest, one arm firmly around Jim's shoulders and the other tugging his hood down and petting his hair. Oswald remains stunned on his bed for half a minute, then he jumps up, wanting to help, but Ed already has Jim wrapped up in a tight, comforting hug.
(Where did Ed learn to hug like that? Oswald wonders. Jim, he settles on. It must've been Jim, back before Ed started staying with either of them overnight. He'd needed plenty of hugs back then.)
He puts a hand on Jim's back, feeling the shuddering, gulping breaths as he cries. He rubs his thumb across Jim's ribs, unsure how else to include himself and hoping this is enough. As he rubs Jim's back Ed's hand slips down off Jim's head and over his shoulder until long, spidery fingers are resting just barely on top of Oswald’s, and Oswald presses his lips together tightly when Jim sobs are no longer muffled by Ed's shirt. He looks at Ed, at the sympathy and sadness in his eyes, and he moves a bit closer to Jim, pressing his hand firmly against his back and trying to absorb a bit of the sadness from him.
Chapter 3: Extreme Couponing, High School Edition
cw: child abuse/neglect
Ed spins the lock on his locker, opening it only for it to be slammed in his face, nearly catching his fingers in the door. He turns and ducks down when the neanderthal, Butch, from his third period English tries to grab him by the collar.
“I got my paper back and I only got a C!”
“Congratulations,” Ed mutters. He bites the inside of his cheek when he gets slammed against the lockers. It wasn't hard, but he can taste coppery, metallic blood as he feels for the wound.
“What am I paying you for if you only get me a C?” he asks, one fist raised and ready to fire.
“A C+!” Ed says quickly, before he can land a punch to Ed's glasses, “I got you a C+ right?”
“So it's far more believable if you get a grade only slightly higher than your average,” Ed explains. “I read your other papers and got a feel for your style, which admittedly could use work, but she believed you, right? No plagiarism accusations?” He can see the gears turning in Butch’s head. “Gradual improvement is less suspicious. It's believable.” He nods along as Butch's grip loosens. “She would have called you out for getting an A without good reason.”
“So if I keep paying you eventually I'll get an A?”
“I wouldn't get too hasty-” Ed starts but another slam startles him and he blurts out, “yes, eventually. Eventually you'll,” he gulps, “you'll get an A.”
Butch releases him and nods, apparently satisfied, and he drags out his wallet. “What's the rate? Five a page?”
“Ten,” Ed corrects him. “It's ten, because,” he tries to get out of Butch's line of fire, “it's ten because it's single spaced!”
“Right,” Butch smiles and claps Ed on the shoulder making him flinch. “Better warm up on Greek Myths next,” he says as he shoves the ten in Ed's hand. Ed nods, not that he needs a refresher but he does enjoy reading mythology, and he watches as Butch leaves for lunch and Oswald and Jim come barreling towards him. His stomach about drops out of his chest.
“Why did he give you money?” Jim asks. He's also fussing over Ed's shirt, straightening the collar and then inspecting Ed's face.
“I’m not hurt,” Ed says. His back aches a little and his cheek is starting to throb but it isn't anything he can't handle.
“Ed,” Oswald looks up at him, demanding an explanation. He's always managed to look stern and forceful despite his diminutive size. “Why did he pay you?”
“I am a skill you practice for years but never master, a-”
“Ed,” Jim, pats him in the cheek, lightly, but enough to startle him to a stop, “come on, no riddles, just tell us.”
“I'm writing his papers,” Ed mumbles, looking down at the floor. “For English,” he clarifies. It doesn't change the disappointed expressions on Jim and Oswald's faces. “He's paying me.”
“If someone finds out who do you think is going to end up in more trouble?” Oswald asks, snotty. Although attitude aside he isn't wrong.
“I have a foolproof system. A gradual, systematic improvement over several papers. And they aren't hard papers. The only reason he's in my class is because he paid someone else to write before.”
“Ed,” Jim says it so gently, enough that the following isn't a blow so much as it's a firm reality check, “you can't keep writing Butch's papers for him.” Jim squeezes his shoulder and Ed nods reluctantly. “You're a smart guy, and I know you're bored but doing that ass’ work isn't worth the risk.”
“Jim,” Oswald calls for his attention and tugs at his sleeve, “Jim the line .”
“Right, you coming Ed?”
“In a minute,” he whispers, still looking at the floor. Jim pats his shoulder one more time before letting Oswald drag him to the lunch line, leaving Ed by the rows of lockers while students begin filling the halls. Ed pulls out his wallet and unclenches his hand so he can put the wrinkly ten next to a five and some change he found on the ground. Fifteen dollars, eighty-three cents. “Oh crap.”
It isn't that unusual for Ed to skip eating during lunch every once and awhile. Some days he sits at the table, silent except for a few affirmative noises, nose buried in a thick book or his Gameboy, and on those days Jim and Oswald know to just carry on a conversation of their own and if Ed wants to join in later he will, but if not he's content to just be near others being social rather than an active participant.
But today there's no book, no Gameboy, and no lunch. Ed's twirling a pen on the surface of the table, resting his head in his hand and sighing tiredly.
“Rough morning?” Jim asks as he sets his tray down. Oswald claims the seat next to him, setting down his own meager portions and cracking open his juice. Ed keeps twirling and doesn't respond. “Hey, Ed, you alright?”
“Hm?” He looks up, blinking a few times. There are bags under his eyes from a lack of restful sleep, and his hair is limp and a bit greasy.
“You okay?” Jim sits down and opens his milk carton.
“Fine,” he mumbles. He pulls off his glasses and sets them aside. Then he crosses his arms and rests his head in the crook of one elbow.
Jim glances over at Oswald, but Oswald just shrugs, taking a bite and scowling down at his food. He turns his attention to his own tray and lets Ed sleep. It's been a few months since Ed traded his meal time for sleep, but it isn't unheard of either.
He waits until the lunch hour is nearly over before trying to get Ed to speak up again. Jim lightly kicks at Ed's legs under the table, and he startles awake with a soft snort. He directs a few groggy, slow blinks at his friends, and he doesn't make another sound until Oswald drags him up out of his chair and places he's glasses on his face.
“I have legs,” he mutters. Jim motions across the hall and Oswald nods before he pulls Ed out of the lunch room and props him up against a wall out in the common area. He paps Ed on the cheeks a few times, gentle but persistent. Ed's face crinkles with irritation after the first couple and he swats Oswald away. “I'm awake.”
“Are you feeling alright?” Jim asks again.
“You're pale ,” Oswald says before Ed can say anything. “And you slept through lunch. If you're sick you should go to the nurse.”
Ed shakes his head. “Not sick. I'm just tired. It's nothing to worry about.”
“You should sleep at my place tonight. You need rest if you're sick,” Jim tells him firmly. There's a measure of distress in his expression, but they can't make Ed go to the nurse if he's still well enough to make it to his classes without assistance, and even if they did drag him there his parents wouldn't sign him out of class.
“I'm not,” Ed mumbles. But the longing in his expression is enough to reassure Jim that Ed will accept his offer. “We're watching a movie in my history class. I've seen it, and the inaccuracies aren't worth remembering. I'll sleep then.”
“Don't get caught ,” Oswald demands. “Or we'll have to wait out here for you until after detention lets out, and those barbaric jocks will try to string me up the flagpole again.”
“Hey,” Jim fakes offense, considering he's one of those “barbaric jocks”, at least during track season, and at the suggestion that he couldn't or wouldn't stop that from happening. “You’re sure you're alright?”
Ed nods, and he turns away from them to open up his locker, pulling a fleece jacket out and putting it on, finishing with zipping it up all the way until it's nearly covering his chin. It doesn't help his argument against being sick but Jim and Oswald don't comment. “See you after class.”
Jim’s running late at the end of the day (track meeting before the season starts, which he’d planned on skipping, but the coach found him first) and he sprints across the halls, ignoring at least two calls after him to “walk in the halls, Gordon” as he hurries to find Ed, hoping he didn’t give up on waiting.
Not that Jim expects him to have done so. Ed’s waited in an actual blizzard, huddled against Jim’s beat up car in a too thin coat, rather than give up and go to his house. There isn’t a chance of snow today, but there is a chance of the other members of the track team finding Ed first. He speeds up his pace a few clicks, the door to the outside banging against the door guard as he exits the school and tears over to the parking lot.
Ed’s there, huddled in his fleece, hands worrying over the straps of his backpack, but otherwise untouched and unharmed. He’s alone; Oswald must have given up already, which isn't terribly surprising. The lot is relatively thinned out, only a few cars of detention servers and students still around for practice remain.
“Hey, Ed,” he unlocks the passenger door and Ed ducks inside without a word. “Okay.”
The car whines in protest as Jim starts it, but after a few nervous seconds it turns over and Jim pulls out of the spot, speeding away from the school and heading across town to his house.
“He was impatient.”
Jim watches Ed out of the corner of his eye. Ed is still huddling, his fleece jacket is up to his chin, and his eyes are closed. He’s pale, and a little gaunt, and there’s an unusually exaggerated thinness in his cheeks. When Jim reaches over, one hand landing softly on Ed’s forehead, he flinches awake, eyes fluttering in confusion. His forehead isn’t warm, but he’s clammy.
“Sorry,” Jim says. “You just look sick.”
“I mean it,” Jim says firmly. “Did you sleep in history?”
“Some. There was a worksheet, and Butch kept throwing things at me.”
Jim’s hands clench around his steering wheel. He takes a few measured breaths, nodding when Ed touches his arm. His expression is hard, angry, but he’s calm. Ed doesn’t look worried, at least. “I’ll deck him if he keeps it up.”
“Don’t get in trouble for my sake. He’s just angry with me.” Ed looks over at Jim, tired eyes full of hope, seeking something. “I stopped writing his papers.”
Jim puts his hand on Ed’s shoulder. “Good.” The tension in Ed’s shoulders goes away. “He doesn’t deserve the A you’d get for him.”
Jim unlocks the door to his apartment and lets Ed step inside. Ed toes off his beat up tennis shoes near the front door and glances around the living room. “Is your mother at work?”
“Probably.” Jim sets his bag down by the coat hooks and slips his shoes off. “Want anything?”
“Water, please,” Ed says quietly. He shuffles around fussing with his backpack while Jim goes into the kitchen. Jim fills a glass with water from the tap and tosses a bag of popcorn into the microwave on his way back to the living room. “Thank you.”
Ed sips at his water, hovering near the kitchen with his glass while Jim gets the TV started up and a game loading. “You know you can sit on the couch with that.”
“I don’t want to spill.”
Jim shrugs and starts up his game. He’s barely through the menu screen when the popcorn kernels begins popping, slowly building until it’s the familiar rapid fire pops, and as it overcomes the crescendo and begins to slow he hears Ed set down his glass somewhere and open the microwave door. “Bowls are in the cupboard.”
He glances back over the couch as Ed pours the popcorn into a bowl. Ed sneaks a few kernels into his mouth and wipes his hand on his jeans, abandoning his water on the counter and handing over the bowl to Jim. He takes a couple handfuls for himself and sets the bowl on Ed’s lap after he sits; Ed hesitates for a moment, then begins eating the popcorn one piece at a time.
“Play first or watch first?” Jim offers up the controller to Ed.
“Watch,” he whispers. Jim shrugs and loads his save file. The only sound aside from Jim's game is Ed eating the popcorn piece by piece, and when that sound stops Jim turns towards him and finds Ed asleep, one hand still dangling into the bowl. He moves the popcorn to the coffee table and drags a blanket off the back of the couch to drape it over Ed’s legs.
“Hey mom,” Jim says as she enters the apartment around five. He pauses the video game and tosses the controller onto Ed’s lap. Ed wakes with a grunt and his hands curl around the controller by reflex.
“Have you two been playing all afternoon?”
“No,” Jim says, also a reflex. “Ed fell asleep.”
“So you’ve been playing all afternoon?”
“Only an hour!” He rolls his eyes and watches as Ed takes over playing, hands moving nimbly as he focuses on the screen. “What’s for dinner?”
“I made up some lasagna last night. It just needs to go in the oven.” Jim slings his arms over the back of the couch and watches as she turns on the oven. “Ed are you staying for dinner?”
Ed tenses. “He’s staying the night,” Jim says quickly, and his shoulders relax. “Ed? You hungry?”
“I’m fine. I’m not hungry Mrs. Gordon,” Ed insists.
“You didn’t have lunch.”
“No one’s going hungry in this house,” Jim’s mother says. Ed looks mildly distressed; his mouth is open, but he doesn’t say anything. “If you don’t help us eat it I won’t hear the end of how often we’ve been eating lasagna from someone . You’re doing me a favor.”
Jim makes a face once his mother's turned away to start the oven, then he drops back down onto the couch and watches Ed play for awhile.
“My mom doesn't care if you eat with us,” Jim tells Ed. “She never has.”
“I don't want to impose.” Ed pauses the game and runs his fingers over the curved plastic. “You're already letting me sleep here.”
“Just promise to do the dishes then,” Jim offers. Ed nods and unpauses the game. “You could do my other chores too if you want,” he adds, and Ed bumps into his shoulder lightly. “Just trying to make you feel better.”
“I'll do the dishes,” Ed replies. “Thank you,” he whispers. Jim doesn't say anything, but he pats Ed's knee before sprawling out on his half of the couch.
“Don't get too comfortable,” his mom says, dropping a pile of Jim's laundry onto his stomach. “You were supposed to fold this last night.”
Jim scowls down at the laundry currently covering his torso and picks up a sock between two fingers. “I'll do it later.”
“Do it now. Dinner's going to be ready in about thirty more minutes.”
Jim grumbles and pointedly ignores the clothing until Ed pauses the game and starts folding his shirts for him. “I'll do it.” Jim shoos him off and starts pairing his socks. “She knew you'd guilt me into it.”
“I do my own at home,” Ed says. “It's in the basement, but, well it's usually quieter down there even though it's a bit musty.”
“I thought you didn't like it down there?”
“I don't.” Ed picks at the hem at the bottom of his fleece. Jim puts his hand on Ed's shoulder and rubs his thumb across Ed's collar bone. “But I don't really like being anywhere upstairs more.”
“You could do laundry here if you want. It just takes quarters.” Ed nods. “My mom would let you stay here with us if you want.”
“It’s only another year and a half.” Ed brushes off Jim's offer, and his hand, but his expression is appreciative. “Thank you again, really.”
“You say that a lot, Ed.”
“I mean it at least seventy percent of the time,” he jokes, and Jim chuckles quietly as he folds up some pants.
Dinner is quiet. Jim talks to his mom about track, and Ed keeps to himself on his end of the table, carefully cutting his helping of lasagna, which is considerably smaller than Jim's, into small bites and eating them slowly, one at a time. When his helping is gone he seems shocked, and Jim watches Ed fret with his napkin without saying a word, so he takes the initiative and scoops a second portion of noodles and meat sauce onto Ed's plate. His second helping is gone nearly as fast as the first, but he refuses any more, and he's already at the sink with the dirtied plates before Jim or his mother can coax him into taking a third helping.
When Jim's mom corners him before they abscond to his room he brushes off Ed's demeanor, claiming he's likely been feeling a bit sick lately. She doesn't believe him, and she shouldn't, but there's a fine line they both dance around when Ed is involved.
“He looks too thin. Would he accept leftovers?”
“Doubt it,” Jim says. “He's probably sick, mom. Maybe he barfed a lot over the weekend.”
“Don't be so crass.” She straightens some of Jim's hair and he shakes it back over his ears and forehead. “It's my job to worry, remember? Have you asked him about staying here? I know he said no before.”
“Mom, you know Ed.” Jim glances over his mom's shoulder to the kitchen and watches Ed dry the dishes he's just washed. “He’ll be okay. He's probably just tired. It's test season.”
“Then don't stay up too late.” She makes Jim bend down an inch to kiss his forehead. “Go do your homework, and get a good night's sleep. That's an order.”
Unlike Jim, Ed doesn’t have homework, and he passes out on Jim’s bed the second he finishes settling in under an afghan, glasses still on his face, getting bent out of shape between his head and Jim’s pillow. Jim works on his assigned reading across the room at his desk, slogging through a book previously described to him as “dull” at best and “a complete waste of time” at worst (courtesy of Ed and Oswald, in that order). He rereads the same page several times, groaning in irritation, his eyelids drooping steadily because it is, in fact, a very boring book.
Jim tosses the book onto his desk without marking his place and crawls onto his bed. He takes Ed’s glasses off, making Ed wake with a surprised snort, and he sets them aside on the bedside table before taking half the afghan from Ed.
“That book sucks.”
“That book? Oh, that book, yes. It’s not good.”
“You’re finished with it?”
“Sometimes the best way to end suffering is by taking it all on at once.” Ed closes his eyes and scoots a few inches closer to Jim. “You should finish reading. We have a quiz.”
“We always have a damn quiz.” Jim closes his eyes. “Every day,” he yawns. He tucks his arm across Ed's back and lazily moves his fingers across his shoulder blades. “Not everyone has a photographic memory, showoff.”
“Eidetic,” Ed corrects, speech drowsy and low. The beginnings of a proper explanation stutter out and fade into silence without Jim registering any of it properly.
Jim knows better than to give their classmates an opening on dodgeball day, and he does his damnedest to stay near enough to Ed to take the heavy hits but far enough to not get Ed yelled at for not participating. Ed keeps one arm curled up defensively, hand ready to grab his glasses at a moment's notice, and the other loose at his side. He isn't crouched like Jim, who's throwing balls back with plenty of enthusiasm, and his best strategy appears to be dodging the balls with quiet exclamations and squeaks. If he wasn't so clammy he'd be beet red.
“Look alive, Nashton,” the coach drawls. It sounds like a formality at best. There's no helping Ed's coordination. He's all arms and legs, and when a ball comes whizzing by he yelps, but he isn't hit. Jim tears after the ball and throws it back to the other side, only for another ball to come flying their way again.
“Ed, you might just want to let a slow one hit you,” Jim says. Half their team is already out, and Jim's measly three outs haven't evened the playing field. “Ed?”
Ed's legs have locked up, and his jaw is slack. He blinks a couple times and Jim sees the sign he's going down before Ed may even realize it's going to happen. He turns to Ed fully, exposing his back to the enemy, and the second he takes a step towards Ed someone hits him on the back of the head. Jim snarls and turns, already screaming, “fuck you!” at whoever just threw the ball.
“Gordon, language. Zsasz, no head shots,” the teacher calls out, sounding bored.
“Sorry 'bout that Jim! That was my bad!” Zsasz calls back. Jim makes sure the teacher isn't looking before flipping Zsasz off, which just makes him laugh. He mimes having a broken heart and Jim rolls his eyes.
He turns back to Ed and walks closer, holding out a hand and touching his arm. “You okay Ed?”
There's a brief flash of recognition in his eyes when Ed focuses on Jim, then they roll back in his head and he starts falling to the floor. Jim's hand grips Ed's arm in reflex and he catches him on the way down, but he's dragged to the floor as well. “Ed!” Jim pats Ed's cheeks but his eyes don't open. Another ball flies and Jim screams, “fucking stop!”
“Gordon, what did I,” when the teacher looks up and locks eyes with Jim he blows the whistle, sending students off to the benches, and the onlookers scatter as he approaches the two of them. “Did he get hit?”
“He passed out,” Jim growls, “not like you'd know or anything.”
Jim scowls in the face of his sure detention, daring him to take the time to write up a slip while Ed slowly comes to on the gym floor. He blinks up tiredly at Jim, one hand gripping loosely at his gym shirt and the other righting his glasses, which had slipped off one ear when he fell. “Jim?”
“You feel okay?” Jim whispers. His arm is straining a little from the angle, but he doesn't want to move it out from under Ed's head.
“Syncope,” Ed mutters.
“I passed out,” Ed says calmly. “Right?”
“We'll let the nurse make that call,” says the teacher. “Gordon, help him get over there.”
Jim nods and offers his free hand to Ed, and he grips it weakly. He's shaky once he's upright, and Jim lets him (makes him) sling an arm over his shoulders until he feels comfortable enough to walk on his own. He leaves it there the entire walk to the nurse's office.
“Gym again?” asks Essen once Jim's led Ed over to the single gurney. She gets up from her desk and beings along a clipboard. “What happened, Ed?”
“He thinks he passed out,” Jim says. He shoves his hands into the pockets of his shorts and leans against the doorframe.
“That true?” she asks, and Ed nods. She has a gentle, concerned look on her face, and she sets aside her clipboard to get a wet cloth for him. “Put this on your forehead. Did you overexert yourself?”
“No,” Ed whispers. He presses the cloth to his cheek and back up to his forehead.
Before she can ask anything more Ed's stomach lets out a long, low growl, and his cheeks pink up in embarrassment. Essen leaves Ed's side for a minute and returns to the main room with a bottle of juice and some saltines. “Did you eat breakfast, Ed?”
“No, ma'am,” he says. He accepts the snack and cracks open the juice. “Thank you.”
“I'll tell the office you're going to rest for this period. Gordon, you should to get back to class.”
Jim watches Ed and his blatant distress, he clearly doesn't want to be in here alone, and he scratches a hand over his sternum. “Can't I stay here?”
“Not if you aren't going to pass out too. I can't make excuses for you to skip class.”
Jim bites his lip and looks at Essen, and her expression is sympathetic, so he offers up an excuse, “I got hit in the back of the head in gym?”
“Good enough for me,” she says. She pats the gurney and Ed scoots to one side so Jim can sit. “Any blurred vision or confusion?”
“No?” Jim shrugs. “It doesn't hurt too bad.”
It doesn't actually hurt at all anymore, and when Essen checks for a bump she doesn't find anything, but she writes them both passes out of the rest of third hour, and after watching the way Ed quietly devours an entire sleeve of crackers she writes them passes out of fourth hour too.
“Your parents didn't answer, Ed,” she says. Jim sees her wink and he pats Ed's back a few times, leaving his hand there in the middle of his shoulders. “Jim, I have to tell your mother you don't have a concussion. Do you want her to come down here or are you going back to class?”
“I'll go,” he says. He has that stupid quiz in seventh hour English literature along with Ed and Oswald. “You coming to lunch?” he directs at Ed, and he nods, clutching the second sleeve of crackers a bit tighter.
“Make sure you check with your fourth hour teachers to see what you missed.” Essen rips two slips off her pad and hands one to each of them. “Don't forget to give these to the office if you want to avoid detention.”
“Thanks,” Jim says as he takes his copy.
“I'll catch up with you,” Ed says. He's fretting with the plastic wrapper, hands crinkling and smoothing out the edges. Jim nods and only spares a quick glance back over his shoulder to watch Ed shuffle over to Essen's desk.
The moment he leaves the nurse’s office Jim comes face to almost face (with the top of Oswald's head) with a very unhappy Oswald. His tiny frame is practically vibrating with anger, and Oswald drags Jim all the way back to the deserted gym hallway before he starts yelling. “Why did I have to hear from Barbara Keane that Ed passed out in PE?”
“Who told her?”
“I don't know, and that's the point , Jim. I shouldn't have to hear third or fourth hand that one of my friends passed out. What happened? Is he okay? There were rumors. I obviously don't believe them but-”
“Oswald,” Jim stops him and puts his hands on Oswald's shoulders, “he's okay. He skipped breakfast, and he passed out. He walked to the nurse's station on his own, mostly, and Essen gave him some crackers and juice. That's all.”
“Well,” Oswald huffs, “I still deserve to hear it first ,” he shrieks, although somehow he does it quietly. Oswald wipes the heel of his hand across his eyes. “Why didn't you text me?”
“My phone was in my gym locker. And even if I could have gotten it you're out of minutes this month.”
“Well maybe make some effort for my sake if this happens again,” Oswald pouts. Jim rubs his shoulders as an apology. “I'm starving. Can we just get lunch?”
“I need to change first, but sure.”
Jim grabs Ed's bag along with his own once he's thrown on his regular clothes. It's a little strange that he hasn't been back to the gym locker yet, but after a quick glance into the lunchroom Jim sees where Ed's gone. He's at their usual table, still in his gym tee shirt and shorts with a jacket thrown on over his shirt. He's holding a thin packet of paper in his hands, ignoring the small trickle of students with backpacks or lunch boxes as they claim nearby tables.
“I'll go give Ed his stuff if you want to, okay,” he sighs as Oswald scampers away to stand in the lunch line. Jim shakes his head, a small smile quirks up his lips as he rolls his eyes, and he ignores his hunger for now in favor of walking over and setting Ed's bag down in the table in front of him. “Hey, figured you'd want to change.” Ed says nothing, and he doesn't look away from the papers. “This a you ignoring me thing or-?”
“You would not believe how lucky I was,” Oswald proclaims as he sets his tray down. “Third in line. Third . And one of the cooks is new and gave me double fries.” Oswald shoves a fry into his mouth and looks to Ed. “What's wrong with you?”
“Don't,” Jim says. “I'm getting in line. You want anything Ed?”
He glances up to Oswald for a moment, then to Jim, and he bursts into tears, effectively silencing the nearby tables and leaving Oswald speechless, a half eaten fry still dangling from his mouth. Jim reacts first, kneeling by Ed's chair and rubbing his back, whispering nonsense and trying to quiet him. It's no use, and Oswald stamps up from his chair, shouting, “stare! Go on! I'm sure this is the highlight of your day!” He's gesticulating wildly, expression a sneer, making a far more interesting spectacle of himself than Ed and his measly crying. Jim takes the opportunity to coax him out of his chair and start making their way across the lunchroom. “Animals! All of you!”
“Os, come on,” Jim calls back to him. He pushes Ed along until they're inside the small, two stall bathroom in the back hall. Oswald bursts into the room shortly after and comes to a stuttering stop by Ed's side, anger melting now that there's no audience.
Jim pulls Ed into a tight hug, crinkling the papers between them while Ed clings to his sweatshirt. He burrows his face against Jim's neck and Jim just rocks him a little, rubbing his back and reminding him that they're here, they're both here, and no one's going anywhere until Ed says so. Oswald puts a hand on Ed's back and rubs small circles against his ribs. At one point someone tries to come in and Oswald stares daggers at the door, but whoever it was turns around the second they enter without even pausing to ask. Eventually Ed manages to quiet himself down to a few sharp sniffles with the occasional gulp of air, although his grip on Jim is still desperate and tight.
“Got yourself pretty worked up,” Jim says quietly. Ed clings a bit tighter and sniffs. “Ready to tell us why?”
“It's nothing,” Ed whispers.
“Nothing my foot . I made an absolute ass out of myself out there for your sake.” Oswald fumes. “But I guess we can't force you to say,” he mutters.
Ed peeks out from Jim's shoulder, sniffling and curling in on himself, but he takes a deep breath and pulls the crinkled packet away from his and Jim's chests. He holds it out and Oswald accepts it, looking it over briefly, and frowning more the further down the page he reads until he's flipping to the grading sheet in the very back. “This?”
He holds it up for Ed to see, and Ed nods. Jim cranes his neck to see the nearly written 95/100 written at the bottom. “You got a ninety-five?”
“I made a stupid mistake.”
“You're upset about this? I would literally kill someone for a grade like this,” Oswald proclaims, and Jim makes a face. “Alright, maybe figuratively.”
“Isn't this still an A?”
“Minus, difficult grading scale. I can't get an A-,” Ed insists, standing straight and reaching out for his paper, which Oswald hands over. “If I get an A- I obviously won't get an A, and if I don't get an A then I won't have a 4.0,” he's talking faster, getting more frantic, “and if I don't get a 4.0 then I'm not going to college because I won't get a full ride, and if I don't go then,” he trails off, shocked, unable to finish the sentence, but they all know what it means. If Ed doesn't get in somewhere for free then he's staying home with his parents, plain and simple. “I have to get an A,” his voice breaks.
Jim rubs Ed's arm. “You can always talk to the teacher.” Ed shrugs, and Jim squeezes his arm. “We’ll help you figure it out once you're changed okay? Os, did you grab our bags?”
“No, I left them within arm's reach of all the heathens we call classmates,” he says as he holds up his armful of bags. “You're welcome.”
“Is your syllabus in there?”
“In a folder,” Ed says. “It's labelled.”
Oswald digs around in Ed's bag until he pulls out a pristine green folder with the word 'syllabi’ written in sharpie across the front. He hands it over to Jim when he holds his hand out and Ed takes his bag.
“Get changed,” Jim tells him, “and I'll look at it.”
Ed nods and shuffles into the larger bathroom stall. While he changes out of his gym clothes Jim flips through the syllabi until he finds the one for Ed's fourth hour English class. It's wordy with a bunch of unnecessary quotes from famous authors in between the actual information, but on the last page he finds a list of extra credit options he assumes Ed hasn't needed to use up until this point in the semester.
Ed shuffles out of the stall as quietly as he went in, with only the occasional sniffle as he walks past Jim and Oswald to wash his glasses in the sink. Jim goes over and stands beside him, one hand on his back and the other holding the paper up to his face. “There's already extra credit you can do. Should be easy right?”
“I suppose, yes. That looks manageable,” he gulps and straightens, using his long sleeved shirt to wipe away the water on his lenses. “Thank you.”
“Ed what's going on with you?” Jim asks quietly. Ed blinks his tired, red eyes a few times, feigning confusion. “You're sleeping all the time. You passed out today.”
“You started crying over an A-,” Oswald chirps, and Ed flushes. “You can't claim it's nothing when it's clearly something.”
Ed fidgets with the strap of his messenger bag, flipping a small button he's attached there up and down. He shrugs one shoulder and backs himself into a corner, leaning against the walls and letting his head rest there. “I haven't been eating much.”
“You should probably stop skipping lunch then.” Jim watches the pained expression take over Ed's face before it settles back to neutral. “Ed if you're sick you should tell Essen.”
“I'm not sick, although I might be,” he huffs, “malnourished. It isn't quite the same.”
Neither Jim or Oswald says anything, but Oswald's hands are balled into tiny, angry fists and Jim is having a hard time hearing anything over the sound of his breathing. He closes his eyes, mouth forming words but none are audible, and Ed fidgets with the cuff of his sleeve. Oswald speaks up first.
“What are they doing now,” he accuses, not asks.
“It's, I assumed, I shouldn't assume. An ass out of you and me, heh,” he laughs awkwardly. “But, well there was this, I don't even remember what the leftovers used to be but they were far from edible, so I threw them out and cleaned the fridge. Because, because I thought I'd get in trouble for letting it go so long, but instead, instead they got angry because I'd wasted the food, but it was behind my dad's beer and I can't move it aside. They didn't listen. And they said well, if I want to waste so much food then I can just buy it myself. So, I am. I was.” He takes a deep breath and continues at a rapid pace, “and it's for the best because neither of them can really cook all that well. I can make what I want, and smaller portions.”
“They aren't feeding you?” Jim asks. His voice is low, and a little dangerous. Ed shakes his head a few times and looks at the floor.
“How are you buying food when you don't have a job?” Oswald asks, genuinely curious and a bit worried. He puts a hand on Ed's arm and rubs his elbow. “Hm?”
“I was getting plenty from Butch when I wrote his papers.” Ed puts his hand over Oswald's and runs his thumb over Oswald's knuckles. “He's incredibly lazy, but he's also somewhat entitled so I made a fair amount. And I know how to coupon efficiently. I stretched my money out as much as possible until I ran out, well, nearly ran out. Sometimes I find pocket change on the ground or check the vending machines.”
Jim turns around and punches the stall door once, then again, ignoring the way Ed and Oswald jump from each impact and savoring the ache in his hand once he's done. He sets his forehead against the cool tile of the wall and huffs out a few breaths. “Why didn't you say something?”
“Your families only have a single income. And they already let me stay over all the time. I can do chores but it's not the same, I can't repay your mothers for offering me asylum and feeding me.”
“They don't mind. Our moms love you, Ed. I know it's scary as hell but you need to get out of there.” Jim straightens and walks over, covering Ed's other elbow and shaking his arm gently. “It's never been good but you passed out because of them. They aren't letting you eat .”
“Their food,” he qualifies. “I can eat as much of my own as I want.”
His stomach growls, and Ed becomes cowed, hunching in his shoulders and trying to disappear.
“At least let me get you something today,” Jim pleads.
“And you're coming over tonight,” Oswald says. “My mother's stew could keep me full for an entire day. I swear she's trying to make me fat.”
“We'll figure out something else later,” Jim says, “but just let us help for now, okay?”
Ed nods, and he pulls the two of them into a bit of an awkward three person hug.
“I can’t believe he has to skip lunch to work in the office.”
“He’s not skipping lunch,” Jim says, knocking his arm against Oswald’s shoulder as they approach the office. “He’s getting free lunch. He just has to eat it in there.”
Jim holds open the office door for Oswald and they approach the counter, Jim leaning his elbows on the edge and Oswald resting his folded arms on the surface. From behind the counter Ed snaps up from his lunch tray and a pile of papers, and when he registers it’s just his friends he gives them a small wave.
“How’s the office treating you?” Jim asks.
“It’s mostly clerical work,” he answers, flipping through the papers some more and eating some more of his food. “And occasionally people try to get me to fudge a number or two so they aren’t going to get detention, but I haven’t,” he adds quickly, before either of his friends can even react. “There isn’t any sort of potential reward for myself if I agreed.”
“It's Butch again isn't it?” Jim asks, looking very unimpressed with the notion.
Ed nods. “And others. But don't worry about me. If there's ever any trouble I'm behind a counter, and the office has a small camera.” Both Jim and Oswald glance around the room in confusion, and when they turn back to Ed he's holding up a finger to his lips, and they both nod. “If I work enough days in a row I'm allowed to still get my free lunch, but I can sit with you.”
“We'll make due,” Jim assures him, and Oswald nods emphatically beside him. “And early gym class is going okay?”
“I swear he's cheating,” Oswald pipes up before Ed can answer. “I've been part of the early morning yoga class for years and somehow he's more flexible than me?” Oswald gestures to Ed, and Ed merely shrugs. “It isn't fair .”
“Didn’t know you were so naturally flexible . I bet Barbara's jealous,” Jim teases him gently, and Ed's cheeks pink up a bit. “Sorry I can't switch too.”
“I am perfectly capable of defending Ed during yoga ,” Oswald insists.
“It's hardly necessary in any case,” Ed says. “Half the class is barely awake, and there's nothing being thrown.” He sets aside any pretense that he's still working on the same stack of papers and approaches the counter, speaking in a low tone once he's close enough to lean in. “Thank you, both of you. I should be able to manage dinner on my own, and eventually weekends, although I've been saving any leftovers to supplement for now.”
“You can help me eat more lasagne tonight if you want.” Ed shakes his head. “Do you have to make an appearance at home so they don't report you missing?”
“There's laundry to do, and as much as I appreciate your offer to use your building's Jim I don't really have the quarters to spare just yet.” Ed's expression is neutral, but when he looks the both of them in the eyes he smiles. There's something a bit strained at the edges, but it's minimal, a minor annoyance and not something more catastrophic. “I'm looking into some sort of more legitimate means of earning money in the future. Possibly something school oriented.”
“You could always tutor,” Jim starts to say, but the office door bursts open and in storms Butch, fuming with a pink slip clutched in his hand.
“Nashton!” he shouts, but his tirade drops off when he realizes Ed isn't alone in the office, and Jim's hands are clenched into fists at his sides. He smiles. “Hey buddy.” Ed blinks in confusion and glances around the room. “So when I came back from lunch yesterday you wrote down the wrong time and I got a detention.”
“Like hell-” Jim starts to tell him off, but Ed moves away from the counter and starts digging through some of the cabinets. “Ed you don't have to listen to him.”
Ed ignores Jim's insistence and pops back up with a pencil and a half sheet of paper in his hand. He places them both on the counter in front of Butch and explains, “this is the form you need to fill out to get your detention reviewed. If it was indeed an error on my part then the situation will be remedied shortly.”
Butch stares down at the paper for almost a full minute, and while Ed is able to maintain a perfectly straight face Oswald and Jim are struggling to not burst out laughing. He mutters something under his breath that sounds suspiciously like a few choice swear words and leaves the office without taking the form. The second the door clicks shut Oswald and Jim are howling with laughter, and Ed blinks down at them with his head tilted to the side, obviously confused.
“What are you laughing at?”
“Butch,” Oswald wheezes, and Jim wipes at his eyes.
“How'd you say that with a straight face?” Jim asks once he's breathing somewhat normally.
“I don't- that's the procedure. You fill out the form and if your reasoning is sound you can get a detention waived.” Ed picks up the paper and tries to hand it to either of them, but they're back to laughing, and he just sets it aside, looking down at it with a serious expression before he quietly gasps. “Oh, because he was clearly lying,” he guesses, and Jim nods through another bout of laughter. Ed chuckles to himself. “I suppose that does sound funny.”
Chapter 4: Wrong Side of Heaven
cw: child abuse
“Victor,” her tone is sharp, angry, and Victor's expression stiffens minutely before he puts down his pen on top of his homework notebook and gets up from the dining room table. He comes to a stop just in front of his mother, and although he's grown taller than her there's still a sense of being looked down upon as she clutches a packet of papers in her right hand. “What is this?”
His eyes flutter closed and he glances down before straightening his posture and answering her question. “My last history test.”
“And what was your grade?”
He glances at the solid red pen mark on the front of his test packet, almost pleading with the numbers to realign into something higher. “Ninety-six,” he pauses and licks his lips, a nervous habit, “an A.”
“Why did you get a question wrong about the War of the Roses?”
“I,” he sighs under his breath, “I forgot the dates.”
“Why are we bothering to get you a tutor for test prep if you're not going to listen to them?”
“Half the test was about dates,” he says, but he ducks his head immediately after, adding, “it's not an excuse, it's just-”
“A sign that you still aren't focusing.” She sighs with disappointment and sets the paper on the unused end of the dining room table, covering her eyes and letting out a second, long suffering sigh. “What do we have to do for you to take your academic career seriously?”
“It's still an A,” he mumbles under his breath, and her eyes harden. “I just mean, mom it won't bring down my GPA when it's still an A. And there's extra credit-”
“Enough,” she snaps, and he presses his lips together. “If you knew how to prioritize your schoolwork better you wouldn't need to rely on things like extra credit to bring your grades up. How much time did you waste chasing after that girl instead of studying?”
“I'm not chasing after her, we're dating .”
“Your father and I are going to discuss what our options are moving forward once he's home from work.” She talks as if she didn't hear his correction. “In the meantime, finish your homework. Dinner is at seven.”
Dinner is stiflingly quiet. The only sounds are of silverware clinking against the fine china and some throat clearing, and an empty compliment or two about the roast. Victor's shoulders are hunched over, and there's a palpable sense of anticipation from his end of the table. He refuses to meet either of his parents’ eyes during the first half of the meal, at least until the sporadic throat clearing becomes more insistent; an obvious request for him to pay attention. He tips his head up slightly and meets his father's judgmental gaze.
“I've come to understand that you're still wasting time on that girl.”
He sets down his fork and rests his hands on his lap. “We're dating,” he says, doing his best to keep any bite out of his tone.
“Then why hasn't this girl come over? If she's important enough to let your grades slip then she must be 'the one’ or whatever nonsense your generation is spouting out of their mouths.” He holds his glare steady and Victor has to look away. “I'm expecting an answer , Victor.”
“I,” he feels a stammer starting up and he clamps his mouth shut.
“Speak up, and look people in the eye when you're speaking.”
He sits back in his chair, fingers gripping the knees of his jeans tightly. “I just haven't invited her because she's busy. She plays two different sports. That's it.”
“You're leading us to believe she isn't worth the time you're insisting on dedicating to her,” his mother says. He focuses on her and then away, but quickly returns his gaze to his mother. “And the longer you insist on keeping this girl a secret from us the more I'm beginning to think your assessment is correct.” One of his hands twitches in his lap and he curls his hand into a fist beside his leg. He tries to keep his expression neutral; he fails. “We want you to speak to your guidance counselor tomorrow to discuss this. When is your free period?”
“I don't have one,” he answers through gritted teeth.
“Then go during your lunch hour. Make sure you get this straightened out before you need to take your PSATs. Your tutor is sending a study schedule to us by the end of the week.”
His parents both return to their meals and Victor sits in silence, seething, but he forces himself to shove his outburst to the side and manages about four more bites of food before he asks to be excused. Victor leaves the table before he gets a reply. He practically jogs out of the room and into the hallway by the stairs, but a short, loud call from his father makes him freeze up by the bottom of the main staircase.
“You need to start showing your mother some respect,” his father says.
Victor keeps his eyes turned to the ground and mumbles, “yes sir.” Almost instantly there's an arm on his shoulder and his back hits the stairs, the ornate wood of the bannister digging into his upper arm painfully. He forces himself to look up into his father's eyes and repeats himself, “I’m sorry, yes sir.”
“Yes sir, what?”
“I’ll show my mother respect,” he blurts out, trembling, but his response is accepted and his father gives him a curt nod before letting go of his shoulder and turning away. After Victor's released he leans against the stairs and waits for his father to finish leaving the room before barreling upstairs and hiding out in his room.
He shoves his earbuds into his ears and sits on the floor of his attached bathroom, running the water in the shower to drown out any involuntary noises he makes as he tries to piece himself back together.
The school's main office isn't very busy during lunch. A couple students are milling around the front desk; most of them are handing in admittance slips to the student worker and pushing past Victor as he stands just outside the doorway. Victor's stomach continues to complain as he pushes the side door open and starts walking towards the guidance counselor's office.
“She's seeing someone,” the worker calls out, and Victor turns away from the guidance counselor’s door and faces the worker. Ed Nashton. The one student doing better than Victor, if only just. His fingers are flipping furiously through a stack of crumpled permission slips, which he's giving his attention instead of looking up at Victor. “It's Jim. Could be a few minutes.”
Victor groans and leans against the nearest wall. “What did he do now?”
“Nothing.” Ed glances up for a moment. He either doesn't register the distaste in Victor's expression or he's chosen not to react. “He’s talking about college prospects. Everyone’s supposed to.”
“I know,” Victor says; he stretches his arms up towards the ceiling and leaves them resting on top of his head. “F comes before G.”
“It hasn’t been strictly alphabetical,” Ed trails off, staring at Victor’s arm, and he glances to the left. The bannister left a nasty, purplish bruise on his arm, which up until now was covered up by his tee shirt. Victor hurries to drop his arms and tug his shirt back into place, refusing to acknowledge the mark. Ed never bothers to finish his explanation.
There’s a long, awkward silence as a grim realization settles into both of their expressions. Ed touches the collar of his shirt briefly and clears his throat, sparing glances over at Victor as he tries to avoid making eye contact while he waits. Victor keeps his right hand at the bottom of his left sleeve, holding it in place over the bruise until Jim comes sauntering out of the guidance counselor’s office with a folder in his hand. Before Ed can draw any attention to Victor he slips into the office and lets the door shut behind him.
“Have a seat, Victor,” she says. He hesitates by the door until she mentions, “your mother called the school to let me know I should expect to see you today.” He nods and slides into one of the chairs across from her desk, settling against the cool faux leather and waiting for her to start. “It sounds like you're having some trouble juggling your schedule.”
“They think so,” he almost whispers. “It was a dumb test. Half the questions were just a timespan.”
“This is about more than just your grades, Victor.” He shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “I've looked back and this year you've gotten a few detentions this semester. You're talking back to teachers and getting into arguments with other students. If you're not managing things well and it's causing you unnecessary stress I can help you look at your class load and determine if you're taking too many homework heavy classes.” She turns to her computer for a few minutes and brings up his schedule, which she displays for him by turning her screen. “Does it feel like you're taking too many classes? How much homework would you say you do per night?”
“A couple hours.” He shrugs. “And I work on it during lunch. Can I go?”
“We only started talking a second ago.”
“I haven't had lunch,” he says. She gives him a pitying look and he shifts again. “My classes aren't that hard.”
She nods knowingly and folds her her hands together on top of her desk. “What you're dealing with might take more than one visit to a guidance counselor.”
“You want me to keep coming in here?”
“I was thinking something a bit above my level of expertise.” She turns her keyboard back around and begins typing. “I'll call your parents when I have a free minute and discuss a few options you have to help figure out what's causing you to lash out, but in the meantime you can always feel free to come back and talk instead of getting yourself in trouble. I'll write you a pass to come here as long as you don't abuse it.”
His expression opens up for just a second, flickering between hope and doubt in equal measures. “So you mean, like, therapy?”
“It's not up to me,” she says, but her expression is open and honest, and seems to agree with his guess. It takes her a few seconds to write up a pass to let him out of his classes, and she hands it over. He folds it twice before pulling out his wallet and slipping it behind Nora's school photo. The guidance counselor sends him a warm smile before telling him to, “go get yourself some lunch.”
Victor exits her office and immediately locks eyes with Ed, and he ducks his head before he can see the confused stare he's getting. He grabs his backpack from his locker and tentatively enters the lunch room, seeing zero empty tables, and he hones in on Nora from across the busy space. Her table is already full of her friends and teammates, and Victor doesn't linger long before he turns out of the room and goes out the back door of the school to sit on the steps. Sometimes there are a few others outside, but the air is chilly enough to deter most of the school population from loitering on the stairs for long. Victor pulls a light sweatshirt out of his backpack and pulls it on, then retrieves a lukewarm can of soda from the bottom of his bag and the sandwich he packed for himself this morning.
His mouth is full when the back door open and he turns around to see Nora as she approaches; he grimaces when he swallows before he finishes chewing, and waves with the hand that's holding his soda. Nora is pulling on a pair of gloves and zipping up her coat before sitting on the stairs to Victor's left.
“I don't know how you can sit out here without a coat.”
“I am wearing a coat,” he says, tugging at one of the strings of his sweatshirt. “You don't have to sit with me out here if you don't want to.”
“I want to,” she says, with a warm, bright smile on her face. “I tried to save you a seat inside, but my friends took over the table.”
“It’s okay. I was in the guidance counselor's office.” She brushes some of his hair away from his face and he looks up from his hands and into her curious expression. “I might see a therapist.” He's quick to add, “it's nothing big.”
“I'll listen if you want to tell me.”
“There's not much to tell.” He clasps a hand over his upper left arm and tilts sideways until his head is against her shoulder. “Just stupid stuff, probably stress. It's PSAT season.”
“I can help you study.”
“My parents got a tutor.” He relaxes against her shoulder when she starts touching his hair. There's a gentle tremble in her hand even though she's wearing gloves. “We can go inside if you want.”
“Do you want to?”
“No.” He takes another drink of his soda and sighs. “But if you want to I will.”
Ed doesn't miraculously appear beside Victor every step he takes, but they share several classes throughout the day, and from first hour band right to last hour biology there are only very brief respites away from Ed's blatant staring.
Victor avoids him as best as he's able, and Ed doesn't attempt to approach him either, but there's an unseen but very strong tension between the two. Victor can feel Ed's eyes on his back in classes where he's been forced into a front row seat due to a seating chart, and in classes where the seats aren't assigned and Victor is safely tucked away in the back of the room he still catches Ed staring out of the corner of his eye. On several occasions Ed is called on to answer a question in class, and he doesn't miss a beat before rattling off correct answers, proving that he's capable of giving Victor most of his attention while still listening to the lesson. Teacher after teacher is annoyed, but can't do anything to Ed as long as he's participating.
The only time he's truly free is lunch while Ed is stuck in the office. Victor, more often than not, braves the cold of late fall and sits out on the steps, or he's using his earbuds to drown out some of the excess noise created by Nora's friends while he sits at her table. She lets him keep one of her hands on his lap, and he scribbles down homework answers while running his thumb over her petite fingers.
As Victor closes his math book he glances to his right and nearly startles when he finds not one, but three sets of eyes on him. Ed's table is always sparse, with only him, Jim, and Oswald occupying half of the allotted chairs, and today Victor finds himself under all of their gazes. Even as his expression morphs from neutral to slightly stricken they don't look away, and his panic begins manifesting outwardly, first with a leg juggle, and then with some uncomfortably shallow breathing. Victor turns up his music a few tics and holds Nora's hand tighter, and he pulls up his Hood to block out everything but his sound and the blissful darkness provided by his sweatshirt.
And when he looks back up people are all standing around him, and his breath hitches, but they're not staring, just walking away from the tables and into the halls beyond. Lunch is over, and Nora is trying to snap Victor out of his panic without making him undo any of the coping mechanisms he's already implemented. He glances to his left at one of the doors leading outside and she stands, keeping her hand in his as she leads him out into the cold, calming air.
He takes several deep breaths and coughs when the cold air hits his lungs. He holds Nora at bay until the coughing fit passes, then he turns all of his attention to her and her too thin cardigan and shivering frame.
“You should go inside,” he says loudly, too loud, since he can hear himself over his music, which is pounding in his ears. He pops one earbud out and moves over to her, rubbing his hands over her arms. “It's too cold out here for you.”
“Are you okay?” She ignores his insistence and steps a bit closer to him. He bites his lip and looks away, and she tilts his face back with one shaking finger. “Victor?”
“It's just all the people. Got to me, for some reason. I’ll be okay.” He glances over to the school building and tries to drag Nora over, but she stops him and makes him stand still. Nora unzips the front of his sweatshirt and situates herself against his chest, and he tries to wrap the open flaps around her to keep some of the warmth in longer.
“I don't know how you always stay so warm, but I'm not complaining.” He tips his head on top of hers and hides his face in her hair.
There's a wide array of books in the therapist's office. Victor doesn't read all of the titles, and he doesn't hide his irritation when the vast majority of them seem to focus around organization and personal planning. He's giving her a rather unimpressed look, but he forces it away once she finishes reading the folder in her hands.
“From what I’ve come to understand you’re having some trouble with your priorities.”
Victor presses himself tighter against the back of the chair. He deadpans, “I thought you were supposed to talk to me first before deciding anything.” She regards Victor with a flat look for a few seconds. “And aren’t you supposed to have some sort of certificate on your wall.”
“Victor, I think you’ve gotten the wrong idea of why you’re here. I’m not a therapist. I won’t be providing those types of services for you today.”
“Do you even have a degree?” he snaps at her.
“Yes, and it is a psychology degree if you’re thinking of being rude a second time.” She adjusts her glasses and folds her hands into her lap. “I’m more of a life coach, or a more accurate title might be a time management guide. We’re here to help you understand where your priorities should lie and how to keep yourself accountable in the future.”
Victor stands abruptly and shoves one hand into his pocket to pull out his phone. He untangles his earbuds and jams the plug into his phone, then he starts up his music. He’s partway to the doorway with one earbud in his ear when the guide calls out to him. “Victor.” He pauses without turning back to her, one hand clenched around the door handle. “Sit down, please. I don’t want to have to tell your parents you left before we could make any progress today.”
He hesitates at the door for a few more seconds, savoring the loud music in his right ear, and then he turns back and rips the earbud out with an angry pop. Even after he’s sitting back in the chair he leaves his music playing in his jacket pocket as a small rebellion. If she can hear it she doesn’t tell him to turn it off.
“Now,” she pulls out a pen and a pad of paper and clicks the pen, “why don’t you tell me about Nora.”
He gets several texts after his session. All from Nora, and all go unanswered. Victor’s hands won’t stop shaking enough to type properly, and his breathing is too harsh and uneven to call.
“I hope you took what she had to say to heart,” his mother says offhandedly as she drives towards home. Victor glances over to her briefly and goes back to staring at his knees. “I mean it, Victor. She’s highly regarded in her field as one of the best.”
He worries his teeth over his lower lip and presses his hands against his thighs. “Okay.”
“Your test prep tutor brought over your PSAT prep information this morning. Review it after you’ve finished with your homework.” He says nothing. At the next stoplight his mother turns to him and pulls his chin up so he has to look her in the eye. “Do you understand me?”
“Did you tell her to make me break up with Nora?” His voice cracks and he swallows the rush of emotions down. He searches his mother’s face for signs of confusion or upset, but her expression doesn’t change from the mostly flat, stern look she had when she first made him turn to her.
“Did you listen to me? I know you still have homework to finish, and you have PSAT prep starting up next week. I expect you’ll be busy so I’ll bring you up a plate of dinner.” She releases his chin when someone behind their car honks for her to start driving, but even without her guiding hand Victor doesn’t stop staring. “We can revisit the idea of you dating once you get your academics back on track.”
The rest of the drive is spent in complete silence aside from a few more buzzes from Victor's phone, but he doesn't pull it out of his pocket. He doesn't even touch it until he's already locked himself away in his bathroom, the hot shower already filling the room with a thick, almost choking steam. Victor sits on the floor beside his hamper and leans against the wicker side, ignoring the way it scratches his temple as he muster up the courage to look at Nora's responses.
Except he can't. He can't make himself reread the message he sent her, leaving just the last three messages on his screen. Victor you're starting to scare me. He bites his lip. This doesn't even sound like you? And the last, shortest one makes his suck in a breath. Are you okay ?
He shakes his head, but he can't get his fingers to move, and eventually the screen goes black.
Victor is up half the night trying to finish his homework, and the other half is spent tossing and turning on his bed, groaning at his alarm clock as it ticks closer and closer to his wake up time and shoving his face underneath his pillows to block the tiny alert light on his phone whenever he gets another message. If they ever stop coming he doesn't see, because around three in the morning the throws his phone across the room and doesn't check to see if the crack he heard was fatal to his screen, although the obvious relief that overtakes his exhausted, overworked expression is telling.
Victor cradles an energy drink against his chest on the ride to school, and he stumble-shuffles to the front doors without registering anyone he walks by. If the energy drink he chugs on the way to his locker is supposed to help it makes no visible difference. He shoves his backpack into his locker and pulls out his earbuds.
The halls are relatively empty before the first bell, but not deserted, and one of the few people always milling about before first hour is Ed, who's left hand is grasping a carton of milk and a single serve cereal box from the lunch room. His right is holding a book, and he's leaning against a row of lockers in the junior wing. He isn't touching his breakfast, although it isn't clear if he's waiting for someone or if he's just engrossed in his book.
He pulls out his earbuds and the brief angry drums fill the space in front of him until he tugs them out of his phone. This time Victor is the one staring, and the longer he does the more twisted and angry his expression becomes, until Victor's hands curl up into fists and he strides over to the lockers, trying and failing to not make any noise.
Not that it matters. Ed doesn't look up at Victor until he's already shoving him against the locker, his book and food clattering to the floor, and his eyes wide and fearful behind an old, beat up pair of glasses.
“Stop staring at me,” he demands.
Ed glances right and left, and he gulps. “I was just reading-”
“We have six classes together, and you stare in all of them .” Ed tries to stammer something but none of his words form properly. “And at band practices, and in the halls. And lunch . What did you tell your friends?” His breathing is getting steadily faster right alongside Ed's. “What did you tell them? Did you tell anyone else?”
“I didn't- I haven't- no one! I've told no one.” He swallows again, eyelashes fluttering rapidly as he blinks away a misty film in his eyes. “You, it's something you can have but the moment you share it it's gone. A, a secret, sorry. I know it's a secret.”
Victor’s eyebrows shoot up, mouth open with a silent ‘oh’ of surprise. And then Ed looks to his right, and Victor follows his gaze until it lands on an obviously furious Jim barreling over, one arm up and already reaching back, and just as Victor releases the front of Ed’s tee shirt Jim’s right fist makes contact with his left eye and sends him to the floor.
“Jim! Wait, stop-” Ed’s calling out somewhere above Victor, and he blinks a few more times while staring up at the hallway ceiling. Above him Ed has looped his arms around Jim’s torso, and Oswald’s appeared out of nowhere to keep a hand on Jim’s chest. “I’m fine, see? I’m not hurt; you shouldn’t get into a fight.”
“You could have said that before he punched me,” Victor groans.
“Shut up,” Oswald snaps, and immediately shifts back to concerned as he rubs his palm over Jim’s chest. “Just calm down, please. There’s a chance no one saw.”
Except there isn’t, because just as Victor is sitting up he looks right into the vice principal’s eyes. His shoulders droop in defeat. “Gordon, Fries, my office.”
Jim is still fuming beside Victor on the long, slow walk to the office in the front of the school. Behind them Oswald and Ed are trailing after the trio, twin expressions of fear biting into the back of Victor’s neck until they cross the threshold into the office and are made to sit in the chairs near the principal’s door. For a few seconds he can see them hovering outside the windows before Oswald drags Ed off somewhere beyond Victor's line of sight.
When they’re left alone Victor looks around, and he startles when he turns to Jim and sees him glaring from two seats over. “What?”
“Why were you fucking with Ed?”
“I wasn’t fucking with him.”
“He dropped his book and his breakfast.” He sounds angrier than he probably deserves to be. “You were fucking with him.”
“Misunderstanding,” Victor mumbles. He slumps down in his chair until his head is resting against the back. When he looks over again there’s an angry pulse line throbbing along Jim’s neck and two tightly clenched fists shaking on his legs. “You’re pretty pissed off.”
“Shut up,” Jim bites back, clenching his teeth and grinding them against the obvious drive to jump up and pummel Victor into the tile.
Victor scoots his left foot just a bit further away from Jim and adds, “he’s the one that’s been staring at me for at least a week.”
Jim blinks, and the shift in conversation seems to actually derail some of his anger. He blinks a few times and when he looks at Victor again there’s still an anger there, but it’s simmering now instead of the angry fire it was earlier. But he also doesn’t ask, and Victor is called into the principal’s office before he gets the chance to explain.
Victor and Jim aren’t the only ones in detention that afternoon, but Victor keeps his eyes trained on his table to try to ignore the other students’ bored expressions and Jim’s occasional sneering. The clock is the only sound in the room aside from the steady breathing of a handful of over-bored, tired students. Victor can’t resist looking up as the minute hand ticks forward once and covers the twelve.
“I better not see any more of you in here tomorrow,” the teacher grumbles at them as he stands up. He’s already out the door before most of the students are even standing. Jim stops in front of Victor’s table and stares down at him with a curious expression before continuing out into the hall.
Victor drags his phone out of his pocket and frowns down at his missed calls, all of which are from his parents. As he switches to his voicemail his phone starts ringing again and he drops it onto the table, watching anxiously until the call stops. Several seconds later his voicemail dings with an alert that he’s gotten another message, and he shoves his phone away before crossing his arms on the table and shoving his tender, bruised face into his arms.
After an indistinct amount of time the door to the classroom opens and closes, and Nora walks across the room over to Victor’s table. Without saying anything she reaches down and presses her hand over his shoulder and moves her palm in slow, steady circles. He huffs out a breath and she moves her hand up into his hair. While she smooths some of the tangles out of his hair he peeks up at her with his bruised left eye, and she smiles down at him, eyes a little sad but also full of fondness. He moves his arm so it’s looped around her waist and he holds his breath a few seconds, only for choked, gasping breaths to slip out once he’s hidden his face again.
Victor waits until it's nearly five before calling his mother back to say he's free to go. Nora waits with him and keeps a hand on his back until the sleek, black car pulls up at the drop off spot, and she squeezes his hand tightly and kisses his cheek before standing and making her way over to the bike rack out front. Victor stares at the passenger side door of the car until the horn honks softly, then more insistently when he hasn't stood up yet, and he reluctantly pushes himself up off the front steps and moves stiffly until he's getting into the car and doing his best to ignore the death glare he's getting from his mother.
“Be quiet,” she hisses, and he shrinks in his seat, fiddling with the band of the seat belt and keeping his eyes on his knees. “Fighting, and detention. Want to add anything to the list? Maybe you've started smoking with some of the more unfortunate members of your class?” He opens his mouth but she snaps, “I am not looking for comments,” and he closes I again with an audible click of his teeth. “We’ve had to reschedule your PSAT prep because of your delinquent behavior, and having another blemish on your already questionable record won't do you any favors. If this is the path you're prepared to take by all means, throw your life away.” She scowls at him while they're stopped at a stop sign. “You're just lucky you don't have any in person interviews while you have that on your face.”
He keeps a firm grip on the seat belt with both hands, twisting the stiff material and hiding his face until they pull into the driveway. Victor gets out and slings his bag onto one shoulder, and his mother slides out of the driver's side and grabs his arm with one manicured hand. Her stiff acrylic nails bite into the fabric of his sweatshirt as she drags him to the front door. Inside she points towards the kitchen and Victor nods, quick to follow her instruction. He comes to a stop beside the dining room table and sets his backpack on the ground before turning to face his mother. “It was a misunderstanding.”
“Did the principal misunderstand and give you detention by mistake?” He shakes his head no. “Speak up.”
“It was my fault,” he whispers, but also maintains a weak eye contact. The stern expression makes him flinch, but only slightly. She doesn't seem to notice.
“You're forcing us to consider alternative options Victor. There are plenty of schools well suited to teach discipline to unruly students.”
“You want to send me somewhere else for school?”
“Clearly allowing you to use the public school system has had a negative influence on you. There are private schools in the city but with your current habits I don't think you'd pass an interview.” She shakes her head sadly and sighs. “You used to be so well behaved,” she says to herself, and she turns away. “Your father and I will discuss our options moving forward.”
He takes a few breaths, watching her go, and he whispers, “no,” almost inaudible, but she pauses by the door to the kitchen. He says it again louder. “No.”
“I'm not going somewhere else,” he says, voice shaking but clear as day. She turns back to him with an angry fire in her eyes. “I’m almost a senior, and I have all A’s in every class.”
“And you're fighting, and yelling at teachers. And who exactly was that girl with you at the school?”
“Nora,” he bows his head, then lifts it back up and says it louder. “That's Nora.”
“You'd broken up with her. At least that's what you told me yesterday.” There's a clear yet unspoken demand for an explanation in the air.
“I didn't want to,” he says. “So I took it back.”
“Is she really worth throwing your life away for? You're acting like she's the one, or whatever nonsense you might've picked up in that cesspool of a school.” Victor clenches his fists, and she continues to berate him. “Don't you care about what this is doing to your father and I?”
“I care more about her than you!” he snaps, and there's a split second where he hears what he just said and founders, but another beat later there's a loud smack as her hand slaps his uninjured cheek. He looks her straight in the eye, his own watering from the sting but defiant and firm.
She fumes at him for another few moments before reprimanding him. “Do not raise your voice to me.”
“I'm not breaking up with Nora,” he says in a softer tone, but no less firm. There's a split second where his mother raises a hand and he flinches, but he continues to explain. “I'll invite her to dinner. Here, so you can meet her, like you want.”
She drops her hand to her side and a wicked smirk splits her face. “Does this mean you think we'll approve?” He nods, but he doesn't look very confident of this fact. She hums to herself and nods. “Thursday, promptly at six. Try to encourage the dear to dress a bit better.”
“That's tomorrow ,” he almost whines, but he keeps his tone in check. It doesn't matter that he looks like he's getting worked up anyway, because she's no longer looking at him.
“And that's the only day your father and I have free. She comes tomorrow or not at all. And don't plan on going anywhere tonight. Your father is going to have a few words for you when he gets home.”
He stays in place until she leaves the dining room, and once she's gone he drops himself into one of the chairs and pulls out his phone.
Do you remember that dress you wore to your cousin's first communion party? He texts Nora. Do you still have it?
He waits a few minutes until his phone chimes and he reads the reply. The ugly gray one? I should. ??
You're invited to dinner tomorrow. :( I'm supposed to tell you to dress nice or something. It probably means like you're going to church. He hovers his finger over the send button for a moment before sending of his explanation.
She replies just as quickly. Are you sure?
No , he sends off, followed by, but it's tomorrow or never.
Ok. I bet it'll be fun :) .
No, he says, but it's probably unavoidable. Thanks. <3
There's a split second where he appears consumed by his regret after sending the silly little heart Nora's way, but he can't take it back now, so he agonizes over his screen, tapping at it to keep it lit until her reply comes in.
His eyes water, and he can't stop smiling. It's still on his face even after he opens up his work book for English and begins organizing his notes.
Victor shuffle-walks into the office around lunch time, and he stands back until the counter is clear of other students and Ed is alone. He glances up from a stack of permission slips and his mouth opens silently with surprise.
“I need signed in,” he says a bit too loudly. He flinches when Ed startles. “Um, I wasn’t here this morning.”
“I noticed,” Ed says. He gives Victor a quick once over. “Your cheek is swollen.”
“Jim punched me in the face.”
“The other one,” Ed corrects him, and Victor touches the left side of his face gently. “And your movements are stiffer than usual.” Victor gets a far away, weary look on his face that Ed ignores. He scribbles something on a piece of paper and slips the form to Victor. “Sign in here,” he says. “And I wouldn't worry. I doubt others will notice, but I, well-”
“You stared at me for at least two weeks?” Ed's cheeks pink up and he mutters something under his breath. “What?”
“I’m sorry, is what I said. I'm not very good at approaching difficult subjects with tact.” He takes the form away from Victor and slides it into one of the inboxes behind the counter. “We are referencing,” he gets infinitely quieter, “abusive behavior,” and he returns to his normal volume, “correct?” Victor hesitates, but eventually he nods. “Why haven't you told anyone?”
“Why haven't you?” Victor snaps back.
“I have, actually. My friends, mostly. And,” he huffs, “Essen, sort of. Nothing specific, but I was able to convince her to not call my parents if I'm ill or injured. They don't like to be inconvenienced.”
“Oh.” Victor chews on his lip and Ed retreats from the counter to sit at his small workspace beside a pair of old, green filing cabinets. “You're top of our class.”
“Yes,” he hazards, looking up from his workspace. “Why?”
“Then why do your parents,” he trails off, not wanting to be overheard, until he comes up with an alternative word, “suck?”
“I'm fairly certain my academic achievements aren't a factor.” He rests one elbow on the desk and sets his chin on his palm, one slender finger tapping at his cheek in thought. “They just do, I suppose.” Victor squirms uncomfortably and Ed tilts his chin to watch out of the corner of his eye. “I'll refrain from staring in the future, and I won't say a word, unless you want me to.”
“I don't,” he nearly threatens, but Ed's attention isn't on Victor anymore. “Fine. I won't say anything either.”
“Then we have a deal.” Ed pops out of his chair and holds out a hand, and after some confused looks Victor takes it. “To our mutual agreement to shut up about one another.”
Victor actually laughs, and he releases Ed's hand after a quick shake. “Sure, whatever.”
There's hesitation in Ed's movements and his expression as he handles the handwritten note Jim slides over to him at the beginning of lunch. “Your mother wrote this.”
“I,” Ed frowns down at the careful loops starting Jim was feeling sick this morning, “Jim I was at your apartment this morning.”
“And,” he huffs, “you weren't sick. You stayed up too late because you didn't finish your paper.”
“Yeah, but she wrote it so,” Jim shrugs, “it's legit.”
Ed sighs and adds the slip to the small stack behind the counter and pulls out a clipboard with a sign in sheet. “Here.”
“Thanks Ed,” Jim smiles easily and Ed's concern gradually slips away, replaced with a slight smirk. “What.” Ed takes back the clipboard and says nothing. “Ed I know you won't tell her.”
“Maybe,” he says, “if you give me your lemon bar from lunch today.”
“Ed come on,” Jim groans, “it's like, the only good dessert at lunch.”
“I'm aware, oh,” he looks up past Jim to the opening office door and Jim turns around in time to see Zsasz poke his head in, and then grin at the two of them. “Do you need to get signed in?”
“Jim Gordon, just the guy I was looking for.” Zsasz ignores their blatant confusion and slips into the office. “It's almost the weekend, parents are going out of town for two days, I'm throwing a little party, and I wanted to extend an invite to you.”
“Really?” Jim asks, mildly surprised. “Why?”
“You're a pretty cool dude, and it's my party so I get to choose who gets an invite.” He nods along with himself, then focuses on Ed standing behind him. “You're invited too.”
Ed turns around and looks at the office space around him. He points to himself, “are you telling me this?”
Zsasz laughs, “you're funny,” he points, “hey, bring that uh, that short guy. The one in Barbara's yoga class.”
“Oswald?” Jim asks, and Zsasz claps his hands together and nods. “You're being serious?”
“Yeah,” he says as if it's obvious. “No such thing as being late, just don't let the word get out too much. And you don't have to bring anything,” Zsasz assures them, “just be there.”
After he leaves Jim and Ed stare at each other for nearly a minute before Jim asks, “what just happened?”
“Mother I am fine ,” Oswald insists even as she straightens the collar of his polo shirt and begins fussing with his bangs. “It's just a party with some friends.”
“You're sure you don't want a nice tie? I have something, let me find it,” she leaves him standing in their small kitchen while she fusses with something in the hall closet. “You always looks so handsome in blue,” she coos at him from across the room. “At least let me do something with your hair.”
“It's not that kind of party,” he insists. She comes over with two ties over one arm and a comb in her hand. “Mom, please,” he grabs her arms and stops her from messing with his hair any more than she already has, “this is just a little get together between friends. We're going to watch some movies and eat popcorn. Nothing fancy.”
“You're sure you don't want a tie?”
“Mother,” he whines.
“I just want people to see what a handsome boy I have.” She brushes his hair aside and kisses his forehead. Oswald smiles briefly and shakes his head to get his hair back in place. “When did you get so big?” she laments. Oswald groans when she drags him into another hug but he’s also quick to hug her back. “You will call if you need anything .”
“Of course,” he says. A series of short honks outside interrupt their hug and Oswald slips free. “That’s Jim,” he says, and he’s dragged into one more quick hug and a kiss before his mother releases him. “I’ll call if I need anything, promise .”
“Have fun liebchen,” she coos, and as he opens the door she blows him a quick kiss, which he quickly returns before dashing off to the car.
Jim’s half hanging out the window and waving Oswald over, and Ed is sitting quietly in the seat beside him, hands occupied by something just out of view. After Oswald lets himself in the back he leans through the space between the front seats to see. “Rubix Cube?”
Ed nods, and Jim offers up more explanation. “He got a little anxious. I found it in the back of my closet.” He turns from Oswald to Ed. “You can just keep it, by the way. I wasn't getting anything out of it.”
“Time,” Ed says, Oswald blinks with confusion, but Jim holds up a stopwatch and looks at the numbers.
“Shaved off about ten seconds,” he says. “Let Oz mess it up for you.”
“I don't really know-” Oswald abruptly ends up with the solved cube in his hands, and he begins turning the pieces at random. Ed twists around in his seat and peers at Oswald over his shoulder.
Jim starts pulling out of Oswald's driveway and pats Ed's cheek, “don't watch him, you'll remember. Gotta do it right or it won't count.”
“What is he doing exactly?” Oswald asks, still spinning sections and undoing the solid colors.
“Trying for the record.”
“I have the basic theory down but I'm trying to improve on them,” Ed explains, going back to complete silence just quickly as he snapped out of it. When Oswald reaches forward through the seats and hands Ed the scrambled Rubik's Cube Ed closes his eyes long enough for Jim to start the stopwatch, and then he begins solving as fast as he can.
“Can you hold this?” Jim says as he tosses the stopwatch back into Oswald's lap. “Just stop it when he says time.”
“I assumes as much,” Oswald says. He rests his chin on the seat and watches Ed go. “You aren't going to keep trying at the party, right?”
Ed shrugs. “Depends.”
“Try for like, ten minutes,” Jim says. “I bet Zsasz has plenty of extra rooms to hide in if you need to get away.”
“It's one party,” Oswald says. “And it's not like we're going to abandon you.” Ed's fingers stop moving on the Rubix Cube and he shoves his fingers in under his glasses to rub his eyes. “You'll be fine.”
“You got your license Oz?” Jim asks, and Oswald nods. “There, you have two people that could drive you somewhere else. And Zsasz invited you. He's a weird guy but he wants you to be there.”
“It doesn't make sense,” Ed murmurs.
“If anyone tries to mess with you I'll deck 'em,” Jim says. “No parents or teachers to give me detention here.”
He parks behind a string of cars along Zsasz’s street just below one of the many streetlights. They haven't turned on yet, but they will soon; the sun is nearly behind a long row of trees just above the horizon line. Jim and Oswald get out quickly, and Jim opens Ed's door for him; he has to coax him out (“I promise I'll punch anyone that tries to do anything.” “Please don't get arrested.”), but once he's outside and examining the well manicured front lawn of the Zsasz estate he appears to be in better spirits.
“People will probably be too drunk to remember to mess with you,” Jim says offhandedly once they reach the door. Ed and Oswald share a look of concern as Jim opens it and they're immediately face to face with Zsasz.
“Gordon,” he singsongs, “aw man you got the whole crew to come out!” He lets them all inside and they're immediately met with a wall of music and people. Ed clutches one hand in the back of Oswald's polo and the other holds his Rubik's Cube up against his chest. “Kitchen is over past that guy standing on the counter,” Zsasz says calmly, “and the only rule is no changing the music, I got it covered. Oh, and I guess don't do anything I wouldn't do.”
“What is that exactly?” Oswald snaps, and Zsasz shrugs. “Great, you have a lovely home. Ed,” he tries to whisper but with the music he's practically talking at full volume, “if we're ever separated meet there,” he points across the room at a staircase, “deal?”
Ed nods his head and grips Oswald a bit tighter. “What if-?”
“Ozzie!” someone still in the crowd exclaims, and out pops Barbara Keane, her blonde hair curled and done to the side, but a lock has already escaped he bobby pins and she's wavering on her feet. “I didn't know you were coming! We could have gotten ready together.”
Oswald smiles at her mirthlessly and sidesteps the door as Zsasz lets in yet another group of people. He leads Barbara, and also Ed though not consciously, over to an empty space in a large dining room filled with chips and red cups and, much to Ed's dismay and Oswald's vague interest, bottles of alcohol and cans of beer. Jim is nowhere to be found. “I thought you told me you were cutting this,” he says while tugging at her loose curl, “because long hair is last season.”
“Well maybe if you'd pick a day we can finally go.” She starts playing with his hair again, trying to get his bangs to stay off his forehead. “This is cute and all but you have a lot of untapped potential.” Barbara seems to lose focus on Oswald and hones in on Ed as he continues to cling to him and cower. “Hey Eddie.”
She tries to sidestep Oswald to get closer but Ed keeps Oswald between them as a buffer. He gulps, “Barbara.”
“You know, I knew we'd get Ozzie out here one of these days but I never thought I'd see you at a party.” This time she's successful when she tries to get closer and she touches the collar of Ed's long sleeved shirt. “I am so jealous of those curls.”
She moves her hand to try and touch Ed’s hair but he releases Oswald and ducks away. “No thank you.”
She smirks at Ed, but when she looks past him she seems lost for a moment. “Where's Jim?”
Oswald shrugs, looking like he has no desire to actually tell her the truth. “I guess we must have lost him.”
“Kind of thought you three were a package deal,” she mutters as she looks around the room. “Well, you two have fun. I'm going to go find him.”
Oswald makes a face at Barbara once her back is turned and then focuses his attention on Ed. “Barbara has the hots for Jim.”
“Barbara Keane,” Oswald points at her as she bursts into laughter across the room, “has the hots for James Gordon. She likes him.”
“Oh,” Ed hums quietly and fidgets with one of the rows of his Rubix Cube. “Why?”
“I don’t know!” Oswald exclaims. “She thinks he’s cute , does it really matter ?” Ed hunches his shoulders and mutters something Oswald can’t hear over the chatter and music. “Hey,” Oswald gets Ed’s attention by placing a hand on his arm, and Ed moves in a bit closer, “you look miserable. Do you want to go?”
“Maybe,” Ed whispers. “What about Jim?”
“He’s somewhere, I don’t know, he abandoned us,” Oswald jokes, but Ed retreats further and starts looking for a way out. “Hey,” Oswald places both hands on Ed’s arms, “I was kidding. He probably just got pulled aside by someone. Let’s go find him.”
“What if he doesn't want to leave?”
“Then I'll drive you just, here, let's try splitting up to find him, okay?” Ed starts shaking his head and Oswald sighs. “I know it isn't ideal, but he's probably right about people not paying that much attention. That tends to happen when you consume alcohol.” Ed scans the room over Oswald's shoulder, and it's true that no one is really looking over at them. There's a sudden crash from somewhere in the room that causes Ed some alarm, but Oswald doesn't even flinch. “Neanderthals.”
“Okay,” Ed mouths. He worries his bottom lip between his teeth, but he straightens out his back and starts putting forth a genuine effort to find Jim. “I don't see him.”
“If you hear any sort of fight, I'd start there. Just keep a safe distance, and don't accept any drinks because it will have alcohol.”
“I wasn't going to.”
“I know,” Oswald says, “but you look like you want to die a little so I thought I'd offer some sage advice.” Oswald smirks at him. “And I know I'm not the physical specimen Jim is but I am disappointed you don't think I'd do my best to defend you against our classmates.”
“I was only kidding, but if it helps you're certainly forgiven,” Oswald sighs. He pats Ed's chest and indicates a direction. “I'll start this way.”
“Oswald?” Ed calls after him, but Oswald is already part of the ever changing crowd of people. “Okay.”
Ed keeps his arms in close to his chest and begins moving through the crowd, being careful to sidestep groups and couples as he examines the living and dining room for signs of Jim. There are cans and cups on the floor around his feet, and several wrappers and empty chip bags the closer he gets to the kitchen. Near the island counter there's a small clearing free of people, and he darts into the space and closes his eyes for a few seconds.
“Hey,” someone appears very close in Ed's personal space and he gasps, backing away and opening his eyes to Zsasz's lazy smile. His back hits the counter and he gulps, but Zsasz's expression doesn't change. “Don’t know if you heard but you're at a party.”
“Sorry, I,” Ed surveys the cacophony by the kitchen, watching students talk and dance and drink, and he shudders, “I'm not very fond of, this,” he gestures to the aforementioned cacophony. “People, or, loud people. A lot of people? Have you seen Jim? He drove, and, well-”
“You thinking of leaving? Cuz I don't know if he's good to drive,” Zsasz says as he points over his shoulder with his thumb. Ed cranes his neck to see past Zsasz at a smaller group of people Ed doesn't really recognize, but Jim is with them playing beer pong, laughing and throwing a ping pong ball into one of the opposing team's cups. “Gotta say, your boy's got great aim.”
“Oh,” Ed sigh, “well, Oswald can drive, if I get Jim's keys-”
“Look,” Zsasz starts, and he leans in so he's really close to Ed. He braces for some sort of impact, but instead Zsasz just continues to talk. “There's this unspoken rule that my room is off limits, but I’m willing to extend an offer to let you use it, as long as you don't break anything or throw up. You don't have to throw up right?”
“I'm not feeling nauseated.”
“Good answer,” Zsasz grins and claps Ed's shoulder, and Ed jumps. “It’s upstairs at the end of the hall. Go chill out, watch a movie or something, just don't do anything I wouldn't do and it's all yours.”
Zsasz leaves Ed standing alone in the kitchen shortly after that, and Ed sighs, “I still don't know what that means.”
Ed moves over to the long table in the breakfast nook and taps Jim’s shoulder when he's standing back from the table. He spins around fast and smiles at Ed once an initial haze of confusion seems to wear off. “Hey Ed, you wanna play?”
“No. Do you have your keys?” He holds out his hand in anticipation and watches Jim struggle with his pants pockets until he pulls out his keys and hands them over. “I think I want Oswald to take me home, or, maybe his home. Somewhere not here.”
“You okay?” Jim asks, voice loud to overcome the music but still sincere. “Did someone fuck with you? Where are they?”
“No, it's fine, it's, well I just don't like it. Parties, and alcohol.” He shoves Jim's keys into his pocket and starts concentrating on solving his Rubik's Cube. “I'm okay.”
“Next time I'll tell Zsasz fuck no,” he yells over the music, and Ed smirks down at the Rubix Cube briefly. “I mean it, 'kay? Don't let me forget.”
“I have a good memory,” Ed says. He looks up from the Rubix Cube and smiles, but there's still tension around his eyes and shoulders. Jim drags him into a hug that Ed doesn't reciprocate but does tolerate, and when he pulls free from Jim's arms his cheeks are flushed. “Why did you hug me?”
“Tell Oswald I'm sorry!” He exclaims instead of answering, and then he's gone, back with the beer pong group while Ed rubs at one of his warm cheeks.
He backtracks his way through the party, weaving around people until he finds Oswald, and openly balking at the cup in his hand when he returns. “Why are you drinking?”
“I’m not ,” Oswald says. He shows Ed the nearly full cup and brings it back to his face to sniff it; the strong scent makes him wrinkle his nose. “Barbara gave this to me, and I’ve been waiting for her to leave the room so I can toss it.” He peers around Ed and when Barbara is nowhere to be found he subtly dumps the entire contents into a nearby potted plant. “There, see? Did you get the keys?”
“I did,” Ed says, and he licks his lips, “but Zsasz also offered to let me use his bedroom upstairs.”
“To do what , exactly?”
“To hide, or, to not be down here , at least. I didn't ask.”
“Well, I for one am not about to ignore what a rare opportunity this is,” Oswald says. He gets a firm grip on Ed's sleeve and begins leading him through the crowd. “We're going into uncharted territory, Ed. Be sure to take notes.”
As they ascend the stairs Ed takes a moment to look back over the crowd of students to get one last look at Jim as he pumps one fist into the air. Barbara's found her way over to his game; she's leaning over on the table, and although Ed can't hear whatever Jim tells her he smirks when her face changes from laughing to a heavy eye roll as she's, presumably, told to stop blocking part of the table.
“Which one is Zsasz's?”
“It's at the end of the hall,” Ed replies. He gestures with his Rubik's Cube and Oswald continues to tug him through the wide hallway and past several closed doors. Ed frets at the end of the hall, uncertain, but Oswald throws open a linen closet and the door to another set of stairs before opening what appears to be a bedroom. The moment they step inside and close the door Ed sighs as a relative quiet settles in the room.
“I'm not sure what I expected,” Oswald says as they walks through the space. There's a large bed along the left wall and a media space with a large tv. On the shelves on either side are rows upon rows of VHS tapes and DVDs. The walls have music and movie posters, and when Oswald snoops at the two doors along the right wall he finds an attached bathroom and a large walk in closet. “Are you kidding?” he shrieks. “I think his closet is as big as my room.”
Ed nods absentmindedly from in front of a large display of Zsasz's swimming awards. “He's rich. His family is, at least.”
“No wonder he's so popular,” Oswald mutters. He comes to stand beside Ed and bumps his shoulder against Ed's arm. “Don’t look so down. We can hide out up here all night, and we won't be abandoning Jim to Zsasz and his groupies.”
“Why did he invite me?” Ed asks. He turns from the trophies and ribbons to face Oswald and Oswald does the same. “I thought, well if coming up here just gets whatever they have planned over with sooner then we can leave sooner.”
“I,” Oswald pauses and grabs one of Ed's hands to stop him from fidgeting with the bottom of his shirt, “I don't think there's a plan. I haven't heard or seen anything. Unless the plan was to separate us from Jim, which great job, they figured out his weakness is a game that requires some dexterity.” Ed squeezes his Rubik's Cube tight enough that some of the plastic begins to creak. “Jim will be back, he's our friend.”
Ed shrugs one shoulder. “Then why did he leave?”
Oswald is quiet for a few moments, head tilted in thought. “Jim has a nice face, so girls are going to try and crawl all over him. And he hasn't gotten in as many fights, so people are getting chances to actually approach him during class time. Now that he's less likely to punch people in the nose he has a pleasant energy, and people gravitate to it. Jim has the foundation to become popular if he really wanted.”
Ed blinks sadly and lets his Rubik's Cube arm hang loose. “What about us?”
“Which part? Do we have nice faces? Good Energy? Girls fighting over who gets to date us first?” Oswald says this all lightly and full of jest, but Ed doesn't even smile. “Ed, you know me, and you know that means I'm not going to sit back and let Jim leave us behind without having a thing or two to say about it, but right now it doesn't matter because he's not trying to ditch us for these clowns.” He cups his other hand around Ed's and lifts it and the Rubix Cube up to eye level. “He might be having fun but he cares about us. He isn't going anywhere.”
Ed's eyelids flutter and he sniffs wetly. He curls himself in around it and also against Oswald, so the pointy, sharp edges of the Rubix Cube are poking at both of their chests, but Oswald doesn't make him move and instead wraps his arms up around Ed's shoulders. He pats Ed's back until the little quakes and shakes of Ed's shoulders stop.
“I'm going to pick a movie,” Oswald says, and he moves Ed so he's standing upright again. “Any preferences?”
“No,” Ed whispers. “Well, just something quiet, I guess.”
“Deal.” Oswald moves across the room while Ed kicks off his sneakers and situates himself at the head of Zsasz's giant bed. Oswald scans the movies, and after several minutes of searching he gives up with a groan and just switches on the cable and turns it down low. He tells Ed, “I don't often get the chance to channel surf.” Ed doesn't answer. He's finishing up solving his Rubik's Cube and mouthing along with a song that's loud enough to come through the walls. Oswald removes his shoes and places them beside Ed's. He clambers up beside Ed and situates himself in the center of the bed, stretching his legs out and frowning down at the remaining half a bed his legs don't reach. “Why on Earth would Zsasz need this long a bed?”
“He's tall,” Ed says.
“Not this tall,” Oswald counters. “I wonder if I could convince my mother I need a bed this size.” He sighs mournfully and stretches his legs out a bit longer. “Not that I'll ever need this much space on a bed.”
“Growth isn't always linear,” Ed mumbles. “It isn't impossible.”
“I'm fairly certain I'm just about done growing.” He lifts up an arm when Ed begins situating himself so he's stretched out on his side with his back to the door, and when Ed's head leans against his leg Oswald starts fussing with his limp curls. “Although you seem to never stop. Maybe I can convince her you need the extra space since you spend the night so often.”
Ed doesn't respond, already asleep, and Oswald takes a moment to remove Ed's glasses and set them aside before he settles in and starts flipping through the channels.
When Ed wakes he's the only one on the bed and he sits up frantically, but Oswald is still in the room. He's whispering into his cellphone, but the sounds from the rest of the house have stopped so he's easy to overhear.
“I'm sorry, I know,” he says placatingly. “I fell asleep and I forgot to call.” He's quiet for a few beats before adding, “mom I'm fine, no one's hurt, we just fell asleep. Can we spend the night please? I don't want to wake Ed or Jim. I promise, I'll be home right away in the morning.” Ed sits up fully and puts on his glasses. Oswald glances over, holding up a finger to his mouth as he listens to his mother. “Thank you, I mean it, I'll be right home. I love you too.” He hangs up and groans. “We're lucky she didn't send the police after me when I didn't call.”
“It's late,” Ed says.
“Relatively. It's one.” Oswald moves back to the bed and faceplants in the middle. “She was, In her words, distraught, so that means she was hysterical.”
“She hovers,” Oswald corrects him.
“She loves you,” Ed says back. Oswald doesn't have a reply. Ed breaks the silence with a question, “is Jim downstairs?”
“I didn't look. I assume the silence,” Oswald trails off as the bedroom door opens and in saunters Zsasz, looking drowsy and uncharacteristically quiet. Ed and Oswald scoot up to the top half of the bed, and Zsasz drops himself onto the foot of the bed, stretching out his limbs with a quiet sigh and turning his head to finally acknowledge the two.
“Oh,” he rolls onto his back and turns his head to look at them, “you didn't throw up anywhere right?” They both shake their heads. “Cool.”
“Sounds like your party is over,” Oswald says.
“Neighbor called the cops,” he says lightly. Ed starts to panic but Zsasz reassures him, “relax, everyone scattered. Music's off. No one got arrested.”
“Everyone?” Ed asks. “Even Jim?”
“Yes, wait,” Zsasz frowns and pushes himself up onto his elbows, “no. He's somewhere.”
“Somewhere,” Oswald repeats, and Zsasz nods. “Lovely.”
“Your boy can't drink for shit,” Zsasz sighs sadly. “Wait,” Zsasz pops up off the bed and walks across the room to his bathroom, and when he opens the door soft snores start being audible in the bedroom. “Found 'em. I knew I put him somewhere safe.”
They both scramble off the bed and crowd around the bathroom door; Jim is using his arm for a pillow as he sleeps on the cool, black tile by Zsasz's shower. Oswald stands up on his tiptoes enough to see past the rim of the toilet, and he sighs with relief. “He didn't get sick.”
“Naw he passed out too fast for that,” Zsasz says with a smile. He steps over Jim and loops his arms behind Jim's, forcing him upright until he blinks blearily up at Ed and Oswald. “Rise and shine Jim.”
Jim doesn't fall back over, but he doesn't register much going on around him even when Ed helps him sip at a glass of water and Oswald tugs off his shoes. Zsasz remains near the trio, hovering just out of reach but always willing to jump to attention and help when it's asked of him.
“I hope you don't expect your usual amount of space on your bed,” Oswald warns. He's busy trying to get Jim to settle on his side near the edge closest to the bathroom but he keeps gravitating towards Ed, which means he has the middle. “You better not get sick in the night or you'll have hell to pay James Gordon.”
“He'll be okay,” Ed murmurs, already part way back to sleep and eyes half lidded. He's playing with a few locks of Jim's sweaty bangs. “Right Jim?”
“Mmph,” is all anyone gets out of Jim, and Ed's hand settles against Jim's cheek as he gives in and falls asleep. Combined Ed and Jim using only a bit more than half the bed, leaving Oswald with the other half to spread out on.
“By not the usual did you mean none?” Zsasz asks as he stands over Oswald. He glares up at Zsasz and shushes him, glancing over to the other two already asleep on the bed. Zsasz's eyes widen. “It's kind of my bed.”
“And you've been such a gracious host. Thank you.” Oswald yawns and stretches out his back before he lets the last bits of tension slip out of his limbs. “I'll be sure to give you glowing praise when my mother grills me about the evening.”
Zsasz storms out of his own bedroom and Oswald closes his eyes, but a moment later Zsasz is stomping back in with a pillow and blanket in his hands. He tosses the pillow onto the foot of his bed and wraps the blanket over his shoulders before flopping onto his stomach.
“Your home doesn't have a spare bedroom?”
Zsasz doesn't answer; instead he curls up a bit tighter and scoots away from Ed and Jim's feet, utilizing the space Oswald can't reach even if he stretches out to his maximum height. When he does bother to say anything it's not even close to an answer. “You ever wonder if your friends are only around because of what you can give them?”
Oswald squirms uncomfortably. “Is this what it's like when someone is philosophizing while drunk?”
“I don't drink anymore.”
“Oh,” Oswald frets with the hem of Zsasz's comforter, “well, I can tell you I can only offer my fantastic wit-” Zsasz barks out a laugh- “yes, ha ha, not all of us have a mansion in the heights.”
“People kind of suck,” is Zsasz's only reply.
“They do,” Oswald agrees. “Present company excluded.”
Ed keeps his head down, moving forward without making eye contact with any of the other students still milling around in the halls. He's alone, and it's the end of the day; he watches the other students warily until he reaches the heavy metal doors leading to the student parking lot.
He scans the half empty lot, and Oswald begins waving his arm wildly to get his attention. He scampers across the lot towards Ed, feet slapping with every impact until he comes to a sudden stop in front of Ed.
“Jim said to meet here,” Ed says in lieu of a greeting. “He said he didn't have practice.”
“He doesn't,” Oswald confirms. “He's not coming, though. He has a date .”
“A date,” Ed repeats, tiny quakes and quivers around his lips and brow disrupting his passive expression. “With who?”
“Someone, I don't know,” Oswald whines. “I stopped listening. Does it really matter? It means he's busy and not going to give us a ride.” Oswald grabs hold of Ed's hand and starts to tug him along. Ed’s grip is limp but he goes along with Oswald's insistence. “Just come with me, we'll take the city bus to my house.”
Ed says nothing as Oswald unlocks the door and does an exaggerated little bow to welcome him inside. He goes straight for Oswald's room at the back of the house and lets his backpack drop to the ground near the foot of Oswald's bed. Nothing about his stormy expression has improved, but Oswald continues to move about his room and tidy a few things up while Ed continues to sulk near the foot of the bed.
Oswald scoffs lightly when he turns his attention back to Ed. “Will you please sit down?” Ed's eyes flicker up and over to Oswald, and he nods once. “Good. Thank you. You're making me nervous over there.”
“Sorry,” Ed whispers.
“It's fine,” Oswald waves him off. “Here,” he starts talking as he sits beside Ed and hands him the pillow from the head of his bed, “hold this. I want to talk to you about something.”
“You aren't moving, right?” Ed asks, arms tightening on the pillow.
“No, no, of course not,” Oswald placate him with a touch to his arm and a gentle smile. “This is about Jim.”
“ He's moving,” Ed corrects himself.
Oswald shakes his head. “No one is moving. I already told you, he’s just on a date. He’s not going anywhere.” He runs his hand up and down along Ed’s upper arm. “You look very upset about this.”
“He didn’t say anything,” Ed snaps. When Oswald flinches and his hand drops off Ed’s arm he looks down at it sadly until Oswald returns it to its previous place. “He ditched us.”
“Yes,” Oswald agrees reluctantly, “but only because I told him it was okay.” Ed’s cheek twitches and his arms tighten on the pillow. There’s a moment where he starts to lean away from Oswald, but he moves back almost immediately. “You are way more upset than I expected.”
“I’m not upset,” he says unconvincingly.
“You really are,” Oswald says, gentle but insistent. “It’s okay that you are,” he adds, although it doesn’t seem to help.
“You aren’t upset,” Ed whispers, partly an observation and partly as a question.
“I am irritated he sprung this on me during English,” Oswald mutters. “I had my eye on that leftover crumble his mother made, and now I have to wait until tomorrow to eat it.” His expression softens and he moves even closer to Ed and wraps an arm around his shoulders. “I think you’re upset for a different reason. I think,” he laughs a bit, more baffled than genuinely mirthful, “I think you’re jealous.”
“Jealous,” Ed repeats, “because he’s on a date?”
“No, Ed, I think you have a crush on Jim.” Oswald says, blunt but not harsh. His theory isn’t met with resistance as much as it’s just flat out ignored. Ed doesn’t move, and he doesn’t respond to the light shake Oswald gives his shoulder. All he’s doing is breathing, and he’s doing that rather loudly. “I’m not saying that’s bad ,” Oswald says quickly. “I am, Ed look at me,” he takes the pillow from Ed’s hands and grabs them with his own. Ed refuses to look up at him, but Oswald continues on, not discouraged by the lack of acknowledgement. “There’s nothing wrong with having a crush, and you certainly have good taste. And I would be lying if I told you I don’t also find Jim attractive.” Oswald gives Ed’s hand a light shake and smiles when Ed looks up from them.
He looks very lost and unsure; Oswald’s nonchalant attitude isn’t providing any comfort. “Why don’t I get us something to eat? Just wait here,” he squeezes Ed’s hands once before releasing them and standing, “and I’ll be right back. Then we'll talk as long as you want.”
Ed hasn’t moved from the bed in the short time it takes for Oswald to dig into the back of one of the cupboards by the fridge to pull out a box of crackers and fill two glasses with water from the tap. He looks up when Oswald shuts the door of his bedroom; their eyes lock and just as Oswald opens his mouth Ed sobs. He’s quick to set his meager snack aside and rush over, arms already out and welcoming as he sits down beside Ed and lets him latch on. He whispers, over and over, “it’s okay. I won’t say a word . I mean it,” until Ed is able to breathe again.
Victor takes a few moments to close his eyes with his face resting against the cool metal of his locker. Lunch is nearly over, and several students are milling about behind him, ignoring his impromptu upright nap in favor of reaching their own lockers and pulling out books and bags.
Then someone taps his shoulder, and Victor moves his head enough to peek over at Nora with one eye as she smiles up at him. “You look miserable.”
“Tired,” he says. “Just tired. Too tired.” He closes his eyes again and thunks his head lightly against the metal. “Have we graduated yet?”
“We aren't even seniors,” she says, and he groans loudly. She starts shuffling around in her messenger bag and huffs softly. “Victor? I have a question for you.”
“Yeah?” he snaps up from his nearly prone state and faces her fully.
“Do you have my calculator? I thought it was in my bag but I can't find it.”
He turns back to his locker long enough to unlock it and peek inside. “What color is it?”
“Nope,” he says. The general color scheme in his mostly empty locker is rather muted. “Sorry.”
“Shoot, okay. I might have left it at home.” She lets the flap of her bag close. “Could I borrow yours? I have a quiz.”
He starts to groan again, but turns it into, “yeah. I had math this morning.” He reaches into his locker and starts digging through his backpack. “I thought that's why you chose such a bright color?” He turns to her with his calculator in hand and notices the confusion on her face. “Was that mean?”
“I think he's coming for you,” she points to someone down the hall, and Victor turns in time to watch Jim Gordon approaching.
“Oh crap, what did I do?” he sighs. “Pretend you hate me. Here,” he hands her his calculator. “Don't let my mom make me wear that green tux to my funeral.”
“I don't think he's going to fight with you,” she says, “but I promise.”
She makes herself scarce and Victor faces Jim head on. He isn't stalking over as much as he's just rushing, pushing past a few students now filling the hallway until he's face to face with Victor.
“Fries,” except he says it like Freeze.
“It’s pronounced like ice,” Victor corrects him.
“Whatever,” he says. “You're in Ed's AP Bio class right?”
“Yeah,” Victor nods, “and AP English, and advanced math, and pretty much every other class. Why?”
“You're like,” Jim waves a hand as he searches for the right phrase, “sort of friends, right? School friends?”
“Sure,” Victor hazards.
“So sometimes Ed gets real quiet, right? You've seen that?”
“I really don't know where you're going with this, but I don't think I'll like it.”
Jim continues on undeterred. “He probably had a rough weekend, okay? He wouldn't talk at all yesterday. Just, in class can you keep an eye out for him? Os is in PE with him but Ed's not in most of our classes.”
“Can I what?”
“Just make sure teachers don't hound him today about not talking. I know your Bio teacher has a thing for class participation.” The pass period bell sounds and Jim swears. “I have to get my stuff. Thanks!”
He starts dashing off and Victor blinks a few times, befuddled, and then calls out, “Gordon? Jim!” He continues down the hall without even faltering. “That didn't make any sense! What do you mean he's not talking? Jim!?” Victor groans and lets his back knock his locker shut. “Great.”
“It looks like you survived,” Nora says as she reappears by his right side. Victor opens his eyes and looks at her with a desperate and confused look on his face. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” he sighs. “I'll live.”
“What did Jim want?”
“Guess I'm babysitting one of his friends,” Victor says.
Nora smacks his arm lightly. “Be nice.”
"I’m kind of right though,” he says, and she smacks his arm again. “What?”
“He's asking you to do something because he thinks you can help,” she says.
He gives her a long, pained look and sighs. “Yeah, I know. I hate it. What's the return policy on friends?”
“There really isn’t one,” she says, doing her best to not laugh at his expense, but not well enough to hide her smile. “I think you’ll be okay. Just be nice.”
“No,” he says petulantly. He glances down the hall to his left and right before leaning in quick to kiss her forehead. “Better get going.”
The halls begin thinning the closer Victor gets to the biology room. He reaches the right hall with time to spare, but just as he's about to turn into the room Oswald steps out in front of him, small arms crossed and a petulant look on his face.
“No,” is Victor's only response, and he tries to push past him, but his size advantage doesn't matter when Oswald is more nimble. He feints left but Oswald follows his lead, and Victor near-whines, “you're going to make me late .”
“I saw Jim speaking to you,” he says. “About Ed, right? And his little,” Oswald looks left as he thinks, and Victor tries to take the opportunity to get to the room, but Oswald latches a hand onto his bag. “I am trying to talk .”
“I'm trying to go to class.”
“Let me talk and you can ,” Oswald huffs. “Am I right? He asked you to do something for Ed? For his little mood?”
“Yeah,” Victor says, “I guess.” Oswald waves his hand to get Victor to continue. “He said he had a bad weekend! I don't know! He ran off before I could say anything.”
Oswald sighs. “I don't know exactly what you're privy to-”
“Who says privy?”
“-but Ed's little mood isn't because of his parents.”
“I don't want to be involved,” Victor says while shaking his head and attempting to back away to dislodge Oswald. “Please, come on, the bell is going to ring-”
“It's because of Jim!” he hisses. “So stop trying to run and listen to me.”
Victor closes his eyes and groans. “I didn't want to get more involved . Look, I'll sit with the guy. I'll, I don't know, tell the teacher he feels like he'll throw up. Just don't tell me more stuff.”
Oswald manages to look down at Victor despite his short stature, one finger poking into his chest while the other keeps ahold of his bag. “I don't know if you've noticed, but you are one of his few friends . Why that is I can't imagine since you're such an ass.”
“Solidarity,” Victor deadpans. “You really won't let me go if I don't ask.” Oswald raises one eyebrow, waiting. “Ugh, fine,” he asks, insincerely and still deadpan, “what did Jim do.”
“Jim didn't do anything. It's,” Oswald's eyes about rolls back into his head as he lets out a tired sigh, “complicated.”
Victor stares at Oswald for a few more moments, blinking. “You've got to be kidding me.”
Oswald releases Victor and steps back, already speeding down the hall as he shouts, “don't think I won't know if you start spreading rumors about him!”
“I hate all of you!” Victor shouts back, and he slips into the classroom just as the bell rings. He's late, but only just, and currently their teacher isn't in the room. He hones in on his usual chair near the door, the fastest way out, but he hesitates when he sees where Ed's chosen to sit. He's alone on one of the lab benches near the back, head already down on his arms and his assignment out in front of him. Victor sighs and walks past his usual spot in order to claim the other chair at Ed's bench. Ed glances up at him briefly, but returns to his original position after he confirms Victor's identity.
“Papers forward,” is the first thing their teacher says as she enters the room, and Victor adds Ed’s assignment to the pile for him when it reaches their corner of the room. “We left off last week with the introduction to organelles.”
Victor, and just about everyone else in the class, maintains a bored stare while copying down information as it's added to the messy wipe off board at the front of the classroom. Beside him Ed hasn't looked up again, and he's not bothering to take notes. He goes unnoticed during the first five minutes as their teacher continues on without stopping, but the second she turns around to ask the class questions she hones in on him.
“Edward,” she snaps. He looks up at her lazily, and only sits up when she motions for him to do so. “Since you must know the material why don't you tell the class how a cell makes energy.”
There's silence for a second, and another. It stretches longer and a few students begin to whisper, which the teacher silences with a look. Victor moves to nudge Ed softly, but pulls back when Ed flinches away before he even makes contact. Then he starts breathing louder, and faster, and he grabs his bag without warning and boots out of the room before the teacher can even say a word.
“Uh,” Victor clears his throat, “he was feeling sick.”
There's a quiet wave of laughter from the rest of the class before the teacher responds. “Sick?”
“Yep,” he says. “I uh, I could go check on him. If he's really sick-”
“I'm sure he's capable of finding a bathroom ,” she says.
“Yeah but he passes out!” Victor near shouts the second she turns. “Honest, he does.”
There's a few murmurs of confirmation and she sighs angrily. “Go.”
“Thanks, thank you,” he grabs his bag and is nearly out the door when he stops.
“I need a pass.” There's another wave of laughter. It doesn't seem to phase Victor in the slightest. “Ed too,” he adds as she rips one off her pad of passes for him.
She adds Ed's name to the pass. “Here, now stop disrupting my lecture and go.”
He hurries into the hall and the moment he's out of the teacher's field of vision he slows his pace. His pace is meandering but methodical as he searches for any clues to where Ed may have gone. Just as Victor approaches the bathroom in this hallway there's a loud metal clack as the door leading to the back parking lot closes. He starts jogging down the hall, slow enough to not be too loud but fast enough to reach the doors just as Ed drops down into his butt on the steps outside.
Victor opens the door and slips out to join him. The parking lot is empty aside from the two of them; it's somehow more private than a cramped bathroom stall even though they're out in the open. Victor drops his bag to his left and lowers himself down onto the stairs without acknowledging Ed; Ed's head is in his hands and he's muttering something to himself along the lines of “stupid” and a few other self deprecating phrases.
“I got a pass,” Victor says. Ed looks up from his hands at the pink slip Victor is wagging in his face. “Told her you're probably going to pass out.”
“Great,” Ed sighs. “I think that would be preferable, honestly.”
“Are you actually sick? If not you should pretend to be sick.”
“Not physically, no.” Ed returns his head to his hands. “I don't want to sound rude but why did you follow me?”
“Jim asked if I could keep an eye out for you.” He shrugs. “And after that Oswald half-talked to half-confronted me. Said this, whatever, wasn't because of your parents.” Ed whines, and Victor reaches a tentative hand over and pats Ed's shoulder once before returning it to his lap. “So, yeah. Your friends asked me to help, I guess, since we're sort of friends too.”
“He actually told you?” Ed sits up slowly, eyes half lidded and dull. “He promised-”
“He didn't say anything,” Victor cuts him off. “Or, he said two things. It's about Jim, and it's “complicated".”
“You like Jim, right?” Victor asks. There isn't any malice or disgust in his tone, just genuine curiosity. Ed still looks like he got punched in the gut.
“He's my friend,” Ed answers weakly.
“Yeah, but you like him more than that.” Ed gulps audibly. “I heard he had a date.”
“How do you know?” Ed asks defensively.
“Rumors spread.” He adds, “except this one. Kind of a dick move, telling people you're gay.”
“I don't know what I am,” Ed whispers. Victor nods once and shrugs one shoulder. “Thank you, although you shouldn't have to keep it a secret in the first place,” he says, irritated, though it's clearly directed at Oswald.
“None of your other friends date,” Victor points out, and Ed's anger visibly deflates. “I mean, I think that's why he told me, but I'll only be able to give shit advice.”
“I'm not very good at dating,” he says. “If you want real advice you should ask Nora. She's,” he gets a faraway, wistful look in his eyes, “she’s the thoughtful one. I just try to not be a huge jerk.”
“I don't want to do anything. It's,” he sighs with frustration and runs his hands through his hair. “It's a stupid crush . And he's,” Ed shakes his head, “he's not interested. I'm lucky enough to have him as a friend. I'm not going to mess it up because of some stupid pining .”
Chapter 7: We're reaching the end, but also a beginning
Some obvious child abuse in this chapter
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Ed steps off the school bus at the stop near his home and begins meandering his way along the sidewalk. He walks slower and more measured the closer he gets to a slightly crooked, slightly rusting mailbox with the name Nashton stuck to the side with misaligned black stickers. He tries to use his thumbnail to smooth out a corner that's sticking up on the second 'N', but it springs back into the wrinkled, shriveled corner the second he's not holding it in place.
Ed moves on from the outside of the mailbox and focuses his attention on the contents inside. There's a set of bills for the utilities and the car loan, a couple mailers advertising local businesses, and the largest, thickest envelope is addressed to Ed, with a return address for Gotham University's admissions office.
When he remembers to breathe, it makes his chest shudder from the effort to keep it even. He double-checks the mailbox for any other mail and closes it before bounding up the cracked walkway leading to the front door. He fumbles with his house key for a few moments before he manages to unlock the deadbolt and let himself inside. Ed sets the mail on the kitchen table in a neat stack and takes his envelope to his room, holding it tightly against his chest as he shuts his door and sets his bag aside on the ground.
At first he just holds the envelope, turning it over and over in his hands as he takes a seat in the middle of his bed. The envelope is thick, more a packet than a letter, and when he finally works up the nerve to rip open the seal he tears the envelope down the center in a jagged, crooked tear.
"Crud," he whispers. He shrugs and dumps the contents out onto the bed in a small pile, and he sifts through the contents until he finds a crisply folded letter on thick, creamy stock.
The first word he sees is 'congratulations', and he folds the letter back up, breathing deeply a few times and steadying his breathing before opening it up again to continue.
He barely skims, eyes moving too fast to read full sentences, but he freezes once he reaches the word 'full' and rereads the sentence several times until it truly clicks that 'due to your academic achievements, you will receive aid equaling the full amount' is the response he's been working towards for the better part of three years, and he hiccups out a wet, broken laugh and shoves the letter against his face, crinkling up the edges and smearing relieved tears all over the ink.
Jim pulls up to the Nashtons’ house the next morning and parks just out of the way of the driveway. He looks over to Oswald and gestures with a quick head nod towards the door, but Oswald shakes his head.
"I have been in the Nashton home more times than I care to ever be in one lifetime."
"I thought you only went over once?" Jim asks.
"Yes, and I don't plan on repeating the experience. He'll come out soon enough, I'm sure ." Oswald slumps down in the passenger seat and closes his eyes. "He only qualifies for the free breakfast if we actually go to yoga," he says, “so he'll come.”
"He's usually waiting outside," Jim mutters. He undoes his seat belt and starts to get out of his car. "You can stay here, I'll go get him-oh."
Jim has one leg on the ground when the front door opens and Ed comes barreling out with his bag in one hand and a stack of papers in the other.
Oswald blinks. "He left the door wide open."
"I'll say something," Jim responds. He pulls his leg back up into the car and closes his door just as Ed opens the rear passenger door and practically throws himself inside. Before he can pull the seat belt over himself Jim says, "Ed, you left the door."
"The door," Ed whispers, bewildered, and then he shakes his head. "Right, the door," he launches himself back out of the car, keys in hand, and Oswald and Jim watch with vague interest as Ed slows his run the closer he gets to the threshold. After he closes the door and locks it he walks back to the car, much calmer than the first time, and when he's getting in it's obvious his slowed pace is because of how winded he sounds. "Thank you," he breathes out, not even a whisper, and he buckles himself in and rests his head back against the headrest.
"Long day?" Jim asks casually. He's keeping his tone light, and also keeping at least half of his attention on the road as he pulls away from the curb. "You didn't try to text or call, right?"
"No," Ed sighs.
"You must have had a lot of laundry," Oswald comments idly. He's picking at the outer seam of his pants, eyes still closed to block out the rising sun.
"Laundry?" Ed parrots, then exclaims, "oh, yes. I suppose so."
Jim waits until he's at the next stop sign before turning around to look at Ed properly. "You alright?" he asks, reaching back and tapping Ed's hand lightly. Ed snaps out of his daze again and nods before drifting back wherever his mind's gone. "Lot on your mind?"
"I did it," Ed whispers, then he adds more, faster and faster the longer he talks. “I got accepted, well, that’s not the surprising part, but getting accepted didn’t matter-”
“Breathe, Ed,” Jim calls back. “Can’t figure out what you’re saying.”
There’s a quiet rustling as Ed sifts through his stack of papers from earlier and reaches through the middle console to hand something to Oswald. He sits up properly and quickly skims the paper, and then he tosses it aside and- “Oswald, what the hell are you-?”- starts climbing through the middle console and into the back. He throws himself around Ed in a fierce hug, which Ed reciprocates enthusiastically, and Jim reaches down by his feet at the next stop to grab the paper and read it for himself. He skims it when he’s forced to wait at a red light, grin getting wider the further he gets until someone behind him honks loudly and he’s forced to set it aside and pay attention to the road. “So it’s a full ride?”
Ed nods, only partially detaching from Oswald to answer. “It covers tuition, room and board, and books. Does that mean it would cover a computer?” He wonders aloud, answering himself before Jim or Oswald can offer any input. “It probably doesn’t cover that. That’s fine, there’s a library. Or I guess I could save up-”
“Do you realize how rare this is?” Oswald asks, interrupting Ed’s ramble with a gentle touch to his shoulder. “Full tuition is near impossible.”
“It’s really good,” Jim agrees. He pulls into the student lot and begins slowly fighting his way to the back where his assigned space is. “I thought you were tutoring? Doesn't that pay pretty well?”
“Only one person,” Ed murmurs. He’s back to leaning against Oswald, this time with his eyes closed. “And not that often.”
“You look rather tired,” Oswald says, a bit snotty and sarcastic, but he doesn’t try to push Ed off of him. “Did you sleep at all?”
“I fell asleep folding laundry,” Ed says. “I don’t remember for how long.” He forces himself upright when Jim parks his car, blinking tiredly at the still rising sun. Oswald starts trying to tame his wild morning hair with his fingers. “I had to finish folding, though, and I kept taking breaks to read over forms. I’ll be fine,” he says through a yawn. “I might try to sleep during yoga.”
“Don’t start slacking yet,” Jim tells him. He grabs Oswald’s bag out of the passenger seat and hands it to him once he’s finally detached himself from Ed and crawls out of the car. “Colleges still pay attention to the last semester.”
“It’s only a few more months,” Ed says, more agreeing with Jim than trying to disregard his advice. “Have you gotten any letters?”
“Nah,” Jim says. “You probably only got yours because of your grades. It’s still super early.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll be accepted,” Oswald assures Jim with a quick pat to his shoulder. He grabs Ed’s hand and starts tugging him in the direction of the gym. “I’d love to just sit here and chat with you, but we’re nearly running late.”
“Don’t pull anything,” Jim tells them both. Oswald smirks at him and Ed nods sagely, taking the advice seriously, and then they’re both ambling down the hall, Oswald chattering away excitedly with Ed about his new prospect while keeping their hands interlocked. Jim watches them go, smile fading the further they get, until they’re no longer visible after they turn a corner.
It's April, unseasonably warm and pleasant outside, and Ed's put off his necessary duties as an incoming college freshman for as long as he can.
He hovers just outside the threshold of the living room, fretting with the edges of his forms as he watches his mother pour over the mail from the day and sip from a glass of strong, dark alcohol. She's a stern woman with graying hair at the crown of her head and the early aging lines of a lifelong smoker. His father isn’t home; he’s there almost as little as Ed is these days. He takes half a step into the room, then steps back, and just as he starts to turn around she snaps at him, “don’t lurk in doorways unless you want people thinking you’re a stalker.”
“Sorry,” he whispers, stepping into the room fully and walking over to the table. “Mother I, um, I got into college-”
“We aren’t paying for that.”
“Right, I know,” he breathes in, slow and steady, and sets the letter explaining his full ride on the table so she can see it. “You don’t have to. No one has to.” She raises one eyebrow, completely disbelieving, and takes another drink. “It’s all here.” He points to the second paragraph where his fiscal award is detailed. “The only thing I need is a signature. Two, I guess,” he quickly adds as he sets the acceptance letter down beside it, which he’s already signed. “Both of these need a parent’s signature. Your signature, if you could.” He waits a few beats before adding, “please.”
“No cost,” she repeats, staring him down until he nods. She picks up the pen sitting in the middle of the pile of bills and clicks the top. “You’re living on campus.”
“I know,” he mumbles. “Thank you,” he mouths. She digs the pen in deep and nearly tears through to the table as she signs both papers and hands them over unceremoniously, not bothering to look up at Ed as he takes them back.
Ed hesitates to leave, but his mother doesn’t show any interest in asking any further questions. He nods to her, which is ignored, and calmly walks to his bedroom and shuts the door.
The forms are slightly wrinkled and creased, but they’re intact and complete. Ed folds them up into a trifold and slips them inside a pre-stamped envelope provided in his acceptance packet. He smiles down at the envelope, running his thumb across the address for the admissions office on campus.
After allowing himself a few minutes to savor the victory, Ed grabs his messenger bag from the floor in front of his bed and slips the letter inside the largest pocket. He’s only zipped the pocket partway when he hears the telltale signs of his father pulling his pickup into the single stall garage, and he swears under his breath. Ed starts moving quickly, opening his small closet, pulling a few shirts off the hangers, and rolling them each into tight tubes before adding them to his bag. He does the same thing with a few pairs of pants and underthings until the front pocket it stuffed with clothing.
The back door of the house slams open and shouting starts almost immediately, and Ed closes his eyes for a moment, counting under his breath and listening carefully to the argument just down the hall. So far it’s staying away from his room, and he uses the relative calm to continue packing up his bag.
He’s never had much; his room is spartanly decorated with little furniture or knick knacks. He moves on to his desk and packs up a few books he borrowed from the library, a small stack of puzzle and coloring books and his 128 count box of crayons, sharpener included, the Rubik’s Cube from Jim, and his spare pair of glasses. He hasn’t grabbed everything; there’s several shirts and pants still in his closet, but he only has one bag to his name and neglected to borrow any from Oswald or Jim.
The shouting starts up again, louder, and maybe getting closer. Ed takes a moment to kneel beside his bed, lifting up the mattress and thrusting his arm between it and the boxspring to drag out a flattened, beat up stuffed owl. He takes great care to add it to his backpack without catching it in the zipper or squishing it more out of shape.
This time the sounds are clearly approaching, and Ed launches himself at his lightswitch and turns it off before rushing back to his window and throwing it open. He drops the bag out on to the ground outside first before kneeling on his nightstand and wriggling his way out the window.
He nearly falls on his face as he drags his gangly legs out after his torso, but he catches himself on the sill and straightens up enough to slide one leg out and down to the ground. Once he's standing up properly he slams the window shut, grabs his bag with one hand, and slings it over his shoulder as he starts to jog in the direction of Oswald’s home.
Oswald and his mother are sitting at the table, but there's no food in sight aside from Oswald’s glass of water and his mother's cup of tea. She grasps both of his hands in hers, eyes welling over despite the bright smile on her face. “You will call me every day.”
“I will call you every day, yes,” he repeats back to her.
“No matter the time,” she adds.
“No- Mother, it's a big time difference. What if you're asleep?”
“How can you think I would sleep without hearing word from my baby?” she near-wails. She wipes at her eye without letting Oswald’s hand go and he's nearly dragged into her lap. “It's too far. You need to come with me.”
“ Two plane tickets?” he asks incredulously. “Mother-”
“You would love it,” she gushes. “And you have so much family to meet still.”
“I have heard you pine for Hungary for years ,” Oswald says softly. “And as your adult son, I demand you forget about still thinking you need to take care of me and go .”
“Adult son, when did this happen?” She actually tries to drag him over, and this time he relents so she can pull him into a tight hug. “You were a baby just a moment ago.” She pets his hair and rocks him a bit, clearly more to soothe herself than him. “I can't imagine you out in the big world all alone.” She makes him lean back and cradles his face in her hands, running her thumbs over his pinked up cheeks. “No lies. If you have even a second of trouble, you will call.”
“Of course,” he assures her, grasping her wrists and letting her fret over him some more. He opens his mouth to speak, but there's an insistent series of knocks at the front door. “I'm not expecting anyone.”
“Go get it,” his mother releases him and stands, but before he can get far, she pulls him back for a moment to kiss his cheek. “We can talk all we want later.”
Oswald smiles at her, and she trails her fingers off his cheek as she turns to go into her bedroom. He skip-walks to the front door and throws it open, blinking up at Ed as he pants for air on the threshold.
“Did you run here?” Oswald asks, still bewildered.
“Jogged, and only part of the time,” Ed says, his voice breathy. He coughs a few times and takes a deeper breath before trying to speak again. “Can I stay here?”
“You know I always say yes,” Oswald says as he steps back to let Ed inside. Ed toes off his shoes by the front door and follows Oswald into the kitchen. “We already ate, but there's far too much stew leftover if you're hungry.”
“Just water, thank you,” Ed says, and once Oswald places a glass full of tap water in his hands, he gulps it down.
“Why did you run here? Sorry, jog here.”
“I panicked,” if all he offers up for an explanation. He sets the glass on the table, slips his bag off and tosses the flap aside, and unzips the largest pocket, pulling out a thin envelope and setting it on the table. “I need to bring that to the admissions office.”
“I’m sure Jim can drive you tomorrow. What do you mean, you panicked?” Oswald asks softly. He frowns when Ed shakes his head, but he doesn't press further. “So that's for college?”
“Acceptance of my acceptance, and of the full ride being provided.” He sighs down at it and touches the corner of the envelope. “I needed my mother's signature. Or my father's, I guess, but she was more receptive to cooperating. They're ready,” he looks up at Oswald, eyes alight with a tired sort of happiness, something rough around the edges but still genuine. “I don't ever have to go back, if I'm welcome here, that is,” he adds in a more somber tone. “Please don't feel obligated. I can figure something out if it's too much of an inconvenience.”
Oswald eyes Ed's single backpack with suspicion and peers into the open pouch, leafing through the meager contents with a mild interest. “I know you don't have much to your name,” he says, “but I'm fairly certain it's more than this .”
“I grabbed some essentials,” Ed says lightly. He opens the other pocket of his bag and holds it open for Oswald to see. “As long as I do laundry once a week, I'll have clean clothes for each day.”
“I haven't stopped growing yet anyway,” he interrupts. “Even these will likely need replaced before I start classes in the fall.”
“Do you even have your wallet?”
Ed nods, and pulls it out of his pants pocket to hold it up for Oswald to see. “It only has my school ID inside, though. I'll get a new one on campus.”
“What about documents?” Oswald snaps, hands on his hips and an irritated scowl on his face. “Birth certificate? Social security?”
Ed's shoulders hunch up around his ears. “Those are replaceable. I doubt they even kept them-”
“Of course they kept them!” He shrieks. “Children are a tax exemption! I give your parents basically no credit, but even they wouldn't miss out on that!” He pinches his brow and breathes, and Ed continues to hunch down until he's dropped himself down into one of the dining chairs, covering his face with his hands. Oswald opens his eyes, and after seeing Ed, his frustration fades into tiredness. He pulls up a second chair and puts his hands on Ed's knees. “I'm sorry I yelled.” Ed peeks at him through his fingers. “I know you don't want to go back there.”
“I don't have to,” Ed croaks. He sniffs and shoves up his glasses to rub at his eyes.
“Not alone,” Oswald offers. Ed drops his hands to his lap, blinking with equal parts fear and awe. “I mean it. One last time, the three of us, and then I'll help you build a treehouse to live in, if that's what you want.”
Ed smiles for a split second. “If it's alright with you, I'd rather stay here.”
Oswald grimaces. “It's, I'm not telling you no,” he adds quickly, “but around about,” he hums to himself, “mid-July? I think mid-July. Around then, it will be considered trespassing.”
“Oh,” Ed's confusion is obvious, although it's also obvious he's putting considerable effort into trying to make sense of Oswald's unclear statement. “Is this like a premonition?”
“Close. There's a developer in the city that wants to build something on this end of town. Apartments, maybe. I wasn't invited to the town meeting since it was during the school day.” He shrugs. “It wasn't a fortune but the offer was decent, enough to pay off the last bit owed and some left over. After several discussions, and some crying, and hugs because of the crying, it's been decided that my mother is using a portion of the money to go to Hungary.”
“Where she's from,” Ed clarifies.
“Yes, and where much of my extended family still is. She misses them terribly. I don't think she's gotten to see any of them since,” he lets out a startled laugh, “since before I was born at least.”
Ed takes one of Oswald's hands in his and turns it over, running his pointer finger over his palm in slow circles. It's mesmerising, but because of that it's also calming, and Ed's voice is level when he asks, “are you going with her?”
“No, no,” Oswald insists. “Maybe someday, at least for a short visit, but not in the near future. I'm going to use some of the money to get situated here in Gotham.”
“Okay,” Ed says, relieved. “How long is she visiting?”
“Somewhere between a couple months and the rest of her life,” Oswald sighs. “She's being very wishy-washy about the whole thing, keeps insisting she can't stay away very long.” He rolls his eyes fondly. “Sometimes I swear she thinks I'm still toddling around in diapers, completely dependent on her for everything.”
Ed worries his bottom lip between his teeth as he surveys the space around him; the single family portrait above the wood burning fireplace, the various trinkets above the fireplace on either side, and something that isn't tangible but very much a part of the space. There's a coziness to the room, increased by the soft lighting and the crackling of the fireplace as the logs burn.
“You'll miss it,” Ed says as he turns back towards Oswald.
“I'm aware , Ed. I told you there were tears.” Oswald huffs. “But it's just a house.” He doesn't sound very convincing, and he tries to wipe at his cheeks without Ed noticing, which is a failure, but not one Ed voices. “I told her,” his voice cracks, and he clears his throat before trying again. “I told her she's spent the last eighteen years doing everything for me, so it's about time she did something for herself.”
Ed dips his head as he smiles, using one hand to shove up his glasses and the other to grab onto Oswald's. “Victor once told me you talk like you were born a hundred years ago.”
“Well, Victor can shut it,” Oswald snaps, biting at his cheek in a futile attempt to not smile back. “I'm going to be homeless . I'm allowed to be dramatic.”
The mirth in Ed's eyes fades just as easily as it had appeared. “So this means I can't stay.”
“Yes and no. You can stay as long as I can.” He squeezes Ed's hand in little comforting pulses. “I could use some help sorting things to sell, and as small as this place is,” he looks over at the fireplace, at the small kitchen, and the hall leading to the two bedrooms before turning back to Ed, “it will feel too big once my mother's on the plane.”
Jim pulls up to Oswald's home just after sunrise and parks in the middle of the driveway. He's still bleary-eyed and yawning, hand curled up around a can of soda that hasn't been opened yet. He blinks down at it tiredly, and after freezing up for a few seconds he pops the tab and takes a small sip followed by a giant one that drains half the can in one go. He breaks long enough to breathe again, and in the time between his breath and another drink the front door opens; Jim blinks in surprise when Ed and Oswald both emerge without him announcing his arrival, but it's mild, and by the time they're both climbing into the car he's back to just looking worn down.
“Morning,” he mumbles. Ed and Oswald grumble something similar in response as they buckle in. “Didn’t sleep well?”
“ Someone was rather emotional,” Oswald says. It takes Jim by surprise that he’s being so derisive about Ed, until he looks over and sees that Oswald is blatantly pointing to himself.
“His mother’s going to Hungary,” Ed offers up as explanation, blunt and honest and more focused on pulling his Rubik’s Cube out of his messenger bag than the rehashing of old details. “And they’re bulldozing his house.”
“That’s pretty rough,” is all Jim manages to say.
“It’s been an eventful week,” Oswald adds rather casually given the subject. “Nevermind all that, I don't want to be in a bad mood all day.”
“Sure,” Jim says. “So what's new?”
“Are you free this afternoon?” Ed asks.
“Uh, depends,” Jim wavers somewhere between uncertainty and reluctance. “Why?”
“I have to drop off my college acceptance. I can take the bus,” he adds.
“No, it's okay,” Jim assures him. He turns around and smiles at Ed, and Ed ducks his bashfully, though he does return the gesture. “Gotham U in the fall. How's it feel?”
“Everything,” Ed says. He doesn't explain, but neither Jim nor Oswald try to make him.
They settle into a comfortable silence; the only sounds are Oswald's starting to snore and Ed gently turning the pieces of his Rubik’s Cube as he solves it again and again.
It isn't until they're nearly at the school that Oswald speaks up again. “We're in need of your assistance on Saturday if you're free.”
“This Saturday?” Jim confirms, and Oswald nods.
“We're performing a raid,” Oswald explains, “Ed didn't pack very thoroughly before running all the way to my house last night. Nerves.” He reaches back behind the seat to tap Ed's one to get his attention. “It was more important you got out of there,” he says it like a mantra, like it's something Ed has needed to hear thousands of times already. Ed mouths the phrase back to Oswald, nodding along as he goes. When he's done he reaches out for his hand and Oswald lets him cling. He continues to explain the plan to Jim without pulling away. “I know I can be quite the terror but Ed and I think having a bit of muscle on our side would be beneficial.”
Jim is silent until he parks, and the other two squirm uncomfortably while they wait for him to break the silence. He looks at the two of them, apology already on his face before he even says a word. “I can't this Saturday. I have a college visit.”
“Oh,” Oswald’s interest peaks and he lets Ed go so he can lean over the middle console, “off to Gotham University's prestigious campus? You know, you should really do that too,” he tells Ed. “Maybe you can go together.”
“You said we should get my things sooner rather than later,” Ed says.
“That is true,” Oswald mutters to himself. To Jim he says, “I'm worried they'll throw everything out, you see, and-”
“I'm not going to Gotham U,” Jim blurts out.
Oswald takes a few moments to go from confusion to worry to something in between. Ed clutches at his seat belt, ignoring the way the Rubik's Cube digs into his chest with its pointy ends. Oswald is the first to comment. “You didn't get in? Were you wait listed?”
“You know, wait listing is fairly common,” Ed offers up immediately.
“I didn't get in because I didn't apply,” Jim says abruptly, dashing what little hope had remained between the two. “They didn't want me for swimming or track, so I only applied to other schools in state that did.”
“Oh,” Oswald sighs. He can't seem to find anything to say, and Jim parks his car and gets out, leaving the two to scramble after him. “Jim!” Oswald grabs a strap for his backpack to get him to wait. “Why didn't you say something?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know, I was kind of worried no one would want me for anything. I didn't like to think about it.” He shakes his head and changes the subject. “But Oswald, are you really planning on just following Ed to Gotham U? Do they even have a program you're interested in?”
“I'm not going to college, Jim,” Oswald snaps. Jim grimaces and starts to apologize, but Oswald cuts him off. “You'd know that if you talked with us about college.”
“I didn't mean to keep you guys in the dark,” Jim says. He looks at Ed especially, who's trying to stay very small behind someone's beat up Jeep. “I only found out like, two days ago that I even got in anywhere, and State offered me a scholarship.” Jim huffs. “And it's only two hours away. I'll drive in on weekends when I can.” He reaches over for Ed, then thinks better of it and keeps his distance. Ed doesn't seem to notice either way, and keeps his focus on his Rubik's Cube. “You guys never thought about getting out of Gotham, even if it was only for a little while?”
“I needed the full ride,” Ed whispers.
“No one was trying to bulldoze my house until now,” Oswald adds, “so, no, I guess not.”
“I'm sorry, okay?” Jim says. “It's not like you asked once Ed got his sure thing.” He forces himself to take a step back and breathe, and Oswald finally lets his hand drop from Jim's bag. “I'm not mad. I don't bring it up because I didn't want to. I just feel like I hardly see you guys anymore. I can't remember the last time Ed stayed at my place overnight instead of yours.” Ed and Oswald share a knowing, guilty look; Jim only shrugs. “You guys have been kind of inseparable lately. I get it. I've been at practice late most days, and a lot of people in highschool kind of suck.” he tries to smile, and Ed and Oswald try to return it; no one is very successful. “You guys are my best friends. Two hours won't change that. And,” he glances over at the building when the bell rings, but opts to continue, “and college isn't like high school. People aren't going to mess with you, Ed,” he says this softer, and gets just a bit closer. Ed blushes, but he finally looks up from solving his cube. “You'll probably make more friends when you're not surrounded by a bunch of assholes.” He looks up at the trickle of students entering the building; no one is paying attention to their conversation. “It'll be good for all of us to branch out a little.”
“What are you saying, Jim?” Oswald sighs tiredly.
“I don't know, I,” Jim sighs, “you guys should get to class. I'll see you at lunch.”
“Maybe he's dating someone,” Oswald hazards. He's standing in the office during lunch, snagging the carrot sticks off Ed's tray and messing with the pen attached to a chain at the counter. “We would make a rather good pair of third and fourth wheels.”
“Cars need four wheels,” Ed says. He's pouting over a stack of forms and eating the fruit Oswald is avoiding. “He would have said something if he was.”
“I'm not so sure anymore,” Oswald says sadly. “He's not wrong, you know. You have been avoiding staying with him. I know you don't want him finding out, Ed, but,” he stops when Ed looks up at him with absolute panic. “I'm not saying you should tell him. I do think we need to make an effort to work with his schedule before he runs off to college.”
Ed makes one last attempt to be enthused by his lunch, but after one last forkful of pear he sets his fork aside and shoves the tray towards Oswald. “You can have this,” he mutters. Just as Oswald begins making a genuine effort to eat Ed's good he asks, “Aren't we avoiding him now?”
Oswald sets the fork back down and nods reluctantly. “A little. I just think we need to let things settle a bit today.” Ed turns his attention to clerical work with what might possibly be the saddest expression anyone has ever had when sorting, especially Ed, and Oswald groans. “Don't do that, you're making me depressed.” Ed glances up at Oswald from above his glasses, still a sad, lost little thing. “Do you want to go find him?”
Ed nods. “I don't actually have to be back here today.”
“Then let's go. Someone is going to think somebody died if you keep making that face.”
They enter the lunch room together, but after three steps towards their usual table Oswald puts up a hand and stops Ed from continuing. It's not empty, but Jim isn't their either; the occupants are clearly spillover from one of the nearby tables, which has been repurposed for some sort of card game. Oswald gestures to the back door and Ed follows close behind.
The town is in the middle of a cold front, otherwise the back stairs would be filled with people trying to squeeze just a few more minutes of sun into their day. Today it's just Jim, who's hunkered down against one of the retaining walls while he fusses with his phone. He doesn't bother looking up until Oswald sits a couple feet to his left, and they both watch as Ed claims the too-tight space between Jim and Oswald for himself. Oswald raises one eyebrow, directing his silent question to Ed; he shrugs briefly and leans on Jim until he relents and wraps an arm around Ed's shoulders to pull him closer.
“If you want to postpone the raid thing a few days I could probably come,” Jim offers.
“I really am worried they'll shred his birth certificate, or change the locks.” Oswald leans against Jim's arm around Ed and fiddles with the zipper for Ed's coat pocket. “It's alright, I have a contingency plan. You're not the only muscle I know in this school.”
“I hope you don't mean Butch.” Jim winces, and his arm tightens around Ed.
“ That goon? No. No, I have a better option in mind.”
Oswald attempts to put his feet up on the dash, but Zsasz swats his legs down before he can even get comfortable. “My dad's rule,” he says with an easy shrug. “Can't lend you a car I’m banned from using myself.”
Oswald scoffs. “You’re not really lending it to us if you're the one driving.”
“I really like driving this car,” Zsasz says brightly. He's alert and enthusiastic, a stark contrast to Oswald's grim seriousness and Ed's vague nausea. He follows the GPS on his phone off the main road and onto the one with Ed's house. “Huh, don't think I've been down here before.”
“I highly doubt it,” Oswald agrees. “Ed, do you think your parents will be home?”
Ed blinks out of his silent panicked state and focuses on Oswald. “I, I don't know, maybe? Is that bad?”
Oswald tries, and fails, to make his tone light. “We'll figure it out, don't worry.”
Zsasz side-eyes Oswald, “there something you're not telling me?”
He starts to reply, eyes full of ire, but Oswald closes his mouth before anything can slip out and turns to Ed. He waits for the okay, a simple head nod, and then he mulls over just the right thing to say. “Ed's parents are detestable.”
“Ed that is the nicest thing I could possibly about them. I am sorry, but I'm not going to paint them as, as some,” he starts sputtering but continues to try and be articulate, “as anything but the horrible, monstrous-”
“My dad's car,” Ed interrupts. “It's, just look ,” he actually shoves Oswald's face in the direction of the driveway, indicating the open garage with no vehicle inside. “He's not home.”
“Oh,” Oswald’s mood improves considerably. “Well that is fortunate. Zsasz, park on the street. Make sure it's slightly awkward to get around your car to get into the driveway.”
“He won't like tha-”
“Which is why I told Victor to do this, Ed.” He sneers out at the lawn as Zsasz does as he's instructed; the back bumper of his car is only blocking six inches of the narrow drive, but it's enough to make getting in slightly inconvenient if Ed's dad takes too wide a turn. “I'm petty,” Oswald admits with zero remorse.
The three of them get out of Zsasz's dad's giant SUV and start heading for the front door. Ed and Oswald are in front with Zsasz trailing after them, and in the small span of time it takes for Zsasz to catch up Ed whispers to Oswald, “he'll throw a fit if he can't get into the garage.”
“I think you mean he'll announce his arrival,” Oswald says. He straightens out Ed's hair with his fingers and smiles up at him. “You remember what we practiced?”
“If she's home I'll talk to my mother,” Ed says, “and you'll both go to my room.”
“And we'll be right back out to you if you need us,” Oswald assures him. He gestures to the door and Ed pulls out his house key; his hands are shaking so hard it takes him a few times to get it lined up, but the key still works. Ed stops two steps into the living room, ramrod straight as he stares down his mother, matching her glare with a panicked, deer-in-the-headlights expression.
“It, it's,” Ed gestures weakly to the back hall and Oswald snags Zsasz by the shirt to pull him along, but it doesn't stop his curious stare as he watches the standoff from over his shoulder. Ed gulps audibly, and when her glare doesn't change he squares his shoulders and approaches the kitchen table. No bills this time, but she does have the checkbook ledger and bank statements. She takes a drink from her mug of coffee, and then she speaks. “I don't remember being asked about having people over.
“I didn't,” he says, “but we're, we're not staying.” He takes in a breath, chest shuddering through the inhale and catching on the exhale, but it helps keep his voice level when he whispers. “I need some things.”
“You need some things,” she snaps back. “Were you planning to replace those things, or were you just stealing?”
Ed looks to the back hall, a silent plea for someone else to be here with him, but no one appears. “I need clothes,” he whimpers, chokes, then tries again, “I need my clothes. All of them.” She doesn't comment, and her lack of a reaction is enough to help bolster Ed's confidence. “I need some documents, um, these ones,” he hands over a short list written on the corner of a newspaper in a neat, looping script. “If you have them, at least. Because,” he sighs, “because after we leave I'm not coming back.”
“We’re still claiming you as a dependent. It's the only thing you've been good for.” Ed blinks away the welling moisture in his eyes; his mother would have to be blind to not notice, but she doesn't change her statement. She shoves the note back at Ed. “These are in a box across from the guest room.”
“The,” he fumbles with the words and the note, “the guest room?”
“I remember some ungrateful bastard telling me he was moving out.” She slams her mug of coffee down and gets up from the table. “Don't expect any help when you can't make it out there on your own.”
Ed tries to say many things. He mouths “I don't” and “I hate you”, but he can't get any words past a pitiful squeak in the back of his throat. Ed pockets the note and turns away from his mother to make his way down the hall. He's not trying to stop the tears from falling, too focused on remaining upright as he stumbles down the hall and to the closet. After a bit of digging past winter coats and boots he finds a small shoebox with his name scrawled on the side in marker, and he takes it without checking the contents.
Oswald is on him the moment he steps into the bedroom. He pockets Ed's glasses and rubs his hands over Ed's arms, soothing him and whispering assurances, and offering little words of comfort. “She is unbelievable . I swear I'll slash your dad's tires when I see his pickup and find a way to frame her.”
“I just want to go,” Ed whines. He stays still long enough for Oswald to put the box on the nightstand, wringing his hands in his shirt, and when the box is in place Ed rests his face against Oswald’s shoulder and snuffles unhappily.
“We're almost done in here.” Oswald makes no effort to help finish the process; he rubs one hand across Ed's shoulders and uses the other to hold the back of Ed's head.
“So uh,” Zsasz interrupts their quiet moment with a shout. It's terribly awkward and far too cheery given atmosphere of the room. “Are we taking the bed too?” Oswald looks over, appalled, and gestures to Ed briefly before rubbing up and down Ed's spine to make up for the second or two of reduced contact. “Is that a no?”
“Can we have a minute?” Oswald hisses. “Make yourself useful. Check that box for his birth certificate. That's what that is, right?” Oswald asks Ed gently, and Ed nods, rubbing his face against Oswald's neck. And the next second Oswald is back to snapping at Zsasz. “And check for other documents of Ed's for that matter. And thank you.”
Zsasz can't seem to stop glancing at the two of them, but he does as he's told and begins leafing through the shoebox. His search is broken up by wide eyed, nosy stares, but Oswald is more focused on calming Ed down than dealing with his friend's burning curiosity.
“So uh, reading the room,” Zsasz interrupts again, clearly not doing as he said, “probably want to get going soon, so if there’s a suitcase or some trash bags,” he trails off, blinking innocently at Ed and Oswald’s weary stares.
“There are some boxes in the closet,” Ed rasps. He clears his throat a few times, although it doesn't stop his voice from cracking when he tries to speak again. “There aren’t that many, but-”
“I’m sure they’ll work fine,” Oswald interjects softly before Ed can get worked up again. “Let's get everything packed up.”
There isn't a terrible amount of stuff to pack. It only takes one box to hold the rest of Ed's clothes. Oswald fills a second, smaller box with keepsake items, mostly toys and books that were given to Ed by either Oswald or Jim that he kept carefully hidden on the top shelf of his closet, but there's also a single photo of the three of them taken at the beginning of Freshman year. Ed's hair is wild and big and composes about half of his tiny teenage body, and Oswald hadn't hit a growth spurt yet, still standing at least a head shorter than Ed despite being older. Only Jim hasn't changed much from four years ago, although he's filled out significantly after joining a few sports teams.
“I'm glad you finally let Jim cut your hair,” Oswald says as he carefully tucks the photo into a picture book before adding it to the box. “It suits you.”
Ed doesn't respond; he's standing at the foot of his bed and staring down at the thick comforter. He presses a hand onto the smooth surface, frowning down at the dark green fabric, and then he rips it off the bed and balls it up before shoving it into the third box. As he straightens a series of irritated honks interrupts the relative calm in the house.
The arrival of Ed’s father freezes him in place, so Oswald takes it upon himself to finish gathering Ed’s bedding for him and stuffing it into the largest box. “Victor, the arrival of a certain someone is our signal to go.”
“Yeah alright,” he sounds calm and casual, but his usual cheery grin is something more stern, and a bit sinister. He lifts up the smallest box and puts it in Ed’s hands, and then he and Oswald grab the remaining two. He directs an offer to Ed, “you know, I did some krav maga, learned some sick moves-”
“We’re not here to sink to his level,” Oswald hisses.
“Just saying,” he shrugs. “No offence Oswald but you’re like, four feet tall, and he’s,” he indicates towards Ed with his head, “probably a hundred pounds.”
“I’m closer to a hundred thirty,” Ed corrects him.
“Whatever, not the point.” He uses his foot to open the door fully. “Just, you know, offering reassurances. I know Jim’s usually your muscle guy.”
“Jim is our friend ,” Oswald grumbles. “His muscles or lack thereof isn’t a factor.” Ed bumps his arm against Oswald’s and the two exchange a silent discussion, mostly Ed pleading while Oswald attempts to shrug him off, while Zsasz watches with mild interest. Eventually Oswald huffs, finally caving, but despite an exaggerated eye roll he sounds sincere. “Your help is appreciated.” Ed elbows him again. “And your strength or money or access to vehicles is not a factor of our friendship now can we get going!” he whisper-shrieks at Ed. “Honestly, we can wax poetic once we’re in the car .” Oswald slips past Zsasz and exits the bedroom, grumbling all the way, “Victor is nearly an adult he can tell when people are using him.”
“I’m actually already eighteen,” Zsasz adds cheerily, and then he nearly bowls over Oswald when he stops dead in the living room. The three of them gape at Ed’s parents, both clearly in the middle of a somewhat violent argument but trying to make their body language suggest otherwise. It’s clear Ed gets his gangliness from his father, who is mildly more filled out but still a slip of a man, but there’s a certain stiffness to his shoulders and neck Ed doesn’t have. Oswald gestures to the door with a sharp jerk of his head and Ed follows him, leaving Zsasz staring openly; it’s not a stare of confusion, and the knowing, judgemental look he gives them keeps them frozen in place as he backs his way to the door. Ed and Oswald are whispering about keys on the threshold when he gets to them, and after a bit of struggling with his keyring Ed manages to detach his house key and drop it just inside the threshold before picking up his box again and shutting the door with a loud bang.
Ed is equal parts sleepy and weary as he sits on the floor of Oswald’s living room with his back resting against the couch. He’s nursing a mug of hot cocoa, and bundled up in a thick blanket, but he doesn’t look calm or content until Oswald sits down beside him and sets a bowl of stove popped popcorn on the floor in front of them. If he didn’t have the mug he’d already be clinging, but Oswald does it for him by wrapping an arm around his shoulders and settling in to watch the fireplace crackle and pop as the wood burns down to coals.
“Today could have gone much worse.” Oswald rubs his hand up and down Ed’s arm. “I do hope we got everything.”
“We did,” Ed says, though with little confidence. He hides behind his mug when Oswald tries to get his attention. “Things are replaceable.”
“I suppose so.” Oswald is reluctant to agree but quick to let Ed have his way and write off any worries for another time. “Are you worried about them reporting you missing?”
“I’m not missing, I’m just not there.” He takes a drink of his cocoa and sighs contently. “It’s more effort than they’re willing to go to.”
“It would raise questions why their 4.0 getting, full ride awarded son would show up to class but not be willing to go home.”
The silence they settle into is comfortable. The fire is the only light on in the small room, the longer it burns the dimmer it becomes. Neither of them gets any closer to genuine sleep, but at least for right now there’s nowhere to be and nothing to do but sit in the quiet and savor it while it lasts.
At a very late hour the snick of a key unlocking the front door interrupts the silence and Jim steps into the room. Oswald and Ed watch him toe off his nice loafers and hang up a tie on the coat rack. He starts unbuttoning his shirt and Ed looks away, although he can’t seem to stop sneaking glances at him until it’s clear that Jim is wearing a white undershirt under his blue dress shirt. Jim hangs it over the tie and sits to Ed’s left, holding one arm up until Ed drags both himself and Oswald over into a loose pile.
“You got all dressed up for us,” Oswald teases.
“My mom made me dress nice for the visit. I literally just got back into town,” Jim groans. “My mom kept insisting we find grocery stores and restaurants and pretty soon it was after dark and she still wanted to get something to eat there.” He stretches his arm enough to fluff up Oswald’s hair. “So that was my day. How’d it go here?”
“Stop.” Oswald makes a very weak effort to move out of Jim’s reach, but it’s enough to get him to give up and move on to Ed, who’s a much easier (and more willing) target. “Considering just how badly it could have gone I’d say it went rather well.”
“I left my house key behind,” Ed says. Jim’s hand pauses in his hair. “On purpose. I’m not going back.”
“Good, that’s great.” Jim resumes petting Ed’s hair. “Sorry I couldn’t be there.”
“There’s always move-in,” Oswald hints.
“Yeah,” Jim sucks in a breath, “I uh, learned something new during the visit. There's this camp I'm supposed to go to over part of the summer for track.”
“I see.” Oswald’s eyelids flutter and he tries to cover up his disappointment with a fake cheeky smile. “They're already planning on working you to the bone.”
“When,” Ed drones, sounding more asleep than upset. His eyes aren't even open.
“Third week of July up until the school year starts. They want me to be on the school's training schedule before the season really starts.”
“We’ll come to visit,” Oswald says quickly. “It’s what, three hours? And if you have a dorm for the summer we can sleep on the floor.”
“Don’t blow all your savings on gas money. School isn’t even over,” Jim adds. “And we still have half the summer. Once I’m there we can set aside time to like, Skype, or at least call.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Oswald threatens. “You’re not getting away that easily Gordon.”
Oswald has a look of absolute murder as he inches their SUV forward in the line. Ed handles his glossy, brand new student ID, fretting over the way his hair is standing up a bit in the photo and the presence of his middle name in bold black letters for the world to see. He slips it into his wallet beside his high school ID and his public library card and takes out his welcome sheet. “It’s the building right there,” he points, still holding up the paper. Oswald glares at him and inches forward another foot. “Sorry.”
“It’s not you ,” Oswald sighs. “It’s everyone. Once I’ve managed to park we’ll be fine.”
“I still don’t understand how you got Zsasz to let you drive.”
“I asked very nicely,” Oswald says. Ed doesn’t seem convinced. “Alright, he made me drive with him in the car at first, but it paid off because he’s already moved in and partying or something.”
“It’s because he’s swimming for the school.”
“It’s because he’s rich , too. I heard he’s in those fancy dorms with separate bathrooms and people that carry your things inside for you.” He takes a moment to pat Ed’s arm reassuringly. “I’m sure we’ll be able to move you in without too much difficulty as long as I find a spot.”
It all works out eventually. Oswald manages to out-aggress a mother in a mini-van for a spot close to the building, and the triumphant sneer he flashes at the rest of the lot doesn’t go away even when he opens the back of the SUV and stares down at the futon wedged into the back.
“I still don’t know where you managed to get a futon.”
“Garage sale,” Ed explains. “Victor drove.” Oswald raises one brow, and Ed elaborates. “Fries. He convinced his parents he needed assistance with scholarship essays, but he just wanted to get out of the house for a few hours. And I got paid, so,” Ed shrugs. “It was a decent afternoon.”
“I really don’t understand your friendship with him sometimes.”
“I don’t either,” Ed admits. “We should start carrying things up.”
They make quick work of Ed’s meager belongings. The space isn’t gigantic, but it’s a corner dorm with two windows that includes a desk, a piece of furniture best described as a closet and bureau stapled together, and lofted bed. Everything of Ed’s fits into the space to the right of the door, aside from the futon, which they strong-arm into the room so it’s butting up against the ladder to the loft.
While Ed takes a few minutes to meet his RA and get a bathroom key Oswald begins unpacking. The closet portion of the strange furniture piece holds all of Ed’s shirts on hangers, and the drawers hold his other clothing with room to spare. He fights with the futon until he manages to get it to lay flat like a bed so he can put on the sheets and other bedding, and after a bit of hesitation he places Ed’s mangled little owl on top of the pillow.
Ed steps in as Oswald places a very cheap thrift store lamp on the desk and clicks on the light. He takes in the emptied boxes and the made bed, and his owl, and he sniffs wetly. Oswald nearly hits his head on the top of the loft as he startles, and he rushes over to shut Ed’s dorm room door to keep prying eyes out.
“Who knew I was such a homemaker,” Oswald jokes. He grabs one of Ed’s hands and pulls him over to the bed and makes him sit. “I guess it didn’t feel real before, right?”
Ed nods. He’s hardly breathing aside from little staccato breaths meant to keep his emotions at bay. Oswald gently tips him so he’s lying diagonal across his futon, then he crawls up beside him and wraps him up in a tight hug.
“This is yours now,” Oswald says. “I mean of course it’s really the school’s but your name is on this space.”
“When I’m eighteen I can file taxes independently.”
“And it’ll be your parents taking the brunt of the fallout for still claiming you as a dependent,” Oswald says with a smile, and like he’s said this many times before. “And on your end it will be completely legal.”
“You’ve done so much for me,” Ed sighs.
“You’re my friend.” Oswald pulls off Ed’s glasses and sets them to the side. “And I’m going to be squatting here for a few days because I refuse to try to drive in the remaining move-in traffic. This time you’re stuck hosting me.”
“I’m afraid I can’t offer the same amenities, although the cafeterias on campus should be open.” He closes his eyes when Oswald starts playing with his hair. “We’ll make due.”
“We always do,” Oswald sighs. He wipes away some of the salt trails made by the few tears Ed did shed, smirking when Ed chuffs out a laugh and his eyes flutter open. He keeps trailing his finger over the lines of Ed’s face, travelling up across his nose and over one cheekbone.
And then he pulls Ed as close as possible, sucking in a deep breath as Ed’s arms crush him against his chest.
And then he moves, more of a shift to the side than pulling away, and he kisses him. It’s hardly anything, just a quick, sharp peck against Ed’s slightly parted lips. Ed licks them, and he gulps, but when Oswald moves in again, slower this time, he moves forward to meet him.
Expect more of these three in this AU in a second installment, title TBD