Actions

Work Header

Nothing

Chapter Text

The more you can see of the ocean the more beautiful it becomes. For example, just a cup of the ocean wouldn't be very aesthetically pleasing, murky, polluted and ultimately just like a conventional glass of water. Just catching glimpse of the ocean from between houses is nice enough, but incomparable to the overwhelming wave of emotions that wash over you at the beach. And then, a photograph of the entire Earth taken from space, swarming, teeming with ocean. Mostly ocean. 70% ocean. There's so much ocean and all of it’s beautiful.

Rodney had never really cared about the ocean. It was always there, at the end of the road, by the market, sometimes he could hear it at night, but that was just he way things had always been. He'd never felt inclined to explore, go to the beach, see the ocean in all its glory. Adventures weren't his thing.

But Kate loved the ocean. She couldn't believe that in just a five minute walk she could be at the beach, a place she couldn't even take a car journey to from her previous home without having to leave the state. She gushed about the soothing sound of the waves and the warm sand and she even liked when there was a storm and the sea spilled out on to the promenade. There was something about how Kate loved the ocean that made Rodney love it too.

It was dark now, of course, and Rodney was perched on the promenade railing, watching Kate in the glowing lights of the city. She was trying to get as close to the sea as possible without actually touching it. She was good at that, he thought, but from a distance he couldn't tell. Apparently adventures were Kate's thing. Well, normal life was Kate's thing, but that seemed like an adventure to Rodney.

He needed to go soon. Need to leave for work. But Kate was so far away, across the beach, the only way he could tell her that would be to yell. Rodney barely spoke above a whisper. Didn't speak at all, if he could help it. And certainly didn't shout in a public place, where people would turn to look at him, judging him, eyes running over his body, minds whirring as they did what only came naturally to human beings-

“Hey, you need to get to work.” Kate smiled at him. Her face looked fuzzy in the dim light.

“Mm.” Rodney pretended to look surprised, like he hadn't been keeping check of the time.

Hood pulled up and shoulder against the wall, Rodney followed Kate to the cinema. He knew the city better than her, knew where he was going better, but Kate knew how to walk so that it looked like she knew where she was going, which is why he followed her. She turned around when she talked to him, making sure he, and not the street, received her words.

“There are so many good films on, you have to sneak in at the back and watch some of them,” Kate laughed.

Rodney didn't reply.

“Haven't you ever done that? When you were a kid? Snuck in to a cinema?” Kate usually didn't talk much, but when the person she was trying to have a conversation with was as incommunicable as a brick wall she had to make up for it. “I did sometimes, only when I was like eight.

“You should watch Tangled, you have such a cute singing voice!” She grinned at Rodney's mortified face. “It's ok, I wont tell anyone you can sing. Don't have anyone to tell. I just wanted you to know you're talented, is all.”

“No,” Rodney said softly, but the word was lost in the space between them.

Kate walked boldly down the street, crossing street lamps and walking through the light of shop windows, while Rodney slunk through the shadows. The darkness wasn't comforting, just concealing, but that was a comfort in itself. He wished no one ever had to look at him, and he never had to look at himself, and then maybe things would be a little better. He hated what he did and what it did to him and how everyone else reacted afterwards. It would be better if he could just disappear.

“Rodney.” A hand on his arm. Kate was pulling him backwards. “You work here.”

“Oh.” He looked up at the cinema, its dim lights almost blinding now.

“I'll see you later, yeah?” She squeezed his arm gently, as means of a hug. No one was ever allowed to touch that much of his body at once, not even Kate.

“Mm.”

Her fingers lingered on his jacket, like she was loath to leave him there, but in the end she smiled and walked away. Rodney watched her go, nervously glancing between Kate and the floor. Behind the glass work mates taunted him, laughing and making rude gestures. He hunched his shoulders and pushed open the door.

~

As much as Rodney felt inferior walking the streets beside Kate he felt a whole lot worse without her. Every person who happened to catch his eye was immediately labelled a threat; it wasn't uncommon to take a beating on the way home. Neon lights of fast food services made his heart hammer as he tried to avert his gaze to the floor. He felt sick.

He always felt sick, like that was the constant and inescapable state of his body. Sometimes it was a mental kind of sickness, during which his head felt foggy and his thoughts tended to centre around death and the crippling anxiety that human contact brought. Other times he felt physically sick, an inebriating feeling brought on by eating anything. Or nothing. Or sometimes just thinking about food.

Rodney pulled his headphones up around his ears, a barrier from the rest of the world, and tried to become invisible. He wasn't the kind of guy who was good in a fight; adrenaline never seem to kick in and he found himself scatter-brained and panicky. By the time he'd collected his thoughts it was too late to hit back, he was usually semi-conscious on the floor. The problem was that he looked like the kind of guy who was good in a fight, and people saw that as a challenge.

Turning left, Rodney quickened his pace as he approached their apartment. Their apartment. It was as much Kate's as it was his now, possibly even more so, and he liked it that way. Kate's blankets on the sofa. Kate's food in the fridge. Kate's plants on the window sill. His things were still there, of course, but rather than old headphones and hoodies and wires sprawling out over the apartment and asserting dominance they were all tided away in their appropriate places. He had let Kate keep his bedroom, but she certainly deserved it.

It wasn't unusual for the stairs to the apartment complex to be crowded with rebellious youth at best, or gangs and drug circles at worst. There was no lift, of course there wasn't a lift, so Rodney picked his way carefully up the stairs. The concrete was hard and relentless, the stench of urine imbedded in the walls. Fear gripped his heart as he rounded the corner, his breaths quick and sharp. Or maybe he was just unfit. Or maybe it was some combination of the two; he knew that whatever was lurking around the corner could certainly overpower him.

He hurried to the door and unlocked it, slamming it behind him.

“Hallway anxiety?” Kate asked.

“Y-yeah,” Rodney stuttered, immediately wishing he hadn't spoken at all.

“Don't worry, we’re safe.” Kate was sat on the kitchen table, reading a book. Rodney liked perching on top of things that weren't meant to be sat on; it made him feel inconspicuous. But he couldn't bring himself to sit beside Kate today, so sat on a chair.

“I made chicken salad,” Kate told him, “and we can have sandwiches if you like.”

“I want a toaster waffle.” Rodney put his hand flat on the table. Focused on the rough grains beneath his fingers. Focused on remembering to breath. Trying to feel like a real person. He felt sick.

“You can have one tomorrow.” Kate was touching his arm, he could see her touching his arm, but he couldn't feel a thing. His senses were all so numb, but he could feel each of his organs moving and convulsing inside him. It made him nauseous.

“I-I feel sick.” Rodney stood up and move to his sofa bed. He could feel Kate's eye burning in to his back, full of fear and worry. Now, as usual, she'd think she'd done something wrong when really she hadn't. He was just sick. A freak. Unable to express to anyone how he actually felt.

“Goodnight,” Kate said eventually. She sounded so unsure, afraid to leave him. She probably worried he'd do something stupid. He probably would.

Kate understood him like no one else ever had, but she still didn't get in completely. She was hurt and afraid and sensitive, but on the inside. Everyone else saw her as beautiful and confident. Which she was, of course she was, but there was more to her than that.

Rodney looked as much a shipwreck as he felt. He was scruffy, pale, overweight. His interactions were stunted; he couldn't get through one sentence without stuttering or tripping over his words. People looked at him and assumed he was crazy, and they were right.

He wanted to help Kate.

He wanted to help himself.

He felt useless.

~

Overwhelming anxiety.

That's all Rodney felt when he woke up, all-consuming, mind-blurring, rib-crushing anxiety. He felt like a cartoon, shivering with fear, only it was an illusion of a shiver, a shiver of the brain. That sounded like something worth panicking about.

Cocooned in blankets, Rodney didn't want to unfurl and step in to the cold, but a voice at the back of his head urged him. Get up.

He flipped his pillow. It was cool and calming against his face. Get up!

He snuggled in to the blankets. They smelled of Kate's perfume and for a moment it was grounding but- GET UP!

He did.

Outside was awash with the dark blue of dawn, but sunrise was still some time away. He watched the empty street, delaying the inevitable, but there was only so much you could do in a studio apartment. He walked a couple of laps and got bored. He opened the fridge. It was cool and bright, numbing his face and startling his eyes. Almost enough to make him close it again. Almost.

There was no potentially binge-worthy food in the fridge, Kate made sure of that for the both of their sakes, but he knew he'd be anxious and panicky until he ate something. In the freezer, buried amongst frozen green beans and chicken and bread, was his sacred toaster waffles, but he couldn't have those. First of all, he wanted something right now, however, more importantly, Kate also deserved some toaster waffles and if he started to eat them he'd eat them all.

He took out a cucumber, sat under the table, and started to eat it. It wasn't a huge comfort, but he'd always found cucumbers to taste calming, cool on his tongue. Ever so often he'd try to haul himself back to reality, but that only brought in to sharp focus how much of a disappointment he was, so he quickly disassociated again.

A click. Door opening. Rodney's eyes widened and his heart hammer, like he was waking up from a nightmare. In his hands was clasped a stub of cucumber and the pulpy substance filled his mouth. He swallowed it, but he didn't want to. It sat like a rock in his stomach.

Kate, pale and half asleep and pyjama clad, crawled under the table beside him. "Hey." Her voice was ghostly quite. "You ok?" She put a hand in his thigh and he was grateful to find he could feel it there, warm but unsteady.

"I'm sorry I ate your cucumber," was all Rodney could say. It looked disgusting now, the chewed up stump he'd dropped on to his lap. He felt disgusting.

"Don't worry. I'm sorry you felt you had to." Kate sighed and let her hair fall in front of her face. "I feel so mean. I want to help both of us, but I just feel horrible and unhelpful."

Rodney thought he should comfort her, physically, but he didn't know how. "I don't, I don't umm, I don't think you're those things. I'm really glad you're here."

"I'm glad I'm here too. Thank you." Kate thanked him at least five times each day. It was unnecessary, they were close friends by now and desperately in need of each other, but it made Rodney feel appreciated and that was kind of nice. There was no thanks in cleaning cinemas.

Neither of them moved. Kate looked exhausted, refusing to go back to bed. She was a good friend and, unlike Rodney, a useful one. She knew all he needed right now was some company.

Rodney had never minded being alone. From a young age he'd learned to keep his own company, and from an even younger one he'd learnt his own company was better than his parents'. He liked one player video games and not having to share his chips and he much preferred silence to overwhelming noise. Alone was a peaceful time to recharge and explore his interests.

What Rodney despised was being lonely.

Lonely was terrifying. Anxiety inducing. Lonely was having no choice but to be alone all the time. It was dying, and having every single inch of the world carrying on as if you hadn't.

Having Kate around meant that Rodney didn't get to spend much time alone, but also that he never had to be lonely. It was a perfect compromise.

"I'm going to a self defence class tonight." Kate looked right at him as she spoke. Most people didn't bother, he tried to avoid eye contact, but Kate always looked at him and smiled. "I didn't want to tell you, in case you panicked about it all week, but I'd kind of like you to come. I know you don't need any help defending others, you're pretty good at that, but I think we could both learn to stand our ground in a fight."

How could he say no? How could he say no when she'd stay up all night while he was feeling sick? When she arranged her shifts at work so she could be home with him as much as possible? When she played video games she hated, ate food she could hardly stomach, and tolerated near constant darkness every time his depression felt the need for it? How could he say no, when the best he'd done for her so far was hold her hair back while she threw up and panicked?

"Y-yeah, yeah, of course I'll come," he said.

Kate's eye lit up. "Great!"

She took his hand then and just held it in the stillness, the two of them nestled under the table. Rodney thought that maybe they wouldn't both fit under the table if Kate wasn't to small, or maybe even more people could fit under the table if he wasn't a human beanbag. Then he realised he was wondering how many people could fit under their kitchen table, at three am, while a girl he loved like a most treasured family member looked eager to talk about self defence. He pushed away the slightly weird intrusive thoughts he tended to have, about space and shape, and focused on Kate.

"Some umm, uh, what kind of umm, what uh, what type of self defence is, is it?" He managed to force out eventually. This wasn't a strong subject of his.

Kate didn't seem to mind; she blossomed with his interest. "I think it comes from Shotokan karate..."

 

Chapter Text

If the walls were to close in they'd all be dead in seconds. The room was small, the floor thick with foamy mats, the walls crowded with posters. In summer it would become crowded with muggy heat, stifling, maybe they'd asphyxiate. Maybe the walls would close in and Rodney would die first because he needed more space than everyone else and his spine would crack and his ribs would implode in to his lungs and everyone else would just watch and prepare for their own demise-

"Hey." A blue sparring glove was poking him. A blue sparring glove on the hand of someone with the most voluptuous hair he'd ever seen. Their cloudy grey eyes were focused right on his chest. He shifted nervously. "You're not allowed your shoes in the dojo, you can leave them in there." They pointed to an open door behind him. "They'll be safe."

Rodney clasped his headphones around his neck and shook his head. Kate had just ducked in to the changing rooms for a 'moment' and left Rodney alone, with strangers, for what seemed like an eternity. He refused to take off his shoes or his headphones or even enter the dojo until she came back. Plus, it looked awfully small. He didn't know how everyone was going to fit in there.

"Not got much to say? I feel ya," they continued. "You do need to take your shoes off though."

Rodney shook his head again. They squinted at him.

"I'm not talking to a poster again, am I? That would be embarrassing. Well, I'm Addi and if you ever feel like talking to me then that's cool, but I'm gonna let you do your thing." They wriggled a glove off one hand then touched Rodney's forearm softly. He recoiled. "Sorry, sorry! Just making sure you're not a poster. You're good and solid. See ya later, Rookie." Rodney retreated further again the wall, trying to figure out if he liked the nickname or not.

As he waited for Kate Rodney watched Addi fighting a large man. They weren't particularly strong, but they were so quick each punch left the man reeling. His own punches were sloppy and swung from too far back, giving Addi plenty of time to evade them. Rodney actually thought it quite entertaining, and found himself tensing his muscles and sighing with relief along with the fight.

"They're good, huh?"

Rodney flinched, but it was only Kate stood at his shoulder. She smiled softly. "I think you have to leave your shoes here." He slipped his sneakers off as Kate wandered on to the mats. He wanted to stop her. Tell her how dangerous it could potentially be if these very specific things happened. He didn't. He was being crazy. He told himself that.

"Alrighty folks!"

Rodney startled as a booming voice rang out behind him.

"Let's get warmed up please, everybody on the mats!" Sensei clapped a hand on Rodney's shoulder and he practically moulded himself to the wall, drawing away as quickly as possible. "Hey, sorry new guy, not very touchy feely, ok." The Sensei, a surprisingly slight man with a shaved head, slipped past Rodney and bowed, then entered the dojo. He turned back to yell to Rodney, "Hey jewfro, headphones and jacket off please."

Rodney glanced down at his jacket. It was grey. He liked grey. It was a nice colour. Like a suit of armour. He hated his T-shirt. It made him look fat. Everyone would laugh at him, or worse, silently judge him. He wouldn't be allowed to take the class. Who lets a fat guy take a sports class? They'd talk about him once he left and Kate would try to stop them then they'd laugh at her too and Rodney would feel awful about it and shit shit shit he couldn't breath at all!

"Rodney it's ok, it's fine. You can keep the jacket, he can keep the jacket right?" Kate was desperately trying to sooth him, arms outstretched like she wanted to comfort him but was holding back. Addi was staring slightly ominously over his shoulder in a way that made him feel like he was being watched from behind.

"Yeah, yeah, of course. Keep the jacket," Sensei said. "And the headphones if you want. It's not an issue, you should've just told me, it wouldn't have been an issue." He didn't really know what he was talking about.

Rodney struggled for breath like an asthmatic in a marathon.

"Is there some medication you should be taking for that or... Should we take you to a hospital?" Sensei inquired.

He was fully intent on replying. The sentence was played on repeat in his head, just to make sure it was correct. 'I'm fine, thank you'. Then he opened his mouth and no words came out.

"He'll be ok," Kate jumped in. "We just need to not pay attention to him for a while." There was only five of them in the room, that tiny room the size of Rodney's living room, it would be difficult for people to miss such a big thing in such a small space. He was sandwiched between Kate and Addi as Sensei performed basic warm up exercises. Rodney gave everything only a half-hearted attempt, fearing what would happen if he tried his best and still failed.

"Y'alright, Rookie?" Addi asked, after what they obviously assumed was enough time ignoring him. They'd heard Kate say his name earlier, but was still using a nickname. Maybe they were just that kind of person? Maybe they hadn't heard Kate? Maybe they were trying to be friendly? Rodney didn't have to wonder all these things, he could've just asked, but he refused.

He shook his head in response to Addi's question. Rather than this promoting further questions Addi just got on with the warmup. Rodney wondered if he'd offended them, or inadvertently been rude, and they now hated him. He didn't want that, enough people hated him already, and he kind of wanted to touch Addi's hair. He wouldn't, he didn't let anyone touch his hair, but he wanted to.

"Alright!" Sensei clasped his hands together. The warm up ceased. "Pair up, I'll grab some pads." Rodney instinctively stepped towards Kate. "Hey jewfro, you look like you could bench press three hundred pounds, you'll knock her flat. Work with Paul." He pointed to the man Addi had been fighting earlier. Rodney cowered. Paul was toned, muscular, and all round intimidating. He leered at Rodney.

"Hey Addi, where's Yuki?" Sensei called from the cupboard.

Addi glanced round, as if they somehow could've managed to miss Yuki in this tiny space. "I don't know. I couldn't even tell you if she was right here. I'll make her come next week."

"Work with the new girl. Kate? We'll go with Kate."

Two large rectangular pads were hurled out from the depths of the cupboard. Paul caught his but Addi allowed theirs to hit their chest and fall to the floor before they bent to retrieve it.

"Alright, nothing fancy, just gonna show you new guys how to punch. You think you know but you don't, your technique will never be perfect, now-" Sensei was talking in a rapid, rumbling voice that Rodney struggled to keep up with. He tried to remember to focus, but focused so much on focusing that he lost focus. "You go that?" No.

Rodney looked over at Kate and tried to copy what she was going. Facing forward. Arms tucked close to her chest. Fists balled.

"Umm, sorry, but you're doing everything wrong," Paul whispered. His voice was surprisingly gentle and his face surprisingly kind. Rodney wondered if earlier was all for show. "You need your feet at least shoulders width apart. Bend your front leg more than your back, oh, and put your right leg back if you're going to punch with your right hand- yeah." It was much easier to follow Paul's instructions, but Rodney felt like a child in a classroom, having the easy work explained to him while everyone else giggled silently.

"Ok, now tuck your elbows in and put your thumb on the outside of your fist, you don't want to break it." Rodney felt that his thumb was much safer inside all his other fingers, but he listened to Paul and settled both his hands in to uncomfortable, lightly furled fists.

"Alright!" Sensei was yelling again. "Now I want you to jab, chest height, nothing special. You should be hitting primarily with your front two knuckles." The idea of hitting with his knuckles terrified Rodney. Surely they'd break? But then he looked down at his fist and realised he couldn't really see his knuckles, so he'd probably be ok.

"That's with your left hand," Paul prompted.

Kate was already battering the pad, throwing punches Addi didn't even seem to feel. He sighed. Allowed his shoulders to roll back. Lifted his head. And struck the pad right in Paul's solar plexus. He crumpled immediately.

"Oh, jeez. That was some fuckin'... Jeez. That was good," he wheezed.

Although he hadn't done anything wrong Rodney felt bad. He pulled his hands closer to his chest and hunched his shoulders again. The thought that he'd have to hurt people in order to learn how to stop people hurting him hadn't even crossed his mind; he abhorred the idea.

"Ok, we're gonna do one more punch so we can out these two together. Cross." Sensei started to wander around the room, watching them. Rodney tried to keep his focus on the floor.

"That means your right hand," Paul said.

Rodney's right hand seemed incredibly far away from the pad compared to his left. Maybe that meant it would have less of an impact. He found that comforting.

Raising his eye line to the pad, Rodney once again squared his shoulders and thrust his first forward to hit the pad. His knuckles sunk in the padding painfully deep and he quickly withdrew his hand, but not before he sent Paul sprawling halfway across the room.

"Ah!" Rodney pulled his hand against his chest, as if by doing so he was protecting everyone else. "I-I-I-I I'm, I'm sorry!"

"Hey! You can talk!" Paul addressed the ceiling, chest heaving as he lay prone.

"I'm, I'm sorry," Rodney said again. "I, I didn't mean to, I didn't umm..."

"It's not your fault." Sensei reached to pat Rodney on the shoulder, but remembered their previous interaction. "Paul just sucks." He helped Paul up and shoved him towards the back of the dojo. "Hold the pad for Kate. I swear to god if you let her knock you over... Addi, come here." He grabbed Addi's shoulders and positioned them in front of Rodney. "Stay on this mat and let jewfro jab cross on your pad."

As soon as Sensei stepped away Addi leaned in and whispered, "What did you do?"

"I just, just, just umm hit it, really hard, hard I guess," he shrugged, perplexed.

"Ok, then what happened?" They asked eagerly. Were they getting some sort of weird superiority complex out of this?

"Paul fell over."

"Really?" They were grinning jubilantly but it didn't quite seem to reach their eyes. "I've been trying to do that for years, you are so cool."

"No." His voice was so soft Addi couldn't possibly have heard.

"Yeah! That was your first try, you're going to be amazing at this." They held the pad against their chest then took up a very awkward looking stance. "Do those punches together, like a sequence."

"Not, umm, not to discredit you or, or anything, but I don't want to hurt you. I'm, I'm sorry." Addi looked sturdy and was clearly experienced, but they couldn't have been much more than five foot and Rodney had just knocked flat someone who looked like a professional basketball player.

"Don't be sorry. I don't mind. That's what this is for, just go for it."

He hesitated still.

"You'll learn to pull your punches eventually, then you won't have to hurt anyone. But you need to learn the technique first. Sorry, I really sound like a teacher, I'll just let you do it in your own time."

Not wanting to keep them waiting, Rodney went for it. Addi squeezed their eyes shut tightly and tensed as he hit the pad. They barely moved. He hit it again and they stepped once to keep their balance, gritting their teeth but refusing to fall over. It was almost a competition to them, they took as much pride in holding the pad as they did hitting it.

After a while they swapped and Rodney found himself cowering behind the pad as Sensei declared, "Any forward strikes on the flat pad, please."

"Don't worry, I won't hit you with anything fancy," Addi said, reaching out and patting the pad a few times. Then they nodded determinedly, spun round, flicked their leg up and the next thing Rodney knew his chest felt like it'd been thumped with a sledge hammer.

"What, what was that?" He panted.

"A spinning side kick. Completely useless, but really fun. I can teach you, if you like," they offered.

"Addi, this is a self defence class," Sensei boomed. "No useless karate moves. Don't teach jewfro that useless kick."

"D'you wanna learn the useless kick?" Addi asked excitedly.

Something about their face-splitting grin made Rodney say, "yes."

"I want to learn the useless kick," Kate pitched in.

"I don't," Paul huffed. He was outnumbered.

They put their kicking leg to the front and were instructed to 'put their guard up' which was apparently when you imitated a boxer. Then you stepped once, spun round, and kicked while side. Rodney couldn't do it, but that was ok; no one else could do it either. They spun round and fell over and laughed and watched as Addi performed the move flawlessly again and again. Sensei smirked from the corner.

Rodney waited for someone to laugh at him each time he did it wrong, but all he got was fingers guns and, "you're a real go-getter," from Paul, and a delighted grin from Kate.

Exasperated, Sensei eventually rounded them all up and made them stand on their own. As they stepped back in line Addi raised their hand to Rodney, who flinched before realising they only wanted a high-five. He obliged.

For the rest of the lesson they worked alone on grappling techniques, which was strange, because really you needed two people to grapple. They had to writhe about on the floor like shrimps and walk like crabs and practically hurl themselves backwards on to their shoulders. Apparently it was for his and Kate's benefit, to prepare them for next lesson, and Rodney thought if it was his fault everyone had to go through this then he was sorry.

"Class over, get off my mats," Sensei said tiredly.

They trekked off to the changing rooms. Rodney was slightly surprised when Addi joined them in the men's changing room, but then thought 'well, why shouldn't they?' and minded his own business. Mostly. He couldn't help but watch as Paul changed his shirt, arm muscles rippling as he revealed rock solid abs. He saw that Addi didn't seem at all interested in Paul, instead perching on a pile of mats and making a mess of tying their shoelaces. He stopped being creepy and looked away.

"Hey, Sensei." Addi hopped off the mats and grabbed hold of the door frame, leaning out in to the hallway. "Where's my stick?"

A stick? Were they going to fight with it? Rodney was a master at wielding a wooden staff in video games, he'd have loved to see it done in real life.

"Here, I've got it." But what Sensei passed Addi wasn't a wooden staff. Or even a stick. It was a white cane, with joins where it folded up and a ball on the end.

"Oh," Rodney breathed out. "Oooh, you're, you're, I'm so sorry."

"Blind?" Addi grinned. "Yeah. But what are you sorry for?"

"Before, before, before when you were talking to me and, and I was just shaking my head and stuff and you, you couldn't see any of that, could you? Oh god. Oh, oh god. I'm a terrible person!" He covered his face with his hands and wished he would disappear.

"No, no, I'm sorry," Addi said hurriedly. "That's entirely my fault. I should probably lead with that, huh? Hi, I'm Addi, and I can't see anything. Verbal communication only please!" They stuck their hand out for him to shake and started to giggle.

"That's not funny," Rodney said, shaking their hand, although he was starting to smile too.

"I know, I know." Addi calmed themselves down, then burst out laughing. "To hell with it! I'm blind, I can laugh if I want to!"

"No," Rodney laughed, "because now I'm laughing and, and I'm not blind, so this is, isn't ok!" He leaned against the wall beside Addi and bit his tongue, trying not to laugh because he hadn't noticed someone was blind. Oh god, he hadn't noticed someone was blind! He started laughing again.

"So, so," Addi took a breath, "Do you really have a jewfro?"

"I, I dunno," Rodney shrugged. "I guess. But I'm not really Jewish."

"What? Oh god, I'm gonna start laughing again." Addi pursed their lips and clutched their cane tight against their chest.

"Well, umm, I've got kind of fluffy hair. And my parents they, they were Jews but, but they were horrible people. It would be wrong to say they were Jewish." He pulled his hoodie further down his back, making sure no skin was showing. Why had he told them that?

"Oh, sorry, I, I didn't mean to..." Addi trailed off.

Rodney sighed. He ruined everything. He could never get a sentence right, whether it was because he stuttered his way through it or because it could silence any room. Addi wouldn't want to talk to him anymore. What was usually a consolation sent a fog of disappointment to encompass his brain. He wanted Addi to talk to him.

"Ok." Rodney looked up. Addi was talking again, not with the same huge grin as before, but an awkward we-can-move-past-this smile. Rodney could take that. "So, what do you look like? If you don't mind me asking. Sorry, that's a weird question, I'm sure you don't meet many people who can't see you."

Rodney's brain seized up and his mouth clamped shut before he said something else he'd regret. What did he look like? The hot air balloon Ben Abruzzo had used to cross the Atlantic. A pile of ugly clothes no one wanted anymore. A real life inflatable fat suit. A freak. A disappointment. Disgusting.

"I'll tell you what he looks like," Paul piped up. Rodney's breathing began to speed up. At least if he answered he could lie. He could tell Addi he was just average looking. He could say whatever he wanted. But now he was at the mercy of man he'd done nothing but shame. "This kid's like a chubby boxing champion who's never seen sunlight. With a jewfro."

Chubby. He was not chubby. That implied that he was soft and cute, when really he was fat and disgusting. And in a boxing match he wouldn't last a second. He'd end up sprawled on the floor, blood pouring from his body until it filled the ring, spilled over the sides, covered the audience. There must be so much blood in his body, enough to floor the room, enough to-

"You sound really cute."

Oh. Rodney's brain stopped. He could feel the wall on his shoulder. Addi was smiling. Paul poked him gently on the cheek, but it was a soft, friendly gesture.

"Eh, kinda cute. He's got some freckles if you lean in real close."

"Paul, I'm five inches from him and I can't even see what he's wearing. He's just a shadowy blur in front of me. I don't think I'd be able to see his freckles with a microscope." It was calming to think that Addi would never see him. To them everyone was a fuzzy shadow, so Rodney was just like everyone else.

"See you later Addi." As he passed Paul reached out to cuff them over the head, but they ducked and smacked him in the back of their knee with their sick. "Aw!"

"See you later Paul!" Addi called cheerfully.

They both wander out in to the hallway after him, where Kate was waiting. She gave them a knowing smile, something that told Rodney she'd hear their entire conversation, then after shouting goodbyes and thank yous to Sensei they left.

Outside was pitch black and starless, but even here in the city Rodney could hear the sea. Addi turned their head towards the sound, the breeze ruffling their short hair. They could never catch him staring, but Rodney turned away anyway.

"Are you alright getting home without your friend?" Kate asked. "Sorry, that sounded offensive-"

"No, no, it's fine. Thank you. My bus stop is just at the end of this street, and there's only one more bus due before the station closes. I'll be alright."

Rodney wanted to talk to Addi more, but he was afraid of ruining the good conversation they'd already had. The longer he left it the more daunting the idea became, and in the end he simply watched the blank sky as Kate and Addi made casual conversation like normal people did. Maybe they weren't what would constitute as 'normal people' to the rest of the population, but to Rodney all you needed to be a normal was to be real. He wasn't real. He was a handful of mental health issues stacked up inside an oversized sweater, pretending to be a person.

Addi said goodbye at the end of the street and Rodney smiled and waved, then realised they couldn't see him and murmured a soft, "Goodbye."

"See you on Thursday then?" Addi asked him. They were staring so intently in to his eyes that for a second he entertained the idea that they couldn't possibly be blind and they were lying.

He looked to Kate. It was Tuesday, and she hadn't said anything about attending classes twice a week. She shrugged, leaving the decision up to him. "Umm, I think so, yeah, I guess."

"Cool. See you then."

As they walked away Rodney decided the right thing to do would be for them to wait at the bus stop with Addi, and not leave them alone, but the further away they got the more awkward it would seem to go back. Just as they turned he saw the bus heading down the street and told himself that's why he hadn't gone back, their bus was here anyway, but in actuality he knew he was just too anxious.

"Did you have a good time?" They didn't live far from the small studio which housed the dojo and would be home in a couple of blocks.

"I, I guess. It was ok," Rodney said. "What about you?"

"It was alright, but one class is kind of useless. I'll see after a few." She smirked. "But I certainly didn't have as a good a time as you because I didn't fall in love with my partner!"

"Yeah umm, no! No!" He shook his head rapidly. "No I didn't, no!"

"So you don't like Addi?"

"Addi's really cool. I, I think they're great, umm, I think they're great. And I, I liked talking to them. They're friendly. But I'm, I'm, I'm not in love with them!" Rodney felt sweaty and nervous. Did that mean he was in love with them? He'd known them for a few hours, that was dumb. A crush? He'd had plenty of those before, but he'd never actually spoken to anyone he'd had a crush on. Was that what this weird feeling was? He'd assumed it was leftover adrenaline from the class. Did he like them? Would he be thinking about it this much if he didn't? It's not like he'd ever do anything about it.

"I'm just kidding," Kate chuckled. "I'm sorry. It just seemed like you liked them a bit. And if you want help being romantic then I'm literally the worst person to ask, but I'll help you anyway."

"Thanks Kate." Then he quickly added, "But, but I'm not in love with them!"

They entered the apartment block and went upstairs. "We're having toaster waffles," Rodney reminded Kate eagerly.

"I know."

"And chicken."

"What? With the toaster waffles? No!" She laughed, wrinkling her nose.

"It's, it's totally a thing!" He climbed on to the kitchen counter and crossed his kegs beneath him, then pulled out his phone. "I'll prove it!"

It was a thing, somewhere. Rodney was so proud Kate reluctantly made chicken to go with the toaster waffles. It tasted good.

Kate went to bed to read. Rodney played a martial arts game and imagined Addi doing all the stunts he pulled with his character. They could probably do most of them. He wondered if he'd have the courage to ask, the next time he saw Addi.

Silence, except for the sea. It was gentle and soothing tonight, Rodney was indifferent to its monotonous churning. He went to sleep. He was alone, but not lonely.

 

Chapter Text

The whole place felt liminal. Rodney supposed it was. It was where fantasy met reality, imagination was rented to the unimaginative, you could lose yourself in a life that had never even been lived. It was cold and dark and warm and bright.

Rodney hated the cinema.

He constantly missed out on the action, only silently slipping in when the story was drawing to a close to clear up other’s mess. Kate told him the job was beneath him, he was fiercely intelligent and easily worthy of a white collar job, but the only problem was that he'd flunked all his exams. He was physically unable to do the work, without medication and a proper support system. With a 2, no funds, and barely any motivation Rodney never would've made it through college.

Although Rodney had an interest in the film making business it had never been somewhere he'd pictured himself working. The only reason he's taken the job to begin with was because it was close to his apartment; it offered the least exposure to the outside world possible. It was suppose to be temporary, a way of making money until he pulled his life together, but now it was eight years on and he was still stuck in the same thankless position.

The end credits were blaring as Rodney slowly, methodically swept popcorn from the floor. It was pitch black under the seats, he was sweeping up more darkness than popcorn, but he'd lost his light. Well, he hadn't lost his light. Someone had conveniently lost it for him.

Rodney's spine felt like a coil when he finally straightened, no one ever had the decency to leave things on their arm rests, but he didn't have time to stop. Of course, the hallways would be covered in litter too, and the foyer. There was something about the cinema that made people want to drop things on the floor.

Jon was waiting in the foyer, his phone tucked beneath the counter as he pretended to man the popcorn machine. Rodney smiled in his general direction, but got no response. That wasn't unusual.

Sighing, Rodney tucked his trolley into a cupboard then tucked himself in beside it, shutting himself off from the outside world. Technically he was free to wander around the foyer or the break room when he wasn't required to clean a screen, but he knew he wouldn't be accepted there socially. Jon had been there the longest, even longer than Rodney, and was a well respected employee. If he hated Rodney then so did everyone else.

He hunkered down in the cupboard for a while, as was his custom, with the pipes pressed against his back and the door handle centimetre from his nose. It was cosy in theory but uncomfortable in practise, as the pipe burned the scars on his back and he barely had the room to turn around. Usually small spaces gave Rodney extreme anxiety, he could panic in an open field if his brain instructed him to do so, but this space was so small he actually found it calming. It was the smallest space in the building and he fit in it. He liked that.

After a comforting half hour spent in the cupboard Rodney heard people beginning to emerge from their screening. He slung a ‘caution - wet floor’ sign over each shoulder, just in case, then took a bucket in one hand and a litter picker in the other. He struggled to the pull the trolley out after himself, trying not to attract too much attention but failing drastically due to the thinness of the corridor. He hurriedly pushed it into the foyer to get out of people’s way. The trolley did nothing to obscure him from view.

“Ay! Look!” Jon pointed at Rodney as he yelled, attracting the attention of a handful of people. Rodney forgot how to breath. “Iron man’s let himself go!”

No one laughed, barely anyone was paying Jon any attention, but Rodney would rather have dropped dead than spent another second in that room. He stepped back and felt himself bump in to the counter. He was trapped.

“And look at his tacky inform.” Jon leaned over the counter, tapping Rodney wet floor sign. He was too close now. Far too close. Rodney felt encircled, enclosed, powerless.

“P-p-please stop,” he mumbled, voice shaky. He just wanted to get away. Why couldn't he leave him alone?

“Hey man, don't get all defensive, I'm just joshing with ya,” Jon replied, raising his hands as if in self defence. “‘Cause you've loaded yourself up like a robot, and you're all chubby and stuff.” He reached his hands down, looped his thumbs through his belt.

Rodney raised a fist and cracked him right across the jaw.

He'd tensed his arm and pulled his fist back at the last moment, so it more of a shock than anything else, but Jon still clutched the counter, cradling his face like he was about to lose a tooth. He didn't seem to be running, so Rodney ran for him. Through the crowd, into the cinema, into the darkness. Darkness. Comforting.

Something was amiss. Rodney's chest was light and tingly, he couldn't think of anything but that moment, the moment of contact. He'd never hit anyone before. He'd never planned to hit anyone who hadn't hit him first. But he'd been exposed and vulnerable, last night’s adrenaline still coursing through his veins. Obviously Jon had simply been reaching to pull up his pants, but the movement had instantly engaged Rodney’s panic response.

Belt equals beating.

There were too many scars on his back and he hadn't attempted to intercept a single one of them. Some fear-driven part of his brain wasn't about to let that happen again. Or maybe his whole brain was driven by fear.

For the rest of the day Rodney easily avoided Jon. His work was dark and solitary, his free time spent solely in the cupboard. The only evidence he was there at all were the pristine screens. When he left nobody said goodbye.

Outside it was oppressive for autumn. The sky weighed down on Rodney's shoulders and he found himself dawdling, basking in the open space. He wanted to run and run and run and never stop, but that was ludicrous. That was suicide.

Kate was already home when he got in, leaning against the back of the sofa and eating ice cream.

“Shit!” She put it down as soon as she saw Rodney, but he was numb and unresponsive. He plopped down beside her, picked up the ice cream, and started to eat it himself.

“It's, it's ok,” he said. “I get it. Shi-shitty day?”

“The shittiest,” Kate sighed. “Nothing even happened, I just feel like crap. Fuck. Fuck!” She threw her head back against the sofa, trying to break through invisible restraints. “I really should recommend you don't eat that, but I'd feel like a huge hypocrite. How was your day.”

“I, uh, I punched a guy.” Rodney could've eaten endless amounts of ice cream. The cold spread slowly outwards from his stomach until he felt tranquil and motionless. Frozen. His brain was still and silent, the way he wished it could always be.

“Please tell me it was that huge jackass who works in the foyer.” Kate's eyes lit up.

“Yeah, yeah,” Rodney shrugged. Kate had been wanting to punch him for a long time.

“What happened?” She rested her head on his shoulder. Rodney smiled a little despite himself.

“I, I, I don't know. He was just, just antagonising me as usual and, and nothing was different it was fine but then he reached for his belt and, and, and, and, yeah.” He couldn't think of any way to describe it. In a split second he'd relived a childhood of agony and fear and had done anything to keep those feelings at bay.

“Was he going to use it, or…” Kate smoothed down the back of his hoodie, making sure it kept his back covered. There was nothing he could do about the cigarette burns on his arm, only clutch them close to his chest and hope no one noticed.

“No, no. It was, was totally innocent. I just got scared.” He wanted to use the spoon like a shovel and eat ice cream so quickly his brain slowed to a stop, but that wasn't an option. “They, they thought they were doing the right thing, y’know.”

“Huh?”

“My, my parents. They'd scream and hit me and beat me until I was bleeding and drag me sobbing into school and lock me in my room and then they'd complain about how I was an awful child, just because I never wanted to speak to them.” He didn't need to stutter or pause for though. He'd played this sentence a million times over in his head. Every day waiting until he could finally say it aloud. “I wished they'd just drop dead so I could be raised by someone else. I still do.”

“I'm sorry.” She really was. “My parents sent me to work for a pimp. That's quite bad.”

“That i-is quite bad,” Rodney said. They both laughed, hollow and fearful.

After a while Kate stood up and Rodney startled, jumping up to stop her doing anything drastic. She was only sitting down on the sofa. Rodney put the ice cream back in the freezer, feeling cool and collected rather than stressed and sick. He sat down beside Kate. Curled up, Kate barely took up as much space as his pillow.

Rodney tried to compress himself in to a tiny ball, but it was impossible. Soft things were suppose to be easily malleable. Instead he wrapped a blanket around himself, obscuring his form.

“Y’know…” Kate looked over at him, then back down at the sofa-bed. “All the best things are soft. Like pillows, and beds, and chocolate cake.” She laughed to herself. “And your hair.”

“Not, not people though. People are suppose to be, like, mu-muscle and bone and stuff.” Rodney pressed his fingers in to his wrist. Soft. Free of any muscle. An almost indistinguishable bone.

“I don't know. I think you're a pretty good person.” Kate shuffled over until she was pressed right against his side, but it was ok, there was a blanket between them.

“Then how come, how come umm, how come you hate yourself so much?” It sounded mean as he said it, but there was no other way to put it. Kate hated herself. “I mean, umm, I mean, I mean you obviously don't want to be fat.”

Kate sighed. Her fingers sunk in to the blanket. She looked so cold. “That's just different. It's me. Like, you think you're crazy, but you'd never say that to me. You think you're disgusting, but you don't think there's anything wrong with anyone else being fat. I guess it's like that.”

“But there's nothing wrong with anyone else, I'm just insane,” Rodney stressed. He was proving her point exactly, but what other choice did he have when her point was the truth?

“Well, you wouldn't call Addi fat, would you?” Kate asked.

“No, no, no of course not. They're just, just kinda chubby. I think it's mostly muscle. I think they're very cute.” Kate grinned and nudged his shoulder gently. “D-d-d-don't look at me like that, Kate!”

She laughed and squeezed Rodney's arm. “I think you're very cute, Rodney.” She turned the TV on. “Time to watch some trash TV until we feel better about ourselves.”

“No!” Rodney reached across her and she quickly held the remote aloft. “Animal documentary!”

“No! We watched that crap about birds last week, I'm not going through that again!”

“They were very pretty birds, g-g-give me the remote!” If he'd moved over just a centimetre he would've been able to reach it, but what fun was that?

They settled on a show where celebrities showed off their rare, pampered, disgustingly disfigured pedigree pets. It was like a cheap horror film; disgusting and only mildly entertaining.

They turned the volume up until they couldn't hear the sea.

Chapter Text

His parents had thought it was kind to hit him; thought it was a lesson in discipline that would save him the embarrassment later in life. To begin with, at least. Rodney figured they'd grown to love it. As he got older they became more creative; using a belt, a metal rod, a plank of wood. Fighting back was useless, since he was smaller than them and weaker than them and unfairly outnumbered two to one, so he'd learnt to just accept it. Now he barely flinched at a punch.

Addi was leant against the back wall of the dojo when Rodney arrived. They smiled and waved him over, so Rodney removed his shoes and his headphones and sat down beside them. "Hey."

"You came!" They beamed. "I'm glad, thought we might've scared you off last time."

"Nah," Rodney chuckled. "I'm scared of, of a lot of things, but I still do them."

"That's a good mentality." Addi stood up and walked towards the centre of the mats. "Wanna wrestle?"

Rodney pictured the wrestling he'd seen in TV. Mostly naked people writhing around, hands grasping hair, hips, arms, anything they could get a hold of, warm bodies pressing together, enclosed in a tiny ring, screaming, tears, pain-

"No, uh, no thanks. No thanks," he said firmly. The thought of Addi touching him like that, their hands free to roam his body, disgusted him. Well, it was more the thought of how disgusted Addi would be that made him feel sick. It was something he didn't need to deal with today.

"That's alright," Addi reassured him. "Arm wrestle?" They dropped onto their stomach and rested an elbow on the mats, their brows knitted into a serious expression.

Rodney looked down at his hands. They were small, chubby, and sort of resembled several tiny marshmallows stacked on top of each other, but ultimately not his worst feature. "Sure," he shrugged, lying down opposite Addi and holding his hand out.

"Uh, it would be kind of helpful if you could grab my hand..."

"Oh, y-yeah, sorry." Rodney blushed and grabbed Addi's hand so quickly he didn't even think about the fact that they were touching him.

"Don't go easy on me, rookie," Addi grinned. "I may look like a little girl, but... I'm literally not even a girl. You wanna count down?"

"You, you can do it." He didn't want to take on that kind of responsibility.

"Ok. Three, two, one." Addi began to push against his hand and, in his shock, Rodney only managed to tense his arm centimetres from the mat.

"Hey! You didn't say go!" He protested. Addi was, unsurprisingly, strong.

"This isn't a child's game, rookie, this is war." Addi focused her cloudy eyes directly on Rodney's face. "War."

"Whatever," Rodney smiled, pushing harder until he'd tipped the game in his favour. "I'm still winning."

"No!" Addi tensed every muscle in their arm and pursed their lips in effort, trying to push Rodney's hand back over, but he wouldn't budge. Rodney found there were few occasions when having a lot of weight to throw behind him was useful, but arm wrestling was definitely one of those few occasions. With minimal effort he tapped Addi's hand against the mat.

"Uh, I, I win, I guess," he shrugged.

Addi laughed, leaning in slightly closer to Rodney. He could feel their hair tickling his cheeks. "You should be prouder, I'm an admirable adversary."

They sat up and waved suddenly as Paul entered the dojo. "Paul! Come and wrestle Rodney!" They called excitedly.

"No."

"Please! He just beat me and I want to see if he can beat you." Addi jumped up and insisted that Paul could have their spot on the floor. Now the only person lying down, Rodney suddenly felt very stupid. He wished he was just a wrinkled in the carpet that could simply be stomped on and disappear.

"He can beat me," Paul said, "Just look at his arms. Of course I'd lose."

Paul was trying to be nice, probably even complimenting Rodney, but all he felt was insecure. He pulled at his sleeves, trying to make his arms look less chubby. He was grateful that sensei had taken pity on him and allowed him to keep his sweater on.

"Please," Addi begged. Rodney didn't know why this meant so much to them. Maybe because they'd been beaten and wanted Rodney to feel the same humiliation. Maybe they genuinely believed that he'd win and just really hated Paul.

"Fine, fine," Paul grumbled, lying down in front of Rodney.

"Don't worry," Addi stage whispered, "He's just salty that he doesn't get to be the token white guy anymore."

"Addi, I'm black," Paul said tiredly.

"Oh God, I'm sorry," they apologised quickly. "I didn't know. You could've told me, y'know, before now! I'm sorry."

"Because I do love introducing myself like 'Hi, I'm Paul, and just in case you have a vision impairment, I'm black.' I don't mind."

"Sorry," Addi said again. "I see your point." Then they burst out laughing.

Paul shook his head, but he was smirking. "By the way, Addi, you're black too, in case you didn't know."

"I'm Afro-Filipino, actually, and I know that," Addi said proudly.

Paul rolled his eyes and held his hand out for Rodney to take. "Let's just get this over with."

"O-o-o-ok." Rodney clasped Paul's hand. His heart was hammering. Rodney had never thought of himself as a competitive person, but for some reason he found he wanted to win. Maybe he didn't want to let Addi down. Or maybe he wanted to prove them wrong. He definitely wanted to impress them.

"Count us down, Addi. I'm not going easy on you, by the way."

"Three-"

"T-t-t-that's fine."

"Two. One."

Apparently everyone followed Addi's 'go on one' rule because Paul immediately put immense pressure on Rodney's hand. This time, however, he was prepared and pushed back. He'd never used his arm muscles so much in his life.

"Oh shit, you're so strong," Paul groaned, gritting his teeth. "Not going to embarrass me again, are you?"

"Umm, uh, maybe?" Rodney stuttered. It was usually him who was embarrassed and he knew the sinking feeling killed him, he didn't want to hurt Paul. But on the other hand he didn't want to die of embarrassment either.

"No sweat. We'll have a fair game, yeah?" Paul smiled through gritted teeth.

Rodney huffed, closed his eyes, then with immense effort slammed Paul's hand against the mat. "I, I, I think I, I won," he panted.

"Hell yeah, you did!" Addi threw themselves down on their knees beside Rodney, reaching out to hug him, then stopped abruptly. Instead they offered their hand for a high five. Rodney obliged awkwardly. "Now you should arm wrestle sensei and beat him and take over the club!"

"No one's taking over the club, Addi," Sensei rumbled. "Get up off the floor, you two, we're not children."

Rodney and Paul quickly scrambled to their feet, Rodney's cheeks flushing bright red.

"Where's Yuki?" Sensei asked Addi.

"In the changing rooms, unless she made a break for it," Addi replied.

Sensei turned to Rodney. "And where's your friend, jewfro? I want to say Kate. Was it Kate?"

"Um, ye-yeah, it's still Kate," Rodney said.

"Oh, being sarky today, are we?" Rodney started to shake his head. "It's ok, I like sarky." He disappeared down the corridor to shout something into the girls' changing room, then emerged with a very sheepish Kate and, presumably, Yuki.

She was tall, elegant, thin, with immaculately straight hair. While Kate shuffled slightly awkwardly down the corridor Yuki floated with grace and pride. Rodney never thought he'd meet someone who made Kate look awkward. She sidled up to Rodney, ignoring a glaring sensei, and began to whisper low and fast in his ear.

"You must be Rodney, I've heard literally everything about you from Addi and everything they didn't tell me from Kate and they both said you're really cute but obviously Addi can't see you so I'm going to assume they mean you're a nice guy, you seem like a nice guy, you have a pretty enough face, in my opinion, but I'm gay so I don't really know, but if you were a girl I'd be so gay for your eyes, they're gorgeous, your roommate's really pretty by he way, really really really pretty, I was scared she was your girlfriend but Addi says not and Kate says not too and I don't know if she likes me but-"

"Yuki!" Sensei grabbed her by the shoulder and hauled her to the front of the dojo. Rodney's heart was beating a thousand miles a minute, in time with Yuki's speech. "Leave jewfro alone, you're scaring him. Stand here next to Paul."

"Sensei, no," Paul groaned.

"Yes." Sensei shoved Yuki next to Paul, who she immediately started whispering to. He shoved her into the wall, then took a step away. She didn't take the hint, keeping her distance and talking loudly at Paul.

"Hey," Rodney whispered to Kate as the began to warm up. "Made a friend?"

"She's pretty cool," Kate replied. "Kind of intimidating. I like her clothes." Rodney took another look at Yuki, who was wearing sweats and white T-shirt. "No." Kate turned his attention back to her. "Not what she's wearing now! She asked me out for coffee, I think she's hitting on me..."

"Do you like he-her?" Rodney asked.

"I'm not sure, I've never really, umm, yeah. Never really..." She trailed off and shrugged at the floor.

"Liked anyone before?" Rodney offered.

Kate smiled gratefully. "Yeah, that. I don't know. Should I just go and see what it's like? Y'know, a date?"

Rodney shrugged. He didn't have much to say, having never been on a date himself. "I suppose. Tell me what it's like."

"Of course. Or-" She lowered her voice even more, forcing Rodney to lean in slightly, "You could ask Addi out and see what it's like for yourself."

"No!" Rodney exclaimed. Everyone turned to look at him and he felt his heart speed up a million paces. "Umm, umm." His head was swimming. He shuffled back a little.

"Hey. Eyes to the front everyone," Sensei yelled, sensing Rodney's discomfort. He instantly relaxed his shoulders.

"See," Rodney whispered to Kate. "That's, that's, that's exactly why I can't ask anyone out. Ever. Attention is crippling."

Kate smiled sadly. "If someone kind of, maybe asked me out then you'll definitely find someone. You're amazing, Rodney. Everything'll work out ok."

It wouldn't. People had been telling Rodney that his whole life. Things will work out with your parents, they love you really. Your mental health will sort itself out. Grades aren't that important, you'll get a great job anyway. It's only baby fat, you'll lose it when you're older. Nothing had worked out. Rodney hadn't spoken to his parents in years, his mental health had only marginally improved since moving in with Kate, his job was soul-sapping, and he hadn't lost any weight since his parents locked him in his room for a week when he was sixteen. Nothing had ever worked out, and Rodney was convinced nothing ever would.

After the warm up Sensei sent Kate to work with Yuki, pairing Rodney with Addi again. Each pair was given a floppy, plastic knife then shown a very basic defence; simply batting the attack hand away. Addi seemed bored, they'd done this a million times apparently, but Rodney was grateful at the lack of physical contact.

"Have you, have you umm, have you ever needed to, to do this?" Rodney asked, trying to keep his guard up and counter Addi's attack at the same time. "Y'know, in real life."

"Defend from a knife attack?" Addi chucked the fake knife to Rodney; he allowed it to drop to the floor. "No. I've used some of the other stuff though, the more basics. You've got to be pretty shitty to attack a blind person, but a lot of people are pretty shitty." They paused to show Rodney how to jab with the knife. "What about you? Not this, obviously, but ever been knifed?"

"Yeah," Rodney said seriously. The blade was held too loosely in his hand, flying from his grip when Addi hit his wrist. He picked it up again and held it tighter, but now his hand was shaking.

"Oh, I'm sorry." Addi had softened her defence. "You want to talk about it or... It's ok if you don't, don't worry, I'm sorry, I-"

"It's fine," Rodney exhaled. He stopped swinging the knife at Addi, so they stepped closer to hear his story. "When I was, I was twelve I asked my, my, my dad for a biscuit and he was ch-chopping salad and he said no and I cried 'cause I was hungry so he yelled at me and I didn't stop crying then he turned around and stabbed me."

"What?" Addi gasped. Their face was a mask of pure horror but Rodney looked indifferent. The knife had barely glanced his side; his dad had done worse things. "You should've called child services or something, Rodney, that's horrible! He should be in prison, he should... He should... That's awful!"

"It's not a big deal," Rodney shrugged. "I would've been disappointed to have a kid like me too."

"Rodney..."

"Mastered this, have we?" Sensei clamped a hand on Addi's shoulder. "Let me show you something else." He motioned for Addi to stab at him then grabbed their elbow and pulled them into his chest, twisting their arm around and pressing their wrist backwards until they dropped the knife. "We do that, jewfro?"

"N-n-n-no." Rodney shook his head frantically.

"Want to see it again?" Sensei offered.

"No, no, n-no, I got it. I just, just, just can't do that," he stuttered. Addi's arm had pressed securely against the hard muscle of Sensei's chest, but Rodney could imagine it sinking into his own soft torso, a look of utter disgust on Addi's face as he struggled with the technique. He couldn't bare it. For some reason they seemed to respect him and he was certain it was because they didn't know what he looked like. "People, people aren't allowed to touch me."

"What, at all?" Sensei looked across the dojo. "What about Kate? Would you do this with her?"

Rodney shook his head to quickly it made him dizzy. "N-n-n-no. No. Esp-especially not Kate." He'd managed to know Kate for a couple of years now without her ever having to touch him; he wasn't about to give that up now.

Sensei grumbled to himself and wandered off into his office. Rodney, assuming that conversation was over, looked fearfully at Addi. They couldn't touch him. He'd die of a panic attack. They'd never talk to him again. He'd be so breathtakingly humiliated that-

"Here." Sensei was holding out a board of red plastic.

"Umm..." Rodney stared.

"It's for you." Sensei turned the plastic sideways and Rodney saw that it was actually a padded suit with a plastic coating. It was shaped like a bullet proof vest and Rodney slipped it onto his shoulders.

"I don't, don't see how this will help," he said as Sensei tightened the straps. Tightened. He'd never worn something he had to make tighter before.

"Well, this covers your chest so as long as you wear it Addi won't actually get to touch you." He patted Rodney's back and he barely felt it.

"O-ok." Addi softly moved the knife through the air, giving Rodney time to clumsily recreate the defence. He wrapped his fingers around their bicep and pressed it against his armour then gently clasped their wrist.

"You need to press it a bit," Addi said. Rodney applied minimal pressure to their wrist. They smiled and dropped the knife anyway. "That ok?"

Rodney patted the front of his suit. It felt strong, hard, the complete opposite of how he normally felt. "Yeah. I like it."

Rodney took the knife to give Addi a turn at the technique and within seconds found his arm in their grasp and pressure on his write. He dropped the knife instantly. Addi stepped back and giggled.

"Wh-wh-what?"

"Nothing." They smiled at the mats. "Your arms feel really good."

"My..." Rodney glanced at his soft arm, stuffed into his sweater sleeve. It looked like an overstuffed sausage. There was no way anyone could possibly find that attractive. Except... Addi was blushing madly, avoiding his gaze. "Thanks," Rodney finally settled on. "Thanks Addi, that's sweet."

~

Rodney sat against the changing room wall, one leg tucked up to his chest as he watched Paul and Addi's friendly bickering. He hadn't heard the origins of the argument but Addi's cheeks looks soft and full as they grinned and their brown crinkled when they frowned. I'm not falling in love with them, Rodney told himself. He wasn't the kind of guy who got to fall in love with people. He was the kind of guy who was made to get his heart broken.

"Hey Rodney?"

"Huh?" Addi was staring in his general direction, warm smile on their lips.

"Who would look better in a suit, me or Paul?" They asked.

"You," Rodney replied instantly. He mouthed 'I'm sorry' to Paul, who was looking at him strangely. He shifted uncomfortably.

"Seriously?" Addi grinned, cheeks a deep red. "You don't have to say that, rookie."

Paul knelt down beside Rodney and whispered, voice softer than the wind, "I know you like them, don't be sorry." He patted Rodney's forearm before heading out.

Rodney's insides squirmed. He couldn't afford to fall in love, especially not with a bubbly, warm, beautiful person. His heart was already a mess. His mental state was one shameful glance, one disgusted look, one rejection away from complete breakdown. To love was practically suicide. But God was Addi beautiful.

"He-ey." Yuki stuck her head around the door. She was now dressed in shiny leggings and a sequinned top. An awestruck Kate was clutched in her hand. "We're going now, I'll catch you at home, Addi."

"Apparently were going now," Kate said. "Sorry Rodney, is that ok?" She was already being pulled along the corridor.

Rodney leant around the door frame and waved to her. "That's fine, ha-have fun," he called after her. He turned to Addi. "Sh-she'll be ok, r-r-right?"

"Oh yeah, she'll be just fine." Addi jumped off their pile of mats and grabbed their cane. "Yuki gets super excited when she likes someone, but she'll calm down over coffee. And she'll walk Kate home, she's a gentlelady."

"That's good to know." Rodney stretched his legs out then got shakily to his feet. He was glad Addi couldn't see him. "I'll walk you to the bus stop, if you like."

"That would be nice."

They said goodbye to Sensei and exited into the cool night air. Addi swung their stick beside them, they knew the path so well. Their walk wasn't ethereal like Yuki's or confident like Kate's but they moved with purpose; with pride. It made Rodney want to lift his chin a little as he walked.

"Oh shit." As they reached the end of the road Addi ran forward a little, staring after the bus that was just pulling away from the stop. "I think that was my bus."

"It's, it's ok," Rodney reassured them. "I'll wait with you for the next one."

"No." Addi sighed. "That was the last one."

"Well then-" Rodney knew he would regret his words the moment they left his mouth. "I'll walk you home."

Addi reassured him that their apartment wasn't too far away and that they knew all the roads to turn down. "Don't know the street names 'cause I've never seen 'em, but I know where the turns are."

The silence was light and friendly but for once Rodney wanted to ask a question. "So, uh, what do you do?"

"Nothing special," Addi shrugged. They were using their cane very carefully now, tracing every bump in the sidewalk. "I take a swim class for disabled kids. The job's better suited to someone who can actually see when their kids are drowning." Rodney's eyes widen and his throat dried up. "No I'm kidding, I'm kidding," Addi said quickly. "I have a lifeguard with me at all times. It's a wonderful job but the pay is an insult. What about you? You're smart, what do you do?"

Rodney was torn between lying to keep his dignity in tact and never seeing Addi again, and telling them and being so embarrassed he also never saw them again. "I work in that little theatre near the beach. Cleaning, cleaning stuff. It's al-alright, I guess. I like the darkness."

Addi grabbed Rodney's arm and turned him down a side street. They didn't let go. "I think you're better than that. But then again, I'm obviously not a huge fan of the cinema."

"Yeah, I suppose," Rodney smiled. He liked the feeling of Addi's warm, strong fingers wrapped around his forearm. The contact was light enough not to send his heart racing but firm enough that he could actually register the touch. He wanted to pull them closer, but when he imagined doing so in his head he was a different person; taller, thinner, more handsome. That person could wrap an arm around Addi and walk them down the street, but Rodney never could be that person.

"So, your parents..." Addi's voice was like a calm sea breeze. "They sound pretty shitty. I'm really sorry."

"No, no it's, it's ok." He shook his head, even though he knew Addi couldn't see him. "I mean, im-imagine having a kid like me. I'd be, be, be social suicide. I'm surprise they didn't, they didn't take me out back and crush my skull as a toddler."

"What?" Addi looked as thought they had just witnessed that very murder. Rodney wondered what murder looked like inside their head, if they were even capable of dreaming up such a dreadful image. Maybe they just thought of the sound; of a child screaming, a parent's heavy breathing, the cold thud of metal and the crunching of bone.

"My dad used to say, to say he thought about doing that. He didn't though." Rodney sounded disappointed. There was always part of him that wished he'd had his skull crushed before he'd had the chance to live through real suffering.

"What did you do that was so horrible then?" Addi asked. "Are you one of those child serial killers or something?"

"No." Rodney paused. He often had trouble remembering things from when he was small, here was every possibility he'd killed someone. "No. I'm just..." He didn't want to say it, but what else could he do? "I'm just f-f-fat."

Addi said nothing for a while, then, "Is that all?"

"No. I-I'm absolutely disgusting. I'm hideous. People look at me and see everything that's wrong with America. I can't eat without making myself sick, only not physically sick because at least that would help me, but mentally sick. I'm insane. I wake up in the middle of the night and eat chocolate cake under the table because I can't make my stupid, addled mind shut up and I don't even like food! I don't even like it! But I don't have anything else." His eyes were damp and sticky but Addi would never notice that. They probably had noticed, however, his hitched breath and shaking hands.

Addi slid their hand down Rodney's arm and took his. "I don't think there's anything wrong with being fat. I mean, I'm pretty chubby, I don't care. But I don't know what I look like, maybe I'm really ugly."

"No!" Rodney interjected.

"I think your parents were stupid to punish you for that. You're smart and kind and and talented and I'd love for my kids to turn out anything like you. Anything. I'd love to offer you some professional help but that costs serious money neither of us have. But I can give you my number and you can call me whenever Kate isn't around." Addi stopped in the middle of the pavement and Rodney thought that was a very inappropriate time to give him their number. "Umm, this is my building."

"Oh."

Addi whipped a small piece of paper from their pocket. "It's a business card but I'm really not in the business of hiring so I just use them 'cause they have my number on them." They passed it to Rodney, who pocketed it carefully. No one had ever given him their number before. The only ones in his phone were work, takeout places, and Kate. "Can I ask you a favour?" Addi whispered.

In that moment Rodney thought he'd do anything for them. "Yeah."

"Please, please can I touch your hair? I'm just curious, that's all." They hopped onto the first step leading up to their building. "You can say no, I don't mind."

Rodney ruffled his hair, trying to flatten it a little. Why couldn't Addi feel it? It was soft, like the rest of him, but it was the one thing that was suppose to be soft. Probably his best feature. Or his only good feature. "Sure," he exhaled.

Taking Addi's wrists gently in his hands Rodney raised them to his head, allowing Addi to run their fingers through his tight curls. The last time someone else had touched his hair it had been his mother, tearing through it with a comb until it fell out in large clumps. Addi fingers were slow and calm, caressing his hair. He didn't want them to stop.

"Can I touch your face? So I know what you look like?"

"Yes."

Rodney barely knew what he was agreeing to. He was overwhelmed by the intimate touch. The panic-enduring horror of human contact, of having someone pay attention to him, was drowned out by the look of pure wonder on Addi's face as they cupped his plump cheeks. They were building a picture of him in their head and from the way their eyes lit up as they traced his soft jaw it in no way resembled the picture Rodney had of himself.

"Your cheeks are amazing. Like the tiny padded pockets in pillows. You must be so beautiful." Addi ran their hands down to his shoulders but waited for Rodney's nod of approval before continuing.

On the street, encapsulated by a half-moon and the stars and a handful of street lights, the setting was anything but intimate, yet Rodney as thought he and Addi were the only people in the world. No one had ever touched him like this before, inappropriately close yet loving and sweet, but no one had ever had to. They could see Rodney and more often than not they didn't like what they saw. Addi was seeing him, seeing him as clearly as they would ever see, for the first time and they were not scared or disgusted. They were fascinated.

"S-so-" Addi ran their hands down his arms, then placed them on his chest. Rodney's heart hammered. "You do this often?"

"Occasionally. When I think someone's going to stay in my life I like to get a mental picture of them. May I?" They slid their hands a millimetre further down Rodney's chest, any further and they would feel the definite curve of his stomach. He wanted to be sick. No, of course they may not. But then... What if they weren't repulsed by him? They liked his chubby cheeks and soft arms, it was unlikely they'd have anything bad to say about his stomach. That was better than what he got from most people.

"Sure," he whispered.

Addi's fingers trailed gingerly over his stomach, down his sides. Their breathing was soft and their eyes wide. "Wow. You feel amazing. You're not disgusting or unattractive or anything. You're incredible. You're so soft and gentle. Everything in the world is so hard and cold and you're just perfect." They threw their arms around him, tucking their head beneath his chin and hugging him tightly. Rodney clung to them. He'd never hugged anyone before in his life and he didn't know if he was doing it right or not but it felt wonderful. Ineffable. For once he felt like he was doing something right.

"Rodney," Addi murmured against his chest, "There is nothing wrong with you. You're brilliant. You're human. You deserve a kind family and medication and a psychiatrist who actually knows what they're doing. I'm afraid I can't help with any of that stuff. But you also deserve friends and love and reassurance and food that doesn't make you feel hollow inside. I can do some of those things." They squeezed him tightly, eyes screwed shut and grinning madly, and Rodney appreciated the fact that his squishiness could make Addi smile. "Well, I'll see you." Addi stood on their tiptoes and kissed Rodney on the cheek then disappeared inside before Rodney could even offer to walk them to their door.

As he set off back towards home he realised he hadn't said anything for a really long time and he probably should've. He wanted to say thank you. He wanted to tell Addi they were beautiful. He wanted to stop them as they kissed him on the cheek and press his lips softly against their own. But he suppose he could text them when he got in. Maybe he couldn't do all of those things via text but he was certain he would come across much better without all the stuttering and repeating half of every sentence.

Rodney navigated the streets in a stupor, his brain wandering to find romance in little things. The glow of the moon. The harmonious tunes of the sea. The hum of a flickering street light. Rodney hadn't wanted to fall in love, but it seemed he'd got no say in the matter.