“Stop,” Aaron says. He sounds so annoyed Neil wonders how he’s still functioning. “That’s not how you—”
“Sorry,” Neil says immediately. He stops midway through trying to suck liquid up the plastic thing he’s holding.
Aaron sighs through his nose and takes the thing away from Neil. Even past the thick plastic of his safety glasses, he looks agitated. Neil neatly folds his hands on the tabletop and watches.
One week in, and he’s already pissing off his lab partner.
Then again, Neil didn’t expect any less.
“There,” Aaron says, passing Neil the beaker. “Read me the number.”
At least he can do that.
“Why did you mark this?”
“It isn’t right.”
Neil opens his mouth and shuts it again. He reaches out and Seth passes his paper over. Neil isn’t sure how to explain that starting a sentence with ‘but’ isn’t right. He also doesn’t know how to explain that he knows the sentence he’s looking at is wrong.
Seth drums his fingers on the table. Neil imagines Seth punching him in the face.
“Do you care? Or are you happy with knowing I’m right?”
“I don’t know that you’re right,” Seth says, eyes narrowing. “You want me to trust you? Some—”
He doesn’t finish his sentence. Neil is vaguely glad for that; he might know how to knock Seth out, but he’s not keen on the attention it would bring down on his head.
The teacher interrupts them and Neil props his chin on his hand. He pretends not to notice when Seth makes the change to his paper, and he pretends not to notice two days later when Seth gets an A.
Kevin is aggravating.
Is this what Aaron feels like? Neil hopes he’s not as bad as Kevin. There’s something soul-sucking about leaving class and seeing the scowling boy waiting for him, tapping a foot impatiently.
“Why am I not surprised,” Neil says, before he even reaches Kevin.
Kevin glares. “Let’s go. You’re late.”
“Technically, the teacher was late,” Neil mutters. Kevin doesn’t answer.
The field is waiting for them. Kevin stands with his arms crossed and waits for Neil to take his place on the track.
Neil tried pointing out that Kevin wasn’t practicing, once. It didn’t work, of course. Kevin said it was his cooldown time and then said he spent hours after school practicing.
Then, he’d given Neil an after-school schedule. It was the worst.
But Neil would never say no. There weren’t many things he was good at, or many that made him feel like he was alive. When he stepped onto the track and stretched, his feet at the white line, he felt alive. He felt like he had a purpose.
Neil was fast. He’d always been fast. Kevin noticed, the first day in gym when Neil had sprinted around the tennis court several times without breaking a sweat. He’d made it a personal goal to badger Neil from then on.
For now, Neil didn’t mind. Running between classes gave him clarity he couldn’t really find anywhere else. If he had to put up with the star of the baseball team, so be it.
As long as Kevin didn’t stick him in a uniform, Neil would be fine.
“Hi,” Nicky says. His smile is wide and dimpled. Neil squints; the sun is out in full force.
“Kevin told me you run. I actually need a partner for training,” Nicky says. “Coach tells me I need to work on endurance.”
“Coach?” Neil echoes. He watches Nicky slide onto the bleachers in front of Neil. Nicky is wearing the volleyball team’s t-shirt and compression shorts. He is also oddly barefoot.
Nicky grins. “I’m on the volleyball team. I’m pretty good, but my coach says I get winded too easily. Think you can help?”
Neil considers. Between class and running, he doesn’t have much time. “Why did Kevin send you to me?”
“He didn’t,” Nicky says. His smile widens. “Aaron’s my cousin. He mentioned you, so I went to Kevin. He’s willing to let you go from free period hell if you help me, instead.”
That startles Neil. He looks Nicky over once again—tall, brown, with a head of curly hair and a gold ring on the top edge of his right ear.
He looks nothing like Aaron.
Nicky looks like he’s suppressing laughter. Neil pulls himself out of introspection and asks, “How did you convince Kevin to let me go? He’s…”
“Anal?” Nicky asks. Neil shrugs and Nicky snorts. “I’ve known him for a while. My and my cousins. We kind of run in the same group. Anyway, what do you say?”
“Yeah,” Neil says. He decides as he opens his mouth. “Sure.”
Nicky slings an arm over Neil’s shoulder and Aaron casts a poisonous look at them, one hand poised over the petri dish on the table.
“Sorry,” Neil says automatically.
Aaron turns his attention back to the experiment. “Don’t fucking shake the table.”
Nicky doesn’t seem to mind Aaron. Neil guesses it’s because they’re cousins.
It’s already four-thirty. School is out, but Aaron insisted on checking their chemistry project. Neil doesn’t even have to be there, but he doesn’t mind. He sits between Nicky and Aaron and waits.
The door to the classroom opens. Aaron doesn’t pay attention and Nicky is on his phone, but Neil immediately looks. He feels a familiar thrill of tension before he forces himself to relax. It doesn’t really work.
“Oh,” Matt says, surprised. “Neil.”
He’s with Dan, as usual. Neil thinks he’s happy to see them. He met them both at orientation and they decided, for some reason, to look after him. He’s used to Matt and Dan popping up at his locker throughout the day to say hello and check in on him.
Neil isn’t sure what he did to deserve them, but he’s grateful. Especially when Dan gives him extra homemade cookies.
“Hi,” Neil says. He’s not sure what else to say.
Matt look at Nicky, then Aaron. His eyes linger a moment too long at Aaron, like he’s trying to read in another language. “You okay?”
That’s a strange question. Neil looks at the people flanking him and considers. “Yeah. I’m fine.”
Matt doesn’t seem entirely convinced, but he goes to the back of the room to look at something. Dan sits at the table across from Neil and faces him. She’s a little less tactful about her open distrust of Nicky and Aaron.
Aaron, Neil might understand—Aaron is standoffish most of the time and unpleasant when crossed. He typically says things that should get him punched. Nicky, though, is the opposite. He’s cheerful and everyone likes him, for the most part. They like him enough to wave back when he walks the halls like he’s the president of the school.
So why are Matt and Dan so guarded?
“Done,” Aaron announces. He slides the petri dish off and goes to store it.
Nicky shoves his phone into his pocket and sighs dramatically. “I guess it’s time, Neil. Please, save me from this misery.”
With that declaration, Nicky throws his arms around Neil’s shoulders and smashes his cheek against the top of Neil’s head.
This should be repulsive. Neil should be shoving him away, retreating to the other side of the room. Anything. Instead, he thinks about how Nicky is warm like a furnace. “Can’t do that. You run, I avoid Kevin.”
“You’re getting the good end of the deal!”
Nicky snorts and sticks his tongue out while he starts to gather his backpack. Matt and Dan are still watching.
When Aaron leads the way out, Matt stops Neil before he can go. “Hey. They’re not…I mean, if they’re doing something—”
“What?” Neil asks. Doing something?
“If they’re bothering you,” Matt clarifies, but it doesn’t make anything clearer. Neil stares.
“They always bother me.”
“Neil. If they’re making you do something—anything—that you don’t want to—”
“What? They—I’m just helping Nicky,” Neil says. “Aaron’s my lab partner.”
He wants to say that’s it, but that would be a lie.
Neil is still not sure what friends are or how to let other people in, but he thinks maybe Aaron and Nicky are something like friends.
Nicky is getting better. He’s not so easily winded, but he definitely complains the same amount.
“I’m gonna die,” Nicky moans. He slumps against the banister of his front porch. Neil ignores him and stretches a leg before prodding Nicky to do the same.
The woman that emerges a moment later to give them lemonade isn’t Nicky’s mother. She’s not even related. Abby is just one of Nicky’s coach’s friends, apparently.
Nicky told Neil, one week into their runs, that he was gay. He also told Neil he didn’t live with his parents, anymore. They had kicked him out.
Neil couldn’t imagine being kicked out by someone that was family. He could imagine his father killing him and he could feel the ghosts of his mother slapping his face, but he couldn’t wrap his mind around being thrown out.
With the Wesninskis, you either had a use or you were dead.
“How did it go?” Abby asks. She gives Nicky a once-over, critical.
Neil shrugs. “He’s not dead.”
“Yet,” Nicky adds, taking a break from his lemonade.
Abby chides Nicky for being ungrateful while Neil looks at the world from the porch. He’s still somewhere else entirely when he becomes aware of someone coming to sit on the porch with their back to Neil.
From the back, Neil would think it was Aaron—but there’s something different about this person. The height is the same; the hair color is the same. This boy, though, is dressed in black. He has an air of darkness about him, like everything is muted an inch from his body.
“Who’s that?” Neil asks Nicky. They’re far enough from the other side of the porch that the stranger probably couldn’t hear them, if they weren’t already wearing earbuds.
Nicky glances over his shoulder. “Hm? What, Aaron?” He laughs. “Are y—wait.”
Neil watches Nicky panic. It’s interesting to watch; Nicky’s eyes widen and he gives Neil a desperate glance before he frantically looks for some place to put his glass of lemonade. Nicky is still in the middle of panicking when Aaron appears at the front door.
“You’re back,” Aaron says. He takes one step onto the porch and then sees the person at the other end. His mouth flattens into a line.
“Yeah,” Neil says, wondering if Aaron will explain for him. “I tried to shake him, but he was determined.”
“Great. You’re perfect for each other,” Aaron says flatly. His eyes keep sliding back to the person on the porch.
“Is this—” Neil starts, tilting his head toward the stranger. He is cut off when Wymack pulls into the driveway.
Wymack is Aaron’s guardian. Aaron doesn’t seem to like him all that much, but Nicky has said the man is pleasant enough. Nicky waves from the porch and Neil returns to his lemonade, waiting to ask his question again.
The stranger on the porch doesn’t even turn.
Abby comes to the porch and smiles. Nicky nudges Aaron and rolls his eyes. Their silent conversation is foreign to Neil, so he turns his attention to the man coming up the steps.
He still tenses around older men. Anyone old enough to be his father is instinctively placed in the not-safe category and Neil appropriately moves out of reach. He doesn’t even recognize that he slides further down the banister until he’s there and Nicky is giving him a confused frown.
“You give Abby any trouble?” Wymack asks Aaron.
“I’m not the problem child.”
“You’re all problem children,” Wymack says. He rolls his eyes. His gaze lands on Neil after a moment and he raises an eyebrow at Aaron. “Is this the famous Neil?”
“Famous?” Nicky echoes. He looks at Aaron and his expression turns gleeful. “What do you mean? Does Aaron talk about him all the time? Does he—”
“Shut up,” Aaron says. He glares, but Nicky is immune to all threatening expressions. He doesn’t even notice.
Wymack shakes his head. “You talk about him, too.”
“Well, duh,” Nicky says. “But he already shot me down. I mean, unless he’s changed his mind?”
“Nope,” Neil says. Nicky pretends to pout while he hops onto the porch banister and tips his glass to his mouth.
Wymack gives Neil a curious once-over. Neil tries not to feel the urge to run or apologize. It doesn’t work. The best he can do is to keep his mouth firmly shut, so that no one suspects.
Well. Almost no one. Behind Wymack, Neil can see the stranger watching him. Neil wants to look at this person—this twin, he realizes, now that he can see the boy’s face—but he’s forced to focus on Wymack.
“Huh. Well, I hope these three don’t give you too much trouble,” Wymack says. His hand reaches out and Neil stops thinking. He reacts on instinct.
He backpedals so fast he’s surprised he doesn’t trip. Neil was already out of reach, but he finds himself backed up to the edge of the porch. He knows he can vault over it in a heartbeat if he needs to and there’s a street that he can—
—Neil blinks and finds that, despite his planning, everyone is staring.
Wymack’s hand descends on empty space and his mouth is half-open around words that have died. Nicky’s hand is loose on his glass; he could drop it. Aaron looks angry for some reason.
“Hey—” Wymack says; he takes a step forward, hand up, and then he stops.
He stops because the twin is at his arm, a knife in his hand that casually flicks between his fingers.
“Don’t,” the boy says. Simple, dispassionate. Without a glance at Wymack.
Neil swallows. He counts.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” Neil tells Nicky. He doesn’t wait for the answer.
It’s not his finest moment, but Neil can’t bring himself to move around Wymack. He hops over the banister in one smooth motion, gently rests his glass on it, and then jogs down the sidewalk. He waits until he’s a block down to start running.
He doesn’t stop running until his body starts to burn all over again.
The twin leans against his locker. Neil pauses, one hand on the strap of his backpack and the other holding a stack of books.
He’s used to the look he’s been given, but he’s only seen it from adults. Only after his mother’s death and his father’s incarceration. Most times, the people looking at him like he could be a killer or dead weight are the ones that know his past.
“We have class.”
Neil raises an eyebrow. “No, we don’t.”
“I have Chemistry with Aaron.”
The boy is silent. He crosses his arms over his chest. Neil notices he’s wearing black bands.
The silent scrutiny continues too long to be reasonable. Neil just waits. He has time.
The boy’s expression changes. He smiles slowly, but it looks less cheery and more dangerous. Like he’s amused by Neil’s powers of observation.
“You are going to be fun.”
Neil doesn’t know how to answer that.
He also doesn’t know how to react when Nicky emerges from a nearby classroom, smirking. “Told you.”
Aaron is close behind Nicky. He’s holding his backpack with white knuckles and his eyes are on his twin. “This is stupid. Andrew—”
Andrew. He holds up a hand and Aaron immediately falls silent. Neil watches Andrew and waits. He can take a punch; he can take a knife.
He’s taken bullets.
“One day,” Andrew muses, searching Neil’s face. “And then, I’ll tell you if we’re keeping him.”