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i'm wasting my young years

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One.

There will come a day when man will face the embodiment of true evil, the god without a name, the One who Floods the World. Clouds and Mischief rolling on the horizon, He shall be met by the Light Bringer and the Balancer, one born with the turning of the fallen leaf, the other born of lightning, these two descendants of those favored by the gods old, new, and eternal. The clan of the holy protector and the clan of the holy devout shall work as one, and together, they shall defeat Him, and bring long-awaited freedom to the land of men. -Translation from ancient Norse text, circa 791 AD

 

September 23rd, 1999

Thunder booms loudly, as if it were in the room, and lightning strikes outside the window. It’s so loud it breaks Heidi from whatever stupor she’d been slipping into. Rain pounds at the walls.

 

September 23rd, the birthdate of her son, and it’s raining like the world is ending. Like a hurricane. It’s the worst storm in decades, the meteorologist on the radio reckons.

 

Heidi tries to keep her breathing steady. It’s hard, though. She’s all too aware of the tall, thin trees that surround the hospital, that a strong enough wind could topple one right into the roof.

 

She’s always been pretty brave, a brave girl — her mother called her that before she died, her father called her that before she graduated and he moved to Canada, Steven called her that, all the goddamn time — but storms are not her forte.

 

The nurse walks back in. All the checks done, everything under control, situation normal.

 

The nurse hands her her baby, wrapped up in a bundle of cloth, a little hat on his little head. Heidi holds him close to her chest, his head balanced carefully on her shoulder.

 

When he blinks, it seems like his blue eyes flash. Heidi thinks there’s definitely something special about her son, and she can’t help but feel like she may have committed a crime, subjecting him to a prophecy that may or may not name him as its savior.

 

The mattress dips as Steven seats himself on the edge of the bed and leans close to look at the little baby’s face.

 

More thunder startles Heidi. Steven laughs a little. She scowls at him.

 

“Having fun?” she asks him in a hoarse, exhausted voice.

 

“No, I mean…” He breaks off, rubbing the back of his neck. “I just think it’s funny, you’d think he was the Guardian, what with all this storming. ‘Born of lightning’ and all that.”

 

“You think that’s funny?” Heidi demands, but doesn’t look away from the baby in her arms.

 

“I do,” Steven agrees, reaching to pull the cloth away from his face a little, giving him a better view of his son.

 

“Do you think Cynthia Murphy would think that was funny?” Heidi murmurs to him, looking up.

 

His mouth twists a little, and he rolls his eyes. “Cynthia Murphy can kiss my ass.”

 

“What are you, twelve?” she scoffs, and carefully hands the baby over to her husband.

 

“You’re just getting so worried,” he replies, and kisses her on the forehead. If anything, she just feels patronized. “Heidi, you need to rest.”

 

“You’re the one working me up,” Heidi exclaims. The nurses aren’t here to hear them squabble. She may as well say what’s on her mind. “All this prophecy shit… what if it is him?” Her voice gets smaller. She didn’t even know she’d be scared of that.

 

“Then it’s him, and we’ll do our best for him, get him ready.” He sounds so sure that it momentarily soothes her. “But, Heidi, it’s already gone on so long. Why would it be him?”

 

“I don’t know.” She’s got to be honest about this. He looks concerned now.

 

“You need to relax,” Steven insists. “You need to sleep.”

 

“I can’t sleep while it’s raining like this,” Heidi huffs, knowing she’s being petulant. She can’t help but think of all the bad things that could happen. Her father used to tell her stories of strong winds and hail and trees falling and cracking in half outside her window.

 

“Then shove over.” And she does, and he settles in beside her, in the small hospital bed, their son cradled carefully, gently, in his arms. “What are we calling him, huh, Dee?”

 

She’s been thinking about it a lot, actually. “I like Evan,” Heidi tells him.

 

“Yeah?” Steven says, looking down at the baby.

 

“Yeah,” Heidi agrees.

 

“Evan it is.” His voice is so fond now. “Evan Hansen. May you never have to fight a god to save the world.”

 

She smirks tiredly. “Evan Hansen, may we shield you from Great Big Shithead.”

 

Steven cracks up beside her. Heidi laughs, too. Forgetting, for a minute, about the storm just outside. She falls asleep with her head on his shoulder only a few minutes later.

 

July 17th, 2001

Zoe Paige Murphy is born at 2:32 AM in the middle of July. Her first cry rings out in the air just seconds after a crash of thunder, and that is how Cynthia Murphy knows for sure that her daughter is special, knows that her daughter has to be destined for a different kind of greatness beyond the typical law-school/med-school futures of the Murphy clan.

 

No, Cynthia is certain — Zoe is going to save lives one day. One day, she’ll save them all.

 

Hours after her daughter’s birth, once she’s finally been returned from all her medical tests and the endless stream of nurses seems to have temporarily ceased, the room finally adopts an air of peace. The thunderstorm outside — typical for the summer — is still raging on, but Zoe’s cries are quieter now, more muted, and Cynthia’s husband, Larry, is preoccupied with his phone, sending out text after text to friends and family alike. His mother, he reports, is overjoyed to finally get a granddaughter — Larry’s brothers hadn’t been quite as successful in that feat.

 

Her husband pauses, tucking the phone into his pocket, and gazes at the bundle in her arms with a kind of joy she only sees from him when he plays with Connor, their older child. He’ll be two years old in December. “She’s all we ever dreamed of, Cyn,” he murmurs, adjusting the blanket to press a gentle kiss to Zoe’s forehead.

 

Cynthia smiles back at him, and briefly, thoughts of Connor flash through her mind — is he okay, are Larry’s parents taking good care of him, they can be a little forgetful sometimes — but all it takes is one more glance at her daughter, and her mind is put at ease once again. Zoe is going to be good for them, in more ways than one. Cynthia has never been so sure of anything in her life.

 

“I’m going to grab some coffee,” Larry announces, peering through the window at the sun just rising on the horizon. No point in attempting sleep now, she supposes. “Want anything?” he asks, turning to her.

 

She shakes her head. “No, I’m fine,” she says. “Just hurry back before we start getting visitors, I might need help feeding Zoe soon.” He nods and disappears in a flash — Cynthia has no doubt that the prospect of caffeine after this thirty-six hour labor is a thrilling one — and she’s left alone with her baby, six pounds and four ounces of pure joy sleeping soundly in her arms.

 

“Special indeed, Zoe,” Cynthia whispers to her daughter. “Just you wait.”

 

September 25th, 2017

It’s a Monday. Which sucks. Monday, the 25th of September, 2017.

 

Evan doesn’t really like any days of the week. On weekdays, he has to be at school, and he doesn’t want to be at school, and on weekends, he sits at home and does homework and mindlessly wastes his time, and he doesn’t want to be at home because no one is ever there except for him. He never goes anywhere, and while there’s a simple desire in him to go somewhere , to go out, there’s also something in him telling him how loud and annoying and overwhelming the rest of the world is.

 

Would Evan Hansen just be better off being nowhere? What does that entail?

 

He spent the weekend alone, again, his mother working a shift and then attending a class, home late enough for her to expect him to be in bed already. Rinse, repeat.

 

It would be bad enough if it was just a normal weekend, just a normal Saturday.

 

But it wasn’t. Saturday was his birthday.

 

And his mother wasn’t there.

 

Eighteen years old, and he couldn’t even buy himself a pizza to celebrate. That is seriously sad.

 

It’s the third week of school, and Evan sways as the bus does, attempting not to fall out of the seat he’s sharing with a random freshman because some of the juniors snagged all of the single seats before he did. Days like these make him wish he drove to school, if he didn’t think he’d get in an accident or have a giant panic attack before even leaving the driveway.

 

The thing is that Evan just feels way too alone, all of the time. And the worst part of that is that he’s adjusted to it. His father really probably didn’t think what kind of an impact he’d have if he left, which meant that the moment Evan knew how to lock the front door and make himself a sandwich, he was alone.

 

Heidi means well. He’s sure Steven did, too, at some point, before dropping them for an Embassy Suites cocktail waitress called Krystal and moving to Colorado to, quote, “get away from all that nasty city pollution” (never mind the fact that they lived in upstate New York).

 

The bus halts again, letting on another couple of kids. It’s the last stop before the high school. Evan adjusts his backpack.

 

Still, there’s a part of Evan that can’t help but think that he’s lucky to get even this, to be able to catch those brief glimpses of his mother as she runs out the door or tiptoes in from work or waves at him as she pulls out of the driveway just as he’s getting home from school.

 

There’s a part of Evan that thinks if she really knew what he was, if his mom was really aware of the monster she’d raised, then she wouldn’t want to be around him for even those few minutes of time. She’d probably kick him out — after all, he’s eighteen now, she technically doesn’t owe him anything, right? She could kick him out tonight , and he’d just have to deal with it, accept it. He’d probably end up homeless, and then get arrested for being homeless, and then he’d probably end up in jail, and then he’d probably die after getting beaten to death when the other inmates found out what a fucking freak he was —

 

No. No, he can’t think like that. He’s promised himself he’ll try not to think like that anymore, because if he thinks like that too much, bad stuff happens. His — his powers, or whatever they can even be called, start to manifest, in the worst of ways.

 

What Evan thinks of as more of an affliction first made itself known when he was fourteen. He’d been on the phone with his mom the day of his ninth grade open house, the one all his teachers had said was so important, and she’d told him she wouldn’t be able to make it because she needed to cover her friend Erika’s shift that night at the nursing home.

 

He’d been so angry, and so anxious, he hadn’t even been thinking. It was only when the phone went dead and sparks began to fly, forcing Evan to drop it, that he realized what he’d done. He’d looked down at the phone and found it smoking.

 

Somehow, he’d burned a hole in it.

 

Apparently, his palms are like mini-lasers. They start to kind of glow when he gets worked up, and then, before he knows it, he’s charring stuff. It’s why he’s had to buy countless textbooks off the school after damaging them, leaving scorch marks in the pages or on the covers during midterms or finals weeks. Evan tries his best to control it, but truthfully, he’s not that great at it. Kind of sad, since he’s had four years to work on it by now.

 

His mom doesn’t know. She can’t know. She’d be disgusted by him; Evan is certain. After all, what good do his powers even do? It’s not as if he heals people — he burns things, for god’s sake. That’s a villainous power if he’s ever heard one.

 

Nobody can know. Ever. And so Evan just does what he needs to do, tries to keep his head down and not cause any trouble, because he doesn’t want to begin to imagine what might happen if he got in a fight. He just wants to get out of high school, find a nice state university, study environmental science and work in a national park or something. He wants to be at peace .

 

It all would be fine if he was just normal. Or if he’d had someone to talk to. But he didn’t, and still doesn’t, and that actually, legitimately sucks. What’s worse than having weird light magic powers and having no one to talk to about them?

 

His mom would probably say that if he was feeling lonely, he could talk to Jared. But Jared Kleinman, Asshole Extraordinaire and constant reminder that he was only friends with Evan for car insurance purposes, is probably near the bottom on his list of people he’d tell about his powers. Telling Jared about his weird, freaky laser hands would almost certainly guarantee him a front page spot in the Stratham Daily.

 

The sudden roar of chatter from the front of the bus alerts Evan to their impending arrival at the school, and he allows himself a tiny sigh of relief as he files off of the bus and into the front hallway. On the first day of school a couple weeks ago, his mom had told him to make this year “his year”. Things couldn’t possibly get much worse than they already were now; his life had to improve at some point, right? Maybe this week could be the start of that.

 

His brief burst of optimism instantly dissipates when someone taps him on the shoulder and he turns around to find Jared waiting for him. “How’s it going, Hansen?” Jared says, glasses glinting in the artificial light. “Do anything special to celebrate the big 1-8?”

 

Evan frowns at the question. Birthdays haven’t really been an occasion to celebrate ever since his dad left. They mainly consist of stale Kroger cakes eaten alone over reruns of old Westerns on TCM. Probably nothing Jared would consider “special”.

 

“Um, nothing really,” he confesses, shifting his backpack to the other shoulder. “Just watched some movies on TV.”

 

Jared grimaces. “Tell you what, I’m gonna buy you a Netflix subscription as a graduation present. You gotta get with the times.” He clears his throat, a mischievous glint appearing in his eyes, and adds, “Sorry, man, I would’ve hung out with you, but I had a hot date with this girl I met in Tech Club.”

 

Jared starts to go into vivid detail about how he’d “made it all the way to second base,” and Evan instantly zones out, trying to distract himself from the growing burn of anxiety in his chest. He hates this part, the part where Jared builds this fantasyland where he’s sooo much cooler than Evan, and isn’t Evan lucky to have him as a Family Friend? At their core, it’s not as if he and Jared are so different — Jared’s mom just has a more expensive obsession with IKEA and a cushier job to cover the cost — but Jared tries so hard to pretend that they are. Like he’s embarrassed of who he is. Embarrassed of who Evan is.

 

He didn’t used to be like this. At some point, Jared changed. But Evan can’t remember when.

 

His palms start to tingle, and Evan shoves his hands into his pockets. As long as he avoids getting too worked up, he should be fine. But school is usually the number one inducer of his panic attacks, so that’s not exactly reassuring.

 

“Anyway, then her brother walked in on us, so I guess I’m not exactly allowed to see Stephanie Hines anymore — you can’t breathe a word about it or he’ll beat my ass—” Jared cuts himself off and lets out a huff of frustration. “Hello? Space cadet? Are you on Mars or something, Hansen?”

 

“Sorry,” Evan murmurs, eyes trained on the floor. “Just tired.”

 

“Tired from what? Jerking off all weekend?” Jared laughs, and Evan’s cheeks start to burn.

 

“I need to get to class,” he says. “See you later, Jared.”

 

And then, of course, that’s when he rounds the corner and bumps into his crush of two years.

It’s the first day of the third week of her junior year, and Zoe Murphy is already so beyond done with it all.

 

Summers are good. During the summer, she gets to put colored streaks in her hair, and her mom lets her because she won’t be around any of her teachers then (“If they see you looking like that , Zoe, they might not want to write you a letter of recommendation for college, and then how will you succeed in life?”). During the summer, she plays her guitar as loud as she wants and her mom can’t yell at her to turn it down and get back to doing homework. During the summer, she’s free to leave the house whenever, and she doesn’t have to stick around to listen to the arguing, the disappointed murmurs from her parents whenever her brother walks into the room.

 

Her brother. If Zoe were really the nice girl (Nice Girl™ , it always sounds like) that her mother wants her to be, the nice girl that her mother claims she is, then she probably wouldn’t feel this way about her brother, but — most days, she swears he’s actually the bane of her existence. Connor is loud and angry and aggressive, and he has this near-addiction to weed that has him sneaking out of the house at all hours of the night to go meet with dealers and smoking buddies (if she’s to believe that Connor actually has the capability to make friends), and the weed makes him so paranoid that she’s woken up too many times to her brother banging down her door, threatening to kill her for whatever mundane reason he’s got in his head this time around.

 

And because Connor is so awful, so deficient in all the traits a Murphy child is supposed to possess, the job of being the good kid is left to Zoe. She’s her parents’ favorite — they’ve made that clear — and Connor likely hates her all the more for that, but he doesn’t understand the ramifications of that. He doesn’t understand the pressure, the constant affectionate nitpicking from their mother, the urging to push herself to her limits and beyond, the feeling that she has to be perfect all the time or else their little family unit, barely holding itself together to begin with, will fall apart completely.

 

Being the favorite has an awful lot of weight to it. Sometimes, it makes her feel like she can’t breathe. Zoe wonders how long this weight has been there, if maybe it started the moment she was born, because a lot of times, she can’t remember what it even felt like to breathe normally. Summer is really the only time where she can occasionally take a deep breath and let loose, be a kid for once. Not to mention the fact that her birthday is in July, bringing her another year closer to getting the hell out of this place. She fucking loves summer.

 

But now summer is over, the leaves are starting to turn, and Zoe is trying so hard to hide the increasing misery she feels at it all. Dealing with Connor at school is like a never-ending nightmare, and now that he’s gotten his car taken away after being caught with a baggie of weed for the millionth time, she gets the privilege of driving him to school. She doesn’t like having him in her car; when he can’t get his hands on weed, he turns to cigarettes, and he makes the entire car reek of smoke. She spends a good half of her weekends trying to scrub the stink out, only for it to instantly reappear come Monday. A part of Zoe thinks that Connor enjoys knowing he’s tainted her car, ruined it for her in some way; he doesn’t like anything happy, and her sunny yellow VW Beetle has been endlessly mocked and despised by him since their parents bought it for her this past July.

 

At least fall is coming. Somehow, Connor seems to calm down a little in the fall. It’s a good season for him, her mom always says. Zoe’s never understood that, but frankly, she doesn’t really care enough to understand as long as it means that putting up with her brother becomes a tad less of a hellish feat.

 

Monday, the 25th of September. Autumn is in the air; Zoe can feel it, and it’s the only thing that keeps her going that morning as she listens to her family arguing at the breakfast table, tries and fails to eat her cereal because Connor, of course, has finished the milk but put the empty carton back in the fridge anyway. Her brother takes so long getting ready that they’re almost late to school, and the irritation of it makes her snap at him on the drive over. “How could you be so inconsiderate,” she hisses, “some of us actually have lives and classes to get to, Connor. Not everyone is a soon-to-be dropout like you.”

 

She regrets the words the instant she sees Connor stiffen, almost hunching in on himself, and start to scratch at his wrists. Zoe’s not sure if he does it on purpose, just to guilt-trip her, to make her feel bad, but of course she worries when she sees that. A part of her will always worry, whether she likes it or not, and a lot of the time she hates him even more for that.

 

(“‘Hate’ is such a strong word, sweetie,” her mom always says.)

 

Stop, Connor, you’re gonna open your stitches,” she tells him, swatting at his hand. He just rolls his eyes and mutters something — probably a “fuck you” — that she can’t quite catch. Zoe lets him get away with it this time. The raw reminder of the brutal scene from two weeks ago is still a little too fresh, a little too scary, to allow her to pick at him too much. She has to be careful, gentle, with him, her mom had said.

 

When they get to school, Connor throws open the car door, nearly hitting the driver’s-side door of the truck they’re parked next to, and leaves without another word. Zoe watches him go for a second, then pulls the keys out of the ignition, grabs her backpack, and makes her way into the school, too. Lizzie Vazquez catches up with her the moment she walks through the door. Lizzie’s a nice girl, and first chair on clarinet, so her mom thinks she’s a godsend, but aside from band, she only seems to care about Taylor Swift and school dances. Zoe hates both of those things, so she spends the majority of their time together attempting to tune the other girl out.

 

That’s exactly what she’s doing, the dull whine of Lizzie chattering about homecoming dresses all too present in her right ear, when she bumps into a boy in a striped polo and drops her textbooks on her foot.

 

Fuck. What a way to start the week.

 

Ow, shit!” isn’t exactly what Evan had pictured Zoe Murphy saying to him upon their first official meeting, but it is kind of his fault that three textbooks have just fallen on her foot.

 

“Oh my god, I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry, I totally didn’t mean to bump into you I was just—” Evan decides he should probably shut up and grab the books instead. He catches a glimpse of the titles as he picks them up and hands them to Zoe — AP Calculus, AP Biology, AP Spanish. She’s definitely smarter than him. Just the thought of an AP class makes him break out into a nervous sweat.

 

Zoe’s clearly still in pain, but she smiles at him anyway, tucking a lock of long brown hair behind her ear. Gosh , she’s so pretty. “Don’t worry about it,” she says warmly. “Accidents happen.”

 

And there’s so much Evan wants to say to her, like, “Wow, thanks for not being a jerk about it!” or “I saw your guitar solo at the jazz band concert last year, you were great!” or any other million variations of “You’re really cool and you deserve someone a thousand times better than me but I’d still love to get to know you ,” but nothing comes out at all. It just gets stuck in his throat, in one massive lump of anxiety that Evan can barely breathe around, and then Zoe’s just staring at him, and oh god this has to be a nightmare and she must think he’s so weird and Jared is never gonna let him live this down and—

 

He needs to get out of here. His body takes him halfway up the stairs on autopilot before he can even think about saying goodbye to Zoe, though that’s probably for the best. He’s already verging on panic attack by the time he bursts into the library. Thankfully, Mrs. Smethurst took a liking to him freshman year and has pretty much let him have free reign of the library ever since. She even lets him stay in there alone when she goes on lunch break.

 

Chest heaving, he makes his way to a seat by the back of the stacks and throws his backpack to the floor, all too aware that any semblance of control is quickly slipping away from him.

 

Eyes trained on the pair of hands he’s got hidden under the table, he tries to think about the water, the way the sunlight looks when it hits it. He conjures up memories from his childhood, the early days, when they went to the lake every summer, before Dad left them for Krystal the cocktail waitress and he could count the number of days his mom was home for dinner on one hand. He thinks of deep blue, and how it turned translucent and shiny under the light. He thinks of that image, thinks of happiness, and tries to make it project from his hands.

 

He does this sometimes, when he doesn’t have a Xanax on hand or he’s in need of an even quicker relief for a panic attack. It calms him, brings him back to better times, and it helps a little, to think that these bizarre powers might be able to do at least one good thing. Even if he’s the only one who benefits from it.

 

Then he hears the voice. “What the fuck?”

 

He slams his hands against the table in a desperate attempt to appear normal (ha, like that’s possible anymore), but the tell-tale scent of burning wood quickly fills his nostrils as the table sizzles under Evan’s palms.

 

Yup, he’s fucked up. And, to make matters worse, it’s not Jared or some other remotely friendly figure standing there. Nope, Evan realizes, turning around in his seat, Connor Murphy is the one who’s just walked in on him being a freak.

 

Zoe’s older brother.

 

Connor Murphy just wants to know when it’s all going to be over.

 

How much longer will he have to endure another crappy family breakfast? When’s the last time he’ll ever have to argue with his parents, or listen to Zoe whine about him on the phone to one of her friends? Will there ever come a day where he never has to walk the hallways of that shitty, shitty high school again?

 

Connor’s tried to put a timer on it; he’s tried to make certain days his last, to turn all of these things into finalities. But whatever sick fuck is sitting up in the clouds obviously think it’s funny to keep dangling the promise of an end in his face, to let him think he’ll finally be free, and then snatching it away from him right when he can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Or, rather, the blackness. There is no light in the end.

 

Two weeks ago, he’d gotten so close. His eyes had drifted shut and his final conscious thought had been, I did it. Thank God, I fucking did it.

 

(Connor doesn’t want to talk about the part where he wondered if that was what he’d really wanted. The part where he wondered if he’d made the wrong choice.)

 

And then fucking Zoe had found him and screamed her pretty little head off, and he’d woken up in a cold-ass hospital room without a single “Get Well Soon” card. Connor’s used to it by now, but the harsh sterility of his surroundings certainly hadn’t made his failure any easier to swallow.

 

He wants to try again, but he can’t. Not for a while, at least. He’s under close supervision by his parents, and his weed stash has been confiscated, so he has to wait at least another month, until his parents loosen the leash just a little bit. Connor wants to smoke one last joint before he goes — because he will go, he has to. He’s going to finish the job next time. What is it that the posters in elementary school always used to say? Oh, yeah — if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Connor thinks that might just be his new favorite motto.

 

It’s a typical hellish Monday morning, his father glaring at him over his iPhone screen, his mom overbearing and disgustingly sweet as usual, and Zoe scowling at him as she takes a bite of dry cereal (sometimes, the pettiest revenge is the sweetest). He purposely gets ready as slowly as possible, drags every minor part of his routine out for as long as he can, until Zoe’s screaming at him from downstairs and threatening to leave without him. Connor knows he’ll just skip if she doesn’t take him to school, and he has to get back on his parents’ good side before he can even start to make plans, so it’s with a practiced reluctance that he heads into the driveway and gets in his sister’s eyesore of a car.

 

(God, how he hates that car. It’s a bright, sunny yellow that seriously makes him want to puke. A part of him actually believes that Zoe asked for that car just to spite him. She has to know yellow’s his least favorite color.)

 

(Plus, it smells like vanilla icing, courtesy of the dozens of Yankee Candle air fresheners she keeps clipped to the air vents. The scent makes him gag; one time, when he’d been really hungover, he’d actually made Zoe pull over to the side of the road so he could puke. She’d bitched at him for weeks after.)

 

Zoe lectures him the whole drive over, and the scars on his wrists start to itch. When she sees him scratching at the remainders of his stitches, she instantly goes silent, and while that hadn’t been Connor’s intention, he thinks that maybe he can use that to shut her up from now on. At least until the last of the stitches dissolve.

 

He jumps out of the car before Zoe’s even got it in Park; this is probably the first and last time in his life he’ll ever be in a rush to get to homeroom. Zoe doesn’t even try to catch up with him, and Connor’s grateful for that. Apparently she occasionally knows when she’s not wanted, though God knows she can’t seem to remember that at home.

 

For all his talk about wanting to get on his parents’ good side, the nitpicking from Zoe has left him with a pounding headache, and Connor just doesn’t have it in him to try today. He sleeps through first block Statistics and skips second block because he currently can’t be bothered to fake an interest in Physics. By the time lunch rolls around, the school must have called the house already, because Zoe confronts him with crossed arms and angry eyes as he’s sneaking out of the empty auditorium where he’d spent second block.

 

“Why do I have twenty texts and a voicemail from Mom asking me where you are? According to her, the school says you missed second block,” she says, tone completely accusatory. In the back of his mind, Connor can’t help but think that his sister would make a great detective — though she’d definitely play Bad Cop, not Good Cop.

 

He adjusts his bag on his shoulder and tries to push past her. “Zoe, I have shit to do, and none of it involves you, so would you kindly leave me the fuck alone?” he hisses when she doesn’t let him through.

 

Zoe rolls her eyes. “What, gonna go smoke some crap you bought off of Ethan Jones on the baseball field? News flash, Connor: drug addiction doesn’t get you into college.”

 

“Oh, wow, I had no idea, I really thought Principal Jacobs was going to recommend me for the Scholars in Marijuana award,” he deadpans. His arms are starting to itch again, and Connor really feels like he’s going to crawl out of his skin any minute now. Can’t she just let him go ?

 

Zoe arches a brow, then holds her hand out. “Give me your cigarettes.”

 

The half-empty pack of Camels in his jacket pocket seems to glow red hot against his chest. “What the fuck? No, Zoe, fuck off, I don’t even have any on me today.”

 

“I know you have them,” she insists, “I saw them in the car this morning. Plus, you stink , I can tell you’ve been smoking. Hand them over, or I’m telling Mom you skipped all day and the teachers were just too lazy to take attendance.” And Connor knows, can see in the smug little spark in her eyes, that she’s not joking. She will lie to their mom, because he’s pissed her off for whatever fucking reason, and Zoe knows that he knows their parents will believe her over him any given day. Because she’s Zoe, the Golden Child, and the world won’t fucking turn if she doesn’t hold that over him for the rest of his sad, pathetic life.

 

Then Connor remembers the extra pack hidden in his Lit binder, and he figures he might as well appease her. Better for his parents to find out about contraband cigs than to think he’s skipped an entire day of school. Nicotine addiction is easier to explain than truancy, right?

 

So he digs the first pack out from his jacket and moves to hand it to her, then pauses. “Fine, but let me put them in your backpack. Knowing you, you’ll put them away all half-ass and then they’ll fall out. That’d be a waste of my money.”

 

“Right, like we’re in short supply of that,” Zoe scoffs, but turns around and lets him anyway. He quickly drops the cigarettes into her front pocket, zips it up, and begins to walk away, starting in the direction of the staircase as Zoe turns around.

 

“Where are you going?” she calls after him.

 

“Wherever the fuck I want,” he replies, deciding not to care about the possible consequences.

 

It’s only when he’s far enough up the stairs that he allows himself a grin. Zoe, for all her book smarts, hadn’t noticed a single fucking thing when he’d grabbed her keys out of her backpack.

 

Connor, 1. Zoe, 0.

 

Then, like the nerd his mother is convinced he’ll still grow up to be, Connor heads to the library. Knowing Zoe, she’ll probably find something else to get angry over later and try to catch him in the smokers’ pit or on the baseball field, doing something he shouldn’t. He’s still about to do something he shouldn’t, but if he’s going to get caught, it’s damn well not about to be by his nosy younger sister.

 

(Truth be told, he’s not really expecting to get caught, though. Rumor has it that the centuries-old librarian is never in there anyway.)

 

He’s already got a cigarette in one hand and a lighter in the other as he strolls into the library. The fire alarms at the school never work, so he’s not too concerned about the prospect of setting them off. And besides, what’s a little cigarette smoke gonna do? Burn the whole place down?

 

Turns out the fire alarms have more to be afraid of than cigarette smoke, because that’s when Connor rounds the corner and finds Evan Hansen setting fire to a table.

 

Great. Yet another reason for the entire school to call him crazy.

 

This has to be a hallucination, right? Maybe some unknown side effects of weed have finally altered his brain permanently. There’s no way this is real. There’s no way the quietest boy in their grade has fucking lasers coming out of his hands. This must be fake, Connor reasons, because someone with actual laser powers definitely would not jump a foot in the air upon seeing him and then scramble away from the table like he’d been burned himself.

 

Then the scent of burnt wood hits him, causing his nose to wrinkle, and that’s when Connor realizes.

 

This is definitely real.

 

Evan has imagined this very scenario countless times over in his head. He’d always thought he’d be a lot more panicked, though. Funnily enough, he’s pretty much the epitome of calm right now.

 

“Look, I can explain,” he starts, standing from his seat and approaching Connor cautiously. “I’ve had these powers since I was fourteen, you’re the first person to find out about them, um, I swear I’d never hurt anybody—”

 

Evan doesn’t know why this is all coming out at once. Telling Connor everything is almost definitely a terrible idea, but it’s like the truth is tugging at him, just begging to be released. Like he owes it to Connor. It’s an obligation Evan can’t explain, but it’s one he knows he needs to fulfill.

 

Connor, however, seems to have something else in mind. “Dude, are you insane?” he hisses, closing the distance between them. “No way can we talk about this in public, people will think we’re batshit. Have you lost your mind? No, wait, don’t answer that.”

 

He pauses for a second, clearly considering his options and the possible outcomes, and Evan swallows hard. He has a feeling he won’t like where this is going.

 

Connor meets his eyes and nods. “Okay. Here’s what we’re gonna do. I’m gonna take you to my car, and we’re gonna drive around for however long it takes for you to explain to me what the fuck all this is. Alright?” It’s posed like a question, but Evan senses that he doesn’t really have a choice.

 

“Aren’t we going to get in trouble if we skip fourth block?” is, of course, the first response his brain can think of.

 

Connor scoffs. “I just saw you shoot lasers out of your hands. You think I give a shit about skipping fourth block?”

 

Evan can’t think of a decent argument against that, and so that’s how he ends up in the school parking lot with his crush’s older brother, skipping class for the first time in his sad existence.

 

“This is your car?” Evan asks, unable to disguise the laugh in his voice as they approach a bright-yellow Beetle. It’s nice, and obviously well taken care of, but Evan had always pictured Connor as a black Mustang kind of guy. Yellow seems a little too, well, sunny for his taste.

 

Connor shoots him an icy glare that instantly shuts him up. “It’s my sister’s,” he mutters, opening the driver’s-side door. “We’re just… borrowing it.”

 

Evan wisely chooses not to ask whether Zoe would mind that.

 

The car sputters to life, and the AC is cool on Evan’s face, bringing the scents of fake vanilla and cigarettes with it. Weird. He can’t picture Zoe smoking.

 

Connor makes a sharp right turn out of the parking lot, fingers drumming against the steering wheel as the speedometer hits 60. Evan wants to remind him that the speed limit here is 45, but Murphy kids probably don’t get speeding tickets, anyway. Their dad is a lawyer with a special kind of small-town sway.

 

Connor clears his throat. “So, uh, can you kill people with that shit?” he asks, gesturing towards Evan’s hands, shaking and neatly folded in his lap.

 

Evan can’t help but shudder at the thought. “Um, I don’t know,” he admits. “I’ve never exactly tried it on anyone…”

 

Connor seems almost disappointed, but then he takes a breath and says, “Okay, here’s an idea. You tell me everything you know about your powers or whatever, and for the next forty minutes, I’ll just listen. Won’t say a word, I promise. Then, we’ll go home, and I’ll either snap out of my bad trip and realize this was all an illusion, or I wake up tomorrow morning and this all turns out to be true. And I’ll keep your secret.”

 

“Why do you care so much?” That’s probably a great way to piss off the only person who knows about his powers, but Evan can’t resist his own curiosity.

 

Connor shrugs. “I hate this town. I need a distraction, and your weird shit happens to be a great one.”

 

Well, Evan can’t argue with that.

 

So he tells him everything.

 

The sun is low in the sky when Connor drops him off. Evan’s chest tightens when he sees that, for once, his mom’s beat-up sedan is parked in the driveway. Connor doesn’t bother to stick around and make sure he gets in safe — he peels off into the sunset, like something out of an ’80s teen movie, tires squealing down the street.

 

His mom is sitting at the kitchen table when he walks in, staring into the bottom of a cup of coffee like it holds the answers to every existential question out there. She looks tired, hunched in on herself and so very small. It instantly sends guilt shooting through Evan’s veins, because how long has his mom been here, alone? How long has she been sitting here, worrying about him? School got out two hours ago, and it’s not as if there’s anywhere else he would’ve gone.

 

A board creaks under Evan’s foot, and his mom looks up with an expression on her face that can only be described as bittersweet. Like she’s happy he’s home, but disappointed she had to wait in the first place. “Ev,” she says, an undercurrent of something in her tone that he can’t quite discern. “Come sit, honey.” There’s a pause, and then she adds, “I got a call from the school. You were marked absent for fourth block.”

 

Evan’s throat constricts. Oh god, she probably thinks he was off making a drug deal, or drinking in Bryant Park, or whatever delinquent children do, because why else would he miss class and not tell her? He’s always texted his mom if he had to skip because of a panic attack. This is new, uncharted territory for them. And he just knows his mom is going to be so disappointed when he can’t give her the truth.

 

Still, he sits down, because his mom has asked him to, and he owes her that much. A beat of silence passes between them, Evan’s heart starting to race much faster than is probably healthy, before his mother sets down her cup and finally meets his eyes. He can’t pick out all the different emotions in her gaze, but sadness is definitely at the forefront.

 

“It’s your powers, isn’t it, sweetie?”

Connor’s head is still reeling when he pulls into his driveway. Usually, long drives kind of clear his mind, take away the anger for a little bit and leave room for just existing, but apparently, his drive with Evan hadn’t done the trick. There’s a throbbing between his temples, countless thoughts swirling in his brain, and he wants to blame it on Zoe’s shitty air fresheners, but he can’t. He knows it’s more than that, less to do with Yankee Candle’s Home Classics collection and all to do with Evan Hansen.

 

Fucking Evan Hansen. It’s weird, but his bizarre powers and even more bizarre personality are the first things Connor’s actually cared about other than suicide and weed in months. He’s probably going to be a problem.

 

Connor yanks the keys out of the ignition and slams the door to the Bug shut, announcing his arrival to the entire neighborhood so Zoe can’t accuse him of staying out any later than he already has. His parents obviously hear it, too, because Connor barely gets his hand on their doorknob before his dad’s opening the front door.

 

“Glad you finally decided to join us, Connor,” his father says, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Were you going to call us and let us know where you were at your earliest convenience, or did you just think it’d be fun to practically give your mother a heart attack? Not to mention the fact that you stole your sister’s car . Get inside right now.”

 

“I wasn’t—”

 

Right now , young man, before I have to embarrass you in front of the neighbors.”

 

His dad slams the door shut behind them, and he’s immediately greeted with the sight of a furious Zoe at the foot of the stairs, hands on her hips. He hears footsteps from the kitchen and knows his mother is coming to see what all the commotion is about.

 

“What the hell, Connor, I knew you were a lowlife but I never thought you’d steal my fucking car, what is your problem—”

 

Zoe’s interrupted by their mother rushing into the foyer, a kitchen towel tossed over her shoulder. Connor winces as she encases him in a hug tight enough to bruise. “Oh, Connor,” she sobs against his shoulder, “I thought something had happened to you, baby, why didn’t you call, why would you just leave like that—”

 

He pulls away. “Stop pretending like you actually fucking care,” he snaps, and the  hurt on his mother’s face is evident, but Connor can’t allow himself to care. This is all he’s good at it, hurting his family; it’s what he’s been doing for years, so why stop now? People like Evan, they’re the ones who deserve second chances, if they even do anything bad enough to merit needing one. They’re the heroes of the story. But people like Connor, they’re the villains. There isn’t any good left in them, and there’s no point in pretending as if there might be.

 

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out Zoe’s keys, tossing them to her and resisting the urge to snicker at the glare it earns him as she catches them. “I hate you,” she hisses, “I hate you so fucking much, if you even knew how much—”

 

“Zoe, go upstairs, and language, please,” his dad says, and Zoe shoots Connor one last withering glance before heading up to her room.

 

Then his dad turns to him. “Connor,” he begins, “this is not the first time you’ve disappointed us, and to be honest, I’m sure it won’t be the last, but this is certainly the most disappointed I’ve ever been with you in your life.”

 

“It’s your senior year, Connor, you can’t be skipping classes already,” his mother adds.

 

“You stole a car,” his father says, voice gradually increasing in volume as he continues. “Do you realize how serious of an offense that is? You are damn lucky we didn’t report you to the police. In fact, if you pull a stunt like this again, I have half a mind to do just that. Tell me, what exactly did you need to do so badly that you couldn’t just wait until you got home for Zoe or one of us to give you a ride? Were you meeting with your drug dealer?”

 

“Larry,” his mother gasps, but his dad ignores her.

 

“Tell me, Connor,” he demands.

 

Obviously, the accusation isn’t true, but Connor figures it’s an easier explanation than Actually, Mom and Dad, I walked in on a guy using his crazy laser powers in the library today, and we spent the duration of fourth block driving around and talking about it .

 

So he just shrugs, and watches as his father’s eyes go flinty and cold and his mother presses a hand to her mouth, holding back what are surely sobs.

 

“I don’t have anything more to say to you,” his father spits. “Go to your room, now.”

 

He doesn’t argue.

 

What’s the point? It’s not like it would change anything.

 

Turns out that being bored and the family disappointment is the perfect combination for falling asleep and missing dinner, and that’s exactly what Connor does. No one comes to wake him, and when he finally cracks an eye open, at first he thinks it’s still dinnertime. After all, it’s still dark out.

 

He stops thinking about dinner when he hears the crack of lightning just outside his window. And then another, and another after that, and then three more in quick succession.

 

“What the fuck?” he mutters, stumbling to his feet and walking to the window. That’s not normal. There’s no way that’s normal. Then again, he supposes he has to readjust his definition of normal after meeting Evan Hansen.

 

When he sees what’s going on outside, he’s sure he must still be sleeping. He blinks once, twice, three times. Pinches himself. Winces when it hurts, looks back outside, still finds the same thing, so pinches himself again, and yup , that definitely hurts like hell.

 

There’s trees on fire, just across the street, at the Harris place. A nasty little voice in Connor’s mind jokes that Brian Harris must be pissing in his pants right now, but Connor tries to shut it down immediately. Things are on fire, so now’s probably not the time for making jokes (though proper timing has never really been his forte, anyway).

 

Then he hears the sirens in the distance, the wails of fire trucks and ambulances screaming their way across town, and something in his gut twists at the sound, because now he knows. He knows .

 

Something isn’t right.

 

Something, in fact, has gone horribly wrong.

Chapter Text

Two.

When Heidi Hansen jolts awake in the middle of the night and finds lightning flashing outside her window, she knows it’s a sign from the gods that something bad has come.

 

When she glances over to her alarm clock and finds 2:00 AM lit up there in blinking red letters, and then, almost as if on cue, hears the wailing of fire trucks in the distance, she becomes certain that this is it. This is the day when she’ll lose her son, when Evan will stop being hers and truly belong to the gods, to the world.

 

This is the day when the prophecy truly begins. Turns out that her son is the Chosen One, after all. Funny — twenty years ago, she would’ve never imagined that she’d give birth to the eventual protector of the free world. Yet another one of life’s cruel quirks, she supposes.

 

She hurries to throw on some sweatpants and whatever shirt looks cleanest in the dim light of night, ties her hair up so it’s out of her face, and heads to the kitchen. The cabinet with the broken door is where she keeps all her essentials, the things she’d prepared in the awful anticipation that this day might come eventually. It’s the last place anyone would expect those things to be, she’d reasoned — after all, who would be dumb enough to hide their valuables in a cabinet with a broken door?

 

She packs him the last lunch she might ever pack him, quietly sobbing as she does so.  Then she packs one for Connor, too. The ham sandwich, apple, and bag of chips apiece won’t last them very long, but it’s all she has in the house at the moment — she’s worked the late shift basically every night for two weeks, and she hasn’t had the time to swing by the grocery store. Heidi silently curses herself for being so lax, for letting the ball drop — of course with Evan’s eighteenth birthday coming, of course with the fall solstice, of course she should’ve been more aware. She should’ve known this was coming.

 

Now, she’s been taken by surprise, and thank God she’d prepped for this years ago, back when Evan was still in diapers, because otherwise her son would have nothing to help him escape, and what kind of mother would that make her?

 

Once she’s finished with the food, she pulls out the bag of money, the stash she’s been saving for eighteen years. Once Evan’s dad left, she’d worked so many extra shifts to build this hidden cache of money. This is thousands of hours of overtime she’s holding in her palm. This is why they never had anything decent in the fridge, why she was never home, why she sometimes worried if they’d be able to keep the lights on. This is probably a good chunk of a college fund. This could probably send Evan to a fancy school, a place where they have class sizes smaller than the ones at his high school and the air conditioning in the dorms actually works, a place where, if right now weren’t happening, he could have very possibly flourished.

 

Instead, she’s using it to send him and a near-stranger away from the evil god that wants to kill them. Well, everybody’s got their different parenting techniques.

 

This should get them through at least a year on the road, though she hopes they can figure out a way to beat this thing before it comes to that. She wants to see her son again; she doesn’t want tonight to be the last time she gets to hold him, kiss his cheek, tell him how much she loves him and how he’s the best goddamn thing to ever happen to her.

 

Heidi’s not super enthused about sending Evan off with this Connor boy, someone she hasn’t exactly heard stellar things about, but she’d rather have Evan turn into a stoner than hold his funeral, so this is what’s got to happen. Connor will protect Evan, she’s just got a feeling about it, and he knows too much now, anyway; the One Who Floods the World, or what Heidi affectionately calls Great Big Shithead , He won’t hesitate to slit Connor’s throat as soon as he’s finished with Evan. And Heidi can’t let that happen to either of them. They’re so young, and they’ve got so much to live for, so much pure, untainted life ahead of them. They deserve to experience it if they can, and Heidi’s determined to make sure they do.

 

Once she’s shoved the money into a relatively unremarkable paper bag (that she hopes and prays the boys won’t accidentally throw away) and stapled it shut, she hurries upstairs to wake Evan. When she reaches his room, she almost wants to turn back around, hesitating in the doorway at the sight of her son sleeping so peacefully in his bed. He looks so small, swallowed up in the giant raggedy blanket he drags out when the autumn chill of upstate New York finally gets to him, and Heidi almost doesn’t want to wake him. She almost wants to let him be, leave him to sleep and make him pancakes in the morning like she used to when he was little.

 

But these aren’t the good days anymore, and there will be no fucking pancakes. An enormous crack sounds from outside, and Heidi flinches, startled. She steps into the room, peering out of Evan’s window, and notes that a tree down the street has been split in half by a bolt of lightning. It’s smoking at the ends.

 

This is no ordinary storm. Of course it’s not. It’s the work of Him .

 

At that, she rushes over to Evan’s side and shakes him awake. “Evan? Evan, sweetie, you have to wake up, okay, you’ve got to get up now, I’m sorry but you need to wake up.” He stirs, mumbling something groggily that Heidi can’t quite decipher, before he starts to rub at his eyes and then looks up at her.

 

“Mom? W-what’s — what’s going on?”

 

The mere sound of his voice nearly breaks her in half, just like the tree down the street, and Heidi has to force herself to take a deep breath, steadies herself by sitting down on the edge of Evan’s bed. “It’s the prophecy, Ev. It’s — He’s arrived, and it’s not safe for you here anymore, honey. It’s not safe for Connor, either, he knows too much.”

 

“But, I’m — I’m supposed to fight Him, right? So why would I run away?” Evan’s lip is trembling, but Heidi appreciates the show of confidence he’s putting on for her, like he thinks she needs it more than he needs to break down, even though it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Evan’s on the verge of doing just that. God, she should really win a world record for getting her kid to tears faster than any other mom on the planet.

 

“You’re not ready yet, baby. You have to spend time preparing for this, training, and I know I’ve let you down by not doing that, but that’s what you’ve got to go do now, okay? You have to get away from here, and find someone who can help you. You and Connor, you can do this — I believe in you, Evan, you have to know that.”

 

There are tears streaming down her son’s cheeks, snot smeared by his nose — poor thing, he’s always been a messy crier — and Heidi wants nothing more than to take him in her arms and tell him it’ll all be okay. But they’ve always had a policy about honesty, about not lying to each other if they could help it (although, she supposes, she’s been lying by omission for eighteen years), and she doesn’t want to tell Evan that if she doesn’t know it to be true. And she can’t know that yet. Nobody knows.

 

“I—I don’t understand, Mom, why can’t you come with us?” Heidi’s heart nearly tears in half, because even at eighteen, in this moment Evan sounds so much like the innocent little boy she used to cuddle and hold and kiss, and she doesn’t want to see that innocence go away. She doesn’t want to watch as this damn prophecy takes away everything good in his life and leaves behind nothing more than emptiness, but that’s what’s happened to the Chosen Ones, she’s heard. She knows the stories; even those who never had to fulfill the prophecy, Evan’s ancestors who were born in the fall, they suffered at the hands of their supposed fates, too. They pushed away their loved ones, scared of what might happen to them if the day of the prophecy were to come. They shut themselves away from society, too busy spending every waking moment preparing for a battle that never came. They led lonely, solitary lives, and Heidi doesn’t want that for her child. Who would?

 

It’s moments like these when she wishes she’d had the foresight not to marry someone who was ridiculously out of her league, anyway. Of course it’d be her luck that her (ex-)husband was only so attractive because he was descended from ancient Norse warriors. Of course.

 

“I can’t, sweetie, you know I can’t,” she murmurs, smoothing back his hair from his forehead. “I’m an old hag, y’know? Connor will look after you way better than I ever could. And besides, I have to stay here and watch out for the Murphys and the rest of the town.”

 

Evan at least chuckles at her old hag line, and Heidi’s grateful to the gods for the small smile that forms on her son’s face. She presses a kiss to his forehead and hugs him close; she can feel his shoulders shaking, and there’s a part of her that’s so livid, so furious with the world for giving her such an incredible son, because why couldn’t he just be average? She would’ve been happy with a C student who spent two years at the community college before heading off to a state school, but no, instead she got Evan, wonderful, perfectly imperfect Evan, who’s destined to save them all, prophesied to save the entire world, and she knows she should be prideful, encouraging, but right now she can’t muster up anything other than fear and anger and sadness. She doesn’t want a savior of mankind; she wants her fucking son .

 

At another loud crash of thunder outside, this one sounding closer than the ones before, she finally pulls away, something in her heart shattering a little at the wounded look Evan gives her. “You better call Connor now, hon,” she tells him. “The storm’s getting worse, and I dunno if you kids will be able to get out of here in time if you wait much longer.”

 

Evan bites his lip, and the reluctance is written all over him, her poor open book of a son, but he reaches for his phone on his nightstand and starts to dial Connor’s number.

 

Heidi decides it’s best to give them some privacy. She has a feeling this will be a difficult conversation for the two of them.

 

And she’s got to get ready, anyway. Or at least, as ready as she can be.

 

Evan’s hands are shaking so badly that he barely manages to dial Connor’s number. It takes him three tries. Thank God his phone doesn’t actually dial until he presses “Enter” twice — that’s how crappy it is, his dinky off-brand little cell phone.

 

Connor picks up on the first ring, surprisingly. He must’ve already been awake. Briefly, Evan wonders what the other boy could be doing at two forty-five in the morning, then realizes it’s probably the storm that woke him up. Obviously. It looks like the chaos is coming from near Main Street, and if it’s this loud where he lives, he can’t imagine how intense it must be at Connor’s place, which is closer to the town square.

 

“Evan?” His voice is thick with sleep. He clearly hasn’t been up for too long. “Why are you calling me at two in the fucking morning?”

 

“Connor, I — I don’t know how to explain this, but — ” Evan inhales sharply, attempting to slow his racing heartbeat, to allow the words to leave his mouth. It’s so hard, trying to explain this to a person he just met fourteen hours ago, even though with their driving around that afternoon, he already knows Connor won’t think he’s crazy. “There’s a prophecy, right? A prophecy that says I’m supposed to save the world, protect us all from this — t-t-this awful terrible evil god, or whatever, and, um, He’s here, He’s the reason for this storm, and my mom knows all about it and she says we need to go. Like, get the f-fuck out of Dodge kind of go.” He stumbles over the curse word, but Connor doesn’t laugh like he’d expected him to, nor does he hang up, which is probably a good sign.

 

There’s a crackle of static in his ear as Connor exhales roughly into the phone. “As much as I appreciate your invitation, Hansen, now, in the middle of the night when half the town is on fire, is probably not the best time to go on a fuckin’ roadtrip, so I’m gonna have to turn you down, see you tomorrow if our school’s still there—”

 

“Wait, Connor, please!”

 

Evan startles himself with his own desperate outburst, but it clearly works — Connor doesn’t end the call. “Please,” Evan begs, “just come over. You — you don’t even have to leave, if we tell you everything and you still decide you don’t want to, but please just come over. I’m not sure if there’ll be a tomorrow if you don’t, o-or a later, which is what it’d technically be anyway, so — so please just come.”

 

There’s a beat of silence, and for a moment, Evan’s afraid that Connor will say no, screw you, you having powers was weird enough and I’m not subscribing to your prophecy bullshit.

 

Then he hears the impatient huff that he knows means he’s won. “Fine. I’ll be over in ten — assuming a tree doesn’t fall on my car or something.”

 

The abrupt click of the phone as Connor hangs up doesn’t even bother him.

 

Maybe they have a chance, after all.

 

With almost five years of practice under his belt, Connor’s gotten pretty good at sneaking out. Put on socks, but don’t get your shoes on until you’re safely outside, or else they’ll make noise when you walk down the stairs; don’t wear all black, because then one of the neighbors might see you while they’re up late binge-watching Downton Abbey and then call 911 to report a burglary; and most importantly of all, use the back door in the kitchen to find your way to freedom.

 

He’s only ever been caught once before, thanks to that bitchy aforementioned neighbor. And as he walks into the kitchen tonight for what must be the thousandth time, he’s certainly not expecting to find his sister waiting there, shoveling cereal into her mouth at a mile a minute.

 

She’s already seen him anyway, so he doesn’t worry about talking, though he tries to keep his voice low. “What the hell are you doing? It’s three in the morning, Zoe.”

 

His sister looks up at him with bleary eyes, milk dripping from her spoon. “I got woken up by that stupid thunderstorm and realized I was hungry. I don’t think you can exactly criticize me for that, since you’ve got, like, a permanent case of the munchies.” She pauses, takes a moment to look him up and down, and, spotting the keys to their parents’ Mercedes in his hand, remarks, “Gonna go buy something off of your dealer, huh? In the middle of a storm, wow. That’s impressive dedication coming from you.”

 

He sighs heavily; leave it to Zoe to go straight for the jugular.  Normally, he’d snark right back, but he doesn’t have time for this right now. “Yeah, sure, Zoe, whatever. I’m leaving. See you later, maybe.” Tucking the car keys in his pocket so they won’t jangle, Connor turns to head for the door, but he stops in his tracks at the unfamiliar feel of a hand around his wrist.

 

Zoe’s grabbed him, and he spins around to face her. This is exactly what he doesn’t need when he’s trying to leave; the fight that’s obviously brewing will just wake up their parents, and then he’ll never be able to get out of here. Her eyes aren’t flinty and hard like he’s expecting, though — they’re softer, now, a more vulnerable quality to them than before. “Don’t. Don’t go, Connor,” she says quietly. “Please just stay. Don’t make things any worse than they already are.”

 

This is probably the warmest tone she’s used with him in months. Connor had almost forgotten what a kind Zoe sounded like. “I have to go, Zo,” he tells her, the old nickname slipping out by accident, but something in his sister’s face lights up at it. “I really don’t have a choice.”

 

Her brow furrows at that. “Um, yes, you do, Connor, you absolutely have a choice in whether to be a stoner or not. Unless you’re trying to tell me that you’ve got a deal gone bad here and the big old Stratham Mafia’s gonna come for us later if you don’t settle it?”

 

He rolls his eyes but chooses not to respond. Instead, a bizarre surge of affection runs through his veins for his sister, and he leans forward to press a kiss to the top of her head. Vaguely, he can recall a period when she had dark blue streaks in her hair — it can’t have been that long ago, but if it’s around the time he’s thinking of, he was probably away at that yoga-based rehab up in the Catskills for the majority of the Blue Era. He knows that when he started his junior year, Zoe’s blue streaks were gone. He remembers that she didn’t seem as happy without them.

 

“Connor, seriously, if you’re going to leave, at least don’t do it in the middle of what’s probably the worst storm this town has seen in centuries,” Zoe insists, pulling away from him. “I mean, I’m pretty sure there’s things on fire.”

 

He allows himself a small smile at her words. Zoe’s not always as cool and contained as she likes to pretend she is. “Be good, okay?” he says.

 

“Connor, wait, what the hell is going on—”

 

He’s out the door before she can finish her sentence.

 

When she hears the slam of a car door outside a quarter past three, Heidi knows Connor has arrived. She would say she’s excited to meet him, and in any other context, she certainly would be, but she can’t say she’s all that excited about anything that’s happening tonight.

 

Her fingers brush the cool metal pendant that rests under her shirt, and that gives her the strength she needs to open the door and invite him in. She’s greeted by a wild-eyed boy with even wilder hair, thick, dark brown curls of it that just reach his collarbone. He’s tall and lanky, thin as a reed, and Heidi can feel the anger rolling off of him in waves. Connor obviously already had problems in his life before he met her son, though since the other moms who work at the nursing home occasionally gossip about his nasty liking for marijuana and even nastier liking for cutting class, that doesn’t really surprise her.

 

“Hi,” she says, propping the door open with her foot and ushering Connor into the house. The rain’s practically horizontal out there, and she doesn’t want to let any of it in. “You must be Connor.” She closes the door behind them once he’s safely crossed the entryway.

 

“Yeah,” he replies. “Connor Murphy. Nice to meet you, Mrs. Hansen.”

 

Heidi’s heart nearly stops at that. Connor Murphy. So this must be Cynthia’s child, though surely not the one she believed to be the eventual Guardian. No, that child had been a girl — her name had started with a Z, she thinks — and she’s too young to have been told about the prophecy yet. She still must be somewhere around sixteen, and these days, children of the prophecy don’t begin their training until eighteen. That means she’s safe here, Heidi realizes. She’s too young to even know herself, and so she can’t have told anyone else yet, which means He probably doesn’t know about her. But it also means that this is terrible timing, because Evan’s just turned eighteen, and now he doesn’t even have a Guardian trained to protect him.

 

Awful. This is absolutely, utterly awful.

 

Connor raises a brow at her silence, and Heidi slams back into reality. His eyes are strange, she notices, a pretty blue color with a little smudge of brown in the right one. Heterochromia is only typically found in Guardians or Chosen Ones, as far as she knows (though she must admit, she’s a little rusty on her Norse mythology now, what with work and all), but perhaps it’s a little bit of that power from Cynthia’s line, the power that will one day manifest so brilliantly in his sister.

 

It’s certainly interesting, but the only issue is that it will make him stand out. Cashiers, hotel clerks and waitresses, they’re going to notice those strange eyes. They’re distinct, and that might get the boys caught.

 

It’s too late to back out now, though. Heidi just hopes to the gods that nothing will ever come of it. Maybe she’ll convince him to invest in colored contacts before they leave.

 

“Evan’s getting ready,” she says, clearing her throat. “Uh, why don’t we sit on the couch for a second, and I’ll give you the simplified version of what exactly’s going on around here tonight.”

 

“I’d appreciate that,” Connor responds, shoving his hands in his pockets as she leads them into the living room.

 

Fifteen minutes later, Heidi’s given a far briefer rundown of the prophecy and what it entails than she’s honestly comfortable with, but they don’t have time for the entire story, and she knows that. Now, she’s just trying to gauge Connor’s reaction, watching carefully for any sign of disbelief or anger in his face.

 

He doesn’t look furious or weirded out. Really, he just looks overwhelmed. “I guess I just don’t understand why I’m the one who has to come with Evan,” he finally says, slowly and carefully. “Like, I get that he needs someone to look after him, but why can’t that be you? You’re his mom, after all.”

 

Heidi’s heart aches at that last statement. I know, she thinks. “I’m sorry, hon,” she tells him. “I know you’re an innocent and you didn’t mean to get caught up in all of this mess, but the reality is that you are, and we can’t do anything about that now. And because you’re involved in this — because you know what Evan is, and what he has to do, that means He knows that you know, and you’re in just as much danger as Evan if you stay.”

 

“He? Who’s that?”

 

“Sorry. The One Who Floods the World. I mentioned him earlier.”

 

“Oh. Yeah.”

 

There’s an awkward silence between them for a moment, but it’s thankfully broken by the sound of footsteps as Evan comes down the stairs, little black backpack in hand, stuffed at the seams with clothes and whatever assortment of items he’s gathered for the trip. Heidi nearly loses her shit at the sight of him — she can tell that he’s trying to be strong, her brave boy, but his eyes give it all away, just how scared he is, and she hurts so much for him. She’d give her life for this to not be Evan’s fate, but she knows that’s not up to her. It never was. This is all the gods’ doing, and she has to trust in them. It’s all she has, at this point.

 

“Hi, Connor,” Evan says softly, dropping his bag to the floor. “Thanks for coming. I know I probably freaked you out, but—” He trails off, hands gesturing awkwardly as he attempts to find a way to finish his sentence, but the words clearly don’t come to him, and Evan’s hands fall to his side. “Anyway,” he eventually settles for.

 

Thunder crashes again outside, and this time, it’s intense enough that their window panes vibrate with the force of it. That’s her signal from the gods, Heidi supposes. “So, I guess you’ll need to take my car,” she says, trying to hide the anxiety in her voice.

 

“But, Mom, you need a way to get to work—”

 

“I took my parents’ car,” Connor interrupts, jabbing a finger towards their driveway. “It’s fancy, will probably get us farther than any of our other options.”

 

Heidi pretends to briefly consider this, even though the answer’s already made up in her mind. The Murphys exclusively drive Mercedes, she knows this, so the safety features will certainly be better than whatever she’s got in her dinky little 1995 Saturn. “Okay,” she agrees. “Let me just get you a spare license plate from the kitchen. Once your parents report you missing in 24 hours — which they will do, by the way — the police will put out an all-points bulletin for that car with that license plate, and they’ll pull you over and haul you back here the second they see you.”

 

As she disappears into the kitchen, she catches a snippet of Connor mumbling to Evan about why she keeps spare license plates just lying around. Ah, the naïveté of youth, she thinks, almost smiling at it. Little do they know that I’ve been preparing for this for years.

 

Yes, she’s been preparing. Because that’s what a mother does, when faced with an inevitable horror. She prepares, because she has no other choice.

 

Heidi returns with the license plate and hands it to Evan, who manages to shove it into his overflowing backpack. She’s also brought the money and the boys’ lunches with her, but those she hands to Connor, who doesn’t have his hands full, unlike her son. “This is a lot of money, Mrs. Hansen,” Connor says suspiciously.

 

“I’ve been saving up for years,” she admits. “When you’re the mother of a special kid like Evan, you have to prepare for things like this, y’know?” Evan flushes at that, and Connor does his best to hide a smirk.

 

Lightning flashes, lighting up the entire house, and Heidi knows this is her cue. Time to let go, time to say goodbye to her son. Well, where’s Option C? Where’s the place where she marks, Sorry, this is the only good thing I have, you can’t have him, better luck next time? Where comes the part when she gets to have a choice in what happens to her own son, her Evan, the boy that’s lit up her life for the past eighteen years, kept her going when she had no other reason to? Hell, she doesn’t even know if she’d be here if not for him.

 

It’s not fair for them to take him, but the pendant is icy cold against her skin, and Heidi’s more than aware of what she has to do. She has to be the bigger person, like her old elementary school teacher might’ve said. Well, too bad that nobody ever teaches you just how much being the bigger person fucking hurts.

 

“I love you, sweetie,” she whispers, folding Evan into her arms, trying desperately to memorize the exact feeling of this hug. She doesn’t know if this’ll be the last time she’ll ever hold him, or hear him, or see him, or even know that he’s breathing and alive.

 

“Mom — ” Evan’s voice cracks, and tears are spilling down his cheeks again, just like in his bedroom earlier.

 

She squeezes his shoulder tight. “You’re so strong, baby. You’re stronger than you know. You just — you get somewhere safe, okay, you get somewhere safe, and you train, you train your ass off, and know that you can do this. And even if you can’t, or you think you can’t — just remember that I’ll love you all the same,” she promises. “Nothing can ever change that. Not even an ancient prophecy by the gods.”

 

“I love you,” Evan says, desperately, like he’s drowning in an ocean and hopelessly trying to grasp at something solid.

 

She presses a kiss to his cheek, one last kiss from her boy, and then turns to Connor, who shifts awkwardly on his feet. “Take good care of him, okay?” she instructs. “Keep him safe. Keep yourself safe, too, but — keep my baby safe.”

 

Sobs claw at her throat now, but the loudest boom of thunder yet doesn’t allow her to cry, spurs her into action. “It’s time,” she says. “You need to go, boys.”

 

Evan sniffles, eyes locking with hers, and it takes everything in Heidi not to run to his side and tell him, No, sweetie, never mind, it’s okay, you don’t have to go, just stay here with me, alright? Stay here with me, and I’ll protect you, I’ll look after you, and nothing bad will ever happen to you as long as I’m alive, I swear it.

 

“Evan?” Connor says, gesturing to the door, and Heidi nods at her son. Go, baby. Be safe.

 

“I love you,” she tells him again, going to unlock the door, propping it open so they can leave. Connor’s car is sitting in the driveway, waiting for them, and Heidi’s never hated the sight of a Mercedes as much as she does now.

 

“Love you,” Evan echoes hollowly, like his brain’s removed him from the situation to avoid the trauma of it all, and Heidi’s heart feels like it just might burst.

 

Connor urges Evan out the door, so he’s a buffer in between him and Heidi, just in case Evan loses his will last-minute and tries to run back into her arms. The Murphy boy turns to her, face tinted electric-blue with the latest strike of lightning, and a part of her can say that she’s at least somewhat relieved by the determination she sees in his eyes. That’s a good sign.

 

“Best of luck to you, Connor,” she says.

 

“I’ll keep him safe, Mrs. Hansen,” he replies.

 

And then he’s gone, climbing into the car and shutting the door, and Heidi forces herself to watch from the doorway as Connor starts the engine, turns on the wipers, and, finally, pulls out of the driveway. Evan waves goodbye as they go.

 

It’s only when she’s sure they’re gone, when she’s sure that Evan can’t see her anymore, that she closes the door, falls to her knees, and breaks.

 

Evan is not sure when his life stopped being his life entirely and turned into something out of a Percy Jackson novel, but what he is sure of is that twenty-four hours ago, he would’ve expected Jared to compliment his outfit or something before he ever would’ve anticipated Connor Murphy escaping town with him in the Murphy family’s brand spanking new luxury SUV.

 

His anxiety is at an all-time high right now, but thankfully, he’s got at least one speck of common sense left in him, and so when the temptation to call up that calming light in his palms arises, Evan resists it. That’d probably just freak Connor out and draw the attention of Him, anyway.

 

There’s been silence, heavy and thick, filling the car for somewhere around twenty minutes now, but finally, Connor speaks up. “This is it,” he says.

 

Evan’s head snaps up, and at first he thinks Connor’s talking about their inevitable deaths, like, oh, I’ve just realized that my supposed “savior” is a wimpy eighteen-year-old with a severe anxiety disorder, and we’re all probably screwed now, right?, but then he looks out the window and sees the big green sign, and he realizes what Connor means.

 

YOU ARE NOW REACHING THE CITY LIMITS OF STRATHAM, NEW YORK, POP. 2,401, the sign reads. Well, that’ll go down by two as of right now, Evan thinks, then continues to scan the sign. WE THANK YOU FOR YOUR VISIT, AND PLEASE COME AGAIN SOON!

 

“Any last goodbyes?” Connor asks, glancing over at him.

 

“Um… no? I don’t think so?” He’d prefer to watch the city disappear behind them instead, Evan decides, and so he twists around in his seat to stare out the rear window. Normally, it’s a pleasant view, but now, thunderclouds consume the town, almost obscuring it completely, streaks of lightning filling the sky.

 

The sight makes Evan shudder. It’s a sight that reeks of evil.

 

He turns back to Connor.

 

“Hit the gas.”

Chapter Text

Three.

The first few hours of the drive are silent, tense and fearful. Evan feels an overwhelming sense of dread, an urge to constantly look over his shoulder, to see if the storm, the madness, is following them.

 

He feels trapped with every bad thought in his brain, unable to break out and speak, not even to voice those thoughts, while Connor grips the steering wheel with white knuckles. His jaw is clenched, and his eyes are focused on the road ahead of them.

 

It has been four hours since they passed the sign that cheerfully told them they were Leaving Henrietta County, and it only occurs to Evan now that he has no idea where Connor is taking them and their meager belongings.

 

“Where are we going?” he asks, his voice barely above a whisper, but the car is so quiet that the sound pierces that tension, twists a knife in it.

 

Connor barely affords him a sideways glance. “I’m getting us out of the country. You took Spanish, right?”

 

Evan furrows his brows. They can’t leave -- his mother, Connor’s family, they’re all back there, with that thing, they’re all possibly suffering at the hands of this thing that he’s supposed to defeat. How can he do that if he runs away from it?

 

“We can’t. We can’t do that, Connor.”

 

“Your mother told us to get out, and get out of danger. I’m getting you out of danger.”

 

Evan takes a shuddering breath, the panic of leaving his home, his mother, his familiar surroundings behind setting in, and he comes to the realization that he’s left all of his medication at home. And this feels like an unavoidable panic attack coming on. He squeezes his eyes closed and tries to breathe like his therapist told him how to.

 

He won’t be going to a therapist now.

 

“What are you doing? You look like you’re gonna be sick, please don’t throw up in the car. I don’t care about the upholstery, but I’d rather not smell puke for the rest of the trip. Shit, man, are you okay? Look, just breathe, okay?”

 

Evan’s hand is on the door handle, and he hears Connor’s breath hitch, and feels the car slow and swerve to the side of the road as he opens the door and leans out the side before his stomach revolts and rids itself of everything he ate that day.

 

He hears Connor slap a hand over his mouth, and he knows Connor has turned away to stop the sick feeling in his own stomach.

 

Finally, he stops gagging and sits up, wiping the cold sweat from his forehead and bringing his knees up to his chest.

 

“Well, that was fucking disgusting," Connor says after a moment.

 

Evan laughs dryly, and his tired mind lets him say the first thing that pops into his head: “You’re telling me.”

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“I don’t know if we’re ever going to go home, ever again, and I left—” His breath catches. “I left everything behind. My pills, most of my clothes, my mom, I don’t have anything, and I’m freaking out! I can’t— I don’t—”

 

And the hyperventilation starts, and Evan rests his head on the car seat and tries to breathe normally. Connor’s hand hesitantly reaches over and rests itself on his shoulder gently.

 

Connor is mumbling under his breath, something about how he’s not cut out to comfort people, and god forbid the clouds roll in over them while they’re holding an impromptu therapy session on the side of the road by a puddle of puke, and when the fuzzy, oxygen-deprived feeling around his brain lifts, he has to laugh, because he’s exactly right, they don’t have time for Evan to cry and hyperventilate like this is the worst thing that is happening at the moment.

 

He closes the door. “Drive,” he whispers, and he feels the car start to move under them.

 

A half hour passes before Evan feels calm enough to speak again.

 

“Could you—” His voice rasps, and he looks down to find a water bottle in his bag. “Could you put on some music. I — uh — I get it if you don’t wanna talk but I can’t stand this silence, it’s killing me.”

 

He looks up at Connor sheepishly, and he gives Evan a small look of concession and hands him his phone.

 

“It’s Bluetooth-ed into the speakers --  scroll through Spotify, put on whatever you want, I don’t care.”

 

Evan takes the phone like it is made of glass and touches the screen as softly as possible, before just going to the My Music page and pressing Play on whatever Connor last had playing, as that’s what’s most likely to be saved.

 

The Dixie Chicks start blaring through the speakers, much too loud, startling both of them, and Connor hurriedly manually turns the sound down, while Evan looks down to figure out what they’re listening to.

 

It’s a country playlist, saved and downloaded. Connor does not look the type to appreciate or enjoy country music. He opens his mouth to apologize, and starts moving to rectify his likely dismal music choice, probably something Zoe downloaded to mess with him, when Connor pipes up.

 

“With ‘I love you’ on a fresh tattoo engraved upon his chest, she tore her name right off his heart, so here’s to the unblessed—” He’s singing loudly, and mostly in tune, but Evan spots pink in his cheeks, and the way his hands tighten on the steering wheel.

 

Connor breaks off. “Could you put my phone on airplane mode? I don’t want my parents following us.”

 

And then he starts singing again, and Evan is more confused than he has ever been before in his life. But he does as Connor says, and starts to drift off a few songs later to the dulcet tones of Karen Carpenter singing something about a bayou.

 

Evan comes to several hours later, and the light is once again high in the sky, and they pass a sign proclaiming they’ve entered Pennsylvania. He’s a state away from his mom, from home, and from everything he ever knew, and his soul aches to return. He clenches his hand on his knee and tries to stretch out in the least inconveniencing way possible.

 

The car is quiet again, with a soft song playing over the speakers, and Connor is once again focused on the road. And yawning. It’s been almost seven hours since they left home, and Connor has been driving nonstop since then.

 

Concern gnaws at his mind, and he doesn’t stop himself from reaching out drowsily and covering one of Connor’s hands on the steering wheel with his own.

 

“You need to rest,” he slurs, and Connor gives him a look like he just spoke gibberish. Evan sits up, straightens himself out. “Being sleepy while driving is just as bad as drunk driving,” and he knows he’s spoken more clearly this time, because Connor rolls his eyes.

 

“There’s no way that’s true,” he replies.

 

“Doesn’t matter if it is or isn’t, you definitely need sleep. Just pull in at the next motel. We can take the time to sleep, we’ll be back on the road by 10. We’ll take the time to stock up on food and drink and sleep, and we’ll be able to go longer for the next block of driving.”

 

Connor can’t argue with that logic, and nods his head incrementally, and Evan relaxes, hoping that soon he can survive without his meds, that soon he’ll be able to drive as well without suffering from a panic attack the likes of which haven’t been seen since the last time he was behind the wheel of a car. He wishes he could help. Then they wouldn’t have to stop. As it is, with him being as jumpy as he is, this is their safest option.

 

It’s not even ten minutes before they roll into Lawrenceville, taking an exit off the highway, and they come to a little motel.

 

At the front desk they’re greeted by a desk clerk that definitely thinks the worst of them, and is either actually out of rooms with twin beds or is denying them anything but a double. Either way, Connor is tired and irritable, and Evan wouldn’t put it past him to commit a murder.

 

“Look, sir, with all due respect, I’d like to get a little sleep, and sleeping beside Mr. ‘I can’t breathe without hyperventilating’ over here is not going to be conducive to that. What I’m asking for is a room with two beds.”

 

“And I’m telling you that I cannot provide that, our single rooms are booked out. I can offer you this room, or nothing at all.”

 

Connor looks ready to start talking with his fists, so despite his anxiety, Evan steps in front of Connor and up to the plate. “We’d be happy to take the room, we’ll only be here until tonight, and I’d like to pay up front. How much do I owe you?”

 

And so Evan hands over a disproportionate amount of money to stay in a motel room that smells of smoke and death for eleven hours. They stop by a vending machine for a bag of chips, a bag of baby carrots, and two bottles of water, and when they finally reach their room, Connor is under the covers and snoring by the time Evan has set down their bags and checked the room out.

 

That uneasy feeling nestles itself back into his very being, and he can’t help but feel the room is too small, it’s stifling, and he has to close his eyes and remind himself that he is okay, for the most part.

 

He slips his shoes off and lies over the top of the covers, afraid to disturb Connor. Afraid to even slip in next to him. So he lies perfectly still, in a room still slightly lit up with the rising sun outside the curtains, with only his thoughts to occupy him.

 

He lies there for an hour, waiting for sleep to find him, give him a little reprieve from this stupidly stressful day, but it doesn’t, he’s more awake than he’s ever been, frozen in fear at the thought of what comes next.

 

He’s accepted that they will leave the country, they’ll probably cross through Mexico, Connor might insist they fly somewhere, might insist they change their names, might do any number of things to take him further away from home, from his mom. He might not even share a name with her anymore. What if he forgets her someday, the way it felt to be held, and the way that she smiled, and her eyes twinkled, and the way she used to sing little made-up songs to get him to go to sleep?

 

He hates that thought, he hates leaving her, and home, and he hates that he has to accept this now. That life on the road might become his entire life now. That he might never settle back down, that he might always have to look over his shoulder, might always have to fear storms. That sick feeling is back, and he lurches out of bed and runs to the bathroom to hunch over and throw up what must only be a bottle of water.

 

He’s so tired of this road trip already.

Chapter Text

E van knows his mother would be beyond horrified by the prospect of him eating a McDonald’s cheeseburger for breakfast. But it’s 11:00 in the morning, since he and Connor had both slept in a little too late, and fast food chains are pretty much the only option in this tiny town in northern Pennsylvania.

 

    Eating in the car, however, is a poor choice that he can’t excuse.

 

    “We could have just as easily gone in and sat down for a while—”

 

    “We’ve lost enough time as it is. Eat your cheeseburger, Hansen.”

 

    It’s hard not to worry about getting food everywhere in this pristine car,  especially with Evan’s propensity for thinking of the absolute worst thing that could happen. Connor is already inhaling fries like he hasn’t eaten in a day, and it occurs to Evan that he hasn’t, but he’s still distracted by the greasy fingerprints on the leather steering wheel.

 

    He bites into the cheeseburger, which seems so small now — when he was a kid, it seemed like half of it was a full meal, but now it seems dwarfed by his hand. It’s disappointing, to say the least, but that’s what they got for going to a fast food restaurant expecting anything close to fine dining.

 

    “I don’t want to leave the country. It’s going to be hard enough crossing the border without passports, proving we’re not carrying drugs, or weapons, or any number of other contraband — I mean, we’re teenagers, what else would we be doing. But adjusting to another country? Living on the road?”

 

    Connor sighs and finishes his fries. “Where do you suggest we go, then? Your mom just said to get out and to protect you. I’m trying to do that job, keep the ‘savior of the free world’ safe. I don’t think you get to make decisions like this.”

 

    “It doesn’t make sense to just leave. If I’m supposed to be this big savior or whatever, shouldn’t I be turning around and facing this thing?”

 

    Connor raises an eyebrow in what seems like amusement. “You want to turn around and fight this thing? You ? You had a panic attack and threw up yesterday because the car was too quiet.”

 

    “I’m not saying I want to do it. But it’s my duty, right? According to this prophecy.”

 

    Connor can’t hide his smirk now. “According to this prophecy, you also have a guardian, but I’m not seeing them around anywhere. You might want to rethink your stance on fighting the big scary lightning monster.”

 

    “Point taken. But what do we really even know about this prophecy anyway? There’s a savior, and a guardian, and apparently your sister and myself fit all the requirements? There’s nothing on how to defeat this thing. I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing about it, and we have no one to tell us.”

 

    “So we do research. Nerds like you like doing that, right? Get off to reading history books?”

 

    Evan rolls his eyes. “You sound like Jared. For your information, research is just as tedious to me as it is to you.”

 

    That said, he turns on his data for the first time in eighteen hours and ignores the notifications pouring in to Google ‘ancient Norse exhibits, USA’ and finds a fairly extensive one is being shown at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Washington was on their route.

 

    “We’re going to Washington. The Natural History Museum has an exhibit. We might find something there,” he states.

 

    “Are you the trip planner now?”

 

    “You’re the one saying we need to do research. There are likely to be experts lecturing there, maybe something in the exhibit itself that could give us something more.”

 

    Connor scowls. “Washington it is.”

 

    Evan smiles, turns his data off, and reaches for Connor’s phone.

 

    “What do you think you’re doing?” Connor’s voice is somehow both accusatory and defensive.

 

    “I was gonna start some music up, and maybe start compiling a playlist.”

 

    Connor’s mouth moves like he wants to speak but is using his better judgement to not cuss him out. Finally, he speaks. “And what were you planning on playing?”

 

    Evan looks down at Connor’s saved music and smirks. He presses Play, and guitar starts blaring through the speakers.

 

    Connor raises his eyebrows. “Nirvana.”

 

    “I can’t help but notice you only have one song saved.”

 

    “Yeah, but it’s just my favorite.”

 

    Normally, Evan hates to be the gatekeeper of literally anything, but Connor’s teased him enough — he thinks he has some right in this situation to strike back. “Name three of their songs.”

 

    “Smells Like Teen Spirit…” He pauses for a moment and appears to freeze in his tracks.

 

    “Smells like the only Nirvana song you know,” Evan replies.

 

    And Connor throws his head back and, honest to God, cackles . And Evan is mortified that he had the audacity to go through with literally any of that conversation.

 

    “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I can’t believe I just said that, that was so rude—”

 

    “I had no idea you could say anything that wasn’t nice!”

 

    “I can’t, I don’t, I don’t even think things like that, I can’t believe—”

 

    A hand on his shoulder, squeezing, almost comfortingly, warm and solid and real. “I was impressed, you’re running it. Go ahead, O Keeper of the Music, put on whatever you want.”

 

    And he does.

 

    There’s a point at which driving through Pennsylvania stopped being jarring and lonely and stifling and started to be relaxing. If Evan stuck his head out of the window and looked up, he knows he would see every star worth seeing, out here in the middle of nowhere.

 

    There is no light on the horizon, no brightly lit city to mar the beauty of the landscape. They’re driving through the Tioga National Park, and there are trees as far as the eye can see, stretching their boughs to the heavens the same way the young-adult-fiction/coming-of-age-movie part of Evan’s brain longs to do.

 

    There is no part of him that can be bothered with being worried anymore. He wants to stick his torso out of the window of this entirely-too-nice-for-teenagers car and reach up to the stars like he could pluck them from the sky.

 

    He shakes that feeling off. Connor is in the car. And that kind of behavior is ridiculous anyways — not to mention unsafe.

 

    So he sits with his hands in his lap, thinking ridiculous thoughts, wishing he had brought a book. Thinking of the times his mother would sit him down with ancient tomes — what she called storytime then, he can see now was leading up to this very moment, making sure he knew as much as possible.

 

    He thinks of the gods and goddesses she would list off, telling stories about them, silly ones like Thor and Loki dressing up as Freya and a bridesmaid to win Thor’s hammer back from giants. Telling him about Freya and her chariot pulled by giant cats. Stories of betrayal, like the death of Baldur, god of happiness and light, and how a little trickery, a joke even, might make good situations turn out for the worst.

 

    He finds himself wanting to reach out to gods he doesn’t even know for certain are there, but knows that if they are, they sent him here. They put him in this situation. They made this his reality.

 

    And so he thinks, hard. It doesn’t seem appropriate to pray to possibly long-dead or non-existent gods out loud.

 

    Tyr , he thinks, God of warriors, who chose my fate and sent me on my way. He falters. He’s started off so well, formal even, and he has no idea how to ask these hard questions — oh God, he’s questioning gods — without phrasing them so differently. He resolves to just be blunt about it.

 

    I’ll cut the crap. Why me? Why choose me for this forsaken mission, bound to be smattered in worries and heartbreak? Why is the fate of the world rested upon my shoulders? Why does the price of defending this world have to be the cost of my happiness? And Forseti, God of Justice, where do you see the justice in this? Should this not be the job of the gods, to hold off the oncoming storm, instead of falling to mere mortals to protect this world? It isn’t ‘just’ in the least, and I hope you can at least recognize that, even if you can’t rectify it.

 

    His prayer feels accusatory, lacking in everything but conviction, but he holds fast to it. If there are gods out there who are pulling the strings, who have placed him in this position, should it not have fallen to them to perform his job?

 

    Still, he feels bad, praying to gods he had never prayed to before only to berate them for placing a mere mortal in the way of what is obviously far more powerful. He wallows in this guilt and self-pity for a while.

 

    That is, until his phone rings, and without thinking about the implications, he picks it up on impulse.

 

    “Hello?” he says, and then cringes. He’s not supposed to be answering calls. Connor is giving him a death glare, and then all of a sudden, Jared’s voice is in his ear.

 

    “Oh, thank all that is holy, you’re alive! Where the fuck are you, man? I thought you died in that crazy storm, and your mom won’t tell me a thing.” Jared’s voice is urgent and concerned.

 

    “It’s not important where I am. I can’t tell you,” Evan says hurriedly.

 

    “What, are you being held captive? Are you being held captive in a sex dungeon? Is it by Connor Murphy? You know, he’s missing too.” Jared sounds almost too enthused by that, and Evan resolves to ignore everything he said before remarking on Connor being missing.

 

    “I might know that.”

 

    There’s a silence that lasts entirely too long, in Evan’s opinion, before Jared is laughing, hard and loud. “What the fuck is going on, Hansen? Did you actually just imply that you are with Connor Murphy?”

 

    “I might have implied that.” Another peal of laughter over the phone.

 

    “Holy shit, did you take the storm as an opportunity to elope? Oh my god, it’s just like Romeo and Juliet, how romantic! I mean, you guys are, like, the next town tragedy or something. It’s kind of great, every hot reporter in New York wants to interview me now.”

 

    “No, we didn’t, that’s not—” He lets out a frustrated groan.

 

    “What’s that? Hot Topic got you by the balls?”

 

    “You know that’s not what’s happening. We barely know each other.”

 

    “And yet you’re eloping. Mazel tov, guys. So you’ve gone off to be secret gay boyfriends together, huh? Gonna go get married by Elvis in Las Vegas?” That teasing edge to Jared’s voice is there, and it grates on every nerve Evan has.

 

    “No, we’re headed to—” Connor punches him in the arm. “Ow!”

 

    “Oof, your boyfriend being rough? You can soften him up, don’t worry—”

 

    “Jared, shut the fuck up.”

 

    There is a stunned silence, and Connor is the first one to break it, surprised laughter filling the air.

 

    “Is that Connor laughing? Fuck, man, he’s physically capable of that? He really is a changed man. You’ve changed him for the better—”

 

    “No really, Jared, shut up. I can’t tell you where I am, but I can tell you that my leaving is for the good of the town.”

 

    And anger is back in Jared’s voice. “How is you leaving ‘for the good of the town’? You were barely part of the town, you were a shut-in. But your mom is heartbroken, and people here miss you—”

 

    Evan’s heart aches at the mention of his mom. “I can’t tell you, I can’t—”

 

    All of a sudden, Connor is fumbling for the phone, grabbing it out of his hand and putting it on speaker. “Alright, Kleinman, here’s the deal. Somehow, the gods that are real are the Norse ones, fucking all of us over for the chance of an afterlife, and they’ve all collectively decided they hate Evan, and designed a prophecy around him, saying he’s destined to defeat some big evil or whatever. I’m not clear on the details. Anyway, we’re on the lam, because he’s wanted by some huge fucking douche-canoe of a god or something, and I know too much, and we can’t tell you where we are, because then you’d know too much too, and we’d have to come back and get you, and literally no one involved in this conversation wants you in this car.”

 

    A pause.

 

    “Well, fuck,” Jared says, “that’s way fucking cooler than underage elopement.”

 

    Connor looks over at him with bemusement evident on his face. “He thought we ran away to get married,” Evan explains.

 

    Connor snorts. “Ridiculous. Kleinman, if I was ever getting married to a guy, we have to be clear on one fact — I would not run away to do it. I want to enter into the holiest of brah-trimony in front of my father and extended homophobic family, just to rub my happiness in their faces.”

 

    And Jared is laughing, not mockingly, and for once not at his own joke. It is a clean and clear laugh of pure enjoyment and amusement. “Oh my god, you’ve got balls, Murphy, that’s brilliant.”

 

    “I try my hardest to fulfill my nuclear family role as family disappointment. You know me, I’m a hard worker.”

 

    And Evan finds it baffling that these two, so antagonistic to each other at school, are laughing along and bonding like they’re best pals now. The whiplash of the situation is making his head spin. And then something hits him.

 

    “Wait, you said people are reporting on this. It’s standard procedure not to declare a person missing before they’ve been gone for twenty-four hours.”

 

    “The Murphys have a lot of money and a lot of sway. Turn on the radio, they’ve got an Amber alert out for you, Connor.”

 

    “Shit,” Connor hisses. “What are they saying about me? Junkie, runaway—”

 

    “You’re a minor, so all they’re saying is that you’re a missing child with tendencies to be flighty. Your mom seems to genuinely feel worried for you. Your sister, on the other hand, does not seem at all interested in involving herself in the three-ring media circus,” Jared says.

 

    “Makes sense, she likes to make herself the center of attention by not being the center of attention. It’s her specialty.” Connor shakes his head, and Evan balls the bottom of his shirt in his fist.

 

    “I can’t wait to see what happens at school tomorrow. Alana Beck — you know, the Key Club president? She’s already going apeshit all over Twitter about how we should be organizing search parties and candlelight vigils and fundraisers. It’s insane.”

 

    Then there’s the sound of scuffling from the other end of the line, and a muffled voice that sounds like Jared’s mom.

 

    “No, Mom, I’m not talking to any — well, if you must know, it’s a girl from camp.”

 

    More muffled words.

 

    “No, it’s not serious, she lives in Maine, I just like talking to her — yeah, okay, I’ll tell you when she’s ready to meet my parents, you’ll be the first to know, thanks, I’m sure she’ll want to now that she knows how you invade my privacy. Yeah, night Mom, love you too.”

 

    The sound of a door closing. Evan looks over at Connor, who’s struggling not to laugh.

 

    “You owe me, Hansen. I really have to get off this call before I’m discovered to be in contact with the two kids whose faces are fucking plastered all over town. Good luck with your marriage, may you always be happy.”

 

    “Thank you, Jared.”

 

    “Don’t thank me yet, Hansen.”

 

    A tone. He’s hung up.

 

    And they’re left with only what he’s told them is going on at home. They’ve been reported missing, the police are looking for them. And there is still such a long stretch of road ahead of them.

 

    “Maybe it’s time to change the license plates,” Evan says quietly.

 

Chapter Text

Five.

When they pull into the parking lot of the cheapest motel in Baltimore, Maryland, Connor immediately notes Evan’s obvious anxiety. It’s true that the Mercedes looks completely out of place in a lot full of Toyotas, Hondas, and Fords, and Evan makes him beep the lock four times before he’s confident the car is as safe as it can be out there. Evan’s careful to bring all their belongings up to their $45-a-night room, but he doesn’t set them on the carpeted floor until he’s checked the mattress for bed bugs, like he’s done at every stop.

 

Yes, a singular mattress. Apparently, motels aren’t too eager to rent out a double room to two teenage boys traveling on their own with suspicious amounts of cash on their person. He kind of gets their logic — most teenage boys are the textbook definition of reckless, and that’s twice the number of potential beds to be destroyed — but still, it’s irritating. Sharing a bed with a guy he just met somewhere around 72 hours ago isn’t Connor’s idea of fun.

 

It’s only three o’clock in the afternoon, and at first, Evan had proposed some touristy stuff — maybe check out the aquarium, go to the infamous Hard Rock Café, et cetera. However, after some quick Googling, they’d soon come to the conclusion that tourist ventures in Baltimore would be far too expensive for their savings, and besides, they should leave that kind of stuff for D.C., anyway.

 

Still, the lack of planned activities has them both restless with boredom, Connor’s leg tapping a mindless rhythm onto the floor, and so when the proposal of watching trashy cable TV arises, Evan doesn’t seem entirely opposed to the idea. In the last two motel rooms, he’d insisted on a total TV ban, but that was when the novelty of their situation had occupied enough of their thoughts to keep them busy. Now, by Day Three, the novelty’s worn off.

 

These Norse gods obviously don’t like Evan all that much, but clearly, they’re not huge fans of Connor, either, because when he turns on the TV, the first channel that pops up is the local news. And of course, the subject of that news just so happens to be Connor and Evan themselves. Sometimes, Connor manages to forget how disgustingly loaded his parents are, but this is an excellent reminder — they’ve been gone barely three days, and yet his family is already pushing to make his disappearance a national issue. They must be doing a pretty good job, if the news has reached as far as Baltimore.

 

“LIVE PRESS CONFERENCE FROM STRATHAM, NY”, the scrolling text at the bottom of the screen reads. Connor’s eyes narrow. He bets his family is basking in the publicity. He wonders what his title will be in the newspapers — “Junior Junkie”, maybe “Reckless Rebel”? Definitely not anything positive — no, he’ll likely be posited as the negative influence who corrupted poor, innocent Evan Hansen.

 

Funny, how it’s kind of the other way around.

 

The camera zooms in to what Connor recognizes as the front of the town hall, and he watches, anger bubbling just underneath the surface of his skin, as his parents, Zoe, and Evan’s mom file onto the impromptu stage. Heidi looks relatively normal, save for the bags under her eyes, dressed in a brown leather jacket and some bootcut jeans. His mom is the picture of perfection, as per usual, not a single hair out of place, clean and prim in one of her signature cashmere cardigans. His dad doesn’t look half bad, either, though his jaw is sent in a hard, tense line that betrays at least a tiny bit of stress. And Zoe, of course, has perfected the art of nonchalance — her Converse and overalls make it abundantly clear that she could care less about dressing up for this shitty little press conference. Connor can’t exactly blame her, though he knows she’s probably overjoyed to have him gone.

 

He’d be overjoyed to have him gone, too.

 

The four of them are flanked by Mayor Beck and Sheriff Palmer on either side. Connor’s dad is the first to step up to the podium. “Two days ago, around 3 AM Eastern Standard Time,” he begins, “we have reason to believe that our son, James Connor Murphy, stole our family car to sneak out and meet up with his friend, a boy named Evan Hansen, and run away with him. We’re not sure as to why the boys would feel the need to do this, but what we are sure of is that they’re gone, and we have not heard a single word from them since their disappearance.”

 

Connor’s fists ball at the use of his given name. Does his dad not remember the way he used to get called “Jamie” in elementary school, teased relentlessly for the name he obviously hated so much? He’s gone by Connor for as long as he could express the desire to.

 

His mother is next. The camera zooms in enough that Connor can just make out the mascara smeared underneath her eyes, and something about that feels weird to him. Would his mom have really gone out, knowing she looked like that? “Connor, baby,” she says hoarsely, “if you’re listening, then please, come home. You’re not safe, out there on your own — you and Evan, you’re teenagers, you don’t know what the world out there is really like.” Connor snorts at that one — his mom’s infamous for her idealized worldview, so for her to be saying this to him is hilarious.

 

“Please, sweetheart,” she adds, voice cracking. “Come home. I miss you, your father misses you — Zoe misses you — ” That line does her in; his mom promptly dissolves into tears at the mention of his sister, and Connor would almost be bothered by it if he didn’t think it was total horseshit. No way does Zoe miss him; she looks happier than ever, and there hasn’t even been a mention of their conversation in the kitchen the night of his departure, so he has to wonder if she’s even said anything about that to the police. Maybe she doesn’t even remember it.

 

It’s Heidi’s turn to speak, and Connor can feel Evan stiffening next to him as his mother fiddles with the hem of her jacket and starts to talk. “Evan, honey, please come home,” she begs, and Connor’s impressed by the tears forming in her eyes. “Nothing’s been the same since you left — the house is empty without you, and I don’t even know what to do with myself. I miss you so much, Ev, please come back to me, come back before you get hurt. I won’t be able to live with myself if anything happens to you.”

 

And it’s ironic, because Heidi’s the only one who actually has any inkling of why they’re really gone, but her despair seems the most genuine. And that definitely registers with Evan — Connor glances over to see the sheets from the bed balled up in his hands, Evan’s knuckles gone white around them.

 

Sheriff Palmer — Connor’s vaguely familiar with him, he’s got a daughter named Dayna who’s in their grade — settles behind the podium, their families stepping to the side. He spends a moment listing off the license plate, make, and model of the car (too late, Connor thinks with a smirk, the license plate got changed back in Pennsylvania) and describing Evan and Connor. When he’s done, the sheriff pauses for a moment and takes a breath before looking directly into the camera.

 

“If you boys are watching this,” he says, “I want you to know that you’ve got families here waiting for you. Your mothers aren’t sleeping, because they’re worried sick over where you’ve gone. You’ve got a sister and parents who want you back, Connor, and Evan, your mother won’t be able to rest until you’ve returned. The impact that your disappearance has had on this community—”

 

“Turn it off,” Evan whispers.

 

“—you’ve brought a lot of pain upon this town, and nobody’s mad at you, we just want you home, safe and sound—”

 

“Turn it off, Connor—”

 

“—so your mothers can hold their baby boys once again.”

 

Turn it off!” Evan nearly shouts, and at the hitch in the other boy’s voice, Connor looks over to find the sheets smoking. Evan’s burned a hole in them, just like he burned a hole in the table in the library not so many days ago.

 

He switches the TV off.

 

He wants to say something to Evan, but with nothing else to occupy him now, all Connor can focus on is the rage, the boiling in his blood, and he knows if he sticks around much longer, he’s going to lose it on entirely the wrong person to lose it on. He’s got to get out — the urge to escape is eating at him.

 

“I’m going for a walk,” he says, grabbing a key off the desk as he heads for the door.

 

He’s gone before Evan can say another word.

 

Palm pressed to his aching jaw, slumped against a brick wall that probably has more diseases than a petri dish in a laboratory, Connor realizes that maybe trying to buy some weed off a random dealer from Craigslist might not have been the best idea.

 

In his defense — he’s been away from his stash at home for almost four days now, and this whole Trying Not to Get Killed or Found Out thing is like something straight out of a bad teen fantasy movie, not to mention stressful as hell, and Connor just needed to relax. His fingers were practically itching for a blunt to hold, and the thoughts racing through his head had just been too much to handle, those fucking stupid intrusive thoughts, so why not smoke a little weed? And, besides, Connor had figured, if he could find weed in Stratham, it definitely couldn’t be that hard to find in the largest city in Maryland, right?

 

Forty-five minutes later, he thinks he can agree on that being one of his more stupid ideas. Turns out Sketchy Craigslist Dealer Chad had been sketchier than anticipated, only wanted him for the $40 of cash on his person (thank God he hadn’t brought his phone or wallet), and had left him with a nice punch to the jaw when Connor had attempted to resist. So much for getting rid of the angry intrusive thoughts.

 

He looks up for a second, trying to focus through the blur of pain to rediscover the route he’d taken to get here, and that’s when he sees a blue striped polo that cannot possibly be real.

 

Connor would be shaking his head, but that would hurt too much. But no way is Evan here, right? How would he even know? He’d left his phone back at the motel—

 

“Connor? Oh, god, you’re bleeding, are you okay? What — what happened?” Evan swallows hard, clearly attempting to calm himself down, before extending an arm for Connor to take. Reluctantly, Connor does just that, even though he can feel the anger stirring in his veins already.

 

“Let’s not talk about it,” he mutters. “I just want to go back to our room.” He’s sore and pissed off and really not in the mood for a conversation right now, but Evan apparently doesn’t get that.

 

“I’m so glad you’re okay, I thought something had happened to you, you should probably see a doctor though—”

 

“Look, Hansen,” he interrupts, “I have absolutely no fucking clue how you found me, unless you injected some GPS tracker into my skin or some shit when I was asleep, but I really don’t care how you feel, okay? I want to go back, and I want to take a shower, and then I want to sleep. That is literally all I care about right now.”

 

Evan goes quiet, face flushing, and Connor almost feels bad.

 

Almost.

 

By the time they get back to the motel, the silence has irritated Connor more than the talking, self-deprecating little thoughts pricking at his skin. God, you’re such an asshole, Connor — always have to make somebody feel like shit, right? Can’t be happy if you’re not being a dick. Just want to make someone as miserable as you are, don’t you?

 

He’s furious, not just with himself or his parents or Chad the sketchy dealer, but with everything, everyone. Furious with whatever fucker is up there in the clouds, probably laughing at him like this is some great sketch on Saturday Night Live. Furious with Evan, for getting him into a situation he could have never been prepared for. Furious with their shitty town, furious with Zoe, furious with even Jared fucking Kleinman.

 

So when Evan attempts to half-heartedly scold him for meeting up with Chad (if that was really even his name), Connor wishes the whole Chosen One thing came with mind-reading powers, because that’s what does it, what finally makes him lose it.

 

He snaps.

 

“Connor, that really wasn’t very safe, I think we should try to be more careful—”

 

“You know what, fuck, I didn’t even sign up for this anyway!” he snarls, whirling around to face a trembling Evan. “We don’t even know what the fuck we’re doing — hell, you’re the savior of the free world, and you can barely keep it together for more than five minutes at a time! This is literally a fucking suicide mission—”

 

He stops a couple seconds after, what he’s said not actually hitting him until then. Evan looks away, refusing to meet his eyes.

 

The scars on his arms itch. Fuck, he’s done it now, made himself the outcast again, finally clued Evan in to the fact that he’s a complete fucking psycho. Evan didn’t need to know that, doesn’t need to know about any of it, not the emptied bottles of Xanax or the razor blades carefully stolen from his sister, not the mandatory 72-hour holds that always ended in his dad picking him up and yelling the entire ride home, not even the countless failed therapy visits.

 

But now Evan knows, or at least has some inkling of it. The only person who even matters right now, and he knows.

 

With a lump in his throat that he can’t quite explain, Connor finally mutters, “Fuck it, never mind. Sorry. Forget I said anything.”

 

Then he heads to the shower and turns on the water hot enough to make him forget.

 

They don’t talk again until the next morning.

Chapter Text

Six.   

For some godforsaken reason, Connor has MMMBop by Hanson downloaded.

 

On an unrelated note, MMMBop is playing loudly over the car’s speakers as they pass a sign telling them they’re entering Washington, D.C. Like some kind of coming-of-age movie. And Evan won’t lie and say he’s not enjoying it.

 

What he’s not enjoying is the thick tension in the air after the events of last night, when Connor definitely figured out he is some kind of suicidal freak, and figured out he doesn’t want to travel with him anymore. They haven’t spoken since they got back in the car, and Evan doesn’t know what he can do to resolve the situation without shouting, ‘OKAY, I get it, I freak you out with my constant freaking out, and the fact that I’m supposed to save everyone, despite the fact every impulse in my body tells me to jump off the tallest building here! Please talk to me, because that’s making it more likely by the second!’

 

But that’s not right or fair. Connor isn’t causing any of this, it’s Evan whose shitty brain is doing this, but hey! He’s under an incredible amount of stress, so he thinks he’s allowed to let some maladaptive coping mechanisms loose.

 

That said, he doesn’t know how to approach the problem and actually talk to Connor to make sure that he was the problem.

 

Because he is, he is a problem, he’s always been a problem, whether or not he realized it. But his mother wouldn’t be overworked and stressed if it weren’t for him. Connor wouldn’t be in this car. If he wasn’t here, his teachers would have one less paper to grade, his mom would have one less mouth to feed, Jared wouldn’t have to constantly remind him they weren’t real friends. His dad wouldn’t feel obligated to send a card and forty dollars in a sealed envelope every birthday and Christmas.

 

Connor wouldn’t be here, ripped from his family, his home, his everything. He’s been so focused on himself, he hasn’t even considered that he was ripped from his bed uninformed and forced to take Evan on a cross-country roadtrip. This brings a whole new meaning to moms forcing kids to be their kid’s friends.

 

So.

 

So, Connor doesn’t want to be here, not with him, not in this place, and Evan can hardly blame him. He wouldn’t want to be stuck in a car with himself either.

 

He burrows further into his chair, closes his eyes, and lets the self-loathing wash over him.

 

Connor is fucking itching. To smoke. To scratch the scabs from his body until he bleeds. To pull his hair and punch something. To talk .

 

God, he wants to spill every fucking sad, sordid detail of his pain that he knows damn well he doesn’t deserve to vent about, because he’s privileged. His parents are rich. He has a car. He has an education. He has a TV and several gaming consoles in his room, and has spare money to spend on weed. And he has the audacity to not be satisfied with it, to still feel like this.

 

And last night, he definitely showed himself to be the freak of the operation, confirming every theory, every stereotype assigned to him in school. Loser suicidal junkie, that’s all he is, and by the way Evan looked at him, all guilty and shocked, he knows. He knows what Connor tried to do the first week of school. How he fucking opened his wrists all over the bathroom floor and left his little sister, perfect Zoe, prophecy-filler Zoe, to find him.

 

Evan knows, and Evan hates him, and Evan should hate him.

 

But Evan is shaking along to this stupid fucking poppy song, and it occurs to him that he’s not the only one with issues, and so he slows down and pulls off onto the shoulder, not sure if he’s doing it to comfort Evan or to make sure that if he throws up again, he does it outside the car.

 

The car is silent for a few moments, and Connor fucking hates himself right now, making this happen. It’s his fault, he yelled, and then he didn’t say anything, didn’t take it back, didn’t try anything to help after, and he knows Evan has issues, probably anxiety.

 

He can’t blame him for that one; he has the weight of the world on his shoulders (literally).

 

Shoulders that are shaking with his heaving breaths, and oh god, there are tears, and every part of Connor wants to retreat. Instead, he lays a hand on Evan’s shoulder.

 

“I’m sorry. I fucked up last night. I do stupid things when I feel out of control to try and regain control, and that kinda… backfired. I’m sorry I took it out on you. I shouldn’t have. You don’t deserve that, you cared, and you didn’t deserve to get yelled at.”

 

And Evan’s brows furrow through the tears.

 

“You — you’re apologizing?”

 

“Well, yeah, I was an asshole.”

 

Evan goes quiet, and his tears seem to stop in confusion.

 

“But I—”

 

“You didn’t do anything,” Connor reassures him.

 

Evan mumbles something like “I thought you hated me,” and Connor can’t help but snort at that.

 

“I don’t think there’s anyone on earth that hates you. Sorry, maybe the god thing you’re supposed to defeat, but really, no mere mortal could hate you.”

 

And Evan bursts back into tears, much to Connor’s confusion.

 

“I thought you hated me.”

 

Connor searches for a response to this, wracks his brain, and turns up nothing.

 

“I don’t,” he says simply.

 

And Evan’s hand is on top of his, and hey, when did the breath leave his body. He ignores that, and the warmth of Evan’s hand on his, as he turns his hand palm-up and squeezes Evan’s. “I don’t hate you.”

 

Because how could he hate Evan? What kind of monster would?

 

Oh, right, the monster they’re on the run from.

 

“Were you on meds back home?” he asks, not really thinking the statement through properly.

 

Evan laughs wetly, like he hates the answer to that question, like he hates that Connor was able to figure that out without being told. “Yeah. Mood stabilizers, Xanax — left it all at home, like an idiot. Don’t worry, I’ll break down on the Big Bad to garner sympathy before burning it real bad with my light powers.”

 

Connor laughs, though he’s not sure it’s the kind of joke he should laugh at. It sounds like the kind of thing he would say at the dinner table to stir up trouble and concerns. Because he wanted to be seen. Desperately.

 

“Um, Evan,” he says, and he’s not really sure why he’s doing it, and he’s got to spit out the words before he stops himself, “you can talk to me, if you want. About… all of it. It sucks, I get it. So if you need to, like, ever — you can come to me.”

 

And Evan smiles.

 

“You’re absolutely sure this exhibit is gonna help us?”

 

“Well, it can’t hurt. It’s about ancient Norse religion, exactly what we need to learn about, and any extra knowledge we learn can be used as conversation starters!”

 

Connor snorts, and Evan feels like it’s almost affectionate. “You’re such a nerd.”

 

Evan shrugs.

 

“It’s not a bad thing.”

 

There’s a pause.

 

“I cannot believe we’ve been in this line for forty-five minutes and I still can’t see the front of the line! This is such—”

 

Evan shoots him a harsh look to shut him up, knowing he was going to say something almost sure to get them kicked out. The place had taken Evan’s breath away when they arrived. He’d never been to D.C., and so arriving at the grandiose museum, columns stretching up toward the sky, coming upon the elephant on the pedestal at the front of the room, he’d gasped audibly.

 

But they had been waiting in line for the Norse exhibit for a while now, probably somehow longer than Connor had said, and the sun, which had been high in the sky when they got here, was gradually getting lower.

 

“My mom used to tell me old Norse legends as bedtime stories when I was a kid. Like those were normal bedtime stories. Of course, now I understand she was, like, secretly preparing me for this.”

 

Connor looks down at him with this expression that’s halfway between interested and pitying.

 

“What kind of legends?”

 

“Like, umm, the death of Baldur.” He’s scared to take a breath and think about telling this story, one he’s had tucked away in his brain since he was little, but he’s started now, and there is no force on earth powerful enough to stop him rambling. “He was so loved by all the other gods but cursed that he should be killed by his twin brother, Hodur, who was blind. Baldur was haunted by nightmares of death, and so Frigga, his mother, went out into Midgard; that’s this world,” he clarifies, “and asked every inanimate object to never ever harm him. And so they had a game, in good fun, of throwing things at Baldur, knowing they couldn’t hurt him by their promise to Frigga, and watching them veer from their course, or stop dead in the air and drop.”

 

Evan gets lost in the story, imagining it exactly as he had pictured it when he was young, the sounds and smells of home surrounding him so vividly it’s like he’s tucked into his tiny twin bed, listening to his mother’s soothing voice.

 

“But Loki, the god of mischief, went out, wanting maybe to ruin the fun, or maybe do what he did best and cause mischief, and searched the world for something, anything, that Frigga might have forgotten. And he came back with darts fashioned from mistletoe. But that would not be the end of his fun. All the gods and goddesses were hurling this right at Baldur, and Loki exclaimed that they were leaving poor Hodur out of it, and encouraged him to take aim with one of the darts, despite his protests. Loki took aim for him, literally forced his hand, and the mistletoe dart hit its target and pierced Baldur’s heart. Odin swore revenge on Loki, and Frigga always blamed herself for believing a shoot of mistletoe too innocent to take her son’s life.”

 

There’s a pause as Connor looks at him in shock, like he can’t believe he remembers that from so long ago, that he is such a nerd that he memorized it.

 

“Dude, that’s so fucked up.”

 

Or maybe he’s blown away by the moral ethics of the characters in the story.

 

“Yeah, it totally is. You know, after that, the goddess of death, Hela, said she would grant Baldur his life back if everything in the universe wept for him, and only one thing didn’t: Loki. And now that we know those guys are real, that gives that story a lot of extra emotional weight. Oh my — do you think their heaven-slash-hell concept is the right one?”

 

“Dude, I don’t even know what their concept of heaven or hell is.”

 

“Okay, so, there are a few concepts. There’s a western Nordic belief that the good got to live in a mountain, often one close by to the village, for the rest of eternity, just the same as before they died. There’s the popularized concept of Valhalla, a place for warriors who died in battle to feast and drink; there’s Folkvangr, a realm ruled over by the goddess Freya, who chose half of those going to Valhalla for her realm — not much is known about that one. And then there’s Hel, one L.”

 

“What’s up with Hel-with-one-L?”

 

“I’m trying to remember,” Evan says, surprised he’s even retained this much knowledge. “From what I remember, it’s a place for everyone who died of everything but battle wounds. The diseased and the elderly, deaths accidental and not. So, it wasn’t a pretty destination. Hela, the goddess of the dead, was said to take a form half human and half corpse, and Hel was often referred to as Helveti, or ‘Hel’s punishment’.”

 

“So it’s like regular heaven and hell. Valhalla and Hel,” Connor reasons.

 

“Mom said the legends were probably Christianized, but yeah, it’s like that if, instead of the good all getting to go to the good place, only men who died in battle could go, and literally everyone else, regardless of their positive effect on Earth, had to go to the bad place. The reasoning for this is that those in Valhalla would be kept in battle-worthy condition for the coming of Ragnarok.”

 

Evan looks up and laughs. “I’m supposed to be descended from great, heroic warriors or something. The likes of whom got into Valhalla.”

 

Connor looks at the floor for a moment, then softly pounds a fist against his chest and raises a peace sign to the sky. “Party hard, guys.”

 

Evan rolls his eyes. But before he can say anything, the line starts moving.

 

“Thank god,” Connor says, and then looks over at Evan slyly. “Or gods?”

 

“Shut up,” Evan says, smile firmly on his face.

 

“Hey, I’m not the one who just probably dropped more knowledge about Norse mythology than I’m going to retain from this exhibit.”

 

Evan blushes. “I’m sorry, I know I rambled, I shouldn’t have—”

 

“I would have told you to stop if I didn’t want to hear it, don’t worry about it.”

 

Finally, they reach the head of the line, looking at some girl who appears just thrilled to be there.

 

“Hi,” Connor says, knowing Evan will not speak to her no matter if that was the thing he needed to do to save the planet. His social anxiety is running rampant without his medication, not that it was that much under control on the meds. “We need two tickets to the Norse exhibit.”

 

The girl seems to look at them with a calculating gaze that immediately settles on a conclusion and hands them their tickets. “Have a nice date!” she exclaims, turning to the next customer as Evan blushes scarlet and Connor laughs.

 

They walk through the exhibit, demonstrating Norse creation myth, subsections on gods and goddesses, differentiating them from their Marvel counterparts, and heading into the way the Norse worshipped and responded to their religion.

 

And then, like the storm clouds parting, they come across what must have been an iron tablet, maybe even a shield, that depicts a catastrophic storm coming upon a village, taking lives, leaving the town in rubble. They stand and stare for a long time, trying to make sense of it, a prediction of the storm that befell their town. The plaque piece below it explains it as a ‘ritualistic item,’ which Evan knows is historian shorthand for ‘we have no fucking idea what this is’.

 

But Evan knows. This is a part of the prophecy that led him here.

 

Then, all of a sudden, there’s the sound of someone clearing their throat behind them, and they turn to see a man sporting salt-and-pepper hair and a distinct air of grandeur to his person.

 

“Hello boys, follow me, if you will?”

 

Connor laughs harshly. “Yeah, I’m not feeling in the mood to be abducted at the moment, I’ll let you know when I do at my earliest convenience.”

 

Every synapse in Evan’s brain is flashing the message STRANGER DANGER at him, even as he tries to focus on the situation at hand.

 

“I’m not here to steal children, certainly not two young men who could most definitely beat me up without too much effort. I’m the curator of this exhibit,” he taps his staff identification badge, “and I noticed your interest in this particular piece. I thought you might want to know more.”

 

Evan glances around, noticing everyone else has left this part of the exhibit, and turns to Connor. “We came here to learn more. This could be it.”

 

The man smiles, and Connor groans. “Okay, but if we end up abducted and tortured, you’re to blame.”

 

Evan nods and redirects his focus to the man, who beckons them into an alcove. And everything, every warning from his mother not to go with strangers, no matter how nice they are, the Very Special Episode reruns of sitcoms that warned against strangers, and every milk-carton kid comes rushing back to him quickly, and he almost can’t breathe.

 

And then the man turns to them, not pulling them any further into the dark corner.

 

“Can I ask when your birthdays are?” he asks, and Connor scoffs.

 

“Why would that matter?”

 

“I assume you know of the prophecy,” he says. Connor nods. “That’s why it matters.”

 

“September,” Evan supplies quickly, gesturing at Connor to take the lead again.

 

“December,” he says begrudgingly.

 

“I’m Dr. Arles. I did my doctoral thesis on that prophecy. The one that you came here about, yes? ‘He who floods the world ,’ and so on?” Evan mutters something that sounds like a confirmation, and Arles continues. “I think I may have knowledge that might be valuable to you boys, but I don’t want to talk about it here. May I invite you two to dinner tonight—”

 

“I’m sorry,” Evan speaks up in spite of his fear, “I really wouldn’t feel comfortable going to your home, I don’t know you.”

 

Dr. Arles nods sagely. “I understand that, but I do want to do this somewhere no one will overhear, and I’m sure you two will want that too. I know the owner of an Indian restaurant on D Street, Spice, and I can guarantee us a secluded spot,” he offers.

 

Connor pulls Evan aside. “Evan, this is shady as hell, we can’t do this.”

 

But some strange gut feeling Evan has tells him they have to go, that this is part of it, the grand scheme. “We have to go, Connor. This may be our only chance to get the information we need.”

 

Connor groans and looks upwards. “Fucking fine, but if you get us killed, that’s on you.”

 

Evan nods, and they turn back to the man.

 

“We’ll meet you there at 6:30,” Connor tells him, and Arles nods, and walks away.

 

They settle at a motel far enough out of the hustle and bustle of Washington that they can afford it, and Connor gets them Metro tickets back into town, and he, for some reason unbeknownst to even himself, holds Evan’s hand all the way there, knowing he’ll freak out on the train. But he has no idea what compels him to actually comfort the guy.

 

And they walk from the train stop to the restaurant almost in complete silence, and not once does either of them let go, still holding each other’s hands like a lifeline. An Indian restaurant appears on a corner they’re approaching, and Evan’s hand tightens on his, and Connor ignores the fluttering, sick feeling in his stomach.

 

Inside of the restaurant, lanterns hang from the ceiling in a way that should be tacky but somehow isn’t, and Evan snorts and says, “Jared would call this mood lighting.”

 

And now that he’s said that, Connor can’t tear his mind away from this absolutely-looking-like-a-date destination. He shakes it off, and somewhere between here and the owner’s approach, he and Evan let go, and his hand feels cold and clammy.

 

“Good evening—”

 

“Sorry, we’re here for a table with Dr. Arles.”

 

The man smiles. “Right this way.”

 

He leads them out the back and through the kitchen and a hallway, then up some stairs, and then there’s a balcony, still somehow warm, and also with lanterns covering the ceiling and providing soft, warm light, and there’s a table, and Dr. Arles is waiting for them.

 

They sit down in front of menus, and Evan looks expectantly, if a little sheepishly, at Dr. Arles, who nods.

 

“Good evening, boys, how are you enjoying your stay in D.C. so far?”

 

He and Evan look at each other and decide, in that glance, to humor him.

 

“We’re settling in nicely, but we don’t plan to stay long. We have to keep moving.”

 

The professor smiles. “A good strategy. Done any sightseeing?”

 

“Only at the museum,” Connor replies again, taking note of the expression on Evan’s face that makes it so clear he isn’t likely to start speaking anytime soon. He almost wants to reach out and take Evan’s hand again.

 

A waiter comes around to collect appetizer and drinks orders, and before either Evan or he can speak up, Arles orders for everyone at the table, Sprite for the both of them, a glass of red wine for him, and naan and a selection of dips and chutneys for an appetizer. As suddenly as the waiter appeared, he disappears, and they’re alone again.

 

“Did you like the exhibit?”

 

Evan clears his throat awkwardly. “Yes, it was very informative.”

 

And Connor almost scoffs at that, because he learned more from Evan before the exhibit than he did at the exhibit. But maybe Evan learned a lot, so he holds himself back.

 

“I’m glad to hear it. Where are you boys from? You don’t look like you’re from around here.”

 

“New York,” Connor says, unwilling to tell him more, to avoid him figuring out they’re the two runaways from Stratham.

 

“That’s a fair ways away. You on a road trip?”

 

“Of sorts.”

 

And finally, he seems to give up the ghost and starts searching in a bag next to him, before pulling out a tome of a book. That Connor notes has the professor’s name on it.

 “This book has a copy of the prophecy in it. That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?” he asks.

 

Evan nods. “How did you know?”

 

“They come around once in a while, people asking for a deeper look into the prophecy. Usually, I don’t deem them worth my time, but there’s something different about you two. I get the feeling that this isn’t some creepy Norse goddess fetish to you.”

 

Evan laughs uncomfortably. Connor just sits there.

 

“You’re Lightbringer,” Dr. Arles says simply, gesturing toward Evan, and Evan pulls back, immediately stunned, almost like he’s been verbally attacked. So, it’s Connor’s job to respond.

 

“How did you know?”

 

“I wrote the thesis for my doctorate on this prophecy. Did you think I wouldn’t know the Lightbringer when I saw him?”

 

Connor shrugs. “I don’t remember hearing anything about his appearance.”

 

“Two boys showing up, with everything that’s been happening across the country at the moment, looking specifically for details on a Norse prophecy, one of them with a birthday in September? I think that was a good guess. Now, are you the guardian?” he questions, looking pointedly at Connor.

 

“No, we think my sister, Zoe, is.”

 

“Why do you think that?”

 

“The whole ‘born of lightning’ phrase in the prophecy. She was born during a thunderstorm, a pretty bad one. But she’s sixteen, she doesn’t even know about the prophecy—”

 

“No, no, no,” Arles cuts him off. “The gods would never make the Lightbringer’s guardian that much younger than him. That would be stupid. Besides, you’re the one actually accompanying him on this trip. Were you ‘born of lightning’?” The man’s eyes sparkle in amusement at that, and Connor can’t help but feel a little angry about the fun he seems to be getting out of this.

 

“No, I was born on a stupidly cold day in December, if you must know. Nothing to do with the prophecy.”

 

“I forget you kids are taught to read everything literally these days.”

 

And that snide comment is it for Connor. He clenches his fists and leans forward. “Look, I don’t know where you get off on teasing teenagers with important information, but I think if you had any common decency you would stop beating around the bush with this symbolism bullshit and get to the point.”

 

The professor laughs at that. “Just as I thought. Anger issues. ‘Lightning in your veins,’ as it were. You’re definitely the guardian.”

 

And Connor has to try and keep his laughter hidden as the waiter comes around and serves their drinks and appetizers, watching as the professor once again orders the entrées without asking them once what they want.

 

“Look, I don’t know who you think I am, but I think you ought to know that I was voted ‘Least Likely to Succeed’ three successive yearbooks in a row. I’m not an overachiever.” He tries to act like that doesn’t hurt, like the cruelty of the other kids at his school doesn’t bother him anymore. But really, who the fuck collectively votes on who in their class was most likely to live in a box under a bridge?

 

“Underdogs make the best hero stories,” Arles says simply, and all Connor can do is gape at him. He’s a normal kid. No special skills, no lasers that come out of his hands, no fight training, nothing that can help him if this is his destiny. There’s no way he can help Evan achieve all that he has to, there’s no way he can protect him. He can’t be this fabled guardian; there has to be a mistake.

 

“You have to be wrong. It can’t be me.”

 

“I assure you that I’m not wrong. Remember, this prophecy is my life’s work.”

 

“I have no skills, I can barely keep myself out of danger, this has to be wrong,” he pleads, hoping that this isn’t true, that it isn’t his fate to not just be responsible for himself — a task he has proven to be very bad at — but another human being, the human being who will save all of mankind. He has to guess that this is somehow what parenthood feels like.

 

“It’s not. Being a guardian is an important job; you need to keep him out of danger until he is able to defeat He Who Floods the World. That’s his job. Yours is merely to protect him,” Arles says.

 

“I don’t think you understand, before I was here all I did was smoke cheap weed and mouth off to my parents, I have no ability to keep Evan safe--”

 

And god, he just said a name out loud, he’ll know who they are in no time flat now.

 

“Evan? Oh, you’re the two teens missing out of New York.”

 

Connor is getting ready to snatch the book and run, pulling Evan along behind him. His fight-or-flight instincts are going crazy, and every part of him wants to run and put as much of himself as he can between Evan and the rest of the world.

 

The doctor settles and smiles. “Had to get out of there fast, huh? No time to explain to your parents?”

 

And Evan looks just about frozen in fear.

 

“We don’t want to talk about it.”

 

Arles leans back in his seat. “Of course.”

 

“Where can we go?” Evan’s voice is small and panicked, barely loud enough for Connor to hear, and he’s sitting right next to Evan. “Where will we be safe?”

 

The professor frowns. “You must understand me, Mr. Hansen, you cannot, under any circumstances, leave the country. It would be disastrous. And it is pointless to run away from your destiny; it will simply follow you. You must stand up and fight.”

 

If anything, Evan gets tinier in his chair, folding into himself. Connor reaches out and squeezes his shoulder.

 

“Look, we’re unprepared in every possible way. We have no idea where we’re going, what we have to do when we get there -- hell, we don’t even know what we’re fighting! But what I really want to know is where we’re supposed to be going.”

 

Arles sighs and opens the book on the table, flipping through, showing plenty of handwritten notes, slips of paper, sentences he has crossed out, blacked out, like he’s creating a conspiracy within his book, A Beautiful Mind-style. Finally, he settles on a page and smiles.

 

“There’s a part of the prophecy that is little quoted; no one knew what to make of it. Therefore, it’s not commonly translated. It says that He Who Floods the World must be brought down in his own domain, a world of sin.”

 

Connor and Evan blink back at him, understanding why no one comprehended the significance of this part of the prophecy. What were they supposed to make of that?

 

Finally, Connor speaks up. “What is that supposed to mean?”


 And Arles throws his head back and laughs. “You ever heard of Las Vegas, boys?”

Chapter Text

Seven.

Dr. Arles’s card is the first thing Evan sees when he wakes up the next morning. Connor must have put it on their nightstand when he’d been in the shower. Dr. Roman Arles, Professor of Norse Mythology, American University, the cursive script reads, sending Evan flashing back to the previous night. The professor had handed them the card over a plate of sugar-dusted coconut ladoo, telling them to call him if they ever needed help in a way that made Evan just a little bit nervous. He didn’t like to think about the possibility of needing help; needing Connor so much was already bad enough.

 

He gets lured out of bed with promises of doughnuts and fresh tea (coffee only heightens his anxiety), and they’re packed and heading to the car fifteen minutes later. Connor leads the way, and Evan can’t help but think it’s a little funny, how quickly he’s adapted to the role of the Guardian without even really meaning to. Maybe it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise, with the way Connor had brought him down from that panic attack yesterday in the car. Maybe Connor has been acting like his Guardian before he ever even knew that’s what he was.

 

They come to an abrupt stop just before reaching the car, and Evan’s sneakers scuff the pavement. He winces, remembering how his mother had spent $30 on them just one month earlier. She’d called them an early birthday present.

 

Connor moves in front of him, as if to block his view, and Evan’s brow furrows. “Connor? What’s wrong?” he says, trying to crane his neck to see. There must be a problem with the car, he rationalizes, and Connor just doesn’t want him to worry about it.

 

“Go back into the hotel, Evan. I’ll come get you in a second,” Connor tells him, still staring at the car, voice low and shoulders tensed.

 

Evan shakes his head, finally understanding what’s happening here. “No. Whatever you’re hiding from me, I deserve to see it, too. Protecting me doesn’t mean you have to keep me in the dark.”

 

He takes a step forward, maneuvering around Connor to get to the car, but all he glimpses is a piece of paper tucked under the windshield wipers before Connor’s arm shoots out and grabs the paper, crumpling it in his hand.

 

Evan whips around. “Connor, what the hell? Let me see,” he cries.

 

Connor’s face is pale. “Evan, I don’t think you want to—”

 

Let me see,” he repeats, and Connor extends a reluctant hand, presenting the ball of paper to him. Evan snatches up the note before Connor can take it back, unfurling it and smoothing it out so he can try to make out what it says.

 

Vi kommer for deg. Du kan løpe, men du kan ikke gjemme deg. Evan’s not sure what language that is, the letters sharp and angular, almost menacing, but his brain somehow translates instantly. Chosen One perks, he supposes.

 

We are coming for you. You can run, but you cannot hide.

 

He pukes all over the sidewalk.

 

When he’s cleaned himself up enough to avoid ruining the car, they do a quick inventory of everything they’d left in the Mercedes overnight. The only thing gone is Evan’s backpack of clothes. He tells himself that they must have forgotten to lock the doors, but a voice in his head, much older and certainly much more wiser than he, tells him that they didn’t.

 

It has to do with Him, the One Who Floods the World. Evan knows it.

 

Once they’re safely situated in the SUV, Connor peels out of the parking lot so fast, the tires squeal. They don’t have time for doughnuts or sightseeing now. They’re clearly running on borrowed time as is, and they’ll be lucky to make it to Las Vegas in one piece.

 

They pass by the Washington Monument as they head for the highway, and Evan can’t stop the sigh that slips past his lips. He never had been able to see the monument in person; he and his mom had always said they’d go, but that dream quickly faded when she started her job at the nursing home.

 

Connor looks over at him, a reassuring smile crossing his features, the likes of which Evan would have never expected from him back in Stratham. “We’ll come back, someday, after all of this is over.”

 

“Promise?” Evan says, childishly and stupidly, instantly cursing himself for doing so.

 

But Connor doesn’t seem to mind. “Promise. But for now, next stop, West Virginia,” he replies, punching some coordinates into the fancy GPS Evan doesn’t know how to work.

 

And in spite of himself and all the fear coursing through his veins, Evan grins. “I’ve always wanted to see their mountains.”

Zoe knows that when a member of your immediate family goes missing, you’re supposed to be sad, or worried, or both, or at least pretend to be. But Zoe’s never been all that great at acting, and she doesn’t want the police on her ass just because she’s not sobbing her eyes out on a daily basis, so she tries to stay out of the spotlight when she can. Her parents definitely don’t make that easy — it feels like there’s reporters or police officers at their house 24/7. She’s even heard her father contemplating hiring a private investigator, though Zoe personally thinks that’d be a waste of money. If her brother doesn’t want to be found, he’s not going to be found. Connor’s always been pretty good at making himself disappear into the background when necessary.

 

The house is quieter now without the constant arguing and screaming. Her car doesn’t smell as much like cigarettes anymore, the Febreze and Yankee Candle sticks finally having somewhat vanquished the stench. Zoe’s life is certainly more peaceful without Connor in it, and there’s a tiny part of her that does feel guilty for acknowledging that, flashing back to the night he disappeared and the bizarre way he’d kissed her head before he left. But every time she starts to feel bad, every time she thinks a little bit of her just might want to miss Connor, she thinks back to the day before he left, the way her brother had stolen her car and abandoned her at the school without a second thought, and the weird feeling in her chest instantly dissipates, usually replaced by either plain old anger or just a big, empty nothingness.

 

She doesn’t like the anger. It makes her wonder if she’s turning into Connor.

 

Zoe just wishes Connor hadn’t dragged Evan Hansen into his mess. His mom is really nice — she’s come over to the house a few times — and Evan himself seemed fairly docile, so it sucks that her brother’s apparently corrupted him in some way. If anyone’s going to come back, she hopes it’s Evan.

 

As if school wasn’t bad enough before Connor left, it’s now almost unbearable. The constant fawning over her from her peers is near sickening, the prayers for Connor and invitations to the candlelight vigils beyond irritating. A senior named Alana Beck appears to be heading it all, giving speeches about the “painful impact” of Connor and Evan’s disappearance and organizing nightly prayer vigils. Zoe’s heard that the Key Club is planning to hold a fundraiser in Connor and Evan’s name (which, that doesn’t even make sense), and she’s sure that must be connected back to Alana, too, since she’s the President.

 

She doesn’t know why Alana cares so much, or at least is pretending to care. Alana has to know what Connor’s reputation was like — junkie, loser, psycho, future school shooter. And maybe three people in the entire school knew Evan Hansen’s name, so why is Alana acting like they were the two most popular kids in the community? Six months from now, nobody’s going to remember. Their families will be the only ones to even notice that they were ever gone.

 

Day Six since the boys left, and Zoe’s pretty sure she might be going crazy already.

 

She tries to keep her head down as she enters the school that morning, letting her hair fall in front of her face like a curtain. Lizzie, thank God, isn’t waiting there for once, so at least she’ll get a reprise from that today. If Zoe can just make it to first block, and then make it through second block, then it’ll be lunch already, and she’ll be halfway through the day—

 

“Zoe! Oh my gosh, hi, how are you? So sorry to hear that they haven’t found any leads on your brother yet.” Zoe’s head snaps up at the unwelcome attention, and her shoulders slump when she sees that it’s Alana Beck standing there, a black-and-white flyer clutched tightly in her hands, ponytail higher than a fucking skyscraper. She has no clue how the older girl can have this much energy so early in the morning, but it’s borderline infuriating.

 

“We’re having a candlelight vigil tonight in the town square,” Alana continues, holding out the flyer. “If you’re interested, we’d love to have you there, I know the town would really like to hear from you—”

 

Zoe can’t help but scoff. “I’m not interested,” she tells her. “In fact, I couldn’t be less interested. No offense, Alana.”

 

Alana freezes, and Zoe almost starts to apologize at the palpable hurt on her face. But then the other girl simply nods, squares her shoulders, and takes back the flyer, face softening. “I understand this must be a really hard time for you,” she says quietly. She pauses, then tears off a piece of the flyer and scribbles something on it with the purple pen in her other hand. “Here’s my phone number. You can always text or call if you need anything. Really. You have to know that someone’s got your back.”

 

The unexpected gesture of kindness leaves her taken aback, standing there speechless as she accepts the scrap of paper from Alana and shoves it into her backpack. “See you around, Zoe,” Alana says, waving brightly, and then she’s gone, disappearing into the crowd.

 

Zoe doesn’t want to think about the strange feeling in her chest at the other girl’s departure. For a moment, everything seems lighter, clearer, the burden of all the shit with Connor not quite so heavy, and Zoe remembers how to breathe again.

 

Then Jared Kleinman taps her on the shoulder, and she’s all too quickly pulled out of that illusion of hope.

 

“Murphy, how’s it going? Gotta say, I really missed your brother’s murderous death glares last week. Heard anything from him yet?”

 

Jared Kleinman is not as good at disguising his emotions as he thinks. It’s pretty obvious that Evan’s the one he’s really worried about, not Connor. Not many people are truly worried about Connor, and rightfully so. Somehow, the question still bothers her. “I don’t know any more than you do, Jared, and I really wish you’d stop asking me that,” she snaps, fingers white against the straps of her backpack. “I’ll see you later, I’ve got to get to class.”

 

She starts to walk in the direction of her APUSH class, but Jared follows her, matching her pace so they’re side-by-side. Zoe just tries to turn her head and ignore him, and thankfully, he doesn’t say anything until they’ve come to a stop outside of her classroom. She attempts to open the door, already verging on late, but he blocks her way.

 

“The thing is, though, people are starting to think that you do know more than you’re letting on,” Jared says lowly. “It kind of starts to get suspicious when the sister of the very boy who’s missing can’t even be bothered to pretend like she cares he’s gone.”

 

She doesn’t get a chance to reply before he walks away. Hand on the doorknob to the classroom, she peers inside, surveys the room full of people who will do nothing but pepper her with the very same questions, supply her with an endless barrage of flyers and well-wishes and prayers, and everything in her body screams at her to leave, because she can’t take it today. She just can’t fucking take it.

 

So that’s when Zoe decides to pull a Connor and skip class.

 

To the courtyard it is.

 

“Okay, Murphy, you’ve been calling so often that I’m starting to think you’ve developed some sort of gay crush on me. Which, I’m flattered and all, really, but don’t you think Evan’s gonna get jealous? A man has needs, y’know.”

 

As per usual, Jared is so very pleasant to deal with at eight in the morning. Connor pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs, trying not to let his irritation overtake him lest Evan see it and work himself into a panic. As his Guardian, that’s probably the kind of stuff he should be worrying about now, right?

 

God, he has no fucking clue. He is so unprepared for this. Couldn’t Professor Arles at least have given them a handy-dandy manual or something? Someone up there has got to be fucking with him.

 

Jared must have sensed his annoyance and wisely decides to change subjects. “Where are you guys anyway? Research tells me that you should try something called Cook-Out while you’re still on the East Coast, apparently it’s some sort of Southern staple—”

 

“We’re in West Virginia,” Evan speaks up, abruptly cutting the other boy off. “Just passed a sign for Wheeling, I think? Not too far from Ohio now.”

 

“Anyway,” Connor adds, “that’s not important. Look, we found out something big in D.C.” He swallows hard, fingers tightening around the steering wheel. “Something that kind of changes everything.”

 

Neither one of them appears particularly eager to explain the particulars of their situation to Jared, so Connor elects to take one for the team — he owes Evan this much, right? — and fills him in. “Basically, I’m Evan’s Guardian,” he says, braking hard when they hit a stoplight.

 

“Yeah,” Evan nods. “Apparently, as the Chosen One, I’m descended from warriors who were destined to protect the world from the One Who Floods the World. And Connor’s descended from priestesses who protected the gods’ temples. Making him the Guardian.”

 

Jared laughs so loud it makes the car’s speakers crackle. “Really, Evan? You’re descended from warriors? You apologized to Ethan Jones when he punched you in the face in seventh grade!” Evan flushes bright pink, and Connor turns his gaze back to the road so he won’t stare. He doesn’t want to think about why Evan blushing wasn’t such a terribly displeasing sight.

 

“Whatever, Jared,” Evan mutters.

 

“We’re on our way to Las Vegas,” Connor tells him. “The professor we met in D.C. said that it’s part of the prophecy, that we’re supposed to defeat Big Baddie—”

 

“Connor, that’s not his name!” Evan protests.

 

“We’re supposed to defeat Big Baddie there,” Connor finishes anyway. “Since Las Vegas is a ‘domain of sin’ or whatever, and apparently our guy enjoys a healthy serving of sin.”

 

“Seriously?” Jared scoffs. Connor’s starting to get tired of his pessimism; there’s more than enough of that to go around between him and Evan alone. “You’re traveling to Las Vegas to fight a dude who’s supposed to end the world? By yourselves? Without any training or any idea of what you’re up against? Evan, I shouldn’t even be saying this because I’m a Jew, but Jesus Christ, that is the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard.”

 

He distinctly resembles an overly-concerned Stratham soccer mom, shrill and paranoid, and Connor opens his mouth to remind Jared of this, Evan presumably preparing to do the same.

 

But before either of them gets the chance to respond, the sound of screaming fills the car.

 

Zoe has never trusted Jared Kleinman. He’s the artificial kind of happy, disguising his inner hatred for the world with sarcastic jokes and a half-hearted commitment to Technology Club, which might be a little hypocritical of her to dislike in someone, but Jared just does everything wrong. He’s mean — sometimes even downright cruel — to Evan Hansen, one of the nicest kids in school, and he seems to have made it his personal goal to piss off every teacher he encounters, even sweet old Mrs. Fey.

 

Yeah. Zoe can’t trust anyone who’s shitty to Mrs. Fey.

 

So when she strolls into the courtyard five minutes after the first bell and spots Jared chatting away on the phone, it’s not too crazy that her first instinct is to hide behind a tree and spy on him. Because he’s Evan’s friend, and she doesn’t trust him, and what if he did something to make Evan leave? To make Evan leave and take Connor with him, for some weird reason?

 

Realistically, she knows that if Jared had actually been the cause of Evan and Connor’s disappearance, the police would have figured that out by now. But just like she loves the stars and their many constellations, she loves to dream, and so she stands behind the tree for a good fifteen minutes and lets herself believe she’ll find her brother.

 

Then she hears the magic words: “Evan, I shouldn’t even be saying this because I’m a Jew, but Jesus Christ, that is the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard.”

 

Her body springs into action before her mind can even process what’s just been said, and she’s tackling Jared Kleinman to the ground in a matter of seconds, ungodly shrieking piercing the air as Jared’s phone clatters to the pavement.

 

I plead the fifth, okay, don’t fucking kill me!” Jared screams. Zoe ignores him and reaches for the phone, one knee digging into his back to keep him down.

 

“You don’t plead the Fifth when you’re getting arrested,” Zoe says matter-of-factly, turning the iPhone over in her hands. The screen’s shattered, and Zoe’s lip curls when she realizes it won’t turn on. Broken. So much for finding out where her brother is.

 

“Zoe Murphy? What the fuck, let me up, this shit hurts,” Jared whines.

 

Zoe does as he says, standing up and brushing the dirt off her jeans. Her knee is scraped from the tackle, but she can’t deny that she kind of enjoyed it. She never had gotten to try out what she’d learned in the self-defense classes her mom had paid for two years ago.

 

Jared wobbles as he gets to his feet, scowling. Zoe tosses him the cracked remnants of his phone and gets a death glare for her troubles as he catches it.

 

“I could press charges for that, you know!” Jared hisses, clutching his phone to his chest.

 

“Go ahead,” she snorts, knee starting to throb, “press charges. Then see how the police like it when I tell them you’ve been in contact with the two missing boys plastered all over the front page of every newspaper in the Northeast.”

 

Jared’s face crumples. It’s far too satisfying.

 

“Where the fuck is my brother?” Zoe demands, stepping forward just enough to make Jared flinch backwards.

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he lies, shoving his phone in his pocket. It is more than obvious that he knows what she’s talking about.

 

“You were talking to Evan,” she snaps, blood starting to boil. These are the moments that make it easier to understand how she’s related to Connor. “Evan and Connor both disappeared on the same day, which is why the police think they’re together. So unless you expect me to think there’s some other Evan out there who you need to covertly talk to on the phone in the middle of first block, then I’m pretty sure you’re talking to the guy who’s with my brother. And I want to know why. And how.”

 

Jared sighs. “God, you’re persistent. Fine. The basic run-down is, Evan is descended from Nordic warriors, and he’s part of this prophecy that says he’s supposed to save the world from this big bad guy who wants to end the world as we know it. Your brother is his guardian, and they’re going to Las Vegas to kill Big Bad Dude to save all our asses. Now you know. You’re welcome.”

 

Zoe blinks. It sounds so crazy, but to a part of her, it somehow sounds so right.

 

But if Connor had known he needed to leave to help save the world — why wouldn’t he have left a note? Why hadn’t Evan?

 

“I don’t believe you,” she says, arms crossed.

 

Jared shrugs and heads for the exit. Zoe doesn’t try to stop him. “If you won’t believe me, talk to your brother himself,” he calls over his shoulder. “His number’s still the same. And I bet you $50 he’ll pick up.”

 

The door to the school slams behind him, and Zoe lets him go.

 

She takes her phone out right after Jared leaves, but she doesn’t do anything with it for a long time. She just stares at it, looking at a reflection of herself in the blank black screen. Did she have as many frown lines before Connor left? Or have they always been there, and she just never got enough peace and quiet to have the chance to look at herself, really look at herself?

 

The thing is, Zoe doesn’t know if she wants her brother back. Calling Connor and convincing him to come home, telling them they’ll figure out another way to save the world, together — yeah, that’d be the selfless solution. It would get rid of the bags underneath her mother’s eyes and the constant police presence in their home. They’d be a family again, even though they’d barely fit a shoddy definition of “family” to begin with.

 

It would be the right thing to do, Zoe knows that. But she’s been selfless for so long. Connor has taken up so much of her life for as long as she’s had a life, and maybe it’s time to be a little selfish, to allow herself to explore the chance of existing without the weight of an angry, suicidal, delinquent brother to hold her down.

 

But she’s also scared of what she might find in that kind of existence. What if it turns out that she and Connor are made out of the same kind of hurt, and in his absence, she fills his role and becomes angry, too? What if she doesn’t like who she is without Connor? What if she doesn’t like what making the choice to not find Connor makes her?

 

No. It’s time to start living for herself, stop putting other people’s wants before her own. She knows what she needs to do.

 

So Zoe throws down the phone and enjoys the sound of it shattering.

 

Then, she picks it up and dials Connor’s number.

Chapter Text

Eight.

September 26th, 2017

The town had gone to shit. Has, really, it hasn’t ended. Still, all of the unexplained lightning-related fires had been put out, so it feels like an end to it. Zoe, more than anyone, knows that it’s not.

 

Somehow, in all of the panic, she comes to the conclusion that she shouldn’t tell her parents that she knows exactly how Connor escaped during it all. She can’t tell them that she didn’t stop him. She’d be worse than her brother at that point. She’s supposed to be the good kid.

 

So she stays quiet as her mother discovers Connor’s bed empty. She stays quiet as her parents call the police. She stays silent as the police eye her suspiciously, as they question her and she shrugs like she doesn’t care.

 

(She has to convince herself she doesn’t care. Why should she, with all he’s done to her, why should she?)

 

Somehow, the whole school finds out, and it’s a fiasco. Connor Murphy, school psycho, has done a runner, stolen his parents’ car and got out of Dodge.

 

For a while, rumors were circulating that he got paranoid during the storm, freaked out, and has been committed. Other people think he ran away with his drug dealer. In third block, it comes out that Evan Hansen, professional wallflower, has disappeared as well, and then new things start to surface about how they were probably secretly dating and have eloped.

 

She tries not to roll her eyes at the idea of the perpetually-shaking Evan Hansen falling for her drug-using with a side of anger issues older brother.

 

By the end of the day, there is no doubt in anyone’s minds that Connor and Evan left town together. She keeps her head down, knowing exactly what she’s in for, as the sister of a runaway. All the questions she can’t answer, all of the stares. She hates this already.

 

The next day is worse.

 

People actually come up to her and ask questions. Sure, they start it all off with opaque apologies, all, “God, it must be so hard for you,” and so on, but invasive, vaguely creepy questions about her brother and Evan Hansen are still invasive and creepy questions. Zoe is, frankly, fucking sick of it all.

 

And then, to top it all off, Alana fucking Beck gets on her high horse about it all.

 

“Two boys from our school have gone missing! This is a community, but we can’t claim to be close-knit if we don’t care about two of our own just disappearing! That’s why I propose…”

 

That’s about where Zoe stops listening, but she gets the gist of it. Posters, candlelight vigils, school-wide assemblies preaching about the dangers of running away, promoting being open and honest with your loved ones, promoting mental health awareness, promoting whatever the fuck it is that Alana feels fits into this situation.

 

As much as Zoe wants to think she has good intentions, she can’t get rid of the thought that she might just be organizing all of this for good additions to her college applications.

 

Not that she’d blame her.

 

The next day, her family drags her to make a public plea for Connor to come home in front of the local press. Sitting at the table with the police officers, with her parents, with Heidi Hansen, she can’t bring herself to speak.

 

Is she supposed to lie and say she wants her brother back?

 

She slumps low in her chair and waits for it to be over. She tries not to think that something doesn’t ring true in Heidi’s statement; that would just be shitty of her, to approach a worried mother and ask her if she really wants her son home.

 

Especially in her situation.

 

There’s a hotline opened on the East Coast, for people to report sightings of the boys, and their faces are every second thing she sees on the local news station.

 

There’s a supposed sighting in Washington, D.C., and they sit tensely waiting for the phone to ring. It never does.

 

They attend Alana’s candlelight vigil, her parents making small, tearful statements, and she holds the candle, wondering if she should wave her fingers over the flame to make it look like she’s crying for her brother. She knows it looks bad that she isn’t crying.

 

She doesn’t know why she doesn’t feel anything about this. Not even relief anymore. She doesn’t know why it still feels like she can’t breathe easy.

 

It’s supposed to be easier without Connor.

When Jared hangs up on Evan, he can’t help the tears that start streaming down his face as he lets go of the false bravado he wears in front of him. In front of everyone, really. He knows he’s not to everyone’s taste, especially not in the humor department. But he has the overwhelming need to be liked by everyone. He thinks everyone does.

 

The truth is, Evan is really his only friend.

 

Has been since childhood.

 

Camp friends are camp friends; those lines don’t really cross into high school life. He’s passed many a camp friend in the halls here, and they’ve never once tried to engage him.

 

Evan has always been there. It’s hard not to take him for granted.

 

Now he’s gone, off to do something potentially (definitely) dangerous, and he’s been left home with no one to lean on, waiting for him to come home, dead or alive. Jared has no control.

 

If he’s getting introspective now, isn’t that what it’s all about?

 

Having Evan as his friend. Having Evan as his only friend, and vice versa.

 

All the rude things he says, he basically negs Evan into staying close, and now that he looks at it, he’s fucking disgusted with himself, and he sobs harder.

 

Because he thinks that if Evan dies out there, he won’t know exactly how important Jared thinks he is. He won’t know how much he regrets every time he insinuated that they weren’t real friends. He won’t know, and it kills Jared.

 

He doesn’t know what exactly possesses him to drive to the Hansen house. He barely remembers the drive, just knows he ends up there. And of course it’s fucking raining.

 

The lights are on, and of course that’s usual, but usual is Evan being here, and Heidi not being here.

 

And Evan isn’t here.

 

Which means Heidi is.

 

And that isn’t normal. Not in the least. In thirteen years of friendship, he only remembers meet-ups at his own house so they would have adult supervision.

 

But Heidi’s car is in the driveway, and the lights are on, and he has to swallow a sob, knowing nothing is as it should be.

 

He knocks on the door for the first time in years, knowing no one inside will be overly startled by it. Just walking in feels wrong, even if he’s known Heidi for most of his life.

 

He’s soaked by the heavy rain by the time she opens the door.

 

She looks as tired and devastated as he feels.

 

Even while he doesn’t feel comfortable walking in, he knows it’s okay to just fall into her arms without a word and cry more freely than he has in years.

 

Her arms are immediately around him, soothing, comforting, her hand running up and down his back in the soothing motion he remembers from every hug in his childhood. He wonders whether she needs this, too, as he feels her gasp out a sob as well.

 

They cling to each other in the tumultuous wind and rain left in the absence of the creature Evan must defeat.

 

Later, they sit on the Hansens’ two-seater sofa (Evan once explained to him that they never expected there to be more than two people here at a time, and if there were — at this, Evan laughed bitterly — they couldn’t afford to seat them), drinking tea from chipped mugs, in silence, listening to the wind whip around the house, the rain pouring heavily, sound filling the spaces where an uncomfortable silence should be.

 

He wonders if she knows everything Evan told him. He wonders why he knows what Evan was saying is the truth.

 

Alana knows it’s none of her business to be concerning herself with Connor and Evan’s disappearance. But with the craziness in town right now, and the public ridicule they’re up against, she cannot simply stand by as people forget them.

 

She knows she doesn’t know these two boys outside of conversations she’s held with them in class, mainly concerning assignments. Of course she does. It doesn’t make her unqualified.

 

The last time she saw Evan Hansen, he looked so uncomfortable that he appeared sick, and she left the area as quickly as possible so as to not get vomit on her clothing.

 

That said, it’s better that she, with only a tenuous grasp on the personalities of these boys, organizes events than an uninterested teacher or a grieving parent. It’s better she, with the organizational skills and the emotional distance, gets the community involved.

 

If she didn’t do that, all that would be left in the memories of her classmates would be the urban legend they came up with of Evan and Connor secretly running away together.

 

Still, it’s hard not to identify with Evan and Connor, mocked and ridiculed, or barely acknowledged. If she’s honest, it hits a little too close to home.

 

She knows anyone who knows them would wonder why she got involved. Sometimes she wonders too. But she thinks she would like someone to step in if it were her.

 

So she bulk-bills the school for packs of candles they use at the vigil, and she stands behind the families of two boys she barely knew, like she belongs there. She lets Heidi Hansen hold her in a side hug, like she has any right to be organizing around her tragedy.

 

Cynthia Murphy holds her hand and thanks her. Tells her she didn’t think anyone cared this much for her son.

 

Alana finds that’s more of a gut-punch statement than every time her parents tell her a grade isn’t good enough. Mostly because Alana knows she’s right — no one really cares about Connor, apart from the school drama he is imbued with. He’s a scapegoat, an easy target, and no one really cares where he is, and it breaks Alana’s heart to know that.

 

Mostly she hates that even she doesn’t care this much. She just wants people to think she cares. Wants to believe she has the capacity to care this much. Wants people to notice her.

 

None of this is altruistic, and she hates that more than anything.

 

She’s drowning in self-hatred, and she wishes that at some point she could disappear into it, the same way Connor and Evan disappeared into the storm.

 

They’ve been gone for a week. Seven days.

 

The police have classified them as runaways, and, as such, have toned down their efforts to trace them.

 

Zoe thinks that tactic is bullshit. Her brother is still legally a child, even if Evan isn’t. And a missing child, no matter the circumstances of their disappearance, should raise as much concern as any other missing child.

 

She coasts through school, both despising that teachers are letting her off easy now, letting her sit in the back of class and stare at nothing, and feeling grateful that she has time without her family in which she can process what they’re being put through.

 

More and more, she thinks that her brother’s troublemaking was what was keeping her family together.

 

Her mother sits in the living room or her bedroom, crying. Her father is barely home. She’s eaten takeout three times this week, and it’s only just Wednesday. It’s something she would have killed for a week ago, but seeing now the depths her mother must be in to not insist on cooking herself, she would give up takeout forever for her mother’s vegetarian lasagna.

 

She starts cutting classes to see if she can get away with it. Just one block on Monday. And another on Tuesday. Today, she’s sitting outside the school waiting for somebody to care.

 

She’s starting to see why Connor skipped school so much. He just wanted someone to see him, maybe to ask him what was wrong.

 

She has no idea what it was like in his world; she only ever saw him from the outside.

 

She endured hell with him by her side, sometimes she endured him, but she never expected to be left on her own.

 

She has too big a space to fill.

 

There’s too little of her.

 

She lies down on the bench out in front of the school in the dappled sunlight, and waits for something.

 

Anything.

 

Jared is waiting for the phone to ring. More than that, he dreams about waiting for the phone to ring. Literally sitting by his cell phone, watching time tick away.

 

No matter what he’s doing, where he is, he’s really just waiting for Evan to call, to update him, keep him aware of what’s going on hundreds of miles from here. To keep him there with him, in some way.

 

He’s terrified of being forgotten in everything that Evan is about to do. Not that he thinks it’s going to be any fun, but it is going to be a bonding experience, and Jared, insecure as he is, is hoping not to be replaced.

 

He comes to the conclusion, after four days of having not heard from him, that communication is a two-way street, and he calls Evan himself.

 

The call goes through to voicemail after three rings, and he concludes that Evan has declined his call. He tries to shake that off before the beep he’s supposed to leave a message at.

 

He’s hit with the sudden memory of trying to convince Evan to record his own voicemail freshman year, but he was so worried about messing it up, and having it messed up forever and not being able to change it. It’s stayed the default message since he got the crappy phone.

 

Jared is shaken from this memory by a tone alerting him that he has to leave a message. He clears his throat.

 

“Hey Evan, just checking in! Want to know when you and Connor are gonna make it to the chapel, you know your mom doesn’t want you living in sin! Let me know where you’re at. Okay. Call me back, or something.”

 

He ends the call, and the fake smile that somehow plastered itself to his face slips little by little as he sits on his bed.

 

He didn’t realize exactly how much having Evan comforted him all these years. His afternoons are empty, and homework doesn’t fill them. Video games aren’t enough of a distraction without a second player.

 

Nothing is right.

 

He finds himself back at the Hansen house for the second time this week and is surprised that Heidi is there again.

 

She makes them tea in silence, and he wonders why she continues to let him in. She’s grieving the loss of a son, nursing the hurt of having Evan run away, and she lets Jared in, her son’s crappy best friend.

 

Again they sit on the sofa, and he feels his phone burning a hole in his pocket. He’s not sure if it’s guilt, or his obsession with whether Evan has called him back, but he needs to check his phone now.

 

He shifts uncomfortably, trying to disperse that need, and she looks up at him with her kind, open face and says, “You know, don’t you?”

 

It’s a testament to this crazy world he’s suddenly woken up in that he knows what she means. She fixes him with an expectant look.

 

He nods.

 

She smiles, and there’s a bittersweet twist to it. “Did he call you, or—”

 

“I called him. I—” He swallows a sob that comes out of nowhere and tries to blink away tears for the second time tonight. “I need to hear his voice, that he was okay. He’s my best friend, Heidi.”

 

She nods, and her face turns serious. “You know you can’t tell anyone anything, nothing at all. It could endanger them, it doesn’t matter who it is. You can’t say anything to anyone. It could kill them. Do you understand, Jared?”

 

He nods solemnly.

 

Her face relaxes, but her whole posture stays taught, straight, as though ready to be attacked. Her voice is softer now. “Does he sound okay?”

 

He nods again. “A little tired, a little anxious, but nothing like you’d expect him to be,” he assures her.

 

She looks relieved. “He forgot his pills, Jared,” she whispers.

 

His whole soul is seized with fear at that notion. He’s seen Evan off his meds, and it’s pretty much wall-to-wall anxiety. Add that to the situation he is in, with a near stranger no less, and Jared knows that Evan must be struggling hard to keep it together.

 

“Shit,” is the only word he can muster.

 

She tightens her lips. “You took the words right out of my mouth.”

 

He doesn’t even have it in him to finish the Meatloaf lyric.

Chapter Text

Nine.

"Would you get out of the car already?” Connor growls.

 

“I don’t see why I have to do it,” Evan replies. They’re sitting in Connor’s parents’ car in the parking lot of a supermarket, just off the highway in Vandalia, Illinois.

 

“Because your face isn’t plastered all over every form of social media, unlike me,” he scoffs, running a hand through his hair.

 

“Connor,” Evan says, more firmly, turning in his seat to look at him, “I really don’t think this is a good idea.”

 

“I put it off for this long.” He’s saying it through gritted teeth.

 

Evan bites his lip, giving the mostly-empty parking lot a cursory glance. “There are cameras everywhere, in there—”

 

“Hansen, I have been wearing the same pair of socks for the last five days,” Connor spits, hands slamming into the steering wheel. Evan jumps, just a little bit. “You walk in there, buy food and socks, and come back, or I will leave your ass.”

 

Evan gives him his best version of a death glare and braces himself against the slight chill of the air as he gets out of the car and walks with purpose towards the Target.

 

Evan has always wondered why the lights in these shops are so bright, and so unnaturally cool-toned. It makes it feel like an operating room, or an office building. He thinks they might sell more fruit if they gave the lights a warmer tone. Something a little less blinding, and more like dappled sunlight.

 

He picks up a shopping basket and tries desperately not to sweat like he’s done something wrong.

 

Because he hasn’t, technically, done anything wrong.

 

Obviously, thinking ‘I haven’t done anything wrong’ is not working in his favor, because the cashiers he’s passing are giving him suspicious looks, and he just wants this to be the fastest grocery trip ever, if only to get out of the public eye.

 

He can’t think straight, can’t think of what they need as far as nutrition. He’s got a craving for fresh fruits and vegetables, but they have no way to cook the vegetables.

 

He settles on baby carrots and celery sticks, and a couple of apples. He pauses and grabs an orange for good measure. He doesn’t want to risk somehow contracting scurvy. Then there’s the obvious. Muesli bars, bags of chips, pre-sliced meats. Kids’ pre-packed lunch snacks, with cheese and crackers.

 

Then, he finds himself in the rest of the store, sort of guessing Connor’s size in things. He grabs two 3-packs of socks and hopes to God they have similarly sized feet.

 

And he gets distracted by the hoodies, knowing it’s about to get freezing. He hesitates and then picks two gray hoodies out, one darker than the other, so they can blend into crowds.

 

Of course, from there, disaster has to strike.

 

He tries to use the self-checkout. Because of course he does.

 

Everything is scanned in, and he’s trying desperately to shove bills into the machine when it gets stuck. Literally, the bill gets stuck, and the machine makes this horrible robotic whirring noise, and Evan wouldn’t be surprised if it started smoking and sparking. He looks down sheepishly as an attendant approaches.

 

“Hey, man,” says the guy, and Evan now realizes he must be a little younger than he is, probably a sophomore. “It’s all good, these machines break down every couple of days, don’t worry about it.”

 

Evan nods as the guy kneels down next to the machine and opens it up. He half-expects the machine to just spontaneously combust, with how the evening is turning out. Evan looks around nervously, hoping that no one has recognized him yet. He also hopes no one is staring. He hates being the center of attention. He arches his shoulders further into the middle of his chest, like he’s trying to fold himself away. The attendant raises an eyebrow and goes back to fixing the machine.

 

“Found the problem, it should be all good to go.” The guy hands the ten dollar bill back his way, and Evan tries to squeeze out a ‘Thanks’ despite the fact that his throat feels like it’s too closed for air, let alone words. It comes out as a sort of whisper.

 

“Hey, man, are you okay?  I mean, did you commit a murder or something, because we’re obligated to report suspicious activity, y’know.” The guy is smiling, grinning really. He might be making a joke.

 

All Evan can muster is a quiet, “Or something.” Then he finishes paying, and gets out as fast as he can.

 

“Jared, I just want to know if he’s okay, or where he is. If I need to send him money or something.” Zoe doesn’t understand how this can be such a difficult concept for the guy. Her older brother is apparently part of some ancient Norse prophecy, is traveling across the country to defeat some huge dickwad who wants to end the world with zero preparation, and she’s supposed to just nod and eagerly accept whatever measly scraps of information Jared feeds her? Hell no. Connor might be a pain in the ass, but he’s her pain in the ass. Jared doesn’t get to decide whether she’s entitled to information on his whereabouts. They share blood. That trumps everything.

 

Jared lets out the most dramatic sigh she’s ever heard and shoves his glasses up the bridge of his nose, smearing a lens with fingerprints in the process. “Like I said, Murphy, you’re not getting anything else out of me today. I’m a law-abiding citizen who follows the rules set out for me.”

 

Zoe can’t resist a snort at that. Right. Like Jared Kleinman has ever followed a rule in his life if it wasn’t convenient for him. “I still have Connor’s number,” she reminds him. “If I really wanted to, I could call him myself.”

 

Fear briefly flashes across Jared’s face at her words, and Zoe ducks her head to hide her grin. She’s got him now.

 

“How many times do I have to tell you that Connor doesn’t want you calling him?” Jared hisses, fingers going white around the edges of his AP Calculus textbook. “We don’t know if the police have bugged your phone or something to try to find your brother — I wouldn’t put it past your dad, honestly, he’s kind of a prick. Or what if Big Baddie used his Magical Jackass powers to figure out that you were in contact with Connor and Evan, and he hurt you to try to get more information about them? It’s just not worth the risk.”

 

It’s kind of hard to believe that her safety would be one of her brother’s top concerns, because in Stratham, that was certainly never the case. His nights of trying to kick her door down and calling her an entitled bitch can attest to that. Maybe something about leaving their tiny town’s constricting city limits had changed that, but Zoe remains doubtful at best.

 

Being skeptical is better. It allows her to brush off the pang in her chest that she feels whenever someone mentions Connor, or the possibility of him caring for her in any way.

 

She rolls her eyes at Jared’s contrived narrative, then allows a melodramatic sigh of her own to escape. “I just wish there was something I could do to help,” she admits, vulnerability taking over in spite of her better judgement. “I hate feeling so useless.”

 

Something in Jared’s expression softens at that, almost as if he understands. And maybe he does, in a way. Zoe can tell he likes to pretend that he only gives half a shit about Evan, but Jared’s far too easy to read. He’s worried about his best friend.

 

And that’s when he acquiesces. “Well, Connor did say we could try researching ways to defeat Magical Jackass,” Jared muses.

 

The idea of research and the musty old Stratham City Library excites her more than she’d previously anticipated. “We’re starting now,” she declares, tugging Jared in the general direction of the parking lot and ignoring his shrieking protests.

 

“Really?” Jared whines as they come into view of her sunny yellow Beetle. “I have a Calc exam Monday, I probably shouldn’t be cutting class—”

 

“You owe me one,” Zoe cuts him off, sending a glare his way that instantly shuts him up. It’s one of the few positive Murphy quirks she possesses. “You lied to me about Connor’s whereabouts for six days. A little trip to the library is hardly the worst I could do to you for that.”

 

A sudden memory of a childhood trip to the library, her six years old and Connor verging on eight, bubbles up in the back of her mind, completely unexpected and unwanted. It brings a softness to her voice when she says, “Look, I wanna kick ass. I wanna protect Connor and Evan. But I’m God-only-knows how many miles away from them right now, so this is the only way I can kick ass.”

 

Jared gives her a thin-lipped smile. “We’re not going to kick ass by reading a bunch of dusty old books.”

 

“Au contraire, Kleinman.” There’s steel in her tone now, and it makes Jared’s eyes narrow.

 

But he gets in the car anyway.

 

Of course, the moment he slams the passenger-side door shut, his nose starts to wrinkle. “Jesus, this car reeks of cigarettes,” he complains, half-heartedly coughing into his elbow. “You a smoker now, Murphy?”

 

Zoe feels something in her chest twinge as she reaches over him to pull a new air freshener out of the glove box. “No,” she says shortly, hanging the little cardboard flower on her rearview mirror. “Connor.”

 

An awkward silence stretches between them at that. “Sorry,” Jared says after a beat, fingering the magic eight-ball keychain on his backpack.

 

She doesn’t accept his apology. Instead, she simply shrugs and turns the key in the ignition, enjoying the way the engine sputters to life. Connor used to make fun of that, but Zoe always thought it was an indication that the Bug was trying its best with what little it had. Just like they all were.

 

“Let’s go kick some ass.”

 

Chapter Text

Ten.

The car is dead silent. Okay, not exactly silent — there’s the rumbling of the engine underneath them, and the soft thumps where the road is uneven, occasional little clicks where bugs and debris hit the windshield and hood of the car. But Connor is silent. And Evan refuses to try and get him to talk, for fear of… Well, he’s not really sure what he’s afraid of.

 

They’ve entered Missouri now, and the land has more yellow and brown in it than green, showing either how long it’s been since they left, or exactly how quickly the seasons change, one to another.

 

If they were at home, he would be watching the leaves on the tree in his front yard change from green to gold. It would be calming.

 

Here, it’s distressing. It’s a reminder of the passage of time. It’s a reminder of how long he’s sat in this godforsaken car. It’s a reminder of all he has done wrong to put him here, and a reminder of all he will continue to do wrong.

 

He brings his knees to his chest, his mother’s voice ringing in his head, telling him exactly where those knees will go if they happen to get in a car crash. He tries to ignore the particularly gory image his brain concocts at the description his mother once gave him.

 

Connor gives him a sideways glance, and Evan holds his breath, thinking that obviously he has been breathing too loudly, or too hard, or too often.

 

He wishes he were anywhere else.

 

His fingers seek the comfort of blankets on a bed, and find the rough felt used to upholster cars. He lets that texture soothe him as he gazes out the window wistfully.

 

“We’re stopping here.” Connor’s voice pierces the silence that lulled him to sleep, waking Evan with a start.

 

“What?”

 

Connor nods at a sign that says Entering Hermann, MO, and Evan furrows his brow. “Why are we stopping? I thought we agreed that we weren’t stopping till we hit Kansas.”

 

Connor wrinkles his nose a bit. “That’s before I realized we were lacking in food. And also all of our clothes are disgusting. We’re stopping at a laundromat. I’m not sitting for one more moment in these clothes.”

 

Evan says nothing at that. He’s discovered that simply not saying anything now is the same as agreeing. In fact, if he tries to add anything to a suggestion, Connor assumes he’s shooting it down and gets defensive before Evan can get a word out.

 

So he doesn’t say anything about how useless it’s going to be, washing their clothes, if they don’t find a shower at the same time. He stays silent.

 

Connor seems content with that.

 

The laundromat is deserted.  Completely empty except for them. There’s only the whirring of the washers and dryers to fill the silence that has come between them.

 

Evan is sitting on an empty machine, trying not to think about what he might have done to cause this rift. And trying not to think of his mother, at home, probably scared. Trying not to think of Jared, possibly getting along just as well without him, maybe even better without Evan hindering him.

 

Connor is reclining over several machines, looking tired as all hell, and uncomfortable, and Evan can’t help but regret that this whole situation has ripped them away from their homes. Has shoved them together.

 

It’s clear Connor doesn’t want to be here, and Evan can’t blame him.

 

He looks down and closes his eyes, tries to breathe. Tries to focus inward.

 

There’s all of a sudden a loud thump, and he looks up to see Connor has hit a machine.

 

He can’t hide the surprise and intimidation on his face.

 

Connor looks angry, and a little sad, and sort of embarrassed to have done that. Evan can’t help the terrible, tension-relieving snort that he lets out.

 

“Are you laughing at this?” Connor asks incredulously.

 

Evan shakes his head, trying desperately to hold back a giggle. Connor looks like he’s holding something back, too. Whether it’s laughter, or tears, or unchecked rage, he can’t tell.

 

He coughs a little, and Connor glares at him. He knows now that it’s just anger. For some reason, he still goes on to speak.

 

“Hey, did you know there’s a place here where you can stay in a tree house? They built the houses around the tree, and you can just stay in them. It’s really beautiful, I was reading about it online, and, uh—”

 

“Not that I don’t appreciate that you’re trying to self-soothe or whatever, but I’d really feel better if you stopped talking. I mean, for fuck’s sake, Evan, we just got told that the future of the free world rests on our shoulders!”

 

That familiar weight settles in his lungs as he remembers what he was born to do, what he is meant for.

 

“I know that. I’d just rather not think about it. I don’t want to be left alone with that thought.”

 

“Surely you can appreciate that I do. Why on earth don’t you want to think on that? Fuck, Evan, you were born to save the world!”

 

“And that’s terrifying!” Evan yells, looking over his shoulder to check that no one heard him, despite the fact that he knows that the laundromat is empty. “I’m so scared that I’m going to mess this up somehow, and doom us all, kill us all, not just you, not just our families, but everyone! I can’t—”

 

Connor’s face betrays a feeling Evan cannot put a name to, but it almost seems sheepish. He still doesn’t speak, and the room is somehow filled with a silence that is deadlier, more suffocating than the last one.

 

Finally, a machine makes a noise that says a load is done, and Evan goes to dump the clothes into a dryer, finding instead that all their white and light-colored clothes are tinged pink.

 

And he laughs.

 

Connor looks confused, and looks into the washer as well, to discover the same thing. He looks like he’s going to cry, if Evan’s being honest. All Evan can do is laugh. Because he’s just so angry, it’s all that he can do to keep from screaming, and crying, and doing as Connor did and punching anything he can get at.

 

Connor puts a hand on his shoulder, and he shrugs it off.

 

“Is anything going to be okay ever again?” he asks.

 

Connor looks down. “I don’t know. We have to try to make it okay. I hate that it’s up to us. But it is.”

 

He nods and swallows a sob.

 

“Come on, let’s put this on to dry. I’ll put on some music, we’re gonna jump around and pretend that we’re normal kids for a moment. It’ll be great.”

 

Later, to the sounds of “Walking on Sunshine”, they jump up and down, and there’s a smile on his face that almost doesn’t feel fake, and he thinks he sees a light in Connor’s eyes that hasn’t been there in a long while. He almost forgets about the terrible things they will have to go through, dancing with Connor in an empty laundromat at 2 AM.

 

As it turns out, the Stratham City Library has an extensive collection of books on Norse mythology. The labels on the inside of the covers had a “Donated By” section, once upon a time, but someone’s gone and scratched it out until all anyone can see is a singular “H”.

 

Well, Zoe doesn’t know who this mysterious H is, but she sure is thankful for them.

 

Researching doesn’t really tell them much — there’s a lot of blabber about the forms that Big Baddie, whose actual name is One Who Floods the World, can take, but no real advice on how to send him back to the pit in Hel (yes, Hel, not Hell, because apparently Norwegians aren’t fond of Ls) he came from. That doesn’t mean it’s not helpful, though. Zoe would never admit it, but she’s grateful for a distraction. It seems like every day that goes by without Connor turning up just intensifies her mom’s stress and her father’s anger. The police are useless, according to her dad, so they’ve hired a private investigator (or a PI, as Jared calls him) to track down their delinquent son. Home never really was a place of refuge for her, but it’s certainly not now, with her parents’ constant arguing and the PI’s inevitable presence. The library is cozy and quiet, and it never smells like cigarettes or red wine. Plus, on Fridays, it’s open until 8 PM.

 

Jared, to his credit, hasn’t been as insufferable to deal with as she’d initially feared. The research actually seems to have soothed him a bit, too, though he’d never tell. She doesn’t catch him glimpsing at his phone as often, and he’s not as quick to be a dick to her over trivial things. Plus, Zoe gets the sense that Jared doesn’t have much else to do after school. She’s not some queen bee, but she’s well-liked enough that hanging out with her a lot has probably helped him out a bit.

 

She looks forward to their library visits. It makes the not knowing more tolerable, and it lets her believe that maybe, just maybe, she’ll be able to help her brother, and he’ll come back alive and better. A new Connor, a Connor who doesn’t threaten to kill her for revealing his secret weed stash or steal her car to run off with people he barely knows.

 

More likely than not, though, she’s too much of a dreamer.

 

Jared’s sole after-school activity, Tech Club, meets on a weekly basis, so Zoe usually goes to the library by herself on Thursdays. It takes her longer to get through materials on her own — she’s a slower reader than Jared — but it’s infinitely preferable to going home and risk dealing with the PI. His name is Michael something-or-other, and he’s nice enough, but there’s an artificial quality to his grin that she doesn’t quite trust. His smiles never reach his eyes, and on the rare occasion she decides to do her homework at the kitchen table (sometimes, being upstairs and in close proximity to Connor’s room is too much to handle), she feels like she’s always catching him staring at her. Like he knows her secret. Like he suspects her.

 

On this particular Thursday, just around the two-week mark of Connor and Evan’s disappearance, the call of the library is more tempting than ever. It’s gorgeous out, unusual October weather for Stratham, the sky blue and clear but the air just crisp enough to demand a scarf and boots. Zoe doesn’t like it. It feels wrong, like the town is better off without her brother’s presence. She doesn’t want to consider the possible truth in that statement.

 

She barely makes it into the parking lot before someone’s calling her name. “Zoe! Hi!”

 

She winces. This is the problem about not having Jared by her side. People generally avoid him; he’s not the type of person you’d say hi to in the school parking lot, or someone you’d stop and have a conversation with. He has a constant aura of irritation surrounding him, warding off even the friendliest of their peers.

 

Zoe, however, is clearly different. And lucky her — Alana Beck wants to say hi.

 

She turns around, trying to shade her eyes from the bright sunlight, and plasters on a smile as the older girl approaches. “Hey, Alana, how’s it going?” Over the past few weeks, Alana’s been an ever-present source of updates on the investigation into her brother’s disappearance, using her father’s city council connections to send out information moments before it becomes available to the public. She’s also organized numerous searches and candlelight vigils for Connor and Evan, although Zoe can’t help but feel that those may be more to benefit Alana’s Harvard application than the missing boys. Any halfway-intelligent person would be able to tell by now that they’re not going to be found in Stratham, and prayers will do little to help.

 

Especially since Connor and Evan don’t want to be found.

 

Still, something about Alana is admittedly alluring. Her carefully-constructed persona on social media might appear fake, but in person, there’s an earnest desire to help written all over Alana’s face. It draws Zoe in, frustratingly enough. Even now, an intrusive thought about how nice Alana’s royal purple cardigan would look against the backdrop of her car pops into her head.

 

“Well, I haven’t given up on the search for your brother,” Alana says solemnly. Trust me, I know, Zoe’s tempted to reply. But she can’t be mean to Alana; for all her faults, she appears to genuinely care about Connor and Evan’s wellbeing.

 

“I appreciate that,” Zoe tells her, rocking back and forth on her feet. Her mom instilled the art of small talk in her many years ago, claiming it was an “essential life skill,” but apparently Alana can unsettle even a master of conversation.

 

Alana seems to hesitate for a moment, uncertainty flickering across her features, before she settles on an appropriately neutral expression, brow only slightly furrowed with concern. It’s a little creepy, how she has this revolving store of body language and faces for every occasion. Zoe kind of admires it, though. “Is there any other way I can be of help?” Alana asks.

 

She’s inclined to say no, but then she sees that Alana’s got her hands in her khakis pockets, as if she’s trying to hide the fact that they’re shaking, and something about that gets her. Because this is real to Alana, obviously, if she’s so worried about saying the right thing that she’s trembling. And Zoe has a gut feeling that closing herself off would only upset the other girl.

 

So she says, “Actually, yeah. You wanna grab some coffee? I could really use someone to talk to who’s not a private investigator.”

 

And Alana smiles. For real, this time.

Chapter Text

Eleven.

By the time they reach Kansas, the constant transactions at motels and McDonald’s and everything in between have given Evan a healthy dose of financial anxiety. “I think we need to find a way to be more frugal,” he tells Connor as they’re passing the WELCOME TO KANSAS CITY sign on a chilly morning in October.

 

Connor snorts. “We’re teenage runaways, Hansen. What exactly would you suggest? Can’t exactly eat at home more, seeing as we have no home to return to.”

 

Evan wants to correct him, say that they do, in fact, have homes to return to, it just wouldn’t be safe for them to do that — but he opts to keep his mouth shut instead, because they’ve only just repaired their friendship (if that’s what it can be called) and he really doesn’t need Connor pissed at him again.

 

“Maybe we can find cheaper motels to stay at,” he says after a beat, toying with an unraveling thread at the hem of his shirt. “We don’t have to, like, live in luxury. That could save us some money.”

 

Connor actually laughs at that. “We’ve already been staying at Motel 6s. It doesn’t really get worse than that, unless you’d like to risk bedbugs and buying a whole new wardrobe to get rid of them.”

 

The thought of bedbugs is terrifying, yet Evan still can’t help but think about his mother, her constant absence, all the late-night shifts she’d worked at the hospital and then at the nursing home to get him this money. How much has she sacrificed? And they’ve just been throwing her money away for the past two weeks without a second thought, like it’s nothing? There’s blood, sweat, and tears (so many tears) in this money. But it doesn’t seem to mean all that much to Connor — maybe because he’s always had easily-accessible money, has never had to spend a week eating PB&Js for dinner because rent was due soon. Maybe because Connor doesn’t know what it’s like to spend every Friday night watching old Westerns on a worn-out couch, or to not have any idea what people are talking about when they bring up Game of Thrones or Stranger Things because there’s no way you could ever afford the luxury of HBO or a Netflix subscription.

 

Connor doesn’t know, but he needs to try to understand. So Evan prays for a little infusion of courage from Tyr, clears his throat, and says, firmly this time, “Connor. We need to start saving some money. So let’s figure out alternative options.”

 

Connor exhales, long and slow, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel. “Well, I do have one idea. It wouldn’t cost us anything. But you’re probably not gonna like it.”

 

“Tell me,” Evan insists.

 

“We could find a random place to sleep. Like, a gym or a school or something. I know that back home, they left the gym unlocked on weekends so the jocks could come in and practice whenever they wanted; I’m sure it’d be the same way here.”

 

For a second, Evan thinks he must be joking. But Connor’s expression is all too serious, and he’s looking at Evan expectantly, and oh my god how is he his Guardian? “Are you insane?” he cries. “What do you think would happen if the police caught us? They’d pull up our names in the system, and we’d be shipped back to Stratham in an instant, and then He Who Floods the World will kill everyone we love, and this’ll all have been for nothing—”

 

He’s hyperventilating, and Connor obviously recognizes that, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. “I’m not saying we have to, okay? It was just an idea. But I’ve done it before, when I was really high and didn’t want my parents to find out. Never got caught. And worst-case scenario, we get caught, you use your laser shit to hold ’em off until we can get out of there.”

 

It sounds like a terrible idea, like the antithesis of everything Evan would have stood for two weeks ago. But isn’t the whole point of this trip to make Evan into someone different? He wasn’t courageous before, but to save the world, he’s going to have to be. He’s never been daring or bold, but the savior of humanity needs to be. He has to lose his old self, because the Evan Hansen of Stratham is useless to the world. That Evan couldn’t even order pizza for himself, let alone defeat an ancient god who precedes the beginning of civilization.

 

He needs to be a new Evan. A better Evan, a stronger Evan.

 

So he slows his breathing, turns to Connor, and says, “Let’s do it.”

 

The sky has turned a purplish gray color, storm clouds gathering in the air and the faintest rumblings of thunder starting up, by the time they pull into the parking lot of North Kansas City High School. Evan tries to push down the anxiety rising in his chest as Connor grabs their bags and heads in the direction of the gymnasium. It’s not hard to find, big red double doors all too similar to Stratham High’s own gym. As Connor had predicted, the doors aren’t locked, a “Practice Sign-In” sheet pasted to one of them.

 

Obviously, they don’t sign in.

 

“This is perfect,” Connor says, setting up their stuff in the corner of the gym furthest from the doors. “The weather’s shit, so by the time it’s cleared up enough for anyone to bother driving over here to practice, we’ll be long gone.”

 

Evan doesn’t have it in him to remind him what happened the last time they got caught in a thunderstorm.

 

As part of their new money-saving philosophy, they don’t leave to buy fast food like they normally would; instead, they munch on halfway-stale Ritz crackers and questionably aged cheese purchased back in Illinois. Traveling has completely fucked up their respective sleep cycles, so Connor arranges his backpack into a makeshift pillow and drifts off around 6 PM, Evan following shortly after.

 

His last conscious thought is, “Maybe this won’t be so bad.”

 

But of course that has to get proven wrong.

 

At first, he thinks it’s the janitor, coming in on a random Sunday-morning shift to clean up any potential damage from the storm.

 

It’s a clatter that wakes him up, a clatter that could so easily be a mop dropping to the floor or a bucket being placed on the ground. So Evan tries not to be too worried at first, despite the twisting in his gut as he rubs the sleep from his eyes and sits up, his surroundings slowly coming into focus. Everything else appears relatively normal, save for the clattering outside. It’s still dark out, a patch of moonlight shining through the solitary window onto the eagle mascot in the middle of the gym. It’s just that the double doors are shaking, like someone’s trying to open them. They must automatically lock after a certain time, some sort of security measure.

 

But wouldn’t a janitor have a key?

 

The twisting in Evan’s gut turns into a full-on stab of fear. “Connor,” he whispers, desperately trying to shake awake the sleeping boy next to him. “Connor, someone’s here. We need to go.”

 

“Hansen,” Connor groans, flinging an arm over his eyes, “what’re you talking about? Go back to sleep, there’s no one here.”

 

Please, there’s definitely someone here, I can hear them—” Connor ignores him and rolls back over, and Evan’s heart threatens to beat out of his chest.

 

Then the shaking turns into banging, the loudest banging Evan’s ever heard, and that does it this time. Connor’s up in a flash, cursing under his breath as he attempts to jam his feet into his shoes. “Fuck, fuck, someone must have figured out we were staying here,” he mutters, hopping on one leg as he tries to lace up one of his boots. “Must’ve seen my car outside—”

 

The shrieking of metal pierces the night air, and Evan’s stuck in his spot as he watches the doors begin to give way. Connor’s boot falls over as he, too, freezes. “Evan,” he says slowly, every breath sounding heavy with terror, “what the hell is that?”

 

Before Evan can even contemplate answering, there’s an awful screech as the hunks of metal that were formerly the doors tip over, hitting the ground with enough force that people in Peru surely must feel it. He can barely swallow past the massive lump in his throat, and by his side, he feels Connor’s hand reaching for his as shadowy figures step into the room. God, there’s so many of them — at least twelve. They’re outnumbered, like, five times over.

 

Connor’s fingers intertwine with his, squeezing gently, and Evan forces himself to breathe. “There’s a back exit,” Connor murmurs, just quietly enough that Evan can hear him. “I can stay and distract them while you get to the car—”

 

“I get the feeling that we’re surrounded,” Evan says with more calmness than he knew he could possess. “And besides,” he adds, “we stand and fight this together, or we don’t fight at all.”

 

The figures step into the light, and at first, they’re not as terrifying as Evan had initially anticipated. The giant, blood-red cloaks they’re covered in are the first thing he notices about them; they’re definitely human, or at least humanoid, and that’s certainly not what he’d been expecting. One of them, the apparent leader of the group, lowers the hood of his cloak to reveal a shaved head and a manic grin, but it’s weird — Evan knows that if he were to put him in a suit, he’d look completely inconspicuous, like one of Larry Murphy’s firm partners.

 

There’s something about their eyes, though. As other members of the group show off their matching shaved heads and crazy smiles, Evan can’t help but notice the way there’s something dead in their gaze, all glazed over and vacant. Like they’ve been brainwashed. Maybe they have been. He wouldn’t put it past Him.

 

Then he notices the weapons they’re carrying — one has a dagger, another has an axe, and the leader, of course, brandishes a machete — and suddenly, everything feels a lot scarier.

 

Words flow off his tongue before he can even process that he’s speaking. “You don’t have to hurt us,” he says in a language that doesn’t feel entirely his own — maybe he’s speaking their language, the one he’d translated on the note from D.C. Whatever the case, Connor doesn’t appear to understand it at all, but the cult members (yeah, he’s decided they’re in a cult) understand perfectly.

 

The leader arches a brow, his grin growing ever wider. “You are the Chosen One, are you not? Our God is never wrong, and He tells us that you aim to stand in his way, that you wish to corrupt the vision He has for the future of this world.” He steps closer, crossing over from the center of the gym into Connor and Evan’s little corner, and Evan swallows hard. There’s probably only going to be one way out of this.

 

“I think you’ve got the wrong guy,” Connor calls out. “We’re not special, man, we’re just teenage fuck-ups. Try looking for someone who’s not sleeping in a high school gym.” Connor’s cursing only seems to further agitate the leader, who tightens his grip on the handle of his machete.

 

“You’re vulgar,” the leader says. “He will not tolerate vulgarity. It only serves to tarnish the perfect world He has set forth to create.” He is now so close that Evan can feel his breath on his face. “It is time for you to meet your end,” the leader continues, raising his machete. “Our Lord will be pleased to hear of your destruction—”

 

Evan doesn’t let him finish that sentence. Liquid heat curls through his veins as he turns out his palms and focuses, willing the most destructive and dangerous light that he can think of into existence. For a second, nothing happens, and Evan almost worries he’s forgotten how to do it. But then his hands glow a menacing scarlet, almost the same shade as the cult members’ cloaks, and the leader howls as light meets exposed skin with a disgusting sizzle.

 

They come at him so quickly, he barely has time to react. It’s one after the other, blade after blade after blade (he’s just thankful none of them have guns), all leaping at him with snarls and roars that sound almost inhuman. It shouldn’t be a surprise, really; if the One Who Floods the World has gotten to them, they’re bound to have lost at least a piece of their humanity.

 

The followers are relatively easy to take down, but their leader is persistent. He comes after Evan again and again as the size of his group quickly dwindles, until finally, it’s just him and Evan. They circle each other, predator chasing prey, and Evan shivers as he realizes the wide grin has never left the other man’s face.

 

“You will not win,” the leader hisses. “Even at His weakest, our Lord is infinitely more powerful than you, and He is just coming into His prime. We may not defeat you today, but He will come for you soon. Your end is near, child.”

 

Evan’s about to get snarky with him, show him exactly who this child is, but then the worst sound he’s ever heard reaches his ears.

 

Evan.”

 

It’s not even a call for him; it’s more of a wheeze, with how much the speaker is struggling to breathe, and time seems to grind to a halt when Evan realizes exactly who’s saying his name.

 

Connor. Connor’s the one who can’t breathe. Connor can’t breathe

 

His eyes frantically dart around the room, trying to find his partner in crime; it doesn’t take long. Apparently he hadn’t taken out all of the cult leader’s favorite minions, because there’s one more left, and he’s got Connor pinned against a wall, hands almost claw-like as they dig into his throat.

 

Just the sight of Connor like that is enough to make Evan nearly double over, but what really strikes him is how small Connor looks, how tiny a 6’3” person can become when they’re desperately gasping for air.

 

It’s horrifying.

 

In His name!” the leader shouts, taking advantage of Evan’s distraction to lunge at him, and he’s barely able to blast him in time. He gets knocked over in the process, but he’s managed a direct shot to the chest, and suffice it to say that the guy probably won’t be leading any cultish rituals any time soon (or ever).

 

Evan only takes a second to check that the leader has stopped breathing before he’s sprinting to Connor’s side, hands ablaze. Seeing Connor whimpering and choking up-close makes something in him snap; he doesn’t know who takes the reins as he throws the minion off of Connor and fries him much longer than necessary, but it’s certainly not any version of Evan Hansen.

 

In that moment, he feels like a warrior. But the feeling’s not as good as he’d imagined it would be. It’s closer to terrifying than empowering.

 

Evan takes stock of the carnage around them, and seeing the bodies piled in the gymnasium is enough to sap all the warrior strength out of him. Maybe these people had been brainwashed by an evil, ancient being — maybe they’d been willing to kill him without a second thought, but they were still people. Surely they had families, friends, lives, and Evan had ended all of that in minutes.

 

They deserve proper burials, but Connor needs his attention, and Evan won’t have the time to give them that.

 

Once they’re a safe twenty miles out of Kansas City, though, he’ll call in a tip to the police. Just so the janitor won’t have to be the one to find them.

 

He turns back to Connor, trying to avoid looking at the awful red marks on his throat. Connor is still wheezing, but there’s definite air in his lungs now, and he doesn’t look nearly as close to death. “What can I do?” Evan whispers, kneeling by his side. “How can I help you?”

 

Connor just shakes his head, unable to form words yet, and it occurs to Evan that this might simply be the first wave of attackers. What if they had buddies acting as backup? What if there’s more coming for them? They need to leave, now, before someone else comes to finish Connor off when Evan’s not looking.

 

“Hurts—” Connor finally chokes out, blinking back tears, and Evan aches for him. This is his fault. Of course it’s his fault. Connor doesn’t have powers, he should have kept him by his side at all costs, not abandoned him for His minions to have their way with him—

 

He forces the thoughts to the back of his mind. He can worry about that later, but he’s got to get Connor to safety, stat. Not as though that will be easy — Connor seems to be hyperventilating, chest rising and falling rapidly as he sucks in air like he still can’t quite get it. Evan can’t blame him, but he doesn’t know how to fix this. All he knows how to do is soothe.

 

“You’re okay, Connor, you’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay,” he repeats over and over, leaning forward to brush a stray sweaty curl out of Connor’s eyes and watching as the color slowly returns to his face. It’s nice to see some color in his features after he’d been so deathly pale, but what Evan is really waiting for is to see the fear disappear from his eyes. Though maybe all of the fear won’t ever go away, he at least needs to see the immediate terror leave.

 

Finally, after what feels like an eternity but could only really be a few minutes, Connor’s face softens, the overwhelming panic fading. “Let’s — go,” he rasps, and Evan couldn’t be more in agreement.

 

“Do you think you can drive?” he asks, trying to help him to his feet, but to no avail — Connor’s legs collapse out from under him, and Evan barely manages to catch him. Some superhero he is.

 

Connor shakes his head, and Evan’s chest tightens as he realizes it’s up to him now. He half-drags, half-carries the taller boy to the metal scraps formerly known as the doors as best he can. It’s a good thing the majority of their belongings have been destroyed in the battle, because Connor’s so heavy that the added weight of the remnants of their backpacks on Evan’s shoulders threatens to send them both toppling.

 

When they eventually make it to the car, Evan almost cries. Thankfully, the keys have come out unscathed, and he digs them out of Connor’s pack, unlocking the car and loading Connor into the passenger seat. He’s passed out, now, either from the adrenaline crash or shock, and Evan tries not to contemplate the potential health ramifications of that as he climbs into the driver’s seat, turning the key in the ignition with shaking hands.

 

This is the first time he’s driven without an adult in the car. He doesn’t even have his fucking driver’s license — didn’t even bring his permit with them. Oh, god, they are so screwed if he gets pulled over. Evan sends up a quick prayer to Eir for protection, and then he hits the gas.

 

This better work out, or humanity can kiss its ass goodbye.

 

He drives all night, Connor unconscious the whole time. He drives until the sun is blazing on the horizon, all too reminiscent of the killing light that had emerged from his palms back in Kansas City. He drives until his mind is so hazy, he can almost forget about all the lives he’s ended. He drives until the sight of black highway asphalt has almost replaced the image of Connor begging for his life permanently burned into the backs of his eyelids.

 

He drives until he can’t drive anymore, and when he pulls into the parking lot of a Motel 6 six hours later, the fuel gauge is nearing Empty.

 

They’re in a town called Goodland. Evan can’t help but think that’s ironic.

 

Thankfully, in Goodland, motel desk clerks don’t question disheveled, tired-eyed teenagers who present them with $100 bills, and Evan’s just thankful that the worker has shuffled off to the vending machine in the back when he returns with Connor in his arms. Carrying an unconscious guy to his room would probably look infinitely suspicious.

 

It’s somewhere around seven AM, and weak daylight is filtering into their tiny, crappy room as Evan lays Connor down on the bed as gently as possible, trying to be careful with his head.

 

Apparently he’s not gentle enough, though, because Connor stirs for the first time in too many hours. “Hansen?” he mumbles, voice still a ghost of its former self. It makes Evan cringe. “Where are we?”

 

“We’re at a motel in Goodland,” Evan tells him, setting down their bags at the foot of the bed. “There was a fight, back in, um, Kansas City, and you got hurt, so I got us out of there.”

 

Evan can tell by Connor’s sharp inhale of breath that he’s starting to remember.

 

God, he suddenly feels so tired, every bone in his body weary with pure exhaustion. They both need to get some sleep (or more sleep, in Connor’s case).

 

“You probably shouldn’t sleep in that,” he points out, gesturing to Connor’s hoodie, which is covered in blood. The sight’s somewhat reassuring; at least Connor must’ve gotten in a few good hits before that guy cornered him.

 

Connor doesn’t seem to want to move, so Evan says, “Here, let me,” and starts to unzip the sweatshirt. There’s a lot of blood on it, actually, and Connor only flinches slightly as Evan gets it all the way off and tosses it onto a chair.

 

“Evan—” Connor starts, that protective tone he’d used in D.C. back again, reaching forward, like there’s something he doesn’t want him to see.

 

But it’s too late. Evan’s already seen it.

 

That blood didn’t come from their attackers.


It’s Connor’s. And it’s fresh.

Chapter Text

Twelve.

The six-inch gash across Connor’s left side is leaking blood faster than Evan knows how to handle.

 

Fuck. He doesn’t know what to do. His mom works at a nursing home, sure, but Jared had been the one to take first-aid classes, and even he had dropped out after one session — oh god, and they’re all alone, and they don’t have health insurance or money to cover stitches or anything like that-

 

“Hansen,” Connor croaks from the bed, “don’t panic.”

 

“How can you tell me not to panic, Connor?!” Evan snaps in spite of himself. “You’re — you’re bleeding all over the place, and we can’t take you to a hospital, we’ll get found out — oh God, but that’s too much blood, that’s a lot, we’re gonna have to pay for this place to get a new mattress, and shit, shit, I need to call 911. I have to call 911, you’re losing too much blood.”

 

Evan.” Connor’s voice, sharp and loud, cuts into his harried thoughts, and Evan pauses, phone in hand, to look over at him.

 

God, the sight is horrifying. There’s blood on the sheets, blood on Connor’s skin, blood everywhere, and the fact that Connor is treating this like it’s just a simple paper cut is somehow even worse. Like he thinks it doesn’t matter, or he doesn’t matter.

 

“You can’t call 911, Evan,” Connor says, softer now. “What’s gonna happen when they look at the two of us and realize we’re the runaways from New York? Or maybe my parents’ influence hasn’t reached this far yet, sure, but what about when they take me to the hospital and ask for my name and information? They’re just gonna stitch me up and ship us right back to Stratham, and then we’ll be putting everyone we love at risk. That’s not worth it. I’m not worth it.”

 

“Don’t say that,” Evan cries. “You’re worth it, Connor, you know you’re worth it, don’t say shit like that!”

 

Something flashes in Connor’s eyes, the emotion coming and going too quickly for Evan to properly identify it, before he lets out a sigh and nods. “Okay, Evan. How about this — these things always look worse than they actually are. So how about you come over and look at it? If you can see muscle, then we’ll worry. But I bet you it’s just a nasty cut.”

 

It sounds like a stupid plan, and not the first one of those that Connor has suggested in the past 24 hours, but Evan is willing to give it a try, if only because he’s curious to know how worried he actually needs to be and how fast he needs to act.

 

He sits on the edge of the bed carefully, doing his best not to jostle Connor. The gash is even more confronting up close, but Evan swallows hard and fights against the bile rising in his throat as he leans forward, fingers brushing against the edges of the wound. Connor shivers.

 

He may not be able to see muscle, but he can definitely see fat poking through, and god that is so disgusting, and Connor definitely needs medical attention.

 

Evan can’t be sure if it’s the fear or the gore or both that does it, but a sudden wave of dizziness hits him, knocking him off balance enough that he falls forward despite his best attempts to stay upright.

 

And because the gods truly have blessed him with the best streak of luck in existence, he falls right onto Connor’s injury.

 

To his credit, Connor doesn’t scream like Evan probably would in his situation; he only lets out the tiniest of groans, and Evan’s almost scared to look down and examine the carnage that surely waits for him. His splayed-out hands, meant to absorb any impact from a fall, had ended up covering Connor’s wound, which he supposes is better than jamming an elbow or foot into it. Still, it won’t be a pretty picture.

 

But when he lifts his hands and inspects what he is certain should be a bloody mess, the six-inch open wound has been replaced with an angry, scabbed-over red line. It’s certainly not the picture of health, but it’s a far better sight than what Evan had been confronted with just moments ago.

 

And he is so very confused.

 

Connor, however, seems to get the gist of it pretty quickly. “You healed me,” he breathes, a smile spreading across his features. “Holy shit, Evan.”

 

“This shouldn’t be possible,” Evan mumbles, still staring down in shock at the partially-healed wound.

 

“Well, it makes sense, doesn’t it?” Connor argues, struggling to his elbows to halfway sit up. “You’re the Chosen One, I’m your Guardian — of course you would have the ability to heal me, so I can keep on protecting you while you go save the world and shit. Though I’m a little annoyed, honestly -- the gods put us through all this shit and they can’t even be bothered to give you the ability to heal me completely.”

 

“Everything has a limit, Connor. Too bad I can’t magically vanish the blood from the sheets,” Evan says, glancing at the crimson stains he’ll surely end up paying for. Hopefully the cleaning staff won’t ask any questions. They’ll have to make a quick exit tomorrow.

 

“Nothing a little soap and water can’t fix. Or you could call your mom; I’m sure she’d know how to deal with it.”

 

“I don’t want my mom to know you almost died.” Connor’s face falls at Evan’s words, any hint of joking disappearing from his features, and Evan pinches at the bridge of his nose to distract himself from the twinge of guilt in his chest. “Okay,” he says, exhaling softly. “You still probably need Neosporin, and definitely a bandage. Like, something big enough to wrap around your side, so the scabs don’t re-open. So I’m gonna go to Walmart and buy that, and you’re gonna lay low and not even think of touching your phone.”

 

The irritation in Connor’s eyes makes it clear that he was obviously intending on messing with his phone. Probably calling Jared, which is the last thing they need right now, because Evan’s already talked to him, and so if Connor calls, it’ll just make things seem worse than they really are. Then Jared will definitely tell his mom ASAP about the fight, and then she’ll be worried, and Evan can’t do that to her. He’s already ruined her life enough.

 

Connor makes a sound that seems like an agreement to comply, though, so twenty minutes later, Evan’s standing in the checkout line at the 24-hour Walmart across the street, holding a tube of Neosporin, gauze rolls, medical tape, alcohol wipes, and a box of Band-Aids. It’s a motley assortment of medical supplies, and he probably looks like a walking ER, but his original plan, an ace bandage, hadn’t worked out after he’d remembered reading an article about how those could restrict movement to the point of causing breathing issues. Gauze and a healthy dose of Neosporin will have to do.

 

The cashier eyes him suspiciously as she scans his purchases and he hands her a twenty-dollar bill. Her name tag reads BRENDA. “Planning on opening a clinic, hon?” she asks. Evan can’t tell if she’s being funny or if it’s a serious question.

 

He shakes his head. “I, um, just like to be prepared,” he tells her as she counts out his change.

 

“You look kinda familiar,” she says, handing him back a few bills and a dime. Evan hopes the panic he feels at her statement isn’t written all over his face like he thinks it might be. His mom used to call him an open book, and right now is exactly the worst time for him to be that.

 

“Dunno why,” is all he can manage to get out before anxiety forces his throat closed and he has to grab his bags and leave.

 

When he gets back to their room, Connor has fallen fast asleep. He looks so peaceful, so calm curled up on the bed, that Evan almost feels bad about waking him up.  Taking care of him is more important, though, and he’s already got a six-hour head start on sleep, anyway.

 

“Fuck, you’re starting to develop a track record with this,” Connor says sleepily as Evan tears open the packet for an alcohol pad and swipes it over his wound. He prays to Eir that he’s doing this right as he smears some Neosporin on the area.

 

Evan doesn’t look up from his work, unraveling the roll of gauze with one hand and peeling off a strip of medical tape with the other. “A track record of what?”

 

“Waking me up from good dreams.” Evan’s fingers are trembling as he wraps the gauze around Connor’s side as carefully as he can, gesturing for Connor to lift up his back a little so he can get it all covered.

 

“What were you dreaming about?” Evan asks, securing the gauze with some tape. He surveys his work; it’s haphazard and not nearly as professional-looking as what a nurse would have accomplished, but he’s still proud of it. As his mom would say, It’ll do the job, sweetie. There’s a little twang in his heart at the thought of her, but as much as he longs to hear her voice, he knows calling her now would only cause her further stress.

 

He looks up to find a faint blush scattered across Connor’s cheeks. “Nothing,” Connor says hastily, looking away and refusing to meet his eyes. Evan wants to keep pushing, but he knows he shouldn’t, at least not in this moment. Connor’s been through enough in the past 24 hours.

 

Then he notices the blood and glass sprinkling Connor’s hair. Shit, how had he not seen that before? “You should probably take a shower. You’ve got, um — stuff,” he says, pointing to the assortment of debris nestled in the other boy’s dark curls.

 

Connor flushes an even more vibrant shade of pink. “I would, but I don’t think I can wash my hair like this,” he admits, waving a hand at his bandaged side.

 

Evan has a feeling he’s going to regret this, but he throws the idea out there anyway. “I — I could wash it for you. Since you can’t.”

 

So that’s how they end up half-clothed in the tiny motel room shower together, the citrusy scent of generic-brand shampoo filling Evan’s nose as he attempts to lather it into Connor’s hair. Connor has so much more hair than he does, and it’s thicker, too, making things all the more complicated.

 

It’s quiet, and Evan’s simultaneously enjoying it and feeling impossibly awkward. What if his hand slips, and Connor thinks he’s trying to make a move on him? What if he presses too hard and irritates the spot where he’d been slammed against the wall back in Kansas City? What if he messes up? Of course he’ll mess up, it’s him.

 

“Thank you,” Connor murmurs, breaking the silence.

 

“For what?” Evan rinses out the second helping of shampoo and reaches for the conditioner. He doesn’t usually rely on the stuff, but he’s glad he’d thought to buy some back in Illinois, because Connor’s hair almost certainly depends on it.

 

“You didn’t have to do this,” Connor says, twisting around to look at him. Evan avoids his gaze, knowing he’ll probably fumble and drop the bottle of conditioner if their eyes meet. It feels like that would be too much to handle, for reasons he can’t explain.

 

Instead, he settles for a shrug, coating Connor’s hair with conditioner. “We might be fugitives, but we’re above dirty hair,” he says wryly.

 

Connor laughs, and for a while, everything feels like it’ll be okay.

 

Maybe it will be, in the end. But Evan knows that’s just wishful thinking.

 

It’s somewhere around 9:30 AM when he finally gets Connor comfortably settled in his bed, freshly showered and bandaged for good measure. Connor drifts off quickly, but Evan finds himself lying awake, staring at the other boy for longer than is probably socially acceptable.

 

Those bandages poking out from underneath Connor’s sleep shirt? Those are his fault. The ring of purplish bruises starting to form around Connor’s throat? His fault, too. The fact that Connor hasn’t talked to his parents in almost a month, and hasn’t seen them or his sister in even longer than that? Absolutely his fault.

 

Every bit of Connor’s suffering — Evan’s responsible for that. Because the truth is, Connor wouldn’t be sleeping in a cheap motel room with scratchy sheets in the middle of nowhere, injured and exhausted, if not for him. If he hadn’t been stupid enough to use his powers in a public library — if he hadn’t told Connor the truth instead of just dismissing what he’d seen as a bad trip — if he hadn’t had the audacity to exist in the first place — so many ifs, but they all lead back to him.

 

Connor may be his Guardian, but how much is Evan really worth protecting?

 

Because as sleep finally comes for him, Evan can’t help but think that maybe they’d all be better off if Connor would just let him die.

 

Six Hours Earlier

The shrill notes of his ringtone wakes him up with a start. At this point, pretty much any noise wakes Jared up. This time, it hopefully isn’t going to lead to a borderline panic attack. It takes him a few moments to realize he actually wants to pick his phone up, but the moment he blearily recognizes Evan’s name on the screen, he wakes right up and answers.

 

“Evan!” he whispers.

 

“Jared,” he replies. “Listen carefully. We think we had an encounter with people who are following the Big Bad I’m supposed to kill. And not stalker follow, religiously follow. Like creepy fucking Manson Family follow.”

 

Jared tries not to be confused by this turn of events, or by Evan’s sudden swearing habit. He puts it down to the inordinate amount of stress he’s under and stores away the Manson Family Cult information for later. For the library with Zoe.

 

“An encounter how? Like, you met them on the street and they nicely told you that they’re gonna take you down, or—”

 

“No, an encounter, as in, they attacked us in a high school gym, choked the hell out of Connor, and left after I burned their de-facto leader with my stupid laser light powers.”

 

“I have a lot of questions, the first being why were you in a high school gym, the second being—”

 

“This is serious, Jared, they really hurt Connor. He’s bruised, and he looks like he’s on the edge of death, and I don’t know what to do! What if he’s hurt worse, somewhere I haven’t seen yet?”

 

He tries not to tell Evan he has no idea either. He tries not to discourage him, especially since Jared is who he called for help.

 

“How bad are his injuries?” he asks instead of offering the information that he never passed his first aid course.

 

“I don’t know, I haven’t checked, because right now, it’s like Schrödinger’s cat, it’s both life threatening and nothing at all, as long as I don’t check, and—”

 

Jared wants to scream at the stupidity of that definitely anxiety-fueled decision.

 

“Evan, you have to fucking check that shit. A possible mortal wounding is very different to theoretically putting a cat in a box for fifteen minutes. Because one of them ends in death.”

 

“Well, actually—”

 

“Evan, fucking check that shit, and fix him up! Bandages and Neosporin exist for a reason. In the meantime, Zoe and I are gonna research this fuckin’ cult you mentioned.”

 

“Okay, okay, okay—”

 

“Last thing before I hang up on your ass — where are you? I need to update your mom.”

 

“I’m, uhh—” There’s the sound of fuzzy white noise for a moment, and then Evan is back. “I’m passing Ellis, Kansas.”

 

Ellis, Kansas. Evan is in Kansas. Evan is in Kansas, with a wounded Guardian, far from home, without any of the skills he needs to succeed in this situation. At this moment, he aches to be there, to be a good friend, to help, to comfort him. He has to settle for long-distance comfort.

 

“Hey, Evan?” he starts.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I really—”

 

There’s a sharp thumping sound, and then the sound of fumbling, and a low, mumbled, “This is harder than Connor makes it look.”

 

“You okay, buddy?”

 

“Yeah, I’m just — oh, shit!”

 

And then a tone. The phone’s been hung up.

 

Of course, the moment Jared was ready to have a moment of emotional vulnerability, Evan has to remember he’s a Huge Klutz Idiot.

 

He wonders what that last ‘Oh, shit’ was. Whether he had finally checked on Connor. Whether it was worse than either of them anticipated. Whether he was already dead. Whether first aid was going to be futile. Whether Evan is going to have to deal with burying a body in the desert alone.

 

This was the real Schrödinger’s cat situation. Right now, as he sits there, dumbfounded with phone in hand, Connor is both dead and alive. Evan is both about to administer first aid and dealing with knowing there was nothing he could have done to help.

 

Over the last month, he’s developed a bit of a system. When he’s feeling shitty about Evan being off fighting monsters, he goes to the Hansens’. More often than not, Heidi’s not there, still having an overloaded schedule, but sometimes he gets lucky, and he can talk with someone he can be completely honest with.

 

It’s not like he can tell Zoe everything, or there’s a good chance she’ll tell Alana. So all he has is Heidi.

 

So he ends up at her front door again, looking for validation and comfort from a woman he barely saw before her son up and left.

 

“Where is he now?” she asks. By now, she knows exactly how he takes his tea, with three sugars and milk, and she starts boiling the kettle the moment she sees headlights in the driveway.

 

“Passing Ellis, Kansas, when I spoke to him,” he says, and debates not telling her about Connor being injured, or about the attack in Kansas City.

 

Even considering this puts a look on his face that she clearly knows she must ask about.

 

“There’s more here, spill it, Jared.”

 

“Connor got, umm….” he trails off.

 

“Connor got what now?”

 

“Connor got beat up real bad. The fucking minions of this shithead found them in a school gym, apparently, and Connor got hurt.”

 

Heidi is silent. She stares straight ahead. Her hands shake, and the surface of her tea in her cup ripples. Jared isn’t certain, but he thinks he sees tears in her eyes. Her face stays clinical.

 

“How badly was he hurt?” she asks, no emotion in her voice.

 

“Evan couldn’t be sure, he tried to get them out of there as fast as he could. He’d been driving for hours. He hadn’t checked. He said he was definitely badly bruised, but he didn’t know if he was bleeding.”

 

Heidi closes her eyes, breathes in, and breathes out. “Fuck,” she whispers.

 

“Something like that.”

 

Heidi gives a little exhaling laugh that sounds more like a sob. “How are they gonna do this?”

 

“They’re going to. They’re going to have to.”

 

Heidi’s hand moves from her cup to a chain around her neck. “Jared, does your mother know you come here?”

 

He shakes his head. “I thought we couldn’t let anyone know we were meeting.”

 

“We can’t. Jared, I appreciate you bringing me updates, you know I do, honey, but you need to go home right now.”

 

He tries not to let her know exactly how hurt he feels. It’s not her fault. She’s right. He should be at home. He should be doing his assignments, and playing video games, and going out with his friends, and trying to hide his underage drinking from his parents. He should be being a kid. Instead, he’s here.

 

He sets down his still-full mug and gives her a tight smile.

 

“Let me know if you need anything, Mrs. H.”

 

He walks out her front door, and wonders where he will go now.

 

Heidi lets out the shuddering breath she’s been holding in since she found out that her baby had been attacked. She stops blinking back tears, starts letting them fall, and grips the pendant around her neck a little harder.

 

She wishes she could call Evan. She wishes she could talk him through helping Connor. She wishes she could comfort him. Moreover, she wishes she could hold him, hide him away, let the world fall apart, because nothing can be that bad as long as her son is okay.

 

She has to let him be, though. She has to let him save the world. The police have a bug on her phone, she knows that. If she’s in touch with her son, she’ll be seen as abetting. The whole situation will seem like a kidnapping. Like Connor’s kidnapping.

 

So, she thinks hard about what she can do remotely. How she can help them.

 

February 3rd, 2006

He shouldn’t have come today. He should have given her some warning, let her be prepared, or out of the house, with Evan out of the way.  He should have respected her enough to give her five minutes’ warning.

 

Instead, Steven Hansen arrives in her driveway, in a U-Haul truck, completely unannounced, all smiles, like they weren’t over, and like he never even fought for their son, the one thing they successfully built together.

 

He hugs his son, Evan just six years old and wide-eyed at the sight of a real, actual truck in his driveway.

 

Heidi pretends it doesn’t fucking hurt that Steven being there makes Evan happier than he’s been since he left.

 

She knows it has nothing to do with her. She’s a good mother, she can provide all his father won’t. But it sucks, knowing Steven giving the bare minimum will be enough to put a sparkle in her little boy’s eye.

 

They lift Evan to sit in the front seat of the moving truck, and his amazed laugh should be everything to her. It should be enough for her not to resent this.

 

All the while, Steven is moving boxes out of the front room and putting them in the truck. He is wandering the house, finding the things he’s added to the household and removing them.

 

It hurts her.

 

She doesn’t regret any of it for a moment, because if she never married him, she wouldn’t have Evan. But the shame of having failed in this is more than she can carry. And there’s a small part of her that feels rejected, like she wasn’t enough for him, and god, it sucks.

 

By the end of the day, all traces of Steven are gone from the house, apart from their wedding album, and Evan is dozing in her arms as they look at each other, at a complete loss.

 

Because this is it.

 

This is the first moment it feels really real. He’s leaving her, and their boy, and moving to Colorado.

 

He sighs, and she bites her lip, waiting for whatever he's got to say.

 

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a jewelry box, and her heart feels like it’s going to give out, because she just knows he’s giving his wedding ring back, and she can’t deal with that. It’s way too real. And she’s not giving hers back to him, and this feels like an act of expected reciprocity that she’s not ready for.

 

He opens it, and inside is a necklace, a simple silver chain with a silver pendant that could easily be mistaken for a simple cross. Albeit an upside-down one.

 

But she knows what it is.

 

It’s Thor’s hammer, a symbol of protection.

 

“Steven, what—”

 

“Look, I know this has been the shittiest. For both of us. But, Evan. He might turn out to be so much more than either of us could imagine. So before I leave, Heidi, please take this. It’ll be tough, raising a son who’s not entirely your own, a son who belongs more to the world than he does to you, but I know if anyone can do it, it’s you. You’re strong, and if you ever find yourself doubting that, look to this. It’ll help.”

 

She takes the box and looks from it to him. “Is this where we do an awkward but heartfelt goodbye?”

 

“Yeah, I think it is,” he says, and gives a nervous chuckle.

 

There’s silence between them, and it seems like the whole world gets colder.

 

“I really loved you,” she says. “I’m sorry I stopped somewhere along the way.”

 

Steven smiles. “I think there’s a part of me that will always love you, Heidi. Take care of him now. And yourself. Hold tight, stay afloat. Like I said, if anyone can do it, it’s you.”

 

He kisses her forehead, and Evan’s head where it rests against her shoulder, and she fights back tears until the truck rounds the corner out of their street.

 

She holds Evan a little closer, and that night, after consoling him, she puts the pendant on and squeezes it hard. She hopes Evan never has to live up to this prophecy. She hopes he never has to be anyone but Evan.

 

Present Day

She makes up her mind, and picks up the phone, dialing a number she hasn’t had use for in years. The phone rings three times before he picks up.

 

“Steven. It’s Evan.”

Chapter Text

Thirteen.

Heidi buys a burner phone. She actually buys a burner phone, from a very sketchy-looking man. She goes home, and she lays it on the coffee table, and thinks very seriously about what she’s about to do.

 

She’s going to tell Evan to go and stay with the man who basically abandoned him as a child. She has to tell him that his only chance of survival lies with a man as immature and childish as his father. The man she spoke to on the phone seemed changed, seemed like a stranger. But she can’t get the man she knew, the man with a child in his eyes and heart, out of her head.

 

Still, she picks up the phone and dials Evan’s number, one she knows by heart. She knows Evan’s best chance lies with Steven.

 

The phone rings twice. When it is answered, the person on the other end breathes, inhales before talking.

 

“Who is this?” asks a shaky voice, and Heidi breathes a sigh of relief, knowing it’s Evan.

 

She shouldn’t have expected a warmer welcome — she’s using a phone with a number that isn’t saved into his phone, and he hates answering calls anyway. “Evan, sweetie.”

 

Evan lets out what sounds like a sob. “Mom—”

 

“Hey,” she says, “I love you.”

 

He laughs bittersweetly. “I love you, too.”

 

“Where are you now?”

 

“We’re about to enter Boulder. We didn’t want to go through Denver; this seemed like the less risky option.”

 

“You need to go to Breckenridge.”

 

“We need to go to Breckenridge? In Colorado? Why?”

 

“Your father lives there.”

 

There’s a pause, and Evan breathes really hard. She closes her eyes and waits.

 

“Mom, are you telling me to go and see my father for the first time in twelve years?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Is this one of those times where you tell me a thing, and I have to do it without question?”

 

“Ask any question you want, you still need to do it.”

 

Why? Why do you want me to go there? Mom, he finally figured out how to be a dad, and he still never made an effort with me. I got a card twice a year with a photo of his real family and two twenty dollar bills. Why would you ask me to go there?”

 

“Because his family is where this prophecy came from. Your father was actually trained for this. Maybe he can train you for this, because god knows I couldn’t. I did my best, and it wasn’t enough, so you need to go there, and find out how to best protect yourself. I’m not having either of you hurt again because I have no idea how to fight.”

 

Evan is silent.

 

“I love you, baby, but I want what’s going to be best for you. You need to go to your dad’s, you need to stay until Connor is well, and until you know that you can do this. The house — well, it’s a ranch, actually — it’s on Boreas Pass Road, past Rocky Point. The driveway is, in your father’s words, more like a very long dirt road. The house is more than a mile up the driveway. It should be a very safe place for you and Connor.”

 

Evan may be silent, but it’s an angry and loaded silence.

 

“Evan, please—”

 

“Mom, I’m going to do this for you because I love you, and because Connor is really injured, but I’m not going to like it. I’m really going to hate it.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Mom, he’s never made any effort!”

 

“I know! I know, Evan! He has never made any effort. The only reason he’s going to make any effort now is because you’re the special kid his family has been waiting for for centuries. And it breaks my heart to know you probably would not have seen him again until he unexpectedly showed up at your high school graduation. Or your college graduation. Or rolled up to your wedding unannounced. I don’t know if he ever would have shown up.” Heidi has to suck in a breath and try to disregard the tears blurring the corners of her vision. This feels like such a painful reminder of everything she’s done wrong, every single way she’s screwed up Evan, and it’s re-opening old wounds she thought she’d bandaged years ago.

 

“But now you’re special to him,” she continues, “so he’s going to turn back around, and Evan, he’s probably going to act like he’s already apologized and you’ve already forgiven him. Because he doesn’t think there is anything to forgive, and that’s your father, but he is the best and nearest person for you now, so you are going to go to that godforsaken ranch, you are going to smile, you’re going to be polite to your cocktail waitress stepmother whose birth name is Krystal — with a ‘K’ — you’re going to bond with their two children, your half-siblings, and you’re going to learn how to save the world. Because god help you if you get into another situation with those freaks. It might be you hurt this time. You might die, and the world would fall into ruin.”

 

She takes a moment to breathe, and thinks she hears Evan let out a little sob on the other end of the line. She’s reminded, yet again, of how much she hates this whole situation. “Evan, I love you, and I hate that the weight of the world is on your shoulders, but I’m not going to pretend it isn’t, and I’m certainly going to do everything in my power to lighten that load. And that includes telling you to go to your father’s house. You may not like it, young man, but you’re never going to hate it as much as I do.”

 

“Okay.” Evan’s voice is small and quiet. Intimidated, maybe, or possibly just convinced. “I’ll go. We’ll go.”

 

Heidi feels a wave of relief crash over her. “Good. Good, Evan. I’m so proud of you. So, so proud of you.”

 

“Thanks, Mom.” Evan sort of chokes on his words, and she doesn’t know if it’s all the emotion, or if it’s something else, but at that moment, something happens on the other end. “Mom, Connor is waking up. I have to pull over and change his dressings. I love you. I’ll talk to you soon.”

 

“I love you, sweetheart. Take care of Connor. Let him know I’m thinking of him.”

 

“Will do, Mom. Bye.”

 

“Bye,” she replies, just as the phone beeps out that the call has ended. Heidi clenches her teeth and tells herself she has no reason to cry.

 

It doesn’t stop her from crying.

 

Evan has to assume that this is the driveway his mother told him about. A long dirt road stretches before him, out to where the headlights no longer find it, and there still isn’t a house in sight. He quashes his worry and looks to his right, where Connor is dozing against the passenger side window.

 

Evan wants to brush away the hair that is in his face, but doesn’t, because it’s weird, and totally unsafe, and where did that instinct even come from anyway?

 

The car comes over the crest of a small hill, and Evan finally sees the house. And his heart clenches at the beautiful cream weatherboard and covered veranda with its built-in swing seat. The house is idyllic, nestled in against a backdrop of snow-topped mountains.

 

There is a light on outside, and Evan knows they’re waiting for him.

 

He wonders if they know how broken he is. And how that brokenness doesn’t match up with this perfect image before him.

 

Connor stirs as they pull up to the house, rubbing his face in discontent, maybe at the light, maybe at the inconsistency of movement, maybe at knowing he was going to be roused any moment now.

 

“Hey,” Evan says as Connor blinks in confusion.

 

“Where are we?” he asks.

 

“My dad’s house. Get ready, this is going to be insanely weird and awkward.”

 

“Why do you say that?”

 

“I haven’t seen him in twelve years.”

 

“Ouch. Why are we here?”

 

“He’s going to teach us how to fight. Maybe even win this stupid thing.”

 

Connor nods absently, and Evan knows he’s going to say this all again later, because all of that went in one ear and out of the other.

 

It isn’t like they have a lot to unpack. It’s a backpack and a duffel bag full of the cheapest clothes they could find and dollar bills that are co-mingling with disgustingly greasy prepackaged food items.

 

Even so, when he picks up their bags, they feel heavier than usual. He’s glad he’s going to be setting them down for far longer this time.

 

The door opens without them having to knock.

 

His father stands in the doorway, aged since the last time Evan saw him, but not as much as he expected. He seems spry, and energetic. He looks confident. Evan shrinks in his shadow, the same way he feels he has for his entire life.

 

A woman of small stature comes to the door as well, smiling tightly, looking both of the boys up and down, probably judging them to be degenerates, with their dirty, slightly too long hair, their clothing (every item now has at least one hole in it), the posture they hold.

 

Even with all that, she still smiles.

 

“Welcome, boys,” she says in a hushed voice. “The twins just got settled in bed, so I’m going to have to ask you to keep your voices down. Sorry, I know that’s so uncool.”

 

He thinks both he and Connor pull faces of confusion at that.

 

He holds out his hand to shake hers. “I’m Evan. Sorry we haven’t had a chance to meet before now.”

 

She has a firm, confident grip, and she grins, probably happy that he seems to have decided she isn’t a threat. “I’m Krystal.”

 

“Nice to meet you.”

 

“’M Connor,” the boy next to him slurs, and Evan can’t help but smile and think it’s almost cute, how long it takes for Connor to truly wake up.

 

“Welcome, Connor,” Krystal says. Evan has to resist the urge to comment on his father’s complete lack of input. “Come in out of the cold, guys. I have a spare room set up for the two of you, so you can put your bags in there. You can even go straight to sleep. I’m certain your journey has been just exhausting.”

 

“It has,” Evan agrees as she ushers the two of them into the comfortably decorated front hall. The cream from the house’s exterior has been continued inside and is joined by a clear, sky blue. It looks like the house has jumped from the pages of a slightly more lived-in version of House Beautiful magazine.

 

Krystal leads Connor down the hall, complimenting him on his ear piercings that Evan has somehow not seen, and Connor half-smiles and points at her own ears, acknowledging all of the piercings she has. They round the corner before Evan can hear whatever Connor was going to say.

 

He breathes and looks up at his dad. Who is looking down at him, almost wistfully.

 

His dad clears his throat. “You got tall,” he says in place of a proper greeting.

 

Evan chuckles uncomfortably. “Yeah, well…”

 

“Good to see you, son. Glad to see you’re in one piece.”

 

It kind of hurts Evan to know that’s probably the closest he's going to get to an ‘I love you’ from his dad.

 

He decides he’ll take what he can get.

 

The room they’ve been put in has, honest to god, cross-stitch Bible verses and floral patterns on the wall. There are two twin beds and a bookshelf full of lifestyle books, all of which are titled along the lines of Getting to Know the Real You, and books that obviously followed in the wake of What Color Is Your Parachute?. Evan is of the opinion that this is too many self-help and sugar-free recipe books for one family of four.

 

“Your stepmom is really nice,” Connor says from his spot on the bed he has claimed as his own.

 

“She really is, isn’t she? I hate to say it, but I wasn’t expecting that at all.”

 

Connor snorts. “Of course you weren’t. She’s your stepmom. Disney set you up for the worst to happen. They’re gearing stepmothers all across the world up for success by setting a low bar. That said, Krystal is leaping over that bar.”

 

Evan laughs, happy to finally have a safe and warm place to sleep. It’s far more comfortable here than in any motel they’ve stayed in in the last month or so.

 

“So, did you have a good catch-up with your dad?”

 

“Oh yeah. So great. We’re gonna go play catch or some shit. My dad is the most emotionally stunted man I have ever met. And I have no idea how to talk to him.”

 

“Been there for my whole life.”

 

Evan smiles. “Your dad is into baseball, right? I feel like I remember you being on the Little League team in elementary school.”

 

“You do remember that, and now I’d love it if you’d wipe that from your memory.”

 

“Why? I remember you had a great arm. Did you prefer pitching or fielding?”

 

“If I tell you, will you agree to never speak of this again?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I liked pitching better.”

 

“Did you know any of those cool—”

 

“Hey! I said we were never speaking of it again. You promised.”

 

Evan mimes zipping his lips and holds back a laugh threatening to bubble to the surface. “I, uh, I volunteer as a park ranger in the summer. It’s really just an excuse for me to climb trees, if I’m honest,” he admits, and Connor cracks a smile that actually shows his teeth. It feels so much more genuine than his tight-lipped smile, so Evan continues. “When my dad was still living with us, he’d take me out and we’d see how high we could climb in the trees at the park. I kind of get why my mother says he’s immature, looking back on it.”

 

“That’s kind of cool, actually. We should go out and do that sometime.”

 

“Tree-climbing?” Evan asks, surprised.

 

“Yeah, this is a huge place, there have to be some decent trees around. I bet the twins know which ones are best...” Connor trails off. “I bet the world looks a lot clearer up there,” he mumbles.

 

Evan sits down on his bed next to Connor. “Do you think if we knew about this stupid prophecy from birth, we would have been friends before?”

 

Connor looks at him oddly. “I’m your friend now?”

 

“Of course,” he lies. He may be his friend, but as hard as Evan tries to squash down those ugly, squishy feelings he has when he sees Connor smile, or play with his hair, or when he’s fallen asleep against the car door, and his face is sort of squished against the window, and—

 

“Huh, I kind of figured that you were just scared of me.”

 

“Oh, no, I’m just scared of everything.”

 

Connor smiles again; it seems to be becoming more regular, but the smile is softer this time, his whole face so relaxed. “I wish you weren’t.”

 

“Me too. Then again, it does stop me from doing stupid things,” he says, and he wishes he hadn’t just looked at Connor’s lips, this is exactly the kind of stupid thing he wishes he would stop, but he just wants to know if there’s a new smile now, one he hasn’t seen before.

 

And, yes. Maybe he wants to kiss him. Who is he kidding, trying to deny that?

 

“Stupid things like what?” Connor asks, and he can’t be sure, but he thinks Connor is leaning in, he thinks Connor might be looking at his lips, and it’s like the whole world has slowed down.

 

It feels like a terrible teen rom-com, as he leans in as well, but it feels so right in this moment.

 

Before he has the time to get out the stupid words “Like this,” and before he has time to share his first kiss with Connor, the door opens, and they scramble apart.

 

Krystal stands in the doorway, smiling, holding two mugs. “I made hot chocolate. I figured you guys would want some creature comforts, given how long you’ve been in that car out there.”

 

There’s a pause, and Evan knows in that moment that everyone in that room knows what was about to happen. It’s actually mortifying.

 

“Thanks, Krystal,” Connor says, taking a mug from her, and Evan follows suit, nodding in agreement with Connor’s sentiment.

 

“Boys, I want you to feel comfortable, so let me know if you need anything.” There’s a pointed silence, and she makes eye contact with the both of them before saying, “Anything at all.”

 

If Evan thought he was mortified before, that was nothing compared to now. He’s just happy that Connor seems to be blushing into his hot chocolate.

 

He takes a sip and is surprised with how good it really is. Krystal hasn’t skimped; it must be made with real chocolate.

 

“Oh, I hope neither of you guys are allergic to almonds. We only have almond milk in the house, I’m vegan!” she laughs.

 

“All good here. This is delicious, by the way, thank you.”

 

“I’m glad you like it, Evan. It’s my specialty, really. Dark chocolate, make up for the bitterness with vanilla almond milk. The twins love it. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure,” she confides.

 

All this, though, is suddenly overshadowed by his father in the doorway. “Boys, I’m going to need your phones.”

 

“Actually, there’s someone keeping track of us for Mom, back home, and he’s also doing research for the big battle, so we need—”

 

“Put your phone in this box. You’ll get it back when you leave.” He holds out a metal lockbox, and there is no hint of humor in his voice.

 

Evan doesn’t say he needs the music on Connor’s phone to self-soothe. He doesn’t say he needs the knowledge that he can reach others. He doesn’t say anything. He drops his phone in the box hesitantly, and looks up into his father’s unapologetic eyes.

 

Connor does the same, and the box is closed and locked, much to Evan’s dismay.

 

“I will let your mother know you made it. We cannot have you contacting anyone outside your inner circle. Whoever that kid is, he is not in the inner circle here. You can fill him in after we’re done.”

 

Steven Hansen leaves the room without giving him any sort of closure on the short and abrupt conversation. Krystal, at least, looks apologetic as she leaves.

 

They sit in silence, and Evan thinks they might be thinking of the same thing. About Jared, and how out of the loop and terrible he’s going to feel when they start ‘ignoring’ his phone calls.

 

Evan doesn’t sleep well, despite feeling the safest he has felt in months.

 

Evan has never been woken up by children jumping onto his bed. This is a first. An unpleasant first. He turns into his side and brings his legs to his chest, trying to just get a little more sleep. He feels utterly exhausted.

 

The twins are not having a second of that.

 

“Wake up!” one of them shouts. “Mom is making breakfast, and we’ll eat yours if you don’t get up!”

 

Evan groans, surrendering to his wake-up call, and opens his eyes to the dimly lit room and the two children now kneeling very curiously on his bed.

 

“You look like my dad!” one of them says.

 

“Yeah, uh, hi, I’m Evan,” he says.

 

The one with the longer hair grins. “I’m Addy. This is my little brother Aaron,” she announces.

 

“I thought you guys were twins.”

 

Aaron rolls his eyes and pouts. “I’m younger by five minutes.”

 

Addy seems to be very pleased by this fact. “Look,” she says, “I have a loose tooth! Wanna see how wobbly it is?”

 

Without pausing to hear his answer, she reaches into her mouth and wobbles a tooth back and forth, grinning the whole time.

 

Evan pushes down his disgust and smiles. “That looks like it’s gonna come out soon. You ever had a tooth fall out before?”

 

She shakes her head, but Aaron nods vigorously. “I knocked my tooth out on Auntie Kara’s wedding boat!”

 

“How did you do that?”

 

“Ran into something,” he says with a shrug.

 

Connor groans on the other side of the room, and the twins’ eyes light up at the prospect of someone new to talk to. Evan is only forced out of bed at the thought of Connor speaking to kids without having had any coffee, which immediately prompts him to run to the kitchen.

 

His father sits at the large farmhouse-style kitchen table, laptop in front of him, as Krystal sets out cereals and bread for toasting. Evan’s relieved to see a pot of coffee on the bench behind her.

 

“Morning, sleepyhead!” Krystal says, far more chipper than any human being has any right to be around 7 in the morning. She somehow looks even more cheerful in the light of day.

 

“Morning. I hope you don’t mind me stealing a cup of coffee for Connor; he’s a real grump if he hasn’t had a dose of caffeine.”

 

Krystal pulls a face. “We only have decaf. I’ll grab some of the real stuff while I’m out shopping today.”

 

“Okay, I’ll give him a bunch of this in the meantime and hope for the placebo effect to do its job.”

 

“Sounds like a plan.”

 

He grabs a mug out of the third cabinet he tries and fills it to just below the lip, praying that it tastes right.

 

When Evan gets back to the room, the twins are sitting quietly on Connor’s bed while he calmly explains to them why his hair is so long and why he likes it that way. The kids seem to be in a trance, listening properly, sitting almost entirely still. It’s freaky.

 

He would never have guessed that Connor was good with kids, but as he starts to field questions, it seems almost natural.

 

Evan quietly hands him the mug as he listens intently to Addy’s question about his hair care routine. The answer is very short, because all he does is wash and brush it, same as Evan. All the same, they seem captivated.

 

“What is Addy short for?” Evan asks once Connor is done.

 

“Adelaide!” she proclaims proudly.

 

“That’s a pretty name.”

 

“I know,” she replies, and Evan can’t help but smile at the unabashed acceptance of a fairly weak compliment.

 

“Dad teaches us karate when he’s home,” pipes up Aaron, apropos of nothing.

 

“That’s what we’re here to do,” Connor tells him.

 

“Teach us karate?”

 

“No, learn it ourselves. Evan and I are pretty useless at protecting ourselves,” Connor explains. “See? Check out this cool scar I’m gonna have.”

 

He lifts his top to show them the still-bruised and raised area around the nearly non-existent cut, and the kids crowd in, disturbingly not repulsed by the sight — actually intrigued.

 

“Oh, Connor, that looks nasty!” exclaims Krystal from the doorway, and she quickly rushes to his side to take a closer look. “May I?” she asks, holding out her hands, implying she wants to touch him. Connor shrugs.

 

“I’m a certified homeopath,” she adds, and Evan tries not to cringe, knowing exactly how his mother would react to that information.

 

While Krystal is inspecting the wound, Connor makes ‘help me’ eyes over his head, but there isn’t much Evan can do, only shrug.

 

“Just like I thought. I’m going to get the honey and aloe vera, you stay still,” she says, and walks out of the room with purpose, the twins trailing behind her.

 

It takes all of Evan’s self-control not to giggle at Connor’s scared face.

 

“What the fuck?” he whispers, and Evan covers his mouth, but he can’t stop his shoulders from shaking with the laughter he’s containing. “Shut the fuck up, this is the most terrified I’ve been in my life! Aloe vera I’ve dealt with, but honey — what is she getting honey for?”

 

“Honey is a natural sanitizer and anti-inflammatory. The ancient Egyptians used it, you know, among other cultures. It’s tried and true, just a little stickier than normal,” Evan replies, still grinning.

 

If anything, Connor looks more put off by that. “Let’s get out to breakfast before she comes back."

 

Evan shakes his head. “She said that you have to stay there, I’ll go have breakfast. Stay strong.”

 

Connor glares as he slips out of the room.

 

“Okay, so we’re going to start with defensive basics. Evan, put a hand up, I’m going to grab your wrist. You try to get out of my grip,” Steven instructs.

 

Connor is sitting on the sidelines, still looking a little put off by the honey salve that was applied earlier this morning, and Evan, mortified, hesitantly lets his dad grip his wrist. He struggles to shake a hand off of him, and Steven sighs, disappointed.

 

“Alright, I’ll show you. Grab me.”

 

The moment Evan grasps his wrist, his dad is twisting and throwing his hand off him, easily, despite Evan trying to make it as hard as possible.

 

“Did you catch that maneuver?” Steven asks, and Evan looks up at him, confused.

 

“There was a method to that?”

 

Evan can see his father physically suppressing the urge to roll his eyes. “Connor, did you get that? Want to do ‘show and tell’?”

 

Connor looks embarrassed to be caught in the crosshairs of this, but he gets up all the same and, after his dad grips his wrist, in one swift strike, executes the move without a second thought. Evan feels the pit in his stomach deepen and the weight in his chest grows larger and larger.

 

“Your go, Evan.”

 

He tries to mimic the twisting, flicking motion, and succeeds in flinging his father’s hand back into his face, resulting in a satisfying smacking noise. He tries not to grin.

 

“Alright, we’ll come back to that one. Let’s go a little more advanced. Both of you boys, show me what you think a punch looks like.”

 

Evan sighs.

 

It’s going to be a long month.

 

Later, Evan is sitting in the shade, watching Connor spar with his dad, both doing and throwing punches, even getting in a few kicks, and, to Evan’s surprise, ultimately holding his own. Evan can’t even pretend to himself that it isn’t hot.

 

It isn’t really even the fighting that’s hot — it’s the look of focus and determination on his face.

 

And yes, maybe the thought that Connor could win a fight for him is a little bit appealing.

 

What’s worse is the exhaustion from having done this fifteen minutes ago is keeping him from wiping the lovestruck look off his face. It’s almost entrancing, watching Connor block a punch, and duck, and swing a leg out, advancing in a way that Evan is sure he could only do with years of training under his belt.

 

He’s been sitting there, drooling over Connor for entirely too long, when he’s broken out of his trance by a cry of surprise (and maybe pain) from around the corner of the shed.

 

Evan gets up, intrigued to find out what’s going on, and finds Addy on the ground with her palms grazed, tears in her eyes, as Aaron hurriedly hushes her, undoubtedly trying not to get in trouble. The both of them look up at Evan with eyes that beg him not to tell their parents.

 

Wordlessly, he gets down on their level and takes Addy’s hands, inspecting them and quickly coming to the conclusion that the grazes are shallow, and all it will take is a rinse and some Neosporin to keep them from becoming any worse than they already are.

 

“Come on, let’s get you cleaned up,” he says quietly, gesturing to the twins to follow him.

 

The whole process is a big deal, grabbing a step ladder so that Addy can reach the sink, shushing her when the water stings, and telling her that all the stinging is bits of bad dirt and bacteria dying, the way that his mother used to tell him, brushing all of the dirt and other contaminants out of the cuts. Applying the Neosporin is the hardest part, not because it stings, but because both kids are so used to their mother applying something like honey to their injuries.

 

Once they’re all sitting down, Evan finally has to ask. “What were you two doing?” Addy pouts and looks away, while Aaron looks a little embarrassed to answer.

 

“We were play-fighting. You and Connor look so cool, so we used some of the tricks Dad taught us, and Addy fell over—”

 

Addy looks up, affronted that someone might suggest she fell down. “You pushed me!” she exclaims.

 

“I didn’t! Besides, you were gonna lose anyway. You were chickening out!” Aaron shouts, and somehow, Addy’s pout deepens, her bottom lip resembling a bucket more and more.

 

“That’s not fair, did you ask her if she wanted to fight anymore?” Evan asks, trying desperately to mediate before Krystal hears the confrontation and finds out he put Neosporin on one of her children.

 

“No,” Aaron replies, “that doesn’t happen in real fights. Someone has to win!”

 

“Real fights aren’t fun. That’s where Connor got his yucky cut that your mom helped him with this morning. You don’t want to be in a real fight, Aaron.”

 

“Yes, I do. I wanna win a real fight, then people will know I’m brave,” he asserts.

 

“Bravery isn’t winning a fight. Bravery comes from being scared to do something, but doing it anyway. It can be really simple things, like taking a test you’re nervous about, or performing in front of people. It isn’t about beating people up,” Evan says, wishing both that he didn’t sound so much like his mother and that he sounded more like her. She could probably say this better than he can. “The point is that you have more to offer the world than getting a good punch in. You’re smart, and funny, and you can bring so much joy. Don’t focus on who you can hurt more than who you can help.”

 

The kids look confused, but at least they’re both nodding. “Basically, don’t play-fight unless there’s someone to supervise, we don’t want anyone getting hurt—”

 

“I heard Dad last night, he told Momma you had to go fight someone,” Addy suddenly interjects, eyes wide and sad. “Is that true, Evan?”

 

Aaron looks surprised and concerned by this revelation, and turns to him for an explanation. Evan sighs.

 

“Sometimes, things aren’t in our control,” he tells her, considering his words carefully. He doubts Krystal wants them to know about the impending doom the world is experiencing. “I don’t want this, but it looks like there’s something big, and very scary, that I have to do. But I'm going to do it, even though I’m scared.”

 

“What do you have to do?” Addy asks.

 

“I can’t tell you now. It’s a big secret. But one day I’ll tell you all about it,” he promises, and he feels glad for one more promise, one more anchor tying himself to reality, keeping him from giving up. He has to live through this. He has a story to tell.

 

Everything hurts after days of training. The kids are in bed, and Krystal and Steven are sitting in the other room, speaking in hushed tones. Connor and Evan sit idly in front of a dying fire in the family room.

 

Evan is starting to get the feeling that Krystal is trying to keep them apart. Not always, but she has, since the first night they stayed, moved Connor into another room, one that Evan is pretty sure was Aaron’s, and Aaron is sharing a room with his sister for the time being.

 

He has to assume it’s because of the almost-kiss she must have been witness to. He doesn’t know whether she doesn’t want them tempted under her roof, or whether it was because she thought better of shoving two boys in a room together after they had spent months on end in a car with each other. Either way, this is the room in which they can congregate and plan their next step, or talk about what they miss from home, or maybe even just sit in comfortable silence.

 

Connor is dozing off in an armchair, face relaxed, curls falling over his face, and Evan smiles. He wishes he could see him so content more of the time.

 

Evan’s mind wanders as he stares off in the direction of Connor, thinking of everything and nothing, but mostly thinking of how much he wishes that he could call Jared.

 

He could fill him in, hear all he and Zoe have learned of the creeps that attacked them in Kansas, hear about what’s going on at school, about how his mother is, confide in him about his definite crush on the other Murphy sibling.

 

He wants someone to talk to, someone who isn’t Connor, or his distant father, or his all-too-attentive stepmother. He needs someone to tell everything . Here, he has no one, where usually he has Jared.

 

He feels the loneliness in his soul and reaches out across the small coffee table to take Connor’s hand. He feels odd about it at first, but then Connor squeezes his hand back, and warmth spreads through him, from his fingers to his toes, and he relaxes finally, knowing all is alright for now.

 

He’s going to regret falling asleep in a chair tomorrow, but right now, nothing has ever been so right, sitting in front of dying embers, holding the hand of the boy he may very well be falling in love with.

 

The Jared Kleinman of one month ago would never have imagined that he might someday chat about Norse mythology with Zoe Murphy over turtle mochas, yet here he is, doing exactly that. On a perfectly good Friday afternoon, for that matter, when he could have been playing Portal.

 

But his life right now is basically the Upside-Down, some weird alternate universe where he and one of the most popular girls in school hang out on a regular basis and Evan has run off with said popular girl’s brother to go save the world, and so nothing is really as it should be.

 

They’re an hour and a half into their discussion of all the ways Evan might save humanity’s ass when Zoe finally lets her guard down. Finger absent-mindedly tracing the rim of her coffee lid, she drops that stupid serious face she wears 99% of the time and allows a little bit of anxiety to show as she takes a long sip of her mocha.

 

“You seem stressed,” Jared comments, if only to irritate her enough to get her to fess up. “Which is saying something, because ever since you started hanging out with Alana, you’ve been more uptight than a press secretary at the White House.”

 

Zoe sighs and sets down her drink, and Jared tries not to flinch when their eyes meet. She can be a little scary when she’s worried about something. “I think I might like Alana,” she confesses, and whoa, this is definitely not the direction Jared was expecting the conversation to head in.

 

“Alana is the only person in this town who actually cares about bringing Evan and your brother back,” Jared reminds her, for practicality’s sake. “Do you really think she’s the person you should be falling for when we’ve spent the past month trying to hide that we know exactly where they are and what they’re doing?”

 

Zoe’s face falls, and Jared hates himself a little for it. Maybe that was too harsh.

 

“I’m just saying that you need to be careful about this, Zoe,” he adds hastily. “If you wanna date Alana, that’s great, but she can’t find out about what we’ve been doing.”

 

If Jared has learned anything about the Murphy family since Connor and Evan’s disappearance, it’s that they take being told “be careful” in one of two ways: they either do just that and act with caution, or they view it as a challenge. In Zoe’s case, she’s clearly viewing his warning as an invitation to do the latter. She arches a brow and takes another sip of her coffee. “Why not, Jared?” she questions. “I’m pretty sure we can trust Alana. If she knew the whole situation, I bet she’d keep up her façade of vigils and daily Tweets while helping us research on the side.”

 

Jared shakes his head. Murphys can be so frustrating; they never want to lose an argument. “Alana can’t know,” he insists.

 

“Again, why not?”

 

“Because in case you haven’t realized, aside from being the mayor’s daughter, Alana Beck has the biggest mouth in New York,” he hisses, almost knocking over his coffee cup as he leans forward in an attempt to maintain some shred of secrecy, “and we don’t exactly want the fucking police to find out that we’ve been in contact with two teenage runaways for a month!”

 

“Keep it down,” Zoe snaps, paranoia taking the reins as she peers over Jared’s shoulder to make sure no one’s heard them.

 

Jared lets out a dry chuckle. “Oh, so now that your secret lover’s not involved, you care about people knowing our shit?”

 

Zoe’s cheeks flush bright red. “It’s not like that,” she mumbles, popping the lid off her cup and fiddling with it. “I just feel bad about lying to her, alright? She’s trying so hard — I don’t think an hour goes by where she’s not thinking about Connor and Evan, and she cares, Jared, so much. It feels wrong to be keeping something this big from her when she’s been so real with me.”

 

In spite of himself, Jared can feel something softening within him. It’s times like these when Zoe reminds him of Evan — granted, she’s a thousand times fierier than he’ll ever be, but like his best friend, she’s got a big heart. And that makes his chest ache more than he’d like to admit.

 

So even though he thinks that love is a scam and loneliness will always be preferable to the potential of heartache, he gathers his courage and does what he’s supposed to do as Zoe’s friend (or maybe-friend), what he should have been doing for Evan all these years: he tells her what he knows she needs to hear.

 

“Zoe,” he says softly, “if Alana is really the one, then in the end, she’ll understand that you were just trying to keep her safe.”

 

Jared knows he’s got to sound like a complete master of bullshit right now, but Zoe either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, his words having apparently sated her for now. “Thanks, Jared,” she says, smiling just a little. “I hope you’re right.”

 

There’s a moment of something that passes between them, secret and special, a thing that Jared can’t quite put his finger on but reminds him an awful lot of friendship.  Maybe he shouldn’t try to identify what it is, though, because if it did turn out to be friendship, he’d probably fuck it up epically. After all, look at what he did with what he and Evan had.

 

The moment is over as suddenly as it came, though, Zoe glancing at her phone and gathering her things. “Sorry,” she says, “I’d stay longer if I could, but Mom’s started a new thing of Friday family dinners, and I already skipped the last one to hang out with Alana. If I miss another, it might look weird.”

 

Jared shrugs, pretending that he doesn’t feel that familiar tug of loneliness in his chest, and dismisses her with a wave of his hand. “Go forth and be free. See you Monday.”

 

“See you then.” The Sharpie stars on the back of her denim jacket is the last thing Jared sees as Zoe disappears through the café door, bell jingling after her. He waits a few minutes under the guise of finishing his drink, even though it’s long gone cold, before he leaves, too.

 

The sky is darker than he’d normally expect it to be on a November evening, and the full moon emerging adds a sense of eeriness to the whole scene as he walks down the street. He’d parked a few blocks away for the sake of secrecy, hoping that his chat with Zoe at the café would look like a simple accidental run-in to the untrained outsider.

 

Main Street usually gets pretty busy on Friday nights, so Jared really shouldn’t be surprised when he hears footsteps behind him, but the sudden spike of paranoia in his gut prompts him to turn around and look anyway. Of course, there’s no one there, and he has to wonder if all this Evan business is turning him crazy. It’s entirely plausible; he cares way too much about a guy who will either save the world or die trying, and the sheer pain that thought provokes is testament enough to that.

 

Still, his heart is threatening to beat right out of his chest, senses on high alert, and Jared is beyond grateful when his beat-up Fiat comes into view, waiting for him at the perfect spot he’d picked at the end of the street. His parallel parking skills are admittedly questionable, but with the way his palms are sweating and every muscle in his body is tensed and ready for attack, Jared couldn’t care less about the parking job. There isn’t a better sight in the world than his shitty little car, and he just wants to get inside and get the fuck out of here.

 

But he doesn’t get the chance. Just as he pulls his keys out of his pocket to press the “Unlock” button, there’s a white-hot blow of pain against the back of his head, and Jared falls to his knees with the force of it.

 

Another burst of agony, and the last thing he sees is his own blood on the pavement as everything fades to black.

 

Zoe doesn’t generally consider herself as lucky, but right now, there couldn’t be a luckier girl in the world. Because, as luck would have it, she’d been on her way home when she’d driven by Jared’s dingy Fiat and realized his crumpled body was on the ground next to it.

 

Okay, it feels weird to be calling herself lucky when the closest friend she’s had in months is barely conscious in her arms — well, one of her arms, as the other is preoccupied with simultaneously dialing 911 on her phone and shooting off an emergency text to Connor. But in a way, fate must be looking upon her favorably, to have her find Jared so quickly. Who knows what would have happened if he’d been left out all night, here in Stratham, where the temperatures can dip below freezing even before Thanksgiving?

 

She almost screams when Jared’s hand shoots out of nowhere and grabs her wrist, his eyes fluttering open just enough that Zoe can tell exactly how much pain he’s in. “Don’t — don’t call 911,” he wheezes. “Connor and Evan — can’t know — will ruin everything.”

 

“We need to get you medical attention,” she insists, wrenching out of his grasp. “I know you don’t want to upset Evan, but you’re bleeding all over the place, Jared, this is bad.”

 

Of course, even with two black eyes, a swollen lip, and a bloodied head, Jared is determined to prove her wrong. He struggles to a halfway-sitting position and scrambles for his glasses, trying to cover his obvious wince as he puts them on. The lenses are cracked, and somehow that sight hurts Zoe more than the bruises decorating his face.

 

“You can’t tell him,” he repeats, more firmly this time. His voice is hoarse with pain. “Not even Connor. If he finds out, he’ll come back here, and that’ll just make things worse, because then Big Baddie will know exactly where to go.”

 

“Jared, he’d want to know—”

 

Promise me, Zoe,” he cuts her off, visibly trembling now. “Fucking promise me, or I swear to God I’ll march right over to Alana’s house and tell her all the shit we’ve been up to since October.”

 

She can feel the blood draining from her face; Jared has gone for the low blow, knowing it would be an effective tactic, and it’s worked. He might be an asshole, but he’s a damn smart asshole.

 

“I promise,” she says quietly, slipping her phone back into her jacket pocket and extending a hand. “I won’t tell Evan or Connor. But let me at least take you home and patch you up, okay?”

 

“You know first aid?” Jared asks, glancing at her suspiciously.

 

Zoe can’t help but roll her eyes. “Jared, you were in my first aid class two summers ago. Just because you dropped out after the first session doesn’t mean everyone did.”

 

Jared grins in that way he does when she throws his own brand of snark right back at him, and it lifts the heaviness on her heart just a bit. “Your parents won’t freak out?”

 

“We’ll come up with a cover story,” she tells him, helping him to his feet and over to her car. “Say you got beaten up by someone you pissed off in Tech Club or whatever.”

 

“Ooh, can we say I stole his girlfriend?”

 

“No, Jared. We are not going to say you stole someone’s girlfriend.”

 

“Why not?” he whines.

 

“Because that would require you to actually have the ability to steal someone’s girlfriend, and I think anyone with a pair of working eyes and ears would be able to tell that’s a skill you don’t possess.”

 

“Feisty today, Murphy,” he grins as she starts the car. “I like it.”

 

“No, you don’t.”

 

“True. But that just makes things more fun.”

 

And normally, her banter with Jared is tolerable at best, irritating at worst. But tonight, it’s a sign that he’s okay. He’s alive, he’s breathing, and he’s going to be just fine.

 

So she can deal with a little snark, because right now?

 

Right now, it means that Jared is here to stay.

Chapter Text

Fourteen.

Mornings on the ranch are peaceful — sometimes, almost too peaceful. His dad always brews coffee for them, and the quiet bubbling of the machine is usually the first thing Evan hears when he wakes up. Krystal happened to put him in a room with a giant window, so even if it’s 7 AM, there’s plenty of early morning light filling the empty spaces where his lonely mind thinks another person should be. Addy and Aaron are generally either with the horses or still asleep, Connor is hard-pressed to stir before 8 at the earliest, and Krystal’s in the home gym doing her daily yoga routine, so it’s typically just Evan and his father at the kitchen table.

 

Evan will never admit it, but he likes it that way. He’s spent twelve years with annual Christmas and birthday cards being his only hint of a father figure, and now he’s got a guaranteed hour of alone time with the man every day, in person. Six-year-old Evan would be green with envy, but what six-year-old Evan wouldn’t know is just how much it hurts, being with his dad, watching the way his eyes light up as Addy skips into the room, seeing him ruffle Aaron’s hair like he used to when Evan was a kid. It’s a reminder of how easy it had been for his dad to leave him behind, 1,750 miles away. It’s a reminder of how hard his mom had struggled, working 80+ hours a week to pay the rent and buy groceries, and how simple all of this seems to be for his father.

 

Evan would bet he’s never worked an overtime shift in his life.

 

But this morning, somewhere around a month and a half into his training, seems different. The coffee machine isn’t on when Evan wakes up, and when he passes by Addy and Aaron’s room on his way into the kitchen, there’s duffel bags and suitcases strewn all over the place, like Krystal’s been packing for them or something. They aren’t in their beds, though, so they must be at the stables.

 

He picks up on the soft murmur of chatter as he approaches the kitchen, and something tells him to hang back and listen for a moment. Maybe it’s the keen instincts his warrior ancestors gifted him with, or maybe it’s just a bit of luck, but when he hears the unmistakable sound of his own name coming from his father’s lips, he knows he’s made the right choice.

 

“Well, how badly is he beaten up, Heidi?” His father’s voice is low and tense, and a pang of anxiety shoots through Evan’s chest. “I mean, if it’s just a black eye, I don’t think it warrants worrying Evan about.” Too late for that.

 

“Look, Jared Kleinman’s a tough kid,” his father says. “He’ll heal up in no time, we don’t say a word to Evan and Connor, and they’ll continue their training until we all feel they’re ready to face what the gods have in store for them.”

 

His dad exhales sharply, obviously growing frustrated with Evan’s mom, and Evan can’t help but think how familiar this is. He remembers being ten and hearing his parents argue over the phone because his dad couldn’t come down for his birthday. In fact, that had been pretty much a yearly occurrence after his dad left. By the time Evan was twelve, his mom had figured out that it was a waste of her time to keep trying.

 

“And what exactly makes you think this was something ordered by the One Who Floods the World?” his father demands, irritation creeping into his voice. Evan’s hands are starting to shake, and he prays to Thor that he can ward off a panic attack long enough to hear the full conversation.

 

There’s a long pause as his dad listens, and then an angry curse. “Connor’s sister told you this?! Heidi, how much does she know? Do you realize how much trouble Krystal and I could be in if the police were to find out we were harboring teenage runaways — we have kids, Heidi, they could get CPS involved and take away our kids.”

 

Another pause, and then an annoyed huff from his father. Evan can just picture the scene — his dad pacing angrily around the kitchen, pinching at the bridge of his nose in an attempt to ward off a frustration-induced headache, fingers white around his iPhone. “Okay, okay, I get it,” he hisses. “Just give me some time to think, damn it. We can’t risk interrupting their training. I’ll call you back later.” Then, after a beat: “And give me your address, alright? I’m sure Krystal will want to send you some healing crystals.”

 

As always, his parents don’t bother with goodbyes — they simply end the call, and Evan can hear the beep of his dad hanging up on his mom. Now, the only sound is his father’s footsteps as he stomps around the kitchen, probably searching for a secret stash of bacon to scarf down while Krystal’s off doing her yoga.

 

In spite of himself and that desperate urge he feels to connect with his dad while he’s still got the chance, Evan shrinks back. He shrinks back, pulling himself away from bacon and eggs and a quaint breakfast with his father like a quasi-normal teenager, and he heads for Connor’s room.

 

Because Evan Hansen might want his dad, but the Chosen One should only want to save the world. And if the One Who Floods the World has sent someone to Stratham — if He’s managed to get to Jared, hurt Jared — then it’s time for Evan Hansen to go away for good, and his more important role to come into play.

 

It’s time for them to go to Vegas.

 

It takes him fifteen minutes to get Connor fully awake. Normally, Evan would entice him with coffee, but he doesn’t feel brave enough to venture into the kitchen yet. He thinks if he has to face his father, he might lose all the courage he’s tried to gather, might end up staying here another month rather than going to Las Vegas, and what would happen then? Who would be the next to suffer back home in Stratham because of his selfishness? Alana Beck? Zoe? His mother?

 

Finally, after what feels like hours of begging and prodding, Connor stumbles out of bed, complaining all the while, and Evan has to push down the flutter of something in his stomach when he realizes Connor’s barely dressed. Barely dressed meaning, of course, Connor isn’t wearing anything other than a pair of boxers.

 

“You should probably put some clothes on,” he mutters, politely averting his eyes. Jared would have a fucking field day with this, and Evan’s heart gives a little twang at the realization that they haven’t talked in over a month. He hopes he’s okay, or as okay as anyone who’s had the crap beaten out of them by a creepy cult member can be.

 

Connor shrugs but complies at Evan’s obvious discomfort, wriggling into a pair of sweatpants and perching on the end of his bed. Evan clears his throat and attempts to not be a total loser and reflect on how pretty Connor’s blue-brown eyes look in the sunlight. Nope, he’s definitely not gonna do that.

 

“We have to leave,” he tells him. “Jared got attacked, and Zoe told my mom about it. She called my dad, which is how I found out — they were talking on the phone in the kitchen. We need to go to Vegas.”

 

Connor’s brows knit together. “Shit.”

 

“Yeah,” Evan agrees. “Shit.”

 

There’s a pause as Connor gathers his thoughts. “Evan, I get that you’re worried about Jared,” he says slowly, “but are you sure that going to Vegas now is the best idea? I mean, we’ve barely even gotten the basics of training down from your dad. Are we really ready to fight?”

 

He’s not wrong. Two months ago, they were teenage social outcasts, and now they’re expected to save the world with only a month and a half of training under their belts. Evan still can’t order a pizza without descending into an anxiety attack, and yet humanity’s fate is in his hands. How is that fair? Why did Odin decide he had to be the Chosen One? The Chosen One should be brave, fearless, and strong, and Evan is none of those things, no matter how hard he tries to be.

 

Then he thinks back to his impromptu speech with Addy and Aaron, and he knows he can’t let his own low self-esteem ruin things for them now. They’ve come too far, sacrificed too much, and Evan won’t allow himself to screw it all up when they’re so close to the end — whatever that end might entail.

 

He sure hopes it’s the good kind of ending.

 

So he shakes his head and forces his voice to stay calm and level as he says, “You can come with me or you can stay here, Connor, it’s your choice. But someone I care about got hurt, and I’ll be damned if I let another person I love suffer because I’m too scared to face my fate.”

 

And Evan’s expecting a fight, honestly, or for Connor to just take the easy way out and decide to stay here. Not because he thinks Connor is weak or wimpy or anything like that, but because why would anyone think he has a good idea? Why would anyone want to stay with him?

 

But something in Connor’s gaze softens, and Evan watches in shock as the other boy simply nods and says, “Okay. If you think that’s what we should do, then let’s go.”

 

And so their choice is officially made.

 

At first, his dad is confused when he sees their bags in the front hallway. Then his confusion quickly turns to anger. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” is the first thing Evan hears as he sets down his backpack on top of Connor’s duffel bag.

 

He could make things easier for the both of them and lie, but his mom has always taught him that honesty is the best policy, and Evan figures it’s about time for his dad to learn a thing or two about that. “We’re going to Las Vegas,” he says, trying to ignore the nervous twitch in his fingers as he turns around to face his father.

 

Before his dad can respond, Krystal practically floats into the room, still dressed in a neon pink matching set of yoga pants and a sports bra. Her crystal of the day, some green and white stone Evan’s never seen before, dangles from the worn leather cord around her neck. “Who’s going to Las Vegas?” she chirps, apparently none the wiser to the grim mood in the air.

 

“Evan and Connor,” his father says darkly. “They’ve apparently developed a sudden death wish.”

 

Krystal frowns, quickly tuning in to what’s going on. “You’re going to fight Him,” she says quietly.

 

“Yes,” Evan confirms. “I overheard Dad and my mom on the phone this morning. The One Who Floods the World sent someone to attack my friend Jared back home; he’s hurt pretty badly. I think it’s a sign that we need to go ahead and try to beat him, before he goes after someone else.” He doesn’t say it, but the shadow that passes across his father’s face makes it clear that they’re all thinking of his mother.

 

Krystal’s frown deepens, and her fingers worry at her necklace. It’s such a familiar gesture, one his mother always relied upon when she was nervous, too, though her comfort was a pendant of Thor’s hammer, not a crystal of the day. Still, Evan is quickly reminded of the differences between his mom and Krystal when she undoes the clasp at the back of her neck and drops the necklace into his hand.

 

“Here,” she says, nothing but warmth in her eyes. “It’s tree agate — meant to promote protection. Plus, I know you like anything related to trees. Although it technically doesn’t come from a tree.”

 

“Thank you,” he tells her, hoping he can properly convey the sincere gratefulness he feels at her act of kindness. There’s so much he’s wanted to say to Krystal, things he never had the time or the courage to confess to her, but someday, he prays that she’ll understand it’s not her fault his dad left him. He knows she blames herself, but his father wouldn’t have left if he didn’t really want to; she was just another convenient reason to go.

 

“Stay safe out there, kiddo.” Krystal hugs him tightly enough to almost hurt, and he has to laugh at how much strength can be found in someone so tiny. His stepmom is really a wonder to behold.

 

When they pull back from the hug, his dad is nowhere to be seen, Connor having taken his place. “Where’d your dad go?” Connor asks, backpack already slung over his shoulder. “If we wanna make it to Vegas by Friday, we’d better get on the road soon.”

 

“He’s in his feelings box,” Krystal says lightly, squeezing Connor’s shoulder. “Steven’s not happy you guys are leaving, but you gotta do what you gotta do. He’s probably in his study — want me to go get him?”

 

Evan surprises himself by shaking his head. “No, I’ll do it.”

 

“Okay.” Krystal gives him a knowing look. “I’ll go grab the phone box while you’re getting your dad. Oh, and I’ll get Addy and Aaron too — they’ll probably wanna say bye.”

 

The journey to his father’s study isn’t a long one, but it sure is lonely. The very essence of this house reeks of safety, of comfort and family, even if the family isn’t truly Evan’s own, and every logical cell in his body is screaming at him to stay. Because who will his mother have if he dies out there, if he succumbs to this thing in Las Vegas? What will the Murphys do if he takes their only son down with him?

 

It’s selfish, probably, this plan of his. But he can’t keep on being safe when the people he loves most are walking with danger every hour he stays in Breckenridge. He has to do the right thing.

 

Even though it hurts like hell (or Hel, rather).

 

As Krystal had predicted, his father is seated in the peeling leather chair in his study when Evan arrives, hunched over a long wooden box perched in his lap. He doesn’t look surprised to see Evan there.

 

“This is a dangerous plan, Evan,” his father says. There’s a weariness in his eyes that Evan had previously only ever seen in his mother. “You have to know that.”

 

“Of course I know that, Dad,” he retorts, trying to keep as much venom out of his voice as possible. “But it’s what I have to do, okay? I can’t just stay here while Zoe, Mom, Jared, and everyone else in Stratham risk their lives on the daily. If I’m the Chosen One, then wasn’t I born ready to face Him? So why not face him now?”

 

His father falters, fingers drifting to the box in his lap at Evan’s words. “I suppose you’re right,” he says evenly, flashing a small smile that makes him look so much older than his 41 years. It’s the first time Evan has really noticed the lines on his father’s forehead and the wrinkles by his eyes.

 

“Of course I am. I’m the Chosen One.” And it’s an absurd statement, Evan knows it is, but it’s enough to make his father laugh, and make him giggle in turn, so it doesn’t matter.

 

“Let’s get you ready to go.”

 

Connor’s hugging Addy and Aaron when they return to the front hallway, and Evan doesn’t miss the way that Krystal’s fingers absent-mindedly search for her necklace, only to find nothing but empty space. His dad’s still got the box from the study tucked under his arm, but their bags are nowhere to be seen — Connor must have taken them to the car while he went to find his father.

 

Evan distracts himself from the pounding anxiety in his chest with hugs from his siblings. “You be good, okay?” he tells them. “I’ll come visit you soon, I promise.” He almost regrets it, promising the kids something that may very well never come to fruition, but when he thinks about it, it gives him one more thing to fight for, to live for. With the weight of his promise to Addy and Aaron on his shoulders, he can’t allow himself to lose. He won’t.

 

(He just hopes he doesn’t end up like his father, making empty promises that he’ll never fulfill. His siblings deserve better than that.)

 

He hears a gasp from behind him, and Evan turns to find a sword in his father’s hands, gleaming in the hallway light as he presents it to Connor. “Dad, what the fu — frick?” He corrects himself, remembering that Addy and Aaron are nearby. “Why are you giving Connor a sword?”

 

“This sword has been in my family before America even existed,” his father says. “Our ancestors used it in their guarding of the temples, and according to legend, it’s infused with the blood of Thor, god of lightning, which I believe makes it perfect for you, Connor, being Evan’s Guardian.”

 

“So that’s why you trained me in sword-fighting,” Connor breathes, realization dawning on his features.

 

“Exactly,” his dad grins. “I think it will prove extremely useful in Vegas.”

 

“You don’t need swords to gamble!” Addy chirps, prompting them all to burst into laughter before Krystal ushers the kids into the kitchen. Evan’s glad they don’t know about the prophecy yet; they’re too young to have to live with that burden, too young to even consider the world ending around them.

 

Their childhoods shouldn’t be anything like his.

 

“You ready to go?” Connor asks, putting the car in park to do one final rundown of their stuff. “We’ve got everything in the back, collected our phones from Krystal, said our goodbyes—”

 

An inexplicable lump forms in Evan’s throat, and he swallows hard to try to get rid of it. “I think we’re good,” he says hoarsely.

 

In spite of himself, he reaches out, covering Connor’s hand on the gear shift with his own. It’s nice, having contact with someone who’s not obligated to be here with him, knowing that Connor is sharing this moment with him by his own choice.

 

“We could die, you know,” Connor says, glancing over to meet his eyes. Evan holds his gaze.

 

“I know,” he says.

 

“Then let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Fifteen.

“I know it’s been almost three months, but they can’t just give up on your brother and Evan like that. That’s why I’m trying to get 60 Minutes in, I really think their audience would resonate with Connor and Evan’s story—”

 

Three months ago, those words would have sent Zoe into a tizzy, but now, she’s happy to just sit back and watch Alana talk, the parts involving her brother honestly going in one ear and straight out the other.

 

The thing about Alana is that when she’s passionate about something, she gets radiant. It doesn’t matter if she’s discussing atoms or criminal justice reform or the two missing boys who have been ruining Zoe’s life for weeks — it all looks beautiful on Alana, her eyes shining, skin glowing with excitement, the dimple in her left cheek popping. It makes Zoe want to kiss her; she wants it so badly that she almost aches with it, even if it’s probably the worst idea in existence, worse than Connor and Evan leaving in the dead of night without telling anyone.

 

She wants Alana. And as exhilarating as the thought is, it’s also equally terrifying, for so many reasons. Her parents don’t know she’s bi, so that’s the first problem. Her parents are desperate for normalcy right now, clinging to any bit of it they can, and even though it’s obviously perfectly normal to love girls just as much as you love guys (c’mon, look at Alana, Zoe doesn’t understand how you couldn’t), her father wouldn’t find it normal. He’d find it bizarre, dismiss it as a “phase,” and then Zoe knows her anger would bubble over and turn her right into Connor 2.0. And they can’t have right that now. She needs to stay as calm as humanly possible, at least until this is all over, which Jared has promised her it will be, sooner rather than later.

 

Also, Alana doesn’t exactly know that her brother’s a part of some ancient Norse prophecy. She doesn’t know that Zoe has been in secret communication with her brother via Jared for months, doesn’t know that Zoe has been indirectly wasting tens of thousands of the police force and her parents’ dollars by keeping her brother’s secrets for him.

 

She doesn’t know that Zoe has been lying to her. And that would kill Alana; Zoe knows it would. The girl’s already got massive trust issues about people really liking her or people just pretending to like her because she’s Key Club President and the mayor’s daughter who can help them with their homework; she thinks she needs to prove her worth 24/7. If she were to find out that Zoe had been keeping this big of a secret — well, Zoe doesn’t know what Alana would do. And she sure as hell doesn’t want to find out.

 

Zoe can tell she’s noticeably zoned out when she finally refocuses and finds Alana gazing at her with a soft, sad look in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Zoe,” she says quietly. “I hadn’t considered how discussing Connor around you all the time might hurt more than help.” It’s a sweet sentiment, but her sympathy stings.

 

Zoe shakes off the hurt and leans forward, taking Alana’s hands in hers. The older girl looks surprised by the gesture, but she doesn’t flinch or pull back. Instead, Zoe can feel her relaxing into the touch. “Can we just not talk about my brother for a minute, please?” she murmurs.

 

Alana nods, nothing but kindness on her face, and that’s when courage sweeps through Zoe’s veins. Before she even can really process the consequences of what she’s doing, she gently cups Alana’s jaw and presses their lips together.

 

Alana freezes for a second, but then Zoe can tell she’s smiling against her lips, and the other girl shifts, tilting her head and getting more into the kiss. She tastes like strawberries, and in spite of the memories of family strawberry-picking outings that flash through her mind, unbidden, there has never been a more perfect moment.

 

Oh, man. She’s in deep.

 

They kiss and kiss and kiss, uninterrupted and oh so eager. Zoe’s heart hasn’t been this full since… Well, she can’t remember ever being this happy. Her life may be shit, her brother might be up against some ancient god way bigger than all of humanity, and her parents definitely blame her for everything, but right now, she couldn’t care less. She has Alana, and as far as Zoe’s concerned, that’s all she need. Alana and her delicious kisses.

 

But of course, because her life is like some melodramatic tragic comedy, Jared just has to burst into the room at the very moment Zoe wants him there least. She and Alana scramble apart like something out of a bad sitcom, the guilt evident on both their faces, and Zoe wants to tell her that there’s nothing to be guilty about. There’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing. But with Jared standing there, “Plans to Defeat Big Baddie and Help Connor” notebook very clearly tucked underneath his arm, she doesn’t have time to discern whether Alana feels weird because someone walked in on them or because someone walked in on them not being straight.

 

That’s a problem for later. Right now, she’s got to figure out a way to explain Jared’s presence at her house and distract Alana from his stupidly obvious notebook. Otherwise, this could end very badly.

 

Unfortunately, she’s made the mistake of falling for the friendliest girl in school. Rather than being upset by Jared’s appearance, as most people would be, Alana simply sits up and flashes him a blindingly bright smile. “Jared, hi! Nice to see you. How’s Tech Club going? I’m considering joining next semester and running for President. I know the position’s currently unfilled, and I really think you all could use some female guidance.”

 

Jared swallows hard, his face like an open book as his gaze darts between Zoe and Alana. “Um, good, I guess?” he says, uncharacteristic nerves obvious in his voice. “Thanks for the offer, I’m sure a female president is exactly what we need. Could I have a second with Zoe, please?”

 

Zoe has to resist the urge to cringe openly at that. Jared never uses proper manners; it’s like he wants them to get caught. “Alana, do you want something to drink? Jared and I can go grab some snacks from downstairs,” she suggests, trying to keep her tone as even and unbothered as possible.

 

She’s not nearly as good at lying as her brother, though, and her chest tightens as she watches Alana’s brow furrow. “Um, sure, I’d love some iced tea if you have any — but Jared, I have to ask. Why are you carrying a notebook that says ‘Plans to Defeat Big Baddie and Help Connor’ on the cover?” Alana asks. Zoe hates it when she does this — asks questions she already knows the answer to. At this point, Alana has to know that Jared and Zoe must be in on something together.

 

Still, the two of them attempt to persist with their cover story. “Uh, we’re working on a novel?” Jared says uncertainly, glancing over at Zoe for help. She thinks she could very easily murder him at any given second.

 

“Yeah,” she adds unhelpfully. “It’s, like, a coping technique that my therapist suggested. She thought maybe if I wrote a novel in which Connor turned out to be okay and just on some grand adventure or whatever, it’d help me deal with his disappearance.”

 

Alana’s face softens a little, but she still doesn’t look entirely convinced. “I didn’t know you were seeing a therapist.”

 

Zoe exhales slowly, fighting against the rising anxiety. “Yeah. Mom made me start going a couple of weeks ago. I see her on Thursdays.”

 

For a second, she thinks she’s made it out of the woods, has lied convincingly enough to the last person who deserves it and won’t be facing retribution today.

 

She’s wrong.

 

Realization dawns on Alana’s features, and she rises from the bed, marching over to Jared and grabbing the notebook from him. He tries to get it back, but he’s obviously scared of Alana and the black belt in karate she’s mentioned before, hovering helplessly from a distance as Alana flips through the book. “We hung out last Thursday, and the Thursday before that,” Alana murmurs, eyes scanning the pages. “So either you’re lying, or your therapist meets with you at very strange times.”

 

Zoe’s heart threatens to beat right out of her chest, and she’s suddenly grateful that she and Jared write everything about Connor and Evan’s disappearance in code. Alana, however, seems to think she’s found something, stopping at the very first entry in the notebook and holding it out with shaking hands. “This is dated October 12th. Two months ago, and two weeks after Connor and Evan went missing. So how long have you known that your brother was alive, Zoe? How long have you been lying to me while you’ve been in cahoots with Jared?”

 

“Alana,” she breathes, “please, I can explain — there’s something weird going on, and I just wanted to protect you—”

 

Alana’s halfway to the door as she says it, but the way she whips around and meets Zoe’s eyes with a newfound kind of disgust makes her sick to her stomach. “Maybe before you decide to deceive someone who’s falling in love with you, you should consider whether or not they really want to be protected.”

 

Then she’s gone, the door slamming shut behind her and the sound of her feet hurrying down the stairs the loudest thing Zoe’s ever heard.

 

And so Zoe does what she knows how to do in the face of an emotional crisis.

 

She sinks to her knees and sobs. Just like she used to when Connor would pound on her door and threaten her life. Just like she did that day in September when he stole her car and used it to take Evan on a joyride. Just like she probably always will when it comes to the people she loves, because aren’t Murphys so good at hurting everyone around them if it means protecting themselves?

 

She’s so tired of being who she is.

 

At some point — Zoe doesn’t really know when — Jared ushers her downstairs, settles her into one of the comfy wicker rocking chairs on the front porch, and brings her a cup of tea and the warm blanket from the living room sofa.

 

Zoe’s too out of it to bother to tell him that she actually doesn’t drink tea.

 

A storm is brewing on the horizon, the clouds dark and fat in the sky, but Jared doesn’t advise that they go inside or bring up the possibility of getting struck by lightning (which Zoe would honestly not be opposed to at this point). He sits by her side, rocking away in his own chair and staring with her at the sky.

 

Zoe wonders if he’s thinking the same thing, if he’s talking to Evan in his mind the way she’s trying to talk to Connor. Asking him where he is, if he’s okay, what they’re supposed to do without them if things aren’t okay. Maybe getting a little angry at him, too. God knows Zoe’s angry enough with her brother.

 

Only when the rumble of thunder starts up does Jared gently touch her arm, a silent suggestion to wrap things up. He gets up to leave, but before he can, Zoe speaks. “What do I have left now, Jared?”

 

He turns and looks at her with a sort of sadness she’s never seen from him. “What do you mean?”

 

“I mean, my brother is gone, even though we never got along in the first place. My parents are barely here, and I’ve ruined whatever I might have had with Alana. So what do I have now?”

 

Jared surprises her by actually appearing to contemplate this. There’s a brief beat of silence between them, a crack of lightning sounding off in the distance, before he finally says, “I dunno, Zoe. Guess you’re stuck with me now.”

 

And in spite of herself, she laughs. Because it’s true. She does have Jared, until June at least, and maybe it’s not what she wanted, but it might just be what she needs. And maybe that’s okay.

 

After that, they don’t bother to seek shelter from the storm. Instead, they remain on the porch, watching the thunder clouds rolling in, and welcome it.

Chapter Text

Sixteen.

Dark clouds loom over them, threatening rain at any moment, and threatening more terrible things to come. Connor is glad there’s a scripted place for this showdown, because if there weren’t, he thinks there might be nothing to stop the awful thing from happening right now. He doesn’t want it to happen right now. He wants thing to stay as they are for a second.

 

He wants the world to stop turning, if only for a moment, so he can savor what is quite possibly going to be his last night on Earth. Instead, the town in the distance is growing bigger by the minute, and Evan’s eyes are fixed on the horizon.

 

Old ’80s songs play over the speakers, Connor’s own choice, and though it wasn’t an era he lived through, it gives him a sense of nostalgia and longing. He grips the steering wheel harder and tries to swallow around the lump in his throat.

 

The end to this is coming, for better or worse, and there is no part of Connor that feels ready for it. He’s scared either way, that either they will fail, and everything will be doomed, or that it will end, and that they will go their separate ways.

 

He doesn’t want Evan to leave. He couldn’t take it if he did.

 

There’s such a determination in Evan’s face, a fixed destination in his mind, and a sadness in his eyes, and all Connor wants is to be able to reach across and fix all the pain and anxieties with a touch. He can’t, though, and it deepens the pain, not to be able to soothe it.

 

They come up on a town, Arrolime, Nevada, and pull in at the first motel they find. They pay whatever needs paying, uncaring of the cost. They may only have a day left, so why should they care about saving money?

 

The room is slightly nicer than the ones they’re used to, but he doesn’t think either of them can find it in themselves to appreciate it. It’s silent, and he knows he must be acting strangely again. He’s pulled back, closed off, and he knows Evan hates it.

 

It feels like being back at the beginning, barely knowing each other, awkward, confused, and angry. He hates the feeling of it, especially since he had only just been getting comfortable with opening up to Evan, even a little bit. He understands Evan’s need for every silence to be filled, but everything feels like so much right now, and he has no idea how to tell Evan all of this.

 

Then, suddenly, Evan speaks from the other side of the room, his voice quiet but clear enough to make its way over to him. “I hate this. Please talk.”

 

Connor looks up at him from where he sits on the one bed they had committed to sharing. “I don’t know how to do this,” he says simply, feeling quite confused at what he himself is trying to say.

 

Evan understands, though. Connor sees it in his eyes. He feels the same thing. He doesn’t know how to say goodbye. He doesn’t know how to act like this is all normal when nothing from the moment they met has been normal. He doesn’t know how to talk to someone with whom he has been sharing air, and a stolen car, and food, and beds with for the past almost-three months.

 

“I know,” he replies. “Me either.”

 

“There’s so much I — there’s so little time,” Connor says, and there are tears in his eyes, and this might actually be the most emotionally vulnerable he has ever been in front of a person who’s not his mother.

 

Evan nods and continues standing there, so close and yet too far away. Connor wants to take his hand again, maybe try that whole kiss thing again, because it’s not like they’ll be disturbed here, and, fuck, if it’s going to be his last night on earth, he wouldn’t care if they were disturbed. He wants so much to finish what he’s started here, before he never gets the chance again.

 

There’s silence again, where they both sit in everything they haven’t said and want to say, tossing around whether or not they should say everything they need to. Connor wants to tell Evan every sordid secret he has ever kept, every hurt he’s ever had, every happiness, everything, in case all evidence of them leaves the earth tomorrow, if even just to leave some trace that they were ever there.

 

Connor’s voice is quiet, and small, but Evan seems to hear him all the same. “It’s my birthday tomorrow. I’m turning eighteen, and I haven’t seen my family in three months. I fucking miss home. And yet, somehow, I don’t regret this at all, and I wouldn’t change it for all the money in the world. I don’t know when that changed.”

 

“I hate that we have to do this, that it was left up to us, but I don’t want to end this. I think I’m going to miss you after this--” Evan doesn’t bring up the possibility that they will die, that the world will end, and that the worst may come. He’s staying as positive as he can. “No, I know I’m going to miss you after this.”

 

Connor furrows his brows, and looks up at Evan. “Who says I’m gonna leave you alone after this? You’ve shown yourself to be more trouble than you’re worth; if I leave you alone, who’s going to stop you from falling straight down an open manhole? I’m your Guardian. You’re never getting rid of me.”

 

And then, much to his own surprise, he leans across the bed, hesitating a moment before he cups Evan’s jaw and joins their lips in a soft, chaste kiss.

 

Movies, and media in general, have brainwashed him into thinking that this moment would be filled with fireworks and a feeling of everything being so right. It’s almost like that. It’s more like stepping into a bath just the right temperature. He feels wrapped in warmth, safe, buoyant, even. There aren’t fireworks, but Connor isn’t sure he minds. He thinks this might be better.

 

He knows the moment Evan’s brain catches up with his body. His lips, which before had been pliant, suddenly freeze, and his hands twist in Connor’s hoodie and push him away (but he doesn’t let go, it’s almost like he doesn’t want Connor to get too far away, and he takes comfort in that). “Wha — oh my god, what—”

 

Connor’s breathless, though he has no reason to be, and there’s an ache in his chest. He kind of fucking hates himself, remembering now that it’s common courtesy to ask before you kiss someone. “Sorry—”

 

“Don’t be sorry, I just…” Evan trails off, and Connor is left wondering what ‘he just’. There’s no elaboration though, as Evan lets go of him with one hand and brings it up to touch his lips, looking like he doesn’t quite believe that that actually happened. It’s kind of adorable.

 

Connor blushes at that thought.

 

“So, I kind of like you. A lot,” he explains, and Evan smiles, and Connor almost hangs his head in embarrassment, knowing exactly how fucking obvious that was, with how he just kissed Evan.

 

“I kind of want to kiss you again. A lot,” Evan replies, gently pulling Connor closer by his sleeves, leaving plenty of time for him to pull away. Instead, Connor moves closer, faster, eager to do that again, this time with more involvement on Evan’s part.

 

Everything narrows down suddenly to the two of them, to this room in this godforsaken motel. As far as Connor is concerned, nothing exists outside of here and now and Evan. Nothing else is important, or worthy of attention. If it’s not Evan in his lap, Evan’s tongue in his mouth, Evan’s hands in his hair, Evan’s ridiculously soft skin under his hands, he doesn’t give a shit. It can wait for another time.

 

Everything is so close, almost suffocating. He’s drowning in all of the sensations — Evan’s legs against his, their chests touching, Evan’s hands resting on the bare skin of his back, just staying in place, rucked up under all of his layers, his shirt, his hoodie.

 

For someone who feels like he’s drowning, everything feels right. There’s no anger or sadness or doubt in his mind, and for once, his constant thoughts are quieted, laid to rest as they fall together onto the mattress, lying beside one another, grinning and laughing. Connor strokes Evan’s face as Evan starts over-excitedly pushing his clothing upwards, over his shoulders, over his head, with no regard for the fact that he’s pushing several layers at a time.

 

Finally, he is laid bare under Evan (not quite bare, not quite as much as he’d like, and it occurs to him somewhere in the back of his mind that Evan is fully dressed, and that’s a little unfair), and then Evan traces the line of the mostly-healed scar on his abdomen tenderly, looking a little melancholy, and Connor shivers a little at the touch. Evan looks back into his eyes, looking startled, maybe by the action itself, or maybe by how much he liked it, if what Connor is feeling is anything to go by. Evan looks like he wants to do that again.

 

Instead, Connor refocuses him, kissing him, softly, quietly, slowly, like there’s no rush. Like there’s nothing else in the entire world that could need immediate attention. Evan wraps his arms around Connor’s neck and shifts a little so he’s lying on his side, next to Connor, which is somehow both more and less comfortable than before.

 

“I really, really like you,” he whispers against Connor’s cheek and mouths at his jaw, right below his ear, and Connor kind of gasps, because he wasn’t expecting that to feel so good. Evan pauses for a moment and then continues, seeming to be spurred on by the sound.

 

Connor knows his hands are cold, freezing really, but they’re getting warmer — every second he’s with Evan, he can feel himself getting warmer and warmer. That’s why he feels safe starting to unzip Evan’s hoodie and pull up his shirt. It’s a fucking passive-aggressive way of telling him to take his clothes off, but at this point, he’s just desperate to continue, to take this as far as he can.

 

They’re so close now, breathing the same air, and Connor can’t help but tell Evan exactly how he feels in this moment. “I think I love you,” Connor says in his ear before placing a series of wet kisses down his neck, finally pulling his shirt off, and placing one over Evan’s heart.

 

Evan smooths his hands through Connor’s hair, and there’s a light in his eyes, something soft there, and it might just be that Evan feels the same.

 

Everything about this is so surreal. When he left home, he had never told anyone that he was gay. He’d never given Evan Hansen a second thought. He could never have dreamed any of this up. And now, his mother’s talk is echoing in his head, as he thinks that maybe they weren’t prepared enough for this to happen.

 

And then he thinks he might be getting ahead of himself. They’ve only just realized and told each other that they like one another. They have, in the first hour of this budding relationship (or whatever the hell it is), flown past first and second base, and are well on their way to third base.

 

Should they be pacing themselves?

 

Are they rushing this?

 

Is this too much?

 

(It’s too much, it’s so much, it’s not nearly enough, and Connor wants more, craves whatever Evan will give him.)

 

On the other hand, will he regret it if they don’t do everything possible in the little time they still have left? Will he stand next to Evan tomorrow and wish they had done more, kissed earlier, gone further?

 

All of a sudden, Evan’s hand is on his cheek, eyes full of concern. It occurs to him suddenly that they’ve swapped roles. He’s busy overthinking, and Evan has stepped into the comforting role. “Hey,” Evan says, voice low and affected but steady and strong, breaking through all the bullshit, “are you okay?”

 

And Connor nods, without a hint of doubt or worry in his mind now. “As long as I’m with you.”

 

Evan grins and kisses him, and then Connor takes control back, forgetting all his fears, flipping them over, covering Evan’s body with his own, and everything goes into overdrive.

 

It’s fast, and hungry, and there’s a lot of panting and laughing, and whispered ‘Sorry ’s and ‘Is that okay? ’, but soon they forget themselves as they breathe heavily into the other’s collarbones, and Connor kind of blacks out once Evan’s hand wraps around him. He knows he returns the favor, but loses all kinds of clarity once Evan gasps and bites his lip just so .

 

But later, having taken a shower together, clean, dry, warm, basking in the afterglow under rumpled sheets, they lie together, just looking into each other’s eyes and wondering, ‘What’s next?’

 

“You and I,” Connor murmurs, thumb tracing Evan’s bottom lip, “they’ve talked about us for centuries. They trained generations of people to be ready to do what we’re about to do.”

 

Evan laughs softly. “So much for training. They never bothered to train us.”

 

“We don’t know what we’re doing.” Connor leans in, pressing their foreheads together. He closes his eyes. “I don’t think they ever expected us to…”

 

“I don’t think I ever expected to…” Evan trails off.

 

“It’s funny, you know? A little ironic?” Evan’s hand runs up his arm and then back down, fingers tapering over his knuckles. “That the Guardian and the Chosen One would fall in love.”

 

“I think it’s fate,” he responds, and his voice is so calm, his tone so level and sure.

 

“Really?” Connor can’t help but ask.

 

“Yeah. Why else would my entire existence pivot on protecting you, protecting the world?” Evan says, all matter-of-factly. The idea that Evan considers himself meaningless if not for his supposed destiny makes Connor’s heart clench tightly in his chest. “It’s gotta be in the prophecy.”

 

“Fuck the prophecy,” Connor whispers, his hand on the back of Evan’s neck, so warm under his palm. “Never did us any favors, as far as I can tell.”

 

The kiss that follows is sweet; it’s not rushed, it’s not desperate. It just is.

 

It’s fucked that they might die tomorrow. Connor will only just have come into his adulthood, and Evan wasn’t all that far ahead of him, either. They’re just kids. All of a sudden, he’s hit with that urge, the same urge he first had back in Stratham, to take Evan and run, hide away somewhere, let the world fall apart around them, so long as they could stay together. Be like this forever.

 

Instead, he promises himself that whatever happens, he will make sure that Evan makes it out.

 

They lie together, neither of them expecting sleep to come to them, waiting for the morning light to illuminate the new world waiting for them, for better or worse.

Chapter Text

Seventeen.

They don’t sleep. They don’t sleep at all. When the sun rises, Evan showers again, and Connor sits and writes a short note to his sister, one he hopes she never has to read. They dress themselves in the clothes they left home in, feeling a little stronger wearing something that already feels like it’s been through hell.

 

They kiss about one thousand times, catching up on the last few months and on all the kisses they might miss in the future.

 

Connor lets Evan picks the music, immediately regretting it when he finds his secret collection of Savage Garden albums and puts on “Affirmation”. It feels more like driving to a picnic by the riverside than driving to a fight.

 

Eventually, Evan’s hand joins Connor’s over the gear stick, more laid over his hand than holding it, but it’s comforting anyway. Evan sings along loudly to the music, obviously trying to distract himself as they see Las Vegas rise above the horizon.

 

Everything is suddenly becoming real.

 

Despite it nearly being winter, the sky is clear, and so, so blue. It’s almost scary that there isn’t a cloud in the sky. There is nothing.

 

Evan suddenly looks down at his hands and gets out his phone. The fear of phones instilled in them by Evan’s father burns in Connor’s veins as he dials a familiar number. Jared’s number.

 

It used to feel safe, but now, Connor almost panics at Evan actually pressing the “Call” button. He puts it on speaker. It rings three times before Jared picks up.

 

“Evan!” he exclaims. Connor can hear someone else rustling around in the background, and part of him hopes it’s Zoe, because he wants to fix this, he wants to make things good with her before this, but another part knows he could never say it better than he has in the letter he wrote her in the early light of this morning.

 

“Hey, Jared,” Evan replies, and Connor wonders if Jared can hear him choking back tears. Connor can.

 

“Okay, so we did some looking into that cult thing you talked to us about, and honestly, whatever this is has some serious personality, because apparently it inspires its followers to do things like cut off hair and, you know, fingers and limbs. Because that’s fucking normal.”

 

Evan laughs. And that’s, well, it’s weird. Even Jared pauses.

 

“Right, anyway, is that helpful? We do have more, but that’s a basic overview.”

 

“No, Jared, that’s really good. We, um, we’re gonna be off the radar for a bit, but you shouldn’t worry.” What a huge lie. “If you don’t hear from us for a bit, it’s alright, don’t panic.”

 

“That’s pretty shady, Ev, wanna let me in on whatever you’re plotting?”

 

“Plotting? We’re not—”

 

“Nah, I’m just messing with you. Keep out of danger, drink some water, whatever. I’ll be waiting whenever you need some on-call advice.”

 

“Thanks, Jared.”

 

“You’re awfully quiet, Murphy. Got anything to say?”

 

Connor realizes suddenly that he’s been silent, stricken by the thought that this might be the last they were ever heard of. He’s frozen in that thought, and instinctively throws out, “Fuck you.”

 

“That’s the spirit.”

 

There’s a three-second silence, and then Evan hangs up. They sit in the knowledge that this is it as they start pulling into Vegas, lights, bells, and whistles still on for the entire town despite it being high noon.

 

Connor wonders how many lives they would be destroying if they leveled this town in a fight. He fears the answer is too many. The question is, is that sacrifice worth the billions of lives on the earth that they are defending?

 

The Vegas Strip is not busy, or bustling, and anyone they do see looks like an obvious tourist. People who came here to win it all, and will leave having lost it all. Maybe like them, if they get to leave.

 

“How will we know where it is?” Evan just about whispers, and Connor realizes exactly how vague this prophecy is, in every facet of what it speaks about. What will flood the world? Will it be water? Blood? For all the specifics the prophecy gives, it could be chocolate syrup. It isn’t even specific enough about who will be fighting, and what they will be fighting with. It disturbs Connor, how little they still know.

 

“I don’t know,” he replies.

 

On their right, an unfinished building rises far above their heads.

 

Fontainebleau The Drew: Opening Rescheduled 2020 , the sign claims. It’s a casino and hotel. It looks mammoth. And beside it stand two men, dressed fairly normally, and Connor would pay them no mind if it weren’t for the fact that they are both missing an eye, and they are both tracking their vehicle as it passes.

 

Evan’s hand finds his forearm.

 

They’re both thinking the same thing.

 

That that has to be the place.

 

Leaving the car with no intention of coming back is a little melancholy. They’ve been living out of it for three months. Evan drags a hand across the body of the car as they heft their bags of measly belongings out of the thing and leave it in a side street to be discovered by the police, in a week, maybe.

 

They walk, hand in hand, back to The Drew.

 

The two men outside the front look distinctly less normal up close. Apart from the missing eyes, they are covered in homemade tattoos, what looks like chicken scratch to Connor. Evan leans over to him and whispers, “They have the prophecy written on them. Those are runes.”

 

Their faces look sunken, and each of their one eyes seem to sparkle with the obvious psychopathy lurking below the surface. Their clothes hang off their bodies, like they fit well, once upon a time, but then the men stopped eating at some point and never got new clothes. They smile with rotting teeth and usher them into the unfinished building. It feels like a death sentence.

 

In the lobby — unpainted, unfurnished, but still grand — stands a man who obviously has a great sense of self-importance. He is in a well-fitted, gray suit with a navy tie and pocket square. His eyes sparkle, the same as the men who have now followed them in, but in a way that suggests the evil has already risen to the surface.

 

His eyes confirm to Connor that this is the being that they are supposed to be fighting. They are both blue, but it feels like the longer you look at them, the more they turn gray, like clouds that are about to drop all the water they contain.

 

This is The One Who Floods the World.

 

The odd urge to kneel before him throws Connor for a moment, but then Evan squeezes his hand, and he comes back to himself.

 

The thing smiles, and Connor thinks there is something wrong with its face. It’s like it studied humans’ faces and made itself a mask to fit in with them, but had never seen a human in person. Something is wrong.

 

“You’ve finally decided to join us,” it says, and its voice is deep, deeper than Connor expected. He feels Evan tense beside him.

 

He decides it has to be him who speaks for the pair of them.

 

“Have we kept you waiting long? Your invitation didn’t have a time or place, so we had to guess it.” He almost cringes at his own bravery, saying that to a millennia-old god. He sticks with it, though, even as he feels Evan wanting to shrink into himself.

 

The thing laughs, even though it seems as though it’s been told that laughing is just emptying one’s lungs of air. “Very funny. I thought fighting young ones would be easy, less entertaining, but you seem to be a worthy opponent, if only in the verbal arts.”

 

“Too bad it’s not him you’ll be fighting, then.” Evan straightens up and steps in front of him, looking around as countless other people step out of the construction equipment that lines the walls. They look hungry, which disturbs Connor quite a bit.

 

The thing laughs — wheezes — again. “A good joke. I know who the Chosen One is, and you are no such thing, Guardian.”

 

They freeze.

 

“No,” Connor pipes up. “He’s the Chosen One. We’ve been assured. He’s from the right family. I’m his Guardian.”

 

The thing seems to think this over. “You genuinely believe this?”

 

They nod. It grins. “Fools. He—” it points to Evan— “was born during the worst storm to hit your tiny town before I came. ‘Born of lightning’. Guardian,” it spits. “Lightbringer.”

 

It hits Connor all at once that this means everything that Evan had been dealing with was actually his own responsibility. “And you,” it points to Connor himself, and Evan looks at him with sad eyes, “born with the falling leaf. If I am not mistaken, you come into your destiny today.”

 

“It’s winter,” Connor deflects. It grins wider, if possible.

 

“It is not winter until December 21st. The winter solstice. You are it. You are my foe. The Balancer. You are weak. I will rip you to pieces. You are nothing . This world will perish by your hands.”

 

All of a sudden, its followers converge on them, looking to be willing to sacrifice themselves to take the two boys down. Connor is tackled by a woman with too-sharp fingernails, and for too long he freezes, and she rips his arm open. She looks too pleased with this and bends her head, as if to continue her assault with her teeth. Connor kicks at her and gets himself back up, plunging his uninjured arm into his bag, searching for the sword bestowed on him by Steven.

 

Behind him, Evan seems to lose control, and burns everyone close to him. He is breathing heavily as the people scatter, like rodents from a flame.

 

The thing looks unhappy, surveying the scene from a far more dignified standing position. “This really shouldn’t be a fair fight,” it says, and then, suddenly, Evan falls to the floor.

 

Connor rushes to his side, checking his pulse, and he finds him breathing, alive, but unresponsive. It’s worrying, fucking angering . Connor turns to the long-forgotten god with fire in his eyes.

 

“Much better,” it says. “Now we can have a real talk, can’t we, Mr. Murphy?”

 

“What did you do to him?” he demands.

 

“Don’t you worry, he’s just asleep. No major damage done. That can change, though, so I suggest you listen to what I have to say. You have a choice, Mr. Murphy. I’m fairly set on destroying the world and everything in it—”

 

“Yeah, why is that?”

 

The thing stares him down, and Connor shuts his mouth. “I was owed something. Humanity has failed to deliver.”

 

“That may have something to do with the fact that generations have passed. We don’t remember you, or what we promised you. There’s your problem.”

 

“I can kill your Guardian at any time, Balancer, so I suggest you shut your mouth, if only for his sake. Of course, I’d prefer it were out of respect.” Its gaze is fixed on Connor, even as some of its minions gather around him, looking at Evan’s prone form with hungry eyes. “I was promised something, and humanity did not deliver it, and the punishment was to be that I flood the world, wipe humanity out, and start afresh. What I am offering you, Mr. Murphy, is the chance to be a part of the chosen few who survive this genocide of biblical proportions.”

 

It looks like it’s waiting for Connor to ask something, but he stays silent, remembering the threat on Evan’s life. It rolls its eyes and continues. “All you have to do to live through this is get rid of that boy. He has no place in the new world order. You, however — cynical, vindictive, angry. You could fit here.”

 

Connor recoils from the idea the thing is suggesting. Evan is the only thing he would want to carry into a new world. If he couldn’t have his sister by his side, if he couldn’t apologize to his mother, if he couldn’t fix things with his father, it is Evan he wants there when the world burns. It had never occurred to him that Evan might be the cost.

 

“I couldn’t—” he starts to protest.

 

The thing interrupts. “Think about this for me, Mr. Murphy. That boy dragged you from your home, from your family, got you injured, and did the pathetic thing ever apologize? Did he ever say ‘thank you’? Did he ever say he was grateful? Think of all the power you could have, if only you got rid of him.” It smiles, like it is sure it has convinced him.

 

Connor is shocked into silence for a moment, but then he explodes. “No! No, he’s the one good thing I have now, I’m not — I’d rather die than kill him,” he says, with a finality in his voice that makes the god grin.

 

The thing stretches its neck and shoulders, and all of a sudden, its image shifts. Its hair becomes blonde, it becomes shorter, softer, it becomes Evan. Still, something in the face is wrong. The smile is too wide.

 

“I think that you would rather die anyways. Wasn’t that the focus of your life, before all of this? Did you join Evan because of your death wish?”

 

“Shut up,” he says through clenched teeth. Using the other boy against him is a smart move on the thing’s part, but Connor will not give in to its obvious trickery. “You don’t know anything about me!”

 

The thing that looks like Evan tilts its head and smiles. “I know nothing, hmm? I’ve seen plenty of you. Too weak to last very long. Reckless, too. I find you lot hilarious, truth be told — can’t be bothered to live, but too cowardly to actually take care of it.”

 

“Shut up,” Connor growls, fists clenched. “Shut the fuck up. You don’t know a thing about me, you mangy—”

 

His voice cuts off with a squeak, and Connor tries to form words, but they won’t come out. The thing laughs. “You teenagers are always so vulgar,” it says, a hint of a fatherly scold in its tone.

 

“If you want to die, so be it.”

 

The crowd of crazies erupts again, clawing at him as he swings the sword he finally found at them. Then, there’s a short set of claps, and they slink away into the darkness, some bleeding now. They sit against the walls, and they wait.

 

Connor looks up at the thing, and it smiles. “Say your prayers, little one. It will be your last chance.”

 

“I never cared much for gods,” Connor shrugs, and braces himself for the coming onslaught of attack.

 

The thing runs at him, and Connor swiftly moves aside so that it only clips his side. It still pushes the air from his lungs, and he wonders exactly how far he thinks he’s going to make it in this fight. He knows now that the world is doomed.

 

He swings the sword at the thing and creates a slice, through its clothes, through its skin, and a dark spot blooms on its clothes. Connor tries not to think about why it isn’t red.

 

It puts its hand over the wound and snarls, pouncing, tackling Connor to the ground. Connor forces the sword up, into its chest, and it coughs dark-colored liquid into Connor’s face. It grins. Connor twists the blade, then removes it. There’s an awful sound, like wet flesh, that follows it, and the thing’s too-straight, too-white teeth form a creepy grin, and it groans. Connor kicks it off of him.

 

“I thought a god would be harder to defeat,” he says. It shrugs.

 

“I was never very good at fighting,” it says, and lunges at him again. He kicks it in the teeth, and it coughs up more of what Connor thinks may serve as its blood.

 

“So what, you tried to defeat me by playing mind games with me?”

 

It nods. “That’s more my style.”

 

The thing seems to be gasping for life, weakened by Connor, but it’s still grinning. It looks like it still thinks it’s going to win. That’s what disturbs him. He has the thing cornered, injured, ready to be put out of its misery, and it still seems to think it has the upper hand.

 

It sickens him.

 

“What the fuck is it going to take for you to realize it’s over?” he asks, kicking the thing in the stomach.

 

It coughs, and what it coughs up isn’t blood, which is disgusting, and disturbing, and Connor tries not to focus on it. “I know it’s over. I’m just not leaving until I take something with me.”

 

It lunges for the sword in Connor’s hands, the one bestowed on him by Evan’s dad, and, upon grasping it, makes a move for Evan’s prone body. By the time Connor realizes what’s happening, it’s too late. There’s a bloodstain spreading through Evan’s shirt, and the thing looks like it has achieved what it set out to do.

 

Connor’s blood feels like it’s boiling, and the world around him has stopped shifting, holding its breath, waiting for what will happen next. Connor’s ears are ringing, and his eyes are fixed on the boy he had only just begun to love. The rage rises to the surface, and suddenly, the dark clouds above them converge, and simultaneously explode into lightning.

 

And now the creature looks scared. Maybe it has done what it came here to do, but he knows no one wants to die. This ageless creature has just realized it will die at the hands of a heartbroken teenager. Connor understands it’s not the most pleasant way to go.

 

He holds the thing down. He doesn’t hold back. He leaves no room for mercy. His fists are sore, and there are probably so many compound fractures in his fingers, but when he’s done, he can’t help but be satisfied with what is left of the creature’s head, a disgusting splatter on the pavement.

 

He looks over and remembers suddenly why he did that. He remembers suddenly that Evan has an eight-inch blade sticking out of his stomach, and a puddle of blood is forming around his too-pale body. He remembers that the boy he has followed here, the boy who was supposed to protect him, is dead.

 

Connor should have protected him. He promised himself that if only one of them got out, it would be Evan. He fucking failed.

 

Instead, he will have to explain to everyone, to Heidi, to Steven and Krystal, to Addy and Aaron, to Jared, to his sister, that he let Evan die.

 

That he stood by and did nothing as a monster killed him.

 

It starts to rain as Connor approaches the still-warm body, and Connor is glad because this way, all of the evidence of the terrible wound will be gone, and he can pretend for a little while that Evan is just sleeping.

 

He can’t tell if he’s crying, even though he knows that he should be. He knows it feels like he can’t fucking breathe, and like nails are raking their way up his throat, but he can’t feel the tears. He doesn’t know what possesses him to lie down next to Evan’s body. He doesn’t know why he takes his limp hand.

 

He doesn’t know why he leans into the corpse and sobs into its collarbone.

 

All he knows is that he does these things, and it’s almost okay for a moment.

 

He lies there for minutes, knowing exactly what this will look like if someone finds this scene. He can’t find it in himself to care.

 

He doesn’t know what he’ll do without Evan. How he’ll get home without driving himself into something, purposefully or accidentally. How he’ll get home and continue living.

 

Connor sits up and wipes his hair from his face, and realizes how jarring it is, to see that sword sticking out of Evan. It’s awful. He wants to pretend, just for a moment, that everything is okay, and that is obviously not okay.

 

So he grasps it, and pulls it out of Evan’s stomach, blood bubbling a little around the deep, dark wound, and Connor tries not to throw up at that.

 

The blade, once a gleaming silver, is a disgusting red, and Connor wonders if their story would become one for the ages if he just fell on this sword, quite literally. On the side of the sword, a word is inscribed that Connor cannot read.

 

He hates that the world no longer has Evan in it.

 

He holds Evan’s hand over the wound, hiding it from his view.

 

That’s when the impossible happens.

 

Connor knows by now that the dead stay dead. He knows that. But his knowledge is tested when Evan’s hand in his grows warmer and warmer, until it almost burning hot. He wants to rip his hand away, but knows that whatever is happening will not continue if he does that.

 

Evan’s whole body emits the sort of light he had previously only been able to produce from his hands, blinding, brilliant, and Connor has to close his eyes against it. When the light fades, and Connor opens his eyes again, Evan’s face is full of color, and when he moves their still-joined hands, the wound has all but disappeared.

 

And then Evan squeezes his hand. Tightly. And gasps in a breath. And sits up.

 

And Connor starts crying again.

 

Evan coughs. “What happened?” he rasps. “Did I miss the fight?”

 

Connor can only laugh through the tears and kiss the rainwater from the other boy’s lips.

Chapter Text

Eighteen.

Connor genuinely thought he would never sit in this car again. He never really thought that they’d have to drive all the way back home again. He thought that they’d get plane tickets or something, but Evan insisted they return the car to his parents and that the trip, if they were to drive through the night, would only take days, not months like it had on the way down here.

 

So far, he was right.

 

Evan is still too weak for Connor to be happy with him behind the wheel, but god, it’s so much better than it was. Than it could have been forever. He sleeps for the whole first day of being alive again. It’s all Connor can do, every time he looks over at him, not to pull over and wake him, just to know that he’s still there.

 

He knows now he wouldn’t be able to handle losing Evan again.

 

They don’t stop in Colorado. They’re both still covered in blood, and even though he knows Evan’s dad could handle it, and even Krystal might be able to, he doesn’t want Addy and Aaron to see their brother like that. Not as gaunt and as pale, as haunted and bloodied, as he looks.

 

Connor drives through the fucking night. Connor drives well into the morning. Connor doesn’t sleep. Connor barely eats. His mind switches between thinking of two things.

 

Evan. Home.

 

He needs both of them. He will drive for as long as he has to to have them both.

 

He thinks Zoe is probably still pissed at him. He doesn’t blame her. But knowing exactly how close he has come to death recently, he’s making it a priority to fix things with his sister, to communicate and tell her how much she means to him as often as possible, because life is fucking fleeting, and if he dies, the last thing he wants is for his sister to still be angry at him.

 

His parents are going to freak.

 

He stole their car. He disappeared for months. He trashed their car. He could have been dead, for all they knew.

 

His father will be furious. His mother will be hysterically relieved, and will then proceed to ground him for the foreseeable future.

 

He thinks he might be okay with that. At least it will be normal.

 

They’re driving through Kansas City when Evan finally seems lucid enough to see that Connor has been driving for nearly nineteen hours straight.

 

He shoots him a tight smile. “It’s okay, resting won’t hurt us. Let’s sleep.”

 

It’s so hard to say no to him.

 

They stop at a little motel, and the room is shitty, but at least there’s a shower, and hot water, and Connor can wash the blood off his hands, off his face, out from under his nails. His hair is washed with shitty all-in-one motel-brand shampoo and conditioner, and he feels so much more clean than he has in weeks. He feels less heavy.

 

When he lays down next to Evan, who is still covered in his own blood, he feels he can actually rest. He spends the night with his arms around his maybe-boyfriend, and nothing has felt better.

 

Evan insists on driving when they wake.

 

They don’t eat much, they haven’t been eating much, and god knows they look different from when they started. Their clothes hang off them weirdly. The little bit of chubbiness that Evan had in his cheeks back in September is gone, and has been gone for a while. Now, his cheekbones aren’t quite startling, but they’re prominent, and Connor hates that he loves them, knowing it’s their borderline starvation that has brought them on.

 

They arrive in Stratham sooner than Connor thought possible. It seems like he blinked in Indiana somewhere and they were magically transported to New York.

 

The skies are gray. Connor wonders why that doesn’t bother him. The skies are gray, and the trees are bare, and so much has changed since they left, but nothing looks different from the way they left it.

 

Houses still stand on the earth Connor had been sure would be burned and salted for good measure. Telephone lines still stand. The fucking high school stands in the same place, dreary and prison-like as always.

 

The only thing that has changed is that there didn’t used to be flyers with his and Evan’s faces everywhere. He suspects his mother had something to do with it.

 

Evan looks over at him, and Connor wonders if he’s feeling the same. Everything is the same, but it feels different. Which leaves one explanation, and it’s that they are the ones who have changed.

 

They know so much about the world and how wide it is now. With that kind of perspective, this town seems far too small, too constricting.

 

They pull up in front of Connor’s house, the familiar yellow brick comforting him in an odd way, and he realizes suddenly that he is actually home as his parents run out of the front door, Zoe following not far behind.

 

It must have been dinner time. That’s the only explanation Connor has for all of them being together.

 

His mother has him wrapped in her arms before he has a chance to apologize.

 

Evan gets out of the car. Larry looks unsure. Zoe hugs him the moment their mother pulls back.

 

All of a sudden, Connor is brought out of his head and is hearing what other people are saying.

 

It’s so odd, hearing someone who isn’t Evan. Not that Evan isn’t a nice voice to listen to. But variety makes you grateful for good things.

 

“Connor, sweetheart, where have you been? We’ve been worried sick!” his mother is saying.

 

“…will be pressing charges…” Larry’s voice floats over.

 

“So sorry, sir,” says Evan.

 

“Are you okay?” asks Zoe.

 

He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know how to tell her that he feels so much better than he did before, and it still isn’t enough.

 

So he shrugs. “I’m not hurt, if that’s what you mean.”

 

His throat feels rough. He hasn’t spoken for a long time. He doesn’t know how long. Probably since Evan didn’t die.

 

“That’s all we can ask—”

 

“Connor, what possessed you to do this?” Larry asks, and Connor turns his gaze to him.

 

He shrugs again. “Needed to get away. There was something that needed taking care of.”

 

His father seems ready to protest when his mother puts it all together.

 

She sees his vacant stare and the dried blood on Evan, links in the storms, and the prophecy, and it all clicks. Her eyes shine with tears.

 

“Larry, no more of that,” she says, more firm, more commanding than Connor has ever known her to be. “Evan, did you want to come in? We’ll call your mother. She’ll be dying to know when you boys are back.”

 

Evan looks relieved at the prospect of seeing his mother, and he lets Connor guide him inside. He knows his father is looking at him oddly, whether it be how kind he is being to Evan or the arm around his waist. Connor finds he actually doesn’t care, not like before, when he’d say he didn’t care, but wanted his father’s validation more than anything.

 

Connor doesn’t care what his father thinks of Evan. He doesn’t care what his father thinks of him and Evan being together.

 

His mother sits them on the couch. Connor has often thought the only way his mother could keep this room more sanitized is to put plastic covers on the furniture. He’s always surprised that the couch doesn’t crinkle when he sits down.

 

His mother looks at him expectantly. Of course she does. She may know in the vaguest sense what has happened in the three months that have elapsed, but she wants an explanation. Because he disappeared suddenly in the middle of the night, and didn’t contact her, and he let her think he was dead, or gone, or in danger.

 

It makes good, logical sense.

 

But Connor doesn’t know where to start.

 

Zoe is in on some of it. His father appears to know nothing.

 

And he is so, so tired.

 

“We did it,” he says, and his father looks confused.

 

“What did you do?”

 

Connor thinks that if he says that they saved the fucking world, his father will have him committed.

 

“Is it gone forever?” his mother asks, and the dent between his father’s brows deepens.

 

“I don’t know,” he says truthfully. “I can’t imagine anything I can do would have a lasting effect. It’s gone for now.” Evan leans into him, and he’s really lucky Connor is falling in love with him, because he could definitely benefit from a shower right now. As it is, he leans his head on Evan’s in what he hopes is a comforting gesture.

 

“Will somebody explain to me why I shouldn’t call the police? And while you’re at it, can one of you explain why you look like you took a shower in a blood bank?” Larry says, impatient, confused. Connor can kind of identify with that.

 

He breathes in. He breathes out. He begins. “Mom’s family is part of an ancient line descended from Vikings prophesied to defeat some ancient, angry god who planned on destroying the world. Apparently I was the chosen one, and Evan here was my guardian. As for all of the blood, Evan got stabbed. He was dead for a while.” Connor nearly chuckles, proving that comedy is merely tragedy plus time. “He got better.”

 

Evan giggles distractedly into his collarbone, but no one else in the room seems to find it humorous.

 

“Cynthia?” Larry’s voice sounds like he’s asking her to please, God sort out her son. He’s obviously high. He’s obviously delusional. He’s obviously wrong.

 

Instead, Cynthia leans in and takes his hand. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”

 

Connor smiles. “Let’s be real, Mom. I was never okay.”

 

Her smile is tight. “Do you want to work on that? I’ve had a lot of time on my hands recently, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want to be like this anymore. I don’t want to miss you while you’re sitting next to me.”

 

Connor is too tired to be speechless. Nevertheless, he is. He just silently nods, and his mom squeezes his hand.

 

Connor doesn’t remember going to sleep.

 

Settling back in is hard. As expected, he gets grounded, but only for a week, because in his mother’s eyes, all he did wrong was not tell her when he left. Evan is welcomed back home with open arms.

 

Also as expected, when they return to school, they get stares. Connor anticipated it, and it’s almost no different than before he left. For Evan, though, it’s very different. He had been practically invisible in September, and now, people are interested. People wonder what happened. People wonder why he was the one who left with the school psycho.

 

What he doesn’t expect is Alana Beck sitting in front of him in study hall with a stack of papers and handing them over.

 

“You’re going to need a tutor,” she says, watching as he flips through pages upon pages of notes from classes and homework assignments he’s missed. “I’m volunteering my services. To both you and Evan Hansen. I have to assume you both want to graduate. I’m also willing to help you guys submit last-minute college applications. I can’t imagine you had any time to do that on your—” she considers her words— “excellent adventure?”

 

Connor nearly snorts his coffee out of his nose.

 

It’s the first time he’s ever seen Alana smile genuinely. Of course he accepts her help. There’s no way they’re going to do this on their own, so he’s okay with being another charity case on her pages of extracurriculars.

 

He sits at the dining table, across from Zoe, studying, and it’s nice, because he can’t remember the last time they were in this kind of proximity to each other without having all-out screamed. She shows him the songs she learned on her guitar in the time he was gone. He tells her, honestly, that he really likes her arrangement of “Tenerife Sea”. She grins.

 

It’s nice.

 

He and Evan make time to be normal teenagers. They go to movies. Evan drags him to a local park in the depths of winter and spends the entire time rambling about everything he learned when he did his apprenticeship there. Connor takes Evan ice skating, and he only falls over about five times, and in the end, his nose and lips are so red with the cold that Connor can’t help but kiss him right there at the rink.

 

Jared starts to join them at lunch, at first carrying his own, parallel conversation, and then finally folding and starting to really invest in their newfound friendship. Connor finds himself pleasantly surprised that both he and Jared had collections of comic books as kids.

 

There is no report of a body found in Las Vegas. Connor wonders what that means. The night he realizes there has been nothing, he sneaks out of his house and spends the night in Evan’s room, spooning, neither of them sleeping, both of them wondering what that means for the rest of their lives.

 

Christmas passes with very little fanfare, and Connor starts getting grades back. His father is a little vindicated, having always said that Connor would do better in school if he just applied himself. The series of A’s Connor is getting seem to prove him right.

 

Everything goes back to the way it was.

 

Except not at all, because everything has changed.

 

Zoe regrets a lot of things.

 

She regrets antagonizing her brother for much of their childhood. She regrets stealing from the liquor cabinet, only to discover the wine she found too bitter and poured down the sink was the vintage her parents had been given for their wedding by a now-dead relative. She regrets not double-checking answers on pop quizzes before answering incorrectly and, worst of all, suggestively. She regrets things as simple as not going to sleep early enough the night before.

 

She doesn’t regret for a moment her choice to protect her brother and his friend, which happened to entail lying by omission to a girl she could’ve loved but didn’t know well enough to trust with what she knew.

 

On the flip side, she knows she’s going to regret it if Alana goes away to college and she never gets the chance to explain herself. The kick in the teeth in all of this is the text she received from Alana when Connor and Evan got home.

 

In the middle of the night, her phone had buzzed, and Zoe knows now that Alana must have spent a lot of time vetting and editing that text, because she never stays up past 10:30 PM if she can help it.

 

Alana, 12:45 AM: I’m glad Connor is home safe. Don’t worry, I’ll keep your secret.

 

The first thing that leapt to mind, seeing that last sentence, was panic that she would tell, because as much as Zoe is crushing on this girl, she’s not afraid to say that one thing Alana is not known for is secrecy or tact.

 

Instead, school continued as normal, the rumors consisting of elopement and kidnapping rather than ancient prophecies, and eventually, Zoe breathes easy. But she and Alana don’t talk.

 

Alana spends at least one night a week with Evan and Connor at the Murphy family dining table, basically teaching them everything they missed while they were gone, and she and Zoe still haven’t said a word to each other in person since their fight.

 

And it fucking sucks.

 

Even Connor notices her moping.

 

They haven’t talked much since he got back, but they’ve been coexisting far more peacefully than before. When he asks her why she’s sulking all the time (in far blunter terms, which almost turns into a fight, but they somehow bring it back from that precipice, and it’s so fucking sad to say that she’s proud of them for that) and she tells him exactly why, he frowns.

 

“But we’re back now. And she hasn’t told anyone. Surely you could go and apologize and explain, and that would fix it.”

 

Zoe huffs. “That’s not enough. I fucking let her think I was mourning the loss of you, that I thought my brother could be anywhere, when I knew where you were, and I knew what you were doing, and I knew the whole time. The whole friendship was built on lies.”

 

Connor smirks. “Something tells me you don’t want a friendship.”

 

She gives him the finger. “I told you I don’t just want a friendship. We’ve kissed, idiot. Anyway, it doesn’t matter if I do want something more. She hates me.”

 

“I’ll say it again — fucking explain and apologize.”

 

“How do I explain that you left to save the fucking world, huh? How do I do that?” she asks in all seriousness. It seems like a hard thing, convincing someone her brother is the Chosen One they’ve never heard about.

 

Suddenly, Connor’s eyes light up. “Did I happen to tell you about Evan’s super freaky light powers that might get him burned at the stake as a witch in the Deep South?”

 

She furrows her brows, but Connor leans in, and she can tell he has a Plan. She just hopes it will work.

 

Which leads her to now, sitting in the music room, nervously strumming random chords on her guitar as she waits for Connor to convince Alana she’s needed in the music room. Which she is. Just not in any formal capacity.

 

The doors swing open, and Zoe’s heart stops. But it’s Evan walking in, not Alana, and she almost cries, because there’s no catharsis in that. He smiles at her, and she smiles back tightly.

 

“Are you okay?” he asks, sitting next to her in the chair that would usually belong to Mark, the second guitar. Zoe shuffles on instinct, making room for another instrument that’s not actually there. She shrugs in answer to his question.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

There are so many things that are wrong. So many things that should be wrong that aren’t. Like the fact that the boy sitting next to her is dead. Was dead. Rose from the grave. The fact that her brother was chosen to defeat a fucking god. The fact that her life was turned upside down, and now her closest friends include her brother and Jared fucking Kleinman, people she would never have voluntarily been around before all of this.

 

The thing that is most wrong is this sinking feeling she has in her stomach.

 

“I’m afraid it’s all going to go wrong, that even knowing everything, she’ll still hate me.”

 

Evan nearly smiles. “I don’t think she hates you,” he says.

 

“What?”

 

He looks like he’s holding back laughter. “She asks about you every time we study together, checking how you are, whether you got any solos in band recently. She doesn’t hate you, Zoe.”

 

She grits her teeth. “Alana is just a caring person—”

 

“I’m gonna stop you there — yes, she cares. But she especially cares about you. And now she’ll know about all of this. No more secrets, so maybe it can go back to how it used to be. Either way, you’ll have told the truth. That’s the important thing. That said, the way the two of you look at each other when you think the other isn’t looking tells me this can only end in kissing.”

 

Zoe has no time to respond to that, because the doors open again, and there’s Connor and Alana.

 

There’s something in Alana’s eyes — hurt, maybe, and then anger — and then she starts to turn.

 

Zoe is on her feet before she knows it, grabbing hold of Alana’s arm. Their eyes meet, and Zoe speaks before she can think too much about what she’s saying. So the “Please” she spits out sounds far too desperate.

 

“Please, just hear me out. You need to know why I couldn’t tell you.”

 

“It’s okay. I understand there are some things that are private, that I won’t be included in.” Alana looks at the floor, voice small. “I just thought we were different.”

 

“We are,” Zoe insists, “but it wasn’t my secret to tell. I should never have known.”

 

Connor nods in agreement. “Zoe’s a nosy bitch, we never planned on having her know.”

 

Alana meets his eyes. “Know what?” she challenges.

 

Connor sighs. “You should sit down, this might take a while—”

 

“Shorten it. Important things should be able to be communicated simply.”

 

Evan stands, closing the doors behind them all, and takes Alana’s arm, leading her gently into the room. “It’s going to sound crazy, but it’s all true. Connor and I ran away to defeat an angered god before it could destroy the world.”

 

Alana makes a face, the one that Zoe knows means she’s on the verge of accusing them all of thinking she’s stupid, before Evan sighs and moves his hands, producing light in a matter of seconds. Even Zoe is still entranced by the display of power and has to pinch herself at the sight, thinking she must be going crazy.

 

Alana seems intrigued, taking his hands in her own, turning them over, investigating for a source of the light. Coming up with nothing obvious, her face falls in realization.

 

“I died, Lana,” Evan confides. “I was dead, Connor got badly injured — even Jared and Zoe suffered, knowing what they knew. Zoe was trying to keep you safe.”

 

“Zoe and Jared?”

 

“You know how Jared got beaten up in that mugging?”

 

Alana nods.

 

“Well, that wasn’t a mugging. That was a deliberate attack carried out by The One Who Floods the World’s minions to try to get at me, to show me how He’d destroy everyone Connor and I cared about if we didn’t come out and face him.”

 

“The One Who — what?”

 

“There was a prophecy — stupidly unclear — that’s what the god was called in it,” Connor interrupts.

 

“Jared and I were doing research to try and help them,” Zoe adds. “It didn’t help much in the end, but it kept us busy.”

 

“I could have helped—” Alana starts, but Zoe is already shaking her head.

 

“The less people who knew about it, the better. Jared got beaten up. Connor got injured. I didn’t want anything happening to you.”

 

Alana finally sits down, defeated. Her mind seems to be racing. Zoe stands back, afraid that if she gets too close, she’ll ruin everything again. Finally, Alana’s mind sticks on something. She looks up.

 

“You died?” she asks Evan.

 

“The light is sort of healing, or something. But yeah, I got stabbed by a god.” Evan’s face gets kind of distant. “Everything got really cold…” He trails off, and Connor takes his hand.

 

Alana’s brows furrow.

 

“I find it’s best not to think about it,” Zoe volunteers.

 

Alana nods, looking a little shell-shocked. There’s a long stretch of silence before she speaks again, and it’s enough to make Zoe’s chest grow almost unbearably tight with anxiety, the possibility of Alana deciding the weight of all this would be too much to bear seeming more and more inevitable with every second that passes. When Alana finally clears her throat and allows her voice to fill the room in that quiet, commanding way Zoe’s always admired, it’s like music to her ears.

 

“I can’t imagine how hard that must have been to deal with,” she says, gaze passing from Evan to Connor to Zoe. Zoe shivers under the intensity of it; for all the fake smiles she has to plaster on at school and extracurriculars, Alana’s eyes can never lie, and in this moment, they’re full of nothing but sympathy.

 

Zoe’s voice is thick with unshed tears, and it threatens to betray her, but she can’t ignore Alana throwing her a bone like this. “Very.”

 

“You’re all really brave,” Alana continues, pushing her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. Zoe has been resisting the urge to tell her to get the frames tightened for months. “And I can appreciate what you were doing, Zoe, in trying to keep me safe from something you didn’t fully comprehend. But there’s one question I have to ask.”

 

The tension in the air is palpable, but Alana appears blissfully ignorant to it as she leans forward and whispers almost conspiratorially, “What are your plans now?”

 

Connor and Evan look totally confused, and Zoe feels the same. “What do you mean?” Evan asks, exchanging a bewildered glance with her brother. “We’re back home, and Connor killed The One Who Floods the World. That was the end goal.”

 

Alana arches a brow. “Well, you’ve got superhuman powers and the kind of access to ancient Norse mythology that most historians would kill for. Don’t tell me you’re not going to do something with that. Frankly, it’d be a blatant waste of resources to not use those things to your advantage.”

 

“I’d just like to point out that it’s technically not Norse mythology anymore, it’s reality—” Evan starts, but Connor and Alana ignore him.

 

“What exactly are you suggesting?” Connor asks.

 

Alana grins, and it’s the closest Zoe’s ever seen her come to looking devious. “Why not try to help others while still researching the origins of the god you defeated? Even if he’s no longer an issue, his followers are surely still around, and it’d be wise to attempt to understand his motives and operations in case there’s others out there like him,” she points out. “If you were to combine my research skills with Jared’s technological knowledge and Zoe’s investigative prowess, plus your battle experience with Evan’s powers, you might really have something special.”

 

Connor smirks. “Like a god-defeating gang?”

 

Alana laughs, and it sends a thrill through Zoe’s veins. “Exactly.”

 

It’s not the worst idea Zoe’s ever heard (kind of fun, actually, if she’s honest with herself), and Evan doesn’t look entirely opposed, either, but before they can get another word in, they’re interrupted by the crackle of the PA system overhead. “ All graduating seniors, please report to the gymnasium to pick up your caps and gowns. Again, all graduating seniors, report to the gymnasium to pick up your caps and gowns.”

 

Connor chuckles and says, “Well, that’s our cue. I’ll see you at the house, Zoe. Lana, don’t forget about helping me with my history homework tonight.” Then he’s grabbing Evan’s hand and leading them both out the door faster than Zoe can even comprehend, the two of them gone in the blink of an eye.

 

And then it’s just her and Alana, and Zoe’s heart threatens to beat right out of her chest.

 

Alana’s definitely going to leave. Why wouldn’t she? It’s one thing to understand why Zoe had done what she did -- it’s another to be able to forgive that, and maybe Zoe doesn’t deserve forgiveness, anyway. What kind of twisted person watches their parents suffer, knowing their brother might be dead at the hands of an ancient god at any minute? What kind of person lies to the police and lets their family spend thousands of dollars on a futile search? Alana deserves better than her, she should leave —

 

But Alana doesn’t leave, much to Zoe’s surprise. No, she stays, no trace of hatred or disgust on her features, and Zoe knows she has to take this opportunity while she still has it, get the words out that have been her haunting her for months.

 

“I really am sorry, you know. And you don’t have to forgive me. I wouldn’t expect forgiveness,” she says quietly, watching Alana’s face for any sign that she should stop. She doesn’t see any, so she carries on. “I just wanted you to understand.”

 

She waits for a slap, or an insult (even though that’s certainly not Alana’s usual style), or something to confirm her suspicion that Alana will never want her back, and shouldn’t. But she doesn’t get a slap. She doesn’t get an insult, or any sort of confirmation.

 

The only thing she gets is a kiss.

 

And many, many kisses after that.

 

There’s a diploma in his hand, and honestly, Evan can hardly believe it’s real. Can’t believe this day is even here, that he’s alive enough to have made it this far.

 

Six months ago, he choked on the blood bubbling in his mouth as he watched Connor fight for both of their lives. Six months ago, he felt the distinct pain of a blade ripping through his stomach, felt the very essence of life fading from him with every desperate breath he took. Six months ago, Evan died, and he shouldn’t be here. Really, by any law of nature, it should be impossible.

 

But somehow, he’s graduating today anyway, Connor and Jared by his side, and it’s the weirdest, most intense kind of happy he’s ever felt.

 

There have been challenges, of course, as anyone involved in half of an ancient Norse prophecy might expect. The therapy bills for his PTSD from, y’know, the whole dying thing have been pretty high, though Connor’s parents have been generous enough to help with that. Between himself, Connor, Jared, and Zoe, there’s enough nightmares to supply a whole century’s worth of tear-stained dream journals (a suggestion from his lovely therapist). His mom doesn’t have it easy, either — some mornings, he finds her sitting at the kitchen table, crying over her cup of coffee like he’s still a thousand miles away and facing imminent death. Evan never really knows what to say to her, but he hopes the hugs help. He thinks they might.

 

But for all the lows, there have been so many highs. His relationship with Connor is too good for words, and he’s closer with Jared now than they’ve been since childhood. Even Zoe and Alana have earned official “good friend” designations, coming over for Netflix binges (after he died at the hands of an ancient god, his mom had decided he at least deserved a Netflix subscription) and pizza nights, all the things Evan never had before but had so desperately wanted.

 

It’s funny how dying can change things. On their drive back to Stratham, Connor had asked him if he’d seen the light, or maybe even met God (Evan hadn’t bothered to remind him of their “multiple kinds of afterlives” conversation from D.C.). And Evan had been honest, admitted that it’d all just been black — but then he’d told him that maybe he could make this next part of his life, the Post-Death part, the light.

 

And he has. He really, really has, and for the first time in his life, Evan’s truly proud of himself.

 

By the time he makes it back to his seat to watch the rest of the ceremony, Connor’s already in line to walk across the stage. Evan catches his eye from across the room, smiling impossibly wide, and Connor’s answering grin makes his heart swell far more than the diploma in his lap ever could.

 

Jared’s name gets called, and Evan cheers as loud as he can. Then he hears Connor’s name, and he watches with a distinct ache in his chest as the probable love of his life shakes the principal’s hand and receives his diploma. There’s a genuine smile on Connor’s face, dimples popping with the intensity of it, and Evan wants so much for him in this moment, so much with him. He wants a cottage in the Blue Ridge Mountains, by a lake, where they wake each other up with breakfast every morning; he wants 4 years of college together; he wants a dog as tiny and yappy as Connor will allow; he wants everything he’s never had and has always dreamed of.

 

As valedictorian and therefore someone sitting on the stage, Alana’s the last of their group to graduate. Evan’s voice is hoarse, but he claps for her until his hands hurt and the girl to his right is giving him some very judgmental side-eye. Zoe’s shouts echo throughout the stadium long after Alana’s returned to her seat.

 

The rest of graduation goes by in a blur, and Evan only fully re-emerges into reality as they’re finally exiting the arena, sunshine warm on the back of his neck as he steps outside and breathes in the sweet spring air. It’s unbearably humid out, but it’s a good reminder that he’s here and present and whole, not stuck in the black nothingness the One Who Floods the World had tried to keep him in. “Pomp and Circumstance” is still ringing in his ears.

 

He takes the requisite pictures with his classmates, many of whom had never bothered to speak to him before what they think was his and Connor’s Epic Roadtrip of 2017, and smiles at his mother as she waits patiently under the shade of an oak tree. When the Murphys arrive and offer to take some pictures of the two of them, just Evan and his mom, it doesn’t feel like going through the motions — he swears the love radiating from her must be palpable to everyone around them, and the overwhelmingness of it all threatens to drown him. How had he never realized this before, never seen that his mother loved him and didn’t just view him as a burden? Why did it take meeting death first-hand for that to get through his head?

 

Thankfully, when they spot the tears forming in his eyes, Connor and Zoe come to his rescue, swooping him off to a remote corner near the parking lot, far away from all the overjoyed families and their iPhones and Canon collections. Jared and Alana are waiting there for them, and Evan has to grin at the way the bedazzled Harvard logo on Alana’s cap glimmers in the sunlight. She hadn’t wanted to decorate her cap, but Zoe had convinced her to go out with a bang, make the thing as garish and gaudy as possible, allegedly showing up at the other girl’s house with a glue gun and several packs of Hobby Lobby crystals in the middle of the night to do just that. He can conclude that she had definitely succeeded.

 

“That felt like the longest two-and-a-half hours of my goddamn life,” Connor complains, desperately tugging at the cap his mother had insisted on bobby-pinning into place. It pops free after a good minute’s worth of effort, and Evan stifles a laugh at the sheer craziness of Connor’s curls. Zoe doesn’t bother to conceal her giggle, but Connor commendably silences her with the kind of death glare only a Murphy can truly master.

 

“At least you weren’t sitting next to Jenny King,” Jared retorts. “I swear to God, she would not shut up about her stupid high heels and how she was probably going to trip and embarrass herself. I only got her to be quiet by telling her that I would push her off the stairs and ensure she embarrassed herself if she didn’t close her trap.”

 

“No wonder you’re such a hit with the ladies,” Zoe says dryly, closing her eyes and fanning herself. It’s stupidly hot out, even for the middle of June. “You simply must teach me your ways, Kleinman.”

 

“I’m going to have to object to that,” Alana interjects with a smile, pressing a kiss to Zoe’s cheek. “I don’t want to have to drive up from Boston every weekend to fight off potential suitors.” Zoe laughs and turns around to fully kiss her, and although he’s never been one for PDA, Evan’s heart can’t help but warm at how disgustingly in love they are.

 

Connor evidently disagrees. “It’s great that you can somehow bear my sister’s presence, Alana, but for the sake of the children, I’m going to have to ask you to stop,” he says, nose wrinkling. Evan will have to wait until later to tell him just how adorable that kind of is.

 

“I’m just glad this is all over with,” Evan admits. “Big ceremonies like this and anxiety don’t exactly mix well. Not to mention that it kind of sucked being asked about my ‘road trip’ every five seconds for the past four months.”

 

“And I, for one, am happy to be reunited with my phone and the mind-numbing stupidity of social media,” Jared says dramatically, pulling his phone out of his gown with flourish. As if on cue, it buzzes with a notification.

 

“It’s probably Jenny hitting me up, I knew she’d be into my whole Tough Guy act,” Jared jokes, but the humor quickly drains from his face, his brow furrowing as he reads whatever has popped up on his phone. They all crowd around him to get a good look, but Connor’s too tall for Evan to see the screen. He struggles onto his tip-toes for a few moments before Connor finally gets the memo and moves, allowing Evan a decent view.

 

It’s a CNN notification. BREAKING NEWS: “Mega-storm” in Miami kills 25. Miami-Dade Police to hold press conference at 2.

 

Evan struggles to breathe as he processes the information in front of him, but it’s the comforting presence of his friends that allows him to take a second and gradually rid the tightness from his chest. He can feel Connor’s hand in his, squeezing softly as his heart eventually resumes its normal pace.

 

“It’s got to be Him,” Connor says, breaking the silence that has stretched between them. “Or one of His associates. I mean, a ‘mega-storm’? Who else?”

 

“It’s possible the upcoming summer solstice has given him enough power to regenerate,” Alana theorizes, pulling out her phone to likely do a quick Googling for her own research. “From what we know so far, there does appear to be some sort of link between the One Who Floods the World and solstices. Might be why the Chosen One had to be born before the winter solstice.”

 

At the mention of the Chosen One, Jared turns to Connor. “What do you wanna do?”

 

And at this, Connor turns to Evan. They don’t have to speak to communicate how they’re feeling; the look that passes between them is enough, and they instantly know what they need to do.

 

Evan’s the one who speaks now. “Looks like we’re going on another road trip this summer. An official one, this time.”

 

And he grins as he says it, because this time, they’ll be ready. They won’t be scared — well, okay, maybe a little, but they’ll be prepared. They’ll know they’re not weak, and they’ll have their friends. They’ll know they’re loved, and that if they die in the process of trying to save everyone else, someone will care.

 

And most importantly of all, they’ll have each other.

 

So the One Who Floods the World can create all the thunderstorms and wreak all the doom and gloom he wants. But it’s the Chosen One and the Guardian who will win, because now they know fear, and loss, and all the awful, terrible things in between. And they know that humanity is worth facing it all for. So they won’t be afraid.

 

Well, no, they’ll be afraid.

 

But they’ll be afraid and do it anyway. Because the people they love are worth it.

 

And now, Evan knows, they themselves are worth it too.

 

So they’ll win. The gods might get a hell of a good laugh out of watching them try, but they will win.

 

And as long as they have this love in their lives, they always will.