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Bad Reputation

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It all started with a note.

Virgil walked into his first period class, smirking (always a smirk, never a smile, can’t let them see that) at something Logan said, unintentionally hilarious as always, and found a scrap of paper taped to the seat of his chair. He ripped it off and unfolded it.

It read: Whoever sits here before me: STOP DOODLING ON THE DESK!!!

Virgil snorted quietly and turned to show it to Logan, but the ringing of the first bell stopped him. Kids started filing in, glancing at Virgil and Logan out of the corners of their eyes. It was still the first month of a new school year, people weren’t used to the fact that they were always early.

After a couple of minutes, the tardy bell finally rang and Mrs. Beach stood.

“Class, take your seats,” she called, standing from her desk. “We’ve got a quiz today, though most of you will probably need the entire period to complete it. I’m told my quizzes are a bit long.” She laughed a little, but no one laughed with her.

She passed out the test (she called it a quiz, but it was a test. Three pages of equations? It’s a test) facedown on their tables, switching between two different stacks for different versions of the test. He saw the kid in front of him shudder.

“I hope you studied,” Mrs. Beach said, examining the class for a moment.

Virgil smirked. With Logan as his best (and only) friend, how would he not pass? Hell, he would finish within the first twenty minutes.

Mrs. Beach met eyes with both Logan and Virgil and smiled a little. She knew they would pass. She loved them. “You may begin.”

Virgil focused on the test, doing his best to block the classroom out. He snuck his right hand into his pocket to rub the smooth, purple stone that resided there. It helped him focus, alleviated some anxiety.

Mrs. Beach had given it to him with a soft smile after she’d looked over his assessment pretest (he would’ve bombed that had it not been for Logan, though, it didn’t really have a grade anyway. Just a test of their knowledge to let her know where to start), his hand so shaky that his test was nearly illegible.

It was smooth and purple, with a premade divot for his thumb. It almost seemed to be a gradient. He had turned it over in his hands a few time before looking up at her, confused.

“It’s a worry stone,” she had said quietly, so the stragglers leaving for their next class wouldn’t hear. “My daughter got one from her teacher to help with test anxiety. I bought a few to always have backups.”

He had tried to pass it back to her. “It’s cool.”

Mrs. Beach had just shaken her head. “It’s for you, Mr. Bes- excuse me, Mr. Bunker. I think it could help you. There’s no shame in needing a little help. And just remember to breathe.”

He had smiled at her, then, one of the few he let loose in company other than Logan. She had smiled back and sent him on his way.

Out of the corner of his eye, Virgil caught Logan standing and turning in his test. Only minutes later, he finished and turned in his own, flashing Mrs. Beach a small, secret smile where the rest of the class couldn’t see.

Logan shot him a smirk when he walked past him to sit down. Virgil simply lifted an eyebrow at him. It’s not like it was a competition to see who could finish first (it totally was. Don’t get cocky , that eyebrow said).

When Virgil got back to his desk, he began doodling a night sky in the corner of his desk. He reached into his pocket to grab his stone and his hand instead met the note from his chair. He hid an evil grin behind the sleeve of his jacket.

Whoever had written it had to be pretty pissed off. After all, he did draw on the desk almost every class period. He usually didn’t mean to. It just sort of… happened. One minute, he was rubbing his stone and taking notes. The next, he had doodled the most realistic elephant profile he had ever seen.

He took pictures of every single doodle. They were often better than the drawings in his sketchbook, which was infuriating. Some of those had taken hours , why had a fifteen-minute doodle looked better?

But still, it was a wonder Mrs. Beach had never caught him. Or maybe she was too nice to say anything.

Still, the person would’ve had to go through some trouble to get the note to him specifically. Since the desk was always clean by lunch (which Mrs. Beach so graciously granted he and Logan refuge from), it had to have been from the third period class.

But there was no way for them to leave the note in that specific spot after their class, it would have been found by someone else. And they couldn’t have left it after school, the janitor would’ve taken it.

The student had to have come in before class and somehow gotten there earlier than Virgil and Logan, and they managed to completely miss them, too.

Who in the hell got to school earlier than them ? (At least, when Virgil wasn’t working).

Well, whoever it was, who would Virgil be if he didn’t rile them up on purpose now? He had a reputation to keep, after all.

So, with an evil grin still hiding behind his sleeve, Virgil expanded the night sky to take up the entirety of his desk. He carefully placed each constellation he knew, exactly where he knew it belonged. More perks of being best friends with Logan.

In the center of his desk, he deviated from the normal night sky. Chewing on his sleeve a little, Virgil created a constellation that spelled MAKE ME rather obviously.

By the time the bell finally rang, Virgil was satisfied with his work. The night sky was almost completely accurate, aside from his little message. He ran his thumbnail next to where he’d drawn Sirius and resisted the urge to smile sadly.

Virgil hadn’t even realized that the bell had rung until Logan walked up to his desk with a raised eyebrow. Virgil quickly made certain Mrs. Beach wasn’t looking before snapping a picture with his cellphone. He then grabbed his backpack and made his way out of the room with Logan.

“That was an elaborate piece,” Logan remarked after they left the classroom, side-eyeing Virgil.

Virgil snorted (always a snort or scoff, never a laugh, can’t let them hear that) and started fishing in his pocket for the note. “Yup.” He said, popping the “p”. He passed the note to Logan.

Logan scanned it before passing it back. “So you are just trying to piss this person off, now?”

Virgil scoffed and stuffed the note back in his pocket, wrapping his hand around the stone and keeping it there. “It’s me , Logan. What did you expect?”

Logan sighed and began slowing his pace as his next class approached. “I’m expecting you to try harder. Colleges aren’t going to like this reputation you’ve created for yourself, Virgil, and neither does the administration. Or the student body.”

“It’s not like they were too fond of you either before last year,” Virgil snarked. He was tempted to reach over and pull on Logan’s earlobe to make the closing holes on Logan’s ears more obvious. He didn’t of course. They had reputations to keep, after all.

Logan sighed, pulling them off to the side of the hallway near his class. “Which is precisely why I did it,” he said, pulling at his earlobe, a nervous habit, the only one that had persisted through his “purge of outward displays of emotion”. “You hate that title you’ve earned so much, why do you keep on feeding it?”

“Better to be the ‘school freak’ than another carbon-copy popular kid,” Virgil shrugged. “I don’t think the world could handle another Roman Prince. Plus, aside from most of the student bodies and teachers not realizing you’re the same person, what’s changed? The bullying certainly hasn’t. People still don’t like you, just colleges and faculty.”

Logan didn’t answer, he simply shook his head and began backing away towards his class. Virgil continued on to his own before he was late.

The rest of the school day was uneventful. The only thing keeping him awake through half his classes was the (hopefully) hilarious reaction his doodle was going to receive. He really hoped for another note (so long as the person didn’t find out it was him).

The joy that would give him tomorrow was the only thing able to convince him to go home.

Virgil sunk lower in his bus seat and made the daily promise to himself that he would get out of there, wondering not for the first time how he would survive another day with Damien and the twins.

They treated him like a slave, meant to bow to their every whim. He cooked, he cleaned, he took their verbal and emotional abuse without complaint. He wasn’t their equal, he was the help. He wasn’t their stepfamily, he was their burden.

Logan hesitated at his side after they got off the bus. “Are you… sure you don’t want to come over?” He asked for the fifth time, shifting uncomfortably.

Virgil smiled bitterly. “I was over yesterday. And the day before that. The longer I stay away, the worse they’ll be. We don’t want another incident like freshman year.”

Logan winced, and Virgil quickly scanned the area to make sure no one had seen the expression. Logan rolled his eyes at the habit.

Virgil nodded his goodbye and started to walk away, but Logan grabbed his arm. “You got a shift tonight?”

“Not tonight, no,” Virgil replied, subconsciously reaching into his pocket for his stone. “I do have one tomorrow morning, though. I won’t be taking the bus with you tomorrow.”

Logan’s eyes flashed with concern, but they both ignored it. “I’m hopping your fence tonight,” was all he said before turning to walk up his driveway.

Virgil smiled. “Make sure you’re quiet,” he called after Logan. “Damien can’t catch us again.”

Logan turned over his shoulder and nodded before walking inside his house to greet his parents. Virgil waved when his parents eyed him with worry, before turning and walking the few remaining blocks to his house.

Or, rather, Damien’s house.

He trudged up the driveway, dragging his feet. The twins nearly ran him over speeding up the driveway, he jumped into the dirt just in time, nearly tripping.

Kameron got out of the car first, a perfect pout on her lips. “Sorry, Virgie,” she called. “I didn’t see you there, you’re practically invisible!”

“Ha!” Christian let out a single, loud laugh from inside the car. “She said you’re invisible! Get it? Because no one knows or likes you?”

Kameron rolled her eyes and stalked up to Virgil, hips swinging. “Be a dear, Virgie, and do my laundry? Oh, and Daddy wants sushi tonight.”

Virgil was frozen with anger for a few moments, helpless to defend himself as Kameron turned and strutted inside. He whipped around.

“I don’t even know how to make sushi!”

“Not my problem,” Kameron said airly, shrugging as she directed Christian to grab her bags from the car with only her finger.

“And do you really want me handling your undergarments?” He tried.

Kameron stopped in the doorway, freezing her hands where they had been filing her nails (when had she even pulled that out? And from where ?). She turned and walked toward him, murder in her eyes, heels clicking to echo that promise.

“You see, I would care if it wasn’t your gay little ass doing it.” She poked his nose with a blood red nail, giving him a sickeningly sweet smile. “ Actually , Daddy hasn’t heard about that yet, has he?”

Virgil’s breath hitched, despite his efforts to stay impassive.

“I really do wonder what would happen if he was to find out?” She dragged the nail down the side of his cheek and jaw, digging in just enough for it to be painful, yet leave no evidence. “Don’t you?”

“Fine,” Virgil ground out. “I’ll do the damn laundry.”

Christian approached them near the door, arms filled with shopping bags. “Kami, where do you want these?”

Kameron whirled on her brother. “I told you never to call me that,” she hissed, and Christian took a step back.

“Sorry! Sorry.”

As she continued to chew him out, Virgil took the opportunity to escape, sneaking through the front door and up the stairs (though not before tossing his own backpack into the basement, he wouldn’t make the mistake of leaving it in “their space” again).

Kameron’s hamper already sat outside her room, waiting for Virgil. Mocking him. She had been planning this all day, knowing he couldn’t refuse anything she asked. Her leverage was too good.

He gritted his teeth and grabbed it, taking it down to the basement with him. As he sorted colors, he pulled up YouTube on his phone and began searching for sushi making tutorials. Reds to his left, light colors in front of him, darks to the right, whites and undergarments behind him (he tried not to look at them, lest he start gagging), and whatever the fuck a California roll was blaring in his ears.

Virgil sighed as he got through the fifth video as was still sorting. How much clothing could one person own? At the rate things were going, he might have to text Logan and cancel their plans for that night.

It was a shame, he had been looking forward to stargazing.

Three loads of laundry and a frantic rush to the grocery store later, Virgil stood in the kitchen staring down the sushi ingredients. He’d watched so many tutorial videos, and yet he still had no clue what he was doing. He flinched when the door flew open behind him.

Damien was home.

“Virgil,” he said gruffly. “What are you doing?”

“Kam-Kameron said you wanted sushi for dinner to-tonight?” Virgil replied, though it was more of a question.

Damien loomed over him. Virgil wasn’t short by any means, but Damien could certainly make him feel like he was. Virgil tried to shrink back, but the counter was in his way.

“I said I was going to order sushi tonight.” He said. “Do you need your ears checked, boy?”

Kameron had played him yet again. She had never said that he was making dinner, simply that Damien wanted sushi. And she knew he would make it, desperate to avoid Damien’s anger.

And she had tricked him into walking right into it.

“No sir,” Virgil choked out. “I’m sorry, sir.”

Damien hummed. “To your room, then.”

“But-” Virgil made an aborted motion toward the fridge.

Damien raised an eyebrow. “You think, that after all the mistakes you’ve made so far this week, that you get dinner? I don’t think so, boy. It’ll be good for you anyway, you’ve been packing on the pounds recently.”

He hadn’t. If anything, Virgil had been losing weight. From back to school stress, his new insanely busy schedule, Damien’s “punishments.” There was no way he looked even remotely healthy.

He didn’t dare talk back, though. He simply nodded and made his way back down to the basement, squeezing behind the dividers in the corner to get to his “room.”

Really, it was just a shitty mattress on a shitty wire bed frame, with a shitty, rotten wooden dresser next to it.

At least you have a bed, Virgil thought, trying to be positive. You could be sleeping on the mildew-covered concrete instead. He shuddered at the thought.

He was shaken from his thoughts by his buzzing phone.

Specs: Am I bringing you dinner tonight, then?

Virgil smiled, tense shoulders finally relaxing.

V: How’d you know?

Specs: Best friend’s intuition.

Specs: Also, I saw your angry tweets about sushi making, but a sushi delivery truck just drove down the street toward your house.

Specs: You don’t even like sushi.

V: Leftovers would be great

Virgil would always be eternally grateful for Logan’s family. They had a tendency to make way too much food, considering that there were only three people in the household, but Virgil had his suspicions. After all, the habit only started after his parents found out how Virgil’s stepfamily had been treating him.

Not only that, but Mrs. Boman fretted over him constantly when he was over. Always offering food or for him to stay the night, asking if he needed anything. She was terrified of how thin he was. She never said it, but Virgil could tell.

Mr. Boman knew all of Virgil’s favorite foods. Either he had somehow memorized how Virgil responded when given a dish, or he “recorded his findings” similarly to how Logan would. Not only that, but he was always certain to make the most calorie filled and protein heavy dishes when Virgil was over.

Virgil didn’t deserve their kindness, they were far too good for him, but he definitely appreciated it.

Virgil tried to lose himself in his homework to ignore the growing gnawing in his stomach. Eventually, it worked, and both his mind and body had forgotten he was even hungry. The gnawing and growling stopped, and his focus on his work only increased.

Even though most days his only meal was dinner, he was used to not being able to have it. Somewhere along the way over the years, he’d developed a useful defensive mechanism. As long as he focused on something else, he was able to forget he was even hungry. It worried Logan to no end.

Virgil knew it wasn’t healthy, but he had the rest of his life to be healthy. All that mattered right now was saving up to get the hell away from Damien, whether it be through college or other means. If that meant he worked himself to the bone and didn’t buy other meals, then so be it.

He hadn’t even realized how late it had gotten until there was a sudden knocking on the basement window, right by the head of his bed. Virgil startled so hard that he threw his English book at the wall, whipping his head around. Logan’s face appeared in the window with a sheepish, yet still slightly smug, grin.

Virgil rolled his eyes and opened the window. “A little warning next time?” Virgil snarked, as if this didn’t happen every time.

Logan rolled his eyes, his grin becoming more natural. “I texted at least six times, it’s not my fault you can’t pick up the phone.”

Virgil chuckled a little, everything feeling a bit looser now that is was just him and Logan. They could be real, no reputations to hide under.

Using his bed to boost him up, Virgil wiggled himself through the small, rectangular window and onto the backyard lawn. Logan was eyeing him strangely when he stood back up.

“What?” Virgil asked, brow furrowed.

Logan shook his head. “I do not think a healthy person of your age and height should be able to fit through that window so easily.”

Virgil rolled his eyes again. “One, I’ve seen Christian fit through it once on a dare, and he’s the Big Bad Football Jock. Two, you eat almost as little as I do. Three, drop the formal speech, it’s just us.”

Logan smirked at him, holding out a tupperware with a fork taped to the lid. “I don’t believe I ever claimed to be healthy.”

Virgil gave a little half laugh, half scoff as he took the tupperware and began walking across the yard toward the reclining deck chairs. “Man, we’re fucking messes, aren’t we?”

“Correction, we’re fucking messes that are going to get full rides to whatever colleges we so choose.”

Virgil didn’t respond, all his words leaving him as the popped open the tupperware and caught scent of Mr. Boman’s amazing cooking. Chicken with gravy, mashed potatoes, and green shit? Damn, he really needed some vegetables.

“Shit,” Virgil said, flopping heavily into a deck chair and shoveling a forkful in his mouth. The second the food hit his stomach, his hunger returned full-force. “I’m gonna steal your dad,” he managed to get out around another mouthful of food.

Logan snorted, reclining his own chair a bit further to watch the sky. “Chew, you’ll make yourself sick. And only so long as I don’t get stuck with yours.”

It was Virgil’s turn to snort. “Damien Beste is not my father. He never has been and never will be.”

It was silent for a few minutes, Logan watching the stars slowly appear while Virgil tried (and failed) to pace the rate he was shoveling food into his mouth.

Eventually, Logan sighed and squeezed his eyes shut. “ God , I miss your mom.”

Virgil felt a pain in his chest, but offered a smirk to Logan instead. “Mom wouldn’t like you using God’s name in vain.”

Logan turned toward him and opened his eyes, giving him a knowing look. Virgil ignored him in favor of his dad’s cooking.

“Don’t think she’d be too keen on you saying ‘shit’ either.”

Virgil sputtered out a laugh, trying not to choke on his dinner (and failing, so instead he opted for keeping his choking quiet as to not wake Damien or the twins). He sobered quickly and cleared his throat, taking the water bottle Logan offered (where had he even pulled that from?).

“Probably wouldn’t dig the whole ‘gay’ thing, either, while we’re on the subject,” Virgil muttered.

Logan scoffed. “Alissia loved you, Virgil. Unconditionally. If she were still around, I promise you, she would not give a fuck that you’re gay.”

Virgil finally looked at Logan. “Yeah?”

Logan turned his head back to the stars. “Yeah.”

They fell silent again after that, staying that way for a while. Virgil finished his dinner and placed the tupperware on the pool deck under his chair. He mapped out the constellations with his eyes, trying to commit them to memory like he knew Logan already had.

“Hey,” Virgil finally said. “Is Sirius up?”

“Hmm…” Logan furrowed his brow and scanned the sky. “I think it set near the Sun. It’s still just after summer. I could be wrong, though.”

Virgil smiled sadly. “Unlikely.”

“You’re thinking of that stupid pun Alissia used to tell, aren’t you?”

Virgil could see Logan grinning in his peripheral.

“You mean the only pun you’ve ever laughed at?” Virgil shot back.

Logan chuckled, low and deep. He was getting tired, Virgil would have to send him home soon. “Hey, Virgil,” he said. “What’s the brightest star in the sky, do you know?”

Virgil chuckled. “Are you Sirius ,” he asked, faking incredulity.

Logan broke into snorting giggles, clamping a hand over his nose and mouth in an attempt to muffle them. Virgil chuckled, more at Logan’s reaction than the actual joke. His friend truly was tired.

“You should know that, Logan! Come on!” He teased further, causing Logan’s laughter to pick up even more.

Logan clamped his other hand over his mouth, curling up in his chair a little bit. Virgil sighed. He really needed to laugh more.

“Damn, you are so tired,” Virgil said, only getting more hysterical giggles in return. He laughed quietly. “You better get home soon before you can’t. I don’t want you passing out in my backyard again.”

It took a few more seconds, but Logan finally managed to get control of himself. He stood and took his tupperware when Virgil handed it to him before yanking Virgil into a hug. Virgil froze for a second, surprised, before melting into Logan and hugging back tightly.

“Don’t work yourself to death,” Logan mumbled in his ear.

Virgil smiled sadly. “No promises-”

Logan made a sound of disagreement.

“- Unless you promise the same.”

Logan faked an annoyed sigh. “ Fine , mom.”

Virgil allowed himself a grin, burrowing into the curve of Logan’s neck for a moment. “Go the fuck to sleep,” he said, only grinning wider when Logan shied away at the ticklish feeling of his breath on his neck. He pulled back slightly. “You don’t wanna be this loose at school tomorrow. We have reputations.”

“Fuck reputations,” Logan muttered, but pulled back anyway.

Virgil just shook his head. “You won’t be saying that tomorrow, Specs.”

Logan grinned at him as he jumped over the back wall.

And then Virgil was alone again.

Like usual.

Though it was late and he had to be up in only a few hours to get ready for work, Virgil didn’t feel like going to sleep just yet. It was a nice, clear night. Not too warm, not too cool. He wouldn’t mind staying out a bit later, sleep deprivation be damned.

He gazed up again at the stars he could see despite the light pollution of the city and smiled sadly. He looked down to watch their reflections ripple in the pool.

His mother loved stargazing. It was why both he and Logan loved it so much, too. So much of their childhood was spent in one of their backyards, Mom laying next to them and pointing out the constellations. Virgil had never been great at remembering the names, but he tried so hard now that she was gone.

There was the Great Square that created Pegasus. There was Cassiopeia, chained for eternity.

Virgil dropped his head into his hands, sighing deeply. His eyes burned with impending tears, but he forced them down. He’d cried enough over her.

Though, he doubted he would ever stop.

Virgil sighed and turned his gaze to the sky once more. It was a cloudless night, and the stars were calling to him.

He very much regretted his decision in the morning, however, peeling his eyes open at 4:05 and cringing at his alarm. He groaned and rubbed his eyes before finally sitting up and shutting off his alarm.

He really didn’t want to get up, but he couldn’t miss a shift, even if his boss was an angel on earth and would understand. He couldn’t do that to them.

But he hadn’t even crawled back through his window until one the night before, and he’d still had English homework to finish. He didn’t get to sleep until after two.

“Fuck me!” Virgil hissed out as his feet hit the cold cement of the basement floor. He really needed to get a rug.

Ignoring his tired eyes, Virgil rushed through a quick shower as quietly as he could (he technically wasn’t supposed to be using the shower, but Damien slept the heaviest between three and five in the morning and wouldn’t know) and hid his toiletries back in his “room.”

He threw on one of his usual dark outfits, not paying attention to what he was wearing aside from making sure he had his hoodie. He was sure to grab his worry stone off his dresser and shove it in his pocket.

He hastily straightened his hair, making sure it covered his face and didn’t curl, as much as it wanted to. He barely had time to apply a rough layer of foundation. It was fine, he could finish his makeup at work.

Virgil was out of the house just in time to catch his 4:30 bus. The ride was quiet, as it always was that early. The only other people there were overachieving businessmen and people doing the walk-of-shame. They all seemed to share his exhaustion.

Virgil walked into The Insomniac at 4:57 in the morning to his boss shouting, “ Fuck! ” behind the counter after a loud crash. The only patrons there that early were far too used to these antics, and barely looked up from their books or coffee or laptops to see what happened.

“Maisey?” Virgil called, weaving between tables, careful not to bump any customers. He nodded at a few regulars as he walked to the counter.

The 25 year old bounced up from behind the counter and Virgil had to bite back a laugh. They already had a rather eccentric appearance, but the ground coffee coating their entire form only added to it.

“You, uh, you good?” Virgil asked, voice wobbling from repressed laughter.

Maisey tried to glare at him, but their giant, round glasses were covered in coffee grounds and they couldn’t see him.

“I, uh, think you got something in your hair,” he said, voice becoming more choked as he continued to stare. He cleared his throat. It didn’t help. “Brown’s a good color, maybe you should go for that next.”

Maisey smirked, taking off their glasses. “Too boring,” they said with a short laugh, looking for something to clean their glasses on.

Virgil took their glasses and cleaned them off the best he could on his jeans.

“But what color haven’t you tried yet that’s not boring?”

Maisey sighed, slipping their glasses back on and gathering their insanely long hair in one hand. “I dunno,” they said, rubbing the shaved half of their head with their free hand. “I need to go for a shave and trim soon, and get my roots bleached, so I gotta think of a color before then.”

Virgil stepped forward and brushed a clump of coffee grounds off their shoulder, biting back another laugh. They shoved him playfully.

“Oh, quit your laughing-”

“I wasn’t technically laughing.”

“-and man the counter while I clean up.” Maisey finished, trying to brush the brown dust of their neon cardigan.

Virgil slid over the counter in a practiced, fluid motion. “Yes-” a quick glance at Maisey’s apron (that he felt guilty for not taking sooner) to reveal a baby blue button “-sir.”

Unlike Virgil, Maisey opened the hatch of the counter and walked through, making his way to the employee room in the back. Virgil had to hide his grin behind his sleeve at the trail of brown dust that followed Maisey back.

Work was slow that morning, as it usually was that early. As much as he hated waking up so early, these shifts were Virgil’s favorite. Daytime shifts brought high school and college kids looking for a place to study, hang out, and eat. Often, it was popular kids and hipsters. At night, they got the drunks being kicked out of bars and looking for a pick-me-up, along with some lost looking kids that usually stayed all night.

Early mornings, though. Early mornings were the best. It was before rush hour, so no students or people rushing to work. Simply broken kids from broken homes and families, just like his. Kids looking for an escape or reprieve before a day of hell at school, and an even worse hell back home. Sure, those kids were the regulars and could be seen at almost any time, day or night, but early morning was the easiest time to see them.

Maisey had even come up with a system to help kids like those a few years back, after the first time he’d met Virgil. It was a secret code, a word or phrase, that changed on a weekly basis so that people who didn’t need it wouldn’t take advantage of it. If the kids (or a homeless person. Really, anyone in need) told the employee at the counter the code, they could get a free pastry or sandwich that was too old be sold anymore.

The food wasn’t rotten, of course. It was perfectly good, probably only one to two days old, but it was a great alternative to having to throw them out and wasting the food that could help someone. Maisey found it much more fulfilling than seeing kids and other people digging through their dumpsters for leftovers.

After Maisey had cleaned himself up, the two of them flitted between working the counter, checking that all the books were sorted correctly, and bussing tables. Maisey had even let Virgil take a quick break to run to the employee room and finish his makeup before school.

It was a dance the two had perfected after working together for so long, neither of them liking to be still when there was work to be done. The counter was often empty this early, so working it could technically be considered a “break.” Not to mention, Virgil hated working it even when it wasn’t empty.

Virgil had been reshelving some fantasy novels across the cafe when Maisey called out, “V-dog, counter!” The bell on the door rung at exactly the same moment.

“You got it, boss!” Virgil called back, trying not to sound as put-out as he felt. He had some bad luck, switching right when a customer came in.

He moved toward the counter as quickly as he could, wanting the interaction over with (and not wanting to keep the customer waiting, he didn’t recognize the back of that head as one of their patient regulars). Once again, he hopped and slid over the counter with ease, grabbing a rag that had been carelessly thrown on the counter and throwing it over his shoulder.

“Whaddya want?” Virgil asked impatiently, turning to face the customer and freezing.

Roman Prince’s perfect scowl greeted him. “Shouldn’t you be more polite to customers? And is it not unsanitary to slide over the counter like that?”

Virgil smirked, the persona he used at school so easily slipping into place. “Perks of working here? I can do what I want. You must be new here.”

Roman Prince closed his eyes and took a deep breath, obviously deciding he wasn’t worth it. Probably for the best. Maisey may not have minded if he was occasionally short with customers (even Maisey himself had his moments), but he probably wouldn’t appreciate it if Virgil got into an all-out argument with a customer. Again.

Roman Prince pulled out his phone and cleared his throat, putting his perfectly pleasant face back on. He began reading an order off of his phone but was interrupted by Maisey racing up to the counter.

“Virgil!” He practically shouted. “My gender changed in the bathroom! Hand me my pink button!”

Virgil reached under the counter and grabbed one of the many pastel pink buttons that resided there, tossing it over a confused Roman Prince’s head. Maisey shouted her thanks before rushing off again.

He hesitated before returning to his customer , furrowing his brow. What was up with Maisey today?

Virgil quickly wiped any expression from his face and turned back to Roman Prince. Just as he opened his mouth to start his order again, he was interrupted by Maisey practically crashing into the counter trying to get under the door in the counter.

School! ” She shrieked, shoving him off to the side towards the employee room and turning to take Roman Prince’s order herself. “Grab your shit and go!”

Virgil grabbed his backpack from the small employee room, switching off the crappy TV as he went. Someone always accidentally left it on.

He came back into the main part of the shop, slipping under the counter to pour himself a large black coffee, waiting while Maisey finished taking Roman Prince’s order. He waited until she was starting to make a series of extremely complicated drinks to approach her.

“You good?” He asked quietly enough so that the patrons couldn’t hear. “You’re kind of… flittery. A bit jumpy, today?”

She hummed quietly. Not for the first time that morning, Virgil noticed the slight tremor in her hands.

“Maze,” he whispered, bumping his hip with hers. Really, due to the height difference, his hip was bumping against the bottom of her ribcage. “When’s the last time you slept?”

“I’m fine,” she insisted, sliding two smaller drinks across the counter towards Roman Prince and shooting him a smile. She went back to preparing more. “I just… I may or may not have dumped multiple energy drinks into a pot of coffee and drank the whole thing.” She refused to meet his eyes.

Virgil almost dropped his own coffee. “Mai! You shouldn’t even be having caffeine!”

“Yeah?” She muttered. “Well, neither should you, and don’t think I didn’t see how many shots of espresso you put in that cup. Everyone thinks you’re edgy and just drink straight black coffee, but I know the truth.”

Virgil rolled his eyes and gave her a subtle quirk of the lips. “One, nothing about me is straight. Two, kind of ironic that we’d both end up working in a coffee shop.”

She grinned up at him. “Excuse me, you work. I own .” She paused, turning her attention back to the drink she was making. “Or, well, Gramps owned, and then passed it to me.”

“And the kids of this city are eternally grateful for his tragic death.”

Maisey threw her head back and laughed as she slid two more drinks across the counter towards Roman Prince. “Fuck off,” she laughed, “he’s not even dead! And speaking of kids, get your ass to school, punk.”

Virgil rolled his eyes and slipped under the counter’s door. “Alright, alright, I’m going.” He made sure his back was to everyone else in the building and shot her a grin before turning to make his way out.

“I want to see you at Harvard, young man! Or Stanford, Princeton… Something!” She called after him.

The regular patrons were unconcerned, focused completely on their books or laptops or coffee. A few waved at him as he went past or laughed at him and Maisey’s usual shenanigans.

Roman Prince, though, did not seem to enjoy their casual banter, practically glaring at all the noise. Virgil resisted the urge to walk back over and slap the expensive phone right out of his perfect hands.

“Don’t let Logan steal your thunder, you’re smart too!”

“No thunder to steal,” he called back, saluting as he left the shop. He walked out the door quickly, giving her no time to retort.

He winced once he was out of sight of the cafe’s windows. Had it been a normal day, he would’ve been fine with Maisey’s brand of encouragement. But in front of Roman Prince? With the crowds that dumbass ran in, who knew what rumors could start.

What would it be this week? How Virgil was shit at his job and should be fired? Some bullshit about a rivalry between him and Logan? How the school’s resident fuckup is secretly a nerd and they should all bully him more ?

Virgil sighed. He would never understand why Logan dropped what he called his “edgy” persona. All it had done was make him a bigger target. Virgil didn’t even think any of the students recognized Logan once they came back from summer break to start their junior year, all traces of him having been punk vanished.

But Logan had grown up. He wanted to look good for colleges, even though they’d never technically gotten in trouble other than being dress-coded a few times (okay, Logan had a few “disruptions” under his belt, but for good reason!). He constantly told Virgil to do the same.

Fuck that , Virgil thought. I have a reputation.

Though, he supposed, Logan had, too. And now he had a different one.

But Virgil wasn’t like Logan. Looking scary was the best way to ensure that people messed with him less than they do to the other incredibly unpopular kids. Logan had gotten so much crap ever since he became the school nerd, and Virgil wasn’t strong enough to handle that.

Virgil’s entire mood brightened when he walked into Beach’s class and saw a note discreetly sticking out of the textbook under his desk. The wooden tabletop was, as usual, spotless.

Virgil grabbed the note while putting his backpack down before walking over to plop into the desk in front of Logan’s. Logan’s nose was so far stuck into his book that he almost didn’t notice.

“Virgil,” he greeted, voice even.

“Logan,” Virgil mimicked with a roll of his eyes.

“Boys,” Mrs. Beach’s voice cut through the silence that followed, “I need to run and grab something from the printer in the teacher’s lounge. I’m trusting the room to you.”

Logan nodded curtly without looking up. Virgil gave her a thumbs up as she rushed out of the classroom, probably trying to hurry so that she made it back before the bell.

Virgil stared at Logan until his eyes finally flicked up from his book. He raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”

Virgil smirked and held up the folded piece of paper between two fingers.

Logan sighed. “Is this from that person you’re trying to piss off?”

“I dunno,” Virgil said, though he was pretty certain. “Let’s find out.”

Really? The note read. We’re playing that game? Just you wait, I’ll find some way to get back at you.

Logan sighed again, heavier this time. “Virgil, Mrs. Beach loves you, just tell her it’s you.”

Virgil’s head whipped up. “What? Why?”

Logan’s eyes flicked to the door for a moment, searching, before focusing back on Virgil and softening. “Because this person is probably getting blamed for the drawings and you’re going to push them past their breaking point eventually. What if they have an influence on the social structure of the school? If they find out who you are, you could get hurt.”

Alone in the classroom, Virgil allowed himself to soften as well. He gave Logan a gentle, reassuring smile. “Hey, isn’t it my job to worry about future worst-case scenarios?”

Logan rolled his eyes fondly and opened his mouth to reply, but his eyes snapped to the door and the warmth in his gaze vanished. His back went ramrod straight from where it had slouched over to bring his closer to Virgil, and he lifted his chin in a proud way.

Virgil himself quickly etched his dark and menacing scowl back onto his face and rearranged his limbs so his slouch looked more like carelessness than relaxation and exhaustion.

They had perfected putting up their facades in seconds, so they were well prepared when the door opened and another student their age poked their head in.

“Hey there!” They said, far too cheery for 7:30 in the morning. “Sorry to interrupt, but I was looking for Mrs. Beach?”

“Teacher’s lounge,” they said in unison.

The student -- Virgil thought his name was Peter? Parker? He ran with Roman Prince’s crowd, he knew that much, and he had a couple classes with Virgil -- beamed at them. “Thanks so much! Sorry again!”

“Patton Havard,” Logan said after the door had shut again, almost in wonder. “The most polite popular I’ve ever met.”

Virgil hummed in response. They sat in silence for a few moments. Then, “Did he have the same glasses as you?”

“God, I hope not.”

Virgil swallowed a laugh.

The school day passed slowly. After doodling a couple of bears doing yard work on the desk, Virgil had little to keep him focused in his classes for the rest of the day. He knew he would regret it later when Logan was forcing him to study, but he was so exhausted that he couldn’t find it in him to care. His coffee only went so far.

Logan was a walking encyclopedia, anyway, and loved offering to help. He felt like reteaching a subject could help him understand it better, as well.

The boring tone of the day changed completely when Virgil happened to find a fight after school. And it wasn’t a good change of tone, considering that Logan was the victim.

He had been walking out of the school gates and had turned to head toward the bus the stop where he was meant to meet Logan when he saw the ever-growing circle of students blocking the sidewalk.

They were all shouting and cheering and booing, and Virgil knew exactly what that meant. He probably would have inched around them had he not seen a familiar head of gelled hair bobbing around in the center of the circle.

Virgil took a quick glance behind him to confirm that, yet again, the school monitors and security were failing to do their jobs before taking a breath to steel himself.

He squared his shoulders and set his jaw in an attempt to appear more menacing and marched toward the crowd. They parted for him immediately. Being the school freak definitely had its perks.

He made his way to the center of the circle quickly, staying near the edge, people quickly closing in behind him. No gap to escape through, now. He looked forward and felt his blood boil.

Logan’s lip was bleeding, his glasses were broken on the cement, and Virgil could already see bruises forming.

He didn’t the guy who was beating Logan up, but he could tell he was a jock and recognized him from past bullying experiences that had ended with him or Logan bleeding in some fashion.

Despite Logan’s condition, he still stood tall. Still held his head high. Virgil had immense respect for him for that, and knew Logan would be upset at him if he stepped in.

But he couldn’t just let this go on. Especially because he knew Logan refused to fight back, even in self-defense. He only ever threw punches for Virgil when Virgil couldn’t handle a fight on his own.

Virgil stepped further into the circle.

The jock laughed.

“Aw, look, Boman! Your emo fairy is coming to the rescue!” He jeered and the crowd laughed.

“If only someone was coming to yours.” Virgil ground out, beginning to advance on the bully, slipping his backpack off.

He may not have been strong, but he was fast and had the power of fight or flight on his side. A punch was aimed toward his stomach, a leg twitching in an anticipation. He recognized the advance, the move had been used on him countless times. He wouldn’t fall for it again.

Virgil slid out of the way of the fist and the jock lost his balance. Virgil turned his own move against him before he could recover, punching the jock in the stomach and slamming his knee into his face as he doubled over in pain.

The bully cried out and fell to his knees, hands flying up to clutch his nose. He glared up at Virgil, blood leaking through his fingers.

“Pathetic,” Virgil scoffed. He squeezed his hands into fists to hide the shaking of his fingers. “Fuck off.”

The bully growled and slowly began making his way to his feet, his buddies emerging from the crowd to help pull him up. He shrugged them off angrily.

Virgil could feel the adrenaline leaving him. He grabbed Logan’s arm, probably a bit too roughly considering the beating he had taken, stooped to grab their backpacks, and started speed walking to their bus stop. They needed to get somewhere private before Virgil’s anxiety caught up with him.

They were nearly at their stop, Logan still trailing numbly behind Virgil, when a car pulled up to the curb next to them and honked, causing them both to flinch. The driver’s side window rolled down to reveal Patton Havard.

“Hey,” he called to them, “I heard you both take the bus, but I’d really like to drive you guys home, if that’s alright? That was a pretty nasty fight back there.”

Virgil stayed frozen in place, but Logan started moving toward the car. The grip Virgil still had on his arm pulled him along.

“That would be appreciated,” Logan said stiffly, trying to hide his own shaking hands by taking his backpack from Virgil. “Thank you.”

Patton Havard’s entire body relaxed. His usual bright grin returned. “Hop on in!”

Logan gingerly pulled open the back door of the small car, expertly hiding a grimace. Patton Havard wouldn’t recognize the minuscule change in expression, but Virgil did. That finally spurred Virgil into action.

He helped Logan climb into the car and across the back seat, sliding in next to him. He wanted to buckle Logan’s seatbelt for him, but he knew babying Logan in front of another person would end in an argument later. He settled for buckling his own seatbelt and reaching into his pocket to rub his worry stone.

This was the worst beating either of them had received in a while. It was doing Virgil’s anxiety no favors.

Logan rattled off his address as Patton Havard directed the car back into traffic. Their chauffeur began rambling.

“I am so glad I managed to catch you two, I was so worried. That was such a nasty fight, I couldn’t just let you two take the bus after that, the buses take so long! Oh, should we go to a doctor? Oh dear, I don’t know how bad it is, are you guys okay? Do you need me to call someone? Oh, I’m so glad he let me borrow his car-”

Logan interrupted, probably wanting Patton Havard to focus on one topic than speaking randomly.

“I did not know you could drive. If this car is not yours, then to whom does it belong?”

Their driver laughed. “Oh no, we could never afford a second car! This is Roman’s! He let me borrow it to drive you two home while he tries to get Barton suspended.”

Roman Prince was trying to help them ? He taunted them just the same as everyone else! Why would he care? Virgil pressed his thumb into his worry stone a bit harder, rubbing back and forth, back and forth.

Apparently, Logan was having a very similar train of thought. “I’m sorry, he’s trying to do what?”

“Get Steve Barton suspended? Maybe even expelled. He’s been trying to do that for a couple of years, now. I hate talking bad about people, but that guy is just such a bully !”

Virgil raised his eyebrow and scoffed, muttering under his breath. “And Prince isn’t ?”

He watched Patton Havard purse his lips in the rearview mirror. He hadn’t expected him to hear him.

“Roman… He’s done some stuff he really does regret. He hasn’t always been the nicest guy, but he’s trying to get better. It’s not entirely his fault, I don’t think he realizes sometimes, but he’s trying real hard to learn. I think that’s what’s important.”

The car slowed to a stop in front of Logan’s house.

“Thank you for the ride, Patton,” Logan said, already starting to slip out of the car. Virgil slid out after him.

“Of course! Feel better soon! Take tomorrow off if you need, and get those cuts cleaned. See you at school!”

Virgil still didn’t entirely trust the guy, and his status in the school social hierarchy didn’t exactly help, but as he watched Patton Havard refuse to drive off until he saw that they got inside safely, he decided that maybe…

Maybe he could be just Patton .

That thought, however, was drowned out in the whirlwind of anxiety that hit him once he closed the front door. His breaths grew shorter, his hands shook, and his worry stone was no longer helping as much as it normally did.

“Virgil?”

Virgil managed to get in a deep enough breath to focus. He dropped his backpack by the door and made Logan do the same before rushing them into the bathroom. He was suddenly very glad they had arrived home early, nearly an hour earlier than usual. The Boman’s were still at work and as much as he loved them, they would ask questions and he couldn’t handle that right now.

Virgil sat Logan on the toilet seat. Logan tried to stand, but Virgil pushed him back down, giving him a firm look.

“Did you hit your head at all?” He asked, not waiting for an answer and pulling out his phone with shaking hands.

He turned on his phone flashlight and shined it into Logan’s eyes to check for a concussion, just like Logan taught him all those years ago.

“No, but Virgil-”

“Hold still.” He barely recognized his own voice.

Virgil pulled a pack of makeup wipes out of one of the drawers under the sink, wiping Logan’s face with it as carefully as possible, being almost too gentle around his injuries.

He ignored Logan’s eyes boring into him and focused on the makeup wipe. Foundation, dirt, blood -- so much blood, where was it coming from, was Logan okay was he dying --

He had reopened Logan’s split lip, as well as a cut on his forehead he hadn’t even noticed.

Shit , I’m-”

“Virgil, it’s okay. They need to be cleaned up anyway.”

Virgil nodded and turned to dig out the first aid things from under the sink. His hands were trembling so much that he almost couldn’t hold the antiseptic. Logan closed his hands over Virgil’s own, holding them tightly.

“You’re not okay,” he said gently, leaning forward to try and catch Virgil’s gaze.

Virgil ducked his head further. “I’m fine .”

“You very obviously are not.” Logan said, sounding slightly angry, but he released Virgil’s hands anyway.

His hands were steadier now. He could panic later. Right now, Logan needed him.

He carefully wet a cotton ball with the antiseptic, giving Logan an apologetic look as he came closer with it. Logan closed his eyes, resigned to his fate.

He started dabbing gently at Logan’s lip. Logan grimaced, splitting the lip further. Virgil winced with him.

“Sorry.”

Logan shook his head ever so slightly, not enough to dislodge his hand but enough to be noticeable.

After finishing with Logan’s lip, Virgil wet a fresh cotton ball with antiseptic and moved to dab at the cut on Logan’s forehead.

“I thought you said you didn’t hit your head.”

“I didn’t. Someone else did.”

Virgil fought down the smile that wanted to rise. His hands became a bit steadier. “Fucking smart ass.”

Logan chuckled.

“Really, what happened.”

“That, uh, that was from the second guy’s ring.”

Virgil’s hand paused. “There was another one?” He asked, trying to keep his voice level.

Logan sighed, shoulders slumping, the last of the persona he put up in public slipping away. He looked so broken like this, and it tore at Virgil’s heart.

The wonderfully rare sight of Logan’s freckles marred by the presence of cuts and the beginnings of a black eye causing the green of his eyes to dull. His exhausted expression, the tiredness creeping into his eyes. The bruises leading up both his arms, a torn left sleeve.

Virgil had failed to protect him.

“Yeah, but the one you beat up pushed him away, said it was his fight, so -- Virgil? You okay?”

No, he was very much not. Not only had he failed to protect Logan from not one, but two attackers, it was finally sinking in that there were going to be repercussions for him joining the fight. The anxiety attack he’d been pushing down since he’d walked out of the school gates was crawling up his throat and choking him. Consuming him.

Sure, the school probably wouldn’t do anything about the fight so he was safe in the regard, but the students were sure as hell going to do something. The populars were going to crucify him. It had been worth it to help Logan, but maybe he went too far.

This always happened after a bad fight. Whenever they fought back, all non-physical bullying got worse. The taunting, the name-calling, the mind games and emotional fuckery. That was why Logan almost never threw a punch. He didn’t want to drag Virgil into it.

But now Virgil had dragged Logan into it.

He was so stupid! Sure, one of them getting bullied didn’t necessarily mean the other would, but their bullying was so often linked. They were all the other had, and the other kids had picked up on that, and they would use it against them. They were a package deal, everyone knew that.

Just because Virgil had some stupid fucking co-dependency issues --

Logan’s hands were cold on the feverish skin of his face. His thumbs brushed away tears that Virgil hadn’t even realized he’d been crying. Logan was talking and, while he couldn’t entirely make out what he was saying, Virgil could tell that Logan was counting for his breathing.

After a few minutes, Virgil finally had himself back under control. He pulled back from Logan and scrubbed at his own face. His hands came away smudged with makeup.

“Shit,” he sniffled.

Logan grabbed the makeup wipes from the counter and pulled one from the package. He gently took Virgil’s hands and scrubbed the makeup from them.

Once they were clean, Virgil grabbed a wipe himself and began viciously scrubbing at his face to let out some of his remaining pent-up nervous energy. Logan carefully stopped him and took the makeup wipe, cleaning Virgil’s face with a softness Virgil couldn’t possess for himself.

He looked up to make it easier for Logan, only to find Logan blinking too rapidly for it to be natural.

“Look at us,” Virgil said with a humorless smile. “Can’t even clean ourselves up without breaking down. Fucking messes.”

Logan matched his smile for a moment, but it quickly fell. His hand dropped, having cleaned away the last of Virgil’s makeup. Virgil went back to cleaning Logan’s cuts.

“Probably shouldn’t wear any makeup for a few days,” Virgil tried. “These don’t look good.”

Logan gave him an unimpressed look.

“Showing your freckles for a day or two won’t kill you,” Virgil muttered sourly.

Logan grumbled something about makeup and freckles that Virgil didn’t catch, but he let the subject drop. He knew Logan wasn’t going to leave the house without covering his freckles.

“Wanna take a nap?” Logan asked and Virgil jerked back in surprise.

He raised an eyebrow and lowered his hand to inspect the cuts. “ You want to nap?” He asked suspiciously, narrowing his eyes at the cut on Logan’s lip as it beaded with blood again.

Logan sighed deeply and slouched even further, resting his elbows on his knees and rubbing his face. Virgil grimaced at the blood smear on his cheek when his hands came away.

“I’m fucking tired.”

“Okay,” Virgil said softly.

He cleaned up the blood and bandaged Logan’s face before packing away the first aid materials once more. They made their way to Logan’s room, where Logan promptly slumped down to sit on the edge of his bed. Virgil carefully sat down next to him.

“This bothered you more than you’re letting on,” Virgil said quietly. “Didn’t it?”

Logan heaved a huge sigh and flopped backward on his bed, swinging his legs a little where they hung. “ Feelings ,” he spat out.

“Yup.” Virgil flopped back next to him. “Unfortunately we all got ‘em. Helps a bit if you talk about it.”

“Eugh.”

Virgil snorted. “Just paraphrasing you, Nerd.”

Logan was silent for a few moments. “Their verbal taunts were a bit more… vicious than usual.”

Virgil resisted the urge to turn towards Logan. He knew it was easier to talk without eyes on you. He stayed silent, letting him speak in his own time.

“It wasn’t the usual name-calling. Well, some of it was, but I’m used to robot and android and other petty nicknames about myself.”

Logan’s fingers twitched. Virgil subtly offered his hand. They could both be awkward and uncertain when it came to physical affection, at times, but if Logan needed it --

A hand wrapped tightly around his own. Virgil gently wrapped his own fingers around Logan’s.

“They insulted my family. My future. You. Probably hoping that if they threw enough taunts with enough bite I’d finally fight back and then they could pin the whole fight on me.”

“Logan-”

“It was quite stupid of me to allow myself to listen to them, I know. Their words mean nothing, in the scheme of things. It’s truly my own fault-”

“Fucking horseshit.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You can’t blame yourself for the shit they said!” Virgil sat up and glared at Logan. “You’re allowed to feel things. You’re allowed to feel hurt by words meant to sting.”

“Doesn’t that mean they won?” Logan snarked. He was using Virgil’s own words against him, the words he so often used to beat himself up.

“No.” Virgil said firmly. “It means they’ve lost because they’re attacking one of the only good people left in that shithole of a school.”

Logan snorted. “Of course,” he said sarcastically.

Virgil dropped the issue, laying back down next to Logan.

Minutes later, the front door opened and shut. There was a moment of silence, then:

“Boys?” Mrs. Boman called.

“Here,” Logan called back with a sigh, dropping Virgil’s hand.

Logan was tensing up. There was no way to hide what had happened to him.

Mrs. Boman opened the door with a smile. One that immediately fell when she saw her son.

“Blueberry, what happened?” Her hands started fluttering around his face, wanting to touch but not knowing if she would hurt him if she did.

Logan’s mouth twisted a bit in discomfort. “I’m fine.”

Mrs. Boman sighed and kneeled down, dropping one hand back to her side and cupping Logan’s cheek gently with the other. “I know neither of you want to, but we should really go to the administration about this bullying --”

“We have attempted to do so for years, and they continue to do nothing. This time would be no different.”

Mrs. Boman huffed, a determined expression very similar to Logan’s crossing her face. “They haven’t gone through me yet --”

“Mom, please,” Logan interrupted. “Not only will it be ineffective, but it would get Virgil’s shit father -- I mean, stepfather involved. Since much of our bullying is shared, and he is not yet an adult, there’s no way around it.”

Mrs. Boman gave Logan a wry smile at his “slip-up” before sighing. “I suppose you’re right. We don’t want the Beste’s involved.”

She turned to Virgil, moving her hand from Logan’s cheek to comb through his hair, pushing it out of his face. “What about you, Blackberry? Did they get you, too?”

Virgil shook his head, though was careful not to dislodge her hand. “Kneed the asshat in the face, so I might get a bruise from how thick-headed he is, but I’m fine.”

She gave him a look that meant she knew that wasn’t entirely true, but she thankfully dropped it. She gave one last scratch at the short hairs at the base of his neck before standing up again.

“You’re father’s on his way home now. I’m gonna call him and have him make a quick grocery run.”

Logan and Virgil made brief eye contact with each other before turning back to Mrs. Boman with knowing looks.

“Breakfast for dinner,” she said with a smile, winking at the looks they were giving her.

It was a tradition that had started long ago, all the way back to when Virgil’s mom was still alive and Damien wasn’t in the picture. Virgil had come home with a skinned knee and a sniffling Logan at his side. He’d been pushed off the jungle gym at school and, when Logan had come to help, the bullies had called him names until he cried.

While Virgil’s mom patched them up, she had made a call to Mrs. Boman to explain the situation. During the conversation, Logan and Virgil had tugged on her shirt to get her attention and asked if they could have breakfast for dinner that night (because what kid didn’t adore having breakfast for dinner?).

Then, the next instance of bullying, they had asked again. And again the time after that, and again, until they didn’t even have to ask anymore. They would come home, beat up and upset, and one of three parents would be sent to the store for ingredients. Even after all these years, the tradition had stuck.

And Virgil was quite glad he didn’t have to ask anymore, because he probably wouldn’t , if he was honest. Not only had his anxiety only worsened with age (especially after his mother’s death), but it felt childish. He had an image to maintain. Even in front of the Boman’s, it seemed.

It made him feel a little guilty.

“And Virgil?” She said, making him look up. “Don’t think you’re getting out of staying for dinner.” She smiled.

“Thanks, Mrs. Boman,” he said.

She shook her head like she always did, but made no move to tell him to not be so formal, not like she used to. The Boman’s had given up on trying to correct him long ago, though they still expressed their distaste with him addressing them so formally.

She still smiled warmly at him, though. “Of course, Blackberry.”

He quirked one corner of his mouth up, a pathetic attempt at a smile, as she left, shutting the door behind her.

Logan heaved a sigh before standing. “Better get some work done, then,” he said.

Virgil snorted. “What happened to your nap?”

Logan gave him a wry smile. “I think we both know neither of us was gonna sleep.”

Virgil shrugged and stood as well. “You’re not wrong.”

They went and grabbed their backpacks from where they’d been carelessly tossed in the living room and once again retreated to Logan’s bedroom.

Logan sat at his desk and began working on one of their AP Government essays, while Virgil sat on the floor (Logan had offered the other half of his desk, but Virgil had refused) and began trying to muddle through his Pre-Calculus.

As usual, they worked for hours without pause. They needed to keep their grades strong. They didn’t allow distractions, ignoring the sounds of Mr. Boman arriving home, as well as the delicious smells of dinner cooking.

Logan worked much more efficiently than Virgil. He was focused on college, on his future. Virgil only kept his grades up for Logan. It’s not like he had the money for college, and with his reputation, it’s not like he’d get many scholarships.

Logan was going places. Virgil was only pretending that he was for Logan’s sake It’s not like Virgil was the only one in the room with codependency issues.

“Virgil?” Logan’s voice made him startle.

He looked up. “Yeah?”

“Do you need any help? You’ve been staring at that page for a while.”

“What? Oh, no. Just zoned out.”

Logan opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by a knock at the door.

“Yes?” Logan called.

Mr. Boman popped his head into the room. “Hey, kids, dinner’s ready.”

“We will be out momentarily, thank you. And we are not children anymore.”

Mr. Boman laughed. “You’ll always be kids to us. Now, kick those smart butts of yours into gear and come get your food before it gets cold.”

Unlike Mrs. Boman, he left the door open when he left. Probably to encourage them to come out sooner.

“We should go before they decide we’ve taken too long and come back to get us.”

Virgil hummed in response.

Logan made his way out of the room swiftly, marking his place in his English book and taking it with him.

Virgil sighed, rubbing at the pang in his chest. A drop was coming, he could feel it. He stood slowly and made his way into the kitchen and dining room.

Logan was already seated at the table when he came out, reading again. His parents sent him looks of fond exasperation.

“You’re already ahead of the class,” Virgil snarked. “At least put it down to eat.”

Logan rolled his eyes. “You’re not my mother,” he snarked back, but set the book aside nonetheless.

Mrs. Boman rolled her eyes as well. “Of course you don’t listen to your actual mother.”

Logan smirked. Virgil quirked his lips.

“It’s like you think my ‘rebellious punk phase’ ever truly ended,” Logan said, beginning to place food on his plate.

“Oh, we know it never did,” Mr. Boman laughed as he and Mrs. Boman began piling their own plates high with breakfast.

Logan and his father continued to fondly snark at each other, but Virgil tuned them out. He took very little food, not wanting to be greedy or eat so much that someone else couldn’t get more --

“Eat, Blackberry,” Mrs. Boman commanded. She turned to Logan. “Feed him.”

Logan snorted at his mother’s request, but began piling more food on Virgil’s plate anyway. “There is plenty of food, Virgil,” he said, somehow magically pinpointing the source of Virgil’s anxieties as usual. “We’re not going to run out just because you chose to eat a healthy amount. Dad cooks enough for a small army.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Virgil said, giving the family a small, grateful smile. “Maybe I’m trying to watch my figure,” he joked.

“What figure,” Mr. Boman teased. “You’re a stick.”

“Yeah,” Virgil said, fighting back a smile. “A stick figure.”

Mrs. Boman burst out laughing while Mr. Boman choked on the bite he’d just taken. Even Logan covered his mouth to hide a grin. Virgil allowed himself a small smile.

“I hate you,” Logan muttered from behind his hand. “So much.”

Virgil could hear the laughter in his voice, as hard as he was trying to hold it back. It made him smile a little wider.

Logan could claim to hate puns all the wanted. Virgil knew the truth.

The rest of dinner passed normally. Logan and his father trading jabs back and forth (and Virgil occasionally trading his own) while Mrs. Boman watched on fondly. She also kept piling more and more food on Virgil and Logan’s plates, enticing Logan with a new flavor of Crofter’s jam to get him to eat more.

The Boman’s were good to him. Probably too good, if he was being honest. Their kindness toward him went above and beyond anything he ever expected. He’d probably never be able to repay them. They’d practically raised him after his mother had passed, trying so hard to protect him from Damien.

They were his family, which often led to him feeling guilty that he kept so much from them. It wasn’t their fault, he just had trouble trusting anyone anymore.

At the end of the night, Mrs. Boman piled his arms high with leftovers (“See, Virgil? I told you there was enough food.” “Shut up, nerd.”) and insisted on driving him home despite the fact that it wasn’t even dark yet.

He couldn’t stop himself from breathing a sigh of relief to find not only the twin’s cars missing, but also Damien’s.

“Thank you, Mrs. Boman,” Virgil said, trying to put as much sincerity into the words as he could. He didn’t just mean dinner.

She met his gaze and rested her palm on his cheek. “You’re welcome, Virgil. Anytime.” She understood.

She put a bit more pressure into the touch and glanced between his eyes. She smiled at him sadly. “I love you, Blackberry.”

Virgil’s eyes watered. She drew her hand back slowly and spoke again, saving him from having to answer.

“Now, run inside and hide those leftovers before the Beasts return home.”

Virgil furrowed his brow, still trying to recover from her earlier statement. “You mean the Beste’s?”

Mrs. Boman winked with an amused grin. “Get some good rest tonight, Blackberry.”

“You too, Mrs. Boman.”

Virgil rushed inside and shoved his leftovers in the very back of the refrigerator, where Damien and his kids wouldn’t think to look.

Especially since none of them cooked and were “too good” for leftovers. The family was disgustingly wasteful.

Virgil then quickly ran downstairs to get started on the homework he hadn’t finished at Logan’s. He worked quickly and efficiently, Panic! At the Disco blasting through his earbuds to help him focus.

He ignored all sounds coming from upstairs. He could hear his step-family get home one by one, even through his earbuds (how in the hell did they manage to be so loud?), tensing every time and trying to work through it.

Eventually, he heard them all settle down for the night. Again, one by one and very loudly (or perhaps Virgil was just too attuned to their movements, after years of torment). He continued working.

He continued until blinking became too hard and sighed in defeat. At least the rest of the assignments he was currently working on weren’t due until next week.

Checking the time, he actually dared to groan out loud.

It was two in the morning, and he had to be up by five.

So Virgil unceremoniously shoved all his school supplies off his bed and flopped down, still in his clothes. It wasn’t worth bothering to get changed.

Well… Virgil grunted as he shoved his jeans off and kicked them onto the floor, now left only in his t-shirt, boxers, and hoodie. That would have to do.

Virgil grabbed his scratchy, threadbare sheets and wrapped them as tightly around himself as he could, trying to gain any warmth from them. He wasn’t very successful.

He tried to breathe calmly for a few minutes.

It would be okay, he told himself.

He would meet Logan on the bus. They’d grab coffee from The Insomniac and hole up in Beach’s together. He would get a hilariously angry note and create another doodle. He and Logan would brave the students together, then he could run off to The Insomniac for his shift and let Maisey dote on him.

But he couldn’t convince himself it would truly be okay.

As Virgil shivered in his sheets and prayed for his mother’s miraculous return, he wondered if he would ever truly be okay again.