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Home is When I'm With You

Chapter Text

Max was relieved when he finally reached the Millers’ house.

It was still sunny and warm even though summer break had already ended. Max had immediately regretted wearing dark pants and a jacket out of the house, but he’d be damned if anyone but his friends or boyfriend saw him in his shorts. (It also had to do with the fact that he couldn’t be normal and have cargo shorts or something, but that’s a story for another time.)

He was wearing a dark pair of jeans with a couple of holes and his signature blue jacket (though he had upgraded his style with a couple of sew on patches) with a black t-shirt underneath. His hair was messy as ever. And he had a singular black fingerless glove, which was the new addition to his aesthetic.

It was times like these that Max regretted that he in some way cared about the way he looked. Otherwise, he would have walked naked to the Millers’ house.

It had no business being 90 degrees while it was so close to fall.

If he could have drove, he would have, but his shitty parents wanted nothing to do with him and he didn’t have money to buy his own car. So Max had to hitch a ride on the bus, who’s stop was over a mile away from the Millers’.

Max was pissed that he was once again, the straggler. Everyone was already there. Even Harrison, whose parents refused to be in car with him unless absolutely necessary had gotten there before him somehow. Nerris’ parents had probably given him a ride, or maybe Nurf did.

Max took a deep breath and sighed. There was no point in being pissed at the shitty hand life had dealt him. He was here and soon he’d be able to relax completely with the people he cared for.

The Millers, as CIA or FBI or whatever agents were obviously pretty well off and able to own a home in a good neighborhood. Max knew personally there were 5 bedrooms in the house, a spacey basement with a theater room, and deluxe kitchen.

Ered had it good, though she hadn’t really lived at home for 2 years or so. She had left to go board at her school after she had graduated high school. She had been back a couple of times, especially when she had dropped out of her first college semester.

That was a tough time for Ered, though she luckily had amazing and caring parents who supported her while she figured out her life. A couple of months later and she was off to an Automotive Technology school. And even though Ered wouldn’t be home until the winter holidays, the two agents let her friends come over and hang out since they had the space.

Max rang the doorbell, which was answered by one of Ered’s dads. It was Steve, the darker one. (The men allowed them to use their first names because of the confusion with their names.)

“Hey, Mr. Steve.”

“Hello, Max. Everyone’s downstairs. And there’s snacks up here if you want anything.”

Max toed off his shoes and neatly laid them beside the eight other pairs of shoes lined up in a row along the wall beside the front door. “Thanks, Mr. Steve.”

The man merely nodded before walking in the direction of the living room.

Max made his way to the basement without extra prompting. He had been over their house enough to know where everything was. As he opened the door to the basement and began to traverse down the stairs, the sound of laughter reached his ears. In the dark, by himself, he let a uncharacteristically soft smile grace his face. He’d probably never tell them in such sappy words, but he loved them.

Every single one of the kids who had gone to Camp Campbell with him had become his family. And may whatever god people believed in save them if they decided to fuck with his family. He finally had one. There was no way he was going to allow anything to keep him away from them.

He rounded the corner on the stairway to see everyone in the main room.

Nerris, Nikki, and Neil were on the big screen tv. They were playing some video game and barking commands at each other between curses. It seems they were being beat. Max could see Dolph lounging on a couch alternating between gazing at his phone or the game. Nurf and Harrison were on the other side of the room, playing Foosball. Though Nurf was the actual football player, it seemed the small magician with adept hands was beating him out. Space Kid was standing on the sidelines, cheering for both of them. And sitting in the recliner Max had claimed ages ago, was his boyfriend.

Max had to had to seriously resist the natural urge of his face to soften as he gazed at the most important person in the world to him. Never in a million years had Max thought that he would actually date the Playwright, but he couldn’t have asked for a better person to hold his heart in their hands.

His boy had done a lot of growing since their year at Camp Camp. He was still taller than Max; almost by a whole head. He was as skinny as ever which is what dubbed him the nickname beanpole. And he had kept his hair long, though he was wearing it pulled back in a small messy bun.

Max walked his way over to his boy, a smirk across his face. He watched as Preston’s eyes lit up and he sat up in the chair. “And just where do you think you’re sitting? Unless I was mistaken, that’s my seat, Goodplay.”

Preston levelled his with his own smug smirk. “No, I believe this is my seat, dear. After all, what’s yours is mine.”

He was sitting there, all gorgeous with his sun-colored eyes half lidded and that satisfied look on his face.

When Max was younger, he was sure that he wanted to punch that look off his face. Now, he really wanted to kiss him. But he refrained, as they were in company of literally everyone else (yeah, no, not because Max was nervous and had never kissed anyone before, never).

Instead, Max reached under the taller boy, picked him up, and deposited him elsewhere and plopped his own behind into his chair. He was just about to gloat when instead, his boy sat down on his lap.

“Just what do you think you’re doing, Goodplay?” Max asked, though he made no effort to move the boy now.

Preston gazed down at him. He made a big show out of getting more comfortable. “Just making use of what’s mine, Johar. You are pretty soft.”

Max narrowed his eyes and jabbed his boyfriend in the side. “You take that back!”

Preston, the bastard, only laughed.

Max leaned back and relaxed in the chair and took in the scene around him.

After Camp Campbell had shut down, he had never imagined that he’d see any of these kids again. But, when they transferred into middle school, it was soon discovered that they all lived in the same county.

They had all come a long way from their time 7 years ago. If you had looked at them now, you would have never guessed they would all consider themselves friends. Other than going through puberty, (which Max considers a blessing despite his boyfriend assuring him he was a cute little kid), they had all done some personal growing. Some of them you may not even recognize.

Nurf, in addition to being some important football player (Max didn’t do physical activity unless it was Yoga or Just Dance - which he would beat every kid at), had joined the choir at school. His mom had been released from jail years ago and had gotten him involved in some church group. Nurf wasn’t incredibly religious, but he enjoyed the ambience, he said. Nobody judged him. He was still big and buff. Though he rarely lost his temper nowadays.

Dolph was muscular as well, though nowhere near as dense as Nurf was. He was an amazing soccer player had joined the JROTC at his school. It was his second year and he was the highest ranking officer of the LET II’s. He had confessed that he was debating upon joining the US Army when he graduated.

If not, he wanted to move to Germany. Even after all these years, his love for his country hadn’t diminished. His father was forever exasperated, but Dolph had been born in Germany. It was as much his country as the US was. He spent every summer there, but sometimes his friends would notice he was homesick. His skills at art had only grown. If he moved to Germany, Dolph was hoping to go to an art college there and make some sort of career out of it. HIs high school had even appointed him in charge of the school’s mural last year.

Nerris had grown quite a bit themselves. They were still into roleplay and things like cosplay, but they usually dressed normally on most days. They had come out to the group two years ago about how they didn’t feel as if they were male or female and how they liked to dress however. Some days Nerris would dress up in a smart suit with a tie and wear cologne. Other days, you could catch them wearing a dress, with bows in their hair, and sparkly makeup. It just depended on their mood.

Their confession hadn’t really been news to the group. There was no place for any of them to judge whatever made the kid comfortable. Max cussed at least once every five minutes and Nurf used to stab whatever made him angry. Everyone just respected Nerris and their pronouns.

Nerris was actually the kid Max frequently went to for fashion advice. His own tastes could be a little… Unorthodox. And Nerris happened to be one of those kids who could pull off any look they wanted to.

They were currently wearing an oversized sweater and leggings. Neil and Nikki were on either side of them.

The “comedy trio” didn’t end up going to school together, but they had never truly grown apart.

Neil was still the smart nerd. He got straight A’s and was in several advanced (even college level) classes. He was aiming for Valedictorian next year. His hair was still as curly and poofy as ever. He had dubbed it as the “jewfro”. He had ditched the turtlenecks (those were more Preston’s thing now) and instead wore those short sleeved button up shirts with weird designs. His favorite was a black on with little neon colored dinosaurs. Though today he was wearing a floral one. He lived with his dad on the weekends, but always made sure he was promptly returned to his mother. He didn’t hate his dad anymore, but he complained a lot about the man being too much because he was trying to “make up for lost time”.

Nikki had embraced her feminine side, though she was still “tomboy”-ish. She had joined the cheerleading team, and wore her uniform proudly. But she was also on the school’s girl soccer team and volleyball team. She had ditched the two ponytails and usually wore her hair out or in complicated braids that she herself couldn’t do. That was the advantage of having Neil as your best friend and step-brother to be. (Yes, Candy and Carl were engaged. Yes, their wedding would be soon. Yes, the two had already been like siblings so long that they dressed in front of each other and it wasn’t awkward.) Neil had learned to braid his nieces’ hair and whenever he was over, would help Nikki with her own hair. Nikki was still the badass female who would use her high kicks to fuck your ass up.

Harrison kept his mushroom/mullet-thing haircut. But he cut it a couple inches shorter. (You know so that his forehead was actually visible and the mullet no longer existed.) He was thin and lithe. He had a less muscle-y body type; his waist actually pulled in a bit, which he accentuated well (though unknowingly) with his waistcoats. He usually wore slacks and dress shoes, though if you caught him on more casual days, he may wear skinny jeans and a sweater over a dress shirt. He had given up with wearing the top hats (even the mini ones) though if he was really feeling himself, he may wear a fedora. He kept the white gloves on his hands unless he was alone with the Camp Camp kids.

They used to ask him why until he ripped his glove and they’d been burned where they touched Harrison’s skin. The boy had been distressed for days over what happened and had locked himself in his house. Neil had been the one to convince him to come back. He had shown them many wonderful and half-terrifying things. Max would have had issues believing these feats were real if not for the time he threw up live animals at camp.

Harrison could conjure the elements on demand. Sometimes things levitated. However, sometimes he had issues controlling his abilities. One time, it snowed in July because Harrison was ignoring Neil after he said something insensitive. He took giving the “cold shoulder” to a whole new level. Other times, he couldn’t touch people or he’d burn or shock them, though this was usually limited to when he was angry. He came in pretty handy when they forgot flashlights or lighters.

His parents were still afraid of him, to an extent. They had been bolder with their words in the last couple years, specifically his mother. He never told the kids how bad things ever got, but if Max’s hunch was right, he’d have a visit to make.

Space Kid was almost as naive and gullible as ever. Though that just made the group do their best to make sure no one harmed him. He was still interested in the stars and space, though he wasn’t sure about being an astronaut anymore. He had his own telescope that he used almost every night.

His parents had actually signed his papers to allow him to get a tattoo as a minor. It was, of course, space themed. On his forearm, was a little portal into the cosmos with galaxy and pastel colors swirled together.

He was one of those kids you could find on tumblr talking in quotes about the universe and the stars and the moon. But again, no one made any serious fun of him. Who were they to judge a kid’s way of coping with the shitty world?

He obviously didn’t go around with a fishbowl on his head anymore. He instead wore comfortable jeans and t-shirts. Sometimes to spice up his look, he’d wear skinny jeans and sleeveless shirts. Nikki would tease him that he looked like a tiny fuck boy (he and Max were the same small height of 5’3”), but the boy would just wave them off because his little shirts had positive sayings or drawings of the moon or something.

Max tugged lightly at the hairs at the base of his boy’s neck who hummed at the feeling.

This is where he wanted to be more than any place in the world. More than his shitty house. More than school. More than Canada or some other country. He wanted to be right here, surrounded by the familiarity and camaraderie of his family.

He wanted to be where Nikki and Neil squabbled over who was supposed get the upgrade this time on their game. He wanted to be where Nurf looped an arm around Harrison’s shoulders only to give him an affectionate noogie. He wanted to be where Space Kid smiled as bright as the sun. He wanted to be where Dolph shouted encouragement about “beating the opposition”. He wanted to be where Nerris clucked their tongue at everyone’s antics as they saved their asses by annihilating everyone with a special move. He wanted to be where his boyfriend was a warm presence in his lap, head tucked on top of his.

He was suddenly very grateful he had taken the bus to the Millers’ today.

He would do anything for these kids. He would die for these kids. He would kill for these kids.

They weren’t the family he was given. They weren’t the family he had expected, or maybe even wanted. But he had them now. And anyone that tried to get in between their happiness would have to answer to him.

“So guys, how’s hell on Earth been?”

Groans all around.

”Maaaaaaaaaax, it’s so terrible! I can’t stand these kids, they’re so-”

Chapter Text

It was a Friday night. The night before Homecoming.

The Homecoming football game was held at Thomas Nelson High.

It was the home game for Nurf. Even though he was the only one of the Camp Camp kids who played football, everyone had shown up in support for him. Neil, Max, and Preston sat on their school’s side. On the other side, was Nerris, Harrison, Dolph, and Space Kid.

Thomas Nelson High and Eddison High were rivals, so Nikki, as an Eddison cheerleader, had to cheer for the opposing team. Max wasn’t really one for sports, but he would always show up to support their friends. And since they were all going to Homecoming the following night, they had decided to just go through with the full experience.


Thomas Nelson won the game 53-42.

Nurf had been the cause for their last goal. He had tackled the runner who had the ball. The ball fell from the runner’s hands into a Thomas Nelson player’s hands who made a run for it and was able to evade everyone and make a goal.

Nurf was being clapped on the back by a couple of his football buddies, when suddenly he was shoved sideways. Nurf stumbled a step or two before righting himself.

It was the boy he had tackled. “What the fuck was that?!”

“What are you talking about?” Nurf asked him.

“We haven’t lost a game in over a year. What the fuck do you think you’re doing? You cost us our streak!” The boy had pulled off his helmet and was glaring at Nurf.

Nurf snorted. “The fuck? I played the game, kid. I did what I was supposed to do. You lost - deal with it.”

The boy got red in the face.

Nurf could quickly see he was getting to his boiling point and internally sighed. He wasn’t looking for any sort of trouble. Honestly, it was only a game! Nurf held his hands up placatingly.

“Hey, look, man. Sorry this didn’t go as you’d have liked, but-”

Nurf wasn’t ready for the punch the other boy landed in his face. He was knocked back a little, and was about to say something else when the boy swung again. It was all Nurf could do to dodge. He knew he was strong.

He could probably break the kid in half if he wanted to. But he had learned from his days at Camp Campbell that sometimes talking with words was better than talking with fists. He could do so much more with his strength like play sports, or help lift things, or defend someone. He didn’t always have to harm.

So Nurf dodged as many of the blows as he could, hoping to tire the boy out.


Max hadn’t immediately noticed when the fight broke out.

Preston had just come back for the bathroom and Max had turned to greet his boyfriend with a soft smile. They talked lowly to each other when suddenly they heard a scream.

Whipping his head around, Max was greeted with the sight of his best friend behind punched hard in the mouth. Max saw red.

“Over a damn game? I’ll kill him!

Max fought against his boyfriend’s hold who desperately tried to keep Max away from the field. If Max got another referral this quarter, the principal would call his parents. That wasn’t an option.

Preston did his best to quell the scorching anger running rampant in his own heart as his eyes narrowed at the errant football player. He was lucky that Preston cared so much about Max, otherwise he’d let hell loose.


Nikki had just finished giving her last cheer of the game.

“That’s alright, that’s okay! Shake it off, shake it off!”

The moment her team captain allowed the cheer team to scatter, Nikki was hustling to her bag. However, she barely moved two feet before she heard a scream of pure rage. She heard the sound of flesh hitting flesh and whirled around.
She was just able to register the flurry of a red and yellow jersey ( her school colors) clad arm crash into the face of one of her friends. Her family.

Ooooo, a bitch was about to die tonight.
Nikki didn’t remember moving, but she must have, because the next thing she knew, she was beside the boy who had the fucking audacity to put their hands on someone who Nikki considered hers. Someone who Nikki cared about.

She roughly seized the front of the scum’s jersey and wrenched him to face her. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!”

The boy’s face went slack when he processed what he was seeing. His lapse allowed Nurf to put distance between them.

Nikki tightened her grip and was going to shake an answer out of him when he was able to jerk away from her.

“Who’s this bitch? What the fuck are you talking about?! Why are you siding with the enemy?!” The boy glanced between the two of them and his face transformed from confused into disgusting expression of self-satisfaction. “Oh, I get it. Does he pipe you good, bitch?”

Somewhere in the back of Nikki’s mind, a part of her was laughing because she couldn’t understand why defending a friend meant that she had to be fucking him, but whatever. But most of her was livid and her blood was boiling with the need to punch this punk in the face.

So she smiled her nastiest smile, baring her sharp pearly teeth. “And if he does?”

The boy momentarily lost his composure, and his expression was one of confusion tinged with the beginnings of fear.

Oh, he’d get what was coming to him. The fool gave her a less firm smirk.

“Why waste such a hot body on this trash? Bet I could fuck you better, baby.”

Nikki laughed so hard she would have keeled over if she didn’t have a fool to possibly maim, if Max would let her. (Though she knew he wouldn’t. “Not in public, Nikki. How will I be able to keep you out of jail when everyone can clearly identify you?” “No, Nikki. If you’re going to maim the person, you might as well just put them out of their fucking misery. Plus, you’ll be leaving a witness to squeal whenever you let your guard down.” “I know of your slightly sadistic tendencies, Nikki. But we’re trying to be discrete here. I am not mopping up blood after you unless we gotta bury a body anyway.” )

“With what dick, kid?” Nikki animatedly looked down towards his crotch.

The boy flushed even more than before. He was as red as a tomato and looked as if steam might soon burst from his ears.

If these were different circumstances, Nikki would have pressed her hand to this boy’s forehead and mocked him about running a fever. But at that moment, Nikki hoped the heat pooling in his face melted his brain.

He seemed unsure of what to do before he launched himself at her, aiming to punch her. She ducked under his arm, twirling behind him. She used his momentum against him and kicked him hard in the back.

The boy flailed, but could not stop himself from landing flat on his face.

Nikki twisted one arm behind him, pushing her knee between his shoulder blades. With her other hand, she pressed his neck into the ground. She leaned her head down low beside his ear. She listened to him struggle to fill his lungs with air.

“You’re lucky I don’t scar up that face of yours, you cunt. Now, unless you want me to actually beat your worthless ass in front of all these people, I suggest you leave. Just think, the football team… Any cheerleaders you might want a piece of. All of them will see what a pussy you are, being beaten by a girl,” she growled.

The boy let out a little whimper before she eased up on his neck the slightest bit.

“Okay! Okay, I’ll leave!” He gasped out.

“Good choice,” she told him.

“Now,” she whispered directly into his ear. “Don’t let me ever catch you touching anything that belongs to me ever again.”

She rubbed his face into the ground for good measure before she let him go. She brushed her hands off, satisfied with her work. She held out her hand to her friend, who took it.

Nurf was going to have a bruise on his face, but otherwise he looked mostly unharmed.

Nurf let her lead them to the bleachers where they knew Max and the other Campers would be. Nikki could feel his hand shaking minutely. She sighed a little, though in fond exasperation.

“You could have beat his ass half-way across the world, you know. He wasn’t that tough, Nurf.”

“I know,” he told her quietly. “But I caused so much pain before… I promised myself that I would only harm another person purposefully if it was to protect something or someone important to me. I still feel angry all the time. I’m afraid that if I start, I won’t be able to stop.”

Nikki squeezed his hand reassuringly. “You should be important to yourself. You are worth defending. And you don’t need to worry about losing control or anything like that. We’re here to help you and protect you, even from yourself. If you go overboard, we'll be right there to support you, Nurf. You’re that important thing to us.”

She felt him grip her hand tighter as well and pointedly made no comment on the slight sniffle she heard.

“Thank you,” she heard him say so softly that the words were almost inaudible.

She smiled, not answering. Her feelings weren’t something she could put into words well enough anyway.

Max watched the proceedings, feeling satisfaction curl in his gut like a sated lion. He would have preferred to deal with the fucker himself, but his initial wish for bloodshed was quenched when he saw the fool’s face smeared in the mud.

Max was sure that if anyone saw him, he’d be wearing his maniacal grin.

His boyfriend would have probably mentioned it if his adorable face wasn’t pressed into Max’s throat. Preston had his arms wrapped firmly around Max’s waist.

Neil was on the other side of Max, snickering quietly even as he wrung his hands. Max huffed a little at his friend who could take pleasure in someone’s pain and humiliation even as he was overtaken by nerves.

Max watched as Nikki and Nurf made their way from the field, and Dolph, Nerris, Harrison, and Space Kid exited the bleachers on the opposite side.

When Nurf finally arrived, Max managed to wriggle out of his boyfriend’s hold and stand up. He put his hand on the side of Nurf’s arm and rubbed it a little, knowing his friend wasn’t in the mood for large shows of affection.

Max kept his voice low but imbued it with all the warmth he felt for his friend. “Gaylord, say the word and that insignificant speck of dirt will be swept off the face of the earth. You are worth ten million of him and I know of your little conviction. But next time, I’m gonna need you to at least trip the bastard up or something. I don’t think I can handle another scene like that before I start cracking skulls.”

Max saw one of the side’s of Nurf’s mouth quirk up.

“Gotcha,” he said simply.

Max smirked back, knowing his message had been received.

By this time, Dolph and the others had arrived.

Space Kid and Nerris poked and prodded Nurf to make sure he was uninjured. Harrison made his way to stand beside Neil and Dolph simply observed.

Concluding that everything was, for the most part, alright, Nerris gave a sigh of relief.

“Alright, so that was really scary and nerve-wracking, guys, and I suddenly feel like I’ve aged at least three decades,” they said. “So can we please do something really low stress tonight. Like let’s just go get ice cream or something.”

Max nodded his approval. “Of course. Everyone, let’s go get some ice cream before we gotta head home.”

And if everyone was a little more clingy and Nurf was the center of attention that night, no one said anything.

Chapter Text

Nothing was out of the ordinary so far.

Max was doing independent work in his language arts class, reading and annotating a text so that he could answer the questions that went with it. On his desk, facedown, his phone vibrated.

That wasn’t terribly unusual. Sometimes the kids texted him to complain about school. Other times, they may be sending him posts on instagram or snapchat. Max resolved to finish the text before he looked at his phone. The teacher didn’t always mind kids being on their phones, but Max wanted to keep his grade in this class high.

His phone vibrated again.

He glanced at it, but continued to highlight the passage. “And with that, the King sent his-”

Again.

Max irritably capped his highlighter and flipped over his phone. He could feel the moment his heart skipped a beat.

From Magic Boy
*Hey, Max. Nerris just got sent to the nurse’s office. They won’t let me out of class to see them.

From Magic Boy
*Some kid punched Nerris a couple of times. I think their face is gonna bruise.

From Magic Boy
*The guy threatened that if Nerris didn’t act like a girl like they’re “supposed to”, then he’ll beat them up again.

Max shoved himself out of his seat quick. The legs of the chair scraping on the tile floors startled the others in the room. Max was already shoving everything in his bag.

Max texted Harrison back, fingers moving quickly.

To Magic Boy
*Text me when you find out more. I’m omw.

“Maxwell?” The teacher asked, concerned.

Max was striding towards the door now, with purpose. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Emergency. I’ll turn in my work next class.”

The teacher stood, “Maxwell, you can’t just-”.

Max didn’t turn around.

“I am.”

He was on his way to Nurf’s classroom. He was going to take his keys and drive to Nerris’ school. However, if Nurf wanted to tag along, Max had no objections.

The halls were empty thankfully, so that Max didn’t have to explain why he was out of class. But even if a teacher had tried to talked to him, he wouldn’t have stopped. Someone had fucked with one of his kids and they would pay for it.

Finally reaching Nurf’s class, Max wrenched the door open. At the abrupt sound, every eye in the class was focused on him.

“Nurfington, keys. It’s an emergency.”

Nurf’s eyes narrowed and Max could tell he was debating on whether he was coming along or not. He jerked his head in a gesture of “come on”, making the decision for him. Then he left the classroom, not bothering to look back. Nurf was coming and he had no time to waste.

To his credit, Nurf didn’t ask any questions until they got into the pick-up truck and had started it.

“Where to?”

“Eddison,” Max said sharply. He wasn’t going to relax until he saw his friend and then castrated the fucker who thought they could lay hands on someone that belonged to him.

When Max had reigned in his temper enough to speak, although in clipped sentences, he explained the full situation to Nurf. He could hear his friend’s hands tighten around the steering wheel.

He smirked bitterly. He wasn’t going to be the only one out for blood.


Max and Nurf strode into the school with no concern as to whether they’d be allowed in. They walked into the main office, only stopping to ask the flustered secretaries where the principal’s office was.

When they reached the principal’s office, Max threw open the door.

“What the fuck is going on here?”

Everyone’s eyes immediately snapped to his.

Nerris’ parents were already there, sitting before the principal’s desk with Nerris sitting beside them. The three of them had to turn in their seats to be able to see him.

Nurf quietly shut the door, keeping guard of the outside.

Max saw his kid’s face and felt his eyes start to burn with the beginnings of tears. Nerris’ face was going to swell up and spots of their skin were starting to darken where some fool punched them in their face. One of the lenses in their glasses was broken even though the frames were intact.

There was a war raging between the side of him that wanted to gather Nerris in his arms to hold them forever and the side that wanted to murder the dumbass.

“Max,” Nerris breathed his name feebly, like a prayer.

Max allowed a moment of weakness as he crossed over to the chair they were seated at. He gently held their face by the chin and tilted it to look at the damage.

“You’re going to be okay, honey,” he said quietly. “This will all fade in a week and as soon as we get it some ice, the swelling will go down.”

Nerris said nothing as they stared up at him.

Max gently let go, before beginning to rip into the principal. “Why the fuck do they not have any ice? Did you not send them to the nurse?”

The principal was a slim little woman who immediately flushed red. “No, there was no time-”

“No time?! But you had time for their parents to arrive?”

That shut the woman’s mouth.

Max let that sink in for a moment. He wanted an answer.

“Who - who are you? You shouldn’t be here and I won’t have you speak to me that way, young man,” the woman said when she had regained her voice.

Max stepped around Nerris’ chair to stand directly in front of the principal’s desk, still letting it separate them. He was truthfully no taller than the mouse of a woman, but Max was an expert at intimidation. He leaned over the desk with blazing eyes and a snarl that made him seem like he loomed.

“I will talk to you however the fuck I want where it concerns my children. Especially when you’ve done a terrible job at keeping them safe. Where the fuck is that shitstain and his asshole parents? Because it seems here that this is awfully one-sided,” Max watched with a sick sense of satisfaction as the woman shrunk in her seat. His anger wasn’t anywhere near sated yet, however.

“Now answer me, lady. What the fuck is going on?”

“You have to admit that the boy was only doing what anyone else would have done!” She finally burst out. “It’s just so unnatural! If she would try to fit in more and act like the girl she actually-”

The woman didn’t have a chance to finish her statement, because the next thing she knew, her desk was flying across the room.

Everyone else in the room flinched.

The woman’s eyes looked as if they might pop right out of her head.

“I dare you to fucking finish that, bitch.” Max’s chest heaved with barely kept at bay rage.

“This child is no more female than I am. And no more male than you are. That’s how they fucking feel and you’re going to shut the fuck up about it. You’re going to respect their fucking identity. Because if you don’t,” he took a menacing step towards the now trembling woman. “I’ll be after your sorry ass next.”

Max cast her one last look of disgust from where he stood over her before turning on his heel.

Nerris and their parents watched him with wide eyes as well.

Max sighed and knelt in front of his friend.

“I’m sorry you guys had to see that,” he said softly, making sure their eyes met. “After this, I need you to take Nerris home, please. Get them some ice for their bruises and make sure they’re comfortable.”

Max knew their parents would have done so anyway, but it made him feel more at ease to know he had given them tasks to do. With his peripheral vision, he could see them nodding. Good.

“Nerris, where is he?”

The kid took a shaky breath before answering. “His name is George Thompson. He’s in room 110. White, blue eyes, brown hair cropped short.”

Max smiled with as least bloodthirst as was possible at that moment. “It’ll be dealt with.”

Nerris nodded.

Max stood from where he was kneeling. He nodded to each of Nerris’ parents who were no longer looking at him with alarm.

Nurf could see Max walking towards the exit from the small window in the middle of the door and opened it accordingly.

The smaller boy turned around one last time to give the principal a cold look. “You’re gonna want to clean up this mess and think about how you could be a less shitty person.”

With that, he marched away.


It had been decided that just barging into a classroom filled with almost 30 other people and proceeding to beat one of them would not be a good idea. So that was why instead of immediately laying into the little cockroach when he sees him, Max is politely knocking on the classroom’s door before opening it.

“Excuse me,” he says timidly, falsely. “I’m looking for George Thompson? The principal wants him.”

The boy who stood from a sea of sniggering idiots looked like the typical jock. He was smaller than a football player though, so maybe he played basketball or ran track or something instead. He gave someone a fistbump on his way out, sporting what he probably thought was a charming smile.

Max fought to keep his face from darkening.

It probably would have been if his knuckles weren’t red from where he’d tried to punch Nerris’ eyes shut.

He forced himself to breathe calmly as the boy sidled up to him.

“I’ve never seen you around before,” George said conversationally.

“I’m in the year below you,” Max replied lowly.

George hummed as they walked side by side, taking in the kid he’d never seen before.

“Well, I guess I’m caught,” the jock laughed.

Max didn’t turn to look at him, but followed his movements with his eyes.

“I hit this little freak who didn’t understand she had a fucking vagina.” The boy tossed his head back with an ugly laugh that made Max want to rip his tongue out. “I wonder if she learned her lesson or if I’ll have to show her more clearly, you know?”

Max suddenly stopped walking and turned to the other boy.

George stopped too, looking at him in a confused way, obviously not understanding what was the hold up.

“Oh, I know,” Max’s smile was vicious as he shoved George into the empty classroom’s doorway.

Nurf, who was lying there in wait the whole time, caught him before spinning and thrusting the boy more harshly onto the ground.

George groaned and tried to get up, but Nurf’s heavy foot landing in the middle of his back stopped that. There was no other sound than George’s harsh breaths and Max’s footsteps as he approached the fallen form.

“You thought you could fuck with someone who was mine?”

“I don’t even know you, man!” The jock burst out.

Max tsked, causing Nurf to add more weight onto his leg.

George grunted.

“Oh, but you’re going to know me very well when we’re done with you, George Thompson.”


It was 20 minutes later when Nurf hauled the shaken boy out into the hallway.

He couldn’t stand.

Max stepped out of the abandoned classroom first and condescendingly patted the boy’s head.

“I’m sure you’ve ‘learned your lesson’, George,” Max mocked cruelly. “I would hate to have to ‘show you more clearly’.”

George shook his head frantically, whimpering pathetically.

Max and Nurf laughed. “Good. Let’s go, Nurfington.”

Together, they left the school.

Just as Max was about to get into Nurf’s car, his phone vibrated in his back pocket. He took it to look at it.

From Ethereal Elf Entity
*My parents said you guys could come over. We’ve got pizza and ice cream.

From Ethereal Elf Entity
*Harrison already said he’d be over after school ends

Now, how could Max say no that?

Chapter Text

As much as Max wanted to see his friend and make sure Nerris was okay, he knew that he couldn’t show up to their house still keyed up from the events of earlier. He texted them that he and Nurf would be over shortly before instructing the boy to take his time when driving.

Max rolled down the windows of the pick up truck, allowing the both of them to enjoy the cool breeze of the October weather.

He created a new group chat excluding Nerris.

To “About the Elf kid” group chat
*In case you guys weren’t informed yet, some asshole decided that Nerris was a fucking punching bag today

To “About the Elf kid” group chat
*The matter’s been dealt with. Nurf and I are on our way to their house.

It wasn’t long before the group chat was filled with texts from everyone clambering to be heard.

From Agent of Chaos
*Wtf??? Why did no one tell me?? I was just in stupid Spanish class

From Romeo
*Good heavens! Is Nerris alright??!

From Dr. Frankenstein
*Has the matter been dealt with permanently though? Because I can make an untraceable poison

From Extreme Sports Barbie
*Wtf do you guys get up to at school? Do I need to come down?

From Agent of Chaos
*I’m fucking serious. Who did it? I probably know them

From Voted Most Adorable
*...I’m with Neil on the poison idea.

From Dr. Frankenstein
*That’s two votes

To “About the Elf kid” group chat
*Nobody’s fucking poisoning anybody

From Dr. Frankenstein
*aww..

To “About the Elf kid” group chat
*yet

From Dr. Frankenstein
*yess!!

From Extreme Sports Barbie
*Is no one concerned about going to jail?

From Agent of Chaos
*no

From Dr. Frankenstein
*I said it was untraceable

From Extreme Sports Barbie
*you right, that’s cool then

From Astrological Disaster
*Responsible-Adult-Ered agrees!

To “About the Elf kid” group chat
*Shut up already. We don’t want to crowd the parents so Nurf, Harrison, and I will hang out with them tonight. You guys make sure to check up on them though. We’ll have a full meeting another day

From Agent of Chaos
*Aye aye captain!

Max smiled a little at the chat before turning his phone screen off. He was beyond grateful for the friends he had and how much they cared about each other, even if he would never say it out loud.

He caught Nurf smirking at him a little and raised an eyebrow back. The older boy just huffed, amused and shrugged before focusing back on the road.

Max’s phone buzzed a couple more times in his lap, but he paid it no mind as he looked out the window.

Everything was going to be alright.


When they got to Nerris’ house in the suburbs, school was only in session for another half hour. Harrison would be by soon riding Nerris’ bus. He had done it enough times anyway.

Nerris’ dad opened the door and let the two in. They had been over enough times to know where the living room was which is where they found Nerris curled up in a blanket on the couch.

Nerris’ mom sat in one of the chairs in an alcove in the corner, reading a book. She glanced when she heard them walk in and gave them a little wave and warm smile.

On the coffee table in between the couch and the large tv, there were two unopened boxes of pizza.

“Nerris,” Max said softly. “Have you eaten anything yet?”

The teen sat up, yawning, and unravelling themselves from their cocoon. “No, I was waiting for you guys.”

Max frowned a little. “You shouldn’t have waited for us to eat. You need the food, plus it probably got cold.”

“Don’t worry about,” Nerris waved their hand dismissively. “I wanted to wait. Plus, pizza’s okay when it’s cold.”

They reached for the boxes, but they were quickly snatched from the coffee table by Max.

“Hey!”

“No it most definitely is not okay,” he sniffed. “I’m going to go heat this up and get you some water.”

“But I wanted soda!”

“You can have soda after water,” Max called over his shoulder. “Be back.”

In the middle of Nerris’ kitchen was a small island with a couple of stools at it. Nerris’ dad occupied one of them, writing in some notebook.

“Hey, Mr. Shawn,” Max greeted politely.

Shawn looked up and smiled at the boy, pausing momentarily. “Hello, Max! Did you need something?”

Max shook his head as he rifled through the cupboards until he found a large plate. “Just heating up some pizza for Nerris.”

He slipped a half of the first box of pizza onto the plate and put it in the microwave. While that was heating up, he puttered around the kitchen, pouring glasses of water and soda.

“Hey, Max,” Shawn said softly. Max turned to face the older man. “I don’t always agree with your methods, or practice them myself… But thank you for taking care of my child.”

Max allowed a tiny smile to grace his face. “Of course. I protect what’s mine.”

Instead of troubling the man, somehow that possessive statement set his mind at ease.


Soon after the first pizza was all heated and the trio was seated in front of the coffee table, Harrison arrived.

Max sighed when he realized he would have to get up again. (He wasn’t sure how the boy did it, but Harrison could pack away half a large pizza by himself.)

When he began to hoist himself from the floor however, Nerris’ mom put a hand on his shoulder and smiled warmly. “I’ll get it, Max. Go ahead and relax.”

Max mirrored the expression and allowed himself to wind down.

His friends were safe, even as Nerris still had to nurse their face with ice, and there were a couple of adults who took responsibility themselves. It was almost a foreign concept to Max, what with his own parents not caring, for lack of a better term. But Becca and Shawn were good parents. They always took care of Nerris, knew what they needed to cure their bad moods, and fully accepted their child’s identity.

He was relieved that Nerris had such wonderful parents like them in their life.


Nerris’ parents usually wouldn’t allow the kids to stay so late on a school night, but they made an exception that time. Nerris wasn’t going to school tomorrow anyway. Their parents were still leery about the bully because the principal hadn’t suspended him or even gave him detention.

Max was fairly positive that the boy would never lay a hand on Nerris again, but he figured Nerris would appreciate the break anyway.

A free day off from school? You better take that deal.

The four friends spent their time joking around and playing games. Harrison and Nerris had played some fighting game on the PS4. They had all played Monopoly on the wii for an extra long time. (Nurf won, by the way.) Max had allowed Nerris to rope them all into a Harry Potter themed version of Clue.

And as it got later, they all began to wind down and talk softly to each other as they all sprawled on the couch.

Nurf had a curfew of 10, courtesy of his released mother and had to extract himself from the doggy pile. “Come on, you guys. I’ve got to drive Harrison home and you know he lives out in the boonies.”

It was true, Harrison’s parents were of the mind that technology was bad for the new generation. They lived out in the woods, secluded as a way to “protect” themselves from “mortal sin”. Harrison was lucky they allowed him into the public school system.

The only reason he had a phone was because Max and Ered had pooled together to buy him one after Nerris told everyone he didn’t have one. Harrison was very sure to keep its existence secret, though it wasn’t very hard when his parents usually avoided him like the plague.

Max and Harrison both got up as well, trying to ignore the sad eyes of Nerris. They were probably still shaken up a bit and needed some company.

“Max, are your parents home today?” Nerris asked as he straightened his clothes.

“Nah,” he replied.

“Then can you stay?”

Max’s hands paused.

Nurf and Harrison turned to them to watch, both wearing amused looks on their face. Max obviously would rather be here than at his cold home alone, but he would never ask himself.

“I mean, there’s no reason I can’t,” he said slowly. “But I don’t want to put your parents out or-”

“Mom!” Nerris threw back their head and called, interrupting the boy.

Becca poked her head around the kitchen doorway. “Yes, Nerris?”

“Nurf and Harrison have to go. But Max’s parents left him alone again. Is it okay if he stays?”

Max withheld a wince when Nerris’ mom turned her worried eyes to him.

“Of course! Have they been gone long, Max? This has to be the fourth time I’ve heard about this, this month!”

“It’s been a, a couple of days,” Max said softly.

“Days?!” Nerris’ mom gasped, scandalized.

Truthfully, Max preferred when they left him home alone over what they’d do if they were there. However, it was true that he’d have somehow feed himself as the cupboards were bare. He learned better than to try grocery shopping for more than a couple of days worth of food. If he were to try to save food to cook later, he’d find that someone had eaten it without sparing him a crumb.

“What kind of parents - Shawn!” Becca called before entering the kitchen again.

They could hear a muffled, “Yes dear?”, before Becca continued loudly.

“Max is staying over tonight! Get out the air mattress! I’ll get the sheets!”


It was some time later, after Nurf and Harrison had left, that Max felt Nerris crawl beside him under the covers.

He was laying on an air mattress on the floor instead of in the guest room because Nerris preferred their friends to be close when they slept over. Usually to do things like this.

The teen reached out for their older friend’s hand, grasping it firmly.

“Thank you,” they whispered.

Max squeezed their hand back. “I would do that and more for you, Nerris.”

It was quiet for a moment. Max almost believed that Nerris was falling asleep.

“I know.”

Chapter Text

Nobody could figure out what was wrong with Harrison that night.

It was another weekend where everyone gathered at Erid’s house (though she was still gone for school).

He had been fine during the day. It was a bright, hot Saturday and everyone had been thankful to be in the cool basement. There were the customary games and gossip sessions. There was always someone who bothered them at school or a parent making some dumb rule thta the kids didn’t agree with. Max would quietly determine whether these were normal issues or if him and his bat needed to make a midnight appearance.

Everything seemed fine until they had started watching the movie late at night. Neil Jr.  (Space Kid) had picked the movie this time. He said he wanted to watch The Bridge of Terabithia because his class was supposed to read the book soon.

Nobody was at all prepared for how emotional the movie was going to be. There were some tears (mostly from Preston and Neil Jr. himself) and some yelling (“That’s fucking bullshit! He just made a fucking friend!”) and some laughs.

However, Harrison grew uncharacteristically quiet as the story progressed. And when it was time to go, he was as pale as a ghost. Everyone had asked him if he was okay, but he just nodded his head like he was afraid his voice wouldn’t work. He didn’t even open up on his ride home with Nurf.

Nurf had decided not to press anymore, but he gave Harrison a hug before he snuck into his house to avoid his parents.

No one expected to find out the cause of his weird behavior, but hours later, early the next morning, Harrison texted everyone in the group chat.

From “Magic Kid”

*Meet me at Excel Christian Academy at 11am.


 

Wherever Harrison was sending them must be a death trap.

Max knew logically that they weren’t far from Harrison’s house and so it must be somewhere habitable. However, he could not ignore that this Christian school was out in the middle of nowhere and seemed more like the perfect location to start a horror movie. They could barely find it using Google Maps!

The group had all come two separate groups, based off of who lived closest to who. Nikki drove Neil (since they  live together on the weekends), Neil Jr., and Nerris. Nurf drove Max, Preston, and Dolph in his pick-up truck.

When they finally arrived at the school, it was a secluded area where you could not even see the school behind the trees.

The only indicator that they were in the right place was the large, colorful sign with crosses all over it. “Welcome to Excel Christian Academy!” In smaller print was printed the quote, “the lord only saves those who wish to save themselves”.

Max had the idea that this school was not a place that Harrison had many happy memories of.

The group pulled into the school’s entrance and was surprised to find that the “academy” was actually a large house and not a building. The house had two stories and was as big as Erid’s with a porch and big windows.

Sitting on the porch steps was Harrison, dressed in a plain hoodie and jeans.

They parked in two of the limited parking spaces and went to greet him.

Harrison stood as everyone approached them, with a small strained smile. “Hi guys. I’m sorry to call you out like this but I have something I need to show you.”

Max laid a hand on Harrison’s shoulder and gave it a comforting squeeze. “You don’t have to explain yourself.”

Harrison looked into his face for a moment, but then gave a sharp nod. He took a moment to gaze at everyone else as well before beginning to lead them into the forest behind the school.

It was silent for a time except for the sound of leaves and twigs crunching underfoot.

“When I was a kid, I went to that academy. Pretty much everyone at our church goes there for elementary and middle school. It’s almost like your regular christian school except the teachers are allowed to use corporal punishment. I would get in trouble for the smallest thing and the teachers would hit my hands with the ruler so much that they would swell.”

Harrison said all of this in a quiet, monotone voice. Max could see the boy’s hands clench into fists.

No one dared to interrupt him as he took a deep breath.

“My parents spread all these horrible stories about me and all of the teachers, whether they taught me or not, knew who I was. There was nowhere to hide in that house. When my brother went missing… Everyone knew I was to blame.

“They started finding excuses to spank me more often. I was sent to the principal’s office almost everyday. After my first day of behind spanked in front of my class of three other kids, I ran out of the school. I ran back here, into the woods and hid behind some trees, crying my eyes out. I don’t know how long it took for me to calm down, but no one came to look for me. It was sun down when I decided to walk home.

“The day after that, the principal whooped me and said I was a devil child. I was disobedient and lazy and nothing I would do would ever save me from Hell because I was monster,” Harrison smiled a bitter, ugly smile that Max wished he could wipe away.

“I ran behind the woods again and wished with everything in my little six year old body that I could make my own home back here. I wanted somewhere I could belong. I didn’t want to go to my house, I didn’t want to go back to school. I had nowhere I belonged. Then… it just appeared here.”

“Appeared?” Neil Jr. asked tentatively.

“Yeah,” Harrison said. “I forgot all about it. Because then I met you guys.”

His smile this time was genuine.

“I had a place to run back to when I was feeling down or I needed some help. I had a place to belong. I have no idea if it’s still here or not… But the movie reminded me of it and I wanted to show you guys. I wanted to share this with someone.”

Max reached out and took Harrison’s hand. “Whatever you have to show us, we’re here. And we’ll always be here for you, Harrison. Know that.”

Harrison squeezed his hand and gave him a grateful look.

“I do.”

They walked for a little while longer before the trees all around them began to grow more sparse. As they approached the clearing, everyone could see this large structure. As they grew closer, they could not help but gasp in amazement.

Before them was a large fort, two stories high, made entirely out of branches.

“Woah!” Neil Jr. exclaimed. “Did you build this, Harrison?”

Nikki was already running towards it, eager to explore.

Harrison shrugged. “I honestly have no idea. I just wished it was here and it showed up.

As Nikki flitted about excitedly, Harrison showed everyone through the entrance at the bottom. There were built in alcoves and benches to sit at, but Harrison ignored them for a staircase made from thicker branches. You had to carefully step on them to avoid slipping through the cracks and falling.

Harrison glided up the staircase without looking at his feet at all, like he knew this place by heart.

Max guessed he did.

When they were all on the second floor, there were more little rooms, but these had openings in the walls to serve as windows. Through one of the rooms was another doorway that led out onto a balcony of sorts. There were no railings or walls to box them in, just the floor beneath their feet.

Nikki had somehow managed to make it up there before them. She was already sitting at the edge, dangling her legs over it.

Harrison came and sat down beside her. Slowly taking everything in, the rest of the kids came to either sit at the edge or sit close to Harrison as well.

The view of the forest was calming and beautiful. The soft sounds of cricket chirps, frog croaks, and bird calls added to the serenity. The branches swayed slightly in the soft breeze and still-green leaves floated to the forest floor. Autumn was already here, but the trees didn’t seem ready to change their colors yet.

“The sunsets here are beautiful,” Harrison broke his silence. “I only really get to see the beginnings of them because I needed the light to find my way home. I always wanted to watch it until the end though.”

Max wasn’t comfortable with the wistful longing in his friend’s young face.

“Well, thank fuck for modern technology,” he said, aiming his phone’s flashlight at Harrison.

The boy blinked owlishly as his friends all smiled at him.

“I wanna see the sunset!” Nikki cried. “This is, like, the best adventure ever!”

“Yeah! This is so cool, Harrison!” Neil Jr. agreed.

Nerris punched his arm playfully. “You’ve been holding out on us! We could have been camping out here! Especially in the summer!”

“We’ve gotta show Ered when she comes back!”

“This is incredible!”

“Next time we’ve gotta bring blankets and stuff!”

Harrison looked around at all of his friends’ happy faces and couldn’t help the smile that grew on his own. “Okay!”


 

The hours were passed merrily as they waited for the sunset.

Nikki suggested they play tag and other games. Harrison wasn’t feeling up to all the excitement, but no one forced him to participate. Nerris and Max sat on either side of him to keep him company.

When the sun began to set, everyone had rushed back up to the balcony. (They found the ladder built into the wall that allowed Nikki to bypass going inside the fort itself.)

Laying and leaning all over each other, all of the Camp Camp kids watched the sun sink behind the treeline, bathing the horizon in rich oranges and reds. Only when the last traces of light disappeared did the kids leave Harrison’s sanctuary.

Max sidled beside Harrison as they took up the rear. “Thank you for sharing this with us, Harrison.”

Harrison nodded.

They walked in companionable silence for a while before Harrison spoke up again.

“Max, that school is evil. I know there have to be other kids like me there. That they single out.”

Max looked to his friend in the dark, taking in his solemn expression.

“This has been bothering you,” Max stated.

Harrison nodded.

Max turned to look ahead. “Consider it done.”


What I imagine the fort looks like, mostly:

 

Chapter Text

It was a yearly tradition that all of the kids got together for halloween a week in advance to plan out the event. Now that they were all in high school, they had more freedom to do what they wanted, but there were still limitations. No one was doing any big or elaborate costumes, because everyone knew that shit was expensive. 

Max would be paying for his costume with money he worked for himself. Nurf’s mom’s salary as released convict was not that great. And Harrison wasn’t even supposed to be out on the “devil’s day” and had to rely on the kindness of his friends, as well as hide any costume from his parents. 

So it was a long-honored ritual to do all of their holiday shopping at thrift stores. The group would actually thrift store hop, scanning all of the local stores before they started travelling farther away if they couldn’t find something passable. 

Some of the kids picked specific characters and so were harder to search for. Other kids were something generic or common and were easily appeased. Preston was, by far, the pickiest of them all, and ended up touching a couple of the costumes (especially his own) up with his sewing skills. 

They were beginning to grow out of trick-or-treating, but, fuck it, free candy, right? No matter what the group would do, they would all enjoy themselves because they were doing it together. 


 

As part of the SGA at Thomas Nelson High, it was Neil’s job to help with the school’s “safe Halloween”. Each year, the county assigned each high school a different age group to cater to and had to decorate the halls accordingly and run a safe, indoor trick-or-treating experience. 

This year, Thomas Nelson got toddlers until age seven. The idea was that children wouldn’t get lost on the streets or be exposed to anything unduly frightening. Max thought that sometimes kids just needed a good scare to keep them on their toes or keep them from doing stupid shit, but that’s probably why he wasn’t a parent. 

Bored and not wanting to leave Neil to fend for himself, Preston and Max decided to stay after and help as well. The theme happened to be Disney this time. 

Max couldn’t hold in his snort as he slapped the fifth Olaf sticker onto a blank part of the wall. “Why couldn’t we have the older kids? Did you hear that Lesley Heights got to do a fucking haunted house this year? I would have chainsawed the fuck outta those assholes.” 

Preston snorted from where he was taping paper snowflakes onto the lockers. 

“Max, you scare the shit out of people on a fairly regular basis,” he laughed. “You don’t need to look for excuses to do it more.” 

Max sighed. “What if I want to?” 

Preston bumped Max’s hip with his own. 

Max gave his boy a cheeky grin to show he was mostly joking. Not like he didn’t know already anyway. They worked a bit more before Max interrupted their peace again. 

“And aren’t I a little too scary for this baby stuff anyway?” Max gestured at himself. 

He had decided to dress up as a vampire this year. He was wearing dress pants and one of those old frilly dress-shirts Hollywood tried to convince you the pirates would wear. (“I know the pirates did not give a shit about the state of their clothes. They didn’t fucking bathe… Like ever.”) Over the white shirt, he wore a bright red cape that he was surprised they had at Goodwill. He had decided to forgo the stupid plastic fangs, knowing that they would annoy him the entire time. 

Preston had joked that they should spray him with body glitter. (“You could be like the vampires from Twilight! Everyone always said Edward Cullen looked ‘super yummy’.” “Preston, I will fucking make sure your body is never found.”) That didn't happen. Obviously. 

The drama king himself decided that he wanted to dress up as Veronica from the Heathers. 

Yes, Max knew exactly who that was. Yes, Max knew almost the whole soundtrack. You don’t just date the biggest theatre geek in the whole universe and not walk away knowing the words to Candy Store. That’s just not how things work. 

Preston had managed to find a blue plaid skirt at a thrift store a half hour away from town and repurposed one of his grandmother’s old blazers from when she went to that all-girl’s catholic school. He bought knee-high blue socks and found some of his grandmother’s old heels as well. 

Max was having trouble looking away from his boyfriend’s long, long legs. 

Neil’s frequent clearing of his throat or elbow jabs to his stomach certainly helped though. 

Neil was dressed as Frodo from Lord of the Rings. He too had somehow found a green cloak to wear over some brown shorts. He refused to go barefoot though, so he was borrowing his dad’s flip flops to complete the look. 

They continued trading jokes and goofing off a bit as they finished decorating the Frozen hall and set up buckets of candy and stickers and such. When four o’clock rolled around, the three were ready with treats to pass out in their hallway. 

The children began to trickle in, some still holding their parents’ hands and some able to carry their own bag/bucket for their goodies. 

One five year old girl came up to Max to get something from him. 

“What are you?” she asked. “I’m Strawberry Shortcake.” 

Max could tell with the aggressive amounts of pink and strawberry stickers on her face. 

“I’m a vampire.” Max said with a sharp smile. 

The girl looked at him, obviously confused. “You don’t look like a vampire at all! Vampires are supposed to be scary and bloody.” 

Max shrugged. “I guess I’m just not that scary, kid.” 

Neil and Preston snickered together, not fazed at all when Max leveled them with a cool look. 

“Oh!” The girl snapped. “I know! You’re a prince! A handsome prince and- you!” 

She pointed at Preston. “I guess you’re the princess? You’re not really dressed as a princess, but I guess that’s okay!”

Preston blushed a little. It seemed it was Max’s time to laugh while the girl flounced away, obviously happy with figuring out the greatest mysteries of life. 

“Are you my princess, baby?” 

The boy shoved his shoulder. “Quit it, Max!” 

Neil was on all fours, wheezing into the floor. A passing kid rubbed his back and asked if he was okay, which just made it harder to catch his breath. 

Preston rolled his eyes. “I am surrounded by idiots.” 

He ignored as Max gasped, pretending he was offended. 

An older boy approached them soon after. He thanked them all for the candy they each give them, but then he turned curious eyes to the Playwright. “Excuse me, but you’re a boy, right?” 

“Yep!” 

“I didn’t know boys could wear skirts. Isn’t it weird?” 

Preston knelt down to face the boy better. “It’s different. But it’s not bad or anything. People can wear whatever they want! People might not like it, but you should do what makes you happy. I really liked this character so I wanted to dress up as her. Is that weird?” 

The little boy shook his head. “I really like Buzz Lightyear so I dressed up like him this year!” 

“It’s such a cool costume! You look really good!” Preston smiled at the boy. 

“Thank you! I think next year I’m gonna be Rapunzel! Thanks, Mister!” 

The three waved as the boy ran off. 

“Alright, I’m ready to go now,” Max huffed. 


Nurf swung by to pick them up after the Treat-Along was done at Thomas Nelson. He was dressed in a large Captain America Costume they had found. (Minimal tearing. He argued that the rips added character, but Preston said that he couldn’t let his friend look like a hooligan.) 

They had decided in advance that they would all meet up at Nerris’ house. They would trick-or-treat in their neighborhood since the neighbors were generous and gave out a lot of candy. 

When they arrived, they were ushered past the decorated porch and into the living room. The rest of their friends were lounging around on the couch and the floor. 

Neil Jr. quickly stood up when he caught sight of them. “Hey! You guys are here now!” 

The boy was dressed up as Dipper from Gravity Falls, his new obsession. It was mostly just an excuse to draw the Big Dipper on his forehead. He was able to buy the boy’s hat from Hot Topic, but the rest of the getup was all salvaged. Cargo shorts and orange t-shirts were not particularly difficult to come by. The hardest thing to find was the blue vest. 

“Yep,” Max smirked. “You all look nice.” 

Nerris was dressed in one of their old Renaissance Festival outfits. They were some kind of faerie-merchant or something, with a big skirt and layers and fake pointed ears. Dolph was dressed in a lab coat, dress pants, and makeup scars on his face. He was supposed to be an evil scientist, though Max was going to tease him later about looking like Dexter without the red hair. Harrison was dressed in a large black robe that Preston had embroidered with the Gryffindor house crest and colors so that he could be Harry Potter. Nikki was dressed as Lara Croft with cargo pants, fake gun holsters, and a tight white tank top. Her hair was slicked back in the signature ponytail. 

“You all ready?” 

The kids all cheered. 


 

Trick-or-treating was uneventful, but fun. Their pillowcases and bags were all filled to the brim. There were a couple of adults who had given them the stink-eye. 

“Aren’t y’all a little too old for trick-or-treating?” 

Max told them to kindly mind their fucking business. 

They were swiftly running out ground to cover and were getting tired of walking. They stopped to debate on what they were going to do next when Nikki got a text. 

“Oh! It’s Becky from Chemistry.” 

From (Re)Becca

*yo niks, come over i’m having this party thing

To (Re)Becca 

*can i bring some friends?

From (Re)Becca

*yeah idc just hurry up, it’s kinda boring and i need someone to talk to

“New plan, guys!” Nikki exclaimed. “We’re crashing a party!” 

There were some cheers around while others just shrugged. They might as well. 

They hightailed it back to Nerris’ house, explained to their parents, promised that they’d be safe, and all packed into Nikki’s car and Nurf’s truck. 

When they arrived, they could hear the music from outside the house. 

Max looked at each of them in turn. “Ground rules. Not a drop of alcohol if you’re under 16. And anyone drinking gets no more than one beer or whatever. Don’t leave your drinks or food anywhere and only drink from something that was bottled and is unopened. Go nowhere completely alone. If shit goes down, we’re getting the fuck outta here. I doubt this is going to be a wild scene, but I want all of you safe. Do you understand?” 

Everyone nodded or shrugged. They knew better than to get wasted at some random party or trust anyone they didn’t know. 

Nikki led the way and opened the door. 

It wasn’t locked, Max noted in distaste. Not that anyone would hear any knocking with the music blasting, but still. He hung at the back, letting his kids get in, before shutting and locking the door behind him. 

“Niks!” A girl cried when they rounded the corner to the kitchen. She threw her arms around Nikki and hugged her close. 

“Hey Becky!” Nikki yelled to be heard. 

Max rolled his eyes and left Nikki to deal with her - at the very least tipsy - friend. He grabbed his boyfriend’s hand and dragged him to a corner where there weren’t a lot of kids hanging about. They got some curious looks, but Max couldn’t care less. They laughed and talked softly in the corner as he surveyed the room from around his boyfriend’s slim frame. 

Nerris, Dolph, and Neil Jr. ended up curled up together on the couch shortly after finding that there were no good snacks. Nurf was being chatted up by this blonde girl that was dressed as - Max raised his eyebrows - Harley Quinn. But with extremely short shorts. 

Max smirked. “Go, Nurfington!” 

Max could just see Harrison and Neil standing in the kitchen through the open arch. Nikki was still being attacked by her friend. 

There was nothing much to actually do. The songs were bland and they didn’t know a lot of them. There was no dancing. Half of the teens were asleep or drinking anyway. 

The group had only been there for an hour or so before Max could tell that everyone was bored and tired. Nerris and Neil Jr. had actually fallen asleep at some point. Nurf had abandoned the random Harley to lay on the couch on the other side of Dolph. 

“Alright, this shit blows. Let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

Max woke up to a notification on his phone from the news app. 

"Christian Private School in Newman County Shut Down for Illegal Activities” , read the title. 

Max let a satisfied smirk slide onto his face as he clicked to read the rest of the article. 


Christian Private School in Newman County Shut Down for Illegal Activities

Background

Deep in Newman County, there resides a Christian Private School named Excel Christian Academy. The academy is secluded in a wooded area where phone service is nearly non-existent. 

The school is set in the house of the former founder of the school who passed away 65 years ago. The school was founded in 1932 by Allison Hemsworth. After her husband passed away in World War I, with no children of her own, Hemsworth decided to transform their home into an institution of learning. 

She was a firm believer of Proverbs 13:24 in which the proverb “Spare the rod, spoil the child” was derived. Corporal punishment was, if not the only form of punishment, the form of punishment that was used most. There was a paddle in every room, mounted on the wall. Hemsworth believed that this would deter any children from “ungodly thoughts and activities”, as she is cited from her diary that is kept in the headmaster’s office. 

The Investigation

It is important to understand the background of this school in order to understand how this affects modern day. Corporal Punishment was banned statewide in 1979. There were no county exemptions allowed and private schools or boarding schools or other institutions are expected to adhere to the laws as well. 

It is stated clearly in the law that “Corporal Punishment is an inhumane and cruel form of educating children. It is especially unlawful for Corporal Punishment for persons other than a child’s parents to physically harm that child. The state shall not allow any institute government regulated or otherwise to participate in these heinous acts which include spanking with hands, paddles, switches, or other instruments; hitting with fists and other objects; pinching; or other acts that would cause the child any physical pain.” 

Our news company received an anonymous tip that Excel Christian Academy still performs Corporal Punishment on its students. We decided to investigate the allegations. Our crew drove in a discreet car on a Sunday afternoon when the school was closed and empty. 

The school was almost completely obscured by the tall trees all around. Outside of the small entrance to the parking lot, there was a sign. “Welcome to Excel Christian Academy,” it read. And in smaller print : “the lord only saves those who wish to save themselves”. Our crew already had an eerie feeling, but we decided to give the school the benefit of the doubt. We knocked on the door, hoping that there would be someone to interview, but there was no reply. Watch our initial visit to the school here.

We decided to do some more research and then return at a later date. We poured over records to find people who had previously attended the academy. We were able to contact three people, though we will allow them to remain nameless for their privacy and protection. 

One of them confirmed that Corporal Punishment was used, but it was “God’s will” and a “righteous way” to be raised. “God only saves those who wish to be saved,” she quoted dutifully. 

The other two confirmed that Corporal Punishment was used as well, but they both stated that they believed it was wrong. “I would have welts for days, if not weeks one said.” “They would spank us with a paddle in front of the whole class for something as small as ‘disgraceful handwriting’.” Listen to our interview recordings here. 

Soon after, we decided to infiltrate the school as parents wanting to enroll their child in the academy. We came as a couple, Mac Reymond and I, Michelle Kristen, decked in hidden cameras and mics. We were lead through the halls by a stern woman Mrs. Hadley Bier who was the secretary. 

She gave us a quick tour of the two levels, allowing us to peek into classrooms briefly. We were sure we had seen a paddle in every classroom we looked into. None of the children were smiling and they ranged from toddlers to teenagers. Students and teachers alike wore all dark and somber colors. 

Mrs. Bier then showed us to the Headmistress’ office. There we got an up-close and personal idea of what discipline looked like. The paddle above the Headmistress’ desk was wooden and thick. It looked like a miniature oar. The Headmistress noted our interest in her paddle. We replied that we believed our fictitious child needed a firm hand. 

She introduced herself as Josephine Cruise and gave us a short history of the school’s background. (All good things, of course.) Headmistress Cruise asked us for information on our child. We obliged with more agreed upon “facts” before asking what discipline was like here.

 The Headmistress smiled and told us that she would give us a demonstration. With the frightening look in her eye, we were a bit afraid that she was going to try out the paddle on us, but instead she escorted us to a classroom we had passed upstairs. 

She entered the room and ushered us inside. She greeted the teacher and asked about the behavior of a particular student. She explained to us that the teachers took him to task themselves but this specific student needed her “full attention”. 

In front of the whole class, she demanded the student to pull down their pants and bend over the desk. My partner and I could see the bruises and welts that were still on his legs and behind. Some bruises were obviously recent and others were in different states of healing. 

The Headmistress proceeded to spank the student in front of all of us. Just because we had asked about discipline. She beat the student with the paddle because we “wanted” to see it, and for no other reason. See our second visit’s footage. 

We left soon after, stating that we were impressed and would be in touch. That night, we submitted all of our research and footage to the Newman County Police Department and wrote an email to the Governor with our findings. 

Conclusion

The Excel Christian Academy has been shut down. The staff are all being charged with charges ranging from Child Negligence to Child Endangerment to Child Abuse. Parents who knowingly sent the students to this school may be charged accordingly as well or be made to take mandatory parenting classes and therapy. Children involved will receive free medical care and counseling as well. 

No child will suffer again at this institute.

The NCPD is currently tracking down former employees who will be charged for their crimes that are detailed in the Headmistress’ log. The NCPD are also contacting former students to let them know what benefits they may be eligible for and inform them of the school’s closure. 


Max was satisfied with how the matter was handled. Extremely satisfied, considering he was the one who had tipped off the news company. He was glad that the shitheads were getting what they deserved, at least in the eyes of the law. If the police hadn’t dealt with this as they had, or nobody had cared, he honestly had plans to burn the building to the ground and pay midnight visits to the staff. 

He knew from the moment Harrison had told him about that hell, he would stop at nothing before those monsters were made to pay for their actions. 

 

From Magic Boy

*Max… I saw the news today

 

From Magic Boy

*Thank you. Thank you so much

 

To Magic Boy

*Of course, Harrison. I promised you. And I never go back on my promises. 

Chapter Text

Max woke up, just as he did any other day. He blinked tiredly and reached for his phone, only to be flooded with a tidal wave of texts. 

 

From Astrological Disaster (11:59 PM)

*HAPPY BIRTHDAYYYYYY 

 

From Astrological Disaster (12:01 AM)

*FUCK, i was early

 

From Astrological Disaster (12:02 AM)

*Okay, NOW happy birthday

 

From Dr. Frankenstein (12:10 AM)

*Happy birthday, dude! I can’t believe we’ve been best friends since we were 10. It’s fucking crazy

 

Missed Facetime Call from Extreme Sports Barbie (2:15 AM)

 

From Extreme Sports Barbie (2:17 AM)

*Shit sorry i was sure you’d be awake

 

From Extreme Sports Barbie (2:18 AM)

*Anyway, happy birthday, little dude. Call me later!

 

From Agent of Chaos (6:05 AM)

*DUDE!!! TODAY’S YOUR BIRTHDAY

 

From Agent of Chaos (6:05 AM)

*THE DAY YOU WERE BORN

 

From Voted Most Adorable (7:30 AM)

*I wish you the happiest of birthdays, Max

 

From Romeo (8:27 AM)

*Max, we’ve been through so much together and I want to wish you the best on your birthday. I won’t drop the L word yet, but I care about you so much. I wish I could have told you this on call last night. I’m so very, very proud of everything you’ve done and everything you will do. You’re amazing and I’m glad I got to see the person you grew into.

 

From Romeo (8:29 AM) 

*There aren’t even words that can describe how I feel right now

 

From Romeo (8:29 AM)

*Be safe, sweetheart. Happy birthday

 

From Magic Boy (8:56 AM)

*Happy birthday, Max! 

 

From Would Also Stab His Dad (8:58 AM)

*Happy birthday, dude. You’ve helped me through a lot. Know that I’ll be by your side no matter what. 

 

From Ethereal Elf Entity (9:02 AM)

*max, you’ve done so much for me and our friends to make sure we’re happy and safe. we all love you so much and I’m not afraid to say it at all! (not like those cowards!!!) you’re beautiful and i hope you have a birthday that makes you realize how much you mean to other people

 

Max read all of the texts, and then reread them, and reread them again. He would never say it out loud, but he had to fight to keep back tears. 

He had no idea how he was lucky enough to have the friends he had. No, the family he had. And to think, that at one point he almost shoved them all away because of his fears. The blood family he had weren’t the best of people. And growing up around people like that made you doubt whether there were good people in the world. 

Max was excited to see all of his friends later. It was agreed that they would all meet up at 12 at his favorite diner down the street from Thomas Nelson High school. He and Preston used to frequently walk there after school and grab milkshakes and burgers when they were in what Preston called the “courting” stages. They still went once in awhile, but now Max was worried about putting actual effort into his schoolwork and working for his seamstress neighbor a couple of houses down. 

She was an elderly woman who made old vintage dresses or princess-style dresses and sold them on sites like ebay or etsy. Max sometimes picked up her fabrics from stores, but most of the time he dealt with the digital side of things. He might package the dresses to be shipped, from time to time. 

He went to hop up from his bed, when he heard a crash from beyond his locked door and froze. He could hear muffled screams from the other side his door. 

They were still there. 

Max had hoped when they came home last night that they would be gone by the time he woke up. Or at least knocked out. It seemed that wasn’t the case. 

Max quickly, but silently, changed into his clothes from the day before and grabbed his to-go bag. He always had a bag ready with a couple of pairs of clothes, a towel and washcloth, all of his money that wasn’t in the bank, and toiletries. When he couldn’t use his own bathroom, Max went to the gym using the card that Nurf had gotten him. Which is just what he was going to do. 

He opened the window, pushing aside the screen with practiced ease. This was not the first time he had snuck out through his window. He gently placed his bag down first before he exited. 

He had given up on worrying what any neighbors may think of him when he did this. They didn’t have to live with them

He used to unlock his bedroom door before leaving, but when they were gone for a week once, he had the knob replaced so that it had a lock that only he had the key to. He just hoped they were never able to break it down. He would really have to find another place to stay. Plus, replacing a whole door was fucking expensive and hard to explain. 

He walked to the bus stop somberly, trying not to let them ruin his day. 

You know what, Max thought, he had time for a swim before lunch. 


Max’s hair was still wet when he finally arrived at the diner. He had swam around in the pool for an hour or so before showering and washing his hair. 

When he got there, he could see Nurf’s pickup truck and Nikki’s blue car that she borrows from her mother already in the parking lot. 

He pushed open the doors and was immediately assaulted by popping sounds, confetti, and flashes. 

“Happy Birthday, Max!” 

He looked around, startled. 

All of his friends were here, including some he wasn’t close with. He could see a couple of kids he knew from classes and theatre. Billy Nikksilp, the former Wood Scout named Snake, was seated at the bar. Ered’s dads were there along with Nerris’ parents, Carl, and Candy. 

Unsurprisingly, Neil was the first one to step forward and throw his arms around his friend. 

Max hugged him tightly, straining to look at the whole room. It was littered with streamers and balloons, all in his favorite colors. 

One by one, everyone reached forward to hug him. 

He couldn’t keep the wide smile off his face if he wanted to. 

His friends began to drag him over to one of the large booths in the corner, but he cast a glance behind him at all the adults. 

Catching his eye, Mr. Steve; the darker one, waved him off. 

“We’re halfway just here for the cake.” He winked. “Pretend we’re not here and have fun with your friends, Max.” 

Somehow they all managed to fit in the booth after they shoved Max into the very middle with Preston and Nurf on either side of him. 

“How did you guys planned all this? Did you have to rent out the place?” 

“Nah,” Nicki laughed. “Preston talked to the owner who adores you guys and he said we could bring what we wanted as long as we all paid for lunch, except you, of course.” 

Preston nodded. “Mr. Kelly was very generous. He even let us start storing stuff in here weeks ago! We all got together and decorated before you got here today.” 

“You guys… I don’t know how to say thank you. This is the best birthday I’ve ever had,” Max said sincerely. 

Nerris laughed from where they sat daintily at the end of the booth. “Just wait till you see what else we’ve got you! This isn’t anything yet!” 

And it turned out that Nerris was correct. 

Max’s friends and the diner owner assured him that he could order anything he wanted, on the house. Max still chose something on the cheaper side that he would enjoy. His friends pretended that they didn’t know. 

After food, they played a couple rounds of games like Truth or Dare. The standard party songs like The Wobble and the Cupid Shuffle were played. 

Max was forced to dance, though his resistance was all faked by that point. 

The adults averted their eyes whenever the kids would do or say anything crazy. They were used to it at that point. And they wanted everyone to have fun. So what if Neil decided to twerk (very badly)? 

When everyone was tired of dancing, the cake was brought out. In standard Max fashion, the frosting depicted a large hand giving the bird in black. “Fuck birthdays, Max,” it read. 

The Millers managed to get a video of Max giggling so hard he had to lean over the table for support. 

There was a singular candle lit on the tip of the middle finger. 

“Blow it out, Max!” Neil Jr. called excitedly. “Make a wish!” 

Max took a moment to look at everyone gathered. 

There was not a frown in sight. Sure, life sucked. But here were most of the people he cared about, taking time out of their day to treat him like he was something special, with no thoughts of ulterior motives. 

“I wish that this will last forever,” he said quietly, before blowing gently on his candle. 

Anyone who heard his wish didn’t need to ask him what “this” was. 

There were more rounds of cheers and hugs and claps on the back before cake was served. 

It was a lovely party, but when presents came around, Max was becoming overwhelmed. He had a small mountain of gifts that took up an entire table meant to seat six. His eyes grew as wide as saucers. 

“All of these… They’re for me?” 

“Of course, silly! It’s your day! Who else would they be for?” Nikki said matter-of-factly. 

“Yeah, Max!” Neil cried. 

“It would make me happy to see you open my gift,” Dolph said quietly from his side. 

Max turned to look at all of them wildly. “This is too much. You guys don’t have to get me anything. And it’s so much! It would be a-” 

Preston stepped in front of Max then, making sure his boyfriend looked him in the eye. “Max. You are worth all of this and more. Nothing we could give you could compare to how much you mean to us, but we want to do this for you. We care a lot. And someone as beautiful as you are, inside and out deserves to have a wonderful day filled with gifts and fun.” 

He reached out and grabbed one of Max’s hands, squeezing it. 

“Please let us do this for you.” 

It was difficult to look into the sheer earnestness in his eyes, but he also could not look away. He nodded. 

Preston grinned and gave Max’s hand a squeeze again. 

“Thank you, sweetheart.” He ducked his head and kissed his cheek. 

At the whistles and “ooos” of his friends, the shorter boy flushed. “Alright, alright! Let’s open thesse fucking gifts, alright?” 

“Sure, Max,” he could hear someone tease, but refused to look up to find out exactly who it was. 

He was pushed into a chair at the present-filled table. There were boxes and bags alike, all with bright wrapping papers. 

He sat awkwardly as everyone watched him intently. “Um. Does it matter what goes first?” 

At the giggles and head shakes, Max guessed he could pick anything. He grabbed the one closest to him, a green bag with tissue paper peeking out. Pushing the paper aside, he found a pair of blue and white socks. 

“Oh, that’s from me,” Snake said, from where he stood on the sidelines. 

“Thank you,” Max said sincerely. 

He spent the next almost-half-hour opening the various gifts. 

Nerris’ parents videotaped the majority of it, cooing the entire time. 

Max received a book on astrology, sweaters, a new denim jacket, iron-on patches with witty sayings and drawings, flowercrowns and various other jewelry/accessories, giftcards to various restaurants/eateries, a digital camera (only select people knew he was into photography), and a photo album filled with pictures of him and his friends. 

Max fought not to tear up. 

Seeing the emotion overtake his boyfriend, Preston wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “We will do all of this and more for you, Max. You would for us.” 

The birthday boy sniffled and swiped at his eyes quickly. “You’re damn right I would.” 

Preston pressed another kiss to the boy’s cheek. “Then consider this our thank you, baby.” 

His other friends came forward, all trying to entrap him in their embrace despite his half-hearted escape attempts. Max was encased in the biggest group-hug that must have been known to man (because his kids were going to break world records, damnit). 

The parents pretended there was nothing to see as the boy of honor broke down and cried into the arms of the kids he trusted with his life. Because all was as it should be. 

And so what if the boy was overwhelmed when he was being given the most beautiful gift he had ever received in his life? 

Love. 

Chapter Text

To put it frankly, Max and Preston were excited. 

Tomorrow was Sunday and they were finally going to get to witness Nurf’s choir performance at his church. 

Nurf had joined the church and choir not long after his mother was released from prison. Upon her release, she was put into anger management classes and regular therapy. She had finished her classes years ago, but still went for a therapy session once a month. It wasn’t mandatory, but it was recommended by her parole officer to join a church and become part of the community. 

At first, Nurf wasn’t a big fan, but it helped his mom feel more grounded so he indulged her. He would freely admit to his friends that he still didn't believe in god or anything, but he enjoyed the experience and energy of all of the church-goers. He frequently remarked that his pastor (Mrs. Beverly) was very cool and always open to discussing the teachings or any other issues. 

Nurf hadn’t invited his friends yet, because he was still a little embarrassed. He knew that no one would make fun of him for being in the choir, but it was still something that others would make a crack at him for. He had decided to try to get over it though, especially because this time he was going to get a solo. 

So that was how Friday night, he ended up texting both boys to ask them if they wanted to sleep over Saturday and go to church with him on Sunday. He was lucky that Max and Preston had nothing to do that weekend. Though honestly, they would have cancelled whatever they had anyway, who was he kidding? 

That’s how Preston and Max ended up in Nurf’s two bedroom apartment, with Mrs. Nurfington trying to be a gracious host. 

Max had seen pictures of the woman since her release, but hadn’t really seen her in person. She was wearing a soft, cream-colored sweater and some blue jeans. She had a gold cross chain around her neck. Her hair had grown since he had last seen her at Camp Campbell, which she wore up in a ponytail. Her expression was much softer and content than he had ever seen it. 

She had been washing some dishes when they all had walked in. She quickly dried her hands on a dish towel and then started wringing her hands nervously. 

“Hi boys! I’m sorry I’m so unprepared. We don’t get much company. Can I get you anything? Something to drink?” 

Preston was going to tell her that he was fine, thank you, but Max spoke over him. 

“If you could get us some water, Mrs. Nurfington, that would be great.” 

“Oh, of course! What polite friends you have, Gaylord!” She smiled at them all before hurrying to a cabinet to grab glasses. 

Nurf blushed a little while is friends snickered quietly. 

“Mom! I’m gonna show them my room so they can put their stuff down!” Nurf called. 

“Okay, sweetheart!” 

Nurf rolled his eyes a bit, but Max could tell that he still soaked up any of his mom’s positive attention now that she could actually be with him. 

The boy led them through his small, but comfortable apartment. The kitchen had been directly beside the door, and across from that was a spacious open area. A small dining room table had been placed at the far side of the room, beside the windows. Closer to the kitchen was what served as their living room, with a three-seater couch, wooden coffee table, a small flatscreen tv with a tv stand, and a lone recliner. 

They walked past the space, into a narrow hallway. 

There were 4 doors. Two on their left side, one straight ahead, and one on the right. 

Nurf pointed out what each room was. “First door on the left is the bathroom. The next one is my bedroom. The door on the right is my mom’s room. And then that last door is the like, linen closet or whatever they call it.” 

He pushed open his door for his friends and let them enter first. 

The room wasn’t incredibly small, but it was a little plain. There was a full-sized bed pushed into a corner with a small nightstand seated across from it. It had a standard closet. The walls had a couple of posters or pictures taped up. On the opposite end of the room, there was a desk and cheap chair with a lamp on top of it. 

“You guys can put your stuff wherever you want.” 

They did so and then looked at Nurf expectantly. 

“So… What are we going to do?”


 

Turns out that they were going to do a lot. The night was filled with fun and laughs. 

They sat up, talking about school or their friends or stupid shit they’d heard from the news or whatever. They played a couple of games on Nurf’s computer or watched little youtube videos. 

There were just enough chairs at the small dinner table for them all to sit down and eat together. They encouraged Mrs. Nurfington (“please call me Simone”) to share stories from work or prison with them. She seemed really happy to be included. 

They roped her into a game of Uno before she decided to do the dishes. And everyone pitched in by clearing the table, drying the dishes, or cleaning the counters. She was very surprised at their help, and their assertiveness even when she tried to tell them she could do it all herself. 

Before she knew it, the nightly chores that took her and Gaylord a good hour or so were done in less than half an hour. 

“Wow! Thank you, boys! I don't think we’ve ever been done this early!” 

Preston smiled at her. “It was no trouble, ma’am.” 

She dried her hands on the soft yellow apron she had adorned when cooking. “You know what, boys? I think there’s time to bake some cookies before y’all go to bed.” 

“Hell yeah,” Max said quietly, which his boyfriend hit him in the arm for. 

Simone giggled at their antics. “Alright, go on somewhere and have fun! I’ll call you when the cookies are done.” 

Max gave a mock salute and laughed as Preston pushed him away, back into Nurf’s bedroom. He flopped onto Nurf’s bed, obviously making himself comfortable. Nurf shook his head fondly and took the chair at his desk. Preston sat beside his boy, combing through his hair with his fingers. 

There was a moment of comfortable silence before Max spoke up. 

“You’ve got yourself something nice and peaceful here, Gaylord.” 

The red-haired boy snorted ruefully. “Mostly. It took a long time for things to settle this way.” 

Max sat up on his elbows. “Really? When your mom came back, all you would tell us was how happy you were.” 

“Yeah. I mean, I was really happy. But she didn’t come out of prison as the perfect mom and definitely not the woman you see now. She’s been through some crazy shit and prison doesn’t make any of that go away. If anything, it adds to it. It took her a long time to get used to regular life. She went back to a few habits, her parole officer almost reported her as violating her parole. It was only when he mentioned that she had to do better for me that it really sunk in.” 

“What happened then?” 

“Then my mom started actually making an effort. She did everything by the books. Mr. Juarez; her P.O., suggested therapy, college classes, volunteer work, and church. She did all of it.” 

“Is that why you go to church now?” 

Nurf shrugged. 

“Yeah, we don’t really believe in all that shit, but it would be nice if it was real, you know? So she wears the cross and hums the hymns and does daily prayer and Sunday service and let it ‘enrich our soul’ or whatever.

“Now we barely have any problems with each other. Once I started to get closer to you guys  and actually caring about myself and my future, I stopped picking fights with her. We have our good days and our bad days, but we worked most of that shit out in family therapy years ago. I think the only problem now is that she sees me as perfect.” 

Preston blinked, taken aback. “Isn’t that what every child wants?” 

“Not like this,” Nurf shook his head again. “Nothing can be wrong with me. ‘I’m perfect’. I haven’t been to the doctors in a good while. She doesn’t like to take me too often because I’m ‘perfectly healthy’. Remember when we met at Camp Campbell all that time ago? I told you that I felt I needed ‘corrective lenses’. Yeah. Have you seen me with fucking glasses?” 

“Gaylord, you know that I could-” 

“No, Max. As much as it frustrates me, you can’t threaten my mother to take me to the eye doctor’s,” he sighed. “She just cares too much, I guess. I’m her only kid.” 

The silence in the room was heavier now. A knock on the door interrupted the somber mood. 

“Boys! The cookies are ready! Come and get them while they’re hot! We have milk too, if you want some.” 

Preston rushed out, ready for the delicious treats. 

Before they left the room, Max put a hand on Nurf’s shoulder. “You know you can tell me anything. If there’s any way I can help, even if just talking to her or something, you let me know.” 

Nurf smiled down gratefully at his friend. His best friend. Who would do anything for him, if only he would ask. 

“I know, Max. Thank you.” 

The smaller boy gazed into his eyes for a little longer before relenting. “Alright! That’s enough fucking feelings. I wanna taste these cookies.”

Chapter Text

The next morning, the boys were shaken awake by their friend bright and early.

 Preston groaned from where he was wrapped around his boyfriend on the futon mattress on the floor. 

“What the fuck, Nurfington?” Max questioned scathingly. 

The larger boy laughed. “Come on, you guys. We don’t have to dress too fancy, but we do have to get ready. Service starts at 9 and it’s twenty minutes away.” 

Max was the first to sit up, more used to waking up with little notice. He prodded Preston a little more before the boy rolled away from him, onto the floor. 

“I’ll make you both pay for this,” he mumbled into the carpet. 

The friends laughed. 

“I’d like to see you try, sweetheart.” Max gathered up his boyfriend’s stuff from his backpack, casting a look at Nurf who was already dressed and prepared. 

At noticing the inquisitive look, the boy shrugged. “I tried to let you guys get a little more sleep. We were up kinda late last night.” 

“Yeah,” Max laughed. “Doing absolutely nothing.” 

Nurf joined in. “You’re not wrong.” 

Preston finally picked himself off the floor and snatched his stuff from Max’s hands. “I’m getting dressed!”

“Isn’t he just a ray of sunshine this morning,” Nurf teased. 

“He is not at all a morning person.”


Once they were all dressed, they all piled into Nurf’s pickup truck. 

Max went simple with a green sweater and jeans. Preston actually brought a button up white shirt to tuck into his pair of jeans. Nurf wore a green turtleneck sweater which he tucked into grey slacks. 

When asked about his getup, the red haired boy shrugged. “I honestly have no idea why I dress so fancy when I go because half the service, I’ll be in one of those robes.” 

“Well, I for one think your sweater matches you eyes,” Preston complimented. 

Nurf rolled said eyes. “Of course that’s what you’re worried about.” 

“A mature fashion sense is very important, Nurf,” the playwright sniffed. 

Ms. Simone giggled from her place in the shotgun seat. 

Soon, they arrived at the church. 

Max wasn’t sure what he had imagined, but it wasn’t the small building that looked like a renovated convenience store. 

When she noticed Max’s inquisitive look, Ms. Simone smiled softly. “Our pastor Mrs. Beverly created this church herself a couple of years back. She was raised Christian, but then became an atheist. After some time, her interest in God was reignited and she decided that she wanted to share her faith with others. She fixed up this place from an abandoned liquor store.” 

“That’s an interesting choice of location,” Max remarked. 

Nurf’s mom only shrugged. “Mrs. Beverly likes to say that you will find God in the strangest of places. I guess she found him in this liquor store.” 

Max fought the urge to snort. Who was he to judge someone’s beliefs when he hadn’t even met her yet? He would try to reserve judgement until he had spoken to her. 

The four of them got out of the truck once Nurf had parked and made their way into the building. 

The signs on the outside of the building labeled it as the “New Hope House of Faith”. 

Upon entering, there was a friendlier air than Max had expected. There was a greeter at the door who handed them each a pamphlet and greeted Nurf and his mother by name. 

“Good morning, Ms. Simone, Nurf!” The young girl chirped. 

“Hello, Krista!” Ms. Simone smiled back at the girl. 

“And are these friends of yours, Nurf?” the girl asked curiously, but kindly. At Nurf’s nod, the girl smiled brightly at them. “Welcome to New Hope! I hope you enjoy your time here today!” 

The two boys muttered a thank you. 

“You better run along, Nurf,” Krista added as she passed a pamphlet to the people entering behind them. “You know the choir needs to warm up.” 

“I’m going, I’m going! I just want to introduce them to Mrs. Beverly!” 

With a quick goodbye, Nurf ushered everyone further into the building. 

The entrance hallway soon branched out into a lobby of sorts, where an older woman stood in the center. She was surrounded by several people trying to talk to her. Max admired that despite having her attention diverted, she made sure that she looked at each of them in the eyes individually and let them know in some way that she was listening. 

She was somewhere in her early 40s, Max was guessing. She had mousy brown hair, cut short and wore glasses. As they got closer, Max could see that she had the lightest brown eyes he had seen. 

When she caught sight of them, her face brightened and she excused herself to come closer to them. 

“Simone! Gaylord!” She greeted them warmly with open arms. 

Ms. Simone and Nurf both gave the older woman a hug. 

“It’s so nice to see you! Gaylord, I can’t wait to see your performance!” 

“Thanks, Mrs. Beverly! I’ve gotta go, but I wanted to introduce my friends!” Nurf pulled the two boys in front of him and rushed away, presumably to wherever the choir were warming up.. 

“Preston Goodplay, ma’am,” the playwright shook her hand politely. 

When she turned to Max, the boy stuck out his hand and said plainly, “I’m Max.” 

The woman shook it with a chuckle. “I’ve heard of the both of you from Gaylord. It’s wonderful to meet you both in person!” 

“You too, Mrs. Beverly,” Max replied. 

She gave him a knowing look. 

“Actually, may I speak to you for a moment, Maxwell?” 

The boy’s eyebrows rose. Nurf had told her his full name? 

“Come on, Preston! I’ll show you where the best seats to see Gaylord is,” Nurf’s mother said as she led Max’s boyfriend away. 

When it was only Max and Mrs. Beverly, the woman gave him a wider smile. “I figured it would be better to talk without an audience.” 

Max gave a noncommittal shrug. 

“How are you, Maxwell?” 

Suddenly, the older woman seemed concerned. He shrugged again. 

“I’ve been alright. What makes you ask?” 

“Well, first, Gaylord has expressed some worry for you. But secondly, your eyes.” 

“My eyes?” 

“My husband was a soldier once. You have wartime-eyes, Maxwell. Eyes that have no business being on a child.” 

“I’m not a child,” Max countered quietly. 

Mrs. Beverly was a silent for a time, considering her next words. 

“I’m sure you have not felt like one in a long time,” she finally said. “However, I hear that you always look out for others. Who is looking out for you?” 

Max shoved his hands in his pants’ pockets, uncomfortable. “My friends, when they can.” 

The woman met Max’s eyes, holding the contact for a moment. She gave him another smile. “I see.” 

Again, silence fell between them. Max was still unsettled that she seemed to know so much about him, whether Nurf had told her or not, but he appreciated that she didn’t press him into talking about things he clearly didn’t want to. He kicked one of his feet, looking away from her.
“So do you believe in all of this sh- I mean, stuff.”

Mrs. Beverly gave him an amused look at his near-slip up. “What stuff?” 

“Like Jesus and Noah and all that, I guess.” 

“Hmm… I suppose, in a way.” 

“What does that mean?” 

“I do believe in science, the big bang and all that, but I believe some higher power must have set that stuff in motion. However, do I believe that some old white man is sitting up in the clouds, watching all of our lives, and condemning us for our sinful lives? No, I don’t.” 

When Max looked at her in surprise, she chuckled. 

“Was that not an answer that you were expecting?” 

“Not at all,” the boy said.”I thought priests or pastors or whatever you are, were supposed to have complete faith.” 

“Anyone who has complete faith in something is a fool,” Mrs. Beverly said mildly. “Doubt is what allows us to believe more strongly. If after all the investigation and research and debate, I still have my faith, then that proves to me that my faith is correct. Blind faith is not something I teach in our home.” 

“Then what is it exactly that you teach here?” 

“Many things. Just because I do not live by the words of a dusty, many-times-mistranslated book does not mean that we cannot derive good teachings from that same book. I teach morality in this house. I praise the higher power here, naming him God for the sake of my family here, but you will find no shame here if you do not do the same.” 

Max digested that information. “I’m not sure I quite understand. I thought there was only believing in something or not believing in something.” 

“Not true,” Mrs. Beverly said kindly, even in her rebuke. “There is nothing in this world that is absolute. Even the mightiest mountain wears away with the wind and the fiercest volcanoes die out. Maybe the higher power I believe in does not even exist anymore. To believe in something completely sounds wonderful, in theory. But it is just not possible. You must understand that there is always room for doubt and not everything makes complete sense.” 

Max furrowed his brows, gazing at the woman in confusion. “So if nothing is absolute, then why do any of this at all? Nothing is certain. You don’t fully believe in the religion you teach and preach about. Why then?” 

“Hope, Maxwell. For hope.” 


After his illuminating, yet frustrating conversation with the Pastor, the woman escorted Max to where Ms. Simone and Preston were sitting with a gentle hand on his shoulder. The woman stopped all along the way, greeting everyone with the same indulgent smile. She introduced Max as well, making sure they shook his hand and gave him a warm welcome. 

And it was a warm welcome. Where some kids or teenagers appeared bored, there was not one genuinely unhappy face. 

The room where sermons were given was not too big, with many pews filled snugly with patrons. There was a raised stage that was clearly made from wooden planks with a homemade podium on top of it. There were murals on the walls, as well as paintings or clay vases and sculptures scattered around the room. When Mrs. Beverly noticed his interest, she proudly told him that every piece was made or donated by the people of the church. 

When Max was finally standing beside his boyfriend, he felt like he knew the church and its pastor a little better. This woman had created a family with the church. A community that put an emphasis on kindness and care for others through Christian teachings, but didn’t judge you if you believed in something different. Or even nothing at all. 

A grand clock on one side of the stage tolled that it was 9 o’clock. Immediately, everyone sitting stood up and became quiet. 

Mrs. Beverly made her way down the center of the pews, stepped up onto the stage, and stood behind the podium. “Good morning, all. I am beyond happy that all of you joined us today in our day of worship. We will start the service today with a performance from The Hope Choir and then a prayer.” 

After she uttered those words, the choir entered the room through one of the side doors. They were all wearing forest green robes that went all the way down to their feet. Max could see that Nurf was one of the kids in the front. 

He felt Preston take his hand and he gave it a squeeze, he was excited for their friend too. 

After the choir lined up on the stage behind a couple of microphones and Mrs. Beverly exited the stage, music began to play over the sparse speakers in the room. 

Immediately, Nurf stepped forward by himself and began to sing.

 

“Well here we are

Living in the moment

Well here we are

Dreaming in the open

Look around

Isn’t this a new day

Make a move

Doing things a new way

A new way.”

 

“What the fuck,” Preston breathed. 

And Max could not help but agree. He had known Nurf was going to sing, and that he was going to have a solo, but not that he was going to lead the whole. Goddamn. Song. Or that he was going to sound amazing. 

Max was speechless and Preston had grown mute beside him. 

 

“Cause this is our world

And this is our time

These are our plans

We’re gonna let ‘em shine

This is our place

In the human race

And we won’t stop dreaming

No we won’t stop dreaming.”

 

Cue Ms. Simone sniffling and dabbing at her eyes. 

 

“Look ahead

We can see forever

You and me

Doing it together

Light it up

We can be a million stars

Look at us

Don’t you see we’ve come so far

Yeah we’ve come so far.” 

 

At the “doing it together” line, people slowly began singing as well until the whole choir was singing. Max wasn’t worried about anyone else but his best friend though. The tall, red-haired boy, with green eyes that shone with happiness as he belted out every line. 

Max had seen the boy in many different contexts. He had seen him crying, missing his mother. He had seen his face on that football field, desperate to control his violent urges. He had seen his face split into a smile when they found they were going to school together. He had seen his face filled with righteous anger on Nerris’ behalf. He had seen his face after sunset, on the top of that wooden fort in Harrison’s woods. 

But he had never seen Nurf look like this. 

He looked like hope. 

 

“No we won’t stop dreaming

We won’t stop dreaming.”


After the church service with some prayer, scripture, and more songs from the choir, Preston was antsy to see his friend. He pulled Max along by the hand (though the boy wasn’t complaining) to the lobby and waited impatiently for Nurf to emerge from the choir rooms. 

As they waited, Mrs. Beverly approached the two. 

“How was today for you boys?” 

“Enlightening,” Preston beamed. “You guys hold a beautiful service here, Pastor Beverly.” 

“Oh, thank you very much, Preston,” Mrs. Beverly returned his smile. 

The boy was a little taken aback that the woman had remembered his name after only meeting him two hours or so prior. 

“In truth,” the woman continued, “I have very little to do with the service. I have a group of advisors that suggest what the sermon should be about, the prayers are usually things I make up on the spot, and all of the choir songs are chosen by their coach/mentor. This church is more of a family and I want everyone to feel like they have a say here and that their needs are being met.” 

“That’s very considerate of you,” Max said. 

The pastor smiled at him again, before catching sight of someone and opening her arms to them. “Gaylord! You were positively radiant today, as always!” 

“Thank you, Mrs. Beverly!” The large boy gave her a hug. 

“Alright, everyone. It was wonderful to meet you, Preston, Maxwell. I hope to see you again sometime.” She extended her hand for the two of them to shake. 

“You will,” Preston said sweetly. 


While they were walking back to Nurf’s truck, Preston punched the boy in the arm.

“Ow! What was that for?” 

“Gaylord Nurfington! Are you telling me that you’ve been hiding this talent all this time?” 

Nurf winced. “Well, you see, I -” 

Preston raised a hand imperiously. “I don’t want to hear it. I am hurt.” 

Here, he dramatically held his heart as if the boy had cleaved it in two. 

Max snickered quietly in the background. 

“You may make it up to me by being in our next musical production.” 

“Like a play?” 

“Yes, Nurf. But not just any kind of play, you must showcase your talent!” 

“Okay,” the boy said easily. 

“Good,” the playwright sniffed. 

“So Max,” Nurf started. “How did you like Mrs. Beverly?” 

“She’s alright, I guess. She didn’t rub me wrong like other church people usually do.” 

“Oh, really?” Nurf asked innocently. “She’s always open to talking to someone so if you feel like you can’t tell one of us something…” 

“Gaylord. Is this your way of suggesting therapy to me?” Max asked with a raised eyebrow. 

Nurf shrugged. “I mean. It’s free.” 

“Whatever. Maybe.”