Actions

Work Header

kids in the dark

Chapter Text

The moment the word ‘partners’ leaves their teacher’s mouth, North twists in her seat - directly in front of his own - and grins at him brilliantly. When Miss Harding continues with,  “I’ll be deciding the pairs,” North’s smile falls off her face and she turns back around with a scowl. There’s absolutely no way that he’ll be with North, not after their dramatic reenactment of To Kill a Mockingbird last year which resulted in a minor - minor! - explosion, the entire school being evacuated, and all three emergency services turning up in the parking lot. Carl had seen the funny side to it all, at least, even if the bomb squad hadn’t.

 

Miss Harding draws everyone’s attention by clapping her hands. “If your surname begins with A-L, stay where you are. If your surname begins M-Z, move to your partner, please. Capiche?”

 

The class responds with a collective chorus of ‘capiche’s. For all her assigned partners bullshittery, as North would put it, their English teacher is fun and teaches them what they need to know, so she’s well-liked by the student body. And it’s not just her - none of the staff will allow North and himself to work together now, apart from their Chemistry teacher. Given their track record, he’s probably the one who should be trying to keep them apart the most, come to think of it.

 

The students with A-L surnames are clearing away their clutter to make room on their desks - apart from North - and those with M-Z surnames are gathering their supplies into transportable piles - apart from him.

 

“Markus,” Miss Harding calls, grabbing his attention. “You’ll be working with Connor.” She moves onto the next student, but her voice fades into the background.

 

Oh, fuck. Oh no. No, no, no.

 

It’s not that he doesn’t like Connor. It’s the opposite.

 

He’s had a crush on him since they were thirteen, which makes it three and a half years now. They’ve never actually interacted, as such, and Markus doesn’t know if Connor is aware of him past ‘somebody I see in the corner of my eye every so often in English class’. It’s the only class they share - Connor is in honours and advanced placement for everything he takes, and Markus is either in regular where Connor is in honours, or in honours where Connor is takes advanced placement. AP English grants him three hours a week to spend in Connor’s general vicinity, at least.

 

He would be ecstatic but -

 

Well.

 

North turns round in her chair again, wide-eyed. “Dude!” she mouths, looking excited. Then she frowns. “Why aren’t you freaking out?” she whispers, tipping her chair back precariously onto two legs to get closer to him.

 

Markus struggles to find the words, mainly because he knows North will be pissed that he didn’t tell her about the incident immediately. “Connor knows about Leo,” he finally replies, at an even lower volume.

 

North’s chair clatters back to four legs. The teacher, and half their classmates, glare at her. As usual, she’s completely unfazed, and proceeds to scrape her chair round so she can face Markus. Miss Harding looks askance at her but carries on reading out the last few partners. “Markus, what the fuck,” she hisses, looking infuriated already. “Why didn’t you fucking tell me when this shit happened?”

 

“First off, stop swearing-”

 

“Go fuck yourself!”

 

“And secondly, because I was...embarrassed, I guess.” Markus throws his hands up in mercy, and accidentally flips a pencil backwards off the desk. It hits the wall and snaps in two, which is a waste of a good pencil, but at least breaks the tension and makes North giggle. Her eyes softened anyway as soon as he spoke, clearly understanding his situation.

 

“You don’t have to be embarrassed about it,” she says sincerely. Her nail polish is starting to flake off, dark red covering her nails in irregular patches, but her hands are as warm and delicate as ever as they curl around his own, fingers squeezing gently. “It’s not your fault that your brother is a piece of total shit.”

 

“It’s still - okay, so, you remember when he went missing for, like, three weeks?”

 

North nods. “The police found him in a condemned building.”

 

“Yeah, so, uh, they called us and said he was in a holding cell, they found him on the system from his fingerprints? We had to go and pick him up, and sort out bail and stuff.”

 

“He got community service, yeah? I remember.”

 

“Yeah. Perks of being rich.” Markus waggles his eyebrows at her; North suppresses a smirk. “So, anyway, we turned up and the receptionist was like, ‘Go in and find Lieutenant Anderson,’ so in we go and almost straight away I see Connor, just, like, sitting at one of the desks.”

 

North slaps a hand on the desk. Their classmates barely react this time. “Had he been arrested?” Her eyes flicker over to the boy in question, who’s actually paying attention to their teacher and whatever vital information she’s giving them about the project.

 

“No - well, I thought so, too, right? Then I saw he had his textbook on the desk, he was, like, doing homework? Then Carl says he can see Lieutenant Anderson’s desk - he points to it, and it’s directly opposite where Connor is!”

 

“Shit.” North leans in closer, her blonde hair obscuring half her face for a moment until she scoops it out of the way impatiently. “Oh, shit! Connor’s last name is Anderson!”

 

Markus gestures wildly and uselessly, glad she’s making the same connections he did. “Right! So we go over, and Connor looks up, and he goes, ‘Oh, if you’re looking for Lieutenant Anderson, he’ll be right back,” and Carl says thank you and asks him about his homework-”

 

“And you were having a major gay panic at this time, correct?”

 

“You have never said anything so true, North, oh my God, I genuinely thought I was going to die! Then this man appears, and asks if we’re here for Leo, and Carl says yes, and then the guy starts looking on his desk for the file and Connor, like, picks it up and hands it over and says casually, ‘red ice’, so obviously he knows everything, and then as we walk away I look back and he’s, like, looking at me? Really intensely? Then he just...nods, and fucking goes back to his homework like my entire world didn’t just flip on its axis!”

 

“Quite the trip,” North comments. She sounds impressed. “But - like, he won’t be judging you, dude, like, he sees that shit every day. His dad’s a cop. He’s, like, cool with it.”

 

“It’s still embarrassing!” Markus implores her to understand. “Anyway, I don’t even know if that’s his dad.”

 

“Oh, no, it is, I remember seeing a picture of Connor and a dog on his desk now,” North says absently.

 

Markus gapes. “Nor - North, what the fuck , when were you at the fucking police station-”

 

“Remember when I got arrested for scratching ‘dickface’ into that asshole’s car? Lieutenant Anderson was there, he told them not to put me in a holding cell because I was too young and made somebody make me coffee while I waited at his desk for my parents.”

 

“And you didn’t - you didn’t think to mention this?”

“Okay, well,” North narrows her eyes. Not good. “You’re not in any position to lecture about fucking secrets, and, and, I told you I was arrested and a nice cop stopped me from getting shoved in jail, I just didn’t say who the nice cop was. Because I forgot, I was kind of preoccupied with being fucking arrested .”

 

“How could you forget?”

 

“Because, Markus, and I know you’re going to find this, just, like, fucking out-of-this-world crazy, not all of us are obsessed with Connor .”

 

She’s won. They both know she’s won. “Fuck you,” Markus mumbles, and shoves his stuff into a haphazard pile when he notices other people standing up. “I have to go now.”

 

“Have fun sucking diiiiiiiiiiiick ,” North not-quite-whispers.

 

“I will,” Markus hisses back, and flounces off so he can at least pretend he has some dignity left. He slows his strut to a normal walk when he gets a few paces away from Connor’s desk. His first - fuck, second - impression on the guy doesn’t need to be any worse than it already inevitably will be.

 

“Hi,” Markus announces lamely. Connor looks up from his notes, a pen clutched horizontally between his lips, kind of like a dog with its favourite toy but infinitely cuter. It’s also - well, Markus has to banish some impure thoughts.

 

Connor removes the pen, taps it nervously against the paper. “My name is Connor,” he says, in his stupid raspy-smooth voice.

 

“I know. Markus. I mean - I know your name. And mine is Markus.”

 

Connor smiles slightly. “I know.” He glances between Markus and the chair next to him when he doesn’t move. “Are you going to sit down?”

 

“Yes,” Markus says a little too fast, and sits down so quickly his spine creaks. “I am sat.” Oh, it’s even worse than he thought.

 

“Like a cat on a mat,” Connor replies instantly. Markus stares at him in surprise. “What kind of project do you want to do?”

 

“I - uh, I wasn’t listening,” Markus confesses sheepishly.

 

Connor’s lips twitch upwards again. “I saw you talking to your friend, so I thought you might not be.” It doesn’t sound like a reprimand from him, not like it would from Josh or Simon - Markus winces to think about lunchtime, when North will undoubtedly tell them what he just told her, and also give a wildly exaggerated version of events in the class. “I came up with a few ideas while Miss Harding was talking - here.” He pushes his notebook towards Markus, open to a double-page spread.

 

Markus blinks. The left half is full of meticulous neat notes in almost perfect handwriting, certain parts highlighted or underlined. His own notes can be described as scribbles at best and the illegible scrawlings of a toddler at worst. The right half is a little messier, but still neater than anything Markus produces; and wow, there are a lot of ideas.

 

It’s not that Markus is stupid, but his talents lie more in art. He likes English too, likes how you can change the entire meaning of a sentence by adding or removing one word, or how you can create a chasm between meanings using synonyms. He likes to analyse books and see the meaning behind the words, but he’s a dweller. He sits, and ponders, and lets his mind wander and draw conclusions.

 

Connor, on the other hand, clearly needs no great length of time to shoot out ideas. Markus skims down the list quickly - the theme of the project seems to be symbolism, which he can do easily, except oh wait his brain has a meltdown whenever Connor says anything goddamnit . The ideas are solid - a couple of Shakespeare’s works are noted as examples for each, some American classics, some British too, some titles that he’s never heard of. “I like - I like the idea of doing feminism over the years. So, female characters? And comparing them to each other, and saying how times have changed. Or how they haven’t?”

 

Connor beams. “Great. That was probably my favourite. Like, Shakespeare wise, I immediately think of Lady Macbeth, and then more recently, Curly’s wife? But we’d also need to like, balance it. Because Steinbeck purposely wrote the story in that way as, like, social commentary, and in some Shakespeare tragedies women are given bigger roles.”

 

“Do you - do you have any paper? I think better if I can get my thoughts out. And I’ll probably forget everything, too.”

 

“Sure.” Connor retrieves a jotter pad and neatly tears two pages out for him, and then grabs him a pen too, from a case that seems to be entirely full of black ballpoints.

 

Markus immediately draws an uneven oval in the centre of one page, and scribbles inside it, Feminism over the years , in his cramped handwriting. He spiders several legs out from it and jots down everything they’ve said. Connor is watching him with fascination. “I know it’s not very neat,” he says, suddenly very aware of the contrast between their notes.

 

“I like it,” Connor says quietly. “I mean - I like that you can think like that. I - I can’t. I’d like to.” Connor sounds sadder than Markus would have expected over something as simple as English notes - it runs deeper, then, this is something Connor struggles with on a much more personal and meaningful level.

 

“If it means anything, I really like your notes. I wish I could be that neat and organised,” Markus offers.

 

After a second, Connor’s furrowed expression transforms into a gentle smile. “Thank you, Markus. You’re very kind. Ah - anyway, the project. We should try to find some more examples of female characters. Maybe all the way back to classical times too? And something modern, too.

 

Markus adds the ideas to his mind map untidily, not missing how Connor’s eyes dart after his every movement.

 

When the lesson finishes forty-five minutes later, Markus has filled three more pages of mindmaps, ranging from characters to quotes to additional themes to cultural references, and Connor asks politely if he can use his phone to take a picture of them to copy out himself.

 

“Hey, we should exchange numbers,” Markus blurts, and then hastens to explain that he’s not actually a creep, “To meet up outside school, I mean? To get the project done?”

 

“Good idea.” Connor closes his camera and with a few deft taps opens a new contact. “Here, put your number in, I’ll text you later today?”

 

“Sounds good!” His usually graceful and delicate fingers have suddenly become fumbling and clumsy, and he makes more than a few typos as he tries to enter his name and number. He puts his surname in too, just in case, and double-checks his number. “Here. That, uh. Should be it.” The bell rings. “See you later!”

 

Before Connor can react he rushes back towards North’s desk, kicking her in the back of the leg when he reaches her. “I’m coming, you dickbag,” she hisses, and turns back to her partner, Traci. “I’ll text you tonight, then?”

 

“Sounds good,” Traci agrees, and shoots Markus a quick smile. “Bye, guys.”

 

North scoops up her own stuff and they exit the classroom rapidly, heading to their lockers. “He’s going to text me later and we’re going to arrange a time to hang out after school to work on the project. He’s going to keep saying intelligent and clever stuff, and I’m going to look like a bitch and a fool.”

 

“Well,” North flings her locker open more aggressively than she has to. “You always look like a bitch and a fool, so we’re fine on that front.”

 

“I’m serious, North, he’s so amazing and I just turn into a pile of mush!”

 

“Why do I have the feeling that you’re talking about Connor?” Simon asks tiredly from behind them. Josh trails behind him, looking vaguely concussed.

 

“PE?” North asks in return, and gets two nods. “Rough. Let’s go eat our body weights in mashed potatoes to make up for it.”

 

“There’s a reason I love you,” Josh mumbles, and slings his arms around North’s shoulders as they walk. “What’s this about Connor, anyway?”

 

“We’ve been paired together for an English project,” Markus explains, reluctantly allowing North to tug him into a sideways embrace as they head towards the cafeteria. “My brain doesn’t work around him, he’s going to think I’m a massive idiot and want nothing to do with me.”

 

“If he thinks that, he’s a fucking moron and I will punch him in the dick,” Simon says, quite seriously, and surprises him into laughing.

 

“Just be yourself around him,” Josh advises. “I mean - what can go wrong with that?”

 

“Don’t jinx it,” Markus moans. “I have enough bad karma already.”

 

North perks up. “That’s true. Hey, remember when you nearly impaled yourself on a baton during the relays in PE because Connor smiled at you?”

 

Markus slaps her arm feebly. “North, bad karma!”

Chapter Text

“You really need to chill the fuck out,” North says, peeling an orange viciously. Small spatters of juice spurt onto the wooden picnic table they’re occupying, and Josh scoots his sandwich further away from her with a glare. North, as usual, either doesn’t notice or takes no notice.

 

“I agree,” Simon says unexpectedly. “Not – not so harsh, but – yeah, he’s just a guy, Markus. Even if he’s really hot and does awesome coin tricks.” He grows defensive with their stares focused on him. “I can appreciate aesthetics,” he huffs, and pops the lid off his Tupperware to get to his apple slices.

 

“So,” Markus says, voice a little higher than usual in indignation. North snickers. He ignores her. “We’re all in agreement that Connor’s really hot?” His voice cracks just slightly as he says his crush’s name, but everyone has the grace not to point it out.

 

“Markus,” North interrupts. “Look, I’ve never said this before, because we’re friends, and I – it’s – ah – it would be awkward, but – here’s the deal.” She shoves a segment of the orange into her mouth and chews it viciously, swallowing it after three bites. If she did it to make Markus intimidated, it worked. “You’re really hot, dude. Like, the six-pack, and the eyes, and just – your face, in general? And your aura, it’s just hot. If anything, Connor should be the one intimidated by you, okay? If you weren’t gay, and I wasn’t gay, I would have been allllll up on that a long time ago.”

 

Markus blinks. That was not what he was expecting. He was anticipating some kind of aggressive speech about how he needed to stop being a coward, not veiled compliments and an almost-proposition.

 

Josh sets his sandwich back down on the foil, chewing thoughtfully. “I don’t think Connor is intimidated by anyone. Like...he just gives off that vibe , you know?”

 

“A vibe?” Simon repeats, sounding wholly unimpressed. “How exactly does one give off a vibe?”

 

“They just do, that’s the point of a vibe,” Josh argues. “They just – they vibe, you know?”

 

“They vibe,” Simon scoffs.

 

“You know what he does have – big dick energy ,” North chimes in enthusiastically, over Simon’s low mutterings about vibes and Josh’s annoyed noises.

 

“We’re not having this conversation,” Markus says, mostly to himself. He knows from approximately seventeen thousand past experiences that there’s no point trying to get his friends to be quiet once they’re on a roll.

 

Josh and Simon seem to have agreed to disagree, and are both eating their lunches again stonily. Markus cuts over North’s background rambling about how long should the perfect dick be you don’t want it too long right but not like tiny to ask them, “Do I give off a gay vibe?”

 

Predictably, Simon rolls his eyes. Josh just says, “Not so much a vibe. I think everyone just kind of knows. I’m sure Connor knows,” he adds, sensing what Markus was really asking.

 

“I have Chemistry with him later, do you want me to find out?” Simon offers. “I’ll be subtle.”

 

“By subtle, do you mean you’ll walk straight up to him and ask if he knows that Markus is gay?” North breaks in, apparently finished with her debate with herself over penis sizes. “Because, like, that’s usually how you do things.”

 

Simon bristles. “I do not,” he protests hotly.

 

“You kind of do,” Markus agrees. “Remember when North had that crush on Kara?”

 

They all wince. “Fine,” Simon sighs. “That was a mistake. I should have approached with a different tactic.”

 

“You walked straight up to her and asked if she liked vaginas.” North narrows her eyes at him. “Then you said you were ‘asking for a friend’ and ran away when she told you she was dating Luther.”

 

“But now you’re friends,” Simon says, weakly cheerful.

 

“Yeah, because we sit next to each other in History,” North hisses. “And seeing as I’m the only female friend you have, I’m quite sure that she knows you were asking on my behalf.”

 

“Children,” Markus interrupts. “Not to sound too conceited, but we’re talking about me right now, okay? Let’s focus back on me, and my problems.”

 

“One of my favourite things about you is your modesty,” North says, and rips open a snack bar. 

 

“And my apparent hotness.” Markus knows that his grin must have reached shit-eating proportions. He’s never letting her live that one down.

 

“There’s no point in freaking out about this now,” Josh points out, with his characteristic not-an-idiot-ness. “Wait for him to text you at least. Right now you have, like, twenty minutes of stilted conversation and project planning to be basing all of this wild freaking out on. Let’s wait for a bit more content before we all start crying.”

 

“Content,” North snorts, “what, are we on a fucking TV show? A sitcom? What the fuck, Josh? Are we fandom favourites?”


“Maybe we are,” Simon joins in, “maybe that’s why we’re all so messy - because we’re entertaining the people!” North snaps her fingers at him, nodding as she shoves the rest of her orange into her mouth in one go.

 

“I hate you guys,” Josh says, entirely serious, “I say like, one thing and suddenly it’s the funniest thing ever and you won’t shut the hell up about it.”

 

Markus sighs and finally gets to opening his own lunch. Oh look, cheese sandwich. That’s nice. He’ll just eat that while his friends discuss the smutty fanfiction that would be written about them. That’s nice and normal and fun.

 


 

Connor really hates the texture of pencils on glossy paper. He cringes every time he has to underline anything in his textbook with a sharpened 2H, the way it doesn’t quite glide but feels like it should, the slight hitch that interrupts the movement; the way you can, almost imperceptibly, feel the layers of graphite sliding off underneath your fingers. As he reaches the end of the chapter he feels an irrationally strong surge of relief, chides himself for being so ridiculous, but still smiles when he sets the pencil down and switches to the pen, setting the nib at the top of the page. Freshly torn from the refill pad, set on a block of soft cardboard-like material that Hank had made for him specially because he hated writing with nothing underneath the page, but also hated writing on top of other paper and leaving a ghost of the words behind. Narrow grey lines, off-white paper, the contrast soft enough that it doesn’t strain his eyes, no margins so he can draw his own in whatever style he chooses. 

He re-reads every sentence that he’s underlined, and mentally condenses it down as much as he can. Then he copies it down in neat, straight, even lettering – each alphabetic character is practically identical to its siblings, almost like a computer font in its regularity. Once he’s managed to reduce the chapter of the textbook to a series of diagrams and bullet-points, out come the highlighters. He streaks through all key information: titles are cloaked in orange, dates in blue, pink in names. Any concepts and ideas are bathed in a lurid green, while a light purple highlights any important vocabulary. Yellow is last – for anything that doesn’t fit into the other categories, but is still needed. Yellow is his least favourite colour, so it gets his least favourite category – the one that doesn’t have a clearly defined box around it. He likes his boxes, and having everything fit into those boxes.

 

The notes are tidy. Uniform. Perfect.

 

Connor fixes the stray curl that plagues his forehead back into place and adjusts his collar.

 

Chapter 15: Henry VII’s Socioeconomic Policies, 1485-1509 beckons, leering out of the page at the pseudo-innocuous pencil laid to rest beside it. Connor stares back, jaw clenching involuntarily before Sumo unceremoniously shoves his slobbery snout into Connor’s thigh and demands the attention that befits a dog of his station. He sighs, but can’t help but smile, and deftly scratches under Sumo’s slightly damp chin. As the dog’s eyes close in bliss, Connor wields the pencil once more, and gets to work after only a blissful few seconds to imagine how lovely it would be to stab himself through the eyeballs and never have to use a pencil on glossy paper again.

 

Five pages later, midway through a truly fascinating paragraph analysing trade routes, the pencil is knocked clean out of his hands by a gentle swing from a white paper bag, dotted with grease stains. Hank grumbles, “You work too hard,” and it’s hard to identify the tone as anything other than angry at first listen. But Connor’s ears are well-trained to Hank now; he knows his adoptive father better than anybody else, and he knows that his tone is scolding only because he’s concerned. “Put that shit away, it’s useless.” Connor doesn’t fail to notice that, despite his words, Hank had waited for him to lift the pencil from the page before he’d batted it away so he didn’t cause him to scrawl all over his book. And he’s placed the bag carefully away from Connor’s work so no grease leeches from the contents.

 

“Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes.” Connor moves everything onto the empty chair next to him carefully, settling his pen and pencil into the crease of the textbook so they won’t roll out. 

 

“I’m sure not learning about some English king is going to stop World War Three from breaking out.” Hank opens the bag, pulls out another smaller paper bag from inside, this one brown, and then snaps his fingers. “Shit. Plates. I got it.”

 

“You don’t have to,” Connor calls after him, and then a quieter, “Thank you,” when Hank just flaps a dismissive hand over his shoulder at him. He knows that if Hank was eating by himself he would have just eaten out of the cardboard carton or the paper wrap, and his appreciation that Hank has gone out of his way to accommodate one of Connor’s quirks is mingled with guilt over making Hank do so in the first place.

 

Hank, with his intuitive father sense, seems to know what Connor’s thinking and he sets the plate down in front of the two occupied chairs with a soft, “Don’t feel guilty for making me less of a slob”. Then, louder, “I didn’t know if you wanted the fish burger or the beef burger, so I just got you both, and then they gave me two fries for them, so hope you’re hungry.” He sets down a bottle of beer for himself too, which sets off something of an alarm in his head - but then he notices that it’s a fancy one, so Hank isn’t planning to binge, he’s going to appreciate the one drink and make it last. Not that Hank has drunk excessively for a while now, anyway, he realises with a small surge of guilt.

 

“I forgot to eat lunch,” Connor admits, if ‘admits’ can mean ‘half-lies’, because he didn’t forget so much as purposely didn’t make himself one that morning and then purposely left his wallet behind so he could make an excuse to himself about not getting it at school. “But two portions would be very unhealthy.”

 

“So’s not eating enough,” Hank points out, as if the food he’s just put in front of Connor doesn’t round up to at least three thousand calories. “And everyone deserves a cheat day.”

 

“Every day is your cheat day,” Connor replies absent-mindedly, then freezes in case his feeble attempt at a joke reminds Hank of his intermittent alcoholism.

 

“Obviously,” is all his dad says though, unwrapping his own burgers and fries, then digging a dozen rainbow packets out of his pocket and tossing them into the space between them. “Good day at school?”

 

“Not good, not bad,” Connor replies automatically, weighing up his options and then taking two ketchups, a salt and tartare sauce. “How was work?”

 

Hank immediately launches into a story about an encounter with Gavin Reed, his least favourite colleague, that involves a blow-up flamingo, two plaid shirts, and a novelty axe. Connor ends up so engrossed that he eats all of one burger and most of the other without realising, and puts what remains down for a moment to focus on the fries before they go cold. 

 

“Anyway, the long and short of it is that Gavin nearly got blinded, Tina’s banned from yoghurt, and the AC isn’t  going to be working for a good few months yet, so yeah, work was good I’d say.”

 

Connor scoops his fries into the ketchup and chews contemplatively before he responds. “I thought you said about halfway through that you got a disciplinary for pretending you were going to break the window, and then actually breaking the window?”

 

“Because the axe was plastic and not foam like I thought, yeah.”

 

“Most people wouldn’t say that a day when they get a disciplinary warning is ‘good’.”

 

“I get a disciplinary every fuckin’ day,” Hank says dismissively. “My folder looks like a novel at this point, but I’ve won too many awards for anything to happen. It’s like yin and yang, it cancels each other out.”

 

“I don’t think that’s what yin and yang is.” Connor gives the last bite of his burger to a patient Sumo, who almost takes his fingers off in his enthusiasm but then licks his hand to apologise. “Also, what if the day comes when the awards stop cancelling out the disciplinaries?”

 

“I’ll be retired before then.” From anyone else it could be seen as bragging, but from Hank it’s a simple statement of fact: he’s proud of his awards, but doesn’t have an ounce of hubris in his body, and he’s well aware that his glory days are past now. “Anyway, Fowler couldn’t stand to have me leave.”

 

Connor doubts that. “I doubt that.” Whenever he sees the Captain he’s angry or stressed or some other negative emotion, and Hank only seems to exacerbate the situation. Only once has Connor seen him cheer up his superior, and that was because Hank slipped on a patch of ice in the parking lot. 

 

Hank snorts. “He loves me. Saved his ass at the academy too many times for him not to.”

 

“Saved as in…?” Connor can’t help imagining dramatic montages of Hank tackling the Captain out of the way of a rainstorm of bullets while Guns N Roses plays in the background.

 

“I covered for him when he was hungover,” Hank mumbles around a mouthful of burger.

 

“Oh. Right. Of course. He’s...still grateful for that?”

 

Hank points a fry at him. A small blob of ketchup wobbles and drops off onto his plate. “The bonds you forge in the classroom,” he says, in his serious voice, “last a lifetime.” He picks up several more fries and puts them all into his mouth at once, and then says in between chews, “Speaking of - you make any friends today?”

 

“As with every day - no. I’m not...interested in friends, I suppose. School is for learning.” 

 

“It is, yeah, but that’s not what it’s all about. You make friendships that last for life, and - hey, hey, you learn about social skills.”

 

Connor isn’t impressed. “I know you’re trying to manipulate me into making friends, Hank.”

 

Hank has the grace to look ashamed. “Okay, yeah, well, not manipulate - but if it makes you want to make friends, if that’s how your brain needs to see it…” He gestures uselessly with his hands, looking defeated.

 

“Sorry. I know you weren’t trying to manipulate me.” Connor eats a few more fries to buy himself some time. He knows Hank doesn’t fully understand how he works, but he tries his absolute best, and if the result of that is slightly misguided but well-meaning advice, he’ll take it. “I just don’t really connect with anyone. I’m not trying to...not make friends.”

 

Hank’s face softens. “I know, son. I know. I just...want you to be happy.”

 

"I had a positive interaction today," Connor offers. He is rewarded with a beam from Hank, and is so relieved that he forgets to expand at all until a hand wave prompts him. “Oh, sorry. We have an English project, and our teacher paired us up randomly. We had the lesson together today and we’ll need to meet up outside of school, too.”

 

“Good! That’s good! Planning to cause an explosion like those kids last year?”

 

Connor’s eyes crinkle where the two lids meet each other at the edges, a subtle but sure sign he’s amused. “Funny you should say that, I’m actually doing the project with one of ‘those kids’.”

 

“Shit,” Hank groans with clearly exaggerated horror, dragging a hand over his face. “Please don’t get us called out. I would never live it down if my own kid caused a bomb scare.” 

 

My own kid.

 

Hank, for whatever reason, finds Connor’s deadpan amusing. This is useful when Connor isn’t capable of showing his current emotion. “I’ll do my best.” Connor strips his face of any expression to follow his voice’s suit.

 

Hank looks up in suspicious worry, then realises he’s been had. “Fucking hell.” He shakes his head in mock despair, shaggy grey hair following the movement. He needs a haircut soon, or he’ll end up looking like an ageing rock star. Connor makes a mental note to call the barbers and secure an appointment. “Anyway, what’s this project about?”

 

“It’s for English. We’re doing a project about feminism through the ages - at first it was just going to be characters from literature, but I bumped into my teacher at the end of the day and asked if we could do examples of real people, too, and from other media, and she said yes.”

 

Hank gives Connor that look, the one that means I’m really proud of you , and Connor nearly misses what he says next because he’s preoccupied trying to figure out if Hank is proud of him for doing a group project on feminism or if Hank is proud of him for doing a group project on feminism. Or maybe for talking to a teacher voluntarily. “What’s the plan then, for this project?”

 

“I’m going to message him later tonight and confirm, but I’m thinking that he could do the classic and historical examples, and I can research the modern ones. Then we can put them together to collaborate on an essay, as well as preparing a shorter presentation for the class. I’m hoping to include an analysis of popular female characters throughout a variety of genres and types of media, an evaluation of how female characters and females themselves have changed over the years with a direct relation to feminism, as well as clearly outlining some themes and cultural references. I’m hoping to include several quotes in there too.”

 

Hank seems to be slightly bulldozed. “That’s, uh...more intelligent than anything I could ever come up with, kid.”

 

“I couldn’t crack a fifteen-year cold case with no new leads like you did last month,” Connor points out. He doesn’t know how serious Hank is being when he talks like this, but he doesn’t want to run even the slightest risk that his adoptive father could slip into a bout of melancholia - or worse.

 

“You will one day, kid, you’ll be a fucking great detective,” Hank says, with so much sincerity that Connor thinks he might collapse under the weight of it. “But for now - focus on this project. Who’re you doing it with, then? I remember those exploding kids. Especially the girl - Chris tried to take her statement and she just kept going on about her civil rights to make things explode. Then a few months’ later she got brought in for keying this guy’s car because he cat-called her. Amazing .”

 

“That’s North Kelley.” Connor smiles. He hasn’t had that many experiences with her, and none outside of the school halls or classrooms, but the limited knowledge he has of her personality line up with Hank’s story. “I think she was probably the driving force behind the explosion. Markus seems more laid-back and sensible. I’m doing the project with him.”

 

“Well.” Hank shifts in his seat, which prompts Sumo to galumph over to him and beg for fuss. “Well,” he repeats, scratching Sumo’s ears obligingly, “I’m glad you won’t be dragged into causing any explosions. That’s usually a good thing.” He drinks his beer for a few seconds as Connor mulls over his use of the word usually , each second bringing more disturbing connotations. “But North might have brought you out of your shell a bit. Maybe even change into a new one.”

 

Connor bristles slightly. “I’m not a hermit crab! And I think Markus will do that anyway. He’s, uh - he’s good. A good person. Clever. And nice.” Connor holds Hank’s stare for a few more moments before ducking his head and clicking his tongue. Sumo comes back to his favourite human - a statement of fact, he feeds and walks him - and collapses against his legs with all the force of a ten-ton truck. 

 

“I think I remember seeing him once,” Hank says casually (too casually) after a (too-long) hesitation. “He came into the station with his father. To pick up his brother.” He lets the end of his sentence lift up at the end, like he’s not entirely sure he’s correct.

 

“For red ice possession,” Connor supplies. If he doesn’t say it, Hank will, so he might as well speed up the process. “I was there, doing homework.”

 

“Mm. I remember.” Like there was any ever doubt. “His dad’s that artist, right? Carl Manfred?”

 

“Yeah. Markus likes art, too.” He didn’t mean to say that. Why did he say that? His mouth is no longer under the control of his brain. This cannot mean anything good.

 

Hank nods. (Too slowly.) “He was, uh. Good-looking.” He throws the word out into the space between them like a gauntlet, waiting for Connor to pick it up and accept the challenge.

 

Accept he does. “I suppose. Objectively. Heterochromia is rare so it makes one seem exotic. Exotic looks tend to be more attractive as it is outside of our normal experience and this is exciting. On a more primal level, exotic looks signal to us that we do not share a similar gene pool, which is beneficial for reproduction.” Connor has pulled all of this out of his ass, but it sounds like it could be real. 

 

Hank blinks once, then downs the rest of his beer in one gulp. “Kid,” he begins, “your face is red enough to be a beacon for a UFO from fuckin’ Mars.”

 

“It’s very hot in here,” Connor rebutts, conveniently ignoring the fact that it’s actually leaning towards the colder side because dinner has run a bit late and neither of them have flicked on the heating yet. “Also, Sumo is on my toes. It’s slightly painful, and repressing any exclamations or indications of pain is causing my face to flush.”

 

“I don’t think that’s how it works.”

 

“I think it is.” Break down that stellar defense, if you can.

 

Hank exhales heavily. He swings the beer bottle between his fingers by its neck, contemplating the best way to broach this topic with Connor. If he’s too forward, too direct, Connor will close off, either by changing the subject or refusing to talk or straight-up sprinting out of the house - Hank has an unfortunate amount of experience with that - but if he’s too vague then Connor will continue to feign ignorance before excusing himself because he needs to do homework or take a shower or sit in an armchair and think about physics, or whatever the weird boy does for a hobby.

 

“Connor…” The beer bottle swings. Too heavy a force one way, or too light another, and the momentum will become unbalanced and stutter, and the pattern will be irreparably broken. “I’m not homophobic. Or biphobic. Or whatever other phobias you can have towards people.”

 

“I know you’re not.” Either Connor is being purposefully dense...or he’s not. The two options don’t really narrow anything down. “It’s part of what makes you a fantastic police lieutenant.”

 

“Shucks, kid. Gonna give me a big head one of these days.” How could anyone hate this kid - well, how could anyone hate any kid, really, but especially this one - when he was so earnest and kind and unapologetically pure in a world that wasn’t? One of these days he was going to track down the fuckers who neglected Connor and left him by himself at just seven years old in a fucking condemned building surrounded by old drug paraphanalia. Besides the point. “Anyway, kid, listen...that doesn’t just apply when I’m at work, you know that?”

 

“I am aware,” Connor says stiffly, which means that he’s figured out where this conversation is going.

 

“I don’t care if you’re gay.” Rip the band-aid off.

 

“...I am aware.”

 

Hank waits for more, before remembering that this is Connor he’s talking to, and what the hell is he doing expecting more than an emotionally stunted barely-sentence? “I’m not going to press you to tell me. But you can if you want. You can tell me anything.” He stops swinging the bottle, sets it upright and steady on the table. Then, after a full minute passes in silence, with Connor still avoiding eye contact, he gets up, and is about to clear the plates when - 

 

“There’s no point.”

 

“No point to what?” Hank doesn’t sit back down - that could indicate he’s wanting a long conversation, which could spook Connor out of talking more - but he leans against his chair - to show that he’s listening, he’s not in a hurry to get away. Some people would say that Connor is difficult, complicated, a problem child . Hank would say those people are idiots. His boy is the epitome of an open book if you just spend more than two seconds focusing on something other than yourself.

 

“To...coming out, admitting to a crush, whatever.” Sumo’s head lolls back as Connor’s ministrations increase in speed and intensity. Stupid oaf, and by fuck Hank loves him. Sumo too. “It’s - there’s - nothing will - will happen , you know? I’m not someone that - that can be in a relationship, Hank.”

 

“That’s bullshit,” Hank says softly. “It doesn’t matter if your brain doesn’t work like everyone else’s - in fact, I think it works better than everyone else’s, and you deserve someone who can see that too. Kids are cruel, and the things they think are, are, weird or whatever right now - now those are the things that set you apart. You’re one of the kindest souls I’ve ever met, your heart is too big for your own fuckin’ chest, you’re practically a genius, and even without all of those - you’re still important, Connor, because you’re still a person. You’re still Connor. But those things make up Connor, so - just forget about anyone who doesn’t like them, yeah?”

 

At some point, Connor’s looked up to him, big brown poodle eyes wet as he stares at Hank. “My emotions are kind of broken,” he mumbles, voice trembling like he’s afraid he’ll finally see the light of day and kick him out of his home.

 

“Everybody’s a little broken, everybody’s repairing themselves all the time. What are those - those pots, and stuff, where they fix them with gold, and they look even better than before? That’s what you’re like.”

 

“Kintsugi?” Connor offers.

 

“Probably. That’s you. Kintsugi, okay? Not everything is unbroken, but it’s fixed enough, and it’s more beautiful for it. You learn from your experiences, and you grow.”

 

“I don’t see why someone like Markus would ever like someone like me.”

 

They’re moving away from problems Connor has with himself and setting course towards the usual teenage angst about crushes - Hank takes this as progress. “Markus ain’t got shit on you, okay? Oooh, he’s got heterochromia, oooh, he can do art, oooh, he once blew up half of a classroom talking about To Kill A Mockingbird - but you’re Connor, okay? Connor fuckin’ Anderson. Say it with me.”

 

“Connor fucking Anderson,” they chorus together, and even though Connor is crying and valiantly pretending not to, he’s also smiling brighter than the sun.

 

The boy sniffs, wipes at his cheeks with his sweater pulled over his hands like paws, then pulls his legs up onto the chair to press against his chest. His toes wiggle up and down over the lip of the chair - typical of Connor, he can never sit still. “Thanks Dad,” he says quietly, like every time he says that word it doesn’t make something in Hank’s chest erupt into a supernova of overwhelming aching affection and cause his entire outlook on life to shine just a little bit brighter.

 

“No problem, son,” Hank says gruffly, and then because it’s getting too sappy for the two of them to handle, he adds, “if this works out with Markus, or any other guy for that matter, I want you to be safe, okay? And you can come to me - it’ll be embarrassing, but I can get you stuff, you know, condoms, lu--”

 

“I think we should clean up the table now,” Connor says, very loudly and very suddenly, and picks up the glasses and plates and cutlery with a lot more noise than arguably necessary. His face has somehow become even redder. “Thanks for the meal, Hank.”

 

Hank grabs the takeaway bag and shoves all the other wrappers into it. “Want to watch some TV for a bit?” he offers.

 

In the kitchen, Connor makes a happy, affirmative noise - and this is something Hank never thought he’d have after Cole. A child in the house who answers his questions with noises that Hank can identify without even thinking, and it’s right. It’s right. It’s what it should be. 

 

He shoves the bag of takeout wrappers into the bin, nearly overflowing, and pats his leg to signal Sumo to follow him into the living room. He would help Connor stack the dishwasher, and tidy up in general, but Hank had learnt within the first few days of their living together that it was more distressing to Connor to have his routines or rituals interrupted than it was to do household chores by himself.

 

He sets up the living room instead, dragging the coffee table closer so Connor can put their mugs of whatever tea he’s currently making on it. Sumo jumps up onto the armchair with his current favourite toy (victim) and gnaws on it while Hank shuffles around the room, grabbing Connor’s laptop from the side-table where it was charging and setting it on the arm of the sofa, then clearing the cushions off the sofa because Connor insisted on having the decorations there during the day but refused to utilise them for comfort.

 

Connor wanders in with two mugs, both steaming, as Hank presses every button on the remote control until he manages to navigate to Netflix. His own is plain white on the outside, but Hank knows that inside you’ve been poisoned is scrawled over the base, something that never fails to give Connor instant and apparently endless amusement. He sets them on the coffee table, nudging Hank’s mug towards him on the coaster. It’s the one that says Number One Dad on it; Connor gave it to him shyly on their fifth Father’s Day together, and it’s the one that Connor uses when he’s feeling particularly grateful for something Hank has done. “Chamomile,” he says, picking up his laptop and throwing himself onto the couch. “Is it alright if I do some work while we watch?”

 

“Course. I’m still pissed off that you figured out that plot twist, by the way.” He finally manages to muddle his way through Netflix’s maze of categories and starts the show.

 

“I thought it was too obvious to actually happen,” Connor protests, “I said it as a joke.”

 

“Nobody guesses the plot twist in The Good Place ! You’re like - you’re like Janet.”

 

“That’s a compliment,” Connor says smugly, tipping his mug towards Hank in a small salute. They both quieten down as the ‘previously on’ concludes, and he opens up his PC, loading up Chrome and a new Word document. 

 

Two episodes later, and with several pages of planning and research under his belt, he pulls his phone from his pocket and finds Markus’s contact details, entered earlier after their slightly confusing interaction.

 

Compose message to: Markus Manfred >

Hi, Markus! It’s Connor. I’ve done some research for the project we’re doing, I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve made a short outline that I think we could use. Let me know if you want to see it and/or use it, or if you want to start over. Either is fine! -Connor

 


 

“I’m just saying, if Markus was a character in a show, or, or, a game or something, people would like - be racist, right?”

 

“North, what the fuck are you talking about?”

 

“Like - he’s mixed race, right? So - the fans would either whitewash him, or they’d go the opposite way and like, overexaggerate things that are part of his - hang on, this is going to sound racist too - his blackness , you know? Like, they’d say, ‘Look how tall and strong he is compared to this white character!’ even if the white character was basically the same height and build as him.”

 

“I don’t--”

 

“I think what North is trying to say is that multiracial characters tend to be stereotyped as one of the races that they are, rather than being allowed to exist as multiple ethnicities, and a result part of their identity is always erased rather than co-existing.”

 

“Yes! Yes, Josh, that’s exactly what I was trying to say! Thanks for making it not racist.”

 

“Anytime. I’m the token black friend, I teach you how to be woke and die first in horror situations.”

 

“I’m still - wait, why are we talking about Markus like he’s not on Skype with us?”

 

“Good question, Simon, why are you talking about me like I’m not on Skype with you?” Markus smudges one of the streaks of charcoal with his thumb, then leans back to look at his picture as a whole. A little bit more - yeah, that’s it. Perfect.

 

“Because you haven’t been paying attention to us for like, fifteen minutes,” North chimes in, popping back into her section of the screen. She’s in the kitchen, making herself a snack, and keeps wandering in and out of view of the camera, so he’s not sure if she has a leg to stand on. 

 

“I have, I just haven’t had anything to say,” Markus objects. He glances over at his display - typical rich kid, he has a massive monitor in the art room that he hooks up to his laptop for Skype sessions, so his friends’ faces are pretty much life-size, even with a third of the screen each. It’s like they’re actually in front of him, if they were slightly fuzzy and each missing their bodies from the neck down. “You were talking about some YouTubers I’ve never heard of, and then suddenly started going on about my race.” 

 

“Whatever.” North’s image suddenly shakes as she grabs her laptop and walks with it in front of her. “You’re just a coward. You’re just a Connor-loving coward.”

 

“Those two things have no correlation,” Markus disagrees.

 

“The correlation,” North explains, waving a celery stick wildly in an approximation of two axes and then stabbing it randomly to emphasise her point, “is that you love Connor, and you’re too much of a coward to tell him.” There’s another jerk as she plonks the laptop onto the bed and then jumps to sit in front of it, grabbing her cat Star as he tries to escape. “No, you love me,” she tells him, “you’re not allowed to leave.”

 

“I’m not a coward for not telling him,” Markus snaps. “I don’t know his sexuality, I don’t know him well enough to know if this would make him feel awkward or not.”

 

“Oh, so this is just you being a good person?” North asks, biting off some of the celery with a sharp snick. Star suddenly looks more interested to be there and starts pawing at North’s shoulder ineffectually.

 

“Yes, actually, North, it is.”

 

“I think you could argue both points of view here,” Josh says diplomatically.

 

“You’d be a great politician,” Simon tells him. “Josh for President, anyone?”

 

Markus’s phone chimes and cuts off whatever acerbic reply Josh was formulating. He tucks the stick of charcoal onto the small shelf underneath the easel and claps his hands together to get the worst of the dust off. He’s suddenly aware that his friends are all watching him intently. “North, your cat is eating your celery,” he warns, and North swears and pulls the stick away from Star, who stalks off smugly with half a stick of celery in his belly. 

 

North, predictably, is the one to burst. “Is it Connor?” she asks eagerly, less than three seconds after he’s unlocked the screen and navigated to the message. 

 

“It is,” Markus says, forcing his voice to stay low and even and unwavering, because he is a normal person with normal emotions and normal reactions to normal events.

 

“Well?” she demands.

 

“He just says that he’s started some research for the project and would I like to see it. Then he signed off even though he’d already said his name in the message. That’s kind of cute.” Markus looks up to three judging pairs of eyes. “I’m allowed to think things are cute!”

 

“It’s just that when it comes to Connor, you think that everything he does is cute,” Simon points out hesitantly. “It’s a little--”

 

“Concerning,” North butts in. “It’s worrying, Markus. I’m worried about you.”

 

“North,” Josh says warningly.

 

“What? Markus can express his stupid feelings, but I can’t?”

 

“Do you think we could go, like, two hours without arguing?” Simon intones tiredly.

 

“No,” the other three answer as a whole, and then North starts laughing - and her laugh is more like a cackle, really, which sets the rest of them off, and Markus has to put his phone down before he accidentally hits the keys and sends Connor an eloquent reply of ehgrysh

 

Markus can barely remember how they all became friends, it was so long ago. He has vague memories of playing pirates on the mocked-up ship Jericho at the local playground, calling themselves the Jericrew and thinking they were so clever for it. Their dynamic has always been - interesting, to say the least. Right from the start North was hot-tempered and quick to action, while Josh was placid and pacifist, with Simon and Markus plonked somewhere in the middle and often playing the role of the mediators. But as acrimonious as their relationships seem to outsiders, and sometimes to each other, as much as they squabble over anything ranging from the best type of chocolate to personal values and politics, there’s a constant thrumming bassline of affection and care and love that plays underneath the harmony of their interactions. Markus knows without a doubt that he would risk his life for any of the others’, and that they would do the same for him.

 

He shakes away the thought before he can get too sentimental; North ruled a good few years ago that emotional declarations of feelings, or love for each other, are only allowed on two occasions: one, if they’re at a sleepover and it’s the early hours of the morning and they’re all getting weird and philosophical from the sleep deprivation; or two, if somebody’s having an emotional breakdown and can’t control their quote-unquote ‘mushy crap filter’. 

 

Fuck it.

 

“I love you guys,” Markus says suddenly, and then clears his throat and starts drawing again immediately, avoiding at the screen, because yeah he just broke one of North’s rules but that doesn’t mean he’s not scared of her suddenly.

 

“Markus,” North finally says. Her voice is flat but her mouth is upturned, and maybe it’s the dodgy quality of her webcam but her eyes look like they’re shining just a bit. “I did not say this was emotion time.”

 

“I know, I’m sorry.”

 

“I will let it slide just this once.” She makes a show of checking her watch. “You all have ten seconds to get the rest of your feelings out. Go!” She holds up both her hands and starts flicking fingers down. Ten. Nine.

 

“You’re all amazing,” Simon blurts. “I’m so happy to know all of you.” Seven.

 

“You guys are my best friends and I don’t think I could love you more,” is Josh’s contribution. Four.

 

He might have started this, but Markus has more to say. “I’m really thankful you’re in my life.” Two. One.

 

Just before she puts her last finger down, North mutters, “Iloveyouallsomuchpleaseneverleaveme,” and then slams her palms down onto her duvet. Her laptop topples backwards with the force and as she rights it again she looks back to her normal, emotion-hating blank slate.

 

“Now that we’ve had our unscheduled interruption,” she announces grandly, looking at Markus with a steely glare, “let’s get back to our regular programming! Markus, how are you going to reply to the text?”

 

“Uh, I don’t know what to say without sounding like a moron.” He shrugs helplessly, snatching his phone back up. “It’s my default state.”

 

“Baby’s all grown up and self-aware,” North sighs, just as Simon mutters, “You got that right.” They both look delighted - Josh, in between them both physically on the screen and in life, looks like his soul has been sucked out of his body - and North claps gleefully. Before she can launch into a full-on impression of Shane Madej’s Mothman, as North tends to do in any situation that requires applause, Josh provides a welcome distraction.

 

“Do you need our help writing the reply?” is what his mouth says. ‘Please don’t ask me for help I’m so done with your stupid crush,’ his eyes beseech.

 

Markus pretends not to notice. “Yes please,” and Josh’s smile would pass for genuine if not for the silent wish for death in his wide, wide eyes.

 

“Right, so,” he begins.

 

North, who is apparently in one of her more benevolent moods today, performs the necessary coup and talks over Josh’s stumbling string of filler words. “Tell us exactly what he said, punctuation and all,” she instructs.

 

Markus clears his throat for a dramatic reading of Text Conversation with Connor Anderson. “Hi comma Markus exclamation mark. It’s Connor, period. I’ve done some research for the project we’re doing, comma, I hope you don’t mind, comma, but I’ve made a short outline that I think we could use, period. Let me know if you want to see it and slash or use it, comma, or if you want to start over, period. Either is fine exclamation mark. Dash Connor.”

 

North is nodding sagely, chin balanced on her steepled hands, eyes closed like she’s absorbing the wisdom of an ancient grand master. “I can work with this,” she whispers, probably to herself. “This is good, Markus,” she says louder. “It’s friendly.”

 

“It is? I’ll press X on that,” Josh chimes in unhelpfully. “For doubt, not to call Jason.”

 

“It’s friendly for Connor,” North explains patiently. “He’s very formal, to everyone. But there are different ways of being formal. There’s, like, when you’re formal to teachers because you have to be really polite and they’re meant to be talked to with, you know, respect .” She rolls her eyes at the foreign concept and Markus bites his tongue so she can press on. “But then there’s this type of formal, which is when you don’t know someone well, or in Connor’s case - it’s just how you talk - but there’s a like, underlying friendliness to it. He’s - he’s being polite, and formal, but you can tell he wants to talk to you!”

 

North must be some kind of genius, Markus thinks, because he didn’t get any of that. Then again, all he gets whenever he talks to Connor is a whole load of angina. “Okay, so, how do I respond? I want to be, like, formal back to show I respect him, and the way he talks, but also be friendly, and inviting, but not too friendly? And show that I care about him, but not be too creepy and forward about it. Oh, and maybe hint just slightly that I want to have his babies.”

 

Simon and Josh are both looking at him like he’s insane, but Markus can’t bring himself to be offended, because he kind of definitely is. North, on the other hand, looks positively ecstatic at the opportunity presented to her. 

 

“We’re going to mirror,” she decides. “Use his message as a template. Perfect. Hang on, I wrote down what you said he sent - let me just recap.” As far as Markus’s memory can be relied upon, she didn’t expend this much energy on last year’s exams.

 

“When did this become my life,” Josh mourns from his sliver of screen. Simon isn’t visible in his section, so he’s either left the room in despair or just let himself slide off his chair onto the floor in defeat. 

 

Wait. Oh shit. Does he - does he have his read receipts on? Can Connor see that he read his messages ten minutes ago and hasn’t replied yet? Shitballs. 

 

“Okay, got it.” North’s voice jerks him away from his phone. She’s practically glowing with excitement - if time wasn’t so imperative right now, he’d make a joke about her being pregnant. Actually, he wouldn’t, because she’d gut-punch him for it tomorrow at school. “Now, write this exactly as I say it, punctuation and all. Actually - hold your phone up to the microphone and I’ll dictate it straight there!”

 

Obediently, Markus hits the little microphone icon next to the speech bar and holds it up for North to talk, nodding at her when it’s initialised. “Hi Connor exclamation mark. Thanks for texting me so soon period. And thanks for doing the work comma, you should have let me help you exclamation mark. If you wouldn’t mind sending me your outline comma, I’m sure it will be amazing, open brackets most things you do are, close brackets period. Then we could sort out who’s doing what and move forward question mark.” She nods when she’s finished, and amazingly when Markus checks the phone seems to have accurately picked up everything that she said.

 

Compose message to: Connor Anderson >

Hi Connor! Thanks for texting me so soon. And thanks for doing the work, you should have let me help you! If you wouldn’t mind sending me your outline, I’m sure it will be amazing (most things you do are). Then we could sort out who’s doing what and move forward? 

 

“You don’t think that’s too presumptuous?” Markus worries at his lip, tapping over the bracketed phrase. Not that he shies away from speaking his mind or his feelings, but… “I don’t want him to think I’m some kind of brazen hussy.”

 

“It’s very subtle,” North reassures. “It could be taken as a friendly compliment, but at the same time it makes you wonder if there’s more! Connor will pick up on all of that, I promise. And if he has feelings for you, it will drive him wild. But if he doesn’t, he won’t think you’re a weirdo for it, he’ll think he’s just over-analysing and dismiss it. Oh, add your name at the end. Like Connor did. And a smiley face, just a simple one.”

 

Compose message to: Connor Anderson >

Hi Connor! Thanks for texting me so soon. And thanks for doing the work, you should have let me help you! If you wouldn’t mind sending me your outline, I’m sure it will be amazing (most things you do are). Then we could sort out who’s doing what and move forward? -Markus :)

 

“Perfect,” North breathes, when he holds his phone up to the screen to show her. “I’ve created beauty.”

 

“You sound like a mad scientist,” Markus warns her.

 

“And you say that like it’s a bad thing,” she retorts. “Hey - Simon, where’d you go?”

 

No response from the middle of the screen. On the right, though, Josh appears to have acquired a brownie from somewhere. “Have we finished talking about Markus’s unending love for Connor yet?” he asks wearily.

 

“Mostly!” North chirps. “How about we move on and have a good ol’ gossip session instead? Connor’s adopted, right? Does anybody know why?”

 

“I heard he was found in a ditch,” Josh offers. Josh offers nothing else.

 

“Okay,” North says, after ten seconds of uncomfortable silence stretch on. “I’m assuming you mean as a baby, and not, like, yesterday. Anyway, I heard a rumour that he was the result of an unplanned pregnancy between an unmarried couple, and their strict traditionalist parents wouldn’t have accepted it so instead they secretly gave the baby up for adoption.”

 

“You guys hear way more interesting rumours than me,” Markus remarks, impressed. “I’ve only heard like, one person talking about it, and they just said that he was given up as a young child and adopted by his dad now.”

 

“That’s so boring!” North protests. “Nobody would make a Hollywood movie out of that.”

 

“Life isn’t a Hollywood movie,” Josh points out monotonously.

 

Simon slithers back into view - he was in a heap on the floor, Markus knew it. “The project would be a perfect time for you to ask Connor about his background, you know.”

 

“Bold of you to assume that I can say more than three words when I’m around Connor.” He picks his charcoal back up and starts sketching once more, marking harsher lines than he was intending to in his exasperation. “I just - I know it’s ridiculous, but I can’t help it, okay?”

 

“We know, Markus,” North says sympathetically, “we know you have the intelligence of a woodlouse and the skills of another, less impressive woodlouse.”

 

The large doors to the art studio suddenly fling themselves open, and Markus nearly hurls his charcoal at the intruder before he realises who it is. “Carl!” he says in relieved surprise. He should have known. His dad’s need to be dramatic is as ingrained as his artistic talent.

 

The old man frowns at him as he wheels in, the electronic hum of his chair reverberating around the vast studio. “Why are you holding that charcoal like you’re going to impale my eyeball with it?”

 

Markus puts the charcoal down hastily. “You startled me,” he says sheepishly. 

 

“I am very intimidating,” Carl agrees with a chuckle, steering himself deftly around a cluster of empty paint cans to join him. “Hello, Jericrew.”

 

His friends greet Carl with a great deal more zeal than they have ever given him, North in particular making a noise like a bird of paradise. “Did you have a good day?” Simon asks politely, because Simon is always mannerly and civil and addresses Carl as ‘Mr Manfred’ no matter how many times he’s been told otherwise. 

 

Carl waves a hand, frail fingers that belie an enormous talent fluttering. “I spent half of it listening to a bunch of old white men talk about why funding in schools shouldn’t be given to the arts, and the other half at a gallery full of old white men pretending they cared about art.”

 

“I feel compelled to point out that you’re an old white man,” North says with a wink, raising another celery stick in salute.

 

“And that’s why I hate them so much,” Carl says resolutely, “I know all of their inner workings. I know just how foul they are.” He shakes his head. “Enough about my day. Anything interesting happen at school today?”

 

North bites off some celery viciously and grins, showing her pointed canines, before she speaks. “Markus has some exciting news.”

 

“I don’t,” Markus says quickly. For all that North proclaims to hate English and literature, she seems to enjoy foreshadowing her own torment of Markus with vampiric grins.

 

“Oh?” Carl raises an eyebrow at him. With all the time over the years that North has spent at the Lafayette mansion, she’s practically one of his own children, and so Carl is fully aware that this news could be anything ranging from an award he’s won for some of his art, to another explosion he’s unwittingly caused.

 

“I have a project, that’s it.” Markus shrugs like it’s no big deal, some part of him vainly hoping that North will drop the topic, or maybe one of the other two will be courageous enough to intercept her.

 

“With Connoooooooooooooor,” North singsongs, gnawing on her snack like a chipmunk to hide her smirk.

 

“Who’s Connor?” Carl inquires, perking up immediately. Markus has never mentioned the name to his adoptive father, or any potential romantic interest for that matter, but North’s tone of voice really doesn’t leave much to the imagination. “He wouldn’t happen to be this handsome young man you’re sketching, would he?”

 

“Oh, no, Markus,” Josh sighs. He seems disproportionally disappointed.

 

North, on the contrary, seems disproportionally excited by this revelation. “You’re drawing him?” she shrieks. “Carl, show us! Show us!”

 

Carl reaches for the laptop just as Markus does, but wrinkled, liver-spotted hands reach it first and Markus withdraws his own in fear of hurting the older man. He knows it’s a little over the top, but he’s all too aware that just one wrong move could cause Carl to tip out of the wheelchair and hit his head, or one accidental scratch could lead to an infection he wouldn’t be able to fight off. So reluctantly, and with no small amount of embarrassment, he allows the laptop to be spun around - carefully, because it still has the HDMI cable sticking out of it - and focused onto his canvas.

 

It’s unfinished, just the skeleton of what he wants it to be - the outline of Connor’s face is there in confident streaks; his sharp jawline, a suggestion of his hair in smudges of Markus’s thumbprint. He’s only just begun to sketch out the nose, the eyes, the mouth - not even the eyebrows have been finished properly yet. 

 

“I’ll finish it soon,” Markus says after the silence rolls out for a few more seconds. “It’s not done yet.”

 

“I still think your crush has reached creep proportions,” Josh says eventually, “but that’s a sick drawing.”

 

“I can drink to that,” North murmurs, eyes raking over her screen. “I want you to illustrate my funeral. Draw my dead body like one of your French girls, Markus.”

 

“Please,” Simon says, eyes pinched shut, “stop talking, North.”

 

North starts eating obnoxiously harshly instead, chewing her celery with an open mouth and leaning in close so they can all see her teeth gnashing together.

 

“Don’t you just love the friends I’ve made,” Markus says, ostensibly to Carl, less ostensibly to himself. “So polite and elegant.”

 

“The follies of youth,” Carl smiles, hands trembling slightly as he picks up an unopened package of paints and begins to carefully unseal it. “Would this Connor happen to be the same Connor Anderson that is the Lieutenant’s son, by any chance?”

 

Markus nods sheepishly. “He was at the station that time we went to pick up Leo.”

 

At the mention of his son, Carl’s shoulders tense slightly. The light blue of his eyes is almost swallowed by the black holes of his dilating pupils, and the lines on his face deepen for just a fraction of a second as his lips twitch downwards, but then it’s all gone as if it never occurred at all, and, “I remember,” he says easily, “he was at the desk, doing some work.”

 

North, losing interest in tormenting Simon for the time being (Josh stopped being affected by her years and years ago - Markus studied the phenomenon in psychology, learned helplessness), focuses on their conversation. “Do you know Lieutenant Anderson?” she asks eagerly, leaning back so her face rather than just her mouth takes up the entirety of her screen. “Because we were just talking about how nobody knows Connor’s tragic backstory, and we can’t have Markus making his moves without full intelligence, you know?”

 

“It would be a foolhardy endeavour,” Carl agrees, “and I admit that I wouldn’t say I know the Lieutenant as such....” He wheels himself nearer to the laptop. “But I am acquainted with him, certainly, he’s taken over Leo’s case so we’ve been in contact somewhat. And I would call Connor’s backstory tragic, indeed.” He resumes picking at the packaging on the cardboard box, but he’s definitely distracted now, nails scrabbling at the machine cut edges of the tape rather than carefully finding a weak point and working it open from there.

 

“Was he found in a ditch?” Josh asks.

 

“Please say he wasn’t found in a ditch,” Simon mutters.

 

Carl, to his credit, doesn’t ask. “How about I start at the beginning?” At assenting nods, he continues, “There was a short wait as some paperwork was filed to release Leo, and we ended up making small talk - Markus, you had gone to wait in the reception area, I believe.”

 

He had. Having to bail Leo out for yet more red ice charges was a stressful venture in itself, but combined with being just a corridor away from Connor, and knowing that Connor was aware of his dysfunctional brother, had made his head spin so much that he had needed to prop himself against the wall to stay standing. Carl had noticed and kindly but firmly instructed him to go and sit down, and the Lieutenant had told him to make use of the coffee machine on the reception desk if he needed to.

 

“We were just talking about parenting, and about how difficult it can be. He mentioned that you seemed to be a good kid,” he pauses in mirth for a second as his friends laugh and jeer and make comments along the lines of you haven’t seen him after a few shots , “and I said that I’d adopted you only a few years back, and that was probably why you’d turned out better adjusted than Leo.”

 

Markus has to cut in. “You’re a great dad, Carl,” he protests.

 

“Yeah, you’re a better dad than mine,” North adds, “which isn’t hard, but, you know. You’re basically a second dad to all of us.”

 

Carl looks genuinely touched and pats Markus on the shoulder, leaving his hand there. “Thank you. Well, whatever the reason, I mentioned your adoption, and then the Lieutenant said that he had adopted Connor when he was seven, so naturally I asked how that had come to be.” He finally frees the inner contents from the box and tips it out into his lap triumphantly, examining the labels: Royal Berry, Marine Splash, Lemon Punch and Volcanic Red. “He said that he’d been part of the team at a crime scene, two murders - just as they were finishing up, they heard a noise from the attic, and went in guns drawn to find Connor, a tiny little boy, curled up in the corner, half-starved and covered in dirt.”

 

“Holy shit.” North looks actually sympathetic for once, despite her proclaimed hatred for children. More than once she has expressed vitriol for their “inability to take care of themselves”. Nobody points this out, too engrossed by Carl’s story.

 

“Turns out the murder victims were red ice dealers, presumably involved in some kind of dispute with a gang or a client. They think Connor's parents were at least users, because they found needles absolutely everywhere. When they talked to him, Connor said his parents had gone out a while ago and said they'd be back, then a bit after that he heard some people come in so he ran upstairs with his backpack - which had some supplies in, I believe, but not many - and hid. The time of death was between one and two weeks before, so who knows how long Connor had been up there without food or water until they found him.” Carl sighs, stroking over Marine Splash contemplatively. “They called social services, but there was some kind of delay so the Lieutenant took him in for a couple of days. His, ah - his own son had died two years before, and he was a similar age, so he had a room suitable for a child, and experience too.”

 

“The Lieutenant has a tragic backstory too,” Simon breathes. “It was fate that they would find each other.” Even Markus gives him a weird look for that.

 

“The rest, as they say, is history. Connor needed a parent, and the Lieutenant needed a son.” Carl hands Markus the pot of Volcanic Red to put on the shelf nearest to him. “I hope you don’t use this information for your own gain.”

 

“You think I’m going to blackmail him?” Markus squeaks indignantly. “Into dating me?” He puts Volcanic Red down with more force than he intended, and then has to restrain himself from apologising to the paint for his mistreatment, if only because North would rip the absolute shit out of him for it until he was on his deathbed.

 

“Oh, no, I trust you,” Carl reassures. He points to North. “This one, however…” His eyes twinkle as she squawks, both of them aware that he’s not serious. Then, more gravity in his voice, “I know you’re all good kids. But it’s very easy to accidentally let something you know slip, or persuade someone to do something because you know what they’re susceptible to now.”

 

“Carl the Wise has spoken,” Josh agrees. “But at least we know that he wasn’t found in a ditch.”

 

“What is your obsession with the ditch!” North shrieks. “Shut up about the ditch!”

 


 

“Hank, is it alright if I send some pictures over text?”

 

“Mmm? Yeah, yeah, go for it.”

 

“It costs money. Fourteen cents per picture, I believe.”

 

“I think we can handle a few of those, son.”

 

“Thank you.” Noticing that his dad’s eyes are sliding out of focus more often than not, Connor grabs the remote and pauses the episode just before it goes to autoplay the next. “You should go to bed, Hank.”

 

His dad blinks at him blearily before he processes the words. “Aw, shit. What’s my life coming to when I’m taking orders from a brat,” he grumbles good-naturedly, before shoving himself off the sofa and stretching. More than a few of his sockets click and Connor cringes at the sound. “Sorry I couldn’t stay awake for longer. Jeez, how long’s it been, an hour?” Sumo, deep in his REM cycle, twitches and bats his fox toy onto the floor.

 

“I don’t like watching more than three episodes,” Connor says truthfully. “I get overwhelmed by all of the plot. And sometimes my cheeks start to hurt from laughing at the comments you make.”

 

Hank’s face goes soft around the edges, smile warm and liquid-y, for reasons Connor can’t identify. “You coming to bed too?”

 

“I’m going to take Sumo out for a run,” Connor decides, “after I send my plan to Markus. I’ll be about half an hour most likely. No more than forty-five minutes.”

 

“I’ll wait up.” Hank claps his hand onto Connor’s shoulder as he walks by, then pauses and lets it stay there, warmth seeping from the palm through his T-shirt and seeping into his skin. There is no purpose to this, other than affection and comfort. Connor accepts this purpose - he may go as far to say that he even appreciates it.

 

Hank wanders off to his room, yawning and muttering to himself about getting old the whole way, while Connor makes quick work of stacking the empty mugs in the dishwasher and cleaning both the dining table and coffee table with an anti-bacterial spray - carefully chosen by Connor as having the highest success rate while not smelling like a chemical leak - and cloth. With all spills and stains soaked up and wiped away, he dries it with another cloth and then puts everything back in the kitchen neatly.

 

Sumo watches balefully as he spreads his notes out on the dining table - it has an overhead light, much better for photos than the coffee table or any of the kitchen counters - and steps up onto a chair in socked feet, phone in hand. He nearly slips on the wooden seat as he tries to find the best angle, one that doesn’t have his shadow pervading half of the image. There - he snaps three photos, one of each individual page, then turns them over and takes three more of the backs. He checks them for quality before attaching them to an empty text message in the order that they should be read.

 

Compose message to: Markus Manfred >

Here are the plans - please let me know if you can’t understand anything, or if you need more zoomed in pictures. Perhaps we could meet tomorrow during a break or free period to talk it over? - Connor

ATTACHED: 6 FILES

 

Closing the messaging app, he flicks up from the bottom of the screen and turns on the do not disturb mode. He plugs his headphones in, opens up Spotify, and loads up his running playlist. “Sumo,” he calls. The dog wakes up immediately, as if he wasn’t asleep so deeply that they’d had to double the volume on the TV to drown out his snores, and then perks up when he sees the headphones in Connor’s hands. “Yes, clever boy! We’re going out!” Oh, classical conditioning is a fine thing.

 

Sumo makes his way over slowly, wagging his tail heedfully. All the signs are pointing towards a walkies, but his lead hasn’t been presented to him yet, and sometimes the humans take their headphones when they're going out without him. Better not to get his hopes up and then have them dashed, say his lowered eyes and slow gait.

 

Connor can’t deal with the love he has for Sumo sometimes. Most of the time. All of the time.

 

The dog watches him through stubby eyelashes as he approaches the Sumo shelf by the door. While it has his leads, hanging on hooks just underneath it, as well as his harness and the toys that are reserved for playing fetch outside, it also houses Connor’s hat and gloves. Still, Sumo’s tail wags a little harder when Connor approaches it, and even harder still when he grabs his beanie and shoves it on over his hair, but he still waits with his ears pricked up from anticipation. “Sumo, come over here.” 

 

The massive dog crosses the space between them in two bounds, and then displays just what a good boy he is by tanding serenely as Connor positions the harness over his torso and then secures it. It has three clasps around the front and then, due to Sumo’s boisterous nature and strength, eight more along the length of his chest, all of which have to be locked together and then adjusted to the right tautness. He slides the third lead along off its hook - medium length and fluorescent -  and attaches it to the loop on Sumo’s harness, then pulls the loop of the handle over his wrist. “I’m going, Hank,” he shouts, and plugs one earbud in while Sumo dances from one paw to the other, his admirable self-restraint started to chafe around the edges.

 

Hank’s head appears around his bedroom door. “Call me if you’re going to be any longer,” he says, then he makes an expression between a moue and a lour. “What the fuck is that hat, Connor? You look really fuckin’ strange. You look like you've got no ears and no hair. You look like a bad undercover cop.”

 

Connor isn’t about to take fashion advice from the man who thinks bright orange, psychedelic prints will ‘never go out of style’. “You know what’s not strange? My preservation of heat that will lead to me not getting hypothermia and being found naked in a pile of snow.” Sumo, with impeccable timing, makes a low boof in his throat.

 

Hank shakes his head and ducks back into his room without another word, but Connor isn’t fooled. He saw the small smile on the older man’s face. Hank can’t fool him, he is the Emotion Master.

 

Oh, Markus has texted back. He’ll just slap a nice big old label of IGNORE on that for now so he doesn't have to deal with the feelings that’s stirring up.

 

He hits shuffle. Heavy metal blasts out. “Let’s go walkies, Sumo.” At the word, Sumo goes bonkers, like he didn't know he was going out already from all the other clues, and paws at the door like a firefighter breaking down a door with an axe. Connor opens the door to let him out and almost gets his arm yanked off for the trouble as the Saint Bernard lunges out.

 

The door slams behind them, despite Connor's best efforts to close it softly.

 

“Sumo - Sumo, wait ,” he says sternly, as he nearly trips over the uneven paving stone outside their house thanks to the dog trying to haul him forward. Reluctantly, Sumo reels himself in and trots on the spot while Connor stretches out his legs briefly. “Let’s go, then.” They set off at their normal pace - a speed that they tend to average at 5.4 MPH, according to his fitness app’s data.

 

As they run, Connor finds his thoughts straying from their analysis of the music he listens to, and observations of the world around them, and shifting into an unusually somber perusal of his own personality instead. While this is usually his time for winding down and relaxing, his mind seems to be running faster than he is, and he doesn’t have a solution to make it quieten down other than to let it whir away.

 

Sumo has a fairly simple psychology. He knows what he likes, and he knows what he doesn’t. When he likes something, he asks for it, or he seeks it, and if it’s offered to him he accepts it. When he doesn’t like something, he doesn’t ask for it, or he doesn’t seek it, and if it’s offered to him he refuses it. The few things that fall in between don’t bother him for longer than they exist in close proximity to him - the vacuum cleaner is too loud for him but he also likes to play with it, so he compromises by darting in and out of whichever room it’s in, and as soon as it’s been put back into the cleaning cupboard he promptly forgets it exists.

 

In a way, Connor supposes, he is doing much of the same. He likes watching TV with Hank, and running with Sumo, so he actively seeks out these opportunities. He doesn’t like loud crowded areas, and public speaking, so he actively avoids those opportunities. He’s not sure how he feels about Markus, so he talks to him sporadically and refuses to acknowledge any emotions. It’s very healthy.

 

But at the same time, he is very different to Sumo. Sumo’s relationship with the vacuum cleaner can be easily described and understood: he enjoys its presence because it moves apparently of its own accord, in reality jerked around by the cord that Hank or Connor is using to clean, and this means it is an interesting playmate; but on the flipside, he doesn’t enjoy its presence because it is too loud and more than once has moved too abruptly for him to figure out where it’s going before it’s there. 

 

Connor doesn’t know how he feels about Markus, but that’s not because he has a positive and negative aspect to the relationship. It’s more that he just doesn’t know , which paradoxically makes the whole thing infinitely more simple and more complicated.

 

Connor does not feel emotions the same way as others; this isn’t a mournful expression of teenage angst, or dramatic statement about how edgy he is. He is aware of this fact in the same way that someone is aware they have a headache, or that they are wearing shoes. It is not always conscious, but it is a fact. He is able to identify emotions only by their autonomous physical characteristics. When he smiles that means he is happy. When he laughs that means he is even happier. When he frowns that means he is sad. When he cries that means he is even sadder. Some emotions are more in between, but they are not very strong so it is fine that he can’t identify them.

 

Sometimes he is aware of a feeling, but not because he feels it. He looks at Hank, he looks at Sumo, he looks at one of his favourite books; and suddenly he is aware that he loves what he is looking at. He doesn’t feel the love, he doesn’t feel the rush or swell of affection as most people seem to do. Similarly, when he looks at a crowded area that he has to enter, or knows he is about to undergo a social interaction, suddenly he is aware that he is feeling dread, but he does not feel the dread itself.

 

Anxiety brings roiling snakes in his stomach and a sensation of nausea, sometimes the feeling that he’s going to faint. Deep sadness brings a tangible, physical pain to his chest. Shame brings heat to his skin and bile to his throat.

 

Happiness brings nothing. But the absence of the bad emotions is, in itself, a good feeling. Good emotions bring nothing, bad emotions bring something.

 

And this is where the problem lies with Markus. Because with Markus, Connor does not feel nothing - so this means he is feeling something bad. But he does not feel snakes or nausea or pain in his chest or heat under his skin or bile in his throat. Markus brings an entirely new feeling to him, and he can’t identify it, but it is strong.

 

Markus defies every single rule that Connor has ever had about his emotions.

 

Sometimes, with Markus, Connor does feel heat rushing to his skin, but he doesn’t taste any bile rising in his throat, so he knows it’s not shame. Sometimes, he gets a tangible, physical feeling in his chest, but it’s not painful - just heavy, if he had to fish about for a word to describe it as best he could. Sometimes he feels like he’s going to faint, but he doesn’t feel nauseous or get snakes. He has a little bit of everything and not enough of anything.

 

He looks down at Sumo, running alongside him. The dog is galloping happily, sniffing the air, careering sideways in an irregular route so his paws get to sample both the grass and the tarmac. He looks down at himself. His legs run in an obedient straight line, never straying from the tarmac.

 

He runs faster. When he skips the next song that comes on, his lockscreen tells him that he is now running at 6.2 MPH.

 

Thirty-one minutes and seventeen seconds later - Connor likes to make sure he is getting at least the daily recommended amount of exercise so every workout is tracked - they arrive back home. 115 Michigan Drive is just a house to every person in the world but two. 

 

Sumo, panting, stands restlessly but unstirring as his eleven clasps are undone and he is declothed. He pads in through the door when it’s opened for him, noticeably slower than his last exit, and immediately gulps down half of his 2.25 gallon capacity water bowl.

 

Connor leaves the door open behind him for Sumo’s final bathroom run - he’s got enough road sense not to wander out of the garden, and enough common sense to realise that running away would be stupid when he gets treated so well here - and sheds his hat, hangs up the harness and lead, and winds his headphones carefully so that they won’t become tangled before their next walk. Sumo trots outside to do his business, and Connor fills up his water bowl in the meantime. On average, dogs drink between fifty and sixty millilitres of water per kilogram of bodyweight per day, which means that Sumo, at his current weight of seventy-seven kilograms, should be drinking between three thousand, eight hundred and fifty millilitres (three point eight five litres) and four thousand, six hundred and twenty millilitres (four point six two) a day. The water bowl holds about eight and a half litres, and it needs refilling every day. The vet assured them that it was fine that Sumo tended to drink most of the bowl, because he did a lot of exercise, and some dogs were just more thirsty than others anyway. Connor decides to keep an eye on it still. Excessive drinking can be a sign of kidney disease.

 

He checks that the back door is locked, and all of the windows are closed. When he returns, Sumo has trotted back in, and he closes and locks the front door. Everything is as routine as always. Connor feels nothing, so this means he is happy. Sumo is wiggling slightly, which means he is happy.

 

Then he remembers that he has an unread text from Markus, and he gets a bit of heat under his skin and feels a little bit like he’s going to faint, so this means he is ???

 

New message from: Markus Manfred >

This is amazing Connor! I’d never have been able to make something like this, you must have worked so hard on it! I love your ideas too, how did you think of some of that stuff? I’m free periods 2 and 7 tomorrow if you are, and if not I haven’t got anything on at break or lunch. Let me know! -Markus :)

 

Compose message to: Markus Manfred >

Thank you, Markus. I could say the same about your artwork, and I’m sure you’re much better at English than you’re claiming. I am also free period 2 tomorrow, would you like to meet in the library? -Connor

 

Whatever Connor is feeling, it seems to be making him slightly daring, enough that he opens up a new text before he can second-guess himself.

 

Compose message to: Markus Manfred >

Also - goodnight, Markus. Sleep well. -Connor

 

Oh God. What has he done. When will someone stop his sinful ways. He needs to be taken out before he does any more damage with his rampant, over-the-top friendliness --

 

New message from: Markus Manfred >

The library is good, I’ll see you there tomorrow period 2! And seeing as you have the pleasure of doing this project with me, I guess you’ll be able to judge my English skills...goodnight to you too Connor, have good dreams. -Markus :)

 

Everything’s fine.

 

He shouldn’t reply, right? They’d just end up in a cycle of wishing each other goodnight and progressively more uncomfortably personal wishes about dreams. Better to pretend he didn’t check his phone again and start over tomorrow morning with a casual greeting. Wait - he doesn’t need to message him in the morning, they’re meeting in the library. Does he want to talk to Markus? Is this unknown ??? actually...the desire to have a friend?

 

Disgusting. He needs to sleep.

 

“Goodnight, Hank,” he calls as he pads down the hallway. Sumo follows faithfully at his heels until Connor steers towards the bathroom. He peels himself away and pushes Connor’s ajar door open fully and from the muffled thump, presumably jumping onto his bed and settling himself down squarely in the middle. 

 

As Connor washes his face and brushes his teeth in the bathroom, the final list of what to do before he goes to sleep pops up in his head like an ordered list in his vision. Put phone on to charge. Make sure the alarm is on. Open the window so Sumo doesn’t get too hot. Change into pyjamas - put dirty clothes in the hamper. Turn on the bedside lamp. Turn off the main lamp. Shove Sumo to one side of the bed and climb in while ignoring his grumbles. Settle, then allow Sumo to curl himself back against Connor so he’s touching him as much as possible. Turn off the bedside lamp. Sleep.

 

Sleep doesn’t come easy most nights. That night is no exception.