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With a Girl Like You

Chapter Text

gladys cohen is sitting outside the principal’s office, staring at a crack on the linoleum floor. she’s been here for the better part of lunch, ever since she was dragged in by an especially vindicative math teacher and left to rot - reprimanding a repeat offender for smoking in the girls’ washrooms is evidently low on featherhead’s list of priorities.

she drags the rubber sole of her shoe along the crack, wondering idly about punishment. surely this wasn’t a suspension-worthy offence - she’d take her week’s detention, but her mom would be mad about anything more.

a clatter at the mouth of the corridor forces her to sit up slightly straighter. the vice principal marches in, bypasses her entirely, and drags another student toward the row of chairs.

“sit,” she orders coldly, gesturing to the seat next to gladys, and the student does - a junior boy about her age, wearing a ripped up white t-shirt upon which the word FAG has been marked out huge in red sharpie.

the vice principal disappears into featherhead’s office the moment the owner of the t-shirt hits the seat, and gladys can hear the murmur of low, tense voices through the door. she glances at him, and he glances back.

“cool shirt,” she says, distracted momentarily from her cigarette craving.

the boy sizes her up, then gives her a sideways grin. “thanks.”

gladys opens her mouth to ask more, but featherhead suddenly appears in the crack of his office door, already looking tired. the vice principal scuttles out in a hurry, giving the pair of them a glare as she strides coldly up the corridor back to her office. her pointed heels clack on the floor; the sound of impatient fingernails.

featherhead sighs, his face pinched. “mr andrews, come into my office please.”

he holds the door open, a gaping hole behind him. the kid - andrews - stands willingly and marches in. featherhead gives gladys a long look and then pointedly swings the office door shut. it bangs loudly, and then featherhead pushes it back open.

“why are you here, cohen?” he demands. she can’t see her fellow prisoner from where she’s sitting - he’s probably already seated opposite the huge mahogany desk.

“smoking in the ladies, sir .” she tacks the last word on ironically, but he doesn’t bother to reprimand her disrespect.

“don’t do it again. get to class.”

he withdraws into his office again, but this time the swing of the door pauses a quarter-inch from the frame, leaving a tiny crack. she listens to the rustling of his suit as featherhead moves away from the crack and deeper into the room.

gladys glances at the only other occupant of the office - a puffy-haired secretary, typing at a computer and making periodic trips to a nearby filing cabinet. gladys waits until she’s rooting through files, and then starts scooting her chair forward. if they talked loudly enough -

the secretary turns, headed back to the computer. gladys stops, sits up straight and stares at the opposite wall, the picture of obedience. the secretary sits down at her desk, and gladys drags her chair up against the door to press her ear to the crack.

“i don’t have any other clothes,” fred is saying inside the office.

“gym clothes?” featherhead offers unsympathetically.

“they’re dirty.”

the secretary’s chair creaks as she rolls her seat back, glancing up toward where gladys is sitting. gladys shoves her chair back soundlessly by about a foot, looking innocently toward the window on the far wall. the secretary goes back to her typing. gladys inches her chair back to the crack of the door again.

“this is an institution of learning.” featherhead is a yell first, ask questions later type. sounds like fred’s raising his blood pressure. “the stir you’ve caused wearing this around the halls is completely inappropriate. i’m not interested in you derailing an entire day of classes.”

“and the guys who did this, they don’t get anything?”

“do you know who did this?” no real interest in featherhead’s voice, just annoyance. the last thing he wants to do is track homophobes down.

“no. but i can guess.” fred’s voice is all fired up, and gladys can feel herself rooting for him. “here’s some names. marty -”

“marty mantle’s father is an esteemed member of our school board.” she can hear the condescension dripping from featherhead’s tone. “you have a bad attitude, mr andrews. i suggest you adjust your behaviour immediately. the next time i hear you’re disrupting a class, i won’t be so lenient.”

“i didn’t do anything.” fred’s voice wobbles into plaintive, but then he’s heated again, “all i did was leave my clothes in my gym locker. marty and his assholes are the ones who messed them up -”

“if you modified your behaviour, perhaps your classmates wouldn’t be so quick to target you, have you ever thought of that?”

gladys sucks in a breath. “what behaviour?” fred spits out, and she feels like cheering him on.

“the way you’re wearing this, acting as though you take pride in it -”

“what are you implying?”

fabric rustles as featherhead sits back at his desk, playing a trump card. “perhaps i should call your father.”

“fine.” andrews doesn’t cave. the kid has balls of iron. “i’ll wait.”

featherhead sucks in a short, sharp breath. “i’m sure we can find you a spare shirt. the wrestling team keeps-”

“what’s wrong with me wearing my own shirt?” fred asks loudly. she barely needs to strain to hear him. “marty and hiram wrecked it, and i’m wearing it. what’s the problem?”

“detention.” featherhead yells. “three pm today.”

“for wearing my own shirt?”

“for being disrespectful to authority.”

footsteps toward her, and gladys scoots her chair quickly back into line. the door swings open, and fred steps out, head held high, the slur still painted in bright bloody letters across his chest. the rest of the t-shirt is in tatters, clearly attacked by a pair of scissors. he’s holding a detention slip and the expression on his face is unapologetically brash. featherhead strides out behind him, heading straight to the secretary’s desk. they speak together in a huddled conference - probably about the possibility of locating whatever spare shits the wrestling team had.

“that’s pretty badass,” gladys says to fred.

“thanks.” fred has a nice grin, the kind you can trust. she hadn’t expected him to be so gentle. “i’m fred.”

“gladys,” she says, and gets right to the point. “he’s wrong, you know. you shouldn’t have to change the way you act so people don’t fuck with you.”

fred shrugs and sits down beside her. “i don’t mind detention. it just kinda blows because i have band practice after school.” he puts the slip in his mouth to tie his shoe - it makes him look comical and impetuous. she watches him tie a floppy bow.

“you’re in a band?” somehow she’s not surprised.

fred takes the detention slip out of his mouth. “starting one.”

“what’s it called?”

“doesn’t have a name yet.” he stretches the torn collar of his shirt out so he can read it upside-down. “i’m thinking fred and the faggots,”

it’s the first time he’s said the word aloud - she can tell by the way it fumbles exiting his mouth, cracking just for a second, ruining the nonchalance of the joke. gladys gives him an appreciative grin and a chuckle so he’ll know it was still funny.

“what do you play?” she asks.

“rock and roll,” fred answers.

“cohen would you like a detention?” featherhead is back, hovering by her side, a stormcloud of impatience. fred raises his eyebrows at her and gladys stands, putting on her most sardonically obedient smile.

“no, sir. i was leaving.”

“my locker’s by the east stairwell,” fred says to her, acting as though featherhead isn’t there. “bottom floor, by the history classes. come by after school and i’ll tell you more.”

“not a chance.” featherhead seizes fred’s arm, nostrils flaring. if this were a cartoon, he’d have pillars of smoke coming out of his head. “you’ll be in detention then. cohen, unless you want to join him-”

gladys cuts him off. “why not?”

featherhead’s mouth drops open, his nails still digging into fred’s arm. “excuse me?”

she shrugs. there’s a delighted grin spreading across fred’s face, and gladys gets the crazy idea, not for the last time, that she’d do anything for it. “i said i’ll join him.”

Chapter Text

It’s freezing cold on Monday morning. By the time Fred’s rolled out of bed with his alarm, shuffled on a dirty pair of track pants and a hoodie, and hit the streets for his run, there’s no time to go back for gloves or a hat without forfeiting the whole endeavour. The cold wind is blinding, stinging his cheeks and eyes no matter which direction he turns, and his nose is streaming within ten minutes. He tries to remedy the latter by wiping his nose with his increasingly numb hands, but it chafes his upper lip every time and eventually does more harm than good.

The frigid air tightens his chest and coats his mouth and throat with saliva. His muscles feel cold and solid, his tense neck coiled like a spring. The wind is in his face the whole way home: despite cutting his run short, he’s late by the time he stumbles in the door, almost twists his ankle trying to climb out of his shoes, and dashes up the stairs for a shower.

Until now his bad morning has been painful but temporary - a dose of misfortune that could easily disappear under the exuberance of a new day. Standing naked in the shower, though, his frozen hands red and swollen and stinging from the cold, scanning the shelves for an absent bottle of shampoo he’d probably have dropped like a boulder on his toe anyway, the sneaking suspicion overtakes him that this day is not going to get any better.

He’s out of shampoo, and it should be trivial - if he put it on the shopping list now, his mom would buy some before dinner. Fred has a gut feeling now, though, that it’s going to be the hallmark of a Bad Day. Getting worse.

He scrubs his head with a bar of white soap, leaving his shoulder-length hair smelling oddly antiseptic and the rough texture of straw. While shaving in a hurry he gashes the meat of his hand with the razor, completing the old axiom about bad things coming in three. The nagging suspicion that he should have stayed in bed heightens, but he ignores it.

His head starts throbbing halfway through the school day, an ache that never blossoms into something worse but that travels gradually behind his right eye and takes root as permanently as if it had been securely fastened there. His eyes keep closing involuntarily in class - his mouth is dry and his muscles ache like they’ve been stretched.

He goes through the motions of his baseball practice mechanically, wincing internally at the crack of the bat whenever a teammate hits a particularly powerful line drive. When he finally crouches behind home plate to take a turn catching it takes all of his willpower not to overbalance or collapse under the weight of his chest guard and helmet. Showering again feels a herculean task - he only shoulders his bookbag in the changeroom, itself weighing his back down like an anvil, and drags his feet along the long road to home, having missed the last bus.

He’s halfway down Cherry street, almost at the park, when his bookbag starts getting heavier with every step. He takes one more. Two. His shoulders feel like breaking. The wind is in his face again, and he can barely keep his eyes open.

His shoe is untied. He takes one more step into icy whiteness and goes down like a bag of rocks.

Fred comes to in a dark, familiar smelling room, his friend Gladys’ blurry face shining above him like a fragmented white moon. There’s the weight of a duvet on his legs, and his head is still pounding with a headache. He can feel a mattress under him, his neck propped up by a lumpy pillow. He winces when he rolls his head to one side - the back of his skull is sore and tender, adding to the throbbing. Gladys’ face comes into focus as she gasps and unleashes a torrent of profanity on him.

“Jesus holy shit, Fred, you scared the crap out of me!”

Fred squeezes his eyes shut, reaching instinctively for the pain in his head. Everything is tight and painful, his body aching like he’s been through a wringer. His eyes are scratchy and dry, even when they’re closed. He winces and forces himself to look into the light.

“Please tell me you’re okay,” Gladys urges. He’s wearing one of her shirts, and his own plaid pyjama bottoms. “Where does it hurt?”

“Head,” Fred replies throatily, his mouth sticky and dehydrated. He rubs his painful eyes with his knuckles.  “How’d I get here?” His last memory is of the park, the sidewalk, his heavy knapsack. He presses harder into his eyelids until he sees stars.

“You’re okay. I made Tom Keller carry you in. What happened? We were sitting in his car and you just fell on the sidewalk.”

Fred gasps in shock, sucking in a rough lungful of air. His voice comes out dry as he shoves himself up off the mattress, Gladys’ short-nailed hand landing on his chest and pushing him back down. “Tom Keller?” he asks dizzily. “Tom Keller carried me?”

Gladys just shakes her head. Fred’s crush on the senior was well-documented. “Promise you’re okay?”

“Tom Keller?” Fred repeats stupidly, his brain still processing. “Really, Tom Keller?” He glances worriedly around Gladys’ room. “He’s not here, is he?”

“Nah, he took off. He was pretty freaked out. I think because he’d just bought a hundred dollars worth of weed off me. Do you need anything? Water? Liquids?”  

Fred nods. “Tom Keller?” he repeats stupidly as Gladys pushes a bottle of Gatorade into his hand. “You’re sure?”

“Here. I thought it might be a migraine thing.”

Fred sits up slightly against the pillows and downs the whole bottle of bright green liquid in three long swallows. An involuntary moan slips past his lips as he slumps back against the pillows, spots blinking in front of his eyes. Gladys watches him worriedly.

“Did he really carry me?” Fred asks when he has his breath back. “Really carried me? All the way to your house? I wasn’t too heavy?”

“He said you were lighter than he thought you’d be, actually. And now I get why.” Gladys swings one of his arms up, her fingers circling his wrist in an O, hardly touching the skin. “Look at this, Fred? What the hell have you been eating? Have you been eating?”

“What position did he carry me in? Like over his shoulder? Or in his arms? He said I was light? Like, in a good way? Or like he was turned off?”

Gladys grabs his shoulders and gives him a shake. “Fred, you slutty nincompoop, pay attention! Have you been putting food in your body?

Fred whimpers as the movement jostles his sore head, and Gladys releases him, genuine concern flitting across her face.

“Oh, shit, baby. I didn’t know it was that bad still.”

Fred closes his eyes for a moment to ground himself, relaxing into the feel and smell of the mattress as his head throbs. “It’s okay.”

Gladys gently scratches his scalp with her nails, lowering her voice. “Are you going to be okay? Do you want a hospital? Should I call your mom?”

“I’m okay,” Fred replies drowsily. “After I sleep.”

“Okay, you just sleep.” She traces a slow circle on the crown of his head, and Fred sighs in relief, grateful for her. Sleep seems an impossibility, but it would be nice, so he closes his eyes obediently.

“Is your mom home?” he asks.

“Nah, she’s working the swing shift.” Gladys smiles as she combs her fingers through Fred’s frizzy, windblown hair. “What happened to your hair?”

Fred grunts, wincing as she hits a tangle. His head feels unbearably heavy and tight, his hair thick and filthy. “I want a haircut.”

“Not cutting it all off,” Gladys protests, her voice low and soothing. “I can give you a trim if you want. But I think you should get some sleep first.”

Fred had helped her paint the walls of her room black earlier that month - when he shuts his eyes, the darkness is absolute. He feels as though he’s sinking into a very dense pond. The room spins, and Gladys’ voice feels like it’s coming from very far away.

“Just relax,” she soothes him.

“Tom Keller...” Fred mumbles again as he’s drifting off, but it’s his last thought before the darkness takes him.

He wakes into a cocoon of dark, cool air - Gladys’ window is open, though the black curtains are drawn over the pane. He lays in the dark and navigates by feel, not sight, gradually aware of the duvet, the mattress, the breeze, the lesser ache in his head, the weight of Gladys behind him, her knee poking his back, an arm thrown carelessly over his torso. Fred lays as still as he can as not to disturb her, staring with unfocused eyes into the bluish darkness. He can hear vague noise beyond the window - it must only be suppertime, or a little later, but Gladys’ curtains are so dark that they cut out all light.

His head hurts less but his chest aches now, he feels hollow and hurt, damaged in some intangible way that’s too deep to be physical. His eyes are heavy and wet, and yet he’s startled when he recognizes himself as blinking back tears. The darkness swims, his vision blurring. He’s sad and he’s crying, both of these things unexpected and surprising, as though happening to someone else.

“You up?” Gladys’ voice is soft and comfortable, and he realizes she had never been sleeping. It was far too early for that, after all. She had only been lying with him, keeping him safe, a mother lion with a cub. She moves the arm that she’d laid across him. “Does it still hurt?”

Fred rolls over to face her, his breathing suddenly ragged, his throat full and tight as the tears start to trickle down his cheeks. There’s a childish wobbliness in his voice when he finally speaks, his voice hoarse and soft:

“I miss my dad, Glad.”

Gladys says nothing to this - perhaps there’s nothing that would be worthwhile to say. Instead, she murmurs “come here,” pulling him into her arms and wrapping him tight in a protective tenderness that pushes fresh tears from his eyes. He cries into her neck as she comforts him, his hands in fists, his body shaking, not realizing he’s speaking too until he catches himself in the middle of a phrase.

“I don’t know how to keep going every day that he’s not there,” he sobs, and Gladys tightens her hold on him until he can feel the beat of her heart. His body goes slack, his face soaked with tears, and he lays in her hold and trembles until he wears himself out, fading into hiccupy coughs against the skin of her pulse.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “Sorry. Bad day.”

“Sssh,” Gladys murmurs, not unkindly, drawing back and kissing him several times on the forehead, her small hand landing on his bony shoulder and palpating the skin, loosening the muscle. “You’re okay.”

“Fucking love you,” he chokes out, his nose burning.

“Me too, baby.” Gladys pulls him back into a hug, resting her cool fingers briefly against his cheek. “You’re hot. Go back to sleep.”

Fred cries until his face stings, and then somehow he sleeps again.

When he wakes a final time there’s a stuffed cat tucked into the crook of his arm, a raggedy child’s toy that’s been well-loved and smells like Gladys’ house. He squeezes it with care, grateful for a friend.

Despite having cried, the headache is gone: he feels soft and unreal, hazy and warm. There’s a TV on: Gladys is sitting up next to him, watching the X-Files on mute. She’s eating a sandwich on a plate. He inhales - peanut butter. Definitely.

“Why were you hanging out with Tom Keller?” he asks, and she looks down at him in surprise.

“I told you, drug deal.” Gladys smiles when he hugs the cat closer rather than letting go of it, pressing the kitty against his mouth and chin.

“What’s her name?” Fred asks. The room is soft and dark still, it could be six pm or three am.

“That’s Kattie.” Gladys’ hand squeezes his leg, then brushes his cheek. Fred brushes the cat’s hair in soothing, gentle strokes. “I’ve had her since I was four.”

Fred lays his head against her hip, nestling the toy closer in his arms. “Thanks for rescuing me.”

“There’s only one of you,” Gladys replies simply. “Someone ought to do it.”

Fred watches the TV for a moment. “Did I blow it with Tom Keller by fainting?”

“Dude, no. You have a great reason to talk to him tomorrow. You couldn’t have set this up better yourself.”

Fred’s heart beats faster. “God, you’re right.” He brushes his fingers lovingly through Kattie’s matted fur. “This is so hot.”

Gladys flicks him on the cheek. “You’re so stupid. Do you want a sandwich right now?”

“I can wait a little more,” says Fred and wraps his arms around her. To his gratitude, she lets him tuck his head against her chest, pulling the blanket higher over him.

“Can’t get up with you laying on me, anyway,” Gladys grumbles, but her hand combs through his messy bangs and Fred feels safe, relaxed, and slow, and perfectly okay again.