Actions

Work Header

A Stagnation of Love (rewrite)

Chapter Text

A Stagnation of Love

Author's Note: Well, here we are again, lol. This is the FOURTH incarnation of this story, but while rereading the first two chapters I wrote, I realized it wasn't right. It's my own fault, I can't write things from the point of view of young children, it never sounds authentic. I really don't like the first two chapters of this story for that reason, so I'm scrapping them and trying to introduce the themes of those chapters from the view of an older Duo. Hopefully this will be the last rewrite :v


Chapter 1
Part 1

March 3, 2004


    My name is Duo Maxwell. I'm thirteen years old. Not that it matters, Mrs. Khushrenada said that no one else is going to read this journal, just me. I don't get the point of this assignment if she's not even going to read it. I told her it would be like talking to myself, so it's pointless, but she insisted that I do it. She said that writing down all the things that make me sad and angry will help me after what happened. I know it won't, but it's either this or my English homework, and I've read Tom Sawyer before. It's not a book I really want to read again. I'd rather write about this, even if it doesn't help.
    I'm good at writing. I'm good at reading, too. Essays, book reports, critical reading. It's all I've ever been good at. I suck at every science I've ever taken. I can remember all the little rules and equations for math. History bores me. I'm too tone deaf to be any good at chorus or the other music classes. I don't care enough about gym to try and I'm not competitive like the other boys in my grade. I already know everything they teach in home ec. But I've always been good at words and understanding them. I started reading on my own before most of my classmates. I had to. My dad stopped reading to me when I was four, and I liked those stories too much to wait until first grade to be taught how to do it myself. I remembered the stories, I just had to figure out the words. And learning that I could make those words myself on paper had been even more magical than learning how to understand them.
    I don't know what I should write about. Mrs. Khushrenada said to write about the stuff that makes me upset, so I guess I could write about my parents, or about Quatre. I don't want to write about him, but I guess that's the point.
    I met Quatre my first day of school. I was tired because my parents kept me up all night with their fighting. I don't remember a day when they didn't fight, but some nights are worse than others. Sometimes they just bicker or snap at each other. Some nights, like that night, they scream and swear and throw things at each other. On really bad nights, they hit each other. Sometimes Dad throws Mom out of the house and she doesn't come back until the morning, or Mom scratches up his face. Lately, the last two years, it's gotten worse and worse. I know from the looks our neighbors give us the screaming annoys them, but because of my dad's job, they never say anything about it.
    That night, they just screamed at each other a lot. I don't remember what it was about, my dad threw Mom out of the bedroom. That happens a lot, too. I thought that after hearing them scream at each other every night, it would stop bothering me, but I still haven't gotten used to it. It still wakes me up at night and it still frightens me. Dad probably threw her out because she didn't want him touching her. When I was younger, that confused me since she didn't kick up such a fuss during the day, just at night, but I think it means she doesn't like sleeping next to him or something. Whatever the reason, it always pisses my dad off even worse than if I break something.
    Our house is small and old. There's only one bedroom, my parents' room. My room is the attic. When I told Quatre that, he said it was cool, like I lived in a secret room, and that I had the whole place to myself. He would say that. To him, it was cool because even though he lived in a bigger house than me, he had six older sisters before they all left to go to college. When he was younger, there was no room in his house he could go to to get any privacy. But he was wrong. I never lived in a secret room because my dad always knows where to find me, and I can always hear them. I guess it would be worse if I had a room downstairs, but it doesn't matter. It isn't how loud they can scream, it's what they say and how they sound when they say it, and I can hear that just fine up here. I liked it better when I was little, and didn't understand what words like 'fuck', 'asshole', 'cunt', 'bitch', and 'bastard' meant. I liked it better when I didn't fully understand their hate for each other. When Quatre and I were in the fourth grade, an eighth grader had told us what all those words meant. Quatre had been appalled. I guess no one talks like that in his family. I was just sad.
    Even if the shouting is louder downstairs, at least I would have a room with lights. There are no windows in an attic. There is no breeze or heat up here, either, just my mattress, a dresser for my clothes, and a single electrical outlet. The fan I plug into it during the summer doesn't make it any less hot, and even the old electric blanket Quatre gifted me with a couple years ago helps during the winter. I stopped being afraid of the dark up here when I was a kid,  but I still hate opening my eyes to that. I had a lamp up here once, by Dad broke it. I didn't see the point in finding another one.
    Even when my parents eventually stopped screaming at each other, I had a hard time sleeping. It had been hot the night before, so we had kept our windows open. That morning, after Dad had gone to work, it had started to pour. Mom was already on her way to getting drunk and I had been too excited and focused on starting school that I forgot to close the windows. When Dad got home and saw that a bunch of our things had gotten soaked, he had gotten pissed. It doesn't take much to make him mad. If I just walk in my room when he has a hangover or has a bad day at work, he comes upstairs and strikes me. Sometimes, if he's just annoyed, it's just one punch. When he's in a truly bad mood, it's a lot more than that.     I have nightmares about hearing that stride, hearing his heavy footsteps walking up the stairs to the attic. I remember once, when I was really little, Mom, back before she had started to ignore me entirely, had told me to just stay out of his way. He got angry sometimes, she had said, and he couldn't control his anger anymore than a person could control feeling tired, so the best thing I could do, if I didn't want to get hit, was make sure I wasn't in the same room as him. I had tried, back then. I had tried so hard to not do things that angered him, to be a good son and stay out of his way.     But my mom's advice hadn't been so great. Dad would just find me. That day, when I forgot to close the windows, he found me and threw a chair at me. It hit me in the back and busted up my ribs, so I tossed and turned all the night, unable to get comfortable. I had realized, years ago, that hitting me and hurting me made him feel better. A lot of times, if he was just in a bad mood and it wasn't something serious, he would beat me and that would be it. He would be calmer afterwards. In a way, that makes it ok, I guess. It hurts, and I hate it when he gets like that, but then it's over and it isn't so bad. Sometimes, I wonder if I even deserve it. If I were better, smarter, less of a burden on my parents and their struggle just to make it through until Dad's next paycheck, maybe he wouldn't get angry so often.
    But at the same time that I understand that, and as much as I don't want to make him angry like that for doing stupid shit, I don't feel right when he hits me. When I was a kid, it would make me sad and confused, but I accepted it because I loved him. I still do. But lately, every time he strikes me, I feel hate towards him, too. When I was a kid, I used to think that feeling confused and sad about my father was normal, that all kids felt that way towards their fathers, and that all the fighting my parents did was normal. But when I started to go to school, and I saw all the other kids with their parents, I realized that my family was strange. Some kids had it a lot better than me. Others, like Quatre, had it just as bad, but in different ways. I used to want to think that Quatre hated his parents, too, because that meant those feelings were ok, that I didn't need to feel guilty and that I'm a terrible son for feeling that hate. But now... now I don't want to. I want to believe that Quatre never felt things like that, even if I know it' a lie.
    I've gone through what happened in my head a thousand times and I still don't understand why it happened. I don't know if I want to understand it. It's different than trying to understand why my parents hate me so much. I can kind of understand that. I'm nothing special. I'm not like those kids in the advanced classes that are probably going to go off to college, get great jobs, and help out their folks. I'm not smart. Being good at writing and reading means shit in the 'real world'. I'm old enough now to get that, and to know that one of the reasons why my dad works so hard that he has to come home late is because he has to support me.
    And I know that my mom hates me because of what happened the day I was born. She told me once that I ruined her inside when I came out. I don't really know what that means exactly, only that when she gave birth to me, I hurt her, and she can never have anymore kids. It must be true. In our basement are all these things my parents had before I was born, pictures of when they were teenagers. Mom is so pretty in those pictures, and she is always smiling and happy. She doesn't smile anymore, and if she ever has, I don't remember. When Dad drinks, he tells me that they were both happy back then, until I came along.
    She can never have someone better than me. I think about that, every time I fuck up, every time I get a bad grade on a test or break a dish because I'm clumsy or Dad hits me for disturbing him. I'll never be anything special, and my parents are stuck with me forever. But no matter how much I try, I can't seem to get any better for them.
    I understand those things, but I don't understand why this happened. I hadn't been around other kids that much until that first day of school. I had hoped that I would make some friends, even just one. I had thought that it couldn't be any worse than being at home with Dad. I don't know why I thought that, like Dad was the only one who could hurt me.
    I had never been more excited in my entire life than that morning, and I haven't been that excited since. I had spent the last three weeks scrounging for school supplies since I didn't have any money to buy anything and neither of my parents had bothered. They hadn't even talked to me about school, except for a month before when my dad had come home from work and gruffly told me I was going to school and getting out of his hair, finally.
    I went door to door in our neighborhood, except for our one next door neighbor who has this big, vicious dog. I've avoided that house since the large mutt had tried to take a bit out of my face just walking past the yard it hadn't been chained up in. Most of them told me to go home and slammed the door in my face while others didn't even answer the door since the section of town we live in is so shitty, but some of them were willing to give me some composition notebooks and pencils even though I was too embarrassed to tell any of them why I needed those things. I hadn't known that the teachers just gave you that stuff. I found an old, black book bag that had been my dad's at some point and stuffed all of it in there.
    My parents didn't say anything when I walked out the door that morning. Back then I had worried about it, that I had gotten the date or something else wrong. I had even been frightened that I would be punished later for leaving the house without their permission. Looking back, I know that they just didn't care. I was getting out of their sight for a few hours. Whether I made it to school or knew what I was doing didn't matter. I had been too scared, and too desperate to prove I could do it on my own, to ask them. Nausten is small enough that I knew where the school was, so I could at least get that far.
    It takes me twenty minutes to walk to school every day. Not too bad, and I'd rather walk than take the bus. I like walking to school in the mornings, it's quiet, that special time of day when the only thing adults care about is getting coffee before work and most businesses aren't even open yet. I appreciate more now that I'm a teenager, but when I was a kid I liked it, too. It had been early enough in the fall that things were cold, but not miserable like they would be in December. The winter means ducking snow balls and trudging through the heavy wind in my thin jacket and even thinner pants.
    But fall is pretty. Not so much where I live, but when you get further north where there are trees and well kept shrubs, all those colors made the walk well worth it. At the right time of fall, I even delay walking back home just to look up at the trees. I didn't delay that morning. I didn't want to start school as one of the only kids that was late. I didn't know what that punishment might be.
    I hate the elementary school building. I've hated it since the first time I saw it. We used to have a middle school building, but it burned down long ago, before I was born, and the town decided it was too much fuss to rebuild it. Instead they crammed grades 5-8 in with K-4. Bullying and agitation between the younger kids and the older ones impatiently waiting for high school went way up, and classroom space went way down, but the town saved enough money to build a bigger boardwalk at the beach and whatever the hell else they did with that money, so what did they care? It was just the teachers and kids that suffered, one didn't have big enough salaries to matter and the other would grow out of it.
    The elementary school is all white, aged, painted wood with old, stained windows that are covered up with construction paper from various school projects, mostly from the younger grades. I guess when they first built it, it had probably been nice looking, the white pristine and new. But now, decades later, that white could only be called that if you looked past it's the yellow as all that paint and wood had aged. The high schoolers are lucky. Their building is all brick and metal and doesn't come across as an overly ambitious shack.
    The outside of the elementary school is better, though. The outside of the high school is almost entirely paved while the elementary has a lot more grass and flowers. We have a playground with a jungle gym and swings while the high school has a track and a couple of basketball courts. I even heard from the older kids that high schoolers don't get a recess, just a lunch. My first day of school, there were a bunch of kids my age playing on that jungle gym, but I didn't join them. I didn't know any of them or the kinds of games they were playing with their friends, and I didn't have any friends of my own to play with. Even after then, I only ever went on the jungle gym where no one else was. It was something I never grew out of, even after meeting Quatre.
    The elementary school is divided in two, with the left section for the lower classman, grades K-3, and the right section for the upper classman, grades 4-8. There were even two separate entrances, with the grades listed in gold above the doorways. I walked through the right side door, a stone in the pit of my stomach.
    I was nine years old when I went to public school for the first time, not five like all of my other classmates, or even four like the kids whose parents had been well off enough to send them to preschool. The year I should have gone to kindergarten had passed me by without me even knowing I should have started school. Neither of my parents had talked to me about it and they hadn't really seemed like they had cared a year later when one of my dad's coworkers had asked him why I wasn't in class like his son was.     My father had shrugged it off and said it was fine, there was nothing I was going to learn in kindergarten and it would just be a waste of his time and money. His friend had laughed and agreed with that, telling stories of the art projects his son had brought home and how much of a hassle it was using up his lunch hour to pick his son up from school. Beyond that, it had never come up. When I was supposed to enter the first grade, Dad lost my immunization records and refused to pay the fee to waive them. He spent a lot of nights on the phone with my doctor, yelling, and I don't really remember what came of that, only that by the time it had been resolved I had missed too many days of school to go.
    I missed out going to the second grade because I had been laid out in the hospital for two months. Dad had been going through a lot of problems with his job, problems that he had taken home with him. He had been especially cagey those days and it hadn't taken much to get all of that rage directed at me. I don't really remember what I asked him thanks to the concussion he gave me. I just remember the look of anger that had come across his face, turning the father I had mostly loved back then into the monster I grew used to as I got older. I remember having screaming nightmares about that expression. I remember him yelling something at me, but most of all I remember how arm felt when he snapped it, and the sound my head made when he punched me in the temple and I hit a wall. That time he told the doctors that I got beaten up by an older kid.
    Last year, I returned to the hospital, that time for a bad case of pneumonia. I got sick a lot when I was a kid, but that time had been terrible. I spent weeks in that hospital bed, coughing up what felt like gallons of fluid, too weak to do much but lay there. At least it had gotten me out of the house and away from my parents for awhile. The year I would have been in the fourth grade normally, my dad had been dead set on getting me into school and so was I. He wanted me out of the house and I wanted to meet people my own age.
    When I heard from the school councilor that I would have to take a test to get into the fourth grade, or be sent to the first grade, I was mortified. I guess I just thought that I would be put in whatever grade all the other kids my age were in, I never thought that, because I had missed so many classes and skills I needed to get through the fourth grade, I would be held back. I didn't know what would be worse, to never go to school and be stuck at home like I had been, or to be held back, to be taking classes with six year olds instead of other nine years olds. I wanted to make friends, I wanted to be normal for just a few hours. I hadn't realized back then, the real extent that my father had screwed me.
    That's why it hurts a bit now that I'm a teenager and I can look back and realize that the same man whose actions had kept me from going to school for three out of the four grades I had missed was responsible for getting me into the fourth grade. At nine years old I was pretty proficient at reading and writing. My father would bring me home books that were hand my downs from the people he worked with, and when he had the time during the weekends, he would take me with him to the library to check some out. I taught myself with those books, reading them over and over until even the bigger words became familiar to me. The test I had to take had a section on reading and I finished it quickly. It made me think that I might not have needed to go to those first three grades and I would be fine.
    Then I saw the math parts. In reality, now that I'm in the seventh grade, all the things that had been in that test come second nature to me, but at the time my math skills had been as complex as counting on my fingers and knowing what all the different signs were from my books. I could handle 5+7 because I could count at least that high, and I knew my roman numerals from reading, but I hadn't the clue what 122+327 was, how to subtract 100 from 56, how to multiply, or how to divide things. Fractions and geometry were well beyond my scope of understanding at that time.
    It had become a horrible nightmare for me. A month before I needed to be placed in my grade, I had trouble sleeping and constantly felt sick to my stomach. I wasn't so worried about having to go to the first grade anymore. I was scared that I would have to tell my father that I couldn't take the test. I imagined his anger, and even worse, I imagined his disappointment. The only thing worse than hearing that you're stupid for most of your life is knowing that you're stupid.
    I finally got the courage one day to walk up to him with the test and tell him that I didn't understand any of the math. I had expected him to slap me or call me names, tell me that I was a moron and I deserved to be in the first grade. Instead he sighed in irritation and said, "I guess it can't be helped." He spent weeks going over all of the math problems with me, over and over and over until I could do them myself. He lost his temper with me a few times, but he never hit me, just yelled. Honestly though, those times when my dad was helping me study are some of the happiest memories I have. Sitting at the kitchen table with him, listening to him explain things to me instead of yelling or ignoring me. When I got something wrong, he would get so annoyed, but when I got it right, he would smile and ruffle my hair or pat my shoulder. It made me feel a deep love for him.
    I don't know what I had imagined the inside of the school to be like before I had taken my first steps inside. All I had known about school I had learned from watching television after my dad abandoned the tv set to go to work. Those tv shows had always depicted schools as this great, fun place to be, with bustling hallways full of kids smiling and laughing. That morning, the hallways full of colorful lockers and colorful posters had been empty. It had reminded me more of the hospital than the schools on TV.
    I was well accustomed to the hospital. Most of the time, Dad ignored me after he hit me. When I had been really little and he had hit me, Mom had grudgingly taken care of it, but after awhile she had just let me take care of myself. But there had been a few times when he had hit me just a little bit too hard, or he had been too drunk to realize what he had been doing and had broken something and he had taken me to the hospital. Most of the time it was one of my arms. I used to find it so hard that when the doctors asked my father what had happened, he had lied about it. What he had done had never seemed like something he needed to hide. It had just been normal to me, but he would pull out these stories and excuses, so naturally that it would even make me doubt my own memories for a moment. I don't know if the doctors bought it each time it had happened, and sometimes it seemed like they were looking at my dad suspiciously, but they never said anything about it.
    Beyond that, what I remember of the hospital was it's quiet, empty, white halls. That morning was like that. It seemed like all of the kids were out in the playground, or maybe already in the classrooms. I stood there in the empty hallway and realized that I had absolutely no idea where I was supposed to go. I stood there in the middle of the crossroads of four hallways and felt like a complete idiot before a man walked up to me. He was wearing a tie, so I guess he must have been a teacher.
    "You lost?" he asked in a gruff voice that reminded me of my father first thing in the morning, like he wanted to be anywhere but there and talking to anyone else but knew that he had to.
    I nodded, feeling incredibly shy and unsure.
    "What grade?" he asked in that slightly irritated way.
    "Fourth," I responded in a small voice, feeling like the pest my father always told me I was.
    "Fourth grade classrooms are closed for flooding repairs," he said in that bored tone people get when they've said the same thing over and over, "All fourth grade classes are meeting in the first grade wing," he pointed to the hallway to our right, "straight down there, take a right past the double doors, your classroom will be there."
    "Thank you," I murmured and went the way he had said.
    I opened the double doors and walked right to another empty hallway. Again, it reminded me of the hospital, only much sadder because of all the color. It would have seemed more natural if those walls had been painted grey or white instead of the gaudy blue and yellow that I remember. I haven't gone to the kindergarten, first, and second grade section of the school since then, so I don't know if they're still that color.
    Worse than the quiet had been when I finally did start to see kids. They were chatting with kids they already knew, and walked as calmly and naturally as could be into different rooms. I didn't know anyone. This was my first day, not theirs, all of them knew where to go. I felt like some alien creature walking in their midst. I had realized then that I really was the idiot that my father says I am. I didn't know what I was supposed to do. I had gotten to the school ok, but now what? Which classroom was mine? Did I need books? What was I supposed to be doing?
    I was scared of talking to anyone, but I was more scared about missing my first class, so I walked up to the first teacher I saw in that hallway, a tall woman who was chatting with some other grown-ups. I waited patiently for them to walk away before going up to her. She was pretty in the way my mom had been in those photos in the basement, with a gentle smile, beautiful dark brown eyes, and long dark brown hair. She had a very feminine face, the kind I remember seeing in elves from the picture books I used to read when I was little. When she didn't notice me, I grabbed at her long skirt and very gently tugged on it.
    It was the sort of thing my father would have struck me hard for, something he considered incredibly rude. It was one of the many things he couldn't stand, a child pestering an adult. I even flinched when those soft brown eyes fell on me, so sure she would yell at me like my father would, but she smiled at me and kneeled down so I didn't have to crane my neck to look at her.
    "What is it, sweetie?" she asked, her tone genuine instead of hiding annoyance or forcing herself to sound nice like some of my neighbors did when they spoke to me.
    I always hated it when they did that, taking that same tone with me that they would with their dogs. It always reminded me of how my dad looked at me, like I was too stupid to really understand. Mrs. Khushrenada never looked or spoke to me like that.
    "I don't know where to go," I confessed and I remember feeling completely embarrassed at that point.
    Her smile fell into a small frown.
    "You're new here, aren't you? Didn't your parents tell you?" she asked.
    I shook my head. She regained her smile quickly and took my hand into hers. I don't know why but that reminded me of how Dad's hand felt around mine when we were at the mall or crossing the street. Her hand completely dwarfed mine like his did, but her hand wasn't as big as his, and hers was soft where his was rough.
    "What's your name?" she asked me.
    "Duo Maxwell," I replied automatically in the same taught way all little kids do when a stranger asks for their name or age.
    I had already been blushing in embarrassment from her holding my hand, something that if anyone else had done I would have felt insulted by at that age, but seemed to natural to her, but in saying my own name, I flushed a few shades darker. I don't think I've ever liked my name Both kids and adults always give me weird looks when I say it, like they don't believe me. I have no idea why parents picked that name instead of something normal like Robert or Matt.
    But Mrs. Khushrenada didn't seem puzzled at my weird name, her smile brightening.
    "Oh, you must be Nathan and Helen's son!" she exclaimed, "I was beginning to worry that they had decided to home school you and we'd never get to meet."    
    I felt my face go searing hot and I felt the urge to go hide under something. I don't really remember why I had gotten so embarrassed just because she recognized me. My dad was one of the only seven cops in Nausten, so practically everyone knew who he was. But Mrs. Khushrenada was one of the only people who knew my mother by name.
    "Well, Duo Maxwell," she said to me in a voice as bright as her smile, "I'm Mrs. Une Khushrenada, but you can just call me Une. I'm your teacher this year, so we'll get to know each other well, ok?"
    I'm sure I made some kind of surprised or dubious face when she told me to call her by her first name. That was something else that my father had taught me, and my breaking of that rule would have gotten me struck like all the others. Kids didn't call adults by their first names, it's rude and disrespectful. It just made me much more confused than it should have. I couldn't call my teacher by her first name because my dad would have been furious if he ever found out, and I couldn't call her by her last name because she didn't want me to.
    At first I even thought she was trying to trick me. My dad used to do that, let me think it was ok to break a rule, but it was only a test, one he would punish me for if I failed. I eventually got over it. I have never called Mrs. Khushrenada by her first name and I never will.
    "Thank you," I blurted out, my struggle to decide whose rules I should follow making me remember my manners.
    She walked with me down the hallway, still holding my hand.
    "I went to high school with your Daddy, Duo," Mrs. Khushrenada told me with a gentle smile.
    I quickly forgot my fear in my interest. All I knew about my parents when they were younger had come from what I could find stored in our basement. They never talked about it, except for the things they yelled at each other or me. I had never met my grandparents. I don't even know if they're dead or alive some place, refusing to visit for some reason. Maybe they just lived too far away. Even if my parents were stuck in the same town they had grown up in, it didn't mean their parents were.
    "You're handsome, just like him," my teacher continued as I gave her my full attention.
    I looked down at the ground, not sure what I was supposed to say to that. No one had ever told me I looked anything like my dad before. I have the same pale skin my mom did, and her auburn straight hair. My dad's hair is dark brown, even darker than Mrs. Khushrenada, and both my father and my mother have grey eyes, although my dad's are much darker. My eyes are violet. When I had been much younger, I thought that made me a freak. I'm still not sure why I don't have grey eyes like I should, but I know it's because of some ancestors from both sides of my family, not because I'm strange or even because I'm not really their kid.
    "He was so stubborn as a teenager and he was always getting into trouble," she chuckled, "I still can't believe he got into law enforcement and turned out to be good at it!"
    I remember being surprised by that. Not to hear that my dad had been stubborn because he was, and not to hear he was good at his job. My father didn't earn a lot of money as a police officer, but he wasn't a beat cop or a grunt. By the time I should have started school, he had earned some sort of medal. I don't remember what it had been for, I had been too young to remember and my father hadn't gloated about it. It had gotten him free beer for a few months and a raise, which had gotten me a new pair of sneakers and my parents a new oven, as our old one had stopped doing anything giving out grey smoke and a foul order. Our new one hadn't been that great, but you could cook with it at least.
    Since then, my father had gotten two more medals, one for breaking up a local drug ring and the other catching someone who had been hurting women in our town one summer. That had been all over the news for a week because stuff like that doesn't happen here that much. That last medal had made Dad angry. He had spent a lot of nights at his job, not coming home until the morning, and had expected a promotion for it. I guess he never got one because he had been especially furious for a month after that.
    In all that time, I was stupid enough to cross his path just three times. The first time, he hit me in the cheek with his belt so hard my cheek turned a deep blue-black color that was a dark, blood red at the edges and the swelling didn't go down for days. The second time he hit me with Mom's iron and broke three of my ribs. I tried even harder to do everything he asked of me to the letter and otherwise find a dark hole to hide in until his mood passed. Mom didn't fight with him at all that month. The third time... well... the third time I ended up in the hospital and missed the second grade.
    What surprised me was hearing that my father had been a trouble maker. I couldn't imagine my dad misbehaving. He punished me for every little rule I broke, and my father had a lot of rules. He was always so serious, I just couldn't see him as anything but that. At nine years, just imagining the looming, powerful man that was my father as a teenager at all had been impossible.
    Mrs. Khushrenada let go of my hand as we walked into a classroom. It looked like all the other classrooms I had seen, only the kids running around in it were my age and the desks were smaller. Most of the kids' attention were focused on the front of the room where two kids were fighting. Well, that had been my impression at the time. But they hadn't been going at each other or arguing.
    A girl with brown hair much lighter than Mrs. Khushrenada' was yelling at a boy with blonde hair that was paler than mine and brilliant blue-green eyes that were wide with fear. The girl had a jar of glue in her hand was approaching the boy with it as he tried to back away. He looked like he wanted to get as far away from her as possible but was too scared to make a sudden move. The whole scene was bizarre to me. The only 'girl' I really knew well was my mother, but I knew enough that boys weren't supposed to be scared of girls like that unless, according to my dad, you were a pussy or a fag. Back then, I hadn't known what cats had to do with it or what a fag was (and I wouldn't know the meaning of that word until last year), but I did understand that it was something embarrassing. And I had no idea what the girl was doing with the glue, but the fear on the boy's face bothered me a lot.
    Mrs. Khushrenada quickly abandoned me to run over to them and stop whatever had been going on. Just like that, the mob of kids dispersed, but the noise didn't. I was used to loud noises and screaming at this point, but I still didn't like the mass of screaming, laughing, running kids in that classroom. All I could think of was that my father would never let me cause such chaos like that, and I had that feeling again, of being different, of not belonging there. Should I be like them, running around and causing a scene, chasing around a friend and screaming with glee?
    The noise overwhelmed me and I nervously shuffled into a desk in the far corner. I felt very sad right then. I had wanted to make friends with someone here, but how could I? They all had their own friends, no one needed me. They had had four years with each other, four years I would never have. With all of the running and screaming, none of them came up to me and tried to talk to me. They ignored me like I was something vile and small. I felt very alone, although that wasn't anything new to me, I had just hoped it would be different at school. Nothing had changed. That was the worst part.
    I had a thought then, a thought that was probably way out of scope of a fourth grader, but I had it none the less. Nothing was ever going to change. I was always going to be alone, just my parents and me. All these kids were just starting to go to school like I was, but they had had a head start on me anyway. I raised my head as I saw the boy and girl that had been fighting shuffling back to their own desks. The boy looked ashamed and the girl looked annoyed, though it should have been the other way around. The girl sat a few chairs ahead of me and whirled around to look at me, studying me like a child would with an insect they had caught in a glass jar. Like I was something gross and unwanted she had caught.
    The girl was pretty, I guess. She wasn't pretty like how my mother had once been, or how Mrs. Khushrenada was, but the way that a doll was. Her light brown, almost dark blonde hair was too perfect, the curls not natural but obviously put there by a hair dresser or maybe her mother. Her pink dress was brand new and fair too neat for a child her age, not a single stain or fleck of dirt on it. She looked too perfect, too fake in some way, and the look she was giving me wasn't pretty at all. The dress didn't suit her. Her pretty, fake curls didn't suit her, or rather, knowing what I know now, maybe they did. I had to look down, away from her piercing blue eyes, and I fiddled with the pencils and paper I had pulled out of my father's book bag.
    "Seats, now!" Mrs. Khushrenada said, not cruelly or harshly, but with enough power to her voice that all the other kids scrambled to their desks.
    Again I was struck with that feeling that I was the only one missing something. All the other kids seemed to know what to do, probably the same things they had done their previous years, and sat quietly in their seats, although some looked like they were on the verge of exploding with energy. I didn't have that urge, and I certainly didn't have that energy. I just felt incredibly nervous and out of place, so I did what I had always been taught to do; I kept my head down and stayed quiet until my name was called, then I merely raised my hand like all the others. I didn't pay any attention to the names of my classmates.
    Even though I was anxious about the other kids, I decided that the classes were fun. In some ways I miss it. Now that I'm in the seventh grade, we have to change classrooms and teachers every block. I miss just having Mrs. Khushrenada as my only teacher. That first day, we got to paint and learn how to write in long roman numberals, something that I never really picked up on. I never really understood the purpose of it, honestly. My parents didn't write like that, and Mrs. Khushrenada didn't either, and it's not something that I needed to know as I got older. My favorite time was, of course, reading time. I wasn't that great at painting. I wasn't terrible like some of my classmates were, but it was nothing special. Math was weird and I didn't really get it that well even after my dad's tutoring, even though Mrs. Khushrenada tried to engage us by using amusing scenarios for all the word problems.
    But then we moved on to reading. I don't remember exactly what it was we had read, some short story. Mrs. Khushrenada had gone down the rows, making each of us read one paragraph of the story. A few of my classmates, the blue eyed girl included, struggled with a few of the words, but I didn't. The books I had to read at home had been just as hard, but I had learned those words out of necessity, and it had helped. Mrs. Khushrenada told me what a good reader I was, and I felt incredibly good about it. It had been the only time anyone had told me I was good at something since my father had told me 'good job' with a rare, soft smile when I had read our address from an envelope in the mail, or when I had gotten my sneakers tied without his help for the first time.
    Mrs. Khushrenada' praise earned me a soft glare from the blue eyed girl who had stumbled through some of her words. That glare looked much more at home and natural on her than her curls or dress.
    "Relena Elizabeth Dorlian!" Mrs. Khushrenada snapped at her.
    The girl turned back around at that point and we returned to math. I forgot about it as we delved into more painful multiplication and division, at least until Mrs. Khushrenada got called away by another teacher. She shouted at us to mind ourselves and the second she left the room, the class devolved into chaos again. Everyone scrambled out of their seats and reformed their groups of friends, chatting loudly, chasing each other around the classroom, and drawing on the chalkboard. I thought briefly about walking up to one of those groups of kids and saying hi or something, but I was too scared. Instead, I looked at the window and watched some squirrels play out there. They reminded me of my classmates, mindlessly running around, but less loud.
    I felt someone looking at me suddenly and looked away from the window. It was Relena, looking at me with the same intense expression she had earlier. It was a frightening look on the pretty girl. I don't know why, but she reminded me of my father, which was preposterous. But still, she scared me like he did when he was angry and I didn't like being under that creepy stare.
    "Where are you from?" she finally broke her silence with a stern, demanding tone, crossing her arms over her chest in a pose that she was trying to make intimidating.
    Although I didn't like her looking at me, and she weirded me out, in a way that pose was funny. She was the same size as me after all, but there was a hardness to her blue eyes that also made me feel wrong.
    "Here," I said, confused by the question.
    "Nu-uh," she said, poking me in the shoulder as I turned in my desk to look her in her creepy, ice-blue eyes, "You're a no good liar! I've lived here my whole life and I've never seen you! You're a liar!"
    It shouldn't have hurt. I didn't know this girl, so why should it hurt me that she thought I was lying? My father called me  a liar all the time. Sometimes, when I told him about something interesting I had seen or heard about, he would call me a liar. Or just tell me to shut up and I would know that he didn't believe me. Kids are all liars, he would say gruffly. When I had, very proudly, told him about the first sentence I had been able to read on my own he had said, 'don't you fucking lie to my face.' That had hurt more than all the other times. He called me stupid, bastard, fucker, piece of shit, all things that hurt more than some girl I had just met accusing me of lying about something that didn't really matter, or make any sense to me.
    But it did. It hurt because she was the very first person my age I had ever talked to and even though she knew nothing about me, she had immediately assumed the worst about me. And she had said it loud enough for the rest of the class to hear. did they all think I was a liar? That thought had made me feel ashamed, like her accusations were true. Even worse than feeling embarrassed or ashamed, I felt angry at that moment, more than I had ever had before in my short life.
    I hated her then. I had never hated anyone before, not even my dad. I had felt sad about him hitting me and the yelling he and Mom did, but I had never felt anger and hate fill me like that before then. It was a terrible feeling. When she jabbed me in the shoulder, I wanted to punch her, like my dad had done to me hundreds of times. That frightened me. My father's anger had always scared me, so feeling it in me was terrible. Was this really how he felt all the time, I wondered. I felt sad for him, that he felt like that, when I didn't like feeling it myself. I didn't want to be that way, I didn't want to strike anyone. I had been too young then to put the feeling into words, but my rage repulsed me. I didn't want to be like my father.
    I didn't hit her. I couldn't. Just the thought of it made my stomach feel like ice. I wanted to hit her, shove at her, scream at her, do something , but I couldn't even move. It was just like how I felt when Dad punished me, like I was paralyzed. It was so stupid. My father was one thing. I knew what he was capable of, he was bigger than me, and if I talked back to him or tried to hit him, and the thought to strike my own father hadn't even entered my head back then, but Relena was little, so why couldn't I at least speak up, tell her to cut it out?
    "I'm not a liar," was all I could say, in a weak, pathetic voice. I couldn't even look her in the eyes, "I've always lived here."
    I thought about explaining it to her, that I had just been sick and hadn't been able to go to school until now, but my voice was stuck in my throat. My eyes darted to hers, but they were still hard. There was a kind of... excitement there now, a glee that I couldn't understand. Did she enjoy this? Why couldn't she just leave me alone?
    "Yes you are!" she jeered, jabbing at me again with her finger, "You're a great, big liar! I never saw you at pre-school, kindergarten, or any of our other classes!"
    I stared at her blankly. I think I had understood, at some level, that this really wasn't about her thinking I had just moved to Nausten and was pissed I was lying to her, but I had never really interacted with other kids before, and besides my father, I had certainly never been bullied before. The blonde boy who had been fighting with Relena earlier, and who had been watching us this whole time with a hesitant and guarded expression, walked up to us. Immediately, Relena's entire expression changed when she saw him. That coldness and glee remained, but there was also hate there. It startled me. I was used to seeing that on my dad's face when he was angry at me, but what had the boy done to her to have her not just dislike him, but hate him that much?
    "Relena, stop it," he said, but his voice was terribly shy and even I could feel the fear there, "not everyone can afford pre-school, and there are kids here that never went to kindergarten with us. There are lots of other reasons why he didn't go to this school the last few years, it doesn't make him a liar," even though his voice was small, his tone was also terse and irritated, but when she glared at him, he just looked like he wished he had never stood up for me and wanted to melt back into the crowd.
    "Shut up, Quatre," she snapped at him, "This isn't your business. Unless there's something else you want to say?"
    The boy blushed darkly at her threat and backed off, not wanting to fight with her anymore than I had. I realized that no one else in that classroom was going to distract her, and in a moment all of her terrible attention was going to be on me. I managed to get two steps past her, but she noticed my feeble attempt at escape and grabbed my arm, shoving me back against my desk. I wanted to shout at her that she shoved like a boy, to see how she liked to be called names and embarrassed, but I was too scared of her. That other boy, Quatre, clearly was, so it felt natural to be scared of her, too.
    "I am not done talking to you!" she yelled at me with a petulant pout, her blue eyes bright in a very frightening way.
    I realized it then that she really was enjoying this. This was fun to her. Did my dad enjoy it, too, when he mocked me and hit me, when he hurt me? That thought was just too terrible for me. but in a way, Relena Dorlian did remind me of my father, especially when he drank, which was frequently. Completely focused, irrational, and incapable of understanding. That comparison made me take a step back away from her and for the first time since she had accused me of lying, and with my ribs still throbbing from my dad's abuse the night before, I didn't feel like a coward for trying to get away from a nine year old girl. One of the very first lessons my father had unintentionally taught me was that sometimes being a coward and running away was safer and smarter than being brave.
    "Well, where are you from? Answer me!" she demanded, her voice rising in part anger, part excitement.
    "I'm telling the truth!" I protested.
    I felt so frustrated, like nothing I said mattered, just like with my parents, and I realized I was on the verge of tears. I wasn't a liar, I wasn't, but she didn't care. Why was she doing this, and why to me? She didn't really care where I was from, I don't even think she cared if I was lying, and I couldn't figure out why. I heard a few snickers from the crowd of kids that had formed around us and they felt like daggers in my chest. Was all this just one big joke?
    "No, you're a liar, I know one when I see one and you look like a liar, too!" she crowed, as though she had come to some brilliant conclusion that she was intensely proud of.
    She suddenly shoved me against my desk again, but much harder. My sneakers slipped and I fell, hitting the back of my head on the hard desk, just bad enough to black out. It must not have been for very long, because when I opened them again, Mrs. Khushrenada still wasn't there and my classmates were still crowded around us, watching with great interest as Relena sat on the floor next to me in an oddly graceful and ladylike posture. She was nearly sitting on top of me and had a black marker in her hand. I had no idea where it had come from.
    Relena grabbed my bangs and harshly tugged them away from my face. I smelled the strong stench of the marker and felt the wetness on my forehead as she wrote something there. I struggled against her, not knowing what was going on, but hating the sound of my classmates' laughter and the feel of her small hand pulling my hair. My vision finally cleared enough that I could see the crowd of kids. Some were giggling and watching Relena write on my face like it was the funniest thing they had seen. Others were just watching with a dull, non-expression, like they were sleepwalking, or they had seen this so often they were bored.
    I had an epiphany then, a big thing for a nine year old. No one was going to help me. No one helps anyone, despite what I heard from adults, TV programs, and books. People might donate toys and food and money to 'those less fortunate,' but when someone right in front of them needed help, they never bothered. Even if the person knew you, they wouldn't help. I could be friends with all of those kids, and they would have kept staring and giggling. I understood that then and I understand it even better now that I'm a teenager.
    When I had been a child and Dad had been hurting me real bad and had screamed for help, Mom never came to help me. She just stood and watched. She didn't even try. She doesn't do that much anymore, although her drinking has gotten a lot worse. When I got really scared of Dad's rage as a kid, I had tried to run from him a few times, before it had sunk in that I could never really get away from him. He would just catch me and hit me out on the lawn, the farthest I had ever gotten from him. My neighbors had never helped me. My cries had brought them out of their houses and peering out the windows, but all of them had just watched.
    I had quickly learned as a child that asking for help was pointless. No one wanted to help, they just watched, some of them even liked it. If I screamed, no one would come to my aid, not even Mrs. Khushrenada. Asking for help just got you hurt worse. The way my classmates watched as Relena finished writing on my face reminded me of my neighbors watching my dad beat me in our front yard, or my mom watching as he struck me bloody with his belt. Those blank stares, like they were watching television, some of them excited, others dull, like it was a rerun to them.
    But out of the sea of those blank and curious stares, I caught Quatre's blue-green eyes. His were different than everyone else's. He had that same look like he had seen this before, but his eyes weren't dull. They were bright with tears and fear, sympathy without pity, and most of all, empathy. I remembered how frightened he had acted around Relena and quickly realized she had done this to him, too.
    That realization should have made me feel terrible, knowing that she had hurt him like this, but it didn't. It made me feel better, relieved. I hated myself for that, but it's the truth. It felt good knowing I wasn't the only one she had gone after.
    "There!" Relena exclaimed, standing up and twirling the black marker in her pale hand like she thought she was some kind of artist, "Now everyone knows what a little liar you are!" she laughed. It was a horrible sound, shrill and mocking.
    What had she done? I got to my feet like I had been shot, not wanting to give her the chance to do anything else. So what if she had done something terrible to my face, so what if everyone was laughing at me, I told myself. It was fine, I was fine. I felt the hot tears that I had been fighting to keep at bay finally burst out of me and stream down my cheeks. They only made her laugh harder. The only word I can really use for the expression on her face then is pride. I bolted, and unlike before, Relena didn't try to grab me. I ran out of the classroom as fast as I could, but the laughter just followed me.
    In the hallway outside the classroom, I had no idea where I was going. All I cared about was finding a mirror so I could see what was written on my forehead, and getting as far away from everyone as I could, some place no one could gawk at me. Although I had no idea where I was going, I eventually found a set of bathrooms. They were easy to spot, the only ones in the hallway that weren't the typical amber-gold color of all the other wooden doors, but a gaudy blue and pink.
    Maybe it had been for the benefit of the kindergarteners who couldn't read the words on the doors 'boys' and 'girls' just yet. But all of the kindergarteners had to be escorted to the bathrooms by an adult, so that didn't make any sense. Maybe the people who had been in charge of painting the school had gotten fanciful or bored, I don't know. I just know is that, even the first time I saw those doors, I thought they were ugly as hell. I only had to put up with those doors for this year, though, before moving on to the grades 4-8 section of the school where the bathroom doors and lockers are all painted the our town's colors; blue for the boys and grey for the girls.
    In case anyone does read this stupid thing, and I don't see why anyone would, we have the stupidest mascot ever, a silver and blue nautilus. Whenever our high school football team goes against our neighboring town and rivals, the Brownstone Bears, the person wearing their mascot outfit does this crude skit of eating shellfish. Which is pretty accurate since we've never won against them once. Apparently. I've never actually been to any of the games and I probably never will. For one, I'm still not in high school and don't know anyone on the team, and two, it's the kind of social event that kids like aren't welcome at.
    I went through the blue door. By some miracle, there were no other boys using the bathroom, I even checked all the stalls to make sure. I didn't want to talk to anyone, I didn't even want to see anyone. No one had been nice to me, or wanted to talk to me, just gawk or laugh. That isn't really fair, since Relena was the only one of my classmates that had actually spoken to me, but it was how I felt back then. And they had laughed. That was what hurt me the most, that laughter. I had been scared and humiliated, and it had been a big joke to everyone. If a person laughed at you when they were crying, I think it's a fair assumption they weren't going to try to be your friend after that. That realization brought fresh tears to my eyes.
    I stood in front of one of the many small mirrors that was hanging over each little sink, all at convenient height for someone a bit smaller than me, and I pushed my chestnut bangs away from my face. The walls in the bathroom were an eerie white, but peppered with little handprints, each a different brilliant color, and the bathroom stalls were blue with little fish painted on them. The obviously cheerful colors and fish just made me feel worse as I stared at my wide eyed reflection. On my forehead, in letters so large and thick that even someone half blind could read them from several feet away, was the word "LIAR" written in black marker.
    I sniffled, the sound echoing in the empty room, and a few more tears escaped my reddened eyes despite my trying very hard to hold them back. I don't know why seeing it shocked me so much. It was rather obvious and uncreative, but it was still so hateful. Seeing it there, and remembering the malice on the girl's face that had put it there, made something hot and painful burst in my chest. I couldn't keep my tears at bay anymore.
    This wasn't how my first day of school was supposed to happen! I remember very clearly thinking that with a great deal of sadness. I was supposed to make friends, have fun, and all the other things that kids got to do in those television programs I had watched. School was supposed to be someplace I could go to, to get away from my problems at home. Instead, my problems had followed me here. If I had been old enough to get the bitter humor in that like I am now, I would have laughed through my tears in that bathroom. Relena hadn't hit me like Dad does, and she hadn't hurt me in that very special, vulnerable way he does, but she wanted to hurt me like he did. She had that same contempt for me that I just couldn't understand.
    'Liar,' I read. It wasn't true, but that didn't matter. Anyone who saw it would believe it. I felt something swallow me up, some heavy emotion that made me want to leave the school right then and never come back. Now I can put it to words. Despair. Hopelessness. I had gone to school just wanting to get along with the other kids, to be like everyone else, but I would never be like them. Not anymore, Relena had seen to that, so had my father... all those missing years. Everyone would just remember me as the liar, the boy with the words on his forehead, the one who had cried because of one girl. I would always be a freak. Who would want to be friends with a liar?
    I snatched a bar of soap from the sink I was standing in front of and started to scrub at my forehead viciously. It wouldn't really matter if I got it off, and I knew that. They would remember, and they would tell everyone else about it. I was the freak that had lied, the kid no one knew and no one wanted to know about. As I scrubbed at my forehead, I felt my tears come harder and faster down my face. I couldn't get them to stop. My forehead became bright red, but the black print didn't fade at all. When I saw that, I gave out a frustrated cry, throwing the soap angrily into the sink where it slid and fell on the floor.
    Rage filled my stomach, that same anger I had felt at Relena before. It made my stomach hurt, but I didn't try to pick up the soap to continue my scrubbing. Even my tears were angry, but I also felt a deep sadness. My hands were covered in green soap suds and rubbed at my forehead with them. I didn't care that I was getting soap in my hair and eyes, making them burn with more than tears. I didn't even care that I was scrubbing my skin so hard that it was starting to speckle with blood. I could feel a tiny trickle of it go down my face but told myself it was just water.
    Just as quickly as that anger and desperation had filled me, they left me. My hands fell down at my sides like I was a marionette whose strings had been slashed, the green suds tinged pink with blood. I just stood there in front of the mirror, crying and feeling like an absolute idiot. I didn't want to go back out there. I wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out again. Even with my long bangs, how could I possibly walk out of that bathroom with those letters on my skin? If it had been a TV show, Mrs. Khushrenada would have come bursting in and hugged me, maybe told me that everything was ok, she would make sure that Relena was punished for what she had done.
    But she didn't. And somehow I knew she wasn't going to. After all, she might know my father and mother, but to her, I was a stranger, too. A freak. I could hear a few people walking by the bathroom out in the hall, but I felt completely alone. The quiet was terrible, like the quiet after my father beat me or when my parents stopped screaming. I looked at my reflection. I looked terrible and I didn't recognize myself, my violet eyes large, my bangs plastered to my blood speckled face. I started to scrub at it again, squeezing my eyes shut so I didn't have to look at myself, and the stinging pain from the soap was actually kind of comforting.
    I didn't understand anything, why my parents fought so much, why my dad was always so angry, why Relena had done this to me, why my classmates had laughed at me, but pain I understood. I was used to it. I had another realization when I had looked at the word on my forehead. I would rather be hit than laughed at.
    "You're not going to get it out that way," a small but mature and familiar voice said from behind me.
    I opened my eyes and saw the blonde boy, Quatre, reflected in the mirror. I had been petrified at the thought ot someone coming into the bathroom and seeing me cry like this, but for some reason he didn't make me feel defensive or want to run away again. Unlike Relena's piercing gaze, his sea green eyes were soothing somehow. Maybe it was because he didn't seem to judge me, or because I knew that Relena had hurt him, too. Maybe it was because he seemed to be as lonely as I felt, or didn't have many friends, just like me. Or maybe it was just because he had been the only one of my classmates who hadn't smirked, giggled, or outright laughed at me.
    I turned from the sink to look at him eye to eye. Although he didn't make me feel as self-conscious as the other kids in our class, I felt suspicious and couldn't figure out why he had come looking for me. He looked at my forehead in shock and I felt a surge of anger, bitterness, and sadness go through me. He understood what it felt like to be picked on by that girl, but he was still gawking at her handiwork. Had she sent him here to do something else  humiliating to me, or was he just here out of perverse curiosity?
    "You hurt yourself," he said in a pinched, pained sort of tone.
    All of my unjustified anger at him became shame. He hadn't been gawking at the word on my forehead. He had been looking at the blood, my handiwork, not hers. I shrugged off his concern.
    "Doesn't hurt that badly," I murmured, still feeling embarrassed at judging him so quickly.
    It wasn't a lie. What tiny amount of damage I had done to my skin stung more than it actually hurt. I was used to bruises and broken bones. This was nothing to me. I studied Quatre while he looked at my forehead, obviously more worried about the blood than I was. I hadn't realized it before, but while I was a bit thinner than Quatre was, he was a bit shorter, his blue-green eyes bigger and his skin paler. My hair was messy and a bit long at my shoulders from not getting it cut for awhile, while his was neat and short. He was dressed a lot more nicely than I was, so I was sure he lived in the north side of town where the families that made good money, or at least a lot more than mine did, lived.
    I probably should have been just as angry at him as I was with Relena. She might have humiliated me in front of our entire class, and written on my forehead, but even though what she had done had seemed to upset him, he hadn't tried to stop her, just like everyone else. But I wasn't. Adults always say that when you see something bad happen, you should try to stop it. When you don't, they tend to get pissed at you, like you're just as bad as the person who did that bad thing to begin with. But it's really not that easy.
    When I was eight, I had been walking around the neighborhood. My neighbor's crazy dog had gotten out and my other neighbor, Mr. D'Angelo, had let his terrier out to use the front yard. Mr. D'Angelo's dog and the crazy dog, Brutus, can't stand each other. Even though the terrier was much smaller, he went after Brutus. Brutus grabbed the terrier by the throat and whipped him around like a rag. I had watched the whole thing from across the street, not sure what I was supposed to do.
    After Mr. D'Angelo had come back from the vet where his dog had died from it's injuries, he had screamed at me that I should have pulled the dogs apart before it had gotten serious. I know he only turned on me like that out of grief, and because he was too scared of Brutus' owner to try to sue him, but at eight years old I had felt awful, like his dog's death really had been my fault. AT the same time, I had also understood that if I had tried to separate the two fighting dogs, I would have gotten my hand bitten off at the very least, and there was little I could have done to restrain Brutus.
    So I could hate Quatre for not trying to help me, but I understood it. Relena just would have gone after him, too, and I'm sure there was really nothing he could have done to stop her. I could have punched, and he could have, too, but neither of us had. Besides, and honestly this was much more important to me than him trying to stop the bully, and I would even go as far to say it had truly cemented our early friendship, he hadn't laughed.
    "D... do you know how to get it out" I asked shyly, daring to let a little bit of hope in, that a veteran of our shared bully could help me.
    He smiled at me and that painful anger and hopelessness tht had burst in my chest retreated a little bit. This whole time one of his hands had been behind his back and he revealed a bottle of something to me. Quatre approached me with it and a part of me was fearful, wondering if he was going to pull a prank on me after all, but his smile was so soft and friendly. I just couldn't bring myself to be distrustful of him. He was small and skittish, subdued and quiet, but he was also very likeable, non-threatening, safe. I just couldn't imagine him doing something cruel to me, unlike Relena who I hadn't liked the first time I had seen her threatening him with that bottle of glue.
    I fell back into an old habit of mine, relating people to animals. I had always preferred animals to people since I was a toddler and I had come across a stray puppy during one of the walks my dad had taken with me at the beach. Those walks are some of the only good memories I have of my father, and that day was one of the best, a day he hadn't been angry with me. He had even let me play with the puppy for awhile. I had thought about asking him if we could have taken it home, but I had known he would say no and I hadn't wanted to make him angry. Quatre reminded me of that puppy, only he was like one that had been hit a few times too many but was still sweet. He never quite got rid of that quality as we got older.
    "The soap here isn't strong enough to get rid of marker," he told me, "But this stuff works better. They keep it in the janitor's closet, but the janitor knows me, so he let me take it and didn't ask why. When Relena and I were in pre-school and kindergarten together, she'd stay up through naptime and draw on my face," he whispered, his face blushing an uncomplimentary red. With his pale skin, his blush made him look like a cherry.
    "Why is she so mean?" I blurted out suddenly as he opened the bottle's lid, making him pause, and I couldn't keep my voice from wavering a little.
    Quatre gave a little shrug, but I saw the same pain that had been in my voice on his face. It made his eyes, normally the same shade of sea glass that shops here sold to tourists in the summer, turn dark.
    "I don't know," he admitted, "Our parents are friends and they've made us play together since we were babies, but she and her older brother have always been like this to me, even though their parents are really, really nice. It's just the way they are, I guess," he said in a pondering way, as though he was actually wondering about it.
    "What are you doing?" I asked nervously as he walked over to the sink, grabbed some paper towels, and wetted them.
    I didn't think he was going to prank me anymore, but I could smell the stuff in the bottle he had. It reminded me of the hospital and the things the doctors had done that they said would make me better, but had made me hurt a lot worse.
    Quatre gave me that same soft smile and I instantly felt reassured. It was a stupid reaction, I know. I didn't know him and a smile didn't mean anything, but his just had that effect on me. I didn't want to believe that someone who was cruel like Relena was could smile like that.
    "I need to clean the blood off first or putting this stuff on your skin will make it hurt more. It probably will anyway," he explained.
    I felt... I don't know how to describe it. Warm inside, I guess, knowing that he even cared enough to not want to hurt me. He didn't know me anymore than I knew him, but he actually did seem to care, I couldn't understand that. But it still made me feel good. I had never met someone like him before, who wasn't just pretending to care because he needed to.
    "Why'd you scrub so hard anyway?" he asked me as he gently wiped at my forehead with the paper towels, even taking the time to get the soap out of my bangs. The water stung, but it was pleasantly warm and the attention felt oddly good, like when my father took care of me when I had had pneumonia after I had been released from the hospital.  
    "I thought it would be like doing the dishes," I told him, "and if I just scrubbed hard enough, it would just come off."
    I didn't tell him how frustrated I had been, how angry and unconcerned about hurting myself, that I would have scrubbed even harder than I had if it had gotten those words off. I didn't think that I needed to explain that to him. He giggled a little at my explanation. I grew to find that little laugh of his cute, but I rarely ever heard it from him.
    "Well, you hurt yourself. Be more careful!" he scolded like he thought he was my mother, although my mother had never said something like that to me.
    Be careful. My mother had stopped regarding my presence by then and what little advice she had ever had for me had waned. I told Quatre that once, that he acted more like my mother than my mother ever had. He had just smiled that warm, but mature smile of his and said that he was glad I had someone to mother me and he didn't mind. It had made me happy. I hadn't realized it when we first met, but that was how Quatre was, sweet and kind, but with a soul of someone four times his actual age. It made him mature and very responsible, a great adult, but a terrible child. This last month, I've wondered again and again if he had been different, less worldly, Relena's bullying might have rolled off him better, but it hurts thinking that.
    Quatre started to put the cream from the bottle onto my forehead. It stung and made my skin tingle, and when he scrubbed at it with the paper towels, it hurt worse, but I didn't even squirm. He did that three more times before washing my forehead of the stuff. It smelled gross, like something an old person had to use. I eagerly, and scared, looked at myself in the mirror. My skin was still red, but the blood was all gone and, more importantly, the only evidence of the words that had been printed so clearly and boldly on my skin were a few black smudges here and there.
    If I hadn't had the image of that word, LIAR, imprinted in my brain, I wouldn't have been able to tell anything had been written there at one point. And really, with my long bangs, even the black smudges were barely visible. I felt such relief, such happiness and gratitude that I hugged Quatre tightly with a little squeak. He didn't seem to mind my sudden exuberance and even hugged me back a little.
    "All better now?" he asked as I let go of him.
    I nodded excitedly.
    "I thought I'd never get it off," I said and I couldn't help the tremor of fear that I had felt at that thought.
    He giggled again, but this time it sort of sounded sad.
    "It would have come off sooner or later," he assured me, "but probably not for weeks. It's easier this way," he shuffled his feet a little, looking up at me a bit shyly, "My name's Quatre Winner, by the way."
    "Duo Maxwell," I said and for once, my name didn't bother me that much. He didn't even make fun of it.
    "We should get back to class," Quatre said, suddenly realizing that we really shouldn't have been out of class, "If Mrs. Khushrenada finds out we left, she might call our parents," he warned.
    I felt a little bit of fear at that, knowing how pissed my father would be if I got into trouble at my very first day here, but I had an even bigger fear.
    "Even if they can't see it, they'll laugh at me," I murmured.
    I didn't want to go back in there, I didn't want to hear that laughter and see the malice in that girl's eyes again. But then Quatre took his hand in mine and almost immediately I felt better, like just having one person who had helped me and hadn't made fun of me gave me a bit of courage.
    "Yes they will," he said, his honestly a bit cruel, but I liked it a lot better than if he had lied to me, "but I won't."


End Part 1

Author's note 2: As you can see, I changed quite a bit and I hope it makes the story a better read. I've decided I'm going to stick with this story for as long as I can, see how far I can get before I move on to the next story. This story has collected dust for quite some time, lol.
    
    
    
    
    
    
    



Chapter Text

A Stagnation of Love
Chapter 1
Part 2


March 3, 2004 (cont'd)


    They did laugh. Well, they mostly snickered as Quatre and I walked back into the classroom, my face beet red with embarrassment, and I could see a few of them whispering to each other, and then giggling harder, and I could hear Relena's shrill crowing above all of the chuckles. It should have mortified me, but as I walked into the room, I suddenly realized that I didn't care. I had before but now, with Quatre literally walking by my side, and knowing that there was one person not laughing at me, it didn't bother me anymore. It did on some level. Deep down that laughter still hurt and mortified me, but not in any way that mattered, and not enough to make me bolt again.
    Then Relena actually looked at me and saw that there weren't any marker marks on my forehead. A few kids continued to giggle, but she fell quiet. The sadistic glimmer and mirth that had been all over her face instantly disappeared and was replaced by a rage and icy hate that did not belong on any child's face. In that moment, it was like my father was glaring at me from the mask of someone else's face. It terrified me at the same time I felt some satisfaction that I had beaten her, thanks to my... my new friend. That realization was enough to warm the ice that Relena's glare had put around my heart. I had a friend. I expected her to try something as the two of us made our ways to our desks, but she just kept staring. Barely two minutes after we sat down, Mrs. Khushrenada came bustling back into the room, looking hurried and flustered.
    "I am so sorry, class," she said and actually did manage to sound apologetic, "that took a bit longer than I thought it would," she glanced down at her watch and did a double take, "a lot longer," she said with a sigh, "Well, time for lunch and recess, we'll just have to pick up our lesson when all of you get back-"
    The rest of what our teacher had to say was drowned out by the cheering of my classmates. I had thought it was chaotic before, seeing them run around the classroom when Mrs. Khushrenada had been gone, but that was nothing compared to watching all of them scramble pulling their lunches out of their desks and running at full speed out of the door past our flustered teacher. It was like watching a stampede of wild horses. In mere seconds, the only people in the classroom were me, Mrs. Khushrenada, and Quatre. He made an immediate beeline for me and I felt this intense happiness burst inside of me. I think a part of me had been scared that while I now considered him my friend, he didn't feel the same way and had just wanted to be helpful before.
    "Do you know where the cafeteria is?" he asked me and I realized that he even though he didn't recognize me from the previous years he had been at this school, he also wasn't assuming I was as clueless as I was.
    "This is my first day at public school," I admitted in a shamed mutter, "I don't know where anything is."
    I thought he might make fun of me for that, or make some kind of assumption why I hadn't gone before, but he took me by surprise again.
    "Oh," he said simply, not losing his bright smile, "I'll have to show you around then."
    I was stunned for a moment, but I quickly recovered and grabbed my book bag, following the other boy out of the classroom. I kept trying to see what I had always seen in other people in him. I felt like anyone else would have accused me of being retarded or something, so Quatre had to as well. But every time I expected him to judge me for something, he took me at face value. I didn't know how to handle that. I don't think I ever really learned how to take it beyond a simple realization I had that first day I had met him. When I had asked him why Relena was so mean, he had said that maybe it was just who she was, something that wasn't meant to be understood or changed. Maybe this was just how Quatre was, and it would be pointless for me to do anything but accept that.
    The elementary school only has one cafeteria, this large open space filled with tables, snack and soda machines, various posters about nutrition and after school activities covering the mica flecked, tiled walls. It was much, much louder than our classroom. Teachers bustled about, breaking up fights and telling kids to 'use your inside voice'. But the second the teacher walked off to another problem, the yelling would just start up again. Thankfully, certain grades ate at certain times, so we just had to share the cafeteria with the third graders and not the upper grades.
    Quatre found an empty table in the far corner of the room where few kids were. I sat down with him and looked around with interest. We were far away from the area where some kids were buying food, but I could still smell the intoxicating aroma of hamburgers and mac n' cheese. The kids in the tables next to us had been chatting friendly with each other until they had seen Quatre and I approach. I recognized most of them from our class and they went stony silent when we passed by them. I realized that they thought we were trying to sit at the same tables as them, and clearly didn't want us to. A few of them even started spreading their backpacks and lunch boxes on the empty seats to make sure we couldn't sit down. I wanted to scream at them that it was ok, I didn't want to sit with them, either.
    Even as the other tables got crowded, no one tried to sit with us. I glanced at Quatre a few times and saw how happy he seemed as he pulled out his lunch from his lunch bag. Beyond that happiness, I saw painful relief. He wasn't just my only friend, I was his, and I wasn't the only reason why no one was sitting with us. That thought brought equal sadness and relief to me. I watched him as he ate a cheese and bologna sandwich and felt my own hunger.
    "Where's your lunch?" he suddenly asked as though he realized I had been staring at his food and not him.
    "I didn't bring anything," I admitted with a blush.
    I didn't want to tell him that I hadn't really known what to expect from today, and I was so used to skipping meals at home that the thought to bring food hadn't occurred to me.
    "Why don't you buy something?"
    I blushed even harder.
    "I don't have any money," I murmured.
    "Your parents didn't give you any?" he asked, perplexed.
    When I shook my head, he looked oddly horrified, like he couldn't imagine my parents sending me off to my very first day of school unprepared. I guess that sort of thing wouldn't fly at all at the Winner household. Quatre's parents were always prepared for everything, always leaving him anything he might need before they left for work, everything except for the time of day, or their attention. My problems at home were mostly because of my interaction with my father and my lack of interaction with my mother. Most of Quatre's problems were exclusively the latter.
    Quatre dug around in his backpack and pulled out a fist of one dollar bills. He thrust them at me.
    "Here, you can get whatever you like with this," he said.
    I stared at the bills like they were some kind of monster I expected to come and bite me. I felt my face go red hot for some reason and I just didn't know what to say to him. No one had just offered money to me like that before. Quatre had absolutely no reason to buy my lunch for me, so I was at a loss of what to do.
    "I can't pay you back," I started to protest.
    I never had cash. Dad would sometimes give me a couple of bucks if he had change, but I would always use them to buy books or food that he had forgotten to buy. I knew that some kids got paid to do chores, but it wasn't like that at my house. I had to do those chores whether I got paid or not, and my parents never had spare money to give me. What money they had went to bills, food, and alcohol. Whenever I dared to ask my dad for some, his only response had always been 'what the hell does a kid like you need money for, buzz off.'
    "I don't want you to pay me back," Quatre interrupted me, "I always pack my lunch anyway and I get paid allowance at the end of the week. This is just what's left of last month's."
    That didn't make me feel any better, it made me feel worse. It didn't feel right to me, taking money from someone who was my friend (my only friend) and not giving it back. I was about to argue with him about it, to say to him that it was fine, I wasn't that hungry, but I saw this rare hardness in his eyes amidst the kindness and realized he would fight me on this. It was the only subject Quatre and I had consistently fought about in our friendship, him giving me money. The way he saw it, he never needed all of the money his parents gave him and I always needed more money, so the solution was simple. The way I saw it, I was accepting hand outs and it made me feel pathetic. I know he didn't mean for it to feel that way, but it just made me feel like shit.
    I had just made this friend, and I was scared of losing him, even to something so petty as me not wanting to take his money, so I took the singles and got into line with the other kids to get my food. Everyone makes fun of school cafeteria food, and I'm sure it's nothing to get excited about, but meals at home consisted to food heated up out of a can or frozen dinners or cheap take out. I was used to greasy, bland, and generic food, so the food from the school cafeteria was probably better than the food I was getting at home. I was probably one of the only kids that was actually excited to see green vegetables and those little cups of fruit. Hamburgers were cheap and easy for us to buy, fruit wasn't. When I had been little, my dad would come home with a banana or orange for me as treats but they weren't things that he usually bought in bulk.
    A few kids cut in front of me in line every now and then, but I didn't speak up against it. It was irritating, but I kept remembered Relena and how she had pushed me in the classroom. I just wanted to get through the rest of this day. I didn't want to fight with anyone or get bullied again, so I let them cut me. As I finally got to the front of the line, I saw that in addition to hamburgers, they were also serving a rich beef stew. The smell of it was overpowering, but not many kids were getting it, opting for the burgers or hot dogs. The person handing out the food even gave me a strange look when I asked for it excitedly.
    Counting the money Quatre had given me carefully, I also got french fries, a fruit cup, a chocolate milk, and some peas, my favorite vegetable. The lunch lady asked me twice if I really wanted that. I guess she hadn't been getting many requests for stew and french fries, but it was the first time in my life that I had been able to choose my food for myself, and the only time I had been able to splurge on something I wanted. I couldn't think of a single reason why I shouldn't get what I wanted, it wasn't like anyone was there to tell me no.
    I felt oddly giddy as I took my cafeteria tray packed with hot, fresh food and walked back towards our table. I couldn't remember the last time I had been this happy. I shouldn't have been. I had made a friend, and that was miraculous to me, but I had also made an enemy, and in my happiness I had forgotten that. In those brief moments, I had forgotten what it was like at home, that even in those moments when my dad was nice to me, I was always on my toes, waiting for the tide to change. This kind of happiness was new to me, and it was nice to have it, even if it didn't last very long.
    On my trek across the cafeteria, someone bumped into me hard enough that I almost lost my balance. The person grabbed my tray to keep steady and an apology was already on my lips, even though they had been the ones to bump into me. Then I saw the hard blue eyes of the person glaring at me. It was strange, at the same time that the expression on that person's face was a glare, it wasn't precisely angry. It was more like they were trying to appear angry while lacking any real heat. But there was plenty of disgust and irritation there, and that was perfectly real.
    "Watch where you're going, freak!" Relena snapped and I automatically flinched from her.
    She let go of my tray and stormed off, but as she turned to go, I caught her smirking with satisfaction. I shrugged it off as her being smug about my flinch and continued on my way. I should have been more suspicious about it, but I had been young then and I hadn't really understood the level of contempt the girl had for me. I had, naively, thought that after her writing on my face and our removing it, she would leave me alone at least for a little while, or she would try something similar. I had already decided to try to not let her get to me, so I pushed her bumping into me out of my mind. But as I sat down, Quatre seemed much more subdued than before, and was studying me with a searching look. He was doing enough worrying for the both of us.
    "What did she say to you?" he asked quietly.
    I shrugged.
    "Nothing, really," I assured him.
    I dug my plastic spork into my bowl of stew, spearing a piece of beef with the pointy fork bit and gathering up some broth with the spoon bit of the bizarre utensil. I honestly didn't care about the taste. It was a hot meal, something I hadn't had in awhile. The past two weeks had been left over meals; salads that had been on the verge of spoiling that my mother had taken home from her waitressing jobs, cold pizza my dad had brought home from one of his many dinners out with his cop buddies, and cold tuna sandwiches.
    "Don't eat that!" Quatre suddenly snapped at me.
    Instinct from a lifetime of obeying orders often snapped at me like that made me drop my spoon. I looked at him in shock and then down at my food. I promptly fought the urge to throw up. I had been so eager to eat my lunch, one of the best ones I had had for awhile, I hadn't even really looked down at what it was I was eating. Writhing and squirming in my dark brown stew were a bunch of small, pink worms. Someone had just dumped them in there and I doubted that the lunch lady had mistaken them for noodles, which the stew didn't even have.
    A part of my disgust came from knowing I had been mere seconds from eating the worms, but mostly it came from anger, I didn't need anyone to point out to me how the worms had gotten there, but I had never thought she would have sunk this low to humiliate me. Worse, I had been looking forward to this meal and she had ruined it, all for a disgusting prank. I wanted to scream. I wanted to walk right up to her and dump my food, worms and all, on her head.
    "Relena," Quatre muttered and for the very first time, I heard real anger in his voice.
    His anger shocked me a little simply because it didn't belong coming from the sweet, kind boy that had paid for my lunch and washed the marker off of my forehead. It was like hearing a lion's roar come from a house cat.
    I looked down at my food again. There were just five worms that I could see squirming around in the broth. They seemed as eager to get out of the soupy mess as I wanted them to. Who knew when I was going to have such a big meal again? I could throw out the stew and just eat the rest of the food, I supposed, but I didn't want to. It was a waste of money and food. And I wanted it. It wasn't like she had dumped poison in there, what right did I have to throw good food away? More importantly, I didn't want Relena to win.
    Despite my grimace as I did so, I carefully and gently picked out each worm from the bowl and placed them on an empty spot on my tray. They continued to wiggle around frantically, looking for cool dirt that wasn't there, I guess. I felt guilty, or at least sympathetic towards them. I guess that's strange, they were just worms, but Relena had intended for me to eat them. Like me, they hadn't done anything to deserve it. They were gross, and the thought of almost swallowing one of them made me gag, but I didn't want to kill them just because they were gross. Quatre watched all of this with confusion, obviously not understanding what I was thinking, then his face twisted into repulsion as I ate a spoonful of now worm free stew. It was delicious.
    "That's gross," he said, opening his mouth and sticking out his tongue to demonstrate his disgust.
    "It's tasty," I teased and ate another spoonful. I had no idea what worms tasted like, but I couldn't taste anything except for beef and broth, "It's perfectly good food, no reason to throw it out, and I can put the worms back in the dirt at recess."
    Quatre's look of repulsion slowly turned into a soft smile as I explained. He looked... almost affectionate, even though we had only met a few hours ago.
    "You're weird, Duo," he said, but he giggled as he said it, taking the hurt out of a word that would have been a biting insult from anyone else.
    "Is that bad?" I asked shyly.
    Although he had laughed about it, I was still incredibly nervous that what I had just done was really gross and strange. I worried that I had lost my only friend only an hour after making one. But I hadn't needed to worry, true to how he had always been up until then, Quatre smiled and nodded his head.
    "Nah," he grinned, "I like weird."

*****

    Nothing else extraordinary happened during lunch. We were left alone, but the entire time I had the feeling that someone was watching me. It might have been in my head, but I was sure Relena was watching me, waiting for me to find her little surprise and scream or throw up or something else embarrassing. I almost looked around the room to try to see where she was, but I didn't want to give her even that much satisfaction. We ate quickly, I didn't want the worms to get dried out and die.
    At recess, the horde of kids ran out into the play area behind the school, most of the kinds jumping on the swings or jungle gym. I went right for a bunch of bushes near the woods at the edge of the playground, far from the other kids, and put the worms in the soil under the bushes so birds would have a hard time seeing them. Unlike Quatre, I really didn't mind holding them with my bare hands that much, it had just been the idea of eating them alive that had grossed me out. I felt oddly smug at that moment. I had not only thwarted Relena's attempts to gross me out, I had managed to save the worms, too.
    Quatre and I stayed at the edge of the woods, close enough that the teachers could see us, but as far away from Relena that we could get. She didn't bother us, staying on the swings with a couple other girls I assumed must be her friends. It would have been nice to play on the jungle gym, but both Name and I were paranoid about Relena, and we had plenty of fun by ourselves anyway.
    We played silly kids games like rock, paper, scissors, climbed a few of the smaller trees, and drew in the soft dirt with sticks. I had never played with another kid before. It was nice, everything that I had hoped my first day of school would be. It's ironic. Relena had effectively destroyed any likelihood I would be friends with our other classmates by making me her target, but in doing so, she had pretty much thrown Quatre and I together. I like to think we would have been friends anyway, but I don't know.
    I didn't feel as nervous and skittish out on the playground as I had in the classroom, even with Mrs. Khushrenada watching. I felt trapped in that room and I didn't trust my teacher to help me if Relena tried anything. At least out on the playground I had plenty of space to run from her, and I wasn't ashamed to say that that was exactly what I would do if she approached us, no matter who would make fun of me for it. I didn't want to interact with the bully at all at that point. She never did approach us, though, even when we shuffled back into the classroom. I didn't dare to hope that she might leave us alone, though.
    To my reluctance, we dove right back into math after recess. Mrs. Khushrenada had us working on more complex division problems, something that made me very flustered. Even with what my dad had shown me, I struggled with it. There were just so many little tricks and methods Mrs. Khushrenada was showing us that were new to everyone, and I had just learned only the bare essentials that my classmates had been working on all last year. When Mrs. Khushrenada called me up to the board to work on a problem, I was so horrified I thought I was going to die. I got through half of the problem before I got stuck and all I could do was stare at the chalk marks I had made like an idiot.
    Unsurprisingly, Relena's laugh was the first one I heard, but the others were quick to follow. I hurt just as much as when they had all laughed at me before. My hands shook and whatever chance I had had at remembering how to finish the problem was gone. My head was blank, all I could hear was the laughter and all I could think about was my embarrassment, and how stupid I felt. Mrs. Khushrenada snapped at my classmates not to laugh at me and they finally quieted, but it didn't make me feel any better. She and Quatre had been the only ones who hadn't laughed. Looking pained and sympathetic, she let me go back to my seat.
    I sat through the rest of the math lesson feeling sick to my stomach and very sad. When we moved on to our vocabulary, I raised my hand and asked to use the bathroom. I couldn't afford to miss the math lesson, as much as I hated it, but there weren't any words on the vocabulary work sheets Mrs. Khushrenada had handed out that I didn't already know. I could tell that my teacher knew I didn't actually need to go to the bathroom, but she let me be excused anyway. I left the classroom and went to the same bathroom that I had that morning.
    I had a cruel sense of deja vu and wondered if this was going to be a habit, running into the boys' bathroom whenever my class laughed at me like a gopher into its den to hide from predators. I had thought that having a friend would make it better, and it had, but it still hurt and had me almost in tears, but this time I was able to hold them in. Would I ever be like the other kids in my class and just blend in? Would I ever have a ton of friends I could play with, would I ever understand all those math problems like they did, would I ever understand why Relena hated me so much and why the other kids didn't care about what she did? Would I always be the freak?
    I felt lost. The confusion about my isolation made the pain worse, and it would take me over a year of this to finally realize the truth. I could ace all of my math tests, I could talk to all of the kids in my class and try to get to know them. I could be charming and funny and smart, and find a way to fight back against Relena. None of it mattered and none of it would change anything. I was different and I would always be different, the kind of different that wasn't cool or rebellious. In the end, I would still be poorer than most of the kids I went to school with. I would still come to school in bruises, still not have anyone to pick me up after school or buy me the same new, fashionable clothes and toys my classmates had. I would never have anyone to pack my lunch for me, sign off on field trips, or pay to have me take an extracurricular activity. I could never be like them and I would never have what they had.
    But I had Quatre. I might not have a ton of friends to hang out with like the other kids seemed to have, but I had one true friend. I had someone who smiled at me and actually meant it, who never made fun of me and liked that I was strange. As far as I was concerned, I would rather have Quatre as a friend than each of the kids that had laughed. I looked at my reflection in the mirror. My forehead wasn't red like it had been before and I wasn't as paled or wide eyed as I had been that morning. If I had to really analyze it, bullying and all, I was a lot happier now than I had been when I had walked into the school for the first time.
    I heard the bathroom door open and after all that thinking about my new friend, I was sure it would be him again. But it wasn't. To my shock, Relena stood there in the mirror, the bright lights of the bathroom bringing out the gold in her light brown hair for the first time. I felt a shock of fear go through me and again thought about how ridiculous it was to be afraid of this girl. Being afraid of my father had become second nature for me. He was bigger and strong, and I knew the kind of damage he could do to me when he was angry, but being afraid of Relena made me feel pathetic. But the fear was just as real because, no matter what she did to me, I couldn't fight back against her. Boys didn't hit girls, so what could I do? And in a way, she was just as frightening as my father with that mix of intense malice and glee on her face.
    I turned to look at her, feeling that sense of deja vu again, only instead of someone coming in here to help me, it was the person that had driven me to run in here to begin with. I suddenly felt very angry. Was there nowhere in the entire school I could go to get away from her?! What terrible thing had she followed me in here to do this time? She didn't even seem all that concerned that she had just walked into the boys' bathroom. She just strutted in like she didn't care, like she could do whatever she wanted, angered me.
    I wish I had the courage to strike her, especially as I wondered if she had done stuff like this to Quatre. It was so ludicrous, I couldn't even protect myself from her, but I wanted to protect him. I thought of asking her why she hated me so much. Why me, out of all the other kids? And what was the point of it? But I realized that I didn't actually care. Quatre's family was well off, given his clothing, and they had been friends since they had been babies, but she still picked on him. And Quatre was so nice, her reasons for picking on him, no matter what they were, didn't make sense to me. I crossed my arms over my chest and glowered at her, trying to mimic the same look my dad had that scared me so badly, but I was sure I was sucking at it. It's awfully hard to look imposing when you're just a kid, even to other kids.
    "You can't be in here," I said in what I hoped was a solid, authoritative  voice, "This is the boy's room. You're not a boy," I said obviously.
    She smirked at me, intimidated one bit, and walked by me as though she were rubbing my face in her boldness. I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise up, the same way they did when my dad came home in a bad mood and I just knew something terrible was about to happen. I wanted to get out of there, but she was too close to the door and I didn't want to get near her. My head still ached a little from hitting the desk earlier when she had pushed me.
    "How did you get rid of it?" she suddenly snapped at me, bewildering me until she looked at my forehead, "And how did you know about the worms?! I thought you might like them, since you're nothing but a worm yourself, but Quatre helped you, didn't he?! I guess it's true, scum sticks together!"
    Oddly, her calling Quatre scum rankled me worse than her calling me a worm. He wasn't scum, and I was about to protest that to her when it came to me that she wanted me to be flustered and defensive. She was trying to make me rat out Quatre, to betray him to her for helping me. Would she go after him for it? I imagined that she would, and even if she wouldn't, there was no way I was going to do that. Quatre was my friend, the only person in the world who wanted to be my friend. I would never betray him, no matter the reason.
    I shrugged.
    "They were easy to spot," I lied, "It was just so obvious, I found them quickly."
    Her pale face flushed red with anger and she looked like she wanted to scratch my face off in her rage.
    "You have to realize that he'll never be friends with you," she sneered, her anger making her look like a snarling wolf, seeing through my deflection, "Even someone as terribly stupid as you has to know that. Quatre's rich! The Winner's are one of the richest families in town, along with mine, what does he need with poor trailer trash like you? He just feels sorry for you, but at the end of the day, he'll remember that you're trash and he's not. He'll dump you like spoiled fruit."
    My heart twisted with anxiety. I knew it wasn't true, not really. Quatre would never be that cruel, he wasn't like her. But all the same, it hurt because there was a sliver of truth in it. I was dirt poor and Quatre was rich. I didn't know why he would want to be friends with me, especially someone that no one else liked. Did he pity me or was just friends with me because we were both being bullied? No, that didn't seem like the boy I had just been playing with. Maybe I just didn't want it to be true, because then I would have to admit to myself that Relena was right, that Quatre didn't really want to be friends with me. But even if it was just pity, I wanted to be his friend. He had been kind to me, and even someone who was just hanging around me for those reasons was better than being completely alone.
    "I don't care," I told her sharply and honestly, "Even if he's using me, he's still nicer than you are."
    I remembered everything she had done with me that day with vivid clarity, her attacks, her hatred, her confidence that she could do whatever she wanted and not get into trouble for it, but I was still incredibly unprepared when that rage on her face exploded and she suddenly grabbed at my hair, shoving my head into the poor of water that had collected in a clogged urinal. The water was just deep enough to submerge my face, making it impossible to breathe as she held my head down. The water lapped around my ears, making the sounds outside of the water muffled, like nothing was real except for that water and my inability to breathe. I tried to grab at the sides of the urinal so I could get the leverage to shove her back and get out of the water, but the sides were too slippery for me to get a good purchase on.
    Panic filled me and only my desperate need to not drown, especially in something as pathetic as a urinal kept me from screaming in fear. But even in my panic, I couldn't believe that it was happening. Was she really going to kill me, all because I wouldn't betray Quatre and had told her that she wasn't nice? My lungs burning and my head buzzing with a thousand thoughts and feelings, none of them pleasant, I came to another epiphany. No one would care if I died. Relena probably wouldn't even get into trouble for it. My parents would probably thank her for doing them the service and freeing them of me after all this time. Quatre would care, but eventually he would get over it and realize he was better off without me, just like everyone in my life. How old I was didn't matter, that this wasn't fair didn't matter. I had never felt more useless than I did at that moment realizing that I couldn't think of a single reason why she shouldn't drown me other than I just didn't want to die.
    "Drink it, drink it!" I heard her screaming like an animal through a world that made everything sound like my head was stuffed in a pillow.
    I didn't want to give in to her. That's a stupid thing to say when my lungs were hurting and my head was swimming from a lack of oxygen I guess, but it didn't even have anything to do with not wanting to drink the dirty urinal water. I just didn't want to let her win. I didn't want to give her the satisfaction of surrendering to her. It was incredibly petty, and I knew if I gave in to that pettiness I was going to die. I probably will die because of that stubborn streak in me one day, either from fighting against people like Relena, or my father. I never won in my entire life, and just once I wanted to. But in the end, I was terrified and my chest hurt too much.
    Just like I always did, I gave in. I drank in the foul tasting water in huge gulps, wanting to vomit from the bitter, flat, stagnant taste of it, but I almost cried in joy as I felt Relena let go of my head, letting me lurch out of the water. I coughed and gagged, taking in great, big breaths, the air tasting sweet and fresh and wonderful to me. I heard her laughter through the sound of my own heart pounding in my ears. It was like the sound of fingernails scraping against a chalkboard. I didn't even try to stand, my legs were still shaking, I just slumped against the wall gasping, my bangs stuck to my forehead, the front of my shirt sloshed with water. I wanted to cry so badly, but I just felt empty. What was the point, I asked myself, it wasn't like it would make a difference. I wouldn't be able to tell if they were tears at all or just more dirty water.
    I was angry at what she had just done to me. How had she escalated from humiliating me in front of our entire class to trying to kill me in revenge? I tried to find the rage I had had earlier when she had walked into the bathroom, but it was mysteriously gone. I was starting to understand that there was just no winning against her. Even if I did hit her, I doubted she would stop. I was just trash, like she had said, a poor boy from the other side of town from her. She had more friends than I did, more money, nicer parents. She even had more anger and hate than I did. What could I possibly do?
    I stayed there in the bathroom with my back against the cold tiled wall and just concentrated on getting air back into my burning lungs. My eyes were red and irritated from the water, my vision so blurry I might as well have been crying. I heard Relena leave and almost laughed at the pathetic image I had to have given her. I hoped she was happy with her handiwork. When I was absolutely sure she was gone and wasn't coming back, and I wasn't shaking so hard, I got up and stood at the sink. I didn't look at my reflection. The thought of doing so, at seeing what I looked like, repulsed me. I wrung out my shirt and hair as best I could, at least so I wasn't dripping water.
    When I walked into the classroom, vocabulary had become geography. Mrs. Khushrenada had her back to the class, using a pointer to point at a poster of the United States map she had pulled down in front of the chalkboard. I was able to walk past her and sit down in my seat without her seeing how wet I was. She didn't seem to realize that my and Relena going to the bathroom at around the same time had been significant and I was actually relieved about that. My classmates did notice though and I heard a mixture of subdued giggles and snickers as I sat down. I felt defeated. Every giggle I heard, I wanted to punch something even more. My father was right. I was weak and pathetic and that's all I would ever be. I ignored my anger and just sat and stared blankly at the chalkboard instead until the sounds of mirth and mocking settled down.     Worried about what Quatre thought about all this, I glanced over at him. He was looking at me with an incredibly concerned expression, like he wanted to go over to me and ask if I was ok. I smiled at him even though it was the last thing I felt like doing. My friend smiled back at me and just like that, my own smile felt much more real. Just like that, my feelings of defeat vanished, and that itself felt like a kind of victory to me. Relena could hurt me. She could make me doubt myself. She could even, obviously, try to kill me, but she hadn't taken Quatre away from me.
    The end of the school day was surreal for me. I shouldered my backpack and headed out to the parking lot with Quatre. He hadn't asked me about what had happened in the bathroom yet and I didn't volunteer the information. I was still too shook up by it. We watched Relena closely as she walked up to a sleek black car that had just pulled up the school, like a limo picking up a celebrity. From the opposite entrance of ours, where the older kids came out, a tall boy joined her getting into the car. He had the same blue eyes that Relena did, but his hair was dyed silver, pulled back into a lazy ponytail. He must be the brother Quatre told me about, I thought. He didn't have her too perfect appearance, his hair messy and his clothes just as lazily assembled as his hair, but there was no mistaking those hard blue eyes.
    "That's Zechs Dorlian," Quatre informed me, "Stay far away from him. He's much worse than Relena. Lucy Stephen told me that last year he broke some kid from the lower grades' arm just for looking at him funny."
    I looked at my friend in shock. It was almost impossible for me to believe there was someone out there worse than Relena, but I decided to trust Quatre. I wouldn't so much as look at Zechs Dorlian, I decided and hoped we never crossed paths. I didn't want to get my arm broken, both of them had already been broken enough already.     The school day really was over, I realized as I watched their car leave the parking lot along with a bunch of others. I didn't know if I should be happy or sad about that. On the one hand, I had survived the day and Relena couldn't do anything else to me. On the other hand, I would have to say goodbye to Quatre. And I would have to go back home. At least my father wouldn't be home until later, but that was little comfort to me at that moment. I was sure that, since Relena had said that Quatre's family was rich, his family would be picking him up from school, too, but he didn't even look for a car. He just kept walking past the parking lot and off of school grounds.
    I followed my friend, even when he walked the opposite way that I lived, to the wealthier side of town. I was sure he knew that I didn't live this way, but I hoped that he also understood that I wanted to spend as much time with him as I could. Maybe he even realized that I was hesitant to go home, but I don't think so. During that walk to Quatre's house, passing beautiful house after beautiful house with rich, green lawns, swimming pools, and cars I didn't even see in my part of Nausten, I got a taste of my first real shame towards my own home and my own neighborhood. I was incredibly glad that I was following him and not the other way around. I didn't want him to see where I lived. I especially did not want him to meet my parents. What would he think of my gruff, cold father or my mother who even in those days had spent most of her life in a bottle?
    Instead of mutts and large, aggressive dogs that I often saw with my neighbors walking our neighborhood, I saw people out walking tiny dogs that looked more like stuffed animals than actual dogs. They yapped at us as we walked by, their owners not bothered by their behavior one bit, but Quatre just calmly walked past them. They reminded me of Relena for a moment, well groomed, but with a nasty temperament. I love animals, but I didn't like those dogs at all and I still don't. I much preferred the feral cats that prowled our neighborhood. Like me, they were underfed and scruffy, but they weren't as mean as Brutus was. I talked to them a lot and was nice to them, giving them scraps of food when I could, and they had gotten used to me enough to let me pet them. I always wanted to take one of them home, but knew that I never could.
    "Why don't your parents pick you up from school?" I asked as we walked.
    Most of the kids that lived on this side of the town got picked up, while a lot of the kids on my side took either the school bus or the public one. It wasn't that long of a walk to this side of town from the school and I made the commute on foot to my house which was further, but it was long enough that it made it odd his parents hadn't been there.
    "I'm a latch-key kid," Quatre told me.
    I gave him a puzzled look. I had never heard that expression before.
    "What's that?" I asked, tilting my head in confusion before my worries about him thinking I was stupid could stop me.
    It was the sort of question my father would have made fun of me for, but Quatre didn't. He treated me like I had always wished my parents would when I had questions like that, answering my question with patience instead of irritation.
    "It means that my parents aren't around much. My mom and dad run this big company, so they have a long commute. By the time I wake up to go to school, they're already gone, and by the time they get home, I'm asleep. I only really see them on the weekends, but they're always on the phone or running off to emergency meetings. I have six sisters, but they're all too old to really bother with me. They make dinner for me and help me with my homework, but most of the time they're out with friends. So I'm used to being on my own at home. Technically, my mother is just my step-mom. My real mom died when I was really little and my dad remarried. I guess my older sisters were really messed up about it, so they don't get along that well. I was too young to remember my real mother, but my new mom treats me like she treats my sisters anyway. So even when she is home, she talks mostly with my dad. I'm alone more than I see any of them. I have to unlock the door when I get home since I'm the first one home and make my lunches because my mom forgets stuff like that a lot," Quatre explained to me.
    He sounded so sad as he said it. Sad, lonely, and abandoned. All the emotions I felt every day, whether it was from my mother's cold shoulder or my father's abrasiveness. I wanted to hug him so badly, but I didn't know if Quatre would appreciate it or if it would make him uncomfortable.
    "I haven't seen my father in a week," he murmured so softly under his breath that I was sure that he hadn't meant for me to hear it.
    I almost did hug him then, but settled for standing close to him, our hands almost touching. If I could go back in time to that moment, knowing what I do now, older and more self-aware and just more aware in general, I would tell him that I would never abandon him like his fucking family had. If he had been my brother, I wouldn't have made him feel lonely by getting caught up in only my own problems. Not now when I know better, after I learned that mistake the hard way. If he came back into my life, I would always protect him, no matter what happened to me or how much it hurt. He deserved that much from me. I would love him, and I always will.
    But at nine years old, I didn't know what I know now at thirteen, and I didn't know how to be a real friend until I found myself alone again. Instead, I decided to share with him some things about my own family. It had only seemed fair.
    "My dad's a cop," I told him, "and my mom waitresses at two different places. They're pretty busy at their jobs, and sometimes my dad doesn't come home, but I still see them a lot. But even though they're there, they don't talk to me that much. They ignore me most of the time. And I'm an only child, so it can get pretty lonely at times."
    Quatre stopped walking and smiled at me, that smile full of both understanding and sadness. I looked at the house we had stopped at. It was huge! I remember thinking that I could understand how lonely it might be in a house that big, even if you had six sisters. I wanted to be jealous of Quatre. He had money and siblings and a big, beautiful house to live in, but I didn't. I had never thought a person with this kind of life would have any of my problems, but looking at his loneliness was like looking in a mirror.
    He suddenly reached out his hand to me, his hand curled into a fist with his pinky extended.
    "Do you know how to pinky swear?" he asked me, his eyes both soft and serious.
    I shook my head. There was a lot I hadn't known back then. He gestured to his hand and I caught on to copy him, watching in fascination when he curled his pinky around mine. His finger felt soft and warm.
    "Like this," he said and shook my hand a little with our pinkies linked, "Let's promise that no matter what happens we'll always be friends, we'll never abandon each other or be lonely."
    An incredibly warmth and happiness filled my chest at that moment and I nodded eagerly.
    "Ok," I agreed, "I promise."
    It turned out to be a promise neither of us could keep, but for that moment I felt like I might die from the happiness I felt as we made that promise. We let go of each other's fingers and said goodbye. I watched him unlock the large gate in front of his house and disappear inside. The warmth inside of me turned to pain. I told myself that it was ok, I would be seeing him tomorrow, but it didn't help how I felt.
    Walking back to the poor side of town was both terrible and long. It was like watching pristine paint peel away and reveal something ugly underneath. Mini mansions and manicured lawns melted away into convenience stores and homes badly in need of repair, pedigree dogs turned into mutts, and neighbors exchanging pleasantries became hardened teenagers with nothing more to do but smoke outside the bars they weren't allowed to go into and glare at anyone passing by them. Our house wasn't any better in reality, but it wasn't quite as rundown as some of the other buildings on our street. The paint was aged and some of the wood was rotten and needed to be replaced, but my dad wasn't apathetic like some of our neighbors. He kept up with what repairs he could on the weekends, complaining about it the whole time. The real problems our home had came from expenses and the way it looked. There was no reason to spend money and time on repainting it when the plumbing needed to be fixed.
    My mother was sitting on our front step, already halfway into a bottle of wine at that point. It must have been a bad day. By the time I had reached the seventh grade this year, she had upgraded from wine to vodka. Her grey eyes were cloudy and bloodshot, the lines on her face showing. As the years went by, those lines would get deeper and more pronounced. Her drinking would get much more frequent and she would look a good ten years older than she was, at least.
    "Hi, Mom, I'm back from school," I greeted in a soft voice, mindful of the headaches she was often plagued by.
    My mother continued to look past me, like I didn't exist, and in her frequent drunk stupors, to her I didn't. I took the first few steps onto our porch, which needed quite a few boards replaced, and looked down at my mother. Standing above her like this made her seem so much smaller than me, even if that wasn't true. She looked older than she should, her face more worn than many of the mothers I had seen today picking up my classmates. But her chestnut hair was like mine and I recognized some of her features in my own face.
    I felt the same strange mixture of feelings towards her that I did with my father. I hated that she wouldn't look at me and say hi back to me, ask me how my day was, acknowledge that I wasn't just an unwanted specter like how I imagined a normal mother would. But I also loved her. She was my mom and I loved her. I just wish I didn't have to hate her, too. But in that moment, I think I loved her more than I hated her. I felt a pain in my heart for her, and a great deal of guilt knowing I had put many of those stress lines on her face. I wanted to hug her then, but I didn't. It would be like hugging a corpse.
    I carefully walked up onto the porch and walked into the house. It had been dark and cloudy out on the walk home, not the sort of clouds that meant rain, but there had been enough of them to keep the sun from shining, yet no one had turned on any lights in the house. I imagined Relena as she came home, running out of that sleek black car with her older brother and into her house, which I was positive was as big and beautiful and perfect as Quatre's was. Her mother would be there in the kitchen with some sort of snack for them, something she had no doubt made herself. She would ask her how her first day in the first grade was, her eyes as blue as her childrens' but lacking that hard edge to them.
    I walked into my own kitchen. It was exactly the same as how it had been left that morning. Mom was supposed to have washed the dishes when she got home today, but they were still there, the small kitchen smelling of stagnant, dirty that water that for a moment reminded me of the urinal Relena had shoved my face into. The toaster was still plugged into the outlet, something else my mother had forgotten this morning. If Dad came home and saw that the kitchen was dirty like this, and the toaster still plugged in, wasting electricity, he would be pissed.
    Replacing the image of Relena in my head, I thought of Quatre. I thought of him walking into his big, perfect house and making himself a snack in a kitchen as empty and dark as mine. No mother to make him snacks or ask how his day was. No mother to ignore him. No mother at all. In that moment, I had never felt more alone. I wiped furiously at my wet eyes, unplugged the toaster, and started washing the dishes.

End Chapter 1

I am now caught up rewriting all the material from the last version of this story, so look forward to some brand new stuff next chapter ^_^

Thanks for reading~
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    

A Stagnation of Love

Author's Note: Well, here we are again, lol. This is the FOURTH incarnation of this story, but while rereading the first two chapters I wrote, I realized it wasn't right. It's my own fault, I can't write things from the point of view of young children, it never sounds authentic. I really don't like the first two chapters of this story for that reason, so I'm scrapping them and trying to introduce the themes of those chapters from the view of an older Duo. Hopefully this will be the last rewrite :v


Chapter 1
Part 1

March 3, 2004


    My name is Duo Maxwell. I'm thirteen years old. Not that it matters, Mrs. Khushrenada said that no one else is going to read this journal, just me. I don't get the point of this assignment if she's not even going to read it. I told her it would be like talking to myself, so it's pointless, but she insisted that I do it. She said that writing down all the things that make me sad and angry will help me after what happened. I know it won't, but it's either this or my English homework, and I've read Tom Sawyer before. It's not a book I really want to read again. I'd rather write about this, even if it doesn't help.
    I'm good at writing. I'm good at reading, too. Essays, book reports, critical reading. It's all I've ever been good at. I suck at every science I've ever taken. I can remember all the little rules and equations for math. History bores me. I'm too tone deaf to be any good at chorus or the other music classes. I don't care enough about gym to try and I'm not competitive like the other boys in my grade. I already know everything they teach in home ec. But I've always been good at words and understanding them. I started reading on my own before most of my classmates. I had to. My dad stopped reading to me when I was four, and I liked those stories too much to wait until first grade to be taught how to do it myself. I remembered the stories, I just had to figure out the words. And learning that I could make those words myself on paper had been even more magical than learning how to understand them.
    I don't know what I should write about. Mrs. Khushrenada said to write about the stuff that makes me upset, so I guess I could write about my parents, or about Quatre. I don't want to write about him, but I guess that's the point.
    I met Quatre my first day of school. I was tired because my parents kept me up all night with their fighting. I don't remember a day when they didn't fight, but some nights are worse than others. Sometimes they just bicker or snap at each other. Some nights, like that night, they scream and swear and throw things at each other. On really bad nights, they hit each other. Sometimes Dad throws Mom out of the house and she doesn't come back until the morning, or Mom scratches up his face. Lately, the last two years, it's gotten worse and worse. I know from the looks our neighbors give us the screaming annoys them, but because of my dad's job, they never say anything about it.
    That night, they just screamed at each other a lot. I don't remember what it was about, my dad threw Mom out of the bedroom. That happens a lot, too. I thought that after hearing them scream at each other every night, it would stop bothering me, but I still haven't gotten used to it. It still wakes me up at night and it still frightens me. Dad probably threw her out because she didn't want him touching her. When I was younger, that confused me since she didn't kick up such a fuss during the day, just at night, but I think it means she doesn't like sleeping next to him or something. Whatever the reason, it always pisses my dad off even worse than if I break something.
    Our house is small and old. There's only one bedroom, my parents' room. My room is the attic. When I told Quatre that, he said it was cool, like I lived in a secret room, and that I had the whole place to myself. He would say that. To him, it was cool because even though he lived in a bigger house than me, he had six older sisters before they all left to go to college. When he was younger, there was no room in his house he could go to to get any privacy. But he was wrong. I never lived in a secret room because my dad always knows where to find me, and I can always hear them. I guess it would be worse if I had a room downstairs, but it doesn't matter. It isn't how loud they can scream, it's what they say and how they sound when they say it, and I can hear that just fine up here. I liked it better when I was little, and didn't understand what words like 'fuck', 'asshole', 'cunt', 'bitch', and 'bastard' meant. I liked it better when I didn't fully understand their hate for each other. When Quatre and I were in the fourth grade, an eighth grader had told us what all those words meant. Quatre had been appalled. I guess no one talks like that in his family. I was just sad.
    Even if the shouting is louder downstairs, at least I would have a room with lights. There are no windows in an attic. There is no breeze or heat up here, either, just my mattress, a dresser for my clothes, and a single electrical outlet. The fan I plug into it during the summer doesn't make it any less hot, and even the old electric blanket Quatre gifted me with a couple years ago helps during the winter. I stopped being afraid of the dark up here when I was a kid,  but I still hate opening my eyes to that. I had a lamp up here once, by Dad broke it. I didn't see the point in finding another one.
    Even when my parents eventually stopped screaming at each other, I had a hard time sleeping. It had been hot the night before, so we had kept our windows open. That morning, after Dad had gone to work, it had started to pour. Mom was already on her way to getting drunk and I had been too excited and focused on starting school that I forgot to close the windows. When Dad got home and saw that a bunch of our things had gotten soaked, he had gotten pissed. It doesn't take much to make him mad. If I just walk in my room when he has a hangover or has a bad day at work, he comes upstairs and strikes me. Sometimes, if he's just annoyed, it's just one punch. When he's in a truly bad mood, it's a lot more than that.     I have nightmares about hearing that stride, hearing his heavy footsteps walking up the stairs to the attic. I remember once, when I was really little, Mom, back before she had started to ignore me entirely, had told me to just stay out of his way. He got angry sometimes, she had said, and he couldn't control his anger anymore than a person could control feeling tired, so the best thing I could do, if I didn't want to get hit, was make sure I wasn't in the same room as him. I had tried, back then. I had tried so hard to not do things that angered him, to be a good son and stay out of his way.     But my mom's advice hadn't been so great. Dad would just find me. That day, when I forgot to close the windows, he found me and threw a chair at me. It hit me in the back and busted up my ribs, so I tossed and turned all the night, unable to get comfortable. I had realized, years ago, that hitting me and hurting me made him feel better. A lot of times, if he was just in a bad mood and it wasn't something serious, he would beat me and that would be it. He would be calmer afterwards. In a way, that makes it ok, I guess. It hurts, and I hate it when he gets like that, but then it's over and it isn't so bad. Sometimes, I wonder if I even deserve it. If I were better, smarter, less of a burden on my parents and their struggle just to make it through until Dad's next paycheck, maybe he wouldn't get angry so often.
    But at the same time that I understand that, and as much as I don't want to make him angry like that for doing stupid shit, I don't feel right when he hits me. When I was a kid, it would make me sad and confused, but I accepted it because I loved him. I still do. But lately, every time he strikes me, I feel hate towards him, too. When I was a kid, I used to think that feeling confused and sad about my father was normal, that all kids felt that way towards their fathers, and that all the fighting my parents did was normal. But when I started to go to school, and I saw all the other kids with their parents, I realized that my family was strange. Some kids had it a lot better than me. Others, like Quatre, had it just as bad, but in different ways. I used to want to think that Quatre hated his parents, too, because that meant those feelings were ok, that I didn't need to feel guilty and that I'm a terrible son for feeling that hate. But now... now I don't want to. I want to believe that Quatre never felt things like that, even if I know it' a lie.
    I've gone through what happened in my head a thousand times and I still don't understand why it happened. I don't know if I want to understand it. It's different than trying to understand why my parents hate me so much. I can kind of understand that. I'm nothing special. I'm not like those kids in the advanced classes that are probably going to go off to college, get great jobs, and help out their folks. I'm not smart. Being good at writing and reading means shit in the 'real world'. I'm old enough now to get that, and to know that one of the reasons why my dad works so hard that he has to come home late is because he has to support me.
    And I know that my mom hates me because of what happened the day I was born. She told me once that I ruined her inside when I came out. I don't really know what that means exactly, only that when she gave birth to me, I hurt her, and she can never have anymore kids. It must be true. In our basement are all these things my parents had before I was born, pictures of when they were teenagers. Mom is so pretty in those pictures, and she is always smiling and happy. She doesn't smile anymore, and if she ever has, I don't remember. When Dad drinks, he tells me that they were both happy back then, until I came along.
    She can never have someone better than me. I think about that, every time I fuck up, every time I get a bad grade on a test or break a dish because I'm clumsy or Dad hits me for disturbing him. I'll never be anything special, and my parents are stuck with me forever. But no matter how much I try, I can't seem to get any better for them.
    I understand those things, but I don't understand why this happened. I hadn't been around other kids that much until that first day of school. I had hoped that I would make some friends, even just one. I had thought that it couldn't be any worse than being at home with Dad. I don't know why I thought that, like Dad was the only one who could hurt me.
    I had never been more excited in my entire life than that morning, and I haven't been that excited since. I had spent the last three weeks scrounging for school supplies since I didn't have any money to buy anything and neither of my parents had bothered. They hadn't even talked to me about school, except for a month before when my dad had come home from work and gruffly told me I was going to school and getting out of his hair, finally.
    I went door to door in our neighborhood, except for our one next door neighbor who has this big, vicious dog. I've avoided that house since the large mutt had tried to take a bit out of my face just walking past the yard it hadn't been chained up in. Most of them told me to go home and slammed the door in my face while others didn't even answer the door since the section of town we live in is so shitty, but some of them were willing to give me some composition notebooks and pencils even though I was too embarrassed to tell any of them why I needed those things. I hadn't known that the teachers just gave you that stuff. I found an old, black book bag that had been my dad's at some point and stuffed all of it in there.
    My parents didn't say anything when I walked out the door that morning. Back then I had worried about it, that I had gotten the date or something else wrong. I had even been frightened that I would be punished later for leaving the house without their permission. Looking back, I know that they just didn't care. I was getting out of their sight for a few hours. Whether I made it to school or knew what I was doing didn't matter. I had been too scared, and too desperate to prove I could do it on my own, to ask them. Nausten is small enough that I knew where the school was, so I could at least get that far.
    It takes me twenty minutes to walk to school every day. Not too bad, and I'd rather walk than take the bus. I like walking to school in the mornings, it's quiet, that special time of day when the only thing adults care about is getting coffee before work and most businesses aren't even open yet. I appreciate more now that I'm a teenager, but when I was a kid I liked it, too. It had been early enough in the fall that things were cold, but not miserable like they would be in December. The winter means ducking snow balls and trudging through the heavy wind in my thin jacket and even thinner pants.
    But fall is pretty. Not so much where I live, but when you get further north where there are trees and well kept shrubs, all those colors made the walk well worth it. At the right time of fall, I even delay walking back home just to look up at the trees. I didn't delay that morning. I didn't want to start school as one of the only kids that was late. I didn't know what that punishment might be.
    I hate the elementary school building. I've hated it since the first time I saw it. We used to have a middle school building, but it burned down long ago, before I was born, and the town decided it was too much fuss to rebuild it. Instead they crammed grades 5-8 in with K-4. Bullying and agitation between the younger kids and the older ones impatiently waiting for high school went way up, and classroom space went way down, but the town saved enough money to build a bigger boardwalk at the beach and whatever the hell else they did with that money, so what did they care? It was just the teachers and kids that suffered, one didn't have big enough salaries to matter and the other would grow out of it.
    The elementary school is all white, aged, painted wood with old, stained windows that are covered up with construction paper from various school projects, mostly from the younger grades. I guess when they first built it, it had probably been nice looking, the white pristine and new. But now, decades later, that white could only be called that if you looked past it's the yellow as all that paint and wood had aged. The high schoolers are lucky. Their building is all brick and metal and doesn't come across as an overly ambitious shack.
    The outside of the elementary school is better, though. The outside of the high school is almost entirely paved while the elementary has a lot more grass and flowers. We have a playground with a jungle gym and swings while the high school has a track and a couple of basketball courts. I even heard from the older kids that high schoolers don't get a recess, just a lunch. My first day of school, there were a bunch of kids my age playing on that jungle gym, but I didn't join them. I didn't know any of them or the kinds of games they were playing with their friends, and I didn't have any friends of my own to play with. Even after then, I only ever went on the jungle gym where no one else was. It was something I never grew out of, even after meeting Quatre.
    The elementary school is divided in two, with the left section for the lower classman, grades K-3, and the right section for the upper classman, grades 4-8. There were even two separate entrances, with the grades listed in gold above the doorways. I walked through the right side door, a stone in the pit of my stomach.
    I was nine years old when I went to public school for the first time, not five like all of my other classmates, or even four like the kids whose parents had been well off enough to send them to preschool. The year I should have gone to kindergarten had passed me by without me even knowing I should have started school. Neither of my parents had talked to me about it and they hadn't really seemed like they had cared a year later when one of my dad's coworkers had asked him why I wasn't in class like his son was.     My father had shrugged it off and said it was fine, there was nothing I was going to learn in kindergarten and it would just be a waste of his time and money. His friend had laughed and agreed with that, telling stories of the art projects his son had brought home and how much of a hassle it was using up his lunch hour to pick his son up from school. Beyond that, it had never come up. When I was supposed to enter the first grade, Dad lost my immunization records and refused to pay the fee to waive them. He spent a lot of nights on the phone with my doctor, yelling, and I don't really remember what came of that, only that by the time it had been resolved I had missed too many days of school to go.
    I missed out going to the second grade because I had been laid out in the hospital for two months. Dad had been going through a lot of problems with his job, problems that he had taken home with him. He had been especially cagey those days and it hadn't taken much to get all of that rage directed at me. I don't really remember what I asked him thanks to the concussion he gave me. I just remember the look of anger that had come across his face, turning the father I had mostly loved back then into the monster I grew used to as I got older. I remember having screaming nightmares about that expression. I remember him yelling something at me, but most of all I remember how arm felt when he snapped it, and the sound my head made when he punched me in the temple and I hit a wall. That time he told the doctors that I got beaten up by an older kid.
    Last year, I returned to the hospital, that time for a bad case of pneumonia. I got sick a lot when I was a kid, but that time had been terrible. I spent weeks in that hospital bed, coughing up what felt like gallons of fluid, too weak to do much but lay there. At least it had gotten me out of the house and away from my parents for awhile. The year I would have been in the fourth grade normally, my dad had been dead set on getting me into school and so was I. He wanted me out of the house and I wanted to meet people my own age.
    When I heard from the school councilor that I would have to take a test to get into the fourth grade, or be sent to the first grade, I was mortified. I guess I just thought that I would be put in whatever grade all the other kids my age were in, I never thought that, because I had missed so many classes and skills I needed to get through the fourth grade, I would be held back. I didn't know what would be worse, to never go to school and be stuck at home like I had been, or to be held back, to be taking classes with six year olds instead of other nine years olds. I wanted to make friends, I wanted to be normal for just a few hours. I hadn't realized back then, the real extent that my father had screwed me.
    That's why it hurts a bit now that I'm a teenager and I can look back and realize that the same man whose actions had kept me from going to school for three out of the four grades I had missed was responsible for getting me into the fourth grade. At nine years old I was pretty proficient at reading and writing. My father would bring me home books that were hand my downs from the people he worked with, and when he had the time during the weekends, he would take me with him to the library to check some out. I taught myself with those books, reading them over and over until even the bigger words became familiar to me. The test I had to take had a section on reading and I finished it quickly. It made me think that I might not have needed to go to those first three grades and I would be fine.
    Then I saw the math parts. In reality, now that I'm in the seventh grade, all the things that had been in that test come second nature to me, but at the time my math skills had been as complex as counting on my fingers and knowing what all the different signs were from my books. I could handle 5+7 because I could count at least that high, and I knew my roman numerals from reading, but I hadn't the clue what 122+327 was, how to subtract 100 from 56, how to multiply, or how to divide things. Fractions and geometry were well beyond my scope of understanding at that time.
    It had become a horrible nightmare for me. A month before I needed to be placed in my grade, I had trouble sleeping and constantly felt sick to my stomach. I wasn't so worried about having to go to the first grade anymore. I was scared that I would have to tell my father that I couldn't take the test. I imagined his anger, and even worse, I imagined his disappointment. The only thing worse than hearing that you're stupid for most of your life is knowing that you're stupid.
    I finally got the courage one day to walk up to him with the test and tell him that I didn't understand any of the math. I had expected him to slap me or call me names, tell me that I was a moron and I deserved to be in the first grade. Instead he sighed in irritation and said, "I guess it can't be helped." He spent weeks going over all of the math problems with me, over and over and over until I could do them myself. He lost his temper with me a few times, but he never hit me, just yelled. Honestly though, those times when my dad was helping me study are some of the happiest memories I have. Sitting at the kitchen table with him, listening to him explain things to me instead of yelling or ignoring me. When I got something wrong, he would get so annoyed, but when I got it right, he would smile and ruffle my hair or pat my shoulder. It made me feel a deep love for him.
    I don't know what I had imagined the inside of the school to be like before I had taken my first steps inside. All I had known about school I had learned from watching television after my dad abandoned the tv set to go to work. Those tv shows had always depicted schools as this great, fun place to be, with bustling hallways full of kids smiling and laughing. That morning, the hallways full of colorful lockers and colorful posters had been empty. It had reminded me more of the hospital than the schools on TV.
    I was well accustomed to the hospital. Most of the time, Dad ignored me after he hit me. When I had been really little and he had hit me, Mom had grudgingly taken care of it, but after awhile she had just let me take care of myself. But there had been a few times when he had hit me just a little bit too hard, or he had been too drunk to realize what he had been doing and had broken something and he had taken me to the hospital. Most of the time it was one of my arms. I used to find it so hard that when the doctors asked my father what had happened, he had lied about it. What he had done had never seemed like something he needed to hide. It had just been normal to me, but he would pull out these stories and excuses, so naturally that it would even make me doubt my own memories for a moment. I don't know if the doctors bought it each time it had happened, and sometimes it seemed like they were looking at my dad suspiciously, but they never said anything about it.
    Beyond that, what I remember of the hospital was it's quiet, empty, white halls. That morning was like that. It seemed like all of the kids were out in the playground, or maybe already in the classrooms. I stood there in the empty hallway and realized that I had absolutely no idea where I was supposed to go. I stood there in the middle of the crossroads of four hallways and felt like a complete idiot before a man walked up to me. He was wearing a tie, so I guess he must have been a teacher.
    "You lost?" he asked in a gruff voice that reminded me of my father first thing in the morning, like he wanted to be anywhere but there and talking to anyone else but knew that he had to.
    I nodded, feeling incredibly shy and unsure.
    "What grade?" he asked in that slightly irritated way.
    "Fourth," I responded in a small voice, feeling like the pest my father always told me I was.
    "Fourth grade classrooms are closed for flooding repairs," he said in that bored tone people get when they've said the same thing over and over, "All fourth grade classes are meeting in the first grade wing," he pointed to the hallway to our right, "straight down there, take a right past the double doors, your classroom will be there."
    "Thank you," I murmured and went the way he had said.
    I opened the double doors and walked right to another empty hallway. Again, it reminded me of the hospital, only much sadder because of all the color. It would have seemed more natural if those walls had been painted grey or white instead of the gaudy blue and yellow that I remember. I haven't gone to the kindergarten, first, and second grade section of the school since then, so I don't know if they're still that color.
    Worse than the quiet had been when I finally did start to see kids. They were chatting with kids they already knew, and walked as calmly and naturally as could be into different rooms. I didn't know anyone. This was my first day, not theirs, all of them knew where to go. I felt like some alien creature walking in their midst. I had realized then that I really was the idiot that my father says I am. I didn't know what I was supposed to do. I had gotten to the school ok, but now what? Which classroom was mine? Did I need books? What was I supposed to be doing?
    I was scared of talking to anyone, but I was more scared about missing my first class, so I walked up to the first teacher I saw in that hallway, a tall woman who was chatting with some other grown-ups. I waited patiently for them to walk away before going up to her. She was pretty in the way my mom had been in those photos in the basement, with a gentle smile, beautiful dark brown eyes, and long dark brown hair. She had a very feminine face, the kind I remember seeing in elves from the picture books I used to read when I was little. When she didn't notice me, I grabbed at her long skirt and very gently tugged on it.
    It was the sort of thing my father would have struck me hard for, something he considered incredibly rude. It was one of the many things he couldn't stand, a child pestering an adult. I even flinched when those soft brown eyes fell on me, so sure she would yell at me like my father would, but she smiled at me and kneeled down so I didn't have to crane my neck to look at her.
    "What is it, sweetie?" she asked, her tone genuine instead of hiding annoyance or forcing herself to sound nice like some of my neighbors did when they spoke to me.
    I always hated it when they did that, taking that same tone with me that they would with their dogs. It always reminded me of how my dad looked at me, like I was too stupid to really understand. Mrs. Khushrenada never looked or spoke to me like that.
    "I don't know where to go," I confessed and I remember feeling completely embarrassed at that point.
    Her smile fell into a small frown.
    "You're new here, aren't you? Didn't your parents tell you?" she asked.
    I shook my head. She regained her smile quickly and took my hand into hers. I don't know why but that reminded me of how Dad's hand felt around mine when we were at the mall or crossing the street. Her hand completely dwarfed mine like his did, but her hand wasn't as big as his, and hers was soft where his was rough.
    "What's your name?" she asked me.
    "Duo Maxwell," I replied automatically in the same taught way all little kids do when a stranger asks for their name or age.
    I had already been blushing in embarrassment from her holding my hand, something that if anyone else had done I would have felt insulted by at that age, but seemed to natural to her, but in saying my own name, I flushed a few shades darker. I don't think I've ever liked my name Both kids and adults always give me weird looks when I say it, like they don't believe me. I have no idea why parents picked that name instead of something normal like Robert or Matt.
    But Mrs. Khushrenada didn't seem puzzled at my weird name, her smile brightening.
    "Oh, you must be Nathan and Helen's son!" she exclaimed, "I was beginning to worry that they had decided to home school you and we'd never get to meet."    
    I felt my face go searing hot and I felt the urge to go hide under something. I don't really remember why I had gotten so embarrassed just because she recognized me. My dad was one of the only seven cops in Nausten, so practically everyone knew who he was. But Mrs. Khushrenada was one of the only people who knew my mother by name.
    "Well, Duo Maxwell," she said to me in a voice as bright as her smile, "I'm Mrs. Une Khushrenada, but you can just call me Une. I'm your teacher this year, so we'll get to know each other well, ok?"
    I'm sure I made some kind of surprised or dubious face when she told me to call her by her first name. That was something else that my father had taught me, and my breaking of that rule would have gotten me struck like all the others. Kids didn't call adults by their first names, it's rude and disrespectful. It just made me much more confused than it should have. I couldn't call my teacher by her first name because my dad would have been furious if he ever found out, and I couldn't call her by her last name because she didn't want me to.
    At first I even thought she was trying to trick me. My dad used to do that, let me think it was ok to break a rule, but it was only a test, one he would punish me for if I failed. I eventually got over it. I have never called Mrs. Khushrenada by her first name and I never will.
    "Thank you," I blurted out, my struggle to decide whose rules I should follow making me remember my manners.
    She walked with me down the hallway, still holding my hand.
    "I went to high school with your Daddy, Duo," Mrs. Khushrenada told me with a gentle smile.
    I quickly forgot my fear in my interest. All I knew about my parents when they were younger had come from what I could find stored in our basement. They never talked about it, except for the things they yelled at each other or me. I had never met my grandparents. I don't even know if they're dead or alive some place, refusing to visit for some reason. Maybe they just lived too far away. Even if my parents were stuck in the same town they had grown up in, it didn't mean their parents were.
    "You're handsome, just like him," my teacher continued as I gave her my full attention.
    I looked down at the ground, not sure what I was supposed to say to that. No one had ever told me I looked anything like my dad before. I have the same pale skin my mom did, and her auburn straight hair. My dad's hair is dark brown, even darker than Mrs. Khushrenada, and both my father and my mother have grey eyes, although my dad's are much darker. My eyes are violet. When I had been much younger, I thought that made me a freak. I'm still not sure why I don't have grey eyes like I should, but I know it's because of some ancestors from both sides of my family, not because I'm strange or even because I'm not really their kid.
    "He was so stubborn as a teenager and he was always getting into trouble," she chuckled, "I still can't believe he got into law enforcement and turned out to be good at it!"
    I remember being surprised by that. Not to hear that my dad had been stubborn because he was, and not to hear he was good at his job. My father didn't earn a lot of money as a police officer, but he wasn't a beat cop or a grunt. By the time I should have started school, he had earned some sort of medal. I don't remember what it had been for, I had been too young to remember and my father hadn't gloated about it. It had gotten him free beer for a few months and a raise, which had gotten me a new pair of sneakers and my parents a new oven, as our old one had stopped doing anything giving out grey smoke and a foul order. Our new one hadn't been that great, but you could cook with it at least.
    Since then, my father had gotten two more medals, one for breaking up a local drug ring and the other catching someone who had been hurting women in our town one summer. That had been all over the news for a week because stuff like that doesn't happen here that much. That last medal had made Dad angry. He had spent a lot of nights at his job, not coming home until the morning, and had expected a promotion for it. I guess he never got one because he had been especially furious for a month after that.
    In all that time, I was stupid enough to cross his path just three times. The first time, he hit me in the cheek with his belt so hard my cheek turned a deep blue-black color that was a dark, blood red at the edges and the swelling didn't go down for days. The second time he hit me with Mom's iron and broke three of my ribs. I tried even harder to do everything he asked of me to the letter and otherwise find a dark hole to hide in until his mood passed. Mom didn't fight with him at all that month. The third time... well... the third time I ended up in the hospital and missed the second grade.
    What surprised me was hearing that my father had been a trouble maker. I couldn't imagine my dad misbehaving. He punished me for every little rule I broke, and my father had a lot of rules. He was always so serious, I just couldn't see him as anything but that. At nine years, just imagining the looming, powerful man that was my father as a teenager at all had been impossible.
    Mrs. Khushrenada let go of my hand as we walked into a classroom. It looked like all the other classrooms I had seen, only the kids running around in it were my age and the desks were smaller. Most of the kids' attention were focused on the front of the room where two kids were fighting. Well, that had been my impression at the time. But they hadn't been going at each other or arguing.
    A girl with brown hair much lighter than Mrs. Khushrenada' was yelling at a boy with blonde hair that was paler than mine and brilliant blue-green eyes that were wide with fear. The girl had a jar of glue in her hand was approaching the boy with it as he tried to back away. He looked like he wanted to get as far away from her as possible but was too scared to make a sudden move. The whole scene was bizarre to me. The only 'girl' I really knew well was my mother, but I knew enough that boys weren't supposed to be scared of girls like that unless, according to my dad, you were a pussy or a fag. Back then, I hadn't known what cats had to do with it or what a fag was (and I wouldn't know the meaning of that word until last year), but I did understand that it was something embarrassing. And I had no idea what the girl was doing with the glue, but the fear on the boy's face bothered me a lot.
    Mrs. Khushrenada quickly abandoned me to run over to them and stop whatever had been going on. Just like that, the mob of kids dispersed, but the noise didn't. I was used to loud noises and screaming at this point, but I still didn't like the mass of screaming, laughing, running kids in that classroom. All I could think of was that my father would never let me cause such chaos like that, and I had that feeling again, of being different, of not belonging there. Should I be like them, running around and causing a scene, chasing around a friend and screaming with glee?
    The noise overwhelmed me and I nervously shuffled into a desk in the far corner. I felt very sad right then. I had wanted to make friends with someone here, but how could I? They all had their own friends, no one needed me. They had had four years with each other, four years I would never have. With all of the running and screaming, none of them came up to me and tried to talk to me. They ignored me like I was something vile and small. I felt very alone, although that wasn't anything new to me, I had just hoped it would be different at school. Nothing had changed. That was the worst part.
    I had a thought then, a thought that was probably way out of scope of a fourth grader, but I had it none the less. Nothing was ever going to change. I was always going to be alone, just my parents and me. All these kids were just starting to go to school like I was, but they had had a head start on me anyway. I raised my head as I saw the boy and girl that had been fighting shuffling back to their own desks. The boy looked ashamed and the girl looked annoyed, though it should have been the other way around. The girl sat a few chairs ahead of me and whirled around to look at me, studying me like a child would with an insect they had caught in a glass jar. Like I was something gross and unwanted she had caught.
    The girl was pretty, I guess. She wasn't pretty like how my mother had once been, or how Mrs. Khushrenada was, but the way that a doll was. Her light brown, almost dark blonde hair was too perfect, the curls not natural but obviously put there by a hair dresser or maybe her mother. Her pink dress was brand new and fair too neat for a child her age, not a single stain or fleck of dirt on it. She looked too perfect, too fake in some way, and the look she was giving me wasn't pretty at all. The dress didn't suit her. Her pretty, fake curls didn't suit her, or rather, knowing what I know now, maybe they did. I had to look down, away from her piercing blue eyes, and I fiddled with the pencils and paper I had pulled out of my father's book bag.
    "Seats, now!" Mrs. Khushrenada said, not cruelly or harshly, but with enough power to her voice that all the other kids scrambled to their desks.
    Again I was struck with that feeling that I was the only one missing something. All the other kids seemed to know what to do, probably the same things they had done their previous years, and sat quietly in their seats, although some looked like they were on the verge of exploding with energy. I didn't have that urge, and I certainly didn't have that energy. I just felt incredibly nervous and out of place, so I did what I had always been taught to do; I kept my head down and stayed quiet until my name was called, then I merely raised my hand like all the others. I didn't pay any attention to the names of my classmates.
    Even though I was anxious about the other kids, I decided that the classes were fun. In some ways I miss it. Now that I'm in the seventh grade, we have to change classrooms and teachers every block. I miss just having Mrs. Khushrenada as my only teacher. That first day, we got to paint and learn how to write in long roman numberals, something that I never really picked up on. I never really understood the purpose of it, honestly. My parents didn't write like that, and Mrs. Khushrenada didn't either, and it's not something that I needed to know as I got older. My favorite time was, of course, reading time. I wasn't that great at painting. I wasn't terrible like some of my classmates were, but it was nothing special. Math was weird and I didn't really get it that well even after my dad's tutoring, even though Mrs. Khushrenada tried to engage us by using amusing scenarios for all the word problems.
    But then we moved on to reading. I don't remember exactly what it was we had read, some short story. Mrs. Khushrenada had gone down the rows, making each of us read one paragraph of the story. A few of my classmates, the blue eyed girl included, struggled with a few of the words, but I didn't. The books I had to read at home had been just as hard, but I had learned those words out of necessity, and it had helped. Mrs. Khushrenada told me what a good reader I was, and I felt incredibly good about it. It had been the only time anyone had told me I was good at something since my father had told me 'good job' with a rare, soft smile when I had read our address from an envelope in the mail, or when I had gotten my sneakers tied without his help for the first time.
    Mrs. Khushrenada' praise earned me a soft glare from the blue eyed girl who had stumbled through some of her words. That glare looked much more at home and natural on her than her curls or dress.
    "Relena Elizabeth Dorlian!" Mrs. Khushrenada snapped at her.
    The girl turned back around at that point and we returned to math. I forgot about it as we delved into more painful multiplication and division, at least until Mrs. Khushrenada got called away by another teacher. She shouted at us to mind ourselves and the second she left the room, the class devolved into chaos again. Everyone scrambled out of their seats and reformed their groups of friends, chatting loudly, chasing each other around the classroom, and drawing on the chalkboard. I thought briefly about walking up to one of those groups of kids and saying hi or something, but I was too scared. Instead, I looked at the window and watched some squirrels play out there. They reminded me of my classmates, mindlessly running around, but less loud.
    I felt someone looking at me suddenly and looked away from the window. It was Relena, looking at me with the same intense expression she had earlier. It was a frightening look on the pretty girl. I don't know why, but she reminded me of my father, which was preposterous. But still, she scared me like he did when he was angry and I didn't like being under that creepy stare.
    "Where are you from?" she finally broke her silence with a stern, demanding tone, crossing her arms over her chest in a pose that she was trying to make intimidating.
    Although I didn't like her looking at me, and she weirded me out, in a way that pose was funny. She was the same size as me after all, but there was a hardness to her blue eyes that also made me feel wrong.
    "Here," I said, confused by the question.
    "Nu-uh," she said, poking me in the shoulder as I turned in my desk to look her in her creepy, ice-blue eyes, "You're a no good liar! I've lived here my whole life and I've never seen you! You're a liar!"
    It shouldn't have hurt. I didn't know this girl, so why should it hurt me that she thought I was lying? My father called me  a liar all the time. Sometimes, when I told him about something interesting I had seen or heard about, he would call me a liar. Or just tell me to shut up and I would know that he didn't believe me. Kids are all liars, he would say gruffly. When I had, very proudly, told him about the first sentence I had been able to read on my own he had said, 'don't you fucking lie to my face.' That had hurt more than all the other times. He called me stupid, bastard, fucker, piece of shit, all things that hurt more than some girl I had just met accusing me of lying about something that didn't really matter, or make any sense to me.
    But it did. It hurt because she was the very first person my age I had ever talked to and even though she knew nothing about me, she had immediately assumed the worst about me. And she had said it loud enough for the rest of the class to hear. did they all think I was a liar? That thought had made me feel ashamed, like her accusations were true. Even worse than feeling embarrassed or ashamed, I felt angry at that moment, more than I had ever had before in my short life.
    I hated her then. I had never hated anyone before, not even my dad. I had felt sad about him hitting me and the yelling he and Mom did, but I had never felt anger and hate fill me like that before then. It was a terrible feeling. When she jabbed me in the shoulder, I wanted to punch her, like my dad had done to me hundreds of times. That frightened me. My father's anger had always scared me, so feeling it in me was terrible. Was this really how he felt all the time, I wondered. I felt sad for him, that he felt like that, when I didn't like feeling it myself. I didn't want to be that way, I didn't want to strike anyone. I had been too young then to put the feeling into words, but my rage repulsed me. I didn't want to be like my father.
    I didn't hit her. I couldn't. Just the thought of it made my stomach feel like ice. I wanted to hit her, shove at her, scream at her, do something , but I couldn't even move. It was just like how I felt when Dad punished me, like I was paralyzed. It was so stupid. My father was one thing. I knew what he was capable of, he was bigger than me, and if I talked back to him or tried to hit him, and the thought to strike my own father hadn't even entered my head back then, but Relena was little, so why couldn't I at least speak up, tell her to cut it out?
    "I'm not a liar," was all I could say, in a weak, pathetic voice. I couldn't even look her in the eyes, "I've always lived here."
    I thought about explaining it to her, that I had just been sick and hadn't been able to go to school until now, but my voice was stuck in my throat. My eyes darted to hers, but they were still hard. There was a kind of... excitement there now, a glee that I couldn't understand. Did she enjoy this? Why couldn't she just leave me alone?
    "Yes you are!" she jeered, jabbing at me again with her finger, "You're a great, big liar! I never saw you at pre-school, kindergarten, or any of our other classes!"
    I stared at her blankly. I think I had understood, at some level, that this really wasn't about her thinking I had just moved to Nausten and was pissed I was lying to her, but I had never really interacted with other kids before, and besides my father, I had certainly never been bullied before. The blonde boy who had been fighting with Relena earlier, and who had been watching us this whole time with a hesitant and guarded expression, walked up to us. Immediately, Relena's entire expression changed when she saw him. That coldness and glee remained, but there was also hate there. It startled me. I was used to seeing that on my dad's face when he was angry at me, but what had the boy done to her to have her not just dislike him, but hate him that much?
    "Relena, stop it," he said, but his voice was terribly shy and even I could feel the fear there, "not everyone can afford pre-school, and there are kids here that never went to kindergarten with us. There are lots of other reasons why he didn't go to this school the last few years, it doesn't make him a liar," even though his voice was small, his tone was also terse and irritated, but when she glared at him, he just looked like he wished he had never stood up for me and wanted to melt back into the crowd.
    "Shut up, Quatre," she snapped at him, "This isn't your business. Unless there's something else you want to say?"
    The boy blushed darkly at her threat and backed off, not wanting to fight with her anymore than I had. I realized that no one else in that classroom was going to distract her, and in a moment all of her terrible attention was going to be on me. I managed to get two steps past her, but she noticed my feeble attempt at escape and grabbed my arm, shoving me back against my desk. I wanted to shout at her that she shoved like a boy, to see how she liked to be called names and embarrassed, but I was too scared of her. That other boy, Quatre, clearly was, so it felt natural to be scared of her, too.
    "I am not done talking to you!" she yelled at me with a petulant pout, her blue eyes bright in a very frightening way.
    I realized it then that she really was enjoying this. This was fun to her. Did my dad enjoy it, too, when he mocked me and hit me, when he hurt me? That thought was just too terrible for me. but in a way, Relena Dorlian did remind me of my father, especially when he drank, which was frequently. Completely focused, irrational, and incapable of understanding. That comparison made me take a step back away from her and for the first time since she had accused me of lying, and with my ribs still throbbing from my dad's abuse the night before, I didn't feel like a coward for trying to get away from a nine year old girl. One of the very first lessons my father had unintentionally taught me was that sometimes being a coward and running away was safer and smarter than being brave.
    "Well, where are you from? Answer me!" she demanded, her voice rising in part anger, part excitement.
    "I'm telling the truth!" I protested.
    I felt so frustrated, like nothing I said mattered, just like with my parents, and I realized I was on the verge of tears. I wasn't a liar, I wasn't, but she didn't care. Why was she doing this, and why to me? She didn't really care where I was from, I don't even think she cared if I was lying, and I couldn't figure out why. I heard a few snickers from the crowd of kids that had formed around us and they felt like daggers in my chest. Was all this just one big joke?
    "No, you're a liar, I know one when I see one and you look like a liar, too!" she crowed, as though she had come to some brilliant conclusion that she was intensely proud of.
    She suddenly shoved me against my desk again, but much harder. My sneakers slipped and I fell, hitting the back of my head on the hard desk, just bad enough to black out. It must not have been for very long, because when I opened them again, Mrs. Khushrenada still wasn't there and my classmates were still crowded around us, watching with great interest as Relena sat on the floor next to me in an oddly graceful and ladylike posture. She was nearly sitting on top of me and had a black marker in her hand. I had no idea where it had come from.
    Relena grabbed my bangs and harshly tugged them away from my face. I smelled the strong stench of the marker and felt the wetness on my forehead as she wrote something there. I struggled against her, not knowing what was going on, but hating the sound of my classmates' laughter and the feel of her small hand pulling my hair. My vision finally cleared enough that I could see the crowd of kids. Some were giggling and watching Relena write on my face like it was the funniest thing they had seen. Others were just watching with a dull, non-expression, like they were sleepwalking, or they had seen this so often they were bored.
    I had an epiphany then, a big thing for a nine year old. No one was going to help me. No one helps anyone, despite what I heard from adults, TV programs, and books. People might donate toys and food and money to 'those less fortunate,' but when someone right in front of them needed help, they never bothered. Even if the person knew you, they wouldn't help. I could be friends with all of those kids, and they would have kept staring and giggling. I understood that then and I understand it even better now that I'm a teenager.
    When I had been a child and Dad had been hurting me real bad and had screamed for help, Mom never came to help me. She just stood and watched. She didn't even try. She doesn't do that much anymore, although her drinking has gotten a lot worse. When I got really scared of Dad's rage as a kid, I had tried to run from him a few times, before it had sunk in that I could never really get away from him. He would just catch me and hit me out on the lawn, the farthest I had ever gotten from him. My neighbors had never helped me. My cries had brought them out of their houses and peering out the windows, but all of them had just watched.
    I had quickly learned as a child that asking for help was pointless. No one wanted to help, they just watched, some of them even liked it. If I screamed, no one would come to my aid, not even Mrs. Khushrenada. Asking for help just got you hurt worse. The way my classmates watched as Relena finished writing on my face reminded me of my neighbors watching my dad beat me in our front yard, or my mom watching as he struck me bloody with his belt. Those blank stares, like they were watching television, some of them excited, others dull, like it was a rerun to them.
    But out of the sea of those blank and curious stares, I caught Quatre's blue-green eyes. His were different than everyone else's. He had that same look like he had seen this before, but his eyes weren't dull. They were bright with tears and fear, sympathy without pity, and most of all, empathy. I remembered how frightened he had acted around Relena and quickly realized she had done this to him, too.
    That realization should have made me feel terrible, knowing that she had hurt him like this, but it didn't. It made me feel better, relieved. I hated myself for that, but it's the truth. It felt good knowing I wasn't the only one she had gone after.
    "There!" Relena exclaimed, standing up and twirling the black marker in her pale hand like she thought she was some kind of artist, "Now everyone knows what a little liar you are!" she laughed. It was a horrible sound, shrill and mocking.
    What had she done? I got to my feet like I had been shot, not wanting to give her the chance to do anything else. So what if she had done something terrible to my face, so what if everyone was laughing at me, I told myself. It was fine, I was fine. I felt the hot tears that I had been fighting to keep at bay finally burst out of me and stream down my cheeks. They only made her laugh harder. The only word I can really use for the expression on her face then is pride. I bolted, and unlike before, Relena didn't try to grab me. I ran out of the classroom as fast as I could, but the laughter just followed me.
    In the hallway outside the classroom, I had no idea where I was going. All I cared about was finding a mirror so I could see what was written on my forehead, and getting as far away from everyone as I could, some place no one could gawk at me. Although I had no idea where I was going, I eventually found a set of bathrooms. They were easy to spot, the only ones in the hallway that weren't the typical amber-gold color of all the other wooden doors, but a gaudy blue and pink.
    Maybe it had been for the benefit of the kindergarteners who couldn't read the words on the doors 'boys' and 'girls' just yet. But all of the kindergarteners had to be escorted to the bathrooms by an adult, so that didn't make any sense. Maybe the people who had been in charge of painting the school had gotten fanciful or bored, I don't know. I just know is that, even the first time I saw those doors, I thought they were ugly as hell. I only had to put up with those doors for this year, though, before moving on to the grades 4-8 section of the school where the bathroom doors and lockers are all painted the our town's colors; blue for the boys and grey for the girls.
    In case anyone does read this stupid thing, and I don't see why anyone would, we have the stupidest mascot ever, a silver and blue nautilus. Whenever our high school football team goes against our neighboring town and rivals, the Brownstone Bears, the person wearing their mascot outfit does this crude skit of eating shellfish. Which is pretty accurate since we've never won against them once. Apparently. I've never actually been to any of the games and I probably never will. For one, I'm still not in high school and don't know anyone on the team, and two, it's the kind of social event that kids like aren't welcome at.
    I went through the blue door. By some miracle, there were no other boys using the bathroom, I even checked all the stalls to make sure. I didn't want to talk to anyone, I didn't even want to see anyone. No one had been nice to me, or wanted to talk to me, just gawk or laugh. That isn't really fair, since Relena was the only one of my classmates that had actually spoken to me, but it was how I felt back then. And they had laughed. That was what hurt me the most, that laughter. I had been scared and humiliated, and it had been a big joke to everyone. If a person laughed at you when they were crying, I think it's a fair assumption they weren't going to try to be your friend after that. That realization brought fresh tears to my eyes.
    I stood in front of one of the many small mirrors that was hanging over each little sink, all at convenient height for someone a bit smaller than me, and I pushed my chestnut bangs away from my face. The walls in the bathroom were an eerie white, but peppered with little handprints, each a different brilliant color, and the bathroom stalls were blue with little fish painted on them. The obviously cheerful colors and fish just made me feel worse as I stared at my wide eyed reflection. On my forehead, in letters so large and thick that even someone half blind could read them from several feet away, was the word "LIAR" written in black marker.
    I sniffled, the sound echoing in the empty room, and a few more tears escaped my reddened eyes despite my trying very hard to hold them back. I don't know why seeing it shocked me so much. It was rather obvious and uncreative, but it was still so hateful. Seeing it there, and remembering the malice on the girl's face that had put it there, made something hot and painful burst in my chest. I couldn't keep my tears at bay anymore.
    This wasn't how my first day of school was supposed to happen! I remember very clearly thinking that with a great deal of sadness. I was supposed to make friends, have fun, and all the other things that kids got to do in those television programs I had watched. School was supposed to be someplace I could go to, to get away from my problems at home. Instead, my problems had followed me here. If I had been old enough to get the bitter humor in that like I am now, I would have laughed through my tears in that bathroom. Relena hadn't hit me like Dad does, and she hadn't hurt me in that very special, vulnerable way he does, but she wanted to hurt me like he did. She had that same contempt for me that I just couldn't understand.
    'Liar,' I read. It wasn't true, but that didn't matter. Anyone who saw it would believe it. I felt something swallow me up, some heavy emotion that made me want to leave the school right then and never come back. Now I can put it to words. Despair. Hopelessness. I had gone to school just wanting to get along with the other kids, to be like everyone else, but I would never be like them. Not anymore, Relena had seen to that, so had my father... all those missing years. Everyone would just remember me as the liar, the boy with the words on his forehead, the one who had cried because of one girl. I would always be a freak. Who would want to be friends with a liar?
    I snatched a bar of soap from the sink I was standing in front of and started to scrub at my forehead viciously. It wouldn't really matter if I got it off, and I knew that. They would remember, and they would tell everyone else about it. I was the freak that had lied, the kid no one knew and no one wanted to know about. As I scrubbed at my forehead, I felt my tears come harder and faster down my face. I couldn't get them to stop. My forehead became bright red, but the black print didn't fade at all. When I saw that, I gave out a frustrated cry, throwing the soap angrily into the sink where it slid and fell on the floor.
    Rage filled my stomach, that same anger I had felt at Relena before. It made my stomach hurt, but I didn't try to pick up the soap to continue my scrubbing. Even my tears were angry, but I also felt a deep sadness. My hands were covered in green soap suds and rubbed at my forehead with them. I didn't care that I was getting soap in my hair and eyes, making them burn with more than tears. I didn't even care that I was scrubbing my skin so hard that it was starting to speckle with blood. I could feel a tiny trickle of it go down my face but told myself it was just water.
    Just as quickly as that anger and desperation had filled me, they left me. My hands fell down at my sides like I was a marionette whose strings had been slashed, the green suds tinged pink with blood. I just stood there in front of the mirror, crying and feeling like an absolute idiot. I didn't want to go back out there. I wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out again. Even with my long bangs, how could I possibly walk out of that bathroom with those letters on my skin? If it had been a TV show, Mrs. Khushrenada would have come bursting in and hugged me, maybe told me that everything was ok, she would make sure that Relena was punished for what she had done.
    But she didn't. And somehow I knew she wasn't going to. After all, she might know my father and mother, but to her, I was a stranger, too. A freak. I could hear a few people walking by the bathroom out in the hall, but I felt completely alone. The quiet was terrible, like the quiet after my father beat me or when my parents stopped screaming. I looked at my reflection. I looked terrible and I didn't recognize myself, my violet eyes large, my bangs plastered to my blood speckled face. I started to scrub at it again, squeezing my eyes shut so I didn't have to look at myself, and the stinging pain from the soap was actually kind of comforting.
    I didn't understand anything, why my parents fought so much, why my dad was always so angry, why Relena had done this to me, why my classmates had laughed at me, but pain I understood. I was used to it. I had another realization when I had looked at the word on my forehead. I would rather be hit than laughed at.
    "You're not going to get it out that way," a small but mature and familiar voice said from behind me.
    I opened my eyes and saw the blonde boy, Quatre, reflected in the mirror. I had been petrified at the thought ot someone coming into the bathroom and seeing me cry like this, but for some reason he didn't make me feel defensive or want to run away again. Unlike Relena's piercing gaze, his sea green eyes were soothing somehow. Maybe it was because he didn't seem to judge me, or because I knew that Relena had hurt him, too. Maybe it was because he seemed to be as lonely as I felt, or didn't have many friends, just like me. Or maybe it was just because he had been the only one of my classmates who hadn't smirked, giggled, or outright laughed at me.
    I turned from the sink to look at him eye to eye. Although he didn't make me feel as self-conscious as the other kids in our class, I felt suspicious and couldn't figure out why he had come looking for me. He looked at my forehead in shock and I felt a surge of anger, bitterness, and sadness go through me. He understood what it felt like to be picked on by that girl, but he was still gawking at her handiwork. Had she sent him here to do something else  humiliating to me, or was he just here out of perverse curiosity?
    "You hurt yourself," he said in a pinched, pained sort of tone.
    All of my unjustified anger at him became shame. He hadn't been gawking at the word on my forehead. He had been looking at the blood, my handiwork, not hers. I shrugged off his concern.
    "Doesn't hurt that badly," I murmured, still feeling embarrassed at judging him so quickly.
    It wasn't a lie. What tiny amount of damage I had done to my skin stung more than it actually hurt. I was used to bruises and broken bones. This was nothing to me. I studied Quatre while he looked at my forehead, obviously more worried about the blood than I was. I hadn't realized it before, but while I was a bit thinner than Quatre was, he was a bit shorter, his blue-green eyes bigger and his skin paler. My hair was messy and a bit long at my shoulders from not getting it cut for awhile, while his was neat and short. He was dressed a lot more nicely than I was, so I was sure he lived in the north side of town where the families that made good money, or at least a lot more than mine did, lived.
    I probably should have been just as angry at him as I was with Relena. She might have humiliated me in front of our entire class, and written on my forehead, but even though what she had done had seemed to upset him, he hadn't tried to stop her, just like everyone else. But I wasn't. Adults always say that when you see something bad happen, you should try to stop it. When you don't, they tend to get pissed at you, like you're just as bad as the person who did that bad thing to begin with. But it's really not that easy.
    When I was eight, I had been walking around the neighborhood. My neighbor's crazy dog had gotten out and my other neighbor, Mr. D'Angelo, had let his terrier out to use the front yard. Mr. D'Angelo's dog and the crazy dog, Brutus, can't stand each other. Even though the terrier was much smaller, he went after Brutus. Brutus grabbed the terrier by the throat and whipped him around like a rag. I had watched the whole thing from across the street, not sure what I was supposed to do.
    After Mr. D'Angelo had come back from the vet where his dog had died from it's injuries, he had screamed at me that I should have pulled the dogs apart before it had gotten serious. I know he only turned on me like that out of grief, and because he was too scared of Brutus' owner to try to sue him, but at eight years old I had felt awful, like his dog's death really had been my fault. AT the same time, I had also understood that if I had tried to separate the two fighting dogs, I would have gotten my hand bitten off at the very least, and there was little I could have done to restrain Brutus.
    So I could hate Quatre for not trying to help me, but I understood it. Relena just would have gone after him, too, and I'm sure there was really nothing he could have done to stop her. I could have punched, and he could have, too, but neither of us had. Besides, and honestly this was much more important to me than him trying to stop the bully, and I would even go as far to say it had truly cemented our early friendship, he hadn't laughed.
    "D... do you know how to get it out" I asked shyly, daring to let a little bit of hope in, that a veteran of our shared bully could help me.
    He smiled at me and that painful anger and hopelessness tht had burst in my chest retreated a little bit. This whole time one of his hands had been behind his back and he revealed a bottle of something to me. Quatre approached me with it and a part of me was fearful, wondering if he was going to pull a prank on me after all, but his smile was so soft and friendly. I just couldn't bring myself to be distrustful of him. He was small and skittish, subdued and quiet, but he was also very likeable, non-threatening, safe. I just couldn't imagine him doing something cruel to me, unlike Relena who I hadn't liked the first time I had seen her threatening him with that bottle of glue.
    I fell back into an old habit of mine, relating people to animals. I had always preferred animals to people since I was a toddler and I had come across a stray puppy during one of the walks my dad had taken with me at the beach. Those walks are some of the only good memories I have of my father, and that day was one of the best, a day he hadn't been angry with me. He had even let me play with the puppy for awhile. I had thought about asking him if we could have taken it home, but I had known he would say no and I hadn't wanted to make him angry. Quatre reminded me of that puppy, only he was like one that had been hit a few times too many but was still sweet. He never quite got rid of that quality as we got older.
    "The soap here isn't strong enough to get rid of marker," he told me, "But this stuff works better. They keep it in the janitor's closet, but the janitor knows me, so he let me take it and didn't ask why. When Relena and I were in pre-school and kindergarten together, she'd stay up through naptime and draw on my face," he whispered, his face blushing an uncomplimentary red. With his pale skin, his blush made him look like a cherry.
    "Why is she so mean?" I blurted out suddenly as he opened the bottle's lid, making him pause, and I couldn't keep my voice from wavering a little.
    Quatre gave a little shrug, but I saw the same pain that had been in my voice on his face. It made his eyes, normally the same shade of sea glass that shops here sold to tourists in the summer, turn dark.
    "I don't know," he admitted, "Our parents are friends and they've made us play together since we were babies, but she and her older brother have always been like this to me, even though their parents are really, really nice. It's just the way they are, I guess," he said in a pondering way, as though he was actually wondering about it.
    "What are you doing?" I asked nervously as he walked over to the sink, grabbed some paper towels, and wetted them.
    I didn't think he was going to prank me anymore, but I could smell the stuff in the bottle he had. It reminded me of the hospital and the things the doctors had done that they said would make me better, but had made me hurt a lot worse.
    Quatre gave me that same soft smile and I instantly felt reassured. It was a stupid reaction, I know. I didn't know him and a smile didn't mean anything, but his just had that effect on me. I didn't want to believe that someone who was cruel like Relena was could smile like that.
    "I need to clean the blood off first or putting this stuff on your skin will make it hurt more. It probably will anyway," he explained.
    I felt... I don't know how to describe it. Warm inside, I guess, knowing that he even cared enough to not want to hurt me. He didn't know me anymore than I knew him, but he actually did seem to care, I couldn't understand that. But it still made me feel good. I had never met someone like him before, who wasn't just pretending to care because he needed to.
    "Why'd you scrub so hard anyway?" he asked me as he gently wiped at my forehead with the paper towels, even taking the time to get the soap out of my bangs. The water stung, but it was pleasantly warm and the attention felt oddly good, like when my father took care of me when I had had pneumonia after I had been released from the hospital.  
    "I thought it would be like doing the dishes," I told him, "and if I just scrubbed hard enough, it would just come off."
    I didn't tell him how frustrated I had been, how angry and unconcerned about hurting myself, that I would have scrubbed even harder than I had if it had gotten those words off. I didn't think that I needed to explain that to him. He giggled a little at my explanation. I grew to find that little laugh of his cute, but I rarely ever heard it from him.
    "Well, you hurt yourself. Be more careful!" he scolded like he thought he was my mother, although my mother had never said something like that to me.
    Be careful. My mother had stopped regarding my presence by then and what little advice she had ever had for me had waned. I told Quatre that once, that he acted more like my mother than my mother ever had. He had just smiled that warm, but mature smile of his and said that he was glad I had someone to mother me and he didn't mind. It had made me happy. I hadn't realized it when we first met, but that was how Quatre was, sweet and kind, but with a soul of someone four times his actual age. It made him mature and very responsible, a great adult, but a terrible child. This last month, I've wondered again and again if he had been different, less worldly, Relena's bullying might have rolled off him better, but it hurts thinking that.
    Quatre started to put the cream from the bottle onto my forehead. It stung and made my skin tingle, and when he scrubbed at it with the paper towels, it hurt worse, but I didn't even squirm. He did that three more times before washing my forehead of the stuff. It smelled gross, like something an old person had to use. I eagerly, and scared, looked at myself in the mirror. My skin was still red, but the blood was all gone and, more importantly, the only evidence of the words that had been printed so clearly and boldly on my skin were a few black smudges here and there.
    If I hadn't had the image of that word, LIAR, imprinted in my brain, I wouldn't have been able to tell anything had been written there at one point. And really, with my long bangs, even the black smudges were barely visible. I felt such relief, such happiness and gratitude that I hugged Quatre tightly with a little squeak. He didn't seem to mind my sudden exuberance and even hugged me back a little.
    "All better now?" he asked as I let go of him.
    I nodded excitedly.
    "I thought I'd never get it off," I said and I couldn't help the tremor of fear that I had felt at that thought.
    He giggled again, but this time it sort of sounded sad.
    "It would have come off sooner or later," he assured me, "but probably not for weeks. It's easier this way," he shuffled his feet a little, looking up at me a bit shyly, "My name's Quatre Winner, by the way."
    "Duo Maxwell," I said and for once, my name didn't bother me that much. He didn't even make fun of it.
    "We should get back to class," Quatre said, suddenly realizing that we really shouldn't have been out of class, "If Mrs. Khushrenada finds out we left, she might call our parents," he warned.
    I felt a little bit of fear at that, knowing how pissed my father would be if I got into trouble at my very first day here, but I had an even bigger fear.
    "Even if they can't see it, they'll laugh at me," I murmured.
    I didn't want to go back in there, I didn't want to hear that laughter and see the malice in that girl's eyes again. But then Quatre took his hand in mine and almost immediately I felt better, like just having one person who had helped me and hadn't made fun of me gave me a bit of courage.
    "Yes they will," he said, his honestly a bit cruel, but I liked it a lot better than if he had lied to me, "but I won't."


End Part 1

Author's note 2: As you can see, I changed quite a bit and I hope it makes the story a better read. I've decided I'm going to stick with this story for as long as I can, see how far I can get before I move on to the next story. This story has collected dust for quite some time, lol.
    
    
    
    
    
    
    



Chapter Text

A Stagnation of Love
Chapter 2
Part 1


March 11, 2004


    I forgot about this for a bit. I meant to write more in the morning, but Dad was on the warpath. He had twenty dollars missing from his wallet. He had probably just lost track of it when he had gotten smashed that night, but Mom had already been at work, so I had been his only target. I had tucked this journal under my mattress that night before going to bed, but as he had torn up my room looking for his money, he had almost discovered it. I don't know what my father might do if he ever caught me with this thing, if he'd just call me a pussy for keeping something as girly as a diary, regardless of the reason why I was keeping it, or if he'd be pissed about the things I was writing.
    Luckily, his short temper had kept him from doing a thorough search. In his frustration, he had settled for taking all of the money that I had had in my wallet: the two fives and ten ones I had been meticulously saving from my jobs to pay for Quatre's birthday present. I shouldn't have been angry about it. Buying Quatre a present was useless, but I had decided to get in anyway, in case that he might... it might be able to reach him somehow.
    It was stupid, twenty bucks was a lot of money for me, but I just couldn't spend it on anything else, just like the five dollars my father also took out of my wallet, stating it was a tax for lying and stealing from him, along with the black eye he had gifted me with. Quatre had given me that five dollar bill a month ago, on the last day I had seen him. It had been for lunch the next day, but it had just sat there, the very last thing I had from him, beyond my memory of his sad smile that day at the train station. Watching my dad storm back down the steps, I wish that I had spent it. I would have cried then, but I didn't think I was physically capable of crying anymore.
    I thought about maybe hiding the journal in my locker at school, but I was too scared that Relena, Zechs, or one of their friends might get at it. After what they had done to Quatre, I couldn't bear that. So instead I pried up some of the loose boards in my room and made a little compartment to hide things. I stashed the CDs and Discman Quatre had given me, the only pic of the two of us I had , and a few of my favorite books in there, just in case my dad got one of his cruel streaks and decided to destroy my stuff. I had lost some library books and cassette tapes that way.
    I just kind of forgot that this journal was in there with everything that's been going on at school lately. I almost flunked a big math test a few days ago, but Mrs. Sully had been sympathetic, I'm pretty sure she pitied me since she knew how close Quatre and I had been, and had let me take some one on one tutoring with her after school that week to make up for it. My dad had been too busy with work to figure out I hadn't been coming home right away, not that I thought he'd care so long as he hadn't heard about the failed test and my chores still got done. The school therapist, Mr. Schuller, had reminded me about the journal. I guess I can keep up with it. I still don't think it's going to fucking help but it's something to do at night. It's not like I'm sleeping.
    Where was I the last time I wrote in this thing? Oh, right, the day I met Quatre. There's really not much to tell. I finished washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen, and made some tuna casserole with what we had left of the canned tuna with breadcrumbs of what we had left of the white bread we'd been using to make tuna sandwiches. The bread was too stale to use for sandwiches anyway. I had seen Mom make this enough times that I could do it on my own, which was fortunate because I didn't think Mom was in shape to even care about food at that moment. I had dinner ready by the time Dad got home. As we ate, no one asked me how my first day of school had been, but Dad hadn't been in a bad mood, either, so I didn't care.
    After dinner I did what little homework Mrs. Khushrenada had given us and went to bed. I should have been dreading the next school day given what Relena had done and felt some kind of fear about the bully, but as I dozed off it was my new friend and my excitement to see him again that had been on my mind.
    Rinse and repeat. The next two years went exactly like that. Nothing changed, for better or worse for me through the fourth and fifth and first half of the sixth grade. My parents still drank, we were still poor, my dad was still abrasive and my mother still ignored my presence. I still sucked at math, Relena still made mine and Quatre's lives Hell, and I never did make anymore friends. I was still the freak, and Relena went out of her way to make sure I and the rest of our peers were reminded of that on a daily basis.
    It wasn't all terrible, though. Quatre was still my best friend. He still smiled at me and laughed with me, that never changed. I still remained at the head of my English classes and I even won the school spelling bee in the fifth grade. It had made Relena's bullying worse for awhile, as well as the teasing from my classmates for being a 'nerd', and neither of my parents had given a shit, but I had gotten a cake from my then English teacher and a hug from Quatre, so I guess it had been worth it. Honestly, I didn't care that I had won and it didn't make me feel any smarter or better than I had before, but it had been fun.
    The school finally finished repairs on the fourth and fifth grade classrooms that Summer, so we got to move into the wing for the older kids at the start of the fifth grade. It was nice to have bigger desks, but the biggest difference was that we shared the halls now with the older kids. Most importantly, we now shared the hall and several of our elective classes with Zechs Dorlian.
    Relena's older brother reminded me a lot of the hardened teens that loitered in front of the convenience stores in my side of town. Teenagers with nothing better to do than to make everyone else's life miserable, defacing property, starting fights, and smoking. The only difference was that Zechs came from an upstanding family, his clothes were expensive and he had had everything handed to him in his life. None of that seemed to matter to him. Even in the seventh grade, Zechs was all hard edges, the sort of boy even the teachers stayed away from if they could. He was handsome, but never got asked out by any of the girls. He was too dangerous and frightening, his ugly personality nullifying his looks. He wasn't even that friendly with his own sister, but at the same time, it was known amongst my classmates that anyone who crossed Relena's path would get it twice as bad from her brother, so who knew what their relationship was really like.
    As we entered the fifth grade, I took the advice Quatre had given me a year ago to heart. I stayed far, far, far away from Zechs. If I so much as saw a glance of his silver hair, I made sure to go the opposite way. Even still, it would have been easy for him to corner me, but for a year and a half, I never had a problem with him. I couldn't figure out why that was. He was a nightmare to Quatre and I am horribly ashamed to say this now, when Zechs started in with Relena terrorizing my best friend, I didn't do much to help him. Quatre had made me promise not to. He had said that I was insanely lucky that the imposing teenager left me alone, and I shouldn't do anything to change that.
    My reasons for not trying to stop Zechs were partially because of that promise, but it was also because Zechs scared the hell out of me. The way he went after Quatre was just vicious, like a hyena after a baby gazelle. It was rarely ever physical. I think I saw Zechs hit him maybe four times that year. The teenager's tactics were more emotional and psychological, and more brutal than a simple punch.
    Probably the mildest I saw him do was destroy the mp3 player Quatre's step-mother had given him for his birthday. He tripped him, pushed him, cut up his gym clothes, ripped out whole pages in his textbook, stole Quatre's cell phone, put lewd pictures in his locker, and one time he shoved so much cayenne pepper in Quatre's nose that he couldn't stop vomiting for hours and had to go to the hospital.
    So I stayed away from it. And when Quatre came to me bruised and crying so hard I thought he would make himself sick, I held him tightly and told him everything would be ok. I lied to my best friend and I hated myself more than I ever had in my entire life. Every wound, every tear, I blamed myself for. But I still didn't try to stop it. What could I do, I asked myself. Zechs was bigger and stronger than I was. I had a hard enough time dealing with his little sister. If I fought back, he'd put me in the hospital at the very least. If I went to a teacher, they would just shrug it off and ignore me. Keeping myself safe and trying to comfort Quatre afterwards was all I could do. All of those arguments were entirely logical to me and I knew they weren't wrong, but it didn't stop the self-disgust I felt at my cowardice.
    Quatre couldn't even get away from the bastard after school. It wasn't fair, but in that regard I had lucked out. Thanks to where I lived, even when Zechs started in on me in the sixth grade, I almost never saw him outside of school, unlike Quatre. I guess it's pointless to explain, since no one is going to read this, but Mrs. Khushrenada had told me to write about anything that upsets me and this contributed to something that upset me a lot.
    Our town is, essentially, like a giant compass if you really look at where things are. Like most towns, the wealthy and the poor live on opposite ends from each other, with the middle class scattered on one end or the other depending on their jobs, either finances or location. The very center of town is made up of public buildings, the elementary and high schools, the town library, the town hall, the station my dad works at, the bigger, corporate built chain restaurants, the strip mall, and the hospital. The further north you go from the center, the nicer the homes and buildings get, and the further south you go, the worse everything gets.
    Each part of town has its own landmarks and revenue draws. The rich folks to the north get the best of it, obviously. The local park, upscale restaurants, pubs, and the big mall are there. They also are the closest to the beach to the north west of town. If you own any of the restaurants or shops on the boardwalk or anywhere near the motel, you make bank in the summer. Summer tourism is big in our town thanks to that beach. Out-of-towners have to pay the town to use the beach, but even if you live way down south, you can still use the beach for free. There is even a bus stop a few blocks down from my house that takes me right to the beach in just twenty minutes.
    My side of town isn't as lucky. We get the dives, the restaurants that are cheap, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing. I work at two of those cheap diners and they let me take home leftovers some nights. They do decently for themselves, but they aren't what you would call four or five star establishments. There are no malls or parks on my side of town. However, we have most of the bars, the only two strip joints in town, and the town dump which guarantees us weekly trash pick ups unlike the folks that live north and have to drive to the dump and pay for dump stickers on their cars. We also have the railroad which runs along the south west.
    That railroad had always been a bittersweet thing in my mind. The railroad had brought with it corporate interest, jobs, factories, and a huge chunk of Nausten's profits. It had also brought with it pollution and a large amount of homeless folk that stowed away in the cars and jumped off at the station. Some of them found jobs in the factories and stayed, but most of them kept moving on. To the people who had worked at the factories and railroad for years, the vagrants were worse than illegal immigrants, and every year without fail a few of them would be assaulted or even turn up dead in some extreme cases.
    Beyond that, most people didn't care about the air pollution from the factories or the noise pollution from the trains or the drug traffic that swept through with the railroad. Most of the people that lived in my side of town only cared about the jobs such places had brought, jobs that kept them from moving any further south. They were just like my dad, they wanted to make their money and be left alone. Once in a blue moon, some environmental group showed up to protest the industry down here, but they never lasted long. The railroad might not have been the best thing for us, but it was convenient. If you lived down here and worked the railroad ior in one of the factories, you didn't need to have a car, your job was either within walking distance or you could take one of the public buses for a five minute commute.
    When I had been little, I had loved the train station. My father had taken me there a few times on weekends. He had packed us lunches and we had gone and sat on the grassy hill that overlooked the tracks. We had sat there, ate our sandwiches, mine almost always a peanut butter and jelly, watched the trains go by and tried to guess out loud what each car might be carrying. When I had gotten a bit older, I liked to go down to the dock where they unloaded the cargo and the workers disembarked on and watched the trains go past. I would stand there and pretend that I was the one moving, not the trains, moving far away from where I was.
    Then I grew up and stopped going there. I looked at the railroad and surrounding factories with bitterness instead of joy because I knew, sooner or later, that was exactly where I was going to end up. I could imagine I was on those trains, going to some distant place, but that would never happen. I'm not special. I'm not a brainiac or a prodigy. I don't have any useful talents or skills. If I'm lucky, I'll end up like my dad, in a job I hate, in a house I'll never really own, always angry and miserable, barely able to pay the bills, but still able.
     But I'll probably end up on that railroad or in one of those factories, making almost nothing, working myself into an early grave so I could scrape by in some shitty apartment. If I'm honest with myself, I know that's exactly where I'll end up, just another dead beat loser from the south end. I try not to think about that too much. And now, after Quatre decided to abandon me without so much as saying goodbye, I hate that train station more than I ever. Every time I hear the 'ding, ding' from the warning sign or the roar of the trains from my house, I feel sick.
    That got away from me. Where was I? Oh, Quatre and Zechs. Yeah, I got lucky. I live far away from where Zechs does, so we only run into each other a handful of times outside of school. Quatre wasn't that fortunate. He, Zechs, and Relena all lived on the same street, so whenever he left the house, he knew that he was risking running into one of them someplace where there were no teachers watching. Not that they did much to stop them at school, but it was enough to give them limits, boundaries.
    The Winners and Dorlians are old families around here, and had probably been here since the town had been founded. The Dorlians have been rich since before they ever migrated to this country hundreds of years back. They used that money to help their community whether it be giving to charity, the school systems, or give whatever funding the town needs. When our town library had burned down one unbearably dry summer, their money had single handedly seen it rebuilt, bigger and grander than before. They spent a couple million every summer during the 4th of July festival, making our quaint town as welcoming to tourists as possible. Relena and Zechs's parents are nothing like them, and I have no idea why their children turned out to be such monsters. They're nice people, the sort that throw bake sales and show up to every PTA meeting.
    The Winners had been decently well off before they had become involved in a certain company that was responsible for the construction of our railroad. Over the generations they had become as wealthy as the Dorlians and had won contracts with a lot of the businesses that had set up their factories here. The two families, arguably the most influential if not the most wealthy, had become fast friends both socially and professionally, so Quatre had been subjected to the two siblings a lot more times than at school or random encounters. I honestly don't know how he found the strength to smile.
    When I became twelve that year, just months before I began to share Quatre's nightmares of Zechs Dorlian, my dad decied that I was old enough that I needed to start helping the family out financially. He called it getting a job. I called it him heaping another chore on me. And really, that's all my jobs were, chores. Dad set me up with two of them and I hated them from day one. I'm sure everyone says that about their jobs, even well paying ones, but I hated everything about them.
    I fell into a routine that never seemed to end. I go to school from 8 am to 3 pm, rush over to the dive pizza joint I work at during the week days until 8:30 pm, run home and start on my homework, then repeat it all the next day. The only days I have off at that job are Wednesdays. The work is so boring, I find myself reciting math equations and vocab words I need to remember for my homework in my head. Because I'm under-aged, and getting paid under the table, all I can do is clean, wash dishes, and make pizza boxes. In just a week, I had started to hate the smell of pizza grease and frozen pepperoni.
    The only good thing about it is my boss lets me take home pizza from the leftover dough for my dinner. Even after I got sick of eating pizza, friend food, and soda, I never get sick of having something to eat that isn't cold or almost stale, or when my father said we could save money and dinner the nights he and mom decide to have some, too. That was the first time in my life he had ever made me feel useful.
    During the weekends, I work from 10am to 4pm both Saturday and Sunday at a diner basically doing the same work at the pizza joint; cleaning the tables, doing the dishes, making sure the tables were stocked with ketchup, tabasco sauce, napkins, clean silverware, ect. Dad wanted me to work longer hours there, plus additional hours at the pizza joint during the weekends, but both of my bosses refused, telling him that they weren't going to take hours away from their full time employees during peak hours like that. The only reason why I had gotten those jobs was because they had owed my dad some sort of favor, and I'm not entirely sure that favor was on the positive side of legal or at least ethical, so he wasn't going to put up a fuss about that. My bosses were clearly scared enough of my father and their 'favors' to not piss him off, but they could equally make trouble for him.
    I only make eight bucks an hour, definitely not enough to survive on, but enough to help with our bills after our electric and oil got hiked significantly that year. We still scrape to make by, but as long as we aren't stupid about our finances, we do get by. Things got bad that year for everyone and they certainly haven't got any better. I don't know the specifics and economics just gives me a headache. I do know that our school librarian lost her job two years ago and they still haven't replaced her, just one of the many 'cutbacks' that the town went through. Right now the school library is staffed by volunteers, mostly parents.
    Some of the upper middle class and upper class families were hit, something to do with stocks, and a few of them found their way towards our side of town, but families like the Dorlians and Winners remained rich and life continued on in our town. Like always, the art programs at our school and the high school suffered, but the football team got enough donations to get new uniforms and repairs done to their bus. The rich side of town still looked beautiful.
    Meanwhile, two of our neighbors had to move out of their houses. They had both worked at the electric works on our side of town and had been working there for over thirty years, but they had gotten laid off in favor of two north enders that had only been there for ten. 'Connections' my father had grumbled, 'fuck experience and company loyalty, all those assholes care about are your connections.' I didn't know exactly what that meant, only that in listening to my dad talk about his own office politics, it was usually the north enders that had connections and the south enders didn't.
    On our side of town, a whole lot of Hell got raised by those lay offs and some kids, probably the kids of those who got laid off, raided the north side of town and graffiti'd some truly nasty stuff on the houses of the two north enders that had gotten to keep their jobs. My dad was the one that got the call to arrest them. He had been in a foul mood when he had come home, and I can understand that. Being called in at three in the morning to arrest some teenagers was one thing, arresting some teenagers whose actions my father understood and sympathized with had been way out of his realm of priorities. I don't know if I really sympathize with those kids since they just slapped with some fines and community service work. I spent my first week of school that year with a sprained wrist and three broken ribs because of them.
     Not much changed at home from the fourth grade to the fifth grade. I had hoped that going to school and getting out of my parents' way would have made them easier to live with, that by not being around to piss them off so much would have made them happier. All that changed was that my mother upgraded from the wine she had been drinking to vodka. A year later, she would start to drink whiskey, and I'm pretty sure she started to take drugs when I was halfway through the fifth grade. Her drunken stupors had started to take on this almost comatose look for her. She would stare off into space a lot, lost to the world. She still never looked happy about it, she never smiled when she was like it, so if she was on drugs, I couldn't figure out why. My Dad's temper had only gotten worse in that year and the amount of times he had hit me had escalated.
    I got through all of it, though. Thanks to Quatre and my classes, I got through. Even Relena's bullying hadn't tempered our friendship or how much I relied on him to distract me from my problems. I hate that now, but it's true. I should have been there as the distraction for him, but it never seemed that way to me. I was always so consumed with depression over Relena, my parents, and how we were living. It seemed so rare those moments when I would stop and ask Quatre how things in his life were going. I had justified it back then, because if Quatre really needed me, he would seek me out. He would cry and hug me, or blurt out what the problem was. That was the sort of person he was, he wore everything on his sleeve, out in the open. That's how Relena and Zechs were so capable of tearing him apart so often, he didn't have the ability to hide anything from anyone. When it came to me, he had to pry my problems from me, and he was well aware of that. He always succeeded, but he was always alert with me, focused on the things that were making me upset.
    We didn't hang out at each other's houses. I guess that's a really odd thing to admit. We were best of friends, and shared everything; our problems, our lunches, our dreams, our nightmares, even our bullies, but we never shared each other's home lives beyond talking about them. I was too ashamed of my house, where I lived, and especially my parents to ask him over. What would he think of the rotten porch steps? The rust on almost all of our faucets, along with the reversed water temperature controls in our shower and the kitchen light that flickered at random moments? What would he think about my parents' drinking habits, how much they yelled and cursed or, and I always blushed with shame thinking of this, what if he saw my father hit me?
    Quatre already knew that my father beat me. There wasn't a single day that I come to school with a new bruise, a new broken arm, and new limp. He would always look at me with this expression that was half sad, half angry, but we never talked about it. We didn't need to talk about it. Quatre was smart enough to know that I was getting it at home by one of my parents, if not both, and he was also smart enough to know that I didn't want to talk about it. But that didn't mean that I wanted him to see it, either. He had enough problems at his own home, I had told myself, he didn't need to be worrying about mine as well. If I was having a problem, I would only talk about my injuries, how they hurt, or fights my dad and I had, but never about the actual hitting. I don't know why exactly, if it was just shame, or if I was scared to admit the problem out loud.
    I had gotten old enough by that point that I had realized that my father's abuse was not normal. I'm sure there were other kids from homes like mine where their father, mother, sibling, or another family member was beating them, but I noticed all those other kids who didn't come to school bruised and hurting, whose parents picked them up from school with a hug or went to our school concerts, sports, and plays. My father's behavior was abnormal, and that only made it all the more painful for me. It made me wonder why he was like that, if it was something I had done wrong a very long time ago, if it was all my fault. Eventually, a big reason why I didn't talk to Quatre about it became my fear that Quatre would try to do something about it.
    I don't mean that I was afraid Quatre would try to make my father stop. The idea of that was incredibly ludicrous. Quatre was tiny, my Dad wasn't. But what if he decided to tell another adult about? My father, the cop, wouldn't get into trouble, I was sure, but I would get into trouble, big trouble. And what if Dad did get into trouble? What if he got arrested? I hated that he hit me, but I still loved him, he was my father. I didn't want him to go to jail because I couldn't keep my mouth shut. The beatings hurt, but I had lived with them up until then. I could live with them longer.
    Another big part of why I didn't want Quatre to come over was that I couldn't pinpoint the source of my father's anger. He hit my mother, too, even blamed her sometimes if I fucked up. What if he hit Quatre? The thought of that horrified me. I wanted to protect Quatre from all of the bad things. I couldn't protect him from Zechs or Relena, but I could protect him from my father.
    I don't know why Quatre never invited me over to his house. At first I had thought that he might be ashamed of me. His proud father's only son's only friend, a loser from the south end who wore the same clothes three times a week, worked illegally to help support his family, and was a good for nothing in every way that counted. I only had those misconceptions for the first few months of our friendship. I quickly learned that Quatre just didn't see me that way. He liked me, for some reason I just couldn't fathom, and wasn't ashamed of that. Maybe he just hadn't wanted me to feel bad about where and how he lived, or maybe he was just as embarrassed by his parents as I was.
    Sometimes I wonder if he saw his parents' neglect the same way I saw my father's abuse. The beatings and verbal abuse had been in my life for so long, I couldn't imagine my life without them. The pain and my father were tangled up in my mind, I couldn't have one without the other. Maybe Quatre couldn't imagine his life without that abandonment, without going home to a dark and silent house. I don't like thinking about that. I want to believe that Quatre had some kind of hope that his life would get better one day, even if I know now that that isn't true.
    Quatre never caught up to me in terms of height. I got taller, though I was still averagely tall, and he barely did. He never stopped smiling, but I watched, helplessly, as the loneliness and abandonment he felt at home, and the bullying made that light in his eyes dull just a bit more every year we were friends. It matured him, like my own problems had matured me. Every time I realized that about him, I wanted to bash his parents' heads in for being so oblivious to their own child, but who was I to talk? I couldn't help Quatre and I couldn't help myself.
    I hate that. I hate that I never had the strength to help him, when Quatre is the only reason why I survived this long. Him being my friend kept me happy, hopeful, and without him... I don't want to think about what I'll become without him. Nothing around here every changes. If it does change, it's always something worse, never better. Even when something better does happen, it never stays long. Every time I think I understand the world, every time I think I can understand my life and get used to it, something changes and I fall flat on my face.
    I think Quatre felt the same way. Maybe that's the real reason why he left. It wasn't just the bullying, or that he was lonely, it was because as filthy rich as he was, Quatre was no different than I was. His entire future had been planned for him, not by fate but by his parents. All Quatre ever was in the eyes of his father was the next one in line, the son that would take over the business for him. I know that Quatre didn't want that anymore than I wanted to end up like my father, but just because you can see where your future is going to end up, it doesn't mean that you can change it.
    Maybe Quatre decided he had to leave this place because he was smarter than me. He saw his fate and, like me, lost all hope. But unlike me, he wasn't willing to just accept that, to just stay stuck in one place for the rest of his life. Maybe he just didn't want things to change for the worse again. Or maybe Mrs. Khushrenada was right and my best friend had just been very sad and very unhappy. I hope that, wherever he ended up, he's finally happy.
    My life took one of those changes in the second semester of our fifth grade, one of those changes for the worse that made me wonder if there was some sort of force out there that hated me. I'll always remember the date it happened. April 3rd, 2003. It was a Tuesday. Quatre had been planning to go to my job after school that day with me. He did that a lot, just chilled out with me during my shift. At first my boss had been irritated by it, but when he saw that it didn't affect my work any, he let Quatre stay. He would sit in one of the booths doing his homework or listening to music as I washed the dishes and cleaned the tables. When time came to fold the pizza boxes, he would come talk to me as I did it, and we would share my lunch break together. Some days, Quatre being there was the only thing that kept me sane in my boredom, and I like to think that he enjoyed being there instead of being alone at home.
    That day had been a half day at work for me. One of my full time coworkers needed the extra shift that night, so my boss had agreed to let me out a bit early. My dad hadn't known and I had been looking forward to spending those hours with Quatre. We were going to go out and go to a restaurant. He had been saving up his allowance especially to take me out to some place he had found a few weeks back with one of his sisters and thought I would like it. I honestly didn't care what the food was like. It was free food and I could spend more time with him. But we never made it, I didn't even go to work that night.
    But I'm getting ahead of myself. Quatre and I had almost all of our classes together, except for Math and English. I struggled my way through every math course I had ever taken, but I had just managed to not land myself in remedial math somehow. Quatre was a different story. He loved math. He loved equations and numbers and, unlike in our philosophy and English courses, there was always only the right answer. There was no ambivalence in math and he liked how black and white that was. He had taken to it like I had taken to English, another class we didn't take together. I had gotten into advanced placement English, and he had gotten into advanced placement Math.
    So when it happened, I was completely alone, rushing my way to my own math class. I had been thinking about my math homework and how much I was looking forward to going out to eat with Quatre that night, so I can honestly say that the most of what happened was probably my fault. I was jostled out of my thoughts when someone pushed me. If I had been paying attention, I would have just evaded it and continued on my way, and maybe most of what had happened could have been avoided, but I hadn't. I barely had the time to react as someone grabbed me by my arm and pulled me out of the crowd of kids to a more secluded spot of the hallway near some lockers. I felt a chill seeing who it was that had grabbed me.
    Relena. Just thinking about her now makes my skin prickle, but back then I had felt mostly angry that she was going to make me late for class, and wondering what she wanted to do to me this time. She hadn't really changed that much since the fourth grade, either. She had remained the same height as me, so she was actually taller than Quatre, but most importantly she had remained a bitch. And I was still scared of her. She still wore pink dresses that I thought didn't suit her at all, but her mother had long since given up curling her light brown hair. It was straight and free falling down her back that day. I was till haunted every time she did something to me or Quatre by the impulse to just punch her in her arrogant face.
    But every time I thought about it, pushing her down and breaking that stuck up nose of hers, I felt a shiver of pleasure go through me. I had long ago lost count of the number of times she had shoved me around, taunted me, called me disgusting things, and tried to get me to eat even more disgusting things, and the idea that I could pay her back for all of those years without her being able to do much about it because at twelve years old, I was physically stronger than her, gave me this intense sense of power and control. Two things I have severely lacked since the day I was born. The fantasy of it made me feel good, but that pleasure terrified me. I would think 'is this how Dad feels when he hits me?' and that thought alone assured that I never could hit her.
    I wish I had had the courage to hit her that day. Maybe then she would have kept her mouth shut. I didn't though. I had known that anything I did to her, she would eventually pay me back for, times five. If I hit her, all it would get me was an expulsion from school and a visit from her big brother. No matter what I did, I couldn't win, I had accepted that a long time ago. I think it was easier for me to accept than Quatre. As a child, he had been taught about things like fairness and that the bad guys always lose. So dealing with Relena, who he couldn't fight against, had probably rankled against those early taught lessons.
    I had lived with my father and no one had ever told me that the world was supposed to be fair. If they had, I would have assumed they were lying to me. When you live with a man like my father, you learn that every day is just a series of battles. Some of them you might win, if you're fast enough or well behaved enough, but most of them you will lose and you have to learn to accept those loses or it'll just drive you crazy. Even if your day is filled by winning battles, if you go that whole day without getting hit or yelled at, or if you're stupid enough to try to make it stop, tomorrow would come. Tomorrow would come and you'd learn that none of yesterday means shit all and it just starts all over again. So what's the point of even trying for one day? It just makes you feel tired, and then they win anyway. I think that's something that took Quatre too long to learn, that expecting to win is the worst thing you can possibly do.
    "I need to speak to you," she hissed at me lowly, not wanting the people around us to listen even as the bell rang, signaling the beginning of that block of classes and the throng of people thinned out.
    I blinked stupidly at her. She had my immediate attention, even more than she usually did. This wasn't one of her usual games. She didn't have her intense focus and determination, but was fidgeting. There was a bright blush across her face and instead of staring me in the eyes, her eyes were everywhere else, as though she couldn't bear to look at me. She was embarrassed, I realized with shock, and anxious.
    For the first time since she had started to bully me two years ago, I studied her, not like prey would study a predator, but I saw her as just a girl who wanted to tell me something. I wanted to be defensive, to see this as just another one of her tricks, but I couldn't. She didn't have it in her to fake this. She looked... vulernable, the one thing that Relena Dorlian didn't have it in her to be.
    I watched, perplexed, as she grasped the frilly, bottom hem of her top and fussed with it, like she was struggling with whatever she wanted to tell me. I wanted to tell her to hurry up and spit it out, but as much as I hated her, I just couldn't. I felt like I was seeing her for the first time, the real person behind the bully, like the girl that I had known since the fourth grade was just a mask. She had humiliated me, made Quatre and mine's lives at school terrible, but here I was feeling bad for her and I had no idea why.
    "I... I like you," she murmured in a voice so small I could barely hear her above the chatter in the hallway.
    "No you don't," I said in confusion.
    How could she possibly say that she liked me? She obviously didn't like me at all. I remembered all the times she had looked at me with contempt or said something malicious. She flushed even darker and looked frustrated.
    "This is stupid," she grumbled, "I never should have listened to Zechs..."
    "What is it?" I suddenly blurted out and although I hadn't meant for it to come out that way, I couldn't stop the slightly harsh tone to my voice, so used to talking to her that way.    
    She flinched at the tone of my voice, as if I had just hit her, and I was filled with this sense of surrealism. It felt as if, for that one second, our roles had been reversed. Her blue eyes glanced shyly at mine for a moment, looking for something there. I doubt she saw anything but obliviousness and confusion. It seemed to make her more flustered and irritated.
    "Dammit, I'm trying to say... to say... I really, really, really like you Duo," she ground out like just saying those words were physically taxing to her, like she was chewing on glass.
    My eyes went wide and I stared at her like she was some kind of great white elk in my midst. Like she had gone insane. What was she... was she saying that she had a crush on me?! But that wasn't possible, she hated me... didn't she? At that moment, I remembered a scene from an old television show I had watched years ago. It had been some flat, high school drama about a young boy, just a few years older than me if I remember correctly, lamenting about how this girl in his class was always picking on him. He had told his father this and his father had laughed and said something like 'oh, she probably just has a crush on you. Girls pick on boys that they like.' Was that what this was? Relena had been bullying me because she liked me? But that made no sense to me. I just could not conceive the idea... the mere possibility that she had any feelings towards me beyond hate and disgust.
    "I... I don't understand," I said truthfully.
    Relena huffed in angry frustration and before I could defend myself, she pressed her lips to mine.
    I had never been kissed by a girl in all of my twelve years alive. I had never held hands or gone on a date. Hell, I had never had a crush on a single one of my female classmates. When I thought about my future, I never thought about a wife or girlfriend. I had known, even back then, that there was something wrong with me. Weren't boys my age supposed to at least start to be interested in girls? At the very least, if a girl as pretty as Relena, never mind our history with each other, had told me that she liked me, wasn't I supposed to feel flattered? But I didn't. I just felt weird, like it wasn't something that interested me and instead made me feel nervous, and it actually had nothing to do with her bullying me. I had always felt more comfortable about Quatre and my other male classmates than I did girls. I had just chalked it up to the whole boys versus girls, cooties, girls are icky mentality that most boys go through, but until that moment, girls hadn't felt icky to me.
    Relena's lips on mine... they felt wrong. They made my stomach churn for some reason. A part of me was freaked out because of who she was, but most of me was freaked out because of what she was. I didn't like it. Every second her soft skin was against mine, I felt like my skin was tingling, and not in a good way. I wanted to shove her away and run. I wanted to be anywhere but there at that moment. But I didn't move away until she did, like I was frozen in place.
    When she did move away, without even thinking about it, I grimaced and wiped at my lips. I knew the second that I did it what a huge mistake I had just made, but I couldn't help myself. That grimace had been as reflexive as a flinch if she had hit me. She looked at me again, her expression so full of hope and something that I couldn't place because I had never seen it before. Then she saw my disgust and that expression, which had been so soft and natural on her face, so welcome in comparison to how she usually looked, fell away and little by little, twisted into hate. It was an ugly thing to watch. I had thought the way she had looked at me all the time up until now had been hate, but those looks hadn't held a candle to this. It was loathing and worse, it was hurt. I had hurt her in that moment, a kind of hurt that was worse than anything she had ever done to me. When I saw tears in those hard blue eyes, I felt sick. What had I just done?
    The sound of her hand hitting my face in a powerful slap was like a clap of lightning in the noisy hallway. I heard the noise around me go silent, but wasn't sure if it was in my head or if everyone around us was finally taking notice of us. Burning pain filled the right side of my face and I tasted blood, but I was used to both of those things. I wasn't used to the painful rage that was on Relena's face as tears dripped down her cheeks.
    "Faggot," she hissed viciously at me with all of the anger of a viper before running off down the hall.
    I caught sight of her best friend, Dorothy Catalonia, throwing an arm around her shoulders and comforting her, shooting me a heated glare. I ignored them both and the people around me that were staring like I was the most interesting thing they had seen in their entire lives.
    I lightly touched my red hot cheek and looked down at my palm where a small amount of blood was smeared across my skin. One of her nails had caught me when she had slapped me and it had cut my cheek a little. The force of the blow had also split my lip. My dad had hit me in the face enough times that I was well used to the taste of blood and a pain much worse than what Relena's slap had done. But I wasn't used to how it had made me feel. I had never made her angry enough to actually strike me. I had never made anyone cry like that before... I had never hurt anyone like that before.
    I should have felt smug about it, triumphant. How many times had she made Quatre or me cry? Who knew if she had done it to other kids. She was mean and cruel, and didn't care about anyone's feelings but her own. She had almost drowned me my first day of school. I should be happy that I had hurt her for once, if not for me then for Quatre. But I wasn't. I was miserable. I didn't want to be like her anymore than I wanted to be like my father.
    I wiped the blood from my cheek and lips and hurried to my math class. My teacher lectured me on how tardy I was, which was very, and on any other day I would have been incredibly embarrassed. On that day, I couldn't have cared less. His voice washed over me like white noise as I walked past him and sat down at my desk. I was thoroughly useless the rest of that period. I kept going through what had just happened. It was just so crazy. It had happened to me personally, but I was still having trouble believing it. How could Relena Dorlian like me of all people? Broke, dirty, stupid me? Had she liked me all the way back in the fourth grade and that was the reason why she had bullied me? I still didn't get it. Did girls really do stuff like that? I just couldn't believe that. Or had she just realized she liked me afterwards?
    I replayed the entire thing in my head, her kiss, my reaction, her reaction to my reaction. Was there something I should have done differently? What were you supposed to do when a girl told you she liked you and kissed you? I could still feel her lips against mine, and I could still feel my complete disinterest and discomfort. Was there something wrong with me? I had never even thought about kissing girls. Was that normal? Obviously it wasn't, I told myself. How could I say that I was just too young, it was too soon, and that I would just grow into my attraction when a girl the same age as me had been interested in kissing me?
    Faggot. She had called me that when she had seen my repulsion. I knew what that word meant. Faggots were boys that didn't like girls like they were supposed to. They were screwed up, freaks, and they liked kissing boys instead. I had always known that I was a freak, different from so many of my classmates, but was I... was I really a faggot? At that moment I had been self-aware enough to know that that was an impossible question for a twelve year old. It was probably an impossible question even if I had been older. What the hell did I know about sexuality, let alone my own? Sex hadn't even been on my mental radar, just one of those things I knew about, but had just labeled it as 'I'll worry about that when I'm older.'
    But even if that was the case, I realized that my disinterest in all girls was unusual. I had seen boys in my grade holding hands with girls. I'm sure sex hadn't been on their minds, either, but romance, dating, liking had. Those thoughts had to have entered their heads. And if a girl had kissed them, especially a pretty girl like Relena, I'm sure that they would consider themselves lucky. I'm sure that none of them would have felt repulsed. Did that really mean I was a faggot?
    I didn't even know what I was supposed to do if I was. It wasn't like I wanted to hold hands with any of the boys I knew either. I couldn't even begin to fathom what it would mean for me, well aware how my father, classmates, and most of the other people in my life felt about 'those' people. I was already a freak, did it matter that I was even more of one?
    Eventually math period ended and I was even more confused than I had been at the start of it. I don't really remember being scared or repulsed by the possibility that Relena had been right, just very puzzled and worried. I filed it away in my head as something to worry about at some other point in my life, some point where it actually became a problem. I had other things to worry about.
    I waited until all my other classmates had left to shoulder my backpack and leave the room. Zechs Dorlian was waiting for me, just like I knew he would be. He was leaning up against the lockers, arms crossed over his chest, his blue eyes glaring at me. He was wearing ripped blue jeans, the kind you could buy that way that probably cost just shy of a hundred dollars, black boots, and a very dark cranberry colored t-shirt with the name of some band on it, his long silver hair in a ponytail that was longer than mine.
    I needed a hair cut, but I didn't have the money to get one or the skills to do it myself without the possibility of screwing up. My parents hadn't noticed how long my hair was getting either, and I wasn't going to bring the subject up with them, so I had just put it in a high ponytail and forgot about it.
    Zechs was tall even for his age, more lanky than muscular but with a definite power in his arms. He used to be on the school boxing team before he had beat one of his teammates bloody during a boxing match. He scared the hell out of me, always had, and that had been before I had hurt his sister. Before, when I had just been 'Quatre's dorky friend,' he had looked at me like I was nothing more than an insect on his windshield, easily ignored and of no significance to him.
    Now he looked at me like a wolf would at a terrified rabbit, his stare intense, angry and excited at the same time. Just like a scared rabbit, I could feel myself shake. He walked towards me and every instinct I had screamed at me to run, reminding me of everything this boy had done to my friend and Quatre hadn't pissed him off like I had. But I was paralyzed with terror. The only other person who had ever made me feel so tiny and scared was my father.
    'He's going to disembowel me,' I remember thinking.
    Not in the way that kids exaggerate an especially bad beating, I remember actually being overwhelmed with this terror and paranoid thought that the teenager was gong to rip my guts out.
    "So," he said in this almost bored drawl, "you're the piece of shit that made my little sister cry," my stomach plummeted to my knees as he stood in front of me, his tone icy cold, "and here I was, being a nice guy and leaving the kid she liked alone. And this is how you repay me?"
    He sighed, like just speaking to me was nothing more than a chore to him. Suddenly, with the lightning fast speed of a cat, he clutched my right ear and twisted. I cried out in pain, unable to do anything else, my backpack falling from my shoulder.
    "Do you think my sister's pretty, Duo?" Zechs asked with a sort of banal innocence, like he wasn't causing me an excruciating amount of pain.
    I tried to nod, but it hurt too much.
    "Y-yes," I stammered.
    His predatory grin widened, pleased with that answer.
    "Do you think a lowly, useless piece of filth like you is too good for her?"
    "No," I gasped out and almost cried with relief when he let go of my ear, letting me slump to my knees on the floor.
    That relief turned to shock and pain as he drove his fist into my stomach. I don't know if I had bitten my tongue or if his punch had damaged something, but I was suddenly gasping for breath and hacking up blood. He didn't let me rest for more than a second, grasping my ponytail and pulling it upwards, nearly lifting me off my feet and worried he was going to pull my scalp off. I felt blood trickle down the side of my face as he twisted my hair and his grip tightened.
    "Now, what sort of boy would be so repulsed by the kiss of a pretty girl like my sister?" he taunted, "What are you, a faggot?"
    That word again, I was really starting to hate it and the superior look Zechs had when he said it. Before his blue eyes had been hard chips of ice, but as soon as he had started hurting me, they had lit up with perverse pleasure, which I found much more frightening. He gave my head a painful shake by my hair and I realized he wanted an answer.
    "I don't know," I managed to say through bloody lips.
    I thought about lying and telling him no, I wasn't a faggot, but I didn't know if he would believe that and what he would do if he thought I was lying.
    " 'I don't know'," he repeated mockingly, "then why didn't you tell her that you liked her back?" he snarled, shaking me again, but I realized he wasn't really angry.
    He was enjoying this.
    "Because I don't!" I said truthfully.
    At that point, I didn't think I was capable of lying convincingly.
    "You don't like her," he sneered, "and what exactly are you going to do about it?"
    I could feel the blood dripping down my face, staining my shirt. My ear and stomach throbbed harshly as I dangled there in his grip.
    "I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry!" I cried, almost screaming.
    "Good boy," he congratulated, "That wasn't so hard, was it?"
    He slammed the side of my head into a locker and dropped me like so much dead weight. My world erupted into nothing more than gut wrenching pain and the metallic ringing of my head meeting the locker door. But through all of it I heard the brute speak again.
    "I'm going to make your life a living hell."


End Part 1

Author's note:

Also want to mention that this story is dedicated to my cousin and everyone else who has ever been bullied, including by their parents. My cousin was the smallest and youngest among 18 older brothers and was physically and emotionally abused by most of his brothers and his father. I started to write this story in the ninth grade to kind of purge all my darker memories of our childhood, watching him struggle with it. Fortunately, thanks to his best friend's mother, he was able to get away from that situation, but not all victims of bullying are that lucky.

Chapter Text

A Stagnation of Love
Chapter 2
Part 2


March 11, 2004 (continued)
    
    
    And he did.
    Even with the pain I was in, some part of me wanted to laugh. I remember how Relena had pushed me my first day of school, how my head had hit my desk and I had blacked out for a short amount of time. Like brother, like sister, but I didn't really feel like laughing. Thankfully, although Zechs had slammed my head into the locker harder than I had hit my head three years back, I fought not to black out and somehow managed it. I kept my eyes firmly closed for a long time as I laid on the floor.
    Everything seemed to hurt. My head was obviously the worst, but my stomach was a close second. Just opening my eyes made my stomach roll and my head pound. The thought of throwing up on top of everything else made me focus on nothing else but my breathing. The taste of blood certainly wasn't helping. I became aware of a crowd forming around me, but I didn't care. Relena's bullying had gotten me used to people gawking at me long before Zechs. It was Quatre's voice that finally got me to open my eyes.
    "Oh, my god, Duo!"
    He was pushing through the crowd and knelt down to my level, looking positively frantic. The crowd started to disperse and I dimly realized it was lunch time. Food was the very last thing I cared about. Right then, the thought of eating at all again in my lifetime made me want to gag.
    Quatre touched my head lightly, his hands shaking badly and I wondered how awful I looked.
    "I'm ok," I murmured even though I felt far from it, "Zechs just-"
    "I know," Quatre interrupted morosely, "Everyone is already talking about it."
    I groaned at that more than the pain and I sat up, the world spinning like a top and Quatre, the natural nurse that he was, held my arm in case I fell over in my dizziness. I felt worse about hearing that than I had getting hit.
    "What are people saying?" I asked, dreading his answer.
    He hesitated, obviously not wanting to talk about it in the hallway.
    "I don't care if anyone overhears, Quatre," I assured him, "but I need to know what they're saying."
    It didn't matter who overheard us talking if people were already gossiping about it.
    "Well..." Quatre fidgeted a little, "Dorothy has been telling people that Relena told you she liked you, and she kissed you but you turned her down. She's been saying to everyone that you... you must be gay, to not want to be with Relena. She said that Zechs was looking for you, that he was going to beat the sh-... beat you up."
    For as long as I had known him, Quatre seemed incapable of swearing, and I would have laughed at his verbal stumble if I hadn't been so appalled. Bad enough that everyone in school was going to find out about that kiss, but that bitch Dorothy was actually telling people that I was probably gay? That was as bad as her saying that I definitely was, everyone was going to think that! I had always been an outsider, but this was different than being labeled as poor or awkward of being bullied. Everyone thinking I was gay was worse than everyone thinking I had killed someone.
    "Is it true? Did Relena kiss you?" Quatre whispered like it was the worst thing that could have happened to me.
    That made me smile as I leaned back against the lockers. For a moment, I had almost flown into a panic, worrying how my best friend, and the only person whose opinion I cared about, would take the news that I might be gay. But in true Quatre fashion, he wasn't even putting any speculation into that rumor. Knowing him, he was probably thinking that it was something that until I told him definitely yes or no, it wasn't even worth his time wondering about.
    "Yeah," I confessed, "she said that she really liked me. Then she kissed me, just like that. She didn't even give me the time to tell her I don't like her back. I didn't like it," I murmured that part, still confused about my feelings, "and I guess she saw that because she slapped me."
    I was honestly surprised that the story Dorothy had told everyone was the truth and she hadn't made up some lie, like I had been the one to kiss Relena to help her best friend save face, but the truth was bad enough, I guess. To my amusement, Quatre wrinkled his nose in the same revulsion I had felt. For the first time, I felt better about how I had acted. Maybe feeling grossed out by that kiss hadn't been because she was a girl but because she was a bully, so Quatre understood. Maybe I wasn't a fag and this was something only Quatre and I could understand.
    "What did Zechs do to you?" he asked next in concern, looking at the blood that was no doubt smeared in my chestnut hair.
    I told him about the fight and I didn't leave out any detail, not Zechs accusing me of being a fag or the last thing he had said to me. I hadn't thought it possible, but my best friend went even paler than he already was, his sea green eyes wide. He looked scared for me, and it was his fear that made me feel truly afraid.
    "He's really going after you," he said in an awed tone.
    "He's never done this to you?" I asked, getting more and more worried by the second.
    Quatre shook his head.
    "He's always picked on me from the first day we met, and Relena just followed his lead. He pulls cruel pranks on me, humiliates me, does everything he can think of to make my life miserable, but he has never gone after me like he just did to you. He's hit me a few times, and I know he beats up kids that piss him off, but he's never gone full out on me. At least not physically. This isn't good, Duo," he informed me in a dead serious voice, "Zechs is a terror when it isn't personal. I... I don't know what to do to help..."
    He sounded so hopeless and guilty, like Zechs targeting me was his fault and not my own and he should find some way to make it stop. I wanted to comfort him, tell him that if he couldn't save himself, how did he expect to be able to save me, and it was my own problem, but I knew it wouldn't make him feel any better. My friend looked at me like I was in line on my way to the gallows for my execution. Was it really that bad? I thought about how scared I felt when Zechs had slammed my head into the locker, how vicious and intense he had been. And I thought about how he was probably just getting started on me. I already missed just having Relena to deal with.
    "I'll be fine," I lied to him.
    Quatre had enough problems to worry about, he didn't need mine on top of them, but I could tell from his expression that he knew I was full of shit. I knew he wouldn't press it, though. It was one of those things we wouldn't talk about. What could he do about it anyway? He hadn't told any of our teachers about Zechs bullying him and he wasn't going to tell them about this either. Good. I didn't want him to.
    There were only three possible outcomes for Quatre telling a teacher, the most likely one would be he would get ignored and nothing would come from it anyway. The second was that he wouldn't get ignored, which would be a lot worse. Quatre was a Winner, so a teacher might pay attention to his problems the same way so many ignored Zechs and Relena. They might give Zechs detention or suspend him for a couple of days, a nice if pointless middle ground between doing nothing and pissing off the wrong parent. Or worst of all, option three, Zechs could be expelled. I didn't give that possibility much credence. If Zechs was going to get in trouble for beating up other kids, it would have happened already, but it was possible. If possibility number two happened, Zechs would beat the shit out of the both of us. If we got him expelled, he would kill us.
    "We should get this cleaned out," Quatre said as he touched my bloody hair again, switching tracks.
    I could appreciate that and it was something my friend did a lot. He couldn't stop Zechs from using me as his personal punching bag, so he would help me with the aftermath. He helped me to my feet, the world starting to become steady again. I almost told him I didn't want to go to the nurse, but saw he was walking in the other direction. We found ourselves in the boys' room and I wanted to laugh. It seemed like we always ended up there when things went bad.
    I let Quatre play nurse as he carefully washed the blood out of my hair and off my skin. He even lifted up my shirt to look at where Zechs had punched me. My stomach was already starting to turn black and my ribs were tender as Quatre poked them, but neither of thought that they were broken. My ear was red and a little bit swollen, too, but it wasn't bleeding or bruised, so I didn't care. Quatre was more worried about the huge bruise on the side of my head from hitting the locker.
    I didn't eat anything during lunch and Quatre didn't try to make me. I knew skipping meals wasn't a good idea. I was already skinny and I skipped a lot of meals at home, but even though I wasn't dizzy anymore, my stomach still hurt like hell and I was worried about vomiting. Neither Zechs nor Relena bothered us during lunch. That worried me immensely. Relena was sitting with Dorothy and a few other girls she was friendly with, probably gossiping about me and the kiss. In my mind, that's how I had started to think about the whole mess. 'THE KISS,' all capital letters. Zechs was sitting with a couple of other boys at a different table. I didn't know the other boys, they were all in Zechs's grade, but they seemed like the type I didn't want to be acquainted with.
    Zechs and Relena's relationship is strange to me, but maybe that's because I don't have any siblings. They don't seem especially close. They never eat lunch together and I've never seen them really speak to each other or even make eye contact sometimes. Zechs acted like he was protective of her, and back then I had thought that was why he had attacked me so viciously, that he was just this stoic big brother that secretly had a soft spot for Relena. But now, a year later? I think that Zechs hadn't given a single, solitary shit about Relena.
    Maybe he had listened to her when she had told him to stay away from me because of some kind of respect for her or he simply hadn't cared that much about me when he had Quatre to terrorize, but I don't believe he had cared at all that I had hurt her. I think he had just grasped on that as an excuse to attack me. To him, it was a game. He liked being vicious and messing with me. I don't even think Zechs likes Relena that much. Her tears mean as much to him as mine do.
    At some point in my paranoid scrutiny of my two bullies during lunch, I had started to nod off, feeling drained by everything that had happened although we were only halfway through the school day. I was brutally awoken when Quatre slammed his thermos on the table. I shot awake like someone had shot a gun off in front of my face. He smiled apologetically at me, but honestly didn't seem all that sorry and I realized he had done it on purpose.
    "You shouldn't fall asleep," he said worriedly, "I mean, if you might be concussed..."
    "I am," I told him groggily as matter of fact, "I know what a concussion feels like."
    Quatre's smile turned sad but he didn't say anything about it and I was glad. I dimly realized that he was right. I knew I had a concussion, even if it was a pretty minor one, falling asleep had been pretty stupid. I looked across the cafeteria again just to make sure Relena and Zechs hadn't moved. They hadn't. I peeked at my friend as he continued to eat his lunch, some sort of lentil soup with day old biscuits he had brought from home, and for that brief moment I saw him in the same situation I had just been in, dangling from Zechs's grip like a mouse in a cat's jaws.
    Quatre had said that Zechs had never done anything like that to him and I decided to believe it. It made me feel incredibly relieved. I was glad that it had been me. It had hurt and it had terrified me, but I never wanted my best friend to know what it felt like. I could take it, and if Zechs could focus all that violence on me alone, I would take that and I would take it gladly. I just wished I could do more for him.
    It's sick to remember now, but in a fucked up way, a part of me was glad Zechs had turned on me. That guilt I had felt, being the one immune from Zechs's bullying, was gone. Some part of me had wanted to share this with my friend, to really know what he had been going through all this time. I don't know if I had wanted to punish myself or if I had had that stupid and childish notion that if I experienced Quatre's pain, I could find a way to save him from it.
    At recess, Quatre and I escaped to the wooded area on the edge of the playground like we always did. If we tried to go on the jungle gym, we would just get kicked off by the kids that always hung out there. The swings were even worse. They were prime real during recess and typically the older kids got them. Any little kids that tried to make a go for them got dragged off or worse. One poor, dumb kid in our grade dared to steal Zechs's swing once. He usually hid on the other side of school where no teachers were looking out to steal a smoke with some other older boys and look at skin mags, but no one messed with Zechs's swing, even when he wasn't using it.
    That day he hadn't been all that interested in swinging, but it had been the principle of the thing. He had promised the kid he wouldn't beat the snot out of him if he did exactly what he told him to. In this case, that was making the kid swing as high as he could, and then jump off the swing. The boy had ended up with a broken leg and Zechs had beaten him up anyway. No one had gone anywhere near Zechs's swing after that, not even one of the other eight graders.
    Quatre and I had made due by making our own swings. I had gotten the rope from the dump and Quatre had collected bits of an old hammock he had found at his house, plus some sheets to make the seats. We tied them onto the sturdiest branch he could find last year. I don't know what's more amazing, that those swings actually worked or that they remained ours for a year and a half. The first time we had used them, I had thought about how nice they were and how I should get as much fun as I could that day, because I was so sure that the next day I would find them trashed, stolen, or being used by someone else, but that never happened. I threw them away this week. I don't need them anymore.
    I made a beeline for them that day, and swinging lethargically back and forth with Quatre actually made my stomach feel better for some reason. I thought about the predicament I had found myself in with Zechs, Quatre's fear and his desire to make things better. Now that the pain was starting to feel less sharp, I discovered that my own fear was starting to feel less frantic. I was still scared of Zechs, but I think Quatre was still more frightened than I was. Now that my initial terror and shock were gone, I asked myself if it really mattered. Had Zechs done anything to me that my father hadn't done at some point? I was used to being used as a punching bag at home and I had hoped it would be different at school, but I could survive Zechs just like I had survived my father.
    I was justifying it, trying to make it out into better than it was so I wouldn't have to feel terror again. Quatre had been right. Zechs Dorlian is a monster. In some ways, he's worse than my father and I never should have let my guard down, but I did. Our next block was gym, another subject I was pretty lackluster in, but Quatre was even worse than me.
    I did ok in track, archery, badminton, tennis, basically anything were I didn't have to use brute strength for, of which I had none. I was decently fast. I wouldn't win any awards, but I could keep up with the group. I wasn't tall enough to be any good in basketball and too skinny to even consider playing football, and when we played softball, Quatre and I never got picked. My favorite events were when we had to go one on one, like in free badminton. Quatre and I could just volley the birdie back and forth all period.
    Our school has this stupid policy that you can't wear your normal school clothes during gym. We didn't have uniforms or anything like that, but we had to wear shorts and t-shirts, and even if you wore sneakers normally, you had to wear different ones in gym. You also had to take showers afterwards. I honestly didn't mind that bit. At least at school, there was always hot water. We had these stalls, so there was privacy, but Quatre absolutely hated doing it. He was always paranoid that Zechs would do something when he was showering, so we would coordinate our showers, one in, one as look out. We knew the look out couldn't stop Zechs or one of the other boys if they tried something, but we could warn each other.
    I slipped into one of the stalls, quickly dressed into my gym clothes, and stepped out into the gym. I put my school clothes and backpack on the bleachers with the rest of the lower classmen's. The upper classmen had lockers in the gym they could stash their stuff, but even though there were lockers to spare, it was some kind of unwritten rule that we weren't to use them. I took special care to put my sneakers under the rest of my things. They were the only pair I owned. My gym sneakers were actually one of Quatre's sister's who had close to my shoe size. They were shaped a little bit different than I was used to, but they fit. Still, I didn't really consider them mine, I was just glad I had a spare for gym. There's no way in hell my father would have bought me a second pair.
    Just as I jumped off the bleacher, the back of my t-shirt was grasped by a now familiar hand and I was shoved into the wall. Faster than I could react, Zechs pulled my arms behind my back, holding both of my wrists in one hand. I could have elbowed him in that time, or slammed my head back into his and broken his nose, but that fear was back. I had stupidly assumed that after what he had done earlier, he would leave me alone for the rest of the day. I guess dealing with Relena for two years hadn't taught me anything. I did struggle against him a little out of instinct, but when he shoved me against the wall again, I immediately stopped, knowing how pointless it was.
    "Hi there, faggot," the older boy jeered in the same ear he had grabbed before.
    He put his other hand on the back of my head and ground my face into the wall. I squeezed my eyes shut as I felt the brick cut up my cheek.
    "Zechs, please stop," Quatre pleaded.
    I opened my eyes and saw him standing there, deathly pale and anxious. I wanted to hiss at him to shut up and disappear, but Zechs beat me to it.
    "You going to stand up for the fairy? How sweet," the teenager sneered, then his gaze turned icy cold, "I suggest you fuck off, Winner, unless you want twice what he's going to get."
    Quatre flashed me a look of pure guilt and seemed like he was about to cry, but he stayed silent and back off. Maybe some part of me, way deep down, had felt bitter that he wasn't trying to save me, but if it did, that part was tiny and mute. I was glad Quatre was backing off. I didn't want him to get hurt because of me.
    "The boys and I have this wager going," the bully hissed in my ear, but loud enough that I didn't doubt everyone could hear him, "I say a pretty little queer like you can't possibly leave the house in the morning without a tiny, little red thong. My friends say it's a hot pink bikini."
    I heard loud laughter and snickering from behind us, the voices both female and male and I realized that the whole class was watching this. My eyes widened in horror as it dawned on me what Zechs was about to do.
    "Won't you settle our little bet, Duo?" he said in a tone of mock friendship.
    "Please, don't," I begged with everything that I had, even when I knew it was pointless.
    I felt his free hand slip into the back of my gym shorts, grab the waist band, and pull them down, just far enough that the entire crowd could see my underwear. My face felt like it was literally on fire and I squeezed my eyes shut as tears gathered in them. I refused to cry, even as my chest heaved. I had never felt so ashamed in my life. Relena writing 'liar' on my forehead in front of one single classroom had been nothing compared to this. I felt like I was going to throw up, like I should find some hole to crawl into and never emerge again.
    "Aw, too bad," Zechs said in fake disappointment as he lamented my plain black boxer shorts, "Looks like all of us were wrong. Not only are you a fag, you're a boring one. We're really going to have to do something about that, Duo."
    The gymnasium erupted in uproarious laughter and cruel jabs about whether I really was gay and about my underwear, how I looked like I was going to cry, which I didn't doubt. I could feel myself shaking and the tears were becoming harder to keep back. I felt so... so overcome with useless rage and embarrassment. I hated myself for being weak, for letting this happen and for letting it bother me this much, I hated Zechs for doing it and I hated everyone else for laughing. Zechs had gotten exactly what he wanted and let go of my wrists, but it did little to comfort me.
    The whole scene was broken up by our gym teacher's whistle. I turned and watched the class run over to him on the other side of the gym to start their warm up exercises. He didn't seem to notice Quatre and me in our little corner. Or more like he didn't want to notice us. I couldn't care less.
    "Duo," I heard Quatre say in an almost whisper and glanced at him.
    He had tears running down his cheeks, tears I had denied myself, and he looked like he might lose it at any moment. A part of me wanted him to go away, to leave me alone so I could cry and feel my shame in peace. But that's not what I really wanted... no, what I really needed. I needed my friend. I needed to know I wasn't alone. I gathered up all the strength I had left, which was very little, and shoved my tears deep down into my stomach. I pulled up my shorts and turned to smile at him like none of it had ever happened, never mind that there was blood trailing down my cheek, my eyes were wet, my skin was still scarlet red from embarrassment, and my wrists were bruised. It was what I wanted to believe, that it hadn't happened.
    "Well, at least he didn't hit me again," I said with a cheer I didn't feel.
    I don't know, even now, how I was able to smile then, how I was able to keep from crying or my voice cracking. Quatre had the most painful expression on his face. It was almost enough to destroy the brave facade I was trying to put on. For the very first time, I saw the same guilt on his face that I had felt every time Zechs had started in on him and I had done nothing. But it was more than that. A lot of people might read this and accuse me of being overly sensitive. They might say that boys got pantsed by older boys all the time, that it was cruel, but nothing to cry over. But that wasn't what had just happened. If Zechs had just run up to me in the hall and pulled my jeans down, it would have been embarrassing, but I would have handled it.
    This had been different. I can't even really explain it well, the reason why it had shaken me, the mount of shame, not just embarrassment it had made me feel. It had been... menacing? I guess that's a good word for it. Zechs had questioned my sexuality, had announced it to the entire class. He had checked my underwear, scrutinized it. He had exposed me, not just my underwear or my body, but something I was starting to feel self conscious about. A thing I hadn't even thought about, someone I hated had brought to the surface. I felt as violated as if he had reached into my shorts and groped me.
    Gay... fag... it was the absolute worst thing he could have accused me of being. If a single person in this school hadn't heard about my not wanting Relena to kiss me, they would surely hear about this. Everyone was going to watch me closely and wonder... is he really a fag? Most of them, the ones that knew what Zechs and Relena were like, would know they were just spreading that rumor to torment me, but some would think they were telling the truth. Even the ones that knew it was just gossip would follow Zechs's lead and treat me like I was gay, because it was fun to them, and it wasn't like I was their friend or anything.
    But what hurt the most about those accusations was that I didn't know. If I had just known I wasn't gay, I could deny it or ignore it, and like so many things in elementary school, it might just get forgotten. Even if I had known that I was gay, I could just brush it off because Zechs was right, I was a fag. As long as no one knew that as fact, I could get past it. But I was twelve, not a child anymore and not a teenager. I didn't know anything about who or what I was at that age. And every time Zechs called me fairy or faggot or gay, I felt this great unknown. Every time, I asked myself 'well, am I?' It was that uncertainty, the anxiety that made it so bad.
    Looking at Quatre's face, I knew he understood all of that. He understood why this had upset me so much more than being hit had. His tears were the same ones I had almost shed. Suddenly, my best and only friend hugged me tightly. I was still feeling emotionally sensitive, and a part of me wanted to push him away, but I couldn't. I didn't care if anyone saw us, and where they were grouped on the other side of the gym, I knew that they couldn't. Quatre's arms around me were exactly what I needed.
    "I'm ok," I said and tried to believe it myself.
    He let go of me and I pushed all of the rage I had felt down inside, where I hoped Quatre wouldn't be able to see it. We joined our classmates, our teacher snapping at us for being late, and I pointedly didn't look at either Zechs or Relena, though I could feel them staring at me.

*****

    "Good hustle, Maxwell," our gym teacher, Mr. Sturm, barked at me as we finished our last lap around the track.
    Mr. Sturm was one of those teachers that seemed only suited for physical education and couldn't possibly hold a job in anything else. You know, those gym teachers that coached pretty much every school sports team, always could be seen with a whistle around their necks, and seemed physically incapable of speaking in anything beyond a bark, even when he was happy about something. I blushed a tiny bit at his praise. Mr. Sturm gave out compliments like a desert produces rain, he was capable of it, but hardly did, and he hardly ever had any time for a student that wasn't on one of his teams.
    He was usually snapping at us underclassmen to run faster, hit harder, stop slacking, ect. I must have improved my track time enough for him to notice, not that I cared. I couldn't give a shit about sports and in reality, it was unwanted. I could feel Relena glaring at me the same way she always did when a teacher praised me or I spoke up in class. Her glares had become a lot worse since she had kissed me.
    "Thanks," I murmured.
    When we were far enough away from the man on our way to the showers, I heard Quatre snicker and I rolled my eyes at him.
    "Maybe you should sign up for the track team," he teased.
    Quatre was well aware that I considered sports to be pointless wastes of time, especially mine and that usually I didn't even try in gym class. I had only done better than usual today because I had hoped if I channeled my rage into some physical energy, it might just go away. It hadn't. I just felt angrier feeling Relena's glare. I hadn't asked for her to kiss me, I thought in frustration and tried to quell it.
    "Yeah," I snorted bitterly, "because running slightly above average is going to get me real far in life."
    I grabbed my school clothes from my pile on the bleachers, leaving my school sneakers and backpack there and head for the showers. I took my shower first, going as fast as I could, then acted as Quatre's look out. I was so sure that Zechs would try something when I had been in the shower, but I didn't even see a glimpse of him. That only scared me. I didn't think the older boy could resist pulling something shitty for more than five seconds. That feeling only intensified as I walked out of the locker room and neither of the two bullies were in sight. I sighed as I found my backpack again and dug my shoes out of the bleacher. When I wasn't prepared, Zechs and Relena showed up out of nowhere and when I was, they were nowhere to be seen.
    I dropped my shoes on the ground and sat on the bleachers to put them on. Usually I just stood and slipped my foot into them quickly. I can't say why I sat down to do it that time, but in seconds I became relieved that I had. As I started to put my right sneaker on, something stabbed the heel of my foot viciously. I hissed and kicked the shoe off, cradling my injured foot in my lap. Blood was already starting to blossom through my sock.
    "Are you ok?" Quatre asked in a panic.
    "I don't know," I said honestly.
    I couldn't figure out what had hurt me. Whatever it had been, it had stung like hell. Quatre studied my sneaker as I did the same to the bottom of my foot. There wasn't even a cut or hole in the bottom of my sock, and the wound itself was practically invisible. The bleeding was already starting to stop, but it was going to hurt walking on it for a bit. Quatre frowned as he pulled a large tack out of my shoe. It had once been silver but was now stained red. Someone had carefully taped it to the sole of my sneaker so the pointy end would stick straight up.
    "Relena," he muttered angrily, "she used to do this to my shoes in kindergarten."
    I blinked at him stupidly as he walked over to the trash can and angrily threw the tack into it like it had been in his shoe and not mine. I didn't even feel angry. I would later when it had the time to sink in, but at the moment I had just felt bewildered. I could see her putting a bug or glue or mud in my shoe, but she had never done anything like this before. She was escalating. Or maybe she wasn't, not entirely. Quatre had said she had done this same thing to him as a child, but she had never done it to me.
    Had she been holding back all this time because she liked me? I hadn't seen her do anything like this to Quatre, either, so maybe she was pulling out old tricks in her rage. In that case, she really was escalating from how she had been treating us. And it was all my fault.
    Quatre sat down next to me on the bleachers and rummaged through his book bag for something.
    "Let me see your foot," he ordered when he finally found what he was looking for.
    I pulled off my sock and rested my bleeding foot in his lap. He calmly washed the blood off with a bottle of water he had had in his pack and put a band aid on my heel.
    "Feel better?" he asked.
    I would have teased him a little, maybe said he should consider a career as a nurse, but I was still shocked by what had just happened. I guess what shocked me the most was that I was shocked at all at this point. Both Zechs and Relena had shown me they weren't going to pull their punches. Getting stabbed by a tack wasn't such a big deal compared to Zechs beating me, but it was the knowledge that Relena had snuck it into my shoe while I had been showering that really got to me. What else would she do if she got the chance. That thought startled me and, ignoring Quatre's question, began digging through my backpack.
    I found what I was looking for immediately.
    "Oh no," I moaned as I pulled out my history textbook.
    Or more accurately, what was left of my history textbook. Quatre hissed in sympathy as he saw the extensive damage. It looked like someone had thrown it into a jet engine. That someone had painstakingly taken to it with what looked like a pair of shears. There were long cuts on the hardcover, and almost all the pages were cut up and slashed, all gathered up and jammed into the book so when I opened it, they fell out in a nest of paper.
    "You can borrow mine next period," he said in a soft voice, putting a supportive hand on my shoulder.
    I felt red hot rage boil in me at seeing my textbook. It wasn't fucking enough was it, that her brother had humiliated me, assaulted me, and she had put a tack in my shoe. No, she had to destroy the only way I was going to get through my class! I almost threw the book across the gym at that point and screamed. If Quatre hadn't been there, I think I might have. I don't know what was worse, the violence she had done to something that had been mine, or the consequences of it.
    With gym ended, it was free reading period, but after that was our history class. I couldn't get through a single lesson without this textbook, and forget about doing the homework. Quatre and I sat right next to each other, so we could share his book, but the thought of that made me more angry.
    "No," I snarled, "I'm just getting by in world history, if I skip my homework assignments because of this, I'm screwed. And I don't have the money to buy another one."
    The school just gave us textbooks for free, but if you lost yours or it got ruined, they had to order more, and they made you pay for it. Our history textbook was 78 bucks. Relena had just destroyed more money than I saw in over a month.
    "I can give you mine," Quatre offered, his voice small and concerned seeing me so angry, "I can skip a couple homework assignments while they order me another one. You know I can afford it-"
    "No," I said again but this time I was sad and desperate on top of angry. I looked at him and something in my eyes made him flinch a little, "I am NOT going to let her win this time, Quatre, not over this."
    I stuffed the remains of my textbook into my bag. Just then I looked up and saw Relena all the way on the other side of the gym by the girls' locker room. She had been watching us and when she saw the rage on my face, she smirked. There was so much smugness, so much malice in that smirk. I wanted to take the tack that Quatre had thrown out and jam it in her face. Instead, I boldly strode over to the line of lockers and found one that was open, the lock on it loose. I took it off and read the combination that had been written on a piece of tape on the back of it before peeling the tape off. I felt her eyes on me and wanted to smirk myself. Good, let her watch.
    "What are you doing?" Quatre hissed at me, looking around anxiously.
    "Making sure she can't fuck with my stuff ever again," I ground out.
    I shoved my gym clothes and gym sneakers into the locker and looked over at Saren. That superior smirk was gone. In it's place was the same look of rage I had had before. Our places had switched. I saw intent in those hard blue eyes, but I didn't care. For the first time since the fourth grade, I felt like I had gained footing on her.
    "Put your stuff in, too," I told Quatre.
    I thought I could help him, too. It seemed like such a small thing, even then, just a way to keep Zechs and Relena from putting more booby-trap in our clothing and have them deface our things, but it was something. In reality, it was the only way I could fight against them. I had let her bully me for the past two years and hadn't done a single thing to stop her. This, as petty as it was, seemed important to me. To my dismay, Quatre shook his head.
    "You shouldn't do this, Duo," he cautioned.
    "Why?" I asked bitingly, "Because the upperclassmen will be pissed that I'm using their lockers? Who cares. I won't get into trouble about it and all they'll do is what Zechs intends to do to me anyway."
    "No," he voice rose and he sounded frustrated all of a sudden.
    Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Relena storm out of the gym. Good riddance. I turned my attention back to my friend and saw him pull his advanced mathematics textbook out of his pack. He flipped through the pages slowly, showing me page after page. In marker, there were things written on almost every page. 'Ugly' and 'die' were the tamest amongst them. I saw that damned f word written quite a few times. I guess Zechs had made the same accusations against Quatre that he had made against me. Not all of the words were written in the same marker and I realized that they had been written after a series of time, maybe even since the beginning of that semester. I reached out tentatively and touched one of the many 'die's that had been written across the equations.
    "Why don't you replace it?" I asked sadly, each word and slur against my friend were like shards of glass in my heart.
    "I did," Quatre admitted, "Relena started doing this to all my textbooks last year. I bought new ones at first, but she just kept doing it and Zechs came after me worse. When I stopped replacing them, things got a little bit better. If you do this, Duo, they'll just get back at you worse for fighting back, you have to realize that."
    Then he pulled out his history homework. It had been given the same treatment that my book had and I couldn't help but feel that Relena had did that as revenge against me, not Quatre. I turned from him, closing and locking the locker with my things inside. I felt like this was less of a victory now, but I refused to back down.
    "I know," I murmured, and I did, "but I can't just accept this."
    I don't know why I couldn't. I had been letting this go on for years. I had let things like this go on at home for even longer. So why now, why did I have this sudden urge to try to stop it? Maybe that was the point. I had to let my dad bully me, I couldn't stop it, so all I could do was this. All I knew was that I had to try.
    Quatre sighed and I knew that he thought I was an idiot. That was ok. I was an idiot, but I felt frustrated that he was so willing to let them do this to him, to write those things in his school books.
    "What are you going to do about your history textbook?" he asked.
    "Got any tape?" I replied and managed to quirk a small smile.

*****

    It took the entire free reading period and by the end of it, I was so frustrated I'm surprised I hadn't started crying or swearing, and that was probably only because I hadn't wanted to get kicked out of the school library, but I did it. As Quatre put his homework back together enough to copy it onto a fresh notebook page, I reconstructed my history text book as best I was able. I used up all of Quatre's tape and a roll of tape the librarian gave me, and the end result was the ugliest thing you could imagine, but I could physically read the pages. Putting them back in order had been the hard part. Quatre might have thought I was a moron for it, but he still smiled at me when I had finished.
    As an added bonus, we managed to get to our history class on time. Relena was already there, looking smug again until I pulled the textbook I had reassembled out of my pack. As ugly as my book was, the expression on her face was a thousand times worse. I should have felt smug about it. I hadn't wanted her to win, and I repaired the damage she had done. But I saw that look of unadulterated rage on her face and felt a chill. I didn't feel like I had accomplished anything other than sign my own death warrant.
    Our teacher was running late so our class lapsed into a laid back social environment within seconds. Quatre and I chatted about a movie he was looking forward to seeing and he might take me to if I had the time to next week. We did stuff like that every now and again. I used to feel terrible about now being able to pay for things like movies and Quatre paying my way, but he had simply said that he really wanted to go, just making me feel guilty about making him go by himself instead. Sometimes, the ruthless businessman his father wanted him to grow into shined through. As sweet as Quatre was, he could be a master manipulator when he wanted to be.
    I didn't even see Relena walk up to my desk until Quatre went silent in mid sentence. I glared at her. I had known she would retaliate against me, but I had thought she would at least wait until after class or something.
    "What?" I snapped at her, tired of all these games and just wanting this day to be over with.
    I didn't see the pepper shaker she was clenching in a fist so tight it the plastic shaker was starting to crack, but Quatre did.
    "Duo-" he started to warn, but it was too late.
    All I saw was her enraged sneer and a cloud of black and grey as she lashed out with the shaker, pepper splashing into my eyes. Then, the worst pain I have ever felt filled my eyes and nose and pretty much every sense I had. I don't concretely remember what happened after that, just the hot haze of agony as my face felt like it had exploded. I think I might have screamed, or maybe that had just been Quatre and a few members of my class.
    It wasn't like in the cartoons. I didn't sneeze uncontrollably and that was the end of it. I don't remember sneezing at all. I felt like clawing my eyes out of my head and was too scared to even open them. I remember being very afraid after the searing pain had subsided enough to have an intellectual thought that I was going to go blind. I felt tears gush down my cheeks like tiny waterfalls as my eyes tried to get the offending grains of pepper out, not realizing how useless it was to even try. My nose dripped, too, and felt like someone had shoved a hot poker into it. I barely regained enough of my dignity not to curl up into a ball on the floor screaming, but only barely.
    "Relena!" I heard our teacher cry out.
    "I am so sorry!" Relena exclaimed, sounding incredibly guilty and almost tearful, "I tripped on Duo's desk leg..."
    She was an infuriatingly good actress and I knew that our teacher was going to believe her even if I couldn't see it. I felt Quatre grab my arm and wanted to cling to him in fear.
    "Winner, take him to the nurse's office," our teacher said frantically.
    Quatre didn't say a word, but led me out of the classroom.
    "It's going to be ok, Duo," he said as soon as we were out of ear shot of our class, sounding as terrified as I felt.
    I couldn't muster up the ability to respond to him, glad that he didn't ask me how I felt or if I was alright. Speech seemed impossible. I could taste the pepper in the back of my throat even though I hadn't swallowed any. I kept rubbing at my eyes. I felt the pepper grains in there, like the sand you get in your eyes when you first wake up, but bigger and awful. Quatre walked us as fast as he could, but little by little I felt the pain spread. I had no idea that pepper could cause that much agony, but it seemed to go all across my face until my entire head felt like it was on fire.
    "Don't rub," Quatre insisted, his voice shaky, "You'll make it worse."
    I almost quipped at him that there was no way this pain was going to get any worse, but I did as he said, keeping my hands at my sides even as I felt like my facial muscles were twitching. I felt like I was going to pass out and throw up all at once and every movement we made on the way to the nurse's office was torture. By the time we actually got there, I felt like my face was made of a mix of lava and stone and that if I took another step, I was going to die.
    "What happened here?" I heard the nurse ask and had to wonder how I looked that she sounded so concerned.
    "I got some pepper in my eyes," I croaked before Quatre could say anything.
    I hated myself for it. This had all happened because I wanted to stand up to Relena, just once, even knowing that she or Zechs were going to retaliate. You'd think I'd be smarter, after everything Zechs had done to me, but apparently not. This was all my fault. But some part of me still ached in wanting to point the finger at her, and I didn't. Because what would be the point? No one would believe me, and if they did, they wouldn't care. All I kept thinking of was that I was an idiot, and that this could have been Quatre if Relena had really wanted to hurt me. Putting my things in a locker and taping up my books was so petty... how could I ever have felt that I had any control?
    The nurse made a tsking noise.
    "Sit him over here," she ordered my friend.
    Quatre led me over to what I could only presume was one of the beds and sat me down on it.
    "Does he need to go to the hospital?" he asked worriedly.
    "Not at all," the nurse said and almost sounded bored.
    Her nonchalance about the fact that my eyes felt like they were burning out of my skull actually made me feel a bit better.
    "I just need to get the pepper out of his eyes and wash them out, he'll be able to go back to class as soon as I'm done."
    I highly doubted that, but still didn't say anything. I didn't even care that they were talking over me. As long as this pain went away, they could do whatever they wanted.
    "Tilt his head back," the nurse ordered and I felt Quatre do just that.
    "This is going to feel a bit weird, Duo," Quatre warned me, "but it's just the eye wash station, ok? You're going to need to open your eyes though."
    I nodded, but it was easier said than done. The second I tried to open them, all I saw was red and the burning got much more intense. I immediately shut them, then opened them again. It took me a few minutes to actually keep them open, but Quatre and the nurse were patient with me.
    Then the nurse sprayed the water into my eyes and I felt like my whole body convulsed. I had thought that having cool water on my face with it burning like that would feel good, but it was such a shock, the difference in temperatures making me feel ill. I blinked as the water splashed in my eyes and felt the grains of pepper disappear little by little, along with some of the pain, but not all of it. I shivered as the water stopped, my shirt getting wet as it dripped down my neck.
    "Is that milk?" Quatre asked incredulously.
    "You're going to put milk in my eyes?" I asked in the same tone, balking and I started to lower my head.
    "Keep still," the nurse scolded, "this will neutralize the burning."
    The milk felt even worse than the water and every instinct I had was screaming at me to shut my eyes. But then, the second the milk actually hit my burning eyes, the pain vanished. It was like someone had waved a magic wand. I blinked and then looked at the nurse. She wasn't the same nurse I remembered from the last time I had been here. The last one had been a brunette, this one was a blonde.
    "The pain is gone," I said in amazement.
    She chuckled.
    "Milk, especially whole milk, is always the best thing for a pepper burn," she told me.
    I filed that information away in case Relena ever decided to shove pepper in my eyes again. Quatre gave me a relieved smile and handed me a wet washcloth. I wiped away the milk and water and blinked again, just to make sure my eyes didn't hurt or I wasn't impaired. They ached a little, but the pain was completely gone, I couldn't believe it.
    "You ok to go back to class?" Quatre asked softly.
    I nodded.
    "I feel fine now," I said.
    Quatre and I thanked the nurse and left. The whole thing had probably taken about fifteen minutes, maybe twenty, but it had felt a whole lot longer to me. This whole day had taken on a surreal, dreamlike quality in my mind. I feel like all of it couldn't have possibly happened; the kiss, Zechs beating me up, everything that had happened in gym, and now this. I felt like the universe hated me, like I was progressing through some sort of chaotic battlefield. I didn't want to go back to class. At that point, I was scared of what else might happen, but I knew I couldn't afford to miss a class. I wasn't as terrible in history as I was in math, but I was far from excelling in it.
    "Are you sure you're ok?" Quatre asked as we walked down the hallway.
    "I'm fine," I assured him, "my eyes and nose still kind of ache, but the pain's gone. That milk really did the trick," I laughed half heartedly, "I'll just have to be more alert next time."
    "Duo," Quatre murmured sadly, "I'm sorry, I didn't see what she was holding fast enough..."
    There was so many things I could have said to him then. I hadn't seen that pepper shaker in time either. I did this to myself. You had warned me that she would retaliate and I thought I could handle it. And a much more bitter thing. 'What would you have done if you had had the chance to stop her from throwing that pepper in my face? You said yourself that it's foolish to fight against Relena and Zechs, they'll just escalate to prove how pointless it is. If you had stopped her, she just would have done something awful to you, too, so what exactly would you have done for me that you refuse to do for yourself?' I didn't say any of it. I smiled at him.
    "It's fine," I said, "It only hurt for a little while, it's not a big deal."
    I gave his hand a squeeze and walked into the classroom with him. It wasn't a big deal. Compared to everything else, having pepper thrown into my eyes wasn't that bad. I told myself that over and over, even if I just couldn't believe it.
    The class went silent as Quatre and I walked in, even our teacher halted her lecture. I was sure that my eyes were red and they still felt a little bit irritated, but I pretended that everything was normal. Relena stood up from her desk when we approached.
    "Duo, I'm so sorry," she said and smiled at me sweetly.
    If I were a masochist, or an optimist, or just one of those people that chose to look at the world through rose tinted glasses, I would have chosen to believe that she really was sorry. Too bad I had been born a pessimist.
    "It's ok, Relena, I know it was just an accident," I smiled back.
    I wasn't as good an actor as she was, and I'm sure there was some malice in my voice, something only she and Quatre would be able to hear, but my reaction made her falter and it was enough for me. Our teacher dove right back into the lesson, probably content that it had all really just been an accident and everything was ok, or she just didn't care enough to make it an issue. I just wanted to forget about it. It had hurt like hell, and the rage that Relena had had when she had done it was frightening, but I shoved it to the back of my mind. I just needed to get through this horrible day. Just history then math then it was swim lessons then I could go out to dinner with Quatre. I desperately needed it.
    I struggled through the lesson, partially because my mind was distracted between my thoughts and my eyes still being a bit irritated, so I was struggling not to rub at them, and partially because we had missed a large chunk of the class. I was happy when our teacher finally gave Relena our homework assignments to pass out. One period down, I thought, just a little bit longer. I watched as Relena marched right past Quatre and I to hand the homework sheets out to the kids behind us, then handed the remainders back to the teacher. The teacher didn't even notice that she had skipped us. I glared at the bully as she sat down in her seat with that damnable smug expression of hers.
    I looked over at Quatre. He was chewing on his lip, the way he always did when Relena pulled this prank on us, but I could already see him submitting to it. We had gotten zeroes on homework assignments because of it before and I knew that if either of us raised a fuss about it, Relena would retaliate. But I couldn't afford to miss another homework assignment, I was already almost in the tank with this class and I needed every point to get a decent grade. Maybe if I waited until after class to ask our teacher for the sheets, Relena wouldn't find out about it until we had to hand them in tomorrow. That probably would have been the smartest thing to do, but like I've said before, I'm an idiot.
    I don't know exactly why I did it. You would think that after the pepper I would have learned to keep my head down, but my rage had been steadily building during the day and it was getting ready to explode. I was just so sick of seeing my best friend being bullied and seeing Quatre so unwilling to do anything about it. I calmly walked up to the teacher's desk and grabbed two more homework sheets. Our teacher looked at me, perplexed, but kept going on about our homework.
    As I walked back to my seat, Relena lashed out her leg and tripped me. I managed not to fall on my face by grabbing at the desks at either side of me, but it was a near thing. The whole class roared with laughter, even though it wasn't that funny, and our teacher yelled at everyone to be quiet. I looked back at Relena, expecting her to be smirking again, but she wasn't. She looked furious. I hurried back to my seat. Quatre looked at me like he wanted to scold me for doing that, but thankfully didn't say anything. I didn't need him to lecture me, I had figured out by that point that what I had done was beyond stupid.
    When the period ended and our classmates started to filter out, I wasn't surprised when my teacher called me over to talk to me outside the classroom.
    "How are your eyes, Duo?" she asked kindly.
    I subconsciously rubbed at my right eye. It was the one that was giving me the most trouble, but it was mostly just raw and irritated.
    "They feel a lot better," I confessed.
    "I think you know why I asked you out here," she said.
    I nodded. I liked Mrs. Kline. She, like most of our teachers, were oblivious to what was going on between me, Quatre, and Relena, and was kind of an airhead, always forgetting things, but she was nice and like Mrs. Khushrenada, she did try to connect with her students.
    "My last test score," I murmured.
    I had tried to study for my last history test. I had stayed up, drank lots of caffeine, and poured over my notes, but my parents' fighting had kept me from concentrating. By the time I had taken that damned test, I had been exhausted and couldn't remember anything that I had read the night before. I had gotten a D+ on it and it was a miracle that I had gotten that much.
    "Duo, you have got to get your act together," she scolded but not cruelly, "I know you have a hard time and not just in my class, but I also know that you're engaged. There are a lot of students here that do as poorly as you, but they don't care. You do, and it hurts me to see you getting scores like that."
    All I could do was nod. I couldn't tell her that she was wrong. I might be engaged, but it didn't matter. I was too stupid, I wasn't like Quatre or Relena or any of the other kids that got top grades. And even if I was, how could I do any better than I was when most of the time, I couldn't concentrate because of my parents or I was in too much pain to get any work done?
    So I did what I did when all of my teachers pulled me aside like this, I lied and said that I had been slacking off lately, but I would do better. And I would every now and then, but eventually I would get stuck in the same cycle. Mrs. Kline bought it like she always did and bustled off to her next class. I walked back into the classroom to get my things and my stomach dropped. Relena had moved on from me and back to Quatre. She was standing at his desk with him sitting down, her hand clutching his blonde hair as she practically shoved a bowl of something in his face.
    "Drink it, drink it!" she was practically screeching at him, but not so loud that anyone out in the hall could hear her.
    I didn't need to look at what was in the bowl to know what it was. She had done this before, but not since we had been in the fourth grade and Quatre had accidentally dumped some paint on her new blouse. She had gotten a bowl full of water and had dumped paper and pencil shavings into it. She had called it her very special punishment soup. Back then, she had made him drink the entire thing until he had thrown up in front of everyone. I saw that he was starting to drink it like he had that time and something in me snapped.
    Before I could stop myself, I strode up to her and grabbed the bowl from her. I felt something in me screaming at me to stop, that I was making everything worse again, but the rage in me was like steam, propelling me forward and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I dumped the entire bowl of 'soup' on Relena's head.
    "Augh!" she screamed, just standing there with bits of paper and pencil shavings in her hair.
    I didn't stick around for her to decide to do anything to us. I grabbed Quatre's hand and made a run for it. We made it all the way down the hall before I stopped. Quatre pulled his hand from my grip.
    "That was the stupidest thing you have ever done!" he yelled at me, "She is going to kill you! Do you want her and Zechs to kill you?! What were you thinking?!"
    I could have snapped at him that I had done what he was too chicken to do, protect him, and it was on my tongue, but I didn't have it in me to say that. I felt my anger sink back in me and I just felt depressed and dejected. I looked down at my hands, the same hands that had dumped that bowl on my bully. I didn't feel triumphant about it. I felt scared, and not because of Relena's retribution. I was scared of myself.
    "I don't know," I murmured.
    All the anger in Quatre deflated at that.
    "I just don't know."


End part 2

Author's note: Originally this chapter was just going to be in two parts, but it just got too long, so I broke it in half. I'll be posting the third and final part of this chapter in a little while.

Chapter Text

A Stagnation of Love
Chapter 2
Part 3


    I went through the rest of my school day waiting for an anvil to fall on my head. When we went to our lockers to pick up all the things we would need to do our homework that night, I stayed as close to Quatre as I physically could. Every time I heard a locker door slam, someone laugh, or something drop, I flinched like a soldier with shell shock syndrome. And every second that something didn't happen, I felt worse. The worst moment, however, was when Quatre and I had to separate for our last class. At that point, I was more scared for him than myself. Relena and Zechs had barely messed with all day since they had been so focused on me, besides destroying his stuff and what Relena had done in our history class, but it still worried me having him out of my sight. It didn't really matter, there was nothing I could do to protect him, but I was still young then and had this stupid hope that being there with him mattered.
    My last class was, unfortunately, math. I was spared Relena for that block, but not Zechs. He should have been taking the 8th grader mathematics course, but he had nearly failed math the previous year, so they had stuck him in the same class with us, and he was actually doing worse than me, which is saying something. I don't know if Zechs actually sucks at math or not. He was one of those kids Mrs. Kline had mentioned, someone who just didn't care about his grades. Usually he just barely skirted by, enough to graduate that year, but the older he got, the less that was true.
    I had been waiting eagerly for our sixth year to be over so that we could advance to the seventh grade and Zechs to the ninth. That meant that we would have two whole years of peace from him as he went to the high school, but he robbed that from us. That year, Zechs would fail three of his classes and his parents would be called in to talk to his teachers. Normally, failing more than two of your classes meant you were immediately held back, otherwise you were forced to take summer classes, but Zechs was a Dorlian. No one wanted to piss off his wealthy and powerful parents and I think that one of the big reasons why Zechs had slacked off that year was because he thought he was untouchable.
    Ironically, it was his own parents that Zechs hadn't accounted for. I could never blame them for how Zechs turned out, they were actually upstanding people that wanted the best for their kids. I mean, actually wanted the best, not just what a lot of parents thought was the best, catering to them and letting them get away with anything. When they had heard that Zechs had failed so many classes, and the principal had meekly suggested he go into remedial classes or do summer schooling, his father had put his foot down. According to the school gossip, which giving the circumstances I don't think is a lie, he had told the principal that Zechs was to retake the eighth grade until he got it right and learned how to play by the rules.
    It sounds like a great story, the school bully finally getting what was coming to him, but as much as I could respect his parents for making that decision, all it did was hurt us underclassmen. We had been cheated out of one whole year of freedom. If I hadn't known better, I would have thought that Zechs had done it on purpose.
    For me, Math was usually hell, but that period it was a thousand times worse. I was completely distracted trying to keep an eye on Zechs that I kept getting yelled at by our teacher for 'spacing out'. I was so sure that the older boy would do something horrible to me in the time that we were trapped in the same room with each other, and the fact that he never did made me more and more on edge. When the bell finally ran, I bolted from my seat and almost ran out of the room. I wasn't going to give him a chance to corner me. I walked as quickly as I could to find Quatre and get to the gymnasium as I could. I don't know why, how I could have been so stupid to think that neither Relena nor Zechs would try something in swim class, but I apparently was. I had thought that if I could at least get to the swimming pool without them catching us on the way there, it would be fine.
    Swim class had become mandatory for grades four through six about eight years ago when a boy had drowned at the town pool. He hadn't known how to swim, he had just fallen into the pool and sank like a stone. Even though most of the people in Nausten know how to swim because for a lot of us, our local beach is the only way to keep cool in the summer, the town kind of freaked out over it and decided that ALL of the kids would learn how to swim. Only, instead of introducing the program to the younger kids, they decided that fourth grade was the best time to start for some reason. Starting in the spring, we had swim class after school every Tuesday for four weeks. My dad had griped about having to sign off on it because it took me away from work for an hour and I had known how to swim since I was eight years old.
    I hated swim class because it didn't even get me away from Relena or Zechs for an hour. Relena obviously had to take the same class that we did and their parents had volunteered Zechs as a lifeguard's assistant for the class. I think they had hoped it might look good for him to do that or teach him some valuable lesson, hell if I know. All it did was make him more miserable to be around since he was stuck with us underclassmen instead of hanging out with the rest of his friends. All he did was the same thing he did at school, torment us or ignore us entirely. I'm sure if one of us did start to drown, he wouldn't give a shit.
    We had to walk to the local pool for our lessons, which wasn't that bad since it was just a ten minute walk from school, but since I was on red alert for any signs of Relena and Zechs, it felt like the longest walk in my life. I didn't feel much better in the boys' locker room, rushing to put on my swim trunks and take the shower we were required to take before we got into the water. Three showers seemed so gratuitous to me, but whatever, a hot shower was a hot shower. Zechs ignored me in the locker room, too, he didn't even glare at me or glance my way, but I didn't dare to think that my luck was changing.
    The first half of our class our teacher and lifeguard, which of course was Mr. Strum who couldn't bare to let anyone muscle in on his athletics territory, had us go through laps. Every class we had, we got taught a different technique. Last week was freestyle, this week was the butterfly stroke. I hadn't minded swim class in the fourth grade when it had all been techniques to not drown, but the more we took these classes the more I was under the suspicion that our teacher was just looking for volunteers to join the town's ever dwindling swim team. I liked the butterfly stroke a lot better than the back stroke when had learned our first week here this year. I hated that feeling of not knowing where I was going or if there was anything under me.
    The last half of our classes was always free swim. Quatre and I usually kept to one corner of the pool, just floating and talking while Mr. Strum occasionally snapped at us and everyone else that wasn't taking that time to do laps. We all just ignored him anyway. Once free swim started, Quatre and floated over to that corner and for a few minutes, we were left alone. It was the best I had felt all day. Then, Quatre glanced over my shoulder and paled. I felt my heart sink. Was it too much to hope that I would be left alone for an entire hour?
    "Beat it, Winner, fag and I need to have a little chat," Zechs said from behind me.
    Quatre flashed me a look and for a horrified moment I thought he would actually disobey Zechs. Quatre had told me not to fight back and because I hadn't, this was happening, and now he was thinking about going back on his own good advice, for what? It irritated me. I wanted to yell at him to pick his priorities, either stay out of it or help, stop being so wishy washy about it, but I knew that that rage wasn't directed at him and that to say something like that would be unfair. He wanted to help, I knew that, the same way I always did when I saw him being bullied. We were both helpless, I was just too stupid to accept it. Quatre always was the smart one.
    "Go, Quatre," I snapped at him and felt better when he did.
    That made Zechs chuckle.
    "At least someone here has brains," he jeered, "or maybe you don't. I thought we had an understanding here, Maxwell, and yet my sister tells me you've been a real pain in the ass. You make her feel unwanted, then you dump dirty water all over her. That wasn't very gentlemanly."
    I dared to glance over at his sister. She was on the other side of the pool, watching us intently but not moving towards us. She was going to stay out of it, and just watched with that superior expression.
    "You going to apologize, faggot," he asked with a bitingly cold tone, "or am I going to have to teach you another lesson about what happens to trash like you that think they're better than the rest of us?"
    I stayed silent, just looking at him. I had apologized for hurting his sister because I had actually been sorry. I knew that I should apologize for this, too, because Zechs was going to beat the shit out of me if I didn't, but I didn't feel sorry. Relena had deserved it and no matter how much I tried to force the words from my lips, I just couldn't muster an apology for some reason. Zechs didn't give me a choice. He grabbed my hair in the same exact spot he had this morning and twisted it again, sending familiar pain shooting through my scalp.
    More than pain, I felt weariness. I was tired of all of this, the bullying, the pain, the violence, and seeing my best friend, the most wonderful person I had ever met, cowed by this boy. I just wanted to go home and go to sleep and forget all of this. Zechs gave my hair another sharp tug.
    "Well?" he snarled at me.
    I was aware that some of the other kids were staring at us, but most purposefully weren't.
    "I'm sorry," I finally gasped out, "I'm sorry."
    He let go of my hair and I winced, my eyes watering.
    "That's better," he said coldly, "but we really need to do something about that attitude of yours. I don't really believe you are sorry, even if you say so," suddenly his entire expression brightened and that was worse somehow, "I know! Let's play a little game. The longer you can hold your breath, the more I'll believe you're not lying to me. If you can hold it a really, really long time, I'll be sure you're sincere and we won't have a problem. Yeah, let's try that."
    I tried to back away from him, dread settling in my gut, but he still had a strong grip on my hair. I barely had the time to take a deep breath before he shoved my head under the water. The water we were standing in wasn't deep, but he was incredibly strong, too strong for me to simply stand up and escape the water. I flailed in his grip, my fingers scratching desperately at the side of the pool for purchase, but it was useless.
    As my head was submerged in the water and I felt every frightened instinct to take a gasp of air that wasn't there, I flashed back to my first day in the fourth grade. Relena holding my head down in that urinal... unable to breathe, unable to do anything but what she wanted me to do. I hadn't felt this helpless since then and the realization that I had to put my entire life in the hands of a boy who didn't just hate me, but enjoyed hurting me, was terrifying. I cried in the water and scratched at his hand, but he didn't let go of my head. In his hands, I was nothing. I was less than nothing, and if I survived this, it would be because of a whim.
    Seconds ticked by, then minutes. My lungs burned and my chest ached. Worse, I felt dizzy and lightheaded and it was getting harder to remember where I was and why I couldn't breathe. Every try to hold your breath for a long time? Your brain knows it needs oxygen, it's all you can think about. Trying not to breathe in that water was the hardest thing I had ever had to do. I remember thinking 'I'm going to die', just like I had when I was nine. Only this time it really was my fault. What had I been thinking? Fighting back against these two... and in such petty ways. What was the point of it? They would win. In the end they would always win.     And just like that, what little fight I had left in me vanished. It died in the way that especially powerful dreams did when you finally realized they would never come true, it went clawing and screaming, the scars it made angry and bitter. As I started to see grey, all I could feel was rage. Rage against my father and Relena and Zechs for always winning. Rage against my mother and my teachers for not caring or being outright blind. Rage against Quatre for never fighting back, for just taking it like I had been stupid to do. But most of all, I felt rage against myself for being so weak.
    I finally took a breath and sucked in a huge mouthful of water. I don't know if I really had given up in that moment, if I had just not cared if I had drowned or not, or if I had just lost control over myself for a moment, but when I breathed water instead of air, my entire body panicked. My feet lashed out and met with the bottom of the pool and I suddenly found my head above water. Zechs had let me go. At some point, Zechs had stopped holding my head down and I hadn't even realized. And he had let me. He would have let me drown.
    My hands found the edge of the pool and I weakly pulled myself up. I gasped for breath and violently threw up water over and over. Each breath I took after that felt like I was breathing in fire instead of air. I had no strength left and started to sink back down into the water when someone wrapped their arms around me and kept me above the water.
    "Duo," I heard Quatre whisper and rest his forehead against mine.
    It was the most wonderful thing in the world, his skin against mine, his arms holding me as I shook, my body starting to realize that it really could breathe again. My best friend's blue-green eyes were red from crying. I glanced over at Mr. Strum and for a brief second, I caught his gaze. I wish I hadn't. He just as quickly looked away and began yelling at two girls that were splashing at each other. He had seen. They had all seen. And no one had done anything to stop him. For the first time that day, I let myself cry freely. It didn't matter. No one could tell the difference between my tears and the pool water.

*****

    Quatre and I didn't go out to dinner. Looking back now, I really wish that we had, and not just because it would be another pleasant memory of him before he left my life a year later, but because I think I really had needed it and it would have prevented everything that happened that late afternoon. But we didn't. I was tired and depressed and, above all else, angry, and having a nice dinner was far from my mind. Almost drowning to death had robbed me of my appetite anyway. We didn't talk about it, any of it, not even the drowning. I was ok with that and I was grateful that he didn't ask me if I was ok. It would have been a stupid question.
    I felt dejected and furious about everything. It was all I could do to not fall apart as I walked Quatre back to his house. He hugged me and said that he would see me tomorrow. I hugged him back, probably a bit too tightly. I didn't even feel happy that my school day was over, I just felt incredibly upset. I guess at that point I could have gone to the town park on my way home and just stayed there, maybe punched a tree or threw rocks in the pond until it was late enough to go home. I didn't forget that my parents thought I was at work, I just hadn't cared at that point. I guess I couldn't even call this day a bad one, or that I had zero luck. It was more like that day had been a string of shittier and shittier choices that I had made. Going home angry had been the worst one, even worse than standing up to Zechs.
    If I had made a worse mistake than that, it had been walking into the house brooding the way I was after seeing my dad's car out front. I didn't even care about that, either. He came home early sometimes and I certainly hadn't expected him to be there now, but it was all over my head. All I kept thinking about was my anger, not even about the worst things, but the rage I felt over the little things, too, like my grades in history. Was this how my dad feels all the time? It was not a good feeling.
    He was sitting at our kitchen table, flipping through what I assumed were bills. I didn't say hi to him. I was going to make a beeline for the fridge and see what we had left. We needed to get groceries, but we didn't have a lot of money right now. Dad's car had broken down a couple weeks ago and it had taken a hefty amount to fix, but it had been necessary. Every cent we had left that wasn't going to go to bills this month would have to go to food. I was supposed to go shopping tomorrow since I didn't have work. My parents were even out of alcohol, which was a lot more telling of our financial situation than us being out of food.
    "Aren't you supposed to be at work?" he growled at me, not even really paying attention.
    I was about to tell him the unfortunate truth, even knowing he would get pissy at me for it, when I saw the beer can in his hand. I froze, a nasty suspicion rising in my head. I strode over to the counter, each step bringing a new swell of anger in me as I tried to remember if Dad had saved a can or hid it some where, but I knew that he hadn't. My father was not the sort of man that would save alcohol for later. Which meant that the can was new.
    I looked in the jar we had on the counter where my mother would drop her tips after she came home. Right now those tips and what little my dad had left in his checking account was our grocery money. Sure enough, money was missing from the jar, money that had already been light.
    "I'm talking to you!" he snarled at me, rising from his chair and I just couldn't muster up the strength to care or even be afraid that he was probably preparing to unload on me.
    I could hear the tension in his voice, and given that he had been going through bills, he was already probably in a mood. And I couldn't care. I threw open the fridge and my hands curled into fists. There on the first shelf was a case of beer and a couple bottles of vodka and that was pretty much all we had in there beyond a couple of chinese food boxes that were a week past being eatable, a bottle of water, a bottle of ketchup and a bottle of mustard, and the remnants of the pizza Dad had brought home from work three days ago. I slammed the refrigerator door shut and I felt this tidal wave of anger like I had never felt before hit me.
    "Are you fucking kidding me?!" I yelled at him, "We needed that money to get food and you bought fucking beer with it?! Are you a moron?! Now we're going to run out of food before you or mom gets paid again just so you can get drunk!"
    I think at this point, deep in my head, there was a red warning light going off, telling me just how deeply I had fucked up. I heard Quatre's voice in my head asking me what I was doing and I don't know. I don't know why I snapped at that moment, if it was just the straw that had broke my back, or if I had been so depressed I had wanted my father to strike me. If that had been the case, I should have just lied and said I skipped work or dropped a dish on the floor. Even when I saw my father grab an empty vodka bottle from our recycling bin by the fridge, I didn't run and just by the amount of rage that was in my father's face, I should have.
    He struck me with it across my face. It made a dull 'thwack' sound as it hit me and by some miracle, it didn't break on my cheek.
    "Who the fuck do you think you are that you can talk to your father that way?!" he roared at me and hit me with it again, this time on my back, between my shoulders.
    This time the bottle did break and I felt glass puncture my skin. I cried out in shock and fell to the floor more from surprise at the pure power behind the blow than from the pain itself.
    "I work for my money, you pathetic little shit, and if I want to buy some fucking beer so I can have a goddamn drink when I come home, how is that any of your business?!" my father punctuated almost every word with another hit from the bottle.
    I could feel the shards to glass dig into my skin with every strike. My arms, my shoulders, a few even buried themselves into my side. Blood soaked my shirt. It wasn't as bad as getting cut by a sharp knife or stabbed, but it stung like nothing else and the cuts were numerous. Still, I did nothing to defend myself, even as I cried from the attack. By the time he stopped and threw the bottle, or what was left of it, down in front of me, I was nearly laying on the floor, blood smeared over my arms and shirt, a small puddle of it on the floor.
    "Clean that up and you can walk yourself to the damn clinic," he snarled as he tossed his empty can of beer into the recycling box and picked out another from the fridge, then strode into the living room to watch some television.
    My body shook as I crouched there on the kitchen floor surrounded by blood and shards of glass, but it wasn't from pain. I could feel tears streaming down my face and before I could stop it, I was sobbing. I don't know how long it took for it to stop, but it felt like a long time. I started to stand up and gasped in pain as the shards that were embedded in my skin grated and dug themselves further in. I felt like I was going to throw up. I rubbed at my wet cheeks and only managed to smear blood over them. I sat there, lost as to what I was going to do. I probably would have stayed there for a long time, maybe until I passed out, if there hadn't been glass all over the floor.
    Without standing, I grabbed the trash barrel near where I had fallen and began picking up the shards, one at a time, and throwing them in the barrel. I told myself that I was doing it this way because it just hurt too much to stand up and find the broom and dust pan, but that was a lie. I did it because I deserved it. Every one of those shards, I had deserved to be dug under my skin, to make me bleed. I had deserved every hit, ever screamed word, and I wanted to hurt myself more. And if one of those shards cut my fingers, I deserved that, too. You can call it feeling sorry for myself if you want, and that's close to the truth. The depression I felt was like a cloak made of iron draped over me. All I could was cry and think about how it was all my fault to begin with. I felt pathetic.
    Eventually I picked myself off the floor and cleaned up the blood with our mop and some kitchen tiles. I probably hadn't done a very good job of it, but it was hard just standing. I put my back pack in my bedroom and took out my health insurance card. As I did I realized I didn't have a dime to spend on the co-pay and hoped that they wouldn't turn me away. I was covered in blood and glass, they really couldn't refuse to help me, could they? It was that or try to pick all the glass out of me myself and the mere thought of that almost had me heave. I certainly didn't have enough money for the bus, either, and I didn't even think they would let me on bleeding the way I was. I nearly collapsed again, just out of the hopelessness of it. I didn't even stop to ask myself why I wasn't angry at my father for doing that to me. I think that after everything that had happened that day, I was numb.
    The pain was getting worse as my shock started to ease off, but I didn't feel any hurry to leave. I wasn't looking forward to the long walk to the clinic. I could go to the free clinic that was near where I lived, but even in my condition they wouldn't see me right away and I just didn't want to go through with that. I'd have to go to the hospital in the town center, the walk would be longer but I'd get better service and they might let me stay there awhile instead of kicking me out for the room. I took the time to put on a jacket. It wasn't cold out, but I didn't want people to see my blood stained clothes. I couldn't do anything about my jeans, but my shirt was the worst. Priorities, right?
    I didn't see either of my parents as I left the house and began my long journey. Everything flowed right over my head, other people on the street, my pain, even my tears. What pride I had seemed gone for good. At that point, I was fully expecting to be hit by a car or something. No one really stopped me on the street to ask me if I was ok. It was almost six and everyone else but me was more concerned with leaving work to go home and get dinner. My concerns about our grocery money were a mile away.
    I got halfway to the hospital when the pain finally started to get to me and I had to sit down. I found this nice bench outside a video store to sit on and almost blacked out right there. I looked down at my hands. There were a few cuts on them, none of them serious, and they weren't bleeding very badly anymore. None of the blood had seeped through my jacket yet, which was a good sign, but I was more worried about the glass in me. I think I must have dozed off a little, because I just remember blinking and seeing Quatre suddenly in front of me, like I had summoned him telepathically in my moment of need. He looked absolutely horrified as he took in what damage he could see. I was incredibly glad that I had put my jacket on. He couldn't see the glass.
    "Oh my god, Duo, what happened," he said as he kneeled there in the grass, taking my hands in his.
    It was then that I realized just how cold my hands were and I remembered the blood smeared across my cheeks.
    "I need to go to the hospital," I simply said, feeling myself start to shake again, the feeling of the glass in me now that I was a bit more clear headed was horrible.
    "Do you want me to call an ambulance?" Quatre asked, his voice starting to rise with panic.
    I shook my head.
    "No, but I'm bleeding and I have glass stuck in my skin," I admitted.
    I didn't tell him much glass I had embedded in my skin, but he still paled.
    "C'mon," he urged, helping me off the bench, "we can catch a bus."
    He didn't ask me what happened or just how badly I was hurt, just put a hand against my back and kept me walking.
    "Thanks, Quatre," I said meekly, not telling that his hand was on one of my puncture wounds.
    "Don't mention it," he said with a half hearted smile.
    The bus stop wasn't far from where I had collapsed, thankfully, and I managed to stay awake the rest of the trip. Quite a few people on the bus stared at me and I rubbed at the blood smeared on my cheek self consciously, but at least I didn't have to have Quatre drag me the rest of the way. The bus stopped right at the hospital and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Even if they made me wait awhile, Quatre was with me. I could get past this like I had every other thing life had thrown at me.
    When we got to the reception desk to check in, while I was about to flash my insurance card and ask if I needed to go to the emergency room or urgent care or some other place, Quatre flashed his instead.
    "Can you please tell Dr. Williams that Quatre Winner is here to see him, it's an emergency," he told the woman at the receptions desk.
    She wrote down his name and he lead me away to the elevator.
    "I have health insurance," I started to protest.
    I didn't bother to tell him that it was pretty shitty health insurance and I couldn't even afford my co-pay right now, but he just shook his head.
    "Mr. Williams is our family's doctor. He'll see us right away and be discrete."
    "You're going to make your parents pay for it?" I asked incredulously.
    "It's fine, Duo," he soothed, "Let me do this for you, ok?"
    I sighed in defeat. I was too tired to argue with him and I just wanted this nightmare over with.
    "What were you doing out there anyway?" I asked him as we got off at the third floor which read 'family practice' on the directory sheet.
    "My parents changed our alarm code," he murmured, blushing, "They forgot to tell me about it, so I couldn't get into my house. I was just wandering around until one of my sisters got home."
    As much as I was hurting, as angry and depressed as I was about everything, I ached for him. That one statement said a lot. His parents hadn't forgotten to tell him the pass code. They had forgotten him. If he hadn't been out there, I don't know what would have happened to me. He was always taking care of me and it seemed like I could never do a single thing to help him. I stopped in the middle of the hallway and hugged him tightly. It hurt like hell, but I didn't care right then. He hugged me back and it made me feel a little better.
    I didn't volunteer what had happened to me. I didn't see the point. The second Quatre saw my injuries, he would piece together the truth himself and it would only upset him. He wouldn't understand that it was my fault and it wasn't any worse than any other beatings my father had given me, I had had a lot worse. He wouldn't even understand that, if this had happened on any other day, I might have been able to handle it on my own. He would see the glass and the blood and the cuts and he would freak out. We had never talked about my father's abuse, but that had never stopped Quatre from looking sad and upset about the wounds I got.
    We walked into another reception area and I looked at the chairs like a dog might look at a steak. I hurt. I can't put it more plainly than that. My body was fully aware, even as I tried to ignore it, that there were things in it that did not belong and I was practically itching to get them out. Since I couldn't do that, the feeling of it was wigging me out, kind of like I was going in and out of shock. Being upright was not what I or my body wanted right then.
    "Quatre Winner" my friend told the receptionist who smiled warmly at him.
    "Yes, Dr. Williams said you'd be right up," she said, typing on the computer, "he said to go right in to examination room 3. He'll be a little late, though. You're lucky, he was almost on this way out the door."
    "Thanks, Gail," Quatre said with a beaming smile and gestured to me.
    "Do you come here a lot?" I asked him as we took the door next to the reception desk and walked down the hallway.
    Quatre had seemed really friendly with the receptionist, like he knew her well, and he had gotten an appointment with his doctor mere minutes after showing up out of the blue. I knew that Quatre's family was rich, but even this was a bit much.
    "Not really," he turned that smile on me, "but the staff here knows my family well. We all go here, including all six of my sisters, one of my uncles works in radiology and my parents donate a lot and throw a lot of charities for this hospital, so we get a lot of personalized service."
    I almost shook my head in amazement at that. It must be nice to be loaded and to get care whenever you wanted. If I had gone to urgent care, I would have been waiting for an hour at least, even this late at night. The two of us walked into the third examination room and I sat up on the table in relief. I was so glad that my dad hadn't hit me on my legs. I felt dizzy enough thought that even if he had, I still would have sat down.
    I glanced at myself in the reflection of the cabinets that held innumerous medical supplies and realized the reason why people had been starting at me had not been because of the blood on my cheek, which was just a faint smear, but the huge, black bruise that arched over my cheek, missing my eye by mere inches. The bruise from Zechs slamming my head against the locker had merged beautifully with the much darker one from my dad striking me with the vodka bottle. My eyes were still a little red from crying and the pepper and I could see the scratch on the opposite side of my face from Relena's nails. I looked like I had been in a truly epic fight, and I guess that I had. Fuck, had all that really happened today? Relena kissing me felt like it had happened a week ago.
    "Won't your parents be mad?" I blurted out, "Using your health insurance card for this?"
    "Don't worry about it," he assured me, "My parents don't really look at their bills that closely. They just pay whatever amount it says and the same thing goes for their health insurance summaries. It's not something they really worry about. They won't even notice," he paused for a moment.
    I almost sighed. It really must be nice. My dad scrutinized every bill like if he studied them for long enough, a number might change. It never did.
    "Are you in a lot of pain?" Quatre suddenly asked me.
    I thought about lying to him to placate his worry, but I nodded.
    "A bit," I admitted and I could see that trying not to ask me what had happened was just killing him, but I appreciated his self control.
    Someone knocked on the door and Quatre told them to come in. Dr. Williams was a short, middle aged man wearing a typical white coat and carrying a laptop. When the receptionist had said that he would be a little late, I had thought she had meant an hour, not twenty minutes.
    "Now, Quatre," he said as he put his laptop down on the counter and opened it to what I presumed was Quatre's medical history, "what's the big emergency?"
    "Actually, Doctor," my friend actually managed to sound contrite, "my friend is the one that needs care, not me."
    Dr. Williams noticed me for the first time and eyed me suspiciously before regarding Quatre not with anger or frustration, but with just reluctance. I guess he was well aware who signed his paychecks, even if Quatre was just a kid.
    "Quatre, you know full well that you can't use-"
    "I know, I know," Quatre tried to placate him, "But Duo really needs help and you're the best doctor I know. I'll pay out of pocket if you're worried about my parents."
    I stared at him in shock but Dr. Williams sighed and shook his head.
    "That won't be necessary," he said and turned back to me," What is the problem?"
    I was surprised that he didn't talk down to me as Quatre's obviously broke friend, but his tone was the same as when he had talked to my friend, both casual and respectful. Maybe he figured Quatre would be pissed if he was abrasive with me, or maybe he was one of those rare doctors that actually cared about treating people.
    "I- I have some glass... stuck in my skin," I said as I struggled to take off my jacket.
    It was a lot harder and more painful trying to get it off than it had been putting it on. My arms felt stiff and my hands, not wanting to cooperate, were still shaky. With a sad look in his eye, Quatre jumped off of his chair to help me, but the second it was off, he turned pale and horrified. Even the doctor seemed put off by my appearance. My arms were nothing but a mess of black bruises, cuts, puncture wounds, and faint smears of blood. There were cuts in the shoulders, back and left side of my t-shirt and I'm sure I was badly bruised those places, too. Honestly, it looked worse than it was. It was the bruises, not the cuts, that were hurting the worst at that point, although the cuts stung like hell. My father had focused on hitting me with the bits of the bottle that had remained intact. If he had been more concerned with hitting with the broken end, I would have gone to the emergency room in an ambulance, but I didn't expect Quatre to accept that argument.
    "Oh, god, Duo," he gasped, "why didn't you tell me?"
    I couldn't look at those sad, frantic eyes or I knew I would blurt out the truth, so I focused on Dr. Williams instead.
    "I was making dinner but I wasn't paying attention to what I was doing," I lamented, "I tripped and fell on our box of recyclables. There were all these glass bottles. I probably could have picked out all the glass myself, but I was scared and my parents weren't home, so I didn't know what to do."
    I had seen my dad lie about my injuries a thousand times, but it still shocked me how easily the lie came out of me. I watched as the doctor stared at my cuts, the shards of glass sticking out of me in some places, and the bruise on my face and I knew he didn't believe my story for a second. I knew Quatre sure as hell didn't. But to my vast relief, neither of them voiced the conclusion they had both come to.
    "It's just as well that you didn't," Williams said, still looking at my wounds, "You might have hurt yourself further pulling these bigger ones out,"
    Clearly deciding to just treat me instead of question me about the incident, Williams bustled about the room, gathering this and that. I watched him with paranoia. Even though I was no stranger to hospitals and doctors visits, I still hated them, especially shots. The doctor put a variety of bandages, cotton swabs, a bottle of some kind of fluid, tongs, scissors, and a petri dish on the tiny table next to where I was sitting. All of it made me nervous.
    "Is it going to hurt?" I asked childishly.
    "Taking the glass out is going to hurt considerably less than it did going in," Williams promised, "It will hurt a little, but you'll feel much better afterwards. I'd give you a painkiller but it's too wide of an area for a shot. This," he pointed to the bottle of liquid, "I'll put over the wounds after I get the glass out, it's an antiseptic and very mild painkiller."
    "Ok," I said, secretly very happy he wasn't going to give me a shot. I'd rather the pain, honestly.
    I flinched as he picked up the scissors and he noticed it.
    "I need to cut your shirt off to get at your other wounds," he explained.
    "But I can just take it off," I started to protest. I didn't know how to say that it was one of my only shirts, and even though it was all cut up now, I could sew it and clean it, without feeling pathetic about it.
    "Duo, I will buy you another shirt," Quatre huffed in frustration, looking slightly angry as he looked at the damage on my arms, I knew he was going to be down right furious when he saw the rest of it, "I know it hurt taking your jacket off, it's going to be worse getting your shirt off."
    I sighed heavily, but I let the doctor cut my shirt off of me. Just like I had predicted, when Quatre saw the wounds on my back, shoulders, and side, his face twisted in an anger that was totally out of character for him. If either of them had had a single doubt that my story wasn't true, they sure did now. With all the areas that the glass was stuck in, it was more likely that I had rolled in the shattered glass than fallen on it. I felt calm as Quatre's doctor picked up the tongs, but I had to squeeze my eyes shut as he pulled the first shard of glass, one of the big ones in my left arm, out of my flesh.
    It did hurt, but it wasn't pain or how much it stung. It was that feeling of it being pulled out of me. It made me feel dizzy, even that 'plink' sound as the shard was dropped into the Petri dish made me want to hurl. And that was just one of the shards. When he plucked another one out of me, I squeezed my eyes shut harder and curled my hands into fists. If I had been alone, I would have cried. I felt all of my anger and fears and anxieties from that entire day boil in me and I hated my father then, truly hated him.
    I opened my eyes as I felt Quatre hold my hand. All traces of anger were gone from his face. All I could see there was my friend who loved me and worried about me. I felt a deep love for him and also a deep sadness. I wanted to go to my parents and scream at them, 'is it really so hard?! Would it kill you to sit with me and hold my hand when I'm scared and in pain?! That's all I want, all I need!' But my parents weren't there, just Quatre.
    "It's ok, Duo," he soothed, Everything's going to be ok. You can squeeze my hand if you want to, as hard as you need."
    I did. A few times I probably squeezed his hand too much, but as small a thing as it was, it actually did help. By the time Dr. Williams got the last, tiny sliver of glass out of me, it was hours later and we were all tired. I was trembling from the experience and half asleep as I leaned against Quatre. The ones in my back had taken the most out of me and I felt incredibly relieved they were gone.
    "There, that's the last one," the doctor said and I was amazed when he smiled at me.
    I had expected him to be annoyed to be working so late because of someone that wasn't even his patient, but if he was he didn't show it.
    "Thank you so much, Dr. Williams," I said earnestly but tiredly.
    He chuckled.
    "Well, we're not quite done yet," he pointed out, "I still need to get all this blood off of you and dress all these cuts. The worse ones will scar but none of them are deep enough to require stitches at least."    
    Thankfully, the doctor went quickly getting the blood off, covering my cuts with the antiseptic and bandaging them. The antiseptic burned like nothing else but it was still better than the feeling of the glass being pulled out, shard by shard. I looked like a war victim, especially my arms, but I felt mostly human again and less like a pin cushion full of shrapnel.
    "Doctor, I know you don't work at urgent care or the emergency room, but would it be alright if we got a room?" Quatre asked, surprising both me and the doctor, "Just for a couple hours. Both of our parents won't be home until late, and I would feel better if Duo laid down for a little while before I walked him back home."
    "That's not necessary," I protested, "I can make it back home ok."
    "It is necessary," Quatre refuted, his voice still and very adult all of a sudden.
    Our eyes met and I flushed a little. He knew my father had done this, and he knew that I was scared to go back home. I had tried my hardest not to let him see that, but somehow he had. Quatre was always so practical, and any practical person would have told me that hiding out in the hospital for an hour wasn't going to matter. I was going to have to go home and face my father eventually. But Quatre was actually going to help me to do just that.
    Williams glanced at me and I must have looked like absolute shit because he nodded.
    "I'll see if urgent care has any rooms available and get you some samples of antibiotic cream. You're going to need to apply it to your wounds twice a day. I expect you back here if any of them get infected," he lectured me and then bustled out.
    "I sure hope you give him a tip or something for this," I muttered.
    "Dr. Williams isn't just the family doctor," Quatre confessed with a soft smile, "he's an old family friend. He's also a very kind man. He volunteers at the free clinic a lot, so I don't think he minded that much."
    "You're sure he won't get in trouble for this? Or you?" I prodded, suddenly feeling very guilty, "using your health insurance to help someone they've never met. I mean, isn't health insurance fraud illegal or something?"
    "It's like I said," Quatre's all too familiar sad smile returned and I regretted bringing it up at all, "my parents won't even notice, like everything else when it comes to me. Even if they do notice that there's another hospital visit on their insurance, I'll just lie about it. They won't pry further and Dr. Williams is smart enough not to mention it. It'll be fine, Duo."
    I dropped the subject, not because I accepted his answer but because I knew it was upsetting him. I felt like the worst friend in the world. He had helped me when I had been hurt and had no one to turn to, but I kept reminding him that all he had to go to home to was a quiet house. At last one of his sisters were home by now, but none of them wanted to talk to their baby brother when they had friends, boyfriends, homework and whatever else teenage girls worry about. It was nine at night. His parents should be home, worried sick wondering where their son was, but they were still at work. They didn't even call the house to check up on him. My own family was nothing to look at, and it was what had landed us here, but it still made me sad.
    "I'm just glad I was able to help. I really wish you'd let me buy you a cell phone. I could have gotten you to the hospital sooner. Anything could have happened when you were passed out on that park bench! You don't have to do everything on your own all the time, ok?"
    It wasn't his intention, but Quatre's kind words were daggers of guilt piercing my heart. It wasn't just that I felt guilty that I had relief so much on Quatre to help me, or that I felt I had taken advantage of his family's wealth even though I hadn't asked him to do any of this. I didn't even feel that guilty knowing that he was right, I had a huge problem relying on other people and even if I had a cell phone, I still wouldn't have called him for help. That I could ask my best friend to help me when I had been hurt and bleeding from more than just physical wounds hadn't occurred to me. I had immediately thought that I would somehow get to the hospital all under my own power.
    It was just... what had I ever done to deserve a friend like Quatre? I felt so worthless all the time. I wasn't just a carbon copy kid from the south end, I was worse. Being bullied and being abused had shown me how out of place I was, how all I had to offer anyone was my services as a punching bag and the more I fought against that, the worse things got. I didn't deserve Quatre. He was kind and smart and wealthy. Next to him, I was a bug. Relena and Zechs understood that, so why couldn't he? Why did he like me? Why did he worry about me? Why couldn't he see that he was the one that didn't deserve to be bullied and be the one to fight? What right did I have to try to struggle against my situation when he wouldn't? It just made that bitterness and anger in me, both from my desperate need and inability to protect him, swell up to mammoth proportions.
    Dr. Williams returned with the promised ointment and news that there was a bed available, but lectured us not to stay for long or our parents would be worried about that. In my head, I laughed . He was even nice enough to escort us to urgent care after Quatre helped me into my jacket so I wouldn't be walking around the hospital shirtless. As we were ushered into the room, which was just a single bed, we were given privacy although the nurse that showed us the room eyed Quatre and I curiously.
    "You can go home, you know," I said to Quatre as I sat down on the edge of the bed and looked around at all the complicated medical equipment, "Your sisters are home by now and it's getting late."
    Quatre pointedly closed the door and snorted at what I had said.
    "I'm not leaving you here to walk home in the dark. You're probably still woozy anyway," he said and sat down in the chair by the hospital bed.
    "I'm fine," I insisted, "I'm just going to sit around for a little bit then go home. You don't need to baby sit me."
    "I'm staying," he said in that authoritative way he used every now and then, especially when I was being stubborn, like an adult talking to a child, and then he spoke in a very soft mutter, "I'd much rather stay with you than go home."
    I didn't know whether to feel very sad at that confession or very happy.
    "Lay down, Duo," he gained that adult voice back, the voice of his father.
    "I'm not tired-" I lied.
    "Lay down."
    I huffed, but did so. There was just no arguing with him when he got this notion that something was good for me, even if I didn't want to do it, like him buying my school lunches.
    I blacked out. There's no other way of saying it. The very second my head hit that pillow, I was gone. I was horizontal for the first time since early that morning without a blow being involved and my very, very long day had finally caught up with me. When I opened my eyes, the room was dark and I had trouble figuring out where I was and when. There was enough of a glow from the medical equipment for me to see Quatre. He was still there, sitting in the chair, and was watching me. It made me feel odd that he had been watching me sleep, but his face was drawn and tired and I didn't think he had been watching me so much as spacing out, deep in thought.
    He must have turned the light off when I had fallen asleep. That annoyed me a bit. He knew that I hadn't wanted to stay here long and should have woken me up so he could go home, but he had turned off the light so I would sleep longer.
    I sat up in bed and winced. I had been sleeping long enough for my bruises to turn from discomfort to severe ache and stiffness. My cuts didn't hurt as badly anymore, but that just made my bruises feel worse.
    "What time is it?" I asked Quatre.
    He got up, turned the light back on, and sat down again. He looked so tired and small in the bright hospital lighting, like a soldier waiting to be relieved. His expression was tight with anxiety and, for some reason, anger.
    "12:03," he finally replied.
    I stared at him with wide eyes.
    "Twelve-," I sputtered, "Quatre, why didn't you wake me up?! Your parents have got to be home by now! They must be worried sick!"
    "My cell phone hasn't rung at all," he said with an eerie calmness, "I haven't even gotten any texts from my sisters, either," he seemed strangely all right with the fact that no one in his family had realized he hadn't come home from school yet, "besides, you looked like you were sleeping really deeply, I didn't want to wake you up. I figured you'd sleep better here than at home."
    I didn't tell him that he was right and sleeping in that hospital bed had been the best sleep I'd had since my father had spent two whole days out on a stakeout a few months ago. It took two people to scream at all hours of the night and morning. My house had been as quiet as a tomb with just my mother there.
    "Will your father be angry at you?" he asked, but even the tone of his voice told me he knew the answer of that question.
    I doubted that he would have let me sleep this long if he thought my father would punish me for it. His perceptiveness was creepy sometimes. He knew I wouldn't be in trouble and he knew my father was the one I was scared of, not my mother. And there was that look on his face again, an out of character expression, pensive and angry. I couldn't figure out what was bothering him so much. It wasn't his parents, that look had been slipping on and off of his face ever since the doctor had treated my wounds.
    "Probably not," I admitted, "He doesn't care that much about what I do or where I am unless he needs me for something. I really pissed him off tonight, so the longer I stay away from him, the less upset he'll be. We don't fight that much, but when we do it takes him a long time to cool off."    
    For some reason, that only seemed to make my friend more upset. He stared at me, his eyes both stormy and like stone. When he finally spoke, that authoritative tone was back but it was tinged with anger and frustration now.
    "I want you to tell someone about your dad, Duo," he said, his arms crossed over his chest defensively.
    I opened my mouth to protest. He didn't understand, not at all! This was my father. How could I tell on him? And even if I did, he was a cop, he would never get into trouble. I didn't want him to go to jail, I just wanted him to stop hitting me all the time. But when he strikes me, it's out of anger, because of stress over his job or Mom or our finances, or it's because I did something bad or stupid, like telling him not to drink so much. Quatre just didn't understand that.
    "Look at you," he snapped, "He's going to kill you sooner or later!"
    I don't know why, but at that moment all of the rage that I had felt that entire day exploded in me, like hot water through a cracking dam and nothing I did, no matter how much I tried to temper it, it wouldn't be stopped. Maybe it had been hearing Quatre say my father was going to kill me. He wouldn't do that, he loved me, I had thought back then. But some part of me had known, had feared that very thing. Hearing my fear come from my wise and unbiased friend was the last thing that I had wanted.
    Maybe it was because, with that one statement, Quatre had destroyed our unspoken agreement not to talk about it just as surely as he had destroyed the denial I had spent twelve years erecting and put another huge dent in the armor around the fears and worst of the darkness in me, the armor that I called my father's love for me. Or maybe it had just been hearing him say I should tell someone. Quatre , the same person that had told me never to fight against Relena and Zechs because it would only make things worse, was telling me to fight against the man that had bullied me my entire life. Relena and Zechs had always gone after him worse, so what I said to him then was inexcusable, but at the same time I couldn't understand it. Relena and Zechs were nothing compared to my father. Why couldn't Quatre get that?!
    I opened my mouth again and my father's voice came pouring out.
    "Just like you've tried to stop Relena and Zechs?" I said to him coldly, my voice twisted into something ugly, full of spite and anger and all of it was directed at the only friend I had ever had.
    I didn't even recognize my own voice, my own tone. I had become the one thing I had begun to fear I would one day become.
    My words stripped that maturity from Quatre and he fell silent, his confidence and surety gone. He looked like a small defeated child.

*****    

    I never should have said that to him. I had known how much Relena and Zechs tormented him, how it wore on him and he struggled with knowing he could do a single thing to fight back against them. I had no business rubbing his face in it. I let my anger, which had absolutely nothing to do with my best friend, overwhelm me and control me. I let it hurt someone I deeply cared about, just like my father. I will never forgive myself for saying those cruel things to him, when all he had tried to do was help me.
    I wish I could write here that that was the end for us. Quatre finally woke up and saw what a shitty friend I really was and finally dumped me. He got a better friend, someone who appreciated him and could protect him. I wish I could write those things because it's exactly what he, and I, deserved. But I can't because that isn't what happened. We didn't talk about any of it after that, not my father's abuse or the horrible thing I had said. I walked him home in complete silence, too ashamed of myself and scared of what else my rage might make me say to speak. I didn't even have the guts to apologize to him for it. But the next day it was like none of it had happened. We just kept going like we always had.
    I should have been a better friend to him. Maybe if I had, he would have gotten the strength to stay, or maybe it had been inevitable, I don't know. All I know is that I treated the one good thing in my life like shit. I got so wrapped up in my own pain, I never saw how deep his ran and goddamit, I should have! If I could do it all over again, I'd tell him how sorry I am, how I never deserved him and how much I love him. But I can't. The best thing in my life and I couldn't keep it. Now I have nothing, and that's exactly what I deserve.
    I miss him. I miss him so much and it won't stop hurting. I keep praying to God, something I've never done in my entire life, for Quatre to come back, but he never does. He's never going to come back home. Nothing helps. Not even this fucking journal. Mrs. Khushrenada gave me this stupid thing and said it would help with the pain. Well it hasn't! Nothing is going to help, all it does is remind me of what a fuck up I am and how I don't deserve to have people like Quatre in my life!
    Fuck this journal. Fuck Mrs. Khushrenada, fuck Quatre's stupid family. Fuck my parents. Fuck Relena and fuck Zechs and fuck this whole town.
    I'm done. I don't want to talk about this anymore.


End Chapter 2

Author's note: Ugh, that was draining. Now I'm off to start chapter 3, thanks for reading ^_^



Chapter Text

A Stagnation of Love
Chapter 3
Part 1


April 3, 2004


    I almost threw this out. I don't know why I didn't. I had no intention of writing in it anymore or even glancing at what I had written. I just wanted to forget everything, not relive it. But not even a week past since I shoved this journal in my secret place under the floor and I haven't looked at it since, before Mrs. Khushrenada demanded I write about what happened. I swear the woman is psychic, she knew I had stopped writing even though she had never seen my journal.
    I punched Zechs today. I was walking out of my english class and he was there with the boys he was friendly with, or as close as a guy like him can get. He was talking about Quatre, saying these terrible and lewd things about him. Quatre isn't even around anymore and he still goes after him. It was a sucker punch, he didn't even see me before my fist connected with his face, but the way I see it, fair fighting doesn't amount to shit when your opponent is over a foot taller than you and never fights fair himself. I felt this intense satisfaction to see that smug face twist in pain. He even bit his tongue hard enough to bleed, which was a cherry on top of the whole thing. I would have hit him again while he had been stunned if a nearby teacher hadn't seen and pulled me away from him. It was also the only thing that saved me from a truly epic beating from Zechs and his friends.
    The two of us got sent to the principal's office. Our parents were called. Zechs's mother and father showed up in record time and mine didn't show up at all. I didn't expect them to. It was in the middle of the day, they were both at work and weren't going to cut out early for my sake. The principal called Mrs. Khushrenada in from her classes. She had bounced around from class to class since I had met her in the fourth grade and she had somehow ended up as my homeroom teacher again this year. I guess the principal thought it was unfair having Zechs's folks there and not have an adult to speak for me or some shit.
    To be fair, Mrs. Khushrenada did a bang up job of it, better than my own parents would have. I should have been at least suspended for striking a fellow student on school property. Mrs. and Mr. Dorlian were furious over the whole thing and there was some brief talk about expulsion, something that had been brought up by the principal to appease the Dorlians, but Mrs. Khushrenada was having none of it. She pulled out all the water works on my behalf, but as soon as she mentioned I had been friends with Quatre, Zechs's parents had shared a sympathetic look and had dropped any mention of expulsion. I was angry that Mrs. Khushrenada had brought Quatre up, like the absence of my best friend in my life was some kind of get out of jail free card, but there was nothing I could do about it.
    The Dorlians even asked the principal not to suspend me when Mrs. Khushrenada vowed to get me into counseling, especially when she told them I had been having a hard time dealing with what had happened. Zechs had been suitably pissed that I had essentially gotten away with sneak attacking him, but I felt a small sense of justice. In the face of everything, it was pretty pointless, but how many times had he gotten away with going after Quatre or myself? It was time he knew what that felt like, even if it didn't end up changing anything.
    I was honestly surprised his parents had been that understanding, even without knowing exactly why I had punched their son, but they seemed like the sort whom sympathy and empathy came very naturally. Too bad they hadn't passed that trait to their kids. I could have told them what Relena and Zechs had done to Quatre, but what would be the point? It wasn't enough to make Quatre come back.
    The principal had given me a choice: go to detention for a month and be suspended for two days or go to counseling. I didn't have to be a genius to know the kind of deal I was being offered and how lucky I was. I don't want to see the school guidance councilor, but my father would have been furious if I got suspended and detention. Mrs. Khushrenada had tacked on an additional clause to the deal. I had to start writing in my journal again and I had to talk about what had happened a month ago.
    So here I am again. She thinks this will help me and I still think it's a load of shit, but it beats detention and it'll keep her off my back. She still promised me no one will read it, so I guess I could just lie, but I just know she'll see through that. She's just as perceptive as Quatre was.
    Where do I start? Just what the hell am I supposed to write? Every time I think about it, my mind goes blank. How can I possibly put how I've felt this last month into words? It seems impossible. And every time I try to write about it, I feel like I'm betraying him all over again. Starting from the day it happened wouldn't be fair because it really didn't start then. Technically, it started the first day Relena and Zechs picked on Quatre, but specifically, it started on my thirteenth birthday and it started because of me. Me and a boy named Trowa Barton.
    I woke up late for school. Most of the time, my biological clock is perfect, I don't typically need an alarm clock because I almost always seem to wake up exactly when I need to. That day had not been one of those times. I had stayed up late studying for a basic chemistry test and I was fighting off the tail end of a cold I had had earlier than week. I had been so tired and heavy headed that even my parents' fighting hadn't roused me. I was just late enough waking up that I had to skip breakfast. A terrific start to another shitty day. Usually Quatre and I met in front of the town hall, but chem was both of our first periods and knowing Quatre, he had gotten early start to study a bit more before class. He always was smarter than me.
    Sure enough, I found my best friend at his locker. I had run fast enough to have made it to school before the period one bell had rung at least. My friend was starting intently at his locker, his blue-green eyes cloudy with anxiety, hurt, and repulsion and he was clutching his books tightly to his chest.
    "Hi, Quatre," I greeted and was rewarded with his usual bright smile, but there were still shadows of emotions I didn't like on his face, "what's wrong?" I asked before he could greet me and try to distract me from whatever was obviously bothering him.
    "What? It's nothing," he said, but his eyes very briefly glanced at his locker.
    I raised an eyebrow at him. We had been friends for nearly four years and saw each other almost every single day, I knew the difference between one of his insignificant anxieties and when it was something bigger. And Quatre was well aware of how stubborn I could be. He sighed and opened his locker. Looking inside, at first I thought it was mud that had been smeared and caked all over the walls and on the inside of the door. Relena and Zechs had done that before to both of us. Last summer Zechs had used honey and peanut butter. I had opened my locker to a sea of ants. I still get grossed out thinking about it. I hadn't used my locker since until this spring. Mud was a juvenile trick for them, especially Zechs, but then I got a whiff of Quatre's locker and took several staggering steps back.
    "Ugh! That's foul!" I exclaimed and held my nose in van to ward off the pungent stench of dog shit, or at least that's what I really, really, really hoped it was.
    Quatre closed his locker again in a hurry, and I was very grateful.
    "That's extreme, even for them," I muttered.
    Those might have been my words, but I honestly wasn't that surprised. Lately, Relena and Zechs's stupid pranks and bullying had gotten worse, more hateful.
    "I'm sorry," I murmured, guilt filling me with every moment I smelled that horrible aroma, "I'm so sorry, Quatre."
    "This isn't your fault," he insisted.
    "Yes it is."
    I knew full well that this wasn't an attack against Quatre. It had been against me.
    Ever since the day Relena had kissed me and I had not only rejected her, I had shown her that I was repulsed by her, her and her brother's bullying had escalated. The tactics they had used at first that I had been so stressed over; putting a tack in my shoe, beating me up, now seemed almost playful and harmless. At first they had nearly stopped going after Quatre and had only focused on me. Then, they had started on him again, worse than before, and they had made it abundantly clear to me they weren't doing it because of their past history with him. They were doing it because he was my friend, because I had fought back against them.
    I hadn't done anything like that since. Whenever I felt the urge, the memory of almost being drowned by Zechs flashed in my head. I might have tried again despite that if it had just been me. But how could I, when every action I made affected my friend? If it weren't for me, they wouldn't have done this to his locker. I just imagined them, and I just knew it had been Zechs who had done this one and not his sister, taking the time to set all this up, how methodical it was. The amount of effort was disturbing, the intent behind it.
    "I need to wash it off," he said, his voice tight with worry and disgust, "It's already starting to dry..."
    "Just get the janitor to do it," I said.
    Quatre shook his head frantically.
    "I don't want to bother him with it," he insisted, "It's gross and he shouldn't have to deal with something that isn't his fault."
    "Don't be ridiculous," I snapped, "It's not your fault, either. You don't have the right tools, you don't even have gloves, and class is about to start. You going to miss the test because you don't want to bother to ask someone to do their job?"
    He sighed and shot me an annoyed look but I could tell that he knew I was right.
    "C'mon, we'll be late," he said as he shoved his books into his book bag, like it had been his idea all along.
    I could tell that he was still upset about the whole thing and I didn't blame him. I affectionately bumped my shoulder with his, a weak substitute to hugging him in the crowded hallway.
    "Just four more months, Quatre," I reminded him, "and then Zechs will go on to high school and we'll have a year away from him."
    Quatre snorted at that even as I saw a glimmer of relief in his eyes.
    "If we even survive four more months and he doesn't repeat another grade," he muttered unhappily, "and even then, it's just a year. Then we'll graduate and be in high school with him. Also we'll still have Relena."
    I shrugged.
    "A year is a long time," I said, "As far as I'm concerned, just a single day away from that asshole is worth it. Relena might be a bitch, but he's worse than she could ever hope to be."
    We headed for our class together and right before we walked into the room, he stopped, making me stop with him.
    "Happy birthday, Duo," he positively beamed at me, "Sorry, I got so distracted with my locker I almost forgot to say that."
    I blinked at him like a confused owl.     
    "What? It's not my-" I paused.
    It was my birthday. February 23rd. I was thirteen years old, finally a teenager. I had completely forgotten. I had known the date, but I had forgotten the significance. Who did that? Just forgot their own birthday? Apparently me. Quatre saw my expression and immediately lost his smile.
    "Your parents forgot again, didn't they?" he asked softly.
    That was my best friend, more concerned with my parents forgetting my birthday than me doing the same. It wasn't exactly shocking. They had forgotten my birthday last year, and the year before that. Or maybe they hadn't. Maybe they hadn't cared. They had forgotten my birthday before those times, but they had typically remembered a few days later. I had never really had a birthday party, at least not what regular kids would call one. My dad would buy me a cake and a present. Sometimes he would take me out to the movies or we'd all go out to a restaurant if we had the money. But lately, they had just done nothing. I wanted to be upset about it, but it was just one more thing in a long line of disappointments in my life.
    "It's fine," I said, "I mean, I forgot about it, too, and it's not really important."
    "Of course it's important," he scolded, "It's your birthday and they're your parents, they should remember," his expression softened a little, "You're working after school today, right?"
    I nodded. I had work at the pizza joint all night.
    "Mind if I hang out for a bit there?" he asked almost shyly.
    "Sure, I'd like the company," I smiled.
    My boss might be annoyed to have Quatre hanging around again, but he never said that he couldn't and I always enjoyed the company. Not much had changed for me in a year. I still had both of my jobs, but some of my responsibilities had chanted. I still had to make pizza boxes, which I didn't mind, and I still couldn't cook anything or wait on customers because I was still under aged, but my boss let me sweep the floor and keep all the food stations stocked. I even got to unload the delivery truck sometimes, so my days weren't as monotonous. Almost all of my paychecks were still going to my dad. I had grown a little over the summer but Quatre hadn't at all. He was pretty annoyed by it. My hair had gotten longer, too. Despite Zechs constantly pulling on it, I hadn't cut it and my hair reaches just below my shoulders now. Quatre knew how to braid from his sisters and showed me how to do it. It makes me look girlier, I guess, but it keeps it out of my face.
    Zechs was always calling me a girl, but it never really bothered me enough to cut my hair off or stop braiding it. I told myself that it really didn't matter, Zechs was going to call me that whether I cut my hair or not and I had gotten used to having long hair. That was his recent thing, insinuating or outright saying that I was effeminate, a pansy, or a transsexual. I didn't play sports, wasn't strong, had long hair, and I had good grades in all of my writing and home economics courses. He often teased that I was more feminine than most queers and he felt offended I was wearing boys' clothes instead of a skirt.
    Zechs still frequently called me Faggot. I think it's his favorite word or something. Also more crude things like fudge packer and pillow biter. After a year, that word should have stopped bothering me so much, especially since Relena and Zechs called Quatre that, too, but it hadn't. Every time I heard them call me a fag, it pierced my heart.
    A year since that shit had started and I still couldn't figure it out. This year I found myself thinking about it more and more. My sexuality had nearly become an obsession for me. I found myself asking myself the same questions over and over. Am I straight? Am I normal, like everyone else and one day all of this shit would just go away, it would all just click into place for me? I still didn't like girls. I didn't even look at them like the other boys did, I just didn't care. I thought about sex because everyone was questioning my sexuality, but I never really thought about it. I just couldn't see myself falling in love with a girl and having a kid like my parents, like it was normal to.
    Was I gay? I had just as much confusion on that topic as I did towards my possible heterosexuality. I wasn't even normal in that area. I didn't feel attracted to boys. I didn't have any urges to hold their hands or kiss them. All those stereotypes Zechs flung at me, I didn't fit into, either. Sure, I wasn't as masculine as he was, but I wasn't effeminate. I hated shopping, hated romance flicks and all that crap. If there was a gay culture, I felt no affinity towards it and that was worse somehow. Because if I knew I was gay, if I fit into those stereotypes, it would suck, but at least I would know my place.
    Where did I fit? What was I supposed to do? I felt like I was stuck in this endless limbo. I had tried to do a search on homosexuality at the school library since we didn't have a computer at home, but the search was blocked. Was being gay so horrible that not even the school wanted us exposed to it? Last year in my World History class, I had to write a report on the Holocaust. I had to go on all these websites detailing the worst, darkest things humans had done to each other, there had even been these disgusting, graphic pictures. The school computers had let me look at that, but not even the most basic information on homosexuality.
    I knew that a lot of people didn't like gays, they thought they were immoral, unnatural, and weird, and some religions were totally against them, but what was so awful about them? Seeing that 'website blocked due to inappropriate content' screen on the school computer, and not being able to find any books on the subject, terrified me. I was already an outcast, was there another thing, a much worse thing, wrong with me?
    I couldn't even talk to anyone about my questions. I couldn't ask for help. Anyone I asked would automatically assume I was asking because I was gay, or they would doubt and even at thirteen years old, I understood that that doubt would be a permanent thing. My mother would just tell me to stop bothering her, probably the most impartial party. My father would beat me. I had heard him rant about queers before and the things he had said had been harsh enough to keep me quiet. My teachers would tell me to go to the school counselor and the counselor would tell me to go a therapist or worse, want to talk to my parents about it.
    I guess I could ask Mrs. Khushrenada. I had no idea where she stood on the subject, but she had always been kind and patient with me. But I don't think she would understand. She was married and tended to be a bit naive and optimistic.
    And Quatre... I couldn't even begin to consider talking to my best friend about this stuff. He wouldn't call me names or outwardly judge me. He would be supportive and understanding and that was exactly why I couldn't tell him. Even if it bothered him, disgusted him, he would keep it inside where I couldn't see and eventually, without even realizing it, I would lose my best friend. Quatre was all I had in the world. If I lost him, I would lose everything, even my life, as pathetic as it was.
    What would it mean for my future, being gay? I had no clue. Was being gay something you could just stop? I didn't think so. If it were, why would anyone be gay? Why would anyone decide to deal with people hating you and thinking terrible things about you? I couldn't imagine myself marrying a girl, but at that point in my life, I had been just as incapable of seeing myself with another boy. Could I hide it? Did I even need to acknowledge it? Or would it destroy what little future I had? I was already poor and I would be for the rest of my life, so could being gay really make things worse? Would I even be denied what little work I might be able to find after I graduated high school because of it?
    I didn't know what might be worse, being a homosexual and having urges towards other boys and being seen as a pervert, or not having any urges at all. My inability to figure out if I was gay or straight haunted me because I couldn't make that choice because I didn't feel desire towards anyone. Would it always be like that? Would my sexuality be like everything else in my life and I was just... stuck in place? I didn't know if I wanted any of it; romance, kissing, sex, desire, love, dating... but I did know that I didn't want to be anymore of a freak than I already was.
    Again, I could have talked to Quatre about it. We were the same age and he had never told me he liked any of the girls in our class. Maybe we were just late bloomers, or maybe he was just being private and there was a girl he secretly liked. I could have talked to him about it because him accusing me of being gay seemed worse than him thinking I was asexual, but I never did. Being gay was terrifying, being asexual was embarrassing. Looking back, I wish I had talked to him about all of it. Maybe if I had, he would have opened up to me about his own issues and I would have had the time to think of a way to help him or spotted the problem.
    I found myself looking at boys more and more. I wasn't even aware that I was doing it. I would just suddenly realize that I was staring when I shouldn't have been. It wasn't like it was when I found myself staring at girls. With girls, I was just curious, staring at them and wondering just what it was about them I was supposed to attracted to, what I was supposed to be looking for. With the boys, it was like I was subconsciously doing it and it made me fearful. Was I looking because I liked them or was I looking because I had become so obsessed with trying to figure out if there was something there that I liked that girls didn't have?
     I could see some boys as handsome, but hadn't I thought before that Relena was pretty? I didn't know, but I was making myself sick over thinking it all the time. Was I just repulsed by Relena? What did other girls have that she didn't? And why was I incapable of seeing that? I had to put a stop to the terrible swirl of thoughts that were battering around in my skull as our history teacher handed out our tests. I was quickly giving myself a headache and school had only just started.
    For once I was actually happy to be taking a test, even if it was Asian History. It was keeping my mind off of things I just didn't want to think about anymore. At least Asian History was more interesting than American History. There were all kinds of bloody battles and power struggles. Last year had been European history which had been much more interesting, but taking US History in the fifth grade had practically bored me to tears. And I had sucked at it.
    We hadn't even gotten to learn about the civil war or the war of independence, that was for the eighth graders. It had all been politics and treaties and remembering which president ratified what and who had belonged to which party. I had had the hardest time remembering dates and statistics for that stuff. I didn't even really get why I needed to learn that crap. We just moved on to another subject the following year and I forgot everything I had learned anyway.
    But for once, I hadn't approached this test with the same frustration that I usually did, probably because Quatre had spent that entire week helping me study. If it weren't for my best friend, I'd probably be in the same boat as Zechs. Quatre didn't think so. He always insisted that I was smarter than I thought I was and I would get along just fine without his help. All the same, I was glad that I had it.
    I felt a deep sense of relief as I handed my test into the teacher. I didn't dare let myself succumb to hope, but with Quatre's help, I thought that I might just be able to pull my history grades up this semester. Now I just needed to do something about Math. Quatre couldn't do much to help me there since we were in different classes. He was still leagues above me in advanced placement and I was too embarrassed by my shitty test scores and how difficult it was for me to ask him.
    All the same, I was eager when the bell finally rang. We had home economics next and we were learning how to make blueberry crisp from scratch. I liked cooking in that class because we got to eat whatever we made at the end of the period and at that point, I was starving.
    Apparently, up until a few years ago, you had to learn how to do things like sew and stitch, but the school board eventually decided that that was all too old fashioned and had merged home ec with computer basics. Even though we had to use computers in our other classes, we had to learn how to speed type when our cooking lessons were done for the semester. I was going to miss it, mostly the free food.
    I shoved my books into my book bag and followed Quatre out the door, my stomach already growling at the prospect of breakfast. Quatre turned to look at me as we walked out in the hallway.
    "You'll help me, right?" he asked me sheepishly, his quick mind already on to our next class.
    Quatre was better than me at pretty much everything except for cooking. He was fairly hopeless if he had to make anything other than sandwiches. His parents forgot to pack his lunches all the time, but no one had bothered to really teach him how to cook or bake. In the last few years, as things at home got worse, especially my mother's alcoholism, I'm typically the one making the dinners. My father isn't a picky eater, but I learned how to make the things he liked quickly. It's a cliche, the abusive man of the house beating on whoever was supposed to make his meals for not having them done on time, but my dad doesn't really care if dinner is ready when he gets home as long as it's something he likes. I've found over the years that making things for him, even things I don't like to eat, helps his mood towards me.
    Quatre's plea made me smile, not because I felt any kind of superiority, but it made me feel good to have even one small thing I could help him with.
    Suddenly, before I could warn him, Quatre walked right into someone that had been trying to get into the classroom we had just left. Quatre, obviously thinking that the person he had bumped into was Zechs, or that had just been conditioned into him by now, flinched. I recognized the person instantly.
    Trowa Barton is in the same grade that Zechs is, but their paths seldom cross. They definitely aren't friends, at least. I may not have known if I was gay or not, but I could agree that Trowa was handsome with his cinnamon brown hair and green eyes that are even darker than mine are. He's pretty much the top dog in our school basket ball team, the sort of boy all the girls fawn over and idolize, but Trowa seemed to care more about basket ball and club activities than he did about girls.
    Trowa is close with a lot of his teammates but while he seemed nice, he's also really quiet. If he isn't with his team mates, he seems to prefer solitude and always seems kind of panicked and shy when a girl approaches him. If it weren't for his good looks, athleticism, and the fact that he's one of the tallest kids in his grade, he'd probably be the sort of kid that never gets noticed. Because of him, we win games, and that had given him the same status of popularity that Relena and Zechs had, even if the Bartons are just a typical, middle class family, but I had never had any problems with Trowa. On the rare occasions that he did speak to me, which was about as rare as him speaking to anyone else, he hadn't exactly been overly friendly, but he hadn't been a jerk to me, either.
    I watched in awe as my normally composed friend turned the brilliant color of a ripe tomato and gained all of the grace of a newborn deer.
    "T-Trowa," Quatre stammered as though simple speech had suddenly deserted him, "I am so, so sorry!"
    They were the same exact words he would only have spoken if he had bumped into Zechs, but he spoke them only with embarrassment and shyness, not fear with Trowa. It would have been outright bizarre if I hadn't witness this spectacle before. Sure enough, I looked at Trowa as he turned the exact shade of red that Quatre had, though it was less noticeable on Trowa's tanner skin. He rubbed nervously at the back of his head and seemed to lose all ability to speak coherently.
    "It... it's ok," Trowa murmured shyly.
    Feeling like a spectator, I watched as the two of them stumbled into a friendly, if awkward conversation.
    "I saw your game Friday night," Quatre somehow managed to say without stuttering too badly, "that three pointer you made was really incredible. You've improved so much from last season and you were already so good."
    I hadn't thought it possible, but the both of them flushed even darker at Quatre's praise.
    "T-thank you," Trowa's speech became even more bumbling, "I've been training harder since you started coming to my games," I thought Quatre would literally combust at that statement, turning a red that was almost purple and a very strange and alien look coming into his eyes.
    Even I blinked owlishly at the tall boy, his words bewildering me. Did Trowa mean that he had been training harder in that span of time, or did he mean he had started to train harder because of Quatre's presence? It had to be the former because I couldn't see why Quatre, the petit under classman that he happened to stop and talk to between classes every once in awhile, would spur him to improve his game anymore than his coach or his teammates would.
    Really, watching the two of them interacting with each other was bewildering every time I saw it. Trowa was the only one besides me that Quatre talked to on a regular basis. They never seemed to talk about anything vastly important and they always acted so awkward at first, like they had to warm up to just talking to each other comfortably, like an old engine that hadn't been used in some time.
    Quatre never acted scared of Trowa, despite the difference in their sizes, just unsure of himself. It was painful to watch, but once they got warmed up, they seemed to enjoy each other's small talk. At first I had thought that Trowa's shyness towards my friend was because he didn't want Zechs to see them talking and start bullying him, too, but Trowa didn't seem like that sort of person, and he was bigger than Zechs anyway. But he didn't do anything to intervene in the bullying, either.
    The whole thing confused me. Quatre had never had any problems talking to me, and his behavior when around Trowa was just strange. No matter how many times I watched them, I couldn't figure it out. My friend just did not act like this, and I had never seen Trowa act like that around anyone either. I hadn't even known that Quatre had been going to Trowa's games. It wasn't something to be angry at him over, keeping that from me, I had just never seen my friend as the type that cared about sports and school spirit. He had never invited me to come along with him, but he knew that I didn't care about that stuff, so I couldn't be mad at him about that, either.
    But when I watched the two of them together, bantering the way they were now, seeming so interested in what the other was saying even though none of it sounded very important to me, I felt jealous. I wasn't even sure why I felt that way exactly. I was Quatre's best friend, and it wasn't as though Quatre was replacing me or something. But when I saw them together, I knew there was something more there than two acquaintances chatting about the  weather, I just couldn't understand what that something was.
It was different than what Quatre and I had, and it obviously affected him differently and made me feel more conscious of myself and my inadequacies.
    I couldn't even begin to understand what was going on between the two of them, what Quatre liked about Trowa enough to talk to him, let alone my own screwed up feelings about it. Quatre liked someone other than me, I should have been happy and apart of me was.
    "Oh, Trowa," a falsely sweet and familiar voice came from behind the tall boy, "You're always so charitable, giving trash the time of day, "Relena smiled girlishly at the older boy even as her cold, blue eyes regarded Quatre hatefully. She didn't so much as glance at me, recognizing that I was the outsider there, "but you really should be more cautious. If you aren't careful some of the fag might rub off on you. People already talk about the reason why the two of you are so friendly with each other," she sneered and even her tone sounded sinister and hateful to me.
    Trowa went white as a sheet and quickly pushed past her into the classroom. Quatre looked absolutely horrified as he watched the other boy's reaction. He looked as hurt as if Relena had plunged a knife into his gut, his blue-green eyes filling up with tears. I had never seen such a look of... heartbreak and shame on his face before and I almost punched Relena in the face. I didn't know exactly why what she had said had hurt him so much. It really wasn't anything different than she said to him all the time, but that it had been directed at Trowa seemed to have made all the difference in the world.
    Relena flicked her long hair over her shoulder and continued on her way down the hallway, looking incredibly proud of herself. I glanced back at Quatre and saw that he was watching her, too. For the very first time in our friendship, there was pure, raw hatred on his face.

*****

    I tried to get Quatre to talk to me about it, but nothing would draw him out of his shell. For the rest of the school day, he was quiet, frighteningly so. I couldn't even get him to smile, something that had always come so naturally to him. It scared me, that I couldn't reach him or figure out what was hurting him so badly. Quatre always seemed to know what just to say to me to make me feel at least a little bit better. But as usual, I was bumbling and inadequate. I felt like a shitty friend. Even Relena's further attempts to mess with him seemed to not reach whatever place his mind was, must to her annoyance. I regretted not hitting her.
    I went to work feeling incredibly depressed by the whole thing. I tried to push it out of my mind and concentrate on my work, as mindless as it was, but I kept seeing Quatre's horrified expression in my head and that hate he had directed at Relena's departing back. And I kept thinking of how disgusted I was in myself for being unable to make anything better. I was so useless...
    "Duo," I stopped scrubbing at the current dish I was working on when one of our servers, Carol, called for me.
    "What is it?" I asked her, barely even turning around to regard her. Carol has been working at this shitty restaurant since it had opened thirty years ago and in all of the time I had been working there, she had said maybe two words to me, the sort of woman that always had a gripe and nothing anyone did was ever good enough for her.
    "Someone here for you," she grumbled and strode back out onto the floor.
    Who the hell would be here for me, I thought, washing my hands to get the smell of dirty dish washer and pizza sauce off my skin.
    I walked out onto the floor and was met by Quatre, wearing the same soft smile he always had when we were together.
    "Hi, Duo," he practically beamed.
    I blinked like an idiot at him. I hadn't forgotten our plans, but I honestly hadn't thought I would be seeing him tonight after what had happened. And he was smiling again, as if none of it had happened. I could almost pretend that it hadn't. Well, if Quatre wanted to pretend that everything was ok, I wasn't going to push him to be depressed and quiet again.
    "Hi," I greeted, still surprised.
    "It's almost time for your dinner break, right?" he asked.
    I looked over at my boss who was going over some paperwork by the registers. He gave me a gruff nod.
    "Take yer time," he said in that rough way of his that was constant no matter what he was feeling, his voice raw from years of heavy smoking, "It's dead in here anyway."
    "Thanks, Sal," I said.
    Sal could be an asshole sometimes, and he had some kind of problem with Quatre always showing up here for some reason, but he was a pretty nice guy otherwise. At least, he had never given me any grief. I think when my dad had forced me on him, my boss had thought I was just going to slack off, but when he saw I got my tasks done without a complaint, he had started to respect me a bit.
    I followed Quatre to a booth way in the back of the restaurant where no one would be able to see us. I stopped when I saw the soft glow of candle light coming from the table. On it was a wrapped box and a cake with thirteen lit candles in it. It wasn't fancy, just a white frosted cake with green and blue edges, 'Happy 13th Birthday, Duo!' written with similar green and blue frosting.
    "I know it isn't much," Quatre said sheepishly, "but it took awhile to get your present, I wanted to make sure you would like it. And I made the cake myself! Well, Jane told me what to do and how to make it," he babbled nervously, "I tried to make a marble cake, I know how much you like those, but it was just too hard, so I made it a two layer cake instead, white cake and chocolate cake. The frosting is butter cream, like you like."
    He finally stopped rambling and peered at me through pale blonde bangs, trying to gauge my reaction. I felt like I was going to cry. Quatre had given me presents on my birthday before, but this was beyond... not even my parents had ever taken the time to bake me a cake before, or care if it was something I liked. I hugged Quatre tightly, startling him a little.
    "Thank you so much, Quatre," my voice cracked a little, but I managed not to cry, "No one's done anything this nice before."
    I felt intensely happy as he hugged me back.
    "Happy birthday, Duo," I heard him say into my shoulder and I did feel a tear or two escape then.
    He didn't say anything about my tears as he let me go and I was grateful. I wiped at them hastily, feeling stupid for crying over something like this. We sat down in the booth together and I blew out the candles on my cake. One of the servers came by our table with food that Quatre had obviously ordered ahead of time, lasagna for him, spaghetti and meatballs for me, plus fries, breadsticks, and salads for the both of us. Normally I would be annoyed at him spending so much money on me, but I ate it all happily, deciding to just let it go for today.
    I was full by the time we got to the cake, but when I took my first bite, I found that I had plenty of appetite to spare. We must have sat there for hours, eating the cake Quatre had made and talking about nothing, but a pleasant nothing, yet Sal didn't come over once to tell me to go back to work. Suddenly, we were down to one slice of cake left and it was almost the end of my shift. I felt guilty about it, but only because Sal was being nice for once and I didn't want to take advantage of him like that. Still, this had probably been the nicest birthday I'd had.
    "Open your present," my best friend urged excitedly.
    I had to smile at his eagerness and did as I was ordered. I pulled out a black hoodie jacket with silver highlights and patters here and there on the sleeves, hem, and drawstrings. The inside of it was made of some incredibly soft material. It was thicker than the jacket I was wearing then because I hadn't had a new jacket in years and it was getting small on me.
    "I got it a bit big," Quatre told me, "You've been growing lately and I wanted to get you something you could grow into. Do you like it?"
    I hugged it to my chest. It was so soft and not some cheap knock off like my parents usually got me. I was scared to ask him how much it cost but decided that for once I wasn't going to make it an issue. I didn't care about fashion, though even to me the jacket looked nice, it would keep me warm and dry.
    "I love it," I said honestly.
    "The black and silver really bring out your eyes," he said with a soft, musing smile.
    I felt my face go warm and felt shy all of a sudden. I had no clue why, but it made me feel pleased and embarrassed all at once, that praise. I didn't care about stuff like that, so why did it make me happy?
    I ran to get my stuff and clock out as Quatre took care of the bill. Sal didn't yell at me about pretty much skipping all of the rest of my shift, so I guess it was ok with him, maybe because it was my birthday. I felt a pain in my chest realizing that my boss had known it was my birthday, but my parents hadn't. I shoved that thought away. I should be used to stuff like this by now. They didn't do it maliciously, they had just... forgotten. But that made it hurt even more. If they had ignored my birthday on purpose, at least I would matter enough to them that they would remember the date. I wasn't even an afterthought in their minds.
    I put on my new jacket and met Quatre outside. We walked to his house like we always did and hugged before we parted. He said happy birthday to me again and I thanked him for all he had done again. I felt a rare happiness fill me up and resolved to not let it leave me until I went to sleep that night, no matter what happened between then and now. I decided to forget all about the shit in Quatre's locker and what Relena had said to him.
    When I got home, my mother was in her bedroom already asleep and my father was sitting at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper.
    "Hi, Dad," I said.
    I waited for him to acknowledge what day it was, to do something to prove to me that it mattered at all to him. It was Quatre's fault for getting my hopes up when they had already been so little, but I was still happy that at least someone in my life gave a shit.
    "Hi," he grunted, not so much as taking his eyes off what he was reading, "You need to take the garbage out tonight and your mother is making stew tomorrow, she left you a list of things to get at the supermarket after school."
    "Ok," I said obediently.
    Today must have been a good day, he hadn't even raised his voice at me. While he was distracted with his paper, I snuck the last piece of birthday cake into the freezer behind some bags of frozen vegetables. My parents wouldn't see it in there, so they wouldn't be able to steal it. I might have it for a snack tomorrow or maybe I would save it for a shitty day. My more important task done, I grabbed the garbage bags by the basement door and struggled to get them out on the curb. My father didn't say anything to me about my new jacket, but I was sure he hadn't noticed.

*****

    Three days later, I had already forgotten all about my parents forgetting my birthday, but not about Quatre and Trowa. Neither of them had spoken to each other since Relena had teased them for speaking to each other, but the avoidance was all one sided. Trowa had become a ninja, they didn't even seem to pass each other in the hall anymore. Quatre seemed so depressed, but I wasn't sure if it was over that or something else. Trowa quickly became one of those things we didn't talk about. If it was, it solidified my suspicions that the two of them were more than just acquaintances. I wanted to yell at Quatre that if he wanted to be friends with the upper classman, he should just ask him to hang out or something and fuck what Relena and Zechs did about it, but even if Quatre took my advice, he couldn't force Trowa to be friends with him if the tall boy was going to be chicken shit about his reputation. At least I didn't have to worry about those things with Quatre.
    It was at the end of the school day. I didn't have work afterwards, and after discovering I had gotten a B on my history test, the best grade I had gotten in that class all year, I was in a good mood for once. Or at least I had been up until I opened my locker, and then promptly slammed it shut again. I stared at the outside of my locker door like if I glared at it long enough, what I had just seen would magically disappear that next time I opened it. I wished it had been shit.
    "What's wrong?" Quatre asked me in concern when he saw my expression.
    I felt too disgusted to tell him. Suddenly a hand slammed on the locker between the two of us, making violent, metallic sound that had both Quatre and I jumping. I looked up at Zechs's smirking face and wasn't at all surprised.
    "What's the matter, Maxwell?" he jeered at me, "Don't you like the new decorations to your locker? I was up all night making them especially for you," he mock pouted when he saw that I closed my locker door, "What's the matter?" he flung the door open.
    Again I caught a glimpse of what that asshole had taped to the inside of my locker and looked away. Zechs had made a collage out of some skin mag. Cut out pictures of naked women were spread out of the inside of the locker door and the walls, graphic shots of naked breasts and vaginas, something that I had never seen before. I gasped out in pain as the older boy grabbed my hair and held my head in place.
    "You can't tell me this doesn't turn you on," he sneered, "C'mon, open your eyes, faggot!"
    I did as he ordered me to, his lessons from a year ago permanently etched into my brain.
    "Take a good, long look. You can't tell me that this actually repulses you. Look at all these gorgeous women," he tightened his grip even more and I tried to let the images he was forcing me to look at become a white haze, just looking threw them, "What sort of freak wouldn't be turned on by that?"
    I heard harsh laughter from behind us.
    "I don't know, Zechs, he doesn't look like he's enjoying it very much," one of his friends teased, "maybe you should make sure he's really enjoying himself and he isn't a fag after all."
    "Good idea," Zechs laughed.
    I felt his grip on my hair shift and his other hand grip at my shirt. Pure horror filled me as I realized he really was going to check to see if I had a hard on. I had the same feeling of surrealness that I had had when he had pulled my pants down to check my underwear in gym class, like this couldn't possibly be happening.
    I should have fought against him somehow, but I was just so frozen and sick to my stomach. I don't know what I was thinking then. I kept seeing those pictures he had put in my locker and this question repeated over and over in my head. Was I horrified because he was going to actually do something that repulsive... or was I horrified because I wasn't even slightly aroused or interested in those photos?
    "Zechs," Quatre said coldly with a tinge of panic to his tone, but to me it was a voice from the heavens, "I just saw Mrs. Khushrenada coming down the hall."
    "Shit," he grumbled and immediately released me. I felt like I was going to cry with joy.
    His friends hurried to disperse, but Zechs shot me one last superior look.
    "Don't even think about taking those down, got that, midget? I'll know if you do," and with that threat, he followed his friends down the hallway.
    I didn't even need to look around the hall for Mrs. Khushrenada. I knew she had literary club duties and was on the other side of the school by now.
    "Thank you," I whispered to Quatre and tried to regain control over myself, feeling a powerful mix of the remains of my fear and disgust coiling in my stomach.
    He rubbed my back trying to comfort me.
    "It's ok," he soothed, "Zechs is all hot air, he probably wouldn't have really done it."
    I swallowed roughly and nodded, but I heard the doubt in his voice and I saw the fear in his eyes. He had almost been as scared as I had been. I didn't know what to do, how far I had come from him doing something that probably qualified as sexual harassment, if nothing else. Telling a teacher about it wouldn't do me any more good than telling one about the bullying would and that helplessness had me shaking. I hastily closed my locker door again. The worst thing about this was the sickness I felt. Was this repulsion from those photos or just from what Zechs had almost done?
    I felt that insecurity again, that doubt about my sexuality. Zechs was an ass, but he had a point. Most boys, even at my age, would at least feel curious about those pictures, maybe enjoy looking at the breasts if nothing else. I hadn't just felt nothing. I had felt repulsed and disinterested. Had he been right about me all along?
    "C-can I have a moment?" I begged Quatre.
    To my relief, he didn't ask me why, he just nodded.
    "I'll be out in the parking lot," he said and left me at my locker.
    I waited for the amount of people in the hallway to diminish before I opened my locker again. I pulled all of the photos off of the locker walls and door and shoved them into my backpack. I suddenly didn't care if Zechs found out I had taken them down, all I could care about in that moment where the fearful questions swirling around in my brain. If I was lucky, I could sneak them back into my locker tomorrow morning and Zechs would never
even know.

*****

    "I'm home!"'called as l walked into my house after walking Quatre to his.
    No one answered me, but I hadn't expected anyone to. My dad was still had work so only my mother was home. I didn't see her when I walked through the kitchen. I immediately thought of
the photos that were stashed in my book bag. I hoped, for once, that she was passed out in her bedroom. Even if she wasn't, she wasn't going to come looking for me. This was the best time to
do this, if I could muster up the courage at all. I walked up the attic stairs as quietly as I could manage, feeling like an intruder in my own house. I felt more doubt about this, like worms in my
stomach. What if my mother came looking for me for some reason? Or worse, I thought in horror, what if my father came home early?     But it was unavoidable. I had to do this, I decided. I debated locking the attic door or pushing my dresser infant of the door, but decided to risk it. I would get in just as much trouble for locking the door any way.
    I sat on my mattress and stared at my back pack like it was a demon in disguise. More doubts. Just what, exactly, was I supposed to do? Back at school, it had seemed so clear and obvious to me, here I felt confused and oblivious. It was so stupid. I was a teenager, not a child, but right then, I felt like one. This was something I needed to do, something normal that boys were supposed to do, not some kind of Boogieman waiting to jump out and devour me. Or maybe it was.
    I pulled out the nude photos from my backpack with trepidation instead of excitement. I had hoped that my revulsion at school had just been because of my shock and the knowledge that Zechs was fucking with me again, jeering and prodding at my sexuality. I had hoped desperately that once I had gotten home, to the privacy of my bedroom, I would feel something that any normal thirteen year old boy would towards those photos. But as I placed them down on the floor in front of me, I just felt scared and sick to my stomach.
    I told myself that I was just over thinking things. Zechs just had me twisted in knots over this, so something that should be coming naturally to me was only making me anxious. But no matter how much I tried to calm myself and rationalize everything, I was still scared. I stared down at the photos intensely. I forced myself to study every last curve, every nipple, every sultry look, every breast, every inch of the naked women laid out in front of me.
    They were all beautiful with flawless skin and what I was certain would be considered sexy bodies by any other boy. Boys my age... normal boys... they would be turned on by this, they would be curious, they would want to look. I felt nothing. No, I felt worse than nothing. All of those women were supposed to be attractive to me and I wanted nothing to do with those images of their named bodies. I felt... not disgusted exactly, repulsed, like I wanted to look anywhere else.
    I unzipped my jeans and pulled down my boxers to make absolutely sure, but my biggest fear was realized. My penis looked like it always had, limp and lifeless. Equal parts frustration, desperation, and anger consumed me. I stared at the photos even more intensely, trying to sear them into my head. I reached into my pants and wrapped my hand around my member. Some part of me asked me what I was doing, and I didn't have any kind of real answer. I moved my hand up and down myself, feeling incredibly awkward. I had never done anything remotely like that in my life. I knew how thanks to colorful euphemisms and lurid stories from upper classmen, but I had never had urges so I hadn't seen the point.
    'Please, please, please!' I pleaded in frustration as I stroked myself.
    I didn't want to be gay. I didn't want to be asexual. I just wanted to be straight and normal, just like everyone else for once in my life! But it was useless. It felt kind of good, in a mechanical sort of way, but whatever was supposed to happen in moments like that didn't. I didn't get an erection and that sick feeling in my stomach just grew. I let go of myself, my hand shaking a little. Hot tears spilled down my face. I heard my breath hitch and my chest felt like it was on fire. Why... why did this have to happen?! Why couldn't I like girls? Why did I have to be like this?!
    I laid down on my side on my mattress and cried. I wanted to call Quatre and ask him what to do, but in reality it was the very last thing I wanted to do, to let my best friend to know about this. I wasn't straight. I couldn't deny that anymore. I didn't know what I was. Gay, asexual... no matter which it was, it wasn't anything I wanted. I felt lost and confused. But most of all, I felt completely alone.
    I cried for hours. I cried until I could barely breathe, until my eyes were raw and red. I cried until I literally had not a single tear left to cry and I felt weak and hollow from all of it. I sat up, not because I wanted to, but because all that crying had made my throat hurt. I wish we had tea. Quatre always came to school with tea in his thermos, but my dad hated the stuff. All we had was beer, water, coffee, and kool aid, but it was better than nothing. I buttoned up my jeans, got to my feet and walked down the stairs with all of the energy of a zombie, my mind a thousand miles away.
    I felt like I had just stumbled into this world of grey horror where nothing made sense and everything I had ever thought I had known about myself and the world had turned out to be a
terrible lie. I felt numb and dead. Nothing mattered. But most of all, I felt shame. Was this my fault? How could I change this fate when I didn't have any hope of changing anything else in my
pathetic life?
           In the kitchen, I washed my hands and poured myself a glass of Kool aid. I drank it like I was dying of thirst. I felt dirty, and that I had touched myself for the first time was only one reason for it. Even though I had done this adult thing, I just felt like a child. I washed my glass and went to head back upstairs. I couldn't think about this anymore, it was almost literally tearing me up inside. It was making me sick, even worse than those photos had. At that point, I just wanted to do my homework and pretend none of it had ever happened, that nothing had changed. As l neared the bathroom, l heard loud, violent retching sounds coming from inside.
         'Mom,' I realized. she had drank too much again.
         But the sound was strange, muffled and strained and I realized that she wasn't vomiting into the toilet. I knocked on the door and immediately felt like an idiot. I didn't consider that the
best thing for me to do was to just go back to my room. She wouldn't want my help any way, but listening to her vomiting, I felt worried. Even though she never talked to me or seemed to give a shit about me, she was my mother and I loved her. I didn't understand it any more than I understood how I could still love my father after everything he had done to me, but I did, and it
always worried me when she got like this.
    "Mom?" I called softly in case her head was hurting her.
         It wasn't just hangovers, my mother got terrible headaches all the time. Dad often accused her of making excuses to not do anything, or called her pathetic whenever she claimed to have
one, but Quatre said it was probably stress migraines and I agreed with him. When I didn't hear her respond, I risked opening the door. My mom was on the bathroom floor, laying on her side and
clutching at her stomach. Her grey eyes were heavily bloodshot and clouded over with pain, sickness, and drunkenness. Her auburn hair was caked with vomit and sweat. There was a sizeable pool of vomit near her head on the floor and her face was red and covered with sweat. I kneeled down at her side and gently grasped her arm.
    "Come on, Mom," I said in what I hoped was a soothing tone, "you can't fall asleep here. I'll help you get into bed. We don't have any ginger ale, but I think there's a can of coke in the fridge. It'll help settle your stomach."
     I started to help her to her feet when she lashed out and shoved me away from her. I was completely unprepared for it, though I really shouldn't have been, and I slammed my head against the wall behind me. For a brief, disjointed, and frightening second as I looked at my mother's enraged face, she, my father, and Zechs all blurred together into the same person.
         "I don't need your fucking help!" she shrieked at me, stumbling to her feet and almost falling down again, the most that she had said to me in long time, "I don't ever want your help!"
         She swayed on her feet before finally gripping the sink to steady herself. If her sudden rage hadn't been so frightening, it would have looked comical. Her reddened grey eyes, like hard
stones, found mine, and the naked hatred there almost brought me to tears again. It drove the breath right out of me.
        "You're so goddamn useless," she hissed at me like an angry cat, "What did I give up my body for?" she demanded me, like she believed I had some secret answer for her, "What did I give
up my life for?!" she hastily looked away from me and down at the sink as though she couldn't even bare to look at me, not even relishing in the pain each, single one of her words gave me, like
poisoned arrows directly shot through my heart, "If you had never been born, I wouldn't be stuck with that bastard for the rest of my life!"
     She pushed her mussed and wild hair out of her face and I saw she was crying hard. Every emotion she was feeling was etched on her tired and worn face and the knowledge that I had put that pain and frustration, anger and tiredness on that familiar face killed me. The hate in her eyes grew like a tidal wave, black and intense as she stared at me and I felt frozen by her emotions.
    "I wish I had gotten that abortion your father," she spit out that word like it was a bitter poison, "had wanted me to get. He's right. I'm pathetic and I'm an idiot."
    She swayed and stumbled past me, still more drunk than sober. I heard her move to the front door, opening it and slamming it closed so hard that the windows shook. I sat there on the bathroom floor, stunned and paralyzed. Her words rung in my head, screeching sirens.

    "What did I give up my life for?!"

    I looked down at my hands. The hands of a faggot. The hands of a loser. The hands of the baby that my mother had destroyed her body to bring into this world, the baby that had become this stupid, useless person. I felt incredibly ashamed. I felt like dying. What had my mother fought and suffered for? I didn't know. There was nothing about me that deserved her sacrifices. I wasn't doing anything with my life and I never would. I was stuck with my father because he was my father, and I loved him. My mother was stuck with him because of me, even though she clearly hated him.
    All this time I had been feeling sorry for myself because I was being bullied and abused. I had felt sad for my mother because of her alcoholism, shitty job, and the constant fights my parents had, but I had never truly thought about their relationship. She couldn't even bare to be touched by him, but she was married to him. Because she had sacrificed for me. My father had wanted to end the mere possibility of me, and she had gone against him. She had given me life... why? Had she had some... some kind of hope about me? If she had, then I was a complete failure.
    My father had wanted to end me. That knowledge made my hands shake. I shouldn't let me affect me that much, I knew that. I was well aware that my parents had gotten pregnant with me out of high school and the both of them had dropped out because of it. The only job my mother could get was as a waitress. My dad got his GED eventually and he had gotten a job as a cop thanks to a family friend, but I was sure that it wasn't what he had wanted as a teenager. I knew I made him angry a lot of times, but as a child, I had chosen to believe that deep down, my father still loved me. Taking me with him on car trips, taking me to the beach, the train yard, buying me new clothes... I had thought that those were signs that even through the blows, he loved me. I had been lying to myself.
    I had destroyed their lives. Of course my father had wanted to abort me, he had never wanted me in the first place. I should find it miraculous that my mother had wanted me, but it hurt. It hurt in ways I can't possibly describe in writing.
    Learning that I wasn't straight, wasn't ever going to be normal or have some kind of normal life, had made me feel like the bottom had dropped out of my world. That hadn't held a candle to hearing those things from my mother. I felt worse than useless, worse than unloved. What I felt, there are no words in the human language for. I had always known, deep down, that I was an unwanted child, but to actually hear my mother say it... She had vouched for me once, she had wanted me once, at least enough to let me be born and not put me up for adoption, but now... now she wished that she hadn't. How could I possibly survive that?
    'No one is ever going to love me.'
    The thought hit me like a train, right in my chest. I actually gasped for breath, it shocked me so much. I stumbled to my feet, looking I'm sure very much like mother had. I felt bile in my mouth, but instead of rushing to the toilet to throw up, I nearly ran to the kitchen. I walked to the refrigerator like a drug addict would go to their drug of choice. My steps were born out pure, desperate need.
    I flung open the freezer door and dug through the bags of ice and frozen vegetables until I found what I needed more than air. There, still sitting in the very back, was the piece of birthday cake Quatre had made for me three days ago.

    "Happy Birthday, Duo!"

    So real it might as well have been a hallucination instead of a memory, I saw my best friend's face. I saw his brilliant smile. That smile... a smile of friendship and love, a smile I had never seen from either of my parents and I knew, despite all of my childish dreams that I had tried to bury as I had gotten older, I would never see from them. Fresh, hot tears burst out of me and I started to sob in front of the freezer door. I had thought that I had been incapable of anymore tears, but I was wrong.


End part 1

Author's Note: Sorry for the delay. I'm preparing to go see my girlfriend in florida in a few days, so I've been busy with that.

Thanks to those who took the time to review and thanks as always for reading <3

Chapter Text

A Stagnation of Love
Chapter 3
Part 2


    Maybe if I had been a lot younger when my mother had said all that to me, or if I had been like one of those normal kids I went to school with, someone who lived under the assumption my parents loved me, had always loved me, and always would no matter what, I would have reacted differently than I did. Maybe I would have cried the rest of the night, barricaded myself in my room or ran away. But I didn't. My parents had hurt me before and said terrible things to me before, nothing as awful as what she had said to me then, but I had come to expect pain from them. I won't say I was used to it, because it hurt as badly as it ever had, but I was used to it happening.
    So, instead of lashing out about being told I was an unwanted mistake and acting like a child about it, I chose the unhealthier option and acted like an adult, another thing I was used to by then. I cried for a little while in front of the freezer, thinking about Quatre and how at least there was one person in the world who saw me as something other than a burden that had been forced on them. Then I closed the freezer door and I buried all of my pain deep down inside where it could do the most damage.
    I kept busy. It got close to the time when Dad would be coming home and Mom hadn't come back yet. I somehow knew she wouldn't be coming home that night. She does that from time to time even when she hasn't been fighting with anyone, just leaves the house and doesn't tell anyone where she's going. Sometimes it's only for a few hours, sometimes it's an entire day that she's gone. In that respect, my parents are alike. The only difference is that my dad disappears for longer, and more often.
    I used to think that he just left on police business, and if he was gone for more than a day, he must be on a stakeout or something, but more often than not he comes home smelling of cigarettes and beer. My father doesn't smoke, but his cop buddies do and I can imagine them going to bars all night together. When I got old enough to understand such things, I began to wonder if my father is cheating on my mother. I'm not an idiot. I know my parents don't have sex, not for a lack of my father trying, and he frequently comes home late, smelling like perfume or just smelling different than he usually does.
    My mother never asks him about it. She isn't stupid, either, and she smells it on him, too, but she never says anything about it and if it upsets her in anyway, she's never showed it. In turn, my father never seems all that concerned about where my mother disappears to every once in awhile. Sometimes to me, they seem like strangers that happen to share a house together. Although I had started to feel a lot like that, myself.
    I decided to make dinner. If Mom didn't come back, it would be my responsibility and I would rather have it ready for when Dad came home. Having to order take out might send him from a neutral or good mood to an irritated one. If he was already in a bad mood, it wouldn't send him over the edge, but in the mood I was in, I didn't want to chance a bad run in with him. Besides, I had nothing better to do. I had homework, but not enough of it to keep me occupied the rest of the night, and I didn't want to start thinking and being alone in the house at that moment. I needed a distraction from my painful thoughts.
    I opened the refrigerator door and saw in dismay just how little food we had. I was hoping to find some frozen dinners, pre-cooked meals, or even enough leftovers to make a stew with. Of course, there wasn't anything remotely like that in there and I didn't have the slightest clue what my mother had been planning to make. I considered just calling my father at work and asking him to pick up something on the way home, but I was sick of take out all the time and I didn't want to have to admit to him, or myself, that I couldn't find something to make one meal with in the entire house.

    "You're so useless."

    I let my stubbornness get the best of me, a trait I had no doubt I had inherited from my father, and I started to pull things out of the refrigerator; lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese, chopped onions, and carrots. There was barely anything to make a decent salad, but it would do. I rummaged through our cabinets and managed better; a package of bread crumbs, half a bottle of olive oil, powdered garlic, and an entire box of macaroni shells. How the pasta hadn't been eaten yet was a miracle. None of it was enough for a big meal, but there would be enough for two people. If my mother came home looking for food, she would have to figure something out for herself. Thinking that, for the first time since she had laid into me, I felt bitterness and anger at her instead of sadness and anger directed at myself.
    Two months ago in Home Ec., we had learned how to make homemade mac and cheese and I still remembered enough to make do. I used the cheese we had and made a thick, rich cheese sauce to douse the noodles in after they had boiled. I had no idea what kind of cheese it was, there were a bunch of different ones wrapped up together, but when I melted it with some butter and mixed it with the one remaining egg we had and some flour, it smelled pretty good, so I guess it was the right kind of cheese. The garlic powder, rest of the butter I had melted, and the breadcrumbs would make due for a topping. Everything else I used for the salad, even cutting up the onion and two carrots. It wouldn't win any awards, but it was edible.
    By the time my father stepped through the door, the mac and cheese was baking in the oven, and I had washed enough dishes that the kitchen looked clean, and I had even set the table. If Quatre had seen me at work, he would have laughed and said I was better at being an adult than most adults. That was probably true, but I had always sucked at being a kid and I never could back down from something I had started. Besides, I understood that while I might tell myself that I had made dinner to appease my father, I really hadn't done it for him. I had done it for myself, and I had to admit that a hot, home cooked meal, even if I had been the one bumbling through it, was the only bright spot on that whole beyond shitty day.
    "Where's your mother?" my father asked me as he walked into the kitchen.
    He had already taken off the suit jacket he was required to wear at work, it was slung over his arm, and he was working his tie loose, but his gun holster and badge were still on him. He hated that suit and it was always the first to come off when he got home, and the holster and badge would be the last, right before he changed his pants. I guess, if a normal, well adjusted person ever reads this, they would ask if I lived in fear of my father's gun, if I was terrified of him using it on me one day.
    Truthfully, I have never thought about it that way. To me, my father's gun is a tool, an object he needs to do his job, no different than his badge. Yes, it's a weapon, but so are the knives in our kitchen. So are my father's hands. My father has never used his gun on me, not even in his worst furies, he hasn't even threatened me with it. He needs to keep it near him in case of emergencies, and keeps it in a drawer in his bedside table, but the drawer doesn't have a lock. My dad doesn't need a lock for his gun. I have attended enough anti-gun lectures at school, and just one lecture from my father about what would happen to me if I touched his gun.
    When my father beats me, it's out of pure, uncontrollable rage. He doesn't think, or at least he doesn't seem to, he just strikes me or grabs something nearby to hit me with. I can't see him taking a moment to walk into his bedroom to grab a weapon he doesn't even need to harm me. Mostly, I choose to believe he would never shoot me. Even after hearing from my mother that my father had wanted to abort me, I choose to believe that. But in those dark moments, usually after a beating, when I see the real violence in him, I would think 'if he kills me, it'll be with his fist.'
    As he took off his tie and tossed it onto the same chair he carelessly draped his jacket, I noticed how tired he looked. He often came home looking like that, tired and frustrated and angry. That night, he just looked tired, not in any sort of mood where I would need to be wary of him.
    "I don't know," I answered honestly, "she left awhile ago."
    There had been no real anger in his voice when he had asked me where she was, like there often was, just mild irritation and he simply snorted derisively at my answer, like he didn't care but was still annoyed at her disappearance. He noticed the salad I had put on the table in two bowls and the smell of the cheese, raising an eyebrow at both.
    "You do all this?" he gestured to the food.
    I shrugged. That was about our recent level of communication when he wasn't yelling at me or wanting me to do something. I couldn't even tell what his reaction was, if he found it surprising or if he couldn't have cared less, he just accepted it and went into his bedroom to change. He re-emerged when the timer on the oven went off. I put one half of the meal on one plate for each of us when it had cooled enough and we ate together in relative silence, but the silence wasn't bad. Neither of us are very sociable people to begin with and he was tired from work and I was depressed.
    Sometimes, I wonder if I hadn't inherited that anti social trait, if my life would be better than it is now. Maybe not the stuff at home. I can't see how being more talkative and being better at being around people would help my father stop beating me or my mother stop hating me, but school was a different story. If I were more sociable, would Relena have still picked on me? Would the rest of my classmates treated me like the plague? If I had any kind of social skills like most kids seemed to have, maybe I could have just shrugged off Relena's bullying and tried to make more friends instead of letting it get to me the way it had. Maybe I would have more friends now and maybe Relena would have lost interest in me. I don't know, but I still feel cheated... lacking, simply because I don't know how to connect with people my own age. When I think about that, it seems like such an incredibly miracle I had Quatre for a friend at all.
    My father made a noise of approval when he started to eat the baked mac and cheese, which was rare for him. Normally, I would have felt pride and happiness knowing I had done something right, but I didn't feel anything. The food tasted good and I hadn't screwed anything up, but I might as well have been chewing on sawdust for all that I noticed.
    I spent the majority of the meal chewing and glancing over the table at the man that was my father. I had known him for all thirteen years of my life, but right then he was a stranger to me. He was this person that occupied the same spaces I did, at the same food I did, and spoke to me on occasion, but at that moment, I felt no real connection to him. That feeling would end up vanishing, little by little, but right then it was there, prominent but as alien as my father had suddenly become to me.
    Who was he? This man had brought me into the world. He had, if only for a short period of time, loved my mother and made me, and he had wanted to unmake me, but beyond that, I knew almost nothing about him. Did he still wish that he had managed to convince my mother to abort me like she did or had he changed his mind? Did this man, eating with me at our kitchen table, hate me like my mother did, or was there something inside of him something tiny, that loved me if only because I was his? Did he feel love for me when he saw the things, like not being talkative and being stubborn, that were like him, the same way I felt love for him sometimes?
    I didn't know the answers to any of those questions, but the most terrible thing for me was that I couldn't remember the last time my father had told me that he loved me. I was certain that he had when I had been little, but I couldn't remember when. That seemed tragic to me, that I couldn't remember something important like that, because I needed to remember. I wanted to remember how he had looked when he had said it. I wanted to remember how he had sounded. Because I needed to believe that it was true.

*****

    My mother reappeared at some point two days later. When I came home the next day, she had still been gone, longer than she had been before, although my father hadn't been overly concerned. I had begun to think something might have happened to her. She couldn't have had enough money on her to rent a room someplace, and she didn't have any friends that I knew of that she could stay with, so where could she be? It made me realize just what little I really know about my parents and their lives separate from me. But she showed up the next evening, before I could start to wonder if we should be looking for her and why she had decided to run away, if she was hurt or in trouble or if she had just decided to never come home again, but not before I had begun to believe she had run away not from home, but from me.
    My mom didn't say a word about where she had gone or why. She didn't say anything about our fight, either, and I wasn't sure that I wanted her to. She just walked in right after Dad and I had finished dinner, poured herself some vodka, and disappeared into their bedroom without so much as looking at me. Three days after my mother had lashed out at me, I still hadn't told Quatre a word of it. I had thought that I would have. It seemed like too terrible of a thing to lock up inside of me, but that was exactly what I did. It was just like with finding out I wasn't straight. I was too embarrassed to admit those kinds of things to him. My only friend, the only person in the world who I knew actually cared for me, had problems of his own, I wasn't going to give him mine as well I told myself over and over.
    I was thinking exactly that when Quatre and I were eating lunch together in the school cafeteria on that third day. While he was sneaking quick looks over at Trowa's table near ours, looking like he wanted to go over there and say something to him but too nervous to, I was thinking about my mother. We were both too consumed in our own problems to notice when Relena strode over to our table, not that it would have made a difference if we had. She snuck up behind Quatre and snatched his lunch bag while he was distracted, grabbing both of our attentions. She picked through his lunch almost gingerly, pulling out an apple, some pretzel sticks, a salad in a Tupperware bowl, and his usual thermos. She unscrewed the lid and took a sniff of what was inside, her face screwing up in fake disgust.
    "Even your lunch is boring and bland, Winner," she sneered, "I almost feel bad for Maxwell. He might be worthless scum, but it must be terrible having such a flat, uninteresting friend like you. He and Trowa must be half asleep whenever they talk to you. Maybe that's why they're friendly towards you, for a sleep aid!"
    I don't know who flushed darker, Quatre in humiliation or me in rage. I wanted to stand up for him, I wanted to so badly it burned in me, but I couldn't, not without consequences, and Relena knew I couldn't. I hated these games of hers. I hated that I couldn't even try to protect my friend. She made a small, pleased noise when she took out the last item in Quatre's lunch bag: a cupcake.
    "What on earth are you doing with this?!" she demanded, sounding angry and affronted by Quatre's choice of dessert, but that gleeful, sadistic glint was in her eyes.
    She carefully unwrapped the cupcake and ate it in dainty bites as Quatre watched, as unable to do anything about it as me. She then picked up his thermos again with disdain.
    "Anyone who drinks this disgusting swill doesn't deserve a dessert as sweet and delicious as that," she poured the tea all over Quatre's food, destroying anything that hadn't been wrapped up or in a container. It splashed all over the table and was probably spilling over the edge and onto Quatre's pants, but he didn't move, he knew that would just piss her off, "What sort of loser kid drinks tea anyway? Did your grandmother make it for you?" she teased like it was the funniest thing ever, "Since we're friends, I bought you something much better."
    She showed Quatre what her other hand had been hiding behind her back this entire time: a bottle of whole percent chocolate milk.
    "Relena, don't," I finally protested, my worries about retaliation long forgotten. This was crossing the line, even for her.
    I might as well have said nothing at all. She unscrewed the lid and shoved the lip into his mouth.
    "Drink it, drink all of it," she demanded in an almost shriek. She made me think of a banshee or harpy, her pretty face turning ugly and monstrous.
    I stood up from the table, watching in horror, my fists clenched and full of helplessness as my friend gulped down the drink. His face was pale and his eyes wide with fear as he did it, but there wasn't anything either of us could do.
    Quatre was lactose intolerant. He wasn't so bad that he couldn't eat things you used milk to make like pastries or pancakes, but drinking milk made him terribly ill and cheese gave him stomachaches. All the milk he did use, like in his tea, was soy. I had known all that about just a week after I had made friends with him. Relena had known him longer than I had, and she had to know that. Why else would she make him drink milk? I saw red at that painful and terrible fact. She wanted to make him violently ill. But as angry as I was, I didn't try to stop her because I was afraid and I couldn't stand that. I was a weak coward who couldn't even protect the one thing I had, even when he was being hurt like this.
    Relena made him drink the entire bottle and when he was done, he looked pale and green, already incredibly queasy. The mind is more powerful than the stomach, so even though Quatre's digestive system hadn't realized it was allergic to the drink, Quatre was well aware. He clutched at his stomach and I wondered if the milk was really giving him cramps so quickly. I moved to help him; I hadn't been able to stop Relena, but I could try to help my friend to a bathroom away from the cafeteria where everyone was starting at us, but Relena glared at me. She wasn't going to allow me to diminish Quatre's embarrassment, and I was sure that Zechs was around here somewhere.
    All I could do was glare back at her, but it didn't matter anyway. Seconds later, Quatre pressed his hand to his mouth and then just as quickly drew it away as he vomited onto the tiled floor. From where I was, I could hear Quatre's strained sounds more than I could see it as he bent double, almost sticking his head between his legs. I never would have gotten him to a bathroom in time. The sudden smell of regurgitated milk and what little lunch he had eaten was incredibly strong and turned my own stomach.
    Relena took one whiff of it and took a step back, her nose wrinkling in repulsion.
    "Ugh! You're so disgusting, Quatre! I hope you're going to apologize to the poor janitor for that smell!" she pinched her nose shut.
    I felt torn in half. A part of me, the stupid, stubborn part that could never figure out when it was beaten, wanted to bash Relena across the face with my lunch tray. The other part just wanted to help my friend, but I had no idea how. When he finally seemed to stop and lift his head, Quatre looked horribly pale, shaking and sick. I handed him one of my napkins, the only thing I could think to do, and gratefully cleaned off his face. He ignored Relena entirely and instead glanced around the cafeteria, looking for someone. I thought that he was looking Zechs with that scared look in his eyes, but then those blue-greens fell on Trowa and the fear turned to absolute horror.
    Just like that, Quatre bolted from the cafeteria. I saw most of my classmates start to laugh, and I was sure Relena was laughing that ugly, satisfied laugh of hers, but I didn't even spare her a parting glance as I chased my best friend all the way into one of the boys' restrooms. He was already hunched over one of the toilets, puking again, although it didn't seem like much was coming up this time. I kneeled down on the floor with him and rubbed his back as he got it out of his system. His retching slowly turned into crying, at one point indistinguishable from each other, but I just kept rubbing his back, hoping it was helping in some way.
    "Are you ok?" I asked stupidly, hoping it sounded more soothing than the ignorant question it sounded to me as Quatre's tears finally stopped.
    "Really, I'm more embarrassed than anything," he confessed shyly, "My throat and stomach hurt and I still feel kind of sick, but it's not so bad."
    He paused then, deep in thought, and he seemed to go paler, whatever he was thinking of disturbing him.
    "I can get you a ginger ale," I suggested, "it might make you feel better."
    He looked up at me with large, blue-green eyes and trembled a little. They were the frightened eyes of a child who didn't want to be separated from a parent in a strange place.
    "N-no," he stammered, "I'll be fine. I just shouldn't eat anything too rich for the rest of the day."
    That was what he said, but I heard what he didn't dare to say out loud. 'Don't leave me.' He didn't want me to leave him alone in the bathroom. I suppose that sounds strange and childish for a thirteen year old boy, but I understood it perfectly and I just nodded. I would stay with him all day if that was what he needed to feel better and in a way, I felt flattered that I was this source of strength for him. I could never understand why I was, what it was about me that he seemed to need, but I didn't need to understand it to give that to him.
    "Trowa saw me..." he murmured and I wasn't sure it that was supposed to be a question or not, his tone was too strange for me to decipher.
    'Why does it matter?' I wanted to ask, but I couldn't. It obviously did matter to Quatre a lot, even if I couldn't understand it, and I didn't want to hurt him anymore than he was. How Trowa saw him was obviously important to him.
    Like someone had thrown a light switch, Quatre's lost and embarrassed expression turned to one of anger and absolute hate. It startled me so much I almost flinched from him. I had never seen such a look on his face before. I had not thought him capable of hating anyone or anything enough to look like that. If it had been anyone else, or me, it would have been normal, but on someone as sweet and shy as Quatre, it was frightening.
    "I hate her," he hissed, "She did that so Trowa would see me do something so disgusting," he started to cry again, but his tears were silent and angry as they tracked down his face, "I hate her so much."
    My friend seemed unable to really process his anger, like he didn't know what to do with it, his hands shaking. I continued to rub on his back, reminding my own scared child in my head that Quatre was not my father, he wasn't going to hit me just because he was mad, there was no reason to be wary of him. I don't know how long we stayed in the restroom, but finally Quatre settled down enough to stop crying and stand up. I had grabbed his book bag before I had chased after him and he collected it from where I had dropped it in the corner of the bathroom.
    We didn't talk about his rage or his shame, but I kept close to him as we left our little sanctuary. We walked maybe twenty feet before nearly walking right into Trowa. I will admit that I felt a strong bitterness as I saw him. He was the reason for my friend's pain. What had happened had been terrible enough, but Quatre felt the worst of it because of Trowa being there. Hell, according to Quatre, it was because of Trowa that Relena had done it at all. I know it isn't fair, but for a moment, I hated him for his mere presence. I knew it wasn't really his fault, that in a way he was a victim, too, that Relena was trying to keep Trowa and Quatre from being friends, but I still felt an anger at him.
    "Quatre," Trowa said, obviously startled at seeing him.
    My friend instantly looked at the ground, unable to meet his eyes. His pale complexion turned even whiter and he seemed mortified. He murmured Trowa's name, but that seemed like the only thing he was capable of at that moment.
    "Are... are you ok?" the taller boy asked shyly, looking away from Quatre as well.
    Quatre nodded, still incapable of looking Trowa in the eye.
    "I'm fine," he muttered and then finally, shyly, looked up at him, "I'm so sorry... you had to see that... it must have been really disgusting."
    "No!" Trowa burst out, "No, it wasn't disgusting. You just got sick, it's natural. I'm sorry that happened to you. I... I didn't know you were lactose intolerant... But I'm glad you're feeling better now."
    As he looked up at him, Quatre blushed darkly at Trowa's words. I watched the two of them with that bewildered feeling again. I felt my anger at Trowa vanish just watching them together. It was obvious, at least to me, that the older boy liked my friend even if they never really seemed to hang out together. I wanted to feel bitter and point out to Trowa that if he wanted to be friends with Quatre so badly, why didn't he make Relena stop, but that would just make me a hypocrite. As the two of them talked, words that went right over my head, Trowa started to blush, too. I almost shook my head in exasperation. Quatre never blushed. Before he had started talking to Trowa like this, I had never seen him blush before. So why... what was it about Trowa that made him...
    And suddenly it hit me. It hit me with all of the force of getting struck in the face with a metal beam. Quatre liked Trowa. That realization echoed in my head over and over again. My friend had a crush on this other boy. Just like that, I felt like a childish idiot. Maybe I had been unable to see it until I had my own sexual identity crisis, or maybe for all maturity, I really am just a child about things, but it had been staring me in the face all that time. The stuttering, the blushing, the awkward conversations, that little smile Quatre would get when he talked about Trowa or when he finally got over enough of his shyness to talk to the other teenager normally... they were the ways a boy would shyly talk to a girl he liked if he lacked confidence.
    At the same time I felt like a blind moron for not realizing it before, I also felt this incredulity. My best friend was gay? It seemed impossible to me. Here I had been, worrying about my own sexuality, and it had never occurred to me that Quatre might be having similar issues. It had never occurred to me because it had seemed about as unlikely as snow in July. What were the fucking odds that I would make friends with a boy who might have the same sexuality issues as me? That just couldn't happen in real life... could it?
    Back then, I had found that possibility that the both of us were gay to be ridiculous. Since then, I did some research on it. I couldn't look up homosexuality on the school computers, but in my attempts to I did come across an article. It really didn't have anything to do with homosexuality or help me to understand what was going on with me, but it did talk about how we can subconsciously make friends with people that have similarities with us, things that aren't obvious, but there's some kind of chemical connection happening. I don't know if I believe that, that Quatre and I became friends because of some chemical attraction, because we're both gay. I don't know what I think, if it's just some coincidence, or even as a child, I knew we were both different beyond just being social outcasts.
    I would like to say that my epiphany gave me some kind of comfort, that figuring out that my friend had a crush on another boy was a solace towards my own problems, but it didn't. I felt just as lost as I had before. I still didn't know if I was gay or just... disinterested. I didn't know how Quatre would take it if I was the latter. I didn't even know if Quatre was aware of his feelings for Trowa or how he would react if I tried to ask him about it. The only thing my realization gave me was a sliver of hope that, if I tried to talk to him about my own issues, he might, might be more ok with it. As I watched the two of them together, both blushing and awkward, I made a choice. I decided to accept the idea that Quatre knew about his feelings, why else would he be so bothered knowing Trowa had seemed him throw up?
    And I decided to confront him about it.

*****

    Looking back at everything I've written, I guess that choice to talk to Quatre about his crush comes across as a pretty stupid idea. I stood a whole lot to lose if it went wrong, and little to gain if it went right. That was exactly what was on my mind when I finally said something to him about it after school the next day as I was walking him home. A smarter person would have just kept their trap shut about it and pretend like they hadn't realized anything. But as usual, I'm not smart, but I am stubborn. And my obsession with my sexuality had gotten worse since I had discovered I couldn't get aroused by girls.
    It wasn't like I thought that if I could just figure out what I was, I could fix everything else that was shitty about my life. I just couldn't stop thinking about it and it was driving me half crazy. It was like there was this big chalkboard in my head listing all the things I could be. Straight was crossed out and next to 'gay' and 'asexual' there was this huge question mark and I was frantic to erase that. And it wasn't like I thought that Quatre could help me do that, but I wanted so badly to talk to someone about it. I just wasn't so sure that someone should be Quatre.
    It was more than just trying to figure out my own problems. I didn't want to have this big secret between us. It was one thing not telling my best friend about my problems at home, and his problems at home as well. The way I saw it, this thing with Trowa shouldn't be a blind spot between us. Quatre thought he was hiding it from me, and he was wrong. I just wanted him to know that, and I wanted to find out exactly what those feelings were before I accidentally did something stupid about it.
    I looked over at him as we walked. We had crossed paths with Trowa before we had left the school and they had chatted about some movie that was supposedly coming out that weekend that the both of them were fairly excited about. Quatre was still wearing this soft, tiny smile on his face that was kind of cute. I had felt oddly jealous as I had watched that smile as the two of them had talked. Jealousy and fear. Would I never feel the way that Quatre felt when he was with Trowa?
    If only for that brief second, I wished with all my heart that I was gay. Better to like boys than to not like anyone, to never know what that kind of love feels like. It was a fleeting thought, but my feelings weren't so fleeting. I asked myself again what was wrong with me. I didn't know. I didn't know why I couldn't be attracted to other people, boy or girl, and I didn't know why this was such an obsession for me.
    "So..." I paused, feeling a wave of fear and anxiety and wondering just what the hell I was doing, "Trowa seems nice," I said and immediately almost winced at how awkward that sounded.
    Quatre, thankfully, didn't find anything odd about what I had said.
    "He really is," he said enthusiastically, "He doesn't treat me like most upperclassmen do. He doesn't care that I'm younger or even about Relena and Zechs. He's quiet, but he actually has a really good sense of humor, too."
    Quatre sounded so excited just talking about Trowa, I had to smile.
    "You really like him," I summed up cautiously.
    This time Quatre was the one to pause. He looked at me as though he were trying to assess something, probably trying to figure out how innocent that statement was. Again, I felt awkward. I didn't just want to blurt out 'I know you have a crush on him' but I didn't know how to ease into that, either.
    "Y... yes," he said with some uncertainty, "I do like him. He could be a good friend."
    I didn't buy that for a second, not with that cautious look he had and the slight blush on his fair face.
    "Have you..." I squirmed, trying to find the right words to say even as this sounded incredibly dumb to me, "have you told him that you like him?"
    He stopped walking entirely and looked at me with horror as it dawned on him that I wasn't talking about him wanting to be friends with Trowa.
    "Duo," his voice shook as he spoke and he actually sounded slightly angry as well as flustered, "I'm not... I don't like Trowa like that! How can you think that?!"
    I would have instantly backpedaled, making Quatre mad at me being the last thing I would ever want, but I heard the fear in his voice more than the anger.
    "It's ok," I insisted, "It doesn't bother me or anything-"
    "No," Quatre said forcefully, his hands curling into fists, "He's a friend, that's all, understand?!"
    "Quatre, it's not a big deal," I protested, starting to feel alarmed at how scared he was. Had I made a mistake?
    "I am not gay, Duo!" he actually snapped at me, his eyes filling with tears, "Don't you ever accuse me of... of that!"
    "I've seen you with him," I pointed out, trying to talk him down from that frightening mix of terror and rage, something I had never ever seen in him before and never wanted to see again, and feeling so guilty, I wanted to just forget about this whole conversation, "You get so happy when you talk to him, and you're so awkward together. You're not like that with anyone else. Every time he compliments you, you blush, and when Relena tries to embarrass you in front of him, you get so upset, more upset than I've ever seen her make you. Do you really expect me to believe you're just friends with him?"
    He went as white as a sheet, like all the blood had just been drained from him. Again, I felt a horrible guilt, realizing the fear and pain I was putting my friend through. I wondered if I was doing the right thing or if I was making a huge mistake. What if I had misread things and Quatre really wasn't gay? Or worse, what if I was right and he felt like I had betrayed him? What if this destroyed our friendship? I should just drop this, I thought, I should just laugh it off and never bring it up again, but I couldn't. I had opened my stupid mouth and I couldn't shut it.
    "You're wrong!" he nearly screamed at me, "You're dead wrong, Duo! Don't you ever say things like that! There's no way I could like a boy like that!"
    He was shaking and looked sick again. He was more frightened by what I had said than he was actually angry at me, but he was trying to pretend it was all anger. Was it really so terrible, what I was suggesting? To be gay... just accusing my best friend of that had made him act totally out of character like this. I looked down at the ground, feeling awkward and just about the worst friend there was.
    "I guess I could be wrong," I admitted and when I saw him relax I felt a twisted storm of guilt and a fear as intense as his, but all I could be was honest, "but if I'm not... and I think I'm not... it really doesn't bother me. I'm not Zechs, Quatre, I'm not that ugly. Honestly, when I realized why you act differently around Trowa than you do around me, I felt kind of relieved," I rubbed nervously at the back of my head as Quatre stared at me in shock, "I know, I know, I'm an asshole for being relieved about something like this when it's hard and painful for you... but..." I swallowed roughly, "I... I don't know what I am. I don't know if I like boys or if I like nothing at all, but I know that I don't like girls. There's something... not normal about me, Zechs was right about that much, and I don't know what to do about it. I was too terrified to say anything to you about it until now," I laughed nervously, "I'm still kind of terrified, even if you have the same problem."
    I watched my friend with the same intensity he had been watching me with while I had been accusing him of liking Trowa, and while Quatre had regained some color back as I had confessed to him, I could feel myself becoming pale and shaky. I watched for any indication he might be disgusted about what I had just said, or judging me in some way, but he only looked shocked and pained.
    "Duo, that's..." he looked as uncomfortable about this conversation as I felt and that gave me some hope that this wouldn't end too badly, that I hadn't made a colossal mistake, "You can't make that kind of assumption about yourself just because you didn't like kissing Relena," he said, that pained tone still there along with some familiarity. Had he gone through something similar?
    "That's not the reason," I protested, "Well, it's part of it, but-"
    "Hold on," he stopped me, looking around the street, "We shouldn't talk about this here."
    I nodded. There was no one on the street that we were on, but it was a very public road and this wasn't the sort of thing I wanted anyone but us hearing. It made me feel better just knowing that Quatre was willing to have this conversation with me and hadn't walked away at that point.
    "C'mon," he took my hand and tugged me along.
    Despite everything, that one little action made me stupidly happy. I had made him so upset earlier, but he was acting like it had never happened. He was more concerned about having this talk with me than the accusations I had made. Best of all, he didn't hate me yet. I let him lead me through the bushes on the side of the road and into a small wooded area that was pretty secluded. I could still see the street from where we were, but unless we started shouting, no one would hear us.
    "You said this isn't about Relena," Quatre said as I leaned against a tree, "but you said yourself that you didn't like her kissing you. After everything she's done to you, even if you liked girls, I doubt you'd enjoy that. So what is this about?"
    I felt my insides squirming again. It was one thing to decide to talk to Quatre about my problems, it was a whole other issue finding the courage to do so after all of my fears and anxieties.
    "I don't want you to hate me," I murmured, "That's why I haven't told you. I was afraid you would be disgusted, or think I was a freak and not want to be friends anymore."
    Quatre's entire face softened, losing his guarded expression. That pained look he had had grew and for one panicked moment, I thought he was going to hug me. I don't think I would have been able to handle that. As things were, I felt like I was on the very edge between having some tentative control over my emotions and breaking down into a crying fit. For what seemed like the thousandth time, I felt doubt and wished I had never brought this up. I didn't want to talk about it. I didn't want to feel this fear and self-disgust anymore, but it wasn't going to go away by just not talking about it, either.
    "Duo," he said slowly, not like he was talking to a child, but weighing his words carefully, "How would you feel if I told you I was gay?"
    I chewed on my lip as I considered what he was saying. My immediate reaction was to shout that I didn't care about stuff like that, but I saw how serious my friend was, and I knew this wasn't something I could brush off. How did I feel about Quatre possibly being gay, beyond wanting him to help with my own problems or even him might having a crush on Trowa? After finding out about that, I hadn't given it a whole lot of serious thought. But then again, I had never really given much thought to Quatre's sexuality at all, just my own.
    I had never pictured him one day going out with some girl. Had that been because I hadn't wanted to think about something... someone taking my friend away from me, or was I even more childish than that?
    I didn't know anything about Quatre's parents beyond the fact that they were more concerned with their careers than their children. I didn't know if they were like my father and looked down at homosexuals with disgust and that was a reason for Quatre's fears, or if he was just scared about anyone finding out about his feelings for Trowa. I didn't blame him for that fear, I had felt similar terror towards my own sexuality. I might be ignorant about things, but I understood enough about the world to know being gay was far from a glamorous thing, especially in a small, conservative town like ours.
    But how did I feel about Quatre's sexuality? Looking at him and thinking about him loving another boy, I didn't feel any sort of disgust towards him. I wasn't religious, but even if I was, I don't think I could have looked down at him. Maybe it was because I was going through the same problems, but I think it was because, when I looked at him, I didn't see a fag like I'm sure our classmates would, I just saw my best friend. I think that's truly what being gay is. It isn't the only thing that defines a person, although people treat it that way. And it isn't something disgusting.
    Being gay was just a part of Quatre, a piece of who he was, and I couldn't think of taking that piece out of him any more than any other piece, like his love of math or his kindness. Most of all, I just didn't see how him being gay made him bad or any different, like someone who liked spicy foods when others didn't. Quatre was my best friend, and if he wanted to love someone of the same gender, how did that change things? I thought of my doubts about my parents' love for me and wondered how love could be bad. Wasn't it the thing everyone wanted, to be loved? In comparison to all the bad things, like my father's abuse and Quatre's parents' neglect, how was love, even if it was different, be bad?
    These were adult thoughts for someone my age, I guess, but it was exactly how I felt, and even just realizing them helped me a lot in how I felt about my own sexual identity crisis. In the grand scheme of things, did it really matter that I didn't like girls? Liking them wouldn't change much, as far as I saw it. I was poor, strange, bullied, and had very little redeeming qualities, let alone interesting ones. I don't know what Relena had seen in me to want to kiss me, but I wasn't handsome like Zechs and Trowa were and I wasn't athletic. What sort of person, female or otherwise, would want to date me? Relena was twisted, so her liking me didn't really help.
    Being straight wasn't going to stop Relena and Zechs from bullying me. They were still going to pick on me and call me fag even if I had a girlfriend. It wouldn't make me any wealthier or any less of a social outcast. And if I was either gay or asexual, how would it make my life any worse? My parents already hated me. If Relena and Zechs found out about it, their abuse would get worse, but it was already bad to begin withy. My life wasn't going to change a whole lot as long as no one found out about it. How hard could it be to keep it a secret? If I was gay, I hadn't found anyone I liked so far and no one had truly figured it out yet.
    None of these thoughts gave me any relief or happiness. I didn't want to live my life alone, hiding away a part of me like it was a filthy secret, but I didn't know what I wanted. To date a boy, fall in love, live together like a married couple would, only to be harassed and hated for it didn't appeal to me anymore than never finding out how love feels did. I might not look down at Quatre for his sexuality, but I didn't expect anyone but him to do the same for me.  I still felt scared and confused about all of this, but I also felt like, in realizing my acceptance of Quatre's sexual identity, I might be able to accept mine, too, even if it was far off in the future.
    "I already said it doesn't bother me," I said with a shrug, "and that's the truth. You're my best friend, and you're the same person you've always been to me. It's not like you've changed, I was just too dumb to realize something about you. Even if I did like girls, I would never look down on you for liking boys."
    He looked down at his feet, thinking about something for a long time before he looked up at me again.
    "I do like Trowa," he admitted softly, as though he couldn't possibly say such a thing any louder than that, "I like him a lot. When I first met him, I was just a lame underclassmen and he was just this eighth grader that was popular and good at basketball, and really, really handsome. I've... worried about how I feel around other boys for awhile now. It wasn't just that I didn't like girls, I liked boys before I didn't like girls, but Trowa was the first person to make me really realize it wasn't a fluke. I've never been attracted to anyone like I am with him," he smiled and it was such a brilliant, lovely smile, it almost took my breath out of my lungs, the sort of smile you see on people when they talk about their girlfriends and boyfriends, a type of smile that, as cliche as it sounds, really does light up the room.
    "Then we started talking to each other. I don't know how it happened and I don't remember who talked to who first, but I didn't just think he was cute and handsome, he was nice. He knew that Zechs was bullying me, but he still talked to me and he's never been mean to me. He's smart and funny when he opens up. Being around him makes me happy, Duo, so... stupidly happy. It's like how I feel when I hang out with you, but different. I want things I've never wanted before and he makes me feel better about all the crap in my life. But it's like you say, when Relena and Zechs embarrass me in front of him, it's hurts more than anything else they've ever done to me."
    I didn't know how to comfort him as he confessed that, looking devastated and sad, no doubt remembering vomiting in front of Trowa, and that pained me. I felt envious of everything Quatre was saying to me. I wanted to know what it felt like, to have one, single person that could make you feel like that. But it was like everything else in my life, everything I saw that everyone else had and I never would. At the same time, I certainly didn't envy Quatre's pain. If this was what being gay truly was, maybe it would be better to be asexual, maybe better to never fall in love at all.
    I didn't ask him if he had told Trowa about how he felt, or asked him out or any of that because they were all stupid questions. Of course he hadn't. Trowa was nice and he wasn't an asshole like Zechs, but that didn't mean that he would understand, or that he would accept Quatre, let alone if he felt the same. I wanted to believe that he did, that Trowa's shyness was the same as Quatre's, but I was biased. I felt like I should give him some sort of advice, to help him deal with his problem, but I felt incredibly ill equipped to tell him anything. Maybe if I had, I could have helped him, but even now I don't have a clue what was the right thing to say to him. In the end, he helped me a whole hell of a lot more than I could help him.
    "I don't want this for you," he murmured suddenly, his blue green eyes were stormy as he looked at me, his pale face pinched with the same pain I had felt listening to him talk about Trowa, "I'd never want you to... to be like this, even if it made me feel better to have someone I can talk to about how I feel."
    "It's lonely," I said, remembering how I had felt after my mother had told me I was unwanted, how I had wanted to talk to someone about it and about my confusion concerning my sexuality, but too afraid to say anything even to Quatre and how isolated and alone I had felt.
    I hit the nail right on the head with those two small words. He stared at me in absolute shock, like he couldn't believe that I was real before his expression melted away into this incredibly powerful emotion. I realized that he felt the same exact thing I had felt, that isolation and absolute loneliness, all those fears and believing that no one would understand. In that moment, I felt a deep connection to him, more intense than I had ever felt with him before and looking at his face, I knew he felt it, too.
    "It isn't just because of Relena?" he asked again, his voice weak and unsteady.
    I shook my head.
    "It was partly because of that," I confessed, "but even before that, I thought it was kind of weird that I don't like any of the girls in our school. I had thought that, at my age, even if I didn't want to date any of them, I should feel some attraction. When Relena kissed me, I didn't feel anything at all. It just repulsed me. I thought... I had hoped it was because I hate her, but I wasn't sure that was the real reason. But..." I squirmed, not wanting to tell him what had happened when I had taken those magazine spreads home, "when I looked at those naked pictures Zechs put in my locker... I didn't feel anything at all."
    "That doesn't mean that you're gay," Quatre pointed out, but he sounded like he only half believed that.
    "Maybe," I could admit that much at least.
    I had been incredibly stressed when I had tried to masturbate to those pictures. I had tried so hard to find something arousing in them, even though it was my first time actually looking at a naked woman, but in reality I had been probably more focused on my fears of failure than actually enjoying what I was looking at. But how could I possibly relate to my best friend those fears, the desperation that I had looked at those pictures, and this feeling, so deeply rooted inside of me, that it had nothing to do with my fear or my age or anything else? That somewhere inside of me, the realization that I didn't like girls seemed right, as messed up as that was?
    "I don't know if I'm gay," I murmured, "but I know I'm not straight. It just... doesn't feel right to me."
    He nodded and that one, singular motion of his head almost drove me to tears. How was it possible that someone like me could end up so lucky to be friends with someone who could understand me like this, that wasn't judging me, but could actually sympathize with me?
    "I didn't know what I was going to do," I heard myself say, like I was having some kind of out of body experience or someone had given me a truth serum, "I don't even know if I'm gay or if I'm never going to like anyone, regardless of gender, I still don't know what I'm going to do about it, or if Zechs and Relena or my father find out about it-"
    "Duo," Quatre interrupted me with a soft smile, that same smile he always used to comfort me when I was upset and it wasn't until I saw it and realized my hands had started shaking that I understood how upset I was. He took a step towards me and grasped my hand in his, stopping it from trembling, "Believe me, I know how difficult it is, but I promise you, it'll turn out ok."
    And just like that, for the first time since I had opened my locker to Zechs's latest prank, I thought it just might be. When Quatre told me, with a tone that said, regardless of his words, that he had been and was in the same dark place that I was in, that it was going to be ok, I believed him. I shouldn't have. I had always trusted him. After all the beatings my father had given me, after all of the harsh, terrible things my mother had said to me, after all of Relena and Zechs's bullying, and after all of the willfully oblivious people in my life, I still trusted so blindly.
    I trusted him to tell me the truth after four years of friendship. So as mature as I saw myself, I never realized that he had been lying to me.

*****

    I guess what I just wrote sounds pretty terrible. It probably sounds like Quatre was totally bullshitting me, deceiving me. It wasn't like that, at least I refuse to believe he had said those things to hurt me in some way. Knowing him, the way Quatre had probably seen it was that I was suffering, in the same way he had no doubt suffered when he had first figured out he wasn't... quite normal, and no one had comforted him. Things weren't going to be alright because they had never become alright for him, but if he could make me believe that they would be, what was the harm?
    It wasn't all Quatre's fault, either. I let him lie to me. I knew fully well that Quatre's acceptance of his homosexuality hadn't gotten better. When I had confronted him about it, he had been terrified, and when he talked about his crush on Trowa, he sounded so pained and sad. What, exactly, had gotten better for him? But I let him lie to me and I let myself believe the lie because it made me feel better, that idea that, eventually, all the shit that I was worrying about would amount to no big deal, even if the realist in me knew better.
    If it weren't for those words and Quatre's support, I don't know what I would have done about the things I had learned about myself, but I do know he helped me more than anyone else ever could. Over the next two days, we met in secluded places, but never the same place, Quatre bringing food from home, and we just sat and talked. He listened to me talk about how scared I was, how desperate to be normal and how much I wanted to find someone like Trowa, to know what it was like to have a crush on someone, that I wanted to figure out who and what I really was and how frustrating not having any answers was. I didn't tell him about my mother had said and that I felt almost frantic to prove to myself that the reason why I wasn't attracted to anyone wasn't because love was something I would never experience in my life.
    Quatre listened and then told me about his own experiences, which I will admit were more vast than my own. He told me about his suspicions of being... different for the last year and a half. Like me, he had worried that he didn't seem to connect with girls or feel any attraction to them, but unlike me, he had started to realize that all the things normal boys went through at our age, starting to notice girls not as cootie factories but as something interesting and attractive, he was going through with boys. He was noticing boys, looking at hem with interest.
    While our male classmates were becoming transfixed and obsessed with soft hands and breasts, my best friend had started to think about bigger, rougher hands and wide shoulders. It wasn't anything overtly sexual. Given a few more years and I'm sure it would have become that, but it was just a notice, a fascination for him at that age. A fascination that drove home to me how strange I was, that I couldn't find one thing about just one other person that made me feel that way.
    When it had dawned on him what these interests meant, he had become terrified, Quatre told me. As it turned out, his father was rather traditional and old-fashioned, and would no doubt greet Quatre's new found sexuality with the same intense level of disgust and disdain as my father would rage and repulsion. I don't know if that's necessarily true, but that was the picture Quatre painted for me in both the quavering tone his voice adopted as he spoke of the possibility of his parents finding out, and the almost obsessed fervor he spoke with when talking about hiding all this from them.     I understood what lay between the lines of that confession perfectly. His parents already barely spoke to him, he would never give them a reason to stop loving him entirely. In that moment, even before my best friend had abandoned me, I felt how cruel the world really was. Quatre and I were freaks. Normal kids are told that their parents will love them no matter what, that they just need to be themselves and they'll be accepted. None of that was true. Maybe most parents do love their kids, but not all of them do, like my parents. And maybe some parents love their kids no matter what, but a lot of them only love them if they fit into their idea of what their kid should be, like Quatre's.
    The cruelty of it was that Quatre hadn't done anything wrong. In all aspects, he was the sort of kid that fathers like his, fathers that wanted the 'perfect child', prayed for and craved. Quatre was bright, interested in his education, well behaved and well mannered, and if his father paid more than two minutes attention to him, he would realize just how lucky he was to have him instead of a son like Zechs Dorlian. In all aspects, Quatre was everything his father had wanted, except for his sexuality, something he could never change.
    It seemed like such a small thing to me, that that was the one thing that would take his parents' love from him. If it ever turned out that Trowa liked him, too, or he found some other boy that he liked and liked him back, he would have to make a choice between a boyfriend and his parents. I had no idea what he would choose if that happened. It was terrible, but I actually hoped Trowa didn't like Quatre and he wouldn't find anyone to date until he was much older and ready to deal with that choice. The way things were going for me, I would never need to make that choice, but if it were me in his shoes... I wanted to think I would choose the person I loved over my parents. Any kind of love had to be better than the kind Quatre's had for him, and it was certainly better than how my parents treated me, but even as I thought that, I felt doubt. Even after learning that my parents wished I had never been born, I still felt love for them and I still wanted them to love me. I wasn't even sure, if I did at some point in my life want to date someone, if I could throw away that possibility so surely. And that just made me feel pathetic.
    
End Part 2

Author's Note: Before anyone bitches at me about this, I am well aware that asexuality does not mean not being in any romantic relationships, it simply means not having any desire or put any importance towards sex. Bare in mind that this entire story is from Duo's point of view and he has a lot of misconceptions about things.
    


    

    
    
    
    
    
    

Chapter Text

A Stagnation of Love
Chapter 3
Part 3




    Now that I had learned how Quatre really felt about Trowa, every time I saw the two of them together, I wondered how I could have been so oblivious and stupid the very first time I had witnessed the two of them talking. Quatre had seemed a little bit bolder after confessing to me. It was like sharing this secret between us had given him some kind of confidence in himself and he stopped worrying so much about Relena and Trowa being embarrassed just to be seen with him. Trowa, to his credit, didn't seem to care all that much about Relena's attempt to humiliate Quatre in front of him.
    I wondered if he really understood what was going on. The second Quatre had confirmed my suspicions that he liked Trowa a lot more than he would just a friend, I had gained a whole other suspicion. I remember Relena's smug look when she had made Quatre throw up, and I remembered how, that time and every time she had bullied him in front of Trowa, she would look for the upper classman, make sure he was watching. I had begun to wonder if she knew how Quatre felt, if she even just suspected that he loved the other boy, if there was something more sinister in all the times she called him a faggot.
    Just the possibility that Relena could know that chilled me to the core. The bitch was in the unique position to do an incredible amount of damage to my best friend just be suspecting it. She could tell everyone that she knew for sure, and she could tell everyone who is was that Quatre had a crush on. Regardless of how Trowa felt, it would be devastating. If she was just doing it to mess with Quatre and try to keep him from making a second friend, that was just the usual shit from her. But if she knew that Quatre had a crush on Trowa, and she had done all those things to hurt him... I hated her more than I ever had for that.
    If it was true, she was trying to hurt Quatre right in the one part of him that was the most vulnerable, the easiest and deepest to hurt. I wanted to believe that it wasn't true, that she couldn't possibly be that horrible and cruel, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that it had to be true. She was like a hyena, cunning and relentless. Worse, it wasn't that she didn't give a shit about Quatre's feelings, she cared very much about them. She liked hurting us, so why wouldn't she go this far?
    With those thoughts circling around in my head, every time I saw her, every time I heard her voice or her name was brought up, I felt this indescribable wave of rage in me. I had been feeling that anger more and more lately. It was like a sea of fire in my gut and every time I saw Relena Darlian's smile or heard her voice or that sinister, disgusting laugh of hers, that sea rose a bit more. It terrified me.
    I had never been like this before I had met Relena. Or at least, that's what I told myself. I still remember how I was the night before I went to school for the first time, how eager and excited I had been just to meet other kids my age. My ribs had hurt and I was exhausted, but I hadn't been angry at my father for it, only focused on the possibility that I was going to make a new friend, that my life might get a bit better, before Relena had shown me how that reality was harsh and cold, not like the shows I saw on television.
    Before, every time my father had hit me, I had felt so miserable, disappointed in myself that I wasn't good enough, that I was infuriating my father, making him angrier and more stressed. When he hit me, I didn't need him to tell me it was my fault, I just knew it and it would depress me. I still feel that way now, but lately when he strikes me, I feel this intense anger and hatred for him in my gut. I never used to hate my father before I met Relena. Sometimes I wonder if that's just a coincidence, if I grew into that hate or if she had brought out something horrible in me.
    I love my Dad, even when he beats me and calls me useless, I still love him, but the older I get, the more polluted that love gets. When I think about that, I find myself wondering 'am I becoming him?' and that thought terrifies me. Is temper genetic? My father gave me the shape of his eyes and nose and mouth... did he give me his anger, too? Will this rage in me just keep getting worse until I lash out at someone the way he does?
    I wanted to believe I could never do that. I couldn't hurt someone I loved. Just the thought of hitting Quatre just because I was frustrated made me feel sick, but I remembered how angry I had felt when I saw him not stand up for himself, and I remembered how I lashed out at him in the hospital because of that frustration. And then I asked myself exactly how that was any different from my father telling me I was worthless because I broke a dish or forgot to take the trash to the curb for the week. My stomach twisted at that realization, but it didn't stop the anger that was festering in me.
    I tried not to think of those things. I tried to focus on the things that were good in my life, even if there weren't many. When I felt frustrated at things at school, I thought about Quatre and how he was always sticking by me no matter the stupid shit I did. When I felt sad about how my parents treated me, I would look at the last piece of birthday cake in the freezer and remember everything he had given me. And when I felt scared about my future, I would think about the secret talks we had had.
    Thinking about him would make me feel better, for a time, but that anger was always there, simmering beneath the surface, threatening everything I wanted to be. Some nights after a beating, I would curl up on my mattress and chant in my head 'not like him, not like him' and cling to all of Quatre's patience and understanding and kindness, all of the traits I fought so hard to instill in myself. But in those moments, no matter how hard I remembered those good things, they wouldn't touch me and I could feel it all slipping away, like the good parts of me were grains of sugar I was hopelessly grasping at, and my father was the inevitable conclusion no matter how many of them I gathered.
    The only times I didn't feel tortured by that was when I was with Quatre. The painful, almost ironic thing about our recent talks was that our moments together were getting spread farther and farther apart. I'm not trying to sound melodramatic, or make it seem like I'm this terrible person who only gives a shit about himself, or that, for all my instances that Quatre is the only good thing I had, how ready I was to chain him to me and make him as miserable as I was. Quatre and Trowa were spending more and more time together, and I was very happy about that. Do not, for a minute, think that I'm so selfish that I wasn't happy for him. But I also felt very sad. For a thirteen year old, that was, and is, confusing. I don't know, maybe when you're older it's something you can understand, but I don't think that I want to.
    I think I've said it before, but I was never really afraid of losing Quatre to Trowa. Like the idiot that I am, I guess I just assumed he would always be there for me. Maybe that's where I really fucked up, thinking I didn't have to struggle to keep my best friend. So I wasn't really jealous of Trowa, but I did feel sad realizing that Quatre was growing without me, that I likely would never feel what he felt for our older classmate, and how inadequate I was. Trowa was quiet, but he wasn't an outcast like I was. If Quatre had only been interested in Trowa's friendship, I would have been jealous because there was no way I could measure up. Oddly enough, it was because of Quatre's crush that never happened.
    Mostly, when Quatre left me to go talk to Trowa, or he would tell me about going to his games, I would feel very lonely. It made me realize what little I had. Quatre was my only friend, but that fact had never really hit me until those moments, that when Quatre went off with Trowa, I had nothing else. It made me feel pathetic. Seeing them together, I realized that I was the true outcast, the true loser in our friendship. I was the one incapable of making friends, not Quatre. He might think he was the same, but he had made friends with Trowa easily, even if they were awkward. If Quatre put out the effort, he could have other friends. He would never be popular, he was too shy, and Relena was too popular for our classmates to want to cross, but he could make at least one or two other friends besides me.
    That he didn't even try seemed worse to me than my being a social leper. I'd never know what my life at school would have been like if Relena hadn't started to pick on me, but for Nate, she really had stolen his social life from him. Or maybe his shyness was something else, maybe it was even because of his parents.
    In any case, even though I felt sad, I never begrudged Quatre his budding friendship with the basketball player. For one, Trowa had no clue Quatre was sweet on him and it seemed to me that, with the possibility that Relena was wise to Quatre's feelings and how close they were getting, it was just a matter of time before Trowa figured it out. He was somehow even denser than I was, but how long would that last? For that matter, how long would their friendship last? How could I possibly be frustrated with their closeness when it might not even last for much longer?
    Beyond that, Trowa made Quatre smile, really smile in a way that was somehow brighter than his usual ones, he made him happy, and that in turn made me happy. Like I said, it confused me. In equal parts, it made me miserable and at the same time, I felt protective of their relationship. I guess that sounds stupid saying it like that. Quatre couldn't even muster the courage to tell Trowa how he felt, and I wasn't entirely sure that was a bad thing since I didn't know the eight grader well enough yet, so it wasn't like they were dating.
    Some idiotically unrealistic part of me held on to this one, singular, dream-like hope that one day Trowa would figure it out like I had on his own and would reciprocate, even as the realist in me informed the likelihood of Quatre getting a crush on one of the only other gay kids in school was as likely as me winning the lottery. That part of me pointed out that, with or without Quatre's terrible luck, the most likely scenario was that Relena would clue Trowa in and he would freak out. And I wasn't too young or oblivious to know that that would break Quatre's heart.
    With that terrible thought in mind, I quickly became both a sort of guard dog and whipping boy for my best friend. I don't know if that was the right thing to do or if it might have been kinder in the long run for them to have gone their separate ways, even if that would have hurt Quatre. Whenever the two of them met in the halls and struck up a conversation, I would stand watch. Whether she really realized Quatre's true feelings or not, Relena seemed dead set on making Quatre's life hell in full view of Trowa. She hadn't done anything so awful as making him vomit in front of him again, and part of the reason for that was my constant interference.
    Whenever I saw her striding over towards them, I made sure to always be in her way. I would bump into her, 'accidentally' trip her, spill soda on the floor, or just full out glare at her until she or Dorothy saw and decided I needed an attitude adjustment. One time I pretended I didn't see her and walked into her, dumping chocolate milk on the white dress she was wearing. That one worked pretty well. She was so enraged that I had ruined her clothes, she didn't give Quatre and Trowa another thought.
    Unfortunately, Zechs also saw it and beat me up for it. Quatre figured out what I had been doing and freaked out about it, my assurances that it wasn't anything different than I got at home not helping one bit. But Relena and Zechs never figured out exactly what I had been up to. Thanks to a few of their 'pranks', I already had the reputation of a klutz and I let that work for me for once. I didn't stop looking out for them, even though Quatre demanded me to for my health. It made me feel better, to do just this one little thing to help him. I was a useless friend, but I could do at least that much for him.    
    One day Quatre wondered away from me when he saw his crush in the hallway to talk to him about one of his basketball matches. Like I always did, I stayed far away enough that neither of them would notice me, but close enough that I could keep an eye on them. Almost instantly, my best friend's face broke out into this brilliant smile the moment he started to talk to Trowa, a smile that seemed solely reserved for the other boy, and the taller teenager smiled back in turn, his more reserved and still pretty shy, but I never saw him smile like that around anyone else, either. I was too far away to see it, but I knew that both of them were blushing.
    I suddenly felt this intense frustration watching the two of them. A part of me just wanted to smash their heads together or yell at Trowa that Quatre liked him and get this dance over with. That part of me, the angry part, pointed out to the rest of me how disgustingly pointless this whole thing was, that my best friend was setting himself up to get hurt by seeking Trowa out like this. Just what did Quatre want from all this? He smarter than I was, even if he could be a bit naive at times. He knew that the best he could hope for was a tentative friendship with the other boy. What he wanted, what he really wanted, wasn't going to happen. So why bother with all this? It had to be painful for him, so I had a hard time understanding why he did it to himself. But at the same time, I did understand. It made him happy, and Quatre wasn't a pessimist like I was, but that fact only made me constantly worry about him.
    "It was soooo disgusting," a familiar, feminine voice made my hair stand up and I felt a chill go through me, "He threw up everywhere! I'm surprised that the cafeteria still doesn't reek!"
     A laugh that I often heard in my nightmares rang out in the hallway around the corner from where I was standing and I felt something deep in me shake, not with fear, but with rage.
    "And the second he saw that poor Trowa had seen him, he started to bawl and ran out of the room like a girl! Of course, if it had happened to me, I would have been too ashamed to stick around, too. I mean, really, he has no self control, he never has since we were kids, but I never thought he would just throw up like that."
    My hands curled into fists and I felt that rage in me rise up, hot and bitter in my stomach and throat. It wasn't enough that she had embarrassed Quatre in front of someone he liked, she had to keep going over it, pecking at it like a vulture with a large, rotting carcass, and to lie about it, too, lying about what really happened and what she had done...
    "He's so pathetic," I heard Dorothy chime in with that airy, all too fake laugh of her own, "How on earth can you stand being friends with him?" she asked as though she truly pitied her best friend, and knowing the bitch, she probably did.
    "Well," Relena said haughtily, "Quatre has never had any real friends, even when we were little. If it weren't for our parents setting up play dates for us, he'd be worse than he is now. I mean, we're almost in high school and look at the trash he hangs out with! He's still the little cry baby he's always been, too. I just feel so sorry for him, I just have to stay friends with him and help him out every now and again. We have to do things we don't like doing sometimes to help people like him, even though I'm sad to say my friendship with him hasn't helped him grow up so far," she said in a suffering tone.
    Something inside me broke and I could actually, literally feel a bit of the rage I had forced down inside me trickle out. Just a small part of it, but it took complete control over me. I didn't even have the chance to ask myself what it was I was doing before I was walking around the corner towards the voice that I hated so much. I saw her, dressed in a brand new, pink and cream blouse and an equally new pair of jeans that I had no doubt together cost more than I make in two months, standing with Dorothy and two girls that didn't usually hang out with her. They were looking up at her adoringly, like she was some kind of fucking saint, no doubt feeling blessed to just being talked to by the most popular girl in school, and nodding at her every word like it was gospel.
    People say when they're really mad, they see red. I saw white. Just this brilliant white, like I had been staring at the sun for too long, and I felt so angry, I thought I was going to throw up. Her saying those things, those lies wasn't anything worse than what she had done to Quatre and myself before. Those girls looking at her like that wasn't anything different than I had seen from our classmates before. They knew how horrible she was to the two of us, but she was rich and pretty and popular and that was all that mattered to them. That and that she only treated us like that, not them, and how fortunate that was. It wasn't anything different than any other day at this school, but for some reason I can't figure out, for that one moment, I lost control.
    I strode up to her, past those two girls, grabbed her by her new, expensive blouse, and before she or Dorothy could do anything, I pinned her against the lockers. I didn't shove her. I didn't hit her. I could have and I don't know why I didn't, maybe I had just that little bit of self control left, I just pinned her there with one hand. For the first time since I had met her, I realized just how small Relena was. We were practically the same height, but that wouldn't last. She had already gone through a growth spurt and I wasn't anywhere near done with mine, I somehow knew that I would end up taller than her, although it might not be by much.
    More importantly, for the first time in my life, I realized how strong I was. With just one hand on her, Relena couldn't move. If I wanted to strike her, there would be nothing she could do to defend herself against me. My father had always made me feel so small and weak, but I wasn't. Not here, in this school, among kids my own age. Physically, I was stronger than Relena and that had never dawned on me before. If I punched her now, punched her like my dad was always doing to me, would she stop hurting my best friend? If I broke her nose and some teeth, I thought with a kind of sick glee, she wouldn't be nearly so pretty anymore. Would she stop then?
    I felt this... power then. A kind of almost hysterical joy realizing that I could do it, I could beat her up. I could take out all my rage on this one girl, I could hurt her and right then, I really wanted to. I wanted to just fall into that power and control and forget all my common sense, all my reasons why the thought of doing this had scared me before.
    "Shut up," I growled at her, "just shut up and leave him alone."
    When I had grabbed her, Relena had stared at me in shock, and that reaction had made me feel incredibly good, like I was getting one up on her for the first time, but now she smirked snidely at me and I felt all of that confidence melt away inside of me, but none of my rage.
    "What exactly are you going to do, Maxwell?" she taunted me, not in the least bit scared of how close she was getting to me lashing out at her and I felt this absurd fear that she knew me better than I did, "Hit me? Prove to everyone that you really are trash and hit a defenseless girl for no reason?" she snidely batted her eyelashes at me and pretended to be frightened, a ridiculous motion considering how far from a defenseless girl she was and she knew it.
    She wasn't scared of me. Through her sneer and through that fake fear, I saw hatred on her face, the same hatred I had put there when I had been repulsed by her kiss a year ago. She hated me. She hated that I had put my hands on her, that I had dared fight back against her, but she was far from scared I was going to hurt her. She still had the same amount of control over me that she always had since the fourth grade.
    "No," she sneered, "you aren't going to do a thing to me. You're too pathetic to hit anyone, even a girl! You're more pathetic than Quatre will ever be. You're not even man enough to defend your friend against someone who can't fight back."
    Just like that, with those biting words, I felt my rage sink back down into my gut where I still felt it strongly, but it just left me feeling weak and useless and that strength I had so briefly felt vanished with it. She was right. I was too pathetic to stand up to her, I was too scared of myself to ever hit her, regardless if she was defenseless or not. She was a horrible person and I hated her for what she was doing to Quatre, but even to protect him, I could not strike her. I couldn't strike anyone, and that I had thought I could was laughable. I should have felt good about that, that I had some semblance of control over my actions and hadn't hit her, but I didn't. I felt weak and useless, a pathetic excuse for a human being. I didn't want to be violent like my father was, but this inability to stand up for the things I wanted to stand up for was worse than if I had gone off and punched her.
    As I came back to myself, I realized that Dorothy had grabbed my arm and was trying to get me to let go of her friend, her pale blue eyes glaring holes in me for daring to lay hands on someone as esteemed as her best friend and the other two girls were staring at me with the kind of fear I had wanted to see on Relena's face, not theirs. I let go of Relena and pulled my arm from Dorothy's grip, her nails scratching me. Relena smirked at me and even though our eyes were level with each other, I knew she was looking down on me from a great height. She dusted off her shirt, like my hands touching her clothes had left some kind of invisible filth on them, flicked her long, light brown hair shoulder and strode off like nothing at all had happened.
    I felt hollow.

*****

    I expected some kind of heavy retribution, if not from Relena, then from Zechs. He had beaten me up once for not showing an interest in his sister, and dozens of times before for the tiniest of infractions, so I was sure he was going to do something especially nasty for not only assaulting her, but having the gall to stick my neck out and fight against them, me, a lonely worm that should be grateful to be allowed to live in their presence. For the next two days, I felt like there was an anvil hanging over my head and I was extra vigilant about Quatre, not wanting him to be collateral damage for my stupidity, but that anvil never fell. It made me incredibly paranoid, but Relena didn't so much as glare at me more than she usually did. It made me feel even smaller and weaker.
    I didn't tell Quatre about what I had done. I probably should have. Our collective bullies often went after him if I did something to displease them, but the more time passed with no backlash, the more I assured myself that he didn't need to know. Mostly, I was too ashamed and frightened of myself and I didn't want him to find out how close I had come to being expelled.
    It kept me up both of those nights and turned my stomach into a ball of constant anxiety, but I was able to keep Quatre from finding out that something big was bothering me and giving me nightmares. Usually he would have realized something was wrong in a heartbeat and confronted me about it, but he was too preoccupied with Trowa and whatever else was going on at home, plus the fact that our regional tests were coming up, to read between the lines.
    February was unseasonably warm for us, enough so that Quatre and I often went to the small courtyard behind the town library to study. Regional testing was a big joke, at least that's how I saw it. It was supposed to be prep for the real tests like MCATs and SATs, a way for the school system, namely our teachers, to see who needed help and what subjects needed priority, but for those of us who actually had to take the stupid things, it was more like a competition between schools in the region. When we were all done, they would post our scores for everyone in the school to see and we would see where we ranked in the region.
    I never understood what was the point of it, but Quatre said that schools that got better scores got better funding, more perks, while the worse schools, instead of trying to fix the problem, tried to push it under the rug so their funding wouldn't be effected. I had told him how stupid I thought that was, that wasn't the entire point of a school to educate kids? What exactly was the point of giving money to schools that were already doing just fine and ignoring schools with kids that obviously needed help? That concept seemed utterly ridiculous to me as one of those kids with less than stellar grades. I already felt like school was a huge waste of my time.
    There were some things about school I liked. I liked meeting Quatre, and Mrs. Khushrenada wasn't bad. Some of the subjects were fun and I got to read books and learn things I wouldn't have otherwise, but placement tests were useless to kids like me. I wasn't going to college. The only future I had was here in Nausten, in a factory or some other position where my boss wouldn't give a fuck how well I had done on my SATs or that the best I could do in middle school was a C+ average.
    It just felt like I was waiting, stuck in place like a fish trapped in stagnant water while all my classmates swam past me, leaving me behind. So hearing just how little my test scores mattered, how if I did a shitty job I would just get swept under the rug anyway, frustrated me. What was the point of anything? What was the point of studying for a test that was nothing more than a competition to see how well I could memorize useless facts?
    It made me want to not even bother, to just drop out and try to figure out what the point of my life was, if there even was one. But I knew I could never do that. As much as my father called me stupid and useless, and as little interest he had shown in my grades, he would become enraged if I dropped out. I felt obligated not to, really. My mother had had to drop out because she had gotten pregnant and my father had been forced to take a full time job after my grandparents had kicked the both of them out of their homes. What right did I have to do the same by choice when they hadn't even had the chance? I would only feel guilty and ungrateful. My parents had sacrificed for something they hadn't even wanted, so I guess I could sacrifice for something I knew I would never get.
    I also knew that if I did drop out, the one person who would be even more furious than my father would be Quatre. My best friend would never accept it. He would drag me back to classes kicking and screaming if he had to, and he wouldn't care about my reasons for it. Quatre always childishly believed I had more choices for my life than I actually did, ever the optimist. And, honestly, I didn't really want to give up on school. I wasn't naive about it like Quatre was, I understood my chances.
    I could save up every penny from now until I graduated when I turned eighteen and I still wouldn't have enough money for four full years of college, even the cheap state ones. And even if I could, how could I maintain two jobs like I was now and take college courses? Would I even be able to get two jobs or even one? And what would it get me? A diploma from a third rate college. Who the hell would want to hire me? I'd still wouldn't be good enough to get decent grades and I wouldn't have Quatre around to tutor me.
    I might be able to get financial aid, but a scholarship was out. They made scholarships for the special kids, the ones with great grades, the overachievers, the ones with gifts. They didn't make them for barely average kids like me. I didn't even know what I would want to major in, to study. I wasn't good at anything, I didn't have any skills that mattered. So what would be the point of leaving Nausten to go to school? I would just end up back here or someplace just like here. At least I knew Nausten, at least here I had some hope of seeing Quatre again after he graduated. He would come back here for the holidays. Better to use my money, if my dad ever stopped taking most of it, on a place to live when my parents kicked me out.
    But my staying in middle school, and expecting to go to high school in two years, wasn't all just guilt or just spinning my wheels. There was a part of me that didn't really want to quit at it. I don't know if that part of me just wouldn't give up hope that I would get the chance to use my education for something, if I just didn't want to give up, or if I wanted to prove myself, if only I could figure out to whom. I still studied frantically for my math tests, I still felt anxious every time I got a quiz grade back, and if I laid up at night telling myself that it was all completely pointless, it was only after I had stayed up late finishing all of my homework. I had at least that going for me, I always got my work in on time. Even if the work itself was nothing to be proud of, even if I was sick with the flu or in the hospital with a broken arm, I made sure my work got turned in when it was supposed to.
    So, even though I felt like it was all useless and my time would be better spent at work or even watching ducks at the park, there I was sitting in the courtyard with Quatre, staring at math equations until I felt like my eyes were going to bleed for the third day in a row. Quatre was flipping through some vocabulary index cards he had made. We were going to quiz each other before we went home. I was as good at vocabulary as Quatre was at math, but my best friend seemed to struggle remembering a lot of the words. It was too bad I couldn't get a job in reading, spelling, or vocab, then I would be all set.
    An obnoxiously cheery sound came from Quatre's pocket and he, with all of the bored, almost mechanic motions of someone who had done an action so often it could qualify as a ritual, dug his cell phone out without even looking away from his index cards. Even when he glanced at the display, it was with this nonchalant, half minded look. Then he flipped open his phone and read what I knew had to be a text message and just like that, his bored expression melted away into a smile that I can describe as beatific, like something you would see in a classic piece of art.
    I propped my head up in my hand as I watched him, my best friend's expression more fascinating to me than some math equations. No one needed to tell me who had texted him as I watched Quatre put his index cards on the ground and text back, his fingers flying over the keypad with as much agility as a fiddler's across violin strings. Any concern he had had about studying was long gone along with everything else in the world with the exception of whatever Trowa had texted him. Quatre's cheeks were flushed with excitement and a gun could have gone off right next to him, but he never would have noticed.
    I wondered what it was like, to care about something, to love and feel that kind of excitement for something so much that the entire rest of the world just faded away around you. I almost wished I had something like that in my life, but at the same time, seeing Quatre like that made me sad because I was sure that feeling was wonderful, but what on earth did you do when that thing was gone? It seemed to me like finding a new food you fell in love with. At first, all you wanted was that food, but you couldn't eat it all the time and foods you used to like before seemed tasteless in comparison.
    Quatre finished typing and sent his message, starting at the screen with a kind of scary concentration and chewing his lip anxiously, something he hardly ever did unless Trowa was concerned.
    "Why don't you just tell him that you like him?" I asked.
    It wasn't the first time I had asked him that question, but he always would just brush me off or act like it was an obvious question. And it was obvious, and I certainly understood  him being afraid of people finding out he was gay, but his answers never helped me to understand why he was hanging out with the older boy if he was never going to act on his crush on him. Quatre's head shot up and he looked at me like I had just asked him if he was sure he wasn't adopted or he was sure if his headache wasn't a sign he had brain cancer.
    "I can't do that," he insisted with a tremble in his voice, shaking his head frantically, "Trowa doesn't like me like that, I know he doesn't. I mean... I read this article in a magazine once. How many people in the world do you think are gay, Duo?"
    I shrugged. I had never really thought about it.
    "Thirty?" I guessed, figuring that if homosexuality was such a big deal, such a threat to people, it had to be around that much, but I also sucked at statistics.
    "Seven percent!" he exclaimed like it was this incredible, astounding thing, "Just seven! That means that there's a ninety-three percent chance that Trowa is straight! I'm probably the only homosexual in the entire school, maybe even the entire town!" his voice cracked with emotion just then and I felt startled, not by how passionate Quatre was talking about this, but the incredible loneliness I heard in his voice, a loneliness a whole lot worse than what I had thought was there.
    "Trowa isn't like me," he murmured dejectedly, "And I don't need him to tell me that, I just know it. All the girls in his grade adore him, he could date any one of them if he wanted to. I used to hope that because he isn't dating any of them, that that meant he was... different. But when I actually got the guts to ask him why he didn't have a girlfriend, he just said it was because of basketball. He's starting to build up his skills and reputation, and he as a real good shot at going to a good college if he keeps at it. He doesn't want any distractions during the season, but when it ends and if he finds a girl he likes..." Quatre trailed off, looking absolutely miserable at that idea, "Besides, even if Trowa is gay, there's no reason for me to think that he would want to date me. And he has his reputation to think of. I wouldn't blame him for pretending to be straight if it makes his life easier and gets him a future. If I tell him I like him, he'll just be disgusted and I'll have given up my secret for nothing, worse than nothing."
    I couldn't stand how pained my best friend looked as he spoke, like talking about these things were causing him actual, physical pain.
    "He wouldn't tell anyone," I tried to assure him even though I was just guessing based on what little I knew about the upperclassman, "Trowa's not the kind of person who would spread that around."
    My assurances seemed to do very little towards putting Quatre's mind at ease.
    "I don't even think I would care that much if he did," he confessed softly, shocking me. The fear of being outed as a freak was a constant one in my mind, "I used to care. I used to be terrified that my father would find out, or Relena or Zechs or one of my sisters. But now, even though it still frightens me, it's not what I'm really scared of. Relena is already sure that I'm gay and Zechs already treats me like he knows. My father would just insist it was a bad rumor. I could scream at him with a megaphone that I'm a fag and he would just deny the whole thing. He would rather be ignorant than have to deal with it," he glanced at me shyly, "I was more afraid of losing you anyway and you're ok with it."
    I smiled at him, feeling oddly sensitive that I was more important to him, or at least my view of him was, than his family. It wasn't an entirely pleasant feeling. It made all the ways I was failing him as a friend more painful, and it made me feel more protective of him, as well as make me feel that I had a huge responsibility to him, to keep his secrets and make sure he was happy.    
    "Now, what I fear the most is Trowa hating me," he said sadly, "If he is ever repulsed by me... I don't think I could handle it."
    "But what different does that make?" I asked, perplexed.
    Back then, it had been an innocent question that I had been confused about. Now, looking back and remembering my own words, I loathe myself for them. I want to scream at myself to shut up, shut up and just listen to what he was saying.
    I have always had an impeccable memory, if this journal is any indication. I can't remember math equations worth a damn, but I can remember conversations, exact words that were said and how they were said with perfect clarity, years after they had been said. Quatre called it my recording gift, I called it a useless skill. I wish I didn't have it. It makes recalling things for this journal easy, but when you don't want to remember something, some terrible thing that you did and you have a fucking tape recorder in your head that gleefully reminds you of it all and won't let you lie to yourself, it's like a curse.
    I can remember everything that led up to that day at the train station, every single conversation we had up to the last time Quatre spoke to me. I can pinpoint, with horrible accuracy, every moment that I fucked up. In that moment, sitting in the library courtyard with him, Quatre told me all that I needed to hear to avoid what happened. Just one sentence and I focused on the wrong one. I asked a stupid question and all of my best friend's fears, his warning, like a fucking caution from the gods, went right over my stupid, ignorant head. It's terrible enough that when I remember it, when I realize just how thoroughly I let Quatre down, how completely I fucked up, I want to take a screwdriver to my skull, to either gouge out that part of my brain that lets me remember this shit or rip out all my inadequacies as a human being.
    "You won't tell him you like him," I continued in my ignorance, "and you're sure he doesn't like you, so why does it matter if he hates you? Why even hang out with him and try to be friends? Even if he does want to be friends, he's going to find out you like him eventually, and he's going to high school next year. You'll barely see him at all for an entire year, and by the time we get to high school, he might not want to hang out with you anymore. Wont it be less painful to not be around him anymore, even if it's because he hates you, instead of spending all this time with him?"
    Quatre looked down at the ground and I immediately wished I hadn't said those things, even if he was well aware of them and had thought of them himself, I wished I hadn't rubbed salt in his wounds like that. He didn't cry, not even silently, although I had wished he would. The sadness and depression I saw in him in that moment was too deep and powerful for tears. It was disturbingly adult, the kind of sadness that I was somehow aware that a person with a crush couldn't feel, only someone who was in love. And just then I knew this... thing, these feelings my best friend had were so much deeper than I had thought and they weren't just going to fade with time.
    "You wouldn't understand," he murmured, and I didn't.
    I didn't understand why Quatre would willingly put himself through that much pain, but I was then sure that I didn't want to understand it. I had envied him for finding someone he liked, but if love could make a person that depressed with longing, I didn't want anything to do with it.
    "I love Trowa," Quatre said with that soft, serene smile, somehow not losing an ounce of that sad expression either, "Just being around him makes me so happy. His smiles, his jokes, just hearing the sound of his voice, even when he isn't talking to me, makes me delirious. When I think about going to his games or I know I'm about to see him, my heart beats so fast I worry I might die. And when I see him and I know I'll never be able to kiss him or hold his hand, I just feel sad, like nothing in the world matters and I'll never feel a good feeling again. So yes, being around him hurts, it hurts more than I hope you'll know, but it also makes me feel happy like nothing else has in my entire life," he smiled at me and this time, it was the smile I was used to, "Don't worry about me, Duo, I'll be fine. I'm not delusional and I'm not lining myself up to being let down, I know Trowa will never like me like I want him to. But I still want to be friends with him, even if it's for a little while. I just... want to be close to him while I can."
    Despite his assurances, I worried about Quatre. I worried about him a great deal, even more than I worried about my own lack of romance and interest in that sort of thing. I had known for awhile that my best friend was sad and lonely, and I had just accepted that as face because, well, wasn't I sad and lonely, too? I hadn't realized just how powerful Quatre's sadness was, and I hadn't realized how focused it was on just one thing. Worse, how Quatre had focused all those negative things on one person. How could I possibly not worry about him?
    "Just promise me one thing, Duo," Quatre urged and the desperation in his voice was disturbing to me, like he was asking me to donate one of my organs so he could live, "Promise me that if you find someone you love, you won't give up on them no matter how much it hurts you."
    That promise alone should have clued me in that something was very wrong, something I wasn't seeing. I wanted to protest 'how can you make me promise something like that, to go after something that'll just hurt me, when you won't even do it for yourself?!'
    But it didn't dawn on me that my best friend's desperation and this promise were troubling. I had thought he was just being emotional and didn't question where those emotions were coming from. For all I insist I'm mature and grown up, when it really matters, I'm just a child. So I didn't say anything and when he reached out his pinky to mine, I hooked it with my own. What damage would it do to make my friend happy? It wasn't like I loved anyone like he did, and in that moment, I was sure that I never would. Love wasn't meant for me, my parents had proved that. Quatre's love was all that I needed.
    "I promise."

*****

    For awhile, I just assumed that Quatre's friendship with Trowa was this big, secret thing between them. Well, not secret exactly, as you would have to be completely blind not to see how close they were getting. But every time Quatre went off to talk to him, I just slunk behind. I had assumed, especially after I had figured out Quatre had a crush on him, that Quatre wouldn't get me involved and he just wanted to be alone with the other boy. I was fine with that. I guess I could have felt jealous about not being included, but Trowa wasn't my friend and I wasn't his, I don't even know if he would like me. He seemed like a really nice guy, but I didn't really know him. I could have tried, but I wasn't sure if Quatre wanted to expose the two of us to each other, and it wasn't like Trowa went out of his way to talk to me, either.
    Mostly, I felt incredibly awkward around the older teenager. My best friend was in love with him and I was keeping it a secret. So I felt content to stay away from Trowa at the same time I felt entangled in their friendship, like I was caught in the crossfire. I had put my neck on the line for them again and again, always looking out for them, but neither of them were aware of that. So I was a bit surprised when Quatre called my house one Friday, just a couple of hours after school had let out.
    My father and I had been fighting again. Big surprise there. He had wanted me to pull double shifts at work Saturday and Sunday to help pay the electric bill at the end of the month since the pizza place had taken me off my Friday shift that day. I informed him I needed to study for my nationals and what had begun as a rarely civilized conversation between us quickly turned into a screaming match thanks to my dad having been heavily drinking for the past couple of hours, his rage at my disobeying him, and my frustration to the point of tears that I couldn't even put this much effort into trying to get a decent grade and being unable to make him see reason. When the phone rang, he hadn't quite come to striking me yet, miraculously, but it was becoming a very close thing.
    I hated it when my father drank like this. He wasn't one of those guys that's a perfect saint until he starts drinking, he's hot under the collar and stubborn when he's sober, too, but when he gets as drunk as he was that night, he becomes a monster. If he had been sober at that point, I might have gotten him to understand that I really needed to study, that it might even help my regular grades. He would have been annoyed that I was disobeying him and he might have even struck me, but he would have at least remembered that he gave a shit about me getting through high school enough to negotiate with me. At the very least, he wouldn't have looked at me with such naked hate when I told him no. Anger, yes, and I could somewhat deal with that anger since I was being disobedient, but not his hatred for me. That hurt a hell of a lot more.
    When the phone rang and he turned away from me where we had been fighting in the kitchen, I was grateful just to not have that look directed at me anymore.
    "Pick up the fucking phone," he snapped at me.
    I felt that anger in me rise up almost like it had with Relena, and feeling incredibly spiteful and mad, and even petty, I let that anger take hold. I turned and began to walk to the steps that led up to my bedroom. Without any warning at all, something hit the back of my head, making sharp pain flare there, and I stumbled to my knees in shock.
    "I SAID PICK UP THE FUCKING PHONE, YOU PIECE OF SHIT!" he roared at me and it still took me a minute to realize that he had just thrown the phone at my head with deadly aim for someone that inebriated.
    I picked up the phone with shaking hands, glad that it was such a cheap, flimsy thing and not made of anything harder than crappy plastic. I was amazed it wasn't broken, still ringing away, although the battery cover had flown off and disappeared somewhere. One edge of the wireless phone was streaked with blood, but I was familiar enough with scalp wounds to know that wasn't anything to worry about.
    I hit the power button in it and said 'hello?' into the receiver with a stammer. Smug that he had won again, my father strode back to the television. I wasn't sure which one of us was more childish.
    "Hi, Duo," Quatre's voice was a freaking godsend and I was actually glad that my father had refused to answer the phone, not knowing what I would have told him about one of my friends calling the house.
    "Hi," I said dumbly, feeling both happy that it was him on the phone and not a telemarketer or my dad's cop buddies, but also worried. Quatre never called me, he was always too worried about getting me in trouble.
    I got up off the floor and walked up to my bedroom, my head wound forgotten for the moment.
    "What's up?" I asked, shutting my door. I didn't want either of my parents to hear so I kept my voice down. As far as they knew, I didn't even have any friends and if this was something... sensitive that Quatre wanted to talk about, he didn't need any eavesdroppers. We both had enough problems.
    There was such a long pause over the line that I almost demanded to know if he was hurt.
    "Nothing much," Quatre said, sounding far too nervous for it to be candid, "Um... I need to ask you a favor. A really, really, really big one."
    "Ok," I said nonchalantly, but the way he was talking, I was getting more concerned by the second. Quatre never asked me for favors.
    "Can you meet me someplace?"
    "I can try. Where?" I didn't really care where, I was just happy to have a reason to get out of that fucking house and away from my father.
    There was another lengthy pause and I was starting to feel frustrated. I couldn't think of a single thing he would ask me to do that would have him this on edge. After all these years, he had to know I would do anything he asked of me. Hell, if he asked me to steal something for him, I'd do it in a heartbeat, so what could be so terrible that he didn't even want to ask?
    "Look, I know you'll say no, but this is incredibly important to me, you don't even know how much-" he began to stammer.
    My head pounded where the phone had struck me and I distantly realized I could feel blood tracking down my neck.
    "Just spit it out, Quatre," I said more brusquely than I had intended.
    Instead of being hurt by my snapping at him, it finally stopped Quatre's pussy footing around the problem.
    "Can you come to Trowa's game with me tonight?" he blurted out in a pleading tone.
    Even though Quatre wasn't anywhere near me, I physically balked. My mind could not process what he had just asked me. I almost shot back that he was right, I didn't want to go. Going to Trowa's games was his thing, not mine, and I hated watching stuff like that. But that might have just been the mood I was in.
    "Why the hell do you want me to go with you to his game?" despite trying to control my bad mood, I couldn't stop being a bit short with him, "I thought you hang out with him after those things."    
    "I do and that's the problem," he sighed heavily, "I'm nervous."
    "Quatre," I said sharply and felt like I was scolding him, "what are you talking about? You've been going to his games since the season started and how is it any different than when you talk to him at school? What exactly am I going to do there? I don't even like sports and Trowa barely knows me."
    "He..." I could practically hear him squirm, "... he invited me out to dinner afterwards."
    "Oh..." I said, my eyes going wide as a piece of the puzzle slid into place, "You mean... he asked you out on a date?" this time it was excitement and not frustration that I had to fight to keep Quatre from hearing.
    "No, as a friend," he said sadly before gaining his nervous energy back again.
    "Then what's the problem?" I was perplexed by this entire conversation we were having at that point, "Go hang out with him at some fast food place for a few hours, what's the big deal?"
    "It... it'll be the first time we'll be alone together," he said hesitantly, "Besides talking to him at school or at one of his games, I never see him anywhere else. This will be the first time he's ever... you know... sought me out, actually said he wants to hang out with just me. And I don't trust myself."
    And suddenly I understood. Quatre was scared to be alone with Trowa. At school or at his games it was ok because they were always surrounded by our classmates and he was always worried that they even knew they were becoming friends, let along that he had feelings for Trowa. But if the two of them were alone together, did Quatre really think he couldn't control his behavior?
    "It will be fine," I tried to assure him, "What do you think you're going to do, accost him? You said yourself that you could never tell him how you feel-"
    "I might have decided that," he said painfully, "but if I'm alone with him... I'm worried that what I want... what I feel..." he struggled with his words in a way I had never seen or heard from him, who was always so much easier with his words than I was, "I'm scared that I'll do something and then he'll figure it out, or I won't be able to stop myself from telling him. I don't trust myself not to do something stupid, but I know you'll look out for me, you won't let me do something like that, and if you're with us, if anyone does see us, they won't... assume anything," his voice cracked with emotion, "Please, Duo, I know it's so much to ask of you, but you're the only one I trust. You're the only person I know will protect me from myself."
    It was an incredibly manipulative thing to say, and I wondered for only about a second if he had done that on purpose before deciding that it didn't really matter. I had already decided to help him before he had said it.
    "Fine," I sighed, "I'll go, but you're paying for my dinner."
    "Oh, thank you, Duo, of course," he said in a rush, his voice airy like he couldn't breathe.
    "You put too much faith in me," I muttered, feeling responsibility weighing on me already.
    "No, I don't," was all he softly said before hanging up on me, stopping any protests I could have about that faith.
    I turned the phone off and rubbed tiredly at my forehead. I suddenly felt about five times older than I was. I wished it really had been a telemarketer that had called me and wondered what the hell I was going to do. What would Trowa think of me showing up with Quatre for the very first time? Probably nothing, he seemed kind of oblivious about a lot of things. I took a deep breath and told myself everything was going to be fine. I would watch a basketball game for the first time in my life and maybe that wouldn't suck as much as I thought it would, then I would go out for a free dinner. And maybe nothing would happen. Maybe I wouldn't let my friend down like I seemed to always do and it would just be a nice night. How worse could it be than staying here and dealing with the hurricane that my father was quickly becoming?
    I needed fresh air. My head hurt worse then, but it had nothing to do with getting hit by the phone. I pulled off the clothes I had been wearing all day, and if I was being honest, the day before, too, and I realized that Quatre hadn't actually said where they were going out to eat. I had just assumed it would be some fast food place because that's where I would go out to eat, but I didn't know if Trowa had the means to go out someplace nicer. Were they just going through a drive thru and were planning to eat in the car or was it going to be a sit down place, a place where there were actually waiters and my typical ratty jeans and a t-shirt would be frowned upon?
    I shook my head at myself. Looking at my clean shirts, I felt unbelievably ridiculous. I didn't even know what Trowa liked to eat or really anything about him besides that he was quiet and good at basketball, but Quatre expected me to hang out with him for a few hours. I sighed again and put on a pair of jeans that didn't have any holes in them and a long sleeved shirt in case it was cold in the gym. It wasn't like I had anything nicer to wear anyway.
    As I walked downstairs and hung the phone back up on its cradle, I realized how stupid I was being. I was over-thinking this whole thing and I wasn't the one who had a crush on Trowa. I wondered just how much of a wreck Quatre was right then. I almost managed to make it out the door without anyone realizing I was leaving. Almost.
    "Where the fuck do you think you're going?" my father sneered from the kitchen doorway, a fresh beer in hand.
    "Nowhere," I growled at him and made a go for the door.
    He had that mean look in his eyes that told me he was looking for an excuse to strike me. That was bad because, even though he usually didn't care where I went and I didn't have a curfew, he wasn't going to let me leave the house no matter what I said. But it was also good. It meant he wasn't quite yet in that horrible way he often was when he was drunk when he didn't need a reason to beat the shit out of me, and if I managed to get outside, he wasn't going to fly into a rage and chase after me. Whenever his drunken moods went from mean to crazy rage, he didn't care how much damage he did or how saw him do it. It wasn't like our neighbors were going to call the cops on him.
    "Get back here when I'm talking to you!" he snarled, slamming his beer can on the table next to the door, and grasped the back of my shirt just when I touched the door handle, pulling me back.
    When I felt him grab my shirt, rage that was a disgusting mirror of my father's filled me and I shoved him away, something I never would have been able to do had he been sober and I only managed because I startled him.
    "You're drunk," I snapped at him.
    In my head, I had only said that in a last ditch attempt to diffuse the fight, to try to make him understand that he was acting crazy, but I was unable to stop the judgment, derision, and disgust in my tone. Pure, terrifying rage filled the face of the man that used to take me on walks and tell me bedtime stories. He didn't even yell at me, which was even more frightening. His right hand just balled into a fist and lashed out at me, but it was slower than usual and I managed to dodge it, realizing far too late that it had been a feint before his left hand clenched around my wrist like a bear trap.
    "Let go!" I yelled at him powerlessly, trying to wrench my wrist out of his grip, but it was like trying to get bone from a stubborn dog.
    That mean look on his face turned calculating and without so much as a single word, he twisted my wrist. I cried out as agony shot through my hand and arm. I pulled against him, desperate to free myself, but he kept twisting more and more, and it dawned on me, looking at his cold, hate filled expression, that he meant to break my arm simply out of spite. I was going to spend my night in the hospital instead of at a basketball game, and there was nothing I could do. I couldn't fight back against my father anymore than I could against Relena and Zechs, the result would be exactly the same. If I tried to kick him, and he would be expecting that even though I had never hit him before, he wouldn't just break one arm.
    He gave another twist of my wrist and I could literally feel the strain on my bones, I could eel how thin my wrist really was and how strong my father was. I clung to my anger at him and let it consume the fear I felt, knowing how much a broken wrist was going to hurt, and faster than my father could react, I kicked the open beer can on the table at him. He had been prepared for my kick, but not for a splash of beer in the face. He was slow to react to it in his alcohol stupor and let go of my wrist for no more than a second and a half, but I was reacting faster than him and it was plenty of time to slip my arm from his grip before he clench down again.
    I flung the door open and ran out into the night, not even bothering to close the door behind me. I ran faster than I ever had, my heart pounding in my ears. I could barely see where I was running in the dark, even though it wasn't even seven yet and the street lights and neon signs lit up, my vision a haze of pain and panic. Could I hear footsteps behind me? Was he chasing me? I didn't dare look back.
    I ran and ran, sure that at any moment I would feel that hand grab the back of my shirt again, but I never did. I ran until I felt like I was breathing fire into my lungs and my heart was going to explode. I stopped there on the sidewalk panting, and only then did I look behind me, but there was no one there. My wrist throbbed in agony as it lay limp at my side. He might not have succeeded in breaking it, but I wasn't going to be able to do anything useful with it for a long time.
    I started to cry. I wasn't sure what it was exactly, my tiredness, my fear, the pain, or the sudden depression that swept over me, but I cried for a good fifteen minutes before I was able to stop it. I wiped at my face when I was done, my skin soaking wet. I felt hollowed out, but my crying fit was long gone. I walked again towards Quatre's house and hoped I didn't look anywhere near as shitty as I felt.

End Part 3

Author's Note: I am aware that this is a terrible place to end this part, but there will be no updates of this story until November. I am going to spend the rest of this month and all of October working on Beyond the Looking Glass, like I always do this time of year. November is National Novel Writing Month and I will be working on A Stagnation of Love during that time so updates will probably be more frequent.

    
    
    
    
    

Chapter Text

A Stagnation of Love
Chapter 3
Part 4


    By the time I walked past the town hall towards Quatre's side of town, my wrist was a solid piece of iron dangling limp at my side. I had had breaks that had hurt less. It didn't ache, it throbbed. My lower arm and wrist were so stiff, I could barely move them and every time I flexed my fingers, it sent waves of pain through my wrist. I didn't need to look at it to know it was going to be swollen tomorrow. I should have been furious at my father for doing that, but after crying my heart out, it was hard to feel anything at all. I just felt numb to the whole thing, like I was living a rerun of my own fucking life. I was just relieved that he had busted up my left wrist instead of my right. At least I would be able to do my homework tomorrow.
    Just thinking about what I was about to do filled me with dread. I was exhausted and depressed and all I wanted to do was sleep and hope that when I woke up, things would be better. Instead, I was going to a basketball game I didn't want to go to and out to a dinner that I really, really, really didn't want to go to. As much as I loved Quatre, I hadn't been looking forward to this dinner with him and Trowa before my father had busted up my wrist. I certainly didn't feel up to it, and I definitely didn't feel like the sort of person Quatre should be putting all of his faith in. To say I felt inadequate at that point is an understatement.
    Quatre was waiting for me near some shops on Main Street, a large street where most of the less designer businesses had set up shop in north Nausten. There was a pharmacy, a small, but upscale grocer's market, two restaurants I had zero hope of affording a meal in, a thrift shop that had dresses in the window that had probably cost half a grand brand new, and a liquor store that I was sure sold more wine than beer.
    Quatre was wearing dark jeans that had to be new and a t-shirt depicting our basketball teams' mascot. I had never seen him wear anything athletic and he never really seemed like someone who had any kind of school spirit. I wondered if he always dressed like this for Trowa's games or if this was special. Although the clothes were casual, on Quatre they looked immaculate.
    I had never had any respect for the Nausten Nautilus, but our blue and silver school colors really brought out the blue in Quatre's eyes and the gold in his hair. I didn't know how, but my best friend made that dorky t-shirt fashionable. In that moment, I thought Quatre was more beautiful than Relena could ever hope to be. Or maybe it was how his obvious nervous excitement lit up his whole face. He smiled brightly at me when he saw me. I could see the relief on his face under the neon red light from the liquor store's sign.
    "Duo, you came!" he said happily.
    "I said I would," I shrugged nonchalantly, not letting him see how his happiness to see me made me feel so much better. I was still tired and hurt, but I was glad I had come, if only to remember what it felt like to have someone smile at me instead of scowl.
    "I know," he said shyly and his light blush was strangely enduring to me, "but I was worried you might have had second thoughts. I know this isn't something you want to do. Thank you so much, Duo, I really mean it."
    "You're my friend," I murmured, feeling uncomfortable in the face of his gratitude just for showing up, "if you need me, I'm here."
    "I have some water for you," he rooted around in the plastic bag he was carrying, "Trust me, you're going to need it. The gymnasium gets boiling hot during these games, especially during a big one like this. Here."
    He handed me a bottle of water. It wasn't all that warm out, but after running all that time, the water was a pleasant sight. I could have drunk the whole thing right then and we weren't even at the game yet. Not thinking, I reached for the water with my left hand. As I clenched my fingers around the bottle, pure agony shot through my wrist. I hissed in pain and dropped the bottle. I grabbed at my wrist as it throbbed and shook a little. Quatre quickly snatched the bottle from the ground before it could roll away, his eyes wide with alarm.
    "What's wrong?" he asked and I almost groaned at the panic in his voice. The last thing I wanted that night was for Quatre to be worried about me and start panicking.
    "It's nothing," I tried to assure him, "I hurt my wrist a little while ago, I just forgot about it."
    At that, Quatre immediately grabbed my left hand, pushed up my sleeve, and turned my hand over, examining it. I sighed. He always fussed like that whenever he found out I had some sort of injury. Quatre never seemed to understand that I was used to pain like this and, to me, it wasn't a big deal. Or maybe he did understand and it was that exact reason why he flew into a panic like this.
    "It's bruised," he said with a frown.
    I shrugged at that. It was dark enough now that, with the red glow from the liquor store, the bruises were only slightly visible. There was no way to tell what the real damage was. Quatre let go of my left hand only to grab my right, pulling me along as he walked.
    "Come on, we can pick up some ointment and bandages from the pharmacy," he urged, tugging me across the street to where the more brightly lit pharmacy was.
    "What?!" I stammered, "No, Quatre, it's fine, it's just bruises, and we'll be late for the game!"
    My best friend completely ignored me, although I knew that he had heard me. He had quickly learned that when it came to my injuries, it was pointless to argue. If he intended to help me, he did just that and pretended he was deaf to all of my protests. I never knew what to feel when he was like this. I wasn't used to having anyone really... care for me like that. If he hurt me badly enough, my father would take care of me, some of my bittersweet memories of him lingered on the sweet side during those times when he had actually seemed to care about the pain he had caused. But Quatre was the only one that actually seemed... offended and worried about my injuries. It was both nice and annoying. I was used to caring for myself with an injury like this and I didn't feel that I needed to be coddled, but it just meant that Quatre gave a shit about me, so I couldn't complain that much.
    Just like Quatre had learned to not listen to my protests, I had learned to just go along with him when he was like this, so I let him pull me along and when he told me that he would be right back, disappearing into the pharmacy, I just sighed and stood there on the sidewalk. I thought about offering to pay for whatever it was he would end up buying, but I didn't bother. I didn't even want to do anything to my wrist and I knew I couldn't pay for it anyway.
    To make myself feel marginally better, I told myself it was payment for him dragging me out to dinner and the game. At that point, I didn't know what I was dreading more, sitting on some hard bleachers watching a bunch of jocks chase after a ball as my classmates and various parents screamed in my ear when I could be reading or something constructive, or sitting in a restaurant watching my best friend stumble to make conversation with a boy I barely knew and had no clue if he would even like me or want me around, while watching Quatre's every word to protect him from himself.
    At least at the restaurant there would be free food. I wasn't going to take it easy on my friend, either. I was going to order something that I could never possibly afford, maybe even more than one thing so I could take some home for tomorrow night's dinner. It was the only thing I was looking forward to.
    Quatre didn't take long in the pharmacy, jogging out the door with a bag in hand.
    "Ok," he said, slightly out of breath, "I got you an ice pack, some Tylenol, and this ointment the pharmacist said is really good for any swelling."
    I almost rolled my eyes at him. Usually when I had an injury like this, I just took some pain meds and went to sleep. Quatre was going about it like a military operation. He dug out a tube of ointment and placed the bag on the ground. Taking my left hand again, he turned it over like before. This time he gave out a startled little gasp.
    "Duo, you're wrist is completely black!" he almost yelled at me.
    He wasn't exaggerating. Under the white lights of the pharmacy, the damage to my wrist was completely visible and I could see that it had already started to swell. The tattoo of bruises in the shape of my father's hand around my wrist was so black, it almost looked like it had been done in faded ink, the edges dark purple and red. The perfection of the shape of his palm and fingers would have been interesting if it wasn't on my throbbing, searing hot skin. I could remember how it felt having that large hand on me, like my arm was caught in a steel trap, those fingers digging into me and twisting. I wished I had a tan instead of my pale skin so those bruises hadn't looked so horrible.
    Quatre cradled my hand so delicately, obviously scared of hurting me more, and it was a strange contrast to my memories of the last touch my wrist had received. He looked so distraught at my injury one minute, then cold the next. It was the same look he had had at the hospital that one time when he had realized that all my cuts and bruises, my father had put there. His eyes met mine for a moment and I was scared he would say something. He would tell me that I needed to tell someone about my father again, I thought, or lecture me about all the damage he would do to me next time. I was sure of it.
    I didn't want him to. I didn't want the reminder of the same fear I lived in every time I heard my father raise his voice or every time I saw him open a can of beer. Sometimes, when I just hear that click of someone opening a can of soda or hear that low hiss of pressure and carbonation, I feel that fear, even though I know how stupid it is to be scared of such a thing.
    To my surprise, he didn't say a thing. That cold look became sad, then he was putting ointment on the bruises, wordlessly. I didn't think it would really help. My dad was strong, frighteningly so at times, and the damage was deep, the amount of swelling already proved that, but I let him do it if it made him feel better. When he handed me the ice pack, I pressed it against my wrist even though I didn't want to. I hate ice packs. They make my skin clammy and numb, but I guess it was better than having my wrist swell up to elephant size. I even kept it pressed to my wrist the entire walk to school and during most of the game.

*****

    As I have stated several times by now, up until that point, I had never been to a basketball game before and I have not been to one since. Quatre had mentioned that this particular game was a big one, but I had had no idea that by 'big' he had meant that half the fucking town would be there. The school parking lot was completely full of cars by the time Quatre and I had gotten there and more people were filtering in to the gymnasium. It almost made me doubt going.
    I never liked crowds and I especially didn't like being surrounded by people I was forced to go to school with. When Quatre had asked me to go to Trowa's game, I hadn't thought of the possibility that I might run into Relena, Dorothy, one of Zechs's friends, or worst of all, Zechs himself, and the thought of that settled into my stomach like a stone.
    Despite the crowd, Quatre and I managed to sneak into the gymnasium easily and find open seats. Most of the parents were chatting up teachers that had shown up for the game and a lot of our classmates were buying snacks and drinks that were being sold right outside the gym. Coach Strum always had a fit if one of his students dared to bring food into his sacred gym, but I guess it was fine during game night. I had a few bucks in my pocket, but I was content to swallow a couple painkillers and sip at my water. Quatre had found us seats at the edge of the bleacher and he had, thoughtfully, sat next to me so I could have the end. I knew it was intentional, that he was thinking about how I hated being boxed in like that, and I appreciated it. This night was making me stressed out enough.
    I felt weird, realizing that this was what Quatre did every game night, show up here amongst the crowd all by himself, just to watch his crush play. I didn't even know if Quatre enjoyed basketball. I had never really seen him this excited over something before, except for the few times I caught him texting Trowa or about to talk to him. It was odd to me, that this was a facet of my best friend's life that I had never been a part of until now and I still wasn't so sure if I was welcome in it or not.
    Quatre flashed me a strange look, looking a bit startled, and I wondered with paranoia if he knew what I was thinking about.
    "You have blood in your hair," he said with that mixture of alarm and sadness he often had when he noticed any kind of evidence of my father's abuse.
    "Do I have time to wash it off?" I asked, not explaining what the blood was from or giving it any attention beyond that.
    My headache was almost gone anyway and until that moment, I had forgotten all about my head wound, although that might be because of the painkillers I had taken. He nodded.
    "The game doesn't start for another twenty-five minutes," he informed me.
    I thought about just going into the locker room to get the blood out of my hair, but realized that the basketball team was probably in there. That would have been embarrassing. The way my life was going, I needed as few humiliations as possible. I walked quickly back out of the gym and located the nearest bathroom, feeling fortunate that this thing was being held some place I knew so I didn't have to stop and ask for directions.
    Being in the school late at night was strange, but I guess all kids feel like that during events like this one, like seeing a teacher outside of the classroom for the first time and realizing that this stern, knowledgeable person you spent half your day with to craft your future and make sure you didn't grow up to be some kind of uneducated, juvenile delinquent, was just a normal adult. The school was eerily quiet and dark, the hallway empty of any sign of life besides myself. The same school projects and banners advertising the game and our basketball team that had been there during the day decorated the walls. I could hear the loud noises coming from the gym, but they were so distant, it was like they were coming from another world. I couldn't decide if the lack of sound and people in that familiar hallway was relaxing or creepy.
    The boys' bathroom was similarly empty, allowing me to inspect the back of my head in privacy. My chestnut hair in back, right above my ponytail, was indeed streaked with blood, but it was dry. If I had a darker shade of brown hair, I doubt Quatre would have noticed it at all. I felt around my scalp for the small wound the phone had made. It had already scabbed over, so I didn't worry about it any more than that. I had had a lot worse head wounds before.
    Using only my right hand, I wet some paper towels and cleaned the dried blood from my hair. It came out easily. If only the steady throbbing of my wrist would go away as readily. The pills Quatre had bought for me were helping a little, but weren't stopping the small reminders my wrist was giving me every once in awhile that it was still hurting and damaged.
    I rushed out of the bathroom, hoping that I wasn't late. I distantly wondered why I even cared if I was late for a game I didn't care about, but I didn't really know how these things went. Would I not be allowed in the gym if I was late? Would someone get annoyed by it? But really, it was because I had promised Quatre I would be there. I knew he only really cared about the dinner afterwards, but I had still promised him.
    I was also kind of curious. Curious about what the big deal was with this game everyone else seemed to be going nuts over, and curious about what it was that Quatre saw Trowa doing during his sport that had so enticed him. As I all but ran back towards the gym, I almost walked right into Relena.
    She was talking to Dorothy with her back to me. I couldn't hear what she was saying, mostly because of the white noise in my head from her sudden appearance. I wasn't really that surprised to see her there. She seemed like the type that would go to all of our school's big events, even if her brother didn't. I didn't have a single doubt that Relena Darlian had about as much school spirit as I did, but she liked people to think she did.
    She had her light brown hair up in a casual braid for once and was wearing a gauzy white skirt that hung around her knees and the same team shirt that Quatre was wearing, only this one was that obnoxious shade of pink they had made the girl's version of the shirt. I never understood that, why someone had felt the need to make the girls' shirt pink instead of just making the regular silver and blue shirt in girl shirt sizes. Dorothy was wearing the same shirt and I thought that loud, pink color suited her even less than it did Relena.
    Dorothy's blue eyes widened as she suddenly noticed me there, alerting her friend to my presence. Relena whirled, looking shocked to see me for some reason. I guess she had never thought I would go to one of these games. That made the two of us. My heart started to race. She got over her surprise quickly and glared at me. I looked down at the ground as I walked hurriedly past the two of them, hoping that if I looked scared or demure enough, they wouldn't bother with me. I just did not want to deal with Relena's shit that night. Seeing her made me feel tired, worn down, and hollow all over again.
    To my surprise, I managed to get back to my seat without anything bad happening. I didn't even trip as I walked up the bleachers. The game still hadn't started. The cheerleading team, which was solely made up of the seventh and eighth grade gymnastics team, was doing some kind of routine in the middle of the court. In the time that I had been gone, Quatre had bought a large bag of freshly made popcorn and more bottles of water. I happily accepted one of them from him and grabbed a handful of popcorn when he offered the bag to me. It was hot, salty, and loaded with butter. My stomach reminded me that I hadn't fed it since lunch. I almost wished we were at dinner already.
    Almost.

*****

    The game hadn't sucked nearly as much as I had thought it was going to. My entire experience with watching sports before that night were snippets from the football games my father watched on television. Hulking men tackling each other over a ball while announcers blathered on and on about things any idiot could see with their eyes. Even when I had been a child, it had disinterested me to the point of boredom. I had just assumed that basketball would be the same: loud and boring.
    The game was loud. There was a lot of screaming, cheering, jeering, and taunting from both Nausten's side of the gym and the visiting team's. I didn't pay attention to which town they were from, but their mascot was an alligator, their colors white and green (1). The constant loud noises made me twitch as first, but as the game carried on, I found myself cheering a few times, each for Trowa. I couldn't argue that the upperclassman was very talented at his sport.
    The game wasn't boring, I'll give it that. It wasn't like I became an instant fan or anything, and it still wasn't more to me than a bunch of guys chasing after a stupid ball, but it was more entertaining than football. There was no tackling or violence of any kind, just strategy, teamwork, and skill, something that Trowa seemed to have a lot of. Watching him, I could understand some of Quatre's fascination. In school, Trowa was just a shy, awkward, and quiet teenager with average grades. On the basketball court, he was a demi-god on the fast track to godly status. I never would have thought so looking at his lanky form, but Quatre's crush was both fast and agile, oddly graceful as he dived and weaved between players. He didn't hog the ball when he had it and all of his shots and passes were incredibly accurate. When I saw him nail two three pointers that won Nausten the game, even I had to cheer for him. Quatre was just beside himself. He screamed and cheered for the boy he loved, his face red with happy excitement and his blue-green eyes brighter than I had ever seen them before. Watching Trowa play, he came alive.
    I could understand then, Trowa's choice to focus on his sport over something like a girlfriend. Maybe I was a bit biased, having never fallen in love or even gotten a crush, but he had a gift. If he kept at it like he was, he had a great shot at a good school, a bright future. That was a hell of a lot more than I could say.
    Some of the crowd dispersed as the game ended, but a lot of people stayed behind to congratulate the players or talk with friends. It took Trowa awhile to get where we stood on the court, waiting for him to emerge from the locker room, with so many people chatting him up about his game play. But the second his eyes landed on Quatre, he pushed past them with a smile. It made me want to believe that he really did feel something for my friend, but for all I knew he was just happy to see a friend and eager to get out of there and some food in his stomach. I imagined running all around the court was hungry work.
    "Hey," he greeted Quatre.
    He seemed in his element on the court, bolder and more forward than he was at school. Or maybe that was leftover adrenaline from the game. His dark hair was wet from a shower and he smelled nicely of clove soap or shampoo. He was wearing very dark, slim blue jeans and a long-sleeved, dark green shirt that matched his eyes. Like Quatre, his clothes suited his body perfectly, especially his long legs an arms. It also made him look very adult. Standing next to them, I felt dirty and underdressed. Watching them together made me feel completely out of place, a stranger latching on to them like some kind of parasite. I didn't belong there.
    "You were amazing!" Quatre exclaimed breathlessly, "I can't believe you made those shots! All of that practice really helped."
    Trowa nodded in agreement.
    "I was sure I was going to hit the rim on that second one, though," he remarked, "it was lucky."
    The tall teenager took his eyes off of Quatre for a mere second and realized that I existed.
    "Ah... you're Duo, right?" he suddenly turned shy, like he usually was and if for that alone, I wished I had just gone back home after the game. I promised, I reminded myself for the fiftieth time.
    "Hi," I muttered shyly, "Yeah, I'm Duo. I guess Quatre mentioned me."
    Trowa stretched out his hand and I stared at it like an idiot for a moment before shaking it. I hadn't expected him to be so... formal and polite to me, so unlike the teenager that he was. His hand was bigger than mine, and darker. For a stupid moment, I thought of my father's hand, large and tanned, gripping my arm. I hadn't forgotten about my injury and was glad that I was wearing a long sleeved shirt. It was bad enough that Quatre knew my dad knocked me around, no way in hell was I letting Trowa see my bruises.
    "Quatre's right," I said awkwardly, not really sure what to say to the boy my friend liked, "you're really talented. It must have taken a lot of practice to nail a shot like that."
    Trowa blushed a little at my praise. He seemed just as unsure around me as I felt around him, which actually made me feel better.
    "Th-thank you," he stammered, "Quatre said you aren't really into stuff like this."
    I shrugged.
    "I don't get out to social events like this," I confessed, "I work two jobs and have responsibilities at home. I also don't like crowds and all that shouting, and I'm not athletic at all, so I've stayed away before now. But it was fun watching you guys. You're a great team."
    It was a cool thing watching Trowa as I spoke. He eased up and lost his nervousness, acting more natural like I had flipped some kind of switch. He nodded enthusiastically.
    "I really don't like the crowds and noise, either," he said and I felt this odd sense of camaraderie with him that I had only ever felt with Quatre, "It used to give me headaches and make me so anxious I couldn't concentrate on the game. It got a lot worse when people started cheering for me."
    He sounded so amazed at his popularity and I didn't blame him. If it had happened to me, I didn't know how I would be able to function.
    "And now?" I asked, honestly interested to know how he dealt with his stardom.
    "I liked basketball too much to just quit," he told me, "After awhile, it just became white noise to me. Every once in awhile, it bothers me, but I just focus on what I'm doing and try not to let it distract me."
    I felt an instant respect for him. I wish I had something I felt that passionate about, something that I could just throw myself into with so much conviction that I refused to give it up, that everything around me just faded away. I envied him the ability to make all those cheers and screams white noise. I wished I could do that with my parents' fighting.
    It suddenly dawned on me that, even if it was in a small way, Trowa and I had connected. I had thought myself incapable of connecting with anyone except for Quatre. Yet the two of us had just held an entire conversation and neither of us had tried to include Quatre in it. I felt panic then, worried that my friend was jealous or made at me for monopolizing Trowa when he was Quatre's crush, but when I worriedly glanced at him, he was smiling at us, happy to see us getting along.
    "Trowa... um... " Quatre stumbled over his words, "I-I hope you don't mind... I told Duo he could come with us out to dinner..."
    Quatre looked so nervous as he spoke, I ached for him. I swore that Trowa actually looked disappointed to hear that I was joining them. I wanted to believe that he had been looking forward to just going out with my friend, but maybe he was just annoyed that Quatre had brought his stupid friend along without asking and I was just misreading him. I watched my shorter friend stammer, trying to come up with some kind of lie as to why I was coming out with them and obviously incredibly uncomfortable with lying to his crush.
    "Quatre invited me to come see the game tonight. I skipped dinner to be here, so when Quatre told me you guys were going out afterwards, I sort of invited myself. Quatre just felt bad about me going without dinner, but if you don't want me tagging along, I can just go home and heat up some leftovers or something," I lied and almost winced at how pathetic that sounded.
    I didn't mind lying for my best friend. Hell, I lied all the time, there was no reason for him to do something that made him so obviously uncomfortable. I hoped Trowa wouldn't order me to go home. I had promised Quatre that I'd go out with him to help and had just given myself an out.
    And I didn't mention my other lie. If Trowa did tell me to leave, I wasn't going to go home and heat up some leftovers for dinner. What we were going to have tonight was our leftovers, and after the fight my dad and I had had, he wasn't going to save me a damned thing. He would just throw out perfectly good food out of spite, he had done it plenty of times before. There would be no dinner waiting for me at home tonight.
    I would have felt bad about not only lying to Trowa, but manipulating him to feeling bad for me, but I was there for Quatre, not him. Trowa instantly relaxed at my explanation and I wondered what his problem had been to begin with.
    "It's ok," he said, "I don't mind you going to dinner with us."
    Quatre shot me a grateful look while Trowa wasn't looking at him and I felt better about lying to his friend.
    "W-where did you want to eat?" he asked the taller boy nervously, "It should be in walking distance, but Duo and I aren't picky."
    Duo wasn't picky, I thought, because I was so hungry and so broke that I would eat rat meat so long as it was hot and free, an Quatre wasn't picky because he was more interested in Trowa than food. Before the eighth grader could respond to Quatre's question, I saw Relena push her way through the crowd towards us, Dorothy dutifully in tow. I felt my stomach drop like a piece of lead and, childishly, I wanted to yell at Trowa and Quatre to make a run for it, but that would have looked stupid and I doubted that Trowa was scared of her like we were.
    "Trowa!" Relena exclaimed with a little wave, "There you are! Dorothy and I have been looking all over for you, the big star!"
    She stepped right in front of Quatre like he didn't exist, separating the two of them. I wanted to snarl at her and scratch up that oh so perfect face of hers, maybe break her pert little nose or knock out a white tooth. Why couldn't she just leave us the hell alone? Couldn't she let Quatre have this one thing without trying to mess with him?
    To my surprise, Trowa actually looked irritated at her presence and tensed up, right before every single emotion fled his face. It was like he had become a stone statue.
    "I'm not a star," he said tersely, unable to keep his annoyance out of his voice, "The win was a team effort, as always."
    "Nonsense," she looked up at him with an expression that I could only call demure. She seemed oblivious to his complete lack of interest in her and her company, or maybe she just didn't care. My bet was on the latter. Like me, she wasn't there for Trowa, she was there for Quatre, "everyone is talking about those amazing three pointers you made. I didn't see any of your teammates make shots like those."
    "If it weren't for my teammates, I never would have been open enough to make those shots," he snapped at her, his patience growing thin.
    I probably should have been crafting up an escape plan, but I was fascinated watching the two of them volleying back and forth. Relena had that cruel glint in her eye and her words, while having a faux, vapid sweetness to them, like the way so many of Trowa's female fans spoke to him, were also snide. She was trying to make him think she was impressed with him, but he wasn't buying it. My respect for him grew a little. He might be awkward and shy and unwilling to really fight against her for Quatre's sake, but he wasn't an idiot and he wasn't falling for her bullshit, either.
    His reaction to her was especially interesting to me. Until that night, Trowa had just been this shy, awkward person to me. That was all I had ever seen of him, and even when he had been comfortable talking to Quatre, he had still seemed so unsure of himself, but quite, nice, and polite, from what little interaction I had seen. When he had been talking to me before, he had relaxed a bit and acted companionable, laid back. But I had never seen him irritable and frustrated and almost angry until Relena had shown up.
    "If you don't mind," Trowa someone managed to match Relena's snide tone, "Quatre, Duo, and I were going to dinner. I don't have all night to chat about the game. I still have homework to do and I'm tired from the game."
    "Oh, I'm sure," she smirked, not deterred by his brush off.
    Then it dawned on her what Trowa had just said and she shot double glares at Quatre and me. Then, no more than a second later, she regained her composure, her smile both superior and sinister. She directed that smile directly at Quatre.
    "Winner, I didn't see you there," she lied sweetly, "How awfully nice of you to offer to pay for the team's VIP's dinner. It's a bit strange, though. I could have sworn I saw you at every game this season, but you were never at any games last year, or any other year now that I think about it. I just assumed you don't like sports. And Trowa's the only player you've ever cheered for, isn't that right?"
    Quatre went ghostly pale and even I was shocked at how forward the bitch was being. I couldn't think of a single thing to say to distract her. I felt frozen with horror, I couldn't even begin to guess how Quatre was feeling.
    "I guess I can't really blame you," she continued cattily, "Trowa is an amazing player. But with you coming to all of his games, and your chatting him up every chance you get, everyone hardly sees him with his real friends anymore. With your... 'reputation'... people are going to get the wrong idea if you aren't careful. I mean, it's a bit obscene for a boy to be trying so hard to spend so much time with another boy when they aren't even friends, don't you think so?"
    Quatre looked like he was going to throw up. Before I could yell at her to just quit it already, her piercing gaze fell on me.
    "And look, you even dragged poor Duo out of his cave. Or maybe he invited himself? I certainly hope he doesn't have a mind to get chummy with Trowa, too. It would be just terrible for your precious friendship to be broken up by something so petty as jealousy."
    My hands curled into fists, making my wrist scream in pain, but I ignored it. Her insinuation was ridiculous but cruel and I hated that none of us could find the words to make her shut up. I watched with rage as she sidled up to Trowa, wrapping her arms around his and pressing herself against him. I couldn't bear to look at my best friend just then, to see how he felt by her bold move.
    "I feel so sorry for you, Trowa," she said with concern that was as fake as everything else about her, "With Quatre constantly harassing you, it's no wonder all the girls in your grade haven't had the chance to approach you. Who knows what everyone is thinking is going on between you and someone as strange as Winner."
    Trowa blushed darkly, from her accusations or her body against his, I didn't know. I wanted to read his mind, to find out what he thought about all this. Did he enjoy having a pretty girl pressed up to him like that? Did he understand what she was insinuating? Did he believe her?
    "Don't you feel bad, Quatre?" she sneered at him, "You don't want everyone to think that Trowa's a..." she paused but I could actually see fag on her tongue and how much she wanted to say it, "... well, someone like you, do you? Oh, I have a great idea!" her face lit up and my desire to punch her in that face returned stronger than ever, "Quatre can go take Duo to whatever greasy diner he can actually afford, and Dorothy and I will take Trowa out someplace nice, someplace he deserves."
    Her blue eyes seemed to burn into my best friend. Just looking at them made me feel cold.
    "How about it, Quatre? Why don't you just go run off and save Trowa some humiliation?"
    Her gaze was intense and sinister. I didn't need a single person to tell me that Relena wasn't asking Quatre to go off with me. She was threatening him... demanding him to not talk to Trowa anymore. She was doing what she always did, she was going after the only friend I had, making him miserable, and forcing him into a corner. And he would give in, because he always give in to her. In reality, although I was loathe to admit it, he didn't really have a choice. She had proven to me that she and her bastard of a brother could make our lives hell if we decided to fight back against them.
    In that moment, I hated Relena more than I had ever hated her or any other person before. I wanted her to die. I wanted to throw her off a tall building and watch her become nothing more than a red smear on the ground. Why did she do these things? Why did she hate Quatre so much? She didn't like Trowa, she didn't even care that he existed, but she would gleefully use him to hurt Quatre as much as she could. And why? Because she enjoyed it. She would break my best friend's heart for a bit of entertainment.
    "No."
    I, along with Relena and Trowa, stared at Quatre in shock. My normally soft spoken and submissive friend was glaring at Saren, his sea green eyes bright with a fiery rage and a determination I had never seen in him before. No was the very last thing I would have ever, ever thought I would hear him say to our bully.
    "I won't go away," he said to her, his voice hard and mature, the voice of someone who would not back down no matter what was thrown at them, "I don't care what you think and I don't care what you say. Trowa is my friend, unlike you, and if he doesn't want to be seen with me or want to have dinner with me, then I'll honor that. But that's up to him, not you. And for your information, I didn't offer to pay for Trowa's dinner because he won the game. He invited me. If he wanted to hang out with you, he would have invited you to come with us. The only one who isn't wanted here is you."
    Words cannot describe the sheer amount of rage that filled every inch of Relena's features. The air seemed to even grow hotter, looking at her fury. I felt frightened being that close to her and if she had taken a cat-like swipe at Quatre's face, I would have been the least surprised person there. But words also cannot describe the pride I felt for my friend at that moment.
    I wanted to sweep him up in a tight hug and congratulate him on finally standing up for himself, at the same time that I felt an intense fear overtake me. Because I had learned my lesson about what happened to kids that angered Relena and Zechs. I had thought Quatre had learned that lesson, too, long before me. But I was just too happy to see him like that, taking control of his life, and again I envied his relationship with Trowa. He had found something to fight for, even more than his fear for his wellbeing. I wish I knew what that felt like. I wish I had that kind of strength.
    Trowa finally came back to his senses and extracted his arm from Relena's tight grip, edging away from her like she had some contagious disease he desperately didn't want to catch.
    "Like Quatre said," he murmured in that awkward way of his, yet his voice, while soft, was as firm as Quatre's, "We're friends and you aren't welcome at dinner with us. Just go away and leave us alone."
    All of that fire in Relena's stare turned to the coldest, sharpest ice. It would have worried me, but then Quatre looked at Trowa and they smiled at each other. It was a soft smile on both of their faces, yet somehow brilliant and shinning. It was the sort of smile that two people gave each other when the rest of the world ceased to exist. Quatre looked so happy seeing Trowa stand up for him. It gave me hope that maybe all those things that he claimed were impossible, all the things that he craved more than anything else, could be possible after all.
    If nothing else, I hoped that Trowa and Quatre could be good friends, that Trowa could keep making Quatre happy, even if they never ended up together. I hoped, at the very, very least, that one day Quatre would gain the courage to tell Trowa that he was gay, and that Trowa could accept him if not love him.
    "A word of advice, Barton," Relena snapped at Trowa, her chilling demeanor enough to make me nearly shudder, "I suggest choosing your 'friends' with a bit more common sense. It would be a shame if those skills of yours should go to waste because of who you decide to hang with."
    With that, she flipped her braid over her shoulder and strode off, Dorothy chasing after her wordlessly. I don't know which one of us was happiest to see her go. Probably Quatre. With her gone, his soft face lost it's fierceness, but he still seemed to glow, or maybe that was just my imagination.
    "I am so, so sorry," he apologized to Trowa, "I keep making trouble for you-"
    "It's not your fault, Quatre," the tall basketball player smiled at him and the smile made him look incredibly handsome, "Relena was the one making the trouble. Do you... do you still want to go to dinner?"
    "Of course!" Quatre beamed at him, his fair face sporting a pretty blush. He really had the perfect skin for it and Trowa seemed to be very capable of bringing those blushes out in him.
    Again I had that feeling that I was out of place, unwanted, unnecessary. The same I had been my whole life. But right then, it was ok. I was used to being unwanted and I liked seeing my usually sad and quiet friend so happy.

*****

    We ended up eating at Charlie's. It was a nice place, not too fancy for a couple of teenagers to afford a meal there, but they had great food and it was a much more formal place than anywhere I had eaten in. It made the places I worked at looked like complete dives, and I guess they were. I felt a bit self conscious at first, but the waitress that led us to our booth didn't even look twice at my worn jeans.
    "Thanks for letting come out with you guys," I said as we sat down, Quatre and I taking one side of the booth and Trowa taking the other.
    "It's no problem," Trowa insisted, "You're Quatre's best friend. The more the merrier, right?"
    I managed a shy smile at him. I still wasn't really sure where I stood in their relationship. It was like Trowa said, I was Quatre's best friend, but he didn't know me beyond the rumors he heard at school and whatever Quatre had told him about me. I wondered what his opinion was of me. He had seemed ok earlier when we had talked, but Relena's... remarks had made me feel nervous again. A part of me wanted to lie and assure him that I wasn't a fag and him hanging out with us wasn't going to ruin his reputation, but I didn't want to bring the subject up again. I decided to just believe he wasn't going to be taken in by any of Relena's crap.
    "Honestly," he said with a shyness that mirrored mine, "I should be the one thanking you and Quatre. Despite what Relena said, I don't actually have many friends. I've probably hung out with Quatre at school more than I have anyone else."
    "Really?" I asked with wide eyes, "But you're so popular."
    He chuckled and next to me, Quatre's face went bright red. I guess he liked it when Trowa laughed.
    "I'm popular because I have talent and win games," he pointed out, "and I guess I'm kind of friendly with the guys on the team. We do hang out sometimes, but before I joined the team, I was too shy to make many friends and even now, I don't have many interests with them beyond basketball. I'm not that great at other sports. I'm pretty awful at football, even though I like watching it. I don't play video games and I don't go out to movies much, so there isn't much for me to talk about with my teammates outside of practice. I just tend to go along with what everyone else wants to do when I hang with them and pretend like I know what I'm doing."
    I felt amazed with every word my classmate spoke. I had always felt like such an outsider, like such a... well, loser, because Quatre was my only friend. I had looked at Trowa and seen this popular guy who was just a bit socially awkward, I never would have imagined that he had the same problems as me. I guess you didn't have to be bullied to feel distanced from everyone else. Quatre and I got along so well, even though we were different and had different interests. I couldn't imagine pretending to get along with other people when there was absolutely nothing there that was relatable. I wondered what it was that he and Quatre talked about, if they liked similar things and that was why Trowa felt a connection with him.
    We went quiet as our waitress, Beth, handed out our menus and took our drink orders. Quatre ordered a sweet tea, Trowa a coke, and I got a Shirley Temple. I remembered having had one when I was a kid. My dad had brought me some place, a restaurant or a bar. I had been very young, so I don't remember it well. I do remember that I had had a sip of his beer and hated it. He had laughed good naturedly and let me try a Shirley Temple. I had loved it, especially the cherry bobbing in it. I hadn't had one since and I wanted to see if I still liked them or if it was just the pleasantness of that memory, my daddy and I having a drink together before I had begun to be frightened of his choice of beverages.
    "What do you like, then?" I asked once Beth had left.
    Trowa blushed darkly as he looked at the menu.
    "It's... it's stupid," he muttered.
    "No it isn't!" Quatre protested, "I think it's great."
    I hadn't thought it possible, but the older buy flushed even darker at Quatre's praise, which of course made me even more curious.
    "It can't be that bad. I mean, all I do is read. I listen to music a little, I guess, but I've seen so few movies. I don't like sports at all, even if it was fun to see you play tonight, and I don't watch that much television, so pretty much everything our classmates talk about, I am clueless about. But books are the one thing I love more than anything else. I even like poetry and doing all those writing assignments in school, always have. In case Quatre hasn't told you already, I also like vocabulary and pretty much anything involving word play. So unless you like... I don't know, collecting scabs or eating hair, I'm probably not going to judge you for it."
    I managed to get an earnest laugh out of him.
    "No, it's nothing like that," he continued to chuckle and then looked at me warmly while he got himself under control again, "You know, all of my classmates believe all that stuff Relena and her brother say about you, that you're this strange, antisocial outcast who lives in a trailer and is some kind of terrible juvenile delinquent."
    All I could do was blink at him about that. I had no idea what rumors there were about me floating around school. I could understand everyone believing I was strange and antisocial. I was antisocial. I only had one friend because Quatre was the only person who had ever tried to be my friend, and I just didn't trust my classmates. I was quiet and awkward and had very little social skills, so none of those things was ever going to endear me to other kids my age. I could even see the rumor that I lived in a trailer. It was no secret that I came from a poor family. I didn't wear new clothes and sometimes wore the same ones over and over because my mother frequently forgot to do the laundry. The other kids from my side of town no doubt recognized where I lived. It was a short leap for someone like Relena to change 'Duo is poor' to 'Duo doesn't even have a house'.
    The rest was news to me. 'Juvenile delinquent,' huh? I guess my being quiet and poor and not having any friends except for Quatre might give the impression had some kind of attitude problem. A lot of people from where I lived were surly and basically the kind of kids nice, upstanding folks like the Parkers called 'bad seeds'. It came with the territory of being constantly poor and looked down on by other people for it. When you got beat up for smelling bad because you wore the same clothes or the gas company turned off your hot water, or the people that were supposed to be your friends, teachers, and role models told you that you were a loser, you not only started to believe them, you tended to lash out at them for it.
    "But you're cool, Duo," I heard Trowa say, rousing me from my thoughts by shocking me again, "None of them know what they're talking about. You're down to earth and a nice guy."
    This was also news to me and I would have thanked him for that news if I wasn't worried that it would make me look like an even bigger nerd than I had just confessed to be.
    "I like animals," he finally came out with it, "I always have, since I was really little. Not just dogs, but all animals. When I was a kid, all I would do all day was watch nature documentaries. I would never watch cartoons or read comic books. For my birthday one year, my mom got me a subscription to National Geographic. I don't think I had ever been so excited. I always thought I would become a biologist or at least a cameraman for one of those documentary crews. I would always get really excited thinking about getting to travel the world and see all these different kinds of wildlife and places. I guess I gave up on that."
    "Why?" Quatre asked sadly. I guess this was something they hadn't talked about.
    Trowa shrugged.
    "I realized that while I might love wildlife, I'm really good at basketball. Or rather, my dad realized it and went nuts. He told me that it was nice to want to be a photographer or a biologist, but basketball is more practical and I have a real good shot of making a career out of it if I stick with it."
    "That's a terrible thing to say to a child!" Quatre exclaimed.
    I wondered if he had ever shared some dream with his parents, if they had been supportive and he just didn't understand. I thought about my own father. I had never had any dreams to share with him and he didn't need that kind of fuel. He told me I was useless and a waste of space practically every day, he didn't need any dreams to destroy.
    "Maybe," I said, "but your dad's right, it is more practical, if all you want to do is do something you're good at. Trying to become a biologist would probably take a lot of work, and there's no guarantee you would be good at it. But I don't think he should have deterred you entirely, either."
    Again Trowa smiled at me and I felt this weird connection with him. I struggled to figure out what it was, why I suddenly felt comfortable around him when he had made me so nervous before. I opened up my menu and pretended to read through the various items. This particular subject we had suddenly found ourselves on reminded me of an argument Quatre and I had had last year.
    Our school had had a spelling bee and Quatre had wanted me to join. He had said that I was a natural at that sort of thing, but I hadn't wanted to. I had told him I was too nervous of standing up in front of everyone like that, and I just didn't have the time to study words between my two jobs, but the real reason was that I was convinced I was not good enough to enter any kind of contest. My dad believed I was a failure and who was I to correct him? I wasn't good at anything. My grades were a joke. Why would a contest be any different? Why make a fool of myself when I was the last person who believed in my abilities?
    But Quatre had believed in me. He had, eventually, bullied me into entering and I had actually won. It had been a close thing, but my love of vocabulary had gained me a stupid little trophy and a fifty dollar certificate to Rosalie's Burgers. Not too shabby of a prize considering how good those burgers were and all the times my dad kicked me out of the house without any dinner. That gift card had kept my stomach full for quite some time.
    Then it hit me. I was having a friendly conversation with someone. I was connecting with someone, someone that was not Quatre. Was this what it was like? Gaining a friend? Quatre and I had become friends because of our shared problems. This was the first time I had actually gained one just by having a friendly chat. It was a very weird feeling, the realization that I was doing something normal.
    "It's not a big deal," Trowa was telling Quatre as I zoned back in to the conversation, "I like basketball a lot, especially now that I've gotten really good at it. I still like animals and I would like to do something related to that, even if it's just a hobby. Basketball will get me into a good college, but it doesn't mean I can't study biology when I get there."
    "I know," Quatre said with a soft smile, "I just think your father is being pushy. He should understand that there are other things you're interested in."
    Their voices were so warm as they talked to each other. I could have faded away and I don't think either of them would have noticed. It wasn't a bad thing. Their friendship was solid and, I thought anyway, something special, or I might have just been reading into it too much, wanting to hope that my friend had a chance with the other boy. I reminded myself that I was supposed to be Quatre's filter that night and felt angry at myself for zoning out like I had. Not that he had done anything that a friend wouldn't do in front of another friend. I honestly had no clue why he had found it necessary to bring me along. He was doing perfectly fine. It wasn't like he was seconds away from blurting out 'I love you' to Trowa. And even if he was, how the hell was I going to stop him? Shove one of the little rolls of bread Beth had left at our table in his mouth?
    I looked through the menu for real, knowing that our black haired waitress would be back to take our orders soon. Everything Charlie's served sounded delicious to me. Loaded baked potatoes with cheese, chives, and bacon. Salmon with a rosemary and lemon glaze. Italian flatbread covered in homemade tomato sauce, basil, and six different kinds of cheese. They were calling it pizza, but I worked at a pizza place and I could tell you that nothing like that had ever been made there. Even their breadsticks looked gold plated compared to the shit we served. And this wasn't even a five star restaurant.
    Although I had what seemed like an endless amount of choices for my dinner, there was one thing that I wanted above all else. Steak. Specifically, their New York Style Ribeye. The thing looked huge and swathed in all kinds of spices. It even came with two side dishes. It was expensive at 25 bucks, something I could never be able to afford, not for a single meal, but Quatre had said I could order whatever I wanted, and I wanted this steak. I had never had any kind of steak before in my life beyond the so-called steak tips my mother bought for stew in the dead of winter. They certainly didn't look like that. It probably sounds silly, me so excited over food, but I couldn't help it. This was probably one of, if not the only, chances I would get to eat something like that.
    I had my mind made it when I put the menu down and banged my left wrist against the edge of table. Agony flared up through my arm and I bit my tongue trying to keep from making any kind of noise. The ice pack had helped numb it and keep it from swelling up too badly, but it was still noticeably larger than my other wrist, yet in talking with Trowa and Quatre, I had somehow forgotten all about it. It wasn't a constant ache anymore, or at least not until the constant stream of Tylenol I had been taking wore off, but holding things was completely out of the question. Just trying to grip things turned my wrist into a bed of pain and my muscles would shake and twitch. With that reminder, I realized that if I really wanted to keep up this charade that I was completely fine in front of Trowa, I couldn't order any food that would require me to use my left hand to eat it. Which of course meant no steak.
    This incredible depression filled me. Well, it was more like it struck me. I actually felt on a verge of tears, although I know that sounds pathetic. It wasn't about not being able to eat what I wanted, not really. It was just one more thing, one more disappointment in my life. My dad had busted up my wrist and taken this from me. And why? Because he had gotten drunk and had a petty, pointless argument with me. He had almost broken my arm, and I should have felt incredibly lucky that I had gotten away before he had, but I just felt... defeated. This was just one drop in the ocean that was the shit my father had put me through, the shit he made me feel every day.
    The sadness and depression I felt then, remembering his hand on me, hurting me, and that dark smirk he had worn on his face when he had done it made the physical pain he had inflicted on me feel like nothing at all, no more than a paper cut. I didn't even hate him for it, not really. I just felt very sad. I had been chatting with Trowa like I was a normal person like him. I wasn't. His father had tried to discourage him from his dream for something practical. Mine had broken my left arm five times. Seeing my best friend talk to his crush with that warm and soft smile on his face just made my eyes wet and I very nearly stabbed myself with my fork to keep from thinking about those tears that wanted to come spilling out. I blinked them away as Beth returned to our table. I was being stupid again.
    I ended up ordering the salmon, something that I had never tried before. I had had fish before, scrod and haddock. Dad would bring some home once in awhile and he would broil it in bread crumbs and lemon, but fish, especially salmon and swordfish, is just too expensive. The salmon was actually more expensive than the steak, 28 bucks. I substituted the rice pilaf that came with the meal for roasted vegetables. Beth gave me a strange look at my request. I guess not a lot of teenagers asked for vegetables, but I loved them. After some internal debate, I decided to keep the loaded baked potato and hoped I would be able to eat it with just one hand.
    Trowa ordered some sort of grilled chicken with a salad and French fries. I had thought that Quatre would get one of their huge salads, but to my surprise, he ordered the steak that I had been coveting even though I knew he was not a huge fan of red meat. With our food ordered, the two of them launched into a lengthy debate about some movie that had come out lately that the both of them had seen. I hadn't, so I was content to just watch them bicker in a friendly way with each other. I had ceased to exist to them again and that was ok.
    I wished that I had turned down Quatre's plea to join them tonight and just hadn't come at all. I was having a great time. I had maybe made a tentative friend, had been social with someone that wasn't Quatre for the first time ever, I was out of my chaotic house for a little while, had been privileged to see Quatre stand up to Relena, was going to eat a good meal for once, and I was really seeing what Quatre and Trowa's relationship was like for the first time. But watching them together only made it clear to me that I should have told Quatre no.
    My best friend hadn't trusted himself to be alone with the boy that he loved, but from what I was seeing, he was doing just fine. He hadn't needed me here and I felt like my attempt to help him was just hurting him. I had taken away a golden opportunity from him. If I hadn't shown up, who knew what would have happened. Maybe Quatre would have slipped up and told Trowa how he felt. Maybe Trowa would have been ok with that. I would never know and worse, Quatre would never know. No matter how much sense I had, no matter how many statistics Quatre came up with, I just kept on hoping a miracle would happen, and knowing what I know now, I wish more than anything else that I could just go back in time and skip that dinner, no matter how happy it had made me at the time. But even then, I know it's just me hoping for miracles.
    Stupid me.
    "So, how long have you two been friends?" Trowa suddenly asked, rousing me from my regrets.
    I took my first sip of the Shirley Temple our waitress had brought me. At that one sip, I remembered that day with my father, sitting on a high bar stool, drinking my very first carbonated drink as my father used one of his big hands to ruffle my hair instead of grabbing me or hitting me. We had both been smiling. I had loved him then, truly loved him, with no other feelings in between us. This Shirley Temple had a stronger taste than that one had and I wished I knew how to make one. They were delicious, or maybe I was just sentimental.
    "Three and a half years?" Quatre looked at me for confirmation.
    I nodded, fished the maraschino cherry from my drink, popped it in my mouth, and chewed on it happily.
    "Yeah, it was on my first day of school that we became friends," I recalled.
    Some days it felt like Quatre and I had been best friends for twenty years. Others, that first day of school was yesterday. It took Trowa a few seconds to do the math in his head.
    "You started school in the fourth grade? Were you home schooled?" he asked me, perplexed.
    "Not really... kind of..." I struggled, unable to tell him the truth, "It's a long story, but basically I was in and out of the hospital a lot as a kid. I just kept missing my chance to go until I was nine. My dad taught me a little, basic math skills mostly, but he and my mom were always so busy at work. I was lucky that I got to start in the fourth grade after missing so much."
    "That must have been hard," Trowa sympathized, "My family moved around a lot when I was little, so I never made any friends until we settled here finally four years ago. Everywhere we went, I was always just the new kid. None of my classmates bothered talking to me because they didn't know me and we never stayed long anyway. It didn't help that every new place, I had to take placement tests and I didn't always end up in the same grade as everyone else my age or learn things that I understood. I can understand how much it must have sucked for you."
    "Well, at least I got put in the right grade and at the beginning of the year," I pointed out, amazed to have met someone who got how lonely and out of place I had felt back then, a loneliness that had never gone away, "And I was born here. I'll probably die here. I've never even been outside of Nausten, so I can't imagine what it was like moving around all the time."
    "Why were you always moving around?" Quatre asked. I guess this was a new subject for him, "Was you father in the military?"
    "No, nothing like that," Trowa shook his head, "My parents were both circus performers, so were both sets of my grandparents. We would move to a town, do performances for awhile until our audience ran out, and then we would move on. Sometimes I got to stay a couple months in one place, and other times just a single week. It all depended on the cash flow."
    Both Quatre and I gaped at him with wide eyes astonishment. Never in a million years would I have guessed that the quiet boy came from such a colorful background.
    "That's amazing," I couldn't help exclaiming, "I would have loved to live with a circus! All those animals... did you guys have tigers and lions? We never get stuff like that around here. There's some stupid, ancient law that was made up centuries ago saying that only Nausten citizens can perform 'public arts' here, or some bullshit."
    Trowa laughed at my excitement.
    "It wasn't all that glamorous, trust me. We lived out of trailers, ate a lot of greasy, bland food, and there was always work to do. I was only ten when we stopped touring, so I never got to do any performing or heavy lifting. I mostly helped cook and keep everything clean. We did have big cats, though. They were my favorite part of the circus and I had always hoped that I could be one of the guys responsible for caring and training them one day. We had horses, bears, elephants, dogs, and a monkey, too."
    I envied Trowa's childhood, to travel from place to place, to actually see a tiger or a bear in person, face to face, this exotic creature that someone like me had absolutely no hope of seeing except through the heavy glass of a zoo exhibit, a hundred feet away. He was right, his life at the circus hadn't been glamorous, but it was more than my life had ever been and ever would be. I would never see the rest of the world, it's beauty. Nausten was my world and I would die in it, and there was nothing beautiful about my life.
    "Why did your family stop traveling?" Quatre asked.
    The smile faded from Trowa's face and his expression turned sad and remorseful.
    "During our last performance together as a troupe, someone in the audience shot a firecracker at one of our elephants. She panicked and stampeded. Something caught fire and it spread very quickly. No one died, but my father hurt his leg trying to get all the animals out of the way of the blaze. He and my mother had a double trapeze and high wire act. His injury made it impossible for him to perform or do any heavy labor, so my parents decided that the most reasonable thing for them to do would be to quit the circus and settle down someplace. My dad got into advertising and my mother used the skills she had learned at the circus to become a dancer and an actor," he smiled fondly at some unspoken memory, "she's a talented performer, no matter what craft she throws herself into."
    "That's awful," Quatre sympathized, "but at least it worked out ok for your parents."
    Trowa nodded, but there was something bitter in his gaze. I had seen that look in the mirror a hundred times, and I was a pro at seeing it in other peoples' faces. Trowa's, Quatre's... that look of unhappiness even though they were smiling. I knew without Trowa having said a single word about it, that it hadn't really worked out for his folks. They had given up their dream when they had had no choices left. I had never had a dream like that, nothing solid in my head, but all the same, I knew all about forgotten dreams, about giving up on things.
    I wondered if Trowa's father was like mine and loathed his job, loathed that he had had a future stolen from him. At least his son hadn't been responsible for that fire. He couldn't resent him for it like my father resented me.
    Our food came then, ceasing all talk as we dug into our respective meals. Although it hadn't been exactly what I had wanted, the salmon and everything it came with was delicious. If I were rich, I thought as I shoved forkful after forkful of the herb encrusted fish into my mouth, I would eat salmon every single week and would never grow tired of it. The vegetables, which were actually green beans, broccoli, those weird little corn things, and carrots, were fresh and even the baked potato was amazing. Next time I made some for dinner, I would have to remember to add cheese and bacon to them if we had any.
    My stomach was usually happy with whatever I shoved into it, but when I tasted the fish, it seemed to open up into a bottomless pit. I put away all that food, plus two Shirley Temples, and I could have easily eaten more if it had been in front of me. I didn't know if it was because I had had so little to eat that day or if it was because of some weird upcoming growth spurt or just the occasion, but I felt like a glutton.
    "So," Trowa said through a mouthful of chicken once we had eased out of our feeding frenzy mode and could actually speak to each other again, "How did you two become friends on the very first day of school?"
    "Well..." I started and then looked at Quatre nervously. I had finished my food and Trowa was halfway through his, but my best friend was picking at his steak almost prissily, not really caring about it nearly as much as the salad he had gotten with it.
    I didn't want to tell this story. It wasn't nearly as painful or sad as Trowa's story about the fire, but it felt too personal to me. I didn't want to relate to this boy that I was just starting to know, a boy that Quatre wanted to impress, that on that first day of school, Relena had accused me of being a liar and had written on my face in permanent marker. I didn't want to tell him that Quatre was the only person in that entire classroom who had given a shit, the only one that had wanted to help, and I certainly didn't want to tell him how low that one act had rendered me and why.
    I could only see acceptance in Quatre's blue-green eyes. Whatever I decided to tell Trowa was fine with him. Of course it was, he was the hero of the story. He didn't have anything to be ashamed about.
    "It's a long story," I concluded lamely.
    "You have a lot of long stories," the taller boy chuckled again.
    If anyone else had said that, I would have prickled and felt teased. Hell, if anyone else but Quatre or Trowa had said that, I would have been teased, but his tone was so friendly and I quickly realized that he was just joking with me. I felt myself relax a little. I was over thinking things again.
    "It's really not that interesting," I said, "It was my first day of school and Relena was picking on me because I was new and didn't have any friends. Quatre tried to get her to back off and we just kind of... clicked, I guess."
    If that was a lie, it was surely one of omission since all of that had happened. If Trowa realized that there was a whole lot more to that story than what I was saying, he didn't mention it.
    "Ugh," Quatre suddenly groaned and pushed his plate away, "I just cannot eat another bite," his eyes locked on me and he smirked a little, "Here, Duo, you can have the rest of this if you're still hungry."
    The little manipulator reached over, grabbed my empty plate and practically shoved his in front of me. I narrowed my eyes at him, but he just kept smirking back at me. He had eaten half of the steak, if I was being generous, and I was. In reality it was probably just slightly more than a third, but he had cut up the rest of the steak into manageable, bite sized pieces, the whole thing. He gave me an innocent look and continued to finish off his salad with enthusiasm.
    My dear friend was not fooling anyone with that look and his little plate switching maneuver. Or, well, he wasn't fooling me any. Quatre was sweet and kind, but he was also smart, with all of the strategy and preparedness of a field commander. These traits made him a great manipulator and con artist if the mood struck him. He had ordered the damned steak because he had known it was what I really wanted, had spent the time that Trowa and I had been eating to cut it up for me, and deftly made sure I got it with his crush being unaware that I was too injured to cut up food.
    If it hadn't been kind of sweet and nice of him, and if I hadn't wanted to taste that steak so much, I would have been pissed off at him coddling me like that. My emotions bounced back and forth between love and resentment for Quatre when he did stuff like this, but I couldn't even complain if I wanted to keep up his little charade, so I ignored his innocent look, speared a piece of steak on my fork, and popped it into my mouth.
    Mere words cannot describe the sheer bliss of that first bite of steak. It was like butter. Butter and meat, combined in one mouth watering food. If I had been full to bursting, I wouldn't have been anymore. I was starting to believe that I had died tonight. I had gotten hit in the head with a rogue basketball, fallen from the bleachers and broken my neck. Now I was in heaven, I had thought to myself. That was the only logical explanation for this meal, for this friendship I had stumbled onto with Trowa, and the only explanation for how fucking happy I was, that nothing seriously wrong had happened. Relena had been vanquished, if only for the night, and I was happy. It couldn't be real.
    Nothing bad happened at the end, either. We all finished our food, even got dessert (we shared this huge sundae thing that Beth recommended). I barely remembered what we talked about as we waited for the check. Something boring. Something pleasant. Quatre paid for the whole meal. Trowa started to complain about it, but I assured him that it was easier to convince a mountain to relocate than convince Quatre not to do something nice like that. I was sure that he could afford it.
    "Maybe I'll see you around sometime," was the last thing that Quatre's crush said to me as we parted, spoken with a shy, but friendly smile. I felt amazed and had just nodded in agreement. Then it had just been Quatre and I as we walked to his house.
    "How's the wrist?" he asked me when we stood in front of the fence in front of his mansion of a home.
    I flexed it and winced.
    "Still hurts," I said truthfully, "but not nearly as much as it did before."
    "Good," he smiled warmly, "Just remember to keep it elevated and take more pain pills."
    "'K," I planned to go to sleep as soon as I got back home and had no idea how I was going to keep it elevated since I automatically slept on either my side or my stomach, but I'd figure it out.
    Suddenly, Quatre's sunny smile dissolved and he flung his arms around me in a crushing hug. I was glad that my father had messed up my wrist instead of my ribs. He just clung to me for several minutes before saying anything.
    "Thank you, thank you so much for coming," he said.
    I patted him awkwardly on the back.
    "It's no big deal," I murmured, "not like I did anything special."
    He let go of me, the shoulder of my shirt that he had pressed his face against was suspiciously wet, but I didn't say anything about that.
    "Yes, you did," he gained his smile back, "I mean it, Duo, tonight was great. I wasn't nervous at all because of you, and Trowa really liked you."
    I took his word for it as the expert to Trowa Barton. I guess we had sort of hit it off, or at least found some sort of friendly understanding. He wasn't a bad guy. He was fun to talk to when he wasn't too nervous to talk and decided to get out of his shell, and Quatre liked him.
    "Ah... and is that good?" I asked uncertainly.
    I was still new to this whole 'my best friend is in love' thing. I wasn't sure if his crush liking me was appreciated.
    "Of course it is. I wanted you two to like each other. I like the both of you," he paused, uncertain of himself for some reason before saying, "Duo... thank you for having my back."
    "Always," I promised vehemently.
    I wished that that night would never end, but it did then. Quatre walked into his house, turning back to wave at me, then disappeared for the night.
    Why did I write about that night in such detail? I was just going to write a little bit about it, but it ended up like this. I just couldn't stop myself. I didn't want to stop myself. It wasn't like it was anything important. I had dinner with my best friend and my best friend's crush. About the only thing that anyone needs to know about that is that Quatre made a fatal mistake. I made a fatal mistake. I let him say no to Relena Darlian, and in the end, he paid for it. Mrs. Khushrenada told me to write about all the things that have happened to me that made me sad. That night doesn't make me sad.
    I guess, if I had to state a reason why I wrote all those things about that night it's because I wanted to write about one moment in my life that went right.
    Before it all went completely wrong.


End Part 4

Author's note: As it is now almost the end of November, I am going to start to upload all the of the progress I have made in Nanowrimo. Currently, I am on part 8 of this chapter, so it's going to take awhile to upload it all.  

(1) This is an in joke of sorts. In middle school and high school, my schools' mascot was a dragon and our colors were green and white. When I went to college, our mascot was an alligator and our colors were (shocker) green and white. What are the odds?

Chapter Text

A Stagnation of Love
Chapter 3
Part 5


    Trowa, Quatre, and I didn't get many chances to hang out together after that. Trowa had completely different classes and a different schedule than we did, plus his practices and games kept him busy. I didn't go to any more of his games, not because I hadn't enjoyed watching him play, but simply because I hoped that my tagging along with them that one time had given Quatre enough confidence to go out with him alone next time. So I stayed away from their dinners and meetings outside of school, beyond one time that they took me to a movie with them. In school I had tried to do the same, but the both of them included me into their talks and meetings like the third wheel that I was. I almost felt bad about it, but I also liked it.
    I was still hesitant to call Trowa a friend. I knew a whole lot more about the boy, and I liked hanging out with him, but I just felt so weird about it. I think it was because I was helping keep this huge secret from him, and while Quatre was trying to keep that secret hushed, I wanted it out in the open. Sometimes just being around them made me feel like a pretzel being pulled in all these different directions. But I couldn't help but feel this camaraderie with the eighth grader.
    He didn't like to flaunt that he was friends with Nate and I, but I couldn't blame him. We were tainted and he wasn't. Even if he had helped Quatre stand up to Relena at the basketball game, he was still scared of her, scared of what her rumors could do to his reputation. All the same, he was an easy guy to get along with and after being Relena's target for years, I sympathized with his efforts to stay out of her radar. I wished that she would just drop dead or go find some other targets and give my friend some space.
    She didn't. If anything, I saw her more than usual, like she was shadowing us. Although that might just have been in my imagination. After Quatre had stood up to her at the basketball game, I had become hyper aware to her presence, and Zechs's. The fact that for almost a week, neither of them had done a single thing to us made me more frightened instead of relaxed. I knew that she was going to do something awful to Quatre, it was just a matter of when. Not that that did anything to prepare me for when she did.
    We had two rounds of regional testing to do that week, Math and Sciences were on Friday and Reading Comprehension was on Tuesday. We would get our results back the following week, but by that Thursday, I was confident that I had done very well on the RC portion of the testing at least. I had been relieved when I had found out it would be on a Tuesday, giving Quatre and I plenty of more time to prepare for the Math and Sciences one, and giving me a reprieve of swim class. That was, until I was learned that swim class was being moved to Thursday because of the tests.
    I hated my swimming lessons. Ever since Zechs had almost drowned me in the pool a year ago, I had learned to be very afraid of them. They took away time I could be working, were, in my humble opinion, totally useless, and between the two showers we had to take and our mingling with the upperclassmen in the pool, the lessons had taken on a nightmarish quality for me. I was on edge, always on the look out for something to go wrong. I never thought that the thing that was going to go wrong was going to happen before we even got to the pool.
    We were all walking as a mass group towards the pool from school that day. Trowa got excused from all of his swimming classes that year, thanks to his basketball practices. Lucky him. I was sure he was a great swimmer, he had the long limbs and thin body for it. Quatre and I were trailing behind in the group like we always did. The both of us had found that when you were in the back, you didn't get noticed, while most of the kids that wanted to cause problems for us were at the head of the pack. We were halfway to the pool when we hit the major intersection of that part of town. Because Quatre and I were straggling, we missed the walk light while most of the group rushed ahead of us. I certainly didn't mind waiting for the light, it wasn't like I was in a hurry to get to the pool.
    I never saw Relena walk up behind Quatre until I heard him cry out in pain. I whirled just in time to see her grabbing and twisting his hair from behind, Quatre unable to do anything to stop her unless he wanted hurt himself.
    "Hi, Winner," she said with that fake, cheery tone that I had grown to hate, "It's been awhile, hasn't it? How have you been doing? I've been very worried about you. See, here I was being a good friend and taking it easy on you, warning you that hanging out with Barton isn't a very healthy thing for you, but I guess you must be losing your hearing because I could have sworn I've seen you talking with him every day this week. You must be going deaf, it couldn't be that you're willingly ignoring a good friend's advice, that just can't be true."
    She twisted his hair harder and shoved him forward so hard, he almost tripped and fell in the street, regaining his balance at the very last second.
    "I think you need to be taught some manners," her blue eyes narrowed as he stared at her, trying to gauge exactly what she was going to do, "I think you need to learn that you just can't go around ignoring friendly advice, not if you want to live a healthy and full life. Not to mention that you really hurt my feelings that night. I know that you didn't really mean it, you just didn't know any better, so here's what we're going to do."
    She grabbed the back of Quatre's shirt and pushed him again. This time, he would have fallen right into the street where cars were passing us if she hadn't been holding his shirt.
    "Relena," Quatre's voice was full of fear.
    This wasn't just one of her stupid pranks. This wasn't putting tacks in his shoe or even forcing him to drink something he was allergic to. She was furious and what she was doing, just in fucking jest was incredibly dangerous. I felt my heart start to race. The light on our side turned red just then and cars from the left of us turned into our street, whizzing past us. I envisioned myself pushing her in front of one of those cars.
    "Because I'm such a nice person," she sneered, "I'm going to give you one, last chance to redeem yourself. You're going to prove to me that you understand what happens to people like you when they ignore friendly advice and start to think that they're just like everyone else. You're going to cross the street, right when I tell you to. If you listen, do as you're told, and make it to the other side, then I'll forgive you."
    My heart pounded in my chest like a trapped, terrified bird in a cage.
    "Relena, stop," I begged her.
    She couldn't really be serious with this, she couldn't.
    "Shut up," she snarled at me and immediately turned her attention back to Quatre, "You can say no, of course, just like you said no to me before, but I wouldn't recommend it. Not if you don't want to find all sorts of nasty rumors flying around about Trowa's sexuality. I guarantee you, since you've been hanging around with him so much lately, they will be very believable."
    Every drop of color disappeared from Quatre's face. He looked like she had just eviscerated him and I was sure that he couldn't have looked any more sick than he did if she really had spilled his guts on the ground. He didn't call her bluff, neither did I. We didn't need to because she was right. She didn't care about ruining Trowa's reputation. She would probably find it funny.
    I could see the wheels turning in my best friend's head. I could see him blaming himself, hating himself for doing this to the boy he loved. He had dared to stand up to Relena, he had dared to be friends with Trowa and Relena could so very easily use that friendship to hurt the both of them. Whatever strength Quatre had had that night at the game was long gone now.
    The stop light had turned green again. Cars harmlessly passed by us on the side instead of in front of us. With horror, I watched some terrible emotion come over my friend, resignation and determination mixed together.  I saw what Relena had probably known ages ago. Quatre would do everything for Trowa. He would do anything to protect him.
    "Quatre, no!" I yelled at him as he pulled his shirt from Relena's harpy grasp, turned and look out onto the street.
    I didn't move to stop him. All I could do was yell at him. I was so fucking useless.
    "C'mon, Quatre, this is stupid. You don't have to do this, just wait for the damned light!" I pleaded him, but he just kept staring ahead like he was sleepwalking. I turned to Relena, "Please don't do this. You know he's sorry. He forgot himself and did something stupid, that's all. He could get hurt!"
    I would have gotten down on my knees and kissed her shoes if it meant getting her to call this off. Pride was worthless to me, I would have degraded myself to a level that a maggot would have been repulsed by.
    "If you don't shut up," she said with a sweet little smile that made me sick to my stomach, "I'll make him do it blindfolded all the way to the pool. You know that I can."
    I promptly shut up. My heart was beating so fast, it was a wonder that I hadn't blacked out. I wanted to cry in hysterics. I couldn't do either. I had Quatre's back. That hadn't changed in less than a week. I might have been useless, a piece of shit masquerading as his friend, but I wouldn't leave him. I wouldn't so much as take my eyes off of him.
    Relena placed her clawed hands on my friend's shoulders and leaned in to speak in his ear. They would have looked like close friends having a talk to anyone not close enough to hear what she was saying.
    "When I say go, you'll walk and you'll keep walking until you reach the other side. If you stop or run or walk back here, consider our deal broken. But you won't do that, will you? You'll just keep walking when I tell you to, won't you?"
    Her nails dug into his shoulders. I wanted to rip them off with pliers, one at a time.
    "Yes."
    Quatre's voice was startling and steady, like a gunshot. Relena's eyes fixed themselves on the stoplight, waiting, while Quatre's stared straight ahead at his goal. I felt myself start to shake and I couldn't understand how my friend was so still and calm. I felt like I was dreaming. Our side of the stop light turned red and a couple cars turned into the street. I was never happier that it was a weekday and there wasn't a whole lot of traffic.
    "Go," Relena hissed at Quatre.
    He took a step off of the curb and I almost screamed. I heard whispering behind me from other stragglers in our class. They might as well have not existed at all to me. My eyes were fixed on Quatre's back as he walked as a decent pace, not sedate, but not running either, as per Relena's orders. That one stretch of street seemed a thousand miles long. I couldn't imagine what was going through his head, how he could just walk like that, totally collected.
    'Walk with him,' a voice that was really just my own whispered at me inside of my head.
    I should be out there, I realized. I should be walking with him. Relena hadn't said that he had to do it alone. I should be there, facing the same terror that he was, ready to push him out of the way if a car came too close to him. But I couldn't. I wasn't. I was a coward. Just the thought of walking out into traffic with him had me terrified and frozen to the spot. I wanted to kill myself as I stood there, letting my friend do this horrible thing. I didn't tell myself that there was nothing I could do, because there was, and I refused to make this any easier on me.
    A black sedan sped past, mere inches from him, and the driver honked the horn loudly as my friend as it very nearly hit him. I cried out, but Quatre stood there, his hands starting to shake. I dared to take my eyes off of him, just in time to see a large truck driving down the other street.
    'Please, please, please don't turn here. Just keep driving straight, don't turn right...' I begged the universe, God, anything that had the power to change the nightmare I saw coming.
    But I knew that the truck was going to turn. It had the name of the grocery store that was further down this street painted on it's side.
    "You'd better start moving, Winner!" Relena called to him cruelly.
    Quatre's head whipped to the side and he saw the truck as it neared the stop light. He saw what I saw. The truck's right blinker flashed and it accelerated into the turn, going too fast for something that size down this street. I saw him notice it. And I saw him not move a single inch.
    "He's frozen," I heard one of our classmates remark in fear, not that they had anything to be afraid of.
    They were wrong. He wasn't frozen. He wasn't paralyzed with fear. He had given up. If only for one second, standing in the middle of that street, halfway to safety, my best friend had resigned himself. To the truck heading his way, to his misery, to his guilt, to Relena. He just gave up.
    I didn't think about it then. I didn't think about what dark and horrible place Quatre's mind was at in that moment that had just... shut down his heart, shut down all the things in a person that drove them to survive no matter what. I didn't think about anything at all. I ran. I ran faster than I ever had on the track at school. I ran harder than I ever had with my father chasing me. I ran and I tackled my best friend to the ground in a move that probably would have made Coach Strum gape.
    I grabbed Quatre's head and forced it to the ground, surrounding his slightly smaller body with mine, using my superior weight to make him lay flat just as I felt the truck strike him. Or me. It was hard to tell in that moment beyond the screaming voice in my head that I was too late, Quatre was dead, I was dead, and we were about to be turned into street hamburger. I felt something tear up my back. I learned later that it was the truck's license plate. I didn't even have the time to thank any kind of deity that the vehicle that had nearly killed my friend was something that was high from the ground, high enough for two stupid ass teenagers to pass under as they lay flat on the ground.
    The bottom of the truck was searing hot and I felt several metal things scraping against my back, burning my skin with oil and grease. I couldn't breathe. The entire time, all I could hear was that screaming voice and my heart like thunder in my head. The truck had passed us by in less than half a second, but it had felt like a fucking hour to me as I hugged Quatre close, the warmth of his skin the only thing I could focus on without screaming out loud. Or maybe I had, it was all lost under the roaring sound of the truck.
    When the truck passed by us and the driver slammed his vehicle to a stop, I was shaking so hard, I couldn't tell if it was me or the ground for awhile.
    "Oh, God. Oh, God," I heard someone say. For a moment, I thought that I had. Later, I would realize that it had been the truck driver climbing down from his vehicle, thinking he had just run down two kids.
    I pried myself off of Quatre slowly. It seemed impossible to move, like I had glued myself to him and just getting off of him with my trembling limbs was a trial. All of my muscles were still taut and aching. I could taste a revolting mixture of gasoline and blood in my throat.
    "Quatre?!" I choked out with some effort.
    He didn't answer me. He didn't so much as twitch. Had I been too late? I turned him over a little so I could see his face. His eyes were closed and his cheek was cut up and bloody from my pushing him to the ground, but I couldn't see any large head wounds. I shakily pressed my fingers against his throat, searching for a pulse. When I didn't immediately find one, I nearly panicked, but then I felt a heartbeat, sedate but strong. It was the most wonderful feeling in the world. Quatre was alive, just unconscious. I finished turning him over onto his back, furiously looking for any injuries. I had felt the truck hit him. I might have been panicking and terrified, but I was certain I had felt it or heard it.
    He had scratches and cuts all over his arms from the pavement and one leg of his jeans were ripped to hell and stained with small patches of blood. Bruises were already forming on his pale skin. Both of our clothes were torn and bloody, although it would be hours before I realized my own injuries, and we were both filthy from the road. I thought that I might have just imagined the truck hitting Quatre until I saw his left arm.
    When I had tackled my friend flat to the ground, I had been the most concerned about his head and back. What I had been thinking about couldn't be labeled as rational thought when I had seen that huge truck bearing down on him, but shattered skull and broken spine had been among those chaotic thoughts. I hadn't thought about his limbs.
    The truck had hit him. It's front bumper had struck his arm and broken it in two places. The bone was sticking out underneath his upper arm. If it had been anyone else, I would have thrown up, but it was Quatre. All that mattered was fixing it. All that mattered was hearing someone tell me that he was going to be fine, that I had gotten to him in time.
    "I... Is he..?" I heard the truck driver more clearly this time.
    I looked up at him. He was just some ordinary guy, older than my dad with grey in his dark hair, neither fat nor buff but still bigger than my father was.
    "He's hurt," I said, my voice still sounding hoarse, "he needs a hospital."
    "Are you ok?"
    It was the first time I had thought about it. In some distant place where all my sanity had fled to, I realized that I hurt. I felt that tacky feeling of blood that I was familiar with gluing my tattered shirt to my back. My back was in agony. My ribs ached and my head pounded. My knees and lungs were on fire. None of it mattered to me. Unlike Quatre, nothing was broken or too damaged for me to stand. I nodded.
    "I'll drive you two there," the truck driver said, almost eagerly. Maybe he actually felt like shit for almost killing us, or maybe he was hoping that if he was helpful, Quatre's parents wouldn't sue him.
    What Relena and the rest of the gawkers were doing was lost on me. All that existed in my world was me, Quatre, and this man that could help my injured friend. I could have been furious at him. It was his fucking truck that had hit Quatre. If he hadn't been driving that monster over the speed limit, and had better reflexes, he could have avoided hitting Quatre entirely. but if he had been driving any faster, the both of us would have been flattened. Besides, it wasn't his fault, not really. It was Relena's.
    "Let me help you-," he started like he was going to grab Quatre.
    I didn't need his help. Adrenaline like an electric shock was coursing through my blood. I could have run a marathon with energy to spare to swim a hundred laps. And I was determined to save Quatre. With no real consciousness of how much my body was hurting, I laid Quatre's injured arm over his stomach so it wouldn't move and I wouldn't do it any more damage, and I lifted my friend into my arms as I stood like I was holding a wet paper bag. The truck driver stared at me in astonishment and I had no clue why at the time.
    Then we were moving. I would have ran to the passenger's side door of the truck if only my battered legs had been capable of it. Getting inside the truck and sitting down in the seat while carrying Quatre was a struggle I never want to relive. Frankly, I don't know how I managed it and probably could never do it again without that toxic mix of adrenaline and shock. I kept my friend cradled on my lap, which also wasn't that damned easy. I was taller than him, but not much. I would have put the seatbelt around us if I hadn't been so scared of hurting his arm.
    The cab smelled thickly of stale chips, sickly sweet energy drinks, and cigarette smoke. It made me nauseous. When the driver blasted the heat on, directing the vents all on me, I almost yelled at him to shut it off, not understanding why he needed it on at all, or on me. It wasn't cold at all.
    None of us spoke the entire ride to the hospital. I think that the truck driver was still too freaked out by what had happened. I was well beyond just freaked out at that stage. At some point during the ride, I can't recall exactly when, I realized that I was crying. I didn't look over at our driver. I didn't want to see his awkward concern or his fake kindness at finding a kid crying in his truck. My tears didn't make me feel better. I just felt like my insides were going to explode out of my skin at any moment.
    By the time that we got to the hospital, most of my adrenaline was long gone. I was sleepwalking in a nightmare, ready to just give up and fall into blackness, the gentle rocking of the truck and the hot air not helping me to be alert and awake. The driver helped me out of the cab and I stumbled onto even ground. I was still shaky but I had managed to stop crying.
    "Thanks for the ride," I muttered.
    The driver looked at my awkwardly and asked me if I wanted help getting Quatre into the emergency room even more awkwardly.
    "Just go away," I told him flatly. I was too tired and too scared to deal with him.
    He didn't need to be told twice. The asshole, good intended or not, vanished and left me alone with my unconscious friend outside the hospital. Still, I was happy to see him go. I hadn't even taken down his license plate number or name. Oh, well, I thought. If Quatre's parents wanted to sue him, it wouldn't be that hard finding him and his beast of a truck.
    I had never actually been to an emergency room when I hadn't been the one that had the emergency. It was a surreal experience. I didn't like being the worried part for once at all. I walked to the very first desk I saw. The receptionist's eyes went huge when she saw us.
    "My friend..." I somehow managed to speak intelligibly although all I wanted to do was scream until all of this went away, "we were crossing the street... he got hit by a truck... his arm is broken..."
    The receptionist didn't mince words with me. I guess a thirteen year old getting hit by a truck warranted immediate attention because she motioned or shouted at a passing orderly or nurse, or maybe she had done it via telepathy, it was all a blur at that point. The orderly disappeared for a moment, then re-emerged with a stretcher or gurney. I can never get those two straight. I let them take Quatre and watched, helpless, as they carted him off somewhere.
    "Name?" the receptionist barked at me.
    I blinked up at her like an owl. She might as well have spoken to me in French.
    "Your friend's name, sweetie?" she said more kindly, her voice oozing sympathy.
    "Quatre Winner," I croaked.
    She wrote down the information on a clipboard that she must have pulled out of her ass.
    "And yours?"
    "Duo Maxwell."
    At least I could remember our names. But I was fading fast. 'Shock,' some part of me supplied helpfully.
    "And do you know his parents' phone numbers?" she continued.
    I wracked my brain and found nothing. I was sure that I had known them at some point, but right then, standing in that white, hospital reception area, shaking and aching, I couldn't remember my own phone number. Panicking a little, I shook my head.
    "That's ok, Duo," she assured me with a gentle smile. I was sure that they taught people like her that smile in their job training. I remember nurses smiling at me like that before, "I'm sure it will be in his medical file. Do you know if he's allergic to any medication?"
    "I don't think so," I tried to be helpful, "He's lactose intolerant and his skin gets irritated if he eats blueberries, but I don't think he has problems with any meds."
    "Good," she nodded and then paused. I got the sudden impression that she was stalling. At the time, I was certain that I had missed something, some scene or event that had happened before, but I couldn't figure out what it was.
    When she couldn't figure out the next thing she was supposed to say and minutes passed, I was about to just walk off and leave her there, maybe find a nice, comfy hospital chair to pass out in until someone told me that Quatre was alright. Just as I had decided to do just that, a man strode out of the opposite double doors from where Quatre had disappeared into. He was wearing a long white coat, glasses, and holding a clipboard.
    I had to assume he was a doctor between the coat and the attitude like he knew exactly where he was going, and it was somewhere very important. The doctor looked around the waiting room before noticing me and striding over. He was here for me. I was out of it, but I wasn't out of it enough to not realize what it was I was missing. The receptionist had called him. Was I getting kicked out of the ER because I wasn't related to Quatre? No, my frazzled brain pointed out, if I was getting kicked out, they wouldn't be sending a doctor to do it.
    "Doctor," the receptionist stood back up from her chair, "This is the boy I called you about. He says his name is Duo."
    "Thank you, Sarah," he said without so much as glancing at her. She was a footnote in his day.
    "Hello, there, Duo," he greeted me like I had an appointment or something instead of just strolled in here with my bloody and battered best friend, "I'm Doctor Michells."
    "Hi," I said dumbly, not sure why he was here.
    "That was a very brave thing you did for your friend," he commented, raising a dark eyebrow when I shrugged him off.
    "I just carried him in," I muttered.
    His grey eyes glanced at my hands. They were cut and bloody and still trembling. I was starting to feel like a drug addict going through withdrawal with all this shaking that I couldn't control.
    "Why don't you follow me, Duo?" he asked.
    "Wait," I protested, "How is Quatre? Is he ok?"
    He had to know. Someone had to know. The doctor smiled at me and it kind of made me feel better even though he didn't really have any real information.
    "Your friend is being looked after, I promise, but now I need to look after you, ok?"
    I looked up at him, confused. Why did anyone need to take care of me? I wasn't the one that had gotten hit by the truck.
    "Why, I'm not hurt," I snapped at him, "Quatre's the one that got hurt!"
    The doctor glanced at the receptionist. I saw her mouth 'he's in shock' to him. It didn't mean anything to me. I just wanted to see my friend, awake and fine, and then to sleep, in that exact order. Nothing else meant anything.
    "Alright," the doctor said, obviously appeasing me, "But I would still like to check you out, just to make sure. As soon as we're done with that, I'll take you to see your friend."
    He gestured towards the door that he had just come out of. I didn't have any choice but to believe him. I didn't know how long it would take to fix Quatre's arm or anything else that was wrong with him, and I wasn't sure how much longer I could remain upright. I followed him to a small examination room. Everything looked... grey to me, but there wasn't even enough of me to feel worried about that. I sat up on the examination table and immediately almost fell off of it. The doctor placed a hand on my shoulder to steady me. When he was sure that I wasn't going to fall, he went to the thermostat, turning it up. I remember how the truck driver had blasted the heat in his cab and wondered why everyone seemed to be cold but me.
    As he walked back towards me, I caught my reflection in one of the mirrored cabinets. I looked horrible. There wasn't an ounce of color in my face, my eyes red from crying and they were glassy. I didn't look like I was any more alive than a recent corpse.
    "Can I call your parents?" he asked me as he took some instruments out of one of the drawers.
    "No," I told him, "they're both at work. They won't come."
    I didn't tell him that it didn't matter if they were at work or not. My parents wouldn't come anyway. I could just imagine what my father would say if I called him and told him that my friend was in the hospital.
    "You don't have any friends."
    I felt a warm wetness behind my eyes, but I was even too tired to acknowledge that, or the fact that I didn't want my father here anymore than he would want to be here.
    "Tell me what happened to you and your friend," the doctor switched tracks on me.
    It was getting hard for my brain to keep up, especially when he shined a light in my eyes. I blinked sluggishly at him before I remembered he had just asked me a question.
    "We were walking to the pool for our swim class," I said slowly, realizing that I was talking weird and not sure why.
    Doctor Michells pressed two fingers to the inside of my wrist and frowned.
    "When we were crossing the street, a truck pulled into the street we were walking on. It was going too fast," I lied too easily, even in my tired stupor.
    "Any troubles breathing?" the doctor suddenly asked. He really needed to stop doing that, it was getting harder and harder to follow him.
    I shook my head and he seemed pleased with that answer. What the hell did my breathing have to do with anything?
    "The truck almost hit Quatre," I continued, "I managed to push him to the ground before it did, but it still hit his arm pretty badly."
    "That was quick thinking," he said in approval and then glanced at my torn up knees, wincing, "I take it that's what all these cuts and scrapes are from?"
    I nodded and then quickly decided to answer him verbally from then on. Nodding made the room spin. There was something wrong with me, I suddenly realized, and some rational part of me decided to wake up and tell the rest of me that the doctor had known that all along and probably knew what that something was, even if he wasn't telling me.
    "Did the truck hit you?"
    "No-" I paused and realized that I wasn't so sure anymore. Everything seemed like a dream to me and I was having a hard time remembering certain things, while others, like the feeling of the truck passing over my back, Quatre's warmth in my arms, and my screaming terror as it felt it hit him, were painfully clear and sharp, "I don't think it did. The only thing that really hurts is my back."
    At that, he quickly glanced at my back and when his face came back within my field of view, he was wincing again.
    "Your knees are scraped raw, your elbows, too, and you have a fairly bad cut along your back along with scrapes and some first to low second degree burns, but it's hard for me to tell with your clothes in the way," he summed up my injuries. I hadn't even realized that my back had been burnt that badly, "would you mind taking them off so I can do a more thorough examination? You can say no and we'll wait until we can get a hold of your parents, but if you do say yes, I will still have a nurse present since you're a minor."
    I shrugged. I didn't care. I was beyond caring. My parents were not going to be 'gotten a hold of' and I didn't want them to be. Things were simpler when my father wasn't involved. My clothes were ruined anyway and the blood on my shirt was starting to bug me.
    With my consent given, Doctor Michells left the room briefly to grab a nurse. I looked at my reflection in the cabinets again. I somehow looked even worse than before and I wondered if the truck really had hit me or maybe I had hurt myself worse when I had tackled Quatre to the pavement than I had originally thought. Not that I had thought about my injuries at all until then. I didn't even recognize myself, I was as white and pale as a human being could be. My eyes looked hollow and dead, but my face wasn't nearly as cut up and scraped as Quatre's had been. It could have been a lot worse, though.
    My face could have been as burnt and raw as my back. I had tucked my head down against Quatre's at the very last moment, unthinkingly. I shuddered when I remembered how close the undercarriage of that truck had come to the back of my head. Instead, it had scraped and cut and burned my back. I couldn't complain about that trade, not the few cuts on my face or the pain in my back. At least I still had a head.
    Doctor Michells returned quickly with a nurse in tow. She had red hair and was carrying a blanket for some reason. That's all I noticed and remembered about her. When she closed the door behind her, without thinking like the idiot that I was, I tried to pull my torn shirt off of me. My back had been hurt before. I had been cut, bruised, and battered. I had had broken ribs and limbs. All of that didn't hold a candle to the sheer agony that shot through my back when I tried to peel my shirt off of it. I didn't scream, but I came very close to it, managing to taper it off to an underwhelming, choked gasp.
    "There's no need for that," the doctor scolded, irritated that I had hurt myself in my impatience.
    The nurse put the blanket down on the spare chair and fetched a pair of scissors from a drawer, handing them to him. Cutting my shirt off of me turned out to be more difficult than I had thought it would be. Where I had been burnt and bled, the material of the shirt had very nearly merged with my flesh. Thankfully, this doctor was a gentle touch and patient, taking his time to slowly pull each scrap of bloodied and filthy cloth out of my various wounds. It still hurt like hell, but there was really nothing he could do about that beyond knocking me out while he did it. The nurse offered to hold my hand if it would make me feel better. I told her no, partially because I knew that it wouldn't and partially because I was afraid I would break her hand.
    It actually felt really good not having anything touching and pulling at my back anymore. I wrinkled my nose at the smell coming from my shirt as the nurse bundled it up in a biohazard bag. The shirt had been almost soaked in gas and oil and blood. It took me a moment to realize that that smell was coming from me, too. The oil and gas was on my skin, too.
    "Looks like the truck that hit you had a bit of a leak," the doctor confirmed for me, "You have a fair amount of oil in these cuts. They'll need to be flushed out before we put any salve on them. But that can wait until later."
    He disappeared behind me again to do a more thorough investigation of my back. He hissed and made some sympathetic noises as he saw the extent of my injuries.
    "You were lucky you weren't flayed," he muttered and I wondered if he had really meant for me to hear that, "You definitely have a couple of second degree burns here. I'll prescribe you some burn cream that should help them heal faster before you go home. That truck took off a good deal of skin from your back. Your parents will need to keep an eye out for any infections and help you to keep these wounds covered always. The only exception is when you bathe.
    "You also have some deep cuts here. They aren't bleeding too badly, but a few will need stitches. I'll be able to tell how bad they are when we wash them out," he walked back where I could see him, "No sports," he told me sternly, "no gym, no running, for at least a week. And when you sleep, try as hard as you can to sleep on your side or on your stomach if you can."
    I nodded. It was all I was capable of. I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by all of this. My back was in agony, but the pain, like everything else, still felt very far away from me. The doctor started talking again, but it was all white noise. I was fading in a haze of pain and chaos. I wished that Quatre was there with me. He would tell me what was wrong. I jerked back to reality when the doctor pressed a hand against my right side, the side I had landed on partially.
    "Your ribs aren't broken at least, just badly bruised," he remarked and then grabbed the scissors back from the nurse.
    I had seconds to mourn my jeans before they were gone. I might have been able to patch the knees up, but the doctor hadn't even bothered to ask me if I didn't want them cut. He at least let me keep my boxers, the only article of clothing I had on that hadn't become mangled besides my socks and sneakers. I was grateful. I had enough sense left to know I did not want to be naked in front of these two adults, regardless of their profession. And it was around that time that I finally realized how incredibly cold I was. I was freezing to my fucking bones. Was that why I was still shaking? But the room had to be sweltering at that point.
    "Your knees aren't as bad as your back is, but they'll take a long time to heal," the doctor continued.
    I barely noticed him. Or my knees. Or my back. Black spots were beginning to appear in my vision. Why was I here? I caught the doctor nodding to the nurse. With a soft, but concerned smile, she wrapped the blanket around me.

*****

    Shock sucks. I had always attributed it to something that happens to people going through real, violent trauma. Mothers who lost their children. Soldiers fighting a war. Kids that watched their parents be murdered right in front of them. I had never thought it would happen to me, and I certainly had never thought it would happen just from saving Quatre's life from almost getting mowed down by a truck, but apparently it's a common thing to experience when you're the most terrified that you've been in your whole life. Shock was the reason why I had kept shaking. It was the reason why everyone kept turning the heat up around me and it was the reason why that receptionist had called a triage doctor on me when my actual injuries hadn't been life threatening.
    As it turns out, some people can actually die from shock if it isn't treated. Treatment being laying the person down with their legs up and making sure they stay warm since they're losing body heat. Doctor Michells couldn't have me lay down with my back the way that it was, so he had settled for keeping me warm and engaged for as long as he could while checking me for serious injuries. All in all, he had been a good doctor. I had certainly had worse.
    All of this, at the time of my shocked state, had gone right over my head. Honestly, I had been lucky to have been able to string to words together with my frantic, muddled brain. No matter how hard my father had hit me, no matter what damage he had done, how many bones he had broken, I had never come that close to death before. I don't know exactly what had triggered my shock, seeing that truck come for me, or watching it head for Quatre.
    The second that that nurse had wrapped the blanket around me, I had blacked out. No, blacked out is too kind of a phrase for what my mind had done when it had felt that warmth around me. It had just shut off. I fell and I fell hard into a place that was devoid of even dreams. When I finally came back into the living world, it was hours later and I was beyond disoriented. I didn't know where I was, when I was, or why I was.
    I felt... better, sort of. At the very least I no longer felt like I had been turned into road kill and was only standing upright from sheer will power. I still felt shaky, but it was from a mixture of tiredness, confusion, pain, and a complete lack of energy instead of shock. I no longer felt cold and my confusion was from just waking up, not a lack of basic cognition.
    I was lying in a hospital bed on my stomach, as per the doctor's orders, my back wrapped in bandages. From the feel of it, my knees were, too, and there was a band aid on the worst scrape on my cheek. I very carefully turned on my side and didn't feel any pain at all in my back. The doctor must have given me some sort of pain meds. Awesome. There was an IV in my arm, probably fluids. I slowly peeled the tape off holding the needle in place and pulled it out, wincing as I did it. It didn't hurt or anything, I just really hated needles, but I wasn't going to just stick it out in that hospital room all day. I had to find Quatre and I couldn't do that hooked up to an IV.
    Someone had dressed me in a hospital gown, which was better than just wearing my boxer shorts, but the thought of wandering around in the flimsy gown wasn't very appealing. Thankfully someone had left clothes for me in the chair by my bed, including my sneakers and socks. Was this some kind of new hospital service, buy clothes for pathetic kids that ruined theirs? Not that I was complaining.
    Moving like an old, arthritic man, and kind of feeling like one, too (I might have been pain free for the moment, but my body was still stiff and aware that it was injured), I got out of the bed and got dressed. The clothes had obviously been gifted from someone who didn't know my clothing size. The sweatpants fit ok, but the green, long sleeved shirt was a bit too big for me. I walked stiffly and slowly out into the hallway after I struggled to retie my sneakers.
    The floor I had ended up on was not the floor I had started with, but I managed to find a nurses station easily. To my relief, one of the nurses was the redhead that had helped treat me. She smiled brightly when she saw me.
    "Hello, there," she said, "Are you feeling better?"
    I nodded.
    "Do you know where Dr. Michells is?" I asked her, "I'd like to thank him for everything. And... uh... the clothes?"
    "He said that you would be eager to check on your friend," she explained.
    I felt myself blush a little at the doctor's 'good deed'. Maybe it really was a hospital service.
    "Do you know which room Quatre Winner is in, then?" now that I had some sleep and medication in me, I was feeling slightly less panicked than I had before about my friend, and the nurse's demeanor helped, but I was still desperate to see for myself that he was ok.
    The nurse nodded to the one that was sitting at the computer behind the desk.
    "Before you see your friend, the doctor prescribed you some painkillers, antibiotics, and burn cream for you," she handed me the prescriptions, "you can get them filled out in the pharmacy downstairs before you leave or at your convenience, but Doctor Michells wanted you to take the painkillers before you go to bed tonight. He stitched up a couple of your cuts," she handed me a packet of paper as well, "these are instructions for taking care of them. If you have to take a shower or bath tonight, try your best to keep your back dry or covered."
    "I don't have any money to pay for these," I looked morosely at the slips of paper she had given me. I didn't know much about the health insurance that I had, but I usually had to pay something for any medicine I got at a pharmacy.
    "It's all covered," I was told.
    I blinked at her.
    "How do you know which insurance I have?" I asked, perplexed.
    "We contacted your father. He gave his permission to treat you and gave us your insurance information. Your friend took care of the rest."
    I stared at her in pure astonishment. I didn't know what was more amazing, that my father had actually taken that phone call, that he hadn't immediately hung up, or that Quatre was awake and paying my 'bill'. I wanted to be angry at him, taking care of me when he should be taking care of himself, but I was too happy that he wasn't dead or in a coma or something. I would worry about my Dad maybe being pissed at me when I got home later.
    "Winner is in room 223," the other nurse intoned.
    "Can I go see him?" I asked meekly.
    "Of course, just sign this," the redheaded nurse handed me release papers. I guess blacking out had gotten me officially admitted. I signed it eagerly. I wanted to get Quatre and myself out of here as soon as possible.
    "223 is down the hall," the other nurse pointed, "and to the right."
    "Your friend can be discharged tonight, too," the redhead said pleasantly.
    "He's ok, then?"
    She nodded with a soft smile.
    "His arm was broken and his shoulder and cheek were scraped up pretty badly. He had to have minor surgery for his arm and it's in a cast for the next six months, but he's lucky. He's young, so he shouldn't have problems if he lets it heal."
    I felt like crying with pure relief. I hadn't fucked up too badly. I walked to Quatre's room with my packet of papers and prescriptions, almost limping. I really hoped the pills the doctor had prescribed would take away as much of the pain as whatever was in me right then.
    I stopped as I stood outside of Quatre's room. I suddenly felt very nervous. What if his parents were there? What if they were pissed that I hadn't reacted faster? I knew that Quatre wouldn't be mad, but I had never met his folks before and I never wanted to meet them. After years of seeing them disappoint my best friend over and over and over again, I was already a bit biased about them, but it was more than that. They were the Winners, one of the richest families in Nausten, maybe even THE richest family in Nausten. Which probably isn't saying much in comparison to the rest of the country, but here in this town, that kind of wealth went a long way. And me? I was just some bug in their windshield. What would they say and do if they found out that someone like me was friends with their only son?
    "Suck it up," I muttered to myself.
    I might be broke and a piece of trash, but I was still Quatre's friend. And at least I hadn't made him feel like shit or locked him out of his own damned house. I knocked on the door.
    "C'min," a thick voice told me.
    My stomach dropped when I walked into that room and saw my friend. Quatre had never looked smaller than laying in that hospital bed. His thin arm was in a huge cast from his upper arm to almost his fingers. It seemed to completely dwarf him. He looked pale, although probably not any more pale than I still was, his cheek covered in a bandage. There were dark circles under his eyes and he looked sick. Although, if I had found myself in this place with a broken arm because some cunt had forced me to almost get hit by a goddamned truck, I would look sick, too.
    His eyes brightened when he saw that it was me, but he still looked so tired, lost, and sad. There was a darkness to those eyes that hadn't been there before, a darkness that I didn't like.
    "Quatre, I..." I stared to say.
    'I'm sorry for not making her stop, I'm sorry for being such a weak piece of shit. I'm sorry for not being there for you. I'm sorry I broke your arm.'
    "You saved my life."
    I froze where I stood, just a foot into the room. He said it so matter of fact, like there was no doubt in his mind. I wonder what whoever had treated him had told him. It really hit me then. Even though I had been too late to act, I had saved him. Quatre was alive. Hurt, but alive. I had been late and cowardly, but I hadn't fucked up. I felt tears stream down my face, but that was ok. Quatre was the only person in the whole world who I could cry in front of. I walked over to his bed and sat down in the chair next to it. We were the only two in the room. Maybe his family had stepped out somewhere.
    "I'm sorry, Quatre," I choked out without sobbing, "I didn't know what to do. I should have gone out there with you. I should have pushed you out of the way... I didn't even think to protect your arms... it's because of me that your arm got broken."
    He snorted at me, a sound that I had never heard him make before.
    "Shut up, Duo," he said, but it was affectionate and not unkindly, "You ran out in front of a goddamned truck to save me. You risked your life for me. You could have been killed trying to save me! No one else did a thing, and no one else wanted to a thing to help me. No normal person would have done a thing. I didn't even try to help myself. If I had known that you were going to do that, I would have..." he didn't finish that sentence and I wished that he would. I wanted to know why he had just stood there, watching that truck almost hit him. I wanted to know why he had given up like that.
    "You got hurt and almost killed saving me and you're feeling bad that you didn't think to save my arm from breaking because you were too busy trying to save my stupid, foolish head. You frustrate me so much sometimes," he smiled at me, a warm, loving smile, but also a pained, bitter one.
    I flushed. I didn't know what to say about that. I supposed that, in perspective, my guilt was kind of stupid.
    "You aren't super human, you know," he said softly and reached out with his good hand to clasp one of mine, "The cops were here a little while ago."
    My eyes widened. I had figured that there would be an investigation. It wasn't every day that a Winner, let alone a thirteen year old, was nearly mowed down in front of his classmates, but I hadn't thought the police would show up that fast. I wondered if my father was a part of the investigation. Probably not, since his son was directly involved. The Nausten Police force was small, but they still had rules.
    "They'll want to talk to you, too," he warned me, "especially if that truck driver doesn't report what happened. If they haven't talked to you already."
    I had no clue if that driver was going to report anything. He had seemed like an ok guy, but that had just been my impression when I had been half out of my mind. He had also seemed quite eager to do whatever it took not to get into trouble. For all I knew, the only reason why he had stopped his truck at all was because he hadn't wanted to be implicated in a hit and run incident, and it wasn't like the cops wouldn't have been able to figure out that it had been him. How many trucks from that particular store could there be making deliveries at one time?
    "They haven't," I confirmed and wasn't looking forward to sharing my side of the story.
    "They talked to some of our classmates," he gave me a strange look, "They said that you shouldn't have been able to have reached me in time. They said that they had never seen anyone, including on any of our or the high school's sports teams, that had ever run so fast or tackled so hard. They said it was like a miracle."
    My flush grew darker. I was no miracle.
    "I had no choice but to be fast," I murmured, "You weren't moving out of the way. You were going to die. All I could do in time was run as fast as I could and push you under the truck. And I still almost didn't get to you in time."
    I looked away from him, his intense, aquamarine gaze making me uncomfortable. He was looking at me in awe and I just couldn't handle that.
    "I know you don't know it, and you'll refuse to believe me, but you are absolutely amazing, Duo. I don't deserve your friendship," he said sadly.
    My own thought reflected back at me made me panic. He couldn't think that. He just couldn't. He was the amazing one. He was the one that deserved a better friend than me. Just knowing that he thought such a thing turned my stomach.
    "Don't," I pleaded shyly, "please, just don't."
    He flashed me an irritated look and I quickly changed subjects. I didn't want to know that the person whose friendship and approval I always tried to be worthy of thought so little of himself and far too much of me, just because I had saved his life
    "One of the nurses told me we can both go home tonight. Are your parents picking you up soon or does your doctor need to do something else for your arm before you can go?" I asked, still on edge waiting for Quatre's mother and father to suddenly emerge.
    "My arm is fine," he said, but looked at his cast morosely, "the impact broke it in two places, but my doctor is confident that it will be completely healed in six weeks, ten at the most. He prescribed me some pain meds to deal with any pain, but broken bones are easy to care for. I just have to keep the cast dry and not move my arm too much before the cast is removed."
    At the time I had felt relieved to hear that. Now it just depresses me to think about, knowing that I never got to see that cast being taken off.
    "My parents aren't coming to pick me up," he suddenly added like an after thought.
    "What?" I was shocked. I knew that his parents were usually too busy for him, but he was in a hospital with a broken arm for fuck's sake!
    "Don't worry about it. They're just busy at work," he tried to assure me, but it just came out sad and full of resignation, "Lily is going to take me home instead."
    Lily was his second oldest sister. She was seventeen and had just gotten her driver's license a couple of months ago. She was always eager for an excuse to drive. I wanted to ask Quatre if all of his sisters were going to get cars when they could legally drive, but I was kind of scared of the answer. At least his parents weren't completely abandoning him here like mine had.
    "My nurse said that you were hurt when you pushed me down," my best friend said in concern.
    "Not really," I half lied. In a way, Quatre had gotten off easier than me in the injuries department, at least in terms of how much it was going to bother and hinder him before it healed, I still didn't consider my fucked up back and knees to be a big deal. There were a hundred more horrible things that could have happened to us.
    "Duo," Quatre gave me that authoritative tone of his that he often used when he realized that I was bullshitting him.
    I sighed.
    "I skinned my knees to hell. I'm probably lucky that I didn't fracture them with how hard I hit the ground. I managed to get both of us under the truck, but it was a close thing. The undercarriage of the truck was overheated and it burnt me a bit. It ripped up my back pretty good, too. The doctor that treated me said it almost flayed me, so there's something to feel lucky about."
    Quatre paled and hissed in sympathy. I don't know why I told him that last part. He looked so guilty, like he had been the one to nearly skin my entire back off.
    "I am so sorry," he said sincerely, "Duo, I mean it. When Relena made me do it, I never thought you would get hurt. If only I had gotten out of the way of that truck, you wouldn't have gotten injured so badly..."
    'Why didn't you?' I wanted to scream at him.
    "But you're ok now?" he asked guiltily.
    I shrugged.
    "For now," I confessed, "I guess they gave me something when they were working on my back. I don't feel anything right now."
    I didn't tell him about my stitches or how hard it was to move or the horrendous pain I had felt trying to just take my shirt off. I was sure that he would figure it out the next day at school when I had to struggle walking from class to class. That was something I really didn't want to think about. I would have o try my hardest to hide my injuries from Relena and Zechs. I really didn't need to give them something to hurt me with, and even with the painkillers coursing through me, I knew it wouldn't take much at all to hurt me. At least I had a doctor's note to get out of gym for awhile. Something good had come out of that shit show.
    "What did you tell the police happened anyway?" I asked him.
    I immediately wished that I hadn't when a deadened, emotionless look appeared in his usually expressive eyes.
    "Exactly what everyone else told them," he said flatly and tiredly, "I stupidly tried to cross the street when the 'do not walk' sign was lit and when I saw the truck coming, I froze, but you didn't."
    Something tightened around my heart. I almost laughed, but it would have come out bitter, angry, and insane sounding. Some part of me, some foolish part, had thought that maybe, just maybe, Relena had gone too far this time. I had thought that there was no way she could walk away scott free after the...
    The what? What had happened to us? What could I call it that made sense of something that still seemed so completely insane to me? Accident? Harassment? Bullying? Attempted murder? I wanted to vehemently deny that last one, but how could I? What had Relena been trying to do? Frighten Quatre? Teach him a lesson? She had been well aware that he could have been hurt, could have died. And she had forced him out onto that street uncaringly.
    Or had she? I didn't want to believe it, but the more I thought about it, the more of it that I remembered, the more that I thought that Relena had wanted him hurt. Would she have even been content if Quatre had gotten to the other side of the street untouched, or would she have been furious and tried to teach him another 'lesson'? A worse, more horrible thought entered my head. What if she was even angry that I had saved Quatre's life? No, no I couldn't believe that even Relena hated Quatre so much that she would want him dead. No one could be that ugly.
    In all honesty, although I had hoped that this awful incident would stop Relena's bullying, that her goading my friend into the street would get her into enough trouble that we wouldn't have to see her for awhile, I was not at all surprised that our classmates had lied for her, whether out of admiration or fear. How could I have expected anything different from them? Who, but myself, would stick their neck out for Quatre? And hadn't he said that exact same thing to me?
    "No one else wanted to do a thing to help me."
    But still, it hurt hearing that even Quatre would lie about it. Had he had much of a choice, though? The word of Relena Darlian and a handful of our classmates against Quatre's. His word would go so far only until someone pointed out that he hated Relena and that Quatre had been on painkillers when he had spoken to the police. It didn't matter if anyone believed either of us. Nothing would happen to Relena, I was sure of that.
    "You can tell them what you want," Quatre offered softly.
    I could, of course. I could tell the truth. But who would care? It wouldn't change a thing. I was on painkillers, too. I had gone into shock. And I was just Quatre's stupid, worthless friend. The same person that Relena had named a liar all those years ago. If the cops asked me what had happened, I would tell them exactly what Quatre had. I would lie and pretend that I was telling the truth. The irony was laughable.
    "So she gets away with it," I muttered angrily in the face of my logic, "She gets you hurt and she can just walk away, like always."
    "Like always," Quatre agreed and looked away from me, his blue-green eyes dazed, deep in thought.
    What would it take? How much pain and hurt did Relena Darlian have to cause before it stopped?
    "She tried to kill you," I snapped at him more harshly than I had intended, "She was going to let you die!"
    Quatre was silent. He didn't deny anything I had just said. That, more than anything else, chilled me to the deepest part of my heart. I had wanted him to come up with some... some reason or excuse as to why that wasn't true. He had known her longer than I had, and he could have used any logic to comfort me about it, but he hadn't. He knew what I had tried to deny. Relena was a monster and when she had forced him to walk out into that street, she had been trying to hurt him. Really, really hurt him. That she had done it because she had been angry wasn't a consolation any more than knowing that she had done it for fun.
    "I am quite sure," he said with a bitter little smile, "that she'll kill me in the end."
    That chill turned into a full blown nor'easter. Even now,  as I sit here on my mattress and write in this stupid journal, I feel cold remembering those words, remembering how he looked that night, his eyes far off and full of secret things, secret thoughts that I would never hear from him. I remember that look and I wish that I had understood back then what that look had meant. I wish that I had taken his words even more seriously than I had.
    "I think I've known that for awhile," he mused, "I just don't know when exactly I realized it. I thought it was ok at first. I thought that if I kept my head low, I could survive it. I have you, I have a friend, and you've always been there for me since the day we met. A lot of days, I think I can do that, just take one day at a time, just let her do what she wants until she goes away for a little while. Then when I started hanging out with Trowa more, I thought I could be strong enough to get past it. But at some point, I realized that she will never leave me alone. No matter what I do, no matter how I act towards her, she'll never be happy until I'm dead. And now... now I don't know if I can take anymore of it."
    That look was back in his eyes. Surrender. Resignation. Hopelessness. It was the same look he had had when he had almost let the truck run him over. Because that was exactly what had happened, no matter how much my mind screamed that that was a lie. Quatre, if only for a moment, had wanted that truck to hit him. And that terrified me.
    I didn't even know what to say to him about it. I was frozen in shock with my revelation. I knew that he got depressed, especially lately when he thought about his feelings for Trowa. Hell, I got pretty damned depressed when I thought about my life, too. But I had never had a moment like that, a moment of total surrender. I think I could have tried to deal with his feelings if he had confessed all of that to me on a normal day.
    But today hadn't been normal, and because of those feelings, he had had a weak moment. He had almost killed himself through inaction. What could I possibly say to him to make that better? He had always been the strong one of us, always the kind one, full of hope. I just couldn't deal with him so despondent and bitter. He wasn't ever supposed to look like that.
    "We used to be friends, you know," Quatre said, like he hadn't just blown my world apart, "Relena and I. We were never close, and our friendship was kind of tentative even at the start. Our parents threw us together when we were toddlers and we would play together a lot. But the older we got, the more we grew apart. She got new friends and I didn't. Zechs was always teasing and bullying her at home, and she would take that out on me. By the time we were in the seconds grade together, we weren't friends anymore and every little thing I did, she seemed to loathe."
    That was all news to me. I had know that Quatre and Relena's parents had made them hang out with each other when they had been little, but not that they actually used to be friends. I wasn't at all surprised to hear that Zechs had bullied his little sister. Seeing the two of them interact with each other, I had suspected that before. I could have felt sorry for her. It is hard enough dealing with that prick during school hours, I can't imagine being forced to live with him for your entire life.
    So yes, at one point, I could have felt sorry for Relena. I could have sympathized with her and understood why she was such an insufferable bitch. But Relena wasn't just a person taking out her anger and frustrations at home on two people who were even more miserable and weaker than she was. She was exactly like her brother, a sadist, and some of the things she had done to Quatre and I were a whole lot worse than just bullying and harassment. How her brother treated her had added fuel to the fire, but it hadn't made her a monster, I was certain of that. She and Zechs were cut from the same, exact cloth.
    "I was ok, at first," my friend told me, "I hated the bullying, and I resented her for everything that she did to me, but I was used to it. Even when she and Zechs started escalating, started being... frightening, it was terrible enough, but now that she's targeting Trowa... targeting the person that I love... it's worse than ever. She isn't just trying to make me suffer or tear us apart. She's trying to ruin Trowa's life just for daring to be friends with me!"
    His voice was twisted up with so many awful things. Hate, fear, bitterness, hopelessness. I couldn't bear lying to him. I didn't know how to make anything better for him, how to protect him and Trowa from all of this. And it scared me that the thing that he was upset about wasn't that Relena had tried to hurt or kill him, but that she had threatened Trowa's reputation. Did he care about his own welfare so little, or did he love Trowa so much? If that was what love was, if it could turn Quatre into the person laying on that hospital bed, in tears and full of dark sadness, then I was very glad that I had never experienced it because I wanted nothing to do with an emotion like that.
    "Quatre, I know you don't want to hear this, and I don't want to argue about it after you've been hurt," I finally managed to say something and I hated how desperate and pleading my voice came out, "but you need to tell Trowa how you feel about him! Relena knows you're in love with him and she knows that he doesn't have a clue. That gives her power over the both of you! She's obviously quite happy to use it to hurt you and to threaten you to do shit like this!
    "You almost died today just to keep her from starting some stupid rumors. Trowa should know what's going on, he deserves the right to be able to protect himself! If he knew, then Relena couldn't surprise him with it or use it against the two of you. The worst that happens is that he decides not to be friends with you anymore. I know that would hurt you, but then Relena wouldn't care about him anymore. He would be safe, and so would you! For all you know, Trowa could be ok with you being gay and he might find a way to combat rumors like that. I mean, he's popular, so rumors of him being gay could really hurt him and his sports career, but because he's popular, people might not want to believe them for that same reason, right? Keeping quiet about it to him is just going to make it easier for Relena to force you to hurt yourself again!"
    I was almost panting from saying so much so vehemently, but I had meant every word of it. The entire situation was frustrating me, but it made me wonder. If I fell in love and I had to make a choice between how I felt and some logical situation that would make things better for the person I loved and myself, but it meant that I couldn't be with that person, what would I do? I didn't have any sort of answer because it was an impossible question for me to answer. How could I when Quatre was the closest person I had to loving someone?
    "I can't!" Quatre cried out, fat, miserable tears streaming down his ghostly pale cheeks, "I'm not that strong, Duo. I'm shy and a coward, and no matter how much I know that I should just try to not be friends with him anymore, for both of our sakes', there's no way I can do that! And what if I tell him that I love him and he's ok with it? What if... what if he likes me, too?
    "No matter what happens, no matter how he feel about it, I ruin his life! He either gets associated with being friends with a faggot or people find out that he's one and his career gets destroyed just because I opened my big, fat mouth! He deserves a normal life, and even just being friends with someone like me... Relena was right! I have no business being around him! And what if I tell him that I'm gay and he turns me down, or worse, he looks down on me for what I am? If Trowa ever hated me... if he ever looks at me like how Zechs and Relena look at me... it would be the death of me."
    Quatre tried to wipe at his tears with his cast, scowling when he remembered that his arm was injured, and scrubbed furiously at his face with his good hand.
    "I know," he said softly, visibly struggling to control his emotions, "I know what I should do, but I can't. I have thought about it until I've gotten headache after headache, and I can't compromise. I can't stay away from him and I can't tell him the truth. I'll just keep going in circles around him, I'll keep hurting myself, even if it isn't fair to him, either. That's the kind of terrible person I am, Duo. Even if I'm deluding myself, I just want to believe that someone can love me like that, the way that I want to be loved one day by someone. When I look at him, I think that he could be the one, and I know it's in my head, but pretending that that one day is possible... it makes me happy. I'm not stupid, I know how insane it sounds, but it does."
    "It's not crazy," I murmured, looking down at my hands, "Wanting to be loved... doesn't make you a terrible person. I just want you to be loved for real, and not just in your head or in some distant future."
    He smiled brilliantly at me, his eyes full of tears, and for a moment he was like how he used to be, before he fell in love. For that one moment, he was the boy I had become friends with in the fourth grade, sad and lonely, but still hopeful, still so happy just to be with me and unburdened with the knowledge of his future.
    "When I was little," he told me with a deep sense of reminiscence, "and my father would be too busy to pick me up from school or my mother would forget it was my birthday because she had a meeting, and even my sisters didn't want anything to do with me and I would come home to a dark house every single day... I would dream about just running away from all. Every time Relena called me a loser or Zechs punched me, I would tell myself 'today is the day'. I would fantasize about skipping school and running home. No one would be there, just like always, and I would pack a suitcase full of my clothes and toys. Or maybe I wouldn't even go home. I would just run to the train station and wait for however long it took for the train would appear. I would pay for a ticket with whatever money was in my pocket and then... then I would just be gone. No one would ever be able to find me. I could go to some far off place, pick out a new name, and none of my problems would follow me. Some days, I would even run to the train station thinking that. But I never got on. I never took that step off the platform. Some days, I wish that I had.
    "Then I met you, Duo," he smiled at me again, that soft, warm smile that I loved so much, "and every time I thought about that train platform, I would think 'I can't run away, I'll miss my best friend too much' and I knew that I just had to stay. Not because of my family or because of anything that I was afraid of, but because, for the first time in my life, I had a reason to stay here."
    I felt myself crying at his words, at his sadness and loneliness, but also how much he loved me. He looked away from me for a second, and it was easy for me to imagine that he was visualizing that train station, the same one my father had used to take me to when I was a child. Then he looked back at me and that childish expression was gone and dead. That mature sadness and darkness that clouded his eyes so much in the recent year or two was back and I hated it for possessing him once more.
    "If I did run away," he said wistfully, "If I said that I wanted to go on the train and go far away... would you come with me?"
    I stared at him in shock. I thought that he was just kidding around, but his expression was deadly serious. He was asking me to run away with him.
    "I know where my parents keep their emergency credit cards, and I know what all their passcodes are. No matter where we'd end up, we'd be set for a long time," he told me, the mature strategist in him emerging. He actually sounded excited at the thought of stealing some of his parents' money. Or maybe that was spite. "How about it, Duo? As soon as we're both healed, we could be out of this shitty town! You'd never have to worry about your grades or money ever again. We'd never have to take these regional tests or SAT's or any of that crap. You wouldn't have to half starve yourself or wear clothing with holes in the winter just to make it to your dad's next paycheck. You could quit those stupid jobs and do what you want to do, instead of what your goddamned father wants you to do. He'd never strike you every again. He'd never yell at your or call you worthless ever again, your mother, too, and it would serve them right!
    "Neither of us would get bullied again and me..." those blue-green eyes of his turned distant again as he thought of something that he wouldn't say, "I'd never have to come home to an empty house again. I'd never have to listen to my father lecture me about all the things I'll have to do to prepare for taking up the company after him, all the extra classes I'm going to have to take in high school, the grades I'll need to get, and the college I'll have to go to, when he knows... he's known for years that I don't want to fill his shoes, I never have!
    "And Trowa..." his voice softened almost to a whisper, "I'll leave him behind but... I'll never have to worry about him hating me, or me ruining his life..." Quatre looked up at me, his eyes soft and pleading, like a puppy's, "Would you come with me?"
    I continued to stare at him. I had no words. How had he known all that about my parents? He knew that my father hit me, but I had never told him about my father's penchant for calling me worthless, or that my mother had. Had he just guessed that? Quatre was smart, could he really figure out where my insecurities about my self worth stemmed from?
    I hadn't known about all the pressure his own father had been putting him under to succeed him in the company business. I had known that Quatre wanted nothing to do with his father's job. He wanted to study music and mathematics when he went to college, not business. I couldn't imagine dealing with that, having all that stress about getting perfect grades and being forced into classes I hated because of a man that was otherwise absent from my life. Quatre's father didn't know the first thing about him. Worse, it seemed like he didn't want to know. It wasn't like I had such a great future, either, but that was because I had no other choices. Quatre had such potential... he was so smart, he should be allowed to do what he wanted with that intellect, not thrust into some stifling office.
    Quatre's proposal sounded wonderful to me. Leave Nausten with my best friend. Leave behind all of my stresses, all of my fears, and go someplace where I would be free, where I could do what I want and never be beaten, never be screamed at, never be told that I was an unwanted piece of shit. Just me and Quatre. We could take his parents' money and rent some place. I would be happy with a shitty apartment, and I was sure that Quatre would be able to bribe someone to rent to a couple of teenagers.
    Neither of us needed much. All I wanted was to buy some books, maybe a TV, or even a typewriter. I had lately been reading up on poetry and flash fiction and kind of wanted to try my hand in it, even if I was sure I was going to fail miserably at both. We could probably make that money last awhile, even if we went out to dinner a few times and to the movies.
    Just the thought of it made me almost cry. The freedom, the endless road of possibilities, all the things that I could do with just the two of us that I never would be able to now. Maybe we could even find a place that would be more accepting of Quatre in a more liberal state and he could forget all about Trowa.
    Paradise. That's the word for all the things I was thinking of, but I had better ones. Utopia... and a dream. It was just as impossible as it was wonderful. We could find someone willing to rent an apartment to two thirteen year old runaways, yes. Money was the solution to almost any problem. But how long would that last? How long until the cops showed up to take us back to Nausten, kicking and screaming, either because Quatre's family was looking for him, or someone had found it odd that two thirteen year olds seemed to be living in a place without any adults? How long before our money ran out? Because no matter how careful we were, no matter how far we tried to stretch whatever sum of money Quatre planned to steal from his parents, it would run out eventually. And then where would we be? I didn't want to run away from the only home that I had ever known just to end up homeless. We were too young to get jobs, even just part time ones.
    What would we do when we got older? How would we live? Would we be able to find decent jobs and if we did, we would be able to go to college? I hadn't been planning on it anyway, but how could Quatre want that for himself?
    The thought of running away to someplace new, someplace that might be more open minded and away from my parents sounded wonderful in theory, but it also terrified me. I had never left Nausten. Everything I had ever known, everything I was familiar with and comfortable with was here. That wasn't something I was happy about.
    I often felt like a cat trapped in a cage, unable to do anything or grow, but it was what I knew, and the unknown was just as terrifying to me as the thought that I would never leave that cage. How the hell could someone like me just pack up and move to some strange place? Could I even survive? What the hell did I know about the rest of the world? I couldn't even find most foreign countries on a map.
    It was just as laughable considering finding a place that would accept Quatre... accept the both of us. Hatred wasn't just confined to Nausten, or even the state we lived in. It was everywhere. There was no place that would accept people for being different, and even if there was, how were we supposed to find it?
    As for leaving my parents, well... There were times when I hated my father. There were times when I hated my mother, too, especially after she had told me that I had been unwanted. My father beat me and degraded me. He treated me like garbage. My mother ignored me most of the time, ignored that she even had a child, and the times that she didn't, she was even crueler than he was.
    But even with all of that, even with all of the scars the both of them had inflicted on me, those that were actually on my skin and those that were on my heart... I still loved them. I loved them very deeply. And although I wanted to deny it so much, if I ran away from home, I would miss them terribly. I would miss the deep sound of my father's voice and his laugh when he watched something on television. I would miss feeling his hand on my forehead when I was sick and he was checking my temperature. I would miss looking at my mother and feeling this odd burst of warmth at how much she looked like me, the red in her hair.
    I could never admit it, I could hardly understand it, but I didn't want to run away like that. Even though I knew that they wouldn't miss me. Hell, they might even be happy to see me gone. I still didn't want to turn my back on them. I couldn't tell Quatre any of that. He would think that I was messed up, wanting to be with people that hurt me. But they didn't always hurt me, and even when they did, I couldn't stop loving them. How could I possibly make anyone understand that?
    I felt myself panicking, thinking all those things and realizing that quite some time had passed and I still hadn't answered Quatre's question. I could only imagine what I looked like, wide eyed and pale, staring at him like that.
    "Duo, relax," he laughed, shocking me back into reality, "I'm just joking around. This pain medicine my doctor has me on has me a bit loopy. I wasn't being serious."
    I could have believed that. I wasn't exactly feeling completely there myself with whatever I was on, and I had certainly never heard him talk like that before. I could have written it all off as him just blowing off steam after Relena had gotten his arm broken. But then he smiled at me, but not a single part of that smile reached his sad and disappointed eyes, and I knew then that he was lying. He had meant every word and if I had said 'yes' in that moment, we would have gone together. But in my silence, that moment I had passed. I hadn't said a thing, but I might as well have told him flat out no.
    Sitting in that hospital chair, looking at my pale and injured friend as he smiled at me and lied to me, his eyes pinched with pain, I never once, not for a single second, thought that when I turned him down in that moment, that he would decide to leave me here, alone. I had thought that by not telling him yes, that meant that he would stay and stick it all out with me. I was a selfish asshole, only thinking about my own fears, what I needed, and not all of the reasons why Quatre was so desperate to run away from his life.
    Knowing what I know now... remembering that last day at the train station with him... if I could only go back in time, back to that moment, I wouldn't hesitate for a second. I would tell him yes. But I can't, and it's that thought that keeps me awake these nights, every night in the month since that Quatre's been gone from my life. That, and that last smile he had given me.
    "Hey, you should sign my cast!" his smile was much more natural this time as he attempted to wave his cast at me in the sling it was in, "I'd rather that you be the first one to do it."
    I raised an eyebrow at him, perfectly happy for the change of topic and putting our entire, bizarre conversation into the deep, dark corner of my brain I often put things that disturbed me.
    "You got a pen?" I quipped.
    "There should be one around here somewhere," he glanced around, "I thought I saw one of the nurses leave one..."
    I reached over to loot around in his bedside table. I was doped up, but that didn't mean I wanted to move around unnecessarily. I wanted to avoid the pain that I felt earlier as much as possible, and I didn't want to let Quatre know just how bad my injury really was. I was lucky and found a pack of markers.
    "Someone's kid must have left those there," Quatre remarked and then shot me a questioning look when I very deliberately pulled a dark blue one from the pack instead of a black one.
    "I read in a book once that blue is the most soothing color," I teased, "and that's why they use blue a lot in hospitals and stuff. Maybe if your cast has blue on it, it'll heal faster."
    He rolled his eyes at me.
    "You're hilarious," he said dryly.
    "I wonder why people started doing this," I muttered as I wrote on his cast, "It's kind of morbid, isn't it? Getting people that care about you to write their names on a wounded limb?"
    "I imagine," Quatre remarked as he read what I was writing with an affectionate smile, "that it makes the person feel better. They can look at the thing that's hurting them and see how much people care about them. The more names that are on the cast, the more they're loved. It must be nice to have a cast so full of names, you wouldn't even be able to tell what color the plaster was, but it would be really terrible if, by the time the cast comes off, you didn't have any names at all."
    I didn't like how sad my best friend sounded when he said that, but there was a soft light to his eyes when he finished reading what I wrote, so I hoped my name at least wouldn't make him feel bad when he looked at his broken arm.
    'Get well soon, and remember not to scratch! -Duo'


End Part 5

Chapter Text

A Stagnation of Love
Chapter 3
Part 6


    Quatre and I passed the time waiting for his sister show up by playing tic, tack, toe on the underside of his cast with the different colored markers, bickering over who got which color at the start of each new game. It was nice to talk about something so utterly pointless and neither of us brought up what we had been talking about earlier. I would rather just forget it entirely myself, but I knew that as soon as I tried to sleep when I got home, it would be the only thing I could think about. Quatre won almost every game, but I didn't mind. It was nice just being with him after my scare of almost losing him.
    One of our games was interrupted by a nurse bustling in to check on Quatre. She wasn't the same redhead that had assisted Doctor Michells, but she checked my bandages while I was it, pleased to see that they were still in place and clean looking. She gave us both a serving of pain pills, which I eagerly swallowed with the cup of water she had put on the bedside table before bustling out again. I had begun to feel the small aches and pains in my back that had told me the original painkillers the doctor had given me were threatening to wear off soon. Quatre's pills looked different than mine and I wondered if they were a larger dose. He stared at them for a moment before following my lead.
    "Ugh," he made a face as he swallowed them, "Why do these things have to be so bitter?"
    I couldn't help but laugh a little at his facial expression. I had gotten used to the taste of pain pills, but they were never something that I enjoyed taking.
    "My dad told me once that the worse medicine tastes, the more you know it's working," I said cheekily.
    "And did he have any words of wisdom as to why they make pills that you have to take, like antibiotics, so big?" he grumbled.
    "To torture you with?" I shrugged, "Just be glad you don't have a cold. That cherry cough syrup shit is foul."
    He shuddered in memory. I guess he had been subjected to that stuff in the past, too.
    "Well, I'd take nasty cough syrup and horse pills any day over that mist shit they made me breathe when I was stuck here for almost a month with pneumonia," I almost gagged remembering, "That stuff had smell foul and tasted worse and just breathing it in made me feel like I was suffocating. All it did was make me cough until I hacked up the crap that was in my lungs. There wasn't a single good thing about that stuff."
    I had told Quatre all about the reasons why I hadn't entered the public school system until the fourth grade, including the bad bout of pneumonia I had gotten when I had been eight years old, preventing me from entering the third grade. I hadn't talked much about that time in the hospital, though, because I didn't like thinking about it. How lonely I had been, how my parents had seldom visited me due to their jobs.
    I can't remember if my mother ever had, but I remember my father bringing me books to read and sitting with me during a few treatments. I think I would have gone insane with the solitude and fear of being in that hospital room, sick and weak and worrying that I was dying and no one was telling me the truth were it not for his visits and the nurses going out of their way to talk to me and play board games with me on the days that I was strong enough.
    I would never tell Quatre this, but I don't like hospitals. I won't say that I hate them, but I've spent too many nights wracked with pain and sickness in them to not be frightened of them. I guess that's one of the reasons why Quatre being admitted there had freaked me out so much. If I had been older, an adult, maybe hospitals wouldn't bother me so much.
    But the thing about being a kid stuck in a hospital to be treated is that no one really tells you what's going on, what's wrong with your, or they sugar coat it so much that they make it seem like they don't think your pain and discomfort is that big of a deal. They don't realize that when your body is telling you there is something wrong, an adult telling you that you're fine or you will be fine like it's nothing isn't comforting.
    I'm sure that all those doctors and nurses that had taken care of me as a child had thought that they were doing me a favor by not telling me what was really going on, that hearing that my arm was broken in three places or that I had internal bleeding would just frighten me. But not knowing the truth and fearing the worst, thinking I was going to die or lose a limb and worse, seeing all those adults around me as distrustful and outright lying to me was what had frightened me.
    There was no way that I could have told Quatre any of that. He was already so touchy about my dad hitting me all the time, knowing that I had spent so much time in the hospital that I had actually developed a fear of it would have just started an argument, which was the exact reason why I had never told him how I had gotten pneumonia. The quick version being that my father had caught me rooting around in some of his and Mom's stuff in the basement when I really wasn't supposed to, and he had punched me so hard in the chest for it that he had broken one of my ribs, puncturing my right lung.
    The puncture itself had been small and not that big of a deal, or it wouldn't have been if my dad hadn't waited a week to get it treated, but the infection that had been responsible for my pneumonia had been much worse. My lungs hadn't been able to cope with it very well at that point. Another story that my best friend really didn't need to know.
    Quatre's phone suddenly vibrated where it had been placed on the bedside table. He made a grab for it, but it was too far for him to reach. I snagged it before he could try to roll over in bed to get closer to it. The phone had a crack over the front display, no doubt from the 'accident'. He shot me a grumpy look, but I just cheekily flipped his phone open and read the text message.
    'Just arrived, meet me at reception.'
    Great, his sister was here. Now we could get the hell out of this place. I handed him his phone.
    "Time to go," I couldn't help but smile, even though I wasn't exactly looking forward to going home any more than I was looking forward to staying in that hospital room. I was trying not think about how angry my father probably was at me, between being called at work by the hospital and the fact that it was my turn to take out the garbage, and it was now very, very late.
    "I suppose I'll have to get dressed," Quatre mused after reading his sister's text, not acting surprised at how curt the message was, and looked down at his hospital gown mournfully.
    "Do you need help?" I asked.
    He shook his head.
    "Well, probably," he smirked as he sat up in bed and swung his legs to the opposite side that I was sitting next to. On the chair on that side were clothes similar to the ones I had been gifted with. I guess it really was a service, "but I need to get used to dressing myself with this arm."
    He handed me his cell phone back and I slipped it into my pocket for safe keeping. A sudden thought came to me.
    "Shit," I muttered.
    "What is it?" Quatre paused in wrestling with the shirt he had been given.
    "Our stuff..." I shook my head at myself.
    I had been so worried about surviving our near death experience, I had completely forgotten about our things. Quatre had had his phone in his pocket, but he had dropped his backpack in the middle of the road. Who knew where his stuff was. I had dropped mine on the curb when I had ran out after him. Was it still there? Probably not. No, definitely not. Either someone had stolen it or Relena had tossed it. There was absolutely no way some good Samaritan had saved it for me, not with the bitch standing right there. If I was lucky, I would recover it to find something nasty inside, maybe my textbooks trashed. If not, it was floating in a sewer or in a dumpster. Fuck her. On top of everything, she would not miss an opportunity to mess with me.
    I rubbed tiredly at my eyes and felt fresh tears there. It wasn't a big deal, I told myself. It wasn't like I had had money in my bag. But in some ways, I had. All of my textbooks and homework assignments for the night had been in there. Plus the only calculator I owned and the study sheets Quatre had made for me to help me study for the regional tests. All of it, gone. I couldn't afford to buy a new textbook, let alone all of them. I wouldn't even be able to finish my homework. My perfect streak, ruined.
    "Maybe... maybe if I tell the principal what happened, he'll waive the textbook fee," I mused out loud.
    "Don't be silly," Quatre scoffed, still trying to figure out how to unhook his sling so he get the shirt on without lifting his injured arm too much, "I'll buy you new books, a new calculator, too. The one you were using was outdated anyway."
    "Quatre-" I started to protest and he glared at me.
    "Don't," he actually sounded kind of angry, "You saved my life, the least I can do is buy you new textbooks. It's just money, Duo, and it will make me feel better. Now, if you want to be an idiot and think you need to repay me, help me unhook this stupid thing."
    I eagerly stood up, wincing a little as I felt my back protest, but managed to make my way over to him. I undid the sling and very gently helped him lower his arm. I turned around when he started to undo the string holding his hospital gown closed with his good hand. I could hear him struggle and grunt and curse under his breath as he tried to dress himself, knowing how hard that was with a broken arm, but he managed it on his own, even if it took a great deal of time. Well, if his sister was annoyed that she had been waiting for us, she could suck it as far as I was concerned.
    I turned back around when I felt him tug on the back of my shirt. I wondered if the hospital expected these clothes back or we got to keep them. Unless someone actually told me to give them back, I wasn't going to, I decided. I wasn't one to turn down free anything, especially clothes. I was in mourning for my jeans. I only had two pairs and the ones that the doctor had cut off of me had, unfortunately, been my less worn down ones. Maybe if I offered to do extra chores, my dad would buy me another pair, or I could find some at the thrift store that weren't too run down.
    I helped Quatre re-attach his sling and hoped that one of his sisters would help him with it when he needed to change clothes or shower since he was having such a hard time with it, at least until he was able to move his arm a bit better.
    "Will either of your parents pick you up if you call them?" Quatre asked me as he took his cell phone back and slipped it into the pocket of his hospital issue sweat pants.
    I shrugged.
    "My dad is the only one who has a car. He probably won't come, he might not even answer the phone this late at night," I said.
    It depended on how many beers he had had by now, and just how angry he was at me.
    "In that case, Lily will drive you home," he smiled at me like this was no big deal.
    "She isn't going to want to do that," I pointed out, "I can make it home just fine on my own."
    I didn't want to walk all the way back to my house. From the hospital, it was about an equal distance to Quatre's house as it was to mine, but just the thought of trudging in the dark with my back and knees the way they were made me feel drained. I was still getting over my shock, and hopped up on painkillers to boot. I would be lucky if I stepped into my house under my own power instead of blacking out in the street.
    That would be hysterical. Duo survives getting almost hit by a truck only to get run over on the way home after collapsing in the middle of the damned road. It wasn't even that much of an exaggeration. I was so tired at that point, all I wanted to do was lie down in Quatre's hospital bed and let the blackness of sleep take me. At least I couldn't do my homework without my textbooks or I would be struggling to stay awake as soon as I got home.
    "I don't care what she wants," Quatre said, "She's going to drive you home. It's 9:30 at night, you aren't going to go walking around in the dark where anyone could mug you or something."
    "You'd have to have something to steal for that to happen," I rolled my eyes at him.
    "And even if you're on pain pills, you still hurt your back. You'll only make your injuries worse and you are far too tired for that long trek," he pointedly ignored my comment, "She is going to drive you home."
    He trudged to the door and I noticed his limp for the first time. The deep scrapes from the pavement and his broken arm weren't the only thing that had been injured. I had to have bruised him pretty badly when I had tackled him and he was definitely favoring his side like I would have been if my back wasn't such a bigger problem. I snatched our prescriptions and followed him out.
    "Should we get a wheelchair?" I asked him.
    I didn't like watching how stiff he was as we walked out of his hospital room, but my concern only made him scoff at me.
    "If you can manage to walk, then I certainly can. I'm not the one with the injured back," he said almost snidely.
    I wondered just how much information his doctor had told him, if he knew just how badly I was hurt. I didn't think so. I think that if he had known about the stitches, he would have insisted on getting a wheelchair for me. I think that he had thought that I had been exaggerating when I had said I had almost gotten flayed, and I was ok with that. He didn't need to know the truth. He signed himself out at the reception desk on our floor and got directed to the elevator that would bring us right to reception on the first where Quatre's sister was waiting for us.
    Lily Winner was exceptionally pretty. She wasn't pretty in the way that Relena was with her straightened hair, manicured nails, and very feminine mannerisms, this girl was pretty on a bad day, without ever having to try. Her skin was as pale and perfect as Quatre's was and she had the same shade of blonde hair that was almost white, only hers was shoulder length and curly. Her eyes, a deep blue instead of blue-green, were perfectly almond shaped, her lips a shy shade of pink.
    She looked like a super model, but one that would look less pretty with make-up on. She wasn't even wearing the pricey clothes that Relena liked. Instead of some lacey skirt or cardigan sweater, she was wearing very dark blue jeans that molded to her long, thin legs perfectly and a blue t-shirt with the logo of some rock band on it. If I had been any other boy, I would have fallen in love with her and her down to earth looks, again, I felt zero attraction to a girl I should have at least gotten a small crush on. When she saw us, she gave Quatre an irritated look, but under that, I thought I saw concern, but maybe I had only seen it because I had wanted it to be there.
    "Dad is going to kill you," she ranted at her little brother, sounding very annoyed that she had to come all the way out there in the middle of the night, "What the heck were you doing running out in the middle of a busy street for?!"
    I guessed that Quatre had already told her his abridged story of what happened, but he blushed darkly. I don't think he was in the habit of lying to his sisters.
    "I didn't look where I was going," he muttered.
    Lily sighed in exasperation.
    "You had better enjoy the peace and quiet tonight," she warned snidely, "because tomorrow he is going to lecture you to hell and back about that. You really broke your arm, huh? Serves you right, doing something so stupid."
    Quatre took all this like a champ, I thought. I wouldn't say that his older sister looked down on him, but they weren't exactly warm with each other, either. It seemed pretty typical with some siblings, I guess. Sometimes I resented being an only child.
    "You the kid that pushed him out of the way?" those big blue eyes suddenly zeroed in on me.
    I nodded shyly.
    "His name is Duo, he's my friend," Quatre confirmed awkwardly. He obviously didn't talk to his siblings much, or rather they didn't talk to him much and they were as unknowledgeable in his life and friendships as my parents were.
    "Thanks for saving his life," she said seriously and reached out her hand to me.
    "It-" I was about to say that it was no big deal, but even I knew that it had been, so I just nodded and shook her hand.
    "You ready to go or what?" she asked Quatre impatiently.
    "I have prescriptions," he started to say and I handed him his.
    "Leave them on the kitchen counter and mom will take care of it before you go to school tomorrow... unless you're too hurt to go?" her annoyed tone melted into one that was very concerned as she studied him for a moment.
    Quatre shook his head.
    "My arm hurts a lot, but I can go," he confirmed.
    "Then let's get out of here. I was in the middle of a very important phone call," she huffed in exasperation.
    Quatre turned to me and mouthed 'boyfriend', rolling his eyes. A dorky little laugh exploded from me. I couldn't help it. I was so worn down by everything that had happened and that had struck me as stupidly funny for some reason. I blamed it on the medication.
    "His name is Jeff!" she yelled at him, her pale face turning bright red and making her look kind of like a blonde strawberry.
    One of the nurses at the reception desk, who wasn't the one that I remembered seeing when I had carried Quatre in hours ago, glared at us, doing that stupid finger to the lips thing.
    "Really?" Quatre quipped dryly, "I thought it was 'studmuffin'."
    She smacked him on the back of the head.
    "Come on, you shit, some of us have a life," she grumbled.
    "Duo needs a ride home," my friend suddenly slid that in there like some kind of verbal ninja, "I told him you would drive him."
    She glared at him, obviously annoyed that he had put words in her mouth like that.
    "And why can't his parents pick him up?" her tone turned testy and I wondered if she really was this angry to have been dragged away from her boyfriend's phone call or if she was always like this.
    "We tried to reach them," Quatre, the one that always seemed to have such a hard time with lying, did so like... well, me, "but his mother works late and his father isn't picking up the phone. He probably fell asleep. He doesn't have anyone else he can call and he doesn't have money for a taxi or bus."
    Those severe blue eyes softened as she looked at me, but only minutely.
    "Where do you live?" she asked me.
    "Granite Ave in South Nausten," Quatre answered for me.
    Her eyes widened a little as she stared incredulously at her brother. I could already see the gears going in her head as she realized what section of town that I lived in. It was the same thing I saw happen every time I told someone where I lived, especially if they lived up North. She then glanced at me suspiciously and I knew exactly what she was thinking, that I was some kind of thug or degenerate because most of the people that are thugs and degenerates in this town come from where I live.
    South Nausten might as well be a different town from everywhere else. Only the people that live here seem to understand that where you live doesn't define who you are as a person. Just because you live North, it doesn't mean you're a good person, either, just look at Zechs Darlian.
    "There is no way I am going to South Nausten this late at night, Nathaniel," Lily exclaimed in an almost yell. At this rate we were going to get thrown out of the hospital, "I'm going to get car jacked-"
    "Well, it's where Duo lives," Quatre's voice turned icy cold and sounded far older than he was, "so unless you want to leave him here for the night, I guess you'll just have to risk it, Lily."
    She huffed.
    "Fine," she conceded angrily, "but if anything happens to me or my baby, it's all your fault."
    She turned to storm out of reception, the two of us nipping at her heels, when she suddenly stopped and glanced back at him.
    "You know," she said with a tone that I could only call serious and somber somehow, "you sound just like Dad when you talk like that."
    Quatre looked down at the ground, suddenly very quiet and pensive at her statement, making me wonder what exactly was so awful about sounding like his father. We obediently followed her towards the exit and I finally remembered my manners.
    "Um, thanks for driving me home. I really appreciate it."
    Lily waved a hand at me like it wasn't a big deal when it had been just minutes before. I just barely remembered to grab my medications on our way past the pharmacy. They were already paid for, unlike Quatre's, so it only took a couple of minutes. Yet another thing to add to my ever growing list of things that I had, back then, intended to one day pay him back for. At least, that was what I told myself to assuage my guilt.
    We drove in silence, Lily didn't even turn on the radio. I was the first one to break it, feeding my best friend's sister directions to my house. I was very happy that she didn't make any comments about anything on the way there, although I think she had wanted to, especially when we passed by a couple of abandoned apartment buildings all boarded up, some teens smoking pot standing in front of it. I saw her wrinkle her nose in the mirror, but she didn't say anything about them carrying out obvious illegal activity in broad... well night time, but still in public.
    Frankly, I was used to it. It wasn't like my side of town was a crack den, but it was the place even people who lived up North often went to if they wanted to score things like marijuana. It was an easy money maker and so rampant that the cops almost turned a blind eye to it. Despite all the lectures I had heard in school about how horrible pot was, most of the stuff they told us was an obvious lie, and while it was illegal, it didn't hold a candle to what meth could do to a person.
    If the police needed to make an arrest, they could just rustle up a dealer, easy, but they never charged them with much. It was a waste of their time. But for someone like Lily Winner, it was pretty shocking I guess. Personally, I didn't care about the flagrant pot smoking that went around in my side of town. I had no desire to try that crap, not with the way it smelled, and it was just another thing I wouldn't be able to buy anyway. It was just a stupid thing that older kids did, I didn't really understand it. I had thought about selling it once, when someone had approached me about it, but the guy's friend had just cuffed him upside the head and pointed out I was a cop's kid. I had forgotten about it since. I knew that Zechs smoked it, but how often, I had no clue, and he also smoked cigarettes. Finding someone to buy from for someone like him was probably easy.
    And then, finally, we were outside of my house. I wondered what Quatre thought about my house, if he pitied me when he thought about his own huge home or if he just thought this was normal. At least my house didn't look as bad as one of the homes across the street that had trash in the front yard and no less than half of the wood of the house looked rotten. My house was just very small and, well, quaint, but not dilapidated.
    "I'll see you tomorrow," Quatre called out to me when I stepped out of the car. I nodded to him.
    'Good luck,' I mouthed to him, thinking about what Lily had said about how angry and disappointed in him his father was. I knew all about disappointed fathers.
    Quatre had been so subdued during the ride, but he smiled widely at me then and waved. Lily was all too happy to turn her car around and speed off. I wasn't all that sad to see her go. And then it was just me on what passed as my front lawn, looking at my house. My back throbbed dully in time with my fucked up knees. I didn't want to go in and I didn't want to keep standing there. I just wanted to fall onto my mattress for about a kajillion hours. I took a deep breath and walked into my house.
    I half expected my father to be standing there at the door, waiting to scream at me, maybe sucker punch me, but I managed to walk in and close the door behind me, very quietly, unmolested. I couldn't even hear the television on, which could mean anything and nothing at all. I headed to the kitchen, wanting a drink of water and to wash my face in the sink before heading up to bed. I should also probably read the label on the pain pills the hospital had given me to see how often I could take them. I had just taken a dose, but my back was still aching.
    I froze as I saw my father sitting at the kitchen table, reading through some bills. He didn't say anything at first and I thought that he didn't notice me there. Maybe, if I continued to be quiet, he wouldn't realize I was home, I thought. Fat chance of that happening. I took a single step into the kitchen and he looked up from what he had been reading, glancing at me with his dark grey eyes. He didn't look mad, and I couldn't see a single beer can around, but that really meant nothing.
    'Please, not my back,' I thought in insane desperation, 'if he hits me, just don't let it be my back.'
    "The hospital called," he said very suddenly, looking back down at the bill in his hand, "something about you getting hit by a car?"
    He sounded more curious than annoyed, even though he had gotten that call at work. I dared to hope that I could get past this ok and let go of the breath I had been holding in. I walked past him to put the bags of medicine and cream onto the kitchen counter.
    "It was a truck," I clarified with my severely edited version of the story. He was going to hear about Quatre's version of it eventually, so I might as well keep it as close to that as possible, "and it didn't really hit me, it just almost did. I fell under it before it could hit me. The under carriage caught my back, so they kept me in the hospital for a bit to make sure it wasn't serious."
    "And was it?" he asked, still not looking at me. He was being strangely calm.
    "I had to get some stitches," I confessed, "and the truck was overheated, so I got burned. The doctor said they're second degree. He gave me some cream and medicine for it."
    "That it?" he looked at the bags on the counter.
    I nodded.
    "Leave it there," he told me, "I want to see what the side effects are," his eyes finally met mine and he regarded me. Whatever he saw on my face made him frown, "Don't bother with the trash tonight, I'll get it. Just go to bed."
    I couldn't help but blink at him like an idiot for a moment. He had been worried about me, it dawned on me. He had gotten that call from the hospital and instead of being annoyed, he had actually been worried. Not enough to drive to the hospital to check on me or try to pick me up, but a hell of a lot more worried than he usually seemed to me. That was the thing.
    My father was often a closed book, so it was unfair to say that he never got worried when he hurt me, but he never showed it like he was now. Even knowing that I was more or less ok, he still looked concerned when he looked at me. I felt this intense burning of love for him then, something that was not all that rare for me, but it was hard sometimes, loving him. It wasn't that night. Even if it was just for that one day, my father had loved me and worried about me.
    I walked to him and kissed his cheek.
    "I love you, Dad," I told him softly, unable to stop the words from coming out.
    He didn't repeat them back to me, but he carefully wound his arm around my waist and pulled me into a half-hug at his side, sure that he wasn't touching my back. That embrace, as careful as it was, was strong, but he didn't hurt me. It made me ache for a moment, the reminder of his strength, the reminder that he could love me with that strength or hurt me, and it made the hug a bittersweet thing, but it felt mostly sweet to me.
    "Go on," he said and released me.
    I poured myself a glass of water and walked up the steps to the attic, stopping in the bathroom only to splash some water on my face and brush my teeth. When I was in my bedroom, I gulped down the water like I was dying of thirst and laid down on my side on my mattress, not even bothering to take my clothes off. I was dead to the world the second my head touched my pillow.

*****

    I can still remember some of the nightmares that I had that night. One in particular. It would be the one that would haunt my sleep all the way up until we got our regional test scores back a week later. By then, I had an entirely new nightmare that replaced all of my other ones. I don't need a shrink to dissect the nightmare I had that night after saving Quatre from that truck.
    I was back on that street corner, watching the truck approach my best friend. This time when I tried to run to save him, Zechs was there, grabbing me, holding me back. The truck wasn't just a truck. It had teeth like a crocodile and moved like a train on a straight track, or a battering ram. When it hit Quatre, it pulverized him in a spray of blood. As I screamed, there was nothing left of him that could possibly be identified as human. As the truck got closer and closer to where I was, Zechs threw me out in front of it.
    Although it had only been a dream, I can still remember the phantom pain of it hitting me, the thud it had made that was really just my memory of the sound the bumper had made hitting Quatre's arm. As the dream progressed in its horrible trek, I ended up in the hospital with Dr. Michells leaning over me. He told me that the truck had damaged my legs too severely to be saved and he was going to have to cut them both off. He reached for a rusty, dull saw and told me that I would never run again, that my parents would have to take care of me for the rest of their lives, their endless burden. As he was sawing my legs off, I saw Relena in the corner of the hospital room, laughing at me.
    When I awoke that morning, for several minutes, I was positive that I couldn't walk and that the dream had been real. It had taken too long to realize that the agony I was feeling was my skinned knees and ripped up back, not the stumps of my legs. I think, if my back had been ok and I had been able to walk without searing pain, I would have thrown up with that nightmare still fresh in my head, but I hadn't and not wanting to clean up my own vomit, I had managed to hold it in somehow.
    My walk down the steps was slow, lethargic, and stiff as I tried to do everything in my power to get my hurting legs to work and not aggravate my back any worse. How I managed to make it into the kitchen without blacking out is a mystery. I have never experienced agony like that in my life. Skinning and burns hurt like fucking hell. I would rather have all of my limbs broken. It's impossible not to use your back no matter what you're doing, and my knees just burned when I wasn't using them. Worse, they itched. I knew that was a good thing, it meant that they were healing, but I couldn't even look at them, let alone scratch them.
    Thankfully, I had woken up an hour before I usually did, so my slow walk to the kitchen didn't make me late for school. Looking back, I probably should have stayed home with the amount of pain I was in, but I told myself that if Quatre was well enough to go to school, I must be. My mother was still in bed and wouldn't get up for another hour to get ready for work, her bedroom door closed. I knew that my father would already be gone, he always was when I got up in the mornings.
    In the kitchen, I found the bottle of pain pills the hospital had given me sitting on the kitchen table with a note and a package of bandages, the kind you could wrap fully around wounds.
    'Take one every twelve hours with food. Keep your back and knees clean and covered. Use the cream after you bathe.'
    I recognized my father's handwriting. His curt, but almost fussy note warmed me. I knew that it wouldn't last, but I was liking him worrying about me like that. I followed his instructions, heading right for the bathroom. Nothing about taking a shower and redressing my wounds had been easy that first time I tried doing it. The water was absolute torture and all I could really do was rinse off my knees and back. I threw out the old, sweaty, and blood stained bandages and lightly dabbed at my wet wounds with a towel. My knees weren't bleeding or anything, and neither was my back, but I still felt like I was going to be sick when I tried to bandage them. I didn't bother putting new bandaids on the cuts on my face and shoulder. My side was just one, single, black and purple bruise.
    Putting on the burn cream was a struggle. I had to use the mirror to see where I needed to put it on and the image of my back almost did me in. To say it was messed up is being kind. I looked like someone had dragged me through a field of glass and jagged metal with my shirt off. I was sliced up and burned, the sutures very prominent. It would scar, but as bad as it looked, it really could have been worse, I knew that. After I was done with the cream, I bandaged my chest as best as I could, which was awkwardly, hoping I was covering my back adequately.
    I wrapped a towel around myself, not even bothering with clean clothes yet. There was no one to see me walking around in a towel anyway. I made myself a simple breakfast, two slices of toast with butter and grape jelly and I scrambled up two eggs for some protein, washing the food, and my pills, down with some milk. My breakfast was just bland enough that it didn't upset my stomach. The pills that the doctor had prescribed me were not garden variety ibuprofen. By the time I finished my breakfast and made it back up to my room, the pain was starting to edge off. I just hoped they wouldn't make me loopy.
    I fared a lot better than Quatre had the previous night dressing myself, not that that was saying much. It still took me three times longer than it usually did and every single time I stretched my arms to pull up my jeans or to thread them through a shirt, I was reminded of how much I did not want to do that. But I eventually got myself dressed well enough that no one would be able to tell that something was wrong with me. I looked around frustratingly for my books and backpack for awhile like I did every, single morning before remembering that I didn't have any books anymore. At least it made getting ready for school simple.
    School was a nightmare and by the time it was all over, I had wished that I had just stayed home after all. Hindsight and all that. Never mind the amount of pain that both Quatre and I had been under. Never mind having to explain to every single one of my teachers why I didn't have my homework and why I needed to share a textbook with someone.
    Never mind standing in the principal's office with Quatre hearing a lecture about how irresponsible we were and to always look both ways while crossing the street. Never mind having to see Relena when all I wanted to do was rip her face off with my fingernails, especially when she kept messing with Quatre. I almost lost it when she knocked the papers he had been writing notes on 'accidentally' off his desk on the left side where he couldn't reach down and pick them up.
    She very contritely, and very fake, in my opinion, apologized to him for it and picked them up for him with a snide little smile on her face. He had thanked her, his right hand clenching his pencil so tightly he had splintered it. At the end of that class, she had casually bumped into his cast, making Quatre hiss and gasp in pain. I don't know how he managed to stay so calm around her after what she had done to him.
    But never mind any of that, what had made that day such a nightmare had been all of our other classmates. By that point, everyone in the whole fucking town 'knew' what had 'happened', or Nate and Relena's bullshit version of events anyway. Half of our classmates looked at us like we were total freaks and idiots, chuckling about how clumsy Quatre was, walking out on a red light like that. Others were amazed by us, me especially. Tales of my 'epic run' had floated around the school. I had somehow turned from awkward nerd to athlete by word of mouth alone.
    It wasn't like I had gained fandom from it, more like I was the weirdo that could do something like that and still had zero interest in sports. Zechs especially enjoyed telling people that the reason I had been able to run so fast was like a mom being able to pull a car off her child, and that Quatre and I clearly were more than just 'friends'. The only good part about that was that no one seemed to be taking it seriously, even if people were laughing over it.
    I hated all of it. The attention, the whispers, the wide eyed looks like we were limbless veterans returning from some war. I just wanted all of it to go away and forget it had happened. Every time someone came up to me and tried to engage me into telling the same story that they had probably heard half a dozen times by then, I just wanted to shove them away and tell them to leave me and Quatre the hell alone, but settled on just ignoring them and walking away myself. It really was not helping the rumors of me being some disgruntled, pissy, anti-social loner, but by the time lunch break finally came around, I did not care one bit It was enough to make me scream, but it was during that period when Trowa learned what had really happened that my school day went to complete and total hell.    
    I don't know how I got past our final regional testing. Just like the first test, we got to skip half of the usual school day to take it, but I would have rather gone to my classes. My mind was in a billion places at once, and not a single one of them was in that classroom. My back ached terribly from sitting in the hard desk chair for so long, distracting me from things I typically struggled with on a good day. I couldn't focus and each math equation I finished seemed to spawn about ten more like some kind of algebraic hydra from hell. If I didn't get the lowest test scores in the entire state, it would be a miracle.
    By the time that I handed my test in to Mrs. Khushrenada who was monitoring my group, I was so stressed that it seemed like if one more thing went wrong, I was going to either burst into tears or punch the next person that tried to talk to me. I was the very last person to hand my test in, and by that time, not even my homeroom teacher's smile made me feel any better. To make things worse, our 'groups' had been split up by last name alphabetical order. While normally this would be great, placing Quatre and I in the same group, we had been split up by one person. One fucking person. Worse yet, Quatre had ended up in Relena's group. After almost killing him, I had become hyper aware of her presence near my best friend and the fact that she was in the same room with him while I wasn't, never mind that they were taking a test, chilled me to the bone. I was sure that the two of them, being as smart as they were, had finished their test long before I had. Who knew what she had done to him in that time?
    If my back hadn't been hurting me, I would have ran out of that classroom. I found Quatre easily enough. He was standing by our lockers, waiting for me. He looked incredibly pale, his eyes hazy like he was struggling to stay awake, and those eyes were red rimmed, not from crying, but from pain and tiredness. He had looked the same this morning when he had met me in front of the school, only he looked a little bit worse. Nothing else seemed to be wrong with him at least. I didn't think that he had gotten much sleep the night before, I know that I didn't when I tried to sleep with a newly broken arm. But he still smiled brightly when he saw me approach.
    "Hey," he greeted quietly.
    "How did you do?" I asked.
    "Ok, I think," he didn't seem to care much about the test. He didn't seem distracted by anything, just tired and not all together there. I wondered if it was really only his arm or if something else had happened.
    I glanced down at it, as if I could ascertain how bad it was from just a look, and saw something new on his cast. This morning when I had seen him, Quatre had had a grand total of seven signatures on his cast, mine and all six of his signatures. The last time I had seen him, it had had nine. It had made me feel better about him going home to possibly get yelled at by his father for something that, in reality, had not been his fault. I was also pleased to have seen that his sister's had followed my idea of only signing Quatre's cast in neutral or soothing colors, mostly different shades of green and blue and purple. This new, red signature stood out on his cast like a green collar on a black cat. I gently grabbed his arm and turned it over so I could read it better, Quatre stiffening in trepidation. I soon understood why when I read what was written there in the bright red marker, my blood boiling with rage.
    'Don't run in front of any more trucks, ok? Ha, ha'
    I didn't even need to look at the signature to know that Relena had written that. Next to her name was an obnoxious heart.
    "That fucking bitch," I heard myself hiss.
    I couldn't believe her gall at the same time that I wasn't at all surprised by her signing his cast, a cast that Quatre only had to wear because of her, and even teasing him with that stupid fake story, like she was rubbing it in his face that she had gotten away with it for however long Quatre ended up wearing that cast.
    "Let it go, Duo," he urged tiredly, his voice flat and emotionless.
    "But Quatre-" I started to protest, forgetting that we didn't exactly have a choice.
    "It's just a cast," he pointed out, "in a month or so, it'll be gone and so will this," he scratched at what Relena had written with a fingernail, "it's not a big deal."
    I fell silent, but inside I seethed about it. It wasn't really anything different than she had done before. It certainly wasn't anything like making him walk out into traffic, so why did it bother me so much? Even his blase attitude about it was nothing new, but it made me bristle with irritation. I was saved from saying something that only would have made Quatre frustrated with me by Trowa.
    "Hi, Quatre," he said as he walked through the crowd of relieved seventh graders, "Hi, Duo. How did the test go?"
    I wished I was in Trowa's grade, then I wouldn't have had to take that stupid test.
    "It went fine," Quatre said, immediately brightening up at the sight of his crush.
    I just shrugged. Quatre noticed it and reached out his good hand to pat my back in comfort, only to remember at the last minute not to touch me there.
    "I wanted to talk to you earlier," Trowa said sheepishly to Quatre, rubbing the back of his head in a nervous gesture, "but with the test and all..."
    His dark green eyes looked down at Quatre's cast and he looked very sad and upset all of a sudden.
    "Does it hurt?" he asked somberly.
    "A little," Quatre admitted, "It aches a lot, but I have some pills I can take. I've never had a broken arm before, I couldn't sleep at all last night."
    He rubbed at his forehead with his good arm and just looked weary.
    "How did it happen?" Trowa asked, though I was amazed that he hadn't heard the story by now.
    I looked at Quatre, interested to see which variant of the story he would go with, but I already knew.
    "It was stupid," he explained and I remembered that dinner the three of us had had together, how uncomfortable Quatre had been lying to Trowa about my involvement. Now he seemed ok with it and that really bothered me. It was like my friend had changed drastically in the course of twenty-four hours, "I walked right out in front of a truck. I hadn't been paying attention to what I was doing and ended up with a broken arm."
    "Quatre..." the older boy was absolutely stricken, "That's horrible, you could have died! You're lucky you walked away with just a broken arm! You have to be more careful!"
    "I know," he flushed darkly, "I know I'm lucky. Duo saved my life, and he got hurt, too. If he hadn't been there, I don't think I would have survived."
    Trowa looked at me and I saw this incredible, raw gratitude in his eyes that made me feel strange, like he was considering hugging me.
    "You're ok?" I was surprised that when he asked me.
    "Yeah, more or less," I admitted, "I messed up my back and my knees, but I'll heal."
    "Thank you," he suddenly blurted out, like he couldn't stop himself, "for saving him. You're a good friend, you always look out for him."
    Now I couldn't stop myself from blushing.
    "I did what anyone would do for their best friend," I murmured shyly.
    I noticed how closely the taller boy was to Quatre in that moment. His arm was touching my friend's uninjured one and he looked reticent to move away from him at all. I looked at him suspiciously as he turned his attention back to our mutual friend. Was that all that was? Just one friend relieved that the other wasn't seriously hurt? Or was it more? Were my own hopes for them making me see things that just weren't there? But Trowa looked like there was more that he wanted to do, more that he wanted to say to Quatre. Was he just playing it cool in front of me, or was there more there that he wasn't showing either of us? Quatre seemed oblivious to it, just his usual happy self to be near the boy he loved, or maybe it was because there was nothing there to see.
    The lunch bell clanged, shocking all of us out of our individual thoughts.
    "Oh joy, lunch time," I muttered, not the least bit hungry or wanting to deal with seeing Zechs or his cunt of a sister.
    "Actually, I... I think I'm going to skip lunch," Quatre said meekly, "I'm not feeling well."
    "Are you sure?" Trowa asked in concern, "Is there anything I can do?"
    "I think I'm just going to lie down in the nurse's office until next period," Quatre said with a shake of his head, "My arm is really starting to hurt and I'm very tired."
    "You look pale," Trowa said softly, placing a hand on his forehead, pushing his blonde bangs up.
    Quatre closed his eyes in an expression that I can only describe as bliss. Seeing them like that... they just looked so tender, so affectionate... I had to keep reminding myself that they were just friends. I looked around frantically, hoping that no one was watching them, but there was no one in the hallway but us. Everyone else had rushed off to lunch. This would have just given credence to any rumors Relena might start that they were together. I felt uncomfortable just being there, knowing that what I was seeing wasn't really what I was seeing. Trowa was just worried, like any friend would be, like I had worried about him, it didn't mean that he liked Quatre in the way that Quatre wanted him to...
    "I'll be fine," Quatre assured him, opening his eyes finally, "I just need to lay down. You two can have lunch," he looked at me, "and I'll meet you next class?"
    I almost rolled my eyes at him. He was not being sneaky at all. He wanted Trowa to stick by me to watch over me, to make sure that Zechs and Relena wouldn't hurt me. Like Trowa would be able to stop them if they tried something at lunch or recess.
    "Sure."
    I didn't point any of that out, I didn't want to remind him how pointless anything we tried to do to protect ourselves was. At least in the nurse's office, I wouldn't have to worry about him. Trowa patiently watched Quatre go, leaning against the locker nonchalantly, and made no move to go to the cafeteria with me. I was about to just leave him there when those eyes, so much like a cat's that I was surprised I hadn't noticed that about them before, landed on me again and he spoke.
    "So... what really happened?" his voice wasn't harsh or accusing or even cold, but knowing and solid while staying low, in case anyone got too cold.
    I stared up at him in shock. I had really thought that he had fallen for that bullshit story of Quatre's. Mostly, I was surprised to see this side of Trowa, so used to him being shy or conversational with myself and Quatre. This Trowa was... well not exactly scary, but I could tell that seeing Quatre with his arm all busted up and obviously in pain had angered him, but he had such a tight control over his emotions, not letting a single ounce of it out on me. I wasn't used to being around a man that was upset, but not enraged. I think I could have respected him then, if he were like that all of the time.
    "How did you know?" I managed to ask.
    "I haven't known him as long as you have," he crossed his arms over his chest, "and I'll probably never be as close as the two of you are, but I have spent enough time with him to know when he's lying to me. He does that a lot," I winced guiltily at that, knowing full well the sorts of things Quatre would need to lie to Trowa about, including that time at the basketball game, "and I don't mind about all that, since it's never been about anything too important, not like this. And I've seen what Relena does to him, how scared he gets. How was she involved in getting his arm broken?"
    I was amazed at how well this boy could read my best friend. In some alternate reality where the things I hoped for were more than just day dreams and impossible fantasies, they were together and perfect for each other. It just made me ache inside and I don't know why. How could I possibly yearn for something that I had never even felt for a second?
    "Relena was mad that he told her no that night I went to your game with him," I told him. I could have lied about it, I supposed, he. He didn't know me well enough, but I wanted to tell the truth for once, or at least as much of it as I felt comfortable, "When we were about to cross to go to swimming lessons, she told him that she would forgive him for it if he walked across the street when she told him to and made it across."
    "He wouldn't do that!" Trowa protested, "He might let her bully him, but he wouldn't risk his life just on her say so like that!"
    "He did it for you," I snapped at him, "Relena told him that if he didn't do it, she was going to start rumors in school that you're gay and the two of you are together."
    The eighth grader paled at my words.
    "Quatre didn't want to involve you," I couldn't keep the anger out of my voice, "He decided that he owed it to you to protect you, that's why he risked his life! She made him walk out when the cars were coming down the street. When he saw the truck coming at him, he stopped moving. I ran out and pulled him to the ground, but not fast enough to save his arm. That's what really happened, no matter what anyone else says."
    "You really did save him," the awe in his voice frustrated me. What did it take to make people realize that what I had done was not extraordinary? I had been frightened, scared shitless, all I had wanted to do was save my only friend. That I had succeeded in doing so was luck.
    "It's like I said," I repeated to him testily, "Quatre is my best friend. What I did is nothing more than anyone else would do for their best friend. I almost didn't make it anyway. If the truck driver hadn't already been slamming on his breaks, I wouldn't have made it in time. And even if I had, it would have shattered his arm instead of just fracturing it."
    He shook his head at me and for a frightening moment, I was sure that he was going to argue with me about something that I really did not want to talk about. Then, his eyes and face changed. It was like a veil had been pulled down over him, a veil that was made of pure, unadulterated rage.
    " That bitch," he hissed and stormed off, making a bee line for something.
    I blinked at the spot where he had been standing in bewilderment. I had never heard him speak like that. For a moment, he had sounded like me. Then it dawned on me where he was headed.
    "Trowa, stop!" I walked after him as quickly as my injuries would allow.
    It was pretty pointless, Trowa had a much longer gait than I did and I would have had to run after him to catch up to him, and even then I had little hope of stopping him. His eyes had been filled with a one track determination. I swore at myself for ever telling him the truth. It was fine for him to be pissed at Relena for what she had done to Quatre, I was even happy that he had gotten that upset, but actually wanting to do something about it was another matter.
    If he could do something about it or let her know that her spreading rumors about him didn't bother him, that would be wonderful and I sincerely hoped that that was what he had in mind. That was all that Quatre needed, Trowa standing up for him, giving him confidence and assuring him that he would fight for their friendship, that Quatre wasn't dragging him down into anything.
    But I had no clue what the older teenager was thinking. It looked to me like he was just going off half cocked, letting his anger control him, just like I had let mine control me that one time. And where had that gotten me? If Trowa was just running off without any kind of plan, or some half assed idea that he could just threaten her and that would make anything better, he was only going to get Quatre hurt worse. I would do anything to avoid that, whether it was ignoring Relena writing on Quatre's cast, or lying to the whole damned town.
    I was out of luck that day. Before I could even form a plan to stop him, Trowa had run into Relena and Dorothy on their way to the cafeteria.
    "We need to talk," was all that he said in a very cold and terse tone before grabbing Relena by the arm and pushing her towards the lockers.
    Dorothy glared at me, affronted by her best friend being accosted, but she quickly realized that I was just as opposed to Trowa touching Relena as she was and turned her icy, blue eyed glare to him.
    "Why, hello, Trowa. What did you need to speak to me about?" she asked sweetly, but with a knowing glint in her eye.
    "This needs to stop," he snapped her, "and it needs to stop now."
    "Whatever do you mean?" her voice was dripping with fake innocence, "What has you so upset?"
    "I know what you did to Quatre!" he practically snarled at her, "He didn't just cross the street on a red light, you made him! This... this bullshit between the two of you is going to stop! I don't care what you have against him, I don't care if he pissed you off or if you think this is fun, if this keeps up, you're going to kill him! Is that what you want on your conscience? This stops here, Relena, it's already gone too far, you have to know that!"
    Relena's expression turned sharp and her pale eyes darted to me. In that one second before she slipped that sugary sweet mask of hers back on, I saw her rage. She knew that I was the one that had told Trowa the truth about what had happened. I would have worried about what that look meant for me, but I was too scared about what this confrontation was going to cost Trowa and Quatre. I could take care of myself.
    "Oh?" she smiled up at Trowa, "And what are you going to do if I say no? Are you going to beat me up? Make me cross the street? You can't really make ultimatums like that when you have nothing to back them up with. That's why Quatre did what I asked him to. I didn't make him do something foolish like that. He's as easy to read as an open book. All I had to do was say that I would tell everyone a few nasty things about you and he would have run into that truck if I had asked, willingly. What an idiot," she smirked when Trowa's face turned dark red with anger at what she was saying.
    I felt my own anger at hearing how amused she was that she could manipulate my friend like that, but it didn't hold a candle to Trowa's. She was manipulating him just as easily as she had Quatre, I realized.
    "I mean it, Relena," he said sternly, the very image of a solid, immovable wall, "You don't scare me. I don't care about your pathetic rumors. Do you really think that I don't know that Quatre might be gay? You've been spreading that rumor around for years, you can't surprise anyone with that anymore and no one is going to fall for you saying the same exact thing about me."
    "I suppose that's true," Relena remarked thoughtfully, not at all put off by his declaration, "I doubt it would surprise many people to hear that you might be gay. But you're wrong if you think that no one would fall for a rumor like that. Big, tough athlete like you with no girlfriend who clearly likes to hang out with two fags and his own teammates instead of with his female admirers? Just look at you now. Here you are, as pissy as a wet cat over a rumor that I bullied Quatre into the street. It's almost like you're trying to protect your boyfriend.
    "Don't tell me you're actually attracted to a freak like him? I thought that you would have more sense than that. Not much, I guess, considering how obvious the two of you have been, attached at the hip and all. No, I don't think it's a stretch for many people to believe you two are together. Although," her mouth stretched into an ugly grin, "I can think of a few people who would be surprised at a few rumors that Trowa Barton is a faggot. I'm sure your coach would be very surprised at that news. Or perhaps your parents?"
    Trowa turned absolutely, frighteningly white. As he stared at her... through her, all of the anger in him seemed to evaporate. He just looked scared and defenseless, like a child that had just had their entire world ripped out under their feet.
    "I read an interesting article a few days ago," the bitch continued, looking pleased at the reaction her threats had gotten, "It was all about this popular college football player. He was talented, the sort of athlete that really had a bright future ahead of him, you know? Then his coach heard from one of his other players that he had seen this boy making out with another boy in the showers. And just like that, this athlete was dropped from the team. His promising future, all gone, and just because of some nasty rumor! I can only imagine what Coach Strum will do if word gets to him that you and Winner are 'together'. Or what your teammates will do. I don't think any of them will want to be on the same team as you, or be in the shower room with you. They might get the impression that a pillow biter like you won't be able to keep his eyes, or his hands to himself. A rumor like that can destroy a team, and certain... opportunities.
    "And your poor parents," she tisked with fake sympathy, "Your family is certainly well off enough to stay out of South Nausten, but not by much. The way that I heard it, neither of your parents even went to college. I heard that they're putting a lot of pressure on you to go to a good school, and you'll need a scholarship to do that. They don't give full rides to queers, Barton. Won't your parents, especially your father, whom I've heard is very traditionally minded, be so disappointed to learn that their only son chose perversion over his education and future?"
    Trowa looked like she had very calmly thrust her hand into him and ripped out all of his organs, her words as effective on rendering him helpless and hollow as a surgeon's knife. I don't know what I expected him to do; punch her, call her a cunt, call her bluff, or tell her that all of that had ceased to matter to him the second that she had endangered his friend's life.
    I know which I had hoped he would do, and I know which I would have done. If it had meant getting Relena to stop tormenting my best friend, I would have done all of them. To save Quatre, I would have told the whole world that I was everything she claimed and more. At least, that's what I wanted to believe, and I certainly wanted to believe that of Trowa, that he was that strong, that he cared about what happened to Quatre at least that much and would stand up for him.
    What I expected the least from him was exactly what Trowa did. With a look of hazed shock, sadness, and bitterness, that shy side of him came back, effectively killing the strong person that I had seen just minutes before. It was like she had drained out his very soul. Without uttering a single word, or so much as glancing at me, he turned around and left.
    I don't know what I felt in that moment exactly. Shock and surprise are too weak of words. Horror is closer. Relena had said some pretty awful things to me and Quatre, but what she had just said to Trowa was cruel, precise, and brutal. How the hell had she known all that about his family? It was obviously true, given his expression, and I don't think that even Quatre had known what Trowa's father was like. How could she say those terrible things to him, to make him so frightened? But more than anything, when I watched Trowa's retreating back, I felt betrayed. It was stupid, I barely knew him and we were just barely friends, but he had given me hope.
    Hope. I didn't feel that often and, for awhile, it had been a nice thing to feel. Here was this older boy, popular if quiet, and he liked my best friend. I had hoped that Trowa could be good for Quatre. I had hoped that he could give him confidence. I had hoped that he cared enough to stand up for him. Worst of all, I had hoped that he could protect him. But he hadn't. He had walked away. He was no different than me, incapable of protecting Quatre, weak and cowardly. I hated him for it.
    I was furious at Relena for using Trowa's fears and dreams to hurt him and drive a wedge between him and Quatre, but that was absolutely nothing compared to the hatred and anger I felt in that moment towards the boy that Quatre said he loved more than anything, the boy that, for a few seconds, he had been willing to die to protect. And that person wasn't willing to withstand a few rumors to protect him back.
    "What the hell is your problem?!" I snapped at Relena. I wasn't able to stop myself despite the knowledge that I was making things worse, "What business is it of yours who Quatre likes?! What right do you have o threaten to ruin their lives because you like picking on Quatre for some stupid, petty reason?!"
    "Oh, relax, Maxwell," she flicked her long hair over her shoulder and somehow managed to look down her nose at me despite our equal height, "I'm doing them a favor."
    "You tried to kill Quatre!" I snarled, "You can say that you didn't force him, but you now full well that you manipulated him! He almost died because you knew he would walk out there if you threatened Trowa. That's no different from pushing him out into the fucking street! You aren't doing anyone a favor, you're fucking with people because you enjoy it! All Quatre wanted was to be friends with him and you went out of your way to punish him for it!"
    "Oh, give me a break," she rolled her eyes obnoxiously at me, "I haven't said a single lie to either of them, I'm just pointing out the truth since they refuse to see it. Do you think that Trowa will thank that queer for destroying his life when words gets out to his parents who it is he's been hanging out with? I can't wait until Quatre's father figures out what his precious son is really like for himself!
    "You can't possibly think that he has any future, and he wants to drag Trowa down with him! I was just trying to be nice and make him realize that and he spat in my face for it! Do you really think that, when the truth gets out about your little friend, anyone is going to care what happens to him? Do you think that anyone actually cares now that he was stupid enough to get his arm broken for his disgusting perversion?"
    I didn't know if the cunt actually believed the self righteous bullshit that she was spewing, but either way, it enraged me the same.
    "You are so full of shit!" I yelled at her, ignoring the warning light going off in my head that I was going too far with this and I should just go to the cafeteria before I pissed her off too much, "You don't know anything. Quatre being gay is just a stupid rumor that you made up, and you have zero proof that Quatre and Trowa are anything but friends! Even if Quatre did love Trowa, that's not a perversion! This has nothing to do with keeping them apart for their own good, you're just being cruel for the sake of it! If they want to be friends, it's not up to you to decide if that's ok! Just leave them the hell alone!"
    "Love?" she laughed like I had just told her a hilarious joke, "All two boys can have with each other is sex, not love. Men can't get married to each other, they can't have children or a family, homosexuality is just a perversion of a normal relationship. 'Liking' someone of the same sex... it's disgust and unnatural!" her pale eyes narrowed as she peered into me and suddenly I knew she wasn't thinking about Quatre and Trowa anymore, "Liking a girl, that is what's natural, what's proper. I don't expect a diseased rat like you to understand, but the sooner Quatre realizes how filthy his obsessions, the happier he'll be."
    My rage flared red hot. All of this... her violent attempts at splitting up Quatre and Trowa... that couldn't really be about that stupid kiss from a year ago, could it? Or maybe it was just a part of it... but I couldn't deny the equal rage in her eyes when she looked at me and talked about perversion. And I couldn't deny how sick it made me feel inside. She really did believe that I was gay, and she loathed me for it. Had Quatre getting almost killed been partially my fault?
    "You're fucking insane," I hissed, "You can lie and rationalize to whoever you want, but you almost killed Quatre and it has nothing to do with him maybe being gay. You enjoy hurting us, you always have. You're just a twisted, horrible person, and you think that someone liking another person of the same sex is disgusting? You can't keep going after Quatre like this just because I don't like you!" I took a few steps forward and getting in her furious face, not caring about my personal safety anymore, "You might hate gays, but the reality is that even if I'm straight, I will never like you. How could anyone, boy or girl, love someone like you? You might be pretty, but whoever you are on the inside is ugly through and through!"
    Her face twisted and any resemblance to a human being became monstrous with shocked fury. I didn't have the time to flinch away from her as she raked her nails across my face, extremely lucky she hadn't gotten one of my eyes. One of those pink nails caught a healing cut that I had gotten during the 'accident,' making blood pour down my cheek.
    "Shut up!" she shrieked at me, "Who do you think you are?! You're trash, garbage!" You should be grateful I give you the time of day! You think that you can say those things to me, you repulsive scum?!" before I could recover from her attack, she grabbed my hair and used all of her fury and weight to swing me into the lockers. A metal ring filled my head, erasing all intelligent thought.
    "You're disgusting, you and your faggot friend! The both of you should just do the world a favor and kill yourselves! Just die so the rest of us won't have to look at you anymore!"
    Her hands twisted in my hair and she slammed me into the lockers again, this time getting me in my bruised shoulder. The pain made me gasp, but it also woke me up from my stupor. I dug in my feet and grabbed her wrists to keep her from throwing me around anymore.
    "I wish that truck had flattened the both of you!" she screamed, becoming absolutely insane with anger at my daring to touch her.
    "Get off of him!" I heard Trowa bellow and just like that, Relena let go of me, Trowa had grabbed her by the arm and pulled her away with brute strength. I wished that I was as big as he was.
    He had come back for me. When, I wasn't sure. I had been so focused on Relena and her poisonous words that everything else had disappeared to me, even Dorothy. Relena was like a wild animal in his grasp, wrenching her arm out of his hand like his touch was that of a leper's. When she got loose, I saw that he had grabbed her so hard, his fingers had left red marks on her white skin. He had barely more control over himself than she had. I thought of my father for some reason.
    The sound of Relena's open hand striking Trowa's face was like a gun shot in the quiet hallway. I flinched at the familiar sound, Trowa didn't. He just stared at her coolly and calmly, his eyes like green stones.
    "Don't you ever touch me," Relena said with a coldness that made Trowa's look temperate, but when she looked back at me, her glare threatened to turn burning hot with that rage again.
    "We're going to miss lunch," Dorothy, who had been as quiet as a mouse this whole time, finally spoke, sounding incredibly bored with all of this.
    Relena flicked her hair over her shoulder again, regaining her lost composure, and walked briskly away with Dorothy nipping at her heels like the pampered guard dog that she was. I began to move my hand to my face to wipe at the wetness on my cheek only to remember at the last minute that it was blood and I was only going to streak it across my face. I was already frazzled and my back was in complete agony, I didn't need to look like a serial killer as well. Instead I used my hand to touch my hair. She had pulled about half of it out of my ponytail.
    As I pulled the my hair tie off, gathered up my hair, and secured the hair tie again, Trowa stared at my hair like he was in a day dream. I wanted to ask him what his problem was with my hair, it wasn't like it was the first time he had seen my ponytail. I tried my hardest not to let on how much pain I was in as I had lifted my arms to fix my hair. There wasn't anything I could do about it anyway. I had left my pills at home and it was too early to take some anyway. I didn't thank Trowa for pulling Relena off of me and diffusing the situation. I hadn't wanted him to come back.
    "Are you insane?" he scolded me, his gaze softening back into the one I was accustomed to from him now that the two bitches had left the area, "You can't say things like that to her! The best thing to do is ignore her when she gets like that."
    "Like you?" I snapped at him, "I guess it's easy when you can just walk away like you don't give a shit about anything."
    He flinched, actually flinched away from me. Later I would wonder if I was really that frightening when I was angry, or if he was just that much of a coward.
    "You're just as bad as she is," I accused, feeling my fury consume me and was thankful for it for once. It made my pain irrelevant, it made the hurt in his green eyes pointless, and my own guilt and feelings of inadequacy vanish in the face of how much I hated and resented this boy, "No, you're worse. You call yourself his friend and you let her do those horrible things to Quatre! She almost gets him killed and you're lecturing me about standing up to her! Why don't you grow a fucking spine and stand up for your friend?! It's no wonder why you don't have any friends when you're such a pathetic coward!" was I even talking to him anymore, a part of me wondered then, or was I screaming at myself? "You don't deserve his-"
    'Love' I almost said, but my mouth hadn't quite gotten ahead of my brain yet.
    "-friendship!" I strode up to him, grabbed him by his shirt and pulled him in close.
    His eyes grew wide with fear. He thought I was going to punch him. Good, because that was exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to hit him until he bled, I wanted to break his arm so he knew how it felt. I wanted to tell every single person in the entire town that he was a faggot. I wanted to destroy him, more than Relena ever could.
    "Either help him," I hissed instead, "and actually be his friend or stop being around him all together. You can't have it both ways, it isn't fair to him. He deserves a better friend than," me "you."
    I let go of his shirt and shoved him. My back was in searing pain. I let that pain fill me, let it fill my rage and let it soar to new heights. I didn't look back at him. I didn't want to see that stupid, scared expression of his anymore. I just kept walking and walking until I was running and felt something wet spread across my back.
    I spun and slammed my fist into a nearby locker. The pain felt good. I punched it again and again and again until the skin of my knuckles split open and the locker was streaked with blood. I hit it again, creating a sizable dent in it. I only stopped hitting it when I felt my entire hand go numb. I stared at the large, bloody dent I had made, my hand falling to my side, dripping blood onto the linoleum floor. I panted, but I didn't cry. I didn't deserve that kind of release.


End Part 6




    
    
    
    
    

Chapter Text

A Stagnation of Love
Chapter 3
Part 7


    "What happened yesterday?" Quatre finally asked me the day after I had had my fight with Trowa.
    I hadn't seen or spoken to the upperclassman since I had stormed away from him. Worse, neither had Trowa. He was avoiding Quatre. I had thought that he was just avoiding me, pissed that I had let off at him like that, but he hadn't made any attempt to talk to Quatre, either. I didn't know if that was a good thing or not. Was he staying away because I had hurt his feelings, because I had given him an ultimatum and he had chosen the cowardly option, or was it because of what Relena had said? Was he staying away to help Quatre, help himself, or was he just ashamed? And which reason did I wish was the actual one?
    When Trowa didn't meet Quatre after recess and my friend had emerged from the nurse's office, he had looked so sad. He had looked like a puppy that had just woke up from a peaceful nap, only to get kicked in the face. And when Trowa hadn't shown up to talk to him after any of our other classes or after the school day was over, that sadness only deepened. I felt guilty about what I had said to his crush for the first time, if only because Quatre was suffering, but the more mature part of me that was sometimes cruelly logical thought that that was ok.
    I don't mean that it was ok that Quatre was sad that the other boy suddenly wasn't talking to him, but maybe Trowa staying away from him would be a good thing. It would hurt Quatre for awhile, and if Quatre found out what I had said to him, he would be angry with me, but there was more good that would come from Trowa leaving Quatre alone than bad. Relena wouldn't be able to use Trowa to threaten Quatre with anymore. Quatre wouldn't feel constantly guilty and awful that he might let it slip that he liked the basketball player and that he might give Trowa a bad reputation just by being friends. And maybe the two of them going their separate ways now would save them heartache later.
    Or maybe I had completely fucked things up when I had told the older boy to either man up or go the hell away. All I knew was that Trowa was hurting my best friend, even if he hadn't meant. Quatre was happy around him, but he was also miserable, so I felt conflicted. And I was well aware that what I had done was petty, I had lashed out at him for being unable to do what I was also unable to do, and I was still incredibly angry at him over it. Yeah, it made me a hypocrite, but I felt better without him around to fuel my rage. I just didn't know what to do anymore, what was the right thing to do for Quatre, if I had just made things worse or if he would get over it.
    A part of me wished that Trowa would stay away forever. Our lives were shitty enough without him giving Relena fuel and while I hated him, I also liked him enough to not want his life ruined, even if I was so angry that I didn't want to see his face at the moment. But another part of me wished that he would see Quatre. I hated seeing my friend so depressed and confused and hurt, I would even go so far as saying that he felt a bit betrayed by Trowa's sudden distance. I wanted to see him happy again and I knew that Trowa could make him smile so easily. And if Trowa came back, wouldn't that mean that he had decided to fight for Quatre after all?
    I had too much to worry about in my own life between the regional test scores, my grades, my father, my mother, Relena, and Zechs to be worrying about what was going on with Trowa. I hate myself for that now. I should have been more invested in what was happening in my best friend's life, at home and in school, and I should have done everything that I could to make it easier for him and Trowa. Again, hindsight. I should have lied when Trowa asked me what had really happened. I should have stopped him going after Relena, and I should have backed him up instead of flipping out on him. I should have done a lot of things that I hadn't. But at the time, despite everything Quatre had told me, despite all of the warnings I had gotten, I was still too stupid to pull my head out of my ass and see how much Trowa meant to Quatre, to see that I was losing him.
    "I don't know," I lied to him, "We ended up not going to lunch together, so I don't know what's going on with him. He might just be busy, you know."
    I lied to my best friend in the whole world. I had never done that. Actually looked him in the eye and lied as cleanly and neatly as I did to my doctors and teachers, lied about something that was actually important to him. I hated myself for it, but what was I going to do? Tell Quatre the truth? Tell him that I was a piece of shit that had driven his crush away from him? Tell him that Trowa had let him down when it mattered, that he had let Relena threaten him and hadn't even tried to protect him after she seemed to have zero problems with almost killing him?
    No matter what I said to him, it was going to hurt him worse. And I couldn't do that. I couldn't see the pain in his eyes when I told him what really happened. At the end of it all, I was a coward. I don't know. Maybe if I had told him what Relena had said to Trowa, it might have made things better for him to know why Trowa didn't want to be around him anymore, or maybe it really would have made things so much worse. Although, I don't think anything could have made it worse.
    Quatre glanced at the scratches on my face that Relena had given me, but just nodded and accepted my story. Trusted me. I felt like he had ripped my guts out with that nod. After all, what reason did he have not to trust me? I had never lied to him like that before. So when I told him that Relena had scratched me as punishment for helping him and then I had gone to lunch without Trowa, he believed me. That he was still in pain from his arm and a bit distant because of the pain meds helped with my deception. I had stopped taking my own. My back was a total horror, and the pain was so bad I literally felt like slamming my head into a wall so I could just black out, but I clung to that pain.
    I clung to it and lied to myself that it was my punishment for driving Trowa away, for being unable to save Quatre's arm, for ruining my parents' lives, for being slow and stupid and a coward. And if I wasn't sleeping at night, that was just a part of my punishment. I wasn't so stupid as to not keep my back clean and keep using the burn cream, but I took that bottle of pain meds and flushed them down the toilet. I didn't deserve relief.
    The week passed slowly and tortuously. My knees were pretty much all healed except for the fact that they itched now and then. My back was healing, but slowly. I still couldn't go to gym class, big loss there, and there was still pain, but it was very bearable and I didn't have many sleepless nights after awhile. The day before the regional test results were posted, I got to use my gym period to go back to the hospital to get my stitches removed, the doctor praising that I was healing very well but there would be several scars on my back. I didn't care. It wasn't like I could see them.
    I saw Trowa around the school sometimes, between classes and hanging out with his teammates. He seemed to be hanging out with them a lot more lately and I had to wonder if that was because he knew that Quatre was far too shy to approach him with the other boys around. I began to realize that Trowa wasn't just ignoring Quatre for a little while to give him time to make a decision, this was a permanent thing. He had made his choice. I had thought that that would make me happy, that this was the right choice. Quatre could move on, he could be safer.
    But it didn't. Quatre was miserable and I was miserable watching him be miserable. And I hated Trowa even more for staying away. How stupid is that? I had been the one to tell him to go away and I was the one that regretted it that most. I wanted to take it back. I hated him for being a coward. I hated him for just walking away from my best friend like it was nothing, like it didn't even matter to him. Like it was easy. Maybe it had been. Maybe he had never cared that much for Quatre to begin with. Maybe I had only seen what I had wanted to see. It seemed like no matter what the guy did, I hated him for it. What was wrong with me? Was I really this kind of person, so filled with hate and bitterness that it was easy for me to find a target like that? I was supposed to be Quatre's best friend and I was taking all of this out on the boy he loved. I felt like the worst person alive.
    I saw them fighting once. Quatre had gotten past his shyness enough to confront Trowa about why he wasn't around anymore. Trowa told him that it was a bad idea for them to be friends, and that he was just too busy with basketball to think about their friendship. He told him that when the season was over, they needed to talk about a few things, but that he just couldn't hang out with him anymore, and he shouldn't got to his games anymore, either. Quatre had asked him if it was because of something Relena had said to him. Trowa informed him that it wasn't, not really, that he had been thinking about their friendship for awhile now and had wanted to have this talk with him since that night we had gone to his game together. A talk about their future or, he subltly implied, the obvious lack of one.
    When Trowa finally walked away, just leaving Quatre there, staring at the spot that he had vacated like he was frozen in time, I went to him and asked him what had happened at the game that I had known he had gone to the night before, just a small scrimmage Trowa's team had had with one of our neighboring towns'. Quatre, not meeting my eyes, had just muttered that nothing had happened, nothing at all, and I guessed that was the problem. I asked him if he was ok. He looked up at me at last and then had promptly burst into tears. I had never seen him like that, so open and raw, and it both shocked and frightened me.
    I had held him, but I don't think that I had helped his overflowing emotions much. I asked him if he wanted me to talk to Trowa. I realized right then and there that if Quatre had asked me to, I would have begged Trowa to ignore what I had said to him, to be Quatre's friend again and not cared about the consequences. I don't think that they would have, but I would have let go of all my hatred for him for Quatre's sake. Quatre told me not to, though. He pleaded to me not to talk to Trowa for him, to just leave him alone. Trowa had hurt him with his coldness, but he still loved him, still respected him. It made me feel like the biggest asshole on the planet.
    It was at that time, holding Quatre in my arms and seeing him break down in the middle of the science hallway, that I realized that there was more going on in Quatre's life than I was seeing. I mean, I had always known that. We didn't talk about our home lives and the bare glimpses I got of his relationship with his family only told me that he was very unhappy, but not to what extent and not why. Whatever it was, it made the situation with Trowa all the worse, tangled up in things that he never talked to me about.
    I wonder now, if I had forced him to talk to me about it, if I had been an actual friend to him instead of worrying about keeping my own secrets close to my chest, if I could have helped him. I guess I've probably written that before, several times by now, but what else do I have to think about beyond all the ways I've fucked up? I can't fix a damned thing, but it's all I can think about. All I can see are my failures, how Quatre walked through that last week of school like he was in a nightmare. He was so depressed and despondent, so distant from me, and I barely tried to snap him out of it.
    By the time our regional test results were posted on the bulletin board in front of the school, by the parking lot where the buses would line up at the end of the day, it was too late to change a thing.

April 13th, 2004

    It took me five days to write all of that. And then it took me five days to pick up this journal again. I can't do it. I can't write about it. I tried every day this week. I would look at this composition notebook sitting on my desk in my bedroom and think about the words I would write. I thought about all the things that happened on that day, how sunny and bright and beautiful it had been, how all of my classmates had been too nervous about finding out their scores to pay attention in our classes, how agitated Quatre had seemed.
    I had figured out for myself that it was partially the shit that was happening with Trowa, partially something that had happened between him and Relena on the way to school, and partially the pressure that his father was putting on him about his scores. I should have paid more attention to how he was that day, I should have asked him exactly what Relena had said to him, but I was too anxious about my own scores to have any other intelligent thought in my head.
    I couldn't do it, though. I couldn't write those things. I just think about how it ended, how Quatre had looked at the train station that day, the sound of the train as it approached, his last smile to me before he turned and vanished from my sight forever. And then I can't write a thing. Yesterday, I thought about just coming out and writing it. One little sentence. What happened. A word, even. Just skip the reasons and write the facts. Then I had sat down on the floor of my room and cried. I hadn't thought that I had any more tears left to shed.
    I have to keep progress reports with Mrs. Khushrenada. It's part of my condition for not being expelled since I hit Zechs, to let her know where I am with this stupid thing and that I'm actually doing it, even if she isn't reading it. She caught up with me yesterday, told me that I hadn't talked about the journal in awhile, if I was still writing about the truck accident. I told her I was past it. I told her what day I was on, what day I had been on for the past seven days. She had looked at me with pity when I told her that I couldn't get past it. I can't write about that day. She told me I have to. I told her I can't, that I don't want to think about it. I don't want to write about it, even if no one will read it.
    I have thought about it every day since it happened and writing it won't help, it will only make it worse. I told her that, but she wouldn't listen. She pointed out to me, a bit sternly, that I can't just keep it bottled up inside, writing about it will help me, and I don't really have a choice. I have to keep seeing the school psychologist and writing in this journal if I don't want to be expelled for punching Relena, and I have to keep up daily entries, talking about my shitty feelings, if I don't want to get expelled for punching Zechs. If it hadn't felt so fucking good both times, I would wish that I had kept my fists to myself if only to not have to do this.
    Mrs. Khushrenada said I have until the 15th to finish writing about Quatre. I'm trying not to think about it as bearing my soul or some stupid shit like that. I'm certainly not thinking about it as helping myself. I don't care what anyone says, writing about it has only made it worse so far. Instead, the only way I can think about this, the only way I can actually do it is thinking about it as telling the truth, letting there be one actual, true account of what happened. Because I never told anyone what happened.
    Everyone thinks that they know, but they don't. They just believe what Relena said the day the cops came to school, asking the people who were the last to see Quatre Winner before he ran out of the school parking lot. She told everyone who would listen to her that Nate had always been sad, always different, always depressed. It was really no wonder why he had run off. He was gay and weird and didn't really have any friends. He had just gotten fed up with it all. Or maybe it was the pain meds and his broken arm. After all, Quatre had wanted to be a musician and his doctor said that he couldn't, that the break would always impair him.
    None of it is true. Quatre didn't run that day because he was a bit loopy, or he was depressed because of being gay, though I suppose that was a big part of it. He ran because of what she did to him that afternoon, and I guess whatever she had said on the way to school. It was true that Quatre wanted to study music, and it was true that he had played violin in the school orchestra for a couple of years, and even that the double break to his arm and wrist wouldn't make him the best musician, but he had never been that interested in playing.
    The violin was something that his mother had forced him into, because playing an instrument would look good on a college application, since, she had claimed 'playing a classical instrument shows discipline'. She didn't know that he had quit the orchestra last year and had never really enjoyed it. When he had told her his interest in music, she had thought that meant classical composition. Parents really don't know shit about their kids. What interested Quatre, what had interested him since his very first violin lesson, was how mathematics was used to make music.
    "Mathematics," he had told me once when I had lamented my inability to understand my algebra homework, "are the building blocks of the universe. If God is real, He's a mathematician."
    That something like an equation can translate into the world as music, this theme that both man and beast find beautiful, something to soothe the very soul, was incredible to him. He likened it to seeing God in a sunrise. He would go on about it for hours. With his intelligence, if he had kept at it, if he had bucked his parents' influence and gone to college to study math and art like he had wanted, he would have been a revolutionary, he would have done something amazing. I truly believe that. Sometimes, when I think about that, I feel so incredibly gifted to have met him, to have been his friend.
    This will be my account of what really happened to my best friend. Everything I've written in here has been a testament to it, all the reasons why he felt the need to do what he did, everything that pushed him into that corner where he felt it was his only option. Or maybe none of it does. Maybe I just want there to be a reason and there isn't any at all. In any case, I made a decision last night. When I'm done writing about it in this thing, then I'm done. I'm never writing in here again. When I've written everything that I need to, I'm going to follow him. That's what I promised, isn't it? That I would always have his back? If only I had figured that out sooner. And if people read this and laugh at the things I've written, that's ok. At least I'll be with the only person who has ever given a shit about me. The only person that has ever believed in me, even if there is nothing in me to believe in, never was.
    If someone does find this in my absence and reads it all the way through, please tell Relena Darlien this for me: Go to Hell. For what you did and continued to do to Quatre, to me, and to whatever kid you decide to replace us with, I hope you burn. I hope your entire world crumbles under your feet and you realize that you aren't any different than us, for all of your self righteous crap. If I weren't such a coward, I would burn it to the ground for you, but I can't seem to. I hope, if only for a day, that you meet someone like you and they show you what it feels like to be made to feel like nothing, like the way you made Quatre feel, and I hope that in that moment, you feel bad for what you did. I know you won't, but that's what I'll be hoping for, you malicious bitch.
    The regional testing scores were posted on March 4th, 2004. They were tacked up on the bulletin board for everyone to see right before the seventh graders' lunch break. Quatre had been so distant the entire day, disheartened I guess I could call it. Even when he got called on during one of our morning classes, he had spoken like someone in a dream, forcing himself to speak. I was worried about him, but it never occurred to me to ask him what had happened on his way to school that morning. The closer we got to the lunch period, though, the more he seemed to come back to his usual self. He was anxious, just like I was, and agitated about something, but his worries about his test scores seemed to push back all the other crap in his head.
    "Don't worry," he told me as we followed our class out into the parking lot, "I'm sure that you did great. I bet you did loads better than me in the first test, and we studied a lot for the second one. Even if you didn't do great on the second one, it isn't like these scores effect our grades. There's really no downside to getting a lesser score. They're just prepping for the tests we have to take in high school, colleges won't even look at them."
    "I know," I said but I couldn't help my dejected tone.
    I honestly didn't care that much that it didn't count. It counted to me. Just more proof of how dumb I was, and my father would not be pleased if I failed one of the tests after how many days of work I had taken off to study for them. Mostly, and this was pretty stupid, I didn't want my classmates to know just how much of a loser I was. Bad enough that I knew it myself.
    It shouldn't have bothered me that much, everyone already thought that I was antisocial and stupid, just another stereotypical would be dead beat from South Nausten, and even if I aced both tests, they would continue to think that. But for some reason, I really hated that our scores were being ranked and posted for the whole damned school to see. It makes me laugh now that that was my biggest worry that day. Now it seems so petty. I don't even remember what my scores were. I can remember almost everything else about that day, but not that.
    I knew something was wrong the second that we stepped outside of the school. At first, it was just a feeling, like a chill in the air. I felt like one of those water buffalo that go to get a drink of water. They can't see the crocodile in the water, but they just sense that there is something there, something that wants to eat them. Quatre seemed to sense it, too, his somber and apprehensive mood returning. I think the first time I realized that something was off with actual proof was the sheer amount of students clustered around the bulletin board. Only the seventh graders should have been there to check on their scores, but I saw kids that I recognized from the eighth grade classes, and even fifth and sixth graders, even though they had already had their lunch period and all of them should have been in class.
    The first thing I thought of was a fire drill, but that was stupid. I hadn't heard the alarm go off and even if it had, we were supposed to meet in the field in front of the parking lot, a safe distance from the building in case of a fire or explosion or whatever. Everyone was standing in front of the bulletin board, staring at what was on their with rapt attention. Was there some event that had been posted there, I wondered.
    But as we got closer to the throng of people, I saw that some were pointing and laughing, some looked disgusted, others were talking in hushed whispers. I felt this sudden sense of... doom and my heart fell into my stomach.
    "Oh, my god, she wasn't lying," I heard some girl say in a scandalized tone.
    "I can't believe," another murmur.
    "Disgusting," another.
    "I could never tell," yet another.
    "Do you think he is, too-"
    "Do his parents know?"
    "Ugh, I took a shower at the same time as him!"
    They wouldn't stop. Then, a hush fell over the crowd. One by one, their heads turned and they saw Quatre and I standing there. Those eyes were accusing, wide, frightened, disgusted, humored, and some were even pitying. I felt like I had just been dropped into a horror movie and at any moment they were going to start pointing at us and accusing us of not being one of 'them'. Next to me, Quatre was shaking at their stares and I realized with a sickening feeling that those stares were not directed at me at all. They were all looking at Quatre.
    I was ready to grab him, turn around and run back into the school, but Quatre took a step forward, like he was being pulled toward that bulletin board by some siren call. The entire crowd parted for him. Some would say it was like Moses parting the Red Sea, but it wasn't like that at all. They didn't part because of some power that Quatre had, or out of respect. They parted like they would for a leper, for someone that had a disease that they didn't want to touch. They moved to get away from him. I walked with him, his partner as he walked to the executioner's block.
    Someone had pasted photocopied pages of writing all over the bulletin board, over all the test scores. There were about thirty pages in total. I forgot about Quatre for a moment and stood in front of the board, reading one of the pages. Whoever had made the photocopies had blown up the text so they were easy to read and I quickly recognized the hand writing. I had been seeing it for years. That feeling of dread in my stomach as exploded with each word I read and if I hadn't felt so paralyzed, I would have vomitted.

    'I saw him again today, walking past the library while Duo and I tried to find some research materials for our biology project. He was walking with some of his teammates, them chatting and him listening. He always listens. I would love to hear his voice some day. His friends were talking loudly enough to him that I was able to learn his name. Trowa. I wonder if he's the same Trowa that Chandra says is our school's 'rising basketball star'.'

    'I wanted to say 'hello' to him today, but I just felt so shy. He's so handsome, and I'm sure he has a girlfriend, but I wanted to say hi all the same. I decided to risk it, I don't know why. I was feeling bolder than I usually was, so while Duo was talking with our history teacher, I walked up to him. I could never do this with him watching. If Duo ever found out how I felt, or what I am, I could never cope with that. I would rather anyone else in the entire world found out that I like other boys than him. What if he thinks that I'm so kind of pervert that's been interested in him all these years? What if he doesn't want to be friends anymore?
    I bumped into Trowa and pretended that I didn't know where I was going. I felt so excited when he looked down at me. His eyes are so green, this dark, dark green that reminds me of evergreen trees. I thought he would yell at me for being so absent minded. I'm just a seventh grader, even one that nobody likes. But he didn't. He was so shy, stuttering and apologizing to me. This is dangerous. I shouldn't go looking for him anymore.'

    'I saw a boy playing on the basketball court today from the homeroom window next to my desk. He was taller than the other boys and I don't remember seeing him before. Watching him play made me excited. I couldn't stop watching him, even when Mrs. Mallory yelled at me for not paying attention. He's so big and lanky, but he moves so fast! There is something about his shoulders and his hands that I can't stop admiring. There is something wrong with me. When did I get this way? When did I start looking at boys like this? I'm such a disgusting fool, but I want to see him again, just one more time, then I'll forget about it, I promise.'
    
    'Dinner tonight went so well! All of my worries and fears were for nothing. Duo and Trowa got along so well! I think they could be friends if they just got out of their shells a bit around each other. Duo was in pain, but he seemed to be enjoying himself at dinner. I'm glad. I really wanted them to get along and I think Duo was able to gain another friend. That made me very happy. Even Relena trying to get Trowa away from me didn't ruin tonight. Best yet, Trowa still doesn't know. He hasn't guessed at all that the reason why we keep bumping into each other and why I go to his games is because I love him. I think things might work out.
    I know it's foolish of me, but I just can't stop wanting to be with him. Even Duo thinks I'm crazy. He thinks I should just forget about Trowa and he's right. He's always right. But I just can't stop myself. What would I do without my best friend? I hadn't any right to drag him along tonight. He has so many other things to worry about, and I keep dragging him into my problems. I don't know how he can stand being around me.'

    'Stupid. Why am I so incredibly stupid?! I love him. I thought at first that it was just a silly crush. Trowa is handsome and kind and actually listens to me when I talk, unlike everyone else in my life besides Duo. He doesn't treat me like a worthless child or a nuisance or nothing more than an asset. I thought if I could be near him for a little while, I could get over this, but it's gotten worse. I actually love him. And every second I'm with him, my stupid heart hurts. What am I going to do? Oh, God, why? Why did you make me this way? I just want this to stop.'

    I blinked away tears as they dripped down my face at every word I read. As I turned to look at my best friend, his written words screaming in my head, all thirty plus pages of them, I saw Relena in the corner of my vision. She was standing away from the crowd, smiling that disgusting smile of hers. That knowing smile. Unlike the others, she wasn't pushing through the throng to try to read what was on the bulletin board. She didn't need to. She had been the one to photocopy each one of those pages and tack them up there.
    How. How?! How had that cunt gotten her hands on what was obvious Quatre's journal? I hadn't even known that my best friend kept one. I guess that's why I loathe writing in this thing so much, since a journal was what destroyed my best friend's life. Had Quatre been stupid enough to put that in his locker? No, no he wouldn't do that, not something that talked about his sexuality, not with how frightened he always was that someone would find out about his secret.
    Had she broken into his house or something? I don't know. I don't know that anymore than I know why he had felt the need to keep a journal in the first place. Maybe he was like Mrs. Khushrenada and thought that writing down his thoughts and feelings would help him in some way. I never got the chance to ask him.
    Quatre's skin had gone the same sickly grey-white color of fresh ash. His eyes were wide and clear in the bright sun, like sea glass. He was so horrified by what was going on around him, he was actually shaking. I wanted to get him far away from the crowd, away from the snide remarks I heard people whispering that the both of us could clearly here, away from the hissed 'faggot's and crude remarks about Trowa and Quatre and even me, about if we had threesomes, about who fucked who, if Trowa was the fudgepacker and Quatre the pillowbiter or if it was the other way around, if Trowa really was gay, too, or if he just had a homo pining after him, if he knew, if I knew, if I was fucking Quatre.
    It was endless, like clucking birds surrounding us. I felt like if I listened to those horrible, cruel, hateful things for much longer, I would go crazy and I wasn't the one whose journal had been exposed for every person in the school to see. I could even see some teachers now, milling about with the kids and teenagers, trying to see what was going on and doing absolutely nothing to stop it. Quatre just stood where he was, frozen stiff and looking like he was going to vomit right there in front of everyone. He looked like he was going to cry but didn't. His hands trembled and I saw the desire in his eyes to rip those pages off the bulletin board, but he knew like I did that that wouldn't make a single difference.
    He turned then to look at the crowd behind us, to look at those staring faces. I thought that he would bolt, that he would run back into the school and try to find some safe place to hole up in until the school day was over and he could go home. But he didn't. He just stood there, his spooked eyes scanning the crowd. He was looking for Trowa, I realized. Even then, that was what he cared about.
    Never mind that almost the whole school was out there, laughing and saying awful things about him, it was Trowa's reaction that he was frantic for. Even when his eyes met Relena's and her look of absolute triumph, he didn't seem to give her a second thought beyond a terrible kind of understanding, although he had probably known that she had been the one responsible just like I had.
    Just by watching my best friend's expression, I knew the second that he had found Trowa in the crowd. His face turned dark red, but unlike all the other times when he looked at his crush, this time his blush was out of utter shame, not attraction. I looked in the direction of Quatre's gaze and located Trowa quickly. He wasn't far from us, just a few feet away, and had obviously been reading what was on the bulletin board. He had the same wide eyed, ashen look of horror that Quatre did.
    He was standing alone in the crowd, the same sort of bubble of people back away from him that was formed around Quatre and myself. People were looking at him like they had already decided that he was a faggot as well. I felt sad for him then. I understood in that moment how Quatre had felt all those times he had claimed that he felt bad about associating with Trowa, that he was worried about pulling him down with him. Trowa had just been friends with Quatre, that was all, but everyone was looking at him with the same repulsion, pity, and nervousness that were in their eyes when they looked at me and Quatre. It wasn't fair. But I was honestly too worried about my friend to think much about Trowa.
    Trowa looked like a man stuck in a dream, wondering how he had gotten stuck there, teetering precariously between numbness and complete disbelief. His dark green eyes were transfixed on the bulletin board an he looked like he both couldn't believe what he was reading and like he was looking for something in those photocopied words, something to tell him that this was all an elaborate prank at his expense, maybe, which of course that's exactly what it was, but not in the way that he wanted it to be.
    Quatre approached him, taking tentative steps like Trowa was a deer that he dind't want to spook. The crowd parted for him, each pair of eyes watching the two of them like all of it was some great form of entertainment. I wanted to scream at all of them to go away.
    "Trowa," my friend managed to say as he walked up to his crush.
    The baseball player came out of his stupor and looked at Quatre with huge eyes, skittish and unnerved by the same boy he had been close friends with a week ago.
    "Please," Quatre's voice shook, tears dripping down his cheeks and he reached one trembling hand out to the boy that he loved, "please, just let me explain..."
    Trowa flinched from him. Actually flinched from this short and slender thirteen year old like he was some kind of hulking monster.
    "Poor Barton," I heard some asshole mutter loud enough for the three of us to easily hear him, "If it were me, I'd be too ashamed to show my face in public again."
    "I'd kill myself," someone else chimed in.
    Trowa heard both of them and he looked at Quatre, horrified, like he was realizing what was happening for the first time. There was no reproach, hated, or disgust on his face, just horror, and that was so much worse somehow.
    Before Quatre could say another thing to him, he whirled and pushed past the crowd and back into the school. He walked with the desperate, frightened swiftness of a man that suddenly realizes that his hair is on fire. When the school doors closed behind his retreating form, Quatre crumpled. Realizing that the upperclassman had abandoned him completely and wasn't coming back, and realizing the damage he had caused and only he knew what else, he sobbed into his hands. Someone behind me laughed and I whirled on them, an eighth grade girl.
    "Shut the fuck up," I snarled at her and she stepped back, frightened of me. I was shorter than her and I had scared her. Good. I wanted her to be scared. I wanted all of them to be scared.
    I walked to him, reading to pull him into a tight hug and comfort him, or pull him away from the crowd, whatever it was that he needed from me and fuck everyone that stared at us, when Quatre stopped crying. I remember thinking at the time that it was like his cord had been cut. He didn't peter off or sniff like most people would have after a violent cry, he just stopped. He raised his head from his hands. His skin was red and streaked with tears, but his eyes were just dead. Up until the last time that I had seen him face to face, his eyes would never lose that horrible look.
    There was something else there in his expression that frightened me very badly, something that I had seen once before. It only took a moment to realize what it was. It was the same look Quatre had had that day when he had stood, not moving, in front of the truck bearing down on him. It was the same look he had had when he had decided that he just couldn't take any more pain and wanted to give up. Only this time, I couldn't push him out of the way of it, that hopelessness and surrender.
    Before I could say a single word to him, Quatre bolted. He ran past the crowd, past Relena, past the parking lot, moving to the West, faster than I had ever seen him run in our entire friendship. I stood there, staring at where he had been seconds before, staring like an idiot. I watched him run away amidst the laughter and jeers of our classmates. I thought I saw a teacher or two laughing as well, but that could easily have been my imagination. I was so shocked by what had just happened, all of it, my entire world compressed to the memory of Quatre's dead, tear stained face.
    It's stupid and childish, and I'm ashamed of it now, but for a moment I debated chasing after him. I thought to my self that he just needed time alone to pull himself together, but I vanquished that thought instantly and effortlessly. If there was ever a time that Quatre needed a friend, even if he had to settle for me, it was then. The reason that was really holding me back had seemed important at the time, but it never was, it couldn't hold a candle to the shit that Quatre was going through. It was the pre-algebra test I had to make up for during recess. If I left the school now, I thought, to chase after Quatre, I would never make it back in time and I really needed a decent grade on that test in order to pass my class that year.
    I wish that I had taken after Quatre the second that he had started running. I'm faster than him, I could have caught up to him easily in a couple of minutes and dragged him back. And I wish that, if I had still hesitated, that I had just gone back into the school to take that make up test. It would have been better to have heard from someone else that Quatre had abandoned me instead of seeing that myself. I could deny it, I could tell myself that he's coming home. I could sleep at night.
    But it didn't happen like that. After a few minutes debating what I should do, I nearly struck myself for what an ass I was. Some stupid test didn't matter as much as Quatre. I would catch him, I thought, and fuck school, I'd take him to some secluded place, maybe the beach or the courtyard behind the library, and we would talk. I'd hug him and let him cry for hours if that's what he needed. And when he was done talking and crying, somehow I would make him see that this wasn't the end of the world. I would make him see that there was no reason to get that look in his eyes ever again.
    I took off after him like there were rabid dogs nipping at me. I didn't even stop to beat the shit out of Relena, or to so much as pettily shove her, I just ran. I realized, as I was chasing after him, how much I needed to catch up to him, that this was dire, although I can't tell you I knew that. I also can't tell you how I knew that he would continue to run West, only that I was positive of it. I think that, subconsciously, I had known before I had even taken off running exactly where Quatre was going.
    I ran harder and faster than I ever had in my life and I have never ran like that since. I don't need to anymore. I ran so long and so hard that my back should have felt like it was on fire with agony, but I didn't feel it or the ache in my legs or the burning in my lungs. It would be a very long time before I would feel anything. It didn't take long for me to see Quatre's back as he ran ahead of me, but no matter how fast I was, I wasn't fast enough to overtake his speed or tackle him. This wasn't like before, trying to beat out a truck to save his life. My luck had run out, Quatre had had too long of a running start.
    I got closer to him when he almost ran right into some guy carrying some groceries. The man swore angrily at the both of us, but Quatre kept going like nothing had happened, so I did, too.
    When I saw the entrance to the train yard, I knew that my hunch had been right. I felt no relief, though, because somewhere deep down inside, I suspected why he had gone there and I felt an intense fear, but not even that enabled me to make a close enough grab for the back of his shirt. Our tram system is old fashioned, you don't need to pay until you actually get on the train, so the two of us ran through the train station, ran past the security officers screaming at us that there was no running in the station, ran past the flower vendors and food vendors and newspaper vendors and one guy playing a beaten up guitar for enough change to ride the train.
    Then we were on the train platform for the train that would head out of town, all the way past the town border to Petersburg, the third town up from us to the North, far enough away for Quatre to get a running start ahead of me, his family, Relena, Trowa, and every other person in this shitty town. If I let him and I didn't intend to. The train hadn't arrived yet, but I knew that it would at any second, I could hear it in the distance. I had mere minutes.
    Was that why Quatre had run all this way? Had he made up his mind to leave? But he couldn't, I told myself, they would never let him on the train, I would never let him! Only that wasn't true at all. I had little hope of stopping him. I couldn't even get on the train with him, to try to talk to him down. Quatre had cash in his pocket, he always did, and I didn't have a cent.
    "Quatre!" I cried out in desperation.
    To my happy shock, he stopped running and stood at the edge of the platform, in the red stripe that no one was allowed to stand on, right where I knew the train would stop when it finally reached us. I could see the faint smoke in the distance, above the trees. He was going to do it, I realized with horror and felt tears fall down my cheeks. I thought about what he had said to me in the hospital, how he had always wanted to do this, just go to the train station and run away from everything. But I had never thought that he would actually do it. I had never thought that he would leave me, but there he was, waiting for the train. Waiting to abandon me. My only friend. The only person in the world that had ever loved me, and he was going to leave me behind, just like my mother.
    "Please, Quatre, please," I pleaded past a sob. I wanted him to turn around. I wanted him to look at me, see me, see that I still cared about him.
    In that moment, if he had offered me to come with him, I believe that I would have. I just wanted to be with him, I wanted to stay his friend, I didn't want to go back to that school with those hateful people. Quatre was all I had. My parents didn't want me. I might love them, but they didn't love me, not in the way that Quatre did. So how... how could he do this to me?
    "Stop running," I begged him.
    He turned and for a brief second, I was so sure that he was going to laugh at me, yell at me, tell me to leave him alone. For a second I forgot who my best friend was and all I could see was Relena's laughing face. He turned and he still had that look in his eyes, that dead look, but those aquamarine eyes were bright with tears. His cheeks were soaked with them, making mine seem small and irrelevant. He looked so miserable. He looked like his soul... that part of him that always tried to make me smile, the part that had made me a birthday cake and helped me study for my math tests, was gone.
    It was like he was dead, his corpse just standing there, waiting for the rest of him to follow. I wanted to run to him and hug him tightly and never let him go, but there was also something about those eyes that frightened me very badly. I didn't feel like I was looking at my friend anymore. I felt completely helpless in the face of his obvious depression, his sadness. What did I say? What did I do to fix this? I was useless, a failure, I couldn't do anything right. So how could someone like me put the pieces of Quatre's heart back together? How could I make what Relena had done to him out of nothing more than spite and her petty amusement better? I had known him for four years, I knew him better than I had ever known anyone, but I didn't know that.
    "Please," I whispered, my voice hoarse. I extended my hand out to him, shaking as terribly as it was, and hoping more than anything that he would take it, "Please come back to school with me."
    He faltered at my words and doubt appeared in those beautiful eyes of his. He seemed to come back to himself for a second, but it wasn't long enough. The train suddenly appeared down the tracks, barreling towards us. And then Quatre smiled at me. He smiled like he always had, that special smile that had seemed like it was only for me. A beautiful, warm, kind thing that only he seemed capable of. The smile that I had loved, that had made my life seem better just having it directed at me.
    He smiled at me and I thought he would take my hand then. I thought that he would take that step forward and I would hug him and we would walk back together. I was looking into his eyes, but it was his smile I was seeing. I didn't see how his eyes didn't change, and I didn't see him notice the train as it got closer, only feet away. I didn't notice as he took a step back, the middle of his feet balanced on the very edge of the platform.
    Smiling at me and tears pouring out of his empty eyes, he stopped balancing on that edge. As I looked him in his sea green eyes, Quatre let himself fall backwards. I watched as that beautiful blue-green turned into a smear of red. I stood there on the platform, my hand still stupidly reaching out to him, reaching out to a ghost. I heard a shrill scream, but I'll never know if that was the sound of the breaks of the train, some unknown onlooker, or if it had been me, screaming uncontrollably.

*****

    I don't remember much that happened after that. Everything came to me in shades of white, grey, and occasionally red. My brain adamantly refused to believe anything that my eyes had told it, so it decided to wash everything out in white noise, even if that white noise was shrill and psychotic.
    They say that when a mother watches her child die, she goes temporarily insane. Well, the same is apparently true for best friends as well. Watching Quatre die killed something inside of me and it has yet to come back. And watching the person that I cared about more than anything had driven my sanity right out of me, because the whole idea that Quatre would kill himself was insane. It wasn’t real.
    Quatre Winner died on March 4th, 2004 (1). I don’t know the exact time. The police would rule it a simple suicide, but that was because they hadn’t known Quatre. They hadn’t been there when he had still been alive. Quatre hadn’t slit his wrists. He hadn’t jumped out in front of the train. He hadn’t laid down on the tracks. He had simply fallen backwards.
    He had surrendered to gravity and let go of everything because of what Relena had done. There was more than just that that had made Quatre kill himself, but that had been the catalyst. That was what had made up his mind. The cops called it suicide. I called it murder. Relena might as well have pushed him in front of that train.
    I stared numbly at the thick, red smear on the tracks as various employees fled like ants onto the platform, trying to make sense of the chaos and only adding to it. The train hadn’t even been going at full speed, the conductor had started to break to pull up to the platform. But that hadn’t mattered. The metal battering ram had been going fast enough to rip one, small, thirteen year old boy to pieces. The only kindness that fate did me that day as that I didn’t see the ruined wreck of Quatre’s body, or whatever had been left of it. I was rooted to the spot he had fallen from, like my knees had become a part of the red bricks and concrete I kneeled on. All I saw was that bloody streak across the tracks.
    How? I asked myself that over and over again. It’s the same question that haunts my thoughts, my dreams. How could Quatre have done that? How could he have decided to take his life? This wasn’t some rash choice he had made just from being outted, he had been thinking about this, he had known where to run to and what to do when it had happened. How long had those thoughts been going through his head? Since Trowa had stopped talking to him? Since Relena had broken his arm? Since he had realized he was gay? Since we had met?
    And how had I knot known? How had I not seen this? There had to have been something I missed, something I could have done or said to have stopped him from even thinking that that was an option! I had known that he was depressed, between dealing with being gay, the bullying at school, and his cold family life, but why hadn’t he talked to me about it?! Was I such a failure as a friend that I hadn’t seen that darkness in him, that he had rather kill himself than confide in me?
    What hurt the worst was that he had left me behind. He had abandoned me. He had betrayed me. On the day that we had met, Quatre had hooked his pinky with mine and had promised me that we would always be friends. He had promised me that we would never abandon each other and I had promised him back. We had just been stupid kids, making a big, serious promise like that, but we had kept it for four long years.
    We had always had each other’s back. Until now. Until that day at the train station. Quatre broke his promise to me. After everything, after knowing what he was abandoning me to, he had still left me behind. He had abandoned me to Relena and Zechs, to my father and mother, to loneliness, to nothingness. All without him there at my back like he had promised.
    One of the employees that had come off the train grabbed my arm to pull me away. Maybe he had been trying to shield me from staying where my friend had committed suicide or maybe he thought I was going to try to kill myself, too. I bit him savagely on the hand, hard enough to draw blood and he went away. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay there with Quatre, stay there until it was time for us to walk home together.
    He had heard my voice. He had turned around on that platform and looked me in the eye. He had smiled at me like everything was going to be fine... and then he had killed himself. He could have taken my hand and walked with me back to school and killed himself some place private later. But he had let me watch the most important person in my life become nothing more than a red, gory smear on some train tracks.
    The only person I had ever relied on, ever truly trusted, hadn’t even loved me enough to spare me that. What’s the most surprising is that it had surprised me at all. If it didn’t hurt so much, I would laugh at how stupid I am.
    The people around me were disappearing and later I would realize that the train company employees were making them leave in anticipation for the police. I heard one woman mutter to someone asking if they had seen me push Quatre off the platform. If I had been there and not floating the grey haze that I was in, I might have screamed at her or tried to hit her, but I was gone, and quickly, so was she. Someone draped a jacket over me, but I never found out who. I wonder what the statistic is for people that have gone into shock twice in two weeks. Maybe I had broken some kind of record.
    There were black spots intruding on my vision amidst the grey and white that my world had become. Those spots threatened to become black holes and swallow me alive, and I was all too happy to see me go down into them. Anywhere was better than where I was. Anywhere else was better than seeing Quatre’s very last smile or that streak of red. I kept seeing it in my head, that smile and the train colliding with his frail body. It hadn’t made a single sound. Not a thud, not a screech. Why was that so horrible to me?
    The only thing keeping me from blacking out at that point had been the fact that my body didn’t quite know if it wanted to do that more or if it wanted to vomit. I was too shocked, too horrified to even do that much. All I could do was sit there on the cool platform, staring off into space like some inanimate object. My body was saved from either option when the cops finally showed up. I write ‘finally’, but I really have no idea when that was. I could have been sitting there for no more than twenty minutes, or it could have been hours.
    There were two cops that showed up to investigate the call of a suicide. I didn’t see either of their faces. They were irrelevant to me. One of them said my name, just my first name. His voice sounded slightly familiar. I was sure that he worked with my father, but he wasn’t one of my father’s friends. All that meant was that he wasn’t going to talk to my dad about this. He placed his hand on my arm and faired better than the train employee. I didn’t feel like biting him. I didn’t feel anything anymore and didn’t even protest when he gentle grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet.
    I didn’t know what to do. I was lost and as pliable as an infant, not sure if there was something I should be doing now. What does one say or think or feel or do when they just lost their best friend? No one had ever told me, so I didn’t know. I just let the cop lead me to the one of the benches on the platform closer to the building and even sat down on it when he told me to. It seemed easier that way, letting someone else worry about me. He draped the jacket back around me. I hadn’t realized that it had fallen when I had stood up.
    His partner suddenly appeared and pressed a steaming mug into my hands. The second it touched my skin, I jolted, color returning to my vision for a moment, and I dropped it on the ground where it spilled. My hands shook and I felt a wetness on my cheeks. I heard myself apologize to him, but neither of the police officers seemed annoyed by it. I think that they had been expecting it. The other officer disappeared again and I curled my hands into fists, laying them on my lap. They thought I had dropped the mug because it had been hot, but while the heat had shocked my cold, clammy skin, it had been the smell of what the mug contained that had made me drop it. Jasmine tea. Quatre loves... loved jasmine tea. Even with my hands curled up, I couldn’t stop them from shaking.
    The familiar police officer asked me if I knew the kid that had jumped off the platform, if I knew why he had done it, what I had seen happen. I didn’t say a word. I just stared at the puddle of tea at my feet. The officer was very patient with me. I guess they had sent him because he had sensitivity training or something. Ten minutes later, his partner came back, this time with hot chocolate. I was able to hold it this time. I didn’t drink from it, my stomach hurt too much, but I liked the feeling of the painful heat in my hands. I willed that heat to travel up into the rest of me, because I felt horribly cold, colder than I had after almost getting hit by that truck.
    It was another thirty minutes before I was able to answer their questions. Little by little, I felt pieces of me returning. The grey and white were slowly replaced by dull, muted colors. I shook and felt an intense chill, but no longer felt the threat of blacking out. I loathed them for taking that away from me. I wanted to retreat from reality, not remember it.
    I told the police in a slow and flat voice that yes, I was Quatre’s friend. I told them his name and saw their surprise at his last name. I told them that I had followed him from school because he had ran and had been worried about him. I didn’t tell them about the bullying because, even in death, I would protect my best friend. I was sure that everyone would know, thanks to Relena, about what had happened at school, but not from me. No one would hear that Quatre had been gay from me.
    It was when I had to tell them what had happened there at the train station that my emotionless tone faltered and I stuttered severely. But I still told it. Quatre smiling at me while he had cried, him falling back deliberately just as the train had been slowing down, the blood, the screaming. The familiar police officer took down my statement and said something about Quatre’s parents. He asked if there was a way he could contact my mother to get me home. I guess when you watch your friend kill himself, you get a free pass to get out of the rest of the school day. Or maybe it was so late that school was over.
    I ignored him asking about my mother. I didn’t want to see her. I didn’t want to see her cold stare, how uncaring she was. I was holding on by my fingernails, through sheer force of will, and one look from her, or her outright ignoring me, would send me sailing over the edge. I didn’t want to go home, either. I didn’t want to go back to school, and I didn’t want to stay there at the train station. I wanted my best friend back, there was nothing else, and if I thought about that for too long, I was going to start crying again.
    I asked him about my father instead, not because seeing him was going to make me feel any better, but because he would at least look at me with something other than contempt or outright hatred. Anger would be fine. Boredom would be fine. I would even happily take a beating from him. At least it would make him touch me, acknowledge that I was alive. And it was what I deserved. I didn’t have a scratch on me. Quatre had died because I hadn’t been paying attention. It was my job to protect him and I had been too worried about myself to really see him. I deserved every punch my father could deliver.
    My dad was in charge of a stakeout in South Nausten, the officer said, something to do with rumors of a meth dealer hangout. He had no clue when he would be home. He said that I might be questioned again when I was feeling up to it. Even in my shocked state, I could read between the lines on that one. He thought that I was too freaked to be much help, that I might remember more details or be more reliable when I wasn’t mourning the loss of my friend. I can’t even call what I went through that day mourning, because I was trying so hard to be in denial, to just fade away. I just felt like I was dreaming the entire time. He put his hand on my forehead and flashed a penlight in my eyes for some strange reason. The officer left me to walk over to his partner and have a terse conversation with him. I heard them both say ‘hospital’ several times.
    “We can’t just drop him off at some empty house. You know procedure, he can’t be alone!” his partner suddenly snapped loudly, “Besides, I don’t want Maxwell on my ass for not taking care of his kid when he’s acting like that!”
    What was I acting like? What exactly was so awful about me that they wanted to dump me at the hospital?
    “He’s responsive,” the other officer argued, “his pupils are normal and so is his temperature for what I can tell. He’s shaken up, but if it were me, I’d get better a lot faster at home than being poked and prodded at a hospital. After what he just went through, he needs to be with his family, some place familiar, not stuck with some strangers that will just forget about him as soon as they decide he doesn’t need medical attention.”
    I didn’t need medical attention. The only thing that was hurt was my heart, and no doctor was going to fix that. I wanted to scream at them to let me go home. At least it wasn’t here. At least I couldn’t see Quatre’s blood mere feet away from me here. Why couldn’t they just let me go home?! I wasn’t going to kill myself, I felt like yelling, and there was absolutely nothing anyone could do to help me.
    “My mom is home,” was what came out of my mouth instead.     Hearing my own voice shocked me. I hadn’t thought myself capable of speech, or to sound so frighteningly normal. I didn’t feel normal. I felt crazy. That I could lie so easily, like nothing at all had happened and I was fine was disgusting.
    “She doesn’t have a car, so she can’t pick me up,” I told an ounce of truth in my cold, flat, and steady voice, “but she’s there.”    
    I wondered if they would even check. All they had to do was call my house phone or the place my mother worked at to know that she was there and not home, but when I looked at them, I knew that they wouldn’t. They wanted to get rid of me, not out of cruelty, but because the way I was was bothering them somehow. They were uncomfortable and pained just to talk to me. I imagined they weren’t looking forward to having to pay Quatre’s family a visit, either.
    The two police officers traded some kind of private, nonverbal communication with each other and I understood just enough that I wasn’t going to a hospital. That was fine. I just wanted to be alone. What I would do when I got there was too far ahead for my brain to touch on, I just needed to keep moving and not think. The familiar officer touched my arm again and helped me to my feet. I followed the two of them off the platform and through the station. It was dead. There were another couple of police officers guarding the entrance, and when we walked past, they pulled some yellow crime tape over the entrance to the platform.
    There was a small crowd of people outside, kept at bay by another couple of officers. I wondered if my father would be annoyed to have been kept out of the loop of this, if he would even know. Suicides weren’t his area, not since his promotion a long time ago. People would talk about the Winner’s only son killing himself for some time, but I doubted even then that my father would listen, or link me to it. He tended not to hear things that he didn’t care about if it didn’t involve him. The people in the crowd didn’t pay much attention to me. They were more interested in the boy that had died than the one that hadn’t. My two officers got me to their cruiser quickly and without incident.
    They dropped me off at my house in short time. People, especially in my side of town, tend to move out of the way of police cruisers whether their lights are flashing or not.
    "Hey," the familiar officer said as I got out of the car and reached his hand out to give me a card, "Give that to your father when he gets home. We'll be in touch if we need any more of your testimony," he told me and then, almost like it was an after thought, but a sincerity that wasn't forced, "I'm sorry about the loss of your friend, Duo."
    The loss of your friend. That was right. I had lost Quatre. He was gone and he was never coming back. I was never going to see him again, I was never going to eat lunch with him, I was never going to walk home with him, I was never going to talk to him. Never, never, never. He was lost from my life. I had no one.
    I couldn't handle those thoughts or that word, lost, like I had misplaced my best friend, like I had turned my back on him and he had just gone missing, that he was somewhere, trying to find his way home but couldn't, all because I had turned my back to him. Quatre had betrayed me, but I had betrayed him first. I couldn't hate him for killing himself in front of me, it was all that I deserved for not helping him, for not having his back like I had promised.
    I felt tears threaten me and knew that it was a very short distance from those tears to violently sobbing right there in front of my house, so I stiffly nodded to the police officer and walked to my front door, card in hand.
    I could feel their eyes on me as I touched the doorknob, checking to see if I had been lying about my mother being home. For a moment, I thought that they would get out of their car and escort me in, but when I opened the door without a key, they seemed satisfied and drove off. They had more important things to worry about than my state of mind or lack of, namely consoling one of the richest and more powerful families in town and figuring out if Quatre's death really had been a suicide, an accident, or if I was some kind of murderer.
    The joke was on them. The lock on our front door was broken, had been for days. It was just one of a hundred things my father needed to fix around the house but didn't have the time or the money to do so. A broken lock was a lot more important to fix than a broken water heater or the black mold in the bathroom or the leaking dishwasher, but I didn't have the money or skill to fix it and Dad had been too busy at work. He kept saying that he would get to it Saturday or Sunday, so I guess we would survive two more days with a busted door. It wasn't like anything bad had happened so far.
    Dad and I still used our keys when opening and closing the front door in case our nosey neighbors were watching, but even in South Nausten there weren't too many people stupid enough to break into a cop's home. That would be like an instant get into jail free card, or a death sentence since my father was armed. It wasn't like we had anything valuable to steal. The only people I could think of that would bother to break into our house would be those that hated my father for being a cop, or he had arrested them, their friend, or a family member, but they wouldn't exactly let a shitty, cheap lock deter them to begin with.
    My house's silence, something I often loved coming home to, was chilling. The dishes from this morning were still stacked in the sink. Thinking at they had only been there since that morning seemed unreal to me, that that small amount of time had passed. That morning, the world had made sense. That morning, Quatre had been alive. I looked at the card in my hand. It was a business card for a psychiatrist specializing in trauma. I tore it into tiny pieces and dumped the pieces in the trash can.
    I walked past the kitchen and up into the attic. I fell onto my mattress and closed my eyes. I saw the smear of blood on the tracks. I saw Quatre's smile. I saw his aquamarine eyes turn red.
    "You always have my back."
    Tears poured down my cheeks in a freaking torrent. It was like they had backed up in the time it had taken to get back home and now someone had opened a faucet in my face. I saw Quatre take a step back, his sneakers balanced precariously on the edge of the platform. I heard the rumble of the train getting closer and closer. I watched him fall.
    A powerful sob escaped my throat. I pressed my face into my pillow but it didn't help. Just like that, my very tentative control snapped and I was sobbing uncontrollably into my already tear soaked pillow. Crying doesn't really describe it, but it's the only word I have. I sobbed and cried for what seemed like hours. I couldn't stop. I threw up, again and again, or I would have if my stomach hadn't been empty. My dry heaves became so violent that I spat out blood.
    My tears and sobs wouldn't stop no matter how hard I tried to get them back under control. I remember actually frightening myself, thinking that they would never stop, that I would just cry myself to death, but I couldn't find a reason to stop crying, either. My best friend was dead and I didn't know how to deal with that.
    Sheer agony filled my chest and my head as I cried and my memories of Quatre's death played themselves out over and over and over. It was too much for me and I eagerly sought that black hole in my head that I knew was still there. When I did, I tumbled inside of it quite happily and just let that blackness, that nothingness take me.

End Part 7

    
    
    


(1) For those of you who have been actually reading this story, these dates don’t make any sense, since Duo started writing this journal on March 3rd. I decided to change the dates a bit, so Duo would actually start writing these journal entries in April, not March. I’m ignoring the problem for now because it isn’t entirely a huge deal.
    

Chapter Text

A Stagnation of Love
Chapter 3
Part 8


    I dreamed. None of it was pleasant, unsurprisingly. I suppose that anyone that had lived through the two weeks that I just had would have suffered from nightmares, too. But those dreams were nothing like the ones I had had after my run in with the truck. Back then I had dreamed about the accident, but I had dreamed things differently.
    I had dreamed that I had been too slow and the truck had hit Quatre. I had dreamed that I had failed and Quatre had died. This time I didn't need to dream anything different, I had already failed. I dreamed my memories in one big loop. In my sleep, I watched Quatre die over and over again. I watched him fall. I watched him surrender to gravity, to all of the shit in his life.
    When I finally escaped my own personal hell and woke up, it was Saturday night. A day and a half had come and gone. My eyes were nearly encrusted shut with dried tears and sweat. My face felt filthy with the stuff. I felt burning hot, the kind of heat that makes you feel like you're suffocating and my head was pounding. My bladder was so swollen and pained that it was amazing I hadn't pissed myself while I had slept. I knew my body well enough to know I was horribly dehydrated, but I felt so sick that I didn't notice my empty stomach at least.
    I felt like someone had tied my feet to someone's car and dragged me through a hot desert. I felt hollow, emotionally and physically. How many meals had I missed? How many hours? I had slept for so long, but my mental trauma and nightmares made me feel like I had been awake that whole time.
    I didn't want to leave my bed. My nightmares were terrible, but I didn't want to be part of reality. But my bladder reminded me that if I didn't go to the bathroom in the next few minutes, something terrible was going to happen, so I struggled to my feet. Pain flared in my back, but it was as meaningless to me as my empty stomach. My head felt too heavy and stuffed with cotton for pain to get through. I found the stairs in the pitch dark that was my room and stumbled downstairs and to the bathroom like I was drugged. I walked into the wall a few times.
    The house was quiet except for the sound of my father's snoring and I wondered if he had even realized that I hadn't left my bedroom at all since Friday. I wondered if he knew I was alive. Peeing at that point was both incredible and agonizing, but I managed even in my out of it state.
    I then staggered back upstairs with every intention of laying down on my mattress and escaping the world again for a very long time, but I didn't even make it that far. Dizziness struck me like a plank of wood to the face. I'm not sure if I blacked out and fell to the floor or I laid down on it, but I was gone when my head hit the hard floor not even a full foot away from my mattress.
    I woke up again Sunday afternoon. Well, I didn't so much wake up as I was woken up by my father kicking me in the side. I felt even worse than I had Saturday night. I was weak and that heat I had felt was most definitely a fever and not the weather. My bladder ached even though it was empty and I recognized the early signs of an incoming infection. My head felt so heavy that even my father's kick didn't hurt at all.
    "Get the fuck up. Andre called. You haven't shown up for any of your shifts," he snarled at me.
    Andre is my other boss. I was surprised that the hard ass hadn't called yesterday. I blinked up at my father, my tired and sick brain unable to follow what was happening with any kind of intelligence. I tried to at least sit up, but it just made me incredibly dizzy and fell back onto my side. At some point in my sleep I had ended up back on my mattress somehow. My pillow still felt damp and I wondered if it was all sweat or if I had been crying in my sleep. My eyes felt irritated so I might have. My tears seemed endless, even as dehydrated as I was.
    "I said GET UP," my dad thought I was being a smartass and was getting furious.
    He grabbed my arm, his other hand curling into a fist. I urged him, silently, to hit me until I was bloody and broken. I wanted to be mangled, just like Quatre was. I wanted to be in agony. But then he paused and actually looked at me in the light of the overhead light bulb I had helped my dad install awhile ago. He must have turned it on when he came up here.
    "You didn't touch the food I left you last night," he said with a frown, letting go of my arm," Did you eat anything yesterday?"
    I shook my head.
    "Don't want food," I muttered in a raspy voice, "Stomach hurts."
    The thought of food disgusted me and it had nothing to do with not having eaten in days or being sick.
    "When did you last eat?" he continued to question me, being patient, his usually stern and intense gaze soft and caring.
    He didn't act like that often, but he was capable of it. I didn't want him to be. I wanted him to be cruel. I wanted his hate, not his care. I struggled to answer his question. What day was it? Sunday? Had I eaten the day that Quatre had died?
    "Friday morning," I finally remembered I had eaten breakfast before school that day. Toast and jam with water.
    My father placed a hand on my forehead, feeling my obvious fever. His hand was so big and cool compared to my heated skin. It felt so good. He used to do that when I had been small. My eyes slid closed at the memory, the comfort at feeling my daddy's touch. He would put his hand on my forehead and brush back my long bangs. I would grab his hand with both of mine, loving and awed at how much bigger just one of his hands were. I heard his voice, but it only soothed me deeper into the darkness of sleep.

*****

    "Duo."
    My father's voice woke me up again no more than an hour later, but it was long enough for me to dream. That time I dreamt about being in the hospital after my dad had beaten me with that empty vodka bottle, how Quatre had cared for me, been there for me, and for his care, I had snapped at him angrily. I had said something horrible to him. And he had kept on being my friend after that. But in the dream, when I had said that terrible thing to him, I hit him. I punched him in the face over and over, until his blue-green eyes turned blood red.
    "Your stomach will feel better if you eat something," my father told me, placing a hand against my throbbing back and helping me sit up.
    The world spun a few times before it righted itself again. There was a bowl of steaming soup next to me on the floor that I assumed he had made. I smelled vegetables and chicken. Normally, it would have smelled heavenly, but at that moment it smelled revolting. My stomach wanted nothing to do with it.
    He handed me the bowl but I didn't feel the heat on my skin. I still felt cold. I didn't have a choice and some part of me knew that my father was right, I needed to eat something. I tried to drink from the bowl to see if my stomach would at least handle the broth, but my hands were shaking too badly. My dad took the bowl from me and lifted it, tilting a small amount of broth into my mouth.
    My mind decided too many minutes had passed since it had last tortured me and gleefully supplied me an image of what Quatre's body might have looked like after the train had hit him, a bloody and mangled pile of gore, his limbs broken with bones jutting out, bone chips and red guts smeared across the track. The second the broth tried to slide down my throat, my stomach protested it's presence. I turned my head and vomited on the hard floor.
    I expected my father to strike me or yell at me for throwing up, wasting food, and making a mess that he would need to clean up, but he didn't. He wiped off my face, gave me some water to drink that I had more success keeping down, and after a few minutes had passed, he tried to feed me more. I threw up again and he, with a patience and kindness that I hadn't seen from him since I had been a child, just repeated the whole process until, on the third try, I was able to keep down half a bowl of soup, including some of the vegetables and chicken, and half a bottle of water without puking.
    He laid me back down on my mattress, pulling the sheets up and over me before starting to clean up my sick and disappearing down the steps for a few minutes. With food and water in me, I actually felt like a human being again. I didn't feel like I was just floating from one nightmare to the next. Even when I had been awake, I had just felt like I was stuck in a dream. The food in my stomach woke me up from my haze, but that didn't make me happy because it made me think. Quatre was dead. That hadn't changed in my sleep, so why would I want to be awake?
    My father came back with a towel and a bottle of water, placing them next to my bed where I could reach. He put his hand on my forehead again, brushing my sweaty bangs away from my face.
    "Get some rest," he said softly, his fingers lightly stroking my hair, "and make sure you drink the entire bottle. If you're feeling better later, I'll make you more soup."
    I nodded, my eyelids starting to droop again.
    "Thanks, Dad," I rasped and felt myself start to cry again, but my tears were silent this time. I let my father think they were from my fever.
    He kissed my forehead and walked back downstairs, leaving my light on for me.
    
*****

    I slept the rest of Sunday away, waking up early Monday morning. I stayed awake just long enough to chew on some bland crackers that had magically appeared at my bedside while I had slept and guzzled down the entire bottle of water. Then, my most immediate needs taken care of, I dozed off again.
    When I opened my eyes late Monday afternoon and realized that I had just missed half of the school day, I panicked a little. Ever since missing a year of school thanks to pneumonia, I had never missed school because of sickness. The only times that I had ever skipped out of a day of school was because I was in the hospital with something broken or I physically could not get out of bed. Although, I suppose the trauma of losing the only friend you have to the point of making yourself sick counts as that.
    But at the time, all I could think of was all the classes I had missed, all the homework I was late on, how my grades were going to suffer. None of that really mattered, but I think my brain was actively trying to separate itself from everything I had seen and felt in the past three days. I struggled to my feet in my disgusting clothes that I had been wearing since Friday, my hair heavy with sweat and falling out of my ponytail, and I thought about calling Quatre, to tell him that I was sick and not to worry about me. He always worried about me. Then reality came crashing back into me and I sat down hard, like someone had shoved me. I couldn't even blame my fever. It was almost entirely gone by then.
    I felt my tears start all over again and even though I was sick to death of them and I didn't want to cry anymore, I couldn't help it. They just poured out of me like pus out of an infected wound. I didn't sob violently that time and I managed to get my tears stopped quickly, but not before my cheeks were soaked again. I stood up again, my back, legs, and headache protesting at being vertical again, but even if I had no intention of going to school that day, I couldn't stand being on that mattress anymore.
    It wasn't that I was tired of not doing anything, because I didn't care. I didn't care about anything, not sleeping, not being awake, not eating, not my aches, not my tears, nothing. Depression is worse than physical injury and I was deep in it. I just couldn't lie there and do nothing because I didn't feel like I could sleep for another second, and I didn't want to think. Also the smell of my old sweat was getting to me.
    I grabbed a fresh shirt and pair of sweatpants from my dresser. I felt dizzy from laying down for three days, but I managed to get down the stairs and into the bathroom without falling over. Neither of my parents were home and wouldn't be for a couple of hours, so I took my sweet time in the bathroom relieving myself and taking a very, very long shower. Any other day, it would have been amazing, since my dad was always yelling at me not to waste the hot water.
    I got dressed and suddenly found myself with nothing to do, or rather nothing I had the energy or care to do. Even reading didn't hold any excitement for me, so I walked into our living room and sat down in my dad's lounger. It smelled of him and very faintly of beer. I flipped on the television and tried to find the most mindless thing I could, something that I could pay attention to but wouldn't require me to think at all. I watched a nature documentary about foxes for a bit, but then it reminded me of Trowa, of him saying how much he loved animals and wanted to travel the world and I had to turn the station before my sudden anger made me throw the remote into the television set. Every talk show I found talked about runaway children or depression or bullying or something else that reminded me of Quatre.
    I eventually found a station that was having some kind of stupid action movie marathon, the kinds with lots of explosions, girls with big breasts, and muscled heroes with machine guns, but not before I felt like my heart was being ripped out of my chest. Everything I did, everything I saw, everything I heard just reminded me of Quatre and what had happened. My failure. All the things that I could have done to stop him... I felt hollow and grey, like I wasn't real. Even breathing felt difficult and I was trying as hard as I could to deny the fact of what my life was going to be like without him, but I couldn't.
    What was I without my best friend? Before him, I had been completely alone, my parents the only people in my life. Quatre had saved me from total loneliness. Being with him, being his friend had just as much made me the person I am now as my parents' influence. What little there was in my life that I enjoyed, that made me happy, it was because of him. But now he's gone. How was I supposed to live with that?
    Did I even want to? It seemed like all I had left were my memories and my hatred. Every time I felt that pain, that emptiness in me, my very first reaction was to call Quatre and tell him about it. I think, by the time my father got home, I was so horribly lonely and depressed, I would have called Quatre's number just to hear his voice again. I would have told him about how much it hurt, watching him die, how colorless everything was to me, how bland and tasteless even the food I ate was without him with me, and I would have pretended that he was listening.
    But I couldn't even do that much. Quatre had had his phone on him when that train had hit him. It was destroyed, too. His suicide had taken even that one, tiny, pathetic shred of comfort from me.
    I spent the few hours until my dad came home staring blankly at the television set and alternatively crying. I didn't cry like I had Friday again and my fits of crying seemed to come and go randomly, like my sadness and depression were waves. Every time I thought I was coping, that I could survive it, they would swell again and drag me down. Thankfully when my father walked in, it was one of my better moments. I was actually watching the new action film at that point. Watching the wanton destruction on the screen suited my mood.
    My father was always particular about his chair. Mom and I could use it when he wasn't home, but as soon as he was, we were expected to vacate it immediately. That time, he didn't say a thing or try to throw me bodily out of the chair when he came in and I was sitting in it. He sat on our old, beaten up couch that one set of my grandparents had given us and didn't so much as glare at me. If I hadn't felt so numb, it would have shocked me.
    He was already out of his work clothes, his gun and holster discarded in his bedroom. He sat there without a word and watched the movie with me. Any other day, I would have been happy. It was nice to sit there with him, just be with him without any screaming or yelling or hitting or being scared of him. He didn't even have a beer in his hand, which was rare. But I was too sad to feel happy to spend time with my father. I was too sad to feel anything else. It was just seeping into me, soaking in to every joint, every inch of me.  
    The movie finally ended right before we normally had dinner. I heard my mother come in at some point, but had quickly heard their bedroom door shut. She hadn't come out since. She had one of her headaches again. Knowing that she wouldn't come out for several hours, maybe even for the rest of the night, I started to get up, but my father beat me to it. I was finally surprised by his behavior. He hated cooking and if Mom or I weren't around to do it, he would often just get take out or heat up some leftovers. Was he being nice to me because I was sick or did he know?
    I didn't know what to think if he did know. My father could be cold and cruel and if he did know that I had just lost my best friend and had decided not to say a word about it to me hurt me. While he was certainly capable of it, I didn't think that was the case. I hadn't said a word to him or my mother about it and I didn't intend to. It seemed too personal, too close to my heart to talk about to them. I guess that sounds odd, having something so personal I could tell my parents about it, but it was true.
    They had hurt me so much, I just couldn't bear tell them. Either they wouldn't care, which I wouldn't have been able to cope with, the last coffin nail to my tentative control over myself, or they would try to comfort me, which would be worse. I was holding on by my fingernails, I didn't want comfort from two people that so seldom showed me any love at all.
    How would they understand? They didn't even know that Quatre and I had been friends. Even if my dad was aware that Quatre Winner had killed himself and I had been there to see it, he didn't know that I had just lost my best friend, my only friend in the world. He didn't know that I felt like my soul had just been ripped from my body. He didn't know that I couldn't stop crying. He didn't know that every second that I was awake, I felt like throwing up. And he certainly didn't know that the only thing I wanted to do was grab the big butcher's knife from the kitchen, bring it to school, and gut Relena Darlien with it. Right before I took it to Trowa Barton.
    The action movie marathon on the station that I was watching changed over to the news. I wasn't surprised to see that Quatre's suicide was the biggest story they had. Nausten isn't such a small town that everyone knows everyone's business or crimeless, but still, nothing super exciting happens here. A few drug busts, some thefts, nothing exceptionally newsworthy. But the thirteen year old heir to the Winner business throwing himself in front of a train was great entertainment, I suppose. Especially the gay thirteen year old heir. While I had slept my life away, word of Quatre's sexuality had already made it to the cops. His parents, if they had even tried, had been too late to pay anyone off and that juicy little tidbit was apparently public knowledge now. There wasn't any mention of Trowa, though.
    I guess my testimony, along with all of our classmates and whoever had been on that platform with us, had been enough for the police to label it a suicide. He had died instantly, the news report had said. There wasn't any footage or interviews with Quatre's family. I guess that kind of wealth could buy discretion and respect. I wondered how his sisters were handling it, if they were still going to school, hounded by their classmates.
    I felt numb watching the reporter talk about the details of the suicide and it's 'impact on the stricken community'. Ha! I bet Nausten was real stricken. No one had cared when Quatre had been miserable and bullied, but now suddenly they gave a shit that he was dead? I didn't cry. It was strange, I had been crying all day thinking of these tiny, little moments Quatre and I had had, but I couldn't cry hearing about his death.
    I turned off the television when the news report informed me that his funeral was going to be that weekend. I couldn't handle that. His funeral. Quatre's funeral. How could he possibly have a funeral? He wasn't even old enough to drive! The whole thing was so ridiculous to me and turned my stomach into a hot, upset knot.
    "Dinner's ready," my father interrupted my dark thoughts.
    I sat down at the dinner table as he served me waffles and bacon. My stomach churned at the smell of it. The syrup was too sugary, the smell of bacon too thick. I didn't want any of it. But the second I stuck a piece of waffle in my mouth, my stomach woke up and immediately got over it's nausea, reminding me that I hadn't eaten very much at all in days. I ate all of it and polished off seconds as well. I knew I was probably going to sick later, but at that moment, my stomach was pretty happy just to have something in it.
    I busied myself after dinner with cleaning my room, stripping the smelly sheets off my mattress and putting fresh ones on it and clearing away the plate of crackers and empty water bottles. When all that was done, I laid on my mattress with the light on, staring up at the ceiling. I had homework to do, I realized, but also realized that, even if I had had my school books with me, I had no intention of doing it. I just didn't care. It was the first time in my entire life that I purposively skipped doing my homework and wasn't worried to the point of fits. At some point I managed to fall asleep, but it wasn't for many hours and I dreamed heavily. My nightmares were there to stay.

*****

    I went back to school on Tuesday. I hadn't wanted to. I didn't want to face my classmates and teachers. I didn't want to see the pity and fake concern on their faces. I didn't want to see Trowa and I didn't want to see Relena. As far as I was concerned, they had killed Quatre, the two of them, and they had gotten off scott free for it. But what was I going to do about it? Kill them? I wanted to, just the thought of looking at either of them filled me with dull rage, but I knew that I wouldn't. It wouldn't bring Quatre back.
    I didn't even care if my father would be pissed off by my hanging around the house when I wasn't even sick anymore, but I had nothing else to do. Might as well go to school, I decided, because it was better than staying home and staring up at my ceiling, hating myself.
    I don't think I need to say it, but school was hell. It was the first day I had ever been surrounded by my peers without Quatre to shield me. I was unprepared for the amount of rage that was in me returning to the place that had broken the only person that had ever truly cared for me. I hated everyone. Every person that stared at me in the halls and whispered to their friends I wanted to hurt. My heart was a stone, a bleeding stone.
    My life has become a shitty, lackluster clone of how my life once was, a mockery of it. That day, when I thought about all the things I had once thought made me miserable, I wondered why I had thought them to be that bad. I sat through my first class with Mrs. Khushrenada, her voice like white noise. Quatre's desk next to mine was empty, only it wasn't his anymore. They would get some other kid to sit there maybe or it would stay empty, but it would never be his again. I could feel Relena's stare from somewhere behind me and willed her away. Even my rage at her wasn't enough to bring me out of my depressed stupor.
    I didn't take any notes and when Mrs. Khushrenada skipped over me when she handed out the homework, I didn't even notice. I felt like crying. I was a ghost. The bell rang, signaling the next period, but I didn't move. The idea of getting up and walking to my next class was nightmarish. What was I doing, just shuffling through the motions, like nothing had changed? Just like everyone else? It was like no one had noticed that Quatre had died, no one cared, and that was probably close to the truth. No one had ever cared.
    Hands touched my knees and I blinked, bewildered, at Mrs. Khushrenada. She was kneeling in front of me, looking at me with such earnest sympathy that I felt sick.
    "Oh, Duo," she said, tears in her eyes, and drew me into a hug.
    I had never been hugged by a woman before, only ever Quatre. It was strange and oddly comforting, even though I told myself that this person was not my mother, even if she felt exactly like I had always imagined being hugged by my mother would feel like as a child.
    "I am so sorry," her voice was thick and I realized that she was crying.
    I felt my own tears start to drip down my face for about the millionth time in the last four days. When she finally let go of me, she cupped my face in her hands.
    "How are you?" she asked me, looking at me with more kindness than my mother ever had.
    I wiped at my face.
    "I..."
    'I'm not doing too well, all I have are nightmares, I don't know how to handle this, I need help, why would he kill himself, how am I supposed to live with myself?'
    A thousand thoughts in my head, all clamoring for attention.
    "I'm coping," I lied.
    She smiled sadly at me and I wondered if she could see right through me, could see my tired eyes, if she could see my depression.
    "If you need to talk about it, I will always be here for you," she promised me, "If you need anything. You know that don't you?"
    I nodded half heartedly. There was nothing she could do to help me and she probably knew that. Her hands dropped to her lap and held mine in hers, giving them a gentle squeeze.
    "The principle wants to see you," Mrs. Khushrenada told me, "but you don't have to if you're not up to it. He just wants to give you your backpack back and talk to you for a little bit. You're already excused from your next class, if that's what you want."
    I shrugged. I didn't care one way or another. I might as well. At least I wouldn't run into Relena or Zechs in the principal's office.
    "I guess," I said noncommittally.
    She gave me one last, weak smile and let me on my way. I had never been in Principal Chandler's office before in my entire time at this school. I might not be the best student, but I stay out of trouble, or had before Quatre had decided to fall in front of a train. His secretary just waved me in, staring at me with this pitiful look that suddenly made me angry. When would people stop looking at me like that?
    "Ah, Mr. Maxwell," the principal greeted me as I walked in.
    I blinked at him stupidly for a second. I hadn't expected him to be so formal. I was just a 7th grader, and my dad was 'Mr. Maxwell', not me.
    "I am very sorry for your loss," he said solemnly.
    I was getting kind of tired of people saying that to me, but then he added, "Quatre was such a smart boy," and I just felt devastated all over again.
    "Thank you," I murmured uneasily.
    I suddenly felt the complete unfairness of it as I stood there in the principal's office looking at this man dressed in the nice, but probably on the cheap side, suit in my cheaper jeans and t-shirt. Quatre had been smart, rich, nice, kind... he had been everything that I wasn't. But he had died and I was alive. Where was the justice in that? I should have been the one to kill myself, not Quatre. No one would miss me, mourn me, or ever say something like 'he was such a smart boy' with any kind of sincerity like that.     
    Principal Chandler stood from his desk and handed me my backpack.
    "I believe that this belongs to you."
    I took it back without much enthusiasm.
    "If you need to talk to someone or if you are having any problems... adjusting, my door is always open," he advised me, "and you have the full support of our guidance counselor and therapist."
    "I know," I said and just wanted to get out of that office. He was a nice enough man, but I knew I would never be coming back there with any of my problems.
    "Very well, then," he said with a little frown like he wished that I had opened up to him. He probably wanted to cover his ass. I was really starting to wish that the adults at that school would stop looking at me like they were trying to assure themselves I wasn't going to slit my throat any time soon.
    On my way out of the office, out in the main hallway, I nearly bumped into a man and woman that were trying to get into the office. When I actually looked up at their faces, my heart stopped. I recognized them at a mere glance, not because I had ever met them or seen their pictures, though. It was harder to tell with the man, but I had seen the shape of his nose and mouth for four long years and I would continue to see it in my dreams. And the more that I looked at him, the more traits I could see as traits Quatre would have grown into, if he had lived to grow into them.
    I don't know exactly what I had expected Quatre's father to look like, but while he wasn't as tall as I had thought he would be, he was just as imposing as my best friend had led me to believe. My father was taller than him and would no doubt win in a fist fight, but Mr. Winner had the coldest, most intense and driven stare I had ever seen. I imagined that same man only ever interacting with Quatre to tell him that he had to get the perfect grades and go to the perfect college. I almost shuddered thinking of that cold, piercing stare directed at him. His sandy hair and brown eyes didn't make him look much like his only son, you had to really study his face to see it.
    Quatre's mother on the other hand was a completely different story. My friend had clearly gotten most of his obvious features from her. While Quatre had been handsome, Mrs. Winner was beautiful. Not gorgeous, but beautiful. Her skin was pale and perfect and I could easily imagine his smile gracing her pale, pink lips. Her blonde hair was just a few shades from white, and naturally wavy. She wore her hair in the exact same way that I did, in a low ponytail.
    She had his eyes. That made my heart ache with pain, seeing those green-blue eyes that I had thought I would never see again. Those eyes were the same shade as his had been. Those eyes had the same kindness and shyness in them. I couldn't bear to look at her.
    I felt rage simmer dangerously in me at the sight of the two of them. These were Quatre's parents, the two people in his life that were just as responsible for his death as Relena, Trowa, and myself. For all I knew, they were more responsible. I remembered all the times he had gotten locked out or forgotten or had to go home to a dark house. I remembered all of the times that he had needed them and they hadn't been there for him, every single time. And I hated them. I would have been content to slide past them and never see them again after Mr. Winner said 'excuse me' in a slightly snide way, but then his wife took a good look at me and her eyes widened in shock.
    "Oh!" she said in a near gasp, "You're that boy that saved Quatre's life."
    Bitterness consumed me, turning that dull rage into something searing hot and out of control. Of course. I wasn't Quatre's friend to these people. I was just the boy that had saved him from getting by that truck. Saved him. Ha! That was fucking hysterical. What exactly had I saved? Two weeks for him to feel agony at Trowa ignoring him and Relena destroying his life. I had saved his life so he could live just long enough to think he repulsed the boy that he loved, for me to push that same boy away from him, and for everyone in school to laugh and point fingers at him like he was some kind of monster, a freak.
    For the first time, I wished that I had never ran out into that street after Quatre. I wished that I had let that truck hit him. Wouldn't that have been kinder to him? No... if I was making a wish then I wish that I had gone out into that street and stood with him. I wished that I had let that truck hit me, too, instead of being the one left behind.
    I should have just muttered 'yeah, I'm him,' and pushed past them, or just ignored them entirely. But I didn't and looking back at it now, I regret it. At the time, I didn't feel sorry, but I did feel frightened. Of myself. I had so much anger and resentment twisted up inside of me. What amount of it that I had had before Quatre had taken his own life seemed so miniscule by comparison. I regret letting all of that hurt and rage take control of me, but I won't say that Quatre's parents hadn't deserved it. I was convinced... am convinced that if they had been better parents, if they had given him something to come home to, he might have thought twice about killing himself. Looking at them, I just couldn't understand how they had made Quatre, who had been so smart and well-behaved, feel so unloved.
    "Not well enough," I snapped bitterly at her, "He still killed himself, didn't he? I might as well have let that truck hit him for all the good I did for him. All I did was delay his death for a little while."
    Quatre's mother damning eyes went perfectly wide and began to fill with tears. His father looked irritated that my words had upset his wife, but shook that expression off easily.
    "There was nothing anyone could have done for him," Mr. Winner said sadly, "There must have been something very... very wrong with Quatre for him to have done that. He was sick and no one knew it. He didn't want anyone to help him," the man's eyes became distant and I wondered what he was thinking of.
    Was it Quatre's suicide that made him sick and hopeless to his father? His depression? Or was it the mounting rumors that his only son had been a faggot? His words had meant to soothe me or himself, but his belief that there was no way that Quatre could have been helped enraged me. What did he know about it?! He hadn't even known that there had been a problem... he hadn't even tried!
    "You don't know a single fucking thing about your own son, do you?" I said bitterly, enjoying his and his wife's horrified expression far too much, "No one knew he was sick? All you had to do was just look at him, just talk to him for one goddamned minute of your busy life to know that he was depressed! You still don't have a clue why he took his life, the real reason do you? You don't even know that Quatre and I were best friends," I felt hot tears drip down my face, my breath hitching in my throat, but I still couldn't stop myself, "You were NEVER there for him! He had to talk to me about being gay and feeling lonely because he had to go home to an empty house every fucking day, because he never saw his parents anymore!
    "You never gave him just one single moment of your lives, you love your jobs more than you loved him! What do you think he felt when he realized that, happy?! Even his sisters didn't talk to him most of the time! When he realized he was... he was different, he was frightened, he needed you to tell him it was ok, not be worried that his own parents would love him less than they already did if he said anything.
    "If you had just spoken to him once this week, or bothered to visit him in the hospital after he broke his goddamned arm, you would have seen that he needed help," I glared at Quatre's father with the full weight of my rage although I was terrible out of breath and drained at that point and I wondered if I was really yelling at the couple in front of me or myself, "You might as well have killed him yourself," I hissed at him through my pants.
    For a moment, the bastard's face went white as a sheet, then what I, a mere, thin, thirteen year old boy wearing thrift store jeans and dark circles under his eyes, was daring to say to him really filtered into his brain and he turned bright red with rage. We were a matching set. In that rage, I saw his love for his dead son and the enormity of his grief. He hadn't shown Quatre that love enough, but that didn't mean that he hadn't felt it.
    Seemingly incapable of words, he raised his hand to strike me in his anger at my audacity. I willed him to do it. I wanted that man to strike me more than I had ever wanted my father to, because this was Quatre's dad, and as much as I hated him, I had had my own role in his son's death.
    But he didn't. Something deflated his anger and temporary insanity, making him lower his hand. Maybe it was my own, naked grief. Maybe he saw the truth beyond my enraged ranting. Or maybe he had just had second thoughts about striking a crying thirteen year old.
    "Duo," I heard the principal say from behind me and turned to look at him. I thought that I was in trouble for causing such a scene, but it was Mr. Winner that he was glaring cautiously at. I guess Principal Chandler didn't like adults almost hitting students in his office right in front of him, "Why don't you go to recess?"
    It wasn't anywhere near time for seventh grade recess, but I could take a hint. I was in no shape for classes and he was giving me a free pass. I took it, squeezing past the Winners.
    I took one look back at Mrs. Winner, and I will never, ever forget how she looked just then. She was stricken. Stricken with fear and horror and absolute grief. If her husband had refused to believe what I had screamed at him, she definitely hadn't. She had taken my poison filled words into her heart. I wonder, even now, what it was that had scared her so badly that day, the truth in my words, or me.
    I might hate the Winner family for never treating Quatre right or loving him enough, and for letting all those bad feelings and secrets weigh him down to his death over the years, but they truly suffered from his death, more than I had ever, childishly, thought that they would. I had heard that a few of his sisters missed a whole week of school while another dropped out. Lily ran away from home a week after Quatre's funeral.
    And Quatre's mother... she killed herself two weeks after Quatre had after swallowing two whole bottles of antidepressants. I heard from one person that Lily had found her in the bathtub that she had died in, and another that it was her husband, not that it makes a difference. I never found out if she had overdosed from the meds themselves or if she had drowned, there was so much misleading gossip about it.
    A week after Mrs. Winner had committed suicide and two weeks after Lily had gone missing, Mr. Winner sold his entire business and he and what remained of his children left Nausten. I wonder if its that easy to leave behind bad memories. I don't think it is. I had killed Quatre, then I had killed his mother and destroyed his family.
    My mother was right. I never should have been born.

*****

    I walked out to the playground, past it, into the little patch of woods that Quatre and I always went to when we went out to recess together. I found our swings and sat down in mine. I stared at his like if I looked at it hard enough, looked at it without blinking until my ears teared up and my vision became blurry, I could make him appear there. I could actually see it in my head, him sitting there, swinging lightly as he talked to me about something, a book he had read, Trowa, anything he could think about, smiling that smile of his.
    "I miss you," I said out loud.
    Sadness squeezed at my chest. I did miss him. I felt so alone, so... bereft. I don't have the right words for how it makes me feel still. But I missed him, I missed having someone to talk to.
    "I wish you could tell me why," I whispered, "Why you did it, why you didn't just stop and talk to me, talk to someone. Why, Quatre?! Why did you have to give up and leave me behind?"
    I felt angry all of a sudden, angry at him, angry at his parents, angry at myself most of all. He knew how much I needed him, and he had looked me in the eye and ended it all. Sitting next to me on the swing, Quatre smiled at me sadly and reached out and touched my arm. My memories painted the feathery touch of his fingers on my skin and I shuddered. I had to close my eyes. It was too easy to imagine him there, to imagine that he was real.
    Both recess blocks came and went as I was sitting there, but no one bothered me, not even Relena. I saw her from where I was, talking with a huddle of girls, including Dorothy, all of them laughing, smiling, and nodding to what she was saying. Relena herself had a sweet little smile on her face. I wanted to cut her face off. Did she feel anything about the fact that Quatre was dead thanks to her cruelty? Guilt? Loss? Regret? I didn't think she was careful of feeling any sort of human emotion besides rage and pettiness. She should be the one with a funeral scheduled in five days, the one with parents and siblings grieving over her.
    I waited for all of my classmates to walk into the building when the bell rang before getting off my swing. I stared at Quatre's swing one last time. I remembered when we had put them up, how nice it was to have something of our own that we had made ourselves. I touched the rope that his was hanging by. I remembered hanging it and tying it for him, because he was scared of climbing trees.
    I used the trunk of the tree for momentum and hoisted myself up on the branch. It was still sturdy and took my weight easily. I took my time untying the knots that felt like I had only tied them a few days ago. His swing crumpled to the ground and I jumped down after it. I was careful gathering the rope and folding it all up before putting it safely in my backpack. I didn't plan on ever going back to that place and I just couldn't leave it behind. I had no reason to visit those swings again.
    I was willing to sit through the rest of my classes, even gym, through my recent haze, but instead got pulled into an assembly for two of my blocks. It wasn't just my grade, either, but all of the students got pulled from their classes. Principal Chandler stood center stage in our auditorium and talked about depression, suicide, Quatre, and a whole bunch things that I'm sure principals are required to talk about when one of their students decides to end their life, no matter the reason why. I could feel some people staring at where I was sitting during the assembly.
    I left halfway through it, when one student in the lower grades asked if they were going to make a monument to Quatre, like the two plaques we had out front dedicated to students who had died in car wrecks or to cancer. Principal Chandler had informed her that it was under discussion with the school committee, but I knew that that just meant that they were going to bury the whole issue. They didn't give kids that killed themselves memorials, it kind of sends the wrong message. I just couldn't take it anymore after that, that entire day, having to be reminded of my best friend every second.
    I didn't go to my last class, gym, and I skipped my swimming class, too. I seriously doubted that I would be missed. I was scared to cross the street where we had almost gotten killed by that truck, partially because it still frightened me to think about it sometimes, but I was also afraid of what I might do if I walked across that street on that day. I just went home and laid down on our shitty couch, thinking about the equally shitty emptiness in my stomach.

*****

    During one of our many failed and useless sessions, the school therapist told me that a loss like the one that I was facing never really goes away, that it will always hurt and make me sad, but that time would make that hurt less and less. Every day, she said, it would hurt me a little less. But that wasn't true. A month since Quatre's death and it still hurts just as much as that first day back at school, staring at his empty swing and imagining his empty touch. It hasn't gotten any better, not a centimeter of the empty hole in my heart has gotten any smaller or been filled by a single thing. A few days certainly hadn't made a damned difference.
    By that Friday, nothing had gotten any better. Every day, both at school and at home, was a nightmare. Every second, I longed to see and talk to Quatre, and every second my depression grew like some sort of movie monster inside of me. With Quatre gone, nothing was the same. Everything seemed a bit blander, a bit more colorless, and nothing anyone did pulled me out of the downward spiral I was in.
    Even my favorite books and favorite foods couldn't make me happy. My appetite and sleep habits never recovered. I slept in two to three hour bursts, my nightmares always wrestling me out of a deep sleep, and I ate like a bird. When everything tastes like cardboard and sand in your mouth, you stop having any enthusiasm for what you're chewing on. I ate because my body needed it and I couldn't get very much skinnier, but I had no interest in food anymore.
    School didn't get any easier, either. All the things that had been important to me before; grades, literature, writing, spelling, not making an ass of myself or letting other people know how stupid I was, they didn't matter to me anymore. I hated everything in my daily life, especially my classmates and their petty, pointless lives. I thought about running away like Quatre had dreamed of doing. I thought about dropping out of school. I thought about putting my father's gun to my temple and pulling the trigger. I thought about that one a lot. But I didn't do any of it.
    I stared to focus during class and do my homework again on Wednesday. I didn't know why. It wasn't like I had woken up out of my haze of sadness and bitterness, and it wasn't like I suddenly cared about school again, either, but I put the effort in for some reason. Maybe it was because Quatre had always been so adamant about not giving up on my education or maybe it was just because I needed something to do beyond feeling miserable all of the time.
    I never returned to my swimming lessons, though. Surprisingly, I never got into trouble for that. I think that all of my teachers, especially Mrs. Khushrenada, were relieved I was doing my work and I hadn't just faded away at that point, that I was turning my homework in without any of them having to talk to me and deal with me personally. Half of my teachers didn't seem capable of handling me the way that I was, some because of the effort that would take, others because they just couldn't handle a depressed kid without crying themselves.
    The other half were like Mrs. Khushrenada and took my consistent homework as a sign that I was getting through this. They would probably be a bit alarmed if they knew just how often I thought about blowing my brains out when I got home in their classes.
    I didn't want Saturday to arrive. I didn't have work that day, and for the very first time, I wished that I did. I wanted something to take my mind off what day it was and washing dishes and folding pizza boxes was the best I had besides my meager homework. I wished that I had classes to go to or some chores that my father wanted me to do, but there was nothing. Saturday was Quatre's funeral.
    I had decided, the very second that I had heard about it, that I didn't care if I got an invitation to it, I wasn't going to go. I couldn't bear just the thought of sitting amongst Quatre's family members and listening to someone who had never even known him talk about him. I didn't want to look at the empty casket because there hadn't been enough whole parts of him left to bury or have those people look at me with that disgusting mix of pity and curiosity. I especially didn't want to see Quatre's parents again. Still, I felt angry that they hadn't even tried to ask if I would go. I didn't know if they were being petty or they hadn't believed me when I had said that I had been his best friend.
    I was on my way out of school on that Friday, distracted thinking about how I was going to spend my weekend, the very first weekend I would spend without my friend, when I heard Relena's voice for the first time in a week. She had completely ignored me since Quatre had died. I didn't know what to think about it. Was she going to leave me alone from now on, and if she did, why? Because Quatre was dead? Because it wasn't as entertaining, to just pick on me? Because she didn't think it would effect me anymore? Because she actually felt guilt over Quatre's death?
    Or was she content, just for the meantime, with the damage that she had done? Or was I just so low on her radar at the moment? And did I even want her to stop tormenting me? Did I want Quatre's death to be the thing that, after all this time hoping and dreaming of, ended her bullying me? How could I possibly deserve this peace and quiet when Quatre never had, when her torment was exactly what I deserved? I didn't know, but the sound of her voice just then had the same effect to me as nails raking a chalkboard.
    "Oh, of course I'm going!"
    My hair stood on end and goosebumps raised on my skin from the mere sound of her voice. A part of me wanted to run from it as fast I could, the old, instinctive part of me that was frightened of her, but it was the part of me that was filled with rage and bitterness and loathing for her that I listened to. I walked towards that hateful sound, around the corner of the hallway until I could see her, the twisted, fucked up nucleus surrounded by Dorothy and her other 'friends', but I was far enough away that she didn't notice me yet.
    "Mr. Winner asked me, personally, to come to Quatre's funeral," she was saying with a repulsive mix of fake somberness and self-importance, flicking her hair over her shoulder, a gesture I saw her do a lot when she was being social, "After all, Quatre and I knew each other since we were kids. I want to pay my respects to one of my dearest friends," she said with what sounded like deep sadness.
    If I didn't know her so well, it would have actually sounded sincere. The group following her every word certainly fell for it.
    "It's just so terrible!" a redheaded girl I had seen hanging out with Relena and Dorothy before but didn't know anything about placed her hand on Relena's arm in what was a soothing gesture, "I am so sorry you had to go through that, Relena. I still can't believe he killed himself like that!"
    "Yes, it was devastating," she said and there were actually crocodile tears in her eyes, "I always knew that Quatre was... troubled, his kind always are. I mean, a person would have to be troubled to like someone of the same sex and Quatre was obviously no different. But I never thought that he would do something so... so horrible as take his own life just because he was ashamed of his own choices in life!
    "I certainly hope that little prank didn't make things worse for him. I'm sure that the person that did it had the best intentions and just wanted get him to open his eyes and see how his... his sickness was hurting his friends! I just wish that he would have come to me and told me about his problems. I'm sure that I could have helped him find a way to cure his affliction or at least find some professional help."
    I don't know when I started to walk towards her, but suddenly I was mere feet away. Her back was to me, so she didn't see me approach, but the girls in front of her did, including Dorothy. The other girls shrank away at something that they saw on my face, perhaps my insanity or my cold, detachedness. Dorothy looked frightened herself. She could handle my anger with the same disdain that Relena always had for it, but I wasn't angry. I was beyond that. I felt a clear purpose, not rage. My heart was cold and hollow. I felt blank of humanity.
    "Relena-" Dorothy tried, in vain, to warn her best friend.
    Relena turned to see what the problem was, just in time for my fist to connect with the side of her face. She fell backwards on her ass and looked up at me with absolute shock and horror. It was the most reaction I had ever gotten from her before and it should have made me feel good, to look down at her like that, to actually have her beneath me for once, but I didn't even feel that much. I felt no satisfaction towards her fear of me at all. Her lip was split where I had hit her and blood slowly tracked down her chin. A drop of it fell on her perfectly white shirt. Watching it spread across the pristine fabric was fascinating. Her friends screamed and a few actually ran away while others stared at me with the expression that she had. I guess they thought I might hit them, too. I was considering it.
    "You're so repulsive," I said with a cold smirk, my father's voice... Relena's voice coming from out of my mouth, "The world would be a better place if you had died instead of Quatre. Why don't you just kill yourself like he did and see how many people mourn over you, just how many people won't give a single solid shit that the mighty Relena Darlien is dead? Why don't you try and see how little you're really worth?"
    She brought a shaking hand to her face, touching the bruise that was already starting to form there. I looked down at her with contempt and disgust. I thought, if only for a moment, I saw tears forming in her pale eyes, but that might have just been in my imagination. I turned and walked away from the group of my classmates, down the hallway, and out the door. I walked all the way home and it wouldn't be for days later that I felt any sort of regret about what I had done, or any fear of what I was capable of.
    I walked into my kitchen to find my mother getting through a bottle of vodka and reading a battered book. Her eyes were completely red and the bottle was half empty already. She had obviously been at it for awhile. I threw my book bag down on the kitchen floor, the books making a loud slamming sound that jolted her out of her stupor. She glared at me with red hot contempt and anger.
    "What the hell are you doing home?" she snarled at me in a badly slurring voice, heavily drunk, instead of looking through me like she so often did. She was in a foul mood. Good, so was I, "Shouldn't you be in school?!"
    I felt disgust seeing how incredibly drunk she was at that hour. This was my mother, I thought, the woman that had given birth to me, falling into a bottle because she wasn't good for a single other thing. She didn't even know what time it was.
    "Not that it matters," she laughed harshly and in the past, that disdainful laugh would have cut through me like a knife, but I didn't have enough of a heart left to cut anymore. It was all just scar tissue, "I bet your teachers won't even know you're gone with the grades you bring home," she laughed drunkenly again and took a long swig of her bottle, "You're beyond useless, aren't you?" her head slumped almost to the table as her glazed eyes stared at the liquid in the bottle, "Can't even... can't even... get through school... what the fuck is even the point of you going? Like anything useful is ever going to stay in that shit brain of yours... just a waste of everyone's time, that's what you are-"
    I slammed my hands down on the table in front of her, startling her into almost spilling her vodka, but I grabbed the bottle from her and put it down on the counter next to me with the same force that I had hit the table with my palms. It was a wonder that the bottle hadn't broken. She looked up at me with the same horrified, frightened expression that Relena had. She thought I was going to hit her, I realized, just like him. She was expecting it out of me. What did she see when she looked at me, I wondered. Did she see him, the him that she had had sex with in high school, the him that she had loved once, or how he was now, a loser that liked to hit her?
    "My best friend died last week," I told her with a steady calmness that would have frightened even Quatre if he had ever heard me speak like that. There was no emotion at all in my tone, just icy coldness. I bet that's what sociopaths sound like when they aren't trying to manipulate someone or pretend to be normal, "You don't even know who that is, do you?"
    She didn't answer me. She just kept looking up at me like I was some kind of wild animal.
    "You're so pathetic," I sneered at her, sounding horribly like my father, like I was channeling him, "Nothing more than a drunk and you call me useless. You won't even remember any of this tomorrow morning. You'll just drink it all away, your entire life, just a bad, alcohol filled dream. All you can think about is yourself, you know that? Did it ever occur to you for one second of your pointless life that I don't want to be here with you anymore than you want me in your life? You didn't do me any favors by bringing me into this world," I swiped my long, wild bangs out of my eyes and felt a wetness on my cheeks that I hadn't realized was there, "I just want to be with Quatre," I felt my coldness crack along with my voice as grief suddenly filled every hole I had in my heart, every bit of emptiness.
    I strode to the refrigerator, opened the freezer door so hard that it slammed into the wall and grabbed the bit of birthday cake that Quatre had made me that I had never eaten. I turned back and snagged the bottle of vodka, too. My mother was looking at me with complete fear and pain, tears as silent and unknown as mine tracking down her flushed face.
    I had hurt her and I didn't care. Why should I give a shit when she had never cared about hurting me?


End Part 8

Author's Note: This was meant to be the last part of Chapter 3, but it ran a little too long (over 50 pages), so I decided to break it in half. The next part will definitely be the end of this chapter and then we will be entering another time jump. I will be taking a short break after I post the next part to get my notes for Chapter 4 together.

    


Chapter Text

A Stagnation of Love
Chapter 3
Part 9




    It took me hours to walk to the train station, not because it was far from my house, which it wasn't, but because by the time I could hear the sound of the trains and see the building in the distance, I was shaking so badly that I had to sit down on a nearby bench. My stomach coiled at the mere thought of where I was going and every time I heard one of the trains go by, I thought I was going to vomit. It had been happening ever since that day, every time I saw or heard a train. I just remembered what Quatre did and felt sick. My hands would shake and my vision would become fuzzy. It was pathetic.
    Wednesday night, I was jolted away by the sound of one of the trains going by South Nausten. It was a sound that I had lived with all of my life. Because of the factories, South Nausten had it's own train yard, but only workers could enter the yard since it was all cargo freight and incoming building materials for the construction companies. The trains themselves had a different sound to them than the ones that carried passengers to the Central Nausten train yard. It was that fact alone, that the train I was hearing was a cargo train and not one of the passenger trains that had killed Quatre, that let my heart slow down enough to fall back asleep that night.
    I didn't want to go back to the train yard. I didn't want to go there and remember. But I had to. I needed to talk to him. I needed to see him, and if there was anywhere in town where I could do that, it was at the place that he had died. I felt just as much of a pull to that place as I felt a repulsion.
    Looking back on it now, it's amazing that I didn't run into a cop or some other adult concerned with a teenager walking around carrying a bottle of vodka, but I got to Central Nausten without anyone trying to apprehend me or steal the alcohol. When I got there, I dug through a trashcan and found a paper bag and used it to carry the bottle and cake.
    The Central Nausten train station was always open. There had been a huge stink about that a few years ago, all about workers' rights and the cost of keeping the trains running all day and night, but since a few of the train lines went to the bigger cities in our state, hours away, and the stations they went to kept late hours and a few of them were twenty-four hour stations like ours. Our town was a perfect lay over for people traveling through the state and the revenue the train station and local businesses did with the people passing through was greater than the pain in the ass of keeping it staffed in the early hours of the morning, I guess.
    The train station kept a skeleton crew past ten pm and even before then, the station didn't exactly crawl with security guards and staff. There was only one guard stationed at a time and he or she mostly just patrolled the inside of the station and platforms for people breaking safety codes or bums trying to steal from the vendors. Beyond that, no one really paid attention to anyone else. If you were quiet and not doing anything illegal, you were practically a ghost. Certainly no one paid attention to a scrawny teenager passing through the station. I guess in a bigger city, someone would have checked my paper bag for a bomb or gun or knife or something else dangerous, but not in Nausten. We had never had a bomb threat or a school shooting in our entire history.
    Just thinking about walking out onto one of the platforms, not even the one that I had watched Quatre die from, sent me to the men's room to puke up my lunch. I felt so pathetic sitting there on the bathroom floor, clutching to the dirty toilet like a lifeline. This should be this hard, I thought, but it was. I was surrounded by that day, the worst day of my life, the day from all of my nightmares. Every sight and sound of that station had me trembling like a baby and I felt like I was going to start screaming at any minute. Only my stubbornness, determination, and love for Quatre kept me from leaving.
    I couldn't make myself go out onto that platform, though. I tried as hard as I could, but my legs froze and I couldn't make them move when I tried. All I got for my efforts was an upset stomach, headache, and blurry vision. I was sick of fighting myself, of feeling so frightened just by a place, so I went out to a different platform. It was the next one down from the one I had chased Quatre to, for a south bound train that went to some small resort town named Havensforth. All I knew was that the place had two big lakes that drew in a lot of tourists looking to hunt and fish. There was no one out on the platform and I doubted that it would see much traffic, even on a Saturday. March wasn't exactly tourist season.
    It wasn't nearly time yet, so I sat down on the bench, placing my bag next to me. I hadn't planned on going there so early, but really, where else did I have to go? What did I have left in my life that mattered at all? Why not just sit there on that bench and pass the hours away? It wasn't like anyone would be worried about me. By late that night, my mother would have forgotten what I had said to her, if she hadn't forgotten already, and my father would just be furious that I hadn't gone to work. I doubted that he would be worried, even if I had never run out like that before, and I doubted even more that he would come looking for me.
    I passed the time sitting on that bench watching the people and trains pass me by. No one stopped to talk to me or even look at me funny. It got dark pretty fast and the platform became lit up by some old fashioned styled lanterns that actually made the area look quaint and pretty. It helped me to relax and forget where I was for some reason, maybe because that time of day had finally passed me by, or maybe just because the darkness made the platform look so different, but I eventually stopped shaking and feeling sick. I could barely even see the tracks in the dark.
    I got hungry right around the time I would have come home for dinner after work if I had gone. Not surprising since all I had had for lunch was a salad, a roll, and water, and I had recently thrown that up. There wasn't anyone to buy me lunches anymore and I hadn't had much money to buy more than that. I tried to ignore my hunger, but I had absolutely nothing to distract myself with. I was beginning to wish that I had brought my backpack with me so I could have one of my textbooks to read.
    The vendors were nearly closing up shop by the time that I decided it would probably be a good idea to eat something. I bought a plain bagel from one of the cheaper vendors with the last two dollars that I had, telling myself that it was ok to waste money on a small meal. It wasn't like I was going to need those two dollars. The bagel was slightly stale and I hadn't had the time, or the real ability to care, to toast and butter it before I ate it, but it was something in my stomach at least.
    I slept at the station that night. When that stupid idea had entered my head Thursday during school, I hadn't really planned on camping out at the station like that, but dealing with Relena and my mother had driven me there for some reason. It was just as well. The station was just as good a place to spend the night as my bedroom. When I finally started to feel sleepy, I laid down on the bench and draped my jacket over me like a blanket. It wasn't too cold out, but it was windy. I tried not to think about the fact that it was the jacket that Quatre had given to me for my birthday.
    Ironically, for the first time since he had died, I didn't have nightmares about Quatre's suicide. My dreams weren't exactly pleasant. I was sitting on the bench, watching the trains go by and Quatre was sitting on the bench next to me, whole and alive, not a speck of blood on him, drinking from a hot thermos of tea. I could smell the jasmine so strongly, even in my dream.
    I kept trying to talk to him, to apologize for letting him down, but he was angry at me for letting him die and refused to speak to me. It wasn't a happy dream, but it wasn't a bad one, either. Even if he was mad at me, blaming me, it felt so good being there with him, feeling his presence at my side again. I didn't want to wake up from it, but I did when an early morning train passed by where I had been sleeping.
    I felt wide awake immediately, my stomach demanding attention that it wasn't going to get. I sat up, put my jacket back on, and looked at the station clock. It was nine-thirty. I had almost missed my time. I must have slept deeply and well to have slept that late. That was good. At least I had had a nice sleep for once for this.
    I grabbed my bag and jumped down from the platform onto the tracks. I wasn't worried about getting accidentally hit by a train, I would be able to hear one coming long before I would be in any danger, and I also knew that the train that had woken me up was the same line that had killed Quatre. It would be another hour before the next one came down that rail.
    I walk down the tracks until I got to the right spot. They had cleaned off all of the blood and gore very thoroughly, but I still found the spot with ease. Streaks of blood or not, I dreamed about that place every night. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw that stretch of track. There wasn't a single person on the platform, which was another point in my favor. The platform was high up, but I still would get spotted and trying to explain why I was walking along the tracks would just make me sound crazy. I was... am crazy, but that doesn't mean that I wanted other people to know it.
    I found the right place, the exact spot where Quatre had fallen, the place where he had ended his life, and sat down there on the tracks. The metal and gravel were cold, but the knowledge of where it was that I was sitting, chilled me a hell of a lot more. If there was any truth to people having souls, was a piece of Quatre's still there on the tracks where his body had been pulverized? Was he haunting that stretch of track somehow, or had he moved on like so many people believe our souls do when we die? Was Quatre in Heaven, that 'better place' I heard about so much? Was he happy there, had he found the peace he had never found here? Or was he in Hell for taking his own life? Or was all of it just a big crock of horse shit?
    I sat there on the tracks and tried to feel some glimmer, some faint spark of the person that had once been my best friend. His warmth, his smile, his kindness, his fears, his insecurities. I tried to feel Quatre, but all I felt was the cold and wind, the gray sky above me that was threatening rain but wouldn't deliver until the following day and the even grayer gravel that I was sitting on. I felt empty and alone there. I didn't feel any souls, anything human besides myself. I certainly didn't feel God as I sat where my friend had died.
    I felt this sudden perverse, bitter urge to pray and ask God or whoever else might be listening what the point had been of Quatre's life, sadness and suffering, the pain he had felt that had led him to believe that death was the best answer for him. I wanted to ask why someone as kind as Quatre had been made to go through Hell while people like Relena and Zechs got to walk through life without a scratch. I wanted to ask if He really did hate fags, if He hated me and that was why my only friend was gone but I had been left behind. I wanted to ask Him why I had been born.
    But I didn't pray. Because I was afraid of what the answer would be just as much as I was afraid that there wasn't going to be any answer at all. I had never been much for religion. I guess I'm just too much of a realist, I believe what I see and feel, and I have never seen or felt any proof that someone was watching over me. If some deity had made this world, that was great, but what did They have to do with me was how I thought about it. If there was a God, then He was just like my parents. He had created me, given me life, put me on this planet, but He didn't love or care for me any more than my mother or father did.
    I wasn't one of those pathetic people that expected that, as long as I worshipped a God and praised Them and followed Their rules, then They would solve all of my problems, but if God was real and supposed to love me like how people said that my parents were supposed to love me, why did He stay silent while my father beat me, my mother ignored me when all I wanted from her was a shred of affection, and Relena made me feel like shit?
    I wasn't looking to be led around by the hand by some all powerful being, I had always been rather independent and I could take care of myself, but all I wanted from God was some notion of comfort and understanding, to know that things would work out one day and that I had a shot at being loved by someone. Instead, He had taken my best friend from me, the one person in my life taht I had dared to depend on. What was the point of faith if it gave me no comfort or confidence, but only bitterness and the feeling that I had been abandoned? Hell, I got that at home and at school all the time. I didn't need a god to add to it.
    I hadn't really thought all that much about an afterlife, either. I couldn't stop from dying and whatever would happen was going to, regardless of my faith. But ever since Quatre had died, I had been thinking about it constantly, what would happen to me after all the shitty mistakes that I had made and where Quatre might be. I guess it still doesn't make a difference, but it still consumed me, especially the idea that he was still there.
    I thought about it all the time, that when I died, I could see him again. It was a deadly thought, full of stupid hope, and only made my life more unbearable. If there was no after life, then my loneliness didn't matter. But what if there was and Quatre was there, waiting for me? What if I could see him, be with him like before? Then what was I still doing here? Maybe this was limbo, a perpetual train station and I'm there, still on that platform.
    Maybe I'm meant to get on that train, like Quatre did, but I'm too scared to and I just keep waiting for a different train that will never arrive for me, while Quatre got off his train and is wondering why I'm taking so long. I guess it was thoughts like those that got me to decide to go to the train station that day when Quatre's family were burying an empty box and pretending that they were burying him.
    "Quatre," I said out loud and waited, listening for some kind of answer.
    There was only silence. My friend wasn't there, he never had been. I felt a deep emptiness in my heart. I felt it so strongly then, that I was the ghost, the one that was dead, and Quatre was the one alive somewhere else, on some other plane, while I haunted this place and everyone else as they waited for me to vanish and leave them in peace.
    I took the cake out of the bag and placed it next to me, then I took out the vodka bottle. When this idea had originally came to me, I had planned to steal a bottle of wine from my parents if they had had any left. Wasn't wine what you were supposed to drink when you were celebrating or remembering someone, to honor them? That's how it was in the movies anyway. I wasn't even sure what I was drinking to, Quatre's spirit, my grief, his life, or the end of everything I had once known. One was as good as any.
    I unscrewed the cap on the vodka bottle, took a sniff of the contents, and immediately wrinkled my nose. I was well accustomed to the heavy, unwanted stench of alcohol, but the knowledge that I was about to dump that poison in my body made that smell all the more revolting. Honestly, it scared me a little. It had frightened me all of my life seeing what alcohol did to my parents. They weren't exactly great people when they were sober, but when they were drunk, they became monsters.
    How could I ever want to drink that shit when it was the reason for my father breaking my arm when I hadn't done anything wrong or for the horrible things that my mother said to me when she usually just ignored me? I had promised myself, long ago as a child, that I would never drink a single drop of the stuff, but I told myself then as I lifted the bottle to my lips that it was ok, it wasn't like I was going to live with it. I would never become my father.
    I took three huge gulps from the bottle, like I was drinking soda or water instead of liquor, which in retrospect had not been a smart idea but I hadn't known what to expect. I had thought that I would just drink a bit of it quickly and that would be that. I was not expecting the complete lack of flavor from the vodka, or the intense burn as it shot down my throat. It was the most horrible thing I had ever tasted in my entire life, worse than cherry cough syrup any day. I immediately gagged and almost threw up the lot of it. I coughed and my eyes watered at the burning sensation that I had nothing to equate to.
    I wiped at my lips, still gagging and stared at the bottle incredulously. Why the hell would anyone want to drink that shit, especially my parents?! What was so great about that that they drank it like it was goddamned water?! I put the bottle down in repulsion and seriously considered just forcing myself to throw it up. If I had known that it was going to burn out my throat like that, I wouldn't have even bothered taking it from my mother.
    But then, as I sat there, that burning feeling eased off. It didn't disappear entirely, but left a strange warmth that actually felt kind of good. The longer I sat there, the warmer that I felt. I kind of felt like I did when I was really tired, like my thoughts weren't as sharp and the cold air wasn't bothering me as much. I didn't feel great and there was still that awful non-taste in my mouth, but I found that I didn't really care about that anymore. When it came to me that I had been too focused on analyzing what the alcohol was doing to me that I had forgotten to check my time, even that didn't bother me as much as it should have.
    10:03 am, I read on the station clock. Quatre's funeral had already started, I realized. I took another swig from the vodka bottle, a much smaller one, and this time it didn't taste quite as bad, but it was still horrible to me. If I had had any plans on leaving the station that morning, I would have assured myself that I was never going to touch that shit ever again, but it wasn't something that I had thought I needed to worry about again.
    I poured the rest of the vodka onto the tracks. I had seen it in a movie once, someone pouring liquor on someone's grave like they could taste it. I didn't think that Quatre would appreciate me giving him vodka to drink, he would have rather I had poured tea or chai onto his grave, but it was the gesture, wasn't it? I took the lid off the container that my cake was in and looked at it for a moment. I didn't want to eat it. I didn't want to get rid of one of the only things I had of Quatre, but I did. I couldn't hold on to it forever. It was dry from having been in the freezer for so long, but it was still the most delicious thing I had eaten all week.
    "I wish you were here," I said out loud, my voice tight and my heart heavy, "You should be here, not... Why did you leave me?" my voice cracked and I felt myself being pulled down by a wave of guilt and sadness, "I'm sorry," I whispered, "I am so sorry... I let you down and I promised that I never would... How could I have done that? You were all that mattered to me... our friendship was the only actual important thing in my life, so why wasn't it enough for me to keep?" I rubbed tiredly at my eyes which were dryer than they should have been, "I loved you, Quatre. I still love you. Maybe... maybe it wasn't the kind of love you were looking for, the kind you had for Trowa, and maybe it wasn't as good as the love your father should have had for you, but why couldn't it have been enough? I would have stayed with you forever. No matter what Relena said or did, I would have stayed."
    I wanted to cry. I wanted to just pour out my heart and all of the poison that was festering away inside of it. I think that, if I had been able to cry in that moment, I might have had a small of chance of letting go of all that hatred and bitterness and sadness. But I couldn't. For the first time since Quatre had died, even though I wanted to so badly, I couldn't cry. My tears had completely run out.     
    I could blame it on the alcohol, or at the wave of anger that accompanied my sadness, my equal anger at myself and Quatre, but I knew that it wasn't that. It was something else, something worse. I felt like the parts of me that were human, the parts that I had been with Quatre, the parts that were still a child, were dying and all I was anymore was something ugly. Something that was incapable of crying.
    I stumbled to my feet, the world around me spinning for a second, and I, enraged, threw the vodka bottle as far as I could against the metal tracks. It exploded in a cloud of glass, the sound as angry as if I had screamed just then. I was lucky, as violent as my throw had been, that one of the glass shards hadn't cut me. I felt violently sick between the alcohol and my turbulent emotions, but I didn't throw up and suddenly, I was glad that I couldn't cry. I didn't want to cry anymore and me thinking it would bring me some kind of release was stupid. I just wanted to destroy everything. I wanted to destroy myself, just like Quatre had.
    I heard the train's whistle from far away. It was approaching, but it was still a way's off. I looked at the station's clock again. 10:20. I had ten minutes before it would arrive. I thought the same exact thing then that I had when I had decided, for sure, to go there that day. It would be so easy, wouldn't it? I could just wait for the train to come, I could just stand there on that exact spot, the place where Quatre had made this same, exact decision. I could let the alcohol and my grief take control and forget about what it really meant, staying there on those tracks for another ten minutes. I could let gravity do it's thing, just like Quatre had, and go to the same place he had gone.
    And it was easy. It was simple. I wouldn't have to think about my future, I wouldn't have to think about not being loved or being sad. I wouldn't have to think about my parents or my grades or my bullies or my guilt. In that moment, I truly understood, not why Quatre had taken his life, but the ease of which he had done it, how simple that decision had been for him. Life was hard and cruel, but not this. This was surrendering. This wasn't the struggle, it wasn't even a real action. It was just standing still and waiting for the inevitable to happen. After all, we all die, eventually.
    So why wait? Why add more bad memories to my already overcrowded head? Why suffer when the end result was the same? I didn't want it anymore. I had meant what I had said to my mother the day before. All I wanted was to be with my best friend. Everything else had no meaning to me. So I stood there and waited. I watched the rising smoke from the train and heard it's heavy rumble as it came closer and closer to me. I felt it's power under my feet. I thought about how that stale, bland bagel was going to be my very last meal on this earth and bitter laugh escaped me. Then, as the gravel started to shift, I felt something besides sadness and anger. Fear.
    What if I was wrong? What if there was no after life and Quatre wasn't waiting for me? What if this was all there was, this shitty life, and the train approaching me would wipe out everything? What if getting hit by it hurt, or what if I was right, but there was a Hell, too, and that was where I would end up, in a place even worse than this one? My fear of the unknown and, I am kind of ashamed to admit, my fear of never seeing my parents again, as much as I didn't like them at the moment, and my fear of death consumed me.
    When the train finally showed up in front of me, I was shocked back into reality, the warm fog that the alcohol had given me was long gone, and I bolted for the platform. It was strange, I had something coming for me that was much, much, much bigger than the truck that had nearly shaved my back off, but I didn't feel the horrible terror and panic that I had felt during that mad run, maybe because it was only my worthless life on the line this time. As my hands grabbed the edge of the platform in the knick of time, strong hands grabbed my arms and flung me up onto the platform with an impressive strength that made me feel like a rag doll being tossed around by a pit bull. The person covered me with their larger body uselessly as the train lumbered harmlessly past us.
    I was pressed so tightly to the person's flat chest that I could feel his rapid heartbeat. It was actually going faster than mine was. My panic was already starting to ebb off and I wondered if that was because of my lightly drunk or buzzed or whatever you could call it state. Or maybe the prospect of my imminent death hadn't frightened me as much as it should have. I pushed at the person holding me until they finally relented and let me go. I stumbled to my feet and found myself looking at, not some random do-gooder, but Trowa Barton.
    I hadn't seen Trowa since the day that he had completely and effortlessly broke Quatre's heart. I hadn't even really thought about him besides remembering what he had done and my fury at him, so consumed by my grief. He looked like shit. His face was as white as snow and his dark green eyes were huge as he stared at me, but that could have just been from watching me nearly end my life in the same messy way my friend had.
    The ugly, black circles under his eyes, his uncharacteristically messy hair, and the worn expression on his face weren't however. He looked like he had had as much restful sleep as I had. Good. I hoped that he dreamt about what he had done as much as I dreamt about what I hadn't. I hoped that Quatre haunted him viciously in his dreams. That Trowa had the humanity to feel some kind of guilt about Quatre's suicide while Relena hadn't didn't matter one bit to me. I wanted him to suffer.
    'Why did you save me?!' I wanted to demand him in rage, but I found that I was too furious at just seeing him there, knowing just who it was that had pulled me up.
    It didn't matter anyway. By the time the train would have reached me, I would have gotten up onto the platform in time. Even if I had hesitated, Trowa wouldn't have saved my life, just a foot or leg. If I hadn't already been running for the platform, he would have been too late to save me anyway. Just like with everything else, I thought bitterly, he was useless.
    "Are you fucking insane?!" he roared at me loudly, grabbing my shoulders so hard that he would leave bruises on them, "What the hell is wrong with you?! Quatre kills himself and you, what, decide it's the cool thing to do and try to follow him?! Do you think he would be happy with that?!!"
    I wrenched myself out of his grip and glared at him harshly. My rage was a storm and I wanted to blow him away into it. I felt even more enraged at him than I ever had at Relena. I could be mad at her for exposing Quatre's secret in front of the entire school, but I had never expected anything better from the bitch. But Trowa... he had let the both of us down. And wasn't that the reason why Quatre had killed himself? Not because of Relena's cruel prank, but Trowa's reaction to it?
    I shoved him hard. Then I just kept shoving him because it felt so good until his back hit one of the lamp posts and he winced. He didn't do anything to fight back, although he easily could have beaten the shit out of me or pushed me away. That only made me hate him more, that I was actively attacking him and he wouldn't hit me to defend himself. He was so pathetic.
    "Shut up!" I snarled at him, "What the fuck do you know?! You don't know anything about Quatre, and you sure as hell don't know anything about me! If I want to kill myself, what right do you have to say anything about it?! Who do you think you are? You're just a guy that hung around him for awhile, he was a fucking pastime for you, that's all! He had a crappy life. I was the only person he had to rely on, which is the biggest damn joke that there is! None of his sisters or his parents ever paid any attention to him. All his dad did was throw a thousand things at him that Quatre never wanted and had all these expectations of him that he could never live up to.
    "And when he figured out that he liked boys, and was terrified of what that meant, he had absolutely no one to talk to until I figured out he had a crush on you. He loved you! He would have done anything for you if you had asked, and he was willing to suffer and push those feelings down just to be around you, for a glimmer of what he really wanted! He almost died just to protect you!
    "But the second that you figured that out, you threw him away. When all he needed from you was understanding and acceptance, you made him feel like filth. Quatre didn't kill himself, you did," I shoved him against the pole again, slamming his head into it, and I wondered why I wasn't crying when it felt like I was.
    Trowa didn't wince this time. The pure agony in his eyes wasn't from my actions, just my words. I hadn't thought his eyes could get any wider, or his skin any paler, but it did. He looked down at me with such horror, I thought he was going to throw up. Tears that I couldn't shed filled his evergreen eyes.
    "You're right," he said in a soft voice that was so full of grief and self-hatred that it would have driven most people to tears, "I was responsible for his death. I loved him!" Trowa suddenly burst out like he couldn't possibly contain those words inside of him anymore in a heart breaking sob, thick tears streaming down his face, "and I knew... I knew that he liked me back! I knew that for the longest time... and I never told him, never let him know that what he was feeling for me wasn't hopeless! I knew that it was making him miserable and I still didn't say it... I could have so many times. I could have stopped it all, him getting his arm broken and jumping in front of the train... but I couldn't tell him, I just couldn't!"
    Now I was the one staring at him in horror, feeling like I was going to vomit. All this time... all this time that Quatre had been hoping and loving him in silence, thinking Trowa was straight, miserable believing that he would hate him for his feelings, and not only had Trowa felt the same way, he had known?! I wanted to yell at him not to say this shit to me. It's too late, I wanted to accuse, you're always too fucking late.
    "I should have told him the day that... the day that he died," Trowa looked down at his trembling hands, "I should have dragged him away from that mob and told him that it was ok..."
    "But you didn't," I said with freezing hatred.
    "I couldn't," he insisted, "Everyone was reading his thoughts and his feelings and making fun of him for being gay and I just froze. I was so scared of everyone saying those things about me, looking at me with that disgust! I was terrified and I ran-"
    I slapped him across the face even harder than I had punched Relena the day before. It stopped the awkward words from flowing out of his mouth and split his lip open.
    "You're a fucking coward," I hissed at him, "and that's a thousand times worse than anything they accused Quatre of!"
    He touched where I had hit him with one shaking hand, his eyes to the ground, refusing to look at me.
    "I know," he whispered brokenly.
    I wanted to scream at him that it didn't matter if he was aware of it and I didn't care if he felt sorry or guilty or whatever, I would never forgive him and I hoped that Quatre wouldn't, either. I wanted to keep hitting him until my wrists were too numb to manage it or his face was nothing more than the bloody smear that the train had made of Quatre's face. I wanted to push him in front of the next train that passed us by.
    But like what typically happened when I had violent and angry impulses, I buried my instincts and desires deep inside. I buried them deep because that pain I saw in Trowa was the same that I had been feeling and seeing in the mirror for days. All of the guilt and sadness that I had in me, Trowa had, too. We both hated ourselves for what we had and hadn't done. We both missed Quatre. We were both broken. I didn't spare him my violence because I felt sympathy for him, I didn't even have any for myself. I only did it because I had just enough empathy to know that hitting Trowa would make him feel better, because he knew that he deserved it, and I didn't want him to feel better.
    "It's my fault, too," I murmured instead of the hateful, hurtful things I wanted to hurl at him, "I was his best friend, his only friend, besides you," I admitted grudgingly, "There were so many times he would say things that would frighten me, so many times that I would realize that he was so much sadder and more bitter about his life and his loneliness than he usually let on. But I never did anything to help him. I let myself believe that everything would work out eventually and I just turned my back to all of it.
    "I knew his relationship with you was hurting him and I knew that being around you was making everything worse, that nothing good could come from it, especially after Relena had used you to almost get him killed. But I still did nothing about it. I should have tried harder to keep him away from you," my breath hitched and I tried to stop talking as I confessed things to him that I hadn't wanted anyone to know, but I couldn't help it, the words just kept slipping out of me, "I was his best friend," I whispered, "but I couldn't even stop him from falling. I just watched. I watched him die and I did nothing to stop it!"
    Trowa moved away from the lamp post and stood in front of me, but I refused to look up at him. I had never wanted him to see me this weak and vulnerable.
    "Do you really think that you could have stopped him from killing himself?" he asked me, his voice soft and kind and slightly incredulous.
    His voice reminded me of Quatre's during those rare moments when we had spoken about my father's treatment of me and I tried to assure him that it was no big deal. Quatre would speak to me like that, so full of sympathy and understanding, but with just that slight tone that told me he thought I was being ridiculous. It made me miss him even more and I realized that I would never hear him talk to me like that again. All I would ever have left of that voice, that kind tone, was my memories. And hearing that similar tone came from Trowa only made me hate him more, because it wasn't good enough.
    "I should have tried!" I screamed at him, my voice cracking and so strained and twisted that it sounded like I was crying, even though my eyes were still dry.
    Trowa took another step forward and touched my cheek with his hand. I had never realized how big his hands were before then, or how gentle they could be. I wondered if he had ever touched Quatre like this and I hoped so. I didn't want to be the one he touched so kindly when those hands... that touch had been meant for my dead best friend. His touch repulsed me because it felt good. I didn't want him to touch me like that, but I couldn't move away because some part of me needed it and craved it. I wanted to lean into his touch and steal away all of that comfort that I didn't deserve and never should have been meant for me.
    "No one tried to help him," I whispered, my voice rough with too much emotion, none of it I had wanted to expose to anyone, especially not to him who only deserved my hatred, "Not a single person. His family, his teachers, all the kids that we go to school with and saw Relena bully him, none of them did a single fucking thing to help him through it!"
    I looked up into his green eyes and noticed for the first time that there was a little bit of gray in those eyes. I bet that Quatre had known.
     "And I was one of those people!" my voice hitched again, and even though I wasn't sobbing, I felt like I was barely keeping it together. When was this going to stop hurting like this? "Do you have any idea how much knowing that hurts? Quatre was the only person in my life that cared about me, that loved me... Do you know how much it kills me, having to lump myself in with all those people that I hate for not doing something for him?! So why am I here? He was always there for me... a lot of days, Quatre was the only reason I got the fuck out of bed! He sure as Hell was the only reason why I kept at school.
    "No matter what awful thing Zechs and Relena did to me, he was there for me. He was always kinder and smarter and better than I could ever hope to be. So tell me why a useless piece of shit like me is here when he's dead! What is so fucking special about me that I get to keep on living and he doesn't?! Why should I even want to? I'm nothing but dumb, white trash! I'm angry all the time, I hurt all the time, and all I want to do is beat you and Relena and Zechs and Quatre's entire family into a pulp. Quatre died and he took what little was good about me with him. So you tell me, Trowa, why the hell shouldn't I kill myself now, before I destroy anything else around me?!"
    Trowa's attractive green eyes narrowed into something hard and his face moved in close to mine. I thought he was going to spit at me or bite me in anger. Him kissing me was the very last thing I would have expected him to do, but that was what he did. His hand still cupping my cheek, he pressed his lips against mine.
    I don't really know how to describe my second kiss accurately or how it made me feel. For half of it, all I could do was compare it to the disaster of Relena's kiss, how different they were. I didn't remember much about Relena's kiss beyond my repulsion of it, but even though I hated Trowa and his sudden move had startled me, I wasn't repulsed by it. Relena's kiss had been insistent and forceful, although it had been no more than her pressing her lips to mine. Trowa's was just as chaste, but it felt more intimate to me. Maybe because his was more welcome than hers, maybe because he was older, or maybe because he wasn't kissing me out of desperation, to prove something.
    Trowa's kiss was shy and hesitant, the kiss of someone who wasn't entirely sure of what he was doing. It was awkward for both of us, me because I had never been kissed by a boy and I couldn't stand being near him without wanting to bash his head in, and him because he didn't love me.
    I'm still not exactly sure why he kissed me that day, if he had just been lonely or he had thought I might like it and wanted to comfort me. Maybe he had just been using me to fill Quatre's place for a moment. Maybe I reminded him of the person we had lost. That was laughable, of course, Nate and I were nothing alike. But we were both pale, slender, short, and wide-eyed, and we had been friends. I just can't think of any other reasons why he would have done something like that.
    Despite Trowa's shyness, and despite my complete lack of experience, the kiss wasn't unpleasant. Relena's lips had been full and tasted like the lip gloss she used, something waxy and fruity. I guess some guys might have liked that. Trowa's lips were smooth and shaped differently. I'm not quite sure how that made me feel, but it was good and some part of me enjoyed it. It excited me, the thought that I was kissing a boy instead of a girl. It felt... more natural to me, even when the realization that I was being kissed by my best friend's crush made reality crash down on me. Even in my horror and anger at him for kissing me, it still made me feel warm. Or maybe that was just the alcohol, but I don't think so. Trowa's kiss made me feel a completely different kind of buzz.
    No more than five seconds passed before what was actually happening destroyed the happiness I had felt, muddling it with bitterness and guilt. Trowa Barton was kissing me. The first thing I had felt beyond misery and loneliness in days and it was because of him. The boy that Quatre had loved, the boy he had bled for, cried for, and ultimately killed himself over was kissing me. It was wrong, so very wrong. I wasn't the one that Trowa loved and I sure as hell was not the person he should be kissing. That kiss had been meant for Quatre and I had stolen it from him. I know how crazy that sounds. Quatre was dead by his own choice, in reality he had thrown that kiss away, and even if he had lived, Trowa might have never gained the back bone to kiss him. But in that moment, I felt like I was betraying Quatre, stealing something precious and beautiful from him.
    I had no business kissing a boy that I didn't love and didn't love me, and I certainly had no business enjoying it. It was Quatre's funeral, and I was using the boy he loved to comfort me. I felt like the lowest, sleaziest kind of scum there was. I felt pissed off at myself for desperately latching on to that comfort, and I felt pissed off at Trowa for offering to me.
    Then, after probably no more than fifteen or twenty seconds, it was over. Trowa pulled away and left a cold, empty hole in my heart. It was tiny compared to the gaping chasm that Quatre's death had caused, not even worth hurting over, but I still felt it there. I felt alone and, stupidly, abandoned. There was something more that I wanted, something that made my first real kiss seem off and pale. It wouldn't be for weeks afterward that it would finally come to me why that kiss seemed so off to someone who hadn't even been really kissed before.
    Replaying it in my head over and over again, I realized that Trowa hadn't just felt awkward and shy, and he hadn't truly been kissing me to comfort me. When he had kissed me, he hadn't really been kissing me at all. But it was still the best thing I had ever experienced as an adult in my entire life. And it wasn't even mine.
    "Please," he whispered as he pulled away, his lips still so close to mine that as he spoke, they brushed against mine, the barest of touches like a feather and it made me shudder, "I know that you hate me and I know that I have absolutely no right to ask it of you," he rested his forehead against mine, his heat and smell suffocating me, smothering me, "but please don't kill yourself, Duo, not like Quatre.
    "Relena and I have destroyed enough lives. We've caused enough death. If you took your life like he did... because of what I did to him... I couldn't handle that. I know what a shitty thing that is to say, and I don't expect you to live for someone you despise so much. But if... if you're really so lost that you need a reason to live, then live for Quatre. Live because that's what he would want you to do. Wherever he is now, Heaven or Limbo or wherever, he wouldn't want to watch you die because of him," he backed away from me a little and placed his hands on my shoulders like he thought if he could keep touching me, it would ground me, "I couldn't bear to watch his best friend kill himself, too. You're the... the last piece of the boy that I loved, Duo," he said miserably with a strained voice, "you're the only living part of him that I have left."
    That sentiment made me snap, dragging me out of the stupor that kiss had put me in. The last living part of Quatre? I was nothing like that! We had been friends, but I was nothing like him, nothing that was a part of him. I had been the loser that Quatre had let attach to him like a parasite. I had only dragged him down, and let him down. There was nothing left of him here, and if there was, it sure wasn't me. Trowa was right, I hated him and I wasn't going to suddenly latch on to life because he wanted to use me to feel better!
    I shoved him away from me and punched him in the exact spot that I had slapped him earlier which was already starting to bruise. I couldn't help it, I'm right handed and I wasn't exactly thinking about what I was doing, my fury warding off any sensible thoughts. My blow made him stumble back in shock, but to my disappointment, he regained his footing quickly and didn't come close to falling off the platform. I hoped my punch had hurt like hell.
    "Quatre is dead," I said with cold ferocity, "He's dead and whatever is actually left of him that the train didn't shred into nothing is rotting in the ground. He doesn't know anything anymore. There isn't anything left of him, you'll never see him again, and he isn't watching anything from some better fucking place."
    My words were incredibly cruel and even Trowa's pain as he looked at me then didn't satisfy me. I strode up to him, grabbed him by his shirt, and slammed him against the lamp post. I shouldn't have been able to manage it. Trowa is a good foot taller than I am, but somehow it was easy for me to toss him around like that. He wasn't trying to resist, but I wasn't exactly strong.
    "I'm not Quatre," I growled at him, "He knew how much watching him die, trying to live without him was going to hurt me. No matter how depressed he was, he knew that at least one person was going to cry over him, but he still killed himself. If I die, whether I take my own life or not, no one is going to give a shit about it. I don't have a single person in my life anymore that is going to cry over me, so don't you fucking dare tell me that you do!
    "You didn't even care enough about Quatre to be his friend, and you think someone as pathetic as you is going to make my life any better than you made his? What happiness being around you gave him, it's nothing compared to the pain you made him feel when you broke his heart!" I shoved him again, my anger at myself and him spilling out in waves. It was all I could not to punch him again, "You keep saying that you loved him, that that's a lie! You never even knew him! If it weren't for him, you never would have had that back bone to talk to him, so I don't now why I was so shocked you wouldn't stand up for him!"
    He was looking at me with that hurting, horrified expression again.
    "You weren't our friend, you weren't his boyfriend. You were just the weak piece of shit that helped Relena kill my best friend, so you're right about one thing and only one thing," I hissed at him, "You don't get to ask a single damned thing of me. So stay the fuck away from me. You want someone to kiss, take Relena's advice and find some pretty girl. You're already her prized puppet, so don't delude yourself into thinking you're anything better than that."
    I turned and walked off the platform and through the station. I couldn't bear to look at him for another second. My anger was making me physically sick. My hands were shaking, my head was pounding, and I felt like I was going to retch at any second. I wanted to punch something nice and solid like a brick or concrete wall until I shattered my hand.    
    My brain was in a million places at once; thoughts of killing Relena, my guilt, my hatred of Trowa, my depression and failed suicide attempt, that kiss, all of my conflicting feelings. I felt like I was going crazy, and all because Trowa Barton had kissed me. I hated him, but I had certainly liked it, especially if I compared it to Relena kissing me a year ago.
    Did that mean that I was gay? I didn't exactly have any desire to have sex with Trowa, but I was only thirteen, I barely knew what sex entailed, especially sex between two guys. The thought of him kissing me again was definitely not unpleasant, as confused as it made me. If he or any other boy had kissed me like that, I would have agonized over it. But at that point in my life, the fact that my sexuality had once consumed my thoughts and fears seemed like it had happened to someone else.
    I was gay. I didn't even question it, I only felt cold acceptance about it. In that moment, my own sexuality, my own identity meant nothing to me. I didn't think for a second about what it was going to mean for me and my future. An hour ago, I hadn't had one before I had chickened out. I didn't think about how this same sexual identity had destroyed Quatre's life and gotten him killed. That would come much later.
    I walked all the way back home on foot. I could have gone to work. I would be horribly late, but it would have kept me occupied and my father would be less angry over my being late than skipping both shifts all together. But the thought of standing in that kitchen, washing dishes or answering phone calls made me want to scream. I wasn't in any kind of mood to be pleasant to anyone.
    On the way home, I could hear the sound of both of the town churches' bells ringing. It was twelve o'clock, Quatre's funeral was over. The churches always rang their bells after a funeral service, regardless of which church the deceased had gone to. I couldn't remember if Quatre's family had been Catholic, Protestant, or something else. Religion was one of those things we never talked about, though I guess it really isn't a popular subject for people our age.
    If just one of the churches had rung it's bells, the sound would have been pretty or chilling, depending on who was listening, but together they sounded chaotic and clashing. The protestant church was newer than the Catholic one and didn't even have real bells, it was just a recording.
    There was no one at home when I got there, but the lock was still broken. I didn't even bother with pretending to use my key to unlock it. I just walked inside. My back pack had migrated from the kitchen where I had thrown it the day before to the attic stairs. I could imagine my father coming home last night and getting pissed off finding my stuff in the kitchen like that. Had he wondered where I had gone, or had he not even noticed that I hadn't come home last night? I wondered where he was for about a second. Mom had work on Sundays, but Dad wasn't supposed to. That didn't mean that he hadn't been called in on an emergency or that he hadn't gone out to get groceries, maybe even the lock on the front door, or maybe he was just at a bar. It was a bit early for that, but I had no clue what he did when he wasn't here. And I found that, on that day, I really didn't care.
    I grabbed my pack and went up into my room, carelessly throwing it into a corner. There were a dozen things I could do now that my big task was over, a dozen things I hadn't been planning on doing because, for the last couple of days, I had been planning my suicide. I could do my homework, clean that house, oil the hinges on the basement door so it would finally stop making that shrieking sound, mow the lawn, or I could just get a knife from the kitchen and slit my throat.
    What exactly did a person do when they were supposed to be dead, but found their heart still beating? Nothing felt important or even worth my time. I felt listless, like I was just going through the motions for absolutely no reason at all, but I had felt like that every since Quatre had died. I thought about really killing myself for about as much as the time as I had wondered where my father was. It was funny, two hours ago I had sat on the train tracks, fully willing to let a train hit me, but then, sitting in my room, I felt as apathetic towards taking my own life as I did doing the dishes.
    I hadn't been able to do it, anyway, I told myself. I had chickened out, so what was the point? But mostly it was just in the back of my mind. I hadn't decided to give up on it. All of my reasons for going to the train station were still there, none of them had gone away. I just had so much shit in my head.
    I didn't do anything that I could have. My brain was too muddled, too busy screaming at me. My rage was still there, pumping adrenaline and hatred for everything into me. I laid down on my mattress, not even bothering to take off the clothes that I had been wearing since Friday, and closed my eyes. I felt so empty, just scraped clean after exploding at Brian, but it wasn't a good kind of emptiness. I tried to sleep, to silence the madness in my head, but I couldn't get my thoughts to shut down. After two hours of tossing and turning, I finally gave up the idea that I was going to get any kind of sleep shy of taking some of my mother's sleeping pills. I grabbed one of my books and tried to read but with similar results. My brain was in over-drive and I was thrumming with all this left over energy from my rage.
    Trowa, Quatre, Relena, Zechs, my first real kiss, my sexuality, my guilt, my future, my suicide attempt... my thoughts were endless and frustrating. I felt this intense anxiety in my chest and I had the impulse to hit something just to work off whatever was wrong with me. I felt like I was going crazy. I probably was. So much had happened to me in so little time, I didn't have the ability to cope with it. I had no one to talk to about any of it, no way to just... move on.
    And did I even want to? Hadn't that been one of the reasons why I had decided to kill myself, because the thought of continuing on like that was unbearable? I thought about going to the cemetery and finding Quatre’s gravestone so I could talk to him, but I didn’t want to. I didn't want to look at his headstone and pretend like I was doing anything more than talking to myself.
    I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t even eat although I recognized my hunger, and just sitting around doing nothing while I was so wired was making things worse. I needed to let go of all my pent up energy, all of my chaotic thoughts. I wanted to be hollowed out and mindless. If I had had access to a punching bag, I would have whaled on it until my arms were so sore, I wouldn’t have been able to lift them. But I didn’t have anything like that to hit, so instead I went back downstairs, put my sneakers on again, left the house, and ran.
    I ran South, as hard and as fast as my legs would let me. I ran away from all my thoughts and memories, all the bad things in me. I ran so long that everything else besides the burning in my lungs and the pain in my legs became nothing more important than white noise. I ran like all the things that had made me so angry were monsters chasing after me, and I suppose that they were. As I ran, I imagined that Quatre was there at my side, matching me step for step. He had always been a terrible runner and had never been able to keep up with me. When he had run track in gym, I had slowed my stride so we could run together, but in my imagination that day, he was just as fast as I was.
    We ran together, side by side down my street. We ran past the train yard, past the liquor stores and video stores and adult stores and convenience stores, we ran past factory after factory, we ran even after my chest started to hurt and my head throbbed. I didn’t know if I could make it, but Quatre could run forever. Finally, we reached the town line and I turned around. I turned and ran back the way I had come, but Quatre didn’t. He kept running, straight out of Nausten.
    In my imagination, he ran away, away from me, some place better. He didn’t kill himself. Quatre just ran away and left me behind. Somewhere, he was living the life that he had talked to me about once in the hospital, living off his parents’ stolen money. In my mind, he was happy and would find a boy better than someone who wouldn’t stand up for him but would kiss his pathetic best friend instead, a boy that would love him and never be too much of a coward to say it.
    I ran back home alone and by the time I got to my house, it was dark out and I was in so much pain and I was breathing so hard, my heart beating so fast that it still surprises me that I didn’t throw up or just collapse. I didn’t stop or lay down, I just walked right into the bathroom, stripped out of my sweaty clothes and stepped into the shower, panting with burning lungs. The icy cold water that came out of the showerhead was both heavenly and excruciating. I hissed in pain when it hit my right hand and I felt a stinging pain there.    
    I looked at my hand and saw that my knuckles were caked in blood, but it was dried. I gently scrubbed the blood off with some soap and a washcloth. The knuckles on my right hand were black with bruises and skin over them was broken, but no longer bleeding. I must have punched Trowa a hell of a lot harder than I had thought I had.
    It came back to me then, the feeling of my fist colliding with his face, that sensation of raw power meeting warm, yielding flesh. I remembered how wonderful it had felt hitting him and that look of pain on his face. That must be how my father feels every time he punches me, I thought. I gagged. My anger was fading away, back to cold emptiness, and now the memory of my rage and striking someone I had once been almost friends with just made me feel ill.
    My hands trembled. I had hurt someone with them, two people even. Maybe they had deserved it, I certainly thought so, but it had been my hands that had done it. Just like my father. I shoved them under the flow of water so I wouldn't have to look at them anymore. Cut up and bruised, they didn't look anything like my hands to me.
    This wasn't me. This had never been me. I didn't take my anger out on people like that. That was my dad, but never me. What was I becoming, that I could so easily punch Relena and Trowa like that when before, when Quatre was alive, just the thought that I might be capable of that had horrified me? If Quatre could see me now, would he be as disgusted as I felt?
    I had never really been a good person. I had had these violent thoughts for a long time, but I had never had the stomach to act on them. I had always been too frightened of becoming my father, of hurting people and liking it. Wasn't that exactly what had happened? It wasn't that I had punched Trowa and Relena, it wasn't even the overwhelming rage that the both of them had made me feel. My best friend had killed himself because of their actions. I don't think that anyone who cares as much for someone as I had about Quatre wouldn't feel like that in my situation. But I hadn't just hit them as some sort of release to my anger. I had liked it.
    When my fist had connected to their faces, it had made me feel so good. Realizing that repulsed me. I didn't need alcohol to be like him. All I needed was this rage boiling inside of me. Once, I had almost hit Relena and I had thought that my inability to do so was cowardice. Now, I wish I had that cowardice back. Even after Quatre's death, I couldn't be the person that he had insisted that I was. I was nothing better, nothing more than my father's son.
    I stayed under the icy cold spray of water for so long, my skin went numb and that felt good. I felt good not to feel anything, I just wished that I could make that numbness reach deep down inside of me. What was the point of this, I asked myself. What, exactly had been my reasons for not killing myself on those train tracks? Because I might not see Quatre in the afterlife? I couldn't see him now, so wasn't the chance that I could worth taking?
    Because I would miss my parents? Maybe I would, but not nearly as much as I missed my only friend, and would they even miss me? Because I was scared of death? Of the pain of it? Would death really be any more terrible than what I was feeling now, this horrible emptiness, living each day feeling either sadness or anger, or more recently, fear?
    The fear of what my anger was going to make me become, that one day as an adult, I would look into the mirror and see my father's face staring back at me, that I would never be able to escape all the parts of him that I hated no matter how far I ran from him, and not a single part of him that I loved would be there. Wouldn't it be better to end my life now before that happened, when I still had enough of Quatre left in my heart to feel this horrified at what I had done? What was the point of life if I could never feel happiness ever again?
    I glanced at my father's shaver on the shower ledge and picked it up. I had never needed one, not yet anyway, but it was easy to figure out how to open it and take out the razor blade. I held it up to the light coming through the old, yellowed shower curtain. It gleamed silver, looking sharp even to my eyes. I tested it, it's sharpness and how it might feel by running it over the tip of my finger. It cut through the skin like it was butter. It was so sharp that it took a second for the cut to even hurt and the blood to well up out of it. Blood dripped down my finger. It looked so startling as it appeared suddenly, like magic on my pale skin, that bright color. The cut stung and I imagined how much it must hurt to cut deeper and wider.
    My hand started to shake again as I realized how solid and real my thoughts were and that I had just been standing there, thinking about cutting myself until I bled out. I quickly washed off the blade and put it back where it belonged. I turned up the water until it was nearly unbearably hot, but it didn't do anything to alleviate my chill. I stayed in there for a very long time, washing my hair and scrubbing every inch of my skin until I had nothing left to wash, then I just stood under the spray, feeling it's warmth so I couldn't feel anything else. The whole while, I pretended that I hadn't just been entertaining thoughts of suicide like it was a normal consideration.
    The hot water quickly cooled to luke warm, then cold, but I still didn't leave. I was used to the cold and it didn't bother me as much as it should have. At least most of my angry energy was gone and my heart was back to a normal rate. I had been in the shower for hours when I heard someone come into the house. I hastily turned the water off as I recognized my father's gait as he walked into his bedroom right next to the bathroom. He was going to be pissed if he found out that I had been in the shower that long and had used up all the hot water, but thankfully he took his showers early in the morning.
    I grabbed a fresh towel from the rack and dried myself off quickly. Normally I would have combed out my hair and redone my ponytail before getting dressed, but I knew my dad would want the bathroom as soon as he left the bedroom if he had been out drinking or at work. He was already bound to be angry at me for skipping work again and I just wanted to stay out of his way. Then it dawned on me that I hadn't brought any clean clothes into the bathroom with me and I swore at myself. I wasn't some kind of prude that running naked up to my room freaked me out and I wasn't such a neat freak that I couldn't see putting my dirty clothes back on as an option, but neither appealed to me. Wearing sweaty clothes that I hadn't changed in two days right after I had washed myself kind of defeated the point of showering and walking around in the nude, even if my father was the only one home, embarrassed me.
    'And him finding your naked, dead body in the shower wouldn't have been?' I thought bitterly and wasn't even sure why I was bitter.
    I wrapped the towel I had used to dry myself with around me, tossed my dirty clothes in the hamper, and left the bathroom, nearly bumping right into my father in the hallway. We kind of just stared at each other for a moment, me in wariness and him in bewilderment, an expression that I had never seen him wear before and I had no idea why he would look at me like that, like my mere presence was confusing to him. I quickly tried to gauge him, to see what sort of mood he was in, just how angry he was about me skipping work, if I was in for a hospital visit or just a black eye.
    In the mood that I was in, I would have welcomed a beating from him. I certainly deserved it. But instincts born from thirteen years of dodging my father's assaults were more powerful than my recent yearning for justice and punishment and even though it was on the tip of my tongue to hurry up and apologize to him about missing work, to try to soften his anger before we came to blows, I kept silent. As I studied him, I realized how late it felt and that by the time he had come home, I would have been home from my shift if I had gone anyway. Unless one of my bosses told him that I hadn't shown up that day, he would never know. I would find out much later that Sal had recognized Quatre from all the times he had come to the restaurant to hang out with me. He had thought that I had been at the funeral and had given me a free pass. I don't know if Andre had the same reason, but neither of my bosses ever tattled on me. Of all the things to be lucky about.
    My father continued to look at me with a weird expression. He didn't look confused anymore, that look had vanished very quickly, but it had been replaced with something else. I don't even know how to describe it. Awe? Frustration? He seemed shaken by something, but I knew better. Nothing could shake him, nothing ever had. It took me a moment to realize that he wasn't really staring at me but at my hair.
    I wondered for a second if he was just very, very drunk and was staring off into space like my mother often did when she had been drinking for awhile. But even when my father had been drinking heavily, he never lost that sharp edge of his. He only got easier to piss off and senselessly meaner, but he never lost his concentration or that intensity of his that I often wondered was a part of his occupation or he had always been like that. But not even my mother looked like he did just then when she was out of it, because he wasn't just zoning out and looking through me. He was actually looking at and seeing my hair.
    He was clearly drunk, there was no doubt of that, but not nearly as drunk as I had seen him before. The smell of beer on him was stronger than the smell of vodka probably still was on me, or I assumed because I couldn't tell. I was thankful for that because I didn't know if he would be furious at my drinking or just not care. It was not a problem that I was going to repeat, I already had the beginnings of a headache and my mouth tasted absolutely disgusting to me. But even so, his face wasn't flushed that much. There was another smell coming from his clothes that mingled with the beer: perfume.
    My mother didn't really wear perfume and the perfume that she did wear once in awhile, usually to job interviews, smelled absolutely nothing like what I smelled on my father. It was a cloying smell, floral but not as strong as the one my mother used. It probably smelled nice when it wasn't mixed with the smell of beer. That wasn't the first time that I had smelled perfume on him and it wouldn't be the last.
    I guess a lot of people would have gotten upset to learn that one of their parents was having an affair, but I didn't feel any kind of rage towards him for cheating on my mother. I just felt sad. My parents didn't exactly have a good marriage. My mother hated him and refused to even let him in the bedroom a lot of times. I didn't exactly go out of the way to listen for my parents having sex, but hearing some of the things that they had screamed at each other over the years, I don't think they had had sex since I had been born, and if they had, it was rare. Would my mother even care if she found out he was having sex with another woman? I wanted to believe that she would, or maybe she already did and that was why she was always so hostile towards him. Or maybe it was the other way around and he did that because she was hostile.
    I didn't even know if I could call it an affair. That kind of implied that there was some woman somewhere that loved my father, or at least liked him enough to want to have sex with him, didn't it? One, single woman. But that perfume never smelled the same. I wasn't exactly an expert in women, but I didn't think they changed perfume that drastically. I tried to imagine what my father might be doing that he was having sex with not just one woman, but a few different ones. Only one word came to mind: prostitution.
    The image in my head of my father going to a whorehouse or picking up a prostitute from a street corner depressed me. I wanted to believe that he wasn't the sort of man to do something like that, but if he was the sort to cheat on his wife so blatantly, then why not with a hooker? That wasn't the only thought that upset me. We weren't exactly well off. 'Barely keeping head above water' certainly described our financial situation. We weren't exactly homeless or eating at soup kitchens, but we had to be painfully careful about our money.
    I had gotten angry at my father once for spending our tight food budget on beer, how could I understand and cope with him spending money for sex? Or maybe he wasn't paying for it. He was a cop, one that could make a lot of trouble for a prostitute, one that might be persuaded to look the other way if she waived her fee. That that sort of scenario seemed a lot more plausible than him using money we didn't really have sickened me. The thought that my father was abusing his power, risking not only his job but could go to jail for it, just to get laid was terrible.
    All boys see their fathers as heroes, I think, or at least look up to them, especially if they do a dangerous job like law enforcement or fire fighting. I might not have a great relationship with my father, but I had still been one of those boys. His beating me hadn't diminished that. What he was at work and what he was at home had always been separate to me. I told myself that it didn't matter. Our family had been broken for a very long time. But it still hurt. Looking at my father, smelling the perfume on him and knowing that he had gone out to fuck some strange woman against every oath he had ever made while I had been running with a ghost hurt me.
    "Your hair..." he suddenly blurted out and reached one hand to touch a wet lock of my hair.
    I flinched a little at his touch, so used to him pulling my hair to hurt me. But his touch was light as he let my chestnut hair fall through his fingertips almost tenderly, like it was something special instead of something he saw every day. Although, I realized, that was the first time I had walked around with my hair loose since it had gotten long enough for me to put up in a ponytail. The way he looked at it now, loose and clean from the shower, made me uncomfortable and I didn't know why. He just looked so... I would almost call it wide-eyed, like a mix of a little kid finding something wonderful and an adult reliving some pleasant memory he had never thought he would have again. He ha to have been a hell of a lot more drunk than I had thought he was, that was the only thing that would have made sense.
    His expression hardened and he looked bitter suddenly, letting go of my hair.
    "It's too damned long," he grumbled, like my hair offended him, "You need to cut it," he started to walk towards the kitchen and then said with a tone that I could only call wistful, "You look exactly like your mother used to when she was your age," and then he was gone.
    I stared at his retreating back with wide eyes and I was sure an astonished expression. I touched my hair subconsciously for a second. I was used to him ragging at me about my hair to the point of verbal abuse. It was too long, it made me look like a girl or a fag or a dog, I needed to get my ponytail cut off. Of course he never gave me the money to get a hair cut, just harassed me about it. But he had never told me that my long hair made me look like my mother had.
    And what had been that weird look he had given me when he had touched my hair? Had he been feeling guilty about what he had been doing today because I reminded him of Mom? Or had he just been remembering something, some pleasant memory from when he and Mom had liked each other, before I had come along and destroyed their lives?
    I shook off the incredibly bizarre and awkward moment, never wanting to think about my dad touching my hair and looking at me like that again. It made me feel weird and I had no clue why, so I pretended like it had never happened, walking upstairs to my bedroom. I dressed in pajamas, combed my hair, and put it back up in its ponytail. I already felt better just to have it not loose anymore. When I went back downstairs, I could smell the light scent of soup coming from the kitchen, reminding me that I hadn't had a real meal since Thursday night. I didn't want to eat anything, but my stomach ached with the need to put something into it.
    In the kitchen, my father was stirring a pot of what looked like left over chicken soup. Without saying a word, we danced around each other, him preparing the soup, adding a few spices that we had to it to give new life to it, and me preparing the salad and setting the table. I only set two place settings. That late at night, if my mother hadn't made an appearance yet, then she was pulling a late shift and would miss dinner. I didn't exactly miss her.
    My father handed me a bowl of steaming hot soup as I placed the salad on the table and I sat down with it. The soup had bits of chicken, potato, celery, and carrots in it and whatever else my father had put in it had made it taste pretty good. I was just happy to have something hot. I didn't bother with the bread, it looked chewier and staler than I wanted to deal with.
    When my father returned to the table with his own full bowl and put a bottle of salad dressing on the table, I felt like he had punched me in the gut.
    "W-what's that?" I stammered as I stared at the bottle.
    It was Quatre's salad dressing. The same, exact dressing that he had loved to put on everything; salad, vegetables, bread, and even chicken. He had always brought it with him to school, too, and had let me use it when I had told him that I liked it, too. It really wasn't that strange to see it sitting on my dinner table at the same time that it was. They had it at all the grocery stores in town, even the smaller, family run ones. But the stuff was pricey, nothing that my parents would have bought. We always used the generic brand stuff.
    My father shot me a strange look at my shock.
    "There was a sale because they're discontinuing it," he said gruffly in a bored tone, "Your mother wanted to try it."
    The sudden sadness that fell on me almost made me laugh. They were even taking one of Quatre's favorite things from me. How pathetic was I that I was getting depressed over a stupid salad dressing? But the thought that that might be the very last time I would get to taste it strangled my heart. I watched my father in a daze as he unscrewed the cap, ripped off the protective seal, poured some on his salad, screwed the cap back on, and handed it back to me. I felt like I was living in a nightmare and all I was doing was eating dinner.
    I wanted to knock it out of his hand and scream. Was this going to be what my life was like from now on? Constant reminders of him? Would I always be tossed around like a rag doll by my emotions, thinking that things were going to be alright, that at least I was beginning to cope with his suicide, only to have this immense grief always lurking around the corner, ready to eat me alive? That idea, and the realness of it, horrified me so completely. Instead of letting it overwhelm me, I took the bottle from him and poured it on my own salad. I speared some lettuce and carrots with my fork harder than I had intended to and shoved it into my mouth.
    With the very first taste, memories assaulted me with more cruelty and brutality than anything Relena or Zechs could think to do to me. All at once, more like powerful hallucinations than memories, I remembered each and ever time Quatre had shared his food with me. In my head, I saw him as I approached him every single day in the cafeteria, all those times when he had come into my work, all those times that we had met on the weekends.