“Can we have pancakes for dinner? With chocolate chips?” Tobias asked, picking a hydrangea from a neighbor’s garden as they passed.
“We had pancakes for dinner on Tuesday,” Oliver said. “We need to get something green in you tonight.”
Tobias twirled the flower before tucking it behind their ear. “M&Ms are green."
“Pretty sure they’re lots of colors, kiddo.”
Tobias shook their head emphatically and almost dislodged the flower. “Green M&Ms are green.”
“You really are your father’s child,” Oliver sighed fondly, and shifted the bag of groceries on his shoulder. What the hell, pancakes twice in a week wouldn’t kill the kid. Besides, things were tense enough at home, and Tobias had walked in on one of their fights about the leaked AM video the other night. They deserved something nice. “All right, let’s see what we’ve got in —”
His phone buzzed. Joan was calling — already a rarity, but with everything that had happened in the past few days, it made his stomach sink. “Joan? What’s wrong? Is Mark okay?”
"Mark is fine, but our parents are on their way to your place.”
“They came to visit me — it’s a long story, and it’s not important right now — but they overheard Jackson talking about the video and whether to go public."
“Oh for fuck’s sake, not him too,” he groaned. Could any of the atypicals in his life behave with a modicum of self-preservation?
“Right, sorry, not the point. So they heard Jackson entertaining this boneheaded idea and. . .?”
“And we got into a fight, and I may have let it slip that Mark was also planning to go public.”
“Jesus Christ, Joan!” Tobias’s head snapped up and they frowned. Oliver tousled their hair briefly and lowered his voice. “So they’re on their way here to, what, talk some sense into him?”
“I believe so, which is why you and Tobias need to clear out for the evening. Go to a movie, or see if Caleb and Adam are free. Let Mark and me handle it.”
“All right, I’ll just get the ice cream in the freezer and we’ll. . .” Oliver trailed off as he rounded the corner and saw an older Asian couple standing by their front door. For a second he debated walking past it and taking Tobias directly to Caleb and Adam, but Tobias ran ahead of him and halfway to the front door before seeing the Bryants and stopping dead. “Too late,” he sighed.
“I’ll text you when the fireworks are over,” he said before hanging up, and took a deep breath before catching up to Tobias. “Can I help you?”
“I’m sorry, I think we have the wrong house,” Mark’s mother said, eying Tobias. “Does a Byron Bryant live here? He might also go by Mark.”
Tobias started and shrank back against Oliver’s side. Oliver put an arm around them automatically. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your names."
“Vivian Bryant,” she said, and held out her hand. “I’m his mother. This is David.”
Oliver ignored her hand and herded Tobias past them to the front door. “Right. Well. Mark’s at work, but I’ll tell him you stopped by —”
“That’s all right, we can wait.” Vivian sailed past him, David a few steps behind.
“Um.” Oliver blinked at the Bryants making themselves at home in his living room. “Sure, why not, come on in,” he muttered.
“Daddy, what’s going on?” Tobias whispered as they trailed Oliver to the kitchen.
“I wish I knew,” he muttered. He put the ice cream away and texted Mark: Red alert your parents are here what do I do. “Toby, I need you to go to your room. Do your homework until I tell you to come out, okay?”
For once Tobias went without argument, shooting a concerned look at the living room. Oliver wished he could escape as easily. On one hand, Mark still had nightmares about his parents (less than he used to, luckily) and Oliver was never going to forgive them for kicking him out and making him ashamed of being atypical. On the other, those were his in-laws. Sort of.
No response from Mark. He started a kettle and found the tea. He couldn’t hide in the kitchen forever, and if he didn’t have permission to throw them out yet or call for backup, he was limited to Midwestern passive aggression through hospitality.
When he came out with the tea, David was peering at the bookshelf, and Vivian was perched on the edge of the couch.
“Thank you, dear,” Vivian said as she picked up her tea. “I’m so sorry for barging in on you like this.”
Either she had no idea that he was atypical, or she was on her best behavior for some other reason, and either way, Oliver wasn’t interested in playing along. “It’s no trouble. Mark’s told me so much about you two.”
Vivian’s smile faltered, whether because she knew the sort of stories Mark would have told Oliver, or because he had converted the sugar in her tea into tartaric acid mid-sip.
“That’s a lovely hamsa,” she said, nodding to the wall next to the bookshelf as she put down her mug.
“Thanks,” he replied warily. He’d talked one of Mark’s empath friends into helping him turn it into an artifact that would project crippling discomfort at anyone who worked at the AM. It wasn’t perfect protection, and it had a tendency to repel Joan and Sam as well, but it helped Oliver sleep easier at night. Although he might have to make several more, if Mark insisted on telling the entire world about Tier 5. The government didn’t take kindly to people with too much credibility who tried to speak truth to power. Or their families.
“This is an interesting collection,” David said stiffly. “Are these yours or Byron’s?”
"I like medieval history.” Maimonides and John Dee weren’t actually from the same historical period, but the Bryants didn’t strike him as history buffs. “The Discworld books are Mark’s.”
“Hm. I should have known. He was always fond of. . .lighter fare.”
The twist in his mouth said exactly what he thought of Mark’s taste in books, and even if Oliver agreed privately, he refused to join the Bryants in criticizing Mark. “Any halfway educated person can write a book full of so much jargon you need a master’s degree to understand it. It’s harder to write the same book at a level more people will understand.”
“I suppose. If you’re comfortable with a more shallow treatment of the material.”
Oliver jerked his chin toward the shelf that held “Men At Arms”. “If it were up to me, I’d rather have a hundred students walk away from my class with a surface level understanding of economic inequality, and an interest in learning more. Better than having ten understand it fully, and ninety who are so bored they give up.”
“You’re a teacher?” Vivian asked.
“Chemistry. At MIT.”
David looked up from the bookshelf. “And you’re Byron’s. . .what, roommate? Boyfriend?”
“Husband,” he said shortly. It was close enough to the truth. Where the fuck was Mark?
“And the boy. Toby, you said? He’s your son.”
"They’re our child, yes.”
“Well. That’s fucking fantastic.” David crossed to the window.
David closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Joan did the same thing when she was stressed. “I’m sorry. It’s not every day you learn you have a grands — grandchild and that your son is endangering them.”
“David, stop exaggerating,” Vivian said sharply. “Nobody’s in danger yet. And Oliver’s a smart man. He wouldn’t let Byron do anything rash.” She leaned forward and folded her hands over her knees. “I assume Byron has told you about his. . .problem?”
Oliver smiled blandly and dug his nails into his palm. “His nightmarish taste in waffle toppings? Oh, I’m aware. Unless you meant his tendency to sing along to Bohemian Rhapsody. You know, I keep telling him it’s okay not to try for the high notes, we can’t all be Freddie Mercury, but does he ever listen —”
“No, dear, I meant his. . .what does Joan call it? Atypicalness? Atypicality?”
“Just say ‘deviant’, Vivian. Stop trying to dress it up in whatever PC words Joan wants us to use.” David sat down next to her. “You’ve seen the news? The video that’s been leaked?”
“I have.” He’d had to sit down when he’d seen Mark’s face in the Tier 5 footage. Seeing his own, gaunt and hidden behind several weeks of beard, had almost made him throw up.
Vivian mistook his expression for anger on Mark’s behalf. “It’s never easy watching someone you love being hurt. It was hard for us to watch, and we know the AM was just trying to fix his. . .his problem.”
“You don’t know what he’s like when he’s around another one of those deviants.” David swirled the tea in his mug. “Throwing things around the room without touching them, setting the curtains on fire every five minutes, hearing our thoughts—”
“Not an environment you’d want to raise a child in,” Vivian added. “And definitely not something to parade in front of reporters and cameras as something to be proud of. So you’ll talk to Byron? Try to talk him out of it?”
“I think Mark’s been through hell, and he’s earned the right to talk about it — or not — with whoever he wants,” Oliver said as evenly as he could with blood pounding in his ears. He’d spent the last week trying to convince Mark that going public was dangerous, but he’d walk barefoot on broken glass before siding with the Bryants.
David sighed. “This isn’t a game, Oliver. Your futures — Toby’s future — are at stake here.”
“I’m well aware of the stakes, thank you,” he bit out. “And I won’t shame my husband for being atypical. That’s not an environment I want to raise a child in. I’ll leave that to you.”
David’s ears turned red. “How dare you. You have no idea what it’s like to raise an atypical son. Byron could barely control himself. We didn’t know how to help him. If we’d known the AM was an option —”
“That’s your idea of help? A bare cell in a dirty basement with no natural light and no human contact except whatever guards and scientists poke you with needles this week and inject you with god-knows-what before throwing you back in fucking solitary?”
“How do you know what. . .” Vivian clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh my god. You’re one of them. I knew you looked familiar.” She grabbed David’s arm. “Let’s go, we can wait for Byron in the car —”
The front door opened as the Bryants were getting up. “What the fuck is this?” Mark said loudly as he marched into the living room.
“Oh good, maybe you can explain to us why you’ve taken complete leave of your senses,” David snapped. “You had the chance to let the AM fix you, or at the absolute least spend your time around normal people that don’t set off your. . .ability, and instead you married one? What, setting the dorm on fire with that girl in college wasn’t enough for you?”
“Bad enough that your face is plastered all over the evening news for a week — now I have to find out from Joan that you want to drag our name through the mud? When you have our grandchild living with you?”
“Byron, you’re almost forty. You’re far too old for identity politics,” Vivian added. “If you want to be. . .atypical, we can’t stop you, but why do you have to shove it in people’s faces and make trouble? What kind of life is that for Toby? How can that possibly be safe for them?”
“Oh, fuck right off,” Oliver snarled. “You didn’t even know Tobias existed until twenty minutes ago. You think you have any right to tell us how to raise them? After how you treated Mark? Fuck that. Get out.”
Fucking hell. Oliver closed his eyes briefly before turning around. Tobias was standing in the hall behind Oliver and holding a book. “What’s wrong? Why are you yelling?”
“Get back in your room, Tobias,” Mark said, carefully even. Oliver shifted to put himself more squarely between Tobias and Vivian. The sudden predatory look on her face made him nervous.
“But I’m hungry.”
“You want dinner, sweetie?” Vivian said in a poisonously sweet voice, kneeling and holding out her hand to Tobias. “Come on, let’s go get pizza. Or burgers. What do you want?”
“Mom, don’t you fucking dare.”
“Byron, if you and your pet deviant want to martyr yourselves to this ridiculous cause, fine, but you will not do it with our grandchild in the house,” David hissed. “Toby, come with us —”
He started toward Oliver and Tobias, and Oliver didn’t have time to think before he’d swung his fist at David, throwing his whole body into it. There was a smack and a jolt that reverberated through his shoulder, all the way to his teeth. David’s head snapped back and he stumbled away from them.
Oliver’s body buzzed with adrenaline and there was a high-pitched ringing in his ears, as if he were the one who had been hit. “Get. Out,” he heard himself growl. “I won’t say it again.”
“Son of a fucking —” David lunged at Oliver, who got ready to throw another punch and maybe transmute all the oxygen in David’s blood into carbon dioxide for good measure. He ran smack into Mark, who had stepped between them.
“Dad, stop! Oliver, get Tobias back in their room. You two, out — now, before I call the police.”
Something tightened around Oliver’s leg. Tobias was holding on to him and crying. It startled Oliver out of his fight-or-flight haze, and he scooped Tobias up and carried them into their room on suddenly shaking legs. He missed what Vivian said, but he heard Mark shout, “You think I won’t? You two came into our house and tried to take our kid—”
Oliver kicked the door shut behind them and sat hard on the bed with Tobias clinging to him like a koala and sobbing into his shoulder. Shivers radiated from his stomach and his hand was throbbing, and when he peeked at it over Tobias’s shoulder, he grimaced to see most of the skin scraped off his knuckles and bruises forming on two of his fingers. He held Tobias and rubbed their back with his good hand until the shakes went away and their sobs subsided into sniffles.
“Daddy, who were they?” Tobias finally asked wetly.
“Those. . .were Papa’s parents.” Anything more would be thoroughly inappropriate for ten-year-old ears.
“Why did they want to take me away? What did I do?”
“You didn’t do anything. They’re just confused.”
“She said it wasn’t safe here. Why isn’t it safe?”
Oh boy, if that wasn’t the $64,000 question, but there was no part of the answer that wouldn’t give Tobias (or Oliver, for that matter) screaming nightmares. “Listen to me.” He shifted Tobias in his arms until he was looking into their eyes. “Your Pop and me? The most important job we have — no, the only job we have — is keeping you safe. No matter what else happens, we will always make sure you’re okay. You don’t have to go anywhere you don’t want to go, or with anyone you don’t want, all right? Even if they say they’re family.”
Tobias nodded and sniffed. “You hit him.”
“Yep.” He flexed his hand behind Tobias’s back and tried not to wince.
“Did it hurt?”
“A little. Not that much,” he lied. He and Mark were going to have to do some fast talking later to explain what Oliver had done. Right now he didn’t feel up to a philosophical debate about nonviolence and reasonable uses of force.
The house had gone quiet while they’d been curled up on Tobias’s bed. Oliver kissed the top of their head. “How about those pancakes, kiddo?”
They shook their head and rubbed their eyes. “M’not hungry anymore.”
“Yeah, but we forgot about dinner with all the excitement, and you need to eat. What about a sandwich? Think you can handle a few bites?”
Tobias thought for a moment, and nodded. “Grilled cheese?”
“Coming right up.”
Mark was sitting on the floor of the living room against the wall when Oliver came out, head tipped back and eyes closed. “How’s Tobias?” he asked without opening his eyes.
"A little shaken up, but fine. I promised them grilled cheese for dinner.” Oliver sat next to Mark. “How are you?”
“I was seven hours into a shift when I saw Joanie’s messages and your text, and I raced home to find my parents in our living room saying horrible things about you and threatening to take Tobias. How do you think I feel?”
“I’m sorry. They barged in and I didn’t know what to do.”
“So your solution was to serve them tea?”
“Hey, I made sure it was gross tea. And I insulted their parenting skills and punched your dad. That’s got to count for something.”
Mark’s lips twitched into an exhausted smile as he leaned into Oliver’s shoulder. “Okay, that was insanely satisfying.” Oliver started to run his fingers through Mark’s hair and winced. “Fuck, Oliver, your hand.” He took Oliver’s hand out of his hair and prodded gently at the bruises, and Oliver sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Come on, we’ve got to clean this up.”
"Tobias needs dinner first,” Oliver protested, but let Mark pull him into the kitchen by the elbow.
“I’ll multitask.” He nudged Oliver into a chair at the table and put the first aid kit in front of him, before turning to the stove.
Oliver dry-swallowed an ibuprofen and watched Mark put together a sandwich. “Don’t get fancy. I don’t think they’re going to have more than a few bites anyway.”
“I can make a kid-friendly sandwich, thank you very much.” Mark turned on the burner and sat across from Oliver. “How’s your wrist?”
“Lucky.” Mark began smearing ointment on the cuts on his knuckles. “I sprained my wrist in my first fight. Then again, I was fighting the school bully who was twice my size.”
“Not a seventy-year-old man?”
“Dad had it coming.” Mark kissed the back of his hand before spreading a bandage over one of his knuckles. “My knight in shining armor,” he said softly before getting back to work.
Oliver didn’t feel like a knight. Knights had honor and dignity. They would have found a way to protect Tobias that didn’t require them to attack elderly men. “They’re not going to call the cops on us, are they?”
“I doubt it.” Mark unwrapped another bandage. “They came into our house, remember? We asked them to leave, they didn’t, and then they tried to take Tobias. They know they’ll never get a cop to take them seriously.”
Oliver chewed the inside of his cheek. “What if they tell the police Tobias is in danger? Your mom was hell-bent on getting them out of here.”
“Mom can go fuck herself.”
“A nice idea, but if a social worker shows up on our doorstep, or at our jobs, what do we do?”
Mark was silent as he covered the last of the cuts, and stroked the back of Oliver’s hand with his thumb. “I honestly don’t know. I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
The smell of toasting bread brought them back to the present. Mark flipped the sandwich and got a bag of frozen peas from the freezer, took Oliver’s hand, and pressed it to the bag, absently rubbing an apology into his wrist when he hissed quietly. “I’m going to do it,” he said quietly. “I’ll call Jackson and Caleb tonight and see what we need to do to put together a. . .statement, or a press release, or something.”
Oliver closed his eyes. “Is this because of your parents? I know they’re a piece of work, but they’re not worth doing anything rash over.”
“Says the man who’s bleeding all over the kitchen because he punched my father.”
“Hey, you said yourself he had it coming. And I’m not bleeding all over the kitchen. Stop being dramatic.” He felt like he was releasing a breath he didn’t realize he’d held all week, at the same time that a whole new knot of tension coiled in his gut. “You’re sure about this?”
It was a stupid question. Of course he was sure. Oliver had done everything he could to hold it off, but Mark was always going to go public, and Oliver was always going to be left to hope that he knew what he was doing.
“Tobias deserves to live in a world where you can be atypical without having your kids taken away. Fuck, we deserve to.”
“But why do you have to be the one to make that world? There’s a dozen of us on that tape. Let Jackson or Mona or Javier do it. Or - how about that astral projectionist, what was her name, Lydia?”
“Sure. Her. I’m pretty sure I saw her face in the video. Why can’t we get her to lead the charge?”
“I can’t ask people to put themselves in danger if I’m not willing to do it myself, Oliver.” Mark sounded more tired than angry. They’d had some variation on this argument at least once a day since the video was leaked, and they’d sucked all the fight out of it long ago.
“Shouldn’t we at least wait a few years? Your parents are right about one thing, Tobias is too young to grow up looking over their shoulder for FBI surveillance, or worry about their parents getting arrested on trumped-up charges and dying mysteriously.”
“That’s not going to happen.”
“Really, Byron? Tell that to Berta Cáceres, and Malcolm X, and Darren Seals, and Gary Webb —”
“Now who’s being dramatic?”
“Look, Tobias will be eighteen before we know it. Can’t we wait to storm the barricades until they move out?”
Mark gave him a dirty look. “You can’t be serious. If we wait any longer, the AM’s just going to cover up the video. They’re halfway there already. Who knows when another chance this good is going to come?”
“So let’s wait until the next chance! What’s wrong with our life right now?” To his horror he could hear his voice cracking, and Mark flinched. “Sure, things aren’t perfect, but they work, don’t they? We’ve both got jobs, we’ve got a house, we’ve got Tobias, you’ll have a new niece when Caleb and Adam’s adoption papers get processed. . .” He blinked back the heat gathering behind his eyes. “We’ve worked so hard for this. Isn't it enough?"
Mark squeezed his eyes closed, and got up and hugged Oliver. “I love you,” he whispered fiercely as Oliver pressed his face into Mark’s chest. “I love you so much, and I love Tobias, and I love our life in this house with its creaky floors, and leaky shower, and the weird artifact that literally makes my sister and my ex-girlfriend run away. Please don’t ever think I don’t.”
He kissed Oliver’s head, and Oliver felt the but coming and braced for impact. “But no, Oliver. It’s not enough. We’re constantly worrying about Wadsworth or someone like her finding out about Tobias, or changing her mind about letting us go. They’re the reason we have the weird artifact that hates Sam and Joanie. What you and I went through. . .and we both have entire years when we were just gone. If Sam hadn’t fixed our credit reports and invented a paper trail for those years, how do you think we would have been able to afford this place? Or gotten jobs?”
“We would have figured something out, I could have made more gold -”
“And that’s just the handful of us who were on Tier 5. How many patients has Joan seen who think there’s something wrong with them because they hear people’s thoughts, or astral project, or dreamwalk? How many parents have no idea what to do with their atypical kids and just. . .give up?” He let go of Oliver and stepped back. “No. We can’t change what they did to us, but if we can make it even a little better for other atypicals, we have to try.”
If this were a movie, or one of the cheesy musicals Mark and Caleb were so fond of, the music would swell and Oliver would have no choice but to agree and be inspired by Mark’s courage. He looked more grounded and sure of himself than he had all week. It was a good look on him, and Oliver wanted to be convinced and inspired.
He took a deep breath, cleared his throat, and stood up. “Well. I’d better start transmuting some more gold. If you’re serious about this, you’re going to need a good lawyer on retainer.”
Mark’s shoulders sagged in relief. “Thank you,” he sighed, and kissed Oliver. Oliver leaned into the kiss and did his best to memorize this moment: the smell of melted cheese and toasting bread, the slight rasp of stubble under his lips and fingers, Mark warm and solid and heartbreakingly resolute in his arms.
“The peas are thawing,” he said roughly, and pulled away to put the bag of peas back in the freezer and take Tobias’s sandwich off the stove. Mark paced around the kitchen and tapped at his phone, probably texting Jackson or Caleb.
He stood outside Tobias’s door for a long moment until his hands stopped shaking and his breath was steady. There would be plenty of time to fall apart later. Right now Oliver had a child to feed, a lot of gold to transmute, a boyfriend to keep safe for as long as he could, and calls of his own to make.
He desperately wanted to be brave enough to stand with Mark and remake the world, make sure nobody else experienced the horrors they’d gone through. But he had already been seduced into foolhardy action too many times by charismatic people with clarity of purpose.
Oliver had always known he would run again. It was only a matter of time.