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I Miss You Even Though You're Still Here

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~ * ~

Amanda hates New York.

She hates the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter. Georgia is so much nicer.

She hates her mom, she hates her aunt. She even hates her sister.

She hates the school her aunt is making her go to while they wait for news that Mom completed rehab—again.

She hates the stupid bus that idles in front of the curb. She hates the other kids standing around, jostling each other. She hates the raggedy backpack with a broken strap her aunt said was still good enough for her when Kim got all new clothes and a bag too.

She hates absolutely everything.

The only thing she doesn’t hate is the bus driver.

A nun who’s trying to save their souls, but swears like a sailor if prompted.

Especially by “Sit your damn ass down, Barish! I won’t tell you again!”

Amanda wants to grow up to be Sister Peg if she ever stops hating God.

The bus is already crowded, kids crammed in like sardines, some three to a seat. The only remotely empty seat houses a rail thin kid with honest-to-god gel slicked hair. He’s dressed in a zipped up jacket and too-small pants, his long legs stretched out under the seat in front of him. He has a pink backpack on his lap, and he’s staring out the window, cheek resting on hand.

Amanda plops into the empty space, knocking her shoulder into his. He ignores her.

She hates New York. Hates having moved here in the middle of the school year so she has to start all over at another new place. Kim, stupid, airhead, bitch, doesn’t seem to have the same trouble, easily sliding into a seat with two other girls that look like her.

Sometimes—although it’s really like always—Amanda fucking hates her sister.

“Why pink?” she whispers to herself, poking at the weird kid’s backpack. He finally turns his attention to her.

“Sorry if I’m in your space,” he says, a thick accent curling his words into ugly syllables. Amanda smacks at him. “What? I was here first.”

“Yeah, well, your bag is ugly,” she says.

“It was my sister’s.”

Joy.

At least company keeps. She sets her broken bag on the seat between them, and smirks at his raised eyebrow.

“And you make fun of my bag?”

One of the Kims turns around and shouts, “Sonny Carisi, you better not be talking!” The same ugly accent is on her words.

The kids around them laugh like it’s the funniest joke in the world, and Amanda hates them all. The weird kid, Carisi, just looks like it doesn’t faze him, and he turns back to the window.

“On the way home you can have the window seat,” he offers quietly.

“Why?”

“You’ll see.”

The rest of the ride, they spend in silence. Amanda decides she hates the weird kid too.

~ * ~

As soon as they disembark, Amanda being jostled from behind by the other kids knocking into Carisi, she runs to the office to pick up her and Kim’s itineraries.

The guidance counselor, Mr. Bayard Ellis, a retired civil attorney, pulls her aside and gives her what he must think are words of wisdom.

“Keep your nose to the books and see what you can accomplish, all right, Ms. Rollins?”

“I just came to get my schedule,” she says.

He nods and hands her it, still warm from the printer, and Amanda tucks it into her pocket without folding it. She grins at Mr. Ellis’s wince.

“Speak to your homeroom teacher for a planner,” he says, holding the door for her. “You’re with Dr. Huang.”

A quick glance at the crumpled itinerary shows her meeting is in the library. Sophomore class must be tiny since it says A-Z meet there.

The library is right next to the office, to the left of it, actually.

Sinking into a chair, she realizes she forgot Kim’s schedule. Oh well. Kim’s gotta learn to think for herself someday. Might as well be today.

All in all, maybe twenty kids lounge in chairs set around a few tables pushed together, all chattering excitedly. A short Asian man in a three-piece suit stands at the circ desk, an attendance book open in one hand, a fountain pen in the other. Ellis, she’d expected to be well-dressed. Dr. Huang, not so much.

And then weird kid, Carisi, drops into the chair next to her. His ugly pink bag is nowhere to be found and he has a binder filled with college-ruled paper and pens and a butcher-paper covered book, “Geometry” inked onto the front of it.

“Amaro, Nicholas,” Dr. Huang calls out. His voice is soft but commanding and the kids fall silent almost immediately.

A Hispanic boy, curling dark hair, brooding brown eyes sitting across from Amanda raises his hand. “Present,” he calls back. There’s a bit of smugness in his voice, and Amanda decides to hate him on principle.

Huang makes a mark in his book. “Barish, Scott.”

“Here,” the tousled-haired bus-trouble-making kid says, and there’s no mistaking the smugness in his voice.

“Brooks, Sarah.”

“Here.” Pretty girl with long, dyed red hair.

“Brunsider, Peter.”

“Present,” says a boy with a backwards cap and a Jets jersey, and Amanda has to wonder if he’s making fun of Amaro. Based on Amaro’s glare, she’d guess yes. Maybe she won’t hate him quite yet.

“Carisi, Dominick, Jr.”

At his name, her seatmate pops his head up. He mimes pushing glasses up his nose, making Amanda wonder if he secretly needs them. “Present, sir,” he responds.

Another mark. Another name.

Amanda matches names to faces, waiting for her name to be called.

Her name is last on the list, and Huang gives her an apologetic look. “Rollins, Amanda.”

“Present, sir,” she says, like Carisi.

“Your name will be in alphabetical order next time,” Huang promises. “Now, it’s time for morning announcements.”

A loudspeaker crackles, almost as if by speaking about it, Huang summoned the tinny voices. Sudden inspiration strikes, and Amanda snatches a piece of paper and a pen from Carisi to scribble her idea down before it gets lost.

When she peeks at him, he isn’t glaring. Instead, he studiously ignores her paper, choosing a couple more pens and a stack of paper from his binder.

He slides it to her and she decides not to hate him as much.

~ * ~

Chapter Text

~ * ~

After announcements, the bell rings and everyone jumps to their feet, racing off to their lockers. Amanda doesn’t know where hers is yet, so instead she heads up to the circ desk to talk to Huang.

“I was told to talk to you about a planner?” she says, and Huang smiles at her.

“Certainly,” he says, digging into a messenger bag set on the desk behind him. “Here we go.” He hands her a red and black spiral bound book emblazoned with “Hannover’s Finishing School.”

Amanda thinks it sounds like a fight club, but Aunt Rachel had decided it was the best school in the area. Never mind that it would cost her an arm and a leg to ensure they’d get in.

Amanda had found the scholarships online and filled out one each for her and Kim. It cut the cost in half, which left it still ridiculously high, but at least Aunt Rachel stopped frowning and muttering under her breath about money.

“You have Geometry first period. All the sophomores have virtually the same schedule.” Huang laughs, as quiet and commanding as his speaking voice. “Dominick,” he calls, and Carisi, who’d hung back studying the new books shelf, approaches them. “Show Amanda the halls, okay? I think you have different electives, but otherwise, your schedules should be exactly the same.”

“Curse the drought of ‘95,” Carisi jokes, and Huang smiles at him fondly.

“Along with you,” he says. “And Dominick, don’t forget to come see me.” He hands Carisi a note, which Carisi folds neatly and tucks into his pocket. Ellis must love him.

“So, Geometry,” Amanda says as they exit the library and hang an immediate left. “And my locker?”

By now, the halls are mostly empty, just some students tacking up posters for a dance or something.

“Your locker is next to Kylie Ringer’s,” Carisi says, making that glasses motion again. “Which means nothing to you, but everything to me. If you want, you can share my locker. The only things different will be the elective.”

He grabs her arm and starts to run, pulling her along.

They make it to a door with a tall, gaunt man, dark glasses on his face, hanging out of it. “Ah, Mr. Carisi,” the man says, his voice not nearly as deep as Amanda imagined it would be. “Nice of you to bring along some fresh meat. I hope next time it won’t take you so long to venture my way again?”

“Hello, Mr. Munch.” Carisi smiles for the first time, and his whole face melts into a cherubic look. Amanda punches his arm lightly and he drops her hand. “We were talking with Dr. Huang and I lost track of time.”

“Just sit,” Mr. Munch says. He points at two empty chairs in the front of the room. “Now, as you all know, I hate taking attendance, especially so early in the morning, so everyone, fall in and sound off. New face. You’ll be writing off everyone. I presume you’ve all met?”

“Homeroom,” Carisi whispers. “Drought of ‘95.” She smacks him.

The bell sounds.

“If you don’t mind, Mr. Munch,” she says, using her Woe-Is-Me voice that she hates using but really it’s the only effective weapon she has against adults, “I’m not quite feeling up to it. Perhaps there is someone else more suited?”

“Fine. Mr. Carisi?”

Carisi hurries to Munch’s desk, flipping open his attendance book, and grabbing a stubby pencil.

“Mr. Amaro?”

“Present.” Hispanic Boy stands ramrod straight next to his desk. Carisi makes a mark.

“Mr. Barish.”

“Here.” Tousled Hair, not as straight as Amaro, lines up next to him.

Down the line it goes, with Carisi calling himself and answering the same as he did Huang, until, “Ms. Ringer.”

Kylie Ringer, Head Cheerleader pretty, slouches next to the rest of the line. She smacks her gum instead of responding, and Carisi pauses.

“Ms. Ringer,” he says again. She rolls her eyes and snaps her gum again. “Absent,” he says, marking quickly. “Ms. Rollins.”

Amanda stands quickly, heels together, shoulders back. “Present, sir.” Carisi smiles and marks her.

Ringer squeals angrily, turning to Munch who is gazing out the window while Carisi takes attendance. “Mr. Munch!” she complains.

“Yes, Ms. Ringer?”

“I’m here! He marked me absent.”

Munch looks at Carisi who shrugs. Munch shrugs back at him. “Next time speak up. Otherwise, you’ll be absent again.” He waves his hand and Carisi makes another mark by Ringer’s name.

“Mr. Sullivan,” Carisi continues, and a portly boy wheezes his way to stand next to Amanda.

“Present and accounted for,” he says, gasping a little. “Asthma,” he mouths to Amanda.

The remaining students answer with a bored “Here.” And Carisi closes the book, sets the pencil down, and sits next to Amanda again.

“So, class,” Munch says. “We have effectively wasted five minutes of our valuable time. Thankfully, I’ll see all of you later. So. We’re going to learn about congruent angles. Take out a piece of paper and a pencil. Pencil, Mr. Carisi, pencil.”

As Munch rambles on, Amanda barely follows. She knows she should be a good student, but it’s hard for her. Ever since the move, unless it’s to lessen the strain she and Kim are putting on her aunt, she finds herself uncaring.

Beside her, Carisi writes down every example Munch gives them, notes taken in just barely legible lettering. His handwriting leaves much to be desired.

When he catches her looking at his paper, he grins. She ignores him after that, working on her story instead.

~ * ~

English is in a tiny room that barely fits all twenty-one of the sophomore class. Sitting at the teacher’s desk is a tiny, severe looking woman with short, dark hair. She glares at the chattering students over the top of her half-frames, hawk-watching as each one sinks into a chair with his or her name on it. Amanda is relieved to see she’s still sitting next to Carisi.

He hustles into the room last, her Geometry book under one arm and his own binder under the other. He hands her the book and sits quietly.

The bell rings, and immediately, the class silences.

“Attendance,” the woman says, pointing at Barish. He stands and accepts the book, standing by her desk. He reads the names fast, barely letting anyone answer before moving on. Finishing quickly but without calling Amanda’s name, he shoves the attendance book back at the teacher. She accepts it, scowling a bit.

“I am Mrs. Petrovsky,” she says, crossing to an old-fashioned board and neatly printing her name. Underneath it, she writes her name in cursive. “Now, I know all of you know who I am. What escapes me, however, is that you don’t seem to know one of your own classmates, even though you and I both know you can’t help but know everyone in your class.”

She points at Amanda, gesturing for her to head to the front of the room. Nervously, Amanda does, standing next to the woman and trying to pretend she’s not half a head taller than the teacher.

“Young lady, would you mind introducing yourself to the class and telling them something about yourself?”

Amanda minds, very much so, but she doesn’t think her Woe-Is-Me tactic will work on Petrovsky. So, she takes a deep breath and focuses on Carisi’s face. “I’m Amanda Rollins. I moved here from Georgia.”

Petrovsky nods and Amanda all but runs back to her seat. Carisi slides more paper and a pen to her and then turns his attention to Petrovsky writing on the board again. Amanda sighs with relief and goes back to outlining her story again. Carisi’ll probably give her his notes if she bugs him at lunch.

~ * ~

Chapter Text

~ * ~

Third period is Shop, and no matter how many times she cranes her neck, she can’t find Carisi in the faces. There’s only ten this time, and she wonders, thinking back to Huang’s words: Different Electives.

She wonders if it’s too late to switch.

The teacher is a cool cat, lounging on the edge of his desk, leather jacket, long braided pony-tail. For once, Amanda decides to not hate someone by sight. Even if she doesn’t have her buffer of Carisi.

“How many of you finished the project yesterday?” the teacher opens class after the bell rings. He flips open the attendance book and scribbles quickly. No one answers him, crowding around one of the band saws. Lined up against the wall opposite from the desk are birdhouses, most of which look like a stiff breeze could blow them right apart.

“Hello,” the teacher says again. “You know the drill. You don’t answer, you get a tardy.”

Immediately, the students bombard him with a series of yeses. Amanda raises her hand timidly. The teacher nods at her.

“I wasn’t here yesterday,” she says. Half the class snickers at her.

“I know. It’s too late to have you do the birdhouse, and I have to do an evaluation on you, teach you how to use the tools. If everyone is done with their projects, then the room needs cleaning.” He kicks at a pile of sawdust near his desk. “This place is not supposed to look like this and you know it.”

“I know how to handle most of these machines.” Amanda had taken Shop in middle school. Top of the class. Never mind that she was trying to build a weapon that wouldn’t break when she used it against her mother’s stupid boyfriends. “Do you want a demonstration?”

The teacher laughs, a quiet chuckle. “No, that’s okay. I believe you, but I still gotta go over the rules and regulations. The Cap will have my ass—er, my butt—if I don’t.”

 “Fair enough,” she says, her first real smile making an appearance for the first time in months. She likes this dude.

  ~ * ~

The Fourth period Study Hall teacher looks like a drill sergeant, but he’s rather soft spoken in his thick framed glasses and his button up blue shirt and gray tie. His receding hairline is the butt of the jokes of Barish and Brunsider’s table, but the man seems comfortable enough that he ignores them.

“You may, if you have a proper pass, sign out from Study Hall to use the library.” He fixes Brunsider with a particularly nasty glare over his glasses. “Otherwise, you can do homework or work on other projects as long as I don’t hear you. Got it?”

Amanda pulls out all the pages she’s accumulated from Carisi and starts working on her story again. So far, a tiny imp has managed to surround himself with a few like-minded tricksters. Each new character is modeled after another student or teacher that has made a lasting impression on Amanda. The imp is Brunsider and he’s rather vicious. Carisi and Huang and Tutuola are the counter-agents, or anti-imps, as she’s taken to calling them.

She starts doodling their likenesses, covering her work whenever the teacher happens close to her. Carisi, sitting next to her, spends his time copying his notes onto fresh paper. Every page he turns over, he slides to her and she tucks it into her geometry book.

He also, painstakingly neatly, copies down the homework assignments for the two classes they’ve had so far. He hands her a copy of the English textbook he'd gotten from Petrovsky for her.

On a fresh piece of paper, she writes, “Why do you have a different elective?”

He ignores her.

She writes, “You still haven’t told me where my locker is.”

He pulls out his planner, flipping to the back cover where she sees his schedule is taped. He taps the top corner, and she makes a note of Locker 157. She checks her schedule and finds she’s at 169. Next to Kylie Ringer, who hasn’t made much of herself as of yet, aside from her little stunt during attendance in Geometry. Based on that, Amanda expects her to be a major queen bitch, another Kim.

Joy.

She goes back to her drawings, finding that it’s easier to storyboard it, make it a comic instead of writing the words.

The bell rings for dismissal and she shoves everything into her bag. Carisi holds her elbow and leads her out into the hallway. They make it to Locker 157, and Carisi switches out all his books, Geometry, English, and Home Ec, and grabs Biology. As she waits for him to lock up, someone grabs her bag and tugs on the broken strap. Immediately, she whirls around, fist smashing against the poor bastard’s nose.

He lets go and crumples to the floor, wailing.

“He’ll be fine,” Carisi breathes against her ear as he walks her away from the gathering crowd. At least three teachers have converged too, and they glance around, searching for the culprit. She tucks her stinging hand into her pocket and tightens her grip on her bag.

“That was Maurice Van de Maar,” Carisi explains when they’ve got some distance.

“Who?” she replies, and he gives her a knowing look.

“His parents fund the school. They are the ones who mete out the scholarships.”

“Shit,” Amanda swears. Carisi shrugs.

“I don’t think anyone quite knew it was you,” he says. “And if they ask, I’ll take the fall.” Before she can say anything, he punches the wall, hard. Then, he leads her into a classroom.

Inside is a laboratory big enough to house the cafeteria and the gymnasium. 

She’s never seen a school put such emphasis on academics before.

“I don’t think we have assigned seats,” he whispers to her, still guiding her toward the desks. “I wasn’t paying attention the first day of class. I’ve been sitting wherever I feel like it. There’s a couple of empty seats next to mine.”

“Sure.”

She likes that about Carisi. He’s not afraid to be seen with the new girl. He’s not asked her to sit next to him, he just keeps appropriating empty desks around himself so she has a choice.

It seems most of the teachers have her back-story and think it’s a Nice Thing that she’s found a Friend so easily, so they seem to be encouraging them to sit together.

The bell rings just as Carisi and she sit down. He’s got his books out and on his desk in the time it takes the teacher to walk to them.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Carisi, but we have assigned seats today. You’ll be by Ms. Brooks.” She looks apologetic at first, but the longer it takes Carisi to pack up and move, the more she glares.

“Ms.,” Amanda says, “where is my assigned seat?”

“Oh, you’re fine where you are.” The teacher smiles at her.

“Well, I’m not comfortable here.” Amanda moves to the aisle over from Carisi and stares at the girl sitting there until she picks up her purse and moves away. Amanda sits next to Carisi, punching his knee lightly to let him know she’s there.

He smiles but otherwise ignores her. For the next forty-three minutes, she does the same.

 ~ * ~

Chapter Text

~ * ~

Lunch is a quiet affair, although the reduced price meal she has to take labels her as One of Those and no one wants her to sit with them. Everywhere she turns, ranks close, girls huddling closer, boys staring balefully. She knows enough to not push it, even with the sympathetic looks the teachers at the head table shoot her.

The only open place she finds to sit is on the planter by the front door with Carisi. She notices that Kim is sitting with those plastic girls from the bus. Both of whom have reduced price lunches too. There’s no room at that table though, since it’s barely big enough for the three of them.

Well, at least Kim’s having fun, if her constant laughing is anything to go by.

Carisi unwraps his sandwich carefully, using the plastic as a plate and balancing it on his knee. He offers half to her.

“I see your sister has gotten in with my sister,” he says.

“The one who told you to shut up on the bus?”

He nods.

“Why’d she do that anyway?”

He shrugs. “I guess it’s her way of protecting me,” he says. Amanda studies him carefully while he bites off some crust and chews it twenty times before swallowing. “There’s these guys, a couple in my grade, one in hers, and two from the grades above us who pick on me.”

He pauses for another bite of sandwich, chewing twenty times again. Pretending not to be fascinated, Amanda begins eating her apple slices.

“So, in order to keep them from using my own words against me, ‘cause I don’t think you’ve noticed, but I have a tendency to run my mouth a bit, Bella devised a plan where she’ll tell me to shut up if I lose track. It gets her in with the popular crowd.” Amanda snorts into her palm and Carisi shoots her an annoyed glare.

“Sorry,” she says, although she’s not really.

“And it keeps everyone off my back, to an extent.”

“So, those guys, any chance you’ll give me their names?”

“What are you going to do, beat them up?” He shakes his head. “Sorry, they’d put you in the slammer first.”

“Why? Is it like that rich kid?” She pokes an apple slice into his sandwich, and weirdo he is, he eats it, crunching loudly.

Carisi nods, pursing his lips thoughtfully. He sets his sandwich down, wiping his hands on his pants, before he tugs out a piece of paper and a pen.

He starts scribbling names, and Amanda recognizes rich kid’s—Maurice Van de Maar. Michael Van de Maar must either be a brother or a cousin. She also recognizes Scott Barish and Pete Brunsider. She doesn’t recognize the last name—Dale Stuckey. Next to each name, Carisi writes things like, "drug addict" or "wannabe."

“So Van de Maar wanted my bag ‘cause he’s, what, a meth head?”

“Coke,” Carisi says, folding the paper and sliding it into his pocket. Again, Amanda wonders if Ellis appreciates his paper handling. “And Stuckey’s the freshman no one can quite tell to go home since he doesn’t listen anyway.”

He wraps his food and sticks it in a trashcan set near the Caf exit. Amanda follows his example, and then they spend a few minutes silently waiting for the bell to let them head back to class.

  ~ * ~

Amanda loses Carisi in the crowd despite trying to keep a firm grasp on his sleeve. When she finally wanders around the right corner, buffeted on both sides by students more aware of where they’re supposed to go, she finds him backed against the wall, Brunsider and Barish in his face.

“Where’s your girlfriend?” Barish sneers while Brunsider punches Carisi’s shoulder. He winces but doesn’t respond otherwise.

“Boys,” a teacher says, sticking her head out of the door next to them. She has a slight accent and a shy smile, but her eyes are cold, and Amanda sees a detention book poking out of her front pocket. “Run along before I mark you absent.” Barish and Brunsider leave Carisi alone, heading into the room, and the teacher pins him with a knowing stare.

“Ah,” Amanda says suddenly, grabbing Carisi’s hand before he can disappear into the classroom. She wants to offer to ditch class or take him to Huang, but he shrugs her off, leading her to two empty desks shoved in a corner.

The bell rings as the teacher flips open her attendance book. “We’ll be doing something a bit different for attendance today,” she announces to loud groans from the students. “When I call on you, please stand by your seat and say a fact about you en español , por favor. Nicolás.”

Me llamo Nicolás y yo quiero ser un policía.”

It goes down the line like that, with most of the students tripping over the simple words of where they are from (Yo soy de New York ) and what they like to do (M e gusta jugar fútbol americano).

Amaro and Carisi have the best pronunciation, and they both get blinding smiles from the teacher.

Halfway through the lesson, when Kylie Ringer is begging Señora Beck to help her with her conjugation, the door opens and Cool Cat Tutuola pokes his head in.

“Sorry to interrupt, but I need to borrow Mr. Carisi for a moment.”

Carisi gathers his things quickly, patting Amanda’s hand as he wriggles free from the desk. Señora Beck passes him a piece of paper before he leaves, Tutuola’s hand hovering over his back.

He’s not back by the time Señora Beck lets them work in pairs to rehearse some dialogue from an overly dramatic soap opera.

She doesn’t want to say she’s worried, but she is. Even though she reasons he’s probably having his meeting with Huang now.

The bell startles her, and she ignores the glares of the girl she was supposed to be helping. Señora Beck stops her before she leaves, helping her tape her schedule on the inside of the back cover of her planner. She also points out that her next class is just across the hall with Mr. Stabler, the drill sergeant from Study Hall.

When she gets there, she finds Carisi huddled into a seat near the front of the room. He doesn’t look up from where he’s doodling idly on a piece of paper. At his desk, Stabler watches them over the top of his glasses.

They don’t speak the entire period—understandable—not even when Stabler calls on them.

Amanda wonders what happened in twenty minutes. Then, she decides, if Carisi really wants to, he can tell her.

He can also tell her why he wasn’t so keen on her being near Kylie Ringer since, aside from her little bitch-out in Geometry and her simpering during Spanish, she hasn’t done much to justify his warning. Especially since she’s not on his list of tormentors.

Whatever.

She still hates New York.

~ * ~

Chapter Text

~ * ~

Mr. Munch from Geometry greets Amanda when she stumbles back into the Caf for Study Hall again. She’s loaded down with her Spanish book and both Carisi’s and her history books.

 Carisi moves listlessly, and Amanda has to keep shoving him out of the way of other students. More than one of them side-eyes her, while Barish and Brunsider follow behind making kissy-noises.

Munch grabs one side of Carisi and together they get him situated at the small table Kim and Bella and the third girl had eaten at.

“He’ll be fine,” Munch says, patting Amanda’s shoulder. She tries not to flinch at the touch. “He’s always like this after Stabler’s boring old class.”

Carisi rouses enough to protest a bit when Amanda plops into the seat next to him. “I’m not good like this,” he mumbles.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asks

Carisi blinks at her, and she drops the books onto the table with a loud bang. Munch shushes her and then squeezes Carisi’s shoulder, heading to the Teacher’s Table where he announces the students can talk to him if they need any help in Geometry.

“Huang has me on anti-depressants,” Carisi whispers when she starts working on her story again. She ignores the tremble in his voice, and the fact that he sounds close to tears. “I had some trouble last year,” he says. “Huang’s just trying to help.”

“Do the other students know?” She already knows the answer, and Carisi confirms her guess when he shakes his head.

“I don’t think I’d ever leave Huang’s office if that happened,” he says. “The teachers all know, and most try to deflect attention off of me.”

“Except the Biology teacher,” Amanda fills in. She thinks back on the woman, Ms. Paxton. “Why exactly does she have such an issue with you?”

Carisi hums, head falling forward onto his arms. He doesn’t respond, and Amanda lets it drop, focusing on inking in a shadow on her protagonist’s chin. Oddly, the anti-imp looks almost like Carisi with his narrow eyes and sandy hair.

She spends the rest of the period trying to get the fingers to look right, ignoring Carisi’s trembling next to her.

 

~ * ~

Next class is Physical Education. Carisi rouses enough to tell her that since it’s first semester, they’ll have P.E. every other day. Tomorrow will be art, and Amanda knows she’ll like art a hell of a lot better than P.E. They swing by Carisi’s locker for their backpacks. He advises her to get a lock with a combination code but for now, if she wants she can change and then give him her clothes to stash in his gym locker.

She agrees quickly.

A plain red t-shirt and black basketball shorts is the standard uniform for all students. Of course, kids like Kylie Ringer or Scott Barish personalize their outfits as much as the teacher, a pock-marked man with a whistle hanging off a red lanyard and a clipboard stuck to his waist, lets them.

“Coach Lake,” Kylie whines as soon as he looks up from marking on the clipboard. “Coach Lake. I just got my period and I don’t think I can participate.”

“Really?” Coach Lake says, quirking an eyebrow at her. He consults his clipboard. “That makes this the third period you’ve ‘just got.’ I think you’re up for some laps, don’t you?”

She scoffs, tossing her hair over her shoulder. He points toward the bleachers and she sighs insufferably before trudging off to walk as slowly as she can around the rest of the group.

“Carisi,” Coach Lake all but shouts, and Carisi jumps to attention.

“Sir?” he says thickly, like he’s asleep on his feet.

“We’re gonna play kickball today,” Coach Lake says. “You up for it, or do you wanna go to the nurse?”

Carisi flushes as the class titters. “I’m good,” he says when they finally fall silent.

“Okay,” Coach Lake says, and it doesn’t sound like he agrees with Carisi at all. “New kid,” he continues, and Amanda straightens next to Carisi. “Keep an eye on him; maybe today’s the day he won’t get a bloody nose.”

Coach Lake claps his hands loudly, pointing at Barish and a thin girl with long brown hair dip-dyed pink on the tips. Amanda thinks her name is Brooke Feldman or something similar. “Barish, you’re captain of Team Red. Collect your strips from the box on the first row to the left.

“Felder, you’re captain of the blue team. Strips on the right. You’ve also got Carisi and new kid. Everyone else line up. If I point to you and say ‘one,’ you’re on Barish’s team. ‘Two,’ and you’re on Felder’s. Any other questions?”

He doesn’t wait for any questions though, just waving the captains and Amanda and Carisi toward the boxes.

Kylie passes them, finally completing her first full lap. “Coach,” she complains, “when can I stop running?”

Coach Lake looks her up and down before turning back to the rest of the class a dismissive, “Maybe when you actually start running,” falling from his lips before he points at Amaro and says, “Two.”

The class is paired off quickly. Since Kylie is still walking laps, the teams are even with ten apiece. Heads vs Tails decides Felder’s team as pitching first, and Coach Lake wheels a scorekeeper from a small closet hidden between the bleachers.

He toots his whistle and waves a hand. Felder is first pitcher and Carisi and Amanda are on third. The game goes fast with points tallying up quickly and outs even faster.

Carisi doesn’t bleed, even when Amanda misses a ball aimed by Brunsider—and he’s on their team too—that smashes against his chest. Kylie never joins the game. Amanda thinks she only finishes about seven laps total since, whenever Coach Lake isn’t watching her, Kylie spends the time on her phone.

The only incident during P.E. is that chubby kid, Sullivan, has to go to the nurse for his inhaler. “Asthma,” he wheezes on his way out. Coach Lake looks like he doesn’t care, waving the game on as soon as Sullivan trundles off.

Afterward, Carisi changes first and then lets her take his bag into the girl’s locker room where Amanda finds the farthest corner from everyone and changes as quickly as she can.

When she passes the middle rows where the other girls are all huddled, their whispers stop.

She doesn’t look at them. She’s used to the rumors that follow her. The daughter of a drug addict who used to have sex with the elementary principal. The daughter of a man so drunk he walked into the middle of a train yard thinking it his bedroom and didn’t walk out again.

Point is, the rumors here seem to be about how far she and Carisi have already gone.

Apparently, according to the whispers that start again as soon as she’s around the corner and they can’t see her anymore, she’s already fucked him in the boys’ bathroom by the Caf.

She clenches her hands tightly. She won’t let it get to her. She won’t let her classmates be the reason why she stays home and cries.

They can kiss her ass.

They can kiss Carisi’s ass too, since half the rumors are about him too.

He’s not as much of a weirdo as she’d thought he’d be, and she doesn’t care enough to be as popular as Kim to care if she associates with him.

Thank God for small favors.

~ * ~

Chapter Text

~ * ~

Carisi vanishes after the bell rings. And, Amanda wades through the students milling about, listening as they chatter about after school plans while she heads to Carisi’s locker to collect all her books.

A few minutes later, he joins her, spinning his lock open and putting everything in his bag despite the fact that it’s straining at the seams.

She follows suit, tucking the pages of her half-formulated story in the front pocket of her bag.

“Hey, so, if you don’t have anywhere to be, my mom owns a bakery,” Carisi says. “There’s tables in the back so if you want, you can do homework there.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why are you being nice to me?”

Carisi stops moving, staring at her with narrowed eyes. Behind him, several students, upperclassmen and underclassmen alike, nudge none-too-gently against him, buffeting him back into Amanda’s space. His mouth opens and closes a couple of times. He doesn’t say anything though, and moves to swing his bag onto his shoulder.

She trails after him once he’s relocked his locker. The students keep slamming into Carisi, and Amanda watches as a three-fold of upperclassmen in letter jackets ram their shoulders into Carisi’s chest. He hunches over, gasping a little from the hits. She speeds up so she’s level, an arm thrown over his shoulders. He grins gratefully at her a moment before another student, this one a big-boned freshman, crashes against them, knocking her into the wall.

When she rights herself, turning to confront the bastard, all she sees is Carisi face down on the floor.

“Hey,” she says, shaking him. “Hey, Carisi?”

Another student, a senior female, with long brown hair, a leather jacket, and sensible heels stoops low, hand pressing against Carisi’s neck. A few seconds later, she rolls him onto his side, and Amanda gags at the blood running from his nose.

“Get the nurse,” the senior tells her. Amanda scurries off, ducking into the small office.

“Hi,” a tall woman with kind eyes says. “I’m Nurse Warner. What can I do for you?”

“Carisi,” Amanda manages to gasp out. Immediately, Nurse Warner’s eyes harden and she grabs a small blue bag with a white cross on the front from atop a filing cabinet.

“Lead the way,” she says. The hallways are nearly empty now, and for that, Amanda is grateful as she hurries back to Carisi and the senior. Carisi is sitting up, a wad of paper towels smashed to his face while another senior crouches next to him, murmuring softly while slowly moving his finger back and forth in front of Carisi’s face.

“Rafael,” the leather-senior says quietly, pulling him back so Nurse Warner and Amanda can kneel next to Carisi.

“Hey,” Carisi says through the paper towels, “You’re gonda biss the bus.”

“What about you?” Amanda asks.

Nurse Warner snaps on a pair of gloves and moves the blood-soaked towels from Carisi’s face, shining a penlight on him and humming thoughtfully.

“I’ll be fine,” he says, flashing her a weak smile as Nurse Warner reaches into her bag for a wet wipe to start cleaning the blood off his face.

“Liv can drive him home,” Rafael offers. The leather-senior shoots him an annoyed glare before nodding.

“Eddie and Alex might take issue,” she says, “but I think I can squeeze him in. If you don’t mind sitting on someone’s lap, Rafi.” Her wink makes Rafael blush hotly. Amanda ignores them. Where have they been all day that Carisi was being jostled and insulted?

Nurse Warner frowns for a brief moment before handing Carisi another wad of paper towels, propping his legs up, and pushing his head down so it’s between his knees.

“I’ll need to fill out an incident report and call your parents, Mr. Carisi,” she says. Carisi nods.

“Come on,” Rafael says to Amanda, reaching out to brush the air over her arm. She flinches and he retreats. “You really should head out to the pickup if you’re going to catch your bus home. Liv’s car is full today otherwise we’d offer you a ride too.”

“Fine.”

She gathers her bag and stands up, dusting at her knees. “I need to make sure Kim gets home safe anyway.”

“Hey, ‘Manda,” Carisi calls, and she looks back at him. He gives her a thumbs up. “Make sure Bella gets home, too?”

“Sure.” She nods quickly. “Okay, bye. See you tomorrow, I guess.”

Then she runs off.

~ * ~

Sister Peg eyes Amanda suspiciously when she’s the last on the bus.

“We were just about ready to leave,” Sister Peg says. In the same breath she shouts, “Sit down, Barish, or so help you.”

Amanda flashes an apologetic smile. “Little bit of last minute drama,” she explains. Then she slides into the seat she and Carisi shared this morning.

God, she hates it. This bus smells like sour milk and old gym socks, and fucking Barish is out of his seat again, draped over the back of hers.

“Hey, so,” he says, nasal voice and wide brown eyes. She curls her hand in her lap so she doesn’t punch him. “If you fucked the freak, why won’t you do me?”

“Scott Barish, sit the hell down right this instant! If I have to tell you again, you’re off!”

God bless Sister Peg.

And God bless her instincts. Barish sits down all right, clutching his own bloody nose and bitching about Amanda’s right hook. Her hand throbs a bit, but it's a kind of satisfactory pain.

She keeps an eye on the rest of the kids, watching when a few kids climb off at each stop. Carisi’s stop turns out to be the one before hers, and she dutifully watches as Bella and a dark-skinned boy clamber off. Then, it’s Amanda and Kim’s turn.

Kim flips out her phone, already dialing. “I’m going to Bella’s,” she says. “Nancy’s got ballet class so she won’t be there.” Nancy must be the third Plastic Kim.

Amanda looks up at her aunt’s intimidating brownstone. It’s a nice enough house, but a house isn’t a home, and Aunt Rachel is always complaining about money. She’d also expressed a desire for the girls to make friends on their first day.

“Wait up,” she says, deciding quickly. “I’ll come with. Bella’s brother invited me over for homework.”

“Ugh,” Kim sighs. “That freak?” She grins suddenly, evilly. “Is it true? Did you fuck him in the boys’ bathroom?”

“Kim, you imbecile,” Amanda says. She reaches out and smacks the back of her sister’s head. “If you listen to all those idiots how will you ever keep your grades up?”

Kim scowls at her before smiling sweetly. “Oh, that’s what Bella and Nancy are for. If I play it right, I won’t have to do a damn thing all year.”

“That’s wrong.”

“So?” Kim shrugs, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “It’s what you’re gonna use that freak for anyway, isn’t it? I mean, when you’re not fucking him.”

“Kim!” Amanda snaps. Then she shuts her mouth. She doesn’t need to give Kim any leverage over her. “Just call Aunt Rachel and let her know where we’ll be.”

“Aye-aye, Captain,” Kim spits sarcastically.

Amanda shakes her head, shouldering her bag and heading back toward to the stop where Bella disembarked. Kim trails after her, bemoaning the fact of walking all of five blocks.

In the middle of the block is a squat building painted white and dressed with red awning. Gold lettering on the awning declares it to be “Ma’s Bakery.”

Amanda recalls Carisi saying his mom owned such a building. She heads to the door, listening to the jingle of the bell as she opens it.

“Welcome to Ma’s Bakery,” a senior with a nice face from their school says with a pleasant smile. “Please let me know if I can be of assistance to you.”

“Oh, this is nice,” Kim breathes behind her, eyeing the attractive boy. “Too bad we’re counting Calories.”

“Too bad we’re broke, you mean,” Amanda retorts quickly, grinning as Kim flushes and stops looking at the senior on the register. He grins at Amanda.

“Mickey.” A woman at least as tall as that Olivia senior comes barreling out of the back heading toward the register. Amanda sees Carisi’s eyes and nose on her face and ducks her head so the woman won’t talk to her.

“Yes, Mrs. Carisi?” Mickey says politely.

“Go help Sonny with his nose. You’re so good with those damn nosebleeds.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He grins at Amanda again before heading to the back where presumably Carisi is hiding.

“Hey,” she says to Mrs. Carisi. “Um, Sonny invited me to study. How’s he doing?”

“Oh, same old, same old.” Mrs. Carisi flaps a hand in the old person’s way of shrugging. “Run along back there if you want. I’m sure he’ll appreciate the company.”

Amanda follows after Mickey, stepping through the swinging double doors. She pulls up short at the sight of Carisi propped on a chair just inside. He’s got his head between his knees, a blood-stained towel over his lower face.

Mickey presses between his legs, his hands framing Carisi’s head. “Just a small breath, hmm?” Mickey coaxes, and Carisi coughs thickly. He shakes his head weakly, gesturing with one hand to a small stand out of the way where a opaque green pitcher and matching glass set.

Amanda grabs the glass, finding it already half-full. She hands it to Carisi and he flashes her a small smile before he takes a drink.

“Bella’s upstairs,” he says, voice a little hoarse. “That is, if Kim tagged along?”

“She did,” Amanda confirms. She studies the room, counting three ovens, a large stand mixer, several other appliances, and hanging pots and pans. It looks well-stocked to her. “So,” she says, turning back to Carisi, “how long has your nose been bleeding?”

“About, oh, about an hour, hour and a half, off and on. Nothing that hasn’t happened before.”

“What exactly happened?”

“It’s the antidepressant that quack has him on,” Mickey says, vehemently.

“Dr. Huang isn’t a quack,” Carisi says just as vehemently, head up, towel on his lap. His nose drips sluggishly and he’s breathing hard.

“Dr. Huang?” Mickey asks. “No, I mean that outrage at the free clinic. She tried getting Nancy on something for her ADHD and it ended up almost killing her. Know what she said?”

Both Carisi and Amanda shake their heads, and Mickey nods. “She said Nancy was suicidal and mixing meds just to get high.”

“Oh,” Carisi says. He puts the towel back on his nose, ducking his head again. After a long moment he whispers, “She said the same thing about me. Dr. Huang got one of his colleagues at the clinic to get me something else.”

“But it’s still the antidepressant keeping you from clotting?” Amanda asks, and Carisi nods. “So, why haven’t you gone to the hospital yet?”

“Look around you,” he says, gesturing at the bank of ovens, the chrome countertops, and the deep sinks lining the opposite wall. “We’re not exactly rolling in money. I’ll probably skip school tomorrow to check in at the clinic.”

“The free clinic.”

“Yeah, that one. It’s just down the street.”

Good information to know, Amanda thinks. Aunt Rachel’s house is just a few blocks away so if something happens, at least she’ll have somewhere she can go.

“Hey, so, did you wanna do any homework? We’ll have to be out in the store so Mickey can get back to work. Also, my mom might not like us being unsupervised.”

“Yeah,” Amanda agrees, shrugging at him. “And, don’t let Kim talk Bella into doing her homework. She’s manipulative like that.”

Carisi nods knowingly. He tests his nose again, and she’s glad to see it’s stopped bleeding for now.

“Hang tight, kiddo,” Mickey says, ruffling Carisi’s hair fondly as he goes back to his post at the register.

Kim’s sitting at the tables butted against the wall, daintily ripping pieces off a cinnamon roll and popping them in her mouth. She licks her fingers with a bit more tongue than is strictly necessary, wriggling her eyebrows at Carisi as he sits down, a few seats away. Amanda squeezes in next to him.

“Bella will be down in a couple minutes,” Mrs. Carisi says on her way to the kitchen. “Have fun, kids.”

Carisi pulls out his Geometry book, flipping it open quickly. “We’ll try,” he calls after his mom, grinning at Amanda.

And damn if that doesn’t make her chest feel fuzzy.

~ * ~

Chapter Text

~ * ~

Aunt Rachel doesn’t yell at them when they get home at nearly 7:00.

Instead, she points at Amanda and then at a stiff-backed chair in the dining room.

Amanda sits, her bag at her feet, hands folded over her lap. Aunt Rachel leads Kim from room to room, making sure she’s had something to eat (the Carisis had been polite enough to let the girls partake in their large pasta dinner), making sure her homework is done (it may be in Kim’s handwriting, but those are Bella’s words and thoughts on the pages), and making sure she’s okay (she is, but then again, she always is).

For the fifteen minutes before Aunt Rachel lets Kim settle in front of the television, watching one of those asinine shows Amanda can’t stand, she just sits waiting patiently.

“What the hell were you thinking?” Aunt Rachel demands suddenly, dropping into the chair next to Amanda and reaching out to grip her knee.

Amanda does not jump. Barely.

“Kim was supposed to tell you where we were going. You don’t get off work soon enough to ask you in person, and I don’t have a phone.”

“And that’s my fault?”

“You bought Kim a brand new phone, knowing full well I had no phone. You expect me to take care of her but you won’t give me the tools to do it with.” Amanda takes a steadying breath, aware that she’s almost yelling.

“You’ve done nothing but backtalk me the entire time you’ve been here.”

And whose fault is that, Amanda wants to ask. What she does instead is stand up, jerking her bag up with her. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m tired and I still have to finish some of my homework.” She bypasses the den where Kim has migrated from sprawling on the couch to lying on the floor texting someone, probably Bella.

Aunt Rachel lets her go without comment, but long after she’s climbed the stairs and shoved a chair under the doorknob, Amanda feels her disappointment following.

She falls asleep reading the trashy romance novels her mom loves.

~ * ~

The next morning when she gets on the bus, Aunt Rachel’s warning to have Kim home right after the bus drops them off still ringing in her ears, she finds Carisi sitting in the same seat, his ugly pink bag on his lap, staring out the window.

She drops onto the bench next to him, knocking shoulders. His eyes, when he looks at her, are red-rimmed and tired-looking. His smile is equally as wan.

“Thought you were gonna skip?” she says, leaning over so she can whisper in his ear. She knows the wildfire that this will incite, but she doesn’t care. She’s never cared.

Carisi, though, might be another matter as he pulls away.

He nods stiffly, turning back to the window and ignoring her.

She tries not to take it personally. After all, they’ve only known each other for a day.

Instead, she works on reading ahead in her Biology book.

She manages to waste away the time until they pull up to the school.

In homeroom, she and Carisi sit at the same table again, and true to his word, Dr. Huang calls her name in order, ticking her off his list.

Announcements include that stupid dance coming up. Knowing Aunt Rachel, and Kim, Amanda will have to attend just to ‘fit in.’

The day moves quickly despite Carisi not speaking to her.

Mr. Munch assigns a ten-page worksheet, glaring at the class over his glasses when they complain. “If I had my way, you’d all be doing fifty of these a week. Instead, due to regulations, you have the rest of this week to finish the packet and turn it in for credit. Now, if you want extra credit, I have a stack of Sudoku puzzles that aren’t going to solve themselves.”

Unsurprisingly, Carisi takes at least four of the puzzles. He hands two to her, giving her a small smile that seems to be apologizing for something.

She ignores him mostly, taking time to crease the sheets down the middle and tuck them into her book. For the rest of the period, while Carisi works on the packet and one of the puzzles, she sketches more storyboards for her comic.

She’s got the anti-imp established, but she’s having a hard time transitioning him into her lineup.

And she can’t get the stupid mouth to look bowed enough or the eyebrows to arch just right.

 Midway through English, she finds herself doodling over the page, half-hearted scribbles forming speech bubbles of ‘freak’ and ‘loser’ over Juni—the anti-imp—’s unfinished head.

“For your next assignment,” Mrs. Petrovsky says, clapping her hands loudly over the chattering of the students. When they quiet down, she fixes each of them with a knowing look. “For the next assignment,” she repeats, “you will create a cast of characters with traits, good and bad, and defining characteristics. Once done with your characters, you will create an outline of a story that you wish to see these characters undertake. Then, you will partner with someone. Much as I hate this, I will let you choose your own partner for this project.

“Once you have your partner, you will discuss with each other and pick the story and characters you want to write about. You will then each write a four-sentence paragraph on why you chose whichever story and characters you did. Then, you will write your story. Twenty pages due at the end of two weeks.”

The whole class holds their breath, looking at each other with thinly veiled excitement.

Mrs. Petrovsky claps her hands again. “You may begin. Characters are due at the end of this week and an outline is due on Monday. Then you’ll pick a partner and by the end of class you should know what story you will be doing.”

She turns to the board and writes out the assignments and due dates. A quick glance at Carisi shows him writing them down onto two pieces of paper. He hands her one of them and flashes a weak grin. She nods in acceptance and writes his name under ‘partner.’

“We should exchange numbers,” he whispers, and she nods sharply. Well, just because she doesn’t have a number, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t. Except, when he takes the paper back and writes his number down, it looks like a landline.

“Gina and Theresa are the only ones with phones. They’ve got actual jobs. Well, I mean, I do the paper route in the morning, but other than that, Bella and I don’t have phones.”

“Was Kim texting Bella last night?”

Carisi shrugs. “Maybe. Theresa lets us borrow her phone sometimes if we can bribe her just right.”

Theresa is a senior and part of the dance committee. She’s nicer than Amanda would have guessed considering she’d burst into the apartment last night in a slinky evening gown—second hand, if the barely-there fixing of a busted seam was anything to go by—and a purple feather boa she’d draped over Carisi’s shoulders and started almost literally boxing his ears. She’d settled quickly and asked about everyone’s day while Mr. Carisi finished simmering the giant pot of red sauce on the stove. Gina, a junior, had been quiet and reserved for thirty minutes before taking notice of Amanda and Kim and screeching about uninvited guests and how not fair it was until Mr. Carisi had pinned her with a look and said, calmly, “You could always eat in your room.”

“Mr. Carisi, Ms. Rollins, I would ask that you wait until after your outlines are due to pick your partners.” Mrs. Petrovsky smiles at them before handing out a stack of pages covered in small boxes.

Amanda uses hers to fill in information about her imps and anti-imps.

The bell ringing interrupts her, and Carisi leads her to the lockers, opening his and letting her switch out books.

“Hey, we’re making scones in Home Ec today. Want me to bring you one for lunch?”

“Sure, if you don’t mind.”

They part in front of the Shop class, Amanda ducking into the room while Carisi bounds across the room to dash into the Home Ec room.

~ * ~

Chapter Text

 

~ * ~

Shop passes in a blur with Tutuola assigning a complicated—so really not when she’s already crafted a bat and a morning star and a wooden pitchfork—project for them to complete in two weeks.

He eyes her warily when she chooses a trunk, but adds that she should let him know if she plains to stain and/or seal it.

“Will do,” she says. At least in shop the stupid whispers that follow her everywhere are quiet. No one wants to get caught yelling gossip when Tutuola watches them with sharp eyes and attentive ears. The first time Barish swears when he cuts something wrong, Tutuola sends him to the office with a detention slip.

By the time he dismisses them, Carisi is waiting in the hall with a paper towel wrapped object. He hands it to her.

“Eat it now, while it’s still warm,” he advises. “Ms. Jefferies was thrilled that someone not in her class was enthusiastic about it,” he confides. The scone is good, and Amanda wonders if they’d have them at the bakery. They make a brief pit stop by his locker to collect their math and English homework.

The whole way to Study Hall, Brunsider, Van de Maar—two black eyes and a splinted nose, so worth the pain in her knuckles—and that ungodly pale freshman, Stuckey, follow them making kissing noises and hand signs for blowjobs.

Study Hall with Mr. Stabler is hardly any better than the halls until Stabler threatens to revoke all library privileges and doles out detentions with a heavier hand than is strictly necessary. Amanda is pleased to note that all three boys receive two detentions apiece.

“There is a zero-tolerance policy on bullying,” he says. “Now, you and I know that this doesn’t mean all bullying is preventable, but if I catch you, you get detention with a chance of in-school suspension. If Principals Donnelly or Cragen or Mr. Ellis or Dr. Huang catch you, it’s an in-school suspension with a chance of expulsion. Pick your gossip, ladies, I will not tell you again.”

“Dude,” Brunsider speaks up, glaring at Stabler, “did you just call us all ladies?”

“Did you just call me ‘dude’?” Stabler counters. “Sit down, Brunsider. Study Halls are supposed to be used for, guess what, studying. You certainly need to do some if you want to pass my class. The rest of you can work silently until the last five minutes.”

Immediately, the room fills with rustling as students dig out homework or books. Stabler wanders between the tables making sure they’re actually doing approved activities.

When he reaches Carisi and Amanda’s table, he leans down to speak to both of them.

“I’ve been hearing rumors,” he says softly. “I don’t believe them, but I’ve also noted that several of your classmates are participating in the spreading of these rumors. Do either of you wish to meet with Principal Donnelly, Vice Principal Cragen or Dr. Huang regarding this matter?”

“I’m already seeing Dr. Huang,” Carisi says, refusing to look up from his character sheet. His grip on his pen is white-knuckled and his breath shudders. “I think I’d prefer not to speak with either principal about this.”

“I’ll talk with Principal Cragen,” Amanda offers. “Do you know what happened yesterday?”

Stabler nods. “There was a brief teachers’ meeting this morning regarding the assault on Mr. Carisi.”

“Assault?” Carisi repeats. “I wasn’t assaulted.”

“Yeah, you were,” Amanda says. “All those people bumping into you? That one linebacker that took you out? Your nose bled for an hour!”

“We’re also looking into reported cases of bullying against both of you.” Mr. Stabler rests a hand on each of their shoulders, squeezing gently before withdrawing. “Stay strong, kids.”

Easier said than done, Amanda thinks, not without bitterness. Again, where were all the good people, the teachers, yesterday when these rumors were starting?

“Let it go for now,” Carisi whispers out of the corner of his mouth. He’s not a mind reader, is he?

“Your face isn’t as poker as you think it is,” he says, tapping a pen against her lips. “Look, we’ll talk to Huang, maybe Captain Cragen, but hopefully it doesn’t go all the way up the chain to Donnelly. If we have to talk to her, our parents will be called in.”

“My dad is dead and my mom is in Georgia.”

“My condolences,” he says. “I could probably share my parents if it comes to that. Mom seemed to really like you, and you ate more than one serving of Dad’s spicy spaghetti.”

“It was really good,” she says. “I noticed you only ate one serving though.”

“The antidepressants suppress my appetite.” Which explains the half-sandwich he’d tossed yesterday.

“Do you always take them during Spanish class?”

Carisi nods. “One good thing, I don’t have to partner up with anyone, although, since you’ve joined us, I might start feeling guilty about that.”

“Oh, don’t,” she says quickly. “They help you even with all the other troubles, right?”

“They do,” he confirms. “So, I know Mrs. Petrovsky says we have to wait to pick partners and stories, but do you wanna go with yours? I really like what I’ve seen so far and you’re much farther along than I can get before Monday.”

Amanda glances down at her sketches, at Carisi’s character sheets. Then she nods. “Yeah, I think I’d like that a lot.”

 

~ * ~

In Biology, Paxton paces the front of the room, flipping through her detention booklet.

“So,” she says, almost offhandedly while the class sits patiently, waiting for her to start the lesson. “We’re supposed to start a lab today. Dissection. Now, doesn’t that sound fun?”

Not a sound. Amanda would have thought at least Kylie would protest, but it seems none of them wants to test Paxton.

“Instead,” Paxton continues, glaring at everyone before settling her gaze on Carisi, “I have to lecture you on proper behavior on school property.”

The longer she stares at Carisi, the more the others look at him too, and the hotter he blushes.

“Since this is a lecture, everyone take out your notes. Write this down: to avoid bullying, don’t be a whiney child who needs to hide behind others.”

“Ms. Paxton,” Tommy Sullivan speaks up, his hand waving wildly. “Ms. Paxton, I need to get my inhaler.” He gasps loudly, a vaguely choking sound escaping his throat as he wheezes. “Please?”

Paxton nods briefly and Sullivan hauls himself out of his chair and trots to the door. He spares a glance over his shoulder and something in his face makes Paxton blanch suddenly.

As soon as the door shuts, she throws the detention book onto her desk and grabs her textbook, slamming it open and marching toward the counters and sinks on the far side of the desks.

“Oh, what the hell,” she says, voice shaking a tiny bit. “Just partner up. The person sitting to your left will do.”

Carisi reaches out to grab Amanda’s hand, squeezing gently before they rise as one, Carisi carrying a pen and a stack of paper with them. The rest of the class surges forward and they line up, each pair by a sink. Paxton counts off silently, pointing at each of them.

“When he comes back, Mr. Sullivan will be with your group, Ms. Rollins,” she says, closing her book and setting it on her desk again. She unlocks the cabinet nearest the door, pulling out a pack of small surgical knives and passing one to each pair.

“I want you to label all organs and detail all cuts. Pick one person to cut and one to write. Make sure you document each step.”

The door opens again and Sullivan reappears. Trailing him is a tall, bald man wearing a light tweed jacket and a sour expression.

“Ms. Paxton,” he says, not unkindly if a bit stiff. “Please step into the hall with me.” He lets his hand hover over her elbow as he leads her out. Before the door closes completely, Guidance Counselor Ellis steps into the room.

“Ah,” he says to the startled students. “Dissection. A lovely learning experience.”

Amanda waves Sullivan to her side, handing him the scalpel. “What did you do?”

Sullivan looks affronted. “I got my inhaler. Not my fault I didn’t get a hall pass.” He grins ducking his head.

Carisi reaches out to pat his shoulder. “Thanks, Tommy,” he says hoarsely.

Ellis opens a container and immediately the class begins complaining of the stench.

“Formaldehyde,” Amanda whispers. “They use it to preserve the bodies.”

“Bodies?” Sullivan gasps, gagging slightly as he stares at the scalpel he’s still holding. “Oh, Jesus.”

“Hey,” Carisi says. “Just breathe, Tommy. You’re gonna be fine. Do you need your inhaler again?” Sullivan shakes his head. He sets the scalpel down carefully before bolting toward the tall trash can standing next to Paxton’s desk.

Ellis raises an eyebrow at him before plunking down a small metal tray, a slimy, very dead frog sloping toward one side.

All the way hunched over the trashcan, Sullivan upchucks.

It starts a chain reaction with half the class gagging into the sinks.

Ellis sighs, rubbing at his eyes. “Go sit down,” he tells the students that didn’t get sick. “I’ll send Nurse Warner in to talk to you. Oh, and Ms. Felder, Mr. Barish, please open a few windows.”

The bald man steps back into the room as Ellis goes to open the door. “What’s going on?” he demands. He stares at the class, furrowed brow, watching as Felder and Barish struggle to heft the windows up while the rest of them lounge in their chairs.

“Possible toxic reaction to the formaldehyde in the frogs’ canisters,” Ellis says. “Do you want to get Nurse Warner or should I?”

“You go,” the bald man waves him away. “I need to speak to some of the students anyway.” He eyes each student carefully once Ellis leaves. Then he sighs. “I’m sure all of you know, I’m Vice Principal Cragen. Would anyone like to explain why I was summoned?”

Sullivan raises his hand timidly. “Um, because one of the teachers was participating in bullying?” he says.

“Yes, Mr. Sullivan. What I would like to know is what, exactly, did Ms. Paxton say or do that you, as her students, felt uncomfortable with?”

The third Kim raises her hand. “She called a bullied student a ‘whiney child’ and implied that he should let the rest of the students keep bullying him.”

“Him?” Cragen raises an eyebrow. The girl ducks her head.

“Nancy’s right,” Sullivan adds quickly. “It’s obvious Ms. Paxton was referring to Dominick.”

“How so?” Cragen asks. No one answers.

Amanda raises her hand, and Cragen points at her. “She was staring at him. I know, that probably doesn’t mean we can prove intent, but, like Sull—Tommy said, it was obvious she was referring to Car—Dominick.”

“That’s bullshit,” Barish says sullenly. Cragen fixes him with a cold stare, and he falters. “I mean,” he stammers, “you couldn’t tell who she was looking at. Just because Carisi thinks it was him doesn’t mean it really was.”

“Oh really?” Amanda quirks her own eyebrow. “And just who else is sitting in this row?” She gestures at Carisi’s chair, pointing at the empty seats behind his. “There’s no one else in this row. She was targeting him, giving you free reign to keep picking on him.”

Cragen holds up a hand as Barish starts spluttering angrily. “We all know this is not Ms. Paxton’s first incident where a student has accused her of misconduct. I would like to tell you in a perfect world she would be out of here, but the best I can promise you is I will take it up with the Principal. For now, though, you will have a substitute teacher.”

The door opening yet again interrupts him and he looks relieved to see Ellis and Nurse Warner stepping into the room.

“If you were ill, you need to line up next to your seat. The rest of you may fill out a lab report. Mr. Ellis, if you would?”

Ellis nods sharply, crossing to the file cabinet Paxton had pulled the scalpels from, taking out a thick folder bursting with pieces of paper covered in boxes and numbers. “This will be due at the end of class. Please work silently and singularly.”

Nurse Warner gives Carisi an assessing look, but he shakes his head, taking his place back at his and Amanda’s station. Ellis takes their frog and dumps it back into its canister.

Well, this has been fun, Amanda thinks. She wonders if they should worry about Paxton obviously being suspended. Then, she glances at Carisi and notes the half smile he can’t quite hide. It’s a better look than his solemn, quiet façade. She decides it can’t be all bad.

 

~ * ~

Chapter Text

 

~ * ~

Reduced lunch again. 

The planter again.

The only difference is the Kims are sitting with them today. Their small table has been appropriated so Barish and Brunsider can serve a lunch detention with Huang watching them as they eat sullenly.

Bella coos softly at her brother while Carisi ignores her to eat half his sandwich. Amanda takes the other half when he offers it to her, munching quickly while Nancy tries to get Kim to shut up about some shopping trip she seems to think she needs.

“Can’t you see there’s more important things than short skirts?” Nancy cries dramatically, clutching her milk carton to her chest.

Kim scoffs. “Hardly anything is more important than a nice treat.”

“Air,” Carisi says sharply. “Water, food, decent human interaction. Would you like me to continue?”

Kim glares at him, but thankfully, she shuts her mouth.

“Anyway,” Carisi says, turning to Amanda and gesturing toward her bag, “I’d really like to meet up after school again, go over the ideas you have for your story. I’ve got most of my English homework done so we can get a head start on it during second Study Hall. Unless you want to get all the other homework done then instead?”

“We’ll meet at your mom’s bakery,” Amanda says. “For now, yeah, let’s just get the rest of our homework done. And no, Kim, you can’t come. Aunt Rachel wanted you home today, remember?”

Kim huffs loudly.

They all fall silent, sitting with their own thoughts for a few minutes while Carisi chews each bite precisely twenty times.

“Hey, Bella, did you hear there’s a test on Friday?” Nancy spits into the dead air suddenly. “In Science? And that there’s a sub coming?”

Amanda perks up at this. She’d expected something to have happened to Paxton when she didn’t come back after her chat with Cragen.

“Who’s the sub?” Bella asks. She peels her orange into slices and offers everyone some. Carisi takes an extra piece when she stares at him.

“I didn’t hear,” Nancy says. She rips open a small packet of chips, offereing everyone some. Kim refuses, making a snide comment about weight. Amanda pinches her side.

“Ow!” she cries. Several heads swing toward them. They all ignore them, eating orange slices until the attention moves on and the Caf starts buzzing loudly again with conversation.

“Really, Kim?” she hisses. “The whole school is handing out detentions for anything that could be construed as bullying. Be careful about what you say. And apologize while you’re at it.”

Kim huffs again. But, surprisingly, she turns to Nancy, a fake smile already in place. “I’m sorry. That comment was insensitive.”

“Damn right it was,” Bella says. “Look, Kim, I get that you’re new and you want to have friends, but if you keep  making remarks like that, you won’t have a space at our table any longer.”

“What about her making you do her homework?” Amanda asks.

“What!” Carisi demands, turning to his sister. Bella ducks her head.

“She said she didn’t understand how to do the equations, so I explained. She wrote them down though.”

“Bella,” Nancy sighs, throwing an arm over her shoulders and hugging her tightly. “Oh, Bella.”

“Where’s my sympathy?” Kim asks.

“Why should you get sympathy for being manipulative?” Amanda says. “Really, Kim.”

“Well at least I didn’t fuck her for it!”

Both Bella and Carisi recoil and Nancy whimpers with her hands clapped over her ears.

“A word, Ms. Rollins,” a teacher, one Amanda hasn’t been in class with before says. They must not have been paying enough attention for him to get close enough to eavesdrop on them. He points at Kim, crooking his finger so it obvious that he wants her to follow him back to the teacher’s table. She shoots angry looks at all of them before she flounces off, the teacher trailing.

“I hope she gets detention,” Amanda says. She peeks at Carisi who is balling up his trash. “Maybe then Aunt Rachel will see she isn’t a perfect little angel.”

“She always get you in trouble?” Bella asks. She laughs at Amanda’s nod. “Yeah, Sonny and I take the fall for Gina and Theresa all the time.”

“Speaking of trouble,” Amanda says. “I’d better find out what she’s gonna get for that and pass it along to my aunt.” She sighs. Carisi grabs her trash too, taking it to the trash bin and coming back while she picks up her bag, checking to see if all the zippers are still closed.

“Sorry,” she apologizes when he comes back for his bag.

“What for?”

“I might not be able to come to the bakery tonight. Depends on my aunt.”

“Well, here.” Carisi shoves a paper with a scribbled number on it at her. “That’s Theresa’s number.” He hands her two dollars in quarters. “And that’s if you can find a payphone in this day and age. Give me a call either way whether you can or can’t come over.”

“Okay,” she says, tucking the change and the paper into her front left pocket. “I’ll do that. I’ll meet you at Spanish.”

He nods at her before heading to the double doors leading back to the classrooms. Amanda shoulders her bag, takes a deep breath to steel herself, and marches to the teacher’s table where Kim is sitting between Señora Beck and Mrs. Petrovsky.

“Hi,” she says, waving a bit when the teachers just stare at her. “So, I need to let my aunt know if she’s gotta pick us up.”

Señora Beck smiles widely at that. “She’s not serving any detentions, first offense and all that. But, she’ll have to eat lunch at this table for the next week. You can call your aunt in the office if you still need to.”

Amanda shakes her head. “No, thanks. That’s all I need. I’ll see you in class, Señora.”

She runs off before Kim can beg her to argue the sentence. Someday she has to learn that not everyone is as easily manipulated as Mom or Aunt Rachel or will let her get away with all the shit she tries to pull.

~ * ~

Señora Beck sets them working in pairs studying for a test on Friday, Carisi and Felder partnered with Amanda until Carisi leaves for his standing appointment with Huang.

History passes uneventfully if a bit dull with Stabler stacking a three-page essay on the pros and cons of the 21st Amendment on top of everything else.

Study Hall flashes by with both Carisi, falling asleep on his work, and Amanda panicking because she just cannot conjugate Spanish verbs easily.

“Art,” Carisi states when they stop at his locker. “Better to take everything with us since Dr. Skoda likes to keep us longer than the dismissal bell.”

“Okay,” Amanda says. She follows him to a corner room with the door propped open with a cement doorstop shaped into and painted to look like the Parthenon.

Inside, the desks, large tables with backless stools pushed up to them, are covered with huge sheets of paper. A list of supplies, like water colors, charcoal-pencils, oil-based paints, mixed media, collage, stippling, have been printed neatly on the only other old-fashioned chalkboard Amanda’s seen in the school so far.

Standing by the teacher’s desk is the same teacher who dragged Kim away during lunch. He’s straightening the mess of papers stacked worse than haphazardly over the entire desk, shifting piles this way and that until he finds the attendance book.

“Dr. Skoda,” Sullivan wheezes, squeezing past Amanda and mouthing a ‘sorry’ at her, so he can reach the teacher first. “I had an incident at lunch. If we’re working with charcoals, I can’t be in the room.”

Skoda eyes him warily before nodding. “Sit by the window, Mr. Sullivan; it’s open already. Everyone else, take a seat.”

He points at Amanda and gestures her to the desk nearest his. Carisi plunks down onto the stool next to her.

“We’ll take attendance by announcing the media you plan to use for your next project. Starting with you, Mr. Amaro.”

Amaro scratches the back of his head, shrugging for a couple of minutes before shooting an apologetic look at Sullivan. “Charcoal, but not, like, the sticks, just the pencils.”

Skoda nods. “Mr. Barish?”

On and on it drags with the students choosing a form of material to use on the project Skoda has conveniently failed to tell them about. Carisi chooses water colors, and Amanda, to be different, chooses oil-based paint with the option of using collage-materials later if she wants. Skoda looks impressed with her choice, grinning at her.

Once Abby Willow, a quiet girl with braces and thick acne chooses stippling, the only one to do so, Skoda slams his attendance book shut, dumping it back on his desk where it slides into a stack of paper and topples the whole thing onto the floor. Skoda ignores it to stalk to the front of the room.

“What we’re doing is an internal evaluation of our self-worth. You’re going to pick an object. Yes, an object, not a place, not a person, unless the person happens to be in a photograph. You’re going to use your selected media to portray that object with significance. In other words, you’re going to create a piece of art based on that object because that object is important to you.

“You’re also going to write a short, descriptive piece about why you chose that object. I will not be grading those papers, but I can tell you, you won’t get far without writing that paper. You get one shot at this, kids. Make it count.”

Then he claps his hands and turns them loose.

Carisi spends the rest of the period sketching on binder paper what looks like a pair of sticks lying across each other, one with tendrils on it, the other butted against a star-shape.

Amanda draws a train on the binder paper Carisi passes her when she looks a little longingly at his.

As soon as she realizes what she’s done, she crumples it up, hiding her face against her arms, hoping no one realizes that she’s tearing up and seriously panicking about it.

Her dad’s been dead for five years. It shouldn’t still hit her this hard.

He wasn’t a good guy, but he’d been on her side.

Someone nudges her shoulder, and she glances over to see Carisi watching her with a  concerned look on his face. “Huang?” he whispers and she nods, stupidly grateful that he gets it.

He waves at Skoda and explains succinctly why Amanda needs a pass.

Skoda nods in understanding and quickly scribbles a hall pass for her.

She picks up her bag, ignoring the blatant staring of her classmates as she heads for the door. Halfway to the main office, she realizes she doesn’t even know if Huang has an office. She decides to head to the nurse. She’d been nice yesterday.

Nurse Warner isn’t in her office when Amanda pokes her head in, but the secretary directs her to an alcove just off the library where she finds both Huang and Nurse Warner deep in conversation.

They both fall silent when they notice her standing there.

“Well, I’ve got to get back to my station,” Nurse Warner says, standing quickly and dusting off her lap. “Unless, you needed to see me, Amanda?”

“Actually, I’m here for Dr. Huang,” Amanda says, wondering at her meek voice. She isn’t actively trying to project her Woe-Is-Me attitude, but it certainly feels like that’s what is getting through to the teachers.

Huang smiles when Nurse Warner shuts the door behind herself. “What can I do for you, Amanda?”

“I think I had a panic attack,” she says, still meek. She sits in the chair Nurse Warner had been in. It’s still warm, and that is somewhat comforting to her.

Huang’s eyes soften a bit more, and his smile tinges with sadness. “Would you like to tell me about it?” he prompts.

Amanda shakes her head. Her hands are all twisted in her lap and her bag is leaning against her leg, a steady weight that grounds her even as her breathing sharpens and her vision tunnels until it seems like she’s staring at Huang’s desk from the wrong end of a telescope.

“Maybe,” she manages to stutter out. She surprises herself when the next sound she makes is a sob.

She hasn’t cried in front of someone for nearly five years.

“I-I don’t,” she tries to say, stops as another sob jerks its way out of her chest. “I’m sorry. I’m not usually like this.”

“I understand,” he says. “It’s okay to let go. You’ve been very brave, Amanda. But, it’s just as brave to let someone see this side of you. I want you to remember, I am always here for you to talk to. I will never turn you away.”

“I want to believe you,” she says. “But, no one’s made that promise to me before. I just don’t matter enough, I guess.”

“If there is anything I know about you,” Huang says, “it’s that you are a very important person. Did you know I haven’t seen Dominick interact with anyone as much as he does with you? It’s been a year since he’s smiled or laughed. Or eaten lunch with his sister. You did that, Amanda. You can’t discount that when you evaluate your worth to the people around you.”

She offers him a trembling smile, choking back another sob. “But what do I do when I have to go home? When I’m at my aunt’s?”

Huang tilts his head, face contemplative. “I normally don’t do this,” he says, “but you and Dominick need each other, even if the adults around you don’t think you do.” He pries open a drawer, digging under some file-folders. He pulls out a couple of boxes, sliding them across the desk to her.

It’s a set of trac phones. She blinks.

“There’s no texting available, and you’ll have to buy the minute cards, but now you have a way of contacting Dominick outside of school.

“Now, unless I’m mistaken, the bell is about to ring, and you have a bus to catch. Please,” he stands up and reaches out both hands to clasp one of hers, squeezing gently, “don’t hesitate to stop in to see me. In fact, I’d like it if you can visit me during your first Study Hall tomorrow.”

He releases her hand to grab his hall pass booklet, pen scratching over the paper as he fills in a timeslot and reason, signing with a flourish. “I’ll give this to you during Homeroom tomorrow, just in case you don’t want anyone to find it.”

Amanda hears kindness in his tone, and she nods at him. Tomorrow. She can do it. She can.

And Kim and Aunt Rachel won’t have to know about it either.

She smiles wider, scooping the trac phones into her backpack. She can’t wait to talk to Carisi, on the bus, at school, at the bakery, when she’s in bed ready to fall asleep.

Maybe she can convince Aunt Rachel she should have a job. She's gotta pay for the minutes somehow. And they'll be more precious, more her own, if she is the one who earns them.

 

~ * ~

Chapter Text

 

~ * ~

When Aunt Rachel finally lets Amanda head down to the bakery, it is quiet, a few customers still browsing, Bella and Nancy working on homework at the tables while Carisi and Mickey work at cleaning up a frosting-splattered disaster area.

Amanda asks if there is anything she can do to help and is given a damp cloth to run over the sticky counters.

“Do I at least get some compensation?” she says, half-jokingly when Carisi passes her on his way to the back door to dump out a bucket of mop water that’s more crumbs than liquid.

“I thought you were volunteering,” he says. “I’ll ask Mom. Do you—can you have a job? Labor laws dictate you can’t work in the kitchen, but maybe you’d like to run register?”

Mickey perks up at that, bouncing over to her and clapping his hands gleefully. “Oh, would you?” he all but gushes, leaning closer to her to grab her hands. “Oh, that would be fantastic!” He hugs her quickly, pulling back before she can do more than register the weight of his arms. “Mrs. Carisi has been offering to hire someone so I could be full-time in the kitchen. I’m going to culinary school next year.”

“I guess I could try. I have no experience, though,” she says. Carisi, empty handed after his return, flaps his hand in a facsimile of his mother.

“You’ll be trained in,” he promises.

“I have a question,” Bella interrupts suddenly. She turns around in her chair to stare at all three of them, brows low over her eyes. “Is that fucking bitch gonna try to sit with us all year?”

“Language, Bella!” Mrs. Carisi calls from the kitchen.

Amanda laughs weakly. “I don’t think Kim will sit with either of you. Anyway, you know what to do if she bugs you, right?”

Bella shakes her head, a suspicious glare aimed at Amanda.

“Just get Huang or someone. I’m sure you’ll have your regular table back tomorrow.”

Nancy and Bella share a quick glance. “The janitorial staff offered to put another chair at the table. You and Sonny can sit with us if they do that.”

So they won’t have to use the planter anymore remains unspoken.

Amanda feels her smile splitting her face. She looks to Carisi to find him staring at his sister with worry.

“Your reputation,” he says. “We only just got Iovey and Johnson to leave you alone.”

“I don’t give a damn about my reputation,” she counters, almost angrily. “I’d rather have my brother than all the fakes in the world. Why should I be the one to change if someone else doesn’t like my family?”

Carisi hugs her suddenly, arms tight around her as she hugs him back just as hard.

Amanda glances away, aware that it’s a private moment she has no right to feel any resentment over. She tamps down the jealously at their sibling display, vehemently trying not to wonder when she and Kim had become enemies instead of friends like that.

When she looks back, Bella is already back at the table, Nancy leaning to whisper in her ear while Carisi takes the rag from her and swipes over a particularly stubborn smear of electric blue frosting.

“So,” he says quietly, “you’d said something on the bus earlier?”

She had. She’d almost burst out about the phones, and only Barish’s ugly mug hanging down in front of her had stopped her. He’d been standing in the aisle, leaning down with a crooked grin as he reached for Carisi’s bag with one hand and braced himself against her shoulder with the other.

Sister Peg had pulled the bus to the side of the road and called Barish’s mom to collect him.

Rumor is he’s off the bus for the next month. Just rumor though since all they have to go on is Sister Peg spitting mad and “There’ll be Hell if that boy even thinks of stepping on my bus again.”

“Yeah,” Amanda says. She heads to the table where she’d stashed her bag when she’d first come in. When she pulls out the boxes, Carisi’s eyes go wide. His hands shake a bit as he accepts one of the boxes.

“Huang gave them to me,” she explains. “He said we’d have to get the minute cards ourselves, but I figure, if I can work here, and you’ve got your paper route, we should be able to talk without bugging Theresa for her phone.”

She empties her pocket of the quarters he gave her, handing them back. He takes them silently, tucking them into the front pocket of the apron he’s wearing today.

“Thanks,” he finally says. “Wow. This is just. Wow!” He tears open the box, pulling out a small black rectangle that resembles Aunt Rachel’s boxy phone more than Kim’s big touch screen.

“He said it doesn’t have texting capabilities, but we should be able to talk.”

“Oh,” he says. “Well, talking is good. I’m good with talking, are you?”

She grins at him, ripping into her box. “Yeah, so totally good with it.”

“Ma,” Carisi calls, and Mrs. Carisi pokes her head out of the kitchen again to raise an eyebrow at him, “me and Amanda are gonna run to the corner store really quick. We’ll be back in ten minutes. Okay?”

“Go on,” Mrs. Carisi nods, waving a hand in that shrugging gesture again. “But don’t forget to get all your homework done. And Dad’s got lasagna for supper.”

“Is is okay if I stay for supper, too?” Amanda asks, and Mrs. Carisi smiles. “I’ll ask my aunt.”

“Theresa will do it,” Mrs. Carisi says, stepping into the bakery-proper so she isn’t shouting anymore. “She and Gina will be home by the time you get back from the bodega. Also, Sonny, please pick up some more milk. And a bit of sugar. Your father has it in his head that he’s going to make cookies this weekend.”

Carisi grins, giving his mom a two-fingered salute and grabbing his backpack to dig out a worn leather wallet that he tucks into his front pocket. He also pulls out the booklet from his phone’s box.

“Let’s go!” He grabs Amanda’s hand, dragging her towards the door and unlacing his apron to hand to Mickey.

“Baby,” his mom calls one last time. When Carisi turns back to her, she pulls him into a hug and kisses the top of his head. “Good to have you back,” she murmurs. Amanda ducks her head, certain that this is another moment she’s not supposed to witness.

Carisi squirms for a bit before he relaxes, and sighs into his mom’s neck. “It’s just the corner store,” he says. “Mom, I’ll be back.”

“I know, baby.”

She finally lets go and Carisi pulls Amanda with him as they head out the door.

The late afternoon foot traffic ebbs and flows around them as they walk down the block, still holding hands.

“So,” Carisi says, dropping her hand so he can scratch at the back of his head. He stops walking, and she turns to face him. He won’t meet her eyes. “Um. I feel like I should let you know: there was something that happened last year, right before school. My mom’s, hell, my whole family’s, been kinda really weird around me. To be fair, I was kinda weird too.”

“Hey,” she says, reaching out to touch his hand, wrapping their fingers together when he clutches at her too, “you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. There’s shit in my past too.”

He smiles again, squinting at her, “There shit in everyone’s past.” He sighs, letting go of her hand again. Again, he won’t meet her eyes. “I really wanna tell you, I feel like it would make things easier, but…” he trails off, color rising in his cheeks as he shuffles from foot to foot, obviously embarrassed about what he can’t say.

“But you don’t know how I’ll react or if I’ll change how I treat you,” she finishes for him. “I get it. I really do. Look, you’ll tell me when you’re ready. For now, let’s just get the cards so we can stay up late yapping about our English project.”

He grins at her, a wavering, weak one that doesn’t quite make it to his eyes. “Deal,” he says, thickly. “After you, madam.” She laughs, as real as she can, stepping forward and heading towards the corner store, a dinky little thing with faded blue awning emblazoned with peeling gold lettering stating the store’s ridiculous name. He sweeps his arm in a grand gesture, pulling open the door and ushering her inside.

“Hey,” she says, stopping suddenly so he almost runs into her, “if and when you’re ready, thanks for telling me.” She knocks their shoulders gently, and he blinks at her.

His mouth opens and then snaps shut. Something settles in his eyes, and he nods. “And if or when I tell you, thanks for listening,” he says. “So, phone cards?”

“Phone cards,” she agrees easily. She wonders if this is what Huang meant when he said she was important, if this is what it’s meant to be needed by someone—not this minute, but in the future. A promise.

She shrugs, letting the weight of her offered responsibility settle onto her shoulders. It doesn’t feel like a burden, not like it is with Kim and Aunt Rachel. She glances down at her hands, finding them open and unclenched. It feels nice, she decides. And maybe as much as he needs her, she needs him. Her secret for his. When they’re both ready.

“Coming?” Carisi—Dominick—asks from where he’s studying the kiosk of minutes cards.

“Yeah,” she says, “so, Dominick—”

“Dom,” he corrects almost absently.

“Dom,” she repeats. “What’s going to give us the most bang for our buck?”

He snorts a bit, picking out something that says ‘500 minutes for only $30.99.’ She picks one too. They go to the cash register, and Dom pays, shrugging when she tries to protest.

They head to the door before Dom freezes, blurting, “Milk!”

Amanda follows him as he darts toward the back of the store where the coolers are tucked away. “Sugar,” she says, grabbing a small bag and holding it while he picks out a suitable gallon.

“Hey, Amanda?” he says when they’re back outside, milk and sugar in a bag hanging from the crook of his arm, both of them clutching the minutes cards.

“Yeah?” she says back, forcing herself to stare up at his face instead of looking at the new freedom she’s holding.

“I’m really glad you moved here.” He reaches out to grab her hand and she turns her palm so they can both squeeze.

“Me too,” she says, realizing with a jolt that she means it.

~ * ~

Chapter Text

 

~ * ~

Amanda takes home a Tupperware container stuffed with lasagna. Kim whines pathetically when Aunt Rachel doesn’t let her eat any of the food, making Amanda toss it away immediately.

“Why would they poison this food when I already ate it?” Amanda demands. Aunt Rachel just shakes her head and sends her to her room.

She dumps her bag on the bed, glad she and Dom already finished all their homework. Before Mr. Carisi had called them for supper, they’d hung out on Dom’s bed, the door wide open. It was a tight squeeze in his room, with hardly any room for the bed, dresser, and a desk with a chair.

Dom’s got a story about a group of men traveling through a wasted apocalypse, and Amanda likes his main villain, a woman named Lersha who seduces the group of men in order to draw them away from her clan.

Of course, he still wants to use her imp story, but she’s wondering if mixing them wouldn’t be better. Have Juni be one of Lersha’s clan, have Brunsider-imp be the leader of the apocalyptic men. Make Lersha the hero and Brunsider (“I don’t think Mrs. Petrovsky’s gonna let us keep calling him Brunsider. How about something like Brute?”) the villain.

Now, Amanda itches to draw the opening sequence, the characters. She and Dom have already decided that she’ll illustrate the story and he’ll write the words. He showed her half a dozen booklets, short stories he and his sister used to write for his parents, stitched together, and she agrees that even if Petrovsky doesn’t want them to use that format, the final version will be exactly like those booklets.

Aunt Rachel knocks on the door before Amanda can do more than pull out the packet of printer paper Dom slipped her.

“Door’s open,” Amanda calls. It’s not like she’s got a lock anyway, and she plans to actually sit on the chair tonight.

“Hey,” Aunt Rachel says, pushing the door open and peeking in. She’s got her hair twisted into a tight bun on her head. She’s changed into a red dress with poufy sleeves and black silk stockings. She looks nice, but Amanda’s not going to tell her that. “So, Michael is finally off shift, and he agreed to take me to a movie tonight. You’re in charge of your sister, but it’s almost her bedtime. Don’t stay up too late. And don’t spend all night scribbling.”

“Scribbling?” Amanda repeats, looking down at where she’s still clutching the crisp white paper. She sets it down on the desk, smoothing the edges a bit before turning back to her aunt. “I’ll make sure Kim brushes her teeth and has her homework done,” she promises. “And I won’t stay up all night ‘scribbling.’”

At least Aunt Rachel has the grace to blush at the inadequate word. “You know what I meant,” she says before she pulls back. “Just, please be good, and I’ll bring home a treat for you.”

“I’m not Kim,” Amanda says, bristling at her aunt’s insulting insinuation. “I do not need to be bribed and I am not bad. Go have fun on your date.”

Aunt Rachel recoils, a bitter look on her face. “You’re just like your father,” she says, quietly, and Amanda winces. Aunt Rachel never liked her brother, and she’s made no bones about it even before Amanda and Kim had to come live with her.

At least Michael, a doctor at Mt. Sinai, is a nicer person. So far, during the week and a half that Amanda and Kim have been staying with Aunt Rachel, Michael has taken to bringing home little bits and baubles. A pretty ribbon for Kim, an alarm clock/radio for Amanda.

She wishes he wouldn’t do things like that. It makes it harder to hate him, but it also makes Aunt Rachel’s face pinch tighter.

“Um,” Amanda says before Aunt Rachel leaves, and she turns back, an almost angry look pinching her face. “So, Mrs. Carisi offered me a job, and I wanted to accept. I’m fifteen.”

Aunt Rachel’s face smoothes. “A job? So you’ll take over paying for your supplies and…”

“I can’t promise big bucks,” Amanda laughs, to hide the clench of hurt building in her chest. It’s not that Aunt Rachel isn’t well-off—after all, she’s got Dad’s insurance money—it’s that she’s too damn stingy to spend money on her nieces even though she was the one who offered to take them when they could have stayed with their mom’s mom.

“And I can’t promise that I can even give Kim anything.”

She doesn’t have the job yet; Mrs. Carisi just agreed with Dom that she could try running the register and basic cleaning while Mickey moves to the kitchen full-time. He’s basically graduated anyway and is just waiting on the forms.

Aunt Rachel nods sharply. “I’ll talk to Michael about getting you a phone for work.”

“Actually, that’s something else I wanted to talk to you about. Turns out, Mrs. Carisi is already giving me a phone as part of the trial for the job. I just have to buy the minutes for it.” She digs out the trac phone to show Aunt Rachel. “I’ll leave the number for it on the fridge, if you want?”

“Good. Thanks. I’d better go. Be good.”

Aunt Rachel twirls away, and Amanda thinks she might have left her speechless at the efficiency she’s shown.

A few minutes later, Amanda’s elbow deep in a sketch of Lersha, letting her pencil trail over the paper as she outlines the proud woman wrapped in a cloak of what will be midnight blue.

“Hey,” Kim says, interrupting her through the still-open door. “So I heard you got a phone now.”

“Yeah. It’s nothing fancy.”

“Give it to me.” Kim steps inside, her hand held out to Amanda.

“It’s mine,” Amanda says. Kim’s face pinches horribly before she pastes on one of her fake smiles.

“Come on, honey, what are you going to do with a phone? Gonna call that little bitch of a boyfriend, see if he’s up for more homework?”

“Shut up.” She stands up, dragging her chair with her. She pushes Kim out of the room and slams the door, sliding the back of the chair under the doorknob. “I’m going to bed now. You’d better have all your homework done if you don’t want Aunt Rachel mad at you.”

She scoops up her sketchbook and pencils and tucks them into the special carry case that fits neatly inside her backpack. Then, she curls up under the blanket on her bed and punches in the number of Dom’s phone.

He answers on the second ring. “Dom’s house of homework where I ask the questions and you get more confused.”

She laughs. “So, I was thinking Brute is going to attack Lersha’s camp.”

“No fair,” Dom sighs, “I’m still working on my part of Mrs. Petrovsky’s assignment.”

“All you have to do is the character sheets. That’s what’s due Friday.”

“I want to get the outline and paragraphs done tonight too. That way we have more time to work on the story.”

“I should probably do my individual portion also,” she says. Dom chirps a good night and they hang up.

She rubs absently at her eye, wondering when she started caring about her assignments. Maybe when the teachers started assigning things she was interested in. She’s already sketched half a dozen different sized trunks she’d like to make in Shop.

The desk is nearly the right height that she can use the foot of the bed as a seat while she checks over her character traits sheet and the outline. She attaches a sketch of Brute and his gang of imps to it.

By the time she’s finished the rest of her homework and packed it away, it’s almost midnight and she’s exhausted. Wary of her aunt checking in on her and Kim stealing the phone, Amanda hides her backpack at the bottom of her dresser drawer, the phone turned off and tucked into her art case, before she puts the chair back at the desk.

She tiptoes around the apartment, brushing her teeth while she checks on Kim, already fast asleep in front of the TV, some trashy reality show on screen. She turns it off, rinses her mouth, and goes back to her room.

She doesn’t dream.

~ * ~

Her alarm goes off way too soon, and she stumbles blearily into the kitchen to pour a bowl of cereal and munch on an apple.

Kim dances through the apartment, singing at the top of her lungs. Aunt Rachel and Michael are already gone, and Amanda refuses to tell Kim to shut up. She’s not annoying when she’s like this. It reminds Amanda of when their mom had good days.

After managing to sit her sister down with another bowl of cereal, Amanda rushes to take a shower and run a brush through her hair.

She’s got her hair in a ponytail, digging through her backpack to make sure she’s got everything when Kim, face made up as usual, runs up to her and begins begging Amanda to get her to be friends with Bella again.

“Why would I help you apologize to someone you had no intention of treating like a person?”

Kim pouts and doesn’t answer. She also stops bugging Amanda.

The bus ride is uneventful. She sits next to Dom again and shows him the sketches she’s got so far. He hands her a stack of papers detailing Lersha’s background.

Not even Brunsider poking at her ponytail or swatting the back of Dom’s head really bother them. Although, it helps that Sister Peg bans Brunsider to the seat behind the driver’s seat so she can keep an eye on him.

Amanda ignores the kissing sounds Brunsider makes when they pass him. Sister Peg clucks her tongue before offering a fist bump to Amaro and Felder.

Brunsider makes kissing noises at them too, and Amaro blushes while Felder smacks her fist into her palm.

Off the bus, Felder blushes, mumbles something to Amaro, and runs off. Amaro turns to Amanda and offers a smile.

“So, if Lake pairs us out in P.E. again, you wanna be on Felder’s and my team?”

Amanda makes a point of looking at Dom. “Just me?” she asks. Amaro follows her gaze and shrugs.

“Yeah, he can come too. He’s not the best at athletics, but he’s got a lot of heart. Sometimes that’ll win you the game right there.”

“So, are you and Felder a thing?” Amaro stares at her before snorting.

“Are you and Carisi?” he retorts.

“Fair point.”

First bell rings, and they hurry to homeroom where Dr. Huang is handing out flyers for the school play. Amanda tucks hers into her backpack. It might be fun to paint sets or something. Just as long as she doesn’t have to actually act.

Huang starts the roll call, and Amanda keeps one ear on the names while she pulls out the pages of Lersha and slides them to Dom.

“Present,” Dom says, distractedly, when Huang calls his name, flipping through the pages quickly. Then, he takes a small journal from the inside pouch of his backpack and hands it to Amanda.

It’s a quick outline of Lersha’s tribe and how they find Juni.

“This is the outline I was thinking we’d use for our story,” he says. He shows her his completed section of the English homework, and she notes the differences, where Lersha is more villainous, with less explanation for why she treats outsiders the way she does.

“It’s good,” she says. “But I am glad we’ve decided to mash them together instead of sticking with just one or the other. Do you think Mrs. Petrovsky will mind?”

“We’ll have to ask her. If you’ve got your assignments done, we could turn them in early, if you like?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

~ * ~