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The science of escalation

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1)

Adam thinks: I shouldn’t have come, I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t have come, Jesus.

Caleb thinks: He’s nervous, why is he so nervous? I knew he was a little but not like this, I shouldn’t have pushed.

Before either of them can think any harder about doing anything about any of it, Adam rings the doorbell.

The party isn’t bad, Adam thinks. The guys Caleb gravitates towards to talk to aren’t the ones who have given Adam any trouble at school, really—he sees one of the biggest jerks making his way to the kitchen, but that guy and Caleb don’t do more than brief heys of recognition, and the other ones who have been especially shitty to him don’t seem to be here at all.

Right now, Adam is standing next to Caleb in a loose knot of people on the back porch. Caleb has a drink in his hand, but he isn’t drinking it, and the other hand keeps brushing against the back of Adam’s. The music spilling out onto the porch from the house isn’t great, but it’s got a good beat, and a couple of girls Adam vaguely recognizes are dancing, a sort of self-conscious, jerky alternation between bopping along and hardcore grinding. Adam tuned out when the guys were talking about the team’s chances, but then Caleb sways to jostle Adam with his elbow and says, “Yeah, Adam and I were talking about trying to make it out there for the festival, but my mom still won’t let me borrow the car,” so apparently the conversation has moved on to music, or summer plans, or something.

“Maybe if you could keep from hulking out,” says Danny Emmanuel, Dan The Man, one of those guys who Adam has been vaguely aware of since elementary school, but would be surprised if he’s ever had a conversation with in his life. And here he is teasing Adam’s boyfriend, like he knows anything at all about Caleb’s anger thing, and he’s glancing over to Adam like he’s in on the joke. Like they’re in on it together.

“Come on, man,” Caleb says, and he has that aw, shucks expression on, the one that’s infuriatingly charming.

“Don’t tell me your boy didn’t know about your road rage issues,” Dan The Man says, laughing, and Adam knows that, for a socially literate person, this would be the moment to add his own comment, his own teasing, to make a place for himself in this group. He doesn’t know what to say, though, he doesn’t know, and the not knowing builds in his chest, panicked.

Caleb’s hand, the one that’s resting next to Adam’s just barely touching, reaches for his, and Adam can’t help it, he jumps, startles. It’s reflexive, it’s surprise, it doesn’t mean he wants Caleb to take his hand back, and he thinks that as hard as he can, even though that’s not Caleb’s power, he reads feelings, not thoughts, and Adam has no idea what he’s feeling right now, so I has no idea what Caleb is getting from him. Don’t let go Adam thinks anyway as he fumblingly laces their fingers together.

Caleb is saying, “Nah, he’s too sharp for that,” because thank god someone has some social skills in this relationship, thank god someone put an end to that fumblingly awkward silence that should have been Adam’s way in to this perfectly normal, fucking banal and boring conversation. Caleb is still holding Adam’s hand, and now that it’s not giving him a fucking heart attack, Adam can enjoy it.

He’s not sure how much of that little interaction Caleb’s meathead buddies picked up on, but there’s something so reassuring about the publicness of being here, or touching Caleb here. It’s even different from the park, from holding his hand, or even stealing a kiss, there, where someone could walk by and see them, and could care, but where, generally, they’re pretty much on their own, anyway.

The conversation in the circle turns to music, and Adam actually manages to say a couple of not-entirely-moronic things, even gets into a little bit on an almost-debate with one of the guys’ younger sister, who looks as out of place at this party as Adam feels, which is reassuring. The conversation moves on, but Caleb doesn’t let go of Adam’s hand.

2)

Dr. Bright thinks it’s a good idea for Chloe to challenge herself, to try to focus her powers in bigger-group situations. There’s something in Chloe that still isn’t totally comfortable with the almost mercenary way Dr. Bright talks about her ability, and about honing it. On the other hand, she does think she’d like to be able to go to classes again at some point, and gaining a bit more control is probably the only way to do that. So that’s part of it, part of why she ends up going to the party, but the other part is just that Mikey called her to ask her, and he told her that they’d all been missing her.

She’s missed them, too, of course, but spending time with them since her ability came along has been stilted and strange—it feels wrong that they don’t know about her ability, and it feels wrong that she’s hearing their thoughts and they don’t know it. It’s different from Dr. Bright or Caleb or Sam, who do know, and it’s different from Frank, or any of the more peripheral people in her life because—well, she doesn’t know why it’s so different from that, but it just is. It itches somewhere deep in her mind, or in her heart, and she wonders what Caleb would pick up from her when she was feeling it, what color it would be to him.

“Chloe!” Emmy calls from across the room when Chloe shows up, and Angela cheers. Zach does a drum roll, and Didi barrels across the room to sweep Chloe into a hug. They didn’t think she’d come, she can hear it, and while their thoughts are a swirl that’s too tangled to tease out too many individual threads, she catches a few phrases of what sounds like hurt, excitement, a little suspicion. It hurts to hear.

Part of why it hurts, Chloe thinks, as she sips a glass of wine and listens to Zach talk about his latest installation project, is that while she missed them a lot when she first started isolating herself, after the angels first came to her, lately, she hasn’t so much. She still cares about them, but she has other people in her life right now, has coffee with Sam and art therapy with Frank and Caleb, froyo with Caleb and Adam, phone calls with Dr. Bright. She’s been spending a lot of time with her mom. Chloe hasn’t been lonely.

She has been alone a bit more often than she used to be, though, and an hour or two in, it’s not even just the rush of thoughts giving her a headache, it’s the constant company that has her heading to the balcony for a little bit of a breather. She steps out and for a moment it’s perfect, it’s like she can breathe again. She leans an elbow against the railing and lets out a long, slow sigh.

“Beautiful night,” says a voice from the shadow by the door.

“Damien?” Normally, when Chloe runs into him, she tries to keep her voice even, since the last thing she wants to do is let him think he can rattle her, but this is the last place in the world she’d ever expect to run into him, and the name comes out as a squeak before she can stop it.

“Fancy meeting you here,” he drawls in that tone that’s screaming about how casual he’s trying to be.

“Are you following me?” Chloe asks when she thinks she has her tone back under control, turning towards him and crossing her arms.

“You sure think a lot of yourself, don’t you?” he asks her, so very amused by the whole situation that she kind of wants to throttle him. “Did it ever occur to you that I might have more important people to follow?”

Damien,” she says, trying to use some of Dr. Bright’s warning tone.

“Lucky coincidence, I swear,” he tells her. “Scout’s honor.”

“You were never a scout,” Chloe snorts, but she can’t help it, she can feel her resolve weakening. Even without his power, there’s something oddly compelling about Damien. She think it’s probably some of the confidence that comes with his simple expectation of getting his own way.

“Of course I was,” he says, and “What kind of nine year old do you think I was?”

“I don’t think I ever assumed you were a child,” she says “Didn’t you just, like, hatch, one day, fully formed?” And this is bad, this is wrong, why is she talking to him, like they know each other, like they’re friends?

“Hey, all this doesn’t just happen,” he says, gesturing down at himself. “It took time to become the man you see before you.”

There’s a lightness in his tone, too, and for once she can’t even blame him for it, because she’s the one who introduced it to the conversation, and suddenly she feels a little sick. “What are you actually doing here, Damien?” she snaps.

“Your friend Mikey invited me,” Damien says. “Or, at least, I assume he’s your friend. I could be wrong, though.”

When Chloe doesn’t answer, Damien’s smile grows. “Chloe, did you crash that nice boy’s party?”

“I did not,” she says, annoyed with herself for giving even that much away, irritated with him for his tone and with herself for letting it get to her. “But how do you know Mikey? I know I haven’t been around that much, but I feel like I would have heard if he’d acquired a sloppy sociopath for a new boyfriend.”

“Excuse you, I am not sloppy,” Damien tells her. “And it’s a pretty recent acquaintanceship. I was behind him in line for the store when he was picking up solo cups and ice, so I,” and here he wiggles his fingers into halfhearted jazz hands, “persuaded him to invite me along.”

You, ugh, you creep,” Chloe chokes out, not even bothering to cover the disgust in her tone this time. “You stay out of Mikey’s head, I mean it.”

Damien scoffs. “Oh, like you’re not using your ability every time you talk to any of them?”

“I can’t—I can’t help it.” It sounds weak, even to Chloe’s own ears.

“Oh, but you’re so sure I can?” Before Damien can pursue that frankly depressing-sounding line of thought, he cuts himself off to say, “And I bet part of you really doesn’t want to, either. What was it you used to call it? Angels talking to you? Why would you want to cut that off?”

The sick feeling is back in Chloe’s gut. “How did you—?”

“I, uh, persuaded Doctor B. to tell me a little bit about you,” Damien says, and, bizarrely, he has the grace to look a little bit embarrassed.

“Anyway, it’s different,” Chloe says. “My power is different from yours.”

“Sure it is, sunshine,” Damien mocks. “But you’re different now, too, aren’t you? You’re not like them and you know it, and that’s part of why using your power around them isn’t such a big deal.”

“I’m not—I don’t—”

“Don’t even lie, Chloe,” Damien says, all shark-toothed smile. “Talking to me out here is the most fun you’ve had all night, isn’t it?”

“I’m leaving,” Chloe announces, clenching her hands into fists and turning back towards the door, like she probably should have from the beginning. “And leave Mikey alone.”

3)

“Michaels, you have a, uh, guest,” Jay says, heading back into the living room after answering the door. He jerks his thumb over his shoulder, back towards the foyer, and even through the haze of flickering emotions filling the room, Caleb can feel his awkwardness, his confusion. Whatever this is, he’s not really sure he’s doing the right thing.

Caleb thinks he has an idea why, even before he follows Jay out to the door, because he has two unread texts and three ignored calls flashing up at him from his phone’s screen. After the first day in Dr. Bright’s office, Adam has been good about giving Caleb space, good enough that, the last few weeks, as the terror of that first day has started to fade, he’s been thinking a little wistfully about looking Adam up again. He’s still angry, and he’s still afraid, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that’s there still.

The first call from Adam, as he’d left the house to head over to the party earlier that day, had broght all the confused, betrayed anger crashing back, though. Caleb was the one who was supposed to reach out first, Adam was supposed to give him his space, Adam was supposed to back off as a way of respecting the fact that he was the one who’d fucked up. Caleb had smashed the “ignore” button hard enough that his finger had skidded off the screen without reading it, the first time, and he’d had to try again.

So there have been a few calls tonight, and a few text he hasn’t read, and all of it has only made Caleb angry, but to have Adam (and Caleb is sure it’s Adam even in the confused tangle of emotions in the room, even before he comes into view in Jay’s parents’ foyer) follow him here, into a setting Adam had been painfully uncomfortable and uncertain in even the last time, when he’d been actually invited—the knowledge that Adam has tracked him down here sends a tendril of worry skidding through Caleb’s mind.

Caleb’s own worry has nothing on Adam’s, though, the sticky, creeping waves of yellowy-green embarrassment and fear coming off him without showing up on his face anywhere except for where he’s biting his lower lip. “I’ll, uh, leave you to it,” Jay says, already backing away, “Unless—Michaels? Are you good?”

“Yeah, I, uh, I’m fine,” Caleb tells him, but he can’t quite make himself look away from Adam, and he hates that, he think that makes him the maddest of all, that even his own anger isn’t enough to keep that roiling ball of fear and discomfort of Adam’s from making its home in Caleb’s chest.

Caleb waits a second for Adam to say something, since he’s the one who’s forced this confrontation, but the silence stretches out long enough for him to feel wrong-footed, to feel the need to say, “I would have called you back, you know. Eventually. You didn’t need to do this.”

Adam nods his head, jerky and uncertain, and says. “You would? Yeah, but I did, though. This is, uh, this is important.”

He doesn’t say what is so important, though, and he’s only getting more nervous the longer he stands there. It’s starting to freak Caleb out, not in the way where it’s bleeding into his own feelings, but just in the way where he’s not that bad, right? He’s not that scary.

A thought hits him, and he can’t stop himself from asking, “What are you—” he can’t even get through the question without feeling the nerves ramp up. “What are you so scared about? I know I have documented anger-management issues, but jeez.”

He tries to say it like a joke, but he’s not sure he makes it, and he knows Adam sees right past the forced lightness in his tone when he rushes to answer, saying, “No, no, of course not. Fuck. It’s just—you were right. About my parents.”

“I know I was,” Caleb says, but it’s mostly just to fill the space, now. He can hear the thump of the bass in the background as someone cranks the speakers up, and suddenly, he can’t think about this here. “And I’m glad you get that, but can we talk about this later? I wasn’t kidding when I said I could use some space.”

“I know,” Adam says, and Caleb doesn't even need to feel the misery that goes along with the words, he can hear it, too. “But Caleb, there’s more.”

4)

Sam has been gone almost three months when Didi copies Chloe in a group text about an end-of-summer party. Chloe thinks it’s probably a mistake that she gets the invitation, since she’s spent the summer almost completely isolated from her college friends, but Sam has been gone for months and Chloe has missed her, and it’s probably going to be a big enough party that it won’t be awkward if she shows up, so she goes.

Her mother is glad that she’s going, glad and a little relieved, which, Chloe thinks, is probably a sign that she’s let the isolation thing get too deep, and go on for too long. Her mother doesn’t say anything, just thinks it, and Chloe is trying to be better about respecting that, so instead of saying anything, instead of apologizing for worrying her, Chloe just kisses her cheek as she heads out the door.

She’s late enough that the evening is in full swing by the time she gets there, and she wants to go out the door almost as soon as she’s walked in it, but by then Zach has seen her, and Amy, and apparently there are some people who are glad to see her, so instead, she lets herself be drawn in and given a drink, and tries to relax into the evening.

No Damien tonight, which makes sense, since he’s disappeared off into the night as thoroughly as Sam has. Chloe isn’t expecting him, but that doesn’t stop her from looking over her shoulder every few minutes, like she expects him to walk up behind her. Between that and the way she still can’t help but zone out sometimes when an especially strong line of thought moves into her mind, she isn’t surprised when Mikey asks if she’s alright.

“Fine,” she says, but she knows her smile looks tight and insincere, and she hates it. It’s a relief when she feels her phone buzz in her pocket. “Excuse me,” she says, fishing her phone out of her pocket. “I have to take this.”

It’s Caleb because of course it’s Caleb, because her two best friends these days are a homeless war vet and a seventeen-year-old football jock. Because this is her life now.

“Caleb, hey, what’s up?” she asks once she’s outside, rubbing her arm with her free hand to chafe it warm in the cool night air. “Thanks for calling, by the way, I’m at this party, and well—you were very Saved By The Bell for me there.”

“Chloe,” Caleb says, and already she can tell there’s something off, his voice sounds wobbly and a little strange. “I, uh, Adam’s here with me—”

And that explains the strangeness, Chloe almost sighs with relief. “That’s great Caleb, I’m so glad you two are working things out.”

“That’s not—shit, we’re not working things out,” Caleb snaps, and oh, something is definitely wrong. Chloe hears the murmur of what she’s pretty sure is Adam’s voice in the background.

“I am telling her,” Caleb says, muffled, to Adam, and then, “Fuck, wait, don’t be like that, don’t be all hurt, I didn’t mean it like that, I just meant that working things out’s not why you’re here—”

“Tell her or I will, Caleb,” Chloe hears Adam say faintly in the background.

“Well, somebody had better tell me,” Chloe cuts in, and she knows her own agitation is showing in her voice.

“Do you have a way to get in touch with Sam?” Caleb asks her, and Chloe’s heart feels like it stops.

“Why,” she says, not even a question, just an exhalation.

“Adam broke into his parents’ emails, and he found—they know where she is, Chloe. The AM? They’re what you and Doctor Bright are so scared of, right? They’re following Sam, I’m not sure why, but it sounds like they think she’ll lead them to what they’re looking for. I don’t—”

Chloe doesn’t hear any more than that because she’s pulling the phone away from her face to scroll through her contacts until she finds her most recent text from Sam. It’s from that morning. It says, I have a lead, and it’s a good one. Can’t tell you any more here, but I think I did it. I think today’s the day. I think I’m going to find him.