The weight is coming off faster than Jem ever would have thought possible. He’d always struggled with weight loss before—maybe that was because Damian kept on catching him at it and stopping it before it got too far, but this time it’s working a little too well.
He stares at himself in the mirror, noting the sharpness of his bones and the paleness of his skin. He runs a hand along the contours of his body. He doesn’t think he’s ever looked so good, but it’s almost frightening watching the scale go from where he’d started at 139, down to 134, 128; now it’s down to 123 and there’s so much less of him. He can almost feel Damian’s frown; he definitely remembers the night before, when Tay snuggled up to him and whispered in his low, husky voice, “Jesus, Jem, you’re all skin & bones” before falling asleep.
The guilt is starting to weigh on him and so does the health concerns that come with losing so much weight when he hadn’t been all that sizeable to begin with for his 5’9’’ frame. He notices that he gets tired way too easily now; winded. His nails are turning brittle and yellow, where once they’d been shiny and beautiful. His hair has lost much of its luster, becoming dull and difficult to manage. Even the brilliant orange color he’d dyed it has begun to fade as the hair fails to hold onto the color and he finds it difficult to raise the energy or effort required to touch it up. He knows he’s gotten smaller, but he’s also becoming lesser. Is his sense of control really worth it?
And yet, nobody is saying anything.
Does he want them to? The answer should be no. Of course he doesn’t want them to see that he’s losing too much weight. He doesn’t want them to stop what he’s doing; he likes having control, loves to feel some vague sense of mastery over his own circumstances. He certainly doesn’t want them to worry about him—not when they have so much going on already. They’re all holding on, all trying to stay happy and have fun however they can. Nobody wants to admit that they’re still breaking inside, that they’re just trying to be happy for the sake of everyone else.
And yet, a part of him wishes they would notice. He wishes they would worry about him, the way Damian used to. But maybe he’s just being ridiculous. Maybe they like him better this way; maybe lesser really is better. He just wishes it didn’t feel so bad.
A knock on the door brings him out of his reverie. “Just a minute!” he calls, splashing water on his face before going about putting a little make-up on to cover the hollowness of his cheeks and the deep bags under his eyes. He even pinches at his cheeks a little to bring some color to them, to make it look like he was more healthy than he feels. Pasting on a smile, he goes to open the door.
Emery is poised to knock again, but is stopped by the swift opening, nearly overbalancing. Jem chuckles and steadies him. “What’s your hurry?” he asks the younger boy.
He blushes brightly. “N-no hurry. Just…kind of wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Jem tilts his head. “Of course I’m okay. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I…well, you were in there a long time. I thought you might be sick.”
Jem smiles at the concern in Emery’s voice, reaching up to touch his cheek tenderly. The boy is closer to the truth than he knows, but Jem doesn’t want to tell him that. “Nope. Just had to put my face on.”
Emery purses his lips. “I like your face just the way it always is. Why do you need to wear makeup?”
Jem arches an eyebrow as they head towards the downstairs, where the others are allegedly preparing a group dinner but by the sound of it, they’re more likely throwing the food around his nice kitchen. “Why do you put on makeup?”
“What? I don’t!” Emery blanches.
“That’s such a lie. You totally do!” Jem teases. “See, I know because you sleep here all the time now. When you first wake up, you’ve got acne scars. And yet, miraculously, they disappear throughout the day. Now, what could possibly do that?”
Emery is blushing fiercely, dark eyes looking around as if he’s worried someone’s going to hear that he wears makeup. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Emery mutters.
“Just admit it—there’s nothing wrong with it, you know.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Emery says. “Your dad lets you do anything; he doesn’t care how girly you look.”
“And you don’t look girly at all even if you do wear makeup; makeup is not gender exclusive. And anyway, that’s beside the point. I wear makeup because, like anyone, I’ve got flaws. It’s not easy being pretty, you know.”
Emery suddenly pulls up short, taking hold of Jem’s arm and pulling him back before they reach the kitchen.
Jem looks at him in surprise, feeling one of Emery’s strong arms wrap around his thin waist and pulling him close.
Emery blushes a little more but it seems he’s determined to say whatever is on his mind despite how embarrassed he might feel about it later. “You’re beautiful no matter what, Jem. You know that, right?”
Jem feels his lips lift in a tentative smile. “How could I forget?” Jem says. “I’ve got not one but two boyfriends.”
“It’s not just that…I just mean, you would tell us if you ever felt…I don’t know…like something was wrong, if you ever felt…that we don’t appreciate you enough or…”
Jem placed one of his small fingers against Emery’s lips, silencing his halting tirade. “You appreciate me plenty, Em. All of you do. I’m fine.”
“You’re sure?” Emery asks uncertainly around Jem’s finger.
This is Jem’s chance, to tell him that he isn’t so fine; that he just wants someone to notice and care that he’s losing so much, so fast, and it’s scary and exhilarating at once; that he worries that everyone actually likes him better even though he’s feeling worse every day. But when he opens his mouth, all that comes out is, “Yes, I’m perfectly fine. Let’s go join the others.”
And he kisses Emery once, his lips lingering on the other boy’s. He feels him relax into the kiss, convinced that Jem is just fine after all as his tongue laps against his own, promising an even more convincing tutorial of just how fine Jem really is later, after they spend some time with their friends and manage to drag Tay upstairs with them. When Jem steps back somewhat breathlessly, he presses a smaller kiss on his lips and turns away, dragging Emery the rest of the way to the kitchen where he puts on a show of how well he’s doing to the others that by the end of it, Jem almost believes it himself.
Yes, he tells himself as he goes through the motions of pretending to eat, laughing and joking with the others about how hopeless Donny apparently is in the kitchen, about how Emery could literally eat anything put in front of him no matter how disgusting so obviously his liking of the food could hardly constitute actual decency in the kitchen . I can do this. I am in control.
And he continues to convince himself and everyone around him that he’s fine even as he excuses himself from the table to go freshen up in the bathroom once more.
But when he gets in there, he starts to feel the world shifting hazily. He’s dizzy and shaking and he feels too hot—like maybe he’s been running around in the sun for too long. He stumbles to the shower and turns it on. He thinks cold water might shake him out of it, jolt some adrenaline through him.
He doesn’t bother to take his clothes off. He doubts he’d be able to anyways because his legs suddenly feel as if they’re made of rubber. He wishes he’d thought to stash a protein bar or something in the bathroom because he realizes by now that his blood sugar is way too low and maybe he’s lost control after all.
As he manages to get under the spray of the water, he’s right about one thing: it does jolt him, but it’s far from pleasant. Everything feels about twenty times more intense than it ought to and he can’t believe that not so long ago, he’d been in this very shower just goofing around with his friends and now he’s pretty sure he’s about to faint because the world is getting darker.
He pulls his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them to try and keep himself present. By the time the others come to find him, he’s shivering violently and trying not to sob. He wants to tell them he’s going to be fine, that he just needs to eat something, that he fucked up, but he can’t gather the strength. They’re all shouting, but their words are distorted.
Donny’s arm snakes in, turning the water off, and Tay is throwing a towel around his shoulders. Emery’s arms wrap around him, pulling him out of the tub and back onto the cold tiles of the bathroom floor. Tobi kneels in front of him, grabbing his shoulders and trying to get him to focus on him, but his eyes keep slipping off his face. He knows he’s scaring them, knows that they deserve better than this and that just makes him feel worse. He tries to cover his face with a hand, but August catches it and squeezes it.
The world comes into focus again briefly and he hears Donny ordering Emery to grab a protein shake from the fridge. His voice sounds calm, put together, but his face when Jem manages to look at it is anything but. He looks both worried and furious, hands clenching and unclenching at his side.
Then Emery is back and he’s pressing a straw against his lips. Jem tries to turn away from it, feeling like a child but hating the thought of putting those calories in his body even knowing how much he needs it.
“Drink or I’m driving your ass to a hospital,” August orders, “You can bet they won’t give you a choice in the matter—they’ll stick a needle in you so fast your head will reel.”
Jem purses his lips tighter, offering a glare at the slightly older boy, but then Tobi is there again, his eyes wide and worried as he places his hands on either side of his face. “Jem…please…”
And that’s all it takes. Jem knows he can’t argue, not after seeing Tobi stuck in that hospital bed and how hard it was on all of them to see him like that. He reaches almost drunkenly for the protein shake and lets Tay hold it up to his lips this time, because Emery looks really scared and his hands are shaking almost as badly as Jem’s.
They don’t let him move until he finishes the whole thing, and already Jem feels a little better though he’s still worn out and his stomach is roiling. Plus, he’s freezing.
“Let’s get you out of these clothes,” Donny murmurs quietly and Jem isn’t sure who all is holding onto him as they make their way out of the bathroom. He doesn’t even fight when Tay begins tugging his clothes off of him. They’ve all been friends for so long—there’s no sense in hiding their bodies from each other.
Still, he can’t help but feel rather self-conscious when Tobi sucks in a sharp breath at the sight of his bones sticking out, or the way Donny can’t help but look away, or the look of pure fury on August’s face. Tay and Emery don’t look away or seem angry, but there’s so much shame in their faces because they’ve seen this already, they knew, but they had done nothing because they thought he could control this, that he’d never let it get too far out of hand.
Jem feels like the worst possible scum.
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs quietly, but Tobi just shakes his head as Emery and Tay tug his clothes on.
Before long, he’s taken to the bed and forced to lay down—this by Emery which seems only fair after he had done much the same after finding all his bruises from that fight—and the others are suddenly all crowded onto his bed around him. They’re all touching each other, as if trying to cling to one another and keep him warm at the same time; a veritable tangle of limbs.
Jem isn’t sure when he starts to cry, but nobody says anything about it as he tucks his face into Tobi’s shoulder and feels Emery’s grip on his waist tighten. “You lied to me,” Emery murmurs after a while.
“I’m sorry,” Jem says again.
“You should have taken better care of yourself, Jemmie,” Tobi says, and the disappointment is clear in his voice as well.
“We should have stopped you,” Donny murmurs.
“You couldn’t have made me eat,” Jem says, not wanting them to blame themselves for even a second.
“We can now,” August says. “And you better believe we will.”
“I’m not going to do it anymore anyways,” Jem says with a sigh.
“Why did you do it?” Tay asks, his voice the quietest of all of them.
Jem isn’t sure what he should say. Nothing will make sense to the others—how could it? They weren’t in his head. They couldn’t possibly fathom how he felt about this. “Because I could,” he begins. “It made me feel in control.”
“Never again,” Tay says fiercely. “Promise me you’ll never do this again.”
“I can’t,” Jem says sadly. “I’m not as in control as I thought.”
“Then we’ll help you,” Tobi says, “Like you help us.”
Jem closes his eyes, not sure how to respond. He just feels so tired, so run down—physically and emotionally. But there’s an expectant silence following Tobi’s proclamation and Jem sighs again, wishing to disappear. “Thank you…” he says eventually.
Jem falls asleep shortly after that, feeling the arms and breaths of those he loves above all others all around him. He hates that he caused them any extra pain, but he can’t deny that for the first time in a long time, he feels taken care of.