Run: Skin & Bones

Twenty-Four

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.

“I know.”

“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.

 

 

Run: Wildfire

Twenty-Three

Something seems to have changed since the bonfire. Tobi watches as the misery bleeds from the faces of his friends and smiles take their place, but there’s an edginess to the smiles that wasn’t there before. It’s almost desperate, like they’re trying to force the smiles to stay in place. Like they have to be happy or else they’re failing somehow, failing Damian and each other. Failing Tobi.

But at least they’re together again, and Tobi enjoys that. They meet every night, go out to all of their old haunts. They drink a lot more, but he tells himself that it’s to be expected. Since he doesn’t take his meds, he needs something to dull the edges of his anxiety and August has endless liquor store connections through his father, and none of them wants to let Tobi drink alone.

His friends are different when they’re drunk. Especially Jem, who’s normally so quiet and gentle. He’s wilder, more unpredictable. His smiles are sharp, and he’s more likely to go along with the more reckless ideas he would normally be dead set against. Tobi kind of enjoys seeing his friend let go a little, to see the worry for the others melt off his face, even if it’s just for a while. But it also means that the voice of reason in their group is compromised, and nobody is stepping up to take his place.

Donny seems to have his hands full with Tay, as the two have become closer since Damian’s death. It’s like Donny has taken it upon himself to save Tay as best he can, since Damian hadn’t been able to do anything about him. Tobi hopes it isn’t a lost cause.

Tay is a lot quieter when he’s drinking. But it’s an unsettling sort of quiet. His gazes are unnerving, unfathomable. He seems to gravitate closer to Donny in those moments, probably because Donny is just as quiet—sober or not. He doesn’t expect Tay to cling to his ridiculous, raunchy jokes the way the others might. Tay was always their comic relief, but it’s harder for him to be that now. Without the drugs clouding his perceptions, Tobi can see that clearly where he couldn’t before. It had always been a façade for him. The loud, laughing boy who made dirty jokes was just a mask to hide the pain he felt every day; a mask he put on to feel as if he deserved the love that his friends heaped upon him.

But the darkness is almost too hard for Tobi to see, so he tries to take the mantle of comic relief for himself, to give Tay some time to be himself—whoever that is at the moment.

It’s easier than he thought it would be, to joke and be silly despite the sadness that permeates their reality—the sadness they’re all pointedly trying to ignore. He’s always tried to be bright and optimistic around his friends, so it’s almost natural to make the leap to jokes, though he does tend to avoid the dirty ones that Tay favored.

The others are also more wild when they’re drinking. Emery is the silliest, the one that takes the least to get drunk. He’s almost clingy when he drinks, though, which is a sharp contrast to what he’s like sober. He hangs on them more freely, initiating more touching and cuddling and hugging. Tobi likes this side of him, though he wishes it didn’t take alcohol to unleash it. Still, he takes advantage of the extra hugs because he’s always felt the strangest need to hug the younger boy to him and never let go; Emery has that effect on people.

And August…August is the craziest when he’s drinking. He’s more reckless, almost violent. He’s usually the one that takes charge, coming up with ideas of what they should do to pass the time. And the others all go along with it because they’re drunk, their inhibitions are lowered, and they need a distraction from their pain. They want to be together, to do things together, and August provides them with activities.

Of course, these activities aren’t exactly wholesome.  Just the week before, August, Donny, and Tay had gotten busted vandalizing city property. August had managed to escape, knowing all the secret places to hide, but Donny and Tay hadn’t been so lucky. Jem had bailed them out, pulled strings with his father, and got the whole thing forgotten as long as Tay and Donny cleaned up the building they’d painted graffiti on. They’d laughed the whole thing off, telling the tale with all the excitement of a boastful granddad reliving his adventures, but it had been the first time they’d ever been in real trouble with the law.

And now, after August has gotten his license back, he proposes they cause a bit of a traffic jam in an old tunnel that runs through the city, see what they can do before they get in trouble. Everyone agrees.

They like to pretend that Damian is there with them when they engage in these unwholesome activities, driving the truck and smiling disapprovingly at them. Of course, he never stops them. He can’t stop them from doing anything because physically, he isn’t there. But his spirit is always there, and though they know he wouldn’t approve of a lot of the things they’re doing, they keep at it because just being together helps and distractions are easier when they’re loud and wild. It’s also easiest to feel him there when they’re doing something wrong, almost as if they’re crying out for his attention, trying to lure him back to them so that they can feel that disapproving smile. Tobi wonders if maybe he should mention this to his therapist next Thursday.

They stop at the Red Line before they go, buying a plethora of greasy food. Kay’s there, and she seems genuinely pleased to see them though it’s somewhat strained in light of recent events. Everyone pretends not to notice and Tobi even manages to subtly offer his phone number to the girl so they can plan a date sometime, earning himself a wan smile from her and several hoots and pats on the back from his friends.

With food in hand, they pile into August’s truck. It’s not as dear to them as Damian’s had been, but they try to pretend it’s his as they all clamber into it and drive to the tunnel.

Their plan works well. Almost too well. It’s far from rush hour, and yet after just an hour parked in the end of the tunnel, with the truck sideways so that it blocks nearly all lanes of traffic, the cars are all honking and drivers are shouting, wondering what the holdup is.

“Ready?” August says, tossing his beer can aside and wiping his face.

“Let’s go,” Jem agrees, sounding almost giddy.

Then they all shout and run through the tunnel. They climb on top of cars, write rude messages in lipstick on their windshields, dump drinks and food over the hoods. They get almost halfway before the drivers get fed up and start getting out of their cars. Some of them have crowbars, others have pocket knives, most pull out their phones to call the police. Whatever the drivers have, the boys know their time is up and they run, laughing, back to where the truck waits. August clambers into the driver’s seat, Donny next to him, and the rest of them climb into the back, flicking off the drivers as the truck turns swiftly around and begins to drive out of the tunnel.

Tobi feels awash in emotion—anxious, elated, afraid, free—so he’s surprised when he looks over and sees Emery staring behind them with a blank expression on his face.

“Something wrong?” Tobi asks him.

Emery seems startled by the question, quickly smiling and shaking his head. “Nothing,” he says, but it’s obviously not nothing.

Tobi sighs and tugs him closer, pulling him into a cuddle with one arm while using the other to wrap around Jem’s shoulders.

Tay sidles up to Emery’s other side, resting a hand on his thigh and his head on his shoulder, and the arm Tobi has around Emery moves to wrap his fingers briefly in Tay’s hair. It’s been a while since Tobi has gotten to love all over the three youngest in their group. They’ve had to support him more often than not lately, so he feels happy to be able to share this moment with them.

“It’s just…” Emery begins, eyes fluttering closed. Tobi wonders if he’s still in pain from when he got into that fight, or if he’s just tired. “Is this what we’ve become?”

Tobi’s momentarily stunned by that statement, but before he can say anything, ask him about it, he realizes that Emery is falling asleep. He glances briefly at Jem and notices that he’s pointedly looking everywhere else. Does he feel guilty too?

Tobi bites his lip, wondering if this was all somehow his fault. If, through that toast about new beginnings, he’d forced them all into this scenario where they were living a life they didn’t want for the sake of feeling just a little closer to Damian’s memories by doing things he would decidedly not approve of, trying to find that sliver of happiness they had all lost along with Damian.

“Don’t,” Tay says, and Tobi looks at him in surprise. “Don’t blame yourself. Sometimes, you just have to let a wildfire blow off its steam. Everything will end, eventually.”

Tobi nods, biting his lip. He wishes the words were comforting, but he isn’t sure he wants to know how this particular wildfire will come to an end.

He just hopes they all survive until that inevitable end.

 

Run: New Beginning

Twenty-Two

“Woo!” The shout’s loud enough to echo in the darkness, accompanied by the sound of a champagne bottle being opened. The beige liquid froths and bubbles over, spilling from between August’s fingers and onto the cement at their feet. The bonfire crackles pleasantly, filling them all with warmth even as August fills their plastic champagne flutes.

Today, everything is worth celebrating. Tobi is out of the hospital, with a clean bill of health on the promise that he’ll attend regular therapy sessions to ensure nothing like his overdose happens again. He’ll get to finish out his final year at UAA, and August couldn’t be happier for him. There were even possible plans of the two of them going into business once he graduates, maybe starting up their own little record company. They both know it’ll be expensive and difficult, but after August had given up his internship for them all, and with Tobi (all of them, really) needing something to look forward to, it seems the best possible compromise. August has gotten a job at a local radio station, to get DJ experience and save up the money he can, and for the first time in a while, their futures look bright.

They’re all grinning from ear to ear; Jem’s sitting on Tay’s lap, arm wrapped loosely around his shoulders. Emery is standing behind them, toying with Tay’s ear idly. His face is still a mess, evidence of his beating still clear for all to see, but he doesn’t seem bothered by it at all. Jem had apparently freaked out when he saw it at first, but he’d had a lot of practice tending wounds thanks to Tay so he had been able to take good care of Emery, even going so far as to order him to stay in bed for a few days so his ribs could heal up some.

Donny stands nearby, arm resting lightly across Tobi’s shoulders, occasionally reaching up to ruffle his hair. His relief at having their sunshine whole and mostly unharmed is obvious and August feels a stab of regret at how they’d acted the night it had happened. They hadn’t talked about the argument since, but there’s an obvious tension that hasn’t quite left and he hopes that they’ll be able to move past this. They all need each other more than ever right now—they can’t afford anything splitting them up.

And honestly? August misses his best friend.

“To Damian, who may be gone but is still with us,” Donny says, holding up his flute of champagne with his free hand. “And to Tobi, who isn’t going anywhere just yet!”

Tobi blushes, holding up his own drink, the others joining in. “I’m really sorry I worried you guys so much,” he says once things have quieted down again. His eyes keep glancing up, catching their gazes, before ducking back down again in shame.

“Hey, don’t do that,” Jem says, voice softer than the firelight. “It was an honest mistake and we’ll always worry about you because we love you.”

“Still…” Tobi sets his drink down and reaches into his pocket, pulling out the orange pill bottle. He shakes it. “Such a small thing, to cause such a big problem.”

The others stare at the pills uncertainly, wondering what Tobi is getting at. August clenches his jaw a little, gaze flitting up to meet Donny’s unreadable expression.

“I don’t want to depend on these anymore,” Tobi says finally. “I want to get over this issue I have without numbing myself to it all. I…it’s going to be hard. I’m probably going to have a lot of panic attacks and doubts and…After everything, I know I can depend on all of you. Will you guys help me?”

“You know we will,” Donny says, voice firm but gentle. There’s no room for doubt in that statement, and although Donny is speaking for them all without checking with them first, his words ring with truth and certainty. This is Donny the Leader, the father-figure to Damian’s mother-figure. This is the man they’d all follow anywhere—even to Hell itself. And all he’s asking them to do is to help Tobi, which they would do anyways.

The others are nodding and August finds that he is, too. There isn’t anything they wouldn’t do for each other and they know it. Even if they fight sometimes, even if they can’t always see eye to eye, they would back each other up without question.

This is friendship; this is truth. For the first time in a long time, August feels no regret about losing his internship. This is where he belongs.

Tobi grins at all of them, his gratitude glowing as he unscrews the cap of his pills. “To a new beginning, then,” he says, and dumps the whole lot of them into the fire.

August grins back, feeling a strange sense of elation at such an act of confidence from the normally anxious boy. When Tobi tosses the bottle away, August gives him a high five and then a one-armed hug. As August retreats, Donny smiles too, squeezing Tobi’s shoulder reassuringly.

“Badass,” Tay says, smiling approvingly.

“We’re proud of you, Tobi,” Jem agrees with a soft smile, and Emery nods his agreement as well, smiling despite the way it stretches his split lip.

“August, can I have a word?” Donny says then, and August glances up at him in surprise before nodding.

Jem watches them retreat from the fire with a knowing gaze, reaching up to squeeze Emery’s hand to bring the fact of their leaving to his attention as well—just in case he needs to stop a fight, August suspects. He hopes it doesn’t come to that.

Still, it’s about time they had it out. Whatever’s between them, it needs to be put out in the open and dealt with sooner rather than later; it’s hard to support the others when they can’t support each other.

Once they’ve made it far enough—enough distance between them and the rest of the group so that they won’t be overheard but close enough to be seen—August folds his arms across his chest. It’s colder here, away from the fire. “You wanted to talk?” August prompts.

“I think it’s time you and I talked about what happened that night,” Donny says.

“Yeah…” August says. He runs a hand through his hair, feeling suddenly nervous because he isn’t sure where to begin.

Donny sighs. “You really have a way with words, don’t you?” he teases lightly, but  the serious expression is still on his face as he considers his own words carefully. “Fine, I guess I’ll begin.”

August braces himself. This is it, he knows. As much as he’s waiting to hear it, he’s still not prepared when Donny opens his mouth.

“I know it’s wrong, but I can’t help but blame you at least a little bit for what happened to Damian,” Donny says.

“Yeah, me too,” August agrees with a sigh. He’s blamed himself all along. After all, it had been because of him that Damian had lost sleep. It was because of him that Damian had had a drink earlier; it was because of him that Damian had been driving so late at night. There was no blaming him a little bit; August blamed himself entirely.

“But I don’t want to lose you, too,” Donny continues. “And I see that it’s killing you, eating you up slowly. I didn’t realize until Tobi overdosed—didn’t want to realize—but you were right. Everyone’s a wreck and I don’t know how to save everyone. I can’t make Jem eat and I can’t make Tay leave his home and I can’t protect Emery from making stupid, rash decisions like that fight the other night and I wasn’t able to stop Tobi from taking too many pills. But I can let you off the hook.”

“You don’t have to do that,” August protests. “I deserve it. I should have…“

“Should have what, August? Predicted the future? Given up your dream for no reason? No. Damian made the decision to drive that night. He knew himself, knew how tired he was. He could have chosen to stay at Jem’s while you took a cab; he could have asked me to drive you instead. He could have noticed that he was too tired and pulled over, called a cab himself. But he didn’t, and he made a mistake that unfortunately cost him his life. That’s not on you,” Donny begins, reaching out and taking August’s shoulder in his hand. “And even if it were on you, if you still think it’s your fault after all of that…I forgive you.”

August feels tears prickle his eyes, but he roughly scrubs them away. He isn’t the type to cry over sentimental shit like this. “I can’t forgive myself,” August says. “Not yet. But…thank you.”

Donny nods before pulling him in for a proper hug. August lets him, even though he doesn’t really do hugs, either. He supposes that this is the one time he can accept it—the one scenario where hugging is acceptable.

It doesn’t last long. He squeezes Donny once, then let’s go, stepping back and trying to put his cool façade back in place; it’s harder to do than usual, and he’s still grinning a little when they get back to the group.

Emery is regaling them all with the tale of his heroic fight, complete with embellishments and ridiculous dialogue and an inexplicable addition of a rogue ninja. He tries to pantomime the fight, though his body is still stiff and he’s probably not doing his healing body any favors. August can’t resist a light jab at his side, getting Emery to yelp and glare at him in betrayal; Tay is laughing his ass off at his misery.

Still, Emery doesn’t try to pantomime too much anymore, which is what August had been aiming for; he doesn’t miss the grateful look Jem sends him, either, and it makes him feel almost as warm as the fire.

Donny hands Tobi a beer from the red cooler before plopping down between him and Tay, propping his leg against Tay’s shoulder and resting the rest of his weight on one of his elbows.

August may not be able to forgive himself just yet, but seeing what’s left of his friends, all laughing and relaxed and carefree despite the loss hanging over their heads makes him feel better. Maybe they can have a new beginning after all.

 

Run: Lost My Way

Twenty-One

In the days following Tobi’s overdose and subsequent recovery, Emery finds himself alone more often than not. It isn’t a feeling he relishes, but he doesn’t know how to seek other people’s company. Before, he usually found himself dragged along regardless of his own thoughts on the matter.

But right now, most of his friends are focused on Tobi. Emery understands—the older boy needs it. He would be there, too, if he thought his presence would be of any comfort to him at all. However, Emery knows he’s not the best company. He emotionally constipated and awkward to a fault and anyway, hospitals make him queasy. Despite Tobi making a full physical recovery rather quickly, the psychological evaluation was going to last 72 hours, during which time it would be decided how they should proceed with treatment: whether Tobi will need supervised care in a facility, thus ending his time at UAA, or if he can continue his recovery at home. Emery of course hopes for the latter, but he’s no doctor and the uncertainty only makes it more difficult than ever for him to be around the others.

So he finds himself walking through all their old haunts on his own, the sky long past dark and his mind wandering. It’s cold, but all he has on is an oversized black hoodie. The sensation should keep him grounded, but he doesn’t really feel like focusing right now. He isn’t sure where he’s going, only that he doesn’t want to stay in his dorm or the hospital right now. Maybe he’ll visit August.

Much like him, the older boy had withdrawn from the others once he was sure Tobi would be fine. He wonders if the others blame them, if they think them selfish for not being there. In reality, Emery is fairly sure it’s the opposite; they don’t want to distract from what matters right now, and what matters is Tobi. If that means keeping their distance for a little bit, then so be it.

Emery’s feet turn him in the direction of August’s place, and his phone buzzes in his pocket. He pulls it out as he walks, reading the text. It’s from Jem.

I made some curry earlier. It’s in the fridge at my house. Grab something to eat and I’ll be home later, okay?

Emery smiles and goes to type a reply. I’m gonna visit August first, but I’ll probs still be home before you. How’s Tobi?

Better. The doctors seem to believe that he’s not really suicidal.

So, no in-patient care facility?

Too early to tell for sure, but it’s looking that way.

Emery is so relieved and caught up in his conversation that he doesn’t notice the two hooded figures walking towards him until it’s too late, his shoulder nudging into one of them. He barely glances in their direction, murmuring something vaguely apologetic as he goes back to his phone. He goes to type another reply when suddenly, he’s grabbed by the back of his coat and slammed into the retractable door of a nearby storage building.

The impact rattles his brain a little and he drops his phone. He sees the screen crack, but he doesn’t have time to fret because his own safety is under immediate threat.

“You think you can just walk into us, punk?” one of the men grunts, pushing him further into the door.

“H-hey!” Emery gasps, trying to extract the tight grip on his coat, but his protests are silenced with a knee to his gut. His breath falls out of him, pain blossoming from his stomach and making it difficult to draw in another breath, but the other is far from done. He tugs Emery up by his shoulder in a painful grip and Emery hisses through his teeth. If he moves wrong, it’ll only make it more painful so he holds still as the other’s stale breath brushes across his face.

“If you value that pretty head of yours, you’ll apologize to my friend here,” he says.

“F-fuck you,” Emery stutters in return, unsure where that had come from. He doesn’t have time to regret it though because the other smashes a fist into his jaw and the second boy join in.

Before long, they’re ganging up on him, blows raining down on him in quick succession. It hurts, fuck it hurts, but something inside of Emery is pulsing—some dark anger he hadn’t been aware he was carrying around until now and this feels right, this pain. It feels like he’s been numb for so long and now he’s finally waking up, and he can’t help but smile despite the fists and feet and knees that pound into him, covering him in bruises.

As blood streams from his nose and cracked lip, he roars and shoves back, but it’s useless. He’s never been a fighter and the other two take advantage of that. They beat him relentlessly, until his body is all but limp and he falls to his knees.

A wad of spit lands on the ground next to him as he groans, clutching his ribs. He thinks he might have broken a couple, judging by the stabs of pain that accompany every breath, but he can’t help but laugh a little. He’s crying and laughing at once and it hurts so bad, but he feels fine. He wonders if this is what Tay felt, why he stayed with his father even after things got physical; why he’s been coming around covered in more bruises than ever since Damian died. It’s like his grief finally has some form of physical release. It feels necessary—like this is what he should get, being alive when Damian isn’t.

“What a fucking freak,” one of the guys mutters, giving him one last kick and causing him to hit the ground. He lays there for what feels like forever before slowly pulling himself into a crawling position so he can go pick up his phone.

It still comes on, which is a relief because he can’t afford to replace it. Not right now. Jem has sent him a couple more messages, and there’s even a missed call. He winces; how’s he going to explain the bruises to Jem later?

He stumbles to his feet, hissing as the movement shifts his ribs. With one arm, he cradles his midsection while he uses the other to type out a quick reply. Sorry, dropped my phone. The screen’s all cracked. ):

Is it okay?

Yeah, still works. Obviously lol

Good. But if you want a new one, just say the word. You know I can get you one.

Thanks, but I’m good.

If you’re sure…

Emery sighs. He owes so much to Jem already; he knows that. He doesn’t want to burden him with even more. The other is always offering to buy him new stuff—clothes, shoes, video games…he appreciates it, but that’s not what he’s in this for and he never wants Jem to think he is. And now he’s all covered in bruises because he’d started a fight unnecessarily; Jem’s gonna kill him.

Whatever high he’d gotten from the physical altercation is consumed by the guilt. He can’t hide this and he knows that if he does, it’ll only make things worse. But that doesn’t make him anymore eager to go and see Jem right now, not when he’s in such a sorry state. He said he was going to visit August and that’s what he means to do.

I’m going to be later than I thought. Don’t wait up for me, okay? Get some food and some rest.

;^;

Sorry, Jem. I love you.

There’s a long pause as Emery waits for the response. It’s not the first time he’s said—or in this case typed—those three words, but he’s pretty sure it’s the first time he’s said them since what happened to Damian. A part of him is worried that saying it might send something into the universe to take Jem, too, to ensure that he’s utterly defeated. But Jem deserves to know the truth; deserves the assurance that he still loves him no matter what they go through, how broken they all are right now.

He’s not blind. He’s noticed Jem’s behavior, the way it’s returning to unhealthy patterns of not properly taking care of himself. He hopes it’s just a phase, a temporary relapse due to their collective grief. He doesn’t know how to take care of him like Damian could take care of all of them, doesn’t know how to approach him and goad him into eating or taking breaks when he needs them. Jem has fallen into the habit of taking care of all of the rest of them in Damian’s place and Emery is so selfish that he still lets him, still takes that comfort. He wants to give him something back, even if that something is as small as three little words.

His phone dings with a reply and he looks at it quickly. I love you, too, Bunny. Come home soon.

Emery smiles and pockets the phone, then begins the slow process of heading the rest of the way to August’s house. When he arrives, he only has to knock once before August pulls the door open, the smell of marijuana wafting out and loud music filtering through the walls.

The older boy takes one look at him, taking in the split lip, the bloody nose, the hunched way he’s standing. Then he sighs. “The fuck happened to your face?”

“Couple of thugs,” Emery admits. “I don’t suppose you could offer me some ice and maybe a hit of whatever you’re smoking in there?”

August opens the door a little wider to admit Emery. “Sure. I can also offer you some self-defense lessons. You apparently need them if you got your ass beat that soundly.”

“It was two against one,” Emery protests, but he’s already heading inside, craving the comfort that only August can provide—guilt free and without obligation.

They may have all lost their way; but he knows they’ll find their way back. Eventually. Tonight, though, that can wait. Tonight, he’s ready to get a little more lost—at least until he comes back down to earth and lets himself be wrapped in Jem’s arms.

 

 

Run: Don’t Take My Sunshine Away

Twenty

The hospital is cold, white tiles and white furniture and the sharp antiseptic smell permeating everything. Jem hates it; it’s suffocating, the place where people go to die rather than to live. He can’t stop pacing, waiting to hear the news on Tobi. They’ve been here for what feels like hours as the doctors do what they can for him and they haven’t heard any news at all. Tobi’s family had already gone with the doctors to hear what’s going on, to maybe see their son, but they’ve yet to invite Tobi’s friends in.

“You’re going to pace a hole in the floor,” Donny points out.

He looks exhausted, dark circles under his eyes. Jem wonders if he had slept at all in the past week; he looks almost as dead as Tobi had when they’d wheeled him into the ER. The visual hurts, reminding him of why he’s here, how little he could do for his friend when he’d found him sitting on the side of the road with blue lips and a distant expression. “What else can I do?” Jem asks.

“You got him here,” August points out. “That counts for something.”

Emery suddenly wraps his arms around Jem’s waist from behind, halting his progress. Jem sighs, leaning into the touch comfortably. Emery’s got strong arms, and he’s always enjoyed his back hugs. He always feels so much more secure with his arms around him. It’s the first time he’s been able to do it since the incident with the car—his ankle hadn’t quite healed all the way, but he didn’t need crutches anymore at least.

He feels warm, too, and Jem needs that. It’s a good distraction from how cold the hospital is, how cold Tobi had felt. He closes his eyes, hoping to relax further into the warmth so he can forget, even if just for a little while, how close they’d been to losing a second friend in less than a month.

“You’re Tobias Hope’s friends, right?”

An attractive nurse has walked into the waiting room where they’re all at, holding a clipboard with painted fingers. All five of them turn to look at her at once, worry written on all of their faces. She doesn’t even seem phased; she must deal with grief like this every day. Jem can’t imagine a more depressing job.

“Yes,” Donny answers for them, taking a leadership role. “How is he? Will he be okay?”

“His parents are with him now. He probably won’t be up for a few hours yet, but we managed to get him out of the woods. It was good that you got him here as fast as you did—overdoses like this can be very fatal,” the nurse explained.

Jem lets out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “Thank god,” he mutters. Emery squeezes him lightly before releasing him.

“See?” the younger says. “You did good, Jemmie. I’m sure Tobi will be happy.”

“About that,” the nurse begins, looking a little uncomfortable with what she has to say now. “Have any of you noticed anything odd about your friend? Maybe marked depression, or an increased reliance on medication?”

Tay frowns. “What are you getting at?” he begins.

“She’s asking us if we think Tobi tried to kill himself,” August says with his characteristic brusqueness and Jem feels his stomach drop.

“He wouldn’t do that.”

“How do we know?” August says, nearly scoffing. “All of us are one bad day from walking off a damn building. Ever since Damian…”

“Don’t,” Donny says, stopping him in his tracks. “Don’t you dare suggest that this is Damian’s fault, that him dying somehow gives any of us an excuse to try to end our lives.”

“I’m not saying it’s Damian’s fault,” August returns, glaring. “I’m saying we don’t know what the fuck any of us are capable of after that. Grief’s a bitch; trust me, I know.”

Donny looks like he wants to argue—or worse, like he wants to throw a punch—but Emery is there in an instant, placing himself between the older boys and glaring at them both. “Stop,” he says. “Both of you. Now isn’t the time.”

Tay looks like he’s about to get involved, his fight or flight reflex initiated by the aggressive stances of his friends. Jem knows it’s because he spends so much of his life fighting with his father, so he reaches out and takes Tay’s hand in his own; physical contact often helped relax him. He then fixes the nurse with a gaze, trying to grasp at every bit of professionalism and authority he’d seen his father use over the years.

“Nurse…” Jem says, hoping to distract everyone from wanting to fight with each other for the time being. “I don’t think Tobi was suicidal. He’s always relied heavily on his medication, but I think this was an honest mistake. He seemed confused that it was happening. Like he couldn’t fathom why he felt so weird. Anyway, if he had wanted to kill himself, I doubt he would have left his dorm and headed towards class.”

“Nevertheless,” the nurse says, biting her lip. “The doctor is going to recommend a psychological evaluation. You said a friend of yours died recently?”

Jem nods. He wants to cry; just thinking of Damian is like rubbing salt on an open cut. “Yes. It’s weighing heavily on all of us but I don’t think…” he looks at all his friends, notices their downcast gazes, and something breaks inside of him. He drops his own gaze, closing his eyes. “At least, I hope that none of us are so grief-stricken as to consider suicide a viable option. Damian…he wouldn’t approve.”

Of course, there’s a lot of things Damian wouldn’t approve of. For instance, Jem knows the other would scold him if he knew he was skipping meals again, that he was taking diet pills to help him control his appetite; that he was working out far too much to be healthy, only drinking water to give him energy to continue; only eating when the others are around and paying attention—which admittedly, isn’t that often. In a way, it’s almost like getting back at Damian for leaving them. He knows it isn’t right, but he likes that he has a modicum of control over this situation. He couldn’t stop his mother from walking out on him and his dad all those years ago; he couldn’t do a damn thing for Damian; and apparently, he couldn’t do anything for his friends either if they were all in varying levels of considering suicide judging by their shamed expressions when the topic had come up. But his weight? His eating? He could control that.

“When can we see him?” Jem asks after a moment.

“His parents said you’re all like family,” the nurse says, giving them all a strained smile, “So you can visit whenever you feel like it. But only one at a time—we don’t want to overwhelm him.”

“Jem should get to visit first,” Tay says, speaking up for the first time in what feels like ages. He’s been quiet more often lately, as if he lost his voice from the grief; Jem gives him a tight lipped smile and a gentle squeeze of his hand in gratitude.

None of the others argue, so Jem follows the nurse. “You’re sure he’s going to be okay?”

“Yes,” the nurse assures him as they walk down the hall. “In fact, the more normal you act around him, the better. We find in cases like this, it’s best to lighten the mood. His body is mostly fine—there will be some discomfort because of the stomach pumping—but really it’s just the mental side we need to worry about.”

Jem nods his understanding and then they’re there, standing outside of the room. The door cracks open and Tobi’s parents stand, looking at him with tear filled eyes. Still, his mother offers a smile. “Jemmie, come in. He should wake up soon. I think it would do him good to see your face first.”

“Really?” Jem asks uncertainly.

She nods. “You’re the one who saved him, after all. We’ll leave you alone for a bit—we’re going to grab some coffee in the cafeteria and chat with the doctor a little about what we can do to help him better in the future. Please look after him for us?”

Jem nods. “Of course.”

Tobi’s father pats his back as he passes him in the doorway and then the door slips closed behind them both, leaving Jem alone with a sleeping Tobi.

He really does look infinitely better, the color having returned to his face. In fact, he looks like he’s just sleeping. Maybe taking a long nap after a particularly difficult dance practice.

But now that Jem is here, he isn’t sure what he should do. He glances once more at the door, then runs a hand through his hair uncertainly.

Finally, there’s a stirring in the bed. Jem freezes, hand still tangled in his hair, and then Tobi’s eyes open.

“Jem,” he begins, slowly sitting up with a groan. “Ugh…I feel like shit.”

Jem sighs with relief. “You scared the shit out of us all, Tobi. Your mom was crying.”

Tobi winces. “I hate it when she cries…”

Jem bites his lip, then remembers the nurse’s words. Just treat him like normal.

Looking around, Jem finds an empty bed. There’s pillows at the foot of it, and an idea pops into his head. It’s probably a bad idea. Tobi had just had a procedure done; but Jem wants to make him feel better. And Tobi had always enjoyed some simple horseplay.

“You know what this means,” Jem says, arching an eyebrow.

“What?” Tobi asks curiously.

“I’m gonna have to punish you.”

Before Tobi can ask what he means by that, Jem has grabbed a pillow and is aiming it right for his face.

Tobi makes a noise of surprise before grabbing his own pillow and meeting the assault head on.

They get scolded after their tomfoolery is discovered, but by then it doesn’t matter because Tobi is smiling so wide it’s cracking his face and Jem is breathing heavily and tears prick his eyes, but he can’t help but laugh. He gets thrown out of the hospital room and visiting rights are revoked for the night, but nothing can take away that smile.

If nothing else, Jem knows he was able to give him that much.

 

Run: Without You

Nineteen

For Tobi, it’s the hardest at night. The pills call to him, promising sweet relief from the agonies of the day. He misses Damian so much in those moments. Usually, he would call the older when he was feeling the need to take an extra dose of Valium. Damian had always done a good job of playing distraction, keeping his mind occupied on other things until he either calmed down or fell asleep. But without him, he isn’t sure he has the strength to resist.

It’s been two weeks since the funeral. In a way, things have gone back to normal. He’s still going to classes, still practicing his dancing four hours a day, and he and the others have been meeting regularly. But there’s a strain in how they act around one another. It’s as if they’ve forgotten their places now that Damian isn’t there filling his. Emery hasn’t been taking nearly as many pictures, Jem’s lost at least fifteen pounds, and Tay’s been showing up to their meetings with more bruises than common sense. It’s rare for August to even show up, and when he does, he’s usually just playing with his lighter and staring off into the distance. Donny is the only one that seems remotely normal, which seems especially strange considering what Damian was to him. Maybe he was trying to keep it together to help them all, but it’s just frustrating to Tobi because he knows the other is going to have to explode eventually and he isn’t sure what will happen when he does.

Actually, they’re all ticking time bombs and Tobi isn’t sure who will blow first.

The panic is starting to choke him again the more he thinks about it and he knows he can’t resist it now—not unless he’s ready to face a full-blown panic attack, and he isn’t. Not right now.

He rolls out of bed and stumbles into his bathroom, reaching for the cabinet. He pulls it open and stares at the orange prescription bottle. So innocuous and small, and yet it controlled his whole world. He closes the cabinet and stares at himself in the mirror.

The person who stares back at him is far from the generally optimistic Tobi he tries to convey in the daytime. He wonders if that Tobi will ever come back, now that Damian isn’t in the picture. He wonders if any of them will be able to smile again.

Tobi has never really known grief. This is the first person he’s ever really lost, the first time he’s dealt with emotions quite like this. It’s too much. He knows it’s too much. That’s why the pills are calling to him especially much right now. When he’s stoned, he’s numb. He can’t feel the pain, the sharp tug of grief threatening to choke him. He can pretend everything is distant, that it’s not happening to him or to those he loves.

Carelessly, he spills some of the round pills into his palm. A few fall through his shaking fingers and into the sink, and he curses but knows it’s a lost cause. There’s no way he can fit his fingers into the tiny drain far enough to retrieve them.

Frustrated, he knocks back those which fell in his hand without even drinking a glass of water or counting how many he’s taken. He just wants it all to stop for a little while.

He closes his eyes, resting his weight against the sink and waiting for the inevitable numbness to pull him under. When he starts to feel that curious floating sensation, he makes his way out of the bathroom and towards his bed, where he collapses onto the sheets without further ado.

The next day, he feels a little drowsy. He doesn’t know what time he took his pills, but the day is about to start so he gets up and begins to dress himself. He usually starts his day with his regular dose of Valium. The previous night had been an unusual occurrence, born of his current situation. He doesn’t think anything of it when he goes to take the regular dose—two pills instead of one, just to be sure that the panic doesn’t come back any time soon—but as soon as he’s out the door, he starts to question why he’d thought that was a good idea. How many had he even taken the night before? He can’t remember.

The numbness came a lot quicker this time, that was for sure. He feels as if he’s floating rather than walking down the stairs outside of his dorm. It’s a bit of a walk to the campus proper—not too long, just maybe ten to fifteen minutes—and he’s made the trip a million times, so he lets his feet automatically steer him in the right direction while his mind wanders.

He wonders briefly what his friends are all doing. If they’ll be better today. He hopes they are, but it’s difficult to cling to his thoughts so they drift off almost as soon as they come. He’s really numb. He can barely even remember why he’d been so worried in the first place.

Still, it’s not a comfortable numbness. He’s starting to feel really dizzy and as if he’s forgetting something important, something he really should pay attention to. It’s starting to get really annoying.

He glances briefly at the slow drawl of traffic next to him, and an odd sensation of itchiness starts across his skin. He makes a noise of annoyance, beginning to scratch mindlessly at his arm. What was he thinking about again? And why is it so fucking hot?

Then he feels the world start to slip a little, and next thing he knows he’s on his bottom without any idea how he ended up on the ground. He leans against the wall that stretches along the road. He can see the turning that’ll take him onto his campus, but it seems too far away to reach. What is going on?

He fingers tremble as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone. He doesn’t know who he should call, but his fingers automatically fumble along his contact list and land on Jem’s name.

The phone rings only twice before Jem’s voice, sweet and angelic, comes through the speaker. “Tobi?” he asks.

“J-Jem,” Tobi says, licking his lips. What was he calling to say again?

“You sound kind of funny. What’s going on? Are you on your way to class?”

“Uh…I think so?” Tobi glances around, as if just now realizing where he is. “I’m sitting by the road.”

“What?” The confusion is clear in Jem’s voice. “What are you doing sitting by the road?”

“I can’t remember…” Tobi begins, eyebrows furrowing. “I’m…I don’t feel so good.”

There’s silence, then Jem says, “I’m coming to get you.”

“What?” Tobi asks, but he can hear Jem as he fumbles with his things, gathering them up from wherever he was sitting before.

“Tobi, I need you to keep talking to me. Are you hurt anywhere?”

Tobi goes about checking to see if there’s any injuries, but he can’t find anything physically wrong with him. He just feels weak and disoriented. “N-no. I’m not hurt. I just…I feel so tired.”

Tobi’s eyes are starting to drift shut, breaths feeling thick in his chest. What had he done? Is he sick? He can’t figure it out, and it’s terrifying.

“Don’t you dare fall asleep on me, Tobi. How many pills did you take?” Jem asks, voice sounding stern.

“I…just two. I swear…I only took two this morning.” Tobi is starting to feel the panic again. He doesn’t like it. He wants this all to stop. “I took more than that last night, though…but that was last night.” Or was it? What if he’d taken it at three in the morning and again at seven, when his alarm had gone off? He supposes that means he’s taken quite more than two in the past twelve hours and you really were only supposed to take one. He knows it’s wrong, but he isn’t sure what he can do about it at this point. He just wants to rest.

He’s drifting. He knows he is. The phone is starting to feel heavy in his fingers and his breathing is slowing exponentially.

“Tobi, I need you to focus on my voice. Okay? I’m almost there, please…” Jem sounds really worried. Why is he so worried again?

“I’m…still here,” Tobi says, but he’s not, not really, and the sky is looking so much more beautiful than he remembers it ever being. It’s overcast, not your typical beautiful day, and yet there’s something so incredibly relaxing, watching the patterns of soft grey against the white. Will it rain? He thinks it should rain. The water would feel good on his flushed skin…

Jem’s voice comes again, and it sounds closer this time. Next thing he knows, his worried face is next to his, calling his name, and he wants to respond—he really does—but words are so difficult.

“Shit, Tobi, your lips are blue…oh my god, oh my god…please…I’m calling an ambulance…don’t you…”

The rest of whatever Jem is saying is lost to white noise and Tobi feels his eyes slipping shut. He wonders if he’ll see Damian when he wakes up and while the thought is really scary at first, a part of him is just really looking forward to seeing his face.

One last time, he thinks, let me see your face one last time because I don’t think I can do this without you…

 

 

Run: His First Love

Eighteen

As far as funerals go, Damian’s isn’t bad. August almost cries when Donny gets up and starts talking, but he doesn’t have the right. He knows why Damian isn’t here. Knows that if he hadn’t chosen to take that internship in the first place, Damian would not have been driving at that hour without sleep—he’d still be alive, safe and sound.

Damian is dead because August had put his dream before the group.

August isn’t sure how he’s supposed to live with this knowledge. He isn’t sure how any of them is supposed to live without Damian in their lives, but he doesn’t know what the alternatives are at this point.

As a beautiful song begins to play—one of Damian’s favorites—and the people go up one by one to say their goodbyes, August stays put and casts his mind into the past.

August hasn’t been to too many funerals. He went to his mother’s, but he had been six at the time and he hardly remembers her. What he does remember is that she used to teach piano. He remembers the feel of the ivory keys beneath stubby little fingers, too clumsy to really succeed at playing more than a few notes and poorly at that. He remembers her kind smile as she guided his hands to where they were supposed to be, her never ending patience with him.

He knows that she is where he got his love of music initially, why he chose music as his career. He also knows that she was the reason he showed up at that piano store ten years ago, when his whole life turned for the better.

He had been eight years old. It was the anniversary of his mother’s death and he found himself missing her all the more. His dad had already sold her piano, saying that they needed the cash and it was too painful to look at anyways. August hadn’t been able to argue about it then, but he’d gone to that piano every time he was missing her and now he didn’t have that comfort anymore.

So he’d done the next best thing: he snuck a few dollars from his dad’s wallet and hopped on the bus into town, heading to the piano store. It was called the Ivory Tower, and it wasn’t the most beautiful store. It was tiny, with neon pink lights and an old piano in the window but he loved it. He hadn’t been sure what he was going to do once he got there. It wasn’t like his mother’s ghost would be there to teach him, and he doubted he’d be allowed to touch the piano in the window even if she were.

Still, he’d gone there just to feel a sense of closeness with his mother, to cling to what little memories he had of her.

And it was at this store that he met Damian for the first time.

He’d not been offended when Damian had told him that night that he didn’t remember; in fact, it really had only been the briefest of meetings.

Damian was there with his mother, looking for an instrument. He wasn’t sure which one he wanted to learn—guitar or piano—and he had found himself listening in despite himself. August had always been a curious kid, and exceptionally quiet and small, so it was easy for him to go unnoticed.

But Damian had noticed him looking at the piano and he’d come over. “Do you play piano?” he had asked him.

August had been surprised that he’d even been noticed by the older boy, so it took him a moment to form some words, but he managed to nod a little. “I mean, not well. But yeah.”

“Perfect!” Damian had said, clapping his hands. “Think you can sit at that piano and play it for me? I wanna hear how it will sound with someone that knows what they’re doing at it.”

August had blushed. “I’m really not that good,” he’d murmured, but had obligingly gone to sit at the piano since it’s what he wanted anyway. He got a dirty look from the store owner at first, but Damian’s parents were both formidable people and all it took was one glare from Damian’s mother to quell any complaints the other had.

August had begun to play. He had gotten better under his mother’s tutelage, but his fingers still struggled on some of the more complex movements, being so tiny. He didn’t know what to play, so he just started winging it. Surprisingly, it hadn’t sounded terrible.

Damian had started nodding along, smiling, then he’d sat down next to August and begun to play as well, taking August’s lead. He was a bit older, and certainly taller with longer fingers, so it seemed easy for Damian to move his fingers along the keys.

It was the first time August had ever played something of his own, and while he had forgotten every note they’d played together, the memory of them playing had stuck with August and taught him that he could pursue music composition as a career one day. That had been Damian’s doing, whether he remembered it or not.

After the song had ended, Damian declared that he wanted to learn piano after all. It wouldn’t be until August’s audition for UAA that the two would properly meet, when August was fourteen and Damian sixteen. August had recognized the other immediately—he had a mind for faces, and though Damian had changed quite a bit over the years, becoming taller and broader, he would recognize his handsome features and long fingers anywhere.

He’d never brought up their first meeting. He didn’t want to end up coming off as weird or like a stalker, but it was always there in the back of his mind—their beginning, at least for him.

When the funeral finally starts to wind down, August slips out. He doesn’t want company right now, and anyway, he could only handle so much emotions in a day.

He doesn’t have money for bus fare, and his license is still revoked, so he tucks his hands into his pockets against the chilly November air and makes his way to town on foot. It’s a long walk, but he doesn’t mind. He could use the time to reflect on things.

He doesn’t even know where his feet are leading him until hours later, when the sun has started to set, he finds himself outside of the old piano store. It isn’t abandoned or anything, but it’s obvious that it has seen better days. Even the piano in the window looks more like an antique than an actually playable instrument. Still, he feels his fingers itch with the need to touch those keys, to be in the store where he and Damian had first met. Problem is, it’s closed early because it’s Sunday and the owners are apparently quite religious.

Beside the store, there’s a couple of loose bricks. He doesn’t know where they came from—maybe they’re just extras that hadn’t gotten used and the builders hadn’t bothered to take them back—but he reaches over and hefts one in his hand to test the weight.

Before he can talk himself out of it, August throws the brick into the storefront. Glass shatters and it’s more therapeutic than he thought it would be. Almost immediately, a siren starts going off. August is surprised; he didn’t think the Ivory Tower made enough money for a sophisticated alarm system, but he knows now that he’s on borrowed time, so he hurries into the store and sits at the piano.

He knows Damian would disapprove. Vandalism of actual owned property is very much something they had avoided in the past, sticking to abandoned places so they were less likely to get in trouble. There’s a sick amount of satisfaction, knowing that he’s doing something truly bad, and this time just for his own enjoyment. But Damian isn’t there to stop him, and none of the others even know where he’s at.

So he begins to play.

Just like in the past, he lets the notes flow freely. He would normally write down the notes as he comes up with them, but he doesn’t want to remember this song. He wants it to remain as it is—chaotic and spontaneous, a perfect thunderstorm of the few emotions that he actually understands and knows more or less how to deal with.

Something cold travels down his spine as he plays. He almost imagines Damian there, frowning at him, touching his shoulder to get him to stop. He knows it isn’t real; ghosts don’t exist and even if they did, Damian wouldn’t be one. He may have been a bigtime worrier, but he always knew when to keep his distance and this is one of those times.

August lets his emotions flow out of him, discordant music flowing out of the piano. It’s out of tune, needing a great deal of maintenance, but so is August and it suits his mood perfectly. He doesn’t stop until he hears the police sirens, their cacophonous noise jolting him out of the world his song and the alarm system have made together. He stands up, crunching the glass beneath his feet and sticking his hands in his pocket as he steps out of the store and begins walking slowly away, as if he hadn’t just broken into a store just to play piano.

By the time he gets home, the song has long since faded from his mind. And yet, when he closes his eyes to go to sleep that night, he decides to call the song ‘My First Love,’ named for his love of music and the boy who had unknowingly helped him to follow it.

Run: I Need You

Seventeen

Being asked to speak at Damian’s funeral is the last thing Donny expects. He figures his erstwhile lover’s family would want him as far away as possible, but they don’t. When he arrives, Damian’s sister pulls him into a tight hug, as if he’s part of the family, and it’s enough to make Donny’s throat get stuck as he hugs back, trying his damnedest not to sob like a child in the face of his own grief compounded by theirs.

The news has hit him hard—as expected—and he still can’t quite wrap his head, or his heart, around the fact of Damian being gone.

No more of his ridiculous laugh that sounds like windshield wipers; no more late night calls to tell him he’d better get to bed; no more random visits to the gas station where he works to drop off a lunch and his favorite favor of lollypop for after he eats.

No more of his strong arms wrapped around him; no more staring at his surprisingly broad shoulders as he walks just ahead, laughing at something Emery says. No more ears, eyes, lips—just gone.

The others are starting to arrive. August had taken the first flight back after the news and Donny knows he’s probably not going back. That he can’t afford another plane ticket, and this makes everything so much worse. It’s not enough that Damian’s gone, but now August’s dream is over, too. The whole reason Damian had been in that car in the first place was to ensure that August achieved his dream. It makes his death seem to be in vain, and Donny hates how much a part of him blames his best friend, how he’d hoped that August would stay gone because it would make hating him easier. But Donny’s smart and he knows that anger is just one step in the grieving process, that he’ll be thankful for August’s presence later. Now, though, he avoids him like the plague.

Donny’s eyes travel over the others and land on Tobi. He’s staring forlornly at some spot in the floor, looking despondent in a way that Donny recognizes as stoned. How many of his meds had he taken? Damian would know just from looking, but Donny doesn’t. Donny doesn’t know anything about how to properly care for the younger ones, not like Damian had. Why hadn’t he asked for a rundown of all this before the other went and got himself killed? But there’s nothing he can do at the moment and really, doesn’t Donny deserve a day to attend to his own grief before he can properly look into how to help the others? His eyes resume their trip across the room.

Emery’s got a pair of crutches—apparently, he’d done some damage to his ankle the night Damian died—but it doesn’t seem to stop him from painstakingly arranging the photos of their times together on a memorial caddy-corner to the casket. Jem is helping him, resting one hand on the small of Emery’s back and pointing to something so Emery can move them around. They both look uncharacteristically pale, though it’s also painfully obvious that Emery’s trying to pretend nothing is wrong even as his hands holding the picture shake. He looks shell-shocked and not-all-there and Donny feels another stab of worry. What’s going to happen to their group without Damian to hold it all together?

Finally, his eyes land on Tay. He’s surprised by the expression on his face. He doesn’t look shell-shocked like Emery, or stoned like Tobi. He looks…well, he looks pissed off and Donny thinks he can work with pissed off. It’s the same place that Donny himself is in—and August, too, he suspects, but he’s not ready to face him still—so he makes his way over to the other.

Tay looks surprised when Donny takes the seat next to him. It’s quiet as they sit next to each other. Neither of them asks if the other is okay—it’s a stupid question, considering where they were and what they were doing—instead, Tay sighs. “I hate funerals,” he says.

“Me too,” Donny agrees. “I never understood them. When I die, I want my organs harvested and the rest of my body burned and tossed in the nearest trashcan. Because what the hell, I’m not there to care what happens to it.”

Tay smiles bitterly at that. “I almost didn’t come. It’s not like being here will bring him back, you know?”

Donny nods and quiet falls once more. He’s the one to break it this time. “I never thought it’d be him,” he admits.

Tay glances at him. “Who did you think it would be?”

“Honestly?” Donny says. “You. Maybe August. But mostly you.”

Tay nods, as if he expected that answer. “Me too. I always figured I’d have a short life—short but wild. I thought…I thought either my dad would kill me or I’d kill myself. Or I’d do some wild stunt for attention, accidentally break my neck or drown. But Damian…I thought he’d live to be at least 88.”

Donny smiles sadly, feels the tears prick at his eyes. “For what it’s worth, I think he’d be happy to know it’s him. He worried about you a lot, you know. More than the others, except maybe Emery.”

“Emery almost died that night, too,” Tay says, so soft that Donny almost doesn’t hear it. “He didn’t look before crossing the street. Almost got run over. He jumped back, landed on his ankle wrong. That’s why he’s got the crutches. So he’s not entirely wrong to have worried about him. That boy’s lack of attention will be his undoing.”

“What about you?” Donny says. “Do I have to worry about attending your funeral in the near future?”

Tay scoffs. “I hope not. Funerals are the worst. And anyway, I doubt my folks would pay for one. My dad’ll probably bury me in the nearest empty lot; you guys won’t even know it happened.”

Donny frowns. Tay glances at him, his expression softening. “Don’t worry about me, Donny. I’ll be just fine. I don’t want to be the reason my friends are crying. I’ll fight it and make sure I live to be 88 in Damian’s place. All bets are off after 88, though. I don’t want to live past that—my dignity can’t handle being in diapers.”

“Good,” Donny says with half a laugh. “I don’t think I can handle another loss so soon.”

“Then you’d better talk to August,” Tay says.

Donny winces at the name of the one friend he isn’t ready to face yet. “What do you mean?” he asks, although he really doesn’t want to know.

“Seriously?” Tay asks, arching an eyebrow. “He’s your best friend and you have to ask that question? You know him as well as I do; you know he’s blaming himself for what happened. He’s already punishing himself by giving up his internship and you also know he’s not exactly known for his ability to deal with his emotions. That’s a ticking time bomb if I ever saw one.”

Donny sighs. He knows Tay is right, but that doesn’t make it any better. He’d just lost his lover and now he’s got to be the one to damage control with the person even he can’t help but blame a little bit for that?

Tay reaches out and grabs his hand. “But don’t worry. I think he’s got a few ticks left in that bomb for now. I’ll put Emery on the August task force—you just worry about yourself for now, okay?”

Donny relaxes a little, relieved that at least it’s not something he has to deal with right this second. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” Tay shrugs. “You’ve got a speech coming up, right?”

Donny nods, swallowing thickly. “I don’t know if I can do it.”

“You can,” Tay assures him. “After, you and I can grab a few drinks at my place. Dad’s got a massive stockpile of alcohol and won’t be home until almost three in the morning because of a snow storm up north blocking his trip home.”

“Isn’t he going to be angry when he gets back and his stock has dwindled?” Donny asks, although he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t tempted. The desire to drown his emotions in alcohol is almost overwhelming. He knows Damian wouldn’t approve, but goddammit, he doesn’t care. He isn’t here to stop them and he’d always needed the other to keep him away from things like that.

“Probably,” Tay admits. “But he’s going to be angry anyways. I’m due for a beating either way, so we may as well get something out of it.”

It should be disheartening, hearing the younger boy talk about his abuse as if it were just another fact of life; and he knows that for him, it is; he knows that it’s fucked up in more ways than he could ever do anything about. But he also knows that he needs an escape, they both do, and the alcohol can be that. He nods. “All right, I’ll come over after the funeral.”

Donny stands. “Guess I better get up there, huh?”

Tay nods. “Yeah, I guess you’d better. And hey?”

Donny stops in the process of walking to where Damian’s family is waiting for him so they can properly start the service.

“Good luck.”

Donny nods, tries to smile, then turns away. I need you, Damian, he thinks, Please help me not to make a fool of myself up there. And then, help me not to break the boys you’ve left in my care.

 

 

Run: Hard to Say Goodbye

Sixteen

It was a tragic accident, they said. A young life cut too short.

But for the six boys left behind, it’s far worse than that. They had been prepared to say goodbye to one of them—but it hadn’t been forever. It was just for a while, with promises to keep in touch. You couldn’t keep in touch with someone who was dead.

Tay’s life has been tumultuous. It’s been a hurricane of ups and downs, but this is the worst feeling. Tears burn behind his eyes, even though he’s been crying forever. It’s been days—you’d think a person could run out of tears but he hasn’t yet.

One of his hands is clutched in a tight fist. The other is clutching one of his father’s beers. He’s sitting outside his apartment, head resting against the façade of the building. Several empty bottles sit beside him, the result of his drinking his misery away.

And nobody can stop him. The one person who could have is the reason he’s feeling this way right now.

“Come on, Tay,” Jem chides. “We’re going to be late for…for the funeral.”

Jem’s wearing a black suit. It’s the first time he’s ever seen him dressed in anything that wasn’t bright and colorful, but Tay can’t appreciate the look. Not right now. He sounds so lost, too, and any other time he’d be reaching for him, trying to comfort him. But he can’t bring himself to feel anybody else’s emotions. It’s all too much to deal with his own.

“I don’t want to go,” Tay slurs.

Jem frowns at him. His eyes are as red as Tay’s, with dark circles that show that he’s not been sleeping. Tay wouldn’t know because he hasn’t been able to bring himself to head over to his house lately like he usually does. “Tay…” Jem begins.

“I know,” Tay groans, stumbling to his feet. He almost overbalances, but Jem is there, catching him and helping to set him upright. “I know I have to. I just said I don’t want to.”

“It’ll be okay, TayTay,” Jem murmurs. He tries to smile. He’s always been fragile, but he tries to be strong. Tay wishes that he could be strong for him for once, but he doesn’t think he has it in him. The thought sends a stab of guilt through him and he’s overcome with the need to just hold him tight, cling to him. So that’s what he does.

Jem makes a soft noise of surprise, but then he returns the embrace. He’s trembling slightly—exhaustion or grief, he thinks. He wishes he knew how to make it all better.

“You smell like a brewery,” Jem teases lightly when the hug goes on just a bit too long. It lacks the customary Jem sass, but it’s a start and Tay appreciates that.

Tay laughs, but it’s a watery sound, almost foreign. He tightens his hold briefly then steps back. “Guess we should go.”

Jem nods, reaching out to take his hand. “Yes. We should.”

“I appreciate you coming out here to get me.”

“I wasn’t about to go to the funeral by myself,” Jem says. “And I knew you wouldn’t show up if given half an excuse.”

Jem’s not wrong, but he’s thankful nevertheless. This is already going to be the hardest day of their lives; he supposes they may as well get it over with.

As they make their way to the church in Jem’s father’s car, Tay’s mind casts back to the night of the party. The night when everything went wrong.

*

Damian and August had just left, Emery not far behind. They’d settled in for bed and everything had been fine. He’d texted Emery briefly, commenting on how much bigger and colder the bed was without him in it, earning assurances from the other that he wouldn’t be long.

He’d fallen asleep shortly after, wrapped around Jem. Then his phone had started to ring, jostling him out of sleep. Jem had rolled over, cursing a little, which was Tay’s cue to pick it up and deal with it before he kicked him out of the bed. Emery still wasn’t there, which Tay thought was unusual but not too worrying—he’d probably fallen asleep when he’d gotten to his dorm, the lazy lout.

But as it turned out, he hadn’t even made it to his apartment. “Tay?” the soft voice on the line said. Tay immediately woke up.

“Emery? What’s going on?”

“I…uh…almost got run over.”

“What!?” Tay gasped, earning a swat from Jem, but rather than hush, he caught the other’s hand, holding it tightly to let him know this was important. Jem immediately sat up, mouthing the same question Tay had just uttered.

“I’m fine,” Emery hurried to explain, “But I’m a little shaken up, and I kinda twisted my ankle jumping out of the way. I don’t think I’ll make it back there tonight.”

“That’s all right,” Tay said, relaxing a little. “Get some sleep and put your ankle on ice. See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, tomorrow,” Emery said. “Give Jem a kiss for me?”

Tay laughed a little. “Will do.”

He hung up, then laid back down, pulling Jem back down with him. “Everything okay?” Jem asked.

“Yeah, Emery hurt his ankle and can’t come back tonight. He scared me—he said he almost got hit by a car.”

“He should pay better attention,” Jem murmured. “Let’s get back to sleep. Everything will be fine in the morning.”

Tay wished Jem had been right.

*

The next day they’d heard the news from Damian’s sister. Emery’s brush with a car had not been the only one that night. Apparently, Damian had fallen asleep at the wheel. He lost control and it had driven off a bridge. Responders were able to retrieve him from the car, but it was too late. He’d died on impact. “Death was instantaneous, he didn’t feel a thing,” they’d said, as if that made it any less hopeless that he was gone.

But it isn’t, and Tay bites his lip as he thinks of all the missed opportunities he’s going to have now. How the one person they’d all counted on to be there for them wouldn’t be there anymore—couldn’t be there—and nothing could change that.

Jem reaches over, pulling his hand into his and bringing him into the present. They’re almost at the church now. “I don’t think I’m ready for this,” Tay admits.

“I don’t think I am, either,” Jem says quietly. “But we can’t just stop. We have to be there for the others. For Donny.”

Donny’s name makes something cold and heavy settle into Tay’s stomach. God, he can’t imagine what this must feel like for Donny. For any of them, really, but Donny especially. Donny had been in love with Damian—the way Tay loved Jem, the way they both loved Emery. He’d been terrified when Emery had told him he’d almost gotten hit. What if he had? What would that feel like?

Just thinking of it makes Tay want to switch places with Damian. He wishes he were the one lying in a casket. His death wouldn’t hurt so bad, he knows. A part of him has even craved it in the dark nights when all he can hear is his mother’s sobs late at night and his father stumbling drunkenly about.

He tightens his grip on Jem’s hand. Now isn’t the time for this. They’re pulling up to the funeral home now and whether they’re ready or not, they’re about to be faced with the grief of their entire group and Damian’s family.

He hopes they can make it through in one piece.

 

 

Run: Interlude

Interlude

It’s amazing how things can change so much in an instant. In that instant, you can go from the very top to the very bottom; you can go from rich to poor, or poor to rich.

You can go from seven to six.

But before that instant, there’s just this: a vast rainbow of hair—pink and mint and brown and purple—music, dancing, paint, touching, lights, love, warmth…

Before that instant, there’s life.

*

Donny plops some ice into his coffee. It’s far too hot for the beverage today despite the fact that it’s autumn, but he needs the caffeine boost. He’d worked the graveyard shift at the station the night before and he’s exhausted. He has exams coming up, too, but those can wait. Today is the day of August’s going away party, and he knows he can’t miss that no matter how much he’d like to sleep.

Before he leaves, he looks around his shitty apartment, making sure there’s nothing pressing that needs doing at the moment. He nods to himself in satisfaction before stepping out and locking the door behind him.

It’s a short trip to the bus stop, and fifteen minutes later, he’s at Jem’s house. There’s music pounding from behind the door already and Donny can feel the bass in his bones—the playlist he’d sent Jem earlier that day. He barely manages a knock before Jem throws open the door. His hair is dyed a vibrant orange now, much like the turning of the leaves, and he’s wearing dark brown eye-shadow and a thick helping of eyeliner; a blue jacket with pins covering it—he knows the coat belongs to Tay because all the pins are obscure bands that literally nobody else would listen to—and a tight pair of black ripped jeans. He looks amazing, and when he sees Donny looking he grins at him and beckons him forward.

Donny grins back, ready to join the party, and follows him inside.

*

The house looks so different; where usually it looked like an untouchable museum, it now looks lived in and exotic. Fairy lights adorn the walls, colorful blankets strewn on top of the otherwise bland white furniture for the sake of building pillow forts and adding a little vibrancy to the living room. A long table is filled with food, and Tay thinks it’s the best Damian has ever made, going by the smell and look of it.

The chef himself is pulling Jem towards the spread, showing him all that he made, and Tay watches with a fond smile as Jem tries half-heartedly to deny the fact that he’s hungry, swearing he’d had a nice breakfast. When Damian glances at him for confirmation (subtle of course), Tay nods just as subtly back—Jem had eaten well that morning. He and Emery had made sure of it.

Damian immediately loosens his grip, ruffling the younger boy’s hair (Tay loves the orange and thinks maybe he’ll try the color out himself one day, though maybe not quite as vibrant) and demanding that he at least try some of his food later.

Emery slips in next to him, placing his hand in his. Tay glances at him, giving him a smile of his own. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get over how easily their relationship had transferred into this. It had been almost three months since Jem had proposed their rather unorthodox arrangement, and so far it had worked out incredibly well. It was almost like they had always meant to be this way—the three of them.

“Damian trying to force-feed Jemmie?” Emery asks, snapping a picture of the two across the room.

“As always,” Tay says with a chuckle. Across the room, Damian is now chiding Donny for picking the least healthy food options available while Jem laughs along, pointing out the way the little hotdogs puff out his cheeks. “It’s good though. Jem’s been checking his weight a lot less lately, too.”

“I noticed that too,” Emery says. “I’m happy.”

“Yeah?”

Emery nods. “Yeah,” he confirms and Tay thinks that this is all he needs. His two boyfriends, happy. And even though the circumstances of the party may be a bit on the bittersweet side, he can’t think of anywhere he’d rather be right now.

*

The alcohol is well and truly flowing now that the sun has set, and Damian is playing a game of very competitive cards with Emery and August, loud cheers and curses coming every time one of them—usually August, but everyone knows he cheats—wins a hand. Donny and Tay are trying to outdrink each other, bottles of soju strewn around them and giggles issuing out from them every time a bit of it slips out of their lips and down their chins in messy little dribbles.

Jem throws an arm around Tobi’s shoulder rather suddenly, and he turns to see that the other’s cheeks are extremely rosy from his own alcohol consumption. “Why’re you away from everyone, Tobi?” he croons.

“I’m not, you brat,” Tobi protests, tugging Jem closer and hugging him briefly. “I’m just watching our friends make utter fools of themselves.”

“Yeah? Not pining for Kay ‘cause she’s not here yet?”

Tobi blushes and pushes Jem away playfully. “I’m not pining for her!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jem teases. “I should just tell her about your crush. Put an end to your misery.”

Tobi’s eyes widen. “You wouldn’t.”

“I’m gonna,” Jem says, dangling his phone in front of him. Kay’s name is already highlighted.

“Give me that!” Tobi shouts, feeling his cheeks heat up even more as he reaches for the phone.

Jem cackles and pulls the phone out of his reach. “If you want me to stop, you have to catch me!” he declares and then tears off running.

Tobi curses and runs after him, laughing all the way because of course Jem would pull something like this.

He chases him as far as the bathroom, where he knows the other is cornered. Jem seems unconcerned, however, as he grins at him with the phone still in his grip.

Tobi makes a split decision then, diving for the other.

Jem seems taken aback by the sudden movement and can’t quite keep his balance as the other knocks into him, sending them both into the bathtub.

Jem’s hand scrabbles for a handhold and he finds the shower knob.

Tobi yelps as the icy water plummets on them, but neither makes a move to turn it off, laughing and wrestling over the phone until it slips out of Jem’s hand and into the swiftly filling tub.

“Oh my god,” Jem gasps between laughs. “You owe me a new phone.”

“It’s your own fault,” Tobi says triumphantly, cheeks still red and flushed from the wrestling. He doesn’t even feel the water anymore. “You shouldn’t have threatened to tell Kay.”

There’s a light cough from the door and Tobi turns to find Kay there, eyebrow arched and hip cocked. “Tell me what now?”

Tobi knows then that he’s well and truly fucked, thanks to Jem.

But before he can grate out some kind of response, the others are there and it becomes a competition to see how many of them they can fit in the tub at once and Tobi realizes that his ass has been saved and there will be no confession tonight.

He doesn’t know why he’s kind of disappointed by that.

*

They’re all soaked to the bone, but it doesn’t matter as they all climb into the back of Damian’s truck with a pile of blankets and stare up at the sky. They can’t really see many stars, the city’s lights far too bright and too close, but August points out where they should be and Jem finds that it’s easy to imagine them up there, tracing the shapes of the constellations with his small fingers until Tay pulls his hand down and presses a kiss to his knuckles, tucking the hand under his chest.

“Your fingers are ice cold,” he explains, and Jem can’t help but smile.

“You know, I’ve always loved the sky,” Donny murmurs. He’s tucked into Damian’s side, his purple hair stuck to his head a bit from their impromptu community shower.

“Me too,” Kay says. She’s perched on the roof of the truck, bare feet dangling over the bed above their heads. She’s stolen one of Jem’s big sweaters, her pale hair pulled into a messy bun. It had been easier than expected to pull her into their shower shenanigans, and she fit right in with the rest of them despite the fact that she wasn’t a normal fixture in their lives outside of the Red Line. “Why do you like it so much, Donny?”

“Well,” Donny begins, “I like it because no matter where you are, we have the same one. So despite the fact that August will be across the country, we’ll still be connected.”

“Sappy,” Tay says, making a face and Emery pinches him before Jem can, which causes Jem to giggle a little and snuggle closer to the both of them.

“I like it,” August says. “Makes it feel a little less like goodbye, huh?”

“You’ll call, right?” Tobi asks after a moment of silence descends on the truck. “And tell us how everything is going?”

“Of course I will,” August says and the confidence sends a measure of comfort through Jem as well, even if it was meant more for Tobi. “And then you’ll join me there in LA. We can be roommates.”

Damian laughs. “He’s just saying that because he knows he won’t be able to afford more than a closet in LA on an internship’s salary.”

“Hey!” August protests, chuckling and trying to swat the other, but unable to do so as Donny is between the two of them.

“I’m gonna miss this,” Emery murmurs.

“Yeah,” August agrees with a sigh.

Jem listens as the others quiet down, then suddenly sits up. “Did you see that?” he asks.

“What?” Tay murmurs, sounding sleepy.

“I saw a shooting star!”

“No way,” Emery says.

“Actually, there is supposed to be some kind of meteor shower tonight,” August says. “Even though we can’t see all of them, they’re probably still falling right now. Why don’t you make a wish?”

Jem bites his lip, wondering what he should wish for. I wish August wouldn’t leave, his mind supplies against his better judgement; he knows it’s what August wants, knows that it’s his dream. But still, he doesn’t want this to end. Any of it. He’s so very tired of always getting left.

“What did you wish for?” Tay asks, eyeing him.

Jem shrugs. “Just that we could be together no matter what.”

Tay nods. “That’s a good wish.”

*

Once Tay starts to fall asleep, the others decide that it’s time to get out of the truck and find something active to do. Nobody wants the night to end just yet, though they know that August has an early flight to catch in the morning.

Even August doesn’t want the night to end yet; he knows he’ll regret it on the plane. But still, he wants to stay a little longer.

It takes a few of them to get Tay fully awake, but they manage it eventually and make their way back into the house, where they all raid Jem’s closet to find warm clothes. Jem tends to wear a lot of oversized clothing, so it’s easy to find things in all kinds of sizes. August even suspects that some of the clothes might have been bought specifically for them, on the occasions that they stayed over and forgot to bring a change of clothes—a couple of them he’s pretty sure he had left over here himself by accident.

Once they’re all dressed, they head back downstairs and August watches as Emery pulls out a ton of paint supplies he’d apparently been stockpiling all week. There’s only one canvas—it’s long and rectangle—but there’s at least a hundred different types of paint, from spray paint to acrylic and everything in between. He sets upon the spray paint with a surprising zeal, excited to play with it despite his insistence that painting was a retired art form. He’d always had a secret love of graffiti though.

By the end of it, their fresh clothes are covered in as much paint as the canvas, which is really a huge mess. It’s a wonder that none of the paint got on any of the furniture—Jem seems almost disappointed at that, probably wanting to piss off his father a little—but it’s actually beautiful and August admires it.

Emery pulls out a Polaroid camera, snapping a photo of the canvas, and pulls out the ready-made image, shaking it. Looking almost bashful, he hands the picture to him and August accepts it. “What’s this for?”

“I figured the actual canvas would probably be a pain to take with you,” Emery admits, “So I thought you could have a picture of it. Just to keep us in mind.”

“You’ll be on my mind anyway,” August says with an almost fond smile. “But thank you. I’ll take good care of it and look at it often. You’ll send me your other photos, won’t you?”

“I’ll send you every one that I take,” Emery promises, voice leaking with sincerity, and August can’t help but laugh and ruffle the other’s hair.

That’s when Damian comes up behind him, looking apologetic. “We’d better go,” he says. “It’s already past 3 AM and your flight leaves at 6.”

“Seriously?” August asks. How had time slipped away so completely?

The next few minutes are a hectic hodgepodge of long limbs and tight hugs, murmured goodbyes and exaggerated sobs (the last from Tay, of course), but they don’t have the time for a proper goodbye and August hates saying goodbye anyways, so he quickly disentangles himself from the rest and heads out of Jem’s house, Damian on his heels.

He wonders how long it will be until he can see it again.

*

The ride to the airport is quiet. Damian can’t help but continue to shoot glances at his companion, wishing he could read the impassive expression. August has always been difficult to unravel, like a complex puzzle, but Damian had thought he could figure him out when it really came down to it.

He isn’t so sure now.

“I’m going to miss this place,” August says suddenly. “Not just you guys—although that’s a big part of it—but all of it. My whole life has been here.”

Damian nods, glancing at the rearview mirror. He’s honestly exhausted; the party was a lot of fun, but he’d had a bit to drink and it had gone on really late. He’s working on less than three hours of sleep—he’d spent much of the previous night tossing and turning, worrying about his group with the upcoming loss—and it’s starting to get to him.

“What will you miss the most?” Damian asks curiously.

“Honestly? The piano store,” he says.

Damian glances at him in confusion. “Not the pool, or the railyard, or…?”

August shakes his head. “Those places are special, but the piano store is where I fell in love with music. Without that, I never would have met you or the others. Remember?”

Damian didn’t.

“Ah, no worries,” August says, though Damian feels horrible that he can’t remember the piano store too well. “It was really just a small thing. I’m not all that surprised you don’t remember.”

“I’m sorry,” Damian says. “It must have been before Emery documented every moment for us.”

August chuckles. “It was. A long time before, actually.”

And Damian wants to ask, he does, but he never really gets the chance because they’re already pulling into the airport and August is clambering out of the truck, grabbing his meager belongings from the back.

“Have a safe trip,” Damian calls lightly, feeling a lump form in his throat.

August gives him a gummy smile. “Will do. Drive safe, Damian,” he tells him, and then Damian watches as August steps into the building, willing the lump to go down.

With a sigh, he pulls out of the airport and begins his long trip back home.

*

Emery feels a heavy weight settle into his stomach as he watches the truck back slowly out of Jem’s driveway. “You should come up to bed,” Jem calls.

Emery turns, offers him a smile when he sees him standing in the stairway wearing his pajamas. “I need to get home, actually,” Emery says and he can see the disappointment on his boyfriend’s face. He pads over, though, pressing a light kiss to his cheek. “I won’t be gone long. Just forgot a couple of text books. I need to study for that test in a couple of days. Can’t lose my scholarship now, can I?”

Jem seems relieved, nodding. “See you soon, then?”

“See you soon,” Emery says.

He’s thankful that the bus runs all through the night and into the morning. He doesn’t want to have to ask Donny to drive, knowing he’s had a few to drink and that he’s exhausted as can be. The others don’t drive, and he wishes he’d have gone with August and Damian, but a part of him hadn’t been able to face being in the same vehicle as August right now—not knowing that he was leaving.

He almost falls asleep on the bus, but his phone buzzes and wakes him up just in time. It’s a message from Tay, telling him to hurry his ass up because the bed feels too empty without him in it. Emery smiles lightly and climbs off the bus at his stop.

The night’s colder than it had been just moments before and he doesn’t think he’ll ever quite get over how different the city is at night than in the daytime. How the dark alleys seem almost enticing in the dim glow of the street lamps, like portals into an entirely different world, when they just looked like trash heaps in the light of the day.

But just as he heads towards his building, something uncomfortable settles into the pit of his stomach—a dark foreboding. It’s a feeling he’s not used to, and he tries to shake it off, but it’s damn distracting.

He’s so distracted by it that he hurries his footsteps, wanting to get into his room and grab his books as quickly as possible.

He doesn’t even look both ways when he steps into the street, not expecting any cars right now since it is so late. Which is why he’s shocked when the headlights blind him and he turns to see a car barreling straight for him.

*

Glass shatters, clocks seem to stop, and the instant has come. The one that changes everything. The instant that takes you from the very top to the very bottom; from rich to poor, or from poor to rich.

The instant that you go from seven to six.

And in that instant, you know that nothing is ever going to be the same again.