One

“Hush,” Damian hisses, hand catching at Emery’s elbow in the darkness and halting his forward momentum. The old mill has seen better days, its wooden floors rotted out and peppered with holes. Rusted machinery casts demented shadows on the wall from the sparse moonlight filtering in through broken walls and dirty windows. It’s hard to imagine that this place was once a busy industrial site, a place where many men worked and even died due to the lax business regulations. Per Damian’s research, it had shut down in the early seventies after one too many incidents of ‘accidental’ deaths.

“That hurts,” Emery whispers back in the darkness, tugging his arm free of the other’s grip.

“Don’t be such a baby,” Damian says, though there’s more fondness in his tone than actual reproach. “I heard something.”

“What do you think it is?” Emery asks, doe-eyes glancing around them uncertainly. At only fifteen, Emery is the youngest of their little gang and in moments like this, it really shows. Not because he’s scared—he’s easily the hardest of the group to frighten and is more often than not the source of any jump-scaring that occurs amongst them—but because of his irrepressible curiosity. It had been his idea to come into this old mill, and Damian had only agreed because he didn’t want the younger one getting hurt. Exploration isn’t exactly Damian’s strongest trait, and if Emery is the least likely to get startled, Damian is probably one of the easiest despite being nearly five years older than him. Really, all it takes is a single slimy bug and he’s 100% out of there.

He wishes he’d sent Donny with the youngster instead, or maybe August. That way, he could trust Emery was being taken care of and could be cooking a nice dinner for all of them at his little apartment instead. But alas, he’d agreed to come and Damian always follows through on his promises.

“I’m not sure,” Damian answers when the sound doesn’t repeat immediately, moving his grip to the other’s waist as if trying to steady him on the uneven footing. “Just stick close to me.”

Damian can’t see Emery’s expression in the near-darkness, but he can almost hear it when the other rolls his eyes. “Yes, Mom,” he murmurs.

Damian feels his lips turn up in a slight smile at that. He’d long gotten used to the kids—the kids in this case being Emery, Tay, and Jem, the three youngest in their group—calling him ‘Mom.’ He supposes that it comes with the territory when you’re the oldest in a group of boys and take on the role of caretaker more often than not. It was Damian who would cook for them whenever they were together, who brought them soup or meds or whatever they needed when they were ill, who always had a first-aid kit ready in case Tay’s father hit him again, or Emery twisted his ankle during one of his forays into old abandoned places for the sake of a photograph; he’s the one that notices whenever Jem starts eating less, too, and he always makes sure to sit with him until he eats just one more bite, that’s all, just one more. The others helped, too, of course, but they weren’t quite as naturally gifted as him in caretaking and Damian knows it.

So, he lets the kids call him Mom.

He helps the other boys, the older ones, too, but they don’t need a mom. They need a friend, and Damian tries his best to be that for them. He can always tell when Donny’s depression is especially bad, knows instinctively when Tobi is on the verge of a panic attack; August is a little more difficult to read, but even he comes to Damian when he’s troubled and needs a reprieve from all the shit he deals with because of his father’s ‘business.’

Really, taking care of others has become second nature to Damian and he doesn’t think he’d want it any other way, all told.

Despite Emery’s sarcasm, Damian notices that the younger boy does stick close to him, leaning into his touch slightly and never darting too far away—not even to take a picture, though he can tell Emery’s dying to do it when they pass a tree stump growing right through the wall—and Damian is grateful for it. The last thing he needs to hear is Donny teasing him that he had made such a fuss over how important it was to take care of their youngest, and yet somehow, he managed to still get hurt on his watch.

“Wait,” Emery says and it’s Damian’s turn to be stopped in his tracks. “I think I see something.”

Discomfort settles into the pit of his stomach, and Damian finds himself hoping that it isn’t anything bad. What if it’s a snake, or a bug? Once, Tobi thought it would be funny if he threw a fake mantis into his lap and the resulting reaction had yet to fade from Damian’s memory as one of the most embarrassing moments of his life. He wants to show himself as being somewhat less of a chicken than he was then, but the fact of the matter is, Damian hasn’t changed much and there’s very few things that Emery could point out that wouldn’t in some way freak him out.

“What is it?” Damian asks, parroting Emery’s question from earlier.

Emery doesn’t answer, dark eyes intent as he creeps closer to whatever it is he’s spotted. An ancient piece of machinery stands in the far side of the room, across several rotted boards that Damian just knows are going to collapse beneath them. Emery was young, but he was made of solid muscle and fairly tall, and as much as he tries to pretend that he’s got it all figured out, he’s actually quite clumsy and unfamiliar with his lengthy limbs, still very much an adolescent.

“Emery…” Damian begins warningly as a particularly rotted board creeps under Emery’s footsteps; he can already imagine the sound the board will make as it snaps, sending his friend to the ground below to break a leg or worse.

“Chill,” Emery remarks. “I got this.”

Damian has his doubts, but eventually the two of them make it across the floor without incident. He heaves a breath of relief as they reach the more stable boards beside the machine.

That’s when he sees what Emery had spotted earlier.

A small bird’s nest is nestled comfortably between rusted metal joists. They’re not birds that he’s familiar with, but that’s nothing new. Damian’s knowledge of birds extends mostly to how to prepare them and their eggs for eating; he imagines August probably knows something about them—he seemed to have an incredibly diverse knowledge base and he killed nearly every trivia game they played together.

“Look at them,” Emery says, and Damian is reminded once more of just how young Emery is as he smiles down at the nest full of baby birds and snaps a picture.

Damian has always thought that Emery’s teeth are particularly bunny-like, prompting him to come up with the nickname of Bunny. The other had immediately taken offense to it, and ever since he seemed somewhat self-conscious of his toothy, unguarded smiles. So to be treated to one at this moment makes the entire trip and whatever fear Damian has experienced in the exploration of the old mill completely worth it.

“You know, it’s kind of funny,” Damian says, resting his hand on one of Emery’s shoulders so that he could get a closer look at the birds himself.

“What?” Emery asks curiously, glancing at him.

“This old mill,” Damian gestures briefly at the whole building, “Its whole purpose was to take down trees and help turn them into products like paper and such. How many birds have lost their homes because of this particular industry? And yet, now, it’s become a home for birds.”

“Cycle of life,” Emery says, looking proud of himself for making the connection and Damian smiles.

“Yes,” Damian agrees, ruffling Emery’s hair despite the protests and rough swat he earns for that particular transgression. “The cycle of life. Now let’s get out of here—I’m scared there might be more than just birds here. What if there’s ghosts?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Emery scoffs, but he stands and dusts dirt from his black jeans which have more holes in them than the building itself. “There’s no such things as ghosts.”

“No, I guess not,” Damian laughs. “What’s dead is dead—but I’m not eager to test it. Let’s go.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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