Nine

Donovan is smart.

In fact, being smart is really the one thing he feels confident about within himself. He doesn’t think that he’s as good looking as his friends; he’s clumsy, always breaking things, and he isn’t as capable of taking care of the younger boys as Damian or even Tobi.

But he does know that he’s smart. So it doesn’t take much for him to start noticing Emery’s odd behavior. He’s not coming to their hang outs as regularly as usual, and when he does, he spends most of that time asleep. Whenever he’s awake, he seems like he’s counting the minutes until he can leave.

It’s maddening.

When he brings this up to Damian while the two are sharing a nice meal at the older boy’s place, the other nods. “He has been a bit…off lately,” he admits.

“What do you think’s wrong with him?” Donovan asks. Even as smart as he is, he can’t claim to be a mind-reader. He’s used to Emery getting himself hurt doing something reckless; he’s even used to him trying to hide it when he’s sad. But this feels altogether different.

“New girlfriend, maybe?” Damian suggests.

Donny balks at the suggestion. “Emery? Talk to a girl?” he says, shocked.

Damian chuckles. “Stranger things have happened,” he says. “Maybe our little one’s growing up?”

Donny just shakes his head. The last time he’d taken Emery to a party, a girl had tried to hit on him. The boy had turned beet red and ran away, just barely managing to squeak an apology before disappearing into the bathroom for the rest of the night. Jem had literally had to coax him to come out, promising lamb skewers and a weekend at his place.

“Then I suppose there’s only one way to find out.”

Donny knows what Damian is saying without the words, and he sighs. Will Emery even talk to him? It’s not exactly his forte, getting people to talk to him. “Maybe Jem could do it? Or even you?”

Damian smiles, shaking his head. “If it’s bothering you so much, you have to get to the bottom of it. It’s inauthentic coming from anyone else.”

Donny knows he’s right, but that doesn’t make him feel much better. Still, he makes a promise to himself that he’ll confront the boy as soon as he can and gets back to eating.

The opportunity comes much sooner than he anticipated when he finds himself and Emery the only two left awake at one of Jem’s infamous slumber parties. He expects Emery to suggest something immature like drawing on the others’ faces—he even has a sharpie prepared—but instead, Emery stands and cracks his back, heading for the door.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

Emery freezes, as if he hadn’t realized that Donny was still awake, turning wide eyes to him before carefully schooling his expression into a more neutral one. “Just to get some fresh air,” the younger says.

“I’ll come with you.”

Emery looks like he’s going to argue, but Donny is already up and grabbing his coat.

It’s cold outside, being mid-February, and his breath leaves his lips in a wisp of smoke before disappearing into the still night. He tucks his hand into his pockets and pulls out a cigarette. It’s a terrible habit, one he’s trying to quit, and Emery looks at him sideways.

“Does Damian know you smoke?”

Donny smiles around the cigarette stick, shaking his head. “No, and I’d honestly like to keep it that way. It’s only sometimes anyways.”

Emery purses his lips but nods, leaning against the brick façade of Jem’s house and staring up at the sky.

For a long moment, it’s quiet, the only sound being the distant car-horns and other traffic noises from the city. Jem lives just outside of the limits, close enough to be near all the action but secluded enough that he can enjoy relative peace and a bigger yard. He’s always liked Jem’s place, but at the same time, it’s a stark reminder of the kind of privilege and comfort that Jem was able to enjoy so freely while the rest of them struggled.

He had been raised by a single mother, and unfortunately, she’d had a number of bad habits far worse than smoking. She’d worked hard, he knew that, and she had given him what she could, but a good bit of what little money she made went to support those habits and he’d spent the entirety of his childhood living in a shitty, roach-infested one-room apartment with a stoned-out mother and a mostly empty stomach. Things had gotten better when he’d become a teenager and she started cleaning her act up, but those early years were always with him.

Not wanting to focus too much on that, however, Donny takes the time to examine Emery closely, noting the deep bags under his eyes and the exhausted stoop of his shoulders. Unfortunately, it’s a familiar look—he sees it every single day when he looks in the mirror before bed—and he hates seeing it on the young features of his friend. “What’s been going on with you, Em?” he asks quietly.

Emery’s head snaps towards him in surprise, almost as if he’d forgotten Donny was there, and Donny tries not to be hurt too badly by that. “What do you mean? I’m fine,” he says.

“You’re not,” Donny corrects him. “You’re hardly ever around, and when you are, you’re looking ready to bolt at the first chance you get. Damian thinks you’ve got a girlfriend, but that isn’t it, is it? I think you’re in some kind of trouble, and you’re afraid to ask for help.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Emery says, looking away from him and stuffing his hands in his pockets.

Donny has always had a pretty firm grip on his temper, but the dismissal from the adolescent is enough to loosen his grip and he lets it get away from him. “Yeah? Then what is it, huh? Because I’m at a loss and quite frankly, it’s starting to piss me off.”

Emery sneers at him, an ugly expression that he’s not used to seeing distorting the other’s features. “It would piss you off, not being able to figure everything out. You’ve always been the smartest one in the room and you can’t stand not knowing something. Well, guess what? You don’t get to know everything about everything, Donny.”

Donny grabs Emery’s shoulder, forcing him to turn and face him. “You want to run that by me again?” he snarls. He knows this is the wrong approach, but he’s never been one to take insults idly and his inability to get through to Emery is getting to him.

Emery smiles almost triumphantly at having gotten the rise out of him. “I said, ‘you don’t get to know everything about everything.’ Get used to it.”

Donny almost punches him. Almost.

But he can see the look in Emery’s eyes and it’s not just triumph—it’s fear. The kid’s trying to distract him from his earlier line of questioning and it’s working, goddammit. He tightens his grip on the other’s shirt briefly, then lets it go. “You’re right,” he says finally, and Emery looks shocked before trying to put his expression back on. “I don’t get to know everything. You don’t have to tell me a goddamn thing, Em.”

He turns to leave, knowing that he needs to cool down, knowing that he can’t help anyone if he lets his temper get ahead of him like that. But Emery’s voice stops him.

“I’m failing one of my classes,” he says.

At first, Donny isn’t sure he heard right and he pauses, turning briefly to him. The broken expression on the other’s features tells him that he really had said what he said. “Which one?” Donny asks a moment later.

Emery makes a face. “Does it matter? If I fail even one class, I lose my scholarship. I’ll have to go back to my parents.”

Donny knows that Emery’s parents aren’t exactly supportive of their kid. They’re not really abusive, not like Tay’s dad, and they’re not irresponsible and stoned out like his own mother had been. Rather, they have a very ‘hands-off’ approach to raising their child. They’d signed the papers for Emery to attend UAA, but had told him up front that they wouldn’t pay a single dime for it. If he wanted to study the arts at a private school, he’d have to cover the cost to attend as well as room and board on his own.

So far, Emery had done a good job of it. But he’s right: if he fails a class, his scholarship is out the door and he’ll have to go back. Back to his parents, back to public school, back to the family business of running a restaurant that Emery has never wanted. Donny knows that it’d kill Emery—all he’s ever wanted was to be good enough, to be successful on his own terms.

“It matters,” Donny says, “Because if we know what you’re struggling with, we can help. Honestly, Emery, what do you take us for?”

Emery looks conflicted. “I don’t want to be a burden. I chose this—I told my parents I’d do it, that I could handle it by myself.”

“But you’re not by yourself. Why should you be? We’re your friends, Em.”

“No,” Emery says, and Donovan feels his heart deflate a little. All he wants to do is to help—how can Emery be so stubborn that he can’t ask for a hand when he needs it? It’s clear he’s been overworking himself, that he’s digging himself an early grave by trying to do everything by himself. But Emery’s expression softens at the look of dejection that no doubt passed across Donny’s face. “You’re more than that—you’re my brothers. If you really think you can help…”

“I know we can,” Donny says, and he holds out his hand. “Come on. Let’s tell the others.”

“First,” Emery says, and he’s grinning and waving his phone mischievously. “We should draw on their faces and take a picture.”

Donny laughs, grabbing Emery and pulling him into a headlock. “Good plan, kiddo,” Donny says, ruffling his hair. And he thinks that Emery is going to be okay after all.

 

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