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Title: To the Least Painful End
Author: [livejournal.com profile] mya_rofki
Artist: [livejournal.com profile] medicatedmaniac
Genre: Angst
Characters, Pairing(s): Jared, Misha, Jensen, Mrs. Collins (OFC),
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 19,000ish
Warnings: References to physical child abuse, implied death of a pet
Summary: 16 yr. old Jared comes to live with distant family after being abandoned by his mother. Misha (also 16) is still adjusting to the splitting up of his family during his parents divorce, and doesn't know quite what to make of this sullen stranger. Though Misha, his mother, and his friends try their best to welcome Jared into their circle, Jared's unhappy past make it impossible for him to imagine trusting anyone ever again.

Written for the wonderful [livejournal.com profile] sassy_minibang!
See the art here:Art
Or read it at AO3 here:AO3


**********

The door opens on the darkened room. A hesitant silhouette stands framed in the doorway. He knows it’s okay when K.C, down on the floor, doesn’t start barking.

“Mom?” Jared asks. Softly, because he is dizzy, and his head hurts. She leaves the doorway and comes to stand over him, study his face. He guesses he probably looks pretty fucked up. Hard to hide it when he feels this bad. The room spins without mercy; the bed feels like it’s heaving and rocking under him. His center of equilibrium struggles bravely to anchor itself in a stormy sea.

“Can this be the last time?” he chokes out. His voice is hoarse and weak. He didn’t mean to ask her. He only meant to keep it inside, ask himself. Is this the last time? Is this the last straw for him, even if it isn’t (please let it be) for her?

She is silent. He tries to focus on her with eyes that won’t track the way they’re supposed to. Wants to reach for her hand, but he’s not sure he has the strength to so much as twitch a little finger. Bent over him, she looks distant, shadowy, and unreachable anyway. Slowly, she strokes out a slender finger, and it’s startling when she actually reaches him. She delicately traces a line of hair that flops across his forehead. He winces as she hits the edge of the goose egg at his temple, but her eyes are far away. He wonders if she’s thinking about the past, when he was little and listened to everything adults said.

“My beautiful boy,” she says quietly. And, finally seeming to focus on him, “Why did you have to start a fight with him, Jay? You know he just wants what’s best for you.”

Of course.

His tries, so hard, to pretend it doesn’t make his stomach wrench. His mother is the beautiful one. She is gentle, and loving. She’s the constant in his life, the only thing he’s always had. In the whole wide whirling world, she’s the only thing that ever manages to stand still.

She is, in a very real way, everything to him. And the way she looks at him... he can see that she loves him too, just as much as he loves her. He can’t see himself, of course, but he imagines he’s sending the same look up at her, that she’s sending down to him. Like echoing back at like echoing back at like. And he wonders why she didn’t help him, if she loves him so much.

“You always fight too much,” Mom whispers, tears in her eyes.

“I know,” Jared says weakly. “I know, Mom. I’ll do better from now on, okay?”

He’s lying. He’s not trying that hard to hide it either, but she believes him. He wonders how he can always see her so clearly, when she can’t ever seem to see anything at all.

“Thank you, lovebug,” she murmurs huskily. Her smile is painfully grateful. She straightens up and takes a step back.

“Will you rest with me?” he asks. “My head hurts, but I don’t want you to go yet. Please.”

“I- There’s work to do,” she answers.

“Just for a minute?”

“Aren’t you too old for that?” she asks, forehead wrinkled with genuine uncertainty.

“No,” he lies.

She relaxes, looks unbearably relieved. Mom can’t take uncertainty. He does understand
it, knows that’s why she’s tied them both to Roy. If ever there was anybody who felt born to tell people what to do, it’s Roy. Roy the asshole.

She coos to K.C, pats the bed, and then helps the old golden retriever scramble up and flop down on Jared’s left side. K.C. is warm and soft. Jared feels a few tears prickle at the pleasure of having her up there, when it hadn’t even occurred to him that she was exactly what he needed. Then Mom crawls over them both to reach the empty side of the bed, and although she moves carefully, the whole mattress sags and shifts and his head spikes with pain that blinds him for a minute.

When the pain ebbs a little, his mother is lying on her side to his right, her head resting on his chest, and her arm curled around his waist. Her dirty blond hair is softly tickling his chin. Soft like K.C.’s. Over them all, the ceiling spins and spins. His stomach wavers between alright and nauseous, and he has the feeling that sooner or later he’s going to be making a mess of himself. He wonders how much worse it’s going to get, before it gets better. He guesses he’s probably got a concussion at the very least, and he could have brain bleeding or something, and not even know it. He thinks it would be just like life, for him to finally die from this injury, just when he’s decided it’s going to be the last time. But at least he would die while he was content.

“Sixteen,” Mom murmurs to herself. She always talks out loud as she chases her thoughts through all the twists and turns and rabbitholes that Jared’s never been able to follow. “... like in Macey’s yard... those little pear trees her daddy planted, grew in crooked... that woman swore she’d burn them away. She thought they were just the ugliest things... Those black stumps were uglier, though.” Her fingers toy idly with a fold of his shirt at his waist, and if he thinks about that, and about the weight of her head on his chest, and about the gentle rhythm of K.C.’s breathing, the pain recedes and he barely even notices the room moving.

“... you remember Grammy’s teeth?” Mom asks.

Jared’s never met his grandmother, or his mom’s grandmother, whoever she’s talking about.

“Yeah,” he says.

Mom laughs. “They were just like chickpeas, you know? I mean, the color of chickpeas, and the shape, in the back. Don’t you think?”

“Sure. Just like.”

She laughs again, and squeezes his ribs, conspiratorially. They’re in on it together, gossiping about Grammy, and they’ll never tell another soul what they said.

When he can, he needs to run, but he’s not stupid. The world beyond his mother is too big, too confusing, too dark and shifting, and he can’t even imagine facing it alone. So, he’ll just have to convince her to run with him. That’s all. He’ll tell her that they all need to get out of here, together, and if he says it right, she’ll listen. She has to. If she believes every lie he tells her, it can’t be that much harder to get her to listen to the truth, can it?


**********


        His new room, which won’t even be his room, because he will be sharing with the currant occupant, stinks like dirty socks heavily overlaid by incense, and delicately underlaid by weed. He gets a nice, big whiff of it as Fiona Collins opens the door, and he has to work hard not to wrinkle his nose. It wants to wrinkle so very badly. Then he actually catches sight of the room, and the blank face becomes an effort of heroic proportions. His new room doesn’t just smell. His new room turns out to be a dizzying, eye-crossing, psychedelic nightmare. Purple and blue paisley-patterned cloth swathes the ceiling, bellying down and then floating up as the air in the room shifts, like a lung expanding towards him before it contracts.

The floor is clear, but the one chair in the room is heaped with unfolded clothes, bent magazines, and, poking out from beneath the rest of the detritus, what looks like the brassy gleam of a large instrument. A trombone? A tuba?

Random papers are scattered across the dresser and the top of the low, light wood shelves that line the far wall, and there are CD cases on every surface. Some are closed, and others sprawl open and empty, gasping for the CDs to fill them. A quick sweep with his eyes reveals no wandering CDs, and he wonders where they are, whether Fiona Collins’ son has lost them, or merely temporarily relocated them. Maybe they’re lurking somewhere with the dirty socks. Because he can’t see any dirty socks, but their scent is strong.

He eyes the room carefully. They could hiding in the closet, or under one of the beds.
Under one of the beds would be a perfect hiding place, in fact, because who’s going to be able to tear their eyes away from the bedding long enough to look under it?

The two single beds are on opposite walls, (the fact that they aren’t right next to each other is probably their only saving grace) one with a lime-green pillow, white sheets, dotted with some kind of blue and yellow design, and a fuchsia comforter heaped at the foot end. The other bed is orange. Just horribly, horribly orange. Orange pillow, orange sheets, orange (old, raggedy) comforter. It would be coordinated with itself, at least, if someone had managed to find shades of orange that didn’t bear so little resemblance to each other, but whoever’s responsible for it was clearly color-blind, so the pillow is kind of a bright reddish-orange, while the sheets are faded pumpkin, and the comforter glares fluorescent, like the ink of a highlighter. Its brightness makes its mysterious stains (he counts at least three, of varying sizes) all the more obvious, and Jared considers what his options will be if Fiona Collins tells him he has to sleep in that bed. He squints back at the other bed, on the right side of the room. At least there are no obvious stains. But maybe the patterned sheets just work better to hide them. To be perfectly frank, he doesn’t want to sleep in that one either. He doesn’t want to sleep anywhere in this room.

        “So, this is it,” she smiles a little nervously. Her dark eyes crinkle at the edges, but never quite lose their uncertainty, and he wishes she would just give up the act. She can’t possibly want him here any more than he wants to be here. Her smiling frantically and pretending otherwise is a complete waste of her time. She keeps pretending though, voice cheerful as she gestures around the room and babbles “You don’t need to worry about keeping it too neat or anything, or course. I had Mish clean it up before he left for school this morning, but I don´t want you to get the wrong idea. I don’t expect miracles or anything. I- I know how teenage boys are, and you don’t need to stress yourself out about anything extra anyway. I’m pretty sure you’ve got enough on your shoulders already, right? I mean- shit- I’m sorry- I probably shouldn’t... I probably shouldn’t bring that up first thing, and...” Her smile flickers, and Jared shifts uncomfortably, slumps himself into an even lower slouch than normal, because he’s not going to humor her stupid attempts at make-nice, but if she’s worried that he’s going to freak out or something, well, he’s not. He’s fine.

She takes a deep breath, pins him with a sincere gaze,“I just want you to know that, um, the most important thing is that this is a safe place for you, Jared. I want you to feel like it’s a stress-free environment, where you don’t have to worry about hospital corners, or getting A’s on every test, or being perfect, or anything stupid like that. I want this to be a place where you can just be yourself, grow into your own skin in your own time, okay? Whatever you need, don’t be afraid to ask for it.”
 
       Jared lets her words flow over him, tries his best to keep himself blank and polite looking, because she keeps staring earnestly at him, peering deeply into his face like she’s trying to read him. And he still doesn’t know why she’s bothering, except that it reminds him uncomfortably of his mother trying to placate Roy, ease him into a better mood when he’d stomped in pissed at the world and just itching for a smaller target. His stomach twists at the thought, because he is fucking nothing like Roy, and because he doesn’t want to think about his mother and Roy right now. Anyway, it doesn’t make any sense for Fiona Collins to be afraid of him. He’s not big and strong like Roy at all; he’s just a scrawny sixteen-year-old, built like a coathanger.

But if she’s not trying to placate him, he doesn’t know what the hell those smiles mean, and the confusion’s kinda wearing him out. He just needs her to go away, leave him in peace. He’s so so tired, and so so miserable, and so so confused about how he ended up here, with this nervous stranger showing him her son’s room and babbling about ‘safe spaces’ and ‘letting him breathe as much as he needs.’

        He studies the carpet, so she won’t read his thoughts on his face. It’s a worthy distraction. The carpet is freaking crazy, a paisley pattern in garish colors that hits every place on the rainbow, and yet manages somehow to completely avoid coordinating in any way with any colors to be found elsewhere in the room. He turns his despairing eyes from the horrible curtains (white, with yellow ducks with fangs, fangs), to the swirls of paint on the walls. Clearly “Mish,” or his mother, or both, consider themselves some kind of disciple of Picasso or something. He recognizes some disembodied eyes staring back at him, and what might be a tree made of red snakes, and possibly a lemon-yellow moose, eating one of the snakes. Or that might be an actual lemon, and a sloppy plate of spaghetti. He doesn’t care which.

There is nowhere in this room he can look without feeling dizzy, assaulted by ugliness. Craziness. He just wants a freaking normal room to sleep in, is that so much to ask? But apparently it is. He bites his lip and stares hard at the toes of his sneakers, surprised and angry at the sudden rush of tears threatening to flood his eyes.

        “Jared?” Fiona Collins comes to an awkward halt, mid-speech, and she’s lost abruptly the sincere, new-age guru thing she had going on, and sounds kind of young now, ridiculous, when she’s got a teenage son about Jared’s age, plus two more, even older sons, from what he’s been told. She’s got streaks of gray in her hair, and wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. She’s sharp though. He hadn’t expected her to notice him struggling so quickly.

        “Yeah?” he mutters, refusing to raise his eyes. He’s not freaking crying about being here, not if he can help it, and he’s definitely not freaking crying about it in front of her, that’s for goddamn sure.
 
       “What’s wrong?”
 
       “Nothing.”
 
       “Because...” she takes a breath, firms up her voice. “Because, it’s okay not to be alright, you know? After what you’ve... and now this whole- coming to live in a new place, with people you don’t really know well, or, or really at all yet- thing, I mean, I know that’s scary. That’s a scary thing for a kid, or for anybody really. Travelling to a new place, alone... I mean, I remember the first time I went to France, and I was so scared on the plane, I thought I was going to throw up. That was my first trip abroad, and I was reaching for the- you know the little bags for throwing up in, that they give you on airplanes?”

        He takes a deep breath, let’s it out, stares quietly at his shoes. Tries to will the tears away as hard as he possibly can. Tries not to think about how this is all a mistake. How he’s not supposed to be here in this ugly, bad-smelling room with this weird woman who will not stop looking at him, or talking at him about things he most definitely does not care about until he wants to scream.

        “Yeah,” he manages to squeeze out.

        “So, they’re paper, you know? And I’m thinking ‘What? What happens if I throw up in here? This bag is paper! What the- heck? What do I do?’ And I start scanning the plane, you know? Trying to figure out the nearest bathroom, and whether I can even use it, because there are people blocking the aisle, cause the plane is still boarding, right? We haven’t even started, you know, moving down the runway, we’re still on the ground, and I’m already on the verge of puking. So I’m thinking, ‘if I vault over that seat, I can get around that business man, but the lady with the giant dufflebag is gonna be a real problem, shit, I’m gonna puke on the old woman three down the aisle, I’m gonna get kicked off the plane, and maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, because maybe I don’t need to go to France after all, even though it had been my dream since, like, grade eight... just, totally flipping out,” she laughs nervously. Then she pauses, like she’s hoping Jared will find it in himself to laugh too, make this situation a little less awkward. He disappoints her.

Only the first time of many, he’s sure. “So, anyway,” she carries on, gamely. “I’m wasting so much time calculating how far I can get before... eruption... that suddenly someone sits down next to me, blocking me in. And he notices I look a little green around the gills, definitely not my best, and he asks if I’m afraid of flying, and I start explaining that I’m totally flipping out, because it’s my first time traveling, and I don’t even speak French that well, and I’ve suddenly realized that I’m in way over my head, and he gives me this smile, and starts reassuring me... ten minutes later, I’m in love. And I’m not even thinking about puking anymore. The whole panicking thing is just done, like that. And that guy? I married him. We were married for ten years.”

I don’t care, Jared thinks. I don’t care one bit. I really really don’t.

“We’re divorced now,” she adds, hesitant again, losing her momentum as her story ends, and he’s still staring at the floor. “So it’s an ambiguous story, I guess. But the point is, Jared, sometimes, the worst times in your life are also the best, you know? And sometimes, all it takes is just someone to talk to, someone who understands, to turn it all around again, right?” She reaches out, and pats his shoulder, gives it an awkward little squeeze before taking her hand back again. “Whenever you’re ready to talk, you just say the word, okay? I’ll be here. Okay?”

The word dangles there, hopeful and out-of-place and desperate. He doesn’t have anything to say to her, he doesn’t have anything to say to anybody, but he can’t just leave that lonely word to hang.

“Um. Okay,” he mumbles, grudgingly. And that goes alright, so he gets cocky and adds, “Thank you, for, you know...” and makes the mistake of looking up at her. She’s biting her thin lower lip, hands clenched together tightly at her waist. He can see his mother in her. He looks back at the floor quickly, but the damage is done. “I’m tired,” he chokes out.

He’s half-expecting the reach she makes towards him, and he back-steps easily just out of range without even looking up at her again.

“Okay,” she says quickly. “Okay, sorry, I- I’ll just go, then. Leave you to get some rest, because of course you’re tired. I- I should have guessed you would be...” She hangs in there for another minute, despite her words, hoping for something, some sign of weakness or something, some sign that she can worm her way in, that she’s gotten to him already, at least in some small way.

She hasn’t, though. She hasn’t and she won’t, and he repeats that to himself until she’s retreated, closed the door behind her, finally left him to have some privacy and space to himself for the first time in what feels like days. He checks his watch, and almost feels like unstrapping the damn thing and dropping it in the trash, because there’s no way that it’s been 34 fucking minutes since he got here. But the second hand ignores him to carry on ticking merrily away, and he’s kinda forced to acknowledge that it’s true. So, apparently, this place they’ve dumped him is not only decorated like a late-career Beatles music video somebody rejected as being too trippy for the hippies, it´s also some kind of scientific anomaly where time moves at a glacial pace, and it’ll take 30 years to reach the magical age of eighteen, instead of just two.

He’s so exhausted by the thought, he decides to just suck it up and go lie down in one of the beds. But Ms. Collins never told him which was his, not that he can remember anyway, and he’s not going to ask her. He studies the one with the lime green pillow. The sheets are decorated by blue spaceships with yellow flares blasting them across the blank white spaces, like they belong to a five-year-old. Well, no self-respecting teenager, no matter how crazy, would choose those sheets, right? So this has to be his bed.

He sets his duffle gingerly on the surface, then stops to look back over his shoulder at the orange bed. On the other hand, that ratty, marked-up comforter is clearly inferior to the newer-looking fuchsia one, and he’s not some kind of idiot. No one’s ever saved the best for him before. It’s not like they’d start now. He picks his bag back up and approaches the other bed, sets it down.

On the other hand, this bed at least is orange, and, in theory, somewhat coordinated, as opposed to the other one, which has a purple cover, like, for a girl, spaceship sheets, like, for a five-year-old, and a green pillow that looks like it was taken off a couch, like, for a visitor. Fuck. He angrily pulls his duffle back off the orange bed and throws it to the floor in the middle of the room. There’s no way to know, and he’s not going to ask, because Ms. Collins would probably think he was an idiot for not somehow figuring it out on his own, or something. He sinks down onto his duffle bag, crosses his arms over his knees, and drops his head onto his arms. At least he’s got one thing he knows is absolutely his, as pathetically laughable and inadequate as he knows one medium-sized, scuffed-up duffle bag is, to count as one’s sole possession.

**********

Misha’s experiencing a definite mix of conflicting emotions as Jensen drives him home. He is having a fiercely contested internal tug-of-war between his (completely reasonable) nerves and his general hunger for new experiences, as Jensen’s Volvo chugs along, and it’s difficult to say whether one side or the other has the upper hand. If he had to, he would probably qualify it as a pretty even split.

He sees the end of the long dirt drive that leads to his house hove into view on the right, and realizes his heart has actually started pounding a little fast. It’s somewhat like Christmas morning, only, a Christmas morning unlike any he’s ever experienced, one where he’s worried that his presents may contain nailbombs.

But they may not. They may be awesome, and he tries to focus on that as Jensen slows and pulls to a smooth stop in the end of his driveway. The house itself is hidden from the road by a curving half mile of mixed deciduous forest: maple, oak, and various other leafy denizens of New England that Misha lacks the knowledge to identify. But down that drive, and somewhere inside the house he’s called home for the past year of his life, should be his cousin, Jared, who may be a complete asshole, or who may be awesome. And he’s about to find out which. Or, at least, get some inkling of which, because of course people are not just hollow like balloons, they’re full of things hidden on the inside, like pinatas. And, like pinatas, you have to work hard and take some time to discover what those things are. Although, unlike pinatas, where the things inside all tend to be delicious, some people aren’t full of candy, some people are full of bile and bitter, bitter gall. Which would easily make for the most disgusting pinata ever. Or would it?

The usual routine is for Misha to get out at the end of the driveway, because the mailbox is here, and Misha would rather grab the mail on the way home from school than have to walk all the way out and back later. All the same, as he slowly swings open the car door and hoists his bookbag into his lap, he’s torn. He could meet the cousin, Jared, ten minutes sooner if he asked Jensen to drive him to his door. Does he want to? Or does he want to put it off another ten minutes? Is Jared more likely to be a candy pinata, or is he filled with something else?

“We should make a pinata filled with all my bile and bitter, bitter gall, and also dog shit,” Misha muses to Jensen, still staring down his driveway. “Then maybe my father would finally stop showing up at my birthdays.”

“But what should it be shaped as?” Jensen asks mildly. After over ten years of being friends with Misha, he’s not easily thrown off by an odd topic or two.

“Hmmm. A telephone, perhaps?”

“He does seem to have an allergy to those,” Jensen agrees.

“Well, that or a penis. I’ve noticed that saying that word makes him very uncomfortable.”

“You were talking about penises with your Dad?”

“The subject came up. Why, what do you talk about with your Dad?”

Jensen cracks up, and Misha grins.

“So, any chance I can meet your mom’s new stray today, or are we thinking break him in easy, hold off on the introductions for a few days?” Jensen asks, sobering up a little.

Misha hesitates. He’d like the moral support, quite frankly, and he has no doubt that Jensen knows it. Misha’s aware that sometimes he weirds people out, says exactly the wrong thing, occasionally makes them fear for his sanity without meaning to. Jensen, on the other hand is charming and charismatic, and Misha has seen him put people at ease without batting an eyelash. The whole thing would almost certainly go a lot smoother with Jensen by his side.

“Sure, why don’t you stay for a little while,” he decides, finally. He’s not sure his mom will entirely approve, but she loves Jensen, and if Jared’s going to be staying with them for a little while, he’s going to pretty much have to get used to Jensen. Sooner is better than later, isn’t that what they say? “It’s only fair to give him full warning of exactly what he’s in for.”

“Ha ha,” Jensen says easily, and throws the car into gear. Then of course he has to put it back into park while Misha hops out and gets the mail.

They drive up to the house in comfortable silence. Misha catches sight of his mother kneeling in front of the flowerbed beneath the front porch as they get close, vigorously rooting out weeds with a hand fork. Her hair is tied back with an old baby-blue bandana, and she’s wearing her orange gardening jumpsuit, a garment that Misha is 90% sure she bought from a prison surplus outlet (if such a thing exists.) He watches as a weed comes free with a shower of dirt, and his mother flings it wildly back over her shoulder without looking. The grass in a ten foot radius is littered with similar cast-offs. He hopes she remembers to rake them up before they all wither, turn brown, and kill the grass in patches, again.

“Uh oh,” he says.

“She’s gardening,” Jensen agrees gravely.

“Maybe something went wrong, and they changed their minds about sending him?”

“Maybe. Can they do that?”

“Maybe if some closer family than third cousins, or second cousins twice removed, or whatever the hell we are, came forward...” Misha’s uncertain. Mom had seemed to think it was a done deal, but she’s been known to be... overly optimistic... when she gets an idea into her head.

Jensen parks, and Mom turns to watch them get out, wiping her forehead with the back of one gardening gloved hand as she watches. Her shoulders are tense, and she looks red-faced and sweaty, not good signs.

“Hey Fiona,” Jensen says, smiling brightly.

“Oh, hi Jensen,” Mom smiles back, and a little bit of the tension she’s carrying actually seems to leak out of her. How does Jensen do that?

“Hey Mom, did Jared arrive?” Her smile flickers, and the tension level snaps back up to high.

“Of course, sweetie. He’s in your room, resting. He was pretty worn out, you know. It’s a long drive from New York, and I think he’s having a hard time with... everything.” she turns her head away from them to give Misha’s bedroom window a worried look. Well, Misha guesses it’s not just his bedroom anymore. He stamps down the ignoble flash of annoyance that fact brings, because he does love this house, it’s better in almost every way than their old house in town, and if the smaller size means he has to share his bedroom for a little while, that’s a price he’s pretty willing to pay, all things considered. It’s not like he spends much time in there anyway, with Drama Club, and Model UN, and Jensen’s house always having better snacks than his.

The first time Misha sees his cousin, Jared is fast asleep on the middle of his bedroom floor, curled around an old duffle bag. His dark hair is lank and greasy, and his jutting angles of shoulder, hip, and elbow make him look unwell. Through the holes in his worn-out jeans, his knees are visibly knobby, and scabbed. Upon catching sight of his cousin, Misha hurriedly shushes Jensen and his mother, then scrambles to put his backpack down and rummage through it as quietly as possible.

Because all the ugly little details of his cousin somehow add together into an image of almost indescribable pathos and beauty, and it demands to be captured.

“What is it?” Jensen whispers, then, while Misha’s getting his damn camera out of its case and turning it on, he cranes around Misha to get a glimpse of the room. Mom, behind them both, is also whispering “What? What’s happening?” and Misha feels a little bad that she sounds so stressed, but honestly, it’s not like he’d be dicking around with his camera if something were really wrong, so come on.

Misha’s camera is still something of a complicated, expensive mystery to him. He got it for his birthday last month, and he hasn’t read any of the photography books that came with it, out of some sense of half-assed rebellion. The rebellion doesn’t extend to the camera itself, which he’s been carrying around with him every day since he got it. He enjoys the way it makes him look harder at the world, pick out moments of strangeness, beauty, or humor that otherwise would’ve just passed by unremarked, and he secretly very much enjoys the way it seems to both cultivate and justify a sense of aloofness from the world, as well. Photography is such a delicate, time-sensitive art. It feels like he finally has license to step outside moments, like he’s always done, and observe the world as though it were a play, or a novel. Like this moment: a boy sees his cousin for the first time, his cousin who, in sleep, looks beautiful and vulnerable.

It seems to him that if Jared turns out to be just as he appears at this moment, Misha can be proud of any photograph that can capture that fragility, and if he turns out to be nothing like he appears in this moment, Misha will like the misleading nature of this image. But only if he actually freezes this moment in time, will he have the joy of looking back on it, comparing it to the real thing. He brings the camera quickly to his eye and fiddles around with the big zoom lens until his cousin’s face, half-hidden by a flop of dark bangs, but smooth and sharp and somehow unreal in the angles that lie revealed, is in perfect focus. He’s going to get a fantastic shot out of this, he’s almost certain, if Jared will only stay asleep long enough. He starts snapping away.

The clicking is quiet, and the teenager on the floor doesn’t even stir. Misha takes a cautious step into the room, because he thinks that a little different angle will make a much better picture, and resumes snapping.

“Misha!” Mom hisses behinds him. She sounds quite unhappy with him. He ignores her.

“Misha!” Jensen hisses too, though there’s a definite tone of amusement in his voice. “Quit that!”

He will. Just- one- more- There is a shadow across Jared’s eyelid that is absolutely perfect, but Misha is not actually sure how to zoom in that close without losing the clarity of the picture. Perhaps he should have read some of those books, but it’s too late now. He needs to get physically closer if he wants the picture, and he does. He does want the picture. Jared’s face... hollowed cheek and parted lips and long dark lashes... it’s perfect. He draws the camera away from his eye for a minute and studies Jared, makes sure that his cousin is still breathing deep and even. He raises the camera again. Holding his breath, he steps in close, closer, leans over and- there- perfect. Click.

Jared’s whole body stills, mid-inhale. The sudden absence of breathing is deafening. Cautiously, Misha lowers the camera. He is painfully aware of how closely he is leaning over Jared, just a few feet away now, really, and if he so much as breathes or tries to straighten up, he’s fairly sure it will be completely audible to Jared. He’s stuck. Please go back to sleep, he pleads silently. Nothing to see here.

Jared’s eyelid snaps open, and suddenly he is staring up at Misha, frozen. A beat later, he jerks his head up to look wildly around the room, gaze hitching briefly at the sight of the other two in the doorway before swinging back around to the nearest threat.

“What-” he says, hoarsely. His eyes rest briefly on the camera in Misha’s hand, before skipping back up to his face.

“Uh,” Misha offers.

“What-” he asks again. He sounds, and looks, well, startled at the very least. Maybe even frightened.

“I was trying to capture a first impression of you,” Misha explains. He tries to tamp down on his guilt. He didn’t mean to scare his cousin. That was not at all his intention. But he clearly did, and he’d better convince him that he means him no harm, and that he had a reason for taking his picture other than that he thought he looked ‘beautiful’ and ‘vulnerable’ or this is truly going to be the worst first impression he’s ever made in his life. “I thought it would be a worthy project to capture an important first impression, and this seemed to fit the bill, because you’re my cousin. And a- a first impression, in the general sense is such an interesting topic, don’t you think? Obviously, there can only ever be one, and human memory being what it is, you always think you remember correctly, but that’s hardly ever true. So then, how can you be sure you aren’t just making up a memory of instantly liking a friend the first time you saw them, or hating an enemy at first sight, because it comforts you to think you can tell how people are when you first see them, even though you can’t, nobody can? I thought a physical record of the moment would maybe help somehow.” Misha gives a weak smile and peters off. Everything he said was true, but he still feels somewhat deceitful, and he hopes Jared can’t detect that.

Jared’s face is blank. His eyes have lost their wild fright, though his fingers, Misha notes, are clutching the duffle bag so hard they’ve gone white, so he’s either still scared, or extremely, extremely angry.

“I was sleeping,” Jared says. “You were taking a picture of me while I was sleeping?” Jared’s eyes are fixed on his camera, dangling around his neck, and Misha is filled with a very, very bad feeling. Jared’s tone reminds Misha very much of his dad, and how his Dad gets all quiet when he’s two seconds away from erupting into righteous fury. Fury which Misha then responds to in kind, and which leads to shouting terrible things and everybody getting red-faced and sweaty, and not talking to each other for weeks or months, and shit, has Misha already set off a chain of events that will lead to he and his cousin having a furious screaming match within five minutes of meeting each other?

“I’m- Jared, I’m sorry,” he says quickly. “I’m really, really sorry.”

He struggles for some stronger words to express his deep regret. But Jared’s shuttered eyes and clenched jaw make it very hard to come up with anything. He takes a deep breath.

“I am a total asshole,” he offers, hopefully. Jared ducks his head, and the words flow a little quicker now that his face is hidden from view. “I didn’t have any right, and I totally fucked up, and I don’t know how I can ever make it up to you, but I will, I promise. And I will never ever do that to you again, and-”

“Yeah. Alright.” Jared cuts him off in a mumble. “Nevermind, okay? It’s not a big deal.”

It certainly seemed like a big deal a second ago, but now Jared’s head is down, his shoulders are up, and his bangs are an impenetrable curtain. Misha can’t tell what he’s thinking at all.

“Are you sure?” he asks.

“Yeah,” is all Jared answers.

There is an awkward pause, while Misha waits for more, but Jared isn’t saying anything else, nor is he looking up. And, into the breach, rushes his mother. For once, he’s extremely, extremely grateful that his mother can’t stop herself from wading into these emotional-mess type situations.

“Jared, I am so sorry,” she says, fluttering over to squat down and try frantically to make eye contact with his cousin. He catches himself thinking for one millisecond about how best to frame the picture they make, Jared’s bowed head, his mother’s concerned hover, and shuts that thought down hard. Jared is off limits to picture taking, from now unto eternity. Off. Limits. “Misha didn’t mean to... to upset you. He’s been obsessed with his camera since his dad gave it to him last month, and he just wasn’t thinking, okay? It will not happen again, I absolutely promise.”

Jared finally looks up, but Misha still can’t read what he’s feeling from his face.

“It’s fine,” Jared says quietly. “No harm done.”

But Jared, for all that his expression is blank as a new whiteboard, is radiating an air of such bone-deep exhaustion, that suddenly Misha is wretchedly ashamed of himself, in a way he hasn’t felt in years. Misha didn’t have any way of knowing it would be such a big deal to his new cousin, but he should have considered the possibility, not selfishly ignored it. His mother has always raised him to be considerate of others’ quirks, because it isn’t like the Collins’ don’t have plenty of quirks of their own, so he knew better, but he’d gotten swept up like a child, playing with his new toy, and maybe the only surprising thing here is that it’s taken this long to majorly offend someone. But now he has. He truly fears he has.

Jared is still clutching the duffle bag painfully tightly, and there are circles under his eyes, so clearly he needed the sleep that Misha interrupted. He searches his mind for some way to make it better, and he can practically see his mother whirring along on the same problem. In fact, knowing his mother, she’s itching to reach out and hug Jared. His mother has always been a big believer in the power of physical contact. She has actually even written the book to prove it. (To this day, Misha has never read Chapter 8: Erogenous Zones from Your Ears to Your Toes, and he never, ever will. But she made him read the rest of it, and he’s a believer. There is something about simple contact that people seem to thrive on.) He silently urges for her to reach for Jared, maybe start unwinding some of the tension that is almost painful to watch.

“Jared,” his mother says gently. “It’s not fine, if it made you feel uncomfortable.”

She reaches out and covers one of his hands with hers, on the duffle bag. Jared lets it rest there for about one second, before he yanks his hand out from under hers and tucks it into his armpit. He tucks the other one in the other armpit for good measure, and he ducks his head back down, shutting them out completely.

Mom bites her lip.

Jensen steps up beside him, lays a hand on his shoulder, and murmurs in his ear, “Maybe we should go out to the kitchen. Give them a minute.”

Yes. That sounds like a wonderful idea.

“Jensen and I are going to go get a snack,” he announces. “We’ll see you later, okay?”

Later, and he wishes it could be never. He can’t believe how badly he already messed this up, in his wildest dreams he never imagined that his fears about having an unknown cousin come to stay for awhile could turn out to be so justified... and he really can’t wait until the inevitable first time he and his cousin are alone together. The awkwardness will no doubt be powerful enough to be viewed from space. God. Is it too late to go live with Dad for a few months?

He begins making for the door, Jensen leading the charge, as rapidly as possible without literally fleeing.

“Wait,” Jared says quickly. Misha whips around fast enough to almost stumble. Oh God, the awkwardness is not over yet. “I- I want to come too. I mean. If that’s alright? I’m hungry.”

“Uh, yes. Of course,” Misha manages to toss out, passably casually.

“Yeah! The more the merrier!” Jensen, of course, is able to sound completely un-phased and extraordinarily welcoming. “I’m Jensen, by the way, Misha’s friend. We’ll be seeing a lot of each other, probably, cause I’m his ride to school, and I was assuming I’d be driving you too. He said you’d be joining us at good ole Dover High once you got settled in.”

Jared finally lets go of the duffle bag to stand, and as he unfolds and rises, Misha sees that he’s tall. Like, seriously tall. Mom has risen too, and Jared’s got at least half a foot on her, which means he’s at least Jensen’s height.

“Uh. Yeah. I guess,” Jared answers without enthusiasm.

“That’s right!” Mom chirps, clearly going overboard with the enthusiasm to make up for Jared’s lack thereof. “And it’s not that big a school, so with any luck you’ll probably share some classes with Misha and Jensen.”

“Cool,” Jared mumbles.

“Shall we,” Jensen jumps in, gesturing grandly towards the hallway, and Misha’s grateful to get moving again, even more grateful when Jensen keeps the conversation going before yet another awkward moment can descend. “So let’s see, I know you’re sixteen, like us. So you’re also a junior?”

“Yeah.”

Jared’s quiet enough that Misha, leading the way to the kitchen, can barely hear him. He turns to look back, and finds that Jared is stealing quick glances at the pictures on the walls as he passes them. They’re a mix of his mother’s weird found-object collages and pictures of himself and his brothers growing up. He wonders what Jared thinks of them, but his cousin’s face continues to be perfectly unreadable.

“Cool,” Jensen rolls on. “Well, in our school, Juniors take American History for Social Studies, and for Math we mostly take Geometry, though if you’re advanced you can move up to Trig, and Science this year is Chem, though again, if you’re advanced you can move up to Physics. Oh yeah, and we have a language requirement. Mish and I are taking German, because the German teachers in our school are the bomb. I’d highly recommend it, if you’re looking for a language to take. And I’m sure they’ll work something out for you if you’ve already taken any of this stuff, and, actually, if you’ve already taken three consecutive years of a language somehow, that’s all you need to fulfill that requirement.”

“Um. Okay,” Jared mumbles. “Thanks.”

“No problem. So, how different was your old school?”

“Uh, not, not too different, I guess.”

“You have a language requirement?”

“No.”

“So you should totally join us for German. I mean, you won’t be in the same class as us, but, like I said, the whole department’s cool.”

“Frau Riteman teaches first year German, and she’s awesome,” Misha jumps in.

“She really is,” Mom says. “I remember you boys liking her class quite a bit.”

“Yeah. I wish she taught third year too. But Herr Banks is good too,” Jensen adds.

“So much better than Senora Duvall.” Misha says, wandering into the kitchen and taking a seat at the table. “Well, from what our friends say.”

Jensen plops down on his right side, and Jared only hovers in the doorway for a second before taking the chair to Jensen’s right, which puts him directly across the small, round table from Misha. Staring at his cousin, much like taking pictures of him, should, Misha reminds himself, be strictly Off Limits. Except that Misha is aware that he has a bad habit of staring at things he finds beautiful, so he is in huge trouble already.

“Senora Duvall,” Mom says, popping open the fridge. “Is she the one who won’t let anyone turn in a paper late?”

“Yeah, that’s what Katie says,” Jensen answers.

“Ridiculous,” Mom shakes her head as she starts producing package after package of deli meats and cheeses from the meat drawer.

“I heard Mike Magorian tried to turn in some essay to her one day late because of his car crash, and she wouldn’t take it,” Jensen says. “I mean, granted, it wasn’t a very serious accident, but he still had to hang around in the ER for, like, three hours, waiting to get his neck scanned, or whatever. But I guess she thought he was just making that up, or something. Or maybe trips to the emergency room are still just no excuse for not getting your homework done.”

“Well God,” Mom turns to Jensen with her hand on her hip. “I hope his parents called the school. Did he tell his parents she wouldn’t take it?”

“I dunno...”

“I think he told his homeroom teacher, and she talked to Senora Duvall about it,” Misha jumps in.

“Well good,” Mom says.

She turns back to making sandwiches, and Misha glances across the table to find Jared staring at him. Jared’s eyes drop instantly to the table top when Misha catches him looking, though.

Misha scans his mind desperately for some conversational gambit to offer, but for once, he can’t think of anything to say. Not even a bizarre non sequiter, or something borderline insane.

“Jared, what do you like on your sandwiches?” Mom asks, and Jared’s eyes skip back up to her like a nervous cat’s.

“Uh, anything’s fine. Thank you.”

“But what do you like?” Mom laughs. It almost sounds genuinely relaxed. Almost.

“Everything.”

“Oh,” Mom laughs awkwardly again. “Well, that should make things easy. Do you have any allergies, or any non-sandwich-foods you’re not a fan of? Anything? Anything at all?”

“No.”

“Well. Okay then.”

Misha would like to take his Mom by the shoulders, give her a little shake, and tell her to relax. It’ll have to get better with time, right? Maybe Jared’s uncomfortable with them right now, but Misha and his Mom and Jensen are all very nice people, and once Jared gets to know them a little better, surely he won’t be able to keep this defensive wall up quite so high. And sooner or later, he’ll have to forgive Misha for the camera thing.

***********

As it turns out, Jared is astoundingly good at keeping his defensive wall high. Misha has never met a person so difficult to read, impossible to reach, and utterly indifferent to kindness. At the end of the first month of Jared staying with them, Misha looks back at the time and is about 95% certain that in 31 days, he has never seen Jared crack a smile. He certainly can’t recall it ever happening, and since he can’t even picture exactly what a smile from Jared would look like (and not from lack of trying, either) he’s pretty sure he hasn’t just forgotten an incidence.

And it’s not that Jared appears to be zoned out, like, too disconnected to notice people joking and having fun around him. It’s the opposite of that, which somehow only makes it worse. Jared watches everyone, quietly and intently. He watches everyone who enters and leaves a room he’s in, he watches everyone who gets pissed and argues, shrieks in mock-fear, or laughs too loud. He takes notes in class without ever seeming to look down at his notebook for more than a second or two, he can quote teachers back to themselves with eerie accuracy when they call on him, and he’s always the one to remind Misha when Mom said they should try to be home on time for some reason or other. And he’s considerate in small, detailed ways that are impossible to classify, because he’ll set the table ten minutes before dinner’s ready without needing to be asked, and he’ll sidle up to Mom with her reading glasses about a minute after she’s seated herself in front of the computer and started squinting at the screen, but he won’t smile back at her when she says thank you, or do more to acknowledge that she’s spoken to him at all than a brief shrug.

He does things for Misha, too. Like, Misha often loses his pen or pencil, but Jared always has an extra, and he’s got the ninja like ability to have it out and stretched across the aisle about five seconds after Misha’s realized his is missing. Twice, when Misha’s been in enough of a hurry leaving class to forget the book or folder he’d stowed under his chair, he’s had Jared pop up at his side, muttering “You forgot this” and taking off again before Misha’s gotten farther than “Oh, hey!” But it’s surprisingly hard to be grateful for these favors, when Jared is either blank-faced or actually frowning while he performs them, and won’t meet Misha’s eyes for longer than a few skittish seconds. At school, he treats Misha, Jensen, and everyone else who tries to befriend him as though they have leprosy. Their school has excellent teachers, but Misha can tell Jared’s getting to them, too. He never raises his hand in class, he never smiles back when they smile at him, and when they call on him he generally answers correctly, but with a sullen cast to his face, like he thinks they’re assholes for not just leaving him be.

And this is the lovely person with whom Misha has to share rides to and from school, numerous classes, and, oh yeah, his bedroom. The only reason it isn’t driving Misha completely insane is because someone has to keep a level head about it, and it’s not going to be Mom.

Because Jared is certainly driving Mom crazy. He shrugs in answer to almost all questions, even questions that he could probably get away with one word answers to: “How was school?” “What would you like for lunch tomorrow?” “Do you have a favorite TV show that you don’t like to miss?” And no matter what Misha’s mom tries in her efforts to connect with him, he rebuffs it. In the interests of being fair (and possibly bribery) she buys Jared the same band t-shirt as Misha a few days after he gets there. Misha thanks her and gives her a hug. Jared carefully refolds his and gives it back to her with a quiet “No, thank you.” Every time she tries to reach out and touch him, literally or figuratively, he slips away like an eel. He spends pretty much every waking minute that he’s not required to be at school in their room with the door shut. Every week since Jared arrived, Misha has come across his mother on the verge of tears, trying valiantly to hide how upset she is, and he knows it’s because of Jared.

The thing is, Misha knows his mother isn’t perfect. She’s impulsive, disorganized, unbearably nosy, and Misha understands if Jared doesn’t always want to accept her hugs or interest or gifts. That’s his right. God knows Misha has been driven to escape to Jensen’s house more times than he can count. But Misha’s mother is also one of the kindest, most generous people he’s ever met, the first to admit her flaws, the first to offer comfort, cookies, or the shirt off her back, if that’s what people need. She forgives other people’s mistakes, she gets outraged for them when an injustice has occurred, and she will turn herself inside out to comfort them when they’re down. And seemingly, all she’s gotten in return is a husband who cheated on her multiple times with people she knew, two sons who’d rather be traitors and have a swimming pool than live with her, a third who can be a manipulative asshole (Misha knows he shouldn’t take advantage of her. He knows, but he’s only human. You try not taking advantage of a Mom who’ll pretty much give you any damn thing you want because you’re the only son who chose her), and now a foster kid who’d apparently rather let his facial muscles atrophy than give her so much as a smile for taking him in when his own mother apparently wanted nothing more to do with him.

If there’s any silver lining to the whole Jared situation, Misha guesses it’s that he hasn’t experienced such acute awareness of his mom’s many virtues since before he entered his rebellious teenager phase. But his newfound awareness of his mom’s basic awesomeness makes it extremely painful to watch Jared stomp all over his mother’s heart again and again. He knows he should feel bad for Jared, but it’s kind of starting to piss him off. This is his Mom after all. Plus, it’s really difficult to emphasize enough how much it doesn’t help that Jared has made it clear over and over again how very little he values Misha’s company. Even if Jared has a valid reason to have grudges against mothers, or something, how can he justify shutting down every honest offer of friendship from people his own age?

Misha and Jensen spent at least the first week or two trying to convince Jared to hang out with them. They both talked up Drama Club, Misha tried to sell him on Model U.N, and Jensen tried to go behind Misha’s back to convince Jared that basketball was more fun than playacting politics. Every effort was shot down by the emotional black hole that is Jared Padalecki. Their efforts to convince him to come hang out at Jensen’s house after school, go out for coffee with Katie, Genevieve, and them, or play some frisbee on the weekends in the town park were all equally in vain, and increasingly frustrating. At first, Misha thought maybe Jared was just one of those shy kids that comes off as snobby due to poor social skills. Then he thought maybe Jared was actually snobby, but that once he learned to relax and unthaw, he’d discover it was fun to hang out with geeks and drama kids (and Jensen, who is both those things, but also a popular jock, and a friendly, ridiculously universally-liked guy.) Now, he thinks that whatever Jared’s problem is, it has something to do with the fact that he’s deep down to his core some kind of people-hater who just wishes everyone would go die. So if Jared wants to be left alone, it’s a kindness to do so, for everybody involved. If only Mom would get the memo.

Part Two






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December 2011

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