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It’s a Wednesday like any other. Lunch is sadly over, and Misha’s standing outside Trig, waiting for Jensen, Gen, and Katie to abandon him for greener pastures. Trig is possibly his least favorite class. The teacher is uninspiring, the subject matter is not particularly relevant to Misha’s interests, and he has no real friends in this class. Due to some unfortunate quirk of the schedule, Jensen, Gen, and Katie all have Trig with cheery Miss Albertson right before lunch; Misha is stuck alone and friendless with the droning Mr. Dunlop in the dozy, eternal post-lunch period. Oh, yeah, and Jared’s in this class. So Misha has the comfort of knowing that he’ll be joined by a sullen, energy-sucking teen-shaped lump of dark matter, just to make it extra unlikely that anything that happens in class today will be any fun.

The bell’s gonna ring in about five minutes, which probably means his friends will have to abandon him in about two minutes, but they’re awesome, and are hanging around the math wing to help him stave off the hellish boredom for as long as they possibly can, through the miraculous power of gossip.

“The test isn’t til next week, and I swear to God, Rob Benedict is already on the verge of a nervous breakdown about it. Did you hear him in class today?” Katie is grinning evilly. Jensen grimaces and nods. Katie, who is a merciless mimic, slips into a neurotic whine. “But Miss Simonds, will a problem like- like- like this be on the test? But will it be exactly like this? It will? Oh God. Oh my God. What about um, numbers 12-14 on the homework last night? Them too? Oh sweet Jesus.”

Misha can’t help but laugh.

Genevieve smacks Katie’s arm. “Stop that,” she’s laughing too, as she cranes her head around, scanning the hallway for the poor guy. “You’re being mean... He’s not in this class, is he Misha?”

“Oh shit,” Katie giggles helplessly. “Can you imagine if he heard me? Seriously, Misha, he really isn’t in this class, right?”

“No, he’s not. Because nobody’s in this class. This class is the class of the damned, and I am doomed to suffer its torments alone.”

“Oh come on, you drama queen, it cannot be that bad,” Katie challenges.

“Yeah, quit your whining,” Jensen chimes in. “You’re just trying to make us feel bad for you so we’ll buy you ice cream after school.”

“That would be the endgame, yes,” Misha admits. “But I deserve ice cream for suffering through this class.” He lowers his voice and gives the area a quick scan, but the hall is clear. “The closest thing I have to a friend this period? Jared.”

“Ooo,” Katie winces.

Genevieve gives him a sympathetic pat on the arm.

“How is ole Eeyore, anyway?” Katie laughs, loud.

“Seriously,” Gen punches her in the arm, harder than before. “Cut that out, Jared is in this class.”

Katie covers her mouth with her hand, still laughing, in a classic display of half-assed repentance that comes so very naturally to her. Everybody glances around, but there’s still no sign of Jared in the hall.

Misha needs to vent to his friends occasionally, and they’ve all heard more than their fair share of his complaints about his cousin, the misanthrope. It’s a healthy way to de-stress from suddenly sharing his home, his room, and his Mom with someone who doesn’t seem to appreciate human company. That doesn’t mean he needs his cousin to hear them talking about him like he’s a joke. Jared can be a cold, unfriendly downer if that’s what makes him happy, but Misha isn’t going to sink to the level of mocking him for that. Or at least, not where Jared could possibly hear him, anyway.

“Yes, if you’d like to make my home life a little more hostile than it already is, by all means, say that a little louder, Katie,” Misha grumbles.

“More hostile?” Katie snorts. “To hear you tell it, more hostile wouldn’t be possible without blood being drawn.”

“Exactly,” Misha says grimly.

“Ohhh,” Gen laughs, mock-horror widening her pretty eyes, “I hope you count the knives in the drawer before you go to sleep at night.”

“Hey, you cut that out too,” Jensen tells her, good-natured but serious beneath that.

“Oh man,” Katie crows, ignoring him. “A little more Patrick Bateman than Eeyore? I hope you’ve learned how to sleep with one eye open.”

“Oh wow! Look at the time,” Jensen says loudly. He wraps an arm around Katie’s shoulders and starts physically propelling her away, as she struggles against him half-heartedly.

Thank you, Misha mouths at him, and Jensen shrugs it off with a grin. Gen catches the exaggerated expression of gratitude and looks apologetic.

“See you later?” she asks. “We should do ice cream after school. We haven’t gone to Cabot’s in, like, a month.”

“Agreed,” Misha smiles.

“You could try asking Jared along, too. You know, just in case he’s had, like, a little change of heart.”

“Yeah,” Misha laughs, “I’m sure he’s had a complete personality change since this morning.”

He says goodbye to Genevieve, turns, opens the door to the classroom, and has one of those moments where his stomach instantly drops to his shoes. Jared is already seated in the classroom, about two rows of chairs from the door, watching him walk in, and it is entirely possible that he just heard that entire thing. Oh shit. Oh shit. He can practically feel his eyes bugging out of his head in panic, and for an instant his feet are glued to the floor.

Jared’s eyes drop back down to his notebook. Misha can’t detect any particular increase in hostility, but it’s not like Jared is such an open book, ever. Misha looks around the room for some kind of hint or something, he doesn’t know. Alona Tal is the only one who meets his eyes. She’s a pretty girl that he doesn’t know well, since she just transferred in last year, and they haven’t shared a lot of classes or anything. In fact, he has no idea who her friends are, or if she even has friends. He’s not sure he’s ever exchanged a single word with her. She’s also seated two back from the doorway, and he has little doubt that she, at least, could’ve overheard the entire conversation if she’d felt like eavesdropping.

She raises an eyebrow at him, but that could be because he’s staring at her right now, and he quickly shifts his gaze away. Back to Jared, who is now writing something with great concentration.

“Uh, hey,” he says belatedly, sliding into the seat next to Jared’s. “How’s it going?”

Jared glances up at him. His eyes are dark and penetrating, and give away absolutely nothing that could help. “Fine,” Jared says shortly, and goes back to writing whatever it is he’s writing.

Try as he might, Misha can’t find any indication at all that Jared heard anything, and he spends most of class trying. The part of class he doesn’t spend shooting Jared nervous glances, he spends trying to recall just exactly what was said, in particular, what he himself said, and how badly Jared was liable to take it. Jared certainly doesn’t act like the kind of wilting flower who takes any little thing anyone else says to him to heart, in fact, he seems to give off the strongest “Just don’t give a fuck” vibes of anyone Misha’s ever met. Maybe he heard everything, and Misha’s freaking out about nothing because Jared doesn’t give a fuck what Misha and his friends think of him. And it’s not like they said anything Jared couldn’t have kind of guessed they would feel anyway, right? He has to know that his presence is a little inconvenient, his demeanor a bit more hostile than is comfortable, and his general air a wee bit tragic. Still, suspecting that Misha and his friends may have a certain opinion of him, and having it rubbed in his face, are two different things.

But probably Jared didn’t even hear him. He glances back at Alona, but she’s actually paying attention to the teacher. Maybe he should corner her after class, ask her if she thinks Jared heard anything. But that sounds like kind of an awkward confrontation, and maybe he should just let sleeping dogs lie. How much does it matter that Jared might have heard him, if it doesn’t in any way change the way Jared acts?

At the end of class, Jared maybe packs up slightly faster than usual, but that doesn’t mean much. He might just need to stop by his locker before his next class or something, who knows? Unfortunately, Alona Tal packs up quite fast too, so even if Misha had definitely wanted to talk to her, he would’ve found it quite difficult to catch her. She’s out the door about five seconds after Jared. By the time Misha’s gotten his notebooks all jammed into place and his zipper done up at least enough that nothing vital will escape, they’ve both vanished into the squawking flood of underage humanity crowding the halls, and he’s only got three minutes left to get up one flight of stairs and across the entire building.


They have a habitual after-school meeting spot to the left of the main entrance doors (outside on a nice day, inside if it’s rainy, snowy, or too cold, like today.) Misha and Genevieve head there after they’ve changed into regular clothes and escaped their respective locker rooms. Misha hasn’t mentioned to his friends that Jared may have overheard them, though he can tell that Genevieve knows he’s worrying about something. Usually, he tries his best in Gym, because Gen has a surprisingly large competitive streak for such a sweet person, and she always tries to get them on the same team. So maybe the fact that he got smacked in the forehead with a whiffleball ten minutes into class because he wasn’t paying attention tipped her off. She doesn’t outright ask him if something’s wrong, but she does link her arm with his as they break out into the main hallway, and she doesn’t release it again until they join Jensen and Katie.

“-stuck on this raft, right?” Jensen’s saying. “In nothing but their underwear, and-”

“You are such a perv,” Katie exclaims.

“Hey, now. There’s nothing pervy about it. Scantily clad youths are a staple of the whole horror genre. It just means you have respect for the classic elements of the form. Anyway, it symbolizes how they’re totally vulnerable and defenseless against the encroaching threat-”

“Suuure, Ackles-”

“What are we talking about?” Gen cuts in, releasing Misha’s arm to wrap her arms around Katie and rest her chin on her best friend’s shoulder.

“Some soft core porn story that Ackles just finished,” Katie answers.

“It’s not porn!” Jensen turns to Misha. “Why do I even bother?” he asks.

“Honestly? I don’t know.”

Jensen opens his mouth to say something else, and then his eyes slip over Misha’s shoulder to rest on something that makes him stop.

Misha turns to find that Jared has come up behind him and is standing there silently, hands on the straps of his backpack.

“Hey,” Misha offers, smiling as naturally as possible when his heart is suddenly beating double-time.

“Hey,” Jared returns neutrally.

“Hi Jared!” Genevieve says, flashing a friendly smile. Katie and Jensen join in with hellos and smiles of their own on cue.

Jared gives them all a stiff nod.

“So listen,” Gen continues. “We were thinking about going for ice cream, you want in? Cabot’s is the best ice cream in the state, so if you haven’t been there yet, you’re totally missing out.”

“It’s awesome!” Katie says. “Man, have you really not been yet? You need to come. It’s like a religious experience, seriously. It will change your life, to an extent you could not possibly imagine beforehand.”

“Yeah. C’mon, man,” Jensen says. “She’s not even exaggerating. Much.”

“We’d really like it if you’d come,” Misha agrees quickly. “Please?”

Jared looks him in the eye for a long moment. A quite long moment. Misha feels dread warring painfully fiercely with hope. Either Jared is about to explode on them (on Misha in particular), or he’s actually about to agree to hang out for the first time ever. Well, or he’s about to do something else huge and completely unpredictable. Whatever is happening, it’s important. Jared sucks his lower lip into his mouth and bites down, and it’s the most emotion Misha has seen him display in weeks. Then he releases the lip (which is now red and glistening and stirring something extremely inappropriate in Misha’s belly), clenches his jaw, and says softly, to Misha alone, “I don’t know why you guys are bothering, but it would be easier for everyone if you would just stop.”

“Is it... you heard us talking about you, outside of math earlier?” Misha asks miserably, and without much hope.

“Yeah,” Jared grits. “But that’s... whatever. That’s not actually what I’m talking about.”

“Then what are you talking about?”

“I’m not even talking about your friends. You and your mom is what I’m talking about. Why am I here? We’re not even cousin cousins. We’re just... distant relations with absolutely nothing in common, who hadn’t even heard of each other until my mom... left. And I know you and your mom are not exactly rolling in the dough, but there are easier ways to make money, and you’re not exactly starving either. Are there some huge debts I don’t know about? Some giant crazy tax break that makes this worthwhile? What is it?” to Misha’s shock and horror, Jared’s eyes are beginning to water, his lips trembling slightly. “I just wish you would tell me, because maybe I’m supposed to have worked it out on my own by now, but I haven’t. I can’t. A dummy like me needs a little more of a clue, I guess.” Jared pauses and wipes angrily at his eyes. A very small part of Misha registers that Jared is still beautiful, even with a splotchy face and wet, clumpy lashes. Most of him is working frantically to come up with the right thing to say in the face of this insanity.

“Jared-” he begins, shakily. “First off, you are not stupid. And secondly, there isn’t anything like that. There isn’t a reason, okay? I mean, there is a reason, but it’s just that my mom is the kind of person who can’t let some kid, no matter how distant the relation is, get stuck in some group home or something if she can possibly help it. That’s it. That’s all there is.”

Jared is staring at him again, searching his face. He’s breathing hard, and his jaw looks painfully tight. He blinks, and a tear trickles down his cheek. He rubs it off with a swift, impatient motion, and Misha wonders how perverse he is, that there is still that small part of his brain, apparently existing outside of all codes of human decency, that thrills at how amazing every single movement Jared makes is. Then Jared’s talking again, quiet and firm.

“I don’t believe you,” he says simply. He turns on his heel and walks out.


Misha isn’t sure whether Jared needs space, or something, but it’s maybe ten seconds before he realizes that Jared has no way of getting home without Jensen, and thus he definitely needs to go after him. By the time he’s out the door, Jared’s down the front steps and making his way across the football field at a brisk jog. He doesn’t so much as look back when Misha calls his name, just picks up his pace until his flat out running. His long legs eat up the field, and Misha knows he’ll never catch him. So he just watches Jared get smaller and smaller and then disappear into the woods on the far side. A frigid breeze, herald of the coming winter, is gusting the dead leaves around the grass. Misha’s eyes water with cold, and by the time he makes his way back indoors, he’s shivering.

His friends are waiting for him in a subdued huddle. They look about as shocked and upset as he feels.

“He took off,” Misha shrugs. “Across the football field.” He gestures vaguely.

“Shit,” says Jensen. “You all right, man?”

“Yeah. Sure. I’m fine.”

“Should we go look for him?” asks Katie. “We should, right? He’ll probably pop up in the diner, or at the library or something, and he’ll need a ride.”

“Yeah, it’s too cold to stay outside for long,” Gen says quietly.

They spend about an hour ricocheting from hang out to hang out. They try everywhere, literally everywhere they can possibly think of, multiple times, but there’s never any sign of Jared, and no one they ask remembers seeing him, and finally Misha has to call his mom and tell her Jared’s missing, which she takes about as poorly as he’d expected.

She tells him she’d like him to go home, and that she’ll leave work right away (half an hour early, and Misha hopes she doesn’t get in trouble for that) and meet him there as soon as she can, and they’ll work out what to do from there.

As it turns out, what she wants to do is leave Misha waiting at home while she checks all the same places he and his friends have already checked, and calls every ten minutes to see if Jared’s turned up yet, even though Misha has already promised to call her the very second Jared sets a toe inside the door.

He’s sitting at the kitchen table, staring into space, with his homework spread out in front of him, when the side door clicks quietly open. Jared slips in, giving the room his usual thorough once over, taking in Misha’s presence without meeting his eyes. A waft of cold air ruffles the pages of Misha’s schoolwork and sends a shiver running through him. Jared quickly shuts the door behind himself, then slumps against it. Misha sees that his cheeks and nose are bright red (and that the tips of his hair flip enticingly out from under his knit hat), and that he’s breathing hard.

“Hey, you’re back!” he says.

“Uh. Yeah,” Jared mumbles.

“We were worried. I figured without Jensen you didn’t have a ride home, but then you didn’t call to say where we could come pick you up. So, I, uh, I kind of had to call my mom. She’s out looking for you, right now.”

“Your mom’s out looking for me,” Jared repeats flatly.

“Yup. Where did you go, anyway? And how did you get home?”

“I walked,” Jared shrugs.

“Shit. Jared. You didn’t need to walk. We would’ve driven you home. We would’ve been ecstatic to. It’s freezing out there, and that’s like, five miles.”

“Yeah, I, uh. I didn’t realize how long it would take when I started,” Jared has his head down, obscuring his exact expression, but... Misha squints. For just an instant he could swear there’s the little tip of a smile at the corner of Jared’s mouth. “Stupid,” he says under his breath, but he still sounds curiously pleased.

Misha is somewhat flummoxed. “I should call my mom,” he says. Then takes a deep breath and begins “Look, Jared, I just wanted to say... I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what my friends and I said, for the jokes we made, and I’m sorry you had to hear them. They were rude, and you certainly didn’t deserve to have us-”

“Really,” Jared interrupts, pushing off the door, and Misha hadn’t even realized how relaxed Jared looked for a minute there until his shoulders are back up around his ears, and his jaw has set. “It’s alright. You don’t need to apologize. You weren’t being unfair, and you didn’t know I was there. So. Whatever. It’s fine. You should call your mom.”

Jared moves past him, disappears into their bedroom without looking at Misha again.

“It’s not fine,” Misha murmurs to empty air. He frowns. He has never been more frustrated in his life. After today, he should know more about Jared than he did before, given that Jared showed more emotion today than he has since Misha terrorized him with his camera the first afternoon, plus spoke some actual complete sentences about how he was feeling directly to Misha’s face. Instead, incredibly, Jared seems like more of a mystery than ever. Does he feel anything about the incident today, or does he really not care, as he claimed? Was he actually just smiling, or was that Misha’s imagination? And if he was smiling, why? Could it possibly have been because Misha and his mother had been worried about him, or was that just wishful thinking? And why did he shut down when Misha was just trying to apologize? And by the way, why the fuck does Jared think he and his mom need some greedy ulterior motive to take him in? Who the fuck taught the guy to carry that kind of distrust around with him?


K.C. can still do stairs, though maybe not as steadily as she once could, so Jared leads her down them, grip tight on the rail so he can stop her fall if she trips. His stomach churns with impatience, but he grips her collar loosely, lets her take the time she needs, because K.C. knows they’re in a hurry and she’s going as fast as she can anymore. At the bottom of the stairs, he leans down to give her a kiss.

“Good girl,” he croons, and she licks his face, and then he looks up into the living room. And everything goes to shit. His mom was supposed to be out in the car, waiting while he did one last sweep. She sure isn’t, though.

“I’m sorry, Jay,” Mom whispers. She looks so, so sorry, too. Jared knows her, knows she really means it, so he tells himself that he is not allowed to be mad at her. But she’s standing there with her hand clasped in Roy’s, and her big shining eyes, and her duffle bag is sitting right there on the coffee table in front of them. It’s still zippered, so maybe Roy hasn’t looked inside yet to see all her clothes, neatly folded, packed away, ready for the grand escape that now clearly, is not going to happen today.

But it doesn’t matter whether he’s poked around inside or not, Jared realizes with a sick lurch. Jared knows his mother.

“Did you call him?” he asks, voice strangled, despite his attempts to even it out.

“Yes,” she answers, biting her lip.


“Because he loves us, Jared. And we need him.”

“No, we don’t.”

“And we love him, too.”

The No dies stillborn in his throat. So useless. Just a useless, weak word. Too late to protest, or turn things around. The plan is blown. What’s the point in even fighting it? He just wishes he could understand why things have to go this way. She usually gets tired of things so fast, he doesn’t understand why this thing with Roy is so different. Maybe it was stupid to think that he could end it when she wasn’t done playing out this particular dream yet, but she’s never wanted to stay in one place for longer than six months before. Now they’ve been here almost a year, and that is completely bizarre, because his mother still wants to stay for some reason, while Jared has never hated any year of his life so much.

Roy is grinning.

“I’d like to see your bag,” he says, holding out his hand. Smug fucking- Jared wants to spit in his face.

“If we’re not leaving, I’m going back upstairs to unpack,” he says carefully to his mother.

“No you’re not,” says Roy.

His mother doesn’t say anything.

Roy stalks over, grabs his duffle bag out of his hand, and slings it onto the coffee table next to his mother’s. Jared makes a move to go after it, and Roy sidesteps to block him.

“You will leave that where I put it,” says Roy. Jared thinks about going for it, for real. He and Roy are long overdue for a knock-down drag-out fight, and Jared knows he doesn’t have the muscle to win, but it seems like it would be worth it if he could just get in a good shot or two. And maybe his mom would finally see... his eyes flick to her, and her anguished face stops him in his tracks. Scowling, he takes a couple steps back.

“I’m going to go through every inch of that bag,” Roy says.

“Go right ahead,” Jared snaps. “What do you even think you’re going to find? It’s just a bunch of clothes.”

“Really?” Roy grins.

“Yeah. Really.” He stares Roy down, and it’s at least a little satisfying, because he’s actually telling the truth. He hopes the asshole does waste all their time going through Jared’s bag. Then at least Jared won’t be the only idiot to make a fool of himself today.

Roy goes over and unzips the bag, starts taking its contents out piece by piece and inspecting them. He shakes out every shirt, unrolls every ball of socks, flips through the pages of the notebook Jared packed. When he’s done with each item, he drops it on the floor. Jared watches his muscles work, shoulders bunching and flexing visibly through the blue cotton collared shirt he’s wearing. The back of his neck is an angry red. His neatly-trimmed hair bristles out at the nape like a nailbrush. He is the ugliest person Jared has ever seen, which is funny, because the first time he met him, he could see right away what his mother liked about him. Strong, successful, well-groomed. Even attractive, in a high school football coach kind of way, not really Jared’s type, but objectively, not bad. Now, everything about Roy makes him want to puke.

Not wanting to look at Roy anymore, or his mom, standing quietly by with weepy eyes, he focuses on K.C. She’s sitting by his side, and she gratefully accepts his gentle strokes. He massages around her ears, whispering what a good girl she is under his breath. She looks up at him with big liquid eyes, tongue lolling out of her mouth. When Roy’s done with his little shitfit, Jared can cry his disappointment out into K.C.’s soft fur upstairs in his bedroom, so at least his life isn’t total hell. She's always there for that.

Except, when he gets home from school the next day, K.C. is gone.

Mom tells him the whole story with her typical mixture of heart-deep sorrow and complete lack of awareness. She tells him how Roy got worried about how much trouble K.C. was having on the stairs, and took her to the vet, and the vet told him that K.C.'s arthritis had gotten too bad, that it would be cruel to make her suffer, that it was best to send her out peacefully. With a straight face, Mom tells him that it was really hard on Roy to have to make that decision, and that Jared should thank him when he gets home from work. Thank him.

All he feels, at first, is numb. Then the sorrow hits him, and he spends some time thinking about how K.C. must have felt, alone and scared, and wondering why he wasn't there with her in a strange place like that.

Later, curled on his side in bed with his tears drying on his cheeks, Jared picks up the phone and calls the cops, and he couldn't have said who he's trying to punish the most, as he reports that he's afraid of his mother's boyfriend, that his situation is unsafe, that he wants to be removed from the home right away.

He guesses he's trying to punish everyone: Mom, Roy, and himself. They all deserve it equally.


“I’m gonna walk home,” Jared says, and continues on down the hallway while Misha and Jensen are still gaping.

He slips around clusters of other students, who are stalled out to chat, or just moving too slowly, like a man on a mission, and. Misha has to jog to catch up with him. He reaches him just as Jared gets a hand on the push-bar of the main entrance door. “Wait! Jared! What? It took you two hours yesterday!”

“Yeah,” Jared turns and shrugs. As he pushes his way out the door, he calls back over his shoulder, “It was fun, though.”

A cold gust of wind blasts Misha in the face, stealing his voice for a second, and then Jared is gone.


“So, like, do you know anything else about his mom?” Katie asks, gnawing on a pink marker.

“Uuh, nope.” Misha says, and notices Jensen and Genevieve are looking over from the computer, suddenly less interested in typing up the captions for their group poster, and more interested in gossiping about Jared.

“Your mom doesn’t know anything about her? It’s her side of the family, right?”

“She doesn’t talk about her family much. I know there’s a history of alcoholism though. My dad brought it up one time, in an argument over whether she drank too much. She’d had like, two glasses of wine, because she was stressed out about hosting Thanksgiving.”

“Douche,” Katie says with wonder.

“Total douche,” Jensen agrees. “No offense, Misha.”

“None taken.”

“You should ask him,” Katie says. “Jared, I mean. What his mom’s like. Or, I don’t know, how our town compares to where he used to live, or how classes are going, or something.”

“Yeah, because he’s really starting to open up to me now,” Misha grumbles. “He’s walked home every day for the past week rather than spend an extra five minutes in the car with me. Now’s the perfect time for a heart to heart.”

“Well, this is exactly our point!”


“I told you to leave me out of this, Katie,” Genevieve groans.

“Et tu, Brute?” Jensen laughs. She punches him in the arm.

“Annnyway,” Katie rolls her eyes. “I’ll be happy to take sole credit when this turns out totally awesome, because it will. The point is, right now, you and Jared are at a low point in your pathetic excuse for a relationship. You insulted him behind his back-”

You insulted him behind his back,” Misha points out quickly.

“Yes, but you did it first,” she says blithely. “And I’m pre-tty sure he could tell he could tell that based on how it all played out. I’d say the fact that he fakes sleep every night so he doesn’t even have to say goodnight to you is all the proof I need to rest my case.”

Misha concedes the point.

“So, at this point, what more harm could you possibly do? Once you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up! The worst that could happen is that he shuts you down again, and then you whine to us some more.”

“And then we buy you ice cream,” Jensen cuts in.

“There you go, no downside,” Katie agrees. “My plans are all awesome. And this is my plan, ergo, it is awesome.”

Misha supposes he can’t fault that logic.


Jensen drops him home around 5:30, and Misha spends the walk down the driveway practicing how the talk with Jared could go. He cannot imagine any scenario where Jared doesn’t stop talking and walk away within about a minute, so that’s depressing, but Katie’s right, it’s not like there’s a lot worse things could be.

His mother is puttering around the kitchen when he walks in, but she stops as soon as she sees him and asks him to have a seat for a minute, because she has something to tell him.

Uh oh, he thinks. She doesn’t look distraught, at least, but she does look a little nervous.

“Oh, how was school today?” she asks.


“And your project’s coming along okay?”

“Uh. Yeah...”

“It’s so nice you got to work with your friends on this one.”

“Yeah. It’s great. So what’s up, Mom?”

“Well, um...” she squints at him a little. Tucks her hair behind her ear, looks down at the table, takes a deep breath, and then looks back up at him with nervous eyes. “I had an idea, and I wanted to talk to you about it before Jared got home. So. I was thinking about Thanksgiving this year... I wanted it to be a really special one for Jared. He hasn’t said anything but- well, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was somehow lacking in good holiday memories, right?”

Misha nods, searching his brain for some indication as to where Mom is going with this, because making a holiday ‘special’ would not seem to require this level of nervousness.

“And of course last year we had Thanksgiving, just the two of us, and it was nice, but it wasn’t... the most special.”

Misha nods. They’d wound up watching a lot of TV.

“So, I talked with your dad, and he agreed that it would be a great idea for us all to spend Thanksgiving at his house. With him, and your brothers, this year.”

Misha is frozen, as the shock of the awfulness washes over him. He can see it all now: his douchebag father, and his douchebag brothers, and his mother, the traitor, trying to make small talk and act like a big happy family while his functionally mute cousin glares at his turkey and Misha tries not to say a single thing that he’s actually thinking.

He begins shaking his head, and finally, after a few seconds of that, finds his voice enough to say “No.” as simply and clearly as he can.


He gets up abruptly from the table, chair scraping across the floor with a hideous noise that pretty well matches the sounds in his brain right now.

“I? Am not going to Dad’s for Thanksgiving,” he bites out, and hustles from the room before he says something he regrets. He swings open the door to his room, steps calmly inside, and hears “I think he already bought our tickets, Misha!” from the kitchen.

He slams his door hard enough to rattle the pictures in the hallway. Then he swings his backpack off his shoulder and flings at the closet door. It hits with a solid whump. Then he claps his hands over his mouth and shouts “Fuck no!” into them with all his might. It’s not until then that he finally registers the shape in the corner of his eye. He freezes. With his peripheral vision he can see Jared quite clearly. Jared is sitting cross-legged on his bed, staring at him open-mouthed, with a book in his lap.

Misha drops his hands and turns to his cousin.

“I’m sorry about that,” he says, still breathing a little hard. “That was not for you. At all. I didn’t know you were home. Mom said...”

“I came in through the window,” admits Jared.


“Didn’t want to talk,” Jared says.

Misha rubs his hand over his face. The window thing is hardly important. The important thing is that his mother has some of the stupidest ideas of any person on earth ever, and she is going to ruin Misha’s Thanksgiving, which he has been looking forward to ever since classes started up.

“Did you hear any of that?” he asks Jared.

“Um, something about tickets?”

“My mom wants us to go to my dad’s house for Thanksgiving. You know- do you know? He lives in California with my brothers. And I guess she thinks it would be great for us to all play happy family for a few excruciating days.”

“You don’t want to go,” Jared says cautiously.

“Definitely not.” Misha runs a hand through his hair. How to explain it? “See, my dad is a great big asshole. He doesn’t care about anybody but himself, he thinks he can buy love if he wants to, and for him, it’s more important to give the appearance of perfection than to actually be comfortable with yourself. I hate him. I always have. And Mom,” he glances at the door. “Mom should hate him too. She really should. He cheated on her all the time. Everybody knew about it, he completely humiliated her, and then he left her for a younger woman. Plus, he never treated her with respect when they were married. He never liked her ideas about anything, and he blamed her for anything that went wrong, even if it wasn’t her fault at all. If I got in trouble at school, or one of my brothers did, it was her fault, for not laying down the law or something, I don’t know. And yet for some reason, she seems to think she needs to get along with him, all ‘let bygones be bygones.’ And now she wants to go spend Thanksgiving letting him walk all over her. I wish someone would explain why the hell she wants to put us through that, I really do.”

“Maybe she still loves him,” Jared offers, quietly.

“Maybe. But if she does, why? He’s such an asshole!”

Jared surprises him by snorting. That is by far the closest to laughter Misha has ever heard him. “If I could tell you that...” he shakes his head. Mumbles down at his lap. “Probably my life would be a lot different.”

“Yeah?” Misha prods. But Jared doesn’t look up at him. He’s not reading though, because he starts fiddling with the pages, flipping them back and forth between his hands. Misha sighs and grabs the hair on either side of his head. “Whyyyyyyy?” he moans to himself. Then he squeezes his eyes shut and breathes deeply for a count of six. He would’ve gone up to ten, but, surprisingly, Jared speaks again.

“So do you think you’ll end up going? To his house for Thanksgiving, I mean?” Jared asks.

“Not if I can help it.” Misha opens his eyes and glares vaguely at the duck curtains, which always seem a bit too cheerful when he’s in mental anguish.

“But if he already bought the tickets...”

“He can get a refund,” Misha says darkly. “Oh, and he’s definitely buying a ticket for you too.”

“What?” Jared’s head snaps up. Misha tears his eyes from the ducks to study the rare sight of his cousin displaying actual emotion.

“I’m sorry, Jared. You’re one of the family now. She totally plans for you to come too, so you can meet my asshole dad and my asshole brothers, and revel in the joy of family togetherness. She specifically told me that she wanted to make this holiday ‘special’ for you.”

“What if I tell her I don’t want to go?” Jared asks, wide-eyed. “She can’t make me go, can she?”

“I think she’s your official guardian right now, so maybe she could. But, on the other hand, it’s not like she can physically force us to get in the car and go to the airport with her. So you know what? You’re right. She can’t make us go.”

“She can’t,” Jared agrees weakly.

“And thank God for that,” Misha sighs.

“But, you know... you think... if we just tell her we don’t want to go... She’ll let us change plans, right?”

“She’ll have to. You don’t want to go, and I don’t want to go, and I honestly can’t believe that she really wants to go stay at her ex-husband’s obscenely large house, and probably meet yet another new girlfriend who could practically be her daughter, and listen to my brothers brag about the new Thanksgiving BMWs he gave them. She probably just thinks she should, because last year she and I kind of, maybe, didn’t put a lot of effort into Thanksgiving when it was just the two of us.”

Jared nods, but he still looks a little unsure.

“But we have to maintain a united front, okay?” Misha adds. “Don’t let her convince you it’s going to be awesome. I promise you, it will not, in any sense of the term. We will be happier, and she will be happier if we all just stay here and have our own Thanksgiving. Right?”

“I really don’t want to go to California for Thanksgiving,” Jared agrees.

“Thank God,” Misha sighs. Then he wanders over to pick up his backpack off the floor in front of the closet.

“So your brothers, they’re in college, right?” Misha almost freezes, he’s so taken off guard by Jared actually starting a conversation. He forces himself to keep moving before he ruins the miracle, casually scooping up his bag and bringing it to his bed to unload.

“Yup. Mike is 21, and Morgan is 20. They both go to UCLA.”

“And then, in the summer, they live with your dad?”

“They live with my dad during the school year too. Apparently, he’s got quite the pad, and they know a good thing when they have it.”

“Oh. So. You...”

Misha crawls onto his bed, flops down on his stomach, and flips open his Chem notes. Then he looks across to Jared, who seems to be struggling with whatever he’s trying to ask.

“Yeah?” he prompts.

“Did you... get to choose? Between your mom and your dad?”

“Yeah,” Misha says casually. “And you know? It was not a tough call.”

Jared nods and goes back to his book, actually reading again, instead of just playing with it.

“Can I ask you something?” Misha keeps his tone casual.

Jared looks up and holds his gaze steadily, so Misha guesses that’s a yes.

“If you could choose, right now, would you rather be back, living with your mom?” He tries to keep his tone neutral, totally inoffensive as he asks, but he’s suddenly quite curious. Jared looks back down at his book, hair falling forward to hide his face. He scratches at some crud along the edge of the page. Misha waits. But Jared doesn’t look back up, and he doesn’t answer the question. So, that was probably one step forward, one step back. Wonderful.


The month before Thanksiving amps up slowly but steadily, until the week before is barely controlled chaos. Papers are due, tests are popping up day after day, and, in acting class, Misha has a monologue he’s scheduled to perform last period, right before the break. And it is a long monologue, and it was chosen for him by the teacher because she wanted him to stretch himself, and he is kinda freaking out about it.

At home, Mom is also flipping out. She has a work project in its final stages, plus, Jensen’s mom invited them to the Ackles Thanksgiving (which, awesomely, is what they’re going to do) but Mom got assigned to bring pie, and she’s never made a successful pie in her life before. This means a lot of practice pies, and an increasingly hysterical mother, as every single one of them turns out somehow flawed.

It’s almost a relief that things with Jared have returned to status quo. Misha’s not sure he’d be able to handle it if, in addition to talking his mother down from pie-related suicide, studying, essay writing, and monologue memorizing, he had to make conversation with his roommate too. And maybe he’s taking it a little less personally that Jared has no desire to talk with him. He’s thought a lot about their one and only conversation, pretty much analyzed it to death in fact, both in his own head, and with his friends. What he took away from it in the end are these facts: 1.) Jared does, in fact, have at least some small level of curiosity about him, even if he seems to have no problem keeping it locked down most of the time. 2.) Jared’s mother has probably, at least once, dated and/or been married to a gigantic asshole. 3.) Jared has no desire whatsoever to talk about his mother. It’s not like Misha can fault him for that.

Anyway, Misha owes Jared big time for being such a staunch ally on the Thanksgiving thing. He has the sneaking suspicion that if it had just been him objecting, he would be packing for California right now.

And Misha doesn’t want to acknowledge it, even to himself, for fear of jinxing anything, but it seems to him like Jared has maybe begun to relax in Misha’s presence just the tiniest bit, since that night. It’s not that he talks more, makes eye contact more, or ever ever smiles, but he just seems to hold himself some unquantifiably tiny bit less tense around Misha these days. And it’s mostly noticeable because around Mom, Jensen, or any other human on the planet, Jared still snaps taut as a bowstring.


On the morning of the day before Thanksgiving, Misha wakes up feeling like he’s going to puke, due to the monologue he will be performing at the end of the day. This is probably just as well, since Mom is trying to feed them pumpkin pie about as arid as the Sahara, with a crust that looks like it’s made out of coal.

“Not hungry,” Jared mumbles, eyeing it.

“I’m going to vomit if I put anything in my mouth,” Misha announces.

Mom sighs.

“What about a bagel?” she asks resignedly.

“No thanks,” Jared mumbles.

“I will seriously throw up if I put anything in my mouth,” Misha reaffirms.

“What is wrong with you two?” Mom asks.

“Monologue,” Misha says.

“You’re going to kill it!” she assures him, reaching out to ruffle his hair.

“Or vice versa,” he mutters, but he does feel a little better.

Jared doesn’t say anything, but that’s par for the course, and Mom doesn’t push it, just pulls Jared’s pie over and takes a bite.

“Shit,” she sighs, after choking it down. “I’m not going to get it right. I’m not. Joyce Ackles is going to take one look at whatever pitiful, malformed excuse for a pie I bring and dump it right in the trash. And she’s going to make fun of me.”

“Jensen’s mom is not going to make fun of you, she’s pretty much the nicest person on earth.”

“To you, she is. You’re just a kid. Secretly, that woman makes fun of all the other moms because she is a robot, and she is unable to comprehend how all us puny humans fail so constantly at everything.”

“Mom, stop.”

“Urgh,” she groans. “I hate Thanksgiving.”

“Well, I hate monologues.”

“Seriously, Mish, you have nothing to worry about, you were born to be a star, and you’re going to blow them away today. I have complete faith in you.”

“Thanks, Mom. And I have complete faith that you can make at least one good pie.”

“Thanks, Mish,” she smiles at him, a little watery.

He glances at Jared, who is still dully staring at the spot on the table where his pie used to be. Misha has the impression that he could strip naked and start dancing the hula and Jared wouldn’t notice. He wonders if Jared has some killer test he’s stressing out over or something. Something is definitely up with him.


He finds out what third period. That’s English, which he shares with Jared and Jensen. Mrs. Clintock is asking for examples of some damn thing, Misha doesn’t know what because he keeps spacing out, worrying about his monologue, and suddenly, without warning, Jared lurches to his feet and makes a beeline out of the classroom.

Misha is still watching him go with the rest of the class, which has fallen abruptly silent, when Mrs. Clintock breaks the spell to say “Misha, do you want to go after him?”

“Uh, yeah. Thanks.”

He’s out the door about two seconds later, just in time to catch sight of Jared bending at the waist and throwing up in the middle of the hallway.


Jared wakes up, and for a minute, he’s not sure where he is. The room is dark, he’s nauseous, and his befuddled brain can only come up with one name to put to the figure standing over him: Roy. He gasps and flinches back.


The tension runs out of him like water, leaving him limp but relieved. Not Roy, Misha, and of course he’s at Misha’s house, in Misha’s room. He’s been living here for months now.

“Jared, are you okay?”

“Yeah,” he pants.

“Are you going to uh, puke again? Cause...” Misha holds up a trash can.

Jared takes a minute to assess the situation. “Yeah. Think so.”

“Okay,” Misha pushes the trash can forward quickly, and Jared manages to lever himself up enough to curl over it. For a moment or two, it’s kind of a toss-up over whether he’ll need it after all, and then his stomach lurches in some kind of horrible bid for freedom, and he’s retching up bile.

Oh yeah, he only has bile left, because he threw up in the middle of the hallway at school. Which is pretty hard to beat for embarrassing, although he did heap more embarrassment onto the pile when he then threw up in front of Misha and the school nurse, on the floor of the nurse’s office. And fuck, his stomach aches from so much puking.

The bile hurts, and the retching hurts, and his eyes tear up and then overflow onto his cheeks. And his head hurts, and he’s too tired to hold himself up, but if he lies down he’ll end up with bile all over, and he lets loose a sob because he’s a mess.

“Shhh,” says Misha. “You’re okay. It’s okay.” He starts rubbing Jared’s back with one hand. He’s still steadying the trashcan with the other. And he’s doing it just like Mom used to do, sometimes, when Jared was little and he was sick, and she was with it enough to comfort him. He closes his eyes and leans into the touch, just a little. He doesn’t mean to let it go on, but then he does. He’s too tired to move, and it feels so nice, and in a minute he’ll lie down, but for now, he’ll just be. Just for a minute. Then his stomach clenches again like a total asshole, and he has to lean forward and try to retch up a whole lot of painful nothing for way too long. As if the crying weren’t enough, his nose is running, and he must be totally disgusting.

He can’t believe how long Misha’s willing to stand there rubbing his back and murmuring to him while he pukes and sniffles. When he’s finally gone awhile without his stomach attempting an uprising, Misha eases him back onto his pillow and nestles the trashcan against his side.

“I’m just gonna go get a fresh bag for this, and a washcloth to wipe your face,” he says gently, leaning in close, closer than Jared would recommend, since no doubt his breath is fatal. “You need anything else?”

“No,” Jared mumbles, voice all clogged with tears. Pathetic. And, because it needs to be said, “Thank you.”

“It’s nothing, Jared,” Misha says quietly. “I’ll be right back.”

Jared dozes off, and only wakes up halfway when Misha comes back to wipe off his face, and put a new bag in the trashcan. He holds Jared’s head up enough for him to sip from a glass of water, too, but even then Jared can barely keep his eyes open for longer than it takes to make a bleary sweep of the room. Whatever this bug is, it’s hitting him hard. He’s rarely been more exhausted in his life.

Later, he wakes up and Ms. Collins is there. She wants to take his temperature, which he sees no reason to fight her over. While she’s waiting for the thermometer to reach a decision, she sits on the edge of his bed, and at one point, she reaches out to feel his forehead. He can suddenly see his mother, so clearly, reaching down to trace along his forehead, after Roy had hit him and he’d tripped and clipped his head on the coffee table. He steels himself so he doesn’t pull away, but Ms. Collins must notice him getting all tense, because she pauses with her hand in midair, then tucks it back into her lap.

“Oh Jared,” she says, and bites her lip. She sounds upset. He thinks she might be on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to push, I just forget. You know I’ve got three sons. That’s a lot of sick boys I’ve tended. I forget you’re not them, that you don’t want a hug from me, that what worked for them isn’t what you need.” Her chin quivers, and he gives a slow, tired blink before letting his eyes slip closed. He doesn’t want to see her cry. Not when he knows it’s his fault. She’ll be embarrassed, and he’ll just feel more guilty than he already does. He tries to slow his breathing, so she’ll think he’s falling back asleep, too out of it to notice her distress. He feels the thermometer being slipped gently from his mouth, but he keeps his eyes closed and his lips parted slackly. She remains sitting on the edge of the bed for another minute, and he wonders if she’s checking the thermometer, or maybe watching him, to see if he’s really sleeping, or maybe just taking a minute to gather herself before she goes anywhere. Finally she gets up, whispers, “I’m sorry I don’t know what you need,” before she goes.

Funny, that he almost wants to call her back. He opens his eyes, stares at the ceiling. He can’t even figure out what he would say to her.


He misses Thanksgiving. He’s not throwing up anymore, but he pretty much sleeps it away. Just as well they didn’t go with the traveling to California plan, because Misha and Ms. Collins won’t even leave to go eat Thanksgiving dinner with the Ackles family across town. All day, they bring him gatorade. Misha helps him to the bathroom, when he needs to go.

Sometimes when he wakes up, he listens to the sound of the TV drifting in from the living room (they’re leaving the door cracked so they can hear him call) and he pictures them huddled on the couch together, maybe sharing a blanket. Maybe the thought should make him jealous, but it doesn’t. He kind of likes it.

He thinks about his mom, and how he wishes she were there, but only if she would be like he remembers from the best times. He thinks about Roy, and how happy he is to have that asshole out of his life, and then he spares a moment to think about how happy he is that Misha and Ms. Collins have Misha’s dad out of their life, because if Misha says he’s an asshole, then he is. He thinks about how he was waiting every day for his mom to show up, when he first got here, and he would’ve gone with her in a heartbeat. Now, he can’t even think of her without comparing her to Ms. Collins, and he can’t even think of Roy, without wondering how similar he is to Misha’s dad. It’s like, with his brain moving so slow, he’s finally forced to pay attention to his thoughts, and to realize that despite himself, his life here is becoming his real life. And his life before he came here is becoming... well... the past.

Then he thinks about K.C. and he cries, quietly, so no one will come in and ask him what’s wrong. He huddles down in his bed and remembers how she used to lick his hand, how it felt to press his face against her fur, how warm and heavy the shape of her was, pressed against his thigh. He misses her so damn much. He would still leave all this in a heartbeat, if he could have K.C. back. He can’t, he knows he can’t, but he goes to sleep still thinking of her, and clutching his ugly fuschia comforter.


When he wakes up Friday morning, he feels much better. Weak, but just the kind of weak you get when you haven’t had anything but water and sports drink for the past couple days. He glances over to the opposite bed, but the orange comforter is thrown back. Misha’s up already. Feeling like a real superman, he heroically hauls himself out of bed and works his way into some fresh sweatpants. He has to sit down and take a break before he can put on a fresh t-shirt and sweatshirt.

He steadies himself against the wall in the hall, taking a minute to examine a picture of Misha and his brothers. Mike and Morgan and Misha, three little kids with big white smiles. Misha is by far the cutest, and Jared takes a minute to trace the smile on little three-year-old Misha before creaking his way on into the kitchen.

“Jared!” Ms. Collins cries. “You’re up! You’re up!” She looks torn between thrilled and scared. He guesses he probably looks a little rough.

“Hey,” Misha says, with a wide grin. “Look at you! Standing unassisted and everything!” He quickly gets up and pulls a chair out for Jared to sink gratefully into.

“What can I get you? Juice? How about apple juice? Maybe some toast? Are you ready for toast?” Ms. Collins flutters, and Jared nods weakly. “Yes!” she exclaims.

“So how are you feeling?” Misha asks. He’s sunk back into his seat, but hasn’t resumed his place in the book he was reading.

“Better,” Jared shrugs. “Um, I, uh, I wanted to thank you for driving me home from school. You didn’t get to do your monologue.”

“Are you kidding me?” Misha grins. “This was all a cunning plan of mine to get out of doing that monologue.”

Jared snorts. “Well, anyway,” he says, sobering. “Thank you. And thanks for, you know...”

“Mopping your fevered brow?” Misha grins.

“Yeah, all that stuff. Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” Misha says, still smiling.

“Yeah, sure, it’s really fun to hang out watching some guy puke,” Jared mutters, rolling his eyes.

“Well, I know you’d do the same for me,” says Misha.

And Jared kind of startles himself when he realizes that’s true. Except he’d probably do a much worse job of it than Misha and Ms. Collins had. Which reminds him.

“Ms. Collins, um, I wanted to thank you, too,” he says to her back, as she’s popping two pieces of bread into the toaster.

“Oh Jared, it’s really not necessary to thank me,” she turns to gave him a quick smile, then heads for the fridge. “I appreciate it, but it was no trouble at all.”

He feels his chest getting a little tight, and maybe he should wait until he’s, like, feeling better, or something. Maybe in a few days, when he’s 100%... He firms his jaw. He needs to say it, and now’s as good a time as any.

“Not just-” he has to stop and clear his throat. “Not just for that.” She’s stopped with her head in the fridge. He rushes on. “For- for taking me in, when you didn’t have to, and sharing your home, your life...with me. And for, um, for caring. About whether I was happy or not. And being a safe place...” he takes a shaky breath. “I think this is the safest place I’ve ever been... I just wanted to say that. That’s all.”

He waits, and he can feel Misha waiting too. It takes her a few seconds to straighten into view, and she is definitely crying when her face appears.

“Thank you, Jared,” she says, voice wobbly, but somehow dignified. “That means a lot to me, to hear that. Now, I know you are not the hugging type,” she stops to sniffle briefly, “so I’m not going to force that on you. But I just want to say that if at any time from now until eternity you would like to hug me, the offer’s on the table... Now, would you like apple juice, or grape?”


Jared doesn’t jump right up and hug Mom. Misha supposes that would be moving a bit fast, and Jared has already proved himself capable of creeping at a glacial pace, when it comes to getting comfortable in his new life. But when Mom turns around to pour the juice (and probably wipe her streaming eyes on the sleeve of her bathrobe), Jared turns around to face the table. And Misha can see his face, and for the first time since he’s met him, Misha can see his smile.

No doubt Jared feels his eyes on him, because he glances up, still smiling. Jared is looking into Misha’s eyes, and smiling, and it’s an image his camera could never do justice.

He doesn’t need his camera to help him remember this: Jared’s smile is goddam beautiful.

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