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The Midnight Others

Chapter Text

Spencer

 

1.

When Spencer and Aureilo were ten, their father took them away. They were lonely after that. It was a quiet kind of loneliness. Seeping. Curiously suffocating. It changed with the seasons. In winter, it was a cold house with two rooms heated: the office where Spencer wasn’t allowed and the bedroom where he chose to remain. In spring, it was walking alone when before she’d have walked with him. Aureilo was there, but Aureilo was also silent; a mute, lonely hare following a mute, lonely boy.

Summer was the ticking of an oscillating fan in the quiet of their home, a sleepy apartment in the middle of DC. William had paid a lot for it, he told them, as to ensure that the walls were thick enough that all sounds were kept out. Keeping the sounds of the city out seemed to be of great importance to him. Spencer wondered what was so bad about noise that it had to be pushed away, especially since the thick walls also kept the world out. Spencer missed the world. He missed his mom. And time went on. Fall was a year from then. They turned eleven.

She never replied to their letters.

 

2.

They were alone, their feet cemented to the floor with the certainty that there was a sheer drop on either side of them, and it was utterly, catastrophically dark. So dark that, when Spencer held his hand out in front of his face, he couldn’t even see the white-pink blur of his fingers outlined in the gloom. He tried to speak and found he couldn’t.

He looked for Aureilo, but Aureilo was gone.

He screamed and woke, shivering in a sweat-soaked bed with the window open and his curtains flicking angrily against the wall. Whap whap whap they went and every beat of them sent a snap of light down onto his tangled feet. Aureilo watched him from the foot of the bed, sometimes illuminated, sometimes in shadow, the line of moonlight lashed right across his twitching nose.

“Just a nightmare,” the hare whispered, trying to wiggle closer. Spencer looked to the door. He’d never had a nightmare alone before.

“Just a nightmare,” he repeated glumly, because the door wasn’t going to open.

Their mom wasn’t there.

 

3.

People wondered where Spencer’s mom was. William never told, and Spencer didn’t know.

Here is a good place to talk about Diana Reid.

Diana Reid was as bright as her son, a professor of English Literature as lost in the mysteries of the word as Spencer promised to be. Her son was a gift to her, the one bright spot in a world that was darkening steadily day by day as her life began to glitch ever so slightly out of line with those around her.

Diana was sick, getting sicker. It was her who unwillingly planted the seeds of her husband leaving her with nothing but a packed bag and her son at his side. Her dæmon was a scruffy cheetah with a vacant stare. Her dæmon often grew ill before she did. Sometimes, she struggled to tell the difference between human and dæmon. Sometimes, she wondered if there really was any.

“He’s a hare,” Sonnet said dreamily one day when they were sicker than they were well, and Diana had wondered at the time if she was the dæmon or the human and if she’d bleed Dust or blood if cut: “Our son is.”

“The handsome hare,” she murmured before going to find William to ask, “William, did you know our children are hares?”

He looked at her strangely, glancing to the window where, outside, their children played. Children, plural, Diana thought: was not Aureilo just as much his own creature as Spencer? But William hated her telling him that, so she kept that thought to herself (but she very much considered herself a mother of two).

“Have you taken your medication today?” he said instead of anything sensible.

She hadn’t.

“I guess that makes me just as much of a feline as Sonnet,” she thought out loud.

“Perhaps that makes me the human,” replied Sonnet.

One of them, or both, had pointed out: it was terrible, perhaps, that their sons were hares because cats were ever so deadly to them.

While they were talking, click click click went the sharp-edged nib of her antique fountain pen against her palm, click click click. Her eyes were on her children, William’s too. Around the garden they ran, two boys in the shape of hares, laughing. She welcomed their laughter. A mother hadn’t failed her children while they laughed still.

“God, dammit, Diana!” William yelled, his coyote-dæmon barking with shock. Sonnet paid no attention. She looked down. Drip drip drip went what had been inside her as it pooled down and out to make a mess on the carpet. In some light red, in some gold.

Two weeks later, William took Spencer and left. What followed was the rest of this story. Much like Margery Kemp, what followed was her struggle to recover from the ghostly aftermath of her first child. She doubted she ever would. A mother never forgets, and a mother never stops looking.

 

4.

They walked themselves to school every morning. William began work early and finished late. Spencer quickly became accustomed to being on his own. It wasn’t so different from before except now he didn’t have to check to make sure his mom was eating, and he didn’t have the promise of a story once the chore of sustenance was over. He woke to his alarm, dressed, ate breakfast with his father — usually silently, although sometimes the radio would chatter quietly at them as they ate — and then they would leave at the same time: William in his car and Spencer on foot. They walked the same way every day. This, at least, was soothing. There was a rhythm to monotony that pleased them, sometimes.

It was the lonely monotony of evenings they hated. Alone until after dinner. Listening to the hum of the microwave as their father came home later and heated leftovers. Forced conversation in the hour before Spencer and Aureilo took themselves to bed and William vanished into his office. Absolutely nothing like the evenings they’d spent with Diana, reading and learning and—

Shaking his head and with it the taunting memories, Spencer trudged on.

The way they walked they took for a reason. Halfway there — exactly eighteen and a half minutes into their walk — they passed a second-hand bookstore. There was no room for books in their new lives, they’d been told, at least none that didn’t come with a library barcode and a date of return. Their bedroom was small, the only bookshelf used solely for those books school required, and there was no room for frivolities on the stern shelves lining their father’s office. All of their books had remained behind in the house they’d been taken away from. Left with their mom and her scruffy cheetah-dæmon and everything they’d been before now. But they always stopped outside despite this firm ruling. They never went in. Like Eve with the fruit, they needed a push towards that forbidden temptation.

The push came in the form of a woman with nicotine stained fingers and a wide cherry-red smile that was a little sticky at the edges. She had worked at that bookstore for seventeen years and, today, looked outside to see a familiar sight looking in. The boy standing there, so close to the glass that his nose almost tapped the panes, was the quiet kind of unloved, she thought. Pinched and small and with clothes that didn’t quite match his changeable eyes or savagely shorn hair. She’d thought, the first time she’d seen this boy and his reticent dæmon, that he was the kind of boy who would grow up to be quietly attractive; now, noting his narrow fingers curled around the strap of an expensive backpack and the lingering waifish-ness of him, she adjusted that assumption. He was going to grow up devastatingly handsome and with no idea of the power of that nervous smile and that dream-lost expression that was guaranteed to make him seem mysterious instead of lonely to any girl that paid attention long enough to notice him.

“You always stop here but never come in,” she said to them, leaning from the door with the little bell above her head dinging sumptuously. Frozen, Spencer and Aureilo stared at her, the waft of air-conditioning from within the store pushing out the scent of paper and glue and dust. “Figure a boy like you, so excited about books, you ain’t got any money to buy them, do you?”

Shy with strangers, neither of them answered her, Aureilo also avoiding eye-contact with the curious-eyed toad-dæmon on her shoulder.

“Well then,” she finished, propping that door open and vanishing within, “if you decide you’d like to speak, little bunny-boy, come in. You can pick something out to keep, no charge.”

Eventually, he’d take her up on that offer. She’d remark after he was gone about the strange boy with his rabbity-dæmon and his thick glasses and too-big backpack, and how odd it had been that she’d given him his pick of the stock and the only thing he’d wanted was a battered replication of Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules.

 

5.

He punctuated each week with a letter like a period on the nothingness that had happened. Each one began and ended the same way: Dear Mom, we miss you. Love, Spencer & Aureilo.

Dutifully they were written, folded, tucked away in their hopeful envelopes with the postage affixed, and added to the mail pile on their father’s desk. And, each week, they were dutifully swept away by William to be posted along with his own correspondence.

Diana never replied.

“Maybe this week, huh?” William said one week, noticing Spencer’s letter stacked precariously in place as usual. His coyote-dæmon sniffed at it, bat-ears swivelling around to listen to Spencer’s quiet I guess so from behind them. Aureilo shivered and said nothing. They suspected that their mother had lost them.

Every time they moved, which was often, William would reassure them that their mother’s letters — if there were any — would find them, despite the address change. Spencer wasn’t so sure. Despite this, he kept writing them. He had to.

Who else did he have to talk to?

He talked to Aureilo a lot. They moved beyond being silent since it was crushing, the noiselessness. They felt like they were drowning in it. Instead, they took to huddling together, a boy and his unsettled-dæmon — although, with the amount of time Aureilo spent as a hare, they may as well be settled — curled together under a house made of a blanket, eyes closed and reading to each other from the books they kept within their minds. All the stories that Diana had once read to them, before the day they’d packed their bags and left her behind.

They knew it was strange, that Aureilo was more like Spencer’s friend than an innate part of his being, but they had to talk to each other; there was no one else.

Not the kids at school. They were a constantly shifting influx and outflux of changing faces and names as Spencer drifted from school to school, aimless and lost. The teachers barely had time to be surprised about his intelligence before there was another school, another new class, another I’m New! name-tag with his name scratched on it in blue ballpoint.

Not the teachers. They changed as often as the kids did. Usually only hanging around long enough to mention to William that Spencer really shouldn’t be with the children in his year level, they couldn’t challenge him adequately and he was bored and restless.

“No,” William always replied, “He’s going to be normal — he needs kids his age, not college textbooks and more distractions from life.”

There was no talking to his father. William didn’t want to know. “We’ll settle down soon,” he said, but they didn’t.

“You’ll understand why one day,” he added after that, but Spencer doubted they ever would.

And the biggest lie of all: “You’ll make friends soon.”

Spencer did. Once. Just once.

His name was Ethan. He liked jazz music, miniature ponies, sour green apples, and he liked Spencer. They were friends within two days, best friends within a month, and, three months later, they were reluctant pen-pals as Spencer was, once again, moved on. But, this time, he had an inkling why.

“There’s a woman asking for you in the office,” Ethan had told him, finding him sitting in the library at lunch. “I heard them when I was getting a band-aid for this.” This was a bug-bite that Ethan was proud of, his rat-dæmon on his hand pointing smugly to the wound; Spencer only had ears for the mysterious woman.

But, before he could ask further, they were summoned away. Their father came to get them.

They never did find out who the woman was, and they never saw Ethan again.

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

6.

The bigger Aaron grew, the smaller Hal hid. They tried so desperately to be less, to be hidden, to be nothing, but it never worked.  “Smaller,” Aaron would whisper, and, in response, she’d become a mouse, a moth, an ant, but never small enough. He let her down by growing with the years that passed and lengthened him. The smaller she shifted, the bigger he grew, and they were always found.

His father was made of rough angles and sharp edges and not enough inside him to stop all those parts and pieces crashing up against Aaron again and again and again. Sean was lucky. Sean was a baby; he was small as was his dæmon. Aaron sometimes wished he was a baby too, fragile and minute and impossible to hate. Hal sometimes wished they were grown up, big and courageous and more than they were now. But they weren’t either of those things. They were Aaron and Halaimon, a boy and his unsettled-dæmon, somehow both too big and too small all at once. The son of a man with the albatross-dæmon, and they wished they were anyone but who they actually were.

Hal never settled.

Aaron bruised easily.

And no one was asking the right questions.

 

7.

Aaron made a nest for them, just the two of them, and they were curled inside in a ball of human and fur, considering the kinds of things that two beings of the same soul considered when life was supposed to be turning outward and instead was turning in. They were big for their age and awkwardly shaped, with shoulders that would fill out to be broad as puberty had their way with them and currently thin features that would turn, with time, stern and determined. They’d grow taller, the both of them, and for some time struggle with the sudden change. Dark brown eyes at this point shadowed and wary would harden; the too-long black hair that hung choppily into the boy’s eyes would, in his late teens and early twenties, be grown out into a rebellious length around his shoulders and, later, be cut back harshly along with the rest of him that was soft.

But, at this moment, they were twelve and practising hiding.

“We could run away,” Halaimon whispered, a mouse in his cupped hands that he could lift to his ear, her lilting voice just for him. “We could. I know how.”

“We’d be found,” Aaron argued. That, he knew, would be worse than anything naughty they’d done before, and there had been a lot of naughtiness prior. “The police would get us and lock us up.”

She twisted in his hands, becoming a ball of gangly puppy that he hugged to his chest, knees up supporting her body and her wide eyes locked on his. Black and tan, but mostly black, she pressed close and said, “They’d help us. They say they will, you know, when they come to the school. They say they help children.”

Aaron doubted that. No one had ever helped him before: why would they start now? “I don’t know…”

She changed again. Hal reformed a lot, as changeable as the weather. Never the same animal for long, as though she didn’t know how to fit in her own skin. Aaron understood that. He felt the same, like there was too much Aaron and not enough skin to hold it all in. Now she was a lizard, her expression impossible to understand and her body leathery in his palms. He didn’t like it. He let her go.

“Then we stay,” she said bitterly, “until there’s nothing left of us but a bundle of scar tissue walking around, feeling nothing.”

They’d learned about scars in science that week. The nerves under a scar were damaged completely, often forever. Aaron had scars, but he still felt things.

There was a bang outside their secluded little world. They both flinched; Aaron drew his arms that were too long and too elbowy in close around his head and his dæmon shifted into a duck and ruffled her feathers until she was more ruffle than Hal, hiding her fear in the expressionless gaze. She did that a lot, hiding herself. Aaron wished he was as good at not showing what he’d rather stayed secret.

And when they thought they’d escaped notice, he said sadly, “We have to stay until we’re grown up a bit more.”

“How grown up, Aaron?”

He didn’t know the answer to that; the cupboard opened.

They were found.

 

8.

Mrs James was nice. She gave them popsicles and let them kick their feet in her wading pool when it was hot. Aaron liked that, and he liked watching Hal be a multitude of fish types splashing around in the water below him, although he thought that it would be terrible if she settled like that and was always glad when she got bored of it and chose something with fur again.

“Tell me what you’re learning at school this week,” Mrs James demanded. Her goldfinch-dæmon was perched on the fence nearby, just close enough that Aaron knew it was watching Hal carefully. It often did. Its name was Veritable.

“I’m making a cave,” he offered. Hal, to help, turned into three different types of bats in short succession — settling on a snub-nose and preening proudly for the goldfinch. “Out of boxes and stuff. We have to add cave features.”

“Cave features? I can’t think of anything about a hole in the ground I would call ‘featured’.” Mrs James inched closer, frowning at his hair. “And you need a haircut, Aaron. What does your mother do all day?”

He didn’t answer that, blowing his black hair out of his eyes and kicking his bare toes in the water a little. Around his ankles, his jeans were soaked, water creeping up and turning them deep dark blue. He wouldn’t roll them up. “Stalactites and stalagmites,” he said instead. Hal was bored with being a bat; she was a fish again now, something too small and quick for him to see. “They’re cave features. One sticks on the ground and the other doesn’t.”

Mrs James’s mouth twitched. Aaron didn’t know why they called her Mrs James because she lived alone except for Veritable and a tabby cat and had never had a husband, that he knew of.

There was a lot that Aaron didn’t know, like that Mrs James’s first name was Martha and that three years before her husband and son had died in a car accident. Her husband’s dæmon had been a spaniel. Her son’s would never settle. Both had had black, silky hair, much like Aaron’s, and the shy way of smiling that Aaron had too. But Aaron didn’t know any of this, and neither did Hal. His parents didn’t like Mrs James, who had once worked for ‘the government’ in a department which involved ‘meddling’. They’d prefer that Aaron knew very little about her at all, in case that made her think she should meddle with them.

Whether or not Aaron knew about Mrs James, however, was hardly as much an indication of whether she would ‘meddle’ as the bruises on his arms were. She watched them now as she asked him, “Which is which, then? Do you know how to tell the difference?”

He didn’t. Hal didn’t like him not knowing something he should know. She changed into a possum, but not the kind he knew — this one was fat and fluffy with round, stubby ears — and crawled across his shirt to frown at him, leaving wet pawprints up him and dripping into his lap as she went. Snick snick went her claws as they tore at the fabric.

“Stalactites hang on tight to the roof,” Mrs James continued. “And stalagmites are mighty on the ground — see, you put that on your box cave. Honey, your shirt is getting ripped and wet, tell Hal to stop and take it off or your mother will have a fit. You can play in the pool properly then.”

The goldfinch-dæmon hopped closer, his gaze bright and sharp and watchful.

Aaron shook his head. “No, thank you,” he said firmly, his heart beating fast and Hal’s beating too. “Also, thank you, I’ll put that on there for sure.”

Aaron was polite, especially when he had something to hide.

Mrs James simply looked sad, scowling when Aaron’s mom called looking for him. Sometimes, Aaron thought as he walked up the path and turned to wave at her, he suspected that she might know more than what she let on about what happened behind closed doors at his home.

 

9.

Aaron had a temper that fizzled and smouldered, refusing to be put out once something ignited it. Hal couldn’t stand it. When he was angry, she was everything furious: a spitting pole-cat, a snarling wolf pup, a grizzly bear cub with a purring growl that resonated in her chest. But never at home, never in front of his family. Aaron was careful to only be angry elsewhere.

His temper got him in trouble. He’d tighten his fists and hunch his shoulders and ignore the teasing of the other kids at school, his brain humming angrily and his blood on fire. But no matter how much he ignored them, Hal never did. She rose to the bait, again and again, always bigger and angrier and stronger than the other dæmons.

“Violence isn’t the answer, Aaron,” they were told over and over again, sitting in the hard-backed office chair in the counsellor’s office with their eyes burning and Aaron’s thick sweater covering his arms. This, Aaron assumed, was what his dad was talking about when he yelled at the TV about teachers knowing nothing. Violence, after all, was a part of everyday life, and he grew up understanding this. That was how they were.

Small, until he was angry.

Restrained, until Hal reacted.

And, most of all; they never backed down from a fight. At least the ones at school they could win.

 

10.

When Aaron turned fourteen, Mrs James gave him a gift. It was a book of animals filled with glossy photographs of the most exotic things he could imagine, pages and pages and pages of them. He loved it deeply and without complication, for it was by far his most favourite belonging.

He loved the exotic felines. Snow leopards and lynxes and lions and sand cats; he pored over them and begged Hal to practise being each and every one. For a short time, he wished she’d never settle because he loved this time of experimenting so much, even though everyone else in his class already had settled dæmons and he was lagging behind.

The owls were beautiful. Hal loved them too because their wide, blank faces gave nothing away and their eyes could see so much more than he could. She loved being an owl and pretending to see something interesting, just out of his view, and then teasing him that he’d never get to look at it.

They ignored the herbivores. How dull to be something frightened, they thought, flipping through until they found the wolves.

And he loved the book as much as a boy could love something that couldn’t love him back, until the day they broke their father’s whiskey glass. It was a cheap one with cracks on the edge, stolen years ago from a college bar their father had frequented. Smash went the glass as it slipped from clumsy hands drying it, their eyes on the book propped up over the sink and their mind a million miles away imagining being otters in some warm ocean wave. Hal jumped, glass in her fur and under her paws, and became a tiny, ordinary mouse that trembled. The noise echoed. Aaron stared.

They turned as one as their father walked in, eyes flickering to the glass, to Aaron, to Hal, to the book. Behind him, the albatross-dæmon walked, wings open, eyes cold. So, so cold.

They shrunk away.

The glass came with a cost exceeding the three dollars Aaron’s father had paid for his drink all those years ago. It cost Aaron some skin from the back of his legs, which he’d honestly expected and bore stoically. It cost Hal some fur as the albatross pinned her down with a foot that was wider than she was and sharper than anticipated and pecked at her with a stabbing beak.

It cost the book.

Aaron laid on his belly in his room after, his eyes stinging and his legs stinging more and furiously ignoring Hal. She was a cat, washing and washing and washing at the albatross’s touch on her body, whimpering where she was bitten and bruised. The book was in the garbage outside, bundled up and ready to be taken away, torn to shreds small enough that Hal could have carried one alone even as the smallest mouse.

“I’m sorry we dropped the glass,” Hal said mournfully, uncurling and inching closer even though he couldn’t bear the touch of her right now. “I’m sorry I was playing and made you forget to be careful.”

“I’m sorry too,” he said, relenting just a little. Rolling gingerly onto his side, he squeezed his eyes shut and hated Sean, just a little, for laughing up the hall.

He felt Hal move away from him, as far as she could go before it started to hurt and then a little further. Ignoring that pain too, he just curled tighter and tighter until his breath started catching and he felt her returning. Relief washed over them in a tide as she scrabbled back as a beetle through the tiny tear in their fly-screened window, leaping and landing on his shoulder with a tock.

“Here,” she whispered. He felt something brush across his arm and caught it with two fingers, finding it to be a grubby shred of paper. “I saved what I could.”

It was barely a corner of a page, dirty from the trash and wet from the mouth she’d used to pull it loose. There wasn’t anything exciting or exotic depicted on it, just some kind of big rabbit, lanky and strange and leaping into the air as though dancing, the tops of its ears torn away and its back paws all crumpled.

“Thank you,” he said anyway, waiting until she changed into something a bit bigger — the long rabbit from the page she’d saved — and then hugging her tight. “I love it.”

They hid that page carefully because they’d learned something on this day: anything they loved had to be hidden.

 

11.

Sometimes, Aaron was lonely. His temper lost him more friends than it gained, but that was okay. He’d always felt a little uncertain about having friends he could never invite home, always excluding himself from their plans for parties and sleepovers. Besides, being alone gave him time to think.

He took to walking. Hal liked it. She could stretch her legs like this, running ahead as far as she could go, just to see, until the invisible link between them was pulled tight and making them both breathe sharply. It was an interesting kind of pain. From deep within instead of without. Aaron appreciated the novelty of it, even if he was sorely glad when his dæmon returned to his side once more.

They borrowed a book of animals from the library — one almost like their own had been, except nowhere near as beautiful — and found a shaded path in the woods behind their block to practise being something else. They discovered that their strange rabbit creature was a ‘hare’ and learned about how they danced when they fought and ran like the wind when threatened instead of freezing like rabbits. It took them the entirety of the summer of their fifteenth year to get up to the letter C and still without finding a shape that either of them felt settled about, although Hal professed that she enjoyed being birds more than anything else. Despite this enjoyment, he scolded her for spending time as a cuckoo after, really not wanting that to become something that people judged him by.

“Cuckoos are untrustworthy,” he explained to her. “We don’t want to be that.”

She agreed and never was a cuckoo again.

Sean came with them sometimes. He was only five, old enough to want to spend time with his brother and young enough that Aaron didn’t mind, especially since it got him out of the house and away from their father’s bitterness.

That was a good summer. Sean’s dæmon practised forms with Hal and they were just two boys, their dæmons, the woods around and the sun above. Aaron would remember this summer later as the longest, kindest summer he’d ever have at home — and his last clear memories of his brother.

He didn’t know it at the time, but that kindness was about to end, and all because of a cat.

Sean found it. It was Mrs James’s tabby, her backyard bordering the woods where they played. The tabby was friendly, every night running down the path to wind around their legs as they walked home at dusk, Sean stumbling with tiredness and Aaron holding his little hand in his. But, on this day, no cat ran to greet them.

“There he is!” Sean declared, tottering off and leaning into the bushes lining the fences to pull the cat forth. Aaron had time to register the blood on his brother’s hands and on the ginger-striped fur before Hal lurched forward as a black wolf with ridged fur along her spine and pulled the cat from Sean’s hands with her mouth, careful not to touch the other boy’s skin.

She let go and it fell, limp, to the ground beneath her paws.

It was dead.

“What’s wrong with him?” Sean asked. Blood and dirt stained his hands red and brown, the small nails garishly painted. Aaron shrugged his dismay aside to help his brother, using water from their bottle to wash it away and watching the thirsty ground drink what spilled. By the body of the cat, Hal sat, her tail still and her eyes sad. There was blood on her coal-black fur, visible around the curl of her mouth. He wiped that next, scrubbing his hand across his jeans before squatting to pick up the tabby.

“A dog,” he said, climbing the back fence with care so that he didn’t jar his tragic cargo. “I’ll take him to his owner. Hal, stay with Sean, I’m not going far.”

What he didn’t know was there were eyes on them, the boy with the murdered cat, and eyes on the shape of his dæmon as well.

He’d regret taking the tabby home.

Chapter Text

Emily

 

12.

Emily’s dad died when she was eleven. She didn’t cry because she’d been told not to. Sergio sat on her shoulder as a pale little bird and together they watched people closing the book on the man who’d always been there, but only really sometimes. There was a niggling feeling in the back of her throat that maybe felt like tears but could also just be the smoke in the air from the blocked-up chimney. It was cold on that day, so the fire was lit.

For the funeral, she was told to dress warmly. A button-up dress made of black, black velvet; white stockings; black shoes. They brushed her hair and brushed her clothes and tied a little cape of black around Sergio’s shoulders too, telling him sternly to stay as he was. Emily did as she was told as well: stayed clean in her pristine black and didn’t cry. The service was long. They were bored. The music was slow, people were sobbing, and the air was thickly perfumed and made her head ache. Strangers kept saying to her, my, what a dear little girl, or, sad for a girl to grow up without a father, and even, once, she’s the perfect lady, sitting there like a little doll.

What happened next was expected.

They buried her father.

Emily stood next to her mother and didn’t cry, just like she’d been told to. Don’t make a scene, Elizabeth had said, and Emily was being good. They both were; Sergio had stayed as he was and hadn’t changed an inch.

They buried her father.

“Oh,” said Sergio. The weird feeling in her throat was back, along with a headache from the incense and a sick twist in her gut from the biting feeling that she was about to be bad, and with wobbly knees to boot. “Oh, Emily. We don’t want him to go, do we?”

She didn’t answer because everything was going wrong.

Emily didn’t remember fainting. She remembered being carried to the car, by a man who wasn’t her dad. She remembered being very angry at him for this. She remembered crying because she was angry, and she remembered crying because it wasn’t fair, and she remembered crying because her daddy was dead and she didn’t know why.

“Pity,” people said after it was all said and done and the messy business swept aside. “Pity that she couldn’t behave for her poor mother.”

Emily decided something that day: being good never got you anywhere. It hadn’t saved her dad, and it wouldn’t save her either.

And Sergio refused to be a bird again.

 

13.

She remembered a rose garden. She was a little girl. Sergio was smaller still. Oddly, unlike most of her memories of being small, this one took place in the States. Everyone was harried. Everyone was scared. She was alone, just her and Sergio, and her mother wasn’t there.

There was a globe in her father’s office that spun on its base. Sometimes, if she was quiet, she would be allowed to sit in there with her father while he worked, Sergio as a sticky bug that walked, tap tap tap, across the oiled surface of the wooden desk. Wherever they went, this globe came too, and her daddy would show her how to place a tiny dab of paint right where they were now. In this memory, there were only four dabs of paint: three old, one new, and the new covered an older splash. She picked at it, revealing the faded Washington DC barely scribed underneath.

This tradition would end with his death.

In this memory, she remembered the office. She remembered tapping the globe and asking where her mother was. She remembered her dad lifting his head from his arms, his civet-dæmon snarling once — Sergio had fallen from her shoulder in shock at the fierce sound — and she remembered him roughly jabbing his finger at the globe, sending it crashing to the ground.

She remembered running from the office, Sergio shrilling in her ear. She didn’t remember what he was, just that he was loud and they were scared.

And then the rose garden. Her father found them there, lifting her from the bushes and wiping her face. He wasn’t a good father, although she’d remember him mostly with fondness. He was distant and awkward and rarely considered his daughter’s wishes when discussing with his wife the trajectory of their careers, both well-established within the Foreign Service and well on their way to ambassadorial duties. Career diplomats always; parents only when needed.

“I’m sorry,” he told them, holding them close. He didn’t do this often, ever, and never would again in the three years he had left of his life. “We’re all very stressed right now, trying to get your mother home.”

“Why does she have to come home?” asked Emily grumpily. A rare moment with her father shouldn’t be shared with her mother, she’d decided.

Instead of answering her, her dad took a palmful of rose petals and asked her to practise her Greek, to tell him of the rousália: the rose feast, the renewal of life, the coming of the warmth of summer. She didn’t know to answer him because anything was more exciting than her dull dull dull theology lessons. He threw them in the air and let Sergio flitter about trying to catch them, telling her of a church where roses fell from the ceiling like snow, like a tongue of flame from above. She’d thought at the time that that was entirely impractical and would probably bring bugs and make everyone sniffily, very pleased by the thought of a Church of Sneezing.

They didn’t talk about her mother. It was January 1979, and Elizabeth Prentiss was a consular officer working a diplomatic mission in Tehran, Iran.

She’d be home before it all fell down, but only barely.

Emily never knew this.

 

14.

When Emily was thirteen, she kissed her first boy. She was wild, as she would remain wild for years yet to come; her hair was long and midnight-black (except in the sun, where brown shone through) and she hid herself below as much makeup as she could stand. She was thin from a combination of an overbearing mother who’d never stand for her not to fit into the dresses she paid for and her own erratic appetite and boundless energy for trouble. Her mouth was dangerously shaped: at thirteen mischievous; at fifteen tempestuous; as an adult, determined. Dark, turbulent eyes sat above a nose she fretted over, long and sharp and drawing attention to that acrimonious mouth and its changeable moods. At thirteen, she wore her emotions on these salient features quite openly, letting everyone feel the bite and lash of her whims; this would change quite rapidly with time.

His lips were cold and ash-bitter, his tongue just as nasty. When he was done making a mess of her chapstick and shirt, he offered her a smoke from a packet dented in the shape of his body. She took the packet, still warm from his pocket, and wondered.

 

15.

Rome, she had found, was sickly dull in every possible way. There was her mom, who was overbearing; the house they lived in that was more of a showroom than a home; and there were the guest bedrooms that were never used because neither Elizabeth nor Emily was sociable enough to entertain company. The rules were endless, the fun minute, and she’d found that the easiest way to avoid being invisible in this kind of environment was to do the things that were most likely to make Elizabeth redden and hiss like a kettle about to boil over and burn anything near, usually Emily.

Today she was with her mother; familial duties involving walking by her side to stand among the crowd at the Pantheon. Dressed up handsome like an ornament, like the little doll she’d been called before, playing nice and acting pretty when all she really wanted to do was sneak away for a smoke. Instead, she walked stiffly past vestments painted red as the celebrations of the Pentecost gathered around her. The hymns swelled. The crowd was crushing. Elizabeth was ignoring her daughter in favour of acting ‘diplomatic’, like Emily didn’t know she was just pretending for the sake of politics, like she cared about the church they stood in.

“Emily, look,” said Sergio right as someone stepped up beside her and used the press of the crowd to hide their fingers touching. She looked, not upwards to where Sergio peered, but sideways to the touch: John, with Matthew close behind. Both grinned when they saw her, both rolled their eyes.

Both looked up. Emily did too.

Red tumbled down through the sun-spotted oculus to the sky above. Rose petals.

Emily remembered.

“Wow,” said Matthew, his eyes wide. She hated how easily he was swayed by emotion. He’d be hurt one day, she knew; the sweetest boys always were. At the time, she didn’t know how much, or by whose hand. One of the petals landed in his hair.

“We should leave,” John whispered, just for her.

Sergio leapt as a bat from her shoulder, laughing gleefully as his leathery wings swept the petals from their gentle course down and sent them buffeting about to land uncaringly where the wind wished them. People frowned. Elizabeth hissed.

Emily laughed with Sergio, then took John’s hand and vanished from there. She didn’t know it yet but, in less than a year, John would feed her too much whiskey and take that as an invitation to knock her up. The renewal of life, alright, but it wasn’t anything as pretty as they pretended it to be. Emily would think it was as false as pretending that rose petals, weak enough to be torn by a bat’s wing, were anything like a tongue of flame.

They were only just beginning to learn how to fuck up; they hadn’t yet learned that there were consequences for doing so.

 

16.

Emily reached terminal velocity; nowhere else to go except down.

“What am I going to do with you, Emily?” her mother asked again and again and again, and Emily laughed because, if Elizabeth had ever wanted to be there for her, she could have done so before. Before she’d realised there were better ways to be than under the heel of her overbearing mother. Back when she was content playing the polished diplomat’s daughter and before she’d joined the ranks of the children polite company avoided mentioning.

For a while, she was high more often than she wasn’t. Party drugs, nothing heavy. She washed them down with whiskey and very little regret. When her mom called her out on it, she laughed. When they attended a sermon on the dangers of pharmaceuticals, she laughed more, mostly at the implication that she and her friends were the problem when she knew that half the moms there were barely functional without ‘help’. Hypocrites. They were dead in their lives, they just hadn’t realised it yet.

She snuck out at night with a comb and teased her hair into sharp-edged spikes, using leather and fishnet and lace to hide the lady Elizabeth wanted with the woman Emily would rather be; a little dangerous and with everything to hide. Sergio was a snake a lot, copper and red and black and always deadly; the illusion of untouchable Emily hidden using the snake and the makeup and the hair-spray with the packet of kreteks in the waistband of her too-tight skirt. She learned to love the adolescent festivity of midnight, right when the booze and drugs kicked in hard, and she learned to adore the solitude of the dawn walk home, when she made it home at all.

Out of control, they called her, and she was proud to say she was so. It was better than fading into nothing. And it was a fantastic way to be angry, especially when her anger was aimless — which it was — and especially when she hadn’t realised it was so — which she hadn’t.

When she was high, she was never alone. Sergio was always there, sure, but he was her dæmon. It wasn’t really like having company. But this, stoned and wild on the edge of civilisation, surrounded by people who knew how to stand up against the paths their parents wanted to walk, this was living.

“Your dæmon should settle as an owl,” John told her one night. A fire crackled nearby and her tongue was bitter-coated. Sergio danced overhead their reclined bodies with his shape a flittering red and grey, a moth with wide-flung wings. A ghost against the night sky above. John’s dæmon danced too, shaken by the restless call of the narcotic within their humans: a crow with a hook-sharp beak. The siren call of flight was impossible to risk when they felt like this, so firmly tethered to the warm grass below as their souls weaved above.

“Why?” she asked, rolling to meet him halfway and falling into the tangle of his arms.

“Because you’re beautiful under the moon,” was the reply. “Don’t you think you’re at your best at midnight? When everything is soft and sweet, but you especially.”

Later, she’d scoff at flattery as blatant as this. But, at fifteen with every facet of human knowledge so apparently within her reach, she didn’t scoff.

The sex wasn’t eye-opening. The realisation that she had the agency to choose this was. And what did anyone else know about her life, who were they to judge?

At least she knew she was alive.

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

17.

Let’s talk about Rickey Whitechapel.

Ricky was a boy in Aaron’s grade. He went to his school and had for years; they’d played soccer together for a fleeting time before Aaron had stopped going to practice. They’d lived four doors up from each other since both were born. They weren’t friends. Hal didn’t like Ricky or his skinny whippet-dæmon. Despite being a creature naturally slender, the dæmon didn’t look natural or healthy. She looked thin and mean and hungry, her cold blue eyes icy in her narrow face, lip quick to curl back and fur always partway ridged along the bump bump bump of her prominent spine. Hal didn’t like her and Aaron didn’t like anyone Hal didn’t like; besides, he was too busy hiding the bruises to worry about what people did or didn’t want to be his friend.

Ricky wanted to be his friend.

Ricky knew what he was hiding.

“Hi, Aaron,” Ricky said on this day before it all fell down, trotting up behind the other boy as he walked home from school. Fayth followed. “I got an Atari.”

“Cool,” Aaron said, barely glancing at him. Hal was a dove on his shoulder, turning her back and fanning her tail with distaste as Fayth trotted up to try and get her attention.

“Do you want to play?”

Aaron shook his head and walked away without another word, the slightest limp marring his gait. Ricky watched him go.

This is all relevant because, that night, Ricky asked Fayth to kill Mrs James’s tabby cat. That in itself had nothing to do with Aaron: Ricky would have done it with or without the other boy paying attention to him, and the tabby wasn’t the first. They liked killing things or, rather, Fayth liked it. Ricky didn’t feel anything at all about it, just a frustrated sense of curiosity at how vivid and alive it made his dæmon feel. Despite this nothingness, he knew that the feeling it gave his dæmon was a kind of power he sorely wished he could share with a friend.

But he was also angry and frustrated and furious that the one boy who knew what it was like to have families like theirs, to live as they did … why would he turn his back on him?

“We could show him, you know,” Ricky said to his dæmon, crouching and patting her pale, bloodied fur as she shook the corpse a little more and enjoyed the rush of it. “Show him what a dæmon can do. Then he can use Halaimon to make it stop. Just like you will.”

Fayth dropped the cat, nosing it towards the bushes where Sean would find it the next day. “Who, Hal?” she scoffed. “She’s a brat. Snub-nosed bitch won’t settle as anything that can fight me. It’s why Aaron’s so weak. She’s not like me. I’m strong, which is why you’re not pathetic.”

“Don’t talk like that. He’s our friend.”

“He hates you. We hate him.” And she lowered her head, those lips curling back, those eyes cold. “I bet Hal would die like this cat if I crushed her.”

Ricky wasn’t sure he liked that kind of thinking, but it didn’t really bother him beyond a flicker of annoyance that that would be the end of any kind of hopeful friendship. Despite his dæmon’s cruel words, he doubted she’d act on it. He wouldn’t, and she was him, right? After all, Aaron was his friend — or would be, soon enough, he presumed.

This presumption was wrong. Ricky would soon be dead, and his too-skinny dæmon with him.

Aaron would be blamed.

 

18.

Aaron, when realising an interest in the law later in life, would look back at these three months with a clearer mind and see the narrative being formed. Removed from them by years, he would be able to see the aspects that, once entwined, would see him labelled a murderer and sent away.

The first was his home-life. It was no great secret that Gary Hotchner beat his children and his wife. But he was good at his job and generous with his money and his family had been a part of small-town Manassas for enough generations that this was seen of more of a ‘quirk’ than a ‘flaw’ in his character. Building from this, none of the teachers were surprised by Aaron’s quick-fire temper or his withdrawn reclusiveness. He was an overtly polite kid, but a predictable one, and notable only for his surprising intelligence and perfect grades.

The second was Ricky Whitechapel, who didn’t fly as high as Aaron did and so avoided the discussion surrounding his home. No one knew what Ricky did for fun, and no one found him unpredictable or remarkable in any way, least of all Aaron himself.

The third was the death of Mrs James’s tabby. It was common knowledge that Aaron and his wolf-shaped-dæmon had returned the mauled cat to its owner after Mrs James had insisted on walking them home to thank them and tell their parents how kind they had been.

The fourth was Gary himself, who was a liar and a brute and enjoyed the community thinking neither of these things about him, at least out loud. He intended to keep it that way, and no boy of his would ruin that image.

 

19.

It was a work dinner that brought Aaron to his knees. A broken glass in the kitchen as Aaron misjudged the counter and slipped. There was blood — not his, one of the guest’s — and people laughed and talked about how it was just an accident, no harm done, easily mended. Aaron stood by the counter with Hal a mouse in his pocket and shook and shook and shook because his dad was watching him, his eyes dark holes in his inhuman face, and all Aaron could see was the albatross-dæmon behind him. It was an accident, but harm had been done.

Would be done.

Aaron could see the promise of that in his father’s clenched hands. Countdown until the dinner was over. He could already feel it.

He pressed back against the counter. Heart thumping: one beat, two, three, keeping on. Hands sweaty. Knees knocking back; an awkward, ungainly boy trying to be invisible when he was anything but. And people were noticing.

“Aaron,” hissed his mother. But he couldn’t reply. The albatross-dæmon hopped around, peered at him. Watching him with soulless eyes.

Hal whimpered.

“Are you okay?” asked the woman who’d been cut. There was a squirrel-dæmon on her shoulder, peering at him too. “Honey, it’s okay. It was an accident. No harm done.”

The albatross-dæmon ruffled her wings.

Hal leapt from his pocket and down his arm, tumbling to the ground to shift to a mangy dog with a raised ridge of fur along her back, snarling and snarling and snarling because Aaron was terrified and that always made her angry.

He was terrified.

“Come on,” his mom said, trying to lead him from the room, but he was still watching the albatross-dæmon as it stalked to where Hal rumbled; he thought he might be sick; he thought he might fall.

Another hand. Heavy on his shoulder. He looked away, looked up.

“We’ll be back in a moment,” Aaron’s dad said with a smile that was made of sharp edges, his fingers biting down. “Aaron’s not feeling well.”

Instead of following, Aaron stopped.

Instead of stopping, Hal leapt.

In front of the collective eyes of the company heads that Gary Hotchner had worked beside for almost twenty years, his son’s dæmon shifted to a great black wolf and brought the man who’d hurt them so much to his knees with her teeth sunk deep in his arm.

 

20.

It was a shocking, terrible thing for a dæmon to bite a human, especially a human not her own. For a son to hurt his father so?

Unheard of.

That night was a cold one. Fall was coming.

The people from the dinner party went home and talked about what they’d seen. Gary’s boss would be heard to muse out loud about whether ‘something should be done’. This would become common knowledge, as such careless phrases tended to do in small towns like theirs.

Aaron’s teachers would hear. They would wonder communally about whether it was the fault of Aaron or his father. An unstable boy or an unkind man?

Mrs James would hear. Hers was perhaps the most accurate summation of the event: there had been a systematic failure of anyone and everyone to intervene on Aaron Hotchner’s behalf before his dæmon had felt the need to.

Ricky would hear. He’d wonder if Aaron was more like him that he’d thought; he’d wonder, if given some kind of incentive, whether this was something he could use to become his friend.

Aaron spent the night huddled in his room with his arms around Hal as she tried to clean the taste and touch of another human from her body with a manic kind of horror. She loathed it. Aaron was repelled by it. Both knew there would be worse to come. Somehow, this would hurt them both terribly.

And it did.

 

21.

They used the cat against him.

Gary’s narrative was this: Aaron, who’d always been unstable — just look at the fights he’d always gotten into — had coaxed the neighbour’s friendly tabby cat into the woods where he’d encouraged Hal to kill it, just to see what it felt like. You see, Aaron had always been strange. Reclusive. Angry. And all those bruises … boys didn’t get bruises like that just by being boys.

Aaron, it was decided, was cruel. Broken innately, broken inside. Something integral in that boy had gone wrong, and that — as his father said sadly — was why the dæmon Halaimon, for absolutely no reason at all, had lacerated his arm at the annual company dinner which he’d been hosting that year. Because he was a valued employee, crazy son or no crazy son, and this would be no setback in his career.

Right?

“Hally didn’t kill the cat,” Sean told them, but Sean was five: what did a five-year-old know? besides, Gary pointed out, Sean was bruised too.

And Aaron was cruel.

As narratives go, it wasn’t the best. The school was doubtful, the psychologist assigned to Aaron young and inexperienced but still not that naïve. It should have fallen apart, and it would have if Ricky Whitechapel hadn’t died.

 

22.

“I know you didn’t kill the cat,” Ricky said to Aaron on the bus as they travelled swiftly towards the week-long camp location their grade had chosen this year. Aaron and Hal turned in the bus seat with remarkable speed, staring at the twitchy boy behind them. They were alone in their corner: no one wanted to sit with the cat-killer or his vicious dæmon. Hal, in protest, was a meek little moth perched on Aaron’s hair.

“What do you know?” demanded Aaron. Hal became a robin with a fierce red chest, flittering down to Fayth and whispering rapidly to the other dæmon.

“Sneak out with me and we’ll tell you, won’t we, Fay?”

The whippet-dæmon nodded, a smile curling her sharp-fanged mouth.

 

23.

Midnight at Pillow Rock was slick and cold and loud. Aaron could hear the frantic rapids before he’d even made it halfway up the Carnifex Trail, leaving the camp where the rest of his grade slept behind. Hal flew easily alongside, a great white owl with eyes to guide his way. Ricky was already there, perched on a rock with his body tipped forward as he stared down with unrepentant fascination at the white-capped water below, outlined by the cold moonlight on his trembling body.

“Why here?” grumbled Aaron, panting. Hal became smaller, a little burrowing owl, and perched on his arm before tumbling down and forward to inch closer to the whippet-dæmon pacing along the river’s sharp edge. Driven by their shared curiosity but still held back by her dislike of the other dæmon; a gap between them remained.

“No one can hear us,” Ricky replied, which was true. “I don’t want people to know.”

“Know what?”

Ricky just smiled and Hal finally slunk to Fayth, becoming a wolf just so the whippet-dæmon wouldn’t think she was in control here. Aaron was torn between watching her and watching Ricky, unsure of where this was going but keeping his feet firmly planted on the gravel path and not on the mossy rock where Ricky was standing.

“You ever killed anything, Aaron?” Ricky asked suddenly.

Aaron twitched and snarled, “You know I haven’t, that’s why I’m here, isn’t it? I didn’t kill the cat — Mrs James is my friend!”

Ricky sat down, feet dangling over the rock. Aaron winced. It was cold tonight and the spray would be drenching the other boy’s pants. Plus, he couldn’t hear him now, reluctantly walking over and sitting beside him. “Her son is dead,” Ricky said conversationally, eyes in shadow. “I think about that sometimes.”

“I didn’t know.”

“Didn’t you? You should have. It’s interesting. What happens to your dæmon when you die? Where does it go? Do you think his dæmon knew they were dying before it happened?”

Aaron wanted to leave. He was cold, tired, and Ricky was weird. “I don’t know,” he said again, shortly, and looked at Hal. She was stiff-furred and angry by the whippet-dæmon, her muzzle furrowed. They were whispering. A throb of anger and shock reached him from her. “What’s she saying? What’s going on?”

Hal leapt up, a furious crow now and landing on his shoulder with three loud wingbeats to croak angrily, “They killed the cat! They did! She liked it!”

Aaron looked at Ricky, who said, “So what? We did. You’d like it too if you tried it. Or, Hal would. She could be so much more if you stopped making her so piss-weak. Watch—”

He grabbed at Hal, Aaron’s gut lurching with a sick, hollow horror at the idea someone was about to touch his dæmon. Hal shrieked and leapt back out of reach, becoming a fly that buzzed up and vanished into the dark. Aaron yelled, shoving at Ricky as he scuttled away, but he slipped on the rock and landed hard with his fingers curled so tight against it that he’d later find that he’d scraped them bloody. Fear drove him and he stood, ready to defend himself from the boy who watched him, but that wasn’t where the danger came from.

He’d never imagined a dæmon would try touch him.

Fayth had crept up to him in the dark while his focus was on the silent Ricky, her teeth grabbing his ankle. She pulled him down, out of balance — he slipped again and grabbed at the rock, yanked towards that capricious water. The river howled along with his racing heart.

“Aaron!” he heard his dæmon shout.

“Fay, alright, stop,” said Ricky. “You scared him, stop it. He isn’t gonna squeal, right — Fay!”

Aaron wasn’t sure what happened in the moments after that. He knew that the whippet-dæmon had struck at him again, her teeth clipping shut just under his chin; he’d carry a scar there for the rest of his life where the fangs had carved neatly through tensed skin. He knew that Hal had dropped onto Fay’s back as a spitting, snarling, screeching puma whose throbbing roar had split the night. He knew that the whippet-dæmon had slipped, or fallen, or been knocked astray by the blow.

He knew that he was close enough to grab Hal, lifting her easily as she changed in his hands to a furious tabby, and he knew that he took three huge bounds to get away from that dangerous drop into the rapids below — and then he turned around and knew that Ricky was dead.

 

24.

Fayth slipped that night, her paws scrabbling and failing to find purchase as she tumbled into the water below. As fast as she was ripped away, even if Ricky had thrown himself in after her, they would have still been severed. As it was, he didn’t have time to realise his danger; all he knew was the most terrible pain he’d ever felt in his life, followed by nothing.

When Aaron turned around, Ricky was limp on the rock looking up at the moon above, and there was nothing familiar in his shadowed eyes. Downstream, the water ran gold for a heartbeat before the whippet-dæmon was absolutely no more.

 

25.

Gary was transferred anyway. An ‘opportunity’ they told him, but Aaron knew it was because half the company now, correctly, thought he was beating his children and the other half, incorrectly, thought his son was a serial killer in the making.

Aaron only hoped for a day that the transfer would mean he was free.

He wasn’t.

“Pack,” Gary Hotchner snapped, throwing a suitcase at Aaron and pointing to his room. “Your mother and brother will be staying here until the house is sold. You’re coming with me.”

“Why?” Aaron managed, his voice a choked whisper. Hal was silent behind him. On his father’s arm, the bandage was damning. In Aaron’s mind, he was haunted by empty blue eyes reflecting nothing but the midnight moon. Hal too. When Aaron dreamed, she did as well. “Where?”

DC, he was told. To his father’s new offices. It would just be them, just the two of them, for the foreseeable future.

He wasn’t given the chance to say goodbye to his life as it had been before it was very suddenly over. The move was swift, the transfer complete. Aaron sat in his new bedroom in an apartment for two, staring at the school uniform he’d be required to wear from now on: slate grey on grey with the school’s logo emblazoned across the chest. The school that had been ‘recommended’ for kids as broken as he was.

They couldn’t prove he killed Ricky Whitechapel.

They couldn’t prove he hadn’t.

He was in limbo. And kids like him, kids who might or might not be killers, they went to places where they could be ‘observed’.

Places like Ashworth Reform Academy.

“If they think we’re killers,” Hal asked, “what kind of place is it going to be?”

Aaron couldn’t answer that.

Chapter Text

Emily

 

26.

At fifteen, she was pregnant and alone.

She didn’t remember it happening. She remembered the burn of the alcohol. She remembered his arm around her. She remembered his mouth on her throat and she remembered watching Sergio watching her, his gold eyes huge on a black-furred face. She remembered focusing on trying to work out what he was, lost in a sea of uncertainty. Memories of the next morning, the next evening, the next week, all remained. Annoyance at first. A headache.

Fear, eventually.

When it all came tumbling down, Matthew was there. It was him who took her hand and walked by her side when everyone else looked at her and walked away. Those countless people she’d trusted and loved for their ability to walk alone she now loathed for their inability to care about her. She’d ceased being a person to them. Now she was just that girl, the what-not-to-do that they talked about in health class and whispered about on their breaks. A statistic, nothing more, so much less.

“I’m sorry I did this to you,” she said once to Sergio. He just shifted into a lizard and flickered his tongue angrily, turning his back on her.

“I’m sorry,” she said again to Matthew when he suffered for the stance he’d taken alongside her.

“Don’t be,” he replied quietly. “You don’t deserve this.”

But she did.

He’d realise that one day.

 

27.

John knew. She’d gone to him for help, in the beginning. Begged him to help her as they’d sat in the car he loved more than he’d ever loved her or the body she’d offered him, and he’d merely commented on her imagined penchant for sleeping around — how do you even know I’m the father?  — and walked away. From fear of her naming him or maybe just out of anger, he’d lashed out. He’d told people.

Her schoolmates knew. Slut in red across her locker wasn’t exactly subtle. It was attention, but never the kind she’d craved.

She was alone. She was hated; her friends reviled her; the church shunned her. Worst of all, they shunned Matthew. She knew he was struggling. Self-medicating in the quiet boundaries of his room, refusing to see or speak to her. Life was cruel to him, and all he’d ever done was try to help her.

Deserved or not, Emily had never dealt well with cruelty.

She went to school, viciously aware of the growing potential for destruction inside her, and unleashed that potential on the bitches who’d made this existence hellish for her. They sneered when she walked into the girls’ bathroom, simpering at her with their stupid made-up faces, whispering whore as she hesitated with Sergio a rigid cat on her shoulder.

Sergio settled it. He changed with a howl into a black-coated fox with a white-tipped tail, using her as a springboard as he screamed and screamed and screamed and dragged the closest dæmon to the ground, biting and snarling as the otter-dæmon sobbed with terror and tried to get away.

“Get him off!” screamed the girl whose dæmon was being shredded by Sergio’s relentless anger. She leapt at Emily, grabbing her backpack strap: “Stop him!”

Emily slapped her. And then again.

Her next slap was a punch.

She was done with being invisible.

 

28.

Suspended and reviled, she went to Matthew. Scratch marks on her face and a shake to her entire body that seemed to have sunk so firmly into her bones that she didn’t know if she’d ever be steady again. “I’m pregnant,” she told him, despite him knowing already. “I don’t know what to do,” she added, which was absolutely true.

Then she did the one thing she was truly ashamed of throughout this entire monstrous experience.

With Sergio as a furious rattlesnake that kept his distance from her and from Matthew’s badger-dæmon, alone and rejected by even her own soul, she cried.

“Don’t,” she hissed when Matthew moved to hug her. He stalled, awkward, his dæmon wincing back as Sergio spat at him.

“You can’t keep doing this,” Matthew said finally, looking down at his bunched-up hands hanging at his side. His hands were dirty. They were always dirty. Matthew liked working with them, building and fixing and experimenting. He was a creator, a giver, and Emily liked that about him. She loved his hands. She loved his capacity to give instead of take, unlike her. All she did was ruin.

“Doing what? Crying? No shit, it’s—”

But he spoke over her choked out words, still looking away so she had time to wipe her sleeve across her eyes: “This, you can’t keep doing this. Fucking yourself over. You’re angry for no good reason, all the time, and you’re just gonna screw up your life. You know it. Don’t tell me you don’t — look at Sergio.”

Because she refused to concede the point, she stared him down instead of glancing to her rumbling dæmon. Never mind her fucked up makeup or her snotty nose and red-tinted cheeks, she wouldn’t back down here. Emily Prentiss wasn’t weak—

“It’s not weak to stop, you know,” Matthew continued. She sucked in a breath that burned and whistled. “To stop doing this. You can ask for help — ask your mom. Ask me.”

Emily, after a moment of thinking, did probably the last smart thing she’d do that year.

“Help me?” she whispered.

Matthew took her hand.

 

29.

The clinic Matthew found was a back-alley place operating under the eye of the law. She wore a hood walking in and Matthew waited in the car. The doctor never took off his surgical mask.

It hurt.

It hurt throughout as she skimmed consciousness, barely aware of Sergio crying because it bit at them both.

It hurt after. They drove until midnight and parked under a tree, the moonlight overhead broken by branches dancing in the wind. Unable to appreciate the night, she lay in the backseat with Matthew’s coat as a pillow and a blanket over her. Her voice was a broken whisper as her body burned her from the belly outward. John’s dæmon held Sergio and they curled together, ignoring their humans as they resented them for what had happened. Some part of her was distantly aware that she was emptier than she had been, that something had been taken; the other part was furious that it was a choice she’d had to make at all.

When it had come down to it, there’d been no choice that night. None.

They went to his house and snuck her into his room, where she tried to sleep off the pain and the anaesthetic until his parents caught her and threw her out. Limping away, Sergio trailing behind, there was nothing kind about the coming dawn. Behind her, she could hear voices. Matthew, trying to follow her; his parents threatening him unless he stayed. She hoped he’d stay. She wasn’t worth it. But there was a clatter of feet and paws and she shrugged her shoulders up further and felt her eyes begin to burn warningly as he skidded up beside her.

“They’ll kick you out,” she managed, feeling the tears coming. After this, she swore, after all of this was over, she wouldn’t cry again. Not ever.

In reply, he simply slid his coat around her shoulders, tucked his arm around her back, and pulled her close as he walked her home. By her side, a silent promise to stay.

“Where will you go?” she asked later that terrible night. They were sitting on the grass outside her house with Matthew lying next to her and playing with his dæmon’s rounded ears. “If they don’t let you back in?”

“They will,” he said confidently.

It was then that the lights came on and Elizabeth found them. Emily had planned to stand up to her, to lie her ass off until the danger was passed, but she was still burning, still dizzy. As soon as she stood to scream at her mother to fuck off, she instead vomited and fell.

Elizabeth knew. Despite their attempts, it was impossible to hide. The illicit abortion revealed by infection and a barrage of antibiotics, that was probably the death knell to any hope they had of a relationship between Emily and her mother. But Emily knew it didn’t matter. Nothing Emily did mattered. There were no real consequences beyond this, nothing worse than the low she’d reached. No matter how wild, how angry, Elizabeth was always ready to sweep the trouble away. She might hate Emily, or so Emily thought, but the safety she offered was unconditional.

It never occurred to Emily that anything she could do would destroy that safety net.

 

30.

It happened like this.

Emily made a stupid, stupid mistake and trusted far too much of herself to unquestionably the wrong boy. A boy, not a man, and when he found out what had happened, he left her to deal with that alone.

Matthew, having helped her, would face a lifetime spiral in and out of addiction due to the rejection of the church and his family that followed. Emily would only learn of this later despite Matthew being in the forefront of her mind when she savagely enacted the price for his misery from the boy she saw as responsible for it all.

John, having successfully avoided any punishment for what he deemed ‘Emily’s mistake’, was gratified to hear that it had been ‘taken care of.’ Thus assured, he asked her out again. Emily agreed.

Emily, much like her mother, was very, very good at holding grudges. They went out together in the car that John loved and, in her hand, was a bottle of alcohol she was only gently nursing; in her pocket, a ragged cloth and a stolen lighter. She was angry. She intended to ensure that John and all those sour-faced bitches from school understood the price of making her angry.

They ended up at the church that had shamed her. John, who was Matthew’s friend, albeit not a very good one, suggested breaking a window. Just a window. Pay-back for Matthew, who they knew wasn’t okay despite not knowing just how deep the damage would run. Emily’s anger was aimless, always, even when she thought it was aimed. She was drunk. They were high.

They were absolutely, completely stupid in the moment that followed.

The final factor was Elizabeth Prentiss herself, who didn’t know quite how to handle her lonely, frantic daughter. The cause of all this, Elizabeth assumed, was Emily’s own stupidity, ignoring completely the price of isolation. Elizabeth Prentiss, who had absolute diplomatic immunity which covered her official family members, of which Emily was aware.

The diplomatic immunity that didn’t cover John, of which Emily was also aware.

“Hey, John,” Emily said, burning her finger on the lighter and not really minding in the rush of fury that followed. He looked at her, smiling a little as though he expected something sweet; instead, she snarled: “Next time you stick your dick in someone, I hope they cut it off.”

And she threw the bottle in a spiralling, curving arc of orange and red and deep, deep blue — an actual tongue of fire, she thought grimly, nothing roselike or flimsy about it at all. It shattered against the wall and that tongue burst. Black smoke plumed. An alarm shrilled, and she laughed and laughed and laughed that anyone thought roses could be as glorious as this.

They would be caught. She intended for them to be caught. The cloth she’d used was John’s; the bottle it was slipped into he’d paid for with the receipt she’d propped carefully on his dash, and he couldn’t leave her there to face capture alone because she’d put the keys to his beloved car in the pocket of her leather jacket.

As the wall of the church burned, she sat down and watched the midnight moon above, wondering if there was anything worth running for.

 

31.

John would never recover the years of his life he spent being pulled through the legal system, a cycle of recidivism that he may have been heading towards anyway but Emily certainly hastened. Arson of a religious monument in Rome wasn’t something handled with kid gloves. Emily was unofficially expelled from Italy. She didn’t care, even on the plane flight home alone. It was very much an escape, although she assumed wherever she was heading was just as shit as where she was leaving. Sergio said nothing, but his shame was written in every line of his cowering canine body in the seat beside her.

Elizabeth stayed to ride the storm of her daughter’s disobedience. Barely avoiding a demotion, she instead took a transfer to the embassy in Pakistan, rebuilding still after an attack by extremists. It was a politically untenable position and no one envied her; it would take years for her career to recover from this blow, if it ever did. She didn’t tell Emily where she was. When it came to her daughter, she was done. She organised Ashworth before Emily’s feet hit the asphalt back in the States, and then washed her hands of her.

Emily, with all the cockiness that had gotten her here, wouldn’t realise something until far, far later: she hadn’t really gotten away with anything except her own ruin on that inflammatory night in Rome.

Chapter Text

Spencer

 

32.

Something was wrong with Aureilo. Spencer worried. His fur was dull and his eyes were duller and they felt an all-together kind of wrongness about him, like he wasn’t who he should be and didn’t know how to become that someone he should. They were fourteen, barely, in a house with no art on the walls and nothing to show it was home, dressed in yet another school uniform and with no Ethan awaiting them. Spencer crouched to examine his hare, who wasn’t a hare anymore.

“We’re fine,” Aureilo said. “I just don’t feel like a hare right now.”

“We’ve always liked being a hare,” Spencer argued. He leaned his hand against the thick carpet so the rat-shaped dæmon could climb up his sweater sleeve, if he wished. The house around them was quiet. On the creamy carpet of his bedroom, Aureilo seemed washed out, a grey-butter tan with a limp, furless tail. “What if you settle like this…?”

“I won’t,” Aureilo declared, ignoring his hand. He hated being carried. “I’m a hare. We both know it. I’ll be long-eared again soon.”

But, despite this, Aureilo didn’t turn back.

 

33.

Some mornings, when they woke, he was different from the rat. Some mornings he went to sleep a rat and woke a ground-squirrel, a mole, and once — only once — a tabby cat. Then the rat again. He stayed the rat for the longest and declared that he liked it, but Spencer caught him focused on nothing, quivering with fear, and worried that maybe it wasn’t that he liked it at all. After all, Spencer didn’t like it, and Aureilo was Spencer.

He worried that maybe Aureilo couldn’t control it.

Over breakfast one morning, Spencer was brave, spurred on by his dæmon’s visible misery. “We want to see our mom,” he said, wincing as William’s head snapped up and around to stare. “Why can’t we see her?”

“Stop doing that,” William said instead of answering. Spencer kicked his shoes against the chair-leg, feeling overgrown and awkward in a body that was changing faster than Aureilo was these days.

“Doing what?” Aureilo asked.

“That!” They watched their father warily as he shoved his coffee aside and stood. His hair was short. Their hair was cut short too, but they remembered: Diana had liked it long. “Speaking for each other. You are not your dæmon, Spencer. You speak for you, not him. He’s only a part of you.”

Deflecting. He was deflecting.

“We’re both unhappy,” Spencer said mulishly. His cereal was turning mushy in its untouched bowl. “And we both want to see her. You can’t stop us forever.”

It was the closest either had ever gotten to outright mutiny.

“If she wanted to see you, she’s had four years to do so,” William replied. His voice was cold. His coyote-dæmon growled. Aureilo trembled on the table next to Spencer’s bowl, paws gripping the ceramic edge. “Evidently, she’s not as interested in you as you are in her.”

He left them sitting there with the gluggy bowl of cereal and their shared heart breaking.

They didn’t go to school that day. No one was there to notice anyway; no one was there to care. William went to work early and stayed late and they stayed at home and curled together in a world of their own made of blankets and sheets, reading to each other from the books they kept tucked away in their collective memories.

All they had was each other.

 

34.

We’d like to speak to you about Spencer.

An eidetic memory was unneeded to memorise this phrase. It was almost a countdown to when it would be said with every new school, even as the time between them beginning there and leaving again began to lengthen. The complaints were always the same, always spoken over the heads of both Spencer and Aureilo as they sat obstinately tapping their heels against the carpet.

“He needs to be challenged.”

“He’s not disruptive, but we can tell that he’s not engaging.”

“His reluctance to involve himself with the other students is concerning.”

“About his dæmon…”

It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. It all made William angry, it all disappointed him, but Spencer had long resigned himself to the fact that Diana had lied to them before vanishing from their life; they were nothing special and nobody important. All he’d ever do was disappoint. He was absolutely nothing, and it was so much less than Aureilo deserved.

“I’m sorry,” Spencer murmured into the fur of his dæmon, only ever honest with himself in these quiet hours of the morning hidden away in their room, “I’m making you less.”

Aureilo twitched his nose and stared at nothing and hummed, “We could find her, you know. We’re smart enough.”

Spencer ignored that.

At school, they sat alone but together. No one bothered them. They weren’t even worth bullying, not really, but certainly not worth befriending either. When questions were asked in class, they remained silent. Why put themselves forward and incite the phone call home?

They were careful not to excel.

Aureilo only ever really talked about one thing anymore, as the stories faded and left in their place a desperate bid to change something. In the bottom of their closet, there was a book. The pages bulged and it smelled of glue and ink. Within it, they wrote everything that they remembered of Diana Reid. The cover was unmarked except for a single blotch of messy ink which obscured a hastily scribbled we could find her.

Spencer was scared he’d forget her.

Aureilo was determined that they wouldn’t.

 

35.

Their report card was a neat line of Cs, punctuated by friendly ‘You can do better!’s and one, ‘See me for assistance if you wish.’ They stared at it, pressed back against the bathroom stall with it shivering in Spencer’s hands. Aureilo was tucked into Spencer’s sleeve and peering out with his rat-whiskers brushing his skin.

“We’ve never gotten a C in our life,” Aureilo said, stunned.

“I got the Cs,” Spencer said shortly. “Not you. It’s my fault.”

Aureilo was quiet until there was a soft, “I’m not so sure…” and he retreated back further into Spencer’s sleeve, his weight shifting, becoming less. Spencer did nothing but stare at the report card as it split and tore in his vision, until the door slammed open and a bunch of older boys jostled in, shouting and yelling. Spencer stood there, stiff, waiting. Waiting for something.

But they didn’t even look at him.

Instead of going to class, they slipped out the back door, climbed the fence, and took a long way home. They put the report card under the secret box of things they kept in their closet, and Aureilo shredded it with his little teeth and claws. A mouse now.

“See, I’m useful for something,” he said in his wispy mouse voice, so much less than it had been as a hare. Spencer had to strain to hear him talk now, and he almost missed him as a rat in the face of this terrible new shape.

Spencer didn’t answer Aureilo, just pushed the closet door shut and leaving it open a sliver so that Aureilo could come out when he wished. Then, he went to bed.

 

36.

The morning brought with it the shriek of the alarm and a thumping headache. With gritty eyes and swollen cheeks, Spencer lifted his head and stared numbly at his clock: 06:15. Downstairs, he could hear his dad getting ready for work.

06:30: They should be in the shower. Showered. Dressed. Aureilo wasn’t in the bed. Maybe that was a good thing. He was a mouse now, easily squashed. Spencer wished he was a hare for the thousandth time.

06:43: He pulled the blankets over his head. He wasn’t hungry anyway.

07: 30: He listened to the front door close and click shut. His dad was leaving for work.

His dad hadn’t noticed.

He slunk out of the bed and tugged open the closet door, finding Aureilo still in their box of secrets: it contained the tattered replica of Parlement of Foules; another three books they’d added to that collection; a photo of them and their mom; a phonebook page they’d stolen from the library listing Reids in Las Vegas; the scrapbook with the scratchy we could find her scribbled on the cover; and, underneath, the remains of their report card and a letter from the school asking William to come in to discuss Spencer being moved to a math class more ‘suited to his level’ — a remedial one.

All their little secrets guarded by a mouse.

“What are you doing?” Spencer asked his dæmon.

“Could ask you the same,” Aureilo responded grumpily. “No school today?”

Spencer didn’t answer at first. The house was silent except for the tick tick tick of their dad’s clock in his office.

“What if she’s dead?” Spencer whispered, only able to voice this to himself.

Aureilo jumped, black-button eyes wide. “She’s not! Don’t say that! Don’t ever say that!”

“She could be…”

“He’d tell us.” But, even as Aureilo said it, they both knew it was a lie.

Spencer went back to bed and left the mouse where he was.

Hidden, like the rest of him.

 

37.

They wrote their last letter in the summer of their fourteenth year. There really didn’t seem a point to continuing after that. She wasn’t going to reply.

It started much the same as the others: Dear Mom.

It ended quite differently: Goodbye.

 

38.

Aureilo settled.

They woke one morning. They were fifteen years old. Aureilo was sitting by the mirror looking puzzled, his mouse nose twitching and paws quivering against his chest. A field mouse, Spencer noted absently, used to how small they’d gotten. It seemed hard to believe that either of them had ever been as confident and sure-footed as a hare.

“I can’t change,” said Aureilo with forced matter-of-factness. “Spencer, I’m stuck.”

Spencer looked at him. He took a deep breath.

“Oh,” he said.

 

39.

Breakfast was as usual. There was an unwrapped present sitting by their bowl. Spencer stared down mutely at it while their father cooked; it was clearly expensive and picked with some semblance of care.

It wasn’t really them.

“Do you like your gift?” William asked, smiling nervously as he slid a plate of pancakes in front of them. “You’ve been doing so well lately, I wanted to spoil you. Your teachers haven’t called at all, not once. I’m proud, Spencer. I knew you’d adjust.”

The tape deck was new, the box still sticky where the price tag had been picked off. It promised modern marvels of music within, emblazoned with pictures of smiling adolescents. All of them the very picture of normality. Exactly what any fifteen-year-old boy would want.

Spencer wasn’t sure he was so sold on anything being marvellous at the moment, or on being normal.

“Do you like it?” was asked again, Harback watching Aureilo carefully. The mouse-dæmon was listless on Spencer’s knee, curled into the crook of one finger of the hand Spencer had rested there.

“Yes,” Spencer said. It wasn’t true. He felt very little for the glossy box at his elbow.

He felt very little in general.

“Yes,” Aureilo repeated softly from his knee.

William ruffled his hair and left them there to make their own way to school. Neither he nor his coyote-dæmon noticed Aureilo. Nobody noticed that Spencer was as he would always be.

Nobody cared.

Alone with their gift, Spencer unboxed it and found his way to his room to puzzle over the assorted options available to him.

“We don’t feel well,” Aureilo said as they climbed the stairs.

“We don’t feel well,” he repeated, minutes or perhaps hours later, and Spencer was still dressed for school but without having gone. They were teetering on the edge of something, some precipice of realisation.

We don’t feel well, he whispered again later, finally, as Spencer came to realise something: things were never going to change. They were stuck now. This was it.

It all came tumbling down.

When Spencer and Aureilo were fifteen, they made their choice together. Forever was only as long as they allowed it to be.

 

40.

When William came home that night with a store-bought birthday cake and the best of intentions, it was to a silent house and his own realisation about the catastrophic price of loneliness.

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

41.

It was Friday the thirteenth the day the new kid came to Ashworth. A damp spring beginning with Aaron sitting on the dew-wet lawn with Hal on his lap to avoid her getting her paws messy. A door clicked open and they looked up and saw him.

Slouched against the wall by the office, the new kid was the kind of skinny Aaron associated with endless nervous energy, wide eyes on a narrow face barely obscured by his thick, wire-rimmed glasses. There was no dæmon on his shoulder or by his battered sneakers or poking its head out of the wide pockets of the oversized black coat he had hiding his slate-grey uniform. There was no dæmon flittering around his head or lurking nearby. Aaron assumed it was hiding; the kid looked like the kind of person who was used to hiding. Even as he stood there, he was folding into himself, hands pulled back in the sleeves of his coat and head tipped forward to tumble messy brown curls into his eyes. A group of students walked past, loud and boisterous and vibrantly alive in a way that the new kid simply wasn’t, and Aaron watched him jolt and press back against the grimy wall, almost visibly shivering.

“He looks sad,” Hal said conversationally, edging up to Aaron’s knees and changing into a falcon to see clearer with sharper eyes. “We’ve never seen him before.”

Aaron didn’t say anything, just observed carefully. Ashworth wasn’t a big school. After almost five months here, they knew everyone by sight, if not by name. And they also knew enough to be sure of one thing:

This kid was never going to make it.

 

42.

Aaron’s appointed therapist for his one-on-ones wasn’t so much ‘casual’ as he was ‘unremittingly nonchalant’. Aaron, well aware of this, went along with it. Besides, it was nice to have an hour a week where he didn’t need to do anything beyond lying on a beanbag eating potato chips and trying to solve some weird bubble-jet cereal-box puzzle his therapist kept in a drawer labelled ‘eat me’. The room was comfortably quiet besides Hal yawning, the clickity-click of the buttons of Aaron’s game, the crunch of chips, and the scratch of his therapist’s pen as he filled out that day’s NYT crossword.

“Doing much over the weekend, Aaron?” Jerry asked, the scratch of his pen pausing.

“Naw,” Aaron said around a mouthful of chips. Hal nudged him, one eyebrow raised on her canine face, and he swallowed quickly and clarified, “Not really, no.”

Not really, meaning he was going to pull overtime hours at the auto-shop his dad had made him start part-time work at to ‘pay back some of the money you’ve cost us’. Aaron didn’t mind. It meant he didn’t have to go straight home to the silent apartment and waiting hands and for whatever slight, imagined or real, that he’d caused that day.

“Hmm,” said Jerry. Aaron waited. He was always cautious of the day that Jerry decided to move beyond his ‘hands-off’ approach and actually start ‘therapising’ him. Maybe today was the —  “Ten letters, walking alone. I’m stuck, damn crossword.”

Aaron thought about it, looking down at Hal. Walking alone. That was apt. No one, not even at a school for freaks, wanted to be friends with the kid who might have killed someone. As if sensing his disquiet, Hal turned into a wolf and tucked her tail in tight, eyes narrowed. He thought of Manassas and the friends he’d left there. He thought of Ricky Whitechapel.

He mumbled, “I don’t know,” and winced with relief as the bell rang. Third period.

“Take this with you,” Jerry told him on the way out, handing him the half-filled crossword. “Think it over. Remember, next week is group. Don’t miss it.”

Aaron looked at the crossword. Walking alone. It mocked him and, once out in the corridor, he angrily scribbled Aaron into five of the squares before shoving it into his pocket and glaring at two girls when they glanced at him. He was fine with it being like this.

Honest.

 

43.

People knew by now not to fuck with Aaron, but that wasn’t always a good thing. Like chemistry labs, for example, as he worked alone while everyone else branched off into pairs. The teacher had glanced to Aaron and then shrugged, seeing him alone and knowing he’d do his work just fine even when solitary.

He re-evaluated this halfway through the acids and bases experiment: people knew not to fuck with Aaron, except for one. Hal growled again from where she was in the designated area for dæmons off to the side of the lab, out of splash range. Something was bothering her. Aaron turned, scowling when he saw the cat sauntering in front of his dæmon, claws out and eyes glittering.

“Tell him to fuck off,” he snapped at Prentiss. “Leave us alone!”

“But you’re just so reactive,” she teased. Her stupid black-lipsticked mouth was turned up in a catty smile as bitchy as her dæmon. At his side, his fists bunched tight.

Prentiss pissed him off. It was no secret that she was here for setting a church on fire; in fact, she was positively lurid about it as though it was her crowning glory. Aaron didn’t appreciate that. It was stupid. Prentiss had no friends and no backup; it was downright dumb to draw as much attention to herself as she did, even knowing she had her own ways of dealing with negative attention.

“What’s wrong, Hot-temper?” Prentiss was still digging at him like she always did. If she was a cat, she was a stupid one. Poking bigger people would get her bitten for sure. “Gonna lose it at me? Throw me in a river? Hey kid, know what this guy is in for?”

Aaron looked at her lab partner. He hadn’t even noticed the new kid sidling in, looking uncertain in a lab coat and with his goggles perched on his head instead of down over his own thick glasses. The kid didn’t answer, just fiddled with an empty beaker and watched them.

“He killed a dude, right? Man, we’ve had all kinds in here, but no murderers before. It’s kinda cool.” Her dark eyes were hidden under the wild frame of her stiffly-combed hair, spiked up into stupid angles around her head like some kind of goth nightmare. Her lab-coat was off, tossed carelessly over the stool behind her. “You mute, newbie? You’re so quiet. Don’t be quiet. Quiet people around here get bashed, or thrown in rivers by people like—”

Aaron turned back to his experiment with his temper sparking and Hal snarling behind him — but that was unrelated to Kylie Hannagan, for whatever reason, shoving her lab partner into the workspace behind them. An elbow thrown out in surprise sent a full reagent bottle of diluted hydrochloric acid flying to dump its contents on Prentiss’s arm. Aaron hadn’t even realised something had gone wrong with Prentiss, turning to instead look at Hannagan being yelled at, until Sergio started bellowing and the new kid with him.

He turned, surprised at the shout, just in time to see the new guy grabbing a full beaker of white powder and dumping it on Prentiss’s already reddening arm. Her face was locked in an expression of shocked pain. The kid hauled her over to the sink and shoved the limb under the running faucet. Then he turned, eyes huge behind their wire frames, and shouted again, “What the hell are you doing? That’s acid, you absolute Neanderthal! Are you an idiot or just—”

“Reid!” barked the teacher. The kid shut up fast, still flushed red and breathing rapidly. Behind him, Prentiss watched with her skin even more chalk-white than usual, her uniform patterned with powder from the beaker the kid had dumped on her. Aaron glanced at the neat label from that beaker, inching forward to see it clearer: Sodium Bicarbonate.

“Go see the nurse after ten minutes under the water,” the teacher said, moving over to examine Prentiss’s arm. Reid didn’t move, frozen next to her. “Hannagan, detention. And very likely further disciplinary action. I cannot believe you would be this—”

Aaron wasn’t listening anymore, instead watching as Prentiss touched the kid’s sleeve, his head jerking around to look at her. She spoke in a voice too low for Aaron to hear but her expression uncharacteristically gentle. The kid nodded.

“He’s coming with me,” Prentiss announced. She yanked her burned arm out from under the water and sauntered to the door, ignoring the teacher barking, “I said ten minutes, Prentiss!”

“Come on, newbie,” she called back over her shoulder.

And they were gone.

 

44.

Aaron could have warned the kid that smart-mouthing Hannagan wasn’t a great life decision in general but, as it turned out, he didn’t have to. The new kid found out on his own. Rounding the corner by the nurse’s office and seeing the skinny shape sloped up against the wall, studiously avoiding eye-contact with the bunch of students crowded around him, Aaron’s heart sunk. First day and the kid was making enemies. Great.

“Uh oh,” Holden said behind him. “Hotchner, walk away. Walk away, my dude.”

“We can’t,” whispered Hal, slinking up next to Aaron as a wolf again. “Aaron, we can’t.” As though to illustrate this point, she turned into a crow and darted over there, cawing. Eyes turned to her at the raucous noise she was making. Aaron sighed and followed his stupid, brave dæmon.

“Hotchner,” sneered Hannagan, her eyes narrowed and grebe-dæmon puffed up furiously, beak gaping. “Whatcha want over here? This ain’t nothing you’re interested in.”

But, around her, the other kids were withdrawing, their eyes worried. Aaron didn’t say a word, just slung his hands in his pockets and stared them down silently and steadily. Without wincing. He knew what kind of glare he had. Aaron, over the past year, had learned over and over again the power of an intimidating stare. Blank-faced and cold, devoid of emotion; everyone knew his story and no one was willing to test him, especially not after he’d settled those few who had been willing and shown them that his size and dæmon were both dangerous strengths he held. By his side, Hal was a wolf again but silent now. Great paws lifting and settling without noise as she paced, hackles up and white glints of fangs showing in her black muzzle.

The grebe-dæmon cackled nervously, backing down.

Hal stepped forward, just a tiny bit. Down went a great paw. In the back of her throat, the softest growl rumbled.

The grebe-dæmon dropped with a hiss, wings furrowed over its head and becoming a trembling mass of frightened feathers that Hannagan scooped up, sneer still in place but eyes wide. The other kids scattered, dæmons with them. Not a single one was willing to risk a fight with him for a skinny newbie.

“Fuck off, freak,” Hannagan snarled. “You keep out of it!”

But, despite this bravado, she spun on her heel and strode away, shouldering the kid as she went. Thumpfh went his back against the wall, his gaze still locked firmly on the floor. Then he looked up, pale and trembling but firm in it, and Aaron blinked. Pinned by a stare that took him apart and found him wanting, he didn’t do anything but let it happen.

And still, there was no sign of his dæmon.

“Thanks,” said Reid softly, so softly that Aaron had to strain to hear his voice over the clatter of feet and lockers up the hall.

The door opened, Prentiss appearing with her hand bandaged and expression sour. She looked at Spencer, whose gaze snapped back to the floor, and then at Aaron, who didn’t say a word. He didn’t like Prentiss. She was manipulative and he didn’t trust her extensive knowledge of the ins and outs of this place. He knew she blackmailed kids, and he knew she wasn’t as shallow as she wanted everyone to think. That made her dangerous, just like Ricky Whitechapel had been.

“Come on, fidget,” she said to Reid. “You’re with me now.”

Not a good idea, Aaron could have told him, but he didn’t. Just watched them walk away, Prentiss’s dæmon sauntering at their side as a snow leopard with a winter landscape of colours ruffled through his thick fur. Gorgeous, and dangerous.

“That was dumb,” said Holden when Aaron walked back over to him. “You don’t know what he’s here for. You don’t know if he’s worth it.”

Aaron shrugged. “What’s he in for, then?”

“No idea,” was the answer, “but he’s in your therapy line, same as Prentiss. He’s one of you.”

Holden, unlike the others, said this with a gleeful kind of awe, always pleased to be one of the few who’d gotten in with the ‘Others’: those kids who were so fucked up that no one else dared.

The ones who’d hurt people to get sent here.

Aaron turned and scanned the corridor, but the skinny boy and his wild-haired companion were gone. What could that kid have done that was so crazy he’d ended up roped in with an accused murderer and an arsonist?

Was he dangerous too?

 

45.

Thump went Aaron’s head softly on his desk. English Lit wasn’t just boring; it was absolutely, mind-numbingly tedious, and their teacher really didn’t help. Around the classroom, his wasn’t the only head drifting downwards, Mr Marks blissfully ignorant of their wavering attention as he waxed poetic about brains.

“As human beings, we are cursed by the deficiencies of our fantastic brains. Every one of you — yes, even you, Holden — is subject to biases and misconceptions brought about by the fallibility of the most important organ in our body. There is no arguing that fact. When it comes to literature, these fallacies manifest explicitly in the way we understand and contextualise historical literature. Our inability to, in a way, view what we read through a lens other than the modern one in which we view our own existence.”

What good was this sort of shit anyway? Aaron thought peevishly. It wasn’t going to help him with his life. What good were books when he’d probably end up just walking the same path as his dad? A shitty company job with a distant wife and kids who hated him, that was his life, probably.

Next to Aaron, the new kid was rigid. His chin was tilted down as though he was dozing like the rest of the class, but Aaron laid his head on his elbow and examined him behind the screen of his pencil case. Despite the kid’s fixed gaze downward, his attention was locked on the teacher. Aaron sat upright, sprawling back in his chair and ignoring Hal’s huff of irritation as his boot knocked her side. The kid didn’t even look at him. From this angle, Aaron could see the blank lecture pad on the desk under the new kid’s long, narrow hands, fingers tapping restlessly at his pen. A pencil-case sat in front of him, Spencer W. Reid neatly written across the top.

Aaron thought that was both the dorkiest and the most apt name for this weird human.

“For example, I don’t think any of you can tell me what is remarkable about the author, Washington Irving. Not remarkable, perhaps, but explanatory. Behind the books he wrote, there is a story that shaped them — does anyone know it? Does anyone even know what books he wrote? You should — they’re on your syllabus. Come on, guys.”

Aaron heard a yawn from behind him and stifled a grin, glancing back at the kid’s hands. As he watched, the kid wrote in a scratchy, rapid-fire kind of way, Rip Van Winkle, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow — suffered from insomnia.

Aaron waited for him to put his hand up and answer as Mr Marks gently scolded them all for their disinterest.

But he didn’t.

“Does anyone know who ‘The Sparkler of Albion’ is? Another name on your list of books this year. Anyone? My faith in you all diminishes daily, honestly — read your set-list, kids! That’s step one to success.”

Again, the hand moved swiftly: Charles Dickens.

“Class is almost over, but here’s a chance to redeem yourselves. By the next class, I want everyone to bring me in the name of the author of these famous final words, otherwise, you’ll all be writing five pages on the importance of understanding context and biases. The words are, ‘Does nobody understand?’, and, yes, I do mean that as a statement of dissatisfaction with you all. You’re supposed to be the best in this school — act like it. Dismissed.”

Aaron gathered his books, glancing one last time at the lecture pad.

James Joyce.

A hand covered the words, that gaze sweeping up to stare accusingly at him.

“Sorry,” Aaron said, not really sorry at all. The class was rapidly emptying, leaving just the two of them standing still. Hal watched. “Why didn’t you answer any questions if you know the answers? He’d have given you extra credit for caring.”

The boy — Spencer Reid — just blinked and didn’t answer, his eyes the most curious shade of brown-green Aaron had ever seen on a human. They seemed to shift with his gaze, darkening as he looked to the teacher, his grip tight around his book, and lightening when they darted back to stare at Aaron. Aaron knew it was just the way the light was in here, but it was still interesting.

“Everything okay there?” Mr Marks asked, pausing at the door with his expression stern. “Hotchner, is there something you need from Reid?”

Reid vanished, scurrying out under the teacher’s arm and vanishing up the hall. Aaron had a wild idea.

“Yeah, actually,” he said, ignoring Mr Marks’s startled exclamation as he gave chase. “Hey, Reid!”

The boy turned in the crowded corridor that was rapidly emptying as well and stared at Aaron. He did a lot of that, that frightened staring. Aaron wondered why.

“We’re going to be late for home group,” Hal warned.

Aaron ignored her, pulling the crossword out of his pocket and thrusting it at Reid. “Ten letters, wandering alone,” he said, feeling a little silly now for his boisterous way of asking for a hand with a puzzle. “I’m stuck and you seem like you know things.”

The kid’s expression was confused, taking the crossword and smoothing it out. Aaron watched those narrow fingers pause on the thin paper, his heart beating fast like he was successfully approaching some weird, nervous woodland creature.

Oh, he heard Hal whisper, pressing close, as a small nose poked out of Reid’s sleeve and examined the crossword studiously. Black eyes were visible, whiskers trembling.

“Solivagant,” said the hidden dæmon in a wispy, shrill voice before vanishing back into the depths of the coat. Aaron watched with a strange feeling of glee that bubbled up in his chest as the boy smiled, just a little, and wrote the word down before handing the puzzle back. He walked away without a word, just one more shy smile this time aimed at Aaron himself.

Their fingers had brushed as he’d taken the puzzle back.

 

46.

Aaron examined the puzzle on the walk home, the frantic handwriting a little wobbly from being written while braced against a soft palm and the careful line the boy had drawn through ‘Aaron’ in order to replace it with the correct answer.

“Did you see that his dæmon’s a mouse?” Hal mused. “I told you she’d be small.”

“That doesn’t mean nothing,” Aaron said hotly. “Don’t judge her on that.”

Hal slipped into the fox form she always took when about to be cheeky, her muzzle a grin, and responded slyly: “I know that. But mice are cute, don’t you think?”

Cheeks burning, Aaron ignored her the rest of the walk.

 

47.

Aaron’s home-life had taken on a kind of rigidity that was both a relief and a strain on him. His mother and brother had never moved from Manassas. Aaron, although he didn’t know it, was correct in his assumption that this was more because Aaron’s mom was thankful for the break from her husband and fearful that his attention would return to her youngest son more so than it was because the house wasn’t able to be sold. Gary disliked DC. The city and his new workplace grated on him, as did the spectacular backfiring of his decision to send Aaron to a school described as ‘punitive’. Punitive, perhaps — the punishments for fighting, as Aaron had discovered, were swift and severe — but it was overall a reform school and it took that label very seriously.

Gary, in his short-sightedness, had not considered the possibility that psychologists and teachers at a school esteemed for taking in troubled youth would be able to tell the difference between a sociopath and a boy who’d faced rough hands more than he had open hearts. This, eventually, would prove his downfall.

But not quite yet.

The rigidity of home-life included Aaron being home before his father, at a time never specified — but it was understood that if Aaron failed to meet this fluctuating time-frame, he’d suffer for it. Dinner was to be hot and ready for the moment Gary walked in the door, and it was to be eaten in silence. After that, Aaron was free to do as he wished so long as he was soundless, absent, and, above all, aware of the consequences of failing to be either.

After Halaimon had bitten their father, there had been a quiet little promise of what would happen if it occurred again. Both Aaron and Hal were nauseatingly aware of the little cupboard with the padlocked door, never used, not yet, but waiting just in case. Aaron kept his dæmon close, and Hal kept her shape small. No wolves in this house; nothing that the albatross-dæmon could remotely consider a threat.

Besides, they’d realised something, Hal and Aaron had. Being big only meant using that power against others. At school or at home, being big was for bullies, and they didn’t want to be bullies.

They wished they could stay small.

 

48.

Hal, tonight, was breaking the rules. She was a Labrador, dangerously large, and Aaron’s fingers trembled on his fork. The pasta was cold. His father had arrived thirty minutes over the time expected. So far, nothing had been said, but Hal was whispering as her mind circled over and over a single image: a skinny boy in an oversized coat trying to hide the most enquiring eyes Aaron had ever seen behind thick glasses and uncut bangs.

“We should talk to him,” she was whispering, her head in Aaron’s lap and muzzle tilted towards his pocket where the crossword was scrunched up in a thick ball Aaron was vividly aware of. “Make friends with him. We could. He looks lonely. We’re—”

“You whispering?” Gary snapped, looking up from his paper. Aaron shook his head, kneeing Hal gently in the jaw. She fell quiet.

Quiet until: “If he’s new, he needs us,” she said. He wished she’d stop. He didn’t want to think about Spencer Reid and his curious eyes and his strange silence. He didn’t, so she shouldn’t either. “Ashworth was terrible, those first few months until people learned we bite. I don’t think he bites. I don’t think his dæmon would either, she’s so shy and small and fragile. I think he needs someone to bite for him, like us—”

He kneed her again. It was the most she’d said in months and it was going to get them in trouble. Dark eyes stared up at him from his lap in a recriminatory manner. Hal didn’t talk much, so she expected to be listened to when she did. But not now. He mouthed this at her: be quiet or we’re going to be in trouble.

“This is cold,” Gary said. Hal slunk low, her head vanishing from Aaron’s thigh. “Did you know that, boy?”

“Yes, sir,” Aaron mumbled. “Sorry, sir.”

Silence. Then: “Heat it up.”

“Yes, sir.”

It was a reprieve. He doubted it would be much of one.

In the kitchen, Hal continued as though she hadn’t been interrupted at all: “I want to be friends with him,” she announced, paws on the counter and stare level. “So do you. You’re all interested, I can tell. I’m you, after all, even though you’re an idiot.”

“Fine,” Aaron snapped. “We’ll talk to him, okay? But don’t be disappointed if he thinks we’re, we’re…”

“Dangerous?” Hal asked, flickering into the wolf for just a heartbeat. “So what? We are. Fayth wanted to squash me just like she squashed the cat, and I didn’t let her. Maybe that’s what he needs. Mice are easily squashed and we can protect him better than Prentiss can.”

Aaron touched the scar on his chin and wondered what parts of himself his dæmon reflected. Sometimes, she didn’t feel like him at all. He didn’t think he was ever as brave as she was, offering to protect a stranger who needed it.

 

49.

That night, the old dream returned. Empty eyes reflecting a swollen moon, the roar of rapids dragging them down. Gold in the water.

When he woke, his face was wet and Hal was shaking.

They weren’t brave at all.

 

50.

When they went looking for Reid the next week, they found him sitting under the lop-sided half-burned oak against the back fence, side by side with none other than the volatile Emily Prentiss. Today, her dæmon was a black-coated fox with a cruel, thin muzzle that turned to watch Aaron pause by the corner of the science building.

Prentiss glanced at him, smirking, and said something short and sharp that neither Aaron nor Hal could hear. Aaron watched as Spencer looked startled, half-facing away from Aaron with his hands folded over his backpack in his lap, unaware of being watched. Aaron saw the shy half-smile slip onto that narrow face, the startled amusement, and he walked away from it with his heart sinking.

“Where are you going?” Hal complained, turning into a cheetah and bounding to keep up. “Don’t walk away! We can still be friends with him — she can’t stop us!”

“Don’t be stupid,” Aaron said savagely. “We don’t have friends.”

Chapter Text

Emily

 

51.

“Uh oh,” said Sergio.

Because Emily knew something had gone really fucking wrong while she was asleep, she chose to stare at him rather than deal with it. He was a newt. She hated newts.

“Um. Emily…”

Emily glared. He fell quiet, wobbling uneasily into the languid shape of a snooty looking corn snake before lurching upright into a jackal that bared white fangs and rrrrrrrrrred at her as he sensed her rancorous fury growing. Him dealt with, she climbed out of bed, sidled around the mirror without looking at it, and slammed her open dorm room door shut. Laughter echoed down the hall. Finally, she reached up to touch a wary hand to her hair.

“Why didn’t you wake me when they came in?” she asked.

“I was asleep too. Why didn’t you lock the door?”

Unable to answer that, she slunk hesitantly over to the mirror.

It was just as bad as expected.

 

52.

In the time since joining Ashworth, Emily had not made herself many friends. She was well-known, of course. Emily Prentiss had never been one to hide in the background and she wasn’t about to start now. But Ashworth wasn’t like her school in Rome or the one before that in Connecticut or even the one before that in Madrid. Almost every student here had something in common: they were all hurting in one way or another.

Emily knew why.

Elizabeth had been scathing in her recommendation that Emily start anew alone, and the Ashworth therapist assigned to her had agreed. This had translated into a casual job, one which the school supplied in order to keep an eye on the students they kept ‘in-house’. The ones no one else wanted: Emily, included. Elizabeth’s home in DC was only open to her on the weekends when there was a woman there hired solely to keep a leash on her. During the weekdays, she was an Ashworth kid the whole way through. She slept there, she worked there, she studied there, she ate there. It was absolutely stifling and, despite having a grudging belief that the school itself wasn’t as horrendous as she’d worried it was going to be, the student body was every bit as awful.

But the school had positioned her in data-entry, translating the files and files of student and faculty information from hard-copy across to the bulky new computers they’d had installed the year before. She worked alongside a chatty soccer-mom type named Cherrie. Cherrie liked cats, talking, and Ashworth. Cherrie also liked Emily, at least the polished diplomat’s daughter Emily that she’d met.

Cherrie knew everything about everyone who’d ever walked through Ashworth’s gates and Emily knew exactly how to use this information. This was how Emily had come to be known as the girl you didn’t cross if you wanted your secrets intact.

That kept her safe, but it didn’t make her many friends.

 

53.

“Hi,” said Emily after a good three minutes had passed with her standing outside Spencer’s front door and him doing nothing but staring blankly at her. “You weren’t at school, so I brought you your homework.”

That was a lie. She’d brought him her homework, and only because a teacher had asked where she was going and she’d had to bullshit her way out of it. Like fuck she was going to class today. Like fuck she was going anywhere, except for a failed attempt to steal a pair of scissors from the office where she worked — which had led to the serendipitous moment of overhearing Cherrie gossiping about the new boy taking the rest of the week off.

“Let me in?” she asked, because good god, it wasn’t like he hadn’t known she was here. He’d buzzed her up, after all.

Eventually.

“Why are you here?” Reid asked, finally stepping back to let her saunter in. Sergio strolled ahead, still a jackal. She was growing kind of fond of his russet-brown fur, actually, and the ears were really cute. Reid, on the other hand, didn’t look anywhere near as nice as her dæmon did. Gone was the oversized-but-kind-of-cool coat and his neatly combed curls were a nest of tangles. He’d replaced his school uniform with a pair of baggy sweatpants and a faded tee with ‘Ain’t no party like a Gatsby party’ stencilled on the front.

“Great shirt,” she told him breezily. “Got any scissors?”

His blinking speeded up exponentially. She wondered where his dæmon was; she’d known the kid a week now and still hadn’t seen it, and it wasn’t like it could hide under what he was wearing now.

“Guh?” he said, which she assumed was several questions all tangling at once and failing to become proper words.

She removed the hood of her sweater, letting him take it in.

“Oh,” he said quietly, tiptoeing ever so slightly closer. “Did you try—”

“Take another look and tell me if ice is gonna work,” she snapped, folding her arms tight around her aching chest like she wasn’t breathing quite properly. “Again, do you have scissors? They don’t let us have them in the dorms. Too many kids trying to off themselves.”

He winced, his gaze skittering away from her behind his glasses. “No. We only have clippers.”

One last time, she reached up and touched the mess of gum someone — she bet she could work out who, eventually — had gifted her with in the night, her hair helplessly twisted through it.

“That’ll do,” she said.

Mournfully, Sergio turned into a hairless cat and led the way to the bathroom.

 

54.

She knew everything about everyone at Ashworth except Reid. His file hadn’t reached data-entry yet, and he wasn’t talking. She didn’t know why he was there, just that he didn’t really seem the Ashworth type.

Maybe he’s a mental case, she wondered while lounging on his bed and watching him peering through her homework at his desk, but she discounted that quickly. She knew all the mental cases at Ashworth. There weren’t too many. One kid who’d beaten on his twin brother so bad he’d been told it was Ashworth or juvie, another girl who’d been caught planning to set her previous school on fire. Both on probation. There was Emily, technically, since she was lumped into the arsonist basket with the other pyros. There was the sanctimonious Aaron fucking Hotchner with his prissy stare and his perfectly presented clothes and his crusty dæmon, walking around like he shit gold and didn’t belong there like the rest of them.

He did. Emily had looked at his file. Kid had been getting in fights since he was six years old and winning almost all of them. She knew the type: Aaron Hotchner liked hurting people, and she didn’t like bullies. He was just another John. All gentle hands and soft promises until he got what he wanted behind closed doors.

No. She didn’t think Spencer was one of them. Spencer instead of Reid now, she guessed, since he’d helped her shave her head and, after that, she couldn’t exactly keep calling him Reid.

Spencer … Spencer was a Matthew. She could tell that just looking at him. It was a safe kind of feeling, one she’d never admit to, and it was a nicer feeling than sitting in her dorm room alone.

 

55.

“My head is cold,” she complained before rolling to look up at his bare walls. No posters. The dresser was tidy, without anything atop it. A small stack of books on his bare desk was the only sign of personality. She touched her head as she examined his space, awed a little by how warm and smooth it felt with just the smallest bristle of hair remaining. Sergio leaned against her, his skin just as silky-warm, still a weird-ass naked cat.

“I think I have a hat somewhere?” Spencer said hesitantly. He spun his desk-chair around and looked to his partly open closet, the only sign of disarray in the painfully clean room. His gaze fell on her head again, squinting as he looked torn. “I can’t believe you did that,” he finally blurted out, ruffling his own wild hair with his fingers. “What’s your mom going to say?”

The pillow Emily burrowed her face into to hide her disquiet smelled of shampoo and male, his bed squeaking a little under her. “Nothing,” she said. “I don’t have one.”

“Oh.” Spencer kicked his socked feet on the carpet. Odd socks, she noted, one green, one argyle, and there was a small clump of her hair stuck to the sole of the green one. As though reminding her of the hack job they’d done, her neck began to itch. “Neither do I.”

They fell quiet, neither looking at the other. For once, Emily didn’t know what to say. All of Elizabeth’s careful training of her like she was a particularly large and ungainly Pomeranian didn’t help her now since it hadn’t really covered ‘not being awkward with the strange new kid you’d just asked to help shave your head’.

There was a soft skittering sound by the closet door. Emily looked at it just in time to watch a vibrant orange beanie tumble onto the floor and then walk in a meandering kind of fashion towards her. Sergio shot upright, becoming the jackal again and staring with his mouth hanging open cartoonishly. Before she could exclaim ‘there’s a walking hat!’ or anything of the sort, the hat spat forth a mouse that climbed out of the inside and sat, whiskers twitching, on the brim.

“I found the hat,” the mouse-dæmon said, staring her down with a confidence she hadn’t expected from a field-mouse. “If you’re still cold, anyway.”

“This is Aureilo,” Spencer explained, adding unnecessarily, “he’s my dæmon.”

Emily noted the ‘he’. “Your dæmon is a dude,” she said, surprised. She pitched forward, fingers gripping the edge of the bed tightly, to examine him clearer.

“Obviously,” said the mouse-dæmon with an eye-roll. “Why do you always find the most observant people, Spencer?”

“Be nice,” Spencer mumbled. He was drooping, looking tired. Tired enough that it was making her feel tired too, but she didn’t want to go back to the dorms and face whoever had done this and how gleeful they’d be about her solution.

Curiously, she asked, “What does that mean? That he’s a guy? I mean, it’s gotta mean something about you, right?”

“I don’t know.” Spencer’s voice was short, his shoulders slumped. Even as she watched, the mouse-dæmon began to inch back to the closet.

A thought hit her and, probably unwisely — but she’d never really been clever — she blurted out, “Are you gay?”

It hit her ten seconds later as Spencer’s eyebrows shot up and the mouse-dæmon sniggered that that was a strange kind of question to ask as his soul, quite literally, had just come out of the closet. She tried to choke back a laugh and failed, the sound hopelessly strangled as she covered her mouth with her hands.

After a beat, Spencer began to laugh too.

That was when the bedroom door opened.

 

56.

William Reid’s first feeling upon hearing his son laughing was relief. After the last few months, that terrible night … he remembered very clearly sitting in the ER waiting room and believing that he’d never hear his son laugh again

The second feeling was guilt because it reminded him that, even before it had happened, Spencer’s light had visibly faded and he’d failed to protect his son from that.

The third was curiosity.

The forth, upon opening the bedroom door and finding a bald girl with eyeliner thick enough that he wasn’t really sure where it ended and eye began, was absolute shock. He wasn’t sure that Spencer had ever voluntarily brought a friend home from anywhere, let alone a girl.

Let alone this kind of girl.

He formed a very rapid opinion about her.

William Reid, as the months went on, would form many, many rapid opinions about Emily Prentiss but none so surprising to him as the first one: he liked her immediately.

 

57.

Emily went to leave after the awkward introductions were made. Spencer grabbed the beanie and gave it to her, their fingers brushing as he pressed it into her palm.

“Take it,” he said, “or you’ll be really cold.” His eyes skimmed the orange wool, expression distant. From the doorway, the man — Spencer’s dad, which was both surprising and not because he somehow looked just like Spencer and, yet, also not really very much like him at all — watched wordlessly, his expression impossible to read.

“Thanks,” she said. “It’s more my colour than yours, anyway.”

He laughed, softer this time and with the laugh not reaching his eyes or turning the corners of his worried mouth up. “Yeah. Mom bought it for me before … well, when I was little.”

There was a soft huff behind them, the coyote-dæmon lurking behind Spencer’s dad looking away with her ears slunk back.

“She said I was so little and fast and curious, she used to lose me in a crowd,” Spencer was still saying, eyes locked on the beanie. “So she got me this, and a little jacket for Aureilo. He loved it. I wasn’t a fan. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that. I don’t know why I’m telling…”

He trailed off, letting go of the beanie and stepping back, looking lost and sad. She swallowed. For some reason, it hurt. When she looked down at the beanie, turning it in her hands, she found a neatly stuck on label on the inner rim with a name written in chunky permanent marker: Crash.

But she didn’t get to tease him about it because, right as she went to, Spencer’s dad asked, “Have you had dinner yet, Emily?”

 

58.

As it turned out, Spencer had burned their dinner while helping her shave; something he hadn’t warned his dad about yet and she hoped he would before the man opened the trash and found her hair sitting in there being weird and not on her head. Despite this, William had been entirely sincere about his invitation to eat with them. Emily found herself sitting next to Spencer on the squeaky-plastic booth at McDonald’s, picking at her greasy burger while Spencer fed Aureilo fries and William awkwardly drank soda through a straw, looking incredibly out of place in his neat suit.

“I told you we should have sat on the hamburger chairs,” Emily declared, peering around William to the jungle-themed children’s section. “Who doesn’t want to sit on what looks like a sentient hamburger?”

“If the hamburgers are sentient, are the cows the patties made from sentient as well?” Spencer mused after swallowing his own fries, fingers sticky with sauce. “Or do the burgers only gain self-awareness when burger-formed?”

William stared.

“Alien life-form taking the form of what they believe to be the dominant species on the planet, duh,” Emily corrected.

“Duh,” Aureilo said around a mouthful of fry. The fry he was holding he was barely managing to lift with two paws, Sergio a rat on the other end as they chewed towards each other.

“Duh,” agreed Sergio happily.

William continued staring, his food going cold. Emily, never one to let food go to waste, nabbed his fries and, when there were no objections, ate them.

“So, ah, Emily,” William finally began, his gaze still locked on Spencer, who seemed a thousand times livelier than he had back in his apartment. Probably all the grease and sugar he was rapidly consuming. “Are you—”

“I want to go to school tomorrow,” Spencer said, silencing William. Both the coyote-dæmon and Aureilo turned to look at him. He added, almost breathlessly, “Please.”

“I thought we discussed half-weeks until you were feeling better,” William murmured. Emily wiggled, both the Reids body language clearly excluding her from this conversation. “You know what the doctor said—”

“I feel fine,” Spencer said firmly. He glanced to Emily, smiling. There was a spot of sauce on his lip. Something in her belly ached. “Besides, Em will be there, right? So, you don’t have to worry about me being alone.”

William looked at Emily, who was busy trying not to show how her shortened name from someone else’s mouth had hit her hard. Eventually, she managed the beaming smile her mom had taught her for photos and the media.

“Sure,” she said around a hurting kind of wary happiness.

“Okay, fine,” William said. Spencer beamed too, his smile more real than Emily’s without any of the practised charm.

And Emily still had no idea what was going on.

 

59.

To her surprise, when William dropped her back at the dorm he insisted on walking her up the drive from the locked gates to the brightly lit arch leading to their rooms. It was an uncomfortable, silent walk with Sergio a mouse on her shoulder peering worriedly at the older man. They were both nervous. Spencer, still sitting in the car where William had told him to stay, was barely visible as a pale blur in the dark from here. When they reached the lights and she turned to thank him for dinner, William touched her arm. She panicked, rocketing back with Sergio turning into a snake that coiled and hissed.

“Sorry, sorry,” William said, backing up a bit and sounding flustered. “I just, I need to thank you. For tonight. For Spencer. He’s … thank you.”

And he turned and walked away. Emily stared, completely confused.

“I think the whole family is completely bonkers,” Sergio announced, coiling tighter. Despite this, he sounded pleased. “Absolutely skitzo.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Emily. If there was one thing she’d learned from the stories of everyone at Ashworth, it was this: no one was that simple.

 

60.

Neon-orange beanie in place as a shield against the whispers and sneers aimed her way as she walked through the common room and to her dorm-room, she sassed the other students back just as snidely as she was expected to, flipping one guy off as he asked her if she’d taken up working at the docks to make ends meet. Persona perfectly in place until she was alone in her room, the door barred with a chair under the handle since the lock was now busted, and she could finally give it up.

She washed her makeup off, changed into the oldest pair of pyjamas she owned, and curled up with a pillow over her ugly, shaved head and Sergio as a cat under her twisted mouth. She stayed like that and didn’t sleep at all, her mind twisted around the coming next day and the gauntlet she’d have to walk.

“But, not alone,” Sergio whispered. “Not anymore.”

“No,” she agreed, rubbing at the wet patches on his fur and repositioning herself so she could watch the door instead of sleeping. “Not anymore.”

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

61.

Weirdly, it was her shaved head that compelled him to do it. Her shaved head and the one singular time Aaron had been watching her as she’d ducked out of sight by some lockers and, for a second, had hugged her dæmon tight with her head bowed. When she’d emerged, none the wiser of his observation, the bitchy mask was back in place and barely offset by the faintest hint of red around her eyes.

He began to wonder just how much of Emily Prentiss was staged.

When it came to Reid, the boy was permanently affixed to her side these days. Aaron rarely saw one without the other, usually Reid trotting placidly after Prentiss while she spat and snarled her way through the snickering student body. Reid’s gaze flickered from face to laughing face, his expression deceptively placid, and Aaron speculated privately as to when Prentiss would have her revenge for this slight and if Reid would be a party to it. The boy didn’t seem mad but he was also incredibly hard to read, and the memory of the acid spill lingered.

“Mice don’t fight,” Hal said. “And Prentiss does nothing else, especially now.”

It was that that compelled him.

It took him the whole day to gather his nerve. The lunch bell rang, spilling students out into the brisk spring air to disperse to their usual haunts. Aaron strode without hesitating — Hal some kind of bizarre ferret-cat thing on his shoulder — to the half-burned oak by the fence where he knew the two friends sat. They didn’t even look at him as he approached, too engrossed in a discussion of the biological mechanisms of centaurs, so he, calmly and without a word, sat down next to them on the warm grass. Three sets of eyes turned to stare at him, two of them fierce, one wary.

Aaron swallowed, meeting Prentiss’s gaze without flinching before forcing a smile. “Hi,” he said, looking down at his lap with his cheeks flaming.

“Uh, hi,” said Reid.

Prentiss said nothing.

After a long moment, the embarrassment and awkwardness turning into a full-body heat that inflamed him, they turned back and continued their conversation as though he wasn’t there at all. Aaron busied himself with his lunch and kept quiet.

At the end of lunch, as the bell summoned them in, he muttered, “Bye,” and walked away without looking back.

“What was that?” asked Hal.

“Shut up,” he snapped, dropping her from his shoulder to the ground so she had to scramble to keep up. “I’ll do better next time.”

 

62.

Ian Vance had owned his auto-shop for forty years, working with cars since he was old enough to lift the tools. He’d taken countless apprentices, trained hundreds of youths, and hired and fired more employees than he’d had years in the business. His dæmon was an aardvark, slow and placid and terribly easy-going. He liked almost everyone he took under his wing. He liked Aaron especially.

He did not like Aaron’s father. Aaron’s father was the kind of man Ian thought of as hollow, a man so fixated on his outward appearance to the neglect of everything inward. A nothing man made of mirrors that reflected whatever was looking into them. The kind of man who considered himself an expert only when facing down someone whose experience dwarfed his own. It very nearly cost Aaron his opportunity at a job, with the boy standing behind his father as his father worked very hard to convince Ian that he was the kind of man that he obviously wasn’t. Irritated, Ian had decided that he had no place in his industry for someone like this or his offspring.

Then, he’d looked at Aaron and his downcast eyes and downturned mouth mirrored by the dull feathers of his miserable looking raven-shaped-dæmon huddled against his neck, beak tucked in. Ian wasn’t stupid. He also knew what a boy looked like when nobody bothered loving him.

He’d hired him that hour and not once had he regretted this choice; in fact, he would never regret this choice. It was clear to him that Aaron was getting something out of the work he gave him that was more than just the opportunity to learn a trade that Ian was absolutely aware — he’d seen the boy’s grades, after expressing a desire to, and he knew Aaron was an incredibly swift learner with an amazing memory — he wouldn’t be devoting his life to. The only danger he saw of the boy’s bright future was his father cutting him down before he had the chance to realise it. Ian wondered often about how to ensure that didn’t happen.

The day he bought the battered hulk of the aging 1973 Econoline 100, he didn’t realise that he was bringing back to the shop exactly what Aaron needed to escape. If he’d known, he’d have bought it anyway.

Hell, he’d have gift-wrapped it.

That’s for later, though.

Today, Ian walked the boy to the back of the garage, letting him examine the van himself. “What do you see?” he asked.

“A beat-up old van,” Aaron replied. “Does it go?”

“Nope. Needs a complete re-haul. Probably got the gear around here, if you’re up for it.”

“Me?”

Ian slapped him on the shoulder, shoving the slighter boy towards the vehicle. “I don’t see anyone else fart-assing about in here, do you? Now. Here.” He shoved the manual at the kid, the thick book making an audible thunk as it smacked his chest. “You work out what it needs, tell me, and I’ll show you what to do. If you do it well enough when I sell her half the profits are yours. Deal?”

Aaron looked stunned. “Deal,” he whispered, hugging the manual close.

Ian once again wondered just how often people told Aaron he was valid. It was probably this that led to his next, unplanned, statement. “And kid? You get your learners and bring it in here, I’ll teach you to drive. No point in having a mechanic who can’t drive what he fixes. Now, get to work.”

Ian Vance, unlike Gary Hotchner, was always conscious of everything inward.

 

63.

Aaron never went to group therapy if he could avoid it. He hated group with a passion that made Hal snarl and twist into various angry shapes and forms. Jerry, knowing him well enough by now, didn’t call him out on that. But he did call him out.

“Saw you sitting with Emily and Spencer yesterday,” Jerry said, the crossword gone today and replaced with a pile of paperwork. “I’m glad to see you’re making friends.”

“We’re not friends.” Aaron wiggled on the beanbag, uncomfortable today. But, because he didn’t want to sound rude, he added, “Yet. Me and Reid, anyway. I think we can be friends.”

“Why is that?”

Aaron thought about it for a moment. “You know,” he said finally, slowly, “I think he’s really smart. Reid, that is. He hides it. He got that crossword last week without even thinking — see, look.” The scrunched paper, almost see-through with wear after being carried around in his pocket, was thrust at Jerry, who took it and studied it without saying a word. “Yeah, and he never answers questions in class but he always knows the answers. I don’t know, maybe he’s shy. Or scared. Whatever he is, I think I could help him with it, if it wasn’t for—”

That hung in the air. Aaron felt his skin heating again, the embarrassment of putting himself out there always lingering close these days.

“If it wasn’t for Emily?” Jerry asked.

Aaron winced. “Yeah. Guess so. She’s not good for him.”

There was silence but for the tick tick tick of the clock overhead, Jerry’s expression thoughtful.

“You’re a very observant, thoughtful boy, Aaron,” he said eventually, leaning onto the desk. “When you’re in here, you’re quiet. Not withdrawn, just thoughtful. When you do speak, it’s always startlingly accurate.” Aaron frowned, but the man wasn’t done. “Hal has an amazing range of forms from all around the world, and she changes often. That’s a sign of a very clever mind. Your work is precise, your grades fantastic. You have a temper, a dangerous one, but you mean well. Would you agree with this assessment?”

Aaron shrugged. How was he to know what he was like? He wasn’t looking at himself, who would?

“Okay, now think about the kind of boy I just described. Is that the kind of boy you are at home?”

Hal glared at the man: an owl with wide, staring eyes.

“No,” said Aaron.

“Is that the kind of boy you are when talking to others? How about when you’re angry? Do you show people that you’re a clever, curious person when you’re angry and want them to leave you alone?”

“No.”

“Well now, that’s something to think about, isn’t it? Look at Spencer … you’re right in that he is a very, very clever individual. Astoundingly clever. But he hides that, for whatever purpose. In certain situations — such as when a kind boy asks him for help with a crossword — he expresses it. Is it so difficult to imagine that your limited understanding of Emily Prentiss might not be accurate enough for you to declare her as ‘bad’ without ever seeing her outside of the singular context of the school?”

Aaron, a little stunned, was silent.

Jerry’s next words were quiet but no less damning. “We take on the roles we believe we need to fulfil, Aaron. You understand people in a way that many people don’t. Next time you sit with Spencer and Emily, put aside your preconceived notions of the girl you think she is and instead try to see past the role she’s performing. I think you’ll be surprised. People should never be judged on how they act when they feel cornered.”

Shifting uncomfortably, his gut twisted with the kind of guilt that suggested he’d done something wrong, Aaron said defensively, “But she’s always a bitch, not just when she’s feeling cornered. I’ve never seen her being nice.”

The bell rang. Aaron went to stand, angry now, but Jerry spoke one last time.

“Maybe,” he said, “you’ve never seen her not afraid.”

 

64.

There was a packet of potato chips open and forgotten on the grass next to Reid as he and Prentiss bickered about how society would be different if humans had never discovered clothes — Reid refusing to engage because it was ‘ridiculous’ and Prentiss disregarding his refusal — and Aaron was being ignored as usual. He didn’t mind. He was busy watching Reid’s little mouse-dæmon busily reaching into the packet, pulling a chip forth, and munching it with a blissed-out expression on her whiskery face and crumbs all over her fur.

Hal, a rat again, was completely fascinated. Suddenly, she darted forward as a mouse bigger and sleeker than the field mouse and dived into the packet. Reid’s dæmon jumped with a squeak, staring into the packet with her ears perked and nose twitching. As Aaron watched in wonder, she finally followed Hal in, the packet rustling as the two dæmons raced about in it. In all their years together, he’d never seen Hal play. And she was playing now, darting out of the packet in a rapid circle on the lawn with a chip in her mouth and the other dæmon jumping onto her and wrestling for it. Soft squeaks and whispers narrated their valiant battle, punctuated by giggles.

Aaron pulled his knees close, his heart hammering. The others hadn’t noticed except Prentiss’s dæmon, who was inching forward as a cat using the chip packet as cover, his tail twitching and butt wiggling. Hal pushed the other mouse-dæmon over, rolling over her twice and falling on her back with a gasp and a shrill laugh that the other dæmon returned. Covering his mouth, Aaron barely managed not to laugh himself at their antics. Emily’s cat-shaped-dæmon leapt, kitty paws batting at Reid’s mouse-shaped-dæmon, who yelled, “Desist!” and fell about laughing.

But Hal was like Aaron: neither of them handled being shocked very well. A shock at home could be deadly and that kind of hyperawareness didn’t stop when they’d left the apartment: she shot upright into a bully dog shape and barked loudly, her hackles up. The other two dæmons shrilled with fright at her sudden aggressiveness, bolting for their humans, who turned and stared accusingly at Aaron and Hal.

Hal shrunk down small again, a terrier now with her tail between her legs and shame in every line of her wiry body as the other dæmons trembled.

“What the fuck, Hotchner?” Emily snapped, picking up her dæmon and cuddling him close. “Good to see your dæmon is just as much of a fucking psychopath as you are.”

Reid just looked hurt, covering his sleeve opening with his hand to hide the quivering dæmon within.

“Sorry,” said Aaron, his face burning. “She didn’t mean to.”

“Sorry,” Hal whispered, her voice impossible for them to hear. “I was surprised.”

But the bell had gone and Prentiss was already stalking away, her body furious and still hugging her dæmon tight. Reid followed.

Neither looked back.

 

65.

It took a week to regain the courage to go back to the lunch spot but, when he did, no one was there. “Oh,” said Aaron, wilting and flopping sadly onto the grass.

“I guess I really made them mad,” Hal said. She was a dog again with the most woeful face he’d ever seen on her. “I’m sorry, Aaron. Maybe I really am the reason no one likes us…”

“That’s not true,” he said loyally, letting his guard down just a bit to pat her. “You’re wonderful. They’ll see. Reid’s dæmon, the mouse, she seemed to like you before that.”

Hal tilted her head. “He,” she corrected.

That took a moment to process. “He?” Aaron repeated. “His dæmon’s a male?” Hal nodded. “Huh. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It didn’t seem important. I like him whether he’s male or female. He makes me feel silly.” She shifted again, a monkey now that he winced at — disliking most primates, even the small ones — and shot him a snooty look. “We’re not silly very often.”

But before he could sass her back, her gaze had moved beyond him, peering up.

A shadow fell over them. “Oh, it’s you,” said Prentiss’s voice. He turned around and looked up at her face, squinting as the sun hit his eyes. “Get up and come on then.”

He froze, his chest tight as the expected anger began to bubble, barely managing to press it back down before Hal reacted. “Last time I checked, I’m free to sit where I want,” he said coldly. “You weren’t here.”

But he stood anyway, disliking having her loom over him. On the ground, Hal was a wolf, circling her dæmon — who was a snow leopard today — with her customary dangerous silence.

“Fuck off, Hot-shot, I don’t have time for a pissing contest with you,” Prentiss spat, her head twitching as though she’d automatically gone to toss her hair before remembering it was gone. “Spencer told me I have to be nice to you, and he’s smarter than me so I’m listening.”

“Oh,” Aaron said dumbly. “Where is he?”

A shrug was her nonchalant reply, but her forehead creased a little as though worried. “Dunno. He hasn’t been at school all week.” She looked down at the circling dæmons right as Hal shivered down into a fluffy black cat and offered her nose to the other dæmon to sniff. They brushed whiskers, both trembling with the strain of being polite and eyes on their humans instead of each other. And Prentiss relented: “I think he’s sick. Like, real sick. I don’t know. He doesn’t talk…”

Aaron looked at the dæmons one last time and then at Prentiss. “Are we going looking?” he asked, wary of what would happen if he was caught bunking off from school, if his father was called. But this was important; Hal was so damn adamant that they could be better than they were, starting with this mouse of a boy and his unusual dæmon, and maybe he really did need them. Maybe he needed Prentiss too. Aaron figured if he was sick, he’d want all the friends he could get.

Prentiss nodded. “Only if you’re up for it, prissy boy.”

He was.

 

66.

Reid lived in a real nice high-rise apartment, the kind they not only needed to be buzzed into but also with its own doorman on guard at the front desk. They knew this because, upon Prentiss pressing every single button on the keypad until someone let them in just to stop the noise, they were immediately turned away by said doorman.

“Hmm,” said Prentiss.

“Maybe he’s not home?” Aaron suggested, but Prentiss was already strolling with faux casualness towards the fenced-in side of the complex, peering up at the fire escape. “Uh. Pren — Emily, what are you doing?”

What she was doing was sliding through the chain-locked fence, easily slender enough to ooze through the thin gap, and striding up to the fire-escape. The ladder was bolted well out of reach. Aaron, after glancing about for anyone watching, hurriedly followed. It wasn’t an easy job for him like it had been her and, by the time he’d managed it, Prentiss was already tapping her foot impatiently and her dæmon was perched on the fire-escape above as an orangutan with long, dangling arms.

“Boost me,” she demanded of Aaron.

“What are you even planning?” he breathed, cupping his hands and lifting her until her dæmon could reach her, pulling her the rest of the way in a flurry of kicking boots and clattering claws. “You gonna break in?”

“I’m going to knock,” Prentiss said, unbolting the ladder and letting it down for him. “Duh. What do you think I am, a delinquent?”

Wisely, he didn’t answer that.

 

67.

Reid looked awful. He’d let them in, eventually, although judging by the stormy expression on his face it was under duress, and probably only because it was starting to rain. Now, he stood in front of them with his arms folded over his tatty t-shirt, his mouth a stern line.

“I’m fine,” he said, his husky voice and the swollen purple circles around his eyes betraying him. “You didn’t need to come here. You don’t — neither of you — need to be here.” But, even as he said it, the anger cleared and he looked at Aaron. “Why are you here? I mean, Emily, I understand — she’s nuts. But you?”

Aaron shrugged, cautious of how important this moment could be. “She—” He jutted his chin at Prentiss, who sneered at him: “—was worried. I figured if you were, I don’t know, passed out on the floor or something, she’d need someone to help.”

“Oh.” Reid shuffled, toes digging into the carpet of the silent apartment. “Well, I’m fine. I just want to sleep.”

“It’s three in the afternoon,” Aaron pointed out, but Prentiss was already pushing past, vanishing down the hall. Reid winced as she reappeared, eyebrows up.

“Your room smells gross,” Prentiss declared, “and so do you. When was the last time you showered?” Reid folded his arms, the stormy expression returning, but Prentiss ignored him. “You can’t close yourself in, you’ll go crazy doing that. Trust me, I’ve tried it. It gets old. Do you have a VCR?” Aaron looked at Reid, who folded and nodded, shoulders slumping. “Good. If you shower, we’ll let you sleep, promise, but not in there. It stinks of boy, I’m opening a window.”

“You’ll leave?” Reid asked hopefully. Aaron’s chest hurt again, seeing both hope and worry warring on his thin face.

“No. We’ll let you sleep — but we’re staying. Where’s the VCR? Living room? Good, I’ll set up.” She vanished, her dæmon following, leaving the two boys stunned in her wake.

“I think you should listen to her,” Aaron said carefully. “She doesn’t really give up.”

“No,” Reid replied, eyeing him. “She doesn’t. Are you going to stay too?”

After a beat, Aaron nodded. “I always feel worse when I’m lonely as well as sick,” he said, as soft as he could, loath to have Prentiss overhear this.

Something impossible to discern flickered across Reid’s face, but he didn’t say anything. Just smiled gently and slipped away to shower.

 

68.

“What do you think’s wrong with him?” Prentiss whispered halfway through Gremlins. Aaron twitched, waking from his half-doze at the sound of her voice. He was snuggled up with Hal on his lap, a blanket around him and barely awake on the world’s softest armchair. On the couch, Reid had long ago lost his battle against staying sat rigidly upright as to not touch any part of Prentiss next to him. Instead, he was flopped loosely in her lap, his face relaxed as he slept deeply, chest moving in a slow rise and fall as he breathed.

“Dunno,” Aaron whispered back, watching her as she looked down at Reid. She didn’t look like Prentiss in that moment, not the Prentiss he knew. She looked small and delicate in the flickering blue glow of the TV, the lack of hair only making her smaller still in profile. Her gaze was soft, impossibly so, and there was a careful shape of worry to her mouth that took his breath away. Even as he watched, she rested her hand on Reid’s hair and gently combed her fingers through the freshly-washed tangles, brushing them out almost absentmindedly.

On the floor, her dæmon was a snow-leopard again, his eyes barely slitted open as he watched Reid sleep too. The little mouse-dæmon was curled up as the barest tan shadow in his thick fur, paws covering his face and breathing gently.

“Maybe he’s just sad,” Prentiss said finally, still not looking up. “I mean, you know. Really sad. I know what that’s like.”

“Know what what’s like?”

Her gaze finally darted up to him, wary, but she still answered. “Being so sad you don’t want to get up anymore. When there’s no point…”

Aaron nodded slowly. He knew that feeling too. But he didn’t answer; he didn’t think she wanted him to. Instead, he focused back on the movie with the silence of the room slowly drawing him down until Hal pillowed his head, and he slept…

 

69.

…and woke with a gasp, the curtains no longer showing thin lines of light where the sun had leaked through. The TV was a rainbow of colours, humming gently, the movie long finished. On the couch, Emily and Spencer slept in a tangle of arms and legs, her arm around his side and their fingers tangled together.

The display on the VCR read 21:57.

“Fuck!” Aaron gasped, launching upright and grabbing his shoes. Alerted to his panic, Hal rocketed up too, realising their danger and becoming a greyhound with panicked eyes.

Before the other two even woke up properly, both startling and staring at him, they were running: out the door, down the stairs, through the hall — and sprinting the whole way home without stopping for a breath.

Gary was waiting.

Chapter Text

Spencer

 

70.

The most irritating ‘new’ thing they were having to deal with — and there were many irritating new things, really, but this took the cake — was William beginning every morning with, “Are you feeling better?” Like what was wrong with them was a cold or a case of chickenpox that had cleared up overnight instead of something inherently flawed within their very being.

“Sure,” Spencer said every time they were asked because what was the point of saying otherwise? They rather thought that William wasn’t asking because he wanted an honest answer. He just wanted to make sure that William two point oh was back on track to normalisation.

They were wrong about this.

Last week had been a bad week. In hindsight, anyway, it was a bad week. The week after a bad week, Spencer and Aureilo agreed, was always worse than the actual bad week itself. Those just consisted of a lot of sleeping and not going to school in a comfortable haze of nothing. The week after, as William reduced their access to the lithium their psychiatrist had prescribed them on top of the antidepressants, to ‘even it out’, was far, far worse. The mood-swings that followed always left Spencer feeling erratic and Aureilo manic with a kind of nervous, frantic energy.

“We feel sick,” Aureilo whispered in Spencer’s ear on the way to school, both of them huddled in the passenger seat. That was a new thing too: William now insisted on driving them to school.

Spencer said nothing, just curled his knee up against his chest to fight the dizzy kind of nausea and the cramping gut that assailed him. What good was complaining?

“Say hello to Emily for me,” William said with false cheer as they pulled up outside the gates of Ashworth. They looked at him. His smile shifted, becoming uncertain, and there was an awkward kind of tension in the car. Finally, without a word, they climbed out and closed the door behind them, trudging away without even waiting for the car to leave.

“At least we can see Hal,” Aureilo declared “See if she steals our chips today! I’ll fight her for them — see if I don’t.”

Spencer smiled and reached his hand up so his brave mouse could hide away in his sleeve from the burning eyes of the student body.

They didn’t want to be noticed.

 

71.

Aaron wasn’t there. They swallowed their disappointment and kept their heads down, worry beginning to niggle. He’d run from their apartment so fast the other night, so panicked…

“Do you think something is wrong?” Aureilo whispered from Spencer’s collar mid-pop-quiz. “Do you think he’s in trouble?”

“Dunno,” Spencer replied.

“Dæmons silent during the quiz.” Their teacher glared at them. “All dæmons.”

Spencer heard a muffled snort, turning his head just in time to see Sergio shift into a tiny version of the teacher’s marmoset-dæmon, paws on his side and swaying his hips as he mimicked her. Emily caught Spencer’s eye and winked. Sergio, by her hand, flickered and vanished.

Suddenly, there was a soft voice whispered by his ear: “Emily wants to know if you want to come to a party on the weekend.”

Aureilo answered for them, his voice quieter than Spencer’s. “Why? What would we do at a party? I shouldn’t think we would want to go? Why aren’t you asking us at lunch?”

Spencer, wary, kept his eyes on his quiz.

“Detention,” Sergio responded. Spencer felt the soft hum of a mosquito drift by his ear, the male noiseless. “We set Hannagan’s hair on fire with a Bunsen burner. Accidentally. Mostly. Come on — come with us. You’ve been locked in your room for a week now. You need some fun before you turn into your dad, old and withered and addicted to paperwork.”

Spencer winced. Aureilo inhaled angrily.

“Fine,” Aureilo muttered, circling underneath Spencer’s collar with an uncomfortable skitter of tiny claws. “We’ll come. We were born to party, right, Spencer?”

Spencer didn’t reply, just drew a worried face on the corner of his test.

 

72.

The next day, Emily was still in detention, but Aaron returned. All day, Spencer longed to pull him aside to talk to him: to find out what had happened, why he’d missed school, why he looked so tired, if he wanted to come on the weekend, if he wanted to hang out after school, what his favourite books were, why—

“Is he avoiding us?” Aureilo asked.

Spencer’s eyes tracked their maybe-friend-but-not-quite-yet as he darted away up the hall, books to his chest and Hal hidden on his person somewhere. “Maybe he changed his mind about hanging out with us,” he said, his heart sinking. After the awkward week of Aaron sitting with them, all of them unable to push past the weirdness to talk to each other, he’d hoped that night at his apartment had improved things. “Would you blame him?”

“Ridiculous,” Aureilo declared, his head poking out of Spencer’s shirt. “Besides, Hal is hiding. Hal never hides — she’s much too brave to hide.”

“So are you, and you still hide all the time.”

“I’m not hiding, I’m biding my time. It would be silly for me to be out in the open. I’m a mouse. Mice don’t dash about being openly brave. Hal is not a mouse and thus I think they’re upset about something.”

 

73.

But, at lunchtime, Hal was a mouse.

“Are you okay?” Spencer asked them, finding Aaron sitting with his back to the oak tree, his head bowed and fingers steepled against his temple. “Either of you?”

“Either of us?” Aaron asked, looking up at them. His eyes widened like he was startled.

They were really nice eyes.

“Yeah, you and Hal,” Spencer said, itching at his throat. Aureilo was doing laps around his neck again, his claws leaving scratchy lines on Spencer’s skin. “Are you both okay?”

“How do you know my dæmon’s name?” Aaron asked cautiously, before frowning. “Why do you care how she is? She’s the same as me. If I’m okay, she’s okay. No one ever asks if dæmons feel okay.”

“We do,” Aureilo whispered before launching out of Spencer’s shirt and onto his shoulder, quivering in the sun. “We do! I’m not only half of a whole, I have my own thoughts too, sometimes even better than Spencer’s.”

“Usually better than mine,” Spencer agreed glumly. He held his hand up so he could lift Aureilo down to the lawn and sit beside him, shuffling closer to Aaron. “Aureilo’s brain is less knotty than mine is. I think too much.”

“Ah,” said Aaron. He examined them both before, as they watched, the mouse-formed Hal slipped out of his shirt, rather much as Aureilo had done but clinging steadfastly to it instead of leaping down. She shifted to a bat, keeping her grip and watching them with her ears perked forward.

“I told Aureilo my name,” she said, her voice strange. Short and sharp, like she was tense. “I just didn’t tell you because I wanted to have something secret. Aureilo keeps secrets and I wanted to try.”

Aaron looked shocked. Spencer, used to his dæmon’s individual ways, simply unwrapped his lunch and picked at it.

“Want some?” he offered, but Aaron didn’t seem to be over Hal’s independent streak manifesting quite yet, looking down at her like he was seeing her for the first time. Her weight on the shirt dragged the V shape of the neckline down, pulling it open. Spencer saw the bruise. “Did you fall?” his mouth asked before his brain caught up, and any openness on either Hal or Aaron’s faces closed off. Hal dropped from the shirt, grabbing Aaron’s arm instead and clinging to his bicep.

“Fell on my ass at work,” Aaron muttered, which seemed like a lie. The bruise was on his chest, after all. But Spencer knew better than to poke and prod at lies.

Instead, he went for the coaxing route, finding a packet of chips in his bag and opening it for the dæmons. Aureilo dived in, squeaking with excitement, and Hal crept closer, bat eyes on the chip bag and ears swivelling back and forth. Finally, she clambered over, changing into a mouse and vanishing into the bag. From within, the boys could hear the dæmons beginning to whisper to each other, having their own conversation. Aaron was staring at the lawn. The silence almost hurt it was so heavy, broken only by whispers from the chip packet.

Someone’s stomach growled, and it wasn’t Spencer’s.

“Do you want my sandwich?” Spencer offered, holding it out. “I kind of picked bits of it off, but it’s still, well, I wouldn’t eat it, but I’m weird.”

“Aren’t you hungry?”

Spencer shook his head, watching as Aaron finally mumbled, “Thanks,” and took the sandwich, almost inhaling it and choking. Their eyes met and Aaron froze, panic overtaking his features.

“S’ok,” Spencer said quietly. “You don’t have to tell me anything. I think everyone should have secrets of their own.”

Aaron nodded. “Just not right now,” he said. His fingers left crumbs on his trousers as he wiped them. “Okay? Not right now. I—” Two heads poked out of the chip bag, watching them both intently. “—really want this to work out, this … this. Friends. If you want. And Prentiss too, even, if she can — if she wants.”

At that moment, Spencer was brave.

“Sounds fantastic, honestly. Want to walk home together?”

 

74.

The thing about an eidetic memory was that it was eidetic, not perfect. There were things Spencer and Aureilo had forgotten. The sound of their mother’s voice was one. The colour of Ethan’s eyes. The entire day of their fifteenth birthday and the two weeks following that date. Their first memory after that day was opening the door of their hospital room’s bathroom and finding their dad sitting fully-clothed in the shower, head in his arms and crying with Harback huddled against his side.

They remembered thinking wow.

But there were things that they knew they’d always remember. The scent of their mother’s perfume. Ethan sitting next to them at lunch and declaring to his dæmon that, “I’ve always wanted to be friends with a rabbit, what do you think, Parson?” They’d probably also never forget the sound of their father crying, no matter how much they wished they could.

Today was a day they knew they’d never forget. It was, on the outside to anyone looking in, absolutely mundane. To Spencer and Aureilo, its mundanity made it sublime.

Sublime: dangerously awe-inspiring. Like the feeling of walking from the school gates with a friend by their side. Not like Emily. Emily was awe-inspiring too, that she was at all interested in being around them and her absolute unshakeable confidence of her place in the world, but not like Aaron. There was always the danger that Emily would turn that treacherous, catty gaze onto them one day, taking them apart as easily as Spencer had watched her verbally destroy other students, as easily as they’d watched her turn a teacher against a girl who’d threatened them. That kind of power cut both ways and they didn’t know if they trusted her yet, not completely. Not like the way they trusted Aaron immediately. Maybe it was his eyes. Maybe it was the way he smiled when he let his guard down.

More than likely, it was that sublime walk home. They ambled, the spring day bright and sharp around them. The city was busy. They weaved through crowds of people who seemed to be taking their time, just like those two boys were. Aaron knew his way around, so he took Spencer the long way, down narrow side-streets and past dirty doorways with people lounging in them, smoking. Past shops that were tucked down stairways below ground level; Aaron led him down one and into a cluttered bookstore that they explored for almost an hour. In silence except for an occasional exclamation, without acknowledging the other except for a brush of shoulders or a quick, shy glance. Aureilo stood proud on Spencer’s shoulder, his gaze hungry on every gilded book cover. Hal pranced alongside Aaron, switching rapidly to an impressively wide range of exotic animals that had Spencer enviously wishing Aureilo hadn’t been quite so firm about belonging as a hare before becoming stuck as a mouse. A sand cat, a wolf, a pangolin, a deer, even a long-legged okapi. They left the bookstore but Spencer didn’t care, his attention now firmly on the shifting dæmon of his companion.

They weren’t done. The arcade was noisy and crowded and new, smelling of fresh linoleum and paint and too many bodies crowded together, the beep of machines and the shout of children overwhelming. Neither had money to play, but they didn’t care. Just lurked and watched and argued over strategies they could implement if they ever returned with the funds. The conversation shifted to books and back again, and from there to places they’d been and planned to go.

Spencer ended that walk by being brave once more: “Would you like to come to a party Saturday night? It’s with Emily, but I’ll be there.” He paused; tensed; decided to be honest: “I don’t know what it’s going to be like, actually, I’ve never been to one before. But I guess it could be fun?”

Aaron looked disappointed. “I can’t,” he said, scuffing his sneaker on the sidewalk and looking down at Hal, who shifted into a dejected looking basset hound and whuffed sadly. “Dad says I have to be home before he is every night until I get my license. Then I can please myself, so long as I pick him up from the bar when he’s done.”

“And we have church Sunday,” Hal piped up, becoming a dove. Spencer smiled at her and she preened, chest thrust out and feathers rippling until instead she was a brightly coloured macaw.

“Another time then?” Spencer asked.

“Absolutely.”

They parted ways with serious nods and promises to see each other at school, but both of them were grinning as they walked away.

 

75.

Aureilo didn’t like the people at the party. Spencer didn’t either, mostly because they gave him the wary feeling that Emily did but with none of the warmth. And he definitely didn’t like how they changed Emily. It was fine until a boy showed up, a boy with a dæmon that shifted rapidly and without pause, like his form was a party-trick with no real rhyme or reason. It was fine until that boy smiled at Emily in just the kind of way that made her look startled, her cheeks flushing pink. Spencer held his untouched drink close, watching as the boy teased and simpered and offered to refill Emily’s own cup once more and then again after that. Sergio went from a ferret on her shoulder to a cat weaving unsteadily around her feet to a sparrow that hopped uncertainly in wobbly figure-eights away from the shifting dæmon as it sauntered after her. In his pocket, under the hand that Spencer was resting gently on him, Aureilo hissed and shook.

The lights dimmed, the crowd of revellers — mostly unfamiliar, they weren’t from Ashworth — pooling in from outside to push together in a sticky mass of shouting bodies. Spencer pressed against the wall, eyes wide against the flicker of lighting, his ears and blood thumping with the bass. In his hand, the cup dripped condensation. By their side, the boy slung his arm around Emily and tried to kiss her, even as she turned her mouth away and instead looked to Spencer. Her mouth moved but he couldn’t hear it, shrugging helplessly. Closer she slunk, leaning on his shoulder with her hand too tight, beery breath on his face as her lips brushed his earlobe and made him shiver, his whole body on the edge of something fierce.

“You okay?” she asked. Her voice slurred.

No, he wanted to say but worried she’d tell him to leave her there alone. I don’t like him, was something else on the tip of his tongue, watching as the boy went to tug her away from Spencer, fingers hooked under her skirt and ignoring how Sergio’s beak was gaping. What will you do if I leave? was there, but he thought he might know the answer to that, and he didn’t like it at all.

“They always say those Ashworth girls are nuts,” the boy shouted as the music switched, both of them looking at him, “but you seem sweet enough, Emma.”

Emily didn’t say a word, just smiled uneasily and looked back at Spencer.

“Do you want to go?” she asked. Nearby, a crowd of teenagers cheered on a guy chugging a quarter-filled bottle of something dark and rich. Spencer watched the level drop, the crowd getting louder; the music kicked back in, the lights flickering again.

He shook his head and felt the world shake with it. “No,” he said again, for good measure, petting Aureilo with just his index finger. At their feet, Sergio’s head was lowered and the boy’s dæmon had finally settled on a rook, grooming the smaller sparrow with a glint in its wicked black eye.

Emily nodded, smiling reassuringly and letting herself be tugged towards the dancers in the next room. “You’re up next!” she shouted. “I’m gonna make you dance, mouse-boy.”

But she didn’t come back.

Spencer waited and waited and waited, until someone stumbled into him and poured their drink down his shirt — saturating the pocket Aureilo quivered in — and then he slipped through the crowd and out into the blessedly cool night. He didn’t go far. Just to the yard, against the back fence and tipping his untouched drink into the begonias as he went.

“I hate parties,” his beer-drenched dæmon complained as Spencer gingerly patted his fur dry.

 

76.

Emily found them. She looked grumpy and sober, her lipstick smudged and a red mark on her throat, skirt astray.

“Ass,” she announced, pulling Spencer up and striding off with him trailing after. Sergio was a cat again, his tail fluffed and expression haughty. “That guy was an ass. Let’s go — there’s a park down the road, we’re going there.”

He’d been wrong in thinking she was sober. Her walk weaved but not unhappily. There was a bounce back in her step and her mouth quirked up in a thoughtful smile, eyes on the sky and head tipped back a bit. They hurried to catch up.

“We didn’t like him,” Aureilo said.

“That’s okay,” she replied with a sharp smile. “I didn’t either. Too grabby. But he served his purpose.”

The park yawned ahead. The discordant beat of the party barely broke the solitude of the deeply shadowed trees. They made a beeline for the bark-chipped playground, abandoned at this early hour, Emily threading herself drunkenly through a climbing frame lined with woven ropes. Once atop it, she peered down at him with something hanging from her fingers. Spencer dropped to the bark-chips, sprawling out and barely able to see with the dim lighting of the moon above. The flick of a lighter startled him.

“They’re joints, Spence,” she said.

“Oh.” He watched her light it, watched the lines of orange the tip left as her hand moved behind it. Aureilo poked his head out of their pocket, staring at her too.

“Here.”

She was offering him the other one. He thought about it and he wondered: what would a braver boy than him do?

 

77.

Spencer stared at his cupped hands, aghast. “You’re just so little,” he whispered to the stunned looking mouse huddled there, twitching every time Spencer stroked his soft, warm back. “How are you so tiny? What’s inside you?”

“You okay over there?” Emily craned her head around to peer at them, lying on her back in the bark chips with Sergio a sprawled-out line of fur next to her.

Spencer looked at her, holding his dæmon up for her to examine. “He’s me,” he said, trying to express just how weird that was. “Emily, he’s me and we’re tiny. So so so little.”

“Oh no,” Sergio interrupted, rolling over and pausing halfway with his legs in the air. “Oh no, cat body-dog legs, oh no, I’m stuck. Aureilo, help.”

“I can’t,” Aureilo said glumly. “I’m too little.”

“So little,” Spencer agreed, falling back and hugging his dæmon close. It was nice. They didn’t feel small or sick or broken.

They smiled.

“Close your eyes, Spencer,” Emily’s voice said distantly. “He’ll still be there when you wake up.”

So they did.

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

78.

That year was the first time Gary used the cupboard. Neither Aaron nor Halaimon would ever forget how it felt, that two and a half inches of chipboard and veneer separating them from each other. A minuscule distance. If one was to hold a limb against the wood for long enough, they could feel the warmth of the other doing the same.

Despite this, they both cried.

That, Aaron would think later, was the worst part of it. It wasn’t the albatross’s cruelly stabbing beak herding his dear Hal into the dark recesses of the padlocked space; it wasn’t Gary laughing as Aaron begged and begged and apologised for daring to be late home.

It was the tears. The weakness they’d shown.

When the three hours were up and the trembling, bat-formed Hal was let loose from her prison to cling frantically to Aaron’s chest — both of them helplessly touching the other as though they’d forgotten how it felt to be together and only this intimacy would heal the terrible distance between them — they both silently realised something: they’d survived. It had been horrible, yes, but they were alive and, mostly, unharmed.

“He can’t really hurt us,” Hal whispered into Aaron’s ear that night. “Not as much as he thinks he can.”

Aaron smiled. He’d been clever. The only thing he loved was Hal; she was the only vulnerable part of him. Gary at his worst had just proven that he couldn’t hurt her more than they could handle. And, after that, he never quite feared his father as much as he should have.

 

79.

School improved. Aaron had never gotten in enough trouble to warrant the true harshness that Ashworth had to offer, and he suspected that Jerry had pegged from the beginning that he had nothing to do with Ricky Whitechapel’s death. The teachers liked him because he was polite and high-achieving; the other students were wary enough that they didn’t mess with him. But it had always been like that. No, that wasn’t what had improved things.

What improved them was this: Aaron, for the first time, had friends beside him.

 

80.

“Are we walking home together?” Spencer asked, appearing next to Aaron’s locker with the barest glitter in the shadow of his collar suggesting that Aureilo was peering out from within. At Aaron’s side, the coyote formed Hal pranced excitedly.

“Sure,” Aaron agreed.

This continued unfailingly.

 

81.

Aaron learned about Spencer. He noted that the boy was only ever silent and withdrawn sometimes, that it was easy enough most days to draw him out of the thick shell he’d formed around himself. The bookstore usually did it, especially once Hal whispered to Aaron that Spencer seemed to love the classics the most and they began to linger over there. They learned that Aureilo could be coaxed from hiding if only Hal was playful enough. They learned that, despite their wary nervousness around everyone, both Spencer and Aureilo still loved to play.

But they also learned that Spencer could be sullen, could be as quick to have his mood darken as a storm was to roll in, and that once his mood soured enough there was really nothing they could do to pull him out of it. Aaron found that he had to be careful of touching his new friend, because nothing made him skittish faster than the bigger boy looming too close to show him how to play one of the arcade games or reaching overhead for a book. That was understandable though, Aaron thought; after all, he didn’t like to be touched either. They kept a careful distance between them while their dæmons huddled close.

That was new too. Hal had never let any dæmon touch her before, only rarely Sean’s, but now she trotted around happily after them with Aureilo perched between her canine ears like a mouse-hat, as though all she’d ever wanted was to be needed to give her tiny friend a new perspective on life. It was odd, but Spencer didn’t seem to notice so Aaron didn’t point it out.

And Aureilo never changed form, not once, even though Aaron was sure there was more to Spencer than what the mouse displayed of him.

 

82.

When Aaron spent the spring break home in Manassas with his mom and brother, it was awful except for a few small parts.

One was his mom. She’d missed him, he could tell, even though they didn’t really know how to be around each other anymore. She was looking better than ever, as though being away from her husband had let her be someone she’d never been before. She went to a book club now and had taken up painting. Aaron barely recognised her, with her smile faster and her posture less hidden. It seemed apt, really, that Aaron was the price paid for this brightness in her eyes, and he couldn’t be mad at her for throwing him to the wolves since Sean was happier than Aaron had ever seen him.

There was no ‘For Sale’ sign in the front yard.

“I could talk to the school, see if they’ll let you back in,” his mom said one night, a week before he was due to return to DC. Aaron could see her looking at his long sleeves, his thick shirt. “You could come home…”

But if Aaron came home, they knew that Gary would invariably follow.

“I like it in DC,” Aaron said. It wasn’t really a lie. “I have a friend now.” He paused, thinking of Emily. “Friends, I guess.”

Besides, they could never come back here. People stared at him as he walked down the street with his mom. People whispered. And, three days after he’d arrived and the news of his visit had filtered out, they’d woken to psycho spray-painted across the garage door.

There was also his brother. Both Sean and his dæmon were alive now in ways they hadn’t been when they’d been hidden under the shadow of their father. For the first time, Aaron could see the future the boy had in front of him, one that Aaron had never had. One where he wasn’t beaten and frightened, but instead free to be who he wanted. Aaron wanted that for him, no matter the cost.

Another small, wonderful part was Spencer. Aaron’s mom let Aaron call DC and he dialled the number Spencer had given him with shaking fingers, wondering if Spencer would pick up, wondering if he actually wanted to talk. But, of course, Spencer answered: “Hello, Reid residence. This is Spencer.”

They talked for an hour and hung up reluctantly, both longing for the return of school and their nightly walks home.

 

83.

The last good thing about Manassas was something that he knew would give him his freedom, truly: his mom took him to get his learner’s permit. The few short weeks he was in Manassas he spent doing the driver’s education courses and, by the time it was time to return to DC, he had an escape.

“If you like,” he told his dad that night, still settling into the painful misery of this apartment with the man he loathed, “you can go to the bar after work from now on and I can come get you if you leave the car with me.”

 “Why would I do that?” Gary asked shortly.

“Oh, I just figured you’d be able to watch games there, and you won’t have to worry about not drinking since I’m driving. I’ll come get you at, um, ten?”

Hal was barely breathing, her eyes wide and hopeful.

“Hm. What’s in it for you?”

Aaron exhaled nervously. This was the dangerous bit. “I’d like to be able to take the car out when I want to. To see my … friends. So long as I pick you up on time every night and drop you at work, that would be okay, wouldn’t it? I’ll pay for all the fuel, I promise. And I’ll still make dinner.”

A dangerous gamble indeed. Hal trembled down into a cat under his feet, her tail fluffed up wide.

But Gary smiled, drunk and oddly kind tonight as though the weeks alone had pushed away his grievances with his son’s behaviour. “You know what, alright,” he said, nodding as firmly as though it was his idea and he was proud of it. “‘Bout time you started growing up, boy. ‘Bout time. You keep those grades up and you be home when I need you, and you can see these friends of yours. Never say I don’t do anything for you.”

“Yes, sir,” Aaron gasped, barely hiding his glee. “Thank you!”

 

84.

Aaron sat down heavily next to Spencer one lunchtime, Hal a lizard to enjoy the growing heat of the oncoming summer. He was barely listening to their heated conversation as he studied his textbook. Calculus was not his forte.

“Here,” Spencer said, handing him a sandwich.

Aaron accepted it automatically, mumbling thanks as he frowned at the line of examples before his attention diverted to the neatly wrapped sandwich. In Spencer’s hands, there was an exact replica that Spencer was busily unwrapping as he continued his heated debate with Emily. Even as Aaron stared, Emily tossed a packet of potato chips at him without breaking stride, the packet landing solidly in his lap. Neither really paid attention to what they’d done, but Aaron did.

“Did you guys bring me lunch?” he interrupted. They both looked at him, confused.

“No shit?” Emily replied, Sergio on his back next to her with his legs in the air and belly bared to the world.

“We have been for a week now,” Spencer added quietly. “You never bring your own.”

“And you’re always hungry,” Emily said. “Unsurprisingly, since you’re huge. Fat heads like yours need food too, you know.”

Aaron was unsure how to reply. There was a solid ache in his chest working its way up to his burning eyes, and he was horrified by the notion that he was about to start crying in front of his friends.

“Thank you,” he managed to rasp, staring down into his lap so they couldn’t see his face and refusing to look back up until Spencer made a noise indicating barely stifled anger. Their debate was devolving rapidly and even the dæmons were starting to get ratty with each other. Aureilo showed a rare temper as he bared tiny teeth in the ferret-formed Sergio’s direction and Sergio hissed back.

“That’s bullshit,” Spencer said.

Aaron’s gaze shot up from the sandwich he was choking down around the emotion clogging up his throat, realising he’d missed something integral. Emily was scowling under the neon orange brim of the beanie she’d pulled low to hide her hair and Spencer was flushed pink.

“It’s realism, shorty,” Emily replied just as sharply. “Deal with it. You’re so naïve.”

“I’m not naïve — don’t you think that people have inherent value? Don’t you think they’re worth protecting?” Spencer was up on his knees now, and Aaron had never seen him so animated, not at school. “You’re a nihilist!”  

“And?” Emily’s dark gaze switched to Aaron now, drawing him into what his sinking stomach suggested was going to be a real fight. “What about you, Hot-stuff? You on my side or the kid’s? Tell him — the world isn’t fair, and he’s fucked if he pretends it is. If you don’t look after yourself, no one else will — that’s life. And if you get hurt, that’s your fault too for not being prepared for it.”

“So if I was walking home tonight and got mugged, that’s because I’m weak?” Spencer snapped. “If Aaron was hit by a car, it’s due to his own failings? We don’t deserve to feel safe unless we can ensure our own protection? What kind of victim-blaming is that? That’s stupid!”

“Learn to protect yourself then.” Emily’s face was sullen. Aaron was frozen, unsure if he was angry or furious or horrified or a mix of all three. “Don’t be weak and you’ll be fine.”

“What about a child? Is a child at fault if their parent hurts them?”

Hal whined. It was short and sharp and drove something deep into Aaron’s heart. The bickering stopped as though the noise had thrown a switch on it, Spencer and Emily looking at Hal first and then Aaron. Spencer’s mouth moved once, but Aaron couldn’t hear through a buzzing in his ears, a thumping of blood in his head. What he said next was probably stupid, definitely cruel, and maybe he wasn’t angry at all.

Maybe he was sad.

“Who hurt you?” he asked Emily. “Someone had to for you to think this. It’s not true you know, no matter what they told you. You didn’t deserve it.”

Emily didn’t say a word, just got up and walked away.

 

85.

“Is that true?” Spencer asked him after as they walked home together. “What you said?”

“About what?”

“About Emily. Do you really think someone hurt her?”

Aaron winced. They hadn’t seen Emily all day after that, and he felt uncomfortable with how swiftly he’d pulled something out that Emily obviously would rather be kept hidden. But fuck that; he wasn’t listening to her warped worldview declared as fact, not when Spencer was right there ready to believe it.

“I don’t know,” he lied. “Maybe.”

Spencer didn’t reply, just asked if they could go to the bookstore. He didn’t say another word, not until Aaron found him staring blankly at a row of paperback romance novels, his mind clearly a million miles away. The store was silent, closed in. Shelves of books hid them from view. Maybe this was why Aaron did it; maybe that was why he felt like they were in their own private little world where, for once, he could be brave.

He stepped forward, touching Spencer’s elbow just to let him know he was there. “Tell me what you’re thinking,” he said, wanting nothing more than to know what was ticking behind those curious eyes.

The low breath that Spencer took rattled. “I don’t want her to be right,” he whispered, fingers twitching by his side and gaze darting over the books without taking in a word. Aaron waited patiently. Hal was a blackbird on the shelf behind them, Aureilo leaping nimbly across to her and tucking himself against her yellow feet. “What she said, about people bringing their own hurt onto themselves. I don’t want that to be true … but I worry it is, in a way. Maybe?”

“Why?” Aaron asked. A clock ticked somewhere in the silent store. A page rustled, someone coughed alone, and they stepped closer still, determined to remain private in their moment. Spencer’s shoulder brushed against Aaron’s chest, his head tilted down. This close, Aaron could smell his deodorant, his shampoo, hear the soft rasp of his shirt on Aaron’s. Their matching uniforms, except for where they were different: Spencer’s tie was always crooked and he never tucked in his shirt.

“I feel so much,” Spencer mumbled. “So much that I sometimes think I’m drowning in it. There’s just … too many feelings and I don’t have enough brain to deal with them all. And it hurts. It always, always hurts to have so many conflicting, confusing emotions, I wish they’d stop—”

“We wish they’d stop,” Aureilo corrected shrilly.

“—but they don’t and they hurt and, if Emily is right, we did this to ourselves. We caused this, and everything terrible that came along with it. Our … we think we might have hurt our mom, and that’s why she’s not around anymore…”

“We know we hurt our dad,” Aureilo said. “So if we did this by feeling too much, why do the people around us suffer for it? If Emily is right, who’s to blame? Us for feeling, our mom — she was hurt too, did she do this? — or our dad. Did he do it? Where does it end?”

Aaron thought about that for a while.

“I don’t think you’ll ever figure it out by looking at yourself,” he said finally, focusing on the only part he knew how to touch on right now and looking away to avoid seeing the glassy brightness to Spencer’s eyes. Spencer was leaned against the shelf now, cheek to the cold edge of the metal, the books leaving lines on his skin, and his glasses fogging from his damp breathing. “This isn’t something that she’s ever thought of as being about you, or me. It’s not something she’s thought about — it’s reactionary. It’s just a response to trying to figure things out on her own, things about herself. To rationalise what she sees as her own failings. I think if you challenged it enough, she’d cave. She doesn’t want to bring others down — just herself…” He thought about it for a moment, comprehension dawning. “It’s a response to feeling cornered, blaming herself. And people shouldn’t be judged on how they act when they’re feeling cornered.”

“I don’t get it,” Spencer complained. “None of this is clear. You make it sound so simple, but you don’t have any evidence, you barely know her. And she’s not wrong often, why would she be wrong about this?”

But he paused. Aaron waited. Spencer, he’d found, furiously refused to admit to his friends’ flaws unless forced.

“If the theory doesn’t make sense when applied to us, and it definitely doesn’t make sense when applied to Aaron and Hal, then maybe it’s a flawed theory,” Aureilo said in the silence that followed. “You’re looking at it wrong. Stop trying to force it onto us to try and justify her believing it — look at it when applied to her and then work backwards to see what she understands as reinforcing it.”

Aaron thought that maybe he followed, but not entirely. He could understand the person behind the ideas, really, but once it became abstract, he was lost. An abstract wasn’t as easy to understand as people were — he understood people. He had to. Understanding people and how their behaviour was shaped was what kept him in one piece. It was as innate as knowing from something as simple as how his father put his beer bottle down against the table how the mood in the apartment was going to turn that night.

“I just hate to think of her hurting,” Spencer admitted, squeezing his eyes shut, before they snapped open wide, shocked. Oh, Aaron thought he heard him breathe, but he couldn’t reply because he felt it too. On the shelf behind them, as the two boys turned to look, their dæmons were both mice. Hal was bigger than Aureilo even as a field mouse too, taller and broader and cuddled close as she hugged the other dæmon tight. Aureilo’s eyes were closed, nestled into Hal’s dark fur, and Hal watched Aaron.

Aaron didn’t respond, just stared at his dæmon offering the only comfort she knew how until Spencer stepped ever so slowly closer and brought his hand up to touch Aaron’s. The touch was gentle, barely there — just the promise of their fingers curling together, the barest hint of pressure. Aaron was breathing sharply, Spencer was pale; someone walked past the aisle and they pulled apart fast. Swiping his sleeve across his face, Aaron mumbled, “We should go,” and quickly walked away. He didn’t really know what had just happened and didn’t think Spencer knew either.

 

86.

Ian let him take the van out, bunny-hopping the thing up the long alleyway behind the garage as he tried to get the hang of driving stick. She wasn’t running nicely. The exhaust rattled and there was a tick tick tick under the hood that Ian was hinting might be the timing belt, but she was running. He’d done it. He’d taken nothing, a beat-up old husk of a van, and made something out of it. He couldn’t stop smiling, especially not when he glanced back in the rear-view mirror and saw Hal as a Labrador smooshing her nose against the back window, tongue lolling out happily at their achievement. Not even when the van coughed and rolled to an anti-climactic stop. Ian roared with laughter and slapped the wonky dash hard enough that a piece of it tumbled off.

“No problem,” Ian reassured him as they popped the hood. “Nothing is ever so broken that there’s no hope of putting it back together, kid, not even a hunk of junk like this.”

Glass broke inside the van, Hal’s voice sounding out with a worried, “Uh oh.” Aaron froze, fear almost breaking through the excitement of their short drive.

But Ian just kept laughing. “Not even that,” he reassured them, and they could breathe again.

 

87.

Spencer’s apartment had become their unofficial gathering place every day after school now that Aaron was free of the need to try and predict his father’s arrival home. They ambled to Aaron’s, picked up the car, drove to Spencer’s, and then did as they pleased until Spencer’s watch beeped to indicate that Aaron had half an hour to get to the bar.

Emily arrived there the day after the disagreement, quiet until she sidled up to Spencer, murmured, “Sorry,” and looked away.

Spencer forgave her, of course he did, and they didn’t bring it up again. Not yet. It didn’t feel right, not until she was ready to talk about it. But Aaron didn’t pick at her as much anymore; he wasn’t sure she was the person he’d always thought she was. In fact, there was a niggling feeling that maybe Emily was more like him than he was comfortable with. They both had trouble trusting others and maybe the start of getting over that was trusting each other.

 

88.

On this day, they had the window thrown open and music playing from the tape deck Emily had found shoved under Spencer’s bed. The soft hum of Tom Petty and Emily grumbling about Spencer’s dad’s taste in music was the background noise to the calculus Aaron was still puzzling over, easily distracted by the ambient noise of the city outside. Back against the couch and legs sprawled in front, Aaron closed his eyes and let his head loll back against the couch cushion behind him, feeling it dip as Spencer rolled over to peer at his notebook.

“I can help, if you like,” Spencer said, his voice a deep hum by Aaron’s ear. Aaron twitched, opening one eye to stare blearily back at his friend. “I’ve finished that module.”

 “You finished three months of calculus?”

From her corner of the room, Emily snorted. “He’s finished everything,” she said. “He’s basically up to senior year at this point. I have no fucking idea why he’s still in our classes. Kid could have his diploma in a month if he felt like it.”

Spencer looked uncomfortable. “I get bored.”

“How smart are you?” Aaron grumbled, a spark of frustration building.

Spencer shrugged and rolled so he was curled behind Aaron, leaning past to point at a particular problem. “Here, let me help. Copy that into your book and we’ll work from there.”

Aaron did so, hyperaware of Spencer’s chest brushing his back every time the boy breathed. Click clack went the tape deck behind them, the music stalling as Emily finally figured out how to record on the blank tapes she had piled next to her. The radio she had it plugged into hummed as she switched it from station to station, searching for songs. Spencer’s voice murmured, talking Aaron through the row of examples, the scratch of his pencil narrating this moment, the sun drooping down outside.

When the tape deck clacked again, spitting out Emily’s tape, they jumped. It was dusk. They’d done a whole page. Spencer yawned. Aaron turned the page. They began again, pausing only to pad out into the kitchen to pour soda into glasses Spencer kept cool in the freezer, before returning to their couch. Tiredly, Aaron let his head lounge back a bit into Spencer’s chest, propping his books on his bent knees. Spencer’s arm dropped from where it was guiding him through another series of examples, his hand settling on the textbook on Aaron’s lap, the side brushing against Aaron’s in a short line of vivid heat that Aaron couldn’t help but be aware of. The scratch of his pencil ceased. Against the back of his neck, Spencer’s breath was warm and slow. As though in a dream, Aaron let his pencil fall, his hand slide down the book, just two fingers hooked over Spencer’s. Cheeks burning, heart thumping: the touch began cautiously and settled only when Spencer didn’t seem to react beyond the slightest hitch of his breathing.

The deck clicked again. Emily sneezed and grumbled about the DJ talking over the music she was taping. The boys twitched away from each other, hands drifting apart before slowly, as Emily turned the music up once more and continued paying no attention to them, falling back together.

Their fingers brushed, not accidentally this time. As Aaron watched, Spencer gently traced his index finger down Aaron’s hand, in a soft flutter of skin on skin.

And again, curiously.

Aaron turned his hand over, palm up and wondering what would happen. Spencer paused, waited, before finally settling his hand in Aaron’s and making the softest noise when Aaron closed his fingers around his.

“Are you two asleep over there?” Emily asked, looking up. Their hands flew apart once more, Aaron throwing his up to quickly ruffle his hair, as though he’d been doing nothing strange or breathless at all.

“Nope,” he said quickly.

“No,” Spencer whispered.

Their dæmons watched, both of them mice once more and so tightly wound together that Aaron couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began.

Chapter Text

Emily

 

89.

“Maybe we were wrong about him,” Sergio suggested of Aaron, but Emily didn’t really want to hear that. The last thing she needed was her stupid dæmon joining Team Aaron. Spencer was already there, and Emily would be the first to admit why that pissed her off: she was jealous. God was she jealous. Fuck Aaron fucking Hotchner and his holier than thou ways, coming in on the only good thing she had going right now. Fuck him. He wasn’t going to come between her and something she’d come to treasure; her friendship with Spencer was different, it was real, and she’d fight for it if she had to.

“He just hasn’t been an asshole yet,” Emily snapped. “He still has the potential.”

Despite this surety, she couldn’t help but soften in person. It was hard to remember everything she knew was dangerous about him when he was sitting there looking all solemn with his dæmon tumbling about on the grass and his eyes locked on whatever they were eating. A big dude, yeah, but there was a pinched kind of look around his eyes and mouth that made her feel uncomfortable, reminding her of hungry kids she’d seen lurking in street corners of some of the cities she’d travelled to with her mother. Hungry kids, and stray dogs, always waiting to be kicked. Was he like that, she wondered? Was that why he was like he was? Was he just waiting to be kicked?

That was a rough thought.

Miserable or not, the truth was that, now that he was here, there was no time alone with Spencer anymore. If Spence was there, Aaron was too, and she missed being able to talk to Spencer without worrying about Aaron butting in. She wanted it to be how it had been. She wanted to see if she could coax out the boy she’d seen glimpses of that night at the park: the silly, vibrant boy who’d held his mouse-dæmon like he was precious and wondered about his own potential. Shit, if it took a bit of pot to finally calm Spencer down enough that he wasn’t manic with his own thoughts, then she was down for that. There were parts of him that he kept hidden — and she reckoned she knew how to draw them out. He needed it, or he was going to shatter under the weight of his own expectations. But there was no way Aaron ‘Saint’ Hotchner was going to be okay with her getting their weirdo friend stoned; he didn’t have the spine to bend.

 

90.

At work, she found Aaron’s file and read through what she could. She found what she needed to finally decide whether she was going to let him in or shut him out. It wasn’t hard to pick the lock on the filing cabinet holding their therapy notes, and it sure as shit wasn’t any moral conundrum to find his file. They all knew what he was here for; he could be dangerous. Hungry dogs could be, especially when they were waiting for a blow.

It took her two hours to read the file, under her desk and smiling disarmingly whenever someone walked past her. In this time, she learned several things about Aaron Hotchner:

One: he wasn’t a murderer. There wasn’t a single doubt in Jerry’s mind that Aaron had had absolutely nothing to do with the death of Ricky Whitechapel beyond simply being present.

Two: he still had nightmares about that night. She paused over this. There was a whole section on working through death and trauma in there. Aaron was haunted by that day.

The third and final thing she found was something that she regretted reading as soon as her eyes skimmed over the neat Times New Roman laying it out for her. She remembered their argument at lunch and promptly put the file away, slinking back to her desk and laying her head in her arms to deal with a churning gut that whispered accusingly along with Sergio: “What are you going to do with this information?”

Because the third and final thing she’d found was this:

‘It is my belief that Aaron Hotchner is a victim of sustained violence and victimisation within his home. It is my recommendation that, due to the danger I see him as being in, a full and immediate investigation be opened with Child Protective Services, and that he be removed immediately from the home.’

 

91.

“Have you heard from your mother?” Jerry asked.

Emily replied, “Nope,” without even deigning to look up from picking at her nails, sprawled sideways in the chair set aside for her and with her stockinged leg bouncing to an imaginary beat.

“Have you tried?”

“Hah, no.”

Therapy with Emily very rarely went easily. Jerry knew this. He settled back in his chair and eyed her over his steepled fingers. She considered poking her tongue out at him or flipping him off, but either would land her back in detention and probably with double therapy to boot.

“Why not?”

“Because she’s a total bitch.” Emily bit down on her nail, wincing as she tore right to the quick. “Why else? I don’t need her shit in my life. I’ve got nothing to tell her anyway.”

“You could tell her about your new friends.”

Emily turned the best stare she could onto him, trying to channel the piss-worthy glare that Aaron and his fucking monster of a dæmon could nail when they were angry. It didn’t seem to work, even when Sergio shot up into a wolf and sneered along, all narrow and pokey with tufts of fur standing upright. “What friends?” she spat. “Spencer? Why would I tell her about him?”

“And Aaron. You’ve all been sitting together lately — I was under the impression you were getting along. Isn’t that something she’d be interested in?”

“No. You don’t know her, she’s only interested in the capital I bring her as her offspring. She doesn’t give a shit about Spencer, or Aaron, or the gigantic stick he has up his ass.”

“That’s not really how I’d expect you to talk about a friend.”

Emily muttered, “You don’t know shit about me either.”

 

92.

She didn’t tell Spencer about Aaron. She couldn’t. That wasn’t her secret to tell, but the word danger lingered in her mind. She began watching Aaron, noting his careful sizing up of those around them, noting how he’d wince when people shouted near him. Emily had never once faced someone within her home laying a hand upon her, and it was a frightening and alien thing to consider what it would be like to fear going home. It was also beyond her ability to help him, really. Bullies in school were one thing; bullies at home entirely another.

“We can be his friend,” Sergio offered. “Give him an escape.”

“I refuse to be friends with him out of pity.”

“It doesn’t have to be out of pity. We could like him. I like him. Hal is sweet to Aureilo.”

Emily paused, bare feet scuffing on the rug under her heel. “What if that’s a ploy?” she asked her dæmon. “Hal can be mean.”

“Hal’s never mean. I’ve never seen her mean once, only defensive. I can be mean — I know what mean looks like. Mean looks like this.” He changed into a fox with a snarling muzzle and cruel mask. It wasn’t the shape that was mean, it was the intent he put behind it, and Emily shivered: “Mean doesn’t look like this.” And then he was the wolf that Hal walked as sometimes, head low and ears slicked back. “This is defensive. But that’s never how she looks with Aureilo, is it?”

He changed one more time, to a mouse with a gentle stare.

“Don’t do that,” she said uncomfortably, disliking how little he was right now. That wasn’t her. They weren’t Spencer, content to tuck themselves away from the world. They faced it, furiously.

There was a knock at her dorm room door, lazy and slow. In the corner of her eye, as she glanced at the door, Sergio flickered and grew, but she didn’t look to see what. Instead, she let Andrews in and stood aside to let him past. The dæmon on his shoulder was a rook again, just like the night of the party, and she shivered.

“Hey there, Emma,” Andrews said, smiling. Emily eyed him, under no illusions about why he was here. Oh, she was going to buy from him, but they were probably also going to have sex.

“Emily,” she corrected shortly, closing the door.

It was better than feeling nothing.

 

93.

“Man,” Andrews slurred. He was pressed against her body with both of them strung out along with the thump of a stereo playing next door, Emily’s brain looping and torquing along with the fingers of sound playing catch-up with her neurons. Acid was never kind to her, never, and she loved how it felt just as much as she loathed how it felt. His next words weren’t strung out at all: “I don’t know why people hate you so much. Easy girls are fun.”

Emily closed her eyes, pretending that there was something in this room still worth being something for.

 

94.

After that hour, Sergio was a wolf with his ears tucked back, his form wavering and wild as they came down. They were alone. The music was gone. She hadn’t bothered getting dressed, splaying her hands across her flat stomach and wondering if there was anything under her palm that was worth all this energy. The roof danced and the walls twitched along and all of it ignored her stupid dæmon, who wasn’t anything special if she wasn’t. Always stupid, just like her, and just as easy.

“Why didn’t you throw him out?” asked the wolf.

“He’s not wrong,” she replied, touching the wall to see if it would move with the pulse of life she could feel in her abdomen. “Is he?”

The wolf didn’t reply.

 

95.

There was a weekend where she managed to haul Spencer out to a party, knowing he’d probably hate it and determined to do so anyway. Introvert or not, he couldn’t just sulk in his room for his whole life, and she knew Aaron didn’t visit late on Saturday nights, sneering as she imagined church-boy off to pray the next morning to whatever he thought was waiting to listen. He’d learn that there was nothing there but lies and bullshit soon enough.

She was drinking. Spencer wasn’t, leading her in wobbly circles around the open property where the party was spilling outwards: a plot of land set around an old farmhouse almost an hour out of DC. They’d caught a ride out here with Andrews, Spencer silent and furious in the backseat the whole time with Emily uncomfortably aware that Spencer could see Andrews trying to sneak a hand up her skirt as he drove. At least they were finding their own way home, with Spencer bringing money for a taxi. She hated relying on others.

“Why are we walking in circles?” she asked, slinging her arm around Spencer’s waist and dragging him in a looping kind of almost-dance. “Dance with me!”

“I don’t dance,” Spencer replied, shaking his head. She rolled her eyes at him, ruffling his hair up nicely and tugging him close, trying to get those narrow hips swaying. “Emily! Stop!” But he was laughing, the worried look in his eyes lessening slightly. “I don’t like the crowds.”

“They’re crowdy,” Aureilo yelled from his shirt, voice barely audible over the nearby music. Emily hummed along, looking around for a solution. The bonfire to the back looked less crowded — although not by much — but there was another further back that was smaller again and mostly just the more reclusive kids.

“Come on then,” she said, dragging him along with a hopping bounce. They’d lost Andrews and she wasn’t sorry at all. Tonight was a night to find that happy, giddy boy again, the one who was hiding behind the worried light in Spencer’s eyes; she missed him.

The smaller fire was languid, the people around it spilled on the ground like they’d been left there by a lazy hand, only moving to pass around the bowl they were smoking. Spence hesitated, just for a second.

“You told me it felt good,” Emily said. “Like not thinking.”

“Do it,” added Aureilo.

Spencer rolled his eyes at them, taking a place next to her at the fire and relaxing by her side. She leaned on his shoulder.

This; this was what would help him, she was sure.

 

96.

“My wallet is gone.” Spencer sounded only slightly surprised by this, patting his jeans down one more time as though he wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Emily kneeled in front of him, trying to fix his silly sweater-vest up so that the argyle pattern would line up nicely in her eyes. She laid her hands flat across the wild lines, feeling for the beat and pulse of the same life in him as she’d found in herself. “Em, my wallet is gone — I must have dropped it. Somewhere.” He looked down at her hands, laughing a little before the worry returned and he caught them in his.

She gasped at his long fingers across hers, feeling swallowed by that grip before shaking herself. “Well, fuck,” she managed. “What now?”

He just shrugged loosely, distracted by her hands. “I think I’ve dropped Aureilo too?” he questioned, trying to turn in a slow circle to look for his dæmon. “Well, fuck.”

He swore so rarely that she giggled to hear it, which only distracted him further from the search for his lost belongings.

“We’re fine,” she mumbled, closing her eyes and sprawling back to curl around her dæmon, stroking his spine. “We’re fine, Spence, lie down with us.” He ignored her, turning in another circle, and then another, and then going oop and tumbling sideways as he got dizzy. She nuzzled close and added, “They’ll both come back when they’re done partying.”

“My wallet will?” he asked. His voice cracked amusingly, but she wasn’t paying attention anymore.

 

97.

It hit them an hour later, just how fucked they were.

“Uh oh,” Emily said, double-checking his pockets and finding a paperclip, a Bic lighter, and Aureilo, but no wallet. Uselessly, Spencer just laughed. “Stop laughing, idiot, how are we going to get home? You’re a genius. Do something genius!”

“Okay.” Spencer curled his knees to his chest, thoughtfully examining the dying flames. Emily looked around for someone they knew, seeing no one familiar among the drunken shapes of the people dancing and hooking up around them. Teenagers staggered past, a keg stand going on by the wall. “I’ve got it! Sergio can turn into a horse and we’ll ride him home. Wait, no, I don’t know how to ride horses, bother…”

Emily looked at Spencer now, covering her mouth with her hands to forestall a giggle that would only encourage his idiocy. In his defence, he looked solemn enough, but she saw him hiding a smile with his hair curling down into his eyes.

“Yes,” Sergio said. “That’s the only problem with that idea.”

“I’ll be a horse!” Aureilo announced. He stood bravely on Spencer’s shoulder and fell off with a squeak. They all heard the thumpf of him gently hitting the soft ground before Spencer twitched and belatedly tried to catch him.

“Is that the only idea you have?” Emily asked. There was a field nearby: maybe they could just sleep out there, or in the barn. Up in the hay, like a couple of barn cats. That sounded comfy.

“Hal would be a pretty horse,” Aureilo added, skittering over the leaves and jumping onto Sergio. “Don’t you think?”

 “Come on,” she said. “We’re finding a phone and calling Aaron.”

“Are we?” Spencer asked, brightening. “Awesome.”

 

98.

Aaron looked amazingly out of place walking through the crowd, his car keys dangling from his fingers and his gaze darting everywhere. Hal was stiff-legged by his side, a wolf again, and Emily couldn’t help but laugh. Church boy dressed pretty in a dress shirt and jeans: all he was missing to complete that clean-cut look was the tie. Alerted by her laugh, Spencer turned and saw Aaron, his face splitting immediately into a stupid grin.

“Aaron!” he yelled, lurching up and throwing himself at the other boy. “You came!”

“I don’t have to be a horse!” Aureilo could be distantly heard to be explaining to a very confused looking Hal. Aaron had reflexes that Emily envied right now as she drunkenly considered getting up to greet their friend and realised that she probably didn’t have the feet for it. He caught Spencer mid-leap with his face covering a complicated array of emotions before settling on bemused as he half-carried, half-dragged Spencer back to the fire they were, mostly, alone at.

“Are you drunk?” he asked Spencer before looking down at Emily as Spencer did nothing but chirp, “Nope!” and then laugh.

Emily tried to look innocent. “He’s just drunk,” she lied, relying on Aaron’s slim knowledge of alcohol to get this past him but, judging from the raised eyebrow she got in return, it wasn’t working. “Okay, fine, he’s baked.”

“He smells like weed,” Hal complained, sniffing Aureilo. The mouse’s fur was visibly shifted about by the big nose snuffing at her before she picked Aureilo up with her teeth as gentle around him as possible and carried him back to the fire. Aureilo seemed to find this hilarious, his shrill mouse-laugh borderline hysterical.

Spencer had his hand around Aaron’s arm, grinning with a kind of manic wideness that she recognised. The kid was only barely stoned, touching on sober, and he was panicking. His gaze switched from the chick with the empty bowl and back to Aaron as he began to fret over how this made him look in front of the boy he was desperate to impress.

Emily remembered Rome and being so recklessly frantic to fit in that she’d have done anything.

“Sit down,” she told Aaron. “I’ll get you a drink.”

Aaron frowned. “I thought I was coming to pick you up…” But his eyes lingered on Spencer, whose smile was slipping, his gaze growing glassy as the panic spread outward. “Do you want to go home?”

“I’m…” Spencer began, wobbling in place. Aaron supported him effortlessly. Emily ached to see that, just how easy they were around each other. It had taken her twice as long to get past Spencer’s shields. “I’m … having fun? I guess. I think. We can go though. We should go. Let’s go.”

He walked off in entirely the wrong direction. Aaron collected him with a low sigh, herding him back to the fire where Emily somehow managed not to laugh.

“Give him two hours and he can drive,” she said slyly, nodding at Spencer. That might be pushing it a little, but if they got Aaron drunk, what would it matter? Shit, if all he had to look forward to at home was cruelty, maybe he needed this. A night where he could see how sweet Spence could be when he wasn’t worried about his knotty brain. “You could drink if you want to.”

“You can drive?” Aaron asked Spencer, startled.

“I have been known to be one who has driven,” Spencer rambled before looking confused. “Wait, no, what? Yes. I … what?”

“Come on, Hotchner, you need to loosen up sometimes, you know. Let it go!” Emily was teasing, but intent. It would be fun, and they all needed fun.

“I don’t even know what that means,” Aaron complained, sitting down and looking startled as Spencer flopped next to him, tucking himself close and beaming.

“We know.” Emily found her feet and went to find some alcohol for the kid before he changed his mind. “Maybe we need to get you laid.”

“That’s a hard no,” Aaron said firmly as Spencer turned an inexplicable shade of embarrassed.

 

99.

It was morning when it happened, just barely. Aaron had made himself a friend between his first drink and his fourth, smiling nervously as she — Claire Sinclair, Emily recognised, and she was one of those sweet, arty kids with the wicked smiles — sat on the side of Aaron opposite Spencer and flirted shamelessly with them both. Spencer, being Spencer, didn’t seem to notice. He was half asleep by now anyway, head on Aaron’s shoulder and mouse-dæmon snoozing in the hands he had folded in his lap. Emily nestled on his other side, stupid-content with the quiet rundown of the night and feeling nothing but cozy. Someone had brought out more weed at some point; Aaron had declined, Emily had declined for Spencer considering they actually needed to go home at some point, and she’d partaken. No reason why she should be sober like this, not when she was so close to feeling like she was finally home.

This was home, she thought, turning her head and breathing deep just to feel Spencer against her. But their corner was tucked away from the wind, almost enclosed, and now that the fire had burned down there was probably more pot smoke floating about than air. Aaron looked fucked, his eyes taking on that hundred-yard stare of the truly wasted, his cheeks flushed pink. Pretty, she thought, eyeing his neat mouth and the nice line to his jaw. What a pretty kid. Fuckable, she’d think, if she wasn’t so determined to keep their weird three-way friendship PG to avoid things getting knotty like Rome had.

Under her arm, Spencer jerked awake with a damp snuffle. “It’s almost morning,” he noted unnecessarily before turning to look past Aaron. “Oh, hello, who are you?”

Claire laughed at him, shaking her head. “More conscious than you,” she teased. Her dæmon was a cat by her side that rolled in the grass and laughed along in a sweet voice that was almost musical. “You poor thing.”

“That’s a good point,” Sergio said, sitting upright. “Get him up and walking, Em, wake him up.”

“Alright, alright,” she grumbled, tugging him up. Aaron protested the loss of Spencer’s heat, looking up at them with the most woeful expression, but Claire’s hand was on his thigh and he didn’t move to follow. “Come on, skinny, we’re going for a trot around the yard. Get those knees up.”

Most people were either gone or unconscious by this point, the sky slowly turning pink-blue with the oncoming dawn. They walked in silence as Emily watched Spencer’s senses beginning to sharpen, his eyes red but clear and his clothes ruffled.

“It’s real nice here,” he said finally, turning to stare at the dew-wet morning field with Aureilo yawning on his shoulder. “I’d like to see more, when sober. During the daytime.”

“We’ll bring you out here sometime and you can have all the farm you want. You think you’re good to drive without flinging us into a tree?”

“Yeah,” Spence replied, rubbing his face with both hands and leaving white lines from the pressure of his fingers. “But I need water first. My mouth feels horrible. And my throat hurts.”

“Cotton-mouth,” she teased, herding him back to go find Aaron.

But, when they got there, Aaron and Claire were gone.

 

100.

Aaron found them sitting by his car, waiting for him. Spencer was quiet, Aureilo hidden in his shirt. They watched their friend walk towards them with an unsteady slope to his gait and looking more than a bit confused. Emily noted a red mark on his throat, his hair rucked up stupidly like someone had run their fingers through it, and an entirely dazed expression cemented on his face.

Emily teased, “What. A. Slut.” as soon as he was in earshot, gratified by Hal glaring at them with her own fur in total disarray.

“Are you ready to go?” Spencer asked him with his voice quiet and sad. “I have a headache and it’s a long drive.”

Aaron just nodded, handing his keys over without a word and crawling into the backseat. Hal staggered up and flopped next to him. Before Spence had even driven them up the road and turned onto the highway, they were asleep.

The rest of the drive was silent except for their soft breathing and the tap tap tap of Spencer’s fingers on the steering wheel.

 

101.

They dropped Aaron home, rousing him just enough for him to mumble about them not walking him up as he vanished alone into his apartment building. Spencer lingered, unhappy about not making sure their friend had made it all the way, but Emily eventually coaxed him away.

The walk to Spencer’s wasn’t far from here even as the day began to pick up around them, traffic building on the roads and sidewalks. They both looked trashed, Emily knew, but she didn’t care. Spencer, on the other hand, slung his hands in his pockets and avoided meeting anyone’s gaze.

“You okay?” Emily asked. This silence was grating.

“Yes,” Spencer said shortly, before, “Well, no. Not really.”

He fell quiet again, ignoring her pointed looks.

Emily jogged to keep up with his long legs, letting him choose when to finally talk. It turned out that that was only when they were back at his apartment, letting themselves in and waiting until they were sure that William wasn’t home before making themselves comfortable without fear of him looming. Flopping on the couch together, over-tired and with Spencer’s expression frustrated, Emily waited for him to speak.

He did, eventually.

“Is there something wrong with me?”

“No? What? Why?”

“Well, I…” He stopped and started, halting, confused; she hated seeing him fumbling for words. “I mean, he gets there and, seconds later, she’s all over him. She didn’t even look twice at me?”

“Is this because Aaron hooked up?” Emily asked with a bark of laughter, regretting her bluntness as Spencer winced and changing it to: “I mean, whatever he did, they probably just talked. Or looked at flowers. Or something. Aggressive cuddling.”

“No one ever looks at me,” Spencer mumbled, huddling down into the couch. “I’m awkward and weird and ug—”

“Shut up. You’re gloomy, that happens. It’s just the weed wearing down and you’ll feel better after you sleep. Besides, you didn’t want to hook up, did you? Also, can I stay over?”

Bless him, she actually saw his brain stall to a stop on that as his brain misinterpreted that, his logical mouth going, “No,” even as the teenage-boy locked up tight in his head made his face twist a bit like he was in pain. “And, yes? On the couch?”

“On the couch,” she reassured him, poking him in the ass until he got up and moved away from her sleeping spot. “Go sleep. After that, you can whine about not getting aggressively snuggled by strangers, okay? I’ll even listen with only moderate eye rolling.”

She bunkered down, ready to snooze and almost missing his wry, “I don’t know why Aaron complains about your moods, you’re real sweet when you’re cranky.”

“Fuck you too.”

She flipped him off as he walked away, not looking to see if he’d returned the affection. But, when she woke, there was a pillow under her head, a blanket over her shoulders, and he’d left her some water, so she supposed he wasn’t that angry with her.

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

102.

It wasn’t hard to sneak back into the apartment. Aaron wobbled his way up the hall, Hal plodding behind, and flopped onto his bed. The world flopped with him, lurching him forward and back again. From behind him, he heard Hal whimper.

“We are,” she said with her claws skritching on the carpet as she circled, “so very drunk and I blame you completely.”

“So do I,” he muttered before rolling to stare at the roof and trying to blink it away. His whole body felt wrong, from his dizzy head to his bubbling gut to the hot points of pressure on his thighs where the girl whose name he couldn’t even remember had pressed her hands against him.

“We don’t feel well,” Hal whined. “I think we upset Spencer. Did he look upset to you?”

Instead of answering, he just closed his eyes and wondered if he’d made a terrible mistake.

 

103.

Life was hell. Every movement made his head thump harder, his body screaming at him to curl into the tiniest possible ball in the darkest possible place and simply wait to die. They’d slept, somehow, and now it was horrendously midday and he couldn’t bear the sunlight streaming through his curtains.

“What have you done to us,” Hal groaned, dragging herself after him as a cat with her belly flat to the floor. “We’re dying, oh jeez, I hope we’re dying…”

Aaron inched his way to the bathroom and ignored her as he emptied his stomach into the toilet, wincing at the noise. His dad was going to ask. His dad was going to know. Even after a shaky shower and an equally shaky attempt at dressing, there was no way he could hide it.

“What’s wrong with you?” Gary asked as Aaron made his pained way to the kitchen for water.

“Nothing,” Aaron mumbled. He’d missed church. Not that his dad would know since Gary hadn’t bothered to attend since they’d left Manassas, but the guilt clawed at Aaron’s gut. “Stomach flu. Gonna pick something up at the drugstore.”

“Not in the car,” Gary said, turning back to his newspaper. “Don’t want you puking in it. You can walk.”

“Right,” Aaron said blankly, making for the door. “Okay, thanks, bye.”

On autopilot, his feet took him to the one place he knew was safe.

 

104.

Emily let him in, grunting a wordless hello from within her cocoon of blankets — all he could see of her as she slunk back to the couch was a pale smudge of a face with makeup streaked all over it — and ignoring him as he kicked his shoes off and moved gratefully into the cool of the air-conditioned apartment. There was no sign of William, or Spencer, neither of which was a surprise.

“Bedroom,” mumbled Sergio, a sloth sprawled across the back of Emily’s couch. Aaron figured they didn’t want a reply, considering how fucked his own head felt and Emily had drunk way more than he had. Either that, or she just wasn’t a morning person, which also felt likely, so in reply he simply padded up the ice-cold hallway to the closed door leading to Spencer’s room. Knocking twice to no answer, he let himself in.

The only sign of Spencer was a tiny ball huddled up tight under the comforter. Aaron peered within, seeing the barest hint of knotty curls poked out the top and the tips of his curled over fingers. The comforter lifted and lowered gently in a rhythmic pattern that was soothing to Aaron’s aching head, even if the air of the overhead cooler hadn’t already been helping with that.

“We’re hungover,” Hal said in a voice that was too loud. She slunk over and let her muzzle droop before turning into a hen and settling onto the foot of the bed, clucking balefully.

Spencer’s head popped out of his den of blankets, blinking in a sleepy kind of fashion at them. “I’m fine,” he said, his voice slurred from sleep but otherwise clear. “Tired. Thirsty. But fine. Pass my water?”

Aaron did, his stomach churning at the slosh of the water in the bottle. “I’m just gonna…” he mumbled, curling up on the floor and covering his head, “… nap …”

The bed rustled overhead, Spencer peering down at him. “On the floor?”

Aaron whimpered.

“Aaron, get on the bed. You can’t nap down there.”

“You sure?”

Nod nod went the wild hair above him, obscuring for a moment Spencer’s reddened eyes. Aaron didn’t argue, just dragged himself up onto the bed into the space Spencer left for him and sunk gratefully into the welcoming softness.

“Thanks,” he mumbled into the pillow, feeling Spencer shifting around under the blankets to leave a neat line of space between their bodies, “won’t be … asleep … long…”

 

105.

He woke up once, to the weight of his still-a-chicken-dæmon on his legs and an even warmer weight pressed against his chest. There was a mop of hair under his chin, tipped forward so that it was just ever so barely leaned against him. A long hand hooked through his shirt, as though Spencer had rolled over in his sleep and pressed his hand to him for comfort, and Spencer’s knee was tapping his. They were dangerously close to snuggling.

“Don’t overthink it,” said a voice that sounded like Aureilo although, when Aaron looked at his legs, it was Hal lying there.

“Go back to sleep,” Hal said without opening her eyes.

Spencer mumbled something, curling closer, and Aaron shrugged and closed his own eyes. They’d deal with it … later.

 

106.

“Where’s your dad?” Aaron asked through a mouthful of eggs, looking at the darkened windows. “I haven’t seen him all day.”

“Because you were asleep all day,” Emily sniped.

“Business trip,” Spencer replied, trying to shape his own egg with the spatula as the pan sizzled and spat at him. Aureilo helped, perched on the overhead with a pepper shaker and enthusiastically over-seasoning the eggs every time Spencer looked away. “He’s away until next Thursday, I think.”

“You’re here alone until next Thursday?” Aaron was stunned at the space his friend was afforded.

Spencer just shot him a confused look, as though he couldn’t fathom Aaron’s question, but Emily butted in before he could reply.

“Forget Mr Spencer, what about you?” The grin on her face was wide and sharp, her racoon-eyes bright despite the makeup mussed up around them. Kneeling on the kitchen chair with her elbows on the table and her blankets still humped around her shoulder, she was a terrifying force to have suddenly focused entirely on him with her slowly growing back hair stuck up in tufty spikes around her head like a misbehaving halo. “Mr Totally Got Fucked Last Night. Come on, spill. What’d you do with Claire?”

The spatula clattered against the pan but, when Aaron looked over there, Spencer was staring intently down at his eggs and not paying attention at all.

“I did not,” Aaron said hotly.

“Bullshit. You had that look.”

Spencer made a noise, his eyes scrunched as he turned around and asked, “What look?” while failing to notice that Aureilo was still peppering his eggs. Smoke began to drift from the pan.

“I did not have a look,” Aaron said. “Spence, your—”

“You did so. Every guy gets a look when they finally get their dicks in, and you had it.” Emily was watching Aureilo too but didn’t seem inclined to warn Spencer what was happening, instead covering a smile as Sergio flew up there as a bat and helped the mouse pepper faster.

“I did not ‘get my dick in’,” Aaron said stiffly, appalled by her phrasing. “Besides, I’m not talking about it. Spencer, Aureilo—”

“Why not?” Emily demanded.

Flushing with heat as Spencer turned his own curious gaze onto him, Aaron spluttered, “It’s … it’s not polite!” and knew he’d made a mistake as soon as Emily crowed. He tried to change the subject: “Your eggs, Spencer!”

But it was too late. Spencer looked at the now blackened eggs, sighed with the air of someone well used to a mouse sabotaging his attempts at breakfast, and turned the pan off. The eggs were abandoned on a plate by the sink where Aureilo hopped down and happily ate them despite the thick coating of pepper that continuously made him sneeze tiny mouse-sneezes.

Spencer slumped into the chair next to Aaron with an apple, gratefully accepting half of Aaron’s — non-seasoned — eggs. “What happened?” he asked. Both of them were ignoring the teasing song of ‘Aaron got fucked’ that Emily had started up in her corner of the room.

An uncomfortable heat had begun to build in Aaron’s stomach, unrelated to his fading hangover and probably far more related to the look of politely confused curiosity on Spencer’s. He was determined: he wasn’t the kind of boy who kissed and told. What had happened was between him and Claire, even if he regretted it.

Especially because he regretted it.

“Can I have some more eggs?” Aureilo asked, dodging the dish-towel Spencer lobbed at him. “Rude!” Cackling, he scampered away with Sergio to hide behind the refrigerator.

“Did you kiss her?” Emily demanded, hopping her chair closer.

Aaron frowned, finally nodding.

“Oooooh, lover boy, look at you! Did you—”

“Leave him alone,” Spencer said. Emily shut up. It cemented Aaron’s quiet belief that Spencer was actually a bit magic. “You don’t have to tell us anything, Aaron. It’s private.”

The guilty heat became a settling warmth, and Aaron smiled at his friend, grateful for him. It was a gratefulness that was enough to dampen down his desire to ask Spencer exactly why the guy had let Emily get him stoned. He also didn’t want to thank Spencer by leaving him completely in the lurch, and maybe that was why he stupidly said what he said next:

“Besides, it wasn’t sex, so there’s not much to tell anyway.”

Five sets of eyes turned to him: Aureilo and Sergio poking their heads out from behind the fridge, Spencer’s wide, Emily’s cunning, and Hal’s a particular shape of ‘shut up, Aaron’ that he’d never listened to before and probably wasn’t going to start listening to now.

“Well, it doesn’t have to be penetrative to be sex,” Spencer began.

“She sucked you off, didn’t she?” Emily said gleefully.

Aaron was suddenly very, very glad that he’d given his eggs away.

“Aha, he did! Aaron, you fucking idiot, that’s still sex. Oh wow, this is the best day, I bet you had no idea what to—”

“Shut up!” Aaron snapped. “I did know what to do. I mean, it’s not … I just …” He stopped. “Um.”

“Stood there?” Emily asked sweetly.

“No.” Dying inside, his entire body flushing hot, Aaron covered his face to avoid having to see Spencer looking from him to Emily, his expression deceptively blank, or to look at Emily, who was almost crying. “Should, ah, should I have reciprocated or, um, something?”

“Yes!” Emily sobbed. Spencer bit his apple and studied the table, his face flushed.

“Oh.” Aaron looked at his hands. “Oops. Ah. Should I offer to reciprocate?”

The only reply was a whimpered “Oh my god, no,” from Emily as she cried into her arms. Around the apple, Spencer began to laugh.

“I hate every one of you,” Aaron said, stalking off with his dignity in tatters and Hal laughing at him too.

 

107.

The air was hot and still as they walked home from school together, Aaron and Spencer, side by side with Spencer humming Jump under his breath. Despite the cheery tune and the occasional skip to his step as he bounced along to a song only he could hear, Aaron knew he was brooding. He let his steps slow, Spencer pulling ahead until Emily plodded up beside him instead. She usually trailed behind, preferring to ignore them in favour of her own thoughts when they were being ‘painfully boyish’, whatever that meant.

“Is he okay?” Aaron asked, nodding to Spencer.

For once, she didn’t tease him or snipe at him, just followed his gaze and studied Spencer, wiping her hand across the line of sweat beading from the brim of the beanie. Too thick for the weather, but she refused to take it off in public. Nipping at her lip, leaving white lines around her perfect teeth, she shrugged, spending a moment unknotting her tie and shoving it into her bag. “Sure, he is.”

Aaron disagreed. “No, he’s not. He’s been quiet since the party. Is this about Claire?”

With a snort, Emily eyed him, then looked down to where Sergio and Hal were otters walking close together and whispering in a river of black fur and quick paws. “Probably,” she said, then relented. “Nah, not really. Idiot is insecure. Thinks you getting some means he’s an ugly troll, I don’t know, I don’t understand his brain.”

Aaron stopped, Emily walking a few more steps before realising he wasn’t following and looking back to him. “He thinks he’s ugly?” he asked incredulously.

“I don’t know, maybe? He was moping about something.” But her eyes indicated that she knew more than she was telling, even if she was refusing to share it. “It’s a shit feeling, realising others have stuff you don’t.”

“I mean. She didn’t, that wasn’t because I’m not ugly, we were both really drunk, it was—”

“Okay, gross.” Walking off, Emily stuck her tongue out in disgust and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’m not discussing the motivation to blow you, Hotchner, that is not happening. Hey, Spencer! Get back here and talk to Aaron about his dick!”

Spencer turned slowly with his expression pained as people looked at them.

Flushing, Aaron ran to keep up. “No,” he said shortly as Spencer opened his mouth. “Nope, no, no, nope, no. Just keep walking.”

“Okay?” said Spencer.

 

108.

They split a burger and fries from Burger King and found a bench near a fountain to pick at their snack, Emily having vanished at some point to ‘buy tampons, Jesus, Aaron, you want to help me pick a colour?’ Able to take a hint, they were doing their own thing while they waited for her to return.

“You know,” Aaron began, feeding Hal fries as Spencer broke the burger bun into mouse-sized chunks, “um, about the party …”

Spencer went rigid. “I know, I know. I shouldn’t have gotten so stoned and it was dumb and I need to be more careful but it’s just, you don’t know, it’s like—”

“Oh, no, not that.” Aaron waited for Spencer to stop talking, before continuing: “I mean, I’m curious—” Spencer’s cheeks turned an interesting shade of pink that only increased that curiosity: “— I mean, me. And Claire. And what we did. She did.”

“Ah.” Spencer nipped at his fry, leaving salt on his lower lip. Aaron focused on that to try to stall the ache in his stomach that was working higher. “Why did you? Go with her, I mean. It doesn’t seem like you.”

“It’s more of an Emily thing?” Aaron joked, regretting it immediately as Spencer shot him a dark look and Hal sighed. “Sorry, that was bitchy. I don’t know. I was drunk and horny, I guess, and she was pretty. But, you know, her propositioning me has got nothing to do with you.”

“Me? Why would it be about me?”

“You know … your … looks.” They stared at each other and Aaron forged bravely ahead: “You’re not ugly. That’s not why she, ah, picked? Not picked, just, that’s why I, I’m making this worse, aren’t I?”

“You’re sure as shit not making anything better,” Hal muttered.

“It’s alright.” Spencer pushed the food towards Aaron, slouching down and tucking his arms around himself. Aaron’s heart sunk. It was clear ‘on a downswing’ body language and, even as Aaron watched, Aureilo’s ears drooped and he slunk away from Hal and into Spencer’s pocket. “I get it. I’m not jealous, not really. I’m not even that interested in that kind of stuff.”

Curiosity overtook Aaron’s desire to somehow reassure his friend of his attractiveness without sounding like a weirdo. “In sex?”

“It seems sticky. And I don’t like people touching me.”

“You let me touch you.”

They fell quiet, Aaron remembering the brush of their hands together and the cautious moment of skin on skin. He quickly tried to talk over the confusing memory, his heart speeding up as he remembered what it felt like to have Spencer curled next to him: “It’s not just touching, not really. I don’t think. It’s a connection — intimacy.”

“Was it intimate with Claire?” Spencer’s gaze was cutting.

Aaron matched it without flinching. He deserved it, really. “No. And that’s why it was a mistake, and it’s why I’m telling you that there was nothing about it that means that you’re less. It was pure lust, Spence, that’s it. She didn’t want me because of anything good about me—”

“Beyond how your ass looks in tight jeans,” said Aureilo from Spencer’s pocket, squeaking as Spencer slapped his hand over the opening to muffle his voice.

Aaron ignored that to spare Spencer the embarrassment: “—that’s why she didn’t look at you. If she was picking between us on the basis of, I don’t know, how smart we are or how kind and sweet and all the good stuff that you can’t see, she’d have picked you. Not me. She picked me because, because … because I have a big dæmon that makes me look confident and self-assured and she knew I’d say yes because that’s what confident dudes do, right? They say yes when pretty girls want to get in their pants, even if they shouldn’t and they’d rather not, but they need to know that they’re … normal.” The next breath Aaron took hurt, strained through gritted teeth, and Spencer was staring at him with his mouth slightly open. Despite the pain in his chest, he stubbornly added: “She didn’t think that about you because you have a dæmon that hides so she didn’t think she could read you as well. Besides, you’re not normal and you don’t need to pretend that you are because it’s good. You’re good. How you are.”

Something warm brushed his hand, and he looked down to find Hal as a Labrador again, nudging her nose into his palm.

Spencer didn’t say anything, not for a long time, until: “The implication being that you’re not ‘good’ how you are?”

Aaron didn’t reply. Just kept petting his dæmon, watching the way her fur smoothed over the flat slope of her forehead. Another hand reached down and touched the back of his, careful not to touch Hal accidentally.

“You’re brilliant, Aaron,” Spencer said, pressing down before taking his hand away. “You’re brilliant, and that’s why she picked you. Because she saw that in you, same as I do.”

Anything Aaron was going to say in return was stalled by the return of Emily sprinting up with her bag bumping on her back and calling, “You guys might want to run!” as someone shouted behind her.

 

109.

“Here.” Emily shoved a handful of crap into his chest, Aaron catching the magazines and glared at her. She unwrapped her stolen cigarette packet with her teeth and ignored his glare. “Guides for your next backdoor blowjob.”

“You shoplifted,” Aaron snapped as he followed her into Spencer’s living room where Spencer was on the couch marking Aaron’s homework. “What the fuck? Don’t you realise how much trouble you could get into?”

“Well, it’s not like they’d sell them to me without stealing,” Emily said flippantly. “Spence, you got a lighter?”

“Matches on the balcony,” Spencer said softly, eyes locked unmoving on the same page he’d been on when they’d walked in. Emily pushed past Aaron, who stood firm.

“It’s bullshit. You don’t need that shit, smokes or …” Aaron paused, looking down at what he was holding. “Is this porn?”

Emily smirked. “Thought you’d like it. What teenage boys don’t have a ton of filthy magazines around? You’re basically just walking erections at this point. Spence, you have porn, right?”

“Um, no?” Spencer replied, looking up and then back down again. “Why would I?”

“Because it’s not that weird. I have some, somewhere.” Emily vanished out the door, leaving the boys staring at each other.

“Girls don’t look at porn, right?” Spencer whispered, not quite quietly enough to avoid being heard. Sergio began to laugh from the balcony, repeating the question to Emily.

“I can’t believe her,” Aaron fumed, throwing the magazines onto the couch where Spencer picked one up and began curiously paging through. “We have to take them back!”

Spencer looked at him. Aaron thought twice about what he’d said, vividly imagining walking into the store with an armful of dirty magazines.

“Well,” he muttered, “she shouldn’t do it again, anyway…”

On the couch, Spencer was turning the magazine onto its side, tilting his head with it and his eyes going wide.

“Whoa,” said Aureilo, peering over his shoulder.

Whoa,” repeated Hal, peering over Aureilo.

Aaron hmphed, grabbing a book and throwing himself on the armchair. Emily needed to grow up, and he wasn’t curious.

Not even a little.

 

110.

Claire walked up to them at lunch the next day, holding her bag against her chest with her dæmon a shy-looking canary on her shoulder. “Hi,” she said to them all, before turning to Aaron: “Hi, um, Aaron.”

“Hello,” Aaron said awkwardly, flushing as Emily grabbed Spencer’s banana he’d bought for lunch and began to make obscene mouth gestures around the tip. Spencer, affronted, stared as his lunch was molested.

“I was just wondering, if, um, maybe you’d like to, uh. There’s another party this weekend and I’m, um … going …” Claire trailed off, leaving Aaron more confused than before.

“That’s nice?” he asked, shrugging when Emily lowered the banana and stared incredulously at him. “I hope you have fun.”

“Oh,” said Claire, backing a few steps away and looking over to where her friends were watching.

“Pssst,” hummed a voice by Aaron’s ear, Sergio hovering up as a ladybird, “Aaron, you fuckwit, she’s asking you to go with her.”

“Oh!” Aaron said. His face was going even redder, he could feel it. “Oh um, you want me to go with you?”

“Yes, please,” Claire whispered. “If you want …”

Aaron looked at Spencer, who was staring down at his liberated banana and trying to muster up the courage to unpeel it, and then at Emily, who was looking everywhere but at him. He thought of what he’d said to Spencer, and said: “No, thank you. I mean, it’s nice of you to ask, but I have plans.”

Claire mumbled something and fled.

“What plans do you have?” Emily asked.

Aaron shrugged, reaching out and unpeeling the banana for Spencer. He ate the half that Emily had mangled and gave the safe bit back. “Want to go to Blockbuster and pick up some movies?” he asked Spencer, who beamed. “We can get drunk off sugar and hibernate all weekend. You too, Em, if you want.”

They both smiled, and Aaron grinned back.

Chapter Text

Spencer

 

111.

Once, a long time ago, Spencer had thought that his mind was something special. Quick-fire fast with perfect retention. He’d gloried in the ease of learning, in the rapid acquisition of any knowledge he’d wanted. As time had passed, he’d began to doubt these beliefs. With his mom gone, the loudest voice validating his intelligence, he’d guessed that maybe she’d just been, well, crazy. That was it, wasn’t it? She was crazy, and that’s why she was gone. As crazy as her tufty-furred cheetah-dæmon with the staring eyes and soft paws. As crazy as a lost hare, just a mouse on the inside.

His mom had thought them special; they’d proven that they weren’t. She’d believed them to be hares. They’d proven that wrong too. The allure of knowledge dulled as boredom blunted it. School offered nothing new, nothing challenging, so what good was it? But, seeing Aaron — who wasn’t stupid, not even a little — struggle with his own learning made them rethink this.

“It’s not hard,” Spencer said one day, frustrated with Aaron’s slow understanding. “I learned it when I was five.”

Aaron just looked at him, his expression hurt.

“We’re not all you,” Emily said after, sitting on the balcony and splitting a smoke with him. He didn’t cough as much as the nicotine bit down, not anymore, but he was never going to be a fan of the taste. “We don’t have big-ass brains taking up all the space in our heads.”

“The size of the brain doesn’t really affect cognition,” he argued for the sake of arguing. “The sulci and gyri mean that the actual surface area of your brain is far greater than the available surface area within your skull, allowing for—”

“Brain wrinkles,” Emily teased, poking his forehead. “You mean the brain wrinkles make us smarter.”

“Yes, I guess so. Simplistically…”

“Well, my brain isn’t as wrinkly as yours then, and neither is Aaron’s. We’re smooth-brained, kiddo, be nice to us.”

Spencer spent a lot of time thinking about that.

 

112.

Exam-revision was going well, for Aaron at least. Emily hadn’t cracked a book in weeks and Spencer had already finished the coursework and was just bumping around doing his own thing until the next school year rolled around and he could finish the next lot and get credit for it.

It was a Friday night. The window was open. Aaron was back from dropping his dad home, lying on the rug with his sweater rolled up behind his head as a pillow and books spilling around him. Aureilo was curled up on Hal’s side; she was a German Shepherd today, and Spencer dearly wanted to touch her beautiful, velvety ears, despite the abhorrence of that desire. He was, without revealing this to the others, fighting a gnawing kind of exhaustion that dragged his mood down and his hope with it and suggested that he was heading for a wall.

“Do you ever wonder what we’re going to do after this?” Aaron asked, his voice sleepy. Spencer shifted, his knees aching and wondering if he could lie down as well. As though sensing his wish, somehow, Aaron dragged a couch cushion down and swapped his head to that with room next to him where Spencer could, and did, lay his head. They watched the roof, Emily pausing the music to look at them.

“After tonight?” she asked.

“After all of this. School. Ashworth. It’s a reform school. We’re there because we fucked up, somehow, what college is going to take us, no matter how well we do?”

Spencer turned his head and watched Aaron lower his book, his expression falling. Some deep insecurity rising.

“You’re brilliant,” Spencer said loyally. “You’ll get into any college you want, do anything you want.”

“Damn right,” Emily agreed. “Me, I don’t know. I don’t think college is for me. I should be a groupie.”

Aaron snorted and, beside them, Hal stood and ambled after Sergio, leaving Aureilo to run up the hand Spencer laid down for him. The two dæmons who could still change did, both chasing each other in lazy circles around the armchair before becoming geckos and scampering up the walls, giggling and flicking their tongues at each other. Spencer watched them.

“You’d be a shit groupie,” Aaron was saying. “Too much bite. They don’t like their girls using teeth.”

“Shows what you know, you’re such a virgin. There’s always a place for teeth. What kind of job you going to go for that will utilize the stick up your ass?”

“Probably a lawyer. I hear they actually measure to find the biggest stick in every courtroom.”

Emily and Aaron began to laugh, their dæmons looking down on them from where their toes suckered them to the ceiling, so close in size and colour that Spencer struggled to tell them apart. His chest panged again, Aureilo slinking closer.

“Come on!” Hal peeped down. “Aureilo, come up. Look at Aaron’s silly face from up here!”

“Chase Hal with me,” Sergio added, wiggling his toes.

“I can’t,” whispered Aureilo.

Spencer swallowed, too loud. Eyes turned to him. “I can’t,” he said out loud to a question he hadn’t registered hearing, Aaron asking: “What college are you thinking of, Spencer?”

“What?” Emily inched closer, looking down at him, and Aaron had risen up to his elbow. “Bullshit. You’ve got the wrinkliest brain I know—” Aaron’s face twisted, looking simultaneously confused and grossed out: “—if you think you can’t do college, what the fuck hope do you think we have?”

Spencer watched the gecko-dæmons on the roof and simply said, “I don’t think I have a future,” before getting up and walking away. He took with him his stupid, small, trapped dæmon and everything he represented about their wasted potential.

 

113.

Aaron found him in his room, curled on his bed with his knees to his chest. Aureilo was back in the closet, sulking. Without saying a word, Spencer shifted across to let Aaron lie down too, comfortable with the boy’s weight beside him.

“My dad is real rough,” Aaron said after the longest moment of nothing, tilting his head in the gloom of Spencer’s bedroom. The door creaked, Emily slipping in and taking her place beside the bed, chin on her arm and eyes wide on the face that seemed so childlike without her hair surrounding it. “Real mean…”

“I bit him once,” Hal whispered, invisible in the dark. Silence followed those words, the unsaid horrors of that story. “I’m scared of him.”

“You’re not scared of anything,” Aureilo argued. His claws were audible on the carpet as he emerged from his hiding place.

“I am. I’m scared of him.”

“But we’re not defined by our parents,” Aaron said. “Or how mean or distant they are.”

“Or our dæmons’ forms,” Emily added. “Shit, Spence, if you knew…”

“Your dæmons aren’t settled.” Spencer rolled to face the wall, not wanting the thin light in the room to illuminate his worry. “You can still be someone else, if you want to be.”

“Aureilo isn’t settled?” Aaron said, his voice confused. Spencer shuddered. False hope. False, lying, stupid hope— “He doesn’t feel settled.”

“He doesn’t,” both Hal and Sergio said as one.

“You don’t know,” Aureilo cried. “You don’t know!”

His voice broke something in Spencer, some thin thread of sanity he’d been clinging wearily to while it was eroded under his grasping fingers. In the culmination of that inevitable downswing, he gave in and began to cry.

“I’m trapped,” he dimly remembered saying, arms wrapping around him — Emily, he realised, slipping between him and Aaron on the bed. “I’m trapped and I’m nothing and I’m not who she thought I was. We’re just so small and that’s never going to change.”

Down down down he went with Emily holding him the whole time, until he fell asleep with the damp sheets pressed against his cheek, knees to his aching chest and Aaron’s fingers brushing his. Not alone, but still small; the people around him only served as reminders that he was going to let every one of them down in the end.

 

114.

“Sorry,” he said the next day. He was only picking at his toast. Aaron wasn’t touching his either, his hair wiry and eyes bruised. “I have bad days.”

“S’ok,” Emily mumbled sleepily, nursing a mug of coffee. “I get that. I have bad days too. Mine are usually more inflammatory.”

Aaron said nothing. He had to leave, Spencer walking him downstairs with the night before lingering between them. Upstairs, Spencer knew, there was a pill bottle with a neat prescription filled out to him stuck to the front waiting for downswings just like this, but he didn’t want to take them. Not now. Not when things had been so good, not when he was finally remembering feeling something. Maybe that was the cost — there was no feeling good without feeling bad too, and he had to learn to balance the two. But the thought of the lithium lingered, a promise of less, and he knew he’d probably be back on them before the end of the week.

He decided to make the most of this clarity.

“Come back tonight?” he asked Aaron as they stepped outside into the clear day waiting.

“I have church tomorrow morning,” Aaron warned. “I’ll have to leave sometime early.”

Spencer paused. Clarity, he thought, and next he thought about giving back. “Would…” He breathed, structuring his thoughts: “Would you like me to come? I mean, I don’t believe and I doubt I ever will, but, I don’t know. If it’s important to you, I could … come.”

Aaron looked at him, something startled and sweet passing over his firm features. Spencer ducked his gaze under the pretence of adjusting his glasses, just to avoid the emotions he’d evoked with that simple gesture.

“I would really like that,” Aaron said finally, thin mouth turning up into a shy smile. “It is important to me, very. I’d love to share it with you. Just us?”

Spencer thought of Emily in a church and winced. “Just us,” he agreed. “I don’t think Emily does organised religion.”

At the time, he didn’t know just how accurate that was.

 

115.

He returned upstairs to find Emily picking through her tapes. And, with a newfound realisation for how effective thinking like others could be, he sat next to her, looked down at them, and asked, “Can you show me your tapes?”

Startled, she looked at him. “Sure,” she said finally, shuffling through — Spencer’s eyes picked up every label, no matter how fast she shuffled them, spotting the scrawled Aaron with hawk-like accuracy as it vanished into the pile — before picking one and sliding it in. “This, you’re going to love this.”

He did. It was good, and new, to realise that the people around him were, well, more.

 

116.

He’d realise later how obvious it had been, and how oblivious he’d been despite this. Once realised, it was impossible to ignore; he rather thought that they might be falling in love with Aaron Hotchner. It was such a stupid, stupid moment to realise it too, walking into the yawning, white-washed space of the United Methodist Church with Aaron at his side and at the forefront of a stream of people who seemed to know their place and their position within it. Perched on his shoulder, Aureilo watched everything and everyone and took in something that was so impossibly alien to anything they’d experienced so far, this collective act of faith.

The Reverend greeted them, one by one, name by name, and it seemed so impossible, Spencer thought, to remember so many people so flawlessly, there had to be some element of love to it. When he came to Aaron, with Spencer at his side, the realisation happened. He reached to take Spencer’s hand, greeting him, a handshake, the usual; Aaron grinned politely and said something so simple: “Sorry, Father, but he doesn’t like to be touched.”

It was so simple. Such a short phrase. The man let them pass without comment to find their seats in the lines of polished pews. Seated among the families and the loners and the lady behind them who tapped Aaron on his shoulder and offered him hard candy in a crackly wrapper, Aaron wincing at every pop as Spencer wrestled with it. The moment might have passed unnoticed, as the hymns began and Aaron showed Spencer where to follow along, if they hadn’t had a long, silent minute to lower their heads in prayer. Spencer, eyes open, studying the floor politely and the picture of piousness from the front, thought once more of that phrase. He thought of the notice Aaron took of him.

Spencer and Aureilo, in all their lives, had never really been all that noticed.

He looked at Hal, who stood not by Aaron but steadfast at their side, a wolf with her head held high. Her gaze, throughout it all, was locked on Spencer as she watched to make sure he was okay. Aureilo scampered down his arm to settle on her ruff, his chest thrust out proud and his whiskers perked; they felt immeasurably protected with the wolf-dæmon beside them. The rest of the service passed in a rush of giddy heat, following Aaron mutely from hymn to sermon, his mind vividly aware of the irony of realising he was possibly falling for a boy while standing in a church.

“What were you thinking about?” Aaron asked after as they walked from there with Aaron looking relaxed, happy, resolute. Spencer looked at him, and then back at the church where, unlike Spencer who knew he was an outsider no matter how outwardly welcomed, Aaron felt at home. Thinking of others meant putting his own feelings aside; he was under no illusions about how welcome this new realisation was within the boundaries of religion.

He answered, “Nothing important, really,” letting the illusion of disregard chase away the shadows biting at the edges of his excitement.

 

117.

Aaron drove the long way home. They had an afternoon that was one of the ones Spencer knew he’d always remember — just like the first they’d had together — and all because of, not only the giddy whirl of his heart in his chest every time Aaron looked at him, but also because of Emily.

In Spencer’s pocket, as they parked the car by a wooded common and sat doing nothing but talking and fiddling with the radio, was one of Emily’s tapes: the one labelled Aaron. Once Spencer had gotten over the looking and the new way Aaron was laughing — had he always looked so much at them? Or laughed quite so much? Was this new, or had they never noticed before? — he pulled the tape out and pressed it into the deck in the car.

“What’s that?” Aaron asked curiously, Hal a duck on the centre console between them going wak wak as she nibbled at the tufty bits of fur on Aureilo’s back.  

Spencer shivered at the touch of their dæmons playing, Aureilo rolling onto his belly to get a proper scratch by the soft bill poking him, and managed to croak out, “One of Emily’s tapes.”

Had his voice always been this shrill? Had Aaron’s eyes always caught the light — Aureilo sneezed, the words, stopit, audible in the sneeze, and Spencer felt his cheeks flush hot.

“You okay?” asked Aaron.

“Fine,” Spencer squeaked. “Look.” He held out the case, fingers trembling on the card where Emily had written the names of the songs within, index finger sitting just below the Aaron.

“That’s … what?” Aaron asked, eyes stunned and incredibly dark, gaze switching to the deck as though he could see Emily’s intentions within the whirl of the cassette within. He reached out and turned the volume up, letting his hand hover over the play button as though unsure. “Did she make this for me?”

“I don’t think so,” Spencer said. His heart panged as he thought of their guarded, reticent friend and all the things her cold eyes had seen and refused to talk about. “I think … I think she made it about you.”

Aaron pressed play.

Spencer watched him listen to the whole tape through and without a word the entire time. A vivid, excruciating fifty minutes of Aaron being spooled out in the drift of the music between them, as though Emily had taken every observation she’d ever had and turned it into a single double-sided tape designed to open Aaron up and expose him to the world, if it cared to look. But the world wasn’t here. Spencer was, and Aureilo, and so Aaron allowed the vulnerability, even as the music pulled apart his ruin and his heart and his future and his past. Emily knew more about Aaron than Spencer did, he realised here, more intimately than Spencer thought even he wanted to know him.

That was a lie. Spencer watched him listen, the lost look of a boy who had been hurt and continued to be hurt as the song pleaded for a merciful rest, and he knew that he wanted to know the whirling thoughts behind that lost look. To be able to peer into Aaron as clearly as Emily had, to see the boy she saw and the hurts she knew and to understand everything that was being revealed at this moment. But he couldn’t, not yet. He simply let the music play and waited until Aaron’s breathing turned rough before reaching across and, in that hot, still car sitting on the side of the road under a browning acacia tree, took his hand.

Their palms were sweaty but neither let go, and their dæmons sat between them.

 

118.

Spencer confronted Emily because Aaron was shaken and he didn’t think he’d do it, Aureilo quiet and watchful on his shoulder.

“You didn’t have to listen to it,” she grumbled. Her gaze was lowered and she refused to look at either of them. Aaron lingered back, Hal a German Shepherd again with her ears folded back and Aaron’s hand resting on her skull. “It’s my business, not yours.”

“Why’d you pick them?” Spencer asked, hovering and trying to peer over her shoulder at the tapes she was hoarding protectively. “The songs, I mean. How’d you pick songs for him?”

Emily looked right past him, straight at Aaron, and her expression was a challenge. “I don’t know, they felt right,” she snapped, Sergio winding around her legs as an angry snake that revealed her panic. “Just … they felt right.”

“You’ve read my file,” Aaron said quietly. “You know everything about everyone and that’s how. You read their files.”

“What makes you think that?” Emily’s fists were balled. Sergio twisted and spat, a cobra now with a flaring hood; a cornered snake. Spencer eased away, the mouse on his shoulder sorely aware of their vulnerability to the fangs of a snake should they be turned in their direction. “There isn’t anything in there that says that. Look at those songs, they’re fucking obvious. The Killing Moon is angry, you’re angry, always angry — Banned in DC, what you don’t think you have a fucking temper? You’re pissed right now. I don’t need a file to tell me that.”

“Don’t fight,” Spencer whispered.

“You know about my dad,” Aaron said. “I didn’t tell you that much.”

Emily deflated, smiling crookedly, possibly sadly, and replied, “Ever consider that maybe you’re not as hard to read as you think? Everything you do screams, ‘I’m damaged, look at me!’”

“I didn’t even think you’d thought that much about me.” Aaron looked to Spencer now, tight-lipped, and Spencer wondered what he felt such a burning need to hide. “I still don’t know why you’d fucking make it.”

Emily shocked them all. She didn’t bite back or snap or snarl. She simply said, “I figured someone should show you that they’re…” She faltered, looked away, shy for this one moment: “…listening.”

Sergio calmed, curling into a loop and watching silently until Aaron murmured, “Thanks,” and, as Spencer watched, pocketed the tape with his hand curled protectively around it. “I guess.”

“You got a tape for Spencer in there?” Aureilo asked in an attempt to bring the cheer of the day back. Spencer could have told him that was a mistake; they were still on uneven ground, teetering on the edge of misunderstanding each other with too many parts open and vulnerable.

“No,” Emily said shortly. “There was nothing I could think of that wasn’t shit-fucking depressing.”

Spencer looked at her, the feeling from the church earlier, that happy feeling of possibilities within reach, the easy tip of falling in love, beginning to trickle away faster; he didn’t know Aaron, not as Emily did, and he likely never would. He didn’t understand the anger between them. He didn’t understand Aaron’s hurt or Emily’s defensiveness. He just didn’t understand.

Aaron moved forward, uncannily fast, picking forth a tape that only had one song written on the front, crossed out twice with pen over thick black marker: the title was still visible, lined underneath the neat Spencer?

The Gambler, K. Rogers

“Doesn’t the guy die in that song?” Aaron asked after a pause. Emily was chalk white, watching Spencer for his reaction.

“Best that he could hope for,” Spencer said numbly. “I think you guys should go.”

 

119.

They waited for the numbing effects of the pills, together but apart. Aureilo was messing around under the bed as Spencer lay limp across the covers, tired of the hurting ache of thinking too much and with his thoughts whirling in giddying, painful circles. What was the good of falling in love, what was the good of having friends if he couldn’t, if he wouldn’t, if he wasn’t — what was the good of it, of any of it, of anything at all; there was nothing ahead but the—

“Stop it,” Aureilo whispered, sliding out from under the bed on a wave of magazines he’d kicked loose from where they’d been shoved in his haste to skitter out. “She didn’t mean it like that. It wasn’t a prediction, it’s a reaction. She’s worried about you.”

“She doesn’t know me,” Spencer hissed back, rolling to stare down at his tiny self. “You saw that — she knows Aaron, not me. They’ve got the connection. What do I have? Nothing. Not a thing either of them needs. They’re better off without—”

“You’re being so stupid right now.” Aureilo’s claws bit at the magazine he was on as he leapt off, making for the closet. “I hate you when you’re like this.”

“I hate you for what you’ve done to us,” Spencer snarled after him, refusing to watch the mouse-dæmon hide like the coward he was. Instead, looking down at what he’d been standing on, his mood pausing as he noticed. “What’s this?”

Aureilo didn’t answer.

Spencer picked it up, recognising one of the magazines Emily had stolen but not the one he’d palmed through the other day, the one with the women in various splayed open positions in every kind of garishly contorted detail. This one was men. Various men, some clothed, some not, some watching the person holding the camera, some looking at the partner they were with, one … one with dark dark hair and dark eyes, his expression soft as he looked at the man he kneeled over. Spencer stared at that for a while, feeling a confused twist of something deep in his gut that was good and hurting all at once and made him want to either hit something or press close to it.

“Are we gay?” he whispered, not really expecting an answer.

“Speak for yourself,” Aureilo’s voice hissed bitterly from the closet. “Hal’s a girl. There’s nothing wrong with me.”

Spencer threw the magazine back under the bed, too numb to feel anything even approaching a flicker of muted desire for the soulless men staring out at him from the glossy pages, just that tortured, confused feeling. Instead, he burrowed under his covers and steadfastly tried to shove away every thought that, earlier that day, had felt sweet and full of potential. Aaron was out of reach. Aaron was normal. Aaron’s brain wasn’t filled with malfunctioning brain chemicals that made a mockery of the human imperative to persist. Most damning of all, Aaron was straight.

Nothing was down that path but misery.

Chapter Text

Emily

 

120.

Something was weird with the boys. Not just Spencer, who was always weird, but with Aaron too. Spencer was Spencer at his worst. Emily hated how silent he was, how moody and quick to shut down into a blank-faced facsimile of their friend at the slightest provocation. Aaron seemed to respond to this shut-down by being more everything, which wasn’t a good thing. His laughter was too loud, his jokes a little too frantic, his anger fast to burn, and with Hal a wildly flickering fluctuation of shapes and forms beside him. Emily and Sergio, knowing they were useless when it came to helping anyone, did nothing but watch. After all, it was their fault. Them, and the stupid tape they’d made in a fit of annoyance one day when Spencer was being a depressive fuck and they were sick of his tortured misery.

They still went to his house most nights right up until the days of their exams, but it wasn’t the same. There was none of the easy closeness of Aaron and Spencer, none of the familiar touches or shy smiles. Spencer didn’t sidle close to see what she was doing anymore or somehow tease conversation out of her without her even realising he was doing it. Instead, Aaron and Emily sat alone in the living room while Spencer slept or, when Aaron bitched him out for leaving them alone, sat nodding on the couch.

Today, Spencer was asleep. Not the light sleep he usually managed, when his mouth would twitch with laughter at any quiet comment or his eyes would flicker open to watch them bicker, but a dead-limbed slumped kind of sleep, his chest barely shifting and his face carved from stone. Emily watched him just as closely as Aaron didn’t, noting the purple shadows cut around his eyes and the waxy cast to his skin. Aaron looked anywhere but, not handling this sour, shut-down Spencer at all and just staring at the same page of the textbook that he’d been on for hours now. Hal was a squirrel, dashing back and forth in circles around the couch as she fruitlessly searched for the hidden Aureilo without touching Spencer.

“Why’d you have to make it?” Aaron said suddenly, letting his head thump forward onto the book. “The tape … why’d you have to be so cruel?”

Instead of answering, Emily got up and walked off, Sergio tiptoeing after and leaving the boys in their shared funk. Down the silent hallway — William’s office door was shut tight and she could hear the gentlest whisper of voices on the other side — past Spencer’s uncharacteristically untidy bedroom and into the bathroom where she closed the door behind her. It was silent in there too. Polished and clean with nothing to show the personality of the two people who lived in this closed-in home. Emily knew loneliness, she practically exuded it from her pores, but this was a different kind of lonely. Forced where hers was innate. She let out a gust of air that echoed around that muted sphere, looking at herself in the reflection of the medicine cabinet. Aaron was right. She had hurt him, but there was more than that going on here. Just the same as there was more to Aaron than his anger, the anger that hid the shit he had going on when no one was there to see.

Two steps barefoot on the icy tiles and she clicked open the door of the medicine cabinet, eyes skimming the neat rows of products. Toothpaste, aftershave, floss, and three tidy bottles of prescription medicine that she turned in place just to make sure the name on them was what she expected it to be: Spencer Reid.

“What’s that for?” Sergio asked, landing on her shoulder as a bat and looking at the bottle of lithium as she shook it. Half empty. Written neatly on the label was the line for the treatment of major depressive disorder.

Time passed oddly as she composed herself, washing smudged makeup from her face and realigning the bottles so that no one could tell that she’d snooped. When she crept from the bathroom, guilty and sick to her stomach, the living room was empty. The boys were in Spencer’s room, Aaron looking at her when she peered in and his eyes cold as he said to Spencer, “Come on, you’ll feel better if you sleep properly.”

Spencer was sitting on the bed, his hand hooked through Aaron’s, his head down and shoulders slumped. There was something painful about the way he was clinging. Emily looked at their hands and felt something twinge. She left them there, taking their place on the couch. Wanting to leave but, she knew, there was nowhere else to go.

If she ruined this friendship, she had nothing.

 

121.

She woke up once, realising that Aaron wasn’t there. She went looking. He hadn’t left Spencer’s room. They were asleep, blanket over Spencer but Aaron exposed. Despite this, Aaron’s hand was on Spencer’s side, their bodies curved together, and she realised.

“Oh,” said Sergio on her shoulder, his surprise adding to hers. “Are they…?”

It sure explained a lot.

She closed the door gently and crept away to ponder this new thing, wondering if they even knew what it was.

Knowing them, she doubted it.

 

122.

They all sailed easily through exams, unsurprisingly. Their revision nights continued but the boys were hardly revising anymore, instead mostly just wrapped up in each other. Emily wondered how she could have been so blind as to miss it until now; there was no time when they were happier than when they were together.

“Guess this is it,” she told Sergio as they packed their dorm-room up ready to go home for the summer, back to the cold townhouse where Elizabeth would be for the duration. “They’re going to end up together and that’s me out in the cold. I knew Hotchner would ruin everything.”

Sergio twitched his cat-whiskers furiously. “Are they even gay?” he asked, turning in a tight circle of black fur. “Are you sure? Spencer sleeps in the bed with us too.”

“It’s different with dudes. They don’t snuggle unless they’re into it.”

“I don’t know. And, if I don’t know, you don’t know. I don’t think they know, either.” Cocking his head to the side, Sergio grinned a fangy cat-grin. “We’re really sad about this, aren’t we?”

“No,” Emily snapped defensively.

“We are. You are. Why are you jealous? I don’t want to be with either of them, not really — which means you don’t.”

“Maybe I just wanted the option.”

Sergio, with cutting accuracy, quietly proved just how much time she spent fooling herself: “You know,” he said, “just because they’re boys, doesn’t mean that the only thing they want from us is sex. That’s not why either of them is friends with us, and that’s why this doesn’t change a thing.”

Emily stared at him. Since when had her dæmon gotten so perceptive?

But Sergio had gotten distracted: “Do you think they’re fucking yet?”

Emily snorted. “No,” she replied adamantly. “I don’t think either of them has even discovered their dicks. Maybe we should draw them a map.”

“Aaron has, with Claire.”

Emily winced. “Don’t bring that up again. You’ll just depress Spencer more, and it’ll make Aaron shitty.”

Still grinning, Sergio settled back and watched her pack, his lashing tail a sign of the unease they both still felt building.

 

123.

Silverware scraped on china, the painful sound the only noise breaking the creeping silence at the dinner table. Of the eight places, six were empty. The two that were filled were as far from each other as possible, and one studiously ignoring the other.

“Your hair looks terrible,” Elizabeth said. Too loud. The words echoed. “Whatever were you thinking, Emily?”

“Evidently, not much,” Kinkri muttered from the seat next to Elizabeth, spotted muzzle turned up. “When does she think?”

Emily scraped her fork extra loud across her plate, just to make the ocelot-dæmon wince. Under her feet, Sergio twined twice as a polecat before turning into a matching ocelot and mocking the older dæmon with exaggerated sweeping gestures of his wide paws.

Elizabeth tried again. “Must you wear that to the table?” she asked, nodding to Emily’s heavy coat and dark makeup. “You’re not going out. You can dress nicer than that.”

“I am dressed nice,” Emily replied. “I’m dressed as me.”

“What’s nice about you?” Kinkri asked. “You’re abrasive.”

“Shh,” Elizabeth murmured. “This isn’t going well. It’s been months since I’ve seen you, Emily. Have you done anything? Anything at all to improve yourself? That was the agreement — you come home and go to Ashworth and make something of yourself, something more than you are now. But I’m looking at you sitting there and, honestly, I’m not seeing any improvement.”

Sergio was a wolf, just as furious looking as Hal with his tail rigid and fur raised in a dark line across his back. Emily took three deep breaths and swallowed each one. Face flushing hot and hands trembling around her fork. She would not rise to the bait. She would not.

“At the very least, the report from your therapist states that you’ve made friends which is, quite frankly, remarkable. I can’t imagine how, but here you are.”

She would not respond.

“I wish to meet them.”

She would not — what?

“Meet them?” Emily managed, staring at her mother. Kinkri looked startled too, turning to stare at Elizabeth as well with his amber eyes round with surprise. “My friends?”

“Yes. Was I unclear? I wish to meet them. Invite them to dinner the coming Sunday. If you do not, then I’ll simply call their parents myself and arrange it that way. God knows, nothing I can do will show you what a self-destructive path you’re on. Perhaps your friends will be the saving of you.”

“No!” mouthed Sergio, leaning his snout on Emily’s lap and looking frantic.

“Mother, that’s, I don’t want that. They’d be bored shit—”

Elizabeth coughed.

“—less and you just want to embarrass me. Do you really think I’m going to fall for that fucking bullshit?”

“Language,” snapped Kinkri, ears snapping back to sit low against his head.

Emily fumed. “Sorry,” she said sweetly. “Do you really think I’m going to fall for that fucking bullpoop?”

The silence that followed that was dangerous. It was the kind of silence that had preceded Emily’s expulsion from Rome and her exclusion to Ashworth Reform. It was a ‘too far’ kind of silence, and Emily stood before Elizabeth had time to tell her to get out, leaving her dinner barely touched on the table.

“Thanks for the meal,” she said, walking away with Sergio stuck so close to her heels she almost kicked him in the face with every step. “Nothing better to sate the appetite than meatloaf and motherly disapproval. Real great.”

“Emily—” her mother called, but Emily let the door slam, cutting off whatever she’d been going to say.

“That dinner isn’t happening!” she shouted back.

And she was sure that that was the end of it.

 

124.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Sergio grumbled in her ear as they both hunched to the door to greet their guests. Aureilo was in a bowtie. A tiny, mouse bowtie. It was probably going to be the greatest thing to come of tonight.

“Where did you even get that?” Emily asked Spencer, staring at the gentlemanly mouse-dæmon sitting politely on his shoulder.

“I didn’t,” Spencer replied. “He just appeared with it. I have no idea where he found it. You look really nice tonight, Em.”

Emily shrugged, letting her shoulders slump forward to break the lines of the stupidly feminine dress her mother had forced on her for tonight, all silk and blah.

Smug, Aureilo just twitched his whiskers and said nothing.

“Well.” Emily looked around awkwardly, seeing their gazes drifting over the ostentatious foyer. Now all they were going to think of her was that she was yet another spoiled brat from money and manners. “Uh. Here you are.”

“Here we are,” Aaron murmured, hands slung in the pockets of the suit he was dressed in. It wasn’t tailored to him yet and his hands were partially swallowed by the overlong sleeves. However, his tie, unlike Spencer’s, was straight. Even though Spencer’s suit was tailored and clearly bought by someone knowledgeable with how it would fit on him in mind — unlike Aaron’s, which Emily was pretty sure he’d bought himself with no idea of what he was looking for — Aaron still looked more at home dressed to impress a woman they didn’t even know. “Um. What now?”

“Come on.” She led them up the stairs and down the hall to her room, moving quickly so they didn’t have time to focus on the shitty ‘art’ or pretentious decor or, even worse, the numerous framed photos of Emily under the age of ten. “Mom isn’t home for another hour so we have time to kill before it gets completely awful. And dinner won’t be ready until six anyway, the cook is a stickler for schedule.”

“You have a cook?”

Aaron’s voice was stunned. Emily flushed red, refusing to look back at him and hating every minute of this.

“Shh, Aaron,” whispered Hal. She was trotting after them as an Irish Setter, her red coat gleaming. No bowtie, sadly, but Emily could tell she was trying to seem well-presented. And wasn’t that the fucking shit? That her friends felt the need to be other when they were here, this sinkhole of a home doing the same thing to them that it did to everyone else: making them feel like they needed to pretend. That being themselves wasn’t good enough.

“Whoa!” Spencer gasped, snapping her out of her fuming reverie as they stepped into her room.

“Oh no,” Sergio said.

“Don’t look at those,” tried Emily, but too late. The boys had peeled away from the doorway and were peering at her childhood bedroom that, after her dad’s death, she’d never really spent any time in. It was still a snapshot of an Emily she wasn’t anymore, stuffed toys on the dresser and the bed a four-poster with thin, starry hangings. Worst of all was the wall.

“Did you paint these?” Aaron asked. The whole wall was papered with paintings of birds; ugly watercolour scribbles glued up there by a child who thought they were pretty, that birds were something to be treasured instead of loathed.

“No,” lied Emily. Spencer said nothing, his expression open and delighted as he stepped closer and traced his fingers across the bold shape of a blackbird, Aureilo darting up his arm to touch the painting as well with his little paws. “Sorry, my room is shit. I’m not here much so I don’t really do anything with it. It’s childish. Sorry … it’s not who I am anymore.”

“It’s beautiful,” Spencer replied, smiling for the first time in weeks. “Your home is beautiful.” He turned, his face so hopeful and happy that her heart twisted in her chest. It was a violent enough feeling that she almost reached up to make sure it wasn’t beating right out of there, having to turn the gesture into a quick sweep of her palm down her dress to hide it. “Could you show us more? I’d love to see.”

He seemed completely sincere, so she nodded slowly and said, “Okay.”

 

125.

They ended up leaving Spencer in the library devouring book after book as Emily showed Aaron the balcony leaning out over their expansive grounds and the hallway leading to her dad’s office. Emily never came here, mostly because there was, of all things, an actual oil painting of their family from when Emily was a baby. It was the most affected thing they owned, Emily in a ridiculous ruffled dress and Sergio a furious jackdaw chick in her pudgy hands with his oiled mouth forever gaping open in anger. They stood now staring up at it in muted silence until Aaron broke it with a, “Wow.”

“Yeah.” Emily rubbed her nose with the back of her hand before ruffling the short spikes of her hair into disarray. “How fucked is it? This is what I have to deal with.”

Seconds after saying it, she winced. Like having an oil painting of herself with her family was the worst possible thing when Aaron had … well, what he had.

He didn’t seem to care. “Yeah, gross,” he said, laughing. When he laughed, his face softened a lot. Eyes turning gentle and the square lines of his fierce expression loosening into something kinder; she could look at him then and tell why Spencer was drawn to him. “Your family seems weird, no offence.”

“None taken. You’re going to just love my mom.” Emily looked back up at the painting, shivering as her dad’s oiled gaze seemed to land directly on her. “Dad is old money. Mom’s typical politician stock. They were as bad as each other, just in different ways.”

“So, you’re the cliché rebellious offspring. Sounds about right.”

“Probably. I mean, I still have to blow my inheritance on booze and hookers to reach that level, right?” She snorted, turning her back on her dad before the guilt could hurt her, her eyes automatically following a path she hadn’t walked for five years. Up up up the dusty rug to the untouched door of her father’s office. Not even the cleaners came to this part of the house under her mother’s strict orders, and she swallowed hard and made sure to walk along the runner, heels clicking on the polished wood.

“You alright?” Aaron asked, watching her while Hal turned and looked at the door Emily was staring at.

“Fine,” Emily gasped, backing up and rapidly changing the subject as she near-on fled that hall. Sergio was a chinchilla on her shoulder, soft and useless. “So, Spencer, huh?”

Aaron’s expression was blank and fixed.

Emily, of course, ignored that.

“He sure does look pretty in that suit, don’t you think?”

Aaron continued looking blank, but Hal’s tail wagged twice.

“I mean, the way it’s tailored around his ass, fuck. I think he’s cute in a real special kind of way, but I could see why someone would be into that. Weird he hasn’t got anyone into him, don’t you think?”

Aaron coughed twice and turned a delicious shade of red that had Sergio skittering down and turning into a fox to grin cheekily at Hal, their fright forgotten.

“Is he?” he coughed, covering his mouth and trying to look everywhere but at Emily. “I mean, does he? I wouldn’t know, I guess, we don’t talk about that. He probably does. Have someone into him, I mean. Maybe. Or not? He’s weird. I don’t know. When’s dinner?”

Even Hal looked mortified by Aaron’s complete loss of control, staring up at him with her mouth hanging open.

“Wow,” said Sergio.

“Something you want to share with the class?” Emily asked him as she hovered with her hand on the library door. “Before we join Professor Spencer?”

“No. What? What would I have to say?”

He was still bright red as she swung the door open and gestured him in, not at all missing that the first thing he looked at as they walked into the room was Spencer’s ass as the boy reached up to replace the book he was holding onto its spot on the shelf.

“Pervert,” Sergio whispered. Aaron coughed louder. Emily just grinned. The night, very suddenly, was looking up. She might still be sore that her friends were leaving her in the dust, but at least they were going to be spectacularly awkward about it.

 

126.

Dinner was a disaster, beginning with Aaron innocently asking where Emily’s dad was. Emily responded with a harsh, “Dead,” which earned a slap-down from her mother, who then put her own foot in it by asking Spencer what his parents did for a living.

“Dad’s a lawyer,” Spencer replied. “Mom was a professor of fifteenth-century literature.”

“Was?”

Spencer shrugged and picked at his dinner before saying, “She’s gone.” The entire time, his gaze was locked on Kinkri, his skin a waxy kind of pale.

“Is this chicken?” Aaron asked Emily, his voice loud as he tried to shift attention away from their pallid friend.

“Balsamic roasted duck with persimmon chutney,” Elizabeth replied, smiling at him like a hawk. Emily saw him wither under that gaze. “Do you like it? It used to be Emily’s favourite.”

“I’ve always hated duck,” Emily snapped. “Leave him alone.”

Elizabeth’s lips pursed as she picked at her own meal before draining her wine-glass. “I’m being polite,” she said with a forced kind of calm. “You should take notes. Why would I have invited them if I wasn’t interested in them?”

“Em,” whispered Sergio warningly, but Spencer was still pale and Aaron looked like he was trying to melt into his over-sized suit jacket and Emily saw red.

“Well, maybe you should fucking ask about them instead of their families,” she spat. “But, no, that’s not what you do, is it? I’m not Emily, I’m just another Prentiss. Spencer’s only as interesting to you as a pedigree, is that it? Are a lawyer and a professor a good enough match for your progeny to be friends with? What about Aaron? Is he good enough? Grill him next, I know you want to. I know you’re gonna—”

“Going to.” In the startled silence that followed, Elizabeth cut a piece of duck from her plate and ate it before lowering her fork and speaking again. “Really, Emily, if you feel the need to pretend that you’re so terribly brave, shouting at your mother in front of your friends, at least attempt not to sound like a backwater brat while doing so. Now, Aaron, tell me about yourself. Are you looking to go to college in a few years?”

“Uh,” said Aaron. “Yeah, I think so. I was looking at law. Maybe in DC.”

Spencer was staring at his plate, his eyes huge and face white, Aureilo hidden somewhere on his person. Emily shrunk down, so mortified she thought she might physically sink into the ground beneath her, taking the spitting-cat Sergio with her. But even as she shrunk, she looked down just in time to see Hal and Aureilo sitting either side of her trembling cat-dæmon, their paws on his fur and cuddling him tight between them.

“Georgetown? Or George Washington, perhaps?”

“Maybe, either,” Aaron replied, his eyes on Emily. She met his gaze, the anger trickling away. Her mom was just being her mom, but her friends … her friends were so much more.

So, she pushed all the anger and the creeping, oily shame away and said, “Hey, Spence. We’re having chocolate mousse for dessert, with hazelnut praline. You’re a nut for sweets, right?”

From under the table, there was an excited squeak.

Emily didn’t miss how, with her failure to snap back at the bait her mother had left dangling, Elizabeth looked nothing but surprised.

 

127.

“Tonight was nice,” Spencer said afterwards when he was sitting on the balcony with her. She was on the railing, legs hanging over and enjoying the breeze and the cool and the flicker of lights below in the garden, not to mention the calming bite of the nicotine kicking in. “I hope I thanked your mom enough.”

“You thanked her plenty,” Emily replied, kicking her legs. With a twitch, Spencer inched closer and put his hand on her elbow, steadying her. She took the opportunity of his proximity to bring the cigarette from her lips to his, watching the tip flare orange as he inhaled, the smoke eddying around them. “Is Aaron coming back?”

“Nah, I don’t think so,” Spencer said. “His dad has been hard on him lately, I think because of exams. Results will be in soon though and he’s going to have done brilliantly — that will get his dad off his back, I hope.”

“I hope,” Emily parroted quietly. They were alone. It felt, under the deep summer sky blue upon blue with dabs of starry white, like one of those endless, beautiful moments. She was still in her crappy dress; his suit jacket was thrown over the railing beside her, his sleeves rolled up, and she watched him try and blow ineffective smoke rings.

“Hey, Em?” His voice was rough, probably from the smoke. She finished one, stumping it out and flicking it into the ashtray set nearby, before taking another two from the packet she had shoved into her bra and giving one to him.

“Mmm?”

“How did your dad die?”

Sergio made a low noise, but Emily only winced a bit at the twitch of deep-seated hurt that sparked at that. After all, on a night like this, it felt right to touch on things that hurt. She leaned back, Spencer shuffling forward so she could rest her shoulder on his chest, both their hands gripping the railing side-by-side. She didn’t look away from the single cloud above as she answered.

“I don’t know. I came home from school and he was dead. I guess he was sick and didn’t tell me.”

Thump went the heart behind her, skipping a beat before banging loudly. “You found him? That’s awful. You must have been small.”

“Ten. It wasn’t so bad. I don’t remember much. His funeral was worse.” The cloud was dissipating as she watched and she had to shift her attention to something else, the stars too many to pick just one. “We weren’t supposed to cry or make a scene or anything, really, and I think bottling it up just made it all hurt worse. Some family. Mom didn’t even care. I don’t think she cried once. There’s not a lot of love to spare in this place.”

“I don’t think that’s true.” Emily’s head snapped up, staring at Spencer, but he met her gaze without flinching and continued: “There’s a lot of you in this house. Photos and stuff. And a whole shelf in the library is devoted to comic books with your name written on the covers. Another shelf to birds, and more of your paintings in there. That seems like love to me, even if it’s more, I don’t know, outwardly expressive rather than inwardly. Your mom seemed sad when you said you didn’t like the duck.”

“If she loved me, you’d think she’d remember I don’t like duck,” Emily retorted, uneasy. “Can I ask you something?” She’d meant to ask about Aaron, the question dancing on the tip of her tongue, but that wasn’t what slipped loose when Spencer nodded at her. “Is your mom why you’re at Ashworth?”

Against her shoulder, his chest rose fast and hard, his breathing quickening. She waited patiently for him to recover, whether he chose to respond or not.

He did.

“She wasn’t well either,” he said slowly. “Then, one day, Dad packed our bags and we left. I don’t know where she is, if she’s alive. I don’t even know if what I remember of her is accurate. We don’t talk about her. We’re not really … Dad doesn’t like it, and she never responded to our letters, back when we wrote them.”

“Never?” Emily asked. “I mean, my mom wouldn’t—”

“No!” Spencer snapped, not angry at her, just sharp. “No, I mean, she’s not your mom. Nothing like her. Mom loved us and wasn’t as careful about it as your mom is. She loved us so, so much, you don’t understand. We were so special to her, really. It sounds dumb, but she thought we were geniuses. I know we’re not, but it was nice to have someone believe we could be and I wish … you know, her dæmon was a cheetah and when I saw your mom’s tonight I … it shocked me, I guess, I just—”

“Spence.” Emily cut him off, swinging her leg over the railing and standing up beside him, stubbing her burned down cigarette into the ashtray and taking his hand. His own wasn’t even lit, propped behind his ear. Once again, she was struck by the damning, all-consuming desire to show him that life was more than its darkest parts. “It doesn’t sound dumb, it sounds beautiful. Really, that she loved you so much. It’s beautiful. Come on, I’ll show you.” She tugged him to the side of the balcony, to the ivy-wound trellis that she knew could take their weight because she’d added nails to it, years ago, to ensure that she always had a way out.

“Where are we going?”

Emily had a playhouse tucked right up against the back of the garden where no one would accidentally stumble across such a childish eyesore, and it was always a surprise to her that her mother hadn’t had it torn down after her father, who’d built it, had died. Probably, she’d forgotten it existed. That suited Emily just fine; first, they were going there and to the stash of something better than this she had in an owl-shaped cookie jar sitting on the cobwebby shelf, and then they were going to get lost together.

“I can’t give you your mom back,” she told him, helping him climb down the trellis so they could slip away unnoticed. “But I can help with the feeling lonely.”

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

128.

Aaron snapped awake to the house phone ringing in the middle of the night, his stomach dropping into his gut at the sound. A middle of the night phone call: it could be his mom or Sean, or—

“Aaron!” barked his dad with the kind of voice that had Hal and Aaron scrambling for the door with identical surges of fear chasing them out there. The hall light was on, Gary standing by the side table where the phone sat. The man was still red-eyed and mean and swaying from the night before with the phone in his hand. Aaron froze in the doorway and tried not to look at the belt hanging open from his dad’s jeans while Hal did the same not-looking-while-looking at the cruel gaze of the albatross. “The fuck time do you think it is for your bitch-ass girlfriend to be calling?”

Aaron blinked.

Girlfriend?

“Sir?” he asked cautiously, inching closer. “I don’t…”

The phone was thrust at him, the tangled cord almost dragging the cradle from the stand. Aaron winced back before taking a breath and accepting it, pressing against the wall as his dad stared him down.

“Hello?” he husked, his voice a dry croak as sweat oozed down his shirtless back. Those eyes bored into him, the man’s and his dæmon’s, and it was taking every iota of concentration he had not to visibly tremble, Hal shuddering against his legs as a Jack Russell terrier.

“Aaron?” Emily’s voice was too-loud and too-bright at this moment, shaking every part of Aaron that was scared. It was a reminder that there was a world outside this deeply shadowed hallway, one where his dad didn’t have one thumb hooked around his belt buckle with his eyes squinted against the glare of the hallway light. “Hey, uh, so I fucked up.”

“Uh-huh,” Aaron replied, meeting his dad’s gaze and regretting it. Snick went the belt as it caught on one loop. It had been going so well, so much better than this. He’d avoided pissing him off for ages and now… “And?”

“And, um, uh. Well, first off, we’re okay. We’re so okay, we really are.” There was a whoop of laughter from the other end of the phone, one that sounded suspiciously like Spencer. “Shut up, Spence. No, really, we’re fine. And if you can’t, that’s cool, we’re so good right now.”

Spencer’s voice thrummed near Emily, too far to hear the words but Aaron’s stomach sunk at the inflection. It was wrong, all wrong, and, come to think of it, Emily didn’t sound right either.

“Where are you?” he asked, turning his side to his dad, knowing it would piss the man off but needing to hear if his friends were safe right now while suspecting that they weren’t.

“Uh, a park near my house somewhere. You know, I’ve never actually been here before? But it’s definitely near my house.” More murmuring voices, then: “Probably near my house.”

Aaron let his head hit the wall, staring down at the knee of his sweatpants. “Do you need me to come?” he whispered into the mouthpiece, feeling the sweat on his back building, his mouth going dry as though all the moisture in his body was bailing with the worry of what he’d face when he turned around. “I thought Spence had his dad’s car.”

“Maybe. I mean, he does. At mine. Which is somewhere. That way. We’ll just walk that way. But we might get distracted in about, um, oh, twenty minutes or so.”

“What happens in twenty minutes?” She didn’t answer his question, the silence guilty, and he sighed and said, “I’m on my way.”

“Thanks, Aaron. Your dad won’t be angry, will he?”

“No,” he lied. “See you in however long it takes me.”

He dropped the phone on the cradle, breathing in deep and stepping forward to face the fight he knew was coming.

 

129.

By the time they managed to narrow down which park it was — after jogging the entire way to Emily’s, which was not at all close to his apartment and waking up Elizabeth trying to surreptitiously scale the fence to get to Spencer’s unlocked car, and trying to talk his way out of having to explain that he was going to pick up her stoned daughter — almost two hours had passed. Aaron and Hal were tired, sore, miserable, and in so much fucking trouble with absolutely everyone. Elizabeth was livid that she hadn’t noticed Emily sneaking out, Gary had been explosive, and Aaron hoped Spencer realised that both him and Emily were probably going to be sleeping at his apartment tonight since their own homes had become somewhat uncertain prospects right now.

“To the right,” Hal said from the passenger seat where she had her paws on the DC travel map and was guiding him to the closest park with a payphone attached. By close, it was still a good thirty-minute walk, but they eventually found it. Past midnight now and the park was pitch black with one lonely figure briefly illuminated by his headlights as he turned into the parking lot. “Is that them? Well, one of them?”

“Either that or I’m about to get us jumped,” Aaron said, turning the car off and watching the figure cautiously as it reclined on the lawn. Aaron had nothing on but the loose pants he’d been sleeping in and a light windbreaker, the windbreaker not even his but one he’d found in the backseat of Spencer’s car. It smelled like Spence, which was at least an improvement over the scent of his own drying sweat. “Come on. They’re not walking to us. Is there a flashlight in the glove compartment?”

Hal popped it with her nose, nodding at the flashlight within. Light in hand and with Hal a wolf, the two of them climbed out and walked bravely into the dark.

As they got closer, it became apparent that the one figure was two people. It became equally as apparent that the two figures were cuddled close, one arm around the other. And it became apparent that they were kissing. It took a full ten seconds for Aaron’s brain to reboot from that before he walked forward with his body acting jerky and robotic, his knees unsteady and the beam of the flashlight jumping everywhere but on the one figure that was breaking apart into two and turning to look at him.

“Aaron!” Spencer leapt up to meet him, lurching into his arms and hugging him so tight that Aaron wheezed with surprise. Suddenly, there were hands on his back pulling him in, Spencer nuzzling close with a pleased sound. He was a warm weight against Aaron’s chest. “You came! I knew you would. I’m so happy you’re here.”

“Hi, Aaron,” Emily said, standing and dancing closer to grin widely at him, grass on her pretty dress and her mouth as pink as the spots on her pale cheeks. “Whose car is that?”

“Are you in my jacket?” Spencer asked, pulling back and examining him, his fingers tracing the zipper, up down, up down, up down. “Is that my dad’s car?”

“Um,” said Hal. Aaron looked at her. Sergio was an over-sized house cat, ridiculously floofy and purring so loud that Aaron could hear him as he twined in endless, excited circles around Hal’s forelegs. Even as Aaron watched, Aureilo appeared from the leaf litter and darted up Hal’s legs, skittering onto her back and rolling around in her fur with enthusiastic little trills of glee.

“What the fuck is going on?” Aaron asked, angry beyond belief and with his body burning with a shame he knew was showing in his face. He was tired, he was hurt, and he’d just caught his best fucking friends fucking kissing like it didn’t — to his horror, he realised the burning was shifting up behind his eyes and he switched the flashlight off fast, wrenching himself away from Spencer’s grabby hands. “You’re both off your faces, aren’t you?”

Spencer’s eyes were huge, momentary confusion showing on his face before he stepped closer and reached out cautiously to touch Aaron’s hand, taking the flashlight and switching it back on. The beam caught his face, throwing the narrow lines into sharp relief and showing how huge his pupils were. Aaron seethed.

“Hey, hey,” Spencer soothed, stepping closer again and smiling like he wasn’t quite on the same wavelength as Aaron here, somehow completely missing how in trouble he was. “It’s okay, hey — oh.” His expression cleared, the confusion vanishing. “Oh! I know why you’re upset. Don’t worry, we weren’t really kissing.”

Aaron stared at him. “You weren’t, what?” he said dumbly, not quite following since he knew what he’d seen.

“No, I mean, we were, but we weren’t. Not proper kissing. Emily was showing me how so that I can kiss who I really want to properly, like this—”

Just like that, with a giddy, ridiculous, stupid smile so happy that Aaron’s heart flipped in response, Spencer launched himself forward and crashed their mouths together. Aaron caught him mid-launch, managing to loop his arms around the other boy before he slid straight down and thumped onto the floor, but this also had the unintended side-effect of pulling them flush together and prolonging the kiss. It was, all at once, electrifying, terrifying and downright startling. It also hurt, mostly from the crashing.

“Wow,” Spencer breathed. He slumped in Aaron’s arms with his jaw shifting like he was clicking his teeth together. Aaron just stared, completely stumped as his brain caught up to the rest of him and screamed, Wake up, idiot, Spencer just kissed you!

Spencer didn’t seem shocked, his hands touching his own lip before twisting upright and bringing his fingers to Aaron’s. “Weird,” he murmured, repeating the gesture. Aaron tried not to stare at his mouth while he did so. “You feel different to me. But wow. I’ve wanted to do that for, gosh, so long.”

“Gosh,” Emily mimed with an exaggerated flip of her hair. She came up behind them and leaned down to pick up Sergio. “I think we should go home. Somewhere with so much water.”

“Yeah, hey, I’m warm,” Spencer said, despite not letting go of Aaron. “You’re warm too. And I’m thirsty. Can we kiss again? That was unreal — and I’m sure this is my jacket?” Before Aaron could answer, he tipped his head back and went for another kiss.

“Whoa, no,” Aaron said. He tipped back out of reach but was careful not to let go of his friend, his anger gone and replaced with whatever this weird electric buzzing sensation was, his whole body thrilling awake at every touch of Spencer’s exploring hands. What had happened? What was still happening? And, most importantly, would it happen again? “Come on. Let’s go home. Yeah?”

Spencer beamed: “That would be so lovely,” he said happily. “I hope you guys stay all night. I love when you guys stay, it’s wonderful, the best.”

“I like them high,” Hal whispered. “Aureilo is being adorable.”

“I love you too,” Aureilo replied giddily from his place atop her head where he was petting her ears with his tiny paws.

Hal’s tail wagged the whole way home.

 

130.

They left Emily enraptured with stroking the chinchilla-formed Sergio on the living room floor, both of them tiptoeing up the hall to Spencer’s bedroom to find Aaron a shirt.

“I left in a hurry,” Aaron was explaining as they crept into Spencer’s room: “I didn’t have time to — whoa!” Cut off suddenly, his back hit the door as Spencer pressed close again. Not trying to kiss him anymore, just huddling with his mouth on Aaron’s shoulder and hands skimming his sides.

“Sorry,” Spencer mumbled into his shoulder: “You just feel so good. I missed hugging you the whole drive home.”

“Okay,” said Aaron uneasily, easing him off. “Thank you, but I think that’s probably something you’re going to regret saying when you sober up.”

Spencer shook his head adamantly. “Nope,” he said, rubbing his jaw. “You don’t know, you just don’t know. Everything is clear, I promise. I’m not cognitively impaired and I know what I feel. It’s what I’ve felt for months, just magnified. Wanting you. Gosh, I wish it was this easy always, why haven’t we done this sooner?” He paused, moved closer, eyes locked on Aaron’s lips and hands dancing at his side, smoothing over his suit trousers as though he was only just stopping himself from touching. “I’m not going to kiss you because you don’t like it, but I want to. I just want to, so much, I want you to know.”

“I do like it,” Aaron blurted out. He regretted that immediately as soon as Spencer looked hopeful. “Fuck, not when you’re stoned, fuck. I’m so pissed you had to get stoned to do this!” He was angry and frustrated because this should have been an awesome moment for the both of them — not this torturous unease where he couldn’t tell what was Spencer and what was whatever he’d taken. “When is this going to wear off?”

“Oh.” Spencer sat down, blinking. Aaron took the chance to strip the windbreaker off and toss it into Spencer’s washing hamper, turning around and immediately feeling himself heat up at Spencer’s open regard on his body. It wasn’t a good feeling. Aaron worked out but he was also damaged, white lines of scarring on his skin that he crossed his arms over and hoped Spencer hadn’t noticed. “Maybe another hour.” But his voice was soft, the longing clear, and Aaron sighed and walked over to him, feeling bad about the wanting in that gaze.

“No kissing,” he warned as he sat down on the bed, arms still hugging himself tight. “Why do you do it? Get high, I mean.”

Spencer shrugged, reaching around Aaron for a bottle of water on his cluttered bed-stand and drinking it too fast. Aaron caught it and tugged it back, warning him to sip not chug. Emily had already told them: drink water, chew gum, and the comedown would suck unless they did as she told them.

“Dunno,” he replied, his gaze shifting around rapidly but almost staring. “Because Emily does it.”

“That’s a shit answer and you know it. If you didn’t want it, you’d tell her no. Do you have gum?”

The grind of his friend’s teeth was driving him mental and it was going to leave Spencer with a sore jaw for sure.

Spencer’s gaze turned, his body trembling once so hard that Aaron felt the bed shake under them. “Drawer,” he said, trying to move around Aaron to grab at it, but Aaron had already opened the drawer and was pawing through it, mostly to distract from the hand that Spencer had let drift lazily onto his thigh. “Uh, Aaron …”

Socks, more socks, more socks, a portable radio, a pocket atlas, a … Aaron paused over the bottle of lube and the neat stack of what was clearly the magazines Emily had stolen before knocking the socks over them and grabbing out the pack of gum piled in there on top of three half-empty tubes of throat lozenges.

“Teenage boy bedrooms are gross,” he teased gently, tossing the gum at his friend and trying to distract from both of their burning faces. Spencer, judging by the hand on his thigh, was burning everywhere. “Drink more water. You’re hot.”

“MDMA raises the core body temperature,” Spencer said around his embarrassment. He twitched as Aaron went to stand. “Wait, stay.” And there they were again, the arms wrapping around him as Spencer promptly forgot the careful space they were trying to keep between them. “Aaron, please, this isn’t the drugs. I mean, it is — hugging you right now feels…” He trailed off, palms flat on Aaron’s torso, his skin. “Overwhelming. But nice. And it’s not a sex thing, I promise, I’m not being weirder than usual and I always want to hug you. But, stay. Please?”

Aaron untangled his hands and stepped away, torn. It didn’t feel right.

It wasn’t right.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, but froze as Hal jumped up onto the bed, inches from Spencer. Close enough that Aureilo could leap from her head to Spencer’s shoulder, both turning to look at Aaron’s dæmon.

“What are you doing?” Spencer asked Hal right as the dæmon lowered herself down, lying on the bed with her head in Spencer’s lap. “Ah. Aaron!?” Voice shrill, eyes huge, hands held in the air as he panicked and tried not to touch her.

Aaron stared at his dæmon. At the touch of her fur to Spencer’s clothed legs. At Spencer’s hands hovering stupidly in the air. His heart was slamming, his brain buzzing, his blood burning, as he sat down on the floor and said, as though in a dream, “I’m not doing this. She is.”

Spencer looked from the dæmon to Aaron, and then back again, before whispering, “Hal? Can I?” The dæmon nodded. Spencer lowered his hands, his eyes flickering shut as he touched, first, her gorgeous, velvety ears. The touch lingered and Aaron, through Hal, felt every second of it. Spencer was right; there was nothing, utterly nothing, that was sexual about it. It was euphoric, somehow, and Aaron wavered like he was getting a contact high from the secondary touch. Spencer tensed, pulling away, and choked out, “I don’t want, I don’t … I can’t …” and Aaron reeled with the pain of the confused fear that hit him.

“I won’t touch Aureilo,” Aaron promised. He shuffled back to press against the door and tuck his knees in close, wanting to do nothing more than watch the boy with his dæmon. “I promise, Spencer, I won’t touch Aureilo.”

Relief clear in his eyes, Spencer resumed stroking Hal. There they stayed, breaking every rule and regretting none of it.

 

131.

Feeling about as lively as he had the morning he’d woken up hungover, Aaron was an outsider looking in as Spencer and Emily hung out on the balcony sharing a joint in the comedown following. Hal was herself again, no sign of the shivering excitement she’d shown as Spencer had touched her. That entire experience felt, to Aaron, like some kind of bizarre dream, not something that had actually happened. As intense as a sex dream but without any of the arousal, and it left Aaron feeling emotionally wrung out. He didn’t know his own mind right now, or his heart. It was all too much. The last six hours had changed everything, and he wasn’t ready for any of it.

“So, how come you broke into my mom’s house to steal Spencer’s car instead of bringing your own?” Emily asked, sidling inside with Spencer closing the door to, unsuccessfully, try to shut out the smell of pot. “And rocking up half naked to boot.”

Spencer said nothing, just crawled onto the couch next to Aaron and tucked himself into a ball, knees to his chest and eyes heavy-lidded, hair brushing Aaron’s thigh.

“No reason,” Aaron said. “Why’d you get stoned?”

“No reason,” Emily said. “I’m fucked. Shoo, so I can sleep.”

“I’ll sleep on the floor,” Spencer mumbled, his voice as tired as the rest of him but still smiling. Still happy. It was an unusual look on him, and that hurt to realise. For the first time, Aaron clued in to why Emily might be doing this.

“Nah,” Aaron said, standing up and bringing his droopy friend with him. “Are you sober?”

“No?” Spencer said after a moment of introspection. “But more than I was. Why?”

Aaron said nothing, just wished Emily a good night and led Spencer to the room, pushing him gently in. “Get changed,” he suggested, turning his back. “We’re sharing, but we’re not talking about tonight or changing anything about how we are. Not until you’re sober.”

“Okay.”

When the rustling of hasty undressing and redressing was done, Aaron slid — for the first time — properly into the bed with his friend, leaving a wide gap of space between them despite the fact that this meant they were both hanging off their respective edges. At their feet, Hal leapt up as a spaniel, lying happily across their legs with Aureilo tucked at her side. Silence fell between them, but a loud kind of silence where Aaron could tell Spencer was still awake.

“What?” he finally snapped, fed up with the waiting tension.

“I meant it, you know,” Spencer said. “I love when you stay with me.”

“Yeah, I feel the same.” He made the mistake of rolling over, his heart choking a bit at the intense look in Spencer’s reddened eyes. “Go to sleep.”

“Okay,” Spencer said again, obediently closing his eyes and mumbling, “But, please stay. I want you with me.”

He was gone, breathing evening out and slipping, limply, more fully into the bed. Aaron waited for what felt like an hour before easing himself next to him, closing his eyes and trying to sleep as well despite the distracting heat of Spencer beside him, his thoughts whirling and whirling and whirling and…

Aaron,” gasped Hal, her voice shocking in the silence. He jerked upright, worried that something was wrong. “Aureilo!”

It took Aaron far too long to find the mouse-dæmon, and that was entirely because he wasn’t a mouse at all, not anymore.

“Oh,” breathed Aaron, staring down at his dæmon — a dog still — and the curled up form of the hare next to her, so much more than the mouse had ever suggested he could be. Tan and cream and lithe; Aureilo as a hare held all the potential Aaron had dreamed that Spencer contained, from his long, long legs to the graceful curve of his slender body. As deeply asleep as his human, Aureilo was completely unconscious of his shift in form. What Aaron was seeing now was hidden and secret and real.

“He’s perfect,” Hal said, staring at the hare with something terrifyingly close to love in her eyes.

Aaron, feeling much the same and with no way to voice it adequately, simply said, “Yeah.”

 

132.

Dawn found him on the balcony smoking a cigarette he’d found behind Spencer’s ear the night before and staring out over the pastel purple summer morning, Hal by his knee. They didn’t talk about Spencer touching her. They didn’t need to. What had happened was beyond words. They thought a lot: about a girl whose mother had given up on her; about a boy lost in his own potential; about a father who was too little; about their shared heart that felt too much; and, most of all, they thought of a mouse who didn’t know he was really a hare.

The door slid open behind them before clicking shut, the person who’d stepped through standing and observing them without speaking. Aaron knew who it was. He’d always know.

“I was thinking about you,” Aaron said, hearing Spencer suck in a sharp breath.

“I’m sorry,” he replied. “Last night, I remember it all. It’s all so clear to me now. And none of it was faked or, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Aaron shifted across to let Spencer sit cross-legged next to him, shoulder brushing the blanket Aaron had tugged tight around his shirtless body. “We need to talk though.”

“Yeah.”

Aaron looked at him, his throat tight. On Spencer’s shoulder, Aureilo was a mouse again, whiskers low but eyes bright and saying nothing. “Do you regret it?” he asked, the most pressing of questions. “Kissing me, I mean. Do you regret it?”

Spencer rubbed his jaw, eyes tracing the line of the railing. “No,” he said slowly. “But also, yes, in a way. I don’t regret that we kissed. I didn’t lie. I have wanted to do that for a while, but I didn’t think you were … we were …”

“Interested,” Aaron supplied, remembering the magazine in the drawer. “I don’t know if I am. I can’t answer that.” But, when he looked at Spencer in the loose cotton shirt and pants, not all the sensations in his body were benign. Most of it, yeah, but last night … he could imagine them kissing and he could remember with shocking detail the feel of their bodies together and he knew Spencer so intimately already, it felt, that he didn’t think the answer would be a resounding no, even if he was uneasy with the complexity of the idea.

“It’s okay. You don’t have to yet. But I do want you to know that I regret kissing you when I kissed you. That wasn’t right. We should have both been sober for it.”

Aaron watched the yellow sun beginning to stain the blue sky. “Are you sober now?” he asked.

“Yeah, why?”

The skin under his palm was soft as Aaron cupped his friend’s jaw and brought it around to his own, shuffling forward on his knees until their legs were touching. He said, “Because,” and brought their mouths together.

The kiss was nothing like the night before. It was slow and tentative, Spencer unsure of whether to lean into or away from it and, in the end, doing nothing but pressing damp lips together until something clicked in them both and they moved closer. Arms slipping around each other, easing them closer and pulling them tighter; Aaron’s eyes were closed but every sense was screamingly alive, the nerves in his mouth jangling at every shift of their lips, the ones in his fingers frantic as he traced his hands through Spencer’s hair, around his ear, pausing to hold him in place as they both had to break apart to breathe. Blinking and startled as they registered the climbing sun, still too close but not close enough, lingering inches from each other and staring at the other’s mouth. Spencer’s was pink and slipped open in a soft wow before Aaron kissed him again, sure, now, that if Spencer asked him if he was interested, he could answer more clearly.

“Do you know how long we’ve liked you?” Aureilo asked suddenly, his voice not breaking the moment but, somehow, deepening it. Spencer shivered, his eyes closing, and Aaron settled back and felt too small for this.

“Not as long as us,” Hal replied fiercely. “Not as much.”

Chapter Text

Spencer

 

133.

What followed was a slow, lazy summer that Spencer would always remember as encompassing every moment it took to fall in love.

Aaron as an adult, in the late hours of the night while he studied for the bar or picked over court transcripts, would remember the sleepy mornings sprawled almost naked on Spencer’s bed, both too hot to move with the oscillating fan casting weary gusts of warm air over them. He’d remember this rather than remember the four hours Hal spent in the cupboard after the night he walked out to go collect his friends from the park. He’d remember learning how to kiss. Not awkward and stilted like with Claire, but properly with the real kind of feeling behind it that denoted how different Spencer was from anyone else. He’d remember that, but not those four hours he spent in his room too angry to think, writing pages and pages and pages of furious scrawl about everything he’d do to his father if he could, a kind of manic fury that he knew would drive him to stupidity if he let it. He’d remember teaching Spencer to swim with Emily floating in lazy circles around them, Sergio and Hal both otters floating beside her with their paws linked and with Aureilo sitting on Hal’s slick belly and calling out advice to the spluttering Spencer. He’d remember this, but not being too sore to sit down or the excruciating experience of having to limp to Spencer’s and try to stammer some excuse as to why he spent the whole visit on his belly with Hal a miserable stoat next to him.

Spencer, as an adult, would regret not doing more to help him. But he was just shy of sixteen and far too sheltered to even fully understand what was happening. He, unlike Aaron, would remember this afternoon clearly, even more clearly than the kinder days that followed. But he’d also always remember lying down next to Aaron and linking their fingers together, whispering, “I’d run away if you asked me,” and feeling every part of Aaron shake at the idea.

“Don’t,” Aaron replied. “Don’t even suggest that.”

It was an idea too enticing to consider.

Emily, as an adult, would miss these days. Everything was simpler, even when it was awful. And she’d know that there were even better days to come.

 

134.

This place was entirely alien to Spencer and fascinating due to this. He examined every nook and cranny of the garage while Aaron worked, finding a stack of car manuals and delving into them with glee.

“How are they even interesting?” Aaron asked, snapping him out of his reading binge with a greasy hand to his elbow. Despite only the barest tips of his grimy fingers brushing Spencer’s skin, he still left black marks behind. “I like fixing cars and I find them boring.”

“Knowledge is never boring,” Spencer retorted, edging away from further greasy touches.

Aaron rolled his eyes before looking to the tottering pile of manuals. “Did you really read all of those already?”

Spencer didn’t respond, embarrassed by his abilities.

Hal saved him. “Never mind that,” she said impatiently, flickering through a range of shapes when she saw that Spencer was watching her. Showing off, but it was so sweetly blatant that something in Spencer’s chest thrummed to life with a reminder of how much he loved this part of Aaron, this part that was separate and complete in her own wonderful way while also complimenting the very best parts of him. “Come on, come on. I want to show Aureilo what we’ve done!”

“We?” Aaron grumbled, looking at Spencer to hide his smile from her. “Last time I checked, I’m the one with opposable thumbs.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Hal told Aureilo, who was once again perched on her head and hanging on as she switched from a goat to an aardwolf, plumy tail sweeping the ground and sending a screw skittering to clatter against a grate. “I totally helped.”

They followed the excitable dæmons across the workshop and into a back garage where the decrepit husk of a van sat surrounded by parts and pieces of a deconstructed motor. The seats had been removed from the front, leaning against one wall with rips through the vinyl, and the steering wheel was buckled on one side. Spencer peered into the back, wrinkling his nose at the stripped interior and exposed sheet metal.

“What do you think?” Hal said, her aardwolf butt wiggling and threatening to dislodge Aureilo from her head.

“It’s…” Spencer paused. Aaron wasn’t saying much, but there was a hopeful gleam in his dark eyes that suggested that this was important, in some way. More than what it seemed. It took a moment, but he clicked. “Are you, ah, building this?”

“Restoring,” Aaron said, his voice rapid now that he’d sensed a chance to talk about it. He dashed forward, leaning under the hood and jabbing his thumb into the gaping void where the motor should be. “Come see, I’ll show you what I did. We’re working on the transmission at the moment since the brakes were—”

His words devolved into a string of mechanical jargon to Spencer’s ears, but that was mostly because Spencer himself had become distracted by the decidedly pleasant sight of Aaron leaning under the hood with his mechanic’s jumpsuit pulled tight around his ass, greasy handprints outlining the shape of it.

“Huh,” said Spencer, unashamedly perving.

“Huh,” said Aureilo, doing much the same.

Aaron turned, scowling at them both. “You’re not paying any attention, are you?”

“Sure, we are,” Aureilo replied.

Hal hrumped, sitting down with her huge fluffy tail curled up in an angry arc along her back. “They’re staring at your ass.”

Aaron looked at Spencer, his mouth turning cocky. “Are you now?” he murmured in the kind of voice that suggested Spencer was in some kind of trouble: “Well then…”

Before Spencer could profess his innocence, he had an armful of oily mechanic’s apprentice, the scruff of Aaron’s stubbly jaw — something Spencer, in all his bare-faced misery, envied — scratching against Spencer’s as they kissed.

“Someone will see,” hissed Hal, up again and doing a nervous dance of worry. “Stop grab-assing!”

Aaron twisted in Spencer’s arms to stare at her, leaving him feeling pleasantly itchy and warm and snug all over. “And what are you supposed to be?”

“I don’t know,” was the mulish reply. “The door is open.”

“Then close it.”

Hal did just that, grumbling all the way, and Aaron continued crowding Spencer against the wall, their hands roaming. Dazed, Spencer looked down and winced to see the black marks on his clothes even as his stomach jerked with a low kind of excitement at how many rules they were breaking right now.

“She’s an aardwolf,” he said, letting Aaron pull him to the van and perching him on the back, metal digging into his ass as Aaron all but straddled him in order to kiss him properly. They had to stop. They should stop. If they didn’t stop soon, he was going to be in trouble.

“What’s an aardwolf?” Aaron was asking, his voice fraught as he ran his fingers through his hair and left it cocked up stupidly as he dipped and claimed Spencer’s mouth again. They broke apart, Spencer trying to collect his thoughts but having them shattered again by another kiss and two hands tugging his sweater-front and pulling them closer together in a frenzy of ‘we’re not in control of this anymore’.

“Insectivorous mammal of Africa,” Aureilo said helpfully from the front seat where the two dæmons had leapt up to judge them. “Related to hyenas. God, Aaron, read a book.”

“We know things,” Hal said hotly, the two dæmons beginning to bicker at each other. “Look!”

Spencer and Aureilo peered around, still twined around each other and both breathing quickly as they watched Hal flicker from a wombat to a leopard to a half-hearted attempt at becoming a bizarre, short giraffe before squeaking with alarm as the shape failed and dropped her down into an oddly long-necked deer.

“See,” she said snootily, reforming herself correctly into a wolf and tipping her nose into the air. “We do know animals! Like … this …” With a curling wolf-smile, she dropped down into a smaller form that Spencer had to crane backwards to see, his heart lurching with surprise as she peered back at him as a hare.

“Hal,” hissed Aaron, his attempt to lean forward to look at his dæmon having had the inopportune side-effect of pressing his body against Spencer’s. Kissing forgotten, another lurch from lower down in Spencer’s traitorous body had him pulling his knees up and against his chest to try and obscure it. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” she said innocently. Spencer paused, eyeing her with his mouth dry at the reminder of what he’d once been. It hurt too much to look at her for too long, turning his attention back to his mortifying predicament with Aureilo suddenly appearing at his side. “I just felt like being a long rabbit. Don’t you ever feel like that, Aur? Kind of bouncy … bigger than a mouse?”

“Long rabbit?” spluttered Aureilo. “A long rabbit? Why, you—”

They were bickering again, leaving Aaron and Spencer to extract themselves from their tangle alone. The heated moment having passed, Aaron stepped down and away, flushed pink with his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed repeatedly.

“Come on,” he offered, holding his hand out to Spencer. “We’ll grab a soda from the breakroom before we head home.”

“Um.” Spencer looked down automatically before realising how suspicious that was and looking anywhere but. “Maybe in a minute. Please? What did Hal mean about Aur feeling like a hare?”

Aaron shrugged with false nonchalance, his gaze locked with such unwavering intensity on Spencer’s face that Spencer could tell he was definitely trying not to look down. “No idea,” he said. “Maybe she just really likes hares.”

 

135.

Summer crept on, the weeks skittering by faster than Spencer could fathom. His father commented on how happy he seemed.

“Maybe things are getting better,” William said, ruffling Spencer’s hair in a rare show of paternal concern as he passed by.

In the bathroom medicine cabinet, the lithium stayed untouched. Spencer and Aureilo, for the first time since Aureilo had woken and found himself a mouse, looked to the future and saw more than just being alone.

 

136.

There were nights with Emily. This was one of those nights. They were stoned and dizzy and walking along the slick side of a pier as the sober Aaron wearily held on to one with one hand and the other with his other, stopping them both from tumbling to an unpleasantly wet end.

“I love you,” Spencer told Aaron giddily, sitting down hard and delighting in the touch of the wood to his bare palms. “I love you, I love you, I love you.” That last one was aimed at Emily as Aaron tugged her down to join them, all three lining up with their legs over the edge and shoulders touching.

“Idiot,” Emily said companionably, leaning her beanied head on his arm and beaming at him.

 

137.

They were sober and driving outside of DC, past dried fields and thirsty livestock. It was stifling in the car. They parked by a creek and poked their toes in it, shedding clothes and decorum as quickly as the sweat began to build. Spencer held Aaron’s hand and named from rote the calls of the frogs surrounding, their toes touching under the sheltering cover of the creek below.

 

138.

Sober and dizzy with it, tucked in bed with their hands roaming.

“No,” Aaron said once when Spencer slid down his body and curled his fingers around the waistband of Aaron’s sweatpants. “Not yet. Not with you.”

“You let Claire,” Spencer replied, hurt but also relieved.

“You’re not Claire. And you’re not ready, which means I’m not either. We have all the time in the world to do that.”

 

139.

Summer brought storms. The first of those was vicious, taking the power with it.

“Love you,” Spencer found himself mumbling once more, in a kitten-pile of arms and legs on the living room floor with the balcony doors thrown open to invite in chaos.

“You never say that sober,” Aaron replied, but Spencer was busy watching the way the storm made the world wobble inwards, creating a bubble just of them. “Why don’t you ever say it sober?”

Emily wasn’t listening either. “I think I’d like Sergio to settle fierce,” she said, lifting her cat-shaped-dæmon into the air and dangling him above her with his toes touching her nose. “Maybe a lion.”

“I want Hal to be small,” Aaron said. He turned his incriminatory gaze away from Spencer and onto their friend. “Small dæmons are trustworthy. Loving. Gentle.”

“You’re all of those things.” Spencer rolled over and over until he could scramble on top of his friend-and-sometimes-more, loving the shared beats of their silly hearts. “You’re more than those things.”

Aaron steadied Spencer with a touch of his palm to Spencer’s back. “What do you want Aureilo to settle as?” he asked, with that same odd gleam in his eye.

“He’s settled. He’s done. We’re done.” Spencer tried to roll away, uneasy, but Aaron held him tight.

“If he wasn’t. What would he settle as, if you could again?”

“He’s not—” Emily went to say, but Hal shushed her.

Spencer watched the storm lash the balcony outside, the wind shaking the words from his mouth and a crack of lightning illuminating the three of them in a stop-motion moment of hope.

“A hare,” he said, seeing one in the shape of the angry clouds outside. Arched and wild and ready to run. “We’d be a hare.”

 

140.

Aaron fell asleep just before the power turned back on, leaving Spencer and Emily alone with a pile of Blockbuster rentals. Side by side on the couch with Aaron curled on his corner, head in Spencer’s lap, Raiders of the Lost Ark muted on the grainy TV set; it was a silent, lonely moment. Under Spencer’s fingers, Aaron’s hair was silky smooth, his eyelids dark shadows on his still face. Spencer wondered what kind of a person would take this boy and hurt him.

“Are you guys dating?” Emily asked, head propped on Spencer’s shoulder and Sergio a circle of fur in her lap.

“No. Not … not really?”

He felt rather than saw her eyes flicker to him, the twitch of movement that accompanied the gesture.

“But you’re going to be?”

“I guess so. Why do you care?”

It took a while for her to answer, but when she finally did, it broke what remained of his cowardly heart. “Jealousy, I guess. The quirky girl is supposed to end up with her best friend — that’s how that works, right? Movies have lied to me.”

He turned, carefully so he didn’t jolt Aaron awake, and stared at her. Too many things in that sentence were clamouring for attention in his brain. “Best friends?” he finally settled on, adjusting his seat in the couch so his arm wrapped over Aaron’s shoulder, hand settling against his. “Really?”

“Well…” Emily was staring at Sergio, eyelashes flickering. Hair just barely long enough now that it fell in short, soft curls against her pale skin, making her — in the flickering blue light of the TV — look fragile and small. “I thought so. But, really, you’re his best friend, and I’m no ones. Don’t you know, Spencer? The third wheel always ends up alone. You guys will move on to some grand romantic story, leaving me here to rot and that’s how it should be. I see you guys, how you look at each other and how that changes and deepens so fast, and I’m not only jealous. There’s this cruel little part of me that wishes I could destroy it just so maybe I could be the one someone loves that much. And there’s no one alive who looks at me long enough to love me except you.”

Rain rattled the windows. Aaron twitched in his sleep, curling smaller with a startled mewl escaping his open lips, fingers tightening around the ones that Spencer was tracing unconsciously across his palm. He was dreaming. Spencer doubted the dreams were nice.

“I do love you,” Spencer said finally, unsteady and raw and every part of him hurting for the lonely girl beside him. “Nothing Aaron and I am will ever change that, nothing. Emily, look at me.” She did, and there was a damp edge around her thick lashes that he winced at. “I do love you — friends love each other. Best friends love each other more, right?”

He leaned forward, brushing his mouth against her cheek and feeling her smile.

“You’re a dork,” she said before softly adding, “I love you too. And I didn’t really want to end up with you, you know, before you get ideas. Just … I’m tired of loving things that leave.”

“Yeah.” Spencer curled tighter to the two people he loved the most in this world and went again over the lengthening list of things he’d loved and lost. “Like my mom…”

“Dad,” Emily whispered.

“Our home with Mom’s library,” Aureilo piped up. “And our toys.”

Spencer frowned. “We didn’t have toys?”

“We did. Dad left them all behind because there wasn’t room and because we were supposed to grow up. But we loved them.”

“I never owned toys to begin with,” Emily said glumly. “Proper ladies don’t play with toys. I’d have killed for a fucking cabbage patch kid, let me tell you. The wild looking one with overalls and red pigtails, I loved her.”

They went quiet, Aaron stilling as he slipped out of whatever dream he’d been trapped in and back into deep sleep. Spencer watched him until Emily spoke again.

“You know what I miss? Being a kid awake at midnight. You feel so bad and it’s wonderful. Like, the whole world is asleep and you’re the only person alive, ever, and you really, truly believe that monsters might be watching. I loved that.”

“It’s midnight now,” Spencer pointed out.

“Yeah, but it’s not the same. Everyone expects teenagers to be up at midnight, we’re trash-bags of bad behaviour. As a kid, it’s unexpected. Different. It’s…”

“Other.” Spencer grinned; he was well versed in this concept. “It’s being other. Rejecting the social norms of the in-group, it’s classical ‘otherness’. I miss being an other.”

But Aureilo broke the moment, whispering: “I miss Mom’s books. Being read to…”

“I miss…” Emily thought about it for a moment: “I miss being special.”

And Spencer admitted: “I miss being who I used to be.”

 

141.

Spencer woke to a polite cough, pulling his drool-sticky cheek from Emily’s arm with a gross feeling of peeling. “Urgh,” he said, thirst hitting him, before almost dislodging Emily from where she was asleep cuddled into him as he turned to stare at the cougher. At some point during the night, Aaron had shifted from the couch onto the floor, using the leopard-shaped Hal as a pillow.

William was watching them, briefcase in hand and eyes red from exhaustion.

“Good morning,” he said.

Spencer extracted himself from his clingy friend, wiping his hand across his cheek and having it come off tinged with Em’s makeup. “Morning,” he said hurriedly, and yawned. His jaw clicked as it snapped shut. “What time is it? How long have you been home?”

William just shot him a weird look, gesturing for him to follow and slipping out into the hall. Spencer padded after, leaving his snoozing friends to keep the humming TV company.

“Ah, Spencer,” William was saying, briefcase on the table now and arms crossed. Spencer blinked, recognising his ‘parenting’ posture and wondering what he could possibly be in trouble for, right until a plunge of cold in his stomach introduced him to the concept of caught. Had William seen him and Aaron? Did he know? “I can’t help but notice you’ve been having your friends over a lot lately.”

Fear made Spencer sharp. “Can’t you?” he said, folding his own arms and refusing to look cornered. “When are you here to notice?”

William frowned. “Watch your tone. I’m not accusing you of anything.” But his expression said otherwise, and Spencer wondered if he could smell the pot on the shirt Spencer was wearing. “Do they often spend the night?”

“Yes.”

“Ah. In the living room?”

Spencer kept quiet, unwilling to lie but sensing a trap, his gut knotting and his brain screaming trap trap trap, even though he and Aaron hadn’t done anything more than kiss and get handsy with each other. Pants on, and with no plans of changing that anytime soon, honest—

“I see.” William sat heavily into the kitchen chair and Spencer’s heart thumped down with him, shrinking back and waiting for the recriminations. “I realise that to think I could leave my teenage son home and not expect something like this was naïve of me. And that this is probably a conversation akin to shutting the gate after the proverbial horse has bolted, but it would be irresponsible of me to not check. Spencer, look at me.”

Spencer couldn’t. His gaze was locked on the floor, his head spinning and stomach threatening to send back up everything he’d eaten the day before. Aureilo was nowhere to be seen, but Spencer could feel his fear compounding his own.

“Are you at least being safe? Pregnancy aside, HIV is a real concern for any form of sexual contact—”

Head snapping up, Spencer choked out, “What?” his brain still stumbling over ‘pregnancy’.

William’s ears were red, but he doggedly continued. “A lot of boys, me included at your age, have the misconception that birth control is the woman’s job. That’s completely untrue. We’ve come a long way since I was a teenager, but not far enough, and I’m telling you that you need to be proactive with every form of protection, Spencer, not rely on Emily—”

“Ah,” said Spencer.

A third voice cut in with: “We’re totally being safe, Mr Spencer.” Spencer turned towards that voice, recognising Emily and wishing he could sink into the floor. She was standing in the kitchen doorway with her expression mulish and Aureilo hiding behind Sergio’s foreleg. “Totally one hundred per cent ‘no babies for us’ safe, I promise. Seriously, you could get OSHA in here to rate us on our safety in the bedroom and we would pass with flying colours, no problems here—”

Shut. Up. Spencer mouthed at her, but she was on a roll.

“—zero grand-Spencer’s on the way, I promise, and he’s an absolute gentleman, nothing wrong there, nothing weird about us. Just teenagers being teenagers, boys having sex with gir—”

A sock smacked Emily in the back of the head, thrown from the living room, and her mouth snapped shut with an eep.

William looked completely horrified now, his face burning red in the kind of way that Spencer’s did when he was mortified. “Good,” he muttered, before frowning. “Wait, no, I don’t—”

Spencer was already bolting from there, dragging Emily with him and ignoring his dad’s, “Spencer!”

“Why?” he gasped to her.

“I panicked,” was all she replied. “Well, at least now he doesn’t think you’re ga—”

They almost tripped over Aaron, pressed against the living room door with his mouth gaping open in shared horror. All three tumbled down with muffled attempts to soften their falls.

“You realise that both our dads think we’re dating you?” Aaron asked Emily as soon as they’d regained their wind, his voice low and either amused or about to cry. “I’m not sure if that’s worse than them knowing we’re gay.”

“Not all of us,” Spencer said, resigned to his fate. They all looked at him, and in return he looked at their dæmons, seeing Aureilo smirk. “Aureilo’s not. After all, Hal’s a girl.”  

Chapter Text

Emily

 

142.

Emily wasn’t okay.

Aaron and Spencer were falling in love, she could see it, and, no matter what Spencer said, she knew that meant goodbye to the best thing she’d ever had. But, goddammit, she couldn’t even begrudge them their happiness. “They deserve it,” she told Sergio one night, home alone with the summer air closing her into the room she hated and with her back to the birds. “Shit, Serge, I’m just a jealous cow.”

“You’re lonely,” he said sagely, a possum sitting atop her four-poster with his gaze distant and locked on the open window. “You’re making it hard for me to talk to the others.”

“No, I’m not.” Emily rolled, opening her bedside cupboard and finding the small bag she kept in there. Her allowance had come in and, with it, an escape from the misery of what she knew was coming: the day that Spencer, looking so smiley and giddy and stupidly happy, told her that they’d finally decided that all they needed was two. “I don’t stop you doing shit.”

Barefoot and dressed in nothing but a shirt that Spencer had left at her house, flannel and dumb and probably Aaron’s, actually, considering how broad the shoulders were, she padded to her stereo and slid a tape in. It was the tape marked Spencer and the only song she’d managed to put on there — taping over Gambler, and she was glad to do so — was Blood and Roses. It still didn’t feel right. She needed more. Something more.

The summer crept on and she struggled to put her feelings into music or into words, lacking every ability to express herself. She’d never used drugs to cope before, beyond the fun they brought, but she was now. Sergio didn’t complain. He was glad they were hurting less, however she went about doing so.

Spencer called her out on it.

“We don’t need that tonight,” he said. She winced at the flare of furious anger that brought — how dare he judge her — but he kept on: “Why can’t we just hang out?”

“Whatever,” she replied. She knew ‘just hang out’ meant ‘make moon eyes at each other for the entire time’ and so she went home instead and found her fun on her own, without them. She was fine like that, even as the weeks crept on and, more and more, she found herself avoiding the company of her friends.

She was totally fine.

 

143.

Sergio hammered home the point that Wednesday as they spent the night at Spencer’s while his dad was away. Her stupid dæmon spent the whole night being standoffish and awkward around the boys’ confused dæmons and, by the time they were ready to sleep, it was past midnight and she had a headache. Aureilo was sitting all miserable on Hal’s head because he’d been trying to coax Sergio, unsuccessfully, into playing for hours now. Sergio sat there, doing nothing, a dæmon sure that loneliness was his due and already adjusting to that.

At some point, she dozed off in the armchair with a magazine on her knees and Spencer and Aaron talking softly behind her. At some point following that, she woke up. The boys were still there, asleep with their heads tucked together and a single blanket between them both. Emily looked at them, rolled her eyes, and then looked closer. Shock drilled itself into her brain and her gut all at once. Spencer’s hand was on Hal. Both dæmon and boy were fast asleep, but the touch was unmistakable: Hal was a wolf and Spencer was holding her tight. They were touching. It was startling, almost unreal. She didn’t want to look, but it was so bizarre, so, so … other.

It was impossibly other.

Feeling unsteady and sick at the idea of someone’s hands on Sergio, she stood and backed away. It would have been less of a violation to have walked in on them fucking on the living room rug, as though seeing them naked was somehow still seeing less of them than that single hand twined through that fur.

“What are they doing?” gasped Sergio. “Do they know?! What does that feel like? How are they touching? Emily, Emily — do you see them?!”

Emily said nothing, just left that place knowing she’d seen something she shouldn’t have and wishing she could forget it. What that was, it was wrong and surreal and strange and wonderful. It was human in every way, but especially in the ways that it frightened her.

She loved it for that.

 

144.

She went home under the clouded sky, lost in the silent walk under that midnight moon, and paced with her brain fractured and focused on a single blatant image. She picked up Sergio. She put him down, imagining Matthew touching him, or John. The thought drove her to the bathroom, knees on the tile and back arched with revulsion. Sergio snarled alongside her.

But the image stayed, and it crept in her mind, curling and twisting and becoming sharper to her recollection, more vivid, until she could do nothing but dig out the dusty box she hadn’t touched for years. Paper and paint and a tattered brush to combine the two: she sat on the floor and worked until morning, everything turning out wrong because nothing could adequately capture what she’d seen.

 

145.

Loneliness was a compelling reason for stupidity, especially the kind of stupidity that led to Emily sitting on her mother’s bed watching her pack and trying to find some kind of shared connection that Emily was sure had long ago been burned to ash. Nothing left in this room but Elizabeth’s judgement, Emily’s misery, and the memory of smoke.

Emily looked at the framed image of her parents before they’d married, her father holding her mother’s hand. They looked like strangers to her. People who’d died before she’d been born, probably killed at the moment of her conception.

“What are you staring at?” Elizabeth asked. Emily quickly snapped her attention away from the photo, not wanting that conversation to begin.

“Nothing.”

Elizabeth had stopped packing, hands resting on the neatly folded clothes lining the inside of her suitcase. She travelled light; she always had. Emily had spent the first fifteen years of her life perfecting how to condense her life into a suitcase in order to start it anew every three years like clockwork. Nothing lasted forever, or even for as long as it was wanted.

“What are you going to do with your holidays?” Elizabeth asked finally, drifting from the suitcase and over to the dresser. Emily watched her pick through the small jewellery box where she kept those things that were only treasured for their sentimental value. The expensive jewels were in a safe where they’d been moved the first time Emily had been caught with drugs — but Elizabeth had never hidden the box that contained her husband’s wedding ring.

“I don’t know,” Emily replied. The bed shifted as Kinkri moved, lifting his head and watching her with his paws flat on the covers, tail swishing slowly to thump in an offbeat rhythm against a pillow. “Probably just hang out with the boys…”

An awkward silence fell. Clink clink went the contents of the box that Elizabeth was so intensely focused on.

“Are you romantically involved with either of those boys?” Elizabeth asked. Emily, unlike Spencer, just rolled her eyes. It was an expected question and, from Elizabeth, it was a backhanded way of asking, ‘Are we going to have a repeat of Rome?’

“Yes, both of them,” Emily snapped, regretting coming here at all. “It’s all just one great big orgy between us, god knows that’s probably what you—”

“Emily.”

Emily went quiet. It hadn’t been Elizabeth who’d spoken; instead, it was Kinkri’s low rumble of a voice. Elizabeth was still looking at the jewellery box. When she finally spoke, her tone was impossible to read.

“The school says that, before those boys, you had no close friends. That you were abrasive, arrogant, reckless, and insecure. Now you have them and you’re spending every minute with them. This is a story I’ve read before and, quite frankly, I don’t care for the way it ends.”

Emily swallowed. “They’re not John and Matthew. That was different. I’m not going to set another church on fire.”

“Aren’t you? What evidence do I have to trust you? I know you’re using again. I can see it in your eyes, and in Sergio. Look at his fur. Don’t you see how your reckless disregard for your health and happiness reflects upon him?”

Sergio shrank down, trying to shift into a lizard to hide but only succeeding in making himself look uncomfortable. Emily noted his dull eyes, flaky scales, and the sluggish shift of his chest.

“If I’m struggling, whose fault is that?” she managed, anger turning cold all at once and combining with the regret of choosing to submit herself to this conversation. “Aren’t you supposed to be my mom? How about you try doing that then instead of just picking at me or cryptically whinging that I’m not what you wanted?”

“You made your choice in Rome.” Elizabeth stepped away from the dresser, mouth thin and hand tight to her side. “You don’t need nor want a mother, Emily, and that was the decision you made when you set that fire. However, until you’re eighteen, you’re stuck with me. If I can’t encourage you to improve, at least don’t flaunt how deeply I’ve failed with you in front of me.”

Emily smirked, knowing it was pissing Elizabeth off and glad she was hurting this woman who’d always failed to love her for who she was instead of who she could be, but Elizabeth struck one last time with all the savage anger that Emily had inherited:

“At least we can be thankful that your father died before you had a chance to break his heart too.”

Emily cocked her head and made sure her smile didn’t slip as she quietly replied: “Don’t be thankful for that, Mother. We all know if me dying would bring him back, you’d cut my throat yourself.”

 

146.

When the car left to take Elizabeth to the airport, Emily didn’t bother to say goodbye. They were nothing to each other and hadn’t been for a long time.

Might as well make that break clean.

 

147.

The world kept throwing them down every time they stood up to try and face it. She was vaguely aware of throwing up. Distantly aware of the burn of scotch and vodka in the back of her throat, nowhere near as kind on the second way through her body. Unaware of where Sergio was and only knowing that he was sick and hurting and just as fucked as she was. But they weren’t alone. They were absolutely not alone, and she was glorying in the press of writhing bodies around her. A party. They were at a party.

They were drinking to fuck up.

There was a burst of pain, someone’s foot kicking Sergio, but before she could respond he’d scrambled up her fishnets with his claws biting into her skin and desperately hanging on for dear life. She shook him off. That was pretty fitting anyway, her dæmon on the ground getting stomped on repeatedly. Maybe she should lie down next to him. Maybe she should—

“Whoa,” someone was saying. “Alec, fuck off. She’s wasted. Leave her alone.”

Emily yanked her arm back, furious and dizzy and furious and sick, knees locked and trying to refocus on this corner of the party where they were standing. The dance floor was gone. When had she walked from the dancefloor? She touched her lips. They were damp and sore, stubble biting at them. When she looked back to the wall, a boy looked back, and she shrugged.

“I’m fine,” she said, or tried to. Where was Sergio?

Where was she?

The arm was back. The boy this time.

“No, fuck off,” she snapped irritably, the buzz gone and a headache taking its place along with a dangerous amount of churning in her gut. Swallowing to avoid choking on her suddenly watering mouth, she knew she was going to be sick. “I’m going home. Calling a taxi.”

“What the fuck, come on. You said you were up for it.”

Emily shoved him off again. The party which had before been invitingly loud was now claustrophobically crowded.

Where was Sergio?

“Alec, really, leave her alone. She said no. Emily, where’s your purse? I’ll call you a taxi.”

“Piss off, Claire, she’s with me. Why do you even care?”

Their voices dissolved into bickering, swallowed by the thumping discordance of the music. Emily focused on that, the lyrics burning into her mind. Oh, she thought, recognising the song as she sat down for a minute, just a minute. This would be a good song for Spencer’s tape…

But she was pulled up again and followed passively, figuring that was better than letting herself be stepped on.

 

148.

She woke up once to someone on top of her and a hand down her skirt. She woke up again to throwing up on the arm attached to that hand. One more time to a male voice saying something like She called her brother, and her distantly pointing out that she didn’t have a brother and, also, fuck right off thanks.

When she woke again, she was still throwing up and the hand holding her upright was bloody. She twisted out of that grip, just to check, and groaned. The night had just gotten so much worse.

Thankfully, she didn’t rouse much after that. All she had were snippets of memory, snapshots of the time following. A snippet of being dragged. A snippet of a car. A vague memory of a dog snarling and the sound of someone shouting.

She woke up, just one last time, lying in her own bed wearing nothing but her skirt and a thick, flannel coat that wasn’t hers. Sergio was across her chest and Aaron was reading a Nancy Drew novel next to her. At least he’d washed the blood from his hands.

“Didn’t think you’d want Spencer to see you like that, so I brought you here,” he said without looking at her, turning the page idly. She saw bloodied scrapes on his knuckles. “You can thank me in the morning.”

“Didn’t need help,” she mumbled instead of, I’m sorry, and then she closed her eyes.

 

149.

The next day began with her going, “Fuck.”

“I don’t think so,” Aaron replied, looking up from where he was napping on the Davenport. “Pretty sure I stopped him.”

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Hal muttered. She had the still-sleepy Sergio on her wide paws, his fur cocked up where she’d been licking him clean from the filth of the night before. A tender moment offsetting the pissed off expression on Aaron’s face.

Aaron was still talking, sounding both angry and frightened all at once as he stammered over whatever he was trying to say: “If you want to … you know … talk to, someone? I think you should. And I’ll, um, go with you. Since I saw. You know.”

Emily stared at him as a flush of red worked down his throat and vanished into his t-shirt. She looked down at the coat she was wearing, the fabric old but well cared for, worn by someone painfully fastidious with their clothing despite how farmer’s market the thing was. It wasn’t hers. She wouldn’t be caught dead in something like this.

But … Aaron would.

“Oh my god,” she breathed, “what happened last night?” To her, it was a blur of being sick and being loud and then nothing. Absolutely nothing. “Please tell me we didn’t—”

“You know, I think I understand why you think the way you do,” Aaron said, cutting her off. “About people who are hurt by others deserving that hurt. You didn’t deserve that fuckwit assaulting you, but you sure as fuck made sure you were placed in that situation to begin with, didn’t you? Why do you do this?”

Now, he was angry, swinging his feet to the floor with a thump and lurching upright. She saw again, and remembered, his red-raw knuckles, and she went cold.

“What the hell did you do?” she hissed, checking she was decent before sliding out of the bed and staring him down.

At her caution, he barked out a cruel laugh.

“Really, Em? You don’t want me to see anything? Yeah, well, bit late for that — who the hell do you think put your clothes back on you, after I was done smashing that fuck’s face in?”

Emily closed her eyes. Fuck, indeed.

More startlingly, here was Aaron Hotchner’s fabled temper come out to play. There wasn’t anything familiar or kind in his expression; it was all raw anger borne from shame or fear, probably disgusted by her and her bad decision making.

“I hope you didn’t mess him up,” she muttered. “I probably asked for it.”

“You didn’t,” Hal said, her head low and eyes sad. “Claire called us. She said you said no. And then we got there and he was on you and we wanted to kill him.”

“Hal…” Aaron’s voice was softer now, more tired. “We didn’t hurt him more than he deserved. I don’t know what happened in there though. I don’t know if you should be calling the police or the, fuck, I don’t know, hospital? I don’t know if he hurt you, Emily, do you have any idea how scary that is!?”

“Nothing happened,” Emily snapped. She didn’t remember and she didn’t care and, if she didn’t care, he didn’t have a right to care either. “Stop pretending that you’re my dad. You don’t need to look after me, I never asked you to, so fuck off.”

Aaron barked a harsh laugh, mouth twisting for a moment. “You’re a child,” he replied. His bitterness was worse than Elizabeth’s, so much more painful to bear. Emily shrank back from that, choking on the scent of his coat heavy around her bare torso. “You’re a child too little to realise that you’re drowning yourself to spite your mother. If I hadn’t come to pick you up, you realise what he would have done, don’t you? You realise what would have happened?”

“Nothing that hasn’t happened to me before,” she bit back, regretting it instantly as Aaron turned a sick shade of grey and Hal staggered upright with a screaming bark. Her eyes were wild and hackles up in a terrifying ridge of thick fur along her spine.

“I should have killed him!” she snarled, fangs huge and snapping with the lash of her voice. “I should have! I would have! Why didn’t you let me bite him!?”

Emily reeled back from the raging wolf, before seeing her tail, tucked tight up between her hind legs: fear.

“I didn’t mean it like that, fuck. I meant … it’s just sex, Aaron. I don’t care. I don’t! So, why do you?”

Self-consciously, she wrapped her arms around her tits and wondered just how much of her he’d seen last night. The thought was more disturbing than not knowing what the dude he’d pulled off of her had done. That dude was no one and nothing to her. Aaron? His opinion could be cataclysmic.

“Do you know who you hurt when you hurt yourself?” was all Aaron asked. She shrugged. Stupid question. Clearly, the answer was herself. “Do you care so little that it doesn’t bother you how scared he gets for you? When you avoid us, when we know you’re off self-destructing somewhere or putting yourself in danger for the thrill of it, you know how he is — why hurt him? You’re taking something he loves and you’re letting people destroy it because you don’t value it as much as he does!”

Sergio looked just as confused as Emily felt, both of them speechless.

“Spencer?” she finally managed, figuring that was the only person Aaron would get this worked up for. “I’m not destroying anything of Spencer’s?”

Aaron laughed again, that same miserable/furious laugh, and stormed towards the door, twisting his fingers through his hair as though he couldn’t deal with her anymore. “I won’t tell him what happened,” he called back, “but you should. Maybe he can make you see sense before you end up hurt for real, or dead.”

She couldn’t think to respond and, before she could gather her thoughts, he was gone.

 

150.

He wasn’t the type to turn up unannounced, so she was ready for him when he arrived on her doorstep. Like she’d told him over the phone, the front door was open. There was a gentle tap tap taptap taptap at her bedroom door and a careful beat of a second before she called out for him to come in, refusing to turn around and watch him awkwardly slide through the tiniest possible gap.

“Hi,” said Spencer.

“What do you want?” she replied.

In response, he walked over and perched on the corner of her Davenport, still unsettled by the wealth her family so pretentiously displayed. “Hi,” he said again, fiddling with his sleeves. “Um. Just to talk, I guess.” The fiddling was drawing attention to his hands, her gaze shifting to them and cheeks burning as she remembered what they’d looked like wound through Hal’s thick fur.

“About?” she finally managed, tearing her attention away from that burning memory.

“You’re avoiding us. Why are you avoiding us? I thought we were okay.”

Emily stood, moving from her desk to the sofa next to him and sprawling with a complete lack of decorum just to see how casually he responded. The answer was ‘perfectly’ as his hands automatically found her calf and rested there. “What makes you think we’re not okay?”

“You barely visit anymore. You’re getting stoned without me just because — don’t look at me like that, Sergio told Aur.”

Emily switched her gaze to the dæmons, neither of whom looked sorry.

“And Aaron is worried about you.”

Emily jolted at that. “The hell did he tell you?” she snapped before realising how suspicious that must sound.

Exactly as she’d feared, Spencer seemed sadly triumphant, inching closer and catching her hand, turning it up to study the bitten-down nails. “Nothing. He wouldn’t tell me anything — but you just did. What happened?”

She refused to tell him how far she’d sunk; instead, she clammed up and shut down, eyes skimming the room for something to draw attention away from her contemptibility. It took a second to slide from his grip and kneel next to the drawer where she’d hid her paintings, shuffling through rapidly to find the notebook she knew was in there. Not quick enough though.

Aureilo hopped onto the side of the open drawer and peered down, asking in his shrill voice, “Did you paint these?”

She ignored that, finding the notebook and flipping it open. “I need to come around and use your tape deck,” she announced, ripping out a page and thrusting it at Spencer, who took it carefully and read it in a second. “It’s your tape. Version two. I think I’m going to title it ‘I’m sorry’.”

Spencer’s mouth flickered into a shy grin, some of the worry vanishing. “You don’t need to be sorry, it was an apt song. I don’t know most of these, but I can’t wait for you to show them to me…”

He trailed off, looking sick and uncertain. Even the dæmons were silent, waiting for some cue from him as to where he was taking this conversation.  

“Emily, please, just, I need to know if you don’t want to be friends anymore. I understand if you don’t, I just, I’ll be okay with it, honest I will. I’m scared of it and it will hurt but if that’s what you want—”

She punched his knee to shut him up, sitting on her ass heavily and pulling her knees to her chest. “I told you, how many times do I have to tell you — it’s not me who’s going to leave.”

“And how many times do I have to tell you that I’m not going anywhere.” His expression turned firm, his own arms crossing. They glared at each other, neither sure where to go next. “Stop making me feel guilty when I’m not shutting you out — you’re shutting yourself out because, I don’t know, because you’re scared of being hurt so you’re trying to hurt us first.”

Emily rolled her eyes without any bite to the gesture. “You sound like Aaron.”

“That’s because that was his summation of how you’re acting. He knows people. I don’t. All I know is that you’re my friend and I love you and you don’t seem to appreciate how vulnerable to your behaviour that makes me. And I know that you’re hurting yourself because of something you see in our friendship — whether that something is real or not — and I know that, somehow, Aaron is involved. He came home bruised and won’t talk to me and even Hal isn’t saying why.”

“Emily?” Aureilo said suddenly. Emily looked at him, her heart dropping straight into her ass when she saw what he was struggling to pull up for them to see. It was her painting of a boy holding a wolf; the boy was clearly Spencer, and the wolf was clearly Hal. “What is this?”

Emily couldn’t answer. The words fumbled and tangled up in her throat, drying her mouth. Even Sergio was mute, terror rendering them both silent.

“Is that me?” Spencer asked, reaching out as though to take the painting from Aureilo before letting his hand drop to his lap, realising he might not be welcome. “And … and … Hal?” He whispered the last word, pink colouring his pale cheeks and his eyes wide with fear.

“You touched her.” It was a whisper. It sounded stupid and small and almost swallowed by her room, but she wasn’t capable of speaking up. Not about this. “You were asleep and your … your hand was on her.”

Spencer didn’t seem to be able to answer either, his own body language crowded up tight within himself, his hands to his mouth hiding half his expression. But not all. The slivers of his eyes that she could see were pure terror.

She had to speak. She couldn’t leave him looking like that. “I don’t mind,” she said. “It’s kind of weirdly amazing, I don’t know. Scary, but weird and interesting. But … scary.”

“You said scary twice.”

“That’s because it is.” The deep breath she took between sentences felt like the first she’d had since he’d entered the room, bolstering her strength and steadying her wild emotions. “You have to be careful, Spence — you can’t let people see that. It’s so so so other no one would ever understand it. I don’t even understand it, and I’m not sure I want…”

“It’s not something understandable,” he said in a strange, echoing voice. “It’s more than what our minds can fathom. I can’t explain how it feels. Or why I feel so compelled. Or why she lets me, even seems to desire it.”

“She?” Hal, not Aaron, and Emily wondered at the distinction. Where did human end and dæmon begin? Spencer just shrugged, seemingly disinclined to answer now that the conversation had turned to him. “Okay, whatever, keep your secrets. But I get mine — don’t ask about what happened the other night. And in return, I’ll …” Do better, she wanted to say, but couldn’t. She’d never wanted to hurt her friends but she’d hurt them both, in different ways, and would continue to do so if she continued down this path: “… I’ll stop avoiding you and I’ll start trusting you, I guess. Believing that you’re not going to leave or trying to, anyway.”

His answer was a slow nod. “May I see?” he asked, pointing to her paintings.

Caught, she shrugged and gave them to him. He shuffled through them and looked gleeful. The only one he paused on was one she’d scrawled in the night, a bird on its own soaring high. It was shit, she knew, and braced for something cutting.

Instead, he just said, “This bird looks lonely,” and moved on.

 

151.

She changed it. Redid it. Removed the old paintings from her wall gladly and replaced them with her brush, secure in the knowledge that there was nothing Elizabeth could really do to punish her for making this kind of mess. She turned the wall that she’d loathed for so long into something new: three birds and an autumn sunrise, wings spread wide as they made their way together to some far-off horizon on a search for something beautiful.

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

152.

Sophomore year for them began quietly. Aaron didn’t think he’d ever been this happy, even with the threat of his father still looming overhead and with the renewed gossip about him being psychotic floating around the school. No repercussions had followed him rearranging that creep Alec’s face, except that now everyone knew something that he hadn’t wanted to flaunt: Hal wasn’t afraid to get her teeth dirty.

When they’d walked in that room and seen Emily unconscious with her shirt off and skirt shoved up?

They’d flipped.

Aaron remembered seeing red and then he remembered picking that fucker up and throwing him down, using his fists to make sure he stayed down. After that? He’d had to go to Emily. She’d needed him. But Hal … Hal had made sure that Alec knew that she’d rip him in half if he tried anything. A dæmon attacking a human? Unheard of, except that Aaron’s dæmon had before, and she absolutely would again.

But he didn’t care what people thought of him. He had Spencer and nothing had ever been as wonderful as knowing that someone loved him. Not just a little, not because he had to, but wildly and completely, even if that only slipped out when he was high. Aaron had Emily too, and he stood taller knowing that he had a friend to protect. Whether she wanted it or not, Emily was vulnerable at the moment and he refused to stand aside and let her be hurt. It was his duty to keep her, and Spencer, safe.

School was torturous despite these things because while they were at school they couldn’t show themselves for who they were. Being around so many people who didn’t give a shit about them only put Emily’s walls up higher, and Spencer and Aaron had to be careful that they didn’t give themselves away. No one could know what they were to each other. Aaron knew this even if Spencer shrugged the idea off.

It wasn’t just school that had changed. Aaron’s dad was drinking more, which was great for Aaron. It meant he was either at work or asleep, just how Aaron liked him. Being home ceased to be frightening and simply became uninteresting. As far as he and Hal were concerned, Gary was nothing to them and that was how they liked it.

 

153.

Ian made him an offer at work, one that stunned him. No one in his life had ever been so kind, except for maybe his old neighbour, the one who’d once given him a book of animals.

“So, Hotchner,” Ian said cheerfully, leaning into the van and peering at the dash. “What would you say to buying her when she’s done? At a steep discount, of course, considering how much work you’ve done to bring her back to life.”

“S-sir?” Aaron stammered, Hal wiggling delightedly next to him. “I couldn’t afford it, even at a discount. I don’t … I give most of my money to my dad. I couldn’t, I don’t—”

Ian let loose a coughing kind of laugh, grin turning wider. “You’re a damn hard worker. How about we give you a raise, enough that you can put some away each week towards buying her. It won’t be much, mind you, but she’ll be yours in everything but name despite that. I know I can trust you, kid. And it’s about time someone gave you something of your own to covet.”

All Aaron could manage was, “I’d love that, thank you,” and wonder what he’d done to make the world look so kindly on him so suddenly.

 

154.

Their planning for Emily’s birthday had been sidelined by the rediscovery of the magazines Emily had stolen buried in the bottom of Spencer’s closet, underneath a box that Spencer hugged close and refused to share. Aaron kept shooting it sideways looks, wondering what it contained even as Spencer expressed confusion of the attire — and lack thereof — of the men and women in the magazines.

“I don’t mind them,” Aaron said as Spencer showed one two-page spread of a woman perched flirtatiously on a fence with no underwear on. It was a silly premise and Spencer was already muttering about splinters, but there was an embarrassing lurch of heat in Aaron’s stomach and lower when he glanced at the suggestive shape of her legs and the shirt that hung open to reveal small breasts standing bare — and that was confusing. Was he gay or wasn’t he? But then there was Claire and what they’d done together and that in itself was enough of a thought to get him feeling hot and frustrated, but then again, so did kissing Spencer… “Can we do something else?”

Spencer lobbed the magazine at his wastepaper basket. “Are you upset?” he asked, eyes curious behind his glasses.

“It’s embarrassing,” Aaron replied after a beat. “I mean, you know what porn is for. I don’t want to talk about that stuff in front of you … that’s weird.”

“Is it? It shouldn’t be. We already kiss.” Spencer looked thoughtful, as though he wasn’t aware of how startling his musing was. “I figure one day we’ll do more. We almost did — I would have if you hadn’t stopped me. Is that what’s bothering you?”

“Yes. I mean, no, not really. I’m just adjusting, okay?”

“Is it that I’m a guy and Claire isn’t? Is that the difference?”

“I don’t know,” Aaron mumbled, reaching for the magazine with the men in it and paging through. Nothing in there struck his fancy, not really. They were just men. Naked, yeah, and that was strange to look at and think how he differed from the bodies shown, but that was all they were to him. Other people’s bodies and not any that he’d like to kiss or do more with, unlike the women in the photos he’d looked through; those he could definitely imagine what would be nice. He snuck a glance at Spencer from the corner of his eye, wondering: what if it was Spencer naked instead of nameless and personality-less men?

Spencer was still talking, his odd disconnection from what was weird and what wasn’t meaning that he didn’t seem to realise how uncomfortable Aaron was right now: “Your sexuality isn’t confined to what arouses you. I don’t think it is anyway. I think I could become aroused by porn with girls in it, but I don’t think I want to have sex with a girl. I mean, I wouldn’t have sex with Emily even though she’s very, very pretty.”

“She’d bite,” Aureilo added helpfully.

“Have you been?” Aaron blurted out. Spencer stared at him. “Aroused by … porn. With, um, women. Because maybe I have? And that’s confusing. Because you’re …” He coughed, trailing off and regretting beginning this conversation even as his brain got all mixed up with his dick and started a confused turned on/not turned on tug of war with his body.

“I guess? Not really.” Now Spencer looked uncomfortable. “I didn’t really think about it until I was … I don’t know, fourteen? There was a movie we found but I don’t know. I’m not really a good measure of normal development.”

“Why not?” Aaron blurted out despite his good sense telling him to drop the subject, turn it back to Emily and her upcoming birthday and away from his now overactive libido and anything that was adding fuel to that hormonal fire.

Aureilo whispered, “Tell him.”

Spencer shook his head. Something was clearly weighing him down until Aaron reached for the sales catalogue and brushed Spencer’s hand with his as he went.

He said, “Let’s keep looking for Em’s present, huh?”

Spencer looked at the box filled with things he refused to talk about, the one with we could find her scribbled roughly on the top, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. Aaron’s gut lurched again, this time with shock.

Spencer was crying.

“We don’t have to talk about anything,” Aaron said, taking his hand and holding it tight. “Not ever, not if you don’t want to.”

Spencer said, “Thank you.”

 

155.

There came a singular moment that, to Aaron, felt like the outcome of something that had begun the year before when Hal had lunged to protect him and bitten their father. Only a year ago but it felt like so much longer, and the culmination of all of that was Gary Hotchner drunkenly kicking out at Hal as she passed him in the hall. His boot connected with her ribs, the Labrador-shaped Hal yelping and shifting to something small; Aaron didn’t have the time to recognise what she was because, much like when she’d once come to his defence, he’d reacted instinctively.

Gary hit the wall, sliding down with a confused huff of expelled air. Aaron found himself standing over his father with his fists clenched and a rush telling him to slam his boot into his father’s face and end this now. Blood racing and breath coming quickly, Aaron could feel his chest heaving, his extremities tingling, his body sending a surge of adrenaline through him that almost drove him to stupidity right there.

“The fuck do you think you’re doing, boy?” Gary wheezed.

The moment of Aaron having the upper hand had passed.

Gary stood, squaring his shoulders and sneering. His albatross-dæmon rattled her great wings and advanced on Hal, who stood frozen. Much like her human, who was wondering what he’d done and how he was going to get out of this without being beaten to within an inch of his life.

But his dad had stopped rising. He stood at his full height, sneering at Aaron. Cocky and drunk and … and the same size.

They were the same size.

When had that happened?

As though this realisation had energized her, Hal shifted once more, becoming a wolf that towered over the albatross and growled deeply, the sound resonating in her huge chest. Head lowered and tail raised, she looked dangerous and powerful and strong, just like Aaron was now. He wasn’t small anymore. He wasn’t weak. He hadn’t been either of those things the night he’d saved Emily. He wasn’t the same boy who’d watched Ricky Whitechapel and his greyhound-dæmon die. He wasn’t the same boy who let his own dæmon be locked in the cupboard or stood by as his mom was being beaten.

He was someone new, someone who was loved by Spencer and maybe even by Emily; someone who existed beyond this too-small apartment and the threat of his father’s fists.

Gary couldn’t scare him anymore.

“I’m leaving for the night,” Aaron said simply, “while you calm down and reconsider what you just did. And, when I come back, you’re never, ever going to touch my dæmon, or me, again. Do you understand?”

“You little—”

Aaron smiled. It was a smile as dangerous as his wolf; he couldn’t see it but he could feel the threat in the shape of it on his face. “Consider it,” he said, “because if you do it again, I’ll put you in the fucking hospital and then I’ll tell everyone who asks where the scars on my back came from.”

With that, he turned, and left, Hal at his side and not looking back. Once outside, they kept walking and walking and walking until the adrenaline faded and they sunk to the sidewalk, people looking at them strangely as they hugged each other close. Neither said anything but both understood something had just changed for them, within and without.

Things would be different now.

 

156.

Emily’s sixteenth birthday rolled around, and they knew that she planned to be alone for it. It was a school day, and she was bunking it. It was dumb since Ashworth wasn’t really a place that let things slide and they’d all be risking calls home and endless detentions, but, instead of school that day, Spencer and Aaron walked to hers and climbed the imposing fence. When she answered the door, confused and sleepy in what appeared to be children’s X-Men pyjamas, they both flung their arms out and shouted a practised, “Surprise!” that Aureilo and Hal joined in on.

Emily did nothing but blink at them.

“Happy birthday,” chirped Spencer, hiding the gift-wrapped present behind his back and beaming. “We give you the gift of our company, all day, whatever you want to do with us. We’re at your command, oh Beautiful One.”

“Within reason,” Aaron cautioned. “I’m not taking drugs.”

Emily seemed to shake herself awake, murmuring, “Oh goodie,” and stepping back to let them walk in — or, in Spencer’s case, bounce. “Well, I wouldn’t say no to a birthday striptease.”

Spencer looked down at his school uniform and frowned.

“She’s kidding, Spence,” said Aureilo, before adding, “I think. Are you wearing X-Men — eep!”

Sergio had taken the mouse-dæmon out with a well-aimed leap, pinning him to the floor and whispering, “I wouldn’t,” as Aureilo cried out for the giggling Hal.

“Don’t,” Emily warned as Aaron looked at her neon pyjamas, one eyebrow raised. “I like them, so you shut your face.”

Sensing danger, Aaron grabbed Spencer’s arm and tugged the presents into view. “I figure you probably got like, a house or a car or something bullshit and fancy from your mom, but here.”

“Mom gave me some crusty old professor to tutor me on college bullshit,” Emily said, trying to peer at the gift. “Ooooh, what is it?”

Aaron felt Spencer jiggling with excitement next to him, Aureilo bouncing around their feet in frantic circles. Emily tore into her gift, the wrappings falling and covering the curious Sergio. As she realised what she was holding, her expression turned from interest to something unexpected.

“Oh,” said Spencer, shrinking back. Aaron grabbed his hand, sensing the hurt that was coming. “You don’t like it. I guess it was presumptuous of us …”

“Spencer, shut up,” Emily managed in a thick, choked-up kind of voice, putting the sketchpad and paints down with the kind of care that Aaron recognised from the few times he’d been given something so precious he’d been terrified of breaking it. “I fucking love it. I love it, you idiots. Oh my god. Thank you. Oh my god.” She was crying, hugging them both and getting wet patches all over Spencer’s blazer.

“You’re welcome,” said Spencer, patting her back in an awkward manner with his glasses gone crooked where she’d knocked them.

“You’re so welcome,” Aaron said honestly. His heart hurt to see Emily — even while they were standing in what was probably only one zero away from being a full-on mansion — so excited to have been given something as cheap and personalised as a dollar store sketchpad and some bargain-bin paints.

 

157.

Emily asked them to stay over that night, which meant that they had the pleasure of seeing the most delightfully unexpected thing occur the next day. Emily Prentiss, the mouthiest person Aaron had ever met, was struck speechless by something.

They were making a tremendous mess in the biggest kitchen Aaron had seen in his life, big enough that Sergio and Hal were having a grand time having sliding races across the tiled floor without smacking into either wall. Emily was spraying whipped cream at Spencer’s head as he tried to catch it in his mouth and Aaron was unsuccessfully trying to master the art of the pancake flip. There was flour on the table, on the counters, on the ceiling, on them, on their dæmons; there were trails of floury pawprints throughout the entire lower floor.

The door opened and there was a soft, “Oh my,” from one of the two men who’d walked in, looking crestfallen at the sight of them.

“Oh shit,” Emily responded as she turned and accidentally squirted the younger of the men with the whipped cream, right up his suit and tie and onto the thin glasses he was wearing. Even his dæmon, a weird kind of greenish-olive parrot on his shoulder, ended up with a beakful. “Uh, hi, Michael. I didn’t think you’d be here. Today.”

“Yes, evidently,” said the man who hadn’t received the whipped cream face. The other man removed his glasses and shook the cream from them with a frown. Aaron barely managed to bite back a laugh that was sorely out of place right now, Hal betraying him by giggling anyway. “Well, I’m glad to see that you’re enjoying your own birthday celebrations of a sort, Emily. Who are they?” He was now looking at Spencer, who was hurriedly trying to look not-floury without realising he still had whipped cream in his hair. “Also, I do think you should apologise to Dr Ness, who I hope doesn’t rethink his decision to enter your mother’s employ as a result of this incident.”

“Sergio says that’s Elizabeth’s assistant,” Hal whispered into Aaron’s ear as a beetle, a trick she’d learned from Sergio himself. “No idea who the other person is, or why they’re here.”

“Sorry,” Emily was saying without sounding sorry at all. “Who is he?”

The unknown man coughed politely before smiling. A nice smile, Aaron noted. It changed his face completely, making him seem kinder. Or maybe that was the whipped cream still dripping down his throat. “No harm done,” he said in a voice that was as kind as his smile. “Nice to meet you, Emily. Happy birthday. I believe I’m to be your tutor.” He stepped forward and held out his hand for her, seemingly unshaken when Emily didn’t move to return the gesture.

“Emily,” hissed Aaron, always loathe to see people being purposefully rude for no reason. And, well, this guy had just walked in on them destroying the kitchen. They had reputations that could really go nowhere but up at this point, if Emily moved her ass.

“Uh,” squeaked Emily. Heads snapped around to stare at her, both Aaron’s and Spencer’s, because she’d squeaked. “Um. Hi. Sorry. Hi, uh, nice to, um.”

She choked, turning beetroot red with her hand flickering up to self-consciously pat at her short, ruffled hair. Suddenly, she looked down, staring for a split second at her powdery X-Men pyjamas before making a strange noise of horror and bolting from the room, leaving them standing there looking at each other.

“Is she normally so shy?” asked the tutor, his smile turning concerned. Aaron shrugged, unsure of what had just happened.

“No?” he tried, catching Spencer’s eye right as Spencer blurted out, “Yes, super shy. So shy. Poor thing. Uh. We should go and. Talk to her. Bye!”

He bolted after Emily, only pausing to turn the range off before Aaron’s pancakes officially cremated themselves.

Aaron could do nothing but follow.

“The hell was that about?” he laughed as soon as the door closed behind them, hearing again Emily’s weird little squeak and trying not to snigger at it.

“Oh no oh no oh no,” Spencer was muttering under his breath, his expression split between amusement and horror. “Oh no, Aaron, did you see him?”

“Yes?” Aaron shrugged. “I mean, I was right there, with you. Tall dude in a suit, glasses, parrot-dæmon? I don’t know why that’s relevant—”

Aureilo snorted, saying, “Aaron, seriously, are you sure you’re actually gay?” which didn’t really help explain anything.

Spencer clarified. “He’s gorgeous,” he said mournfully. “Did you see his eyes?”

“Ignore his eyes,” Aureilo added, “did you see his hands? Those are pianist hands. I bet he plays the piano …”

Aaron looked down at his own hands self-consciously. “They’re just hands,” he muttered. “Besides, his jaw was too pointy. Weird. I think he looks weird.”

“Weird or not, would you shake the hand of a handsome older man just hired to spend two hours twice a week with you, alone, while you’re covered in flour and dressed in children’s pyjamas?” Hal asked, as usual clueing into what Spencer and Aureilo were only vaguely hinting to before Aaron did. “I think Emily might have just gotten a bit of a shock.”

“Oh,” said Aaron. “Oh dear.”

 

158.

They found Emily curled up under her blanket, only discernible by the muffled, “Please kill me now,” audible from within the depths of the covers.

“Maybe he won’t remember?” Aaron tried. His only answer was a whine and the blankets curling in tighter. “Women are weird,” he grumbled, stomach reminding him that his pancakes were still abandoned.

“There, there,” Spencer said, scowling at him and patting the blankets.

Aureilo added, “Don’t worry. Remember how awkward Aaron was when he first talked to us? We still like him now.”

Aaron figured he probably deserved that. He left Spencer to his consoling and snuck his way back to the, thankfully empty, kitchen to find something for them to eat once Emily was acting normal again. “She’ll get over it,” he told Hal. “That dude has to be at least thirty, and he was wearing a wedding ring. There’s no way she stays this bizarre about him.”

Aaron, as both Spencer and Hal would point out later, could sometimes be spectacularly wrong.

 

159.

Spencer’s birthday rolled around next. Aaron, as usual, was broke, but he had a plan. A plan that he was determined would result in his birthday present being at least as good as Emily’s.  As Emily’s present to Spencer turned out to be a bunch of fancy cheeses, a new beanie with CRASH written on the inside in Emily’s handwriting — Spencer got just as weird about this as Emily had and continued to be about the tutor, going all shy and flustered when asked about it — and a rolled-up painting that she disallowed Spencer from opening in front of them, he was a bit worried that his present didn’t have a chance.

He got Hal to whisper to Aureilo to tell Spencer to come out, alone, onto the balcony, a beautiful autumn sunset overhead setting him up nicely for what was coming. Spencer appeared, looking confused, and Aaron took a deep breath.

“What’s up?” Spencer asked. “If this is about my birthday, honestly, you don’t need to get me anything. Being here is enough of a present …” Cryptically, he added, “For all of us,” and exchanged a strange, intense look with Aureilo, who was once again wearing his celebratory bowtie as well as a tiny party-hat.

“No, I …” Aaron started. “I do have a present for you. I know how much you love Halloween and, um, I’d … I guess I’m asking you if you’d like to date. I mean, go on a date. A romantic date, I mean, on Halloween, uh—”

Spencer made a soft noise, straightening and looking shocked and excited all at once. “Like, together, a date?” he clarified, Aaron nodding once before lurching forward and grabbing Spencer’s hand with his own, sweaty, one. “Aaron, yes! That’s a wonderful present, just wonderful.” With that, he kissed him. A tight, intense kiss that was just as electric as the one they’d shared in bed that time when planning Emily’s birthday. “I can’t wait.”

They kissed until the sun went down and then they kissed more until Emily came out and threatened to dump water on them, only coaxing them away from each other with the promise that they could unroll the paper she’d given Spencer. It was a painting, a clumsy hare drawn with an inexperienced hand. Despite the awkwardness of the lines, it was beautiful, leaping wildly in front of a spray of browns and oranges, a fall landscape, and the eyes were perfect.

“I’m not very good at mammals,” Emily said.

Aaron felt a thrill at realising it had been her hand that had drawn it. “It’s amazing,” he said.

Spencer didn’t say anything but ‘thank you’; his eyes said everything they needed to. The painting would be pinned up above his bed, right where he’d look at it first upon waking, and it was every bit as important as the gift Aaron had given him. That, Aaron was sure, was exactly how it should be.

 

160.

They drove for an hour out of DC, Spencer dressed as Freddy Krueger complete with plastic knife-hands and a tiny, striped sweater on Aureilo that Aaron had a weird suspicion he’d knitted himself. Aaron hadn’t thought to dress up, so he was granted the use of Spencer’s Freddy hat, perched jauntily on the hair he’d spent hours getting just right, having to resort to asking Emily’s advice on how to use hairspray effectively. Emily had ended up doing it for him, and Spencer seemed appreciative of the results, his gaze skimming up and down Aaron every few minutes with his mouth twitching.

They arrived at their destination. Spencer was quiet as they stepped out of the car into the most picturesque autumnal farm imaginable. An apple orchard stretched off to the right, the scent of fall apples thick in the air as children in costumes sprinted around the neat rows of trees. To the left, Spencer’s gaze drifted to the ‘pick your own pumpkin’ patch, complete with a set-up of stalls with cider and soda and candy bags and volunteers helping kids carve their own pumpkins. Aaron knew that further up there was a corn maze, his careful research having hunted down the most Halloweeny Halloween ever known to mankind.

“It’s amazing,” Spencer breathed, overwhelmed and unsure of what to do next. “Aaron, this is, amazing, fantastic, brilliant, wonderful—” and he probably would have gone on except he ran out of breath and had to try to catch it, all flushed and pretty in the fading afternoon. “I don’t know what to do first? I don’t know what to do! I want to do it all!”

“We can,” Aaron promised him. “Come on.”

 

161.

By the time they were done, they were muddy and with straw everywhere, on their third run through of the corn maze and absolutely dizzy on a combination of candy, cider, and love. Aaron was wet from becoming the apple bobbing king of the farm; Spencer had looked ill at the very idea of the ‘apple germ barrel’. They had an hour to kill before packing in for the second half of the date — the other surprise — and Spencer was already verging on stupidly affectionate, every turn into a secluded part of the maze now that the sun was going down resulting in him crashing up against Aaron and sneaking their lips together. Stolen kisses in the fall twilight; they tasted of cider and sugar and the apples Aaron had been sharing with Aureilo. They’d bought a pirate hat from a costume stall, cheap and silly and now perched crookedly on Hal’s head with the Freddy-Aureilo sitting on the brim licking a piece of boiled candy.

“Aaron,” Spencer breathed, realising they were alone and tumbling into his arms. For the second time, Aaron realised how much he’d grown this last year. He could hold Spencer easily, the other boy’s slim weight almost nothing in his arms. They kissed, once, and then again, and then Spencer finished with, “I don’t want this to end.”

“There’s more to the night than this,” Aaron promised.

Spencer shook his head. A child laughed nearby and they pulled apart, waiting until the laugh and small footsteps faded before pressing back together, corn rustling dryly overhead and muddy hands on each other.

“This,” Spencer murmured, hands on Aaron’s shirt and pulling him down closer. The plastic knives were shed for the cause, draped over Hal’s back, as Aaron picked straw from Spencer’s hair. “Us,” he continued, “I don’t want us to have to end. I want to be more. I want to be yours.”

“Like, dating?” Aaron asked, his heart slamming fast, or maybe that was Spencer’s against him. Spencer nodded. “Yeah,” was Aaron’s hasty reply, too hasty, and he quickly added, “Yes, please. I’ve wanted that for so long,” before kissing him again — the same as the last, but different, because now he was kissing more than just his friend.

“I love you,” said Spencer, sober this time. Sober and clear with his eyes wide behind the thick glasses that had caught Aaron’s eye all those months ago, but Spencer wasn’t hiding behind them anymore. Neither of them was hiding now.

“I love you too,” Aaron admitted. “I have for months.”

One of the dæmons muttered, “Duh.”

Years later, Aaron would find the Freddy hat in his garage, and smile once more to think of this night, even in the wake of all that followed.

Chapter Text

Spencer

 

162.

Exactly one year ago from the day Aaron and Spencer found something new in the centre of a budget corn maze, William Reid remembered dropping his son’s birthday cake. He remembered it in vivid, startling detail. In fact, if asked, his recollection of the exact colour, shape, and size of the stain that cake had left would rival Spencer’s recall of the written word.

Of that day, unlike his father, Spencer remembered very little.

William woke on the morning of his son’s sixteenth birthday and didn’t know that that night his son would realise he was deeply, helplessly in love. He didn’t know about the date or Aaron or very much at all about his son’s life anymore. William Reid, when he woke this morning, thought of only one thing and that was that dropped cake.

As he cooked his son breakfast and served it to a silent dining room table, Spencer poking at his food with a wistful expression on his face, William looked at him and remembered leaving for work that morning. He remembered Spencer sitting at a very different kitchen table, his expression blank and eyes emotionless. He remembered Aureilo hiding and double-checked, just to be sure, that the mouse wasn’t hiding today.

“How are you feeling?” he asked stiffly, unable to be more natural about the question when all he could remember was a quiet we don’t feel well. By the wall, Harback’s ears were flat and she trotted up to the table to sniff at Aureilo, the mouse swatting at her nose.

He remembered coming home to silence as Spencer said, “I’m fine. I won’t be home tonight, I’m hanging out with Aaron.”

There were several things that William Reid wanted to say at that moment. He wanted to say, in a sudden rush of regret for all the time he was missing, “I’d rather you came home and we had dinner,” and he wanted to say, “I’m sorry I didn’t buy you a cake this year,” and he even thought of asking, “Are you happy?”

But he didn’t.

Instead, he thought of the moment he’d walked in on his son motionless on the bathroom floor, skin chalk-white and lips blue, and the sound the empty bottles around him had made under William’s clumsy, panicked feet. He thought of the otherworldliness of giving his dying son CPR, of tasting vomit and not knowing whether it was his or Spencer’s, of having to pick up his son’s dæmon so that the paramedics didn’t leave him behind. Of feeling no life in the tiny, fragile body cupped in his shaking palms. Of feeling no Spencer and wondering when his son had stopped being alive without him noticing, and how that could have possibly happened.

He thought of apologising for the dropped cake.

He thought of Diana.

He said, “That’s nice, have fun,” and left the room without saying the one thing he really, truly needed to work out how to say: you being alive means everything to me.

Or even, I love you.

 

163.

It was an Evil Dead marathon at the drive-in that was the second part of Aaron’s date, and Spencer hadn’t seen a single minute of Part II. The credits of the first one, unfortunately, had completely distracted the two of them.

“You know, the drive-in theatre is experiencing a drastic decline in popularity,” Spencer said, his heart slamming so fast in his chest that he had to gesture to Hal to turn up the radio so they could hear the dialogue. “Inclement weather, rising real estate prices, combined with sky-rocketing — Aaron!”

Two heads swivelled around from the front seat to stare at them for a moment before returning to watching the movie, the dæmons pretending that they weren’t as invested in what Aaron was doing as Spencer was. That was a lie. Spencer could see Aureilo shivering.

Aaron looked up at him, wide palms spread across Spencer’s bare chest. Too dark in the car to see his expression or whether he was smiling or frowning or frantic or—

“Are you okay?” he asked.

Spencer could have really answered with anything and still have been accurate. Yes because it felt good, incredibly good, as Aaron kissed a line down his chest to the top of his belt buckle. Yes because they were really together, and this was an utterly perfect night. Yes because the movie was amazing. No, because those wide hands were resettling on his belt buckle; Aaron slowly undid it. Spencer was, all at once, aroused and terrified and excited and worried and curious.

“Tell me to stop if you’re not,” Aaron was saying through the buzzing in Spencer’s ears and, despite Spencer not being able to see his expression, his voice was strange. Panting, almost. Just as worked up as Spencer, crouched between his knees in an awkwardly hunched position in the foot-well behind the driver’s seat. In response, Spencer grabbed the handle on the door behind him and hung on grimly. “Spence?”

“I’m fine,” Spencer managed, his brain resetting itself as a bizarre urge to buck his hips shivered through him. His voice cracked. This was fine. This was fine.

“We’re out of popcorn,” said Aureilo, his voice shriller than usual. Hal reached down with her nose to touch him, but Spencer watched him skitter away in a panicked circle. Claws skritching on the seat leather. Aaron wasn’t moving right up until he was and his hands were slowly, so slowly, finishing unbuckling Spencer’s belt and undoing his fly. Spencer whimpered, closing his eyes, every muscle tensed and his heart racketing about. From the front-seat, Hal whined, but there was a warm hand slipping into Spencer’s jeans and a hot pressure and he wanted it and didn’t want—

“Stop!” yelled Aureilo, squeaking and leaping into the air with a panicked scuttle. It should have been funny, except Spencer could feel the fear that was choking him. “Stop stop stopstopstopstopstop.”

Thunk went Aaron’s head as he shot away from Spencer so fast that he slammed his head into the car roof, Hal yelping along with him and both ducking automatically — clunk went his head again, this time into the window. Helplessly, heart still drumming and adrenaline rushing, Spencer began to laugh and laugh and laugh until he thought he might be sick, knees to his chest and barely able to breathe.

“Sorry,” Aaron said, scooting up onto the seat with him and rubbing his head. Spencer couldn’t help it — he looked so woeful and the frenetic fear of the last minute was already fading — he grabbed him in a hug and pulled him close, pressing his mouth to the first bump he’d accidentally caused. “I should have realised, you were so tense.”

“It’s not you,” Spencer said, still half-giggling. In the front-seat, Aureilo was trying to maintain his lost dignity, sitting on the dash and washing popcorn butter from his whiskers. “There’s just so much feeling. And …” He paused before mumbling: “I don’t want you to see me naked.”

“Well, it’s dark right now,” Aaron said sensibly, shaking his head. The barest glow from the projected screen was glinting in his eyes, suggesting a smile.

“I don’t know.” The worry was back. What if he was bad at it, whatever it was? What was he supposed to do with his hands? Or his mouth? Should he talk? Stay silent? And what if his bits looked weird? Too many buts and maybes and uncertainties. He tried a new approach: honesty. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Oh.” Aaron leaned against the backrest, shuffling right up against him. They had the heater running and the car was warm, despite Spencer’s shirt long ago having been lost to the cause of touching each other. “Hmm. Well, neither do I. Not really. Claire just kind of did it, and I guess once she started I wasn’t paying much attention to what she was actually doing, just how it felt.” Those eyes flickered around to Spencer’s face now, the glint vanishing as he turned from the screen. “Don’t feel pressured, but I was really hoping I could make you feel that good. Tonight. I don’t really remember a lot of that night, but I remember that and it was … good.”

“I already feel good,” Spencer said, touching his stomach where Aaron had been kissing him, tracing his fingers across the sweaty skin. The car was over-warm and they’d been messing around since the end of the last movie. “Tonight was amazing. Don’t you think we’re, I dunno, rushing things?”

“Probably.” Aaron seemed glum now, the shadows around his mouth shifting as his expression deepened. “Sorry …”

Spencer puzzled it over. Evidence to him not being ready for this: his panic, his worries, Aureilo, their age. Evidence to them being ready for this: he really, really wanted to, underneath all the worries — he shivered, remembering, all of a sudden, what exactly had happened a year ago from today. Waking up to Aureilo a mouse. Being settled. Being stuck. A small, worthless little mouse of a boy. Lashing out at the world and hurting everyone. But, he was alive. Alive to feel fear and excitement, to take risks — so he took a risk.

He didn’t really think he regretted it.

Maybe.

 

164.

Aaron changed. Something inside him was different, less shadowed. Spencer watched him now and it was as though he’d stepped out into the light, without fear or anger clouding him. Hal stood proud by his side and didn’t flinch when people teased them or called them names. Unlike before, she didn’t snarl or twist herself into a furious wolf with savage eyes. If she was a wolf, she was sedate and strong and composed. The only time she lost that composure was with Aureilo and Sergio when they played together. At the end of their first grading period, Spencer snuck a look at Aaron’s results: all A+s.

Emily changed. Despite the cold weather racing in, she traded Spencer’s beanie for earmuffs and let her hair tumble free. Spencer loved it. Short and spiky and teased into wild shapes and forms; she didn’t hide behind it like she had before she’d had it shaved. Instead, she used it to complement the crazier parts of herself. In Sergio, this change was the most obvious. He mastered the art of altering his fur colour with his form, becoming a cat with a dash of red down his spine or a badger with purple instead of white or what seemed like hundreds of other multi-coloured creatures. They hadn’t gotten high in months and the paintings kept coming.

Spencer wondered if he’d changed, until the moment an unexpected meeting made that wondering obsolete. He learned that he’d definitely changed, despite Aureilo still being a mouse.

This was all because of Professor Ness.

 

165.

The afternoon it happened, it was snowing. They’d gone to Emily’s and found her still sequestered with her tutor in the library, dressed demurely with her cheeks flaming red every time he spoke to her. It was an exercise in second-hand embarrassment sitting there as the professor patiently walked her through linguistics exercise after exercise and she barely managed to stammer a response to any of them.

“It’s like watching you with Aaron,” Aureilo whispered, but Spencer was busy watching Sergio prancing kittenishly around the professor’s kea-dæmon and preening every time the older dæmon paid any kind of attention to him. “Except worse.”

Spencer wiggled uncomfortably. Aaron was sure it was a silly crush, but he wasn’t. If it was a crush, Emily would talk to them about it like she had with every new band member she’d pronounced ‘delicious’ in the past. Not maintain complete radio-silence over it, flushing furiously every time he was mentioned. That meant Em was headed for hurt.

“I don’t understand any of this,” Aaron whispered, thumbing through one of the many textbooks the professor had supplied. Spencer had already given them a cursory glance before decidedly backing away; they were college level material. He wasn’t smart enough for that, and he didn’t want that suspicion confirmed. “Why is she studying college stuff in high school?”

“Grand expectations,” Hal replied.

But Spencer had been distracted because Emily had finally exploded:

“I don’t understand,” she exclaimed, a distinct misery to her tone that he recognised as embarrassment and horror all muddled together. “It’s the same thing, it’s the same damn thing and, even if it wasn’t, what’s the point of it? How am I going to use this?”

“Your mother suggested an introduction to linguistics might be interesting to you, and the study of meaning is important beyond its immediate academic context, especially if you end up in a field where communication may be impeded by context.” The professor sounded patient, but Spencer could see danger signs in the frustrated twist to Emily’s mouth and reached for the textbook they’d abandoned as Emily struggled with the content. “Would you like to move on?”

“Please,” Emily whined, covering her eyes, her shoulders slumped. “I can’t do this.”

By the wall, Sergio huddled down into a mouse and shuffled away from the kea-dæmon, tiny ears pressed back flat.

“Pragmatics in linguistics is the ‘pragmatical’ interpretation of language,” Spencer blurted out after scanning the book. “Emily, it’s simple. It’s like, the study of meaning in a vacuum is semantics, but the study of meaning in context is pragmatics. The phrase ‘The knight killed the peasant with a bow’ is ambiguous — it has many different meanings. Pragmatically, we look at it in context to infer meaning, like who is actually holding the bow. It’s really important for fields where communication might be uneven, like psychology or interpreting, if you learn another language.”

“I know several languages,” Emily muttered, sinking further into her chair. “Still makes zero sense.”

“When did you study pragmatics?” the professor asked, watching Spencer closely.

“I haven’t,” Spencer explained. “I read the chapter.”

“When?”

The room was silent. Spencer shrugged, feeling intensely uncomfortable with everyone staring at him. “Just then?” he mumbled, doing as Emily had and sinking down in his chair. “While you were talking.”

The man stared. “The entire chapter?” he pressed, taking his glasses off and cleaning them. “In fifteen minutes?”

“Not fifteen minutes,” Aaron blurted out, ignoring Spencer’s hiss of shut up. “Like, two minutes. He read it while Emily was bitching — Spencer’s a genius.”

“No, I’m not.” But no one was listening to him anymore and a surge of anger sent him to his feet, Aureilo squeaking furiously on his sleeve. “I’m not a genius! I’m nothing — it’s just a book, it doesn’t matter!”

“He is a genius,” Aaron said mulishly, dodging Spencer trying to kick him. “He just read and understood a complex concept in a field he’s never studied before, in what, five seconds? He’s a total genius and he doesn’t know, tell him. Tell him he’s not an idiot!” He was standing too now, fists clenched and staring Spencer down with his mouth set in a stubborn line. “He could read every book you’ve given Emily, and understand it, in a day, tops.”

“No, we can’t,” Aureilo whispered.

Emily was joining in now. “He remembers everything he reads, ever,” she was saying, showing more spirit in front of the professor than she ever had before. “It’s like a party trick but actually useful — he read me a book once, from memory, that he read when he was five. Wanna know what book it was?”

“Emily, stop it,” Spencer pleaded, mortified. He wanted to disappear to avoid disappointing the man watching him.

But Emily had never let herself be stopped before and now wasn’t going to be any different. “Like, some Chaucer bullshit about a fox named Reynard, from memory. At five. Why are you bothering teaching me? He could have his doctorate in a month if someone gave him a chance.”

Spencer swallowed. Swallowed again. And gave in. “The Historie of Reynart the Foxe,” he finally corrected, his brain alive with memories of his mother reading to them while Aureilo had danced around as the sinister fox. “It’s not Chaucer, although Chaucer did reference it.”

“Caxton,” said Ness.

Spencer fell for it: “Translated by Caxton, but the original was Middle-Dutch, Van den vos Reynaerde, by Willem die Madoc maecte.” In the following silence, he faltered. “Sorry …”

“See,” said Aaron smugly, “a genius.”

“I’m going,” Spencer announced, ignoring the three voices telling him to stay. He grabbed his bag and bolted, not even stopping as Aaron gave chase. He couldn’t do it. Not again. Just like his mom, he’d only disappoint them. They needed to realise; they looked at him and saw a hare, but, really, he was a mouse.

 

166.

There was a knock at his apartment door and he opened it to Professor Ness standing there.

“Hello, Spencer,” he said politely.

Spencer considered shutting the door in his face, but he couldn’t do that, not to this nice man, or to Emily. “Hi,” he said, swinging the door restlessly.

“Emily gave me your address and told me to come by when your father wasn’t here if I wanted to speak to you.”

Spencer said nothing.

Ness didn’t seem to mind. Instead, he nudged his foot against a heavy box he’d placed beside the door. Aureilo inched towards it. “I hope you don’t mind, but Emily and I spoke quite extensively about you after you left yesterday.”

“I bet she loved that,” Spencer muttered, feeling bitchy.

Ness’s mouth twitched, but he didn’t take the bait. “She told me about your abilities and your father’s insistence upon keeping you in mainstream education with your peers.”

“I don’t have abilities.” Heart in his shoes and sinking lower with every dull beat, Spencer was despondent and showing it. “She’s wrong about me. I’ve disappointed people before — why aren’t you paying attention to her? Several languages? How many is several? Maybe she’s the secret genius.”

On the ground by the books, Aureilo’s head was tipped up as he and the kea-dæmon whispered together, the parrot’s wing over-top them both to give them privacy from their humans listening.

“Emily is incredibly intelligent but lacks confidence,” Ness said. “Much like you, I believe. I’m not going to step between you and your father. At sixteen, you should be respecting his wishes, no matter how … misguided … they may be, but I am going to ask you to do something for me.”

Spencer shuffled back, accidentally banging his hand on the door as he swung it again. “What?” he asked, sucking on his sore knuckles where they were going to bruise.

“Those books in those boxes — take them. As a loan from me, I expect them back. Each of them is a theoretical textbook for a different field, and five of them are fundamentally flawed. Of course, given access to a college library and the reference material within, you could find out in an instant which of them have been replaced in the curriculum with more accurate texts, but I’d like to see if you can find which I’m referring to without that comparison available.”

Spencer thought, for a half-second, about saying no.

“Just by reading them?” he asked suspiciously.

“Indeed. No other help, you’ll have to work it out alone.”

“How long do I have?”

He wasn’t curious. He wasn’t. This was way over his head.

“Hmm, oh, let’s say a week. Yes, a week. There’s far too much in there for you to read in a week, so you’ll have to be exceptionally clever about it.” Ness was smiling almost smugly. Spencer couldn’t tell if it was smug or not; every expression on the man simply looked kind.

Spencer figured the worst that would happen was that he couldn’t do it, and then no one could ever call him a genius again. And, when he said worst, he meant best.

Yeah, that was the best outcome.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll do it.”

When he said that, he absolutely didn’t expect to succeed. Not in a million years did he think he could understand the contents of those books. It wasn’t for someone like him.

But he did.

 

167.

From that day on, every week there was a new box of books and a new challenge. Before their sophomore year was over, Spencer had already written his first college-level academic text and had it marked by a real professor. It was such a heady feeling that he carried the small sheaf of red-penned papers around with him for the next three days, finding every chance he could to read and re-read his work.

He showed Jerry, who read it over with his pen at his lips, going, “Hrm.” “May I copy this?” he asked Spencer, who agreed breathlessly. Astoundingly proud of something he’d created — even if it was just a descriptive essay on falsification in evolutionary psychology — he wanted to show everyone.

With that simple yes, everything changed.

Spencer walked into English class and found new books on his desk. “This isn’t the set text?” he asked curiously, looking around at the books everyone else had.

“I think you’ll find it far more challenging,” replied his teacher with a secret kind of smile just for him. “There’s a worksheet underneath.”

The worksheet, when he checked it, was a request for a dissertation of the book’s themes in comparison to one other text of his choice published within the same century.

Four thousand words.

“Oh!” gasped Aureilo, staring at it. “Exciting!”

In science, he was set up in a lab with the lab assistant watching over him, on his own but with full permission to conduct his own experiments so long as he wrote up detailed reports on the results.

In math, he was moved into the senior class for a month before finishing that content and being assigned fundamentals of research and applications studies instead.

For a small time, his grades dropped as he struggled to adjust from doing the bare minimum and flying through to suddenly being held to higher expectations.

Then, somehow, he began to exceed those expectations.

Two times a week, when school was over, he was able to follow Emily gleefully to her home where he could discuss all the new things he was learning, the concepts he was struggling with, while Emily listened quietly with her own notebooks slowly filling. Without Ness’s full attention, she wasn’t fighting the twin stresses of trying to follow the work while simultaneously battling her hyperactive focus on the man, too scared of seeming dumb or disinterested to risk answering a question. Even better, Spencer thought smugly, she was doing the work, because she’d seen how much praise Ness was heaping on Spencer for doing his own and wanted in on that.

Aaron, with steadfast patience, shrugged off any attempt to pull him into the impromptu study sessions and simply sat in the corner of the library, day-dreaming or working his own way through Elizabeth’s books. Spencer checked the shelf he was found most often at one day, finding it devoted to tomes on law and politics and world history. That confused him. Why focus on that when there were literature and language and, best of all, mathematics, to explore?

Aaron would never make sense to him.

 

168.

The box of memories was buried in the back of his closet, piled under the neat stack of Aaron’s clothes that he’d taken to keeping there now that he was staying over more often than not. He crossed that dangerous line with Aaron again and again and again, less scared every time of taking that final leap. The night finally came that he shyly undressed — while Aaron covered his eyes — and stopped hiding.

They did nothing but sleep curled together, skin on skin, but he never forgot the look in Aaron’s eyes as he murmured, “Wow.” Nor did he forget the thrill of mixed excitement/sadness as Aaron reciprocated, seeing the other boy trembling as he stepped into the light and hunched to hide a long white scar on his belly. When he took a deep breath and turned, his eyes shut and jaw clenched, to show the scars on his back. Spencer counted them and tucked that number away somewhere deep. Something dark flickered across Aureilo. Some strange shadow of fury, his shape becoming less mouse-like despite never slipping out of form.

“They’re ugly,” said Aaron.

“You could never be ugly,” Spencer replied.

Chapter Text

Emily

 

169.

They were lying on the beach and there was sand in Sergio’s ears, Emily watching him leap and spin and chase himself about with Aureilo and Hal calling advice from the sidelines. Curled up on the beach-towel behind her, the boys were asleep, or almost there. Occasionally, she could see Spencer’s eyes open minutely, tracking the dæmons as they played like idiots.

“What are you drawing?” he asked, his voice all the husky kind of sleepy. Instead of answering, lazy with the fading summer sun, she tipped the sketch towards him. It was Hal as a wolf, and it was terrible. But, getting better. Maybe soon she’d work out mammals. “You should draw Aur.”

“Draw me, draw me!” Aureilo hollered, abandoning being groomed by Hal to bounce his way over to Emily and striking a pose in front of her. Hal sighed, hefting herself upright and slowly ambling after him, an eighty-year-old dæmon tied to a sixteen-year-old boy. A brisk wind blew against her, throwing her fur into spiky tufts and blowing a spray of sand and salt over the boys, who both yelled, awake now.

“You guys look so gay, all huddled up like that,” Emily pointed out, peering over them to see if anyone was watching. “You’re going to get us jumped.”

“We’re not huddling,” Spencer said, sitting upright and yawning with his peeling nose scrunching at the gesture. They were all sunburned, although Aaron, the ass, was already tanning instead of going red. Spencer had freckles coming up, the lightest dusting across his nose and cheeks. “Don’t worry, Em, we’re super circumspect.”

“Oh yeah, so circumspect,” Aureilo said. “Like you the other day, huh? Mr ‘Aaron’s not here’.”

Spencer turned an interesting shade of embarrassed, considering that he was already sunburned.

“What’d he do?” Emily asked Aureilo, hearing Hal groan.

“Don’t you dare—” Spencer tried, but Aureilo was already gleefully tattling as Aaron covered his face with his hands and ducked out of sight and Spencer attempted to catch the mouse and bury him in the sand.

“So, there’s Spencer, all ready to get the world’s worst blowjob,” Aureilo announced — and Emily was already laughing, brain locked on the mental image of Spencer reading a manual on ‘How to Suck Dick’ while Aaron waited patiently for tips.

“Stop stop, oh no, stop,” Aaron was wheezing, Spencer wordless with horror.

“—kneeling at the end of the bed, buck naked, and, boom, Dad knocks—”

“Oh my god,” said Emily joyfully.

“—and, the absolute genius he is, Spencer launches up, shoves Aaron’s head down, and drags a blanket over him.”

“‘Hi, Dad,’” Aureilo mimicked unexpectedly in a high falsetto. “‘I didn’t know you were home. No, Aaron’s not here, why do you ask?’ And, the whole time he’s saying this, Aaron’s hunched up under the blanket between his legs and—” The mouse-dæmon had to stop to laugh, Spencer’s whimpers now sounding tearful. “And, Hal’s sitting on the rug staring at him.”

“Oh no,” said Sergio.

“Yup,” Aaron replied. “Staring at him like a dumbass.”

“I was startled,” Hal said snootily. “I don’t know what you expected me to do.”

“Not be a lump—” Aaron began to say but another rough breeze sent the tide sweeping up towards them, touching the tips of their toes and drenching the towel. “Fuck!”

“Storm,” said Spencer. There was something so intense in his tone that, before the wind had stopped winding around them, they’d all fallen silent and turned to watch it. “I love storms.”

“Same,” murmured Aaron. “Should we leave before that hits?”

Emily watched the clouds building over the choppy surf then snuck a look at her friends. Their hands were touching and, even as she watched, Hal lowered her head and nudged Spencer’s leg. It was a split-second touch. Emily still shivered, looking around at the crowded beach beginning to pack up and filter away from the danger of inclement weather. “Let’s stay and watch it roll in,” she declared, ignoring her unease. What was a storm?

Nothing they hadn’t survived before.

 

170.

There was a mortifying moment. She didn’t know what made her do it, just that she’d been dealing with this for a year now and it just made sense. If she felt this, surely, surely, he felt some semblance of the same? It seemed impossible that a heart could beat so strongly for someone and not have the other person feel similarly — just impossible. And she was pretty, in some lights, haughty in others. Intelligent, sometimes, and saucy. Apparently. All things people had called her. Positive things, right?

It all led to this moment, hiding down the back of her garden in the stupid playhouse her dad had built her, wiping snot onto her sleeve and making it gunky and gross. Makeup probably everywhere because of course she’d worn makeup, the stupid bitch she was, and she grabbed her sleeve and scrubbed furiously at her face, determined to remove it. Stupid, stupid, stupid, and Sergio watched her judgmentally.

There was a rustle outside and she froze. Oh god. Oh god. First, that terrible moment when she’d been so dumb and now … oh no. Catching her crying in a children’s playhouse, oh fuck.

“Emily?” he asked quietly. She knew he was crouched outside. “Come out.”

There was no coming back from this.

 

171.

If Emily had known more about Professor Harper Ness, then maybe she’d have been less mortified about her conduct that day. Thirty-three years old, in his life he’d seen people being far more foolish than Emily Prentiss the day she’d mumbled a panicked kind of declaration of love and then bolted from the room at his quiet, “Ah.”

“When I was thirteen, I was sure I was in love with my math teacher,” he said, almost to himself. Within the playhouse, where the gardener had pointed him, there was a focused kind of silence. “I even wrote poetry. Terrible, terrible poetry. Left it on the desk … at the time, I was sure that I was so, so sneaky about it, but I really wasn’t. There was no way it wasn’t obvious.” A low groan sounded out from inside the recesses of the house. “What I’m saying is that it’s normal, Emily. What you’re feeling? It’s normal. Ask the boys. I’m sure one of them has had a fancy for a teacher or two in their time.”

“It’s not normal,” came the muffled reply. “That’s such an asshole thing to say, that this is just a phase, I’ll get over it. I won’t. I mean, I will, probably, but I won’t ever get over how shit this feels. And you’re going to leave now because I’ve been a total idiot and that’s going to ruin what Spencer has here too because no one else lets him be smart and—” She appeared, hair wilder than usual with cobwebs on her nose and Sergio a tarantula on her throat. Harper winced at that, and at the misery there.

Harper Ness, in all his years, had always hated loneliness. And Emily?

He could see it written all over her, from the makeup that usually screamed ‘look at me’ — although, today it was demure and feminine — to the clothes that snarled ‘you don’t know who I am’ — although, once again, she was today in a neat sky-blue dress with plain tights. She was a child that no one had bothered to love enough, and he was a kind adult who’d appeared in her life at exactly the wrong time. Whether or not it had started out as teenage hormones, he knew it likely wasn’t now. When someone offered a lifeline, the person drowning would grab it and hang on with all their might; right now, the only adult in her life who had time for her, he was likely the one thing keeping her afloat.

If he was a more cowardly person, he’d have tendered his resignation and left. It was a dangerous game, staying within range of the explosion he was sure would occur if she was hurt beyond what she had the ability to deal with at her age. But he wasn’t a coward. He’d faced scarier people down than sixteen-year-olds with crushes, and he didn’t intend on hurting her.

“I’m too old and boring for you,” he told her. “And I’m incredibly, absolutely already taken even if those two previous things hadn’t already made what you’re wishing for impossible. But, I’m also not going anywhere.”

She paused, her expression narrowing suspiciously, makeup smeared everywhere and eyes glassy. “Promise?” she asked and had never sounded more like a child to him than then with that single, pleading word. He wondered how many people had lied to her before to make her so unsure.

“Promise,” he replied, holding out his hand to help her out of the dirt.

 

172.

“Why are we going to a party again?” Spencer asked. “If we stay home, I can teach you guys how to play D&D.”

“That,” Emily declared, “is exactly why we’re not staying home. Did Aaron say he’d meet us down here?” Down here was in the parking lot outside Aaron’s apartment, looking up at the rows and rows of blank-faced windows waiting for Aaron to jog out of the gated front door. Spencer was awkwardly twisting in the driver’s seat to examine his hair in the rear-view mirror, only settling when Emily leaned over to help him fix it. It had gotten long this last summer, hanging in loose waves around his ears. Very cute, but she was sure he’d get it cut soon which was a pity. He’d look cute with a ponytail. Or a mullet.

She couldn’t help but snigger at that mental image, earning a frown from both him and his mouse. “Pity Aur won’t change,” she said, tweaking the silly tie he was wearing, dancing turtles gambolling their way across it. “You could have him match the tie you’re for some reason wearing.”

“It looks nice,” Spencer protested, looking down at his salmon-coloured button-down and green tie. It did not, in any definition of the word, look ‘nice’. “Aureilo said it looked nice.”

“Aureilo lied.”

“I did,” Aureilo confirmed happily. “It looks awful.”

They began to bicker, Spencer declaring that he had to go home and change despite them already being late. Emily sighed and shed her leather jacket.

“Here,” she said. “Lose the tie and put this on. It’ll fit, you’re tiny.” It did. One day he’d grow, but today was not that day. “And here—” She ruffled his hair, working the comb she kept in her waistband out to tease it around into a messy kind of nonchalance. “There. Now you’re a greaser.”

“Goodie,” said Spencer doubtfully, wiggling around and making the jacket creak at him. Emily took the tie and threw it into the recesses of the backseat, hopefully lost forever. “Should one of us go and get Aaron?”

There was a notable pause before he said this. They never discussed it, but they both knew what happened behind closed doors in the Hotchner household. Or, had happened. Aaron said it wasn’t happening anymore.

But Aaron could have lied.

“I’ll go,” Emily declared, curiosity warring with sense and coming out the victor. “You wait here and make sure no one steals that tie.”

“Ha ha,” Spencer muttered.

She slid out of his father’s car and slammed the door shut on him, walking with confidence towards the apartment building and peering at the buzzers to find ‘Hotchner’. She found it, third floor, and looked back to the car before pressing it, unease building.

Spencer was watching. She covered up her hesitation by adjusting her skirt, untucking and re-tucking in the tight tank-top she’d worn underneath the lost jacket.

“Maybe we should just go back to the car,” Sergio said, becoming a vivid black and blue gecko and scuttling up to rest beside the buzzer, tongue flicking. “He might get shitty with us, and then we’ll spend our last weekend before junior year getting bitched at.”

“He’s going to make us late and then we’ll miss out on all the good shit,” Emily said. She pressed the buzzer: bzzzt. Silence.

A male voice growled, “What?”

“Hi, it’s Emily Prentiss. I’m here to see Aaron.” More silence. Finally, there was a grunt and the gate clicked open, letting her in. “Come on,” she said, holding out her arm for her sticky dæmon until he grabbed onto a bracelet and hung like a really chunky accessory. “Let’s go meet the monster.”

 

173.

Emily took an automatic step back as the door to the Hotchner apartment yanked open, revealing Aaron’s dad. The monster, as it turned out, was a man that looked vaguely like Aaron if Aaron had been dysfunctional for the past thirty years. Bloodshot eyes and visibly broken capillaries in his nose immediately screamed alcoholic, even if the stink of booze hadn’t done that already. Emily smiled brightly at him, the smile her mother had taught her despite every sense she had telling her to get the fuck out of there as his gaze slowly skimmed down her body and froze on her tits.

“You Aaron’s girl?”

“Sure,” she replied. “Is he ready?”

In response, the man grunted again and vanished from the doorway, letting her in. Apprehensively, she stepped through into a darkened hallway that smelled of being closed in without enough air, masculine body odour clinging but without any hint of cleanliness.

The door clicked shut behind her, softly and with finality. Sergio trembled on her shoulder. The man stopped up the hall, and she looked down at the albatross-dæmon standing by him and felt her blood run cold. It was staring at her. Straight at her, and she’d never seen anything colder than those empty eyes. If she hadn’t known it was a dæmon, she would have feared it for being wild.

Actually, she reassessed as she stepped forward bravely and squared her shoulders, even knowing it was a dæmon didn’t stop her fearing it. That was the kind of dæmon that was used to being feared. She refused to show it that it worked, even on her.

“Where’s Aaron?” she asked louder, her voice ringing in this strange, swallowed place. It felt like she’d stepped into the mouth of something, some great creature. Or a storm.

The man just studied her. Goosebumps rose on her arms.

What if Aaron was hurt? What if this guy had beat him again or, worse, killed him? What if he was lying somewhere in this horrible apartment, the dark pressing down around him and bleeding, trying to call out for her—

She needed to stop watching horror movies with Spencer.

“Aaron,” the man called suddenly, turning and thumping up the hall. “Your girl is here.”

He said girl like other men would say slut, and she wondered why he even bothered with the pretence of being polite. There was nothing polite about his eyes, or the way he stopped and gestured her through without making enough room for her to actually get past without brushing against his front.

A door popped open and Aaron tumbled out, towel around his waist and hair hanging in wet clumps over his face.

“Emily?” he asked, staring at her. “Sorry, I’m late. Sorry—” He paused, his eyes darting from Emily’s face to his dad’s and his expression visibly darkening. “Come on. My room is up here.”

“Door open,” his dad said as Emily ran for the room.

“Fuck off,” replied Aaron shortly, slamming the door shut as soon as Emily was in. She gaped.

“Are you nuts?” she demanded. “He’ll kick your ass.”

“He’d regret it if he did,” Hal said from her spot on the bed, curled up as a possum. Emily looked at her, and then looked around. The bedroom looked exactly how she’d imagine Aaron’s bedroom to look; that was, nothing at all like the rest of the apartment she’d seen. It was painfully neat, incredibly sparse, and smelled nice. Like clean boy and deodorant, not musk and beer. In here, she could relax.

“Uh, do you mind?” Aaron’s voice was nervous, and she looked at him and popped an eyebrow before realising he had one hand on the towel and the other gesturing to the neat stack of clothes by his empty desk. “Just, turn around, maybe?”

“Oh, I’ll—” She went to leave, but he grabbed her arm.

“Stay in here,” he said. On the bed, Hal became a wolf, rising. He didn’t seem mad she was here, but his newfound confidence about his dad’s meekness apparently didn’t extend to leaving him alone with his friends. “Just, turn around, you pervert.”

“Fine.” She took a seat on his bed, covering her eyes carefully, so she could peek, if she was inclined. Which she wasn’t. Well, maybe a little. “What took you so long anyway? We were waiting ages.”

“Work,” he replied. She heard the towel drop and resisted the urge for all of two seconds before shifting her fingers, just a smidge. No wonder Spencer was into him — dude had a great ass and, apparently, no idea that you could totally get dressed while still under a towel, a trick she’d mastered. “Why’d you come up here?”

She decided to tell the truth as he tugged on his briefs and cut short her show by bending to shuffle into jeans, bringing the marks on his back into view. “We were worried.”

Since she’d covered her eyes once more, she heard rather than saw him pause. “Thanks,” he said. She heard a zip go and dropped her hands, finding him shirtless but mostly covered and watching her intently. “For worrying about me, I mean. That’s nice. Where’d you leave Spence?”

“In the car with a water bowl and the window down,” she told him, reaching for the hair-spray on his dresser and seeing him wince. “Now, come here and let’s make you handsome.”

 

174.

She managed to keep the memory of her undeniably mortifying love declaration to Harper out of her mind, right up until she was eight drinks and two shots in and she realised the boys had vanished, leaving her alone with her catastrophic brain and three seniors setting up a keg stand.

“Did I fuck up?” she asked Sergio after, wiping beer from her tank top and walking away from the boys she’d just successfully outdrank. “I shouldn’t have told him …”

“You’re stewing,” Sergio told her. “Stop stewing, have fun. Find the idiots — they’ve probably fallen in the pool. Or Aaron’s rearranging the kitchen while Spencer alphabetises the bookcase.”

“Maybe I should tell them how much of a fuck up I am,” she said glumly, shoving her way through the crowd to try and find said idiots. She headed outside to see if she could spot them, revelling in the brisk touch of the damp air. Drunk enough, was her next thought. Time to be sensible.

“Prentiss!” someone shouted. When she turned, that someone grabbed her and shoved her against the railing of the porch, sending someone’s beer bottle toppling down to shatter on the pavers below. People hollered, already losing interest in their scuffle even as she spun and went to slam her knee up into the crotch of the man breathing stinking air all over her. Sergio went for the guy’s dæmon as a spitting, ferociously spotted cat.

“Alec,” she snarled, recognising him. “Get the fuck off of me, I swear to god.” Behind her back, she fumbled for her chain bracelet and wrapped it tight over her fingers just in case.

“Why?” he said. “Oh, sorry, you think I want to fuck you? You stupid bitch, you had your chance — but, man, I didn’t even think someone like you would stoop to hanging with fags.”

She was already readying to smack him when she registered what he’d said: “What?”

Leering, his reply stopped what was left of her shitty heart. “You heard me. Those queers you hang out with, Aaron Psycho Hotchner and the twink — they’re getting what’s coming to them, right now. I mean, I assume they fuck you as well as each — hey!”

She was gone, shoving past him and hurtling into the house.

Those idiots.

“This way,” she heard Sergio cry but as soon as he leapt to the ground, he was almost swallowed by the people around them, his voice eaten by the thump of the music. She yelled for him, turning in place. Something deep and frightening kicked in her chest when she couldn’t spot him. He leapt up and out of the crowd, wings sending people ducking out of his way. An owl with a wingspan as wide as her arms, he woo’ed loudly and whirled into the air. She followed him, and she found them, barely able to shove her way through the people crowding around to see Aaron getting piled on by, what — three guys? Four? She couldn’t tell.

An elbow to her mouth left her dizzy; she was turned around in the press of bodies with no idea what way she was going, finally dropping to her knees and crawling only to come out on the wrong side of the crowd. Sergio dropped down by her side. Even over the music, they could hear Hal roaring.

“They’re not hurting them yet,” Sergio said. “But they’re going to. What do we do?”

Emily thought about it. There were too many people, too many of them drunk and stupid and wild with the crowd. No talking their way out of this, and she didn’t fancy Aaron’s chances in a brawl, especially not with Spencer there to worry about.

“Hey,” she yelled, grabbing a guy’s arm as he moved to get away from the crowd, which was now chanting — fight fight fight — and each chorus was another punch to the gut. “Got a light?”

“Oh well,” Sergio said as he followed her outside with a bottle of eighty proof he’d snatched from someone’s hand clinking in his talons. “At least it’s not a church.”

 

175.

“Are you sure no one saw you?” Aaron fretted from where he was pacing next to the car. Perched within with her legs crossed and hanging out of the open passenger door, Emily rolled her eyes at him. “Absolutely no one?”

“No one saw me.” She leaned back to look at Spencer, who was being woeful curled up in the backseat with Aureilo sitting on the side of his head.

“I can’t believe you set their greenhouse on fire.” Aaron was still fretting, Hal pacing with him.

“I can’t believe you guys got busted fucking in a closet,” she retorted. “Seriously, what the fuck?”

“We weren’t fucking,” Spencer mumbled into the upholstery, startling her with his rare cursing. He was more than a bit drunk, although she suspected the shock of almost getting their teeth kicked in had sobered him up. They were all drunk. Honestly, Aaron seemed sober, but he had to be drunk to think making out with his boyfriend at a party was a good idea.

“We were just kissing,” Aaron said, obviously lying since he couldn’t even look straight at her.

“Kissing with your hand down his pants.” Hal, without any kind of qualm, completely dumped them in it. “I told you it was dumb. But, no you couldn’t just, I don’t know, touch his face or something, you had to go for the dick. Was it worth it, Aaron? Tell me it was worth it.”

“Rate the dick,” Emily teased. “Worth getting jumped for?”

“Can we please stop talking about my dick?” Spencer groaned, curling up smaller.

Emily reached around to pat his arm. “Honey, we’ll stop talking about your dick when you stop getting it out at parties.”

His only reply was more groaning.

“At least we were out of town.” Aaron opened Spencer’s door and sat down heavily, staring off into the trees on the side of the road. “I mean, at least no one we knew was there.”

Emily thought of Alec.

“About that,” she said slowly, seeing them both tense. “Shit, what does it matter? We’ve dealt with people thinking you’re a murderer before, Aaron. And Spence — no one ever pays attention to you anyway, why would this change anything?”

“Do you know what people do to gays?” Aaron moaned, chalk white with Hal turning into a cat and curling up tight into his lap. “We’re dead. We’re so fucking dead.”

Spencer looked uneasy. “Is that true?” he asked Emily, a mark on his cheek from where the seat had pressed his glasses tight against his face. “Are we screwed?”

“No,” she said firmly. “Come on, guys. We’re always together and we know they could be out for us, we just don’t get cornered.”

“You sleep in the dorms,” Aaron pointed out.

His gaze flickered up to her shortened hair.

“Well, yeah, but there’s no one at home to make sure that I’m actually doing that. I’ll just sneak there or stay with Spencer. We don’t even know if there’s going to be a problem yet and, if there is, we’ll just protect each other. Come on, who gives a shit what people think about us? We’re other anyway, and proud of it. They can’t touch us.”

Spencer nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, we’ll be fine. Right, Aaron?”

“Sure,” said Aaron, but he didn’t seem convinced.

 

176.

Despite Emily’s surety that they could protect each other, it turned out that she was wrong. Two weeks after he was caught with Aaron, Spencer didn’t come home from school.

Chapter Text

Spencer

 

177.

The ring of people stared at them and they saw nothing familiar in any of their faces, despite having gone to school with them for a year now. There were smiles, but not friendly. There were no teachers in sight.

They had no idea where Aaron was, or Emily.

“Leave us alone,” Aureilo whispered.

But they didn’t.

 

178.

It started three days after the school year began with Emily waking to a piss-soaked door. The boys helped her clean it up, ignoring the laughter that that earned them.

The next day, it was Spencer’s turn, opening his locker to find everything soaked through. Water this time but that didn’t save his books or the ones he’d had in there from Ness. Emily moved her stuff home that night under the cover of darkness and the boys with her every step of the way. They all emptied their lockers, carrying only what they needed for the day with them.

Aaron was tripped at lunch, scraping his chin on the asphalt as he landed, Hal lunging around and pinning the cuckoo-dæmon of the girl who’d done it to the ground, shaking the bird until it shrilled for mercy. Spencer dragged Aaron back, Sergio becoming an orangutan and grabbing Hal.

“What the fuck, Casey?” someone could be heard asking the girl as they walked away in the furious silence that followed.

“He had it coming,” was the short reply.

In the bathroom, Aaron turned to find the doorway blocked and two seniors he didn’t know watching him. There was nothing he trusted in their eyes. Cornered, he squared his shoulders and shoved through them, only realising he was breathing heavily as they didn’t stop him from leaving.

“Don’t go anywhere alone,” he told Spencer. “Not even to piss.”

“We should tell someone,” Spencer said, looking more at Aaron than Emily. They both looked defeated, and he hated seeing that look on them.

“And then what? Tell them why? I don’t want the teachers knowing too. They’ll …” Aaron shuddered, trailing off.

Emily finished the thought. “What if they tell your parents?”

Spencer knew what that really meant: what if they told Aaron’s dad?

Whatever reputation Aaron had built as someone not to be fucked with, it was fading with the growing knowledge that Aaron was wrong, that he and Spencer were both wrong. That they were doing the kinds of things together that guys shouldn’t be doing. People who’d avoided him before now sneered as he walked past and even those kids who Spencer had never thought would condone this kind of harassment just stood back and watched.

That was startling to him, how no one stepped forward.

Not when someone put their hand up in Health class and asked if the school should be notified if someone with AIDs was enrolled, the titters following that sweeping through the classroom even as the girl next to Spencer edged her chair away.

Not when Emily snapped after being cornered in her own bathroom, and the girl who’d dared to take her on had asked if it was inevitable that Spencer was a ‘faggot’ seeing as his dæmon was male. “Bet he’s the bitch,” the girl had said, so Emily had grabbed her hair and thrown her down, making sure she stayed down. Stupid. It was stupid. Spencer sat aside as Aaron raved furiously about it. Instant suspension, which meant they were down to two.

No one stepped forward the day it escalated. Inevitably, the escalation came in the form of Alec Marshall. Spencer didn’t recognise him.

Aaron did.

“I have a question,” Alec said, sauntering up to them in the corridor between classes and immediately getting both their backs up. Questions, over the past week, had been anything but innocent. Aaron went rigid, nothing but raw fury on every inch of his body. Hal growled, long and low.

“Aaron,” Spencer whispered, touching his hand. Mistake. Alec saw it. Something akin to hate flickered across his face, and he held out his own hand and the curl of paper held within it.

“For you,” he said to Spencer, and smiled.

Aaron was silent.

Spencer took it. Unfolded it. Read it in a second, with everyone watching while pretending not to be watching. Wanting a fight, some drama, something to liven their days without realising the cost.

Accident or Murder?

Schoolboy drowns in rapids as classmate watches.

“What’s it like fucking a murderer?” Alec asked, his smile turning lazy as Aaron stared at the newspaper clipping. “I gotta know, do you think he was fucking that guy too?”

“We’re leaving,” said Aaron coldly, turning and walking away. Spencer followed, but so did Alec.

“Is that what gets you off? How psychotic he is? I bet he’ll kill you too one day, that’s probably what he does. Lures them off, sucks them off, and then knocks them off. I bet he likes to hurt you — I bet he’s perverted. It’s already fucked, what you queers do, but I bet he’s even kinkier. Hey, hey, listen to me!”

He grabbed Spencer’s arm, yanking hard. It hurt, but Spencer refused to make a sound. Within his sleeve, Aureilo barely managed to avoid being crushed by the biting fingers.

“Let go of him.”

Aaron’s voice was a dark promise.

Eyes locked with the boy holding him tight, Spencer stared up into that cold gaze and memorised it. Without pulling away, without flinching; he wasn’t going to back down, no matter how scared he was.

And he was scared.

But Alec’s face had softened into some mimicry of kindness. “Hey,” he said loudly, too loudly, “look, kid, if he’s hurting you or forcing you to do anything, we’ll help you out, you know. Someone like him — I bet he makes you do stuff you don’t want to. I bet he forces you. He did it to me, got all possessive and fucked up about Prentiss. She didn’t want him there, she wanted me, but he couldn’t stand that. And his dæmon — it was going to touch me if I didn’t leave.”

Silence. There was silence around them, broken only by a low murmur. Hal was snarling now, the noise throbbing in Spencer’s ears. He focused on one thing: “What did you do to Emily?” he asked, dizzy and sick with his arm burning at the unwanted touch.

“I bet he makes his dæmon touch you too,” Alec said, shaking his head with his mouth twisted into a disgusted grimace. “It’s not right. He’s not right. If his dæmon was a dog, they’d put it down—”

“I said let him go!” Aaron yelled, snapping.

Spencer’s arm was free suddenly, but only because Alec was on the floor with Aaron on top of him. Hal lunged too, dæmons suddenly swarming her with snarls and shrieks of fury as they stopped her from reaching Aaron.

Spencer did nothing, watching as Aaron kept punching and punching and punching until Alec was crying and Aaron was dragged away by two furious teachers, leaving Spencer standing there alone. The outcome of this week was inevitable. Suspension, immediate. Off-campus, with the threat of police action if Aaron stepped one foot over the school gate until his readmission.

Spencer and Aureilo didn’t know this. All they knew was that Aaron and Hal had been whisked away for punishment, and that they hadn’t come back.

 

179.

They finished that day on high alert, everyone muttering around them. All eyes on them. Never before had they been this visible. Aureilo hid. He was terrified. There was a lot to be terrified of. The invisible boy and his invisible mouse, invisible no longer.

“Not long now until the bell,” Aureilo kept whispering as they spent English class in a hazy funk and did nothing in Science but look out the window and wonder how much trouble Aaron was in. “Not long now.”

He kept up this chant until the bell finally rang, and kept it up a bit longer while they lingered in the classroom as an excuse to let the halls empty. Anything to slip away unnoticed, to run home and find Emily, find Aaron. To end this day.

And he kept up the chant until they slipped out of the classroom, down the hall, and ran straight into Claire.

“Spencer, thank god,” she breathed, eyes wild. “I just saw some girl, she said they’ve got Aaron. They’re going to hurt him!”

He’d always regret trusting her.

“Where?” he asked, turning and finding no adult nearby.

“The football field. We have to go — quickly!”

 

180.

“Leave us alone,” Aureilo whispered.

The same look in the eyes of the crowd surrounding was what had haunted them for the past two weeks. Spencer looked around and saw no help coming.

“This isn’t fair,” he pleaded, backing away from the boys approaching. “Don’t do this. Someone help!”

Despite him seeing a ripple of unease passing through them, a murmur of worry, no one did.

Hands on his front and he hit the dirt. He didn’t know the boy who’d shoved him. He didn’t know the one behind him either — he wasn’t Aaron or Emily, he didn’t remember names or faces of people who weren’t important to him. That was another regret. He staggered back to his feet, looking for a familiar face and finding none but Claire’s, tear-streaked and angry.

“I didn’t know,” she was saying, her voice half-drowned out by the wordless jeers around her. “Spence, I didn’t know!”

“Get up,” said the boy. He had a rat-dæmon, just like Ethan, and Spencer was horrified to realise that he was crying at the memory of his friend. “Stop snivelling. Fight back, faggot.”

Shoved again.

Spencer got back up, fists bunched.

“Get out of here,” he told Aureilo grimly, his mouse-dæmon clinging to his collar despite getting thrown around. “As far as you can go, no matter how much it hurts — run!”

Another shove; this time, when he hit the floor, his head smacking the tarmac, Aureilo leapt free and ran out of range, crying out with fear.

Dæmons chased him.

Spencer got up again. He couldn’t fight. His dæmon was running and they were mice; if they were caught, they’d be killed. They just had to keep getting knocked down. Again. And again.

And again.

Until he couldn’t get up anymore.

 

181.

He refused to fight back, to give them the show that they wanted, right up until they took the choice out of his hands. Screaming because Aureilo was too far from him and getting further, dragging against the bond between them until Spencer could feel every inch tearing him in two, he was only conscious of what the hands on his numb body were doing when his shirt dragged around his neck.

“No!” he screamed, lashing out, kicking and shouting and knowing that soon someone had to hear. Someone had to go for help — this wasn’t happening.

It couldn’t be happening.

He bit at a hand going for his shirt again and the hand hit him, snapping his head back hard. Too many people. Too many hands. He was dazed and confused and not breathing, trying to tell them that he was choking and unable to find the words.

Aaron, he thought dizzily, trying to tear himself loose and feeling his belt give. They were going to strip him in front of half of the school, and Aureilo was still tearing at his heart.

“No!” he screamed again, fighting back. Desperately and wildly, feeling his feet connecting and his fists slamming into flesh, a tooth cutting into his knuckle and leaving it bloody.

“Pin him down,” someone said. Spencer went cold.

Everyone was going to see him.

He began to drift, going limp. This wasn’t happening. It wasn’t happening. It wasn’t happening.

But it was.

Cold air on all the most vulnerable parts of him, dragged roughly across the turf and lifted, arms yanked behind his back as he was tied upright. Eyes still squeezed shut to block out the faces laughing at him, even if he couldn’t block out the sound. The laughter, so much of it, all aimed at him. He knew he was crying.

We can fight, whispered a tiny part of him, something small deep inside. But, they couldn’t. We can fight, said that voice again, and it didn’t sound like him at all. We don’t have to be small.

He opened his eyes and heard a wolf snarling.

Aaron!

People were moving away from him, yelling, and there was a wolf attacking them. Spencer tried to watch but his vision was refusing to cooperate. It wasn’t just attacking dæmons — it went for the people too, screaming with a rage that was too big for it, dragging a girl down by her coat sleeve and throwing her roughly to the ground before grabbing her dæmon and biting down.

People were running. Too much noise, Spencer thought giddily, watching them disperse. A lot less than there had been before. Someone will hear.

He waited and waited and waited for the wolf to stop chasing them and stagger back to him, Aaron at her side and hands to untie him, to let him down, to cover him. Bare and exposed and tied upright to show off what they’d done to him, what he’d let them do, he couldn’t help but sob as the wolf finally limped towards him. Seeing how weak he was, how small and fragile.

Everyone had seen.

“I stopped them, Spence,” said the wolf, his fur a golden-tan. “I stopped them — I was strong and I stopped them!”

And, as Spencer stared at him disbelievingly, Aureilo began to howl.

 

182.

It was twilight when he looked up to see two people sprinting towards him. The rope was almost loose but it didn’t matter; they’d see his glory and his shame anyway.

“Spencer!” gasped Emily. She stared at him like she couldn’t recognise him, like he was something demonic and strange. Spencer tried to smile at her even as Aaron hurtled up and tugged furiously at the rope.

“We heard howling,” Aaron was saying, letting go of the ropes and cupping his hands around Spencer’s face to peer into his eyes. “Oh my god. Oh my god. What have they done? Spence — look at me. Where are you hurt?”

“It was Aureilo,” Spencer tried to explain but his words were almost impossible to understand through his swollen mouth. Aaron just looked confused, so he had to keep trying. “Aaron, it was Aureilo. He stopped them. We can change. They tried to hurt us and instead they showed us that we’re stronger than them, that we’re better.”

It all came out in a mangled rush, too sore and crying too hard to shape the words effectively.

“Aaron,” Emily whispered. Aaron vanished, the ropes finally giving way, catching Spencer as he slumped forward without any way to stop himself falling. Spencer couldn’t help but sob at the touch as it brushed against every aching part of him, trying to curl his legs up to hide but finding himself unable. “Look at Aureilo.”

They did, all of them.

“We knew you’d understand.” Aureilo’s voice was hoarse from howling. Hal stood beside him, staring at him like she couldn’t believe her eyes. “We knew you’d come, we just had to be strong.”

“You’re a wolf,” Hal said. Spencer tried to struggle upright, feeling his head spin wildly at the move and barely managing to avoid getting vomit on Aaron as he threw up. But, as he fell, he was still conscious of the noise around him: Emily, crying and raging; Aaron, pleading; and Aureilo talking.

Aureilo saying, “Of course,” as he tumbled onto his side, eyes closing. You’re the strongest person we know.

 

183.

There was an ambulance. A hospital. Doctors. Police Throughout it all, Aaron by his side and Emily as close as they would let her. And their dæmons, all three of them wolves. Aureilo stayed as he was, only repeating that he had to stop them whenever someone questioned his form.

Their dad walked in the room and stared and stared and stared until Spencer couldn’t help but begin to cry again from the stunned disappointment on his face. “How could this happen?” he kept asking people, Aaron, the doctors, the police officer taking Spencer’s garbled statement. “Why didn’t anyone stop it?”

Harback stared at Aureilo, huddled with Sergio and Hal who wouldn’t let anyone near him.

“I’m sorry,” Spencer kept apologising, knowing that this was going to cause so so so much trouble, but with no real idea of just how much. Two broken fingers and a fractured knuckle, a concussion, one loose tooth, too many bruises to count. Bleeding and bruised where he wasn’t broken; Aureilo bleeding too. And, whenever the hurt would recede slightly, he’d remember: half the school had seen him naked and trembling, and his body would burn with shame until the pain came again.

There was only one bright spot in this dark, catastrophic day. Midway through more questions, more tests, as Aaron and Emily argued against being thrown out, Sergio slipped away from Aureilo and put his paws on the hospital bed, leaning close and saying, “Aureilo’s a shit wolf.”

Spencer stared at him, seeing Emily shoot them a strange look from where she was furiously refusing to be shifted. “Huh?” he asked, trying to peer down at his dæmon with his head thumping along.

“His tail,” Sergio said, and winked. Aureilo, helpfully, took that moment to stand. Spencer stared some more, only looking away when Aaron walked over to say a reluctant goodbye, his cheeks red with anger.

“Aureilo has a rabbit tail,” Spencer said, silencing the room as he pointed at his dæmon. “Look, it’s all stubby.”

“Oh my god, he’s brain-damaged,” Emily groaned. But he was right; instead of the long canid tails that Sergio and Hal sported, Aureilo’s tail was short and tufty.

William made a soft noise at that, his expression indiscernible when Spencer looked at him. Aaron touched his shoulder, unable to kiss him goodbye in front of his father and unable to speak through the anger even Aureilo’s silly tail had failed to dispel. Spencer just nodded and watched him leave with more tears threatening. He was sick of crying. Even his eyeballs hurt.

“It’s okay, son,” William was still saying, ignoring his fascinating dæmon. “I’m going to fix this, you’ll see. I’ll have every last one of them, every last one. I promise. It’s over.”

It wasn’t.

Chapter Text

Emily

 

184.

She was scared of Aaron. Every joke she’d ever made about him being psychotic or a murderer, every snide jibe at his sanity, each of them haunted her now. From the heart-stopping moment she’d opened her door to his panicked, “Spencer didn’t come home from school,” to walking through the school grounds and hearing that woeful howl, something inside him had started winding tighter and tighter and tighter until he was like he was now: ready to spring apart with paralysing force and take out anyone who was unfortunate enough to be standing near him when it happened. Hal was livid. Bigger than Emily had ever seen her with her black lips curled back in a permanent snarl, the long ridge of fur down her ruff and spine standing on end and making her look larger still. When not restlessly prancing, driven by some manic energy, she stood easily higher than Emily’s hips, snout almost level with the centre of her chest.

She was big, she was angry, and there was a wildness in her eyes that refused to be tempered.

“Where are we going?” Emily asked Aaron, jogging to keep up with his long-legged stride.

“To find who did this,” he said shortly. There was a storm settling over them both, bringing his brows low over dark eyes and a tight mouth that chilled her. It was the Hotchner glare, and it was fiercely violent.

She didn’t want to find them. Or, she did, but not with Aaron looking like this. Because there was ruining the bastards that had hurt Spencer so bad and left him hanging there — and she shuddered now, thinking once again of how pale and dazed he’d looked as he’d watched them approach, splattered with dried blood and spit and dirt — and then there was what Aaron wanted.

One look at Aaron’s face and his dæmon, and she knew what that was.

“What are you going to do if you find them?” she asked, remembering, suddenly, the cruel familiarity he and his father sometimes shared.

Aaron turned. He smiled. It was cold. And he said, “I’m going to kill them. Don’t think I can?”

She did. It was so easily imaginable, and she stepped back once. Sergio trembled away from the waiting wolf, a fox with his hackles raised and tail tucked low.

“There are better ways to do this,” she tried. Aiming for a cool nonchalance and falling short into fear. “This isn’t going to help Spencer.”

But he was already walking away.

 

185.

She fell. It was nothing she’d regret doing for him. A stumble over the gutter and a practised tumble and she landed awkwardly, wincing as an unexpected rash of loose rocks in the asphalt tore up her bare leg. That was fine. Blood was convincing. The noise she made was loud and sharp and Sergio shrilled along.

Aaron whirled, darting back to her with his eyes on the blood and expression gaunt.

“I tripped,” she said woefully, trying to stand and expertly faking a tragic limp. Insincerity for a cause. Behind Aaron, she saw Hal’s hackles settle as their attention was diverted.

“Can you walk?”

She thought about that for a moment, picking a piece of gravel from her shin and watching the red trickle down and pool around the strap of her shoe. The moment lingered, a car backfiring nearby and Aaron’s breath still coming fast. The anger wasn’t fading. Tonight would end with more blood than the cut on her leg if she didn’t do something — and friends were supposed to protect each other, even from themselves.

They’d failed Spencer. She couldn’t fail Aaron too.

“No,” she lied, catching his arm and hanging on. “Fuck.”

His chest heaved twice as he struggled to maintain calm, before settling. “Alright,” he said, and looked at her like Aaron. The soft gaze that lingered behind the hardass glare, the same hidden kindness that Spencer had seen immediately and she’d taken longer to understand. Still angry, still dangerous, but focused now. “Your place?”

“Please,” she asked him, muted at this moment when she needed him to be more than what his brain was telling him to be. No more blood tonight.

It was surreal, in the end, to find herself piggybacked home, carried by a friend who never faltered once under her weight, just like the memory of her father had years ago. A feeling very much like the world had condensed to the shoulders under her hands and the firm back that held her; the only thing between her and the ground the immeasurable trust between them. She held on tight and watched the world pass by, thinking of being small again and her inevitable uncertain landing.

Right now, he was unpredictable and coiled tight, wound up under her weight like a high-tension wire waiting to spring apart. But he still carried her home, and she still trusted him to.

There was a kind of hope in that.

 

186.

She manipulated him.

In her house, despite the size of it, he was too much. Too much manic, furious energy, too much wolf, too much male. Angry with nowhere for it to go and scared with no surety of salvation. They were haunted, the both of them, by knowing that Spencer was alone in a hospital bed put there by their failure to protect him, and Aaron was haunted by knowing that, he alone, had failed to exact revenge for that.

If he didn’t explode, he was going to ignite, and she didn’t know what would be worse: the tremendous force of a detonation racketing out or the incendiary blaze burning him out with his own searing self-recrimination.

So she took his fuse and she took the match and, with a simple twist of her wrist, brought them together.

A bottle of scotch and two small glasses, small enough that he didn’t question the contents when she poured and served. Didn’t question the second. Or the third.

He’d never known his limits.

She matched him drink for drink until he was shaking and snarling, wild-eyed and red-faced and pin-wheeling wildly from hectic fear to righteous fury. Waiting until Hal was swaying with him, baring her fangs at Sergio and the fact that they were trapped here when they should be hunting, then she put her glass aside and kept pouring his.

Halfway through the bottle, he broke his glass. Glad it wasn’t his life shattered on the ground, she gave him hers.

When that broke in turn, she gave him the bottle.

And when he was buckled and sobbing, bringing up everything she’d fed him and more, she rubbed his back and made sure he didn’t land in the mess when he inevitably fell. Dragged him to her bed and laid him on his side, holding Sergio close as they waited for the morning.

She kept him home because he was dangerous tonight, and Spencer needed something steady to come back to.

 

187.

In-school suspension meant she was being closely monitored but that didn’t stop her from blowing off the first chunk of the school-day and dragging Aaron’s hungover ass to Spencer’s as soon as William answered the phone and confirmed that they were home.

Spencer was on the couch, Aureilo curled up on his legs still as the wolf that had fought and bled for him. Emily couldn’t help but stare at the bizarre sight of Spencer’s tiny dæmon so different, nothing of the mouse remaining in the lanky, lithe shape. Oddly, despite the predatory form, seeing this wolfy Aureilo next to Hal only emphasised all the places Aureilo was different: slim where Hal was rugged, long where she was stocky, narrow where she was broad. He was a wolf, but not any kind of wolf either of them had ever seen; if Emily had desired to draw him, she would have started with the bones of a hare before shaping the wolf around them.

It was a clumsy shape formed by an inexperienced hand, a dæmon needing to be the strongest form it knew having never tried it on for size before.

“Hi,” said Spencer sleepily, opening his eyes and looking at them. By her side, Emily felt Aaron make a slow, pained noise and knew he wasn’t seeing the smile Spencer was wearing or the healthy flush to his skin where yesterday he’d been off-blue and rigid. He was seeing the bruises that were misshaping that narrow face, the lip that was split in two places and the bulky shape of the bandaging around his right hand. He was seeing the mess instead of the strength, and Emily ached for them both.

“We fucked up,” she said, striding forward. “You got hurt because we fucked up, Spencer, we’re sorry.”

“S’not your fault,” he slurred, eyes flickering closed and open and closed again. Aureilo twitched, paws curling in his semi-awake state and Spencer’s good hand flick flick flicking at the stumpy tail of the ill-formed wolf. Even as they watched, Aureilo lost shape, lost focus, shifting in his sleep and drifting off again. “Did you see what we did?”

“Yeah,” Aaron said, walking forward and reaching for that unbroken hand and visibly sad when Spencer flinched and pulled away from the touch, panic tracing his features. “You got hurt.”

“Doesn’t matter. What’s it matter …” Spencer mumbled, illegible. Sergio bounced up as a hare with sharply perked ears and leaned in dangerously close, listening to that soft whisper. But Aaron wasn’t listening to the barely legible words slipping from that swollen, bruising mouth. Emily didn’t know if it was anger still or his clear discomfort at seeing Spencer so out of it, but he was watching Hal trying to touch Aureilo’s nose with her own and failing to get close.

“He’s on heavy painkillers,” said William from behind, startling all except Spencer and Aureilo, who were asleep. “They had to operate on his hand. Do you know why this happened?”

 “No,” Aaron said in a low voice. “No, sir, but I’m going to find out who it was. I can promise you that.”

Emily shuddered at the expression on Aaron’s face, the emptiness. Sergio flew up to her shoulder as a beetle, wings tucked and silent for now, vibrating with tension.

“Emily,” whispered Sergio, “do you know what he said? What Spencer was saying? He says they’re not trapped anymore — that they’re not stuck. He says that they’re free.”

 

188.

She got revenge so Aaron didn’t have to. It was simple. In-school suspension put her in the office, right by the room where she usually worked. It was nothing to wait until school had ended and the faculty had gathered in the staff room with two police cruisers out front. All day they’d been talking to students, to staff, and she knew that there were going to be repercussions for what had happened to Spencer. William was ensuring it. No one had spoken to her yet, but she knew it was coming.

It wasn’t enough for her.

No, it was nothing to wait until that room was unguarded, with a list in her pocket and the sun slipping down overhead. It was a lie to say that no one had spoken to her yet today, because there had been one person. One very, very important person.

“You’re going to tell me who touched him, who organised it, who so much as breathed near it,” Emily had said coldly to Claire, cornering the cowardly bitch in the bathroom.

“I didn’t know,” Claire had responded.

Emily hadn’t cared for that.

“Tell me,” she’d said simply, “or you’ll look just like he does.”

Armed with the list Claire had given her and a set of lock-picks she’d taught herself to use years ago to mess with her mom, Emily enacted revenge for her friend.

She started with their grades. An A so easily became an F when there were no safeguards on the ancient system beyond the wiggly lock on the door she’d already bypassed. Then moved on to their permanent records. Jason Richards sold coke in the dorm and now there was a memo for the staff the following morning stating this. Emily Adams was the one who set the fire in the gym last summer. If they checked Kyle Gallico’s bags, they’d find weed and a fake ID. And she kept going, everything she knew labelled out neatly and set right there as an anonymous message: these are the sins these assholes had committed that would bring them down if, somehow, they escaped punishment for their attack on her friend.

There was a note on the attack in the emergency records for the school, a police report printed and copied. She took her own copy of that and she kept digging through until she found the seniors who’d been involved, taking note of which colleges their files listed them as indicating interest in. Time to see if Yale would take the boy who Claire had said had held him down while they’d hit him. Or if MIT was interested in a girl who’d stood back and laughed when Spencer had cried.

The fax machine was loud but oh so satisfying as Emily quietly burned each and every one of them.

Here were home addresses. She found stamps and envelopes and made sure to print each letter on the school’s letterhead: Dear Parents of Psychopaths, here’s what your kid has done. Two broken fingers, a fractured knuckle, a concussion, and enough scars to last a lifetime. They held him down and they strung him up and they laughed as he bled and screamed and cried.

Are you still proud of them now?

When she was done, she put everything back as it was, wiping down the surfaces she’d touched and waiting for the administration computer to power down. But, before it did, she saw something else in the emergency memos to the staff, a printout that had gone out to them all regarding the meetings of faculty with the parents of those students known as being involved with ‘the incident’. She read it, bored already, until she saw the names of those students CC’d in:

Spencer Reid, and Aaron Hotchner.

The meetings had taken place two hours ago while she’d been picking locks and feeling smug. It took a moment to realise what that meant.

Sergio spoke for the first time in hours: “They told his dad,” he said redundantly, and Emily said nothing. “Emily, they called Aaron’s dad. What did they tell him? What do they know?”

Emily said nothing, her heart beating fast and her brain working slow.

The final nail.

“Why would they call his dad,” whispered Sergio, turning small and turning scared and leaping up to her shoulder as he realised what she’d just realised, “unless they knew it happened because they’re together?”

Emily didn’t answer, because her dæmon was her and he knew what she did: if Gary Hotchner knew, Aaron was dead.

 

189.

She failed her friend.

They climbed the fire escape, her and her dæmon, up and up and up until they found the part that latched on neatly to his bedroom window. Shakily knocking at that curtained window and gasping with relief when the curtain twitched back and Aaron appeared, looking confused and annoyed before letting her in.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked as she slipped in and thumped to the ground, Sergio racing straight to Hal and flitting around her frantically. “What’s going on?”

“Your dad went to the school,” she burst out with, panting hard with her vision spotting from the speed she’d raced here with: “They told him. Did he call you home? Is he here? We need to go—”

The front door banged shut, the sound echoing. They were frozen. Aaron hadn’t clicked yet, not yet, his brain just as slow as hers. Footsteps in the hall. She stepped back towards the window.

Aaron went white.

The footsteps stopped. Slowed. Faded, came back, and Emily could picture the man pacing, maybe drunk, definitely angry, and right out there. He’d had two hours to consider what the school had told him and react accordingly.

“Come on,” she mouthed, grasping at Aaron’s sleeve and tugging ineffectually against his weight. On the floor, their dæmons were motionless and staring. “Come on!”

But Aaron didn’t follow her. Instead, like a man to his execution, he turned and walked towards the bedroom door. Arms at his side and legs stiff; there was nothing human in the way he held himself except raw, all-consuming fear.

“Aaron,” she begged, not sure what she was scared of, only sure that it would be catastrophic. Gut pinching and blood rushing, she swayed and thought she might fall.

“Leave,” he replied blankly. “Get out or he’ll hurt you. I’ll distract him.”

“Aaron—” she breathed again, but he was gone with Hal behind him. The door clicked shut softly, and she didn’t move. She didn’t go. She listened.

She listened and hoped as Aaron was strong and stood his ground, and she listened and hoped that he’d deny it when his father said, “Those lying assholes tell me you’ve been messing around with who you shouldn’t be.”

And she hoped and she hoped that Aaron would deny it, even as she knew he wouldn’t.

“I’m not messing around, sir,” Aaron responded. Braver than her. She couldn’t move. “I love him.”

Stupid. Naïve.

Stupid stupid stupid.

She stayed and she listened and she learned something that day: she wasn’t the person she’d thought she was. There was nothing in her that was strong. Nothing that was brave. Nothing that helped her stand from where she’d sunk to the ground, to walk to the door that she was staring at, to open it and stop what she could hear on the other side. Just like the people who’d stood and watched Spencer be hurt, who’d been too afraid of the crowd to say stop, she sat there trembling and small and rooted by fear and did nothing but listen. She did nothing.

Not when the shouting became screaming. Not as she learned what a belt sounded like on flesh.

Not when he cried.

Not when he begged.

Not when he went quiet and there was nothing but her breathing.

“Get out,” someone said, and she listened, standing and tripping twice on her way to the window. “Get out, get out, get out or I’ll kill you!” but she was already out and tumbling, falling down one ladder and crying out with pain. She landed on the ground and ran, pausing only to slam into the front gate and hammer every buzzer until the gate clicked and she could wrench it open, stumbling into the foyer where, above, a monster raged.

Sergio was a sparrow around her head, his voice a scream in her frozen brain which had stopped functioning as soon as the first blow had fallen and was barely functioning now. As she ran for the stairs, she almost slammed into him running down. People were watching but she didn’t care, grabbing Aaron’s hand and hauling him towards the exit, maybe screaming, maybe crying, maybe noticing the glazed expression on his face or the way he could barely walk, but mostly just doing nothing but running.

She failed her friend.

She did nothing.

 

190.

She barely got him back to Spencer’s. Had to climb the fire escape again so she didn’t wake William, tapping on the window until Spencer heard and made his groggy way to let her in. Together, they got Aaron to his room and closed the door behind them, and Emily collapsed. The panic she’d fought back crashed in on her, and she was barely aware of anything but being on the floor and dying. She had to be dying. This was dying.

There was no air to breathe and no way she could breathe it even if there was. Choking and gasping with her body going numb and closing around her, hands limp and tingling on her lap and Sergio perched on one as a jackdaw with his beak gaping and chest heaving. They were dying and no one was noticing, Spencer crouched by Aaron trying to get him to let him look at what Emily had let be done.

emily emily emily emily emily emily emily she heard distantly for the longest time until something clicked back into place and she felt a hand on her shoulder, helping her up, holding her up, tipping her down. Arms around her, whispering breathe breathe, just breathe, you’re having a panic attack, Emily. It’s okay.”

“I’m dying,” she rasped, closing her eyes and sucking in a breath that went huh huh huh in her chest and rattled her right to her core. Sergio was wet. She was wet. There were tears on her cheeks and snot on her lip and she still couldn’t breathe and Spencer was there.

“What happened?” he asked, eyes huge in his bruised face and looking from Emily to—

Aaron. She steeled herself and turned, meeting Aaron’s gaze and crumpling instantly. He was blank-eyed and staring, no colour in his skin and his expression still glassy. Sitting on the floor with his arms on his knees and his hands loose in his lap, shirt half-undone and stuck to his body with a combination of sweat and blood. He was bleeding. There was blood on the carpet under him, a bruise on his cheek. She looked away. Looked back.

Couldn’t look more.

Spencer left. Returned. Left again. Came back with a bowl of water and a dish towel, finally coaxing Aaron’s shirt from him. Aaron didn’t speak, just let him do it, head tipping forward like his neck had forgotten how to support him. Shock, something in Emily registered, her brain finally coming back online.

“He’s in shock,” she whispered, crawling on her hands and knees over to him and stopping him from falling forward.

Then they were silent, because Spencer had peeled the shirt from his back and seen what had been left there.

By the time she registered the world again, she was in the bathroom and there was vomit on her shoes. She sat on the rim of the bathtub, staring at her reflection in the mirror — staring dead in the eyes of the girl who’d stood by and let that happen — and let time pass by.

When she found her courage and her legs and walked back to them, she knew what had to happen next. Spencer had been wrong: they weren’t free. There was nothing free about those bloody stripes on Aaron’s back. There was nothing free about the bedroom that stunk of sweat and pain as she closed the door and stared at what was within. Spencer sitting by Aaron, still trying to clean those wounds with his off-hand, the other one bandaged tight. Hal, unmoving on her side and Aureilo hovering protectively overhead. Sergio still a bird, between Aureilo’s small paws. Such delicate paws. She gazed at them, and then looked at her painting on the wall beside his bed.

Three birds flying free, onto an uncertain sunrise. Uncertain, maybe, but better than what they were fleeing from.

No, they weren’t free, not in the way that those birds were.

But they could be.

“We can’t go back to school,” she said blankly.

Spencer said, “I’m not going back anyway. Dad got called in today … he’s pulled me out. Says he won’t send me back. I’m … leaving.”

There was a soft gasp from Aaron, his shoulders curving inwards. Spencer just looked defeated, his hand finding Aaron’s and clinging tight.

“He can’t go home,” she said next. “His dad threw him out. He hasn’t got anywhere to go.”

Spencer managed, “They’ll make him.” Stopped, shoulders shaking once, before adding, “He’ll kill him next time. They’ll make him go home and he’ll kill him, and I’ll be gone.”

Aaron’s head lifted and he looked at her. Said nothing.

On the wall, the birds flew on.

She looked directly at Aaron as she said, “What do we have to stay for?”

Nothing, it was decided, life stealing back into that broken little room. Nothing at all.

 

 

 

They left that place with nothing more than what they could carry, stopping only three times before taking flight. The last time they were seen by the police who investigated their disappearance was on the grainy security footage of Ian Vance’s garage, as Emily picked the lock and led the way to the van Aaron had earned through two years of sweat and labour. The time on the screen as they vanished from sight was 12:07.

Midnight.

Chapter Text

1.

William Reid woke and found his son was gone.

It was alarming, but not without precedent. Spencer often kept his own hours and schedule, and they’d long ago forgone the need for them to share their activities with each other. William simply ensured that there was money in Spencer’s account for him to sustain himself with, that the bills were always paid, and that his son was comfortable in the life William himself worked such exhausting hours to create. After all, he figured since he’d failed his son so completely before, there was very little that Spencer needed from him now aside from those things a father must give his child and, atop of that, room to grow.

While staring down at the dried streaks of blood splattering the patterned carpet of Spencer’s room, he considered that he’d maybe given his son a little too much room.

“That’s not Spencer’s,” Harback announced, sniffing with her ears slunk back and her tail bristling. Fear bit into the air around them. “His friends were here. When were they here? Did we hear them?”

William didn’t answer her; he was already heading for the phone.

Five phone calls later, he resigned himself to there being no answers to be found at the homes of his son’s friends. He was, he’d remember later, quite calm as he called the police and reported his son missing. He remained calm, mostly because his son being missing meant that his son was currently alive, just elsewhere and out of sight, much like him not being missing usually consisted of.

If William had known how long it would be before he saw Spencer again, perhaps he wouldn’t have been so composed.

 

2.

The police cruiser arrived in the afternoon at a sedate pace, with the two officers knocking politely at her neighbour’s door and taking their hats off before stepping inside. Martha James, who’d lived next door to the Hotchners for longer than she cared to — although, since Gary Hotchner had moved away it had been far more enjoyable, if a bit quiet without Aaron borrowing her pool — worried about the boy who’d disappeared with his vicious father all those years ago after a series of events entirely out of his control. She hoped that the officers weren’t visiting with the same kind of bad news that she’d received all those years ago and considered that she should have done what they’d feared she’d do, back when Aaron was in reach, and ‘meddled’ more. On her shoulder, her goldfinch-dæmon whistled worriedly. Regrets held with the clarity of hindsight were always harsher.

When she peeked outside and found the cruiser gone, she gathered her courage and a freshly baked pie and toddled on over, cursing her body which lately was creakier than it was hale. Heart in her throat and hands tight around the warm pan holding the pie, the door was already open when she arrived. There was a boy hanging from it: Sean. He smiled at her with his toothy grin, his charming dæmon a squirrel that danced about with the reckless abandon of children who’d forgotten their father’s hand.

“Aaron’s gone,” Sean announced. Martha thought she might drop the pie. In her chest, her heart did a strange little flutter that was mimicked by her dæmon, the goldfinch gasping and swaying in place as they both felt a dizzy wave flush through them. “He’s run off.”

Martha composed herself. Now that, she thought, was far more understandable.

“That’s remarkably naughty of him,” she said instead, a little surprised and very proud that the boy had turned out so bold. “Does anyone know where he’s gone?”

“Nope,” said Sean, and grinned some more. “Isn’t it awesome? He’s gonna be on milk cartons!”

Awesome, probably not, but Martha decided as she stepped into the hall and eyed a grainy photo of the entire family with Gary’s grip biting into the pale Aaron’s shoulder that it was definitely understandable.

She rather thought that, had she been wearing Aaron’s shoes, she might have run too.

 

3.

It was fortunate that Aaron had left him a note as, once the police officers who’d questioned him about the children’s midnight flight had left, Ian Vance realised that having reported the van as stolen would have made things far harder for the runaways and was glad his hand had been stayed. He’d told the officers that Aaron was a sensible, steady kid and that, if he’d run away, then maybe they should be paying more attention to the person who’d forced him out the door — all the time steadfast in stating that the van wasn’t stolen and therefore Aaron had done nothing wrong. In fact, they’d registered it under Aaron’s name months before. No laws had been broken, as far as Vance was concerned, and if Aaron had decided that he needed to be gone from here, then he’d be damned if he helped drag him back.

“His father is rough with him?” one of the officers had asked, making a note on his pad with his gaze level. “We’re concerned about the safety of the other children with him. One or more of them may be injured.”

“I don’t know about those other kids with him but Aaron wouldn’t have run without reason,” Vance repeated again, firmer this time. “I say let him run.”

After all, the streets only seemed dangerous when home was a source of safety.

 

4.

“I bet his father killed them,” someone was whispering loud enough that everyone could hear. “I bet he chopped them up and shoved them into a sewer once he found out that—”

“That’s enough,” the teacher snapped. Claire kept her head down, her grip tight on her pen. She was glad for the silence; every muttered word in this torturous classroom was damning. Every one of them dripped with culpability.

The whispers returned.

“Maybe they killed each other.”

“Suicide pact?”

“Well, yeah, after what happened to them … I’d want to die. Maybe the weird, smart one snapped — they’re not like us.”

“They’re weird.”

“Maybe they got what they deserved.”

What Claire heard increasing behind every spiteful, hateful line of bullshit was an echo that chanted: your fault, your fault, your fault, your fault. You did this. Maybe the smart one snapped because you walked him right into a trap; maybe they’re weird because no one bothered to be kind to them; maybe you should get what you deserve for not helping them before the worst happened.

And she snapped.

“Shut up!” she yelled. “God, shut up, shut up! They’re missing, you fuckwits! Isn’t it enough that you did what you did to Spencer, now you have to spread shit rumours about him?”

The student who talked about Spencer snapping stared back, eyes cold. “I didn’t do anything,” she said snidely. People were staring, the teacher saying something that Claire couldn’t hear through the furious buzzing in her head that screeched the truth at her and had been since she’d gotten the news: Aaron and Spencer were gone, Emily too, all because of something that Claire had let happen — and anything could happen to them out there.

Anything could have already happened to them.

“Yes, you did,” she said, the silence settling strangely around her. “You did. And I’m going to tell everyone, beginning with this class.”

She was in a pool of quiet calm despite the chaos outside. Even the teacher was quiet. This felt like a mistake: no one had snitched yet. Not really — not except Emily, who’d done something that had had half the school in and out of the principal’s office before the news of the three students’ disappearance had filtered through and distracted them all.

But it was a mistake she had to make; she owed it to Aaron and his friend to fix what she’d broken. So she took a breath, ignored the teacher asking her to speak in private, and told everyone what had happened the night Spencer had been hurt. She didn’t stop, no matter what people tried to shout over her — and she wouldn’t stop. She’d tell anyone who listened, everyone who asked.

No one could deny it now.

 

5.

Despite Harper Ness’s familiarity with the layout of the Prentiss home — Emily had enjoyed hiding from him when a difficult task had been set and feigning ignorance when he’d asked if she’d heard him calling — it still took almost an hour to track down Elizabeth. She had, for the first time ever, refused all his calls. He was told that she’d sent all the help home days ago, speaking to no one but the police responsible for investigating the disappearance of her only child.

He found her in a clearly disused office, having passed an oiled portrait of the family on the way up the dusty hall. The younger Emily’s painted gaze prickled at the back of Ness’s neck, as though he was being blamed for not stepping in earlier. After all, hadn’t he known something was wrong? Never sure enough to say anything, but there had definitely been something not right simmering between those three children who didn’t trust as much as they should and often flinched when they shouldn’t.

Ness paused now, studying Elizabeth with care. Hair not unbrushed but bordering untidy, skin pallid from a combination of no makeup and the redness of her eyes. She’d been crying. “Emily is the toughest, most pig-headed child I’ve ever had the fortune of teaching,” he said quietly. “Wherever she is, she’s very likely making it work for her, I can promise you that. She’ll pop up when she’s hungry and cold and realises the streets are harsher than following rules.”

“She never knows when to quit,” Elizabeth murmured, staring at a point off to the right of the office with her expression distant and hands folded neatly into her lap. “Never knows when to ask for help.”

“That’s not entirely true,” said Ness after a moment of thought. “She asked me for help, with her friend — the clever one.”

“Spencer Reid,” Elizabeth confirmed. She was a lot more involved in her daughter’s life than her daughter would have ever believed, although not involved enough to head this off before it had happened. “Yes, well, she asks for help for others, except … did she say anything? To you?”

“About running away?”

Elizabeth shook her head, her ocelot-dæmon appearing out from behind the desk to pace. “No,” she said, finally looking to Ness. “About her other friend, Aaron Hotchner. I don’t believe Emily would have run for herself, she’s far too fond of her easy life here despite what she might have us believe. And I’ve spoken to Spencer’s father since their disappearance. He’s an odd, reclusive, but very worried man who cares for his son. I don’t think Spencer was the catalyst.”

“There was an incident at the school,” Ness suggested; the knowledge of that ‘incident’ having filtered out into the wider educational sphere. More of that ‘something is wrong’ feeling built in his gut, his privately held suspicions about the boys’ relationship to each other having been confirmed by the ‘incident’ that everyone was talking about in couched terms as though to avoid the distaste of speaking out. Bigotry, he thought grimly, shined most clearly in what wasn’t said rather than what was.

Elizabeth frowned and said, “Possibly. But when I attempt to speak to Aaron’s father, he is … they’re not looking for Aaron, Harper. They’re looking for Emily and they’re looking for Spencer because we’ve reported them missing and we’re pushing the investigation to continue beyond it being merely a case of teenage runaways — but he didn’t even bother reporting Aaron as gone. What kind of a father doesn’t notice his son is missing?”

Ness didn’t answer; he didn’t need to. They both had their suspicions, and his silence spoke for him — that silence tinged with guilt: why oh why had he not done something sooner?

Elizabeth continued, spurred by Ness’s silence: “Why didn’t Emily tell me if he was being abused by that man? I’d have never stood for it! Does she think I’m powerless?!”

Ness didn’t answer those loaded questions since he saw very little of use in what his answers would be. What he did say was, “I’ll help in any way I can.”

He didn’t realise how necessary his words would become but, even if he had, he wouldn’t have changed them. As far as Ness was concerned, the systematic failure of every adult in Aaron’s life to intervene on his behalf ended today.

Chapter Text

Spencer

 

6.

The midnight dark made way for the faded purple of the oncoming dawn, painting the sky in front of them with every hue of morning. Until now, the drive had been hushed. They stopped and watched the sun rise, Spencer with his chin on his arm leaning partway out of the window into the fresh autumn wind, Emily flopped on the steering wheel chewing on her nails. Sergio sat on her shoulder as a swallow and, for once, she didn’t seem to mind him being winged. Aureilo laid in the back, snuggled tight to the deeply sleeping Hal. Aaron was limp by Hal’s side in the pile of ratty blankets heaped back there on top of a moth-eaten camp-mattress. Aaron slept now. He’d driven for as long as he could stand before the constant bumping and jolting of the van over country backroads had gotten too much for him and he’d reluctantly let Emily take over.

And now, silence.

Spencer broke it, his mind working quickly. Aaron wasn’t going to be of any use today: he was still bleeding, still barely out of shock. He’d likely sleep the panic of the previous day away and wake uneasy with the knowledge of what they’d done. Spencer knew if they were going to make sure that Aaron didn’t panic and try to force them home out of some erroneous sense that they were ruining their lives for him, they had to be ready for when he was cognizant again.

“You’re going to have to teach me to drive stick,” he said to Emily, who nodded. Her eyes were purple-shadowed, her hair ratty and lank over them. He continued: “We need money too.”

“I have some,” she replied, twisting in her seat and nodding to the jumble of belongings they’d taken from his place and hers. Clothes, blankets, supplies. “About a grand in there — don’t ask how I got it.”

Spencer winced. That was something he really didn’t want to know, not yet, especially not since he knew how far Emily would go for them without their lives on the line, let alone now. Touching his sore hand gingerly as he considered this, he thought of something.

“If we can stop at a town with a bank before my dad notices, I have a bank account. It’s not a lot, but it’s something. We can empty it and go. Dad keeps money in there in case there’s an emergency when he’s gone, but it is mine.”

Yet another feeling he had to chase away: the guilt of ‘stealing’ what he hadn’t really earned, not really. It had just been given to him for existing.

“It’s ours,” Aureilo argued as though he sensed his other half’s turmoil. “Who did all the housekeeping? It was us. He’s treated us like adults for so long, it’s time we showed him what that means.”

“What does it mean?” Emily asked Aureilo, eyebrow raised and a tired smile playing at the corner of her mouth.

“It means,” Aureilo said resolutely, “we don’t need to ask permission to live anymore.”

Spencer knew what he meant; they were never going back.

 

7.

It was seven a.m. and Spencer felt sorely out of place under the humming lights of the mega-mart they’d stopped in. Every time the automatic doors whooshed open and let in another early morning shopper, he winced and tucked back closer to the shelf he was studying. Medical Supplies the sign above his head read. He scanned that shelf, ears and the back of his neck burning as people paused to look at him. He knew what they were seeing: a skinny teenage boy with a badly bruised face and bandaged hand, his normally neat clothes dirty from climbing a fence to get to the van. He looked like a hooligan and Aureilo wasn’t helping, lurking behind him as the same scrawny, ragged wolf he’d changed into to protect them.

“Change to something smaller,” he whispered to the wolf, visualising Aaron’s back in his mind before reaching up to knock a row of band-aids into his basket. “People are suspicious of us.”

“I don’t want to be small,” Aureilo replied. He got, if possible, even larger. “We’ve been small for so long.”

Spencer shivered. Sure, they’d been small forever, but small was safe. No one looked at them when they were small, and now they knew what would happen if people paid attention to them. On that thought, he grabbed painkillers. His own stronger ones were being put to use keeping Aaron quiet. Painkillers, band-aids, antiseptic wipes. After a pause, he grabbed various other bits and pieces as well, for cuts and burns and scrapes, anything he could think they might do to themselves. They were adults now, and alone. They had to be self-sufficient.

“Be smaller, then,” he said once he was done. “Not small. Can you change at all?”

Aureilo thought about that, hare-tail going tock tock tock on the floor as he waggled it doggily. Then, with a nod, he shrunk down into a cat. “There,” he said, satisfied. “I still have claws.”

Spencer squinted at him. “Your ears are too long,” he pointed out. “And your tail is weird.”

“I’m out of practice,” Aureilo said, but that didn’t feel right. Spencer had the feeling that Aureilo was fighting very hard to be something he wasn’t right now, and it was fighting him back. “People are still staring.”

Spencer looked up and smiled at an old lady watching him, seeing her frown and look away. Before he could shrink back from that fierce regard, someone grabbed his shoulder, fingers tight on a bruise left by a wayward boot. He jumped and turned, Aureilo puffing up with fright.

“You done?” Emily asked. She had one hand on him and the other holding a shopping cart that rattled with cans and bags. Spencer nodded dolefully, perching his basket atop a pack of budget toilet rolls. “Good. We should probably avoid being seen for a while, so I got us enough to last for ages. Check these tiny corns out.” A can was shoved under his nose, Emily giggling at the miniature produce pictured on the label.

“Cool,” Spencer said quietly, leading the way to the checkout and wilting under the weight of all the eyes on him. He wished dearly that he could be a mouse again.

 

8.

“We’ve run away,” Aaron repeated for the eightieth time, his expression frighteningly blank. Spencer, who had never been good with feeling like he was in trouble, swallowed his terror of this moment down and instead focused hard on what his hands were doing. He was carefully rubbing Aaron’s back with the antiseptic wipes as Emily used band-aids to stick together the thin lines of tearing where the skin had neatly split. It was starting to bruise, Aaron’s breath coming in horrible, shallow rasps at every touch of their hands no matter how gentle they were.

“Yes, Aaron, we’ve run away,” Emily replied with astounding patience. “And, no, we’re not going back, so don’t even ask.”

“But we have to go back,” Aaron gasped. “We can’t, we aren’t … we can’t run!”

“Well, we did.” Spencer’s reply might have been soft, but his mind was made up. The idea of fighting and standing his ground made him feel sick, but he was staring at what a monster had done to the boy he loved and there was no way he was ever allowing it to happen again. He’d carry Aaron to the ends of the earth if that was what it took to stop his father ever finding them again. “It’s done. We’re gone, and we’re not going back.”

“Spencer, seriously?” Aaron turned properly now, waving Emily away as she protested with her hands full of band-aids. They’d already emptied a box and a half. “This isn’t like you — this is cowardly. We’re supposed to stand and face our troubles, not turn tail and run. What about school? What about food, or gas money? And your dad, or your mom, Emily. And it’s going to be winter soon and we can’t sleep in a—”

“We’ll go south,” Spencer blurted out. They stared at him. “For winter, I mean. Like birds, I don’t know…”

“Mexico,” Emily joked, and then stopped and thought about what she’d said. “Wait, could we go to Mexico?”

“Oh, why the fuck not!” Aaron snapped. “We’ll spend summer in Canada, what’s border control! Who needs an education? Let’s live in a van! Hey, how about we learn how to sing and busk for our dinner, huh? That sounds awesome!”

Aaron wasn’t very subtle with his sarcasm when he was upset, it appeared. Spencer scrubbed at a spot on his finger where the antiseptic had dyed the tips orange, feeling his eyes beginning to burn.

“If we go back,” he said finally, “I’ll never see you again.”

Silence.

“That’s not true …” Aaron sounded horrified, his brain ticking that over. “Spence, no. No, no. No one can split us up. No matter where you go, I’ll find you. We’ll find each other.”

“And if your dad doesn’t let you go home?” Spencer asked.

“Fuck that,” was Emily’s retort. “Even if he did, you couldn’t go there. He’ll kill you next time, you know he will. Or, shit, you heard what he was saying about Spencer — he’ll kill Spencer!”

Aaron went, if possible, paler than before.

“You think he won’t? You’re a damn idiot then. If you can find Spencer, he can find Spencer, and you heard what he was screaming, same as I did. He wants to kill you and the …” She paused, swallowed, and then bit out the word faggot like it burned her, despite Spencer not really seeing the cruelty in the word. Not when aimed at him: words didn’t mean anything when actions hurt harder. “… that turned you gay.”

“Hear that, Spence?” Aureilo teased despite his pinpoint pupils denoting fear. “We’re so sexy we turned Aaron gay. How’s that for the ego?”

“Shut up, Aureilo,” Spencer and Sergio said as one.

Aaron was quiet, his dark gaze hovering on Spencer’s face. Taking in nothing but the bruising and the hurt.

Emily hammered it home.

“I stood there and did nothing while he beat you,” she said with such savage self-loathing that Spencer shuddered with it. “I couldn’t move. How are you going to feel when that’s you watching him hurt Spencer?”

“I’d never allow it,” Aaron whispered.

“We’d kill him first,” snarled Hal. She put her leg over Aureilo and hunched above him with fangs bared. Spencer stared. She looked dangerous.

“Really?” asked Emily. “You couldn’t stop him beating you.”

 

9.

It was early evening when they finally settled into a calm sense of ‘this is what we’re doing now’. It took getting through Aaron’s fear and Spencer’s misery and Emily’s guilt to get there but there they were, parked on an overlook with a view of a forest spilling below them and not entirely sure where they were except for ‘Virginia, somewhere’. Aaron had spread one of their blankets on the ground by the van, sitting gingerly upon it with all their belongings piled neatly around him.

“What are you doing?” Emily asked from her perch on top of the van, standing up there and looking out over the view like some kind of goth-flavoured sentry, all dark and spiky against the sky with her studded jacket and teased hair and fishnets.

“Rationing,” Aaron said shortly. “If we’re doing this, we’re doing it right. Why did you buy chicken ravioli?”

“Because it’s pasta,” Emily replied. “Pasta keeps forever.”

“It’s chicken,” Aaron explained patiently. Spencer chewed on a piece of bread, ignoring the pain that the cheap painkillers he’d taken couldn’t push back. “It has to be refrigerated.”

“Oops,” she said, lying on her belly and peering down at their stuff. “Well, I did alright with the rest, didn’t I?”

“Sure,” Hal muttered. “If you like canned asparagus.”

Spencer sensed a disagreement about their ability to care for themselves coming up and tried to head it off. “I like canned asparagus.”

“No, we don’t—” Aureilo started. Spencer kicked him, feeling guilty as he darted up a tree to stare down accusingly.

“You forgot bottled water.” Trying to reach for a notepad and pen was harder than Aaron had evidently anticipated, his breath catching as the movement pulled at his injuries. Spencer walked over there, picking both up and sitting tucked side to side with Aaron as he handed them to him. “We’re going to need that. How much money do we have?”

“Just under a grand from Emily’s, somewhere.” Spencer laid his head on Aaron’s shoulder and watched him write. Aaron scowled but wrote it down. “I withdrew five hundred and twenty from my account.”

“And I have eighty cents,” Aaron finished. “We’ve got enough food for a couple of weeks, maybe, if we’re careful … that should get us far enough away that no cops know our faces. There’s no way your parents won’t report you guys missing.”

“They won’t look for us.” Emily sounded supremely confident. “We’re just runaways, who gives a shit? Anyway, we should get new bedding.”

“What? Why?” Aaron and Spencer looked at the open back of the van, peering in at the blankets piled atop the holey mattress.

“They stink,” Emily announced. “Plus, there’s only four of them and one mattress — I don’t want to cuddle you lot just to keep warm. And that one has really gross stains.”

“They are gross,” Spencer agreed, poking at the itchy orange-patterned one they were sitting on. “And we’re not all going to fit on the mattress.”

“They’ll have to do.” Aaron seemed resolute, even as he poked a stain with his toe. “We don’t have enough money to waste on frivolities.”

“Not getting some horrible blanket disease is a frivolity?” Emily snapped.

“Name one disease you can get from a blanket!”

Spencer opened his mouth, thought better of it, and instead said, “Hey, Em, we do have that empty water bottle there, under the seat. Could you see if the camping area down the hill has a tap to fill it?”

She looked at him, scowling, but he managed to look both woeful and sore enough that she just shrugged and leapt down from the van without complaint, digging the bottle out and wandering off with Sergio bouncing after as a small deer.

“What else do we have?” he asked Aaron once the other two were gone, his own anxiety about their survival spiking.

“Two thick coats between the three of us,” Aaron began to list, “one horrendous orange beanie, a box of Emily’s tapes — glad she prioritised that — whatever she’s got in her bag, three lighters, your bag and that box, some toiletries, a box of cookies, this packet of mints, some clothes for you guys and none for me, no goddamned idea about how to live out here …” He trailed off, shoulders slumping, before looking at Spencer. “Can we do this?”

Spencer did the only thing he could do. He kissed him, hard and fierce, and put every bit of the anger and fear he’d felt since seeing how badly Aaron had been hurt into it, every reason why they had to do this. When he was done, they leaned together, just breathing with the forest alive around them. He opened his eyes once to find Aureilo and Hal pressed close as well, eyes closed and breathing sedate. “Whatever we do, we do together,” Spencer promised. “I love you.”

“Love you more,” Aaron mumbled back.

 

10.

It was Spencer who thought of it, even though Aaron never really talked about his mom and there was no real reason to think he’d want to go there anyway, but he did need clothes and, well, everything, really. Emily had her tapes and Spencer had the box that had been hidden in the bottom of his closet, creature comforts on the road to remind them they were more than just runaways. But Aaron, who’d had no time to grab anything beyond the few things he’d already had at Spencer’s, had nothing.

“Do you want to go see your mom?” Spencer asked, seeing Aaron tense, freeze, before slowly nodding yes. “We’re close enough to Manassas that we could, if you wanted, according to the road sign Emily almost hit.”

“Almost being the prime descriptor there,” Emily added quickly, ignoring Aureilo’s muttered, “Who even gave you your license?”

It was decided: they’d head there when morning broke. For now, they parked back under a bank of trees where they couldn’t be seen from the road, rolled the windows down to let the cool night air in, and spread the blankets out to make a cozy kind of — if they ignored the smell — nest in the back of the van. With Aaron and Spencer curled together and Emily in the front seat with it leaned right back, they spent their first night on the road.

 

11.

Spencer woke first, and he woke with purpose. Needing the others to be asleep, he eased himself carefully over to his stuff, grabbing his box and slipping out the back of the van. If they’d asked, he’d have said he was going to relieve himself, but no one woke. With a flashlight in hand and Aureilo following, he crept far enough away that they wouldn’t see and opened the box.

“Do we have enough?” Aureilo asked, becoming a cat again for the night vision it allowed and looking into the box as Spencer tipped the pill bottles out and counted. “That’s two months, max. What do we do when it runs out? They’ll notice if we get bad again … they’ll find out what we did.”

“We’ll be fine,” Spencer said, already rationing it out in his head. Half-doses of the antidepressants, leaving the lithium until it was needed…

He’d be fine, he was sure of it. They’d run away and maybe that was all his mind needed to be better. Maybe he didn’t need the drugs to stay okay anymore.

Maybe it would be different this time.

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

12.

It was a bizarre call-back to being a kid again, Aaron hunkered down in the woods behind his house. Weirdly reminiscent of all those pay weeks when he and Sean had used to hide back here trying to gauge if their dad had drunk himself into a stupor before going home and risking him still being awake.

Despite the cool air and the damp ground below their bellies, he was warm. They were probably going to be here a while since there was a police cruiser visible outside his mom’s house and they were waiting for it to leave before approaching the building. Spencer was huddled to one side of Aaron, Hal to the other. She was a snow leopard, gloriously soft, and Spencer stroked her carefully while making sure his arm didn’t brush against Aaron’s back. Even if it did, Aaron wasn’t sure he’d be able to feel the pain, not through the strange, melting intimacy of those narrow fingers threading through his dæmon’s fur.

“You’re making me sleepy,” he complained. Spencer’s other hand rested on the ground in front of him, and he focused on that to bring back the fierce alertness he’d been relying on to keep himself on track. He had to do this. The others weren’t going to agree to go back, which meant he had to stick by them, keep them safe, and to do so he needed … well, he was a good kid, he’d always been a good kid. Some part of him was looking for permission. If he didn’t get that permission? He didn’t know. They had to go, permission or not.

Looking at the thick bandage around Spencer’s broken knuckle and fingers reminded him of that.

“Does it help?” Spencer asked. “You said it feels good — does it help with the pain?” His eyes were worried and locked on Aaron’s face even though they were supposed to be watching the house. Above them, Aureilo leapt from branch to branch as he practised changing forms, first a squirrel, then a sugar glider, then a possum. “What does it feel like?”

Aaron wanted to roll to face him, to press close, but he kept his own focus locked on the police cruiser and what they needed to do: get the supplies they needed in order to survive on their own, away from the families that would destroy them if they stayed — and get his needed permission to be bad.

“Like you’re reaching into the deepest parts of me,” he murmured, shifting as Spencer’s fingers pressed tighter and Hal arched into the touch. “Like I can feel you. Exactly what you’re feeling as you touch her.”

“What am I feeling?”

Aaron thought that over; through the gap between his house and the neighbour’s, he could see the police walking to their vehicle. “You’re worried,” he said thoughtfully, focusing on the emotions Hal was feeling that weren’t his or hers. “You’re scared. And you …” He paused, blushing.

“I’m what?”

This time, he had to roll to face him despite the pain and awkwardness, Spencer retracting his arm from Hal and letting it settle on Aaron’s elbow. There was dirt and leaves all over them, a stick in Spencer’s hair, and the bruising was more terrible than ever across his face.

“You’re so in love,” Aaron murmured, gently bringing his nose to tuck against Spencer’s and doing nothing but leaning there, eyes closed and hoping that this would work to press away some of that worry. He knew what Spencer was worried about: he didn’t think Aaron was coming back from his mom’s. Well, he was. There was nothing that would keep him from finding Spencer, nothing at all, and Hal would always find Aureilo.

“I’m so in love,” Spencer agreed. Aaron could feel him smiling tightly, the expression pulling the scab on his bottom lip and whitening the skin around it. “You are coming back, right?”

Aaron nodded, his anger reigniting slowly. It was hazed right now by the pain and the focus on preparing them for what was coming, but he knew it would grow, not lessen, as time went on. If he stayed, he’d see his father again.

If he stayed, he’d kill him.

As though she’d heard that thought, Hal rumbled along with his anger. He felt her wild fury grow. No matter what form she took these days, he knew that she was always the wolf inside: ready to hunt their father down for what he’d done, not only to them but also to Emily. Now that the pain and shock was fading, Aaron could see that Emily had been hurt that night by what she’d seen and heard. He only wished he knew how to reach her to tell her that, to offer his help.

He only wished he didn’t hate her for having been there at all.

“I promise I’ll come back,” he said, standing up and brushing dirt from his clothes before looking down at Spencer and smiling as best he could when their worlds had come apart at the seams. “Wait here for me. I won’t be long.”

With that, he and Hal turned and walked towards the home they’d grown up in, far too big to hide away from what was within anymore.

 

13.

Hal kept changing forms once they were seated at the kitchen table, twitching from a mouse to a wolf to everything in between, even at one point becoming a miniature pony with a mane that hung shaggily over her eyes no matter how much she tried to huff it away. Paarthunax watched her with fascination, trying to mimic her forms as Sean stared at Aaron over the rim of his own mug of hot chocolate.

Aaron swallowed, repeating his request to his silent mom’s back as she stood by the sink looking out the window. “I’m running away and I’m not coming back.”

“What if you …” she began before trailing off.

Aaron knew what she’d been about to say: what if you come home? The answer to that wasn’t kind. If he came home, his father would come with him. His father, his father’s empty dæmon, his father’s cruel hands and angry heart. The brand-new smiles in this home would vanish; Aaron looked at his brother and imagined bruises on that fresh face. Hal turned into a wolf and snarled, back bristling and larger than ever before. Inside Aaron, something new snarled too, something angry and cold. Something that had been growing since his father had whipped him while Emily listened, or maybe before that. Maybe when those fucks at school had tied Spencer to a goalpost, naked and screaming, and beaten him while he was helpless.

The angry thing grew some more. Aaron swallowed it down, tasting bile. Hal shuddered and twisted again, fur darker, eyes colder, nothing kind in her form. Nothing gentle.

Aaron’s mom looked at Hal and she pulled back, her own dæmon huddling close. For a second, just a second, there was fear in both of their eyes as they looked at their son’s dæmon.

She said, “You’ll need money.”

Aaron nodded. He knew what this meant: permission, but it came at a cost. Even if he wanted to come back here, he couldn’t. There was no home for him here: not for him, not for his ferocious dæmon, and not for the cold, angry thing building inside.

 

14.

He took the money she gave him along with as many clothes from his old room that he thought might fit. There wasn’t much else there he was interested in, not anymore. His old books and games all felt like they belonged to a stranger, his toys childish and disinteresting to him now. “You can have whatever you want from here,” he told Sean, who was watching him silently from the door. “I’m too old for it all.”

“Awesome,” Sean whispered. “Like, for keeps? Forever mine?”

“Forever yours,” Aaron agreed, smiling tightly.

He took only two things from that stranger’s room: a blank notebook he thought maybe he could write in and his old Bible. It was the lone thing that caught his eye, some small voice inside him whispering that maybe he could use the lessons within to try and chase away this horrible thing he knew he could become if he let the anger win. If he let the drive he was using to push him forward twist him until he was just like his dad, using hurtful things to get what he wanted because he was too numb and broken to understand other people’s pain.

His mom kissed him goodbye and told him not to come back, for his own safety. He knew that was partially a lie.

She was telling him to stay away for her own safety too.

So, he left that place.

 

15.

He lost the next few days to the angry thing. Hal wouldn’t change from the furious wolf, her hackles permanently raised and her teeth quick to sneer from her curled back lip. The other dæmons kept away and, by extension, Emily and Spencer were wary of him. He didn’t blame them; he was keeping away from Hal too. There was a look in her eyes like she wanted to bite, like she needed to lash out. Sometimes he caught her watching him like she was considering biting him.

“Why isn’t Hal talking to me?” he heard Aureilo asking Spencer. Spencer didn’t reply so Aaron didn’t say anything either, leaving Aureilo to sit woefully in the front seat by himself, watching Hal longingly through the gap between the seats.

Aaron filled the void growing between him and the others with endless scribbled notes in his notebook. Plans for where they could go, because at the moment they were just driving aimlessly, and plans for what they could do when they got there. Lists of food they would need, budgets they should stick to. Things they needed to get before winter. A camp kettle. Toothpaste and brushes, which Emily had neglected to buy. Just an endless list of things and thoughts and worries and, overlaying them all, the burning need to make sure the people around him were safe and in sight at every second of every slowly passing day.

When they stopped to pee, Hal lurked close to whoever was trying to hide behind bushes or reluctantly risking a public bathroom. When they slept, Aaron was awake and watchful. If Emily or Spencer were driving, he was in the passenger seat, keeping track of their reaction times. If there was a crash and he was asleep? It couldn’t happen. He wouldn’t let it. He needed to be there, to react if they needed him. He made sure they were eating, sleeping, recovering, only snatching a few hours rest here and there when he was sure that they weren’t going to try and sneak away somewhere he couldn’t see them.

This all happened in silence. He couldn’t speak because every time he looked at Spencer the angry thing grew angrier. It built and built and built with Hal’s eyes growing wilder with every moment. The bandage on Spencer’s hand and the bruises on his face and that stupid fucking lip that kept splitting back open every time Spencer tried to eat or smile or laughed too hard. It drove Aaron. He almost wanted to suggest that they go back to DC and find the assholes who’d done it. What Emily had done to them wasn’t enough. They were alone now, off on their own … what was stopping them from hurting those who had hurt them? What was stopping them getting revenge?

“Aaron?” Emily asked suddenly, cutting into his brooding. He looked at her. “Got any ideas on where we should go?”

Plenty of them but, looking at them sitting together with him stuck on the outside, he was struck by the sudden notion that they wouldn’t listen to him anyway. He pulled his knees up, shrugging moodily and trying not to snap when Spencer looked away and Emily rolled her eyes at him.

“You ever going to talk to us again?” Emily kept pushing, leaning closer.

Hal growled.

“Leave him alone,” murmured Spencer. Emily, with another roll of her eyes, did.

Aaron swallowed again, feeling the angry thing burn like it was alive and feeding on his continued misery.

 

16.

He woke one morning to an empty van, lurching up as Hal scrambled beside him, her eyes huge.

“Where are they?” she snarled at him, her teeth snapping inches from his face. “Aaron, you idiot, you lost them! You’ve lost them! They’re gone!” She wasn’t calm or gentle, her breath hot and dangerous, her eyes more wild wolf than his dæmon. For a second, he feared her completely because she was absolutely unfamiliar to him.

Then, from outside, they heard a laugh.

Despite the distance between him and her, Hal walked by his side as he opened the back of the van and padded out there, barefoot and still groggy from being woken unexpectedly. Outside, the air was cold with the first snap of the oncoming fall and scented with smoke. He found the others sprawled around a clumsy campfire, Spencer trying to stab marshmallows on a twig while Aureilo stole them away from him just as swiftly, getting sticky marshmallow in his fur. Emily had her own branch, leaning in far too close to the fire as she played with a red-hot log, Sergio on her shoulder as a small kind of primate with the flames reflected in his black eyes.

“Get back,” Aaron snapped, darting forward and knocking her hand away from the flames with his foot. “You’re going to burn yourself.”

“Good morning to you too,” she replied coolly. Her gaze, as it looked him up and down was cutting, and she shuffled around the fire to pick up another branch and continue stabbing. More forcefully this time, like she could see his face in the flames and wanted it to suffer. “What the fuck is up your ass today?”

“Emily,” Spencer said under his breath, but Aaron cracked.

The angry thing revealed itself as a white-hot fury, alive and furious inside him, bunching his hands and twisting his face and sending Hal rocketing forward over the campfire to grab the monkey-shaped Sergio from Emily’s shoulder and shake him ferociously even as Emily screamed.

“Why do you have to be like this?” Aaron screamed at her, stepping forward and seeing the same anger flare in her, responding brilliantly to his rage like a volatile chemical reaction. “You’re so childish! Stop fucking around! We could die out here!”

She was in his face, her own expression wild. “Call your dæmon off! Make her stop, she’s psycho just like you, you freak!”

“I’m the freak?” Aaron couldn’t help it, he laughed. “You didn’t even know that chicken needed to be—”

He stopped with a yell because Sergio had changed: no longer a monkey but a tiger that roared and slammed Hal to the ground, wrestling and rolling dangerously close to the fire. Spencer reacted to that, launching himself towards the dæmons and shoving them away, his own sleeve smoking.

“Spence!” both Emily and Aaron cried together.

Silence fell, the dæmons pulling apart and circling each other cagily as they glanced from Spencer between them to their people behind them. Spencer patted at his arm where a spark had caught the wool, his chest heaving fast.

Aaron walked away with the anger throbbing so hard in his chest and throat that he thought he might throw up, rising and rising and rising until he was out of sight of the camp and could slam his fist into the closest tree without being seen. He savoured the pain because it brought some clarity back to his life, Hal snarling at the blow. He lifted his fist to do it again; someone caught it.

“Don’t,” Spencer begged him, his whole weight on Aaron’s arm and his eyes so wide that the whites showed the entire way around. “Aaron, you’re scaring me. I’m scared, stop it! What is wrong with you!?”

Aaron shook his head helplessly, the anger fading and leaving him shaking. Weak as a kitten and exhausted to boot, he tried to tug his arm out of Spencer’s grip and just ended up stumbling into him. Without a pause, Spencer’s arms came up and wrapped around him, pulling him close and holding him there.

“I’m sorry,” Aaron managed finally, realising the rough wool sweater against his cheek was damp. “I’m so sorry, I’m just, I’m so angry all the time. I don’t know how to control it.”

“S’okay.” Spencer’s good hand was trying to find a part of Aaron that wasn’t bruised to rub. “I’d be angry too. But it’s not … Aaron, it’s not Emily’s fault …”

Aaron pulled away, back in control now. “I know,” he said. He squared his shoulders and turned back before he could change his mind, marching to apologise as Spencer hurried after.

By the fire, Emily was still looking lost and confused and hurt enough that his gut twisted painfully, punishment for what he’d done. As soon as she saw him coming, everything vulnerable vanished from her expression, her arms falling to her side. The cat-Sergio dropped from where she’d been hugging him and turned into a rumbling leopard, head low and tail whisking slowly.

“I’m sorry,” Aaron said again. “It’s not your fault.”

They both knew he wasn’t talking about the fight. In a heartbeat, he saw her eyes flash from furious to heartbroken, knowing he’d struck home when she sneered and turned away.

“You couldn’t have stopped him,” Aaron kept going. Ruthlessly, he knew he needed to say this now or the thing inside him would keep lashing out at everyone around him. “You were smart to stay in my room while it happened.”

Emily was silent.

“I’m not angry at you.”

Sergio made a low, irritated noise that resonated around the clearing, his eyes locked on Hal lurking by the trees.

“I don’t blame you.”

“That’s a lie.” It was the first thing she’d said, and it was true. He did blame her. His brain needed someone close to hate for what had happened. He couldn’t help that, but he could deny it until it wasn’t true anymore, at least until she said what she said next: “You hate me for standing there and doing nothing because you’re mixing up what happened to you and what happened to Spencer in your head. You don’t give a shit that I let it happen to you — you’re furious that your stupid head thinks I’d let it happen to Spencer.”

He was dumbfounded, and confused. “That’s not true at all! I know what happened!”

“Do you?” She shot him a look that was pure, undiluted scorn. “Then why do you keep treating me like shit that you’ve stepped in and can’t quite scrape off?”

“This is the worst apology I’ve ever heard,” Spencer muttered from behind him.

“Absolutely awful,” Aureilo agreed.

Aaron shook his head, giving up. “Fine,” he said, marching towards the van. “I am sorry, for whatever it’s worth.”

“So am I.”

She still didn’t look at him.

He wondered what she was sorry for since he was sure it wasn’t this fight.

 

17.

On Saturday, he broke his self-imposed exile to ask if they could park somewhere where he could go to Sunday services the next day. They both looked at him, Emily’s expression mocking and Spencer’s wary.

“I need … something,” he said. Hating how meek his voice sounded. “I’m lost. I’m lost, guys.”

Hal whined, looking away from them both.

“Well, you’re not going to find what you need in a church,” Emily said. “All you’ll get there is lies and judgement and hypocrisy hidden behind some pretty verses.”

“I guess you’re not looking to tag along then?” Aureilo cheekily asked. He dodged the sock she threw at him and became a secretary bird, his long beak and longer legs cocky as he strutted about on her clothes pile, ignoring her grossed out huff. “I think you’d look cute in a nun’s habit, Em.”

“I’d rather die,” she shot back.

Aaron, wisely, didn’t rise to the bait. Whatever Emily’s views on religion were, they weren’t his, and he needed help before what had happened to him ate him up from the inside-out. He looked to Spencer, the unofficial mediator between them all.

“Want me to come with you?” Spencer asked, his expression soft and voice softer.

“No,” Aaron said after a moment of thought, reaching out to take his boyfriend’s hand despite his words just so he knew he wasn’t rejecting him. “I think I need to do this alone.”

He knew it was the only way he was going to put back together whatever his father had broken inside him before it destroyed their tenuous grip on survival.

Chapter Text

Emily

 

18.

Aaron was doing his best to get onto every shit-list she was keeping, grating on all of her nerves at once. It was such a focused assault on the things she found annoying that she was sure he was doing it just to be a dick to her. Why else would he loom so close when she was desperately trying to have a minute alone? Which was often, because, as she was discovering, there was a downside to living in a space this small with so many bodies. The close confines of the van were fine for the first week but intolerable after that. It smelled like boy and gas, the blankets were still gross, and, no matter where Emily was sitting, Hal’s furious gaze followed her.

“I hate her,” Sergio announced to Emily one day, perched on her head as a rat as they tried to find somewhere to piss where the dæmon wasn’t lingering. “She’s horrid. I wish we’d left her behind.”

“Don’t be awful,” Emily said, wincing because, if Sergio was voicing it, she was thinking it. That wasn’t fair, not really. Aaron had gone through some shit, but hadn’t they all? And Emily was finally living — this was living! Travelling the world, ready to see new things and go new places with no one, not her mom or her teachers or Harper fricken’ Ness, there to hold her back.

She was alive.

It was perfect, except for Aaron and his pigheaded determination to keep both her and Spencer tied to his coat-tails, whining every time they even suggested splitting up to explore the towns and cities they slunk through. Couldn’t he see that he was ruining what should be the best time of their lives?

“He’ll calm down,” Spencer quietly repeated whenever Emily brought it up to him. His expression woeful and his barely-healed mouth set in a firm line. “Just let him settle in. You’ll see — we’ll start having fun soon.”

She hoped he was right, otherwise she was going to throw Hotchner and his annoying dæmon out of the van herself.

 

19.

“You can’t see darkness, it’s just the absence of light,” Spencer argued from the front seat, trying to twist around to stare back at Emily while Aaron ignored them both and focused on the road. “It’s not a valid answer.”

“Fuck off it’s not a valid answer,” Emily retorted. “I can see it, therefore, I can spy it. You’re just sore because we wouldn’t let you use scurry-dee-something.”

“Sciuridae,” Aureilo said, helpfully becoming a squirrel and racing around on the headrest.

“Yeah, that. Bullshit you could see a squirrel! And scientific names don’t count, that’s cheating as fuck.”

“I did see a squirrel! And, besides, even if I didn’t — which I did — Aureilo is a squirrel right now. I can see him!”

Aaron cut in dryly: “Are you guys going to bicker this entire time? I can’t hear myself think.”

“Doubt you could hear that even if there was silence,” Sergio stage-whispered from where he was crouched as an orangutan in front of Emily, trying to hold her sketchbook steady while she painted despite the rough road they were travelling on.

Spencer snorted, earning a dark glare from Aaron.

“Fine,” Emily conceded. “Let’s play the roadkill game. And no bonus points for scientific names, genius.”

“It’s pitch-black outside,” Spencer complained. On his shoulder, Aureilo turned into an owl with odd whiskers and a fringe of fur around his beak, nudging Spencer with his wing. “Oh, yeah, okay. Winner picks what we have for dinner.”

Emily peered out the window, scanning what she could see of the road coming up in the weak light from the headlights. “Truck tire,” she announced. “One point.”

“What, no, you—”

Spencer’s spluttering was cut off by Aaron reaching over and shoving a tape into the player.

“I’m going to turn you both into roadkill in a minute,” he snapped, turning the music up to drown them out. Spencer, with a shake of his head, undid his seatbelt and slid on his belly into the back, sprawling next to Emily and studying her sketchbook as the van bumped along to no destination in particular.

“Can’t see the roadkill from back here,” she told him. As he watched her paint, she brought her paintbrush to his nose and daubed it with ocean blue. It looked good on him. She considered that maybe he should give up being a brainiac and become an artist instead, all thoughtful and suave and splattered in paint.

“The lack of seatbelts in this van means we’ll likely fulfil Aaron’s threat,” Spencer said gloomily, stopping when she raised an eyebrow at him. The last thing they needed was a reiteration of his ‘seatbelts and why you should wear them’ lecture, set to Bowie. “Are you painting? Can I watch?”

“Sure.” She wasn’t sure what she was working on, really, just killing time. But, even when she was just messing around with the watercolours on the paper, he still watched with avid fascination, the clearest smile she’d seen on him in weeks appearing when the blotchy shapes suddenly morphed into a flock of blue-winged birds under her pen.

“I love your birds,” he said dreamily when she passed him the book to flick through, fingers pausing on each page as he dedicated a part of his expansive memory to every detail she’d added. “I wish you’d paint more. They make me feel …”

“What?” she asked. It was annoying that he’d trailed off, seeing his eyes flicker to Aaron and his expression turn even more vapid. A dreamer, always, but more so when he was feeling sappy.

“Free,” he replied, touching the paint on his nose and smiling.

She rather thought that, at that moment, she’d have painted anything he asked of her just to see that smile continue.

 

20.

As great as cold canned food was proving to be, after three weeks of this it wasn’t hard to talk Aaron and Spencer into splurging on a pizza. While the boys went to pick them up, Emily went on her own mission, scoping out the near-by McDonalds until she found a likely looking candidate.

She returned to the van to find Spencer gnawing on his pizza while reading a book for the fortieth time. “Where’s Aaron?”

“Gone to find a drink,” Spencer explained around a mouthful of cheese, holding the crust out for Aureilo to nibble on. “Pizza place’s fridge was broken. Where were you?”

Emily grinned. Innocently, she held up the baggie she’d scored from some guy who’d liked her smile and her legs just as much as he’d liked her cash. She was certain Spencer wouldn’t complain.

He was always so much easier to talk into having fun when Aaron was AWOL.

“Oh no,” said Spencer as she pulled the van door shut and plonked herself down beside him, Sergio sidling up to Aureilo.

 

21.

“Oh no,” said Aaron, staring at them through the back of the van. Smoke eddied around him. Hal coughed, a waft gusting from her mouth of what she’d inhaled when they’d opened the door. Emily cackled helplessly at the wolf standing there puffing smoke. “Emily, why.”

“Aaron, Aaron,” Spencer managed between sniggers, crawling over and pointing to their idiot dæmons. “Look at them!” With that managed, he burst into laughter, knees to his chest and giggling helplessly along. Aureilo wasn’t any better, both he and Sergio stuck as fat, rolly seals with their blubbery bits wobbling every time they tried to reel back onto their bellies. “They’re stuck!”

“Look, look,” Sergio managed. “Look at my legs.” With that said, he flopped his tail upwards, smacking Aureilo’s whiskery nose as it dropped back down and set them both to bobbing. “I’m so pointy!”

“Christ,” Aaron muttered. He shut the door and left them to their fun.

“Oh no, oh no,” Spencer was murmuring. Aureilo was trying not to be a seal anymore. “We’re all wobbly, Aur, you’ve made us wobbly.”

“Well, you’ve made us hungry,” Aureilo retorted, managing to scamper up and shift into a blobby looking rabbit with one leg longer than the others. “Ahhh, I’m long! Help!”

Sergio, without saying a word, began working on what was left of a box of cookies Emily had been saving, holding one out to share with Aur while Emily watched.

“Do you think Aaron is mad?” Spencer asked, rolling to his back and peering at Emily upside-down with his eyes red and expression glassy.

“Nah,” she told him, patting his head and setting him to giggling again. “I’ll go get him.”

Leaving her cookie-crumbly dæmon and her best friend to begin work on another box of crackers, she slid out the back of the van and bounced merrily over to where Aaron was skulking, drinking from a bottle of Dr Pepper and looking cranky. “It was an accident,” she told him. “We tripped and fell into a bowl. While unintentionally smoking it.”

Aaron stared at her.

She grinned, lurching forward and wrapping her arms around him to bury her face into his chest. “Smile now,” she demanded, hugging him tight and ignoring how rigid he was against her. “Come on, don’t ruin this buzz we’ve got going, it’s fun. You do remember what fun is right?”

“Not having to air out the stink of weed from the van?”

“It’s this,” she told him firmly, reaching up to try and manually shape his mouth into a smile with her fingers. His expression didn’t change. “Uh oh, I think your smile is broken. Do I need to get Spencer to smooch you? I mean, I could smooch you, but I don’t think that will make smiles. I bite.”

“My god,” said Hal. Aaron’s mouth twitched.

“Who am I smooching?” Spencer asked, popping up next to them with enough smiles to make up for Aaron’s none.

“Make him smile,” Emily demanded, shoving Aaron at Spencer. She cackled as Spencer obliged, kissing him sloppily and getting distracted halfway by Aureilo and Sergio having a competition over who could be the longest dæmon with the most spots.

“Emily,” Aaron warned. She turned her smile back on him, doubling it when he scowled and wiped at his mouth.

“It’s my birthday in two days,” she reminded him, watching him pause, gaze flicking from her to Spencer. “There’s a party in town not far from here that same night. High schoolers, our age. We could have fun there, get out of the van …” Slyly, she glanced at Spencer. “You know … loosen up. Maybe have some time to yourselves, for smoo—”

Maybe it was the weed making her so sure he’d agree but, to her distant surprise, he did.

“Fine,” he said without letting her finish. “But we go sober, and together. And don’t smoke in the van!”

She counted that one as a win.

 

22.

“Is this a good idea?” Spencer asked from where he was standing guard outside the public showers she was using. “I mean, a party? Is Aaron really okay with that? Really, really okay?”

“He’s fine with it,” she said. It wasn’t really a lie she didn’t think, holding her arm over the partition and waving it at him until he passed her the shampoo. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“We get bashed?” was Spencer’s painfully honest response. “It’s just, he’s been weird lately.”

“Weirder than usual,” Aureilo added from somewhere near the bottom of the door.

“Scared, I think,” finished Spencer.

“What does he have to be scared of?” she asked doubtfully. “His dad will never find us all the way out here. I don’t even know where we are.”

“I don’t know,” said Spencer, tapping on the door and holding over the soap for her in return for the shampoo. “Maybe it’s not himself he’s scared for.”

She thought about that for the rest of the night.

 

23.

The party was the type of wild that only bored country kids could pull off. The guy Emily had bought the weed from was delighted to see her there and, if there was one thing she was sure of, it was that she could so easily get laid tonight. After spending the past three weeks stuck with the happy couple — even if they’d barely touched each other with Aaron’s mood so unpredictable and Spencer anxious about being in the firing line of an outburst — she was longing for some evidence that her singleness wasn’t eternal. Also, and she’d never admit this to any of the others, she was missing Harper so much that it hurt. Stuck daydreaming over whether he missed her too, if he thought about her at all, imagining coming home and his glee over finding her, perhaps asking to see her alone…

“Emily?” Sergio asked. “You can’t drink. Aaron said no.”

“Fuck Aaron,” she said savagely, scooping her plastic cup through the punch bowl and slipping to the side to let others past. “He’s not our dad. Sip this.”

“We’re going to get smashed on that,” he warned her.

“Good,” she said, and did.

 

24.

It was some hours later when she realised she hadn’t seen the others for a while, hesitating between working up her boy-for-the-night some more before actually letting him get a hand in her skirt or going to find them. Sergio solved it, drunkenly clinging to her hair as a sugar glider and loudly reminding her what had happened the last time they’d lost their friends at a party.

“I’ll be back,” she told her boy. “Bathroom break.”

He didn’t really seem to care, so she left him there and went looking. She spotted Aaron. He was alone, Hal a wolf pressed to his knees and both of them tucked back against the fence in the front yard. They were almost hidden by a bush and their faces were masked by shadow. Nervously, stepping from the house and down into the fresh air of the outside, she wobbled over to them. Neither looked up at her approach.

“Don’t get mad,” she slurred, playing up her drunkenness just to get a reaction from the unnervingly immobile boy and his dæmon. “I only had one drink, but my cup was leaking. I had to keep filling it, you know how it … Aaron?”

He still hadn’t moved.

“Where’s Spencer?” Sergio asked.

Finally, Aaron’s head twitched jerkily up to nod in the vague direction of the house. “Left him there. Needed air.”

Emily inched closer, bending sideways so she could look into his eyes. Sober instantly, she reached out and touched his arm, finding it clammy. “Sit down,” she said, her own skin crawling as he shuddered at the touch. “Head between your knees. I’ll go get Spencer.”

“No, no, this is fun. We need fun. We need—”

“This place blows,” she corrected him, wondering if she could leave Sergio by his side while she went to get their friend. Aaron seemed to change his mind about sitting, instead trying to stand with his breath whistling. She decided, grabbing his hand and clinging tight, feeling his own grip tighten around hers. He pressed close, sweaty and anxious smelling, and she didn’t let go. “Come on. We’ll get him together, and then we’ll go home.”

She’d rather spend her birthday with them anyway.

 

25.

Midnight ticked over and brought her birthday, but she didn’t welcome it. Even without the day adding another year to her life, she felt older and more tired than she ever had before even as she tidied the back of the van and wondered what was happening outside where Aaron was … well.

“We have to talk to them,” Sergio said. “It’s not going to get better if we don’t face it.”

She gave in, climbing from the back of the van and shutting it quietly as she spotted the shape of the two boys curled together under a tree with one blanket between them. Over there she went, wincing at her bare feet on the loose gravel until she was walking across the soft grass they were lying on. Aaron had a flashlight and a magazine on one knee, Spencer asleep on the other with his arms wrapped around Aureilo and hair a wild tangle around his face. Emily sat beside him, knee against his elbow, and reached her hand out to try and brush a bit of that tangle back into place, just for something to do. A stick cracked and she looked up to find Hal inching closer, her tail low and eyes averted.

Emily said, “We’re doing this for you,” and Aaron stiffened. Hal whined.

“I know,” he said, voice tight, “don’t you think—”

She cut him off, not done yet: “But not just for you.”

He watched her with eyes that were so much older than hers, and that was the problem, wasn’t it? They were young in ways that Aaron wasn’t, and couldn’t be.

“We’re doing it for him as well,” she said, nodding to Spencer. “And for me. And for Aureilo and Sergio and Hal too. This isn’t your burden to bear alone — it’s ours to share. You don’t need to be scared every time you lose sight of us for a minute. We’re going to look out for each other, you’re not the only one looking after us.”

Aaron’s gaze was locked on Spencer with his arm sliding around the smaller boy’s shoulders. “I just get so scared,” he said so quietly she almost couldn’t hear him. “You don’t understand, you’re brave and confident and … and naïve. You don’t think people will hurt us. I know they will. I can’t let that happen, not like I already have.”

She managed: “Do you want to talk?” adding, “About the fact that you were having a panic attack tonight?” when he looked at her quizzically. Behind him, Hal slipped closer, Sergio padding over as a small spaniel to circle them.

“No,” said Aaron.

“Okay.”

 

26.

They sat in silence as the night moved on. Eventually, Aaron reached into his pocket and tugged out a small rectangle wrapped with newspaper and masking tape. He gave it to her, saying, “Happy birthday, Em, we made this before … well. Sorry I ruined it. I’m ruining everything lately.”

Inside the newspaper was a tape, two sets of handwriting detailing the songs they’d put on there for her and adding a HAPPY BIRTHDAY EM AND SERGIO over the top.

“You haven’t ruined anything,” she told him. “Here, help me with him.”

Together, they woke Spencer and dragged him to the van to sleep more comfortably before sitting together in the front seat and listening to the tape until they fell asleep with his head on her shoulder and their problems put aside for that moment. In the back of the van, Hal and Sergio lay side by side with their paws touching.

She knew that they were going to be okay.

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

27.

It was a five store, one bar, one gas station kind of town with a rickety playground sprawled nearby surrounded by horse ranches. Emily was, for some reason, determined to explore it. Alone.

“I’ll be fine,” she said, pulling on one of Spencer’s coats — a flannel-patterned overcoat that was big enough that Aaron suspected it was actually his — and tugging the orange beanie overtop her hair. It was twilight outside, visibility zero, and Sergio became an arctic owl with thick, puffy feathers. “There’s probably twelve people living here, max, and we’ve been driving through bumfuck nowhere for days, stuck in the same van. I need to go somewhere you aren’t. Okay?”

Aaron tensed. Something tight and hot in his chest wanted him to scream no and grab her to stop her leaving. He thought of cars speeding along country roads not seeing her, men thinking she was an easy target, police picking her up, a fall with no one there to help…

A hand slid around his, squeezing tight. Aaron looked at Spencer, who just watched him without saying anything. Not interrupting. Letting him decide because this was his battle he had to fight — not between him and Emily, who wasn’t asking permission to live and shouldn’t have to ask, but between him and himself because he wasn’t her keeper.

He was her friend, and he had to trust her.

“Alright. Not too long? Please.”

It was a concession. Her eyes narrowed, fingers pausing on her coat buttons. But she said, “Sure,” and sauntered away, lifting a hand to wave at them without looking back.

They watched her go until she vanished around a bend, and then Aaron turned to Spencer.

“What now?” he asked, queasy and still picturing broken bones and bruised lips and those goalposts…

“Well, Em’s gone,” Spencer said, his voice strange and mouth set in a cheeky smile. Aaron frowned. “I mean, we’re all alone …” He stepped around and swung his arms around Aaron, mouth finding his and nipping at his lower lip before bouncing back and looking uncertain. Aaron was confused. He looked at the dæmons and found Aureilo as a lemur, rubbing against Hal with a look in his eyes as he paused to pet her in just the kind of way that Hal loved, the way that made her go all melty and silly.

“Oh,” said Aaron, realising. Heartrate picking up, he followed Spencer into the van.

 

28.

Aureilo and Hal were cats on the roof keeping an eye out for anyone approaching, Aaron sprawled on the mattress enjoying the sedate feeling of being alone with the boy he loved, of being so wonderfully in love, of the lingering warmth of their hands and mouths on each other. The only downside was how cold it was without Spencer there with him, having to consider sliding upright and getting dressed even though all he wanted to do was lie here and daydream.

The van door bumped open a tiny sliver, letting in Spencer with his toothbrush still in his mouth and only his pants on, fly hanging open. Aaron eyed that, a new spark of interest lighting up. Maybe they’d have time for another round…

“Come here, you,” he told him, lifting the blanket up and letting Spencer scramble into the bed, shedding pants as he went, before kissing him fiercely.

Spencer broke away, nose scrunching. “You didn’t brush your teeth,” he grumbled, earning a sheepish grin from Aaron. “You taste like me, that’s weird.”

“You’re weird,” Aaron retorted. “It’s not like you didn’t just, you know.”

They both stopped, Spencer turning ridiculously red despite what they’d just been doing. Aaron couldn’t really call him out for it since he was blushing too.

Spencer’s blush wasn’t fading, his throat bobbing as he struggled to swallow around whatever he was evidently trying to say. “Do you ever think about us, um,” he mumbled, ears flaming red, Aaron having no idea what he was trying to say. “Um, I don’t know. Doing more?”

“I guess,” Aaron said uncomfortably. “Why? Do you want to have sex?”

Spencer blinked, tilting his head. “You know that what we were doing is still sex, right?” he pointed out. “It doesn’t need to be penetrative to be sex.”

Aaron winced at that word.

And then winced again when he thought about the mechanics that word suggested.

“I mean,” Spencer was continuing, his gaze now locking on Aaron’s collarbone as his good hand roamed free down Aaron’s chest, “I was thinking, I’d like to … a lot. I want to try, if you’re ready. Em will probably be gone for a while and I bought …” The blush was back, this time spreading down his chest too: “… stuff.”

“No,” Aaron blurted out, heart slamming with nauseating intensity even as his body went yes and betrayed the mechanical interest it felt at the idea. Spencer pulled away, going from red to white as he panicked at the refusal. “I mean, fuck, no. Not … never. Just not tonight, I can’t, I’m not …”

Eyes closed, Aaron pictured both scenarios: in one, he was so painfully vulnerable to being hurt, all his scars and weaknesses on display; in the other, he was the one with the ability to cause pain. Both were reprehensible to him. Plus, they weren’t near showers, it was gross, it was weird, it would hurt, what if there was—

“Oh, no, Aaron, that’s okay,” Spencer stammered, sitting upright and immediately beginning to shiver as the blankets slipped down his back. “I just thought, no pressure, we don’t have to do anything else. Tonight was great, it was so great just as it was. I guess I was still thinking with, how does Em put it?”

“Your dick?” Aaron teased, sitting up too and pulling the blankets up around them both. “No rush, hey? Let’s just enjoy being together again, for tonight.”

Aureilo called out, “Hi-ho, Emily!” and set them both to scrambling for clothes. They managed to dress themselves in a crooked mess approximately half a second before Emily yanked the van door open and went, “You sluts know that I can smell what you’ve been doing in here, right?”

 

29.

Aaron healed as did Spencer beside him. Fall brought with it cold, dry nights and brisk mornings; it brought with it the windshield fogging up with their breathing as Aaron held onto Spencer’s belt loop while he hung out the window and poured water on it so Emily could see. It brought Aaron teaching Spencer how to drive stick without being anxious, bunny-hopping up and down deserted, leaf-strewn roads. They found an apple orchard and raided it in the dead of night, returning home bruised and scratched from falling out of trees with their shirts full of sour, wormy apples that nonetheless tasted like the best fruit they’d ever eaten after weeks of canned food. Rains came that they watched from the safety of the warmth of their van, pulled over and having raindrop races down the windshield that Spencer always won, one of them inevitably breaking first and needing to run out into the downpour to pee — usually through the back door of the van, bringing the rain sweeping in to drench whoever was lying down at the time.

At home, their parents were terrified for them — more frightened than the kids knew at the time or would ever really understand until they were grown themselves — but right here, in the van with only themselves for company, their previous lives felt very far away. Fall had always been their favourite time of year, and none of them really thought about winter approaching.

 

30.

“Oh man, oh man, oh man, oh man,” Aureilo chattered, flittering through a crazy range of animal shapes before settling on a mouse and wailing, “Oh god, oh man, oh god, stop stop stop stop, please stop, stop.”

“Shut up,” Emily told the dæmon. Aaron paused from where he was helping Spencer pick soggy plaster from off his bandaged hand, the bucket between them a soupy mess of plaster cast and powdery water. “You’re freaking Spencer out.”

“I’m fine,” Spencer lied, his voice cracking with fear and turning deep and worried. Aaron winced, his own voice beginning to crack and break and Emily taunting them both mercilessly over it. “I’m not scared. Do I look scared?”

On the ‘scared’, his voice went shrill again.

Aaron patted his wrist sympathetically, looking back at their task. “Is this really a good idea?” he asked. “I mean, casts are only supposed to be on a few weeks and it’s been over a month. What if his skin comes off with it?”

Spencer whimpered.

“It has to come off,” Emily stated, poking the cast with the pliers she was using. “And that doesn’t happen. Does it?”

No one knew the answer to that, not even Spencer.

“Maybe we should go to a doctor?” Hal suggested, just as fretful as Aureilo, but Spencer squeaked, “No!”  

“No doctors,” Emily agreed. “We can do this, it’s easy as … what’s that?”

They all looked at the hand that had been revealed under the plaster, wrinkly from the water they’d soaked it in and weirdly coloured from being covered so long, but neither of those things was as weird as the wire poking out from Spencer’s knuckle.

“Oh,” said Spencer. He looked both fascinated and grossed out all at once. “I guess they put a Kirschner wire in to stabilise the break, how interesting.” In his defence, he did sound genuinely intrigued by the wire, Aaron’s gut lurching as he looked at it. “I was so out of it, I didn’t even remember, how weird. I guess I knew, I just didn’t think.”

“Ah,” said Emily, looking from the wire to the pliers in her hand she’d been using to break the plaster. “Is it supposed to be sticking out like that?”

“Sure,” Spencer replied. “That’s so it’s easy to take — oh no.”

Aaron swallowed. “When does it need to come out?”

Spencer just looked ill. “Now,” he mumbled. “About now. Oh no.”

“Oh no,” repeated Aureilo.

Aaron held his hand out for the pliers.

 

31.

“Are you okay, Aaron?” Emily asked.

“Fucking wonderful,” Aaron replied. Spencer made a miserable kind of noise, ending in a squeak as there was a distinct sound of something slithering.

“Not much longer,” Sergio offered, which was no consolation to any of them. “Look, it’s almost out.”

“Just keep looking at the birds,” Emily was soothing. “Don’t look at your hand, just look at the birds. Holy fuck this is so cool, there’s so much more than I expected!”

Spencer groaned, Aaron groaning with him. He thought he might throw up.

Again.

“Is it done?” Aureilo asked from the front seat, huddled there with his paws over his eyes. “Did you get it out?”

“Are you still looking at the birds?” Sergio added.

“I’m looking at the birds!” Spencer yelped, and then yelped again as Emily made a gleeful sound. “Ow, oh god, ow, that hurts. Oh no, I looked. Is that a hole!?”

“Done!” she exclaimed, ignoring him. “Aaron, it’s done. You can look now.”

“No thanks,” Aaron mumbled into his knees from the corner where he’d slunk after puking at the first feeling of the wire moving through Spencer’s flesh. Emily had taken over, seemingly delighting in the gross task. “I think I’ll just lie here and die, actually.”

Hal patted his side with her paw pacifyingly. “It’s okay, Aaron,” she said, “I couldn’t look either. We both suck.”

Emily asked, with a frightening amount of longing in her voice, “Do you have any more of those I can pull out? That was awesome.”

 

32.

He’d found that taking long walks when they were stopped was helping with his temper and the grating sensation of being trapped with the same people for a long time. On this day, they were far enough away from the town that Emily had aggravated him in by disappearing for eight hours and then turning up with a rattling bag whose contents she wouldn’t share — that she definitely hadn’t paid for — that he was calm, and bored. There was nothing around them but muddy fields filled with muddy sheep that Hal teased as they walked by, dodging piles of sheep shit on the livestock path they were using.

They smelled it before they’d even reached the van. Coming around the bend to the gravel verge where they were parked, he found not just weed on the air. Emily was visible first, spotting him and stopping with her hands behind her back. Like Aaron couldn’t tell what she was holding by the slightly lopsided bird she’d spray-painted on the side of the van in bold, violent blues and reds.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Emily blurted out as he came closer, still stunned by the painting. He’d never seen what caught Spencer so completely about Emily’s artworks. They weren’t good, not really, and some of them didn’t even look like birds. Like this one: it was the shape of a bird over more of an idea of one, and it was … fascinating. Alive.

Real.

“How stoned are you?” Hal asked.

“Not at all,” Emily said. Sergio was rolling in endless delighted circles on the gravel behind her as some kind of purple and green aardvark. “I mean, a little. I mean, sort of? Are you angry?”

Aaron shrugged, unable to find the words to express how he felt except some mix between real and alive. Instead he stepped around the van to find a paint-splattered Spencer very intently sketching math onto what had apparently started out as a very wonky picture of a hare and a wolf. He stopped when he saw Aaron, trying to look contrite even as paint dripped onto his fingers and a smile kept sneaking onto his face.

He said, “I love you,” and pointed to the painted hare. “I figured out what’s inside Aureilo.”

Startled, Aaron looked around for the dæmon — just in case — and found him sedately gazing at a ladybug crawling on his paw.

“What?” Aaron asked curiously, crouching next to his boyfriend and kissing him despite how smoky he smelled and the glassy look to his eyes.

“It’s us,” Spencer said as proud as if he’d solved all the mysteries of the universe, cupping his hand around Aaron’s face and definitely leaving paint all over him. “Can’t you see? It’s you and me, all of us. Atoms and molecules and everything we are expressed in them. It’s why I can feel your heart when I touch her.” He reached for Hal, who pulled away from the painty fingers, but he didn’t seem to mind. “It’s why Aureilo carries my heart too, and everyone’s. Emily’s and Mom’s and …” He trailed off, tracing his fingers on Aaron’s jaw. “You’re all scruffy, feel this, whoa. Am I scruffy? I don’t think I am.”

“You’re off your face,” Aaron told him fondly, kissing his hair and hugging him.

“Are you angry?” came the muffled voice from his chest, Spencer trying to both burrow closer and continue petting at his ‘scruffy’ face.

Aaron looked at the wonky hare and the even wonkier wolf, then he looked at Aureilo: Aureilo who was a hare, perfectly formed and wonderfully content, so focused on his new ladybug friend.

He wondered.

And then he asked.

 

33.

Being stoned wasn’t really like Aaron had expected it would be. It wasn’t automatic, either, both Emily and Spencer trying to fall over themselves explaining the finer details with Spencer continuously going off on long tangents about how it was learned and a social act and a ton of other sociological theories that would have made even sober Aaron’s head ache. It was nothing except coughing and feeling dizzy and sick, with Hal rolling her eyes at him and everything in him rebelling at the assumed loss of control he was opening himself up to, until suddenly it wasn’t many of those things at all.

He wasn’t angry or frightened or too big for kindness at all, realising how wild an idea it would be to show Spencer all the paths him and his dæmon had walked together. They made it maybe a mile before they spotted the sheep and the stars above, climbing the fence and dashing after them with Hal and Aureilo trying to pretend to be sheep to get close to the herd, who weren’t fooled at all. They were small, so small, specks under that wild sky. Aaron turned and turned and turned until he got dizzy and dropped, staring up at the stars and wondering if he’d be a part of that one day, just Dust in the air, just like Ricky Whitechapel and his dead dæmon. The mud sucked and held at his skin. He was distracted by a gnawing hunger. He wondered where Spencer was, right up until Spencer was there on top of him and they were kissing under those stars and finding out that they were exactly the same kind of different under all their clothes and thoughts and muddled, silly brains.

When he thought to think again, they were cold but warm and piled up in a cocoon of every blanket they owned atop the van roof as they tried to explain to Emily just what they’d seen in the stars before they forgot. She seemed amused but disinterested, her head on Aaron’s chest and her legs over Spencer’s. Aaron stroked her hair, feeling the warmth of her and loving her so much he had to tilt his chin down to look at his chest and wonder if his love for these people was visible in the beat of his heart.

He thought maybe it might be and was glad for that.

 

34.

“Was it awful?” Spencer asked him later when they were almost asleep, still on top of the van even though the stars were being covered by clouds and they’d probably be rained on before morning. His fingers were trailing Aaron’s jaw, pausing for a second as he felt the scar Fayth had left that terrible night, but he didn’t ask. Just looked. Aaron looked at him, his mud-splattered, paint-covered, too-skinny, too-wonderful boyfriend, and then he looked at the nothing around them, seeing everything.

“No,” he said honestly. “It was fun. I don’t think I ever want to do it again though. It’s more Emily’s thing than mine.”

Spencer laughed and said, “Okay.”

 

35.

It was a rainy day when he taught them how to change a tire, shoving his worries about where they were going to get a replacement spare to the back of his mind even as he helped show Emily how to use a longer bit of pipe on the tire iron to get the fulcrum she needed to undo the lug nuts. Sergio was being an idiot chasing Aureilo around their legs and underneath the jacked-up van, setting Aaron’s blood-pressure to skyrocketing every, single, fucking time as he imagined the jack slipping and crushing their souls, killing them as quickly as Fayth had killed Ricky.

“Interesting,” Emily said. She sounded anything but interested, leaning against the van with a thump and biting at her nails. Aaron winced, looking away to see Spencer paying attention to none of them.

Anger sparked. Hal rumbled. He took a breath.

Took another one.

He said, “You’ll need to know this if I’m not around to do it for you, Em, unless you want to have to ask a stranger.” Just as he’d thought, Emily immediately rankled at the idea of having to ask for help, suddenly paying intense attention to what he was teaching them. To Spencer, he said innocently, “We can probably pick up a book on it when we reach a town, if you listen now,” seeing him brighten up at the idea of reading. To the idiot dæmons, he sent Hal under to chase them out and lure them away from the danger of the jack failing.

He controlled his anger.

And he smiled, relaxed, and moved forward.

Chapter Text

Spencer

 

36.

Spencer was happily giving a new rendition of the seatbelt lecture. Emily ignored him from the back of the van where she was trying to paint her toenails while lying flat on her back and while Aaron drove them from empty countryside into forested hills.

“No one wears seatbelts, Spencer,” Emily complained. “You’re fighting a losing battle.”

“No, you’ll be the one losing,” Spencer retorted, “when in the event of an accident you’re violently ejected from a moving vehicle.” As he said this, he glanced at Aaron’s seatbelt, wondering if Aaron would notice his arm sneaking across to grab the thing and buckle it in…

“Don’t you dare,” Aaron warned him with a grin. “What’s the point? Hal can’t wear a seatbelt.”

“Does safety need a point beyond being safe?”

Spencer sighed. He was never going to win with these people. Didn’t they realise that anything they could do to reduce their statistical likelihood of dying was integral to his continued happiness?

Turning back to the window and scowling at his reflection before focusing past it, Spencer stared at the woods flashing past as Aureilo hopped up onto his lap to look too. It was hard not to smile at them despite the alarming regularity of his need to remind them that they were mortal. Leaving the farmland behind for the highlands, a whole new place to explore — he was pretty sure that they could do this forever and he’d never really be bored of it. On a whim, he slid his hand onto Aaron’s knee and squeezed.

A sign dashed past, but not so fast that he couldn’t read it. Welcome to Wisconsin.

“Yay, dairy land,” he heard Emily say. “What are we go—”

Aaron slammed the brakes on, Spencer swinging around just in time to see the deer hurtling towards them.

 

37.

Knees cracking as he stood from where he was crouched checking on Emily, who was sprawled on the gravel whimpering, Spencer walked over to where Aaron and the dæmons were inspecting the damage on the van. Their expressions were a mix of grossed out and worried, except Aureilo’s, which was open fascination.

“How is she?” Aaron asked. There was a lump on his forehead from where he’d slammed into the steering wheel, and Spencer wondered if now was the wrong time to recap the seatbelt lecture along with an added ‘I told you so’.

“Sore,” he said instead. “That tends to be what happens when you go from being unsecured in the back of a van to being in the front and at a very sudden stop.”

Aureilo muttered, “We told you so.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Aaron grumbled, “alright, we’ll wear our damn seatbelts. What are we going to do about this?”

‘This’ was the deer still partially splattered across the boxy front of the van, the rest on the road right where someone was probably going to drive into it again.

“Pick it out?” Spencer suggested, feeling queasy. “Did it do any damage?”

Beyond the damage to their heads, anyway. Well, Aaron and Emily’s. Spencer was fine, having even had time to grab Aureilo and hold him tight before it had happened.

Another note for the seatbelt lecture.

“I can’t tell. I have to get under the goop to see. She’s still running, so I guess not too bad?”

“Get a move on then,” Emily said. Spencer turned to watch her approach, scowling as she touched again at her bitten lip. “Me and Serge will get that off the road. Spencer, get a stick and help him.”

Spencer looked at the goop, then looked at Aaron, and then back at the goop again.

“You know, we could probably eat that,” Sergio said as a marmoset. “Yum, yum, venison.”

Spencer made it to the woods before he threw up, but it was a close thing.

 

38.

As it turned out, the deer had its revenge on them for its untimely, but ironic, death. A small part of Spencer wondered if this was the deer’s ghost haunting them. Aureilo picked up on his nervous whimsy and spent the rest of the day as a whitetail deer just to piss the rest of them off, constantly clonking them on the heads with his antlers when he looked around without warning.

There was a gush of steam from under their hood right outside a township. When Aaron pulled to the verge, they all heard the very distinct sound of bubbling water.

“Uh oh,” said Aaron. “That’s not good.”

 

39.

The day ended with the three of them — Hal helping as a bear and Aureilo and Sergio sitting on top and calling down bad advice — pushing the van a good mile to a rest stop.

“Rest in peace, radiator,” Aureilo said when they’d stopped for a while and finally assessed the true damage. “You got us far, you beastly thing, but the buck stops here.”

“Alas, twas Beauty that felled the Beast,” Sergio added, both him and Aureilo cackling at their own jokes. “Oh deer!”

“It’s going to set us back a fair bit,” Aaron said to Emily and Spencer as they sat to the side and shared a can of cold beans between them. They were ignoring their dæmons. He was still half under the hood, his clothes disgusting by this point and his arms black with grease. “We might need to replace the whole thing, plus we’ll need tools … maybe we can stay here a few days, pick up some casual work around town to make up for what we’re spending? We have the money, I’m just reluctant to spend such a chunk without some way of rebuilding it.”

“Yeah, we don’t want to use up all the doe,” Aureilo said, Sergio laughing helplessly. “That wouldn’t be fawny.”

Hal growled and both of them stopped laughing, trying to look contrite and failing completely.

“That sounds great!” Emily chirped, earning suspicious looks from all of them. “You should show us what part you need. That way we can ask around while we work.”

Even as they stared at her, she beamed.

Spencer worried. Maybe she’d really smacked her head when they’d hit the deer. What if this was some kind of terrible brain injury? That came with personality changes, right?

“What’s the square root of two-hundred and twenty-five?” Aureilo asked her.

“Go fuck yourself,” she replied, just as fast.

Spencer relaxed.

She was fine.

“Well, okay,” Aaron said finally, still suspicious. “If there’s a library in town, they usually keep all kinds of car manuals in. It’ll have the exact model in there. If that’s what you want?”

“Sure.” Emily licked the fork she was using before dropping it back in the beans, to Spencer’s consternation. “Anything to help, buddy.”

Aureilo whispered, “Oh boy.”

 

40.

It was discovered that Spencer was far too shy and definitely too socially awkward to ask strangers for work, Aaron sending him back to the van to ‘calm down’ while the other two kept asking around town. Since there was little he could do there but read the same book over and over, he napped. Emily woke him up, night having fallen and Sergio a raccoon by her side — never a good sign.

“Put this on,” she told him, tossing him her black turtleneck. “Do you remember the radiator Aaron showed us? You remember everything, right?”

“Yes?” Spencer said sleepily, obeying before his brain caught up and burped out, “Why?”

“He’s bussing at some shitty diner downtown, he’ll be busy till late. Come on. We’re helping.”

Spencer looked at Aureilo who, wisely, said nothing. Just turned into a bob-tailed housecat and trotted jauntily after Sergio.

“Oh boy,” he muttered, but followed her anyway.

 

41.

“Where did you even get those?” Spencer asked incredulously.

Emily shot him a hurt look. “I paid for them,” she replied, expression sore. “What do you think I am, some kind of thief?”

With that said, she crouched, beckoned him closer with the flashlight, and began to cut into the chain-link fence with the bolt-cutters she’d revealed from somewhere within her clothing. Spencer looked around, at the darkened car-yard they were breaking into and at the abandoned swathes of highway and field surrounding. It seemed abandoned, but he knew better than to hope it actually was.

“This isn’t a good idea,” he whispered. Aureilo and Sergio were owls swooping around overhead, keeping an eye out for anyone coming. “Can’t we just buy a radiator?”

“Sure, if you want Aaron to have a breakdown over the price,” Emily hissed back, turning on him with her beanie pulled low over her eyes and a hoodie over that. “You saw his face back there. He’s doing that bullshit thing he does where he picks a tiny thing and worries at it until he snaps. We could just buy one, but if we do that he’s going to take it as evidence that we’re, I don’t know, going to die or something. I don’t know how his brain works.”

She obviously knew more than what she professed to; Spencer was glum to admit that she was right. Aaron picked things to panic over, and this was going to be one of them. And just when they’d gotten him calmed down and starting to have fun, to relax and forget all the stuff that had happened to them. If they walked away now, they might lose him again, just when Spencer had gotten him back.

The fence fell open, leaving a gap for them to crawl through.

“You in or out?” Emily demanded, oozing through the gap without waiting for him. “Otherwise I’m just going to grab the one that looks the likeliest.”

Spencer sighed. She was going to do this with or without him. Might as well make sure they got something out of it.

 

42.

Emily ran behind him with the radiator in her arms, laughing along with the night and the giddy feeling of getting away with what they shouldn’t have gotten away with. Spencer felt sick that they’d done it, but wild that they’d gotten away with it — they were criminals now, him and her, but it was a feeling like being untouchable. He whooped along, leaping a log and sprinting with her until they burst out onto the verge and collapsed together, giggling hysterically as their dæmons danced around them

When they calmed down, finally, they walked back to the van and found Aaron waiting.

“Where the hell were …” he began, trailing off as he saw the radiator that Emily had planned to hide and appear with tomorrow, as a ‘gift’ from an unspoken benefactor.

Spencer’s heart stopped a little at the look on his face, horror sinking deep. Horror, and absolute fear. He couldn’t think. Couldn’t react. Just felt his brain shut off, Aureilo dropping down instantly into a mouse and crawling up his jeans to vanish under his shirt, trembling against his stomach.

“Where did you get that?” Aaron asked Emily with deadly calm. He ignored Spencer, which was good because Spencer couldn’t talk. “Why are you both out of breath?”

“Stole it,” she said straight up, squaring her shoulders and staring him down.

Spencer’s breath began to whistle.

“Ah,” said Aaron. For a second, it almost seemed like he was going to let that slide as he walked very calmly over to them and took it from her, studying it carefully. “Well then. You’re just going to turn around and give it back.

“I don’t think I am,” she replied, dangerously sweet.

Aureilo curled smaller.

Aaron’s teeth clicked together.

“Don’t fight,” whispered Spencer.

But they did.

 

43.

The fight was cruel. Spencer hid in the van, curled in a ball with the pillow over his head and trying to ignore it. Unable to block out their voices as they cut each other as deep as only Emily and Aaron knew how. They could each be as mean as each other when properly motivated, and both were definitely motivated: Aaron by anger and his hard-line morals that Spencer had been too stupid to consider when they’d stolen the radiator; Emily by the irrational ferocity that always seemed to ignite in her when she felt like something she’d done to help was being swept aside.

It was about the point that Emily brought up Aaron’s dad that Spencer realised he was going to have a panic attack, over this fight and all the smaller fights that had preceded it. That whispering realisation brought a wave of crushing it’s over to sweep over him. They’d go home. Back to DC. Aaron to his father and his father’s belt. Emily to her lonely self-destruction. Spencer to another apartment they’d paid too much for just to ensure the walls were thick enough to pretend the world was silent. All three of them, apart. No more friendships. No more laughter. Just a lonely boy and his lonely dæmon, until their brain crumpled in on itself and they tried to stop again.

“We’re spiralling,” Aureilo whispered, vanishing from under Spencer’s shirt and returning as a rat in order to push the bottle into Spencer’s hand. Spencer slid the cap open, taking two pills out and putting one in his pocket, tracing the other with his fingers. Would they notice? Would they care?

Or would their anger distract them?

You’re just a spoiled, bratty rich girl who needs to break the law to pretend that she’s better than her mother, floated into the van. You’re just like her. You’ll grow up just like her — except without a moral to think of.

The door of the van tore open, Spencer startling upright as Emily burst in. Don’t go for your stuff, he thought in a panic, desperate for her not to leave, and she didn’t. She went for Aaron’s. Diving down and emerging with his Bible as Aaron appeared by the door with his expression so dark and angry that Spencer’s hand clenched automatically around the pill he was hiding.

“This?” she snarled at him, waving the book in the air. “You think you’re so much fucking better than me because of this? You hypocritical piece of trash — it’s all lies. You just don’t realise it’s all lies told to make you happy about your lot in life, so you’ll sit down and conform like a good little puppy. Is that you, Aaron? Are you a good dog? I think you are — just a fucking dog begging for scraps from your shithole dad and thankful when he kicks you because, fuck, respect thy father, right?”

“You shut up,” Aaron spat. “Shut up!”

“Oh, I will!” With that, she bounded past him, vanishing out of the van with the Bible in her hand. “But I’m going to help you first, Hotshot — more than anyone in your life has ever helped you before. You want the truth? Do you? Everyone in your life has lied to you.”

Spencer inched out of the van. He’d never seen this. Never seen this kind of anger in his friends, this kind of fury. Never seen Emily striding to the river that ran reluctantly past the rest stop they were parked at, screaming, “They lied — there’s no one up there looking after you, no one gives a shit! You are alone and every priest, pastor, right down to the fucking choirboys, every single one of them would stab you in the back the moment it suited them because you’re not shit to them, just a sinful piece of crap the moment you fuck up once and, come on, Aaron, you idiot, you’re gay! You think they want you now? They want you dead.”

With that, she hurled the Bible, pages fluttering and the cover coming loose, into the river.

Oh, breathed Spencer, shaking so hard he could barely watch it bump along the slow current and vanish under the water.

In the silence that followed, Emily kept her back to them and Aaron didn’t say a word. “Think about that,” she said finally, her voice low and shoulders hunched. “You’re not worth shit to them, Aaron, so maybe you should care more about the people who do value you and less about what your precious book says to judge them by.”

She walked away. Spencer didn’t know if she was coming back. Aaron turned and strode in the other direction, Hal by his side as the furious wolf.

Spencer slipped back into the van, closed the door behind him, and reached for a bottle of water.

 

44.

Someone was shaking him. Shaking and shaking until he opened his eyes and squinted at them. Night had fallen. They were lit by the off-yellow glow from the small bulb above.

“Hey,” Aaron said, half in the van through the passenger door and studying him intently. “You’re all curled up. You’ll get a kink in your neck.”

“Mmm.” Spencer inched sideways, too distant to really care right now. Aaron kept talking, his voice in and out like a badly tuned radio as Spencer struggled to stay awake. He was tired, just tired. He didn’t care. Just let him sleep.

“I’m sorry. That was … we were both really crappy to each other, said stuff I’m sure we both don’t believe. I’m going to find Emily and apologise, I promise. I just, I don’t think stealing is something I’m in the wrong to be pissed about. You could have been caught — or hurt. What if you’d gotten shot?” Spencer nodded, or he thought he did. When he opened his eyes again, he found Aaron up on the seat next to him. “What’s wrong with you?” he was asking. “You’re all dopey.”

“Sleepy,” Spencer mumbled, curling his hand around his little mouse-dæmon. “Where’s Em?”

Not back yet, came the far-away reply, a hand coming down to stroke his hair. Are you going to wake up?

Spencer wanted to wake up properly and ask him if this was going to end, if they were all going to go their separate ways. If he was going to go back to being alone. Maybe he did. Maybe, somehow, he managed it. Because he could have sworn he heard Aaron say, “Never.”

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

45.

If it wasn’t enough that he felt guilty — and still furious — about the fight with Emily, now he had to add feeling guilty about the toll it had taken on Spencer. They knew that Spencer hated arguing, that he responded to every slight disagreement like it would be the last thing they ever said to each other … and this hadn’t been a slight disagreement. There was a part of Aaron that hated Emily for what she’d said about him, for the vitriol she’d thrown his way in a rush of savage hatred he hadn’t realised she’d been harbouring. All this time, all along, she’d thought he was, what? Stupid? Naïve? Deserved everything he got?

A small part of him hated her fiercely. Maybe it would have been a bigger part but, as he tried and failed to wake Spencer up from his weirdly deep sleep to move him out of the passenger seat and onto the mattress in the back, he began to think about how strange it was that Emily had flung right from a tiny bit guilty to savagely slashing at any soft part of him she could see. It was defensive. It was irrational. It didn’t make sense, except it kind of did, if she wasn’t just angry…

Oh, he realised, Hal sighing alongside him as her shape shifted into a wide-eyed hound dog, tail low.

“She was scared,” Hal said to him. “We should go find her.”

Leaving Spencer asleep, the stolen radiator sitting there reminding him of what had happened, Aaron agreed and followed his hound-dæmon along the path that led into town. He hoped they’d find Emily before she found trouble.

 

46.

She’d clearly gotten halfway back and given up, sitting on the side of the path drunk as a skunk and barely conscious.

“Smart,” Aaron told her, stopping at a distance and eyeing Sergio as he turned into a cobra and leered at Hal dangerously. “Where’d you even get the booze?”

Instead of lashing out at him, Emily stumbled up and hugged her arms about herself, staring at him with a watery, frantic gaze that sunk dread deep into his gut. Replacing the anger, fear returned, sure for a moment that she’d been hurt, somehow.

“I’m sorry,” she slurred, her breath hiccupping. Aaron realised where he’d seen her this undone before: the day his father had whipped him. “Aaron, I’m sorry, I’ll go. I can go. I need to…”

“Whoa, whoa,” he said, darting forward before she fell, another surge of fear and worry rushing him as, instead of shoving him away and snarling something crude at him, she curled tight against his chest with her arms folded between them, like she was fighting against the urge to hug him. He thought he was shaking until he realised; he wasn’t, she was. “Did something happen?”

“Yes,” she mumbled, curling smaller and smaller. He couldn’t help but wrap his arms around her, anger gone completely now. It’d return, almost certainly, but right now he just wanted her back at the van and under a blanket, sobering up and warming up as he noticed how cold she was in his arms. “You’ll throw me out…”

“We’re scum,” whined Sergio, turning from the snake to a cat and down into a mouse, so small on the leaf-strewn path that Aaron worried they’d lose him. “Don’t you see? You’ll never accept us once you know.”

“Know what?” he asked. Hal padded over to Sergio and became a small animal with rounded ears and a curious nose, leaning close while Sergio whispered intently to her.

Emily said nothing, just began to cry.

“Whatever you’ve done,” Aaron said, “we can fix it, Em. Okay? Look at me — please.”

She did. Eyes so big he could almost see himself in them, tears and snot on her normally composed face, two points of colour high on her pale cheeks. Absolute terror, of him. He’d never been so feared before. She was looking at him like he was his dad, like he was about to strike her.

It hurt more than anything she’d ever said to him when angry.

“Aaron,” said Hal, “ask her again.”

He did.

 

47.

She told him about Rome. About John and the whiskey. Aaron remembered the boy he’d found atop of her and hated him fiercely because he didn’t have a face to hate for this ‘John’. She told him about the pregnancy. She told him about slut written in red across her locker. About her mom’s practised ignorance. About her friends’ abandonment of her.

Of everyone’s abandonment of her.

“We were scum,” she said with the drunken honesty her confession was tearing from her. “Why wouldn’t they turn away? Just like you will.”

“I won’t,” Aaron said, but doubted that she’d heard him.

She told him about drinking until she was insensible in the hope it would solve the problem for her. About the drugs. About the hatred and the anger and the loneliness. The church and how they had thrown her to the dogs as well. Just another teenage skank, just another sinner. Doomed for life at the age of fifteen.

Hypocrites, she said; he couldn’t really disagree.

Then she told him about the abortion and everything that had followed, the entire time braced for a blow she was sure was coming. After all, everyone else had walked away from her when she’d made the choice to go through with it — why wouldn’t he? She was everything his faith counselled against. Religious beliefs had torn her friends from her once; she’d fully expected it to happen again and reacted accordingly. How could he accept her when she was unacceptable?

But that was wrong.

That wasn’t what he believed at all.

It was one church, he wanted to say. One place in the world where she’d just been so unlucky to be, a faith that wasn’t even his. He didn’t say it though; it wouldn’t help. And he didn’t care about her opinion on organised religion, she’d been hurt and he wasn’t going to even start digging into that well of pain to try for forgiveness he didn’t think the targets of her true anger deserved.

He only cared about her opinion of him.

“If that was to happen to you again, tomorrow, whenever,” he said, feeling her tense, “I’d be there for you. I wouldn’t walk away. I’d be right there beside you, the whole time — no matter how mad you make me, or how much shit you try to pull to make me go away. You can’t chase us off — stop trying.”

She sniffed wetly and tried to smirk. “Even when I molotov’d the church?” she asked. They were sitting beside the path, her tucked under his arm and him thinking about how complicated and cold the world could be.

He answered, “Absolutely,” and knew that, if she asked it, he’d even hold the lighter for her: he loved her and he loved his faith and both those things didn’t cancel each other out. But for that one church, that one man who’d looked at a girl in pain and mistakenly believed his God was asking to cull her from the flock?

Fuck him. Everything Emily was now, brittle and fragile and sharp and cruel, pushing away when she wanted to pull closer and fighting when she wanted to cry instead — it was all the fault of one stupid man in one stupid church. It could have all been avoided if that man had just cared like he was supposed to.

How easily lives could be thrown off course.

“If we’re going to Hell, we’re going together,” he promised her, putting aside the anger and the hurt her words had slashed through him. She was drunk and hurting and he doubted he’d get an apology for them today. One day, maybe, but she wasn’t the type of person to be vulnerable twice. It was on him to be the person who pulled them back together now.

People weren’t as simple as what they should and shouldn’t do.

She nodded, awed, and he wondered how many times she’d been pushed aside for her to be so stunned by the concept that he wasn’t ever going to walk away from her. When she opened her mouth, he thought she was going to apologise and almost keeled over from the shock. But she said, “Can you teach me to fix the radiator?” and, despite himself, he couldn’t help but laugh.

 

48.

Emily vanished for almost an entire day at the next town they stopped at, Aaron staying up late to wait for her as he choked back his worry. Spencer kept him company for a while, reading, but eventually disappeared to bed. Aaron waited.

When Emily appeared, it was past midnight and she was boozy and smelled of cigarette smoke and cologne. Aaron said nothing, uneasy to pass judgement on her and face her anger once more. He didn’t know where he stood with her and was unwilling to test the ice between them. She needed her space, he got that, but he also worried she was going to take him stepping back as an excuse to find her own destruction for whatever faults she felt that she carried.

“Sup, Hotshot,” she called upon seeing him, sauntering over. “Waiting up for me, like a nana?”

“Don’t call me that,” he said uncomfortably, watching Hal bare her teeth at Sergio in soft recrimination. “Where were you?”

“Here and there,” was her response, and then she held something out to him. “Here. I didn’t steal it. Went in and asked for it and all, had a chat with the dude. He seemed alright. Told me to tell you he’ll see you Sunday.”

With that, she climbed up into the van and crawled onto the mattress with Spencer, only pausing to kick her shoes off. Aaron turned over what she’d given him: a new Bible. He opened it, the scent of new book drifting from the thin pages, and found a small card within.

Dear Aaron,

Your friend says you’re in need of guidance. Our doors are always open to you. Please tell Emily that she’s welcome too.

Father Sanders.

“Huh,” he said, holding the card close. It was an apology, one that would have been harder than just standing in front of him and saying the words.

He treasured it.

 

49.

Emily was like a cat. She kept her own hours, coming in and out as she pleased. Slowly, Aaron came to adjust to that. She always returned, always okay, and he stopped being quite as scared for her. In fact, he stopped — for a short time — being scared at all. They were okay. Smelly, yeah, and sick of canned food and becoming bored with the way they were drifting aimlessly, but okay.

Then came the rain. It brought a storm.

 

50.

They’d left Emily in town and gone for a drive outside of it, restless but with no good way of releasing that energy. Spencer wanted to find a library, Aaron just wanted to be anywhere but in the town that was currently crawling with police because of some music festival being held there. Aaron won, lounging in the passenger seat with a book as Spencer drove them into the storm. The roads were slick and visibility was lower than ever, but Spencer was a careful driver and Aaron wasn’t worried. If Emily had been driving? Concerning. But Spencer was fine.

“Listen to this,” Aaron said, reading out a passage from his book with a laugh. Outside, they were turning a tight bend, down a slope toward a muddy roadway with trees on both sides. Spencer didn’t laugh along, his brow furrowed with concentration.

Aaron only realised when it was over that they’d been in trouble at all.

It was a bizarre feeling. Slow motion. Aureilo knew first — crying out — and Hal grabbed him a second later as the world suddenly turned weightless. Aaron was both conscious of what was happening while it was happening and yet also unable to do anything to stop it, the wheels of the van aquaplaning under them as a sudden gush of rain left the road washed out. He just watched as Spencer’s eyes widened, his grip tightened around the wheel, and they travelled weightlessly down the road with utterly no control over their destination. The wheels bumped into the verge and the van sank slowly into the mud, losing momentum. Bogged, likely, but alive.

Spencer didn’t move. His knuckles were white, his shoulders shaking. If Aaron had felt the loss of control, Spencer would have felt it tenfold; he was a careful driver, but not a confident one.

“You did exactly what you should have done,” Aaron told him firmly, unbuckling his seatbelt and leaning over to turn the van off and ease Spencer’s fingers from around the wheel where they’d clamped down. “If you’d have braked, we’d have fishtailed and rolled.”

“I thought we were dead,” Spencer said with his voice barely a whisper. “I thought we were dead and you hadn’t even seen it coming.”

“We’re not dead,” Aaron promised him. Finally, he let go of the wheel. “We’re not dead. Say it, Spence.”

“We’re not dead.”

“Atta ’boy,” wheezed Hal.

 

51.

It took two hours to find enough wood to jam under the wheels to ease them up out of the mud, and another hour to drive with painstaking care back to town. Aaron drove; he doubted Spencer would be coaxed back behind the wheel anytime soon. Just curled in the passenger seat with Hal and Aureilo both in his lap, hugging them tight with his face a ghastly grey and water dripping from his soaked clothes. Muddy and wet and shell-shocked.

Aaron realised: they could have died. If they had, who would have told Emily? Would she have even known?

Or would they just never have returned for her?

 

52.

When they got back to the spot they’d agreed to meet, Emily was sitting in the rain waiting, climbing in and immediately bawling them out for leaving her there without noticing how quiet they were. “It’s freezing and some guy followed me from town and was leering at me and you guys, where the hell were you guys?” She glared at them, arms folded and shivering violently.

“Shut up,” Spencer snapped, stunning them all. “Why do you have to complain all the time? We had a bad time too, okay? We weren’t out having fun while you were doing whatever you were doing, flirting to get drinks or spending our money on stupid stuff, we were almost dying. I almost killed us!”

Emily was stunned, going quiet and looking at Aaron. “What?” she asked.

“It’s nothing,” he said loyally. “A mishap on the road.”

“Oh,” she replied. Silence fell between them, broken by the steady drip, drip, drip of rain outside. Finally, she asked quietly, “Are any of the towels dry?”

“No.”

She nodded, looking down into her lap and huddling tighter into the damp coat she was wearing. Outside, the temperature fell despite it being barely afternoon.

Spencer relented first. “We won’t look if you want to get changed. Maybe we should just sleep until the rain goes.”

“Not that I have much to change into,” Emily muttered, but did as he’d said.

It sounded like a plan. They undressed. Aaron held up a blanket for Emily to change behind and they threw everything into the front to be annoyingly damp before hunkering down in the back on their one mattress with their four blankets, past the point of being shy about cuddling together when it was cold. Even when Emily had no clean pants and Spencer had to borrow one of Aaron’s shirts, ridiculously big on him. They put her in the middle of them both because it was easier than having her burrowing her bare legs under them all afternoon in an effort to get warm. Personal boundaries faded in a van, even when they were soggy and sulky and the weather was miserable. Only after everyone else was dozing did Aaron realise what day it was.

“Happy birthday to us,” Hal whispered, lying atop him. Seventeen now.

“Happy birthday to us,” he told her back, kissing her nose and closing his eyes.

 

53.

He woke in the night-time to Sergio racing around Hal. “Get up!” he gasped, both of them bolting upright without Spencer even twitching a muscle from his deep sleep beside them. “We went to the bathroom — there are people out there!”

Aaron launched up and out the back of the van, leaving Spencer there. Hal was back as the wolf. Emily was standing bare-legged in her oversized shirt telling — Aaron counted and his heart sunk — five men who all outweighed Aaron to fuck off and leave them alone. It was freezing. Their breath fogged in front of their mouths. The men were laughing.

“I don’t think so,” one of them said, looking past Emily to grin at Aaron in a way that wasn’t kind at all. “I think we might stay a while.”

It was then that Aaron noticed the gun.

Chapter Text

Emily

 

54.

Emily couldn’t breathe. She recognised one of the guys — it was the dude from the pawn shop she’d been in earlier that day — but the rest were not only strangers, but bigger and rougher than her, Aaron, and Spencer put together. Even their dæmons were big: two dogs, a boar, a monkey, and what she thought might be some kind of predatory bird. Sergio had vanished, reappearing with Aaron and trying to go as big as he could, the tiger again. Hal was a wolf. Aaron was silent.

She hoped Spencer stayed in the van.

“Fuck off,” she said, hands on her hips and feeling dangerously vulnerable in nothing but Aaron’s shirt and her underwear. Not to mention, it was cold, goose-bumps working up every inch of exposed skin and her bare feet hurting on the cold ground. “We don’t have anything you want unless you like canned beans.”

But that guy — pawn shop guy — he knew they had money. He knew they were alone. He knew they had drugs.

Aaron walked up beside her, his hand on her elbow and trying to draw her back behind him. She refused to be drawn. No way was he going to get hurt on her behalf, not when it was her fault that these guys were here. “Emily,” he murmured. She tried to shake her arm free. “Em, get back.”

“Yeah, Em, get back,” one of them teased, stepping forward, his arms out. The movement pulled his shirt up.

Emily saw the gun.

Sergio became a mouse.

“On the ground,” the one with the gun said, grabbing it with a loose grip that was terrifying and pointing it at her. She blinked. Stared. Stared at that dark hole, knowing there was a bullet inside. That could fire. That could kill her. It was a bizarre, strange, horrible feeling and she heard Aaron moan with terror. “Now.”

Aaron dropped and took her with him, crawling almost atop her and pushing her down painfully into the dirt and rocks below as he tried to cover as much of her as he could with his own body. Shaking. He was shaking, his hands clinging tight to her arms and his breath hot on the back of her neck as he whispered. No … not whispered.

He was praying.

Oh god, he was praying.

Please don’t hurt us, she hoped, closing her eyes and listening to them approaching. Don’t hurt us, don’t hurt us…

“Don’t—” Aaron said, lurching up away from her — she couldn’t see but she could only guess what had smashed through his self-preservation: someone was going to the van.

One of them hit him. The sound of flesh on flesh was electric; suddenly, Emily needed badly to piss. Aaron jolted against her, his head knocking down into hers and slamming her mouth into the mud. From the van, she heard a thin cry of shock.

Spencer.

But they couldn’t go to him.

“Don’t move,” they were told, so they didn’t. They didn’t move. Aaron’s face was wet against the back of her neck, sweat or tears or blood she didn’t know, and Hal was hunched over Sergio nearby, snarling. A steady rrrrrrr that didn’t stop.

She knew: Aaron should have thrown her out when she’d told him how wrong she could be.

 

55.

What the men couldn’t take, they broke. When it was over and the three of them were alone once more, threats of the men returning if they went to the cops ringing in their ears, it was a long time before any of them worked up the courage to move. But, throughout it all, besides the one time they’d hit Aaron, none of them had been touched. They’d told them to get down; they had, and they hadn’t been touched.

If Emily hadn’t been so goddamn horrified, she’d have been glad about that.

When she staggered back upright, out of the mud and with the sinking suspicion she’d pissed herself from fear, she found Spencer huddled in the back of the van with his eyes so glazed from shock that she worried she’d have to slap him to bring him out of it. Only distantly did she notice where he was — pressed so tight against the back of the passenger chair that maybe, just maybe, they might not have lost everything. Footsteps slapped on the wet ground behind her as Aaron appeared, ignoring the mess and scooting past to grab Spencer in a tight, worried hug that left them both mud-streaked. Behind him, Hal hurtled up to find Aureilo with a low sigh like a tree falling, licking and licking and licking him like she’d thought she’d never have the chance again. Sergio leapt onto Emily’s shoulder as a cat and cuddled close, his claws biting. He knew, just like she did, that this was their fault.

“What did they leave?” Spencer asked finally, the first to find his voice.

“Fuck that,” Aaron snarled, turning furious eyes on her. “They knew you! Who the fuck were they?”

“No one!” she cried, because they weren’t anyone. They weren’t important — and it was her fault but god, oh god, she didn’t want to be thrown out. She didn’t want to be alone.

“Did you buy drugs from them?”

“No!”

“Did you fuck one of them?”

“God, Aaron, no. Look, I knew one. But I didn’t invite him here! He must have followed me — one of his asshole friends was probably the one watching me before.” She was crying, hugging Sergio tight because she was muddy and wet and scared and angry and hoping that, if he threw her out, at least maybe he’d let her have some clothes first because she was just so vulnerable.

“Does it matter how they got here?” Spencer asked. “We can’t go to the cops. What do we do?” He moved from his spot and over to the back, leaning out and looking at the jumble of their fucked-up possessions thrown onto the wet ground. Half her tapes were smashed, all of their clothes stamped into the dirt, the food torn and stepped on. All their money, stolen. It had been the first thing they’d gone for, and that was her fault too because she’d been the one they’d followed out here. Seeing she was living rough, guessing she had no one looking out for her, knowing she had money. Her damn fault.

Aaron shook his head, shooting her a disgusted look that sunk right to her core; she’d thought they were finally patching things up. Working things out. Moving past him instigating fights and her rising spectacularly to them. “I don’t know,” he spat, “ask her.”

Anger rushed. She crawled over to where Spencer had been hunched, finding what she’d shoved under the seat still under there, somehow, even though the man she’d bought it from had to have known she had it. Too high to remember, she guessed, since she was pretty sure it wasn’t all he’d left behind.

“Want to know where I saw him?” she yelled, throwing it at Aaron hard enough that it bounced from his chest and hit Hal, who yelped. “That’s why! Happy fucking birthday, asshole!”

Angrily, she slid out of the van and began gathering what was left of their stuff without waiting for him to open it, knowing she was crying and hating every tear.

 

56.

Spencer found where she was dumping the trash into a roadside receptacle and held something out to her. “I saved this. I heard them coming before they, you know, came in. Shoved some things under that seat.”

It was her book of paintings.

“You should have saved your stuff,” she said guiltily, knowing his box of books and letters was one of the things they’d ruined. “That’s not worth anything.”

“Yes, it is.”

It wasn’t Spencer who’d replied. She looked at Aaron, who stood there holding the Walkman she’d pawned her stuff to get for him. At least that had lived, she was glad of that.

He added, “I think I saved some of your tapes too … they were mostly just unspooled. We still have music.”

She nodded, following them back to the van and finding it much emptier than it had been, and a lot muddier, but mostly intact. Her tapes were sitting in the buckled box she kept them in, all looking the worse for wear. The dæmons huddled together, wet and sad and worried. Everyone looked cold. She didn’t think they’d ever be warm again.

“What now?” she asked, picking one tape up — Spencer’s — and turning it over to look at a crack running down the back.

“Let’s just leave,” Aaron suggested, so they did.

They drove for hours until the fuel light came on, parking and sitting in silence. It was too wet to find wood for a fire. One of their blankets had been too wrecked to bother bringing, the other three soaked from being tossed in a puddle. Emily had been driving, turning around to find that Aaron had set out what food remained: enough for maybe two weeks, if they rationed it.

She had a feeling that she might have ruined everything.

 

57.

The rains kept up until they forgot what it was like to be warm. Aaron managed to find some money their robbers had missed in miscellaneous coat pockets, scraping together two hundred dollars from the various corners of the van they’d squirrelled cash away in. They bought gas. They found a town with public showers. At least they could be clean for a while.

Emily was sitting beside Spencer as he rinsed his clothes in the shower, crouched out of the direct stream with his hands all pink from scrubbing. Aaron’s were already hung in the van, leaving the windows white with condensation and the air unpleasantly humid. They’d checked for a public laundry and found nothing that was open. Their clothes would take days to dry, the ones they were wearing sweat-stained and stiff with mud and dried rain.

Rock bottom.

“Do you think they’re still looking for us?” Spencer asked, getting splashed as Aureilo jumped into the warm water and rolled in it, paws kicking.

“No,” Emily said honestly. She picked up Sergio and threw him in as he squealed for mercy. “They don’t care.”

 

58.

When she woke this day, they were parked in the middle of a town that was busier than any they’d been in for a long time, and Aaron wasn’t there.

“Where is he?” she asked Spencer, crawling into the front and looking around. He was darning one of his socks with brand new wool, a weird thing for her to see since she hadn’t known he could. She stared at it and then turned around to find a pile of new blankets stacked neatly in the back beside a painfully small number of cans.

“Went to see if he can find some work,” Spencer answered, putting the sock down and stretching as far as he could without his legs bending. “We’re going to need money to replace what we lost, or else we’re going to be hungry soon.”

“Why didn’t he ask us to go?”

Spencer eyed her. “We’re going to have to,” he said. “We all have to do our part now. But Aaron wanted us to stay today … I think he’s getting weird again. I guess, with reason now. Probably why we’re parked so conspicuously.”

She nodded. It made sense.

Finally, she inched across, bumping his hip with hers until they were on the same seat, and leaned against him, desperate for some kind of she didn’t know, affection or something. He gave it anyway. He always did, tucking his arm around her and letting her head fall onto his shoulder.

 “I really fucked up, didn’t I?” she asked.

“Nah,” Spencer replied. “You meant well.”

“I didn’t buy drugs from him,” she said miserably, leaning forward and opening the ashtray, where she’d tucked them away. Spencer’s face darkened when he saw. “He gave them to me. I thought it was weird at the time since I was pretty sure he was ripping me off for the Walkman, but now I get it. He must have figured he’d get them back when he robbed us … guess they couldn’t find them.”

“Assholes,” Aureilo muttered from the back where he was trying to read a book that his paws struggled to turn the pages of.

“Just don’t show Aaron,” Spencer said finally, looking away as she nodded. She followed his gaze, the clouds rolling in over top of them, the bare trees around them shaking with the wind.

Fall was over. Winter was here. Spencer shivered against her.

She guessed that maybe he was just as scared as she was.

Chapter Text

Spencer

 

59.

The robbery had taken more than just their food and money from them. Spencer shoved his hand into his pocket as the van bumped along, feeling the almost-empty pill bottle nudge against his fingers. Tissue paper shoved within to stop the container from rattling as he moved. He’d just barely managed to hide the stomped and scattered remains, saving the barest handful of them before the others had seen.

Seven capsules of lithium. He’d tapered, as much as he could without being seen, breaking them down in half and taking measured doses, but there was only so much that he could do. The withdrawal effects had hit fast and hard, first an electric-shock feeling buzzing up his spine, then the rolling gut and dry mouth, now the rapid-paced anxiety that left him feeling like doom lurked just around the corner. Aureilo huddled close to his side, head tucked down to hide his expression from everyone else in the van. It was white-eyed and staring, his nostrils flaring red. A mouse again, because that’s what they felt like now: a terrified mouse curled up waiting for the combine harvester to fall upon them. But he couldn’t take one of the lithium to help shake this fear. He couldn’t. He’d run out, and then where would they be if the mood swings came back, the misery? The crushing hopelessness?

The van slowed to a crawl and Spencer’s heart rate rocketed. What was happening? Had they hit something? Was Aaron sick? Were there police? Was—

“I’m tired,” he heard Aaron yawn. “Take over?”

The only response was Emily turning the music up, the rule of ‘driver picks sound and volume’ put in place by her for her. The renewed thump of the speakers sent cold shots of ice to spike into Spencer’s brain, his body panicking with every one for no apparent reason. It was like suffering through the world’s longest anxiety attack, seven hours and fifty-two minutes so far with no respite. The van sped up again. Spencer turned his head as a shadow moved, Aaron appearing from the front and scooting down to cuddle next to him, bringing with him a blanket.

“You’re so cold,” Aaron murmured into his ear, leaning in close to be heard with his breath warm and beef-jerky scented. “Come here.”

It was a relief to scuttle into that blanket and end up practically in Aaron’s lap, folding himself in tight and small into that firm grasp. Ear against Aaron’s shoulder, hearing the distant tha-thump of his steady heartbeat … Spencer focused on that and his breathing, that and his breathing, that and his breathing … until the anxiety faded. He felt, rather than heard, Aureilo take a relieved breath along with him as their bodies slowed down their mad hurtle towards doom.

The music was loud and the van was dark, occasionally lit up by the headlights of passing trucks on the highway. For them to hear each other talking, they had to tuck their mouths close to the other’s ears, and they did. Aaron trying to explain his plan to head up north to along the border, where it would snow first — easy money to be made shovelling snow, he reckoned, or going door to door and asking if anyone needed wood cut for the winter or other supplies fetched. If they found some retirement retreat, more elderly than otherwise, they’d make bank, or so he thought. Spencer tried to agree, distracted by Aaron nipping at his ear.

“She won’t notice if we fool around,” Aaron said, eyes on the front where Emily was singing along. “Turn around. Kiss me.”

When he said it like that, Spencer could hardly say no, pressing his stupid brain further down and obeying. In return, he was kissed like he was precious, fast and tender all at once, a hand betraying the sweetness as it slid down his chest and under the elastic of his sweatpants. He knew he was too scattered to be aroused enough. Aaron would realise something was wrong. Aaron would ask if he was okay. Aaron would—

He ducked his head and hid the panic by kissing along Aaron’s throat and moving quickly, shoving his own hand down Aaron’s pants with a speed that made him almost smack his head against the wall with shock, eyes going huge when Spencer glanced up at him. Already excited — maybe that was why he’d wanted to switch drivers so quickly — and easy to distract, right up until Emily leaned gently on the brakes and sent them tumbling forward with twin yelps, Hal and Aureilo falling with them.

“What!?” Aaron gasped, lurching upright and staring around through the windshield with his hair wild and — Spencer winced at the panicked reveal of all of him.

Emily was watching them in the rear-view, grinning as she spun the volume dial down. “I’m not blind,” she warned them before pointing to her eyes and then them in quick succession. “No dicks out in the van while I’m in here. Friends need some secrets, you know.”

“We didn’t have our dicks out,” Aaron said.

“Yeah-huh,” she replied, picking up speed again with her gaze returning to the road. “Try saying that with a straight face and no boner next time.”

Spencer couldn’t help it, he snorted and earned himself a dark glare from Aaron who slunk to the mattress to sulk, leaving Spencer sitting alone with all the space he needed to drown himself in.

 

60.

It was one week later. The low-libido Spencer had always had as a result of the misalignment of his brain chemicals turned out to be a non-permanent fixture without the anti-depressants. That was probably the most distressing part of this slow withdrawal.

Sex as a concept was interesting to him. Sex as a concept with Aaron was fascinating and exciting and left him feeling warm and strange like his skin was clamouring for attention of any kind. He thought about it in the context of it bringing him and Aaron closer, and he wanted it, but only for the same reason. A connection, not a physical need.

Apparently, seventeen wasn’t too old for him to find that maybe he wasn’t weird, just slow to catch up.

It took shaving for him to realise this.

Spencer held the mirror up for Aaron — Emily had lost the privilege after wobbling it from side to side chanting, “Oh no, don’t cut yourself, oh no!” — and, this? Sitting here holding the mirror steady as Aaron attempted to teach himself how to shave with Emily’s pocket knife, those sharp lines and narrow angles of his face all wet and foamy and his eyes intent on his task and the rasp of the knife over his skin—

“You’re staring,” Aaron said, lowering the knife and frowning. “I can’t shave when you’re staring. Why are you staring?”

“Uh,” said Spencer. His voice cracked embarrassingly. “I just. Uh. You’re doing a good job. Should I shave?”

“No,” snorted Emily from the front seat, Sergio cackling.

Aureilo patted his leg. “Maybe next year,” he offered. Spencer flushed.

Two seconds later, Aaron cut himself.

And then again.

“For crying out loud.” Emily exclaimed this as she slipped into the back with them, grabbing the knife off of him after a short wrestling match that spilled shaving foam everywhere. “Tilt your chin up and shut up. If you talk, your throat will move.”

Aaron, wisely, went very still and quiet, his eyes locked on the blade as Emily ran it down his skin.

“How do you know how to do that?” Spencer asked, curiosity distracting him from everything else.

“Girls shave too,” Hal said. “Legs, you idiot.”

“Among other places,” Sergio added.

Silence fell. Aaron’s mouth opened, Emily pausing with the knife on his cheek. Quickly, he shut it.

Spencer looked down, cheeks warm and brain worrying at that. A vague suggestion in the back of his mind whispered that he should suggest a walk with him and Aaron when he was done, since it was too early for them to go into town and ask around for work — hence Aaron’s shaving kick, as he informed them that they had to be ‘presentable ’— but a larger part puzzled over that statement.

“Are you supposed to shave everything?” his mouth asked without his brain stopping it, looking up to find everyone in the van staring at him.

Emily didn’t laugh, just bit back a smile and said, “Pro-tip … don’t. Right, done. Here. Use this.”

“What’s that?” Aaron asked, taking the bottle from her and studying it, still foamy in places with blood on his cheek from where he’d cut it. “Aftershave?”

Emily smiled.

 

61.

Spencer got his walk, among other things, sitting on a log with Aaron after as the rush of it faded and Aaron used a bottle of water to wash his hands.

“Are you okay?” Aaron asked, passing him the water. Spencer washed his hands quickly, flicking them dry and leaning forward to stop his boyfriend from zipping up his jeans, catching his damp hands and holding them still. “What are you doing?”

“Looking,” murmured Spencer. Aureilo was a cat, he noted, purring and rubbing around Hal with an anxious need for attention that was already distracting him again. Tail up and chirruping like a bird. “Can I look?”

Aaron shot him a strange expression. “I mean, I guess? Weren’t you looking just then?”

Obviously not, since he’d been distracted by other things. Aaron’s shirt was a button-down, his jeans already undone and underwear easy enough to move aside. Spencer undressed him further — ignoring Hal’s wry comment about him doing it in the wrong order — and studied him intently.

“Okay, something is definitely weird with you,” Aaron said finally, covering himself with his hands, his now amazingly smooth cheeks flaming red. “First you jump me on a log, now you’re looking at me like that. Why’s my dick suddenly so interesting?”

Spencer shrugged, sitting back on the log and thinking about where they were different and where they were the same, his brain whirring.

“We’re having weird dreams,” Aureilo announced. Spencer glared, a silent ‘don’t tell him that’. Of course, he didn’t listen. When did he ever? “Sex dreams. And he wants to have sex with you, all the time. It’s making me itchy.” Even as he said it, he arched and purred, tail drifting across Hal’s muzzle. “He wants to ask you if it’s normal but he’s too awkward, so he’s doing this.”

“Oh.” Aaron was blinking rapidly, looking thrown. “Oh, uh. That’s … yes.”

Spencer looked at him. Aaron looked at his shoes.

“It’s normal,” whispered Hal. Aureilo leaned close, muttering to her intently. After a short, hurried conversation, she looked up again. “That’s normal too.”

Aaron coughed, looking away.

Subject change, Spencer decided. Maybe he’d just ask to go to the library later to help answer his questions. “What are we going to do if we can’t find work?”

Aaron’s reply was a shrug, still blushing terribly. His hair hung in his eyes. Spencer’s did too, come to think of it, already long before they’d run away. He hoped they wouldn’t have to ask Emily to help them cut it — they’d seen what her haircuts looked like. “I don’t know,” he said. “We’re not hungry yet but we will be soon … I guess … we could risk a city? We’re sort of near Denver. Surely no one will recognise us there?”

Spencer startled, Aureilo twitching too. Memories rushed back, a surge of half-forgotten thoughts dimmed by time and everything that had happened since then.

“I used to live in Denver,” he said, stunned. How had he forgotten that? What else had he forgotten?

“Really? When?”

Spencer closed his eyes, trying to sort his muddled thoughts. They’d moved so much, so fast, maybe it was …

“Ethan,” he said. Silence followed that, Aureilo becoming a rat just like Ethan’s dæmon had used to be. Had she settled like that? He thought maybe she might have, had a vague memory of it happening even … mostly, he just remembered Ethan. His first friend.

He missed him.

Intensely.

Why, he wondered, his brain suddenly obsessing over these memories of a boy from long ago, his face still vivid to Spencer even though he couldn’t remember what his voice had sounded like.

“Oh,” said Aaron. “Ethan was a friend?” All Spencer could do to that was nod. “Well, if we’re going that way, we could see him, if you remember where he lives?”

Spencer could. “Really?” he managed. Did he want to do that? Dredge up the past?

Could he take that?

“You’ve been so sad and secretive lately.” Aaron reached for him, taking his hand and holding it close. Dressed now, the weirdness of before having passed. “If you want to see him, sure. Anything.”

“That would be amazing,” Spencer admitted, Aureilo nodding along. He wondered, would Ethan even remember him?

Was he really that memorable?

 

62.

“Come on then.” Emily hung over the back of the seat, staring him down. “Let’s go!”

“Uh uh,” Spencer said resolutely, shaking his head. They were parked up the road from Ethan’s home, the front yard just visible through the view from their windshield. “I’ve changed my mind. I think we should just go.”

Emily sighed, swinging herself to the door and popping it open. “Alright, I’ll go,” she announced, and vanished.

“You’d better chase her,” Aaron said, settling back with a book. He didn’t want to come — had said it would be less overwhelming if Spencer went alone — and Spencer stared plaintively at him. “You know she’ll do it.”

“Damn!” Spencer yelped, Aureilo bouncing around his knees as they flung themselves out of the van and pelted after her. “Emil — oof!”

They’d crashed into her, standing smugly just out of view from where he’d been sitting inside.

“Come on, Crash,” she said, helping him up with half a smirk visible. “We’ll go together. I’m respectable as fuck. Moms love me, and your friend will too.”

“You’re really not—” Spencer went to say, and then looked at Emily properly. She wasn’t wearing her makeup anymore, her hair brushed back out of her eyes and her bangs neat, if a bit puffy. It made her look pale and tired, but nowhere near as unapproachable as her usual dark eyeliner and savage hairstyles did. Even her clothes were muted, a thick sweater over jeans that she’d rolled up to hide that they were too small for her. Sergio was perched around her shoulder, a fluffy cat with small, delicate paws. They’d both lost weight. It was more obvious on Sergio than Emily.

But she was holding her hand out to him, nails short and bitten down. “Come on,” she goaded again. “Let’s go see your friend.”

He took the hand she offered him, and they walked up the path together.

 

63.

Ethan’s mom was just how Spencer remembered her. As soon as she’d opened the door to them, her eyes lingering on Emily before flickering to Spencer, she’d known him. Her pigeon-dæmon cooed, bobbing his way over to Aureilo and greeting him instantly by peering worriedly at the state of the currently-a-cat-dæmon’s ribs.

“Spencer!” Mrs Coiro gasped, a smile overtaking her shock. “My gosh, you’ve gotten so tall.”

And now, here they were, sitting in her living room with mugs of hot chocolate resting on their knees as she attempted to feed them lunch while apologising to them for their missing Ethan.

“I’m sorry, Spencer, you must be so disappointed,” she said, returning with sandwiches that Spencer tried not to look too desperate to eat, the cold slices of meat on them the first they’d had that hadn’t come canned since they’d left. “He’s at UColorado now, down in Boulder. His second year of college!”

“But he’s only seventeen,” Spencer mumbled, staring at the milky drink steaming gently in his mug, his mood nose-diving and making him wish he’d never come here at all. A photo on the wall caught his eye — Aureilo turning into a bird and fluttering over to study it, hopping about and blocking his view.

“Ethan’s very intelligent,” said his mom after a beat. “That was how you met, after all. You were both in the gifted and talented program — don’t you remember?”

Spencer nodded slowly, watching Aureilo hop to the side and reveal the photo: Spencer and Ethan at eleven years old, arms around each other with the trophy they’d won for ‘scientific excellence’ in a national competition held loosely between them. He remembered; he remembered his dad pulling him from the program after two colleges had approached discussing ‘fast-tracked curriculums’ for them. College by thirteen.

“It’s not appropriate, Spencer,” he’d told his son, even though Spencer hadn’t cared what was appropriate or ‘normal’ or even good for his future — he’d just wanted to stay with his friend. “You need to grow up understanding your limitations. You’re not your mother and not everything is achievable.”

Looked like Ethan’s mom had listened to what they’d had to say. She hadn’t worried about normal or appropriate.

His stomach hurt.

Ethan’s mom stood, moving to where Aureilo stood and picking up the photo, handing it to Spencer. He took it, staring down at it to hide the excruciating burn of tears building, furious that he was so easily distressed these days. Furious that he was always being left behind, told he wasn’t good enough — that he couldn’t do it. What was life without trying?

“He never forgot you,” Mrs Coiro said quietly, so quietly that Spencer wasn’t even sure that Emily heard her. “Strange. It doesn’t even feel like that long ago that you two were racing around pretending to be astronauts…”

“Cosmonaut,” Spencer mumbled. “I was a cosmonaut. Ethan was an astronaut. We were competing.”

“Ah yes, your moon races.” She stepped back, watching him carefully. “Would you like his phone number?”

“Actually,” said Emily, cutting in with a wide, hot-chocolatey smile, “could we have his address?”

 

64.

The door opened, and Ethan stood there grinning. Spencer, with Emily holding one arm and Aaron a firm presence behind him, squeaked instead of saying hello. On Ethan’s shoulder, Parson was settled as a glossy, black fancy-rat, her white whiskers quivering as she peered down and trembled with excitement at seeing Aureilo sitting there as a shy mouse.

“Fuck me, it’s actually you,” Ethan said, lunging forward. Before Spencer knew it, he had arms wrapped tight around his neck, long hair draped in his face, and all he could smell was his old friend’s cologne as they hugged tightly, Parson leaping down and dancing around Aureilo with wild trills of excitement. “How are you!? So tall, shit, man, you’re so tall! And skinny! Look at us!”

He was grinning stupidly when they broke apart, his puppy-round cheeks having at some point given way to a scruffy run of facial hair covering sharp cheekbones, his eyes impossibly green when framed under that dark hair.

Spencer thought, fuck.

Ethan had gotten hot. Spencer’s traitorous body had instantly noticed. Every part of him burned, from his cheeks to his toes. He still hadn’t said anything, and Aaron was right there. For something to look at, he glanced down and found Aureilo as a cat that was rolling onto his back to purr stupidly at the dancing rat.

In the end, all Spencer said was, “I’ve missed you,” and meant it more than anything else.

 

65.

The fact that he was living in a van was nothing but thrilling to Ethan, who poked around their cramped living space with the kind of excitement a much fancier space deserved. The entire time, he launched an endless stream of questions their way, culminating in him finding Emily’s tapes. Just like that, he was silent, picking through the pile with a dreamy expression on his face as he read each and every song title with reverence. Emily, who’d been watching both Spencer and Ethan as they’d caught up — sort of, there was plenty Spencer wasn’t telling him, and Aaron wasn’t saying anything at all — with a dangerously sharp expression, lost that expression and slipped forward, longing on her face. Wanting to talk about the tapes that she loved but being too shy to bring it up as a topic of conversation.

Ethan turned one over, finding a cover she’d painted for it, a watercolour splash of the night sky over Montana a few weeks ago. He stared at it. “Did one of you guys paint this?” he asked, holding it up with his grin wide. Beside him, Parson and Aureilo were still glued together, Aureilo giddy with exhilaration as they whispered. Hal hung back, watching silently.

There was silence, until: “I did,” said Emily with a bashfulness that had both Spencer and Aaron’s heads snapping around to stare at her. She stepped forward, Sergio leaping from her shoulder to bump up against Aureilo fondly before sniffing at Parson’s whiskers. “Those tapes are mine. I made them too.”

“Awesome,” Ethan said, and seemed to really mean it. “Tell me about them? I love music.”

They sank into a discussion, shutting the world around them out. Spencer watched, glad that they were getting along but wishing he had more time alone with his friend. A touch on his shoulder snapped him out of his reverie, Aaron tilting his head to indicate they should go outside. Spencer followed, heart hammering, as they slid out the door and left it propped open behind them.

“He seems like he really missed you,” Aaron said as soon as they were out, looking around the street just outside a secluded corner of the campus where they were parked. Three students walked by in a group without sparing them a glance. “Is this what you wanted?”

“Yes,” Spencer said. “It’s like … Aaron, it’s like I’m stepping back, to before I was …” He paused, uncertain of what to say now, before finding the words. “Before I was an Ashworth kid. I’m remembering all this stuff I’d forgotten or just not wanted to remember before now. Who I was then, and what I wanted.”

“What did you want?” Aaron asked.

Spencer looked around at the campus behind them and the world opening up for him once more. “This,” he answered, shoulders slumping. “But it’s not … I guess, not anymore. It’s nice to remember dreaming about it though.”

Aaron looked shattered, his expression crumpling inward and his entire body leaning in towards Spencer at once, protectively. They kissed, but there was a noise from the van behind them. They broke apart, and turned.

Emily looked horrified, her eyes switching from Aaron and Spencer together to Ethan standing beside her. They hadn’t told him Spencer was…

They hadn’t told him.

“It’s not—” Spencer blurted out, yanking his hand away from Aaron’s and feeling him wince, before realising what he’d done. Shame hit, crushing — not of Aaron, but of Spencer’s automatic rejection of him when faced with the startled look on Ethan’s face. He took a breath, tilted his chin up, and reached out to grab Aaron’s hand again. Both of their hands were sweaty, but he still hung on tight. “It is what it looks like. Eth, Aaron’s my boyfriend.”

Aureilo sauntered out of the van, strutting up to Hal and twining around her legs before rearing up to butt his head against her muzzle. “We love them,” he said proudly, purring along with his words.

“Oh,” said Ethan, then shrugged. “Cool. Hey, Spence, I wasn’t eavesdropping, but you guys weren’t being quiet — want to see the campus? We have a library. You still into those?”

Spencer looked at Aaron, who smiled. “Go,” he suggested. “Me and Emily will wait here.” He stepped close, tucked his mouth to Spencer’s ear, and whispered, “Maybe find that dream again,” before walking back to the van.

“Come on,” Ethan called, bouncing past. “You’re still so slow. This is why I beat you to the moon.”

 

66.

Ethan took him around the campus, showing him everything: the science labs, the library, the dorms. It was all so new, so exciting. Spencer wanted to see it all, all at once, right now.

Ethan showed it to him. “This is what you should have had, man,” he said as they walked slowly down the aisles of the library, surrounded by books. “You have no idea … it’s real, real stuff. Not like school.”

“It’s not for me,” Spencer said automatically, his throat hurting at the reminder.

Ethan glanced at him oddly, green eyes framed by his long, dark hair. “No, what? Spence, you’ve always left me in the dirt. You’re a real genius — I’m just a smart guy who knows how to focus. There’s nowhere you belong more than right here, using that genius.”

Awed, Spencer looked down at Aureilo, who was a hare with Ethan’s rat-dæmon perched between his pokey shoulder-blades. “I couldn’t …”

Ethan touched his arm, hand gripping tight. “You could,” he said intently. “You can.”

“We could,” whispered Aureilo, turning to look up longingly at Spencer, the jealousy and wanting in Spencer’s heart showing clearly in his bearing.

Spencer swallowed and, for the first time in a long time, wondered if that was true.

 

67.

“So, uh, dudes, huh?” Ethan asked once, pausing by the cold pond that was devoid of ducks and poking his toe at a potato chip wrapper sunk in the mud there. “Didn’t expect that.”

“Not ‘dudes’,” Spencer corrected gently. “Just … Aaron. He’s special.” He hadn’t meant to say it, he’d never planned to, but he added, “He saved my life.”

“Our life,” Aureilo whispered, his form trembling down into the mouse.

Ethan was quiet for the longest time, his eyes locked on Aureilo. “He’s not settled,” he said, sitting down with a thump on the wet grass. Spencer winced for the state of his pants. “You’re not how I expected you to be if I saw you again.”

“How did you expect me to be?” This, Spencer understood. Didn’t he always disappoint people?

Ethan just kept looking at Aureilo, his eyes distant. “More than you are. More than me … not so …”

“Rough around the edges?” Spencer teased. If he didn’t tease, he’d cry. “Living in a van with my boyfriend and best friend, a high-school drop-out, failed genius …”

“Not so lost,” Ethan said firmly. “You think I don’t see this?” His hands, held out for Spencer to see, trembled. “You think I don’t see how scared you are? You’re with Aaron and Emily twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and they’re not dumb. They see it too. Why are you hiding? What are you so scared of?”

It was Aureilo who answered. “Maybe we’re scared of being found.”

 

68.

They found a much-needed break that night. Ethan vanished for an hour and returned with food — fresh food, real food — and a carton of cheap beer, Emily’s music playing just loud enough to drown out their worries but not loud enough to get in trouble. In the van that Spencer had come to hate and love equally, his prison and his freedom, they relaxed. Emily and Ethan drank and taught each other to dance, Ethan singing along happily. Spencer drank slower, leaned up against Aaron’s chest as Aaron — sober — stroked his side with one hand and held a book loosely in the other, reading.

“Your friend is an outrageous flirt,” Aaron murmured into Spencer’s ear, making him jump and flush worriedly, wondering if Aaron had noticed the way Spencer’s blood rushed when Ethan smiled just like that at him. “Look at Sergio.”

Spencer did, seeing Parson and Sergio circling each other, playing some strange game where one half-chased the other before sauntering off, both pretending disinterest while coaxing the other closer. Aureilo watched, his expression fascinated. Hal snoozed next to him.

“I don’t think Emily is …” Spencer began, then looked at Emily and noted the same kind of expression on her face that he thought he might have been wearing all day, the same dazed kind of awe complete with pink cheeks and a shy attempt to hide behind her bangs when Ethan complimented one of her songs. “Oh, wow. Okay. Yeah.”

For a single second, he was jealous. Jealous and a little angry, because Ethan was his friend, and so was Emily, and he didn’t want to share them … then Aaron leaned his head on Spencer’s and just breathed, and Spencer realised: everything he wanted he already had right here beside him.

Maybe it was time Emily had the chance to find that feeling too.

 

69.

When Emily and Ethan announced that they were going for more food, asking Spencer and Aaron to join them even though everyone could tell the answer they wanted was ‘no’, they let her go. A shared decision to trust her and trust him. While they were alone, they curled together with Hal between them, both petting her and Aaron going all soft-eyed and melty like he always did when Spencer touched his dæmon like this.

 “Hey, Aaron?” asked Spencer.

“Mmm?” Sleepy and content, always silly when Spencer touched Hal now that they’d gotten past the shock of it, it probably wasn’t the best time to be asking Aaron this. But Spencer wanted him to say yes.

“Can we stay here a while? Food is cheap, with the students everywhere, and I bet we can find easy work since they’d be used to teens looking for under the table stuff. I’m tired of driving aimlessly … and Emily might want to stay too, you know.”

Aaron’s eyes snapped open, his gaze intense. He didn’t say anything, just watched Spencer carefully. Spencer tried not to look too desperate, even though he was: he just wanted to spend some time somewhere that wasn’t a van.

“Okay,” Aaron said finally and closed his eyes as though to go to sleep. “It’ll be fun.”

He didn’t really sound like he believed that. Spencer reached an arm over and hugged him close. It would be fun — he’d see. Ethan would show them that.

It would be a much-needed break for all of them.

Chapter Text

Emily

 

70.

It was dumb of her, but he was cute, she was horny, and couldn’t she have something nice for once? Something she couldn’t mess up? Every time he looked at her like that, with that cocky smile she wanted to slap off his face just as much as she wanted to cover it with her mouth, and sang, his voice huskier than necessary, she couldn’t help but wonder if he was as easy to hang onto as his thin hips suggested. By the time she proposed they go for food, she was more sober than drunk and knew she wanted him.

That was why she kissed him. In her defence, Ethan kissed her back. Halfway between the dorm and the van, his back against a tree and her pressed against him. She wanted him badly at that moment, wanted his clever musician’s fingers to show her what they could do, wanted to run his long hair through her hands, wanted him to kiss her more. She could feel his heart beating fast in his chest and knew she hadn’t imagined the interest in his eyes when he looked at her, but when she tried to slip her hands down lower, he caught them.

“No,” he said, and kissed her nose. She blinked, thrown. Did he want her or not? “You’re pretty, Emily, so pretty. I’m not going to lie and say I’m not into you, but that’s not what you need or want right now.”

“Don’t tell me what I want,” she snapped but without venom.

“Fine,” he said. He looked at her with those green eyes that made her feel unsettled, not entirely sure what her brain and body were conspiring to do to her. “But I can tell you what I want — I want to know that the girl I’m taking to my bed wants to be there because of my fantastic personality, not just because they’re used to using sex as some kind of currency.”

“Are you slut shaming me?” She wasn’t angry, not really. She deserved it.

“Not at all.” Even as he said it, he kissed her again, the lightest brush of lips. “Just regretting that I can’t prove to you how much more you deserve with the time that we have.”

In that second, she didn’t know who she was. He’d taken her and turned her worldview on its head: people didn’t talk to her like this. Men didn’t talk to her like this. She turned, frightened of this stranger with his honeyed words she was sure hid something cruel, to find Sergio as a rat letting Parson brush their whiskers together, whispering to her dæmon and making them both feel heady and drunker than they were.

“So you’re not going to fuck me?” As usual, she took refuge from uncertainty in profanity, her voice whinier than intended.

He gave her a look that was impossible for her to understand, so openly interested in her and still pushing her away. Didn’t he know that you had to take what you wanted? Life was too short and mean to be cautious. “If we’re being honest,” he murmured, too close with his fingers tracing patterns on her wrist, “probably in my dreams. There’s nothing that isn’t interesting about you and I told you that I want you. But Spencer would kick my ass if I ignored how much that’d hurt you — he might be skinny, but he can be mean. And Aureilo bites.”

“You’re twice his size,” she retorted.

He just smiled and hugged her. She’d never been hugged like this before, like he was learning her and comforting her all at once, like he was getting something from the touch that was more than sexual pleasure. Her head hurt.

“If I hurt you, I’d let him win,” he told her. “It’s what I’d deserve … it’s what every idiot boy who’s made you so sharp deserves.”

Ethan, she was finding, would give Aaron a run for his money on their ‘frighteningly accurate people observation’ skills. It was weird.

She was fascinated.

“Fine,” she said, letting him hear the ‘but’, his eyes narrowing. “But let me have tonight if you want to be so disgustingly sweet.”

He blinked, startled. And answered, “Okay.”

 

71.

They didn’t have sex that night. He didn’t even touch her, not in ways that could even remotely lead to them fucking. They went back to his dorm, his roommate out for the weekend, and watched a movie with her curled in his arms, a blanket pulled around them both. If asked later, she couldn’t really remember what the movie was about — something gory in Antarctica that reminded her of the stuff Spencer liked — but she could remember vividly the pattern his heart made against her ear. The touch of his hand as he traced lines down her arm, her side, her shoulder. The way his breath caught when she kissed him.

The way he kissed.

When the night was over, he walked her back to the van, the long way. They talked. About Spencer and her mom and his parents’ high expectations, how he didn’t know if here was where he wanted to be or what he was going to do after. He told her a secret: “I’d rather make music than money,” he said, flushing prettily. “That sounds so shit, doesn’t every crappy garage band want that?”

She didn’t think it sounded shit at all. She told him one too. She told him that she knew what Sergio was going to settle as.

That she’d always known.

“Well, why hasn’t he?” Ethan asked, as though there was nothing strange about knowing who she was and just absolutely refusing to be that person.

Sergio replied, “We’ll settle when we find a reason to.”

 

72.

When she got back to the van, she found the boys barely dressed and wrapped up completely in each other. Seemingly asleep, or very close to it, with bare chests visible under the thin blanket. Hal and Aureilo were cats, curled tightly together with their noses touching. Emily looked down at them and touched her mouth where Ethan had kissed her and whispered goodnight, naming her for the creature she knew Sergio was fighting not to be. She hated the term, but kind of liked it on his lips … everything about him was confusing.

She didn’t need looking after. She didn’t need to be wooed like some vapid schoolgirl. She didn’t need empty affirmations or constant compliments to make her feel special. She didn’t. Not from Ethan with his gorgeous voice, not from any man. They were more than the dicks that wanted them.

Right?

But, when she looked down at Spencer and Aaron and how they kept weathering every storm simply because they had each other, she felt lonely. Lonely, and vulnerable, and was it worse to be both of those or to need a man to chase them away?

“Who am I?” she asked Sergio glumly, tiptoeing in and picking up the thicker blanket to throw over her friends. “I’m not who I used to be.”

Not the sassy, confident Emily who’d stalked the streets of Rome with her hairspray and her cigarettes, unattainable and brilliant and burning like fire. Too hot to be touched.

“Are any of us?” asked Sergio seriously. For a moment, flickering into the form he’d taken the day he’d almost settled before she’d forced him to be different. Taunting her with mediocrity. Seconds later, he was a cat again. A symbol of her apathy. “Who you were before hurt us. We can’t stay like that.”

“No, others hurt us,” she reminded him. “We can be exactly who we are. Not trusting anyone because we don’t need them.”

But Sergio, as she made a bed in the front seat and hunkered down, slunk close and whispered, “We can be someone else.”

She dreamed the rest of his sentence.

Someone who stops the beatings before they happen.

 

73.

The next few weeks passed in a haze of brilliance. They were fed, clean, warm, happy. When they weren’t finding snippets of work here and there, bussing tables or helping students with their cars or — in Spencer’s case — editing an endless stream of essays for five bucks a piece, she seemed to gravitate to wherever Ethan was, sitting in on his political science lectures and drawing in his notepad while he pretended to pay attention. Sometimes, they went to his room and smoked together, watching movies or staring out the window and making up names for the stars they could see. If he got stoned enough, he’d stop paying attention to the stars and instead pay attention to her, telling her everything he thought was beautiful about her until she was too breathless to stay in that closed in, airless little dorm room anymore. If she got too stoned, she’d tell him to stop, tell him he couldn’t be trusted. He didn’t seem to listen, just asked her why.

She told him about John. About the whiskey, but not what had followed. And he said, “I’d never be that cruel.”

She told him about the boys that had followed. About the drugs, and the sex, and the hatred, and he said, “I’d never leave you feeling hateful.”

She told him about Harper Ness and her stupid, shitty brain, that only wanted the unattainable.

But he just promised, “I’d never be that distant.”

“And what do you want from me in return?” she asked him, furious because there had to be a catch.

He shrugged and asked her if she ever thought she could fall in love with him. That was all he wanted, even if it was only for a night. “Let’s fall in love so I can write a song about it,” he asked of her. “One song — then I’ll happily buckle down and get my degree and my shitty nine to five job and white picket fence. It’s all I ask.”

She told him no, she wouldn’t give him that.

It felt too cruel to let him taste something good and then take it away.

 

74.

Three weeks into that wonderful time, campus police began sniffing around their van. Wary of being recognised, even this far from DC, they talked about moving on.

“Do we have to?” Spencer asked, his expression visibly falling. Beside him in the van was a stack of books that Ethan had borrowed from the library and brought out to them, books on engineering and botany and psychological profiling and math. He’d been devouring them as fast as Ethan could bring them, regaling them all with everything he was learning. If they left here, they’d be leaving all these books behind, the knowledge that was the first thing Emily had seen break through the fragile walls Spencer kept putting up between him and the world.

“Can’t we just move the van?” Emily suggested. She didn’t want to be back on the cold, empty road, not just yet. Maybe soon. After all, she’d always longed to fly free, but even she needed somewhere to rest sometimes. It was almost Christmas break. Ethan would be leaving to go home, and his mom had seemed to love Spencer…

She might have been dreaming of a Christmas spent under a warm roof with a mom who wanted to make it happy, the love and care shown in that one visit something that Emily had never had. She bet that the Coiros had a real Christmas tree — not an expensive fake to avoid ‘mess’ — and that all the labels were handwritten by Ethan’s parents, not scrawled on by the cashiers paid to wrap them. She bet they spent Christmas together, not countries apart. And maybe it was a dream, but it was a nice one … one she’d never admit because no one had ever been able to look past her expensive gifts to realise that there was nothing really in them but money.

But what were dreams other than heartbreak in the making?

“I really think we should leave,” Aaron said uncertainly, his eyes lingering on the lockbox they’d bought and Emily had borrowed a drill for to bolt under the seat. In it was all the money they’d managed to earn, enough to buy a new winter coat for two of them as well as replace the aging seals on the windows before the winter chill really hit. Not much longer and they’d be able to get Aaron a new coat too — he was adamant that his old one was fine, even though it wasn’t, and Emily knew she’d never get away with handing him one she’d stolen just so he’d stop hiding that he was shivering.

Spencer reached automatically to touch Hal, letting his hand drop as he noticed Emily watching. Eyes glassy-bright and cheeks red, he was more upset than he was letting on, and she hoped this wasn’t a return of the mood-swings of a few weeks ago, flipping from fine to lying listless on the mattress for hours at a time.

A knock on the back of the van startled them all, tension building until Ethan slid the door open and climbed in, eyes finding her before hiding where his gaze had fallen by grinning at Spencer. “Hey, nerds,” he said carelessly, poking the blankets on the mattress with his toe before dropping down onto them. “What’s happening?”

“Nothing,” Spencer mumbled, returning to his previous task of picking slowly through the remains of the box the robbers had destroyed. Ethan frowned at him, Parson darting over to whisper to Aureilo.

“We’re considering moving on,” Aaron said.

Ethan nodded slowly, his expression barely shifting. “Ah,” he said softly, shuffling towards Spencer and pausing for permission before reaching for the box. “What’s this?”

“Stuff,” was the sulky reply.

Emily just watched, her own heart twisting in her chest with a feeling like it was trying to wrench itself free. It was nothing like leaving DC; she’d thought leaving Ness would hurt, but it really, really hadn’t. This?

This hurt. It hurt so much that she was sure the others would notice, and why wasn’t Ethan looking at her?

“There’s a place out of town you could park up a bit, wait for the heat to die down,” Ethan said casually, paging through some of the photos Spencer had in there, under a pile of Emily’s paintings. “If you want to hang around a bit, no pressure. Hey, I know this woman.”

It was tacked so cleanly onto the end of his previous sentence that they all took a moment to catch up.

“Her?” Spencer said, eyes widening to an almost comical degree. “But, what? How?”

“She came to my house, once,” Ethan replied, nudging two parts of a torn photograph together and squinting at it. “Ages ago — I just remember her being really upset and Mom not being able to help. Who is she?”

Spencer stared at them all, but Emily didn’t think he was seeing the same thing they were. “She’s my mom,” he finally answered. “She’s … I haven’t seen her since I was ten years old.”

Seven years. Emily reeled, trying to imagine losing someone for so long. Everything Spencer had ever said about his mom, the few memories he shared, he clearly adored her.

“Where is she?” Ethan asked.

“I don’t know,” replied Spencer.

 

75.

In the muted quiet that followed, Spencer hunched around his box of memories in the passenger seat with Aaron driving, Ethan directed them to somewhere they could hide without leaving. It was a wide swathe of sparse trees and loose woodlands surrounded by fields and barren winter ground. Not a pretty place, but desolate, and there was nothing but a distant grain mill on the horizon and a single long dirt road leading back to Boulder with a battered pay phone visible some miles up.

It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.

“Home sweet home,” Aaron said, following Ethan to where a creek bubbled by, Emily wandering off to find wood for the fire.

That night, they dropped Ethan back, barrelling along that wide, dirt road far too fast with all their windows open. Spencer was still quiet but no longer sulking, his hand resting on Aaron’s knee and his expression thoughtful. Aureilo and Hal took turns being wolfhounds and shoving their heads out of his window.

Emily and Ethan laid together in the back, side by side with the cold wind skimming them, their hands resting so gently together that they could pull apart if anyone looked.

No one did.

 

76.

At the college, Ethan had already left before she changed her mind.

“Stop, he forgot something!” she hollered, launching out of the back of the van before it had even rolled to a stop, the boys’ shouts floating after her. And she ran after the shape turning back to stare at her, letting him catch her as she kissed him openly for anyone who cared to see.

“I’m making you a gift,” he whispered to her when they broke apart. “I’ll bring it up tomorrow, okay?”

“I hate surprises,” she warned him, but he just smiled.

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

77.

“It’s not that I’m jealous of Ethan,” Aaron began. He was determined to be calm, rational, and reasonable about this, all things he was beginning to get a handle on. “It’s just that—”

“We’re jealous of Ethan,” Hal cut in, turning into a black bear and grumbling loudly, taking up a whole side of the van almost. Aaron glared, hearing the suspension groan. “We see how Aureilo acts around Parson.”

“We’re not blind,” Aaron mumbled, feeling bad. Spencer was shrinking back, Aureilo sitting with his ears flat — a hare again, and that pissed Aaron off too. What did Ethan have that Aaron didn’t that made Aureilo settle into his skin so easily? They all knew Aureilo was a hare, it wasn’t subtle. But only here, or when he was stoned, did the stupid dæmon let himself be himself. It was cruel. Didn’t he see how flaunting how easily he could pretend to be something other than what he was hurt those of them who didn’t know who they were and probably never would? Hal felt like a wolf sometimes, a mouse others. Sometimes, something caught in-between.

“I know, I’m sorry,” Spencer said. It was the glum bluntness to his voice that really worked to calm Aaron down, the tension in the van dissipating almost immediately. He wasn’t hiding anything or looking guilty like he’d done something wrong. “It’s not something I can control. I mean, I sort of can? It’s easier now I know it’s coming…”

“What is ‘it’?”

Spencer shrugged, his hands patting around his knees looking for something to fiddle with before settling on the deck of playing cards Ethan had left behind the day before, splitting them and shuffling in a fast-paced beat. Snk snk snk went the cards, smooth sides hissing cleanly together, and then Spencer began to talk. “The weirdness is just lust,” he said plainly. Aaron moved over on his knees, eyes locked on those cards. “I told you … everything is weird lately. I can’t help thinking he’s attractive, and I can’t help how strong those feelings are right now. But you know it doesn’t change us, right?”

“Right,” murmured Aaron, who didn’t know that at all. If Ethan was so attractive to Spencer, why didn’t he want him more?

The cards stopped. Spencer was staring at him. “You actually think I want Ethan more than you?”

Aaron looked away.

“Aaron, no, no!” Down went the cards, the neat stack spilling over the floor as Spencer bowed forward. “He’s someone I was friends with a long time ago, someone who … he makes me feel smart and capable in a way you can’t — not at this point of your life — and that’s not your fault! He’s in a different place. But you make me feel so many other things than just smart … so many more important things.”

“Like?” Aaron asked, seeing Spencer think that over. Instead of answering, he shuffled closer into Aaron’s arms and held his hand out to Hal. Hal, as though transfixed by that offer, smoothly folded down into the shape of a hare, black where Aureilo was brown, and hopped forward straight into his lap. Spencer bent low over her, hands curled around her slim sides with his mouth pressed against her forehead, every heart in that van thumping in unison.

“Like this,” Spencer whispered into her fine fur, and felt. Aaron had to close his eyes to ride it through, his brain choking on the wave of emotion. No wonder people didn’t like this … no wonder it was taboo. It was so much.

When he opened his eyes, dizzy and aroused and very in love, Spencer was still cuddling Hal tight and Aureilo was right by Aaron’s knee. So close that Aaron thought his side might brush as he breathed, so close that Aaron could see the fine lines of colour that created the mottled tan a real hare would use to blend into the undergrowth. Aaron watched him breathe, until the hare-dæmon turned and looked up at him with his eyes so big Aaron could see himself reflected in the pupils that were too wide for a hare’s. Aureilo moved, sitting into his hind legs with his sides heaving so fast that Aaron fancied he could close his eyes and hear the rapid patter of his frantic heart.

One paw reached, a whisper of a touch, on Aaron’s knee.

Fear shot through them all, Hal whining. Aaron looked at her, his own body shuddering with a great, overwhelming terror like nothing he’d felt since running away from his father. Spencer was staring, painfully rigid.

Another paw touched and Aureilo inched closer.

“Touch him,” Spencer choked out, the words sounding like they hurt. So scared that Aaron immediately shook his head, pulling away. “Do it. Aaron, do it. You need to know that you’re everything to me — Ethan is my friend, but I love you. You don’t need to keep pulling back to keep me safe. Do it!”

Aureilo’s form trembled. He leapt, a warm, heavy weight on Aaron’s knee with the trouser fabric the only thing separating them.

“Do it,” Spencer said again.

Aaron lowered his hand, the barest sliver of his finger brushing Aureilo’s ear.

And Aureilo moaned, don’t, but it was too late.

Spencer cried out, the raw terror slamming so hard and fast into Aaron’s gut that he lurched back and sent Aureilo flying, the hare already scampering to run. Out the window of the van Aureilo shot, Spencer flying after with a shout.

Hal landed awkwardly on the floor and yelled, “Go after them!”

Aaron did. He found them huddled in the grass, Aureilo wrapped tight in Spencer’s arms as the boy chanted, “Never again, never, never — I won’t hurt you again,” while the hare cried with a voice that ached, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Shaken, they slept apart that night, as far from each other’s dæmons as they could go. When Emily came home and asked what was wrong, they didn’t have the words to explain.

 

78.

He was working on a freshman’s car one windy afternoon when Ethan found him, Parson running up to Hal and ignoring the way she snootily turned her muzzle up at him. Aaron scowled, forced by the manners he’d had beaten into him to slip his headphones from his ears and pause the Walkman Emily had given him and that he was rarely without these days.

“Hi,” Aaron said crankily. He could see the ruin of everything in the casual slope of Ethan’s shoulders. Cool where Aaron was awkward, relaxed where he was uptight … maybe Spencer loved Aaron, but Ethan was a hell of a lot more fun.

“Hey,” Ethan replied. “So, uh. You guys going to hang around much longer? Christmas soon, is all…”

Aaron didn’t really know what to say so he went with, “I don’t know.” Selfishly, he wanted Spencer all to himself this Christmas, their first on the road. They could make it something good.

“Oh.” Ethan poked at an ant, the cool nonchalance he usually wore slipping. “You don’t like me much, do you? Is it because of Emily?”

“Emily?” It came out harsher than intended, Aaron wincing as Ethan glanced nervously at Hal. “What about her?”

It was a stupid question he realised moments after asking it.

“I don’t care if you two are sleeping together,” he muttered. The timing belt was out. This was going to be an annoying fix with his limited tools.

“We’re not,” Ethan said with honesty that surprised Aaron. “I mean, we might, if you guys stay, but we’re not … now. If that’s why you’re pissy. I get that. Little sister feelings, huh? I don’t have a sister, but I get that. I feel the same about Spence. Was worried when I saw him smooching you, what with how big you are and the way you scowl.”

Aaron stared. “The hell you trying to say?” he asked.

“Sorry, shit.” Ethan ran his hand through his hair, expression frustrated. “I’m trying to explain myself, get on the right foot with you. I’m worried, okay, and I want you all to stay, and you won’t do that if you think I’m out to mess with Emily’s head.”

“Worried about me and Spencer?”

“No.” Ethan leaned his hand against the cold asphalt, letting Parson skitter up his sleeve to nibble at his ear. “Worried about Spencer, man. I mean, you love him, right? Do you think he’s okay? Because he’s not acting okay. And if I need to back off on Em so you trust me enough to help, well, I won’t be happy, but I will. Me and her care about him and we’re worried about him and she thinks maybe you hate me because of what we’re—”

Aaron said, “Emily’s older than me,” cutting Ethan off mid-ramble. The other boy stared at him. “The little sister thing … maybe don’t call her that in front of her. She’s older than me, it’ll piss her off. They’re both older than me.”

“I don’t think so,” Ethan said quietly after a short pause, his expression intense. “I’ve been alone here for two years. I know it’s college, but that’s … you grow up fast when you’re a kid surrounded by adults. And you grow up fast when you’re a kid looking after other kids, when you’re the kind of person who can’t stand to see those kids hurt. From what Emily tells me, how mad she gets about you fussing, I think you’re one of those. And because you grew up for them, they didn’t have to. Emily’s fucking gorgeous, she really is, and so sharp. I love her edge, I could dance on it all day and never get tired of cutting myself … but, shit, she’s exactly seventeen years old. So is Spencer, he’s always been younger than he should be, easier to hurt. You? I’ve seen professors here with younger eyes.”

“You don’t know shit about us,” Aaron snapped. They weren’t children. They’d proven that, over and over and over again. “They pull their weight, same as me.”

“Mm.” Ethan tapped on the rudimentary toolbox Aaron had cobbled together, scrimping on food for himself in order to spend it on what they needed. The tools were for him, after all, it wouldn’t be right to cut into the other’s rations for it. “So why are you wearing a coat with holes while they get new? And where are they now while you’re working on a Sunday with snow coming?”

They were back at the van near their campsite where Aaron had told them to stay to keep them off the road with the freeze coming. Emily could be an idiot sometimes, and Spencer was still traumatised by his near miss in the rain. It was easier for Aaron to hitchhike in, telling them he was catching a ride with someone he knew from church. If the snow hit early, he could make it back.

“If you guys stay, you don’t need to protect them anymore,” Ethan coaxed, leaning closer. “We could rent someplace out, maybe, I’m eighteen soon enough … the four of us could swing it. Spence can come to college—”

“Is that what this is about?” Aaron stood, anger and worry spiking. “You wanting him here?”

Ethan subverted expectations again, standing and saying, very calmly, “Yes.”

Whatever Aaron had thought to reply, to argue against, it was stalled by the weather. Rain fell, cold enough that it bit like ice. Already freezing in the air and set to get even colder, becoming sleet that would turn the roads to ice within an hour.

“Let me take you back,” Ethan called over the patter of rain as they both ran to get the hood of the car down, huddling back under the shelter together with their dæmons silent beside them. “We can talk on the drive.”

 

79.

They drove in silence into the falling grey. Not white, not just yet, but it might be by morning. Even with Ethan’s heater cranked, Aaron’s hands were numb with cold, his face clumsy when he tried to shape it into an unbothered expression.  They didn’t end up talking about whatever Ethan had been trying to tell him; Aaron was too raw and Ethan too focused on the road. Instead, they talked about things that didn’t really matter. College rivalries and Emily’s canned food monstrosities, Spencer’s love of puzzles and Ethan’s childhood in New Orleans.

Aaron, at some point along that slow drive, brought up Emily, watching with interest as Ethan’s entire demeanour changed. Something brightened his expression as he rattled on about music that Aaron hadn’t heard that Emily had shared with him, about things Emily had told him she was interested in that she’d never told Aaron about. The whole time, his voice was quick and light, the thoughts coming in an endless stream that spoke to them being near on his mind. Ethan, Aaron realised, was very much in love with Emily. Even if it was something fast and stupid, a three-week teenage romance, it was real and noticeable. Worst of all, Aaron didn’t know if Emily felt the same; he felt very sure that heartbreak was racing Ethan’s way, no matter how much he’d tried to guard against it. Maybe that was why he was so sure they should stay, Aaron decided. Nothing to do with Spencer at all.

That was easier to stomach.

Before he could think to ask, they were back at the van. Ethan grabbed something from the glove compartment before they left the warmth of the car, catching Aaron’s eye.

“What’s that?” Aaron asked, seeing Ethan pause.

“A tape,” he said finally, face flushing red. “Well, two … two tapes … for Emily.”

“Neat,” Aaron murmured, looking away so he didn’t see whatever Ethan had written on the card inset. That was private. “Let’s go find them, then.”

But they weren’t at the van. Hal declared they’d been gone hours by the fading scent, a half-empty packet of chips perched on the dash with the top folded neatly over and the ashtray hanging open with empty butts littering it. Emily was smoking again. Aaron groaned; she really only smoked when she was bored and restless, which was also when she usually went out looking for trouble of some kind or another.

“Probably off being dicks in the snow,” Aaron grumbled, climbing out of the van and ignoring Ethan’s wry look when he immediately began to shiver. Leaning back in, he eyed the various stacks of clothing, Hal appearing with a warmer coat in her mouth and dragging it to him—

Wait.

“That’s Emily’s coat,” Ethan said, peering around Aaron and staring at it. The rain was slowing, frost forming on his shoulders and back where it had dampened the outer lining. “She like freezing or something?”

“No,” said Aaron honestly. He turned and frowned at the empty farmland around them, his heart racing. They’d fucked up. They’d parked somewhere remote, again, forgetting that there were more dangers than cops out there — hadn’t the robbery taught them anything?! “She hates being cold.”

In the distance, something started screaming.

“Sergio!” cried Hal and became a peregrine falcon who swooped into the air with them hot on her heels, racing towards that terrible sound.

 

80.

Emily wasn’t there.

Sergio was a snow leopard, hunched on the ground alone. Aaron couldn’t help the sound that tore from his throat at the sight of that, suddenly fifteen years old again and watching Ricky Whitechapel’s dæmon torn from him by uncaring waves. And this was just as awful — they could all see a long line of claw marks in the dirt where the distance between Emily and her dæmon had started tearing them apart, Sergio dragging himself further despite everything in him screaming at him to stop.

“Sergio!” cried Hal. She landed beside him and became a bear that roared, reaching for him without her paws touching. “Where is Emily?! They’re pulling apart!”

Sergio saw Aaron and opened his huge mouth wide. What came out was a scream, his eyes rolling with pain and his fluffy coat lank against his body. He looked awful, horrendous. Like seeing someone missing something important to them, a body with half its organs gone or a ghost stumbling towards them. Something undead and frightening.

“Holy fuck,” Ethan cried. He stumbled as he leapt a swell of knotted grass. “Where’s Emily!?”

“Here!” howled Sergio, turning and launching himself back along those claw marks with a speed that Aaron had thought impossible for the dæmon to manage with that much pain in his eyes. “Hurry, hurry, hurry!”

They ran. What else could they do — clearly something awful, something so horrible that words couldn’t describe it must have happened for Emily’s brave, glorious dæmon to hurt them in such a way.

They ran, and they found them.

It was worse than Aaron could have imagined.

 

81.

“Aaron!” shrieked Emily as soon as she heard them calling for her, her voice a hysterical shadow of her dæmon’s scream. “Aaron, help us!”

Ethan beat Aaron there, but only by a tiny amount. For that first second of taking in the scene, everything seemed fine. Fine enough that Aaron frowned, studying Emily as she ignored Sergio flinging himself against her legs in favour of dragging on Spencer’s arm. Ignored Sergio’s panting mouth and how white his gums were. He’d travelled almost forty feet from her, double the length it took on average for accidental severing to happen. Triple the length that had killed Ricky Whitechapel.

For a second, he was angry at her for risking herself like that when everything was fine, and then Hal moaned, “Where’s Aureilo?” and Aaron looked closer.

Ethan lurched forward. Before Aaron could think to shout, he’d tackled Spencer to the ground — and only then did Aaron realise Emily hadn’t been pulling on Spencer, she’d been fighting him. They hit the ground, Spencer yelping and striking out at Ethan, Ethan shouting at Aaron. Nothing made sense for a beat until it did, and Aaron’s brain came back online.

“He’s flipping out, get Aureilo!” Ethan was shouting at Aaron at the same time Parson was demanding of Emily, “What did you two take?”

Emily couldn’t speak, huddled down with Sergio in her arms as they tried to hug each other so close that it was hard to tell where human ended and dæmon began, her eyes just as blank and shocked as Sergio’s. Except, now he knew, Aaron could see how deep her pupils were, the barest sliver of brown visible.

“Aureilo?” he asked her, feeling dumb for asking as though a cursory glance around the clearing would show the hare sitting there shaking his head at the fuss — but it didn’t, and that was impossible. Aureilo never left Spencer’s side. They stuck closer than any of them.

She just pointed with a trembling hand that snapped just as quickly back to clutch at Sergio, tears spilling despite her being apparently unaware of them. Aaron followed that direction, finding their hare.

 

82.

Every step Aaron took from where Ethan was pushing the wordless Spencer down grew heavier, the distance bearing down and down and down until — at fifteen feet — they found the hare slumped in the leaves. He was flopped on his side, looking almost relaxed on the leaf-litter. Almost relaxed, except he was too far from Spencer.

Spencer was walking away from him.

“Aur?” Hal gasped, licking and licking at the dæmon’s fine fur. He didn’t even twitch, eyes blank. If Aaron hadn’t known so intimately what happened when a dæmon died, the body disintegrating into Dust, he’d have feared the worst. “What’s wrong with him, Aaron?”

“I don’t know,” Aaron choked out, hearing Ethan shout behind them. Panic hit. “Pick him up! Come on!”

He turned and ran back, knowing Hal would follow. A chimp with Aureilo cradled in her arms, something fragile and infinitely valuable. They burst out into the clearing and found Ethan sitting on Spencer, who just turned to watch them walk towards him with an expression that was so unfamiliar as to be alien on his face.

“Is he okay?” Ethan asked. “Is he moving?”

“No,” Aaron said shortly through the fear. He looked at Spencer, his voice sharp when he spoke again. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Because, high or not, Spencer seemed alert enough to know what the hell he was doing.

But Spencer just stared at him like he was a stranger.

“It’s Aureilo, you idiot!” snapped Ethan, shaking Spencer’s shoulder as Hal shuffled up and tried to pass the limp hare-dæmon back to his human. Spencer ignored them both, looking right past Aureilo, as though he didn’t even see him. “You’re hurting your dæmon, stop!”

Now and only now did Spencer look at Aureilo, mouth turning thoughtful. “No, I don’t think so,” he said, his voice clear and calm. “That’s not my dæmon. I’ve never seen it before in my life.”

 

83.

They got them back to the van, Aaron only losing his temper with Emily once and snapping.

“Yelling won’t help,” Ethan said quietly as Emily cringed like she’d been slapped. “Let her come down, then yell at her.”

Aaron bit back his response to that, turning back to where Spencer was lying like a discarded rag across the mattress. He was wearing his coat at least, something Aaron noted gratefully as, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ethan trying to coax a half-panicking Emily into her own coat before she froze more than she already was, using his hands to rub at hers where they’d turned blue with cold, her lips almost purple.

Where they’d laid him down as Spencer continually rejected him, Aureilo was unmoving, surrounded by worried dæmons.

“We need to go to a hospital,” Aaron said firmly, going for the keys. Almost as quick as he’d moved, Spencer was up and going for the door, Ethan catching him with one hand and both of them falling out the back of the van to land with pained yelps on the icy ground. Aaron went after them, helping haul Spencer back into the van and unable to help but shake him on the way. “Snap out of it!”

“Let me go,” Spencer hissed. “I don’t know you!”

Aaron reeled.

Ethan was calmer. “What did you take?” he asked Emily again, who’d finally started settling down, her hands stroking Sergio in a frighteningly repetitive motion, mute until this moment with the shock of the fright she’d had and Sergio ripping himself apart from her to get help. “Emily. Emily. Look at me.” She did, eyes glassy. Aaron shivered, even as he took over pinning Spencer down in the back of the van, refusing to let him vanish into the thin snow, and let Ethan inch towards her. “Hey, hey. You’re alright. See, we’re all here. And Aureilo, there he is.”

Emily looked at Aureilo before her eyes traced along the line of the van, watching something that wasn’t there. Ethan caught her chin, easing it back.

“I’m going to go out on a limb and go LSD?” he asked wryly, looking at Aaron for confirmation, who shrugged helplessly.

“I don’t take drugs,” he said.

“LSD,” Emily croaked hoarsely, looking for all the world like a waxed-figure coming slowly to life. “It wasn’t bad. I’ve taken some before, it’s supposed to be mild. It is mild.”

“Took some from this batch?” Ethan asked. Aaron hated him for how capable he was while all Aaron was, was useless.

“Yes. Two tabs left, one each. Can’t overdose on that much. I don’t know what …” She took a shuddering breath that sounded like it tore, turning those panicked eyes on Aaron. “This has never happened to me, I swear, Aaron. I wouldn’t have given it to him if I’d known this would happen.”

Ethan looked around. “Where’s Spence keep his stuff?” he asked. “Things he’d hide if he wanted to hide something?”

Aaron baulked. “He wouldn’t,” he snapped from reflex before realising that yes, yes, he would. “Hide what?”

“He’s not taking anything else!” Emily said. “He’s not a druggie!”

“Yeah well, what you’re seeing is what happens when two shit drugs combine to make an even shittier drug,” Ethan shot back, jabbing his thumb at Aureilo. “That ain’t LSD. He’s on something else to do that, if you’re sure your stash wasn’t contaminated. Where’s he hide things?”

Aaron rasped, “Under the passenger seat. The box.” He couldn’t think of anywhere else, watching dazedly as Ethan tugged the box out and upended it. No drugs clattered out. Just papers, torn books, shredded photos. And Aaron realised where it would be, reaching down and patting Spencer’s coat pockets until he could slip a hand inside and feel the round, firm touch of a container against his fingers. Spencer didn’t even seem to care as Aaron withdrew his hand, staring at the pill bottle laying silently in his palm. The betrayal was realised, sharp, and infinitely cruel.

A hand reached out and took it, Ethan studying the label before popping the lid and shaking out a wadded-up tissue and a single pink and white tablet. “If you knew he was on lithium, you fucked up,” he said quietly to Emily, turning on his knee and showing her the empty bottle. “It causes disassociation when combined with psychedelics, messes your head up hard. Seizures, psychotic breaks, the works. He probably has no idea who he is right now.”

“I don’t know what that means,” she stammered. Aaron watched without knowing what to think, his entire body frozen and Spencer silent and limp under him, eyes shut. “I didn’t know he was on it, Aaron, help me — you didn’t know either, right? I mean, I knew he was medicated, but that was almost a year ago and I never saw him taking pills. I thought he’d stopped — we haven’t been buying any on the road, and we’d know.”

“Medicated?” Aaron questioned stupidly, Emily just shaking her head in reply like the words were fighting her and winning. “Is he ODing? Why aren’t we going—”

“You can probably just let him sleep it off,” Ethan said, still playing with the empty pill bottle and ignoring Aaron’s worried hiss. “Look — he’s already out. Whether he felt it or not, he hurt himself just as badly as Emily, walking away from Aureilo. That kind of thing wipes you out. There’s nothing they’ll do for him at the hospital except monitor him, call his dad, and then probably stick him in the psych ward if he freaks out on them again. Good luck getting him out of there.”

Hal spoke for the first time since they’d found Aureilo so terribly still: “What does lithium do? Is he taking it to get high?”

Ethan held up the pill bottle, the neat type-setted Spencer Reid across the label. “It’s prescribed. No one takes lithium for fun. It’s used for …” He paused, trailing off, eyes skimming the silent Spencer again. “Maybe you should ask him when he wakes up.”

Emily laughed, her voice harsh. “It’s used to stop people offing themselves,” she said, curling her knees tight. “He’s not manic, he’s not bi-polar, he’s not a schizo … which means they gave it to him to stop him trying to die.”

Hal whined.

Ethan just nodded.

 

84.

At some point during the night, Spencer’s gross, loose-limbed sleep turned to something more natural, his breathing evening out. Past three a.m., Emily woke properly, shifting into the front seat where Ethan was napping and sipping at a bottle of water without looking at Aaron or Spencer. Just after that, Spencer opened his eyes, Aureilo struggling up beside him. All he said was, “Aur,” reaching one hand to his dæmon before closing his eyes again and falling back to sleep, fingers threaded through Aureilo’s fur. It was enough. Aaron relaxed. Until now, he’d been worried they were making a mistake, not taking him to get checked out … but maybe he was going to be fine.

 

85.

He dozed and woke to voices that were angry, if lowered. Ethan and Emily, bickering gently in the front seat, their profiles illuminated by the white of the frost-covered windshield. Aaron watched them without moving to give up that he was awake, focusing on the words while his eyes tracked the plumes of fog from their mouths that fractured the light from the dash.

“Spencer needs to go to college, Em,” Ethan was saying, almost pleading. “You can’t run from this. Mental illness doesn’t get better because you give him some hugs and tell him he’s special. And he’s never been good at being aimless. He needs stability, focus — he’s not you.”

“He loves it out here,” Emily argued. “You don’t know shit about him, only what you knew for three months back when you were ten. He’s not suicidal. I bet his idiot dad got the pills for him to, I don’t know, keep him quiet, stop him being who he should have been. You want me to send him back where he’s going to be medicated for fun?”

“Do you really think he’d give his kid lithium to, what? Stop him misbehaving? That’s nuts.”

“You don’t know his dad. If there was a way to keep Spencer the perfect little mouse, he’d do it. He doesn’t let Spencer have too many books, bans any mentions of his mom, leaves him to look after the house like he’s a housewife instead of a teenager. He’s kept, Ethan, not loved. And he has money, influence … if he wanted a way to keep Spencer docile, boom, he’s got it.”

Aaron traced his hand along Spencer’s arm, feeling the warm skin under the blankets covering them. What Emily was saying didn’t seem completely implausible … insane, sure, but Aaron had grown up with a belt as a parent; was it so impossible that William Reid was using pills for the same effect?

Emily continued, her voice lower: “You keep talking about how smart Spencer is, reminiscing about all the crazy experiments you guys used to do, the nerdy games you’d play. Do you know how much of that I recognise? None. None of it. He doesn’t read, he barely studies, he won’t share when he knows something because he doesn’t believe that he knows anything. The kid you talk about, the genius who kicked your ass in everything mental? I don’t recognise that kid. All I know is our Spencer, and he’s too scared of being noticed to excel.”

“Fine, don’t send him home,” Ethan said finally, his voice grieved, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t stay. If his dad is fucking with him like that, he’s seventeen now. He can bounce and they won’t force him home. He’s not like me and you Em. If we wanted, we could run away, be happy together, just doing nothing but wandering the world and finding everything beautiful …”

Ethan reached across and took Emily’s hand, voice coaxing. For an awful moment, Aaron worried he was going to ask her to do just that — to follow him blindly to where they’d never find her, on some fruitless quest searching for something to live for.

But Ethan wasn’t done: “He’s not content to just live, he needs a purpose. He’s never going to find that out here, surrounded by empty space. Those pills prove that.”

“Why do you think you know him better than I do? Than Aaron does? You have no idea how far we’d go for each other.”

“I don’t, but I hope it’s as far as Colorado, as far as the purpose he needs. Em, you said yourself — you’ve never known the Spencer I did, the Spencer who was happy, who knew who he could be. Did you know, when we were kids, Aureilo was always a hare? He didn’t need to be anything else, they knew where they were going. I knew him when he was Spencer, when he was the kid who was everything I wasn’t. This life? It’s going to destroy him. I think you know this, just as much as you’re scared of letting him go because life has been so shit to you, you can’t handle the idea of losing people, even if just for a while.”

Emily was silent.

Aaron couldn’t move. If they stayed, he was under no illusions what would happen. He was a high-school dropout with no money and no future. He’d work in some garage while Spencer went to college and found the part of himself he was missing, until they were so different that they had to go their separate ways. This van, this life, it would become nothing but a memory. Emily and Ethan would fall properly in love and run away together. She’d never be content in the one place, always needing to be moving.

He’d be left behind in Boulder, wishing he’d never left DC.

But … Spencer would be happy.

“You’re not going to stay, are you?” Ethan asked suddenly, his voice cracking. There was a sniff — Emily, Aaron realised, and wished it was Ethan because that hurt less than how raw his friend had been lately. “No, I didn’t think so … if you need to go, go. I guess you’re never really just going to trust me when I tell you you could be happy here…”

Aaron heard the door lock click, a rustling as Ethan unwrapped his blanket and passed it across. Emily didn’t take it, just sitting motionless as he gave up waiting and dropped it between them before leaning across the centre console to reach for her face.

“Stop crying,” Aaron heard whispered, his face heating up as he realised the tone wasn’t angry anymore, but morose. “I’m probably just being melodramatic. I do that.”

“Don’t go,” Emily responded, barely audible.

“Don’t ask me to stay if you’re not willing to do the same for me.” Despite his sharp words, Ethan kissed her. Aaron shouldn’t have been watching, but he was, stunned at the need and love behind the motion, from a man they’d met three weeks ago. Stunned by the raw emotion Emily showed. He’d been wrong. Whatever Ethan felt, Emily mirrored. This hurt them both.

“One night?” Emily kept pleading. That was enough for Aaron. He closed his eyes, wishing he was anywhere but here listening to this. “One song, you asked for. I can give you that…”

“Nah, I’m good.” More rustling, the door opening and bringing a gust of frozen air to slash at them all. “I don’t think I like the song you’ve got for me right now, it’s got a shit ending.”

Aaron heard the clicking of plastic on plastic, Emily inhaling sharply. Silence for a moment.

Then Ethan one final time: “Here’s a spoiler: everyone is miserable and no one finds their way. Enjoy your road trip, Blackbird. I’ll be here if you change your mind.”

The door closed, the wind shutting off like someone had flicked a switch. Aaron opened his eyes, staring at Emily holding the tape, a frozen figure framed against the icy windshield.

“Emily?” he asked, wondering what to say.

But she replied shortly, “Go to sleep.”

So, he did.

Chapter Text

Emily

 

86.

The thing about being lost was that it wasn’t immediately obvious. If Aaron was asked about being lost, he’d have said that they weren’t, that they couldn’t be: they didn’t have a destination, so how could they deviate from it? If Spencer had been asked, he’d have said he’d been lost since he was ten years old, so what did it matter? If Emily was asked, she wouldn’t have cared enough to answer. But being lost in the fall was one thing.

Winter was entirely another.

 

87.

The tape was labelled Complicated Music for a Complicated Girl and it was the most bullshit label she’d ever seen, so bullshit in fact that she wanted to hate it completely for being so utterly trash.

But she didn’t. As they drove away from the hated Boulder, she borrowed Aaron’s Walkman and listened to it on repeat, finding no pleasure in the music even as she inflicted it ruthlessly over and over to herself, trying to inoculate herself to how much it fucking hurt.

There had been a small span of time, between staying and going, where they’d been torn on which they’d choose. Aaron seemed to be pushing to stay, something that stunned her, and she was … she didn’t know. It didn’t feel right, staying, like they were clipping Spencer’s wings before he’d even found what he was looking for. Because that’s what Ethan had missed — sure, Spencer worked better with a focus, but he couldn’t focus yet. Not on school, not on learning. There was something crucial missing from his life, something that would pull him out of his misery. They just had to find it first, and she didn’t think it was here. Spencer had no opinion on it, refusing to talk about the lithium or the bad trip, the aftereffects of which they could still see lingering in his eyes and in the twitchy way Aureilo moved, always one step behind Spencer and in danger of being kicked.

Maybe they’d have stayed, except as soon as Spencer felt okay to move around again — Aaron latched so hard onto his ass that there was nowhere they didn’t go together — he went into town to see Ethan. Emily went into town too, headphones on and music drowning out the world. Refusing to go see Ethan, that ass, because she didn’t need him cutting her deep like that again.

It was when she went to buy lunch that she saw it. A girl standing next to her at the fridge glanced at Emily and did a double-take, eyes widening as she hurried off. Emily watched her go, before peering into the fridge to see what had startled her. And she found it. Aaron never approved of stealing, but she wasn’t taking this up to the counter to pay; she slipped it into her coat and ran the whole way back to UColorado, finding the boys sitting in Ethan’s room. Ignoring how tired Ethan looked, how red his eyes were, she shoved the carton at them.

“Problem,” she said, waggling the milk by her face so they could see what was printed on it: her mom hadn’t exactly picked the nicest photo for it, and that pissed Emily off more than the fact that the caption read Missing: Reward Offered over top of her name. “Hello, notoriety.”

Aaron blanched. “Did anyone see you buying that?”

“No,” she replied. “But someone recognised me. We have to get the hell outta Dodge. Or, in this case, the hell outta Boulder.”

“Sorry, Ethan,” Spencer said, standing. Emily tossed the milk carton at Ethan, smiling sweetly when he caught it and stared at her face printed on it. “We’re not getting caught — we’re never going back there. We’ll come back when the coast clears, okay?”

Ethan just nodded.

And so they left, back onto the road with their windows rolled up tight against the cold outside.

 

88.

“I’m sorry,” Emily said to Spencer when she could talk to him again without wanting to vomit, her brain torturing her with what had happened. Every night, she revisited the moment his eyes had gone blank, culminating in that terrible fight to stop him mindlessly severing himself. “For what I did…”

“Wasn’t your fault,” Spencer replied quietly. They were sitting in a library in some mid-sized town, Spencer tired from trying unsuccessfully to find work earlier that day. Emily crossed her legs, trying to peer at the book he was reading and failing. Their stomachs growled.

“Still, I gave it to you.”

Spencer turned the page before answering, tilting the book towards her: Dissociative Fugue State read the title on the top. “I don’t remember a thing. All I remember is waking up to Aaron hugging me and Aureilo hurting … I don’t know what happened.”

Good, she thought but didn’t say. There was a core-deep ache right in the centre of herself still, almost a week and a half after the incident, the part of her that she felt when she touched Sergio. It felt bruised and swollen if that was possible, and she knew Spencer felt the same because sometimes his breath caught sharply, fingers tracing his sternum. But at least he had no memory of the actual distance. Even now, Emily looked nervously around for Sergio and found him lurking nearby as a gold-backed beetle.

Instead, she said, “You should talk to Aaron. He’s—”

“Pissed I was taking the lithium.” Spencer’s eyes were back on the medical journal, finger tracing a line as slowly as if he was reading it at a normal pace.

“No. He’s pissed you didn’t tell us you were taking the lithium. You could have, you know … we’d have helped you. You not talking now is pissing him off even more, and you know that when he gets shitty, he takes it out on me.”

“I’ll try,” he replied, but she doubted he would.

 

89.

They tried to work. Snow fell and made it easier, as they drove deliberately to where they knew it was falling. Aaron shovelled snow in the morning, chopped wood after that, worked tables in diners come lunch, went door to door asking to do odd work in the afternoon, and vanished at night to haunt bars asking if they needed a helping hand when they were at their busiest. Then, he’d come home — exhausted— to fall asleep and do it all again the next day. Hal stayed as an Alsatian, keeping up the appearance of hardworking productivity Aaron was selling.

Emily found retail places that would take her on, under the table and working cheap, but also found that she wasn’t good at working retail. Nor was she able to stomach the customers’ shit behind the counter of a café, or a diner, or even — one notable time — trying to do bar-work with the drunks grabbing at her tits and ass if she got too close.

Fired, fired, fired, fired.

No one would even bother giving Spencer a shot, the boy too quiet and withdrawn to charm his way into a job, so sure of his own failure that as soon as someone offered something, he’d back away with a worried, “I don’t know how to do that,” and slink back to the van with his tail tucked.

The only time he livened up was when she painted. The birds again, although she was souring on them a bit once more — so, she expanded. Stole a book from a library on every animal in the world and started working on capturing the solitary sassiness of a wild cat or the steadfast loyalty of a hunting wolf. Then, and only then, did Spencer wake up and pay attention, wiggling closer and giving her suggestions on what to fill the watercolour worlds she was making with.

“A giraffe with the world’s greatest scarf on,” he suggested one day. As soon as it was done and dry, he squirrelled it away in his growing collection, grinning like an idiot as he showed Aureilo. Another day it was a kitten riding a ram; best friends, Spencer assured her, so Sergio turned into a ram and galloped about in the icy mud with cat-Aureilo hanging on for dear life on his back, claws dug deep into his wool. She painted that scene, laughing the entire time, so much that she didn’t even care that it made her ribs ache and her lines wobbly — it also eased that core-deep pain. Things were bad, but they could be worse.

They kept on.

 

90.

The first time they found snow so deep they couldn’t drive through it, they realised that maybe it was time they turned around and headed south. At least they wouldn’t end up stuck in a blizzard then. They were driving on fumes, dead out of work as the towns they drove through lost themselves in festive cheer.

They only realised once it was over that they’d spent Christmas Day stuck in a snowdrift, waiting for a melt to let them out. A week after that without sighting another soul, surviving off cookies and the last of the canned food, they watched fireworks burst against a distant, cloudy horizon, the lights reflecting from the snow. Emily painted that for them too, tucking it into Spencer’s collection after capturing the image of Spencer and Aaron standing with their arms around each other, silhouetted by the white-grey sky above.

And then it was the next year and they were slowly freezing. Whoever was driving got the largest share of the winterwear, the other two huddling in the back under every blanket they had. The heater worked but could only do so much, and every time they stopped to sleep was an exercise in seeing who could pee the fastest without exposing too much skin to the open air. Aaron stayed tired, his face pale and eyes painfully shadowed. Hal stayed a dog. Spencer stayed silent with his mouse in his sleeve.

Emily missed Ethan, listening over and over and over again to the tapes he’d made her, both of them. One with songs that had reminded him of her, one with songs he’d recorded himself. Most mindless tunes with silly titles like A Rabbit’s Trousers or Ode to that Tiny Horse, but there was one unnamed at the end that caught her every time. It was angry and jazzy and made her feel restless like she was pinned down when all she wanted to do was fly. One day, she hoped to go back to Boulder and ask him the name of the track; surely it had a name. It made her feel too much to go nameless.

 

91.

The heater broke in one town and, while Aaron fixed it, they went to find work and quickly gave up, the entire town shut up against bad weather coming. The library was open so they went there, Emily leaving Spencer exploring a box of free books and going to see if the lobby had any ‘Work Available’ signs. She didn’t find work, but she did find a payphone, lingering by it and wondering if Spencer would find it strange if she asked for Ethan’s number.

“Em?” he asked as though summoned. She turned to find him watching her with his arms wrapped around some yellowed paperbacks, expression curious.

“Nothing,” she said defensively, stepping away, but he didn’t follow.

“I have a nickel if you want,” he said, his voice gentle. “He’d be home…”

Emily swallowed. Swallowed again. In her pocket, the tape she kept obsessively close was warm with the heat from her skin. She touched it.

Three minutes later she was listening to the line connecting, her breath hot on the mouthpiece and Spencer pretending he wasn’t eavesdropping as he read through one of the books he’d picked up. Slim pickings, she guessed, since by what she could see he’d gotten himself a book titled How to Parent Your Teenager and another about pregnancy.

“Hullo, Coiro home of hardship,” said the same honey voice that had caught her the first time she’d heard it. She shivered, and grinned.

“Ethan? It’s me. Hi.”

“Hi, Me,” he responded in a low, secret voice that hurt. “I’ve missed you.”

The nickel ran out before she was done, but it was the briefest moment of sanity. She didn’t even mind the cold on the brisk walk home, because the happy way he’d said her name before saying goodbye kept her just as warm.

 

92.

Midwinter brought the inevitable. In retrospect, Emily understood she should have seen it coming. Ethan had warned her. But she was busy doing what she always did — fucking up — and Aaron was distracted by his usual pursuit of trying to make her into a better person. There came a point where the cold and the hunger and the exhaustion built enough to push them past sharing it in quiet misery. When that point came, the fighting began. Not Spencer. Never Spencer. When he was struggling, he shut down.

When Aaron and Emily were struggling, they lashed out.

 

93.

It started as a fight about work, him calling her lazy. And that was unfair; she wasn’t lazy, she was just awful with idiots, and everyone around them just so happened to be an idiot. He asked her how she’d gotten so bad at being pretend when that was all she’d been when they’d met.

If you cared, he bitched her out, you’d pretend to be a better person so that they’d hire you.

If you cared, she snapped back, you’d stop eating so fucking much so the rest of us weren’t so damn hungry.

That shut him up. She was pleased for an hour until the guilt overtook her growling stomach and she painted him a shaky wolf as an apology. The wolf was orange, the only colour she had a ton of left, but, shit, wasn’t it the thought that counted? Spencer was curled up in the back of the van, his hair too long and his eyes sunken in a too-skinny face. Aaron was driving with his knuckles white around the wheel.

She slid to the front to apologise the best she could.

 

94.

Pulled over on the verge in the rain that was quickly turning to ice, Aaron seethed. Emily could tell. She was still smarting from his cold, “What the fuck is that?” curled up knees to her chest and Sergio snarling next to her.

“Maybe if you spent more time being useful and less time painting, we wouldn’t be so hungry,” Aaron shot at her, being such a pain in the ass asshole that he was refusing to drive any longer. That meant no chance of finding a hot shower, or some food, or anything.

“Spencer likes my paintings,” she retorted. “When was the last time you bothered to make him smile?”

“Don’t—” Spencer began, but they ignored him.

“Make him smile? You know what he likes more than smiling? Food! Having something to eat! When was the last time you cared about things like food or gas or surviving instead of mooning around being sad that that idiot Ethan didn’t invite you to run away with him?”

“Aaron, what the hell?” Spencer snapped.

Emily growled, “You leave him out of it!”

“Why? God knows, he dodged a bullet. I’m sick of seeing these—” He moved with dangerous speed into the back, grabbing Spencer’s collection of paintings and waving them at her while Spencer made a soft noise of protest. “—instead of food! Grow up, Emily! Ethan thought you were a child and, you know what? You are! I’m sick of taking care of you!”

“I never asked you to!”

“Didn’t you?” He was pushing closer, getting up in her face with one hand holding her paintings so tight that she could see the edges tearing, the other bunched in a fist. Behind him, Hal stalked Sergio as the wolf, hackles up and eyes so dark that, for the first time in a while, Emily felt fear. “You know what adults do when they see children too small and naïve to look after themselves out wandering the streets? They take care of them. They don’t have to be told, it’s just what they do because children are so stupid they’d walk out into traffic unsupervised. That’s you, Emily — you’re the child in this analogy, walking out into traffic because you don’t know any better. By the mere act of being you, you’re asking me to look after you. Someone has to because, god knows, you can’t do it on your own.”

“Aaron…” Spencer’s voice was too quiet. They didn’t listen.

Emily stepped closer — because she’d always faced the things that scared her — and said with as much venom as she could muster, striking to hurt him how he’d hurt her: “I’ve got a belt if you want to do it properly, just like your daddy used to … because, looking at you right now, Aaron? You’re just like him, right down to the fucked-up dæmon you use to scare everyone smaller than you.”

Aaron stared. His expression was blank. She hammered it home, pointing to Spencer pressed against the back of the van and Sergio flat to the ground as Hal snarled above him.

“See,” she said coldly, “we’re scared of you, Hotshot. Maybe I should have thrown your Bible harder that time. You clearly haven’t learned a thing from it, except the bits that are cruel.”

She stepped back, bracing for a blow she was sure was coming. He’d hit her; he had to. There was no way he wouldn’t. She’d have hit herself, in his position.

But he didn’t. He just stared at her with his expression shocked and more vulnerable than she’d ever seen it, so raw that she wondered for a moment if he was actually bleeding. A shred of doubt kicked in, the anger faltering. The vicious satisfaction in landing a hit, in striking him where it mattered — it wavered.

Spencer stepped forward, his glasses crooked on his nose and partially hidden by the curly hair that was way too long now. “I’m not scared of you,” he said, glaring at Emily. “Don’t—”

Aaron shoved past, flinging open the back of the van and stepping out with Hal leaping to join him. “You think I’m cruel?” he yelled back, turning. Now, Emily saw hatred. There it was. Real and focused and aimed at her. “You think I’m the dangerous one? Every time we’ve almost gotten hurt, it’s been because of you, Emily! You’re the dangerous one, like a fucking grenade. You’re going to kill us all when you explode, hurt everyone around you! You think you’re so special, so great, sauntering around like you can’t be touched. Well, you’re not shit. You’re a fragile, frightened, stupid little girl and you break apart as easily as this—”

On the this, he whirled into the rain with the sleet striking him and making a strange kind of halo in the light from the van, soaked immediately as he held her sketchbook up into the downpour…

 

95.

…and flung it to the ground, kicking at it so savagely that the paintings scattered up into the wind and the rain, lost in seconds. Emily stared as the ram and kitten tore under his heel, the giraffe visible for a heartbeat before being washed away, countless other pages torn by the relentless wind. For a wild heartbeat, she saw a circle of her paintings on the floor around his feet, a circle of ruined watercolour birds, and she almost screamed with the sudden, horrific memory from some long-ago nightmare. Sergio did scream, but that was nothing compared to Spencer.

“No!” he cried — cried, not screamed, because there was nothing but pain in his voice — and threw himself out the back of the van. He tripped on his way and slammed to the asphalt on his knees, one hand catching himself. Emily saw blood. The rain swallowed him as he scrabbled for the paintings. Emily darted after him to try and haul him back as Aaron stared. Aureilo was down there too, trying to catch the paintings before they blew away. “No, no!” Spencer was crying still, hair plastered down and voice whipped away by the storm. “How could you!? Aaron, how could you, no!”

Anything else he said was unintelligible, lost in the storm. Emily stepped down beside him, soaking wet and trying to help — but the paintings fell apart in her hands, the colours running and the paper tearing. She watched helplessly as Spencer realised this too. Crying so hard she couldn’t tell where rain ended and snot and tears began, fighting her as she tried to lift him out of the puddle he was crumpled in. White-faced and wide-eyed, his lips blue and body trembling. It was freezing. They were both freezing. Aureilo was crying as well. A hand grabbed his other shoulder, Aaron pulling him up even though he was shaking from the cold, even though Spencer twisted around and shoved at him, bloody and grazed hands battering against his chest as he made a furious noise that was so broken that Emily stepped back from it.

“They’re just paintings,” Emily shouted over the wind, but Spencer shook his head and buckled forward, Aaron catching him and dragging him back to the van.

“Don’t you see how important they are?” she distinctly heard him sob. He was a wet, huddled mess on the floor of the van, crying helplessly as though everything he was, was out there in the rain, being ruined as well by the uncaring weather. Aaron pulled Spencer close, rocking him as they simultaneously tried to warm up and calm down. The sobbing slowing as Emily pulled the door of the van shut and kneeled beside them, wet through and still reeling. Any anger they’d felt was gone completely as she looked at Aaron over Spencer’s bowed head and saw the same confusion and fear in his eyes.

“I just want to go home,” Spencer whispered finally, after a shuddering gasp of a breath that tore from about the same place she thought the hurt usually came from. “I want to go home, I just want to go home, I can’t do this anymore, please can we go home, can we stop…”

“We want our mom,” Aureilo wailed, a mouse once more.

“Not this,” Spencer finished, closing his eyes and huddling down into himself. So cold that Emily could see the shivering beginning to slow despite his breath still coming so fast she was sure he wasn’t actually getting any oxygen from it. “We don’t want this.”

Aaron whispered, “Okay.” Emily nodded along with him.

They were sure; it was over.

 

96.

The rain slowed after and they slowed with it, so cold and wet that Emily felt herself losing track of herself. But she pulled together, shaking Aaron until he snapped back to reality and looked at her. His skin was ghost-white, the veins visible beneath, his lips a dangerous purple.

“Get changed,” she stammered, finding him staring blankly at her. Instead of getting angry, because she was too cold to, she fumbled with the zipper of his saturated coat and pulled it off him, starting on his shirt before his hands came up to help. “We need to change, or we’ll freeze. Hurry.”

Midway through her trying to shake some sense into Spencer so he could get his pants off, Aaron must have crawled into the front. The heater blasted on. She gasped at the heat, her skin igniting painfully as it began to thaw, clothes steaming. Then, Aaron was back, pushing her away as he took over stripping Spence. Emily stumbled back, any thin care about privacy she’d had before vanishing as she undressed, desperate to get these clothes away from her skin. Finding a towel that was somewhat clean, she rubbed and rubbed and rubbed until her body hurt, finally warming up, before pulling on whatever clean clothes she could find and crawling into the front seat to huddle with Sergio in front of the vent.

There she stayed, unable to process what had happened. Even knowing Spencer wasn’t well, the idea that William had just been … well, it seemed thin and unlikely now. After seeing that…

She had to force her mind away from it, beginning to tremble again as her brain returned over and over again to the circle of birds washing away with the rain.

The rain that had stopped. She looked up at the windshield.

Aaron appeared, leaning between the seats and saying, “Move, I’ll drive. We need to get to a town or something, he needs a doctor. That wasn’t normal.”

“Sure, it was,” she said quietly, still looking up. “It was a depressive break, building since we left Boulder. Maybe before that. We’ve just been so wrapped up in our own misery we didn’t notice. He’s depressed, Aaron, that’s what happened when depressives aren’t treated — they break. Ethan was right.”

It was hard to admit because it meant that he was right in everything. She had done this.

“Still,” Aaron said, voice low and hurt. It had finally broken, she noted absently. No more cracking and splitting while he spoke. A man’s voice, and a man’s misery, all hidden behind that deceptively boyish face. “Still … you should go back there with him. I can’t get him to care about warming up. He needs someone with him, someone who didn’t cause this.”

She could have told him that they’d both caused it — or, more accurately, that life itself had caused it, everything they’d done just piling viciously on. But it wouldn’t have helped, and probably would have made things worse.

She just said, “It’s too late, I don’t know how far we’re going to get,” and, when he asked why, pointed out at the white on the windshield. The snow was falling, hard, burying the tattered paintings and their shitty, spray-painted van underneath it.

“We still have to try,” Aaron said unsurprisingly.

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

97.

Aaron drove until he couldn’t anymore, finding peace in the road unveiling itself before him. But even that peace was quickly dispelled as the roadway disappeared under, first, a thin carpet of snow and then dangerously invisible patches of ice that fought his tires when he hit them. Before long, they were pushing into a bank of snow blowing up against them. The van chugged along slowly but steadily until he had no choice but to pull it off the road, staring into the empty white-black world ahead as the wind roared and shoved at them. They weren’t anywhere where a snow-plough would be by to help them anytime soon, nothing but what he thought might be trees to their left and, to their right, empty farmland. He looked at the line on their fuel metre: quarter tank. If they turned it off and the heater with it, they’d freeze. About fifteen hours idling with it on … maybe. If they were lucky. Was that long enough for the storm to blow over?

“Aaron?” Spencer said from the back, his voice husky. Aaron tensed. Was he ready to turn yet, to face what he’d done? Spencer’s misery was still audible, and Aaron hated himself for missing it. How had he been so wrapped up in his own discomfort that he hadn’t realised that Spencer’s withdrawal wasn’t selfishness, but suffering? He should have known that Spence would never let him work so hard and alone unless he couldn’t help it.

“Aaron,” again, this time Emily. Aaron turned, staring at them in the weird light of the overhead, the windshield almost whited out as snow piled up on it. They were in danger of getting buried as well, and he looked to the back of the van and wondered if the heat from the exhaust would stop it clogging up with snow. If it didn’t, they’d suffocate. “Are we stuck?”

“Yeah.” He dropped back into the driver’s seat, switching on the hazards — not that they’d do much good — and turning the wheels toward the verge. Into first, parking brake on, and he dropped his head onto the wheel and thought that at least they were unlikely to be rear-ended in this weather. Now, they just had to wait it out. Stuck in the van with him, who’d ruined everything in his determination to do right by them.

Emily slid up, ejecting a cassette and shoving another in. “Well, we might as well bunker down,” she said, hitting rewind. They listened to the tape whirr as she tapped his elbow and wiggled aside. “Come on, get back here and snuggle. Spence wants hugs.”

“I wouldn’t mind them,” Aaron heard Spencer croak, smiling despite how miserable he was.

“Good, there. We’re nesting, while listening to Ethan’s magnum opus, Embolden the Seal.”

“Is it actually called that?” Aaron asked, curious despite himself.

“Yes. Your friend is weird, Spencer.”

Spencer made a soft noise that might have been a laugh if he’d been less sad. “At least I never kissed him,” he said, but started to cry moments after.

Helpless and sore and scared of not being able to fix them, Aaron crawled into the back and down into the nest of blankets, pulling Spencer close and hanging on grimly. After a moment, Ethan’s music still playing, Emily joined them and huddled in on his other side with their dæmons bunched tight by their feet.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m crying,” Spencer managed. “I’m trying to stop.”

“Cry if you want,” Emily said. “We’re not letting you go. You’ll just have to sniffle all over us. Aaron might end up crying too, though.”

“I might,” Aaron admitted. “You know me, I’m a crier.”

Spencer smiled wetly. “I love you both.”

“Love you too,” was Aaron’s reply, looking right at Emily as he said it. “And you.”

Emily just shrugged. “Yeah, sure, probably,” she muttered, earning a glare from them both. “Well, duh, of course I love you idiots — would I be here in this van that smells like feet and farts if I didn’t?”

“No,” Spencer said. “You’d be back at Boulder with Ethan, being happy.”

“Bullshit.” Her voice was sharp, her expression intense. “Bullshit, I would. I’m not done here yet — we don’t split up until we’re done.”

“How will we know when we’re done?” Aureilo asked. It was the first time he spoken since the bad trip.

Emily answered, “We’ll just know. You’ll see.”

 

98.

They took it in turns staying awake to turn the van on and off to conserve gas, drawing straws — or, in this case, broken hair-pins — to see who was getting sent out to check the tailpipe every time they turned it back on. Hours passed like that until Spencer had the idea of sending a dæmon out to check the pipe. After a short scuffle, the dæmons all settled as arctic animals and resigned themselves to their new job of ensuring they didn’t all die of carbon monoxide poisoning before the storm blew out.

But it didn’t blow out. More hours passed until they were sending dæmons out to knock snow from the windows and windshield on the side it was blowing up against them. Aaron had a horrible feeling that they were in a gully of some kind, one that was quickly filling with snow. Touching the side of the van was horrible, their skin freezing instantly to the metal, and the heater began to struggle to rewarm the van up after turning it off.

Aaron fiddled with the radio, hoping for a weather warning, only to find the thing was broken.

Emily fretted.

Spencer was quiet, watching Aaron with his expression fraught with worry. “We’ll be fine,” Aaron told him, not liking the concern in those already shadowed eyes. “You’ll see.”

“I didn’t mean it,” Spencer said instead of touching on their imminent death by blizzard. “What I said back there, I didn’t mean it. I was hysterical. Ever since I stopped taking the pills, I’ve been … unpredictable, I guess. I get upset about things I wouldn’t normally, that was one of them.”

“Nah,” Aaron said, abandoning the radio and shuffling into the back to sit knee-to-knee with his boyfriend. “That was upsetting. I shouldn’t have done it. Em made those paintings for you. I thought I was getting back at her, and I wasn’t. Besides, even if I was, it was cruel and unforgivable to do so by ruining something she’d worked so hard on.”

“Is this an apology?” Emily said.

“Yes.”

“Oh.” She looked away, nipping savagely at her nails. Aaron felt a hand take his, rough where the asphalt had grazed it, and hung on tightly. “Yeah, well, apology not accepted. Not to me anyway — they were Spencer’s paintings, not mine. I don’t care about them. And I don’t deserve an apology, you’re pretty right about me. I am shit, and I do need to get better.”

“I really loved them,” Spencer said quietly, eyes downcast. “They were something more than what we have. Something that we created, instead of taking away. A difference. I wish I could do that, make a difference…”

Aaron looked at him, Ethan’s words ringing in his brain. And he decided: if they survived this snow, they weren’t going back to DC — they weren’t taking Spencer back to his dad.

They were going back to Boulder.

 

99.

“You know, it’s morning out there,” Hal said. She was digging her way back into the van as an arctic hare and blinking snow from her eyes. From the hole she’d dug into, no light leaked in. “We’re almost buried. I don’t know how much longer we can keep clearing the tailpipe. Aureilo’s still out there, but it’s filling up as fast as he’s digging.”

Aaron had thought it might come to this. “I have to go for help,” he announced, standing up despite the general outcry around him. “We can’t all go.”

“Bullshit we can’t,” Emily announced. Spencer wasn’t even arguing, just reaching for his coat with his expression stubborn. “Why the hell are we going to let you walk into a blizzard alone? Is that really how selfish you think we are?”

Aaron answered honestly: “Because we don’t have enough winter clothes for anyone else but me.”

There was silence as they digested that and realised it was true. To avoid him freezing, he’d have to layer up basically everything warm they had, and they had very little that was lined adequately for snow. Only one coat that was waterproof, and nothing with a woollen interior to wick sweat away from his body before it could cool. Not to mention, his only shoes were sneakers, Spencer’s a battered pair of fabric Chuck Taylors. Emily had boots, but Emily also had tiny feet. There was no hope of him squeezing into them.

“We can call for help,” Spencer offered, but how? They didn’t have a car phone and any payphone would be impossible to find in this whiteout.

“Surely we can wait it out …” Emily said.

Ten seconds later, Aureilo appeared and informed them that without a dæmon out there digging constantly to stop the tailpipe icing up, it would be buried in minutes. Aaron’s decision was made.

“If you’re going to fall asleep, turn the van off,” Aaron ordered, setting aside all his worries. He wouldn’t die out there. He wouldn’t fail. He was the biggest, the strongest, and the angriest out of all of them: no snowstorm would stop him finding help and bringing it back. “Stay together, under the blankets. Don’t leave the van. If you can’t run a heater, you won’t be able to warm your core temperature back up. Don’t—”

“Don’t go,” Spencer whispered. “Please?”

Aaron stepped over to him and kissed him fiercely. It wasn’t a last kiss; they had so many more to come, he was sure. “I have to. Look after her?” He nodded at Emily.

Spencer’s eyes flickered to her, then back. “You’d trust me with her?” he asked, mouth set into a wry frown. “Even after I … well, you know.”

“You were upset,” Aaron chided gently. “We’re allowed to be upset and irrational sometimes. It doesn’t mean you’re weak or … or crazy.”

Spencer nodded, his shoulders squarer now. Together, they helped Aaron dress to face the blizzard outside: alone.

 

100.

It was unlike anything he’d ever done before. The world around him narrowed to just him and Hal, her the wolf with his arm around her, struggling through snow that turned everything white. Within minutes, he was frozen. Then, came the wet. The layers and layers he was wearing did little to stop the cold creeping down through the gap around his throat, up his legs, into his shoes. From wet, it turned to ice. From ice, it turned to a numb sense of nothing, like his extremities were ceasing to exist at the end of his limbs. Despite the beanie pulled low over his face and Emily’s scarf wrapped around his mouth and nose, his face stung painfully as the bitter wind lashed against it. Tiny needles of cold burrowed into his skin. Even if he’d been able to open his eyes against it, he doubted he’d have been able to see anything but white.

He could die out here.

Hal kept him going. It felt like he was out there for hours, every step growing heavier as snow built around his sneakers and weighed him down as he tried to push forward into the heavy drifts. When he’d check his watch after, he’d realise it was barely twelve minutes. Twelve minutes to walk maybe twenty feet. But he had to keep going. If he didn’t, they’d die. They were out here to protect him. They’d die because of him.

So he kept going. And going. And going. And going.

And going, falling over a fence with wire that tore open his leg, stumbling into a pothole hidden by the snow, and tripping over something else that probably hurt him too but, by that point, he was too numb to tell. And he kept going until he slammed into something with so much force that he was knocked back into the snow, panicking for a second as he kicked around and lost which way was up or down or—

Hal dragged him up and out, bursting out the snow with a yell that was ripped from his mouth. The scarf gone, his hand flailing and reaching and grabbing something wooden and firm. He shook snow from his face, ice from his eyelashes, and held on tight as he felt his way across it. Thump went his foot, finding a step that creaked under him when he rested his weight on it. Up and up and up the three porch steps he went, digging snow out of the way until he found a door.

Grinning, he turned to Hal, just to be sure he wasn’t imagining this.

“What are you waiting for?” she asked him, shaking snow from her thick fur. “Knock!”

 

101.

Emily was more of an influence on him than he’d ever realised.

Sorry, he thought, and then broke the little pane of glass in the door and reached through to fumble for the lock. In he tumbled into a silent cabin filled with ghostly shapes of sheet-covered furniture only made creepier by his breath billowing in front of his face. From behind him, the wind screamed, sending snow blasting right up the hall even as he and Hal turned and fought to slam it shut. That mostly stopped the wind, some still whistling eerily through the broken pane. Glass crunched under his feet as he stepped back, exhaustion smashing into him and leaving him staggering, still so painfully, horribly cold.

“What now?” he gasped, moving out of the hall and leaning on a sheet-covered couch, everything that wasn’t numb hurting.

“Look around,” Hal demanded, grabbing his mittened hand. “Move, hurry up. We have to go back for them, to lead them here.”

Okay. Okay, he could do this. He nodded dazedly, standing and examining their surrounds. A thick layer of dust coated everything, the inside of the cabin musty-smelling. It smelled like winter in here, but a stale one. A good sign, he guessed, if they didn’t want the owners coming home and realising they’d broken in. Better yet, there was a fat wood stove built into one wall, a healthy stack of wood next to it such a welcome sight that he almost cried to see it. Stumbling with his feet frozen in their wet shoes, he staggered into the kitchen area and fumbled open cupboards and drawers, finding canned supplies and utensils, ripping his mittens off and hungrily devouring a protein bar as he explored the next room. A bathroom, without water, but he hardly cared by this point. There was a bath with creepy clawed feet that he side-eyed, before shutting the door. A bedroom; this he dragged open the closet of, falling to his knees to dig through the boxes at the bottom until he found a pair of well-worn rubber boots.

“Sorry, sorry,” he chattered again to the absent owners, desperately clawing his shoes from his feet and feeling like he was ripping skin away with them as he peeled back layers of frozen socks. Under the socks, his feet were white and red and blue and absolutely ghastly looking, Hal knocking a drawer open as she rummaged for dry socks. On they went, one by one, followed by the boots. He still couldn’t feel his feet when he stood, but at least they weren’t icicles now. Next came plaid shirts three sizes too big for him and a fishing coat overtop. He looked ridiculous, he was sure, and would be in so much trouble if they were caught — but it didn’t matter. He had to go back.

“Wait,” Hal said as he went to limp his way to the door. He turned, feeling weird right in his core, to see what she was doing.

“I can’t wait,” he stammered, knowing if he stopped he’d never work up the courage to go out there again. He was too tired, too sore, too scared. He wasn’t even sure he’d manage to get all the way back anyway, his body aching. He just wanted to drop and lie down until his muscles stopped hurting. “Hal, we have to go. I’m too—”

“Wait!” she snapped again, and stretched. He yelped because it was a horrible, elongating, pulling sensation that felt like it was taking everything he was and spreading it out thinly, so thinly that he might actually tear apart. When it was done and they were left panting and gasping, their middles hurting in unison, she was a horse so big he doubted she’d be able to get out of the door, her head hanging low and sides heaving.

“This … hurts,” she gasped, shaking her head and snorting, mane flopping about. One massive hoof lifted and crashed down, absurdly loud even on the rug she was standing on. “Oh gosh, this hurts, Aaron. We have to hurry … I … I’m not supposed to be this big …”

“Why are you?” he asked her, but she clomped forward and leaned heavily against him, his body warmed instantly by just how much intense heat was radiating from her.

“If we’re big, we’re big for a reason,” she told him, mouthing at his beanie and almost knocking it off. “Get on. I’m faster.”

“I don’t know how to ride a horse.”

“Then learn.”

Chapter Text

Spencer

 

102.

They lay in silence in the rapidly-becoming-an-icebox-van, Emily clicking a flashlight on and off and making the light reflect oddly from Sergio’s snow leopard eyes. He was lying down her side, tail wrapped around her throat. On Spencer’s other side, Aureilo was tucked under the blanket as a wolf again, keeping the cold from creeping in. It was warm, if close, and Spencer kept all his limbs under the covers.

Emily didn’t. She kept restlessly reaching for things to fiddle with, almost certainly to dispel the anxiety of waiting for Aaron to return. Spencer dispelled it another way: he simply didn’t think about it, or anything else. Utter silence reigned in his mind. He’d perfected withdrawing, after all, he might as well use it. If he thought about it right now, he’d crack.

Instead, he just watched her as she picked up the cards, trying to practice a magic trick he’d been teaching her before her hands had got too cold. After a short time under the blankets to warm up, she popped back out, trying to get the Walkman to turn on but finding it flat. After that, it was Spencer’s battered box, glancing at him for permission before pulling it onto the bed and tracing her fingers over where the flashlight illuminated the words he’d written long ago: We can find her.

Spencer wondered if Aaron was coming back yet, then quickly distracted himself.

“Do you think Sergio will settle as a snow leopard?” he asked, wiggling closer to her and watching as she opened the old poetry book he kept in there and paged slowly through it. “It would suit you. Pretty and dangerous.”

“Are you flirting with me?” she teased.

“No. You must have thought about what you want him to be. Everyone does. And we’re all really old for our dæmons to settle, so it’s probably going to be soon.”

“Sergio won’t settle,” she said resolutely, putting the poetry back and pulling out the stickied photo. “Why isn’t Aureilo settled? We all know he’s going to be a hare.”

“He might not be,” Spencer mumbled, burrowing deeper and regretting this conversation. “I mean, probably once he would have been … but we’re different now, and I don’t believe in fixed destinies.”

Emily was quiet for the longest time after that. “Where is she?” She tilted the photo down as though to show him without realising that the angle she was holding it at completely obscured the details. But he knew who she was asking about.

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her since I was a kid. Sometimes I think she might have died and Dad just hasn’t told me.”

Emily shivered. “Urgh, that’s so awful. Can’t you, I don’t know, I guess you probably don’t want to, but couldn’t you look it up? I’d want to know if I was you.”

“I think I prefer thinking she’s alive out there somewhere, you know? I really don’t remember much of her around the time Dad took me away, but I do remember that she was sick and getting sicker. I guess I don’t want to know that she died alone without ever saying goodbye …”

He thought of Aaron and lost his voice, falling silent.

“Yeah,” Emily said in a low mumble. “I get that.”

Silence again, except for the muted sound of wind. They should send a dæmon out to clear the windows so they didn’t suffocate, but Spencer was warm and scared and just wanted everyone he loved close to him right now, not out in the snow.

“Hey, Spencer?”

“Mm?”

“Do you think we’ll ever be okay again? That things can get better?”

Spencer thought about that for a while. “My brain says no,” he finally admitted, feeling her flinch before he had a chance to continue, “but …”

“But?”

It was Aureilo who answered for him; not his brain, but his soul. “It will,” he said. “Things have been worse before and we’ve always made them better. This? This is nothing compared to our mom going missing or Aaron’s dad beating him or—”

“Rome,” Emily added, closing her eyes, “or my dad.”

Spencer nodded, taking her hand. “Let’s sleep,” he suggested, wiggling close and folding himself around her, rubbing her cold hands in his to warm them up. “Aaron will be back soon.”

“You don’t sound like you believe that.” Emily’s voice was already drowsy, dozing off.

“He doesn’t,” said Aureilo. “But I do.”

 

103.

They slept and woke to Aaron shaking them.

 

104.

The trip to the cabin was short but terrible. They didn’t have enough clothes to risk getting drenched in the snow; the wind-chill alone would be deadly even for the short hike to the cabin Aaron said he’d found. Or rather, mumbled, what was visible of his face behind a knotted shirt stung pink from the cold and his eyelashes iced over.

They didn’t waste any time. Any clothes they had left, they put on, wrapping the blankets around that and belting them in place. Aaron helped Spencer onto Hal’s great back — the dæmon a huge Clydesdale horse that Spencer couldn’t help but stare at, having never seen a dæmon so big before in his life — and climbed on behind him. Aureilo became a long, masked ferret that wound around Spencer’s throat like a living scarf, clinging on grimly as they clomped out into the blizzard. Emily followed, arms wrapped around Sergio’s neck and face buried into his ruff while he tried to carry her above the snow as the tiger he’d only ever been before when angry beyond rationality.

Riding Hal was strange. Arms around Aaron’s waist and with nothing between him and the dæmon below, Spencer could feel Hal living underneath him. A pulse of alive warmth radiating up into his thighs and crotch as well as from where he was hugging Aaron tightly. Not only that sense of her life, but also of Aaron. Spencer could feel Aaron through Hal more vividly than ever before, despite not trying to and despite there being no bare skin touching her.

Because of this, barely three minutes into the push through the heavy snowbanks, Hal’s previous tracks having already been covered over, Spencer knew she was failing before she stumbled. He peered around Aaron, just in time to straighten his boyfriend before he slumped over, and then realised that the path hadn’t been snowed in — they’d diverged from it.

“What’s happening?” Emily screamed over the wind from behind them. “Why have we stopped?”

Spencer ignored her. “Aaron?” he yelled, shaking him. “What’s happening?”

Aaron just shook his head, turning half-way round and staring impassively at Spencer. “S’cold,” he slurred out, hunching over. But, unlike Spencer, he wasn’t shivering.

“Not shivering is bad,” Aureilo reminded Spencer, claws digging through his shirt. “We have to get him inside.”

“Keep going,” Hal whinnied, tossing her head and stumbling forward into the snow, eyes closed against the snow building on her large muzzle. “Keep going, going, going …”

But she staggered again, dragged down by Aaron’s torpidity.

“Get down and lead her?” Aureilo suggested. Spencer couldn’t — he was the only thing holding Aaron upright and, besides, he wasn’t sure he could get down from this terrible height, not without breaking an ankle. “Oh no …”

Before they could panic, something brushed past them in the whiteout. They looked to the side, seeing orange and black: Emily. Even as they watched, Sergio shook and rippled, trying to grow taller and failing. They both winced. Being bigger than they should be hurt, they knew this from past attempts. Sergio rippled again and again, Emily yelping with the weirdness of her dæmon changing under her until, finally, he shoved into the snow in front of him as a barrel-chested pony with a shaggy coat, mane ripped about by the wind as he pushed close against Hal’s side and whickered.

Emily reached up, pausing for just a second, before resting her hand against Hal’s huge neck. “Come on,” she shouted, tugging on Hal’s mane. Spencer felt Aaron shiver, twitching awake and looking at her, expression hidden behind the shirt around his face. “Follow us.” She let her hand move down, touching Hal’s chest, as Sergio moved doggedly forward.

Like that, in an uneven, wobbly line of teenagers and their dæmons, they moved steadily towards their destination.

 

105.

Aaron was completely out of it by the time they got him into the cabin and down in front of the unlit stove, leaving him crumpled there staring blankly while they raced to gather blankets from every dresser and cupboard and pile them around him.

“What do we do for you?” Emily asked Aaron frantically, but he didn’t respond, just laid down and closed his eyes. He was so still. His lips were blue. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! Spencer, what do we do?”

For a moment, it was like the paintings all over again, his brain utterly shutting down in the face of too much stress for him to handle. But, unlike the paintings, this panic passed — it had to. Aaron needed them; if they messed up here, he’d die. “Can you get the stove going?”

Emily glanced at it, panic showing in her eyes too as she hunkered over the silent Aaron and the equally silent Hal, now a rabbit curled into a shivering ball on the rug, eyes closed even as Aureilo tried to lick ice from her fur. Then, just like him, the panic passed from her as well.

“Yes,” she said, nodding furiously and scrambling for the fire, dragging a wicker basket with balls of paper over and beginning to pack it in around the logs she’d placed within. Spencer left her and went searching. This was a remote cabin — there would be a first-aid kit somewhere. This was a remote, expensive cabin; if there was a first-aid kit, it was likely pre-packaged and would come with a manual.

He found it under the kitchen sink, hauling it out and spilling it over the floor, finding exactly what he needed set in the bottom: a first-aid manual with tiny, condensed text that he paged through rapidly until he hit the Hs and read the entire Hypothermia entry in one hit. Distantly, he could sense Aureilo’s constant worry. That was good. Constant meant Aaron wasn’t declining. If his worry spiked, then Spencer would react.

The book was basic, but enough. He took it with him back to where Aaron was, pulling the cushions from the couches and making a nest of them with blankets on the bottom. “Come on,” he coaxed, slipping his arm around Aaron’s and pulling him upright. “Wet clothes off. Emily, fire?”

“Burning,” she responded. “I’ll see if there are any dry clothes left.”

With that, she was gone, padding into the bedroom.

Spencer was shivering himself, but his own discomfort didn’t matter; he ignored it and stripped Aaron down, resisting the urge to rub the ice-cold patches of skin he revealed, all white and red and mottled grossly. “You’re going to hurt when you warm up,” he told Aaron, seeing the boy blink hazily and look at him. “Sorry.”

“I have one shirt and a pair of leggings,” Emily announced. “Put them on him?”

“Nope,” Spencer replied. “Help me lift him. Clothes will rub his skin, maybe peel it if he’s frostbitten — you should strip too before your clothes freeze to your skin.”

“Oh boy,” muttered Emily, dropping the clothes on the back of the couch and beginning to wrestle with her coat. “We’re all going to be getting so intimate.”

“You can take the shirt,” Spencer said graciously, removing Aaron’s pants without so much as a warning.

 

106.

Aaron was the first to sleep, unsurprisingly, drained by the agony that had been his slow return to the land of the thawed. His skin burned him as it warmed, to the point where he was a shaking, crying, insensible mess huddled naked under the blankets where Spencer had put him. Despite how exhausted they were, Emily and Spencer didn’t rest.

What had happened today had changed everything. Instead, they sat in silence, naked as well with blankets around them, and watched him, both tense in case his slow breathing stalled. They were circled completely by the warm bodies of their dæmons. The book had instructed the use of any close-by dæmons, pressed as close as possible under the blankets without touching him and — if unsettled — preferably in the forms of animals from hot-weather climates with fur designed to shed heat instead of insulating it. Sergio was a cheetah, Hal a small antelope of some kind with Aaron’s feet tucked under her. Aureilo was a wallaby, only the tip of his nose showing from under the blanket. By the stove, their clothes were laid out, steaming as they dried. Emily, at least, had the shirt they’d found. Spencer had declined the leggings, hyper-aware of their bare legs touching under the blanket and entirely unsure of how he felt about her now having seen him completely naked.

“What if he’d died today?” Emily asked abruptly. Deep in Spencer’s chest, something jolted, a dreadful sound tearing from his mouth at the thought. “No, really, Spencer. What if he’d died, saving our asses?”

Spencer was silent for a moment, tense. Thinking of Aaron with his back sliced open, thinking of how disorientated he’d been when they’d dragged him in from the blizzard. And all the times in between, when it had been them who’d been hurt or scared or lost and he’d been there to hold them while they cried or to help put them back together.

“It can’t happen. We can’t let him do that again.”

“If it wasn’t for him, we’d be nothing …” Emily whispered. “No hope runaways stealing food to get by, and we’d never leave this life. We need him, but we can’t rely on him, not how we have been. It needs to be more equal. We need to do better because he can’t take it like this much longer, and neither can we.”

Spencer asked, “So what do we do?” knowing that she was right. It had to change, for Aaron’s sake. He’d fought for them for too long; it was time they gave back.

She stood up and went for the kitchen, shirt just barely covering her bare rear.

“We grow up. Come on — help me out.”

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

107.

Aaron woke to warmth. He vaguely remembered pain, a deadening desire to sleep, and then rambling stupidly to Spencer, but none of it was connected. Just thin, foggy memories that were impossible to pin down and make sense of. But here, he was warm, so warm, and comfortable …

He could smell food. Eyes snapping open, he sat up, shedding dæmons as he turned towards the scent of food and found a bowl of steaming soup sitting beside his makeshift bed. The speed in which he dived at it almost pulled a muscle in his back, the spoon hard to grasp with his clumsy fingers.

“Hey, you’re awake.” Spencer’s voice was soft as he came towards Aaron and crouched. Aaron looked up, about to thank him for the soup, and blinked. Spencer was …

“You’re naked?”

Spencer just grinned. “So are you,” he pointed out, accurately. “Our clothes are dry, we just wanted to get clean before getting dressed again and you’ve been asleep for hours. We’re kinda used to it now.”

Aaron heard a splash, swallowing another spoonful of soup, oh god, it hurt it was so good, before asking, “What’s that?”

“Oh, nothing special … we might have just worked out how to have a hot bath …”

He was dead, Aaron decided. Clearly, he’d died and this was some wonderful dream.

If it was, he didn’t ever want to wake up.

 

108.

Clean and full and warm, Aaron was put back into his blanket nest while the others bustled around him, cleaning up the mess and leaving notes of what they’d eaten or used, along with a promise to return with money when they could. It was the best they could do. Aaron watched Emily and Spencer working together to patch up the broken glass in the door as best as they could beyond the rudimentary cardboard they’d taped over it to warm the cabin.

While Aaron had been sleeping off the hypothermia caused by the blizzard still raging outside, Emily and Spencer had been busy. One of them had brought more wood in from outside, refilling the stack. Another had heated endless huge cooking pots of snow on the stove, using that to fill the clawed bathtub. Aaron, for the first time in what felt like weeks, was clean from top to bottom, the scent of soap and shampoo drifting around him from his skin and hair for once instead of sweat and dirt. They’d made food from the canned soup in the cupboard, cleaned the broken glass, and even — most impressively and using a manual Spencer had dug out of a drawer — gotten the power turned back on by the switch outside and started the furnace. The cabin was comfortable now, comfortable enough that none of them was in any hurry to put on their grimy clothes.

Door fixed, the two ambled back into the room, looking exhausted but pleased. Aaron swallowed down something that was heavy and proud, unable to find words to express how much this all meant to him. While he’d been out of it, they’d pulled together. They’d handled it.

“Budge over,” Emily announced, crouching and shuffling on her knees towards the nest. Aaron, carefully not looking too closely at how much she was showing under the half-open plaid shirt, made room for her on one side and was rewarded with a sleepy Spencer crawling in on his other and snuggling close. “Turn the light off, Serge.”

The dæmon did so and then lay next to Emily, the other two curling up at the end of their nest. Aaron lay his head on Spencer’s chest, listening to his heart beat and feeling Spencer trace his fingers through his hair, certain that this cabin was a reward from the hell they’d been through.

“I’ve been on anti-depressants since I was fifteen years old,” Spencer said suddenly. They all looked at him, his face strange in the dark of the room contrasted with the slight flickering light from within the stove. “We didn’t feel well, Aureilo and me, I mean. I guess we were ‘we’ back then though, I was always so lonely except for him. It’s a pretty common thing, actually. Children who are deprived of social contact tend to create stronger bonds with their dæmons, as though the dæmon is a separate being instead of a fragment of themselves. Aureilo was my best friend.”

“I was your only friend,” Aureilo corrected, Spencer nodding jerkily along.

“Until Ethan,” said Emily, Spencer nodding at that too.

Aaron huddled closer, his heart hammering. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“I didn’t think it was important, or that you’d still want me if you found out how defective I truly am. That … that you’d leave like my mom …”

“Oh, Spence …” Emily whispered, rolling over and pressing close to Aaron in order to reach her arm across and touch Spencer’s hand. “Never.”

“Never,” chimed in the dæmons, all of them.

“Never,” agreed Aaron.

 

109.

He woke in the soft hours of the morning to the wind having finally stopped. The cabin, the world, was silent except for measured breathing, the crackle of the fire, and a clock ticking somewhere. It was a beautiful silence, and Aaron luxuriated in it. The van was so rarely quiet, or warm.

A cold breeze brushed his neck and he rolled over to find Spencer gone. Emily was still there, curled in a tiny ball of person that hurt his heart to look at, and fast asleep with her face on her arm, drooling, but Spencer was gone. Slipping out of the nest and tucking the blankets back neatly around Em so she didn’t notice the chill, Aaron grabbed pants and a coat — dry and smelling more of wood-smoke than anything else — and pulled them on before going to the bedroom, following that icy breeze.

There were things Aaron would never forget, mostly bad. This was one of those things but filed deeply into the ‘beautiful’ section of his brain, an image he’d revisit for a long time to come anytime he thought about being young again. Spencer propped in the open window, loose slacks and a shirt the only barrier he had against the heaped snow and seeping cold outside. His head was tilted back against the frame, outlined in the frosty white-blue of the dawn, smoke pluming gently around him from the orange glow of the cigarette in his mouth. Even as Aaron watched, he took the cigarette from between his lips and blew a half-hearted smoke-ring out the window, his breath almost a sigh.

“Morning,” Aaron murmured, hating to break this frozen moment but also unable to just walk away and let it end naturally. It took him three steps to get to the window, sliding his arms around Spencer’s waist and hooking his thumbs into the band of his slacks, hugging close. Aureilo appeared, a bird with pointed wings perching on the window and watching them beadily. Hal slunk in behind them, moving to the window and standing upright as a squirrel to nose at Aureilo’s beak.

Spencer held the cigarette out. Aaron shook his head, smiling as a, “Morning,” rumbled through Spencer in return, the boy stretching like a cat back into his arms. A melancholy silence pressed between them.

“What are you thinking about?” Aaron asked. There was no way a scene like this wasn’t knee-deep in introspection.

Spencer looked back out the window, into the icy-white wasteland bared to them. The whisper of morning light caught the frost on the trees, lightning them first and reflecting down onto the dark shadows in the snow.

“About what would have happened if I’d told you about my … depression … earlier.”

Put like that, it was inevitable. Aaron tried it out in his head: ‘my boyfriend is depressed. My boyfriend has depression.’

No matter which way he put it, it didn’t change anything.

“Well, what was the worst outcome?” he asked, making sure his grip didn’t shift. This moment couldn’t be a rejection: it would make or break them. “I know you’ve only really thought about the negatives, so what’s the worst you can come up with? Tell me, so I can tell you what would have really happened.”

“You’d leave,” Spencer replied in a voice that was a whisper.

“Nope, I wouldn’t have left. I’d have supported you. Loved you still … hurt with you when you needed me to and been strong for you when you needed that instead. And I would have never, ever left you — not for that reason. Never for that reason.”

Spencer stared at him, something relentless in his eyes and the cigarette burning down in his fingers. Finally, before the orange tip could burn him, Aaron took it from him and leaned out the window to put it out, setting it aside before turning Spencer to face him. His feet thumped the floor, his hands loose in his lap, and Aaron shuffled closer and took those cold hands in his.

“Tell me what you’re hiding,” Aaron murmured, bringing his lips down to press against Spencer’s nose so he could be sure his boyfriend was listening. “Trust me. Trust in how much I love you.”

The dæmons were silent. The snow had stopped falling. The world was quiet.

Spencer told him.

“I tried to kill myself, Aaron,” he said, his voice too loud for this little room. Expected words, sure, but that didn’t stop them from slamming home hard, Aaron closing his eyes with the pain they brought, the imagery. But Spencer wasn’t done; the dam had broken and, if he didn’t say it now, he likely never would. “I woke up on my fifteenth birthday and decided that that was as old as I wanted to be, that nothing was ever going to get better and that I was stuck as I was: a lonely, shadow of a person with a mouse-dæmon that reflected all the worst parts of me. Want to know how I did it?”

No.

But that wasn’t what he said.

What he said was, “If you want to tell me then, yes.”

Spencer nodded and obstinately continued: “I overdosed. Found every pill in my father’s medicine cabinet and downed them all with a glass of water. Do you know, I barely remember anything from that day … but I remember a few things? I remember how bitter the pills were, I remember that the glass I used was one I’d made him — you know in elementary when you paint onto things with that gel-based paint? Happy Father’s Day, this read, and the irony is really there, I guess. I also remember that I didn’t regret it, even when I felt myself beginning to die. Well, Aureilo. I felt Aureilo beginning to die … and I was glad he was going first, because I couldn’t bear him to suffer with me gone.”

Aaron thought he might throw up, or pass out, or fall down, but he did none of those things because they all involved letting go and he’d promised he wouldn’t do that.

“You know,” Spencer said, his voice still too loud, too strong, for what he was saying, “There’s something that bothers me about that day.”

“What?” Aaron rasped, needing to know, not wanting.

Spencer hunched, breath fogging white and, finally, beginning to shiver. “I took every pill in that cabinet, except the ones I knew would kill me.” His eyes flickered up, catching Aaron’s and holding them. “I knew they’d hurt me, maybe even permanently. I knew there was a chance they’d destroy Aureilo … but I also knew that, if Dad came home, if he found me in time … that I’d live. That’s who I am, Aaron. I not only quit when it gets hard, but I do so in the most destructive way possible. I died that day to spite him, knowing that I’d live to see the results.”

Aaron hugged him tighter, saying nothing until the sun began to peek over the trees, cloudy and dreary and likely to be quickly hidden as the day crept on.

“Out of the window,” he murmured, finally realising what happened now. It felt impossible that it didn’t. It felt like a dream that it would. Spencer slid out the window, his socked feet tapping gently on the floor, and Aaron shut it. Locked it. Drew the blind. Turned with him in his arms and said, “Come with me.”

“Where?” Spencer asked, his eyes wide in the half-gloom.

Aaron didn’t answer, just took his hand and led him towards the bed.

 

110.

Aaron didn’t regret a minute of it. Not as they undressed, eyes wide and the moment just as frozen as the world outside. They shut the door between them and Emily, every sound amplified by this silent morning. The whisper of a zip, the muffled sound of clothing hitting floor. The whoosh when they shook one of their own blankets out over the bed; the rattle of Aaron opening the drawer for what he knew was in there. The creak of the springs below them, a suspiciously audible noise that drew a sharp gasp from them both as they turned to stare at the closed door.

“Why?” asked Spencer. “Why now?”

“So many reasons,” was the honest reply. Aaron was scared of being vulnerable, but all he was with Spencer was vulnerable. That was what it truly meant to love someone so completely, to let them so deeply into his life that he even allowed them to lay a hand upon the deepest fragment of his soul. “Let me show you how completely I trust you — how completely I need you. How much I need you to stay, no matter where we go or how long it takes us.”

Spencer made a noise he’d never made before. They were on the bed now, awkward and frightened and unsure of what to do next, all elbows and legs and worried hearts.

“Why?” he asked again.

“Because I love you and I’ll fight for you,” Aaron murmured, finding that mouth. “Fight to make sure you never feel like you need to quit again.”

“Sex won’t fix what’s wrong with me.” Spencer’s eyes were downcast still, his breath unpleasantly musky with nicotine.

Aaron handed him the lubricant, seeing his eyes widen as he realised what Aaron was asking him to do. “I don’t know,” he said, turning to look at the dæmons and finding them curled as close as possible together, their entire focuses latched on one another. “Half your problem is that you think you’re not special, but you are to me.”

“And if I hurt you?”

Aaron kissed him once, twice, again. “You never will,” he said. “Never.”

 

111.

Sneaking past Emily to get into the bathroom was easy because she’d buried herself so deep in the blankets that all they could see of her was a tangle of dark hair and Sergio curled up as a cat on her side. In the bathroom, they were quiet, using the cold water from their bath to wash each other. Naked in the single light overhead, every mark on each other was visible. The ones they’d put there, and the ones they hadn’t. Spencer traced his fingers on a pock-mark on Aaron’s hip, left by a belt-buckle, and his eyes were sadder than Aaron had ever seen them even as they stepped close to each other. Aaron let him, sore in a way that was new — sore in a way that meant he’d let himself be vulnerable but hadn’t been hurt by the experience, still reeling from the touch-memory of what Spencer had felt like on him, in him, a warmth that was more than just temperature.

Spencer suddenly smiled, the dæmons lurking but saying nothing. “Are you going to be weird about this being our first time?”

“No,” said Aaron. But, secretly, he cherished that fact: no matter what happened in the future, no matter what went wrong, he’d always have this moment. He’d always be on Spencer’s mind and his memory for even just one thing, no matter how far from each other they went.

No one could take this from them.

Chapter Text

Spencer

 

112.

It felt like everything should have changed even though nothing really had. Every time Spencer glanced at Aaron, now fully dressed with his hair frizzy from drying by the stove, a voice in the back of his head whispered you had sex with that boy.

Aaron, when he caught Spencer looking, responded with the shyest of smiles, his cheeks flushing pink. It was an unexpected rush to realise that he was thinking about what they’d done as well. As they cooked breakfast around the suspiciously quiet Emily, they kept knocking into each other and blushing anew, Spencer’s eyes continuously drawn to Aaron’s body as he remembered what they’d done. Could Aaron feel that he’d been there? Did it feel different? Was Aaron walking different … surely, Emily would know when she woke. How could she not?

But, when Emily finally emerged from the blankets, she didn’t say a word to them, just vanished into the bathroom and shut the door. Never a morning person and Spencer grinned, sure she’d emerge soon to tease them about their newfound ‘glow’.

She didn’t.

“Did she drown in there?” Aaron asked, looking up from the first-aid manual he was reading over a bowl of canned stew. “Hey, Em? You okay?”

No answer.

Finally, the door opened and Emily slipped out, muttering, “Yes,” and slouching her way to the stove to scoop her own serving from the pot. Spencer watched her warily, noting her red eyes and unhappy mouth, the thick plaid jacket he recognised as the one of Aaron’s he’d stolen so long ago and Emily had somehow ended up with. The orange beanie that had become a staple of her outfit for so long was gone, her hair all over the place without any kind of care. Sergio was right behind her as a jaguar with his fur all fluffed up angry, baring his fangs at Aureilo and Hal when they tried to tempt him into playing.

“Woke up on the wrong side of the couch cushion?” Aaron teased, snagging her sleeve as she went past and tugging it with a grin.

She whirled, wrenching her hand back and snapping, “Fuck off, Aaron, leave me alone!”

Then she was gone, vanishing out the front door with her bowl of stew and out into the snow.

“Uh,” said Spencer.

“I think she might have heard us,” Aaron said. Hal slid nearer to him, huddling close with his fingers stroking her ears.

“No shit,” said Aureilo. Some of the bite had returned to his voice as he bounced over to the door. “Well, come on. Might as well apologise now.”

Sighing, Spencer followed with Aaron trailing behind. They found Emily on the porch, poking her booted foot into the snow as she ate. Before they could say anything, she spoke.

“When are we leaving to take him home then?” she asked, turning and jabbing her spoon at Spencer. “That’s what we’re doing, yeah? Taking him home, you said? He needs help we can’t give him so it’s not like we have a choice.”

“You’re taking me home?” Spencer asked, confused. What? When had they discussed this?

They were leaving him?

Pain lanced sharp and true and he stepped back and away, snow crunching under his shoes. Aureilo thumped his foot, grunting with anger when Hal extended her nose to him. He tried to leap away from her, landing too close to Sergio. The jaguar-dæmon rumbled, lashing out and sending the hare tumbling into the snow with a squeal, dashing to hide behind Spencer’s feet.

“We’re not going home,” Aaron soothed, staring straight into Spencer’s eyes as he said so. “Spence, look at me. I’m telling the truth. I told you. We’re staying together.”

“That’s a fucking lie — tell me you weren’t thinking of dumping him in Boulder with Ethan?” Emily’s arms were folded, her expression cold. “I know you were, after his little breakdown in the van. We can’t keep him, he’s unstable.”

Spencer swallowed. It was one thing knowing he was … well, it was entirely another to realise Emily thought he couldn’t be trusted. And he guessed he deserved it.

Behind his feet, Aureilo flickered.

“We’re not going anywhere apart, stop it!” Aaron’s voice was tight, getting tighter. “He’s not unstable! You said it yourself, it was inevitable! We can work through it—”

“Bullshit we can,” Emily snapped. “I don’t want anything to do with it. If you’re keeping him, fine. I’m going. Enjoy yourselves.” With that, she turned and walked into the snow, not even pausing to wait for Sergio. Over her shoulder she called back, “I don’t want to be anywhere I’m not needed — and you guys proved last night that I’m not shit to you.”

“Wait, is this about the sex?” Aaron yelled, giving chase. Spencer just watched, his stomach twisting into tight knots and his mind burning. He’d done this. He’d ruined them, again. He was always going to ruin them. “What the hell, Emily? Why is that any of your business?”

But she only paused once, turning and glaring at Aaron as she spat, “Go to hell, Hotchner,” and strode away.

It wasn’t about the sex, Spencer realised. If it was, she’d have been angry at both of them — but she wasn’t. She could still look Aaron in the eye.

Which meant it was about him.

 

113.

They gave chase. They had to; they couldn’t let her storm off into the snow. Spencer caught her first, jogging up behind her and grabbing her arm, ignoring the angry shriek Sergio voiced at the touch.

“Wait, Em,” he blurted out, but she whirled to face him and her expression was wild.

“Get off me!” she yelled, shoving him. It wasn’t much of a shove — he swayed but didn’t fall — and this seemed to infuriate her as she flung herself at his chest and slammed her fist into it, battering at him as he refused to give up his hold on her. “Let go, fuck you! I don’t want you near me!”

“Emily, what the hell?” Aaron ran up, steps behind and trying to pull her away, earning an elbow to his gut in reward. Spencer shook his head at Aaron, trying to warn him away. Let her be angry, he clearly deserved it. “Stop it!”

“No!” she spat, hitting Spencer again. He took it, wincing as her fist smacked his sternum. Behind them, Aureilo and Sergio hissed at each other, Aureilo becoming a wolf that tried to creep up and lick Sergio’s nose before the jaguar could swipe him. “I hate you, fuck! I hate you, I hate you. I hate you for being weak and cruel and selfish and fuck you, let go of me, let me go!”

Oh, Spencer thought, letting go. Emily fell with a yelp as she overbalanced without him holding her, vanishing into the snow and flurrying to get up, covered in white from head to toe. But she didn’t run. The snow on her face was tear-streaked as she launched up and tried to hit him again. “How dare you! How dare you!”

Aaron just stared, his hand half out to catch hers and his expression astounded.

“I’m sorry,” Spencer said, wincing as she hit him again before bursting into tears. And, dammit, he was crying too. “I’m sorry, Em, I didn’t know.”

“What,” said Aaron, hands dropping to his side. Hal tilted her head and shrugged, just as confused as he was.

“Don’t apologise, you prick.” Emily’s voice was thick and wet, trying to wipe snow from her face with a soggy sleeve. “How dare you make me care for you when you don’t even care for yourself?”

“I didn’t even know you …” Spencer mumbled. His heart was breaking, torn apart by the grief and anger on her face, the angry bunch to her white fists. “I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known you guys were waiting for me.”

“Bullshit!” Emily screamed, lashing out with her foot at the snow before stepping towards him, hand raised as though to slap him. He twitched back but didn’t stop her. “Bullshit! Since when have I ever been a reason for someone to stay before? Fuck you, Spencer — you treat suicide like … like fucking. Casual and undoable and, shit, maybe this will make my daddy notice me! Is it so cheap to you?”

“Sex isn’t cheap,” he said, only realising after he said it that that might have been a mistake.

She snorted, snot visible mixing with the half-melted snow on her lip, stepping forward before letting her hand fall. “Neither is dying,” she cried, crumpling into the snow like all her strings had been cut at once and curling small with her knees to her chest, sobbing into them openly. “I hate you … I hate that you’re alive.”

Spencer backed away, unable to think of anything to make this better. Aaron crept past and kneeled beside her, hugging her as cautiously as if he expected her to hit him too.

“No one would have missed us,” Aureilo whispered.

“You don’t know that,” Emily said, her voice muffled by her knee and Aaron’s arms. “I’d have known something was missing.”

Aaron said nothing, just twitched his head towards the cabin: a clear ‘go away, let me deal with this’ that Spencer was only too happy to obey. He left them there, walking away with all the weight of his past sins heavy on his shoulders.

 

114.

While they talked, Spencer paced. He paced the outside of the cabin and he paced the inside, tidying what he could and shifting around the rest just for something for his hands to do. Aureilo questioned him relentlessly, not letting him ignore what had just happened: “Why would she say that?” he pestered. “Think, Spencer, think! Why would she say that? She doesn’t want us dead.”

Spencer ignored him as he’d been ignoring him all along, folding the blankets from their nest and wiping his eyes where sweat was bothering him. He didn’t care. Why would he care why she said that? What was pertinent was that she clearly despised that he’d survived.

There was a notepad tucked under the pillow she’d been using. He only paused a second before pulling it out to look, figuring that she’d lost her right to privacy when she’d listened to him the night before. It was a drawing, rough and blotchy and scribbled in ballpoint pen, and he couldn’t work out what it was. Some mangled shape twisted up and back, surrounded by scratchy tears in the paper.

He turned it and realised.

“Birds,” Aureilo said, putting a paw to one. “They’re birds. And that’s …”

“Oh, Emily,” whispered Spencer, grieving for his friend and everything she hadn’t told them.

 

115.

When they came back in, Aaron leading an Emily who looked like she was about to vomit, Spencer was waiting. She stopped when she saw him, frozen and scared and still covered in snow, and he asked, “How did your dad die?”

Emily swallowed. Aaron slid his hands into his pockets, hunching his shoulders in a clear sign of discomfort. The silence between them hurt.

Spencer already knew the answer.

“I was ten,” she said finally, her voice muted, “and he decided I wasn’t worth sticking around for anymore. Found him hanging in his office surrounded by my shitty paintings. Figured they were on his desk and he must have, I don’t know … kicked them when he …” She swallowed, hard, and it sounded like it hurt.

Aaron choked out, “You found him?” and Spencer closed his eyes against that image, seeing once again all the imagined scenarios he’d had of his own father on Spencer’s fifteenth birthday.

When he opened them, Emily was aggressively pretending not to care despite her red nose and eyes. She shrugged, foot shoving Sergio away from her. “Yeah, what a dick, right? He had to know it would be me. Mom had some business meeting going on downstairs, she’d have been busy for hours. I got in so much trouble, walking in there and telling them Dad was dead. Not one of them believed me until they went and looked, not that I’d blame them. Who’d believe me …” But her eyes were vicious, despite her faltering words, and she looked right at Spencer. “Must be nice, huh, to have that out. To know living is a choice. Or shit, hell, maybe Dad was just like you — figured he’d be found in time and that’s just another thing I … I fucked up.”

She stopped, words gone. Silence followed.

Spencer couldn’t do anything. He didn’t know how to begin facing this. He wished he could hold her until this stopped hurting.

But she just shook her head and stepped away from them. “I’m not going to run,” she said, blinking rapidly. “But I just … can I be alone? For a while? Please.”

They nodded and left her to her grief and her anger, passing her the notebook on the way past.

“No wonder she hates birds,” Aureilo murmured as they left that place, going back to see how the van was faring. “I would too.”

 

116.

No one slept that night. Emily was quiet, her breath rattling through a stopped-up nose. Aaron’s arm was uncomfortably warm around Spencer and they were all sweaty from the blankets and the stove, neither of them willing to pull away from the other.

Finally, Spencer spoke. “I’m sorry I tried to die. If I’d known I had you guys waiting for me, I never would have done it … I honestly didn’t think anything was ever going to change.”

Emily sniffled. “Sorry I got mad at you for it,” she mumbled. “It’s your life, not mine. You’re not my asshole dad …”

Against Spencer’s side, Aaron coughed, his chest shifting rapidly. Spencer huddled closer, looking at him. “It’s yours now,” Spencer said. “Both of yours. If I ever get to the point where I can’t see something in myself worth living for, well, I can see it in you guys. Hurting you, either of you, as much as I saw Emily hurting today … that’s an impossible thought to me. I don’t ever want to be the person one of you guys finds dead — I want to be stronger than that.”

“Why did you do it then?” Emily asked.

Spencer thought about that for a while, feeling Aaron’s hand slip down to stroke along his side. “I guess,” he said finally, “I was just so lost. Every day I’d go to school and see the people around me learning and growing and I was stagnant. I aced everything because I knew it all, so Dad was happy … but nothing was new. Aureilo was stuck as a mouse, not the hare that Mom loved so much, so I guess I sort of realised that that Spencer was gone. The kid she loved was gone and I was just some miserable imposter who could never live up to the memory of him. So, why bother sticking around? All I’d ever do was disappoint. And now she’s gone so what’s the point of improving?”

“Being a disappointment isn’t so bad,” Emily said. “You have to own it. Burn a few churches. Smoke buckets of weed. Dye your hair black and wear a ton of makeup. It works for me.”

Aaron asked, “Does it?” and they all fell quiet again, listening to the crackle of the stove. Despite the silence, Emily took Spencer’s hand and he didn’t let go.

Before they slept, Spencer found his voice one more time: “Don’t you wish we could stay here?” he asked, looking around at the gloomy recesses of this winter hideaway. “Snowed in, far away from anyone who’d hurt us, we could just stay here and never grow up, never split up.”

“Away from dead parents,” Emily added.

“And violent ones,” said Aaron.

Aureilo whispered, “And misery.”

They fell asleep wishing that could be true.

 

117.

He woke to Emily shaking him, her eyes huge in the dark. The fire was out, a chill creeping in around the warmth of their bed. Aaron grunted and twitched awake next to him.

“Em, whu …” he mumbled, Hal growling grumpily deep in her chest.

“We can find her,” Emily said.

Suddenly, Spencer was very, very awake.

Emily continued, squatting on her heels and staring straight at him with her hair wild and her mouth set in a wide oh of discovery. “Your mom,” she explained redundantly, as though Spencer didn’t know the words he’d thought of ever since they’d made the box. “We could find her. Ethan said you need a focus. You said yourself, you’re lost. You’ve been lost since you were ten, that’s when all the bullshit started happening. Well, let’s find her. She has to be out there somewhere — and you need her, Spencer.”

It was Aureilo who answered: “Do you really think we can?”

And Aaron who finalised it.

“I … I can’t see why not?” he said, sitting upright with Hal quivering with excitement next to him. “How hard could it be?”

 

118.

Together, they waited for the thaw. When the snow melted, they left that cabin behind, knowing they’d never see it again how it was now, set deep in the snow. They left nothing behind but the traces of their existence they couldn’t hide and a promise to return to pay what they owed for their survival.

The rest of winter they spent in a town just over from their cabin. They worked hard, all of them, with a goal in mind now. Earn enough money to restock their van with enough supplies to get them all the way to Las Vegas, Nevada. Eventually, even though it was hard, winter ended.

When spring came, they left that place to find her.

Chapter Text

Emily

 

119.

Weight vanished from her shoulders along with the thaw. Emily walked alone on this day, feeling lighter than she had in years. It was bizarre, really, this sense of everything being new and different. She’d lived through spring before. It was just another season, it didn’t mean a thing. Except, this one seemed to. It brought with it not only the potential of a challenge for them all, finding Diana Reid and reuniting her with her son — who she would be so, so proud of, Spencer would see — but also a new feeling of being with people who’d seen everything dark she’d kept hidden and still stood by her. Her father, Rome, nothing seemed to bother them. In return, she put aside her anger about Spencer’s suicide attempt. What did it matter to her now; he was alive and, if he’d never tried to die, they’d have never met him. Maybe, like him, she didn’t believe in fixed destinies, but she also definitely believed in following the least rocky path. And she’d touched Hal now; there was no part of her that didn’t know Aaron, knowing intimately that he’d stand by her side.

She held down a job. It was easier now because pretending for her friends was easier than pretending for any other reason: if she smiled prettily enough, they ate well. The memory of being hungry faded.

“Do you think if I flew straight up, I could reach them?” Sergio asked her. When she looked up to see what he was talking about, there was a flock of birds returning from winter whirling overhead, wing beats loud on the fresh spring air.

“Nah, you’d tear us apart if you tried,” she warned him, smiling anyway. “There it is — Spencer said it was here.”

‘It’ was a payphone, one Spencer had tried to call the still-remembered home number on and found it was disconnected. They weren’t discouraged by this. Maybe Diana had just changed providers. Now it was Emily’s turn to insert the coins that jangled in her pocket, press her own remembered buttons, and wait for the line to connect, watching Sergio freak out any birds who dared to land nearby by stalking them as a cat.

“Ten minutes late, what is this,” Ethan said as he answered after barely two rings, a chuckle hidden in his words. “Man, no one told me having a homeless girlfriend would be this unpredictable.”

“Shh,” she scolded, peering over her shoulder to ensure no one was in hearing distance. Another thing about them having spent the rest of winter in the one place: every three days, at four p.m. exactly, she had this. “Someone will hear you.”

“Are you ashamed of me? Oh no, my heart. It’s things like this that are going to give me a complex.”

“You already have a complex.” But, despite her teasing, she hugged close to the phone and was glad for the distance between them hiding her smile. “We’re leaving soon, heading west. We could stop in.”

“You could. Been a while since I looked at the stars with someone as pretty as you. Or you could drive right on past and get that boy to his mama. Don’t divert for me, you know he’s stressing that she’s moved on without him.”

Emily nodded despite him being unable to see the movement. It was a worry; if Diana had moved, how would they find her? “Why would she though?” she asked, huffing out a breath. “Surely she’d know he’d have to come looking for her one day …”

“Well, she was looking for him. And there’s a ton of reasons to move town — school, work, for the hell of it. She’s a professor, right? If she’s published, you could look her up.”

“We could find someone in her field and ask them?” Emily offered, heart racing. To do that, they’d need a college, which was another excuse to visit — and, just like that, her heart stopped for a beat as her brain stumbled up against another option. “Holy shit, I do know someone in her field.”

 

120.

If Harper Ness had expected any ending to the case of the three missing Ashworth students, it wasn’t this one. A knock at his door one Sunday evening revealed, when he opened it, Emily Prentiss herself with the boys lingering not far behind.

His first thought, upon looking down on her, was that she was handling being on the streets far better than he’d thought she would. Her clothes were — relatively — clean, far more characteristic of her than the demure clothes she’d worn to entice him when they were student and teacher, and she had the uneasy look of being a young person who’d both lost and then gained weight in very short order.

His second thought was that this was not the same child he’d last scolded for drawing genitals in her borrowed textbooks atop the atomic structures. That child had blushed at his every word, reacting with just as much violence to praise as she did criticism. This one met his gaze evenly, the grin on her face cocky and with every inch of arrogant superiority he’d come to expect from a well-bred teenager with too much rope to hang herself with.

It was an improvement.

“I see you’re alive,” he said, crossing his arms. Copernicus waddled past, clicking his beak disapprovingly at Sergio. “I hope you’ve visited your mother.”

“Ah, no.” Emily’s grin widened, attempting to assume the sweet demeanour he’d seen her use in order to get extra treats from the kitchen staff. Having seen the practiced charm before, he raised an eyebrow at it. “Actually, we were hoping we could ask a favour. Well, two.”

“One of them being, don’t tell our parents we’re here,” Sergio said, attempting the sweet look as well — far more successful on a large-eyed cat than on a slightly dirty and frankly far too skinny teenager.

“I see,” Harper said, intending to do nothing of the sort. Elizabeth, at least, deserved to know her child was alive. “And the other?”

The boy stepped forward, the clever one, his own dæmon following as a nervous European hare with startlingly bold markings down his back. “Please,” he finally managed to croak out, chest visibly shifting quickly as he overbreathed. “Please — can you help us find my mom?”

Harper had been many things in his life, but never the type of person who could turn down that desperate of a plea. But there was still their parents to consider. He opened his mouth, ready to tell them that he’d listen to them only if they called their parents to alert them to their continued existence — right as the clever boy took another panicked breath, one that whistled, and the other reached forward and took his hand. Dark eyes met Harper’s with a ferocity that was breathtakingly familiar: so what, that gaze said, this is who we are.

“Come inside,” said Harper, holding the door open for them.

 

121.

Harper fed them without letting them speak, informing them that he’d only listen to what they had to say once he was certain that they weren’t going to collapse inward from malnutrition in front of him. They were led to a comfortable sitting room ringed by bookcases set to burst, Spencer trying to read every gilded title without leaving his seat, neck craning back and forth so violently that Emily was worried it would twist right off. She couldn’t tease him for it. She was too busy watching Harper carefully, both trying to sense whether he was going to betray them and also to try and understand her own strange reaction to being in the house of the man she’d been so sure she was in love with.

But she didn’t feel anything like that for him now. There’d been an initial burst of excitement at the shock of seeing a familiar face after six months of strangers, but now there was just the wary half-trust she associated with anyone who hadn’t yet hurt her but might soon. When he sat down opposite her after setting something that smelled delicious to cook, she watched him fiddle with a pen and wondered why his hands didn’t interest her anymore. They weren’t fascinating like they’d used to be, missing the callouses from instrument strings and the nicks and scratches from being hopelessly clumsy and a bit too much of a daredevil. His glasses were old and she didn’t like how they hid the eyes that were grey and not green, his hair too short and his face too soft. His kea-dæmon was too stern and too motherly, not at all a midnight-black rat with paws that could dance. Maybe he was cute, she thought offhand, but really only to a girl who’d spent her life locked up with men four times her age pretending she was interesting so her mother would think kindly of them. Not to someone like her, not anymore.

“You’re not going to call the cops, right?” she checked again, pressing because she was worried he might have already despite Sergio watching him through the glass doors leading to the kitchen.

“I haven’t decided,” was his careful reply, eyes darting from her to the still-twisting Spencer and then once more across to where Aaron was watching him with a cold, almost frightening expression. Stiff with fear at being back in DC, Emily knew. He shouldn’t be so scared; she’d fight anyone who tried to stop them leaving once more at the end of this. “You may read any book you wish, Spencer. You don’t need to hurt yourself trying to see through the covers with sheer willpower alone.”

Spencer shot him a terrified look but, despite the fear, positively rocketed upright and over to the bookshelves, vanishing into a nauseatingly large book on French literature. A timer rang in the kitchen, Harper excusing himself and vanishing. Emily waited a second and then followed, waving Aaron back when he half-stood.

Her skin crawled as she slipped into the kitchen, closing the door behind her and finding Harper checking something in the oven, a phone set on the counter dangerously close to his right. When he stood, he looked at the phone first before spotting her and raising an eyebrow.

“Please,” she said desperately, checking the door was shut before stepping forward and dropping all pretence of being sweet or calm or who she’d been before they’d run away. “You don’t understand, Professor. If you call our parents, they’ll make us go home and he’ll kill Aaron.”

Something dark flickered across Harper’s face. “His father?” he said, leaning on the counter. Emily nodded. “Your mother—”

“You can call her when I’m gone, okay?” Emily rambled out quickly. It wouldn’t matter — they’d be gone by then — and it was a concession to get him to trust them. “I’m alive, right? That’s all she wants.”

“Emily …”

“He beat him so bad I thought he was going to die,” she blurted out. They’d never discussed telling him this, but they needed Ness. They needed a place to start, in case Vegas turned out to be a bust. Harper seemed frozen, his parrot-dæmon unmoving on the counter where she’d used her beak and talons to climb up to. The whole house seemed littered with posts designed for just this purpose, pocked with beak-marks. Emily was staring at that as she kept speaking: “I was there. I went to warn Aaron that his dad knew about him and Spencer — that’s why it happened. He was beaten because, if his dad had known I was there, he’d have hurt us both. Don’t you see? It’s not just Aaron he’ll hurt — it’s Spencer and me too.” She stopped, breathing fast, finally finishing with, “The only place they’ll be safe is with Spencer’s mom,” because that’s what this was about; not just finding the person who Spencer loved most, but also finding him a home.

They just weren’t saying it out loud because it was the unspoken end of them.

The timer rang again.

“Food,” Harper said, stepping back and switching the oven off. “We’ll talk over dinner.”

 

122.

If only her mom could see her now, Emily thought, as they did everything they could to not scoff down the chicken and mushroom risotto. Aaron had already finished his, sitting rigidly and staring at the plate with a crestfallen expression until Harper took it without a word and returned it refilled.

“None of you have been eating well,” he scolded as Spencer choked on a piece of mushroom and had to gulp down his water to dislodge it. “Do you have money? Supplies?”

“Mostly,” Emily said. “But that doesn’t matter. We need to find someone, a professor of literature, just like you. Diana Reid — can you help us?”

“It’s a broad field. Where does she work?”

They looked to Spencer as he recovered from his near-death by mushroom and husked out, “Las Vegas, in UNLV. But I think she quit before … a while ago. Seven years now.”

Harper’s hand paused on the stem of his wine glass. “You’re going to Vegas?” he managed, eyes widening comically behind his glasses. “And you still expect me to assist you on this insanity? You’re three teenagers in a van! Two of you missing. This is absurd.”

Spencer looked down at his half-empty plate, lowering his fork. Emily winced.

“If you don’t help us, we’re just going to drive there anyway,” Aaron said quietly. “We’ll pick up a phonebook and ring up every ‘Reid’ listed. If that doesn’t work, well, we’ll just start knocking. We are going to find her, no matter how long it takes.”

“Sorry,” Emily said to him, disappointed. This had been her idea, and it was clearly a bust. “Maybe we’ll get lucky … thanks for the food, Prof. We’ll get out of your hair.” They began to stand, Aaron shooting a sad look at his still full plate.

“Stop.”

They did, Emily’s heart pattering unevenly. Was this it? Was he going to help them? When she looked at him again, he was gesturing at the food.

“Sit back down. Finish your meals. I’m warning you of the difficulty of this task — not throwing you out.” As they sat slowly, Aaron’s hand sneaking back to his fork, Harper sipped at his wine. “Right, look. My specialty isn’t literature—”

“But all your books?” Emily burst out with, confused. “You have so many on English shi-stuff!”

“—my partner’s is. Professor of Comparative Literature. It’s hardly fifteenth century, but the circuits may overlap … your mother was published?”

“I think so?” Spencer mumbled.

“Will your wife help us?” Emily demanded. It was rude — he was helping them — but she was frustrated. To be stalled this early in their quest was infuriating.

Harper frowned at her, the same scowl he used to give when she was acting up at her studies, except it didn’t quite frighten her as much anymore. It wasn’t anything like facing down the barrel of a gun or standing on one side of a door while her friend screamed on the other. “If I say no, you’re going to vanish into the night and likely end up getting into trouble, aren’t you?”

“Yup,” said Emily.

“Probably,” said Aaron.

“Almost certainly,” Spencer added.

Harper sighed. “Fine. Stay the night. Leslie will be home late, so we’ll discuss it in the morning. We have a spare bed and a couch and this way, at least, you’ll get one more meal before you leave. I assume the boys will be pairing up?”

Aaron stiffened, but Spencer just said, “Yes,” and nodded firmly.

“Oh boy, couch-time,” said Emily, not even having to hide her glee. A couch was a vast step up from the back of the van. “And you promise you won’t snitch?”

“Cross my heart,” Harper said, doing so just to earn a tired smile from them all.

 

123.

“Someone’s coming,” Sergio whispered that night, waking Emily from a restless half-doze. It was hard to sleep in such a strange, new place — harder still to sleep alone. It had been six months since she’d last slept without the boys by her side, dealing with snoring and loud breathing and coughing and every other gross noise bodies made in the night. She’d thought the silence would be good: turned out that it was suffocating.

Emily sat up, the living room surrounding her bed on the stupidly comfy couch illuminated by light flickering in from the front hall through the glass doors. Voices drifted through as well, too soft to hear properly but definitely not the boys. Harper’s wife, she assumed, and slipped off of the couch to pad over there softly, determined to pry. She was curious and Harper was annoyingly private; he didn’t even have photos up and, from what she’d seen of the spare room as the boys had been getting ready for bed, it was someone else’s bedroom. Did his wife sleep in there? It was weird.

Peeking through the gap in the door gave her nothing, not without risking being seen through the glass. Just the hallway and coat stand and the barest sliver of Harper’s shoulder as he stepped back and turned to lead whoever he’d just greeted upstairs. She saw two dæmons waddle into view — Ness’s kea and a black and red parrot thing that rubbed its beak against the kea’s lovingly. After them, the person followed. Emily blinked. That wasn’t his wife. That wasn’t a woman at all.

“Oh?” Sergio whispered, ears perking up. “Maybe?”

The man following Harper paused, looking right at her. “There’s a mouse at the door,” he said. He was short and chubby, the absolute textbook picture of an English professor right down to his receding hairline and elbow-patches. “Wearing very strange pyjamas, if I do say so.”

Emily looked down. It wasn’t her fault that the clothes Harper had offered were all far too big for her, and it definitely wasn’t her fault that he’d refused to let them sleep in the clothes they’d been wearing, citing a desire to be able to reuse the sheets after they were done. In the end, she’d settled on an old Tales from Topographic Oceans concert shirt that was bizarrely well-worn, considering she doubted either Harper or this guy had ever been young enough to be into fun things.

“Fiercest mouse I’ve ever met,” Harper said, walking back down the stairs and shaking his head at her. “Les, this is Emily. Emily, my partner, Les. Now you know — and now you can go back to bed. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” was all Emily could think to say, slipping away from the door and back to her couch as the hall light flickered off.

Sergio was there waiting. “The boys are going to tease us for this,” he said glumly.

“Forget the boys,” she replied. “Never tell Ethan.”

 

124.

The Ness’s garden was nice, clear signs of a devoted hand visible throughout. Emily didn’t think a gardener worked here: there were too many small personal touches like the ribbons used to tie up the tomato vine and the almost garish amount of wind chimes hanging from the tree branches around her. As Emily sat with her bare toes digging at the grass, surrounded by the scent of the flowers and the washing powder they’d used on her returned — freshly laundered — clothes, she watched those windchimes spin and refract the light above them, the gentle chimes sounding with every slight breeze. Sergio watched too as though hypnotised, despite the fact that she knew that both of their minds were locked on what was happening inside. What could Harper have wanted to speak to the boys about that precluded her being there?

But there was no point theorising about it because Harper himself was walking towards her, his expression dangerously soft. She tensed. That kind of look meant he was going to try and ‘advise’ her, and she was done being told how to live by people who’d forgotten how.

“Your mother has moved into the private sector, retiring from ambassadorial duties without expectation of returning,” Harper said without even seeming to realise the spanner he’d thrown into Emily’s understanding of how the world worked. “She’s made it public that this decision is based entirely on a desire to remain based within DC with the flexibility to continue searching for her missing daughter.”

“But Mom loves politics,” Emily said, still reeling.

“Perhaps she loves other things more.” Harper lowered himself onto the grass next to her, his knees audibly popping as he settled onto the lawn. “I understand why the boys are doing this. Trust me, I do. Love, especially when it’s dangerously unconventional, is a powerful motivator for recklessness. But you, Emily? You have a home waiting for you. Yes, perhaps it’s lacking in—”

“Any kind of warmth or care?” Emily spat, bristling. She wasn’t going back. “Forget me. What are you telling the boys? Where are they? If you’re trying to talk us into giving up—”

“No, not at all.” Harper played with a blade of grass, letting it twist between his fingers as he focused on something she couldn’t see. “I told you, Emily. I’ve been where they are. Loving someone I shouldn’t. While they should never be afraid of that love, or ashamed of it, they do need to understand that they need to be careful. Especially on the road.”

“Yeah,” Emily murmured. “We learned that with Aaron’s dad.”

Harper nodded. “Well, I’ve spoken to Les,” he said. “It’s going to take time to find traces of Diana, especially if she’s moved beyond working academia. The boys are resistant to staying any longer, so I am going to ask that you all contact me at an agreed upon time every week in order for me to both impart any information we’ve gained, and also so we can check on you. Things on the road can go wrong very, very fast, and help isn’t always nearby.”

“You want to keep tabs on us?” Emily rankled at the idea — hadn’t they proved they didn’t need adults meddling?

“Yes,” was the blunt answer. “Absolutely. Elizabeth will have me thrown from a pier if she discovers I made contact with you and didn’t attempt to follow up on that contact. You’re all smart and resilient, but don’t underestimate how vulnerable to exploitation you are. And, promise me, that you three won’t split up — stay together. That’s what will keep you safe.”

Emily hardly even had to think about that. “I promise,” she said, and meant it.

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

125.

Leaving DC felt like the beginning of something, not the end. This time, they weren’t running away, but running towards. Maybe not all of that something would be good, but they were confident that at least some of it would be. Aaron was sure it would be, for the others at least. After all, West was Diana Reid — and Ethan Coiro. New stages of life for everyone involved, or nearly everyone. Everyone but him.

He put his own misgivings aside. Spring was finished thawing the world and Spencer rambled on endlessly about his mom and how excited he was to see her. Ness’s partner found two publications Diana had put out just after Spencer had been taken by William, all citing UNLV as the college she’d been affiliated with at the time. They had money, food, new clothes, and maps to get them the entire way to Vegas, thanks to Ness and Leslie. Aaron wasn’t sure how they’d repay this debt to them, but he knew one day he would. Somehow.

They were hopeful as hell that they were finally going towards something better.

 

126.

It was unanimously decided that they hated Kansas. Driving through it was like driving into the void, nothing but horizon and sky around them. The fields around them were doing nothing to break the monotony of the drive.

“There is absolutely no one else in Kansas but us, is there?” Emily asked, winding her window down and staring out at a distant windmill.

“Nope,” Spencer replied.

Aaron shook his head, hands on the wheel and grinning at her. Before he could think to stop her, she’d slipped up and out of the window, hanging out with only one hand holding her. “Is there anyone else here?” he heard her yelling at the highway, words whipped away by the wind.

“Christ!” yelled Aaron, resisting the urge to slam on the brake as Hal grabbed her belt and Spencer reached a calm hand out and looped it around her ankle without looking up from his book. “Emily, get in the car!”

Her head popped down, windswept and grinning. “I think I swallowed a bug,” she told them happily, thumping back into her seat. “Is that what Ness meant when he said to eat well?”

“Protein, sure,” Spencer replied absently. Aaron just rolled his eyes at her. They’d get her back for that shock later, he knew.

 

127.

They threw her out of the van at a campsite with the instruction to go find ‘firewood’ as payback for frightening Aaron. There wasn’t a tree in sight for miles. Emily stood there looking around with her expression dark and arms folded. “You’re just making me leave so you can fuck, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely,” said Aaron and closed the door on her.

Spencer, when he turned to face him, was shaking his head. “She’ll get revenge,” he warned, lowering his book as he suddenly had a lap full of boyfriend trying to kiss him.

“Probably put mentholatum in the lube,” Aureilo added.

Probably, Aaron thought, but it was worth it. Every moment he had with Spencer was worth it. Besides, they’d just be careful to hide the lube from now on.

 

128.

The van broke down just outside Colorado Springs as they bickered over whether to turn up to Boulder or keep on towards Vegas. Spencer was set on seeing Ethan again. Emily was certain that they should just keep going despite how much they could all tell she wanted to turn north.

“Come on, you know you want to see him,” Spencer teased as Aaron poked about under the hood, the painfully warm sun beaming down on them. “Spring is the season of romance, after all.”

“Is that why you two are trying to fuck your way across America?” Emily shot back. “No thank you, I prefer my romances unseasoned and succinct. Let’s keep going.”

“Aw, come on. We know you love him. You do so, you want to smooch him and snuggle and K I S S—” Spencer’s voice was cut off by the sudden sound of a scuffle, which Aaron assumed was probably Emily trying to shove a sock into his mouth, a common enough threat. If she was feeling nice, she’d use a clean sock.

Aureilo was snickering too, adding to the teasing. “Emily and Ethan sitting in a tree,” he chanted, turning into a bird and flittering around Hal, who helpfully became a bee. Aaron sighed.

“You kids need a hand?”

They all jumped, Aaron almost smacking his head on the hood as he rapidly reversed out to see who it was. Hal switched from the bee to the wolf so fast she barely had time to land first, paws loud on the gravel as it suddenly took her altered weight. Aaron backed up, getting between the stranger approaching and his friends, who were still paused mid-wrestle on the verge. Behind the man, a tow-truck idled, the logo on the side impossible to read from here.

“We’re fine, thanks,” Aaron lied, well aware that it was the fuel pump and they weren’t going anywhere without a new one. He didn’t know this guy and they were alone; Ness’s warnings rang loudly in his brain.

The man nodded, eyeing them. “Are you sure?” he asked again. “You kids alone?”

“No,” Spencer said, rubbing his mouth free of sock. “Well, yes. Uh … no?”

“We’re driving up to Vegas to see our folks,” Emily lied easily. Ruffling a hand through her hair to shake the dirt out, she bounced up and leaned against the hood, punching Aaron’s arm. “My brother here thinks he’s a real smartass when it comes to mechanics, but he keeps getting us stuck with this old bomb. Men and their cars, I swear.”

“Well, now, it’s a good old van,” the man said, finally smiling. It was a nice smile, but that still didn’t mean that Aaron trusted it. “That kind of model, probably a fuel pump problem. But you know that already by the looks of you, don’t you, lad?”

“Yes.” Aaron tried not to look too obvious as he kept between the man and the others, but everyone knew what he was doing. “We’ll just call our folks, it’s fine.”

“No, it’s not, they’re going to be so mad,” Emily whined, pouting. “Hell, Aa-nt, we need them to be happy … I didn’t want them to be mad at us already when we’re taking Ethan to meet them. They’re already set to hate him, they always hate the guys I date.” She looked at the man and shrugged. “Parents, huh?”

“I’m sure they’re just looking out for their little girl,” the man said. He walked over, his dæmon an armadillo that waddled after him, and peered under the hood. “Tell you what, I can’t leave someone’s kids out here on the side of the road like this, specially not a young girl. Let me tow you back to my shop. We’ll get a new pump in there and send you on your way.”

“We can’t pay you,” Aaron said, expecting a catch.

“Sure, we can,” Emily chirped, slipping her arm through Spencer’s and hauling him forward to stand beside her, his cheeks red. “You used to work in that guy’s garage, back at home before college. Can’t you swap labour for the part? Would that be okay, Mr …?”

“Henry Evans,” grunted the man. “And sounds fair, if you’ve got the time to spare to spend in my shop. You any good?”

The question was aimed at Aaron, but Spencer answered. “He’s wonderful.”

They all looked to Aaron. “Sure,” he said, smiling with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. “We really appreciate it, sir. We’d be stuck without you.”

“It’s no problem. I have a girl in college too, would like to think someone’d help her out on the road if she needed it. You twins?”

Emily grinned at Aaron. “Yup,” she said, Sergio becoming a wolf alongside Hal and wagging his tail. “I’m the oldest though, isn’t that right, Ant?”

“Sure thing,” he gritted out through clenched teeth, “Barbara. Or was it Barbie still? I can never remember.”

Emily’s glare was worth it.

 

129.

“Anthony, come here,” Mr Evans called, summoning Aaron into his office. The man had turned out to be every bit as nice as suggested, taking only one week to pay back the pump before insisting upon paying Aaron for his time over the second. “Sit down. Have a drink.”

Aaron took the beer offered, sitting on a chair that was more grease than leather. Much like the rest of this place, it was well-used and worn in, the garage the kind that stayed the same even as the town grew around them. Evans had clearly been the town mechanic for as long as he’d been here, everyone comfortable with him and his ways.

“I’m not going to beat around the bush,” Evans announced. “You didn’t call your folks to let them know you’re staying on. The wife got the phone bill, no outside calls placed.”

Aaron froze. “We used a payphone,” he lied.

Clearly, Evans didn’t believe that. “I think more likely you haven’t got folks to call,” he said. It hit closer to home than Evans knew, Hal shrinking down behind him. “There we go. Figured. It’s not hard to tell, boy. Wife reckons you lot haven’t got a shirt to spare between you, all worn to the thread. You been living in that van?”

Aaron didn’t answer. It had been a mistake to stay on here, accepting their offer of a guestroom between him and Spencer, Emily sleeping in the daughter’s room. They’d bailed to the van as soon as it was fixed but, apparently, that hadn’t been fast enough.

“I’m not going to call anyone on you, though I should.” Evans sighed, rubbing his eyes. “Can see you’re clearly just trying to do right by your sister. You’re protective of her. Someone interfering with her at home? Lord knows we’ve had runaways with similar stories before.”

There was no way he could answer that, so Aaron just shrugged and looked down at his lap. The van was fixed — they could run, get out of here.

Evans wasn’t finished: “Look, Ant, you’re a great worker. You’re smart and think fast and you’ve settled here quicker than any real employee I’ve had in a long time. If you want to stay on, there’s a place here for you. You and your sister both. You both can work for board until you get set up somewhere in town. I’d be stupid to let a worker like you slip away, especially if you’ve got nowhere to go.”

Aaron cringed. Guilt rose up fast and hard that they’d lied to this person and his wife when they’d offered them nothing but kindness. “My name isn’t Ant,” he blurted out.

Evans just nodded. “Aye, I know. No hard feelings on that. You had no reason to trust me.”

Aaron choked down the fresh guilt that brought. “Emily’s not my sister,” he whispered.

 “Girlfriend?” he asked, but Aaron shook his head. “Friend?”

A nod.

“How about this,” Evans said. “You go find your friends and you think about what I said. If you want the job, it’s yours. We’ll start fresh with that, with your real name and story. Deal?”

Despite the temptation of the offer of a real place to live, to work, somewhere untouched by his father, Aaron shook his head. “Sorry, sir,” he said, “but I promised I’d … I have somewhere I need to go first. Something to do.” He thought of the time that would follow them finding Diana, and spoke again: “Um … if I come back, after … it might be a few months, but …”

Evans smiled. “Position is always open …?”

“Aaron,” Aaron said. “Thank you, sir. I think I will.”

 

130.

By the time he knocked off that day and wandered back to where the van was parked, it was twilight. The world was pale and introspective around him, the streets a dry kind of fresh. Not misty but hard to see anyway, sunlight slowly being driven away by shadow. Aaron walked unhurriedly and watched the gold recede from the tips of the trees, his mind locked on that offer and what it meant. It meant a future, a steady income. No more scrabbling to survive.

It meant growing up, and growing up meant saying goodbye to his childhood and everything that had come with it. Adulthood wouldn’t involve Emily and her wild determination to be free and it wouldn’t involve Spencer and his idealistic desire to stay young forever…

Adulthood meant doing what was right by them: taking Spencer to his mom where someone he loved could finally show him how important a person he was, giving him every opportunity he needed to grow; and taking Emily to Boulder and Ethan, where she’d live life on her own terms with someone who was finally bothering to love her.

“Do you think I’ll settle?” Hal asked as they walked up the quiet road to the block of stores where the van was parked. The streetlights flickering overhead were casting gold glows onto her black fur, wolfy paws padding on the sidewalk. Cars flashed past, everyone heading home. Faces glanced to them. Kids and wives and fathers and siblings … Aaron watched them go and wondered if this could be his home. If one day he’d be driving one of those cars with a wife beside him and two-point-five kids in the backseat. If Spencer would be nothing but a memory in the back of his mind, or if he’d be living like Harper Ness — with the love of his life, but hidden. Doing everything to obscure the fact that he was loving wrong. No photos, no wedding, pretend bedrooms, no public declarations of adoration. Hidden, just like he’d always been. Just as small as a man as he had been as a boy, helpless against those that would hurt him and the people he loved.

“Yes,” he said bitterly, watching another car whiz by. “You’ll settle, and so will I. And you’ll lose everything that makes you fierce and bold, just like I will …”

Hal’s tail drooped. She flickered into an Alsatian. “I could be a lovely dog,” she whispered sadly, tail tucked. “I wouldn’t mind.”

“I would,” he replied. “Dogs are collared.”

She shook her head, flickering uncertainly into the wolf and then once more into a sparrowhawk that hopped along awkwardly. “I could be a bird,” she announced, and he ignored her. Not because he didn’t think she could — he doubted it because he’d never been the kind of person to believe in flying — but because he’d been distracted. The van was ahead, but that wasn’t what had caught his eye. Beside it, the windowed front alive with light displaying the almost-empty interior, was a laundromat. Rows of white-matte machines lined the cream-painted walls, the floors a tacky blue linoleum. A broken vending machine took up one corner, the edge of a corkboard that had slid off the wall propped up against it. It was a completely mundane, boring scene, just like the mundane, boring life Aaron was contemplating.

Emily and Spencer were inside, and they were dancing. Aaron stared at them as Emily took Spencer’s hand and dragged him about with wild abandon, no audible music playing but their bodies moving to some beat nonetheless. Their dæmons danced with them, hares that leapt and spun in the air like they didn’t even need wings to know what the sky was like.

Aaron moved closer. There wasn’t any music playing, he found.

But they were laughing.

Spencer turned and saw him, turning red and stalling, trying to pull himself out of Emily’s grip. She turned, seeing Aaron and rolling her eyes before tumbling forward to yank open the door with the jangle of the bell overhead.

“Get in here!” she yelled at him. “Spencer flooded the washer!”

Now that he was closer, Aaron could see the suds spooling about their feet, kicked around as they’d danced in them. It was childish and messy and completely irresponsible. Their pants were saturated, their clothes sitting unwashed in the mess.

Aaron grinned and walked forward to join them. He wasn’t grown up yet, and they still had time left to dance.

Behind him, Hal was a wolf.

 

131.

Aaron made the decision for them: they went to Boulder. Explicitly, because both Spencer and Emily wanted to see Ethan, and also because it once again delayed the end. But he wasn’t telling them that, just like he wasn’t telling them about the job waiting for him. His dull future wouldn’t be theirs: they were so much brighter than him. Ethan’s excitement upon seeing Emily and Spencer was contagious. Aaron couldn’t help but get swept up in the festive cheer of it all, letting them rope him into drinking with them in Ethan’s dorm room.

Spencer was drunkenly editing Ethan’s papers while Ethan taught Emily to play the keyboard. Upbeat jazz bounced from a tape deck player propped on a pile of textbooks, Aaron’s bare toes poking at the speakers. The dæmons were every bit as drunk as their people. Hal and Aureilo chased each other as crabs through a maze of beer cans and bottles while everyone pretended that Parson and Sergio weren’t hyper-focused on each other to the exclusion of all else, Sergio a marmoset with tiny, agile paws that stroked and explored every inch of Parson’s slim body.

“Aaron?” Spencer asked, crawling over to him and leaning overhead, dipping to bump their noses together. “You look pensive.”

“I’m relaxing,” Aaron responded. By the desk, Ethan was rolling a joint. Aaron watched with mild interest, only looking away when Emily leaned over to help — or hinder — and Ethan stalled whatever she’d been about to say by kissing her. The sight made him feel weird, all worried and tight, like a reminder that Emily would grow beyond the confines of their van.

“We should come back here after we find Mom,” Spencer murmured, lying next to him. “I think they’d like to spend some more time together.”

When Ethan lit the joint and offered it to him, he accepted after checking to see if Aaron minded. Aaron, instead of minding, accepted it too. Anything to be young just a little bit longer. Aaron coughed, choking on the smoke — a little on purpose, a little not — and delaying this conversation. He realised: Spencer thought they were going to keep on how they were after finding his mom. But telling him otherwise was a conversation for another day.

Because of that, all he said was, “Maybe.”

Chapter Text

Spencer

 

132.

They entered Vegas via The Strip because Emily wanted to see it all, their faces pressed to the windows and staring at the lights and sounds around them. Aureilo was a giddy, excited mess of a dæmon, racing endlessly around the van as a hare and then a cheetah and then a hare again, calling out all the places he recognised. Aaron drove silently, Hal pushing past to stare around. Emily mused out loud about whether she could sneak her way into a casino while they were here. Meanwhile, Spencer wound the window down, shivering as the sound of the city he’d always considered his home rolled in. He might have left it just after turning eleven, but a part of him never had. Almost slamming his head into the window, Aureilo shoved past as a cheetah to push his head out the window, whiskers bristling and mouth open, tasting the air.

“We’re home,” he breathed, paws tip-tapping in place with excitement. Spencer stared at his dæmon, at the black ruff of fur that sloped down his skinny back the whole way down to his tail, the strange spots, the twin lines down his front. With Aureilo distracted by the people bustling past on the sidewalk and the sights around them, Spencer stroked his tufty mane and closed his eyes, remembering another cheetah with a shuddering feeling of home sinking deep into his chest. This was it — they were going to find their mom. After all these years…

“We should show them the tower,” Aureilo continued, startling Spencer. His brain skipped over the half-forgotten memory of the year between being taken away from his mom and leaving Nevada completely. “Near Dad’s old place, the school he took us after Mom—”

“I know where it is,” Spencer said uncomfortably, seeing Aaron glance at him out of the corner of his eye as they turned off The Strip and began driving towards the city limits proper.

“Where do you want to go first?” Aaron asked, ignoring Emily’s squeaked, “Downtown!”

Spencer thought about it. He wanted to go to his mom’s, wanted it so badly it hurt, but he was also terrified of taking that final step. And, maybe, maybe they should show them the swallows. “Can we go to Sunrise Manor first?” he asked, seeing Aaron frown as he tried to place where that was. “It’s just east of Vegas, it’s where Dad … well, where we moved after leaving Mom, while Dad worked on organising to move interstate. There’s somewhere there that we used to go, and I want to see it first before going home.”

“Alright.” Aaron’s hand slipped over, squeezing his knee. “Here we go.”

 

133.

The hole in the fence they’d used to crawl through to get to the tower looming overhead wasn’t there anymore. It wasn’t quite dark yet, but the surrounding yard was deserted. Emily sauntered over to where Spencer and Aaron were crouched by the fence with wire-cutters in hand.

“You’re a little interloper,” she told Spencer with a wink before getting to work on the repaired fence until they could crawl through. Despite the wary look on his face and Hal’s raised eyebrows on her owl-face overhead, her expression damningly judgemental, Aaron said nothing about this minor trespass. “Why a transmission tower?”

Spencer shrugged, holding the wire up so Aaron could crawl through with Aureilo flying around as a firefly by his ear. “One of the few things I wasn’t scared of as a kid was heights,” he tried to explain. “After Mom was gone, I don’t know. I guess me and Aur came up with this idea that she knew we liked to climb things sometimes and, if she came looking for us, she’d find us if we left something somewhere high for her to find. Aur used to fly beside me with a candle and I’d see how high I could get and draw on the rung I reached. I got really high.”

“It was more than that,” Aureilo said, his voice too quiet to really be heard. “Mom used to read us stories about people lost at sea being led home by swallows … we really thought she’d find us if we left messages. It wasn’t just fantasy.”

“Shh.” Spencer shuffled uncomfortably, feeling too exposed under Emily and Aaron’s stares. “It was fantasy. We didn’t really think it was like, magic, or something.”

That was a lie: a small part of him remembered that they had.

“How did you even get up there?” Emily asked, her voice impressed. “I mean, it narrows up a bit, but the base is huge! I couldn’t get up that, no way.”

“There.” Spencer pointed to the tree yawning up beside the tower, branches even more tangled than it had been when they were ten. “It’s a Western Honey Mesquite, about twenty-five feet tall. We climbed that until the tower narrowed a bit, and there are rungs you can use beyond that. The actual tower is almost two-hundred feet tall. Watch out — it has thorns.”

They were under the tree, Spencer’s heart thrumming wildly as he traced his hand over the bough he’d used to hook his foot into when hefting himself up. Aureilo was already a squirrel, racing around the tree.

“Come on then,” Emily said without a pause. She vanished up the tree in a shower of leaves and bark, Sergio only visible as a dark blot above her. “Show us your message. I want to see!”

Spencer looked at Aaron, who looked a little green. “I’ll wait here,” he muttered, hunkering down with Hal on the ground between his feet as a wombat. “We’re not fans of heights.”

“It’s not that high,” Spencer tried, but Aaron shook his head firmly. Shrugging, Spencer followed Emily up the tree, dodging thorns that had grown back from where a smaller him had kicked them all loose. By the time he reached the bit where tree met tower, his hands were bloody and Emily had a cut on her cheek, both of them grinning with the rush of looking down and seeing the ground waver distantly below. He said, “Look,” and shuffled out onto the tower, gut lurching as his body registered the lack of the tree’s support below him. It was now replaced with nothing but his sweaty, bloodied grip on the steel frame as he shuffled out and pointed to the junction where they’d left their first message. “I wish I’d brought a marker.”

Emily peered around him, hanging onto the tower with much less care than Spencer’s double white-knuckled grip. She had one arm crooked loosely around a rung, one foot perched in the V shape of a junction and was leaning back without a care for how precarious she looked. Sergio leapt about with just as much reckless abandon, jumping from a rung as a possum and dropping before turning into a bird and catching himself mid-air.

“Is that a swallow?” she asked, eyes adjusting well enough to see the wobbly marker lines he’d drawn there so long ago, even as the sun fell and left it impossible to see.

“Yeah,” Spencer said, letting go to trace his fingers on the drawing. “There’s two on the tree from where we were too scared to get higher … and I think maybe three more above us?” Even peering up, he thought he might be able to see it on the rung above. He hadn’t gotten anywhere near as high as his memory had thought he had — maybe thirty feet?

“It’s below us,” Aureilo announced, appearing as an owl and landing beside Spencer. “This is our second one. The tree must have grown.”

Emily asked, “Why a swallow?”

“Sailors believed that swallows would always lead them home, that they’d always find their way back to the ones they loved. Mom would read me that story all the time.”

“Oh.” Emily hunkered down, Sergio becoming a lemur and hanging upside-down beside her. “Shit, Spence, that’s really sad. You’ve got a tragic backstory, dude.”

“Dude?” Aureilo repeated. “Dude?”

Emily just grinned. “Come on, let’s climb down. Aaron’s having kittens down there. Reckon we could control fall and scare the shit out of him?”

“Let’s not,” Spencer suggested. “I think we’ve aged him enough, don’t you?”

 

134.

It was just after four p.m. as they pulled up the street where Spencer had grown up. He knew they were here even though he was curled up in the back of the van trying to stall his panic: they were here, his mom would be here, he was going to see his mom…

“We’re going to be sick,” Aureilo whispered, a hare and then a mouse and then a hare again, so unsure of what he was in this terrifying moment. Spencer just shook his head, doubts slamming home. It was too late, he was too old, maybe she didn’t want them, maybe she wouldn’t recognise them, maybe—

“Uh, Spence, what number did you say it was again?” Aaron asked, the van rolling to a stop.

Spencer wanted to answer him, he really did, but his throat was currently closing tight. Instead, he just crawled up and kneeled ready to point to his—

Home.

He knew it instantly. They were parked right outside. There was the tree with the swing he’d never played on, there was the shady corner of the yard where he’d once buried a set of chess pieces in the hopes of having them grow. There was the mailbox with ‘Reid’ painted roughly on the side, pawprints set around it from Aureilo and Sonnet. There was the house.

It was abandoned.

A wonky For Sale sign hung off the broken fence, creaking in the wind. The lower windows were bordered up tight against vandals, the upper windows empty and cold. One was broken. The front door was closed but someone had kicked the lower panel in, the darkness waiting inside a void that Spencer feared absolutely. Wiry desert grass had overtaken the front yard, choking the garden and the trees, everything a muted kind of yellow-grey. No one had been there in years.

“Oh,” said Spencer. As though in a daze, he climbed out the back of the van and walked up the overgrown path. The gate was gone. Junk mail littered the pavers, held in place by the grass and weeds. His shoe tore a catalogue on jewellery. Somewhere, a coyote barked.

Footsteps broke the shocked silence, Spencer first looking down at Aureilo before turning to find Emily and Aaron jogging up from behind. Their own faces were stunned.

“Spence, we’re—” Aaron began, but Emily cut him off as she strode boldly ahead, flashlight in hand.

“Coming with you, let’s go. Maybe there’s a clue inside.”

“There could be junkies in there,” Spencer whispered, but Aaron took his hand. “It might not be safe.”

“Since when have we cared about safe?” he replied firmly, his mouth tight. A startling lie from him, but one Spencer appreciated. “Come on. Em’s right. We’ll search together.”

 

135.

The dark inside the decrepit house terrified him more than any dark had ever before. Emily stuck close, her flashlight working to chase the shadows away from the beam but inefficient in revealing what they needed to find. The furniture was gone, sold or looted, Spencer didn’t know. Odd pieces still remained. A coat rack, a child’s chair he’d used to sit on to read, a broken chessboard. The kitchen cupboards still held cooking implements. The bathroom, as far as they could tell, had been untouched by whoever had emptied the rest of their belongings but destroyed by looters since. Some books still remained on the shelves, most gone. Some remained in a cardboard box taped shut and marked ‘Thrift Shop, 2620 S Decatur Blvd’. Spencer opened the box and leapt back, horrified, as a nest of mice scampered out with frantic little squeaks, abandoning a mass of wiggling pink babies.

The stairs groaned behind him as Aaron vanished up them, Emily sticking close with the flashlight, knowing how much Spencer hated the dark. Hated it even more in this dusty, dilapidated house of misery.

“I don’t think Mom packed this stuff,” Aureilo said, paws up and peering into the mouse-infested box. “These books are all jumbled … Dad’s stuff and Mom’s and some fiction paperbacks all thrown in together. Mom would have sorted it.”

Spencer shrugged, turning to follow Aaron upstairs with the beam of light leading the way.

 

136.

They found their old bedroom. The wire frame of the bed remained, stripped down. Part of the wall was missing — stealing copper wiring, Emily informed him with a grimace as she kicked a used hypodermic under the empty frame of the sagging bookshelf where no paws or feet would step unexpectedly on it. Spencer just stared at his room that wasn’t his room anymore, his stomach lurching grossly as he looked to the bed frame and found a mess of magazines more explicit than even the ones Emily had stolen for him once. They weren’t his and neither was the mess of trash around it or—

“Want to leave?” Emily asked. Spencer nodded fiercely, his face burning.

 

137.

They found Aaron in what had used to be their father’s office.

“We’re leaving,” Spencer said, unable to keep the anger and hurt out of his voice. “Come on, Aaron, we’re going, now. Let’s go!” He needed to leave before he broke down completely, feeling misery creeping and crawling up his spine along with shame. He never should have come here. They should have stayed in DC, or in Boulder, or anywhere but here. Nothing good happened in Vegas, not for him or for anyone—

“Wait, look,” Aaron said, lifting his head. “Bring me the light.” Ignoring Spencer’s misery, Emily walked forward and shone the flashlight down on what Aaron was fiddling with; the locked drawer of a heavy, oak desk. “I had to break the lock to even get in here — I don’t think anyone has bothered with this room.”

Spencer looked around. Aside from the smashed window littering glass across the mouldy carpet, lit up by the moonlight streaming in, it was mostly untouched. Unlike his bedroom.

“Hold this,” Emily said, giving Aaron the flashlight and fishing in her pocket for the pins she used as picks. Spencer watched numbly, expecting nothing but more mice as she wrestled the drawer open. Hal nosed around scattered paperwork everywhere else. Aureilo, just for something to do, helped her, becoming a tamarin with owl-eyes so he could read out loud the things he found: school records, the top half of insurance paperwork, tax information that Spencer distantly wondered if he should burn before they left. And then Emily whispered, “Got it,” and the drawer popped open.

Inside was more paperwork, rat-eaten and yellowed as she gingerly pulled it out and handed it up to him. He opened the folder, sure it wasn’t going to be anything useful, and it wasn’t. Just more tax invoices, by the looks of it, full breakdowns of costs and balances owing and—

“A psychiatric facility?” Aaron asked, reaching out and taking one of the invoices, scanning it. “Your mom was an impatient here.”

“The rest of this is hospital stuff.” Emily shuffled through the paperwork she’d kept. “Doctor’s notes too. Huh. Recommending she be … admitted into residential care. She was sick?”

Spencer began reading slower, eyes lingering on a readout of medication prescribed. Anti-psychotics, anti-depressants…

“Someone is outside,” Hal called, peering out the window. “I think they saw us.”

“We should go.” Aaron grabbed Spencer’s arm, adding, “Bring those papers. We’ll read them in the van.”

Wordless, Spencer followed.

 

138.

There was a woman in the front yard, her pig-dæmon grunting angrily at them as they crawled out from the kicked-in panels on the front door. “Get out of there, you kids, you vandals, thieves!” she scolded them, waving a walking stick in their direction. “I’m sick of you going in there and poking around, making a mess! Go on, get out!”

Spencer stood first, squinting to study her. Maybe she was familiar, but maybe not. He couldn’t tell. “I used to live here,” he said instead, hunching back when she shot a sharp look in his direction. “This was my home.”

“Bull, no one has lived there in years. Not since they took that crazy woman away.”

Aureilo whimpered. Spencer just nodded, ignoring Aaron’s quiet noise of distress.

“My mistake,” he whispered, creeping past her to get to the van, feeling every bit as sorry as Hal with her tucked in tail and low haunches. “We’re sorry. We’ll go.”

The others said nothing, just kept close to him as they fled that place with the woman’s voice ringing in their ears.

 

139.

His friends refused to let them sulk. The next morning found them squashed into a payphone with the pile of invoices stacked on the narrow shelf inside, Emily jangling a pocketful of loose change as they ate bacon and egg muffins from the McDonalds nearby. The entire booth smelled of egg and bacon grease, Spencer sitting on the floor with his feet tucked out, back against Aaron’s legs. Emily sat perched on the shelf, the paperwork piled in her lap. The dæmons were stuck outside, complaining that they weren’t allowed any bacon, and Aaron patiently rang number after number with his best ‘adult’ voice, trying every single doctor and psychiatrist and hospital listed for any information they could give them on Diana Reid.

Over and over and over again Aaron was politely refused, no matter what he tried. Pretending to be William didn’t work, nor did introducing himself as Diana’s son. He even tried as her attorney, working from a letterhead they’d found in the stack of paperwork. Every time they were turned away with the same ‘we can’t release that information on past patients, sorry.’ Spencer was giving up hope, wishing they’d just give up and move on. They weren’t going to get anywhere, so why bother?

“Give me that,” Emily said, licking grease from her fingers and holding her hand out for the handset. “Put this number in.”

“Who is this?” Aaron asked.

Emily didn’t answer, just perched the phone between her shoulder and ear as she settled herself more comfortably on the shelf. The jangling from her pocket was getting lighter.

“Hi, is this UNLV Administrative Department?” she asked, her voice completely alien and yet still Emily. It was a bland kind of ‘professional’ voice, superbly confident and clipped, the very picture of a harried businesswoman. “This is Elizabeth Ness, from Nevada State. We’ve received a package here made out to a ‘Dr Diana Reid’ of your institute, that we think may have been mistakenly delivered here. Would we be able to have a forwarding address for Dr Reid in order to get this package moved on as quickly as possible? Uh huh. Ah, I see. Did she leave a contact that we can reach out to? Oh, wonderful, that would be wonderful.”

She waved her hand mimicking writing. Aaron found a pen first, turning and bowing so Emily could lean the paperwork on his back as she scribbled and thanked the person on the other side before hanging up. “Ta-da!”

Spencer studied the number she’d written. “Aunt Ethel?” he asked, wrinkling his nose. “Mom hates Aunt Ethel.”

“Not so much that she didn’t list her as her next-of-kin after your dad left,” Emily said. “The doctors are a bust so how about we go find out what area code this number is linked to and see if we can find an address for an ‘Ethel Lynch’. Surely she knows where your mom is, right?”

“Right,” Spencer said doubtfully. “But she’s Dad’s sister, not Mom’s — what if she calls him?”

“Then we deal with that then, this is our only lead right now.”

Spencer nodded. He doubted it would get them anywhere though. Their mom was gone, and they just had to face that.

 

140.

Vague memories of a woman who’d visited twice in Spencer’s lifetime, both times complaining about his hair and glasses, didn’t exactly help with tracking down where she lived. It was Spencer who found that the area code was for Mendocino County, California, and Aaron who found a ‘G & E Lynch’ in the Fort Bragg phone listings.

They left the very next day, gassing up the van and moving onward. Emily drove, Aaron crawling into the back to cuddle close to Spencer.

“We’re going to find her,” he murmured, tucking his head close. “I promise.”

Spencer nodded, hand curled around Aureilo-the-mouse-again and saying nothing.

He didn’t hope, because by now he’d learned not to.

Chapter Text

Emily

 

141.

Emily was beginning to realise why Spencer was wary about his ‘Aunt Ethel’. The woman took one look at them as she opened the door and immediately began berating them. It was apparent that she recognised Spencer and didn’t particularly care much about the fact that he had been missing.

They were sat down at a long, hewn-wood table, told to be silent while she made them lunch. That didn’t stop her yammering at them: “You’re too skinny, always too skinny, I always told Willy. Feed that boy! But did he? No! Letting you run away, reading and daydreaming and not growing up how a boy should.”

Spencer just nodded, his expression vacant and his eyes either tracking Ethel’s raven-dæmon as it similarly scolded Aureilo or drifting over the rows of photos tacked to the wall beside them. Emily could see Spencer up there, tons of him. School photos, birthday parties, awkwardly posing in Halloween costumes. Usually with his mom beside him and Aureilo in his arms as a dangling, awkward baby hare. It was weird. Ethel seemed not to like him at all, but she had so much of him everywhere. Emily didn’t know what to think.

“And look at this, seventeen-years-old, dropped out of school, dæmon not even settled. I always told Will you’d go wrong if he spoiled you. You needed a firm hand, boy, not that gentle raising you got. He should have brought you out here. We’d have gotten you out of the clouds, gotten to look after the horses, given you a haircut and a bit of real learning. That’s what I said when Will called me — I said, ‘Will, your boy, he’s too soft and you’ve only got yourself to blame. Don’t you worry about him, he will be fine, off with the fairies or maybe learning how life really is, for once, outside of your coddling.’ Why, after your little phase, you’d think he’d have toughened up on you. I said then, ‘Willy, you look here, give me that boy for a month and he won’t be ‘depressed’ anymore, you just watch.’ Depressed! Bored, more like it. Surprised you weren’t setting fires or smoking to keep yourself entertained. Most teenagers are these days, and now you’re here — why are you here?”

Finally, she’d stopped, leaving Aaron blinking rapidly and Emily feeling like maybe her mother wasn’t as bad as she could have been, really.

Spencer just took a deep breath and said, “I’m looking for Mom.”

 

142.

Spencer’s aunt and uncle were weird. Gordon didn’t seem to notice they were there even when sitting at the table having dinner with them and Ethel. Aaron was ready to leave within an hour of listening to her complain about everything from Spencer’s posture to his smile. Emily was mortified by the room she was given — lace upon lace upon more lace, with enough doilies to tile a bathroom, and porcelain dolls perched on every shelf. Aaron and Spencer were put outside in a small cabin set aside for the ranch-hands to sleep in during the foaling season. For some reason, Spencer wanted to stay and Aaron supported that. Emily didn’t understand why. Ethel didn’t seem inclined to talk about Diana or even help in any way beyond using them as unpaid labour around the ranch, sending her and Aaron into the stables to help muck out stalls while she dragged Spencer around doing whatever it was those two were doing.

“Why are we still here?” Emily complained to Aaron three days after arriving as a horse tried to eat her hair and then sneezed goop on her. “I hate horses.”

“Because Spencer wants to be,” was all Aaron replied, pushing the horse’s head away from her. “He’s upset about his mom and Ethel is family … just let him be, for now, okay?”

Emily glowered, but did so.

“Oh, there you are,” Spencer said suddenly, appearing alongside them. “Aunt Ethel wants to see you.”

“Oh goodie,” said Emily.

 

143.

Ethel had decided that she was going to teach them to ride.

“All children should learn to ride a horse,” she informed them, pushing Aaron towards the dun animal he was to learn on and thrusting a helmet into his arms. “It’s how they learn empathy. If you can’t communicate, a horse won’t listen to you. You have to know what it’s feeling.”

“I think mine is feeling hungry,” Spencer said, watching his own horse eat a bush. Ethel smacked him with her riding crop, ignoring his soft ah. “Sorry, Auntie. I’ll, um … get on.”

“Mount,” Emily said helpfully. When they looked at her, she smiled, winked, and smoothly pulled herself up and over onto her own horse’s saddle. “I can ride. Mom made me learn.”

“Your mother is a wise woman,” Ethel replied before turning her back to fret over Spencer’s posture some more. Emily poked her tongue out at her. What an old hag.

Two hours later, she hadn’t changed her mind about this. Ethel was an absolute hag. She drove them relentlessly, not letting them take breaks or muck around, and Emily was sore and bored and knew all this shit anyway. Sergio had turned into a gnat, bothering the boys’ horses every time one of them wandered off course and tried to walk them into the fence.

“Aunt Ethel?” Spencer said, turning with difficulty as Aaron was once again kidnapped by his horse returning to her bush. “When can we talk about Mom?”

“When I’ve decided that you’re ready,” snapped Ethel, scowling. “Tuck your elbows! You’re going to knock yourself in the face like that!”

“We’re going to be here forever,” Emily told Sergio right as Aaron fell off with a small scream.

 

144.

She woke sticky and hot in the middle of the night to the hum of voices up the hall. Tiptoeing along the sides of the hallway, where the floorboards wouldn’t creak under her, Emily found Spencer in the sitting room, perched awkwardly on the couch and dressed in ridiculous flannel pyjamas that Emily had to stifle a giggle at seeing how many times he’d rolled the legs up on. Ethel was in there with him, dressed in a floral nightgown and looking tired as she paged through something on the coffee table between them, out of Emily’s line of sight.

“Look at this,” she said, her voice softer than Emily had heard it yet. “Look how small you were. That’s your uncle there, Daniel, holding you. You would have liked him, I think.”

“I don’t remember him,” Spencer replied, peering down.

“You were very young when he died. I think that was hard on your father, him and Dan were always close. After that, he stopped coming around so much. Not that I blame him. I can be an atrocious host.”

Emily pressed closer to the wall, smiling at the shy grin that snuck onto Spencer’s face at the comment. “You’re not so bad,” he said with surprising courage considering Aureilo had been a mouse since they’d arrived. “I mean, you care …”

Ethel was quiet, turning another page of what Emily now assumed was a photo album. “There are your mom and dad getting married,” she said, sitting back to let Spencer look down at the photo. “You were there, just a little bump in her belly, see. You never did get much bigger than that. Look at Willy, that idiot … standing so far back from Diana. That’s his problem, he doesn’t know how to show that he cares either.”

“That’s because he doesn’t care.” Spencer’s voice was savage. “All my life he’s just tucked me aside, ignored me. He did it to Mom too, I remember. She was so sick and he just took me and ran … I wish he’d left me there. I could have looked after her.”

“No, you couldn’t have.” Ethel shook her head, looking around the room as though she’d sensed Emily listening but couldn’t see her tucked back against the door. “Spencer, your mother is terribly ill. That would have been no life for you. I have no doubt that William made a mess of things, he always does. He’s a cold, mean man when he wants to be, just like I’m a mean old woman, but leaving you with Diana would have been tragic for the both of you.”

“I would have been happy.”

“You would have been in danger. Since your father took you, I tried to keep an eye on Diana, as much as she’d let me without flying off the handle. She’s been in and out of hospitals, homeless shelters, mental institutions. You would have been in care before we could sneeze if he’d left you behind, or you’d have grown up playing parent to the woman who should have been parenting you. I’m not saying William did a good thing, running off on her … Gordon has always hated him for it, thinks you were the only good thing Diana had in her life to cling to and William destroyed her by taking you so far, but leaving you there would have been monstrous. I don’t think I could have forgiven him if he had.”

“But my mom—”

Ethel cut him off, some of the sharpness back: “Isn’t your mother anymore, Spencer. She’s a shadow of the woman in that photo, likely because of your dad, more likely because her brain ain’t right and there’s nothing no one can do about that. You’re fooling yourself if you think finding her is going to change that. Go home. Finish school, get a haircut, and you show your father that you’re more than just a boy. That’s my advice.”

Spencer didn’t answer for the longest time before standing and mumbling, “I’m going to bed. Can I take this?” Emily winced; his words were damp and snotty. Ethel must have nodded or said yes outside of Emily’s hearing because next minute he was walking out of the door beside her and pausing as he noted her standing there.

“I love you,” she said, seeing the tears on his face and not knowing how to help.

“I know,” he replied.

 

145.

Over breakfast, the phone rang. Gordon answered it without sparing them a glance, treating them with the same disinterest he had all week. Ethel wasn’t there, out feeding the horses, and Aaron was trying to cheer up Spencer over their cereal. Unsuccessfully. They had to leave here soon, Emily was sure, Spencer was looking glummer by the day.

“Boy,” Gordon said, lowering the phone. “You want to tell my wife her no-good brother is on the phone.” His voice was gruff but his eyes were sharp, holding the phone out to Spencer despite his words. “Tell her he’s calling about his missing son.”

Spencer was silent. Emily inched her chair closer to Aaron, feeling a tremble of something shiver through her. Home was knocking. Aaron, without openly moving a muscle, slid his hand over to take hers, his own palm clammy. Spencer, like he was in a dream, stood and held his hand out, taking the phone as his uncle watched.

He cleared his throat twice before rasping out, “Dad?”

Aaron let all his air out in a whumph of shock, his chest collapsing inward with the force of the exhalation. In Emily’s hand, his was shaking. She held on tight as Spencer went grey, his hand white where it was gripping the phone, his eyes glazed and sweat noticeably dripping down his forehead. Aureilo wasn’t anywhere to be seen, hiding as a mouse no doubt, just the same as he had been since they’d gotten here.

Spencer finally began to talk over the sound of William’s voice on the other end of the line: “I’m sorry … I miss you too. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. Yeah, yes … I’m okay. You don’t need to do that. No. No. Because I’m not coming home.” Emily looked at him when he said that, seeing his shoulders drawing back a little as he pulled strength from somewhere deep inside him. “No, Dad. I mean it. I’m going to find Mom. She needs me … she needs me more than I need you.”

Silence followed that. Emily swore she saw Gordon’s mouth twitch upwards under his beard.

“Bye, Dad,” Spencer said. “Don’t come here. I’ll be gone before you arrive.”

With that, he hung up.

Gordon spoke directly to them for the first time since they’d arrived: “Don’t know what Ethel is on about. You’re nothing like your father.”

 

146.

They left tired and unsure with Spencer quieter than ever. Emily wasn’t sure they’d succeeded in anything coming here, except finding out that William was still looking for him.

“Here,” Ethel said, handing them a basket of food and pointing to a stack of old books she’d piled by the front door. “Supplies and entertainment. No drugs! Teenagers should read more than they smoke, you’re all so glued to TV these days. TV and drugs and long hair, well I don’t know what will fix that … but here’s some books. You like books, don’t you? Books are good, in moderation, but well …” She paused, huffing a little. Spencer stared at his feet. “Well, you turned out okay, so they can’t be that bad. And here.” Ethel handed Spencer a slip of paper, Spencer unfolding it slowly. “It’s a house she was staying in for a while, services put her into it. I don’t think she’s there anymore, but it’s a start. Maybe the residents around there will know more. Good luck, Spencer. And get a haircut!”

With that, they left that place.

“I don’t think I like California,” Aaron remarked, more than he’d spoken all week.

“I don’t blame you,” Spencer responded.

 

147.

The halfway house wasn’t helpful, Diana having left there two years prior without leaving a forwarding address. Back in Nevada and with no leads, they couldn’t do anything but float around and wait for the time to come when they could call Ness.

“I’m worried about Spencer,” Emily admitted to Aaron. “He’s really taking this hard.”

“It is hard,” Aaron retorted. “Can you blame him?”

She really couldn’t.

 

148.

The day came that she dialled Ness’s number expecting nothing and instead found something. Clustered in a phone booth with Spencer breathing wetly in her ear and Aaron stepping on her foot, she listened as Ness informed her that he’d found an old colleague of Diana’s.

“She stopped publishing and retired very shortly after Spencer was taken,” Ness explained, his voice tired. “It took a lot out of her. Apparently, she became quite ill — house-bound — and cut off contact with most of her friends and acquaintances. This one, however, thinks that she might be able to find which hospital she ended up in when her illness became too pronounced for her to be alone. There was an incident just a year ago. She showed up on campus, very confused, and it was this lady who waited with her until someone came to pick her up. Just sit tight for three days and call me back — we might have her.”

Emily hung up, the others quiet with barely concealed excitement around her. “Well,” she said, shoving her way out of the hot confines of the phone booth. “We’ve been given a reprieve from searching for three days at least.”

“What are we going to do?” Spencer asked, rubbing his eyes. “I can’t relax! This might be it!”

Aaron just looked up at the sun rising overhead. “Remember me teaching you to swim?” he asked Spencer with a low smile.

Chapter Text

Aaron

 

149.

They found a secluded waterhole set right back in a canyon, Aaron leading them down endless bumpy roads trying to follow the instructions from a faded tourist map. He was determined it would be private, telling the others he didn’t want Spencer to feel shy, but really being absolutely sure that h