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A Little Up Hill Climb

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Connor picks at the already chipped black nail-polish on his right thumbnail as he gazes out the passenger side window of Zoe's car as she drives them to school. She's quiet. It's so fucking quiet, there isn't even any damn music, and it's so tense. It's like, suffocatingly tense. He peels polish off his nail and remembers how he was going to repaint them before the fucking– the hospital, and Jesus Christ, that thought doesn't help the tension at all. He drops his hands into his lap with an audible thud that seems too loud to his ears, and Zoe's still so fucking quiet.

 

She should just. She should probably be asking about it, shouldn't she? About why, or if he's- but she isn't. Why is the sun so bright, and why does he feel so damn sick and so damn angry, like he's going to snap or fucking... explode, or, cry, maybe. He can't place the feeling. She should be asking.

 

"Are we going to talk about it?" Connor asks, bitterly, and so quietly. His voice is so soft, she could like, probably... pretend she didn't even hear him, if she wanted to. And she probably wants to, even though that's the first attempt at conversation Connor has tried to make with his little sister in.. years, maybe. He can't remember. “

 

We’ve never talked about anything else,” Zoe snaps back as she parks the car in one of the parking spots closest to the school. It’s so fucking bright outside. “Why should we talk about this?” And the slam of the door as she leaves makes Connor flinch. Okay. Zoe still hates him, right. That’s… He’d expected that, actually. He’s not even upset, really. But why did he even come to school today? He can’t even get high to get through it because he has scheduled drug tests now.

 

Connor pushes his fingers through his hair and wonders blankly if Jared was right and he shouldn’t just cut it all off. It’s almost touching his shoulders now. School shooter chic, right… Grimacing, he grabs his bag from the floor and shoves the car door open. It slams behind him as he goes to leave, and he flinches again. Fuck, today is going to fucking suck.

 

As he walks to the door of the school, it feels like everyone is staring at him. It always feels like that, but it’s actually worse now, because they probably really are this time. He’s the school freak, after all, and it’s just that much fucking worse now. He thinks he can hear them, feel their eyes. He determinedly keeps his eyes on the ground, on his shoes as they come in and out of his vision. His hair is hiding his face, and maybe that’s good, too, because he feels like he’s going to lose it.

 

The walk to his locker is uneventful, though the people around him feel loud, and his locker combination is still 17-21-06, like it was before, and nothing has actually changed. Everything has changed, though. He’s suffocating. His chest actually feels tight, and his throat is closed up. Why does it still feel like this? The hospital, the medicine they’re forcing him to take, it’s supposed to be helping.

 

It isn’t fucking helping.

 

“Hi, Connor!”

 

The voice saying his name is chipper. Chipper enough that it grates on Connor’s already irritated nerves and deepens his bad mood. And chipper enough that it most definitely can’t be aimed at him. No one is ever actually happy to talk to him, not even his parents. Unless it’s someone making a joke at his expense or something. The rings on his fingers click annoyingly against the locker door as he shuts it. He didn’t even take anything out or put anything in, what the fuck. Scoffing at his own blatant stupidity, he turns, and squints at the sight of Jared Kleinman. What the actual fuck.

 

“What?” he says brilliantly, bitterly. Right, because that’s the reason that Jared already fucking hates him, Jesus fuck.

 

“Can’t I just say hi?” Jared responds, and he sounds… normal, except that Jared’s normal never includes friendly, so what is he doing right now? And there’s something in his eyes, too, something that makes Connor squint further and tighten his grasp on his bag so hard that the rings cut into his fingers.

 

“You never have before,” he replies bluntly, and then almost winces at his own candor. Fucking hell, Murphy.

 

“Yeah, but that was,” Jared begins, but cuts off so abruptly that it’s obvious what he was going to say, and what he was going to say was definitely not an okay thing to say.

 

Connor tenses visibly, spine going rigid and blood rushing in his ears, pounding and thundering so barely anything else is audible. He’s not actually much taller than Jared, maybe like, an inch. But he feels taller now, only that’s probably just because Jared actually shrinks away from him. And Connor isn’t fucking scary, why does Jared-

 

He can’t calm himself down fast enough to not snap, “Is this some kind of fucking joke, Jared? Because I’m-- now you can, what? Act like you fucking care that I-- Because I--”

 

“No, dude, I wanted to-- I was trying to apologize!” Jared interrupts, only it didn’t feel like that was what Jared was trying to do. Still, all of Connor’s anger evaporates for a moment, and he feels really, really blank.

 

“For what,” he deadpans, like it’s not even an actual question, voice falling flat.

 

“For…” Jared shrugs feebly, making a vague hand motion. “For um. You know, I gave you a lot of shit, and I said a lot of things that were just stupid jokes that I shouldn’t have said. If it… You know, if I, um. If I was…”

 

Connor blinks, and his hand relaxes against his bag for the first time since Jared approached. It’s fucking guilt, okay. Right. He snorts a breath out his nose, rolling his eyes. “You fucking suck at this.”

 

To his surprise, Jared laughs. It’s a little strained, like it maybe got stuck somewhere in his throat, kind of. Still, it’s kind of… It doesn’t sound mean, anyway, and that’s something. Maybe. “I know,” Jared tells him, and Connor blinks again. “I am, though. Sorry. For being an asshole.” Jared wouldn’t even be doing this if Connor hadn’t… The paranoia of it creeps into his body and settles into the places between his bones, where Connor can’t chase it away. He has to bite his tongue so hard he tastes blood just to make sure he doesn’t start fucking screaming.

 

“Thanks,” he replies blandly. “Apology accepted.” Only, he’s not sure it is, really, but. Whatever.

 

“Oh. Cool.”

 

Tense, uncomfortable silence falls between them. It feels so uneasy and so thick and toxic that Connor debates turning and running away from it, because it’s really fucking unbearable. Before he actually can (and he almost actually does), a spluttering mess of long limbs and khaki and blue approaches them. “Hey, Jared, hey, Connor,” Evan says so rapidly that Connor misses the rest of the sentence because he’s processing. Evan is probably the only person in the school not looking at him like he’s fucking psychotic. Evan and Jared, but Jared doesn’t count because he’s being fucking… weird.

 

He tunes back in to, “Mom wants you to come over for dinner, Jared, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to, I don’t want you to feel like you have to or anything, it’s not even that big of a deal or whatever. Connor, you can come too, if you… If you want.”

 

Until the very last sentence, which is barely just a hesitant breath of air, Evan talks so fucking fast that Connor can’t even begin to understand what the actual fuck. And before he even has a chance to figure out what’s going on, Evan is backpedaling (“But you don’t have to if you don’t want, I mean it’s probably weird that I asked. Is that weird, that’s so weird, I’m sorry.”). Connor’s head gives a pained throb and he turns on his heel to walk the fuck away.

 

It’s. Evan invited him to dinner? What the fuck. What. The. Fuck. First, Jared being all nice for whatever goddamn reason he’s guilt tripping over, and then that, and well. Well, they wouldn’t even fucking care if it was all still normal and Connor hadn’t… He slams his bag down onto his desk with a little more force than is strictly necessary, and sinks into his seat, limbs shaking. He can’t handle this shit today.

Chapter Text

   The lunch room is loud. It's probably always been loud, only Connor was always too high to care before. He wants to be high now. He feels like he fucking needs to be high to handle the sympathetic faces from the teachers and the stares from the other students. Everyone fucking staring at him is too much for him to handle, and he's drumming his fingers impatiently against the table. The days isn't moving fast enough; not that he actually wants to go home, either.

 

   "I didn't understand any of that chemistry lab."

 

   Wide-eyed, Connor looks up, and his leg drops from where it had been propped up on the bench. His whole body goes tense for a whole moment as Jared Kleinman sets his lunch tray down on the table. This is the table that Connor has sat at since the beginning of freshman year, and he chose it, specifically because there's a broken light overhead, and another that flickers, so no one else dares approach it. Or maybe just, no one else dares to approach him, and the table doesn't have anything to do with it. But then, here's Jared fucking Kleinman, like a fucking weirdo.

 

   "What?" Connor says brilliantly, but it doesn't sound angry this time, at least. But he's not actually angry, and he wasn't really angry the first time, that Jared's talking to him. He's just really fucking confused. Whatever guilt Jared feels for you know, whatthefuckever, he doesn't need to go this far to try to correct it. 

 

   "That chemistry lab," Jared repeats as he sets his bag down and proceeds to sit at the opposite side of the table. "You know, that class we have together? Right before lunch? You're lucky that you have Alana as a partner. She's smart."

 

   "Right," Connor replies blankly, voice empty. Truthfully, he's not sure about Alana Beck, who is his chemistry partner. She does all the work and puts Connor's name on it, so that's fine, he guesses.  Connor doesn't really understand chemistry, either, but he doubts anyone would be surprised by it. He's sort of famously stupid around school.

  

   "Maggie did most of the work for our lab," Jared is continuing, lifting the sandwich from the lunch tray. It's just the main part of the lunch that Connor hadn't bothered to get, whether he's hungry or not. "I probably should have paid more attention to it, but I didn't, which means that I'm going to fail when the test comes along, and I'll hate my life. But whatever, problems for another day."


   Connor just stares, fucking bemused as all hell. Chemistry. Maggie. Alana. What the fuck. What the fuck is Jared even actually doing right now? This doesn't even make sense. They aren't even friends. Unless they--

 

   "Are we even friends?" Connor blurts out, and then he can feel heat burning in his cheeks. He shouldn't have asked that, it's not that he even really fucking cares, because he doesn't, okay. It's just.

 

   Connor can't remember the last time any one talked to him without looking like he'd just straight up fucking murder them for approaching him. And yeah, Jared's probably just, it's just because of what... The hospital, the pills, the... the. That train of thought makes him feel dizzy, the flickering light is giving him a headache. He pushes his fingers through his hair and tugs sharply at the strands to try to bring himself out of the dark place that the thought of the hospital pulls him into. The pain is sharp, but it's not as sharp as he needs it to be. 


  "Connor?"

 

   Jared's voice breaks through, quiet and concerned. Connor blinks twice, and the lights steady. And he thinks that he can actually breathe again. "Sorry," he whispers, and Jared looks shockingly uncomfortable. (Or maybe not so shockingly, because he's always been uncomfortable around Connor before this.) He won't meet Connor's eyes right now, but that's... yeah.

 

  "Don't be sorry," Jared replies. "Yeah, man. I think we can, be friends. If that's-- you know."

 

  And maybe it's just because of all of the other stuff, but Connor just doesn't even fucking care. He's too tired to give a shit. He's too tired to even pretend he cares when Evan sits down beside Jared. This is happening. he doesn't fucking know why, bit it's happening. Okay. Whatever.

 

   Evan starts talking, and it's the same rapid fire conversation from earlier, so Connor doesn't even really try to listen. It gives him a headache. He focuses on the food that Jared and Evan are eating, and how it doesn't seem edible at all, and how he didn't eat breakfast, so his stomach is considering actual mutiny that he won't eat lunch. It's whatever, though. He'd probably throw up, anyway, this food is gross, and his medicine gives him nausea. 

 

   "I wasn't kidding, you know, when I said that you could come to dinner at my house tonight, Connor." Connor blinks, looks up at Evan as he considers. "I mean, if you want to. If, I mean. It's like, it's not a big deal, it's okay--"

 

   "If you stop talking, I'll think about it," Connor interrupts, holding up a hand. He doesn't even know what the fuck he just agreed to, but he wants Evan to just stop talking so much. "Why are you guys... Why are you even sitting here? I mean, uh. School freak. People will think you're freaks, too."

 

   "They already think that about me," Evan blurts out, and then turns bright pink, and Connor blinks. Again. Wait, what?

 

   "We're all super fucking nerds who sit alone at lunch," Jared laughs, sounding dry and sarcastic and sort of like he doesn't want Connor or Evan to hear that the statement hurts him. But Connor knows all too well, and he hears it. "Sitting alone sucks. Why not be alone together?"

 

   "That's a Fall Out Boy song," Evan chirps gleefully, before Connor can speak up, and he shares a look with Jared, who shrugs in response, with a 'just go with it' kind of look on his face. "Oh, sorry," Evan adds, softer. "Um, I just really like Fall Out Boy."

 

   "Fall Out Boy is a good band," Connor mumbles, and then brings his thumbnail up to chew the remaining polish off of it. So he'll just keep his mouth shut. Why does he ever even open his mouth, Jesus.

 

   "Connor Murphy likes Fall Out Boy?" Jared crows, sounding way too fucking amused for his own good. Connor glares, but Jared doesn't seem to care.

 

   "I have class," Connor mutters, but he actually thinks he might. He thinks he might feel like smiling a little bit, too. "Losers," he adds, standing from the table and grabbing his bag.

 

   "Later, Murphy," Jared calls after him, and Connor thinks he hears Evan echo the statement, albeit a little quieter. He stops for a second and glances back at them, stunned. He doesn't have any response, not even a 'yeah, later' or something, he's too shocked. So he just turns and exits the cafeteria as quickly as he can. His chest feels... maybe lighter, somehow. Like. He doesn't think he can explain. It's confusing, but he thinks... He thinks he's happy.

 

   When he leaves the school that day, he sees Jared and Evan standing together, and he hesitates on the stairs. They're not... They aren't friends, are they? But if... maybe.

 

   Connor takes the steps two at a time and jogs over to where they're standing and talking together. They both look at him, and he stops in his tracks, eyes finding his shoes. They're so dirty, though, his shoes, and he probably needs to get a new pair of them, but that's not what matters. It doesn't matter.

 

   "Did you, um. Do you think I could, if you're still offering, um... Come to dinner at your house tonight?" His fingers tighten on the straps of his bag as he waits for the inevitable rejection. Why would they want him there? They were probably only offering because of the-- He can't make himself finish the thought. He doesn't want to finish the thought. He... just, maybe he wants to be there.

 

   "Yeah!" Evan replies brightly. "Yeah, you can totally come if you want." He sounds happy. "Jared doesn't mind--"

 

   "Jared doesn't mind," Jared confirms, sounding like a fucking weirdo for talking in the third person, but then, Connor thinks that Jared might just be a fucking weirdo.  Jared is kind of smirking, just a little, at the corners of his mouth. And if this is all an elaborate joke, or a prank or something like that, well. That just, that fucking sucks, and he can't do anything about it. It's going to happen if it is.

 

   He follows Jared and Evan to Evan's car, which Jared's is parked right next to. He thinks that this, this could actually qualify as a good day. He doesn't think he remembers the last good day he's had. But he does know that, for the first time in a very long time, he's smiling. And he can't stop. 

Chapter Text

   Jared is fucked. He is inevitably, fucking irrevocably fucked. There's actually some good, what with all of this. He's closer to Evan now than he's been in a few years, and he can admit that Evan is definitely his best friend, so the closeness is nice. It's cool. He won't ever tell Evan that, probably, because it's embarrassing. But otherwise, he's totally fucking fucked.

 

   Being friends with Connor Murphy is one thing, he can do that, probably. Sure, Connor is kind of scary, but he's not like, a bad guy or whatever. At least, probably not a bad guy. Jared doesn't know, he barely fucking knows the guy. But Connor is-- cute, kind of? When he's not being scary as fuck, obviously. 

 

   Kind of starting with Connor's mental breakdown at lunch, with long fingers weaved into dark hair, Jared had realized that , yeah, he's fucking screwed. That's not what he expected from Connor Murphy. The dude sort of famously has a temper, so Jared had expected to see more of that. And he doesn't really qualify Connor's yelling at him as "temper", really, because he'd deserved that. But. But, the nearly crying and tugging at his hair quietly, silently, no outburst of any kind, Jared doesn't really know how to handle that.

 

   And he also doesn't know how to handle Connor standing in front of them, looking tense and staring at his shoes with his hair in front of his face, looking like some kind of abused kitten. His voice breaks when he asks to join them, and he looks hopeful and entirely hopeless all at the same time. Jared was not prepared for this, okay?

 

   "I know where your house is, Connor can just ride with me," Jared tells Evan, partially because, yeah, his car's here, too, and he can't just leave it. And he doesn't predict leaving Evan and Connor alone ever actually going very well, because that amount of social anxiety is more than likely to end in some sort of car crash. At least Jared can sort of keep a conversation going between his random bouts of self-hatred.

 

   Evan looks at him suspiciously, but nods without any argument, and gets into his car. Jared glances at Connor to make sure that he's actually okay being alone in a car with him, but Connor's face is an impassive, emotionless mask. Well, that didn't take long.

 

   Jared unlocks his car and gets in, and Connor follows suit, quietly setting his bag into the space beside his feet. Reaching for his phone and the Aux cord, Jared flips through his music library. He settles on Fall Out Boy, because that's safe. He already knows Connor likes Fall Out Boy.

 

   "Didn't you make fun of me for liking Fall Out Boy?" Connor asks around his thumbnail. He's chewing the nail polish off of it, the left one, this time. Jared snorts.

 

   "No. I just didn't expect you to have any decent taste in music," Jared responds, shoving his car key into the ignition and twisting, exhaling a relieved sigh when the engine splutters to a start on the first try. His car is a piece of shit. He can feel Connor staring at him, and he bites his cheek, hard. He maybe needs to start thinking before he speaks, so Connor stops thinking he's making fun of him. "That was a joke," he explains, deliberately keeping his eyes away from Connor as he backs out of his parking space. 

 

   Connor doesn't respond. Jared, putting his foot in his mouth? More fucking likely than you'd think. Grimacing, he follows the line of cars out of the school parking lot. Evan's car is three ahead of them.

 

   "So, anyway," Jared continues like Connor doesn't probably already want to punch him in the face. "Welcome to the Loser's Club."

 

   "The Loser's Club?" Connor repeats tonelessly. "Like It? Are we going to go kill a fucking killer clown?"

 

   Jared blinks, and then snorts before he can help it. Of course Connor knows It. "Should I be surprised that you've seen that movie?"

 

   "I read the book," Connor corrects. "I know, what a shock. Connor Murphy can actually read."

 

   Jared has to remind himself that he's fucking driving. He can't actually stare at Connor, even though he really kind of wants to. Because a quick glance at the boy in his passenger's seat shows a quirk at the corner of his mouth, and a little glint in his dark eyes. And, what the fuck? Did Connor Murphy just, actually make a real joke? Jared laughs, and he wants to stop himself so Connor doesn't take it the wrong way, but Connor just gives him a bewildered look and lets it drop. Progress? Maybe.

 

   "Anyway, Evan only asked me to come to get close to Zoe, right?" Connor resumes, and Jared frowns.

 

   "You know about his thing for Zoe?"

 

   "Everyone knows about his thing for Zoe."

 

   And though his voice is dull,  Connor doesn't sound particularly angry over it. Maybe he just doesn't care. Good. Jared doesn't want that to turn into a fight.

 

   "Evan's not that mean or underhanded," he protests, partly to reassure Connor, and partly to defend Evan, because he has to at least pretend to be a good friend, even though he's not. "He wants to be your friend. We both do."

 

   "Why? Because I swallowed a bunch of pills and put myself in the hospital?"

 

   Jared slams on the break abruptly, so hard that the car jerks to a stop that's probably no good for his car engine. If they're going to have this conversation (Jared doesn't want to have this conversation at all), he can't be driving. He'll crash the fucking car or something. He hadn't expected Connor to be so fucking candid about his suicide attempt, even if the whole school already knew. 

 

   "That's not--"

 

   "Bullshit."

 

   "Connor, shut up," Jared snaps, and almost immediately regrets it, when Connor visibly fucking flinches. What the shit? Jesus fuck. With mildly trembling hands, Jared gets the car back on the road so he has an excuse to not look at the other. "We all fucking need friends, alright? Not just you."

 

   He doesn't look, but he's pretty sure Connor just clenches his jaw and glares out the window. Score one for Jared being a fucking asshole even when he doesn't mean to. At least Connor doesn't hit him. He really doesn't want Connor to hate him. Or hit him. 

 

   "Sorry," he tries feebly, and hears Connor scoff in return.

 

   "Just drive."

 

   When they pull into Evan's driveway, Evan is waiting for them. He looks visibly relieved when they both get out of the car, and Jared feels a spike of guilt. Kid probably thought they'd just not show up, and honestly? Jared probably deserves that.

 

   "You guys came!" Evan says brightly. "I thought you might have changed your mind. Which would be fine, if you did of course, I--"

 

   "That wouldn't be fine," Connor interrupts bluntly. "It would be fucking rude. Who does that kind of shit?"

 

   "Jared has before," Evan replies, and then, just as quickly, "but it was, like, a joke, so it doesn't really matter."

 

   Jared's cheeks burn, and he can feel Connor staring at him with intense eyes. And Jared is abruptly reminded of why he tends to hate himself, and he hastens to say, "Jared's a fucking asshole who makes shitty jokes and then feels bad about them. And shouldn't do stupid shit like that."

 

   Connor scoffs. "Right."

 

   "Oh, um. Don't fight!" Evan mumbles, looking dismayed. "Jared's a good friend. He apologized and stuff."

 

   He hadn't. Jared's positive. But he appreciates that Evan tried, for whatever godforsaken reason. 

 

   "Dinner!" Jared intercedes brightly, before the tension can get any worse, and he presses past Connor and Evan and leads the way up the stairs. It's already off to an epically shitty start, and Jared already hates himself, because he's managed to fuck up like, seven times already. Maybe dinner was a bad idea.

Chapter Text

   "Mom, I'm home," Evan calls as they walk inside. Jared and Connor both pause by the door to take off their shoes, and Jared still fells uncomfortable, because hey, Connor hates him, and isn't that fun? He really doesn't actually want Connor to hate him. 

 

   "Hi, Evan," Heidi says as she exits the kitchen. "Oh, Jared! It's good to see you. You haven't been here in a while."

 

   Jared can't actually remember the last time he came over to Evan's house. Probably middle school. He most definitely hasn't been a good friend since middle school, and all he can manage is a weak grin. "Hey, Ms. Hansen," he replies, tilting his head a little and running a hand through his hair. 

 

   "Oh, and who's this?" Heidi continue on, like she doesn't notice Jared's awkwardness. But she's noticed Connor now,  Connor, who is still trying to unlace his combat boots, and kind of looks like a deer caught in the headlights.

 

   "This is Connor. Connor Murphy," Evan supplies quickly, and Jared watches as a wave of recognition washes over Heidi's face. She obviously knows the name, has clearly heard things about Connor before. Maybe even about the... the attempt. And it's also pretty clear that Connor has put those pieces together, because he looks frozen. 

 

   "Oh, well. It's nice to meet you, Connor," Heidi says, without betraying what she may or may not know. She just smiles, and Jared is reminded of how genuinely nice she's always been to everyone, until they give her a reason not to be. Connor still looks tentative, but he straightens and takes the offered hand. "I'm Heidi, Evan's mother."

 

   "Hi. It's uh. It's cool to meet you."

 

   "I'm just finishing dinner, so you guys can go on to Evan's room until then."

 

   "Oh, yeah. Come on." Evan leads the way down the short hallway and into his bedroom, which. Well, it hasn't actually changed much. It's just like, the bed and the laptop and the one table by the bed, and a single bookshelf that Connor pauses to look at. Nothing that says 'teenage boy' occupies the room, and that's... kind of a little bit sad, actually.

 

   Feeling guilty for no conceivable reason, Jared picks a sharpie up from the bedside table and turns to Evan. "Evan, give me your arm." Blinking, Evan holds out the arm that's wrapped in a thick cast, Connor's name scrawled along the entirety of the outside. "Jesus Christ, Connor," Jared mutters, turning Evan's arm over so he can write his own name across Evan's wrist in blocky capital letters.

 

   "He asked you first," Connor deadpans from where he's sat himself down in the corner of the room, legs crossed. 

 

   "And I was an ass. But I signed it now."

 

   "Yeah, now we're a genuine Loser's Club," Connor responds, voice still deadpan. He quirks an eyebrow in Jared's direction. Something like amusement is written on his face, and Jared grins in spite of himself. Maybe Connor doesn't completely hate him, then.

 

   "Oh, thanks, Jared," Evan says, looking down at Jared's name on his wrist. He doesn't smile, exactly, but he looks happy. Jared's good deed for the day is done.

 

  "So, Connor, if I were going to paint my nails, what color would work best?" Jared asks, pushing Evan's legs where they're sprawled on the bed so that he can sit down, too. Connor stares at them silently for a few long moments, and Jared gets the feeling that maybe Connor wants to punch him in the face.

 

   "Green, maybe?" Evan offers, and Connor exhales a small sigh.

 

   "Orange," he decides quietly. "Because it's bright and obnoxious, take some getting used to, but can end up... enjoyable." He nods, like he's convinced himself. "Yeah, kind of like you."

 

   Jared scoffs, and Evan laughs. He'd be offended, but he's pretty sure that that was both a joke, and a compliment, all sort of wrapped up in a blanket insult. And he doesn't mind the insult as long as Connor keeps making jokes, especially if those jokes keep making Evan laugh, because then everybody wins. Jared likes that.

 

   "Thanks. That was almost a compliment."

 

   "It wasn't meant to be," Connor remarks. There's a small quirk at the corner of his mouth, though. Which is as close to a smile as he thinks he's ever seen Connor get. It's... It's kind of cute.

 

   It's quiet for a moment, Evan looking at something on his laptop, Connor spinning a ring around his finger, and Jared staring absently at a wall. It doesn't feel uncomfortable, though. Jared doesn't remember the last time he spent time with any friends, even Evan. And he used to deny being friends with Evan, used to think Connor was the school freak, but now... Now he's comfortable in their presence, and this is nice. Jared's at peace just siting with them, making stupid, corny jokes at each other's expense, and not feeling pressured to actually be anyone.

 

   "Boys?" Heidi pokes her head into the room, and Jared sees Connor jump a little bit. "Dinner is ready. Tacos!"

 

   Jared loves Heidi, he really does. He has no problem with his own parents, he's just never seen Heidi in a bad mood. And he knows they don't have a lot to give, but Heidi always gives as much as she can. She makes it feel like a family, even when she's stressed and exhausted.

 

   "Connor, you like tacos, right?" Heidi is pressing on, and, automatically, Jared glances at Connor.

 

   "Uh, sure. Tacos are cool. I haven't had them in a while. Mom's been on this vegan kick for like, a year, so..." And then he turns pale pink, like he's said too much, and Jared has to force a straight face.

 

   "Well, you won't find any vegan kicks around this house," Heidi grins.

 

   "Because we like pizza too much," Evan mumbles.

 

   "I second that," Jared adds, and Connor looks bemused.

 

   They each take turns loading up a couple of taco shells, and then take a seat around the table that graces the small, cramped kitchen. It's a pretty quiet for a few minutes as they eat, and Connor just sort of picks at the food on his plate.

 

   "So, Connor, how did you and Evan become friends?"

 

   "Um..."

 

   "Oh, that's kind of my fault," Jared pipes up before either Connor or Evan has to, because they'll embarrass themselves trying to answer. "I wouldn't leave Connor alone, and Evan followed my lead until we annoyed him into friendship. And now, he's stuck with us." Connor sort of snorts, but doesn't say anything.

 

   "Connor signed my cast before Jared did," Evan adds, like that's helpful, and Heidi laughs.

 

   "I see that. Nice penmanship."

 

   Connor's cheeks flush, and he ducks his head. "I, uh. Just really wanted to sign it."

 

   "Oh, hey, Ms. Hansen, did I tell you that I finally came out to my parents?" Jared says, partially to call attention away from Connor, who looks highly uncomfortable with the spotlight. Also, partially, because hey. He's proud of himself for it. He kind of wants to brag. It was a moment he'd been terrified of for a while, even if he'd always sort of known that his mom and dad wouldn't really care.

 

   "What'd they say?" Evan asks, already getting up to refill his plate. "Were they like, cool with it, or-- I mean, that's not really my business, of course, I'm just-- If they weren't cool with it--"

 

   "They're fine with it," Jared cuts in, earning a grateful look from Heidi. 

 

   "You're gay?" Connor asks, and he's finally started to eat, at least. 

 

   "I'm bisexual."

 

   "Oh. Ah, that's cool. That they're cool with it. I'm gay, and my dad isn't... really okay with that, I guess. Mom doesn't care, I guess, but she won't say that while Dad has a problem with it. But it's whatever."

 

   The silence that follows is a little uncomfortable, so Jared says, just to relieve some of the tension, "Well, that means we've got the whole set. Connor's gay, I'm bi, and Evan is... tree-sexual, or whatever." And he almost immediately hates himself for it, because it wasn't even a good joke.

 

   But Evan doesn't even seem offended, shooting back, "Jared, how do you even know your sexuality when your only experience is with your hand?"

 

   It's a) the first and only time that he's ever heard Evan say something like that, and b) the first and only time he's ever heard Connor Murphy laugh. He almost misses it, because Heidi is laughing, too. But Connor has one hand over his mouth, like he's trying to cover it, but he's definitely laughing, quiet and happy, cheeks red. It's soft and musical.

 

   Jared is pretty positive that he's in love.

 

   "Harsh, Hansen," Jared murmurs, feigning offense. He's not actually offended; he's still a virgin, so is Evan. They all know that. "I'm impressed, and also scared of what's going to happen if you keep hanging out with me."

 

   "Because you're an asshole, or because you're an easy target?" Connor asks. He's manged to stop laughing, but his cheeks are still red, and he's smiling, crooked and embarrassed. Jared finds himself wondering when the last time Connor actually smiled was.

 

   "Yes," Jared decides. "To both."

 

   The rest of dinner goes much the same way. It's mostly Jared and Evan talking to Heidi about school and stuff, but Connor does put in his two cents every so often. That's kind of nice, feeling Connor open up to them. Jared's not sure Connor's ever let himself open up to anyone, which makes Jared and Evan special in a way.

 

   Jared offers Connor a ride home at the end of the night, which he denies, saying he can walk. Jared doesn't press the point, because it's fragile, whatever this friendship is. "Okay," he agrees instead. "Well, ugh. How about you take my number then, instead. So, you know, if you happen to get bored, or whatever... You can text me or something. If you want."

 

   What he's saying is, "If you ever feel alone, you can maybe text me, and maybe you won't want to die. Again." Without actually saying any of that, because Jared can't think of a polite way to word that, but he thinks maybe Connor gets that, because he has this soft, curious look in his eyes as he types Jared's phone number into his cell phone. It's not mad. It's... maybe a little hopeful. And then Connor has Jared's number, and that's that. And honestly? Jared's pretty fucking happy.

Chapter Text

   It's really warm outside, still, when Connor leaves Evan's house. He thinks maybe he should have let Jared give him a ride home, but hes pretty taxed from dinner. It's not that he didn't enjoy it. It was nice to feel wanted in a conversation for once. It was nice to be able to make jokes and laugh. Jesus, he hasn't actually fucking laughed in so long that it doesn't even feel real, but he'd been laughing tonight. And that, that's nice, such a nice change from how he's felt over the past... years? It feels like the basis of happiness, a happiness he hasn't known.

 

   The sun is almost set by the time he walks up the driveway to his family home. Most of the lights are on, which. Okay. They can afford a three hundred dollar electric bills. That also means that they're probably waiting for him. Connor is really not in the mood to deal with his dad tonight, or Zoe. It's been a good night. He's not ready for that to be ruined yet.

 

   He pushes the door open and stops, bending to unlace his boots. He's listening for a sign of fighting, but it's quiet. Which is disconcerting. They're always fighting, so they're definitely waiting for him, then. The only thing that stops them from yelling at each other is to yell at him, instead. Connor takes a moment to wonder if he can slip past the living room entryway and up the stairs without anybody noticing him.

 

   His dad's voice ruins that plan. "Connor, get in here." It's not a request. He didn't think it would be. Exhaling a sigh, he kicks his boots against the wall and then walks to the living room entryway. 

 

   They're all there, his mom and dad on the gaudy floral couch, and Zoe curled up in an over-stuffed armchair that is also gaudy and floral. The flat screen is playing some stupid crime drama, but no one is paying attention. Zoe's on her phone, Larry's reading the newspaper, and Cynthia is frantically rearranging the flowers in the vase on the coffee table in front of the couch.

 

  "Yeah?" Connor finally says, just to break the silence. Larry throws the newspaper down on the coffee table and stands. Cynthia and Zoe both seem to shrink, and it takes a superhuman effort for Connor to not roll his eyes. He's already a thousand percent over this.

 

   "Where the hell have you been?"

 

   Oh, here they go. "Hanging out with friends," Connor explains, both vaguely and honestly. It doesn't really matter what he says, his dad never believes him.

 

   "Friends? You mean like a drug dealer?" Larry scoffs, and this time, Connor does roll his eyes. Jesus fucking Christ. "We don't appreciate you giving your mother a damn heart attack and missing dinner to go get high, Connor."

 

   Connor snorts, hands clenching into fists. "First of all, I have a fucking phone. You could have called me. Second, I couldn't get high, you're giving me drug tests every other day. I went and had dinner at a friend's house."

 

   "Since when do you have dinner at a friend's house?" Larry demands.

 

   "Since I actually have friends now!" Connor retorts loudly. "They realize, even if you fucking don't, that I tried to kill myself just a few days ago. And they actually give a shit! Maybe they should give you lessons!" That's probably not entirely truthful. He doesn't actually know how much Jared and Evan do care, but he has Jared's number in his phone now, and it had been a good night. And now, everything feels so weighted, and he can't unclench his fists, or he'll probably punch something. His nails are digging into his palms in a way that hurts.

 

   "Did it cross your mind to ask if you could go?" Larry presses, like Connor is not visibly shaking, like Cynthia isn't quietly mumbling for him to stop. It doesn't matter when he's in this mood.

 

   "It never fucking mattered to you where I went before."

 

  "Yeah, well. Things have changed, and now, we better know where you are one hundred percent of the time. Is that clear?"

 

   "What the fuck ever!" Connor snaps, slamming his fist into the wall of the archway. Flames of pain flare through his knuckles, but he can't make himself care. His mind is just a muddled mess of heat and red, anger and hatred, the mindset that makes people think that he's dangerous.

 

   "Don't you dare talk to me like that!"

 

   "Don't you fucking act like you care what I fucking do! You just want to save face after your fuck up drug addict son tried to kill himself, and you have to deal with the aftermath because he couldn't even kill himself right!"

 

   The words tear from Connor's mouth before he can stop them, but he wouldn't take them back if he could. They aren't incorrect. His dad never gave a shit about him before. Vision still blurring with vivid red, Connor spins and runs up the stairs to his bedroom, slamming the door behind him. It doesn't lock anymore. They took the lock off.

 

   His mind is a mess. Terrible intrusive thoughts push at his brain, like pushing his entire desk over so maybe the noise will shut all the sound in his mind up. Or punching the wall until the pain brings him back to reality. He doesn't want to let himself do either. He doesn't want to be that person anymore. Hands shaking, he reaches for his phone from his back pocket.

 

   And drops it, startled by a timid knock on his door. Breathing deeply, he cracks the door open and fixes Zoe with a stare. "Yes?"

 

   "Are you okay?"

 

   "Since when do you care?" Zoe's face goes carefully blank at Connor's tone, and Connor sighs. "Sorry. I didn't mean that. I'm not going to jump out of my window or whatever, if that's what you think." Maybe she'd be happy if he did. Their dad certainly would.

 

   "Were you really at a friend's house?" she asks, unaware of his intrusive thoughts.

 

   "Yeah. Evan Hansen. His mom made tacos."

 

   "Oh. Sounds nice."

 

   It shouldn't feel so awkward to talk to his own sister, but then, they haven't been close in years. "Jared Kleinman was there, too," he says, just to fill the silence.

 

   "Yeah, I saw you with them at lunch. It's good that you're making friends. It could be good for you."

 

   "Maybe," Connor scoffs, and then, when Zoe goes to leave, to her own bedroom, he adds, "Uh. Evan is, uh. He doesn't have many friends. I think he deserves decent people in his life, and that sure as fuck doesn't mean me. Or Jared, Jared's an ass. Maybe you could talk to him. Or something."

 

   Zoe stares at him silently for a moment, and then nods. "I'll keep that in mind. Goodnight, Connor."

 

   Connor shuts the door instead of answering. His brain has quieted some, and his thoughts have turned away from outward violence and seem to have settled somewhere in the realm of self-inflicted pain for the night. Ignoring them as much as he possibly can, Connor picks up the phone from where he'd dropped it onto the floor when Zoe knocked. 

 

   Dropping onto the heavy black comforter on his bed, he stares at the screen. Does this really warrant texting Jared over? He feels... mostly okay. A little jittery, a little like his thoughts are still tinged red, a little violent. He wants that to go away. He'll either take the violence out on Zoe, or he'll take it out on himself, and he doesn't want to do either of those things.

 

   Sighing heavily, Connor drafts a new message and presses send before he can talk himself out of it.

 

   To: Jared

   Sent: 8:36pm

   I may or may not have indirectly set Zoe up with Evan. Does that make me a good friend or a bad brother? Or is it just creepy?

 

   The reply comes almost immediately, and Connor tries to not let himself think that maybe Jared was waiting for a message.

 

   From: Jared

   Sent: 8:36pm

   Good friend definitely

 

   From: Jared

   Sent: 8:37pm

   or maybe not

 

   From: Jared

   Sent: 8:37pm

   wtf do i know about being a good friend

 

   Connor snorts despite himself, even if the rapid fire texts are a little overwhelming. He does already feel calmer.

 

   To: Jared

   Sent: 8:39pm

   Yeah, that's fair.

 

   From: Jared

   Sent: 8:40pm

   rude af :)

 

   To: Jared

   Sent: 8:43pm

   You said it, I'm just agreeing with you.

 

    From: Jared

    Sent: 8:44pm

    yeah but a good friend is supposed to disagree and make me feel good about myself

 

   To: Jared

   Sent: 8:49pm

   I don't know what you're expecting from me, my dude. I don't know shit about being a good friend.

 

   From: Jared

   Sent: 8:51pm

   learning experience!

 

   From: Jared

   Sent: 8:52pm

   also it's really lame that u text with perfect spelling and punctuation

 

   From: Jared

   Sent: 8:52pm

   like a loser =)

 

   There's still a thrill of paranoia that rushes throughout Connor that Jared is actually making fun of him, but... he wants to believe that Jared's not, that it's all friendly. He hopes it's friendly. They could both use some friendly. 

 

   To: Jared

   Sent: 8:57pm

   Loser's Club.

 

   To: Jared

   Sent: 8:57pm

   Also, fuck you, too.

 

   From: Jared

   Sent: 8:58pm

   =) at least u know ur a loser

 

   To: Jared

   Sent: 9:01pm

   Guess I learned from you, then.

 

   From: Jared

   Sent: 9:01pm

   again rude af

 

   And, around midnight, when Connor is still awake and his parents inevitably start fighting, screaming at the top of their lungs, Connor shoves a pair of headphones in and turns music all the way up. And when that alone isn't enough to keep him calm, he opens his messages and rereads that conversation until his mind mellows and the destructive urges pass.

 

   Really, it seems like having a friend is a good start. It's not anywhere close to perfect, but for the first time, Connor feels, maybe not hope, but maybe the desire to hope. And that's a start.

   

Chapter Text

Jared sleeps for shit that night, which isn't really anything new; he sleeps for shit every night. Also not new is the grogginess that accompanies waking up in the morning. He'd fallen asleep with his glasses still on and his phone still in his hand. By some miracle, neither of them is broken. Vision clouded with sleep, he drags himself through the motions of showering, getting dressed, and finding something to eat, all while replaying yesterday's events in his head.

 

So, Connor Murphy. Still mildly terrifying and confusing as all fuck. But also cute, kind of funny, talks about nail polish, is gay, likes Fall Out Boy, and texts like a grammar Nazi. Huh. Some of those things are mildly annoying, others are great, and Jared's just really confused. And it's not like he can explain why he's confused, because he's pretty confused about that, too.

 

It's not that he has any problem liking a guy. He's bisexual. He's just very unsure how he could go from hating Connor to maybe wanting to kiss him in the course of twenty-four hours. The difference, he knows, comes from actually talking to Connor and getting to know him as much as Connor will allow. That doesn't make the whole experience any less confusing than it is.

 

"Jesus Christ, Kleinman, get a fucking grip. You're a mess," Jared says out loud to the empty house as he grabs a box of Lucky Charms from the cabinet above the sink. The cereal does nothing to make him feel any less like a disaster, but he wants some fucking marshmallows, damn it.

 

He takes longer eating breakfast than he normally does, in turn almost being late for school. The result is the bell to start the day ringing as Jared locks his car, and he nearly has to spring to make it to his first class across campus before the tardy bell rings, sliding into his desk right as it does. Which means he doesn't see Connor or Evan before class starts, which should be quite as disappointing as it ends up being.

 

He doesn't see either of them until he and Connor have Chemistry class together. Connor glances up at him as Jared enters the room, and Jared smirks, walking to the lab station where he sits with Maggie. He slides his cellphone from the side pocket of his bag and opens a new message.

 

   To: emo loser

   Sent: 11:17pm

   pay attention this stuff might be important

 

He watches Connor frown when his phone likely vibrates in his pocket, extract his phone from said pocket with some difficulty, as he's wearing fucking skin tight skinny jeans, Jesus fuck. And he sees Connor's bewildered look by the text, but the starts typing, anyway.

 

   From: emo loser

   Sent: 11:19pm

   Fuck off, though.

 

   From: emo loser

   sent: 11:19pm

   Just gonna see if I can make some shit explode.

 

Jared has to physically stifle a laugh and shove his phone away before the teacher takes it. All in all, it's actually a pretty good class. And, when it ends, Jared grabs his bag and walks over to lean against Connor's table. Alana's already left, which is good, because she'd probably ask questions about the sudden friendship that Jared's not in any mood to answer and Connor will probably never be in a mood to answer.

 

"You didn't make things explode," he says, grinning. "I'm almost disappointed."

 

"Alana wouldn't let me," Connor replies as he shoves a tattered sketchbook into his bag. "Not that I asked. She just took all of the stuff and wouldn't let me touch any of it."

 

They walk together towards the cafeteria, Connor's hands pushed into the pockets of his hoodie. Jared has a fleeting thought of 'how is he not dying', because it's August, and it's fucking hot, but then, that's Connor. It feels peaceful, though Jared knows people are staring at them and whispering. Connor shows no reaction to it, but then, people have been staring at him and whispering since middle school.

 

"Maybe we'll have to work a lab together," Jared suggests. "Make some stuff explode as a team."

 

"Not even if you paid me."

 

They walk together to Connor's usual table, and Connor sprawls out, one leg stretched across the bench, elbow propped on the table, and back pressed against the wall. "You're not getting any food?" Jared asks, eyebrows raised, and Jared nods. That's a no, then. Well, he's not really hungry, so he shoves Connor's leg off of the bench and sits down in the freed up space.

 

Connor looks affronted. "I was comfortable."

 

"Too bad."

 

Connor scoffs, rolls his eyes, and then reaches into his bag for a moment. "Hey, give me your hand," he says suddenly, cradling something in his hands that Jared can't see. Cautiously, he sets his hand on the table in front of the other.

 

"What are you planning?"

 

"You trust me, right?" Connor glances up at him, and his eyes look almost gold. And Jared decides, what the hell? Why not?

 

"Sure."

 

"Idiot." Connor snorts. His hand grips Jared's, and Jared has a moment to realize that Connor's hands are uncommonly soft aside from what feels like guitar callouses on the tips of his fingers. And then there's the feeling of something sweeping over his thumbnail.

 

"Are you-- are you painting my nails?" Jared demands.

 

"Yes. Sit still or I'll mess it up."

 

"Oh my god." He doesn't try to pull his hand away though, and Connor is still bent over it when Evan joins them.

 

"Are you painting Jared's nails?"

 

"Yes. Orange."

 

"Nice," Evan grins, and Jared gives him a look of complete and utter betrayal.

 

"You're supposed to be saving me from this, acorn boy. Come on."

 

"Not so long as you keep calling me acorn boy," Evan replies happily staring to eat his lunch, and Jared huffs, though he doesn't really care.

 

"Are you torturing him?" another voice cuts in. "Jared, is Connor torturing you?"

 

"Fuck off, Zoe," Connor shoots back, without looking up, as he grabs Jared's other hand. "Keep that hand still or it'll smear. What do you want?"

 

Zoe sets her lunch tray down beside Evan, offering him a friendly smile. Jared can basically see Evan's anxiety rising, and glances at Connor, who is now staring at his sister with raised eyebrows. "Can I sit with  you guys?" she asks.

 

There's silence for a moment as Evan panics, gaping with his mouth opening and closing as he struggles for words, and Connor stares, silent and stoic. Finally, Jared responds, "Sure!" with a little too much enthusiasm, because Evan and Connor probably won't. "Yeah, sure. You can sit here if you want."

 

Zoe smiles gratefully and sits down, glancing at Evan again. "You're Evan, right?"

 

"Evan! Yeah, Evan. Evan Hansen," Evan blurts out in a rush of breath, and if Jared's nails weren't still wet, he'd have face-palmed so hard he'd have a bruise on his forehead. (And those are the kind of thoughts that had literally never crossed his mind until he started talking to Connor Murphy.)

 

"Evan, you saw Zoe perform in jazz band, right?" Jared prompts as Connor goes back to painting his nails, because he feels bad for the guy, who's liked Zoe Murphy for so long and still can't formulate a proper working sentence. He also notices that Connor is considerably more tense than he had been before.

 

"Oh, yeah! I did. You were good. I mean, great. Really great!"

 

Jared meets Connor's eyes, and Connor just exhales a long suffering sigh while Evan tries (and fails) to flirt with his little sister. He still doesn't actually seem mad about it, though. Maybe that's just because he doesn't expect Evan to get anywhere with it.

 

But Zoe doesn't really seem weirded out by Evan as they talk, and she's actually smiling. She's able to hold a conversation with him, almost effortlessly in spite of Evan's constant rambling and his habit of embarrassing himself. The tension doesn't fade from Connor's body, and Jared wants to ask, but he doesn't, because he already kind of knows. Everyone knows that Zoe and Connor are not close.

 

"I told you orange would suit you," Connor finally says after a moment of quiet, pushing Jared's hand back towards him. Jared glances at his nails and snorts, holding them both up so Evan and Zoe can see. 

 

"What do we think?"

 

"Orange is a good color for you," Evan agrees, giving Connor a thumbs up. Connor ducks his head.

 

"Connor is better at painting nails than I am. That's depressing. I'm sad now," Zoe says plainly, a shadow of a smile on her face.

 

"Practice," Connor mutters, sounding rather uncomfortable, and Jared has to fight an urge to put a hand on the other's shoulder to comfort him. They might be friends, but physical contact still presents a boundary.

 

Careful of the still drying nails, Jared pulls his phone from his bag and types hastily, under the table and out of view.

 

   To: emo loser

   Sent: 11:56pm

   u good?

 

Connor frowns, pulling his phone from his pocket. He glances at the message, and then at Jared, and then at Zoe and Evan, who have resumed their conversation about jazz band music. He shakes his head a little, but then he's typing.

 

   From: emo loser

   Sent: 11:57pm

   I guess. She's not actually over here for me, clearly. I told you I mentioned Evan to her; she still hates me.

 

   To: emo loser

   Sent: 11:59pm

   didn't mean to make u uncomfortable when i told her to sit here man. sorry.

 

   From: emo loser

   Sent: 12:01

   Evan's happy. So is she. All good.

 

   Jared isn't sure he believes that it's 'all good', but Connor has slid his phone back into his pocket before Jared can type out a reply. So he doesn't press. He wants to, but he's pretty sure he's already gotten more out of Connor that Connor had meant to reveal, or would reveal to most people. He'll press some other time, when he feels more like being an asshole, or when being punched in the face feels like a fun idea. For now, he falls quiet, adding in comments (mostly jokes at Evan's expense) into Zoe and Evan's conversation. Connor's right. At least they're happy.

Chapter Text

 By the time Saturday rolls around, Connor is drained. It's such a difference, not getting high, actually doing schoolwork, socializing with people. It's not a bad different, exactly. It's a nice change. He has Evan's phone number now, too, and he tends to fall asleep texting Jared, or reading random facts that Evan has sent him about trees. It's strange, but not unwelcome. There's a bit of closeness with Zoe, too, who joins them for lunch, typically accompanied by Alana Beck and Alana's girlfriend, Ellie, who is a trans girl, and therefore the bravest person Connor knows. 

 

Some things haven't changed, though, like Connor's constant fights with his dad, which tend to get worse the more irritable Connor feels. And Connor still almost always has the intrusive thoughts that press for violence and stain the edges of his mind a bloody red, and leave him angry and shaking. There's no magic fix-it for that, he's discovered, even if the medicine does help him not act on it. 

 

The upcoming Monday will mark two weeks since he attempted suicide, and a week since he's been back to school, and honestly? He needs a break. A break used to entail getting high off his ass and sleeping the day away. Today, he pulls up a group message to Jared and Evan.

 

   To: Evan, Jared

   Sent: 10:26am

   Hang out today? Got an idea of somewhere we could go.

 

   From: Jared

   Sent: 10:28am

   sure. but ur not gonna murder us and hide the bodies, right

 

   To: Evan, Jared

   Sent: 10:29am

   I'd never murder Evan. You? Undecided.

 

   From: Evan

   Sent: 10:30am

   Aw. Thanks Connor

 

   From: Jared

   Sent: 10:30am

   wow fuckin rude

 

   To: Evan, Jared

   Sent: 10:32am

   I'll pick you guys up.

 

   From: Jared

   Sent: 10:32am

   ok!

 

   From: Evan

   Sent: 10:33am

   Okay

 

Connor slips his phone into the pocket of his hoodie and shuts his bedroom door behind him as he leaves, skipping every other step while walking down the stairs. He glances into the living room-- Zoe's there, reading. So is Larry, watching a football game on TV. Connor debates just leaving, not dealing with all of it, but...

 

"Hey, Zoe," he says, standing awkwardly in the doorway. She looks up, brows furrowing. "I'm, uh. Gonna go hang out with Jared and Evan. You wanna come with?"

 

Zoe looks incredibly confused, but she marks the page in her book, sets it down, and stands up. "Sure."

 

"Is that okay, Dad?" Connor adds in the direction of their father, who is scowling. He doesn't actually give a shit, though. Larry can say no if he wants to. Connor's going to leave anyway.

 

"Going to go do something illegal?" Larry scoffs, and Connor opens his mouth, ready to snap back, but Zoe beats him to it.

 

"I'm going with him, Dad," she bites out. "And, unless you're implying that I'm going to go do something illegal, that pretty much means that we'll be fine." She wraps her fingers around Connor's wrist and pulls him from the house. Blinking, Connor follows.

 

"Uh. Thanks."

 

"Yeah." She tosses him the keys to their shared car, because she usually drives. He catches them easily and slides into the driver's side. He pushes the key into the ignition as Zoe slides into the passenger's side. "So, where are we going, exactly?" she asks.

 

"Surprise," he answers with a thin smile, pulling out of the driveway. "Jared and Evan don't know either. They also haven't been told that you're coming with me."

 

"Is that a bad thing?"

 

"It's a highly amusing thing," Connor replies, because he can already picture Evan's reaction to seeing Zoe. He's quiet for the rest of the car ride, until he pulls up in front of Jared's house, pressing on the horn once.

 

A moment later, Jared exits the house, a signature smirk on his face. He raises his eyebrows when he sees Zoe, but he slides into the seat behind her, greeting them both with a cheerful, "Hey, losers."

 

"Hey, Jared," Connor replies, pulling away from the house.

 

"Hi," Zoe echoes, more quietly.

 

"Jared, text Evan, let him know we'll be there in like, five minutes." He enunciates the 'we'll' carefully. Maybe that'll be just enough preparation for Zoe being with them that Evan won't have an actual panic attack in the car. Connor's too on edge to deal with that today.

 

"Got it."

 

When they pull up to Evan's house, Evan is waiting outside, like the first time that Connor had come over. He looks equal parts nervous and hopeful, sliding into the backseat behind Connor. The group exchanges hellos as Connor pulls off the curb and directs the car towards the roads that lead out of town. He's been there recently enough that he remembers the route just fine. He hopes Zoe doesn't.

 

"So, where are you taking us, Connor?" Jared asks, leaning forward in the seat so that he can look out the windshield.

 

"You'll see," Connor replies simply, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel. "Zoe, put on some music. And I swear to god, if I hear anything that sounds remotely like Harry Styles, I'll throw your phone out the window." He's joking. Mostly.

 

"Jerk," Zoe mutters, but she pulls out her phone and hooks it up to the aux cord. A few seconds later, My Chemical Romance starts playing through the speakers, and Connor relaxes.

 

"Wait, wait, wait. You cannot tell me that both Murphy siblings are trademark emo teens," Jared crows, looking thoroughly too pleased.

 

"You know, the fact that you recognize these bands proves that you're an emo teen, too, Jared," Zoe points out, turning in her seat to glance at Jared. "Especially since I saw you wearing a My Chemical Romance t-shirt to school yesterday."

 

"So we're like... an emo Loser's Club?" Evan suggests, and Zoe laughs.

 

"You think you're emo?"

 

The three settle into easy conversation, and Connor settles into the music, turning down familiar gravel roads. It's bight outside, which Connor's not a huge fan of, but it's good for where he's taking them. 

 

When he finally pulls the car to a stop, he can't help but smile a little. "Recognize this place, Zoe?"

 

Zoe trails off from whatever she was saying to Evan and looks out her window. "The Orchard? We haven't been here since we were kids."

 

"Only partially true. I've come here several times, usually when things..." He motions vaguely towards his temple, "when things get loud." He parks the car and turns off the engine, sliding out. Zoe, Jared, and Evan follow suit.

 

"Can we even get in?" Zoe asks. "I told Dad we wouldn't be doing anything illegal, and breaking and entering is definitely illegal."

 

Connor gives Zoe a dark look. "Don't ruin it." He walks away, car keys still in hand so that she can't try to leave, and leads the way to a broken part of the fence that has a gap wide enough for them to fight through. He ducks underneath and into the orchard, glancing around with a soft sigh.

 

"This place is pretty cool," Jared says from behind him, and Connor glances at him. "Kinda feels disconnected from the rest of the world, you know."

 

Connor watches Evan pull branches out of the way so Zoe can climb through the fence and snorts quietly, rolling his eyes. Maybe something will happen with those two. They deserve something good. "Kinda does, doesn't it?" He wanders farther into the orchard, to a tree that has thick roots that from nice seats. He sits down on one, curling his legs beneath himself. Jared sits, too, while Zoe and Evan take a little longer to wander over.

 

"Strange, how things change when you fall in love with someone, and them with you, huh?" Jared mutters, nodding towards Zoe and Evan, and Connor looks up to watch them. In love? Maybe.

 

"Dunno. No one's ever been in love with me," he replies candidly. He moves to take his hoodie off, and stops, remembering why he wears it all the time. Even when it's as hot as it is right now.

 

"You can take it off. No one is going to judge you," Jared says quietly. Connor stares at him, and Jared shrugs, pulling up the leg of his shorts just enough so that Connor can see pale white lines on his legs. Self-harm scars, Connor knows. He's pretty familiar with those.

 

"Oh, you..."

 

"Yeah. You're not alone."

 

It all becomes too much, overwhelming, all at once, just a little too much, and a little too loud. Connor jumps up, pushing a hand through his hair. "Hey, Evan, I need your help with something. Come with me," he says, grabbing Evan's shirt sleeve and pulling him across the orchard.

 

He just needs a second to breathe, let his mind settle down, even though Jared doesn't necessarily make it a bad sort of loud. He just doesn't want to think about all of that too much.

Chapter Text

"So. When did you start falling in love with my brother?"

 

Jared isn't prepared for it. He's too busy playing through the conversation beforehand and trying to figure out what he had said wrong. He had actually been making an effort to not be an asshole, and watching Connor walk away with Evan, towards another side of the orchard, he realized that it backfired somehow. So, he's wracking his brain for any ways he could apologize when Zoe sits down beside him and speaks, low and very, very blunt.

 

Jared looks up, startled and a little scared. He doesn't know Zoe well enough to not be scared. If Zoe doesn't like him, or approve of him, that's-- well, that makes liking Connor a bit of a problem.

 

"I don't know," is his reply. "When did you start falling in love with Evan?"

 

"That's not--"

 

"Yeah, it is," Jared interrupts, rolling his eyes. "And he's in love with you. Which you probably already know." Because the whole school knows, because Evan is absolutely less than subtle.

 

"I... had an assumption, yes. But I was asking you about my brother, so don't change the subject. You do have feelings for him, right?"

 

"I..." Jared hesitates. He knows the answer, or at least part of it, because love is a weird thing and different than a crush or whatever. And he doesn't know how Zoe will react or what to be prepared for. "I guess, yeah," he admits. "It sort of just happened when he and I started talking more regularly and I got to know him more. He's... He's not really a bad guy. Or the guy I thought he was, at all."

 

"No, he's not," Zoe agrees quietly. "He's trying not to be, anyway. I think you're helping with that. Giving me back the brother I had when we were kids."

 

Jared wants to believe that and appreciate the sentiment of it, but he knows that it's not entirely true. He scoffs, picking a blade of grass from the ground and shredding it between his fingers. "Every time I talk to him, he ends up mad at me because I say something that I shouldn't say, or something I don't even realize might offend him because I'm just an asshole like that--"

 

"He's dealing with a lot, Jared," Zoe interrupts softly, picking at the cuffs of her jeans and pulling at errant strings that are already unraveling. "It's... I don't really understand what all it is, but you help him handle it better. I don't think Connor's ever been in love, or even in like with anyone, but you mean something to him. Yeah, he's got a temper, and he takes things the wrong way and he definitely overreacts. Trust me, I know that better than anyone, but he cares about you, and I don't think sometimes putting your foot in your mouth is enough to ruin that."

 

"Maybe," Jared replies, prepared to say something else, but that's all that he manages to get out, because Evan and Connor are coming back, and it very much looks like they're holding a bunch of flowers. Jared raises an eyebrow, glancing at Zoe, who looks equal parts perplexed and amused. "Um... what, exactly..."

 

"Wild flowers," Evan answers promptly as they sit. Connor settles back on his tree root seat, close enough to Jared that their arms brush briefly, and maybe he's not mad after all?

 

"I see that," Zoe says." Why the wild flowers, though?"

 

"Come here," Connor answers. "Sit in front of me."

 

Frowning, Zoe stands and brushes grass and dirt off of her jeans before sitting back down in front of her brother. Connor pulls the ponytail out of her hair and pulls his fingers through it. He picks up one of the wildflowers that Evan has dumped onto the ground, and carefully starts weaving it into the dark strands, fingers moving subtly and quickly.

 

"Are you braiding my hair?" Zoe asks, sounding every bit as incredulous as Jared feels. He hears Evan giggle, the sound a little stunned.

 

"Yes," Connor replies, very simply. "Jared, music."

 

Jared scrambles to get his phone from the pocket of his shorts. Whatever mood Connor had been in before, it seems to have passed now, as he's braiding flowers into his little sister's hair. Evan is watching the wind move through the trees and rustle the leaves with a content smile, and Jared feels like his life has taken a wild tailspin into the fucking Twilight Zone. He hadn't even really had friends before, because he and Evan weren't really friends before, and this feels... friendly. And peaceful, and nice. The addition of an unironic Britney Spears playlist earns Jared some groans, but no complaints otherwise.

 

"There," Connor says into the quiet moments that follow. "Finished." He drops his hands into his lap, and Zoe pulls out her phone, opening the front-facing camera. She leans back, so that both she and Connor are in the frame, despite the quiet protests that Connor 'doesn't do pictures'. Jared snorts.

 

"Jared, Evan, get in here," Zoe commands with a smile, and, with a very overdramatic sigh that he feels suits him quite nicely today, Jared shifts closer to Connor so that he's in the frame, too. Evan, more like an overly enthusiastic puppy, moves himself to Connor's other side. Grumbling, Connor ducks his head, shaking his bangs in front of his face like a curtain, but they don't quite cover his eyes, or the smile that Jared pretends he doesn't see when Zoe snaps the picture.

 

"Send me that," Jared says, and Connor elbows him sharply.

 

"That's more like the brother I remember from when we were kids," Zoe says, and Connor frowns, using his thumbnail to push dirt out of the design on the bottom of his combat boots.

 

"The medication helps," he mutters, looking embarrassed, like he's ashamed to have to take medicine, like Evan isn't on anxiety pills, and Jared doesn't have a prescription for anti-depressants. He probably doesn't know that, though. "It was... like, sometimes the things in my mind get really, really loud, like everything in my head is screaming, and they're screaming violent, awful things. And I can't make that stop. The medicine didn't make it go away, completely, but it doesn't feel so loud or commanding anymore. It's easier to find my own... my own feelings and thoughts behind it all. The screaming and the violence fade into the background a little more since I've been on it."

 

"You're pretty brave to handle it all," Evan notes quietly.

 

"I didn't handle it," Connor responds bluntly. "I stole sixty bucks and bought a bag of pills from some guy I don't know, not even knowing what was in the fucking bag, and I took them all. I was in a park at like, two am. Nobody was supposed to find me, but somebody did, and that's why... I had no desire to ever handle it."

 

"You're alive, though. You're getting better," Zoe inserts softly. Her voice sounds weird, sort of hollow and listless.

 

And that sort of matches what Jared's feeling. Sort of hollow inside, listening to Connor talk about not handling it, and trying to kill himself. Like everything inside of Jared has been replaced with blocks of lead all of the sudden, and he's struggling to breathe through it, process it. He'd already known, of course, how Connor had tried to kill himself, but it doesn't make hearing about it easier. He'd been just like everyone else, before, calling Connor Murphy a freak, because of the violent outbursts, which were things that had been happening inside of his head, out of his control. And he's not really that different than anyone else, just trying to handle it all.

 

"We're glad you're alive," Jared informs Connor, and it sounds dull. Jared's warring with too many emotions to settle on one, so they all just sort of flatten out into nothingness.

 

Connor gazes at him evenly, a curious glint in his eyes. Eyes that had once looked flat and lifeless and cold. And then he looks away, long fingers pulling pieces of grass from the ground absentmindedly.

 

"Yeah. I think that I am, too."

 

Later that night, Jared is in his room, on his laptop, when his phone chimes softly with a notification tone that he doesn't recognize. Pausing the video on his screen, he reaches for it, frowning down at the symbol that displays the notification from Instagram.

 

    "justconnormurphy" started following you.

 

Jared, too curious to help himself, clicks on the profile and is greeted with a tired, but recent looking picture of Connor Murphy, and a profile that reads "1 post, 2 followers, and 5 following".  Almost more curious now, he clicks on the following to see who Connor might follow on Instagram. Zoe, Evan, Alana, Ellie, and Jared himself. Grinning, Jared checks the only post on the page.

 

It's the picture Zoe had taken in the orchard that day, wildflowers visible in her dark hair, and Connor, Jared, and Evan all sitting with her. Even with Connor half hiding his face, the faint smile is still visible; they're all smiling. All in all, it's a very nice picture. Jared hits the like button as he reads the caption below, which is just one word: "Friends." And no one is tagged in it, but no one needs to be.

 

If this is the Twilight Zone, Jared thinks that he'd quite like to stay.

Chapter Text

August fades into September, and September into October. The leaves change and fall, the wind starts to hold a chill as Halloween fast approaches. Some things change, some things don't, and Connor is both happier, and simultaneously more exhausted. They're getting closer to end of term, and the teachers are loading them down with homework that Connor barely understands, even with Jared and Alana's help. But the closer Halloween gets, the less Connor cares about homework. The whole school is buzzing with Halloween parties that he highly doubts any of them will be invited to. Except maybe Zoe.

 

"Everyone can shut up about Halloween parties for ten minutes, Jesus," Connor mutters, slamming his locker door shut. Jared, leaning against the wall beside the line of lockers, raises an eyebrow at the reaction, and Connor shrugs.

 

"Of course all the rich kids are throwing massive keggers. It's Halloween."

 

"I'm rich," Connor replies, tightening the strap of his backpack, "and I'm not throwing any party."

 

"We could," Zoe cuts in as she approaches them, greeting Jared with a friendly grin. "Mom and Dad are leaving the Friday night right after Halloween. We could have a party of sorts. Us, Evan, Alana, and Ellie, maybe? We don't have to invite anyone else."

 

Connor twists a ring on his finger as he considers that. It's not... the most terrible idea, really. "I guess I can pick the lock on Dad's whiskey cabinet, he hasn't touched it in years. He probably wouldn't notice it was gone. And I know a hookup that could get beer, if we wanted that."

 

"I can bring something, too," Jared adds. "I think the last time my parents touched their liquor cabinet was like, 1990. But is it even a good idea for you to be drinking?"

 

"I won't. You guys can. Though, if you and Evan get drunk, Zoe, I beg you to stay the fuck out of my bedroom," Connor replies, earning a snort from Jared, and a hard slap to his shoulder from Zoe.

 

"That's not even--"

 

"Yeah it is," Connor argues, pushing past his sister so that he can make his way to his class and not be late. "He's into you, you're into him. Just don't let him be into you on my bed when you inevitably hook up. And I don't ever want to hear it."

 

Jared is still snickering, and Zoe looks affronted, and then smug all at once, and Connor realizes that she probably has some ammunition against him, too. "In that case," she responds, "you can go ahead and hook up-"

 

"Shut the fuck up, Zoe," Connor interrupts, shoving Zoe towards her first period class and walking faster so that she can't continue. He thinks that he might actually be blushing, and he doesn't need any of that.

 

"Wait, wait, wait," Jared crows, and Connor groans. Trust Jared to not leave well enough alone. "Was Zoe implying that there's somebody you actually want to hook up with, Connor?"

 

Connor stops, turning so he can meet Jared's gaze. "I've never wanted to hook up with anyone," he says evenly. It's not a lie, really, but it isn't one hundred percent the truth, either. "Goodbye, Jared," he continues loudly, over whatever Jared had been about to say, ducking into his classroom to shut the conversation down right there. He's not dealing with all of that today.

 

Friday night comes along, and fifteen minutes after their parents pull out of the driveway, Zoe and Connor are in the basement, Connor using a paperclip to pick the lock on the cabinet that holds the whiskey. The lock, door, and bottles are all so coated in dust that Connor knows no one will notice if it's gone. His hookup had come through, so they have a twenty-four case of beer, too. Zoe is sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching Connor with curiosity in her eyes.

 

"How did you learn how to do this, exactly?" she asks. Connor pauses, his eyes flashing to meet her gaze evenly. He's a former drug addict with a pension for breaking laws, it's not really a question. "Right," she nods. "You know, you and Jared--"

 

Connor's hand slips on the lock, and he drops the paperclip. "Shit. What about Jared?" he demands, stooping to pick up the paperclip and resume his work on the lock. 

 

"Subtle," Zoe mocks. "You encourage me and Evan, but I'm not even allowed to mention that you like Jared?"

 

"That's exactly how it works. I don't know what it means to like anyone," Connor responds as the lock finally pops, so he's able to twist it and pull the cabinet open. "I'm still learning how to be a decent friend. Boyfriend is pretty far out of my comfort zone right now, I think."

 

"Isn't it best to learn by experience?" Zoe asks gently.

 

Connor stares at her for a moment before they hear a knock on the door above them. "That's probably Alana and Ellie; Jared said he and Evan would probably be a little late. Go let them in, I'll get the music started."

 

Zoe looks like she's not done with that conversation, but she hurries up the stairs, and Connor plugs his phone into the radio in the corner. He doesn't think any of his music is what people sans maybe Jared want to listen to, so he finds a pop music playlist on YouTube and starts that. It's not his style, and it grates his nerves a little, but he'll handle it, he supposes.

 

Zoe comes back downstairs with Alana and Ellie, who is rocking a bubblegum pink pixie cut, in tow. They both greet him cheerfully, and very over-enthusiastically, and Connor smiles thinly, offering a compliment on Ellie's hair. It had been blonde at school that morning. He likes Alana and Ellie just fine, they aren't bad people, they're just loud, and a little much for his nerves sometimes. He wracks his brain, tries to remember if he's taken his medicine today. He has, he remembers, though the memory of it is a little blurry, and everything still feels loud. Maybe that'll be easier when Jared and Evan show up.

 

"You hate pop music," Zoe accuses, bending to look at the screen of his phone.

 

"YouTube doesn't. And I wasn't playing Nikki Minaj or any of that shit. I'm not that fucking gay."

 

Ellie giggles, and Zoe gives him an exasperated look, but Connor doesn't care, because Alana immediately starts in about how she always had a feeling that Connor was gay, like Connor hadn't come out in the eighth grade. Jared hadn't remembered that, either. Another knock on the door spares him from having to answer her pressing questions about his love live, and god forbid, his fucking sex life. (Zoe and Ellie are laughing too hard to be of any help.)

 

Taking the steps two at a time, Connor jogs to the front door to let Jared and Evan in, and he gets the distinct feeling Jared tried to dress up, because he's wearing a button down black shirt and jeans instead of a flannel over a graphic tee and shorts. And, true to his word, he has a couple bottles with him. Connor's stomach does that stupid thing it's started doing around Jared recently, and he mentally reminds himself that he and Jared are both assholes, not couple material, as he motions them inside.

 

"Zoe, Alana, and Ellie are downstairs," Connor tells them. "You can go ahead and go down. I'm gonna grab the pizza from the kitchen, and I'll be down in a second."

 

"Nah, I'll help," Jared says, passing the bottles he had been carrying to Evan, and he follows Connor towards the kitchen as Evan heads down the stairs and into the basement. "Your house is sick."

 

"Yeah," Connor replies tonelessly, picking up the cardboard pizza boxes from the counter and passing two of them to Jared. "Well, Dad's a lawyer, and Mom went through a whole interior design phase. This is what happens when your dad has enough money that your mom doesn't have to hold a job."

 

"You really aren't close to your parents, are you?"

 

"I'm not the one getting drunk enough for an emotional heart to heart tonight, Jared."

 

"Point taken, asshole."

 

This is why he and Jared couldn't be a couple, he decides. Most of it comes down to Connor's own wars with his feelings, his sudden ability to actually feel things, the way Jared seems to make that both easier and harder, because most things are jokes to Jared. He doesn't trust his own feelings, as he's gotten too used to feeling anger and violence, and Connor still struggles with trusting Jared enough to open up to him.

 

"Everyone better be clothed," Jared yells as they descend the stairs, and Connor snorts in spite of himself, setting the pizza down on a table near the staircase.

 

"Fuck you, Jared," Zoe replies by way of greeting.

 

"If you're offering, I'm sure Evan is more than willing," Jared responds, and Evan chokes on air, turning bright red. Alana and Ellie dissolve into laughter, and Connor has to turn to hide a smirk.

 

"I don't want to hear it," he reminds his sister, opening the pizza boxes one by one. "Cheese, pepperoni, sausage, and vegetarian. There's whiskey there--" he points to the unlocked cabinet-- "and Coke, Pepsi, and Sprite for chasers, or those of us, like me, who won't be drinking, on that table over there. There's also beer in the mini fridge. Help yourselves, but give me your keys. I'm DD for the night."

 

Ellie and Jared hand over their car keys, and Connor locks them in a drawer in one of the tables. Two hours in, everyone has a cup in their hand, various combinations of whatever, and most are finishing off their second or third piece of pizza, talking idly over the music. Connor's never been to an actual party, but he assumes he'd be doing the same thing he's doing right now-- standing in a corner, drinking a Pepsi, and watching.

 

"Don't be so boring," Jared says over the music, on what Connor thinks is his fifth beer, interspersed with at least three cups of Jack and Coke that had looked a little heavy on the Jack. No wonder he sounds like he's slurring his words and can't walk in a straight line. It's only been two hours, Jesus fuck. 

 

"Not a party guy," Connor replies. Zoe and Ellie are slow dancing badly to an Ed Sheeran song while Evan and Alana sing along, loud and entirely off key. They're having fun at least, and it makes Connor smile.

 

"Aren't you throwing the party?" Jared pressing, poking Connor in the arm sharply. Connor stares at him. "Never mind. You know, I used to think you were a freak." He takes another large drink from his beer.

 

"You're drunk," Connor says flatly, to cover the inevitable sting of the words. The song switches to Demi Lovato, and Ellie throws herself into Alana's lap to sing along, making Zoe and Evan dissolve into loud laughter. It's starting to grate on his nerves now. He wonders distantly why he can't just have fun, too.

 

"Psh, only a little. I still kind of think you're a freak," Jared continues, and Connor grits his teeth so hard it hurts. Jared usually helps the loud, the violence, the red, but right now, he's making it worse. "Not in like, a bad way--"

 

"I'm cutting you off," Connor interrupts firmly, taking the drink from Jared's hand. He wants Jared to shut up, and interrupting him is mildly less rude than punching him in the face like he sort of desperately wants to.

 

"Why aren't you listening to me?" Jared pouts. It might be cute, if he hadn't already succeeded in pissing Connor off.

 

"You literally just called me a freak."

 

"It's not like that's a bad thing--"

 

"Stop talking."

 

"Make me," Jared smirks, and maybe in a different mood, or a different context, that would have a whole different connotation, a connotation Connor might want to take a risk on. But Connor's mind is poisoned by that word- 'freak'- what he's always been and will obviously always be, even to Jared. Especially to Jared.

 

'Jared's drunk', a small part of his mind whispers, 'he didn't mean that'. But the larger part of his mind, the one tinged with paranoia and twisted with blood red, doesn't care. The intrusive thoughts are there, like they're typed across his mind in bold print font, size 72. 'Shut him up.' He's been better with control lately; there's no semblance of it now. He reaches out and shoves Jared as hard as he can, causing him to fall hard on his ass.

 

Connor can feel the eyes on him as he literally runs up two flights of stairs to his bedroom, slamming his door shut behind him. Maybe someone knocks to try and talk to him, he doesn't really know. No one attempts to open it. What he does know is that he punches the wall until his hand bleeds, until the violent red in his mind passes and fades. Everything hurts, and he doesn't leave his bedroom, even when he's supposed to be taking the others home. They'll find another way. He'd probably crash his fucking car, anyway.

 

The fucking school freak. Well, some things never fucking change.

Chapter Text

Saturday, Jared wakes up at noon, and most of the night before is a blur. He knows he's grounded for life for coming home wasted, and he knows, for whatever reason, that Connor and Zoe are both pissed at him. He can't put together the pieces on what happened, exactly, but it was probably his own fault, because Evan won't answer his text asking for an explanation. He pops two Tylenol and leaves his bedroom to endure a lecture from his parents about drinking. They take his laptop and his Xbox, but leave his phone, which is fine, he guesses. They ask for his keys, too, and, with a little jolt, he remembers that Connor still has them. 

 

To: favorite emo loser

Sent: 1:07pm

hey u still have my car keys

 

From: favorite emo loser

Sent: 1:11pm

Evan has them.

 

The tone of the text just comes across as wrong. Jared frowns.

 

To: favorite emo loser

Sent: 1:12pm

oh. k. im sorry btw

 

Jared has enough time to shower and brush his teeth, and Connor still hasn't answered him. He's putting pizza rolls in the microwave to join his dad for a marathon of NCIS when his phone chimes again. 

 

From: favorite emo loser

Sent: 1:56pm

For what.

 

The lack of question mark makes that Not A Question, which makes Jared sure he's in trouble for something, and he's definitely not off the hook.

 

To: favorite emo loser

Sent: 1:57pm

what i did at the party

 

From: favorite emo loser

Sent: 1:58pm

Figure out what you're apologizing for, fucking douche.

 

And he won't answer another text after that, even when Jared sends several in quick succession to try to amass any sort of grasp of what he'd said or done. His mood spirals, then, because he realizes how badly he must have fucked up. He and Connor had been making progress as friends, and in a night, he had managed to ruin all of it. He considers asking Alana what happened, but she's not the most reliable narrator. She knows a lot more than what she can really know.

 

Evan stops by around three thirty with Jared's car keys. "I'd invite you in," Jared says, tossing the keys onto the table by the front door, "but I'm grounded for life. Are you in trouble for getting drunk as hell last night?"

 

"No. I ended up staying there-- I told Mom I was here, though, so if she asks-- and she was gone when I got home."

 

Evan looks uncomfortable, and Jared has the sinking, fleeting impression that it has something to do with Connor. He frowns.

 

"You ignored my text, but maybe you can find it in yourself to tell me why Connor is pissed at me."

 

Evan fidgets. "I don't..." he begins, but Jared knows that that's a lie, because he knows Evan, and he fixes Evan with a solid look, causing Evan to sigh. "You said some... things. He didn't take those things well, I guess. I mean, you... you were drunk, which, it's probably good that you were or it would have been worse, but you, I think. You um. You called him a freak."

 

Jared's spirits plummet. He knows that the word freak has such a negative connotation for Connor. He knows that it's a word that he, personally, has used to alienate Connor from the rest of the school. He can't believe that, even drunk, he'd dare to use that word when talking to, or about, Connor.

 

"What did he do?" Jared asks, voice heavy and wooden. He isn't sure he really wants to hear the answer.

 

"He um. He pushed you. I think you're lucky that he only pushed you. You kind of, you fell, and then he ran up the stairs. Not sure what he did, exactly, but his hand might be broken. He wouldn't let us take him to the hospital, though. And then he left-- Ellie's with him, I think, so he's okay, he's answered my texts, and Zoe's, he's just... you know, he's..."

 

"Yeah, I know," Jared replies feebly. This is his fault. "Evan, can I get Zoe's phone number from you?"

 

"She's not going to help you," Evan responds bluntly. "You're my friend-- er, family friend-- so I'm not going to take sides. But Zoe is."

 

"Of course she is. Well, fine. Like I said, I'm grounded for life, so time to go lock myself in my room now." He grimaces and steps out of the doorway. "See you at school." He shuts the door in Evan's face and proceeds back to his room, dropping onto his bed. He tries to call Connor, and it goes straight to voicemail. Jared isn't surprised by that. He'd probably do the same, in Connor's shoes. He messages Ellie on Instagram to ask if Connor's at least okay, and gets a curt, "He's fine, Jared," in return. Seems like everyone's pretty pissed at him, but no one is ready to give him a chance to apologize. Except Evan, but judging from Zoe's Instagram, they're a real life Thing now. He probably isn't concerned about anything else.

 

Life without his laptop is boring, especially when the only people that will talk to him are Evan and Alana. He can't leave the house, and that means terrible TV show marathons with his parents as they try to pick apart why he's not as into it as he used to be.

 

"I said something stupid to a friend," he finally tells them after they ask him three thousand and one times too many and he just wants them off of his case. "And now he's pissed, but he also won't let me apologize."

 

"Maybe you should apologize face to face," his dad suggests, and Jared stares.

 

"I'm grounded," he replies brilliantly.

 

"We'll let it slide for today," his mom says, tossing him his car keys. "Go on, now. You can be grounded when you're not moping over your... friend."

 

Jared doesn't like the way she says friend, like she knows something, and she probably does, but it's not like that. And he's definitely not fucking moping, okay. He decides not to argue, and takes the chance to drive to the Murphy's house. Zoe answers when he knocks.

 

"Yes, Jared?"

 

"Can I talk to Connor?"

 

Zoe steps outside, carefully closing the door behind her. "If I were a different kind of person, I'd hit you," she tells him. "But I know you didn't mean it. And so does Connor."

 

"Then why--" Jared begins desperately, but cuts off abruptly when Zoe holds up a hand.

 

"He's Connor, Jared. He's paranoid and even if he knows that you didn't mean it and that he's overreacting, you did still call him a freak-- great word choice, by the way-- and hes's trying to convince himself that he is overreacting." 

 

Jared has a lot on his mind to say, none of which is likely to endear Zoe to him. For once in his life, he decides to keep his mouth shut and not piss Zoe off more than he likely already has. He's pretty good at pissing off the Murphys, apparently.

 

"So you're saying I should just give him time."

 

"That's probably for the best, yeah. You've been helpful to him, Jared, I know that, so that it was from you? That makes it worse for him, I think. He'll be fine, you know. With time."

 

Jared nods, exhaling a sigh. He thinks he might have preferred when he didn't have friends or feelings or stupid crushes on stupid boys like Connor Murphy. That had been an easier time, so much less complicated than it is right now. "Hey, congratulations on you and Evan, now that that's a thing. That is a thing, right?"

 

Zoe's cheeks burn red for a moment, and Jared feels pretty self-satisfied about it. She also looks very briefly like she might want to punch him in the face, but she doesn't, and Jared's grateful for that. "Yes, I... we are dating," Zoe confirms awkwardly, cheeks still pink. "Keep that quiet though, Connor doesn't know just yet."

 

"Well, one, I'm not in a position to be telling Connor anything. And two, if he's seen your Instagram, he knows." Jared forces a laugh, but Zoe clearly hears the self-deprecation in it and underneath it, because she offers him a sympathetic smile and completely ignores the second half of his statement.

 

"It'll be fine, Jared. I've said worse about Connor, and he's definitely done worse to me, but we still love each other. Mostly."

 

"You're his sister."

 

"And you're probably his closest friend. Go home, Jared. I'll see you at school."

 

Jared leaves and relinquishes his car keys to his parents once he's home, with the admission that no, things still aren't right, and probably won't be for a while. Even with Zoe's encouragement and assurances that things are going to be fine, Jared still feels just as lost and alone as he did before. And he really, really doesn't like it.

Chapter Text

Not talking to Jared fucking sucks. (And having a sprained hand fucking sucks, too.) Not in a way of mild annoyance, in a way of Connor feels like he's losing his mind. He still talks to Evan throughout all of Saturday and Sunday, and Ellie, and Alana, and Zoe.  But not talking to Jared sucks. He can't fathom why they aren't talking, even, because he knows that Jared's sorry, that he didn't mean what he'd said. Most of his mind agrees that forgiving Jared would be for the best. There's a smaller, though infinitely louder part of his mind that screams paranoia and 'what if's, causing Connor to retreat, just to make it shut up. 

 

The irony is that Jared could probably help him shut it up, if it wasn't about Jared. Connor hates the whole having feelings thing.

 

He debates skipping Chemistry on Monday, and ultimately does, heading outside to sit behind the school with a book and his headphones. It's a stupid thing to do, since now his father will know that he's done it. He doesn't care enough to go back to class; in fact, he stays throughout lunch. There's no reason for him not to, he figures. Evan and Zoe probably don't want him there, anyway, now that they're dating. Zoe may think that she's good at keeping secrets, but she's wrong, and Connor has more practice than she does, anyway.

 

So he doesn't talk to Jared or Zoe or Evan or Ellie at school, and he only briefly talks to Alana because she literally corners him to talk about the chemistry class he didn't go to. He even manages to give Zoe the slip after school so he can walk home instead. His parents don't say anything about his ditching Chemistry when he gets home, but he's sure he won't stay so lucky.

 

"We missed you at lunch," Zoe tells him at dinner. "Evan was worried." Connor responds with a muffled groan and drops his head onto his arms on top of the table. His hand throbs; he ignores it. "You could just accept his apology, Connor. This is clearly bothering you."

 

"Fuck you," Connor replies without lifting his head.

 

"Does this have something to do with why you skipped Chemistry?" Larry asks, and Connor raises his head slowly, so that he can stare. Larry doesn't sound mad, not really, and Connor is waiting for the other shoe to drop.

 

"He got in a fight with his friend, Jared, and they have Chemistry together. That's why he skipped," Zoe explains, like a fucking loud mouth. Connor flips her off.

 

"Connor," Cynthia says, a hint of warning in her voice, and Connor drops his hand.

 

"It's not even that important," Connor mutters, pushing a hand through his hair.

 

"If you're skipping class over it, it's that important," Larry argues, cutting into his lasagna. "Maybe you should make up with this friend of yours." Connor continues to stare. That had sounded almost... nice. "And you're still grounded for skipping class."

 

Groaning again, Connor drops his head back onto the table. At least he hadn't yelled.

 

Later that night, Connor is sprawled out on his bed, sketchbook opened in front of him. He's been working on the same sketch for a while, a capture of the description of the room from Edgar Allan Poe's The Telltale Heart, only more exaggerated and creepy. He's started the shading on the floors when his bedroom door opens. Flipping the sketchbook shut automatically, Connor fixes his father with a blank stare. "Don't you knock? I could have been masturbating."

 

"Every parent walks in on it sometime. I think I'm overdue to have it happen to me," Larry replies. He uses one hand to motion to the bed. "Can I sit there?"

 

"Sure," Connor replies, sitting up and motioning vaguely. He's a little too bewildered to think of anything else to say. He's not Zoe, who is Larry's perfect little princess, and he's not the perfect son that Larry has always wanted. They don't do this.

 

"Zoe says you've been getting better," Larry begins, sitting on the edge of the bed. Connor allows one bitter thought of, 'you would know that if you paid any attention' before firmly squashing that train of thought. He doesn't want to fight tonight.

 

"Yeah, I guess. But better is relative. I'll never be the son that you want."

 

"Connor, don't start that right now."

 

"Sorry," Connor mutters.

 

"You have reason to be... angry with me," Larry admits after a moment of very uneasy silence. "I haven't been a great father to you. I want you to know that I'm going to try harder to be better."

 

There's a part of Connor that wants to believe it. A very large part, welling up with hope. But... another part reminds him of all the bad, of how he and his dad have never gotten along, and how Larry's seemed to hate him for years. It's that part that whispers to him that it's all a lie. It's that part that makes him lash out.

 

"Are you only trying because it's going to be easier now?" he demands, pushing to his feet. His mind is spinning, whispering 'Liar' like a song stuck on repeat. "Because it won't be. I'm not normal. The medicine doesn't make me perfect! I'm still one giant gay disaster with mental problems, still just a-- just a fucking freak. Everyone at school thinks so. Connor Murphy, school freak."

 

That word is what breaks him, makes him realize that he's shaking. His voice had risen to almost yelling. He's sure Zoe and their mom can hear how loud he's being, but his mind is louder, and--

 

And then Larry's hand is on his shoulder, and it's grounding. Quieting. "You're not a freak, and I've never expecting you to be perfect. You cannot choose, or control, any of those things. Do you understand that?"

 

Connor exhales a harsh, derisive laugh, echoing the sort of dark, self-deprecating humor he often hears from Jared. The thought of whom doesn't help Connor's mental state any. "You didn't used to think that," he says, wiping tears from his eyes before they can fall.

 

"I had a vision of the son I wanted when you were born, Connor, and when you didn't fit that, I made stupid choices. That doesn't make you a bad son or a bad person, that makes me a bad father. We've both made wrong choices, and now, we both have to try to be better than we were before. But you're still my son, giant gay disaster with mental problems though you may be." Connor exhales a laugh in spite of himself, and Larry smiles. "Let me be your dad, okay?"

 

"Yeah, okay," Connor mumbles, dropping back onto the bed as he wipes his eyes again. He doesn't know what else to say.

 

"So, the friend you're fighting with," Larry begins again, after a moment of quiet that is Connor trying to compose himself. "Is he your boyfriend?"

 

The emotions swirling nonstop in Connor's head come to an abrupt and screeching stop as he chokes on air. "What? No! No, Jared is not my boyfriend."

 

"Do you want him to be?" A strange look passes Larry's features, and Connor has to remind himself that his dad is trying, and this is awkward for them both.

 

"Did Zoe tell you that?" he asks blandly, which isn't an answer, so therefore, he's not lying. His eyebrow arches, and Larry actually smiles.

 

"Guilty."

 

"Zoe needs to learn to mind her own damn business!" Connor yells through the door of his bedroom.

 

"Fuck you!" comes the muffled reply from the direction of Zoe's bedroom.

 

"She just wants to help."

 

"No," Connor retorts, "she wants to distract from her boyfriend by throwing me under the bus. Jared is a... friend, and we got into a. A fight, I guess. Not even a fight. We had a disagreement. Usually, though, he... I dunno. He makes things feel... less." It's a shitty explanation, but it's the only way he thinks he can explain what happens in his mind. Not that his dad will really understand. 

 

"If he's good for you like that, you two should make up," Larry says firmly, like he actually means something else, and Connor falls back onto the bed with a heavy groan, covering his eyes. He doesn't want to have to process Larry trying to push him into a relationship. 

 

"I appreciate the newfound support, Dad, but this has all been so much for one night," he sighs. Exhaustion ha started to seep into his mind, pushing at the persistent, lingering paranoia. "Can we..." 

 

"Yeah," Larry agrees, getting to his feet. "I should go talk to Zoe about the boyfriend you mentioned, anyway."

 

Under his arms, Connor snorts. "Don't get me in trouble." He sits up a little, propping himself up on his elbows and clearing his throat. "Maybe we can do a, like. Some kind of family thing together. You know. Learn how to be a family again."

 

Larry pauses with his hand on the door. "Yeah. We should." He opens the door and offers a grin. "Oh, and you're still grounded."

 

Connor drops his head back onto the pillow with another exaggerated groan, but it barely muffles his laughter.

Chapter Text

Jared is surprisingly early to school Tuesday morning, because being early to school is better than listening to his parents argue about money. They  may not be poor, but he knows that they're not exactly rich, and money is a bit of a problem when it comes to making ends meet. He doesn't want to listen to it today, so he's at school almost forty minutes earlier than he needs to be.

 

Connor, Zoe, and Evan are early too, though not quite as early as Jared. From the looks of it, Zoe and Connor had picked Evan up on their way to school. Jared sees them at Connor's locker from his own down the hall, and makes a valiant effort to disappear. Which is fucking stupid. They're his friends, too, aren't they? So he swallows his pride, shoulders his bag, and approaches the group.

 

"Oh, hey, love birds," he greets them, because it's pretty clear Connor already knows, so he isn't worried about keeping a secret.

 

"Hey, asshole," Zoe snaps back without missing a beat. Evan looks like he wants to say something, but he's red and stammering, and really, it negates the effect.

 

And Connor is just watching, apprehensive. Jared's stomach flips. He wants them to not be fighting anymore. He opens his mouth to say something, but Connor gives a minute shake of his head and mutters, "Later, okay?" And Jared has to accept that that's that, and he can't really argue with it.

 

The silence that falls is awkward, and Evan is the first to try and break it, but someone else interrupts before he can get a full sentence out. And the words make Jared go tense: "Zoe, can't believe you're still slumming it with these losers. I mean, at first it was understandable, but no one cares that your freak brother tried to kill himself anymore. They're over it, you can give it up."

 

Rodney Carsen is a basketball player and a trade-marked asshat, and he's pretty much always had a thing for Zoe Murphy. Connor has punched him exactly once, so hard that he very nearly broke Rodney's jaw, back in middle school, because Rodney had grabbed Zoe's ass. Which is part of why Jared can't believe Rodney still has the balls to say the shit like that in front of Connor, still.

 

Connor doesn't even really react, though, sans a raised eyebrow. He leans against his locker and gazes at his nails while Zoe replies, "Grow up." Rodney reaches for her, and, expression never changing, Connor grabs his wrist.

 

"Keep your hands off of my sister." His voice is soft, cold, and Jared is abruptly reminded why so many people are terrified of Connor Murphy. He may only be about 5'8", and weigh next to nothing, but he looks scary. If he was looking at Jared like that, Jared would turn tail and run.

 

"Don't touch me, you fucking freak!"

 

Zoe and Evan both look like they expect Connor to snap. And frankly, Jared wouldn't even be surprised. At this point, Rodney probably fucking deserves it. But Jared, to everyone's surprise, especially his own, beats Connor to it. 

 

"Oh, fucking get a life," he snaps. "Real god damn original, targeting Connor, and with the level of creativity you put into those insults, I'm genuinely surprised that comedy writers don't contact you." His voice is dripping sarcasm, but he's not quite done yet. "You're probably just jealous, because girls probably prefer Connor, since he's at least got that hot mysterious emo thing, and you sort of look like what would happen if a gorilla mated with a donkey." He hears an almost stunned ripple of laughter from his friends, and finishes the rant by saying, "Get in your jokes now, because guys like you peak in high school."

 

There's an overwhelming amount of silence before Rodney finally replies, rather underwhelming, "Congratulations, the fags finally got boyfriends."

 

It's nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to Jared's own speech. And, in the back of his mind, he's aware of that fact. However, it doesn't stop him from drawing back his fist and punching Rodney in the jaw as hard as he can.

 

Chaos ensues. The only thing Jared is completely aware of is Connor saying, "Nope, not today," and putting a hand on Jared's shoulder to pull him down the hall to the boy's bathroom. He's quiet as he lets Jared steady his breathing, and then he just raises his eyebrows. Jared braces himself for Connor to flip out on him but--

 

"Hot mysterious emo thing?" he repeats in a monotone, and Jared exhales a breath, waving a hand vaguely. 

 

"Better looking than Rodney."

 

Connor leans against the sink, crossing his arms and watching Jared with an appraising look. In a way that makes Jared highly uncomfortable.

 

"Well, congratulations," he deadpans. "You've fallen to the level of school freak. It's stuff like that makes them call me a freak."

 

"I don't think that," Jared protests loudly. "And I shouldn't have said that I did. Being drunk wasn't an excuse, okay? I'm just an asshole, and I should have kept my mouth shut, because that isn't what I think."

 

"I know," Connor replies, voice very soft, and Jared suddenly feels a lot of things all at once, not the least of which being confused.

 

"Then why..." he begins, and just makes a hand motion when he can't finish that sentence.

 

"I was convincing myself that we've both changed enough that it isn't like that anymore," Connor shrugs, looking decidedly tense. "You are an asshole, that's true, but I know you didn't actually mean it. And honestly, not talking to you... really kind of sucked." He looks embarrassed, pink-cheeked and uncomfortable, running his fingers through his hair.

 

"Yeah, I second that," Jared agrees before his stubborn pride can swallow the words.

 

Connor looks up, a smile curling at the corners of his mouth, tentative and awkward, and somehow still stunning. "You know, you did call me hot, and I absolutely am going to use it against you whenever I can."

 

Jared laughs in spite of himself, full and almost too loud in the quiet bathroom. "I'd call you hot again, probably," he says bluntly, before his brain has caught up with his mouth. Fuck. He's not sure he could make a joke out of it, or even if he should.

 

Connor looks bewildered and highly uncertain for a moment, like he can't believe anyone would be complimenting him. And if Jared weren't actually panicking, he'd find that heartbreaking. "Is... Is that a joke, Jared?" he asks flatly, but his voice cracks a little.

 

Jared has never been so grateful for the school bell in his life. "I will, um. See you in Chemistry," he says feebly, and then bolts like the coward he is.

 

He doesn't get to stay a coward, though, because Connor corners him after Chemistry, and before he knows it, he's being dragged out of the classroom, and then out of the school, to the shaded area behind the building.

 

"I'm hungry," Jared protests listlessly, and Connor fixes him with a look. "Come on, man, I just got you not mad at me. Don't get mad at me again."

 

"If that was a joke, Jared, it was pretty shitty. I'm not mad, I'm--"

 

"It wasn't a joke!" Jared interrupts, louder than necessary. "Yeah, okay, I think you're hot. I think a lot of things about you, and you being hot is just one of those things. And you know what?" he continues before Connor can speak. Connor, who looks entirely stunned, like he's just been drenched in ice water. "My life was easier when I didn't have this stupid crush on you?"

 

Ah. Shit. Jared shuts his mouth suddenly, like he hasn't already said way too fucking much. If Connor kills him, he wouldn't be surprised, really, but he hopes that Evan would miss him at least. But Connor doesn't even look mad. He looks bewildered, like someone liking him is entirely implausible. Jared wants to panic, again, but he finds that he's just kind of sad for Connor and his inability to believe something like this.

 

"You what?" Connor finally demands.

 

"You heard me. And no, it's not a fucking joke. I may be an asshole, but I'm not cruel." Jared shrugs nonchalantly, exhaling a sigh. "We started actually hanging out and talking, and you showed what's behind the mask you put up at school, and what's behind the mask is really easy to like."

 

Connor is staring at him blankly, expressionless, and Jared figures that this is probably the end of whatever friendship they heave, especially when Connor turns towards the school door. But he just stares for a few long moments, and then turns back to Jared again. "I-- Okay. I've been in like, one relationship in my life, and there certainly weren't feelings, it was--" Connor shakes his head, cutting himself off, "not important. The point is, I don't think I've ever had feelings for anyone. Ever."

 

"I'm not saying you have to have feelings for me. That's fine, I get it--"

 

"Would you stop talking?" Connor interrupts, rather loudly, and Jared shuts his mouth. "I didn't say-- God, this shouldn't be so fucking complicated." 

 

Before Jared can ask what he means, and what is complicated about all of this, Connor is pushing across the empty space to where Jared is standing. He hesitates for maybe two seconds, and then suddenly, too abruptly for Jared to actually track how it happens, they're kissing. It's awkward, like neither of them has any experience (Jared doesn't), but he's not going to complain about it. The undercurrent of realization that Connor Murphy just kissed him is pretty much enough for him to not give a shit about anything else in the world.

 

"I think I might have some stupid crush on you, too," Connor explains when he breaks the kiss.

 

Jared wants to laugh, because what? What the fuck even is his life? How is this real? He doesn't even know what to say, even if that's exactly what he wanted, even if he's stunned and confused and ultimately happy about it. He rarely gets what he wants in life, as evidenced by the tenuous relationship he has with Evan and the what if that'll always be there. He had never thought to prepare for if Connor had liked him, too, because it had seemed so far outside of the realm of possibility.

 

"I don't know what to say," Jared admits finally.

 

"First time for everything," Connor responds, and Jared debates elbowing him for a brief second. "Look, lunch will be over soon, and I don't want to go back to class not knowing where we stand. So, I-- I want to be your boyfriend, I think--"

 

"Yeah, I want that, too," Jared says quickly, before Connor can take it back, and he wonders distantly if this is how it sounded when Evan and Zoe got together, because they're both giving Evan a run for the money with the awkwardness today.

 

"Okay," Connor says slowly, glancing at the school building for a moment, like he's waiting, and, as if on cue, the bell rings. Connor sighs heavily. "I'm already grounded, I can't be late to class today. I'll see you after school?"

 

"Yeah," Jared agrees. "I'm grounded, too, so I can't push it either."

 

Connor smiles, tentative and soft. He kisses Jared again, so briefly that Jared doesn't get any time to react, and, by the time he's gathered himself, Connor's already disappeared into the school building.

 

And Jared ends up late to class, but he doesn't really care. He hadn't come into school expecting to leave with a boyfriend by the end of the day. He misses almost everything for his last classes, because he can't make himself focus, but for once, he's just too happy to care.

Chapter Text

So they settle into what Jared would probably qualify as the strangest relationship of his life, if he had anything to compare it to, but he doesn't. Things change, and they don't. They still argue on what feels like a daily basis because Jared's still an ass and Connor is still paranoid, but they can hold hands in the hall now, and most times, fights end with Connor using Jared's weakness for kissing him to his advantage. It's underhanded, sure, but in the moment, Jared never complains.

 

Two weeks in, and things are going smoothly. And maybe Connor's paranoia has become contagious, because Jared finds himself waiting for the other shoe to drop. Nothing stays smooth in their lives for very long, so something is bound to happen, and Jared is just waiting for it.

 

And sure enough, shit hits the fan the Wednesday two weeks after they start dating. People whisper about Connor and Jared fairly frequently, and neither is unaware, but so far, it's been just that-- whispers. So when Jared gets called into the principal's office third period, his thought is that someone has finally been a douche and said something to the faculty, and they're going to get some heteronormative bullshit lecture. Those suspicions aren't helped by Connor's presence in the office. But then Jared sees Rodney Carsen in the second chair, sporting a bloody nose that appears to actually be bleeding through a wad of tissue.

 

"Fuck," Jared says brilliantly, coughing immediately after to cover the profanity. "I mean, uh. What's going on exactly?"

 

"We called you in hoping you could make Mr. Murphy see sense," Principal Howard explains. "You seem to be one of the few people capable of keeping him rational."

 

'Rational' is probably pushing it. Especially when he can read the fury in the tension of Connor's body. Nothing keeps Connor rational when he's in a mood like this. And Connor hasn't even looked up at him yet; his eyes are fixed on the window behind the principal's desk, and Jared doesn't have to see them to feel how cold they probably are. He knows well enough to know that anger.

 

"That depends on what happened," Jared hedges carefully. If Connor's paranoia and loud, violent thoughts are in full swing, and if his anger is really this terrible, there's not shit Jared will be able to do about it.

 

"Faggot broke my nose," Rodney spits, and Jared half wants to laugh at how it sounds with a wad of tissue stuffed up his nose.

 

"Break more than that if you keep fucking talking," Connor threatens calmly, as if he's discussing the weather, or the clothes that he's wearing. He still hasn't moved, hasn't even wavered, and that's part of what makes the low hint of promise in his voice sound so fucking scary.

 

"Connor," Principal Howard begins, tone full of warning.

 

"You're going to reprimand him, but not the one using words like faggot?" Jared protests before he can help it, and then Connor does move, motioning to Jared like this is a point he's already brought up.

 

"You're already facing suspension, Connor--"

 

"Then fucking suspend me!" Connor yells, launching to his feet so fast that the chair teeters, and Jared has to shoot a hand out to grab it before it falls to the floor. "See if I give a shit, you've been looking for a reason for years--"

 

"Okay, wait!" Jared cuts in loudly, loud enough to carry over Connor's voice. "Connor, what happened?" He has to grab Connor's shoulder and pull, hard, before Connor will even look at him, and Jared's pretty sure that his boyfriend single-handedly invented the phrase 'If looks could kill.'

 

"You know I already don't fucking like him. He was running his mouth, calling-- He called Zoe a whore, and the shit he was saying about you and Evan wasn't any better than that." There's a glint in Connor's eyes that chills Jared to the core, like he's come up with fifteen ways to kill Rodney and another thirty just to hide the body and dispose of any evidence. 

 

"What he said doesn't validate you punching him in the face," Principal Howard interrupts. The return of the tension to Connor's shoulders makes Jared want to groan. No progress made then, clearly.

 

"The last time he did something like that, he got away with it," Connor shouts, and Jared grabs his arm automatically, for fear that he might actually punch their principal. "And he's going to get a fucking slap on the wrist, even though he's a habitual fucking bully and a pervert and sexually harasses girls in this school all the time, and he deserves to get punched a lot lower than the face because maybe then he'd stop thinking with his fucking dick!"

 

Connor is absolutely seething now, visible enough that Rodney shrinks away. Like he's finally realized to stop pushing Connor's buttons like he has been. Connor is liable to actually explode, and that will make all of this look like a child's tantrum. Jared's hand tightens on Connor's arm, enough pressure that it'll hopefully keep him somewhat grounded.

 

"Connor, I don't want this to get to the point of expulsion--" Mr. Howard begins, and that's it. That's the point where Jared can literally feel Connor snap.

 

The seething, burning anger seeps away, replaced by a cold icy rage that seems to fill the room. It's a silent rage, but it feels loud. Jared is scared now, and he knows that this isn't directed at him.

 

"Fucking expel me then," Connor grits out through clenched teeth, wrenching his arm free from Jared's tight grip. "This school clearly never gave a shit about me, and I sure as fuck don't give a shit about it." He pushes past Jared and storms out of the office, slamming the door so hard that the room seems to vibrate with the force of it. Jared winces visibly.

 

"I've got it," he says before Mr. Howard can speak. "Don't... Don't actually expel him yet." He opens the door and follows Connor out. He has to jog so that he can catch up. "Connor, wait a second. You can't just walk out, they will actually expel you."

 

"I don't give a shit," Connor responds loudly, and it's probably a good thing that class is still in session, because if not, they'd be attracting a lot of attention that they don't need right now. "Guys like that can get whatever the hell they want, because he's an athlete, so he can grab my sister's ass and call her a whore, and he can insult my boyfriend and best friend, but I'm the one facing expulsion because I did something about it when the actual people who run this stupid fucking shit show wouldn't!"

 

"I'm not disagreeing with you, it's bullshit," Jared replies, trying to keep his own voice somewhat calm, to bring Connor down. "But you can't just get yourself expelled. What does that do but make Zoe and Evan easier targets for him if you aren't here to stop him? I don't care what Rodney says about me, Connor, that's whatever, but he will continue to go after them. He's terrified of you now, so as long as you're here, he'll leave them alone. Take the suspension, Connor, you can't get expelled. We kind of need you here. Not just them."

 

Connor pushes a hand through his hair and exhales a sigh. But some of the tension and fury has faded from his body, like Jared might maybe have succeeded in calming him down. His eyes are still colder than ice, but his shoulders are slumped.

 

"It's stupid," he says shortly. "They want me to write a formal apology to him on top of the suspension. I'm not doing it."

 

"You could bullshit your way through it like you do on all your essays that you still ace."

 

Connor fixes Jared with a hard glare. "No. I'm not doing it."

 

Jared hold up his hands in surrender. "Fine, don't do it." They fall in step together as they walk back towards Mr. Howard's office. "You know, it's kind of hot when you defend my honor or whatever," he adds, half serious and half because he wants Connor's reaction to it. Connor does not disappoint, seemingly choking on air.

 

"What do-- Shut the fuck up, Jared," Connor mutters, but if Jared isn't mistaken, there's a red tint to his cheeks.

 

Back in the office, Connor collapses into the chair he'd vacated. Rodney's gone, probably at the nurse's office or whatever. It doesn't matter, it's better off that he's not in the room.

 

"Well?" Mr. Howard says.

 

"I'll take the suspension," Connor replies calmly, though his jaw is set, "but I will not write out an apology. No," he continues sharply, voice firm when Mr. Howard starts to speak. "Are you making him write an apology to me for calling me a faggot? Or my boyfriend? Or my sister, for grabbing her ass and calling her a whore? Or anyone else in this school that he's bullied or sexually harassed? I'm guessing the answer is no. Push it, push me, and I'll get my dad involved. You know my dad, right? Larry Murphy, the attorney? I think he'll be pretty interested in all of this, considering Zoe's involvement."

 

Connor's eyes are flat, and Jared is really impressed with his boyfriend. He sounds completely serious, and he probably is. It should take longer than two weeks, and a lot better circumstances to realize that you're falling in love with somebody, but there it is. Jared's never done anything correctly.

 

"Fine," Mr. Howard concedes finally. "Two days, out of school suspension. I'll be calling your parents to inform them."

 

Connor tenses, but otherwise doesn't reply, grabbing his backpack from where it's resting by the door. He walks out, and, awkwardly, Jared follows. They're halfway down the hall to Connor's locker when the bell rings to release the students from class. Jared hopes that he has an actual excused absence from third period. He really doesn't need detention right now.

 

"Why did I hear from classmates that you had a meltdown last period?" Zoe asks without preamble as Connor twists the lock of his locker.

 

"I wouldn't call it a meltdown," Connor replies. "More like--"

 

"A display of overprotectiveness," Jared supplies. "It was hot."

 

"Shut up, Jared," Connor repeats. "I might have punched Rodney Carsen in the face," he explains to his sister vaguely.

 

"You did what?"

 

"He deserved it. But I'm going to be grounded for life, probably. I got suspended. Two days, out of school."

 

Zoe stares at him, expression flat. "You're an idiot."

 

"I think the circumstances of it all make him more like a knight in shining armor. Er, shining... skinny jeans?" Jared says, because yeah, it may not be the greatest situation, but Connor hadn't been entirely in the wrong about it all. And it's an easy situation for Jared to make jokes about. Honestly, he's really just relieved that it hadn't turned out worse than it did.

 

"Does that make you the damsel in distress?" Zoe asks Jared, looking amused despite her best efforts to remain serious.

 

Connor's hand slips from his locker, and Jared glances up to see him rolling his eyes heavily. "More like the asshole sidekick that never shuts up," he deadpans, shutting the locker door. He walks away, leaving Jared staring after him and Zoe struggling to control her laughter. Yeah, so. Not the ideal situations to realize that you might be in love with someone, but Jared doesn't even care. It works for him.

Chapter Text

Connor would have to have been stupid to think it would be resolved so easily. Jared's intervention helped at school, had stopped it from getting worse, and thank god he had intervened when he had, because Connor's vision had been burning, and every single thought had turned brutal and bloody. Connor couldn't even begin to dig through the blood and the violence to find his own thoughts, and his reasoning is that maybe the loud, bloody, hate-filled thoughts actually were his own. There was nothing else underneath it. That realization makes him feel cold inside, because he doesn't want to be that person, he doesn't want to believe that he is that person, or that it's actually all there inside of him. It hadn't even felt like the medicine was touching it.

 

Jared had. Jared had talked him down, let the red fade away to something duller and more muted. That terrifies Connor, because it makes it feel like there's a dependency, and he doesn't want to depend on Jared like that. It probably sets a bad foundation for whatever their relationship is.

 

He's glad though, that Jared was there. But Jared can't be tehre when Connor gets home. And it doesn't matter how hard Larry's been trying to be better than he was, Connor can feel the anger as soon as he steps inside. He tenses considerably, setting his bag down by the door. His fingers shake as he bends to unlace his boots. 

 

"Connor, get in here!" Larry yells, and Connor flinches. Fuck. It's not like they had just magically stopped fighting, because they are who they are and neither of them have changed that much, but things had been getting better. That progress seems to have disappeared into nothingness, and Connor almost, almost wants to cry because of it. He doesn't let himself.

 

"Dad?" he mumbles as he walks to the doorway of the living room. Larry is the only one in the room. Zoe's probably out somewhere with Evan, and Connor doesn't take any time to wonder where Cynthia might be. She wouldn't calm Larry down, anyway, she'd probably just make it worse, and Connor's always happier when she's not around when they fight, because either one of them might turn on her, and Connor hates that.

 

"You got suspended," Larry begins, "for punching another student in the face." It doesn't sound like a question, so Connor doesn't reply, standing silent and stiff in the doorway. "What the hell were you thinking, Connor?"

 

"I was thinking--"

 

"No, you weren't thinking!" Larry interrupts, his voice so loud that Connor can feel it echoing back against his body. He clenches his hands into fists, nails biting hard into the skin of his palms. That sharp sting of pain keeps his head focused in the reality of the moment.

 

"Dad, you don't--"

 

"Don't explain it, Connor." I get a call at work that you're suspended for punching a student. You broke his nose! I thought you were over this self-destructive stupidity where you try to ruin your own future!"

 

Heat floods through Connor's body, the kind that accompanies burning, all-consuming fury. Of course, of fucking course this would be how it goes with his dad. His dad who, guess fucking what, still doesn't give a shit about him. No matter what he'd promised. He's not trying any harder to understand or to see what Connor thinks or how he feels. And that, all of the sudden, has everything called into question, paranoia about everything seeping into the dark, hidden corners of his. Maybe nobody cares, after all. Maybe nobody really sees him. Maybe nothing really changed.

 

"I'm not trying to destroy my future," Connor protests. He wants it to sound mad. He wants to feel mad. He finds no anger left to draw from. It's all faded into a dull and dark hopelessness, doubt, and loud thoughts that consume him.

 

"What college do you think is going to accept a drug addict with a history of violence on his school records?" Larry spits, voice acidic, and wow. This is who Connor gets it from, fucking mirror images when they're pissed off. 

 

"I'm not a drug addict!" Connor yells, hitting his upper thigh with his fist before he's realized that he's done it. The pain doesn't help him any this time. "I was never a fucking drug addict, Dad! I smoked pot. Pot, Larry, weed, because it helped when nothing else did, when all I wanted was to watch the fucking world burn and to burn with it. Weed was the only thing that helped, not that you ever gave a shit what helped me!"

 

Distantly, he can hear the front door opening, but it sounds muffled and far away. He doesn't turn to look. He's pretty sure that Larry doesn't even hear it, because he just keeps yelling.

 

"Don't pull that old bullshit about how I never cared about you!" 

 

"Then don't fucking prove me right!" 

 

He doesn't know when, but at some point, Connor had walked into the living room. He and his father are standing on opposite sides of the glass coffee table in each other's faces, and there's no possible way that this won't end badly for somebody.

 

"Dad?" That's Zoe's voice, breaking dimly through the clouded fogginess of Connor's mind. It's coming from the direction of the doorway. "Connor? What's going on?"

 

"Go to you room, Zoe."

 

"No," Connor snaps. "Let her stay. Let her hear what you to say about your fuck up son, Dad. Go on, you had a whole hell of a lot to say before she walked in! Show your little princess what you really fucking think, Larry, she already knows you don't give a fuck about me, so just fucking say it!"

 

"What do you think the future holds for a--" Larry cuts himself off before he can say whatever it is that he thinks, and something in Connor snaps.

 

"A what?" he presses. "Tell me. For once in your life, tell me what you actually fucking think of me. Come on, it's not like I haven't heard you say it all before when you thought I wasn't listening or couldn't hear you. A fuck up, right? A worthless waste of space, likely to end up dead in a ditch with heroin tracks on my arms? You'd be so fucking happy if I did, because maybe then, for the first time in your miserable life, you'd actually get something right!"

 

It is not the right thing to say. Larry offers absolutely no verbal response. Instead, he raises his hands and gives Connor a sharp shove. Connor stumbles backwards, catching his leg against the couch and falling hard on his right arm. For a moment, it feels like the world stands still, the calm right before the storm hits and washes everything away. The calm when you're in the eye of a tornado; it doesn't make the destruction any less real, but for a moment, it all feels worlds away, like it can't effect you, until you're swept away in it, too.

 

"Dad." Zoe sounds absolutely horrified, and her voice is still the only thing breaking through everything raging in Connor's mind. "What did you do?" She rushes to Connor's side and bends to help him up.

 

"Don't touch me," Connor bites out. "Don't fucking touch me." His arm is throbbing, and so is his ankle where it caught the couch. He shoves to his feet anyway and passes Zoe; it takes everything in him not to push her out of his way. He won't be that guy again, he won't hurt his sister again. So he forces some sort of sense of calm as he walks past her and out of the living room. He debates just leaving, but he-- he needs-- He thinks there might be something in his desk, so he just--

 

"Connor, get back here," Larry says, sounding stunned at his own actions. Great fucking actor, maybe he should have pursued that as a career instead.

 

"Fuck you!" Connor yells back, and he all but sprints up the stairs, to his bedroom, and slams the door behind him. Everything is tinted... not red, not this time. His vision and his thoughts are tinted black, blurring together like they did that night back in August when the loud thoughts had finally gotten to be too much. Before he knows that he's doing it, Connor's shoved his bed in front of the door so no one can get in.

 

He doesn't remember what he came up here to get, but he wants the black to go away. He wants the noise to stop, he wants it all  to stop. He should call-- but no, why would Jared care? Why would anyone care? He thinks he can hear Zoe yelling, but it sounds miles away. It feels like a whole different world.

 

With a noise that almost doesn't sound or feel entirely human, Connor grabs the edge of his desk and pulls, until it crashes to the floor, sending the papers that had been on top of it scattering to the floor. The noise of the desk falling is loud enough that it feels like a direct jolt into Connor's thoughts, but it's all still grayscale and completely numb.

 

Connor drops, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the mess on the floor. Random images from random pieces of paper catch his eyes without really sticking. There's too much in his mind to add anything else, to make words or thoughts stick and make sense. Sitting amongst the mess that seems like an accurate physical representation of his mind, Connor digs his nails into his wrist until it hurts, until he can feel blood, until the grayscale consumes him.

Chapter Text

The conversation at dinner has been so peaceful that Jared actually jumps when the ringtone of his cellphone disrupts the peace. His mom gives him a look, because they have rules against phones at the dinner table. And Jared grins apologetically in return. He tries to follow that one rule, at least, because it's not a hard rule to follow. It wasn't like people were calling and texting him a whole lot, anyway until recently. 

 

"Sorry," he mutters, fighting his phone out of his shorts so that he can silence it. "Usually, I have it silenced, but--" He cuts off on seeing Zoe's name on his cellphone screen, and his brows furrow. Zoe texts him, sometimes, if she's that bored, because they're actually sort of friends now, but she's never called him before. Connor. "Wait, it's Zoe-- Connor's sister-- something might have happened." The urgency in Jared's voice must be enough, because Jared's parents know enough about Connor-- that they're dating, that Connor isn't completely mentally stable, that he's attempted suicide.

 

"Answer it," his dad says, and Jared presses the 'Accept Call' button as he pushes up and away from the table.

 

"Zoe? What's up?"

 

"It's Connor, he's--" Jared's heart plummets and his insides turn to lead. Zoe sounds like she's been crying, or is still crying, maybe. Her voice is muddled. "He got into it with our dad, I guess, and Dad-- Dad said some things that he shouldn't have said, and Connor responded, because of course Connor responded--"

 

"Zoe," Jared interrupts abruptly, already pulling his shoes on. None of this sounds good. And Jared is trying not to panic, but that's futile. He's going to be panicking until he knows that Connor is, without any reasonable doubt, okay.

 

"Sorry, I-- Dad pushed him, and he fell, and now he's barricaded in his room, and he won't answer me, Jared. I don't know if he's okay, I don't know how to make him listen, and you're the only person he might talk to or listen to right now, because you help him, and I didn't know who else to call--"

 

"I'll be over in ten minutes," Jared swears as calmly as possible, because he can't freak out if Zoe is. Someone has to keep a level head, and clearly, that someone is not going to be Zoe. "Zoe, you need to breathe."

 

"What if he did something, Jared?"

 

"He didn't, don't think like that," Jared cuts in with more conviction than he feels. He doesn't know if he believes himself. He doesn't know what Connor might have done. "When I hang up, you're going to call Ellie or Alana, alright? Not Evan. Talk to one of them until you can breathe again. I'm on my way over. Ten minutes, I promise."

 

"Thank you, Jared."

 

Jared hangs up and practically runs back into the kitchen. "I have to-- Connor might be in trouble."

 

"Go. Tell us what happened when you get back."

 

Jared has never been so grateful that he has the parents he has in his whole life. He grabs his car keys and then he's out the door. Once he's on the road, barely able to keep himself at the speed limit, he sends a text to Evan.

 

To: Acorn Boy

Sent: 7:31pm

meet me @ the murphys in 10 will explain when i see u

 

He doesn't wait to see if Evan responds, tossing his phone into the passenger's seat. He grips the steering wheel with both hands, so tight that it actually hurts his fingers. He doesn't want to think of the worst, wants to tell himself that Connor's fine, but he's not as good at lying to himself as he is at lying to other people. He doesn't know what Connor might have done in the time before Zoe called him, or what he might be doing right now. If he's not answering Zoe, if he didn't even bother to call Jared, then he's definitely not fine. Jared presses down a little harder on the gas.

 

He almost misses the turn off into the Murphy's long driveway, and has to make the turn so sharp that it would make most people dizzy. But he's from New York, and he's used to that. Zoe is standing outside, waiting for him, and her face is red and splotchy. She's definitely been crying.

 

"You can't go through the front door," she tells him as he turns the ignition off. "Mom got home and now she and Dad are screaming at each other in the front room. I can show you how to sneak into his bedroom, though, I know how he sneaks out, come--"

 

Evan's car pulling into the driveway behind Jared's cuts her off. He looks bewildered when he gets out, and even more so when Zoe throws herself into his arms with a sob. "What's going on?"

 

"It's Connor," is Jared's only explanation. "Zoe, you wanna show me how to get to his room? Evan, you're coming with me."

 

"Okay?" Evan says, and it sounds more like a question. Zoe nods and wipes her eyes, and then leads them around the back of the house.

 

"You can climb up the fence and onto the roof of the garage. There's a section of roof of the house right outside Connor's window that you can climb onto from the garage. His window is on the left, the black curtains. It should be open, it usually is, even when it's cold out. He likes the cold."

 

"Okay," Jared replies. Climbing isn't his strong suit, nothing physical is, which is one reason he's glad Evan's here. With his cast removed, Evan easily scales the fence, pausing on the roof of the garage to help pull Jared up. They climb onto the roof outside of Connor's window. The curtains are closed, and Jared can't see anything inside. There is, however, a gap a the bottom of the window that Jared can slip his fingers under to pry it open even further.

 

When he pushes the curtains aside and tumbles into the room, Connor is sitting in the middle of the floor, staring at him like he's a ghost. Jared's first thought is instant relief; Connor's okay, he's alive. But a quick once over catches the blood on his wrists and under his nails and-- okay. Maybe he's not okay. The room is a disaster, too, the desk on the floor, papers scattered everywhere, the bed barricading the door.

 

"Jared, what the hell..." His voice sounds so empty.

 

"Evan's here, too," Jared says as Evan ducks into the room through the window. "Zoe was worried about you, and she called me--"

 

"And you broke into my bedroom?" Connor prompts, voice still so lifeless, eyes empty and vacant. Jared hasn't seen this version of Connor in a while. He doesn't like it. It scares him. Not in the way that Connor used to scare him, but in a way that feels like heartbreaking panic. 

 

"Yeah, we care about you!" Evan replies as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. Connor flinches.

 

"Sure. Well, I'm fine. So you can go."

 

"Don't lie to me," Jared responds, voice pained. "This is so far from fine. You're not fine. Connor, what happened?" He shuffles forward and takes Connor's hands in his own so he can check his wrists. They're not cuts, they're more like gouges. Fabric brushes Jared's arm, and he realizes that Evan's offering his sweater to clean up the blood. "Thanks. Connor," he repeats quietly. 

 

"I don't know." His voice sounds shattered, which is almost as bad as lifeless, but at least there's emotion now. "I was fighting with Dad, and... I guess I snapped. It doesn't matter, you shouldn't worry about it."

 

"Of course I'm worried!" Jared argues, using the sleeve of Evan's sweater to wipe the dried blood from the scratches. "I care about you."

 

"You shouldn't. He made it pretty clear that I'm a fuck up with no future."

 

Jared doesn't know what to say, and apparently, neither does Evan, because they're both quiet for a long time. Too long. "He's wrong,"  Jared mumbles finally, when the silence is too heavy. "You're not a fuck up, Connor."

 

"Fucking look at me, Jared!" Connor gestures vaguely to the lines on his arms, new and old, and look of disgust crosses his face, pure self-hatred, and it makes Jared's heart clench. 

 

"I've done it, too," Jared reminds him quietly.

 

"Me, too," Evan mumbles, and Jared glances at him. That's a whole different thing to unpack, a thing that Jared feels like he should have known about, and feels really shitty for not knowing about. But Evan just shakes his head a little and motions to Connor, and Jared frowns, but turns his attention back to his boyfriend. Later, then.

 

"Does that make us fuck ups?"

 

"You two are different," Connor mutters. "You have futures, people actually like you--" 

 

"We didn't have any friends before we had you, Connor," Jared argues. "What the hell, you know that. You won't convince me you're something worthless or whatever you think you are, because I wouldn't be dating you if that's what I thought of you. You probably saved my life, put me on a track that wasn't leading to just self-destruction and hatred, and I need you--"

 

It's clear that Connor isn't listening. He might be hearing the words, but he doesn't process them. Jared sits back, frustrated and blinking back tears before they can fall. He has no idea how to handle this. Emotions aren't his strong suit, and he's much better at tearing people down than building them up, even when they actually matter to him, something Evan and Connor both have been proof of countless times. He doesn't know how to fix this.

"I have an idea!" Evan says suddenly. "I think... But we need Zoe."

Chapter Text

They disappear back though Connor's window as quietly as they had come in, and Connor exhales a derisive snort. Of course they're leaving, it's not hard to realize they can't help him. He wants to be stoned-- more over, he wants something stronger than pot. Maybe if he called his old dealer, he could get coke or meth or something. But he can't make his body want to move enough to grab his phone, so he doesn't bother. Evan's hoodie is still in his lap, the sleeve draped over the gouges on his right wrist. He moves to throw it towards the window, and finds himself clenching a hand in the fabric and holding onto it. God, he's a fucking mess. 

 

The curtain shifts again, and then Jared is climbing back through the window, followed by Evan, and this time, Zoe. Zoe looks around the room with puffy eyes stained red, maybe from crying, but why would she be? She takes in the overturned desk and the papers on the floor, and the blood under Connor's nails and whispers, "Oh," so soft that Connor barely hears it.

 

"Connor, give me your arm," Jared commands, bending to pick up a black Sharpie from the mess on the floor. Connor stares at him blankly, the words not processing in his mind. Exhaling a sigh, Jared sits down on Connor's right, dragging Connor's arm into his lap. Zoe sits on Connor's left, with a bright, sparkly purple gel pen in her hand, and does the same with his left arm. And then they both start writing; Connor finds himself bewildered, and doesn't even consider trying to pull his arms away, even though the sweep of ink over the open wounds on his wrist burns. It's just painful enough to let color seep back into his thoughts, muted though it may be. When Zoe finishes and caps her pen, Evan has taken her place before Connor can even look. What the fuck are they doing?

 

Evan and Jared move at the same time, and Jared mutters, "Well, go on and look." Blinking blearily, Connor turns his arms so he can see what they've written.

 

Zoe's is there at the top of his left wrist in bright, glittery purple, swirling letters and tiny handwriting. "Looking up to you from six to sixteen. I love you, Connor. Your baby sister, Zoe." The 'i's are dotted with little stars. 

 

Something pricks at Connor's eyes, and he blinks rapidly as he moves on to the sky blue ink and blocky handwriting of Evan. "You're not alone anymore. You have been found. We care about you.- Evan." And there's a tiny, cheesy smiley face next to it that makes Connor want to smile in return.

 

Jared's message takes up the entirety of Connor's right forearm, from wrist to elbow, and it looks like he had to squeeze it all together at the end. "You are not a fuck up, or a burden, or a mistake. You're a good brother, a great friend, and the best boyfriend I could ask for. You're Connor, and that's enough for the people who love you. I love you. - Jared."

 

Connor rereads all three messages multiple times, trying to process what, and more importantly than that, why. "What's this...?"

 

"When I broke my arm, I um. I didn't... fall out of the three. I... let go," Evan admits quietly. Connor's eyes snap up. He'd expected as much, but never expected Evan to admit to it. "The cast was a permanent reminder of that, of what I had done. Until people signed it, people that started to care, that might have cared if, um, if I'd... And I thought maybe, if you, you know, instead of the scars, you could see reminders of the people who would care if you weren't here anymore, it might help you. Like... Like it helped me to see the names on my cast."

 

"I can get Alana and Ellie here, too," Jared adds into the terribly long silence that follows, but that's not... He's not quiet because-- he can't think of a single damn thing to say.

 

It's so much. Color returns to Connor's thoughts so rapidly that it's stunning and dizzying, chasing away the numbness and the grayscale and all of the lost emptiness. Something breaks, something that's probably been breaking for a long while. He doesn't remember ever feeling so genuinely loved in his entire life, and there are suddenly tear tracks on his face, and he's sobbing. He couldn't stop it if he tried. He doesn't try.

 

He reaches out to grab Zoe, and then Jared, and drag them both into a hug. When Evan just stands there, looking awkward and uncomfortable, Connor drags  him into it, too. They stay like that for a while, until Connor can stop crying and remember how to breathe.

 

"I don't deserve any of you," he informs them softly, wiping his eyes with his hands, and he's answered with Zoe slapping his arm, and Jared's elbow in his ribcage. "No, I... Dammit, that's not what I meant," he says around a breathless laugh, confused and mystified. "You're all so much. It's just overwhelming. In a good way. Such a good way." He wipes the last lingering tears from his eyes and looks up to meet Evan's gaze. "You let go."

 

"I... yeah. I did."

 

"Never again," Connor says. "For both of us, never again, because we-- aren't alone anymore, I guess. And that goes for you, too," he adds to Jared, running his thumb over a barely visible scar on Jared's thigh. Jared's only answer is a dry sob, which-- Jared's crying now, or maybe he's crying still, ducking his head into Connor's neck. 

 

Zoe is watching them with wet, shimmering eyes. She tugs Evan back so they can wrap Connor in another hug. It's like sensory overload, emotionally overwhelming. It's so much, almost too much. Connor isn't used to such an outpouring of emotion. There are people for the first time in a long time, who would care if he wasn't around; that's never been the case. At least, not so obviously as it is right now. And Connor can't bring himself to end the embrace, because he doesn't want to take the risk that he might end up losing it.

 

Evan moves first, busying himself with righting Connor's desk. Connor kisses the top of his sister's head before standing to help him. Both wiping their eyes, Zoe and Jared start picking up the scattered papers to place them back on the desk when Connor and Evan have it placed back where it belongs.

 

"Did you draw these?" Jared asks, looking through the various sketches of old buildings, moss covered ruins, and monsters from Connor's nightmares. Whatever had been on his mind when he'd picked up a pencil.

 

"Connor's a good artist," Zoe answers before Connor can say anything, and Connor just shrugs.

 

"Emo artist," Jared notes. "Hot."

 

Some of the emotional tension eases, and Connor barks out a surprised laugh. "Shut up, Jared," he mutters.

 

And Jared grins widely, responding, "Love you, too." For a moment, the mirrored words on Connor's arm seem to burn. He gazes at Jared curiously; he can't say it, not yet, not so soon. Jared doesn't seem to expect him to, and Connor is grateful for that.

 

"I have to get home," Evan says suddenly, looking somewhat abashed that he can't stay. "But you can, you know, call me. If you need to."

 

"Yeah. You, too." Evan smiles softly, and Zoe hugs Connor once more before they both disappear through the window again. Connor watches them for a moment, and shakes his head. His life has changed so much, he doesn't know how to process it all.

 

"I can stay," Jared offers, and Connor finds himself wanting to give in to that temptation and say yes. But.

 

"No. My dad and I are going to have to talk sometime, and you being here is ammunition I don't want him to have. You should probably go home."

 

Jared nods without argument, reaching out to grab Connor's hoodie and pull him into a kiss. A kiss that lingers for a few moments, makes something in Connor melt a little, and is still, somehow, over too soon. "Love you," Jared mumbles, and Connor smiles.

 

"Call me when you're home." Jared beams, kissing him again quickly, and then he disappears out the window.