Monty has always been the kid who falls under the radar. He’s small, he’s quiet, he keeps his head down and gets his work done and nobody bothers him. Nobody notices him.
It’s lonely, sometimes, but he’s used to it. He gets by.
But that’s what makes it all the more surprising when as he’s leaving the schoolroom one day, he feels a hand grab his wrist and tug him down a hallway.
He yelps without thinking, and a moment later a hand is slapped over his mouth. He freezes, heart racing, head spinning, wondering what on earth is happening.
“Sorry,” he hears a rough voice mutter. “I didn’t – sorry. Just… stay quiet, yeah?”
Monty nods, too startled to do anything else. The hand over his mouth disappears, and he feels himself slowly turned around to face –
Monty doesn’t know whether to be more or less worried by the revelation. Jasper is a bit of a loner too, never really hangs out with the other students. Almost every word out of his mouth is sarcastic – not unkind, not necessarily, but not friendly either. He seems almost determined to be alone.
And yet here he is, pulling Monty aside, looking at him with an expression that’s half-fear and half-hope.
“Sorry,” Jasper says again. “I just – you can keep a secret, yeah?”
Monty frowns. “What kind of a secret?”
Jasper glances around nervously. “Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” he says. “I just – you’re always so quiet, don’t say much, don’t hang out much. I thought – she wanted a friend. Maybe you could use one too.”
“I – what?” Monty is completely baffled. “What are you talking about?”
Jasper kicks at the floor. “I can’t tell you,” he says. “Can you keep a secret?”
“How can I keep a secret you haven’t told me?” Monty says crossly.
Jasper laughs. “Guess you’ll just have to trust me, then,” he says. “Do you?”
He doesn’t. Jasper isn’t really the kind to inspire trust. He’s sharp, in more ways than one – mind and tongue – and Monty doesn’t know anyone who really knows him. Jasper is a mystery, a mystery covered in cactus spines.
“Why should I trust you?” Monty asks.
Jasper takes a step back, his face hardening, but then he sighs. “I suppose that’s fair,” he says. “Look, I know I can seem like a bit of a jerk-”
Monty doesn’t mean for the word to sound so accusatory, but Jasper just laughs. “Okay, I know I can be a bit of a jerk. But it’s not personal. It’s just… safer. I’m asking you to trust me. But I’m really asking if I can trust you.”
Monty doesn’t know how to respond to that.
“Can I?” Jasper asks. “I want to show you something. But I need to know it’ll stay between us.”
Monty still doesn’t know how to respond. But he’s also dying of curiosity, to know what has the usually prickly Jasper so tentative.
Jasper smiles. “Good,” he says. “Come with me.”
Jasper leads Monty through the mazelike structure of the Ark, twists and turns that blend together when you’re not used to them. Monty will probably have to ask for directions when he leaves, but for now, he doesn’t mind. He follows.
Jasper unlocks the door to the quarters he shares with his mother, ushering Monty through. He looks around as he steps into the room. It’s plain and grey, hardly any decorations – nothing unusual. Certainly nothing that would qualify as a secret, qualify as a reason for Jasper to be nervously checking the lock on the door.
“What am I here for?” he asks.
Jasper takes a deep, shuddering breath. “Nobody else knows,” he says. “Nobody else can ever know.”
“Know what?” Monty has never seen this kind of urgency from Jasper before, the intensity of his gaze and his voice. “Jasper, you’re scaring me.”
“Sorry,” Jasper says again, not meeting Monty’s eyes as he crosses the room. “Just – this is lives on the line. But it’s what she wanted. And it’s her birthday.”
“What – who – she?”
Jasper grabs the table that takes up most of the middle of the room, pushing it aside with an awful grinding noise. He kneels, his fingers running over the paneling of the floor.
And then he digs his fingers in and a panel lifts up.
“Jas?” It’s a girl’s voice, young and excited. Monty’s mouth opens, but no words emerge. “Did you bring me my present?”
“I did,” Jasper says, and there’s a warmth in his voice Monty has never heard before. “Happy birthday, O. Come on, let’s get you out of there.”
Monty is too startled to move, and can only watch in utter astonishment as Jasper reaches into the hole in the floor and lifts out a girl. She looks perhaps twelve or thirteen, but she’s small for it, almost rail-thin, but her eyes are sharp as she looks around the room and takes in Monty standing by the beds.
“Hi,” she says. “I’m Octavia. Who are you?”
“I – you – who-”
Monty still can’t speak.
“This is Monty,” Jasper says. “He’s in my class at school. Monty, this is Octavia. My sister.”
“You – your – sister?” The last word is almost a squeak. No one has sisters here, not anymore. Not for decades.
“Yes,” Jasper says. “That’s why it’s a secret. No one can know.” He meets Monty’s eyes, his gaze hard, but there’s a nervousness in it. “You won’t tell, right?”
This is against the rules. This is against literally every single rule. He has no idea how they’ve gotten away with it for so long, they shouldn’t have.
But it somehow feels like a miracle. And as Monty looks down at Octavia, her eyes clear and trusting, he knows that miracle is his now too.
Monty shakes his head. “I won’t tell,” he says. “You have my word.”
Octavia smiles. “Thank you,” she says. “But it seems only fair – you know our secret now. What’s yours?”
“My – what?”
“Everyone has a secret,” Octavia says. “Fair’s fair, don’t you think?”
Monty blinks. He has things he hasn’t told people, sure, things he hides, but nothing like this, nothing that even comes close. “I don’t have a secret,” he says.
“Come on,” Jasper cajoles. “What’s something you’re embarrassed of? Something you shouldn’t have done? Something you’re scared to tell your parents?”
Monty mulls it over. “Well,” he says. “I guess there is one thing – but it’s not the same.”
“A secret is a secret,” Octavia says. Her eyes are shining. “We’re friends now, right? Friends tell each other secrets all the time.”
“You’re the first person she’s met, outside our family,” Jasper murmurs, quiet enough that Monty’s not sure Octavia can even hear. His heart twists. She must be so lonely.
“We are friends,” Monty says. “I don’t have a lot of friends, but if I did, I might tell them… I don’t want to work in agro-biology.”
Jasper’s eyebrows rise. “Really?” he says. “You put so much time into it; I thought that was your goal.”
“It is,” Monty says. “It is my goal. It’s just not my dream.” He shrugs. “I’m good at it, it’s important, someone has to do it and do it well. I can be that.”
“But it’s not what you want,” Octavia whispers, her eyes shining. “What do you want, then?”
Monty looks between Jasper and Octavia, feeling their eyes on him – nothing else to distract their focus. He’s always hated being the centre of attention. Usually almost no one even looks at him.
“I want to work in the school,” he says. “In the daycare, especially. Kids are – I love them. They’re everything to me. Sometimes I slip away during lunch to help the minders, but it’s not enough.”
Octavia laughs. “I can be your kid,” she says. “I’m not daycare aged, but – you could teach me.”
Monty smiles. “I’d like that, I think,” he says.
They fall into a routine, of sorts. Monty comes home with Jasper more often than not, and they hang out with Octavia until their mom comes home.
It’s an awkward sort of friendship, but it works for them. Neither of them really get along with their classmates, and while they don’t talk much in school, just keeping silent company, in the evenings Octavia brings both of them out of their shells.
Monty is grateful. He never really minded sitting along, studying alone, being alone, but having someone else – it’s just better. Even in silence, it’s nice to be part of a we.
It seems to be good for Jasper, too – he smiles more, though maybe Monty is just paying more attention. It’s a nice smile.
But one day, perhaps a month after Jasper first pulled Monty aside, Jasper walks into the classroom with a deep scowl. When Monty asks him what’s wrong, he gets only a curt “I’m fine,” and Jasper spends the whole day on the verge of picking fights with anyone he talks to.
By lunchtime, Monty can’t stand it anymore. Instead of following the other students into line, he catches Jasper by the arm and tugs him out into the hall.
Jasper tries to pull away. “Stop it, Monty,” he says. “I’m hungry. Where are we going?”
“Away,” Monty says. “You need to take a breather, before you punch a teacher or something.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Jasper says, but he follows Monty anyways. Maybe he doesn’t believe his protests either.
Monty pulls him down a couple of corridors, looking for a quiet space. The halls are busy with people, but after a minute or two he spots a storage closet. It’s locked, but that hasn’t stopped Monty in years, ever since he programmed a key in his spare time – mostly to see if he could. A beep and green light, and the door swings open, both of them stumbling inside.
It’s dark in the closet, almost pitch black. A hint of light bleeds through the cracks around the door, just enough to make out the outlines of Jasper’s face. He’s still scowling, but he no longer looks angry. He looks tired.
“Is it Octavia?” Monty asks, his voice as soft as he can make it
Jasper is quiet for a long moment. “What makes you say that?” he asks at last.
Monty gives him a crooked smile. “She’s pretty much the only thing that ever gets you this worked up,” he says. “What is it? Is she okay?”
“She’s fine,” Jasper says, making a face. “It’s fine. It’s nothing.”
“It’s not nothing,” Monty says. “I don’t know what’s bothering you, but I’m not letting you out of here until you tell me.”
Jasper chews on his bottom lip, his expression uncertain. “It was just a rough day,” he says. “I’m sure I’ll be fine tomorrow.”
“And you’re never going to feel like this again?” Monty asks. “Whatever happened is never going to happen again, it’s just a one-time thing?”
He doesn’t think so, and Jasper’s silence says he’s right.
“I’m not going to judge you,” he says softly. “I just want you to be okay. Whatever it is, it’s clearly eating at you. And sometimes a secret is best when shared.”
Through the darkness, Monty can just make out the faintest hint of a smile. “You just want all my secrets, don’t you?”
If it helps lighten their weight on Jasper, Monty will gladly carry them.
“I’ll take whatever you want to give me,” Monty says. “I just thought you might be tired of carrying this alone.”
“I am,” Jasper says. “I just – I don’t know.” He sighs. “I love Octavia,” he says. “I do. You know that, right?”
“She’s my sister,” Jasper continues. “I’d do anything for her. I just… I wish I didn’t have to sometimes.”
“I get that,” Monty says softly. He gives Jasper’s hand a gentle squeeze. “It’s hard, sometimes, having all that responsibility, all that expectation. It weighs on you. You might be able to leave the room, wander freely, but you’re never really free, are you? A part of you is trapped too.”
Jasper looks up. “That’s exactly what it feels like,” he says. “I can leave the room, but I can’t leave behind the effects. She’s the reason I never really had friends. How can you get close to someone when you have to keep the most important things hidden? So I push people away.” He runs a hand through his hair. “Sometimes I wish – and like – I hate myself for it, but a part of me wishes she hadn’t been born. Because then I wouldn’t be stuck.”
“I think that’s fair,” Monty says. “It’s a lot to carry. Sometimes you need a break.”
Jasper nods. “She doesn’t get a break, though,” he says. “Maybe she never will.”
Monty doesn’t know what to say to that. So he doesn’t. He just steps forward, wrapping Jasper in a tight hug. Jasper tenses for a moment, then relaxes into it, wrapping his arms around Monty’s back. They don’t move, don’t say anything for a long moment, just soaking in the stillness of the moment.
“Thank you,” Jasper whispers at last. “I picked a good friend. For Octavia and me both.”
Monty smiles. “Thank you,” he says. “I’m glad you picked me.”
It’s been six months, and Monty doesn’t know how he managed alone before. Lunches are warm and friendly, evenings even more so. They share stories, jokes, memories, problems. Secrets. They share everything.
One evening, they’re sitting on the floor, Octavia’s head in his lap as she dozes. Monty runs his fingers through Octavia’s hair, feeling her breath soft on his knee.
“Jas,” he says softly.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.”
Jasper chuckles. “It’s safe here,” he says.
Monty knows that. This place, these people – it makes him feel safe. Octavia might feel trapped by it, Jasper might feel trapped too sometimes, and he doesn’t blame them, but for him – the smallness of it is comforting. In here, the rest of the world doesn’t matter. In here, the rest of the world barely exists. In here, things stay hidden.
He clears his throat. “Right,” he says. “So, like – you know Octavia means the world to me, right?”
Jasper chuckles again. “I had my suspicions,” he says. “Are you sure she’s asleep?”
“Pretty sure,” Monty says. “But it’s fine. She can know. She’s like a daughter to me, you know?”
“Yeah, I – wait, what?”
Monty pushes on. “I’ve always loved kids, you know that, I’ve told you that, and Octavia is the first kid I’ve really gotten to be around more than occasionally. But – I don’t think I’ll ever get to have a daughter of my own.”
His eyes are shut, but he can feel the tears pricking at the backs of his lids. He’s thought it before, but saying it aloud is different. Feeling the weight of it, knowing more with every word past his lips that it’s true – it’s different.
“Why’s that?” Jasper asks. “Because you don’t have that many friends? That’s bullshit, Monty. You’ll find someone, I know it.”
Monty can’t help laughing at Jasper’s indignation, a laugh that’s at least as much hopelessness as it is humour. Jasper is sweet, he really is, but he’s got it all wrong. There’s nothing anyone can say or do to change the truth.
“It’s not that,” Monty says.
Jasper doesn’t stop. “You’re smart, you’re kind, you’re loyal – any girl would be lucky to have you.”
“But that’s the thing,” Monty breaks in. “I don’t want any girl.”
Jasper pauses. “You want a specific girl?”
Monty shakes his head. “I don’t want a girl at all.”
“Oh,” Jasper says, and then, “Oh.”
“Yeah.” Monty shrugs, staring at the floor. “But you can see how that would kind of preclude the option of children.”
He bites his lip, trying not to let the ache swallow him whole. It’s not like anyone will have a problem with it – he’s read history books about how boys who fell in love with boys were shunned by society, but now on the Ark they’re almost seen as a boon to population control. It's good, really. It's better for everyone that he's this way.
Why does doing what's better for everyone always feel so much like a blow?
“I’m sorry,” Jasper says softly.
Monty shakes his head. “Don’t be,” he says. “There’s no point. It is what it is. I just have to deal with it.”
“Hey.” Jasper’s hand is firm on Monty’s shoulder. “Don’t say that. It still hurts you. I’m sorry for that.”
“It shouldn’t,” Monty says. “It’s better for all of us.”
“Stop it,” Jasper says. “I know you’re always all noble and shit about the good of the community, but just for one second – let yourself feel this. Let yourself mourn for what you’ve lost.”
“I didn’t lose anything,” Monty says. “It was never going to happen anyway.”
“You lost a future you thought you would have,” Jasper says. “That’s a loss too.” He leans in, wrapping his arm tightly around Monty. “I’m sorry,” he says again.
Monty can feel the tears slipping from under his eyelids, can feel his throat tightening and his chin trembling, and he tries to hold it together, he really does, but Jasper’s arm is solid around his shoulders and his voice is soft in his ear and he doesn’t want to be okay, because it’s not okay, it hurts.
“It hurts,” he tells Jasper, his voice cracking as he presses his face to Jasper’s shoulder. “I know it shouldn’t, but it hurts.”
Jasper rubs soft circles into Monty’s back. “Screw shouldn’t,” he says. “It does.”
And Monty breaks. Monty falls apart in his arms, those sure, steady arms that hold his broken pieces together, that tell him it’s okay, tell him everything will be all right again, tell him he’s not alone.
“What’s happening?” Octavia’s voice is groggy, her movement sluggish as she sits up. “Monty, are you okay?”
Monty can’t answer. Jasper reaches out, pulling Octavia into the hug. “He will be,” he says. “He just needs his family right now. And we’re family, right O?”
Octavia laughs. “Course we are,” she says.
Monty smiles around a sob. “Thank you,” he whispers. “I love you guys so much.”
“We love you too,” Octavia says, hugging him a little tighter.
“You’re family,” Jasper tells him again. “And family is for keeps. So if I have a kid someday, you can be like their second dad.”
Monty smile is still shaky, but it’s real. “Thank you,” he says again.
He’s grateful. He really is. But he can’t help wondering why the promise stings as much as it soothes.
Jasper is practically vibrating as they leave class, a spring in his step that makes him almost bounce his way down the halls.
He should ask. It’s what a good friend would do. But it’s not like Jasper isn’t going to tell him. And it’s not like he doesn’t already know.
Jasper had disappeared at lunch. Monty had eaten alone, for the first time in months. But the loneliness wasn’t what stung.
Jasper had rejoined the group as they made their way back to the classroom. There hadn’t been time for conversation, for questions, but there hadn’t been any need. There was a smear of red on Jasper’s mouth, a soft flowery smell in his clothes, and his hair was in even more disarray than usual. Monty could put it together.
But Jasper was going to tell him anyways. And he was going to have to pretend like it didn’t hurt. Like he wasn’t jealous, even if it wasn’t in any way Jasper would expect.
Jasper manages to hold it in for almost five minutes, three hundred long seconds that are half painful anticipation and blessed respite. But it couldn’t last.
“I had my first kiss today!” It’s half a whisper, half a shout, Jasper’s eyes glowing in that way that always makes Monty smile.
He smiles today, but it’s not quite as bright. “Wow,” he says. “That’s exciting.”
Jasper shakes him, still grinning. “Come on, Monty; this is a milestone! Aren’t you happy for me?”
He is. In a way. “Of course I’m happy for you,” Monty says. “I just… wasn’t expecting it.” A lie. “Congratulations. How was it?”
He doesn’t want to know. He knows Jasper wants to tell him. He’s never been able to refuse Jasper anything he wants.
Jasper runs his hand along the wall. “It was weird,” he says. “But like, nice weird. I dunno, Amy’s hot, don’t you think?”
“How should I know?”
Jasper rolls his eyes. “Just because you’re not into girls doesn’t mean you can’t tell if they’re hot,” he says.
Monty actually thinks Amy nose is a bit too long for her face, and her hair always looks a little greasy, but he’s not going to say that. Obviously.
“She’s pretty enough,” he says instead. “I’m guessing you think she’s more than pretty.”
Jasper laughs. “She’s very pretty,” he says. “Her eyes are so blue, and her laugh is… it’s almost musical.”
Jasper has always been a romantic.
“Monty?” Jasper is frowning, and Monty realizes he’s been quiet for too long.
“Sorry,” he says. “I was just… thinking.”
“Is something the matter?”
“No,” Monty says quickly. “No, nothing.”
“Are you jealous?” Jasper asks. “No girl will replace you, you know that.”
“I know that,” Monty says. And he does. Mostly.
“Then what is it?” Jasper asks. “Is it because you haven’t had your first kiss yet?”
“It’s nothing,” Monty says again. “Don’t worry about it, really.”
“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” Jasper says. His face suddenly lights up. “In fact – I’ll help you. Who do you want your first kiss to be?”
“Stop it,” Monty says. Jasper’s got that look in his eyes that says he’s not going to let go of this idea, but he has to. “Please, it’s fine.”
“It’s clearly not,” Jasper says. “Come on, who do you have your eye on? There’s gotta be someone you’re into. Whoever it is, I’ll help you make it happen.”
“Don’t say that.”
“But I mean it,” Jasper says. “Nathan, maybe? He’s pretty cute. Oh, or Connor – you’re probably into smart guys, so they can keep up with you.”
He laughs, and Monty’s heart aches. “No,” he says. “They’re nice, but – no, I don’t want them to be my first kiss.”
Jasper sighs in exasperation. “Then who?” he asks. “Come on, Monty.”
“I’m – I’m not interested in anyone right now,” Monty lies. Jasper gives him a look that says he doesn’t believe a word. “Okay,” he admits. “But it doesn’t matter. They’re not interested.”
“How do you know?” Jasper asks. “Who wouldn’t be into you; you’re a catch. Have you even asked?”
“I… have pretty good evidence,” Monty says.
“Just leave it, Jas.”
“No,” Jasper says. “Not until you tell me. Come on, Monty. It’ll be fun.”
It won’t be.
Jasper keeps asking, cajoling, guessing, wheedling, all the way back to his quarters. Monty says nothing, tasting bile on his tongue.
At last, they reach the door that has become so familiar, but instead of unlocking it, Jasper leans against it. Monty looks at him in confusion.
“What are you doing?”
“Waiting for you,” Jasper says. “If you won’t tell me, you definitely won’t tell me and O, so I’ll wait here until you’re ready.”
Monty takes a step back. “That’s not how this works,” he says. “Jas, please don’t make me.”
“She’s waiting,” Jasper says. “Don’t take all day.” His voice softens for a moment. “Please, Monty. I swear I’ll leave you alone. I’m just curious.”
Monty can’t take it. Not when Jasper is asking him like that, his eyes and his voice gentle and tender and all for him. He can’t. He glances up and down the empty hallway, then looks back to the ground.
“You,” he says. “It’s you, okay? I have a big dumb stupid crush on you. Are you glad you kept pushing now?”
Jasper is quiet for a moment. Monty waits, his heart in his throat, unsure how Jasper will react. He’s not sure he wants to know.
At last, Jasper laughs softly. “Well,” he says. “That does make it easier to help make it happen.”
Monty looks up. “You don’t have to,” he says. “I mean it, Jas, I appreciate it, but I know-”
“Oh stop whining and be quiet,” Jasper says. “It’s fine, Monty. It’s just kissing.”
“I mean it.” He unlocks the door, motioning Monty through. Monty obeys, half-dazed, and Jasper follows him through. As soon as the door is shut, Jasper’s hands are on Monty’s shoulders and he almost yelps as Jasper pushes him against the wall.
“Shhh,” Jasper says. “It’s okay. Okay?”
Monty can’t move. He can’t breathe. He swallows hard.
Jasper takes another step closer, his eyes locked on Monty’s.
“I’m going to kiss you now, okay?”
All Monty can do is nod. He watches Jasper lean closer, feels his breath ghost over his mouth. His eyes fall shut of their own accord and he tilts his head up, waiting, wanting –
And then Jasper’s lips are on his, and Monty can barely breathe. Jasper tastes like peppermint and citrus, smells like coffee and soap, and Monty is in love. He raises a hand to cup Jasper’s cheek, but stops himself, unsure where the limits are. But he can’t not touch, not when Jasper is everything, is the world, is kissing him right now and his skin is soft and warm and Monty could do this forever.
But then Jasper pulls away.
And it feels like he takes Monty’s entire heart with him.
He tries not to gasp at the feeling, tries not to follow him away. His success is mixed.
“Well,” Jasper says, running his tongue over his lips. Monty’s eyes are glued to every movement of the crimson triangle. “You certainly are a good kisser. You’re sure that was your first?”
“I – what – I mean – yes? What? Thank you?”
Jasper laughs. “Speechless? I guess that means I’m not too shabby either.” He smiles. “And now we both had our same kiss the first day. It feels fitting, doesn’t it?”
“Um.” Monty still hasn’t really regained the power of speech, beyond the echoing holy shit that is bouncing its way around his brain. “Sure.”
Jasper smiles. “Best friends for life,” he says. “You and me, Monty. And Octavia.”
And then he’s gone, pulling aside the table and lifting the floor panel. Octavia pops out, grumbling about how long it took them to get home, and Jasper is apologizing with a laugh. Monty tries to smile too, as she looks in his direction, but he can’t quite make it reach his eyes.