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Jun. 18th, 2011 02:07 pm
backdrifter: I won NaNoWriMo 2009! (nanowrimo 2009)
[personal profile] backdrifter
I didn't realize I had so much more written of my 2009 nano since my last post, damn. It's been just sitting on my drive for months, unposted. This post is a little over 9k words, but I didn't feel like breaking it up into smaller posts, so voila! I suppose.

Some students dreamed of walking into a cafeteria with plush booth seating, and enormous windows streaming in daylight. One would walk into this magnificent room, and one would be able to select from the longest buffet ever made, with crisp french fries, hot fried chicken, a salad bar, and an impossible choice at the end between pies and layer cakes. One would eat these foods with heavy silverware on heavier porcelain plates, and return them to smiling flunkies in pristine white aprons.

But right now, Ryan didn't care about lunch, whether it was the stuff of dreams or typical Aramark mush. Respa was antsy beside him, twiddling his fingers as he rocked in place. One leg jiggled madly, and he kept looking over one shoulder. Ryan dropped the rectangular slice of pizza back onto the tray with a sigh, and turned to Respa. "What's your problem?"

"Stressed," Respa muttered, staring off into space now. "Just stressed."

"You were the one who said he wouldn't report us to security," Ryan reminded him, leaning forward on his elbows that rested on the table top.

"It's not that." Respa steepled his fingers together now, hiding the lower half of his face in the space they created and muttering under his breath. He looked over his shoulder again, then returned his face to his hands. His leg jiggled even faster, practically vibrating; Ryan put a hand to Respa's knee. Stop, Ryan mouthed, removing his hand only when Respa stilled his leg.

"Alright, hold on. Hold on, hold on," Respa said, and he got up quickly, pushing off the table with his palms. "Watch me, okay? I'm gonna give you a signal. Watch me." When Ryan nodded his skeptical assent, Respa strode off, somehow managing to look both ridiculous and dangerous at the same time with his tiny clothes and predatory posture. Respa approached a table full of girls, too far for Ryan to hear anything, but certainly close enough to see. Respa ran his fingers through his thick black hair, adjusted the waistband of his pants as best he could, and then he put on a big, winning smile and leaned over the shoulder of one of the girls.

The girl in question—the shape of a gourd or a pear, with dainty shoulders and enormous hips, and mousy brown hair put up in childish pigtails—jumped at the touch, but when she looked up at the intruder, her body language changed entirely. Respa leaned with one arm on the table, his other hand on her shoulder, and the girl's eyes flicked up and down his lean body, over the clothes that left absolutely nothing to the imagination. The corners of her mouth turned up a little bit, and she pouted her lips to hide the fact. Respa said one thing, the other girls at the table giggling as though they might never stop, and the girl he was courting said another, glancing down bashfully as she did.

To the sounds of her friends whooping and still giggling, Respa took the girl's hand as she stood from her seat, abandoning her lunch tray. The discrepancy between her two halves was even more apparent now, her tiny hands fluttering as she followed Respa, her gait calling attention to her round calves. It was then that Respa turned to look at Ryan, beckoning him with a flapping hand.

No! Ryan mouthed with a scowl, plunging his spork vengefully into a tater tot.

Come on! Respa mouthed back, flapping his hand again.

Ryan rolled his eyes, collected both their bags (and bid his lunch farewell, knowing it would either be stolen or thrown out the moment he left the cafeteria), and followed Respa and the girl to the back doors of the cafeteria that led to an empty secondary lobby.

"Cheryl," Respa said sweetly when Ryan appeared, "this is my best friend, Ryan. Ryan, this is Cheryl." He gestured to Cheryl with one hand, the other still holding Cheryl's. Cheryl blushed, grinning even as she did. She waved shyly.

"Uh, hi, Cheryl," Ryan greeted, putting the two bookbags down. "What're we doing out here?"

"Simple," Respa said, and he whipped his hand away from Cheryl's, which left her looking stunned. "You and I, good sir, need to de-stress."

"I don't have any stress, I don't need to 'de-stress,'" Ryan said, shaking his head. Whatever Respa had planned, he knew he wouldn't like it. "Come on, I didn't even get to finish my lunch."

"Aha!" Respa said, clapping his hands together and then pointing at Ryan, looking like an excited salesman. "See that, that right there, that's a stress point, right? Stress factor, whatever. It's causing you stress."

"I didn't get to finish my lunch because you dragged me out here!"

"All it takes," Respa continued, ignoring Ryan's protests, "is a little yelling. A little pushing."

"Can I go back inside now?" Cheryl asked, frowning as she scratched her forearm. "I don't know what's going on."

"You fucking shut up!" Respa shouted, turning on her. "You dumb fat bitch, you stay exactly the fuck where you are!" Respa's sudden change in demeanor startled tears out of Cheryl, but just as asked, she both shut up and stayed in place. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, and then clasped her hands and looked down. Ryan didn't understand.

"And now," Respa said, smiling once again and swinging his arms, "I feel so much better. A little yelling. A little," and he gave Cheryl's shoulder a quick push that did little to change her position, "pushing. Now you try."

"I don't have to take this," Cheryl said, finding her courage again. "I'm going to the dean and—"

"No such fucking thing!" Respa roared, long arms flying up like a panther on the attack, and he grabbed ahold of Cheryl's petite shoulders to pin her to the wall. "Don't you fuckin' dare!" Cheryl shrieked and pushed at Respa; he responded by pushing her to the wall a second time.

"I don't wanna do this," Ryan said, holding one hand up as he bent to reach for his bookbag. "Come on, Respa, leave her alone."

"Just one time. That's all I'm asking you to try, just once, and you'll—"

"No!" Ryan snapped, and he swung his backpack up, leaving Respa's on the floor. "This is ridiculous, I'm not going to be a part of this. Goodbye, see you after school."

Ryan spent the rest of the lunch period bored out of his mind in the boys' bathroom, unsure of where else he might have gone without arousing the security guards' suspicion. But even watching other students come in and out of the bathroom and look at him funny was better than trying to deal with Respa's weird bully episodes.


"So he's picking on girls now," Romy said disdainfully. "The lowest of the low. Absolute garbage. Human trash. Disgusting, slimeball—"

"You make my head hurt," Ryan groaned. "Stop following me around."

"We're friends, aren't we?" Romy said, pressing a hand to his collarbone with mock hurt feelings. "I only want what's best for you, Ryan Kaminari."

"Kamizaki," Ryan muttered, knowing it was no use. Kaminari wasn't even a name, unless you were a character in a Japanese fantasy novel.

"Poor Cheryl Johannssen," Romy clucked. "Although I must say, I can't believe she was dumb enough to fall for that trick." He snorted. "As if Mister Wilkins wasn't a renowned bully in this school. Maybe it was those stupid kids' shirts he likes to wear, he's always got his stomach hanging out. I don't know why somebody doesn't say something to him about dress code—"

"Don't you have any friends in this school?" Ryan wanted to know, exasperated with having Romy attaching himself to him every day.

"I have you," Romy purred, smirking.

"No, I mean, friends. People who reciprocate your friendship, people you have things in common with, people who actually look for your company." He tried to give Romy a meaningful look. "People who care."

"Please, at this school?" Romy said, snorting again as he gestured vaguely to indicate the student population. "There's almost nobody worth talking to in this shithole of a school. Nobody to talk to, and definitely nobody to date." He rolled his eyes, that favorite gesture of his. "I hate this place. Full of fucking morons and good-for-nothings. Like Respa Wilkins."

"You know, he's not as bad as you think," Ryan said, and regretted it immediately when fire burst into life in Romy's eyes.

"Not as bad as I think?" Romy repeated, and he was scowling so hard Ryan almost worried his mouth was in danger of falling off his face. "Respa Wilkins doesn't just say mean things, he acts on them. He's a physical abuser. He's too dumb to come up with any real quips, so he just hashes it out with his fists, like any other bully too ashamed or blind to come to terms with their own rampant stupidity."

"It's not like that!" Ryan protested, but he wasn't even sure where he was going with this anymore. Why defend Respa? He was a bully, he had demonstrated that time and time again, even just yesterday. Ryan couldn't rationalize the things he did, either, though sometimes he thought—

"Oh no? How is it, then, Ryan? Tell me, since you obviously are so cozy with him." There was something sleazy in the way the last few words rolled off Romy's tongue. "Why does poor, misunderstood Thomas Wilkins beat Alex Steinbrenner to a very deserved pulp?"

"I—I don't know," Ryan admitted. "But I don't think you're giving him a real chance—"

"A chance!" Romy exploded. "He doesn't deserve a chance! What the fuck do you care about giving him a chance, anyway, he tried to get you, too!"

A security guard gave them the stink eye, the late bell not far off, and Ryan began to move toward class, trying to avoid Romy's question.

"Alright, Ryan," Romy said, holding him back with a hand on his shoulder. "I've got a challenge for you. A dare, if you will."

"What's that?" Ryan asked suspiciously.

"Respa's been to your place, right?" Romy said, tapping his chin thoughtfully. "Get him to invite you over to his. Find out more about the mysterious Thomas R. Wilkins."

"He'll invite me over when he's ready," Ryan said flatly. "The late bell's about to ring."

"You'll be proving his humanity, maybe," Romy said. "And just think, I wouldn't be on your back every day, nagging you about making friends with a mutant." He made an ah, well face. "But whatever, maybe you like our morning conversations, and you've just been acting coy with me."

"Fine," Ryan muttered, glaring at Romy, and he turned to run off to class, leaving Romy to laugh to himself and shake his head.

After last period on Thursday, he found Respa sandwiched between Ella and Cassandra on the steps of the school's enormous courtyard. Cassandra was, as usual, trying to take up as little space as her girth allowed, while Ella sprawled out to try to make as much physical contact with Respa as she could without climbing on his lap. Respa looked uncomfortable, but Ryan couldn't tell if it was because of Ella's chin on his shoulder, or the way sitting on the stairs forced him to sit with his knees high, the denim of his pants crushing his genitals. When he saw Ryan, Respa jumped up as if electrified, pulling at his clothes as Ryan came to stand next to him.

"You never hang out with us anymore," Ella said darkly, shifting over to sit next to Cassandra, who glowered at Ryan from under her hair. "What's this little bitch got that we don't?"

"Fresh breath," Respa sneered. Ella glared at him for that one, but she went tight-lipped all the same. "Come on, Ryan, let's get the fuck outta here." Respa shrugged his miniature backpack on, the straps holding his shoulders back like a soldier's.

"Faggot! Queer! Fairy!" Ella shouted at their retreating backs, but Respa looked utterly unaffected.

"She has such a hilarious crush on me," Respa said, smirking. "She just wants my junk, that's why she talks like that."

"Oh," Ryan said, unsure of what else there was to say to that.

"So what do you wanna do?" Respa asked, circling his shoulders a couple times before he gave up and left the bag slung on one shoulder. "Since I know you've got no after-school shit today."

"Well, actually," Ryan began, and Respa pulled a face.

"What, are you fucking serious? You got signed up for one more thing?"

"No! No, let me finish," Ryan said, holding up a hand. "Um, my mom gave me some money, to go buy shirts. You wanna come with me?" He stopped, looking up at Respa expectantly, and Respa stopped too.

"Shirts?" Respa asked, and Ryan couldn't read his face.

"Yeah. She has some weird thing about when they fade, she hates the way they look, and I keep buying black shirts." Ryan hooked his thumbs around his bookbag's straps nervously, bowing his head briefly. "So what do you think?"

"Yeah, we can go do that, I guess," Respa said, looking somewhere over Ryan's head (not an impressive feat). "Where you gonna go?"

"I always go to H&M, they're really cheap."

"Whatever then, let's go." The scintillating conversation of teenagers.

They set off downtown, Ryan walking slightly behind Respa with his long strides. His mother had actually given him the hundred dollars almost a week ago, but shopping for him involved throwing every printed black shirt he saw in a medium in the store over one arm and marching up to the register. His mother didn't like the way the mediums fit him, complaining that they looked exactly one size too big, but both Ryan and his father agreed that the size small T-shirts barely fit him in the shoulders. "What he lacks in height he makes up for here," his father would joke, grabbing him by both shoulders and giving him a jovial shake, and Ryan would try to brush off the implication that he would never grow any taller.

The H&M at 51st and 5th was enormous, the center of the store open all the way to the ceiling of the third floor. Respa gripped the straps of his backpack a little harder, looking around uncomfortably at the mannequins. The men's section was on the second floor, and at the top of the escalator Ryan made a bee-line for the nearest black T-shirt. He liked being predictable. Most people had some level of predictability.

Respa, on the other hand, meandered over to some electric blue thing with a faux-distressed white print on it, fingering the cotton thoughtfully. Ryan watched him over the top of a rack; Respa's eyes flicked up to the size of the fairly small-looking shirt he was currently touched, and he dropped it with a look akin to disgust. He pawed through a couple more of them, and then pulled a much larger size off the rack, holding it against his body with an enigmatic expression.

"Are you gonna get that?" Ryan asked as he came out from behind the other rack, already holding two black shirts. He wasn't even sure what was printed on them. Respa dropped the shirt as if it had burned him.

"What, that rag? Fuck no," he sneered, bracing his hands on the back of his hips. He heard seams snapping, and suddenly there was a new hole in the armhole of Respa's tiny shirt. Respa turned a good, tomatoey red, immediately dropping his arms. "I'm fine," he muttered.

"I don't really care about buying shirts," Ryan said, shrugging. "It's not my money, either. If you want a shirt, just..."

"I don't need your shirts," Respa said darkly, pulling a hand over his face. "I'm fine, I'm not some asshole charity case."

"I think you should get that shirt, then," Ryan said, gesturing at it on the floor.

"I can't afford that shit, I don't have a job," Respa said, glaring. "Okay, Richie Rich?"

"I said I could get it for you!" Ryan insisted, picking the shirt up now. "Come on, don't be dumb."

"Now you're calling me dumb!" Respa said, bristling.

"I'm just getting you this shirt!" Ryan shouted, shaking it clenched in one fist. Respa's reactions did nothing but confuse him, every one worse than the last.

"I don't even want it!" Respa shouted back, pushing the fisted shirt away.

"Fine," Ryan agreed under his breath, but when Respa turned away, he tucked the blue shirt under the two black ones already folded over his arm.

He didn't know why he bothered trying on the shirts. They were T-shirts, not tailored garments that only had half a chance of fitting him correctly. He felt dumb after trying on the second one; they all fit exactly the same. But Respa was waiting outside the fitting room, and Ryan imagined he expected to wait exactly the amount of time it took someone to try on eight or nine shirts. To come out early was to risk deviating from the norm, so Ryan counted off 30 second intervals for each shirt, watching himself in the mirror.

There was no hint of childhood left in Ryan's body, despite his age. That was something else his dad joked about. Like his body had sensed it would have to make up a lack of growth somehow, and so Ryan's body was all sharp angles and flat surfaces, with a triangle back and a hard waist. There was no hair on his chest, but plenty in other places, and he didn't like that. He didn't like most of what his body had done to him, the treacherous thing. There was too much about it now that brought bad thoughts bubbling to the surface of his mind.

He finished the last count, and then he pulled his own T-shirt back on, shivering at the sensation of the cooled sweat in the pits of it hitting his skin again. Goddamn this body. He sandwiched the blue shirt between all his black shirts and came back out to Respa.

"Took you long enough, they're just shirts," Respa said, pulling his body upright, and Ryan kept himself from biting his lip. So much for not deviating. "Come on, you done?"

"Yeah, yeah."

Outside, Ryan fished a hand into the white plastic bag, and pulled out the blue shirt, holding it out in one fist. He didn't say anything, waiting nervously for the shouting, for a punch to the jaw, and at first Respa didn't say anything, either. Then to Ryan's surprise, Respa took the shirt from him in gentle hands, his black eyes brightened with something that might've been tears. Men didn't cry, though, so Respa turned away for a moment, shirt held to his chest.

"Thanks, man," Respa finally said when he'd recomposed himself. "Thanks a lot."

"It's a present," Ryan mumbled. "Don't even—"

"Thanks."

Walking back uptown to the myriad of stations on 57th Street, Ryan opened his mouth several times without saying anything, and because Respa was head and shoulders above him, it went unnoticed. Romy's nagging voice rattled in his head, reminding him that the real thing would be there in the morning to torture him. Ask him! mind-Romy screeched.

"Can I come over to your place sometime?" Ryan blurted out, and Respa almost stopped in his tracks, like a hiccup in his gait.

"Come over?" Respa parroted, looking—shocked? afraid?

"Yeah, since you've been over to mine," Ryan said, shrugging.

"Um, my mom's sick right now," Respa said quickly, turning to look straight ahead. "Not a good idea."

"What about when she's feeling better?"

"Dunno when that'd be. Better forget it. Forget it," Respa said, and he started to walk faster.

Ryan dropped it, feeling nauseous when he imagined Romy's reaction tomorrow.


It surprised Ryan how easily lying came when Romy crossed his path the next morning, arms akimbo. Romy looked incredibly skeptical when Ryan told him Respa had okayed his request to come up to the Bronx.

"No, I don't think so," Romy said, shaking his head with closed eyes. "Nope. That's not how he works."

"He said yes," Ryan said, shrugging. When it was hard to emote, a poker face was simple. "That's all I can really tell you."

"I still don't believe it," Romy said, leaning in closer. "When are you going over?"

"We didn't really decide—"

"Which is code for 'I'm lying to Romy,' isn't it? Why are you covering for him, Ryan?" Romy scowled.

"Sometime next week! He said we'd work it out today," Ryan snapped, pushing at the air in front of Romy's shoulders. "Leave me alone already!"

"I've only got your best interests at heart," Romy sighed, straightening. "Be careful."

"It'll be fine," Ryan muttered, hitching his backpack up higher on his shoulders and striding off in the opposite direction. He wasn't sure if he was telling himself or Romy.

Ryan brightened when he arrived in homeroom, though, when he spotted Respa lounging in the usual back corner. The blue shirt still had creases at the side seams from hanging in the store, but it was long enough to cover the previously-exposed skin of Respa's stomach, and Respa seemed to be cheerful about the whole thing. Ryan chose not to mention it when he sat down. Instead, he found himself twiddling his fingers, locking and unlocking his ankles while he tried to figure out how to bring up the topic of yesterday's abrupt conversation without Respa panicking again.

Respa did it for him. "Listen," he began, frowning at the beaten toes of his sneakers, "yesterday."

Ryan didn't say anything.

"My mom's sick. She is." Still staring at his sneakers, red canvas under the dirt, holes wherever the rubber had split after so many steps.

I believe you, Ryan didn't say, because it seemed like saying just the opposite.

"But I guess... I guess if you're not over for too long. She stays upstairs, we stay downstairs, you don't... I don't know, yell." Respa's eyes finally flicked over to Ryan, giving him permission to speak, but Ryan only nodded.

"I don't have a Gamecube like you. My DVD player is shit, too, so." Ryan put him out of his misery, touched his shoulder briefly across the miniature aisle between their desks, told him he could come over on Monday afternoon. No after-school shit then.

Romy was like a goddamn tiger, waiting outside of the class room. Ryan wondered if he actually went to home room, or to any of his classes; if Romy had any purpose in the building besides infuriating athletes. He wished, more than anything, that his distaste would paint itself all over his face, make it clear how displeased he was that Romy was on the edge of stalking him, but the medication made the emotion subside, and so when he inevitably faced him, he only looked bored.

"I hate being lied to, you know," Romy said, taking an uncharacteristically bullying stance as he planted one hand on the wall next to Ryan's eyes, leaning his weight on the arm. "Almost as much as I worry about you. So did you 'work it out' with him?" The corners of Romy's lips curled, and it made Ryan want to close his eyes at the implications of such a simple action.

"Monday," Ryan said, voice even and flat. Like a lot of things. "I'm going over Monday." He pushed at the arm in front of his face. "Look, if he stabs me dead, don't worry. I won't blame you, and neither will my family. They don't even know you exist." When Romy didn't move, Ryan ducked under his arm, and of course Romy followed.

"You cut me to the quick!" Romy laughed. "My sister hears about you all the time. Don't tell me you're shy with your own family members, Ryan."

Ryan was so happy his first class of the day was so close to his home room.

He wondered, sometimes—especially as he found himself darting from class to class, looking for ways to hide in crowds and shortcuts to avoid his unavoidable friend—how a normal person would react to a person like Romy Laredo, forcing his friendship upon anyone he chose, inserting himself into their affairs as though they mattered to him on a personal level. A normal person would probably tell him to go away, maybe say something vulgar like Get fucked, but Ryan couldn't bring himself to.

He felt bad for simply saluting Respa across the yard before fleeing to karate practice, but he could see Romy hovering just beyond the steps—when had he left the building?—looking chipper and friendly, and he couldn't stand another ounce of Romy's friendliness. He let his knees go as he hit the steps, letting him race down them and past Romy leaning against a sapling.

"So much for your friend, I guess," Romy said, falling into step with Ryan, and somewhere under the Seroquel Ryan wanted to grab Romy by the jaw and one-handedly smash his face into the nearest wall. He barely felt it, instead feeling minor annoyance that most boys his age had much longer legs. "He's got better things to—"

"I have other things to do," Ryan said. "Extracurriculars. He knows."

"You know why I check up on you."

"He's not what you think he is," Ryan said, sighing as he waited for the blast of words.

"And just what," Romy asked, "do you think he is?" He looked genuinely curious, a feline arch to his eyebrows.

"He's my friend," he replied, and Romy scowled. "More so than you, because all you do is nag me and follow me, harass me in general." The honesty felt good.

"You think that now," Romy said, danger twining around his words like a lazy reptile. "You think I'm just bothering you. That I just don't like him. 'Give him a chance,' you keep saying, but you don't know anything about him. For example," and Romy was suddenly sharp, questioning, "where was he before he came to this school?"

"I don't know, middle school?" Ryan guessed, growing annoyed.

"Wrong. Horizon Juvenile Center. He was lucky they didn't send him to Brandeis instead, not that MLK's much better." Romy looked so self-assured, the preacher converting another to the right faith. "For punching a kid so hard and so much he broke his cheekbone. He almost blinded the poor bastard."

"You're exaggerating," Ryan said, but he felt his own conviction faltering.

"I didn't get to hear why he punched the kid, but I doubt he was asking for it. Thomas Wilkins is an animal." Romy smiled almost benevolently. "Trust me, Ryan. No good will ever come of you trying to be friends with that kid."

Ryan stared at Romy for a moment, feeling almost blinded by his sheer arrogance. What the fuck did Roman Laredo know about life that he didn't? He wasn't much older than Ryan, eighteen at best, and so far his life experiences mostly involved feeling up very heterosexual, very violent high school athletes who responded true to their own natures. He couldn't know if Romy was a liar, if maybe Romy's vague, alleged go-round with Respa was a trial run of his own Tease the Jocks game.

"I don't," Ryan finally said, looking straight ahead, "give a shit. I don't care. I am going to his house in the Bronx on Monday, and I will tell you a few things, and then you're going to get out of my business. If I get hit by a car on Tuesday and die at the scene, you're going to shrug and go do something else." He looked up at the other boy. "Do you understand me?"

"We'll see," Romy said, sour with failure.

"Promise me."

"I'll promise you on Monday. Maybe."

Ryan gave up, and surprised both Romy and himself when he swerved to be the last to board the M104 that was already rising from the curb to leave.

It was silly to take the bus to karate, given that it started late enough he could walk there along Amsterdam and reach it with five minutes to spare. He got to surprise one more person by appearing in full gi a good twenty five minutes earlier than his group's session began. In fact, Himura-sensei was still there with a class of young kids, little yellow belts whose school was closer by or whose parents could afford to pick them up and take them here right after school. Ryan sat in the corner, legs crossed one over the other, as if he might meditate.

As if he ever would.

He knew Himura-sensei had already seen him in his peripheral vision; in a lot of ways, he missed Himura-sensei, thought he was a better master of martial arts, even if Okazawa-sensei taught him things he wasn't sure Himura-sensei even knew existed. Street fighting moves designed to give someone of his stature some leverage, little pinches here and there designed to take an opponent down completely if Ryan could execute the jump right.

There were so few Asian children in the class; not much had changed. The class was still mostly towheaded little boys with blue and green eyes, the occasional girl with something to prove (or a parent with the same problem). He saw one black head of hair, but when the class moved forward in a punch, it was a little white girl who just happened to have dark hair. The irony of an Asian martial arts class with no Asian students didn't escape him, even now.

Himura-sensei knew what had happened to him. He had talked to Ryan less and less after hearing the news, speaking to him just enough to get him through the class, and then he had stopped speaking to him altogether. He looked uncomfortable now, seeing his former pupil grown up, watching him.

At the end of the children's class, Himura-sensei walked over, and Ryan drew himself up, bowing a salute to his former teacher. Himura-sensei gave him the same treatment, though it seemed mechanical.

"I thought you had Okazawa's class," Himura-sensei said, mouth grim. "Why are you here so early?"

"I don't know," Ryan said with a shrug. "I felt like taking the bus today, got here too fast."

"Please," Himura-sensei said quietly, "don't do this again. I try to leave early for this reason."

His teacher wouldn't look at him, and that was maybe the worst part of it. Ryan wanted to say lots of things, angry things, but instead he found himself tightlipped and empty-headed. "I'm sorry," was all he could make himself say, and then Himura-sensei was leaving for the staff room to get his things.

He left his sparring partner with bruises later that afternoon.


The train ride uptown was long, and tense. Respa stretched his long legs across the aisle, sitting on the edge of the powder blue bench, and it could have been bravado if Ryan didn't already know his jeans simply didn't fit. That, and the way Respa chewed at his dried-out lips, making the skin crack and flake, or the way he kneaded the sides of his bookbag between bony, square fingers. Sometimes he combed those fingers through his hair, and it seemed stringier with every pull. The closer they got to Castle Hill, the less Respa talked; when they got off the 6 train, conversation was nonexistent, and Respa seemed to slouch down the stairs to street level. He pulled his hood up and hunched as they walked, Ryan having to trot every so often to keep up with Respa's spider legs.

The house looked like every other one on the block; so far, no reason for this shifty behavior. Respa unlocked the door, yanked off his shoes as if they were covered in dog shit, and told Ryan he should take his shoes off too. Ryan obeyed, though with much less gusto, and then Respa had changed his mind, telling him to actually take his shoes with him into the house without putting them back on.

The living room setup was inherently middle class, with a fairly nice-looking couch pushed against the wall, a large TV in a cabinet pushed against the other. An unfinished drink sat on the coffee table; Respa made it his first priority to whisk it away to the kitchen, and Ryan wasn't sure what that meant. He sat on the couch and sank in, and Respa reappeared, hood finally down. The giant hoodie made his legs look like toothpicks sticking out.

"This is it," he gestured, already looking disappointed. "Basic cable, not a lot of DVDs, player fucks up, no gaming systems. Big couch, though." He flopped down next to Ryan, stretching his legs out again. "God, I hate being in these all day."

"Don't your parents notice you're wearing the same clothes from when you were ten?" Ryan asked. The couch felt like a venus flytrap, slowly sucking him into the corner of itself.

"Not really," Respa said, and he seemed hesitant about his answer. "Hey, Ryan."

"Yeah, what?" It seemed strange to call to him like that from only the other side of the couch.

"You're my friend, right?"

"Yeah?" With anybody else, Ryan might have asked why it was being called into question in the first place, but a small, rebellious part of him was heeding Romy's advice, and so he said nothing else.

"If you see something today, anything..." Respa bit his already ragged lip, looking at the TV though it wasn't even on. "Don't tell anybody. Not your brothers, definitely not your parents, and especially not..." He flapped his wrist dismissively. "Your buddy Romy."

"He's not my friend," Ryan snorted. "He follows me around trying to 'inform' me and 'educate' me. Believe me, he's not my friend."

"You promise not to tell, though?"

"What would I even see? Your mom's sick, your dad's not even here."

"Promise me!"

The force in Respa's voice made him pause, and then he was nodding, acceding. "I promise."

Respa found the remote buried between the cushions, and Cartoon Network was an easy choice. They didn't watch in silence, pointing things out, making fun of the commercials, sometimes ignoring the TV to talk about other things, though none of these things involved Respa's family or school. Respa made slapdash sandwiches served on paper towels, and Ryan made fun of his choice of salami, but Respa knew it was a joke, no defensiveness, no comebacks. Ryan nearly forgot to excuse himself to take his afternoon dose, but other than that he hadn't felt so normal in a long time, sitting on someone else's couch, only having fun. Nobody asking him how he felt about it.

"Wait, I have to piss," Respa interrupted, leaping over Ryan to leave the living room. The commercials had only just started, and they were a hundred percent less fun without Respa to help him mock them, so he muted the TV, sinking back into the cushions with his eyes closed.

Someone was wailing.

The voice was high, whiny, weak. It wasn't Respa's unless he was trying to prank him, and Respa had never tried to pull a prank before; Ryan listened. It sounded like it was coming from up the stairs, and it was calling out a two-syllable word, over and over, needy and childish.

Thomas, Thomas, the voice wheedled. Thomas, Thomas, Thomas...

"Your mom's calling you," Ryan reported to the body jumping back over him.

"Yeah, I know," Respa said, brusque. He snatched the remote from Ryan's hand and un-muted the TV.

"Isn't she sick? Maybe you should see what she wants."

"She's fine," Respa snapped, turning up the volume until it was blaring.

Ryan glanced back toward the stairs. "She sounded really bad—"

Respa maxed the volume and sat back, and if the TV hadn't been the only sound left in the room, Ryan would think he could hear Respa's teeth grinding from how tight his jaw was clenched. It was painful to watch Cow & Chicken this way, and Ryan knew he would end up hating this episode forever, simply for being so loud right now. He tried to yell to Respa to turn it down, tried grabbing for the remote, which was quickly transferred to the other side of Respa's legs. When Ryan resorted to reaching over his friend's lap, a strong brown arm was pushing him back, pinning him against the back of the couch. Respa's angry face was not far behind. He was shouting things, his features twisted, but all Ryan heard was the voice of Chicken drowning him out, and it ruined the effect.

Finally, Respa muted the TV, then threw the remote skittering under the coffee table. The pleading upstairs was audible again, almost like a tape being played on loop.

"What the fuck's the matter with you?" Respa growled, holding Ryan now with two fistfuls of T-shirt.

"Your mom's sick, she's calling for you—" Ryan stammered, his own fingers scrabbling on the surface of the couch. He knew how to get out of this. Respa's hold was good to keep down any regular kid, but in his mind Ryan could see the blocking move that would get Respa off him, the kick from this angle that would send him flying back into the TV. At this range, he might even crack the screen.

But he couldn't.

"She's fine," Respa spat. "Now shut the fuck up about it already, and let's watch some TV." He let go at last, dropping back onto the couch, un-muting the TV and turning the volume back down to reasonable levels immediately. The opening theme song for Dexter's Laboratory started playing, and Respa smiled at that, as if the past five minutes hadn't just occurred.

Ryan massaged the twin wrinkles in the fabric of his shirt, trying to flatten them out as he observed Respa. He felt like he was watching from outside the window. It was looking painfully like Romy might be right. Respa was a hollow thing, like a cantaloupe with the seeds scooped out. No soul, no person inside the body.

"I need to go," Ryan's mouth said, his eyes still evaluating his so-called friend. The words were slow, and at first it seemed like Respa didn't hear him. "I—"

"Go?" Respa looked startled. "But why? Dexter's Lab is on, and we still have a little while."

"My parents," Ryan said, or he was aware he was saying it, anyway. He was starting to feel split, like it took effort to be the Ryan who could speak, make excuses, interact on any level. He knew he sounded distracted. "Asian...parents. They want me home early."

"They've never wanted you home early before," Respa said, frowning.

"Long trip," Ryan mumbled, and he cursed himself for not being more articulate. Come on, Ryan. "It's a long trip home, by the time I get home, I..."

"Oh." Respa seemed to understand, though it didn't stop him from looking disappointed. "That sucks."

"Yeah. Sorry." Ryan reached for his sneakers first. His mouth felt sour with his own disappointment, fervently wishing Respa would just stop him, apologize for being such an enigmatic dickhead, something.

Instead, the front door slammed shut.

Ryan's fingers never quite reached the tops of his shoes. He managed to brush the laces of one before Respa was sweeping him upward with one arm so quickly Ryan staggered backward. At first Ryan thought Respa had lost it completely and was on the attack again, but a stabilizing hand at his back and Respa's panicked eyes as Ryan looked up told him otherwise. The TV was off by the time he was standing straight. "You have to hide," Respa was whispering, everything about him manic from his terrified expression to his quivering hands. "Now, you have to—"

Fabric rustled in the hallway, something like a person removing a light jacket, and Respa looked like his heart might stop, his fingers squeezing Ryan's shoulders in a crushing grip. Suddenly Respa was on the move and taking Ryan with him; Ryan was barely aware he was being pushed into a closet in the area just outside the living room until after the closing door had nearly broken his nose. In the musty dark of winter coats that pressed all the air out of him, Ryan mentally shushed his pounding heart that boomed in his ears. He was sure it would give him away.

A rubbery thunk was probably his shoes being thrown somewhere, and then evenly-spaced thudding was Respa racing to leave the room. He didn't get too far, though, the thuds stopping short. A creak of the wooden slats of the floor sounded near where Respa's steps had ended.

"What are you doing racing around like a maniac?" a man's voice asked, suspicious. "Don't tell me they got rid of gym class, with all the taxes I pay this city."
"Sorry," said Respa's voice, only it wasn't the voice Ryan was used to; this was a smaller, quieter, even softer Respa. He offered no explanation.

"And look at this mess you left out here! You think this is a hotel, some maid is gonna come clean this shit up? This is my house!" The other voice was angry, and the floor creaked again, accompanied by the shf-shf of bare feet. There was a sigh, too deep to be Respa. "Clean this shit up." A pause, and, "Now! What are you, retarded? Move it!"

There was the sound of shuffling steps, the clinking of the glasses of tap water Respa had gotten for them both. "Those assholes cut my hours short today," the man's voice groaned, and a whumph sounded like the owner of the voice had just crashed himself on the couch. "Like I don't need the hours, what with a family to support. I mean, your mother's insane, and you're too lazy and stupid to get a goddamn job, so what am I supposed to do? I gotta bring home the bacon, at least until you're old enough to at least get a job with a jackhammer." A pause. "Nah, you'd like that too much." Another pause. "Boy, are you listening to me?"

"Yes sir," came Respa's voice, distant; he must have been in the kitchen.

"You left fucking crumbs all over my coffee table. How are you ever gonna get any kind of job if you can't even clean up after yourself right?" There was groaning from both the man and the couch, and in a moment the TV was on again, in the middle of an episode of Dexter's Laboratory—unmistakable, even from Ryan's place suffocating in the musty closet. If Ryan had been breathing before, he certainly wasn't now.

The sound of the cartoon disappeared, though Ryan could hear the white noise that meant the TV was only muted—he could never, ever forget that sound. There was a moment of quiet, and then the man's voice broke it with a single word, deadly in its brevity.

"Thomas."

Shuffling, scraping, even a little oof as he must have bumped into a door frame signaled Respa's return, followed by another "Yes, sir."

"This is not the channel I left my TV on."

White noise only.

"Were you watching my TV, Thomas?"

White noise.

"You think I'm stupid, don't you?" The springs of the couch whined as its occupant shifted. "You think I can't pick up on these things? Running around like your ass is on fire, got two glasses out on the coffee table... I thought for a second maybe you were just too lazy to reuse the same glass, but... No. I know what this is now. You," and the sounds of the TV returned, though this time with commercials for noisy toys narrated by an overexcited man. "You had someone over."

A commercial now for sugary processed meals aimed at children.

"Do you understand whose roof you reside under? Do you know who pays the bills so you can go on being clothed and fed, have a safe place to sleep at night? Do you know—!" Something crashed, a hard, plasticky crash. "Do you know that this is my house! You can't just go inviting every bum off the street to kick back and relax, eat my food, watch my TV! This is my house, and you are just a special guest until you're eighteen, you got it?"

The TV finally shut off again.

"Answer me!"

"Yes si—"

"Where is he? Don't try to tell me it's a girl, I know how you operate. Where's your little friend? Huh?" The couch squeaked one more time, and then heavy footfalls were the man risen, walking toward where Respa must have been standing. "Is he stashed under your bed? Or maybe," and the laugh that broke the words apart was cruel, "in the closet? Where?"

"There's nobod—"

The noise that followed wasn't made by feet. It was multiple sounds, different parts of the same body hitting the floor, mixed with the sound of air rushing out of a pair of lungs.

"Don't lie. I didn't raise you to be a liar." Another noise of flesh colliding with flesh, and another moan of pain to accompany it. "Where is he?"

"There's nobody here! Just you and me and mom!" The breathing around the words was labored.

"I said don't lie to me!" This sound was less fleshy and more like bones, and the human voice that went with it was clearly Respa's, somewhere between a sob and a whimper, almost sounding like the word Stop being repeated ad nauseam.

"Sit down. Don't move. I am going upstairs to check everything and when I get back down here with your little butt buddy, if even so much as the wind shifts a hair on your head, you better put it back the way it was, because I mean it. Don't move." Heavy, aggressive steps took the owner of the voice away, and distant creaks were the stairs being climbed.

There were a few seconds where Ryan thought that Respa might obey the command to actually sit still, to let him rot in this closet forever, and then fresh air was flooding into the tiny space, along with the light of the living room. Respa looked different; he looked scared, pale, messy. He moved like he was trying to ignore physical pain, and Ryan knew he was.

"Come on," Respa whispered, glancing around as he pulled Ryan out by the wrist. The fear in his eyes was stark, making them look darker and larger somehow. Shinier. "You've got to go, got to go now."

"My shoes," Ryan whispered back. He could "lose" his bag "on the subway," but he would not ever be able to explain to his parents why he'd come home wearing only socks on his feet.

"Here, here, just take everything and put it on outside," Respa said, and suddenly Ryan's arms were full of his bookbag and his Chucks, the rubber soles pulling on his skin. "Go! Go! You have to go! Hurry!"

"I'm sorry," Ryan babbled, still whispering, but Respa just shook his head and pointed to the door, pushing him. Ryan nearly stumbled with the push, socks slippery on the hardwood floor, and then he was trotting out was quietly as possible. When he glanced over his shoulder, Respa was already sinking back into the couch, his eyes no less wide, his body no less rigid.

Then something upstairs creaked ominously, and Ryan took off, trying to balance shutting the door quickly and quietly. He heard shouting as he raced down the porch steps, but he couldn't stop, he couldn't go back to help when it would only make things worse, and he fled down the street. It wasn't until he saw the trestle of the 6 train above that he stopped running, chest heaving as he sat to lace on his shoes and shoulder his backpack.


Mostly, it was the pain of his bruises that Respa was aware of feeling. So when he found Alex Steinbrenner in the third floor boys' bathroom the next day, he attributed his actions to that—to being cranky and sore. Not a complex emotion, especially when pitted against other things he couldn't name, like feelings of emasculation, of resentment. Of being powerless. No, he just needed an ice pack, and Alex Steinbrenner was going to have to suffice until he could get one.

Respa thought he was alone when he escaped math class to sit in the bathroom. It wasn't an ideal place to hide. The smells, for one thing, permeated his nose; and his clothes, too, on a lesser level. But the guards, in their sweeps for stragglers and class cutters, came looking in the bathrooms the least, and so Respa hoisted himself up on the radiator under the window to sit with his face in his hands. He wasn't unused to the ache, but that made it no more welcome than usual. What was more, his father didn't believe he was doing wrong by his only son. The little pamphlets on child abuse that Respa had pocketed while trying to casually stroll by the counselor's office said that abusers tended to pick strategic spots on the victim's body to leave marks; not so with his father. At least it gave him an excuse to wear this enormous hoodie without a strangling shirt on underneath, but it meant too that he had to be careful with his movements, not call attention to whatever marks the hoodie didn't hide.

The squeak of a stall hinge made Respa look up from his hands, alert and tense. It was Alex, heading obliviously to the sinks to wash his hands. The scrawny boy was even humming as he fine-tuned the temperature of the water, twiddling the knobs. It made Respa's teeth grind to witness that kind of contentment in a boy who so often was crying at his feet, moaning something about his life in combination with the word horrible.

So he slid off the radiator as quietly as he could, intent on his prey, but if the sliding fabric against painted metal didn't give him away, it was the tapping of soles against the tiles, and Alex turned before Respa could approach him. Terror widened his eyes, and it overflowed into the rest of his body, tense and cringey one moment, bolting for the door the next. Respa's long legs made quick work of the distance between them, and suddenly Alex's cheekbone was cracking against the dirty tiles, his saliva mixing with the shallow puddle of water on an uneven part of the floor. Alex cried out, long skinny arms flailing upward protectively, but Respa's own arm snaked between them and grabbed Alex by the collar of his t-shirt to yank him upright.

Alex's legs scrabbled beneath him, seeking purchase, and ungainly fingers grabbed at the wrist under his chin, but Respa didn't give him the chance to reorient himself. All the air flew out of Alex's lungs in a single "Oof!" as his narrow back met the wall, and the back of his head met it a little harder. Alex sucked in a big breath; Respa punched it out of him again with a fist to the gut. The smaller boy started to cry in earnest, his tears rolling off his face to sear the skin of Respa's hand, and Respa punched him again, this time in one of his eyes, as if that would stop the flow of tears.

Respa let Alex go with a disgusted flick of his hand, his face twisting with it, and Alex sank to the floor against the wall, sobbing openly.

"Why?!" Alex finally shouted, his hands curled palm-up in supplication. "Why is it always me?! I never did anything to—"

Rather than answer, Respa kneed Alex in the chin.

Alex was wheezing something that sounded like the word Please, repeated ad infinitum, but Respa pretended not to hear him, the toe of his shoe coming to connect with Alex's gut with a solid, fleshy sound. He blocked out the thought of how recently he'd heard that sound made by someone else. The kick reverberated through his sneaker, made his foot tingle painfully, but Respa swallowed his grimace.

"Why can't you say something?!" Alex demanded, his throat so raw he was almost screaming. He clutched at Respa's pants pocket, the only fabric below Respa's waist that wasn't flush to his skin, and he seemed to be trying to pull himself up, or maybe pull Respa down with him—but no matter what he was trying to do, Respa wasn't going to let it happen. He grabbed Alex's hand and squeezed it until the bones creaked and curved around his palm, and Alex did scream now, melting into a human puddle until he was hanging from the hand Respa held crushed, the picture of surrender.

Respa finally let go of his prey, wiping his hands against each other with a little clap each time. "You're a piece of shit, Alex," he said, nudging the mess of boy on the floor with the toe that wasn't sore. His voice was only loud enough for Alex to hear. "You don't deserve any of what you have."

He thought he saw a flicker of Alex's eyes behind the sweaty curls, and he elaborated as if he'd been asked, which technically, yes, Alex had asked him earlier. "Happiness, Alex. Your nice family. These are the things you have that you don't deserve, that's what I mean." He spat, and the wad landed somewhere behind Alex's neck, but the message was received, because Alex flinched nonetheless. "You're worthless."

Before he left, he dug into Alex's backpack and pulled everything out, leafing through what he found disinterestedly, but the only thing he took this time was an abused-looking composition notebook.
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