Clem could feel the tendrils of Nine’s hair, matted with dry blood and sweat, plastered to her leg. She could feel the motion of the car, although she couldn’t see where it was going. She could feel the blood seeping down her limbs from the wounds whose scabs had pulled, staining the tan leather of the car seat. She could hear Jason breathing, Nine breathing, Niko breathing, herself breathing.
But not her grandmother.
Clem felt her eyes closing slowly, felt the car slowing with hem. She heard the sirens; she felt the car door opening. She knew there were gentle hands touching her mangled skin. She knew help had finally come but she couldn’t help but think that it didn’t matter if they couldn’t help her grandmother.
They took care of Nine first, she was in the most dire state. They lifted her onto a gurney and wheeled her away. Clem watched blearily from the back seat as Jason tried to follow them, but his own attendants held him back, examining the place where his finger had been severed minutes before with analytic eyes. Jason didn’t seem to be in pain, adrenaline was still keeping him in motion, but Clem had experienced enough pain throughout the past few days, throughout her entire life, to know that it would catch up with him eventually.
Like it had caught up with her. Now that they were free, now that they were relatively safe, all that determination, all that harsh anger that had tided her over, helped her to grit through the pain, dissipated. She was left an empty shell curled in the back seat of h
Niko’s family’s suburban, numb to the words being spoken to her. Clem heard the word shock and said without thinking, “I’m not in shock.”
She could tell by the look in the EMT’s eyes that he was not convinced. “I’m going to get you out of this car,” the man said with a measured, practiced, calm voice, “Do you have enough strength to help me?”
Even in her listlessness, Clem managed to glare at the man, and had almost pulled both her legs out of the car before he had even begun to assist her. She forced him to let her walk to the ambulance, though she did permit him to help her. She would not be wheeled over on a bed like some sort of invalid, though he kept trying to convince her to at least sit in a wheelchair.
They tried to split them up, send the more urgent cases (Nine and Clem) ahead to the hospital, but Clem grasped at her brother desperately, and she was not letting go. Not now that he had found her again, she had already lost too much today, she was not being separated from him too. Though it seemed to pain him to not make her go ahead of him with Nine (and in the same way painful for him not to go with Nine himself) he piled into the ambulance with Clem, and shot down any suggestions by the EMTs that he wasn’t coming with a sure tone that made sure none of them questioned him much.
It was only once she was inside the ambulance that the belligerent EMT finally convinced Clem that she would feel a lot better if she laid down. She only complied because she could feel her legs shaking harder than ever, her vision was going in and out of focus, and a nauseous feeling she couldn’t explain was welling up in her stomach. It took a few precarious moments for her to sit down on the gurney already prepared for her arrival, and lay down. They tried to strap her in, but Clem thrashed involuntarily and let out a spitting, “Don’t you fucking dare.” They left her alone after that, though they did strap the gurney into the ambulance itself and were careful not to let it go as the ambulance began driving.
Jason grasped her hand with his non-mangled one the entire way to the hospital, and Clem couldn’t tell if it was meant to comfort her, or him. Either way, she let him – she didn’t have much energy to do anything but. The EMT’s kept asking them questions, telling them they had called the police, that once they got care there would be questions they would need to answer. Jason just nodded and Clem just lay there staring out the window as the scenery receded the farther they went.
Farther away from Bade, farther away from the torture, but most significantly, farther away from Charlotte Willoughby’s shattered form.
Jason kept saying it was over in whispered tones he probably didn’t realize Clem could hear, over and over again like a mantra he couldn’t believe had actually come true. But it hadn’t, Clem knew the real truth. Her ordeal with Bade was over, yes, but her pain was just beginning.
Once Jason helped Clem over to Niko, she hurriedly ripped and bit at his restraints. Between struggles, she explained breathlessly how to take off the rest of them. “After I finish with this arm,” she began to tear it off, “get your other. I’ll get your leg. We’ll be out in no time.” He didn’t need to nod but he did it anyway, lost in the liminal space of reality and nightmare. Clem’s pale face poured with sweat and her body very visually ached, but she didn’t slow down.
By the time they got Niko free, Jason had finished with the endless buckles and plastic keeping Nine down. Her entirety curled in his arms, and Niko watched as her colorful eyes blinked in and out of focus. She looked more like a baby than he’d ever known.
Clem and Niko used their arms to support each other. “You okay?” Niko asked as they took their first few steps after Jason. He tried to search into her eyes but their almost three-legged march made that impossible coupled with her drooping head. But she nodded lightly, swallowing and purposefully mounting her next foot on the floor. She nearly tripped, however, and Niko momentarily pondered lifting her body into his arms as Jason had with his sister. Instead, he lowered his hand to curl along her opposite side and leaned her body into his. “Don’t wear yourself out,” he commanded, taking on most of her weight for the rest of their hurry through the maze.
On their way out they miraculously passed by an aged table with their possessions. Jason paused in front of them, obviously deciding whether or not he could maneuver one arm to take in the car keys. But Niko thought faster. “I got ‘em,” he called. Jason nodded and in moments Niko pocketed his and Jason’s cell phones and the very literal keys to their escape.
Clem’s body weakened with each passed room. It was an entirely unnatural feeling to sense her body basically loosening, shriveling beside him. They didn’t so much as hug, and now her breath brushed against his arm and her fingers gripped into his back. She was so frail. He lifted his free hand and held hers in place.
Finally, they reached the stairs. The pair hoddled down while Jason balanced with Nine in his arms and eventually held the door open for them. Niko spotted the car from the front door. It was almost a mirage. A solitary car in a parking lot, a few scratches from use, as if entirely normal. Niko momentarily let go of Clem’s clammy hand along his side and pushed unlock on the key fob. The car’s lights blinked yellow then blinked again.
The car seemed to have awaken a hope in everyone. They were there, they were truly nearly there. It was their finish line. Jason gently placed Nine in the backseat and Niko followed suit, opening the door and helping Clem into her seat. “I’ll drive,” Niko met Jason’s eyes. He was the least injured, it made the most sense. They couldn’t stay here. Bade had already proved himself capable of returning from the dead and they had only knocked him out. But more than that - they couldn’t just stay there. Jason piled into the passenger seat and Niko handed him his phone.
"Call 911 and tell them we’ll be at the corner of 16th and Cascade and then tell them they need to send another unit here," Niko instructed as he started the engine. With a glance in the rear view mirror, he noticed that neither Clem nor Nine had their seatbelts on. He gently pulled them out of park and onto the street. Jason soon reached the 911 responder. He had to pause midway to ask Niko about the crosstreets to Bade’s building and then couldn’t fully describe that they would also find his dead grandmother there. Meanwhile, Niko forced himself to remember to check for stop signs and look both ways. He kept glancing in the rearview mirror, attempting to register continuing signs of life from Clem and his sister.
When they arrived outside the mini mall, the ambulance hadn’t yet arrived, but Niko could hear the sirens. He parked near the street and stood outside, waving and waving. The cut on his arm had dried but he doubted that he didn’t stand out.
Jason’s hands were shaking with what he had done. When that final nail drove into Bade’s flesh, incapacitated him, pinned him to the wall like some sort of demented poster, the nail gun fell from Jason’s outstretched arm. It took all of his effort, and a good deal of Clem’s, not to fall over. His hands grasped at the walls, and the doorframe, his sister hanging onto him for dear life. His breathing was unsteady and shallow. His bloody mangled right hand smeared the plastic he had pushed through to perform his act of necessary violence. He wanted to scream.
But he didn’t, after a few brief moments of self-loathing and panic, he picked himself up, and dragged his sister over to Niko. He left her there. She began working on his restraints immediately, without hesitation, her fingers clawing at them, her teeth working, her mouth moving when it wasn’t otherwise occupied, whispering unheard words to Niko as Jason made his way slowly towards Bade.
He knelt down and flicked the knife off the ground. A moment of madness gripped him, of pure hate, when he looked at the man who had tortured him, his family, his girlfriend, and now Niko as well. He held the knife up with a bloodied hand, his grip loose, but his eyes determined and stepped towards Bade. The man was still conscious, though his eyes were out of focus and he obviously wasn’t going anywhere.
Jason fingered the knife carefully, considering… and then, almost like she knew what he was about to do, what he was considering, he heard his sister say his name, “Jason,” and it was like a warning went off in his head. Once again, as always, she rooted him. So instead of taking the blade to his flesh, Jason brought a fist above the man’s head, and brought it down with a practiced force that came from one too many schoolyard fights, knocking Bade out.
It was only then that Jason turned and looked upon Nine. He had thought, before he saw her, that he could handle the sight of her, of her mangled limbs. He’d seen it on his sister, on his grandmother, on himself, he thought he could handle it. But seeing her lying there, barely conscious, seeing how much pain she was in, almost broke him. The latticework of her arms was like something out of a nightmare, and he simultaneously wanted to turn away and run towards her. Instead, he was paralyzed. He stood there for a few moments, the shaking returning, but eventually he forced himself to move. But, Jason really didn’t know how he was walking over there, how he was moving, but he was. Maybe it was the sounds of Clem’s struggles with Niko’s bonds that kept him going, but either way, he was soon next to her, gazing down at her, drinking in her suffering.
Jason knelt next to her and she turned her head ever so slightly to look at him. She just stared at him, her eyes slightly out of focus, and Jason said, “Nine?” and her eyes at once alit, recognition shining in them. There was a joy in seeing those eyes find his, those green and blue eyes he loved so much, that he couldn’t explain, couldn’t define, but he latched onto it. “I’ve got you,” he said, “I’ve got you,” over and over as he kissed her cheek softly, as he cut one restraint after another with the knife that had previously maimed her, as he freed her from imprisonment, “I’ve got you.”
When she was finally free Jason scooped the woman he loved into his arms and stood up to see Niko and Clem standing there, each supporting the other, though perhaps Niko more than Clem, just like they always did. It might have been highly inappropriate, but Jason couldn’t help himself, and he smiled slightly. It felt like it was over. But Jason knew it wasn’t, they still had to get out of there, still had to get help for Nine, for Clem, for all of them now. But it felt like it was over.
“Let’s go,” Jason said as he turned and headed out the way they had come. He knew it would be a labyrinth, but Bade was knocked out, Nine was in his arms, and he could hear his sister and Niko behind him, struggling, hobbling. He could face anything.
Bade hadn’t spoken in his proceedings in Germany. He must have spoken to his lawyer, admitted to the murders, but outside of that there was nothing. Niko had paid rapt attention to his conviction and imprisonment after Nine returned. When she needed to be alone and Spencer was asleep or out getting groceries, he tiptoed from his room and checked the internet for news. He ran to a nearby newspaper stand. The whole world knew about Bade and his crimes, but they didn’t know why he did it and why he didn’t kill everyone the same way. He never told anyone. Niko imagined that when he did confess his words were discrete and to the point. Listed the names, and then said in his deep, scarring German, “I took them.” In his nightmares, Bade cut at his sister stoically, no flinching at her screams or tears. The silent murderer.
Now that Bade was spitting and growling, the blade in his hand vibrating, Niko didn’t know which was more terrifying. Bade wanted to talk. He wanted to wound with his words as much as his weapons. But Niko sensed in his voice his own pain. The talking wasn’t just to harm Niko but to heal Bade.
Niko thought this rapidly - the speed of light - as Bade’s scar mouth parted and pounded words into the room. His pounding heartbeat dizzied him, and so his thoughts mixed in and twirled as Bade revealed his inspiration. He steeled himself as he finally registered that he had to pay attention. What if Bade noticed his distraction? What if he took it out on the others?
"-And when I finally discovered the meaning of life, I realized I could live forever," he said, pacing the room menacingly.
"H-how?" Niko asked, attempting to show his missing listening skills.
“How?" Bade spat, "You haven’t been listening, demon." He purposely walked over to Niko and poised the blade in front of him. With what must have been a smirk, he brought it down and sliced. Niko’s forearm bloomed with blood. It hurt, but Bade hadn’t targeted any important arteries. Niko was once again removed from his pain, mostly amazed of this sign that he was actually alive. But when Niko didn’t shout or plea or cry, Bade’s smirk flattened and hardened. He brought down the blade again, but this time on his leg and deeper. Niko fell back inside his body, the pain was too immense. He jerked as tears rolled down his freckled face, gasping.
"Good." He smirked again, turned around and started his pace again. "As I was saying, I could become immortal. I tried writing the meaning down, I tried spreading the word, but nothing happened. The universe needed to hear what I learned in order to bestow its gift to me."
Niko was still grasping with the pulsating pain in his leg. He heard Bade, but mostly he was trying to breathe. The warm blood trickled to the inside of his leg and began to pool. Pressure? Would he need pressure? Was he going to die of blood loss?
"So I divided each word by a death, each letter by a person. But you made me kill the old hag the wrong way, and now the universe can’t hear me anymore!" Bade’s voice shook the room.
But this turned out to be a bad plan. His voice had carried well enough for Jason and Clem to pinpoint them. Niko turned to them as Clem pulled the plastic away. There was another instant, another come and gone, as Jason raised Spencer’s nail gun and shot, but this time Niko would never forget it. The nail dove into Bade’s chest mid-roar. He seemed surprised at first, but the nail only took him back a few inches.
But then Jason pulled the trigger again, and another nail pushed Bade. This time his back met the wall and the blade fell with a clatter. Jason pulled one last time and the nail rooted Bade’s hand to the wall.
Niko remembered thinking to himself, blood still trickling out of his body, that it would take a carpenter to get Bade out of that plaster.
Jason awoke to pain. In his head, in his arms, in his joints, everywhere, strapped down in the same restraints he had found his sister in. Bade’s snarling face was yelling to him in German, a knife swinging in his outstretched hands. Bade’s German was so quick and so angry that Jason doubted that his four semesters of high school German would have been much help even if he wasn’t dizzy and confused from being knocked out. But he understood enough to hear him scream, “Look what you did! Look what you did!” as he pointed at a crumpled form on the ground.
If Jason hadn’t been strapped up in the contraption that had previously held Clem, he would have fallen over. He recognized that lumpy form, that torn flannel shirt, that mess of curly white hair peaking from behind the shoulders. He had known the moment he turned and ran away from her that Charlotte Willoughby was going to die. But until that moment, until he saw her body splayed out in front of him, he hadn’t really believed it. Jason had shoved away any and all feelings about the matter and ran, but now he was stuck, and he couldn’t turn away from the fallen form of his beloved grandmother. “Monster,” he growled, and knowing it was the same word in German, he altered his pronunciation accordingly and yelled, “Monster!” before spatting in the man’s contorted scar-like face.
He shouldn’t have done it, he knew that the moment it left his mouth. Bade’s face, which had already been snarling, was now furious, and the knife in his hand glinted. “Monster? Monster?” Bade asked, his tone dangerously low, the knife dangerously close, and then his German became indistinguishable and all Jason felt was blinding searing pain.
He heard the thunk of something falling, and felt the warm blood drip down his forearm before he could react. The pain of it blinded him, incapacitated him, blurred his vision and made him scream. The only thing that kept him conscious was the swimming vision of his sister’s face from below him, strapped to the pole across the room. Her face was tear-streaked and flushed, but the vindictive determination had returned, she was yelling, screaming even, though Jason wasn’t lucid enough to hear what she was saying. But it wasn’t the desperate screams of their flight – it was the angry yells of someone seeking revenge, of a girl…Jason knew would refuse to give up until she was dead.
Which would be soon, Jason knew, he knew now more than ever before. If Niko’s e-mail plan had worked, the police should have been here by now, but they weren’t. They were all going to die here. He was never going to see Nine again, the girl he loved. And he knew, almost as if a premonition, that the last thing he would see would be the broken vacant face of his sister, crumpled on the floor just like his grandmother.
He went lax in his restraints even as he cried, even as Clem yelled, even as Bade spoke to him in German, ran the blunt edge of the knife down his naked limbs. Jason didn’t react, what could Bade possibly take from him now? He’d lost his grandmother, his sister, his girlfriend, his friend, even his index finger which was laying pathetically on the ground below his feet.
Bade eventually left, and Clem eventually stopped yelling. She just said, “Jason,” quietly, and then again, louder, “Jason,” and one more time, this one practically a yell, “Jason!” He glanced up. “We have to get out of here,” she said, her voice sure, steady despite her body’s deterioration.
Jason snapped at those words, “We can’t, don’t you see that Clem?” he asked angrily, “We’re going to die in here, just like grandma, all of us.”
“Jason,” Clem said clearly, though he could hear her voice breaking, “We have to get out of here.” Jason said nothing in response, but Clem wasn’t getting up. “Jason! Will you just look at me for a second!”
He glanced up, and then away, and then back again, convinced he was hallucinating. His sister’s wrists had just a few minutes ago been bound together and then the binding wrapped around a pole in the far corner just a few feet from Charlotte’s crumpled form. Except, now her right hand was out, and she was waving at him feebly. “Wha-“ he started, disbelieving, but no matter how many times he looked away the sight didn’t vanish, “How?”
“Bade underestimated me,” she said with a shrug, “And I think he wanted to put me near…” and Jason knew without her having to say. She swallowed visibly, shook her shoulders slightly, and then her eyes returned to him, “Anyways, I noticed my restraints were a little loose, so when he was distracted…with you, I got my arm out. I think I can get the other one out if you just give me a minute.”
And even though her freedom gave Jason hope, he was still doubtful, still scared, still convinced of his own demise, and he said as much. “Okay, but if you do get out, and you do get me out…he’ll just find us again. Clem this place is a maze, we’ll never find our way out, or he’ll find us before we can.”
“That’s while we’ll go to him,” Clem said as she yanked at her last restraint with her teeth, breaking bits of the cords and spitting them out on the ground beside her. “We still have the nail gun,” she said, nodding her head towards an object to the right of Jason, “We’ll attack him, incapacitate him, I don’t know, and we’ll get the others, and we’ll leave.”
Jason knew he still looked doubtful and hopeless, but he watched silently as Clem yanked one last time and freed her other arm. She stood up shakily, her legs unsteady, but her voice was, “Jason, we have to try, we have to try again, and again, until we get out, or until he kills us. I refuse to die on any but my own terms. And I refuse to let you sit here and wallow in self-pity. We can’t leave Nine and Niko with him. We’re going,” she said with a sense of finality.
Jason sighed, and said, “Okay.”
Clem nodded with satisfaction and stumbled her way over to Jason and began working on his restraints. They were complicated, but they were also slightly broken from their previous escape attempt, so despite her weakened strength it only took Clem a few minutes to free him. The pain of his missing finger still rang in his ears, still made him grit his teeth, but he was resolved, and it helped him ignore the stabbing pain. Jason stepped off the contraption and away from his fallen appendage, and grabbed his sister and hoisted her up, supporting her because she had begun to look like she had expended any and all strength she still had.
He grabbed the nail gun off the floor, and imagined briefly shoving a nail through Bade with great satisfaction. Jason had never been a violent person, but the vision brought a small smile to his face. “Ready?” he asked his sister who was clinging to his shoulder for support.
“Yes,” she said with such sureness that Jason couldn’t help but feel confident.
And so they pushed through the plastic doorway, and made for the noises of Bade, Nine, and Niko they could barely hear as fast as their legs could carry them.
Nine paled as she furiously dug into her restraints. Niko rose outside of himself. He sensed his sister’s mental decay as well as the hustle outside their room, noise blunted by the hanging plastic. Clem, Charlotte, and Jason were closest to Bade. They would run, of course, but two of them were too broken to get far. Niko believed in Jason, but Jason didn’t even know the way out. He saw them hurrying in his mind’s eye, sweating and bleeding, leaving a human trail for Bade to follow. Would Jason choose offense in the form of Spencer’s nail gun or defense in the form of getting his family out as soon as possible? The answer couldn’t be clearer. The darkness rose in Niko.
Once Bade finished with them, he would come for Nine. Nine knew this. Niko had given her false hope wrapped in a red bow. Niko forced himself back into his own body, clenched his shaking fists, and stared into her eyes.
She couldn’t stare back. Her colorful eyes had sunk. He saw a prison in her soul. He knew that stare - he hadn’t forgotten it. It was as if she’d never left Bade the first time. Nine didn’t cry, she just dug into the plastic, her fingernails cutting her own wrist.
He stared as the blood rose and bubbled at her dark skin. They wouldn’t escape. While Niko might have made a run for it, dizzy as he was, Nine was too weak. Even if he had freed her she couldn’t outrun a serial killer. He swallowed dryly.
"Sister," he whispered quickly, conscious of how little time they had left. Her eyes refused to reach his. "Spencer knows. I sen’ him an e-mail right before we came. Sister," he held her frail hand and their fears vibrated together, "we’ll get out of here. The police will come. We will escape, I swear."
Tears flushed her face. “Run, brother,” she pleaded weakly in French. Her eyes finally turned to his. And when they finally did, they rooted there. He saw their past transform like the seasons behind her face as her eyes remained still, silent. Their childhood in France - summers in Germany - stories and promises - soft words and bandages - her first laugh after Bade on the way the United States.
"If I’m here, he won’t have as much time for you," he said seriously. "I won’t leave you. I can’t let you suffer alone."
He tightened his grasp along her hand for a moment and kissed her on the forehead. Then, in the sort of moment that lasts forever but is forgotten instantly, he grabbed his wrench and turned from her. Bade’s footsteps thundered their way. He tensed his arms and ran to the storm.
He was more horrific than Niko remembered from the trials. Where his face should have been was instead a collection of scars. His eyes might as well have been pus leaking from century-old wounds. His mouth nothing more than a open, jagged cut stretching across his skin. But Niko wasn’t afraid.
He stood guard in front of his sister’s room. He wouldn’t win, but he might be able to weaken him later for the police. As Bade rushed toward him, Niko raised his arm and swung the wrench. It smashed against Bade’s chest with a loud thump and then scattered with several voluminous clanks across the floor. A moment later, Bade’s fist flew toward Niko’s entirety. His exhaustion consumed him in the moment Bade struck him.
Bade’s breath woke him from the black. Niko’s sore back rested against metal and, with the smallest of movements, restraints along his wrists and ankles pushed against him. Bade heard him stir and let go another foul breath of air.
How long had it been? He could not tell by the light. It didn’t seem much darker than before, but what if an entire day had passed? Where was Spencer’s rescue? He normally checked his e-mail every half hour. Ah, but Niko envisioned his godfather correctly now. His languid body avoiding all media except for the home phone, awaiting the police’s call. The outside world hurt Spencer. It was cacophonous and it didn’t carry any news of his goddaughter. Hero checked Spencer’s e-mail now, Niko could even recall watching her flip through their e-mail.
At first the hope dissipated out of Niko, but with another vision it prickled back into his skin. Hero did this at least a few times daily. She would see. She would know. She would save them.
Before he could let that thought warm him any further, Bade towered over Niko’s trapped body. When he parted the scar long his face, he spoke only in German.
"You’ve cost me," he growled. "You and the boy. I have to restart."
Niko didn’t know what to do. Bade’s voice chilled him. Was he supposed to talk back? Ask him questions? Would that keep him away from the others for longer. His heart quickened. “What do you have to restart?”
"The passage!" he shouted. Niko wondered if Nine was held by even more straps now. Bade’s anger seemed to shake the walls. How many more restraints would he have punished his sister with? "She broke the passage."
"What passage?" Niko thought it best not to ask about the she in case it happened to be his sister.
"The passage of immortality! The hag broke it. She died out of order!”
Niko froze. Hag. A dead hag? No. No. No.
"But I can fix it. I can fix what you broke. I can erase her. I will still be immortal." Bade reached his hand to a blade and raised it in front of Niko’s face. But Niko wasn’t paying attention anymore.
The silence of Charlotte’s death suffocated him. He could feel her ghost. The old woman that gave Niko a hard time, that treated her grandchildren with an affectionate aggression that Clem held like battle armor.
But there was no time to travel outside of his body again. There was a murderer to distract. He had to give Hero time to find the e-mail, to send the police. They would have guns. He had to keep Bade from torturing someone else. His sister wouldn’t last much longer. Niko’s flesh was still unmarked.
Jason desperately wanted to go with Niko to find Nine. But he was already holding onto two women whose vitality, though strong in voice, was not extending to their mangled bodies. So he stayed. He waited, anxiously, his legs shaking from the effort of supporting his grandmother and sister, his vocal chords strangled by fear so that no words could come out even as he could hear Clem muttering next to him. He couldn’t comprehend what she was saying, he was too focused on not letting his despair overpower him, but her tone sounded vindictive and confident. He shook his head slightly as he stood there, arm wrapped tight around her waist, wondering how she was still functioning the way she was when Jason could barely stand it. Then he heard footsteps that were too heavy, too clear to be Niko and Nine, and his heart stopped.
He didn’t say anything, and neither did his grandmother and sister, but they started moving as fast as they could through an exit Clem pointed to. They made it through the door and halfway across another room in as much silence as they could muster with the barely audible groans of pain emanating from all of their mouths before the footsteps, and then the snarl caught up with them. Jason kept moving them, but he glanced around his shoulder and saw the man himself behind him, Bade, a thing of nightmares, the batman mask torn off and crumpled in his hands, a snarl transforming an already terrifying face into a monster. They stared at each other for a moment, one single, terrifying moment, and then Jason whipped around again. He tried to physically lift Charlotte and Clem as he broke into a jog, saying, “Come on, we can do it, come on, we have this,” as fast and as quiet as he could. But he knew Bade was faster. He knew they’d never make it. They had no chance, maybe they had no chance from the moment they walked in, but it only hit him now.
The only thing Jason knew was that he wouldn’t give them up without a fight, and so he ran as fast as possible, through two more partitions, before his grandmother put a hand on his shoulder to stop him. “Jason,” she said quietly, and then she practically yelled, her hand clamping him in a death grip, “Jason!” He stopped, even though he didn’t want to, and looked at her. She didn’t say anything, but Jason immediately saw the truth of what she wanted in her eyes. She looked tired, more tired than she had looked when he first saw her, there was a finality in her gaze, a resignation, and Jason knew what she was planning.
He also knew he couldn’t let her do it, and yet there she was, entangling herself from Jason’s grip, stumbling forward, ungainly, towards the partition they had just entered through. “I love you two,” she said, placing a kiss on each of their sweaty, grimy, bloodstained cheeks with cracked lips, “Tell your mother…your brothers…” and Jason nodded, and watched helplessly as his grandmother walked through the partition and back towards Bade.
The pause between when she disappeared, and between when Jason acted next was endless. Clem was muttering, “Grandma,” in a lost sort of way, and he was just staring. But he had to move, he had to, he had no choice. He knew once Clem put two and two together she’d be impossible. She might seem strong now, but he knew once she realized the sacrifice Charlotte Willoughby had just made she wouldn’t be. So he scooped her up, cradling her like the child she felt like and ran, he sprinted off through the labyrinth, trying desperately to find Nine and Niko.
It was the moment that he started running that Clem lost it. She was screaming, wailing. Jason knew she knew, and she couldn’t handle it. Her legs were thrashing, her arms flailing, her face exuding such pain that Jason couldn’t bear to look at her. He just kept running forward, though everything in him wanted to bang his fists and cry out. He held Clem tighter, trying to whisper comforting things in her ear, but she was screaming so loud he doubted she could hear him. “NO! JASON PUT ME DOWN, TAKE ME BACK, NO!” she was screaming, banging her fists weakly but insistently on his back, “YOU CAN’T DO THIS! GRANDMA! NO!” she screamed, her voice wasn’t angry any more, it wasn’t convicting, it was desperate and sad and heartbroken and confused and all the things that made Jason’s heart break even more.
She had been too strong for too long considering what she had been through, and now she couldn’t take it any more.
Jason couldn’t find Niko and Nine, he couldn’t, in between Clem’s wails he shouted, “Nine! Niko! RUN!” he couldn’t even find an exit. He was lost. He had failed.
Then he heard footsteps, staggered ones, he whipped around expecting to see Nine and Niko, and instead found himself looking directly at Bade again, wielding a large object Jason couldn’t identify in his terror. Gripping his sister hard he turned around and tried to sprint away, but he knew in that moment that his grandmother’s sacrifice had been for nothing. He hadn’t even made it to the other side of the room when a sharp pain hit his head, and everything went black.
He fell practically on top of a still shrieking Clem, who was yelling both obscenities and desperate pleas at Bade’s retreating back as he left the collapsed siblings in the middle of the floor and went to deal with Niko and Nine.
Niko took Jason’s place by Clem’s side. Bade had left her face alone, but it seemed he had been haphazard with the rest of her appendages. Niko’s eyes wavered among her cuts, noticing with a stomach lurch the few fresh slices along her arms. He tried to still himself into focus of her restraints. His hands shook before he felt around the first zip tie. Bade hadn’t cut off her circulation, but it was close enough. Once he finished sizing up her restrains, Niko said to her, “I’ll get you out,” and she turned from watching Jason free their grandmother. “Try and separate your arms as possible,” he said with a dry mouth and watery eyes. Clem nodded.
His wrench managed to tear against the zip ties on her legs. He had to go slowly to compensate for his uncontrollable trembling, but his rapid heartbeat dizzied him in the process. The coffee revolted against his insides as he counted himself steady. There was also the issue of avoiding Clem’s eyes. If it was just a body in peril, tied to a table with cuts and dried blood, he could do this. Niko feared how he would take Clem’s eyes pushing into his, terrified he would pass out or scream or kill himself.
But when she spoke to him he remained sane. “Nine’s here,” she assured him, “she’s a little farther back, but we heard her.” Niko swallowed hard and nodded while turning to another restraint. “If you tighten the wrench you might get that loose,” she leaned her head toward one of the screws. It jutted out slightly, just enough that Niko could use the wrench to twist it free. He realized as he clenched the wrench against it that Clem had probably been eying that screw for a while. Niko thrust the thought away as immediately as it arrived. There was no time for thinking. His bodily reacted poorly enough to moving.
When Jason finished releasing his grandmother, he stepped over to Clem and Niko. His hammer made pulling out the screw much easier and cutting out the other zip ties. When the last snap clicked her free, Clem’s mouth wriggled into a smile. Niko leaned into her side and brought his arm under her armpit and around her side. Her weight dropped onto his body, and, while aching together, Niko helped Clem slip off the table and make balance on the floor. Her legs didn’t topple, but she had the feel of someone who forgot the safety of solid ground.
“You watch them,” Niko said while taking the hammer out of Jason’s hands, “I’ll get Nine.”
Jason nodded, his eye flickering down to the remaining nail gun in his hand. Someone had to protect Clem and Charlotte, teach them how to walk again and guard them when they were so near the entrance. Family with family. Without another look, Niko bolted in the opposite direction. His arms thrust the plastic out of his way as he shouted, “NINE! NINE!” He had to keep swallowing between her name but that didn’t keep his voice from cracking.
Niko grew with dread when she didn’t call back at first. Clem had said she was there – but why hadn’t she yelled when Clem and Jason had hollered for each other? Why wasn’t she yelling for him now with Niko draining his lungs? What if she hadn’t made it? And then he found her. At first she didn’t seem alive, but he caught the rise of her chest. She had passed out. Bade had tied her to her a rusted metal table with layers and layers of restraints. He obviously decided to make precautions with Nine. He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.
But Niko knew how to free her now. He rushed to her side and snapped apart the first zip tie immediately. The hard plastic crackled and Nine screamed herself awake. Her vocal chords were so strained, however, that Niko doubted her yell made it past the hanging plastic walls. When her eyes adjusted to him, her voice went soft. It crackled, “Niko?” just as he snapped open another zip tie. That was one leg down, three more limbs to go.
He lent her his hand for a moment. She winced at his touch but squeezed hard. He felt her cuts push into his palm. One-handed, he freed the arm holding him. She released him and turned to claw at her other hand, bending to let her teeth get a try, too. Niko switched to her remaining leg, heartbeat pulsing his entire body.
Before he got through the five restraints on that leg, however, a snarl sounded through the floor. It squirmed up Niko’s spine. Nine suddenly scratched faster, her eyes widened. “He’s back,” she whispered, her teeth furiously digging into a zip tie.
When Jason saw the Batman mask, something inside him died, along with any hope that his girlfriend and his sister weren’t being captured and tortured by the same madman who had thrown the Newtons’ lives into chaos last time. Part of him, a very small part, wanted to grab the wrench from behind him, run out of the car, and maul Batman in the street, just end it there. But he didn’t.
They waited, waited for what felt like forever, but was really just the minute or so it took until Bade turned a corner and was out of sight. It was only then that some of the air returned to Jason’s lungs. “Ready?” Niko asked, his voice cracking slightly. Jason just nodded, despite every fiber of his being telling him he wasn’t.
They had to get in, now. They couldn’t wait; he couldn’t let his panic and fear stop him from moving. They had a few minutes, tops, until Bade walked back in the way he came, and if they didn’t get their siblings out in time, then Jason wasn’t sure what they would do. Probably use the tools Niko had brought, Jason gulped, even though he had known what they were for when Niko pointed them out, he hadn’t thought they would actually use them. But, now, nail gun and hammer in hand, running next to Niko who was wielding a weapon of his own, he could feel the adrenaline coursing through his veins, and the fear.
What if they weren’t there? What if they were still wrong? What would they find when they went in? Would they even be able to handle whatever they did find? Jason didn’t know.
They ran through the entrance of the abandoned building, their eyes immediately searching all the spaces around them. Jason could almost make out hushed voices even through the sound of his and Niko’s slamming footfalls on the concrete floors. The building was large, sterile, plain, concrete; it had probably been an office building once, now it was just the location of Jason’s worst nightmare.
The building was like one huge room, with partitions to divide it into separate rooms, which they discovered quickly as they sprinted through the artificial hallways. Jason tried to follow the soft sound of voices until they got louder and louder. And then, he heard his name, let out in a strangled cry, “JASON?!”
He would know that voice anywhere. It was burned on his brain, something he would never forget. Even if he hit his head and forgot everything about himself, Jason was pretty sure he would still remember the voice of his little sister.
“CLEM!” he yelled, and then ran towards the voice, he could hear Niko following behind him as they weaved through the labyrinth of hallways following Clem’s voice. The voice Jason had been worried he would never hear again. She was here now, he knew for sure, here and alone and obviously more distressed than she had even been on those times she had been locked together with their father in their room.
There was a sheet of plastic over an entryway, and the moment he saw it he knew that behind it lay his sister, and maybe, hopefully (as sick as it was to hope such a thing) his girlfriend. He and Niko paused in front of the sheet and pushed it back.
What Jason saw nearly caused him to fall to the ground. In front of him was Clem, zip-tied and practically handcuffed to a metal contraption that felt like an autopsy table. Her arms, legs, and other places were covered, absolutely covered, in cuts. Dark, brown, dry blood stained her clothes, covered her skin, while oozing scabs and relatively wet blood seemed to cover the rest. Some of them were bandaged, but others were just left to fester. Her face though, her face, though obviously pained, was staring at him determinedly, proudly almost.
But that wasn’t the thing that shocked Jason, no, he had been prepared to see his sister there (at least as much as he could be) what he hadn’t been prepared for, was to see Charlotte.
His grandmother saw him staring, cocked a grin at him an said, “Good to see you, Jason, she kept yelling at him that you were coming,” she said, nodding to Clem, “Guess I didn’t believe her until now.”
Her bindings looked less complicated than Clem’s, though that was probably because Bade thought she was weaker, an obvious underestimation. She looked more tired than Clem, wearier, but that same cheeky smile was there on her face, that same determined look in her eyes that Clem had shown. She had less cuts than Clem, but the blood dried on her torn up shirt seemed older somehow. How long had she been here? When had Bade gotten her? Was this why she had disappeared so suddenly just a few days beforehand? Is this where she had gone? Jason felt like he couldn’t breathe.
He moved towards Clem, but she stopped him with a yell, “No, get grandma out first!” Jason looked over at Niko, who looked about as good as he felt, and he nodded and moved towards Clem himself. Though Jason knew he was probably desperate to go find Nine. He glanced down at his watch, it had only been three minutes since they had seen Bade, they had time, they had time, they had time.
His hands were shaking as he began fiddling with his grandmother’s restraints. His breathing was coming in shaking, shuddering gasps. They had found them, he was torn between relief, shame, and utter terror, and none of it was helping him to function better. He brushed along one of her cuts as he worked and shuddered, he had to close his eyes for a few seconds before he could even think of continuing.
“Hey, hey,” his grandmother cooed from above him, “It’s okay,” she told him, her voice soft and low, “You found us, it’s okay, you’ll get us out and then we’ll get Nineteen and then we’ll get out of here. You’re doing fine, you’re doing better than fine, you’re doing so good.”
She kept saying things like that as Jason worked one of her arms free, then her other, than her legs, running a comforting hand through his hair as he did the last part, though it probably expended more energy than she had to spare. Once she was free Jason helped her stand, gripping her with one arm and walking towards where Niko was still struggling with Clem’s bindings.
Hope and terror singed into Niko. Bade was truly in town, masquerading to get his nutrition.This wasn’t some way to rationalize his sister’s and his best friend’s disappearance. He was here.
Which meant he truly had stolen Nine and Clem. They really were stuck in some abandoned building, getting tortured that exact moment. The edge of the thought was enough to cause him to upchuck the day’s gallons of coffee. Would Nine truly survive this? Even if they rescued her, healed her body, would she be anything other than catatonic for the rest of her life? When Jason left Niko for his own family, Niko sobbed.
If he had the mind to remember, he wouldn’t have found a pain more pervasive than the one shattering his soul that night. It paralyzed him, drained him entirely. Almost nothing of Niko was left - just his regrettably beating heart.
The tears and shaking managed to rock him into sleep. The sleep hardly restored him, especially due to the dreams that haunted him once he awoke. But there was sleep. The tragedy had managed to focus his energy. When he awoke to the bleeding sunrise, Niko mechanically organized his trip with Jason. He filled a cup with fresh coffee, wrote up and organized the final notes they would need onto Hero’s laptop, packed her laptop in his bag along with snacks, a capable nail gun, a wrench, and a hammer. He showered, brushed his teeth, dropped his pills into his pockets, and contacted Jason before driving over to the Whitefield’s himself.
"I figured my family could manage with one less car better than yours," he informed his partner clearly. "You can still drive." His accent had temporarily been stripped by the emotions plaguing him. Every time he blinked, he saw Nine’s arms, then Clem’s, then their entire throbbing bodies.
Niko handed Jason a bagel. They would need something in them for their fight. Once Jason readied himself, the pair entered the car and started on their way to the abandoned industrial buildings.
"I brought these," he said to Jason after pulling out the garage tools. "Just in case." Nobody commented on what case these tools were for exactly, but they knew. Either tearing Nine (and Clem, though Jason wouldn’t accept that) from whatever contraption Bade had her in, or for a possible fight with the beast himself. That was the nail gun’s main purpose. To stab the man into the wall, root him there for centuries.
When they arrived, Niko instructed Jason to park at a vantage point. They had to lie in wait, wait for Bade to leave whatever building he had chosen. Once he had left for food, they would have to sneak into that building and get Nine (and Clem) out of there as soon as possible. Niko rehearsed the plan with Jason several times, Jason mostly silent and watchful of his crazy-eyed friend.
Niko pulled out his laptop and connected to the internet through Spencer’s portable wifi device. The e-mail was already written up. Concise. Direct. With an odd little “Love, Niko” ending the e-mail.
"Once we see Bade," he directed to Jason, "I’ll click this button. If we don’t contact our families in twenty minutes, this e-mail will do it for us. Spencer will know exactly where we are, what we’ve done, and to call the police immediately."
If Spencer knew now, he wouldn’t let Niko. He probably couldn’t even comprehend the words coming out of his mouth. But anything about Bade, anything about a nail gun, and Spencer would do everything he could to keep Niko away from whatever plans his poor godson had devised. As for the police, they wouldn’t act quickly enough. They didn’t know Bade. At best, they were Plan B.
They waited for eons. Niko and Jason made sure to periodically text their family. Hero asked Niko to pick up milk and bread. Jason’s family wanted to know when he’d be back.
Niko wished he could have asked his sister that question.
The day wore on. Niko pulled out the granola bars and juice boxes near noon and the two slurped and crunched while silence consumed their minds. How long would they have to wait?
As it turned out, it was 1:29 in the afternoon when a large person in a Batman mask and cape strolled from the shortest building. Instaneously, Niko’s finger pushed against Hero’s laptop and the email went into timed release. Twenty minutes.
Jason didn’t really know how he was standing, driving, just…being. Everything he did was on autopilot, except when he had to force himself to speak, then every word was like pulling out his own teeth one by one. Yet, somehow, he managed to get the words out, somehow his lips pulled into an entirely false smile every time someone said no, no one had greeted their deliveries in a mask.
But then came that wonderful and yet horrible moment when the girl behind the counter practically confirmed Niko’s suspicions, and Jason was snapped out of his reverie. Yet, even then, he could not make the words come out fast enough, and instead Niko was the first to vocalize anything, “W-what was he like?” sounding possibly more eager than would be considered normal about a guy picking up his food in a mask.
The girl behind the counter gave them both a funny look, and Jason immediately stepped in, “We have a friend who does it sometimes, and he’s just wondering if it is them.”
Thankfully Jason was cognizant enough to reassure this girl, for at his words she smiled at him. “I mean, with the mask it was hard to tell…but he was tall, and kind of bulky? He didn’t really seem to want to talk much, but he asked my name. Does that help?”
“Yeah,” Jason said, making an attempt to smile genuinely back at her, though he doubted it looked that way. “Can I ask you one more question though?” After a swift nod from the girl he said, “Whereabouts did you drop it off?”
She looked thoughtful for a moment before saying, “You know, that was probably the weirdest part, it was over towards the seedier part of the factory district. I didn’t even know any of those buildings were still being used.”
Jason almost dropped his wallet. This was it, it had to be it…but it couldn’t be it. Here was the truth of it, Jason had to admit in the moment, up until this point he really hadn’t believed Bade as a suspect was anything more than a flight of fancy…and yet he couldn’t deny the evidence. From what he knew about Bade, it seemed clear that this was more than a theory but an actual possibility, and it scared him to death.
Handing Jason his change, the girl asked, “Can I help you with anything else?”
“N-no, no thank you,” Jason said, “That was more than enough,” and then he and Niko left.
They didn’t speak on the way to the car, they didn’t speak as they got in, as Jason turned on the engine, as they pulled out of the lot. Jason spoke without looking at Niko, “That was it, wasn’t it? That is what we were looking for?”
Niko nodded, “You know where the factory district is in Porbeagle, you could find it on a map?” Jason gave a sound of affirmation, “Then let’s go to my house,” to the maps, Jason knew.
They drove in silence again, but it wasn’t uncomfortable, it was anticipatory. But through the anticipation Jason felt a twinge of fear for the boy next to him, he could feel the energy bouncing off of Niko, the fear and the hope and all the emotions that were currently swimming through Jason times a million. As much as he didn’t want it to be Bade, he also did, because he felt that if it was anyone else Niko just couldn’t handle it. At least Bade was an enemy Niko could see, could imagine, anything else…Jason was afraid it would be too much.
When they arrived, Niko handed Jason a marker. With careful precision Jason boxed a three-block area in southern Porbeagle where he had gone with his father once or twice before the fire incident. “It used to be one of the biggest industrial places in the area, but about five or ten years ago…it started to go downhill, I’d guess there are a lot of abandoned buildings there.”
“’Kay, we need to go there.” Niko said, “Tomorrow mornin’?”
“Sure, I can drive,” Jason offered, not sure how he felt about getting behind the wheel with a Niko in the state he was in.
“You could jus’ stay the night,” Niko offered.
Jason was tempted. Looking at Niko, so unsure about what was coming, and yet so sure and vindicated by their discovery, and Jason wanted to stay there and protect him. He didn’t want to leave him alone, at least out of fear of what he might do if there was no one else. He wanted to be there for Spencer, and Hero, and even Stray, and he wanted to stay. But he couldn’t, he had his own family, his own responsibilities, his own crazy to try to keep from taking over. As much as he wanted to stay, he couldn’t leave his mother or his brothers, he’d already done too much of that today.
“I…can’t,” Jason said with a sigh, “My mom…and my brothers…I need to make sure they are all right before we go and do…” whatever they were going to do.
Niko seemed to understand, or at least he feigned it with a nod and a small, knowing look. “I’ll see you tomorrow then?” Jason asked, and after the sentiments were returned, he left the Newton house and headed for home.
Home. It was quieter than he ever remembered it being. There was no loud screaming, no noises from the TV, no nothing. The moment Jason entered the house his mother burst in the room, and Jason knew from the look on her face that she had been hoping against hope that it was Clem walking through the door. He hugged her before she could let the disappointment show on her face, Jason didn’t think he could bear to see it.
Ryan took him aside and regaled him with tales of the evening. “Brian’s been crying,” he said, “Even though we keep telling him we really don’t know anything yet, he just can’t stop. Nelson’s holed up in his room, Trey has been cleaning nonstop, and I haven’t seen the twins this quiet since they were inside mom.”
“How is mom?”
“Better now that you’re here, definitely,” Ryan said with a small smile. That was Ryan, always able to pull out a smile even in the direst of circumstances. “She hasn’t said much, we realized after a few hours that coming in and out of the front and garage door was going to drive her insane, so we’ve sort of confined ourselves to the house. She’s been in her room mostly, I tried to go talk to her…but she’s been somewhat unresponsive, understandably.”
“You know me, I make do,” Ryan said, “Though why you are asking about me when I should be asking about you is beyond me. Typical Jason, always having to ask about how everyone else is doing when you’re probably the one hurting the worst.”
“I’m okay,” he said, “Like you said, we don’t know anything. There is no point in assuming the worse.”
“Liar,” Ryan said, but he squeezed Jason’s shoulder before walking off to try to comfort their littlest brother who still had tears dribbling down his cheeks.
Jason looked around the kitchen and saw his mother climbing the stairs and he made to follow her. He followed her straight into her bedroom and onto her bed, and like when he was six and he was scared of what daddy was doing when he was with just Clem, he wrapped one arm around her waist, and snuggled his head against her chest. “I love you, Mom,” he said, as he closed his eyes.
“I love you too,” he heard his mother’s voice crack, and then the soft feeling of her lips on the top of his head as she kissed him. Before he knew it he was asleep.
Niko was too tired to ask Jason questions, to even begin to handle the idea that Clem had disappeared outside of an objective curiosity of Clem’s character. He didn’t even let that float through his mind and create a domino of thoughts because he needed coffee - now - and Nine was waiting to get rescued. He poured the hot nectar down his throat. The burn on his tongue made him try to comfort it against the roof of his mouth while he drained the rest of the coffee into Spencer’s silver thermos.
Spencer sat on a bar stool while Niko prepared for his drive. He had Stray curled in his lap while he nursed a glass of ice water. The tall man had transformed into a black willow tree over a family photo album. He fingered through, slowly swallowing every detail of each photo. Nine’s haircut, Niko’s progression of makeup, the stuffed animal discarded in the background. Niko glanced at him during the process, but feared stepping into his destruction.
"My father can’t make it for a few days," he said glumly. "You know, he was going to come last time but…once Nine returned, I didn’t want to complicate her recovery with a stranger." His throat thickened as he swallowed the entirety of his water. Niko carefully took the glass from his godfather and refilled it to the brim.
"I’m so sorry I wasn’t a father to you." Tears surged from his eyes. Niko’s brain fired in every direction. What was he supposed to do? How was he supposed to fix this man? He jerked himself closer, tried patting him on back.
Earnestly and with a quickened heartbeat he tried, “You were. I mean, you weren’t,” because Spencer never wanted them to think of him as a father, “but you took care of us. You nurtured us, okay?” He really wanted Spencer to stop crying. “You were father in everything but name. You’re family, we’re family, ‘n’ we’re going to be okay. Spencer? Spencer. Spencer, I need to go. I’ll text you, okay, but I’ll be out all night.”
Spencer nodded and blew his nose on a tissue Niko handed his way. He didn’t ask his godson why he wasn’t staying, why he was leaving and functioning even though his sister had gone missing. Maybe he didn’t have the mind to think that far. Niko was leaving, Nine was gone, and he was home trying to love them both through photo paper.
Guilt pervaded into Niko’s joints as soon as he backed out of the driveway. The first time Nine disappeared, Spencer had rooted himself to Niko. He tried to simultaneously give the boy space and make sure he would be there to hold him through the tears. Niko was too unorthodox for any sort of consoling, though. On the third day, his mind had completely warped reality. He considered, theoretically, for a moment that it wasn’t Nine that had been kidnapped but him. He was being held hostage by someone disguised as Spencer. His brain clung to this idea as soon as it weaved through, and for the next twenty-four hours Spencer had to convince Niko that he was real, really real, and it was really Nine that had been stolen from them. They both cried.
So maybe it was a good thing that Niko was leaving Spencer. Hero could take care of him, she could assure him he was perfect for his godchildren, that he would be an extraordinary father, and that Nine would return once again. All Niko was proven to do was unnecessarily complicate the situation.
Niko continuously drove and parked to the superfluous amount of online delivery restaurants in Porbeagle. Every time he emerged from his car, he took a sip of nauseating coffee and stretched normality over his face. He was sure his pain had begun to bleed through his farce, but he continued to joke to the cashiers about the mask craze. Some of them really could not be bothered to give him the time of day but said nobody had done that there just yet. Some laughed, some furrowed their eyebrows, but they all continued to deny any sort of knowledge of his masked meme.
Partway through, Niko got a disturbing text from Jason. Clem’s car abandoned with her cell phone left behind, just like Nine’s. Niko’s eyes whirred. He sat down to keep from breaking open his skull by fainting. He stilled himself, closed his eyes and practiced breathing. He counted to thirty in base 4, but the numbers and letters kept getting interrupted by Clem and Nine. Bade probably had them both, leaving scars too deep for any doctor. He had to breathe. He had to stay upright. He had to keep from passing out.
He kept investigating Porbeagle until the sky had gotten too dark and he ran out of coffee. Jason hadn’t texted him back, hadn’t let him know Clem had returned, soaked to the bone but unharmed. But maybe he had just been to ecstatic, to busy tending to her hypothermia. The time wore on him and he turned back to Virga City in despair. No sign of Bade’s mask. What if he was in another city? What if he had found a new way to get food? How would Niko save Clem and his sister then?
Niko texted Jason ahead of time to let him know he was coming, but that didn’t keep the man’s face from dropping when it was Niko behind the door and not Clem. He stepped out of the way with his eyes scanning the ground and Niko let himself inside.
It was always bad news.
But he tried for good news anyway. “No sign of Clem yet?”
Jason shook his head, not entirely reaching Niko’s eyes. “Not yet.”
Niko’s stomach dropped even further. He was going to vomit. He was going to vomit and cry and kill himself. How could Clem be stolen, too? He shifted his head away, pulling away a tear. “How’s everyone doin’ with the news?”
Jason shrugged slightly, “My mom is freaking out, and Ryan and Trey are coming home, the others…I think they don’t quite get it. I tried to…sugarcoat it, I guess.”
Niko wished he could sugarcoat it. He wished he could swallow these tragedies like everyday happenstance. That would be great. “Well, that’s good I guess.” Neither boy said anything. “You don’ have any idea where she might have gone if she went on her own, righ’?”
Jason had probably been over this too many times by the way he unearthed the information to Niko. “I checked around, all the places she’s gone off to before. But I mean I found the car on a route from your house to the school, and like I told you it seemed pretty,” he heaved his chest, “abandoned.”
Niko didn’t really know how Jason was standing. Granted, Niko didn’t know he was on his feet, either, but he figured it had something to do with not having to find another loved one’s abandoned car. He tried to imagine himself as Jason, tried to imagine where his mind was going. “Well, the police won’ start doin’ anythin’ for a while. ‘N’ we still have to keep looking for Nine, too…” He hesitated. Jason didn’t want to hear this. But it was the truth. There was no way the both disappeared within days of each other in the same way and they weren’t in the same place. It only made it more urgent for them to be rushing to Porbeagle. “It migh’ be possible they’re together. Bade…did that with other friends,.”
Jason stopped him in his tracks. “No, don’t even say it,” his words were sharp and would have wounded Niko if he wasn’t a blob of oozing pus already. “I don’t want to even consider that.”
Niko nodded, swallowed. So he wouldn’t go there. He wouldn’t tell that truth. Maybe it was best to continue being objective - they didn’t have all the facts after all. “I’ve been searchin’ Porbeagle with nothin’ yet but…” he sighed, feeling the weight of being awake pushing him to the core of the earth, “I’ve got abou’ five more places to visit. But I’m too tired to drive anymore, ‘n’ I don’t think coffee is going to solve that anymore D’ya think you could come with ‘n’ drive?”
Jason didn’t respond immediately. In fact, it was longer than Niko could really understand. But he was getting rather inadequate at estimating time. He wanted to sleep in the dull of the wait, but his mind wouldn’t stop reeling. There was no Clem left to tell him it was okay to rest.
"Yeah, uhm," Jason finally responded, "just give me a minute. Let me tell my mom and get my keys, we can take my car."
In ten minutes, they left for Porbeagle. Niko curled in the reclined passenger chair. There were so many stars out, even with the light pollution and the rain. He thought about how Nine would listen to him talk about the science of the stars and how Clem would get bored and start drawing on the windows with her finger. He tilted his head to get a look at Jason. He was just focusing on the lit road, his shoulders slumped but his posture still upright.
He felt like they were driving off the edge of the earth, and this thought calmed him in an upsetting way he didn’t have the time to understand. “You know,” he said to Jason, gazing at his face. “Nine really loves you. I mean, I’m sure you do, but I jus’ though’ you should hear it from an observer. You’re really good for her.” His eyebrows raised as the truth of that meaning sunk in. “You’re the best actually. ‘N’ with Clem, too. She’s way more relaxed aroun’ you. I don’t know,” he paused. He could picture Clem, her stance, her posture, but it was all so unreachable. “It jus’ seems sometimes like she would be lost without you. I mean, I would be without Nine, too, and maybe it’s just a sibling thing but…I jus’ think she’d be a lot worse off without you. Nine, too.” He smiled - a small but genuine smile. “You’re a good guy, Jason.”
Jason didn’t say anything. But it wasn’t like before. There wasn’t a silence. Niko wasn’t waiting, he wasn’t feeling the quiet fill and confuse his reality. When they got closer to their destination, Niko gave him final directions to their first restaurant through a yawn. He made sure to text Spencer again. It had been an hour since his last one.
There was nothing at the first stop. The pair got large fries and continued on. The next cashier didn’t understand why they were only getting a drink and also didn’t remotely understand why they were asking about masks. “Nobody’s greeting us in a mask,” she said, glad to be rid of them when they left. The next stop was in the same shopping center. This time, Jason recited their mantra. The boy was nicer there and wished them a good night. Niko was pretty sick of hearing it, he didn’t think he’d ever say it to another human being again in his lifetime.
The third seemed hopeful at first, but it turned out he just misunderstood their question. Niko’s claws had snapped out of his fingers, but he avoided the urge to maul the man by biting at his lips. Jason waved goodbye and they hopped back into the car for the fourth.
The ride was only five minutes away, but two minutes in Jason’s voice cleared the hum of the car. “She loves you too, you know? I mean of course you do but I just…” he struggled for words to continue. Niko screwed up his face, trying to figure out just who was supposed to love him. With the next sentence that was all cleared up. “Nine worries about you a lot, but she loves you so much. Nothing you could ever do would stop that. And I know that you were there after Bade the first time, and you were a huge part of what brought her back.”
Niko foggily remembered those days. He still got chills remembering her original impenetrable silence.
Jason continued then, with what seemed to be a lot of deliberation. “And Clem…you are the only true friend she’s really ever had.” He reflected on his words inwardly before continuing, “Sure, she has people like Adrian and Branson…but you know Clem, they’re not,” his voice fought with itself audibly. “She’s better,” he finally said. “Since you and her became friends, she tries harder to be okay. I don’t know if she’ll ever be capable of reciprocating your feelings, or if I even want her to, but she…she cares about you Niko, and there are very people I can say that about.”
Niko made the words sink in. His body tensed trying to comprehend it all. His brain was on its last neuron, chugging away before turning to delusion. He wanted to hold Jason’s words.
"Sorry, i know it seems I said that because…" he gestured to Niko wordlessly, and Niko nodded, "but you should know, and remember, about both of them, regardless of what happens."
Niko was still putting his previous words together, but stopped to really hear the last statement. He turned to Jason as they pulled into a parking spot. “Thanks,” he held the gaze with Jason, “I appreciate it.”
What more was there to say?
The pair forced themselves into the store. Niko tried to keep the hopelessness from consuming him, but this was the second to last store in Porbeagle - unless they did something incorrectly. With Niko’s state of mind, this wasn’t too hard to believe, but he didn’t know how double-check himself either nor did he think Jason knew how to command the operation. Not that it was cryptic, just that it was unique.
Jason started the talk again while Niko handed over the cash. He hadn’t been counting how much he had left of what he took from the bank that morning. The cashier took Niko’s money with her ear leaning toward Jason to listen. As she pulled out the change in clinking succession, she smiled. “That totally happened to me,” she laughed, “wait is that really a thing? I thought the guy was just off to some costume party and it was his job to bring the pizza.”
Jason arrived at Niko’s house at ten past three. His sister wasn’t there yet, and probably wouldn’t for another half hour because she had to drive their brothers home from school. For once Jason had transportation autonomy and he was glad for it. Niko was standing outside when Jason bounded up the front lawn, looking hallway between crying and falling asleep, much as he had for the past few days. “Hey,” Jason said.
“Bade’s not in Virga City,” Niko said almost immediately, dispensing with any greeting in a way that surprised Jason and yet didn’t at the same time.
“How do you know?” Jason asked as he followed Niko inside. Immediately Niko dove into a slightly disjointed account of how Bade had used masks when ordering food, a detail Jason had been left out of by not being integral to the note taking the day before, and that he had been asking all of the take out places with online ordering in Virga City if they had any occurrences of the sort and had no luck.
He proceeded to make coffee as he said, “Clem an’ I made a list of all the places in Porbeagle that fit the criteria.” He gestured to a piece of paper on the counter that was filled with a refined version of Clem’s chicken scratch, lists of restaurant names he was vaguely familiar with. Jason was only vaguely aware of the implications of this piece of information-that his sister had been here before him, and probably not at school. If he hadn’t been so preoccupied with the task at hand, he probably would have been more concerned than he was. At the moment, he had too many other things to worry about.
“Are we gonna go check them out then? Since ordering food from Porbeagle would be difficult, some of the chains might send the order to a more local branch.” Jason mused.
“That’s what I was thinkin’” Niko said, “We can go when Clem shows up,” he offered, and Jason affirmed the proposal. Jason followed Niko back into the study where they had worked the day before, and before Niko could suggest it Jason started putting up the restaurants on the map. It took him about fifteen minutes, during which Niko left the room multiple times, and came back laden with papers and more things Jason couldn’t decipher from his vantage point.
“You almos’ ready to go?” Niko asked as he came back through a final time. But just as he said this, the sound of Jason’s ringtone blasted through the otherwise silent room.
He wasn’t sure he was going to answer it until he saw the caller ID. It was his mom, and he knew that if he didn’t answer she’d be calling him until he did. He sighed and held up a finger to Niko and tried to express his apologies with his face. “Hello?” he said.
“Jason, have you seen Clem?” his mother asked, sounding harried and distracted, her mind obviously not completely on the conversation.
“Um, no,” Jason was confused, what was this about? Shouldn’t Clem have been home by now? “Not since this morning. Why, what’s up?” he asked, not sure if he wanted to know the answer.
“I just got a call from Chad, she never came out of school to drive them home. They say the car isn’t even in the parking lot. They’re still there…I’ve called her cell about five times and I haven’t gotten any response.”
“Mom, are you driving?” Jason asked, and after she mumbled an affirmative and he guessed why she had called. He sighed before asking, “Do you want me to go look for her?”
“Could you?” his mother asked, sounding relieved that he had offered before she had to ask, “Just look at where she normally goes, she probably just had a bad day and drove off without thinking about it too much, you know how she gets sometimes.” Jason did, he could remember all too well the times when his sister had gone running without telling anyone and hadn’t shown up for hours, the times she had gotten suspended and ran away before her mother could pick her up. They’d drive around town hours looking for her only to have her walk in the house at half past seven wet and full of stories of swimming at the bay. “I’m going to go pick up your brothers. Let me know if you find anything.”
And then she hung up, and Jason did also. He couldn’t help it, he buried his head in his hands. He was sure Clem was just off somewhere blowing up steam…but he could not handle this right now. He couldn’t. Why would she do this when she knew what Jason was going through? That he and Niko were expecting her? Did she think no one would notice, or just not care? It was just like his sister, to run off when things got to hard for her? Had she just decided comforting him was too hard, that she couldn’t handle one more time rubbing his shoulders even though he never asked her to? By the time he pulled his head up, he was fuming. How dare she run away from this? If anyone should run away, it should be him.
But instead of voicing these frustrations he just asked Niko, “Clem was definitely here earlier, right? Instead of school?” Niko nodded, and then Jason sighed again and asked, “When did she leave? Did she say where she was going?”
“She left maybe twenty or thirty minutes before you came, she just said she had to pick up your guys’ brothers,” Niko said, and Jason could hear the edge of confusion in his voice. “What happened?”
“She never turned up to pick them up. Sometimes she does this, she gets overwhelmed and she just disappears without telling anyone. I need…I need to go try to find her. I’m sorry, do you just wanna stop by later? I can’t go to Porbeagle right now.” Niko seemed pretty understanding considering, he didn’t ask impertinent questions, and didn’t object to Jason’s need to go look for his sister. He simply ushered Jason out the door without any protest and assured him he’d go to Porbeagle and start looking without him.
Once Jason was in the car his forehead hit the dashboard as he searched his brain for places to look for Clem. The basketball courts at their local park might be legitimate. If she hadn’t obviously not been at school he would have thought the gym, but that was out. It was too cold for the bay, and the rain ruled out some other places Clem would have frequented if it were sunny. Even though he was usually the only one who could find Clem when she was like this, he still was lost to her whereabouts. So he decided to drive the route to the school, just in case she had seen something part of the way there and gotten distracted.
It was hard to see with the rain blurring his windshield faster than the wipers could clean it. He kept looking hoping something would reach out to him, maybe a burger place they used to visit, or the place where she had learned how to fence with Ryan, but nothing emerged. He had probably been driving for half an hour, going back and forth between the school and Niko’s house, trying different routes each time, buoyed by some desperate hope that he would see something new.
The only thing that did was their family’s white SUV out of the rain and the slight traffic (for a neighborhood street) that had emerged around it. It sitting plain as day, pulled over to the side of the street but still in the way slightly, with the driver’s side door wide open and the lights still on. Jason pulled in behind the car and got out, his hands shaking slightly as he approached the car, mostly from anger, though he wasn’t sure if that was anger at Clem for disappearing on him, or for her leaving the door wide open in this downpour. However, when he got to the front of the car…there was no one in the driver’s seat.
“Clem?” Jason asked, peering inside the car, hoping for the first time ever to find her curled up in the backseat crying like he had last Christmas when she had pulled as similar stunt. He could handle a crying Clem, but an empty car Clem should have been in? He wasn’t sure. It reminded him too much of Nine, and soon he’d be the one in the backseat crying.
She wasn’t there, there was no one there, just an empty car with the keys still in the ignition and the lights still on and the music Clem hated still coming out softly through the speakers. How long had the car been like this? Where had his sister gone? Why would she leave the car like this? She wouldn’t, she wasn’t that irresponsible, was she? In all honesty, if Jason thought about it, she was. But he refused to believe she would just run off without even taking the keys out of the ignition. He was about to call her phone when he spotted it sitting in the cup holder in the center console.
Jason picked it up gingerly, memories of handling Nine’s phone in a similar way making it hard for him to see the screen as he flipped it open. Six missed calls, all from their mother, as well a smattering of text messages she had received over the past two weeks but never bothered to open. Jason doubted Clem even realized she got text messages. Either way, there was no way to contact her.
Jason didn’t know what to do. Who did he call? What did he do with the cars? What had even happened? Did he continue to look for his sister? What if she had just been so upset she had walked off? She might come back five minutes from now to find she didn’t have a way to get home. Jason didn’t know how to handle this, his sister, and the possibility that was filtering through his mind. That word kept sneaking up on him, teasing him, daring him to admit it…missing.
But no, not her too, Jason refused to accept it.
Instead he pulled out his own phone and sent a message to Niko. “Found her car, no Clem. Door was wide open, car still on, cell phone left behind.” He figured Niko could draw his own conclusions, whichever he was comfortable making. Jason wasn’t comfortable with any.
He didn’t call his mother. He just grabbed the keys to the other car and got back in his own before driving home. He spent the entire ride back holding those keys in his left hand, rehearsing what he was going to say to his mother, and trying to hold back the ever-present threat of tears.
Jason had never wished Nine was there more than in this moment.
Or in the next moments, when he told his mother, when he saw tears fill her eyes as she feared the worst and chose not to ignore it as Jason had, the moment when his mother called Ryan (who promised to come home with Trey immediately, the police (who told his mother they would get on it, but reminded her that it had only been an hour, the abandoned car apparently didn’t help make a case for the truth), and finally his father. And even in the moments that were causing him such egregious pain, he felt anger at the necessity to involve Robert Whitefield. When his mother tried to hand Jason the phone, he refused, only to see his crying mother and cave.
He had probably only spoken a handful of words to his father since that Christmas years ago when he had almost lit the curtains, and therefore the house, on fire. Niceties on visits were as far as he ever got, and yes or no answers were the norm. The last thing Jason needed was to talk to that man.
“Yes?” Jason said curtly when he picked up the phone.
“You found the car?” the voice of his father, a sound he hadn’t heard in months, came over the line.
“Yes,” Jason repeated.
“No sign of your sister?”
“Yes, couldn’t mom have told you this?” Jason asked, desperate to get out of this conversation.
“Fuck. That girl, she always does shit like this. Camilla needs to get a grip on this girl or-”
Jason wanted to cuss him out, he wanted to scream and yell and tell his father how wrong he was. How it wasn’t his mother’s fault, or his sister’s. But the truth was, Jason had been thinking the same thing, was almost hoping the same thing. He felt guilty admitting that almost the same words had flashed in his thoughts, so instead he just said, “We don’t know anything yet,” and handed the phone back to his mother.
Then came the next moment he wished for Nine more than anything: telling his brothers. What? He wasn’t sure. There was nothing concrete, nothing finite, and nothing to reassure them or destroy them. When Nine had left he had had Clem, now Jason had no one, and for once he wasn’t sure how to play father without them.
After the pair departed, Niko holed up in the study for the rest of the night. With his sleep-deprived sorrow, he googled all the restaurants in Virga City. From there, he narrowed those down to delivery. Those that didn’t have an online option, he clumsily marked off his list. The task numbed his mind enough to allow him a dazed climb up the stairs and onto the living room sofa. Guilt boiled him between the brief mental snapshots of another reality on and off until orange peeked its way through their windows. The sky gave birth to rain quietly during the sunrise but rose to a screaming hail after Niko finished his shower. Hero departed for work during the storm, causing Spencer to emerge from their bedroom with Stray curled in his arms.
Niko watched Spencer, hugged him when they crossed paths, but otherwise had no clue how to aid the broken man. The only thing that could save him was Nine’s timely return and Niko was on the case as much as someone living without REM successfully could. Once the consumer day began, he hugged Spencer goodbye and hurried to the bank. Nobody blinked an eye when he asked for $400 from his savings. Of course, most banks behaved that way - Niko simply stung from the realization that the rest of the world wasn’t losing rest over his sister’s disappearance.
When he returned, he borrowed Hero’s laptop and parked himself on the front porch. The rain had returned to a rustle as Niko clicked away on his deliveries. First to arrive with food was the only other pizzeria with an online system. Second to the game was a green-capped youngster with sandwiches. They trickled in with the rain, and Niko always greeted them with the most boyish smile he could grasp before plunging into the question that brought them to his doorstep. After the first four, there was still no confirmation. Niko understood the holes in his plot - maybe these kids simply hadn’t gotten the 411 but a man had greeted another deliverer in a mask. Or, hell, maybe Bade had started getting food a new way. But this was all Niko had, and frankly he believed in the speed of gossip and Bade’s limited resources as a twisted man with a face nobody could ever love or forget.
Niko found himself waiting extra long for the fifth, out of seven total, delivery. It was during his deliberation whether or not to decrease his tipping for this situation that an SUV rolled up across from him. A tall girl emerged in a blue raincoat before trotting through the rain to him. Even in his state of mind, Niko recognized Clem’s body through the once-again thickening rain and floppy jacket.
She brought her hands to her face and released her face from the hood, exposing her signature blond ponytail. Clem took a short look at his crossed leg and stack of deliveries before asking bluntly, “Why are you outside?”
"Gettin’ food delivered," he replied plainly. "D’ya wan’ some Chinese?" he reached over for the large paper brown bag, "it’s the warmest. Jus’ got it a few minutes ago."
"Oh," she stared at Niko and the bag, "uhm, okay." She turned and sat a few inches away from him on the wooden bench before taking the outstretched food. "Isn’t it a little early for Chinese food?"
Niko parted his lips rather similarly to a museum instructor, “Actually, they opened two hours ago. I was also surprised.” Clem nodded and ripped open the bag, annoyed by the staple that enclosed its top. She settled the plastic fork and spoon in her lap before pulling out the white Styrofoam box with an engraved smiley face. Niko realized what she was missing and hurried to hand her the soda he’d ordered the delivery before. “I’m checkin’ all the restaurants with online ordering to see if they’ve seen Bade. Y’know, in costume. If not, he’s not in Virga City.” Inwardly, he reflected how simply he put this. As if it was not a case of Nine’s life or death but a mathematical proof. His heart still stung, of course, still weighed down his entirety, but somehow he could let out these sentences without choking on it.
Before opening the Teriyaki Chicken special, which Niko had only picked because he found it irritating that they served Teriyaki at a Chinese restaurant (and no that did not make any sense), Clem asked reservedly, “Then where would she be - he wouldn’t take her that far, right? I mean,” she paused, “the notes said he doesn’t like to stray too far from where he takes…” The two filled in the rest of the sentence but Clem tried to soften the blow anyway, “Uhm, where he takes his…victims.”
Niko nodded. “He’ll be close - an adjacent city, basically. No more than a thirty minute drive off. My best bet is Porbeagle. It’s the biggest city nearby ‘n’ the others don’t have many abandoned buildings. He’ll feel better hidin’ there. I jus’ don’ wanna miss him here ‘n’ completely assume.” Clem seemed to accept this answer as a cure to her confusion and started to dig into the grilled chicken surrounded by cooked broccoli.
They stayed quiet as Clem ate until the next delivery (chicken tenders from the local supermarket) arrived. Once again, the driver hadn’t heard of any masked clients but wished them a good afternoon anyway. Not that it was noon just yet.
That was when Clem started talking. She poured word after word out of her mouth, like it had all been shut up by some industrial-powered dam. There were still pauses, true, and points for Niko to respond, but mostly she just talked. Apparently she’d done very poorly on her math test she’d taken that morning because she hadn’t studied. Or, Niko thought to himself, because she was Clem and at this point he was proud she’d even made it into Pre-Calc and was mostly upset that the class lowered her self-esteem and angered her so much. He hated whoever had ruined math for her. Or school entirely for that matter. Clem then reviewed basketball and her teammates and the upcoming games and what they would have to do to keep winning. Niko continuously verified the names of both the teammates and the schools which seemed to both irritate and please Clem as displayed by her hesitant and contorted facial expressions. Another delivery rolled in, which meant just one more to go, and Niko comforted his body against the bench as he listened to her hum of normality after another negative response from another capped driver. They were discussing the many moves and types of fencing when the final car parked in his driveway and confirmed his hypothesis: Bade wasn’t in Virga City. Once again, his face darkened when their backs had turned.
Niko motioned to Clem with a deep arm movement. “Could’ja help me take all this inside?” She scooped up a few plastic bags and her single bag of trash before following him inside to the kitchen where the two played a rather amateur game of tetris to fit all the food in the fridge. The two exchanged small smiles of triumph.
"Would’ja help me write down all the places I need to check in Porbeagle?" Niko pried, though he understood part of why Clem was even over had to do with Nine and she’d already been completely willing to help. Indeed she did, though her bodily behavior stilled after the request. They spent the next hour going through all the websites for Porbeagle restaurants to verify their online ordering system and then jot down their names. Clem didn’t say anything outside of asking for a repeat of their name or a letter that Niko slurred because he needed more sleep. He decided to try coffee in a pure Eureka! moment while they were working together. It would have worried him that such a simple idea had passed him entirely if he had the mind to worry about anything other than Nine - which was definitely why he hadn’t thought of coffee int he first place. A perfect destructive cycle.
Afterward, Clem glanced at the computer’s clock and abruptly started for the door. “I have to go pick up my brothers,” she explained. Niko took a moment to digest her words. Once he had, he rushed after her and walked her through the dying rain and to the car. “Jason and I will be back soon,” she said as she pulled herself into the driver’s seat. “See you later, Niko,” she held eye contact for a whisper of a second. A lull of warmth rocked in his toes as he focused on her face. He’d forgotten it. It’s beautiful familiarity calmed him, though minutely and only for a split moment.
"See you later, Clem," he stepped back onto the sidewalk and waved. He watched her from the porch until she was completely out of sight. He sighed.
Niko immediately began his next task: coffee. He hazily followed both his memories and visual instructions before pushing the button and hoping he hadn’t accidentally created a bomb. The machined whirred. Niko took that as a good sign. But the whir almost kept him from hearing his vibrating phone.
At first Niko thought the impossible: It was Nine. His heart leaped into his lungs. He dropped the phone before finally snapping it open and resting the receiver against his ear.
Of course, it wasn’t. It was Mercury. She spoke before Niko, which was quite the accomplishment because his thrill at hearing his sister’s voice definitely could have won him the Olympics. “Niko! Are joo okay? Is ev’ryone ohkay? Is it true avout Nine?”
Niko heaved his body against the counter. “Yes,” he said, keeping his voice low. He stepped back onto the porch to keep Spencer from the pain of overhearing the conversation. “She’s missin’.” A very small and far away part of him wanted to be kind to Mercury, to assure her or to give her an opportunity to help. But it was just that: small and far away. “Look, I’ll talk to you later, okay? I can’t talk about it right now.” And, as a thoughtful afternote, “And please don’t come over. Thanks, Mercury.” Without so much as a goodbye, he clicked off the call and dropped the phone onto the bench. It smacked and thudded but didn’t break.
Buddha, he couldn’t do this. He couldn’t even grasp how to do this. He needed Nine to tell him a story and help him fall asleep. He needed her to talk about their parents and about Spencer and about his baby and about going off to college and about Clem and about Tempore. He needed her to be back and to hug him and to be okay. He needed Bade dead, actually dead, and he needed some fucking REM sleep.
And he really, really, really needed to cry a whole fucking lot.
But before he could get to any of these needs, before he could even turn back inside to replace dreaming with drinking coffee, Jason appeared out of nowhere. He jumped around the puddles and a foot in front of Niko.
When Clem and Niko returned from paying for the pizza, Jason watched as his sister gave a meaningful look in her friend’s direction. Jason followed the direction of her gaze and saw that Niko was looking, if it was possible, even more somber than he had when he left the room. It was like all the energy that he had gained from his short nap had seeped out of him in the space of five minutes. Jason made a mental note to ask his sister about why later, right now was not the time.
They ate in almost complete silence, in fact the only sounds that emanated from the three of them was the shuffling of papers and Clem’s chewing, which was almost so loud it was obnoxious. She had seemed to give up on note taking, and was enjoying her slice of pizza to a far greater degree than Jason or Niko were. Jason had his eyes glued to the maps he had tacked to the walls, looking desperately for some sort of pattern. He had already marked a dozen abandoned buildings throughout Virga City and Porbeagle, but there was one building in his head that he couldn’t place on a street map. He stood next to the wall, pen poised in one hand, pizza slice in the other, his eyes raking the map like if he examined it for a fifteenth time he’d magically remember its location.
When the pizza was finished, well as finished as it was going to be, and the brainstorming going nowhere, Jason spoke up and said, “Clem and I should probably get home, we didn’t really…tell our mom we were coming. She probably thinks I’m still being questioned or something.”
“I texted mom,” Clem said quietly.
Jason looked at her, absolutely astounded, though he wasn’t quite sure what for…was it that his sister had had enough forethought to text their mother, or the fact that she texted at all? Jason cleared his throat in an attempt to recover his out, “Well, either way we should probably go. I’m…exhausted.”
Niko just nodded, looking like he wasn’t quite listening as he continued to pour over his notes. “We’ll come by tomorrow afternoon, I’ll try to have more abandoned buildings to put on the maps by then,” he told him, trying to promise some kind of progress even as it seemed impossible.
Clem reached out a hand and put it on Niko’s shoulder before she left. Jason could see the way her hand flexed as she walked away, the way her jaw clenched and her eyes closed and knew the sheer amount of physical contact was getting to her, and yet she kept up her brave face. She let Jason drive when they got to the car, claiming she was bloated from the four pieces of pizza she had stuffed in her mouth.
It was dark when he got in the car, and all Jason could think was that this was what it had looked like when Nine was kidnapped. It had been dark, she had gotten into the driver’s seat, and then she was gone. She didn’t get to drive away, there was no sister sitting in the front seat looking at him like she had looked at Niko. Nine didn’t have that.
He had to find that abandoned building.
So even though he didn’t tell Clem, he drove looking for it. He drove across town and through the older buildings by the bay, and by the neighborhoods surrounding Floodplain, and Clem said nothing. Not for the first five minutes, or the first twenty, or the first thirty, she just let him. It wasn’t until the gaslight came on that she said, “Jason, where are we going? What are you trying to find?”
“I just…I need to find it,” Jason said, his voice breaking.
“Yes, but what do you need to find?”
He tried to force the words out, but they couldn’t, they wouldn’t. He braked so hard he almost ran into the sidewalk and then Jason placed his head on the steering wheel and bit his lip in an attempt to not cry. “Do you remember when we were in middle school and you, Ryan, Trey, and I took our bikes down to the bay? …and on the way back…” he took in a gulp of air, his forehead still pressing into the space right above the horn, “On the way back we got lost. We were in this…baddish part of town, lots of old factory buildings, and Ryan dared us to go into one of them and so we did. You got so scared but you made me promise not to tell Trey and Ryan…”
“I remember,” Clem said, her voice steadier and evener than Jason’s had been in days.
“Well I…I…” and suddenly those unwanted tears, those tears that he thought he had finally run out of, flowed down his cheeks, “I can’t find it, I can’t remember, I stared at that stupid map for an hour and I’ve driven all around town and I can’t. I can’t find it.” Jason leaned his head back, staring at the roof of the car, “God, I just keep thinking that if maybe I found it…maybe if I found it…”
“Maybe if you found it…you would have a chance of finding Nine?” Clem asked, stealing the words from his lips.
Jason bit his lip, and looked at her, and nodded. Clem didn’t say anything right away, she just sat there before she said, “Well we’ll just have to look again tomorrow, on our way to Niko’s or something.” Jason nodded, reluctantly agreeing. “Here,” she said, “Let me drive.” It was the second time in two days she had voluntarily offered to drive, it was almost scarier than all the times she touched his arms in comfort.
She drove home slowly and deliberately, her motions almost mechanical, but there were no near accidents, no tears (from Clem), no honked horns from pissed off drivers, and so it was a victory, however small.
Jason went to bed almost immediately, and to his great surprise he fell asleep almost as quickly. However, he didn’t stay that way, by four in the morning he was awake with no sign of that changing. So he did what he always did when he couldn’t sleep, he cooked. He made chocolate chip pancakes and waffles, sausage and bacon, eggs (both scrambled and poached), all of which he kept warm in the oven. He even made a fruit platter, though he couldn’t bring himself to use Nine’s arrangement…even if a few things filtered in anyways.
When his mother came downstairs at seven she practically jumped with fright at a dishwashing Jason, none of the Whitefield children were ever up this early, even on a school day. She took a piece of cantaloupe as she observed her son carefully, “Are you planning on going to school today? You don’t have to, you know.”
Jason honestly hadn’t even thought about school. He didn’t even know what day it was. Was it really Monday? Had it really been three days since he’d seen Nine in the high school parking lot? It was in that moment, the question still hanging in his mind that he knew the answer to his mother’s question, “No.”
She smiled slightly at this, and rubbed his arm from across the counter. Then she came around behind him and hugged him from the side, “I’m guessing you couldn’t sleep?” she asked like she didn’t expect an answer, so he didn’t give her one. “I remember one time when you were about seven you came down in the middle of the night after not being able to sleep and tried to make yourself eggs and ended up setting off the fire alarm. There was like one section that wasn’t completely scorched and you were so proud that you ate it anyways, even after I grounded you. You were just sitting there at that table,” she pointed at the table in the nook, “grinning like a fool and eating that two inch piece of scrambled eggs.”
Jason smiled slightly, leaning into his mother’s hug just a bit. “There’s my boy,” his mother said leaning around him to see his face, “I needed to see that smile this morning.” His hands were still covered in soap and food bits and who knows what, but he leaned over and kissed his mother’s cheek before she left him, thankful for that small bit of normalcy.
His siblings came down one by one in various degrees of exhaustion, and last to emerge was his only sister. She ate no less than three pancakes, two waffles, and five strips of bacon before Steven was ushering everyone out the door for school. Clem paused by the door before she left. “Not going?” she asked, to which Jason nodded. “’Kay well I’ll meet you at Niko’s after school, okay?” and he nodded again. “Have a good-“ and then she paused, as if she realized good probably wasn’t possible, “I’ll see you later.”
Once Clem had ushered him out of the study, Niko dragged his sore, sorry, sleep-deprived body up to Nine’s bedroom. He hadn’t thought it out much, hadn’t weighed his or his sister’s bedroom as the most likely candidate for rest. Her leftover perfume merely magnetized him. Niko pulled the flowery covers over his body and hugged the pillow goodnight.
Of course, it hadn’t been all that simple. All the gods of all the worlds could have commanded him to rest and he still would have wrestled with the bed. He couldn’t help thinking of all the pain Bade was inflicting on his sister - again - and all the fear that was suffocating her. Then, inevitably, his mind would switch to guilting him further. The worst he had was thinking about her agony, not actually suffering it. They had so little time to save her. And what if they did save her? Would there be anything left? Was his sister already gone to the void?
He kept counting sheep, kept whispering, “Jus’ sleep. Please let me sleep.” Kept reminding himself if he didn’t, he would never rescue his sister. When he did dream, it still faintly stung of reality. Simply his mind stressing him further, bringing images of Nine’s torture to a blurry reality. Only an hour and a half had past by the time Niko “woke up.” He felt better, but still not in the shape he needed to find Nine.
Niko returned to the study after filling some glasses with ice water. It had started to pour outside. He wondered if his sister could hear the pitter-patter. Maybe Bade had flown her to another state or country. He’d gotten to Virga City from Germany, so obviously he had connections. It wasn’t his MO, Bade liked to stay near his victims’ homes. The thought didn’t comfort Niko.
Jason and Clem had accomplished a good amount during his hour and a half away. Jason had finished finding the maps of Virga City, Porbeagle, and a few other surrounding cities. He’d also started to note abandoned buildings that he knew of personally. Niko handed him his drink with an appreciative smile. Clem had continued to make notes in the same fashion as Niko had before. They were a little confusing, but Niko noticed how her nose and forehead had wrinkled and thanked her, too. No one in the room had a Private Investigator license, the fact that they were this organized was probably a feat in itself. Niko hoped Nine believed they were trying. He closed his eyes tightly and wished it, tried to send her his promises.
Niko watched Jason as he continued to jot down notes. They were coming to the end of brainstorming. There wasn’t a lot of cohesion to take from the chaos. Bade never took the same type of victims. They were all of various ages and sexes. He never killed them the same way, either. A few in a row would bare similar marks, but then a new pattern emerged. There were probably dozens of victims the police still hadn’t found because he had murdered them in a way to remove all evidence that they had ever existed. This was one of Niko’s many theories. But there was some hard information that they could rely on. Bade used abandoned buildings. They were always a few towns within where he kidnapped his victims. The police knew this not because Bade had talked, but because of evidence they found after Nine escaped. Niko had remembered the news at the time, too. Body after body found in disturbing places with no answer. Spencer tried to keep him from it, but Niko was too curious for his own good.
Clem interrupted his inner monologue with the purely logical statement, “I’m starving. Who wants pizza? I’ll get a supreme.” Jason and Niko lifted their faces to stare at her as she pulled out her phone. Someone had to be thinking of their vital necessities.
Of course, ten minutes into waiting with a thirty minute total, and Niko had to remember one of his notes. Actually, it was one of the one’s Clem took, but she probably hadn’t understood it herself when she transcribed it. “Here, let’s wait for them outside,” he hurried. “Don’t want to bother Spencer.” He still feared the doorbell’s effect on his godfather’s psyche.
Clem eyed him for a moment but joined him nevertheless. Jason decided to stay and start the search for abandoned buildings online. Niko figured that even if Jason didn’t believe in Bade’s return, the investigation probably helped him feel like he was actually doing something to get the love of his life back. If Niko had the spare energy to feel sorry, he would have apologized to Jason for trying to keep his sister away from him initially. Instead, he managed a soft stretch of his lips on the way out.
"So," Niko began to Clem as they sat side by side on the front bench. "Bade has to eat." Clem nodded slowly, obviously surprised by his left-field statement. Niko continued, momentarily thankful for her company and her truthful reactions. "Nine said that he would go out in a costume," he raised his finger momentously, "with a mask - he has a horrible face - after orderin’ food on the internet. He liked pizza the most, but sometimes there was Chinese or, y’know, whateva. Delivery." He swallowed. Niko suddenly remembered the next part of Nine’s confession. Bade had force fed her half a sandwich one day, then haphazardly poured lemonade down her throat. She had thought that was how she would die. Some of his victims had choked to death. Consequently, it took her time to embrace mealtime afterward. They started small, but it was still a while before she didn’t vomit from seeing a sandwich.
Clem nodded again. Before she could ask the question, the pizza girl arrived. Niko waved to her with a worn smile and handed over the cash. He faked a sudden laughter, “Hey,” he tried to become social. “Random question. I heard of this new fad, beh, where people dress up in costumes ‘n’ jazz to greet their delivery. Does that happen much with you guys?”
The girl shook her head without any thought, “Nope. I look forward to it, though.” She returned Niko’s smile and tilted her cap to him. “Thanks, you guys. Have a great night!”
Niko waved. When he turned back to the house and out of the girl’s sight, his face dropped completely. Clem carried the pizza inside with a watchful eye on Niko, who wasn’t entirely happy to know Bade had probably taken her outside of Virga.
Jason still didn’t completely believe Niko, the logical part of his brain refused to let him. The news reports and visits from the Witness Protection Program that Nineteen had relayed to him swam in his mind even as Niko made compelling arguments to the contrary. No, Jason could not completely believe Niko, and yet he knew that this was one path the police would never consider. This was the one person they would never investigate. It was Nine, he would do anything to get her back, and so he would suck up his doubts and he, his sister, and Niko would investigate this together.
So, when Niko’s pleases reached his ears, the only way Jason could respond was by saying, “Okay, where do we start?”
In that moment Jason saw just a slight lifting of the weight that seemed to be making Niko’s shoulders sag so greatly as he stood in front of Jason. He took a deep breath and a moment before he dove in, “Well, for starters, we should get maps of Virga City and the surrounding cities…Porbeagle and so on.”
“I can do that,” Jason offered.
“Oh, okay, yeah. You can probably find them online,” he told Jason, gesturing slightly to the computer in the corner, which Jason moved towards immediately. “And then Clem and I can set up the printer to print map sized paper.”
Jason felt it wasn’t prudent to remind Niko that asking his sister to help with anything to do with technology was probably futile, and so instead he opened up a Google search as the pair moved towards an abnormally large printer in the corner. Though Jason was utterly focused on his search, he couldn’t help himself from overhearing Clem saying to Niko, “Wait what button am I supposed to press?”
An exasperated looking Niko with a large pile of extremely large paper in his hands said, “The big green one, the only green one on the entire printer.”
“Well, I don’t see it,” his sister complained, crossing her arms in defiance.
Niko sighed and set the paper aside and went to help Clem find the elusive button, and though the somber mood persisted it was the first time Jason had heard Niko interact somewhat normally since their visit to Sierra’s house the day before.
Jason’s search for maps was taking longer than expected, by fifteen minutes later he only had the Virga City maps blown up and printed on large pieces of paper now being tacked to the wall by the intrepid duo of his and Nine’s siblings.
He could vaguely hear them flipping through the papers about Bade Niko had gathered and taking notes on others. But it wasn’t until he heard Clem ask Niko a question that he turned his attention back to them. “Niko,” she said, real concern edging into her voice, “When was the last time you slept? You wrote that last point twice, and my name instead of Nine’s.”
Niko mumbled something Jason couldn’t hear, but judging from his demeanor and Clem’s reaction, it had been a while. “Oh my gosh,” Clem said, sounding exasperated, “You need to sleep Niko, you are no help to anyone without sleep.”
“I just…I can’t. Can we jus’ move on?”
Clem heard his sister huff a little, but he assumed she agreed since his ears were once again filled with the hum of their whispers and pencil scratching. He knew Clem understood that feeling, of being so consumed by grief, or fear, or a desire to fix everything that you weren’t able to sleep. Goodness knows Jason did. It had been a miracle that he had fallen asleep at all the night before, and it was probably all due to Clem. It always seemed to be that way. Jason’s mind swirled with memories of lying awake all night worrying about the sister sleeping beside him. Those were the nights of his childhood, he remembered thinking that if he slept…it would just get worse. He’d come back, and he’d have slept through it and be unable to stop it. So he was a silent sentinel. In similar positions Jason played watchdog, while it seemed Niko gathered information.
Just as he was thinking this Clem’s voice returned to demand the same thing she had so quickly dropped a few minutes before, “No…okay, no you need to sleep. I am not talking about this anymore until you do.” Niko didn’t say anything, as far as Jason could hear or see, for he was not able to keep himself from looking at the pair. “Niko…” Clem said, her voice much gentler than it had been all day, “It is okay to sleep, you know? I promise you nothing is going to get worse if you sleep. In fact, it may get better, because you’ll be rested and able to look at all of this better.”
There were still no words from Niko, but Jason could see by the look on his face that he was slowly caving, but there was still that twitch of his lips, that urge to fight what Clem was saying that Jason recognized. Jason knew that even if Niko did sleep he wouldn’t sleep well, none of them would until Nine was found, but he also knew that Clem was right, Niko was no use to them exhausted. So he said the words that had helped him sleep the night before, “Niko, Nine would want you to sleep. She wouldn’t want you to be this exhausted.”
Finally, it seemed, Niko caved. He didn’t say so, but the way his shoulders slumped and he finally allowed his true exhaustion to show on his face told Jason his answer anyways. Clem seemed to realize it too, for she took him on the arm and began leading him out of the room, saying as she did so, “Jason and I will finish printing out all the maps and putting them up, and I will continue going through the papers and you can double check everything when you wake up. Don’t-“ and then she was out of earshot.
As Jason continued looking for acceptable maps of Porbeagle, he couldn’t help but think about how good the two of them were together. How much Clem seemed to care about Niko, even if she would never, ever say it out loud. She treated him with almost the same amount of care that she did Jason, just with more snark. He’d never seen anything like it. Oh, how he wished he could talk to Nine about this. He never had gotten the chance to, and now he may never get to.
Jason was staring at a blurry, half finished map that was loading far too slowly on Niko’s computer when the tears started bubbling up. He had never been a crier, but it seemed that for the past two days he could not help himself. He was sitting in the Newton house, on their computer, crying, and all he could think was that he hoped Spencer wouldn’t find him in there and think he was crying because the Porbeagle map was blurry, though Jason’s frustration over not finding any good maps was definitely contributing. Jason was ridiculous.
And Clem said so when she reentered, “What? Your blurry map offend you? You are ridiculous, Jason.” Then she seemed to realize what she had said and smacked her forehead, “Oh gosh, I’m sorry, I keep saying dumb shit like that and forgetting. Somehow I keep forgetting, except not forgetting…” she trailed off for a second before coming back to the conversation, “Do you know what I said to Niko up there? Some chin up nonsense and then a joke about his cotton candy hair. It was like I was just saying gibberish.”
Jason practically snorted through his snotty-nosed tears. “I’m sure he appreciated your gibberish.”
“You don’t understand, the joke was making fun of his hair,” Clem lamented.
“Well if it is any consolation he is probably so tired he won’t even remember when he wakes up,” Jason said.
“Yeah, yeah,” Clem muttered, “Anyways, back to work, nose to the grindstone, all that. Dry those…” and she gestured at his face without saying the word, “not all the maps will insult you with blurriness.”
Jason just chuckled, wiping away the wetness on his cheeks, as this new duo got to work.
The police arrived at 8:03 in the morning with a rap-rap-rap on the door. The house had been thickened with silence, but the knock pierced right through to each of the members inside. Hero got the door - Hero had taken responsibility of most all duties. Spencer had sobbed on and off until, Niko assumed, he was completely dry. When Niko joined them with the police in the kitchen, he couldn’t help but notice the wear on his godfather’s face. The bags under his eyes could have held a quarter if his eyes themselves weren’t so puffed up from tears. Hero repeatedly filled Spencer’s glass with water throughout the conversation with the police.
Niko hadn’t slept either. He hadn’t stayed up crying, instead he had begun compiling information. He had saved many reports and newspaper clippings from Bade’s arrest, his murders, and his court case in a lock box that his best friend, Holden, had given to him years ago. There were also other trinkets in there - a movie ticket from his time with Tempore, a handmade birthday card from another friend, and so forth. He didn’t know why he had saved all these things, especially the papers concerning Bade. He guessed it was only because they had seemed too important to forget at the time. In the dark of the night, probably 24 hours since Nine had been stolen once again, Niko scoured these reports and clippings, unearthing memories to save his sister.
It wore him all the way through, and the lack of sleep confused all the data. He didn’t forget to take his pill, but it still felt as if he was disappearing between multitudes of realities - like the opaque, dizzying stage between sleep and wakefulness. He grounded himself with food and a tour through his sister’s room. There were no clues there - Niko knew that before he crossed the threshold. He understood that as soon as he found her abandoned car. He just needed somewhere to rest. Nine had always been his home, she had always made him feel safe.
Niko spent hours going through her CDs (including the playlist of a mix CD from Jason, Niko later found the CD itself in her car), her books, her various collectibles, and a few photo albums. The picture of their father rested importantly against her mahogany vanity. It cleared his head at first. But, by the time the police arrived, his stomach had turned sour and heavy. Hopelessness pervaded to the parts of him he had never felt before.
Niko hated the police on sight. This only increased with their questions. They rose their eyebrows at him when he entered the kitchen, shook his hand after Spencer limply let go of theirs. Niko towered both male officers, of course Hero and Spencer did too - but only Niko emphasized his height. Niko feared he might fall asleep and never wake up to save his sister if he took a seat, so he remained standing.
They started with the basics, then they asked about the car, which Niko answered with gravel for a voice. They asked about Jason, the sleepover, how often she texted home normally, general habits, and finally - finally the question they had the audacity to apologize for asking.
"Sorry Mister Cisse," one of them began, "but we have to ask this. Are you sure Nineteen hasn’t run away?"
Niko’s forehead could have exploded. The pressure pushed against his skull like encephalitis. If he had the mind at the time, Niko could have compared the anger he used to have for Clem, the fury that set his nerves on fire each time a racial, homophobic, or transphobic slur was whispered or shouted or pushed in his direction. He could have compared all that anger that had boiled within him, combined it, and it wouldn’t equal - it wouldn’t approach what he was feeling at that moment.
Thankfully for both Niko and the police officers, that anger delayed his reaction time. It froze him. Hero pulled him away, up the stairs, into his bedroom. Before the door closed, he heard Spencer’s frail voice crack, “No…”
Hero understood she couldn’t calm him. She merely meant to keep him from assaulting a police officer. “Niko,” she began, being careful to give him space. His maddened eyes reminded her of a feral cat, its tail straightened and ready for a clumsy escape. “If you scream or break anything, they will come up here. They have batons. They will beat you. They will have one more thing keeping them from searching for Nine.”
Her voice sounded miles away. Foggy and dreamlike. Niko’s knuckles whitened. He thought he would combust. He would become ash and flames. But he didn’t. He held onto her words, and he breathed. Hero nodded slowly to encourage him. Visions of Nine’s abandoned car and her shredded arms blurred his surroundings. He stopped breathing entirely. He throbbed. Hero searched for his eyes, tiptoed closer. Niko rolled his eyes backward. When he collapsed, Hero had tiptoed close enough to catch him and place him gently onto his bed.
He awoke moments later, but his rage had diffused to all inches of his body. Hero watched him repeatedly blink his eyes. “Are you okay for now?” she asked, and he nodded. Even though he wasn’t. Of course he wasn’t. They both knew that. But Hero had to get Spencer another glass of water.
Once the police left, Niko pulled himself off the bed. He glanced at every object in the room and imagined what they would look like broken. Smashed. Ripped apart. Crushed into billions of billions pieces. He sighed.
He couldn’t do this alone. Niko was beyond repair, beyond incapable of finding and saving his sister on his own. So what if he found where Bade was keeping her? If he could even accomplish that. He would have to get her out next. What if he had to confront Bade? Could he survive or would he and his sister simply die together?
Through the pounding headache, Niko called Clem. He found it surprisingly easy to get her to agree, he expected to have to reason or to explain. But she was on board, and in no time at all she and Jason were at his front door.
Hero and Spencer were in the bedroom with Stray. Niko had waited by the door to keep them from hearing a doorbell - fearful Spencer could believe it was the police with news or even Nine and rush to the front door just to break his heart again. He hadn’t been this weak the first time she disappeared. Experience had brutalized him.
"Hey," he waved to them and motioned inside. "So, uh, follow me. The notes are in the study." Niko could hear the wear in his voice. He really needed to get some rest. But he couldn’t. The anxiety kept him from any peace. Even if he wasn’t afraid, morally obligated to stay awake, his body wouldn’t let him either.
Jason glanced at Clem but followed Niko all the same into the study. Niko bent over and grabbed all the papers pertaining to Bade. “This is what I have. I need to get maps of Virga and the surrounding cities. They should be online, but I just…” he didn’t know how to describe what had happened to him, “couldn’t.” Clem took the papers as he offered them before handing half of them to Jason. He eyed the papers, the headlines, and then returned his gaze to Niko.
He didn’t believe it was Bade. Niko did not know how he filtered out the groan. There was no anger toward Jason, only extreme exhaustion. But he needed the help - Nine needed the help.
"Jason, Bade said he would get her again. He managed to murder tens of people before he was caught, and for a period of time he worked a block from the police station. He could fake his own death. I swear it. There is no other conceivable reason why Nine would be gone again, Jason," he could feel the warm tears. They just happened. Niko didn’t mean for it, he didn’t even sense them coming. His body was operating outside of his control.
Jason hadn’t even realized he had been holding his breath until Niko left the room. But once the boy with the pink and blue tresses had disappeared through his bedroom door his whole body slumped. Clem was still looking at the place where Niko had been, her face uncharacteristically contemplative, her eyes narrowed in thought. But once she saw her brother slump over in his seat, her eyes snapped back onto him.
If Jason had been better able to think, he would have sat up, smiled wearily at his sister, and feigned some semblance of being okay. But he just couldn’t. Jason was sure Niko was wrong about Bade, Bade was dead after all, but even the suggestion of it made his heart hurt. Nine had told him stories of her time with Bade. Well, not so much stories as one-sentence descriptions at different points. No, her times with Bade never culminated in the stories she always intricately told, and Jason was pretty sure he didn’t want them to. But he knew, essentially, what Bade had did to Nine, to his Nine, and he didn’t even want to imagine the possibility that it would happen again.
But he was dead, Jason told himself over and over.
When he had finally controlled his panic he looked up to find his sister staring at him, that same contemplative expression she had had on her face when looking at Niko. In some ways, Jason knew that look, it was like she was trying to decipher something she didn’t understand (his emotions) without having to ask. But there was something else hidden behind her eyes, was it worry? Or doubt? Or perhaps she was imagining the worse as Jason had…he didn’t know.
“You okay?” Clem asked sheepishly when she noticed him looking back at her. Jason didn’t say anything, he just shrugged. He wasn’t okay, but admitting that to his sister…it wouldn’t go well. Besides, he was pretty sure she knew. In fact, he knew she knew by the way her lips pursed together and she wringed her hands, like she was trying to figure out how to deal with that apparent fact. She reached out an obviously trembling hand, and for the second time in twenty-four hours Jason’s sister did what she never did, she rubbed his shoulder, she touched him without provocation, without being asked. “They’ll find her,” Clem tried to assure him, though she didn’t sound overly confident, “They will, and if they don’t…I will, I promise.” And in those last four words Jason heard a confidence that he hadn’t heard before, in a moment his moping turned into a shrewd glare at his sister’s declaration.
“You will not be searching for her,” he demanded, “The police will handle it. I don’t want you getting in trouble with them again,” he told her earnestly. Though her and Niko’s exploits in figuring out the Go Green crimes over summer had been entertaining afterwards, Jason couldn’t forget the stress her brief stint in jail had caused for their mother, and with the holidays around the corner, he knew she wouldn’t be able to deal with a repeat. Jason reached up and grabbed the hand still resting on his shoulder, “Just…be with me through this, okay? I don’t need you searching, just…help me. I’ll have to tell mom. And the police…” Jason’s voice broke unexpectedly.
“The police will probably want to talk to you,” Clem finished for him. “I understand…I get it, you’re right,” she admitted, though she sighed audibly.
They didn’t get up right away. In fact, Clem forced Jason to scoot over on his bed and joined him on it, and leaning back against the wall she rested her head on her older brothers shoulder. If Jason hadn’t been so shell-shocked by his missing girlfriend, he would have been by the sheer degree of physical contact with his only sister. But he could feel her hand shaking slightly under his, the tenseness of her neck even as she leaned against him, and knew that she was doing it more for him than for her. Jason clung to it anyways, clung to the comfort that that little bit of touch brought, that exerted effort, and built his strength upon it.
A half hour later, they were in the kitchen informing their mother. Jason did most of the talking, but Clem sat next to him and finished his sentences when the information he was imparting became too hard to bear. His mother was stronger than him and Clem both, blessed with comforting words when needed, and the ability to seem to solve everything with a simple hug.
The rest of the day was silent and restless, news of Nine’s disappearance filtered through the house silently. Everyone, except Clem, tried to tiptoe around Jason, like if they got too close or said the wrong thing he would break. They weren’t far off. It was mostly silent except for the steady pitter-patter of raindrops on the windows, that was until the Whitefield residence received a phone call from the Virga City Police Department. For once, the phone wasn’t about his younger sister, though that didn’t soften the blow of their presence on the caller ID. Jason agreed to meet with them the next day, just to answer a few questions, and hung up the phone, feeling hollower than he had before.
Jason numbly walked back into the living room where he had been before, but stopped at the doorway when he heard the hushed voices of Chad and his mother. “Why would they want to talk to Jason?” Chad asked, his voice curious and a bit defensive of his older brother.
His mother sighed, and Jason could see from her reflection on the window that her face was in her hands before she straightened up and looked at her son, “Well, in cases like these, oftentimes a boyfriend or…significant other, is the first suspect.”
“They couldn’t think-“ Chad said loudly before his mother interrupted him.
“Maybe not, but they have to cover their bases.”
Jason cleared his throat before entering the room, not wanting to hear any more speculation on why he was getting called into the police station. After informing his family that he was going in for questioning, Clem equally informed him that she was taking him. It wasn’t a request, she was just telling him, but that didn’t stop Chad from saying, “I don’t think you driving him to the police station is going to make him any safer, Clem, in fact, he might just get into a car accident and never get questioned at all.” But once Clem shot him a glare he shut up.
Jason didn’t sleep well that night, and neither did Clem it seemed. She wandered into his room at three in the morning and sat on the foot of his bed, looking out at his window with that same thoughtful expression she had worn throughout most of the day. For some reason his sister’s presence finally allowed Jason to drift off, and when he woke up in the morning he found his sister fast asleep leaning against the wall.
They went straight to the police station, though Jason was separated from his sister almost upon entering. She promised him with earnest that she would wait for him outside as she took a phone call that was causing everyone in the room to glare at her for the high volume of her eight byte ringtone.
The questioning went as well as could be expected. Where was he Friday night? At home. Could anyone attest to that? His six brothers and the brother of Nineteen. When had he last heard from Nineteen? She had texted him after arriving at her friend Sierra’s. Did he usually hear from her often? Yes.
On and on the questions went until Jason barely realized he was answering. Did he know of anyone who would want to hurt her? No, no one who is alive. And then the questions turned to Bade. What did he know about Bade? No more than what the police knew. Is there anyway Nineteen could have ran away because of that, or something else? No…no, no there was no way. No, no way. No…no?
No, she wouldn’t run away. Not without telling him. She wouldn’t leave Niko and Spencer and even Hero and her future child and that strange cat of Niko’s. And she wouldn’t leave him. She wouldn’t just drop her phone and leave her car door unlocked and run off in the middle of the night. She wouldn’t do that to them again. That wasn’t Nine.
Jason didn’t mean to cry, but he did. Then the officer who had been questioning him for the past half hour put down his clipboard, reached out a hand, and squeezed Jason’s wrist. “Don’t worry,” he told Jason, “I believe you, we’ll find her.”
Though whether he meant he believed that Jason believed she wouldn’t run away, or that she actually wouldn’t wasn’t clear to Jason. He chose not to question it, and he was free to go.
He learned when he reached the lobby that they had asked Clem a few questions as well, though from the look on her face she seemed far less shaken than Jason. In fact, she looked more determined than Jason had ever seen her besides on the basketball court. She practically grabbed him by the arm upon seeing him and dragged him outside. Only when she noticed his half dry tears did she stop pulling. “Oh shit,” she said, “Were they being assholes? I’ll go beat them up for you.”
Jason laughed slightly, “No beating up police. It wasn’t them anyways, it was just…this, this whole situation.” Jason said, waving his hand at nothing.
“Well I wish I could beat that up too, but we’re going to do the next best thing.” Jason raised an eyebrow at his sister as a very small smile appeared on her face, “We’re going to Niko’s.” she said before walking away.
“Um…how is that better?” Jason called after her.
She turned around, the smile growing, “We’re going to Niko’s, we’re going to find Nine, and then we’re going to get her back, police or no.”
Sitting inside Nine’s car knocked the air and the tears out of Niko. He had only been shaking before, merely vibrating with fear and accumulating stress. He had gripped onto the ledge with sweaty palms, hoping to find Nine simply collapsed in exhaustion inside her car, as his mind aggressively whispered worse. Now Niko basted in the unholy truth. Nine was gone. Nine had been taken. Someone had taken Nine.
He spent the drive to Whitefield’s attempting to put together the explanation he would have to give to Spencer. Instead, tears devoured his face and his mind. He shouldn’t have been driving, he knew that. But he had to take her home. He had to salvage every last piece of her.
He had cried himself dry by the time they made it to the Whitefield’s. His body disoriented, his head nothing but pounding grief and pain. Ineffable pain. Nine had never told him what happened the first time Bade kidnapped her, but he saw the cuts on her body and had waited for the silence to pass, initially assuming the situation had caused her to become mute. He read the court transcripts, newspaper clippings, everything - even with Spencer eyeing him like a hawk. Somewhere, somewhere close, Nine was undergoing nightmarish torture, but the world continued to turn.
Jason explained to Clem their trip to Sierra’s with Niko monotonously filling in the holes he couldn’t, interrupting his breathing exercises to keep the world from closing in on him. He felt his own stillness blanketing his shivers. His reactions all conflicted with one another and Niko wondered, in a moment of clarity, if he should call in a special appointment with Ichabod to switch his meds. He had to increase his capacity to find his sister.
"So what do we think happened, then?" Clem finished.
Niko didn’t wait for Jason to guess out an answer. He didn’t know. He had no clue. He knew about Bade, yes, but he also was told that Bade had died. He couldn’t explain why Nine had disappeared into thin air, leaving only her cellphone with twelve missed calls and an open text to Jason.
But Niko knew. There was no question.
"Bade has her," he said, his worn eyes holding gaze with Clem.
Jason shifted uncomfortably and eyed him wearily. Clem didn’t. Clem tilted her head slightly, flickered her eyes to him and then to the corner of Jason’s room. They were both skeptical, if not downright suspicious this ordeal hadn’t tampered with his sanity. He didn’t have the energy nor the time to explain himself. He was the only person that would suspect Bade, and so he was the only one that could save his sister.
"I havta go home," he brought himself to a stand. With a constriction in his chest, weighing on him to just get out and dispense with the trivialities, Niko channeled the grace and kindness of his twin sister. "I havta tell Spencer. Thanks for the ride, Jason. Can I have her phone?" Jason nodded and held it out to him with frailty.
The ride home wasn’t long enough. He thought he heard Nine howling, but thankfully knew better. He gripped the steering wheel harder and rehearsed the Fibonacci sequence until she quieted. By the time he parked in the driveway, he still hadn’t collected the words he needed to keep Spencer from breaking.
It was no use anyway. Spencer had heard the car. He rushed outside from his upstairs bedroom when the rumbling turned off, but froze instantaneously when Niko emerged from driver’s seat instead of Nine.
Niko remembered that face from not long enough ago. He felt something inside him shift out of place as his godfather aged thirty years in a single shattering moment. Niko walked toward him, his arms reaching out in case the man fell. He visualized Spencer taking the same steps toward him the day the police came over to ask questions about Nine’s disappearance. There was a deep sorrow in this moment that tainted the air, turned the sky a darker hue of blue.
"It was outside her friend’s," he tried looking into his godfather’s eyes, just as Spencer had done for him. "Unlocked. She wasn’ there. She had a text open to Jason on her phone." He eased the phone out of his pocket and placed it tenderly into Spencer’s whitening palm.
Hero had made her way to the door at that moment. Her belly caused her to waddle slightly. She didn’t ask any questions. Her arm weaved around Spencer, grabbed his hand, and led him to the nearest chair - a kitchen barstool.
"I’ll call the police," Hero said, more to Niko than to Spencer. Spencer’s eyes had glazed over completely. "Get him some food and check his pulse and temperature. Make sure he eats. He won’t be hungry, but make him eat.” She left for a room with a closed door.
Niko sighed. His bones sighed. There were leftovers of Nine’s food in the fridge, glistening with the plastic wrap. He thought about breaking, then, about collapsing and ceasing all breathing entirely. He recalled an image of his dark legs, of staring at his own legs while he listened to Spencer and the police talk about Nine in pointed facts and “I don’t know”s. He had thought about how he didn’t really feel like he was there anymore, an out-of-body experience he knew he shouldn’t explain. It was the opposite now. He was stuck in this reality, caged inside his own skin and this moment and this horrible suburban house littered with all of his sister’s beautiful touches.
He pulled out frozen chicken wings Hero had picked up for herself. After he placed six onto a plate and clinked them into the microwave, he sat next to his godfather again. Niko turned to take his pulse and temperature just as Hero had asked when he realized Spencer had been sobbing, his head in his arms and his arms on the counter. He had been crying harder than he had ever heard anyone cry in his life and Niko hadn’t remotely noticed.
"Spencer?" his breath quickened as he watched the man shake uncontrollably. His heartbeat spiked, and now Niko wasn’t sure if it was Spencer that was shaking or himself. "Spencer!" Niko yelled and grabbed onto his arm. Spencer responded with a heavy hug, completely encompassing his godson.
“I love you,” his voice cracked quietly.The volume had subsided but the shuddering and tears remained. “I love you. I love you.”
Niko overheard Hero finishing the call in the other room and the click of the phone.
Niko said Nine wasn’t at home. Jason didn’t know what to think. He also didn’t know Sierra’s number, though he supposed he could get that easily with just a few well-chosen phone calls and text messages. But…even as he clutched his cell phone in his hand he could feel panic well up within him. He wondered if this was what Niko and Spencer felt on that day all those years ago when Nine hadn’t come home for days… He wondered if it was what Niko felt right now, what they both felt every time she wasn’t home exactly when she said, every time she didn’t pick up her phone or took too long to answer a text message. Jason knew Bade was dead, and so did Niko and Spencer-but did their minds every jump to him regardless…looking for even a very sinister conclusion in the midst of any kind of uncertainty. He knew he had, ever since Nine had told him about her name and her past.
But he couldn’t let that fear and uncertainty paralyze him as it was now, his hand hovered over his phone, frozen. Niko was waiting for him-counting on him„ and with his…tendencies Jason knew his fear was even more paralyzing than his own. He had to do this, so he called multiple friends and was led on a wild goose chase through voicemails and wrong numbers until one of his tennis teammates who had previously dated and dumped Sierra passed her number on.
Jason, however, neglected to mention him as his source when Sierra answered her phone. He practically held his breath in the time between his inquiry of Nine’s whereabouts and Sierra’s answer. But when she said, “No, Nine isn’t here, she left to go home late last night. Maybe you should just check there?” his heart stopped.
“I already did,” he admitted numbly, more mumbling than really speaking. He couldn’t believe it, for despite his panic Jason had truly believed that Nine would be there. He took a moment to compose himself before saying, “Listen, Sierra, could I stop by later and just make sure she didn’t sleep in her car or something…I know she probably didn’t and I’m just worrying for no reason but it would give me some peace of mind.”
Sierra was, thankfully, very understanding, and gave a panicked Jason her address before hanging up. He knew he shouldn’t, but Jason wanted a few minutes so he could compose himself before he called Niko back. He cleared his throat, and called Niko. The call was short, stilted, and uncomfortable, though that was more due to the subject than his conversation partner. By the time they hung up, Jason was halfway out the door and on his way to pick up Niko and go to Sierra’s.
He didn’t even have to get out of the car when he arrived at the Newton house; he was already outside and in Jason’s car before he could even say a word. After stilted hellos, the rest of the car ride was mostly silent, Jason just stared straight ahead and drove, only occasionally looking down at the directions sitting in his lap. Then, all of the sudden they were there.
Neither of them got up, neither of the said anything. When Jason looked over at Niko he saw that the boy’s eyes were closed, if only for a moment, as if he was preparing for what they were about to see. “Maybe we should-“ and Niko just nodded and got up before Jason had to finish, and after a deep breath he joined Niko.
Jason had thought he was calm before, he certainly thought he should be calmer than Niko, but based on the constricting feeling in his chest…he probably wasn’t. So he took another deep breath and said, “What are we looking for?” like somehow Niko would know better than him.
It seemed that he did, because Niko very matter of fact, “A sign she was here,” before doing a 360 turn and then saying, even more flatly, “Her car,” while pointing at it across the street and down a few houses, and walking towards it.
Jason followed Niko, approaching quietly, far too nervous about what they might find to make any noise whatsoever. Niko let him be the one to approach the car, Jason almost wished he hadn’t, but it was too late. He was already there, his left hand on the car door, his right shoved deep in his pocket for fear that it would shake too hard for him to keep it together. He put his hand on the handle and pulled, and was shaken, perhaps more than he should have, to find that the door was unlocked and opened with ease. “That isn’t good,” he said so quietly he wasn’t sure that Niko could hear him, and when he looked back at the boy his silent staring at the open door gave him no answers.
They approached the inside of the car even slower than they had the door. Niko took it upon himself to go around to the passenger side, while Jason was left to deal with the front. Her math book was still sitting on the passenger seat, a book which Niko was now holding grasped between his almost too steady fingers. Niko felt around for her phone, going immediately to the cup holder where she normally kept it while driving. It wasn’t there. Then he began to look around the seat, just in case, and there wedged next to the brake was Nine’s cell phone.
“…I think I found her phone,” Jason told Niko, not letting this discovery be solitary despite the fact that he somewhat wanted to. Niko’s head snapped towards Jason, and he could tell Nine’s brother was waiting for what news the phone would give them. Jason pulled the phone out from the depths of the car floor Jason stared at it, and then took a deep breath, hoping against hope for some remaining battery. He was in luck. He almost smiled, at the sight of his name popping up at the top of the screen, until he realized he was looking at a half finished reply from the girlfriend he had been fretting about for hours.
Jason’s breath caught in his throat. He tried to close his eyes like he had seen Niko do earlier, but that only made the tears escape rather than holding them in. But he refused to let more fall. “What did it say?” Niko asked, that same steady voice shaking him out of his reverie.
“She was about to-“ Jason began to say, but found he couldn’t, and instead limply offered Niko the phone while trying not to look at him, if only to hold back any more tears. He sat down in the front seat, head leaning back, thinking about the fact that the last time Nine sat here she had been texting him, thinking about him, and that only made the whole thing worse.
He could hear Niko still poking around, looking, and so Jason composed himself and forced his body to move, his brain to think, his hands to prod, until they had looked over the whole car and found nothing else of interest except some discarded algebra 2 notes and an empty bag of chips Jason had probably left there.
“We should go,” Niko said, when they reached the trunk, “I can drive the car, I brough’ the extra keys.”
“We…we could go to my house. Talk…about this.”
Niko nodded, and walked back towards the front seat of the car. Jason took another deep, solitary breath before he closed the trunk and went back to his own car. When he was alone in it, he put his head to the steering wheel and finally let those tears fall, let the shuddering breaths of his fears and despair fall out of him. He didn’t mean to sob, but he found he could not hold it in anymore. Only after the tears stopped falling did he lean his head back, take one more steadying deep breath, and turn on the engine.
He drove home without crying, and by the time Jason and Niko rendezvoused at the Whitefield house he was almost as steady as Niko had been in front of Sierra. He couldn’t help but notice that Niko’s pink and blue eyes seemed tinged with red, he wondered if his own blue had the same evidence. They both entered the house through the garage, and found Clem awaiting them in the kitchen. Jason wasn’t completely surprised, but it seemed Clem was. Her eyes got wide when she saw the two of them enter together, but whether it was from their joint appearance or their red-tinged eyes, Jason didn’t know. “Did you ever get a hold of Nine?” she asked, though Jason was pretty sure she knew the answer.
Jason looked at Niko, and seeing that he was in no position to answer, he did the talking. That “no” was one of the most taxing words to ever leave his lips. Clem approached him, her eyes warm, at least for Clem, and guided him towards a different room, away from the chattering of their brothers they could hear from the dining room. Niko and Jason followed her upstairs, and, not completely unsurprisingly, into Jason’s own room. When they were all seated, Clem looked at them pointedly, as if awaiting an explanation, and she wasn’t about to ask.
So Jason dove into the explanation, his voice cracking at the first word, but finding itself by the second. He needed Niko’s help occasionally, and he provided it with no complaint, though very quietly and very straightforward. Jason could tell by the look in Clem’s eyes that she could sense something in Niko that Jason just couldn’t. An anxiety bubbling under the service Jason knew was there but couldn’t see, but he knew Clem could.
When they were finished Clem looked at them, she didn’t hug them like most sisters and friends might, she just sighed…and then said, “So what do we think happened, then?”
Niko spent the blurry beginning of his morning haphazardly knocking everything to the floor like a baby Tyrannosaurus Rex with no control over its tail. Of course, every time he bent over to pick something up, another helpless object came tumbling down. The racket reached a volume that Spencer knocked on his door in the midst of a battle with his make-up collection.
"Are you distressed?" he asked with a non-judgmental gaze.
"Yeah," he waved while scooping up his eye-shadow palette, then shook his head retroactively, "I mean, no." The palette fell once again, but this time its plastic lid crashed open. Colorful ash sprinkled his feet and carpet. He groaned. Spencer’s eyebrow rose as he watched his godson sigh, "Bugger," and fall back on his bed.
Spencer took the occasion to completely submerge his body into the chaos. He expertly whisked out a handkerchief and started to catch all the dust from his makeup. “What ails you?” he queried as if out of some Shakespearean play.
"Nothing, Spencer, I was jus’ out late. ‘N’ I guess it took more out of me than I though’." That was when the obvious snapped in his brain. He had a Whitefield hangover.
This family really was going to kill him.
"Nine and you have that in common," Spencer caught his eye. "She has yet to return." The stress in his godfather’s voice suddenly deepened. He heard it crack. It shattered his reality like an earthquake. Niko took no time in thrusting his blurry ache off the bus and focusing on his godfather.
"When did she say she’d be back?"
Spencer’s eyes skidded to the rainbow carpet. “She didn’t. She has not returned my calls either. Do you know where she might have ended up last night?”
Niko could not stand this deja vu anymore than he was positive Spencer could. “She was at a friend’s las’ nigh’,” he tried to assure the both of them, “maybe she fell asleep ‘n’ her phone ran out of battery.” Spencer nodded with a slight but noticeable gulp. “Don’ worry, Spencer. She’s okay. I’m sure she’ll call us as soon as she wakes up. She’s jus’ makin’ friends.”
"Of course," he twitched the side of his lip to resemble some sort of smile. "Well, Hero conducted our breakfast this morning. When you’re ready."
Before Spencer had shut the door behind him, Niko already felt the walls squishing into him. He stumbled to the bathroom and downed his pills, but the walls continued to threaten him. They glared with their awaiting lips of void. He closed his eyes and practiced breathing, just as Ichabod taught him, but tucked in his toes nevertheless.
With the transcendent voice of an angel, his phone’s ring temporarily saved him. NINE! his brain cheered, flushing his bloodstream with adrenaline and sweet dopamine. He didn’t even bother to look at the caller ID before snapping it open.
"Bonjour!" his teeth chattered with mirth.
The wrong voiced answered. “Hey Niko,” Jason began. “How are you?” Niko might have heard the strain in his voice if his own hadn’t engulfed him.
"Fine," he did his best not to choke. “‘N’ you?"
"Fine." There was silence that neither and both of them noticed. The walls began to close in around Niko again. He couldn’t find the voice to announce his fears, plead to Jason to information, but thankfully Jason could. "Hey, uh, Niko…did Nine come home last night?"
"Uh, no. At least..that’s what Spencer said…" a temporary light brought Niko to his feet. "I’ll double check, hold on." He went through his Jack-and-Jill bathroom and shook the knob open. At first Niko tiptoed, but then he flung open her closet, tore off her bedsheets, reached underneath her bed, threw open her drawers. As if she was an earring instead of an entire human being. His breathing had rapidly increased and he managed to notice before the excessive inhaling and exhaling caused him to pass out. He practiced his breathing again before returning to the phone.
"Yeah, Jason, she’s not here. Wasn’ she supposed to be with a friend of hers last night? Have ya talked to her?" Niko tried to still his voice, return to nonchalance again.
"Not yet. I don’t have her number…but I can probably get it from a friend." It seemed Jason was attempting the same tactic.
"Good. Good. Okay. ‘N’ if she says she doesn’ know let’s meet outside her house. Will ya do that ‘n’ call me back?"
"Of course. And you call if you hear from her? Nine will probably call home first.”
"Okay," Jason said.
"Okay," Niko replied.
The click echoed into Nine’s green and blue room. No tears sprung forth from Niko’s eyes. The grief had sucked them up. His entire soul was being weighed down by the force of its great black hole.
She’s okay, he tried to assure himself. If it was anybody else, you wouldn’t be worried. So stop worrying. She’s just becoming a normal girl again. She’s allowed to stay up late and not answer her phone. She should be able to be that careless. Stop worrying. He’s dead. They told you he’s dead. He has to be dead. She’s fine. You’re making a big deal out of nothing.
Niko brought himself back to a stand after twenty minutes of careful breathing and made his way downstairs. Neither Spencer nor Hero were speaking, but they made as if it was for an ordinary reason. Spencer had his face in the newspaper and Hero quietly consumed her breakfast. There were pastries she must have gone out and bought, probably a morning run as an excuse to scour the streets for Nine, as well as a series of sliced fruit. “Thanks, Hero,” he smiled the best he could. “How’s Ariel?”
"He’s great," she rubbed her distended stomach reflexively, "and kicking." Spencer’s eyes drifted for a moment to hers and then down to their forming child. His hand reached out and caressed her stomach. He closed his eyes as if to focus and zoned out as Hero laid her own fingers atop his.
Niko kept his eyes averted and simultaneously moved his plate to the living room to give them privacy. There was no flavor, but he fed himself as Nine would tell him to. He wished she had made breakfast. He wished she was there. She always knew how to cut just the right width of apple wedges.
It took far too long to Jason to get back to Niko. Niko answered the phone hurriedly and rushed to the nearest bathroom.
"Hey Niko," his voice had worn through the core.
"Hey Jason, what’s the news?" Might as well rip off the bandaid as fast as humanly possible.
Jason inhaled, “Sierra said Nine left last night. Nobody else I know of has heard from her either…has she called home?”
There was a great silence. The two boys held the phone against their faces but felt themselves lose their sense of reality. Niko wasn’t positive he could keep himself together for much longer. The pills probably weren’t designed to last such an extreme situation.
"Okay, so….canya pick me up? ‘N’ we’ll go to Sierra’s house? Maybe Nine jus’ fell asleep in her car. She knows not to drive when she’s tired." But, then again, she would know better than to sleep in her car when she has a friend’s to stay at. And she knows better than to keep Spencer unaware.
He took her home after that. They drove mostly in silence, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable silence. That was, until they pulled into her driveway and Clem realized what was probably going to happen next. She could feel her muscles tense up, her lips purse, and her whole body reject the reality of her situation. She knew what was coming. She knew how ends of dates were supposed to go, real ones, anyways. A few of her previous set ups had ended that way, and they had the black eyes to prove it. But this was Pavel…she should want…this, and yet as she sat in his car, hands pressed against her thighs in intense discomfort, she knew with all her heart hat she didn’t.
Pavel held her hand as they walked towards the door, but when they arrived neither of them reached to open it. There was a short pause, and then Pavel turned towards her, a small smile blooming across his face. She smiled back, hesitantly, trying not to make her full discomfort known. His hand went up to her face, brushing some stray hairs away from her face. “I had a really nice time tonight,” he told her with a small smile.
She sucked in her breath, not sure what to do, not sure what to say. “Me too,” she said, which was as honest as she could be. Clem tried to smile, but she could tell it probably seemed fake. He was getting closer, if he stayed there she could count every eye lash, see every pore, point out every small miniscule freckle on his face, and she could tell by that intense proximity what he wanted, what he expected. A goodbye kiss. This was the part where she knew her heart was supposed to race, her palms were supposed to sweat, and she was supposed to be filled with uncontrollable nervous excitement. All but the last ones was true, but not for the reason it should be.
She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t. This wasn’t what she wanted, not at all. Not that she even knew what it was she did want just that it wasn’t this.
Pavel didn’t seem to pick up on that. His eyes were already closed and the hand that had brushed back her hairs was now behind her neck, his lips almost upon hers. Clem thought for a moment that maybe if she just went along with it, it wouldn’t be as bad as she was expecting. She had gotten through Niko’s kiss after all. So she closed her eyes and waited, not knowing what else to do.
It was nothing like Niko’s kiss.
All of the sudden his lips were on hers, his hand other hand was on the small of her back, pulling her slightly closer to him, closing the already small gap between their bodies. The sudden increase in physical contact terrified Clem, petrified her. As her date’s lips moved against hers, her eyes snapped open, desperately looking for a way out.
She couldn’t move, his arms were around her, and she couldn’t move. Clem felt trapped, suffocated; she couldn’t break free from this two-second embrace, why couldn’t he just let go? Her stomach was clenched and tears were springing from her wide-open eyes, and it took all of her effort not to cry out from beneath his lips.
Desperate for freedom from that constricting feeling, she pushed him back, away from her, off of her. He was startled backwards, looking completely bewildered at her response, but his arms were still slightly encircling her. That constricting feeling wouldn’t go away, that feeling in the pit of her stomach that something was about to go terribly wrong. She couldn’t do this, she had to get out, had to free herself. She pushed again, harder, finally breaking completely free from an extremely confused Pavel. Panting and frightened, a wild look in her eyes as she backed away from him, she struggled to find words. Her hands reached behind her for the doorknob and unseeingly she grasped for it but her panicked hands couldn’t find it. She was practically crying now, she had to get out of there.
Pavel was still just looking at her, confused.
“Go,” she begged, her voice breaking and raspy as she tried to hold in the uncontrollable tears. When he didn’t, she said, “Please just go, GO!” And in that moment her hands finally found the doorknob, and she wrenched the door open, flung herself inside, and shut it just as fast on her date. Sinking to the floor, her head buried in her hands, almost the same stance she had been in after their last date, except this time she was crying.
She couldn’t hold back her sobs. Clem could still feel his arms around her, that constricting, restricting grasp, and all the old memories that had brought back. She felt powerless, weak, and so utterly confused. And she just couldn’t stop crying.
It took her twenty minutes to stop crying, Twenty whole minutes of strangled sobs and rubbing her upper arms like that would somehow erase the feeling of being trapped by his arms, and by her own memories. But even then the feeling didn’t fade completely, she just managed not to cry about it.
Clem was just getting off the floor when Jason walked in. Not wanting to worry her older brother she did her best to shove all her discomfort aside for him. So he wouldn’t have to worry, and she could tell by the look on his face that he already was. But when he spotted her, his worriedness vanished, and in its place was a happy façade, one Clem knew all too well. Like the temper, it was a Whitefield family specialty. “How was your date?” he asked, putting his arm around her shoulder as he led her to the stairs. It took all of Clem’s willpower not to tense up, not to push him away, and not start crying. She wanted to do all these things, but she didn’t, because of the worried look on his face. She let him lead her to the stairs, and she put on that same happy façade as him.
They sat down and Clem put a comforting hand on Jason’s. “It was okay, he took me to a Floodplain basketball game.”
“Good choice,” Jason said, with a slightly more genuine smile, “Let me guess, they lost horribly?”
“Is there any other way for a Floodplain game to go?”
Jason laughed slightly, and then all of the sudden…it fell away when he looked down at his illuminated phone clutched tightly in his other hand. “Everything…okay, Jason?”
He looked up at her like he was surprised to hear that kind of question come from her. Jason hesitated a moment before answering, and then he seemed to resolve to do something and said, “I don’t know, I haven’t heard from Nine since school got out. She isn’t answering my texts and I called her twenty minutes ago…and nothing. It isn’t like her.” He ran a hand through his hair as he sighed, “I don’t know, I guess I’m just worried.”
And even though her level of discomfort was extreme, Clem reached out for her brother. She rubbed his arm as comfortingly as she could, but only for a second, she just…couldn’t, after a moment. It reminded her too much of all the times he had come into her room after…and done the same gesture, tried to comfort her the same way. And that thought made her want to cry even more.
“I’m sure it is nothing to worry about, maybe her phone just died. I’m sure you’ll hear from her soon, or maybe in the morning?” Jason nodded, but Clem could tell it didn’t reassure him. “And…if she doesn’t, you can always call Niko in the morning? I’m sure it is nothing big, try not to worry about it too much, okay, Jason?”
He smiled slightly at her before saying, “Speaking of Niko, he came by today.”
“Oh, was he looking for me?”
“Yeah, but he stayed and hung out with us.”
“Oh gosh, was he okay? Did he survive?”
“He was fine, Clem,” Jason said, “He seemed to enjoy himself, despite our best efforts,” he teased.
“Well, good,” Clem said with a small smile, glad her friend hadn’t been driven too crazy by her over-energetic brothers.
Jason got up to head up the stairs and offered her a hand to pull her up. She stared at it for a moment, before sucking in a breath and taking it. When she was upright, she found that Jason was staring at her. “What?” she asked, confused.
“Are you okay?” he asked, “You seem a little…” and he gestured to her hand like that somehow would explain everything, “Is it anything to do with…”
Clem knew what he wanted to say, but she wouldn’t let him. Not only because he’d be right, but also because if he did she was 100% sure she would start crying. “I’m fine, Jason,” she told him, the crack in her voice betraying the truth somewhat. “Nothing to worry about.”
He stared at her for a moment, before saying, “Okay.” He grinned at her slightly, “Good night, Clem, love you,” before heading up the stairs and leaving Clem and her discomfort, and her tears alone.
For the first time in hours, Jason had a moment to himself. Niko had gone home for the evening, and all six of his brothers were running around in the backyard like lunatics. It was just Jason and the kitchen. He began cleaning methodically, carefully, expertly even. He had always liked cleaning, he liked how there was a beginning and an end to it, how when he was surrounded by all of his high energy brothers, cleaning brought him down from that cloud of recklessness. Sponge to counter, crumbs of an immeasurable amount scooped into his palm, dishes washed, table scrubbed. Cleaning was easy. There were steps…unlike so many other things.
Like the fact that he now knew for sure that Niko liked Clem. Of course, he had suspected for a while that the guy’s feelings for his sister were deeper than he let on. He hadn’t asked Nine out of respect for Niko’s privacy, but for some reason tonight, with seeing him show up at the door unannounced and the look of disappointment that bloomed across his face when Jason told him Clem wasn’t there, the question had come spilling out of him.
Now…he just wasn’t sure if it was his place to ask. Sure, he was an older brother and naturally overprotective. But he liked Niko, a lot. The stories from Nineteen of their childhood days and all the ways that he had been there for her in a way no one else would had cemented that sentiment. And he could tell Clem did too…but not in the way that Niko felt about her. He doubted his sister even had the slightest inkling of her friend’s feelings for her, which he supposed made things slightly less complicated. Plus, from what he’d gathered, she really liked that Pavel guy. Of course, he’d gained this information mostly from eavesdropping on a conversation between Adrian and Chad, but that was as reliable of a source as any. Regardless, Jason knew it wasn’t his place to do anything.
But he still didn’t get that Pavel guy. Knowing his sister the way he did, he didn’t believe, or understand, that she liked that guy, truly liked him, and understood what that meant. He knew the way she recoiled at touch, that even the mention of any kind of intimacy made her eyes dart away and her fists clench, he knew the history better than anyone, and he couldn’t imagine her like that, especially not right now. It was why, until Pavel had come into the picture, he had thought Niko’s feelings were nothing to worry about, except the possibility that they might ruin his friendship with Clem, that he might scare her away. Jason didn’t want that, Niko was good for Clem. Since they had started hanging out she was generally a bit more pleasant, she was passing math, she spent far less time by herself, and she even cleaned her room occasionally! And he knew Niko had assured her he wasn’t trying to ‘woo’ Clem (his words, not Jason’s), but he still worried that his over-obvious feelings (to anyone but Clem) would somehow wreck a good friendship.
Gosh, he needed to talk to Nine.
As he scrubbed away the last of the grime from the countertops, he pulled out his phone to see if he had any messages from Nine. There were none. He knew that she had said she’d be busy most of the night, but it was past eleven and he hadn’t heard from her since school had gotten out, which was weird for them. He had texted her periodically throughout the night, mostly because her brother was there without Clem, which he figured his girlfriend would find amusing. He didn’t want to be clingy, but not hearing from her for so long, even if it was only a few hours, made him worry more than he wanted to admit.
So, even though it was late, and she’d surely call soon, he texted her one more time. Miss you. He paused before adding Also, I know Niko likes Clem. He was tempted to put jokes in next, things about how he refused to double date and how his older brother protective instincts were tingling. But because it was Nine, and because it was her brother, he tried not to joke, emphasis on tried. Little worried, don’t think it would go well if she knew. Might have to strangle him if he upsets her, is it fratricide if he is your brother?
He knew Nine knew him well enough to see the underpinnings of worry beneath his jokes, plus he wasn’t sure how to convey them in a text message. So he just sat there, leaning against the counter, tossing the phone between his hands as he stared around his newly spotless kitchen (which he knew would be filthy by morning). Then the garage door jiggled, the lock unclicked, and in walked his mother, dressed to the nines with more makeup than was probably customary for a girl’s night out. If that was what it had been, looking at her outfit…it could have been a date, but Jason knew better than to press.
She looked up in surprise when she saw Jason in the kitchen, “What are you still doing in here? The kitchen is spotless!”
Jason just shrugged, unsure of how to tell his mom all the things he was brooding over without sounding completely melodramatic, or if he would even want to tell her. His mother seemed to pick up on what his lack of words meant, and instead asked, “How did tonight go? Did Brian hang out with everyone?” she asked, worried like always that they left her youngest out, “Oh, and did Clem get off on her date okay?”
“Everything was fine, Mom,” Jason assured her, “We forced Brian off the computer and Clem was out the door before dinner was even on the table. Niko came by as well.”
“Nineteen’s brother?” she asked, sounding mildly disinterested, though Jason knew she knew perfectly well who he was.
“That’s the one.”
“Oh, how nice,” his mother said, with a measured steadiness to her voice. “And how is Nineteen? I haven’t seen her around in a few days.”
“Well, today she’s at a friend’s house studying for her midterm, or at least…I think, I haven’t heard from her in a while.”
He must have let his distress about this peek through more than he thought because all of the sudden his mother’s hand was on his shoulder, rubbing it gently. “I’m sure she’s just busy, it’s nothing to worry about. Studying is important, and all that,” and she smiled at Jason.
Camilla then turned away from Jason and walked towards the stairs, but before she had even gotten up a step she turned her head and asked, “Did Clem seem…excited?”
Jason took a moment to answer, because…in all honesty he had been making the chicken when his sister left and hadn’t had time to psychoanalyze her mood like his mother liked to do. The last time Clem had gone on a date with this Pavel guy she’d spent at least ten minutes analyzing every detail of her daughter’s greeting to the guy she had set her up with. He wasn’t sure what to say, but he had seen the smile that had filled her face when she saw him, and he knew he could say one thing with perfect honesty, even if it wasn’t the psychoanalyzing his mother so craved, “Yeah, she was.”
“Good, good,” his mother mumbled, turning and heading up the stairs, “Good night Jason!” she called down as she ascended.
“Night,” he muttered, as he returned to staring at his phone, hoping for his favorite name to pop up any moment now.
It wasn’t until high school that Nine discovered “studying for a midterm” really meant goofing at a friend’s house and summarizing the night with a few questions off the study guide. She sunk into this change excitedly and had actually come to the point of packing nail polish instead of extra notes.
Sierra ushered the volume on her personal stereo to a quiet surrounding, so hushed Nine couldn’t make out any of the singer’s languid lyrics. The pair touched their knees together as they perched upon the floor and picked out colors. Nine’s body loosened with such ease that a sigh floated from her lungs.
This was nothing like how she and Niko used to study together. Frankly, she didn’t know if her little brother could ever exhale for a moment when it came to education. She could envision his tense body, rooted to a spot and eyes wide despite how close he brought himself to the page. Thanks to Niko, she didn’t have to guess the meaning of the American colloquialism “nose against the grindstone” when it first squiggled against her eardrums.
Sierra hummed, “How are you and Jason?”
The silly grin across her face rooted there like the remnants of a dream. “The usual,” her singsong voice curled to the music. “You to want lightning bolts?” Nine asked by holding her friend’s light-skinned fingers.
"Duh!" It was really that simple.
The pair maneuvered through topics like a surfer on a gently rising wave. Sierra liked to bring up Jason and Nine’s relationship a lot because they gave her hope. She’d gone through too many breakups and selfish, superficial girlfriends. If she could just figure out the recipe to her friend’s happy love, then maybe she could have it for herself. It wasn’t until Nine that she truly considered each agonizing heartbreak wasn’t her fault. Nine had told her this so simply, too, she would never forget it.
Nine knew this, and that was why she tried to lead them off that topic. She remembered vaguely in the time before Iris that romantic relationships were her breakfast, morning, dinner, and midnight snack. She couldn’t let go of searching for that loving person who would make her skin fit. It had truly fragmented her - that is, before she became nothing but shaking shards of her former self. Even though she couldn’t remember the feeling of poison coursing through her after she made love to a boy and find out it was merely sex to him, she understand that nobody wanted that to happen. As far as she could tell from her blurred memories, it was her obsession with finding someone that had flown her to hell on a one-way ticket.
Once they started to actually go over their Algebra II practice exams, the two took turns hooking gummy worms out of the bag with their pinky fingers. When they got through a question without referencing the answer sheet, they high-fived with a giant, “YEAH!” When the sky turned an absurd shade of dark, Nine hugged Sierra and waved her a beaming, “See you later!” as she made her way into the car.
It was too cold to start driving immediately, so she flicked the temperature to red and pulled her phone out of her faded jeans. Before they began painting their nails Nine had told him she wouldn’t be able to reply for a while, but Jason still texted her. Her smile brightened as she saw his name in shiny blue in her unread messages. It always excited her to hear from him.
Hope you’re having fun. The first one began. I’m starting on dinner. Using your expert fruit arrangement. Talk to you tonight.
Niko’s here. Didn’t know Clem was out. Just got drafted into the nerf war. Nine giggled with her chin tucked against her chest to keep warm. Don’t think he knows what he’s getting into. Miss you.
With a shiver, Nine pushed the reply and had begun “I miss you too” when a deep stench devoured her. Her phone fell with a clunk as her hands shot up to her mouth. There was another hand there, an all-too-familiar hand, holding a cloth firmly against her lips.
Don’t breathe, she warned herself, but it was too late. Black blocked her exits as a snaking terror rose through her numbing veins. A mixture of peaceful exhaustion suffocated the pleas from her nerves. In the rush of the last moment, she felt a wet tear trail out of her eyelid.
Lethal Weapon was one of the many American movies Niko had never seen. He had never been a major movie buff, but during his film phase he spent most of his time in Paris and, as an all-knowing, snobby teenager, only allowed himself to set his eyes upon French film. Lethal Weapon definitely thrust him outside of his expertise.
The Whitefield boys seemed to know the movie by heart. In particular, they liked to trade off between Riggs and Murtaugh during their snappy arguments which reminded Niko of Clem and in their early stages only much more tainted with reality. Their favorite line was Murtaugh’s “I’m too old for this shit!” which was almost unanimously shouted among the boys. The more sociable brothers nudged Niko during intense scenes or gunfights or after a joke they found particularly perfect. He grinned along even when they had gotten to the point of bruising.
Honestly, it reminded him of Clem. He kept picturing her there sharing space with her too-many brothers, completely in her zone, shoving and bellowing “Shit!” the loudest. He thought this was definitely her kind of movie. The sort of movie he should take her to and listened to her recite and rave about on the drive home, her hands flying side by side as she mimicked gun noises. He wished they were solving another mystery together and he wished she could save his ass by punching someone square in the nose again.
And for a moment he was troubled by how easily she had made someone else bleed and not twinged with the slight bit of guilt for inflicting that damage on another person. And then the thought was gone as a house exploded in great licking flames.
Clem still hadn’t returned by the time the movie ended and the boys shoveled out of the living room. Niko glanced outside to the pitch black night, clouds covering each and every star, and let go the slightest grin. If she was out this late, they were probably having a good time. Pavel probably took her to a movie like this, a movie without any romance or intimacy to disturb frigid Clem. Just overflowing violence and gruff voices and courage even when you don’t have anyone waiting for you at home. But then, perhaps Niko was wrong. He hadn’t believed Clem could ever want to date someone - anyone - and yet she was gone in the night with a charming Russian lad. Maybe she didn’t mind a bit of intimacy in her films after all.
Niko waved to Jason as he shuffled into his shoes and trotted to his car. On a momentary flicker backward, he noticed the knowing brother glance down at his phone and stare before clicking it shut again and sliding it back into his pocket.
The drive back home was a blur of green and red stoplights. He hurried from the cold into the house and slid off his shoes. Except for the porch light, the house was quiet and black. He reached for the rails on his way up the stairs, hearing a mew as he nearly tripped over Stray.
He was too exhausted to notice the lack of murmuring through his sister’s wall. What was one night without a phone call with Jason? Too captured by a dreaming warmth to take a second glance at the empty spot where her blue shoes normally sat side-by-side. The energy of the Whitefield boys dizzied him as a memory and he curled underneath his covers without another thought.
They left the restaurant stuffed to the brim with delectable food and conversing happily as Pavel lead Clem to his car. He wouldn’t tell her what they were doing next, except that he hoped she liked it. She grumbled over and over that he should just tell her and stop worrying, and that way…if she didn’t like it; they could change their plans now. But Pavel just kept shaking his head and mumbling something about surprises.
So, it wasn’t until they pulled up to Floodplain University at just before eight that Clem had any inkling of what the plan was. And even then, Clem hadn’t quite worked it all out. “Are you taking me to a class on our date?” she asked, incredulously, “Oh gosh am I going to have to listen to some dry professor talk about international politics in Asia, or whatever you were going on about at dinner, for an hour and a half?”
“Well it is good to know how much you were listening, since it was Africa not Asia,” Pavel said, perhaps a little bitterly, though there was a small smile that let Clem know he wasn’t entirely put out.
“Same difference,” she grumbled.
“Oh gosh, now you better be glad we aren’t going to my international politics class, or you’d definitely be in trouble,” Pavel said with a laugh, “don’t make me start explaining all the differences to you.”
“Fine! Just tell me what we are doing here!” Clem said, getting slightly exasperated.
Pavel just sighed, and then looking as if he really didn’t want to do what he was about to do, he said, “We’re going to see a basketball game.”
“Wait…really?” Clem asked, unable to mask her excitement.
“Well, I would have tried to take you to a Celtics game or something…but that seemed a bit extravagant for a first date, and I didn’t think your mom would appreciate me taking you all the way out to Boston for a date.”
“Actually,” Clem countered, laughing slightly at Pavel’s reasoning, “She probably would have loved it, just not for a basketball game.”
Clem was beyond excited now. It wasn’t like she hadn’t seen a game at Floodplain before, in fact she’d seen many. But she really appreciated that just like with the basketball chocolates and the restaurant he loved, Pavel was trying to share with her something personal. This date honestly wasn’t that different from their other dates, except for the occasional handholding and Pavel’s occasional, unabashed staring at Clem, except…that it was much more personal.
The game itself, wasn’t that interesting, in fact it was about as competitive as the VCHS scrimmages Clem had recently partaken in, except for the fact that it was Floodplain being crushed, not the other way around. But still, she cheered for the home team, even if she quietly and secretly criticized their tactics in Pavel’s ear.
They talked over the loud cheering of the fans. Pavel told her about his upcoming family trip to Russia over Christmas vacation, and Clem related excitedly the exploits of her last visit to Floodplain.
After her story filled with Niko, umbrellas, and punching out annoying college students, Pavel just stared at her with utter amazement. “Wait that was you who solved those Go Green crimes?”
“Yep, I’m a regular Sherlock…Sherlock…”
“Yeah, him,” Clem said nonchalantly while Pavel laughed.
“Well, and I had Niko’s help,” Clem reminded him, somewhat flippantly. And then something occurred to her, “Wait…you didn’t know? My mom never mentioned it? Or yours?”
“Nope, not at all.”
“Well she probably doesn’t think it reflects well, particularly the punching part.” Pavel laughed heartily at that and Clem continued, “Didn’t you pay attention to the news or anything? Like…even without someone telling you, as mister politics you should have been paying attention well enough to know that.”
“I knew it was a couple of high schoolers…how was I to know that like five months later I’d be on a date with one of them?” he asked, to which Clem just punched him. He spent the remainder of the first half asking her question after question about everything to do with the investigation, the go green crimes, and, once he found out about it, her arrest (which was something he seemed to find hilarious).
The rest of the game was more or less spent chatting, as it got less and less interesting as Floodplain’s numbers stayed relatively the same while the other team’s just climbed. Pavel bought her popcorn during a time out (no garlic, though he wanted some), and they continued to pretend that cheering for Floodplain was a worthy cause.
It definitely wasn’t, as the final score of 89-53 clearly showed. But Clem was still just as happy when they left the stadium, as she had been at the restaurant.
No matter how many times Niko had and would spend time with the Whitefield boys, he would never get used to the density of the chaos. There were just so many of them, and they were all shouting and fighting and chewing and teasing. Even the brothers that seemed to shy away to their own corner like Brian got roped inside the horrific insanity. Niko perched upon his feet as if he was wading through glass. His body was prepared for a fight or flight.
He didn’t entirely mind anymore, however. The tearing of homemade fried chicken off the bone, the pushing that nearly threw Nelson off his feet, the hurried and fragmented discussion of some missplaced “pyragon” nerf gun (if he heard correctly). Amidst the five gigantic and two growing Caucasian boys, there was a peace in Niko’s chest. This was Clem’s lair; these were her people. When there was this much noise, Niko couldn’t think. His body took over, falling in sync to a myriad of stimuli. It was one of the many reasons he found himself lulled into a happiness around Clem.
The brothers waded in and out of the kitchen, perfectly exhibiting diffusion and the principle of entropy. The only ones that hung around the room for longer than the time it took to shove some of Jason’s handiwork into their watering muzzles were Jason, Niko, and Trey. Granted, Trey remained only a slower actor in the chaos and would follow Ryan or Chad when they motioned him. Niko didn’t know how to jump into the festivities at random, even though it seemed quite inevitable as exemplified by the younger brothers’ empurpling. He rooted beside Jason as he finished the appetizers and bountiful dinner, grinning when he noticed a particularly familiar design in the arrangement of the fruit. Nine had come up with the paradigm on his thirteenth birthday. Jason caught the sparkle in his eye and grinned back before scraping buffalo wing bones off a plate and holding it under the white kitchen faucet.
Eventually, Niko tiptoed into the hallway. It wasn’t a split moment after he heard a war cry that seven nerf bullets bounced off his ribcage. He had come between a battle between Ryan and Steven and apparently completely shielded Ryan from Steven’s expert aim. They didn’t hesitate in glissading further down their hallway as if Niko was a bookcase instead of an actual breathing person. Neither did Chad pause to force a pistol-like neon gun into his flummoxed palms. “HURRY NIKO!” he shouted. It wasn’t until Chad had completely launched himself out the back door that Niko had the sense to run after him. Trey waved knowingly at him before his body disappeared in the opposite direction.
Niko had an initial reflex to lunge himself back inside the house the way the cold nibbled ferociously along his exposed skin. But there was shouting and whispering and obnoxiously loud movements as their formed bodies expertly wrestled and tussled through the backyard foliage. In the farthest corner of his eye, Niko caught Nelson ushering him to a space beside him and behind a bush. There was a blop as a bullet rooted itself to the sliding glass window where his head had been seconds before. His eyes were still widened when he found himself beside the second youngest.
“They got my gun,” he whispered in a panic, and Niko realized he was somehow expected to save this boy from a ravaging of foam bullets.
“Okay,” he swallowed, before repeating a common war line: “stay behind me.” But it was good advice - Niko completely dwarfed Nelson and it was akin to just carrying the bush with him.
Niko had no idea how he saved them from the initial stream of bullets, but he did and Nelson was quick enough to pick up some of the enemies bullets as they traipsed. Perched behind an unknown plastic structure, Niko managed to get off a round and a few even made their way to Ryan and Steven. However, in all the excitement and adrenalin of the game, the pair completely forgot to check behind them. Chad buried them in neon green and yellow before sticking another magazine in his gun.
“Should we pick these up?” Niko asked Nelson.
“Yeah.” He didn’t seem to bummed out by being beaten. He realized a few minutes later it was because the game wasn’t over until everyone agreed. He asked Niko if he could borrow his gun and Niko grinned at him. In a dash, he exited the battlefield and as the house’s warmth curled around him he realized how cold he had been.
Niko found his way back to the kitchen by the stomach-rumbling scent of Jason’s cooking. Brian was the only one there and when Niko asked him about Jason he said he had joined the nerf battle. The pair sat in opposite chairs as they quietly put piece by piece of celebratory food in their mouths. Brian had a laptop with him carefully placed on a stool away from the food that he would type madly into between bites.
It was ten or fifteen minutes before Trey ducked into the kitchen, a yellow bullet still mixed in his hair. He flicked his chin out to Niko, “Jason said you’d be here. He said to tell you we’re starting Lethal Weapon in a few minutes.”
“Thanks,” he smiled, forgetting about the strawberry in his mouth. Oh Buddha, he cringed, I’m becoming one of them. His face hushed itself into a bright pink but Trey didn’t notice. Instead, he had turned to Brian on his way to the chocolate cake and pointed toward the laptop. It was too late for the warning, however, as Ryan appeared beside the small boy with glasses and had shut the laptop in one swoop. Brian huffed and Ryan laughed but by the time Niko followed all the boys into the TV room he noticed that Brian’s annoyance had been replaced by a beaming visage.
The first stop on their date was the traditional date staple of dinner. Not that Clem minded all that much, she was starving. Pavel lead her into the restaurant the same way he had lead her out of her house, with a loose grip on her hand. She smiled slightly when he wasn’t looking, finding herself happy at the slightest thing, like him holding her hand, or the fact that one of the first things he asked about was basketball. She told him about the preseason game, and that Jason had come, and about how easy it had been to win. And then he had done something Clem hadn’t expected; he had said how much he wanted to come see her play during the regular season. So…he was assuming that this date would go well enough that it would warrant another, and another hour or two of watching her play basketball. Clem could barely comprehend the magnitude of that fact when they were ushered to their table.
The restaurant was small, it wasn’t nearly as fancy as the restaurants their parents would have picked out for them, but nor was it anything like Bay Burgers. It felt cozy inside, and when she ordered the waitress brought Clem the most amazing plate of fries she had ever consumed. Pavel happily told her about how he had come across this place late one night on the way back home from school when he’d had a craving, had stumbled into this place, and been in love ever since.
Pavel kept urging her to eat more, telling her all about their amazing smoothies and how their chicken marsala tastes like it was cooked by God himself. She indulged him, glad that unlike those girls in that restaurant so many weeks before, at least she wasn’t succumbing to eating like a bird just so she wouldn’t make a mess in front of her date.
Pavel, however, seemed a lot more nervous than Clem. Though Clem’s stomach was still overwhelmed by vicious swarming butterflies, Pavel showed his nervousness more outwardly. He stuttered over his words and talked much faster than normal, but Clem found the nervousness almost endearing, so she didn’t call him on it. That was…until he almost dropped the ketchup when passing it to her. “My, my,” she said with a playful smile on her face, “You sure are nervous tonight.”
Normally, her date would have laughed at that, but instead he just swallowed audibly before letting out a small chuckle. “Doesn’t help I have a pretty girl sitting across from me I’m desperate to impress.”
Clem burst out laughing. Loud enough for the whole restaurant to know she found something incredibly funny. Though, only someone who knew her extremely well would sense the discomfort behind the mirth. That whole statement was a little too…much for Clem’s liking. It took her a moment to control her laughter, and when she did she decided her best bet was to try to relieve him of his nervousness so that the rest of the night she wouldn’t have fits of laughter plagued by discomfort.
“No need,” she told him, with a smaller, meeker smile, now that the rest of the restaurant was looking away. And trying her best to not be awkward, well as much as was possible for Clem when it came to physical touch, she reached across the table and squeezed his slightly tensed hand. “Already have,” she reassured, before returning her hand to her glass.
He smiled goofily like the idiot he was, and immediately dove into what was practically a dissertation on the differences between the fries at his favorite restaurant, and the fries everywhere else. And Clem just smiled back, leaning her chin against her hand and watched him talk. She couldn’t explain it, nor did she want to for she had no good reason, but Clem was inexplicably and ridiculously happy in that moment.
With a polite step backward, Jason invited Niko inside the noisy house. The entryway seemed somewhat soundproof with only a few shouts and rolling bouts of laughter penetrating the surroundings. Just as Niko parted his lips to speak, a painful thud paused time. While Niko wanted to check if anyone needed to go to the hospital, his body stressfully clenched at the possibility it was Clem, Jason barely tilted his head to respond to the stimuli. Niko was a little horrified, but decided to act as the Romans did.
Niko continued as if nobody might have suffered a serious concussion. “Is Clem aroun’?” he asked while leaning his ear toward the yelling. He needed to know which direction she was located in order to bolt to her rescue.
Jason paused shortly before his memory snapped into place. “Oh, um,” he began, “I think she’s out with some Pavel guy…she didn’t really tell me.” There were shouts and a call for Jason in the distance from what sounded like Ryan, if Niko could even pretend to remember that brother. Jason called back to them to start without him and something about how the food would be fine. Niko didn’t really know because his gut had fell a bit too far taking his body deep underwater, making every noise seem like the ocean gurgling. The pregnant pause had its pause children before Niko grounded himself back into reality.
"Oh," he said, as if that was all there was to it, "okay." He was stunned for words but managed to remember that Nine hadn’t come home yet and she definitely wasn’t standing next to Jason. "How come you and Nine aren’ hangin’ out?" Niko glanced away to the welcome mat and the many pairs of muddy tennis shoes scattered beside them. His eyes had gone out of focus with the stamping of his heart.
She was on a date with Pavel. Of course. Why hadn’t he just called in advance? It was Mercury all over again. He felt foolish standing in front of Clem’s respectable brother.
Jason covertly eyed Niko. “She’s studying for a midterm with one of her friends,” he answered even though he knew the name of the friend, knew the name of all of her friends in the same way that she remembered everything he told her. “But we’re supposed to talk on the phone after she gets home tonight.” Niko knew that the two chatted almost every night together in addition to seeing each other during the day.
"Oh, yeah," Niko realized that the high school must be starting its break soon, too. He hadn’t known because Clem had said nothing about her midterms, which he now alarmingly realized she hadn’t comprehended either. How in the name of Buddha was she going to pass high school and how could he help even the scales for her?
The lull held for even longer this time. Niko went stiff with hesitation to admitting his idiocy and excusing himself. He would be swearing himself out on the car ride back home. Even though Spencer and Hero wouldn’t know what he’d done, he could already feel the hot crimson blooming on his face just imagining entering the front door. And the way his heart felt from falling from the heavens didn’t help the situation.
In the end, it wasn’t Niko that ended the silence but Jason. “So…” he caught gaze with Niko, “do you…like my sister?”
Niko became suddenly very aware of how dark it was outside and how there was a light hovering over the entryway, like a spotlight on Jason and himself. No pores started to release excess amounts of sweat onto his skin, but the momentousness was not subtle. He tilted his head slightly, seeing in Jason’s blue eyes, the same color as Clem’s a knowledge. “Did Nine tell you?” Niko asked quite simply. He wasn’t upset, but the fact that Jason had caught on to him sparked a curiosity in him.
"No, Nine didn’t tell me," he assured Niko, "I just…noticed."
So apparently the only one who didn’t find Niko’s feelings blaringly obvious was the person he had them for - of course that was how it would be with Clem. He smiled to himself and probably let a bit of that gleam slip to Jason. He nodded, wondering how he needed to censor himself in case he became so blatant that he would frighten off Clem. “Yeah, it doesn’ really matter, I was jus’ wondering how you knew…” He trailed off before making sure to keep eye contact with Jason and admit clearly, “Yeah. Yeah, I do like Clem.”
He belatedly sensed the situation he had fallen in, the scenario he was surrounded by, arriving on Clem’s front step the same night she was out for a date and suddenly a clinging need to explain himself hurried his speech. “But, I’m not tryin’ to woo her or win her over,” Niko pressed, “I jus’ didn’ know she’d be out tonight. I assumed she’d be here ‘n’ we coul’do homework ‘n’ hang out.”
Jason accepted his answer easily. “I get it,” he nodded. “I had a feeling for a while now.”
Now it was definitely time to go home. Jason didn’t seem to want to press further. They both sensed that their relationship wasn’t tilted in the right direction to trail down that road. Though, if Jason asked more, Niko knew that he would remain honest. He held a high respect for Jason. Not only did he treat Nine incredibly well, but he was Clem’s favorite brother, and otherwise he had never offended or repulsed Niko in any way. With nothing else to say, Niko could feel his back becoming attracted to his shoes and the front door like they were two magnets.
"You want to stay here for a while," Jason gestured his head toward the center of the house. "Clem and our mom are gone, but Trey and Ryan got back from college and we’re having a celebration. Food, nerf guns, and Lethal Weapon. You’re welcome to stay."
Niko smiled bashfully and eagerly despite how his reflex was to hide into a ball every time he heard one of the brothers howl. “Thank you,” he stepped forward, “I’d love to.” And that’s when he finally realized that Jason had been adorning a worn apron that said Top Chef for their entire conversation.
Clem was immediately plagued with two unexplainable surprises when she arrived at school the next day. One, she had three midterms in the next week. And two, it was almost Thanksgiving. The first surprise almost completely negated all the awesome stuff about it almost being break. She had a test in pre-calculus, Spanish, and history (when was the last time she had paid attention in history?). She was doomed, if it hadn’t been for the fact that Thanksgiving break was almost there, she probably would have just rolled in a ball and crumbled under the pressure of tests she wasn’t prepared for, that, or drop out.
As it was, there was another ray of hope in that dreadful morning. She almost couldn’t believe she had forgotten it, but she had a feeling that it was a good thing…for if she had remembered she would have spent every moment of the past week fretting about it. But now, she only had that very slow Friday, the day of her date, her real date, with Pavel.
Okay, now she was panicking. And unfortunately no one but her recently departed grandmother knew anything about this actual date, well, besides her mother…who had thought all the other dates were real too, so she had no one to fret to. Not that Clem was the type to fret, but it would have been nice to have someone to tell her if this stomach churning feeling that was currently distracting her was normal.
She distracted herself with talks of Thanksgiving vacation, a playful fight with Chad at lunch as he lobbed carrots at her from across the table, and the five page long Spanish study guide that Señor Aguilera passed out at the beginning of class. She had to endure the constant disbelief of Branson and Maggie that she hadn’t known about the Spanish test as she did so, though…when she reminded them about her previous detention, they quickly shut up about it.
The day was going by so slowly Clem could have been convinced that it was never going to end, she kept pulling out her phone from the depths of her pocket (which she never did) just to check and make sure the time on the clock was actually correct and she wasn’t being held hostage because she didn’t know any Spanish after almost four years. It was during one of the times she unearthed her cell phone that she saw Pavel’s name light up her screen. Opening her phone carefully underneath her desk like she had seen all her classmates do countless times before, and saw a text message that read, ‘Can’t wait to see you. Pick you up at 5:30. :)’
Unfortunately Clem was not as adept at hiding her phone as her classmates, and just as she finished reading it, she saw out of the corner of her eye the outstretched hand of Señor Aguilera, expectantly waiting for her phone. She sighed as she reluctantly handed it over, glad he wasn’t giving detention this time, she couldn’t miss basketball.
Oh, no, basketball. They weren’t supposed to get out until 5:30 today…how was she supposed to go to practice and be ready for her date on time? Or just…even at her house on time? The answer was clear, she couldn’t. And so then Clem did something she’d never thought she would do-she skipped basketball practice.
Jason and her brothers didn’t question her when she got in the car immediately after school, though Chad did whine a bit about how that meant one of them was going to have to go separately to pick up Nelson and Brian. Jason diffused the situation expertly by immediately offering to do it himself. When they finally got home after what felt like a five hour car ride, she practically rushed inside the house, up the stairs, and into her room.
She knew Pavel told her not to dress up, but considering she had showed up for school in her basketball shorts and a commemorative t-shirt for when the Seattle Storm won the WNBA championships a few years back and a black hoodie…she thought she should at least try to improve her wardrobe. After about half an hour of desperately searching the piles of her room for a clean pair of jeans, she found herself wearing what would have been considered her normal clothes. Jeans and a t-shirt, and with twenty minutes to spare (her room was really messy) she found herself impatiently waiting for Pavel’s arrival.
Pavel came to the door, not with flowers, like she had heard was customary, but a little bag of chocolates covered in foil to look like basketballs. It was sweet, so sweet it almost made her want to hurl, but she refrained. Plus, she supposed she liked chocolate. “You look nice,” he told her, smiling.
“I look like normal,” Clem said, confused.
“I know,” he said, the smile growing bigger as he lead her out her front door and towards his car, his hand taking hers lightly and naturally. And for once…Clem didn’t flinch away.
Niko went home that night feeling light as ever, humming to himself some unknown, enchanting tune that drifted him right off to bed. When he awoke, he found that he had slept so soundly that his instant reaction to the rising sun was a sweet sigh. The bitterly cold outdoors drew him out of his covers and into sweatpants for his morning run.
Rising after dreamingly tying his tennis shoes at the front door, Niko almost bumped into Spencer. His mind had been so freely blank to have completely ignored the noises his godfather created walking over to him. He smiled and laughed at Niko with a feathery heart. Niko squinted briefly at the tall, statuesque man. He was still getting used to Spencer’s cheer. Once he brushed aside the glee, Niko noticed that he, too, was sporting a sweatshirt and sweatpants. He also noticed the wire of his ear-buds traveling down to his deep pocket.
Well, Niko thought with a shrug, at least he knew Spencer wasn’t going to try and talk to him the entire time.
"For what duration are we running?" Spencer whispered with unshakable happiness.
Niko glanced at the clock. “Ninety minutes,” he returned in a hushed voice. Spencer nodded approvingly before creaking the front door open and sucking in his gut to slide through without opening it any farther. Niko rolled his eyes and smirked before copying the movements.
Spencer let Niko lead the way even though he never grew tired and possibly knew the city even better than his godson. In fact, at one point Niko wanted to cross a street but Spencer temporarily plucked a Broadway soundtrack out of his ears to warn Niko that the sidewalk disappeared on that side of the road. Niko gladly took his advice and started down the other crosswalk with a kick in his step. He was honestly enjoying running with Spencer - as long as they didn’t have to talk to each other. The cold air bit at his cheeks and his balled fingers and Niko sensed the feeling begin to trickle out of them. He tossed his head back and grinned from ear to ear as the feeling drenched him.
On the way back, Spencer asked him to stop when his body momentarily passed a red FOR SALE sign. He didn’t hear his godfather but managed to notice that the man had stopped following him. Spencer waited patiently beside the mailbox before motioning to the house. “This is one of our final picks,” he said before Niko really took in the tree swing in the front yard. His mind drifted to a future of pulling into the driveway and seeing a little mixture of Hero and Spencer dangling on the tree in the darkness. The kitchen light would be on, maybe Hero and Spencer would be talking before one of them noticed Niko had shown up with a twirl of their body. Their son, Ariel, remained a silhouette in his mind, but Niko understood without any contemplation why this house had made it to the finals. It was a home.
Niko’s clothes hung awkwardly along his skin, itching him despite the numbness. What was he to do? Or say? He was sorely unprepared to comment on Spencer starting his very own family or the haunting thought that Niko would disappear from it. He was no longer angry at their future child, but even in his imagination he didn’t enter their home. So he nodded with a smile. “It’s nice,” he managed, then slowly began jogging again.
The shower’s hot water plunged Niko out of the cold with hundreds of sharp knives. He clenched his eyelids shut and tried to stop thinking about things he didn’t know how to think about. He grew nauseated but soon crumbled out of the shower and noticed that he’d burned a patch of skin that had hovered in the hot water far too long before Niko had twisted the dial down. He was forced to hold his arm under cold water for an hour before curling his eyelashes in the mirror. He made himself think of Clem but found he couldn’t think of anything beyond her face and listing what they had done the day prior. There was a block, a drawing to consider what it meant to be family.
He really wished Spencer had picked the day before his therapy to reveal the big news. While he had a good number of things keeping him rooted to the ground and not spiraling into an episode, including the unlabeled pills, he had suddenly grown a sucking need to talk nonstop to someone outside of his friends and family.
Niko didn’t exit the bathroom until he practiced a breathing exercise Ichabod had taught him for five complete minutes, straightening his spine even more than usual. Focusing on Clem had been a way to “clear his mind” that Ichabod had also instructed him in, but it had fallen short of the desired result.
In the study, he made sure to pen in the date, time, and location for each of his midterms on his assignment planner. He had to go to the university to take them, and it seemed they were all on Monday and Tuesday. Despite his studying, Niko severely doubted himself on the result of his upcoming Calculus exam. The rest, well, he would probably get a B as long as he gave himself an hour just to review topics. He wondered if he would be able to manage merely setting aside time successfully however.
Once Nine and Clem got out of school, Niko continuously checked the clock. Clem tended to have basketball practice on these days, at least he was pretty sure, so he had to wait a while before skipping over to her house. He tried flipping through television channels, pulling out his Calvin & Hobbes comics, even organizing the fridge, but time only snailed by. Nine hadn’t come home and Niko figured she was having fun with Jason or one of her other school friends.
But it was just his luck because after he rinsed himself of the goo that had hidden in the back of the fridge, Hero unexpectedly came to the rescue. Spencer was out buying groceries and she had just gotten a call about some crib arriving. Apparently she couldn’t wait for him to come back because the store was going to close by then and she definitely couldn’t hold out until tomorrow. He wondered why she couldn’t just drive herself, after all there had to be people at the store that would help her move the crib pieces into her car and her belly wasn’t yet so swollen that it impeded her abilities to drive. Still, when the question formed in his mind he noticed how pungent it was of rejection.
The crib turned out to be a few cities over. Niko sat behind the wheel for the trip there and return back while Hero listened quietly to NPR, interrupting the newscasters and interviews now and again only to ask Niko how he was and if he was excited to start actually attending college - things like that. She was rather talented at giving directions, a skill Niko wouldn’t have fathomed to exist if it hadn’t been for their excursion. Hero complimented Niko on his driving, too, to which Niko couldn’t help but reply, “Yeah, Clem’s terrified of driving so I’m the one that does it ‘n’ I try to make it as gentle as possible for her.”
Hero could see through him like a glass house. She smirked to herself as she nodded, “That’s nice of you.” Niko didn’t realize how easily he made it for others to be clairvoyant, so he only considered her smiling comment as a gesture of kindness and recognition. He couldn’t have possibly imagined that she was picturing the pair holding hands in the near future with rain pellets sprinkling briskly upon them.
The crib’s parts came in a box so he didn’t get a look at it until the pair went into the downstairs study, followed by an incredibly eager Spencer, and unwrapped it. Everyone worked together but once Niko saw the parts he couldn’t help but wish he was a baby so he could sleep in its majesty. An artisan had crafted it, etching in planets and stars and musical notes. While it did have a black background, it was so full of design that it barely seemed dark at all.
Once they finished, Niko absentmindedly glanced at the clock. The time hovered in his mind for a moment before it snapped. “Gotta go!” he excused himself before sprinting to the front door to slide into his shoes. Clem had to be home from practice by now.
He tried not to speed on his way but often forgot to even check himself on the speedometer and by the time he parked outside of her house, a light on in every room, Niko had forgotten what he had blurred through the windows on the way over. The noises from inside were so hurried and mixed with screams and war crimes, Niko knew that he would soon see Clem in a state of simple and utter happiness along her brothers. His heart jumped and stirred butterflies inside his twitching abdomen. Once he rung the doorbell, Niko noticed he hadn’t breathed and forcefully swallowed a chunk of air just as Jason appeared on the other side.
Clem was immensely glad for a reason to not talk about her grandmother, or Jason, as that topic could undoubtedly lead to. Anything would have been better than reliving that particular disappointment, or that most recent conversation. And so she latched onto Niko’s request like it was a life preserver in a rip tide, it was much safer than everything else in her life, even skating tricks. With the cheekiest smile she could manage, though at first it was slightly forced, she said, “Well I can do this,” and immediately began skating circles around him, quite literally, all the while with that stupid mischievous grin on her face.
This had the desired effect of making Niko laugh, however it had an equally undesired effect of making him wobble to the point of near falling, and it was only because Clem managed to stop in time to catch him that he didn’t. Once he was safely upright and stable, well as stable as Niko seemed capable of on ice skates, she let go, though she noticed that Niko’s cheeks seemed a bit flushed as moved she away. She chose to attribute that to his near fall rather than overanalyzing it.
Instead she chose to skate backwards in front of Niko has he made his much slower way around the rink, though this time with minimal unstable limbs, which was a marked improvement. It was only when they were moving again that Clem actually answered his questions, “I’ve been skating since I was a little kid, I don’t know, we would mostly go a few times a week during winter break in elementary school. I think it was Mom’s way of keeping us distracted for a few hours while she was stuck with eight kids under the age of twelve at home. Though what she was thinking putting Chad and Steven near shoes with sharp blades on them I’ll never know…” she told Niko with a small smile. “But eh, it worked out. Ryan and Trey were even on a hockey team for a few years then,” she smiled reminiscently as she peered over her shoulder to make sure she was still avoiding any possible major collisions. “I hate to report that I can’t show you more stellar moves other than literal circles and this awesome backwards skating, so you’ll just have to be impressed by that.”
And he sure seemed to be. Eventually Clem stopped skating backwards, not because she wasn’t enjoying showing off, but the constant vigilance was more tiring than actually skating. Skating in a circle got boring after like an hour, and without the seven other people she was used to having at an ice skating rink…she wasn’t sure of any games to play. Clem tried to teach Niko how to make his stops cleaner, but that proved fruitless when Niko fell on his butt one too many times for either of their likings, and not just because it made him shiver. And so, after the fourth time that Clem extended her hand to help her poor friend up off the ice, they finally gave up on the skating, and proceeded to walk-skate and both stumble over to a bench to take their skates off.
After that spectacle, the pair grabbed some hot chocolate, which was delightful after all that time on the ice. They chatted easily, like they usually did, and when it was time to go Clem convinced Niko to extend the fun (at least for him, maybe) and help her with her pre-calculus homework. Especially since he kept her out so late on a school night, which would probably piss off her mom more than it did Clem, but it worked as a convincing tool.
The homework wasn’t actually that hard, she probably could have done it by herself, but she preferred to keep hanging out with Niko…and to get more than seventy percent of the homework questions right. Plus Niko’s presence kept her from having to talk to Jason, which was ideal as she wasn’t ready for anything more than polite conversing with her beloved brother yet. No, Niko was much better, even with math. He wasn’t going to try to convince her to go to her aunt’s for Christmas, he’d laugh at her awful jokes and maybe chastise her for getting distracted, and overall just be much more preferable to the company of Jason. And that was exactly what happened, he didn’t tell her to go stay with her Aunt Abigail, not that he knew anything about that, and Clem had a splendid time.
Then he left, and Clem was left with the harrowing prospect of seeing and speaking with Jason, or possibly even worse, her mother. Instead, she snuck around the house until she found Chad and Steven curled under a blanket on the couch in the living room, watching some stupid screwball comedy movie. Nudging Steven to the side, she slid under the blanket beside him, happy to watch a movie, even a bad one, with her blissfully ignorant younger brothers. They were better than Jason right now too.
Niko didn’t speak much because there was nothing to say. He knew Clem to be the simple type. He knew that he could be quiet, silent even, and Clem wouldn’t attempt to thrust him out of it, to confess and feel and heal. Clem couldn’t. Frankly, it felt more cathartic to sit next to her and weave in and out of conversation while driving to an ice rink than to recall disturbing events.
They waited in line to get their skates, behind a short couple and a large family, and Niko incidentally found himself right beside Clem. Normally he didn’t notice how enormously they dwarfed others since they tended toward sequestered activities, away from the noisy and annoying general population. But now they were surrounded and not only were they towering over the rest of the line, but this camaraderie in height also warmed the cockles of his twingy little heart. She turned to him and started boasting about her believable skill in skating. Niko had to glance away at first. He instantly grinned. He and Clem were together again, competing in a physical game. It was Christmas.
At one point he would have argued that he could never have feelings for someone who didn’t enjoy a round of mental fisticuffs over any athletic demonstration. Now it turned out he had feelings for someone that could make him prefer a game of might over mind.
Clem’s lips stretched wider and exposed the tips of her white teeth when she noticed his own smile. He briefly rubbed along where she had nudged him as if feeling it again. “We skated a li’l,” Niko admitted, “but I haven’ gone in years. You’ll havta help me like usual.” Clem rolled her dark teal eyes and pushed him gently again. Her warm, flowery smell sent him momentarily aflutter. He clenched away an urge to reach out and entwine their fingers before kissing the back of her hand. Instead, he grinned again - only nervously this time.
Once they got their skates, they had an instant competition to see who had the bigger foot. They clanged their sharp shoes together and aligned them while they walked to a bench to put them on. Of course, once they sat beside each other, they realized it was a better strategy to compare actual feet. Clem’s were smaller and Niko mentioned how that meant she was faster and he’s better at flattening out surfaces just by walking. They leaned on each other, shoulder against shoulder, while slipping on the skate shoes. Once they finished, Niko raised his palm. Clem promptly high-fived him. Niko had larger hands, too.
Walk-skating to the entrance to the rink slipped up Niko far more than he imagined. While he had a general grasp on keeping himself upright, he still stumbled and nearly took down a twelve-year old with pigtails. Laughter bubbled and overflowed out of Clem and instead of becoming overcome with embarrassment Niko was lighter, more peaceful, and laughed with her. He returned her friendship with yet another nudge. it was blossoming into its own language, these gentle, fraternal pushes.
And it was then when Clem flawlessly floated onto the ice that Niko was sprung with an idea. He would fake clumsiness.
However, it turned out it wasn’t going to take a whole lot of effort on his part to fabricate falling. Within the first few strokes on community ice, Niko found himself accidentally thrusting himself along the wall. His long legs crumbled beneath him, but that part was a bit of his own doing. Clem laughed again but whisked herself over to him.
He realized something watching her glide toward him. In the other sports, Clem had to perform less gentle and more flamboyant movements. On ice, she was just as coordinated and accomplished, but now her body was focused into angelic qualities. It wasn’t that it was unlike her to be graceful, it wasn’t even that she didn’t enjoy it. Clearly now she was enjoying the feeling of exerting talent. It was that grace was misnomered. Clem was misnomered.
Had he been stereotyping her like everyone else? Did he even know her?
Niko thrust himself up on his own, clutching onto the railing. His eyes traveled along her face again. Yes, he did know her. He did. He wasn’t like the others. He did fill in holes, he was influenced by societal assumptions, but he hadn’t meant to. A second wave of epiphany struck him again. It liberated him. Niko would never know everything about Clem. She would always surprise him.
Once on his feet, Niko asked, “D’ya think I could lean on you for a bit? Y’know, to gain balance. My legs are too wobbly.” Clem nodded but after a short hesitation. Niko tried his best to keep his hand on her shoulder as light as possible. It wasn’t so much the touch he wanted, but to feel her warmth beside him. He wanted to smell her. That warm blanket overcoming like the sort of thing he would wrap himself inside when he felt particularly crazy and Spencer couldn’t hold him through his shaking anymore. Clem felt more like home than Nine did, no matter how much he felt he betrayed his sister just by thinking it. Or maybe it was just that he didn’t feel so crazy anymore.
"So how’s your grandma?" he asked after slipping slightly and sending something sharp through his ankle. "She bring over her shotgun?"
Clem shrugged. Her eyes glanced away and stayed away while she answered. “She left,” and Niko felt his own heart fall. There was a pause before she said, “My brothers and my mom are planning to go visit her in the summer.” She didn’t rattle off like she would when she was excited or nervous. No never-ending sentences. Something was wrong.
Niko didn’t know what to do. Clem was rolling the subject off her shoulders just like he had about his talk with Spencer. So he decided to just give up and leave the subject with positivity. “She’s pretty unique,” he smiled, “best grandma I’ve ever met.” Then he released his hand from her back and wobbled beside her. “So when did you start skating? Who taught you? You know any moves? Wanna show me?”
Clem did not wake up when she was supposed to the next morning, in fact, she woke up thirty minutes beforehand, to Jason shaking her shoulder and whispering her name, urging her to wake up. She was awake pretty quickly, but decided to punish Jason for waking her up before the sun was up by grumbling and taking forever and a day, even for her, to get up and actually open her eyes. When she was sitting up and looking at him, Jason dove straight into what appeared to be an apology.
“Listen, I’m sorry about how strong I came on last night,” he said, putting hand on her arm as he did so, which she didn’t draw away from him, though it tempted her, not out of discomfort…but just to continue to feign anger at him. In all honesty, she hadn’t been angry with him about an hour after their conversation, but at the same time she wasn’t about to admit that to Jason. He could grovel a bit first. After the stunt he pulled the night before, he deserved it. “I just…you know I can’t stand to watch…” dot dot dot, she got the picture, “I just want you to be safe and happy. But I know that if you need to leave, or think you do, you will. And I’m sorry for trying to force you to do otherwise.”
She knew Jason well enough to know that Jason was just placating her, just preparing for another round of conversations and possibly arguments about where she would spend Christmas. It had happened for the past several years, and often, and Clem would not let it devolve into that five minutes after she woke up, so she just cut him off. “It’s fine Jason, don’t worry about it, I know you are just worried.” She rubbed the hand that was grasping her arm with her thumb, trying in vain to reassure him through touch. How did people even do that? It was feeling exceedingly awkward so she just stopped abruptly and tucked her hand underneath the blankets, unsure of what to do. She was especially unsure because Jason was still staring at her with those strange, sad eyes of his that he always got around this time of year. “No worries,” she said again, “It’s all forgiven.”
“Okay, as long as you are sure…” he removed his hand, but gave her another long, sad look.
“Yes, I’m sure! Now go so I can sleep some more!”
“Sorry about that,” he said with a small smile, and just when she thought he was about to go…he leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “Love you,” he said, with a squeeze of her hand.
But Clem shook off the feeling and fell back asleep. She slept through her alarm and was almost late to school, but it was worth it. Clem’s day was almost as weird as Jason’s profession of brotherly love, for although she was not angry at Jason right now…it didn’t mean that his words didn’t bother her, weigh on her. She was unusually distracted, which was saying a lot, as she was always distracted at school. Branson kept trying to get her to tell him what was bothering her, but after about twenty minutes he gave up. Clem usually got like this around the holidays, and he had learned long ago that too much badgering would probably get him smacked.
Practice was slightly better, for at least she had something to take her frustration and confusion out on, but it didn’t last nearly long enough. As Jason drove her home, however, she got the thing she hadn’t known she had been waiting for, a phone call from Niko. Clem wasn’t sure what was more surprising to her, the fact that Niko was inviting her ice-skating, or that her phone was actually charged and she had brought it to school. So even though the ice skating request was odd…an afternoon with Niko sounded like just what she needed, so she heartily accepted.
He picked her up about forty five minutes after she got home, just enough time for her to shower so that Niko wouldn’t have to hold his nose and whine about her putrid sweat fumes. And even though he didn’t have that to complain about, Clem still found him abnormally quiet in the car as they drove to the rink. They chatted idly as he drove, she told him about her game the previous night, and he recounted how he had seen Mercury a few days before. There were a few minutes where they didn’t talk at all, but Clem was okay with that, and almost preferred it. It just felt natural, normal even, and after he argument with Jason and all the memories that had resurfaced, she was glad for a bit of normalcy, it brought her back from her constant distractedness…even if just for a bit.
However, by the time they were in line to rent skates, Niko’s silence was getting a bit eerie. Clem was pretty sure something was bothering him, even if she didn’t know him well enough, or anybody, for that matter, to be able to guess what. So she figured she would just ask. “Are you okay…you seem…off,” oh gosh she was awful at this…being supportive thing. Off, that was a great word. Then she remembered Jason’s remark…something about Spencer. “Is it something to do with whatever Spencer talked to you about yesterday?”
Niko looked at her, seeming to be confused about how she knew about that to which she quickly added, “Jason told me.”
He took a few moments to respond, but when he did it was short and sweet, and didn’t answer her first question, only her second…and only slightly. But she wasn’t going to complain. All he said was, “Spencer jus’ told us about our parents,” and let it be.
Fishing slightly, Clem asked, “Is this a good or a bad thing?” not sure what else to say.
Niko just shrugged, and so Clem gave up. If Niko wanted to tell her, he would, and she wasn’t going to push if he wasn’t just going to crumble like putty in her hands, there was no point, especially when there were more important things to do…like skating. She let a few moments of silence go by before she broke it yet again with, “Well, I have to warn you, I am an excellent skater, I guarantee will skate circles around you. Did you skate much when you lived in Europe? Am I gonna have some competition?” she nudged him slightly, grinning to let him know she was kidding, and Niko gave her one of his first genuine smiles of the night.
Well, that was wrong. But that was how he felt. His muscles had loosened completely, his body seemingly about to fall through the chair. He was lost. Niko was more lost and abandoned than he had ever been before. Despite the box full of evidence of his parents and Spencer’s thriving guilt, Niko discovered something he already knew: Family wasn’t genetic.
He had hoped his entire sentient life up until this that once Spencer revealed the identity of the people that made up his genes…he would connect with them. He would imagine a life where all four of them would be together doing something with these amorous rays between them. His chest would expand with an oncoming breath and he would smile with the exhale. Instead, his parents were mass murderers. His parents killed hundreds of people based on genetics. His godfather wasn’t his true godfather. His true godfather was one of the murderers. He and his sister were kidnapped by a youngster with a dead mother and a loving father.
But most of all, he had nothing because he finally had the answer to “Would my parents have loved me?” He didn’t need Spencer to answer. Spencer’s face would just sag further and Niko knew the answer. It didn’t leave him terribly unhappy, wishing harm upon himself or others, or desiring to curl into a puddle of fresh tears. He was exactly where he was ten minutes earlier but…less. If that made any sense because it certainly didn’t to him.
Buddha, he really wanted to be with Clem right now. He wanted to watch her run around and make faces and even begin to smell her sweat pervade through to her clothes. He couldn’t, though, he felt himself tied to this room. More particularly, to his sister.
Nine was still holding their father’s photo in her hand. She didn’t stop until she placed it on her nightstand that night. Even at the dinner table it sat beside her plate. She kept the photo of their mother nearby, too, but not as tightly. Niko glanced at her periodically throughout dinner. Spencer spoke more of his own father. He continued to rattle off like an excited schoolboy everything he could think of. Spencer had the connection with his father Niko had imagined himself having. He found himself wishing that Spencer was still an orphan.
He didn’t sleep well that night. When he woke up, he had only one prerogative. He spent all his time doing homework and studying actually figuring out an actual activity outside of assisting her with Calculus. When he finally conjured it out of thin air, Niko felt less than sure that Clem would agree.
"Hey," he began morosely before coughing to interrupt himself. "Clem…d’you…want to go ice skating?"
Unlike when Pavel was in the stands, Jason’s presence at the game didn’t distract Clem. In fact, it actually helped her focus more, which was possibly why her lack of concentration had unnerved her so much last week. Usually, when she had an audience that she knew, that she was aware of, outside of the few parents and the usual crowd of people, it actually pushed her to make fewer mistakes, take the three pointers more often, and in some strange way…focus less on dominating and more on making her whole team look good. Though…that was more Jason’s presence than anyone else’s. Consequentially, Jason was probably under the impression that she was a far more selfless player than she actually was. But if she could get him to go to every game she ever played in, and not watch her on a television someday in his family room with Nine when they had 2.5 kids and she was maybe a WNBA superstar five states away…maybe she could keep that illusion up forever and he’d never have to know how selfish she could be on the court.
She knew it was stupid, wanting so badly to impress her brother, to make him proud, that she would give up shots for players who missed more than she did. But maybe, overall, it was better for her game. She doubted Jason even noticed all that much, then again, he couldn’t when he didn’t know anything different. And she supposed, for now, she’d keep it up, just in case.
They won, though there hadn’t been a doubt in Clem’s mind that they would. It was by an even larger margin than usual, which actually did surprise Clem, as she had put on her ‘selfless player’ jersey and kept it on the whole game…and that usually didn’t help much, but apparently, with this round of recruits it did. That was a note to keep in mind. Her coach even pulled her aside after the game and congratulated her for including her teammates more. He said something about it being a big step in her basketball career and if she could keep this up blah blah scholarships blah blah college blah blah more stuff Clem didn’t really hear while she was focused on hydrating herself after what was an extraordinarily long game (being selfless really took it out of her).
She had almost forgot Jason was there until he met her outside the locker room. “Good job, Clem,” he said with his small, proud Jason smile, wrapping his arm around her shoulder as they walked to the car. If anyone else had tried to do that, she probably would have punched them, but it was Jason…so she let him, even if it made her uncomfortable.
“Do you wanna go grab some food before we go home, only if you don’t have a lot of homework…” Honestly, Clem couldn’t remember if she had any homework or not, so she lied and went with the latter, because it meant more time with Jason, and that was proving to be a precious commodity nowadays.
“Where’s Nine?” she asked her brother, for although she liked Nine, she had begun to grow acutely aware of the amount of time her brother spent with his girlfriend, and away from the family. Maybe they had had a fight, maybe they had broken up, maybe she’d have a week or two of Jason to herself before they got back together (cause they obviously would). Wait, wait, she was over this, she liked Nine and Jason together, even if she was still a little confused why Nine was Iris and then…not Iris, but still…they were good. She was done being paranoid.
The smile on Jason’s face told Clem that he knew exactly what was going on in his little sister’s head. “Spencer wanted to talk to her and Niko about something, did Niko mention it to you?”
“Nah I haven’t talked to him in a couple of days,” Clem said nonchalantly, trying to decide whether she was relieved or not that it was none of the things her mind had come up with, finally deciding that she was when Jason started talking again.
“Yeah, so she’s busy, and I realize I haven’t been around much…so I figured I’d come see you play. Even though you didn’t bother to tell anyone about the game.” He looked at her accusatorially, like she was supposed to know she had to inform the entire family every time she had a sports obligation, which would take way too much time.
“Well, to be fair, I didn’t know until like two hours before the game…”
“A likely excuse,” Jason said teasingly, as they pulled into the parking lot of Bay Burgers, which he had picked perfectly without having to ask, being the awesome brother he was. And then he urged her inside, leaving her ‘likely excuse’ alone.
They ordered together, and Jason bought the meal for Clem. Trays in hand, they sat together, quietly eating, occasionally teasing. Clem shot her straw wrapper at his face while he was eating, and her purposely squirted his ketchup so it splashed on her food. They were like five year olds, if her mother was there, she would have scolded them, but she wasn’t, so they were free to act juvenile together.
But, it seemed, Jason had some ‘grown-up stuff’ to talk about with his little sister, or so she guessed by his sudden change in demeanor when he finished the last bite of his Bay Burger. He suddenly got pensive and quiet, his fingers laced together with his chin resting on top, just staring at Clem as she finished off the last of her fries.
“What?” she asked, a mouthful of fries making the words jumbled and hard to understand.
“You know Dad is probably going to come home within the next month…” was all he said.
“Um, I guess?” Clem was confused where this was going, but she knew she probably wouldn’t like it. Her stomach clenched slightly…where was Jason going with this.
“Are you…okay with that?” he asked, hesitantly.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” she asked, a new handful of fries obstructing her enunciation, “I mean, whatever, he’ll be there, he’ll ignore me, I’ll ignore him. It will be just like old times.”
Jason’s eyes called her on her bullshit, though he’d never say that word out loud. So Clem did it for him, “I know what you are thinking, ‘what a pile of bullshit!’” Jason flinched slightly, for Clem’s voice had risen by at least fifteen decibels with the last word, and now the people around her were glancing at her haughtily. “I know what is going to happen, and so do you,” she said, much quieter this time. She stared down at her hands, greasy and covered in salt, and sighed. “It is what it is.”
Her stomach was tight now, and everything around her felt tight, constricting, like the booth had just shrunk to half size, like the grease was eating away at her skin while she sat there staring at it. Her fingers drifted to old wounds…no, she shook her head, no, she wouldn’t dwell on it more than she had to.
“But it doesn’t have to,” Jason said, grabbing her grease-covered hands. “You could just go stay with Grandma, or with Aunt Abigail.”
“I hate April,” she said, saying Abigail’s daughter’s name with more than a bit of a snarl.
“Clem,” Jason sighed. “Just please, I don’t want to…I can’t see you…you can’t be here. You don’t need to be here. Why put yourself in a situation that will only lead to…”
“To what Jason?” Clem said, her own anger bubbling towards the surface, “Say it.”
His gaze told her ‘you know what I mean’, but he didn’t actually say it. “I just can’t let you go through this again and again, you don’t deserve this Clem,” and there was sincerity in his eyes, but Clem just shook her head and ignored it. She couldn’t leave, even if she wanted to.
“Listen, I’m not going to run away like a scared dog, and I’m not leaving my family near Christmas or whenever he chooses to show up. I’m not a coward. I can handle this, just like always. I always get through it, don’t I?” Jason just looked at her in despair, “And don’t think for a moment that if I wasn’t there it would just stop…how do you even know?” and with that Clem stomped away. Out of Bay Burgers, through the parking lot, and onto the road. She had just resolved to walk the rest of the way home when it started to rain, and before she knew it Jason was pulled up alongside her on the dank two lane road, begging her to get in the car.
Clem only agreed because she didn’t want to get a cold in the middle of preseason.
After his brief but thorough discussion with Abe, Niko found himself with nothing to discuss with Ichabod. Of course, he had the usual dilemmas about the pills, about how he acted around others, of his sense of belonging not only to his family and friends but the world itself. He didn’t know what to say about those except what he’d already spilled forth in the awkward comfort of the elongated chair. Beside not having any pressing issues about his feelings toward Clem and her not reciprocating them in the slightest, he felt like a giant twit bringing her up in every single conversation. If they were actually together that would be one thing…but now he was just whining. Even he was irritated.
Thus, Niko drove to his therapist’s racking his mind for a subject to evaluate for two hours. When he got to the door with the secretary waving jovially, Niko faced the young, white man with a blank stare. Ichabod returned this gaze with a very concerned, “Are you alright, Nikolai?” while shutting the door behind them. The conversation was about as aimless as regular small talk.
To get started, Ichabod asked about what Niko had been up to since they last spoke. As it turned out, this was fruitful. It sure didn’t solve any problems, but talking about it allowed it outside of himself - to be real and thus he could defeat his woes. They did speak shortly about Clem. Niko told Ichabod about his reaction to seeing her with Pavel and his general decision to not tell her anything or let her realize, and Ichabod scrawled something down quickly before they switched the topic.
While they jumped from one disturbance to another, Niko’s mind subtly started to replay Spencer’s words from the afternoon prior. He hadn’t forgotten about the conversation that awaited him when he pulled into the driveway, but now it loomed before him. Ominous and full of echoing shadows, Niko’s gut turned over and growled. He became too afraid to tell Ichabod why he was becoming so distracted. He didn’t know why he was afraid, truly. It was just a conversation. He could not understand why his innards were entwining with such great hurry. Niko shakily shook Ichabod’s hand on the way out and tried to focus all his energy on not crashing on the way home.
He wondered if that was what it felt like for Clem every single time she sat behind the wheel.
Nine was already home when Niko quietly, and with building sweat, stepped through the threshold. Spencer and Hero were eating oranges together at the kitchen island. Their fingers laced together like a human weave. He stared but couldn’t see, waiting for Spencer to sweep over to him and take him and Nine away for this conversation.
However, Hero and he continued paging through documents for five minutes before the statue of a man strolled over to Niko. His voice carried through the hall to Nine. Her colorful hair peaked through the hallway moments before her entire body formed and grew larger and larger as she approached. Then they all went to the study. Spencer told each of them to grab a seat.
By the white board was a slightly worn brown box. Once the two of them fulfilled his request, he grabbed this box and brought it back to their laps. “Open it,” he encouraged kindly. Niko’s hands twitched and vibrated and grew paralyzed beside the recently-dusted box, so Nine’s nimble fingers sprung the tabs from one another and pushed them away from the center.
Before she pulled something out, Niko noticed rims of white along portraits of people with bright eyes. He also glanced at papers in the style of birth and adoption certificates. Nine had brought out a portrait of a woman with large lips and cheekbones and eyes the color of Niko’s. Pink and blue. She was stoic and stood in front of paint-chipped but colorful house. The blurry land beyond her looked a bit like a desert.
Niko did not hesitate to reach in and pull out the portrait of a male soldier with freckles and Nine’s eyes. He also seemed unfeeling. Niko already felt a sense of detachment - of abandonment growing within him. He and his sister held the pictures out for each other to see and graced the features they could feel on their own faces.
“There are many more portraits in that box, but mostly of my own novice artwork,” Spencer interrupted that pause. “You will be able to see what your parents looked like when they had less years on them, before the war your father instigated.” Niko’s eyes instantly stared at Spencer’s. Nine’s remained stroking the portrait of their father. She had never seen her eyes on another person, and quite frankly she had waited her entire life to find them outside of her own reflection. Her ears picked up, but her eyes did not waver.
“If you would appreciate knowing the entire story, I will tell you it all starting tomorrow. However, I think what I am about to divulge to the two of you will be enough to digest for many years. This is why I waited to tell you. This is not something you want to know as you are growing up and defining yourself.” His eyes fixed for a moment on his godson, “You would have hated yourself more than you already did.” Niko felt the shudder in his body but did not manifest them beyond a momentary glance back at his parents. Spencer continued with great vocal clarity. “Your parents were, among many things, not just terrible, war criminals. Your father lead an ethnic cleansing with your mother by his side. Because we had known each other since I was a child, they did not harm me. They did not speak to me, but they did not send for my death during my visits. Your father, despite what I have told you, did not ask for me to take care of you. He did when he was an unknowing child, but when he grew into a soldier other men were to be responsible for you. I kidnapped you after I saw your father’s lifeless body. You would either be taken care of by his enemies or his friends. Either way, you were not safe.”
Niko did not yet know how to feel about the fact that his godfather had committed a crime. That he wasn’t really his godfather. But he also did not know how to feel about….anything else. Spencer sighed, “So I took you home with me. I had friends and they helped me make it legal and official.” His formal speech had noticeably waned. Niko had never seen him so tired. “I presented the two of you to my father and brought you to my mother’s grave and then I took you to Europe to be raised. That is the final part of this conversation,” he breathed.
His hand slowly reached into his pockets and pulled out his wallet. He flipped it open and dug out a small photo. It was a man with very, very dark skin and a baseball cap. “This is my father,” he smiled. “He is the one I secretly visit. I didn’t want you to become more jealous and feel more abandoned and cheated knowing I had a father and you did not. I thought it would be better if we were all orphans together. I didn’t know what to do,” he let Niko take the worn and bent photo from his fingers, “but you should know now. I am sorry I didn’t tell you. I did not know what to do.”
There was quiet. Nine reached out and held Spencer’s hand and held a gaze, still tightly holding onto the photo of the man with her eyes. Niko, on the other hand, held everything that came his way loosely, as if he was less real than any of them.
“He is coming to the wedding. He is excited to see you again. I tell him all about you every time I go.” And, finally, there was a tear on his noble face.
When the Whitefield children woke up the next morning, it was to find that there grandmother was no longer there. Now, this wasn’t that unusual of a thing. Oftentimes when Charlotte came to visit, she’d disappear in the middle of the night, only to call the next day from her home in Idaho just to let them know she got there safely and hadn’t been run over by a bus or something while out getting her morning coffee (she always said whatever coffee Camilla made was vile). But, while the rest of her siblings seemed to find the news sad, but not surprising, Clem was internally…quite astonished. She didn’t say anything, but after the conversation she had eavesdropped on the night before, she didn’t see how her grandmother could leave, or that she would. But then again, it was her grandmother…sometimes she did things no one would expect just for the sake of it.
So, Clem went through most of her day feeling a mixture of disappointment that when she got out of basketball practice her grandmother wouldn’t be there to pick her up, and an extreme annoyance at pre-calculus, which was her near constant companion at school these days, no matter what class she was in. It was only when she was her last class of the day, Spanish, that dear Branson reminded her that she had a preseason game that night. She just kept thinking goddamn her grandmother, why couldn’t she stick around for one more freaking night and she her only granddaughter (well the only one that mattered as her cousin April was just a nuisance) play her favorite sport in her last year at high school. It was only after Branson and Señor Aguilera stared at her with shocked faces that she realized that she had also expressed her displeasure aloud…and with more foul language than was appropriate in a high school classroom.
And so it was detention for Clem, not that she cared that much. Señor Aguilera had been spent the past few months just babbling on in Spanish and she had no idea what was going on in that class, so she wasn’t missing much. Though…there was still the question of whether or not they would let her play at the game. However, Clem didn’t stress about it too much, deciding that she’d just show up and hope for the best. Though if they didn’t let her, she was not liable for any punches she might throw, she was in no mood to be told she couldn’t play.
Luckily for the other people who would soon be crowded into the gym, her coach, nor the refs, seemed to have any knowledge of her detention. Either the whole school knew she was the key to the team’s success and weren’t willing to make her sit out over one measly detention, or…detentions when you didn’t actually punch someone had less effect on eligibility than she remembered.
The detention eventually came out, when Branson came barreling into the gym shouting about it. Clem was so close to running him down and covering his mouth, but her coach didn’t even bat an eyelash at the news. However, she still smacked him on the back of the head for being such a loudmouth the moment Coach was out of the view.
“Ow! What was that for?!” he yelled, a little too loudly for Clem’s taste.
“For being an insufferable tattle tale,” she snarled vehemently back at him, “Did you really have to come in here raving about my detention like it was the latest gossip story everyone had to know?”
“Puh-lease,” he said like the stereotypical high school preppy girl she had unfortunately seen in a movie…or something. “Coach doesn’t care, it was just one detention and he’s not going to make you sit out. Reeeelaxxx, Clem.”
She just glared at him, arms crossed, not wanting to talk to him. But then he threw a basketball in her direction, and she was putty, she couldn’t resist the urge to play, and so she left her anger on the sidelines and played, finally feeling the adrenaline of the upcoming game coursing through her veins.
Eventually coach called them into the locker rooms, the other team was arriving, and people would be arriving soon to watch. Though, as it was a preseason game they weren’t expecting as huge of a crowd as they would during regular season. During regular season, the VCHS gym was packed to the brim during regular season. Two state championships in a row would gain any team that kind of following, and they weren’t just any team.
All the newer players were excited about the prospect of their family and friends’ being there to support them but Clem wasn’t honestly expecting to see anyone in the stands for her. Last week had been a fluke, two friends? It was unheard of. And yet, as she filed out of the locker room into the main gym her eyes still scanned the stands for a familiar face. Then…all of the sudden they landed on one, Jason. Just Jason. No Nine, no Niko, no Chad and Steven, not even her mother, just Jason. He had come out here, by himself, with her not having told him about the game, and had shown up, and in that moment Clem’s heart swelled…but it was just a moment, one that soon faded from her. She smiled and waved at her beloved brother, before running onto the court, ready for the game to start already.
Mornings no longer crisply awakened Niko to possibility and improvement. Granted, they weren’t dribbling sorrowful tears into his yawning mouth, either. It was merely blunt opening his eyes, immediately wondering what there was to look forward to on that particular day. He would immediately visualize the afternoon and evening and ponder whether or not he could see Clem. It was a vomit-inducing cliche that Niko would have commented upon if he wasn’t right in the middle of it. His brilliant, agile brain was stuck on something of a Clem loop. If it wasn’t possible to see Clem, the gravity of his bed would be more difficult to overcome. Niko would of course still roll out of bed moments after he opened his eyes, but there was a noticeable difference (to him) of the enthusiasm infested within swinging his legs out of bed.
Tuesday was one of those days where his legs resembled cement. Not just because of Clem, but because of the memory of how he’d butted into Mercury’s life uninvited the night before. Because he had to go to “school” online instead of venturing out into the world and raising his hand among peers. Niko had never thought he’d long to be surrounded by people his own age or surrounded by people in general. He had always harbored a strong avoidance not unlike animosity toward people he did not know, particularly when they grouped in hordes and became a hive mind. Nowadays, Niko had an entirely new reflection waving to him in the mirror every morning.
He strolled with an arched back to the basement study where he dwindled his hours studying and completing assignments. His fingers mindlessly fiddled and solved a Rubik’s cube while struggling against the river of Calc III finals supposedly preparing him for his exam. Time stomped on by, each tick like the pounding of a drum in an excessively long parade. That is until Spencer softly found him paging through a book and formally informed him that Nine and he were going to have an important conversation the next day after his therapist. Then the minutes sped past in confusing agony as he tried to figure out what the hell it could be that Spencer was springing upon them.
Was he planning to kick them out after the baby was born? Was Hero suddenly experiencing complications and they needed to make sure to be there for her? Was it about who was going to drive her to the hospital? Whether or not he trusted Niko to hold his fragile baby boy’s head until the soft spot hardened? Did he know about Clem? Okay, no, the last one made no sense, it wasn’t as if Spencer considered that “important.” But for a Niko that kept arguing with himself how to act around Clem knowing she was crushing on another boy - if he should give her space in order to be with this Pavel, if he should tell her, if he should tell Pavel - it sure felt vital.
With much too many questions rattling incessantly in his head, Niko decided in the midst of his peanut butter and jelly sandwich to visit the closest thing he had to a parent outside of his family. Seeing as he was a foul-mouthed veteran with crusty eyes, Niko did his best to impede his brain from analyzing what that meant about him and his life.
The drive itself pounded the issues in harder. As the trees and YMCA complexes dramatically blurred by him, Clem’s adventurous athleticism further curled its way into his sulci. He didn’t understand why his semi-complicated relationship with his best friend made him have to evaluate all his emotions and actions. With a couple holding hands near an intersection, he plunged into a common debate if any physical intimacy would be possible and if Clem could even handle romance. If she would enjoy any of that. Anything and everything hurt him and buried him under question marks. His lungs and brain ached. But when Niko’s car slowly drove along the rocky road to his rustic home, he miraculously clawed his way for a breath to greet Abe.
Abe, of course, knew something was wrong. Instead of ignoring it and asking for a beer, he invited the lad into a conversation of his trouble after the stone-cold beer was in his wrinkled and war-torn hands. Niko flinched in surprise. He expected Abe to ask him to weed. He honestly figured being told to do something he could do by a parental figure would be enough to sedate him for the rest of the day. Running hadn’t exhausted his thinking capacities, but maybe chores would.
Instead, when Niko bent to sit in the rickety front porch chair, Abe plunged into the wreckage. “What’s the dame done to you now, boy?”
Flustered, Niko sputtered, “How d’ya know it’s abou’ her?”
The first reply was so common he could have picked it out of a romance novel. “It’s always a dame.” But it was followed up by a comment Niko would have judged complimentary if he wasn’t already dizzy. “And you’re not the type to let go of a thought. You’re like a buddy I had in ‘Nam. Damned fool would drive himself up the wall trying to understand things you jus’ can’t understand.”
Abe was right. There was no better way he would’ve described himself. All the episodes he’d had since a child originated from a spiraling black hole of contemplation. If Clem were there to hear it, she’d probably even shout, “Here here!”
His innards darkened in thought once Clem weaved her way into his senses again. “Yeah.”
Abe let the dark-skinned boy sit in his own awkward silence. He already regretted visiting Abe. He was supposed to make it all better, not remind him that he was a freak and continue the downward spiral. It pitter-pattered on their roof as rain began and that’s when Abe tore Niko out of his own mind again.
"So what about the dame?" he opened casually after a sip of his malted beverage.
Niko cracked open his lips but stumbled trying to translate some centimeter of his weight. “Does…does…am I-should I even-does she even wan’ me?” The harshness stunned even him so he tried again, “I mean, does it even matter? Do I even matter? I know we’re friends, but she could live without me. I don’ know what I’m sayin’…I jus’…I know I’d give a damn if we drifted apart. I don’ know if it’d do anything to her beside give her mo’ time to play basketball and fail pre-calc. Just a boy in a discarded photo album…if there were any photos of us together.”
The last statement didn’t help rise him out of the hole he dug himself by voicing his mind. In fact, he had never even considered that before. There was no real record of their partnership beyond a pair of trophies and a few newspaper clippings. Hardly personal. Nothing of the two of them playing in the snow, of his coat on her shoulders, of her knocking him to the floor in soccer, not even of eating lunch together. He couldn’t help it that his pepper infused inside his nose and his throat dried. The rain plunged on beyond Abe and Niko, making the eventual task of trudging through the road back to his car and driving home even more aching. He knew better than to cry in front of Abe, even if at that moment he believed Abe would forgive him. Maybe even understand. So he swallowed and stared down at his fingernails.
Abe stared the boy down, waging on a course of action. Niko reckoned probably hadn’t seen a boy so fundamentally fragile in his life. Of course, Niko was wrong - Abe had been to war, and not just in Vietnam. While the treacheries of romances and tangled hearts did beyond their fair due, he had experience in the events that truly fragmented a person beyond repair. Abe was wiser than the racial slurs he occasionally let loose in a fit of fury at the rabbits that ate his vegetables.
”This girl, has she ever just talked to you?” he began bluntly, placing the beer beside his foot on the ground and out of the way. Niko recalled one or two instances and nodded his head vaguely. Sure, they had just talked, but never really about anything all that important. The day they exchanged the tales of their parents, it had been almost begrudgingly. They hadn’t liked each other. Abe was only reinforcing his insecurities.
"Alrigh’, but she’s not the girl that just talks, does she? She doesn’t like talking." Hesitating, Niko nodded. He wasn’t sure where Abe was going but his ears picked up. "She likes playing games and going outside, am I right? Basketball, you say? Has she ever invited you to play?"
He shook his head up and down again. But this wasn’t all that extraordinary. People played with each other - that didn’t mean they were anything especially significant to each other. Niko sighed. All this validated was that she liked to be with him, not that he meant all that much to her.
"Has she ever done something with you she never does?”
And then the rain was silenced and the dam in his head broke and let free all the joys and impossibilities he had pushed aside. “She apologized to me,” he murmured. “She kissed me…I was her first kiss.”
"Boy, I thought you said she didn’t like you! If she kissed you-" Abe had reddened, apparently upset he had wasted his consoling skills on a boy that was too foolish to need them.
He grinned, “No, she did it as a favor for me ta get rid o’ my ex-girlfriend. Not because she wanted to.”
Abe wasted no frivolities. “Boy, you are a fucking idiot. Of course she’s not going to forget about you. She apologized to you. When you apologize…” his frustration fragmented his words, “you try to keep the people that matter in your lives!” When Abe said this, something inside him had fragmented. His voice cracked. Niko didn’t know how to respond other than reply as quickly as possible, save the old man from feeling foolish and weak by spilling his feelings all over the floor.
"Yeah…yeah," and it seemed so obvious now. "Thank you."
"Damn skippy thank you! Wasting my time on a spoiled little brat like you…" Abe sipped the rest of his beer until the red went out of his face.
Niko eventually broke the silence with a lighthearted, “So…how’s the football season?”
Abe muttered, “Christ, boy. Am I the only teaching you how to be a man? How do you not know…nevermind.” And the old man plunged into details and play by plays of the seasons highlights and politics that dumbed Niko’s thoughts into an even more peaceful rest.
It was another day. Clem still hated school, math was still difficult beyond belief, she was still anxious about her…date on Friday, and she was still annoyed with the girls on her basketball team. The only thing that had really changed was that that morning at the breakfast table, her grandmother had started talking about leaving. And despite the fact that her grandmother had been there for about a week, Clem was still desperate that she stay longer. For one, her mother’s insanities were much easier to deal with when her grandmother was there. For another, she wasn’t even sure she could handle everything else without her grandmother, what about her date with Pavel, her math final, her final basketball season? Her grandmother had to stay for these things. It was her and Jason’s senior year!
As Jason drove her home, she began to devise a plan to keep her grandmother there, a very rational plan full of begging and pleading and general groveling that she was hoping would be desperate enough for her grandmother to reconsider. Maybe she could get Jason in on it…
She was just about to ask him when they pulled into the driveway and got out to enter the house. Jason immediately went upstairs without saying much more than goodnight, Clem knew he had been stressed about his physics class lately, so she chose to chalk it up to that. As she opened the fridge to scavenge for dinner, she heard the murmurs of voices coming from the other room. Tiptoeing over to the sliding glass door, she saw the reflection of her mom and grandmother sitting at the dining room table sipping what looked like wine in her mother’s hand and beer in her grandmother’s and chatting.
From her perch near the staircase, obscured from the view of the two women, she could see them clearly via reflection. Her mother was swirling her glass around lazily, not even looking at Clem’s grandmother as she said, “Are you sure you want to go Mother, you could stay longer if you want.”
Immediately Clem got excited, maybe her mom could convince Charlotte before Clem had to. But alas, her grandmother’s response left her disheartened, “I thought you would have wanted me to go back to Idaho, aren’t you tired of your old mom ruining all your plans?” she asked with a sly grin, a clear avoidance tactic, though partially serious.
But Camilla took the statement as completely serious. “You know I love having you here,” she told her mother earnestly, her hand grasping Charlotte’s arm affectionately, “It makes the kids happy, and it is nice to have an adult around the house. No matter how much Jason tries to act like one, it isn’t quite the same…”
“Yeah, well that is why you have Robert,” Charlotte said with more than a hint of disdain, saying the name of Clem’s father like it was a disgusting curse word.
Even from the slightly blurry reflection, Clem could tell her mother was glaring at Charlotte. That haughty angry glare that Clem often got when she tracked in mud on the kitchen floor from her soccer cleats, or when she tried to go to a party in jeans and a t-shirt.
Her grandmother, apparently, did not find the glare as intimidating as Clem did. For she just scoffed at the gesture, mumbled a quiet, “Whatever,” and took a large swig of beer as a way of letting Camilla know that she wasn’t going to push it in Charlotte-language.
Clem’s mom took a moment to compose herself, breathing in deeply before returning to the subject at hand, her mother’s imminent departure. Now was, she hoped, the moment she had been waiting for, Camilla was finally going to convince Clem’s grandmother to stay, possibly through Christmas, hopefully indefinitely. But instead of an impassioned plea, what she heard surprised her to the point where it was a harried scurry just to grab her gym bag after it slipped out of her shocked hands. “I worry about Clem when you leave,” she said with a frankness Clem rarely heard coming out of her mother’s mouth, staring deep into her wine glass and not at Charlotte, “she’s always so much more engaging when you are here. I worry about her, I worry about all of them.”
“They’ll be fine, Camilla,” said Charlotte after another swig of beer.
It was only then that her mother looked up. “With a mother like me?” she asked incredulously, “That’s a laugh.” She sighed, looking back into the contents of her half empty glass, “I can’t even keep their father around,” she said dejectedly.
“Well, good riddance for that,” Charlotte said, raising her bottle as if toasting to her Robert Whitefield’s absentee status.
“Mom,” Camilla said forcefully.
And it was only in that moment that Charlotte looked sheepish, like she finally realized that her daughter was trying to have a heart to heart with her, “I know, I know, sweetie,” she said consolingly, trying that same gesture of affection that Camilla had done earlier.
“I just worry that I failed them somehow.”
And then Charlotte sounded incredulous again, “What? Cause that lousy no good husband of yours can’t be bothered to be a decent human being for long enough to stop by more than twice a year? I wouldn’t want your boys to be influenced by him anyways, you’re a much better role model in that case.” This elicited a slight smile from Camilla, which was only perceptible because Clem knew her so well. And then Charlotte took on a more serious tone, “You love them so much Camilla, and they know that, and that is more than enough.”
“Even Clementine?” Camilla asked, doubtfully, making Clem’s heart clench for reason’s she couldn’t explain.
“Even Clementine,” her grandmother assured her. “They’re not going to be perfect, but why would you want them to be? I mean, you certainly didn’t turn out perfect but I sure as hell still love you anyways.”
Camilla just sighed, and rested her head on her mother’s sagging shoulders, and said nothing. It was in that moment that Clem got up from her perch, and dragged herself upstairs, suddenly much too conscious of the fact that that conversation was much too personal to be eavesdropping on, and suddenly much too absorbed in the meaning behind her mother’s last question. It wasn’t until halfway up the stairs that Clem shook her head in disgust, decided to ignore it all, and go do her cursed math homework. She’d convince her grandmother to stay in the morning.
Niko wasn’t entirely sure if he even wanted to attend school anymore. He was awfully close to a C in his Calculus class with a test approaching that he really didn’t want to study for. He disliked all this computer time in the morning, all these restless hours sitting aimlessly on the spinning chair. It was time to explore the great outside of his basement. As soon as his time was up, Niko flew out of the downstairs study and into his car. Of course, then he realized that the local high school didn’t end for another hour or so, and so he slunk out of the vehicle and let his disappointment lead him back inside.
Hero was in the kitchen, yet another orange poised in her white hand. A pregnancy book rested before her on the counter. They didn’t speak, but he made himself lunch behind her with little clinks and clanks and she made no reply, only sounds of interest and discovery as juice poured out of the orange and into her mouth. Niko situated himself beside her and read particular sections over her shoulder. It was mostly advice, but some short stories by mothers about their experiences with certain tactics. He began to wish that science had stopped at raising children – parents raising their offspring like test tubes, pouring particular lessons and disciplines in them in order to facilitate the right reaction, made him incredibly uncomfortable.
In addition, a wave of relief overcame him like a great warm wave as he realized he never impregnated Tempore. “Thank Buddha,” he whispered underneath his breath.
“What?” Hero lifted her face and tilted her orange out of view.
His voice peaked, “Nothing!”
Right after Niko finished cleaning his dishes, Nine entered with her messenger bag so full its stitches were coming loose. She smiled feebly before basically dropping it with a resounding thud onto the steps. She then announced that she needed a very very long nap and dragged her sorry body upstairs. School wasn’t working out for anyone, apparently.
Niko followed her upstairs only to check himself out in the mirror. Of course, then he remembered that Clem had basketball. A heavy groan fractured his ribcage before he told himself, No, this is a good thing. After all, he had more friends than simply Clem. Well, one more friend. He gave himself another look in the mirror before pocketing a vial of pink nail polish. With a rev of the engine, Niko sped out of their driveway and almost ran a red light getting to Mercury.
He realized much too late that he should have called. Strolling up the long, twisted walkway to her front door he thought of how when he visited Clem’s, Niko barely called prior to give her a heads up. At first he inwardly criticized himself for his poor manners, then not only realized that Clem was not a person of manners but that not calling had become the name of the game. He was always welcome into her home, always, and of course that gave him a sudden glowing ball of hope that spread to his pinky fingers and toes. In that exact same moment of realizing blissfully how accepted he was in Clem’s life, he rang the doorbell and shattered to realize
He should have called first.
Mercury and three other girls answered the door, apparently expecting someone else according to their shouts and giggles of, “Angela!” that inflated the air before a major disappointment looked them in the face. Clearly, he was not the Angela they were looking for. “Niko?” Mercury sang after the silence blanketed the air between them. He couldn’t feel more awkward outside in the dewy October evening looking inward to four young women in pajamas haloed by yellow fluorescent lights.
“I should have called,” he said, hanging his head. He almost added, “I didn’t realize you’d made friends,” but managed to stamp that out of his throat. Niko hadn’t kept up with Mercury’s life at all, he realized. They always kept the subject on him or on the world itself. He never asked her about school, about friends, about her family, about…anything. “But it was nice to see you,” he whimpered, self-hate battering at his innards.
“You can stay,” another girl interrupted. She had short black hair and, Niko suddenly realized, very particular makeup. In fact, all of them seemed to be getting ready for some odd costume party. “Right, guys? I mean, it looks like he can even help with our makeup experiments.” They chuckled between each other in steps.
“I did bring nail polish,” he said as he fingered the glass in his pocket. This earned him further chuckles.
“He grew up in France, too,” Mercury joined, “he can help us with our French and math.”
They soon agreed and Niko floated through the door, introducing himself with a courteous bow as Mercury went around the circle of girls, each individually introducing to Niko and Niko to them.
Mercury’s room was too small for everyone and they were still waiting on Angela so they had the living room to themselves. Sleeping bags rested in their fluffs and each girl apparently preferred the comfort of their sleeping bag than the artistic and expensive couches that surrounded them. Niko spent a lot of time glancing at each bag. They varied extremely – one had the video game Halo adorning its material, another was a very precise pink that said Princess, and another was just a camping bag, a solid navy blue. Mercury brought down her own, a brighter blue like she used to have in her hair.
The women varied as well. Niko wondered exactly how they had banded together. At first he assumed that Mercury had brought them all together, but in fact it seemed the lady with the short black hair was their democratic leader. She knew the other girls since elementary school, who in turn seemed to be long lost best friends with hundreds of inside jokes, and all three had made friends with Mercury that year. Mercury was blushing with a true joy while they joked and complimented her on her brilliance.
Niko sat on the carpet nearby, painting Mercury’s toenails a cheeky pink while answering their various French questions. They knew quite a lot, and in fact most of what they asked deterred from homework and more into living as a Frenchman. As anyone who finds themselves enamored with France, all the information he gave them only plummeted them deeper into the hearty, dreamy sighs and oohs and aahs. When math came around, they continued with the Frenchman questions intermittently between whatthehelldoesthisevenmean which made his heart cringe for Clem. He answered their math questions in fumbles purely for this reason. He couldn’t think straight on math when his mind kept deterring into Clem.
Angela arrived three hours later than planned. She mentioned soccer practice going later than expected and was very sorry. She was superbly sweaty and stated that she needed a shower. “Oh, we noticed,” one of her friends said, and everyone joined in entire two minutes of laughing and laughing before Angela noted, “But seriously, I’m going to go get naked now and plunge myself into water.” They catcalled as she exited.
As soon as homework was out of the way, the girls turned into life updates and slight gossip. Niko texted Spencer to let him know where he was while they began, only catching something about a base that was conquered that Niko grew crimson hearing. His current duty was to paint one of their faces like a neon corpse bride (he did not understand this suggestion at all but took use of Mercury’s neon colors nonetheless). It intrigued him how the topics bounced between each other so very equally, and how accepting their gossip was. While they thought that one girl had definitely slept with a football player, another said, “Well, I mean, who wouldn’t?” Someone elbowed him playfully and asked, “Right, Niko? Long brown hair, and his aaaaabs oh em gee.”
He could not have been any color but red at this point. “Er, sounds nice?” he grew hot and still.
“Niko’s not gay,” Mercury chimed in without any sense of breaking an awkward tension in her voice, “Even zoh he’s painting Amy’s face.”
The girl who had elbowed him immediately apologized before asking, “Well then are you available?” She paused to turn to Mercury, “Mercury he’s not yours…right? I mean, if so I’m surprised how chaste you two are. Not a single kiss around us! ”
Both Mercury and Niko said no much too quickly to not have the rest of the girls, including the returned Angela, laughing. The room filled to the brim with their hilarity. “So you’re available?” Angela carried on the conversation with a smirk still itching at her lips.
“Er-” he honestly had no idea how to answer that.
But apparently Mercury did, “He fancies somebody.”
“Who is it!” they all called with intense urgency. “Do we know her? How old is she? What does she look like?”
Mercury wouldn’t answer this for him – she knew better than to expose a hopeless crush to a crowd of hopeful friends. They had made themselves comrades to Niko already. They let him into their slumber party with open arms. He believed he could trust them. Though odds were that most of them did know Clem, he didn’t believed they’d tell but…he couldn’t risk that. “You probably know her,” he said, “but it doesn’t matter, she’s with someone.”
This took Mercury by the most surprise and she even reached out to touch Niko. She held his hand very softly. “Vhat?”
“This guy, his name is Pavel,” he turned to her and said gravely, as if revealing the details of a crime scene, “He came to her basketball game and she…she likes him. I was there, she paused on calling him a friend but not me.”
Everyone whimpered for Niko. They had been there, too. Their hearts also shrank and shriveled at the memories. But then someone said, “You’ll get her. She’ll realize what a good thing you are. I mean, you’re a catch. I’m sure any of us would date you – I mean, except Angela. But she’s a lesbian so that doesn’t count.”
He didn’t hear much of the last of their statement, he found himself too fixated on the first conjecture. “I don’t really know if I’mma good thing,” he admitted, “I mean, I tricked her inta kissin’ me once to get my ex to go away.” The guilt began to pour into him once again, carrying his body down to the ground like led. He just wanted to bury himself alive.
“We all do stupid stuff,” another said, she had leopard-print glasses, “always. If you’re sorry, you should tell her.”
The five girls continued to chat to him about his worries. Though the discussion didn’t get too deep into the details, it did heal him. They eventually moved on, started a recording of Rocky Horror, and curled underneath their sleeping bags. When it turned to midnight, he apologized once again and those still awake waved to him as he closed the door behind him.
The moon hung above him hopefully on the ride home.
School was disastrous. Not that Clem cared all that much. Even so, she found herself almost wanting to skip basketball practice for the express reason that it was in the vicinity of her pre-calculus class. But she decided that that beautiful orange basketball didn’t deserve to have her frustrations with math taken out on it, so she went anyways.
Her grandmother picked her up when it was over, and proceeded to force Clem to drive home, much to her protests. Setting her bag in the back seat, and her phone on the center console, Clem hesitated only slightly before starting the car. She had gotten through the last ten-minute car ride home before she could probably do it now. Plus, she had her grandmother to help her if she freaked out, though Clem doubted her grandmother’s ability to stop the car going off the road from the passenger seat.
She was halfway home when her phone began ringing. Clem had an annoying habit of not only forgetting she had a cell phone, but also forgetting to put it on silent. So it was loud, blaring even, and one of those obnoxious four note melodies that make most people want to rip their hair out after five seconds of hearing it. And that was about how long Charlotte lasted before answering it out of desperation, despite Clem’s harried protestations of “Gram-“.
But instead her gruff, old, cantankerous grandmother expertly flipped open the years old phone and mumbled, “Clem’s phone, her grandmother speaking cause she’s too busy almost running into things.” And then after a slow pause she added, “Also her ringtone was annoying.” Clem had to fight the urge not to laugh, she had a feeling it was Niko on the other line, since he was one of the only people who called her, so hopefully he wouldn’t think it was too weird that this old woman was answering Clem’s phone.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t Niko—it was Pavel. She could barely hear his voice emitting from the speaker pressed against her grandmother’s ear, but once she did, she knew immediately it was him. “Hello, Mrs. Whitefield-“
“Willoughby,” her grandmother corrected him gruffly, her tone expressing all of her disgust at being thought to be her father’s mother.
“Mrs. Willoughby, I’m Pavel, Clem’s…” there was a hesitation there, almost like when Clem had mentioned Pavel to her just a handful of days before, “friend.”
There was a few seconds of silence on the other end of the line, “Can you ask Clem if she is free Friday night?”
All of the sudden Clem’s entire throat clammed up, the date, the one he had legitimately asked her out on. That was what this phone call was about. Clem just hoped that Pavel had enough common sense not to mention this little fact to her grandmother, or else Clem was one hundred percent sure that she was going to be in for a world of laughter and finger pointing. Mostly because her grandmother would find the fact that Camilla’s matchmaking actually worked for once positively hilarious.
“Are you, Clem?” Charlotte asked, and Clem could see from the rearview mirror that her head was tilted back and to the side to look at her. Clem just nodded, trying to focus on the fact that she was now being required to brake based on the red light that had just appeared in front of her.
“She says she is,” she told Pavel, “So where will you be taking my granddaughter on your date?” her sudden amusement apparent in both her voice and demeanor.
And then Clem’s heart fell, of [i]course[/i] she knew. How she ever thought she could hide something like that from Charlotte, she didn’t know. Especially after their strangely frank, if kind of vague, conversation from the week before. And then she remembered she had actually told Charlotte Pavel’s name, and immediately wanted to smack herself, but couldn’t…mostly because she was driving. It was just another reason to add to the list of why she hated driving.
“That, Mrs. Willoughby, will have to be a surprise for you as much as it is for Clem. I am sure she will tell you.” And for the first time since her grandmother had picked up the phone, Pavel sounded like himself. Gone was the confusion that had permeated through all his previous words, and back was the self assured smugness that she always associated with him.
Apparently, Charlotte liked this new Pavel. “Good answer,” she told him.
“Can you also tell Clem that I will pick her up at seven and not to dress nice? She’ll just end up ruining whatever dress her mother tries to put on her.”
“Will do,” she concurred, “Though I doubt you were in any danger of Clem willingly dressing up for your date.”
“Yeah, but I thought I’d cover my bases. Past experiences have taught me not to assume anything about Clem.”
“Smart boy, I like you already.” Clem heard her grandmother say, which just made her smile all the more. “She’s about to crash because she is listening to us talk so intently she literally hasn’t looked at the road in about a quarter of a mile. She is lucky these roads are straight. So she will see you Friday, goodbye Pavel.”
“Goodbye Mrs. Willoughby,” Pavel said, and Clem could almost hear him smiling over the phone, like usual. And like usual (at least lately), it made her smile too.
And then the phone was put back in the center console, and Charlotte just started laughing. Laughing and laughing and laughing. She wasn’t stopping, in fact, at this point she was laughing so hard she was coughing, then hacking, then banging her own chest in an attempt to regain her own breath. In fact, she was laughing so hard that Clem had to pull over just so she wouldn’t crash because she was so concerned. And then Charlotte recovered herself, and took one look at her granddaughter and said, “It is just so darn funny that your first real date is actually with a guy Camilla picked out.”
It was only at that point that Clem laughed along, loud and hardy, and Charlotte joined in again. Their volumes matched, their sounds of joy mixing together, as they sat, parked on the side of road in the middle of boring, rainy Virga City, giggling like idiots.
Niko found himself rather distracted from the remaining shaking fear of Clem’s grandmother through his altercation with Clem. But she was being defiantly wrong about the entire situation. Sure, he was an ass, but he didn’t basically put himself in her way. He was sitting on the beach when she came careening down right into him, not even looking. She did not look, no way, or else why did she hit him? Thankfully, even if Clem’s grandmother festered more terror in Niko than Clem, ol’ Charlotte had more reason.
Of course, then she had to ask Niko more questions. It was impossible, truly, to even think of words when Charlotte looked him in the eye. If she had bothered to query about his favorite colors, Niko would have needed to look through all the crayons or colored pencils Clem possessed to look at their labels. Then he’d hold up the utensil to the old woman and stutter out whatever letter combination had been inscribed into it. But it seemed he had passed her inquiries…well, or simply gave her something to laugh at. And then she left, and Niko watched her wobble out of Clem’s rubbish pile of a room in intent curiosity. She had such an air of mystery. Even if Niko continued to grow old with Clem, which he thoroughly desired more than anything else that came to mind at that moment - except maybe world peace, he would never get to figure out that powerful but rickety grandmother of hers. And, as he thought of it, he wanted to know about her husband. Her most likely deceased husband, who had to exist in order for Clem or her mother or her several hazardous brothers to also exist. Who had fallen for Charlotte? Niko believed he would find endless things in common with the old boy. He wanted to visit his grave.
But now was not the time to bring that up. Instead, Niko turned to Clem and motioned to her math problem. The groan ignited a grinning and adoring rampage within his bones. Niko immediately suffocated it, but not without the twinge of a smile escaping on his face.
The rest of her math went mostly as normal. After Clem would finally understand, however vaguely, the problem, Niko would watch as she scribbled away. It occurred to him, as it had on many occasions, that perhaps the only reason why she currently had an okay grade was due to her successful homework. Successful because he existed, which logically followed that his existence had made Clem’s a little easier. The thought petted his self-respect.
All that deterred from their mundane routine happened to be Niko’s random questions about Charlotte. Such as where does she live and what does she do when she’s not here and how often does she visit. He kept them small and ordinary in order to keep from any raised eyebrows. They were raised enough and accompanied by a smirk on Clem’s face - apparently it pleased her that Niko had a curiosity about her. It wouldn’t help if he suddenly dived into who was her husband what was he like when he died how sad was she did you like him? In truth, it was as Holden Caulfield in the taxi cab, merely asking about himself and the fantasy of the two of them together.
Once they finished, the two strolled downstairs to the kitchen. Clem was starving, as she put it, and Niko could reasonably deal with an apple or something along those lines. To their delight, her brothers were there, surrounding Jason. Now, normally this wouldn’t really ‘delight’ them, but Jason was making hot chocolate. Even though Niko preferred the cold, hot chocolate with milk was impossible to turn down, especially with marshmallows.
He watched happily, as if in a fantasy, as he sat at the kitchen table across from Clem. She developed a hot chocolate mustache and kept to holding the mug close to her lips. The smell traveled in and out of her nose pleasantly, and her face relaxed in a stupor of chocolate paradise. Her persistence of adding marshmallows to soggy them and then eat tugged at Niko’s adorable bone. He didn’t know how, he never knew, how Clem could be as powerful and tall as a bear and still so freshly, uniquely adorable as a mouse.
He waved her goodbye, feeling accomplished at his status of friend.
It took all of Clem’s self control to keep from snorting in laughter at Niko and her grandmother. She buried her head in her pre calculus book, trying to hide the smile that was blooming across her face. If the only thing that would keep her from bursting into laughter was to feigning concentration on her math homework, she would resort to that. But she still listened attentively to the conversation going on behind her.
The conversation, at first, seemed very stilted, and Clem could tell by Niko’s hesitant response that her grandmother was doing what she did best: intimidating people, namely, Niko. She had suspected it from the moment he didn’t tell her to call him Niko, and it was confirmed by the prolonged silence and the stuttering answer he gave her question. Clem would have literally stuffed her fist in her mouth if it would have helped her not laugh, but she figured that would be too conspicuous. So instead she genuinely tried to focus on the ever-perplexing number twenty-two, without much success.
She was pulled away from her mock concentration by Niko’s second answer. Apparently something had occurred to her friend that had erased almost all hesitation and nervousness from his voice, in fact, the familiar tone of his voice told Clem that Niko was almost challenging her grandmother with his question. It was like he was saying, “You don’t scare me,” even if she really did, which she could tell only because she knew him so well, even though he looked more relaxed than before.
Apparently, Charlotte recognized the slight guts it took to direct a question at her, and laughed. Obviously directing her comment at Clem she said, “He’s got guts, this one.” And then, based on her hearing, she turned back to Niko with a more serious tone. “Not sure, never sure usually, probably another few days. Or until I get tired to Camilla’s blithering.” And then she started laughing again until her laughter turned into coughing.
“So how did you meet Clem? I haven’t met you before so it has to have been somewhat recently.” She stared at him again with a questioning glance, all her suspicion returning as quickly as it had fled.
It was only then that Clem finally took pity on him, as hilarious as watching him squirm was, she wasn’t looking forward to his account of how she “needlessly crashed into him” (as he would undoubtedly put it) and so she took matters into her own hands. “I met him last summer,” she told her grandmother, finally ripping her eyes off of her textbook and turning around to face her, “I crashed into him on the beach, he didn’t take it well,” she said with a laugh.
Niko opened his mouth to protest, and they suddenly launched into a heated debate about what actually happened that day at the bay that seemed to amuse her grandmother greatly. She laughed at them, and egged them on, she seemed to enjoy their bickering, but seemed to think that Niko’s version of events sounded more like her granddaughter.
This eventually led to more, if less invasive, questions directed at Niko. She seemed to purposely soften her demeanor (though that still made her gruffer than most of the rest of the human population) so as to make Niko less nervous, and it seemed to work out well. The three of them talked easily, which made Clem happy for two reasons. One, it meant that Niko liked her grandmother, which was important to her no matter what. And two, it meant she didn’t have to do her math homework.
That was until her grandmother decided that her mattress was too uncomfortable to be sitting in for that long. Grumbling about her bad hip and leaning heavily on her walking stick, she stood slowly to her feet, thanking them for the conversation. She looked at the two of them and said, “See you later,” and then she stared at Niko and just laughed, “I like you, you’re funny,” and then she shook her head and laughed some more as she walked out the door.
Clem was still hoping she could somehow get out of her math homework, distract Niko long enough until he had to go home and then steal Chad’s homework and copy it…or something. She hadn’t exactly finalized the plan of homework invasion yet…and apparently she wouldn’t ever be able to, for Niko took one look at her and said, “Now back to number twenty two.” She groaned loudly, but complied, however reluctantly.
Niko awoke to the Sunday of his last soccer game as if he hadn’t even closed his eyes. He wasn’t restless, but it was as if he had jumped through time to eliminate all the wait before he saw Clem once again. Even though he had avoided her lately to be safe, to hide in a cavern and allow his wounds to mend, his basic instinct remained to rush toward her general direction. Perhaps this way it made sense - his entire anatomy, including his brain, had made the wait shorter in order to please his heart.
Once again, Niko skipped the morning run since soon enough Spencer drove him to the morning game. Hero and Nine tagged along. Apparently since it was his first sport season finale (and, as he told them, his last), the two said it was too momentous to simply sit at home and miss. It stood as a further testament to how unworthy Niko was of these two women, and their honest sweetness made him momentarily cast his head out of view and blush.
Their presence indeed made him nervous, and since they had made a big deal about the game, Niko couldn’t shake that idea. He had to do well: This was his last game. No screwing up, CC, he lectured himself after one, then two, then three goals swung through the net. His anxiety tugged at heartstrings and hesitant, heavy sweat dripped along his forehead. It didn’t help that Clem had waved to him a few times during the game and made complete eye contact. Then he really couldn’t fumble. But, of course, he did. That was the nature of the beast.
Finally, finally, finally - the game ended. Niko’s soccer game ended with a simple win, four goals more than the other team. Clem had made a rather astounding shot and Mickey praised her growth over and over and over again at the after-game pep talk. Instead of spending a few hours telling each and every one of them how proud he was of them, he handed out small slips of paper to each teammate that he’d already prepared. The goodbye was awkward but simple, and Niko departed. He still rode with his family but Spencer followed the Whitefield vehicle all the way to their not-so-humble abode instead of taking his godchildren home. Nine decided to spend the rest of the day with Jason, too.
The rest of the Whitefields didn’t make nearly as much of a fuss about Clem’s last soccer game as Niko’s had. Of course, Jason patted her on the back and told her good job and once again with the whole pride speech, but mostly everyone else seemed to be in their usual manner. At first, Niko was offended on her behalf. Then he realized - soccer wasn’t Clem’s sport. Even she didn’t take much time to feel any sort of sorrow for its loss. For everyone, including Clem, this was just the end of another sport season. Instead, it would always be basketball that caused her to pause, reflect, and get depressed about months without the game. Which, as Niko imagined in his head while treading to her bedroom, his heart getting hopelessly feathered about being near her and in her home again, was really such a perfect quality for a human being to possess. He loved that Clem could slip into a temporary morose nature because she wouldn’t be playing basketball nearly as often.
Curses! Why did he find that so dreamy?
Niko carefully positioned himself away from Clem while they sat in her bedroom and talked about the game and soccer and all that. Sure, he was still close to her - he didn’t root himself to the opposite wall or anything pronounced like that. But he didn’t let himself too close. So close that her wonderful freesia and warm blanket smell could waft so gently into his nose, or that he could notice all the details of her eyes. Not too close to drown, that was the strategy. In all honesty, the distance was hardly any different than normal.
Clem talked about the game a lot. The pair laughed and chuckled and once Clem playfully pushed his shoulder after he complimented her athletic performance for too long. But could you really blame him for liking how she wouldn’t let herself smile too much or look at him when he said these things? How really…the girl couldn’t take a compliment? He grinned into numbness after she pushed him. He was having too much fun.
Niko soon realized Clem’s chatter was no longer about the game but because she didn’t want to do the homework due in less than twenty-four hours. So Niko took out the book himself and made a place for it to sit. She scowled at him briefly, and then they began.
They weren’t in the homework for twenty minutes before a visitor slowly brought herself and her cane into Clem’s bedroom. Niko immediately, instinctively, straightened his back. He didn’t have any sort of hunch, but all that he did posses was immediately rectified. His face grew hot as he sensed her grow closer and closer and then sit on Clem’s bed with a lot of elderly preparation. Niko didn’t look at Clem’s grandmother once during all of this, but his peripherals did become his main source of sight.
Clem muttered a hello to her grandmother with a faint wave and the twitch of a genuine smile as she tried to uncover the mysteries of problem number twenty-two (no answer in the back of the book, though Niko had figured it out in his head at least five minutes ago). Her grandmother grunted, a grunt akin to what Niko would expect out of Abe, but said no more.
Then she just sat there - sat there! Saying nothing, nothing whatsoever. But through the corners of his panicking eyes, Niko could sense her stare. Or was it a glare? Niko didn’t dare to look at the old woman, afraid that if he even glanced in her general direction she would pull a shotgun out of her plaid t-shirt and splatter his heart along the carpet. And Clem wouldn’t even notice because she’d be too far gone, too far confused, buried inside this advanced math problem. She’d just murmur another hello. Niko’s heartbeat rose and rose and he hoped Clem wouldn’t start asking questions because he was positive his voice would be so high-pitched and shaky that it would shatter her windows.
But Niko got something better than Clem breaking the silence - her grandmother beat her to it. His insides stiffened in fear as she asked point-of-fact, “It’s Nikolai, right?” Goodness, her voice was deep and rattly. He would appreciate its age and vigor if he wasn’t threatened by how much life still lightened an extremely wrinkly woman.
Niko nodded, not breathing, not even swallowing to clear his throat and correct her in any form. He could say “It’s Niko.” After all nobody called him Nikolai except his godfather. But, no, no, she could call him Nikolai. She could call him Steve for all she liked. Niko wouldn’t so much as whimper in response.
"Where are you from?" she continued. His anxiety left skid marks. Now he actually had to use his vocal cords. Oh Buddha, oh Buddha, oh Buddha.
That was way too complicated of a question too. Niko tried to think of the most correct answer. He was born in Africa. But he was raised in Germany and France for the majority of his life. He’d only come to America months ago. This shouldn’t be such a complicated question, he hurried himself, she’s going to get suspicious. She’ll think you’re an illegal immigrant! Just say something, you twit! “A-Africa,” he replied with as much level as possible, clearing his throat half-way through. Still, his voice had jumped. Could she just shoot him already?
She made a noise about his response. But it wasn’t one of disapproval…just acceptance. Like an “ah, interesting.” Niko hesitated - was her grandmother being nice? Was she being conversational? Did he not need to fear for his life? His ears perked up and he leaned subconsciously toward the elderly woman, even tilted his head as if he was looking toward her. His eyes remained rooted and blurred on Clem and number twenty-two, but nevertheless he approached the grandmother.
"How old are you?" she continued. And that was when Niko knew. She was getting to know him! Getting to know Clem’s friend. This wasn’t even an interrogation. This was just how naturally terrifying the old bat was. She was like Clem. Niko had gotten used to Clem. He could get used to her.
He responded much more naturally, “Seventeen. Since July.” He moved his head and eyes enough to respectfully look at Clem’s grandmother. It was with this eyeful he felt as if he was juggling his life by posing the question, “How long are you staying for?”
Clem went to bed preoccupied and she woke up the same way. If anyone had known why, they would have been surprised. It was completely unprecedented that the only Whitefield daughter would be worried about a boy, let alone an upcoming date with one. And no one could have been more surprised by it than Clem.
She didn’t tell anyone, mostly because she didn’t know how. Adrian called in the mid-morning to ask about the date, but instead of telling her friend she just grunted and gave a few minute details. She barely even heard her friend’s comments and assurances that she was sure the boy liked Clem. If she had she might have laughed at the unbelievable fact that he actually did, but she was too distracted by that fact to find amusement in it.
Clem was so preoccupied that she almost forgot that she had a soccer game that day. In fact, if Jason hadn’t asked her what time she needed a ride, she probably would have spent the entire day staring at a wall or something ridiculous like that. Instead, she floundered through a soccer game she wasn’t entirely present in. Well, as close to floundering as the ever athletic Clem could be. Clem didn’t notice a lot of things that day, but she did notice that Niko was acting weird. He seemed to avoid her, and they barely spoke the entire duration of the game. Normally, she would have worried about this, but she had other things to fill her thoughts.
They won pretty easily, or at least, Clem was pretty sure they did. She vaguely remembered a smiling Coach Mickey, though that may have been because the season was over and it meant he’d never have to coach them ever again. Either way, almost half an hour after the final whistle blow, Clem found her at home, being ushered to the kitchen table by a huddle of her overexcited siblings with supposed news.
This news turned out to be a vacation. Normally they didn’t travel much, was abnormal considering they had well…money, but Camilla didn’t like to travel without their father, and well…their father didn’t like to travel with them. But it seemed that for once Clem’s mother had sucked up her reservations and made plans, probably only after incessant badgering by her brothers. It was weird, though, only once she shook herself out of her own inner freak out did she notice that her mom seemed almost excited about the prospect.
“We were thinking we’d go to Niagara Falls and then drive west-“ she started, before Clem interrupted her.
“Wait, we’re driving…all of us?” Clem asked, liking the sound of this ‘vacation’ less and less.
“Well, yes, your brothers want to rent one of those large vans and we were-“
“Are you insane?” Clem asked incredulously, “If you aren’t, I’m going to be after a road trip with the seven of them. Can’t we just fly to Disneyworld or something normal like that?”
Camilla seemed to be resisting the urge to roll her eyes at her only daughter. “It isn’t like we are going to drive the whole way straight,” she assured her daughter, “there will be breaks.”
“Well, where are we going?”
“Well if you had let me finish…” and after an exasperated look from her daughter that told her she shouldn’t complain she said, “We were thinking that we could go west along Canada until we got to Idaho. We figured we would go visit Mam.”
Clem could see by the look in her mom’s eye that she knew she had got her. The best way to get Clem to agree to a road trip was to put her grandmother at the end of it. They never visited their grandmother; it was always the other way around. Which while probably for the best, Clem couldn’t exactly imagine her grandmother entertaining all eight Whitefield children and her mother for a week, was always a bit of a letdown. She had only been there once, and she had been eight and Clem barely remembered it. It took all of Clem’s effort not to agree immediately with more enthusiasm than was probably necessary. There was no way she was going to give her mother the satisfaction.
“You sure Grandma is up for it?” she asked.
But then all of the sudden a gruff voice entered the fray, preceded by the soft thud of a cane. “Of course I’m up for it,” her grandmother said, practically snorting after she smacked Clem on the back of her head for he insolence.
“See!” said Brian, looking even more excited than Clem felt.
“Fine, fine,” Clem sighed, “Sounds fine, I guess that sounds better than our last family vacation.” Which had been to Washington, D.C., and had been a disaster when they lost Nelson in the Smithsonian for twelve hours.
Everyone snorted at that, while Nelson blushed, but all her brothers seemed to cheer at the final affirmation of their plan. There was chaos for the next few hours as plans were made and a driving ban put on Clem by the twins before she could even put one on herself.
It was the dark before they let her go back to the confines of her room. It was her grandmother who finally freed her, walking a tired looking Clem up the stairs and to her room before hugging her good night. “I can’t wait for you to visit,” she said quietly, her characteristic gruff softer than it had been, and Clem knew she meant it.
It was only alone in her room that thoughts of Pavel, the date, and that kiss still imprinted on her cheek came rolling back. And as she rolled over into her soft pillow she couldn’t help but smile and sigh.
Niko did not run that morning because he had his second-to-last game in the afternoon in Porbeagle. Though he would spend the entire game laterally squatting next to the net, the pre-game practicing would surely involve a few laps and intensive exercises and he didn’t feel like sinking his entire body in sores. Granted, it might take his mind off of the throbbing in his heart.
He called Mercury in the morning, but she was busy having a special breakfast with her parents and thus only told him goodbye once before returning to them. Niko knew better than to feel abandoned, but he still gazed at the phone with a certain despair for a minute after her end clicked. She told him to call after the game, but fifteen minutes after they stopped talking Niko began to wonder if he’d be able to. Karter and Cosmo’s parents asked Niko for another emergency babysitting - they wanted to go on a date together - and he figured he had nothing better to do. However, he decided not to take them to Abe’s. It would only remind him of their last chat together and how mixed up Niko had felt. Since his talk the night before with Nine, his insides had untangled themselves and he felt much steadier about the entire scenario. So Clem liked someone else - so what?
Still, when they played together during the game, Niko did a lot more avoiding than usual. Clem gave him a bit of a look, he noticed when he glanced back toward her, but she seemed to shrug it off. She probably reasoned it was his moodiness, and Niko wouldn’t disagree if she said so. Something was on her mind, too, that kept her even more sidetracked than him. She didn’t juggle nearly as wall and the headbutt goal she normally soared into the net fumbled off her forehead instead. He asked if she was alright afterward. He didn’t know why, truly, because even if Clem was absolutely miserable she probably wouldn’t mutter a single syllable about the calamity. Something about people worrying about her disturbed her greatly - as if it was a weakness to express any problems.
He posed a solution by asking if he could come over tomorrow, help her with any homework, watch her play basketball…anything. She grinned at this, which caught his avoidance completely off guard and caused an enormous grin to blossom on his face. His heart felt as light as a feather automatically. After gaining sense of his surroundings, Niko darted away, afraid of the next heaven Clem would send him into if she so much as winked mischievously at him.
Sidetracked but on a mission, he picked up Karter and Cosmo on the way home. They immediately shouted about visiting their crazy grandfather, and when Niko informed them it would have to be another time the shouting somehow grew even louder. Afraid that he wouldn’t hear a police officer or an ambulance over their great fat tears and wails, he pulled over. There was no yelling, because frankly their small bodies scared Niko with their fragility and he couldn’t even comprehend how to make children see the error of their ways. Perhaps this was because, as he suspected, the task was impossible. Instead, he put plugs in his ears and waited about twenty minutes in the parking lot next to a five-car gas station.
They had big eyes and quivering, mutinous lips, but they listened for the ten seconds Niko needed to lie to them that Abe and Niko were planning something special for the next trip and needed the time to plan. The ride home was then only slightly better. They didn’t shout, but they still wouldn’t shut up. Cosmo and Karter first explored what the surprise could be, from dinosaurs to cowboys to Disney World, then argued menacingly. Niko needed Nine’s help putting them into two separate rooms to calm down.
"We never argued that much," Niko commented to Nine while they made food for the kids. “‘N’ Clem ‘n’ her brothers don’t wage war over dinosaurs…" when he made this statement, Niko was unsure of its validity, but continued on, "why do they?"
Without a beat, Nine said to him, “We never fought, Niko. We had need of one another and we knew it.”
Niko blushed at first and steadied himself watching her cut the sandwiches into triangles, and then those triangles into more triangles. There was always a colorful element to Nine. It seemed wherever she went there was a rainbow, there was life, and the many colors of the sandwich insides alongisde her painted fingernails and mahogany-handled knife further reinforced this. He mulled over her words while he let himself become mesmerized by the pretty colors. Then, something clicked. “I knew I needed you,” Niko said very simply, raising his eyes to meet his sister’s, “I never knew you needed me.”
The effect of this was slow at first, but soon a very lovely smile perched upon Nine’s face. She tilted her head, her eyes suddenly sparkling, and leaned her dark body over the counter and the plates to kiss his freckled cheek. Whatever had touched her so she apparently didn’t have the words for, because she moved to the next half of his argument. “As for the Whitefield children, you can not have been paying attention.”
He laughed. It was crisp and bubbly. He laughed again. Boy, did it feel good to laugh. He thought of all the silly rivalries he witnessed while in her homestead, puzzled for a moment, but really mostly amazed, at the perennial resilience her house had to have to contain all that insanity. His mind wandered easily to Clem and how she always held her ground with her too-many brothers. His face meandered into a daydreaming happiness. Nine had to poke him out of the stupor.
He shook his head then returned her gaze. Her head was still tilted, and her lips curled in amusement. Her eyes still twinkled.
"Clem’s so pretty," he said, thinking Nine must have known what he was thinking. "I mean I don’ mean pretty but y’know she’s so…” he was imagining her, eyes focused on a basketball, body steeled, determined then switched to a vision of her staring him down with a grimace and how her fury made his knees bend and how her body whacked against the car in the middle of the snow flurries and the maniacal grin when she packed a snowball headed straight for his face, “pretty.”
Nine nodded knowingly. She nudged Karter’s plate and juice to him and they split momentarily to feed the dwarves dinner. After another hour they were allowed to join back together but soon broke out into a mad game of tag where they fixated on constantly tagging back. They were nothing but blurs until Niko trapped them outside and forced their game of tag into his car. By the time he dropped them back off at their parents’ house, they dragged their tiny, tired bodies through the front door.
On the way home, Niko made sure he didn’t take the way that lead him across Clem’s house. He decided to save the spring of happiness and bait himself instead.
Pavel’s skating plans didn’t last long. Which was fine, because it was getting late and Clem was still exhausted from the game. But regardless of her deteriorated mental state and Pavel’s lack of skills, her ‘date’ insisted that they skate for as long as possible. Clem kept pleading for him to stop and give up, but he just kept saying “One more time around!” That was, until he slipped, his arms flailing and falling backwards, and brought Clem down with him. Crumpled on the floor partially pinned by Pavel’s askew limbs, Clem grumbled, “Okay, now we are done.” And, finally, Pavel conceded.
She literally had to drag him off the rink floor and onto the bench by the skate return. On the way there he had almost pulled her down a record three more times, even though the carpeted floor outside the rink was considerably less slippery. It was a skill Clem didn’t envy.
Pavel took forever to take off his skates. Clem had hers off and returned a few minutes, while he just sat there trying to untangle the laces. “Need some help big guy?” she asked, a cheeky grin effortlessly falling on her face. Pavel didn’t answer, he just grunted and rolled his eyes. He looked especially annoyed, though Clem couldn’t tell if it was with her, or his skates.
Either way it took him a record five minutes to pull the skates off, and when he finally did he practically threw them on the ground and sat on the bench with a satisfied sort of look on his face. That was, until his eyes fell on Clem, who was standing in front of him, trying not to laugh at his ridiculous antics. It was in that moment that his expression changed, from satisfied to contemplative, like he was trying to decide what to do.
He stared at her for a long moment, and Clem wasn’t sure what to do…was she supposed to return his gaze? Say something? Apparently she didn’t have to, because he finally spoke.
“I like you, Clem.”
Wait…what? Clem was pretty sure she had heard him wrong. “What?” she asked, nonplussed.
“I like you,” he said again.
“What?” she asked again, almost reflexively.
“Are you deaf or something?” he asked, sounding almost exasperated.
What did that even mean? What was going on? Clem didn’t get it, she was pretty sure she was hallucinating, or that Pavel was just messing with her, trying to make a fool out of her. “Um, no,” she told him, “I’m just-“ and she tried to explain in vain just how confused and out of touch she felt at that moment, but she couldn’t. So she just said, “What?”
Pavel sighed, like he had expected this type of reaction, like he had been preparing for it. And it struck Clem suddenly that maybe the reason he had been looking at her so intensely and so randomly all night was because he had been trying to say this. Whatever this was. “I like you,” he repeated for a third time, “I like you, Clem, I like spending time with you. I think you are funny, and talented, and…” he hesitated on the last word but decided on “pretty.”
Okay, so she hadn’t imagined it. Three times was the charm for her accepting his statement, apparently. So she took a deep breath and tried to process it, it didn’t work. What was she supposed to say, “Great, I like you too. Let’s go have a liking party and make cupcakes!” No. No. That wasn’t how things worked. Though…in all honesty, Clem didn’t have any clue how it was supposed to work.
“Um…” she started. Great start, really solid, now if she could just get out an actual real word, “What am I supposed to say to that? So you like me…so what?”
“Let’s go on a date.”
A…date. Clem was confused. “We’re kind of already on one…” she reminded him.
“No, I mean a real one,” he clarified, looking like he was trying to figure out a way not to sigh loudly at how long this was taking.
Okay, a real date. Clem could…comprehend that. Maybe. But…why? I mean, she liked him, and if he was to be believed…he liked her, but did that lead to…dating? Well, Clem supposed it usually did, based on Jason and Adrian and scores of other people she had watched have relationships. But why would he want to date her? Clem still wasn’t quite convinced this wasn’t some cruel joke of this, that a smile wouldn’t break out on his face any minute and he’d say “I was just kidding!” and she’d be a fool.
“You want to go on a real date,” she said slowly, carefully, “…with me?”
“Yes,” Pavel said, this time sounding more exasperated than ever before, “Didn’t I just say that?”
“Well yeah, but I’m just trying to make sure I’m not misunderstanding,” she clarified.
Then there was an awkward moment where Clem stood there trying to figure out how to respond, and Pavel waited…and waited. And so finally he just said, “Let’s go on a date” like she could have somehow forgotten those five strange words.
She had to make a decision. It was now or never, either she accepted Pavel’s offer, or she didn’t. One way or the other, she had to give him something, he’d passed some sort of step in their friendship Clem wasn’t sure could be backed up. So it was her choice to take that step to, or run all the way back to start.
She decided to step forward. “Fine,” Clem said, almost resignedly, trying to make it seem like such a big burden. “But,” she clarified, “I am not wearing a dress.”
At this, Pavel finally smiled, “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
And with that he took her home. After walking her to her door he paused for a moment, and then leaned forward and kissed her cheek. Immediately Clem’s hand flew up to the spot where his lips had touched her skin, her cheeks flushing as she waved goodbye and hastily entered her house, her fingers fumbling clumsily with the doorknob. When it finally closed, Clem sank to her knees against the front door, her hand still pressed to her cheek and her face slack with shock. All she could think was, What the hell just happened?