Each step was slow, cautious. He was too unbalanced, too awkward in this state. Too much weight in unusual angles made him want to tumble over each time he took a step. It was annoying; he had enough trouble staying upright on the best of days, let lone like this.
Going down the stairs was a slow challenge. He should have taken the elevator, but he didn’t exactly trust those. It was easier to take stairs two or three at a time, and more fun to bound down them like a bunny. Hell, if he’d been in pain, this would have been nearly impossible. Finally, though, he made it to the destination, opening the door and hobbling through.
“Tony!” Mandy said, hurrying up to him. “What’s wrong? What’s going on?”
“‘m fine,” he said with a bright grin. Time to lay it on a little. “Had Warden training earlier, how to use my powers. Cocked it up a bit, hurt my knee. I used my power on a tree to make a brace, but it’s slowing me down. Hence the…” He raised the cane and waved it a bit.
To call it a cane would be a bit of a lie. Where his hand should have been, wood was instead connected. The wood formed a vaguely hand-like shape, which then formed into a long shaft. The effect was similar to holding a cane in a prosthetic hand, except that he couldn’t move the hand itself. That and the wood ran up his forearm, disappearing under his trench coat sleeve.
A teacher was slowly approaching, a frown on his face. Mandy wasn’t letting up, though. “Are you sure you’re up for this?”
“Oh, heck yeah! I’m up for it like a sailor’s first trip into a brothel!”
She slapped his arm gently. “Crass.” The slight grin on her face betrayed her disgust.
That earned a giggle out of him. Quickly, though, that teacher approached. “This way, Mr. Welsh.”
Tony hesitated, then shook his head. “Nope.”
That made the man pause, blinking at him. “Um, excuse me?”
Tony looked across the room. Holy crap, there were a lot of kids here. Without counting, he guessed that it was well more than twenty, more kids than he’d ever seen packed into a classroom. Charcoal, paints, pencils, a whole slew of things here. He had been warned, but it was still a little surprising.
Finally, however, he caught sight of her. She was already headed his way, a slightly irritated smile on her face. He turned back to the man, straightening his shoulders and standing at his full height. “I have a good relationship with Ms. Nunes,” he said, trying to sound official. “I’d feel more comfortable with her than with you.”
The man looked over to Ms. Nunes as she pulled up. “You okay with this, Emsada?”
“It’s fine,” she said. “He arranged this with me, anyway.” She turned to Tony. “Let’s get you on stage and ready.”
“Righty-O!” As they slowly made their way to the stage, he offered all the students a wave of his hand. “Hey! Glad you could make it! Do me a favor and draw a part of me really impressive-like, okay?”
A wave of titters filled the room, almost as many as there were eyerolls. With a grin, he focused on getting up onto the small platform and behind the curtains. “Lotsa people,” he observed.
“We combined a few different classes into this one just for you.” She began helping him with his coat, and then the thin backpack he wore underneath it. Not much inside it, just a shirt and underwear.
She paused at the pants. They were held together with snaps so they could be ripped off in a hurry, but normally were otherwise quite baggy on his scrawny frame. “Are you sure you’re comfortable with this?”
“Oh, yeah.” To further emphasize the point, he waggled his eyebrows suggestively. That earned him a glare before she got them pulled off.
Oh was right. The wildling flesh that normally had composed his right hand was now grafted over his groin, making it just a smooth, bright red lump. He’d talked with David on how to tap the veins into his anatomy to prevent any embarrassment during all of this. It was easier talking to him about it — teachers got flustered when you tried to ask them important questions about boners.
The rest of his body was covered in wood of varying degrees. He’d arranged it so that his legs would have free range of movement, but the heavy chunks on his calves and feet made walking hard. The strange arrangement on his chest and arms felt unusual, too, making the cane pretty much necessary.
“One second,” he said, before focusing on his power. The wood around his feet silently exploded, but the reforming around his thighs made a bit of creaking noise. Far more than he would have liked. “Shoes.”
It took Ms. Nunes a minute to get his shoes and socks off of him, but as soon as she did, he began to work on his pose. Legs apart, leaning forward, head turned slightly upwards. His right arm stretched out, his left closer to his body. It was awkward, and he felt his balance wobble a little. “Hurry, please.”
She didn’t need to be told twice. Ms. Nunes grabbed his glasses and wandered out of sight, leaving him only able to look at the blob of a wall and focus on his balance.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I know that there’s a lot of you. You’ll be free to adjust your placement here in a moment. Today’s model requested that you be placed as you are now. So, rather than make you wait, please give Tony Welsh a round of applause.”
With that, the curtain opened. Tony waited a moment, before focusing on his power again. Making armor itself was a relatively easy task; his passenger did all the work. No, the hard part was shaping it in the form that he wanted.
All of the wood exploded, and almost instantly reshaped around him. A relatively thin layer of wood, extra bark, covered his body from head to toe, a little on the rough side. The weight re-positioned easily, so that he could relax against the armor without having to worry about toppling over. The hardest part, though, were his hands.
In his left hand, he planted a large bud, designing it to open the moment that he relaxed. Where the cane had been in his right, now a twisting branch made of tightly compacted spongy material extended outwards. On it, and the rest of his body, were smaller buds that he’d “stolen” from the greenhouse. They weren’t the best of flowers, but it was the best he could do in February.
There were a few gasps, making him smile underneath his mask. It gave him room to breathe, room to smile, but still connected up to his eyes perfectly. He gave it a silent five second count in his head before relaxing a little.
The spongy mass in the branch began to extend, giving the appearance of growth. As he relaxed further, the buds and blossoms opened. Occasionally on his body, but more often on the branch, leaves and small flowers sprouted. In his left hand, a large blossom opened, full of vibrant color.
That got even more of a reaction, depending on how one wanted to look at it. There was complete silence until the effect ended. Another two or three seconds before people started commenting quietly to themselves how cool it was, or began to move their easels to get an angle that they wanted. As if to accommodate them, the teachers began to take down the curtains completely.
Being a nude life model would be pretty cool to most people. He wasn’t too keen on the nude part, but whatever.
Giving them the chance to do a real-life male nymph? I’m so fucking awesome, he thought to himself. The past month had been so totally worth it.
A couple weeks ago had been New Year’s Eve, and while Tony had some fun with it, in a way he also hated it. New Year’s always meant that winter break would be ending, and with January came a return to classes. Including Powers Usage.
“Alright,” he said as he walked into the building, trying to keep from sounding like a downer. “What’m I killing today?”
The teachers said nothing as he shucked his backpack and jacket. There were two of them, one triggered, one untriggered. It was an irony that usually people who weren’t paras were better at figuring out aspects of powers that paras would miss. But only a para could really help a person with certain aspects of powers, which usually varied from power to power.
By the time that he was collected, Mrs. Ferguson was frowning at him. “You always focus on the killing part.”
“Well, duh. I mean, that’s what I’m doing. Plants or rodents, yeah? I’m always gonna kill ’em, and I can’t return ’em back to normal.”
He understood the rodents part, honestly. He’d figured out that they were trying to coax him into using the rats and stuff for his hand so it would at least be closer to the right color as his real hand. His power connected the armor to his nervous system, so the hand was effectively an extension of his body, moving nearly as naturally as the real thing. As he got better with shaping it to operate like a real hand, his manual dexterity with it only got better and better.
But a wildling had taken his natural hand. It only felt natural to him to use the flesh and bones from one of those wildlings to form his replacement. Using some rats whose only crime was being captured on school grounds felt… unsporting? Not quite the right word, but he didn’t know the right one.
“You never seem to think about the end goal,” Mr. Tubbs mused quietly.
Tony rolled his eyes. “Lame. Oh, yay, I can make armor. I can give it to other people for a while. Big friggin’ whoop. Like I care about that. It’s only gonna be good for fighting, or for something like with my hand. Which, guess what? That’s only gonna come in handy when I’m fighting something, which probably means…” He made a triumphant trumpet noise. “More killing!”
Mrs. Ferguson nodded for a moment, thinking about it. “I can understand. Really, I can. It’s a pity that your power doesn’t last forever on other people like it does yourself. Then you’d be able to help people who lost their limbs.”
Tony glanced at Mr. Tubbs, who smirked a little. Mrs. F didn’t understand how you could use a power to charge things. Not really. He didn’t need to focus on charging his armor or his hand, it was a subconscious effort on his part that he didn’t even feel. Charging armor placed on others, though… Well, he could only apply so much of a charge at once, and when that charge faded, the armor simply ceased to be.
The frumpy older woman rubbed her fingers together as she thought. “That said, what if we were to come up with a way for you to use your power, your armor, for something other than combat?”
Tony said nothing, but raised an eyebrow.
She remained silent for a moment before nodding. “Yes. You’ve gotten… decent at the ability to shape your armor, but I’ve always wondered if it was a lack of focus on your part that kept you from getting good at it. If you can learn to shape your armor better, you might be able to shape your hand better.
“So. Let’s give you something to focus on.”
Tony leaned against a table, folding his arms.
She took that as a sign to continue. “Your armor presents all sorts of interesting opportunities. Especially with your build. You may see your slight frame as a hindrance, but I see it as a wealth of potential. A chance to do some wonderful things, once you have some desire to do them. So.”
She walked right in front of Tony and crossed her arms, a mirror image of him as she leaned in close to look up into his eyes. “Mr. Welsh. How would you like to make jaws hit the floor?”
“Dude! I love the way you blended the bark right into my eye sockets!”
Tony slapped the boy’s arm, who looked rather bashful about it all. Quickly, he moved on to the next piece, looking it over. Where the last one had been hyper-realistic, this was more surreal, a strange pattern of lines around his body, leaving the pose as a blank space. A few lines inside helped add depth, but it was… weird.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this,” he said truthfully, a slight lopsided grin on his face.
“It’s called negative space,” the girl said timidly. “I was trying to make art where the lines weren’t.”
“Dang,” he said, drawing the word out. “That’s hardcore. Listen, I’ll be honest, I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this. But, uh… Y’know, I kinda want to see more of it, you know? If I do this again, would you do another piece like this one?”
That made the young girl’s face light up. “Sure! I… I can totally do that!”
That smile made those two hours of holding still worth it. That and the fact that he got to skip his martial arts class, but more of the smile.
Many of them were bashful, unused to showing anybody outside of their circle their work. Maybe teachers, but that was it. He could understand that, so he tried to say something positive about everything, no matter how bad the overall piece was. Sometimes it was hard, but he wanted to have them walk away feeling badass somehow.
It didn’t help that they spoke a weird language all of their own. One girl spoke of moh-neigh or some such, one dude said that he went for a post-modern take on the whole dryad thing. What the hell? They were living in modern times, how the hell can a person do something after modern? Even worse, the drawing had been hella bland.
He’d still said that he liked how smooth it was. Really, him showing excitement over everyone’s work was probably going to bite him in the ass later on. Art geeks would think he was one of their own. To be honest, if it didn’t have boobs he wasn’t really interested in art.
Before getting to the last student, he pulled on his shirt. In the brief window that his arm was hidden, he dispelled the thin layer of flexible bark he was wearing on his upper body, letting it fade into nothing. The cost of using his power was the eventual obliteration of the plant or creature. With the wood hand gone, the flesh he’d used to protect his modesty stringified and reformed over his stump.
It was funny — the flesh tapped into his own body, his nervous system and veins and stuff, but there was never any sign of it. There’d be no pinpricks or anything on his business. Even though he knew that his replacement hand tapped into his bloodstream where it ended halfway up his forearm, to mount it properly, there was no sign of it whenever he shifted that flesh.
Tony checked his hand as he tugged the shirt all the way down over his pants — it looked about right. He’d change it again in the bathroom, where he could do it shirtless. Really, nobody wanted to see him without his shirt on, and for some reason, it never looked quite right when he did it with his shirt on. Not that it ever looked quite right.
No sense worrying about it now, though. Instead, he moved up behind the final person, putting his arms over her shoulders and bending down to put his head on top of hers.
Mandy wasn’t the best of artists, and he’d seen better, but he still grinned. “Awww, you didn’t give me a horsecock.”
She let out a groan that quickly turned into giggles. “Dork.”
He laughed a little, a wheezing sound. He never straight-up laughed — it sounded like like duck quacking. “Seriously, though, I like it. Most folks put all the emphasis on my body, y’know? I really like how you put more into the branch extending from my hand. Looks really pretty.”
“That’s why I didn’t give you a… Thing.” He didn’t need to see her face to tell she was blushing. Girls were weird.
He didn’t care. They could be weird all they wanted. The charcoal drawing was only half-done, though. Even after two hours, what the shit? “You gonna finish it?”
“Yeah,” she said bashfully. Then, more confidently, “Yeah. Do you want to see it when I’m done?”
“Heck yeah!” He would have said fuck, but teachers got moody about that sort of thing. He kissed the top of her head before pulling back. “See you in the room after classes are done?”
She turned to face him, smiling bashfully. “Yeah. I can do that.”
“Cool. Whipow!” He flashed her the ASL for I love you before moving to Ms. Nunes, not bothering to see if Mandy returned it or not. “Hey, Ms. Nunes! How’d I do?”
“Good,” she said with a slow nod. “Really, really good. I think they all really enjoyed it. I know that I did.” She turned her own sketchpad to Tony, showing off work that was better than most of the students. More practice than them, he guessed, but still pretty charcoal. “This was an amazingly good idea. I’m glad you thought of it.”
He chuckled weakly before shaking his head. “Credit where it’s due, Mrs. Ferguson came up with the idea, and I just went for it.”
“You still followed through,” the other teacher said, joining their conversation. “I think, if you decide to do this again, we’re going to be even more full, and not just with students.”
Tony’s face threatened to split into two. “Shucks, now I kinda gotta. Maybe we can work something out with the Wardens, yeah?”
“Maybe,” the man said with a grin. “Two things, though. First…” He handed Tony a pass slip. “You might get mobbed on your way to your next class, so I figured I’d go ahead and make one up for you, just in case.”
That was cool.
“Second. I don’t usually show students my work, but…” The teacher offered his own canvas. Unlike Ms. Nunes, he worked in pastels. Also unlike Ms. Nunes, all of the details were there in full. It was like a photograph of the nymph in a way, an image that made Tony’s jaw hang loose.
The man chuckled softly. “I work fast, I’m good and I know it, but I can’t do anything original. I have the skills, but not the creative spark that other people do. So I never thought I’d get to do something out there like a male dryad. It was really rather liberating, in a way, and I seriously hope that you can do it for us again.”
Tony chuckled breathlessly, in awe by the details. You could do that with pastels? He didn’t even know. Hesitantly, he offered it back. “Can… Can I get a copy of this?”
“Sure,” the man said with a quick nod. “Swing by after main classes are done and I’ll have it ready for you.”
He bounced a little on his feet, a tremble of excitement running through him. He couldn’t wait to show David. “Dude, this is so awesome! Thanks! Man, now I really feel like a dick for blowin’ you off earlier!”
That got a laugh out of both teachers.
Tony paused outside the door, steeling himself. He hated science. Well, science itself was cool. Like, chemical reactions and crystals and stuff, that was cool. The math… he hated calculating moles and shit. But he was willing to put up with it so he could get to the cool stuff.
This math class in particular, though, he hated with a passion.
He took a deep breath before opening the door. Before his eyes fell on anyone, they hit the clock — only five minutes late. Hopefully, that wouldn’t be so bad.
“Tony, Tony, Tony.” Mr. Litwiller’s tone made Tony’s cheek twitch. The smirk on his face didn’t help matters any. “You finally decided to grace us with your presence. Can’t do your homework, can’t participate in class, and can’t even bother to show up on time. What was so important that you come waltzing in now?”
Fucking your mom.
Sodomizing your wife.
Eating your dog.
Pissing in your cereal.
Shitting on your bed.
Destroying everything that you hold dear and then getting ready to fuck your eye socket, you goddamn condescending bastard.
Tony took a deep breath before crossing the small classroom to the teacher, offering the slip of paper. He could see the other four students staring. No, the bastard couldn’t just ask him why he was late, he had to make a production out of it. At least he could make sure to use his right hand. He knew it bothered the jerk a little bit.
Mr. Litwiller spent a moment looking over the slip as Tony slinked back to his seat, getting his books out. “You’ve got to be kidding me, Tony. This is pathetic, even for you. Art? This is far more-”
Tony’s patience ran out. He lifted his hand and used his power. The flesh silently exploded and reformed into a large misshapen lump. Perfect for beating the bastard down with. Slowly, he looked up at the man. “Teach, it’s generally a bad idea to talk like that,” he growled softly.
The man paused for a moment, an uncomfortable expression replacing the smirk as if suddenly remembering just what Tony’s powers were. “Is that a threat?”
Tony’s lips pulled away from his teeth in a savage sneer. “Not at all. What gives you that idea?”
Now the man was sweating a little bit. Good. He could piss himself, that would be nice. A perfect cap to the end of the day. “Do you want to see the Matron?” he blustered.
“No, not at all. Right now, I want to have a new hand.” Did he? The words had just slipped out, but they felt natural. Either way, it was a very good choice of words.
The room was filled with silence. Tony could feel his heart beating in his chest. He could hear it. Thud-thud. Thud-thud. Oh, this was going to be so sweet. Litwiller had moved almost to the blackboard, fear plastered on his face. Tony idly wondered if the douchebag was replaying everything in his head, or if the knowledge that he could so easily die if Tony stood up had short-circuited everything else.
It was less than two minutes before the guard came through the door, foam sprayer at the ready. With how many parahuman students there were around here, they took security seriously. Litwiller had naturally hit the panic button.
“Welsh,” the guard said cautiously, a questioning tone in her voice.
“Yo.” He didn’t take his eyes off Litwiller.
“Are you going to do anything you’ll regret?”
“No.” He paused. “But I’ve already done what I intended. Call the Matron.”
“She’ll probably be here soon, unless she’s busy.”
That made the asshole relax a little. Damn.
“Good. Because I’ve got four witnesses to how this jerkwad’s been degrading me all year. I imagine she’ll have choice words for that.” Not only was it about the most retardedly stupid thing a person could do to a Parahuman like Tony, but it was very much against the rules. Just for situations like this.
Silence filled the room. Tony’s hand, well, arm and club, were still raised in the air menacingly. His eyes were still locked on Litwiller’s, as if he would charge the moment the man said anything. Word one, and he might destroy him, possibly before the guard could react. The room was small enough, and if the guard had relaxed…
But silence. It was damning, in a way. Nobody was leaping to his defense, agreeing. Which meant that this could go very, very poorly.
As Tony precariously moved a bottle to his left hand, he gently tapped the door twice with his foot. Not loud enough for the others to hear it, but enough to serve its purpose. That task accomplished, he opened the door, a wide grin on his face.
“Hey hey! I bring gifts!”
Mandy and Kaitlin grinned at him, but David had a concerned expression on his face. Before Tony approached the table, he whipped around the corner to set a bottle of ginger ale on Mr. Simmons’ table. The commissaries had closed for the day, so getting sodas should have been impossible.
Unless, of course, some teacher had pulled you off to the side and told you a secret way to get in from either the boy’s or girl’s bathrooms that flanked the source of goodness. As a way to keep morale high and reward a certain person for keeping it together that day, they were willing to overlook the rules a little bit. So long as nobody got greedy or abused it. Tony and David preferred to keep it to one extra soda a day for each of their little group, though he occasionally nabbed a ginger candy.
“You had detention,” David said softly as Tony started handing out the bottles. “You knew you were doing something wrong, but you did it, and you’re happy you got detention for it.”
Tony might think that Mr. Simmons had clued the boy in, but the girls’ reactions of surprise blew that out of the water. No, this was David just being creepy observant again. He might make a good Sherlock Holmes some day.
“How the hell d’ya know this stuff, dude?”
“Demeanor, stance, time, soda choices,” the shorter boy said softly, ducking his head. “What happened?”
“Yeah,” Kaitlin said. “Don’t leave us hanging here.”
Tony shrugged before folding himself into the chair. It was a little low for his liking, forcing him to sprawl a bit. People said that they wanted to be tall, but they didn’t realize all the little problems that came with it. Especially when you were this scrawny.
“Well, I don’t have to go to chemistry any more!” Tony flashed them all an overly cheery smile before getting his homework out of his backpack.
Mandy’s eyes went wide. “Tony, you didn’t!”
“He didn’t,” David said softly. “He didn’t.”
“I didn’t,” Tony echoed with a grin. “I made him think I might, but there’s better ways to do it than that. Made him call security, and the Matron came a runnin’. At first, nobody was gonna back me up from what the scumbag’s been pullin’ all year. Before Fred even opens his mouth, though, she’s got Litwiller squirmin’ without sayin’ a word to him. Total Master, yeah? Maybe Shaker or somethin’. I dunno. Classifications are hard.
“Anyway. Fred pipes up, and then suddenly it all comes out. And the Matron… Y’know how she’s always looking so concerned and kinda sad and stuff?” Everyone nodded. “Ooooh, you don’t wanna see her mad. Told me to show up for detention, then for everyone to get out. Kari didn’t even bother to put her books in her bag, she just carried ’em out and ran. I do not wanna piss her off.”
Kaitlin’s eyes were wide, but Mandy giggled. “The nicer they are, the worse it is when they get pissed.”
“Amen! So long story short, I know he doesn’t have me any more, and that he’s going to face ‘discipline,’ but I got nothin’ as to what that could be.” He looked to David next to him, who was frowning at his bottle of soda. “What’s wrong, dude?”
David frowned a little. He didn’t want to complain, Tony knew that from experience. He could see the conversation play out in David’s mind; David would say nothing, Tony would hound him, getting the others into it, and the three of them would chisel away until David finally gave in. Which basically made the end result happen.
“I was hoping for orange pop.”
Tony smiled softly, reaching out to put his hand on David’s shoulder. You couldn’t just put it on from behind, though. That was the mistake that everyone made, and an easy way to get an accidental elbow to the face, followed by an hour of apologies.
No, you couldn’t touch David from behind, not even sitting next to him like this. Period, end of statement. You had to bring your arm up and bring the hand over sideways, so that he could see the approach. Lay the hand down so that you touch the front of the collar bone first, then lay your hand down in stages. Laying the whole hand down at once, or the top of his shoulder first, would make him flinch pretty bad.
Even something as simple as touching him required a special way of acting. Not that Tony usually thought about it. By now, it was just routine.
“Sorry dude, but they were out. C’mon and smile, it’s not soggy cereal.”
That made David and Mandy grin a little. Kaitlin, though, only looked confused. “Soggy cereal?”
Tony took a breath, a look of concentration tinged with confusion coming to his face. Oh, sure, he could explain it. But he paused, letting the breath out and the look of confusion intensify.
“You’ve never heard that before?” David asked. She shook her head. “Okay. It’s… Um, okay. Sometimes, it seems like people will trigger over silly little things. It isn’t technically true. Usually, it’s like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Tons of other things have built up way too much, and it’s the little thing that makes the person snap. Well, the triggers over simple things are like that. Stress from other junk building up way too much, until something goes.
“It’s, it’s kind of a joke.”
“Triggering over soggy cereal,” Kaitlin said with a grin.
“Yeah.” He smiled bashfully. “Typically, those triggers have powers that only superficially are related to what is the immediate cause of the trigger. Enough that one can understand it. But usually they have secondary powers or ability that are equally powerful in their own right that are more connected to the actual, deep cause.”
David kept talking as Tony opened his soda, already phasing the conversation out of his head. Blah blah, he knew all this. Instead, he was focusing on everyone else. Kaitlin was grinning and nodding along. She was good at following David’s explanations, knowing right when to jump in with what she’d figured out to push him further.
Mandy, on the other hand, was hanging on every word that David said, eating it up even though she knew all this stuff, with a small hint of a smile on her face. Leaning forward ever so sightly. Winding the drawstring of her hoodie… around… her… finger.
Oh. Oh hell. Fuck him sideways.
Tony suddenly stood with a “Fuck!” that made David cringe and draw in on himself. “Sorry, dude! Sorry! I just… I noticed this morning that Carlos can move his finger a little bit more, that whatever that para did to him the last time they were here was taking affect finally. I wanted to show someone else, y’know, to give him some encouragement or something, y’know?”
He looked to Kaitlin as he walked around the table. “C’mon, I gotta steal you for a sec.”
“Uh…” She hesitated, but he pulled her up, dragging her towards the door.
“He’s the guy in the hospital bed, the one who got the b-bane d-damage from the steam engine blowing, and now can’t even control his blinking. But he’s purposefully moving his finger a bit now, so we maybe can teach him Morse code or somethin’. C’mon, all you gotta do is watch and then give him some encouragement.”
Tony glanced back at the door. “We’ll be back here in a few, okay? Jus’ talk amongst yourselves, alight?” With that, he pulled Kaitlin out the door and started down the hall.
It was a couple of minutes before Kaitlin spoke up. “Okay, so all I gotta do is-”
He rounded the corner and got three steps before he slammed his back against the wall and let himself slide down it. As he folded his arms over his knees and rested his head on them, he could hear Kaitlin making uncertain noises. He didn’t care. He just… needed a minute.
“T-Tony? Are you okay?”
“No,” he moaned into his arms. It felt like someone was stabbing him in the chest, then dropping a rabid wolverine into the cavity.
“What…” He could make out her legs as she squatted next to him, and a moment later he felt her hands hesitantly on his arm. “What’s wrong?”
“Not into me,” he made out softly. “Never was.”
There was a pause before Kaitlin spoke. “What?”
“Mandy,” he said, trying to keep the tears from coming. “I’m not the one she wants. It’s David. It’s always.” He hit his head against his arms, very little muscle to pad the bone. “Been. David.”
“But, uh, she’s… She’s your girlfriend, Tony.”
“Because it gets her closer to David,” he moaned. “It makes sense. I touch her, but she never touches back. She’s never kissed me. She pays David way more attention than me, an’ she’s always…” His throat felt like fire. “…Always askin’ ’bout him, more than she asks ’bout my day or anything.
“And David, he c’n see everything, unless it’s for people when it comes to him. Then everything’s… twisted. Like, thought I was usin’ him for somethin’ for years. So, she talks to him, askin’ ’bout me, and he thinks…” Tony had to take a shaking breath. “He thinks she’s inta me because he seriously can’t imagine anyone ever being inta him… But she’s jus’ tryin’ ta get an in for a conversation.”
He let out a quiet sob. Couldn’t let it get loud, David might hear. “Thinks she can’t be with him ‘cos a his problems, so she’s… She’s… Settling.”
God fucking damn it. He finally got a girlfriend, someone finally saw past his skeleton of a body to genuinely date him, and it’s just an act to get close to the person she can’t be with. Son of a fucking bitch…
Kaitlin hugged him softly, content to just let him cry for a little bit. After a moment, though, she whispered into his ear. “And no, before you get the wrong idea, I’m into Tanya Miller.”
How could he not laugh at that? How could that laughter not turn into tears?