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i'm sick of all the small talk (if you're sick of pretending)

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"What must I do, to tame you?" asked the Little Prince.

"You must be very patient," replied the fox. "First you will sit down a little distance from me - like that - in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day..."

- The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery


Jared isn’t the kind of person who gets asked to stay behind after class.

He gets good grades, especially in math, and as much as he likes to exude an overly confident class clown persona he’s learned to temper it with enough of a blissfully innocent “Messing around in class? Moi ?” attitude when confronted that he very rarely actually gets in trouble for anything. And he’s most definitely not a candidate for being invited to have a Quiet Word After Class about whether or not Everything Is Alright because his teacher is Always There For Him If He Needs To Talk. Which makes Mrs Walker’s warm, encouraging smile as she stops by his desk midway through the period even more confusing.

In fact, when he makes his way over to Mrs Walker at the end of class, she looks positively exuberant.

“Great! I’m glad you had time to come and talk to me,” she says. Like Jared really had a choice.

“Yeah. No worries.”

“Feel free to sit down,” Mrs Walker says. As soon as Jared’s settled down in a seat in the front row, she adds, “I’m sure you know you’re one of my strongest students.”

“Thanks,” Jared says, trying not to look too outwardly perplexed.

“And I know you’re good at explaining concepts to other people.”

Jared thinks this might be a very generous way of saying “you’re kind of a know-it-all”, but he figures he might as well take the compliment at face value, and nods in a way that hopefully comes off as appropriately flattered.

Mrs Walker smiles again - more subdued, this time - and leans forward in her seat, clearly preparing to get to the actual point of this hitherto slightly cryptic conversation.

“So. I was wondering. I have a student in one of my other classes who’s - I guess they’re struggling a little at the moment. With the class. And I thought you’d be a great candidate for maybe tutoring them? Of course, it’s entirely up to you, but I think you’d be really good at it and I think they’d find a bit of help and support from a peer really helpful, so-”

“Sure,” Jared cuts in, a tad too hastily.

“You’d be up for it?” Mrs Walker looks weirdly taken aback.

Jared nods. He doesn’t have a problem with the concept in theory. He’s never tried tutoring but he’s pretty sure he’d be good at it. He likes explaining things to people, he likes helping people, even though he’d never actually admit it to anyone, and tutoring falls neatly into his social comfort zone of holding a conversation for hours on end without actually having to open up to someone and make an actual emotional connection. Plus, it’s kind of a douchey thing to say, but tutoring probably looks really good on college applications and shit.

“Who is it?” he says, content enough that he’s making the right decision here.

Mrs Walker takes a deep breath. “Do you know Connor Murphy?”

Oh, Jesus Christ.

Jared doesn’t know Connor Murphy, not really. Of course he knows of him. Everyone does. The guy’s a walking reputation, all scowls and mid-class meltdowns and outfits that look like a Hot Topic employee got into a fight with a sentient thrift shop and lost. And public opinion seems to be that he’s this close to flunking out of school, if he’s not expelled for smoking pot behind the gym first, so it’s not really surprising that he’s apparently desperately in need of a math tutor.

It also just so happens, however, that Connor Murphy is, like, exceptionally hot. Not that that’s relevant. Jared wouldn’t say he has a crush on him, or anything. Not in the slightest. It’s not like he’s ever going to sit down and swoon over him with that one weird contingent of faux-edgy sophomore girls who post all over their niche aesthetic Instagrams about how desperate they are for a tortured emo stoner boyfriend, or whatever. He’s just capable of admitting that, objectively, Connor Murphy has an appealing set of facial features. Which he wouldn’t mind staring at for a couple of hours a week, even if hanging out with someone like Connor is pretty much grounds for automatic social ostracisation.

“Do you think you’d be able to tutor him?” Mrs Walker prompts, with the kind of barely concealed sad desperation that seems to suggest Jared isn’t even close to being the first person she’s asked.

It’s a total unintentional guilt trip - cue the freaking Sarah McLachlan, or whatever - and, what’s worse, it works instantly. Which is totally embarrassing, for the record.

“Okay.” Jared blurts out. “Sure.”

Mrs Walker actually fucking beams back at him.

“Great! That’s awesome, really, Jared. I actually have Connor in my last class today, so if you want, if you don’t have to be anywhere after school, you could drop by and say hi to him, get everything sorted out?"

“Sure,” Jared says, with a shrug. “No worries. I’ll be there.”


It’s just his luck, really, that Jared’s been roped into this after school meeting on a day when the Connor Murphy rumor mill is running at full power. Halfway through last period, he starts hearing whispers around his Spanish class that Connor has had a full scale meltdown in math. The exact details are hazy, to say the least - the jury seems to be out on whether he started crying or cursed out Mrs Walker or started hurling items of stationery around the room in a repeat of the infamous second grade printer incident - but if Jared wasn’t already feeling a bit of trepidation he definitely freaking is now.

He briefly considers whether it’s even worth turning up, but considering he hasn’t yet heard anything about Connor straight up storming out of class, it’s probably safe to assume the meeting’s still on.

Even though it takes him a couple of minutes to walk back to Mrs Walker’s classroom after the bell goes, he’s left lingering outside the door for a while after that. He’s about to give up entirely and leave when the door creaks open and Mrs Walker pokes her head out.

“Hi, Jared!” she says. “You can come in now.”

She leans back into the room. “Is it alright if Jared comes in, Connor?”

A quiet, noncommittal grunt. Mrs Walker smiles apologetically at Jared, and beckons him inside.

Connor Murphy is sitting at the front of the room, half curled into his seat, head bowed so that his hair falls down over his face. His eyes are fixed on his hands - he’s wearing a bunch of rings, Jared notices, and he’s tugging at one of them so hard it looks like he’s about to break his own finger. He’s blinking a little too rapidly, biting the inside of his cheek, and while there’s no question that Jared totally just missed a full-blown Connor Murphy Breakdown, he wasn’t expecting the guy to look quite so fragile .

Something about the sight of him makes Jared’s heart twist inside his chest with an emotion he can’t quite identify.

“Hey, Connor,” he says, more to break the silence than anything. Connor doesn’t respond.

“So. Have you two met?” Mrs Walker says. Connor shakes his head just a little, and Jared follows. “Well. Jared, this is Connor. Connor, Jared. Like I said, Jared’s offered to tutor you.”

“Offered” is a strong word, but Jared decides to let it slide.

Connor still won’t look at him.

“I thought I’d leave you two to talk for a few minutes,” Mrs Walker continues, with a cheeriness that’s beginning to sound slightly forced. “That way you can get to know each other a little without me interfering, sort out how you want to do things, and maybe, Connor, you could tell Jared a few of the things you’d like to focus on. Would that be alright?”

Connor just shrugs, so Jared compensates with potentially overly vigorous nodding. It appears to satisfy Mrs Walker, at least, because she just smiles again and leaves the room.

After the door shuts, there’s a couple of seconds of absolutely agonising silence.

“You don’t have to do this,” Connor says, at last. Jared’s always a little surprised when he hears Connor speak. He always expects him to have some kind of gruff, intimidating voice, or at least to put one on to make himself seem scarier. But instead his voice is quiet, high, almost hollow sounding, like he’s reluctant to make too much of a sound. As if, in some sort of weird parallel to the way he’s folded himself into his chair, he doesn’t even want his voice to take up too much space. And right now his voice wavers a little, confirming Jared’s suspicion that Connor has only recently stopped crying.

There it is again, that inexplicable tightness in his chest, like somebody’s turned his aorta into one of those Chinese finger traps. Jared decides to press on and ignore it.

“Well,” he says, consciously keeping his voice light. “Mrs Walker didn’t exactly give me a choice.”

Connor stops pulling at his ring, and the room descends into an almost suffocating stillness. Then, after what seems like a freaking eternity, Connor raises that same hand up to his face with the unmistakable motion of someone wiping away tears.

Shit .

“But I do want to tutor you, seriously,” Jared blurts out. “You seem… uh… nice ?”

This finally gets Connor to look up. If it wasn’t for the fact that his eyes are still red and watery, his steady, unblinking gaze would give absolutely nothing away.

“...Nice?” Connor repeats, his voice totally flat.

“Yeah,” Jared says, trying very hard to sound completely casual and not like his entire circulatory system currently feels like it’s tying itself in knots. “I mean, like. We’ve never really spoken, right? But you’re in a couple of my classes. And you seem nice.”

Connor exhales sharply, a humorless huff of laughter. “I’m not.”

Wow. Isn’t that just a half-assed angsty teen outburst for the ages.

“Jesus, okay, very intimidating,” Jared says, leaning back in his chair and holding his hands up in mock surrender. Connor frowns, eyeing him suspiciously. “Listen, though, dude. Regardless of how nice you… aren’t. I’m pretty sure Mrs Walker is, like, this close to making us sign some sort of blood pact saying I’ll tutor you, so can we at least try to make this work?”

Connor stays silent a moment longer. Maybe Jared’s imagining things, but he thinks he sees the frown soften a little.

Then, Connor nods.

“Awesome. Great. This is probably the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Connor rolls his eyes. It’s unexpectedly charming. Jared clears his throat.

“So. Do you want to do the tutoring at my place, or at yours? I know we could do it at school, but who wants to stay here any longer than they have to, right? My place might be good, my parents are usually at work until, like, six, so we’d have the house to ourselves for a couple of hours. Well, not totally. I have a cat, so, I don’t know if that’s a problem or-”

“No, I like cats,” Connor blurts out, his voice shooting up a good octave or so.

Every single knot in Jared’s chest unravels at once.

He can’t help but stare at Connor, who’s now staring firmly at the ground, eyes so wide that Jared can practically peer into his brain and decipher the entire Oh God why the fuck did I say that spiel he appears to be mentally reeling through. He’s biting his lip as well, like he’s trying to stop himself from saying anything else stupid - anything else stupidly endearing , oh Jesus, oh fuck - and Jared can’t fucking ignore that, in fact, he is currently having several thoughts about Connor’s lips, and he’s definitely lowkey been having these thoughts about Connor’s lips, about Connor in general , for a while, and frankly he can’t pretend it’s just superficial casual aesthetic attraction or whatever anymore because holy shit, Connor Murphy, the asshole, just had to stupidly, adorably drop in that he freaking. Likes. Cats.

What the fuck .

For all his sudden total mental incoherence, Jared at least knows that he has to continue this conversation before Connor fucking shrivels into himself from embarrassment.

“Great,” he says, hoping his voice doesn’t sound too strained. “I guess my place works, then.”

Connor nods, clearly not trusting himself to say anything further.

“Awesome. When do you want to start?”

Connor appears deep in thought for a moment.

“Tomorrow?” he says at last, quieter than anything else he’s said so far. He sounds almost painfully hesitant. “I mean. I could probably use all the help I can get, so.”

And there it is, like a final fucking death knell. The faintest ghost of a shy, self-deprecating smile, flickering across Connor’s lips, his mouth upturned ever so slightly for a fraction of a second before his face reverts to its regular stony expression. And just like that, Jared is suddenly, acutely aware that he would do absolutely anything for Connor.

More concisely, he’s totally fucked.

“Great. Tomorrow it is.” Jared’s not sure he likes how soft his voice sounds all of a sudden. “I’ll pick you up after school.”


“What’s wrong?”

“Huh? What?” Jared, rudely interrupted from his hopeless gay reverie, looks back up at his laptop screen. Evan is staring back at him, eyebrows furrowed in concern.

“Sorry. I’m probably just… you don’t have to, uh, you just look sort of, sorry. Stressed?”

It really is just Jared’s luck that his closest friend - and one hope for last minute pre-Spanish-test cramming - is so absurdly empathetic that he can spot a moderate internal crisis even through a laggy Skype display.

“Yeah, no shit,” Jared groans, rubbing his hands across his face for good melodramatic measure. “It’s this freaking test, bro.”

Evan responds with a mumbled “Oh, I’m sorry.”

Jared is just grateful that he doesn’t push the matter further. Sure, Jared is an excellent liar, he’s had years of practice, but that doesn’t mean that trying to counter Evan’s kind-hearted earnestness isn’t an utterly exhausting task. And now is most definitely not the time for him to snap and suddenly blurt out that actually, he’s been on the verge of kicking a wall and screaming at the top of his lungs for three hours now because he’s realized that he may or may not sort of have a big pathetic crush on Connor fucking Murphy, of all people. Like, he’s not even out to Evan, for starters, so that’s an entire other level of nope for this conversation. And even if he was, he’s pretty certain that he’d totally forfeit his right to make fun of Evan for his equally big and pathetic crush on Zoe Murphy if he confessed that he was totally into her brother. Which would be a tragic loss for their friendship.

Speaking of.

“Hey, didn’t you have that art class with Zoe Murphy today?”

“What?” Evan looks briefly nonplussed by the swift change of subject. “Oh, I, uh, yeah, I guess.”

“Well?” Jared says with a smirk, happily seizing the opportunity to deflect by making Evan uncomfortable instead. “Did you finally get a chance to draw a creepy portrait of her to win her affections, or whatever?”

“No!” Evan splutters. “And besides, it’s a pottery class, actually, so. Definitely not.”

“Well then, did you get a chance to lovingly render her face in clay?”

Evan shakes his head, face screwed up in frustration. Jared doesn’t have to be able to see his shoulders in order to mentally add an exasperated little shrug into the picture. “How would you even do that?”

“Hey. I do not give away Kleinman pottery secrets. If you’re inspired by my genius proposition then, sure, ask my mom, but-”

“I’m not .” A moment of silence. “Um, by the way, my mom’s, uh, she’s working late tomorrow, and, it’s really stupid, you don’t have to say yes, but she’s given me this coupon, for the pizza place, and I was wondering if you maybe wanted to-”

“Jesus, no ,” Jared says, a little too snappily. Noting Evan’s wounded expression, he quickly adds, “No. Crap. I’m busy. That’s all.”

He can’t quite hide the undercurrent of absolute, total despair in his voice.

“Oh. Okay. Sorry. You don’t have to, um. What are you doing? Tomorrow, I mean?” Evan offers him a shaky little smile, clearly trying to turn the conversation around into casual small talk in a totally transparent attempt to hide how upset he is about his pizza night proposition crashing and burning.


“I’m tutoring someone. Mrs Walker roped me into it.”


Jared very nearly slams his laptop shut in response, but he’s confident that Evan is already pretty close to tears by this point, because when isn’t Evan pretty close to tears, and he’d rather not have that on his conscience tonight. Plus, he really does need to steer this conversation back around to Spanish or he’s totally going to bomb this test.

“It doesn’t matter. Just some guy in her Algebra II class. You probably wouldn’t know him.”

“No,” Evan says, with just a lingering hint of melancholy.

Jared sighs. “Anyway. Can we get back to this freaking vocab?”

Thankfully, Evan complies, and Jared can leave the Connor Murphy Conversation for another day.


Jared spends much of that night, and the following day, trying to pretend he’s not, in fact, absurdly stressed about tutoring Connor. Despite all objective evidence to the contrary.

Like the fact that it takes him half an hour to decide on what to wear. Or the fact that he resolutely refuses to even look at Connor during their two classes together. He tries to keep up an appropriate level of denial throughout the day - he isn’t actually into Connor, his weird emotional state yesterday was totally just down to the inherent awkwardness of watching a near-total stranger try not to break down in front of him, or something like that. But by the time he’s waiting on the bench at the edge of the parking lot after school, his stomach feeling like it’s flipping over every few seconds, Jared is forced to admit that actually, he is definitely kind of shitting himself over this entire thing.

And then Connor emerges from the main entrance of the school, and Jared’s stomach just about flips out of his body entirely.

He’s probably imagining things, there’s definitely some totally innocuous psychological explanation, but he can’t help but think that Connor looks really good. Like, noticeably better than usual good.

It’s not like Jared doesn’t appreciate Connor’s regular “rolled out of a dumpster behind a particularly edgy thrift shop after three hours of sleep” look. Like, he can’t really deny that, considering he’s apparently been harboring a subconscious crush on the guy for a potentially embarrassing length of time. But it turns out he was not remotely prepared for what is, presumably, the result of Connor actually making an effort for some indiscernible reason.

He’s still wearing all black, of course, because he clearly has a carefully curated brand to maintain regardless of whatever weird aesthetic decisions are at play today, but he’s swapped out his regular hoodies and distressed jackets for a sweater that, even from a distance, looks unbelievably soft. And as Connor gets closer Jared can see that his hair looks soft as well, he’s brushed it for what must be the first time in recent memory, and Jared has to actually physically shake his head like a freaking Etch-a-Sketch to get rid of all the thoughts he’s having about running his fingers through it.

“What are you staring at?”

Shit .

Weirdly enough, though, it doesn’t sound like a challenge, or a threat. There’s an unmistakable nerviness to Connor’s voice, the way he’s holding his bag across his chest like some kind of security blanket as he leans away from Jared ever so slightly.

“Nothing. Nothing, I was just, uh. I zoned out.” Connor doesn’t look convinced. “Seriously. I swear. It’s all good. Are you good to go?”

After a moment of hesitation, Connor nods, his suspicious frown softening ever so slightly.

“Great. Well. My car’s this way, so. Your carriage awaits, or whatever.”

Jared doesn’t have to look back at Connor to know that that trademark frown has probably made a quick comeback. But he follows Jared, at least.

“How was your day?” Jared asks, once they’re both sitting in his car.

Connor shrugs. “It was fine.”

“If you want to put music on, or something, you can just pass me your phone and I’ll sort it out,” Jared continues, even though he’s pretty certain he and Connor have drastically, irreconcilably different music tastes and he’s not really that keen on spending the entire ride home listening to obscure screamo bands or whatever.

Thankfully, Connor shakes his head, mumbling something that sounds vaguely like “I’m all good, actually.” He’s resting one hand on his thigh, clenching and unclenching his fist, and Jared notices that his nails have clearly also been freshly repainted. For a second he considers asking what’s inspired this sudden effort to look slightly less like someone transformed a particularly grouchy raccoon into a human being, but he’s smart enough to know that wouldn’t go down well.

“I can put music on myself? If you want?” Jared says. “I don’t really know what you’re into, but if-”

“No thanks,” Connor mutters.

Extremely stressful silence for the ten minute ride back to Jared’s it is, then.

When they get to Jared’s house, Jared instinctively starts making his way upstairs before turning around and seeing that Connor is still standing in the doorway, arms hanging limply by his sides like he’s some kind of broken ragdoll, looking painfully awkward and lost all of a sudden. He gets the impression that Connor hasn’t been over to a friend’s house in a long time.

Not that they’re remotely friends, of course.

“Well. Welcome to my humble abode,” Jared says, heading back down the stairs. He pauses on the second step up, and immediately regrets the decision because being temporarily taller than Connor just amplifies how small the guy seems to make himself. “I thought we could work in my room, if that’s cool with you. Do you, uh. Want a drink of water? Or anything?”

Connor shakes his head.

“Okay. That’s chill. The kitchen’s just round the corner so if you want anything, feel free to scavenge.”

No reaction at all this time. This isn’t going to be easy.

“Well,” Jared says, after a pause that leaves him satisfied that he’s not about to interrupt a surprise spurt of conversation from Connor. “Anyway. My room’s up here. All my school shit’s in there, and you might have noticed my parents don’t really believe in having doors downstairs so if we work down here we’re totally vulnerable to the whims of my asshole of a cat, so-”

As if rising to the challenge of being called an asshole, Spaghetti - Jared prays Connor will never enquire about his cat’s awful name - takes this as her cue to emerge from wherever she’s been sleeping and come bounding down the stairs. Almost immediately, it’s like something in Connor shifts, his face breaking into an expression of awe that might be the single cutest thing Jared’s ever seen.

Good fucking God.

Hi !” Connor half-whispers, his voice shifting up at least an octave. Before Jared can react by telling Spaghetti to please fuck off for the sake of her owner’s heart and nervous system, Connor is crouching down, one hand outstretched, and of fucking course Spaghetti, who normally absolutely hates strangers, approaches cautiously.

Jared actually has to look away as Spaghetti starts sniffing at Connor’s hand.

“What’s her name?” Connor asks, and even though Jared is still staunchly refusing to make eye contact he can actually hear him smiling.

“Spaghetti,” Jared says with a grimace, mentally cursing both his seven-year-old self and his parents’ failure to make him choose a more sensible cat name so he wouldn’t have to embarrass himself in front of a distressingly attractive boy almost nine years down the line.

“Hey, Spaghetti!” Connor says, and when Jared dares to look back down the stairs out of the corner of his eye he thinks he can see Connor actually fucking beaming . Well. He might just be laughing at the name. But even so, it’s offensively cute.

Then Spaghetti gets bored of the attention and wanders off in the direction of the kitchen, and Connor stands back up, retreating into himself almost immediately as if he’s suddenly remembered that he’s being watched.

“Your room’s fine,” he says curtly.

Jared nods and continues heading upstairs, more than happy to indulge Connor’s apparent desire to pretend the last thirty seconds didn’t just happen.

When they get upstairs, Jared flops into his desk chair before realizing that Connor is, once again, lingering helplessly in the doorway. He’s heard a decent number of jokes about how Connor Murphy is probably actually a vampire, but he didn’t think that meant the poor guy actually had to be invited into every single room he wanted to enter.

“Feel free to sit down,” Jared says, watching as Connor’s eyes dart around the room, taking in the various possible seating locations - the bed, the beanbag under the windowsill, the sad-looking armchair that had taken up residence in Jared’s room when his mom redecorated the living room five years ago (she’d reupholstered the chair herself five years before that and hadn’t been willing to get rid of it entirely). Finally, Connor nods, more to himself than Jared, and settles down in the armchair, holding his bag on his lap with a vice grip.

It’s almost physically painful how clearly out of place, how uncomfortable Connor is, and Jared wishes he knew how to help.

Instead, he settles for getting on with the totally emotionally void, and therefore far less intimidating, subject of math.

“So. Is there anything you really wanted to do today? Like, a concept you wanted to go over, or an assignment, or anything? I can help with anything, seriously.” He offers Connor a smug nod.

“Yeah. Actually.” Connor rummages in his bag for a moment before pulling out a sheet of paper that’s clearly been angrily screwed up at least once. Then he holds it out in Jared’s direction, looking resolutely off to one side with his eyebrows knotted together in a way that’s seemingly frustrated and embarrassed and anxious all at once.

Jared takes the paper and casts his eyes over it, and can’t help but let out a sharp whistle. He obviously knew Connor wasn’t doing well in math, because otherwise he wouldn’t need a tutor, but he didn’t realize the guy was literally getting Fs.

“I have to redo this assignment. For Monday.” Connor’s voice is almost inaudible, a self-conscious mumble. He’s somehow sitting even more stiffly in his seat. “I know. I said I needed all the help I could get.”

“Right. Okay.” Jared is trying very hard not to start swearing out of pure dismay. “How well do you need to do on this, exactly?”

Connor shrugs, nervily pushing his hair back out of his eyes. “I just need to pass. But even that’s-”

“Totally doable!” Jared cuts in, like a dirty fucking liar. “Like, obviously I don’t think we’re going to get it done today, but.” He skims through the worksheet again, trying to find something, anything encouraging to say. “All of these questions are basically the same, right? Like, they’re the same concept with different numbers. So if I tell you how to do one of them, you can basically do them all. Easy.”

“Are you sure?” Connor sounds completely unconvinced.

“Yeah. Or, I mean. It maybe won’t be easy but it won’t be completely freaking impossible.” He almost reaches out to give Connor a friendly pat on the shoulder, like he would if it was Evan sitting there in his crappy old armchair looking so small and embarrassed, but the mere fact that it’s Connor dissuades him. For multiple reasons. “I mean, you’ve got me helping you, after all.”

He thinks he hears Connor actually scoff a little bit, which is totally rude but he’ll let it slide.

“C’mon. Bring your chair over here and let’s do some freaking math."

The next couple of hours pass surprisingly quickly. Jared feels a lot more at ease once he’s in the relatively familiar territory of “telling people what to do in a casual but firm way”, and Connor actually manages to pick up the material a lot more quickly than Jared was expecting. It still takes him about five attempts to answer the first question - at one point he slumps forward with his head in his hands, tugging at the roots of his hair, and Jared almost goes into a freaking tailspin he’s so convinced Connor’s about to burst into tears. But luckily the moment passes without major incident, and the second question only takes three tries, and by the third question Connor almost seems sort of relaxed .

Then Jared catches sight of the clock on the wall.

“Hey,” he says (far too softly). “It’s almost six, and I know we said we were only going to keep going until, like, now, so.”

“Okay.” Connor almost sounds disappointed. Which is definitely just Jared projecting, because he can’t imagine Connor ever being disappointed to stop doing math.

“Yeah. Are you sure you’re good to finish this on your own?” Jared says. Connor bites the inside of his cheek, and Jared scrambles for something supportive to say. “I mean, you’ve been doing really well, you’re doing so much better on this already, and I think you’ll totally pass this time.”

There goes Connor’s weird little half smile again. It’s not even really a half smile, more like an ultra-tentative 5% of a smile that doesn’t even come close to reaching his eyes, but it’s there nonetheless.

“I’ll show you out,” Jared says.

They don’t talk as they head downstairs, or as Jared unlocks the front door, but the silence no longer has that stifling awkwardness to it that’s permeated all their conversations thus far. It’s not really a companionable silence, per se. But Jared can’t help but feel like he’s not being totally unrealistic when he wonders if they might, one day, reach that stage.

“Hey.” Connor’s voice is suddenly a lot higher and clearer, like the word just leapt out of its own accord. “Could I, um. Could I have your number?”

Jared almost chokes on his own breath.

“Yeah, sure, why?” he says, hoping he sounds appropriately casual and not like his heart is threatening to burst right out of his chest like the freaking Kool-Aid man.

“Sorry. I just thought it would be easier to… organize next time. Or if I need more… if I have questions about the work.” Connor’s mumbling again, brief spurt of confidence suddenly gone, and he’s staring at his hands as he turns his phone over and over.

“Oh, crap, sure, no problem. Give me your phone?”

Connor freezes, looking up at Jared warily. “You can just tell me. I’ll write it in.”

Jared’s not really sure why Connor is so opposed to handing over his phone for, like, five seconds but he decides against calling him out for it. Not when they’ve almost been getting along. So he reels off his number, and Connor puts his phone back in his pocket and reaches for the door handle.

“Do you need a ride home?” Jared asks.

“I’ll walk,” Connor says, and before Jared can protest he’s out of the door.

Jared stands there by the door a few moments longer, his brain finally, consciously processing everything that’s happened over the course of the afternoon, thoughts and emotions and internal screams rolling in like notifications on a phone turned off airplane mode at the end of a long haul flight.

And then his actual, physical phone buzzes, and Jared pulls it out of his pocket to see a single text from an unknown number.

this is connor

Jared smiles to himself, staring at the notification, ignoring the way his heart’s just started pounding all over again. He’s only, eventually, distracted by Spaghetti nudging his ankle.

“Oh, hi, hey, Spaghetti,” he sneers at her, in a high-pitched imitation of Connor that would feel like a complete dick move if Connor was still actually there. “For fuck’s sake. You knew exactly what you were doing, Spag, and I hate you.”

Spaghetti just walks away, seemingly perfectly satisfied with her new role as an agent of chaos in Jared’s unforgiving nightmare of a life.