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346

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Justin perked up as he heard the locker room door slammed shut with a bang the resonated throughout the room. “Stupid jocks” he muttered. Damn jocks and their damn need to reaffirm to themselves, to the world, that they were men. Because, you know, it takes balls to slam the door like a Neanderthal. Huh- he should tell Clay that. Clay and his big scientific words- he might be proud of Justin. Chuckling quietly to himself, he closed the locker door, making a point of letting it gently click shut. At least, that was the goal.

A harsh bang resonated throughout the locker room. His eyes blurred, ears rang, jaw rattled. It took him a few seconds to get his bearings- to register that the noise was the sound of his own skull cracking against the locker and another few to feel the heat against his back from a warm body holding him from behind against the locker.

“What the hell was that about, fag?”

Monty. That was Monty’s voice- dark and angry and cold. “That was real cute what your little girlfriend and her friends pulled at the assembly. Bet they all just wanted attention, like the whores they are. But seriously- Tyler? Who would want anything to do with that creep. Bet he just wanted pity from the pretty girls. He’s disgusting.” Monty’s breath was hot on Justin’s neck but his laugh was even colder than his voice.

“Get the hell off of me Monty” Justin growled as he struggled to free himself. The movement only seemed to excite Monty as he dug his hands harder into Justin’s wrists and forced his body flush against the fighting boy.

“But what about you Justin? What prompted you to make your dumbass confession? Did Jess make you? Of course you’d let her make you her bitch - always knew you had no balls. I’ll bet she even gets off on you playing the victim.”

Justin threw his elbow back with a jerk only to have his body once again slammed into the lockers. His head felt foggy. He could feel something running down his face. Blood.

“That’s what the boys were saying. They think you just did it for Jessica’s little stunt. But you know what I think?” He learned in, mouth almost touching Justin’s ear like a predator closing in on the throat of its helpless prey. “I think you really are used.”

Justin felt his blood run cold as he grit his teeth and tried again to pull away.

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking ab-“

“Oh Justin I think I do. You should have seen the way you looked at Bryce. Followed him around like a little lost puppy. I always knew you would bend over for him like the little bitch you are. Is that it huh? Did he use you like he used all those bitches?”

“Screw you Monty don’t talk about them like-“ Justin’s felt the salty taste of skin on his tongue as Monty clapped his hand over Justin’s mouth and rammed his body tighter against the lockers.

“Or maybe someone at prison, huh? Were you the juvie bitch-boy? They pass you around like a whore?”

The way Monty hissed the word out struck a nerve in Justin and he shouted a protest, muffled by the hand over his mouth.

“Looks like I hit it right on hey Justy? You really were a whore weren’t you? Don’t try and talk yourself out of this buddy- your poker face could use some work. Wait till I tell the boys- as if you couldn’t fall any lower on the social ladder.” He was snickering, snake-like voice cackling out the hissing laughter right into Justin’s ear. “How could I forget about your little junkie stunt out on the streets. You put out for a hit didn’t you? Got down on your knees and bent over dumpsters in alleys because you were useless at anything else. Drug whore- the career choice of useless sluts since the beginning of time.”

Justin stilled. He felt his breath catch in his lungs and suddenly he couldn’t breath. His fighting stilled and all he could feel was Monty’s weight against his back. He couldn’t see Monty but he could hear the smile in his voice.

“I figured you out, didn’t I? You still do it? Is that how you passed summer school- tradings C+s for blow jobs? Would they make them Bs if you let them go all the way, right then and there over the desk? I’ll bet you got Zach his spot as captain by letting coach have at you in his office. Is that why the Jensen’s keep you around too? You are just their personal toy aren’t you?”

He wanted to protest- wanted to scream at Monty and tell him how wrong he was but he couldn’t move- couldn’t speak. The room was too blurry and loud so Justin closed his eyes, scrunching his face up tight at he struggled to inhale. In. Out. In. Out. Once he started he couldn’t stop. Within a few seconds he was hyperventilating and growing even more light headed. His breath was too quick to catch any of the oxygen he brought in. His fingertips were numbing and his hands were locking into tight chicken claws. His eyes filled up with glassy tears waiting to drop. Through it all though Monty’s voice kept cutting through like a knife, carving his words into Justin’s skin.

“You know I can see why men would want you. You look good like this- like a bitch whining and shaking. I bet you loved it.”

Justin wanted to deny it- wanted to scream at Monty and shatter his kneecaps- but he couldn’t move.

“How much did you charge? Gotta say you couldn’t be worth much. How about a free sample?”

The hand on Justin’s wrists dropped down and worked its way under the waistband of his pants, beginning in the back and working his way forward to the fly when he found little give. Letting out a panicked gasp Justin threw his body weight backwards as he bit down on the hand covering his mouth.

He could hear Monty let out a hiss of pain as he reflexively pulled his hand back. Justin’s thrashing intensified as he put every last drop of adrenaline racing through his blood into throwing the larger boy off of him. And he ran.

He ran like his life depended on it, because at that moment it was seemining more and more likely that it did. He made it out of the locker aisle, but the fog in his head made him dizzy and he stumbled. Suddenly, Monty was back, grabbing him by the hair and delivering a hard punch from behind to his kidney. As Justin gasped in pain his attacked kicked the back of his knees hard and pulled him by the hair until he was held tight against his body. Monty then, with his hand fisted in Justin’s hair, smashed his head back into the lockers.

As Justin’s head blurred and pain cracked through his face, Monty began to rain down blow after blow on his body. Justin’s would became a blur of pain and noise but his incapacitated state couldn’t so much ad understand where the blows were coming from, let alone fight back. As much as he tried to fight, Justin was doing no damage. Eventually, he allowed himself to go limp and let the punches keep coming.

There was a reprieve in the blows and Justin heard laughter coming from his attacker.

“Look at you. You take it so well when you stop trying to fight.”

Justin couldn’t move when he felt Monty’s hands grabbing at his waistband. He couldn’t move when they undid his fly and began to pull his shirt over his head. He couldn’t move when they took down his pants and underwear and left them pooling at his feet. He couldn’t move when Monty’s predator mouth bit into his neck leaving dark, bleeding marks. He couldn’t move when he felt a bare, hard heat against his backside.

His body was shutting down from the raw amount of physical and mental pain he was experiencing. He tried to get his body to struggle and fight but even the slightest movement sent knives down his spine and he couldn’t generate any movement. He could feel tears running down his face and mixing with the blood already there.

The doors to the locker room were old, beat up things, their state probably not aided by the fact they were constantly slammed as a primitive display of testosterone. They creaked like a dying animal when they were opened. If the slamming didn’t give away someone’s arrival or exit, the creaking did. It had always driven Justin crazy, but right then, as he had nearly resolved to give up, it sounded like the trumpets of angels. Even through his blurred vision, ringing ears, and concussed mind he could hear the door. He screamed.

“Help! Please you gotta-“ hands went to his throat, closing around his larynx and forcing the oxygen out of his lungs. He kept trying though, desperate to get his words out no matter the cost. Only pieces of broken words escaped, desperate, fragmented pieces of “Clay,” “help,” “Zach,” “please,” “Jess,” “sorry,” “Mom,” “stop,” “Bryce” “I need you.”

But no one came- no familiar or unfamiliar face appeared to save him and chase away the monster.

The problem with the creaking door was that it also announced his swan song as it was again slammed shut and no one came to his aid.

Before the blackness creeping up like a vignette on the edges of his vision could sweep him away to unconsciousness, Monty released his throat. Against his own will, his lungs expanded and took in breath, struggling for purchase against the tides of carbon dioxide. He would rather have faded into obliviousness.

“You really think anyone would come for you? No one cares about you. Whore.”

With that, Monty slammed Justin against the wall. An agonizing scream escaped his bloodied lips, loud and piercing. He heard Monty swear and the hand returned to his mouth, thick fingers gripping into his face with a bruising grip. His pleas continued, desperate and begging, but were not heard.

He felt his body continuously slammed into the metal lockers, a sickening rhythm like drums continuously pounded on. His eyes were glass, barely even shifting as he struggled to keep his mind from focusing too much on the pain. On the sound of Monty’s breath and grunts. On the way the skin of his hand tasted in his mouth, or maybe that way blood from biting his own tongue. On the way the grip on his hips felt like it would bruise.

He drifted into his mind, but found that intruding memories only made it worse. He couldn’t help but feel the phantom hands of Rick reaching into his pajamas and grabbing him. The creeping smell of cologne and cigarettes or garbage. The feeling of his throat already fragile from the smoke of his last hit cracklings with each labored breath. The world was squeezing him from the inside out and he had nowhere left to go.

346. He could see the number etched into the little silver plate above the lock on the locker directly in his line of sight. The locker itself was no different than any other: diamond shaped grating letting in fresh air, dark blue paint chipping in spots to reveal rusty metal, slight dent in the right corner. It was obviously used by someone, he could see the tell tale colors of a jersey and a can of axe through the grating, but it wasn’t one of the varsity players- he would have known. He focused on the locker. He put every last drop into that faceless boy who dumped his body spray and sweaty uniform into locker 346.

His name was Jason Winters. He was born in San Francisco but his parents moved into town once he hit middle school so he could attend the high rated schools and grow up in a safer environment. His parents had met at grad school where they were both studying to be dentists. They had gotten married and had Jason three years later. He had two younger brothers, twins, and a younger sister. They lived in the big pretty brownstone on St. George street. They had an adopted golden retriever named Sam. They owned a vacation cabin on the shore of Lake Tahoe and went every winter break and sometimes in the summer or during long weekends. He was on JV football as a freshman, but he was already the starting running back. He was also in all honors and AP classes, the kind Justin never took. His parents sat down with the family every night for dinner, and on Thursdays he would help his mom make it because practice got out early. Everyday he would come to school with a lunch packed in a brown paper bag. When he had a big test, his mom would write a little note and put it on top of his sandwich saying something simple like “goodluck” or “I love you.” He had been to a few parties but didn’t drink or smoke yet. He had a girlfriend named Abby who was all awkward around his parents but they would joke about it later. He-

The creak of the door resonated through the room, this time like a scream as it was thrown open followed by a bang as it hit the wall.

There was yelling and footsteps. He was thrown to the ground, his body giving a sad bounce against the polished concrete floor like a sack of basketballs. Curling in on himself, he tried to even out his ragged breathing and find some kind of explanation to what was happening. Any thought he had felt like it had to be fished out of a thick, swirling sea: then even once he caught one they would just slip right back out through his fingers.

The door screamed again.

346. Sometimes when his little sister needed help with her math homework he would sit by her side and work through the frustrated tears to help her understand. His brothers drove him crazy most the time but he loved them. One time they were throwing grapes at him while he was trying to study.

The door screamed again.

“Justin. He’s gone. Zach’s got him don’t worry.”

Someone was standing above him. The words didn’t register- nothing did. He flinched violently as a hand tried to land on his shoulder and curled in tighter.

The grapes bounced in a way that wassimilar to a bouncy ball. He remembered being surprised at the way they did that.

“Hey Justin it’s me. I’m not gonna hurt you. God what the hell did he do…”

And they wouldn’t splat either- they just bounced. Clay would kill him if they had splattered on his bed. Clay…

“Clay.”

The words came out rough and barely audible- the already darkening bruises on his neck left nothing to the imagination as to why. He didn’t recognize his own voice. It was the voice of a stranger- his own had been ruined as he screamed out the names of his friends- his family- into the sweaty hand of that monster.

“No. Justin it’s Alex. I texted Clay though- I couldn’t find him but I found Zach. And Charlie. Justin- god Justin- it’s gonna be ok.”

Alex. Zach. Charlie. He tried to fish out meaning to the names out of the dark sea of faces. They felt safe- safe names. He couldn’t figure out anything more than that.

Justin tried to sit up and look at the voice talking to him but he only mustered a slight budge followed by a sharp hiss of pain.

“Damnit. Stay there Justin. Don’t try to move yet. I don’t know what to do. Do you want me to call an ambulance?”

Justin didn’t know what he wanted- he still couldn’t figure out who the hell he was talking to although they seemed familiar. He grunted a response that wasn’t yes or no. The person at his side kept swearing under his breath and his voice sounded polluted by tears.

A squeak ricocheted off the walls as the door announced another entrance.

“We locked Monty in the supply closet- Charlie is still holding the door shut just in case. He was barely conscious anyways but we wanted to make sure-“

The new voice cut off.

“Clay…” Justin sputtered out in confusion. He didn’t have a face to match to the word but it felt like home.

“That’s Zach. Justin it’s Zach”

That was the first voice, the one by his side. The new voice was muttering to himself as he came closer to where Justin was laying. He started to bend down, body somewhat awkward and the movement labored. He was huge- bigger than the first voice. Big like Rick- like Monty- like the man who gave Justin half of what he owed but took double. He was going to hurt him.

Justin hadn't known he had been crying until the ambient noise plaguing his ears became louder and interrupted by quiet, raspy pleas of “don’t touch me-please-dammit-stop.” The new voice stopped kneeling down and moved a foot back.it swore again.

There was a buzz from Justin’s forgotten bag sitting on the bench followed for one from body of voice one. He could see the figure of the boy reach into his pocket and check his phone.

“It’s Clay.”

“Clay.”

There it was again. Somehow it felt safe.

“Yeah Justin. Clay. He’s almost here”

“Ok.”

Justin allowed his head flop back to the ground as he stared blankly at the two sets of feet in front of him. He was still naked, pants and underwear still looped around his ankles as a testament to his defeat. He wasn’t sure where his shirt was. A quick glance from where he was on the floor brought no further sight of it. Suddenly, it became the most important thing in the world. He shot up, sending sharp knives of pain through his whole body. He let out a noise like an animal but didn’t stop. Ignoring the fire coursing through him, he turned his head around frantically, looking for the discarded garnet. He couldn’t remember where it went but he needed to be covered. He needed that thin layer of protection and normality.

“Hey! Damnit Justin what’s wrong? You can’t be moving around like that”

Someone lunged for him and he recoiled back, jerking his head back into the lockers. The world spun before returning to its blurred state that had become his new standard. The hands stopped short of touching him. The voices were speaking again but he didn’t bother trying to understand them. The first voice was muffled by tears and the second hot with anger.

He tried to use his arms to cover himself and reached down to pull up his underwear and pants, accepting that the shirt was gone. As they rubbed against his legs sliding up his body he felt them pull along a wet smear of sticky liquid. He couldn’t help but look.

The acidic burn of bile gave little warning before throwing itself out of Justin’s stomach and onto the floor. He coughed and sputtered as the puke settled on the ground. At least it burnt the taste of Monty from his tongue.

Without looking, he reached down and began to continue to pull his pants back up. He didn’t bother with the fly.

“Shirt.”

He got out the word without really directing it at either of the voices in front of him. He could hear them muttering and moving around. Like the flag of a defeated army, the limp green shirt was held out to him by one of the voices. Raising a shaking hand, he quickly snatched it away. He tried to work his body into the fabric, struggling as he felt his way through the shirt.

Suddenly, his arms were stuck. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t breath. He couldn’t escape. He started to thrash, losing sight of what was happening. There were hands on him and voices above him. He felt like he was drowning.

Finally, his head breached the surface and the world became less heavy around him. The faces of the voices stared at him absolutely heartbroken. He held their eyes in his, taking in their expressions and watching their every move. This time when they reached for him he let them. They carefully took hold of him arms and helped them find the holes of the shirt.

The door played its screaming reverie again as someone entered. Justin’s eyes shot to the figure in the doorway.

Clay.

Chapter Text

There is always a before and an after- this we can agree upon. It’s easy to see and somewhat tangible to the mind. The during though? That no-mans land between what has happened and what is to come? It doesn’t really exist. Each second that passes becomes just that- the past. Each second that hasn’t yet been reached is perpetually in the future. There is no present. Alex could tell you the before, he could tell you the after, but the during was non-existent.

This is the before.

Alex’s mind was reeling as he wandered the halls. There was too much going on- everything with Bryce and Jess and Clay- it was eating him alive from the inside out. He couldn’t tell if the fear or the guilt was worse: on one hand nothing seemed worse than being caught, but on the other, what if he wasn’t caught and instead just had to live with the guilt of what he had done?

He had never really been one for moral dilemmas or such. He remembered a time when Jessica and Hannah had been debating the trolley dilemma- you know the one where you can either let a trolley hit five people or divert it and instead hit one. Hannah kept adding tons of variables about the ages or if they were friends and tons of crap that hurt Alex’s head. Never actually answering, he just kept dodging the questions and trying to change the subject. He hated dealing with these things purely in the hypothetical- but now that it was real? It was crushing him. He tried to change the course of his thoughts.

Jessica’s speech had gone beautifully. Her strength was radiant and her way with words captivated the crowds like she was a puppeteer and they were all just wooden shells reliant on her for their life force. He still couldn’t believe that after everything she had been through Jessica was still the pillar that she was- if anything she had only gotten stronger.

He hated himself for still loving her. He hated himself more for hating Justin for loving her. Jessica was her own person and had every right to make decisions for herself but it still hurt every time he saw them touch or send eachother lingering glances in the halls. Sometimes he couldn’t help but wonder if Jessica would still be with him if not for Justin. Sometimes, he really wanted Justin to just go back to whatever street corner he ended up on and stay there to rot. He certainly wouldn’t mourn if Justin were to just disappear.

The school was mostly abandoned by that point. After the assembly, Liberty had felt somewhat ethereal. He supposed that was the work of Jessica and her power over the student body. Maybe it was just in his head but he could have sworn there was a sudden culture shift. He saw people who had never met or even who he’d seen fighting sharing smiles and conversation. Jessica was truly a goddess.

By 5:00 everyone had gone home, leaving behind only traces of the day’s magic in the halls. He hated that he could sense it but couldn’t allow himself to bask in it, too plagued with his own storms of darkness. The conflicting feeling made him feel sick.

He had stayed behind to workout with Zach and Charlie in the gym. The raw physical exertion usually drowned out his thoughts and numbed his pain, but today it only seemed to make it worse. His head had pounded all through the workout and his bad side felt weak and uncoordinated with every move. After about an hour of forcing himself through the pain in hopes of achieving the sense of ecstasy that usually overcame him, he had broke and stormed off- telling Zach he needed air.

Even his walking was painful and labored. His bad side had been unusually bad lately. He wondered if it had something to do with the stress. Maybe there was only so much space left in the brain after a bullet had carved out half of it- it couldn’t worry about murder and walking at the same time. That day in class he had hardly been able to keep his hand gripped around the pencil, making his writing shaky and uneven like a child’s.

As he made his way down the hall, his leg gave out and he crashed to the floor. Swearing and holding back a shout, he scrambled to gather himself. Standing would be impossible on his own, but with no one around he didn’t really have a choice. He through about texting Zach but shot down the idea as soon as it came into his mind. Zach didn’t have time for his crap- besides, he didn’t keep his phone on him when he worked out because he said he didn’t like distractions.

Alex pulled his body along the gross hallway floor until he was up against the wall of lockers. He couldn’t get enough leverage- there were no solid grips along it- nothing that protruded enough to wrap his hands around and pull himself up.

Letting out an indignant huff, he lifted his eyes to scan down the wall for something that would offer a better grip for him to heave himself from the ground.

The nearest door was room 346- the boys locker room. It was an old, rusty thing. Last year, he had been one squeak away from marching down to the main office and putting in some kind of complaint. He figured he could even pull in the 504 plan he had with the school and claim it was some kind of trigger. Instead, he had settled for bringing his own bottle of WD-40 with him and tried to spray it into the hinges. Maybe it was failure on his part in the application or the door was just beyond saving but there was no change.

Sighing, he began to drag his useless body towards the door. When he finally managed to reach it, he pushes himself up to a sort of seated position against the door. Using both hands, he firmly grasped the knob and tried to pull his body up. Instead of remaining fixed, the door knob clicked open and the door swung in. Alex was ready to swear in annoyance at the inconvenience until he heard a human scream echo the scream of the creaking door.

Justin.

The sound was quickly muffled and replaced by a choking sputter of words he couldn’t make out. Another voice was hissing low and angry. He could hear a struggle as the hollow metal lockers percussed with every movement.

It sounded bad.

It sounded really freaking bad.

Justin needed help and here he was lying like a puppet on the floor. He wanted to do something- needed to do something. But what could he do? If he did manage to heave himself up it’s not like he would be much help, not today when lifting weights and walking down the hall were nearly impossible. Justin was strong and Justin was losing. What could Alex do?

What he definitely couldn’t do was just sit and listen to someone killing his friend. He latched onto the moving door handle like a life line and tried to stand.

He’s heard that in moments of extreme stress the body just takes over. It’s the adrenaline or something, some kind of internal panic button that sets the body to automatic instead of manual. It makes you able to do things that would not be possible under any other circumstance.

Somehow he was on his feet. He slammed the door. He called Clay while running down the hall- on day that he could hardly walk he ran.

“Hi. This is Clay. Leav-“

“Damnit!”

He tried again and still nothing. He knew Zach wouldn’t pick up. So he kept running, even though his body was on fire. Even though it could give out at any second. Even though in reality he was hardly going at the pace of any normal person’s jog. He shot Clay an SOS text without stopping.

On a good day, when Alex felt half like his old self and could walk without pain or numbness, it took him about 10 minutes to walk from the varsity locker room to the new weight room (whose idea it was to put them so far apart he didn’t know but he thought it had something to do with Bryce’s family funding it). Today, with whatever this chemical-x was that was coursing through his veins, he made it in 5.

He threw open the door, panting and grasping for air to fill his lungs.

Yep sets of eyes shot over to him, concern clear in their knot brows.

“Alex! Are you alright-“

Zach started towards him in an effort to steady him but he pulled away and cut him off.

“Locker room. Justin. Go!”

He spat out the words through uneven breaths, hoping that Zach would just take the words and go without wasting time on an explanation.

“What do you mean? Alex-“

“Go! Help- now!”

He doubted it made any sense- it didn’t even feel like the words passed through his brain on route to his mouth. They just fell out with the breaths- driven by the last drops of whatever the hell had given him the power to run to the weight room.

He didn’t think his words were what made Zach sprint from the room, Charlie hot on his trail. It was his eyes. Wide. Pleading. Desperate. They spoke volumes more than his broken speech.

In seconds, Zach and Charlie were gone. Alex was left alone in the weight room.

He tried to get his bearings- tried to understand what the hell had just happened and how he even got there. He knew on a basic level, but somehow it didn’t feel like any of it had really happened to him. It was more like someone had told him about it and he had merely listened.

The one thing that he couldn’t deny as his own memory was the sound of the screams and the choking gasps. Those were undeniably real- so dense with emotion and fear- full of things that didn’t happen to someone like Justin.

Justin. Just minutes ago he had wanted the boy to disappear. He had wished pain and suffering on the boy, had he not? In some twisted way this all felt like his fault- like his mind had somehow condemned Justin to whatever torture he was surely going through. He could just as well have been pulling those pained screams from Justin himself.

What if Zach was too late? What if whoever was in there killed Justin before anyone made it to save him. Wasn’t that what Alex wanted after all? For Justin be gone, deleted, erased from the picture?

Alex was a murderer after all. It would only raise his body count.

He needed to see that Justin was alright- needed to know for himself.

He started to run back. Without the help of his chemical-X, the only thing driving him forward was force of will. He felt every flash of pain and stumble and ache. It still only took him 7 minutes. He was sure Zach and Charlie made it in under 3.

Arriving just as the locker room door was pulled open from the inside, he watched as Zach dragged a mostly unconscious Monty out of room 346 by his hair, Charlie close behind. Alex had always been annoyed with the whole “you should see the other guy” cliche but really: it fit here. Zach was roughed up: he had a gash on his cheek, a bruise forming on his brow, a much more pronounced limp evident in his step, and was using his left arm instead of his dominant right. He almost glowed from the bright sheen of his sweat. Charlie looks mostly unharmed, through Alex caught a few marks that would probably bruise in the future and didn’t miss the way the blonde cradled his left hand to his body.

But, really, you should have seen the other guy.

Monty looked like he had taken a swan dive off of an overpass into rush hour traffic. His face was swollen and red, blue in places, lips split and bleeding and right eye swollen shut. His neck had dark, hand shaped bruises along it. His shirt was torn a bit around the neck hole. His knuckles were split and blue. His right arm was bent at an odd angle near the shoulder. His pants where wrinkled and looked haphazardly pulled up- the belt and fly undone. His only movement was a slight struggle, left hand pawing like a half-dead cat at the hand in his hair and legs limply kicking out at nothing. Erupting into a fit of coughs, his whole body convulsed in and then moaned in pain. There was more blood leaking from between his teeth.

Alex ripped his eyes away from the sight and looked past them, trying to get a look inside the door. Justin wasn’t following behind them.

As Alex searched Zach’s face for some kind of explanation, he was met with the most vehement anger he had ever seen. That emotion didn’t belong on Zach’s face. His dark eyes softened a bit when they returned Alex’s gaze, morphing into an expression he couldn’t pin but seemed something like sadness, maybe even fear. No words we spoken.

Charlie stood awkwardly in the threshold of the doorway, holding it open. He looked young, eyes darting around like a scared young animal.

“Alex I- I mean Jus- he… um, you should.” He inclined his head into the locker room but pointedly didn’t look inside “he- uh...kno-knows you better.”

Charlie looked to Zach for affirmation, which Zach returned with a terse nod and tightened his grip in Monty’s hair, eliciting a yelp from the boy.

Alex nodded back and inhaled deeply, before putting his shaking left foot forward, followed by the right.

Charlie moved from the doorway with an awkward shuffle, causing it to begin to swing closed with a whine until Alex lifted his hand and caught if. If he hadn’t already felt like he was entering the gates of hell, the disembodied moaning scream of the hinges didn’t help.

He crossed the threshold.

At first, everything seemed eerily normal: the same musty smell of BO, the same walls of blue lockers, the same bright fluorescent lights, the same stained linoleum floors beneath his feet. He was prepared for some crushing feeling of being on ground hollowed by the devil- but no. Just the same locker room he had avoided spending more time than necessary in his entire high school career. Nothing seemed off until he allowed himself to listen.

He was wrong about the door sounding like a tortured moan. He would never compare to two again after hearing the sounds that echoed around the locker room.

Unable to pin down the source of the sounds amid the echo chamber of lockers, he began to just make his way down the aisles.

What he found made his heart break and he had to hold down the bile that threatened to rise from his throat.

Lying on the floor, naked except for the pants pooled around his ankles, was Justin. His body was a patchwork of bruises and blood. Alex tried not to let his eyes linger too much to protect Justin’s privacy, but didn’t miss where most of the blood dripping down his legs seemed to be coming from. He tore his eyes away and focused on the boys face.

Eyes glassy, Justin’s stare was locked on the wall of lockers in front of him like some kind of life line. There were multiple dark bruises on his head and red cascaded down his face from a large opening above his brow. Darker than usual, his hair appeared matted with blood.

Nothing quite matched his neck though. Ink dipped hands could not have left a move obvious hand print. It would be a wonder if Justin could talk with the amount of pressure that was put on his larynx. Shaking, the boy was whispering inaudibly through the sobs wracking his body.

“Justin. He’s gone. Zach’s got him don’t worry.”

Trying to move slowly and carefully, he lowered himself to his knees on the ground in front of Justin. It ended up somewhat awkward and he fell the last few inches. Justin’s piercing green eyes landed on him, but no spark of recognition graced his features. It seemed as though those eyes looked through him rather than really at him.

Alex couldn't bear that empty stare and tried to offer some kind of comfort. He slowly moved to set a comforting hand on Justin’s shoulder, but the boy responded as if it was a hot iron brand. Alex pulled away as if he too had been burned.

This was all Alex’s fault. If he had only stopped Monty right when he first heard the screaming, Justin probably would have been fine. His weakness had left Justin alone at the mercy of that monster for another 10 minutes. Those 10 minutes had changed the boy in front of him from fighting and screaming to trembling and sobbing.

How could he ever have hated and envied this boy? 15 minutes ago he would have done anything to be Justin. Now, he wouldn’t wish that on anyone. If anyone diserved this it was Alex.

“Hey Justin it’s me. I’m not gonna hurt you. God what the hell did he do…”

He kept a coax in his voice, as if he was talking to a skittish animal or lost child. It was a stupid question. It really wasn’t hard to tell exactly what Monty had done.

Justin continued to stare blankly, not a drop of recognition on his face. He was still muttering to himself between the choking sobs and ragged breaths.

“Clay.”

It was the only real word Alex had heard the boy speak. He perked up at that: it was the first indication that Justin was still actually inside of this broken body that seemed so hollow.

“No. Justin it’s Alex. I texted Clay though- I couldn’t find him but I found Zach. And Charlie. Justin- god Justin- it’s gonna be ok.”

Justin’s eyes sparked for a second with something Alex would almost call recognition- or at the least acknowledgement. With that, the huddled body decided to animate and awkwardly shuffled, trying in vain to lift his torso. A pained hiss and whine escaped and Alex had to stop himself from lunging forward to try and help his injured friend. Alex could feel the tears that had been glossing over his eyes finally began to fall and he tried to stifle a gasp. Panic was beginning to rise up inside of him, the waves of it lapping up his guts and through his veins.

“Damnit. Stay there Justin. Don’t try to move yet. I don’t know what to do. Do you want me to call an ambulance?”

Justin grunted through his tears and Alex began to sob.

Someone opened the door and footsteps began to echo through the room. Justin flinched violently.

Spinning around, Alex prepared himself to attack whoever approached. Tears still blurred his vision and his breath came in uneven gasps, but he would be damned if he let anyone near his friend right now.

A tall figure rounded the corner, the sight of its shadow causing Alex’s fingers to close into tight firsts.

“We locked Monty in the supply closet- Charlie is still holding the door shut just in case. He was barely conscious anyways but we wanted to make sure-“

Zach stopped and Alex relaxed his hands, releasing the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. Warm brown eyes settled on him and took in his state before drifted to the trembling body on the floor. Alex watched as Zach’s jaw set and muscles tensed- he looked to be doing everything he could not to punch the locker nearest to him.

Without really looking up Justin once again blurted out “Clay...”

Zach shot him a look in confusion, cocking an eyebrow and shaking his head.

“That’s Zach. Justin it’s Zach”

Whether or not Justin understood the other boys couldn’t tell, as he gave no indication of even hearing Alex.

Zach moved toward Justin, talking quietly between his clenched teeth.

“I should have killed him for this. Damn Monty. He’s a dead man Justin, I swear he’s a dead man…” he trailed off, before trying to soften his tone and beginning to drop into a kneel and reach out. “Justin… What do you need buddy? How- what can I do?”

Before he could even make contact, Justin let out a panicked shout and shot his body away from the hand, holding himself flush against the lockers and as far away as he could get from Zach. Any progress toward recognition and relaxing him was gone in an instant as he went into full panic.

Zach stood frozen in shock before continuing towards Justin. He saw his friend in pain and wanted to offer comfort: Alex couldn’t blame him. Zach didn’t get it though.

Justin’s eyes were wild, almost feral. He began to mutter out pleas to Zach, heart wrenching, begging, desperate pleas not to touch him.

“Justin, hey, don’t worry I would never hurt you. I’m just tr-“

“Zach you are freaking him out get back.”

Alex snapped the words out, perhaps a bit too reprimanding. Zach quickly stood up and backed up against the lockers on the opposite wall. An apology was spilling out of his lips as he looked at Alex at an absolute loss of what to do.

“I’m sorry- I didn’t- why did he do that? I would never hurt him Alex why does he think I would do that?”

Alex looked at Zach’s sad, leaking eyes and had to hold back more tears of his own.

“I don’t think he knows anything right now Zach. He sees someone coming toward him and he registers them as an attacker. When- when I got panic attacks it was sorta like that I guess. You don’t really have much of a bearing on anything outside or your own mind. On top of that I think Monty bashed his head in.”

Zach didn’t say anything, but nodded with a slight sniffle. Ge shuffles a few more steps back.

Justin’s panic seemed to subside somewhat after that, reduced to trembling, silent sobs.

He flinched again as the cellphone in his long forgotten backpack gave a buzz, followed a few seconds later by the one in Alex’s own pocket. Quickly pulling out the device, Alex felt a prickle of hope.

“It’s Clay.”

Justin’s eyes seemed to regain a bit of light with that and he rasped out a quiet “Clay?”

“Yeah Justin. Clay. He’s almost here”

Alex waited, almost without breathing for Justin’s response. He seemed on the edge of something, of some kind of return to reality. Justin felt so much closer to the surface now but had still yet to break the tension.

“Ok.”

Alex sagged, trying to school his disappointment. Of course it would take more than a text to get Justin back- he was physically and mentally destroyed. This was so far out of Alex’s league it was stupid to ever think he had a shot at helping his friend.

Justin went back to staring blankly ahead for a minute. The room was silent, painfully so. Even the quiet sobbing had stopped and an Erie stillness held the room.

A sudden jerk brought the word back into motion. Justin thrashed around, seemingly looking for something or maybe something.

Forgetting his resolution to stay as far away as possible, Zach moved forward attempting to settle Justin. “Hey! Damnit Justin what’s wrong? You can’t be moving around like that”

Justin shot away from Zach’s approaching hands. More muffled pleas and sobs filled the room.

“Zach. Zach get away from him”

“I’m not gonna hurt him Alex. He’s gonna hurt himself.” Zach snapped. The pressure in the locker room was palpable- emotions running rampant.

“Well he doesn’t know that!”

“Well what do you want me to do Alex!?”

“I don’t fucking know!”

Alex couldn’t hold back tears. What the hell were they supposed to do now?

Zach but his lip and slammed his open palm into the locker.

Eyes wandering back to Justin, Alex watched as he managed to hook his fingers around the waistband of his pants and try to work them up his legs. He was still trembling, but now it seemed to be mostly from the raw intensity he had focused into the simple task.

As if zapped, Justin suddenly froze, before turning his head and puking.

Alex had to stop himself from moving forward to help.

Justin spat a few more times before finishing his mission and looking around again. His arms were pulled to his chest, as is attempting to cover himself.

“Shirt.”

Alex looked at Zach, who stared back with a confused expression. His eyes flickered back to Justin and around the room. It clicked.

“His shirt. Zach where is his shirt?”

Zach, finally having a clear objective, beelined across the room, searching for the discarded article.

“Do you remember what he was wearing?”

He thought back to earlier at the assembly, trying to imagine Justin’s clothes.

“Green sweater. I think. Maybe it was brown.”

Zach grunted in acknowledgment and continued his search. He rounded the corner to the next locker aisle, then returned a minute later holding the garment.

“It’s torn.”

“I don’t think he’ll care.”

Zach approached Justin, moments slow and deliberate as if he was trying to feed a wild animal. He extended his arm slowly, leaving enough space for Justin to be the one to close the gap.

Justin’s arm shot out and pulled the sweater to his chest, eyes staying on Zach waiting for some kind of attack. After a few seconds of safety, he began to try and slip into the sweater.

It would have been comical in most situations. A boy lying on the ground trapped in his own shirt, completely panicking. The arms of the sweater flung around like some tasteless parody of an inflatable dancing beacon. In his blind panic he struck his body back and hit the lockers, noise resonating around the room. Still, the pain it must have caused didn’t settle his thrashing, if anything it only intensified. It seemed like Justin was literally drowning in the fabric.

Alex couldn’t stand back any more. He tried to touch Justin as little as possible while guiding his head into the hole of the sweater. Zach moved in as well, gently but firmly steadying Justin’s body.

The second that Justin’s head appeared, both boys moved back and raised their open palms. There was no schooling the absolute heartbreak he knew was written on his face. Justin seemed to finally really see them at that point, his eyes roaming from face to face without a completely blank stare. Alex didn’t know if it was recognition, it probably wasn’t, but it seemed like an olive branch. (His mind supplied that perhaps it was just surrender but he ignored that).

He held eye contact as reached forward and helped Justin get his arm through the sleeve. Though shaking and never breaking his stare, Justin allowed his right arm to be guided. Then the left.

Justin never broke eye contact.

There was a strange sort of tense peace in the room. Breath. Three cadences all out of rhythm and suddenly overwhelmingly loud. Time seemed somehow to cease to exist, or maybe it had never existed at all and the realization only just struck Alex. Or maybe he just existed outside of time- as if their locker room had been put in some kind of bubble.

The squeak of the door popped the bubble of serenity as 6 eyes shot towards the sound. There were running footsteps as someone rounded the corner.

“Justin!”

Clay.

This was the after.

Chapter Text

3:46.

At some point, his neurotic self had memorized how long it took him to get from one place at school to another. From the science wing to English wing it was 5:20 (that is, 5 minutes and 20 seconds). From the dark room to the parking lot was only 2:13. The main entrance to the math wing was 4:58.

He had enough of them memorized that he could calculate new ones in his head with a couple of ratios.

It had actually began as a coping mechanism. It helped calm his anxiety to have something to focus on, something rhythmic and constant like numbers. When he first started at Liberty his Freshman year, he had used the numbers incessantly, recalculating and re-averaging them each day to get the most perfect results. After Hannah, he has started it again just to keep himself sane. He had managed to stop sometime last year. Last week, he started again.

From his car to the locker room was 3:46.

He was at Monet’s with Ani when he had gotten Alex’s call. It had felt like it might have been a date. Or maybe it was just Ani obsessing over Bryce and needing him to play sidekick. He couldn’t tell anymore. When he got the first call from Alex, he had shut off his phone. He didn’t want to risk ruining it if maybe it was a date.

In the end, it definitely wasn’t.

Ani has to leave a few minutes later, and without so much as a hug. He turned on his phone to check what was up with Alex.

He had three missed calls and 5 texts, all from Alex.

SOS.

Loxker room.

Justin neeeds hekp.

Where r u?

Clay ger here ASAP.

The typos didn’t pollute the meaning. He sprinted to his car.

Clay had always been a fairly safe, conservative driver. He didn’t take stupid risks. He didn’t enjoy going fast or running through stop signs. He didn’t drift through turns just to make the tires squeal.

On his way to the school, he broke every traffic law he knew. Monet’s was only a few blocks away- he made it in no time.

As he pulled into the parking lot, he texted Justin then sent a reply to Alex, having completely forgotten to reply in his mad rush to get there.

3:46- during the drive there, he had calculated the quickest possible route, factoring in his accelerated speed using the time it took to get to first period on the days he left his house late and had to run.

He definitely ran faster. In fact, he had never ran as fast in his life.

Whether or not his estimate was correct he didn’t bother checking. When he threw open the locker room door his mind was as far as possible from numbers. He had one focus, one objective.

Justin.

Justin. Who was lying on the floor, clothes looking haphazardly thrown on, still rumpled as if just taken from crumpled up piles of the ground.

Justin. Who’s face and neck were a patchwork of bruises obviously dealt by human hands.

Justin. Who’s eyes stared at him simultaneously void of consciousness and full of a thousand emotions.

Justin, his brother, who was whispering his name like a prayer.

He ran towards Justin, dropping down to his knees in front of him. Justin didn’t hesitate before throwing his body into Clay, burying his head into the crook of his brothers neck. It was almost magnetic, as if some subconscious drive had attached Justin and Clay.

Clay was thrown off- Justin and him had never been all that physical. They showed how they felt through actions of selflessness, but never in this kind of way. Still, his body didn’t hesitate. He wrapped his arms around the quivering boy. It felt like he was consoling a child, not like his 17 year old jock brother.

His eyes shot Alex and Zach questioning glances, meeting the somewhat shocked expressions on their faces. He took them in for a minute, still not totally aware what had happened, how the hell they ended up here.

Zach looked worse for wear. He had a dark bruise on his forehead forming into a bump and a cut on his cheek. His knuckles were split and bruised. Worn on his face was an expression Clay couldn’t quite pin. There was anger, certainly, but also a gut wrenching sadness. The combination made Clay sick.

Alex looked unharmed, but his soul looked crushed. Tear tracks were evident on his cheeks and his face was still puffy and red. His eyes kept darting around the room, never meeting Clay’s, and he chewed his lip. Alex’s gaze lingered on the place Justin had been lying. Clay followed his gaze.

The floor was stained red. There was a puddle to side that looked like puke. Clay didn’t like the story that the evidence was telling.

Justin was muttering something into his chest but Clay couldn’t understand any of the low raspy words. He began to rub slow, gentle circles on Justin’s back.

“Clay… should I call my dad? Or maybe just 911? We weren’t sure if Justin would want that but he lost a lot of blood and he is so out of it and I don’t know how long Monty will stay out for.”

Clay looked up at Alex, who was shaking as he said the words and pulling at the sleeves of his shirt. Helplessness was written all over his countenance.

“Monty? What the hell does Mon-“ He put it together. In some sick twisted way it even made sense. “Where is he?”

“In the supply closet down the hall. Probably still unconscious- Charlie is watching him.”

Clay began to tense up with anger, ready to march down the hall and kill Monty, but stopped when Justin, still latched to his chest, whimpered in alarm and started to pull away. Against all of his inclinations, he willed his body to relax. Justin mattered more.

He let his hand drawing circles move higher, rubbing over Justin’s neck. At this, his brother flinched violently and let out a pained shout into Clay’s chest. He quickly past it and onto the boys head. His attempt to run his fingers through Justin’s hair was halted by the feeling of a thick, sticky clot and another whine of pain. When he pulled his hand away to look, it was red.

Swallowing down his panic, he looked up at Alex. Keeping his voice low and even for the sake of the body in his arms, he spoke.

“Call you Dad. Explain the situation. Make sure they don’t come barging in here in a way that could freak Justin out. Ask he if he thinks they should get an ambulance here.”

Alex nodded, grateful to have someone finally making the decisions for him.

“Yeah. Ok. I’ll go- Um. I’ll go outside.”

Alex struggled to his feet and was promptly assisted by Zach. Once standing, he shook Zach away and began to stumble towards the door. Zach looked at Clay and Justin then after Alex and back again.

“I’ll go with him. I need to let Charlie know what happening and make sure Monty isn’t causing any problems. Are you good here?”

Clay nodded and inclined his head towards the door, granting his friend permission to leave. Zach quickly took it, looking somewhat relieved to be escaping, and took of with a limping gait, after Alex.

There was only one cry from the door as they exited together. Clay and Justin were alone.

Clay still didn’t know what happened, at least not completely. He knew Justin was hurt. He knew Monty was responsible. He knew what Monty was capable of. The picture created from the sum of all those facts was not a pretty one.

He kept circling his hand around Justin’s upper back in rhythmic loops, as this was the only place that didn’t cause Justin to flinch away in pain. Other than the occasional gasp or hitch in his breath, Justin had fallen silent. Clay couldn’t tell if he should fill the void of sound or just let it linger.

In the end, he didn’t have to make the decision.

Justin pulled away just enough to move his face out of Clay’s chest and rest his chin on his brother’s shoulder instead.

“I’m sorry.”

Clay was shocked by the words. Sorry? What the hell was Justin sorry for.

“Justin, this isn’t your fault. What are you sorry for?”

“I’m sorry for throwing grapes at your bed.”

Clay wasn’t sure if that made him want to laugh or cry. The raw amount of grief in Justin’s tone was crushing. The voice was barely above a whisper and came out raw and cracking.

Before Clay could formulate a response, Justin continued.

“And for using again. For even using in the first place.”

Justin seemed a bit removed from the situation, as if the words weren’t really passing through any reality filter but instead just spilling out.

“I’m sorry for messing up your life.”

That one struck a chord. Clay swallowed back his tears and pulled Justin tighter into the hug.

“Justin don’t say that. Don’t ever think you ruined my life. With all the crap we’ve had to go through I could not be more grateful, more lucky, to have you. You are my brother.”

Clay’s words didn’t seem to sink very deep. The apologies just kept spilling out as if Justin’s mind had sprung a leak.

“Sorry for- sorry for stealing your parents.”

Their parents. The thought hadn’t even crossed his mind. Damnit how was he going to tell them? They would be devastated, but Justin would need them right now.

“Justin you didn’t steal them.”

“I’m sorry that I killed Hannah.”

Clay stopped trying to reason with Justin and instead just pulled him back into his chest and held him.

That’s how Alex found them when he came back into the room 10 minutes later, his father in tow.

Chapter Text

Deputy Standall kept his eyes on the files in front of him as he heard the door to his office click shut. Letting out a deep sigh, he began to finger through the Manila folder. It was the report from forensics about the last analysis of the crime scene. The picture it painted was not one he wanted to understand. But he did. Nobody else would catch it, but he could put it together just fine.

Clay Jensen was going to go down for a crime committed by his son.

The moral question was crushing him. He had become a police officer because he wanted to help people, to bring them justice. Not saying anything about what he knew would go against everything he knew. And yet, could he really let Alex go down for this?

This was murder. Alex would end up with a life sentence if he was caught. Probably maximum security. He knew his son- knew the boy would never last.

But the alternative…

Elbows on the table, he dropped his face in his hands. There was no good answer.

A ringing from his cell phone broke him out of his stupor. He pulled it from his desk drawer and looked at the caller ID. It was as if the fates had heard his thoughts. A smiling picture of 8 year old Alex starred up through the screen.

If it had been anyone else, he would have declined. When he was at work, his personal cellphone stayed away.

This was Alex though. Alex would always be the exception.

He answered.

“Hey Alex, I’m at work-“

“Dad.”

If this had been before the “accident” he would never have believed it was his son’s voice that spoke. It was too young. Too pained. Too broken.

But in the last year, he had met this Alex. He knew this voice.

“What happened? Are you ok?”

Bill was already rising to his feet before he finished the question, gathering his keys and jacket.

There was a quiet sniffle and a shaking, gasping inhale.

“D-Dad.”

“Alex. Breath buddy. Where are you?”

Another raspy inhale. He could hear the struggle to hold back tears in his son’s voice.

“School. I’m- l’m still at school.”

“Ok. Alex I need you just keep breathing. Can you tell me what happened?”

Deputy Standall was walking through the hall briskly. Some of his colleagues shot him looks of concern, but none questioned him. He kept the phone to his ear and tried to keep his voice calm.

“Justin. H-he’s… he’s hurt. He’s bleeding. Monty- Monty attacked him.”

Damnit. After all the violence this town, those kids, had seen and been through. They were just kids after all. And he knew those kids. He knew more about those kids than he should, especially with the investigation going on.

“There was a fight?”

Alex’s choked sobs made their way through the receiver, sending sparks of physical pain into his father’s stomach.

“No. Not- not Justin. Zach. Zach fought him.”

The more information he got, the less about the situation he understood. He exited the station briskly walked towards the patrol car parking lot.

“Alex I’m leaving the station now. It’s gonna be ok, I just need you to tell me what happened”

As he climbed into his squad car, cruiser 346, his son gained enough composure to continue.

“The locker room. There was screaming. It was Justin.”

Deputy Standall just listened, hoping the boy would continue. By the time he was pulling out of the lot, Alex spoke again.

“I- I panicked and ran back to the weight room. Zach- Zach and Charlie went to help him. It was Monty… he was- he hurt Justin. Bleeding”

The squad car raced through the streets, sirens blaring, towards the school. He was only a few minutes away. It couldn’t have just been some fight. Boys fought- hell, he had fought his fair share in high school. This was something worse. Much worse.

“Alex- what do you mean hurt?”

Alex broke off. He heard another voice in the background and grew tense, hoping his son wasn’t in some kind of danger.

“Alex?”

He nearly shouted the name, waiting for a response.

“Alex what’s going on?!”

He was almost to the school. Only 2 more blocks. There was a rustle on the other line as the phone speaker made contact with someone’s face.

“Mr. Standall? It’s Zach.”

The deputy let out a sigh of relief. Zach- probably the kid he trusted most at that whole god-forsaken school.

“Zach. Is everyone ok?”

“Alex is fine... He just doesn’t want to talk right now.”

“Zach- what about Justin?”

There was a pause on the other end of the line.

“No.”

“No what Zach?”

“No he’s not ok.”

“Zach I’m parking in front right now. I need you to tell me what happened.”

“Monty raped him.”

The squad car’s ambient roar was killed as he turned the key. His head tumbled to words around, trying to find a place where they fit and made sense. When they settled, he felt cold. Frozen. He needed to move, needed to get the hell inside that school but his body didn’t want to budge. If he went in there and saw those kids and this became a crime scene, it would become real.

The entrance to the school loomed like the gates of hell. Inside that place lurked demons and ghosts he didn’t want to have to face.

But… Inside that place was also his son. And Zach, who took care of Alex for months while he recovered and pulled him out of that dark place he was stuck. And Justin, who has been through the ringer and still managed to come out the other side a better person. Who was now just inside those doors… hurt.

He threw the car door open he spoke into the phone.

“Ok. Zach I’m about to come through the main entrance. Are you boys still in the locker room?”

“We are just outside. In the 300s hall.”

“Ok. Ok. I’m on my way to you- stay there. Keep talking to me How is Justin? Is he conscious?”

There was a pause.

“Sorta.”

“What do you mean Zach?”

For once he was grateful for the many visits he had made to the school, for he knew the school layout well.The sound of footsteps bounced through the hallway and off of the walls. It was uncomfortable being somewhere that should have been alive with students so empty.

“He is awake. Just not… all there. He doesn’t seem to know what is going on. He was scared of me.”

With that, the deputy broke into a run. Sounded like head trauma, probably shock, Alex had mentioned bleeding…

“Are you with him now?”

“No. He’s still in there with Clay. He can’t really… move”

Of course Clay was there too. Those kids functioned as a single unit.

“Ok Zach. Is anyone still in danger?”

“No. Monty can’t… he is locked in the supply closet. I don’t think he can really… move. He- uh- he is probably unconscious.”

Ah- so that was what Alex meant earlier. Even though he didn’t want to, he would need to make sure that boy was stable too.

“Zach- I’m going to hang up now and call in two ambulances. I’ll be there in about a minute.”

He continued running while he called the dispatcher and quickly explained the situation: two separate busses, two minors with serious injuries, one sexually assaulted, signs of severe head trauma and/or shock, female EMTs for that bus if possible.

He rounded the corner and three figures came into view. He was struck with worry that the last one was Monty who had somehow escaped, but saw upon closer inspection it was a kid he didn’t recognize. Maybe that was Charlie. He would worry about that later.

Alex’s eyes met his, and his son began to run in short, staggering steps toward him. They met in a crushing hug. He held Alex’s head in one hand and supported his body with the other. The boy seemed to be slipping, as if he could not support his own weight.

As much as we wanted to linger there forever, he needed to keep moving. Much to soon, he pulled away. He helped Alex to find his balance and stand on his own. Zach moved in with a steadying hand, earning himself a grateful glance.

The deputy assessed the boy’s: Alex was unharmed and Zach was roughed up but nothing too serious.

“They are in the locker room you said?”

Both boys nodded, but neither spoke.

After a pause, Alex straightened up and met his father’s eyes, then began to limp towards the locker room door.

“Come on. They- they are in here.”

“You don’t have to go in there again son.”

The boy looked at him, eyes wet with tears yet a shaky confidence behind them.

“I need to know he’s ok”

An argument was touching the back of his throat, but he swallowed it down. Alex walked forward and began the journey towards room 346, Bill steps behind him. When they reached the door, Alex looked at him. He figured it was meant to be reassuring but it only worried him more worry.

If this school was hell, this room seemed to be the chamber of the devil himself.

Taking one last breath, he willed his hand to turn the knob and push open the door. They crossed the threshold.

Bill Standall was no stranger to crime scenes. He had seen plenty of trauma victims. He had been present after Hannah Baker’s suicide. Hell, he found his own son lying in a pool of blood.

It really didn’t get easier.

Two sets of eyes looked to him, both glazed by the sheen of tears. One with a defensive hope, the other in unadulterated fear.

Justin looked on the edge of consciousness. He was covered in bruises and blood. The deputy took a quick mental catalogue of the visible injuries. He knew there must be even more beneath the boy’s rumpled clothes.

“He’s falling asleep. Or something. I think he has a concussion. His hands are all locked up and I don’t know why.”

Clay was strangely calm as he spoke to the deputy. He gripped onto his brother like if he let go Justin might slip away.

To be honest, the deputy couldn’t blame Clay for holding on like that. Justin’s eyes seemed to flicker in and out of focus. The fear was constantly in them, but at times it seemed like the boy himself didn’t know what had scared him in the first place. His body was entirely limp besides his hands which were stiff and locked against his chest like claws.

Alex stepped to the side, watching the scene like a sentinel. His son’s eyes were heavy with the weight of survivors guilt. As much as Bill wanted to run to his son’s side, he knew his first priority had to be the victim.

“There is an ambulance coming. Ok boys?”

Bill approached slowly and kneeled down a few feet from Justin. The boy’s eyes widened a bit but he made no sound or move. He offered no acknowledgement beyond that, but at least no panic either.

Clay nodded in response and just kept holding onto Justin.

“How is he doing?”

Clay just stared at him, as if asking “how the hell do you think” but didn’t say it out loud.

“He’s more relaxed. Alex and Zach said earlier he had a panic attack. I don’t know if he’s calming down or just completely worn out. He lost a lot of blood. He can’t really move anymore.”

Clay let the words out quickly and almost clinically, as if he couldn’t let them touch his heart en route from his brain- they just had to get out

From the corner Alex mumbled, quietly confirmed Clay’s assessment.

“Ok. We will make sure to let the EMTs know that when they get here.” The deputy responded. “We will make sure we do everything we can for him.” He kept his voice level, carefully trying to lace his tone with comfort.

Clay’s hard facade cracked a bit. “He’s gonna be ok right?” The boy’s eyes flickered between the boy in his arms and the deputy, searching for reassurance but too scared to let his brother out of his sight. “Do… do you know what happened? Zach and Alex, I mean I figured out what I could, but they didn’t really tell me much.”

Taking a deep breath, Bill glanced at his son. Alex pullied at his sleeves and deliberately looked away. He avoided eye contact with anyone. The deputy looked back at Clay. “Kid… we will make sure we do everything we can.” He considered stopping there and leaving this job to someone else. But this kid was clutching the living corpse of his brother, holding the drowning boy’s head above the water. He deserved to know. “From what I understand he was sexually assaulted by another student. I think Alex heard the assault and went to get Zach and another student to stop the attack.”

Alex grunted something that sounded like affirmation.

Clay squeezed his eyes shut and let out a pained breath through clenched teeth. Nodding, he pulled Justin even tighter against himself. As for Justin he remained unchanged- if anything he seemed even the drifted even further from reality.

A sudden buzzing interrupted the scene. As Bill raised his radio to his ear, the blare of approaching sirens penetrated his ears.

“This is Collins. I’ve got a cruiser and two busses and pulling up to Liberty High now. What’s your location.”

“I’m at the scene now. Room 346. Have the EMTs come into the hallway but don’t come into the room yet. I’ll meet you in the hall.”

“Got it. EMTs are entering now.”

Bill reattached his radio to his belt and looked up at the boys. If possible, Clay looked even more nervous. Ambulances and police meant this situation was very real and very bad. Justin weakly shook like a leaf but still didn’t speak.

“Clay, I’m going to go out and meet the EMTs. They are aware of the situation but I want to make sure we don’t do anything that could cause Justin any further stress. I need you to try and explain what’s going to happen to Justin. Really just… just keep him as calm as you can.”

Clay looked ready to protest or question the request, but didn’t speak. After a few seconds, he nodded.

“Dad… what can I do?”

Bill had completely forgotten his son still standing in the corner. He looked up and saw Alex leaning on the wall, face dry but still swollen from the river of tears. Alex looked as helpless as he himself felt.

“Come with me outside. The EMTs will need the space to work.”

Alex looked desperate, trying to cover his own guilt.

“But I need to help. I can’t… I can’t just keep doing nothing.”

It was Clay who spoke up, looking toward the distressed boy in the corner.

“Thank you Alex. If it wasn’t for you we wouldn’t have ever known he was hurt. You saved him.”

That shook Bill to the core- this boy had every right to become angry and irrational and lash out. And Alex was the easy target. But Clay knew what his son needed to hear- Clay knew his son in a way his own father didn’t. He locked up his own emotions for the sake of his friend.

Bill filled away that observation for later.

Alex didn’t protest.

When Bill rose and began towards the door, he could hear the familiar sound of a limping gait following him, but it was quickly drowned out by the sound of footsteps running down the hallway.

The door screeched as the pair exited room 346 and saw the first responders slowing to a halt. One man was talking to Zach, who he noticed shaking him off and pointing at the locker room.

“Zach, you should have your wounds checked out. You to.” He directed the second bit at the blonde boy standing somewhat awkwardly down the hall.

Zach began to protest but was cut off by Alex. The deputy droned our their conversation. He spoke to the gathering EMTs, voice authoritative and trying not to Betty his feelings of panic and grief.

“The assailant is locked in the closet down the hall. He has possible head trauma and broken bones. Wait until we’ve cleared out the first bus to bring him out- I don’t want any risk of him encountering the victim.”

Victim.

He hated the way the word felt on his tongue. No child deserves to be a victim.

A team of technicians took off down the hall towards the closet-cell while a few others broke off to help Zach and his friend.

The remaining EMTs looked at Bill expectantly. He saw that the dispatcher had followed through with his request: they were all women. Without another word, he turned and led them into 346.

Clay looked up in a panic- his grip on the reins of control over his own emotions were slipping from his grasp.

“I think he’s unconscious.”

The medical staff rushed forward. With hurried, steady hand they checked Justin’s pulse and began talking in rushed medical lingo. Bill tried to keep up with their words but it was in vain.
Clay didn’t budge. Eventually, one of them ran back outside and came in wheeling a stretcher. The wheels whistled along to the scream of the door.

Even after they had loaded Justin on to the stretcher Clay refused to leave him side. He grasped Justin’s locked fingers in his and just held.

The kid ran beside the gurney as it was wheeled out of room 346 and down the halls. The EMTs seemed on the edge of telling him to clear out, but even they seemed to sense the desperation in the boy’s eyes: there would be no telling him no.

Deputy Standall passed his son and Zach, the latter who was begrudgingly accepting the bandages wrapped by an EMT with thinning, gray hair. Both boys looked at him expectantly.

He offered no response.

Turning, he started to run towards the whistling of gurney wheels down the hall. One of the EMTs from Justin’s room, a young but tired looking woman, interrupted him. “Thank you deputy, but we’ve got it from here. You’ll be more help if you stay. Notify the families and such.”

He was ready to protest, but he knew she was right. With Clay in the ambulance, and there was no keeping Clay from that ambulance, there would be no room for Bill. Justin didn’t know him enough to derive any comfort from him being there, if anything he would only startle him more.

“I’ll be at the hospital once things are finished here. St. John’s?”

The woman nodded and began down the hallway. The whistling faded until it was gone.

The moment of silence was killed quickly. Instantly, the sound was replaced by another.

Turning around, he saw a second gurney wheeler out from the supply closet. Against his better judgement, he let his eyes scan the boy’s face as he rolled by.

Monty was conscious. None of the fear on Justin’s face was mirrored on his. Despite the obvious pain he was in, he looked smug. The blood dripping from his mouth gave him an almost feral quality, like a suburban predator who had just eaten someone’s pet. The boy spat at him as he passed, spraying the breast pocket of his uniform with blood.

It took everything in him not to throttle the bastard.

As the 2nd round of whistling disappeared down the hall, he turned back to the crime scene. First things first, he needed to contact the parents.

He looked up at his son. God. Imagine getting that call. Alex looked back at him. Those wide eyes tore into his soul, still slightly blurred by I shed tears and blown up from shock. He couldn’t look at his son while he made the call- not if he wanted to stay professional. Not if he wanted to keep the tears welling in his own eyes from dropping or his voice from cracking from the weight of the words.

Turning away, he pulled his phone from his pocket.

“Mrs. Jensen? This is Deputy Standall. I need you to get to St. John’s Hospital as soon as possible. Something’s happened.”

Chapter Text

There are moments in which the world changes. A single second, a single word, a single sight. Tiny little blibs on the map of life that change the course of it forever. Sometimes the minute it hits you feel it, other times you miss it until you finally bother to look. One thing is for certain: after it changes it can never go back to the way it was before.

Meeting Matt was one. Lainie was a semester away from getting her bachelor’s degree at Berkeley when a friend had introduced them. It wasn’t like some kind of magical spark love-at-first-sight moment, but it marked a change. It set a whole new path in motion. It changed everything.

Then there was Clay’s birth. She had never really known when she was younger if she even wanted to be a mother. Lainie had a promising career ahead of her- she had her sights set high, her than motherhood. But somewhere along the lines, she decided something was missing. When she looked at that baby, she knew exactly what it was.

Hannah Baker’s suicide was one, although she didn’t realize it at the time. That single event shattered her son’s life, which shattered hers. The aftershocks kept rolling months, even years after. She could only imagine the impact it had made in the girl’s parent’s lives.

Finding Justin in Clay’s room was probably the most recent. She was angry, angry with him and with Clay and with the school and with Hannah Baker and with the whole world. But after cooling off a few days, after she allowed herself to really see the boy, she knew she couldn’t let him go back into the world that had tried so hard to break him.

This moment. This was one of them. This was the worst one.

She had been home from work for about an hour. After everything with Clay and the case against him, she could hardly stand being at the firm dealing with legal work. Her head was throbbing with a downright audible pulse, as if it had been repeatedly slammed into a metal wall.

Matt knew not to bother her when she got like this. When he heard her come home and march straight to the bedroom, clicking off the lights lying on top of the covers, remained in the study to give her breathing space. After years of living together, they could speak without words. There was a code between them.

The quiet of the bedroom was an acute contrast to the cacophony in her head. Darkness, typically associated with fear or danger, was somehow comforting. If she couldn’t see it, she didn’t have to deal with it. She didn’t fall asleep, she wasn’t trying to. She just wanted to exist.

The ringing of her cell phone was not a welcome addition to her decompression.

Why she had brought the cursed device with her into her sanctuary she didn’t know. The blaring ringtone shot bullets straight into her already compromised mental defenses. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to scream into the receiver or bury her head in her pillow and cry.

Lainie decided the poor unsuspecting caller was going to take the blunt of her anger. After all, it was their fault for calling in the first place. Wrong place wrong time buddy. She readied the venom on her tongue.

Without looking at the number she, she answered.

“This better be-“

“Mrs. Jensen? This is Deputy Standall. I need you to get to St. John’s Hospital as soon as possible. Something’s happened.”

Her world suddenly existed somewhere at the intersection of floating away and being buried alive.

Hospital.

Hospital.

Matt was upstairs. She heard him mulling about the study when she got home. It had to be one of the boys.

Was there a car accident? Was it something with the case? Was Justin using again?

None of the options sounded good, but many sounded a whole lot worse than others.

“What happened.”

Her voice and hands were shaky as she stood from the bed and moved towards the door. A loud crash echoed around the house as the door slammed open and into the wall. Lainie ran, stumbling towards the stairs, phone clutched against her cheek.

Matt appeared from the study, brow furrowed with concern. He knew Lainie- after 20 years of marriage they had an unspoken code. This was an entirely different language.

There was a sigh on the other side of the line. Standall seemed to be hesitant, nervous even.

“The doctors can inform you of more details when you arrive. What I can tell you now is that Justin was assaulted by another student after school today. Clay is with him now in an ambulance to the hospital.”

Assaulted? An ambulance? Hospital.

She knew those words- in her line of word they were everyday lingo. She had read hundreds of police reports and witness accounts. So why did they now have an entirely different quality? Why did they suddenly cut gashes into her heart? She nearly fell down the stairs in her mad hurry to reach the front door.

“Are they ok?!”

“Clay is uninjured- he is only riding along to be with Justin.”

“What is wrong with Justin?!”

There was that sigh again. Standall didn’t reply.

Lainie jumped as Matt put a hand on her shoulder. He mouthed “what’s going on?”

Ignoring him, Lainie waited for a response.

“He sustained serious injuries. The doctors at the hospital can tell you more. I’m sorry.”

The line went dead.

Lainie looked with tear shined eyes at her husband, who returned her worried gaze.

“Lainie what happened?”

“Get the keys. We need to get to St. John’s. Now.”

Matt opened his mouth to ask another question, but quickly closed it with a nod. Lainie was brilliant and level headed and her trusted her with all of his being. If she said get the keys, Dammit, he would get the keys.

By the time Matt had run into the kitchen and back, Lainie was in the driveway at the drivers side door or the car, pulling uselessly at the locked door. He clicked the unlock button and she swung the door open. Matt quickly joined her on the passenger side and handed over the keys.

As the car pulled out, he finally asked the question.

“Lainie what happened?”

What happened. God, if she wouldn’t like to know that.

“Something after school, I didn’t get any details. Standall said someone hurt Justin. He’s in an ambulance going to the hospital and Clay is riding with him. That’s all he said.”

As if that poor kid hadn’t already been to hell and back. She knew he was strong, but how strong could any 17 year old really be? He was a kid.

The rules of the road do not apply to emergency vehicles. Lainie decided that this was emergency enough. If anyone tried to stop her she would tell them to take it up with Standall.

The Jensen’s remained silent the whole ride, too scared to speak out of fear that if they tried it would not be words that came out but tears or screams.

They pulled up to the hospital and into the closest spot Lainie saw. It may have been red or blue but she didn’t care and Matt didn’t say anything to stop her.

They ran in step through the large, grossly clean automatic doors and into the overcrowded waiting room. Curious eyes sized them up as Lainie sprinted toward the front desk.

“Jensen. Lainie and Matt Jensen.” She gestured at her husband and spoke before the nurse at the desk could even ask for their names. “Where are my sons!?”

The woman stared back with a sympathetic but blank stare.

“The sign-in list is right here ma’am. We will call your name as soon as there is someone available.”

“You don’t understand. I received a call from the police that my son was brought here. His name is Justin Folley. Clay Jensen rode with him in the ambulance. He should be here too.”

The woman continued with her same expression.

“Ma’am please sign-in. We will have someone with you as soon as possible.”

“I’m not going to sign a damn thing until someone tells me where my kids are and if they are ok-”

“Mom.”

The voice came from behind her. She spun around and saw Clay standing a few feet down the hall, exiting another wing of the hospital. His eyes looked red from crying. His clothes were rubbed with dark red smears in places. Blood her brain concluded. His hands were shaking and his gait seemed stiff.

“Clay!”

She ran towards him and pulled him into a tight embrace. She could feel the warm heat of another body as Matt joined the hug.

For a moment, the entire world ceased to exist. The entire universe paused and focused its attention on the family in the waiting room of an emergency room.

Matt was the first to break the bubble.

“Clay what happened? Where is Justin?”

Clay looked at his parents with red, heavy eyes.

“They wouldn’t let me stay with him. They rushed him off to the ICU I think- something about a brain bleed. They said I had to wait out here.”

Clay’s words fell out of him mouth as though he wasn’t controlling them. There was a childlike helplessness about him, yet a crushed innocence and dead hope behind his eyes. She was struck once again that he and Justin were really just kids (despite the legal definition). They didn’t deserve to have to go through this- not ever but especially not now.

“I tried to stay with him dad- I know he needed me but they just wouldn’t let me. I tried dad but I didn’t know what to do-“

Clay broke off with a choked sob. Lainie watched as Matt pulled Clay back into his arms and just held him. They both knew the signs and could tell Clay was toeing the edge of a full blown anxiety attack. No more questions were asked.

It was a strange picture- a whole family standing in the middle of a room surrounded by chairs, many vacant and many others full of onlookers. Some turned away while others watched them like a soap opera. There was an awful combination of peace and chaos, right at the intersection that fills anyone who can sense it with potent unease.

None of the Jensen’s ever asked the other’s if they should sit. They couldn’t let themselves relax. None of them would be able to let their body focus on one thing less, freeing up that much more space in their mind for plague ridden intrusive thoughts.

And so they remained the centerpiece of the emergency room.

Time was a human invention. When necessary, it can easily be forgone and become obsolete.

Time ceased to exist at St. John’s hospital, 346 Carton Ave.

Later, as established there was no need to make up a measure of how long, a nurse came from the back hallway and approached the desk. She looked at the clip board and spoke to the desk nurse, who pointed a wrinkled finger and the huddled family.

The woman approached the family.

“Mr. and Mrs. Jensen?”

Matt turned to the nurse, wiping away his tears and taking one final sniffle.

“Yes. Yes that’s us.”

“Please come with me.”

They followed the woman into the winding veins of the hospital hallway. No one spoke. Lainie still had no idea what to expect- Clay hadn’t offered anything further and her and Matt had felt the situation too tense already to ask. Perhaps it was better to go in unprepared- that way it could end up worse than they expected.

Somehow, it still was.

Justin looked too small for the hospital bed, despite it being nearly the same size as his six foot frame. The boy looked so out of place. The skin not covered by bandages was patterned with dark bruises, stark against the bright white sheets. Above his brow was a white bandage, the kind used to cover up stitches. She shuttered the force someone must have used against him in order to inflict that kind of damage. His wrist was in a brace- she hoped it was only sprained and not broken. There was a brace around his neck, but she could still see the dark, hand shaped bruises from the hole in the front of it. Lainie felt sick.

The boy was unconscious, his mouth slightly parted and eyes limp. An IV drip stood to the side of the bed, the tube disappearing into his skin at the underside of his elbow. She ignored the track marks around it.

The nurse must have traced her gaze.

“We sedated him. He was mostly unconscious when he arrived but was still in a state of panic. We needed him to be still for the CT scan.”

Lainie nodded, the motion minute and stoic.

“You can sit with him if you’d like or wait outside. The doctor will be in any minute to discuss his injuries with you.”

Lainie nodded again, the motion so small it wasn’t even visible. Her face betrayed no expression, yet it’s blankness offered more emotion then any grimace or tears could. The young nurse, probably hardly out of college, hovered somewhat awkwardly in the corner, unsure of how to proceed. She moved to busy herself with the settings on Justin’s heart monitor.

“Thank you. We would like to stay with him.”

Matt spoke up, taking the burden or speech from his wife. Seeming satisfied with the response and the machine, the nurse hurried from the room with once last uncomfortable, pity smile.

Lainie sat in the chair beside Justin’s bed, not taking her eyes from her son’s prone body. If not for the dancing line and beeping from the heart monitor machine, she would think he was dead. He was too still. She soon felt Matt’s presence standing behind her chair, a hand on her shoulder. Reaching back, Lainie interlock their fingers and held like a life line.

Clay remained on the other side of the bed, his eyes darting between Justin and the door. Hackles raised, he seemed ready to kill the next person who so much as looked at his brother the wrong way. It was an expression she had never seen on her son before.

Again, time became obsolete.

A soft, quick knock sounded from the door and a small, unassuming woman stepped in. Despite her size, there was an era of authority about her far exceeding her stature. She looked at the family behind wire frame glasses.

“Mr. and Mrs. Jensen? My name is doctor Cho: if you would please join outside.”

Lainie’s eyes oscillated between the child all but fading into the sterile white sheets and the woman looking at her expectantly. It took everything in her to swim against the tide of desire to stay by Justin’s side and exit the room. She could see Matt following behind her, but Clay remained, keeping up his silent guard.

The hallway was bright and starkly empty. Dr. Cho looked at them with a sympathetic yet professional gaze, thumbing through the stack of papers on her clip board.

“I’ll try to speak plainly so that you can understand. I know that the last thing you want right now is to be buried in medical jargon- you are just wondering if Justin will be ok.”

That was the understatement of the century, but Lainie simply nodded robotically, not wanting to waste another second before finding out the answer.

“At this time, we see no signs of permanent damage. Due to serve blunt force trauma we conducted a CT and MRI but found no signs of brain bleeds. His skull is however fractured on the left parietal and he sustained a severe concussion. There appears to be bruising on the parietal lobe which is likely contributing to his lack of communication and processing skills at the moment. We expect the physical damage to his head to heal with time and all function to be restored.”

The doctor paused and turned the page on her clipboard, sparing a moment to evaluate the couple in front of her. Lainie and Matt didn’t speak but nodded, indicating she should continue.

“Externally he had several head injuries that required stitches. Above his left brow there are six stitches and another 12 on the left side of the back of his head. We will monitor for infection but are not worried that these will be issues. He sustained serious bruises, the most concerning of which were concentrated on his neck and chest. His larynx and esophagus are severely bruised and he will have difficultly speaking and swallowing for some time. We are most concerned with the damage sustained to his carotid artery and jugular veins, which we will continue to monitor. We saw early signs of pulmonary edema, which we will be treating with IV medication. There was shadow bruising behind his ears and damage to his left ear drum that we will continue to monitor. He sustained three cracked and two broken ribs, which will make moving breathing painful for some time. His right hand was broken in two places as well as his wrist and have been splinted, but we are optimistic that no surgery will be required to set them. His kidneys were bruised and renal blunt force trauma is obvious, but we do not at this time suspect any lasting effect on function.”

Lainie bit down on my cheek hard enough to draw blood. The pain and metallic taste in her mouth was almost comforting- a minuscule act in solidarity with every thing Justin had to go through. Matt’s hand clutching hers squeezed tightly in a crushing grip. Lainie couldn’t bring herself to meet his eyes but she could feel them as they bored into her head. Instead, her eyes met the doctor in front of her, pleading without words for her to go on.

With a deep inhale, doctor Cho continued.

“As Justin is still technically a ward of the state, we received consent from his social worker to preform a rape kit. Justin also sustained serious injuries consistent with sexual assault.”

There were words after that, but they turned to soup in Lainie’s head. Trauma. Tearing. Stitches.

She didn’t know she was crying until she felt Matt’s shirt wet against her face. She clutched her fingers in the cotton fabric and muffled the sounds against his chest. Matt’s face was buried in her hair and his fingers fisted into her own sweater.

The doctor allowed them a moment before gently continuing.

“We will continue monitoring these injuries and conducting any further tests that seem necessary. There is one more thing I wanted to make you aware of… we have on record that Justin was addicted to certain opioid based substances in the past. In his charts there is a note not to administer any such drugs as painkillers or sedatives unless deemed unavoidable by a professional. He is currently on an alternative sedative but once he regains consciousness the pain will likely be unmanageable for him without some kind of painkiller. I wanted to make you aware of this before we went through with prescribing him any opioids. Despite the risk of addiction, please know I believe the benefits to be far greater than the consequences.”

“We aren’t worried about that now. I just want him to be safe and comfortable.” Matt spoke tersely, eyes still glassy with tears.

“Thank you. I will let you know if there are any further developments. I’m very sorry that he had to go through this.”

The small woman turned away and soon turned out of sight, leaving the shaken parents alone in the artificially lit hall.

Lainie took a deep breath and met her husband's eyes. “What are we supposed to do now?”

Matt stared back, face full of pain yet concealing a strength she knew had no bounds.

“We go back in there and we don’t leave him. For once in his life we give him the chance he deserves.”

She found his warm hand in her own and together they walked back into the room.

Chapter Text

Fog.

Thick, blinding, choking fog surrounded him. The thoughts moving through his brain felt heavy and drunk, like they were only half formed and weighed down by stones. Before he would grasp them, the weight would pull them from his fingers and they would drop into the mist, landing with a plop in the dark swampy water under him.

We was floating- floating in the inky black soup. His body was covered in a thin film of it, soft but a bit stiff over his skin. It fluttered over him a bit when he tried to move, remaining covering him.

There were voices somewhere above him but he had no idea what they were saying. When he concentrated on the speakers, he could tell that he knew some of them, but could have quite figure out who they were.

Sometimes, it would all go dark. Even the swampy mist would fade and we would be left alone with his dead mind. He had heard once that the true definition of “nothing” is impossible to achieve, but this felt pretty damn close.

Each time we clawed himself out of the nothing into the swamp, it felt a little bit clearer. There was an area of light to his left side. The swamp below him was solid but squishy. The voices almost had names. But just before it would all click together and he could feel the flutter of his eyelashes fighting to open, he would fall back down, drowning in the ink and fading back to nothingness.

One last time when Justin rose into the mist though, he fought, harder than he had fought for anything before. We swung his head wildly, trying to clear the fog over his face, but it felt restrained somehow. He grounded his body back and registered that he wasn’t floating on liquid at all, but some kind of mattress. His fingers twitched and closed around some kind of sheet, which he quickly realized was covering his own body.

He must be high Justin finally realized. He had broken his streak and gotten absolutely doped up on something. It must have been strong- he had never in his life felt so inhuman.

How could he do this? This high didn’t come from Bryce’s pills or weed this was hard stuff. The stuff he had managed to stop even though he had to fight cravings every day to do it.

How could he do this to Matt? To Laine? To Clay?

Clay.

The voices began to speak again and Justin finally pinned down one of the four speakers.

His senses heightened the longer he laid there.

The sheets were too scratchy to be his own, the Jensen’s that is, so he couldn’t be in his own bed. Maybe he was in some sort of rehab center of Clay had dragged him to someone else’s house to withdraw?

The place smelled steril and cold, unlike any home he’d ever stepped foot in. Even his mom’s house with its revolving door of assholes smelled homier than this. If it was someone’s house, he pitied the family.

Aside from the voices, his ears pinpointed a quiet but steady beeping noise. It wasn’t too annoying and perfectly faded into the distance. Only when he focused all of his attention on it could he hear the rhythmic tick.

Which is exactly what he did.

1

2

3

The beat was oddly calming, a metronome for his brain.

98

99

100

He kept counting, his pointer finger on his right hand joining in and keeping time. His body was slowly grounding itself, the mist gone and nothingness out of sight.

344

345

346-

“Justin?”

He hadn’t realized it, but he must have begun speaking aloud, but the gravely sound didn’t match his own. A voice, having hear him, interrupted his cadence and he instantly lost his count.

He slowly opened his heavy eyelids and took a minute to gather his bearings.

It was some kind of hospital. Clean, white walls surrounded him, reflecting the sunshine from the window to his left around the room like a lightbox. He was covered in thin white sheets and a scratchy brown blanket, leaving most of his body invisible.

His looked at his hands but they didn’t seem like his own. The skin not covered by bandages or braces was dry and discolored. They tremors lightly, like leaves in the winter barely clinging onto their tree as a final lifeline.

When he finally noticed the other people in the room, he drew in a sharp breath. In the back of his mind, he registered the metronome beep becoming faster and more erratic.

“Hey Justin. How are you doing?”

That was Clay.

Clay was there, stopped mid-pace by the foot of the bed. His clothes looked wrinkled, as if he had worn them all day and night, his face sunken and eyes heavy.

On left in the plastic arm chair sat Lainie. Her face seemed puffy and wore a strange, lost expression he had never seen. Justin could barely connect this women to the confident lawyer and strong mother he knew. He would never have believed they were the same person if he couldn’t see the same softness in her eyes and little opal neckless hanging against her chest.

Matt leaned against the wall, hands near his face which was wet with tears. The man let out a sniffle before cracking a fake sort of closed mouth smile that didn’t meet his eyes.

Another woman mulled about the room, approaching his side and messing with the machines to his right. She was middle-aged, but wore her time more loudly than Lainie. Her wrinkled face was set yet kind even as she went about her work with a clinical exactness. When she seemed satisfied with the machines, she looked towards Justin and repeated Clay’s question: “Justin- how are you doing?”

How was he doing? He still had no idea.

He wasn’t sure how to figure that out. His eyes felt too heavy, a sudden pain creeping through his body and waking up his nerves in a way he had never before experienced. It took to much effort to figure out what the question meant, let alone how to answer it.

With a shaking sigh, Justin turned his head back into his pillows and welcomed the mist back in, diving down into the peaceful embrace of the nothingness.