A/N: PLEASE READ THE TRIGGER WARNINGS FOR THIS CHAPTER!

They include:

-Mentions of sexual assault

-Bullying

-Mentions of attempted dismemberment

-Vague discussions of sex

I think that's all but please let me know if you think I should add anything else! Thanks!


When they got to James' house, the others were already there, loitering impatiently on the porch.

"You took forever!" Ruiha exclaimed as James rushed up to unlock the front door. "Where were you? Wait— you stopped for McDonalds? Are you serious?"

"The heart wants what the heart wants!" Tom answered cheerfully, kicking off his shoes and wandering happily to the living room. "And the heart wanted a McFlurry!"

"We got extra fries in case you guys wanted some," James said diplomatically, locking the door behind them. "Put your shoes here, by the way."

Alex sidled up to Day, eyes glued firmly somewhere to the side of him, and handed off the strawberry milkshake in his right hand. "There's a 6 piece nugget in the bag for you."

Day's face burst into a beaming smile, looking far happier than a simple McDonald's meal warranted. "Alex. That's my favourite."

"Yeah, I know."

Day's smile grew wider and he looked away, pretending he didn't see. Day's smile was just too much. He went and plopped down on the floor in front of the coffee table, pulling out a bag of fries. Day sat next to him, slurping his milkshake. He was still grinning.

Kelly wandered around the room, inspecting the framed photographs on the wall with a critical eye. "Nice place," she commented to James, craning her neck to take in the expansive ceilings, and then sweeping her gaze over the wide brick fireplace. "What games do you have?"

"Oh, I've got loads. But I thought we might want to play something a little more high risk than, say, Catan."

"Catan is plenty high risk," Tom protested, taking a seat on Alex's other side and shoving him in the shoulder. "Alex put 8 spider in my bed after the last game!"

"I told you not to block my road—"

"But 8 spiders? Live spiders? Where do you even get that many?"

"I haven't dusted in my house in more than a year. So—" He ticked them off his fingers. "Laundry room, upstairs bathroom, basement storage room."

"Maybe dust your house," James advised.

"Maybe mind your business," Alex countered. "Or you'll find 10 spiders in your bed tonight."

"I'm sleeping on the couch, so check mate!"

"Fine, I'll put 10 spiders in your shirt tonight."

James' mouth popped open in outrage.

Ruiha, whose face had been bouncing between them like she was watching a tennis match, finally interrupted. "Okay, this shit here?" She gestured at them, delighted. "This shit slaps. Are you guys always like this?"

Alex, Tom, and James looked at each other.

Shrugged.

"Yeah, pretty much."

"Basically always."

"Essentially yes."

Ruiha laughed and collapsed on the couch, snagging the McDonald's bag from the coffee table. "Oh I love it. This is going to be so much fun."

"Maybe we should leave off on Catan for the time being though," Andrew said, swiping a handful of Ruiha's fries. "I don't really feel like being spider-fied anytime soon. Sorry."

Tom nodded. "A wise choice. Want to do Jenga?"

"I thought you wanted to play something high stakes?" Nathan asked. He was popped back in James' mom's recliner, and had declined any McDonald's. Nathan, from what Alex remembered, was exceptionally strict with his diet, and seeing him drink even lemonade was a once in a lifetime event that needed to be caught on camera.

"Oh trust me, this Jenga is high stakes. I assume it's in your room?" Tom hopped up and started down the hallway.

"Under my bed!" James called after him. He took the opportunity to steal Tom's spot on the ground. "Hidden in an empty shoebox!"

"Why are you hiding your Jenga game?" Kelly asked. She had finally finished her rounds and had taken a seat on the couch with Ruiha and Andrew.

"If my parents saw it, they'd freak."

"What? Why?"

"You'll see."

Tom finally came back into the room with the box of Jenga bricks clutched in his hands. "We wrote stuff on the blocks," he explained, dumping the bricks onto the table in a clattering of pieces. "They can get a little inappropriate."

"Really?" Ruiha snagged a block and read it off out loud. "'Fuck, Marry, Kill: The people in this room'. Okay, that's hilarious."

James grinned. "Pulled that one with Abhaya. He got pissed none of us chose to fuck him."

"Seriously? I always thought he was lowkey homophobic."

"Not on purpose. He's just a dumbarse. Abhaya's actually really cool."

"Huh. Good to know." She reached for another block, but Tom leaned forward and waved her hand away.

"No no! It's got to be a surprise! It'll be better that way!"

"Fine. We're doing this then?" She looked around at everyone, and there were nods all around.

A minute later, the Jenga tower was set up and they had begun.

It was some of the most fun Alex had had in a long long time. And he learned a lot.

Nathan pulled a block that asked What are the last three searches in your phone's search history? And he had to shamefully read aloud to them: what is a papaya, how to peel a papaya, and papaya poisonous?

Ruiha was forced to admit that she thought Mrs. Bedfordshire, the school secretary, was the hottest adult in school.

Kelly was afraid of snakes, Andrew could tap dance, and Day thought that Tiberius was a perfectly reasonable name for a child.

He himself hadn't needed to admit to anything too embarrassing… until his third turn around.

He had successfully wiggled his block loose and checked the writing. And his mouth had immediately dried up.

List your crushes in chronological order.

Oh no.

"Do 5 push ups," he pretended to read.

James' eyes narrowed immediately. "It doesn't say that."

"Yes it does."

"No it doesn't, because I specifically took that block out because it's stupid."

"What? You're cheating!"

"You're cheating! What does it really say? Come on." James reached across the table for the block, and Alex held it out of reach.

"You're not getting—" Tom plucked the block deftly out his hands, breaking his protests into splutters. "Wha-? Tom!"

Tom read the block then grinned up at him. "Awww. This one's kind of cute. Go on, don't be shy."

"It's stupid," he hissed, eyes darting around the room for any supporters. But everyone else was staring back at him, intrigued and grinning at his dismay. "Who even cares?"

"I think Day will care." Tom flashed the block to the rest of the room.

Nathan read the block and then asked, ""Wait, why is this bad? We all know you have a crush on Day. It's cool."

"Go on Alex," James grinned at him. "List your crushes chronologically then."

"Bloody hell! It's…. Fine. Ugh. Day."

"Yes?" Day asked, and he couldn't even look at him.

"No, I mean, that's it. That's the list."

There was a disbelieving pause in the room. Ruiha held up her hand.

"Wait," she said. "Wait a second. So your crush list consists of Day… and only Day? Are you serious?"

"You've never had a crush on anyone else?" Nathan checked. "Nobody? Like, not even a little?"

He glowered at them all. "No."

"What about Sabina?" Day asked, and as Alex still refused to look his way, he had no idea what type of look Day had on his face.

"I didn't have a crush on her. I liked her a lot as a friend and thought she was objectively attractive. But that was it."

"Holy shit," Ruiha said softly. "This is… amazing. So Day is seriously your first crush?"

"Yes."

"Wow. Shit. And you actually bagged him."

Kelly was holding her hands in front of her face, not quite managing to hide the huge smile stretched across her cheeks. "That's so cute though. Your first partner is your first crush."

That piece of information made Ruiha sit straight up abruptly. "Oh, whoa. First partner? Wait, is Day the first person you've dated?"

"Kelly," Day hissed at his ex-girlfriend, who winced. Alex crossed his arms over his chest and glowered at Ruiha.

"And?"

"And I'm super surprised! You're extremely attractive and loads of girls like you. Guys too, probably, if other gay blokes have Day's taste. I'd have thought you'd dated way more people. But it makes me feel better about myself, not gonna lie."

"Ruiha hasn't even held anyone's hand," Nathan confided in a loud whisper, heard by the entire room.

"Shut up! You haven't either!"

"Really?" Alex said. "You're very popular Nathan."

"Yes," he agreed, unashamed. "But I'm also gay. And there are like, no out guys at school, and I'm not really up for Tinder just yet. It's Ruiha's problem too."

Oh. That made sense.

James was giving them sympathetic looks. "Sucks arse guys. Or wait— I guess it literally doesn't." He laughed and held up a hand to Tom for a high five. Tom made a face.

"I cannot high five that remark James, shut up."

"Moving on!" Andrew said loudly. "Tom, if you would?"

They moved on. The next big controversy came after Kelly knocked the entire tower down and they all decided to just grab a handful of blocks and answer them without rebuilding.

Nathan had grabbed the block that said How far have you gone sexually?

"I'm giving this to Day," he complained, sliding the block across the table. "You all know I've literally never even held anyone's hand."

Day stopped the block with a deft finger and then flicked the block down the tabletop. "I want James or Tom to answer this question."

James immediately squinted at him and muttered out of the corner of his mouth "Suspicious statement?"

"Suspicious statement," Tom agreed. "Why don't you want to answer the question, Day?"

"Yeah, Day," Ruiha raised her brows. "Got something to hide?"

"No, I just think that maybe it would be more interesting if they answered it."

James and Tom exchanged looks and then turned to Day in unison. "Answer the question Day," they chorused together.

There was a moment of stretched silence, where Day frowned at James and Tom, and James and Tom leered expectantly back. The rest of the room waited in anticipation for the winner of the stare off to be declared— and the obvious winner was not Day, as he finally deflated, a subtle glower curving his lips.

"Fine." His eyes flickered to Alex for what couldn't be longer than a split-second, but it was enough for Alex's stomach to sink. "I've given and received oral and I've used my hands on my partner."

Alex's eyes widened in shock. Day had done a lot more than Alex had anticipated. Like… a lot more. Oh god. And he himself had done nothing.

His heart fluttered rapidly. Were they going too slowly? Did Day want to go faster? Alex had never even thought about doing more than kissing with Day, was he developmentally behind or something? Was Day getting impatient? They hadn't even held hands yet. But it had only been a few weeks… It was probably fine?

But what would happen if they did start to do stuff? He was so completely inexperienced in comparison. It was going to be embarrassing, wasn't it?

He bit his lip, the only tell he let himself express, past the brief widening of his eyes.

"Oh." James brows shot up, and he glanced at Alex in a much more obvious peek than Day's had been. "You've done more than I expected."

"Day likes to make his partners feel good," Kelly announced loudly and calmly and with a complete absence of embarrassment. Her fingers were laced with Andrew's, and he saw her give his hand a reassuring squeeze. "In whatever way they need or want."

Day nodded, looking relieved at the opening. "Yes, I like for whoever I'm dating to feel… relaxed. As much as they can be."

"Right. Even if that relaxation comes from not having sex. Day's good at keeping things chill. He never pushed me," she added, gaze darting vaguely in every direction except for Alex's. "Ever."

Okay, and now Alex's face was burning. This was so not subtle at all. And how much was Day telling Kelly? She'd known that he hadn't dated before, and she quite obviously knew that Alex was rather inexperienced.

He supposed Day probably told Kelly just as much as Alex told Tom, so it's not like he was upset… but he sure wished she didn't know that much at that very moment.

Ruiha looked between Day and Kelly and Alex. "This is the most interesting thing that's happened to me all week."

"I'm so glad for you," he said.

"Maybe we should just move on," Andrew, the obvious peacemaker, said for the second time that night. He was still holding Kelly's hand, looking very awkward and incredibly sympathetic. "Here." He picked up a block in front of him and read off, "If you could fight anyone in the world, who would it be?"

"Jeff Bezos," Tom said immediately. "I'd square up so fast."

And, to Alex's staunch relief, this elicited a chorus of high-spirited agreement, and soon the previous question had been all but forgotten in loud shouts of creative violence.

By the time they'd finished all the blocks, they'd eaten all of the McDonalds fries, decimated at least 30 nuggets between them, and were feeling drunk on happiness and friendly adrenaline.

"Can we play Truth or Dare?" Kelly asked. "I love Truth or Dare."

James lit up. "Sure! Let me go get the bandaids!" He scrambled up and darted off to the bathroom, and Kelly stared after him, startled.

"Bandaids?"

"We get a little out of control sometimes," Tom admitted, glancing over at Alex. "Although probably we'll try to keep it toned down for your guys' sakes."

"How do you mean 'out of control?'" Ruiha demanded.

"Well, like, the dares, you know."

It was apparent to Alex that the other group 100% did not know. They were exchanging looks between themselves, bemused, and in some cases, concerned.

Day leaned in close to Alex and asked in a low voice, "You're still hurt. Is this going to be okay?"

He whispered back, "I'm good. The stitches are out and the bruises are basically gone. It'll be okay."

"Basically gone isn't gone—"

Alex reached out and touched his fingers to Day's ankle. "It's okay," he leaned in closer. "You don't have to worry."

James trundled back into the room before Day could answer, waving a gigantic Ziploc bag of bandaids over his head triumphantly. "I'm back! Let's get this shit started!" He slammed the bag down onto the coffee table with a -slap- and the others stared at it, horrified.

"I still don't understand why we might need them," Kelly said, eyes wide.

"Well, hopefully we won't. But realistically…" James trailed off contemplatively. "Anyway, Alex, truth or dare?"

He didn't even have to think about it.

"Dare."

"I dare you to juggle six knives while singing the ABC's."

"Whoa what?"

"Juggle knives?!"

"You're not serious!"

"Alex won't be doing that!" Day exclaimed, horrified and alarmed. "James, that's a joke right?"

"Not even a little," he said cheerfully. "Alex," he waved his hand at the kitchen. "You know where they are."

Alex moved to get up, but suddenly Day's hand was on his ankle.

"Alex—"

"I'm a very good juggler." He removed Day's hand gently, giving it a little squeeze. He felt kind of guilty about the blatant worry on Day's face, but, well. He was a very good juggler. And he couldn't just turn down a dare, especially from James.

He went and got the knives.

"I don't know if I actually want to watch this," he heard Andrew say worriedly.

"It's Alex," Nathan said, sounding much less bothered. "I wouldn't worry too much."

"James, you suck," Day hissed, and there was a loud -whap- and then a yelp.

"Hey!"

Uh oh. Alex gathered up the knives and hurried back to the living room, eyes narrowed suspiciously. They immediately lighted upon the Ziploc bag of bandaids lying next to James, who was rubbing his head over-exaggeratedly. Seeing Alex, he flung an accusing finger at Day, outrage on his face.

"Your boyfriend attempted to murder me!"

"With an entire Ziploc bag, wow," he deadpanned. "It's a miracle that you survived."

Ruiha waved her hands in the air. "Hey hey, can we leave the murder until after Alex slices all his fingers off? Like, just for funsies?"

"I'm not going to slice my fingers off." To prove his point, he flipped the first two knives into the air deftly, eliciting a loud ripple of gasps from the onlookers.

"Okay, I can't watch either," Kelly strangled out, a hand pressed over her mouth.

"Sing too," James reminded him, unbothered, leaning forward on his elbows with an anticipatory gleam in his eyes.

Ugh.

Dutifully he began, slipping a third and fourth knife into his retinue. Around L, M, N, O, P he added the final two knives, cold metal glinting in the air as the utensils flipped in wide arcs in his hands. When he got to Z, he allowed the knives to smack one by one into his palms, and finished with a flourishing bow, exhilaration zinging through his veins.

"Yeah!" James, Tom, and Nathan immediately broke into loud applause, wolf whistling and cheering.

"Thank you." He dropped the knives on the table and plopped back down next to Day, whose hand shot forward to clutch Alex's between both of his own.

"For the record, that was very much something to worry about!" He hissed, eyes darting all over Alex's entire body, as if somehow the knives had nicked his knees or something.

"Sorry." His lips twitched and he squeezed Day's hand back. "I told you I could juggle though."

"Dude, Day almost had a heart attack," Ruiha said. "And for the record, so did I! God! How long have you been juggling knives for?"

"I learned when I was about 12."

"12?!" Kelly's hand had moved from her mouth to clutch at her shirt over her heart. "Your parents let you juggle knives at 12?!"

"My uncle did, yes," Alex responded, ignoring the way she immediately winced in understanding remembrance. Another thing Day had told her, apparently. "It's not a big deal. I started with balls and pins and things."

"Your uncle's a badass." Ruiha shook her head. "My parents would kill me if I even ran with scissors."

"Well that's different. Running with scissors is much more dangerous than a practiced juggler switching to knives."

"Let's agree to disagree and leave it at that. Holy shit. I see why you guys keep the bandaids around."

"Yeah," he agreed. Day's grip on his hand tightened. He glanced over at the other boy and smiled at him hesitantly, still somewhat guilty about unsettling him. "Sorry for, uh, worrying you."

"It seems to be your natural state," he responded wryly, and Alex's smile grew into a grin. Day didn't sound mad, or even annoyed. Just somewhat resigned and amused.

"Let me text you guys the video of him jumping off my roof," James piped up. "It's pretty cool."

"Definitely will give you a palpitation at least," Tom agreed.

"My God," Ruiha repeated.

Alex just turned to James. "Truth or dare?"

"Dare!"

"I dare you to drink a cup of soy sauce."

"Okay okay, I'm sorry guys," Kelly broke in quickly. "Are these genuinely your toned down dares? Really?" She sounded baffled and somewhat horrified.

James shrugged. "I mean… yeah? It's just soy sauce, and I didn't, like, dare Alex to juggle with his eyes closed or anything."

"That's…" Andrew seemed at a loss for words. "...Can we play Two Truths and a Lie or something instead? Maybe? I'm sorry, I just truly don't think I have the stomach for this game, literally."

"You could sit out," Ruiha proposed, but Kelly quickly shut her down with a ferocious scowl.

"He will not! Two Truths and a Lie is a great game! I'd like to play that too."

Tom laughed and teased, "Cowards!" But he didn't truly sound upset. "James should still go first."

James rolled his eyes in disappointment, but he went along with the change just as easily as Tom did. "Fine. Umm…. Okay, I've broken four bones, I used to have a pet snake, and I once ate three jalapeños one after another."

Nathan barely had to think about it. "No way have you eaten three jalapeños consecutively."

"I call bullshit on having a pet snake," Ruiha disagreed. "Based on your entire—" She flapped her hands at him vaguely. "—vibe. No way you had a pet snake. No."

"Wait, are you recording who gets the most right?" Kelly asked. "Someone should keep track of that."

"I can." Day, who had let go of Alex's hand by then, pulled his phone out and started taking a talley in the Notes App.

They all guessed, except for Alex and Tom, who already knew.

James then announced cheerfully, to the consternation of the whole room, "I've actually eaten four jalapeños!"

Nathan was the most aghast. "Why?" He practically wailed. "James, why would you eat that many jalapeños? Why?"

"Because Tom dared me to. Duh."

Kelly buried her face in her hands. "I'm so glad we didn't play Truth or Dare." It made Alex laugh, and he grinned over at Tom, who was beaming proudly at his own wickedness.

"Wait, so you really had a snake?" Ruiha asked. "You?"

"Hell yeah! His name was Monty the Python and I had him up until I was 8. Then he died. Old age, I think."

Kelly, who apparently had a snake phobia, visibly shuddered. "Ugh."

When it came around to Alex, he decided on the spot that he needed to one-up James. It was one of his fatal flaws, he realized, but he could not let James win this game.

"A shark tried to eat me and I stabbed it in the face, I apprenticed to a magician when I was 10, and I once won 18,000 pounds in a poker game."

Ruiha crossed her arms over her chest. "Those are all obviously lies."

"Alex…" Kelly examined his face closely. "Are you serious?"

"66 percent serious, yeah."

"There's no way you stabbed a shark in the face." Nathan shook his head. "No way."

"He probably apprenticed to a magician," Andrew thought out loud. "He maybe learned juggling that way?"

"Oh maybe!" Kelly exclaimed. "Day, any input? You probably know Alex best, besides these two jokers." She jerked a thumb at Tom, who mimed zipping his lips, and James, who simply smirked back at her. "Which do you think is more likely, the poker or the shark?"

Day examined Alex's face critically for a very long moment. "Poker's more likely," he said finally. "But for the record, I think the magician one is the lie."

"The tamest of the three," Ruiha checked doubtfully.

"Yes. Precisely why I think it's the lie."

"I think the poker one is probably the least likely," Andrew objected. "I mean, if he really won that much money, like… Where is it? He doesn't even own a car."

"Rude," Alex said.

"But kind of true." Kelly thought for another long moment. "Okay, I still think the shark one is a lie. That's just too wild."

"I agree," Ruiha said.

"Same," concurred Nathan but Andrew shook his head.

"Poker for sure."

"Magician," Day concluded.

Alex smiled at them all innocently, eyes sparking in wicked amusement. "It's the magician."

"What!"

"You stabbed a shark?"

"A fucking shark?"

"Alex!"

Even James was gaping at him in shock. "Okay, I didn't know that either actually, Alex— When, where, and why were you attacked by a shark?"

"I was diving in tropical waters and a great white shark swam up and tried to eat me. So I pulled out my diving knife and stabbed it in the face." He shrugged. "It, uh, went away after that so you know. Nothing too shocking."

"That in itself is shocking enough!" Ruiha was still gawking at him as if he'd just admitted to… well, stabbing a shark in the face, he supposed. "Mate!"

"Limbs still attached!" Then something suddenly hit him and he turned to Day, eyes wide. "And, um. I hope you know I never would have stabbed the shark if I didn't think I had no choice, I'm sorry, it really was going to eat me—"

Day interrupted him by placing his hands on Alex's shoulders and staring into his eyes. He looked serious and somewhat pale. "Alex. I am so very very glad you stabbed the shark. Please do not apologize to me for this."

"That's traumatic as hell, mate, seriously," Nathan looked pale himself, and he gave a little shudder, gaze distant. "I can't even imagine…"

Okay.

Huh.

Alex had specifically chosen the shark attack incident because it was one of the more lowkey 'interesting' things he could think of. He wondered what Nathan would think if he'd told them the whole story. About Troy and Turner who'd been viciously impaled and bled out under water, about watching the shark succumb to the same fate, about swimming back up just to be greeted by the corpse of a man he'd just started to like… About everything that came after…

Day's grip tightened on his shoulders, drawing him out of the memory.

"Good?" Day asked so quietly it was more like mouthing.

He nodded back with a small smile. "I'm good."

Day gave him one last squeeze and let go reluctantly, turning back to the others.

Ruiha, who had not noticed the moment between them asked, "But what about the poker stuff? That's a lot of fucking money, mate. Who were you even playing against?"

"My friend Sabina's father was invited to this party with all sorts of rich people. The host let me play with them, thinking I'd be easy prey." He smirked, remembering the shock of the crowd when he'd flipped his final hand. "He was wrong."

James laughed. "That's funny as hell. Who was the host? Anyone we might have heard of?"

The question took him aback, because, well, yes. But... should he…? Technically the New Years' Eve party was just that— a party. It didn't have anything to do with MI6, or the CIA, or anybody else...

He decided swiftly.

"Desmond McCain."

"Holy shit! The First Aid guy?"

"Yeah."

"You were with Sabina, so…" James did some quick mental math. "Oh wow! You must have seen him, like, the year he died!"

His insides flinched. More like the month he'd died. The week he'd died. The day, the second…

Alex shouldn't have said anything.

"Okay but what happened to the money then?" Andrew asked. "I mean, you really don't live like you've got a spare 20 grand lying around."

"I told him to donate it to charity."

This prompted another bout of stunned disbelief.

"He was pretty mad I won," Alex explained. "It was the polite thing to do."

Ruiha shook her head. "The polite thing… You're insane. You're just insane."

He shrugged.

The game after that was nowhere near as exciting, although Alex did learn that Nathan had met Tom Hanks once, and that Kelly could do a backflip. He hadn't guessed that one correctly.

Soon enough, however, Kelly and Andrew were standing, the night coming to a close.

"My mum doesn't want me sleeping over at a guy's house she doesn't know," she explained somewhat guiltily. "Sorry James. I had an awesome time and I would have loved to stay if I could."

"It's cool. Some other time maybe."

"I seriously hope so. I honestly had a lot of fun with you guys. Like, a lot. We should definitely get together again soon."

Nathan left with them, stating a need to run early in the morning, and then it was just James, Tom, Alex, Day, and Ruiha.

They decided to take a quick break to clean up a little and change into pajamas, before they continued. 15 minutes later, the living room was spotless, and James had dragged out two sleeping bags, an already inflated air mattress, and a huge armful of blankets and pillows.

"Maybe we could get settled in and watch a movie," James suggested. "We've got like every streaming platform plus loads of stuff on DVDs."

There was a little bit of light bickering over what they would watch, but they finally settled on The Princess Bride, a movie Alex had heard a lot about, but never seen before.

Ruiha ended up on the couch, Tom and Alex in the sleeping bags, James on the recliner, and Day on the inflatable air mattress.

It was comfortable and cozy, and with the lights turned off he felt safe in a way he rarely did in the daylight. They laughed at the movie, tossing jokes back and forth to each other. Sometime in the middle of it, Alex and his entire sleeping bag had migrated even closer to Day, and by the end of the movie, his head was leaning up against the edge of the mattress, his feet sprawled in Tom's lap. Day was laying on his stomach, face next to Alex's, chin propped up by a pillow.

"I love that movie," Ruiha said in the darkness, after they'd switched the TV off. It was now pitch black in the room. Day's soft and even breathing next to him threatened to lull him into sleep. "It might be my favourite."

"Mine's Ghostbusters," James said.

"Pacific Rim," Day spoke up.

"Raiders of the Lost Ark."

"I really love Monty Python and the Holy Grail," Tom admitted.

"Nerd."

"Okay Princess Bride."

"Shove off."

It was quiet again for a long moment. Alex almost thought that the others had fallen asleep.

Then Ruiha said softly, to his total surprise, "It's really cool that you're gay, Alex. And it's really amazing actually that you two are so okay with it."

"I'm not a homophobe," James said. "Simple as that."

"Yeah. Plus, nothing could ever make us stop loving Alex." Tom squeezed his ankle gently, and the tenderness of it all almost made him cry.

"That's what I mean. Amazing. Not everyone's like that."

"I'm really lucky," he admitted, understanding the truth of it. Tom and James were the best friends he could have possibly asked for. They had stood by him when everything was breaking in his life, when he himself was tearing apart from the inside out. Tom had even helped him commit numerous major felonies, all because he'd simply asked him to.

Alex knew love still existed in his body, because he knew he felt it for Tom and James.

"You want to play another little game?" James asked. He sounded melancholy. And thoughtful. It sprung some alertness back into his body. "A little more serious this time."

"I'm down," Day said. Alex and Tom murmured their agreement.

"Okay. Just ask a question and everyone answers. Maybe not a game, exactly, but… Yeah. Anyway. What's your biggest regret in life?"

"Shit…" Ruiha murmured. "Tough one."

"I regret how much I cared about my parents," Tom said. "They weren't worth it in the end and I should never have given them so much power over me."

"Your parents?" Ruiha asked. "What happened to them?"

"Divorced a year or so ago. Took off and left me to my brother. Haven't seen them since."

"Shit."

Ruiha's genuine disgust seemed to loosen Tom's tongue. Alex was sorry that the sleepover hadn't taken his mind off of his parents completely, but… maybe this was what he needed. A space to vent.

"My mother texted a few days ago. Some bullshit excuse. Made me realize just how over her I am, you know?"

"I can understand why, if she abandoned you like that. Who the hell does that to their kid?"

"A shitty excuse for a person," Tom said moodily. "That's who."

"Did you block her new number?" James asked. James knew a lot about what Tom's parents had been like, and he was just as sickened by them as Alex was.

"Yeah."

"Good. You don't deserve her bullshit in your life. Fuck her."

"Fuck her," Tom repeated.

"My parents aren't the best either," Ruiha said, "Like, nowhere near as bad as all that fuckery, but… My biggest regret is coming out to my mum."

"She didn't take it well?" Alex asked.

"No. I mean… She didn't take it that badly either, she just… pretended it never happened. She still asks me about getting a boyfriend and shit like that. It's so frustrating. It's like I'm invisible to her, like she doesn't even care about how important this is to me. I mean, she obviously doesn't!"

Alex could track the rising of Tom's indignation by the way his shaking increased. "Well that's bullshit too! Ignoring something major in your child's life like that is total garbage!"

"Yeah… I shouldn't have even said anything at all. This just feels worse than not being out at all."

"What about your dad?" James asked. "Does he know?"

"No. If things went well with my mum, I was going to tell him. But obviously they didn't. So."

Tom clicked his teeth angrily. "Definite bullshit. That sucks so much Ruiha. Are you ever going to try again with her?"

"Not anytime soon, that's for sure." He heard her sigh heavily. "Yeah. What about you Day? What's your biggest regret?"

Day mulled it over for a few long moments. Finally, he said slowly, "I ignored my dad for a few months after my parents got divorced. I know I hurt his feelings terribly and I regret the pain I caused him."

"That sounds like a pretty normal response to everything that happened," Alex told him. "And you guys are good now, right?"

"Yes. Still, I hurt him. I didn't need to act like that."

Ruiha broke in. "You were like eight or something, right? I agree with Alex, pretty normal response."

He hummed quietly and Alex sighed.

"I get it though," he said. "Things you do when you're young can still be haunting, even if you were just a kid at the time. It can still feel terrible."

"Yeah. And I do know I was just a kid. But like you said…"

"Shit sticks with you," Ruiha agreed.

"My biggest regret is hooking up with this one girl," James piped up. "It's kind of a lame regret, in comparison, I realize, but it was really gross and it's kind of put a damper on a lot of my experiences with other girls."

"What happened?" Alex asked. He didn't think he'd heard this story before.

"Just don't laugh at me, okay? It wasn't anything weird— she was just kind of forceful, you know? And she did a bunch of stuff I didn't like, even though I asked her to stop, like, tons, and it was just… gross. A pretty nasty experience, honestly. And now sometimes I have a difficult time with other girls because I'm always remembering her, and… yeah." Alex heard him shrug. "Kind of dumb, I know, but there it is."

At first Alex thought that he hadn't heard properly. James had said it so casually.

Because… What?

Someone had…? To James?

No.

And Alex knew that James was waiting for a response, but he couldn't speak. He was frozen in place, frightened shock gripping his heart. It felt like the entire world had dropped out from under his feet.

"James," Ruiha said finally, when it was clear neither Alex nor Tom was going to fill the space. Tom was similarly frozen at Alex's feet, body completely still. "That is completely fucked up mate. Like, ultra fucked." Her voice was more serious than Alex had ever heard before. "You realize that, right?"

"I mean? It wasn't a big deal or anything—"

"It sounds like it kind of was. You asked her to stop and she didn't?"

"Yeah?"

"Then it's a big fucking deal. I'm sorry. I know you don't think it is and I don't want to make you feel bad, but it's so fucking valid to feel grossed out."

"It's not like I couldn't have stopped her if I had really tried though. And it didn't, like, hurt or anything."

Now Day spoke up. "It doesn't matter if it hurt or not. And it doesn't matter if you were stronger than her. If you asked her to stop and she didn't, that's…"

He trailed off and Alex heard what he wasn't saying in the silence.

Assault.

That's assault.

James was getting flustered. Alex could hear it in his voice, and his stomach clenched at the rising distress in the room. "You're taking this way too seriously. Right Tom? Alex?"

And Alex finally found his voice. "No," he croaked out. Paused. Cleared his throat. Tried again. "James, no. If you don't want to make this a big deal, we don't have to, but please know that it kind of is. And you obviously think so too, on some level, because it's your biggest regret. This… This girl—" He spat the word like it was motor oil on his tongue. "—acted highly inappropriately. And selfishly. And I completely understand why you're upset about it."

"We would never laugh at you," Tom said. Alex knew that Tom was just as horror-struck as he himself felt, but Tom was doing a remarkable job of keeping his voice level. "She was wrong to be like that to you."

"But…" James sounded more lost than anything. "She was a girl. You know?"

Alex pressed his lips together. "Women can be just as vile as men. You remember the scars on my wrists?"

"But that's different! You were handcuffed! You couldn't have stopped her if you had wanted to!"

"Well what about me?" Tom pressed. "You know about my mum. She once made me stand in a corner until I passed out. I could have stopped any time. She wasn't even in the room for most of it."

"Fuck your mother, Tom," James snapped back. "You were a kid. Of course you were going to do what she said, that's not your fault!

"You're a kid right now too!"

"And even if you weren't," Alex cut in. "It still wouldn't be your fault. There are your actions, and her actions, and she is the only one responsible for her actions. You asked her to stop and she didn't. Not a single thing you did or said or didn't do matters past that point. She didn't stop. That's it, James. I'm serious."

"She probably just didn't realize…" He trailed off. "I mean…"

There was silence in the room for a moment. The pressure was suffocating in the darkness, the heaviness of all that had been revealed pressing down on them all. Alex's heart was still fluttering in his heart like a wild bird, frantic and pained. He hadn't anticipated this. He hadn't been ready. He hadn't prepared at all.

What if he was telling James the wrong things? What if he was making it all worse?

There was a small, stifled sniffle and Alex cringed.

"I'm sorry James," Tom said softly. "We don't mean to upset you. We just care about you."

"Thanks guys." His voice sounded strained and there was another quiet sniffle. "It's just stupid, you know? I feel like I'm getting upset about something that doesn't even matter."

Alex shook his head even though nobody could see it. "It's not stupid. It's not the same, but I get it a little, you know? Telling someone to stop and they don't and they just continue, like you're the unreasonable one, like your feelings are so insignificant that they don't even matter."

James huffed a wet breath. "Makes you feel like shit, huh?"

"It really does."

"Yeah… I just don't want you to think I'm messed up now or something."

"We would never think that."

"We really wouldn't," Tom promised. "Stuff just happens to you and then you have to deal with it. It's just how it is. I mean, look at me. You don't think I'm completely messed up now, do you?"

"Of course not!"

"So why would we think that about you?"

That seemed to bring James up short. "I… I don't know. It's not the same, I guess."

"It is."

"It's not though. I mean, I got myself into that situation, didn't I?"

Alex swallowed. Hard.

He tasted blood and sand and salt.

Tom was speaking firmly, although to Alex, his voice was distant. Floating. "You didn't. Something like that only exists in the moment, James. There's right, and there's wrong. And doing what she did was wrong, and nothing you did before that can ever change that fact. You could have laid naked on her bed with a rose in your mouth and it'd still be her fault."

"I guess…"

"I know. Right Alex?"

"Right," Alex said softly. His own voice sounded almost as distant to him as Tom's. "It was nothing you did. Not a single thing."

For James, it was the truth.

It was bittersweet.

"I need to think about this a little more." James said. He sounded worn out. A bit jittery. But thoughtful. That was the most important thing. "I know you're like, objectively right, but… it doesn't really feel like that, does it?"

"I know. Thinking about it is the best first step though, James."

"Fuck...Yeah. Just—" James sat up abruptly, the recliner springing up into vertical position with a loud -fwoomp- "This was so emotional."

"It's okay to be emotional—" Tom began earnestly, and James cut him off. Alex could clearly hear the first threads of embarrassment in his voice.

"Yes, but I meant it in more the way of Let's transition this conversation into a slightly less awkward direction. I have taken everything you've said and internalized it, I promise. Look, I've even stopped crying!"

There was a moment's pause as they all squinted his way in the pitch black room.

"Okay," he sighed. "Just trust that I've stopped crying. Although for the record it was more of a few leaking tears than actual crying."

Ruiha cleared her throat. She had Day had been sitting quietly, letting Alex and Tom talk to James, but now she spoke for the first time in a while. "Well. We've all been there, mate."

"Not me," Alex deadpanned. "I never cry."

"You literally cried watching Pete's Dragon, but go off, I guess," Day said under his breath, and Alex smacked Day on the arm, his ears going red.

"Shut up."

"You cried watching Pete's Dragon?" Ruiha asked, audibly stifling a laugh. "Sad."

"And Inside Out," Tom piped up and Alex's ears turned even redder.

"Shut up!"

James laughed and it made the embarrassment sting a little less.

"Alex is actually very sensitive." And Alex was expecting James to continue with a teasing insult, the dark conversation purposefully swept away at this first opportunity for relief, but James surprised him by clearing his throat and saying, "Thank you guys, though. Um. I know that girls can be just as awful as guys and I didn't mean to belittle your own experiences or anything."

"You didn't," Tom and Alex chorused together firmly.

"I'm really glad. Look, I just... need a little time to process all of this, you know? I'm sorry to Day and Ruiha especially. This was a big thing to dump on you on our first hangout."

"It's cool, man," Ruiha said casually. And she really was more mature than she let on, because there wasn't even an inkling of discomfort in her voice. "Did I ever tell you about the time when I was 10 and a group of girls called me names, threw rocks at me, and gave me 14 total stitches?"

James choked on his spit. "What the fuck? No? Who did that to you? Why?"

"Bunch of racist white girls. They were about the same age and they didn't like that I was fat and brown and vaguely queer."

"And so they threw rocks at you? Seriously? Did they get in trouble?"

"No. It happened just off school property and they were all rich white kids. Nothing happened to them."

"Who were they?" Alex asked neutrally.

"Um—" James interrupted before Ruiha could answer. "Ruiha, just so you know, and I tell you because I think it'd be fair to warn you— but if you tell Alex their names he's going to hunt them down and do bad shit to them."

"They'd certainly deserve it," Tom said coolly, and James nodded his agreement.

"Oh, definitely. But she should still know. Her choice and all."

There was a moment's pause. Then:

"Colleen Maxwell, Rachel Evans, Brittany Ginger, and Sky Leland."

Alex glued the names firmly into his mind. "Thank you Ruiha."

"Sure. That's pretty much the worst thing that anyone has ever done to me. Made me feel like garbage."

"I just can't believe people are so bloody racist." James shook his head angrily. "I mean, this is the 21st century! Do people still treat you like that?"

"Still brown aren't I?" She said sardonically. "Still fat too. It's a potent combination."

"Shit. That sucks, Ruiha. I thought our school was pretty good about race."

"If you're not a person of colour, you don't usually notice," Day interjected. "But most people are racist, at least a little."

"You sound like you're talking from experience?" James said, confused, and Day explained patiently.

"I'm half Filipino. I'm just pretty white passing and most people don't realize."

"Oh! I didn't notice either. I'm sorry."

"It's okay."

"I didn't realize either until I visited Day's house," Alex admitted.

He still felt badly about it, because Day obviously had some hang ups on the issue. He had confessed once that he felt a bit like an outsider, not just among white people, but among his own family. He was the lightest skinned out of all his siblings, and his hair was a chocolate brown naturally, not the soft black of the others.

"Like I said. Most people don't. Anyway. For me the worst thing someone did to me was spread rumours that I slept with my male gym teacher after I came out as bi."

Alex felt his eyes bulge. What?

"Holy shit, another awful thing!" James cried. "What the hell?"

"Who did that?" Alex demanded, sitting up straight. "Day, who did that to you?"

Day chuckled softly. He reached out and pulled Alex back down gently, giving him a soothing pat on the head. Like he was a dog. Begrudgingly, Alex felt some of his ire bleed away, although he still bit his lip and scowled angrily up at the ceiling.

"Relax, Alex. It's alright now. I don't know who started the rumours and nobody ever gave any hint."

"That sounds rather lucky for them!" Tom smacked Alex on the leg. "One less name for Alex's revenge list."

"They were just kids, anyway," Day waved away, like Alex didn't know that rumours couldn't be completely debilitating and crushing. "Not a whole lot to be said about it, really. Obviously, I had not slept with him, I was 12 at the time. Nobody really believed it, I think, but people said some really nasty things for a couple of months."

"Man, fuck little kids, they all suck!"

"You were a little kid once too," James pointed out to Ruiha but she just scoffed.

"And I sucked, next question."

James made a sound that was close to a giggle. It made Alex's lips curl up. Ruiha was actually great. Really great. She'd somehow diffused the entire dread of James' confession, while simultaneously levelling the playing field by baring her own trauma. And she'd done it all with a light-hearted, joke-y manner, so casual that James no longer seemed to feel embarrassment about what he'd told them.

"We really strayed pretty far from our biggest regrets," James commented. "Can't believe we got all the way around to why all children deserve death."

"I didn't say that. But yeah, we've come a long way. Actually, now that I think about it, we never did get to hear Alex's biggest regret. You up for sharing, mate?"

And she probably thought that it was going to be a lower stakes answer, something bad but something they could move quickly past, but—

It wasn't.

It really really wasn't.

"Not really," he said thinly, brain scrambling. "But do you want to hear about the time someone tried to cut my fingers off?"

He hadn't thought it through, just spouting the first thing that popped into his head.

The statement dropped like a bombshell.

"Someone tried to cut your fingers off?" Ruiha blurted, shocked and horrified. "What?"

Shit.

Back up.

"Yeah, uh. They didn't succeed, obviously, so it's not, like, the worst thing ever, you know, it was just kind of scary at the time—"

"They?"

"One person to hold me down, and one to saw them off," he explained and then there was a choking sound from Ruiha's corner, and Day was shifting next to him.

"Alex," Day hissed. A hand was suddenly threading through his hair, another reaching over to blindly grab at his wrist. He gave it up to Day with a bemused cringe, wishing that the lights were on so that he could see everyone's expressions.

Day immediately traced his way down to Alex's fingers and laced his own between them, palms pressed together.

"I'm really okay guys. They obviously didn't succeed."

"It's still incredibly fucked up, dude!" Ruiha cried. "What the hell? Was this like, a gang thing?"

The question knocked the air out of his lungs, and he caught his breath, hand clenching tight around Day's fingers. The question had, shockingly, hurt him. More than he had expected.

"Ruiha, back off," James warned, and he didn't need the lights to know that Tom was glaring over at her.

"Alex has never been in a gang."

"What? Why else would someone be trying to cut your fingers off? Pretty sure that's classic gang shit right there."

Tom began a relentless onslaught. "Loads of reasons, Ruiha. To commit identity fraud. To break into a fingerprint locked safe. To break into a fingerprint locked phone. If they're a cannibal. If they were dared to. If they didn't believe that theory about your fingers having the strength of a carrot and wanted to test it. If they hated people who used BSL. If they were an aspiring surgeon but they were really bad at their job—"

"Okay okay! I don't need to know! I'm genuinely sorry for asking. It's just crazy, isn't it? Did you report them to the police then? Or at least tell your parents?"

Now Day was squeezing his hand back, the hand in his hair continuing its soothing tugging.

"I'm an orphan. So no."

"Oh. God. I'm a twat."

"No you're not, Ruiha. It's not like you knew. They died a long time ago, anyway."

"Shit. Who have you been living with then?"

"Foster parents since I was 14."

An intake of breath. Then, "I see."

And she probably thought she did. Ruiha wasn't stupid. Alex gets shunted into foster care and then misses an overwhelming amount of school only to show back up horribly injured and withdrawn? And if Alex was telling the truth, and it wasn't gang related…? Yeah.

It was one of the main reasons he didn't want the realities of his living situation to get out.

It was far more palatable to have people think he was in a gang than that he was getting knocked around at home. Not that he enjoyed the mafia rumours or anything, but… yeah, they were still better. He'd rather people thought of him as violent than a victim.

"Oh shit," Ruiha suddenly blurted, drawing him out of his thoughts. "And I made a joke about you slicing your fingers off with the juggling knives! Oh my god!"

He hadn't even thought about that. "Er, it's okay."

"Dude, it's so not, I'm so genuinely sorry."

"It really is okay. I forgive you." And then, because he literally could not stop himself, he added, "I appreciate the knife apology."

Tom smacked his leg.

"Ow!"

"Oh, that did not hurt! What did we say about the puns?"

"To cut it out?"

Tom smacked him again and beside him, Day shook with silent laughter.

"Alex!"

"Sorry. I really do appreciate the apology, Ruiha."

"As long as we're good, Alex. We are, right?"

"We are."

"Cool. So does anyone want to watch another movie?"

And just like that, she moved on. There was no more pushing. No more prodding.

They put on a movie and not once did Ruiha ask anything about living in foster care, or who had tried to cut his fingers off.

He was so glad.

When the movie was over, they'd all relaxed considerably. Tom was already halfway asleep, and it only took 15 minutes of silence for his soft breathing to even out. The others followed quickly after.

But Alex…

Alex couldn't sleep.

After a restless hour and a half of tossing and turning, he gave up. He eased himself out of his sleeping bag as quietly as he could, and crept silently to the kitchen, relying purely on muscle memory and the faint glow of the oven light to make it there without tripping over any furniture.

It was only in the kitchen that he felt comfortable enough to tap on his phone's flashlight, sliding the bar to the lowest setting. Propping the phone against the blender provided just the barest of glows across the room, but it was enough to find the cabinet with the glasses.

He filled up his glass with water and then leaned against the counter, sipping slowly, mulling over the events of the night, processing.

He hadn't been there long when there was a soft rustle from the living room. He froze immediately, eyes and ears straining against the dark silence.

Day padded into the kitchen.

Oh.

Alex relaxed.

"Hey," he greeted softly as Day came to settle against the counter next to him, leaning his elbows back on the granite countertop.

"Hey," Day responded, equally as soft. "Couldn't sleep?"

"No."

"Me neither."

They sat in comfortable silence for a moment, the only sound in the dark room the low hum from the refrigerator.

"So that was a lot, huh?" Day said finally.

"Yeah."

"You okay?"

He shrugged. "I suppose. Just didn't really expect to talk about… all that."

"Me neither."

There was more silence.

Then:

"Why did they try to cut your fingers off?"

It was a testament to how close they'd gotten that Day didn't preface the question with any variation of You don't have to tell me if you don't want to. By this point, Day trusted Alex to tell him no if he wanted. Just like Alex trusted Day to back off or stop if he said it.

He took a breath and then blew it out heavily. "You wouldn't believe me."

Day's brows rose. "Oh really?"

He would.

Alex's thoughts reformed. "It sounds crazy."

"Okay."

"It really does sound crazy, Day. I don't want you to think I'm like, making it up or anything."

"I won't."

He worried his lip between his teeth, thinking. Exactly how much did he trust Day? Finally, he decided. "Alright." He set down his cup on the counter and pushed himself up. "Come here then."

Day raised a brow but followed him with soft footsteps down the hall.

"This is James' room," Alex said after he'd flipped on the light and shut the door behind him. "I don't want to talk out there."

"Is it okay that we're in here?"

"Yeah, he wouldn't mind, I promise." He perched on the edge of James' bed, the navy blue comforter spread over it plush and comfy. Day took the spot next to him. His proximity made some of his tension ease, but only some.

"Is it really bad?" Day asked. His voice was serious. Quiet, even though it was impossible for those sleeping in the living room to hear.

"It's not, it's just… I've only ever told one person the full story."

"Tom?"

"No."

How to start? Just thinking about the event was making his pulse throb and his palms sweat. He decided to just dive right in.

"When I was in the hospital once, there was a boy in the room next to me who was my same age. Same body type. Also blond."

He glanced over. Day was listening patiently. He continued.

"Some men came to kidnap him. Only, I heard them discussing it in the lobby, so I went up and switched the room numbers on our doors."

An intake of breath, sharp and loud in the quiet of the bedroom.

He glanced over again. Day was still listening, but his expression had shifted drastically.

"He was just a kid," Alex tried to explain helplessly. "I couldn't let him get hurt."

"You were the same age."

"Yeah but— I could do something, couldn't I? So why wouldn't I?"

"Alex…" Day's fingers touched his chin and light pressure urged him to turn his face. "Look at me please? Thank you. You were really brave."

His eyes darted away, unable to stomach the fierce pride in Day's eyes. "It wasn't about bravery. It was just the thing to do."

"It was more than that. What happened next?"

"Well." He regathered his thoughts, mind stumbling back to that night. "I was taken to a different building. And then they were going to cut off some fingers as proof they had the right kid. Send them to Paul's father, you know? But I confessed, told them I wasn't really Paul. So they didn't need to cut off my fingers after all, in the end."

"Wait," Day said. His brow was furrowed. "Actually, hang on a second. I actually… I think… This was about two years ago?"

"Yes?" He answered, uncertain. Day had a new look on his face. It was almost… recognition.

A few seconds later he realized that it was, when Day said, "I remember this. There was an article posted about it in the Evening Standard. Some men had broken into a hospital and tried to kidnap Nikolei Drevin's son Paul, but they took the wrong kid. A guard was killed. Alex, that was you?"

"Oh." He'd completely forgotten about the article. Usually when bad things happened to him, the events were kept locked away in total secrecy. "Yeah, that was me."

"Alex, oh my god." Day gripped his thigh tightly. "That's just…"

"It wasn't that bad," he reassured, patting Day's hand and peering up at him in worry. He was far too stressed about this.

"You were abducted by murderers, Alex, please…"

"Well, it could have been worse? I lived, and all fingers still attached. See?"

He wiggled his fingers at Day and Day caught his hand abruptly, a deadly serious look on his face.

"Did they do anything to you?"

"No. I mean, I got hit a couple of times, I guess, and knocked out. But nothing serious."

"I feel like our definitions of 'serious' are distinctly at odds with each other. I'm just glad they let you go."

He winced a little, and Day hissed out a breath, squeezing both his hand and his thigh simultaneously. "They didn't? What happened?"

"They locked me in a building and set it on fire."

He'd thought that just spitting it out would make it easier to swallow, but he was clearly wrong, judging by the way Day's eyes lit up in a blaze of fury. A harsh breath expelled from the other boy's chest and Day leaned forward, teeth grit like he was fighting against vulgarity. Sparks were practically flying from him. "They tried to burn you alive?"

"I suppose. But don't worry. I managed to jump over to the roof of the building next door and got away. It's really fine, Day."

"That is in no way fine Alex. Fuck! How could they do that? Who would try to do that to another human being? To a child?"

And yeah, okay. Day was angry.

Not that he liked to see Day upset, but it was kind of… nice. He liked that Day felt so strongly about him. He liked that Day cared.

"It's in the past," he tried again, patting a soothing palm over Day's shoulder awkwardly. At least, he hoped it was soothing. "I'm alright now."

"What happened to them? The people who did that?"

He paused, hands twitching. Well. He cleared his throat. Said carefully, "I think I heard that they died."

"Good."

Alex wondered if he'd still be saying that if he knew how they'd died. If he knew about Kaspar. And the fight. And the knife.

Day squeezed his thigh, recapturing his attention. "Alex. Look at me again? Okay. I am so so sorry that happened to you. It's literally one of the worst things I can think of and I can't even imagine what I would have done in that situation. You were… so brave. And it's not just 'the thing to do', okay? You didn't have to. But you did and I'm so proud of you, Alex. I am. Do you understand?"

"I..."

Day ducked his head to force eye contact. "Do you, Alex?"

"Yeah Day, I… I understand."

"Good." And then, moving with deliberate slowness, giving Alex ample time to move away, he wrapped his arms around him and hugged him.

"You were so good," Day muttered into his hair, voice gentle. "So good, Alex. Thank you for telling me."

Alex hugged him back, feeling overwhelmed.

Why was Day so— so—

I mean, he was just—

He was—

Alex couldn't even formulate a thought, so affected he was by Day and Day's arms and Day's voice and Day's kindness.

He felt warm and safe and protected, which was weird because hugs usually put him incredibly on edge. They were stressful and restricting and generally speaking, hands that close to his neck never ended well.

But here? Now? Like this? He felt taken care of.

He didn't think he was imagining the reluctance with which Day finally pulled away. He wondered if Day had noticed back.

"Thanks." He cleared his throat. "Um. For the hug, but also… for listening."

"I'll always listen to you, Alex. I want to know everything you're willing to share. You know that, right? Even things like this."

He couldn't help but snort lightly. "You say that, but…"

"Let me judge on my own, at least. I won't think any less of you." He grinned wryly. "Stuff just happens to you and you deal with it, remember? Still Alex, in the end."

"You really think so? You don't think… I mean... You don't think that there are things you can't come back from? Things that you did, or— or things that happened to you, that change you? Forever?"

"I think everything changes a person forever, one way or another. But I also think that you can always come back, if you don't like who you've become. Heal. It just might take some time."

"What if there's too much? And not enough time?"

Day mulled this over for a bit longer. He said finally, "I think that if you're in the right environment. A healthy environment. And you're actively trying and striving. And you have a good support group… I don't think there's ever too much that a person can't overcome."

"That's optimistic."

He shrugged. "I believe it. I also believe that most of the time, your brain can hurt you. Make you see yourself or your situation in ways very different than reality. You can place blame or shame or guilt in places they're not needed. And once you understand… that it's not all your fault… that can help." Day was far too tactful to reference the conversation the group had earlier with James, but Alex's mind darted back to it anyway.

"I also think that healing is very much a journey. And there's no real end or solution. There aren't just two states: 'broken' or 'completely perfect', there's this crazy field in the middle where everyone in the world falls. And we're all just trying to get to 'completely perfect' but it will literally never happen. But we're all trying anyway, with totally different ideals in our mind, and like—" He shrugged. "That's the best we can do."

The concept made Alex smile. "I guess you're right. Sometimes it all just feels a little bit… too much, you know?"

"I know. I don't think you'll feel that way forever though."

"I hope not."

And, shockingly, surprisingly, relievingly— sitting there with Day on James' bed— he felt more hopeful than he had in a very long time.


A/N: I hope you like this chapter, it was a very important one for plot purposes! Also overall a lot heavier than usual, so I hope that was okay! But yeah, Alex said... hmm... a lot more than he probably should have, let's just keep it at that lol. I've also started flipping through the books again to keep things accurate and I feel like I genuinely forgot a lot of the awful things that happened to Alex? Like bro. His life sucks so much :'(

LoveRider: Here's a new chapter! I hope you like it! Thank you for the review :D

BritishBookWorm: Thank you! I'm so glad you liked it! Hope this one works for you too! :D

Brigith: THANK YOU! What a nice review omg! I appreciate the love!

Leigh: lakdjfks I can't belive anyone would actually reread this story, that's the coolest thing I've ever heard omg! This story is going to be largely about people being happy and accepted by others haha, this story is kind of a vent story on my part tbh!

Chockie: Alex has so many vague issues that need to be addressed lol, I am definitely going to try to address as many of them as I can! There are lot though haha, but I'll do my best

This story is so incredible! : Thank you! :D I love that you think that!