Eight cornered them on the way back from school the next day. "Hey, faggots," he said, coming up from behind, and Five quickly took his hand out of Nine's, whirling around.
"I quit!" he said, his voice betraying his nervousness.
Eight's eyebrows shot up, and he looked genuinely confused. He glanced between Five and Nine twice before it seemed to click. "Damn, you really are faggots. Go figure."
"What do you want?" Nine asked, moving to shield Five with his body.
"I was just wondering why I wasn't getting my money," Eight growled. "Don't cover him, faggy junior, or I'll just smash you, too."
Nin felt that impulsive, angry feeling start to overtake him. "Go ahead, smash us. He says he quits. And he won't let you take from him anymore."
Eight chuckled, cracking his neck. "Uh huh? Is that so? Listen here, faggot…"
Five saw it coming first, cried out – the fist colliding with Nine's jaw and sending him spinning towards the pavement. He hit hard, scraping his elbow, but he scrambled back up to his feet as quickly as possible. Five tried to pull him back, but he wrenched free, launching a solid punch on Eight's nose.
"Fuck off!" he was shouting, but it sounded muted.
"Hey, man, Jesus!" Eight barked, covering his bloody nose. His eyes were flashing. "Some people gotta make a living, you know."
"Leave us alone."
Eight shoved him. "I don't want to do this, but if you won't pay up –"
Nine interrupted him by socking him in the gut. With an irritated grunt, Eight heaved him up off of the ground and tossed him, and then went for Five. He hit him once, twice, a third time, and Five hit the ground screaming, kicking; his hand caught a rock and he lobbed it at Eight's face. It struck home but seemed to have no effect. "I'm not afraid of you!" he was yelling. "I'm not afraid of you!"
Eight kicked him, and Nine was back on his feet, shucking his backpack. He caught sight of Five's bloody face from the corner of his eye, and this launched him into a shrieking fury, slugging on Eight's solid body as hard as he could, and Eight kept shoving him off, his face red.
"Stop it, pussy, stop it," he was saying, laughing, as if this was all good fun.
Five struggled to stand, spitting pink onto the sidewalk. A few cars slowed as they passed to watch the fight progress, but it didn't matter in the end. Out of nowhere, Seven came tearing down the street in her Converse and her leather jacket – she would have been walking with them if she hadn't been held up after school to start making up for her absences. She was making a high, constant sound ("kyah!") as she leapt from the curb onto Eight's back, driving her elbow against the back of his skull. There was a sickening crack, and he swerved hard right before he collapsed on someone's lawn, unconscious.
"Shit," she said, gasping for air and resting her hands on her knees. She had a wild grin on her face, and Nine adored her, with the same tenor but a different meaning as before. "I haven't run like that in a while. Good stuff. Asshole."
"Holy fuck," said Five, gawking at Eight's unconscious form. "Is he all right?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Just knocked him out. He'll be fine. Might have a headache, though." Seven swallowed loudly and, catching Nine's stare, smiled. "Hey, pretty boy."
"Thank you," he said dumbly. "That was amazing."
"I'm not a black belt for nothing," she said, and stood to crack her back. "That felt good."
Five laughed nervously, and stood again. When Seven looked at him, there was no hatred or jealousy in her eyes at all. She seemed nearly the same as she ever had, strong again, intact again, at peace. Nine felt an unexpected sensation of a weight being lifted off of his shoulders, as if a problem had been solved, and he wasn't sure what the problem ever was. He felt whole for the first time in a long time, all of the pieces fitting together.
Five sucked on his split lip and kicked Eight's body good-naturedly, just to get the last word in.
In the morning, Five brought Nine, Six, and the twins to his father's wake. Seven opted out, even though he had shyly invited her in a text. She promised to go to a movie with them later, though, and Nine was relieved. By no means was their mistake erased – the memory of that would-be child was fresh, and would always linger, full of what-could-have-beens. But they were on their way to recovering their friendship, and that was what was important.
All throughout the morning, Five was quiet and solemn. Six kept running up to him to hug him, and this would make him smile faintly, and at least that was something.
Something was hilarious about seeing the twins in conservative dress. It wasn't required, of course, but out of respect for Five, everyone in their crew was wearing button-down shirts and ties and slacks, and the twins differed only by the color of their ties (Three being baby blue, and Four being royal blue). They kept tugging at their clothing unhappily.
The entire event was uncomfortable and silent. There weren't many people coming to visit Five's dad. He was an asshole and a drunk. A few work friends, and relatives, and friends of Five's mother came and went, impassive, leaving flowers and hugs and empty words. The curtains were closed over the stained-glass windows, making everything shadowed and foreboding, but at least it seemed to suit the man. When they walked in, they were hit with the smell of dust and sadness.
Nine squeezed Five's hand once and then let him go. This wasn't his place, not this time.
Five came up to his open coffin and stared for a long, long time, utterly still, and when Nine checked on him nearly fifteen minutes later, he looked torn between a smile and tears. He touched the edge of that wooden box, and then took it away, too afraid to touch the waxy skin of his father.
"I can't believe he's gone," he said in a whisper that cut across the near-deserted church.
Nine gripped his arm and let go, stepping outside for fresh air. He couldn't stand it in there, that stuffy air, that heavy feeling of loss and anger and pain. Five's mom, crying, the sounds of the twins pacing in the back and making the floorboards squeak, the stifled murmur of guests.
Outside of that dark room, the sky was bright with sunshine, and the lawn glittered with snow. It was cold, but nice. Nine shoved his hands in his pockets and stared up into the vast, endless blueness of the atmosphere.
Six came out, once, to shiver and mutter and rub his hands. "So negative," he kept saying, tugging on the key he kept around his neck. "He had a bad soul."
"I know. But he's gone now."
"It's all bad. But it's better now. Passing." He smiled, and kicked some of the powdery snow on the sidewalk. "Good. Good thing. Everything's getting better now." He turned and went back inside. He had been doing so much better ever since setting the house on fire. Three kept him focused and alert and lucid, stable, reminded him to take his medication, hugged him when he was frightened. In a way, he was to Six like Five was to Nine – an essential lifeline, the one person who truly understood.
After another half-hour, Five escaped, slipping through the front door with a weighty sigh. "God," he said softly. "It's over."
"How are you feeling?" Nine asked, even though he knew, could read it in Five's open face.
Without speaking, Five came up to him and hugged him tight. "I feel so… Like I can reach out, as far as I want, and I won't run into anything. Like… nothing can stop us. Just open space."
They stood there in the cold for a long while, just being together, listening to the pulse of traffic, the rush of the wind through the trees.
"It's a good day," Nine said, smiling. He felt as if he had reached a pivotal, vital moment in his life, a feeling that nothing could ever be the same again, and that it was all right, that he could do it, calmly and with poise – step into the next phase without fear, free of baggage. That they could be happy.
"Let's go away," Five said suddenly and yet not suddenly at all, as if he had been thinking the same thing as Nine, looking up at him with an intense expression that made Nine's insides burn and then freeze over. "Let's go away, together."
Nine spoke without hesitation, following effortlessly. "Where?"
"Anywhere. I don't care."
"What about college?" But Nine was thinking ahead, now, imagining them just driving over the horizon, gone, forever.
"I don't know, I don't know…" A bit of blood beaded up on the cut on his lip, and Nine smudged it away.
"Let's do it. Let's go. Once we graduate, let's go."
"Yes, really. Really. You and me."
The smile that lit up on Five's face made it completely worth it, made heat pool in Nine's stomach. They kissed there, tenderly and deeply, outside of the church, and it felt so right, so right.
"Do you think it'll be this way forever?" Five asked, staring out the window of Six's house. Six was giggling over a joke Three had made, and Four was hogging the popcorn. Everyone had stopped watching The Haunted Bedroom from Hades for a while, now.
Nine glanced at him and let out a soft, fluttering sigh. They would be graduating soon. His mother didn't know, would never know, what they had planned. "Probably not," he said honestly.
"You're probably right," Five said, his voice pitching lower. He looked at Nine sadly. "I'm going to miss it."
"Me too, man."
"Do you think…?"
"I don't know. I don't… I hope so, I'll try."
"I'll go anywhere with you. I don't care. I don't care."
"Don't say that, don't…"
"With you, forever, I love you…"
It was quiet. A bird swooped through the pale sky.
"It won't be this way forever," Nine repeated softly. "But it's good, isn't it? It's good."
"Yes, yes, it's good," Five said, not meeting Nine's gaze. "I just… It has to mean something. Everything. After all of that, the… It has to mean something, doesn't it?"
Nine didn't think so. The world was a cruel, cruel place. And it was also very sweet.
Five took out his lighter and flicked it on and off. Nine zipped and unzipped his hoodie.
Three leaned over and pressed a kiss to the corner of Six's mouth, making him squeak, and Four made a show of being jealous, but when he turned away he was smiling.
Nine would never forget the day after graduation, how clear the sunrise had been as they climbed into the minivan, shivering in the spring-tinted cold, the way the wind and air got chilly and wet before summer began to bloom. They had sat with the engine idling in the driveway for the better part of twenty minutes, just staring straight ahead, into the future opening up in front of them: unsure, dangerous, but theirs, a testament to their togetherness – a testament to the hardships they had endured – a testament to everything they had, and were, and would ever have, and would ever be.
Slowly, trembling, Five took Nine's hand in his own.
"I'm ready," he whispered.
They pulled out of the driveway and drove away, not speaking, just going. As they moved, the city swelled around them and shrank behind them and then was gone, forever gone. They plunged through the emptiness, the unknown, the infinite opportunity of youth, together.
The world turned and turned. Time slipped through the funnel of reality like sand, never stopping, and they, as people, were helpless but to be carried through it. They jerked along their strings like living ragdolls – and yet, most of all, they were alive.
They were alive.
-- the end
Happy Thanksgiving, guys! It's been a real ride... and I hope you enjoyed it. Some real blood sweat and tears went into this, haha.
I don't have a glorious ending speech, really. It's been fun hearing from you guys, and I hope you stay with me in fics to come. You're wonderful. Thank you. :3