Nick didn’t know why he had woken up.
He couldn’t have been sleeping for very long. According to the clock in his room, he’d only been out for about an hour and a half. Considering how tired he was, there was no reason for him have woken up. At least, not that he was aware of.
He lay there for a while, trying to discern why he had been awakened from his slumber. But with every passing moment that he couldn’t fall back asleep, it seemed like the reason for his awakening made less and less sense to him. There were no sounds emanating from other parts of the house. There wasn’t a crow sitting outside his window, cawing obnoxiously. No one had come into his room. His side wasn’t flaring up. The sun wasn’t in his eyes.
He didn’t understand why he had awakened.
Normally, when he woke up for no reason, it meant he needed to get up and make a run out the back door (or a window) of whatever hotel or motel he was staying in. Usually, it meant that he was in trouble, or that trouble was on its way and he needed to run. More often than not, he’d wake up and the air would be filled with gunfire within minutes of him opening his eyes.
But he didn’t have to worry about that anymore, right? There weren’t any sore-loser thugs running around anymore. There weren’t any hired guns after him. There weren’t any gangs that were out for his blood. He hadn’t swindled the mafia lately. There just wasn’t a reason for him to have been so rudely awakened, and then kept awake.
He rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. He was cold, even though he was burrowed under all his blankets and it was the tag end of summer in the south. It felt like his heart was beating faster than it ought to be, considering that he had barely moved. He cleared his throat and took a deep breath, trying to get a sense of his state of wellbeing. He felt worse than he had earlier. His would venture to guess that his fever had probably gone up.
He jerked with a start that sent a flash of searing pain through his side when a loud bang sounded through the house. He placed the noise immediately as coming from Dal’s room and found himself upright and moving before he really registered the adrenaline coursing through his veins. He paused momentarily, waiting for the rush of vertigo to fade, when he heard Megan’s voice. She was shouting at someone. He couldn’t really make out what she was saying through the wall.
She’s yelling at Dal.
His fists clenched as a surprisingly high level of rage powered through him. The pain in his side and his head seemed to disappear to the back-burner of his awareness as he stalked out of his room, immediately hit by the volume of Megan’s hollering.
He stepped into Dal’s doorway, taking in the scene – Megan gesticulated towards the wall, towards something Nick couldn’t see. Dal was standing in the far corner of his room, hands clenched into impossibly tight fists, his eyes welled up with tears, and Nick could see the anger in his gaze melting away. He could see the way the kid’s lower lip was trembling, the way his whole body was shaking with barely restrained emotion, and he could see that Megan hadn’t yet realized how upset Dal was. She was probably reacting to his anger, as most people did, without really pausing to notice that he was on the verge of tears.
“I nearly got killed getting that for you!!” The redhead was all but shrieking, and for a moment Nick couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. He didn’t know what had happened. He didn’t know what idiot thing Megan had done to reach the end of Dal’s fuse.
At that moment, it didn’t really matter. He stalked into the room, a swirl of fury and disbelief surrounding him, and for a moment he wondered if he was going to hit her. He wondered if he was going to lose it on Megan and punch her square in the jaw, where she had it coming. He didn’t always have complete control over his reactions. He didn’t always know what he was going to do when he reached the person his anger was directed at.
Dal saw him coming and his tear-filled eyes widened, startled, maybe a little frightened if Nick was reading him correctly. Megan’s voice had been blotted out by the whirlwind of anger. He had no idea what she was even saying anymore, if she was speaking at all. She paused in her hollering, seemingly noticing that Dal was looking over her shoulder, and turned around swiftly.
Nick came frighteningly close to socking her in the nose. Barely restraining himself, he grabbed her by the upper arm, squeezing hard because he wanted to leave bruises, and dragged her out of Dal’s room.
“Let… go!” Nick ignored her, throwing her bodily out of the room with enough force that she stumbled and had to catch herself on the wall. He didn’t wait for her to turn around and come at him, or swear at the top of her lungs, or whatever it was that she might’ve decided to do. He slammed the door as hard as he could, an exertion to vent out some of his anger.
He hadn’t been this angry with anyone since Coach and Rochelle had left. Hopefully, it wouldn’t stick. Megan was far too useful with her practical skills and knowledge for him to chase her off.
Nick placed a hand against the wall beside the door, bracing himself against it and trying very hard to calm himself down. After a moment of standing perfectly still, eyes closed, and letting the rage seep to the back of his mind, he straightened up. As he was turning back around to face Dal, he caught sight of something on the floor.
It took him only a second to realize that it was, indeed, the speech board, broken into a hundred pieces on the floor, from where Dal had evidently thrown it with every ounce of strength he had. There was a dent in the wall, and Nick couldn’t help but stare at the destruction Dal had wrought upon his speech board. He couldn’t imagine how angry the kid must’ve been to have done that. Dal had been wanting a way to talk to people since probably about the moment Nick had met him. For him to have been angry enough to break his only means of communication…
Well, Nick thought bitterly, I’ll just have to get him another one.
He dragged his gaze off the floor and turned his attention to Dal, who had cornered himself further and sunk to the ground. As the adrenaline began to wither away, Nick became starkly aware of how sick he suddenly felt. It seemed like he was getting worse with every minute, whether he was upright or not. His heart was hammering away in his chest, and it was creating a sickening sense of dizziness. He felt weak and shaky all of a sudden, and he couldn’t seem to catch his breath. He needed to sit down before he fell down.
Nick made his way over to Dal, ignoring the searing pain in his side and the ache in his joints. The kid had drawn his knees up to his chest and buried his face in his arms. He was still shaking. Nick leaned up against the wall beside Dal and slid down to join him on the floor. His head was pounding, but he ignored it. If he got comfortable and then stopped moving, it would lessen within a few minutes, he was sure.
He was quiet for a while. He wasn’t entirely sure what he ought to say. He had sworn to himself that he would keep his distance from Dal, but it seemed like that was turning out to be completely impossible. The protective instincts, the emotional attachment, and the memory of the true absence of that unbearable loneliness made it too difficult. He’d let himself get too attached. He’d allowed himself to get comfortable with not being alone in the world. He’d formed habits specifically for Dal – everything from doing periodic headcounts during travel to offering physical comfort whenever he could. He’d grown into the role of Dal’s could-be caretaker. He’d gotten it into his head that he and Dal would just stick together when this mess was over.
He had sort of started assuming that he was going to… adopt the kid, he supposed.
Taking that idea and putting it into words in his head for the first time was sort of like a punch in the stomach. He hadn’t ever asked Dal if he had any idea what he was going to do after this mess was over. He didn’t know if the kid wanted to hunt down other family, or if he wanted to stick with Nick, despite the conman’s inherently flawed personality. He didn’t know if Dal wanted to go with Megan, even if she was overbearing and liked to stick her nose where it absolutely did not belong. He didn’t know if Dal wanted to follow Ellis, who was annoying and overly helpful at times, but still far more compassionate that Nick could ever hope to be. He didn’t know if Dal wanted to go off alone, though he could figure that that option was probably not in the cards. He didn’t know if the kid had even given it any thought.
“And if I decide then you’re going to be trailing after me like a duckling for the rest of your life.”
And would that really be such a bad thing?
He heard the soft rustling of fabric and slowly opened his eyes, turning his head to glance at Dal. The kid was staring at him, but he quickly averted his gaze to the floor. He had to be waiting for Nick to say or do something. And Nick still didn’t know what to say or do. His headache had subsided some since he’d sat down, but that didn’t mean it had gone away. He was having some difficulty formulating a complete sentence in his head that could be translated by his mouth into spoken English.
He took his eyes off of Dal, not wanting to make the kid uncomfortable, and instead stared at the dent that had been left in the wall. They sat in continued silence, Nick still trying to figure out what he wanted to say first, how he wanted to word it. He was terrible at apologies, among many other things. Dal was just going to have to wait if he wanted an apology that wasn’t the bastard, stuttering child of “uh, sorry.”
“I wasn’t mad at you,” he said after another several minutes of deliberation, his voice quiet. “I was… mad at myself. I was just taking it out on you, and that was really shitty of me. I didn’t… I didn’t realize I was important enough to you that you’d run away if you thought I hated you. I guess I didn’t realize what being important to someone even meant. ”
His gaze slid off the dent in the wall and found its place upon his frigid hands. He could feel Dal’s eyes on him, the kid slowly unraveling from the curled up position he’d been locked in before.
“I think it’s probably about time I… made some changes, I guess.” He continued, feeling more raw and exposed now than he had in probably his entire life. He didn’t like it. It was uncomfortable. But he supposed he was going to have to get used to it. “So… I’m sorry. For everything.”
He heard Dal make a thin sound of emotional distress and reached out to wrap an arm around the kid’s shoulders. He pulled Dal over, allowing him to lean the way Nick knew he wanted to, and remained silent as the kid started to cry. It pained him to think that these sobs were stemming from something Nick had done to the kid. He had felt some of that unyielding misery. He had felt some of that agonizing loneliness. He had experienced some of that pain.
He couldn’t imagine how it must have felt for Dal.
Probably twenty minutes had passed before he made his very slow descent down the stairs to speak with Megan, as he had promised Dal he would. The kid had decided, after crying himself hoarse, that he wanted to sleep for a while, and quite frankly, Nick didn’t blame him. He knew he was going back to bed as soon as Megan was done yelling at him.
Hopefully, she wouldn’t actually yell. With every agonizing step down the stairs, his side screamed in pain and his head pounded harder. He didn’t want to fight with her. He wanted to figure out what exactly she had done to make Dal lose his temper like that, and he wanted to make sure she didn’t do it again. He wasn’t interested in yelling at anyone. He was far too tired for that.
Nick glanced into the living room when it came into sight, watching resignedly as Megan stood up from the couch glaring up at him. She waited patiently for him to reach the bottom floor before she started her tirade, which he was actually quite grateful for.
“You had no business getting involved!” She snarled, her voice way too loud. “You don’t get to play good cop when-…”
“Megan,” he cut in, silencing her as he sat down in the armchair she usually occupied. She’d probably positioned herself on the couch so she could see him come downstairs. “Firstly, stop yelling.”
“I’m not yelling.”
“Next,” he continued with a sigh. “What happened?”
He looked up when she didn’t respond right away. She still looked fairly angry, but she also appeared to be surprised by his question. She must’ve been expecting him to come downstairs and start hollering at her. He had probably completely thrown her off guard when he’d asked for her side of the story. Although he wasn’t sure why it was so surprising- it wasn’t like he could’ve found out from Dal. If he was going to find out at all, he was going to have to ask the only other person who had been there.
Megan hesitated for a few moments before agitatedly crossing her arms, “I was trying to talk to him,” she fumed, her fingers curling around her arms. She was a lot angrier than she ought to be over something that was already beginning to sound relatively trivial in his eyes.
“Kris died and then you dumped him like a shitty girlfriend, and no one tried to talk to him about it.” The redhead continued after a beat, never taking her steely gaze off Nick. “He’s been bottling up all this crap for days, so I decided I would talk to him and help him work through it.”
Nick let out a sigh, running his hand through his hair again. “He didn’t want to talk to you, did he?”
Megan gritted her teeth, “Why would he? It hurts, obviously, but that doesn’t mean that bottling it up will make it go away! I tried to convince him to talk to me, but he flipped out and threw his fucking speech board at me!”
I doubt he threw it at you, Megan, Nick thought with mild annoyance.
“Did it ever occur to you to just leave him alone? That he might not like you nagging him to do something he doesn’t have to do?” The conman asked, lowering his gaze as his vision started to swim. He really wasn’t up for this. He blinked a few times to clear his sight, pressing fingers against his eyelids briefly before returning his gaze to Megan’s. She looked entirely indignant. He wasn’t trying to call her out on the fact that she had just done something completely terrible. He really just wanted her to get over herself.
“It…” She started, but then stopped. A few seconds passed, and for a moment Nick was sure she was trying to muster up more anger. He wondered faintly if this was how everyone else felt when he started finding ways to hang on to his fury. Seeing the same behavior like this put a lot into perspective for him. He was going to have to stop forcing himself to remain mad at people. It was a terrible coping mechanism.
“You’re missing the point!” She finally exploded, her voice rising in volume again. Her arms came uncrossed, her indignant stance matching her expression perfectly. She was on the defensive, so either she knew was wrong and didn’t want to admit it, or she was convincing herself that Nick was attacking her. In either case, she needed to stop. “I was trying to be nice, I was… I was trying to help him! I don’t expect a self-centered prick like yourself to understand that!”
Purposeful antagonism. She was trying to rile up him so he’d fight with her. She was way too furious for this to just be about him stopping her from screaming at Dal. He would’ve thought that, given the circumstances, twenty minutes would’ve been plenty long enough for her to cool down. There had to be something else going on here. He reached up with a hand and rubbed his eyes again when his vision started blur and swim, letting out a soft sigh.
After a moment, Nick spoke, his voice quieter than he had intended. “People grieve differently. I would expect you to know that already. If he didn’t want to talk about it, you should’ve just left him alone. And please stop yelling.”
“I didn’t want him to deal with it the same way that I did, because obviously that’s not healthy!” she retorted heatedly, completely blowing off his comment about her volume. “If he would stop pretending that his emotions didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have bothered him in the first place! Dal needs someone to talk to so he can heal! Why don’t you get that?”
This was going nowhere fast. Megan was too angry to listen to reason at this point. He should’ve given her more time to calm down before he tried to talk to her. Though, he didn’t think he would’ve been conscious in an hour. Either way, he wasn’t going to change her mind, and she wasn’t going to accept that she was wrong. At least, not right now. He rubbed his eyes again, taking a deep breath to try and reset his breathing, which had been fast and shallow more or less since he’d gotten out of bed.
Slowly, he stood up, his hand seeking out the back of the chair he’d been sitting in as all the blood rushed to his head. He closed his eyes momentarily, waiting for it to pass. When he opened his eyes again, Megan’s expression had shifted to a look of moderate concern. He wondered if he’d been swaying, or if his face was as pale as his freezing hands.
He stepped past her, heading for the stairs. He wasn’t going to try to have this conversation with her in this particular mood. It was pointless and he didn’t have the wherewithal to try any harder than he already had. He was too tired. He was too sore. His head was pounding too much and his side was burning too hot.
“Where are you going?” Megan suddenly said from behind him. She still sounded pretty mad, but perhaps less hostile. She’d probably been thrown off again by how unwell he probably looked.
“Bed.” Nick returned tiredly, not even stopping to look at her. He ran a hand through his hair, the action very nearly throwing him off balance. His left hand sought out the banister, and he gripped it tightly, steadying himself.
Halfway up the stairs, he paused. Slowly, he turned to look back at her, meeting her gaze, and spoke one more time before he retired to his room. “Megan,” he said, voice quieting again. He could tell that she was listening very carefully, and he was grateful for it. “Dal doesn’t have to grieve the way you want him to, so leave him alone about it. The only grieving you should be concentrating on is your own.”
Megan didn’t say anything in response to that. When he turned back around and continued back up the stairs, she was just staring at him, the fury in her gaze less than it had been. It had been replaced by a look that suggested to him that he might have gotten through to her. That was sort of a relief.
He heard the front door open and Ellis’ naturally loud voice reached up the stairs, “‘m home! Oh, hey Meg…” Nick didn’t head back downstairs to talk to Ellis. No one was going to try and rope him into helping with the groceries. He turned the corner at the top of the stairs, seeing Dal coming out of his room. He had to be heading downstairs to help with the groceries.
Dal’s eyes were rimmed with red and he looked like he had been crying again since Nick had vacated the room. He would’ve stayed longer, but he’d had to talk to Megan and he’d been close to passing out on the kid’s floor.
“I don’t know if she gets it,” Nick said, running a hand through his hair again. Dal eyed the movement, his eyes betraying the fact that he had noticed something was wrong with Nick. The conman didn’t comment on it, just continued on about Megan. “She needs time to cool down, but I think she’ll come around after she’s had time to think. So, I guess, avoid her for now.”
He smiled slightly, and Dal nodded mutely. “I’m going back to bed. Wake me if you need me for anything.”
Once again, the kid nodded, and they continued past each other, Dal heading downstairs and Nick walking into his bedroom. His head was killing him. He clambered messily into bed, aggravating his side along the way and burrowing under his blankets. His heart was still hammering away in his chest, and his hands were blocks of ice. Even laying down, he felt dizzy and unsteady, and his joints ached painfully.
He pressed a hand to his forehead, wanting to see if he was feverish. His head wasn’t warm, though. Instead, it felt… cool to the touch. He wasn’t clammy, but his hands didn’t burn against the heat of his face like he had been expecting. To him, it almost felt like his hand and his head were the same temperature.
At that moment, Nick decided that it didn’t matter that Megan was mad at him. He was a lot sicker than he had thought. He needed to go and ask her to figure out what was wrong with him. He was a lot more unwell that he ought to be. His wound wasn’t that infected yet, so it didn’t make sense for him to be feeling this ill.
He sat up and was almost immediately hit with a loud ringing in his ears. His head pounded harder than ever, and his vision was overwhelmed with spots. He could feel himself breaking out in a cold sweat as dizziness made him sway in his seated position, and Nick realized belatedly that he was about to faint.
The world spun away into darkness, and Nick collapsed back into bed.