Nick seemed to shift from moderately depressed to the foulest possible mood in the eight hours he had spent in his room, evidently sleeping. The man had gone into his room with his bowl of soup in some kind of a daze after he’d been duly informed of Dal’s full recovery, and when he had resurfaced the following morning, his glare could’ve set fire to rain. Under normal circumstances, “sleeping on it” usually resulted in a clearer outlook, a calmer approach, and a better mood. For some reason, it had instead turned Nick into a walking storm of hate and anger.
Megan had absolutely no idea what had caused the change, and she had no idea who or what he was actually mad at. One would’ve thought that Dal’s recovery would’ve put him in the greatest possible mood. Perhaps he just had a headache – some people got cranky when they were in pain. Nick had mentioned having a headache a couple of days ago, while Dal had been out with Kris.
Kris, who was dead now.
In much the same way Jake’s dead.
She slammed her pot of boiling water down on the counter much harder than she would’ve intended in even a fouler mood, frowning at the colander in the sink. At times, she felt like she had managed to work her way past Jake’s death. At other times, it seemed like the trauma might as well have happened ten minutes ago.
Kris’ death had reminded her of Jake, right when she had been certain that she was over it – even temporarily. She didn’t feel like she even had a right to try and talk to Dal about his mother’s death, because she was so wrapped up in her nephew that she hadn’t really given Kris’ death any thought. Dal had come home shaking like a leaf, and at the mere mention of his mother, he’d gone to pieces. Of course, he’d fainted immediately after, but that didn’t change the fact that he’d been really broken up about it.
The boy ought to have someone to talk to. Though, she didn’t really feel like she was close enough to Dal to talk to him about it. She didn’t know where Ellis was on that, either. Nick was obviously out of the question – with his random, unadulterated anger, he’d probably just succeed in making everything worse.
She wasn’t sure if she ought to ask Ellis if he thought talking to Dal was something they should try. Dal himself seemed to be either heavily in denial or completely over his mother’s death. She figured it was possible that he was doing much the same thing she’d been doing – saving it for later. It was turning out, though, that doing that was nothing short of impossible. Eventually, that pain was going to return, and it would likely do so with a vengeance.
She needed to cry all her tears. Doing it was a lot harder than it sounded, though. Megan had managed her meltdown initially after Jake’s death, but she hadn’t been able to summon forth the emotions required to resume that meltdown. She’d never had this much trouble accessing her emotions before. When she needed to, she could pull them out like cards from a hat, and when she didn’t want them, they could be locked back in a filing cabinet for later use.
She’d never been unable to reach those feelings before. She did not at all understand what was going on.
Although, considering the circumstances, perhaps it was for the better. She didn’t really think a meltdown was a good idea at the moment.
He wasn’t mad for no reason.
In fact, Nick would say he had a fairly good reason to be angry. Even if no one else in the universe agreed with him. He had every right to be furious that he’d been reduced to such vulnerability. He had every right to hate that he’d been made to feel so weak and helpless. He hated being made to worry and fear for other people. When it was himself, it was an adrenaline rush that he lived for. When it was someone else, he had discovered, it was just pain and misery.
He was, at this point, avoiding Dal. Well, not really avoiding. Ignoring was a better word for it. At least for the moment, he wanted nothing to do with the brat. He didn’t want to talk to or at him, he didn’t want to associate with him, he didn’t want to breathe in his general direction. Part of him hoped the kid would get extremely upset when he noticed. It was a cruel thing to think, but Nick had never once mentioned that he was a decent human being.
He wondered, then, if Dal had noticed yet. It’d only been a day, and the kid had been fairly involved with his exercises when Nick had gone downstairs to snag coffee and leave his bowl from the previous afternoon in the sink. At the moment, he was loathing the fact that Dal couldn’t talk – if he was able to talk, Nick could fight with him. He hadn’t felt this antagonistic since Coach and Rochelle had disappeared to lands unknown.
His anger was a stubborn thing; it would fixate on something and he would be furious for days. He’d find ways to make himself more angry, or to drag out the rage for longer. He’d want to fight with everyone around him, and he would work at it to get them to engage in verbal or physical battles with him. It wasn’t necessarily that he enjoyed being angry. It was more that it was his nature to be mad, so he was actually fairly comfortable with it. Comfortable enough that it didn’t bother him if he was enraged about something for days on end.
The wind was picking up outside, the skies still overcast. He’d been waiting for it to rain for three days now, and judging by the sound of the wind, today was the day. As if to confirm the thought as it was passing through his mind, a rumble of thunder rolled through the clouds, sending vibrations through the air.
In all thirty-five or so years of his life, nothing had ever reduced him to tears except pain. And even then, he’d never been reduced to the kind of shaking, sobbing mess that other people seemed to enjoy partaking in. He hadn’t been going for a record. He hadn’t been purposefully avoiding the kind of emotional pain the brought on a crying fit. He hadn’t been masking his anguish all these years.
He hadn’t thought he would ever be the kind of person to show that kind of weakness. Apparently, he’d been wrong. After all, he’d been quietly hysterical and basically a sobbing mess just a day and a half ago. Pleading with a near-comatose brat who couldn’t hear him anyway, trying to contain himself as he fought his misery back down his throat.
It infuriated him.
He could hardly believe that he’d been reduced to such a ridiculous low. That he’d presented the universe with a side of him that was weak and vulnerable. That he’d been as pitiful as he would ever be, and for what? A kid. A kid he had originally promised himself he would con and then kill. A kid he had no real ties to. A kid he couldn’t seem to make disappear from his damn thoughts.
He had never ever been attached to anyone in his life, and yet here he was. A hopeless case of a con gone wrong.
That was the part that really got to him. The fact that this whole stupid mess had started because he hadn’t had it in him to play a con properly was an outrage to him. He’d never been so stupid as to get attached to a victim of a scam before. He’d never been that much of an idiot before. He’d always been excellent at keeping himself distanced from the pathetic bastards he played like a card game. He’d probably been best conman in the country, and yet he’d stooped such a low.
He couldn’t believe himself.
He wondered if Nick thought he hadn’t noticed.
The guy had been avoiding him all day. He hadn’t spent much time out of his room, certainly, but Dal noticed right away when Nick didn’t so much as look in his direction. He noticed when Nick didn’t greet him in any way. Nick didn’t ask him about his progress like he usually did, Nick didn’t ask him if he had eaten like he always did.
They were little things, sure, and maybe they didn’t mean anything aside from the fact that Nick was mad at him for making him worry. The man had a history of doing that, so it wasn’t really a huge surprise that he was doing it now. Just seeing him after he’d been woken up had been enough proof as to how worried he’d been. Nick didn’t seem to handle concern very well.
So, perhaps Nick would stop being so angry in due time. He’d never been given that bad a scare, so it was possible he’d be mad for a while. But he’d get past it, like he had in the past. It would just take longer.
Dal sighed, lowering his hands dejectedly. The exercises were a thoughtless activity. It was a way to pass the time, and it was something to do with his hands while he thought about things – or, in some cases, tried to not think about things. Right now, his hands were burning and aching. It was time to stop, unfortunately.
Megan had been monitoring his temperature since his fever had broken the day before, expecting it to return to its normal low-grade state, but it hadn’t yet. His appetite was back with a vengeance and his body, once again, felt… right. It felt comfortable, even when his hands and jaw felt like they were going to fall off. He had been relishing in the feeling, expecting his fever and discomfort to return in much the same way Megan was, but it had been twenty-four hours and nothing. Last time, it’d taken only two or three hours for the fever to come back.
Did that mean… it wasn’t going to come back? If it wasn’t… what did that mean? Did it mean he was a fully recovered victim of the Green Flu? The physiological changes hadn’t gone away – his strength was still unrivaled – but the fever was gone. The night sweats were gone. The headache was gone. The ache in his joints was gone. The loss of appetite was gone.
He didn’t want to get his hopes up, but he felt like perhaps that was it. It was sort of anticlimactic.
Not that he was complaining.
Megan chose that moment to surface from the kitchen, smiling at him briefly before cupping her hands around her mouth and hollering up the stairs, “DINNER!!”
There was a small commotion upstairs that sounded a lot like Ellis leaping out of his bed and immediately falling, before two separate doors opened in almost perfect unison. It was always funny to see Ellis come galloping downstairs like an injured horse when he was alerted to the fact that dinner was ready.
Dal straightened up on the couch and got up after Ellis had gone into the kitchen. He glanced up as Nick appeared at the top of the stairs, his expression as sour as it had been when Dal had seen him earlier. The teen wondered if he would even stay for dinner, or if he would take his plate and disappear upstairs.
When he walked into the kitchen and dining area, Ellis was already stuffing his face and Megan was only barely restraining her amused smile. The guy ate like a starving wolf whether he was actually hungry or not. Nick took his seat at the head of the table across from Megan, while Dal sat across from Ellis. The conman was silent as the grave as he helped himself to his own portion, his scowl never fading. Dal could tell he was lost in his own thoughts, much like Megan seemed to be, though she didn’t appear to be in the same bad mood that Nick was (still) in.
Nick’s stubborn anger was probably the main thing Dal didn’t like about him. Nick could stay mad about something for days. During the Coach and Rochelle Chronicles, it had seemed like he would go out of his way to make himself angrier for the sheer sake of forcing those around him to suffer. It was a surefire way to get rid of the people around him. If Dal had to guess, Nick’s anger served two purposes: getting back at people he was mad at, and getting rid of people he was mad at.
Dal was pretty sure that, when they’d been around, Nick’s anger towards Coach and Rochelle had served the purpose of getting rid of them. That anger had lasted consistently for what had seemed like forever, and had dissipated as soon as they’d disappeared. Nick had, at the time, done everything in his power to stay as mad as possible. Doing things like starting fights and interacting with the one person who would fight with him, being overall sullen and cranky, and finding little things to get pissed about. He had really gone out of his way to stay as mad as possible for as long as possible. The headaches probably hadn’t helped, either.
I wonder if you’re trying to chase me away, too.
The thought almost made him choke, and once it was there, he couldn’t get rid of it. No, Nick wouldn’t… he wouldn’t be that mad. It wasn’t like Dal could control the inner workings of his body at will. Nick knew that, surely. Nick wouldn’t just want him to go away for something like that. Even if the man had looked like he’d been ready to leap out the top window of a five story building when Dal had awoken post-fever.
He’d get over it soon enough. Definitely. Dal just had to give him more time.
Ellis leaned back in his chair and stretched contentedly, finished before everyone else as usual. Dal, who had been keenly avoiding looking in Nick’s direction since they sat down, had to work not to follow Ellis’ gaze when it wandered over to the conman. He didn’t want to be caught looking. Not when he knew that he was the source of Nick’s anger.
“Don’ like it, Nick?” Ellis asked semi-innocently. Out of the corner of his eye, past his mop of hair, he could see that Nick was scowling at his plate, unashamedly playing with his food.
“Not hungry.” Nick replied, his tone fairly cold.
“Being irrationally furious over absolutely nothing tends to kill my appetite, too.” Megan said dryly, all her usual good humor leeched out of her voice. Ellis looked over at her at the same time Dal did, surprised by her sudden show of moodiness. Megan was usually about as even-tempered as Ellis, which was quite a feat in Dal’s opinion. Ellis was, after all, the hardest-to-irritate person in the universe. After all, it had taken Coach and Rochelle deciding that Nick and Dal’s lives were worth less than a psychopath’s to piss the guy off.
Nick slowly lifted his gaze to meet the redhead’s, his scowl darkening. Dal wanted to let out an exasperated sigh at both of them. Megan, naturally, didn’t know better than to pick fights with Nick. Ellis and Dal probably should’ve clued her in yesterday, when the conman had been sleeping.
Dal didn’t know if Megan understood why Nick was mad. He could imagine she didn’t, simply because she didn’t know Nick’s history of getting upset when he was made to worry. She had been spot on with what to say in order to start a fight, though that was actually relatively easy when Nick was in a foul mood. However, Dal didn’t know why Megan was now angry.
She hadn’t been in a bad mood earlier that day. He’d been listening to her slam things around in the kitchen while she’d made dinner, but she hadn’t really given any impression of being in a bad mood until this exact moment. She’d seemed lost in thought, sure, perhaps a little less animated than usual, but not mad.
Now, they had two full grown adults who were both apparently prepared to act like children. Again.
Dal had been sure they were done with this when Rochelle and Coach left. He sighed unabashedly, digging his fork into the fake mashed potatoes Megan had made.
“Gee, and here I thought you weren’t mad.” Nick drawled, rolling his eyes. Megan blinked at him, before her expression twisted into true anger.
“I’m not mad, you prick.” She snapped, and for a moment Dal couldn’t believe that they were actually fighting about something like that. Then again, he recalled, this was Nick he was talking about. Nick could get anyone to fight with him about anything.
“You’re being very convincing, Megan.”
“Obviously I’m a little irritated. You’ve been nothing but a jackass since Dal got better, for no discernible reason.” Dal flinched at her words. She really had no idea what she was getting into. Ellis was just watching them, eyes carefully assessing the severity of their verbal battle so he wouldn’t miss the moment it turned physical, because it didn’t really seem like Nick was the kind of person who would genuinely never hit a girl.
“It’s not really your problem, is it?” Nick’s voice took on a venomous undertone, warning her away from the topic, “I’ll be pissed about whatever I decide to be pissed about, and so long as you stay out of my war path, we won’t have a problem.”
“It is my problem because I live with you. I have a problem with you turning into a raging prick for no reason, and then taking it out on everyone you come into contact with!” Megan snapped hotly.
“Gee, sorry mom, didn’t think I was upsetting you so much.” Nick replied sarcastically.
The redhead slammed a fist on the table, eyes widening slightly as her agitation got the better of her, “What, are you just menstruating and just can’t help your PMS? If you’re going to be an ass, you should at least find a decent reason for it!”
“I have a perfectly good reason to be angry, you impossible bitch!” Nick suddenly snarled. Megan pushing his buttons was going to end poorly for everyone, and she didn’t have a clue.
“And what would the reason be, hm?” She pressed on, her own rage bubbling forward, and Dal then knew exactly what was going on. “Can’t find your stuffed bear? You’re certainly childish enough to have one.”
Megan had perhaps been suppressing it, or perhaps she just didn’t know herself very well, but Dal could see it. It was suddenly crystal clear before his eyes, like someone had lifted a blindfold. Megan was finally feeling her anger at Nick, who had killed her nephew. She had been holding it in long enough, and now it was boiling over. That had to be why she was picking a fight with him. It was incredibly childish, but Dal couldn’t talk and his speech board was upstairs.
He wondered if Ellis had figured that out. Nick had already figured it out, that was obvious – though it didn’t seem to change his attitude towards fighting with her.
Nick paused, wearing a glare to end all glares. He was hesitating, and Dal wasn’t entirely sure why. Perhaps he knew how unreasonable he was being, but didn’t want someone on the outside to tell him so.
“None of your fucking business,” Nick finally said, his voice low and dangerous. “But if you’d like to volunteer yourself as a punching bag, I’d be more than happy to beat the shit out of you.”
Megan rolled her eyes, “You don’t scare me, Nick. Even if you are the kind of lowlife who would hit a girl.”
Dal stuffed his last forkful into his mouth and stood up abruptly, startling Megan and Nick out of their very intense battle of the wits for a brief moment. He took his, Ellis’, Megan’s, and Nick’s empty plates and took them all to the sink. He then turned the water on and got to work cleaning the plates off. Megan had told him to use the dishwasher rather than washing everything by hand, but he preferred to do it by hand. He’d learned how to do the dishes really well in an effort to get praise out of his parents, since they hadn’t had a dishwasher, but he’d been unsuccessful in that department.
Who were both dead, now. He didn’t know what had happened to his father. Maybe he’d been killed by his mom after he turned. He could easily see her putting him out of his misery without batting an eyelash. Maybe he’d been able to get out via his office, but mom had been forced to go another route because she was at home at the time. He couldn’t know. He could say for sure.
He ought to visit her grave.
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Megan was saying, and Dal realized then that he had missed a section of their fighting. “Your reason is obviously ridiculously stupid, and you know it. That’s why you won’t say what you’re angry about. I would’ve thought you’d have a better sense of what’s worth being pissed about, but obviously your emotional intellect is as stunted as your shitty personality!”
He couldn’t help shaking his head at that moment. Megan was slowly nurturing what would likely develop into hatred, and Nick was feeding his already simmering vat of anger. They were both just blowing off steam, but in doing so they were making the pot boil faster. Fighting like they were wouldn’t make either of them feel better. He would’ve thought that Megan would be the reasonable one and want to just talk it over with Nick when he was in less of a terrible mood.
Evidently, he’d been overestimating her. Well, that wasn’t really fair. It was likely that Megan wouldn’t behave like this under normal circumstances involving her being angry with someone. The fact that Nick had murdered her nephew made everything different. It was such an extreme situation, there was no real way for her to handle it “correctly” or “normally.” Not that there was a correct or normal way to handle grief.
“And I suppose your refusal to admit why you’re angry has nothing at all to do with your obvious control-freak complex,” Nick snarled sardonically, and Dal could imagine that his fists were clenched so tightly his knuckles were white. “Gee, I don’t know why I didn’t believe you before; you obviously have all that anger towards me murdering your nephew under control! I ought to follow your example and be equally productive with my emotions!”
Dal couldn’t actually believe that Nick had just said that. He couldn’t believe that Nick actually had the audacity to say that. He wasn’t at all surprised when Megan didn’t reply immediately, likely wearing a mixed expression of incredulity and absolute fury. He was sure that Nick had just shocked her into silence with his awfulness, and now she was seriously considering the glass of water at sitting very close to her hand. Dal probably shouldn’t have left them with projectiles.
“Mom, Dad,” Ellis suddenly spoke very evenly, voice raised just enough to make himself heard, looking from Megan to Nick, “Please stop fightin’.”
Dal turned to see the scene, because it was one he couldn’t pass up. Megan was staring at Ellis, lips slightly parted, rage still etched into her face, chest heaving. Across the table from her, Nick’s was gazing at Ellis stonily, his eyes slightly wide, disbelief coloring them brighter than usual. Dal watched them both, then turned his attention to Ellis, who was patiently waiting for them to either punch him or burst into laughter. Nick looked like he’d throttle the kid, but Dal didn’t miss the way the corner of the conman’s lips curved up, just slightly. He was stuck between wanting to laugh and wanting to remain furious.
Abruptly, Megan sucked in a breath and started laughing. Loud, heaving laughs as she doubled over, bracing herself on the table. Nick looked over at her, appearing mildly astounded for a moment before a smile – an actual smile – graced his features just briefly, and he let out a quiet breath of laughter. He shook his head, standing up from the table and shoving his hands into his pockets as he turned to vacate the kitchen.
He paused only briefly, glancing towards Dal for some unknown reason. The man had been avoiding so much as looking at him all day and now, for some reason, he chose to look over at him. Perhaps he was over it, finally. Perhaps the fight with Megan had gotten him to see the light and now he would stop being a jerk.
Dal willingly met his gaze and he regretted it immediately. What he saw wasn’t any form of calmness, or relief from the anger, or even just a regular, stony expression like Nick sometimes used. What he saw wasn’t that hint of laughter from mere seconds ago, nor was it a glance to see if Dal was just as amused as Megan.
Nick looked at him, and his eyes filled with contempt so suddenly, Dal’s heart dropped clear through his stomach. His gut twisted and his eyes widened a fraction, surprised and horrified all in the same breath. The look didn’t waver even as Nick turned his gaze away, expression settling back into a scowl as he left the room.
Nick had never looked at him like that.
He’d only seen the man direct that gaze towards three people – Coach, Rochelle, and Scott. Two of those people had been chased out of their lives, and the third had been murdered in cold blood. Nick had only given that look to people he hated. Nick didn’t… Nick hadn’t…
Nick didn’t hate him, right?
He couldn’t have handled it if Megan or Ellis noticed his plight at that moment and asked him what was wrong, so he turned himself around and went back to work on the dishes. Nick couldn’t hate him. He couldn’t. That couldn’t be right. He was just beyond angry, but he couldn’t hate him. Not now. He couldn’t lose the only thing he had left. His dad was gone. His mom was dead. He couldn’t lose Nick too.
It felt like his heart was in a vice grip. Tears were threatening to start spilling from his eyes, and misery was trying to choke him, but he held it in. He held it in the same way he’d been holding in the agony he felt when his mom had been killed. He hadn’t been able to do anything then, and it seemed like there was nothing he could do now. Nick was going to continue to feed his anger (hate) until there was nothing left to salvage. He would… he was going to…
He was going to keep ignoring him. Probably for the rest of the time Dal stayed with him.
Megan and Ellis had vacated the kitchen, likely saying something to him on their way out, but he hadn’t heard them. All he could hear was the repetition in his head. The same one he’d heard before he’d left home. The same one he’d heard when he’d first started following Nick around. The same one he would always end up hearing, he was sure.
He doesn’t want me around.
“If… you wanted to, I wouldn’t mind it if you stuck around a little longer.”
Had he overstayed his welcome? Was it because he’d stuck around so long? Nick hadn’t said anything about him staying permanently. He had never said that he wanted Dal to stay forever. Maybe he’d just been around too long. Maybe he’d just gotten too close. Nick didn’t seem like the type to want any kind of long-term relationship with anyone. Had this been the outcome from the start? Should he have foreseen this? Should he have just moved on long before now? He didn’t know what to think. He didn’t know what to do about it. He didn’t know if there was anything he could do about it.
He put the last plate back in the cabinets, an ache in his chest that he’d grown to know too well. There wasn’t any noise coming from the living room. Everyone had retired upstairs for the remainder of the night.
At this point, he didn’t really think that Nick would get over it. He didn’t think there would ever be anything to salvage. He didn’t think there was a way for him to make amends. He didn’t think an apology would suffice. Nick could hang on to anger and hate forever if Dal decided to refuse to go. Nick could become abusive and awful in a couple of days, if not sooner. Nick would do everything in his power to chase Dal out of his life.
He already knew there was something so reprehensible about him that his parents hadn’t been able to continue to care for him. He still didn’t know what it was that was so awful, but he knew it was there, so this turnout shouldn’t have been such a huge surprise. Maybe Nick wasn’t mad because he had made the man worry. Maybe it was the same thing his parents had grown to hate. Maybe Dal was just inherently flawed, and no one would ever be capable of loving him.
Maybe what he’d had thus far was as good as it would ever get. Maybe he was just going to obtain unsteady relationships with people who would eventually decide that they detested him, and find some way or another to chase him out of their lives. He didn’t want to believe that was the truth, but what if it was? What if he really wouldn’t get anything more than loneliness and bitter endings? What if he was just going to have to continue to roam the country, like a lost spirit, always searching for his other half? What if he didn’t have another half? What if…
What if he was to spend the rest of his life alone?
He slowly sat down on the couch, looking around the living room through a sheen of tears. His lower lip quivered as he fought down the lump in his throat. He couldn’t live like that. He couldn’t live like this. He couldn’t keep forcing his way into people’s lives, only to end up turned out on the streets. He couldn’t handle the constant rejection. He couldn’t handle the unending loneliness. He couldn’t handle anyone else looking at him the way his mom and Nick had. He couldn’t handle being ignored anymore. He couldn’t handle being forgotten anymore.
If life was always going to be like this, he didn’t want to live at all.
I just wanted someone to see me. Why can’t I have that?