I. Words Don't Kill

"Nightingale, you're late." Rickey punched Nightingale roughly on the shoulder as the tall boy slung his backpack over his shoulder.

"Not my fault. I just had a test." Gray eyes regarded Rickey with passiveness.

"So, how did you do?"

The two boys walked side by side down the street. It was late autumn and the cold wind blew relentlessly on the streets. Huddled crowds of students were hurrying to shelter from the cold.

All except the two boys. Rickey had rolled up his long sleeves, already impatient with the heat; he could never wear anything more than a T-shirt. Nightingale had his jacket slung over his shoulder.

"It was okay. I guess. History isn't my favorite subject, but I do okay."

"That's what you say." Rickey smirked.

"Humph." Nightingale rolled his gray eyes. "Are you coming over to my house today?" He changed the subject, knowing that Rickey the Forgetful would follow his thoughts.

"Yeah. I don't really get math homework this week." Rickey scratched his head and winced at the mention of his weakest subject. Rickey never understood mathematics. It was too foreign in the everyday world. Knowing French and Italian phrases were much more useful than knowing a bunch of equations.

"Che. Whatever." Nightingale was, on the contrary, a passionate lover of mathematics. He could not understand how Rickey could live a day without applying a few equations here and there.

"Come back here, you brat! We're going to get you this time!"

Both Nightingale and Rickey turned upon the shouts of the gang; they exchanged glances. This wasn't good. Although the referred "brat" could be any other kid, it was probably Christopher.

Christopher was a close friend who lived in denial. Small, mellow, and extremely bright, Christopher was the best target for gangs to pick on. His unstable family background offered him no support either.

"You think it's Chris?"

"Doesn't matter. We should still check it out, just in case."

Rickey agreed with Nightingale as they raced in the direction of the crowd. They both knew clearly in their minds that it would probably be their friend.

"Chris! Holy crap – "

Nightingale was the first one of the two to react and pushed the gang aside. "Stop!"

Seeing that they were caught and not wanting to share the consequences, the gang sped off, leaving their victim with the two boys.

"Chris! Oh man, this isn't good." Rickey grabbed Christopher and shook his small friend, trying to wake him up. "Nightingale, help me out!"

"Christopher. Talk." Gray worried eyes scanned the wounds and blood.

Even though this wasn't the first time something like this had happened, Nightingale and Rickey were never really used to the idea of finding their best friend lying unconscious on the pavement with his head cracked open.

After all, they were only two mere eighth graders. What could they do?

Chris's eyelids fluttered open weakly. His black pupils were unfocused and wandered aimlessly. He was, to their horror, barely breathing.

"Chris. Respond to me. Look at me. Come on." Nightingale snapped his fingers in front of Christopher's face.

"Hah …" To both Rickey and Nightingales' astonishment, Chris smiled meekly and then closed his eyes again.

The world faded and turned black as Christopher sank into an oblivion of darkness.

"Christopher! Dammit! Chris!"

The dull beeping of a monitor buzzed dimly.

Hushed voices were murmured and exchanged.

Darkness again.

Someone crying.

Someone yelling.

A white ceiling staring blankly at him.

What?

"Chris? Are you awake?"

Where? Am … I?

Black tired eyes shifted towards the owner of the voice.

It was Mark.

Mark, his eldest brother, who was studying in university now, who worked, who was busy with his own problems, was sitting beside him and looking at him with worry.

"M-Mark?" Christopher's effort to call his eldest brother's name came out raspy and broken. Blinding pain took hold of him. When was the last time he had talked?

"Hey. Sh-h, it's all right. Don't talk. You're in a hospital, but everything's okay." His brother reassured him.

He wasn't reassured.

Christopher blinked and took a while to process his brother's words. "W-What about …"

"It's fine, Chris. Your friends brought you here and the hospital called me."

"B-but …"

"Stop worrying. You need to get well first."

Christopher made a face and grimaced at the effort. "W-what … happened?"

Mark sighed heavily. "You never listen to me. I told you to watch yourself and stick to Rosie, but you never want to trouble her. She's your sister, Chris. She doesn't mind having you around."

Mark gave Christopher a stern look and then continued. "Your friends told me they saw you get beat up again and they managed to get you here. Chris, how many times do I need to tell you? Picking you up and throwing you against the wall isn't what other people do to other people!"

Christopher looked at Mark's hands. He remembered that. He remembered Mark yelling at him and crying at the same time, he remembered the way Mark and slumped into his favorite chair, defeated, he remembered Mark trying to explain to him why he needed to say no or at least run away, he remembered Mark getting so frustrated with him, he remembered himself trying so hard but finding himself as a failure, he remembered –

"Chris, look at me." Putting his hand on Christopher's un-bruised cheek, Mark lifted Christopher's face to meet eyes. "You were out cold for two days. The doctor had to give you some stitches; he also said you're malnourished. Don't you ever eat lunch?"

"I …"

"Saying that you're not hungry is a lie, Chris. Because you are. I thought I told you to eat lunch. Moronhead, Crap, and Rosie all get lunch in their own ways and I know you can, too. Or you can always share with Rosie. Her friends are willing to share with you. You know that, Chris, you know that."

"But I …" Christopher started and fell silent again. What good argument could he give to Mark? He knew Mark worried about him and he knew that his oldest brother's words were the truth, but he just found it hard to ask for favors. Even from dear old Rosie.

Mark sighed. "Chris, your friends are really worried about you, too, you know? Why can't you just give'em a chance to help you? Give all of us a chance."

Christopher did not say a word; something else was on his mind.

They were silent for a while. Christopher was so unhappy, Mark realized. Christopher was trying to mask his pain and his sorrow by complying with everything. He smiled when others laughed, he participated in class when everyone else was, he nodded to every favor asked of him, he gave everything he had even when he only received harm in return, he listened to every word every person said and remembered, but he was unhappy. He was trying to help the lives of others so he would not have to live his.

And Mark suddenly realized, Christopher kept secrets.

After the years he had known Christopher, Mark came to realized how much his youngest brother trusted him; he was always the one to know things going on in the house and he was always the first one to receive Christopher's worried phone calls, so he trusted Christopher and never asked too much about him But now, now Mark realized there were things that Christopher could not and would not share with his eldest brother. There were things that bothered Christopher, but Mark had no clue about it.

That hurt Mark.

Realizing that there was nothing he could do more except to wait for Christopher and perhaps talk to him later, Mark ruffled his youngest brother's hair, gave him a stern look and a warning to take care of himself, and left.

Christopher watched quietly as his brother leave; he knew his brother would be back soon, so he exhaled the breath that he had held and tried not to worry.

It was hard.

--

"Having fun, Chris?" Rickey went over to Christopher' side and plopped down into the chair nearby. It was visiting hours and the nurses felt Christopher was well enough to handle his two friends

"Sure."

As usual, watchful Nightingale looked thoughtfully into Christopher' eyes. "What's troubling you, Chris?"

"Nothing." Quickly averting his black pupils, Christopher looked down at his book again. He was one known to never lie, and he was finding it extremely difficult to met Nightingale's penetrating gaze.

Sensing that Nightingale saw something, Rickey turned his attention to Christopher again and looked carefully.

Christopher was different. He was still unusually short, he still had black hair, black eyes, and pale-as-snow skin, his cheek was still decorated with a bruise, his small frame still seemed so fragile. But he was different. Something about his composure was different. Something about his eyes was different.

"Chris –" Rickey reached out his hand to touch Christopher's and was cut off when Christopher flinched visibly. "Chris, what in the hell is wrong?"

"Watch your language, Rickey." Nightingale snapped and glared at Rickey with warning, gray eyes. They both knew how much Christopher disliked the usage of curse words.

"I'm using it for effect! You know, emphasis on emotion?" Rickey shot back and turned his attention back to Christopher. "What's wrong, Chris?"

Christopher still refused to meet neither Nightingale's nor Rickey's eyes. "Nothing. I just need to get out of here soon."

"What, are they torturing you?" Sarcastically, Nightingale asked and leaned against the wall.

Christopher made a face. "No. Of course not."

Rickey laughed. "He was joking, Chris."

Christopher made another face, causing Rickey to laugh again. "I know that, Rickey."

"Really, Chris. Why do you want to get out of here?" Nightingale pulled both of their attention back to his question. He knew how well Christopher was good at digression.

"It is just – " Christopher sighed and looked guiltily at his pen. "Mark is paying for this with his money."

Rickey fell silent. So did Nightingale. Both of them knew very well the financial instability of the Shade house.

Since both of Christopher's parents smoked and drank, much of his father's money was invested in that sort of items; in addition to that, Christopher's father was a gambler and did not have a stable job. The Shade kids had their own methods of meeting their own material needs; Rosie had her hombres, Crap wrote sheet music for people and earned money that way, Moronhead had his part time job, and Mark had two. Christopher, as the youngest child, did not need to and could not yet earn an income; he received the hand-me-downs from his older siblings. Mark visited quite often with groceries and clothes if they were needed.

"That's not it. Something else is bugging you."

Christopher looked down, knowing that Nightingale was right. Money was not the most urgent thing disturbing him. Something deeper was.

But he was not willing to talk about it.

"Chris? Chris?"

He looked up and into Nightingale's gray eyes and smiled faintly. "I am fine, Nightingale. I am not worried that much about other things."

Nightingale raised an unbelieving brow. "You know that's not true."

"What about you two? There is something troubling both of you as well." Quickly, Christopher changed the focus on him to his friends.

"What about us?" Rickey looked at Nightingale with worry; they were thinking about the same thing.

"Something about me is worrying you, and you know what that is troubling you." Christopher was as good at penetrating through thoughts as Nightingale was; he just wasn't that direct about it.

"It's about you." Rickey looked straight into the black, sad eyes of Christopher's. "When we found you, you responded us with a – a –" Rickey stumbled over his sentence. It was awkward for him to say it out loud.

"With a laugh." Nightingale finished for Rickey and Rickey gave his tall friend a grateful look.

A mildly stunned expression was painted over Christopher's face as he attempted to trace his thoughts back to that moment.

He remembered.

And his face collapsed into a distressed frown, trying to explain himself. "I was not thinking – right."

"What do you mean you weren't thinking right?"

"Well, I was thinking about something else…"

"What is it?" Nightingale pressed, unwilling to let the subject to just drift away unmentioned.

"I, um, I …" Trying to explain, Christopher started again and again but found himself incapable to tell his friends why he had laughed at the second he brushed shoulders with Death.

Visiting hours were over. The nurse crossly stood at the doorway and refused to lend Nightingale and Rickey another second.

Disappointed and dissatisfied, the boys sulked away, slipping Christopher a piece of candy as they left. Rickey turned his head and gave his small friend a wink and then they were gone.

Relieved, Christopher pulled out the candy and gingerly opened the note attached to it.

Don't worry. Somebody else is paying the bills for you.

So you better take time and get well!

Rickey and Nightingale

P.S.. It's not your brother. It's a mysterious person.