It felt like time stopped. Nico sat there, staring at me, and I couldn't find the strength to utter a single word. His gaze intensified ever time my mouth opened to speak, but then I would press my lips together and he would settle back in his seat.

Finally, he must have gotten tired of waiting on me because he said, "So…this is the part where you start talking." He smiled as he finished and I couldn't help but smile in return. This went back and forth for a second or two and then he leaned in closer. With his broad shoulders and tall frame, it looked like he was growing in size. It was then that I realized how small I was in comparison. And then I thought, do I really want to do anything that might turn him against me? He could probably kill me before Cassy even managed to make it back to the living room.

"Luke? You alright? Is it…is this about you? Is this about why you act weird sometimes?"

I could tell he didn't mean to offend me with those words, but it still made me cringe. I'm weird. He thinks I'm weird. A freak.

"I shouldn't have pressed Cassy about it so much. It probably wasn't my place. I didn't think it was anything serious, but judging by the way your acting right now, I'd say it's pretty important. You don't have to tell me. Don't, in fact. I don't want to know. Better that I don't."

With those words, I felt my body relax again. My chest untightened and I finally found the strength to scoot over on the couch and put some space between us.

"M-my sister loves that movie. She loves all those Disney movie's actually. Made me watch them over and over again. I know all the characters. You could probably quiz me and I'd get a perfect score."

We both chuckled, but I could see something else in his eyes. He blinked before I could get another look at them and turned away.

"Your coach pulled me out of math class on Friday. He started asking me a lot of questions about you. He asked if I had threatened you. He asked if I had put you up to not dressing out. He asked a lot of stuff."

"A-and what did you say?"

"I told him to kiss my ass."

I started to laugh, but Nico kept a straight face, as if he didn't understand what was so funny. He wasn't kidding. I quickly shut my mouth and let him continue.

"Then I said that you were a friend of mine and that you didn't really talk to me about what went on in each of your classes."

Friend. Wow! I never thought it would feel so good to hear anyone say that about me. That's the second time he said that today and it felt even better than the first time.

"Thanks, Nico. That means a lot that you would cover for me like that."

"Hey I know what a pain that dipshit coach can be. I love watching him get all worked up over nothing. Maybe he'll lay off you for a while. Hopefully, you'll feel more comfortable changing then."

"Right…" I couldn't help but look away.

"You will eventually change right? I mean, you don't want to actually fail gym do you?"

I shook my head. "No, it's not that I want to fail, I just…I've never felt comfortable changing in public."

"Really? Even in gym? You got like a third nipple or something?"

"Huh? No. Well I wish I did…"

He starts to chuckle. "I don't think I've ever heard anybody wish they had a third nipple. Just tell me. I bet it's not that bad. It can't be. Besides, if anybody gives you crap, just come to me and I will handle it."

Without even having to ask, I knew exactly how he would handle it. If he's willing to defend me from the coach's interrogation and protect me from being laughed at, I owe it to him to tell him the truth. I just…I'm worried that…

The table suddenly vibrates to a tune that I was very familiar with. Firework, by Katey Perry. Cassy was in the room in less than a second, as if she'd been just opposite the wall instead of the kitchen which was much further than that.

"Sorry. Sorry. Let me get that. Hello—"

Her voice echoed for only a moment before it faded away as she went upstairs.

Nico shrugged his shoulders. I could see him grow noticeably uncomfortable as we just sat in silence. Eventually, though, he got up and stretched his long arms above his head.

"Well, this was pretty fun, Luke. I guess I should probably be heading home. Thanks for inviting me. Tell Cassy not to worry about—"

No. He was leaving. He left before even getting the chance to talk with Cassy. And it was all because I couldn't just come clean and say it. Say what's wrong with me.

Just as he started heading to the door, I felt my chest tighten. I instinctively took two steps forward just to close the distance. He didn't notice, but when he made it to the hallway and then paused to check his pockets for his phone, he turned around and spotted me standing three feet away from him.

"Uh…did you need something?"

I shook my head, refusing to even look up at him. When I finally found the courage, I saw him make a face. He turned around, but right as he grabbed the doorknob, Cassy came racing down the stairs.

"Madison! Emma was in a car crash. She's fine, for the most part, but her friend's car was totaled. She wants me to pick her up downtown." As she finished, she looked at Nico and then at me. "Where are you guys going?"

"Who's Madison?" Nico asked. "You never told me you had a little sister?"

Cassy looked like she wanted to slap herself in the face. "We don't."

Nico then looked back at me, waiting for an answer.

"That's my middle name. That's what Cassy calls me."

"Isn't that a girl's name?" Nico's eyes studied me closely. I wasn't sure what he was thinking, but I noticed his gaze falter. His lips pressed together and he remained silent.

"No. Not necessarily. There are lots of boys with that name." Cassy reaffirmed. When he wasn't looking she mouthed an apology to me. "I don't know how much Mad—Luke told you already, but we both agreed that you deserved to know the truth. It wouldn't be fair to keep things from you after you've been so amazing. You really made a difference in our lives. I know Madison is grateful. I am too."

"He hasn't told me anything," Nico added. "But I don't want him to. I can see that he doesn't feel comfortable talking about it. He doesn't have to tell me anything."

Cassy made a face. I think it was intended for me more than it was for him. She seemed disappointed.

"I will tell him." I said to her. "I will tell you." I said to Nico. "Next time. Next time you come over. We'll watch another movie and we'll eat and then I'll tell you what's wrong with me."

"Nothing is wrong with you, Madison. Nothing. You've just got a different set of challenges than most. And—wait, why do we have to wait until next time?"


"Yes. Yes, I've got an idea. I'll go pick up Emma and you two stay here. Put on another movie. Order a pizza. And talk." She pointed her finger at me and gave me a pleading smile. "Please. Just give it a shot."

"But Nico has to go home," I said.

"Not really," Nico stated matter-of-factly. "I'll order the pizza."


Luke, or Madison, gave me this look like I just punched him in the gut. It was an effective tactic, though, because I instantly changed my mind. "Never mind. I'll just go. This is dumb."

"No!" Cassy interrupted, putting her small hand on my chest when I tried to walk by her. "I mean, I need you to stay. I know that's being a little forward, but…"

She leaned sideways because I was in her way and didn't allow her to see Madison. Madison. I still can't believe that's what she calls him. It's a girl's name. The funny thing is that, well…the name kind of suits him in a weird way. Almost better than Luke. I guess it has to do with the fact that he kind of looks really girlish.

"You can't leave, Nico, please. I can't say why, exactly, but it…it has to do with what Madison is going to tell you."

"You realize that doesn't make any sense. Madison, a little help here?"

"Ihaveadisorder," he blurted out and then buried his head in his hands. "It's," he inhaled deeply. "It's called agoraphobia, and it means that I don't like being anywhere near crowds, or open spaces, or outside really. I also don't like being completely alone."

"Oh. Uh…that's not so bad. I think a lot of people are like that. It doesn't mean—"

"I have anxiety attacks. I feel like I'm choking and I can't stop trembling. Sometimes I start to hallucinate."

Wow. I don't know how to respond. Luckily, Cassy comes up from behind me and wraps her arm around me.

"This is a big step for Madison," she said. "This is why we've had such a hard time at school. It's not that easy to find a way to make things safe for him when he's out there. He's always on high alert. That's why I needed someone. That's why I needed you. You made things safe for him. You gave him a sense of comfort. Imagine how hard it must be to go to a public school with a condition like that. Imagine what it must be like to go anywhere."

"A nightmare," I whispered. That also explained the whole issue with changing in the lockers. Madison lowered his gaze and I heard the faintness of a whimper.

"And he has to face it every day. That's why my brother is so amazing. That's why I love him so much. I'm proud of what you're doing Madison. So proud."

"Is that what the pills are for?"

Madison's head shot up instantly. Their eyes looked like they were having a conversation of their own. Then Cassy finally shook her head.

"I'll explain later. I didn't tell him anything, Madison. I promise. I…" she looked at the time on her phone. "I really have to go. Emma's gonna be furious if I take longer than I already have. Stay, Nico. Please. Just stay."

With that, she left.

I don't know how we made it back to the living room, but we must have at some point because we were on the coach and Disney's The Lion King was playing on the TV. My mind immediately raced back to the moments Madison and I were together at school. It made sense now. The reason he'd always be looking at his feet, the way he wouldn't leave a classroom unless I was there beside him to walk him out the door. He must have been terrified.

"D-do you want to order that pizza now?"

I nodded and told him I would call. I made sure to ask for it to be delivered. As we waited, Cassy called me and told me that she was going to be a while because the hospital hadn't cleared Emma's friend yet. They were going to take another hour at least. A few minutes later, we were scarfing down slices while Timon danced the Hula. Madison only ate two slices before stopping. I wasn't about to let that slide. He looked like he was all skin and bones. He needed some fat. I grabbed a smaller one and put it on his plate. Madison smiled, shook his head and put it back in the box. When I did it again, he blushed and shook his head more forcefully. This time he giggled a little bit.

"You're such a girl," I chuckled. Then I grabbed the slice and took a large bite out of it. The final fight scene drew my attention back to the TV and it remained there until the credits were rolling. It was as the screen was dark that I noticed Madison's reflection. He had his head buried in his hands and his body was shaking.

"You alright?" His blond head of hair bobbed up and down. "Did the movie get you down or something?" He shook his head from left to right. "So then…uh. Did I say something?"

"It's not your fault. It's just…there's something else, Nico. Something I haven't told you."

"There is? Well, I'm all ears."

"I can't…" His blue eyes welled up with tears. "I'm scared."

"M-Madison, I don't know what to say anymore." I leaned next to him and put my arm around him. He felt so small against me, so fragile. I could overpower him so easily if I wanted to. I don't think I would ever do that. Not to him. He was different.

It took him a few seconds to relax. And once he did, he almost melted into me. His blonde hair tickled my neck and his skinny arms wrapped themselves around my waist.

"You can trust me with anything, Madison."

He sniffled into my shirt. "I know I can. You've been…amazing. I don't think I can say it, though. I've never told anyone. No one knows except my family."

"It sounds like quite a secret. I know I might have pressured you and Cassy, but I honestly didn't think it was going to be this big a deal. Whatever it is, if you feel up to it, you can trust me."

Madison lifted his chin up to look me square in the eyes. His big blue eyes, they look so much brighter without his bangs in the way. I couldn't help but smile. His lips instantly curled upward.

I noticed his smile fade and then he slowly pulled away. "I'm glad Cassy found you. She really knows how to pick 'em."

"You really think I still have a shot with her? I mean, I don't even really know that much about her. I probably know more about you than I do about her. And, no offense, but that's not saying much." It was true, really. I did speak to Cassy every now and then, like to talk about Madison. But, there was a lot about her I still wanted to know. I know she loves her brother more than anything. That was pretty obvious. But so much other stuff. Oddly enough, I have been so busy trying to figure out Madison that I never really gave it much thought before.

"She'd be crazy not to fall for you. I know she already does." His cheeks started to tint before he could help himself. As soon as he finished, he got up and turned the other way like he was looking into the next room.

"I've never met anyone who had agoraphobia," I said aloud. The words were enough to get him to turn in my direction. "And, to be honest, I don't think you have anything to be worried about. Cassy is devoted to helping you. And with me always being there for you at school, this year is definitely going to be better than before."

"It already is," he said.

Cassy barged into the house about a minute later. Right before she did, I had heard two voices arguing outside, but I figured it was a couple of nobodies just walking down the street. When she walked in, I made the mistake of walking up to her to see what happened.

"Move," she shouted as she stormed passed me. Her feet stomped upstairs and then I heard a door slam.

Before I even had to chance to turn around and talk to Madison, an older woman burst through the front door. She was a complete mess. Her hair was all over the place and her face looked like someone had hosed down her makeup. The second she locked eyes with me, I knew I didn't like her. It was the way she frowned even more, almost like out of disgust.

"I think you should leave. Now."

I wanted to spit in her face. I honestly don't know what kept me from at least answering back. But, I held my tongue. Madison was by my side in a heartbeat and that helped draw my attention away from the old hag.

"He was already on his way out," he chimed in. His wrapped his small hand around my elbow and looked up at me with those big blue eyes. The tears he had been holding back were there again, and I knew they would probably fall the second I walked out the door. I heard the old hag walk upstairs, but I didn't dare look her way. If I did, I knew I'd say something.

"Thank you for coming over today. Thank you for staying with me." Madison pressed his forehead into my arm. I'm not sure why, but I put my other hand over his head and kind of ruffled his hair. It was just an instinctive sort of thing, though I don't remember ever doing that to anybody else. Never.

"I'll see you Monday morning."

He looked up at me again and nodded as he smiled. "Definitely. And…" he turned in the direction of the stairs and then cupped his mouth to whisper in my ear, "I'm sorry about whatever just happened right now. Cassy would never just yell at you like that. She must be really upset."

Hearing him say that definitely made me feel better. Still, I felt like maybe I was buying into this whole fantasy of me and Cassy. I would definitely love to date her and everything, but I think I might be getting my hopes up for something that isn't going to happen. I vowed I would never let that happen again.

"I can tell you're still thinking about what happened. Don't. They fight all the time. They both argue but then they get over it and everything gets better. I promise."

My mind instantly remembered the bruise Cassy had covered up a while back. Then I thought of my sister and how much I would do anything to protect her.

"If there is anything that I should know about…" I made sure to look him directly in those blue eyes of his. "Anything that has to do with you both being safe, you better tell me Madison."

"I-I will. Everything's fine. Hakuna Matata." I saw Madison blush furiously as he gave me a shy smile. I couldn't help but chuckle and nudge him in the chest. The rest of his face went red and he started to laugh a little.

"What a wonderful phrase, Madison. Goodnight."


Thank you so much for the kind words. I hope that you haven't lost hope in this story. Hollow Inside is such a special story, and I am determined to finish it. Hopefully, it won't take as long for another update.

Nico and Madison are progressing just as I had hoped for. I can almost picture them in my mind just as I could with my other story. Any ideas on who you all think might resemble them? LoL If you have ideas, feel free to share them. I'm always curious what you all think.

Reviews are greatly appreciated. I read every single one. They really do make my day. Thank you. Thank you.