The drive back was thankfully short. As soon as the car pulled to a stop in the driveway of Charlie's grandparent's house, Charlie got out, slammed the car door shut behind himself, and made a beeline for Travis' flat. Travis didn't hesitate to hurry after him.

As soon as Travis let Charlie into his flat, Charlie headed for the sofa and crammed himself in one corner of it. He grabbed a cushion, pulled it against his chest, and bit down on the edge of it savagely, breathing heavily through his teeth.

For a moment he stayed like that, body curled around the cushion and arms clutching it tightly as his teeth dug into it, then he suddenly pulled back and stuck his tongue out, his face crumpling in distress. Travis guessed from the way he started fussing with his tongue that he'd gotten a mouth full of cat fur.

Charlie pulled savagely at a fistful of his hair as he tried to pick cat hair off his tongue, and Travis could see his eyes beginning to moisten. Travis leant forward and pulled Charlie into his arms without thought, an almost reflexive action at seeing him so upset.

The sound Charlie let out was barely human, but its meaning was perfectly clear. Don't touch me. Travis was already pulling away when Charlie lashed out, a kick to Travis' chest winding him and a wildly thrown hit stinging across the side of his face.

Travis backed off all the way to the other end of the sofa, and even then wasn't sure he was far enough away. The look Charlie was giving him was full of resentment and held clear warning.

"Sorry," Travis said in his most calming voice as he rubbed at the sore spot on his chest. "I know you don't like being touched when you're upset. I shouldn't have done that."

The look Charlie shot him made it clear he agreed what Travis had done was unacceptable, but that he didn't have much interest in his apology. Fair enough. When Charlie went back to fussing over the hair in his mouth, Travis went to get him a glass of water.

Travis held the glass out to Charlie, and for a long moment Charlie just stared as if utterly perplexed by the offer of water. Even once he took it he didn't look quite like he understood.

"To rinse the cat hair out of your mouth," Travis explained.

Charlie gave him an unreadable look, then took a mouthful of water, swished it around in his mouth, and spat it back into the glass. He handed it back to Travis without comment. Travis had expected him to just drink the water, but, well, okay. He set the glass down on the coffee table and returned to the other end of the sofa.

"I promise we'll work it out," Travis said as Charlie did his best to cover his head with the cushion he'd bitten. "The school has a psychologist we can go and see. I mean, she can't diagnose, but I know her well enough that I'm sure she'll at least listen to the full story and give us some proper advice."

Charlie made a small sound, though Travis couldn't quite tell if it was supposed to be an acknowledgement of his words or an expression of general distress. Maybe now wasn't the best time to try to talk about this. Travis just didn't know what might actually be helpful.

Well, that wasn't true. He did know of one thing that was fairly reliable at bring Charlie comfort. Travis got up and went to get his guitar.

It was half an hour of skipping through the most soothing parts of random songs later that Travis felt something brush against his thigh and looked down. Charlie had kicked his shoes off and was tentatively poking at Travis' thigh with his sock covered toes.

Travis finished the song he was currently on and slowly set his guitar down on the coffee table, as though trying not to spook a fearful animal.

Charlie's toes trailed slowly down the side of Travis' thigh, then finally he looked up. "Did I hurt you?"

Travis rubbed a hand over his chest. There was a slightly tender spot, but he'd been hit enough times to know it wasn't bad enough to bruise. "Nah, I'm fine."

Charlie tapped the back of his knuckles in a steady rhythm against his knee. "I didn't mean to. It just kind of... happened."

It wasn't the first time Travis had been hit by someone who had struck out without thinking and later regretted it, but Charlie wasn't Travis' parents. Travis had seen his face when it had happened, all the pain and the rawness. There had been no malice, just a deep, instinctive drive to protect himself.

"I should have known better than to try to touch you just then," Travis said.

Charlie squirmed his body in a way that was almost a shrug. "I used to do that all the time. I thought I'd changed."

"Maybe it's good you didn't change so much?" Travis suggested. "I mean yeah, hitting definitely isn't ideal and it can get you in a lot of trouble, but I'm more comfortable with you sometimes hitting than just letting me walk all over your boundaries. When you get really upset like that, it seems to me like maybe putting your objections into words isn't normally possible."

Charlie nodded. "I just... shut things down instead. I get in less trouble, but I don't like the way it feels. Like everything is too intense but also, at the same time, not real. Like a dream. When I was little I'd get really upset and yell and lash out, and then my mum would take me somewhere quiet and it usually wouldn't take long for me to be okay again. Now sometimes I feel wrong for so long I forget that I can feel right."

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

Charlie twisted his lips together and looked deep in thought for a moment. "I think I'm hungry, actually. That always makes it worse."

"Okay, what do you want?"


"An apple? That's all?"

"Sliced up." Charlie waved his hands in a vague gesture that didn't seem to have any particular meaning. "With no core bits."

Travis grinned. "Coming right up."

Travis went to the kitchen and cut Charlie's apple, careful to remove all the core bits, and when he returned to the living room a few minutes later he saw Charlie leaning over his guitar where he'd left in on the coffee table, nose just inches from the strings.

When Charlie spotted Travis, he quickly scooted back. "I didn't touch it."

Travis handed him the plate and sat down on the other end of the sofa. "You're allowed to touch it, Charlie."

"Last time you got mad."

"There's a huge difference between a stranger touching it without asking and my boyfriend touching it. It's a personal part of me, so I'm only comfortable with people I know well touching it."

Charlie looked thoughtful as he swallowed a mouthful of apple. "Like genitals?"

"Well, uh..." Travis let out an uncomfortable laugh. "Not quite as exclusive as that, but I guess the comparison more or less works. It's kind of a cheap guitar, to be honest, but for years it was the only thing I had that really mattered to me. My parents were violent and vindictive, so I learnt to protect it."

"Like the walkman I had, only I had to leave that behind."

"I'm sorry you lost something that was important to you."

Charlie shrugged. "I guess iPods are better anyway. I lost my dad, too, but I'm not sad about that anymore. He wasn't good, just... familiar. I'm not sure I ever really missed him so much as I missed things being how I was used to them being."

Travis' stomach felt sick with sympathy, but Charlie looked more contemplative than upset. "I'm sorry thing have been so rough. You won't ever have to see him again."

"Yeah, that's good." He took a bite of apple, chewed, swallowed. "I have dreams about him. Not scary ones, just ones where he's come back and every time I just want him to go away. Nobody's scared of him or angry at him, and I always feel so tired. Like I don't need him anymore, so why does he keep being there?"

"It can take a while, I think," Travis said carefully. "I guess I don't even know how long. I still get the same dreams."

"About your parents?"

"Yeah, and Jax. Hell, sometimes even my brother, and I like him and he's still part of my life. It's just... all tangled up. I love him, but he was there through it all. He's touched by it too. Maybe that should bring us closer and I guess I feel bad sometimes that it makes it hard for me to be around him."

"I like dreams about you better," Charlie said. "They're never bad."

Travis grinned and poked Charlie's thigh with his foot, testing Charlie's reaction to touch. He didn't seem bothered. "I like real life with you better."

"Yes, real you is better than dream you, but I can't be with real you while I'm sleeping. Not unless my grandparents let me sleep over. Do you think they would?"

Travis made a face. "I think they'd probably assume we were having sex."

"Well, I don't see how that's any of their business anyway."

"I think a lot of people would disagree with that."

"No but I'm sixteen, and that means I can legally consent to sex. That's the law."

"Well, that only means I'm not going to get arrested if we get up to something," Travis explained. "Just because something's legal doesn't mean there can't still be rules against it that can be enforced. I think I've done enough to get on your grandparents' bad side, don't you?"

"Hmm," Charlie said, but he relented.

Still, Charlie insisted on staying extra late that night until he could be sure there was no time for his grandparents to give him a lecture before bed. By the time they said goodnight, Charlie still looked so raw and anxious that it made Travis' heart ache. They had to do something about this.


The next day Travis made an appointment, and he and Charlie went together to see the school psychologist, Caroline. She wasn't qualified to diagnose him with anything, Travis had said, but Travis knew her well enough to promise she'd give his problems deeper consideration than the psychiatrist his grandparents had taken him to had.

The wait outside her office was only a few minutes, which gave Charlie less time to get nervous, and then a woman came out and smiled at them both as she directed them into her office.

"It's good to see you again, Charlie," Caroline said once they were all seated, her on one side of a desk and Travis and Charlie on the other.

Charlie reflexively turned to Travis for an explanation, but he didn't even seem to register Charlie's confusion. He looked back at Caroline. "Again?"

"We met briefly when you came in to do your placement exams for your classes."

Charlie shrugged. His memory of that time was fragmented and muddled. It was a wonder he'd done even remotely well on any of those tests.

The smile Caroline gave him suggested she wasn't offended. "You looked very overwhelmed at the time, so I'm not surprised you don't remember. What did you want to talk to me about today?"

Again, Charlie found himself turning to Travis. That seemed like such a big question. He rubbed his forehead against Travis' shoulder, the most effective way he could think of to communicate his struggle.

Luckily, Travis seemed to understand and spoke up. "He's... a bit different from other kids his age. In a lot of ways. It's not all bad, it's just... obviously unusual. The psychiatrist his grandparents took him to said it was just because of he's been through a lot of shit, but..." Travis jostled shoulder, where Charlie's forehead still rested. "I don't know. I'm not buying it, and more importantly, neither is he."

Caroline flipped open a file in front of her and clicked her pen. "Let's go through it then, shall we?"

For the next little while, they made a list of everything that was odd about Charlie. At first it was mostly Travis contributing — he bites, he squints in bright light, he doesn't seem to care what anyone else thinks about him — but eventually Charlie began to contribute in his own way.

"Dirt," Charlie said, holding up his hands and brushing his fingers together while grimacing.

Caroline smiled and nodded. "Feels uncomfortable?"

Charlie nodded.

"He normally talks more, too," Travis said. "I mean, his tone tends to be kind of flat and sometimes he stumbles over what he's saying a bit, but he can usually communicate in full sentences like anyone else."

"Loss of verbal skills when under stress?" Caroline suggested.

"Yeah, exactly," Travis said. "When he's upset he just... I don't know. Everything just seems to fall apart for him."

"You might find it helps to get him somewhere quiet. Don't try to make conversation or ask him questions and don't touch him."

"Yeah, last time I tried to touch him when he was like that he kicked me."

"I didn't mean to," Charlie murmured.

Travis shook his head. "It was a stupid move. I knew you didn't like being touched when you were upset."

The bell signalling the end of lunch break rang, and Caroline glanced at her watch and made a face. "As you know, I can't diagnose, but from what you've told me I feel like I can point you in the direction of someone who might be able to help you. I can write you a referral letter and include my thoughts on what the issue might be, but as it's medical care anything beyond what I can offer directly will require consent from your guardians."

"So you do think it's more than just the results of an abusive childhood?" Travis asked.

Caroline bobbed her head. "That would be my view."

"What's wrong with me?" Charlie asked.

"I don't think it's about what's wrong with you," Caroline began to explain, but when Charlie made a sound of frustration she cut to the point. "I think you might be autistic."

Charlie had heard that word before, but he didn't have much context for what it meant. "Autistic?"

"It's a developmental disorder that can result in impaired social functioning and sensory abnormalities, among other things," Caroline explained. "It can present certain challenges, but affected individuals can live full and happy lives."


"I don't want to upset you. That's just my impression, and it could be wrong."

"I'm not upset," Charlie said, though her reassurance only served to make him wonder if he should be. He looked to Travis for help.

Travis gave him a smile and a kiss on the top of his head. "Well, that's the beginning of an answer. Are you happy with that?"

Charlie shrugged. "Maybe. I want to go home and look it up on the internet first."

"That's a very good idea," Caroline said. "Do you mind if I mail the referral to your grandparents? I can also call them and have a talk to them about it if you like."

Charlie shrugged again and looked to Travis for help. His brain was too full of thoughts to make any decisions.

"Mail the referral," Travis said. "As for the phone call… I hope that won't be necessary, but we'll let you know."