Just over an hour after his quick escape to his room, there was a knock on the door. Thomas was still pressed against it, and he debated on pretending he was asleep to avoid any social interaction. Ryan had promised to speak to him later, but what if he accidentally revealed himself to someone else who would bother him? His mother would be far too worried about him. Harper was nice, but it was hard to keep anything from her, and he didn't trust her not to tell anything to his mother. He put his head back against his knees, content to ignore them.


Thomas lifted his head slightly at Ryan's voice. He scooted away from the door, opening it just enough for Ryan to slide through. Ryan sat down on the ground next to him, looking over at him curiously. Thomas slowly moved his head to face Ryan, blinking at him owlishly. He was much too exhausted to pretend to be anything other than 'hardly functional', but not quite desperate enough to cry on his shoulder. "Hey."

"So, I'm going to be honest here, you look awful."

"I know. My theory is that my ghastly interior is leaking through to my exterior."

"You know, that's a good line."

"Better than, 'the bags under my eyes are darker even than my soul'?"

"Also good, though a little too romantic for me to get away with."

Thomas smiled, letting his eyes shut. "I think it's a cold."

"Nah, this is pretty much your 'normal'."

Thomas couldn't help but snort at that one. "I know I'm not the handsomest of creatures, Carr, but I'll have you know that normally it doesn't look like I've taken a black magic marker to my skin."

"I don't know… it brings out your eyes," Ryan teased. "How have you been doing?"

That was a polite way of asking what the hell is your issue, Keits, and honestly Thomas wasn't sure how to answer that. He forced his smile to stay as he searched for an answer. He reached over and plucked the strings of his violin idly.

"You know, no one's expecting you to be okay during all this. If you're worried."

Thomas raised his eyes back to Ryan. He was always worried— if not about one thing, then certainly about another. He was always doubting basic things, always berating himself about something. "How far from 'okay' can I be until it's a problem?"

"I don't think any of us want a repeat of the last time you lost someone you loved. Short of that, you know, I think we're good."

"If one more person asks if I'm suicidal, I'm going to jump off a bridge."

"Okay, well, maybe you can see why we're worried."

Thomas smiled thinly. Ryan wasn't smiling, though, and the worried crease in his eyebrow made Thomas' own smile fall. He looked down at his hands. "You shouldn't be worried about me. I'm fine. It ought to be Rio that you're worried about."

"I can worry about you both," Ryan said mildly. "Have you been eating?"

"Can we talk about something else?"

"Well, it's just that Harper mentioned that you'd been throwing up, and…"

Thomas felt his defenses raising, and he tried to talk himself out of it. It wasn't Ryan's fault that Thomas abhorred sickening concern being drenched all over him. It wasn't Ryan's fault that Harper had ratted him out about him getting sick. "I ate too much, got sick on the way home. I'm fine," he said, firmly shutting down that line of questioning.

"Right. Okay, that's fine," Ryan said, though it didn't feel 'fine'. "How's the audition thing coming along?"

"It isn't."

"You're not going to audition?"

"I don't know," Thomas replied, bringing his knees up to his chest and resting his chin on them. "I'm not sure I should."

"Why shouldn't you?"

"I'm not talented enough."

"Well, why not let the judges decide that?"

"If I try, it'll just hurt more," Thomas said, and it'd been meant as a joke, but his affect fell flat and he decided that it'd been pretty truthful. "And it's all my dad ever wanted, and what if I'm not good enough? But what if I don't try? He'd… be disappointed in me."

Ryan was quiet for a while, and Thomas wasn't sure if that was good or not. Just as Thomas was trying to figure out a way to get Ryan from being disappointed in him as well, Ryan cleared his throat. "I don't think a musical education was all your dad ever wanted from you. You enjoy music. He wanted for you to do something you enjoy."

"I don't know."

"But I do," Ryan said gently. "And I can tell you with the utmost certainty that your father would be disappointed in you for not trying something that you want just because you're afraid of not being perfect. But he wouldn't be disappointed if you don't get the scholarship. And he wouldn't be disappointed if you didn't audition because you really, genuinely didn't want it."

Thomas shrugged again, hugging his knees tighter to his chest. "I dunno how you could know that."

"Because I'm a dad. It's kind of a dad thing, I guess."

"Well… do your dad senses say that Rio will be fine?"

"Yeah," Ryan replied immediately. The skepticism must have been obvious on Thomas' face. "Seriously. Have a little faith in him. Be there for him, but… really, I think he's going to be fine. Some people are just obnoxiously mentally healthy. You're a good friend, though."

"Um… I'm not."

"I wish I had a friend who loved me like you do him."

Thomas froze, his eyebrows crinkled in frustration. Was it really that obvious? It couldn't be — not if he'd successfully deceived everyone for years. But Kozonush had rumbled him after hardly ten minutes of conversation, and Penny had shed light on it shortly after Thomas himself had put a word to the emotion years ago. But Cecelia didn't know, or perhaps she just never brought it up. And Rio didn't. He wasn't that cruel— Rio was swift and gentle when turning people done, he'd seen the boy do it countless times through their teenage years.

"And Penny."

Oh. Ryan didn't know. Thomas' cheeks burned at his mistake, and he cleared his throat. "Right. I guess they're alright."

Ryan snorted, pushing Thomas' shoulder conspiratorially. "Can't even pretend that you wouldn't do anything for them."

"I wouldn't eat a bowl of leeches. I also wouldn't get a tattoo of a maple leaf on my ass. Nor would I hug a hungry crocodile."

"Oh, great. I can rest easy. I bet you'd still kill a man. Slice a man's throat with the violin stick."

"The violin stick," Thomas repeated, trying to keep a straight face, which lasted an impressive six seconds before he dissolved into laughter, covering his mouth and hiding his face in his knees. "Do you realize how much they cost? And anyway, it's not really feasible. The hairs on the bow snap if you apply too much pressure to the violin, no way could you actually slice someone's neck with it. If the bow broke though you could use the full ribbon to strangle someone. Like… a garrote. That'd be easier with a piano, though. Their strings are tougher."

"I'm glad you've put some thought into this."

"Difficult violin instructors," Thomas replied evenly, a small smile on his lips. "I'm sorry for worrying you."

"Is there any reason for me to?"

Thomas didn't like lying to Ryan. He really didn't. It was easy to lie to Cecelia— he'd learned how to manipulate his expressions, spreading his lies out between truths. Lying to Harper was near impossible though he wished it were easier. She pulled out the truth like a dentist pulled out rotten teeth, neatly revealing them like an ancient skeleton she needed to wipe clean. Ryan was easier, which made it harder. "I'm not doing very well."

"Have you told your mom?"

"No. I've got a doctor's appointment next week, so I've been trying to just… you know, hang out for a few days."

"But it's not working?"


"Are you going to tell her?"

"… yeah, just… not tonight."

"You swear you'll tell her?"

"I promise."

"Okay. Good. I'll hold you to it," Ryan said, picking himself up off the floor and ruffling Thomas' hair. "Merry Christmas. Try to get some sleep. Santa won't come if you don't, and Jadyn would kick your ass."

"I'll try not to ruin Christmas."