The Bully and the Brain. Chapter 6

I couldn't move.

I stood outside, staring up at the school. I couldn't shake the cold chill that was creeping up my spine. I had purposefully come back to this place. I could have waited. I could have gone elsewhere, but instead, I was here.

I didn't know if I was ready. In my head, I had braved everything, walked inside of the school like nothing had happened, but as I stood outside, I contemplated running in the other direction. Bravery to a point led to reckless stupidity and I did not want to get burned again.

But, I put on a brave face and I climbed the short flight of steps to the front door. It took every ounce of courage I had to open the door and walk inside of the school. Every fiber of my being was telling me to run, but as I walked to my locker, I ignored that feeling. It was just residual fear of the unknown.

I tried my best to ignore the stares. I hadn't acknowledged anyone, but I could feel them. Their eyes burning into my back. I had gone from being all but invisible to being the talk of the school in mere moments. It hadn't been more than a few minutes since I had entered the school and already it seemed like everyone knew that I was back.

No one said anything to me, but for once, it dawned on me that being invisible wasn't always a bad thing. I pulled out my books and blew the light dusting off of them. Even though this was my normal routine, it seemed like everything was happening so fast. I took a breath to center myself. This would be okay. It was just school and it would be okay.

I could feel my emotions spinning out of control, taking me someplace I didn't want to go. It was exactly what I told my mother she wouldn't have to worry about. But, everything was just a bit overwhelming to say the least. I was so tempted to call my mom, tell her to...

Marcus: "Hey."

It took all of my energy to keep from jumping away from him. I had completely zoned out and him appearing next to me had caught me off guard.

'' Hey."

Marcus: "I scared you. I'm sorry."

'' No. No, it's okay. I just zoned out. It's fine."

As I looked into his eyes, everything around me faded away. Marcus had always had an effect on me, but the fact that he was able to bring such a calm over me was cause for alarm.

He had been over so much since I had been home and now, he was openly associating with me at school. He said that he would and that I had nothing to worry about, but there was still some residual apprehension. But, he stayed by my side the whole time and honestly, whatever opinions people had about it, I just didn't give a damn.

Marcus: "Are you going to be okay?"

'' I'll be fine. I'll just take everything slow. It'll be fine."

As we separated, I couldn't help the tugging sensation I felt in my chest .

The day itself was kind of a blur. In homeroom, my teacher welcomed me back, but other than that, she was the only person who really made a fuss about my coming back. Other than class, I didn't have any interactions with any other teachers and I hadn't had Mrs. Elcide's class or gym yet, and honestly, I wasn't looking forward to either of them. Between Coach Anderson and Mrs. Elcide, they were the only teachers I knew cared about me and I was scared to see what would become of those relationships.

As the day went on, the periods seemed to all blend into one and I was on my own for the most part. Marcus met me at some of my classes, but he had his own stuff to worry about and I didn't need a chaperone.

It wasn't until lunch that things slowed down and that's when the real test of will began. Our school was pretty big, so we only ended up having one lunch period, right in the middle of the day. Unless some of the kids with cars left for lunch, everyone was usually there, and from a quick look around, it seemed like just about everyone was present.

I could see the whispers starting up, but as I moved to get in line for lunch, I just tried my best to ignore everyone. I saw Mrs. Elcide across the room leaning into hear one of the other teachers and then faster than I had seen her move, she was turned almost completely in her seat, staring right at me. I managed a small wave in her direction, which she acknowledged, but that was that. I could see in her eyes that she wanted to talk, but that time would come to pass sooner than I was ready for.

I couldn't help but look for Marcus, but as the line moved forward, I ordered my lunch and then went to pay. Muriel, the lunch lady, was nice as usual and said it was good to have me back. After that, I went on my way. I was ready to head to my usual table, alone, but as I was walking, Marcus walked up beside me. Just like that, everything else faded away...

Marcus: "Hey.

'' Hey."

Our one word conversations were beautiful in their simplicity, but it's like I had forgotten how to talk to him. I was so scared that it could all just fall away, reality would right itself, just to spite me.

'' Where's your lunch?"

Marcus: "I got held up in class. I was going to take you out, but you already paid for your lunch."

'' We can go."

I knew I had jumped at the idea a little too quickly, but I wasn't super excited about lunch here and I didn't know what of this stuff might end up upsetting my stomach. So, going out to lunch didn't sound like a bad idea at all. I saved the applesauce and the juice from my tray and threw the rest in the trash. I hated wasting the money, but I needed a break from this place.

As we left, I could feel the eyes of everyone on us. I still just didn't understand why us interacting was such a big deal, but whatever. I had gone from being the school pariah to having at least one friend, I guess it just didn't match up. I made a quick stop at my locker to drop everything off and then we were on our way.

I couldn't help but exhale when I got into Marcus' car. I did every time. The seat was like sitting in a cloud made just for me and the fact that I was getting away from the school wasn't a bad perk either. Marcus smiled over at me and in the same instant, he took my breath away.

He truly was dazzling, and despite everything that we had ever been through, that was a truth that could not be denied. Sometimes, even when he came to visit me, when we weren't speaking, I would lose myself in time, staring at him. Maybe he never noticed, but most times, I didn't talk because I was afraid of what might spill out of my mouth.

As we drove through town, I kind of drifted off into my thoughts. It wasn't until we parked outside of my Mom's job that I was brought back to the here and now and for a second, I thought that she had asked him to bring me. That thought was put aside though when we entered the restaurant and my mom looked genuinely surprised to see us.

Mom: "Hey, what are guys doing here? Aren't you supposed to be in class?"

Marcus: "Lunch break. We have the period free."

Mom: "Oh okay. Is everything okay so far?"

'' Yes, Mom. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but I'm okay."

Mom: "Okay. Well, you guys have a seat. I'll be right over."

I could still see the worry in her eyes, but my mom had never been overbearing. She made some small talk with us, but we ordered and she went about her business. A few of the other waitresses spoke, but I didn't really have anything to say to them. No one was willing to give my mom a break when she needed it and she didn't deserve that.

Marcus: "So...?"

'' So...?"

Marcus: "Everything is okay? Really?"

'' Yeah. I mean, it's been a little stressful. For once, I actually wish I was invisible, or that they would just focus their attention elsewhere."

Marcus: "Ha, with the herd? Good luck with that."

'' The herd?"

Marcus: "The student body. The herd of sheep. They follow the leader, never thinking for themselves, never making any moves of their own. Always afraid of stepping out of line."

'' Well, aren't you like their leader?"

Marcus: "I am. Or was. As horrible as that sounds. What I did, they did. What I believed, they believed. Fucking zombies."

'' Sometimes it's just easier to follow what everyone else is doing. You don't stand out as much."

Marcus: "You're lucky."

'' How do you figure?"

Marcus: "You're yourself. You always have been. You don't compromise or let people sway you into being what you aren't. It's admirable."

'' It's lonely."

Marcus: "Maybe, but you don't have to worry about keeping up with everyone else or stepping on toes."

'' That's a lot of pressure. Too much."

Marcus: "Well, that's why I'm here. You'll show me the way and I'll be here in your corner."

'' Ha, thanks."

Marcus: "I'm serious."

'' It's not that hard. You're doing it already. Releasing the flock."

Marcus: "I don't know if I released them or if they fired me."

'' Either way, you're free."

Marcus: "I guess I am, huh?"

I couldn't help but smile at him. I could see this carefree person in him. Underneath everything he had built himself up to be, there was a small piece of him that was trying to break free. Who'd have thought things would change like this? Everything was happening so quickly, it was hard to keep my head on straight.

For a moment, it got quiet and as Marcus sat back and closed his eyes, I saw the wall come down again. He relaxed and his "cool-guy" facade faded away. That he was comfortable enough around me to do that brought about another smile. God, I was screwed.

As my mom circled back around with our food in tow, I could feel and hear my stomach grumbling.

Marcus: "Someone's hungry."

He laughed and I could feel my cheeks redden.

'' Somewhat."

Marcus: "Good."

As my mom dropped off our food, she made quick conversation and then went on her way. It had gotten really busy and she couldn't chat long. We both prepared our food and got down to eating. We talked amongst ourselves some, but keeping aware of the time, we were making quick work of our food.

Marcus: "Can I have a taste?"

'' Huh?"

My temperature had gone up about ten degrees. I had heard exactly what he said, but it wasn't so much what he said, but how he said it that had my pulse hammering and my ears ringing.

Marcus: "Your pancakes... Can I have a taste?"

'' Uh... Sure."

As he forked a few bites onto his plate, I couldn't help but notice the smirk on his face as he ate each piece with a tenderness they didn't deserve. I could feel my cheeks getting hot as I watched him and I was pretty sure he knew exactly what he was doing.

I moved my attention back to my food and he continued to eat his food regularly. I didn't know how to feel about what had just happened, but I decided not to comment. It would just lead to a world of trouble.

As we finished up, my mom brought the check, he paid and we left. I could see it in my mom's eyes that she knew I was flustered and as she looked back and forth between myself and Marcus, her mouth set into a hard line. I knew there would be a conversation about it later, but I'd worry about it then.

Getting back to school took less time than I thought and as we sat in the car, Marcus turned the music down until it was barely audible and reclined his seat. He draped his arm over his eyes, but I still felt like he was looking right at me.

'' We're going to be late for Mrs. Elcide's class."

Marcus: "Are you really ready to go back in there?"

'' No. Not really."

Again his powers at reading me were becoming alarming. I never let anyone in, so that fact that he was picking up on so many of my emotions was a little unsettling, to say the least.

As he completely relaxed in his seat, I couldn't help but stare at him. How things had changed. I was sitting inches away from someone, who just a few short weeks ago hated me, and even though I now knew why, it was still a lot to process. More than that, we were friends now. We had gotten over our differences and things were looking up for both of us.

It looked like Marcus was about to fall asleep, but he jerked awake and after looking around, he smiled at me and sat up. It was one of those rare moments that I had had the opportunity to share with Marcus. He was a person who kept up a lot of layers with people and for him to be able to put that aside for me was something that I did not take lightly.

Marcus: "We better get in there."

As we grabbed up our bags and headed towards the building, we saw Lee and Daniel walking towards the main door. I really had no desire to even be within breathing distance of Lee, but Marcus kept walking, completely unfazed.

I thought that as we got closer, Marcus would stop and talk to them, but he barely acknowledged either of them as we went into the school. I could see the look of confusion on Daniel's face and Lee just went from pissed to livid.

I could tell Marcus' entire attitude had changed, but I had no idea what had just happened and the last thing I needed on my first day back was drama. Especially drama that had anything to do with Lee.

Marcus finally stopped at his locker and as I caught up with him, I could feel the anger radiating off of him. If we didn't hurry, we'd be late for class, but this felt a lot more important at the moment.

'' Hey, what just happened back there?"

Marcus: "What?"

I stepped back at the ferocity in his voice, but I knew it was just misdirected anger.

'' Those were your friends and you just blew by them like you didn't know them."

Marcus: "Yeah, so?!"

'' They're your friends, Marcus. Daniel looked pretty hurt back there."

Marcus: "He's a big guy. He'll manage."

I could tell Marcus was really upset, but I couldn't help but notice him look down the hall to where Daniel and Lee's lockers were.

'' Marcus... If the cost of us being friends is that you abandon the people you're closest to, I don't think i'm okay with that."

Marcus: "I'm trying to change. I need friends who feel the same as I do. Friends who understand."

'' If they feel exactly the way you do and think the way you think, then what's the point of having them at all? I thought you were looking for the herd to do their own thing? If hating me is part of that, let them."

I could see my reasoning affect him, but he shrugged his shoulders and slammed his locker shut. As we walked to Mrs. Elcide's class, I couldn't help but feel bad as we passed Daniel again. Lee had gone off to talk to some girl friends of his, but as we passed Daniel, I couldn't help but notice how hurt he looked.

I put that on the back burner as the real challenge of the day began. I had no idea what Mrs. Elcide would say or what I would say to her. She was one of the few people in this place that actually gave a damn about me and for whatever reason, I felt like I had failed her. Here and now, it wasn't making anything better.

As Marcus turned into the classroom, he put his head down and went to his seat. I knew there was nothing that he could do to help me and he didn't need to be in the crossfire of whatever show was about to go down.

As I rounded the corner and took her in, I couldn't help but stop. Her gaze was so intense that it seemed the very wind was knocked out of me. It was like every fear I had about my return to her class was building up and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I followed her movements as she closed the distance between us and when she put her arm around my shoulder, beckoning me into the class, I couldn't help but relax into her. She wrapped both arms around me and for a moment, I just took her in. I choked back tears, but now was not the time and as she pulled away from me, I could see the beginnings of tears in the corners of her eyes as well.

I really had missed Mrs. Elcide. It was refreshing to know that someone was in your corner, someone who wouldn't judge you or hold your past against you. Even though she was a few years older than me, it was something that I cherished greatly.

Mrs. Elcide: "Come on. Take your seat."

I did as she requested and as I made my way to my seat, Marcus and I made eye contact and it seemed like we both exhaled at the same time. If she wasn't my teacher, I was confident that she would be my friend. Still, it was a relationship that I did not want to damage.

We spent a little time getting things situated for some of our other assignments, but after a while, she set us up in our groups and left us to it. I expected to hear the typical groans of discontent, but instead the class broke apart excitedly, everyone pairing up without any discernible sign of protest.

As Marcus traded seats with Desiree Echols, he turned his chair to face me, beaming the whole time. As he pulled out some of the things we had worked on during my days at home, I surveyed everyone around me.

It was almost like I didn't recognize any of the people that were in front of me. So much had changed in the time that I was gone. People who had never spoken to each other were now having full blown conversations with each other. It was like stepping into a different reality.

Marcus: "Weird, huh?"

'' The weirdest."

Marcus: "Never thought you'd see the day?"

'' Everyone is talking."

Marcus: "Yeah, the project seems to really be working."

'' Yeah, it does."

Class for the most part was pretty uninteresting. As far as getting to know each other, Marcus and I had been slowly doing that for the project, but it also felt like something else was going on as well. Something genuine and that was almost just as scary. There was still so much that I hadn't told him. So much pain that I had buried inside. He didn't deserve to carry my hurts with him, it wouldn't be fair.

It seemed like only minutes, but class was starting to come to a close. That was cool, but I was not ready to have this talk with Mrs. Elcide that I knew was coming. As Marcus and the rest of the class packed everything up, I dutifully stayed in my seat. Marcus looked like he wanted to stay behind, but one look from Mrs. Elcide, and he made a hasty exit. She said a few parting words to some of the other late exits, and then she closed the door.

As she walked over to me, I could the tension in her face. She was keeping her emotions in check. I didn't know if she wanted to start crying or if she was going to cuss me out. Instead, she took the seat in front of me and for a while, she just sat there and looked at me.

Mrs. Elcide: "I didn't think you were coming back to us."

'' I'm pretty durable, Mrs. Elcide."

I tried to make a joke out of it, but she simply ignored that and kept talking.

Mrs. Elcide: "I was scared that after everything that had happened, you would push your transfer up and just go."

I didn't say anything. Honestly. In the whirlwind of events that had happened over the last few weeks, I had forgotten all about my intentions to transfer schools. As the thought spun around in my head, even thinking about leaving left a bad taste in my mouth.

Mrs. Elcide: "You're one of my most promising students, Ashton and besides that, you're one of the students I care a great deal about. I want you to have the best education possible and I think that this school can really offer that to you. With that being said, you also have to think about your safety and what is best for you. I knew that giving this project would be challenging... That was the point, but I never..."

I got out of my seat long enough to grab her some Kleenex and for her to assure me that she was okay. She had been crying for the last few minutes or so and that small break seemed to ease some of her pain.

Mrs. Elcide: "I'm so sorry, Ashton. I never would have imagined that giving this assignment would cause you to... I'm so very sorry."

'' Mrs. Elcide, what happened was in no way your fault. None of it. Your project may have brought up some things that I've been through, some thing that I'd like to forget and it made me talk to Marcus, but what happened... What I did...
Mrs. Elcide, have you ever woken up one day and you just knew in your heart that it was going to be the worst day of your life? That the odds that were stacked so high against you were going to topple down and consume you?"

Mrs. Elcide: "Maybe. Not like that, but maybe."

'' Well that's how it feels for me. Every day, that's how I wake up. Before I even get out of bed, I ask myself who's going to try and make an example of me. I ask myself if I'm going to get away unscathed or if I'm going to end up getting chased home or someone attacking me for no reason. That's my reality.
It had nothing to do with the project, Mrs. Elcide. It was everything else. So in that moment, after what had happened with Lee, I was just ready for it all to be over. It's so tiring to have the same people hate you. To pick over every detail of what they think they know about you and they create knives with it. I'm not that strong."

Mrs. Elcide: "Actually Ashton, I think you're a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for. You were strong enough to stand up for yourself, you were strong enough to come back and face him and all of these other kids. If that isn't a sign of strength, then I don't know what is.
Life is going to be a challenge. There is no way to get around that. But, you'll have to find worth in the good days to get you through the bad, Ashton."

'' That's so much harder than it sounds."

Mrs. Elcide: "Definitely. Nothing about this life is easy. You have to find what makes you happy and cherish it. Cherish the people in your life that love you, that care for you and want the best for you. This is high school, Ashton. High school ends and then your life will begin. You'll be able to make your own choices, you can go wherever you want to, you can do whatever you want. Don't lose that opportunity for yourself. In less time than you know it, high school will be a distant memory."

I processed that for a moment. I wanted to say something, to make her understand it wasn't that easy, for me of all people, but her logic was sound and I knew she really only did want the best for me.

Mrs. Elcide came around the side of my chair and as I stood up, she wrapped her arms around me. A real hug this time. As she released me, a smile on her face, her words took hold of me. There was so much that I wanted to do. So many things I wanted to see...

As I stepped out of Mrs. Elcide's classroom, I could literally feel a weight lift off of my shoulders. The anxiety of talking to her had been a lot more stressful than I realized, and the fact that our relationship was stronger than ever was a breath of fresh air.

I knew I was late my next class, but I had a note from Mrs. Elcide, so I wasn't going to get in trouble. I stopped at my locker to swap some things in and out, then I was on my way. I was still going to have to content with Anderson later in the day, but I wasn't going to stress it. Coach had always been in my corner and I was confident that that wasn't going to change.

As I settled into my Economics class, I couldn't help but look back at Daniel. We had always had classes together, but the only time he really had ever bothered me was when he was with his brother or Marcus. He was usually pretty animated, but today he hadn't said much of anything in class. I had caught him looking at me once and I could see the confusion in his eyes, but there was nothing I could do about that. Marcus would have to figure that out for himself.

The remainder of class flew by and not surprising at all, Marcus was waiting across the hall from my classroom when I stepped into the hall. I couldn't help the elation I felt at seeing his face, but I gave him a small smile and made the short walk over to him. I could tell he had just finished with gym class by the water dripping out of his hair and the thought of him in the shower was enough to make me go red.

He looked at me curiously, but at that same moment, Daniel walked out of the classroom and saw us standing there. I watched as Marcus turned away from him and it literally looked like Daniel was slapped across the face. For an instant I thought that he was going to say something, but instead, he spun on his heel and stormed down the hallway. I could see the look of guilt on Marcus' face, but I didn't push the issue.

Marcus: "How was class?"

'' So-so."

Marcus: "Did Daniel...?"

'' He didn't say anything to me. He doesn't really bother me and it's not me he's mad at."

Marcus: "I kind of got that."

I didn't say anything and it was kind of quiet between us for a moment. I was confident that they'd make it right, but I could still see that he was getting a little upset.

Marcus: "Are you going to Study Hall later?"

'' I can."

Marcus: "Okay."

He didn't say anything else and after a while, he just walked away from me. I couldn't tell how he was feeling, but I'm sure we would talk about it later. While I thought about that, I headed towards the gym. I had a release from my doctor barring me from participating, but I still had to attend class.

I got to the gym before everyone else, they had to change clothes and I wanted to talk to Coach Anderson. I made my way to his office and just stood back for a second while he shuffled some papers around and locked some stuff up in his desk. I hesitated a moment, but I steeled my resolve and knocked on his door.

I watched him exhale as he recognized me and he nodded for me to come in. I hadn't expected to be nervous, Anderson and I were tight. But, at the look of disappointment in his eyes, I suddenly was very afraid of this conversation. Coach Anderson had been a great mentor for me and I never thought about how what I had done would make him feel.

He didn't say anything as he closed the door behind me. The tension in the room was almost suffocating, but as I sat down in the chair opposite his desk, I waited with bated breath. I expected him to take the chair behind his desk, but instead he sat on it's edge and turned his body to face me.

It was like my head was glued to my chest and I wouldn't have been able to meet his eyes, even if I wanted to. Instead, I played with the sleeves of my jacket, but I stopped that as well. It took every ounce of courage I had, but I brought my eyes to his and what I saw, well it definitely wasn't disappointment.

Coach Anderson: "I'm glad you're okay."

'' Yeah. I'm good. Here in one piece."

Coach Anderson: "Good."

Coach wasn't a man of many words, but even I would consider this cryptic for him. We didn't have a lot of deep conversations, but I was able to talk to him about absolutely anything and he'd give me his honest feedback. But for him not to have anything to say at all, it was disheartening.

I was ready to plead my case, but before I could talk, he put his hand up to silence me.

Coach Anderson: "I'm not going to ask you for all the details, because that's not what's important here. I don't have a lot to say either, but I will say this... I know it can be hard, Ashton. Believe me, I do. But you can not let these kids take you to that place. You have so much to live for Ashton. You have so much life after high school, so many adventures beyond these walls. You would be doing yourself a great injustice if you robbed yourself of those opportunities."

'' I'm sorry. I understand what you're saying Coach, but everything just seemed to be coming down on me at once. I just couldn't take another day of the bullshit."

Coach Anderson: "Ashton, this life, things are going to knock you down at every turn. People will tear you apart while smiling in your face and not give a damn. You have got to be stronger than that. You have to know you're worth and know that you're better than the crap they dish out at you."

'' Coach..."

Coach Anderson: "No, Ashton... listen to me. You are one of the few people I believe can make it out of here. You can have the life you want and choose the people you have in your life. This place... these people... it's all so temporary if you let it be. Don't let this place be the end of your legacy. You have so much to offer, so much you can prove to these people."

Who knows where the tears had come from or where my good sense had gone, but I wrapped my arms around Anderson and just cried. The well of emotions I had tried to not let myself feel came out of me in a rush and he was the only thing keeping me grounded. I could just barely feel him patting my pack, soothing me, encouraging me. It was something I would never forget. Something that I would cherish.

As I calmed down, I awkwardly pulled away from him. I thought he would look uncomfortable, but as he held a Kleenex out to me, he just looked proud. I couldn't imagine why, but he clearly saw something in me that I did not.

I exited Anderson's office a little awkwardly, but I knew everything was alright between us. What I had always liked about him was that he didn't waste time trying to be the nice guy. If he truly cared about you, he cared and that was that. He gave it straight or he left it alone. He was the closest thing I had to a male role-model since my dad was gone and it truly made the difference.

Anderson was only a few years older than me, just like Mrs. Elcide, and maybe that's why it was so easy to talk to him. But, it felt like something more than that. He didn't focus on stuff like sexuality or popularity, he was unfazed by all of that. He genuinely was just a caring person and I appreciated it.

I settled myself down to watch as gym progressed without me. I wouldn't be participating for some time, but that was okay with me. It's not that I wasn't athletic, but participating was always very levels of being mind-fucked by my peers and a few weeks off would be appreciated. So instead, I took out my homework and finished up up some of my other assignments, my thoughts moving a mile a minute.


As I set up my Economics homework and pulled out my iPod, I looked behind me to see if Ashton was coming, but I didn't see him. We had separated a little awkwardly earlier and I just wasn't sure if things were alright between us. It was his first day back and already I was finding ways to stress him out.

I was just pulling out my phone to text him he stopped beside me and set his bag down on the table. We didn't say anything to each other as he pulled out his homework and took the seat beside me. I noticed that he sat a little closer than he normally would have and our knees were just barely touching. Like an idiot, I couldn't help the small smile on my face.

We were just about to get started on our homework when Daniel showed up at our table. I hadn't been expecting him and as I looked at him, I could see just how hurt he was. I could also see how pissed he was and his anger was directed right at me. I could feel Ashton stiffen beside me, but my focus was solely on Daniel.

Daniel: "What the fuck, Marcus?!"

I looked around as his outburst drew the attention of the small group in the library, but before I could get a word in, he was already steaming ahead.

Daniel: "We've been friends for six years, Marcus! Six years. And now, you finally decide to get over yourself and your ego, and we're the collateral damage? We've been your friends through everything. We've been by your side through it all. When you tried to push us away after Nala, we stuck by you, made sure you knew we were ready when you were. And now, you drop us like we're a fucking bother to you? If that's how you treat friends, then I guess we're better off without."

I wish I could see what expression was on my face. I could tell it was a mixture of hurt and rage, but inside it felt like I was being torn to pieces. Cut into a million tiny hurts as his words cut me over and over again.

I looked over to Ashton and he was shocked as well, but I couldn't help but be grateful that Daniel hadn't included him in this. I processed all of this as one of my best friends in the world turned around and began to walk away from our friendship.

'' Wait! Daniel, please just wait!"

He froze. I had stood up and I was waiting for him to turn around, waiting for him to make eye contact with me. He was my friend. One of my best friends and I wanted him to know how sincere I was.

'' Daniel, I'm sorry. I am so sorry."

I could tell that he was skeptical. Sorry wasn't a strongly used word in my vocabulary, but I had never meant anything more. I was so sickeningly tired of losing people.

'' Please, come sit. Please."

He hesitated momentarily, but he made the short walk back to our table and sat down. I could he was still hurt, but we would figure it out.

'' Daniel, listen, I was being a dick. A super dick. You \guys deserve so much better than me. Like you said, I'm finally getting 'over myself,' but I just turned around and did the same thing to you guys. I've spent so long worrying about the wrong things, focusing on dumb shit. I'm trying to right some of my wrongs, Daniel, and I was afraid you guys would fight me on it."

Daniel: "You do realize that I've never had a problem with Ashton, right?"

I could see Ashton's discomfort at being brought into focus, but he didn't say anything.

Daniel: "It was always you and Lee who had an issue. So if that's your thinking, try again. I'm happy that you're having your moment of growth, but we didn't deserve that."

'' I agree. Ashton, he tried to tell me that, but I was being pig-headed."

Daniel; "He did?"

Ashton nodded slightly, but something passed over Daniel and I couldn't tell what it was. He looked back and forth between us, but he didn't elaborate.

'' We cool?"

Daniel: "We're cool."

I couldn't stop from smiling, but it was short lived as Lee came around the corner. His face had no expression at first, but as he saw us all sitting at the table together, he got mad almost instantly. He didn't say anything as he walked up and stood behind his brother, but I could hear the storm clouds in the distance.

I looked back and forth between them and the likeliness was uncanny. They really were almost exactly alike. I knew the, better, but if it wasn't for their hair being slightly different or them wearing different clothes, it would be hard to decipher.

I could see Lee sizing up the situation, He had already fought Ashton once and although their wasn't a winner, he knew Ashton wasn't some easy push-over. But for me, I wanted to nip all of that in the bud.

'' Hey man, I'm really sorry. I've been such a dick lately, especially to you. We're a lot better than that and I've just not been a good friend the last few weeks."

I could see him soften at that. These really were my boys and as I thought about it, I really had been blowing them off. It was a sobering thought.

Lee: "It's cool, Man. We're cool."

If I hated to apologize, Lee was allergic to it. He had his fair share of blame in what had happened as well, but I let that go. I was actually surprised when he took the seat beside his brother and he looked at Ashton with distaste, he didn't make a fuss about it.

I thought that everything was fine, but then Ashton closed his text and started putting his things away. I watched him carefully, but he didn't look upset or anything, so I was completely confused. He didn't say anything as he stood up and he finally made eye-contact with me.

'' What's up?"

Ashton: "Um, I'm just going to leave you guys to it. I told Fromran I would swing by after last period anyway."

His eyes flicked to Lee and then he was heading towards the exit. I know Lee had seen Ashton's shift of eyes, but he made no comment. I grabbed my phone and after pulling up Ashton's number, I text him.

'' U okay?"

Ashton: "I'm okay. You just needed time with your friends."

'' U R my friend."

Ashton: "I know, but you guys were having a moment. And Lee.... I just can't do that."

So that was the real reason he had decided to leave, or at least part of it. I wasn't going to make a fuss with Lee, but I really wanted him to get over whatever beef he was harboring with Ashton. I just want us all to move on. It's not like I wanted them to be friends, I just wanted some peace.

As we sat there and did our homework, I realized just how much I had missed just being around these guys. I didn't have to pretend or hide from them. They had seen me at my worst and they were still here. That was something to be cherished.

As I looked at my phone again, I couldn't help but send one more text.

'' Wish U had stayed! [O_o}"