Soundtrack to this chapter: "Eyes Nose Lips" by Tablo, "The Scientist" the Glee version this time, and "Stay With Me" by Taeyang feat. G-Dragon.

Chapter Thirteen: No Cure, No Rehab For Me

by: Secretive

I want to hide the truth,
I want to shelter you...
- Imagine Dragons

Thatcher's Point of View

I was closer than ever before to using the key the Taverez family entrusted me with years ago.

Glancing at the windows I once again pounded on the front door, my cell phone against my ear. Which caused a weird echoing effect as I listened to both the hollow ring in my phone and the ring of the phone in their house. I began to pace and tried to remember all the reasons why using my key would be wrong; reasons that I'd been told over and over again were ridiculous. One: I don't want to walk in on any half naked girls – they are everywhere in the Taverez home. Two: I don't want to surprise anyone or terrify them by appearing out of nowhere – which had happened often enough, even without the key. Three, and possibly most importantly: the last time I let myself in (through an unlocked door) I walked in on everyone surrounding a prone body. It had taken awhile to realize that no one had killed anyone, which...had been a little embarrassing. First because I had actually thought they could kill a man and secondly because I had immediately launched into how to cover up the crime and get rid of the body.

Really showed my true colors that day.

I wonder if they did kill someone this time...

I banged against the door again as I paced by it on the small front porch, listening to the dual rings of the phone. When the answering machine switched on I took a deep breath and hung up. Then scrolled through my messages again; I had gotten emergency texts from every one of Huey's sisters – even Lupe, who was still living in New York. The texts had started coming in while I was on my "non"-date with Nadine, when I had turned my phone off for the movie and then forgot about it. In the three hours that my phone was dead to the world something had happened to Huey.

My heart jumped in my throat and I felt another wave of panic crash into me.

Was he sick? Car accident? Death in the family?

With trembling hands, I found the key on my keyring and had just inserted it into the lock when the door swung open. When I looked up I found myself staring at Aliana "Li" (Huey nicknamed her, he nicknamed all of them except for Guadalupe, who refused giving up the name "Lupe" for "Dali"), Huey's second oldest sister. "Oh thank God! Please tell me you can calm him down." She exclaimed, grabbing my wrist and tugging me into the house. I was practically teary-eyed and very confused at that point, but before I could say anything Catalina "Tali" – Huey's second to youngest sister – popped her head into the entrance hall and smiled brightly.

"Good, you're here." She said and then turned to call over her shoulder: "The cavalry is here!"

"Thank God!" I heard Huey's mother – Maria, who had I been asked to call "Mamaria" early on in our relationship – say from the other room, before breaking into rapid fire Spanish.

I had no idea what was going on.

"Promise us you'll get the mouthwash away from him, we are getting really worried." Tali continued, leading Li and me further into the house and to the kitchen. "He's on his second bottle and we have no idea what it's doing to his gums."

"We managed to get his toothbrush away when his gums started to bleed." Li added. "Why did we ever buy the mouthwash without alcohol in it? I bet he would have stopped by now if it felt like his mouth was on fire."

"What's going on?" I asked as we walked into the kitchen where Elena "Lane", Huey's youngest sister, was sitting at the table with the grandmothers and watching Huey pace around the room with a bottle of light blue liquid.

"Look who is here, little brother!" Li announced, shoving me closer to him.

He turned to look at me, sloshing the liquid around in his mouth. He raised the hand that wasn't holding the mouthwash and waved at me. His mother made a lunge for the bottle, but he gracefully stepped out of her path. She turned her attention to me, walking over and wrapping me into the only maternal embrace I knew outside of Nonna.

"Hola, mi cordero." She greeted softly, "It has been an age." She added as she squeezed me tighter.

I hugged her back, "It's been a day."

"Same thing, I miss my second boy." She smiled and leaned back from me, only to lean forward once more to kiss my forehead. Then she turned her concerned eyes on Huey. "He's having a bit of a meltdown on us."

I nodded, feeling both utterly adrift and terribly worried. "Huey, what's with the mouthwash?"

He held his hand once more, spit the liquid out into the kitchen sink, and then touched his very sore looking gums. "I can't feel my gums anymore, do you think that's a bad sign?" He asked, holding up the bottle and reading over the label.

"Seriously Hue, what's up with the mouthwash?" I asked again, taking a step closer to him and wondering if all the women in the room expected me to wrestle the bottle away from him. He had a death-grip on the neck of the bottle, but if it would ease their minds...

He shuddered and brought his haunted gaze to mine. "I was assaulted." He whispered cryptically and then took another swig of the mouthwash.

"Please stop doing that!" Mamaria exclaimed, "You've been swishing that stuff around for the last half hour! You've got to stop!"

In response he gargled and then spit out the liquid once more in the sink. "You took my toothbrush away from me. What else was I supposed to do?"

I shook my head quickly, holding up both hands. "You can't say you were assaulted and then stop talking. What happened?" I demanded, grabbing the bottle from him before he could down the rest of it. He tried to reach for it, but I handed it off to the side without looking away from him and felt someone immediately remove it from my grasp.

He groaned and sunk to the laminate floor of the kitchen. "Dude, this has been a seriously twisted day." He lamented and then grimaced. "I'm really sorry about before; I didn't mean to react like that." He shuddered again, "I wonder if that's why...?"

"Why, what?"

Lane squatted down beside him and rubbed his back, then turned her eyes on me. "We explained to him earlier that you were breaking up with him in the coldest way possible."

I frowned, "I did not break up with Huey. And coldest way possible? Jeez, thanks."

"It is." Li said and I saw that she was the one that grabbed the mouthwash from me; she was hugging it to herself. "I've been broken up with in such a way and it sucks."

My eyes narrowed. "Who broke up with you over the phone?"

"Don't even try it man, she won't say." Huey moaned from the floor.

Li rolled her eyes, "Because I don't need two teenage boys trying to avenge a breakup that took place years ago."

I looked down at my best friend, "I can think of three guys she's dated since I first moved back to America, how many before that?"

"Stop!" She exclaimed.

I sighed, my gaze still on him. "I'm sorry you thought I was break up with you – I'd never break up with you." I squinted at that, "That sounded weird."

"Definitely rephrase that." Lane interjected, still rubbing his back.

"Uh...okay... We're best friends, always. I just needed a break from you setting me up on dates and then you didn't..." I sighed, "Nadine told me she asked you to do it for some secret reason, so I'm sorry that I got mad at you. You were just looking out for Nadine." I looked at all the women in the room and chewed on my bottom lip. "But what's going on?"

Abuela – she refused to tell me her real name and forbade all others from telling me to ensure that I called her thus – sat up straighter in her chair. She was Huey's maternal grandmother and she and Abuelita – who played the same game with her name – often playfully fought over who was loved more. The Taverez family took her in months after her son, Huey's father, died in a robbery at a gas station. Huey had been nine when that happen and in the decade since, the two women had not only been there for every single person in the home, they'd been there for me too. I loved my second and third grandmothers, and treated them much the same as every other Taverez: with awe, love, and a little bit of fear.

"That disgusting—"

Abuelita clicked her tongue and shook her head. "You don't want to seem like an ignorant elder, my dear."

Abuela glared at her, "But he is disgusting."

"Change the word."

She grunted and then her gaze back to me, "That Skylar," she said the word much like one would say vermin, "assaulted our poor, sweet grandson."

"Should I go hurt him?" I asked.

"That would be a hate crime." Lane said, causing me once more to frown in confusion.

"I do hate him..."

"That's not what she means." Tali said.

I looked Huey over, trying to find any bruises. "How did he assault you?"

He shuddered again, "It answered so many questions I've always had..." He announced out of nowhere, "Have you ever wondered why Skylar hates you so much?"

I glanced at his mother and sisters, then sat down next to him on the floor. "Because I came to town and beat the crap out of him?"

He shook his head, "Nope. Not the reason."

"My attitude?"

"Nope."

"I stopped an entire school from abusing you?"

"Nope."

"Then why?"

He shuddered yet again and squeezed his eyes shut. "Because you befriended me." He said softly, opening his eyes. "He hated you because he felt that you were encroaching on his territory."

Between this and SpongeBob, I have felt very much like a clueless idiot all night.

"What?"

"Apparently," He continued, his voice breaking and his tone mocking. "I'm Skylar's territory."

"I don't get it."

"He likes me, really likes me." He elaborated in his regular tone, looking squeamish.

"I still don't get it." I said, leaning my back against the cabinet under the sink. "Why would you think that? He'd been using you as a punching bag when I came to town."

"Apparently that was to hide the fact that he liked me in a way he wasn't ready to deal with – I'm paraphrasing his words here." He added, gagging a bit. "Which does explain why he was forever accusing me of liking men. Did you know that he never kissed Nadine? Want to know why? Because I know why."

"Yeah, she told me tonight..." I trailed off, his words finally beginning to sink in. "Wait...Skylar likes you like that? And what? His way of wooing involves that many broken bones? That many black eyes? That much blood?" Anger had begun to curl in my stomach the moment the penny dropped and I was ready to go hurt someone. "It explains why he never touched Nadine in that way, but God."

"She should count herself lucky." He muttered darkly, then turned his gaze to his mother. "Can I please have my toothbrush back?"

Wait...

"Honey, you brushed your teeth for almost an hour, I think we can safely say that you've removed all of Skylar from your mouth."

"He kissed you?" I demanded, staring at him in shock.

He turned those haunted eyes back at me. "I told you I was assaulted."

"He forced himself on you?" My tone was deadly.

He frowned, "That sounds...wrong. He violated my mouth, but how was I supposed to prepare for something like that? I had no idea how to react, it was so completely unexpected! I had just been in the middle of asking him to repeat himself because I was sure that I had to have misheard his declaration, then he pounced. Wait, where are you going?" He added the last part quickly as I shot to my feet.

"He forced himself on you."

Huey's eyes widened and he promptly hopped to his feet as well. "Thatcher, it wasn't like what happened to you."

"He forced himself on you." I repeated, noting that the sisters and Mamaria had begun to surround me. It was then that Tia Liliana walked into the room, took one look at the scene, and joined them.

"What's happening? What's going on? Why did I get so many texts saying '911'?"

"We are trying to stop Thatcher from going out and killing someone." Tali replied.

"Why?"

"Because Skylar kissed Huey."

"WHAT?"

"Skylar forced a kiss on Huey." Li clarified and I saw the moment Tia Lia understood their plight. Everyone in the house knew of my sexual abuse, everyone in the house had told me at one point of another that it wasn't my fault and that they would skin that woman alive if they ever found her. So why were they trying to stop me?

"Thatcher, my loyal boy, desist." Abuelita said in the silence that followed Li's statement. I cut my gaze to her, stared at her serene face, and jerked my head in a nod; trying to dispel the rage that had built up within me. Which was next to impossible, but an elder had demanded it of me, so I tried.

"Did you mean hate crime because he's gay? Or because of how much I hate him?" I asked, the question directed at Lane.

"Thatcher, it'd break my heart if you went to jail." Was all she would say and the other women in the room murmured their agreement.

I sighed and turned my attention back to Huey. "It's not your fault."

He grimaced, "I can see where he was coming from. I haven't really dated and my closest relationship is with you. And...sometimes I sound vaguely gay..."

"Not. Your. Fault."

He nodded, "I really never wanted his tongue in my mouth." He gagged and looked pitifully at Tali, "Please, let me have the mouthwash back."

"No."

"Please?"

"Hermano, have I mentioned how proud I am of you?"

"Thanks, but I'm really grossed out right now."

"Yeah, but you stayed true to yourself: you didn't spew out any slurs or hit him, you were your usual accepting self."

"I slammed a door in his face after telling him he made me want to vomit. Then I did vomit."

"But somehow you did it all so cordially." Lane stated, with a shake of her head. "It was almost beautiful."

"I feel empty."

"You didn't even start cursing."

"Empty because I spewed everything out of my system."

"Yeah, I thought he'd be putting all kinds of money in the Swear Jar."

"He made me sick." Huey said, to no one in particular, since they were too busy praising him. I reached over and clapped him on the shoulder, to let him know I heard him.

"I'm sorry he kissed you." I said.

"Please stop making me relive it." He mumbled, then shot a glare at Li. "This is because you've ruined me." He announced, looking at his family members in turn. "You've carefully molded me into a guy that is scared of women, therefore avoids them. Sculpted me into a guy that's actually in touch with his emotions. You've ruined me."

"Hey!" Li exclaimed.

"Can you deny it? The only testosterone in this family is in me. I am in estrogen central – everywhere I look, women!"

"Be that as it may, Drama Queen—"

"Queen?!"

"—but you befriended a guy that is your opposite."

"I'm not afraid of women and am not in touch with my emotions?" I queried. They all stopped to shoot me skeptical glances, even Huey.

"You once had me describe happiness to you." Lane declared.

"I didn't know what I was feeling." I replied with a shrug.

"Exactly."

Li shook her head, gathered her thoughts, and continued. "So even if you think we 'ruined' you, you've had Thatcher to balance you out."

"Really?" He asked sarcastically, then turned to look at me. "Thatcher, I love you."

"I love you, too."

He threw his hands up in the air. "My opposite would have trouble saying something like that! Because men usually get squeamish about declaring their love for each other!"

"Well...Thatcher's...weird."

I shot Tali a dark look for that one. "Maybe I love you least."

"Obviously." Lane said with a smile, "Out of the sisters I'm your favorite."

I actually didn't have a favorite, I loved them all, but she was the one with whom I first bonded. She had just turned eleven when I met her: obsessed with makeup and some girly boy singer, and hadn't been at all phased by me. I had been disdainful and angry, but she'd taken one look at me, raised an eyebrow, and said: "You can drop the snarl and drop the attitude. You want to be Huey's friend? Then you better act like it." In that moment, I was a fan for life.

"No, bird brain, I'm the favorite." Li declared; our first meeting had been with her waving the Swear Jar in my face and telling me to pay up. I think the fact that absolutely none of them had ever been afraid of me was part of the reason I loved them so quickly. My grandparents had been wary, trying to figure out how to approach me, how to reach me. I'll love them forever for their care and consideration, but it was the Taverez family that made me feel like I belonged right away. None of them cared to ease me into anything, they had taken me as I was and told me how it was going to be if I were to become friends with Huey. It was the fierce protectiveness and loyalty that drew me too them. I wanted relationships like that for myself.

Now I do.

And sometimes it's stressful. I went from a lonely only child, to one of six. I found a mom, an aunt, three grandmothers, one grandfather, four sisters, and a brother. I discovered that my opinion was not the only one that mattered, that I only held one vote in what felt like a sea of votes, and that I was both special and not very special at all. I was not pampered, spoiled, or singled out – half the time they treated me like I wasn't even there.

It was everything I needed.

Their acceptance lead to me accepting my grandparents. I will always owe the Taverez family a debt...not that any of them would ever agree with me on that. They'd probably insist that they owed me a debt for befriending Huey, like that was hard.

"Girls, stop." Mamaria said, "Thatcher doesn't play favorites and we all know and understand that if he did, it would obviously be the grandmothers."

"Or me." Huey said and then gazed off, "Why am I partaking in this?"

"You don't get to count, you were his gateway Taverez."

"Gateway Taverez? Does that make me the human equivalent of a gateway drug? Marijuana?"

"Your mouth looks really red." I said, "Maybe lay off the brushing and mouthwash? It'll make everyone feel better and I think your gums would thank you."

He sighed and dropped his head, "Four years I go without kissing anyone and then this? I wished I had kept my drought."

"Thatcher, would you care to stay the night?" Mamaria asked, looking at me in such a way that I knew they wanted me to stay near by to keep Huey away from the melodramatics.

"Sure, but I need to call my son first."

"Of course." She smiled and it looked very maternal. "I love that little boy."

"Thanks." I couldn't help the smile that twisted my lips. "Me too."

Huey made his way out of the room, walking towards the stairs. "You can stay, but we're not sharing a bed."

I frowned, following after him. "We haven't done that since your mom got me the trundle bed."

"God! You slept at the foot of the bed, don't make it sound like that!"

-::-

"I haven't had my morning coffee yet, so my mind's a bit fuzzy." I glanced around the room Huey and I were seated in, "But...is this couple's counseling?"

"No." He shuddered, "Please don't call it that, I'm fragile right now."

"Why are you fragile?" Asked the woman I had hoped to never see again.

"He doesn't want to talk about it." I said at the same time Huey announced: "I don't want to talk about it."

Mrs. Wilkes sat back in surprise, looking between the two of us. "Do you often finish each others sentences?"

I turned to stare at Huey and he looked back, frowning. "That wasn't really finishing a sentence." We both said at the same time, which was apparently cause for her to start taking notes.

"You do finish my sentences sometimes." I pointed out.

"Only when you insist on talking slow."

I thought that over. "Do I ever talk fast?"

Huey chewed on his bottom lip and sat back in his chair. "Dude, I don't think you do."

"Not even when I panic?"

"Do you panic?"

"Shouldn't you know this about yourself?" Mrs. Wilkes asked.

Huey shook his head, "Inner Thatch and Outer Thatch are practically two different entities." He sat up in his seat, leaning towards her. "See, he doesn't talk unless he has something to say – understandable once you know more about him. However, to the rest of us it feels like he's sitting there, judging and somehow threatening us with his silence. But really? He just doesn't have anything to say. Most likely, while you're sitting there thinking he's going to beat the everliving crap out of you, he's wondering if he's been silent too long and whether or not he should do something about that."

Mrs. Wilkes stared at me in surprise for a moment and then went back to taking notes.

"Is this a session? Because I'm pretty sure I'm done with those. Have been for nearly two years now."

"Then what brought you here, Mr. Woods?"

"Huey asked me to come."

"And?"

I frowned at her when she looked back at me. "Huey asked me to be here."

"He didn't tell you why?"

I didn't know how to say it in a way that would make her understand. God, I hate psychologists – always asking how you feel and never really listening. Instead each and every one of them has told me what they believe I feel; what they believe I think. Sure, I never talked to them if I could help it, but that doesn't change my opinion of them.

"He asked me to be here. I'm here." I said slowly.

She stared at me for a long moment and then smiled brightly. "You're a good friend."

Where the hell had that come from?

"The best." Huey replied.

"I once thought that he wasn't."

"I remember that." I muttered, "I believed you."

"Really Mrs. Wilkes? You just cast that judgment down on him without even consulting me?" Huey shook his head in obvious disappointment. "For shame, woman. For shame."

"How was I supposed to know he's a loyal friend?"

"Again, you could have come to me. Did you know that when you insisted on stealing my best friend for lunch every other day, he was still bringing me lunch?"

"Why would he bring you lunch?"

"Because we were on a rotation."

"A rotation?"
"Yeah, we packed lunches and every other day either he or I brought in an extra lunch for the other."

She stared at him silently for a moment and then glanced down at her notes. "Mr. Taverez, is this couple's counseling?"

I grimaced, "He's fragile."

"Don't call it that!"

I nodded my head, "Told you."

She was silent for a few beats more, then cleared her throat. "Matthew has informed me that he wanted a safe place to talk."

I frowned questioningly at my best friend. "Why? What's wrong? And why would talking anywhere but here not feel safe?"

"Lou Ferrigno." He said softly, which really did nothing to clarify for me.

"Who...?"

"I believe he played The Incredible Hulk." Mrs. Wilkes replied.

"And he matters, because...?"

"I have something to say and I don't want you to Hulk out on me."

"Do I do that?"

"It really is amazing to watch you interact with one another." Mrs. Wilkes said, causing us both to stop and look at her. She smiled brightly. "I'm so used to seeing you alone, when you're so defensive and sullen. This is really rather amazing. I should have scheduled appoints with the two of you. The one session with Nadine didn't prove much, I think you were on your best behavior and nervous."

"I don't get nervous."

"He really does." Huey supplied.

I sighed and turned back to him, "What did you need to tell me that you were afraid to?"

He wet his bottom lip, squinted at me for a moment, and then took a deep breath. "Nicola is back in town." He said on the exhale.

The room was silent for a beat and then I surged to my feet, heading straight for the door.

"Sit down." Huey said.

I whirled on him, "No! How the hell could you keep this from me?"

"I had to." He said softly.

"Why? Why would you have to? What if she's after Matteo? She signed off rights on him – God, she couldn't sign that damn paperwork fast enough – but she's..." I trailed off, trying to come up with a word that would convey how crazy she was. A word that I would feel justified using both in front of a psychologist/school counselor and a woman. "...She's a manipulative monster of a woman."

"I had to because I promised that I would let Nadine talk to her."

I felt chilled, "What?" I whispered and then shook my head, wrenching open the office door.

"Sit down."

"No."

"Sit. Down." Huey repeated, his voice louder than before. But it wasn't that that stopped me. It was the barely restrained anger. I stilled at the door and slowly turned around to find that he was standing as well, his eyes lit with ire. Mrs. Wilkes was staring at the two of us nervously, probably thinking we were about to come to blows. Which was asinine.

I sat down.

Huey walked over and shut the office door, his breathing heavy. He stood at the door for a moment, his back to us. "Matthew?" Mrs. Wilkes ventured, her voice hesitant.

"You don't get to decide what she can handle." Huey said, his voice low.

"Nicola is—"

"At this moment talking to Nadine." He cut in, walking back to his chair and sitting down. He turned those light brown eyes on me and I couldn't help but flinch. "Has been for awhile. It's why I asked you here."

"How the hell—"

"You. Don't. Get. To. Decide." He repeated, his voice harsh. "How the hell can I? Do you know what kind of hell I've even been in, Thatcher? My two best friends are in love with each other and not together. It's not making anyone happy. Do you know what it was like to watch her cry over you?"

The fire that had been building within me immediately dimmed to embers. "I'm sorry."

"That was a nightmare, Thatcher. I couldn't even disparage your name, because you're my best friend and I understood why you did what you did." He leaned forward, into my space. "I will always, always be on your side. So why question why I would have you in this room and not out there with her?"

"So you get to decide what's best for me?"

"Of course not. But I've been watching the two of you mess each other up for damn near two years now. She hurts you and it's hell. You hurt her and it's hell. And I get to watch from the front. She cried and cried...all she wanted was someone who would tell her that you weren't the great man she knew you to be. No one would do it, Thatch. Not even her father."

The air left my lungs at that. "Mr. Whittaker?"

"That man thinks the world of you. You broke his daughter's heart and he hates that, but he respects the teenage boy who would choose his son over everything else. He is amazed by the man you became."

"He hasn't said anything..."

"Of course not, you did break his daughter's heart."

"Everyone in town has been after me."

"Yeah, but you don't care about them." He said with a shrug.

I felt lighter at that news...but then my heart began to race one more when I remembered who Nadine was with. "Why did you let her meet Nicola?"

"There was no stopping it."

I shook my head, refusing to admit that.

"And you don't have the right to stop it."

"What?"

He sat back, but he didn't release me from his intense gaze. "Whether you want to admit it or not, Nicola is apart of your relationship with Nadine. Keeping the two apart isn't helping you at all."

"Huey..." I shook my head, finding it hard to breathe let alone think and speak coherently. "She could destroy Nadine."

His jaw clenched and he finally looked away from me, lurching back to his feet. Mrs. Wilkes and I watched him pace in silence for some time. Then he turned back to me, "Nadine is an original." He announced, then took a moment to gather his thoughts. "She's weird, she's quirky, and she's not mainstream. She's not even indie...she's just...Nadine.

"When all our peers were beating me up every day, when everyone was either taking part of it or pretending to not see... She saw. I can't tell you how many times...this little girl, with beads braided into her hair, would stand up for me. She was mocked, ridiculed, and always had to face the fact that they could so easily turn on her. But..." He shook his head, wonder in his eyes. "She never backed down. It's not like she was screaming at people or punching anyone, but she would seemingly innocently walk into the path of my tormentors. She's trip over thin air and fall into people as they made their way to me. She'd ask ridiculous questions, distracting them and letting me get away.

"She was quiet about it, but I noticed." He nodded his head, his eyes focused on the past. "There was a reason I was always pushing you to help her."

Back when I thought of her as "Wolf Girl" – we had a really weird first meeting – and as nothing more than a strange one, if I thought of her at all. Back before she ever mattered to me, Huey had brought her to my attention often.

"I didn't ever talk to her until the night of that party, but I already knew I'd do anything to help her. Dude, even then I would have gone out of my way for anything she'd ever ask of me – didn't you ever wonder why I hated Angie so much? It's not because she looked like Jin-Hee Yoon and it's not because Nadine is like a sister to me. It's because Nadine was a hero to me before you ever showed up." He smiled at that, "Nadine. The girl who is so nice and understanding, the girl who is always ready to compromise if it'll keep the peace. Nadine, the girl that howled at the moon – she stood up for me for years."

"Why didn't either of you tell me?"

He shrugged, "Knowing Nadine, she didn't think anything of it: helping others is second nature to her. And I never said anything because I'm not really sure how she'd react to me singing her praises; girl can not take a compliment." He sat down in his chair once more, his body angled to me. "She was tough enough to stand up for me, seeing what could so easily happen to her. But more than that, she's been tough enough to stay herself in this world. Do you think being as weird as her is easy? Do you think being so naive and open is easy? Do you think her childlike joy is easy?

"You make her out to be someone that has to be cosseted, like you have to protect her from the world. Dude, she protects herself from the world. It is not easy to be weird in this world. It is not easy to keep your innocence and naivety. It is not easy to stay an original in a world that demands you be like everyone else. And when everyone else is working so hard to be an adult and thinks so lowly of immaturity, it is most certainly not easy to keep your childlike joy.

"And yet she's all of those things, Thatch." He finished, staring hard at me. "She's tough enough to be herself; she made it out of middle school still calling male genitalia 'nerds', Thatcher – she's one tough cookie. And she's been that way long before you came into her life – and as the person that watched her while you were gone? She's been that way with you out of her life. You don't get to decide what she can handle."

"Mr. Taverez makes an excellent point." Mrs. Wilkes agreed, surprising me a bit since I had forgotten she was even in the room.

I looked at her, but I was shaking my head. "No, you don't get it: Nicola is so much worse than you realize. Manipulation and twisting words are two things she's mastered..." I trailed off once I noticed Huey's glare.

"Nadine's strength comes from knowing exactly who she is and loving herself. And you're trying to tell me she is weak?"

"Nicola still manipulates me."

"And are you stronger than Nadine?"

I wanted to immediately reply in the affirmative, but I took a moment to think it over. When it came to Nicola, I always viewed myself as the expert on her and of what she was capable. Yet...what she had managed to do was take a broken teenage boy and break him further. She never had a hold of me when I was whole: I came into her world mere months after running away from my parents. Running away from the two people who were supposed to love me most, yet never did. I came to her still reeling from the sexual abuse I had suffered years earlier. I came to her desperately wanting to be loved and yet convinced that I wasn't worth it. That no one could ever truly love someone as tainted as me.

How hard did she have to manipulate? Truly? How strong was I?

And was that even strength?

If Huey views strength as being inherently true to yourself in the face of what the world does to you, I'm not sure I was strong. I...was a collection of what the world had done to me. I was angry, hurt, depressed, and lonely. I was heartsick, full of longing, and disgusted. I was a reaction to what had happened to me; I was not defiant in what I had survived.

I hurt Nadine. I cracked her; but even if she thinks herself broken, she's none of the things I was when I first met Nicola. I broke her heart, I never broke her soul.

"Even if you think you are, could you just trust Nadine?" He went on, his eyes hopeful.

Trust.

I find it so hard to trust.

"Where are they?"

He sighed, his shoulders falling. "They are at The Early Bird." He answered, glancing down at his watch. "I hope I gave her enough time." He added to himself.

"Mr. Wood?" I turned to look at Mrs. Wilkes and she took that as her cue to continue. "A lack of trust was the reason for the end of your relationship with Ms. Whittaker. Are you willing to chance it again?"

"She won't date me." I replied, my voice ragged.

She tilted her head to the side, frowning. "And why is that?"

"She won't tell me."

"Yet you know that she loves you, she broke up with Mr. Willits for you, and that she's waiting for you."

I swallowed hard, trying to dislodge a lump in my throat. "What's she waiting for?" I asked, knowing she didn't have an answer and that if she did, she couldn't tell me. "I'm here."

"Perhaps she's waiting for you to trust her?"

"It's Nicola." I whispered hoarsely. "I trust her with so much, but...why does it have to be Nicola?"

"If you trust her with this, perhaps she'll believe you'll trust her with anything."

I started to chew on my thumbnail, thinking it over.

I didn't want to trust her with this. I didn't want Nicola to spread further into my life like some kind of disease. I didn't want her to continue to have control over me and my future. I didn't want her to matter anymore, as anything but the mother of Matteo – and even then, she signed off her parental rights. She didn't want to matter to him anymore. But how long would that continue? She was capricious; I had been worried and then happy that her disinterest in Matteo had lasted long enough for me to not only get her to sign off on him, but also long enough for me to get him a Green Card (which had been months in process before the last fight between us).

Was she back for her son?

Or me?

What had Nadine walked into?

I squeezed my eyes shut and stood up; exhaling, I opened my eyes and walked to the office door. Only to come to a stop and turn around, not to look at Huey but at Mrs. Wilkes. "I don't... I don't like psychologists, I don't like school counselors, I...don't like talking about my history. Especially not to people who take notes." I wet my bottom lip and gripped the doorknob. "But Huey and Nadine seem to think a lot of you. So...thank you for your time." I nodded my head and then turned to look at Huey. "I'll trust her."

He grinned. "Thank you."

"Please don't do something like this again."

"Acknowledge the strength of Nadine and allow her to make decisions on her own, and I never will again."

Mrs. Wilkes eyes widened at that, "Should you say it like that—"

"Fine." I replied, giving her the side eye. "Lady, I'm seriously never going to hurt him. He's family. Stop making me out to be a violent abuser." I shook my head, walking out of the office. "The woman is crazy." I muttered to myself as I quickly exited the school, only to then stand listlessly in the parking lot.

I couldn't go to the diner where they were at, even though that's the only place I wanted to go. I had to trust Nadine. I had to trust that she was stronger than me, that she could handle someone as evil and conniving at Nicola. That she wouldn't naively walk in there and not expect a wolf.

Okay, panicking.

I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, trying to gather myself together. To not think about the fact that the girl I loved to distraction was sitting in a room with one of the most selfish and self-centered people I had ever met. Which lead to wondering why I seemed to always be surrounded by people that could only love themselves.

"That's not true." I whispered, thinking of the new family I had created. Nonno, Nonna, Huey, his mother Maria, his aunt Liliana, Abuela, Abuelita, Lupe, Aliana, Catalina, and Elena (girls who had taken me on as another brother so easily) were all open and loving. Just as Mrs. Whittaker, Mr. Whittaker, Jas, and Twister were – a family that had every reason to hate me, kept letting me know in little ways that they cared. Then there was Nadine, a girl that could not be more different from Nicola or my parents. A girl that loved seemingly everyone and cared about them all as well. And last but never least, there was Matteo. He loved me and looked up to me, he was not a little boy that only cared about himself; his world had gotten bigger the moment I walked into it. Brought him into my own.

Once I used to surround myself by people that could only love themselves and think of their own needs before the needs of any other. Once. No longer. And as a member of that loyal and loving family, there is only one place I should be.

-::-

"Hey."

Skylar stiffened at the sound of my voice, slowly turning his head to look at me. It had taken nearly forty-five minutes just to find him on campus; in the end I had parked myself in front of the cafeteria and waited.

"Are you here to beat me up?" He asked warily, his blue eyes watching me closely.

I had braced one foot against the stone of the building, but at that I kicked myself off and walked up to him. "Wouldn't that be a hate crime?" I asked, beginning to circle him. "Though I hate you and you are apparently gay, I don't hate homosexuals in general." I shook my head, making my way back to his front. "I really don't much care about who people fall in love with."

"Then why are you here?"

"Because you forced yourself on my best friend."

He scoffed, "I did not—"

"Do you think Huey wanted your advances? Do you think he wanted you that close to him ever?" I went on, my voice harsh. "You hurt him."

"I did no such thing—"

"For years," I continued, "you hurt him. You broke his bones, you bruised him, and you left him bloody. And that wasn't enough for you; you got everyone in on your sick and twisted campaign. And for what? Did you hope to break his spirit? Did you hope to isolate him from everyone? Did you hope that he'd somehow realize that his only option was you?" The last word was a growl.

He stared back at me, unflinching. "What is your point?"

"My point is: you're disgusting. Not because of your sexual orientation, but because of what you did to him. Because of what you continued to do to him, someone you claim to have liked. Because you can stand here and not look guilty." I shook my head again, "Is that honestly why you hated me? You thought the two of us were an item? That I swooped in and stole from you?"

He smirked, the bastard. "Is this about Nadine?"

I frowned in surprise, "Why would this have anything to do with Nadine? Unless you're trying to insinuate that you had the same relationship with Huey? Because you really, really didn't."

"You're angry that I came and got your girl after you left."

I couldn't help but smile. "Knowing what I know now? That really doesn't bother me so much. Obviously you didn't know what to do with her – she told me you never kissed her?" My smile widened, "I get that now. I didn't before, but now I understand."

"Fuck off."

My eyes narrowed and I felt my pulse rising, "I left behind someone that loved me. I broke her heart and was ravaged by the decision. We had a relationship, we had love – you had none of these things with Huey. He was afraid of you and he despised you. He was so swallowed up by fear that he was breaking. And that was your goal? You can't make a homosexual, Skylar."

"Who says that he isn't?" He demanded.

"I do." I replied, "Because I know him. Because I have listened to him for years, because he is my very best friend and I love him. I can tell you quite honestly he's not a homosexual. He prefers women, he's just scared of them." It came with treating everyone like he'd wished his sisters, mother, aunt, and grandmothers would be treated. He actually views flirting as invasive and unsettling, because he hates it so much when others do it to his family of women. I think he'd actually need permission from the girl before he'd attempt flirting. Which...just negates everything.

Hell, even I know that.

"You love him?" Skylar asked and I almost laughed at his single-mindedness.

"Of course I do." I answered, "Who wouldn't love Huey?" I waited a beat and then leaned into his personal space. "Do you know what it means to love Huey? It means to care about his opinions, it means to listen to him, it means protecting him from assholes like you, and it means treating him with dignity and respect.

"It also means being a part of his family and treating him and all of them well. Which is as easy as breathing, because they are wonderful. Just as Huey is." I shook my head once more, straightening my stance. "Had you done these things, you would have had the best friend anyone could ask for, but you still wouldn't have had a boyfriend."

His gaze hardened. "He has never had a girlfriend."

"Because Yoon Jin-Hee only ever dated him as a favor to you? So that you could once again humiliate him?" At his surprised look, I rolled my eyes. "You think he wouldn't tell me about that? And you honestly wonder why he hasn't had a girlfriend?"

The whole conversation was making me want to beat him.

It was hard to rein in the violence and need for cruelty.

But I would do it, because Huey would hate for me to hurt Skylar physically over something like this. And I don't know if he'd forgive me for being cruel due to the man's sexuality. I honestly don't care who people decide to love – because people, for the most part, don't matter to me – but a tiny part of me wanted to rub it in Skylar's face that he'd never get the kind of love from Huey that he wanted. But only because I truly hate the guy.

"I should thank you." I said abruptly, "You were there for Nadine when she needed someone to hate me. So, I thank you for that." I nodded, "For everything else, I hope you live a sad and lonely life." I smiled coldly. "It's what you've earned."

"Because I'm gay?"

I grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and hauled him up close. "I don't give a damn about that; stop trying to make me out as something I am not. You have earned a bleak future for the way you treated Huey – someone that you claim to care about – and the hopes you had from that treatment. I hope your life is dismal because of the pain he suffered, the years he didn't get to live fully, and the hesitation he has over everything. If I actually have the ability to curse people – which I don't, regardless of whatever that professor says – I curse you with clarity. I want you to one day agonize over all the wrong steps you took in your pursuit of Huey. I want you to one day beg for forgiveness, only to never be able to forgive yourself. I want this to haunt you forevermore." I released his shirt and shoved him away, causing him to stumble before catching himself.

We stared at each other silently for a moment, then he cleared his throat. "You aren't going to hit me?"

I curled my top lip at him. "No, Skylar. Because that's something you'd glorify in turning into a hate crime."

"That's it?"

I rolled my eyes and realized that we had drawn a crowd. "I'm not going to hurt you, though I desperately want to, because my best friend wouldn't want that." I looked out over the crowd and then back at him, "And I, for one, actually give a damn about what Huey wants." I looked him over and felt my lip curl once more in disgust, then turned and strode through the crowd of onlookers. I could only hope it was the last I had to see of Skylar, or at least the last time he'd be a part of my life.

Which meant that was hopefully one manipulate and mean-spirited jackass down.

I could only pray that Nadine would take care of the other.


A/N: This writing binge is no joke, my friends. I've been crafting a blog post about it, but just let me say now: No. Joke. I present to you over eight thousand words typed it in hours (and hours and hours) as I work hard towards a goal. But enough of that. I recently returned with a chapter to Javier and Rosaline's story, touching base on what has been going on in my life during my long absence. To paraphrase: a lot of tough and stressful things. But I think writing is going to help me get out from under all of that. Writing has deserted me one too many times before, but I'm digging my heels in this time. I'm not going to let life derail me and I'm certainly not going to let writing abandon me...is it weird as I sometimes see writing as a thing that can abandon me? Like a person?

I'm a little loopy. It's late.

Let's pretend this exchange hasn't happened...

As for this chapter...did you enjoy? Lord, it was long, but it was so freaking wonderful to get back in Thatcher's head. I'm beginning to honestly think that if you mixed Thatcher, Nadine, and Huey together into one person you'd have a pretty good idea of me as a person. But perhaps they are just easy to write because I've been writing them so long. Honestly, every time writing has left the building, I've always come back to these three characters first. Even though I updated SOTE first, this was the story I worked on first...I just wrote chapter fifteen before anything else.

Because I'm like that.

Anyway, I hope that you have enjoyed this chapter and that you've enjoyed the introduction to Huey's wonderful ladies. I've got this whole back story for Thatcher and Huey that never really makes it on the page, so it was nice to be able to allude to it a bit here. And I also enjoyed writing Huey finally getting fed up with the two of them and how they treat each other. Him standing up for Nadine and the strength she has and the way Thatcher has been treating her. The two of them have been making mistakes in their treatment of each other all along, it's nice to be able to shine a light on that.

Oh, and I've been slowly updating/editing the previous chapters, so new content is showing up...but slowly and erratically. I don't know why I can't edit like a normal person: chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, etc. Instead I went more along the times of: chapter 3, chapter 1, working on chapter 2, chapter 10, and so on. I was going to wait to update until I had all the editing done, but...it was taking forever. So...hope you enjoyed?

Thanks for reading!

Seriously, if you are reading this and have been following this story for years? Thank you so much. It seemed like writing had given up on me for awhile, but I never gave up on it: because I needed and owed it to all of you to finish these stories. So really: thank you.

-:Secretive:-

(Oh? And the Skylar thing? That's been percolating for ages.)