He didn't think he'd ever seen Rio look so miserable.
Penelope had refused to let their Christmas plans cease, as she theorized that they needed Christmas now more than ever, and Thomas had acquiesced. Rio hadn't much choice — he was staying permanently with the Crosby family until it was time for his graduation.
"I know you didn't kill her. I'm sorry for pushing you. And what I said."
"Merry Christmas to you, too," Thomas said, looking curiously at the worried lines in Rio's face and the chapped and bitten lips. The skin under his eyes were dark, but the rest of his skin was paler than its normal sienna, which only served to make his freckles look unnecessarily dark. The words had sounded dull, and practiced, like Rio had been repeating them to himself all morning. He was sitting on the floor, his back rigid against Penny's bed. Thomas sat across from him. "Thanks. It means a lot."
Rio's lips turned, offering a half-smile, half-grimace. It didn't look pleasant. "I'm still pissed, though."
It didn't stop him from taking his present from Thomas' hand. Thomas glanced to Penny, who was sat dressed in a ridiculous Mrs Claus outfit beside Rio. She shrugged helplessly. "Want me to go?"
Rio looked up from the wrapping paper to Thomas' eyes. "How'd you know where she was?"
"So it was just a coincidence that you texted me about wanting to show me my mom and thirty minutes later you found her corpse?"
"Not a coincidence," said Thomas carefully. He didn't know how to explain the way that Apollo Kozonush had insidiously planted those thoughts in him, or the way his sanity had been systematically discredited by the official RCMP investigation. It seemed that Apollo Kozonush had a solid alibi. "I— I don't remember much from that night."
Rio stared at him neutrally, then lowered his gaze. "Just tell me you didn't know anything."
"I didn't." That was the truth. He still didn't know anything. "And I didn't send those messages, either," he said stubbornly.
"Okay?" He hadn't been expecting Rio to agree — and especially not agree so quickly. "Just like that?"
A ghost of a smile edged its way to Rio's lips, and the other boy lifted bony shoulders in a shrug. "I guess," he said, his voice strained and quiet. Thomas did not find that comforting in the least. "I trust you. If you said that it wasn't you, then… then it wasn't you." Frustration creased his eyebrows, and he blew out an exasperated sigh. "I just wish I knew what happened. I wish I had… seen her—"
"You don't," Thomas interrupted quietly, and the image of Maria's mangled corpse burst forth unbidden into his mind. He fought back the nausea, focusing intensely on his friend's dark brown eyes. "It's better—"
"Better?" asked Rio coldly. "For who?"
"For you," Penelope answered for him, reaching over to rub between his shoulder blades. Rio's frown deepened, but he didn't say anything. "You and I both heard Oliver after he got home. Whatever state your mom's body was in, it made him stay up all night sick and crying. She wouldn't have wanted you to see her like that. You know she didn't."
Rio pulled away from her, biting his lip. Finally he sat down, turning Thomas' present over and over in his hands. "I guess I'm upset that she died, but I'm… I think I'm more upset that I don't understand what happened," he admitted. "She was dying anyway."
Those were… certainly not the mostcheerful words to have ever come from the other boy's mouth, and Thomas and Penny shared a look. Penny didn't look like she knew how to react any more than he himself did. After a few tense moments of silence where he prayed that she would bridge it, Thomas said, tentatively, "That doesn't make it suck less."
"No, it doesn't," Rio said quickly. "I miss her, and I wish she hadn't died the way she did, and… I hope that she knew that I love her. I wish she were alive. But… my mom's been dying as long as I can remember. I've been raised knowing that she was going to die. Every single morning I'd wake up worried that I'd be the only one to wake up, and every night I had to tell her that I loved her because she might not wake up. I'm… relieved. That it's over."
There was a heavy silence. Rio looked up at them from the fifty-cent wrapping paper that still covered his present. No one said anything for a while, and the words hung heavy in the air. "Does… that make me a bad person?" he asked quietly, looking back down to the box in his hands.
"No," Penny said, a little too quickly. Rio looked up at her, his eyebrows drawn together in his disbelief. "No, it doesn't," she said, more firmly. "It just makes you a person. Death is… complicated, right? So are feelings about it."
"Tom didn't feel relieved when his dad died."
"My dad wasn't sick," Thomas pointed out, although he privately agreed. He couldn't imagine a scenario when he'd be relieved of his mother's death. No matter how sick she got, how could he accept her death as Rio had accepted his mother's?
Penny nodded, though, so he knew he'd at least said the right thing. She moved closer to Rio, putting an arm around him, and he leaned closer. "Feeling relief doesn't mean you wanted her to die, Rio. It just means you're glad that she isn't suffering anymore. And you're right. We don't know what it's like to have to care for our parents like you had to for your mom."
Rio looked up at her, a flicker of sadness marring his expression before it settled back into neutrality. "I hope you never do. It was awful. She'd get so sick, and she'd fight me because she couldn't remember me, and…" he trailed off, his cheeks burning and he pushed the box away, pulling his knees to his chest. "I wished that it'd just stop, sometimes."
"You didn't wish for this, though. I—" Penny cut herself off, casting a worried glance to Thomas before turning her attention back to Rio. "I know you didn't want this. And so do you," she soothed, running her fingers through his hair. "You're a really strong person for all that you did for her. You don't have to worry about whether or not she knew you loved her. She knew."
Rio smiled for the first time that day. "I love you guys. I felt so gross, thinking about… I mean, feeling relieved, that's…" he faltered, and a hint of darkness passed over him again, but he shook it off. "I don't know. I'm glad I have you two."
Thomas moved closer, hesitated for a moment, and hugged Rio. Penny hugged him from the other side, and Thomas smiled as he felt some of the tension ease from Rio's body. "You won't ever not have us," he promised. "And you're not a bad person." Penny had a point — he had no idea how difficult it had to have been for a teenager to take care of a desperately sick parent. It shouldn't have happened to Rio.
"Never," Penny promised. "Now - open your presents," she urged, pushing Thomas's present back into Rio's lap. "Just wait until you get to our combined present. It's the actual best."
Rio smiled, brushing off his friends as he began slowly taking the wrapping paper off. Thomas watched him fondly. He had an annoying - endearing? - habit of slowly peeling off the paper to preserve it. Thomas was convinced that somewhere in the Colombian's room there was seventeen years of Christmas and birthday wrapping paper. Eventually he opened the box, and pulled out a Harry Potter cookbook. "Really?" he snorted, casting Thomas a skeptical look. "Have you tasted my cooking?"
"Exactly why I thought you could use a cookbook," said Thomas politely.
Rio nudged him hard in the ribs, but his smile widened into a grin. "I'll have to make you dinner, then."
"Only if you taste it first."
"A-hem," Penny interrupted, and Thomas didn't miss the meaningful smirk she passed to him. His cheeks colored, and he was glad that Rio's attention was on her. "This one is from both of us."
For once, Thomas was glad that Rio carefully preserved the wrapping paper. He glared at Penny from over Rio's shoulder, scowling. She raised her eyebrows and tilted her chin to Rio, then back to him with a roll of her eyes. "This is so cute," Rio laughed, breaking up Thomas and Penny's silent fight. "No way did Thomas help out on this one."
"Hey!" Thomas complained. "I can make cute things."
Rio held a scrapbook, grinning at the cover. It had their three names written in Penny's neatest bubble letters. She'd drawn all three of them - a veritable zoo of animals crowding the tiny sienna figure of Rio, sick brains - covered lovingly with bandaids - and stethoscopes around Penny's dark form, and music notes and frowny faces around Thomas' pale doodle. "It's a very accurate portrayal," Rio noted, glancing to Thomas with a smirk on his lips. Thomas rolled his eyes.
He flipped through the pages, his grin slipping into a surprised half-smile. "Where did you get these pictures from?" he asked curiously, running his fingers along the pictures from Colombia. Thomas and Penny could only assume that they'd been of his childhood home. "That's my dad," Rio said, quietly, a curious expression on his face. The man in the photo resembled Rio strongly: the same sharp jawline, the same angled cheekbones, the same dimpled smile.
"I found your sister on Facebook," Penny admitted shyly.
"She doesn't speak English."
"Señora García helped us with that," Thomas said. "Extra credit, actually. You didn't tell us you're an uncle."
"Didn't know," Rio breathed, flipping through the pages. "We're not close. I've… I've not actually spoken to her since we left Colombia. I didn't know you knew I had a sister."
"Your mom had her baby book," Thomas answered, grinning sheepishly. "I found it a few months ago when your mom had me help her clean the attic."
"She's really nice."
Rio nodded, looking numb. After another page, there was the first picture of the three together. Rio's smile returned to him finally. Ever since he'd moved to Allaphon at nine, the three had been best friends. "We were so little," he laughed.
"You're still so little."
"Look at Tom in that one," Penny grinned. Thomas was glaring at the camera, his tiny fists clenched and his teeth bared. In all likelihood, he had probably been hissing at the camera. He liked to pretend that his hissing, barking, and growling phase hadn't been a very real part of his life from the age of five to twelve. "What a small moody child."
"He is still a moody child. Just a tall one now," Rio pointed out, reaching the end of the scrapbook and hugging it to his chest. "Have I said already that you two are my best friends?"
"Might have mentioned it."
"We wanted this to be special since… you know, Thomas and I will be off to Ottawa in a few months. It'll be all different next Christmas."
The smile slipped immediately from Rio's face.
"Just for a year," Thomas interjected quickly. "And it's not like we won't come harass you next year."
"I won't have anyone next year." Rio's grip slackened on the scrapbook, and he looked at it mournfully. He looked like he was struggling to put his thoughts into words, or maybe his emotions into thoughts. Finally, though, he said: "Thomas, are you okay?"
And Thomas, who had been feeling about as 'okay' as was his baseline these days, blinked. "Yes?" he questioned, looking nervously to Penny.
"You're not sleeping," Rio explained. "Even before you… found her." There was a certain emphasis on 'found' that made Thomas squirm, but he decided not to comment on it. "I know why I haven't been sleeping. Why haven't you?" he asked.
"You can use some of my medicine," Thomas said instead, watching as Rio rolled his eyes.
"You can't distract me."
"Wouldn't dream of it," he said, although he'd really been hoping that at the very least his medication offer would get a concerned lecture from Rio about the safety and responsibility of medication.
Thomas laughed, then covered his mouth to stifle the noise. What was wrong? How was he supposed to tell his friends that he was terrified that he was rapidly losing his grip on reality? That he kept having vivid hallucinations about Kozonush and his stupid cat? That he had hallucinated a massive-three headed creature in a pit that didn't exist? That he'd wandered out in the dark icy winter in only his pajamas because he'd been convinced that Rio had sent for him? That he'd been trying to lure Rio into the woods for some reason? That he was certain— he was sure that Kozonush had somehow taken over him to lead him to Maria's body?
His vision was cloudy, and for a second he was startled because he knew his glasses were on, and then he realized from the burn in his nose that he was crying. He rubbed his eyes quickly, embarrassed. His hands were trembling, and he didn't understand why. He'd explained to them before that his reality was sometimes significantly different than their own. He'd explained that sometimes they needed to ground him. But Rio was staring at him with such a worried expression - and so was Penny, now that he looked at her - and he rubbed his arms.
"I'm gay," he said, before he could stop his mouth.
Penny stared at him blankly, her mouth opened in an 'O' of surprise.
Rio was staring at him, like he was waiting for Thomas to say something else. After a moment of silence, Rio tilted his head. "And?"
"What do you mean 'and'?" Thomas demanded.
"Well…" Rio had the good sense to look abashed, especially at the withering look that Penny was sending him. "I guess I shouldn't assume, but I just thought… it was kind of… well, I didn't think I needed any telling."
Thomas wasn't sure how to take that information. "Oh."
Rio came closer, and nudged him in the side. "It's fine, isn't it?"
"Is it? I didn't think you'd be… okay, with it."
"Oh," said Rio, sounding stung. "Yeah, I'm okay with it. More than okay, really."
"Hey," Penelope said, perhaps seeing the impending conflict. "Thanks for trusting us enough to tell us. I think that's what Rio's trying to say."
"Mm, no, that's not what I'm saying," Rio dissented, fixing Thomas with a stern look. Thomas took a bracing breath, reeling himself in and preparing for cold reality. Before he could totally disengage himself, though, Rio's follow-up rang in his ears. "So, what's the rest of the story?"
"What?" he asked, opening one eye.
Rio rolled his eyes. "Come on. You're gay, it's bugging you."
"That means you have a crush on someone, doesn't it?" Penny asked innocently, as if she wasn't perfectly aware that he had been hopelessly infatuated with Rio for over five years. "A very intense crush?"
"Penny," he whined, his cheeks flooding with warmth.
"So there is someone?" Rio asked. "You're blushing."
"Yes?" Thomas said, his voice breaking and high-pitched. His eyes were wide, and he knew he had to look as panicked as he felt. "Penny?" he pleaded, looking at her hopefully. She shrugged behind Rio, then gestured to him. He didn't know what those gestures meant — or maybe he did, but they just weren't plausible.
Warm hands grabbed his cheeks, squishing them. "Thomas, please," Rio pleaded, pushing their foreheads together. Thomas let out a high-pitched whine without opening his mouth, his entire body tensing. "I've had, by far, the very worst birthday, and the very worst Christmas. I need this." Rio let go of him, and Thomas sprung back so quickly his brains rattled in his head. "I need something cute."
Rio grabbed him again, pulling Thomas' head to his chest. Thomas closed his eyes, listening to the steady thumping of Rio's heart. "Our little Tommy boy is growing up, and he's in love. That's so cute." Rio's fingers ran idly through Thomas' curls. "Can you believe this, Penny?"
"I was thinking your relationship status was permanently going to be single and too anxious to mingle," Rio lamented.
"I'm not dating him."
"Why not?" Rio asked, letting him go.
"He's… he's not into me," Thomas said confidently, pulling himself very far away from Rio and Penny. Traitor Penny. He pulled his knees up to his chest, willing his heart to stop pounding.
"How do you know?"
He didn't like this. Thomas stared up at him desperately, his eyes moving to Penny. She was staring at him still, and now her expression was bordering pitying and compassionate. "I don't know. I don't want to talk about it."
"Who is it?"
"… Anthony Schuler," Thomas said, bitterly, forcing himself not to cringe. "That's who it is. Anthony Schuler."
Rio was silent for a few moments, and Penny rolled her eyes, mouthing the word 'lame' to him over Rio's shoulder. "Really?" he asked.
"Yeah. Anthony. Anthony Schuler."
"I know him!" Rio said, and he sounded so excited that Thomas' heart ached. "He just came out last year. And I know him! He's the soccer captain— we're pretty good friends, actually, except he gets distracted so easily, but — is that why you're always bitching about him?"
"I don't always—"
"Oh my God," Penny snorted. "Please don't even tell us you're going to lie about that. Every time Anthony opens his mouth at school, you throw the biggest fit. You unironically use 'Schuler' as a curse word. You are obsessed."
"I am no—"
"You once called him a blight upon humanity," Rio recalled dreamily. "Aww, that's so cute. This is so great — I could introduce you guys, like for real."
"That's absolutely not necessary. Nor wanted."
"You guys would be great together!"
"No, no, it's fine—"
"Don't be modest. This is great. You guys would be great. He plays the cello, you know? You'd be cute musician boyfriends. And he's already friends with me and Penny, so we could just invite him over some time and you guys could talk."
Of course he had to say that his crush was Rio's openly gay soccer captain. Of course. Nice going, Thomas. Way to really muck this one up. "Sounds great," he said, in a very unconvincing voice, with an expression that clearly said that he did not think this sounded great. Rio, apparently, didn't notice.
"Let me tell you all about him."
Thomas wondered, looking at the flushed sienna cheeks and the dimples from his smile, if he preferred Rio's misery to this. He decided, as he listened to Rio tripping over his words excitedly and laughing brightly, that he didn't.
Fucking Anthony Schuler.