Freddie Way had never been one to believe in miracles. At least, not for himself.
Once, long ago, he had been optimistic about his life and the future, a wide-eyed child with big dreams and no idea about the work and luck required to make them a reality. But growing up broke bones and formed bruises and left scars, and now he no longer bothered to have much faith in anything. Definitely not in his own life. And especially not in most other people.
His footsteps were heavy as he dragged himself through the dorm, the building silent now, even the worst night owls either sleeping or hiding in their rooms, working on overdue assignments. Walking hurt. His bruised rib sent a stabbing pain through his chest with every breath, his knees scratched and torn, the blood on his temple and under his nose slowly drying. He hadn't bothered to turn on the lights. This was a way he could find at any time, in any state, even if he had to do it blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back.
The stairs felt endless. Every few steps he had to stop and catch his breath, battling the temptation to just lie down and sleep right here. Should he call someone? Better not. There was exactly one person he wanted to see right now, and that person would already have enough trouble with him tonight.
Little by little. Step by step. The stairs ended, and Freddie pushed on through the corridor, pausing between doors, listening carefully for any signs of movement from the rooms. In a few of them, the light was still on. From one he thought he heard muffled voices, but he didn't stop and listen. His destination was elsewhere, at the end of the corridor, behind a dark door in a peacefully quiet room.
Leaning on the doorframe, he dug through his pockets, then knocked on the door. "Theo?" he rasped out, hoping his worn-out voice somehow made it past the door and through his roommate's peaceful sleep. "Theo!"
For a moment there was silence, then a distant groan, a rustle of bedsheets. "Freddie?" a warm, familiar voice called out. "Is that you, man?"
"It's me," Freddie replied, gritting his teeth as another stab of pain shot through his ribcage. "Open the door…I forgot my keys."
Soft footsteps padded over the carpeted floor, then the door opened, revealing his best friend's kind face half obscured by a cloud of dark curls. "Hey, man," Theo greeted him, rubbing his eyes. "Where have you been, I was getting—what the hell happened to you?"
"Nothing," Freddie muttered, ignoring the offered arm and pushing into the room alone, no matter how much he wanted to sink into someone's arms and finally take the weight off his injured knees and side. "Just—need to wash up, you go back to sleep…"
"Not gonna happen."
Grabbing him by the shoulders, Theo ushered Freddie to his desk chair, ignoring his yelp of protest. "You need an ice pack, big guy," he said. "And something to disinfect those wounds, they look nasty."
"I've had worse," Freddie muttered. "You don't have to—"
"What was that? I have to? That's what I thought." Rummaging through the freezer and drawers, Theo emerged with an ice pack and a clean washcloth, along with a bottle of disinfectant. "If it hurts too much, you know the safeword."
"You're terrible," Freddie replied, cracking a tiny smile before remembering himself. "But you really don't have to do this," he said. "I can—ow! What the—?"
Theo hadn't waited for him to finish the sentence. Instead he had simply pushed up his shirt to inspect the bruised rib, pressing the ice pack directly against his skin. "Nothing broken," he remarked, but his expression was one of sympathy and mild horror. "I think. Looks pretty nasty, though."
Freddie grimaced. "Thanks a million."
"What? I'm not a doctor," Theo replied, offering a grin. "We can get TJ to have a look at it tomorrow or something. Hold this for me." He pushed the ice pack into Freddie's hand and picked up the washcloth, gently dabbing at the wound on his temple. "Damn, somebody really hit you," he muttered as he cleaned it. "You're not dizzy or anything, right? No headaches?"
"I am the headache," Freddie muttered, trying not to flinch and hiss in pain. "But I don't have one or anything."
"Okay, edgelord. Hold still." Grabbing Freddie's face with one hand, Theo reached for the disinfectant with the other, holding him in place when he struggled. "Hey, no escape," he remarked. "This is why I'm doing this. There's no way in hell you would've disinfected it yourself."
Freddie gritted his teeth. "Doesn't hurt that bad," he replied, fooling no one. "I could've managed—ow! You did that on purpose, you bastard!"
"You can't prove a thing," Theo answered with a shit-eating grin. "Does the big beat-up baby want me to kiss it better?"
"I hate you," Freddie shot back, but he smiled even as he spoke, relaxing despite the burning pain of the disinfectant. Everything was falling back into place: the dark, quiet comfort of their room, the familiar texture of the desk chair fabric against his back and thighs, Theo's meaningless chatter calling his mind back from the edge of darkness, over and over and over again. No, he thought. He didn't have much faith in most people anymore. But there were a select few that he still trusted with his life.
"There you go, all patched up," Theo said at length, stepping away and admiring his work. "Now are you gonna tell me what happened to you or do I have to guess?"
From one moment to another, the tension in Freddie's body was back. "Don't bother," he said, moving to get up and instantly sinking back into the chair with a hiss of pain. "It's stupid."
"Sounds like a regular Tuesday to me," Theo said simply, making no attempts to help him up. "Or do you mean stupid stupid?"
"Hey, if you end up having a concussion and don't tell me what happened, I'm not driving your dumb ass to the hospital." Stepping away, Theo reached under the bed for the secret stash of snacks and tossed him a chocolate bar. "So, let me guess. You tried to practice kickboxing and it went wrong."
Freddie unwrapped the chocolate bar and took a bite. "At two A.M.?"
"Okay, it's not that." Sitting on the desk, Theo pursed his lips, pretending to think hard. "Then, hm…you fought a pterodactyl and it threw you down the stairs."
"What the hell," he said.
Theo simply grinned back at him. "Am I right?"
"No! What's wrong with you?"
"Hey, it was worth a try. Or maybe…" Theo pursed his lips again, then his face lit up with a glee that promised nothing good. "You ran into some supervillains and forgot to say Shazam?"
"No!" Despite his best efforts, Freddie found himself laughing, only to grimace in pain and clutch his side. "How do you even come up with that?"
"Okay, then I'm out of guesses." Lifting both hands in defeat, Theo hopped off the desk. "What was the right answer?"
Freddie's smile faded.
"They were bullying some kid," he admitted, his throat tightening as he spoke, anger and frustration flaring through his system like a fever. "At work right after my shift…Three guys against one." His hand dug into the empty chocolate wrapper, crumpling it in his fist. "He was still a kid, Theo! Probably younger than Terrence…They tried to hang him up on the coat rack and no one did a thing!"
Theo frowned, his gaze darkening with understanding. "So you stepped in," he said.
"Of course I did. You can't expect me to watch that shit go down and do nothing!" Freddie's eyes burned, and he blinked it away. "And I know, it was stupid and I should've called for help instead of fighting three guys on my own and getting my ass kicked, but you can't expect me to think in that situation—"
Stepping into his space, Theo wrapped a careful arm around Freddie's shoulders, pulling him into a gentle hug. "You did the right thing, man," he said quietly. "I would've done the same."
Freddie didn't say anything. He just sat there, melting into his best friend's touch and suddenly struggling not to cry.
"And hey," Theo added, "I'm sure the kid was pretty damn grateful for what you did. Was he okay?"
Cracking a smile, Freddie nodded. "He ran away and got help," he said proudly. "I don't think he got hurt."
"See? Good job." Ruffling his hair, Theo stepped away again, smiling. "Next time you should definitely say Shazam! before you fight them, though."
Freddie elbowed his side. Theo only laughed and turned away, and following a sudden impulse, Freddie got up after him and overtook him with a few hurried strides.
"Oh hey, you're back up," Theo remarked, glancing back and forth between him and the ice pack lying forgotten on the desk chair. "Should you—?"
Before he could finish the sentence, Freddie toppled forward and wrapped him in a ribcage-crushing hug.
"Whoa!" Theo burst out, but he didn't stumble under Freddie's weight. "What's wrong now?"
"Nothing," Freddie replied, wrapping his awkwardly long arms around Theo's back and smiling into his shoulder. "Love you so much."
Patting his back, Theo reached up and ruffled Freddie's hair again, messing up the messy strands even further. "Love you too, man," he said. "Even if you're gonna make me turn gray by thirty."
~ ~ ~
That same night, at the same time, only a few miles away, a window was still lit.
Clara Hightower didn't always pull all-nighters. She knew she needed to sleep sometime, or else there was no way she could stay healthy and on top of all her classes. The problem was, she liked to work at night. There was just something about how quiet the world got, the feeling of being alone with the sleeping city, undisturbed by voices from the hallway or notifications on her phone. Just her and the city lights and the odd passing car outside, the strange feeling of secrecy while everyone else was asleep.
And tonight she was home alone, she mused as she took another sip from her mug of coffee. Not the healthiest thing to do this late at night, she knew that. Not that it bothered her. She didn't really need the caffeine in the first place; it was just a habit, something to keep her grounded and motivated while she stared at the screen.
In the apartment door, a key turned, and moments later there was the clatter of platform boots being kicked off. "I'm home," Giselle's voice rang out in the corridor, and moments later she came padding into Clara's room, draping herself across her side. "And tired." She took one look at the screen and grimaced. "And you're still in the same place I left you," she added. "Working hard or hardly working?"
Clara ran a hand through her hair. "Hard to say," she admitted. "There's this bug here that I can't seem to fix." She motioned to the screen, fully knowing her best friend knew as much about programming as she herself did about acting and modeling. "I've tried all kinds of fixes, but each time I fix it a different bug shows up, and when I fix that one we're back to the first. I've been staring at it for at least an hour."
Giselle grimaced in sympathy. "Sounds like a pain," she said. "Is it a big deal?"
"Not really," Clara admitted. "It only shows up in one specific scenario, but it still bugs me." She snorted. "No pun intended."
"And that's why you're still staying up?" Giselle replied, stealing Clara's mug of coffee and downing it in one gulp. "If it's fine otherwise, just hand it in like this. Who's going to care about one minor bug?"
Turning in her seat, Clara stared up at her in mock horror. "Half-ass an assignment?" she said. "Giselle, I have a reputation."
"More like ninety-nine-percent-ass," Giselle retorted. "That's still an A+. I know you're a perfectionist, but—" She yawned loudly. "Perfection isn't human. Who told me that again?"
"Don't use my words against me," Clara replied, staring her down with a smile. "That was about your job, not mine. Programming isn't acting."
"But programmers and actors both still need to sleep."
"Sleep is for the weak."
Giselle laughed softly and sighed.
"Also," Clara added, slightly miffed, "you just drank the last of my coffee."
"And I'm not sorry," Giselle said brightly. "I'm so tired it won't do anything to me. But you need to cut down on the caffeine and go. To. Sleep."
Clara considered that.
"Soon," she decided.
Giselle sighed. Then an idea lit up her face, and she sprawled diagonally across Clara's lap.
"Okay," she said. "Then I'm waiting for you."
Clara blinked. "What?"
"I won't go to sleep until you do," Giselle said, her hazel eyes glittering with mischief. "Solidarity, sister."
The gears in Clara's brain started turning. Of course her best friend had pulled that card; she had known her for a good decade now, long enough to know exactly what buttons to push to hit her weak spots. "You have an audition tomorrow," she protested.
"I know," said Giselle. "But I've already stayed up too late. What's a few more minutes?"
Clara took a deep, heavy breath.
Then she grabbed Giselle in her arms, scooped her up into a fireman carry, and unceremoniously hauled her into her room to flop her down on her bed.
"Now that's just unfair," Giselle burst out between her giggles. "I'm still taller than you! How can you do that?"
Clara only flexed her arm and smiled. "Go to sleep already," she said warmly. "I'll go to bed soon too, promise. But I'm not letting you risk your audition for me."
"And now we're both trying to mom friend each other. Something's gotta give," Giselle remarked, getting back up from the bed to start removing her jewelry. "How about we both go to sleep at a normal hour next time?"
Clara stopped in the doorframe. "You mean three A.M. isn't a normal hour?"
"If you've been out celebrating a friend's birthday, maybe." Giselle motioned to herself. "But not all the time because you're just a workaholic."
Laughing, Clara moved to step out of the room. "Night owl," she corrected her. "Get your terminology straight."
"You can be both." Giselle pulled off her hair ties and shook out her sleek brown hair. "And Clara?"
"You should really get out of the house more." Giselle's expression turned grave. "All you ever do is work, and I know you don't even like—"
She fell silent.
"I know what you're trying to say." Clara was still smiling, but her voice was firm. "And thanks for worrying, but I chose this life. And I'm happy this way," she added almost as an afterthought. "Don't worry, I'll be fine."
Giselle frowned, but she didn't argue. "Okay," she said after a long pause. "Good night, Clay. Don't stay up too long."
Clara closed the door.
Now where had she been again?
Oh right, she thought.
Back to work.