“F-fired?” the voice from the otehr side of the phone had Brad sighing as he walked around the kitchen of his apartment, “Did I do something wrong, Mr. Richardson?”
“No,” Brad replied, opening the fridge and pulling out the carton of orange juice, kicking the door closed before walking back to the table, “I just want to spend more time with my daughter.”
“But you do have work, and no one wants a kid hindering their careers.”
“I’m a high school coach, not much of a career, I think I can handle having my kid with me,” he poured the juice into the sippy cup with one hand before setting the container aside and screwing the top onto the little cup before handing it to Chrystal, who happily took it with both hands, “I don’t mean to be blunt about it, but I think I’d rather take her to work with me than make her stay home with some babysitter. I sent your boss your last check, and I really am sorry.”
Instead of replying, the other line went dead, and Brad pulled his phone from his ear to stare at it, “Alright, fine,” he put the juice away and stowed his phone into his back pocket before grabbing his coat from where it hung over the back of a chair, pulling it on and squatting down in front of his daughter.
“You don’t mind coming to work with me, do you?”
Chrystal shook her head, giving a sweet smile, “I wanna go with dada.”
Brad smiled and reached out, wiping at the smudge of dirt on her cheek, “Go grab your bag then, we don’t wanna be late.”
She turned and ran from the room, and Brad stood up, following. He grabbed the duffel bag by the front door and threw it over his shoulder, smiling when Chrystal came running from her bedroom, a little blue backpack on her shoulders and her green and blue dragon in her arms.
Brad scooped her up from the floor and propped her against his hip as he left the apartment. As he walked, he was quiet, giving Chrystal little noises every now and then to show he was listening to her rambling. It was a cold morning, but they didn’t live far from the school, so Brad didn’t mind walking.
He was passing over the bridge about a block from the school when he saw the younger man leaning against the railing. He recognized him as a senior at the school, kind of quiet and unnoticable if you weren’t looking, but ever since... Brad had been paying a bit more attention to the people around him. So he stopped before calling for the boy.
The boy’s body jumped, and he shoved himself away from the railing, staggering away like he’d been burnt before flipping his head towards Brad, “C-coach...?”
“A bit early to be heading to school, isn’t it?” Brad asked, looking at Andy before looking at the backpack on the ground against the railing.
“U-um,” Andy rubbed his upper arm before grabbing his bag and turning, “Yea...”
“What are you doing then? And without a jacket or a coat?” Brad fell into step beside him, watching from the corner of his eyes as Andy tugged at his thin black shirt.
“It-it’s fine, the school’s not far from my house.”
“Doesn’t take much to get a cold.”
Andy glared at Brad, but his expression softened when he saw Chrystal, “Are you allowed to bring your kid with you to work?”
Brad arched an eyebrow, “Problem?”
“N-no,” Andy looked away, “I guess your wife is picking her up.”
Andy looked up, “Girlfriend?”
“Single father,” Brad said simply, not meeting the boy’s big green eyes.
“O-oh... i-is it hard?”
Brad looked down at Chrystal, who was lying her head against his chest, playing with her dragon, “Sometimes. Should you be asking?” he looked at Andy, “You’re not planning on having kids this early, are you?”
Andy winced, “Ewe, no.”
“Good,” Brad set his chin on top of Chrystal’s head, “I was your age when I took in Chrysta. Not like her mother would have done much for her.”
Andy gaped up at him, “You were eighteen when you had her?”
Brad shrugged, “Give or take.”
Silence answered as Brad stared ahead. Why? It wasn’t like he’d planned it. It just... happened. He was drunk from alcohol and sorrow, Denise was the one who took advantage of him when he was vulnerable. He understood a little of how Jaimie... and Chris too... how they must have felt...
Brad tensed up and looked down at Andy, who was watching him nervously, “Sorry, what was the question?”
The senior tipped his head to the side, looking confused, so Brad just forced a painful smile before walking a bit faster, Andy following at his heels until they reached the school. Brad set Chrystal down, and she followed after him as he walked down the halls towards the gym.
“You know,” he started, “If you’re gonna be following me all the way to my office, maybe we can talk about you never changing into gym clothes?”
Andy made a strangled noise from behind him, and he looked over his shoulder to see the boy running the other way down the hall. An eyebrow arched up, and he hummed as he turned around, holding a hand out for Chrystal as he started walking again.
“Chrystal!” Brad looked up to see Cal and Casey in front of Casey’s office door, Cal crouching with his arms out, so Brad pulled his hand from Chrystal’s and nudged her forward so she could run over and hug Cal around the neck, “My little buddy!”
“Morning,” Casey smiled at Brad, who murmured as he looked over his shoulder.
“Hey,” he looked back at Casey, “I had a question. You know how you never changed into gym clothes?”
Casey’s smile wavered, and Cal looked up, “Yes?”
“Shouldn’t you know that, seeing as you’re the reason?” Cal asked, standing up, and Brad winced noticably, staring at the floor as Chrystal hugged him around the knees.
Casey glared at Cal before answering, “I’d get made fun of, and I was worried people would see my cuts.”
Brad chewed on his lip as he looked over his shoulder again, “Right...”
“Is someone not changing?”
“One of the seniors,” Brad answered, and Cal sighed, scratching his head.
“I never understood having to change or shower. I shower when I get home, and I hate shorts.”
Brad gave him a twisted look like he was an idiot, and Casey giggled against his hand, “Well, if you want I can talk to him.”
“Nah,” Brad shrugged, pulling the strap of his duffel bag up, “He could just be lazy.”
“Ah,” Cal snapped his fingers, “That’s what I was.”
“Was? You’re still lazy,” Casey countered, and Brad rolled his eyes.
“Has Deon come to you?”
Casey’s smile was crooked, “Not yet, but give it time.”
“At least he hasn’t started anymore major fights,” Cal offered, and Brad shrugged, tugging at Chrystal’s hair playfully.
“Let go so I don’t trip,” he ordered, and Chrystal unwound her arms from his legs so he could walk, “Tell me if he comes, okay?”
“I will,” Casey gave a little wave and watched Brad disapear down the hall with Chrystal bounding after him, taking rapid little steps to keep up with his broad stride.
Brad’s office was located in the gym, across the echoing room against the far wall, with a window replacing most of the wall so he could see out at the students out on the floor. When Brad sat down, Chrystal crawled up on his lap, holding her little backpack on her lap and pulling out a hair brush, waving it at Brad.
Brad smiled and took the brush, and Chrystal pushed the backpack from her lap so she could set her dragon on her lap as her daddy started to brush the tangles from her hair. He was better at it than people would have assumed, and Chrystal didn’t whimper or whine once, because she didn’t even feel it with how gentle Brad was.
He stared ahead as he combed the tangles from Chrystal’s fine hair, feeling uneasy and concerned. Deon wasn’t much of an issue, Brad understood anger, he knew exactly what to do and say to the boy to calm him enough to think rationally before he did something stupid, and he knew if he was given the option to talk to someone, he would, but Andy was different.
He wasn’t angry or violent, he was quiet and withdrawn, like Casey, which was exactly why Brad was so uneasy. Anger he could deal with, he understood exactly what that pain was, but silence was far more deadly. Lazy... not a chance. There had to be a reason Andy never changed, refused to even, and the excuses he would make obviously weren’t going to help ease Brad’s fears.
His classes didn’t start till third period, and Andy was in his last class of the day, so he had plenty of time to figure out what to say, what to ask. He was a teacher, a dad, he was supposed to be used to things like this, talking to a student, but... he so wasn’t.
Ever sense Chrystal had come into his life, he’d gotten better, more mature, and he had plenty of time to think over his mistakes, understand why he did what he did, but the only real conclusion he’d come to is he had major issues that may never be fixed. He sometimes considered talking to Casey, but it seemed wrong to go to the person he hurt so much and talk about his own problems.
Granted listening to people’s problems and helping out was exactly why Casey was there, but still, it felt wrong. Having Chrystal made it a little more bearable though. Brad figured if he could take care of her, protect her, raise her into a fantastic young woman, then that would be a good start to redeeming himself, but he knew he would never earn the forgiveness he wanted.
He didn’t deserve it, and he knew it, but knowing that Jaimie wasn’t afraid of him anymore, knowing Chris was alive and awake, knowing Casey was happy and safe with someone he loved, made him feel a little better. He may have hurt them, but he didn’t destroy them, and that gave him just enough relief to not jump off a bridge himself out of guilt.
It made him happy, almost, to see Casey smiling and twisting the ring on his finger, his eyes faraway as he thought of Lex. And Jaimie... Brad would see him in the halls with Wolf, Sebastian, and Chris’ younger sister Katherine, and he would be smiling every time. Brad told himself as long as he stayed away, than they would both be happy.
That didn’t mean he avoided them. He did his best to descreetly look after Jaimie, but never openly, he never tried to flaunt the protective instincts he’d developed with Chrystal, he didn’t want to seem big headed or egotistical. He just wanted Jaimie to be happy, and if that meant staying away, he would. He would stay away and look after him from a distance, making sure he never found out.
Casey? Brad didn’t have to worry about him. The school adored him, and the students he helped could be pretty protective, not to mention Cal and Ezekial Creed, the fact his older brother was a cop, and the fact Lex would stop by to terrify half the student body with his eerie expressionless face and piercing silver eyes. But hey, who wouldn’t that scare?
Casey and Jaimie were both safe, protected, and happy. Chris was safe, protected, and happy. All Brad had to do was stay away, and they’d remain that way. They had their lives, so Brad had to have his, staying as separated from them as he possibly could, no matter how much he wanted to make up with Casey and go back to being friends, no matter how much he wanted to cry to Jaimie and apologize over and over until he couldn’t breathe, no matter how much he wanted to somehow find common ground with Cal.
No matter how much he wanted to see Chris.
“Dada, braid,” Chrystal repeated, and Brad looked down, realizing he’d been brushing her hair for ten minutes straight.
“Sorry, sweetie,” he set the brush aside, “I was making sure your hair was extra silky smooth.”
Chrystal giggled and kicked her legs out as Brad gave her a french braid down to where her hair stopped at her shoulders. She then spun around and grabbed the brush, “Now I’ll do dada’s hair!”
Brad rolled his eyes but let Chrystal brush his hair, saying “owe” about a hundred times before she was done, and by then his first class was starting. Each of his students stared at him as he ran the exercise drills with Chrystal perched on his shoulders, little feet kicking as she continued to play with his hair, but they knew better than to question it, so they stayed silent as they followed their exercise drill.
Before his last class started, Brad set up Chrystal in his office for a nap, and stoof with his arms folded as he watched the senior class file into the gym. He kept his eyes away from Jaimie and Wolfgang when they walked in and instead searched the room for Andy Watson, finding him standing against the far wall, arms folded and head down. As usual he wasn’t dressed in the normal gym clothes, so Brad sighed.
He actually had been hoping he wouldn’t be put in the spot where he had to talk to him, he wasn’t good at this kind of thing, but as he stood back and called the drills, he silently planned on what he would say to start the lecture of questions that needed to be answered. He couldn’t just let Andy not follow dress code simply because he was stubborn and withour reason, but if he refused the dress code because of similar issues that Casey had...
Instead of setting grounds for a game like basketball or dodge ball, Brad called a free day, and the entire class roared in relief before sprinting off to do their own thing. Andy, on the other hand, inched his way around the gym to the benches and sat down.
Brad made his way over to him, hands in the pockets of his sweater as he stopped beside the bench, “Again out of code,” he said, which wasn’t at all what he had planned to say, but it came out like that,and Andy looked up.
His face had looked tired, but when he saw Brad, his lips started twitching up, “What on earth happened to your head?” he chuckled out, and Brad lifted a hand to feel the tangled braids and tiny ponytails scattered through his blonde hair. Heblushed and started yanking out the ties and undoing the little braids, and Andy bent over laughing, bringing an annoyed scowl to Brad’s face.
“My kid did it. Problem?” Andy stopped laughing and rolled his eyes, and Brad returned his hands to his pockets, “Alright then. Now about you not dressing for the class-.”
“I left the shorts and stuff at home,” Andy replied before Brad could finish and stared at wherehis hands were folded on his lap.
“That’s always your excuse, Andy. There has to be a better reason. If you would stiff up and tell me, I may let it slide, but if you continue acting self riteous and immature, I’ll have to contact your parents.”
Brad didn’t like the way Andy’s body tensed up, growing rigid as his green eyes snapped wider, his head turning up so he could gape up at him, “No, I- y-you don’t have to!” Brad lifted an eyebrow as Andy looked away, chewing on his nails as he stared at the ground, “I just... I-I don’t like having to change.”
Brad’s expression softened, “Are you being bullied?” he asked, “If you are you should tell me. I know I can help you if you tell me.”
Andy continued to stare down before looking back up at Brad, his expression dark, “You’re a hypocrite,” he said, and Brad reeled his head in surprise, “You really don’t know me. I was a freshman when you were a senior, I know what happened here, what kind of a person you were, and you have the balls to pretend you care?”
All emotion sank from Brad’s face, a defense mechanism he’d developed since what happened with Chris, and he held back the need to grab this little punk and force him to listen, “I was a bully,” he agreed, which had Andy speechless yet again, “I hurt people, a lot of people, including my own brother, but the fact I was a bully means I know the signs of being bullied,” Andy winced and looked away, so Brad folded his arms, “Believe it or not, I actually do care. If you or anyone else is being bullied, I want to know. Call it atonement or guilt, I don’t care, it won’t change the fact I want and will help you.”
Instead of answering, Andy kept his head bowed, his bottom lip quivering. He jumped up and ran for the lockers, and Brad sighed from the obvious sign that he was going to go cry somewhere no one could see him. He looked around the room, feeling a bit more at ease noticing that no one had seen Andy run off.
After a few moments of tapping his foot uneasily, the pain in his chest became to much, and he growled as he ran a hand over his face and through his hair before starting across the gym. The look on his face probably came off as angry, so the students fanned out to give him room, not trying to stop him as he pushed his way into the boy’s locker room.
He stood there grinding his teeth for a moment, listening as the door shut, sending the entire room into an echoing silence. He didn’t want to go to far with Chrystal sleeping in his locked office, but he wasn’t going to just let Andy cry alone. Brad was too smart to let someone else who needed him slip through his hands.
So he stood there listening intently until he picked up on the silent sniffling, walking as quietly as he could around the lockers, looking for Andy, finding him tucked away into a small corner between the lockers and the wall. Brad could physically feel his heart cracking, recalling times he found Casey in the same corner, or Chris, even Jaimie, and for a moment he couldn’t move as he stared at Andy.
He was curled in on himself, knees to his chest and right arm wound around his legs as he kept his left hand up, his teeth biting into his thumb, his eyes pinched closed, tears swimming down his flushed cheeks. It was like history was repeating itself yet again. Casey, Chris, Jaimie, and now Andy. Brad wasn’t going to be a fuck up this time. Not when he knew what to do.
Andy was so lost in his sorrow that he didn’t notice Brad until he had dropped down to his knees in front of him, startling him from his trance. His green eyes shot open, and a strangled gasp left his lips when they clashed with Brad’s blue ones.
“G-go away!” he shrieked, and the little cracks in Brad’s heart grew bigger as the poor boy curled away, “Just leave me alone!”
Brad shook his head and reached a hand out, curling it behind Andy’s head and pulling him away from his vulnerable position, hugging him against his chest so the tear were staining through his shirt. Instead of pulling away like Brad had feared, Andy instead locked onto him, hands curling into the fabric of his sweater as he buried his face against his shoulder, sobbing harder.
Brad kept his hands on Andy’s shoulders, squeezing to provide some sort of comfort as the smaller young man curled against his chest. He looked up when he heard the door open, but his expression didn’t change from its stoic mask when he saw Jaimie, who stopped dead when their eyes clashed, Wolf standing just behind him.
“Do you mind keeping the others in the gym until he’s calmed down?” Brad asked, and Jaimie blinked before nodding his head, turning around to comply, grabbing Wolfgang’s hand to drag him along behind.
When they were gone, Brad looked down at Andy, rubbing up and down his arms, “Just finish crying. No one will bother you.”
“I don’t... get you,” Andy whimpered between sobs, “I don’t get you at all.”
Brad’s lips pulled into a broken smile, “Yea. I’m not surprised.”