So next chapter is one last study session before their project is due. Should Ravi go over Shelby's house or Shelby at Ravi's?


The elevator is quite hot and stuffy, perhaps more than usual. There was also an unpleasant odor lingering, that was eerily similar to Luke's gym bag (or aged socks that had been left out in the rain and brought back in to dry).

(He did his best to disregard the poignant smell, rather, and kept his eyes above, where the numbers would briefly light up as the machine passed from floor to floor).

His hands gripped the rails and his head leaned against the wall; his eyes were shut to ease his nerves until he made it up to the penthouse. Until he could effectively cool himself down.

They must have stayed out there a little too long, especially for being improperly prepared (in Ravi's case). Drinking the water had helped-for a moment. It soothed the effects of the heat but seconds after that, after he had completely finished the bottle, he was back at square one. Much to Shelby's disappointment (he kept calling it that but he was sure that was incorrect. She looked a bit bummed but bounced right back), he cut their study time a tad short and came up with a half-brained excuse that would get him out of there quickly.

(Had this been before his change, if the word was appropriate, he would have been horrified. Luke was the type to try and get out of work. Not him. He would have wanted to continue until they were done-or, it was near his curfew).

But he just had to get away, to escape from her constant chatter that went straight through his ears. He'd just had it! He really didn't know how he had been able to withstand Shelby's presence and her nonsensical, non stop talking. She grated on his nerves faster than anything Luke had ever done, faster than anything Zuri had ever said to him. How was he supposed to tell her that he absolutely hated her and wanted her to shut up before he had an aneurysm?

He had to hand it to himself; not once did he explode. He kept a grip on his emotions, somehow. Which had been better than earlier that morning.

And it didn't even matter that they had to go in different directions. It didn't deter her from finishing her story, about whoever from where she'd previously lived. As they were leaving and Ravi turned his back to her, he tried to pretend that he didn't know her-considering how she'd upped her volume so as to be heard (she had no trouble with that). She was oblivious to the glares people gave her, one of whom was an expensively dressed woman holding a cellphone to her ear.

She paid no mind, of course. She was within her own little world. Just before Ravi became out of sight, she'd hurriedly yelled a goodbye at him and didn't wait for one back as she passed on by a police officer (He thought he heard her speak to him as well. He couldn't quite catch all of what the office said but he didn't seem annoyed by her presence).

Maybe because not everyone is bitter like you

He blinked hard. He readjusted his shirt, which was sticking to his skin, that had a thin layer of sweat to it. His head was aching and he didn't want to do anything but plop down on his bed and rest.

What about dinner? Jessie's not going to let you skip-again

Most likely not. She was at her wit's end with him.

Yet she's not like with Luke

He was bitter. Resentful. Any other synonym that he could think of.

How is it that Luke is able to act as he pleases yet I step a toe out of line once and it's a problem?

You're not her favorite

Why do you think she insults you so much?

She hates you like the others do

Maybe if you changed, she'd like you better

He'd like to object but what was the point?

Just a few more seconds

Was the ride taking longer than usual or was it him? He couldn't tell.

He'd been lucky to come through the lobby when he did; it was hardly busy except for the older lady that was at the front desk, involved in a semi-serious talk with Tony. He caught wind of some of it; a few rowdy boys had gone running up and down the hallway, screaming during their game of cowboys and indians.

Ravi was thankful for the distraction so he didn't have to hear Tony ask him about his day.

Because Heaven forbid someone be nice to you

But it also meant, with it being the part of the day where people were still working or coming home from school, that he could get into the elevator and be there by himself without having to share it and avoid making any awkward eye contact with anyone else.

You're just ridiculously anti-social, aren't you?

Not quite. I just enjoy solitude, that is all

For like 99.9999999% of the time

I cannot help it if people annoy me

I mean, you could but you don't wanna try

How do you even know? I've...I've tried

Hardly

That isn't true

Is so

This is a ludicrous argument

Then why are you arguing if it's so 'ludicrous'?

The doors opened in unison and he stepped through, relishing in the chilly air-conditioned atmosphere. He almost felt a bit faint from going from one extreme to the other, from the agonizing heat to a polar plunge.

He dropped his backpack off by the couch. He'd been berated for it later on, when Jessie would come by and notice it. He would be told that the living room wasn't his room and that he needed to pick it up now.

He learned the speech by heart.

By hearing it from when she would lecture Luke and most recently, toward himself.

Quite frankly, he didn't care.

Than again, he didn't care about a lot of things.

He went through the door that led to the kitchen, reluctantly-he thought about making his way upstairs before Jessie heard him and forced him to eat. He wasn't hungry. Not after being outside. Not after having Shelby ask him those questions. Although, he knew better than to try.

What if you get fat?

I'm at a perfectly healthy weight for my age

For right now. Until it catches up with you

That won't happen

So you believe

Opening the door-it was like a scene out of a movie. It was relatively quiet, oddly so for that time of day and as soon as it opened up, the noise level skyrocketed.

"Ravi, finally," Jessie was already at her seat and midway of passing Luke the bowl of mashed potatoes. "I thought I was going to have to call you."

He stayed near the door, warily eyeing the table. None of his siblings had turned a head in his direction. Not that expected much anyway.

"I am sorry," he wasn't. "It won't happen again."

It might.

"You could have at least called me and told me you were going to be late," she continued to scold him.

Late

"I am not late," he didn't understand. He'd ended his study session with Shelby early.

Didn't he?

"Great, this one can't tell time either," Bertram drawled.

Jessie briefly glanced back at the butler. Then she was back to him. "Ravi, you're twenty minutes late. Didn't you check your phone?"

"Yes," he pulled it out of his pocket. It was just bordering on five. He showed it to her, gesturing with a silent see?

"Ravi," she furrowed her eyebrows. "That's wrong. It's nearly five-thirty. I think you need to reset your phone."

"What?" he didn't mean to raise his voice like that and he didn't even seem apologetic as she glared pointedly at him for it either. "That's impossible."

But Jessie wasn't as concerned and she motioned for him to sit down. "Sit down and we'll figure it out later. The food's getting cold."

He sat in the one vacant seat, at the other end of the table. Emma was on his right and to his left was Jessie. Instead of filling up his plate, he was still trying to figure out how the time had changed. "I don't understand," he muttered, mostly to himself. "I didn't change it so what happened?"

"Maybe it got bumped while in your backpack?" Jessie suggested with indifference. She was trying to pass Ravi some food, all while he didn't care and the frustration was starting to show. "Ravi, sweetie," there was a calmness that wasn't really calm at all. She was doing her best not to sound angry. "I get it that you're confused but it's not a big deal, okay? Now, Bertram cooked this nice dinner-" He stared at her flatly. "Okay, I bought it," she admitted to which there was some 'ah's' and 'that's makes more sense' from Zuri. "But my point is," and she was back to Ravi, "it's time to eat and I already said we'll deal with it later. Get some potatoes and pass them or I'll ground you for another week. Is that understood?"

Ravi had a fistfull of his jeans, inwardly counting to ten. He wasn't going to acknowledge the subtle (but not really subtle) giggling that was coming from Zuri or the smirk from Luke. He wasn't. He was going to be mature and not sink to their level. He was going to get through this time until he could finally be free and live on his own.

"Is that understood?"

"Yes!" he snapped. He didn't mean to. It was entirely accidental but her tone...the utter patronizing that he'd heard from everyone else. He just lost it.

Again

"Excuse me?" she snapped back with danger swarming within her eyes. "What did you just say to me?"

"Oh, this is getting good," Luke said to Zuri, amused.

"Nothing," he wanted to take it back so they could eat in peace. So he didn't have to talk anymore. "It was nothing."

"Oh, really?" she crossed her arms. "I don't know what's going on with you, Ravi, but I don't like it."

"I don't know what's going on with you."

Which means she's upset that I refuse to be used as a punching bag any longer

Or maybe she doesn't want you acting like a jerk

"Yes, Jessie. I am quite aware. You said the same thing this morning," he crossed his arms as well, his gaze hardening.

"And I'll keep saying until it sinks in!" Her face softened a bit; she sighed and her shoulders sagged down. She was looking at him with a plea on her face. He averted his eyes. "Ravi," she sounded tired,"this isn't you. I know you. You're better than this."

Which means I was better how I was before. A punching bag

And for the record, you don't know me at all!

Despite being around for you for seven years?

That hardly means a thing! She did not know me beforehand. She doesn't know my past and she thinks she knows my future

She's trying to look out for you

Well, I don't need her to!

He didn't need Jessie to look out for him and to help him. He didn't need her. He didn't need his parents. He didn't need anyone.

What about Shelby?

I would kill myself before I ever needed her

That might have been nice. If he-if he died then there would be no one to bother him. To 'playfully' mess with him. To expect perfect behavior. To be the certain kind of person he was expected to be. To be the nerd at school.

To be Ravi Ross; the loser that the Ross's adopted out of pity.

And no one would miss you, that thought was the loudest. It was the one that kept coming back to him, as a reminder, as a gentle coax.

What would it be like if I died? Ravi had wondered about the after effects. Would things be different? Would they just carry on as they usually did? Would anyone come to his funeral?

No

It was a whisper in his ear, one that had the weight of the realization come crashing down on him.

For a moment, the air escaped him and he felt like his throat was being strangled. That's not true, that's not true, that's true, he kept chanting, kept trying to get the thought out of his brain. It was absurd, it had to be.

It wasn't like he had any friends, anyone to count on so besides some obligatory family members, who would ever come to his funeral?

Shelby. Shelby would

STOP MENTIONING SHELBY

He blinked away a few tears that prickled. He didn't want anyone to see it but, to his ever evident luck, it didn't go unnoticed. All by the very person he would rather be away from.

"Ravi, are you crying?" Luke sounded gleeful.

"No way," Zuri was laughing obnoxiously. "What a dork."

"Kids," Jessie was exasperated by their behavior (but that was the extent of that. She wasn't going to do much more than her pathetic little "Kids," and her look she often gave them). "Ravi, sweetie, I didn't mean to upset you. I just want you to listen."

Emma lifted her eyes from her phone (that she most definitely snuck in and was using it while Jessie was concentrating on him), remarking, "I can't believe my brother's acting like a cry baby. I've got to tell Rosie." She started to type away.

"No!" Ravi abruptly stood up, feeling a burst of anger once again flowing through him. "Don't you dare!"

"Ravi!" Jessie stood up, too and she put a hand on his shoulder to push him down. She looked over at Emma, agitated. "Emma, I've told you a million times: no phone at dinner. Or breakfast. Or lunch. You can survive without it for a little while. Now everyone, just sit down and eat your dinner. I've had it. And Ravi, you didn't give me your phone when you came in."

He practically threw it at her.

She gave him a warning look.

Emma harrumphed, noisily setting her phone face down on the table. "Thanks a lot, Ravi." It was a murmur, something that wasn't meant for his ears-or maybe it was. Maybe it was intended for him to hear. Nevertheless, it was another bullet that pierced his heart. Another reminder of how unwelcomed he was in that house.

He plopped back down, exhausted. Jessie didn't scold him for the way the chair screeched a little as it was pushed back minutely by his weight.

He just wanted this to be over with. He wanted to go to bed.

He wanted to go and never wake up again.

The minutes gave way to hours.

He was alone in his room; the light was off, leaving him enveloped in the darkness except for the light coming in through the open window. He was sure he'd left it closed with the curtain down when he left for school. He assumed it was Jessie's doing, sure that she must have opened it to let some sunshine in .

He didn't have enough energy to go over and shut it.

Nor did he take a moment to admire the sunset, to the way the sun had dipped below the horizon and illuminated the sky with orange and pink hues. Those same hues had shoned into his room, burning his eyes.

He'd lost count of how long he'd sat at his desk, intending to do something with his homework, a chemistry report that he'd heavily procrastinated on and was due the following morning. That brilliant mind of his that he'd prided himself over, was useless. He couldn't come up with anythin to fill out other than his name in the header of the word document.

You're going to get a zero

What was one more? He'd gotten two already. One for not doing one assignment at all and another for not wearing the eyeglasses that were needed to do the lab his class was doing.

You're on a roll, aren't you?

I suppose

You're going to ruin your chances at a career

I don't care

It wasn't helping that for the past forty-five minutes, there had been some heavily unnecessary noise that came floating up the stairs, right into his bedroom (Jessie had forbidden him from closing his door until he was ungrounded and should he disobey, she would take it right off).

A sudden spurt of laughter made him flinch. He pushed his notes he'd been taking away and banged his head on the desk, groaning audibly.

Someone was laughing, multiple people, in fact.

It was irritating, distracting.

I'm never going to finish this

They don't care that you could fail your assignment. You don't even care if you fail

He really ought to do something, if anything, go to Jessie-

No, he shook his head. He couldn't. He preferred to stay away from her for the time being since they'd had some rather uncharacteristic outbursts; not to mention that she would try to 'get through to him' and badger him until he exploded again.

Well, he wasn't going to fall for that.

But he couldn't just simply try and ignore it, as it was impossible. They would continue to do it, even if he went down there and politely asked them to stop. They'd do it louder, just because he brought it up and to their attention.

Jessie said their behavior was typical for siblings. That all siblings did things like that to annoy each other.

If he was supposed to feel better or flattered, he didn't. Actually, a constant immersion of peevishness was more accurate.

"...and you'll never guess what he said next-"

I wonder, he rolled his eyes.

Can you not be bitter just once?

I am not bitter, I'm just tired

You're always tired

I know

Apparently, whoever Zuri was talking with, Luke wanted to speak to them as well. He butted in straight after.

"Zuri, you've been talking to them forever. I wanna talk to mom and dad, too."

What?! Ravi practically jumped up from his chair, smacking his knee against the underneath side of his desk. He didn't give into the pain, however, he went out from his room and into the hallway. From there, he went to the railing that overlooked the living room and watched his family as they were eagerly talking to their parents that were face-timing them about school, college and anything else that came to mind.

Jessie was standing behind the couch, behind his siblings and smiling.

They were laughing gaily, exclaiming to one another how much they'd missed them.

Did they even realize that Ravi wasn't there?

Zuri was holding up her own tablet, shoving it close to the screen so their parents could see the latest video that she'd been obsessed with.

They looked happy, joyful. They looked relaxed and over what happened at dinner.

Were they planning on telling him that their parents called or would they conveniently forget to?

He thought about going back to his room, to go back to his report but...but he couldn't tear his eyes away. His chest burned and he bit back the lump in his throat.

They're...they're already happy without me

The little voice in the back of Ravi's mind didn't argue that time.

"Oh, Ravi!" Jessie had turned around and put a hand over her mouth. "Oh, I completely forgot about you! Your parents called, do you wanna come talk to them?"

Why? You all seem to be enjoying yourselves. I wouldn't want to disturb you

He trudged down the stairs, his footsteps were heavier than usual. Zuri pulled her tablet away from the screen, sneaking over a smirk in Ravi's direction that he returned with a blank stare. "Mom, dad," and his insides wanted to shrivel up. He knew what she was going to do. "Did Jessie tell you about what happened at dinner?"

"Yeah, Ravi had a breakdown," Luke added, looking as though he was trying to swallow back a laugh.

"And he got me in trouble," Emma pouted.

"You got yourself in trouble," Jessie reminded her. "You know the rule: no phones at the table."

Emma shrugged. "Still," she muttered.

Their mom finally got a chance to talk. "We heard what happened," her voice conveyed her displeasure and unusual disappointment.

Which was directed at him.

Everyone was always disappointed in him.

So why did it hurt so much? Why did the pain seem to be growing more excruciating as time went on?

"Are you gonna punish him?" Zuri asked nosily. "I suggest for a year. He needs to learn some mature behavior."

"We're not grounding Ravi for a year," their mom said. He couldn't see her face yet but he was sure he didn't want to.

"Well, Jessie already grounded him for a week."

"I hope that's okay," Jessie said quickly, nervously.

"Kids, can you leave us alone for a bit? Your father and I want to talk to Ravi and Jessie."

"You won't hang up, will you?" Emma wanted to know. "I still want to show you what I've been making in school."

"We'll stay on," their mom promised. "Luke wants to show your father how much he's been improving on his dancing. Don't worry."

Satisfied, Emma and his two other siblings went up the stairs to their rooms. He didn't trust them, didn't trust that they would simply stay away and not attempt at eavesdropping to hear him getting read the riot act.

Ravi sat on the farthest cushion on the couch, trying to look anywhere but in the eyes of his parents. They'd never looked at him like that before.

They don't even like you

They're just tolerating you until you can leave

Why would they like the weird kid who has no friends or talent?

He didn't know what to say. His tongue had gone flimsy and he felt overwhelmed. His skin was getting itchy, he wanted to claw at it, rip it off.

"We've been very disappointed with what we've been hearing, Ravi."

You're not good enough, you're not as good as the others are

He couldn't physically respond, he wanted to burst, wanted to leave.

"Jessie told us that you've been giving her attitude lately, son," his father was frowning. Lately as in recently. Lately as in, they hadn't noticed anything different about him until recently. "We've had the talk, haven't we? It's probably hormones; you know, you are growing up and this is a confusing time for you."

He was kind of stumbling over his words, getting uncomfortable with the subject.

"That's not an excuse, though," his mother cut in firmly. Jessie nodded along to her. "I just, I don't understand. Are you trying to be like Luke? Is that it?"

He wanted to make a face, disgusted by her hypothesis. She really thought that Ravi wanted to be like Luke?

"Honey, I know he's your cool big brother and you look up to him-" She was delusional. Utterly crazy. He wanted to gape at her, to scoff but that would have gotten him scolded, maybe even punished further. "But you have to draw the line somewhere. You know better."

"I-I didn't-" He was going to protest but that would have been useless.

"Don't you say that you didn't do anything!" Jessie burst out then realized that his parents were still on the phone and they might not take so kindly. "I'm so sorry. Please don't fire me!"

"Ravi," his mom said to him, "do you have anything to say for yourself?"

He looked down at his lap. "No," he muttered.

She looked defeated. "Ravi, sweetie, this isn't you."

Why is everyone saying that? Why can they not accept that I have changed? I don't want to be like I was anymore

"We just don't want you to get in any more trouble, son," his father said. "You're a good kid."

"You're a good kid."

You mean when I was complacent and did what everyone else wanted me to do?

"Ravi, we just want the best for you," Jessie said. She reached out to touch his head-to ruffle his hair-he jerked away. She sighed. "I don't want a repeat of dinner or this morning."

That comment put his parents on alert. "What happened this morning?" his mom asked immediately.

Oh no

Jessie took a deep breath. "Ravi almost fought Luke and-"

"You tried to fight your brother?" his mom's voice was a bit high pitched. "Ravi Ross, you know better!"

"But he was-" Ravi didn't get a word in edgewise.

"I don't care what Luke did, there's no reason to try and fight him!"

"You're not even listening to me!" Ravi said angrily.

"Watch your tone, young man!" His mother snapped. "I don't want to hear it."

He deflated, his anger pooling. He wanted to go back to his room and hide.

He wanted to leave.

His father tried to simmer them both down, although failing miserably. "Ravi, you know how sometimes people take things a little too personally?"

He was speaking like Ravi was stupid.

Because that's what he thinks of you

Ravi didn't say anything back. He stared.

His father faltered a bit. "Well, son, you do that sometimes. Now it's not a bad thing, you're just a bit sensitive. But you've got to learn to just filter it out. Luke likes to kid and tease, you know that. Maybe next time just ignore it."

"And apologize to your brother if you haven't already," his mother instructed. "Now, I know Jessie already grounded you but I'm adding another week. You're grounded for two. Is that clear?"

He didn't even try and defend himself.

So he nodded.