"Well, I did it."
Liz looks over at him as he walks into the Q&A room, and he can see the moment of realization when her face falls as she remembers the last conversation they'd had before the summer break. He's trying his hardest to stay emotionless, but he must not be doing a very good job at it.
"Oh, Malik." Then he's in her arms, face pressed into her shoulder, and the tears finally come.
They stand there for longer than he really should make her until he's able to pull himself together enough to pull away and wipe his eyes. "God. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be such a mess."
Liz just takes his hand and leads him to a couch. Liz seems to be standing quietly in the corner, fiddling with a folder but keeping an eye on the two of them.
He sits and lets himself be pulled against Liz, her arm around his shoulders. "What can I do?"
"Honey. You're doing it. I just... needed to see you two."
"I'm proud of you, Malik."
"I'm not, right now. It was stupid. I should have listened to Zack and waited until I graduated."
"None of that. It's not Zack's life. You should have done what felt right to you, and you did. And now we're here for you."
Liz appears next to him with a box of kleenex, and he takes one gratefully. "It was still stupid."
Liz looks like she wants to object again, but her expression quickly softens. "Do you want to talk about it? Or do you just need to be held, right now?"
He doesn't really want to talk about it, but he wonders if it might help. "I... took Liz's advice, and came out to them at the airport. It went about as well as I expected."
"I'm so sorry."
He shakes his head. "They still made a bigger scene than I would have expected, for it being in public and all. But they couldn't exactly take away the ticket at that point. I opened the separate bank account and moved of my money over, a couple days ago. I got my birth certificate and social security card and passport. I packed all the stuff I thought I might care about. I should probably look into the tutoring position over the next few weeks, for the extra income. Tuition and the room are paid for this year, and I still have the gym desk job, and there's still my scholarship that covers most of tuition for next year, but I still need food and books, and eventually I'll have to worry about rent, and..." He trails off, the jumble of thoughts getting stuck in his head again.
"Well, it sounds like you did it about as well as you could have." Liz sits down next to him, holding out the box of kleenex again, and he takes another one and tries to blow his nose as quietly as he can.
"I have you to thank for all of that. I think you literally saved my life."
Liz shakes her head and Liz wraps her other arm around him and pulls him closer to her. "I just talked you through some of the practical concerns. You would have figured all of that out on your own."
"If you need anything, Malik."
His hand finds hers and he finds a bit of comfort in the way she squeezes it. "Thank you, sweetie. But I should be fine this year. I might need a place to stay over winter break, since the dorms close, but other than that..."
They sit there for a while longer before he forces himself to stand.
"I really should go look into tutoring. And talk to the administration about that note in my record in case my parents try something desperate. And I really shouldn't keep you two from your work."
"You're not keeping us from anything important, Malik. You're the most important thing, right now."
"Well, thank you, sweetie. But I'll be fine. It was just... a day."
Liz stands and gives him another hug. "You know where we live, if we're not here. If you need anything..."
He nods, grabbing his suitcase again. "I know. Thank you."
He hesitates before ringing the buzzer to Liz and Liz's apartment.
It's too late, he thinks to himself. This isn't their problem.
But then Liz is opening the door and he's falling into her arms, and she's rubbing his back, and he knows he really needs this right now.
He lets her guide him upstairs and onto the couch, where Liz soon delivers a steaming hot cup of tea. He sips at it, gently, letting the chamomile calm him.
"Is this a hugs situation or a talking situation?"
"Um." He sets the mug down, not trusting his hands to not shake as he talks. "So even though tuition is nonrefundable, it turns out housing still was for another couple of weeks. I guess because some people come back to campus and look for off-campus housing once they're here."
He's not sure he's seen the look of horror on Liz's face before. "They... can't kick you out!"
"They did. Well, they are, anyway. Tomorrow." He picks up the tea again and squeezes his eyes shut, trying to steady his hands enough to take a sip.
"You're staying here, with us!"
He opens his eyes, sure that Liz would object to that, but she just smiles at the two of them, nodding.
"Honey. No. I couldn't do that to you."
"Just until you find a place, then!"
"I'll take you up on stashing my stuff here while I hunt for an apartment tomorrow, but I'm not going to intrude on your lives like that. You've already done too much."
"Then I'll come look at apartments with you."
"It's the first day of classes."
"I don't care."
"Honey. I've already screwed up my life. Don't let me screw up yours, too."
"Malik. I know you're stubborn, but I'm more stubborn. Liz can attest to that. I'm coming to look at apartments with you tomorrow, and if I'm not satisfied with the options, you're staying here. The next words out of your mouth had better be, 'Yes, ma'am'."
"I wouldn't say that even u..."
"That's not 'Yes, ma'am'!"
He's smiling now, despite himself, and takes a sip of the tea. "Yes, ma'am."
"Well, this is an improvement over the last place. It doesn't look like there's mold growing everywhere."
Liz looks around disdainfully, like she's scared to touch anything. "Malik. This place is also unacceptable. Those are mouse droppings. The light switch shocked you when you turned it on. There were used needles in the hallway. It's also 40 minutes from campus."
"I could get a bike." He knows he can't afford a bike, but he's hoping that'll placate her.
"There's nothing closer? And less of a... health hazard?"
"Not in my price range. I'm not sure I have the tutoring job yet, but even if I get it, that's only like a couple hundred a month. And I still need to eat."
She opens a cupboard and immediately shuts it again. "This place is unacceptable. You're not staying here."
"There's one more place on my list. But it's another 20 minutes out."
She shakes her head. "Nope. Not happening. You're not commuting an hour to campus, especially if you're going to be working so much outside of classes."
"I don't exactly have a choice, honey."
"I'm not staying in your apartment."
"We could put up a partition in the living room so you could have some privacy. I'm sure we can get a cheap bed or futon on Craigslist."
"Yes, because it's not bad enough that I'm imposing on you..."
She grabs his shoulders more roughly than he'd expected. "Malik. Stop it. Stop being stubborn and let us help you. You don't have to do this on your own."
"I... I do."
"Look, I appreciate..."
"Why is it so hard for you to let us help you?!" She's yelling now, and there's some pounding from the apartment above them in response.
He tears his gaze away from her. "We should have this conversation outside."
He can tell she's glaring at him, but she follows him out.
"I'm... afraid," he says when they walk outside again and the stuffy air gives way to a pleasant breeze. He feels he owes her a bit of explanation, at least.
"Of what?" It's still tinged with anger, but it's something.
"The... the only person I can rely on is myself."
"That's not true!" He turns to her, and her face immediately falls as she sees the expression on his face. He hastily wipes his eyes. "Malik, that's... that's not true..."
"You remember what Dan said? 'They're your parents. It's their job to care about you.'"
"I recall that Liz and I also gave him a lot of flak for that."
"Well, I... I held out some hope, I guess, until the last minute. Until it was clear it was going to be exactly like I thought it would. Because as much as Dan's an ass, I wanted him to be right."
Liz wraps him up in her arms again. "You don't give those assholes a second thought."
He shakes his head, willing away the tears. "I can't, Liz. They're my parents. They... I thought they'd always be there for me, until they weren't."
She pulls away, hands on his shoulders and staring into his eyes, seemingly understanding now. "Liz and I aren't your parents, Malik. We're not going anywhere."
"Don't be afraid of us. It's insulting to our friendship and how much I care about you, and will always care about you."
"Please let us help you." It's almost a whisper, and Malik almost misses it.
"I..." He sighs. He really doesn't have the energy to fight, right now. "Fine. At least until a better place comes on the market." Liz nods, seemingly satisfied with that. "And you have to let me contribute to the rent."
"Liz, please. I... I need to do that, at least. I need to not be a charity case. It's not because I don't trust you, but I need to know that I can."
He's not sure he's making any sense, but Liz just looks at him and reluctantly nods. "We can discuss that later."
It's not a no, so he'll take it, for now. "Fine."
"Now let's head back. We can both still make a couple of classes this afternoon if we hurry."
He nods as she pulls him back into a hug. "Thank you. For... everything."
She doesn't respond, instead just squeezing him tighter.