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Day 1: Simon

 

It's weird; I've never had an out-of-body experience before.

Or maybe that's not what's happening. Dissociating? Mom would know. Not that I'm ever telling her about this.

Anyway, one second I'm standing there watching Martin wiggle his phone and me and say it's "too bad" about Abby going to homecoming with Nick. The next I'm... I don't know how to describe it. We're standing in some fancy waiting room, we're older, and Martin's wiggling a phone at me and saying it's "too bad" about Abby marrying Nick.

I blink. The vision goes away. It's me and Martin in the school parking lot again. "I'll work on it," I tell him.

He beams at me. "That's all I ask, Simon," he says. He chucks me on the shoulder (who does that?) and lopes away, whistling.

I text Leah, Nick, and Abby: emergency mtg @ my house asap Then I get in my car. Wait for my hands to stop shaking. Drive home.

It's time to deal with this.

Intricate plots aren't my strong point. When we read a book for class or I'm in a play and the plot is complicated, I always think, wow, how did they do that? I can't figure out how to deal with Martin. I have to call in bigger brains. And that means I'll have to come out to them. That feels scary. But if it's a choice between coming out to my closest friends now or having Martin freaking Addison out me to the entire school? Easy choice.

Besides, I'm out to Leah. That went better than I'd hoped. Maybe this will go well, too.

*

"This better be good, Spier," Nick says, swinging himself back and forth in my desk chair. "And you better be planning on feeding us, because I'm missing brisket night." One reason I've always loved Nick is that his priorities are clear and they don't embarrass him.

"Nora's making taquitos," I offer as close my bedroom door and lean against it.

"Nice." Nick brings the chair to a stop and folds his hands, looking at me expectantly. "So, Spier, you know we're all wondering why you've gathered us here today."

Abby giggle-snorts. Leah whacks Nick with the back of her hand. 

So... like ripping off a Band-Aid, I guess. I take a breath, spread my hands. "So... I'm gay."

"Really, Simon?" Leah mutters as she rolls her eyes at me. Abby squeals and launches herself off the bed, hugging me tight. It's a real feat, since I'm leaning against the door.

Nick watches shrewdly. He holds out his hand. I detangle myself from Abby and go over for the secret handshake we created when we were nine. "Nice, man," Nick says. "So you and Burke broke up?"

Leah rolls her eyes. "He and Burke were never together. That was a brilliant, if overcomplicated, plan to piss off my evil cousin Winnie. Who turns out not to be evil after all."

"Or that easy to piss off," I add. Leah and I need to talk about this later. If I'm coming out to more people, we need to for-real end our for-fake relationship. I'm glad we decided no PDAs at school. We need to tell Leah's mom, though. Simon's gay is a good reason to break up, right?

"Fair point." Leah nods. "Okay, she's a little evil, but my kind of evil."

That wasn't the point I'd been trying to make. But it's light years ahead of where Leah and Winnie were before Thanksgiving. It feels good.

"So why are you telling us this?" Nick asks.

Abby, back on the bed, shoves his knee. "Nick! Simon just came out to us. There doesn't have to be a why!"

"Nnnoo," Nick says slowly, watching me. "But Simon wouldn't want it to be a big deal. He'd blurt it out at WaHo. Around a mouthful of pancakes."

He's not wrong. I nod and sink down on the foot of the bed. "So there's this guy," I start. I tell them about Blue. Abby honest-to-god bounces on the bed. Leah looks smug about already knowing. Nick's still giving me that you're leaving something out look.

I stare at my hands. Unable to look at them for this next part. "Around Halloween, I checked my email on a school computer. I forgot to log out before I walked away." I take a deep breath. "Martin Addison read my emails to Blue. He took screenshots. He's blackmailing me." My voice hitches. I'm so mad at myself for losing it like this. But this situation sucks. Maybe I should cry.

"What the hell?" Leah demands. The smug look is gone. She looks ready to do a murder.

"Simon, for real?" Abby says in the same hard tone.

"I thought the Addisons were loaded," Nick says.

"That's not the point, Nick," Abby snaps.

"Plus, it's Shady Creek," Leah adds, rolling her eyes. "Everyone's loaded."

"Everyone white!" Nick and Abby chorus and then high-five each other.

"He doesn't want money," I admit quietly. I force myself to look up and meet Abby's eyes. "He wants you."

Abby turns gray. Leah grabs her hand. "What does that mean?" Leah demands.

I keep my gaze on Abby. "He's into you. Like, a lot. But instead of asking you out like a sane person, he wants me to use our friendship to..." My hands flail uselessly. "Get you for him."

"Get me?" Abby says, voice sharp, eyes sharper. "Like a... like a pimp?"

I open my mouth to deny that. Then I close it. That's exactly how Martin's trying to use me. "If it makes you feel better, I haven't been trying that hard to do what he's asked."

"No, Simon, it doesn't," Abby snaps. Leah has an arm around her.

"Hey." Surprisingly, Nick comes to my rescue. "I hate it, too, but think of why he's doing it."

"Martin," Leah snarls. "Can we kill him? I vote we kill him. Dead. With our hands."

"What—" Abby swallows. Then plunges on like she can't stop herself. "What did he ask you to do?"

"Oh. Uh." I scratch my neck. "Well, uh, at first it was, you know. Put in a good word for him. Talk him up. Then it was invite him to things you were going to"

"That explains Halloween," Nick mutters.

"Yeah, but that—I don't know. I might have done that anyway. If he hadn't started blackmailing me. Back when I thought he was a nice guy. After that it was that I should, like, make ways for the two of you to be alone together? Which I did not do."

"Much appreciated," Leah says with a smile that looks like it's got extra teeth in it.

"But today it was—he heard about you and Nick going to homecoming together, I guess? And he wasn't happy. Wants me to get you to go with him instead. He'll never stop, you know? As long as he's got the screenshots, he'll think he can keep doing this. And at some point he'll figure that I'm not doing what he's asking. I don't want it hanging over my head anymore. I don't want Martin thinking we're friends and we're going to spend time together because he's freaking blackmailing me." I look at them and shrug. "That's why you're here. To help me figure out a way out of this."

"Besides killing him?" Leah asks.

I smile weakly. "Let's call that Plan Z."

"Okay, priorities," Nick says, leaning forward in my desk chair. "One: dinner. I think better when I'm fed, and I was promised taquitos."

"Technically," I say, hiding my smile, "I said Nora's making taquitos. I didn't promise anything."

"So anyway, I was promised taquitos," Nick says loudly. Now I do grin. I let myself relax for the first time since I walked away from Martin. This is why I called my friends. Maybe they're not be the best planners in Shady Creek. But they're better at it than I am. And they have more distance from the problem. Not much, but maybe enough to let them see an answer I've missed. "Then we get Ethan and Garrett here."

"What? No! Why?" Telling this to the three of them was hard enough, and they're my best friends. I can't bring random classmates into it.

"Well, Simon," Nick says like he's my teacher and I'm a bad student, "Ethan is the only out student in our school. I'm guessing he's dealt with worse in his life than the Martin Addisons of the world. He might have ideas." If he wants me to feel better, he fails. Miserably. "And Garrett may not look like much, but he's one of the best hackers Creekwood has. Not that that's saying a ton, but still." He shrugs. "If this plan involves getting the screenshots away from Martin, we need someone on our team who, like, actually knows how to do that."

I groan. He's right, I know it, and I hate it.

"They're good guys, Si," Leah says. "Even if Garrett's a total goober."

"But is he a homophobic goober?" I ask.

"Not that I've noticed," Leah says.

I'm in a weird place with Leah. If she doesn't want to tell anyone else that she's bi, like, ever, obviously she doesn't have to. But I feel alone and exposed here. Like I'm over here being queer on my own. I'd never force Leah to come out. But I wish she wanted to.

That settles it for me. Ethan and I have basically nothing in common besides being gay. But maybe that'll be enough. Plus, I owe him about a thousand apologies.

As for Garrett... well, this is what my dad might call an all hands on deck moment. I shouldn't be picky about which hands.

"Okay," Leah says, "one more thing." 

"What?" I watch, intrigued, as she pulls her laptop onto her lap and wakes it up. She shields it so I can't see what she's doing, but Abby's looking over her shoulder. Her eyes get big when she sees what Leah's up to. Which can't mean anything good.

I hear the familiar sound of a Skype call connecting. Leah cheerfully calls, "Hey, Winnie!" I would absolutely like to die.

"Hey, Leah, what's up?" Winnie says happily. She doesn't sound like she'll have to dash off in two minutes to save puppies or write a sonnet. I groan. "Oh. Is Simon there?"

Leah, Abby, and Nick crack up while I want to die harder. 

It's a good move. If I'm honest. Which I don't want to be. No offense to my friends, but Winnie's one of the smartest people I've ever met. Even gives Cute Bram Greenfeld a run for his money. And she's super motivated and has a surprising mean streak that's probably really useful to have on your side. She'll be good for our team. I wish we didn't need her. She and Leah gossip like crazy now that they're friends again. I never wanted to be part of The Weekly Update.

Welcome to gay life in small-town Georgia, where you are The Weekly Update.

*

Ethan is confused and intrigued. Garrett is just confused. Mom’s looks like she knows we’re up to something, but she’s nice enough to pretend to believe Leah when she says we’re working on a group project for school. On a Friday evening. With a group that doesn’t have a single class together. And a student from a different part of the state on Skype.

We won't fit comfortably in my room now. We take Leah's laptop and a bunch of snacks to the basement and close the door so my parents can’t listen from the top of the stairs (they totally would). I run through an abbreviated version of the situation: gay-Blue-Martin Addison-blackmail. I leave out what Martin wants me to do. Abby doesn’t need everyone knowing that.

By the time I’m done, Winnie looks like she's already scheming. Ethan looks thunderous and mutters, “Typical” under his breath. I’m not sure if he means typical of Martin Addison or typical of how straight people in Shady Creek treat gay people. I agree either way.

Garrett has the weirdest look on his face. Like, a maybe this is a bigger problem than Leah thought weird look. I'm trying to figure out how to bring it up when Ethan beats me to it. "Problem, Garrett?" he asks. His voice is sharper than I'm used at school. Harder.

Garrett holds up his hands. "No. Absolutely not. No problem at all." Now he's grinning. Widely. Wildly, even.

A new, crazy thought strikes me: is it possible—like, is there any chance—that Garrett is Blue? I mean... that's impossible, right? The only criteria he meets is being a junior guy at Creekwood. I've never considered the possibility of him being anything but straight. Though I bet people say the same thing about me.

I won't rule him out, but I doubt it. Blue is fantastically thoughtful and well-spoken. Garrett's proudest accomplishment winning the Shady Creek Fire Department's hotdog-eating contest three years in a row. I can't make those two people line up. I can’t shake the feeling that he knows something, but I can’t figure out what it could be.

“Okay,” Garrett says, cracking open a Red Bull we’ll all regret later, “let’s brainstorm.”

*

An hour and a half later, we have a list. It's... not great.

1. "I could tell Martin I'm not into him," Abby says.

Ethan shakes his head. "Martin Addison is a ticking time bomb of a whiny cishet white boy privilege," he says. "If you turn him down, he'll blame Simon for not holding up his end of the deal and flood the internet with those screenshots."

"How is it Simon's fault that I don't like Martin?"

Garrett shrugs and slurps noisily at his (second?) Red Bull. "Welcome to the world of whiny cishet white boys," he says. Ethan laughs so hard he almost falls off the bed.

2. "I can hack his phone and delete the screenshots," Garrett says.

"Yes, of course," Winnie agrees. "But we have to assume he's backed them up to the cloud. Maybe an external drive, too. You'll have to delete them from everywhere."

"Obviously," Garrett says. "I'm not an amateur."

"Even if Martin puts up a post saying Simon's gay, without the screenshots, Simon's screwed," Leah points out.

I swallow. In a way, that would be worse. If Martin posts the screenshots, it'll be awful, but it'll be over. If he hints that I'm gay, those rumors will follow me until I either move far, far away from Shady Creek or cave under the pressure and come out. Then it's still not my choice. Nothing in those emails really identifies me. Anyone who reads whatever Martin posts will have to take his word for it that I'm Jacques. And they will.

3. "You could come out, Si," Nick says. "Take away Martin's leverage."

"No way!" Abby, Leah, Winnie, and I say in unison. Abby shoves Nick's leg.

"Whether and when Simon comes out has to be his choice," Abby says earnestly. "It can't have anything to do with Martin Addison."

Nick shrugs. "I get that you want that, but Martin's forced your hand."

"Unacceptable," Leah says firmly. "We're here to find other ways, so keep thinking."

4. "We could... tell someone?" I venture awkwardly. "Like... an adult?"

We look around at each other.

"Naah," we all say together.

5. "Could we get dirt on Martin?" Ethan asks. "Blackmail him?"

Garrett grins. "Mutually Assured Destruction. I like the way you think, North."

"What happened to Martin's a ticking time bomb?" I ask.

Ethan shrugs. "He is. But maybe he'll respect having his methods being turned on him."

"Or he'll call my bluff. If he outs me, anything I say about him seems petty."

"Nothing wrong with petty," Winnie murmurs.

I rub my face. "The problem is Blue. I mean, yeah, this sucks for me. But I'm the one who was reckless enough to walk away from a public computer while I was logged into my account." I stop and take a deep breath. Yeah, I'm in a crappy situation, but it could've been so much worse. "Blue doesn't deserve getting caught up in this."

"That's sweet, Spier," Garrett says, "but could anyone really identify Blue from those emails?"

I want to say not. But I'm not all the way sure. I can't identify Blue from his emails. But I'm starting to suspect that I'm not as observant as I think I am. What if Martin posts the screenshots and everyone figures out who Blue is?

Even if no one does, though, it's not fair to him. I can imagine how I'll feel if Martin plasters my personal life all over the internet. I figure Blue would feel the same. We need to keep him out of this.

"You should tell him, Simon," Abby says gently. "Let him know to brace for the worst."

"Okay, yeah, well, that seems like the worst idea ever."

"Yeah, it sucks," Leah says, "but what's worse: hearing it from you, or seeing it posted on Creek Secrets by Martin freaking Addison?" I hate when Leah makes sense about this stuff.

*

At eight, with a less helpful list than I'd like and most of the snacks demolished, Winnie signs off and Leah calls a movie break. She claims we'll think better after we give our brains a rest. My brain will not be able to rest. Once Leah's Got A Plan, though, getting her to change her mind is hard.

Garrett stands and hovers by the door, looking awkward. "Uh, thanks. For having me over."

"Thanks for your brain, man," I say. "Seriously."

Abby frowns at him. "You're staying for the movie, right?"

He shakes his head and looks embarrassed. "I, uh—"

"You got a date, Laughlin?" Nick asks.

Garrett rolls his eyes and says, "No, douche. But I sort of, uh, left Bram at my place?" My eyebrows must do something funny, because he huffs and says, "His mom was not happy about the Halloween party. So now she, like, won't let him stay alone at home when she's out of town." We all wince. "He's been staying with me."

Leah smacks Garrett's arm. "You abandoned him?"

"Hey!" Garrett holds up his hands. "Eisner said it was an emergency. I wasn't gonna say no. I told Bram he could come, but he wanted to stay and work on his homework. Like a nerd."

I gulp. I'd had no idea how closely I'd avoided disaster on that one. Not that I think for one second that Bram would say or do something homophobic. It's just. Bram Greenfeld is cute and smart and has his life together. Even after The Halloween Minion Debacle, I'm still lowkey crushing on him. I would not want him knowing what a flaming-hot mess I've made of my life.

“Well, then, get back to him!” I say, flapping my hands at Garret. 

Garrett snorts and gathers his stuff. “Sure thing. What time tomorrow?”

I blink at him. “Tomorrow?”

Garrett rolls his eyes. “The day that comes after today?”

I glance at Leah and Abby, who shrug. “You… want to come back?”

Garret looks offended. “Our list has, like, five things on it. And most of them suck. I’m not leaving you hanging like that.”

I feel touched, I guess. “Thanks, Garret,” I say sincerely. “That’d be great.”

“But if you show up before eleven, Bieber will eat you,” Leah says. We all look at Bieber, who puts his head on his paws and licks his lips.

"Yeah, okay," Garrett says affably. He shoulders his backpack, yells, "Later, losers!" and heads out the door.

Ethan stands more slowly. He's really graceful. I've never noticed that. "I guess that's my cue, too," he says.

"Oh?" Abby asks, looking up from where she's... braiding Leah's hair? 

"I mean, it was one thing when Garrett and all his charm were here, but this is clearly..." Ethan waves his hand around. "You-time."

Ethan has friends, of course—powerful, intimidating friends, including Tayler Metternich. I don't know what they do when they hang out. But they don't seem like people who have what my friends and I have. Unconditional acceptance and mostly uncomplicated comfort.

"You could stay," I say.

"We're going to watch at least one Harry Potter movie and fall asleep here in the basement," Leah says.

Ethan's face gets all twisty. "Why?"

"Because they're classics!" I say indignantly.

"Because Daniel Radcliffe jump-started Si's Big Gay Awakening," Leah says. Betrayer! She bites her lip. "And Emma Watson in the Yule Ball scene was part of my Big Bi Awakening."

I let out a huge whoosh of breath. Abby stares at Leah like words won't form, let alone come out of her mouth. She's holding a bunch of Leah's hair, and her hand must twitch. Leah flinches and Abby jerks back, yanking her hand away. Nick nods like he's known all along (he has not).

Ethan laughs and sits down. "How can I say no to Simon and Leah's Big Queer Awakenings?"

"O...okay," Abby says shakily. She climbs off the bed, not making eye contact with Leah. "I'm gonna... find more snacks." She dashes from the room. I look at Leah, who shrugs. That shrug knows more than it's telling.

It takes five intense minutes of negotiation to convince Nora to feed us, and then we're settling in for the weirdest sleepover of my life. My three best friends (two not exactly talking to each other but kind of... glued to each other?) and a relative stranger who's never set foot in my house before today. In the middle of trying to figure out how to stop a classmate from blackmailing me because I'm gay. Oh, yeah—and they know that I'm gay. And that Leah's bi. This is a weird night.

*

Between Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban (never let it be said that I'm not committed to Harry Potter marathons), Ethan declares that if he's staying overnight, he needs different clothes.

"Yeah," I say, popping to my feet, "let me grab—"

"Oh, honey, no," he says. "Not your clothes. Don't you have a sister or two?"

I'm not wild about letting Ethan raid Alice's closet while she's not here to tell us what's off-limits. I'm less wild about him raiding Nora's closet while she is here to ask who Ethan is and why he's here.

It hits me again: I owe Ethan a lot of apologies. Being out in Shady Creek is hard, and he's been doing it since eighth grade. Alone, without backup. I mean, he has friends, but I'm pretty sure they're straight. Maybe he'd like another gay student having his back.

"Listen, Ethan," I begin.

Ethan turns immediately, one hand on his hip, the other holding one of Alice's blouses in front of him like a shield. "Okay, Simon, listen, because I'm only saying this once: no, I will not be your gay Yoda."

"Whoa," I say, "Yoda's gay?" I had no idea. Star Wars is Alice's thing. But if the little green Muppet is gay, I'll watch.

"Jesus give me strength," Ethan mutters, pinching the bridge of his nose under his glasses. "No, Simon, Yoda isn't gay. The gay Yoda is a more experienced, more fabulous out queer who takes the newly out baby gay under their wing and shows them the ins and outs of the gay world."

I squint uncertainly at him. "Is that a euphemism? It sounds like one. And, I mean, no offense, you're a great guy, but I don't think you're my type." Because he's not Blue.

Ethan does that not-a-laugh he does when he doesn't want someone to know he thinks they're funny (and, wow, since when do I recognize Ethan's laughs?). "You're telling me, Simon. It's not like your all-hoodie wardrobe rocks my world."

I duck my head. I guess it was a dick move to assume I'm Ethan's type, when he's so obviously not mine. I don't even point out that he's mocking my hoodies while pulling on one of Alice's hooded sweaters, which is literally a fuzzier hoodie. "What is your type, then?"

Ethan pops his head out of the hoodie and stares at me. "Is this bonding time? Are Simon Spier and Ethan North bonding over gay life in Shady Creek?"

I grimace. That doesn't sound fun. I may be new to this, but I don't think Shady Creek has gay life. No gay bars in town; no queer student groups in the schools. During LGBT History Month, a Presbyterian church in town put up an "All Are Welcome" sign with a rainbow flag in the corner, and people kicked up such a fuss that they took it down. And I think the women who own the yarn store on Chestnut street are a couple, but I doubt Ethan and I share a secret love of yarn and yarn...ing.

"I mean, we can if you want," I say. "But I'm trying to apologize."

Ethan puts a melodramatic hand over his heart (seriously, why doesn't he try out for the plays?). "Simon Spier apologizing? Whatever could be next? Flying pigs? Will we behold a rider on a pale horse?"

"Very funny," I say. Though I guess I deserve that. "No, I—" I'm leaning against a wall in my sister's room, having a heart-to-heart with one of the least popular kids in my school. When did my life turn into one of those old teen movies my parents love? "I know school sucks for you. And I'm sorry I haven't done more. To stand up for you."

For a long second, Ethan just looks at me. Then he nods. "Okay. I get it."

I let out a sharp breath. "You do? Then, please, explain it to me, because I don't." I don't remember how many times I've heard Aaron or Spencer shout slurs at Ethan. Or watched someone "accidentally" slam him into a locker or wall. I've wanted to stick up for him, but my feet froze to the floor and the words stuck in my throat.

Ethan looks sad. "Guilt by association," he says. "People can be homophobic in all kinds of ways. Shady Creek excels at the kind who think the only people who care about a thing are that thing. Stick up for the bullied gay boy, and you must be gay."

I frown at him. "But... I am gay."

Ethan rolls his eyes. He's pulled on a pair of Alice's yoga pants and found a pair of slippers somewhere. He looks super comfortable. "Were you ready for people to know that?"

"No," I say. I rub my arms like that'll chase the goosebumps away. "I'm not sure I'm ready now."

"There you go." Ethan pats my chest. "I forgive you." His expression turns hard and serious. "Don't do it again, hmm?"

I shake my head. "I won't. I promise." I mean it. No one should have to go through what Ethan goes through. For sure they shouldn't have to go through it alone.

"Come on," Ethan says. "The next movie's where everything gets dark and gritty, right? I wouldn't want to miss that."

* * *

Interlude: Garrett & Bram

When Garrett slams into the house and all but throws his backpack on the coffee table, I know the look in his eyes means trouble. I just can't imagine what trouble. Last I knew, Nick was having some emergency that he'd called Garrett in for.

Garrett doesn't bother sitting down. He skids to a halt in front of me and stares down at me with that wild look, fists clenched, breath rushing hard out of his mouth. "Do you want to know who Jacques is?"

I reel back like he's smacked me. "What?" Not my most intelligent moment ever, but—what?

"Do you, Blue—" He points at me. "—want to know who Jacques is?" He points out into the wider world of Shady Creek, looking ridiculous. "Which you don't. Even though you loooove hiiiim!"

"What—I mean... what?"

Garrett smirks, proud of rendering me speechless. It doesn't happen often.

I've been out to Garrett for less than two weeks. After Jacques's Thanksgiving adventure ended with him coming out to Fake Girlfriend—aka his best friend—he'd gone on about how good it felt to be totally honest with someone important in his non-internet life. He'd inspired me, and I'd taken the leap of telling Garrett the next week at school. Garrett had responded well (not that I'd expected anything different) and had taken great joy in teasing me about my crush on Jacques. But it's a big jump from told you I'm gay and have a mysterious online crush to you know who my crush is and have leverage over me. I trust Garrett, but the thought of him having that knowledge makes me feel... itchy.

"How did you figure this out?" I ask to buy myself time.

Garrett shakes his head and drops heavily onto the couch next to me. "Nuh-uh. If I tell you how I know, it won't be a big leap for your giant brain to figure out what I know. You know?"

I… think I know. Garrett and words can be a confusing combination. So the question is: do I want to know?

Well, I do and I don’t. I’m ready and I’m not. Garrett would make it quick, like ripping off a band-aid. I wouldn't have to wonder anymore.

The more I think about it, though, the less right it feels. I love Garrett like the weird white brother I never asked for, but if I find out who Jacques is, I want it to be because Jacques tells me (or because I piece together enough of those little clues he doesn't realize he's giving me and figure it out myself). I don't want to hear it from Garrett.

I shake my head. "No. Don't tell me."

Garrett considers me, and for a beat I swear he can see all the things I didn't say. Then he sprawls across the couch. "Okay. Just... he's maybe about to be in hot water. Stay with him, yeah? Don't drop him when shit gets rough."

I swallow. What has Garrett been doing tonight? "I won't."

Garrett nods, satisfied. "So, no lie, bro, this convo's about to get hella boring, 'cause now I, like, can't tell you anything I've been doing since I left. So unless you wanna tell me about the boring-ass homework you did while I was gone?"

I'm no dummy. That might have sounded like an invitation to talk about my homework, but if I take Garrett up on it, I'll wake up tomorrow with my fingers superglued together or genitalia drawn on my face in permanent marker. I shrug. "I could kick your ass at FIFA."

Garrett scoffs, but he's jumping off the couch to grab the controllers. "In your dreams, Greenfeld!" he crows. Then he winces, and we pretend he didn't say that. G-d protect us all from the day Garrett Laughlin knows anything about my dreams.

*

Despite being a twenty-first century guy, Garrett's not usually glued to his phone. But he's barely looked up from it since he came downstairs fifteen minutes ago. He's scowling at it while he eats breakfast, shoveling cereal into his mouth with one hand while he swipes at his screen with the other.

I set down my slice of raisin toast and wipe my buttery fingers on my napkin. "Is everything okay?" I ask, though I'm not sure I want the answer. It's bound to have something to do with what we were discussing last night. What I spent half the night awake, staring at Garrett's bedroom ceiling, thinking about.

Garrett knows who Jacques is. Garrett spent time with Jacques last night. Jacques is in trouble, and Garrett is helping him, and I'm not. There's a lot to sort out there.

Garrett grunts. "B—" He stops, looks at me, puts down his phone. "One of Jacques' friends is pissed at me for leaving you here last night. Insists on me bringing you along today." I swallow. "I'm not gonna force you," he rushes to add. "I'll tell her—uh, them—that you had too much homework. Or something. I'm not—it's your choice. They can sit and spin."

I stifle a laugh. Garrett Laughlin: 2010s technology and weird 1970s slang. And guilt to boot—he looks around like he expects one of his family members to pop out and yell at him for either the insult or how out-of-date it is. But his parents were up and out with the birds—his mom mentioned a flea market?—and his sisters won't think about getting up for another hour. We're alone, thank goodness, because this conversation is just so awkward.

Then my brain says, Jacques has a female friend whose name starts with B. I tell my brain to shut up, but it doesn't listen. It's like, from the instant I read Jacques's first email, my brain's been keeping a file about him. I'm not actively trying to figure out who he is. I like the anonymity. But I can't seem to control it. I notice these things he says without realizing how identifying they could be. To the point where some days, I think I have a good idea of who he is.

I wonder who B is. Is she his best friend, aka Fake Girlfriend, or is she the friend who alerted him to Fake Girlfriend's Thanksgiving motives? I shut down that line of thinking hard and fast, because that would be a way bigger clue than I want.

Garrett's phone vibrates against the counter. He picks it up, reads the message, and immediately starts responding. He sighs, and I give him A Look until he puts the phone down. "I wish we could help him more, you know? Jacques, I mean." He shrugs. "There's a lot of smart people in that room—well, and me." He grins, and I flick a raisin at him. "But I don't know if we'll be able to fix it."

I know what he's doing. I won't fall for it. Well, I'll try not to fall for it. Maybe I'm a jerk for not being willing to help Jacques, whatever mess he's in. But am I ready to face knowing who he is? What Jacques and I have now, two anonymous dudes on computers, is easy. Real people are harder.

Besides, isn't it presumptuous of me to think that I could fix the problem? Why not let Garrett and those smart people in the room handle it?

Well, because it's Jacques. The thought of leaving him hanging, when I've been given the chance to help, makes me feel like a total shitheel.

Garrett makes a big show of standing up and stretching. "I'm gonna go throw better clothes on," he says. "Leaving in fifteen—with or without you, your choice."

He wanders away, and I stare hopelessly at his retreating back. I have no idea what choice I'm going to make.

* * *

Day 2: Simon

It's a weird day when I (almost literally) run into Ethan North  outside my bathroom at ten in the morning. He's going in as I'm coming out (heh), and I slump against the wall. I'm not waiting for him; moving is just so hard.

Ethan opens the door and raises an eyebrow. "Didn't know this house had bathroom attendants."

I laugh and push myself away from the wall. "Sorry. I wasn't... I think I'm..." I sigh and slump. "Mornings."

Ethan gives a surprised and genuine laugh. "Oh, you are precious before caffeine, aren't you?"

I smile sheepishly. "If I say yes, will it help me get a guy?"

Ethan gives me a long once-over. Like he's adding up my market value. I squirm. "Simon, believe me," he says, "you will not have trouble there."

I flush at the compliment and don't reply.

"Now if you'll excuse me..." Ethan trails off and tries to act like he has somewhere mysterious and important to get to. Except he tries to adjust his glasses while he's walking away—and smacks right into the door frame.

I open my mouth to laugh at him—mean, I know, but come on; he walked into a door frame! What comes out of my mouth instead is, "I can't believe I used to be afraid of you."

Ethan looks at me like I've handed him everything on his gift list at once. I start trying to slide away, sideways, like a crab along the wall.

"No," Ethan says, and I freeze. "You, Simon Spier, were afraid of me?"

I wince. "How likely is it that we can forget I said that?"

"Not at all."

I rub my face. I adjust my glasses. Ethan watches with an expression that says I can't stall my way out of this. I sigh and say, "For a long time, you were the only gay person I knew. Hell, you were the only gay person I knew about, other than, like, celebrities."

"And the yarn ladies," Ethan says.

I laugh, startled. Maybe my gaydar isn't all hopeless. "And the yarn ladies," I agree, nodding. "And I would look at you and freak out, because I thought that being gay meant..." I wave my hand. "Being gay like you." His face gets this pinched look, so I rush to add, "Not that I thought that was bad! I..." I scratch my neck. "...thought I would be bad at it."

That startles a laugh out of Ethan. He reaches out and squeezes my arm. "You would." He laughs again. "Oh, don't make that face, you know it's true. Being this fabulous takes effort. Doesn't mesh with your 'rolled out of bed looking like this' vibe."

I look down at myself. "I did roll out of bed looking like this." Ethan snorts. I take a deep breath and say, "I've learned a lot since then. Like, I know that I don't have to look or act a particular way to be gay. Plus... if I did have to be like you, would it be the worst thing? You're a good guy. I could think of worse people to be like."

Ethan puts his hand over his heart. "Simon. That is the nicest thing you've ever said to me."

I bite my lip, feeling shy. We don't have much in common, but Ethan has been a role model to me. I admire the hell out of him.

"And..." Ethan looks around and then grabs my hand decisively. "I'm not doing this with you in a hallway," he announces. I let him drag me along, even though I'm suddenly feeling very nervous.

We go into the first empty room we come across. Alice's. Maybe not a coincidence.

"Listen," Ethan says as soon as he's closed the door behind us, "you're right. You can slide yourself in anywhere along that twink-bear scale, and nobody's gonna argue. But. I watch people, Simon. Do you know that?"

"Don't most people watch people?"

"You'd be surprised. In particular, I watch people on Gender Bender Day."

I frown. "You hate Gender Bender Day."

"Despise it," he says, nodding. "It's a day for ignorant assholes who don't understand the difference between sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to put on dresses and mock queer lives. Bros who shove me into lockers on Wednesday put on dresses on Thursday, and I'm supposed to be fine with it. One of the guys on the basketball team dressed as me one year. And not a single person, student or staff, said a word. A couple teachers complimented him for how nice he looked. And believe me, only my closest friends have ever complimented me for how I look."

My eyes are wide. I kind of want to hug him. But I don't think our relationship is at hugging stage yet. "Ethan, that's awful."

He shakes his head angrily. "It is, yes, but my point is that people come at Gender Bender Day in different ways. Most people act like it's a joke. Some people hate it but do it because it's expected. Some people don't think about it; it's what's next in Spirit Week, so they do it." He takes a half-step back and does that sizing-me-up thing again. "And some people have this... air to them. Like they're getting away with something they want to do the rest of the time but don't think they dare."

My stomach sinks. I breathe through my nose and try to think rationally. Ethan doesn't know me. We weren't friends in elementary and junior high (if we're friends now). He doesn't know what he thinks he does. He's fishing, and I won't take the bait. I haven't even done Gender Bender day since freshman year.

"Look, Simon, it's fine," he insists. "I'm not telling you to go full drag—though you've got the cheekbones for it. I'm saying you don't have to butch yourself up to prove you're a man."

Something hot and oozy slithers into my gut. Have I been doing that? I mean, I've never been the manliest. I'm a theater kid. I hate organized sports and first-person shooters. Even when I was dating girls, I usually chose time with my family over them. Nobody's ever questioned my masculinity, but I bet no one's ever been, like, super impressed by it.

But have I been trying to... I don't know... up my man factor? (And, wow, that is a phrase I need to never think again.) I do worry that people (okay, my dad) will think I'm "not a real man" when they find out I'm gay. But, I mean, what is a "real man"? People have tried to tell me, but I don't believe them. The more loudly you claim to know, the more full of it you usually turn out to be.

Now I can't stop thinking about it, though. The way I felt in those flapper dresses I wore for so many Halloweens. I hadn't been trying to cross-dress. I just liked the way the dresses felt. The way they moved. I mean, they had fringe; what wasn't to love? The first couple years, my parents smiled and took lots of pictures. But the older I got, the less the camera came out, and the more the smiles turned into Faintly Concerned Looks when they thought I wasn't looking.

The Halloween I was in fourth grade, I looked in the mirror and felt this electric shock of mortification. That was the last year for that costume. Had that started a long series of steps of putting myself away so I didn't rock the boat?

Well, I spent seventeen years not rocking the boat. Look what it got me. A maybe-almost boyfriend who's afraid to meet me in person, and getting blackmailed by Martin freaking Addison. Maybe it's time I do rock that boat.

I grin fiercely at Ethan. "Okay. Let's do it."

Ethan claps his hands together. "Excellent. I promise you won't regret it." Then he puts his hand on my shoulder and says, with deep sincerity, "After coffee. I absolutely will not do a makeover before coffee."

I nod. He's a smart guy, Ethan.

*

FROM: hourtohour.notetonote@gmail.com
TO: bluegreen118@gmail.com
SENT: Dec 12 at 10:18 AM
SUBJECT: Brace for impact

Blue,

I've been putting off writing this email because I didn't know what to say and how to say it. But a lot of people have told me that I need to tell you the truth. So I guess I'll come out (hah) and say it, even if I don't know how.

There's this guy in our year. I thought he was a good guy. A goofy class clown type. Turns out he's a manipulative, take screenshots of your emails and blackmail you in exchange for not outing you type. I'm getting blackmailed. So I don't get outed. So you don't get outed. I mean, he doesn't know who you are, because I don't know who you are. But he knows you exist. He's got the screenshots to prove it.

Anyway, I'm telling you because I'm trying to get out from under it. Some of my friends are helping me figure out how to get this guy off my back for good. But it may backfire. Or we might not move fast enough. And this guy will post screenshots of my email conversation with you on creeksecrets.

Blue, I'm so sorry I was so reckless. I'm sorry I put us in a position where someone could use our relationship as a weapon against us. I'm trying to fix it. I'm sorry it might not work.

All I ask is that you please not give up on me. If this guy does out me, I'll need you more than ever. I'll get a new email address, if you want, so you're not associated with this one anymore. If you need time to lay low, please tell me. Don't just drop me. I'd way rather get through this with you than have you be part of what I'm getting through.

Love,

Jacques

*

I've been staring at my reflection for five minutes. Ethan, bless him, has let me. He hasn't even asked if I liked it. The fact that I can't speak probably tells him.

Do I like it is barely the right question. Because I do. But also I'm terrified of it? I barely recognize the me in the mirror. I guess it's not that drastic, really. Or so Ethan says. Eye shadow, blush, colored lip gloss. No eyeliner, because I hate it. He did it so subtly I can barely tell anything's different, except for how my face looks amazing. But I still look like me, you know? We've painted my nails, but it's this dark, dark green that looks black in some lights. Guys painting their nails black isn't shocking, even in Shady Creek. The dress is this navy blue hooded sweatshirt dress that ends at my knees. It's literally a hoodie dress. Now that I'm letting myself, I guess, own it? Yeah. It's totally me.

But it's not, because this is a me I haven't looked at or thought about in daylight since, like, puberty? And it's scary and... and exhilarating that I'm walking into a roomful of my friends and showing them this.

"Wow," Ethan says, making what I think I recognize as his I am serious about this shit face.

"Yeah?" I ask, feeling weirdly shy.

"Yes. Whoever Blue is, whatever your relationship is, if you get to a point where you show him this, he's going to be one very lucky guy."

I feel myself blushing. "Thank you, Ethan." My voice comes out quiet. I guess I'm overwhelmed.

"You're welcome," he says sincerely. "Now, let's go downstairs and get me more coffee."

I raise an eyebrow at him. "Are you sure? I mean, we basically live on coffee, and we're worried about you."

Ethan rolls his eyes and herds me toward the door. "Do not caffeine-shame me, Simon."

"Yeah, all right." I laugh and let him hurry me along.

When I come into the kitchen, Nick, Leah, and Abby look up, and I hold my breath. Nick holds out his hand for a fist-bump, which I give. Abby gives me a thumbs up and goes back to her orange juice. Leah barely looks up from where she's drawing in her notebook, but I see the smirk she's hiding behind her hair. "Of course you found the hoodie dress," she mutters. I grin and hip-check her as I walk past her to get Ethan yet more coffee. It's a bad idea, but I owe him.

My fingers shake while I pour, but I can't keep the big goofy grin off my face. My friends are the greatest. I'm wearing a dress and make-up, and they don't seem to care. Something settles in my gut. I'm not naive enough to think that my whole coming out will go this well. But with these friends to support me, I can make it through whatever happens.

I've just handed Ethan his coffee when the doorbell rings. Abby and Nick and engrossed in what looks like a cutthroat game of Dots; Leah's staring at her notebook in a way that means she's oblivious to the outside world; and Ethan is singing to his coffee. I laugh and push away from the counter I've been leaning on. "That's probably Garrett," I say, as I walk toward the front door, though I'm not sure to who, because no one's listening. "I'll get it. No problem."

There's a problem.

The problem is named Cute Bram Greenfeld, and the problem is that he's standing on my front steps next to Garrett. I maybe want to die a little inside.

"Hoodie dress," Garrett says, smirking, jerking me back from my horror. "Way to stay on-brand." He makes a hand model gesture at Bram. "Anyway. I'm here. With Bram. Burke promised me..." He squints at the phone in his hand. "...grievous bodily harm if I left him at my house again."

I look at Bram. Bram looks like someone's hit him in the head with a plank. I think he's blushing. Is he shocked to see a guy in a dress? Does it bother him? Do I look silly in it?

I'm going to die today. On my death certificate, mark the cause as "Cute Bram Greenfeld-related embarrassment."

But we're Southerners. Gracious hosting has been drilled into us since, like, the womb. I stand aside and gesture them in. "Please, come in. We ate all the food, but there might be coffee left, if Ethan hasn't drunk it all."

"Do not come between a man and his coffee, Simon!" Ethan calls from the kitchen.

Bram's eyebrows are up as he brushes past me. Surprised that Ethan's here, I guess. We're not usually in each other's circles.

"Garrett and Bram are here," I announce like the world's most useless butler, because Garrett and Bram are in the room, so it should be obvious that they're here.

Leah looks up from her notebook and smiles distractedly. "Oh, good, you brought him," she says to Garrett. She turns to me. "I didn't think you'd mind. Bram's smart. We could use more smart. Especially since Winnie's out today. Some task force thing."

The snipe is on the tip of my tongue, but I swallow it. It's not her fault, and it's definitely not Bram's. I told Leah about Blue, but I didn't share my Very Secret List of Guys I Hope are Blue. 

Bram slides onto a stool next to Nick and rests his chin on his fist. "Hey, everybody," he says, nodding. "What's going on?"

So, for the third time in less than twenty-four hours, here I am coming out to... well, to Bram. I'm not sure we're close enough for me to call us friends. But I trust him not to spread my secret around Shady Creek.

Bram's reaction is... well, I don't know what to do with it. As soon as I start talking, he sits up straight and drops his hands into his lap. I think he's rubbing them on his pant legs? Like he's nervous. Do I make him nervous? Do gay people make him nervous? He seems fine around Ethan. What's weirder is that he keeps looking at Garrett. Like, why would he do that? Unless...

No. I've ditched the Garrett is Blue theory. Going back down that road would drive me bonkers. Not that it's doing wonders for my mental health, wondering out why my coming out story keeps making Bram look at Garrett.

When I get to the end of my story, Bram looks at me for a long time. Thinking. This is why I like Bram. He thinks. He's not the sort of person who'll blurt something out just to have said something. He's considering the angles, weighing the options. When he opens his mouth, I lean forward, because I'm so eager to hear what he's going to say.

"Well, Simon," he says in that quiet voice of his, "you have here what is commonly referred to as a great big mess."

I stare at Bram. He stares back. His face doesn't twitch. I crack the hell up. Leah and Abby scowl, like they're not sure if they're supposed to be offended on my behalf. Nick and Garrett nod and fist-bump Bram, like this is exactly what they expected from him. I've always suspected that Bram is secretly hilarious, but this is the first joke I've ever heard him make. It feels good to be proven right—even if experiencing his humor first-hand doesn't help my crush.

When the laughter dies down, I'm still confused, but now unsurprised, that Bram looks to Garrett. "What does Matt say?" he asks, which, yup, makes me more confused.

Garrett's mouth drops open. He lunges forward, grabs Bram's face in both hands, and plants a huge, loud, sloppy kiss on the top of his head. "You, Bram Greenfeld," Garrett announces, "are a goddamned genius." He whips his phone out of his pocket and starts frantically swiping.

Abby half raises her hand. "Okay... what?"

Bram shrugs. "From what I hear, the one person Martin listens to is his brother Carter. And Carter is friends with Garrett's brother Matt. Could Matt talk to Carter? Get some ideas."

Nick scoffs. I turn to him. "What?" I ask. "What was that sound? Is that a bad idea? Is talking to Carter a bad idea?" It's possible I'm a little paranoid about this going well.

"I'm sure it'd be a fine idea," Nick says, "if Garrett had a brother named Matt. They're cooking up something they don't want us to know about."

I stare at Garrett and Bram. My eyes feel so wide I think they're going to pop out. "Guys?"

Garrett and Bram are looking at each other, baffled. "I feel like I should know how many brothers I have," Garrett says. "Shouldn't I?"

"You should," Bram agrees, nodding. They both look at Nick.

"Dude, I've known you since fifth grade," Nick says. "You have three sisters. Unless you adopted some kid or one of your parents did a secret other family reveal."

Bram winces, but Garrett's expression clears. "Oh!" he says. "Yeah, dude, no. I mean, no offense, bruh, but we're not close anymore. If we were, you'd know that I have two sisters and a brother everybody thought was another sister." He grins. "No worries; he's super forgiving about us we all getting his gender wrong for seventeen years."

I try not to shudder. Coming out as gay in Shady Creek will suck enough. Coming out as trans here sounds like actual hell. No wonder Garrett doesn't talk about it.

"Huh," Ethan says softly. Nick's sulking, like he's mad at Garrett for never telling him this, which, ugh. Why do straight people think we owe them our lives?

"Unless—oh." Garrett looks up from his phone. "Spier, are you okay with me telling Matt?"

I look at Bram. "You vouch for him?"

Bram nods. "Matt's great." He bumps his shoulder into Garrett's. "Better than this knucklehead."

I try not to laugh. It's just, no one calls anyone knucklehead anymore, and it's weirdly cute. Then I try not to groan. That lowkey crush on Bram? Actually highkey. "Okay, fine," I tell Garrett. "Matt's cool. Talk to Matt."

"Yes!" Garrett crows, swiping rapidly over his phone screen. "Matt's great. He'll help us figure this shit out." Garrett eyes the sad remains of breakfast scattered across the counter. "You got any more food in this joint, Spier? Matt eats a lot."

*

We're really lucky that my parents got up super early this morning and dragged Nora on a mysterious road trip with them. Bram's addition to our so-called study group would've been hard enough to explain. I could not sell them on five-foot-not-much of leather-clad college sophomore and the massive Harley he shows up on.

As Matt cuts the engine and pulls off his helmet, shaking out chin-length blond hair, Ethan shoves Garrett's arm. "Garrett," he chides, fanning himself with his hand, "warn a girl."

Garrett squints at him, then looks at Matt. A grin slowly creeps across his face. "Yeah, okay."

Matt swaggers up the driveway, stomps up the stairs like they insulted his mom, and pulls Garrett into a hug. He even gives Garrett a noogie, which shouldn't be possible, since Garrett's, like, a foot taller. Ethan watches like a starving dude staring at a banquet. 

When he escapes the headlock, Garrett straightens up, fixes his hair, and slings an arm around Matt's shoulders. "Gang, Matt. Matt, gang."

Ethan rolls his eyes and steps forward. "As charming as that was, Garrett, maybe your brother would like actual introductions? Hi. I'm Ethan North. Thank you so much for helping us out of our... little pickle."

Garrett's grinning like a fiend. But that grin slides away as Matt takes Ethan's hand in more of a caress than a shake. "I've heard it isn't so little," he says, and, wow, if Matt's trying to seduce Ethan, it's gotta be working. Even I feel weak in the knees.

"Okay," Garrett says loudly, pulling me with him as he shoves himself between Matt and Ethan, "Matt, this is Simon. He lives here. Burke and Suso are leaning against the wall, and you may remember Eisner from when we were, like, ten."

Matt waves, nodding when Leah and Abby provide their first names. Then he grins at Bram. "Greenfeld, what trouble are you getting into?"

Bram laughs and lets Matt pull him into a hug. He has a nice laugh. I wish he had more reason to use it. "The usual."

Garrett looks at me. "Listen, Spier, do you want me to break this shit down for Matt? I feel like you've told it a ton of times."

I smile gratefully up at him. "That would be great. Thanks, Garrett."

Ethan immediately steps up to Matt and Garrett. "Let me come with you," he says. "Make sure the straight boy doesn't misrepresent you."

"No thanks, that's not—" Garrett starts to say, glaring at Ethan.

"That would be perfect, Ethan, thanks," Matt says over him. He puts a hand at the small of Ethan's back and guides him into the house. I catch Abby's eye, and we grin. This is real-life soap opera shit playing out right in front of us, and I cannot get enough. It's nice to focus on someone else's drama for thirty freaking seconds.

Then Bram looks at me and says, "We don't know each other well, but... this is bullshit, what's happening to you." He lifts his eyes to look into mine, and I feel pretty tingly about it. "Nobody should have to go through it. And I..." He shrugs. "I'm here for you, I guess." He smiles wryly and looks at the rest of my friends, scattered around the porch, which is good because it gives me time to quietly lose my shit over Cute Bram Greenfeld offering to stand up for me. "Not that you need me, I guess."

"Hey, no," I say, and my hand goes ahead and puts itself on Bram's arm like it's allowed to do that. "This thing with Martin is—it's thrown me for such a loop, you know? I will take all the help I can get."

"Good," Bram says, smiling softly at me, and oh my god that smile, I'm a goner. Then his smile turns sharp. "Garrett says you have the new Zelda?" 

And yes, okay. This is turning out to be a good day after all.

*

When Garrett, Ethan, and Matt come back into the living room, Matt looks ready to straight-up murder someone. I shrink against the couch cushions, because, honestly? It might be me. Matt storms right up to me, and I let out a manly eep. 

"Tomorrow morning," he says. "Ten o'clock. The WaHo in Sandy Springs. Carter, Martin, me, you, and Blue, if you know who he is."

Staring up at him with panic-wide eyes, it's all I can do to shake my head. "I don't."

He nods sharply. "Just you, then." He jerks his head toward the door. "Garrett. I'm angry. I need booze. Get your shit together and let's go." He stalks away, and I'm huddling against the cushions, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

"I'll go see him out, shall I?" Ethan says, scurrying away after him.

Garrett opens and closes his mouth a couple times. I get myself together and stand. "It's fine," I tell him. "You should go."

"Alcohol isn't the answer," Leah says, mostly to be a shit.

Garrett laughs. "It's code for needing to go home and rant about feelings. Over pie."

"Christ, Garrett, don't tell them that!" Matt shouts from the entryway.

Bram reluctantly pauses our game and sets down his controller. "I should... go? I guess? Garrett's my ride." Have he and I been bonding? We haven't talked about anything serious, but he's been engaged enough for me to realize that he really is trying to help. As dedicated as I am to Blue, an aimless crush on a straight boy isn't cheating. Is it?

"You could stay," I offer. "I'd take you home later."

Abby rolls her eyes and gestures between herself and Nick, saying "We'd take you home later." 

Bram smiles wryly and starts getting his stuff together. "Thanks for the offer, but I'm pushing it by being here. Mom didn't expect me to stay inside Garrett's house all weekend, but being at someone else's house while Garrett's not here would be, uh, out of bounds." He shrugs. "It's fine. I'll see you Monday." He slings his backpack onto his shoulders—both shoulders, like a responsible human being who even is this guy?—and looks seriously into my eyes. "I meant it, Simon. If you need anything, you've got it."

I want to hug him, but I don't know if he hugs. If we hug. So I squeeze his shoulder, which is super awkward. I regret it as soon as I've done it, but I can't take it back. "Thanks, Bram," I say. "That means a lot." And it does. I mean, I'm so glad Leah, Nick, and Abby are backing me on this. But they're my best friends. They kind of have to be here for me. Bram, Ethan, and Garrett giving up part of their weekends to support my Big Gay Crisis feels like a huge deal. I don't want to take it for granted.

I half expect Ethan to follow Bram and the Laughlins home, given the way he and Matt are attached at the hip. But he takes Matt aside for a an alarmingly intimate goodbye and steps away looking like the cat who got the cream and made a deal with the cow for more. I really wonder what Garrett's thinking about this.

Once Bram, Garrett, and Matt leave, I hold up the controller hopefully. "Anybody want to take Bram's spot?"

From the way everyone's faces twist, and they look at each other, rather than me, I know the answer instantly. "I'd love to," Nick says, "but I gotta get home."

That opens the floodgate. A chorus of "me too," "I should get going," and "I promised my mom we'd do something today" follows. My spirits, which had been doing okay, plummet.

"Besides, Si," Leah says, squeezing my shoulder in a way that actually feels comforting, rather than... whatever awkward thing I did to Bram earlier, "Nora and your parents will be home soon. Even your parents would have a hard time buying that you're having an all-weekend study group sleepover."

Ethan snorts. I flip him off. Then I sigh. Leah's right, but I don't have to like it. 

"Look on the bright side," Abby says, "you won't be alone all day stewing."

I feel like I will be alone. Once my friends leave, I'll be surrounded by people who don't know I'm gay. People I won't be able to talk to about Blue, or Martin, or how frustrated I feel that everyone assumes I'm straight because I'm not... well, Ethan.

I love my family. I'm so lucky to have a good relationship with them. It's just that right now, that good relationship feels like a lie, because they don't know this about me. 

"Hey. Simon." Leah's standing in front of me. I didn't notice her move, which is not a good sign. "Your family loves you, okay? They won't love you less once you come out to them."

I believe that, when it comes to Alice and Nora. My parents... they won't love me less. But I think they'll love me differently, and I don't want that, either.

The others get their stuff together. I hug everyone. Then everyone hugs everyone else. Even Ethan. And I get the feeling he's not a hugger. Abby and Nick hug for a long time and maybe sneak in a kiss. I wasn't sure where things stood with them when they decided to go to Homecoming together, but it looks like they're something. Only then Abby and Leah have a hug that's just as long and intense. I barely keep myself from smacking myself in the forehead. Look what romantic crisis we'll be sorting once we've got Martin taken care of.

Then they're gone, spilling into the driveway and piling into their cars with a hilarious chorus of obnoxiously loud goodbyes and blown kisses. I laugh and close the door behind them. Then I slump against it like a teen movie heroine, because I'm exhausted and alone and the weekend isn't half over.

I clean up the (surprisingly small) mess we've made. It's 11:30, and Nora and our parents should be home soon. I decide to make lunch. Because I'm hungry and because it seems like a nice thank-you to everyone for not asking the questions they're probably itching to. I'm no Nora in the kitchen, but I remember seeing stuff I could make halfway decent burritos out of. And I do make a halfway decent burrito, if I say so myself.

When I'm washing my hands in the bathroom, I catch my reflection in the mirror and remember: I'm still wearing makeup and a dress. I'm not that ready to be out to my family. Even if I was, I wouldn't want to do it like this.

I'm so, so glad Ethan took the time to show me how to take the makeup off.  The nail polish will stick around for a while, but I've painted my nails before—well, I've let Leah paint my nails before. My parents won't question it.

I take off the dress, fold it carefully, and put it at the back of my closet next to the laundry basket. I tell myself it's so I can wash it before I return it to Alice. Some secret part of me knows better, though: until Alice notices it's gone, it's mine, and this won't be the last time I wear it.

* * *

FROM: bluegreen118@gmail.com
TO: hourtohour.notetonote@gmail.com
SENT: Dec 13 at 01:49 AM
SUBJECT: Re: Brace for impact

 

Jacques,

I'm so sorry you're going through this. I'm glad your friends are helping. I'm glad you're letting them help.

I can't lie: the thought of some random asshole outing us both freaks me out. That should be ours to tell; no one should take it away from us. I also hate that it's someone in our year. I'm going to be glaring at every junior guy I pass in the halls, hoping to intimidate someone into confessing. But let's be honest: I'm not very intimidating.

I can't imagine abandoning you when you're going through something like this. So, even though I'm scared, I promise I'll still be here, answering these emails. It may be all I can do, but... it's the least I can do, right?

Love,

Bram

* * *

Interlude: Bram & Matt

"Blue!"

"AAAH!"

Matt's a dance minor. He's studied at least eight forms, and his favorite is tap, which he's been doing since he was ten. I mention this because thousands of hours of dancing have left him incredibly graceful and light on his feet. The guy doesn't even try to be stealthy. He just walks that way. He can get right up to you before you know he's coming.

That's what I'll tell anyone who asks why I jump a foot in the air when he comes into the kitchen and yells at me.

"Ah-hah!" Matt crows, all but shoving his finger in my face. "You responded!"

"Of course I responded," I say tetchily. "You go around sneaking up on people, yelling Boo. Who the hell doesn't respond?"

Matt's unimpressed face could refreeze the polar ice caps. "I did not say Boo, Abraham. Don't act like you thought I did."

I turn the heat under my pan of cocoa to low (see if I give him any now) and lean against the counter next to the stove. "What do you want from me, Matt?"

He leans against the island counter across from me and smirks. "Confirmation. Which I have now, so, thanks for that."

My mouth goes dry. "What are you going to do?" I ask.

"Oh!" he says, smirk melting. "Nothing, I swear. I won't tell anyone. Not even Garrett. I wouldn't do that to you."

I shrug. "Garrett knows."

"Of course he does," Matt mutters. 

"How did you even know?" I ask, bewildered.

"I don't know, man," Matt admits. "It's the way you look at him, I think. The look on your face when he talks about Blue. Like you really want to say something but don't dare."

"I'm... I don't think I'm ready yet."

"Why?" Matt cocks his head and looks genuinely curious.

I raise an eyebrow at him. "Are you seriously asking why I'm not ready to be out in Shady Creek? For real, Matt. Ethan is the only person who's out in the whole school. I know you were out to your family before you graduated, but you waited until college to tell anyone else. I bet Carter was the same."

"Yeah, and?" Matt asks. "I'm not saying to take out a billboard, here. You don't have to come out to everyone . I'm just saying this guy, who you're super into, and who's super into you, might like to know who you are."

I did spend several hours staring at Garrett's ceiling last night, thinking about exactly this. Now that I know Jacques is Simon and Simon is Jacques, it's so easy to picture walking up to him and saying, "Hey, Jacques, it's me, Blue." Or, hell, I wouldn't have to say anything. I could send Jacques an email and sign it Love, Bram. And then...

And then what?

"Oh," Matt says softly. I look up, and he's giving me this way-too-shrewd look. "This isn't about coming out, is it? This is about Simon. You're not sure Simon wants you."

To my horror, tears prick my eyes. I grind the heels of my hands into my eyes and will them away. "What if I'm not what he's expecting?"

"I mean," Matt says, giving me a once-over that would be flattering if the guy weren't like an older brother to me, "I'm gonna guess you're better than anything he's expecting."

"Matt..."

"What? You're hot like burning, smart, athletic, eloquent—"

"Not white." Too Black, too Jewish, too anxious, too much, not enough.

Matt puts his hands on his hips. "Well, if he has a problem with that, he can fuck right the fuck off and deal with Martin Addison his own damned self." Matt takes a step forward and puts his hands on my shoulders. The Laughlins are very touchy-feely people. "I can't promise anything. But, Bram, the guy's half in love with you without knowing who you are. I can't see anything about the physical package upsetting him."

"Thank you, Matt," I say sincerely. I take his hands and gently move them off my shoulders. "I'm just... not ready yet." Then I resolutely turn my back on him and pour cocoa. I do not think about the fact that, at this moment, I feel closer to ready than I ever have.

* * *

Day 3: Simon

Leah would tell me I'm being ridiculous, but eating at a WaHo in another town feels... weird. Disloyal? Or, like... I drove all the way to Sandy Springs, could I eat somewhere other than a WaHo? Especially since it was such a song and dance to convince my parents to let me leave, that I wasn't meeting my secret girlfriend ( ugh) or drug dealer (wtf, Dad?). Then again, this is the suburbs. Maybe everything here is exactly like Shady Creek—and the other way around.

I'm not surprised when I get out of the car in the parking lot and the doors of a minivan I don't recognize pop open, spilling out the whole team—Leah, Nick, Abby, Ethan, and Bram, and Garrett from the driver's seat. 

I try to look disapproving as we cross toward each other, but I don't think I succeed. "What are you doing here?" I ask. 

Abby scoffs. "Like we would leave you to do this alone."

Nick makes an identical face. "Yeah, Spier, for real." He and Abby are standing really close to each other. But then Leah's standing really close on Abby's other side. I'll think about that later. Right now, I need to focus on Martin freakin' Addison. And how grateful I am that my friends are doing this for me.

We're almost to the building when the door bursts open and Matt charges toward us. He does not look grateful to see the others. "What the hell are y'all doing here?" he hisses, like Martin might be eavesdropping in the bushes. Which, knowing Martin, isn't impossible.

"We're here to support our friend," Garrett says, like it's no big deal.

"Do you want this to fail, Garrett?" Matt demands. "Because if y'all gang up on Martin, that's exactly what'll happen."

"Please," Garrett scoffs, sounding insulted, "we're not ganging up on Martin. He won't even know we're here. This is one of the WaHos with the weird side room, right? We'll sit in there; you won't even notice us."

Matt stares at them, probably thinking about how impossible that would be. "Can I say anything that will convince you to leave? Wait at the Denny's down the road?"

They shake their heads. Matt looks hopefully at Ethan. "Ethan?" he asks in an intimate voice that makes me wonder how late they were up texting last night.

Ethan shakes his head and puts his hand on Matt's arm. "Oh, honey, that's sweet. But this isn't something you leave someone to go through alone."

My eyes are watery, and I have to clear my throat a couple times. I hope I never forget how lucky I am to have these friends.

Matt sighs and shakes his head. "Fine," he says, "come sit in the weird side room. And don't blame me if this blows up. For the record, though, you're the worst. When I say 'just Simon,' I mean just Simon."

And then, the weirdest, most unbelievable, most absolutely incredible thing of my life happens.

Bram—Cute Bram Greenfeld, smart Bram Greenfeld, funny Bram Greenfeld, Bram Greenfeld of the amazing soccer calves, Bram Greenfeld who is at the top of my list of guys I hope are Blue—steps up beside me. "Technically," he says, giving Matt a look that is pure dare, "you said Simon and Blue."

My brain makes a sound like a scratched record. Is Bram Blue? Is that what he's telling me? Would I be that lucky?

I turn and study his unfairly gorgeous face. I have no idea what my face is doing. I sure can't control it right now. "Really?" I ask quietly.

He nods. "Are you disappointed that it's me?"

"No! Are you kidding me? I could never be disappointed that it's you." I squeeze my eyes shut for a second. I'm not sure why this is more embarrassing than anything else I've said so far, but it sure feels that way. "When I thought about people it might be—people I wanted it to be—you were usually at the top of the list."

I feel like we should kiss. But I also feel like we're standing in front of a WaHo with Garrett's brother and... all our friends? I risk a look, and, yup. They're still here, looking different levels of shocked. (Garrett looks zero levels of shocked. Did he know? When did he know?)

Matt looks peeved. He glances at his phone and makes a get on with it gesture when he sees me looking. "Touching as this is, Carter and Martin are waiting for us."

"Yeah, okay," I say, "I'm ready." I look at Bram—at Blue oh my freaking god. "You ready?"

He nods once. "Let's do it."

We all walk into the restaurant. Bram and I follow Matt into the main room. The others split off and head toward the side. I barely notice them go. I barely notice where I'm going. I'm just so aware of Bram's body inches from mine. "I want to hold your hand," I say softly. Because we're in public. Because I don't know if he's out.

"So hold it," he says.

And I do. It's only for a few steps. Because I don't think either of us is ready for Martin to know yet. But they're the most magical few steps of my life. Because I'm holding Bram's hand, and he's holding mine. And everything's perfect.

Then we come around a corner and see Carter and Martin Addison sitting in a booth. Everything stops being perfect.

"Sorry, guys," Matt says as he slides in next to Martin. I sit next to Carter, and Bram takes my other side. Carter looks surprised to see Bram. Martin looks confused about everything.

"Hey, it's Simon, right?" Carter asks. Like he doesn't know damned well. I nod. He looks around me. "And you're...?"

"This is Bram," Matt says. "Garrett's best friend. We'll get to him in a minute. Who wants food?"

It's funny. Two minutes ago, I was so nervous I couldn't think of food. Sitting here with Bram at my side and Carter and Matt ready to fight alongside me, I could eat a house. 

We're silent until we order. I feel Martin's eyes on me. Then he looks at Bram. Then Carter and Matt. I see all that out of the corner of my eye. I can't look at him.

We make awkward small talk while we wait for the food. Carter and Bram talk about soccer. Matt asks Martin and me about the play. He seems super interested in the choreography.

Once we have our food, the quiet gets more natural. I should've guessed it was a trap. Martin should've guessed it was a trap.

"So, Martin," Carter says casually, still holding his fork. "I hear you're blackmailing Simon."

Martin chokes on his coffee. "Hey, no, I'm not—you told him?"

Martin is trying to make me feel guilty that he's blackmailing me! I squeeze my fork hard. Bram squeezes my knee under the table.

Martin laughs. Big and hearty and super fake. "Okay, guys," he says, putting his napkin weirdly carefully on the table, "I think you've gotten the wrong impression. I mean, I know I wouldn't call it blackmail."

"Oh, really?" Matt asks. On my mom, I would call his expression giving you long enough legs to put your foot in your mouth. "What would you call it?"

"An agreement," Martin says easily.

"Only I didn't agree to it. To anything," I say.

"You're doing it, aren't you?"

"So you don't out me!"

"I don't see what the big deal is!"

"Say that again." Carter's voice is low and scary.

"Coming out was, like, the best thing you've ever done. You said so. You said it's the best thing a gay person can do. Mom and Dad sure acted like it was the best thing anyone's ever done."

Carter stares at him. "What I said, Martin, was that, if the person feels safe and ready, coming out is the best choice. I never said being outed against your will and ahead of your time by someone else is the best thing. I also never said being forced into doing something you would never otherwise do so you don't get outed is the best thing. I would never say those things. Because those are shitty things."

Martin slides down in his chair, sulking. "I don't think it's a big deal."

"If you thought it wasn't a big deal," Bram says calmly, "you wouldn't have chosen it as a blackmail angle. You took the screenshots and held them over Simon's head because you know it is a big deal." Maybe this is my complete infatuation talking, but it is way hot that Bram doesn't look up from his waffle while he says that. Like Martin's not worth the bother of eye contact.

"I'm sorry," Martin snaps, "why are you here?"

Bram looks up. He's smiling. I've never seen this smile before. I hope I never do again. I hope he never smiles at me like that. "Oh. Right. Hi. I'm Blue."

My heart soars. Just hearing Bram say that, out loud, though the situation sucks. I fall a little more every time this guy opens his mouth.

Martin looks like he's been slapped. Carter looks confused. "The guy Simon's been emailing," Matt says. Carter nods.

"Not so fun when you remember you're messing with actual people's lives, is it?" I say.

"Look, it isn't fair," Martin says. We all put our forks down and stare at him. "When Carter came out last summer, our parents acted like it was the biggest deal ever. You get parades and bars and a month for being proud of who you are, and, I mean, that's great, I guess. Why shouldn't we all celebrate that you like dick? No offense, Matt."

"Oh, offense taken, Marty," Matt says, voice dripping sarcastic sweetness.

Martin looks at me. "And then Abby shows up and chooses to befriend you out of everyone, when you have so many friends already, and I don't think you even get what a big deal that is. I don't mean to call you out or insult you or anything. I'm just saying it seems like it's so easy for you, and you should know how lucky you are."

"We get a month because you guys get the entire rest of the freaking year," I tell him.

"And Abby's friends with Simon because he's a nice guy," Bram adds. Which is sweet. "A real one. Not someone who acts nice until it stops getting him what he wants."

"We haven't even touched on the fact that you think you’re ‘owed' friends, let alone a girlfriend," Carter says. "And we won't." He waits for Martin to perk up and then adds, "We'll let Mom handle that one."

All the color falls out of Martin's face. "You're telling Mom?"

"And Dad."

Martin's jaw clenches. "What do you guys want from me?"

Wow, okay. It's like that, then. "Delete the screenshots," I say.

Martin looks at Carter. Carter looks stonily back. "Fine," Martin says. "Done."

We wait. Martin doesn't move. "Now, Marty," Matt says. Martin grumbles. But he pulls out his phone.  "On second thought," Matt says once the phone is unlocked, " I'll do it." He goes into Martin's photo app and deletes a lot of pictures. My mouth goes dry. Bram takes my hand under the table.

Martin put on a good show, but he agreed pretty easily to deleting the screen shots. Which means Nick and Garrett were right about him having them backed up. I'm not telling him that Garrett's hacked his account and deleted the cloud backups. Or that Carter searched his room and found the physical copies.

"You know, Spier," Martin says earnestly, "this wouldn't've happened if you'd signed out of your account."

"No, " Matt says as he hands back the phone. "It wouldn't've happened if you were a better person."

Martin scowls and shoves the phone into his pocket. "Anything else?" he demands. 

"Leave Abby alone," I say. "She's not into you. She doesn't have to be into you just because you want her to be. She doesn't want to be friends with you. She barely wants to look at you."

Bram adds, "Also, Leah will legit kill you if you look at Abby funny right now." 

"And obviously, don't tell anyone that Simon and Bram are gay," Carter says. "Don't hint that Simon and Bram are gay."

"But they are," Martin says, waving his hand at us.

"It's not yours to tell, Martin." Matt sighs. "You seem to be having a hard time understanding that other people's lives are not about you. Coming out is Bram and Simon's thing. They decide when or if they tell anyone, and who, and how. Notyou."

"We are not joking," Carter says, "and I will do everything I can think of, for as long as I have to, until you get it."

"Great," Martin snipes. "That'll be super."

Carter shakes his head. "You brought it on yourself, bro." He squeezes Martin's shoulder. "It obviously goes without saying that you'll apologize to Simon and Bram for what you tried to do to them. Especially Simon."

Martin sits up straight and puts on the most apologetic look I've ever seen. My gut turns to lead. But I sit up, too. If Martin's apologizing, the least I can do is listen. Even if something in me is screaming for him to keep his mouth shut.

"No," Bram says sharply. 

"No?" Matt asks, confused.

"No?" Martin asks, hopeful.

"No," Bram repeats, more confidently. He looks at Martin. "You'll say something flowery, and it'll sound nice. But you have no idea why what you've done is wrong. You think this conversation is a joke. You think you're the victim. You're not sorry." He leans forward. I can't see his expression, but Martin leans away. So it can't be nice. "But someday you will be. Maybe someone will do something to you like you tried to do to us. Or you'll grow up enough to realize that you acted like a complete shithole." Bram sits back. " Then we'll accept your apology."

Matt and Carter and looking at Bram in something like awe. "Well. What's left to say after that?" Matt says. He gestures at our plates. "If you guys are done?" We nod, and he signals for the server to ask for the check.

Bram and I reach for our wallets, but Carter puts out his hand. "Martin's paying today."

"Oh, come on," Martin whines.

"It's a gift, Martin," Carter tells him. "After we talk to Mom and Dad, I'd be surprised if you have a wallet for the next few weeks."

This seems like our cue to split. Bram and I stand. Our hands find each other instantly, and it makes my stomach swoop. "Thank you for arranging this," I tell Matt and Carter. I can't even look at Martin.

Bram has other ideas. He grins and says, "Thanks for breakfast, Marty."

Martin glowers. Bram smiles wider and leads me away from the table.

I'm not surprised to find our friends waiting for us in the restaurant entryway. "Well?" Leah asks excitedly. "What happened? How did it go?"

I grin at her. "It's done. I don't think Martin's going to blackmail us anymore."

A loud collective whoop goes up. A bunch of them hug us. And by a bunch I mean all.

"I'm so happy for you!" Abby says, beaming. I don't know if she means dealing with Martin or being together. I'm happy about both.

"Does this mean we don't get to kill Martin?" Leah asks.

"Not today," Nick says, bumping shoulders with her.

"All right, losers, in the van," Garrett says. Abby, Leah, and Nick wave, hug us again, and start heading toward the Laughlin minivan.

"I'll ride with Simon," Bram says. He looks at me. "I mean, if you don't mind."

"I'd mind if you didn't," I admit.

"I'll stay here and..." Ethan makes a ridiculous gesture that seems to point in the general direction of Matt's motorcycle.

Garrett rolls his eyes. "Of course you are." He pauses and then sighs. "I like you, North."

Ethan rolls his eyes back. "You're not so terrible yourself, Laughlin."

"No," Garrett huffs, "I mean... you're okay. For Matt. I like you for that."

Ethan smiles. It's small, almost shy. "Thank you, Garrett," he says sincerely.

"Okay, let's roll!" Garrett says. Then he realizes that everyone who's going with him is in the van. He gives us a sheepish wave and rushes off.

Laughing, Bram and I say another goodbye to Ethan and then walk toward my car. We get in and then sit there, looking at each other. Some part of me can't believe that this is real. That Bram is here, with me, being a real person with me, being Blue. I can't read his expression, but I think he's feeling the same way. We need to talk—and do things that aren't talking. But—"I don't want to do this in my car. Can we go someplace?"

"My house," Bram says instantly. "Mom's not home yet, so we'd have the house to ourselves. And I should be there when she gets home."

"She won't be mad that you're not at Garrett's?"

Bram shakes his head. "As long as I'm not at home alone, it's fine." He bites his lip. I want to kiss it. "She might have stern words for me when she figures out you're my boyfriend and not a study partner, but you're better than a raging kegger."

I look at him in wonder. "Boyfriend?"

He shrugs, but I see the little smile on his lips. "I mean, yeah. I'm all in if you are. If that's what you want."

"That's what I want," I say. My boyfriend. My brown eyed, grammar nerd, soccer star boyfriend. And I can't stop smiling. I mean, there are times when it's more work not to smile. "Let's get out of here."

Bram's house is smaller than mine, which makes sense because it's just him and his mom. But it's nice, because his mom is an actual epidemiologist with the freaking CDC. It has more character than ours. Like, architecturally. If that's a thing.

We swing through the kitchen for drinks and then go to the living room. I don't think we trust ourselves to do anything but make out if we go to Bram's room. And we do need to talk. We even get books out so we look like we're studying when Dr. Greenfeld gets home. ("She kept your dad's name?" "She's too well known in her field to go back to her maiden name. Too many publications." Which, shit. Color me intimidated.)

We sit next to each other on the couch, but angled to face each other. I reach for his hand like it's already the most natural thing in the world, and he takes it the same easy way. Bram's hands are so warm and soft, with a few small callouses here and there. I could sit here holding them and looking into Bram's warm brown eyes forever.

"I really want to kiss you," I whisper.

"So kiss me," he says.

So I do. It's the best decision I've ever made. Bram's lips are a little chapped but so soft, and he kisses with his full focus. He's only paying attention to this moment, and to me. I try to give that attention back as best I can. I've kissed—well, not tons of people, but enough to realize that those kisses lacked oomph, compared to this one.

Finally, reluctantly, we break apart. Bram  smiles at me. "Hi, Jacques."

I smile back. "Hi, Blue. When did you know?"

He shakes his head. "I'd had my suspicions. You sort of talk the way you write. But I didn't know until we showed up at your house yesterday. Garrett came home Friday night asking if I wanted to know who Jacques was, but I didn't think I did. I didn't think I was ready to know."

My eyebrows go up at that. "Garrett knew?"

Bram nods. "I told him right after you told..." He trails off, thinking. I swear I can see him thinking. "Leah? Is Leah Fake Girlfriend?"

I groan. I have so many regrets about Thanksgiving. "Yeah. She totally is. You just missed her cousin Winnie on Skype. I hope you get to meet her someday. You could be taking-over-the-world buddies." Bram laughs. "What made you change your mind?" I ask.

"Matt," he says. "We talked this morning about how I didn't have to come out to everyone to come out to you. And how if you didn't want me once you knew who I was, that was your shortcoming, not mine."

"That's good advice." There's also no universe where I wouldn't want Bram Greenfeld, but I'm not sure he'd find that reassuring right now.

Bram nods. "Matt's great."

"Are we sure he's related to Garrett?"

Bram laughs. "Stop it. Garrett's been really helpful this weekend."

"Yeah, he has." I grin, unable to resist ribbing Bram. "For a hot second I thought he was Blue."

Bram chokes on his water. "Garrett?" His voice does this utterly adorable indignant crack. 

I shrug. "He kept looking at me and laughing on Friday. Like he knew something I didn't. And, I mean, it turns out he did." 

"When... when did you know it wasn't him?"

Bram's voice is hesitant in a way I'm not used to. It takes me a minute, but then I get it: he wants to know if I'd expected Garrett to be the one stepping forward at the WaHo. If I'd wanted Garrett to step forward. Looks like I've got a lot of work to do to convince Bram that he's the one I want. I think I'm up to the challenge. I smile at him. "I remembered the hotdogs."

Bram laughs. Loudly. I stare at him. I don't think I've ever heard him laugh like that, loud and free and real. I feel greedy for it. I want to hear him laugh like that all the time time. I want to make him laugh like that all the time. "If Garrett were Blue, he would've bragged about that at least once," Bram says. "He thinks it'll get him a girlfriend. He says women like a man who can hold his hotdogs."

I laugh. "He's been... okay, right? About you?"

Bram smiles and squeezes my hand. My heart flip-flops. "You're sweet to look out for me. Garrett's been great. Well, about me being gay, he's been great." Which makes sense, given Matt. Then again, Martin has a gay brother, too, and look how that turned out. "About me having a crush on 'some rando whose name you don't know'? Less great. So much teasing. All the teasing."

I grin. "Well, now you know my name, right?"

Bram rolls his eyes. But then he turns that same intense focus from the kiss onto me with his eyes. My breath catches. "Simon," he murmurs. "Simon Spier. My Simon."

"Yeah, I am." Then I grin. "It's Irving, by the way."

He squints. "What's Irving?"

"My middle name." I shrug. "You paused between Simon and Spier, like you were trying to remember what goes there. It's Irving."

"Huh. Well, mine's Louis." He looks at me like he's waiting for me to have a revelation.

And then I do. Louis. Bram Louis. B. Louis. B. Louis Greenfeld. "bluegreen!" I yelp.

Bram laughs. "Knew you'd get there eventually."

I smile. "118? What does that mean?"

He squeezes my hand. "My birthday."

"Wow," I say. I flop against the cushions. "You gave me so many clues, didn't you?" He shrugs. Won't meet my eyes. "What?" I ask quietly. I give our joined hands a jiggle.

Bram gives a little smile at the motion, but it fades fast, and he doesn't look at me. "I thought, if you had been looking for it to be me, you would have guessed it yourself."

I take a minute. Bram thinks about the things he says and does. I want to give that same consideration to him. I nod. "Maybe," I concede. "Turns out I'm not as observant as I thought. But if it helps, I think it was the opposite."

He does glance over now, eyebrow raised. "The opposite of what?"

"In the whole school there were, like, four guys tops I hoped it would be. You were pretty much always at the top of that list. Maybe I was afraid that if I started looking for clues, I'd find ways to convince myself it was you, even if it wasn't."

"But it was me!" Bram protests.

"But I didn't know that!" I cry. Bram looks at me helplessly, and I start laughing. "My dad talks about Simon Logic..."

Bram laughs, too. "That was my first lesson in it, huh?"

"Guess so." I look at him nervously. "You're really okay with the dress? And the makeup? Because that's probably going to happen again."

He laughs again. A little nervously, this time. "Simon," he says, "you have no idea how good you looked like that. Not just hot—although you were definitely hot—but... comfortable. Like you fit in your own skin."

I feel like I must be blushing. Not embarrassed—well, maybe a little embarrassed. Mostly just pleased. Cute Bram Greenfeld—no, Hot Bram Greenfeld—thinks I'm hot, too!

I just look at him then. Dear, sweet Bram. My Bram. But not in a creepy way. Just in an... us way.

This morning I was a scared, mostly closeted guy with a blackmailer and a mysterious internet friend. Now I'm out to my closest friends, the blackmail is done, and I have a real, and really incredible, boyfriend. We have more to talk about, and parents to come out to, and the rest of high school to get through. I want to enjoy this good moment. While it lasts.

"I know we have other stuff to talk about," I tell Bram. "But later. Now let's make out til your mom gets home."

Bram's eyes widen. But he's smiling, too. "That could be hours, Simon."

I pull him closer. "Sure," I say. "That's enough to get started."

Everything starts now.