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More Zach and Alex time.

We need more Zach and Alex time.

That’s what he had said. Zach had absolutely insisted that Alex come to the party with him. He didn’t settle for an alibi and a bed to crash on, he wanted them to spend time together.

That’s what he had said.

“What drink will you be trying first?” Zach asked as the two of them walked through the open front door of the sprawling home. He threw his thumb to the doorway to the kitchen, a space in the house people were cramming themselves into to “find their drink”.

Alex felt the bass of a song in his chest and Zach’s arm brushing his as the shorter boy limped alongside him. Zach’s eyes sparkled, not quite drunk enough yet for his gaze to glaze over, just drunk enough to be happy and mischievous. This level of Zach’s intoxication Alex could handle. It was amusing, more than anything, really.

“Sex on the beach? Slippery nipple? Creamy Pussy?” Zach was enjoying this. “Wait, no. Cock Sucking Cowboy?”

Alright, maybe he was already a little more drunk than Alex found amusing. He appreciated that Zach made it a point to show him that he was cool with his sexuality, and he should be happy that his friend never made it a big deal of it. He never expected that it being brushed past as unimportant would be anything other than a relief…

He couldn’t be too irked at the insensitive joke though. He enjoyed it too much that they stepped into a house full of madness – music, dancing, a football and a Frisbee interchangeably getting tossed around, something already breaking to their left – but Zach only had attention for him. Alex didn’t miss a beat and just chuckled when he was on the receiving end of a wink. “Uh, no thanks. I’ll pass. Are those even real drinks?”

“Are you questioning my expertise?” He shook his head. “At least have a beer.”

“I have a hard enough time not tripping over my own feet when I’m sober,” Alex pointed out. This was the kind of humor that Zach didn’t seem to appreciate too much.

“You do realize I will be drinking, right?”

“Yes, and you do realize I will be driving us home, right?” He countered. It was one thing to let Zach drive when he’d had a couple of drinks, but he wasn’t going to let him take a seat behind the wheel once he was wasted.

Zach nodded along. They had already had this discussion on the drive there, he did not intend on revisiting the topic. “Imma go get a drink.” He took a step back. “I’ll find you in a sec, okay?”

At least Zach understood without having to be told so that Alex would not be following him into the crowded kitchen and would want to find a quieter place instead. He watched Zach push his way into the kitchen and disappear from sight.

That was the last he saw of him that night.

More Zach and Alex time.

That was it.

Alex waited in the library – what kind of house has a library? He waited half an hour and decided to leave when a couple landed on the leather couch right across from him and either had no idea he was there or just couldn’t be bothered. The two were all over each other. He actually said “excuse me” before he got up from the lounge chair he’d been occupying and left.

He wandered out into the back yard to the sight of Diego preaching about Monty to a gathered crowd and quickly headed back inside. That wasn’t something he could stand to be a part of.

At some point, he got turned around in the massive house as he searched for Zach. He was too afraid to open any of the bedroom doors. He just hoped he wouldn’t find Zach in there anyway.

He stood at the top of the staircase, awkwardly long. People were staring at him, but he figured that if Zach was looking for him, he ought to stay put, someplace visible. He leaned against the stone bannister, marble probably, and observed the people meander through the foyer and flow up and down the staircase. Always looking a little bit more disheveled when they came back down.

Then he saw her walk in. Chlöe. She came in through the front door. She looked left. Then right. Then straight up at him.

His first instinct was to look away and pretend he didn’t notice her, but he knew he had been caught. His face prickled and he forced himself to look back at her. He shifted his weight to his foot nervously watching her climb the stairs and come towards him.

He hardly knew her really. Mostly just knew of her. Knew of Zach’s love for her. Knew her wavy, golden hair more from Zach describing it to him than from the few times he’d actually seen her in person.

“Hi,” She said.

“Hey.”

“You look good.”

He didn’t. He really didn’t. But people always told him that nowadays. What they meant was: you look good for a guy who blew his brains out. Or tried to, anyway. “Thanks.” He only added as an afterthought: “You too.”

“Zach texted me. Asked me to come.”

“Ah.” He looked down at his boots, just to check if anyone could see how anxiously he was wiggling and curling his toes. But his footwear hid his nervous tick.

“Have you seen him?”

He chuckled bitterly, although it wasn’t supposed to come out bitterly. “Not in a while.”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m… fine,” He lied.

“Okay. I’m going to go look for him. I’ll see you around.” She smiled kindly at him, even though he’d been nothing but a weird prick to her during the entire exchange.

“Yeah.”

Chlöe headed back downstairs. Her curls bouncing delicately with every step.

Alex wasn’t the kind of guy to think of girls’ hair as “bouncing delicately”, but Zach was. Go – fucking – figure.

He went further upstairs, following a corridor chosen at random, all the way to the back where a thick curtain looked to block a window. Only all of a sudden the drapes parted and a girl and a guy from the football team came stumbling into the hallway, laughing and holding onto each other. When they walked past him, the guy bumped into him. It wasn’t on purpose, it wasn’t malicious, he was just too preoccupied with his girl to even notice him.

With curiosity he opened the curtain to find a home theater.

Because of course.

As good a place as any to hide, he decided.

He took a seat on the back couch but shot back up when he felt how warm the cushions were. Warm from body heat. He shuffled around the space and dropped down into the other couch instead, nearest to the massive television screen. He pulled one of the throw pillows into his lap. Underneath he uncovered three remotes.

After some fumbling he managed to turn on the TV and the DVD player. A black and white image filled the screen.

It’s a Wonderful Life. 

Because of course.

Apparently the last movie night the family had had in their home theatre had been last Christmas.

He settled in and hugged the pillow to his body and tried very hard not to think about...

More Zach and Chlöe time.

 


 

His fingers momentarily stilled over the keys when he saw her walk into the room. Her smile was radiant, her entire presence was. She looked at him the way no one else looked at him nowadays. Meeting her gaze was a safe haven, exactly because there were so many things she didn’t know. So many secrets and lies of his that she wasn’t a part of. When she looked at him, he didn’t feel like he was being stripped naked, like she was staring into his soul and every ugly truth that was cocooned inside of him. She just saw him, the way he used to be, the way he was supposed to be.

It was such a relief.

He never wanted her to stop looking at him that way. Which was probably why he’d been avoiding her as much as he had.

He gave her a cheeky smile that further brightened her face and he continued to play. He finished the song. He had to. You don’t leave a song unfinished. Although maybe he did rush through the final verse a little bit, to get to talk to her. He had missed her without even realizing how much.

He got up from the bench and walked towards her, forgetting about his drink for the first time that evening. But standing in front of her, his hands suddenly did feel empty and he didn’t know what to do with them.

But she made it easy for him and invited him to come and find a more quiet place to talk.

His heart skipped a beat.

Shit. Alex.

He was supposed to go find Alex – in a more quiet place – after he had gotten his first drink. God, how long ago was that? How many drinks ago was that?

Chlöe soothed away his concerns with her smile and a tug on the sleeve of his jacket.

He forgot about Alex. Again.

They walked through the house together. Never actually finding a more quiet place to settle and talk. So they kept walking instead as she caught him up on all the things he had missed out on because he hadn’t been returning her calls, or responding to her texts. He expected to be berated in some way, shape or form, but she brushed it off. It was okay.

It was okay.

Finally, she moved to stand in front of him, stopping him in his tracks.

“I wanted to say thank you, for helping me get to where I am.”

His heart swelled. He was so grateful that he had at least managed to have a positive effect on someone in his life. That he had managed to save and protect someone. That he had been blessed to see her bloom, instead of wither, like Hannah.

“I mean, you were there for me last summer when I needed you.”

 She looked at him like he was her hero. He couldn’t imagine ever being worthy of such admiration, but it felt so good. For a second, he felt like his old self again. Like the star football player. The straight A student. The good son. The good friend. The good boyfriend.

On impulse he leaned forward, closing the distance between them and he kissed her; lightly, sweetly.

Then they parted and he opened his eyes to the look on her face and she stammered his name and he knew instantly the kiss wasn’t what she had wanted and he watched her struggle to find a way to let him down gently.

Every moment of silence was a pinprick in his heart. Then every word a sharp blade. And he wished she wouldn’t say it. She didn’t need to say it. He knew from the look in her eyes.

“I have- I have a boyfriend.” 

There. She said it. Six stabs.

“I should have told you.”

No, please stop. Please stop talking. “No, no, I shouldn’t- God… I shouldn’t have kissed you. I’m sorry, that was really stupid,” he rambled on. It was better if he spoke than if he let her.

It’s done now. Please stop.

But she didn’t stop. She told him it was okay. Just like not texting her back was okay. Just like every mistake he ever made was okay with her. She told him what a great guy her boyfriend was. “He’s outside, if you want to meet him.”

Oh God, no.

His rebuttal was instant, but as much as he tried to sound “okay”, everything came out a jumbled mess.

“I should go.”

“Yeah, definitely,” he readily agreed. “It was really good seeing you.” He wanted nothing more than for her to leave so he could go and “find his drink” again. And again. And again.

She turned and took her first steps away from him and Zach knew he’d never see her again. He’d make sure of it. It was selfish of him, but it hurt too much. All of the good feelings she once evoked in him were gone now. Her bouncing curls, which used to make him yearn to touch her, now made him want to put his hands in his pockets. Her soft lips, which used to make him tingle all over, now made his heart ache. Her kind eyes, which he used to love staring into, now made him want to look away. Everything was pain now and he could hardly believe he hadn’t seen it coming.

“Happiness makes us unhappy” had pretty much been his mantra.

She offered to meet up on the steps, but he gave her a bullshit excuse of being busy and thankfully she didn’t press the issue.

“I’ll see you soon. I hope.”

“Yeah,” He lied.

Finally, she left. If she’d stayed any longer, she might have seen him cry.

He watched her leave, like the moment was a song that he had to finish, no matter how much it hurt.

When he swallowed, it was like he swallowed a stone that dropped into his stomach. He felt nauseous. With every breath he still smelled her perfume, or maybe her lip balm and it made his stomach churn. He knew he’d never get that happiness back; that easy happiness that she gave him.

It was all ruined now.

And then, unbidden, Zach thought of someone else. Someone other than Chlöe. Other than her boyfriend. Other than himself.

He thought about Alex and that night on the rooftop.

In the wake of his own, gut wrenching rejection, he finally understood: this is how he felt.

He did to Alex the exact same thing Chlöe did to him. With all the best intentions but all the worst results. There was no such thing as being let down gently. It was like plummeting off the ledge of a rooftop no matter what you do.

God, how long had he made Alex stand there, listening to all his best intentions

Fuck, he didn’t need guilt on top of everything else.

He steadied himself, swallowed again and then went back to the kitchen to find himself a new drink.

 

Chapter Text

 

Alex: Wanna go home. Can’t find you.

Alex: Still here?

Alex: Zach?

Alex: ???

Alex: Did you seriously ditch me here? How am I supposed to get home?

Alex: nvm I got a ride

Alex: if you give a shit or whatever…

Zach pocketed his phone. By some miracle it had survived the crash without even a cracked screen. He himself wasn’t quite so unscathed.

With plenty of groaning and hissing, he managed to make it downstairs. Putting up a good show meant his mom let him take the painkillers at a higher frequency than prescribed. Not to say it didn’t hurt like a bitch.

His mother was in the kitchen and watched him limp over to the table where he carefully lowered himself down into a chair. “Do you want breakfast?”

He had no idea what time it was, but definitely too late for breakfast.

The hospital had released him at four in the morning. His mom had brought him home and hadn’t let him retreat to his bedroom until she had finished the biblical scolding that she had started on the drive home, for getting behind the wheel as intoxicated as he was. He had been allowed to sleep a couple of hours after that. He woke up feeling no less exhausted.

Even though Clay had fucked up his car and left him for dead, Zach still covered for him. Although, maybe only because trying to claim that Clay had been the one driving and had caused the crash, would have only sounded like a bullshit excuse, since the angsty teen was nowhere to be found by the time the ambulance and the cops arrived to find Zach sitting in the grass, completely dazed, next to his overturned Audi. 

“Breakfast is good, yeah. Bacon and eggs?”

“Whole-wheat waffles.”

He grimaced but said nothing. Whole-wheat waffles… Not exactly his preferred food to combat the mother of all hangovers. With a groan he leaned to the side and fished his phone out of the pocket of his sweats. He felt an almost compulsive need to look at the string of angry messages from Alex again. As if it was some sort of atonement for totally neglecting him during the entire party – that he had dragged him to.

What a mess. He was a mess.

“Did you sleep alright?” His mother questioned offhandedly, while minding the waffle iron.

“Fine.”

He stared at his phone.

Alex: if you give a shit or whatever…

He did give a shit. But when had that ever worked out for the better?

A message from Clay popped up. Some lame apology, he was sure. He locked the screen and turned his phone over, just as his mother set a plate of waffles with fruit and a glass of orange juice in front of him.

“Can I take another painkiller?” He looked up at her as pathetically as possible.

She checked her watch with a frown. “Not yet.”

“Please? I’m a big guy and they gave me like a kid’s dose.”

She pursed her lips. “Not on an empty stomach. Eat first.”

He hastily dug in.

The doorbell chimed. The sound filled the empty house.

“I’ll get it,” Said his mom, as if she seriously expected him to hoist himself up and limp over to the front door.

Zach just kept eating until he heard those soft-spoken words.

“Hi, miss Dempsey, I just heard.”

Now he seriously did consider getting up and scurrying out of the kitchen as fast as he could, but that was stupid, it wasn’t like his mom would let him get away with that. So he sat and waited. Listened to his mother’s heels click on the hardwood floor and the uneven footfalls that followed her.

“Zach, oh my God.”

He looked up to see Alex appraise him with a pained expression, as if he physically hurt as much as Zach did. He put on a brave smile for him. “Hey man, want some waffles?”

Alex was unamused. “Zach…”

“I’ll be in the laundry room, if you need me.” Zach’s mother excused herself and Alex waited for the clicking of her heels to become distant before he continued.

“What the fuck happened?” His tone of voice was all over the place, up and down. “I got this text from Clay asking me if you’re okay and I didn’t even know anything had happened.”

“Well, Clay crashed my car, did he tell you that? We flipped three times. It’s a wreck. It’s completely totaled.” And he’d rather flip over three more time than have Alex look at him like that, so gutted.

You are completely totaled.” It would have been funny if not for his distraught expression.

“Yeah, well…” He shrugged and immediately flinched at the pain that caused.

“Jesus, why didn’t you call me?” Alex finally sat down in one of the chairs, those blue eyes regarding him so caringly Zach actually couldn’t tell if it made everything hurt worse or less.

“Because you were pissed at me?”

“That’s bullshit, Zach. Yeah, I was fucking mad you left without me but none of that shit matters when you are in a goddamn car crash.”

He chuckled. “If my mom hears you cursing like this, she’s gonna kick you out.”

“Yeah, I guess the cane was good for some things. I could get away with more shit.”

Zach sat back. He knew it was a defensive reflex on Alex’ behalf, the self-deprecating humor, but Zach had never been a fan of the TBI jokes. Every time – every single time – he remembered himself standing on the basketball court. Calling Alex, but hearing another voice answer the phone.

“How did you get home?” Zach asked. “Because I do care, ‘or whatever’,” he said, harkening to the texts Alex had left him. “And I’m sorry for ditching you.”

“It’s fine, seriously. Charlie drove me home.”

He smirked. “St. George, huh?”

“Yeah, we hung out at the party.”

“He’s a good dude.”

“Okay…” Alex frowned at the odd turn of the conversation.

“I’m pretty sure he’s bi.” He let the corner of his mouth curl up and the wink he attempted hurt his bruised face all over.

Alex sat back, with a tension in his shoulders, mouth, and brows. He drummed his fingers on the polished table top and after a moment of private struggling, he said: “You can’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“Out people.”

His jaw went slack. “I- I didn’t. It’s like… Diego and Luke and the guys, they’re all saying it. We’re all cool with it.”

“It’s none of your business. Charlie is the only one who gets to say that. You don’t get to say that.”

How Alex maintained eye contact throughout the conversation was unnerving. Those bright eyes saw even into the darkest corners of Zach’s being, saw things that Zach didn’t want anyone to see – things about him he didn’t even want to see for himself.

He forced out a chuckle in attempt to brush it all off. This wasn’t about Charlie. This was about the senior camping trip and Zach telling everyone about Alex and Winston. His only intention had been to protect Alex, but, ironically, it was Charlie who came up to him afterwards to point out Zach had crossed a line. “Since when am I this good at pissing you off?”

“I’m not pissed off,” he countered softly, but then with a slight smirk he decided to play along, with that dry, flat tone that was so Alex. “Honestly, you’ve always had a knack for it. One of your many talents. You are a gifted man.”

Zach smiled. Genuine. Grateful.


“Stay with me, Alex.”

He opened his eyes to blue flashing lights, the sound of someone fighting back sobs and the feel of Charlie’s clammy hand covering his own.

“Alex, stay with me. Please…”

Alex leaned forward. The voice of his father was both distant and near, soft but crisp.

“Alex. Oh God.”

“That’s my dad,” he proclaimed, alarmed at the realization. His father must have responded to the active shooter call, but it wasn’t safe for him to be out there!

“What?” Charlie just blinked in confusion.

“My dad, he’s out in the hallway.”

“I don’t- I don’t think there is anyone out there.” Charlie slid forward and looked over the edge of the table.

“No, I- I hear him, I fu- I hear him.” He scooted out from under the table and scrambled up to his feet at the sound of his father calling his name again.

Charlie looked up at him with big eyes and urged him to stay down.

“Alex, stay with me, okay?”

“No, that’s my dad, he’s right out there, can’t you hear him?” He’s gesturing around himself, frustrated that Charlie was arguing with him.

The younger boy got up from the floor and reached out to touch Alex’ shoulder and chest, trying to stop him from walking out into the open space of the library, but Alex was drawn by his father’s pleas, almost drowned out by the whispers of fellow students.

“It’s my dad, he’s calling my name.” Alex made a beeline for the barricaded door, but Charlie rushed in front of him and blocked his way. Fingers gripped his shoulders and refused to let go.

Foundry hissed at him to get down.

Alex snapped back: “I can hear him!” His gaze darted towards the blinded windows, beyond which he heard his father crying out for him.

“Alex, my boy.”

“Shit.” Charlie exclaimed. “Alex, it’s the TBI. You’re not hearing your dad, it’s your brain making you think you are. He’s not there. It’s the stress.”

“Alex, stay with me,” his dad said again, before Charlie had even finished talking.

“No, I hear him,” Alex insisted. Why was nobody hearing this? Confusion manifested itself in a sudden headache. His father and Charlie were talking through each other and he didn’t know what was real anymore.

“Alex, it’s not him, it’s your mind. Trust me.”

Alex finally looked in his eyes and then just as quickly he looked away. Realization dawned on him. Charlie was right.

 “Come on, let’s go.”

He felt nauseous walking away from the door when he still heard his father calling out his name, but he let Charlie push him back into the small computer room where he guided him back under the table. The quarterback was beside him instantly, close enough for their shoulders and legs to be touching. He felt Charlie looking at him, even felt his every exhale on his face, but he couldn’t look at him. He stared at his own hands instead, they were trembling. He wiped them on his jeans and then started clawing at the folds of the fabric over his knees.

“Alex, oh God…” His father said miserably. His broken voice left Alex with a broken heart.

When he squeezed his eyes shut, he felt tears roll down his cheeks.

“I love you. I love you. Do you hear me? I love you, son.”

“I’m so sorry, Dad,” He choked out.

“You’re okay.” It was Charlie speaking to him that time. He whispered it softly in his ear as he wrapped one arm around Alex’ shoulders and with his other hands he holds one of the smaller boy’s.

Alex allowed himself to be held. It was all he could do to stay off another panic attack.

Eventually, his father’s voice died out. The wet streaks on his face dried. His hands ceased to tremble.

All he felt was the arm around his shoulder and fingers twisted into the sleeve of his shirt. Charlie’s forehead resting against his temple. Every breath swept over his jaw and down his throat. Charlie’s other hand was still holding his and his thumb rubbed circles over the back of it. How long had he been doing that, without a thought?

It was too much. Charlie was too close. His fingers. His breaths. Too much. Too much.

It was like Zach’s hands grabbing him. That night. That way. Not the way it was intended.

Misread. Misinterpreted.

Alex swallowed and was scared of what his voice would sound like, but he risked it anyway and said: “I’m fine now.” His voice was breathy and weak and he wasn’t even sure if Charlie heard him because the other boy was unresponsive. Alex rolled his shoulders to loosen Charlie’s grip and tilted his head away.

It startled the other. Charlie stiffened before retracting his arms and scooting away. The younger boy looked ahead and ran a hand through his hair.

It dawned on Alex that maybe Charlie still wasn’t fine. The situation was terrifying to him too. But he didn’t know how to help him. He didn’t know how to make anything right, or better.

They both flinched at an announcement over the intercom.

The lockdown was over.

Alex grabbed his phone immediately. When he unlocked the screen it still showed his exchange with Zach, right after it had all started.

Zach: You ok? You someplace safe?

U: Yeah, you?

Zach: Yeah, no worries. Are you by yourself?

U: No, Tony and Charlie. You?

Zach: Fucking Winston.

Zach: You’re gonna be ok, Alex

He typed quickly. Just Zach’s name and a question mark. He didn’t know how else to ask his best friend if he’d survived the last hour since they stopped texting. He exhaled in relief when three dots showed up and then Zach’s reply appeared.

Zach: Where are you?

U: Study room on second.

Zach: Stay there.

“Are you sure you’re okay? After… earlier?”

Mortified, Alex pocketed his phone and moved forward and got up from under the table. He matter-of-factly explained that it had happened before. He was crazy now, that was his life. It honestly didn’t even surprise him anymore. What did surprise him was how well Charlie was able to handle it. They hung out together with Tyler for a while, before Winston came along, and then a few times just the two of them after. But Alex had never had an episode of any kind in front of Charlie before. “How did you know, what it was?”

“I- uhm… I googled TBI’s a while back. Just to, uhm, you know, know what they entailed…  what you were going through.” Charlie was mostly avoiding eye contact and he sported an odd little smile.

Alex stammered a little until he managed: “You know I’m a freak, so…” He didn’t like that. He didn’t like it all that Charlie knew. Alex liked it better when he could still pretend that Charlie thought of him as a regular guy, and that the TBI was nothing more than a limp. It was a little disheartening to learn that had never been the case. The quarterback had done his research…

He expected Charlie to chuckle at the freak joke, but instead the boy’s face fell and he protested: “No! Nonono…” Charlie took a decisive step forward and leaned in.

Alex just stood there, too perplexed to react. Lips touched his.

Oh.

Oh.

Zach told him last weekend that he thought Charlie was bi and Alex had been inclined to believe him. But for the handsome jock to be interested in him had been too much of a leap.

“That was surprising.”

His kiss with Zach and his first kiss with Winston came to mind. Alex had initiated them with an impulsivity not unlike Charlie’s. Both times he had ended up apologizing. Both times he had ended up truly regretting that he had ever given into the urge kiss either of them. Because neither felt for him what he felt for them. He was just a friend to Zach. He was just a pawn to Winston.

He recognized the insecurity in Charlie’s eyes. The feeling was so familiar to him. He didn’t want him to feel that way. Charlie was good. Charlie was too good. Charlie deserved better than him, yet liked him anyway, even after his research, even after seeing with his own eyes how fucked up he was.

“Surprising good, or… surprising bad?”

A kiss was his answer.

Tony interrupted them and broke the news. It was just a drill and now they had all new reasons to be afraid.

He waited for Zach to come to him. He thought that was what he meant when he told him to stay put. But he never came.

Chapter Text

 

He had a really hard time pretending to care about History when he couldn’t even be bothered to care about the future. What future was there to give a shit about anyway? Everything was ruined. And honestly, he could fail every test between now and graduation and still end up with a C- on average anyway.

Zach hadn’t even opened the book. He’d just held it for the pas twenty minutes, playing with the broken back of the cover as he stared at the back of Alex’ head.

It was oddly distracting. He almost took offense to how the shorter boy was constantly fidgeting in his seat and nervously playing with hair. Zach wasn’t quite sure why he didn’t go sit with him when he had walked into the library. He’d gotten his book and had walked right past him, waving it at him as a wordless explanation: I need to be alone, can’t talk, need to study.

God, they both instantly knew that was bullshit.

Things were weird now.

Why does kissing always make things weird? Zach wasn’t even a part of this kiss, but it still changed matters.

One minute you think you’re gonna die tragically in a school shooting.

The next you find out it was just a drill, like some sort of bad joke was being played on you.

One day you think this guy from your football team is going to be good for your best friend.

The next you can’t stomach the sight of them kissing each other.

Just weird.

“Hey man,” someone greeted him in passing and a strong hand patted his shoulder.

Zach looked up in time to catch Charlie’s smile as he briskly walked past him and headed straight for Alex, seated a few tables over.

The quarterback snuck up on the Senior student and hugged him from behind. Zach watched Alex shake the younger boy off, his own body tensing up too, mirroring his friend’s.

He had been staring at Alex for half a period, why would he look away now?

Charlie took a seat to Alex’ right and the two talked. Charlie had this grin on his face but with only a few words exchanged between them, it disappeared.

Without warning Alex turned all the way around in his seat and his gaze met Zach’s.

The Asian boy felt his face get hot. He looked away quickly, but the game of pretense was in vain, he knew damn well he had been caught. He took his foot off the table and got up from his seat, wasting no time to leave.

Why do things have to be so damn weird now?

Yesterday, after school, Alex had more or less invited himself home with Zach and up to Zach’s room. He had planted himself in the lounge chair in the corner, that had sort of just belonged to him since about a year or so, and Zach stopped piling his worn clothes on there.

Zach had thrown himself diagonally over his bed and stared up at the ceiling, listening to Alex freely express his concerns and experiences of the day.

He knew that when Alex was this talkative, he was anxious. When he was relaxed, there was this comfortable silence between them, a silence that didn’t need to be filled.

So he let him talk, knowing all that Alex needed from him was for him to listen. He just had to get the words out of his head.

“… when I heard that first shot, I felt it… I felt that bullet go into my skull…”

“… I totally freaked out, I couldn’t breathe, it was a mess. I was a mess…”

“… then I heard my dad talk to me…”

“… Charlie kinda kissed me-“

Zach scoffed and challenged: “Kinda?” Fuck, he didn’t mean to say anything. Alex wasn’t even supposed to know that he had seen it happen. Because then he’d piece together that Zach had hightailed out of the study room after walking in on that. He played it off coolly. “How do you ‘kinda kiss’ someone?”

“Like, I don’t know. Like an impulsive kiss.”

“Oh yeah, sure, you’re making a bunch of sense now.”

“Fuck you,” He chided lightly.

“What happened after the kinda-kiss?”

“I kinda kissed him back.”

Yeah. “Why?”

“What do you mean ‘why’? You told me Charlie is a good guy.”

“I didn’t tell ya to kiss him. Oh, wait, sorry, ‘kinda-kiss’ him.”

“You told me he was bi.”

“Again, you are taking quite the leap in logic.” He heard the slap of Alex hands in his own lap as he dropped them in frustration. Zach tried a chuckle and it sounded natural.

“I guess I kissed him because I knew he wanted me to.”

Zach tilted his head to the side and looked at the other boy for the first time. “You didn’t want to kiss him?”

“Shit, no, I did. I did want to. Because it was nice that he wanted me to. That felt nice. You know? I’ve never really had someone like me like that.”

He angled his face back up to the ceiling. He took a deep breath and it hurt, so he did it again.

“But it’s weird when someone likes you and you can’t fathom why. Like… does he even really like me? How could he possibly? I’m… I’m a very fucked-up person.”

With a groan Zach pushed himself up into a seated position and cocked his head towards the corner where Alex sat, looking smaller than he ever had before. “Maybe he likes you because you are smart and you are kind and there are lots of people who love you for the exact same reasons.”

Alex stared at him for the longest time. “Smart and kind?”

Zach simply nodded.

“You don’t think I’m funny too?”

His face split into a smile and he dropped his head down.

“Just two things? I get just two things?” He had this sly curl to the corner of his mouth but his brows were furrowed in that telltale way.

“Will you stop it?” Zach threw his legs over the edge of the bed and sat facing his friend. “I know what you are doing. I’m being serious. Listen to me for once.” He leaned forward, ignoring the pain in his entire body and ignoring how vulnerable he felt staring right back into Alex’ blue eyes. “You get more than two things. You get lots of things. You’re everything that’s good.”

Alex inhales deeply and then holds his breath for two heartbeats before releasing it in a soft “Zach…”

The moment lasted too long. Zach blinked and forced himself to look away. He rubbed his hands, not knowing what to do with them. They were clammy now.

He shouldn’t have said those things. It was weird. It was weird because of the kiss. They used to be the kind of friends that could talk about anything, but not anymore. He didn’t want to give Alex mixed signals. “A-anyway… just ask Charlie, I’m sure he’ll tell you all about it.”

Zach got up, meaning to give a lame excuse to leave the room. Maybe to take a piss or get a drink. But Alex got up too and suddenly they were standing close together.

Zach focused his gaze on the hole he had punched into the drywall a few days ago, after the car crash. He couldn’t look at Alex, he just couldn’t. He didn’t know what to do to spare Alex any pain. Standing there, sharing their personal space, wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair. But he didn’t want to pull away from him either.

This was his best friend. The last person he wanted to hurt. The boy had been hurt so much already. Why did things have to be so messed up now? Zach caught himself resenting Alex for it all, but the guilt at that fleeting thought wrecked him. 

“Zach-“

“Alex, please…” He let his head hang, “just let us be friends.” He actually heard Alex swallow.  Swallowing whatever he was going to say.

Then the boy finally moved. He brushed past him and walked out of the bedroom.

This time, Zach let him leave.


“I’m gonna walk away now. Please don’t follow me.”

Walking away from Charlie was like pulling on an elastic band; there was building resistance and for a moment it felt like he would be pulled back, but then it snapped somewhere in the distance between and he could keep walking. He walked faster, even, as fast as his stiff leg would let him.

They used to be friends and that was ruined now.

Déja vu.

He meant to scoff but the sound passed his lips like a choked sob.

Hannah. Jessica. Winston. Zach. Charlie.

When was it going to stop? Are people just destined to destroy each other?

Every single time, a kiss led to heartbreak, one way or another.

His fingers started to clench around the cold cup of coffee. He tossed it in the first trash bin he passed before it would explode in his hand. He quickly rounded the corner, in case Charlie had still been watching him and he focused on his mom’s car, parked across the lot.

Just make it to the car. Just make it to the car. Just make it to the car.

His every heartbeat was like rumbling thunder in his chest. Every breath took effort and the most he could manage were shallow intakes of air. He couldn’t quite tell if he was going to have a panic attack or go red.

Just make it to the car.

A few paces away he fumbled for the key and remotely unlocked the car. He fell against the side but caught himself on the handle and ripped the door open. He clambered into the driver’s seat and couldn’t shut the door behind him quick enough.

There was some safety and privacy inside the vehicle, facing away from the other parked cars and the steady stream of people making their way to the café on the pier.

He wrapped his shaking fingers around the steering wheel to steady them, wringing the leather. He took his first deep breath and when he released it, his entire body shuddered. Alex didn’t even realize he was crying until he covered his face with his hands. He wiped the tears away in frustration, but more just fell and eventually he welcomed the pain and let it overwhelm him and he let himself cry. Only covering his mouth to muffle his sobs, aware of the people around him, hearing their distant laughter and indistinct voices. He felt his lips quiver against his palm.

He deserved it. He deserved to feel this way, so, more than anything, he reveled in it. He stopped pushing away thoughts of all the people he’d hurt and wronged. He forced himself to image their pained faces.

Hannah’s face, when she found out Alex and Jess had been dating behind her back.

His mom’s face, when he woke up in the hospital and he could barely move or speak but managed to say “no” and push her away.

Bryce’s face, when he fought to keep his head above water.

His dad’s face, when he told him he would have taken that bullet for him.

Charlie’s face. Just then. Just now.

He cried until he was exhausted and numb. Only then did he trust himself to drive back home.

It was dark when he pulled the car into the driveway, behind his dad’s car.

He checked his reflection in the rear view mirror. Tired eyes looked back at him, unrecognizable. With a sigh he got out of the car and shuffled over to the front door. His limp was always more pronounced when his brain felt tired and fuzzy like this.

“Alex, there you are.” His mom tried very hard not to sound too concerned.

“Yeah, sorry. I was hanging out with Charlie,” He lied, since she knew Charlie had been looking for him.

She was instantly relieved and smiled at him. “That’s fine. Just let us know next time, when you’re not going to be here for dinner.”

“Sorry.”

“Are you hungry? Did you boys eat?”

“Yeah, we grabbed a bite to eat.”

“Something healthy, I hope,” She said in vain as he walked past her.

“Sure, Mom.” He offered her a smile, not sure how convincing he managed to be. “I’m gonna go to bed. It’s been a long day.”

“It’s been a long couple of days,” She amended.

His parents had completely freaked out when they had heard about the shooter drill at school. Alex had never seen his father so angry, shouting at no one in particular about how irresponsible and unacceptable the schools actions were. Ranting on about how they should have notified the students, parents, and emergency response beforehand. After that, Alex had decided not to tell them about his episode. It would only frighten them more.

His dad had been to the school on both Thursday and Friday evening. He never looked any less frustrated and infuriated when he came back home and vented to his wife.

“Yeah,” Alex agreed. He took his first few steps up the stairs.

“Honey, you don’t have to go to school on Monday if you’re not up for it. It’s okay to take some time.”

It was tempting, not having to see Zach or Charlie in the hallways, but he didn’t appreciate being overprotected like that. “Mom, I’m fine. It’s okay.” He put a lot of his weight on the bannister, having to hoist himself up the last steps. She was still watching him, but, thankfully, she didn’t say anything other than wish him goodnight.

He toed off his boots, but still wearing his jeans and his jacket he crawled onto his bed and curled himself around the pillow he hugged to his chest.

 

Chapter Text

Alex heard Tony’s voice, but it’s like he’s submerged and there’s water in his ears and in his head.

He blinked and the image of a worried face became clear before him. Tony’s brows were furrowed and his forehead was nothing but deep grooves. But the dark eyes softened and he waited patiently until eventually his mouth formed a small smile when he recognized when Alex was present again.

“Sorry,” Alex muttered.

“No need to apologize.”

A strong hand patted his shoulders. Tony had spent enough time around him that these little episode weren’t a novelty to him. Alex just zoned out sometimes, like his mind would disconnect from his body. It lasted only a few seconds or a few minutes. They were types of seizures, but Alex didn’t like that word, so he never used it and wouldn’t let others either.

“Were we talking about something?” Alex wondered, becoming aware of his surroundings. He was sitting at a table in the school yard, his untouched lunch in front of him.

“Nah, I just caught you sitting here by yourself. Thought I’d join you.” Tony was eyeing the wrapped sandwich and unopened orange juice. “You okay? Stomach things again?”

He cast his gaze up to the cloudy sky. “Why does everybody know about my medical history nowadays?”

“We're all friends. We look out for each other.”

“Okay. Well, no. No ‘stomach things’. Just a not-hungry thing.”

“You better get some food in you. We’re still on for training after school, right?”

“I’ll have a power bar or something,” He said dismissively. “Yeah, we’re still on.” He avoided Tony’s eyes and studied the students around them instead. From the corner of his eye he noticed Tony snatching the orange juice off his tray and he watched him take a drink. “Sure, help yourself.” His tone was as dry as ever, but he didn’t mean it maliciously. Tony was familiar with his sarcasm, he could take it. It wasn’t always like that. It used to be the case that only Zach could tell when he was being serious and when he was trying to be funny. Actually, before then, it used to be the case that no one could tell.

“Waste not.”

“Want my sandwich?”

“No, you are going to eat that later.” Tony gave him a stern look, then chugged the orange juice, after which he fidgeted with the empty bottle.

“Why do I get the acute sense you are babysitting me?”

Tony scoffed. “I’m not-…”

“Well, you obviously didn’t join me for the sparkling conversation.” Alex leaned back in his seat and tilted his head at the other, waiting for him to be honest about his intentions. They were friends, sure, but they never hung out, except when they worked out together. They didn’t have much to talk about. They didn’t have much in common.

Although… they had a little bit more in common now…

“I’m not used to seeing you alone, is all. Usually there’s, like, Zach, or Tyler, or Charlie, or… Winston.”

“I don’t want to talk about Winston,” He was quick to say.

“Do you want to talk about Charlie?”

“Nope.” He rubbed his hands down his thighs.

“Cause, you know… last time I saw you two together… I kind of figured I’d see you two together a lot more. What happened?”

“Why do you ask me if I want to talk about Charlie and then just talk about him anyway, even though I said ‘no’?”

Tony folded his hands on top of the table and looked at him pensively for an uncomfortable while before chuckling awkwardly and explaining: “Look, I’m not trying to go all ‘Fairy Godmother’ on your ass. I just want you to know that I’m here for you. I know you must be dealing with a lot of shit right now. Like, normal shit, you know? But shit no less. The same shit I had to deal with when I realized things about myself – about my sexuality. It’s okay if that’s hard and it’s okay to be confused, or scared, or whatever.” He paused, realizing how much he was rambling and he took a moment to sort his thoughts. “I’m really happy that you asked me about being gay and stuff. And I’m sorry that I handled it poorly, that I didn’t think it through and didn’t know what you were really asking me. The thought never occurred to me that you-”

“The thought never occurred to you?” Alex challenged. Again, he wasn’t trying to be mean, although maybe, this one time, Tony couldn’t quite tell. “People have been calling me a faggot for as long as I’ve lived in Evergreen.”

“People say dumb shit all the time. I don’t listen to dumb shit.”

A smile tugged at Alex’ lips.

“The point I’m trying to make: I understand what you’re going through and I’ll be a better listener from now on. So you can talk to me, if you need to.”

“Thanks. But I’m fine.” At Tony’s unrelenting stare, Alex continued: “I just don’t think Charlie is right for me.”

“What are you talking about? He’s perfect. He’s an angel.”

“Exactly.” He cast his gaze down into his lap.

“Alex… Hey.” He tapped the table to get his attention. “I thought the same thing about Caleb. That I didn’t deserve him. The way I had it figured, it would go one of two ways: either we’d live happily ever after and I didn’t have the right to enjoy that kind of life, or I’d only end up hurting him with my self-destructive behavior. But the truth is that sometimes people can make you better. They can heal you and make you see that you deserve to be happy and they give you the strength to make that happen. The strength to make yourself and others happy.” Tony smiled at him. “Charlie could be that person for you.”

“What if he’s not my person? What if I want someone else to be that person?” He shook his head and wouldn’t let Tony answer that. “No, that’s what’s extra messed-up about this. There’s this great guy who likes me – for fuck knows why – and I like him. But still I have the fucking audacity to want someone else, when I know I’m no good for anyone. How can I be this selfish?” He threw his legs over to the other side of the bench and pushed himself up.

“Alex, wait. Who are you talking about?”

“Just eat my Goddamn sandwich and leave me alone!” He yelled over his shoulder and his face went red with both anger and shame. Everybody in the courtyard was looking at him.

 


 

“What was that all about? Why’d you make him mad like that?”

Tony looked up at the tall athlete, perplexed. “Excuse me, but you of all people know that Alex can flip out in spite of our best intentions.”

Zach sighed and pursed his lips. “Still though, what was that about?”

Tony gestured at the doorway through which Alex had disappeared moments earlier. “Go ask him.”

Zach’s arms dropped limply at his sides. “I- I can’t.” He walked around the table and took the seat that Alex previously occupied. Shit, he didn’t eat anything at all? He thought to himself as he studied the food in an attempt to avoid meeting Tony’s questioning gaze.

“You can’t?” Tony challenged.

“It’s complicated.”

“Everything is complicated. Give me a better excuse to not tell me what the Hell is going on with that kid.”

“We’re going through a thing. It’ll be fine.”

“Now is not the time to be going through ‘a thing’ with him, Zach. He’s dealing with too much shit right now. I’m worried he’s going to hurt himself again.”

“He wouldn’t, okay!” He dug his fingers into his hair. “Fuck. Don’t even put that thought in my head, man.” He slammed his fists down. He could feel Tony’s eyes on him and when he dared to look up at his puzzled expression he could tell the short boy was piecing things together.

And then it clicked. “Shit, it’s you. He’s not with Charlie because he likes you.”

Zach grumbled and ripped the plastic off the sandwich to take a big bite.

“What happened?”

“Stupid stuff. Like always.”

Tony was silent for a long time and Zach just ate out of frustration, not knowing what else to do with himself. It had been a week since the drill. A week since that moment in his bedroom. He had texted Alex a few times since then, reminding him that he wanted them to be friends. He probably shouldn’t have done that. Chlöe texted him the same things and it never made anything better. Just like Zach hadn’t replied to Chlöe, Alex hadn’t replied to him.

“Do you… do you like him?”

“Of course I like him,” Zach snapped at Tony’s quiet question. “But we’re not all gay, okay? So it’s like I said: it’s complicated.”

Tony held up his hands in surrender. “Okay. Relax.”

“I am relaxed.” He finished the sandwich and balled up the plastic wrapping, toying with it in his hands. His anger deflated in the silence that stretched between them. Miserably, he wondered: “How do I stay friends with him?”

“I don’t know… I’ve-… I’ve never been able to stay friends with the boys who couldn’t return my feelings."

“This can’t be the end of our friendship.” Zach shook his head. “We’ve been through too much.”

“It’s not your decision,” Tony insisted with a careful tone.

Zach frowned at him.

“It’s up to him if he can do this. If he can separate loving you as a friend from loving you as… more. If he can’t, he has to let go of all of it. He has to let go of you.”

Zach planted his elbow on the table and dropped his head into his hand. “I hate this.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

After his talk with Tony, Zach didn’t expect to see Alex again. He could accept that, he could live with that, if not for the image Tony had put into his head. Actually, no, Tony hadn’t put the image there, Alex had, but it didn’t feel right to hold him responsible for how it haunted him.

That first time he had seen him, after, was a sight he would never forget.

Alex was a head shorter than Zach, his arms and legs half the size of his, but Alex had never appeared small to him, nor frail. Alex’ presence had always had a way of filling a space in a way his body didn’t. His wit, his piercing eyes, his skill at making an electric guitar cry, his intimidating devil-may-care attitude… it all made him bigger than he was.

When his face was all bruised after Monty had gone in on him, Zach never pitied him, because he could take a beating like that and still be fearless. It was admirable. If anything, Zach had always looked up to Alex, figuratively speaking. Never aware of what was underneath all of it. That it wasn’t confidence but carelessness.

But when the Standalls allowed Zach to come visit him in the hospital, he looked so… small. The bed was going to swallow his frail figure. The IV needle in his arm looked too big for him, the sight made Zach nauseous. The tube of the respirator looked horribly invasive. The bleached blonde hair that messily poked out of the bandages wrapping his head was still stained red, they couldn’t wash his hair yet. He had just come out of his second operation.

His parents had kept vigil over him for two weeks. Zach had begged them to let him see his friend. The only way he could reach them was by calling Alex’ cellphone. Every single time, he stupidly expected that Alex would answer the call himself with something sarcastic that most people would mistake for mean.

He started having dreams like that.

“Hey, Dickhead, stop calling me. I’m trying to sleep off this gunshot wound in my head.”

Zach hadn’t seen the signs. They weren’t as close back then as they were now, but they were friends and he should have seen something.

Was he missing the signs again?

Was Tony right? Could he hurt himself again?

Zach thought back to last semester, when Alex was going to confess to save Clay… confess in another suicide note.

He lay on his back on his bed, after a day that had dragged on for longer than he could stand, but he couldn’t sleep. He wasn’t drunk enough to sleep but the last bottle of liquor, at the bottom of his backpack, was empty. He looked at his alarm clock and cursed under his breath.

It was only nine o’clock. Was this day never going to end?

He held his phone closely in front of his face and scrolled through a string of unanswered messages to Alex. The only thing that kept him from completely freaking out was that at least they had been read. Alex was avoiding him, he wasn’t…

He switched over to another conversation in the app.

U: How’s Alex doing?

Saint is typing.

He smiled wryly at the instant reply. Him and Charlie weren’t really close, it wasn’t unusual for him to respond late to his texts, but whenever he mentioned Alex’ name, he had Charlie’s undivided attention. 

Saint: I don’t know. Haven’t talked to him all week.

U: Why not?

Saint: He made it very clear he doesn’t want to talk.

Shit. He thought for a moment.

U: Don’t let him push you away.

Saint: I could say the same to you.

“Don’t get smart with me St. George.”

He jolted at the shrill call of his sister from downstairs and it made him drop his phone onto his forehead. “What?” He bellowed, too tired to get up. He regretted it instantly. He’d been short with her lately and she didn’t deserve that. 

“Alex is here!”

He shot up and tripped over his own feet on his way out of his bedroom. He came to a halt at the top of the staircase and looked down at Alex standing next to May. “H-Hey man… Come up.” He didn’t wait for Alex to make his way up the stairs but went into his bedroom instead, knowing that being watched made Alex self-conscious. Zach caught sight of his phone lying in the center of the bed, screen lit and facing up. He snatched it and locked the screen, not wanting Alex to find out he’d been texting about him to St. George.

Alex joined him in his bedroom and headed straight for his desk. “So, like, this hell-hole of a school we go to traumatizes us with an active shooter drill and then still expects us to pass a History test a week later but I haven’t studied and I knew you haven’t either so…” He didn’t even bother finishing his thought while fishing his textbook and notebook out of his backpack. “French Revolution…. Maybe we’ll actually learn something useful. Like how to build a guillotine or something.”

“Alex…-”

“You wanted to still be friends, right?”

“Yeah! Of course.”

“Alright. Well, friends don’t let friends fail.”

Zach spent the evening pretending everything was back to normal, hoping that if he pretended long enough that it would become the truth.

Chapter Text

He justified it by telling himself that Zach needed him. Zach was in a dark place, he was struggling, and he needed someone to be there for him, without questions or judgment.

But honestly, he was being selfish. He didn’t deserve a friendship like the one he had with Zach and he definitely didn’t deserve to entertain the thought that Zach would ever feel more for him. He couldn’t explain to himself how he could be so painfully aware of not being worthy of any of it, yet still take as much as he could get. It wasn’t shameless or without guilt, but he couldn’t stop himself from stealing moments that he had no right to have.

It was like trying to drown yourself. No matter how badly you want to die, your body won’t let you.

The body just has to breathe and won’t let you stop it.

It was like that. He had to breathe in the scent of Zach’s hair, his new car, his leather jacket, his bedsheets.

Zach was decent enough to pretend he didn’t notice Alex’ horribly inappropriate crush was still in full effect. And, in turn, Alex pretended not to notice Zach was pretending.

That was how their friendship would survive, until Alex would eventually get over his feelings.

People did that all the time, right?

Jessica got over Alex.

Alex got over Jessica.

Clay got over Hannah.

Alex got over Winston.

Zach got over Chlöe.

Love goes away. It always does.

Eventually, Alex would get over Zach and Charlie would get over Alex and everything would be normal.

Or, their twisted version of normal, anyway.

“Alex? Alexander.”

He shifted his gaze to his mother, seated across from him at the dinner table. Everyone stared at him, his parents and his brother. His mother with a little more apparent concern than the other two.

“I wasn’t…” His voice came out weak so he cleared his throat. “I wasn’t out,” He said, knowing they knew what he meant with that; he wasn’t having an episode. “I was just thinking. Sorry.”

The tension left his mom’s shoulders. “No, I’m sorry, I overreacted.” She threw an embarrassed smile at her husband when he covered her hand with this.

“Relax, Carolyn. He’s doing good.”

Alex pressed his lips into something he hoped resembled a smile. He still hadn’t told him about the massive episode he’d had during the drill and he wasn’t going to, exactly because he didn’t want to see his mom distraught like that.

“Yeah? No outbursts or anything?” Peter asked.

“He’s good,” the Deputy reiterated. “No outbursts. No zoning out. Right?”

What else could he do but nod?

“I noticed your walk is better too. I can barely tell.”

Peter meant so well that Alex couldn’t be mad at him. “Yeah, it’s almost like PT helps, or something,” The younger brother said dryly.

“Alex has been helping Zach with PT this time around.”

As the conversation inevitably evolved from Zach’s physical health as a former star player of the Liberty High football team, to football in general and how goddamn exciting it was, Alex tuned them out and forced himself to eat a few more bites, just so his mother wouldn’t gripe about it.

After dinner he offered to help her clear the table and do the dishes, but she told him to follow his dad and brother into the living room, for more thrilling discussions about defense versus offense. Still, he was happy his brother was home for the weekend. He was the son his dad deserved. Manly and uncomplicated. Their interactions were so easy; half a word was enough between the two of them. Even as their argument got heated, they were smiling at each other.

Alex felt guilty when his dad tried to include him in the conversation by changing the topic to what kind of movie they should watch tonight. But he grinned and said: “Something gory if Peter isn’t too much of a pussy.”

“Oh, foul play, Ref, foul play!” Peter exclaimed.

He bit back his comeback when he felt his phone vibrate. He produced it from his pocket and his breath hitched.

Zach: At the docks. Come get me.

The docks? The docks? He didn’t need to ask, he knew damn well that was what Zach meant.

Shit, what the fuck was he doing there?

“Uh, Dad, can I borrow your car?”

His father was instantly alarmed. “What’s going on?”

“N-Nothing. Just got this text from Zach. He’s freaking out, he has a paper due Monday but he left his textbook in his locker.” Honestly, it was impressive how fast his brain could fashion a lie. “I’m just gonna go over and bring him mine.”

“Can’t he come pick it up? Your brother is here, we’re supposed to be spending time as a family.”

“Uhm…” Maybe not so impressive after all…

Peter scoffed. “Jeez, Dad, chill out. We have all weekend to annoy each other. Here, bro, take my car.” He threw Alex his keys from across the living room. At the sideway glance from his father, he said: “What? It’s an automatic. He’s driven it before. He’s a good driver.”

The Deputy pointed at his youngest in warning. “You are sticking to the speed limit, hear me?”

“Yeah. Obviously. Thanks, Pete.”

“No problem, dude. You should take that bad boy by Jessica’s place. She’ll love it.”

“Hard pass.” As he walked out of the living room, he heard Peter defend himself – as he must have gotten a stern look from their father: “What? It could still work out between them.”

It was amusing how wrong he was.

He went upstairs to get his jacket and his backpack, just to keep up pretenses, and said goodbye to his mom as he rushed out the back door.

The Mustang was parked at the curb. Peter had worked every evening and every weekend, at every fast food chain in Crestmont, for all of his Junior and Senior year in high school, when their dad had made the mistake of promising him he’d double his car fund as a graduation present.

Before Alex had shot himself in the head, he’d never been allowed to drive it. But after, the Mustang was the first car he’d been allowed to drive. Peter actually convinced their parents to let him.

He wasn’t in the head space to enjoy the car right now though. He was jittery with concern. Why was Zach at the docks and why did he need him to come pick him up?

He did not stick to the speed limit.

As he arrived at the harbor, he frowned when he spotted Zach’s new car parked a little off to the side from the pier where Bryce had died. If Zach’s car was here, why did he need a lift?

Alex parked the Mustang alongside it and climbed out. “Zach?”

Nothing.

“Zach?” He didn’t like how his voice went up that time.

“Yooo….”

Alex looked around, but he didn’t see anything. Just a couple of stacks of concrete blocks in an area cordoned off by chain link fencing and bottles of liquor by the back fence, at the edge of the dock. “Zach?” He walked through an opening in the fence and in between two of the blocks and that’s when he saw him, his eyes trailing from his scuffed boots, up his long legs, to the blood on his white shirt and the blood on his upper lip.

Zach sat on the wet ground, propped up against the concrete. His head lolled to one side. He sported a sickening smirk. His teeth were red.

“Jesus Christ.” Alex hurried over to him and kneeled next to him. “What the fuck happened?”

“I cleansed my soul.” He giggled at himself.

“You’re wasted.”

“No, not wasted. A waste. A waste of… time… a waste of air… a waste of perfectly good booze…”

Alex gripped Zach’s shoulder, twisting his fingers into the leather. “Don’t talk shit to me like that.”

“Don’t worry man… I’m not gonna kill myself.”

“Then what’s this about? What are you doing out here, beat up like this?”

“Messing with Diego’s head, is all.” His eyebrow twitched. “Can you get me out of here?”

“Yeah. I’m taking you to a hospital.”

“No! Nonononono. I’m fine. I need an icepack, a fifth of Tequila, and a bed. That’s all. C’mon, help me up.”

Alex leaned in closer and Zach slung his arm around his shoulders. With a grunt from them both, they got up from the ground and Zach’s other hand reached behind himself to steady himself against the concrete blocks. After a moment of finding their footing, Alex helped Zach shuffle back to the cars.

Zach attempted to whistle but he hardly managed to make a sound and he ended up just taking a moment to spit out a mouthful of blood. “Nice ride.”

“Yeah. You can’t crash at my place. Peter is home. It’s ‘family time’, or whatever.”

“I can’t go home, man.”

“I know.”

The tall boy held himself up against the car so Alex could get the door.

With loud groans, as Zach’s entire body protested at being folded into the low vehicle, he managed to get into the passenger seat.

Alex got behind the wheel again and backed the car up. Once they were back onto the road, he reached out and patted against Zach’s chest to wake him up, after it looked like he had passed out.

“Hn. Hm? What?”

“Call Tony. Tell him we’re coming over.”

“Ugh… Seriously? You’re going to dump me at Tony’s?”

“Yeah. If you’d wanted to sleep in your car, I wouldn’t have had to come get you to begin with.”

Alex listened as Zach begrudgingly called Tony. He could only hear Zach’s half of the conversation, but, understandably, Tony wasn’t thrilled at receiving a surprise visitor. It especially didn’t seem to go over well when Zach had the balls to ask him to come get his car before it would get stripped for parts. Alex did hear Tony’s frustrated response to that. Loud and clear.

“I’m going to strip you damn car for parts.”

They arrived at Tony’s place twenty minutes later and they were buzzed into the building.

Getting Zach up three flights of stairs wasn’t easy, but he supported him as much as he could.

Tony was waiting for them in the doorway to the apartment. “Holy shit,” He exclaimed when he saw the state Zach was in.

“You should see the other guy.”

“Yeah, you at least got some licks in?”

“Nah, he’s just really ugly.”

“Who was it?” Tony asked Alex, recognizing Zach was too drunk to converse with.

“Diego.”

“Oh… yeah… Diego… butt ugly.” With a sigh Tony stepped aside and let them into his home. “You can deposit him on the couch.”

Caleb came up to the two limping boys and supported most of Zach’s weight the final few feet to the couch, seeing Alex was struggling holding the bigger boy upright.

“Where are your keys… Caleb and I will go get your car.”

Alex snapped his head up at him, then at Caleb. “You don’t have to. I’ll go with you.”

“No, you stay here. We’ll go. Hopefully he’ll be passed out by the time we get back, because I don’t feel like dealing with this, right now.”

Alex said the only two things he could say. “I’m sorry. Thank you.”

“You don’t have to say that. He has to say that.” He pointed at Zach, drooped over the couch, barely conscious.

“He will,” Promised Alex. He bent forward and retrieved Zach’s car keys from the pocket of his jacket and handed it to Caleb. The couple walked out of the apartment, Caleb’s hand on Tony’s shoulder.

Alex sighed as he appraised his friend. Zach had his eyes closed, but his uneven and pained breathing clued him in that he was still awake. Alex helped him take off his shoes and jacket, a mechanical process he tried not to think about too much. In the absence of the home owners, he took the liberty of fetching towels, washcloths, an icepack from the freezer, and a first aid kit from the kitchen cabinet. Of course the pair of boxers had those at the ready.

He didn’t quite know what to do, but he soaked a sterile bandage with anti-septic and dabbed at the cuts on Zach’s brow and lip, swatting away Zach’s hands as the taller boy hissed and tried to make him stop. Then he cleaned the blood off his lips with a warm, wet washcloth and wrapped a towel around the icepack once before applying it to the swollen cheekbone. He held it in place until Zach reached a hand up, covering his.

“I got it.”

He pulled his hand out from underneath Zach’s palm and rubbed away a tingle on his jeans.

“Thanks, man.” Zach maneuvered himself until he laid stretched out on the couch, his calves over the armrests because he was too tall to fit.

Just like Tony had hoped, he soon passed out. Once his limbs had gone limp Alex held the icepack against his face until Tony and Caleb came back and the two of them urged him to go back home before his family would worry.

Leaving Zach in such a broken state, was one of the hardest things he ever had to do.

 


 

The phone vibrating in his back pocket was what woke him up.

He couldn’t quite tell if the splitting head ache was from the hangover or the savage beating he had suffered, but he awoke with a hiss and tightly squeezed his eyes back shut once he got his first glimpse of sunlight. He heard water running and then footsteps, coming to a stop right beside him. He dared to crack one eye open and spotted Tony standing over him, holding a glass of water in one hand and a strip of Advil in the other.

“Got anything more potent than that?”

Tony ignored the request. “In case you can’t tell, this is not my happy face.”

He chuckled and retorted dryly: “Trust me, I can tell. And I’m thoroughly enjoying it.” He closed his eye again.

Tony set the glass and the painkillers down on the coffee table and sat down on the table himself.

His phone kept buzzing, loud enough for them both to hear.

“That’s probably Alex, judging by the string of texts I just got, asking for a status report.”

“Hmm.”

“We need to talk.”

“Surely I don’t need to point out that this is not the most opportune time.”

Tony scoffed. “You are spending way too much time with Alex. You’re starting to talk like him.”

His lips curled. That did come out sounding like something Alex would say. Although Zach hadn’t mastered that dry tone yet, like the dirty-blonde boy had. Alex had truly crafted it to perfection. It was hilarious.

“I’m serious. You’re spending too much time with him.”

Zach rubbed his eyes before opening them and slowly sitting up straight. Pulling himself up with one hand on the back of the couch. “You told me it was up to him to decide if he could still be my friend or not. Well… he decided.”

“How come you two are spending more time together than ever?”

“Not ‘than ever’.”

“Certainly more than the past semester. He used to have friends other than you. Tyler. And Charlie. He’s been ignoring them both.”

“He’s been helping me. With school and PT. He’s a good guy. He’s a good friend.”

“But just a friend, right?” Tony spat.

Zach frowned at him. “Dude, what’s with the hostility?”

“You don’t appreciate how hard this has to be for him. You’re straight, you’re handsome.”

Two things? I only get two things? And one of them isn’t even necessarily a compliment.

Tony continued: “You don’t get what it’s like. To fall in love and not be loved back, and to know that that is your life. That that is going to keep happening over and over again.”

“Look, Tony, with all due respect: fuck you.” He glared at him. “Yeah, I’m straight. That doesn’t mean I don’t know what rejection is. You think I live in a bubble? You live in a bubble! I do know what it’s like to not be loved back. And I know how hard it is to be friends with that person and how much easier it is to just stop. But some friendships you just don’t quit. Not even if it hurts.” He raised his voice more and more as he continued.

“I know he’s hurting! I’m hurting too! The look on his face when I told him I’m not into guys… The way he still looks at me sometimes… It’s a punch in the gut, okay? Because I love him. And if I could love him back the way he wants, I would. I would in heartbeat. I catch myself thinking that I hate that I’m straight. It’s a punch in the gut,” he emphasized every word by punching into his own palm. “But ours is a friendship that you don’t quit. And I have to believe that we can get through this. I had to work and wait to get my friend back once before… I can do it again. We’ve been through worse together.”

Tony reeled back at his tirade, eyes wide. “Okay, okay,” He shushed.

I love him,” Zach repeated, his voice breaking.

“Okay. I’m sorry.”

Zach’s phone started to vibrate again and they both waited in silence for it to stop.

“But if you love him…” Tony started carefully. “Why are you doing this?” He gestured at his bruised face. “The drinking. The destructive behavior. You can’t let him depend on you and then self-detonate.”

“I- I need him. If not for him, I feel like… I would have imploded a long time ago. It’s not Alex who depends on me. It’s the other way around.”

“Zach…”

“Look, he’ll… He’ll be alright. He likes St. George, I know he does. He’s just avoiding him now because he thinks he doesn’t deserve it. But it’s only a matter of time. And Charlie is a good guy. He’ll be good for him. He’ll be alright. He’ll be happy.”

“And you?”

Zach shrugged.

 

Chapter Text

They were having fun trashing the administration office, after Zach had been ignoring him all week.

It was fun until Zach found his file on Foundry’s desk.

Alex watched Zach read through it and wondered what it said that made Zach stop in his tracks like that.

A banging and a rattling of the barricaded doors startled him and he looked over to see the two police officers shout at them.

He stood frozen, only snapping out of it when Zach stormed towards him, telling him: “Go. Get the fuck out. Go out the backway.”

What was the point? He recognized one of the officers from a barbecue his dad had hosted last summer, so he knew he was busted no matter what. Besides, they were in this together, there was no way he was going to abandon Zach. So he protested, but he barely got Zach’s name out before the bigger boy yelled at him again.

“Why are you with me and not with Charlie?”

Alex stared at him. You know why. The words were caught in his throat. Why was he doing this? Why was he throwing Charlie in his face like this? Zach knew he felt something for Charlie. Something that confused him. Something conflicting and uncertain. Something less than what Charlie deserved. Something less than what he felt for Zach.

“Go find him.”

“I’m not into guys.”

“Just let us be friends.”

“Go!”

He panicked and ran. Ran away from the same truth he’d been running from for weeks: Zach was never going to love him back.

When would that realization stop hurting? When was Alex’ love for him going to go away?

Distressed, he fled through the back door and slipped across the hallway into an empty classroom.

With his hand over his heart he paced back and forth between the tables. Outside, students were chanting and screaming. The noise built in his head until it cut out suddenly and all he heard was a ringing in his ears.

“Oh…” He doubled over, putting his hands on his knees, gasping for air.

“Alex, stay with me.”

“Oh, fuck.” This time, he knew what was happening.

A switch was flicked and the sound of the outside world came rushing into his head again and it hit him like a truck. He staggered and reached out with one hand to seek purchase on the edge of a table.

“Alex, please, stay with me.”

“Dad,” He gasped.

“Oh God. My boy.”

He looked around himself, still expecting to see his father, see his wrecked face. See the damage Alex had done to him.

“Alex, it’s the TBI. You’re not hearing your dad, it’s your brain making you think you are. He’s not there.”

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, but when he did, his father’s presence became all the more real.

“Stay with me, son.”

His head hurt.

“Alexander,” His mother cried.

“I’m so sorry,” He breathed. He opened his eyes and looked ahead. He stared at the wall of pictures. Tyler’s pictures. His gaze was drawn to an image of Zach, smiling in a way he hadn’t smiled in a long time. That wasn’t helping.

He searched the wall for something else, something comforting.

Jessica. No.

Clay. No.

Ani. No.

Justin. Hell no.

Charlie.

Charlie.

He was the only one making eye contact with the lens. Looking friendly and comforting. What an amazing person to look at Tyler through the lens like that, when back then the two barely knew each other. And thank God Tyler had captured the moment.

“Alex, oh God.” His father wept.

“Alex, it’s not him, it’s your mind. Trust me.”

He held his breath for a few seconds before blowing it out. He did that again and again, looking at Charlie the entire time.

Finally, his heartrate started to calm down and he couldn’t hear his parents anymore. All that was left was the growing violence outside.

Charlie was out there, somewhere.

Alex was useless to him last time, during the drill. Couldn’t help him, couldn’t comfort him. Couldn’t repay him for keeping him sane. He had to try this time. He owed it to the boy.

He pushed himself away from the table and cautiously opened the door to peer into the hallway.

The coast was clear. With a pang of guilt he realized the officers were escorting Zach to their patrol car right now.

He sprinted down the hall to the main entrance of the school, as fast as his legs would carry him. He burst through the doors into what registered as a war zone. Students were fighting the police. Ramming themselves into their shields in a desperate attempt to push them back and reclaim their space.

“Charlie?” He didn’t see him in the chaos. “Charlie?”

He caught sight of someone laying in the middle of the street and it took a split second for him to recognize the quarterback. “Charlie!” His focus zeroed in on the younger boy and he hurried towards him. He crouched down by his unconscious form. He shook his shoulder and patted his cheek and begged him to wake up.

From the corner of his eye, he caught sight of something blue and orange and he looked over to see flames lick out the side window of a blue sedan parked right by them.

“Fire! Fire!” He shouted.

Alex hooked his hands under Charlie’s arms and tried to pull him away, but he wasn’t strong enough. He could barely move him. He heard Justin call out Jessica’s name in warning, but he couldn’t think about her right now. He had to save Charlie.

Then he felt the warmth and the force of the explosion and it blew him off his feet.

First his hip hit the pavement.

Then his shoulder.

Then his head.

 


 

“Zachary Shan-Yung Dempsey.”

How come his mom had a way of making his own name – the name she chose for him – sound like an insult? “I know, Mom. I know. It was stupid.” He followed her out of the police station, to her car. He would have preferred to go back to his holding cell, which smelled like piss and shit, but he had to suffer her wrath instead.

This time, he couldn’t even blame her for being disappointed.

It was really stupid. He got into the car and enjoyed a moment of respite before his mom climbed behind the wheel, shut the car door and started in on him.

“You are lucky Sheriff Diaz let you off with a warning instead of arresting you. That would have chased you your entire life, do you understand? Can you even imagine what your father would think of you right now?”

“Well, maybe Dad would’ve actually been proud of me, for standing up to that fucked-up school.”

“Don’t fool yourself, Zachary. Don’t besmirch his memory with a claim like that. There was nothing noble or prideful about what you did. You vandalized your own school. You threatened police officers with a baseball bat. The school’s wrongdoings do not make this right. Just because the way the school handled that drill last month makes Sheriff Diaz sympathetic to your cause, doesn’t mean your father would have been anything other than disappointed.”

He let his head hang in defeat.

“What happened to you? You weren’t like this. You were a good son.”

They stopped in front of a red light.

His mother shook her head and drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “It’s that boy.”

Zach snapped his head up.

“Deputy Standall’s son.”

What?

“Ever since you became friends with him, you’ve been different.” She was still shaking her head. “I knew it from the moment you first brought him home,” She spat, like she remembered him bringing home a filthy, stray animal. “That hair. That piercing.”

“You don’t know anything about Alex. This has nothing to do with him. Or his piercing…” It hadn’t started with Alex. It had started with Hannah, with how Zach had let her down. The only one responsible for his demise was he himself.

“He’s no good.”

He wasn’t going to listen to this. He unbuckled his seatbelt and threw the car door open, just as the light turned green and the cars in front of them started moving.

“Zach!”

He felt her grasp at the back of his jacket but he wasn’t going to let her stop him. He got out of the car and slammed the door shut.

A symphony of car horns erupted as he walked across the busy road to the sidewalk, holding up traffic.

Zach stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and kept walking, ignoring his mother who had the window rolled down and was ordering him to come back.

With nowhere else to go, he started towards Alex’ house. He knew the boy probably didn’t want to see him, given how he had chased him off and he knew he couldn’t evade his mom forever, he had to go home at some point, but he couldn’t yet.

It was a forty minute walk to the Standall home.

There were no cars in the driveway when he walked up the steps to the front door and knocked, still assuming at least Alex would be home by now. Zach had been in a hauled out of the school four hours ago. Surely things were over by now and Alex was back.

But there was no answer.

He stepped off the porch and walked to the side of the house and tilted his head back to look at Alex’ bedroom window. “Yo, Alex, it’s me! Open up, man!”

Still now answer.

“Huh.”

Maybe he’s with Charlie?

That idea popping into his head should make him happy. But it didn’t. He felt empty, or maybe a little envious. He caught himself resenting Alex for choosing to be with Charlie over him, which was the dumbest thought in a semester full of dumb thoughts. Zach made him go to him. He can’t be jealous about it after the fact.

He stepped back onto the porch and took a seat on the bench under the living room window. He patted himself down for his phone, finding it in the breast pocket of his jacket where he usually kept a flask. The cops took that off him when they brought him in.

He noticed he had missed a string of texts in the group chat, which had started with a long message from an hour ago, followed by a lot of “thank God’s”.

Jessica : Still at the hospital. All patched up and finally got my dad to stop fretting over me. Damn nurse Ratchet wouldn’t tell me where he was so I just walked up and down hallways and through waiting rooms for half an hour until I ran into Charlie doing the exact same thing. Cookies has a mild concussion but he’s ok, just freaked out like I was. Finally spotted his mom after forever and she let us see him. He’s ok now. He’s talking. He’s being obnoxious, really. Worst patient ever. But he’s ok.

Zach held his phone to his ear with a trembling hand.

It went straight to voicemail: “Why are you calling? This is a phone. You don’t call with a phone. You text with a phone. Send me a text, dumbass.”

He tried again, a different contact this time.

It rang once. Twice.

“Jessica,” He burst when the call was answered.

“Zach, where have you been all day? We couldn’t find you after the riot.”

He ignored her question and fired back a question of his own. “What happened to Alex?”

“He was taken to the hospital. He hit his head.”

“What happened?” He asked again, since she wasn’t really giving him much of an answer.

“Clay set a fucking car on fire and it exploded. Alex was close by, with Charlie. He got knocked back and hit his head on the ground. He was out cold for a while and then it looked like he woke up, but he was out, you know? And we couldn’t get him to respond. It was fucking scary. We couldn’t snap him out of it.” Her voice was shaking as she recounted it. “And when he was loaded into an ambulance and none of us were allowed to go with him, Charlie had a total meltdown. He nearly punched a paramedic when they tried to examine him.” After a brief pause she asked again, forcefully: “Where the fuck were you?”

His heart was racing. “In a jail cell. And right now I’m at Alex’ place. Are you still at the hospital?”

“No, my dad made me come home once I knew Alex was okay.”

“But you talked to him, right? Is he really okay?”

“Yeah, he’s good. He had an episode, a bad one, but they annoyed him with all kinds of tests and he’s fine.”

“Jesus Christ.” Zach leaned forward until his head was between his knees. He felt like he was about to throw up.

“Why were you in a jail cell?”

“It’s a long story,” He ground out.

“Tell me.”

Zach looked up at the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. He made eye contact with the Deputy as the man got out of the car and he felt his face get hot. “Some other time. I gotta go.” He abruptly ended the call and pushed himself up to his feet. “Deputy Standall,” He said in greeting.

“Zach, hey. Are you okay, son?”

“Yes, Sir, I’m fine. How’s Alex?”

The man offered him a smile but it didn’t reach his eyes. “He’s okay. He’s very frustrated that he has to spend the night at the hospital. I’m here to pick up some things.”

“Spend the night?” Zach croaked.

“Just for observation. It’s a precaution.”

“Oh, okay.” He looked down at his boots.

“If you don’t mind waiting five minutes, I can give you a ride to the hospital. He’s been asking about you.”

He wanted nothing more than to see him. But he declined, stammering every word. “I should get home. And Alex needs to rest.”

“Are you really, okay, son?”

That was the second time he called him son. It was strange but nice. “Y-yeah. Yes, Sir.”

The Deputy reached out and patted his shoulder comfortingly. “Wait here. I’m going to grab some stuff and then I’ll drop you off at home on the way to the hospital.”

“Really, Sir, you don’t need to. You have to get back.”

“Alex can wait fifteen more minutes for his phone charger.”

“Sir, with all due respect, you underestimate his dependency on Spotify.”

The man chuckled. “Wait here, five minutes,” He said again and then he unlocked the door and headed into the home.

Zach waited two minutes and then left.

Chapter Text

Spending the night at the hospital had been odd. There were so many memories there. He slept only a few rooms down the hall from where he woke up after. And he’d spent weeks in a room one floor up.

There were nurses on shift that night that still remembered him. It embarrassed him that he couldn’t recall most of them. That period of his life was a blurry spot in his brain now. Everything he remembered was disjointed, and none of what he remembered were faces or names. He mostly remembered feelings. Feelings of fear and frustration. He’d had some pretty intense anger episodes in this place. First time he ‘saw red’ and lost control, he broke his hand punching a vending machine.

He was craving something sweet and the tough-love night nurse had given him a dollar and told him to go get it for himself. But the vending machine on his floor was out of order. So he took the elevator down, barely managing to get around in the wheelchair, and when he finally reached the other vending machine he couldn’t get his fingers to work and feed the machine the dollar bill.

So he started punching it until he cracked three bones in his hand. He didn’t even feel it until he then had to use that hand to fight off another nurse who was trying to get him to stop.

Alex walked past that very vending machine on his way out that morning, when he’d been discharged after a useless night of observation, his parents trailing him. He could only imagine what this night had been like for them.

“Do you want to go get breakfast someplace?” His dad asked, looking at him in the rear view mirror as he drove his family home.

“No I’m good.”

“You are not skipping breakfast,” His mother warned. ”I’ll make you something healthy at home. It’s bad enough already you had to have one of those awful hospital-dinners.”

“I didn’t mind it, actually,” Alex said softly. “So, uhhh… When are you guys going to get mad at me?”

His mother turned around in the passenger seat. “Why would we be mad, sweetie?”

He raised his eyebrows at her. “Because I ‘expressed myself’ with a baseball bat?”

“Look, the school will punish you,” the Deputy interjected, “there’s no avoiding that. But the way your mom and I see it – and don’t tell Sergeant Parker at the next summer barbecue – you did nothing that school did not deserve for what they put you through with that damn drill.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“No problem, kiddo.”

After breakfast at home, he went up to his room to rest. The school had announced they would be closed for a week to let tensions die down, so he didn’t have to worry about going back for a little bit.

He sent Zach another text, even though his friend had not been responding to any of his texts since yesterday, when Alex had plugged in his phone to recharge and noticed he had a missed call from Zach.

He texted Jessica but the only response he got was signed by Jessica’s dad, apologizing and letting him know Jessica was grounded and was not allowed to have her phone.

Zach was probably grounded too.

It kind of sucked that they had a week off from school now and Alex was probably the only one in his entire group of friends that wasn’t grounded.

It was late in the afternoon and his mom had gone for her shift at the clinic and his dad was downstairs, asleep on the couch with the TV on. Alex was close to falling asleep himself when a noise outside of his bedroom window startled him.

It sounded like someone cursing…

He propped himself up on his elbows and watched the window intently. His jaw dropped when Charlie’s head popped up. Charlie spotted him and smiled awkwardly. There was a long silence and then he said, his voice muffled through the glass: “Do you mind opening the window?”

“Right. Fuck.” He shook his head and clambered off the bed and made his way over to the window. He unlatched it and pulled it up and cleared the desk under the window before stepping aside so Charlie could climb into his room. “How did you get up here? You have concussion, I really don’t think your doctor recommended recreational climbing.”

“It’s actually easier than it looks,” Charlie replied, clearly lying. He was panting from exertion and stumbled his way in.

“Alright, next question: why are you climbing in through my window? Doors are an established concept in this universe.”

“Oh.” Charlie looked befuddled for a moment. “I figured you were grounded. I am.”

“Yeah, no, parents don’t really do that after you’ve shot yourself in the head.”

Charlie’s mouth tightened.

“Wow, tough crowd.”

“No! I mean… I think you’re funny.” He smiled brightly and spontaneously as if to make his point. “I think you’re hilarious, it’s just… That’s not funny.”

“Noted.” He studied Charlie’s red and sweating face. “Would you like a glass of water?”

“Uh, yeah. Sure. Ok.”

“One sec.” He grabbed the full glass of water from his nightstand that his mom had put there earlier and walked it to the bathroom to empty it out and fill it with fresh water from the tap. “I swear it’s clean. I didn’t drink from it,” He said when he handed to Charlie.

“Oh, I… don’t mind either way.” He took a big gulp, lowered the glass, made eye contact with Alex again, went even more red, and then kept drinking until the glass was empty.

Alex chuckled. “What happened to you, Mister Confidence?” He teased.

Charlie put the glass down on the desk and wiped his mouth. “I haven’t felt like myself since yesterday,” He admitted. “Since you could have died trying to save me.”

Alex snorted. “Tried and failed.”

“Why did you do that?”

Alex stared into his eyes. “Because you saved me first. Tried and succeeded.”

Charlie frowned.

“During the drill. When I went mental and got up. You got up too and talked me back down. If there had been an actual shooter, he could have shot us both through the windows, right there. It was very heroic…” He cocked his head. “Kate Winslet would have been proud.”

A smile appeared on Charlie’s lips and Alex’ gaze was drawn to it. The lips moved. Charlie said: “I want to kiss you again.”

“Ok.” The word was barely audible, but it didn’t matter, because Charlie had been staring at his lips too.

The taller boy leaned in slowly, stopping about an inch away from him. Alex closed the distance and melded their lips together. They both sucked in a breath of air through their nose at the same time and then they smiled against each other’s mouths before parting.

Hardly a Hollywood-worthy kiss.

Alex looked down at their feet, close together. There were a lot of feelings to grapple with. Feelings for Charlie and feelings for Zach. He shouldn’t even be thinking of Zach right now.

A finger touched the underside of his chin, gently coaxing him to look back up. Fingers ghosted along his throat until a warm hand settled on the back of his neck. His eyes slipped closed. He reveled in the feeling. Lips descended on his again. No smiles this time to interrupt the kiss. All tension left his body and Alex melted into Charlie.

After the kiss they settled on Alex’ bed and talked for hours until his mom came home and Alex knew he’d be expected downstairs for dinner. Charlie snuck out the same way he came in. Alex couldn’t even watch him climb out, it gave him anxiety.

That week, Charlie came by whenever Alex’ parents weren’t around and his own dad was at work.

They talked and kissed interchangeably. There was nothing uncomfortable or even unfamiliar about it. They were still friends – they had been for a while – only now they kissed sometimes too.

One night Charlie slept over. The last night before they were due back at school. Neither boy said anything, but they were nervous about going back and facing the aftermath. Being together made them both calm.

Alex soundly fell asleep, listening to Charlie’s deep breathing.

Being with Charlie was different from being with Zach. There wasn’t that incessant yearning, that tightness in his stomach, the heat in his chest and face, and the struggle to string together words in a way that didn’t make him sound like an idiot. There was comfort, ease, and safety. It was so relaxing to know that when the urge overcame him to touch his hand to Charlie’s arm, or touch his lips to his, that he didn’t have to fight that. He could give in to his curiosity about whether the chest hair he could spot above the hem of his shirt was coarse and how their hands would fit together if he intertwined their fingers. He could bury his nose in the crook of his neck to breathe in his scent and figure out if he liked his aftershave because he wanted to have it for himself, or because he just loved how it smelled on Charlie.

It was a continuation of the exploration he had started with Winston. Not an exploration of the other person – although it might sound that way if he ever dared to describe it to someone – no, it was an exploration of himself, of his own sexuality, figuring out what his attraction to boys was like. Contrasting it with what it was like with Jessica to answer his final question about himself.

Was he bi, or was he gay?

The closer he came to an answer, bit by bit, the more at peace he felt with himself.

After you shoot yourself in the head, so many things that you should simply innately understand are confusing. Is someone really talking, or is it just in your mind? Why are you crying right now? Why are you so, so angry right now? How long have you been out? Why does it take you four tries to write the symbol “&”? How come your fingers can’t form G-sharp anymore?

It was so calming finally being able to fill in one of the blanks; make one of the pieces of the puzzle fit again.  

 


 

He’d skipped the rest of the first day back at school after his meeting with Foundry and asked Chlöe to come meet up with him instead, although he wasn’t sure if she’d come or why’d she’d come. Considering he had been ignoring her for weeks.

He heard her footsteps before he heard her sweet voice.

“Hey, Zachie. I’m so glad you called.” Chlöe sat down on the concrete step next to him and arranged the skirt of her dress over her knees.

“Thanks for meeting me.”

“You don’t need to thank me. I told you we could be friends, right?”

He nodded and swallowed a lump in his throat. “I needed to see you.”

“Ok…” She chuckled lightly. “If that’s the case, why haven’t you even looked at me yet?”

He steeled his nerves to turn and face her and he couldn’t help the smile that crept up to his lips as he studied her glowing face, but it was bittersweet.

“So why did you need to see me?” She leaned in, just to let her shoulder touch his for a second. “Hm?”

“I needed to check if it still hurts…” After a pause he concluded: “And it does.” But then he smiled again, ever so slightly. “But differently now. I think… I think I’m starting to fall out of love with you. And that makes me a little sad, but it’s good too, you know?” When he looked at her he could tell she understood.

“It is good. Trust me. And it will be better soon.”

He quirked an eyebrow at her.

“What? You don’t think I had to go through falling out of love with you? You think that was easy?” Her tone was teasing, not mean-spirited.

“So you did really love me?”

“Of course I did. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me at Liberty High.” She scooted closer and rested her head on his shoulder and clasped his arm.

After a heartbeat of hesitation, he leaned his cheek against the top of her head.

“I’ve missed you,” Chlöe admitted.

“I’ve missed you too.”

She shifted, raising her head up again and looking him in the eyes. “Your eyes are red.”

“Well, I’ve been boozin’,” He tried to brush off her observation with a chuckle.

“I think you’ve been crying.”

“Pft…” But she was right and just like that, he began to cry, right in front of her. And because it was so mortifying, he cried even harder. He felt her rub soothing circles on his broad back and press a kiss on his shoulder as she shushed him. “It feels like I have nothing good left in my life,” He choked out, compelled to talk because it was the first time in weeks that he felt safe and understood.

“Zach.”

“It’s all gone. It’s all gone. My dad. Football. College. My friends. You. Alex.” He wasn’t sure why Alex got a mention separate from his friends.

“It’s not all gone. You still have me and I’m sure your friends still have your back too. And you can still go to college if you want.”

“Yeah, community college. Community college is for people even McDonald’s won’t hire, that’s what my mom says.”

“First of all, fast food workers are the backbone of this great nation.”

He let out a laugh. Why did that sound exactly like something Alex would say? And why did that thought make it even funnier?

“Second of all, don’t let your mom get into your head like that. She’s wrong. She’s wrong about college. She’s wrong about you.”

“What if she’s not? What if she’s the one person who sees me for what I truly am? A total fuck-up.”

“Come on, Zach. Who’s more likely be wrong? One person? Or all of your friends and your sister and your coach, collectively?”

“It’s just easier to believer her. Because I agree with her. I don’t recognize myself anymore. I’m not Zach Dempsey anymore. I’m Zachary Shan-Yung Dempsey.” He wasn’t sure Chlöe understood that his full name like that was a grave insult. “I’m a drunk. I’m a liar. I’m a cheat.” He spat the words. “I beat up Bryce to within an inch of his life,” He finally admitted to her. “I’ve stolen pocket money from May to buy booze when my mom cut my allowance. I made my best friend – my physically disabled best friend – get on the ledge of a rooftop with me.” He poked at his own chest like he wanted to stab his heart with his finger. “I’m an awful person!”

Chlöe grabbed his face and angled him towards her and she waited for him to meet her gaze. “You’ve done awful things,” She agreed and that was the end of her judgment. Just like that. “But your mistakes do not define you. You are not an awful person. You can become yourself again, if you’d just believe that you are worth it.”

He shook his head in her grip.

“Believe it, Zach. Don’t give up on yourself. You deserve to get your life back.”

Chapter Text

 

Alex could tell Charlie hadn’t been thrilled that he had invited Clay to share the limo with them to prom. But he didn’t know how else to avoid the conversation that things were moving too fast for him, because then Charlie would ask him ‘why’ and he couldn’t explain it. He loved being with him and he loved kissing him, but he simply felt no desire to take things further and he couldn’t rationalize that. He couldn’t tell his boyfriend that.  

He had never gone further than kissing with Winston ever. They never had the time to let it develop further than that anyway. But Alex wasn’t even sure if he’d even let Winston if the relationship hadn’t been a lie and hadn’t died an abrupt death in Burnham woods.

He had kind of wanted to get mad at Charlie for the over-the-top promposals. Alex hadn’t even come out yet at school. Even though he wasn’t ashamed of it, it was his business. It was private. But Charlie was too sweet to get mad at, didn’t deserve to take the brunt of Alex’ misplaced anger. And Alex had promised himself that he wouldn’t ever make Charlie look at him that way he did in the library, and on the pier. Because Charlie didn’t deserve that.

Charlie wanted to love him and even though Alex still didn’t understand what made him – of all people – special to the younger student, if Charlie wanted to love him, if that made Charlie happy, than Alex should give him that. Charlie deserved that.

Making Charlie smile was the best feeling in the world. It gave Alex purpose. Knowing you can make someone happy is a powerful thing.

But Charlie definitely hadn’t been happy when Alex more or less informed him that Clay would be third wheeling on the evening of prom.

So Alex was nervous as appraised himself in the mirror, like he’d done too often already, waiting for the limo to come pick him up. He didn’t know what kind of mood Charlie would be in, at having his own boyfriend ruin his perfect plans for prom.

Alex ‘straightened’ his tie, only to realize it had been straight before, so he shifted it back. Every time he looked at himself he saw something new he didn’t like. And maybe he should have gone for a regular black tuxedo after all. But his mom had told him: “You are not a regular-black- tux kind of man.” And she was right.

He lightly touched his bangs. Was his hair too styled? Or was it too casual?

Why did his fucking hair even matter anyway? It was just there to cover the scars.

With a single glance at the new tiles to the left of the mirror, he flicked off the light and headed out the bathroom and downstairs.

“Oh my God. Honey, you look so handsome!” His mom clasped her hand over her mouth as she looked him up and down with tears in her eyes.

“Mom, you’ve literally seen me try on this exact suit three separate times at the store. Calm down.”

“I know, I know. But it’s different.”

“Why?”

“… Because not too long ago I didn’t think I’d get to see you go to prom.”

Before things would get too heavy and serious and she would get upset, he joked: “Because you never thought anybody would stoop low enough to ask me?”

“Alex…” She shook her head and laughed at him.

“Hey, little bro! Looking sharp!” Peter trotted into the kitchen and slapped his shoulder. “St. George is a lucky dude.”

“Yeah, right. Quarterbacks really have to count their blessings when the skinny weird kid agrees to go to prom with them.”

“Alright, stop it with the self-loathing BS and learn to take a compliment, man.”

He nodded awkwardly, not really agreeing but not in the headspace to argue the issue further either.

“Can I please take a picture of you?”

“Mom, no, we had a deal: one picture. So wait until Charlie gets here.”

As if on cue the doorbell rang and his mother squealed like a little girl.

Like actually squealed.

Alex took a step but was held back by his brother.

“Hold up, nono. In dad’s absence, Imma answer the door and have a little man-to-man chat with your date first, ‘kay.”

“Please don’t.” He watched Peter storm towards the front door and then thought to rushed after him. “Please don’t!” He halted in the doorway of the foyer and grimaced at how Peter ripped the front door open.

Charlie’s smile briefly melted away before he managed to get it back, even under the scrutiny of Alex’ older brother. He looked handsome in a three-piece tuxedo. He was holding a bouquet of flowers.

Oh God. Alex really wasn’t sure if he enjoyed being treated like the girl in the relationship.

“St. George!” Peter clapped a hand on his shoulder and welcomed him inside. Luckily he never started up the awkward conversation that he threatened he would.

Charlie took one step over the threshold and then his gaze landed on Alex and if possible his smile brightened even more.

Alex was instantly disarmed and couldn’t help but smile back. Still though, he felt the need to point out: “You brought me flowers?”

“Uh, no, these are for your mom, actually.”

Alex wondered if that excuse was improvised when Charlie could tell he wasn’t a fan of the flowers.

Carolyn, who had been standing behind her son, reached past him with a beaming smile and accepted the bouquet. “They are lovely, thank you, Charlie. I’ll go put them in some water. Peter, why won’t you help me?”

“You need help putting flowers in water?”

Peter.

“Oh, right, shit.”

The two boys were left alone. Alex rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. “You look good,” He thought to say. He did look good. So good. Maybe he regretted a little bit that Clay was already waiting for them in the limousine, since he and Charlie lived closer together and Alex’ house was on the way to the venue.

“Thank you. You look amazing.” Charlie took a step closer to him. “I did bring you something.” He held up his left hand, showing Alex a clear plastic box with two white roses, the short stems wrapped with white ribbon. “These are for you. Well, for us, actually.”

“Corsages?”

“Told you. Old school WASP. Tradition is our currency.” He smirked. He popped the box open, took out one of the roses and set the other on the end table in the hallway. He wordlessly pinned the rose to Alex’ lapel, a look of complete concentration on his face. There was something almost ceremonious about it. Charlie made sure it was angled right, fretting with it for a moment before dragging his fingers down the lapel, feeling the material of the suit. He used their closeness to lean in with a chaste kiss. “I’m so lucky I get to go to prom with you.”

“Shut up. You could have asked anybody in school and they would have said yes.”

“But I don’t want just anybody. I want you. And I have a feeling that it’s pretty special that you said yes.”

Alex stared at him, taking a moment to memorize his face, his expression. Then he grabbed the second corsage and pinned it to Charlie’s jacket, biting his lip in focus.

“I want to bite that lip. OW!” He flinched when he got pricked by the needle.

“Jesus, shit, sorry. I swear it was an accident.” It was, it was a weird combination of fingers going tense and his knees nearly buckling as he felt equal parts excited and terrified at Charlie’s sensual admission.

“That really hurt,” He said with an expression of mock pain.

“Don’t be such a wimp, you’re a football player.”

“I’m the quarterback and if I play the game well, I don’t get hit. And Alex… I play the game really, really well.”

“You’re insufferable.”

“I think you mean unsufferable.”

Alex let out a laugh. “No.”

“Dammit. I really thought I had you there that time.”

“Boys! Ready or not, I want my picture,” Alex’ mom called.

Charlie looked at his boyfriend in confusion. “What does she mean?”

“I negotiated a full-fledged photoshoot down to a single photo before we go. C’mon.” he took Charlie’s hand and guided him into the living room where his mom was waiting, phone in hand.

Waving her hand excitably she directed them to stand in front of a blank wall. She had actually taken down a couple of picture frames to create an uncluttered backdrop.

Alex stood awkwardly, with his arms down his sides, having let go of the other boy’s hand. Charlie was much better at this, he easily sidled up next to him and put an arm around him, resting his hand on Alex’ slim waist.

“We agreed, Alexander: one picture on the condition that you smile.”

He rolled his eyes at her but then shot a look at Charlie and couldn’t help but smile anyway at his silly, happy expression.

The flash went off. “Perfect,” His mother cajoled.

With the contract completed, they were free to go and Alex trailed after Charlie to the stretched limousine parked out front. His boyfriend held the door open for him and even offered his hand to help him climb into the vehicle.

“Hey, Clay,” Alex greeted as he slid across the leather seat to the other side to make room for Charlie.

“Hey. Nice suit.”

“Thanks, you too.”

Clay looked down at himself. “It’s… well, it’s nothing special or anything.”

“You look great,” Alex assured him. “No homo,” He joked ironically. “I mean, well, you know.”

Clay smiled. “Thanks.”

“Couldn’t convince Justin to tag along after all?”

“Uh…” Clay’s eyebrows twitched, like he remembered something painful. “No. I tried. He said he’s not into it.”

“That sucks,” Charlie chimed in.

Clay shrugged, pretending to be unbothered. “Thanks for letting me come with you guys. Would have been lame to arrive alone.”

“No problem,” Said Charlie and he reached out to hold Alex’ hand and that was all he did, without ever making Alex feel bad that that was all he got to do.

 


 

“Alright, King Charlie, King Alex, it’s time for your first dance as Liberty High School royalty.”

Zach paused in the doorway to the corridor. He observed the crowd of students in front of the DJ’s table and listened to the slow, romantic song that started to play. He straightened his jacket and shuffled over to where everyone had gathered.

Taller than most people, he was able to look over the crowd that made room for the royal couple.

Alex and Charlie.

I’ll be damned.

Charlie looked ridiculous wearing that frosted tiara, but a crown oddly suited Alex. What an impressive boy he was, after all. He deserved a crown. The only one to really take responsibility for how they had mistreated Hannah. His heart so big and kind that he couldn’t handle the burden. And then for him to come back, from that. To graduate with his class after having to relearn to walk, to talk, to write, to dance.

Zach remembered how it felt, having Alex cling to him for balance. First his arm, then his side. When Zach had put both his hands on Alex’ waist, the moment had ceased to be awkward. Just like that. There was something so natural and normal about holding him. Dancing with him didn’t have to be different than dancing with a girl.

“I mean, the song would have to be pretty slow,” Zach said.

“Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think this is working.”

“What are you talking about? You’re totally dancing.”

“I’m stumbling in circles.”

“Ugh, you’re impossible.” Zach puzzled for a moment. “Here, how about you do it like this?” He maneuvered Alex’ good arm around his shoulder and grabbed his left hand and held it tightly in between their chests as they got closer together. This allowed Alex to put more of his weight on Zach.

“I can’t dance with Jessica like this.”

“Sure you can. It’ll actually be easier, because she’s your height, so you won’t have to reach so high for her shoulders.”

“Boys don’t hang off girls’ shoulders while they dance. It’s supposed to be the other way around.”

“Well, maybe I’m sick of how things are supposed to be. Maybe we should all just focus on what works. This works.”

Alex sighed but didn’t argue further.

They continued to slowly turn around in place. Zach enjoyed it. He always enjoyed spending time with Alex. He wouldn’t do this with his other friends. He wouldn’t even entertain the thought of going over to Justin’s and slow dancing with him in his room – although come to think of it, that was kind of entertaining for a whole different set of reasons. But his friendship with Alex wasn’t like the friendship he had with Justin. It wasn’t like any friendship he’d ever had with anyone. And it was okay to revel in these unique aspects of their closeness.

“Why are we still dancing? There isn’t even any music.”

Zach shot a glance at the stereo on the dresser. Too far, he determined. He knew that as soon as he’d let go of Alex, the moment would be gone and they wouldn’t dance again. Cheekily, he started to sing: “Now I’ve had the time of my life. No, I’ve never felt like this before.”

“Are you fucking singing the song from Dirty Dancing?”

“Now, you may judge me, but you are the guy who recognizes it right away.”

“Hannah and Jessica made me watch that movie…” He mumbled.

Zach swallowed. He had also watched Dirty Dancing with Hannah. Undeterred, he mimicked the sound of a record scratch and tried a different song. It started off as another joke.

“I am a man who will fight for your honor

I'll be the hero you're dreamin' of

We'll live forever, knowin' together

That we did it all for the glory of love”

“Why are we even friends? You have some fucking questionable taste in music,” The shorter boy muttered, but a smile was tugging at the corner of his lips.

“You keep me standing tall, you help me through it all

I'm always strong when you're beside me

I have always needed you

I could never make it alone”

Alex looked up at him for the first time since they started dancing. Suddenly Zach didn’t find it funny anymore. So why did he let out a laugh in that moment?

Charlie and Alex exchanged words on the dance floor, looking into each other’s eyes, and then they closed the distance between them for a kiss.

Zach didn’t understand why seeing his best friend so happy, didn’t make him happy.

Wasn’t anything ever going to make him happy again?

Would you like to fall in love with me?

Now, tell me girl

Would you like to fall in love with me?

Now, tell me girl

Zach turned around and walked away.

Chapter Text

He was in the back of Charlie’s car, nursing the second to-go cup of black coffee. The brew was heavy in his stomach, but it was sobering. He’d be throwing up later though, that was for sure. If not from drinking too much alcohol, or too much coffee, then from his anxiety at going to the hospital and seeing Justin.

Charlie had one hand on the wheel and the other on Alex’ knee. Sometimes Zach and Charlie made eye contact in the rear view mirror.

Usually, Charlie was an open book to anyone. The boy wore his heart on his sleeve, unapologetically and bravely. Now, Zach couldn’t tell what he was thinking. And that wasn’t because he was still drunk. He’d been inebriated the entirety of the semester and still there had been nothing subtle, mysterious or unknown about Charlie’s growing crush on Alex, his desire to be accepted into the group in full, or his fear of Jessica.

“Almost there,” Charlie said as they approached the hospital.

Zach looked out the window at the sign. They drove past the front entrance to the underground parking garage. God, he’d been here too many times. First his dad, then Alex, then even he himself for a bit. Now Justin.

Fuck.

Once the car was parked on the second level, the three boys got out and into the elevator. Charlie knew exactly which floor to go to. Everyone had been to see Justin already, even Alex. That didn’t surprise Zach. Alex was a good person. He was the kind of person to support the boy his first girlfriend cheated on him with and later left him for.

Jesus, Standall has a big heart and some big balls.

When the doors opened and Clay came towards him to welcome him, Zach folded himself over the shorter boy and clung to him. Clay and him had never really been close, but he was Justin’s brother, so he was his brother too. No matter what, they always would be and Zach would never let himself forget that fact ever again.

He ruffled Tyler’s hair as he walked past him, following Clay. Tyler, another good kid he hadn’t appreciated the way he should have.

Zach paused in the doorway to the hospital room, letting Clay approach the bed first. Maybe Justin didn’t even want to see him anymore, given that Zach had abandoned him, even before he had been hospitalized. He hadn't been there for Justin in a long time. It was another regret he’d have to carry with him for the rest of his life. Those just kept piling up.

“Justin, hey, you awake?”

Justin groaned and turned in the bed. “Yeah, can’t sleep anymore. Slept too much already. What’s up?”

“I have an unscheduled visitor for you.”

“Oh?” Justin looked past his brother, his gaze landing on Zach’s deflated form. Justin’s smile looked too big now on his emaciated face. “Dude,” He drawled happily. “Get your ass in here, man.”

Clay patted Justin’s shoulder and then left the two of them alone, sliding past Zach who still stood nailed to the floor in the doorway.

“Get over here, man. Don’t make me come over to you.”

Finally, his feet carried him into the room, each step heavier than the last. “Hey, bro.”

“Hey. Grab a seat, you look like you’re gonna pass out, you pussy.”

He chuckled and pulled a chair closer to the bed. Zach sat down with a sigh, resting his elbows on his knees so he leaned in close to his friend. “I’m sorry it took me so long to come see you.”

“I get it, man. Hospitals.”

Zach nodded.

“I’m glad you’re here.”

“Me too.” He sniffled. “Fuck, I should have come sooner.”

“Don’t beat yourself down. It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay. None of this is okay.”

“Hey, c’mon. Don’t freak out on me. I have a hard enough time keeping Clay together. I have a hard enough time not freaking out myself.” His eyes were watery. “You gotta be strong. You gotta keep an eye out for our little rat pack out there, when I’m gone, you know?”

Zach scoffed. “I’m not the right guy for the job.”

“Yes, you are. You’re the strongest person I know.”

“I’m a drunk, Justin.”

“And I’m a heroin addict,” He countered, his tone one of acceptance. “I still like to think I put up a good fight.” He chuckled breathily.

“You did.”

“You’re not dying, Zach,” Justin continued solemnly, pointing at his broad chest. “Not if you don’t let yourself. You’re gonna live to fight another day and you’re gonna beat this. If you give up on yourself and let yourself end up in this fucking hospital before you’re eighty and your mind will be uploaded into a cyborg or some shit anyway, Imma come back and haunt your ass. You get that?”

A combination of a sob and a chuckle erupted out of Zach. “Yeah.”

“Okay. Good. Deal.” He held out his hand, palm up and Zach grabbed it and held it tight. “Would you do me a favor?”

“Anything.”

Justin grinned, but then turned serious: “Will you speak at my funeral?”

“Uhhh… Maybe someone else would be better.”

“Look, I have a lot of friends now, good friends. I know that. But I also know they won’t be able to say anything. Clay. Jessica. Charlie. Luke. They don’t have the stomach for this shit.”

“I don’t either.”

“Please?”

Zach reluctantly agreed.

“Can you ask Alex too?”

Zach just blinked at him in surprise momentarily. “You want Alex to speak?”

Justin nodded.

“No offense, but don’t you think that’d be inappropriate? Considering your history?”

“I know how funerals go, bunch of people pretending that ‘the dearly departed’ never did any wrong. I did do wrong. I fucked up some things. And I don’t want you and Matt and Lainie and some priest I never met, to just stand up there and wax poetic about what a wonderful person I am. Fuck that. Alex is honest and fearless. I trust him to say some shit that needs to be said.”

Zach laughed darkly. “You want me to ask Alex to stand up at your funeral and shit on you?”

“No, just ask him to be honest.”

“Ask him yourself!”

“I’m writing some stuff down, for after. Wishes and stuff, so he’ll know the request came from me, really. But I don’t think he’ll do it unless you ask him to.”

“Why?”

“Because he’ll do anything for you.”

He let out an exasperated sigh. “Fine. Okay. I’ll ask him. But if he destroys you up there, like some late-night stand-up comedy shit, I’ll be the one laughing the hardest.”

Justin grinned. “I know.”

They both looked up at the sound of a knock on the doorframe.

Matt, Lainie, and a doctor looked at them kindly.

“I’ll be in the waiting room.” Zach pushed himself up from the chair and moved to leave, but Justin wouldn’t let go of his hand. He looked down at him with furrowed brows.

“Hey, before you go – before I ‘go’… We don’t need to talk about Alex, right? You get it, right?” He sucked in a wheezing breath and then coughed, drawing the doctor and his adoptive parents to his bedside instantly.

Zach didn’t know, didn’t understand, but he said: “Yeah, of course.”

Justin nodded furiously but erupted into a coughing fit that shook his entire body.

Zach backed out of the room, his face almost as ashen as Justin’s.

Out in the waiting room, his friends looked up at him. He clenched his jaw, unable to say anything. He sat down a few seats away from them and caught sight of Clay getting up to approach him, but he said miserably: “Please, I’m sorry, I need to be… not close to anyone right now.”

Clay sat back down, confused but accepting.

Zach hunched forward, buried his face in his palms and wept as quietly as he could, not wanting the others to hear him break down like this. Not after he had just promised Justin we would be strong for them.

A few seconds later, someone sat down next to him and Zach looked up in anger, expecting it to be Clay anyway, wanting to pry him about what he and Justin had talked about.

But it wasn’t Clay.

Of course it wasn’t Clay.

It was Alex. His blue eyes a cool and calm refuge. Zach couldn’t even pretend to mad at him that Alex didn’t give a shit about his request to be alone. Because of course Alex knew the truth before Zach did. That he had been lying.

Without a thought Zach pulled the boy into his embrace and buried his face in the crook of his neck. Alex’ collar absorbed the tears that flowed freely, his jacket muffled his sobs.

After an hour or so, Matt and Lainie came to talk to the group. Urging them to go home - eat, shower, get some rest – before their final vigil would commence.

Everyone came back later that day. Liberty High students poured into the waiting room, completely crowding it, yet everybody was silent as they waited.

 


 

Deputy Standall helped his son back to his seat, one arm around his shoulder, one hand on his chest, steadying him. Alex looked like he was about to have an episode, like he was about to go out.

Zach stared at the boy the entire way as he was escorted back to the pew, to sit next to Charlie. He wished Alex would look up and lock eyes with him, but he didn’t, he just stared at the ground.

The minister motioned at Zach to come up to the front. He was next to say something. It was apparent Alex was in no state to finish his speech. Ironic, considering Justin had asked him because he figured he’d be one of the few not so close to him that they wouldn’t be able to stand it.

The Asian boy wiped his hand on his pants and got up. He’d been sober for six days. The last drink he’d had was the bourbon that Charlie ended up dumping out in front of him. He had to be strong for Justin and for the rest of the group. He had to make up for how he had let them down before.

Being sober, however, didn’t make this day any easier. He knew he’d remember every single, painful second of that day and it made it feel endless.

He walked up to the front and stood at the pulpit. From the new perspective, his gaze searched for Alex again. The blonde sat next to his boyfriend. Charlie was looking ahead, at Zach, out of respect for him and for Justin, but his hand was subconsciously rubbing circles on one of Alex’ shoulders. Alex’ dad had his hand clamped around the other, seated on the pew behind the young boys.

Alex was definitely out.

He spotted the piece of paper with Alex’ speech, it distracted him for a moment. He folded it up like it had been and put it in his pocket and then started on his own speech, which he had memorized.

Alex came back about halfway in, blinking rapidly until his gaze focused on Zach and with their gazes locked, Zach felt stronger.  

After the wake they went to Monet’s.

Alex said: “I’m just really happy to be alive right now.”

To hear him say those words and trust him to mean it, took a weight off Zach's shoulders. He hadn't been making life easy on his best friend these past few months, subjecting him to his drinking and that horrible rejection on the rooftop. It was a burden so physical that it made his knee hurt and made it hard to breathe at night. Because there was a time when Zach feared he would soon be speaking at Alex' funeral and he had sworn to himself then that he would protect his friend and wouldn't let him down again. But he had let him down. There was a twang of jealousy that Charlie had become Alex' rock in his stead, when really he should be nothing but grateful that someone had risen when Zach had fallen.

After Monet’s – and after Winston – they parted ways and all went home.

May rushed to him and hugged him tightly when he came in through the front door. He kissed the top of her head and thanked her. And just as quickly she ran away again.

“How was it?” Asked his mother.

“Hard.”

She nodded.

“Gonna say something snide about my choice of friends again?”

“No. Any kind of friend…” She took a deep breath, “even ones that your mother does not approve of, are good kinds of friends. And I’m sorry you had to lose yet another one.”

He didn’t quite know what to do with that, or how earnest she was being, but he thanked her too and then headed up to his room.

He pulled the jersey off over his head, knowing full well today had been the last day he would ever wear it. He draped it over the chair reverently. Alex’ chair. But he knew he wouldn’t mind. He undid the cuffs of his dress shirt so he could strip that off too. He threw that onto the floor.

Zach let himself fall backwards onto the bed. He searched his pockets for his phone. Something automatic, just something for his hands to do. But tucked in, alongside his phone, was a piece of folded up paper and he was confused for a split second before he remembered putting Alex’ speech in his pocket.

He toyed with the piece of paper, conflicted about whether he should read it or not. Even though Alex would have read the speech to everyone there today if he could have, it still felt like an invasion of privacy. But Zach’s curiosity got the better of him. He pushed himself upright and unfolded the paper.

Alex’ handwriting would be difficult for anyone but him to read. The two had studied together so much since after – and especially the last few months Zachs had copied so many of Alex’ notes – that he knew the handwriting almost as well as his own.

I believe Justin Foley helped save my life. I didn’t like him. And he didn’t like me. But when I needed him, he helped me.

I never thanked him for that.

Anyone would do anything for their friends; protect them fiercely, no matter the cost. That’s exactly what Justin did. For Clay, for Zach, for Jessica. Him and I, we weren’t friends, yet he was there for me.

That’s the kind of person he was.

Justin understood, better than anyone I think, that people can go to dark places and get lost there. Justin had been to dark places himself and knew how hard it was to get out, but he never hesitated to run in after me and pull me back.

I never thanked him for that.

Never told him how brave I think he was. Never told him how much I admired him and his resilience. Never told him he deserved the best. 

But I believe he knew. I believe he understood the unspoken.

Because that, too, was the kind of person he was.

Chapter Text

 

“I hate this,” Charlie declared out of nowhere, interrupting the background music they had been listening to as they worked.

Alex paused and straightened up with a frown. “You offered to help.”

Charlie let out a breathy chuckle. “I don’t mean I hate helping you. I hate that I’m helping my boyfriend pack up his things to go to college. All I wanna do, is…” He reached into the suitcase, grabbed the bundle of clothing he just put in there and tossed it back onto the bed.

“Hey!” Alex threw a pair of balled-up socks at him.

“No, you’re staying.” Charlie grabbed a t-shirt and threw it at him. Then a pair of jeans.

“I’m going to have to fold all this shit again!” Alex exclaimed again, picking clothes up from the floor as Charlie kept tossing them at him.

“Good, it’ll take forever, then you can never leave.”

“Oh my God, fucking high schoolers.”

In two big strides Charlie had crossed the space around the bed and he grabbed his boyfriend by the waist and pushed him back and onto the mattress, tumbling on top of him.

Alex fought back playfully, smacking against the hard chest but Charlie stilled, hovering over him, supporting his weight on his strong arms. He was panting. His eyes were cloudy. Alex exhaled deeply and let his hands fall down to the mattress, on either side of his head. He licked his lips and that caused Charlie to twist his face into a pained expression.

“What?”

“I want to lick those lips. So much. So much it hurts.”

“What’s stopping you?”

Charlie continued to stare. “The need to just look at you. You’re so beautiful.”

“Fucking liar.”

Charlie’s mouth tightened sternly. “Don’t do that. Don’t do that to yourself.”

“Sorry,” He breathed. He waited a minute, expecting the other boy to kiss him, but nothing happened. Alex moved his arms, positioning his elbows at his sides so he could push himself up from the mattress. He couldn’t quite reach Charlie’s lips but it hadn’t been his intention to close the full distance anyway.

“Are you going to miss me?” Asked Charlie in a whisper.

“Yes.”

“Are you going to miss kissing me?”

“Yes. Already do.” He was pretty proud of himself when Charlie could only moan in response to that. He liked having this effect on him.

Finally, Charlie lowered his head and connected their mouths. Their lips moved together in a familiar dance. They breathed harshly through their nose, unwilling to part. Feeling his arms start to ache, Alex lowered himself back down to the bed and Charlie followed him, never breaking contact between them. Alex put his hands on Charlie’s arm, stroking up and down over the sleeve of his T-shirt until his fingers slipped under the fabric by accident and he didn’t shy away from it.

It still struck Alex as odd that Charlie was the virgin between the two of them – the actual virgin, in every sense of the word – but Alex was the apprehensive one who wanted to take things slow and who was intimidated by how big of a deal it would be, their first time.

Charlie was eager, although never forceful or disrespectful. But it did make Alex feel guilty that it were his walls and boundaries that the other always crashed into.

“Move further up the bed,” Charlie instructed, his breaths hot on Alex’ face.

He nodded and crawled back and soon Charlie was on top of him properly, heavy torso resting on his chest, one thigh slotted between his, one hand cradling the back of his head, the other ghosting along his side.

Alex had one hand dug into Charlie’s hair and the other on his back, twisting his fingers into his shirt.

Charlie shifted ever so slightly and moaned into his boyfriend’s mouth. Alex could feel the erection against his hip, felt the heat through the two layers of denim.

“Shit. I’m sorry. Sorrysorrysorry…” Charlie tried to detach himself, just like the last time he’d gotten hard while they were making out.

Last time, Alex let him pull away. This time, he stopped him. “No, it’s okay.”

“Are you sure?”

Alex swallowed and nodded.

“Just because-…” Charlie cast a look down his body with a red hue on his cheek, “doesn’t mean anything has to happen. Doesn’t mean we have to… ‘finish’.”

“Yeah. I know.”

Charlie smiled again and spent a moment searching Alex’ eyes for doubt before he recaptured his lips.

Alex returned the kiss with fervor and parted his lips so their tongues could meet and spar. Rarely did they kiss passionately like this. It was just hardly ever “the right time”. A parent would be downstairs. They’d be in public. Or Zach, or Tyler, or Jessica, or Clay, or all of them, were there. Mostly Zach though. It had rarely been the two of them. 

Charlie’s fingers tightly pressed into his ribs, almost hard enough to hurt and the younger boy rocked his hips against his.

Alex hooked his calf over the back of Charlie’s right thigh. Charlie slipped his other thigh into the space between Alex’ legs. They both moaned at the new sensation of their groins pressed together. Alex’ eyes fluttered open to watch Charlie’s face closely above his, trying not to think of that other time he had been aroused pressing up against another manhood...

Charlie's eyes were squeezed shut. His mouth was open. His lips were glistening. His cheeks were flushed.

Alex threaded all fingers into the short hair. He pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth and then pulled his face down into the crook of his neck. Charlie moaned loudly against his skin. It was a good thing Alex’ parents weren’t home this time.

The quarterback started to buck his hips more earnestly, unable to resist the friction.

“Alex. I’m gonna…”

Alex pressed a hot kiss against the shell of his ear and that pushed Charlie over the edge. After a final thrust of his hips his body froze and he let out a whine.

Charlie suddenly relaxed on top of him after being tense and tight like the string of a guitar. He was heavy on top of him, but Alex enjoyed it. He couldn’t be heavy enough, in his opinion, the pressure was so calming, so grounding. He lightly ran his fingers across Charlie’s broad shoulders. 

“Oh, fuck. Fuck, Alex…”

The smaller boy giggled. “Oh, he curses now.”

“Sorry.”

“Charles, I curse like a sailor, you don’t have to apologize.”

“No, I mean…” Charlie propped himself up on trembling arms. “You… You didn’t…”

“No.” He knew his ears must have tinged red, but he played it cool. “It’s okay though,” He assured him. He was comfortable with this outcome.

“You’re still hard,” Charlie pointed out. “Do you want to me to do something?”

Alex gently shook his head. He wasn’t ready for ‘something’.

The other sighed. “Are you sure this was alright?”

“It was great.” He lifted his head up for a quick peck on Charlie’s tight lips. That put his boyfriend at ease. “It was the first time I made another guy come.” There was a hint of pride to his tone.

Charlie chuckled and rolled off him. He propped his chin up in his palm. “That you know of. You’ve made me come a lot of times already.” As soon as the words passed his lips, he scrunched up his face at the realization of what he had just admitted to. “Shit. I- I shouldn’t have said that, that’s weird.”

Alex laughed. “It’s okay, Charlie. I jerk off thinking about you too.”

“Yeah?” His eyes sparkled with mischief.

“Hmhm.”

“What do you think about? Specifically.”

“Specifically?” Alex thought for a moment, searching his memory, embarrassingly realizing there wasn’t a ‘specifically’. No specific fantasy or images. Just hands that weren’t his, exploring every inch of his skin... “Your hands.”

Charlie looked very pleased with himself. “What am I doing with my hands?”

“Touching me. The way I’d be touching myself.” He sucked in a breath. “This isn’t helping my dick go down.” With a chuckle he sat upright and only reached for the front of his jeans to adjust himself a little. He sat hunched over, legs parted, knees turned outward, elbows resting on them. Charlie’s fingers tickled the exposed skin of the small of his back. “You should probably take your underwear off.”

“What?”

“Your underwear?” Alex cocked his head over his shoulder. “Take it off. Go commando.”

The other dumbly nodded and got up. After a moment of hesitation and uncertainty, he walked out of the bedroom and into the bathroom, head somewhat ducked between his shoulders. He came back a few minutes later, his boxers bunched up in a tight fist. His face went pink as he noticed Alex’ watchful eyes were on him. He stuffed the boxers into his backpack and sheepishly looked down at the spot on the front of his jeans, where the wetness had leaked through.

His gait was awkward as he approached the bed to take a seat again, clearly having his naked skin against the coarse denim wasn’t really agreeing with him. “You good?” He didn’t know how else to ask it.

Alex nodded and scooted to the edge of the bed to sit to Charlie, close enough to let their shoulders touch.

“You have some serious self-control.”

“Practice, I guess.” The shorter boy shrugged.

“Oh?”

“Jessica.”

“Right.” Charlie was fidgeting, picking at his nails and cuticles, working up the courage to ask or say something.

Alex didn’t know what was coming, but he waited patiently. That confidence that Charlie had boasted about had been waning and Alex resented himself for doing that to his boyfriend, when all he wanted was to make him happy.

“When you were with Jessica and you got your… ‘practice’… was she the one to stop, or was it you?”

“Uhh… She did.”

“So you wanted to… with her?”

Ah. “I guess, yeah.”

“But you don’t want to with me?”

His pained and confused tone had the exact same effect on Alex. He struggled to organize his thoughts and decipher his own feelings. “It think it’s because it feels like a bigger deal with you.” It was Alex’ turn to fidget. “It didn’t seem like such a big deal with her. Which is so fucked up, I know. That’s like a whole other level of disrespectful, but… I wanted it because it would make me normal, would make me feel like a man, or some dumb shit. I loved Jessica, just not in the way I thought I did. And, in hindsight, that’s what made sex with her ‘easier’.”

That probably wasn’t the right word. Sex with her hadn’t been easy, it had been a self-conscious ordeal every time. But he didn’t build it up in his head the way he did now. He supposed he approached losing his virginity as nothing but a solution to questions he couldn’t figure out. He just wanted to get it over with, hoping it would make things click. But things never did click.

Alex could tell his boyfriend got jealous at the thought of him and Jessica being intimate, so he added: “If it makes you feel any better: it was awful. I was awful at it.” He chuckled but it came out sounding much more bitter than intended. He’d kind of figured he’d been awful at it because him and Jessica never clicked the right way, but what if he was just awful at sex in general.

“I’m sure it won’t be awful between us,” Charlie said, taking Alex’ hands in his and looking into his eyes. As always saying the perfect things, saying exactly what Alex needed to hear. “And it’s a big deal to me too.”

The smaller boy smiled. “I like kissing you, and I like holding you. Can’t that be enough for a while?”

“Of course it’s enough,” Charlie was immediate to answer. “I don’t want you to feel forced into anything. If you’re not ready, you’re not ready. I’ll wait. I promise I’ll wait. But-…” He worried his bottom lip with his teeth for a second. “It has already been ‘a while’. And I’m not saying it’s been too long, or-… but… it’s been ‘a while’ and I just need to know if that means something. If it means something that you’re not ready yet.”

“I guess it means something… It doesn’t mean I don’t love you. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel safe around you. It doesn’t mean I don’t think you’re hot.” His voice quieted and he leaned in with a smirk. “I’m still figuring myself out, Charlie. Not too long ago I was convinced that liking boys was just part of the TBI; another symptom, another illusion. And then… when I realized it was real, it was scary. Scary knowing there was yet another big thing about me that would never be normal and that I could never fix.”

“Your sexuality isn’t something you need to fix,” Charlie stressed, getting upset. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“Nothing” was a stretch, there were many things wrong with him, but Charlie was right in that his sexuality wasn’t one of those things. “I know, I know,” He shushed. “I’m just saying that’s what it felt like, until not too long ago. Until you.”

“Me?”

“When I kissed Zach and I knew he didn’t feel the same way about me and never would, I wanted nothing more but to be straight. And I wanted the exact same thing when I found out Winston had only been using me. It was like this ‘new’ part of me was only ever going to cause me confusion and pain and I wanted to get rid of it. Wanted to cut it out. Wanted-” He stopped himself when he caught the frightened expression on his boyfriend’s face. He left his dark thoughts unspoken. Thoughts that would always be with him, but that he should never burden Charlie with. “But then there was you. You made it alright. You made it a source of happiness instead.” He shook his head at how cheesy he was getting.

“Alex… I love you so much.”

“…I love you too.”

 


 

Zach took the stairs two steps at a time, ignoring the dull pain in his knee as he did so. “Yo, Alex! You summoned me.” He stopped in the doorway to the bedroom, spotting two suitcases by the foot of the bed and noticing how the clutter was missing from the desk and the dresser and that the guitars and some of the posters had been taken down. It still hit him like a truck every single time, the realization that Alex would be away at college. He was leaving later today.

The community college where Zach would be studying music was close by. There was really no point to moving out his mom’s home and into the dorms, aside from the fact that it would be nice to escape her judgment. But no, Zach would be staying in Evergreen, making the round trip every day.

Alex, however, would be two hours away at Berkeley. That didn’t seem like much, but it meant Alex could only come home for the weekends. Knowing how busy everyone would be with their studies, Zach wondered how long that would last.

It had been a tough summer, quitting his drug and alcohol habit cold turkey, his last been binge having been the night Alex and Charlie had come to pick him up and take him to see Justin one final time. The worst effect of the withdrawal had been the insomnia. And that somehow he had nightmares without even sleeping. Intrusive thoughts that had him shaking and crying in bed. It hadn’t started until a few days after the funeral.

Alex had been there for him. Sometimes spending the night, simply lying beside him as he wept. Some nights letting himself be held. Whenever Zach apologized, Alex wouldn’t accept it. He brushed it off the same way every time: “You’ve seen me through worse.”

After three weeks, he could finally sleep again and life returned to normal. He spent his days with his friends. Laughing while sober was so much better.

It was still hard, when the memories came in uninvited, but he had Alex and his friends to support him.

Now, he would have to miss Alex. He wondered if he would go through withdrawal all over again.

“Hey.”

Zach jumped at the voice coming from behind him. He turned to face Alex, standing in the doorway of the bathroom, running a hand through his damp hair as he was fresh out of the shower. “When I texted, I didn’t expect you’d come right over.” He brushed past him to walk into his bedroom, their chests grazing, electricity passing between them. Zach’s face went hot.

“So..., why did you ask me to come over?” He followed him into the room and took a seat on the bed.

“I have a present for you.”

“Something kinky, I hope.” He winked at him. Joking about it made it better somehow. Like every other unintentionally sexual or romantic moment between them was all just part of a running gag.

Alex shook his head and then simply gestured over to the corner of his room.

Zach threw his chin over his shoulder. His gaze landed on three guitar cases.

“Nothing kinky. Sorry to disappoint,” Alex said dryly.

Zach snapped his head back to stare up at him. “You can’t be serious. You’re giving me your guitars?”

Alex shrugged. “I can’t play them anymore. Not right, anyway. And you need them. All you have is that old acoustic guitar that doesn’t sound right no matter how much you tune it, and since your mom won’t buy you any new ones out of protest…”

“The school will make guitars available to us during class.”

“Zach, not to be blunt, but it’s community college. Those cheap guitars have been whored off to thousands of students for the past decade.” Alex really took his instruments seriously. “You should do this right. Just take them.”

“No! And like you said, it’s just community college anyway.”

“Zach, all you need to succeed is talent, a good foundation, and good instruments. You have the talent, the school will lay the groundwork… take the guitars.” He walked over to them and put one of the cases on the empty expanse of the bed and unlatched it. He lifted the red and white electric guitar out of the velvet lining and moved to sit down next to Zach so he could give it to him. “Here.”

“Jesus.” He took hold of it reverently and positioned it in lap. “I- I don’t know what to say.” Zach stroked his hand along the curve of the guitar, which almost felt like he was touching Alex intimately, because the instrument was so personal to him. Alex had spent hundreds of hours lying and sitting on this bed, holding this guitar.

“Thank you will suffice.”

He blinked up at him and rubbed his hand on his thigh. “Thank you,” He said earnestly, gazing into Alex’ eyes.

A small smile formed on Alex’ lips. “You’re welcome.” After a pause, he said: “I’m proud of you, Zach. In a totally non-patronizing way.”

Zach chuckled breathily. “Thanks. Proud of you too. In, like, whatever way you said.”

Alex’ smile grew and his dimples showed.

He plucked at a string. “We could do like a shared custody thing. Or, you know, ‘the kids’ will live with me, but you get visitation whenever you want.”

The smaller boy chuckled. “Yeah, sure. I’ll come visit the kids.” He shifted on the edge of the bed to better face Zach, pulling one knee onto the mattress and, incidentally, let that knee touch Zach’s outer thigh. “You do know I’ll be back here every weekend anyway, right?”

“Yeah, I know. For Charlie.”

His expressive eyebrows twitched. “No, not just for Charlie. For you too. I know you’ll be lost without me.” He grinned.  

Zach held his fist out. “Bro’s before ho’s?”

“I don’t think that works in the context of our situation.”

“Zachs before quarterbacks?”

“I cannot and will not endorse that phrase.”

“Just fist-bump me, dude. C’mon. Don’t leave me hanging.”

Alex awkwardly touched his knuckles to Zach’s. “There, whatever.” Then, after a moment of hesitation, he leaned in and wrapped both arms around Zach’s shoulders and pressed his nose into his neck.

Zach was caught off guard by the embrace. Last time they had hugged had been in the hospital waiting room at the start of summer, after he last talked to Justin. But that had been a desperate embrace, this was a good one. He buried his face in the messy hair and encircled Alex’s waist with one arm, while he kept a secure hold on the guitar with his free hand. He would forever cherish both.

Maybe one a little bit more than the other…

“I love you, Zach.”

Zach dug his fingers into Alex’ side and deeply breathed in the scent of his hair.

He’d said it to Tony. He’d said it to Winston. Alex had said it to him, twice now. But Zach had never spoken the words to Alex before. All he had managed on that cursed rooftop was “I care about you”, which he realized much later must have felt like a slap in the face after he’d already punched him in the gut.

He dipped his head down and spoke into the shell of his ear: “I love you too.”

Chapter Text

Had Evergreen always been this boring? You know, before near-miss school shootings, rape trials, and murder mysteries? The most interesting place in town to be was Monet’s and that said enough. What made it worse was that Zach found that Monet’s wasn’t interesting at all without Alex there. It was just empty seats where Alex used to be.

The reclaimed wooden tables, the mismatched chairs, the quirky living room vibes, the inexplicable art, all of it was dull without Alex. Without him saying something random or unintentionally impactful in that flat tone of his that always bore down to the deepest parts of Zach. Even in a roaring crowd, even in a rumbling storm, Alex’ voice always cut through the things that didn’t matter.

Zach smirked at himself. What the fuck with the cheesy shit man? The barista caught him looking like a madman, grinning and shaking his head at himself. He accepted the coffee cup that was handed to him with a “thanks” that sounded like an apology and quickly distanced himself from the awkward exchange.

God, they had been to that coffee house way too often, he realized. Honestly, there wasn’t a single table in the entire café that he hadn’t shared with Alex at one point or another. Sometimes surrounded by the rest of the group, sometimes just the two of them, most of the times it was the three of them: Alex, Zach, and Charlie.

Four days. Alex had been out of town for four days and Zach was already losing his shit.

It didn’t help that school didn’t start until next Monday for him.

The classes at Berkeley had started a week earlier for Alex and Jessica.

Community college wasn’t in that big of rush to educate the masses.

At least classes had started at Liberty High already, which meant the football season had also kicked off and try-outs had been earlier that week.

He’d declined coach Kerba’s offer before, but backtracked on it later and decided to work for him as assistant coach anyway, as much as he could. Kerba would make sure Zach wouldn’t use it was an excuse to not do his assignments for school. The coach would keep a close eye on him, that much was already apparent from just the first week.

The man knew his history – his father, his drinking, his physical therapy – and it was a relief to have an actual adult to be able to count on once in a while.

He walked the short distance to the pier and picked an empty spot at the railing to look out over the water. He came here often with Alex too. And he knew both of them had also come here alone often, to think.

He killed time until he was expected at the football field for practice at four. The first game was tomorrow already. First game of the season always sucked, but at least the opposing team would always equally suck, that evened out the competition. Things wouldn’t get heated and serious until later, until the coach had whipped the boys into shape after summer.

Zach arrived at the field early, before the team, even before Kerba, and started setting up equipment, knowing the coach’s routine. It was always the same thing, first practice after summer.

Suicides. Push-ups. Dummy tackles. Box blasts. Squat jumps. Single leg hurdle jumps.

If you could still laugh at your teammates falling over during the last exercise, you had the coach’s respect. For most, however, the physical pain would be too much at that point, because that was what the first practice was all about: making it hurt. If you want to play football, you have to stand the pain. You have to grow to love the pain.

Suicides… Couldn’t they think of a different name for that?

“Hey, Zach, early start?”

“Had no place better to be, Coach.”

The man clapped a hand on Zach’s shoulder and smiled brightly at him. “Ready to make these boys suffer?”

“Very much looking forward to it, Sir.”

“How’s the knee today?”

“Not good enough for Box Blasts, Sir,” He said with a laugh.

“Don’t worry. Perks of being the coach. You don’t have to do anything but shout at the guys.”

He nodded, he remembered Kerba being in his face, especially his Sophomore year before he’d built up much muscle mass. His arms felt like noodles and he was still expected to keep doing push-ups. For every one he failed to fully extend himself up, the entire team would have to do two.

He’d hated it. But then he got better. And soon he could do more push-ups than anyone else. And then he loved it. That was the power of the sport and the power of his coach.

Zach watched the team walk across the field towards them, all geared up, all of them looking tired already. All but Charlie. Charlie was all smiles, as always.

The two of them hadn’t hung out together. They’d exchanged some words during the try-outs process, but that had been it. Kind of strange considering they’d been together pretty much every day the entirety of summer vacation.

Of course, Alex had been there…

Kerba gave the boys a variation on the same speech he gave every year and then blew his whistle to kick them into action.

Just like every year, the football players were soon moaning and groaning and protesting, but getting no sympathy from their coach, nor the assistant coach.

Two hours later you couldn’t stand within six feet of any of them without crinkling your nose at the smell of sweat.

“Alright, boys.” He blew his whistle again. “Welcome back to football. Help the AC clear up the equipment and then you can hit the shower.”

Grumbling under their breath, they cleared everything away, being directed by Zach.

Charlie looked a little paler now, definitely exhausted, but still smiling. He had streaks of dirt on his cheekbone and chin from face-planting near the end of the single leg hurdle jumps.

“Hey, hear anything from Alex today?” Zach asked. In hindsight he probably should have shown some interest in the boy himself before asking about his best friend.

“No, he hasn’t texted since Tuesday. He’s busy.”

Zach knew he shouldn’t say Alex had texted him late last night; something about college teachers being just as cringy as high school teachers. He had a feeling it evoke irrational jealousy on Charlie’s part. He had that feeling because Zach knew he himself would be jealous to know Alex had been texting Charlie and not him. “He’s still coming back tomorrow though, right?”

“Of course. Why? Did you hear something?”

“No, just checking. Like you said, he’s gotta be busy.”

That was the end of the conversation. Charlie went to take a shower with the other guys. Kerba drilled Zach for his first impressions of the team - which players needed more attention – and then asked his opinion on a play he had planned for the game tomorrow.

That was Thursday done.

Finally, it would be Friday. Finally, he’d see Alex again.

The cheerleaders were just as rusty as the football team and Zach shamefully had to admit that he was amused watching them stumble. One girl doing the entire routine out of sync and mirrored, flinging her right arm clockwise, while the other girls swung their left arms counter-clockwise.

The marching band sounded a little out of tune too. One trombone player had Zach making a face and plugging one ear.

The parents on the stands were cheering as if they were at the Super Bowl when the two teams ran onto the field though. Bursting through the banner that was made for the occasion, breaking through just off-center from the tiger’s snarling face.

Zach had his back to the field, his eyes scanned the crowd. He noticed a lot of familiar faces but he didn’t find the one he was looking for.

Alex had texted him forty minutes ago.

Alex: Just picked up Tyler, omw

Alex: Traffic.

Alex: Fucking traffic.

Alex: I can’t believe I’ve already fucked up, on the first game.

Alex: I’m so sorry.

Charlie had received a similar string of texts as Alex alternated between the two of them. They had been ‘comparing notes’ in the locker room before Kerba rallied them all for a speech.  

Tyler had also been texting Zach.

TylerD: I’m sorry man, this is all my fault.

TylerD: Alex asked me to tell you we are dealing with traffic of “biblical proportions” but that he’s totally calm right now.

TylerD: *totally fucking calm, is what he said.

TylerD: I’m scared right now.

TylerD: Apparently minivans can corner like race cars????

Well, if Alex was speeding at least it meant that they had cleared traffic. But the two college boys were still nowhere to be seen.

Zach was starting to worry.

“Hey, Dempsey, focus on the game man, come on,” Urged the coach. “Let’s kick off this season right.”

He nodded and joined the coach and the team in the huddle where they ran through the strategy one more time, having already gone through it in detail in the locker room.

“Okay, let’s go Tigers!”

The boys roared and knocked their helmets together.

Charlie was just as distracted as Zach and was reluctant to head out onto the field, but he followed his teammates.

The opposing team, the Bulldogs, got the ball first. Zach studied their play, the best thing he could think to do to keep his thoughts from straying to dark and worrisome places.

As the game really got going, Zach observed that The Bulldog’s offense was sluggish and their defense hesitant. It wasn’t long until The Tigers overpowered them and took the lead. Charlie had yet to make much of an impression though, fumbling the ball once and getting tackled at the thirty yard mark on another play. It wasn’t his fault. He was a great quarterback, very smart and tactical on the field. But his head wasn’t in the game.

“Focus, St. George!” Shouted Kerba. “You’re killing me, man!” He waved him over and Charlie jogged to the sideline. Kerba pulled him close by the helmet and spoke with him quietly. He wasn’t busting his balls, he was encouraging him.

Zach couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he knew Kerba knew exactly what Charlie needed. The coach always did. And a scolding wasn’t it.

Charlie threw one more disappointed look up the bleachers as he backed up onto the field again.

Both teams got into position, bending forward at the center, ready for battle. Charlie stood behind the offensive line and shouted coded instructions at them.

They snapped the ball straight to him and the battle began. Bodies crashed into each other to make a way for the quarterback. A seamless play between Charlie, Miller and Ohn followed. By tossing the ball between them, The Bulldog’s defense couldn’t zero in on a single ball carrier. Their biggest guy never strayed far from the quarterback though, trusting their final play to revolve around him. Although Charlie was never too proud to let another guy score the point. But this time, Ohn got blocked at the 20 yard mark and Miller was crowded.

Charlie was across the field at this point, Ohn was supposed to bring the ball home, that’s what he had shouted at the team before the ball snap. But they had to think on the fly.

Charlie pushed past his guard and ran diagonally across the field, getting closer to Ohn while gaining yards.

With a beautiful toss the football flew over to him and Charlie snatched it out of the air and hauled ass to the endzone. One of The Bulldogs fell at his feet in a failed tackle. From there on, it was a clear shot, no one could keep up with him.

Kerba was going crazy. “That’s my quarterback! That’s my quarterback!” Soon the cheering of the crowd completely drowned him out.

Touchdown.

First touchdown of the season.

Zach remembered that thrill. It was bittersweet, but he was proud.

Charlie was modest about it, his thoughts probably instantly circling back to Alex, and he calmly jogged back to his team, but they started slapping his shoulders and knocked their helmets into his, causing him to smile shyly.

All of a sudden, the quarterback froze on the center of the field and stopped responding to his teammates. But even through his helmet Zach could see he was grinning like crazy around the protective mouth piece. Charlie’s blue eyes zeroed in on the crowd, focused on a particular spot on the bleachers and then he started towards the sideline.

Zach turned around to search for the person he knew Charlie had spotted. There was only one person in the world that made the younger boy smile goofily like that.

There he was.

It was a physical relief to see him.

Alex stood on the lowest step of the bleachers, at the very front, as close to the field as he was allowed to be. He was leaning forward against the railing, smiling as he held Charlie’s gaze but growing ever more self-conscious as the star player closed the distance between them, leaving the field and taking off his helmet.

Coming to stand in front of him, Charlie reached a hand up and folded it against the back of Alex’ neck. He pulled the shy boy down and kissed him.

The Tigers catcalled. The crowd had the decency to applaud – most people, anyway.

Kerba laughed and nudged Zach in the side. “Well, I guess we can expect more touchdown out of him from now on. Now that there is someone here to impress.”

“Yeah,” Zach croaked. He cleared his throat at the weird sound of his voice.

Charlie released his boyfriend. His lips moved. Zach couldn’t hear what he said. He was too far away and the crowd was too loud. But still he could tell what he’d said.

“I love you.”

Then he put his helmet back on and ran back out onto the field.

Alex shared an embarrassed look with Tyler, who was at his side, and he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans.

Charlie scored three more touchdowns that game.

 


 

College was… confrontational.

Learning the layout of the massive campus was overwhelming and after just the first day he realized walking back and forth between the different buildings to get to all of his classes would be physically taxing to him for a while, until he’d get used to it.

His limp was more pronounced at the end of every day and getting up from his seat in the auditorium after the final lecture was difficult. His leg was stiff and he needed a moment to find his balance.

His head was fuzzy too. The professors didn’t ease them into it and droned on about the complex material, like they were trying to make them regret their decision to even go to college. His fingers couldn’t keep up, tying on the keyboard of his laptop as the professor detailed their first assignment, that would be due next week. He tried to type blindly, straining his eyes to read what the professor was scribbling on the whiteboard, but when he glanced at his own screen, he noticed he’d been typing gibberish. And no matter how much he focused, or looked at his hands as he typed, he didn’t manage to type many words right.

What did he get himself into?

He didn’t see Jess much. From the texts he got from her, it seemed she was assimilating much better than he was. She was already regularly mentioning unfamiliar names; new friends. She gushed about her roommate.

His roommate he barely saw. He was out every night and came into their room at midnight or later, crashing onto his bed still wearing his shoes. Getting that same “college experience” that Peter had urged Alex to get as well.

It was Thursday of the third week at college when the first person asked.

“What’s with your leg?”

The girl had watched him limp into the class and heavily lower himself into the seat next to hers.

“Oh, it’s not really my leg.”

She frowned at that.

“It’s my head.”

A deeper frown.

“Brain trauma.”

She looked sympathetic all of a sudden, whereas before she’d been kind of teasing and flirty. “Oh my God. What- What happened? Were you in a car accident or something?”

“Uhh… yeah.” Lying was just easier than the truth. This was his chance at a fresh start. He didn’t want to be “that kid who shot himself in the head”.

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

That night, alone in his bed, he stared at his phone, scrolling through his endless conversation with Zach. He was fighting the urge to text him. It was late and he would be seeing him tomorrow anyway. It would be pathetic to text him now. But he wanted to tell someone about the lie he’d told to the girl in class today – the first person who had really spoken to him, after he’d been making his best effort to wordlessly discourage anyone from approaching him.

He changed over to his chat with Charlie, the heart emoji’s sent by his boyfriend being the bottom message on the screen. He couldn’t tell Charlie. Charlie would fret too much. Charlie would ask questions that he couldn’t answer. Charlie wouldn’t let up until he told him he was okay and, some days, Alex just wasn’t okay and he didn’t want to lie for a second time in one day.

Back to the conversation with Zach.

He worried his bottom lip between his teeth.

U : Someone asked and I said I was in a car accident.

He didn’t hit “send” yet. He mulled it over. Second-guessed himself. He checked the time at the top of the screen. It was a quarter past twelve. Zach had an important game tomorrow. He was probably already asleep. He should be sleeping.

Send.

He reread his own message. It was kind of cryptic. Would it even make sense to a half-asleep Zach? Would he even read it all before morning?

Zach is typing.

Alex didn’t have to wait long.

Zach : It’s none of their business anyway.

He smiled and released a sigh.

U : Sorry, did I wake you?

Zach didn’t answer the question.

Zach : I’m happy you texted.

The next message followed instantly.

Zach: Please answer.

Alex frowned, mistaking Zach’s text for unreasonable impatience, but then the screen changed to a picture of Zach. He stared at it for a heartbeat or two before answering the call. The phone was warm against his ear from how long he’d been holding it. “Phones are for texting,” He reminded him.

“Shut up.”

“That would defeat the purpose of a phone call.” He liked how breathy Zach’s laugh sounded.

“Smart-ass. Pick up any new, big words yet, Mister English-Major?”

“No. Feel like I may have lost some, actually.”

“Come on,” He drawled. “Hit me with something. Make me feel stupid.”

“Vexatious,” Alex obliged readily. Not a new word he learned, just what came to mind.

“Fuck.” He chuckled. “Okay, let me have it. What does that mean?”

“It means you’re annoying.”

“Yep, definitely feeling the stupid. Stupid that I fell for that one.” He laughed again. “Just admit it. You miss me.”

“Not in the slightest.”

“Yeah, me neither…”

Alex shifted on the narrow mattress to lie on his back and rearranged his sheets on top of him.

“Want to hang up?”

“Hm. No.” He closed his eyes.

“Wanna talk?”

He let the silence speak for itself.

Zach chuckled again, barely audible. “Okay. Hold on a second.”

There was a lot of shuffling and rustling on the other end of the line. Then Alex heard Zach’s breathing again and soon after that he heard the first chords played on an unplugged electric guitar. He imagined Zach lying on his bed, phone resting on the pillow, next to his head, guitar resting on his stomach. Alex smiled.

Zach toyed with the strings a little bit in search of a song. Meaningless notes evolved into a soft, slow song. Surely another one of those awfully corny songs that Zach seemed to enjoy bothering him with. Alex could never admit that he secretly liked them, the songs, but only when Zach played them or sang them for him.

Zach occasionally sang parts of the unknown lyrics.

“I hear your name in certain circles

And it always makes me smile”

Zach hummed for a bit, seeming to forget the words and it made Alex’ ear tingle.

“I ain't missing you at all

Since you've been gone, away

I ain't missing you

No matter

What my friends say”

From the sound of his voice Alex could tell Zach was smiling, making his own lips curl. He imagined them dancing, like they’d done once, in Alex’ bedroom. He felt Zach’s hands holding him tightly, keeping him steady and standing tall.

“I keep lying to myself every time I think of you

I'm okay

I'm doing fine here from day to day

I ain't missing you

I can lie to myself”

Zach wasn’t smiling anymore.

Chapter Text

 

The thing about shooting yourself in the head – and surviving – in a small town like Evergreen, is that it gets mentioned in the local newspaper. And even local newspaper articles can be Googled.

Jessica had clued him in that the secret was out, when the news had reached even the hallways of the buildings across campus.

Once more, Alex was “that kid who shot himself”.

He avoided people at school anyway. He didn’t need new friends. He needed his old friends. New people meant retelling stories that he’d rather keep to himself. He didn’t feel like talking to anybody about it; his limp, his absence episodes, his anger, like when he started ripping pages out of the library book because the words printed on the paper had stopped making sense to him.

It was nobody’s business, like Zach had said. Even when everybody knew, it was still none of their business.

“And fuck books, by the way.”

“Historically, I don’t feel that’s the right position to take.”

“Fuck history too.”

His roommate was never there, so he was perfectly fine holed up in his room, studying, texting Charlie, and calling Zach. More often than not Zach would just play songs for him. Some classic he had to memorize, or just an old song that he couldn’t get out of his head, but couldn’t remember the name of. Alex’ brain was like an encyclopedia of music, Zach had admired, and – sure enough – he could name almost all of them after hearing only the first few chords.

He remembered that urge to play. It was the only way to get the notes to stop bouncing through your head, knocking over every other thought you could possibly have. He had learned to quell it by writing it down instead, transcribing the music he heard in his head; notes and bits of lyrics. Sometimes realizing it wasn’t a song he remembered, but one he’d made up on the spot. He filed them all away like an archive of his emotions, the majority dark or melancholic, even though he knew he was supposed to feel happy.

He missed playing the guitar, but he lacked the coordination in his fingers now. It was too challenging to operate both hands so precisely at the same time. Too soon, one of the fingers would mess up and he’d get too angry to continue. He’d given up on trying and parting with the guitars was less hard when he realized Zach needed them.

The phone buzzed on the desk,  next to his textbook and the empty page of the notebook he was hunched over. Alex flipped it over and tapped the screen.

Charlie : Can’t wait to see you tomorrow.

This text was pretty much a weekly occurrence but it still made him smile.

Charlie: Can’t wait to hold you

Charlie: Kiss you

Alex’ eyebrows twitched. This was new.

U: Me too

His phone displayed “Charlie is typing” for a very long time and Alex got the sense he’d made a mistake with his curt reply. He waited, sympathetic to Charlie’s apparent struggle. Finally, the next message popped up, not nearly long enough to have warranted the time it took to type.

Charlie: What are you wearing?

Ah. Now he was getting the picture. This was definitely new. He regretted having left the conversation open, because now Charlie could see his message had been instantly read and every second that Alex allowed to pass, would be too long. However, he didn’t know how to respond. It was pretty clear what Charlie was trying to accomplish, but it was so far out of their comfort zone that it made Alex anxious.

He started typing a joke in response, but ended up backspacing until there was nothing left. He hated that Charlie could see it all happening on his screen, his phone telling him when Alex was typing and when he had stopped.

Charlie : I’m not wearing anything.

He hadn’t asked, but there it was.

Charlie : I just got out of the shower. I’m still wet.

Alex’ mouth went dry.

Charlie : Is that ok, Alex?

His brain short-circuited. Was it okay? Wasn’t this weird? He’d never even seen Charlie shirtless, how was he supposed to imagine this? When he closed his eyes all he could see was Zach standing at the edge of the pool, dripping water on the tiles. Not good.

Abort!

But how could he do that without alarming his boyfriend?

U : yeah

He cringed at his own reply. He was so awkward. 

Charlie : Are you in bed?

He probably should be. It was late. Somewhere between too late and not late enough for his roommate to come stumbling in yet. But he had an essay due on Monday and he didn’t plan on spending any of his valuable time at home in Evergreen with his nose stuck in a book. He wanted to have it done before he took off after classes tomorrow. He glanced down at the empty page. So far, it wasn’t exactly going swimmingly.

U : I’m still studying.

Charlie : I’m in bed. Do you want to join me?

He frowned. He had never done this before, he didn’t know what was expected. How was he supposed to play along with this? The most sensual text-exchange he had before this was calling Jessica sexy once, early on when they had been dating, and only having her text back: “ur cute”.

U : ok

For a second he wondered if he should just remain seated at his desk. But he decided against that, it would be enough of a stretch of his imagination anyway. So he dropped himself onto his bed.

Charlie: Hey

As if he had really gone to lie down next to him.

U: Hey

Charlie: Don’t be nervous, ok?

Charlie: Say so if you want to stop

U: sure

Charlie: I want you to think about my hands. Touching you.

He swallowed.

Charlie: I’m slowly pushing the hem of your shirt up, letting my fingers graze your stomach

Charlie : I’m pushing it all the way up to your collarbone

It took him a while to catch on what he was supposed to do. Alex closed his eyes and followed the directions unceremoniously, hooking his thumb under the hem of the double layer of shirts he was wearing and pushing it up as high as Charlie had said. The nail of his thumb scratched his skin, not particularly sensually. The cool air prickled him and made his nipples harden. At least that didn’t leave him unaffected.

Charlie : Now I’m running my hand back down the center of your chest. Lower and lower. Slowly. I circle your belly button once, with the lightest touch and then go lower still.

Yeah, okay, maybe this was working after all, as long as he didn’t need to worry about how to reply. He hadn’t gotten laid in a long time, not ready yet for that leap in his sexuality after considering himself straight most of his life. So as apprehensive as he was, he was also… easily stimulated.  

Charlie : I stop at your belt buckle and go back up.

He frowned. He wasn’t wearing a belt. Pointing that out would be stupid though.

His own fingers ghosted back up his exposed skin as instructed.

Charlie : Do you like how I’m touching you, Alex? Is this ok?

Alex nodded and then thought to type his answer.

U : yeah

Charlie: My fingers are tracing your lips now. They are so soft, Alex. I love kissing them. This time I was you to suck on my fingers.

Holy shit. He stared at the words. There was hesitation but also curiosity and he trusted Charlie, so he put his fingers against his bottom lip, stilled for a second and then took his index finger and middle finger into his mouth, only up to the first joint. He touched his tongue to them and sucked on them until the next message came in.

Charlie : Now I’m taking my wet fingers to one of your nipples.

He released his fingers with a pop. Playing with his chest wasn’t usually part of his masturbation routine, Alex was much more to the point and efficient than that. He had to be, considering how often he jerked off to rid himself of at least some of that tension. But he gave in and rubbed the wet pads of his fingers against the sensitive skin.

Alex sucked in a breath. The sensation of the touch and the wetness and the coldness as his saliva dried, made his toes curl. He toyed with the nub until he thought to look at his phone again and he saw a new message had come in.

Charlie : I’m getting the other one wet too.

He licked his fingers again and brought them down to the other side of his chest to repeat the ministrations. He ran his tongue along his lips, wetting them too.

Charlie : How does that feel, Alex?

U : Good

Charlie : Are you hard?

He let out a chuckle. He was so fucking hard it was embarrassing. He typed exactly that.

Charlie : Don’t be embarrassed. I’m hard too.

He tried to picture it and it was frustrating that he couldn’t. He’d only ever seen Charlie fully clothed and had only felt his erection through two layers of jeans. His mind unhelpfully supplied that he was probably built similarly to Zach. He’d seen Zach half-naked countless of times, the sight was engraved in his mind.

Charlie : Can I touch you there?

Alex palmed his crotch before he realized it was a question, not an instruction.

U : Please

Charlie : Oh, Alex…

Charlie : I’m feeling the shape of you through your jeans. I feel your warmth.

Alex bucked his hips off the bed. He closed his eyes to lose himself to the fantasy, imagining a large hand replacing his own. Strong fingers exploring him as if for the first time, instead of his own slim fingers that knew the shape of his cock better that he’d like to admit. It was intense enough to cause him to let out his first moan. The palm slid down over his balls and then back up, applying more and more pressure through the denim as the hand dragged up the shaft that was angled up to his left hip.

“Ahh, fuck.”

He felt naughty popping the button of his jeans and delving his hand inside without explicitly being told to do so, but he could hardly keep his eyes open to look at his phone screen anyway, so he improvised and allowed himself to focus on the fantasy.

The big hand touched him through his underwear first. It was both too much and not enough at the same time. Mercifully his fly was opened fully and he raised his hips off the mattress to push his jeans and underwear down just enough. A golden fist gripped around him and Alex instinctually thrust into it. The palm was a little rough, too dry, not something he normally preferred, but it felt good now.

A finger dipped into the wet slit in the head of cock.

“Ohh, Zach…”

He snapped his hand back to his chest, fingers tense. His eyes flew open.

Shit. Shitshitshit…

Tears prickled in the corner of his eyes and he forced himself to look at Charlie’s messages, which he had been ignoring. He felt awful.

He squeezed his eyes shut again but then there was Zach. Shirtless and wet, a scowl on his face.

In a panic, he called Charlie. He needed to hear his voice. He had to get Zach out of his head before he would get stuck there and he’d never be able to get rid of him.

Charlie answered on the first ring. He took a few harsh breaths before he simply moaned his boyfriend’s name.

“Charlie, talk to me please.”

“I’m so glad you called. I’m so close, Alex. Are you close too?”

“Yeah.” He pushed the word out.

“Did I make you feel good?” He chuckled breathily. “I had no idea what I was doing.”

“You did good.” He wetted his palm and wrapped his hand around his erection again, figuring he had to ‘get back on the horse’. Charlie was panting in his ear, every breath a reminder of who was on the other end of the line. It was good.

“I wish I could touch you. I wish I could kiss you.”

Alex nodded stupidly. He let out a small grunt, working to get himself close to the edge.

“Let me hear you, Alex. You sound so hot. Say my name. Please, say my name.”

His brows knitted together in concentration and he pressed his mouth into a tight line. Charlie. Charlie. Charlie. He practiced in his head. He didn’t trust himself anymore. His mind had betrayed him too many times. Charlie. Charlie. “…Charlie…”

The younger boy moaned loudly.

“Charlie, ah!”

“Are you gonna come for me?”

“Yeah… uhuh…” He frantically jerked himself off, chasing his orgasm. “Fuck. I’m-… Ah!” His entire body went rigid in his climax. He closed his eyes and opened his mouth to suck in deep breaths. On the other end of the line, Charlie reached his orgasm too, groaning Alex’ name in a vulgar mantra. He drew his knees up and let himself roll over to one side so he could curl in on himself.

They were silent for a long time, both catching their breath.

Alex held his softening dick in his hand. He felt his semen on his abdomen and drip down to the sheets. He had to clean up, but he was so, so tired. The exhaustion was crippling.

Charlie chuckled eventually. “That was surprising.”

A smile tugged at Alex’ lips at the familiar observation. “Surprising good, or-?”

“Good,” Charlie rushed to say. “Very good. Right?”

“Yeah.” He exhaled deeply and let go of himself to grab tissues from the nightstand. He wiped at his stomach, still holding the phone to his hear. A sudden fear of his roommate walking in overwhelmed him, so he quickly finished his task of cleaning up. He pulled his shirt down and his pants back up.

“I love you so much, Alex.”

“I love you too, Charlie.”

He meant it. He truly meant it. He didn’t understand why everything was still being corrupted by his misguided longing for his best friend. Every time he thought he was getting past it and that old desires had faded, they randomly flared like this. As if his mind was tormenting him with it, keeping him from obtaining happiness because he knew he didn’t deserve it.

But Charlie did deserve happiness, so how could he justify doing this to him?

When would his feelings for Zach finally vanish? When would he stop harboring them like a stow-away in his mind and in his heart, so he could fully be available to Charlie?

 


 

The group said their goodbyes outside of Monet’s and split up.

Three boys walked shoulder to shoulder.

Zach. Alex. And Charlie.

The fall breeze was cold. The sun had been counteracting it all day, but it had long set. Zach zipped up his jacket and thoughtlessly put his warm hand on the back of Alex’ neck.

Alex was wearing Charlie’s Letterman jacket. The boyfriend had absolutely insisted, standing in the doorway of the coffee house. Alex had complied, probably mostly just to appease him. It was only a short walk back to Zach’s car.

Charlie folded himself into the back seat and Zach let Alex drive.

“Gotta be better than your mom’s minivan,” He teased, watching Alex shift with one hand and effortlessly turn the wheel with the other. Misses Standall had given her car to her son when he left for college, to make it easier for him to get back home every weekend, not having to depend on Tyler or public transportation. That’s how she explained it, at least. Clearly she was bribing him into come back every weekend. Or guilt-tripping, rather.

Alex was an impressive driver – always had been, but made all the more impressive that he had to relearn it completely not too long ago. It was a joy watching him. His full focus was on the road. He wasn’t the kind of driver to take his eyes off the road to look at you. His attention was undivided, so he could enjoy it fully.

“Hey, so, since it’s Halloween and we just spent the better part of the night avoiding the trick-or-treaters in the ‘burbs, how about we go to my place for a horror movie marathon? You know, Netflix-and-scream?”

“Charlie is the only one who screams,” Alex teased with a laugh.

“Hey!” The boy in the back protested the derision.

“Don’t worry, it’s ok. Jump scares are purposefully designed to that effect. Besides, it’s cute.”

Zach’s grin faltered, but he bounced back quickly. “Seriously though, horror-movie-night, how about it?”

“Uhh, yeah, sure. Sounds like fun,” Said Alex.

Charlie agreed.

Alex drove them to the Dempsey home.

Zach’s mom had finally let him turn the play room over the garage into his bedroom. It used to be the only room in the house – technically not even in the house – that his mom allowed him and his sister to clutter up with toys and be rambunctious in when they had friends over for playdates. His sister also hadn’t been using the space for years anymore, having grown out of playdates and into actual dating. When friends came over, they weren’t building castles out of Lego, they sat around and gossiped. With the help of his sister, Zach had managed to convince his mom.

He desperately needed the privacy and the distance from his overbearing mother. It was perfect for practicing his music undisturbed, calling Alex later at night, and hanging out with friends.

Although, oddly, it were always the same friends, just Alex and Charlie. He never invited Clay and Tony over, or anything.

The space was large enough for a king sized bed, with a large couch against the foot of it, the perfect distance from the blank, white wall onto which the overhead beamer projected movies. There was a desk under the single window, overlooking the neighbor’s driveway. Alex’ guitars were in their cases, propped up against the opposite wall. He had inherited his dad’s record collection and steadily added to it, letting Alex coerce him into buying less mainstream music, but Zach still preferred his classics from the eighties.

The three boys took off their jackets and piled onto the couch, Zach and Charlie each confiscating a side, leaving Alex to take the middle seat.

Netflix’ entire homepage was horror flicks in honor of the holiday. He picked something he knew didn’t have any gunfire scenes. Alex liked to pretend hearing gunshots didn’t affect him, but after the shooter drill at school year earlier that year, everyone knew better. Since then the bangs always made Alex flinch.

Zach passed around cans of coke from the small fridge that doubled as a side table. The suggestion to order a pizza was shut down as Alex and Charlie had both had oversized bear claws with their coffees at Monet’s.

Halfway through the flick, Zach threw a glance sideways and caught himself staring at the couple.

Charlie had abandoned the armrest in favor of leaning against his boyfriend, with his arm around his shoulders. His fingers were digging into Alex’ bicep as the movie made him anxious. Alex looked unfazed by the gore projected onto the wall in front of them, even sporting a small smile at the overacting done by the cast, but Charlie looked amusingly horrified.

When Zach looked at them again during the second movie, he saw Charlie wasn’t even paying attention to the murder mystery. His gaze was distant, aimed at the wall but unseeing. His hold on Alex was more relaxed. Their heads rested together, their dirty-blonde hair blending. They were holding hands.

Zach succumbed to a pang of jealousy that he couldn’t quite explain. Although he figured that it had to do with the fact that is was always the three of them nowadays, since Alex was only in Evergreen two days of the week. They always had to share him. There was never any Zach-and-Alex time anymore and he regretted that. He wondered if Charlie felt the same way. The high school senior had never expressed any discontent with the situation, but then again, neither had Zach, so what did that silence really mean?

After the third movie, Charlie had had enough and jokingly said he wanted to go home and hide under the covers. He yawned and stretched his arms. Alex made a remark that he should get some sleep too. Unfortunately, he still had to do some work for school tomorrow, which meant he’d be going home earlier in the afternoon than usual.

“I’ll take you boys home.” Zach didn’t let Alex drive this time, seeing in his eyes that he was too tired. If he had offered, he knew Alex would have declined anyway. The boy knew his limits and knew when he had to mindful of his TBI acting up. Driving a car at three in the morning was not a good idea.

His absence episodes were most likely to occur when he was stressed or tired, although that wasn’t exclusively when they happened. The only reason he was allowed to drive a car at all was because if he monitored himself he could mostly avoid the risk. On the rare occasions an episode would happen unwarranted, he could rely on the few seconds of onset that warned him he was about to go out. The boy could only ever describe the feeling to Zach as “sinking into himself”.

Zach drove by Charlie’s home first.

Alex got out to let Charlie out of the back.

Zach purposefully didn’t watch them say goodbye but his hands tightened around the leather steering wheel when he heard the wet sound of their lips as they shared a quick kiss.

“I’ll see you both tomorrow for lunch. Or… ehh, today.” The quarterback grinned sheepishly. He waved at Zach and then walked up the path to the front door.

“What a fucking saint,” Zach jested lightly as Alex climbed back into the car.

“Yeah.”

He waited for the smaller boy to buckle in and then drove off. There was something about the silence between them that Zach didn’t like. It wasn’t unusual for them to simply enjoy each other’s presence without speaking, but this time he could sense Alex had something on his mind. He wasn’t sure if he should ask, he didn’t want to pry. He trusted Alex to speak up when he was ready and he would wait, no matter how long it took. If he wanted to call him at four o’clock in the morning, speaking in whispers as he hid out in the dorm’s bathroom, Zach was okay with that.

He pulled up at the Standall home and parked behind Alex’ minivan.

Alex remained seated.

Zach looked over, studying his eyes, wondering if maybe he was out, after the long day. But his eyes looked clear, albeit troubled. His eyebrows were lowered into a frown. His jaw was clenched.

Zach turned off the engine. He didn’t ask, he just waited.

“I’m no good for Charlie.”

Zach’s retort was instant: “That’s not true. He’s lucky to have you.”

Alex shook his head in disbelief and refused to meet Zach’s gaze. “No… No, it’s the other way around. He’s a saint, like you said, and still…” He released a sigh. “Sometimes, I wonder if I love him the way I loved Jessica.”

“And what way is that?”

“An amicable love. And an overpowering want to be loved.” He sounded so broken, it broke Zach in turn. “The idea that a girl like Jessica could like a scrawny, out-of-place guy like me was the most wonderful feeling. Now, knowing that a guy like Charlie loves me, is even better. But am I in love with him, or in love with finally being loved?” He wasn’t particularly asking Zach. “I don’t know. Charlie deserves to be loved. If he wants that from me, I should be able to give him that. It’s the least I can do.”

“You can’t force yourself to love someone just because they deserve to be loved,” Zack spoke poignantly.

The other boy nodded miserably. Zach knew they were both thinking about that night, in that moment. The night on the rooftop.

“I did something awful,” Alex added eventually. “To Charlie.”

“Oh? You guys seemed fine.”

“He doesn’t know. I didn’t really do it. I did it, like, ‘in my head’.” His hands made a frustrated gesture at himself.

“Okay. Is it something you feel you should tell him?”

“No. I don’t want to hurt him.”

“Then it’s gonna be okay.” He’d meant to be comforting, but it backfired.

Alex exclaimed: “It’s not okay! I just told you it’s not okay! I did something disgusting!” He regarded him with wild blue eyes.

“Okay, okay, shhhh. It’s gonna be okay,” He amended.

“No! I don’t fucking deserve for things to be okay! But I can’t tell Charlie because he doesn’t deserve for things to not be okay. Fuck. Fuck!” He slammed his hand onto the dashboard.

Zach reached out for Alex’ shoulder, wanting to offer him a comforting touch, but the boy jerked away from him.

“Don’t! Just don’t! Stop being nice to me,” He growled. “Get mad at me! I need you to yell at me! Do something!”

“No.”

“Fucking-… get mad!” He punched Zach’s arm and chest before the bigger student managed to catch his wrists. However, as Alex struggled, he let go of him, not wanting to freak him out more by restraining him, hoping it wouldn’t have to come to that although it was clear he was ‘going red’ as they had coined it.

“Alex, shhhh….”

He hit the dashboard again, then unbuckled his seatbelt and got out of the car.

“Hey, wait. Alex…” He clambered out of the car himself.

“I’m a fucking horrible person,” He spat, tears streaming down his face. “Why won’t you just say so?”

“I would never say that. Because I would never think that.”

“Fuck you!” He shouted.

Zach flinched, knowing the outburst would wake up Alex’ parents and the entire neighborhood at that.

“Why won’t you just give me what I deserve?”

He held up his hands in surrender. “I’m giving you exactly what you deserve. Kindness.”

Alex buried his fingers into his hair. He scrunched up his face like he was in physical pain and he let out the most gut-wrenching cry. Behind him, lights came on in the house.

“Show a little kindness to yourself,” Zach pleaded.

“Don’t tell me what to do!” He rushed forward two steps and pushed hard against Zach’s chest, causing him to stagger backwards. Then he turned and kicked the wheel of the minivan before punching the side window.

Afraid he would hurt himself again, like he had done before during one of his red episodes, Zach stepped up behind him and tightly wrapped his arms around his frame. The smaller boy struggled in his hold and they tumbled backwards onto the wet lawn. Zach hugged him to his chest, squeezing him as hard as he could as Alex was thrashing trying to free himself.

The front door of the house opened and Deputy Standall and his wife came out in their pajamas and on bare feet.

“Let me go!” Alex screamed. “Let me fucking die!” He was still fighting in Zach’s embrace as much as he could, gasping for air all the while.

Zach kept his arms locked around him, trying to control his writhing body, knowing he had to because Alex had no control over himself in that moment. Weak fingers scratched the backs of Zach’s hands. His feet kicked Zach’s shins, albeit without meaning to.

Deputy Standall knelt on the ground in front of his son. “It’s gonna be okay, my boy. Just breathe.” He petted a hand through his messy hair.

Zach didn’t know what to do but to keep holding him. “Shhh…. Shhh….” He squeezed tears out of his own eyes.

“I hate myself. I hate myself.” Alex kept repeating it, his voice getting weaker and weaker every time as he broke out into sobs. His body grew weak too, his struggling turned into spasms. His chest was barely moving as he was only taking it small, shallow breaths. The last words he managed to ground out were: "I want to die."

“I know you don’t mean that. I know. It’s alright. Keep breathing.”

The other boy raised his head up to study Alex’ face, seeing how his jaw was clenched and his nostrils were flared. Veins in his neck stood out. Zach feared his friend would suffocate in his arms through sheer will alone.

Why are you doing this to yourself?

He knew Alex couldn’t control the episode, but the only reason the outburst escalated this far was because he had been tormenting himself over this “thing” with Charlie, which was probably nothing at all. Just something Alex felt guilty about because he was always too hard on himself.

Alex groaned in pain, every breath an effort. He could hardly manage.

Suddenly, the boy in Zach’s arms stopped moving and went silent. He went out.

Zach trembled like a leaf against his back. He pressed his nose into the hair at the nape of his neck, which was damp from sweat. He didn’t know how Alex’ dad could stay so calm. The man stared patiently into his son’s eyes, which Zach knew from experience to be empty and unseeing during his absences. Instinctively, Zach pressed a kiss to Alex’ neck. He loosened his hold on him but couldn’t let go, not until he felt him take a good breath again.

The Deputy continued to stroke a hand through the dirty-blonde locks. “Come back to me, son. Come back.”

Zach wept into his hair, absolutely gutted at seeing his friend go through this. He had observed many of his absences – and his emotional outbursts had been frequent in the early stages of his recovery. But Zach had never witnessed an episode like this. He didn’t even know it could still get this bad.

After eternity, Alex sucked in a deep breath and then Zach felt him relax, his small body only shaking as he cried.  

“There you are, you’re okay,” Said the father, stroking his tear streaked cheeks and placing a kiss on the top of his head. The man let his son lie in Zach’s embrace for another minute before he helped Alex up to his feet. The young boy couldn’t even stand up straight, half doubled over, his body wrecked by his mind.

Zach got up and noticed the neighbors standing on the porch of their house, watching the scene. He glared at them. How dare they treat this as a spectacle and judge?

Supported by his father, Alex limped into the house.

“Are you alright?” Carolyn Standall asked, her eyes trained on Zach’s face.

He couldn’t speak. He could only nod. He wiped away his tears.

She surprised him by cupping his face in her hands. “That must have been scary for you. Thank you, for helping him through it.”

“I’ve… I’ve never seen him have one this bad before.”

She nodded but, clearly, she couldn’t say the same. “It’s been a while since he had one like this. But he’ll be okay. He won’t remember most of it after he’s had some sleep.” She released his face and rubbed his arms, comforting him like a mother knew how, even though she wasn’t his mother. “Are you okay? You are welcome to the guest bedroom.”

“N-no… It’s fine. Thank you, though.”

“Are you sure you’re okay to drive, honey? You’re trembling.”

He shook his head, suddenly feeling stupid and guilty that Alex’ mom was out there in the front yard with him, offering him comfort, when he should let her do this for her son.

As if she read his mind, she said: “Don’t worry about Alex. Bill is good at this. He knows exactly what he needs.” She smiled kindly. “Just like you do.”

“I- uhh… I should go.”

She nodded and wrapped her arms around herself. “Take care of yourself. Drive safely.”

“Yeah.”

Carolyn stood on the lawn and watched him drive off with a motherly concern on her face.

Around the corner, Zach dared to take one hand off the steering wheel to scrub his face.

He wouldn’t get any sleep that night.

Chapter Text

Zach received a text early Sunday morning.

Alex : Please don’t tell him.

He typed his response right away, not wanting Alex to worry about it.

U : Of course not.

U : Are you okay?

Alex : yeah.

Alex : I’m sorry.

U : Don’t sweat it.

Alex: I know I said some crazy shit.

U : I trust you not to mean it.

At lunch with the entire group, Charlie softly asked Alex why he looked so tired. Alex shrugged it off as worry about his assignment. Then Tony asked Zach why he looked so tired and Zach caught Charlie looking at him oddly.

“Stayed up playing guitar.”

That was the end of it. Jessica took charge of the conversation, as she typically did. Zach spent most of lunch stealing looks at Alex’ pale complexion and being caught by Charlie every single time.

Letting Alex leave on Sundays was always the most dreaded moment of the week. Now, more so than ever. He worried for his friend after the terrifying outburst from the previous night. It wasn’t right to let him go before Zach had had a chance to make things better; to make Alex smile again and to unburden his heart. The boy shouldn’t torment himself with this guilt he kept carrying around. He was crumbling under the weight of it.

So when they all hugged goodbye in front of Monet’s, from which Alex and Jessica would head straight back to Berkeley, Zach held onto the small boy longer than he should have. The rest of the group shuffled around them awkwardly, waiting for Zach to release him.

Zach had his arms wrapped around him, the embrace almost as tight as last night. Alex hung onto him with equal strength. Zach had his head dipped down into the crook of Alex’ neck, breathing in his scent. He wanted to say something, but the words got caught in his throat, before even he himself knew what they were.

“Alright, Zach. He’s not going off to war,” Jessica said as she tugged at him.

Then why did it feel dangerous to let him go?

Zach disentangled himself from the other and thought to put on a silly smile to play it off casually. He ruffled Alex’ hair and was relieved to see a smile tug at his lips.

Jessica hooked her arm around Alex’ and drew him away from the group, throwing her final “goodbye” over her shoulder, on their way to the minivan. Zach overheard her ask: “Wanna tell me what that was about and why your dad insisted I drive today?”

Alex’ reply was curt: “Nope.”

Jessica got behind the wheel and Alex in the passenger seat. With one, halfhearted wave through the side-window, he was gone.

Zach smoothed a hand down his abdomen, as if that would soothe his nausea. “Well, I’m off,” He announced, sounding casual through sheer practice. “I have a solo performance in class tomorrow… and I haven’t done shit yet.”

He parted ways with Charlie, Tony, and Clay. Tyler had skipped this weekend to celebrate Halloween on campus, inviting Estella over.

He walked to his car with his hands dug into his pockets and his head ducked between his shoulders. It was cold, but he didn’t zip up his jacket, welcoming the shivers; welcoming just feeling anything other than this ache inside of him.

He thought he was free to be alone with his thoughts, so he let his mind wander. No, not wander, race rather. Racing through almost two years’ worth of shit he had tried to run away from. So much had happened. Too much had happened. How was he ever supposed to make sense of it? Relationships were too complicated to categorize when you’ve been through life-and-death situations.

He knew Alex felt like he was “crazy” when he suffered one of his episodes. But maybe he was the only sane one in the group. They all had every reason to freak out. Maybe he ought to freak out sometime too.

Zach was nearly at his car when footsteps caught up with him from behind and he turned to face Charlie, who appeared a bit flustered.

“Hey, man.”

 “Hey.” He waited for the younger guy to say what he had come to say.

“Can we talk about Alex?”

He shrugged as if hearing that name didn’t always make his heart skip a beat, without fail. “Sure. Is there something wrong?”

“No. Or… I don’t know… Is there?” His eyes were desperately questioning. “You’re usually the first to know.”

Zach shook his head. “That’s not true. Alex has a habit of being a closed book with anyone.”

Charlie decided to be more direct: “Did something happen last night? After you dropped me off?”

Zach fell mute. Alex had asked him not to say anything about the outburst to Charlie. He couldn’t betray his trust like that, no matter how much he wanted to help Charlie out. “No.”

“Bullshit!” Charlie immediately apologized for erupting like that. “You both look completely wrecked, when we all know you guys never lose any sleep over blood-and-guts horror movies.”

“Charlie, don’t worry. Everything is fine.”

The quarterback shook his head and cast his gaze down at his shoes.

Zach sighed, letting his arms fall at his sides. “Is there something going on between the two of you that makes you think like this?”

Something akin to anger flickered on Charlie’s features. “Oh, you won’t tell me anything, but you expect me to spill?”

Zach raised his hands defensively. “I just want what’s best for him, so if I can help… I will.”

Charlie nodded and mumbled another apology. “He really didn’t tell you?”

“Tell me what?” Alex did say some things in the car, but he was so vague and so upset, Zach wasn’t sure if he’d been able to make any sense of it, even after mulling over it all night and morning.

“We had phone sex last week. I thought maybe he was weirded out about that, since we haven’t really done anything yet.”

Zach drew his eyebrows up. He wasn’t expecting Charlie to be quite so candid. But what surprised him more was that Alex wasn’t the one to share this detail with him. Didn’t Alex used to tell him personal and embarrassing shit like this all the time? Although, come to think of it, Alex had never told him about what he did with Charlie, nor with Winston.

Probably one of the effects of “that kiss” on their friendship.

Zach realized he had been silent for too long, so he awkwardly just said: “Ok.”

Charlie took it as an invitation to ramble on: “I mean, it seemed like everything was good, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe it was weird for him, because we haven’t done stuff yet, but I figured he’d feel safe like this, less vulnerable. He seemed fine at the game Friday, nothing had really changed between us. But maybe that’s a problem, that we’ve done the phone sex thing and it’s like it never happened? Like he wants to pretend it ever did? And now he looks like he didn’t sleep and you look like you didn’t sleep… Did he feel forced?”

Zach got heated and shot back a question of his own instead: “Did you force him?”

“No! Of course not, Jesus. I would never…” Charlie frowned and chewed on the inside of his cheek. “But… I guess I am always the one initiating… maybe I’m not going about it the right way. Maybe that comes off wrong. But I would never!”

“Okay. Well, I trust you.” Charlie was a good guy, Zach knew that. But the younger boy did have a habit of accidentally putting Alex in positions that he felt he couldn’t get out of without hurting Charlie – which meant he went along with it. Like caving to the elaborate promposals, even though he wished Charlie had just asked him privately. And dancing with Charlie at prom in spite of his inhibitions, since Charlie had orchestrated for them to be crowned to that effect.

Zach could hardly throw stones. He was guilty of the same, inadvertent manipulation. The only real difference was that he had actually put Alex in danger: the rooftop, the lake, the riot.

Charlie wasn’t just a good guy. He was the better guy. Yet he stood before him with an undeserved, guilty expression.

He clapped a hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “It’s gonna be okay. The two of you will be okay.” After what Alex had told him that night, Zach wasn’t sure if he was telling Charlie the truth, but he was telling Charlie something he deserved to hear, whether it was a lie or not. It instantly caused the other to look relieved.

Alex needed some time to realize that he was worthy of a saint like Charlie and open himself up to it. Once he would, Charlie would be the luckiest guy, for having someone as special as Alex.

“Thanks man, for calming me down.”

Zach smirked. “Here to serve.”

Charlie hesitated and then latched onto that. “Uhm, do you mind doing me a favor?”

“Not at all.”

“I- I have a lot of fun hanging out with you – and with the rest too. I’m really happy to be part of this group, it means so much-“

“Charlie, take a breath and get to the point.”

“It’s never just the two of us,” He blurted. “Just me and Alex. Most of the time… it’s the three of us.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Do you mind letting us have one evening to ourselves?”

Zach’s face went hot at the inevitable question. He saw it coming from a mile away and still felt put on the spot. “Uhhh, shit. Yeah, of course, man. I’m sorry. It didn’t really dawn on me that I’ve been third wheeling.” Funnily enough, from Zach’s perspective, Charlie had always been the third wheel. That made no sense of course, just because he knew Alex the longest.

“It’s okay, don’t feel bad. And, it’s not like I want to hog him all of a sudden. You guys are friends and he’s only here two days of the week, so it makes sense to wanna spend as much time together as possible. But once in a while… one evening… you know?”

“Of course. Yeah. No problem.” Why was he saying “yes” but shaking his head no?

Charlie beamed a smile at him. “Great. Thanks. Because Alex’ parents are going to his grandparents in New York this week and will be gone next weekend, so he has the house to himself and I wanted to use the opportunity to make a romantic evening of it.”

“Makes sense.” Zach scrunched up his face. “But, uhhh… What about what we just talked about? About… not pressuring him?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t. Romantic doesn’t have to mean sex.”

God, Charlie was so fucking sweet and innocent. “Right. Totally. Sorry.”

“So, do you mind sitting out next Saturday?”

“Not at all. Go ahead, make him swoon.” But already concerns were gnawing at him. A romantic evening, just the two of them? He knew Alex would do anything to make Charlie happy, not to mention try to make himself feel more normal by doing ‘what he’s supposed to’. Both including having sex before he was ready. In spite of Charlie’s intentions not to force or manipulate anything.

Charlie chuckled. “I don’t think Alex really swoons.”

“Probably not.”

“Thanks man.” He clasped their hands together and bumped his shoulder into his. “And if you ever want some time alone with him, I’m cool with that.”

“Nah, no. It’s fine. He’s your boyfriend...” He had a bad taste in his mouth that some brandy would burn away nicely, but he resented himself for letting that thought even pop up in his head.

Charlie smiled sheepishly. “Thanks again. For everything.” He took a deep breath. “I feel a lot better. I’ll see you Tuesday at practice, AC.”

“Yeah, see ya.” He watched Charlie jog across the parking lot to his car.

It wasn’t even like Charlie had asked him to have Alex to himself all weekend. He’d still see him at the game on Friday and at their group lunch on Sunday. So why did it feel like Charlie was stealing Alex away from him? Why did it make him feel angry and jealous?

He supposed it was because next weekend was the weekend before-...

 


 

U : How are the kids?

He hadn’t texted Zach all week, struggling with how to get back to normal after feeling so decidedly abnormal in the wake of his episode from Saturday night.

The library was quiet – not regular library-quiet, but dead silent; abandoned. It was after midnight, but the university library was open 24/7. The desk in his dorm room wasn’t big enough to spread out all of his textbooks, notebooks and laptop in front of him. He had claimed a table on the second floor mezzanine, all the way in the back, behind never-ending rows of book shelving.

The cursor blinked in a blank word document. The page of the notebook in front of him was scribbled with music notes and shards of lyrics. He was supposed to writing an essay, not writing half-songs that would only ever be ink on paper, never sounds.

I’m not good enough

For me to love

Even though

I’m just an echo

I cast shadows

Said goodbye before

Could say goodbye once more

With a heavy hand he crossed out the thoughts put to paper, not able to stand the sight of them.  He flipped over onto a blank page and ran his fingers along the ink scratches in the paper, bleeding through from the other side.

He flinched at his phone buzzing op top of the keyboard of his laptop. He forgotten all about even texting his friend. His mind had been all over the place this week. Saturday’s episode had taken a toll on him physically and mentally.  

Zach : Miss ‘em?

Miss being able to play? Yeah. Miss seeing them every day knowing he couldn’t play anymore? No.

U : Miss you.

Zach didn’t reply for a very long time and Alex started to stress. Then, finally:

Zach : I miss you too.

U : I’m sorry again about last Saturday.

Zach : Don’t be.

U : I promise I won’t do it again this weekend.

U : I’ll be on my best behavior.

U : Another Netflix-and-scream Saturday?

It seemed better to make a joke out of it. But Zach made him wait a long time again, causing him self-doubt.

Zach : I can’t Saturday.

Alex’ heart sank.

Zach : Wait.

Zach : Pick up.

He wasn’t supposed to answer calls in the library, but there was nobody there anyway. He brought the phone up to his ear and didn’t even say a greeting.

“I know you. You’ll think I’m ‘blowing you off’ because of what happened last weekend and I need you to know that’s not the case, okay?”

“Okay, whatever.”

“Not ‘whatever’. A college friend invited me to a party.”

Alex snorted. “You don’t have any college friends. You waste all your time calling this freak at Berkeley.”

“I happen to really like that freak.”

“Hm. As I understand it he’s taken a mild liking to you as well. Truly abstruse.”

“Mild?”

“Seriously? That’s the word I need I need to explain?”

Zach’s chuckle was a pleasant sound. “Well, you were just showing off, wasn’t gonna stroke your ego.”

“Anyway, have fun with your sane friends, I suppose.”

“Hm? Sorry, I wasn’t listening, I was googling ‘abstruse’.”

That earned Zach a laugh from Alex. “It means unfathomable.”

“You are gonna have to dumb it down way more for me.”

“Hard to understand,” Alex supplied, sitting back in his chair and leaning his head back to stare at the ceiling.

“Yeah, I know you’re hard to understand, because you keep chucking big words at me like.”

“No, ‘abstruse’ means ‘hard to understand’.”

Zach chuckled breathily. “I know, I’m messing with ya. I already Googled it. You’re not smarter than Google, Standall.”

“What kind of party are you going to?” With a groan he straightened up in his seat again.

“Something dumb. It’s all people from school, gonna take turns pretending they’re rockstars. I don’t think any of them realize they’re just gonna end up teaching music to fourth-graders or writing jingles for commercials.”

“Are you going to play something?”

“I’m sure I’ll be roped into playing a song or two.”

Alex drummed his fingers on the empty page of the notebook. “I kind of wish I could be there…” He rolled his eyes at himself, was he seriously trying to bait Zach into inviting him along? He hated parties.

“You hate parties, if I recall correctly.”

“And you loved them a little too much, if I recall correctly.” That came out a little more bitter and judgmental than intended. “Fuck, I mean… I’m worried. I wasn’t trying to be-”

“I know.”

“-an asshole…” He finished. Alex sighed. “I was being an asshole though. I’m sorry.”

“You are not in charge of deciding if you’re an asshole or not. Until further notice, I am. Trust me, I know when you’re being an asshole. Judge’s verdict on this one: not an asshole.”

“Your Honor, I object.”

“You worrying about me going to a party with booze and drugs is not you being an asshole, Alex. But you don’t have to worry. I’m good. I can handle it.”

Alex took a deep breath. He wasn’t sure if he should mention it, maybe Zach had forgotten… But then he realized how stupid that was. Of course Zach wouldn’t forget. “It’s just… next week…-”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Stop apologizing. You have nothing to apologize for. Alex, do you want me to come over on Monday?”

“I’m not trying to make it about me, Zach. What I meant was-… What I wanted to say-… Don’t do anything stupid.”

“I won’t drink, Alex,” Zach swore solemnly. “It’s just a party. It’s just a coincidence.”

“Okay.”

“Hey. Promise me you won’t do anything stupid either.”

“I promise. I won’t shoot myself in the head.” He chuckled darkly.

“Please stop making jokes like that,” Zach begged him, sounding miserable.

“I’m-“

“Don’t apologize,” Zach rushed to say. “Just please don’t joke about it.”

“…Okay.”

A silence stretched between them. Alex plucked at the corner of the page and he listened to Zach pluck at the strings of his electric guitar.

Then Zach spoke again, his deep voice filling Alex’ head: “Hey, so, the thing about college parties is that they don’t start until evening.”

“Really? I wouldn’t know. I imagined it more as a ladies-who-lunch type of get-together at noon.”

“Oh, haha, Mr. Quippy. You are so funny.”

“I only get one thing now?” He asked teasingly. He didn’t expect Zach to fall silent against amidst their banter.

“… you get all the things, all the good things,” He said, harkening back to that one conversation in Zach’s old bedroom.

“You too.”

Another silence, one that was finally interrupted by a laugh from Zach. “You distracted me, I was going to say something.”

“Something radical about parties being in the evening.”

“Right, thank you. How about you come over, Saturday afternoon, and I’ll appall you with some songs I’ve been rehearsing.”

“Uhm…”

“Charlie won’t mind, right? He gets you all to himself that night.”

Right. Alex hadn’t even fully considered that. The thought made him a little nervous and he couldn’t separate the bad nerves from the good nerves. He knew Charlie wanted more, but he didn’t know what he himself wanted yet. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Come on. You know you want to come over and point out all the things I’m doing wrong. How I’m dragging the verse and rushing the chorus. How I hit F-sharp like I resent it. How I’m singing out of synch with what I’m playing. You know, be an asshole about it.”

“Am I really an asshole about it?”

“Judge’s verdict…  I’m kidding. I love it when you harp on me. It makes me better.”

“Well, if it benefits your vocational pursuits...”

“I love it when you talk dirty to me.”

Alex blushed.

“I’ll see you Friday night at the game. And Saturday afternoon at my place. Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Chapter Text

Alex lay draped over Zach’s bed, on his stomach, hugging the pillow that smelled of him to his chest, his chin sinking into it.

Zach had taken a seat on the edge of the bed, his back towards him, because it was easier that way, he said, as he played him a sensitive song he’d written himself. There were no lyrics, just a mesmerizing strum of the strings. The guitar had never sounded better. The sound reverberated in the hollow chamber and in his chest. Zach plucked the strings as if every note was a paper cut. On the last verse he hummed along, sometimes it sounded like a word; half-sung, half-whispered, half-heard, fully-felt.

He watched Zach’s arm move as his left hand danced up and down the neck of the guitar, manipulating the strings in just the right way. He kept his head bowed, his black hair falling forward. Alex couldn’t see Zach’s face, it was turned away from him.

He’d been on the bed for hours, listening to Zach talk and listening to Zach play. He hadn’t said much himself. It was just one of those days. He didn’t know if it had something to do with upcoming Monday. Or last Saturday. Or the class he was failing in spite of his best efforts. Or the sadness that radiated from Zach’s being. Or worry about him going to a party and being exposed to wrong temptations. Or nerves about being home alone with Charlie tonight. Or the Liberty Tigers getting eliminated from the championship last night which devastated Charlie.

Maybe all of it. Maybe none of it; maybe it was something he hadn’t even considered yet.

“Hey, are you okay?”

A hand touched his shoulder. Alex shifted his gaze up to Zach’s face. The Asian boy had twisted around to look back at him, having finished his song. “Yeah, I’m good. I’m here.”

“… You’re crying.”

Alex tensed up. He raised his head off the pillow and brought up one hand to wipe off his face. It was wet and so was the pillowcase. “Oh, shit.” He sat upright and back on his calves and ran both hands over his cheeks to dry them, then smoothed his fingers over the pillowcase. “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“It was a beautiful song,” He said sheepishly.

“I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

Alex shrugged.

“You’ve been quiet today.” Zach scooted further up the bed and made himself comfortable.

“I’ve enjoyed listening.” He moved to rest against the headboard, pulling the pillow into his lap.

Zach smiled. He placed the guitar on the foot of the bed and crawled over to sit next to Alex. “You’re a good listener.”

Not sure if Zach was joking or not, Alex said: “I wasn’t out.”

“I know. I can tell.” He put his hand on Alex’ knee and squeezed it comfortingly. After a long silence, Zach teased: “Penny for your thoughts?”

“Is the fee non-negotiable?”

“Well the penny does not include taxes nor a tip, of course.”

“Of course.” He was jostled by an elbow in his side.

“Seriously, man, talk to me.”

“I kind of wrote a song too, last Thursday, before you called.”

Zach smiled proudly. “Yeah?”

He nodded. “Yeah. It was about… About killing myself.”

“Jesus Christ.” Zach moved beside him, angling his body and his concerned face towards him.

“I’m not going to do it,” He clarified. “I guess… I guess I just have things to say about it and no one to tell them to.”

“Tell them to me.”

Alex scoffed and furrowed his brows. “You don’t like it when I talk about it, you said so yourself.”

Zach leaned in closer but Alex refused to meet his gaze. “I don’t like it when you joke about it. If you need to talk, I’m here for you. Or if you need to play that song, or sing that song. Anything. I’ll listen.”

“I can’t play. And, fuck, I can’t sing for shit either.”

“I don’t believe that. Besides, like I said: I’ll listen to anything.”

“No, it’s… It’s nothing. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Alex, talk to me. Or talk to someone, at least. Your parents, or Charlie.”

“I can’t. I’ve hurt my parents enough without reminding them. And Charlie didn’t even know me back then, I think he’s better off being blissfully ignorant of what it was like. Of what I was like.”

“Ok. Well, then that leaves me.”

“I’ve hurt you enough too.”

“I can handle it.”

“Clearly you can’t!” Alex snapped. “You may not have put a bullet in your head, Zach, but how many times did you get behind the wheel completely wasted? Or walked on the fucking ledge of a rooftop? And what about letting Diego fuck you up? You’re gonna sit here and lie to me and tell me that song you just played isn’t about your own damn, dark thoughts? And now you’re gonna go to the same kind of party you used to go to to get stinking drunk?”

Zach let him rage, patiently waiting for him to quiet down. “I do have dark thoughts,” He admitted. “I have bad days. But I have good days too. Like today.”

Alex stared up at him with questioning eyes. “Today is a good day?”

“I always have good days around you, Alex. Even when you want to talk about when you shot yourself. Because the thing is: you’re still here,” He said poignantly. “You came back from that.”

“With your help.”

“Yeah, you were an awful patient. God, you were impossible.”

“Excuse me, how many PT sessions did you skip this spring?”

“Well, I learned from the best how to be a pain in the ass.” Zach grinned.

It was impressive how Zach could bring him back from the dark places his mind wandered to and make him smile.

“So? Are you going to talk to me or what?”

He thought for a moment before chickening out. It wasn’t the right time. He didn’t want to put any thoughts in Zach’s head when he was going to a party later. Monday was weighing on their minds as it was, no need for him to add an extra burden. He shouldn’t have even mentioned it, but sometimes the words just spill out of him.

So he shook his head.

Zach didn’t push the matter. Instead, he said: “Actually, I just thought of a PT exercise we skipped.” He extended his arms out and retrieved the guitar from the foot of the bed to place it in Alex’ lap.

His body tensed up. “I can’t.”

“Have you even tried?”

“Of course.”

Zach quirked an eyebrow. “When?”

“Like, a couple of months ago.”

“A couple of months ago? Are you shitting me? A lot can change in a couple of months. A lot has changed!”

Alex shook his head. “I haven’t been getting better, Zach. I still go out, I still go red, my fingers still get tired, my leg still locks up.”

“Shut up.” Zach grabbed Alex’ hands and put them in position on the instrument. He let go of him. “Play me something. Anything.”

It felt alien to hold a guitar again, like he used to do that in a previous lifetime, not in this one. There was a poetic truth to that. He shaped his fingers on the fretboard and strummed the strings once, ignoring Zach’s stare. Then again, and again, until it sounded like the first chords of his favorite song. A little stilted, but recognizable.

The sound filled his ears and for a second he felt like himself again, like his old self. Sitting in his own bed, perfecting a song, feeling a happiness and a calm. But he didn’t deserve that. Nobody could ever go back to the way things were. Hannah, Bryce, Jessica, Justin, Tyler, Monty, Winston, Zach, his parents… Nobody could ever go back to before. Why should he get to have this back, when all he’d ever done was hurt people?

“No, I- I can’t.”  He pushed the guitar back into Zach’s arms, freeing his hands to cover his face as he felt himself start to cry this time around.

The guitar protested with a hollow sound as it was put aside and before Alex knew what was happening and before he could resist with a hollow sound of his own, Zach pulled him into an embrace.

He wept against his chest, hiding his face, mortified at the intensity of his own emotions without even being able to blame them on an episode.

Zach petted his hand through Alex’ hair. He said nothing, didn’t even shush him. He just let him cry for as long as he needed to.

Eventually, Alex pulled back, exhausted. He tensed up when Zach cradled his face in his large hands and wiped his cheeks dry with his thumbs.

“I should go home and get some sleep,” He announced, breaking eye contact. “Charlie is coming over later and I can’t let him see me be a wreck like this.”

“You can’t hide the dark parts from Charlie to protect him. You don’t have to.”

“I have to try. I don’t want to cast a shadow on him.” He crawled off the bed and smoothed the wrinkles out of his clothes. “Will you text me, when you get home tonight? No matter how late it is?”

“Sure.”

 


 

Up until the moment he rang the doorbell, Zach had been sure he would change his mind. He’d been sure when he stood fiddling with his car keys. He’d been sure when he stopped at a red light. He’d been sure when he sat in his car parked behind Charlie’s  Land Rover.

Fuck… Charlie.

Was Zach being selfish?

It was too late now, he had rung the bell.

No, no he wasn’t being selfish. Charlie was the one being selfish, wanting to have Alex for himself! Charlie didn’t have the right to claim him like that, just because he was the boyfriend. He didn’t understand the bond between him and Alex. He didn’t understand what they had been through. If he did, he wouldn’t have asked Zach to stay away. Because he should have known better than Zach, that Zach couldn’t stay away. Especially the weekend before that Monday.

Right or wrong, Zach and Alex needed each other.

It took a long time for the door to be answered. Zach tensed up when he noticed a figure approach the door. Through the frosted glass he couldn’t see much, but he could tell the figure was too tall and too broad to be Alex.

The door opened and Zach had expected Charlie to be mad, but the boy’s first reaction was one of concern.

“Zach, is everything alright?”

“Yeah, of course.”

The worry slowly ebbed away.

Zach stood there, bouncing his weight on the balls of his feet. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

“No.” Charlie didn’t sound mad. Did the boy ever really get mad? Zach couldn’t recall. But he was definitely annoyed. “Zach, what are you doing here? I told you, I-”

“Now is not the right night, Charlie.”

“I’m not even planning on- No, hold up, this isn’t any of your business. I asked you for one night. Just one night.”

“Not tonight,” Zach shook his head.

“Why not?”

Did Charlie even know? Did Alex even tell him? Did he know about Monday?

“Zach?” Alex approached the doorway with a look of confusion. He was drying his hands with a kitchen towel. The short boy still wore the same clothes he’d been wearing all day – light blue jeans, a white T-shirt, and an open, blue and grey button-up. The clothes were wrinkled from having spent all day in bed. Zach’s bed. His hair was a mess too. He had probably slept the rest of the afternoon until his date with Charlie. “What’s going on?” His brows furrowed with worry. His blue eyes were so welcoming and soothing, like a bath.

“Come with me.”

Alex let out a nervous laugh. “To the party?”

“Yeah.”

“Because I’m always the undeniable life of the party?” The sarcasm was impeccable.

“Because I need you.”

Charlie’s gaze darted back and forth like he was keeping up with a tennis match, although he looked as horrified as he did whenever the other two made him sit through a slasher movie.

“Zach.” Alex stammered a few syllables before throwing a glance Charlie’s way. “We kinda have plans.”

“What plans?”

“We were gonna watch a movie,” Charlie said defensively.

Exciting.” Fuck, he was being a dick. He shouldn’t be a dick about it. “Which movie?”

“You wouldn’t like it.”

“It’s a surprise,” Alex chimed in, with a tone that implied he’d been trying to get the answer out of Charlie all through dinner without success.

“Save the surprise for later. We got a party to go to,” Zach insisted. “Please.”

“Is this really important to you?”

“I want to feel normal. I wanna go to a party and just be a kid. We didn’t get to be kids for long, with how fucked-up high school turned out for us. It was taken from us. Let’s take it back. Let’s take back a part of the life we didn’t get to enjoy.” He took a step closer, put a hand on Alex’ shoulder and peered into his eyes. “We deserve to take it back.”

Alex swallowed. He looked doubtful and his lips parted. Zach knew he was going to argue with him, say something gut-wrenching about atonement, but it was Charlie who interrupted him.

“Zach’s right.”

Zach snapped his head to look at the younger boy, but Charlie only had eyes for Alex.

“You deserve to enjoy what you missed out on.”

“I never even liked parties,” Alex said dumbly.

“You’ll like this one, trust me,” Zach said.

Alex finally agreed with a shrug and Zach knew it was only because he was worried about him. He had faith that going to this party would be good for Alex though.  

The tallest boy of the three convinced his best friend to at least change his shirt for the occasion and sent him upstairs. When Alex came back, he was wearing black jeans, black boots, and that same, long-sleeved, grey shirt he’d worn that night on the rooftop. Zach wondered if only he remembered what the boy had been wearing that night, but he pushed that aside. He was just happy that Alex agreed to dress up a little.

Charlie’s checkered button-up and knitted sweater couldn’t be helped. Alex didn’t have anything that would fit his bigger boyfriend. Charlie always dressed like the perfect son-in-law. He probably was, and maybe Bill and Carolyn could confirm one day.

“Can I drive?” Alex asked on his way to the car.

Zach tossed him the keys, trusting Alex to know and say so if he wasn’t okay to drive.

Zach’s classmates were surprised to see him at the party. He’d been telling everyone all week that he wouldn’t be coming. He had just used it as an excuse to give Charlie the opportunity to set up his big, romantic night. He would have never gone out without emotional support from Alex.

Although he was hardly ever strong enough to admit it out loud, he was a recovering alcoholic. He didn’t know yet if he was strong enough to resist relapsing in situations like that. He paused at the sight of all the red cups. Littering the floor, stacked onto every available surface and held in everyone’s hand. He hadn’t had a drop of booze since sobering up to go see Justin and he knew he never should again. It would always be a slippery slope.

Needing something in his hand to get rid of that empty, incomplete feeling that suddenly crowded him and clawed at his throat, he quickly grabbed a cup and filled it with water from the tap.

Both Alex and Charlie had followed him into the kitchen and he poured them water too.

The location was nothing like the mansion where the last party he had been too had been hosted. The find-your-drink party was a distant memory now. One of many Zach was glad was distant.

It was just a regular, two story house, but in a part of town where even that was a luxury. Too many people were crammed into the living room, surrounding a make-shift stage of beer crates and plywood. A guy he had a couple of classes with was playing electric guitar and crooning lyrics to an alt-rock song from the nineties, his only back-up an unknown playing the drums. But there was also a keyboard and bass guitar at the ready.

The three of them stood against the back wall, pretty much being pressed into it by the overly encouraging crowd.

“Wow, you weren’t kidding about the play-pretend rockstars,” Alex commented.

“Sure wasn’t.”

“These guys seriously go to school for this shit?” The short boy made a face at the overbearing way in which the guy manipulated his guitar.

“Yep.”

“Well, he knows how to make that guitar cry. Cry for help.”

On the other side of Alex, Charlie commented: “He doesn’t sound so bad to me.”

Both Alex and Zach erupted in laughter and it made Charlie uncomfortable because he didn’t get the joke.

“What? Everyone else seems to like it too.”

“Only because they all plan on taking their turns up there to play a song. They’re paying it forward.”

“Oh.” Charlie drank from his cup.

“Do they do this often?” Alex asked.

“Almost every Saturday. They need it, after having the teachers rip into them all week.”

“Do you need it?” Alex teased.

Zach snorted. “My teachers adore me. I’m pretty much a musical prodigy.”

“That guy thinks the same thing about himself.” Alex nodded at the rocker on the improvised stage.

“Clearly, he is wrong. I’m not. I would know if I was wrong.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I have this asshole friend who’d tell me.”

Alex grinned at that.

Mr. Alt-Rock played three more songs before surrendering the stage to the group who actually had the audacity to give their band a name and introduce themselves as if the people in front of them had bought tickets to see their show. Then they started off playing “one of their originals”. Most of the time, Zach couldn’t tell if the vocalist was forgetting his own lyrics or if the song was really that unimaginative.

The Asian boy kept stealing glances at his friend to his left. Alex’ features twitched between disgust, shock, and delight.

Zach leaned in a little closer. “Are you having fun?”

Alex nodded. “This is like watching Funniest Home videos.”

“I told you you’d like it.”

“Alright, don’t gloat. When are you going to get up there, so we can laugh at you?”

“Actually, I was hoping you’d get up there with me.”

Alex looked shocked. “Why would you even think that?”

“Because no matter what, you’re better than everyone here. Except me, of course,” He winked.

Alex rolled his eyes. “Of course.” He shook his head. “I think you are grossly overestimating both our capabilities. I was never even that good, not even before-...”

“Yes, you were.”

“You never even heard me play other than some awkward jazz band concerts.”

You were not awkward.”

“Whatever, Zach. I can’t play anymore.”

“Yes, you can. Look…” He turned his body to face his friend, leaning one shoulder against the wall. “You’ll never be a professional musician, but nobody in here is going to be. Everyone plays because they love music. Nobody loves music more than you.”

Alex shifted nervously and he looked to the other side, at Charlie, who had been listening in on the entire conversation without interfering. “I can’t.”

“Alex.” He grabbed both his shoulders but when the shorter boy cast his gaze down and refused to look at him, Zach gently touched a finger under his chin to make him tilt his head up. “Stop denying yourself things that make you happy. Playing guitar makes you happy. Let it.”

“I don’t-”

“Yes, you do.”

“You don’t even know-”

“Yes, I do.” He held his gaze until the storm in Alex’ eyes calmed. “I do know.”

Alex was shaking his head until he eventually admitted defeat and he wondered with an amusing frown: “What would we even play?”

Zach grinned from ear to ear.

“Oh God, it’s gonna be something stupid, isn’t it?”

Zach had a couple more songs to come up with something that had an easy, but stand-out bass for Alex to play, with an electric guitar solo for himself, and with some necessary humor to take the edge of. Playing the bass would be easier for Alex than playing lead guitar. It would be a good confidence boost for him, instead of being too challenging.

He knew he could pick from any of the music he had obnoxiously subjected Alex to for as long as they had been friends – the full repertoire of “fucking questionable taste in music” as Alex had once put it. Alex only needed to hear a song once to be able to dissect it. The boy may not have ever been aware of when he was doing it, but Zach always noticed when Alex effortless drummed his fingers along with any song after just the first verse.

They moved through the crowd to the front and when a new band climbed the stage, Zach asked the lead singer if it was okay for him and Alex to go first. He promised it would only be one song.

The classmate offered: “If it’s just the two of you, maybe we can back you up? If we know the song.”

“Great, thanks, dude.” With a smirk Zach stepped up onto the raised plywood.

“What do you need us to play?”

“Keyboard and drums?”

“No problem.”

“What are we playing?” Asked the guy who took a stand behind the keyboard.

Zach trained his eyes on Alex, wanting to get drunk on his reaction. “You know that one song from Wild Cherry?”

Alex eyes widened.

The keyboard player grinned. “Yeah, I know which one you mean.” Of course he did, they were taught by the same eighties-obsessed teacher and he had played them the song as an example of the perfect bass line.

“Zach, no,” Protested Alex, but he was already laughing. “No fucking way. We’re not doing this.”

“Ohhh, yes we are,” He drawled. He slung the electric guitar over his shoulder and thrust the bass guitar into Alex’ arms. “Don’t be a pussy, white boy.”

Alex even looked a little whiter than usual, making his lips appear more pink in contrast. It didn’t help that was nervously worrying his bottom lip between his teeth. He put the strap of the guitar over his shoulder. He first clenched his hands into fists and then shook them out before positioning his fingers on the strings. “I don’t even know the song.”

“Yes, you do, fucking liar.”

Alex tested the guitar and his fingers, playing a few notes. After a couple of times, it sounded like the start of that memorable riff. He stopped himself and threw an uncertain look up at Zach. “Can’t we play something with more dignity?”

“Alex, whatever you are going to play, I will be singing those lyrics, so you might as well be in on the joke.”

“I really hate you right now,” He said mildly.

“Ahuh.” Zach stepped up to the microphone stand and while adjusting it to his height he briefly let his gaze wander to Charlie, standing right in front of them, before looking back at Alex.

The boy was tense and awkward, holding a guitar for the first time in too long. The last time Zach had seen him carry the instrument, his hair was still short and bleach blonde and he’d been much skinnier and his clothes hung off his bony frame. In spite of everything that had happened, Alex looked healthier now than he ever had before and that made Zach’s heart swell.

Alex caught him staring and Zach just casually raised his eyebrows at him, wordlessly letting him know that he was waiting for him to start. Alex’ lips moved and Zach couldn’t hear him, but he knew he was cursing under his breath.

The dirty-blonde haired boy bowed his head down to concentrate on his hands. His hair obscured his face.

G – D – A – E

Zach watched Alex’ fingers as closely as Alex was and he smiled. He played the intro seamlessly and Zach skipped the adlibbed lyrics before the first verse so he could enjoy the sound the bass guitar. The drums came in and Zach sang into the microphone, putting his own twist on the vocals to suit his voice. The crowd was easily pleased but seemed to be genuinely amused by the choice of song.

When he sang the chorus Alex finally looked up at him and even though Zach couldn’t hear him, it was amazing to see him laugh and see those dimples appear in his cheeks. Zach couldn’t take his eyes off him. He could see the relaxation in his body and in turn felt the exact same way.

“Play that funky music white boy

Play that funky music right

Play that funky music white boy

Lay down that boogie and play that funky music till you die”

At about the midway point of the song, Zach backed away from the microphone to stand closer to Alex as he started in on his guitar solo. The cheap electric guitar cried to his touch and Alex’ bass kept him from rushing the notes the way Zach tended to do.

Alex left hand froze momentarily and his brow flickered and his smile faltered, but he pushed through the mistake and got the rhythm back, closing his eyes in concentration.

Zach forgot most of the lyrics and couldn’t manage much more than the last few repetitive lines, instead focusing on how their guitar play complimented each other.

The crowd cheered for them regardless when the song died down.

Zach kept his promise to his classmate and handed him the guitar after only the one song, even though he could have played all night like that. He didn’t understand why any of his classmates dreamt of being rock stars. It was a pipedream not even worth chasing. Seeing Alex play made him so proud. That was what Zach wanted to achieve with music. To give others confidence. If he could teach kids the ability to play the kind of music to make them happy, then he’d consider his career in music a success.

Alex passed along the bass guitar and was eager to disappear into the crowd. He jumped off the stage and right away Charlie pulled him in for a kiss.

Zach shamefully admitted to himself that he had forgotten Charlie was even there.

As the kiss intensified, Zach knew he had to get away. Just like he knew the very first time he saw the two of them kiss. He was less confused as to why this time though.

He was jealous.

He knew it, but he couldn’t rationalize it.

He remembered Alex kissing him – kissing him first. He remembered it wistfully and regretfully.

It had been his own decision not to let it go anywhere from that. It was stupid to second-guess himself now, all this time later.

Zach went outside for some fresh air. There were too many people packed into the living room, there wasn’t any oxygen left.

Outside the air was cool, but not uncomfortably cold. It was early November, but this was still California. He had to walk out into the yard a little bit to avoid the cigarette smoke of the group of students hanging out just outside the door. He took a deep breath and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans.

There were thoughts and feelings chasing him that he would rather avoid dealing with, so he kept walking, meandering through the back yard so they wouldn’t catch up. Carrying around stones in the pit of his stomach. They’d been there so long, he was used to the weight.

“That song was worth coming to one of these dumb parties for.”

Zach looked back at a guy quickening his pace to catch up with him. He searched his memory, but he couldn’t recall ever seeing him at school.

“I skip most classes,” The guy explained, coming to walk alongside him. “Skip most of these parties too. Wouldn’t have if I’d known you’d be playing at them.”

“I usually skip them too. This was my first time.”

“Ah, you ‘popped your cherry’, I get it.”

Zach chuckled at the reference to the artist they had covered. He hadn’t even thought of it that way.

“You were great.”

“Thanks.”

“So, uhh… The ‘white boy’…” He sheepishly scratched the back of his neck. “Is he your boyfriend?”

Zack stopped. “No. We’re just friends.” That hurt to say, but the reason as to why was like smoke; when he reached his hand out to explore it, there was nothing to grasp onto.

In his defense ‘just friends’ never seemed to suit their relationship. Zach and Clay were ‘just friends’, Zach and Tony were ‘just friends’, Zach and Charlie were ‘just friends’. Zach and Alex were something else. But what they were exactly, he’d never been able to put his finger on. Which was why he was out here wandering circles around a drained pool, swallowing his heart back down because it kept forcing its way up his throat, while his best friend was kissing his boyfriend inside.

“Oh. Good news for me, I guess.”

Zach barely had the time to process what was going on. The handsome face got closer to his and then he felt a soft pressure against his mouth. He stood completely rigid, not even having the sense to close his eyes.

The kiss was very different from the kiss Alex had placed on his lips. For starters, the boy in front of him was his height, so the other didn’t have to push himself up on the tip of his toes to reach his lips. His dark hair was short and styled upright, so he didn’t feel it tickle the bridge of his nose. His lips weren’t as soft, so he didn’t want to kiss them back.

Yet he didn’t pull away. He stood there; lips locked, knees locked. He waited to feel something, expecting he would. There had been nothing special about the kiss he’d shared with Alex.  There couldn’t have been. The flutter in his heart,  the heat in his cheeks, the ache in his stomach… those were just the things you felt when you kissed, right? No matter who kissed you, boy or girl.

But he didn’t feel anything now.

The guy pulled back, an awkward expression on his face.

“Sorry,” Said Zach, without actually feeling sorry. He frowned at the memory of himself on the rooftop. He felt like he was on the brink of some realization; like finding a word on the tip of your tongue, or figuring out the solution to an equation. He avoided eye contact and turned his head to the side.

That’s when he saw him.

Alex.

The boy stood on the far end of the empty pool, staring at them.

Shit.

Zach’s heart stopped. It shouldn’t matter that Alex saw him some random stranger. But it did matter. It mattered to them both and he recognized that right away. What he still couldn’t figure out was why.

Alex pivoted on his heels and stormed away, pushing himself past the smokers, but rather than go back into the house, he walked around it.

“Alex!”

“Fuck, he is your boyfriend, isn’t he?” The guy spat in betrayal.

Zach paid him no heed and left him behind to chase after Alex, repeatedly calling his name. He walked through the damp grass along the side of the house and burst through the gate Alex would have just walked through. A panic gripped at him when he stood on the driveway and didn’t see Alex anywhere. He jogged out onto the open street and looked down the street to where his car was parked. Still no sight of him. He spun around to check the other direction and caught him just walking out from underneath a streetlight.

“Alex! Hey!” He ran after him, slowing his pace as he closed the distance. “Where are you going? Hey…” Once he had caught up with him, he reached out and took hold of Alex’ elbow.

The other violently ripped his arm out of his loose grip. “Don’t fucking touch me!”

“I’m sorry.” He raised his hands in surrender and stared into wild blue eyes. “What’s going on? Talk to me.”

“Fuck you! I’m not going red, I’m just mad! I’m allowed to get pissed off without everybody immediately thinking I’m going mental.”

“I don’t think you’re mental. Just tell me why you’re upset.”

“Because you said you weren’t into guys!” Alex shouted. “But what you meant was you’re not into guys like me.” After that broken statement he began to walk away again.

Zach followed. “Guys like you? You mean smart and kind and funny? …If you’d stop walking away from me, you’d get more than three things.” He tried to be charming to disarm Alex’ rage.

Alex turned to confront him with wild eyes. “Yeah, but not ‘hot’, right? Not attractive. Not tall. Not muscular. Not like that guy.”

“I don’t give a shit about that guy.”

“Are you bi?”

Zach fell mute. He didn’t know. He didn’t think liking one boy ‘differently’ would warrant that question. That’s how he’d been avoiding asking himself that question for almost a year now.

“Cause when I kissed you, I thought you might be,” Alex’ voice was breaking as he spoke and he was fighting tears furiously. “I thought you liked me. I had all these moments built up in my head, like I was special to you. You’re the first person who made me feel like I was good enough. That maybe it was okay that I’m skinny, that I limp, that I go crazy, that I have this darkness.”

Zach listened, stalling his own response, at a complete loss for how to make this right and take away this hurting that he witnessed before him.

“And the fucking dumb thing is,” He let out a bitter laugh, “Right after, when I saw the look on your face, I actually, truly believed that the only reason you didn’t like me was because you were straight after all. It didn’t even cross my mind that it was me.”

“Alex…”

He blinked and the first tears fell. “Do you not like me because you don’t find guys attractive, or do you not like me because you don’t find me attractive? Because I’m not good enough?”

Not good enough? Zach studied Alex’ face. His pretty lips, his straight nose, his thick eyebrows, his big eyes, his cute ears. He ached to see his dimples. He had the most amazing smile. He was the most precious person to Zach. “But I do like you. I love you.”

Alex pushed against his chest and then brought the hand up to cover his eyes. “Don’t fucking say shit like that to me if you aren’t going to mean it.”

Shit, no, he had said the wrong thing. Zach panicked. “Why does it even matter what I feel? You have Charlie.”

“Yeah.” He wiped at his cheeks and then put his hands in his pockets and walked back towards the booming house. “I want to go home.”

Chapter Text

Alex couldn’t stomach the sight of Zach nor Charlie. Memories were turning sour and he could taste it in his mouth. He felt physically nauseous and all he could do was stare at his boots and listen to Zach lamely explain to Charlie that they were going home. Alex shied away from Charlie when his boyfriend laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Did something happen? Are you okay?”

He swallowed his scoff. No, he was not okay. Nothing about this was okay. This cycle was never going to end.

“Happiness just makes us unhappy… It just ends sad. Every single time.”

Nothing could just stay pure, everything had to be tainted somehow.

Zach assured Charlie that everything was fine. What good liars they had all become…

The three boys climbed into Zach’s car. Charlie automatically took the back seat, right behind Alex. He pushed himself forward in his seatbelt and squeezed Alex’ shoulder the entire way. Alex didn’t have the heart to pull away from him again, even though there was nothing comforting about the touch. Thankfully, Charlie didn’t ask any more questions, the entire ride back to Evergreen.

Zach didn’t say anything either, he awkwardly put on a Spotify playlist after only a minute of silence. He dropped the couple off at the Standall home, where Charlie’s Land Rover was still parked in the driveway.

Alex got out of the car without saying goodbye and Charlie scrambled after him.

After a heartbeat, the Audi rolled away.

He approached the front door with a quick pace, ignoring the ache in his entire body that made his leg go stiff. Charlie’s footsteps were right behind him and Alex spun around before he climbed up the porch. “You should probably go home. It’s late.” He tried to sound as casual as possible, knowing he wouldn’t be able to get rid of Charlie otherwise.

His stomach churned. ‘Get rid of Charlie’ was so unfair. He didn’t mean it that way. But he couldn’t be around him tonight. He didn’t want Charlie to see him hurting like this, he had to spare him this.

“We could still watch that movie.” Charlie forced on a smile for him.

“…I’m tired.” That was so true. So true.

“I won’t hold it against you if you fall asleep midway.”

Clearly, Charlie wasn’t just going to take no for an answer, not wanting to leave him alone when he could tell something was wrong. “I- I’m really not in the mood, Charlie.”

“It’s okay if your upset. It’s-… It’s okay if something happened. You don’t need to talk about it. Just let me be there for you.”

With an exhale his body deflated and he dropped his head down. “Please stop being nice to me.”

Charlie frowned at him.

“I- I don’t deserve it.”

“Stop saying that… it scares me.” His voice was barely a whisper. Charlie took a step closer to him but that caused Alex to take a step back. “Alex, it’s okay.”

“Stop being nice to me!” He burst and his heart sank at the expression before him.

“Is it about Zach?”

Alex didn’t know what the younger boy knew exactly – or what he thought he knew – but while Alex recognized that he couldn’t keep trying with Charlie when he was still in love with Zach, he couldn’t say anything tonight. His head was too messed-up to do this conversation right. “Charlie, if you don’t go home now I’m going to say things that I don’t want to say and you don’t want to hear.”

The younger boy swallowed.

“I don’t want to hurt you. So please just go.”

Charlie stared at him with frightened eyes, but eventually he nodded and he walked to his car.

Alex couldn’t watch him drive way. He hurried into the house and slammed the front door shut behind him. His breaths came in quick pants and it felt like he was sucking fire into his lungs. He collapsed back against the door and clawed at his chest. Every heartbeat hurt. He staggered forward, seeking purchase on the bannister and he lowered himself down until he sat on the second step of the staircase. He let his head hang between his knees and fought to regain control over his body. 

He managed to slow down his breathing and then his heartrate followed.

As soon as the room stopped spinning, he got up from the steps and went to his bedroom to gather his things, stumbling up the steps. He couldn’t stand to be in this house tonight. A house full of those moments with Zach.

With his backpack over one shoulder he went out the back door, nearly forgetting to lock it behind him. He threw his things into the minivan and got behind the wheel.

Alex drove back to Berkeley with the radio turned off.

He’d blow off Sunday lunch with a partial lie about having an assignment due. He didn’t want to see any of them, because they would all be able to tell how broken he was and they would want to fix him with kind words and comforting touches, but the thought of it made his skin crawl.

It was two in the morning when he reached the dorms but he sat in his car for thirty more minutes, wringing the steering wheel and avoiding his reflection in the rear view mirror.

He’d driven two hours only to realize he didn’t want to be in his dorm room either. He wanted to be nowhere.

“Nowhere” ended up being a stone bench at the side of the building, overlooking a landscaped park, and across from the Life Sciences building. He scuffed his feet against the gravel.

Seeing Zach kiss that guy at that party shouldn’t have hurt as much as it did. He shouldn’t be heartbroken, because his heart shouldn’t belong to Zach. It ought to be Charlie’s. The boy was better than Alex could have ever wished for. He made him happy, in spite of himself. Why wasn’t that enough? Why didn’t his feelings for Zach for away? Zach had hurt him so many times – even though it was never Zach’s fault.

He hated being with Zach because he loved being with Zach. He could never say that out loud because he knew that logic wouldn’t make sense anywhere other than in his own, jumbled brain.

He only had himself to blame for how much it hurt that every touch was platonic and every “I love you” had an asterisk.

*as a friend.

Being with Charlie was painless and easy.

Why wasn’t that good enough?

The idea that Alex would make Charlie feel like he was not good enough wrecked him. Because he knew that feeling so well. So many people used to make Alex feel that way: his parents, his brother, Jessica… And Zach used to be one them – and was again once more - hiding their friendship from his mom and ignoring him at school in favor of hanging out with Bryce and Monty. But all that changed. And Zach choosing him over everyone else, had felt better than anything.  

Alex wished he could give Charlie that feeling, he wanted to give Charlie that happiness, that peace of mind. But he had nothing to give.

His mind took him back to Monet’s, to an awkward encounter with Jessica, when he had dared to ask her why he wasn’t good enough for her; why was Justin always the one she went back to. 

“Why you want to be with one person and not someone else… you can’t always explain it.”

 He snorted at the memory. Fuck, ain’t that the truth.

“… You learn to listen to your body…”

His body didn’t really say anything when he was with Charlie. When he was around Zach, it was singing.

Alex ruffled his own hair to try and get rid of a tingle in his head. He looked up, flustered, at the sound of footsteps in the gravel and his gaze found a girl in a short skirt, holding her leather jacket tightly closed. She walked hurriedly, her high heels digging into the gravel, her step at times faltering on the uneven ground. She threw him a nervous look once she noticed him and then a look over her shoulder. She hugged her purse to her body and kept walking.

Two guys rounded the corner, from the same direction she had come from. They were tall and broad. They didn’t see Alex, they only had eyes for the girl.

“Hey, lil’ mama, come on!” One called after her. They weren’t hurrying to chase after her, but they easily kept pace as they trailed a few yards behind her. “That skirt is a question and I have the answer.”

“Hey!”

All three of them looked his way, but nobody stopped walking. The two guys shared a laugh. One of them off-handedly remarked: “Get in line, boy. Let the men take a stab at it first.”

Clearly, the girl hadn’t expected Alex to stand up for her, but now that he had interfered in the situation, she looked at him desperately. Alex had seen too much shit at Liberty to idly sit by. He had made that mistake before, he wasn’t going to repeat it. He pushed himself up from the bench, putting most of his weight on his right leg as the other leg had locked up after a day that had been too long and trying already. “Really? You feel like a man, right now?”

One of the guys stopped to face him, while his friend kept strolling after the girl. “Look, I get that the whole hero-routine is the only way for you to get a girl like that, but give it a rest, dude. We’re just having fun.”

“She’s not having fun.” At that moment he heard her yelp and he noticed the other guy had caught up with her. He didn’t see what he did, but he must have touched her some way. “Leave her alone!” He started towards him, left leg stiff and he knew his limp was the reason why the guy who stood by him started to laugh.

“Holy shit, watch out Hunter, this guy’s comin’ for ya!” He mocked.

The girl hit Hunter with her purse but he caught her arm and then didn’t let go until she started to scream and he had the gall to sport this dumb, innocent look on his face, as if she had been overreacting.

Alex was seething but stopped walking when the girl ran away and Hunter let her, watching her leave with a sick grin as he caught glimpses of her underwear. “I’m going to report you,” He said and lied to give his threat more weight: “I know who you are. We have a class together.” How hard could it be for campus security to track these guys down? There couldn’t be a that many 6-foot-tall Hunters around.

Alex flinched when a big hand landed on his shoulder and squeezed him hard.

“You’re not going to do that.” The other asserted in a low voice.

He looked up at him, at his cocky face, at his warning eyes. He tried to pull himself out of his grip but the other student held on tighter.

“You’re gonna shut the fuck up, go jerk off in your dorm, and call it a night.”

Alex narrowed his eyes at him. Something snapped. He could have yelled at him. He could have punched him. He could have kicked him. But he knew none of it would have hurt the bigger boy. He probably should have kept his mouth shut, like he was told to do, but he didn’t.

He spat in his face.

The blow was instant. With a single punch Alex was floored, landing hard in the gravel.

“Aaron! Let’s just get the fuck outta here,” Hunter called.

Alex lay on his back, staring up at Aaron, towering over him. He panted harshly through his nose. It felt like his left cheekbone had exploded on impact.

Aaron gazed down at him with dangerous eyes, clenching his fists at his sides. Alex expected the beating to continue but when Aaron moved again, all he did was point a finger at him.

“You’re gonna keep your fucking mouth shut.” With that, he headed towards Hunter.

Alex watched him retreat. Dissatisfied and still so very angry that his body was jittering. He couldn’t leave it at that. With a groan he got back up on his feet. “You’re a fucking pussy, Aaron.”

The big guy came storming back towards him and Alex didn’t even try to evade or block the second punch that had him crumbling to the ground again.

“Aaron!” In the time it took Hunter to sprint towards the two, Aaron had landed three kicks in Alex’ stomach. Hunter hooked his arms under Aaron’s armpits and pulled him back, saying: “You can’t beat up a fucking cripple, asshole.”

“Fuck you!” Alex shouted, sputtering blood.

Aaron fought in his friend’s grip but Hunter worked him back and then powerfully pushed him away. Aaron stumbled but didn’t fall and he wanted to rush back to the boy lying in the gravel, but the other blocked his way.

“We have to go.” Hunter gestured at the dorm rooms overlooking the park.

Both threw one final look down at Alex and then they walked away.

Alex sucked in his first deep breath and it felt like he was being stabbed. He welcomed the pain, it silenced thoughts in his head. Punishing himself made him feel less guilty about everything else.

 


 

 Zach finished with wavering voice: “But I believe he knew. I believe he understood the unspoken. Because that, too, was the kind of person he was.” He reread the full speech in his head once more, gaze jumping along the jagged edges of Alex’ handwriting. He folded the piece of paper and carefully pocketed it. He treasured the speech and had kept it safe for months now. “I mean… shit…” Zach looked at the marble stone in front of him, Justin’s name carved into it.

The flowers on the grave were fresh. The Jensen’s came every week, Clay had told Zach.

He hadn’t been to visit before and an apology was the first thing he had said to the stone when he walked up to it. He wasn’t big on graveyards. His father’s grave was nearby, he had rarely visited it. It was too hard.

After some silence, he had seated himself in the grass and had pulled out Alex’ speech to read it to him, since he figured Justin ought to hear it, someway.

“He got you there, didn’t he? ‘Understood the unspoken’…” He rambled to the headstone. “You did. You understood. I know that now. I’ve been thinking about the last thing you said to me.”

It was so fucked up that Zach hadn’t realized those would be the last words between them. “You asked me if we needed to talk about Alex, or if I ‘got it’. I told you I did get it, but I lied.” He chuckled darkly. “You see, I don’t understand the unspoken. I’ve been wondering about what you were going to say. Because I get this sense you knew something that I didn’t. Something I’m starting to figure out now… And I really wish I could still have that talk with you…”

There was nothing but silence in response to him and a lump formed in his throat. Tears pricked in his eyes, so he rubbed them until the sting went away. “So here I am, talking to a stone.”

He never thought he’d be looking at Justin’s name carved in a headstone. Almost exactly two years ago, he expected to see Alex’ name like that. After he shot himself and he was in a coma, Zach spent weeks thinking he’d be going to his funeral soon. He had his black suit draped over the chair in the corner of his bedroom in preparation. But Alex surprised him and pulled through. Zach wished Justin could have surprised him too.

“Usually I talk to Alex about feelings and shit, but I can’t this time. Clay is-… Well, you know how Clay is. Tony would straight-up kill my ass, because he doesn’t want me to mess with Alex’ head. And Jess can’t keep a secret from Alex. Like, we all know how bad she was at hiding what was going on between the two of you from him.”

“Fuck you for that, by the way,” He said as an afterthought, his tone more mild than his words. “If you hadn’t been such a dick to him with Jessica, you two probably would have been friends.”

Zach combed his fingers through the grass between his legs before starting to rip out handfuls of it. When he caught on what he was doing he stopped himself and wiped his hands on his jeans. He hadn’t come to ruin the lawn or just to read the speech.

He took a moment to sort through his thoughts. Something he didn’t allow himself the time to do when he was actually talking to someone. But the headstone wasn’t going anywhere. It was patient.

“You remember when I first introduced him to you and the guys? Remember how much shit you gave him? And me too? You thought I’d gone crazy when I befriended him and brought him into our group. You thought I was pulling an elaborate prank on both him and you guys.” He snorted. He resisted the urge to claw at the grass again and ended up anxiously running his fingers through his hair. “He had this energy that I had to be around.” A wisdom. A sensitivity. An awareness. A bravery. A wicked humor.

Zach thought back to when he had first met Alex. Zach had been with Bryce and Monty, walking through the hallways, feeling powerful. People made way for them as they walked to their next class. But there was this bleach-blonde with blue eyes who wouldn’t budge, completely fearless as he looked up at the three of them, rooted to the floor in the middle of the hallway.

“Excuse me, Miss,” Bryce had said, “You’re in our way.”

“That’s a matter of perspective. From my perspective, you’re in my way.”

That was the first time Zach had heard that masterful, dry tone.

No one had ever stood up to Bryce and Monty, Zach included. He still didn’t stand up them when Monty bodied Alex out of their way. But Zach sought him out later, easily finding his bright blonde head in the crowd as students poured out of the building at the sound of the last bell. When he apologized to him for his asshole friends, he expected to get told off; expected Alex to call him out for being an asshole too. But he didn’t. With a shrug, all was forgiven.

He continued to tell the stone: “But I wasn’t in love with him or anything. I first loved Hannah. And after Hannah I loved Chlöe. And I knew I loved them. It wasn’t confusing, like this is. I mean, who the fuck knows where the line is between best friends and more?” He scratched the back of his head. “Well, I guess you knew. And you tried to tell me… Shit, I wish we had had this talk. Even if only because I think it would have been hilarious to see your face at hearing me gush about Alex.”

Zach crossed his legs under him and wiped his hands on his thighs again. Not still dirty from the grass, but just clammy from a nervous sweat. “I can’t stop looking at him. I can’t stop thinking of him. I can’t get enough of listening to him, even though I need a dictionary to keep up sometimes because he talks like he has a thesaurus in his head.” He smiled, but it quickly faded.

“I miss him before he goes away.”

He mulled on that, on how he’d sit across from the boy every Sunday for their lunches with the group, unable to laugh or even participate in the conversation, because he was already thinking about how much the upcoming week would suck without Alex.

Today had been different from every other Sunday. Because today Alex had skipped on lunch, explaining in a text in the group chat that he’d already gone back to Berkeley that morning, because he had to study. Dread gripped at Zach’s throat thinking about it. He hadn’t been able to eat anything and barely listened to Jessica as she complained about Alex ditching her – they were supposed to carpool back. Tyler offered to drop her off on his way back to school, not far from Berkeley.  

He paused the one-sided conversation with the tombstone to check his phone. Alex still hadn’t responded to his message in their private chat.

U : You don’t have to talk to me. I get it. Ignore me as long as you need. But please just let me know you’re ok. Promise me you won’t do anything stupid.

Last night had been scary. Even scarier than his episode from the weekend before. Because last night it wasn’t his TBI acting up. It wasn’t a misfire in his brain, setting him off. This was genuine hurting, the kind he wouldn’t forget after a good night’s sleep.

He stuffed his phone back into the breast pocket of his jacket. He drew his knees up and rested his arms on them. He chewed on his lip, studying the simple inscription in the stone. He decided to continue to talk.

“I love my friends. I truly do. But I can get sick of them too. Like, no offense, but an afternoon of Clay is plenty of Clay. I can’t get enough of Alex, though. That’s not friendship, right?”

Zach shook his head at himself for trying to get any answers out of the stone. But there was something therapeutic about talking through his emotions. Even though no answers or advice were given, he got the sense he was being heard; that someone was listening.  

“How could you tell? I- I couldn’t tell…” He scrunched up his face. The words made more sense in his head than out in the world, where they hung uselessly in the air.

“It’s been so gradual. I can’t tell when it happened. Nothing really happened. It’s like… football practice. It’s not one training that makes you good; you grow into it. I haven’t ‘fallen in love’ with him.” He paused and swallowed a few times to get that dry feeling out of his throat that made it impossible to talk.

“Falling is something abrupt. It’s a shock to the system. I think… I think I’ve grown in love with him.” Fuck. That was the first time he even allowed himself to think along those lines, let alone give a voice to those feelings. And the first time he said the words out loud were to a stone. To a ghost who had known all along.

He asked desperately: “And now what? What do I do with this? He’s with Charlie. Charlie is… uncomplicated. And here I come with all these very complicated questions and half-answers about my goddamn sexuality… Like, fuck, am I bi now? Does this make me bi? I’m so fucking confused.”

Zach tried to imagine what Justin would saw. It was difficult. They never really talked much about their emotions. Alex had been right: Justin understood the unspoken. They never had a heart-to-heart, but Justin had his back no matter what.

So what would he say? Something crude, probably, to dull the sharp edge of the seriousness.

“Would you fuck him?”

Zach let out a laugh, hearing Justin’s voice crystal clear in his head.

He hadn’t gotten that far in the process yet. He had taken a top-down approach, starting with trying to rationalize everything in his head, now sorting through the feelings in his heart. His dick, well, his dick hadn’t given the matter any thought yet. Not to mention that it felt like a violation to think of Alex that way.

But when he thought about kissing the boy, his lips tingled and he had to run a thumb along his mouth to get the feeling to go away.

Zach had still been in love with Chlöe at the time of their rooftop kiss, which was probably the only reason why he didn’t return the kiss and why Zach had been so hung-up on this idea that he only liked girls. The thing was that he liked one specific girl at that time. So he didn’t open himself up to what he felt for Alex, filing it away under this vague definition of a ‘special friendship’. And then Alex started dating Winston, and then Charlie, meaning there was a demotivating futility in studying this archive of emotions for clues of anything more. So he just kept adding to it.

Jealous of having to share Alex with Charlie? File it under ‘special friendship’.

Randomly remembering the first time he noticed he has dimples when he smiles?  File it under ‘special friendship’.

Breathing in his scent when he hugged him? File it under ‘special friendship’.

Singing romantic songs to him during two AM phone calls? File it under ‘special friendship’.

Getting distracted every time he licks his lips, which he does a lot? File it under ‘special friendship’.

But it was bursting now and every heartbeat felt like a papercut. He couldn’t keep ignoring it, pretending he couldn’t read.

“I am bi…” He said, slowly nodding his head. He may have only ever loved one boy, but he’d also only ever loved two girls. “One outta three feels pretty bi to me.” He stared at the name carved into stone again and then cast his gaze up at the sky. “Fuck, you must hate being dead right now, missing out on getting to tease me about this.”

He sat with Justin for a moment longer, talking about his recovery and how it had been Justin’s last conversation with him that had given him the strength to quit.

Then he decided to stop by his father’s grave. His mother wasn’t a sentimental woman, so she only came on the anniversary of his death, because she was supposed to. Zach spent some time clearing away twigs and leaves from the grave before eventually going home.

Zach’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel when he pulled into the driveway behind the silver Land Rover.

Charlie was idling by the door to the garage, his hands buried deep into the pockets of his pants. He was looking down at his sneakers until he heard the engine of Zach’s Audi and he looked up at him.

Charlie had ignored him at lunch earlier that day and Zach had actually been grateful for that. He was not looking forward to a confrontation.

He climbed out of the car and locked it behind him with a beep. “Hey, man. How long have you been out here?”

“About an hour.”

Shit.

“Can we talk?”

Zach shrugged. “Sure.” He waited for Charlie to speak but the boy bounced nervously on the balls of his feet.

“Maybe privately?”

“Errr… okay.” He walked past him, unlocked the door and led the way up to his bedroom above the garage. To avoid eye contact he took his time putting away the electric guitar that was still laid out on the bed after he’d spent all night playing it, unable to sleep.

“What the fuck was last night about?”

Waiting for an hour and swearing? This was definitely serious. Still, Zach tried to play it off casually. “He was just tired after the party.”

“I’m not even talking about after the party. I mean before the party. Before the party you dragged us to, after you promised Alex and I would have the evening to ourselves.”

He latched up the guitar case. “It just wasn’t the right night for you guys.”

Charlie frowned at him. “Why do you get to decide that?”

“Do you even know what day it is tomorrow?” Zach was getting heated, as if he didn’t deserve Charlie being angry with him. It was an automatic, defensive reaction. He knew damn well Charlie had every right to be mad.

“Of course I know. Why would you think I wouldn’t?”

“Well, excuse me, but you weren’t there.”

“I’m here now.”

Zach shook his head at the naiveté. “That’s not the same.”

“Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t know.”

“If you know so much, you should know that this weekend just wasn’t the right weekend for us to not be together.”

“Or maybe, it was exactly the right weekend for Alex to be alone with his boyfriend for once. Instead of another night of ‘Netflix-and-scream’, or some random party.”

Zach carried the guitar case to the corner where he set it down. Then he shook off his jacket and threw it onto the bed. “Oh, yeah? Weren’t your big plans just watching a movie anyway?”

“We were going to watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.”

Zach frowned. “Why? That’s a Christmas movie.”

“It’s the movie I watched with Alex at the find-your-drink party. The party you dragged him to and then ditched him at. We spent an hour looking for you before he agreed to let me take him home.”

“Hey, what the fuck? I was in a car crash.”

“Because you left him!” Charlie erupted. “You were in a car crash because you took off with Clay without even thinking about Alex.”

“Fine, ok? It’s not like I’m pretending I didn’t make mistakes back then. But if we’re dredging up old shit, how about we revisit the talk you had with Monty at football practice last year. Huh? And what you had the balls to say to me afterward? ‘Shot himself in the head and missed’, just like that, casual as you please.” Zach bit. “Because for a very, very long time, that’s all Alex was to you. The kid who ‘shot himself and missed’. You didn’t even know his goddamn name until everyone at school was talking about him after, until they forbade it.” He pointed an angry finger at him and it did feel good to see Charlie just stand there, looking a little paler than usual. “I was there. Before and after. You didn’t even give him a second glance until he got rid of the cane.”

Charlie narrowed his eyes and color returned to his face, a shade of red. “Fuck you! You wanna pat yourself on the back because you happened to know him ‘before’? As if you didn’t help him through PT just because you felt guilty for not recognizing the signs ‘before’. Because you weren’t there for him when he actually needed you most. You know? When he was thinking about putting a gun to his head.”

Zach lunged forward and shoved against Charlie’s chest. “Fuck you!” Tears welled up in his eyes. He coiled his arm back and clenched his fist, about to punch Charlie in the face, but he managed to stop himself and take a step back. He took a deep breath and when he exhaled all of his anger deflated and he dropped his heavy body down onto the couch. “Did Alex tell you that? That I wasn’t there for him when he needed me?”

“… No…” Charlie sighed. “I’m sorry, I- I shouldn’t have said that. I didn’t come to argue. But I was angry about what you said. That I only like him because he’s better now.”

“I know… I shouldn’t have said that either…” He slouched forward. “I know you love him.” He wrung his hands together. “I’m sorry about last night. What I did was wrong. I’ll try to be better. It’s just… we hung out yesterday afternoon and he said some things that scared me. And I know I should trust you to take care of him, but the thing is, you’re right: I do feel guilty that I didn’t see the signs and that I wasn’t there for him. And I’m terrified of making that same mistake again.”

And also I’m jealous as fuck that I could have had him first, but I didn’t hold onto him when I had the chance.

Charlie regarded him with empty eyes.

Zach flinched when his phone buzzed in his pocket. His fingers fumbled to get it out of his pocket and unlock the screen.

U : You don’t have to talk to me. I get it. Ignore me as long as you need. But please just let me know you’re ok. Promise me you won’t do anything stupid.

Alex : Promise.

He let out a breath in relief.

Charlie straightened up. “Is that Alex?”

“Yeah. He’s okay.”

Chapter Text

Monday, November 9th.

Zach absentmindedly strummed Alex’ guitar.

This night, two years ago, Zach had been stressing out about the depositions the next day.

This night, two years ago, Alex had shot himself in the head.

His hands stilled and he squeezed his eyes shut at an onslaught of emotions. When he’d fought back the tears and the lump in his throat, he continued to play. The instrument sounded sad, as he plucked the strings. He softly sang words that came to mind, from a speech he had since memorized.   

“I believe, in words unspoken

In promises we left unbroken

Into the darkness

at all cost

We chase the friends we lost”

He had to stop again. It was too much.

He had a nightmare last night. He was standing at the pulpit in the church, finding the paper on which Alex had scribbled his speech for Justin, but a sickening feeling settled in his stomach as he became aware that he wasn’t at Justin’s funeral. Justin wasn’t even sick yet. He was at Alex’ funeral. His parents were seated in the front pew. His mother wept. The Deputy could not take his eyes off the casket.

When he unfolded the paper, it wasn’t the thoughtful speech, it was Alex’ suicide note. And Zach was forced to stand there and read it out loud.

He had woken with a cold sweat and he hadn’t slept the rest of the night.

The one year anniversary of the day hadn’t been much better, but at least that day he had Alex around and he was free to just watch him breathe and see Alex put on a smile for the sake of him.

He stroked his hand along the edge of the guitar lovingly before putting it to the side and checking his phone again. He reread the last messages in the group chat.

U : Anybody hear from him?

Jess : I haven’t seen him all day and he’s not responding.

Saint : Not answering my texts or calls.

Clazy : He left me on read.

Clazy : But at least he read it.

TylerD : I don’t like this. Maybe someone should go check on him. Jess?

Jess : I know I’m closest, but I think it should be Cookies.

U : Don’t. He needs his space.

Saint : Are you sure?

U : Yeah.

Tony : Guys, relax, he’s cool.

Tony : We’ve been texting back and forth and his parents called him.

Tony: Zach’s right, he just wants some space.

Zach had initially been jealous that Alex was ignoring everyone – including him – except for Tony. Zach was used to being exception; the one Alex would always come to, no matter what. But on second thought, it made sense. He knew Alex felt understood by Tony. And Tony had been protective of Alex ever since Alex’ sexuality came to light. Actually, that wasn’t true. Tony had been protective of Alex ever since the boy had his first absence episode in Caleb’s gym and Tony had called Zach in a panic, asking him what to do. Zach had stayed on the line with him until Alex had come to again.

That was after he had killed Bryce, but before anyone knew he had killed Bryce. He’d had some bad episodes back then, going out regularly from the stress, evoking paternal feelings in Tony. 

Tony knew Alex and he could judge him well. But the reassuring texts from Tony didn’t calm Zach down. He remembered texting back and forth with Alex on November 8th, two years ago. Everything seemed fine then too. They weren’t nearly as close back then. The two of them probably weren’t even as close as Alex and Tony were now, but still, how well could you really tell from a text if someone was doing okay?

He switched to his chat with Alex. The text from yesterday was the last he’d heard of him.

U : You don’t have to talk to me. I get it. Ignore me as long as you need. But please just let me know you’re ok. Promise me you won’t do anything stupid.

Alex : Promise.

Against his better judgment, he tried calling him.

 “Why are you calling? This is a phone. You don’t call with a phone. You text with a phone. Send me a text, dumbass.”

At least the fact that the call went to voicemail after ringing twice meant that Alex was still alive and well enough to reject Zach’s call.

It still didn’t put him at ease.

Although he feared nightmares, he went to bed, hoping to be able to fall asleep and kill time that way. But sleep eluded him. He tossed and turned instead.

At midnight he watched the date on his phone switch from November 9th to November 10th.

Still his restlessness remained uncured.

November 9th may have been the day Alex’ after started. But for Zach, it had started on November 10th.

He’d had his dreaded deposition in the morning. They all had their depositions that day, one after another. It had been nerve wrecking, wondering which secrets would no longer be secrets by the end of that day. He hadn’t felt like he could talk to anyone though and he was going crazy. He’d sent Alex a string of texts, asking how his deposition went. He checked his phone every hour that day and sent a new text to the blonde every single time, because he wasn’t responding.

Selfish thoughts had been swimming in Zach’s head. He was worried Alex had ratted them all out. The burden of guilt seemed to weigh heavier on Alex’ shoulders than on everyone else’s, even though Zach always thought the boy was overreacting. The list was hardly the worst of the things the group had collectively done to Hannah.

He’d been shooting hoops after school to avoid tagging along with Bryce and Monty. He couldn’t really explain why he was still friends with them. Probably only because it made his life so much easier, and he could really use some of that back then. A little bit of ease amidst the struggle.

He could barely get his weight off the floor to make a jump shot. His head and heart were heavy. He’d heard nothing but the sound of the ball bouncing and his sneakers squeaking on the hardwood floors for an hour, but then he heard a soft beep and he was instantly drawn to his phone; still expecting that text from Alex.

Apprehensively, he grabbed the device. When he read the message under Alex’ name on the lock screen, he knew something wasn’t right.

Alex : Please call.

Alex always tried to get out of calling by texting instead.

He put the phone to his ear and didn’t have to wait long.

“Hello?”

His heart skipped a beat. It was a young voice, but not Alex’ voice. Maybe a police officer? He tried to speak but had to clear his throat first. “… H-Hello?”

“Thanks for calling, Zach,” Said the young man. His tone light and detached.

“Who is this?”

“I’m Peter.”

That meant nothing to Zach.

“Alex’ brother.”

His relief was fleeting. Okay, not a police officer. But why was Alex’ brother answering his phone?

“Guess he didn’t mention me…”

His heart was racing as Peter kept him in the unknown. “Can I talk to Alex?”

“… Shit…” Peter’s voice broke and from the sound of it he pulled the phone away from his face. In the distance Zach heard the brother say: “No, it’s okay. I can do this, Dad.” He spoke into the phone again: “You’re the football player, right?”

Sure, among other things, he thought to himself. “Yeah.”

“I-… Uhm… Alex is in the hospital.”

He sucked in a breath. “Is he okay?” His mind raced, much like his heart. Did Justin maybe beat him up to keep him quiet?

“…No.”

Peter’s sob was like a punch in Zach’s gut that knocked the wind out of him.

Then, suddenly, there it was: “He tried to kill himself.”

In the first second he didn’t react at all.

But then Zach slowly doubled over and he put one hand on the bench to keep himself from collapsing, as the words registered. He breathed in deeply through his nose, afraid he was going to throw up. When he dared to speak again, he rephrased his question from before: “Is he going to be okay?”

“We don’t know… He- uh-…” He stopped.

“I want to come see him.”

“I don’t think visitors are-…” There was a voice in the background. “Yeah, visitors aren’t a good idea right now.”

He sat himself down on the bench. “What did he do?”

“Uhm…”

“Please,” He whispered.

“He shot himself in the head.”

Zach threw up.

He sat up in bed, feeling that same nausea overcome him again, two years later. He laid a hand on his abdomen and curled himself over his legs. Once his stomach had calmed down a little, he moved to the edge of the bed and faced the window. Through the opening in the blinds, he could tell the sun would soon rise.

He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t stay away. He had to see his face.

The Standalls hadn’t allowed him to see Alex for a full week after his suicide attempt. Not even when he showed up at the hospital the day after the call. The Deputy had come into the waiting room and had gently but persistently refused him, even as he begged. Not seeing Alex breathe with his own eyes had messed with his head. He wouldn’t believe he was alive until he did.

He had to see him now. 

Zach quickly put on jeans and a sweater and didn’t bother to tie the laces on his army boots until he was at his car.

In the two hour drive to Berkeley he tried to think of what to say.

How could he assure Alex that he was good enough, without saying too much?

He didn’t have an answer to that by the time the sun had risen fully and he arrived at the dormitory where he had only been once before. Him and Charlie had accompanied Alex and his parents to Berkeley when he first went. The group split between two cars: the three boys in Alex’ minivan and his parents trailing in his dad’s truck. 

But because he had been there before and had even carried one of the suitcases up the stairs, Zach knew which dorm room was Alex’.

He had thought to pause on the way to get coffee and something sweet for breakfast, hoping to disarm Alex that way, after the spat from last Saturday. He passed two girls in the hallway who looked him up and down and smiled at him. He couldn’t tell if they smiled because he looked good and they were flirting, or because he looked like a wreck and they just meant to be nice.

He stopped in front of door marked 4.20.

They had gotten a good laugh out of that one on the day they moved Alex into the dorm.

Fourth floor, tenth door on the left.

He knocked and stopped himself from saying anything. Maybe he had a better chance of Alex actually opening up for him if he didn’t let him know it was him.

No answer.

The knocked again. Louder and more hurried.

The door was ripped open and Zach was met with a freckled face and light blonde curls. “Who the fuck are you?”

He grimaced at the strong morning breath with a hint of vodka and puke. Alex had been too kind when he had complained about his roommate. “A friend of Alex’.”

The guy frowned. “Alex doesn’t have any friends.”

Zach pushed past him, into the room.

“Dude!”

Both beds were empty. “Where is he?”

“Fuck if I know, I just woke up.” The bed creaked when the guy let himself fall back down.

Zach stormed out of the dark hole of a room, back into the bright hallway. Right away he spotted a slim figure that made all tension leave his body and he started towards him.

Alex exited the bathroom, dressed in jeans and a white shirt that clung to his damp skin. His hair was still wet. When he looked up from the floor, both boys froze.

Zach studied his face in shock. A dark bruise discolored the left side of his face. From his brow bone to his cheekbone.

“Shit. What are you doing here?”

“I… brought breakfast…” Zach said dumbly, still distracted by the damage to the pretty face before him. He shook his head to get himself out of his daze and he narrowed his eyes. He demanded to know: “What the Hell happened?”

“I fell.”

“Fuck you. Who did this to you?” He reached out for Alex’ chin to make him look at him when the boy turned away but Alex reeled back.

“Why does it matter?”

He glared at him. “Because if you don’t tell me who did it, I have to kill everyone.”

“Don’t joke about that. Don’t say shit like that.” He pushed past him in the narrow hallway, to get back to his room. “Seriously, why are you here?”

“You know why I’m here.”

“Well, I’m alive. So you can go now.”

With his free hand Zach grabbed Alex’ elbow and pulled him back. “Tell me what happened to your face.”

“A fist happened.”

“You are so funny right now,” He said sarcastically.

“Two guys were bothering some girl, okay? I couldn’t sit by and do nothing.”

Zach deflated, knowing exactly what he meant.

“I reported them, they’ve both been suspended, so it’s handled. You can stop worrying.”

“It doesn’t work that way. It’s not that simple.”

Alex sighed exasperatedly.

Zach reached out for his face again. Alex initially made a displeased sound and pulled his head back, but then allowed the touch of Zach’s fingers and he angled his jaw to let him inspect the bruise. He ran his knuckles along the smooth jawline and his gaze moved from the purple bruise to the ocean blue eyes. He moved the hand to the boy’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “I know you want to do the right thing, but you have to be more careful,” He said. “All it takes is one bad hit, Alex.”

“You would have stood up to them.”

He replied carefully: “I don’t have a brain injury.”

Alex scoffed. “That you know of.”

Zach smiled at the joke, it gave him hope that they could go back to normal. He drew his hand back and raised the other, holding the bag with coffee and donuts. “Breakfast?”

“Sure. Let me get my jacket and shoes.” He sounded unenthused, but at least he agreed to breakfast. Probably lured by the promise of sugar and caffeine.

Zach idled outside the dorm room until Alex emerged having put on his boots, an extra T-shirt and his brown jacket. He led him to a small mess hall on the ground floor and Zach bit back any observation about how bad limp Alex’ limp was that morning, indicating he was tired, so he must have slept poorly.

They sat across from each other and Zach handed him his coffee and let him have first pick of the donuts.

Strawberry glazed, because the sweeter, the better. Zach knew he’d like that one, which was why he got it. The clerk had wrapped it in paper so not a trace of strawberry would end up on any of the other donuts. He went for Nutella-filled himself, although he really wasn’t hungry.

Alex’ expression was unreadable. He finished the donut in four bites and then sipped from his coffee. “I have class in, like, ten minutes, so…”

So say what you came here to say, he meant.

Zach tossed the donut back into the paper bag and wiped his sticky fingers. He leaned forward and locked gazes with his friend. “I’m sorry that I made you feel like you weren’t good enough,” He spoke bluntly. Probably should have practiced some more in the car. “I need you to know that you are. Not just good enough for me, but good enough to deserve a guy like Charlie. Don’t push him away because I made you feel like shit.”

Alex cursed under his breath and put the coffee cup on the table. “You came all this way to tell me that?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Fuck you, Zach.”

Confused, he watched Alex get up and walk away. “Wait. Why- What’s wrong with what I said?”

“Nothing. It’s perfectly serviceable. Thank you very much.”

“Alex?” He chased after him.

“Look, you didn’t say anything wrong, okay? Nothing I don’t already know: we’ll never be more than friends so I should stop being a dick to Charlie.”

“That’s not-“

“You’re never gonna say what I want to hear, so, please, just shut the fuck up and go home,” Alex threw over his shoulder.

“What do you want to hear?”

Alex stopped at glared at him. “You know.”

Zach swallowed the words back down. He knew if he said them, nothing good would come out of it.

Alex held his gaze a moment, refusing to let any tears fall, as if he was making a point to Zach by holding them in. When the point had been made, he walked away, without saying any more.

 


 

Zach didn’t make it back in time for his morning classes and he decided to skip the ones in the afternoon, so he could get some sleep after not getting any that night. But he couldn’t skip out on football practice, so he made sure to set his alarm.

It went off at three o‘clock, giving him an hour to shower and get ready. When he moved to turn off the alarm, he noticed he had a missed text.

Tony : We need to talk. I’m coming by the field today.

Oh boy, he was in trouble. He felt like getting called to the principal’s office. Although, not really… But if Tony wanted to beat him up, he’d have to get in line, because Zach was sure Charlie would be pissed with him too.

After a shower he slipped into his AC uniform and headed to Liberty High.

Coach Kerba was already on the field. They had been eliminated from the championship, but that didn’t mean the coach was going to let up on them. Today would be their last training session of this year’s football season, they wouldn’t pick back up until early spring. Just like before the summer break, coach Kerba used the last practice before the winter break to go through an exercise routine that the players were supposed to maintain during their down time. For most, that would be wishful thinking, but those were the guys who’d get the worst scolding when they couldn’t keep up next time.

“Hey, Zach. Everything good?” The coach knew about November 9th and 10th.

“Yeah, fine.”

He appraised his exhausted face and didn’t call him out on the obvious lie. With a smile he patted his shoulder instead and asked him to give the training schedule he’d set up for the boys a once over.

Soon enough, the team walked out of the locker room and Zach and Charlie’s gazes met across the field.

Yeah, Charlie was definitely pissed.

Luke was hanging off Charlie’s shoulders and as they approached, Zach caught what Luke had been prying him about on the way over.

“Come on,” The big blonde drawled, “Tell us about your big romantic night with your boy.”

Charlie broke eye contact with Zach and forced on a smile. “It was great.”

“Yeah? Did our quarterback finally become a man?” He slapped his chest.

Zach put his hands in his pockets to hide his fidgeting fingers.

“Sex doesn’t make you a man, Luke,” Charlie pointed out.

“You know what I mean! Did you  finally get laid?”

Charlie was clearly uncomfortable under everyone’s scrutiny. They looked at him expectantly. He let out an awkward laugh and brushed the hairs at the back of his neck. “That’s… private.”

The entire team catcalled and took turns punching his shoulder, chest, and back. Clearly everyone mistook the answer to mean that Charlie and Alex had sex. And Charlie let them.

“Oh Captain, my Captain!” Luke exclaimed with a grin.

Zach stared at him, jaw tight. The hands in his pockets had clenched into fists. It wasn’t right for Charlie to make the guys think that the two of them had sex.

Kerba interfered with the moment, for which Charlie looked relieved. “Alright, alright, bring it in. You girls can gossip later.”

That was kind of sexist, Zach thought, but he only knew that now that he’d been hanging around Jess as much as he had the past year. He used to say shit like that himself all the time.

Zach watched the training, avoiding looking at Charlie, even though he could feel the boy’s eyes on him the entire time and getting more irritated with him the longer the training lasted. He regularly checked the sidelines and bleachers, waiting for Tony to appear. Knowing he was stopping by to confront him about Alex, not letting him get off easy with a call or text.

While he watched, he couldn’t really focus on anything. He didn’t care if the guys were training well or not. He thought about that morning and what had happened between him and Alex. He thought about what Alex had wanted him to say and he wondered how many times he had disappointed Alex in the past.

When he spotted Tony walk up to the field about midway into the training session, Zach stood by for as long as he could stand it and then asked Kerba if he could be excused a moment, nodding at his friend across the field. He had to get this over with. He couldn’t take both Charlie and Tony staring at him like that for another hour.

With the wordless approval from his coach, Zach cut through the team, making a beeline towards Tony.

Noticing the off behavior, Charlie stopped doing burpees and looked over his shoulder to find Tony standing on the far end of the field.

Before long, Charlie was in Zach’s way with wide eyes and flared nostrils. “What’s going on?” The quarterback demanded to know. Walking backwards in front of Zach.

“Nothing.”

“Yeah, right. So you can be the hero again?” He spat. He pushed against Zach’s chest to stop him in his tracks.

“Guys, break it up,” The coach called, not thinking much of it. Football players can get heated at times, no reason to overreact.

But Charlie continued: “You lied to me! You told me not to go over and then you went there yourself! After you told me you’d try to be better!”

“Well, maybe I tried and failed at being better, okay?”

Charlie pushed him again, hard enough to cause him to stagger back. “Try harder next time!”

There wasn’t even going to be a next time, Alex didn’t want to see him. But he argued instead: “Stop telling me what kind of friend I get to be with him!” Zach pushed back and Charlie fell to the ground, but he scrambled back to his feet quickly.

The guys looked on. Normally they wouldn’t hesitate to interfere with a fight – or partake, rather – but they didn’t know whose side to choose.

Kerba came jogging towards them and Tony crossed the field as well. The coach said: “Stop that, right now.”

Charlie was seething, Zach had never seen him like that and what broke him out of his own anger was the guilt at knowing it was all his fault. He didn’t struggle when the coach grabbed his shoulders and pulled him out of Charlie’s personal space. “What’s with you both? I can’t have my AC and QB fighting. Come on.”

“It’s fine,” Zach said.

Charlie mirrored the lie.

“Why don’t you sit out the rest of the training, Zach. I got it from here.” He motioned for the team to continue their exercises. Once the curious gazes were off them, he said to Zach softly: “Just stop by my office tomorrow, okay?”

Zach nodded and when the coach released his shoulders he walked with Tony towards the parking lot. The shorter boy was quiet the entire way and it made Zach all the more anxious.

When they reached the cars, Zach was the first to speak up. “Aren’t you going to say something wise, Yoda?”

“Woa woa, there is a height restriction to that word. Anybody over six feet is not allowed to call me that, ‘cause that’s just cruel.”

Zach blinked at him, unsure why he was cracking jokes, when he’d been convinced Tony would be digging into him for the same thing Charlie gave him shit for on the field.

Tony leaned back against the hood of his car and folded his arms across his chest. “Got an interesting text from Alex today.”

Yeah, he’d figured.

“Asking me if I knew you were coming over… I told him I would have stopped you, if I’d known.”

He nodded along.

“I told you he needed space. Heck, no, you said it yourself first.”

“But I didn’t need space,” He said his voice starting off strong but fading to something weak in the span of five words. “I didn’t need space. I needed the opposite of space. I needed to be close to him.”

“Boy, you are so smitten.”

He nodded again, miserably. “I know.”

Tony was perplexed for about two seconds, then jested: “Well, that took you long enough.”

“Oh, as if you knew.”

“I did know. Not for long. But I did know before you. I thought I was gonna be spending the afternoon trying to get you to see the light, but it looks like my schedule just blew wide open.”

Zach frowned. “Why are you gloating?” But he waved his hand and rather asked: “When did you know?”

“The Sunday of that first weekend he came back from college.”

Zach raised his eyebrows. That was very specific and also months ago.

“I saw the way you looked at him. Those sad, puppy eyes.” He chuckled.

“I’m glad you find it all amusing.”

“It’s not all amusing. Most of it is really, really fucked up.” His tone became serious.

“Yeah.”

“How are you doing?”

His caring tone surprised Zach. “What do you mean?”

“Figuring out you’re into guys – or into Alex, at least – that’s tough. I was there for Alex. I want to be there for you.”

He snorted. “You are not Yoda, you are like a fairy godmother.”

“I could still beat your ass,” Tony reminded him.

“No doubt.”

“So? How are you?”

He pursed his lips and looked down at his gym shoes. “Not great.” He put a hand on his mouth for a moment to suppress a quiver that started in his bottom lip. “It was better not knowing. I think… I think I’ve been in love with him for a really long time, like maybe even before and during Chlöe. But it was this unknown, shapeless thing in my head that I could ignore in favor of easier things. An easier love. But now…”

Zach didn’t know how to put it into words, aside from calling himself a goddamn dumbass, which he supposed he was and had blamed himself for many times before. As he struggled to explain himself, Tony waited with a patient expression.

“It’s like…” He let out a scoff. “Like one of those stupid paintings at Monet’s, you know? I look at and I don’t see anything. It’s just meaningless and I can’t be bothered. But then Alex says some shit like: ‘It looks like a shrimp riding a sea turtle, but angrily’ and then that’s all I see. It is a shrimp angrily riding a sea turtle. Every time I’m getting coffee, all I can think about is a shrimp riding a sea turtle and wondering why he’d be mad about it. Until Alex points out a new, stupid painting. It’s like that. It’s all I see now.” He let out a frustrated sigh. “I’m not making any sense, am I?”

“Actually, you finally are.”

Chapter Text

Sending texts to everybody that he was not coming home for the weekend did not go over well. But he couldn’t go home sporting the green and yellow bruise on his face. Zach and Jessica had already seen it and Tony knew about it. But nobody else knew what had happened and he didn’t want them to find out, least of all his parents.

Of course Charlie took it to mean he was specifically avoiding him – and maybe that was a nice benefit to the fucked-up situation. Because Alex knew that the next time he would see Charlie, it would be over and he wanted to stall that a little longer, for them both. He couldn’t go on, not able to give Charlie all of himself as Zach held onto a piece of him and Alex didn’t even want to ask him to have it back. Zach could keep it. There was something right about that pain. Like Aaron stomping him in his gut.

“You know, you look kinda bad-ass, with that bruise,” Jessica commented as they walked across the courtyard after classes on Friday. They didn’t see each other much on campus, her classes were in another building. Besides that, she had friends and was president of the Hands Off club she had started at Berkeley. The girl Alex had stood up for last weekend had joined the club last Wednesday and had told Jessica all about “this boy that dared to say something”.

Zach and Tony had just fretted about him. But Jessica had come to find him and had said: “I’m so fucking proud of you.”

That felt good.

He touched the bruise self-consciously. People had been staring at it all week. Another thing that sparked rumors about him. Whispers died down whenever he entered a classroom.

She bumped her shoulder against his. “You’re a bad boy.”

“You wanted to say naughty so badly, didn’t you?”

“Nah. I’m saving that for a special occasion.” Suddenly she froze, wide eyes staring up ahead. “Oh, shit.”

Alex followed her gaze and grumbled under his breath.

Standing by the entrance to his dorm building was his dad. The man noticed them, halted in the middle of the courtyard. Alex could see the frown forming on his face and then his hands dropping down to his sides, once the bruise registered.

Jessica touched his arm in support. “Let’s have lunch tomorrow.”

“Aren’t you going home for the weekend?”

“You might as well come home too. Now that your dad knows about the bruise anyway.”

“Yeah. I’ll think about it.”

‘Text me,’ She mouthed as she backed away.

Alex took a deep breath and headed towards his father. The man met him halfway with a deeply concerned expression.

“What happened?” He examined the bruise with his hands on his hips. “Jesus, buddy. You look like you got hit by a truck.”

Alex snorted. You should have seen it earlier this week, he thought. You should see the bruises on my abdomen. No, he shouldn’t.

“Is this why you wanted to skip out on coming home this weekend?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to worry.”

“I appreciate that, buddy, but you don’t have to protect me like that.”

“Yes, I do.” The questions were apparent in his Father’s eyes, so he explained: “I’ve been beaten up worse. You’ve seen me beat-up worse.” His face didn’t even look like his own after Monty had gone in on him, fist harder than the pavement Alex had laid on. “You didn’t use to worry like you do now. And I get that that’s my fault. If I could take it back, I would. But all I can do now is spare you and mom as much as I can.” His voice became raw with emotion and he blinked away tears. He hadn’t meant to, but it had been a tough week, with little sleep.

He let out a gasp when his dad pulled him into an embrace and Alex buried his face into his denim jacket and hugged him back.

The Deputy rubbed his son’s back soothingly as the boy still refused to cry. After a minute, he disentangled them and said: “Let’s go have a seat.” He walked him over to one of the metal picnic tables in the courtyard, where it was still warm thanks to the sun. The man sat down next to him and coaxed the story of the fight out of him.

Alex’ father nodded along in understanding. “It sounds like a red episode.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

“Have you been having them more often?”

Alex threw him a pained look.

“Nono, don’t do that,” His father shushed. “Don’t ‘spare me’. Talk to me.”

He dropped his head down and nodded ever so slightly, ashamed to admit it. “Yeah, sometimes. And not just red. But the panic attacks and… the seizures too.” He never used that word and it left a bad taste in mouth.

“Well, the doctor said those would probably never go away.”

“Yeah,” He croaked. “I also-…”

“Tell me.”

“I also had the auditory hallucinations again, last summer.”

His father scooted even closer and put a hand on his back, encouraging him to keep talking.

“During that drill. And then one during the riot too.” He felt his father’s hand still and tense, the man got so angry whenever he thought back to that damn drill – so angry at the school for putting the students through that.

“Same one as before?”

“Yeah.” The tears started to fall. Alex wiped at face, self-conscious about crying in public, but he couldn’t stop. “I heard you… I- I’m-…” He tried to speak through the sobs but only managed: “S-sorry.”

“Shhh… Shhh, it’s okay.” He held the boy against his chest, cradled his head in his hand and kissed his hair.

Alex hated feeling this way. He thought he’d been doing better, earlier this year he was doing better, but everything was falling apart. He was going to lose Charlie and Zach. He was barely keeping up with his courses at school. And his mind didn’t plateau but regressed instead.

“I love you, son,” His father whispered and he let Alex cry.

The boy detached himself and looked at his father’s brave face. “Was it real? What I heard? I- I mean… Did you actually say those things?” He’d asked him that before, when the hallucinations had first happened. He hadn’t been given a straight answer then, probably deemed too fragile and too unstable. But he had to know now.

His father’s face contorted with grief and his voice didn’t sound like his own when he admitted: “Yes, it was real. I talked to you, while I performed CPR on you. Your mom was on the phone with the paramedics. I told you I loved you. I told you to stay with me.”

Alex’ lip quivered, he didn’t want to cry again.

“I didn’t think you could hear me.”

“I’m so sorry, Dad, for reminding you of that night.”

“Don’t be sorry. It was the worst night of my life, but I am happy knowing that you did hear me. And that maybe you didn’t just hear me, but you actually listened and did fight to stay with me. Because if you hadn’t fought for your life, I don’t believe your mom and I could have saved you.” The Deputy wiped away tears of his own. “I told you once that ‘fighting isn’t your thing’. But I was wrong. You are a fighter. You are the strongest person I know. You fought for your life. And you won.”

Alex shook his head. “I don’t know if I’ve won… It feels like the fight isn’t over yet.”

“You won,” He assured him. “If you have to fight another round, you can and you will win again. And I’ll be there for you, whenever you need me… For a very long time, I was only the kind of father that Peter needs. The kind of father grandpa was to me. I’m sorry I didn’t realize that you need a different kind of father. I’ll always regret that I didn’t realize it until it was too late. Almost too late,” He amended. “I want you to know I can be both; the father your brother needs and the father you need.”

“I do know. Dad… You’ve-… You’ve been amazing. I don’t-“

“Don’t you dare you say you don’t deserve it,” He warned mildly.

Alex let out a breath and then a sob. “I love you, Dad.”

“I love you too, kiddo.” He ruffled his boy’s dirty-blonde hair, not unlike his own. “How about I take you home now? And we’ll talk some more?”

“… Yeah, okay.”

 


 

Zach was lying in his bed, with the weight of Alex’ guitar on his stomach. He had been playing it all afternoon until he had stopped to listen to the rain on the rooftop. He couldn’t put the instrument away though, he liked holding it close as he morosely wondered if it would be all he’d have left of Alex. If he’d never get the chance to hold the boy himself.

Downstairs, the door to the garage opened.

It was probably May. She’d been walking in and out of his room with new math problems for the past three days, in preparation for a test. He welcomed the distraction his sister provided him and a part of him wondered if she really needed help with her math test, or if she sensed that her big brother needed help instead.

There was a soft knock on the door at the top of the staircase.

“Yep,” He called. He raised his head up and frowned at the tall frame standing there.

Charlie’s jacket and hair were wet, his face unrecognizable without a smile and that sparkle in his eyes. “Sorry, I guess you weren’t expecting me.”

He surely wasn’t.

Zach sat up in bed and felt like he’d been caught cheating with Alex, with how he had been laying there, intimately holding the guitar.

“Has Alex come to see you yet?”

Zach’s frown deepened. “What do you mean? He’s not home this weekend.”

“He is. Deputy Standall picked him up at Berkeley yesterday.”

“Oh… Uhh-… No, haven’t seen him.” And he wasn’t expecting to. Alex had made it very clear he did not want to be around him and all Zach could do was hope it to be temporary. “Didn’t even know he was in town, so… Did you see him?”

Charlie brushed some water out of his hair. “Yeah.” He closed the door behind him and walked further into the room, but clearly didn’t know what to do with himself. He ended up seating himself on the armrest of the couch at the foot of the bed. He leaned his arms on his knees and looked at Zach sideways. “We broke up.”

Zach clenched his fingers around the neck of the guitar. “Shit. Are- Are you okay?”

Charlie considered the question, chewing on his lip as he did. “Yeah, I think so. I mean… I think we kinda already broke up last week, but without saying the words.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Are you?” Charlie shot back, staring into his eyes for the truth.

Zach looked back at him calmly. “Yes, I am.” That was the truth, Charlie recognized it too.

“I’m okay. It hurts, but… maybe not as much as I thought? As much as it should?” He scrunched up his face, frustrated that he wasn’t making much sense. “I’m surprised he hasn’t come to you yet.”

“He didn’t break up with you to be with me, Charlie.”

“No. But he did break up with me because he still has feelings for you that he can’t shake.”

Zach felt guilty to the core.

“It’s not like I couldn’t tell. I’m a little dense sometimes, but not stupid. I know he was in love with you. We hung out like, all of last winter; me, Tyler, and him. He talked about you a lot. Always thinking about you, concerned about you. Second-guessing if he should text you a fourth time in one evening, to ask if you got home okay, from some party or hook-up. Overanalyzing your response, if you ever did text back.” He smiled sadly and continued:

“I liked him, but obviously I wasn’t going to do anything about that. Because I couldn’t compete with that. But then Winston came and it seemed like he was over you. And then Winston went and it seemed like he was over him too. So…” He made a dismissive gesture. “But now I think he never got over you and that I was just a friend he kissed sometimes.”

“Charlie, he loves you.”

“Oh, I know he does. That’s why it lasted as long as it did. He didn’t want to hurt me. There is love, but there is no passion. We’ve both come to realize that he doesn’t love me as more than a friend. That’s a hard thing to figure out, if you love someone as a friend or if you love them more than that.” He looked at him poignantly.

“It is hard,” He agreed, knowing what he was admitting to.

“So you do love him more.”

“It’s been a fairly recent realization. But I swear I wasn’t going to act on it. I know I was stupid and jealous, but I really didn’t try to sabotage you guys.”

“I know. You’re a good guy, Zach.”

“You’re the better guy.”

“Yeah, probably,” Charlie agreed and he flashed a smile to let the other know he was joking. “But not the better guy for Alex. I- I’ve had an ipiphany of my own.”

A sad smile tugged at Zach’s lips. From the middle seat of the couch, where Alex always sat between the two of them, he could hear him offhandedly correct: “Epiphany.”

“For me it was a beautiful blend of that nervous excitement at getting to experience these new things, with a friend who makes me feel safe. I love him as my first love. But I think you love him as your true love.” He let out a sheepish chuckle. “Sorry for being such a dollar-store poet.”

“You’re a saint, Charlie.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you knew how badly I wanted to punch you last Tuesday.” He glanced at him and joked sourly: “Still do, actually.”

“… What if I end up hurting him?” Zach searched Charlie’s eyes for answers.

“Well, then I definitely have to punch you. Obviously.”

He cracked a smile. “Obviously.”

Chapter Text

The group split up for a while to deal with the aftermath of the breakup. Charlie mostly retreated to the football team, but Tyler – accompanied by Estella – split his weekends between Charlie and Alex. Just like Tony split his time between Alex and Zach. Jessica kept an eye out for Alex at Berkeley, while Chlöe insisted on making the meetings between her and Zach a weekly thing again.

Even though Charlie had texted Zach later to clarify that he “had his blessing”, Zach couldn’t act yet. It didn’t matter how much he ached to take Alex in his arms and finally kiss him again. He had to be careful and respectful. He had to let Alex grieve for the relationship he had lost. What he had shared with Charlie might not have been what they had both hoped, it was still love nonetheless. He knew Alex needed time to deal with that first.

Alex needed space Zach wanted to give him that. He’d made too many mistakes already, with the best intentions.

November became December and Evergreen was lit up with Christmas lights and Alex came home for two weeks for the holidays. Not that the boy had told him. The two hadn’t even texted, since that day he went to see him at Berkeley. No, Tony had been Zach’s only connection to his best friend. And he trusted Tony to know what was right for him.

On the first day of winter break, Zach went to get coffee at Monet’s, like he did every day. He ordered his usual drink, idled by the bar, and then accepted the to-go cup with a grateful smile. On his way out the door, he threw a look up at where the shrimp-painting used to be, wondering what else they would have replaced it with by now. Last time he checked, it had been something red with gold leaf. He hadn’t been able to make anything of it. His brain didn’t work like Alex’.

He meant that as a compliment, although he was sure Alex would berate him for it.

But seated on the couch underneath the new, purple painting, was Alex, and as their gazes locked, so did Zach’s knees and he halted. He didn’t even notice Tony sitting right next to Alex until the boxer raised his hand in a wave.

Zach awkwardly waved back.

Alex waved too.

It was the first time they had laid eyes on each other. Thankfully, the bruise was gone.

He looked good.

He looked so good.

In a panic, Zach walked out of the coffee house, still not sure if it wasn’t too soon for Alex. Not even sure if wasn’t too soon for himself, considering he hadn’t rehearsed yet what he should say. He had to do this right. He couldn’t fuck this up. And if this time, all Alex wanted was for them to just be friends, he had to accept that. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to face that possibility yet.

The coffee had ended up going cold in his hand as he didn’t even think to have a drink, walking along the water, further and further away from his car.

By the time he had circled back, his bad knee ached and it was a relief to lower himself into the leather driver’s seat. He checked his phone automatically, cursing at himself during the long walk back to the parking lot, for leaving the phone in the holder on his dashboard. On his lock screen there was a message.

Fairy Godmother : It’s been long enough. Go get our boy.

He wondered what the two of them had spoken about for Tony to come to that conclusion. They had probably talked about him and how he had hightailed it out of Monet’s like an idiot. His face went hot at the thought, after cold wind had just chilled him to the bone.

Zach went home and played some songs on Alex’ guitar, like he always did when he needed some peace of mind. Strumming the strings was like he was talking to Alex. The notes were answers to his questions.

He wished he could rewind the year and go back to the rooftop where Alex had kissed him. He wished he could go back and be brave enough to not push him away; brave enough to kiss him back.

His fingers stilled on the strings. He couldn’t change history. He couldn’t undo past mistakes. But they could go back to the rooftop and make a new memory there…

 


 

At dinner, Peter rambled on excitedly about his new position as assistant coach for the Boise State college football team in Idaho, having been recruited after playing a game against them as the running back for the San Diego Aztecs last year. The coach for Boise State had come up to him after the game and had told him point blank: “You don’t have the legs to be a running back, son, but you have a head for strategy.”  Peter had moved to Idaho on a trial basis and now, after six months had come and gone, the coach had made it official and extended the contract with two years.

Alex watched his father beam with pride. On his mother’s features he observed some concern. She had secretly hoped her oldest son would move back home after graduating from college in San Diego. But she was happy for him.

“Can’t believe that incessant talking about football finally paid off,” Alex said dryly when his brother looked to him for input.

“I’m going to pretend to know what ‘incessant’ means and say: thank you.”

Alex giggled. “You’re welcome.”

Peter smiled at him. “I guess we can talk about something else now.”

Alex raised his eyebrows. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah. How’s school?”

Alex exchanged a look with his dad. “Better.” It felt wrong to admit it, but after breaking up with Charlie, he had been more calm, now that he was no longer forcing himself to be something and feel something that simply and sadly wasn’t true. He had more focus.

Not to say breaking up with him hadn’t been horrible. It was like pulling a trigger all over again and, being faced with those kind eyes, Alex hadn’t been able to do it. In the end, it was Charlie who said what they both knew. They had parted after a hug that had lasted an eternity. After which both boys needed their distance, although they promised to meet again soon.

Over a month later and “soon” hadn’t come yet. But he was in no rush.

“Seeing anybody new?”

“Uhh,” Alex looked down at his plate, catching both his parents glaring at Peter. “No.”

When his dad had brought him home that weekend, the week after the fight, he had talked with his parents candidly. He told his mom about the episodes that had been flaring up. He told her about the fight at school – was getting beaten up even a fight? He even told them both about the party that had preceded it and that seeing Zach kiss another boy was what had set him off. It was a relief to be able to tell them everything.

At their encouragement, he went back into therapy.

Not being around Zach for a while was also a relief. Their friendship used to be his most cherished source of happiness, but ever since his deeper feelings for Zach became undeniable, it had been painful to be with him. He spent all year taking the pain as punishment. Punishment for his mistakes, seeking a fairness and a balance to life.

But causing himself pain was not the answer, he knew that now. It wasn’t going to make anything right. The only thing he could do to make things better and to repay everyone for the risks they took for him, was to not let this gift they gave him go to waste.

And if he ever wanted to get that friendship with Zach back, he needed the time and the distance for wounds to heal.

Seeing Zach earlier today, however, had made his heart swell and reminded him of how much he missed the good times between them. He wondered if he was ready to try again, to be just his friend, or if it was too soon. He wasn’t sure if he could know without testing the waters, but that felt dangerous. He’d asked Tony and his friend had just smiled at him.

Alex had spent the rest of the afternoon training at Caleb’s, trying not to think too much about anything.

After dessert he stood next to his mom in the kitchen, drying the dishes she handed to him. His dad and Peter were in the living room, talking about football again.

Incessantly.

Alex and his mom didn’t speak, he just caught her smiling at him sometimes, like she always did. It was a small happiness to him, to know that he could make her smile like that, simply by being there. Alive and well. Every day, more and more, that small happiness outweighed the guilt he experienced for everything he had put her through.

His phone buzzed in his back pocket. Probably Tony, he thought. The boxer had been keeping a close eye on him, in Zach’s absence.

He put the stack of dinner plates away in the china cabinet and produced his phone from his pocket. He stared at the screen, waiting for his heart to start beating again.

Zach : Come meet me on the rooftop.

His mouth went dry. Why was he asking him that, after they hadn’t spoken in over a month? What was Zach doing up there? Was he drinking again? Did he need to make himself forget again?

“Honey, what’s wrong?”

“Uhm…”

Zach : Please?

“I need to go for a little bit.”

“Is something wrong?” She asked again.

“No.” I hope not. But the panic in his eyes belied his answer. “It’s Zach,” He said, as if that explained everything.

Maybe it did.

She hesitated, although she couldn’t have stopped him anyway. “Ok. Drive safely.”

With large strides Alex crossed the living room, drawing the attention of his father and brother.

“Where are you going? Where is he going?” The Deputy asked both his son and his wife.

“I need to go see Zach,” Alex explained, slipping into his coat and patting himself down for the car keys.

“Take my car,” Peter said.

When he looked up, all three of them had this odd, little smile on their face. “I have mom’s car.”

“I know. And now you have mine.” Peter got up and approached his younger brother. He held the keys of the Mustang out in front of his face.

Alex’ eyebrow flickered in confusion.

“You can have my car. I’m not gonna drive it all the damn way to Idaho. I’ll get a new one.”

Alex was dumbfounded. “You’re… giving me your car? That car is like 30 percent of your personality – and the rest is all football.”

“Don’t be a dick and take it.” Peter reached down, opened Alex’ palm and pressed the key into it. “Consider it an early Christmas present. That oughtta cover me for, like, the next ten years.” He grinned.

“I- uhh… Thank you.”

“Now go!”

“Right. Shit. Thanks. Again.” He shuffled out the door awkwardly and then remembered what he was doing. He quickened his pace to the Mustang parked at the curb. As he climbed into the driver’s seat, he flashed back to when he had raced over to go pick Zach up at the docks. He flinched at the sight his mind summoned, he remembered it too well and he still heard Zach’s broken voice as he said:

“Not wasted. A waste. A waste of time.”

But Zach wouldn’t do this. Would he? He wouldn’t start drinking again, right? Wouldn’t-?

He floored the gas pedal once he was out of the suburban area.

Zach’s Audi was parked right by the building and Alex parked the Mustang behind it. Getting out of the car, he looked straight up at the top of the building, half expecting to see Zach standing on the ledge. Thankfully, that was not the case. He didn’t see anything. He walked up to the front door and just tried doorbells until somebody buzzed him in, which was how Zach always got into the building as well. Justin had shown Zach the place years ago; apparently some drug dealer lived in the building, or used to anyway, which was how Justin had ended up there in the first place.

He took the elevator up to the top floor and then climbed the flight of stairs up to the rooftop. The maintenance door on the right he knew to be locked from his last time there, but the emergency door on the left would open – the automatic fire alarm had long been disabled.

His heart was pounding and he paused at the metal door for a moment.

It opened with a creak and the cold wind ruffled his hair. He stepped out under the starry sky and walked around the corner to the front of the building. He breathed Zach’s name when he saw him leaning against the air-conditioning unit, looking perfectly healthy and sober. Not a liquor bottle in sight.

Zach bounced up to his feet when he heard his name and he smiled at him.

What the Hell? “What the fuck are you doing up here?” Alex snapped, feeling a release of worry. Worry made way for anger. “You scared the shit out of me with that text. I thought you were gonna jump or something.”

Zach looked apologetic. “No, I’m not jumping. Just, taking a leap of faith.”

Leap of faith? Alex scowled at the corny expression. Where was he going with this?

“I- I am not getting on that damn ledge again. And I don’t want to see you up there again either. I never should have made you get up there in the first place. That was fucking stupid.”

“No shit.”

“I’ve done a lot of stupid shit. And you always went along with it.”

“Yeah, well, I’m brain damaged, so...” He shrugged.

“Yep.”

Alex narrowed his eyes at him. He was used to Zach placating him or simply ignoring it when he joked about his TBI, not vocally agreeing with him. Why did that hurt? He always said mean shit about himself. “What the fuck, man?”

“You are brain damaged. You have a limp. You ‘go crazy’ sometimes. You have a darkness. You’re not tall and you’re skinny,” Zach rattled off, as if there was a point to all of it.

“Wow, I get six things now, thanks,” He said dryly at having his own words used to describe himself thrown back in his face.

Zach took one step towards him, drawing his eyes back to him after he had diverted his gaze to his shoes. “None of that means you are not good enough. Because in spite of all those things, you are still the smartest, kindest, funniest, bravest, strongest… and hottest guy I know.” Zach smiled in response to Alex’ perplexed expression. “And everything else that’s good.”

His heart clenched in his chest like it had done so many times when Zach said something nice to him. The conversation never went where he wanted it to. There was always that asterisk.

I love you.*

*As a friend.

“What are we doing here, Zach?” He asked in a hopeless whisper.

“I invited you up here, because I want to ask you to kiss me again.”

Alex contorted his face. “Fuck you, Zach. That’s not funny.”

“No, Alex, wait, please.” Zach scurried after him when Alex tried to leave. He grabbed his hand only long enough to make him stop and turn back around. “I was an idiot back then. I wasn’t brave like you. I felt something for you, but I also felt something for Chlöe. So I took the easy way out, telling myself that one exception didn’t have to change anything... But you are an exception that changes everything.”

Zach put his hands on Alex’ shoulders again, like he’d done almost a year ago, on that very rooftop. Alex shivered even though the wind no longer had any effect on him.

“I’m in love with you, Alex.”

His mouth dropped open.

“We’ve both wasted a lot of time thinking we don’t deserve anything. But I think we deserve each other. And not in a cynical way, like: we’re both awful people for the mistakes we made so we ‘deserve’ each other… No. Fuck that. I think we can make each other happy and we deserve that.” He dragged his palms down the length of Alex’ arms until he held his hands and Zach entwined their fingers.

Alex looked down at those golden hands that had been in shameful dreams and he marveled at how well their hands fit together.

“If you are brave enough to give me another chance, I promise I won’t let you down again.” Zach inched closer to him. His voice went even quieter when he said: “If you want to kiss me again, I promise I’ll kiss you back this time.”

His breath hitched in his throat. He stammered something meaningless and fright gripped at him that he might go out from the shock. But one, two, three heartbeats later and he was still okay.

He did want to kiss Zach again, but he wasn’t sure if he was brave enough this time. He probably wouldn’t have even dared to kiss him a year ago if not for the rush of adrenaline. The moment had emboldened him. Now, the memory of how it had all turned to ash in his mouth made him hesitant.

For the first time in his life, Alex was afraid of getting hurt, rather than welcoming it.

Alex untangled their fingers and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans. Zach’s face fell.

Zach was saying all the things he had wanted to hear him say for so long, but so far all happiness had led to unhappiness eventually, just like Zach predicted in his drunken stupor.

“I’m not sure if I’m still brave enough. I-… I need to think.”

Zach nodded, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

“I’m sorry.”

“No, please, don’t apologize.” His black eyes were a kindness. “Don’t.”

“I- I should probably go.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I think I should.”

“O-Okay.”

 


 

Zach watched Alex retreat.

If the pain Zach felt in that moment was what Alex had felt like last year, then he couldn’t blame him for walking away, for choosing to protect himself from such heartache. His only hope was that finally hearing Zach confess his love for him would help Alex somehow, and take away some of the hurting and insecurity Zach had put him through.

He dug his fingers into his ribs as he stood there with his arms folded around himself.

He winced at the sound of the metal door opening with a creak and shortly thereafter falling shut. He worried his bottom lip with his teeth, not knowing what else to do with himself other than stand there hugging himself; a pathetic tableau of how alone he felt, even though he knew his friends would be there for him tomorrow.

Zach snapped his head up when he heard the uneven scuff of shoes. He let his arms drop down to his sides, watching Alex round the corner and walk back towards him. The boy stopped right in front of him, close enough that the toes of his boots bumped against his. Zach drowned in ocean blue eyes.

A shy smile tugged at pretty lips. Alex challenged: “You kiss me first this time.”

Zach swayed forward, bringing their faces close enough together to share a warm breath. He slipped a hand around Alex’ neck.

They didn’t close their eyes until their lips met.

Electricity arched through Zach from just the simple touch. The kiss didn’t last long but Zach didn’t pull back far, bringing their foreheads together. He studied Alex’ face, waiting for him to open his eyes so he could search them for an answer.

Would he give him another chance?

But Alex didn’t open his eyes. The answers weren’t there anyway. The answers were in his mouth. He kept his eyes closed and licked his lips as if to chase away the same tingle that Zach felt. 

“I’m not into guys.” Zach heard the echo in his head and he knew Alex would too. He wanted nothing more than to drown it out, so he whispered: “I’m into you.” 

A corner of his mouth tugged upward ever so slightly. The boy looped both arms around Zach’s neck and reconnected their lips with a small, adorable sigh.

Neither had the patience to keep the kiss innocent for long.

Zach migrated his hands to his slim waist and pulled him flush against him. His fingers twisted into the jacket. His toes were curling in his boots. He licked into Alex’ mouth, swallowing a moan. His lips were so soft, his mouth so hot and sweet, his tongue responded coyly to Zach’s playfulness.

Years’ worth of yearning – some of it unknown, some of it too known – released in a single kiss and by the time they parted, they were both panting. Alex’ lips were wet and pink and irresistible and Zach placed one more peck on them before just smiling down at him. “Holy shit.” Tension left his body with a laugh.

“Yeah, I guess that was a little much.”

“Nono… Never enough.” He kissed him again, more sweetly this time.

It didn’t feel unfamiliar, like he feared it would. Instead, everything clicked.

He couldn’t get enough of looking at him.

He couldn’t get enough of listening to him.

And now he couldn’t get enough of kissing him.

He moved his lips to the corner of his mouth, to his cheek, to the shell of his ear and to his throat before burying his nose in the crook of his neck and hugging the shorter boy to him tightly and briefly lifting Alex up off the ground. Zach reveled in how he felt Alex chuckle more than he heard him.

A guest of wind could have blown him off the roof in that moment. Zach felt lighter than he had in years.

He felt like himself again. From before. Before Alex shot himself. Before Hannah killed herself. Before his dad died. Before Justin died. Before he started drinking and doing drugs. Before he started hanging out with the wrong friends.

There had been so much happiness turned into unhappiness and he thought he would never get any of it back. It had despaired him, it had derailed him. But in the end he did get something back: Alex. He got Alex back. Better than ever. It was a gift and Zach felt blessed.

He put his lips to Alex’ ear: “Thank you. Thank you.” Zach pulled back and cupped Alex’ face in his hands and greedily took in the sight of him. He looked so happy; eyes sparkling, dimples showing. Zach wanted to make him look like that forever. His only regret was that he didn’t give him this sooner.

He sucked in a deep breath and released it in a sheepish laugh. “Su, uh-… you wanna ‘go steady’ with me?” He knew Alex would appreciate the joke to alleviate the serious situation.

“I have a limp, the only way I go is unsteady.”

Zach touched his forehead to Alex’, holding his gaze. “Wanna go unsteady with me?”

Alex only nodded.

The black haired boy grinned. “I’m gonna be such an obnoxious boyfriend.”

“Oh, you mean like calling me at some ungodly hour in the night to talk, singing corny love songs to me, and showing up at my dorm to check on me under the pretense of breakfast?” Alex shot back with that delicious, dry tone of his. “I’m not sure if I can get used to that.”

“You’re so funny,” He tried to mimic his tone and then pressed a kiss to Alex’ smiling lips, but he abandoned that for sincerity. “And smart.” Another kiss and he noticed Alex’ eyes slipped closed again. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “And kind.” When he spoke next, their lips brushed together. “Brave…” A longer kiss this time and just as Alex started to return it, he pulled away just far enough to add: “Strong.” Alex hung off his shoulders and claimed his lips. “Hot,” Zach moaned into his mouth.

He delved his fingers into the dirty-blonde hair, asserting full control of the kiss to plunder Alex’ mouth

Alex suddenly pulled away, as far as Zach would let him – not far at all. “This is too much. This is too intense.”

“I like it.” He stroked his fingers down the sides of the boy’s neck, down his chest and placed his large hands on Alex’ waist.

“Me too. But let’s not take this too fast.”

Although he agreed, Zach pouted, just for show. They had all the time in the world and he didn’t want to rush anything. He wanted to enjoy it leisurely. Savor it.

In response to the pout, Alex said: “Karma sucks, man. Shouldn’t have made me wait all year.”

“Don’t tell me you’re gonna make me wait a year!”

Alex threw his head back in a laugh.

Chapter Text

It was two AM and Alex couldn’t sleep. He replayed the kiss on the rooftop over and over in his head. The past year, he’d spent many sleepless nights letting his memories take him back to that rooftop; remembering the tingle of Zach’s lips against his and then the sting in his heart. But he wasn’t thinking about that kiss anymore; that very first kiss.

He smiled up at the ceiling. Thinking about the second kiss, the third, the fourth, the fifth… Every time when Zach promised he’d let him go so they could get down from the cold rooftop, he changed his mind and kissed him again – pecks that burned on his lips like coffee that was too hot – and he’d keep his hold on him.

They had to get home eventually though. Alex’ phone had started to buzz in his back pocket: incoming messages from a worried mother. 

Going home after all that was difficult. He had wanted to stay with Zach, but he couldn’t put his mom at ease without being too candid for his liking. So they had agreed to part and meet again the next day.

But now he couldn’t sleep.

He dragged a finger along his bottom lip. He was grinning like crazy.

This was what it was supposed to feel like, he realized. He never had this with Jessica, or Winston, or even Charlie. He’d never understand why it hadn’t been like that between him and Charlie. He loved Charlie, just not like this.

When he’d arrived home he managed to convince his mom that everything was okay while revealing as little as possible and then excused himself to go up to his room. Lying about being tired.

He wasn’t tired. For the first time in a long time, he was the opposite of tired.

Energized. Invigorated. Inspirited. Enlivened.

He released a deep breath. His chest felt too full.

The phone on his nightstand buzzed.

He propped himself up on his elbows and eyed the lit-up screen.

Zach : Can’t sleep.

Alex snatched the phone and rolled over, curling in on himself and cradling the device in his hands. He was tying: In a bad way, or?

But before he could hit send, the next message appeared:

Zach : Stop stressing.

Zach : I don’t want to sleep right now.

He backspaced until his message was gone. Put at ease now, he shifted to lie on his back again, holding the phone closely above his face. Zach knew him so well, it could be intimidating. There were no secrets left between them. He pondered on that for a moment, waiting to freak out. He didn’t. He liked it.

U : What the Hell? You woke me up.

His grin returned to him.

Zach : Fucking liar.

Alex let out a chuckle.

U : What’s keeping you up?

Zach : Thinking about you.

Zach : And the compulsive need to change your name in my phone to something obnoxious.

He raised his eyebrows at that. Amused, he replied:

U : What’d you come up so far?

Zach is typing.

He sat up in bed and leaned back against the headboard as he waited, wondering what took Zach so long to answer. He wondered if he’d get a long, alphabetical list of options.

Zach : I’m inclined to use ‘Lexie’

Zach : still not sure if I used the word ‘inclined’ right.

Alex shook his head, more at the choice of nickname than the choice of words. He leaned forward, crossing his legs under him, really getting into the conversation.

U : Why do you want to give me a nickname anyway?

Zach : Because your friends call you Alex. As your boyfriend, I should get to call you something else.

Boyfriend. He liked that. He wasn’t expecting Zach to be so forward in using that term. As for the whole nickname-ordeal, he couldn’t tell if Zach was being serious, or if he was messing with him for a laugh. He was working on a reply in his head when the phone started to buzz in his hands and Zach’s face filled the entire screen. With a smirk he answered and put the phone to his ear, but he didn’t say anything.

“Hey, Lexie.”

“Oh God.” He shook his head. “If it’s just about calling me something else, you might as well call me David.”

“… But that’s not your name,” Zach pointed out dumbly.

“Neither is Lexie. Lexie is, like, a girl’s name. I know your application hasn’t been processed yet and you won’t get your welcome package until two to five business days, but you’re dating a guy now.”

Zach mulled it over, long enough to make Alex worried if he shouldn’t have been so blunt. But then Zach said, casual and upbeat: “How about Lex?”

Better, he thought to himself. “What’s wrong with Alex?”

“Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with Alex.” Zach’s tone dropped but he bounced back: “Come on, I’m trying to be cute and creative here. And I figured you’d be offended by something standard like ‘baby’.”

Baby? Alex swallowed. The nickname made his ears and cheeks hot. “Uhh…” To his shame he couldn’t think of a quip in response.

“Oh, I guess I was wrong.”

Alex could hear Zach’s self-satisfied smirk.

“If you want me to call you baby, all you gotta do is say so.”

With his senses and wit returning to him, he said: “Don’t hold your breath.” The way Zach chuckled then caused something to stir in his belly.

In the silence between them, Alex lay back down in bed, keeping the phone to his ear. He heard Zach move around as well and sure enough soon the tunes of an unplugged guitar came through the line. It took a couple of bars for him to recognize the song Zach had chosen to play him. Instead of berating him for the predictably cheesy song, he silenced himself, pulling at his bottom lip with his teeth to fight this smile that overcame to him.

At the chorus, Zach started to sing:

“I just called to say I love you

I just called to say how much I care

I just called to say I love you

And I mean it from the bottom of my heart.”

Hearing the other sing to him – the way he had done so many times – made Alex realize how long Zach had felt more for him than either had been aware of. Zach had been singing him love songs for months and it was nothing short of embarrassing that neither of them understood what that had meant.

After everything that had happened, Alex didn’t know he’d ever have it in him to be this happy.

He woke up with his cheek resting on his phone, not remembering falling asleep. He checked the call log and discovered the line had been disconnecting at a quarter past three. It was now ten in the morning. His mother never let him sleep in like that.

He forced himself out of bed and downstairs, rubbing his eyes and running a hand through his hair.

His dad and brother were sitting at the kitchen counter and his mom was unloading the dishwasher.

“Finally!” Peter exclaimed at the sight of him. “Mom, can we please have breakfast now? I’m starving.”

“You could have had breakfast without me,” Alex pointed out. As he grabbed a carton of orange juice his mother laid a hand on his upper arm.

“I wanted us to have breakfast together. And you were sleeping so peacefully.”

His cheeks flushed knowing his mother had come into his room and had seen him snuggled up to his phone. He poured himself a glass and drank from it as a distraction.

His mother made her family a slightly less healthy breakfast than usual, agreeing they could celebrate. Peter was going back to Idaho later that day. He was meeting his girlfriend’s parents for Christmas, so he wouldn’t be home for the holiday itself. To compensate, this Sunday was their substitute Christmas morning. Alex tried his best not to be absentminded and not to yawn too much.

After breakfast, it was time for presents. They never did big presents. His parents always got him and his brother some small things, so they’d have something to unwrap. Usually mostly clothes his mom wanted them to wear. In turn, Alex and Peter typically got their parents something practical. Peter really rubbed it in that he wouldn’t be giving Alex anything for years to come, now that he had given him his car.

When he thought they were done, he thanked them for the new jacket, jeans, video game and external hard drive.

But his mom said: “Your father and I actually felt a bit extra generous this year. We’re going to give Peter a little something towards his new car and we have something special for you.”

Alex quirked an eyebrow and his gaze darted between his two parents when his dad produced small, giftwrapped box that he handed to him.

“It’s not a car,” He joked.

“Too bad, I could really use two,” Alex played along. It was an awkward moment, having them all stare at him. He picked at the tape, curiosity getting the better of him as he tore the paper off to reveal a black box. He popped it open to reveal a pearlescent , white triangle. He frowned, even though he knew damn well what it was: a guitar pick.

“Uhhh…” His parents knew he had given Zach his guitars at the start of summer and they had been supportive of that decision. He watched his father get up from the couch and leave the room for a second. When he returned to the living room, he was holding a guitar case and sporting a smile.

Alex shot a look at his mother, catching the tears in her eyes.

Peter cleared the coffee table so the guitar case could be set down in front of him and unlatched.

“I hope you’ll like it,” The Deputy remarked, opening the case.

Alex gaped at the emerald green bass guitar before him. “I-… Jesus Christ…”

“Language,” His parents said in unison, but with a mild tone.

He reached out and clasped his fingers over the edge of the case.

“Go on then,” His father encouraged him as he took a seat beside his wife again.

He shot them an apprehensive look, noting how they were smiling at him and holding each other’s hands. They knew he’d played a song at that party Zach had dragged him to, but… “I just played one song.”

His father said: “And you’ll play more.” 

Alex reverently took the instrument out of the case and maneuvered it into his lap. His mouth was dry and his fingers were frozen over the strings. “I- I don’t know that to say.”

“It’s okay, sweetie,” His mother said.

Peter squeezed his shoulder.

“…T-thank you.” He ran a finger along one eye to make sure he wasn’t crying.

“The car is still cooler though,” Peter joked, to alleviated the emotional moment.

The family talked for a little while as Alex continued to keep hold of the guitar, too shy to play anything, but enjoying the feel of it in his lap and propped up against his midriff. Then he cradled it back into the case and he went upstairs to shower and get dressed. He said goodbye to his brother with a hug before his mom and dad drove him to the airport. Alex reminded them that he would go over to Zach’s. So they wouldn’t worry when they came home to an empty house.

The way his mother smiled at him had him suspecting she knew more than he had told her.

It wasn’t that he planned on keeping the relationship between him and Zach a secret, but in spite of the fact that he had already come out to his family when he had been dating Charlie, it still wasn’t easy to be completely forthcoming. He had to take this one step at a time. First things first: simply revel in all these new emotions before tackling awkward conversations.

He took the guitar with him when he went over to Zach’s. Of course he did. He parked the Mustang behind Zach’s Audi and shook his head at himself getting the guitar case out of the backseat, feeling like some sort of asshole with his “cool car” and “cool guitar”. He didn’t think he’d ever be “this guy”. Circumstances, he supposed. He put the strap of the case over his shoulder and let himself into the garage.

He also didn’t think he’d be the kind of guy to get butterflies in his stomach, but he felt them fluttering around as he climbed the steps to Zach’s bedroom. He knocked once and at a “yeah” from the other side of the door, he let himself in.

Alex expected Zach to notice the guitar case on his back right away and to make a comment about it, but the taller boy did no such thing.

Zach stood in the middle of the room, grinning at him for a moment before crossing the space in three large strides to stand before him. Their gazes were locked the entire time. “Hey.”

He swallowed. “Hey.”

Zach dipped his head down, pausing when there was only an inch left between them, but not for long. He pressed a short, sweet kiss to his lips. When they parted they were both smiling.

“This feels kind of surreal.”

“I like it.”

Alex breathed: “Me too.”

Zach straightened up and pointedly looked at the guitar case sticking out above Alex’ shoulder. “What’s this?”

“Don’t get any ideas, this one is not for you.” He brushed past him to put the case on the couch where he opened it to show it off. “Early Christmas gift from my parents.”

“Holy shit.” Zach came closer to appraise the guitar. “Wow, a car and a guitar. You guys really know how to celebrate the holidays.”

“I know, it’s too much.”

“Hey, no, c’mon. I’m kidding.” He put a hand on Alex’ back. “Don’t listen to me. This is just your boyfriend freaking out because the pressure is seriously on to get you something good for Christmas.”

“Don’t get me a present.”

“Is this your way of telling me you’re not going to give me anything?”

“Well…” He cocked his head and smiled sweetly. “Yeah.”

“You suck.”

He laughed at the banter. It was like nothing had changed, but in reality everything had. He shifted his weight from one foot to another, unsure of how to behave. Part of him want to push Zach down onto the couch and straddle his lap and kiss him senselessly, but the rest of him knew they shouldn’t rush this. He didn’t want to make Zach uncomfortable by taking things too far, being with a guy was all new to him. In fact, it was new to Alex too, in a lot of ways. Old insecurities gnawed at him.

Zach saved him, like he’d done so many times. “Wanna play something together?”

He perked up. “Yes.”

They spent the rest of the afternoon lying in Zach’s bed, playing love songs and laughing.

But when Alex went home for dinner, Zach treated him to a kiss so intense that it kept him up at night again.

 


 

Zach’s bedroom had become their refuge during winter break. It was their own little world. Tony was the only one who knew their relationship had developed beyond friendship and the boxer had told them this was a secret he was happy to keep for them until they were ready.

It amazed Zach how all the shit they had been through had led him to the best group of friends he could have ever wished for, and the best romance.

They were in Zach’s bed again, where they spent most of their time together, although they hadn’t done anything beyond kissing yet. Zach got the impression Alex was worried about frightening him off if he came on too strongly. It was scary. It was new. He had to remind himself that it was new for Alex too. He may have had two boyfriends already, getting a bit of a head start, but sexually they both stood on the edge of the unknown.

The relaxing weight on his stomach wasn’t the guitar this time, but Alex’ head. Alex lay on his back, diagonally on the bed, his legs dangling off. Distant eyes were angled up at the ceiling.

Zach stroked a hand through his hair as Alex went out for a minute. He knew Alex was worried about hurting Charlie. Sooner or later, they would have to come out of their shelter and tell their group of friends and that group of friends would forever include Charlie, no matter what. Zach worried about it too. But he didn’t want to think about it yet. He’d happily stay cocooned in this bedroom with Alex for as long as they could, to make up on lost time.

So much lost time.

Blue eyes blinked, the life returning to them, and he took  a deep breath like he resurfaced. His gaze darted sideways to Zach. “Sorry.”

He ignored the apology since it wasn’t necessary. “You okay?” He kept combing his fingers through the soft locks. 

“Hmhm.” Alex closed his eyes. “I like that,” He said, meaning the way Zach was petting his hair. “I felt that, while I was… out.”

“I’m glad.”

Alex tilted his head towards him and opened his eyes again.

Zach sucked in a breath before drowning in the blue. He stroked a thumb along one of Alex’ eyebrows, smoothing over the hairs. He drew the tip of his index finger lightly down his nose. Finally, he dragged his thumb across his lips. Once he came up for air again, he whispered: “Bring those pretty lips over here.” The way Alex’ face pinked up at that was a sight he cherished.

Alex rolled over and crawled up the bed to lay flush against Zach’s side. Propped up on his elbow, he hovered over him, his blonde bangs falling down. Zach snaked an arm around him and pulled him half onto his chest. He felt the boy’s nerves in the stiffness of his body. The hand he had on Alex’ back he moved up to his neck and the shiver he elicited released the tension.

Alex melted on top of him and his head dipped down so their lips could finally meet.

Every time they kissed, a sense of relief washed over Zach. Relief that all the darkness had led to this; this bright spark that he could see behind his closed eyelids and feel arching through his body.

Unhappiness can turn into happiness.

It was such a powerful realization. It would keep him standing tall for the rest of his life.

Relief soon bloomed into something else. As it always did. The spark caused fires all over his body. Electrified nerve endings made his fingers twitch and his toes curl. He swiped his tongue along Alex’ top lip and Alex returned the favor coyly. He kept kissing him until there was nothing “coy” about the response anymore. They took turns licking into each other’s mouths and drinking each other’s moans.

A hand was splayed on his chest, fingers curling and uncurling, nails scratching him through the cotton of his shirt.

Alex suddenly broke the kiss and rolled away to lie on his back.

Zach studied him with concern. The boy lay next to him with eyes squeezed shut and mouth open. His lips pink and wet. His chest heaved with his pants.

Zach’s gaze settled on the bulge in the front of his jeans and his fire burned hotter. He’d seen Alex hard once before, but this time, he was hard himself as well.

“Are we going too fast?” He asked.

Alex twisted his head to look at him. “I don’t know, are we?” His expression faded from pleasure to pain. “Is this weird for you?”

“Not at all. It’s new, sure. But new in an exciting way.” He flashed a grin and then pointedly shot a look down his own body.

Alex’ gaze followed suit, darting down to Zach’s crotch, and his ears turned redder still. When he looked back up, he spent only a minute searching Zach’s eyes for hesitation before pressing himself against the bigger boy’s side again and resuming their kiss.

Zach kissed him back greedily but was distracted by a hand rubbing up and down his stomach. He wanted the hand to go lower, but it never strayed further south than the top of his jeans. Whenever the fingers hit the denim, they bounced back up. He couldn’t tell if Alex was holding back for his sake or because he was uncomfortable himself. He figured he shouldn’t let the uncertainty continue to exist. They could be honest with each other. If he was ready, he should say so and if Alex wasn’t, he should say so as well.

He grazed his teeth over that delicious bottom lip before saying, with a voice that dripped with desire: “You can take your hand lower, if you want.” He made sure to make eye contact with him as he spoke the last three words.

Alex stared back at him with clouded blue eyes and held his gaze while Zach felt his hand move down and cup the shape of his erection. They both moaned in unison and Alex snapped his head to look down at his hand touching Zach more intimately than he ever had before.

Zach looped an arm around him again, holding his frame tightly against his. He gyrated his hips against the pressure as Alex was emboldened. His fingers explored him through the denim and the boy dropped his head down, muffling his moans against Zach’s chest. It was a rush to Zach that simply touching him had this effect on Alex.

The other reared his head up to look at him. “Holy shit, you can’t seriously be this big.”

Zach let out a self-conscious laugh. “What? You knew I was… The guys joked about it all the time.”

“Yeah, and I thought it was just a joke…”

He grimaced. “Sorry?”

“Fuck you, Zach,” He blurted and pressed their lips together again.  

He bucked his hips against Alex’ hand. He hadn’t had sex in months, the last time having been with some girl he couldn’t remember because he was too drunk – and too much of an asshole. When he sobered up and the entire group of friends got tested for HIV, and more, in solidarity, he had vowed to himself that he was done with meaningless sex. So he hadn’t been with anyone else since.

Just the idea of having sex with Alex was driving him wild. And not only because he had a lot of sexual tension bottled up. It was also months’ worth of curiosity and longing.

“Can I touch you?” Alex asked against his lips. “Like, for real?”

All he could do was nod eagerly in consent. Maybe a little too eagerly. It earned him a smile from Alex that made the sparks burn even brighter.

With their lips locked again, Alex undid his fly and worked his hand into the front of the jeans, palming Zach through his boxers at first. “Fuck.” Alex rocked his hips against Zach. Impatient with desire, he slipped his hand into the underwear and enveloped his erection.

Both boys moaned again, interrupting their kiss.

Zach appreciated that Alex didn’t just start pumping him, understanding that wouldn’t feel good dry. Instead he had his hand wrapped around the top of the shaft, with his thumb poised against the tip. He rubbed against the underside of the head, applying the perfect amount of pressure and swiping his thumb up the slit.

“Holy fuck, you’re good at that.”

Alex snickered. “I’ve had some practice.”

Zach gaped at him. He had always appreciated Alex’ masterfully sarcastic tone, but since when did it become such a turn-on for him?

Alex clarified with a blush: “On myself.”

“Yeah, I know.” He knew the farthest the boy had gotten with Charlie was phone sex and dry-humping, both only on one occasion.

The other looked down his body, at his hand disappearing into Zach’s boxers and the sight must have displeased him, because he paused his pleasurable touch to pull the boxers down, straining the elastic to avoid Zach’s cock and pushed the hem of his shirt up his body as well. Not until the fabric – and, more importantly, the zipper of the jeans – were out of the way did he take hold of the hard, hot flesh again. He palmed the tip, wetting his hand with pre-come, which made his skin slick enough to glide over Zach’s.

Zach watched Alex’ hand at first, but then his face. Noticing when he closed his eyes in pleasure. The boy pressed kisses against his chest, leaving wet marks on the grey fabric.

The hand Zach had on Alex’ back migrated South, trailing along his spine. Once he was at the small of his back, he hiked up his boyfriend’s shirt so his fingers could ghost over the skin.

“You feel so good in my hand…”

The words went straight to Zach’s dick, hardening it even more in Alex’ grip.

“… I want you in my mouth.”

His breath hitched in his throat.

Alex released him and jerked his head up from his chest. “Shit, I’m sorry. That’s weird. I shouldn’t have said that.”

His heavy cock lay on his stomach, twitching. His stomach felt knotted up. “Not weird. Hot.” He ground out.

Alex licked his lips.

Oh, those lips.

“Yeah?” The word was barely more than a breath.

“Ohhh, yeah…”

The other swallowed. His eyelids lowered to half mast, darkening the ocean blue like there was a thunderstorm rolling in. He moved down Zach’s body to get into position and slipped one leg over his. He propped himself up on one elbow and took the base of Zach’s arousal into his hand. But he kissed and licked the tight abdomen first, perhaps working up the courage to do more, or maybe just that hungry for any and every taste of his skin.

Zach wanted to bury his fingers in the boy’s hair and push that mouth towards where he needed it most, but he was mindful not to force anything. He twisted his fingers into the sheets instead and kept his gaze fixated on Alex, enjoying the sight of him, while also looking for signs of discomfort. Alex looked lost in his own pleasure. His eyes closed once more. His hot lips searing kisses onto Zach’s skin.

Finally, he lifted his head up over the cock he held upright by the base and he swiped his tongue along the tip.

“Oh, fuck!” Zach’s legs writhed and his core clenched as he held himself down, preventing his hips from thrusting up reactively. “Oh, baby, please.”

Alex paused and looked at him with raised eyebrows at hearing the nickname spill from his lips.

“Sorry…”

“No, it’s-… I- It’s okay.”

Zach could tell from his stammer and the redness on his cheeks and ears that it was a struggle for Alex to admit he liked it. But he knew he did. He’d known since he fell silent on the phone last week. He grinned at him.

Alex refocused his attention and gave another experimental lick. The results must have been good, because the next time he lowered his mouth, he parted his lips to accommodate the head of the erection. He released him soon after with a pop and threw a look up at Zach, one of lust laced with embarrassment.

“It’s okay, Alex. Whatever you want to do, or don’t want to do. It’s gonna feel so good to me,” Zach said.

Alex bowed his head again, his face disappearing behind his bangs. Zach reached down and pushed the locks back, threading his fingers through the soft hair. The sight of those lips around his manhood was almost too much.

Alex didn’t take more than a third of the length into his mouth, but it was hot and wet and his tongue teased the most sensitive part of him. Zach let him suck on him for as long as he could stand it; for as long as he could stay his orgasm. When he got too close, he tugged on his hair and muttered: “Stopstopstop…”

The boy took his mouth off him and looked up with questioning eyes.

“I was gonna come.”

“Yeah, that’s, like, the point?”

Well, yeah… Still, Zach shook his head. “Come back up here. I want us to jerk off together.”

He raised his eyebrows at that. “Oh. Okay.” He moved back up the bed to lay next to Zach.

Zach could feel the hesitation in him. He craned his neck to lean in close and breathe hotly in his ear. “I showed you mine…” He kept his tone mild.

Alex snorted. “Yeah and… mine’s… not like that.”

Zach reached out and palmed him through his jeans. The feel of him made his stomach tighten. He wanted to see him. “I bet it’s gorgeous, like the rest of you.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“C’mon, whip it out,” He joked, sensing Alex would respond well to some levity.

The other chuckled but the sound died out and when they locked eyes electricity passed back and forth between them. “Yeah, okay…”

Zach retreated his hand, putting it on himself instead. He watched the other unbutton his jeans and push them down along with briefs, revealing his hard, pink cock. Alex had nothing to be ashamed of. “I love being right,” Zach said with a smirk.

Alex seemed too turned on to quip back. He licked his palm and brought his hand down to touch himself.

“There’s lube right there.” Zach nodded towards the nightstand on Alex’ side of the bed.

Alex’ side of the bed? His eyebrows twitched at the thought and then a silly smile appeared. He liked that.

The other reached out and pumped a liberal amount into his palm.

Zach held his hand out and a shiver passed through his body when Alex transferred some lube over to him, sliding his hand over his, from his palm to the tips of his fingers. He put his slick fist around himself and Alex did the same. The two jerked off languidly. The only parts of them touching being their shoulders and outer thighs.

Alex pulled his shirt up all the way to his collar bone, probably to avoid coming on his shirt. Zach feasted on the sight of the expanse of creamy, pale skin and the pink nipples, pert from arousal. Last time Zach had seen Alex shirtless, the boy had been on steroids and his body had been more muscular. Since he thankfully stopped using the supplements, he had slimmed down some, but he was still toned thanks to a newfound and genuine love for working out.

He looked so healthy, that was the most important thing to Zach. So healthy and so alive.   

Zach shifted to angle his body towards Alex and as soon as Alex tilted his head to face him, he captured his mouth in a kiss. They were both too distracted by other sensations to do much more than move their lips together, but it was the final push they both needed.

Zach came first. Not surprising, since he had been treated to a blowjob earlier. He grunted his boyfriend’s name, rocking his hips to fuck his own fist.

Alex wasn’t far behind. He bit down on his lip, regrettably keeping his moans soft, but Zach still felt the sounds reverberate in his own chest. Coming down from his own climax, he rained kisses onto the corner of Alex’ mouth, cheek, and brow as Alex was amidst the throws of his orgasm.

When the boy opened his eyes, it was like Zach was seeing that shade of blue for the very first time again.

They both spent a minute catching their breath. Zach rolled onto his back again. A laugh erupted out of him and he laughed harder when Alex lazily swatted his chest.

“Don’t laugh at me!”

“I’m not! I swear… I’m not. I’m just… happy.” He cocked his head to look at him, at his body, at his stomach contracting with every breath, at the milky semen on his skin. “…That was fucking hot.”

“Shit.”

“What?”

“I got some on my shirt anyway.”

Zach trailed his gaze up to the stain on the fabric and giggled. “You can borrow a shirt of mine.”

They cleaned themselves up with tissues – lots of them – and got dressed and up from the bed. Zach didn’t bother closing the fly of his jeans. He walked over to his dresser thinking about which shirt to pick for Alex, already enjoying the thought of seeing him in his clothes. He’d lost several shirts and hoodies to girlfriends in the past. He wanted Alex to have something of his and hoped he’d wear it more often. So he picked out one of his favorite shirts. It was a simple, black T-shirt, nothing special about it except that the cotton was the softest he’d ever felt. He wanted Alex to wear it and then to cuddle with him.

He turned around, holding the item in his fist and paused at Alex standing by the bed in nothing but his low-riding jeans.

“Uhm… Are you gonna give me the shirt or what?” Alex nervously bounced up and down on the balls of his feet under Zach’s scrutiny.

“Yeah. Right. Sorry.” He handed him the shirt and waited for him to put it on before taking the boy into his arms and letting his hands rub over his back. The fabric of the shirt and Alex’ warm, lithe body underneath felt incredible. “I love you so much, baby,” He mumbled into the shell of his ear.

Alex pulled back but there was amusement in his eyes. “That baby-crap is only for when we do stuff like that. I don’t want to be working out at Caleb’s or having a fucking coffee and get called ‘baby’, okay? Cause either way, I will punch you.”

“Noted.”

“Now fucking kiss me, asshole.”

He did. Again and again.

Chapter Text

 

He studied the new painting that had been mounted above the couch at Monet’s, tilted his head as he dove into the sea of colors. Absentmindedly, he wiped his palms on his jeans. A coffee cup being placed in front of him snapped him out of it and Alex looked up at Charlie’s kind face. He mouthed ‘Thank you’ and took his first sip.

“What do you see?” Charlie asked, seating himself across from Alex, but not blocking his view of the painting.

“Uhm…” He welcomed the distraction to stall the conversation that they ought to be having. He peered at the art. “I think it’s a portrait of a man, but the moustache is a black cat and the three eyes are avocado’s… Or boobs.”

Charlie threw a look over his shoulder and when he faced Alex again he was smiling.

“What?”

“I think Freud would have loved to meet you.”

“Hey, I have a brain injury.”

“I’m pretty sure you were weird before too.”

Alex nodded along. “Yeah. I was.”

Charlie took a sip of his cappuccino. “I’m really glad you called.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”

“I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too. I- I hope we can be friends again one day.”

Charlie frowned and put his cup down. “I never stopped considering you as my friend.”

“We haven’t even talked in over a month.”

“I know. But that doesn’t mean the feelings go away.” He scooted a little closer in his chair.

“I guess you’re right.” Feelings don’t just go away. Alex knew that very well. Too well. “How are you feeling?” He asked carefully.

He thought back to that weekend, when his dad had brought him home. After talking candidly with his parents, telling them about everything, he felt better and he could tell his parents had felt better too. They had known he’d been hiding emotional turmoil from them and the not-knowing had been eating at them. He wasn’t actually doing anybody any favors by pretending to be someone he wasn’t; someone he thought he ought to be. It wasn’t making anyone around him any happier either.

That had been the final push he needed to be honest with Charlie and to tell him that, no matter how much he wanted it to, the relationship wasn’t working. The conversation had been short, with Charlie actually taking the lead. Alex knew how much it hurt to be rejected and that no amount of kind words could be a salve for that hurt. So he hadn’t lingered, after telling Charlie that he boy deserved to be loved in the most intense way anybody could and that Alex couldn’t give him that, but that he would always love him.

Charlie’s smile never faltered. “I’m okay, Alex.” He cupped his hands around his coffee. “I think our feelings for each other weren’t that different, in hindsight. I love you so, so much as my friend and I definitely had a crush on you, but… I’m okay.” He scrunched up his face a little, clearly unsure if he was getting his point across. “I saw how it wrecked you, not being loved back by Zach. It’s not like that for me. You didn’t wreck me, I don’t want you to worry about that. I’m sad that it didn’t work out between us, but it’s not the same. I’m at peace with it and I want you to be as well.”

He breathed Charlie’s name. His eyes welled with tears.

“No, don’t be sad. I don’t want you to be sad.”

“You’re amazing, Charlie. You are an actual, fucking saint.”

Charlie shyly bowed his head.

“I want you to know that you’re the perfect guy, Charlie,” Alex said, waiting for the other boy to meet his gaze again before he continued: “You’re the perfect guy. And I’ll never understand why the perfect guy wasn’t the right guy for me. But I’ll always be grateful that I had you as my boyfriend. And you’ll be the right guy for someone else. Someone very lucky.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re gonna make someone so fucking happy…”

“Actually…” Charlie blushed and stopped himself.

“What?”

“I- uhhh… I don’t know, it’s new, but there’s someone…”

He drew his eyebrows up. A smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Yeah?”

Charlie’s face went redder still. “I don’t know, can we talk about this stuff?”

“I’d like us to.”

“Okay, well, then… there’s this new girl, at school… Nothing official yet, but I think we really like each other. I thought maybe she would find it weird, that I’m bi and that had a boyfriend. Most people at school just think I’m gay now,” He shrugged. “But she’s cool. I feel like she gets it. Like she gets me.”

Alex smiled at him. “I’m really happy for you, Charlie.”

Charlie was beaming. “Thanks.” He took another sip of cappuccino and wiped the froth off his upper lip before inquiring: “So, what about you and Zach? How’s that going?”

It was Alex’ turn to blush. “Uhh, what do you mean?”

The younger boy giggled. “Come on, Alex. I’m in the group chat. I know you two have been ditching everyone all week.”

“Shit. I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you before you found out some other way.”

“It’s okay, Alex, you don’t owe me an explanation. When we broke up I knew it was only a matter of time.”

“I swear I didn’t broke up with you to be with him.” He really needed Charlie to know that. That he wasn’t casting him aside in favor of someone else. He never expected he would end up with Zach.

“I know. You broke up with me because you still wanted to be with him, even though you thought it would never happen.”

“I’ll always hate myself for hurting you.”

Charlie’s smile disappeared for the first time. “Don’t you dare hate yourself.”

“Sorry…” He couldn’t help it. The feeling of guilt was something he’d always be susceptible to. It was part of that darkness in him that Charlie could never understand. And it was a good thing the other boy would never understand; that he would never know that darkness for himself.

“So… Zach?” He flashed a smile.

“Yeah…” Alex ran a hand through his hair. “Isn’t this weird for you?”

“It’s a little weird, but I’ll get used to it.”

They talked for another hour, although Alex didn’t go into detail about his blossoming relationship with Zach. They talked about the same things they used to talk about, when they’d gotten close as friends last year, along with Tyler: video games, school, and family stuff. Alex was relieved to have his friend back, but he knew it would take a little longer for that bittersweet taste to be washed out of his mouth. How he had hurt Charlie would be a stone Alex would carry with him for the rest of his life, and it wasn't the only one. Time would erode them, but the stones would never be dust, they would never be weightless. Alex would have to stay strong to be able to bear them. 

They parted ways in front of Monet’s with a long hug, after Charlie had gushed about Alex’ awesome new car. It wasn’t exactly new, it was a third-hand Mustang, not old enough to be a classic. Alex said so off-handedly. But he laughed when Charlie pointed out it was a lot cooler than driving his mom’s minivan and that it suited his driving style much more too.

When he got into his car, he checked his phone, noting he had a missed text.

Zach : You’re coming by after, right?

Zach knew how nervous he had been about having this post-break-up talk with Charlie. That it had been eating at him, not knowing if Charlie was doing well. That he felt guilty about being happy with someone else now. And of course Zach had been nothing but supportive and comforting, for which Alex was grateful. Zach helped him be strong. 

He drove over to Zach’s and when he went up to his bedroom, the other bounced up from his bed and enveloped him with his arms.

With his nose in Alex’ hair, he asked: “How did it go?”

“It was hard at first. But it was good.”

Alex recapped the entire meeting, to put Zach at ease, so his boyfriend could stop worrying about him.

“I’m just so relieved he’s okay,” Alex concluded.

They had ended up sprawled over Zach’s bed again. The taller boy lying on his back and Alex lay on his stomach next to him, hugging a pillow under his chest.

“I was so afraid he’d feel what I felt, when you didn’t-“ He stopped himself, not wanting to add to Zach’s guilt.

“When I was being an asshole,” Zach filled in.

“Something like that.” He plucked at the pillow case. “I’m glad he’s still this innocent, happy kid, you know? That I didn’t cast my shadows on him.”

“You don’t cast shadows. You’re too short.”

His lips split into a smile. “Fuck you, simpleton.” He turned serious again. “I worry about you too. We both have this darkness. We’ve both been through shit. We’ve both done shit. What if there’s too much darkness between us?”

Zach brushed his knuckles against Alex’ shoulder. “I don’t see it that way at all. Yeah, we’ve both been to dark places, and maybe – God forbid – we’ll wander back into those dark places. Because our lives are never going to be easy, or normal. But I know you’ll never judge me, that you’ll always be there for me, like you have been. I will do the same for you. Just promise me you’ll tell me. That you won’t be afraid or try to protect me.” He took one of Alex’ hands off the pillow, entwined their fingers and pressed a kiss to the back of his hand. “I-… I missed the signs three times before. Once with Hannah and twice with you; after Hannah and after Bryce. I don’t trust myself to not miss them again. Let me be there for you, if you ever feel like…” The sentence trailed off into nothing.

“Zach, it wouldn’t be your job to save me.”

“Just promise me.”

He sighed and made the promise Zach wanted him to make. But he pointed out: “You couldn’t have stopped me. It’s not your fault, what I did. I don’t… I don’t blame anyone else for what I did. It was my decision. If I thought anyone could have made a difference, maybe I would have reached out, but it wasn’t about anybody else. It was on me.” He felt Zach squeezing his fingers tighter.

“Do you remember… deciding?” The other boy asked, referring to his memory problems regarding the month leading up to his suicide attempt.

“Uhm… yeah. I mean, most of those last few weeks is still pretty vague, but I remember the night. After finally talking to my parents and going over it with Doctor Elman.” 

“I’m glad you talked about it with someone.” He rolled onto his side, lying closely next to Alex. “Do you…. Do you want to tell me?”

“Are you sure you want to hear it?”

Zach chewed on the inside of his cheek and averted his eyes for a moment as he contemplated, but he started to nod and when he looked back at Alex, it was with determination. “Yes. That night will always be with you. It’s a part of you. And I want every bit of you; every part. Even this part. It’s… like…” He searched for answers on the ceiling for a moment. “Sad songs are beautiful too. I want to hear it, doesn’t matter if it hurts. We should be the kind of boyfriends who tell each other everything,” He said with a pained smile.

“Including the hard-ons and masturbation?” He jested to lighten the atmosphere.

“Oh, especially those.” He flashed a smirk, but it took him effort to be jovial and he soon slipped back into his serious tone. “Look, if you don’t want to talk about it…”

“No, I- I do… I just-... Don’t know where to start.” He broke eye contact with Zach and aimed his gaze at the stained wood headboard. “Uhm…” He struggled to sort through his thoughts. Zach waited patiently, his thumb brushing back and forth over Alex’ knuckles. “Since Hannah… Even before I heard the tapes, I thought about doing it… I thought about it several times, more and more, but never did. It sorta came and went. It’d crash into me like a wave, then it would ebb away.”

He shot a look at Zach, noticing the glisten in his eyes and he couldn’t handle it, so he looked back at the dark wood, a safe resting spot for his gaze.

“But then that night the wave washed over me again and didn’t let me come back up… My dad had just come home from work and the first thing he always does when he comes home is put his gun in the safe. I knew the code, because he’d told me, for emergencies, or whatever. So... I snuck downstairs and into his office to get it.”

He tightened his fingers around the handful of pillowcase and Zach’s hand. “I didn’t really think it through, it was kind of, spontaneous? I guess… ? The suicide note was never even intended to be a suicide note. It was just shit I’d written down before, when I was trying to figure out how to confess. But I couldn’t think of a way to confess without getting everyone else in trouble too, so it was just this vague, dumb thing…” He made a dismissive gesture, remembering how frustrated he had been with himself back then. How he wanted to take responsibility for Hannah, but didn’t want to open up a can of worms for anyone else, even though they’d hurt her too. It wasn’t his place to share their secrets.

“I taped the note to the door and wrote at the bottom: ‘Don’t come in. I’m sorry’.” Seeing his note again for the first time had been rough, seeing those thick, underlined words at the bottom. The only thoughts he was able to put to paper in that moment.

He didn’t want his parents to find him like that. He didn’t want to do it with them in the house at all, not wanting to subject them to that. But the only times his dad was not at home, he was at work, which meant the gun wouldn’t be available to him. So he had felt like he had no other choice.

“I locked myself in the bathroom, and just cried and cried, holding the gun to my head. I felt like a coward, unable to pull the trigger.” When he felt a tear roll down his cheek he was quick to wipe it away. “Then my- my mom called upstairs, to let me know dinner was ready. And I couldn’t… I couldn’t face them. I felt like I would only ever disappoint and hurt the ones I loved.” From the corner of his eyes he saw Zach wiping at his own face and he heard him sniffling. “When I pulled the trigger it was, like, impulsive. That’s probably why I fucked it up.” He dared to look at Zach again and his heart clenched seeing his broken expression and the quiver of his lip as he cried silently. “I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t apologize. I’m glad you told me.” Zach kissed his hand again.

His voice cracked as he went on: “I can’t believe I did that to them. To my mom. It was so selfish,” He spat. “When I think about her… standing at the bottom of the staircase, waiting for me to come out of my room for dinner… and then for her to hear the gunshot…” He broke down in sobs and buried his face in the pillow.

Zach pulled him into an embrace, holding him tightly against his chest. They cried together.

In his arms, Alex thought back to the weekend when his dad had brought him home from school and they had talked about everything. His parents had told him about the night from their perspective. His father had told him that his mom didn’t recognize the sound at first, but that he instantly knew it was a gunshot. He had ordered his wife to stay downstairs and call 9-1-1, while he rushed upstairs. He had never even paused to read the note on the door, he just broke the door down and that was when he found him. His father had been sure he was dead, seeing the wound in his head, but he checked him for vitals anyway and that was when he discovered his weak pulse. Only then did he shout for his mom to come upstairs so she could help.

Alex was certain he wouldn’t have survived if his parents weren’t a cop and a nurse. They remained calm enough to work to stop the bleeding and to perform CPR when his heart stopped the first time, before the ambulance had arrived.

Still, even though they had seen awful things in their line of work, he knew they would never forget the horrors of that night, nor the months that followed.

He could never take back the pain he had caused. Not only to his parents, but also to Zach and Jessica.

Zach pulled back and cradled Alex’ face in his hands. “You’re not selfish. You care too much about everyone else, that’s your problem.” He thumbed his tears away and brushed a hand through his hair in the most tender gesture. “Stop worrying about your parents, and Charlie, and Jess, and me. Be a little selfish sometimes, Alex.”

 


 

It was the last day of winter break and for the first time in a long time, the entire group came together again for their Sunday lunch at Monet’s.

Zach was dreading it. Not because he wasn’t happy to see his friends, after neglecting them for two weeks in favor of spending time alone with Alex, but because after today, he’d have to miss Alex for five days until the next weekend. And that pattern would repeat over and over. Winter break had been bliss, but it had to end someday. He wasn’t sure if he was ready for it to end. He hated being apart from Alex when they had just been friends. It would be even worse to miss him now.

He parked his car next to the blue Mustang, which he preferred seeing in his own driveway, as opposed to the parking lot. Getting out, he spotted everyone else’s cars as well and he cursed under his breath for being a little late. Wasting time is not something he wanted to do anymore.

He quickened his step and pushed through the door of the coffee house. His sheepish expression interrupted Jessica’s laugh at something.

“There he is!” She exclaimed and tapped her phone screen to check the time. “About damn time. I’m starving. Can we order now?”

The group had claimed three adjoining tables at the center of the space, occupying the benches and chairs. They all had coffees in front of them, but no food.

“Sorry.” He grimaced. “I know you guys think I wake up looking this good, but it actually takes some effort.”

“Liar,” Alex chided.

Zach shot one look at Charlie and the boy was nothing but smiles, which put him at ease. He’d had a talk with Charlie himself a couple of days ago. He offered to quit his job as assistant coach to the football team, if the situation made Charlie uncomfortable. But Charlie shot that idea down right away.

With a smile he approached the tables, knowing it wasn’t a coincidence that Alex had saved him a seat next to his. He sat himself down, casually draped his arm over the back of Alex’ chair and – with all eyes on them – he leaned in and placed a kiss on his cheek. He could barely manage, with the silly grin he was sporting. He got a kick out of some of the shocked faces at the display.

Some of them looked back to check on Charlie, but the boy just threw his hands up and made a face like ‘eh, whatcha gonna do?’ and then smiles started to appear on people’s faces.

“Well, I hate to repeat myself, but: it’s about damn time,” Jessica said.

Clay was mostly just stammering.

Tyler, who was sitting on Alex’ other side told his friend: “I’m so happy for you.”

“Thanks, Ty.”

Zach was enjoying the blush on Alex’ cheeks very much. Enough so to not be able to resist pressing another kiss to his heated skin.

A couple of them took everyone’s order for a sugary lunch and went to get it at the self-serve counter. In the next two hours they ate, drank a second and a third round of coffee and caught up. Charlie and his girlfriend Neha had become official at a New Year’s party. Jessica and Diego were planning a trip for spring break. Clay had a project featured in the newspaper. Tony won a big boxing match. Tyler took part in a photography exhibition they were all invited to. He and Alex kept sharing knowing looks as the photographer talked about his mysterious project.

Everyone was so happy. Everyone had come so far. Zach felt so many things beyond happiness; relief, pride, gratitude, hope, fulfillment. He felt like Justin was there with them too.

“Hey, Alex,” Charlie called from the far end of their group, “Tell everyone what you think the new painting looks like.”

Alex’ interpretation of the artwork had everyone laughing.

Zach looked at the colorful shapes and could only think to himself: he’s totally right. So while everyone was in stitches, he bumped his shoulder against his boyfriend’s and said: “I see it.”

“Oh, a shared delusion. This must be true love,” He jested.

When everyone had had too much caffeine and too much sugar, it was time to leave. One by one, they went their own ways again, but with the promise that the Sunday lunches would be a weekly thing again, like they had been.

Alex and Zach were the last to leave. They stood outside, in front of their cars and Zach put his arms around him, holding him before kissing him. He meant it as a goodbye kiss. But he couldn’t make himself pull away. He moved his hands to the front, grabbing at Alex’ unzipped jacket. The black shirt underneath he had recognized as the one he had given his boyfriend and – predictably – had never gotten back.

Apparently, happiness made him horny nowadays. At the thought, he giggled, interrupting their kiss.

“What?”

“Nothing.” He placed a peck on those irresistible lips and dragged his knuckles down the center of Alex’ chest. “You don’t technically have to go right away, right? You could also leave after dinner, right?”

“I guess. But what would we do in the meantime?” He asked coyly.

Zach smirked. “Stuff.”

“Stuff?”

“Hmhm.”

“Sounds hot.”

“Oh, it will be.”

They drove back to Zach’s place in his car, leaving the Mustang at Monet’s. Zach would drive him back after dinner, so he could head to Berkeley.

As soon as they were in Zach’s bedroom, they were all over each other. Zach pushed Alex back against the door roughly, but making sure to cradle the back of his head with his hand first. He bent himself at the knees to accommodate their height difference and plundered his mouth. It wasn’t just desire, but greed that fueled him.

He knew they wouldn’t be having sex yet. That wasn’t something he wanted to do on a rushed afternoon. But the lust was overpowering. Alex was so sexy, so wanton. It was insane to Zach how he’d been able to ignore that for as long as he had.

Those eyes. Those lips. That hair. Those hands. That dick.

He rocked his pelvis against him, causing them both to moan.

Growing impatient, he pulled Alex off the door and they stumbled further into the room, toeing off their boots and helping each other out of their jackets.

Zach landed on the bed with Alex on top of him. His hands slid around the slim waist, feeling the muscles under the shirt. He kneaded his shoulders and sides. His hands were dancing up and down his back restlessly, curious for more but unwilling to risk crossing a boundary they hadn’t discussed. Instead of grabbing him how he wanted to, he hiked the shirt up and let his hand glide over the small of his back. Alex had dimples there too.

With a shudder Alex broke their kiss to say: “Fucking touch me, you pussy.”

Zach snarled and recaptured his mouth. Now that he had permission, he rubbed his palms over his ass and grabbed at it to grind their hips together.

“Oh, fuck.” Alex dropped his head into the crook of Zach’s neck.

The bigger boy sat them upright, maneuvering Alex to straddle his lap. He pulled his own shirt off over his head first, using a single hand, not willing to take the other one off Alex’ body. Then he hooked his thumbs under the hem of the black shirt and after a pause to give him the chance to object, he helped the blonde out of his shirt.

“You’re so hot,” Zach mumbled, to quell the insecurity he sensed in Alex.

When Alex stroked his hands up Zach’s arms, he left a trail of goosebumps on the skin.

Zach rained kisses on Alex’ jawline, then down his throat and across his collarbone. His hands groped his ass through the denim and rocked him into his lap to create maddening friction. He flicked his tongue against Alex’ Adam’s apple and then curled in on himself to kiss his chest until he found a nipple that he sucked into his mouth.

“Ah! Holy shit, Zach…” Alex’ short nails clawed at his back.

All of it gave him a heady rush. He lapped at the small nipple. The reaction wasn’t dissimilar to how girls reacted. “Like that, baby?” His lips brushed his skin as he spoke.

“Fuck yeah.”

Acting on instinct, he pressed one of his hands into the cleft of Alex’ ass and the boy bucked and moaned at the new, intimate touch.

“Don’t get any ideas, Dempsey. Just because I’m the short one, doesn’t mean I’m gonna be the bottom.” He barely managed to push the words out before biting down on his bottom lip to quiet his moans as Zach did not let up, kissing his chest and massaging his taint and hole through his jeans.

Zach grinned. He wouldn’t expect Alex to assume the bottom position based on their height, but it wasn’t like there weren’t other, relevant hints that indicated an unspoken desire. Like Alex arching his back into his touch and becoming undone by the simple ministrations.

Or that pathetic mewl the boy let out when Zach brought his hands up to grip his waist instead. Zach lay back down on the mattress, holding Alex upright above him. He drank in the sight of him. Creamy skin with a pink flush on his chest, neck and cheeks. Both nipples were still wet from Zach’s kisses. His fingers pressed into his muscles as he held him still and gyrated his hips up against him, mimicking the way he had stimulated him before, but with his clothed manhood.

When Alex threw his head back and opened his mouth in a soundless moan, Zach went wild.

With a growl he pushed the boy onto the mattress, on his stomach, and draped himself over him, laying between his parted thighs.

Alex splayed his hands on the bedspread and pushed his chest up. He looked over his shoulder, exchanging a lustful look with his boyfriend before letting his head hang and moaning senselessly as Zach rocked his hips against him.

“Can I take our jeans off?” He asked, his voice guttural.

“Yes. Yes, please.”

Zach scrambled upright and pushed his jeans down to mid-thigh. He adjusted himself in his underwear, treating his erection to a few strokes through the fabric. Alex raised his hips off the bed so Zach could strip him from his jeans. He wasn’t satisfied until the denim landed in a bundle on the floor. The hem of Alex’ boxer briefs had been pulled down a little by his jeans and Zach fixed his underwear to cover him up before laying down on top of him again.

He moaned into Alex’ hair at his cock slotting between his ass cheeks. The two layers of fabric that separated them, added to the friction.

The boy under him angled his hips up, so that when Zach moved, his erection applied pressure to that sensitive and most intimate part of him.

Zach covered Alex’ hands with his and laced their fingers together. He seared kisses onto the back of his neck as he rutted against him. He imagined fucking him and it made his head spin. If just dry humping him felt this good, he was probably going to embarrass himself with a very swift orgasm once they would have sex.

It felt so good to draw these delicious sounds from Alex. Like he was an instrument he masterfully played. The moans were music to his ears. The way Alex said his name over and over was lyrical.

He whispered hotly into his ear: “Does this feel good?”

“Yes,” The blonde boy hissed. “So good. Ahhh….Ah!” Alex’ hips met Zach’s thrusts. “I want-… I want-… Fuck…” The pitch of his voice changed.

“What do you want, baby? Tell me.”

“Nnn… I want-… I want you to fuck me!” With a shriek Alex reached his orgasm, the admission being the thing to push him over the edge. The climax seemed to have caught him off guard just as much as it did Zach. There was a helplessness to his moans as he rode out the waves of his orgasm, arching his back under Zach’s big body. Then he went supple and his chest and head collapsed onto the bed.

Zach brought one hand down and pulled back only far enough so he could fit it between their bodies and jerk himself off. In only a few pumps he climaxed into his underwear.

He lowered himself down next to Alex, taking his hand out of his boxers and wiping it on his outer thigh.

Alex had his face buried in the pillow. His chest heaved with his breaths.

Zach ghosted his fingers up and down his spine, waiting for him to calm down.

Finally, Alex turned his body to face him, lying on his side as well. There was an obvious, wet stain in his underwear that Zach found incredibly sexy. He let out a breath that evolved into a chuckle. “Okay… so, maybe I’m the bottom after all.”

Zach grinned at his dry tone.

He nuzzled closer to Zach. “That was fucking intense.”

“Hell yeah…”

“Would you-? Would you even want to fuck me?”

“I want to make love to you.” At Alex rolling his eyes at the cheesy sentiment, he added: “But, like, hard… and deep.”

“Sounds hot.”

“Oh, it will be.”

Alex smirked at him and he craned his neck to kiss him. They lazily moved their lips together. When Alex pulled back, Zach frowned at the uncertainty he noticed in his eyes.

The boy asked: “Do you think about girls, when you’re with me?”

He wanted to squash that insecurity right away. “Definitely not.” He let his gaze move up and down the body in front of him, enjoying the sight of him and wanting Alex to know that.

Alex nodded and fell quiet.

“Do you?”

He snorted. “Considering what we just did, that would be quite a stretch of the imagination.”

“Hm. You’re talented like that.” He tickled his ribs to get him to laugh and then encouraged him to talk to him. He didn’t start up this conversation without reason.

“I don’t think about girls… I think-… I think I’m gay.”

“Oh?” He pursed his lips. “If you think that just because you’re interested in bottoming, I don’t think-…”

“No. No… It’s not that.” Alex shook his head. He shifted slightly and worried his bottom lip with his teeth before elaborating: “It was never like this with Jess. Or… the hooker.” He made a face at himself. “I wanted to have sex and I could come, but it wasn’t like this. Right now, it was like… like my body just knew what to do and what it wanted. I didn’t have to think, I could just let go.” He let out a scoff. “Sorry, I shouldn’t talk about this. It’s weird.”

“It’s not weird. Talk to me.”

He rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling and spoke as if he was reading something out loud that was written there. Clearly these thoughts and feelings weren’t new to Alex, but something he had considered before. “It didn’t come naturally, sleeping with Jess. Being with her felt like playing the violin.”

Zach said dumbly: “But you don’t play the violin.”

Alex’ lips curled. “Exactly. That’s my point. It was never right. There was never any music, just… noise. Whereas with you, it’s like playing the guitar. And not like I do now, but like how I used to. It’s so easy and it makes me feel so happy.” He cocked his head to the side to study Zach’s face. “Is-… Is that okay? That maybe I only like playing the guitar? Since, you know, you like both the guitar and the violin?”

Zach propped himself up on his elbow and kissed him first before answering. “I don’t plan on playing anything other than the guitar from now on,” He said solemnly. “Who we like – or can like – outside of our relationship, doesn’t change anything for us. I love you and you love me. And we make music together. That’s all that matters.”

Chapter Text

Zach had only ever worn these shoes to church and funerals. It was nice to wear them for a different occasion. He’d never been to an art exhibit before, but he figured it required some measure of dressing up. He was looking forward to seeing Tyler’s project, although he regretted that this was Alex’ first evening back in town, after the first week of classes following winter break. He wanted to have his boyfriend all to himself, but he’d have to share him with the group for as long as was socially required before he could steal him away.

He checked to make sure he didn’t get any toothpaste on his black dress shirt and ran a hand through his hair before heading out of his bedroom. His body was jittery with excitement, going to pick up Alex at his parents’ house to drive him to the gallery. All because of one, simple text Alex had sent him that afternoon:

Alex : I want to tell them.

Telling the Standalls about their relationship was a big deal to Zach. He knew Alex’ parents liked him, but as their son’s friend. He couldn’t predict if they would like him as his boyfriend. In fact, if he had to guess, he’d say they wouldn’t be too enthused. As a local law enforcement officer, Deputy Standall was well aware of Zach’s “fucked-up semester”. The man knew about the two DUI charges and was the cop to have pulled him over for what would have been his third offense, but he’d let him off with a warning. He knew how Zach had behaved at the riot and had instigated his son to partake in the vandalism. And – fuck – if they ever found out he coaxed their physically disabled son to follow him onto the ledge of a rooftop, Zach was sure there’d be another murder in town that the Deputy would gladly help cover up.

He wanted them to like him, as Alex’ boyfriend. But how was he ever going to live up to the legacy that was Charlie?

Charles Hayden Brixton Perfect Son-in-Law St. George.

Zach was a recovering drunk, who barely graduated high school after letting his grades slip and was now studying music – of all things – at a community college – of all places. His mom still paid for all his shit because he barely made any money with his part time job as the Tiger’s assistant coach. He hadn’t been a good friend to Alex when he had needed him most, too caught up in his own tape to see how Alex was buckling under his guilt. He had violently beaten a man to within an inch of his life and had left him for dead. If Jessica and Alex had never showed up on the pier, Bryce would have frozen to death over the course of the night anyway, seeing as the cops later found his phone still in his car. Zach would have been a murderer, without the defense of a traumatic brain injury.

Oh and on top of all of that, he was also the idiot who was too afraid to face his feelings and broke Alex’ heart more than anyone less strong would be able to handle.

Alex was nervous about telling them too, but not for the same reasons Zach was. The boy kept reassuring Zach that his parents loved him, ever since he pushed him through his PT. Alex’ reasons for being nervous had actually made Zach laugh out loud.

“They are so gonna know I’m ‘the girl’ in this relationship...”

Zach had spent all of that afternoon reminding Alex that there was no girl in their relationship…

That was a pretty hot afternoon.

He drove to the Standall home, his heartbeat becoming erratic along the way. Every time he moved his hands on the steering wheel, he noticed the sweaty palm print he left on the leather.

At the curb, parked behind the Mustang. Zach fretted with the top button of his button-up shirt. Should he do up the last button and suffer how tight the collar felt around his neck, or leave it undone and worry about making the wrong impression? He decided it was better to risk suffocation and pushed the button through the loop.

“Ok, Dempsey,” He spoke to his reflection in the rearview mirror, “Be cool. Relax.” That was so uncool he rolled his eyes.

On the porch he took one more deep breath before ringing the doorbell and listening as it chimed throughout the house. A tall figure appeared behind the frosted glass and the Deputy opened the door for him. He’d been faced with Alex’ father countless of times and knew him to be a kind man, but his heart leapt into his throat anyway.

“Zach, welcome.” Bill looked down at his watch with a frown.

Shit. “Hello, Sir. Am- Am I late?”

He laughed. “No, not at all. You’re actually on the dot. Impressive.” The man made way for him so he could step into the house. Another laugh resounded, softer this time. “Son, either you’re a little overdressed or Alex didn’t get the memo. Last I saw him, he was wearing jeans.”

He glanced down at himself as if he didn’t remember what he was wearing; a black button-up, grey slacks, and shiny shoes. Then he studied the Deputy, dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt. Top button undone. “Oh.” His brain just stopped at that.

Helpful. Thanks.

“Don’t worry about it. Come on in.” He patted a hand on his shoulder and motioned for him to continue into the living room.

He stiffly walked into the living space and greeted misses Standall who was in the kitchen still cleaning up after dinner. Her smile was wide and bright.

“Zach, honey, you look great.” She turned her attention to her husband. “See, Bill? People dress up for things other than church.”

The Deputy leaned in close to Zach. “You’re making me look bad, son.”

“Sorry, Sir.” From the mirthful look he received he got the keen sense he was being toyed with.

The man placated his wife by saying: “Fine, fine, I’ll put on a different shirt, at least.” He jogged up the staircase.

“Since Bill and I are tagging along, I hope you don’t mind if we take Bill’s truck instead,” Carolyn rattled off to Zach as she moved over to fix her lipstick in the mirror that hung above an end table. “We’re too old to fold into the back seat of that Audi of yours.”

“Oh, uhhh… Of course.”

She threw him a knowing look. “Alex didn’t tell you we were coming too, did he?”

“Give me a break, Mom,” Alex interjected as he came down from the stairs. “Tyler only texted me, like, twenty minutes ago that you should probably come.”

Zach stood rooted in the middle of the living room, feasting his eyes on the sight of Alex after not being able to see him for the past five days. He’d gotten used to not seeing his friend for five days at a time. But not seeing his boyfriend for five days at a time was definitely different.

He looked slim and fit in black jeans and a black, long-sleeved shirt. Although his hair was already perfectly tousled, Zach’s fingers itched to rake through the locks as he’d kiss him.

In turn, Alex looked him up and down, but his conclusion wasn’t quite as flattering. With that characteristic tone of voice, he asked: “Zach, what the fuck are you wearing?”

“Alexander, language.”

“Sorry, Mom.”

For the second time, Zach looked himself up and down, really regretting his choice of wardrobe. All he could do was shrug.

Alex crossed the space between them, sporting a smile, and with arms around Zach’s shoulders he pulled the taller boy down into a hug. “Missed you,” He whispered in his ear. “Asshole.”

Zach tightened his arms around him before forcing himself to let go. It was so hard to be close to him but not be able to kiss him, in the presence of Alex’ mom.

With a little frown on his face Alex reached up and undid the top button his Zach’s shirt, oblivious – or purposefully ignoring – how red Zach’s face became. “There, at least now you can breathe.”

Bill came stomping down the stairs and made a point of showing his attire change. He was wearing another flannel shirt, as he always did, but it was a dark green one, as opposed to the faded red one he’d been wearing earlier. “Better?” He asked his wife.

Carolyn shook her head at him, but with a smile. “Sure,” She said in defeat.

Bill faced his son. “Agreed?”

Alex quirked an eyebrow. “Dad, my own style has regressed to match yours, so I can hardly judge.”

“I’ll take it as a ‘yes’.” He clapped his hands together and checked his watch once more. “Everybody ready to go?”

Alex bounced forward. “Actually, before we leave, there’s something I wanted to tell you.”

Zach observed the two parents. Both waited patiently for their son to speak. He looked sideways to meet Alex’ gaze.

“Uhm,” The shorter boy scratched the back of his neck but then dropped his hand down and reached for Zach’s to entwine their fingers. “Zach and I are kinda… more than friends now.”

Zach swallowed a lump in his throat. It took him a second to dare to look back at the Standalls.

The parents exchanged a look. “We know, honey,” Said Carolyn, her smile was beaming.

“Oh. How?

She explained: “You told us how you felt about Zach two months ago and then you two didn’t see each other for over a month, until all of a sudden you spent all of winter break together. Also, you’ve had the most adorable little smile on your face ever since.”

Mom, oh my God.” Alex covered his face with his free hand.

The entire time Alex’ dad was looking at Zach and smiling at him and Zach felt so happy he could cry.

“Alright, come on,” The Deputy said eventually. “The guest of honor can’t be late.”

Zach threw a frown at Alex. “Guest of honor?”

His cute ears tinged red. “Yeah. You’ll see. Fuck.”

As the four of them walked to the truck parked on the driveway, Alex still held Zach’s hand and the father put a hand on Zach’s shoulder. Zach felt accepted. No, more than that, he felt welcomed and part of the family. It was more than he could ever wish for.

He knew his mom would never be able to react to the news like that. Most of him didn’t even believe anymore that she would get upset, since he hadn’t been her perfect son in a long time anyway. She’d probably take it in stride, chalk it up as yet another disappointment. But a small part of him was really scared that she would cast him out. That she might kick him out of the house, not pay for school anymore, and not let him see May anymore. And he was even more terrified that she could lash out at Alex, like she had done in the past. That she would blame him, in her old-fashioned ignorance.

That possibility wasn’t something he was ready to face yet and Alex told him he could keep it a secret as long as he wanted. There was no pressure on coming out. With the way their relationship had devolved, he might never want to make her privy to this part of his life. Because this part of his life, the part he shared with Alex, was the most precious thing to him and he didn’t want to give her the chance to taint that.

Which was why it was all the more special to him to have shared this moment with the Standalls.

Alex was lucky to have parents so loving and so evolving – they went to church every Sunday but never used religion as an excuse to not support their son. But he didn’t need to tell the boy how lucky he was; Alex was well aware.

The two boys got into the backseat of the truck.

It was almost a two hour drive to San Francisco where Tyler went to school and where a number of selected students had an exposition of their photography in a local art gallery. Zach played with Alex’ fingers the entire way.

When they were nearly there, Alex complained that he should have stayed at school. San Francisco was just across the Oakland Bay bridge from Berkeley. But then muttered something about having to get away from his “fucking roommate”, at which point his mom routinely corrected his language.

They arrived a little past eight and the exhibition wouldn’t open until nine, but they had been promised early access. They texted Tyler to let him know they were only a few minutes away and when they pulled up to the gallery, Tyler was waiting for them outside the windowed front of the building, accompanied by Estella. Inside, Zach could see angled, white walls displaying the photography and a lot of students bustling around to perfect their section and some parents trying to calm them down.

One by one they hugged Tyler. The boy was stiff with nerves. With jerky movements, he invited them into the gallery, holding the door open for them. As he led them to the back, he thanked Alex for “letting him do this”.

Zach shot Alex a confused look. “What’s this about?”

Alex stopped him then, pressing a hand against his stomach and coming to stand in front of him. “You guys go ahead,” He told Tyler, Estella and his parents and the four of them walked away. “Uhm… Tyler sorta asked me to model for him.”

Zach raised his eyebrows. “Are we gonna be looking at tasteful nudes or something?” He winked at the other and that earned him a punch against his chest.

“You know Ty took pictures of me after, right?”

“Well, yeah…” He’d been furious when he had found out. He couldn’t understand why Tyler would photograph Alex while he had been in such a fragile and vulnerable state.

“He kinda, like, documented my recovery.”

“His photography project is about you?”

“… Yeah.”

Zach drummed his fingers on his outer thighs. Now he was nervous too, about seeing the pictures. He knew what Alex had looked like, in that hospital bed, he had seen it with his own eyes. But he hadn’t seen it since. He had never been able to look at the pictures Tyler had taken of Alex.

“I’m sorry, I should have told you. I guess I wanted it to be a surprise. I think you might like it. But I didn’t really consider how hard it has to be to see the older pictures.”

“What about your parents?”

He shrugged. “It’s hard for them too, but they’ve seen ‘em before.” He crossed his arms in front of his chest and bowed his head. “You don’t have to go look, if you don’t want to see.”

“No. No, I want to see.” He curled a finger under Alex’ chin and tilted his head up so he could place a kiss on his lips. “I told you: this is a part of you and I want all of you.”

Still, he was apprehensive as he followed Alex to the back, where the others had disappeared to. As they walked around a segment of wall with colorful nature photography, he spotted the four figures. Tyler stood off to the side, head ducked between his shoulders, Estella talking to him, probably saying encouraging words that fell to deaf ears. Bill had his arm around Carolyn and she rested her head on his shoulder as they both studied a series of black-and-white pictures on the wall in front of them.

Zach and Alex came to stand next to them and immediately Alex was pulled into his mother’s embrace.

Zach swallowed to cure his dry throat and looked at the pictures from left to right. The first made his stomach churn. As feared, it was a picture of Alex in his most broken state, taken only a week after his attempt, when the parents first allowed other people to come visit him in the hospital. Bandages around his bleach-blonde head, face still bruised from the beating at Monty’s hands. The respirator tube looked like it violated him. The harsh sunlight streaming in through the windows created black shadows in the rippled bedsheets. The silhouette of his parents was out of focus in the background.

Zach couldn’t look at the picture for too long. It felt like he was going to be sick.

But the other pictures were a saving grace. The progression of photos showed Alex’ recovery. It showed him talking to his brother, while still bedridden. Walking out of the hospital with his cane. A PT session with Zach; the exact moment Alex had caught a ball left-handed and both boys looked shocked. In another the entire group was flipping off the camera left-handed at Monet’s. It also showed a picture taken from the passenger seat of the Mustang, of him sitting behind the wheel, wearing sunglasses and being caught in the mid of licking his lips.

There were more candids of him working out at Caleb’s, talking to his friends, or smiling at Tyler through the lens of the camera. And one photo of him cheering Charlie on during the first football game of the season.

Zach could never again be jealous of the time Alex had spent with Charlie. In hindsight, he could only be grateful to how much Charlie had helped him open up and be more comfortable with himself.

 Of course there was a photo of him at graduation as well.

The last photo was another one his boyfriend had clearly been asked to model for. He was sitting on his bed, his new bass guitar in his lap. He made piercing eye contact with the lens and he looked exactly the way Zach remembered him when they had first met and he wouldn’t budge for the school’s biggest bullies.

Defiant.

He took in the entire timeline all over again. The pictures were beautiful. The story they told was beautiful. The boy was beautiful.

His eyes were welling up with tears.

It took him a while to even notice that at the far right, there was an empty picture frame. He scraped his throat and asked Tyler: “Do you still have to put one in?”

“No. Uhh…” His face flushed with embarrassment. “I know it’s cheesy, but it’s supposed to symbolize that there’s more to come. That the story isn’t over yet.”

“… Jesus fucking Christ, Tyler.”

“Zach, language,” Alex’ mom said and then they all exchanged a look and laughed.

Bill squeezed Zach’s shoulder and said: “Welcome to the family, son.”

They complimented Tyler on his work, all with tears in their eyes, and spent two more hours meandering through the exhibition, but circling back to Tyler’s photos several times. They experienced the emotional turmoil all over again when the rest of the group of friends arrived as well to show their support.

Charlie was the only one of the group who hadn’t been there during the first months after and the expression on his face was gutting, but seeing the other pictures snapped him out of his misery and then he seemed proud and relieved more and anything. Zach gave him a moment alone with Alex so they could talk.

When Alex couldn’t stand to be the center of attention any longer, the four of them went home and the Standalls invited Zach to spend the night.

But in the guest bedroom.

 


 

Spring break couldn’t have come soon enough. And couldn’t have lasted long enough. But three months crawled and the nine days flew. Alex soared with them, a little higher every day until the plummet ahead was terrifying and nauseating. It had been the best week of his life and Zach promised him they’d have more. Many more. But on days like today, Alex mostly thought about all the time they lost in the past and how much more time they would lose in the future. Over three more years of college left. Three years of a long distance relationship.

Zach wouldn’t let him be sad, however. The day would be a celebration. Not for any special reason. There would be plenty of sad days, Zach agreed, but that Sunday wouldn’t be one of them. He refused.

And… well… He had a way of being very persuasive.

Instead of their weekly Sunday lunch, the group met for breakfast instead. Three coffees and cinnamon rolls to start the day with. And then it was off to the beach. It was a long drive, but the journey was part of the fun. A caravan of cars speeding along the highway. Windows rolled down, roof folded down. Zach turning up the volume on his Spotify playlist, especially on one song by Wild Cherry. Alex behind the wheel.  

It was a warm day for March, but the section of beach they found wasn’t crowded and didn’t attract any of the last of the Spring Breakers.

They brought beach chairs, towels, parasols, food, and drinks. All non-alcoholic, out of consideration. They claimed a stretch of sand as their own. Diego, Charlie, Caleb and Zach wasted no time wrestling each other into the water, once they were in just their swimming trunks. Tony, Clay, and Alex desperately trying not to be included in the ritual. Of course none of the boys tried to grab any of the girls or Tyler; he was happy sharing a towel with Estella. Alex took off his jeans, but not his shirt.

The four athletes came running out of the ocean, putting up a show. Diego, Charlie, and Caleb were rewarded with a kiss. Zach had a slipper thrown at his face because Alex damn well recognized his mischievous expression and he narrowly escaped his boyfriend’s grabby arms.

Zach admitted defeat and dropped onto his beach towel close to Alex’. They lay together, soaking in the sun. Their fingers playing together in the sand.

After lunch, Zach whispered in Alex’ ear: “If you’ll take your shirt off, I’ll lather you in sunscreen lotion, white boy.” That was too enticing. Zach leisurely massaged his back with lotion, then leaned over his shoulder and playfully placed a dollop on his nose, point out it was already turning a little red.

Alex couldn’t have been asleep for more than five minutes when cold droplets landed on his chest and stomach and he glared up at his very wet boyfriend towering over him, blocking the sun. Of course he knew the moment he had agreed to take his shirt off and be left only in his swim trunks that it was only a matter of time until…

But Zach didn’t drag him into the water. Instead he covered Alex’ body with his, touching his freezing skin to Alex’ heated skin and getting him wet by dripping all over him.

“Since you’re wet anyway…” Then the boy was hoisted up from his towel and carried over to the water to be thrown into the waves. Hilariously, Clay, Tyler, Tony and Jessica ran in after them to come to his aid, igniting the others to come to Zach’s defense. It devolved into an uncoordinated battle of everyone trying to tackle everyone else. Zach held his ground with all but Alex; letting himself fall when Alex put his arms around him and pulled him down.

They let themselves dry in the sun afterwards and then packed up at the end of afternoon to head back to Evergreen. They stopped at a fast food restaurant along the way and ate on the parking lot, sitting on the hoods of their cars.

As they drove back into their hometown, the group split up, honking their horns at each other.

When the Audi parted ways with Tony’s red Mustang at an intersection, Alex expected Zach to drive them to his place, where they would spend the evening alone until Alex would have no choice but to head back to Berkeley. His blue Mustang was already in Zach’s driveway, with his weekend bag in the backseat. But at the next intersection, Zach took them straight ahead instead of making the turn to the right, towards his street.

“Where are you taking me?”

“It’s a surprise.”

“Uhuh.”

They drove straight through Evergreen to the other end and climbed the hill, clueing Alex in as to what their destination was.

Sure enough they ended up on the overlook at the top of the hill. The town was below and the golden sunset was beyond.

Alex smirked as the car came to a halt. It was sheer luck that nobody else was around. It was a popular place for couples to go – not always with the most romantic motivations. He met Zach’s gaze and soon the tall boy was leaning towards him. With a hand on his chest, Alex stopped him, causing his boyfriend to pout.

He smirked at him. In a fluid movement he unbuckled the seatbelt and got up. With his hand on the headrest for support, he climbed over the center console and between the two chairs to the backseat. He looked at Zach defiantly and challenged him: “Come work some of that Dempsey-magic.”

Zach was quick to follow suit and he occupied the space between Alex’ legs and curled over to connect their mouths.

Zach smelled of salt water and the breaths that swept across Alex’ face were like a warm ocean breeze. His body still radiated heat from the sun. Alex felt it through the thin material of his shirt as his hands explored the broad chest above him, gliding his palms over the smooth planes and tracing his fingers through the outlines of muscles.

It didn’t bother Alex to know that Zach had brought many girls to the overlook. In fact, he liked it. Zach always had subtle ways of assuring Alex that their relationship was just as normal as any other and that they had the right to do regular “couple things”, like going on dinner dates, holding hands in the street, and making-out on the overlook. Even though Zach still hadn’t come out to his mother and perhaps won’t for years to come, if ever, he never made any effort to hide their relationship when they were in public. His mom was too in denial to believe any rumors she might hear. Him not coming out to her was not about shame. He wasn’t ashamed of his sexuality, or of Alex.  

That gave Alex a confidence he had never known before.

Zach sat back and Alex let himself be maneuvered into his lap. He loved getting manhandled. It was a thrill to him whenever Zach took control of the situation and took control of him. He wanted to relinquish control to Zach in the most intimate way. They hadn’t yet gotten that far but Alex felt ready.

Two big hands slipped under his shirt and drew up his back, leaving goosebumps in their wake.

Alex rocked back and forth in Zach’s lap, the friction through the two layers of denim was very familiar to them now, but no less exciting. No less arousing.

The hands traveled back down and greedy fingers pressed into his ass cheeks.

With his hands on the sides of Zach’s neck, he felt the wild heartbeat. His own heart was racing too.

Two hearts skipped a beat when headlights interrupted them and another car parked a few yards away from theirs.

“Wanna come home with me?”

“Yeah.”

They climbed back to the front of the car, both stumbling as they did and laughing at each other.

At Zach’s house, Alex followed him up the stairs. Zach had held his hand since they had been at the door to the garage. Inside his bedroom, the Asian boy didn’t bother turning on any of the lights. The sun had set and barely any light filtered in through the small window, but they both knew the room well enough to find their way around blindly until their eyes became adjusted to the darkness.

They knew their way around each other blindly as well. They kissed and groped on their way towards the bed, but pausing just short.

Zach stripped them both out of their shirts.

Alex let out his first moan when fingers ghosted over his chest and brushed by his nipples, hardening them with a single, passing touch. He listed forward and began kissing Zach’s chest. He tasted the salt on his skin when he sucked on his collar bone.

Zach’s arms wrapped around him. One hand delved into his hair, sending shivers down his spine. The other was at the small of his back, the tips of his fingers inching under his jeans. Lips appeared at the shell of his ear. A tongue traced along the edge before teeth grazed and nibbled at his earlobe.

“Zach?”

“Hmmm?” The deep voice vibrated in Alex’ ear and chest.

“Is it okay if we make tonight our first time?”

The arms held him tighter still. “Are you sure?”

“Yes…” The word itself was a moan. His breath hitched when Zach’s hands grabbed his ass and the tall boy lifted him up against him. Reactively, he looped his arms around the strong shoulders and his legs around Zach’s waist. He was carried the final few feet to bed and gently lowered onto the mattress. He raised his hips up so Zach could help him out of his jeans and swim trunks. Once naked, he crawled further up the bed and waited for Zach to join him. He watched his silhouette against the window undress himself and the mattress dipped when he climbed onto the bed.

Alex blinked when a lamp on the nightstand was flicked on and the bedroom was bathed in a soft, orange glow.

Zach sidled up next to him, his onyx eyes magnetic. “I want to see you, is that okay?”

The blonde boy could only nod. He was pulled flush against his boyfriend’s naked body and they resumed their kiss. Zach’s tongue swiped along his lips, but every time Alex tried to engage it in play with his own, he withdrew and he could tell by kissing his lips that Zach was smirking.

It was driving Alex wild that Zach refused to claim his mouth. Thankfully, he knew exactly how to drive Zach wild in turn. He hooked a calf over Zach’s thigh and rolled himself back, pulling the bigger boy on top him. Then he put his other leg around him as well, locking his ankles together. He threaded his fingers into the black hair and moaned his name.

Simple as that.

Immediately his lips were plied open; Zach licked into his mouth to tease his tongue and teasing turned into dominating. Alex fought back coyly, but with no intention of trying to win. He arched his back as their arousals rubbed together, trapped between their stomachs.

One of the hottest moments of the past three months was Zach sitting on his knees between Alex’ parted thighs, the fingers of one hand wrapped around the base of their shafts, holding them together, while the other hand, slickened with lube, massaged the tips until they came together.

The pressure was already building in his stomach. The muscles of his thighs twitched as he had them clamped around Zach. “Please… Zach…”

Zach prolonged the foreplay a little longer, moving his head down and sucking on each nipple. His hands stroked from Alex sides down to his legs. Then he sat up and positioned one calf over his shoulder and turned the other leg outward, spreading Alex’ thighs further. Zach held eye contact and licked his lips. “Ready?”

He nodded stiffly. He trusted Zach. They had already admitted to each other previously that they had done some Googling on the matter.

The bigger boy reached out and pumped lube into his hand. He treated Alex’ cock to a few strokes and thumbed the underside of the head until Alex breathlessly urged him to stop. He took his hand off his arousal and brought it lower instead. It disappeared from Alex’ sight, so he studied Zach’s face instead, as he was looking down, completely focused on what he was doing.

Alex tensed up when he felt pressure against his opening; the tips of two fingers rubbing against him. He worried his bottom lip with his teeth. His chest and face were flushed, like he was under the sun again. He clenched his muscles involuntarily. The excitement was almost unbearable.

They had made themselves wait so long for this moment because neither wanted there to be any doubt once the time had come.

Alex definitely didn’t have any doubts. He craved Zach’s fingers. He craved his cock.

He was certain Zach was finally going to push a finger into him, but the other changed his mind and first reached for more lube instead. The cold liquid dripped down Alex’ cleft.

“It’s okay, Zach. I’ve had one finger before,” He reminded him. Alex telling Zach about the time he had fingered himself had created another memory Alex cherished, especially on lonely nights at Berkeley.

Alex twisted his fingers into the bedsheets. Thinking back to that – back to fingering himself and back to Zach hanging off his lips as he told him about it – while being in the position he was in, was both too much and not enough. He begged again: “Please, Zach.”

The first finger slipped in without resistance.

He squeezed his eyes shut and threw his head back. It moved in and out of him and curled inside him, searching.

“How will I know-?”

“Trust me, you’ll know,” Alex grunted, flashing back to the time he discovered his own prostate. He could feel the bump of the gland along his inner wall. When he pressed it, he saw stars. And the more aroused he became, the more swollen and sensitive the prostate grew.

It didn’t take Zach long to find it and touch it in just the right way.

Alex sucked in a breath. His cock bounced up from where it rested on his stomach. He clenched around the invading finger.

Oh.” Zach let out dumbly.

When Alex cracked his eyes open, he caught his smirk. He didn’t get the chance to make a quip because Zach pressed his finger up again and the only sound Alex could make was a drawn-out moan.

A second finger joined the first, completely painless. Then a third.

Alex was a writhing mess. Zach held the leg draped over his shoulder still, with fingers digging into his thighs, but the other leg was restless. His mouth was open so moans could tumble past his lips unfiltered. “Zach, I’m ready, please. God, I’m so ready.”

He retreated his fingers and used a tissue from the nightstand to wipe them. He produced a condom from the drawer. “Do you want me to wear one?”

“Uh… I haven’t-… Since…” Forming sentences was difficult. No, impossible, apparently. But Zach knew what he meant, they had discussed it before: he hadn’t had sex since all of them had gotten tested last summer.

“Me neither.”

Alex giggled. “This is gonna be over quick.”

“Probably.” He bent forward and kissed him, before mumbling against his lips: “Don’t judge, okay?”

“I won’t if you won’t.”

“So… No condom?”

Alex shook his head, then thought to say: “Not unless you want to.” Maybe he thought it was unclean otherwise…

“I don’t. I want to come inside you.”

He clawed at Zach’s back. “Ohh, fuck… Zach.”

“Fuck indeed…”

Alex welcomed another kiss. Their tongues danced together.

Zach’s hands glided over his body. Only stopping to apply a liberal amount of lube to his cock. He hooked his thumbs under his knees and pushed his legs up until both were over Zach’s shoulders. With one hand, he held himself at the base and pushed the tip against Alex’ opening.

He bit his lip when Zach pushed into him. Pressure built until the ring of muscle stretched to accept him inside. He kept himself quiet, reveling in the throaty moan his partner let out.

“Stop me if it hurts,” He ground out, slowly entering him, his muscles quivering with self-restraint.

“No, it’s good, keep going.” The stretch and the constant pressure against his prostate felt wonderful and dulled any pain involved to a mere discomfort. He let his legs slide back down to Zach’s hips and urged him to come forward.

Zach dropped his head down into the crook of his neck when he was fully seated inside him. He struggled to remain still. His chest was heaving as he panted. His weight rested on his elbows. He grabbed fistfuls of pillow on either side of Alex’ head.

Alex had his arms and legs around him, surrounding Zach’s body in every way he could. Holding him inside of him was the most incredible experience. It was a kind of intimacy he had never known before. He mouthed meaningless things against his ear; whispers and moans. All coherent thought vacated his mind for a minute and in the calm one wish became prominent: “Move… Zach… fuck me…”

A kiss silenced him, but Zach did as requested, pulling out to thrust back in. The motion was slow and careful at first. The friction was only maddening, not satisfying. Alex cupped Zach’s face and broke their kiss to look into his eyes and to tell him: “I’m not gonna break. Fuck me harder.”

Zach complied, building up the rhythm of his hips. His skin glistened with sweat. His hair was damp. Alex ran his fingers through it. He brought his face down to rest his forehead against his. Zach let out a grunt with every powerful thrust. The head of his cock pushed past the prostate with every motion. Soon enough, every thrust earned Zach a moan from Alex. The pleasure built like a crescendo. The tension needed a release. Soon.

“You were right… It’s-… I’m gonna-“ Zach warned.

Alex wetted his fingers on his tongue and brought his hand down between them. Massaging two fingers against the underside of his cock was enough to push him towards the edge of his orgasm. His brows knitted together.

“Are you close too, baby?”

He fucking loved that nickname. “Ahh, yeah! Yeah! C-Call me that again.”

Zach’s voice was like velvet against skin when he said: “Wanna see your pretty face when I come inside you for the first time, baby.”

Holy shit. Alex cried out as his climax hit him. The intensity of it was new. He clamped his muscles down on Zach’s cock, but he needed him to fuck him through his orgasm, so he pleaded: “Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Don’t stop.”

“Baby, I won’t.”

His own cock twitched, releasing semen onto his belly. The thought of Zach soon coming inside him added to his high.

Riding out the waves of his orgasm, he managed to open his eyes again and lock gazes with Zach.

“Keep looking at me just like that, baby…” Zach stared into him. His black eyes were smoldering. “I fucking love you.”

“Love you too.” Alex panted through parted lips and watched Zach pressed his lips into a taut line. His hips bucked uncontrollably as he reached his climax. He slammed himself into Alex and froze up. He tried to keep his eyes open, but he ended up squeezing them shut in pleasure. Alex felt him release inside him and it made him feel dirty in a good way.

Zach’s muscles unlocked and he lazily rolled his hips for a moment before carefully pulling out and collapsing down onto the bed next to Alex. He gathered his boyfriend up in his arms, holding him against him, not caring about the semen or sweat. He petted a hand through Alex’ blonde hair.

After a few minutes of them catching their breaths, Zach let out a laugh and Alex joined him.

Holy fuck.”

“Holy fuck indeed.”

Zach pulled back only just enough to show off his silly smirk. “We make some good music together.”

All Alex could do was wordlessly agree and let himself be kissed. Zach poured all of his passion into it. “How am I supposed to leave after that?” He wondered. He didn’t have long until he’d have to head back to Berkeley. He sighed and closed his eyes at the way Zach caressed his face. It put him at ease.

“At what time does your first class start?”

“Hmm… Nine.” He smiled when Zach placed a kiss on his lips, curling a finger under his chin.

“Spend the night,” He suggested. “If you leave at seven, you’ll make it back in time.”

“That sounds like a good solution now… But I’m gonna regret it in the morning.”

Another kiss. “I’ll wake you at six thirty with a blowjob.”

He blinked his eyes open. “No orgasm is ever gonna be good enough again without you inside me.”

Zach groaned. “Fuck... If you’re not too sore tomorrow,” he stressed, “I’ll  make love to you in the morning.”

Alex smiled, this one time not protesting the corny term of ‘making love’.

Zach brushed his hand through his hair. “You have no idea what you do to me when you smile.”

He nuzzled his face into Zach’s chest to hide his blush. He knew they had to get up in a minute to clean up a little bit, but he wanted to enjoy the moment for as long as he could, breathing in the smell of sweat, sex, and salt. “I’m gonna miss you so much.”

Zach tightened his embrace around him in agreement.

“We need more Zach and Alex time.” Alex said. He felt Zach’s chuckle, rather than heard it.

“We’ll have forever for more.”