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Evan Who is Gay (but not magical)

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The open door policy at Evan’s house meant that there were always kids his age coming or going, stopping over for dinner, for a quiet place to do their homework, or even just a place to crash and play video games. Sometimes they stayed the night—though Evan’s dad Steven made it a policy to have them call home to let their parents know where they were, even if they weren’t comfortable enough to go home. That was more a legal thing than a moral thing, though.

He’d been accused of kidnapping once or twice in the past and he wasn’t looking to be accused of it again.

It wasn’t some religious quest of his or anything—Evan’s family wasn’t like that. They were just... socially conscious. Well, he wasn’t. But his parents. They were under the impression that teenagers would make better decisions if they were given options.

Evan wasn’t so sure about that, but it wasn’t his house, and he wasn’t the type to bitch about it. He wasn’t sure his dad would listen even if he did.

It was kind of difficult being the balanced, well-adjusted kid of the neighbourhood safe house for teens looking for shelter from whatever was going on at home, but Evan had installed a lock on his door when he was fourteen, after his Gameboy had gone missing one day, and he’d also bought himself one of those fucking awesome fire escape ladder things that he kept stashed under his bed. It made sneaking out at night a fucking breeze.

The old drive-in outside of town played classic movies every Sunday night, and Sunday nights were pretty busy back home. Evan had a theory that tensions at the other kids’ homes skyrocketed as the work and school week loomed threateningly ahead, and lots of kids sought shelter to finish up their homework, or more often than not, just fuck around on the PlayStation.

It was just a theory, though. Evan’s dad had instigated a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy around about the time he started the whole calling home thing.

Anyway, Evan didn’t play well with others. Or, really, they didn’t play well with him. The vast majority of his peers thought Evan was strange, antisocial (which was kind of true, but whatever), and a bit of a freak. If it wasn’t for the fact that his father was kind of a town hero (back in his own youth, Steven had been the star quarterback, and now he was the high school football coach), Evan had no illusions. He’d be beaten up, bullied, swirlied, and locked in random lockers every day of his life.

It was the sort of thing you expected when you hit your growth spurt at fourteen and nothing much happened. He’d never filled out, ending up as small and graceless as a baby deer, with the huge brown eyes and spattering of freckles to prove it. It was kind of one of the tragedies of his life, not that he was counting.

It wasn’t all bad, though. Sure, he was a hundred pounds soaking wet, prettier than a guy ought to be, smarter than he ought to be too, and his dad was a jocky football hero with a heart of gold who regularly filled Evan’s house with the very sort of predators who liked to pretend he didn’t exist. But Evan’s life had its upsides, too, like Sunday nights at the drive-in.

There was a loose board in the wooden fence that ran along the back of the drive-in where Evan could ditch his bike and slip through, and usually, Trent met him there.

Trent was a bit of a freak too, but he was the purposeful kind. He’d always been that tall, awkward kid with the bad, home-styled cut that looked like his mom’d just popped a bowl on top and trimmed around the edges. He’d rebelled against that around about fifteen, and by sixteen, his hair was a tangled, dirty mop, matched only by the patchy scrub that grew beneath his lower lip and along where his sideburns ought to be. He had a thing for oversized t-shirts with nasty sayings on them, and on the particular Sunday when everything started going to hell, he was wearing one that said “I fucked my feminine side.”

He was always classy.

“Night of the Living Dead next week,” he said when Evan slipped through the fence. He was grimacing around the soda straw between his lips.

“What? You love that shit,” Evan said, rolling his eyes and stealing the Pepsi for a sip.

“Everyone loves that shit,” Trent said, sighing. He was propped up against one of the birch trees that lined the back of the drive-in. “Zombies are like, some sort of popular cult phenomenon or something these days. Whole place’ll be crowded with hipsters.”

Evan wrinkled his nose, already trying to think up somewhere else to spend next Sunday night. It was a little bit ironic that his house was an open-door place for everyone except for him. “Get Miriam to invite us over,” he said. After all, Miriam was Trent’s semi-girlfriend, wasn’t that the sort of favour you asked of semi-girlfriends? Evan wouldn’t really know, he’d never had one.

“Dude,” Trent said, eyes going wide. “That would be so weird.”

“She’s your girlfriend, that means you’ve got some sort of claim on her couch and her Xbox, I’m sure that’s a rule.”

“We’re not dating!” Trent looked horrified. “We just... hook up sometimes.”

“Oh.” Evan’s shoulders sunk a little. The worst part about living in a small town—other than the people—was the lack of entertainment options. “Bowling?”

Trent didn’t answer, just fell to the ground with a groan and lay there, squinting up at the sky through the trees. Sighing, Evan went to the nearest speaker box, flipped it on, and glanced up at the screen. They were playing Casablanca. What a fucking surprise; they were always playing Casablanca.

“With the whole world crumbling, we pick this time to fall in love,” Lisa said on screen, and Evan wouldn’t admit to anyone that he was a little bit fond of this movie. Not even under torture. It was such a cliché.

“At least it’s a double feature,” he grumbled as he slid down the tree trunk to sit propped up against it. Trent just grunted in reply and slurped at the ice at the bottom of his cup.
*
It started to rain on the bike ride home, which figured. Evan got sick far too easily and he was just asking for a massive lung infection, peddling through the pouring rain the way he was.

It tapered off before he got to his street, just a flash shower, and Evan kind of liked the aftermath of it, when the streets shone like they’d been freshly oiled, reflecting all the streetlights and the shadows.

He was soaked clear through and shivering, but Evan still got off his bike to walk it the last little bit because he liked watching the ripples his shoes made as he walked through the puddles.

His house was dark, all tucked in for the night, and Evan was quiet after he slipped through the front door, locking it behind him. Yeah, they had an open-door policy, but they weren’t stupid.

He toed off his wet shoes and shrugged out of his sweater before padding through the kitchen and up the stairs. Evan kept the key to his bedroom on a string around his neck and he tugged it off after he made a quick stop at the bathroom. He wasn’t sure if anyone was staying over or not, though he had paused by each of the two guest rooms to listen for breathing.

It didn’t matter anyway. He locked his bedroom door behind him, tossed his wet sweater onto his computer chair, and tugged his damp t-shirt off, dropping it to the floor. His jeans were too tight to begin with, but wet, it was practically a magic trick to get them off, and it took a good deal more squirming, tugging, and cursing to get them off than he’d care to admit.

Flushed, panting, and exhausted, he was too lazy to find pyjama bottoms and instead just crashed in his underwear, staring up at his ceiling in the hazy glow of his lava lamp until he’d caught his breath.

His mind wandered, black and white flashes of Casablanca over a backdrop of everyday things until he slipped into sleep, his hair drying in curls around his face.

He hated when it did that.
*
It was the lazy trail of headlights on the wall that woke him some time later, because Evan was a very light sleeper. The fact that they’d stopped, still centered on the wall and lighting up his board of doodles before going dark sort of threw him off, because that meant someone had parked right outside.

It didn’t necessarily mean anything bad, of course. It probably had nothing to do with his house at all.

The soft knock a few seconds later derailed that hope. Nothing good ever came from knocks on the door at—he rolled over, squinting at his clock before fumbling for his glasses—3:27 in the morning.

The knock came again, harder this time, and Evan sighed, rolling out of bed and landing awkwardly on his knees. He fumbled for a pair of pants, grabbed a sweater—not the wet one, thankfully—and was still tugging it over his head when he got to the door. He flicked the lock and tugged the door open while simultaneously pulling his sweater down, and then he froze.

He knew the guy on the step, though the impressive swelling that shut his right eye and left a harsh pattern of bruises all the way down to his mouth—split lip and everything—did a pretty good job of nearly making him unrecognizable. Still, Evan was pretty sure he could recognize him anywhere. The guy was kind of a legend.

Connor Jackson had transferred to Kennedy Heights when he was sixteen and spent the next year being quiet, reclusive, and strange. There were all sorts of rumours about him—he’d been expelled from his school in the city for pyromaniac tendencies, for breaking the quarterback’s arm, for bringing a gun and a hit list to school, some people said. Others said he’d tried to kill himself and been sent away from wherever he’d come from and its bad influence to live with his father after his mother had had enough of him. Whatever the truth was, Connor had never tried to set the story straight, and when school had started up a few weeks before, Connor just hadn’t shown up. Rumours about why were almost as rampant as why he’d come to town in the first place. Most people assumed he’d been shipped off to Juvie, and no one had seen him since.

“Is Coach Lee here?” he asked, hunching his wide shoulders and shoving his hands into the pockets of his hoodie. Evan just blinked and stared, because he’d never heard Connor speak before, and the soft hint of Southern accent threw him off. He’d sort of expected something harsher.

“Uhm,” Evan said, not at his most eloquent, and Connor flinched a little, turning away.

“I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean—”

“Evan,” his father said suddenly from the stairway. “Let the boy in!”

Evan stumbled back, worried that Connor would repay his rudeness with a switchblade or something—there were rumours of that too—but Connor just glanced up at Evan’s father before ducking his head again, blond hair falling into his eyes.

“I’m really sorry, sir,” he said, voice soft and rhythmic. “But the cops sent me here, said I can’t sleep in my car anymore. It’s alright if you—”

“Come in and shut the door, son,” Steven said, ushering Connor in and closing the door behind him. Evan had inched back to the stairs, making his escape, and he could hear his father droning on about hot chocolate or a snack, asking Connor if he needed anything, reassuring him that they had room for him to stay for a day or two until they could figure something out. All the usual bullshit without asking anything that Evan wanted to know the answers to.

When he glanced over his shoulder though, it was to find Connor watching him go, his head tilted curiously, and that just made Evan dash up the stairs faster, thanking his lucky stars for the lock he’d put on his door.
*
The thing about wearing contacts to school is that it meant having to force them in, fumbling and disoriented, at an ungodly and early hour before stumbling downstairs for breakfast, and it sucked. Still, it was better than the alternative, which was going to school wearing his stupid glasses, which really didn't go with the look he was trying to pull off. Besides, he had gym today, and gym was a bitch when he couldn't see.

Evan was not a morning person, and even the kids from school who showed up and spent the night knew not to speak to him before he got at least half a cup of coffee. His morning ritual included shoving his contacts in his eyes, whether they wanted to be there or not, shuffling down stairs and making grabby hands until he managed to get a hold of a mug, fill it with blissfully hot coffee, and find a chair at the kitchen table.

He sipped, swallowed, grimaced at the burn, and repeated a few times before Evan was conscious enough to focus on the fact that Connor was sitting across from him, eyebrows raised, watching him like he was a special on the Discovery Channel.

Evan cleared his throat, fought the urge to make sure his hair wasn't standing up or something, and said, "Coffee?"

"Yeah, it is," Connor agreed with a slow smile, nodding once.

"No, I mean." He waved a hand at the coffee machine. "You can have some, if you want."

"I got it. It's okay."

Evan took another sip, glanced back after a moment, and saw that, yeah, Connor was still watching him. His cheeks flushed a little bit and he said, "I'm, uhm. My name's Evan."

"Evan Lee, yeah," Connor said. When Evan shot him a suspicious look, he said, "We had art together?" with a small shrug.

"Oh." Evan frowned, trying to recall art class from the year before, but all he got was a haze of tempera paint and frustration. He'd hated art class because his teacher Mr. Sorensen had hated everything Evan had wanted to do.

"Yeah." Connor looked away and Evan felt awkward. He got up just for something to do and found a box of Poptarts. For a moment, he considered toasting them, but that would take ages, so instead, he sat back down and slid one across the table to Connor.

"Here," he said. "Strawberry. All those new kinds are disgusting."

Connor smiled a little in thanks and took it. He took a careful bite, like it might be poisoned or something, and really, like Evan was going to stoop to Poptart poison.

He shoved the last half of his Poptart into his mouth and, still chewing, grabbed his backpack. "School," he said, mouth full.

"You want a ride?"

Evan blinked at him slowly, and said, "Uh, no, s'okay."

He wasn't sure what would be worse, getting into a car with Connor, who was certifiably weird, or the jerks at school seeing him getting out of Connor's car in the parking lot.

Connor's cheeks flushed and he ducked his head, mumbling, "Sure," and Evan felt like an ass.

Hitching his bag up higher on his shoulder, he slammed out the front door before the feeling could settle.
*
Evan walked, and he arrived just as first bell rung, which meant the hallways were a teeming mass of hormones and awkward, gangly teenaged bodies. He was like a fish swimming the wrong way up a rushing river or something—similes weren’t his strong suit. The point was, however, that getting to his locker was a quest of epic proportions, and when he finally managed to duck out of the crush and take shelter at his destination, he was winded and his mood was more than a little foul.

He was digging around in the bottom of his locker when Trent appeared, looking half asleep.

“Dude,” he said in greeting. “Gotta do me a favour.”

“And what would that be?” Evan asked, before grunting with triumph and yanking his chemistry homework out from the very depths of his locker. He shoved it in his binder, the one barely clinging to life and a strip of tattered duct tape, and finally turned to Trent, who was grimacing at his reflection in the little mirror Evan kept stuck to the inner door of his locker. He was trying to pick something out of his teeth, and that was just nasty, so Evan slammed the door shut with a well-aimed hip-check and said, “Seriously? I’ve got to get to chem. In like, two minutes. What do you want? I’m not doing your math homework.”

“No, this is even worse, beyond the scope of math homework.” Trent’s eyes were wide with panic and he’d given up on whatever was stuck in his teeth, hunching closer and hissing, “Organized sports, man. Tryouts tonight, after school, and I need a partner.”

Evan cracked up, because seriously. Trent had to be joking. Even if he actually believed for a second that Trent would ever dream of trying out for any of the sports teams, he knew for a fact that he’d never drag Evan down with him. It would be punishment for whatever team it was; Evan was not the most athletic student at Kennedy Heights.

“Shut up!” Trent snapped. “Seriously. Tryouts, and you have to tryout in pairs, it’s completely ridiculous.”

“Okay, even if I took you seriously—and that’s a concession I’m unwilling to make at the moment—all the sports teams already had their tryouts, and none of them involve partners.”

Trent grimaced, turning sickly pale, and sidled closer, dropping his voice another level, and said, “Cheerleaders are holding tryouts hoping to get some guys on the team.”

Evan’s expression of shock, dismay, and hysteria was relegated to a startled squeak, and before he could start laughing again, Trent grabbed his arm desperately and said, “Miriam’s on the team, and she promised I’d get to touch her boobs if I tryout. You’ve got to help me.”

“You’re serious,” Evan said, after a long moment in which the final bell rang and the only other students left in the hall were those dashing to make it to class. He was late; that was nothing new. “You’re fucking serious.” He stared at Trent with the horrified fascination of someone watching a car wreck.

“Please,” Trent said, widening his eyes. “You owe me, dude.”

“For what?”

“For Sara Michaels.”

“You can’t think I still owe you for that,” Evan hissed. “Seriously, any debt I owed you for that was gone after I did your math homework for a week last year when you broke your arm, don’t even—”

“You broke my arm,” Trent said desperately. “It was your stupid idea, and—”

“And an accident!” Evan interrupted. “And it doesn’t matter! You getting Sara Michaels to dance with me in the eighth grade is not worth trying out to be a fucking cheerleader with you! Not only would it completely shred any street cred I’ve got—”

“Which is none.”

“—I haven’t got an athletic bone in my body! I’m a walking toothpick! No, wait, I’m not, because toothpicks are a whole lot more coordinated than I am! I regularly trip over my own feet. Besides, purple isn’t my colour.”

“Dude. Evan, dude. Boobs.” Trent was wheedling, and Evan took a deep breath, rubbing at the tension between his eyes, focussing on the letters on today’s t-shirt. Talk Nerdy to Me.

“Fine,” he said, because he thought there might be some friendship rulebook that said ‘thou shalt not prevent thy friends from touching boobs’. Or something. “But you owe me.”

Trent beamed at him, punched him in the shoulder in celebration, and then said, “Shit, I am so late.”

By the time Evan made it to chemistry, he was five minutes late, and got detention because of it. Sadly, it was a lunch time deal, not after school, so it didn’t give him a convenient out and was just another source of irritation.
*
He met Trent in the parking lot after school, shouldering his back pack filled with far too much homework, and of course Miriam was there. She was short, curvy, and cracking her bubble gum impatiently, so he didn’t hold them up as they made their way to the football field where tryouts were being held.

There was a football practice going on, and when Evan saw it, he stopped dead. “Oh wait,” he said numbly. “I can’t do this.”

“You better not back out now,” Miriam snapped, and Trent give him those same wide, desperate eyes.

“My dad’ll kill me, and not even metaphorically. Actually kill me dead.” He could see his father over supervising the hulky footballers, doing warm up exercises across the field.

“He won’t,” Miriam said calmly, digging her long nails into the tender, exposed flesh of Evan’s forearm and hauling him over to the clustered group of cheerleaders. “He’ll appreciate you taking an interest in football that won’t get you killed. Probably.”

“I have no interest in football,” he said faintly but no one heard him.

There were four other guys who’d somehow been enticed into showing up for this and Evan was pretty sure that all of them, save one, were just doing it for the chance to get close to girls. The one in question, Kyle Spencer, was on nearly every sports team that didn’t involve team play. Swimming, golf, track and field, gymnastics... it was kind of ridiculous. He was tall, chiselled, blond, and intimidating. He’d probably stand a good chance of tossing around the girls and catching them again. His partner, however, Howard Daught, didn’t stand a chance. He was weedy and stooped, on the debate team, and staring at Sara Michaels like he stood a chance in hell.

Because yeah, Sara Michaels, subject of Evan’s eighth grade fantasies, was a member of the squad. She was petite, gorgeous, and super sweet, and when she saw Evan there, she smiled at him and said, “Evan! I didn’t know you were athletically inclined!”

Before Evan could even stammer a reply, Trent was elbowing him in the side and wagging his eyebrows, and Evan slunk away to stand beside the other two males who were trying out for the decidedly female squad—both of whom were definitely from the basement-dweller delegation.

The girls led them through a few easy cheers then sent them off in their pairs to practice. It was hell. Evan shook his pompoms, shouted the ridiculous words (“sitting on a bandstand, beating on a tin can, who can? We can! Nobody else can!” Seriously?), and waved his arms about with a respectable level of fake enthusiasm and a plastic smile.

After the allotted practice time was over, they performed—again, in pairs—and Evan was pretty sure that the girls watching them like hungry hawks would do the responsible thing and not choose him. After all, he tripped over his own feet twice and seemed to lack the coordination to move his hands and his feet at the same time.

“We’ll post the results on the bulletin board tomorrow morning,” Candace Leery, head of the squad, said when the tryout was over. “Thanks for coming out.”
It was all rather anticlimactic but Trent was pleased, and Miriam was too, if the long, involved, disgusting kiss she gave Trent was any indication.

“Gross,” he declared, and Trent flashed the middle finger over Miriam’s shoulder.
*
Trent had gone off with Miriam, which left Evan walking home alone. It sucked, but the rain from the night before had cleared up and it was a pretty warm evening, so he didn’t mind so much.

He was startled when his father pulled up beside him. Still, Evan climbed in, shoving his back pack in the back seat

They drove in silence for a moment and then his dad said, “So. Cheerleading, eh?”

Ignoring the heat rising to his cheeks, Evan tried to shrug it off. “Yeah. Trent wanted to try out and needed a partner.”

He could feel his dad looking at him but Evan refused to look back, and instead stared pointedly out the window. Luckily, his dad dropped the subject. “So, I thought you should know. Connor will be staying with us a while.”

That got Evan’s attention and his head snapped around to stare. “Seriously? Why? What happened?”

“It’s not really my place to say,” his dad said evenly. “But his options are limited and honestly, I can’t believe the kid has been living in his car for as long as he has.”

“How long has that been?” Evan asked, fiendishly curious for any tidbit of information.

Steven looked at him for a moment and then pulled into the driveway. “Long enough. He’s got nowhere to go, and he’s been through hell. I’m going to need you to help him out, okay?”

Evan wanted to pull the sullen route, to cross his arms and sulk and ask what he could do when his father wouldn’t even tell him what was going on, but instead he just nodded, glancing out the window. Connor was there, on his hands and knees, pulling out the dead bodies of Evan’s mom’s petunia beds. His hands were dirty, his hair dishevelled, and a streak of soil marked the spot he must have rubbed at on his neck.

“He just needs somewhere to stay,” Steven said quietly.

Evan undid his seatbelt, gathering up his bag, and said with a shrug, “You can’t save everyone, dad.”

After all, he hadn’t saved Mia, but Evan didn’t remind him of that. There were some things that they didn’t talk about in his house, and Mia was one of them.
Whatever Connor had done was apparently another one.
*
Some of the guys from the football team came over after dinner. They didn't just use Evan's house as a kind of shelter from negative choices, they also just used it to hang out, shoot hoops in the driveway (at least someone used the basket his dad had installed for his 12th birthday), or play video games in the living room. Evan had disappeared into his room as soon as he'd gotten home, spent a few hours working on his math homework, read a page or two of Watership Down for English, and then gave up. He texted Trent but the bastard didn't answer-- which meant Miriam was probably putting out like she'd promised. Evan logged into SKYPE, logged out again, and then hopped on Facebook. He updated his status with "Bunnies will never be literature" and then went back to staring at his ceiling.
Finally, when he was so bored that his contacts were drying out in his eyes, he went downstairs, rubbing blearily at them and blinking in an attempt to rehydrate. He grabbed a Coke from the kitchen, leaned a hip against the counter, and stared out the window. That was just as boring.

Sighing, he turned to find Connor frozen in the doorway, looking startled, like he hadn't expected Evan to be there. It was Evan's house, damn it.

"Hey," he said, just as a wave of cheers and shouts came from the living room. Evidently the guys from the football team were playing NHL 11.

"Uh. Sorry. Didn't know-- I didn't realize you were home." Connor shifted on his feet, glanced over his shoulder, looked altogether skittish and twitchy, and didn't seem capable of deciding whether it was worse to be alone with Evan in the kitchen, or closer to the jocks in the living room.

"Yeah. Homework." Evan took a sip, not looking away from Connor, and then made this massive, life-changing, difficult decision with the impulsive disregard for consequences that he was known for. Well, it kind of felt like that. What he said was, "So, I have an XBox upstairs. If you want."

Connor's eyes narrowed and his shoulders hunched defensively. He tore his gaze away from Evan's and ducked his head, and Evan explained, "I mean. If you want to come play. Unless you'd rather…" He waved his can of Coke towards the living room vaguely, just as someone scored-- or didn't score-- and a chorus of groans and insults rose up.

"God no," Connor said quickly, his cheeks flushing, as he shook his head. "That would be-- yeah, sure. Yes."

"Right." Evan shook his hair out of his eyes, grabbed another Coke for Connor, and led the way upstairs. He wondered what the hell he was doing, breaking his personal rule against inviting people other than his friends into his room. But it wasn't like Connor was quite like the other kids who stayed here from time to time-- okay, Connor was nothing like that. He was all restless energy crammed into a wide-shouldered, tall, and solid package. He was an unknown quantity who could be a murderer or a pyromaniac or some other sort of freak-- not that Evan didn't have his moments of playing with matches.

Maybe that made him even more dangerous than the kids Evan's father regularly associated with. But Evan glanced in at the bruisers playing hockey in the living room, regularly pounding the shit out of each other, and he just couldn't feel it. Connor was awkward as fuck, yeah, and he was strange, and he stared a lot like he was trying to figure Evan out-- no one got to figure Evan out, he was as complicated and unique and special as a snowflake, damn it-- but he wasn't dangerous. And Evan was so, so bored.

At least it would be a break in that monotony.

He unlocked his door, hung the key back around his neck, and Connor watched him but didn't comment on the fact that he'd locked his door just for a trip to the kitchen.

Inside, Evan ran a quick, critical glance over his room, kicked a few embarrassing articles of dirty clothes under the bed, and then said, "So, uh. This is my room. You can sit wherever." He turned the TV and the XBox on, grabbed the controllers, and said, "Left 4 Dead okay?"

"Sure." He smiled a little, crooked and kind of charming. "I've never played, though."

"It's okay. You get a gun and shoot loads of zombies." Evan shrugged. "Pretty easy." He wondered, very briefly, if perhaps convincing a teenaged delinquent to play Left 4 Dead, with its lifelike blood and guts and glory, was a good idea, but then he shrugged it off.

Besides, Connor really sucked. If grabbing a machine gun, holding the trigger, and spinning in circles was a technique, he had it down perfectly, but he really ended up shooting himself in the feet more times than he got the enemy. Evan didn't mind, though. Unlike certain freaks of his acquaintance (Trent), he didn't take the game or its online play as seriously as he could have. Besides, it was fucking hysterical.

"Hey, so," Connor said after a while, glancing sideways at Evan while the game reloaded. "Sorry about--"

"It's okay," Evan said, smirking. "Trent shoots me all the time, I'm used to it."

"Uh, no. I meant, sorry about… I know it must suck-- your dad said I'm going to stay awhile?"

Oh. "Oh," he said, blinking, shifting gears from zombie apocalypse to real life. "Right. No. It's fine. I don't care. Not a big deal, like I said."

"Kind of a big deal for me," Connor said softly, looking away again. He fidgeted with the tab on his Coke before finally popping it. "Anyway, uhm. I don't know how long they'll let me-- how long I'll stay, but." He wrinkled his nose, cleared his throat, and said, "Your dad says I've got to go back to school? He talked to my dad, and that was the deal they worked out."

"Your dad? He doesn't want…" He trailed off awkwardly.

"Uh, no. He doesn't want anything. But your dad said… school. Anyway. Your mom got me a backpack."

"Dude, I am so sorry," Evan said quickly, and Connor turned to stare. "Uhm. Is it really… ugly? She's got this… weird sense of humour and thinks that, like, there's some sort of irony in ugly things?"

"Uh, no." He shook his head, looking carefully amused. "It's fine. I just… was worried that you'd get shit from it?"
Evan stared at him blankly for a moment and then said, "No one gives me shit, they love my dad."
Connor laughed, all dry disbelief. "Seriously? That's what you think?"

"No, it's true. Sometimes they push me around a bit, but generally I’m invisible." He shrugged. "I don't care."
Connor went quiet, studying him and making a low, thoughtful sound at the back of his throat. "Okay. Well. I just wanted you to know, I'll try to… you don't have to, you know. Whatever happens at school, it's none of your concern, you don't have to… feel obligated or anything."

Evan smiled a little, puzzled, and said, "What's going to happen?"

"Same shit that always happens," Connor replied with a shrug. "Just don't get involved, okay?"

"Why would I?" He didn't mean to come off like an asshole, but he was honestly curious, and Connor just smiled, a wry, cold twist of his lips as he ducked his head, hiding behind a mop of tousled blonde hair.

"Why would you?" he echoed quietly to himself, and Evan was just as confused as he'd been to start.

Chapter Text

He got it the next day at school, and really, he ought to have figured it out before. People remembered Connor-- it had only been a few months since school had ended, and only a month into the new term, so Connor's disappearance hadn't been forgotten, and neither had the rumours surrounding it. Most people gave him a wide berth, shuffling aside when he walked down the hallway, intimidated, maybe, by the strange way Connor had of looking like he didn't give a shit if they got out of his way or not, he'd just shove them over. The shy, awkward guy from Evan's house was gone, and in his place, this tall, tough, scary guy walked with squared shoulders and the faintest sneer on his face.

Evan thought, maybe, judging by what he'd seen of the almost sweet and certainly shy kid who was currently staying at his house, that it was mostly defensiveness, not the aggressive, asshole-ishness that Connor tried so hard to project, and it was kind of pathetic, knowing that.

Not that Connor was pathetic, but the idea of it, of being so twisted up and tortured by your peers that you had to pretend to be someone worthy of that sort of animosity sort of struck him as incredibly sad. He wondered if people would treat Connor differently if they saw that same awkward, strange, but funny kid from home, but he wasn't sure. There were still those nasty rumours, and rumours had a way of twisting how everybody saw things.

Some people weren't intimidated at all, or if they were, they chose pushing back as a way to deal with it. Though Connor was staying at Evan's house, he didn't have quite the level of shelter Evan did, given who his dad was, and some of the older, heavier, stronger kids would shove at Connor, say nasty things, laugh when he walked by, and except for the high flush of fury (or hurt?) on Connor's cheeks, he never responded.

Evan didn't think he'd have the guts to be that brave. Or that stupid.

At lunch on Connor's first day back, Evan joined Trent and Miriam in the cafeteria at their regular table near the window and picked halfheartedly at his sandwich and apple that his mom had packed for him. Across the cafeteria, he could see Connor sitting alone, picking at a lunch that was pretty much the same as the one Evan had.

Someone threw a handful of orange peels at Connor, who calmly brushed them into a pile probably destined for the garbage and not the floor, and Trent said,

"Dude. You could have told me."

Evan turned away from Connor to look at Trent. "Told you what?"

"That Jackson was at your house." He jerked his head towards Connor. "That sucks, man."

"It's not so bad," Evan said, distracted again, glancing at Connor, who was reading a book now, his lunch untouched. It was Watership Down, and really, that was just unfortunate.

Before he really had time to second guess himself, Evan stood up and said, "I'll be right back." He walked across the cafeteria, feeling like every eye was on him, and then stopped at Connor's table. It took the other boy a long, long moment to acknowledge him, and when he finally looked up, it was with a lazy, practiced scowl that faltered and faded when he saw that it was Evan and not some prick coming by to say something nasty.

"What are you doing?" Connor asked, the hint of Southern in his tone even more noticeable when his voice dropped with something like panic. Like he thought maybe Evan was going to get in on the mass stupidity that seemed to be running rampant at Kennedy Heights.

"My friend's a dick," Evan told him, jerking a thumb at Trent. "His sort of girlfriend is kind of cool though."

Connor glanced around quickly, nervously, and said, "That's awesome, but you should probably--"

"And my mom'll be pissed if you don't eat the sandwich she made you. You don't like jam? What's wrong with you?"

Glancing at the sandwich and then back up at Evan and said, "Fine, I'll eat it, just--"

"Also, there's an empty chair at our table." He cleared his throat and shifted on his heels, wondering why his face felt hot. This wasn't a big deal, this-- it was space-efficient. Connor was taking up a whole table and there were other groups who could use it. "Come sit with us."

"Uh, no, I'm fine."

"Wasn't really a question, and don't even pretend you aren't psyched about your juice box, juice boxes are awesome." Evan scooped up the orange peels, left Connor to grab his lunch, and led the way across the cafeteria, perfectly confident in the fact that Connor was following. No one would choose being socially ostracized over sitting with him and Trent. He hoped.

He threw the peels out and glanced over his shoulder, scowling when he saw Connor still sitting alone, staring at him. When he saw Evan's scowl, however, he stood up reluctantly and gathered his things, following.

Evan felt oddly triumphant and also a little dizzy when he sat back down at his table, where Trent was staring like some sort of rabid animal and Miriam was blinking with the eerie calm she was kind of known for.

"This is Connor," Evan said, ignoring the way everyone in the cafeteria was staring. "He's staying with me. And sitting with us. And he really sucks at Left 4 Dead."

"Dude," Trent said, latching onto that viciously. "Seriously? I'm sure he can be rehabilitated, because how awesome would that be, we'd have the whole team." He hesitated, glancing at Miriam, and said, "Well. If you'd actually play with us."

"It's so much more fun to be the zombie," Miriam said serenely, biting into an apple.

Beside him, Connor pulled his juice box out of his bag slowly and stuck the straw in, and somehow, Evan took that as the cherry on top of this particular victory.

*

Cheerleading tryout results were posted outside the Yearbook room after lunch, and Evan had kind of forgotten all about them until Sara Michaels appeared at his locker as he scrambled to find his history textbook. She was beaming.

"Congratulations," she said, and Evan glanced up at her, grunted a bit in thanks, and then said, "For what?"

"You made the squad. We practice Mondays, right after school. I'll see you there?" Her cheeks were flushing prettily and she was tugging at a lock of hair, twisting it around her fingers and fidgeting. Evan was too busy being horrified to notice.

"What," he said. "Wait. What? You can't be serious."

She blinked, biting her lip and tipping her head. "Of course I am. You were awesome. Trent made it too, but that was mostly Miriam's campaigning, and Kyle Spencer as well."

"You have to be kidding," he cried, history book forgotten. "I can't be a cheerleader!"

"But you tried out," she stammered, eyes going tragically wide. She looked about to cry.

"Yeah, against my will! Seriously! I can't throw girls around! I've got arms like spaghetti noodles, and I'm so uncoordinated that sometimes I have trouble walking, let alone doing those crazy flips and stuff! I can't even move my arms and my legs at the same time."

Sara crossed her arms over her chest and said, "Don't be sexist, Evan. Guys can do more than toss girls around on cheerleading squads. I'm pretty sure Kyle Spencer could toss you around."

"I'm not a girl," he grumbled, ducking his head, kicking at the debris in his locker. His history book fell out and he pounced on it triumphantly.

She sighed. "I really hope you don't quit, Evan. I was really looking forward to hanging out with you." She shot him a glare and left in a haze of whatever berry scented body mist she wore, and Evan swore vicious revenge and a thousand curses and plagues on Trent's house as he stormed off to history.

*

Trent swore to make it up to Evan with smoothies, so they headed to the mall. He picked the biggest size and the most expensive kind, just to get a fair measure of revenge, and then threw it out before it was half gone, after a nasty round of brain freeze.

They hung out at the mall pretty often, mostly because it was indoors and hard to prove that you were loitering. Besides, Evan needed a new pair of jeans after his favourites had suffered a tragic incident when the inseam split after a particularly dramatic flop onto his bed. Unlike Trent, he liked to make sure he had a different pair of pants for every day of the week.

Evan had a secret, a life or death secret that no one, other than Trent, knew about, and Trent was sworn to secrecy on pain of death. Evan liked to buy girl jeans.
It wasn't a cross-dressing thing or anything stupid, it was just that they fit him better and they looked better and it wasn't fair that girl jeans got to have fun designs on them and guy jeans just got ripped up. Not that he ever bought the kinds with flowers or sparkles or anything. And just because he liked his jeans to fit properly and not hang down around his knees and show off his underwear didn't mean he was… well, a freak. Despite what he knew people would say if they found out about his preferences.

Anyway, after picking out a pair of barely-bedazzled jeans that made his ass look amazing, Evan followed Trent to the comic book store, waiting patiently for a while. He lost his patience, however, when Trent got into a heated argument with the guy behind the cash about the point of Ewoks, and wandered out of the store.

The crappy part of hanging out at the mall was that it was an unspoken rule that they would hang out until Miriam's shift at Starbucks was over, which meant four hours, and Evan's allowance generality tapped out after thirty minutes or so.

There was a small bookstore a few shops down and Evan wasn't all that interested in reading, but he wandered into it anyway, and then he stopped, startled.
"You work here?"

"No," Connor said, glancing up with a crooked smirk. "I just like to hang out behind the counter."

"Oh. I didn't realize-- how long--"

"Six months? You don't come in here much."

He wanted to ask how Connor knew about his shopping habits, he wanted to hide his Le Chateau bag behind his back, he wanted to defend his reading habits, but instead, he just stared. "You're pretty much everywhere," he said finally.

"Yeeaah, sorry about that," Connor drawled, nice, slow, and sweet with a hint of a grin and his unfortunately charming accent. "I'm sort of taking over. But in my defence, I've worked here forever. You came in here, so I'm not like, stalking you or anything."

"I'm looking for a book," he said quickly. Liar, liar, liar. Still, he fumbled on bravely, not sure why he felt so unbalanced. "Do you have any… recommendations?"
Connor raised an eyebrow but obligingly put the book he'd been reading aside and came out from behind the register, leaning his hip against the counter. He crossed his arms over his chest, glanced at Evan with far more amusement than the situation warranted, and said, "Sure. What did you read last?"

Evan looked around wildly for inspiration and then said, "Watership Down, for English." It was the book Connor had set aside on the counter.

“Okay,” Connor said slowly, sucking his bottom lip into his mouth to hide a grin. “Watership Down is awesome.”

“Dude, it is not!” Evan cried, indignant. “Good literature will never involve bunnies, okay?”

Raising both hands in an expression of surrender, Connor said, “Sure, okay, whatever you say. Do you actually like reading? I mean… what’s your favourite book?”
Evan huffed, turning away. “Nevermind, this is stupid. I don’t even know what I’m thinking, I’ve got to go, and--”

“Hey, no,” Connor said, grabbing his elbow. “Evan, wait. I’m being an ass, I’m sorry. Look, just… let me do my job, okay? I bet I can find you a book that you’ll like.”

It was highly doubtful, but Evan relented, mostly because he was one of those insufferable people who could never back down from a challenge. “Okay,” he said carefully. “But I should warn you, the last book I read by choice was written by R.L. Stine.”

“Goosebumps are a classic,” Connor said with a smile, dropping Evan’s elbow and leading the way to the back of the store. Evan followed after a moment, hugging himself, rubbing the spot on his elbow Connor had touched with an absentminded sort of bemusement. As they got deeper into the stacks, he felt more and more unbalanced, and he wasn’t sure why. His heart was pounding and he wondered distantly when he developed this fear of literature.

Evan’s panic attack was derailed when a book caught his eye and he reached for it without thinking, his hand bumping Connor’s , who had been reaching for the same one. Evan snatched his back, horrified and not sure why, darting a quick look at Connor and wondering why it was hard to breathe. His heart had even skipped a few beats in panic, what the hell?

“Sorry,” Connor said, all soft southern contrition, and he offered a shy, crooked smile before grabbing the book off the shelf. He studied it a moment and then held it out. “Fight Club. It’s not as lame as it sounds.”

“I saw the movie,” Evan said, his voice breathier than it should have been. He must’ve been coming down with a cold. He took the book, paying careful attention to where he put his fingers to avoid touching Connor again.

“Book’s better,” Connor told him.

There was an awkward moment and then Even moved to put the book back. “I shouldn’t, I’ve barely got the money to cover it, and--”

“It’s no problem,” Connor said, leading the way back to the register, snatching the book from Evan’s hand on his way by. “I get a staff discount.”

“That’s still--”

Before he could argue, Connor had rung the book through, adding his discount, and before Evan could fumble for his wallet, Connor had already paid. Evan settled for blinking at him in confusion, and the tips of Connor’s ears turned pink.

“Pay me back if you like it,” he mumbled, ducking his head and holding the book out. “We made a bet, remember?”

“Yeah,” Evan said faintly, and a moment later, he took the book, nearly dropping it when he accidentally touched Connor again. He shoved it into his Le Chateau bag like it had burned his fingers and backed towards the door. “Uh, I gotta go, Trent’s probably looking, and--”

“Okay,” Connor said easily. “Hey, if you’re still around when I get off, I can drive you home?”

Evan bit his lip and then said gingerly, “Sure. Cool, okay. I’ll meet you in the parking lot out back after?”

Connor’s smile was sunshiny and sweet and completely unexpected. It flashed a lot of perfect teeth and Evan swallowed hard, wanting to run. “Yeah,” he said, nodding, and Evan nodded back like an idiot or a puppet and then fled the scene.

“I think Connor’s a vampire,” Evan declared when he found Trent, who was predictably outside the Starbucks where Miriam worked, leaning against the pillar that framed the front window, leering at her. He was kind of a pervert.

“Hmm? That’s kind of awesome,” Trent said absently, doing something obscene with his tongue that made Miriam giggle while she frothed some milk.

“No, seriously, listen to me. The kid eats souls or something.”

Trent finally looked at him and he frowned. “You’re totally tripping or something, what happened?”

“Sparks,” Evan said, slumping against the pillar. “Electricity. Spidey Senses tingling all over the fucking place. I don’t know.” He was still panting for breath, flight or fight or what the fuck ever fully engaged.

His bio teacher would’ve loved to know that some of her sinfully boring lessons had penetrated.

“Oh, you went to the bookstore?” Trent asked, finally letting Evan herd him away from Miriam.

“You knew he worked there?”

“Dude, he’s worked there for ages. I don’t think vampires or, like, soul sucking demons or whatever are generally employed at bookstores in the mall. Or sleep in their cars. They need coffins or crypts. Besides, sunlight.” Trent tapped his nose like he’d just shared some state secret. “It was probably static electricity, or you’re just being a dick. I mean, yeah, I was kind of hesitant at first, but the kid’s not so bad. Definitely needs to be taught more effective ammo efficiency if what you reported about his Left 4 Dead skills are accurate, but that can be taught. Speaking of!” He snapped his fingers and grinned fiendishly. “Night of the Living Dead. Sunday. Drive-in. Be there. Bring your stepbrother.”

“He’s not my stepbrother,” Evan hissed, and Trent shrugged.

“Adopted brother, pet, girlfriend, whatever the fuck he is, bring him. His education must begin.”

With that ominous declaration, Trent steered Evan towards the gamer store, ignoring all his protests.

The mall closed at nine, and after he’d convinced Miriam and Trent that he’d be fine waiting in the parking lot for Connor, Evan found himself a nice concrete block to sit on, and wished he smoked, if only to have something to do with his hands. Instead, he fiddled with the handle of his Le Chateau bag and tried not to attract the attention of the tall, thick, scary people loitering and smoking nearby.

It was a pretty useless endeavor, and it wasn’t long before one of them-- biker tough and tall, with torn jeans and tragic tattoos-- sauntered over while his friends laughed and shouted encouragement.

“Hey,” the guy said. “I’m Sam.”

“Evan,” he squeaked, straightening up from his lean and squaring his shoulders.

“You queer, Evan?” Sam asked, lifting an eyebrow.

Evan frowned, shaking his head, brushing his bangs out of his eyes. “No. Why?”

“Because my friend and I have this bet,” he said. “He thinks you’re a fag.”

“Well, I’m not,” Evan said stiffly. “And even if I was, what does it matter? Also, that word’s pretty offensive.”

“You’re awful pretty for a boy.” His friends hooted obnoxiously and Evan tipped his chin up.

“Being fashion-conscious does not mean gay,” he said coldly.

Sam held his hands up. “Okay, okay, don’t get your panties in a twist, pretty boy,” he said, backing away, and there was a lot of laughter. Evan didn’t quite know what to do so he turned his back on them and hoped desperately that Connor would show up soon.

He did, humming a bit as he ducked out of the back entrance, beaming when he saw Evan and waving a little shyly. Connor’s keys were jingling and he didn’t pay any attention to the guys who were lurking in the shadows.

At least not until Evan smiled at him, relieved, and Sam shouted, “That your boyfriend, pretty boy?”

Suddenly, all traces of the charming and nice guy were gone and in his place, that angry, frightening Connor from school was back, standing stiffly beside Evan, his face going white with rage. “Were they giving you shit?” he hissed, and Evan grabbed his wrist, tugging.

“It doesn’t matter, let’s just go,” he pleaded. Sam and his friends started making catcalls about how they were holding hands.

“Were they saying shit to you?” Connor snapped, and Evan snatched his hand away, startled.

“Please,” he said, when Connor closed his hands into fists and looked like he was going to turn around and try to fight them. “It’s not a big deal.”

“It really is,” Connor growled, but he was taking deep breaths and seemed at least a little in control. He let Evan take his wrist again, tugging him away from the door, ignoring the comments and obscene gestures.

Evan let him go when Connor started leading the way to his car, and he didn’t say anything. He tossed his backpack into the trunk, as well as his shopping bag, and climbed into the passenger seat. He watched Connor get in out of the corner of his eye, watched him do up his seat belt and start the engine, all the while listening to his tight, furious, and deliberate breathing.

“It’s okay,” he said, and Connor just shook his head.

“If I hadn’t promised your dad I wouldn’t get in trouble,” he said, voice taut, “I’d have beaten the shit out of them.”

“That would have been totally stupid,” he breathed after a moment in which he couldn’t speak at all. “They’d have killed you, they were so much bigger, and--”

“That doesn’t mean they get to say shit,” he snapped. “It doesn’t matter how big they are.”

“It’ll hurt more when they pound me to shit,” he said quietly, glancing sideways at the fading bruises on Connor’s face. “Is that what happened--”

“No.” Connor looked grim in the dashboard lights and Evan should have let it go.

Instead, he mumbled, “You’re kind of freaking me out, and speeding, too.”

The car slowed instantly and Connor cursed, running a hand through his hair. “God. Sorry, I’m.” He shook his head and offered a weak, tilted smile. “I’m really sorry.”

Ethan nodded, still hugging himself tightly, and said, “Thanks, though. For defending me. No one’s ever done that before, I. Uhm. Kind of bring it on myself, you know, with the hair--” he had awesome hair. He conditioned it, which wasn’t a crime, okay? It left it smooth and shiny and it swept down over his forehead and usually fell into his eyes but he liked it-- “and the clothes and-- I know I don’t look like I’m supposed to and--”

“I like it,” Connor interrupted, shy and soft again and unwilling to look at Evan who just fell back against his seat and stared. Huh.

*

Evan went to school early. He'd never done it before, but it seemed the best course of action, considering-- well, considering that the alternative was trying to think up a way to avoid being trapped in a car with Connor again. Besides, it wasn't like he'd actually slept more than an hour or two, and Evan was just sleep-deprived enough to be bitchy, bad-tempered, and kind of an asshole.

So he left the house before Connor woke up, walked to school, and took refuge in the library. It was a novel experience. It was also very quiet, and he fell asleep with his arms folded on the table, his chin resting there. He was tucked away in the very back, in a solitary study booth, and no one noticed him. He was also so exhausted that he didn't even hear the bell ring to announce the beginning of first period.

"Hey. Evan, hey."

The voice got little more reaction than a faint moan, but it was persistent, and eventually, Evan rolled his neck a bit to peer up at the speaker. Sara Michaels looked concerned and a little amused.

"You missed a quiz in chem but I got your homework," she said, dropping her voice into a hush at a hiss from the librarian. "Are you feeling okay?"
He sat up gingerly, wincing at the popping in his back, and said, "Is it-- what time is it?"

"Lunch." She bit back a smile. "Your hair's a mess, Evan." She went about straightening it, running her fingers through it, and Evan barely noticed, too busy trying to sort through how the hell he'd manage to sleep through half the day. Oh, yeah. He'd been avoiding Connor. Why was that again?

He frowned, standing up, ignoring the cracking in his knees and his back. "Crap," he mumbled. "I missed bio, too." He grabbed his phone, scanning through the 12 messages he'd gotten since he pulled his disappearing act.

She let her hand fall from his hair and stepped back as he gathered his things. "I'm not in that one," she said apologetically. He shook his head again, trying to clear his mind, and she added, "Sorry, I couldn't-- sorry."

He finally looked at her. "What?"

"It's still standing up. Your hair."

He didn't really care and he shrugged, managing a smile. "Look, I've gotta go. I've got to find Trent before he rips out all his hair and convinces his home ec. class that I've been abducted by aliens or something. He's got this conspiracy theory-- nevermind. Anyway. Thanks." He smiled again and she watched him go, frowning.

Lunch was half over when he made it to the cafeteria, but Trent was still there, waving his arms as he expounded on some important subject-- probably his theory on why Evan was missing. Connor was sitting across from him, which eased some of Evan's guilt for having worked so hard to avoid him. Miriam wasn't there, but she was probably off practicing for the debate team or something.

He was yawning and rubbing at his eyes as he crossed the cafeteria, and Connor noticed Evan first, his blue eyes widening as some tension abruptly left the lines of his body. Not that Evan noticed.

Connor flashed a relieved, uncertain little smile and Evan returned it with a goofy, apologetic one of his own, because he was too unbalanced to control himself.

"Hey," he said, voice still gravelly with sleep. He slipped into the seat beside Trent, dropping his bag.

"You," Trent growled, pointing. "You can't fucking call me like you did last night, all in a tizzy, and then not show up for school."

"I showed up!" Evan said. "I did! Just… I was just--"

"No one knew where you were. Not even your dad!"

"You called my dad?" Evan was aghast. He glanced around for someone to share his indignation, but Connor was staring determinedly at his juice box.

"Technically, no," Trent said finally. "I saw him in the hall outside the office, gave him a fist bump, and said 'yo, tell Evan I sent his chem. work home with Sara Michaels'. He inferred the rest."

"I wasn't home sick, I was just… I was…" He wasn't quite sure how to word 'I came to school super early to avoid my new housemate who makes me uncomfortable enough to keep me up all night, and I was exhausted, so I fell asleep in the library, sorry.'

Connor finally looked up, still wary, and he smiled a little and said awkwardly, "I couldn't find you this morning either. I might have… encouraged the conspiracy theory."

Evan stared at him for a moment and then looked away, flushing. "Sorry," he mumbled. "I fell asleep. In the library."

Connor's eyes narrowed thoughtfully and he cocked his head, watching Evan closely, but it was Trent who poked him hard in the side and declared, "Up all night rubbing one out?" and Evan wanted to die.

His face was burning and he elbowed him back, hard, and snapped, "I just couldn't sleep, don't be a dick."

Trent was laughing, shrill and high and obnoxious, but what really made Evan squirm was the way Connor was still watching him warily. Evan and Trent kept scuffling, shoving at each other, and Connor interrupted it quietly. "Your mom sent your lunch with me." He pulled out a carefully packed paper bag and held it out hesitantly, and it distracted Evan enough to let Trent get a hold of his hair.

Squawking, Evan ducked out of reach, seeking refuge in the other free chair at the table, the one right beside Connor. He shot him a small, relieved smile, ignored Trent manfully, and opened his lunch, inspecting it while brightly insulting Trent's parentage.

When Connor touched his hair with the lightest brush of his fingertips, Evan tensed, shooting a sideways glance at him, breath catching painfully. Connor jerked his hand back and said defensively, "It was standing up-- I'm-- I'm really sorry, I didn't mean-- I didn't think…" He trailed off, flushing and looking helpless, and Evan felt a bubble of terror in his throat that really made no sense.

"Yeah, it's fine," he said gruffly, combing his own hands through his hair and smoothing it, glaring at Trent who was snickering around the straw of his juice box.

Clearly, something had to be done. Evan couldn't keep staying up all night with wild thoughts (or worse, books), and then sleeping the morning away in the library, obviously. He also, obviously, couldn't keep avoiding Connor, because for better or worse, the kid was going to be living with him for a while-- under circumstances that Evan would still like to know about, damn it. So instead, he'd just have to be careful, like he usually was with people-- besides Trent, of course, who barely qualified as human.

His new plan of attack included being polite, even friendly with Connor, but no more touching, definitely. That just messed up Evan's head for reasons he was unwilling to define.

He accepted a ride home when Connor offered, even walked with him to their shared gym class (which was, generally speaking, a new form of hell), and did both without a fuss. He entered into a friendly and lively debate with Trent and Connor about the merits of older zombie films over newer ones, and dutifully took notes in English about rabbits.

When class ended and he was gathering his stuff, fighting to unwedge a notebook from the back of his locker, he was abruptly shoved forward, painfully catching his balance when his shoulders it the edges of his locker, his head slamming inside, and that's when things got very strange. He jerked free, fell onto his ass on the floor, and stared as two members of his father's football team walked away, laughing.

It just made no sense. He'd never been normal but he'd never been one of those kids who was tortured at school. Maybe it was the whole cheerleader thing, maybe that just pushed him over the edge from invisible to bottom of the food chain.

He was still rubbing at the scrap on his cheek, frowning, when Connor came around the corner. Evan couldn't help wondering what Connor would have done if he'd seen it-- couldn't help wondering if Connor would be disappointed in him for not standing up for himself.

He got to his feet, dusting off his ass, and said, "Hey. I'm nearly ready, I just need to get--" he'd gestured to his wedged notebook and Connor shrugged, reached in, jerked it free, and handed it to him. "Oh. Uh, thanks."

He grabbed his things and followed Connor out to the parking lot in weird, tense silence.

After folding himself up close to the window, watching Connor's hands shift gears, Evan said awkwardly, "I started reading that book last night. Fight Club."

Connor glanced at him with a faint grin. "Yeah? Do you hate it?"

"It isn't horrible."

"Maybe we can work you up to appreciating actual literature," he said.

"Bunnies will never be actual literature, I won't change my mind on that." Still, he relaxed a little, letting his guard down a bit. He didn't know why he was so nervous about Connor. He'd never done anything to deserve that wariness-- except maybe getting so angry at those guys the night before.

They got home and the house was empty. His mother was staying late at the school she worked at, getting ready for parent-teacher night, and his dad was holding football practice. Evan didn't know what to do with an empty house, the occurrence was so rare, so he hovered in the kitchen, twitching at every move Connor made until the other boy grinned and said, "I'm just getting my homework out, okay? I'm not going to bite you. Are you okay?"

"Too much caffeine," Evan mumbled, though he hadn't had any at all. He turned the coffee pot on to compensate.

Connor nodded and then bent over his books, working through some math problems with such slow, deliberate care that Evan found himself leaning back against the counter, watching him while he waited for his coffee. He ran critical eyes over the line of tension at Connor's shoulders and through his back that got tighter the more frustrated he became. His face was obscured by his blonde hair, but Evan could tell by the way he gripped the pencil, the heavy marks he made, and the speed of his breathing that Connor was frustrated and quickly growing pissed off. Math tended to do that to people, Evan knew, so he didn't take it personally.

It wasn't until he found himself cocking his head and studying Connor's wrists with a wistful urge to fetch his sketchbook that Evan jerked his gaze away and turned his back. That was a place he did not want his brain to go, and the panic made his breathing pick up, hitching a bit.

He poured himself a mug of coffee, added four spoons of sugar and far too much milk, and then turned to leave the kitchen without glancing back. He hesitated in the doorway however, closed his eyes, and cursed his self-destructive tendencies before turning back.

"I can help you," he said dully.

Connor looked up, his bottom lip red and swollen from how angrily Connor had been biting it. "What?"

"With math. It's my best subject."

Connor blinked at him, looked down at the page, and said, "You don't have to. I'm good."

Remembering his dad saying he'd have to help Connor out and wondering if maybe this was what he'd meant, Evan took a seat beside him. "Seriously. You're nearly a month behind and you've got loads of catch-up work to do. Let me help."

Connor still seemed inclined to argue bit he gave in gracefully, handing over the pencil. Evan stared at his wrist some more, at the delicate lines of it, and then swallowed hard, leaning close.

"Okay," He said, voice dropping. He cleared his throat, pointing to an equation with his pencil, and saying, "You've forgotten the common denominator part, see? Like this."

Beside him, he could hear and feel Connor's breathing, but the other boy sat still and quiet, watching carefully, like Evan was the only one freaking out here.

None of it made any sense. Except the math; he was pretty good at math. The rest of it, though, confused the hell out of him.

*

"I didn't know you have a brother," Connor said. Evan glanced over blearily to find Connor studying the picture that Evan kept on his dresser.

"I do. He's at college."

"Oh." There was a pause. "And your sister?"

"Mia. She's not at college." Evan turned back to the movie.

They were in his room. He'd spent nearly an hour helping Connor out with math before they'd ordered pizza, eaten it, and then went upstairs, determined to indulge in some meaningless entertainment. Cue Shawn of the Dead, in keeping with Trent's idea of educating Connor.

"Where is she--"

"What happened to your face," Evan said tonelessly. Connor clearly got the message and let the subject drop, moving to sit back down on the bed, leaning against the wall. Evan hugged his pillow more tightly to his chest and fought to stay awake. Apparently a few hours' sleep in the library wasn't enough, nor were all the gory zombies on the screen.

"I can go," Connor said after a moment. "If you want to sleep…"

"I'm good," he mumbled, listing a little.

Connor laughed, low and soft, and then said, "You really didn't sleep all night?"

"No," he said, scowling and finally letting himself fall over with a sigh.

"Why? Insomnia?"

He nodded and nuzzled his pillow, eyes blurring out. "I'm not sleeping," he said, ignoring the slur in his voice.

"Not at all," Connor said indulgently.

"Don't go. I mean." He waved an arm and then let it flop to the mattress. "I mean. Watch the movie. S'important."

"Uh huh."

The next thing he knew, it was nearly 4 a.m., he desperately needed the bathroom, and someone had tucked him in. Huh.

Also, Connor had fallen asleep at the foot of the bed, propped up against the wall, looking terribly uncomfortable in the blue glow of the television screen.

After he dashed to the bathroom and back, he hesitated in the doorway before turning the television off and climbing back onto his bed, kneeling uncertainly.

"Hey," he mumbled. "Connor. You're gonna be so sore in the morning." He touched his shoulder and Connor jerked away, breath catching. His eyes were wide, dark and sleepy.

"Oh god, sorry," he whispered, clearing his throat.

"No, just-- you didn't look comfortable." He glanced around swallowed, and then said, "Just lay down, okay?"

Connor looked like he was going to leave but he was still in that uncoordinated, awkward phase where moving took far too much effort, so Evan grabbed his wrist and tugged until Connor fell over. "Just stay," Evan told him. "It's easier."

After all, his bed was massive and Connor would be at the other end and Evan was small enough to begin with, so he could curl up at the head of the bed and not touch him at all.

He was too sleepy to panic or worry, and Connor seemed the same. He mumbled sleepily and then was gone, falling asleep in moments.

Evan yawned as he curled up beneath his blankets again, distantly aware of the fact that morning was going to be so, so awkward.

*

It really was.

Connor woke first, with a startled, distressed sound as he sat up quickly. Evan followed suit, rubbing at his eyes and staring blearily.

"Oh," he said thickly. "Hey."

"Uh," said Connor, staring. "Oh shit, okay, I'm going to go… shower." He stumbled off the bed and was gone seconds later, with Evan smothering a yawn and staring.

He went downstairs, craving coffee and Poptarts while he waited for his turn in the shower, and he found his father in the kitchen, frowning.

"Evan," he said, nodding in greeting.

"Hey." He grabbed a glass of orange juice to sip while waiting for the coffee his brilliant father was already brewing.

"Uh, so." Steven took a deep breath, gearing up for something painful, and then said, "So. I went to talk to Connor about his situation last night and he wasn't in his room." He was staring at Evan with something accusatory in his eyes.

"Yeah," Evan agreed. "He slept with me."

Steven dropped the mug he was holding and it crashed to the floor, a chunk breaking off, and Evan stared at it blankly, gears if his mind jerking along until he realized what his father had assumed. "Oh!" he said, face flaming. "Oh, oh, not like that, god, he just-- we were watching a movie, Dad! God!"

"Oh." He looked immeasurably relieved. "Right. Tell him I want a word after school, would you?" He smiled, fake and bright, and then cleaned up the mess he'd made.

Chapter Text

Evan was completely incapable of playing basketball, and he felt the stinging humiliation even in his driveway, when faced with the hoop his father had installed for him on his 12th birthday. Still, he wanted to play, finding a measure of calm in the effort of dribbling, even when the ball hit his foot and he had to chase it down to the road.

Trent wasn't much better, but he didn't even try. He just stood there, hands on his hips, voice growing increasingly shrill as he demanded why, for the love of god why they were shooting hoops (or trying to) instead of doing something logical, like loitering at the mall waiting for Miriam's shift to end or inside the house, raiding the fridge.

"I have some energy to burn off," Evan grunted, heaving the ball at the hoop. "I'm picking up an interest in sports, trying to get rid of the stereotypes, just because I'm small."

The ball rolled away.

"Cheerleading is a sport," Trent pointed out, and Evan shot him a glare, pointing at him accusatorially.

"You're dead to me," he said coldly, before relenting and fetching the ball, shoulders slumped. "Snacks," he declared. "Then we'll try football in the back."
Connor was working, the football team was on some marathon practice week, and Evan's mother, Evelyn, was working late again, which meant that Evan was in charge of dinner, which sucked.

She'd left a tray of lasagna to toss in the oven, which he did. It was huge, but everything she cooked was, because they were never sure who'd be over for dinner. If it wasn't the football team, it was some other teenager having a crisis, and Evan collapsed on a chair at the kitchen table to wait for dinner to heat.

"Dude, okay," Trent said, sitting down across from him and sliding a Coke over. "You're going to have to tell me what's wrong."

Evan blinked at him and said, "Nothing? I'm just…restless."

"Okaaaay," Trent said slowly. "That doesn't explain why we're avoiding your room like it's got some sort of biohazard in it."

"I've got varied interests, I don't just hide out in my room and kill zombies all day," he said, slumping. "And my room smells funny."

It didn't, not really. It just smelled like Connor, who now smelled like Evan's shampoo and conditioner, and it was weird.

"Usually when you're restless, we go to the skatepark," Trent said.

"Skateboarding is a sport and I'm not better at it than I am basketball, so what's the point." Evan let his head fall to the table, hitting it with a dull thump. "I think I'm getting sick."

"Dude," Trent said after a moment. "Is this seriously because of the cheerleading thing? Because if it's gonna send you into an emo spiral of despair, just quit, okay? I'd rather you not lose your mind than get to touch Miriam's boobs on a regular basis, and that's a pretty big sacrifice."
Drumming his fingers on the table, still not lifting his head, Evan hummed a little, thoughtful. Finally, he rolled his head to peer at Trent and said, "What do you think of Connor? Really?"

"Uh." Trent frowned, thinking. "I think it's a shame he's shit at killing zombies? What do you want from me, comment on his fashion sense?"

"I just… he's freaking me out a little?" Evan was blushing but he steadily ignored it, forcing himself to lift his head and meet Trent's eyes innocently. "Like, all the rumours about him."

"The rumours, right," Trent agreed. "Your dad knows what happened, right?" Evan nodded. "Well, if there was a chance the kid was gonna murder you in your sleep, would your dad have let him move into the room next door?"

"Dad believes the best of people," Evan mumbled, finally looking away. "He believed the best of Mia."

"You can't judge everybody by your psycho sister, man," Trent declared. "No offence. It's just, not everybody's going to make such screwed up choices."

Evan shifted, uncomfortable. He didn't talk about Mia as a general rule because it made his stomach hurt. She had died two years ago, and he still couldn't think about her without his stomach cramping up. It did get harder and harder to forget about it the closer it got to the anniversary of her death.
"She wasn't psycho," he said quietly, after too long had passed. Trent kicked his foot under the table in solidarity.

Evan went to bed early that night-- just before Conner was due to get home, in fact. He laid there, tense and nervous and unwilling to wonder why, and he heard Connor get home, heard his footsteps up the stairs, heard them hesitate outside his door, and Evan didn't let out the breath he was holding until he head the other boy close the door of his own bedroom.

*

Sara Michaels was waiting by Evan's locker in the morning, looking a little bit nervous. Evan instantly worried that she wanted to talk about cheerleading, but instead, she shifted aside to let him get at his locker and said something even more mind-blowing.

"I was kind of hoping you'd ask me out," she said, "But Trent says you never will and I ought to just go for it."

Evan continued fighting with his lock for a moment before her words sunk in passed the early morning haze that he worried was ramping up to some sort of fever. He had the worst immune system ever.

He jerked around to stare at Sara. "What do you mean?" he asked, suspicious.

"I mean, do you want to go out with me. Like, to a movie. Or for dinner?"

Sara was gorgeous. Objectively speaking, Evan knew that. She was also tiny, so petite that being near her didn't make Evan constantly aware of the fact that he would never be tall, dark, and handsome. It didn't make him feel like dating her, though, which was a concern.

"Uh, okay," he said carefully. "I mean, yes. Of course. Going out with you. That is an excellent idea." He flashed a belated grin and she mirrored it back at him.

"Oh, okay! Awesome!" she chirped. She kept grinning and he didn't let his falter and she started walking backwards, saying, "I'll just-- I've got class-- but I'm so excited!"

"Me too!"

He waited until she'd turn the corner to begin ritually smashing his head against his locker over and over again, eyes squeezed shut. There was so much wrong with him that he felt sick, and stupid, and his dad was gonna kill him if he couldn't pull this dating thing off, and--

"D'you want me to fetch the nurse?"

He jumped with a yelp because the hallways had cleared (and he was late for first period, again) and there hadn't been anyone there to see his self-inflicted pain.
Now, however, Connor stood there, and Evan sunk against his locker, slammed his eyes shut again, and moaned, sinking to the floor to hide his face because Evan could feel a beaming, massive, lopsided, and super sweet smile on his face, because all the sick feelings had been viciously attacked by a swoop of stupid butterflies or something, and somehow this was all Connor's fault.

"Uhm." Connor sunk down to crouch beside him, hesitated a moment, and then touched his shoulder. "Evan? I was joking, but I can really fetch her, if you're sick."

He was all tensed up and ready to pull away and point accusing fingers and blame Connor for ruining his life and making him even more of a freak than he already was. Instead, he leaned sideways, a tiny bit at a time, until he was leaning against him and Connor had been forced to slide his hand from Evan's shoulder to the middle of his back.

With a decisive, jerky motion, Evan let his forehead fall to Connor's shoulder, breathing carefully. Connor was doing the same, Evan could hear the hesitant rhythm of it, the delicate inhalations as if he was afraid of breaking something. Evan was pretty sure everything was already broken.

"I don't want to talk about it," he said, voice muffled against Connor's shoulder. "You smell like my shampoo."

"Oh, wow," Connor said gently. "You are fucked, aren't you?"

“I think I’m getting sick,” Evan decided. “From walking home in the rain the night I met you.”

Connor was quiet for a long moment and then said, “You met me before then, you know. We went to school together for a while. Remember? Art class.”

“I mean really met you,” he mumbled.

Another comfortable yet oddly expectant silence fell. Finally, Connor shifted away from him. “I can drive you home, if you’re sick.”

He hesitated, thinking about it. He definitely felt sick-- sweaty and chilled, dizzy and nauseous. Feverish, a little. Maybe that's all this was. The surge of hope just made the disorientation lurch sickeningly and he gasped, "Okay, maybe a good idea, I think I might throw up."

"C'mon," Connor said grimly, wrapping an arm around his shoulder, closing his locker with his free hand, locking it, and then scooping up Evan's backpack. "I'll take you home."

They walked together in silence until they got to the front doors, and Evan definitely did not relax and instantly start feeling better the closer to Connor he snuggled-- leaned. When they stepped outside, Evan announced, "I've got a date, you know."

Connor's step didn't hesitate at all. "Yeah?"

"Sara Michaels, the cheerleader."

"She's pretty," he said.

"Uh huh."

Connor opened the door for him and Evan tossed his bag in, climbing in after it, and doing up his seatbelt.

They didn't talk all the way home, and Evan watched Connor drive away before calling his dad, telling him that he'd come home from school sick. After his dad promised to call the office, Evan stumbled upstairs and went back to bed. After all, sleep had proven illusive lately, and maybe, without Connor so close--

He was asleep before he could even finish the thought.

*

It was dark when his mom woke him up, stroking his hair off his forehead. "Sick again, baby?"

He squinted up at her, wishing he had the strength to bristle at being called baby, but he didn't. Maybe he really was getting sick and not merely hiding from-- well. His own messed up head. His throat was raw and he felt feverish now, and he did get sick really easily, and not sleeping for days hadn't strengthened his immune system, obviously.

He coughed weakly, testing out his theory, and something rattled in his lungs.

"I'll make you soup," she said. "And dig out the cold medicine."

Evan’s mom was super busy a lot of the time, but she was still a rockstar of a mom who seemed to somehow know just when Evan needed her most. He’d gotten sick a lot when he was younger and no matter what was going on at work, she always found a way to make him soup and stroke his sweaty forehead and sing him to sleep.

She was gone after squeezing his shoulder and Evan moaned, rolling onto his back and then closing his eyes as dizziness washed over him.

Maybe being actually ill wasn't some sort of reprieve over being incredibly attracted to his new (male) roommate.

He lost track of time, focussing on breathing through the heat in his lungs.

"Evan? Hey," Connor said suddenly, and Evan forced his sore neck to roll so he could squint through the dark at him. He was holding a mug of soup and a bottle of medicine.

"I look gross," Evan told him mournfully. It shouldn't have mattered, but Connor grinned at him, rolling his eyes.

"You look awesome. Do you want to sit up? Your mom says I'm supposed to stay here and make sure you take your medicine and then drink all this soup. Is that, uhm, that's okay, right?"

Evan started struggling to sit up but he was tangled in his blankets and Connor had to help him. He set the soup and cough syrup aside and gently propped him up on his pillows, and Evan felt as weak and pathetic as one of those swooning girls in Mia's romance novels.
It still felt kind of nice.

"My phone, could you--" he said, reaching for the phone, and Connor tossed it to him before beginning to fumble with the top of the cough syrup.

Trent had sent him a text which read, "way 2 close th deal. date with sara!! friday. double date. awesome."

He groaned a little and texted back 'sick :( :(' before tossing the phone aside.

"Bad news?" Connor asked him sympathetically.

"I have a date," he sulked, making grabby hands at the spoon of medicine. It tasted like rotten cherries but he didn't even care. It soothed his throat, anyway.

"With Sara the cheerleader, right?" Connor asked, turning away to pick up the soup.

"You're hurting me," Evan told him, and Connor looked back, scandalized.

"I'm not! What's wrong?"

"My neck. It hurts to look up at you," he said, feeling out of it and woozy. "Sit-- you should sit. Here." He wiggled over a bit to make room and Connor hesitated.

"You're so self-destructive," he mumbled, which made no sense at all, but he still sat there, leaning back carefully against the pillows. He handed the cup of soup over and watched as Evan sipped it.

"Your mom says you get sick a lot," he said, and Evan scowled.

"I do. I'm cold." He was shivering-- that was the worst part, the constant switch from fever to chills.

Connor tucked his blanket up around him, smoothing it down. "Sucks," he said quietly.

Evan handed him the empty soup cup and burrowed under the blankets, shivering violently. He curled up against Connor because Connor was warm and being sick stripped all of his defences away, made him all instinct and misery, and Connor really helped with the misery part.

"So, so self-destructive," Connor said gently, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and pulling him close. Evan fell asleep with his head on Connor's shoulder.

*

It took a day for the fever to break, and Connor dutifully collected his homework, so by the time he was well enough even to look at a book, there was a mountain of them waiting for him. Still, falling behind was worse than manning up and doing it all, so he went to work, steadily chipping away at it all while he recovered.
He wasn't an awesome student but Evan was pretty determined not to slip below his B average. It took skill to be that mediocre, after all.

By the time Friday night rolled around, Evan was snot-nosed, pale, and dead-looking, but by god, he would make his date with Sara Michaels and prove to the world that he was capable of dating a hot girl.

When he came downstairs, dressed up in his favourite jeans and a suit vest tossed over a t-shirt, his mom crossed her arms over his chest and said, "Uh uh, hell no. Wherever you think you're going, turn around and march back upstairs, mister. You are not going out tonight."

"I have to," he said, voice still congested. He blew his nose, sanitized his hands, and added, "I have a date.

She stared. "A date? With a girl?"

Way to make him feel completely incapable of dating a hot girl.

"Yes, Mother," he said stiffly. "It's not that novel an experience. I have gone on dates before."

She looked skeptical. "I don't know if getting a ride to Sandy Harvey's birthday party with that girl across the street really counts, honey."

He crossed his arms over his chest and spun on his heel, fully prepared to flounce out of the room and wait for Trent and Miriam to pick him up. God he needed to learn how to drive.

Instead of a proper exit, he bumped straight into Connor, who had come up behind him, propped up in the doorway and watching him with an amused grin.

Evan stumbled back, flushing. "Oh," he said, sniffling hard, trying to breathe. His nose was disgusting. "Hey!"

"Evan's got a date," his traitorous mom said, and Evan shot her a glare.

"I heard," Connor said, still smiling at him. "Feeling better?"

"Uhm, yes. Definitely." He tried a grin and it felt fake, but whatever. "Listen, Sunday, right? I mean. You're still coming?" He didn't know why he felt the need to bring it up now of all times… But he suddenly felt like lingering in the kitchen instead of escaping.

"What's Sunday?" his mom asked, busy in the cupboard.

"Zombies, assorted mayhem," Evan said casually. "You wouldn't be interested."

"Wouldn't miss it," Connor said and Evan tore his gaze away from Connor's little smile-- what kind of smile was that? It was sweet and, and, and like they shared some sort of secret, but they didn't-- did they?

Desperate to avoid those thoughts and Connor's eyes, Evan twisted to look over his shoulder and said, "Night of the Living-- oh shit, mom!" It didn't matter, her camera flashed and she beamed at him.

"It's your first date!" she cried. "I need it for the scrapbook-- you're seriously wearing that? It's paisley."

Evan snatched the camera away from her and snapped, "I like it, thank you very much, and you--" he hit the picture review button and stared at the LCD screen, transfixed despite himself. Somehow, his mother had managed to catch him with looking-- well. His entire body was angled towards Connor, who was lazily propped up in the doorway, his hip at an obscene angle and-- and that was rather nice, really, but-- but Evan's face, it was just… he was all flushed and the little grin on his face as he turned to look over his shoulder, it was just as strange and sweet and-- holy fuck, flirtatious?-- as Connor's and all of Evan's plans to delete the picture fled as he just stared instead.

"I think he looks nice," Connor said softly, tugging at the ends of the vest a little bit before letting his hands fall away.

Clearly the blush in the picture was from the illness he was just getting over. Right. "I gotta go," he croaked, handing the camera back to his mom. She took it, happily snapping a dozen more shots while he manfully ignored her.

He glanced up at Connor, feeling shy and off balanced all over again, and said, "See you when I get back?"

Connor ducked his head in a single nod and Evan glared at his mom one last time for good measure before sort of floating towards the door. He paused with his hand on the doorknob and said, "Hey, Connor, it's too bad you haven't got a girlfriend, it could be a triple date if you did."

Connor's grin turned lopsided and crooked. "I'll keep it in mind," he drawled and Evan's mom's camera flashed one more time before he ducked out the door.

*

Judging by the overpowering scent of cologne, Trent had gotten dressed up for their double date. He may even have run a comb through his tangled hair, but he certainly hadn’t shaved. He’d tossed a black hoodie over his t-shirt, at least, which made him a whole lot classier.

“Yo,” Trent said, offering his fist for a bump when Evan climbed into the car. “Plague all gone?”

Evan wheezed for effect, ruined it by actually coughing, and then said, “I’m awesome. We’re getting Sara next?

Miriam was driving-- he and Trent had been too busy being society rejects to bother learning to drive, and now it just seemed too much work.

“Yeah,” she said, glancing at him in the mirror. “You look good.” She punched Trent in the arm before shifting into drive. “See? I told you he’d make an effort. Trent doesn’t get that I’m not gonna put out til he at least shaves and gets a decent shirt. Is that paisley?”

Evan beamed at her, pleased, and said, “It is. Awesome, right?”

“It really is.”

Trent pointedly turned the radio up, drowning them out, and Evan was too busy being pleased with his fashion choices to be nervous as they pulled up in front of Sara’s house. Miriam put the car in park and then craned around to peer at him over the back of the seat.

“Given what I know of Trent, you’re probably going to totally fuck this up,” she said kindly. “So I’m going to give you some tips. Go up to her door and get her. Hold the car door open for her, offer to pay for her shit but don’t argue when she refuses, and be nice. Don’t talk about zombies.” She screwed up her mouth for a second, thinking, and then reached back, messed up his hair (which he’d spent ages getting to lie just right), and then hummed. “You’ll do. Good luck.”
Trent just grinned, wagged his eyebrows obnoxiously, and Evan tumbled out of the car. He took a deep breath, straightened his vest, and marched up to the door.

It was opened, of course, by Sara’s father, who looked him up and down, lifted a skeptical brow, and called, “Sara! He’s here!”

She came tripping down the stairs, looking amazing-- miles and miles of gorgeous legs and a skirt that brushed the tops of her knees, a button up shirt opened at the neck, with a scarf tied there, her blonde hair swinging around her shoulders. Evan blinked at her, felt a little dishevelled in comparison, and tried to smooth his hair even as she grinned at him.

“Hey,” she said, breathless. “Daddy, this is Evan. We’re going out for dinner.”

“Date?” he asked archly, and she laughed, her head falling back a little, curtain of hair shimmering.

“Of course not, daddy,” she said. “Miriam’s in the car.” She pecked her father’s cheek and then grabbed Evan’s arm, towing him out of the house.

“It was nice to meet you,” Evan called to her father, who snorted before closing the door.

“Sorry about that,” Sara told him, smiling shyly at him, flashing a dimple in one cheek. “He’s really overprotective.” Then, still shyly, she slipped her hand into his and squeezed. “I’m so glad you’re feeling better, I was worried you’d be too sick all week,” she said.

“I’m mostly better,” he told her, leading her back to the car. She made this dating thing so easy.

“Probably not contagious, anyway,” she told him, glancing at him and blushing a little, and Evan opened the door for her, feeling gentlemanly and very, very charming. She laughed as she climbed in, and he jogged around to his side of the car and they were off.

It was much easier than he had thought it would be. They laughed and talked over dinner, sharing bowls of breadsticks, sipping sodas while Sara and Miriam tried to catch him up on the gossip he’d missed from school. There wasn’t much different about dating other than the fact that Sara sat beside him, that sometimes she’d lean closer to say things to him, and that she held his hand under the table. Other than that, there wasn’t a haze of expectation hovering over him or anything. It was kind of nice. She was sweet and smart, and interesting too, and they had a lot to talk about.

*

It was dark after dinner and Miriam drove them down to the playground by the lake, and the four of them walked along the shore together, still having a nice, relaxed, and low key time.

When Trent tore off down the pier that stretched out into the fog hovering over the lake, Miriam rolled her eyes and went after him to make sure he didn’t die, and that’s when things got a little trickier.

Sara took his hand again and said softly, with a grin, “The swings are over here, c’mon.”

They took off running, laughing, to the swings, and the fog distorted the sound, muffled it, until Miriam and Trent were lost completely and it seemed like the entire world only existed six feet to either side of them.

“Push me,” Sara demanded, sitting in one swing, and Evan obeyed, hands splayed over her back as he helped her go higher and higher until she was breathless from laughing. When she couldn’t go any higher, he sat in the swing beside her and watched her go, unable to help feeling a little jealous.
Swinging that high had always made him feel a little queasy.

When she jumped, arcing up into the darkness and squealing, he felt a sick lurch in his stomach, and he dug his shoes into the sand, ready to run to her aid.
She appeared out of the fog before he could, however, her cheeks flushed, her smile breathless and wide.

“Hey,” she said, softly and with intent. She was standing too close and if he lifted his feet from the sand, he’d swing right into her; he didn’t, holding still, eyes going wide as she stepped closer, her hands holding the cold chains above his. “Sorry, I’ve wanted to do this for ages,” she confessed, voice slipping low and husky.

He could smell her lip gloss seconds before he could taste it, a slide of wild cherry against his mouth. He tipped his chin up into the kiss, their noses bumping as he shifted a little to the side, their mouths slipping together before finding the perfect angle so that they fit together.
It was a pretty innocent kiss, really, and after she pulled away, he realized he’d forgotten to close his eyes, had forgotten to do anything except analyze how it tasted.

Her eyes narrowed as she studied his face thoughtfully, and then she grinned and said, “Again.”

It was different this time, the wild cherry lost as she opened her mouth against his, licking at his lips coaxingly. She made a low, pleading sound and Evan let his head fall back, opened his mouth, and chased the sticky sweet cherry taste back into her mouth.

He liked it-- kissing was awesome. It was a hot, slick sort of intimacy, tasting cherry on her tongue, and a little bit of cola too. He could feel her breathing against him, could feel the hitches in its rhythm when he grazed his teeth against her bottom lip or sucked a little on her tongue, and he liked that more than anything.
When she tore away from the kiss, panting, he realized with a jolt that she had somehow managed to climb onto his lap, straddling him, and he felt a moment of unease and claustrophobia, his hands jerking from the chains to her hips as if he meant to push her off.

She was panting, her hips close to his, and they were tangled together so getting her to dismount would be more complicated than he’d like. He tried to force the panic down, but Sara hadn’t noticed at all. She’d started nosing at his neck, sucking the sensitive skin there, and he shivered. He felt her echoing grin against his skin and then her hands were on his, tugging them upwards.

“You can touch me,” she mumbled, and then her hands were on his, pressing them against her breasts, and holy shit.

He jerked then, nearly unseating them both, pulling his hands away, and shaking his head. “Wait, wait,” he panted.

After they’d caught their balance, with her still sitting on his lap, she looked at him, hurt and chewing her bottom lip, which was already swollen from Evan’s teeth. “Are you-- did I do something?” she asked, her eyes wide and vulnerable.

“I just--” he’d just always thought that touching a girl there was supposed to be something he had to work for, not something easy. “I just, I’ve never…” he trailed off, face flushing at the slow, predatory grin on her face.

“Oh,” she said, voice silky as she moved forward again, shifting so that her entire body was pressed to his. “I could show you.”

Evan was awesome at dating. He was awesome at making out with hot girls. He was just-- he was good at this, he wasn’t going to panic and run away like a stupid, scared freak, that was stupid-- except it was just what he felt like doing.

Sara’s skirt had ridden up and she took one of his hands again, this time sliding it down to her bare thigh and Evan spread his fingers over smooth, warm skin, breathing through his nose as she kept sucking his neck. Her mouth was hot and wet and he said, dazed, “You’re not a vampire, are you?”

Sara burst into surprised laughter, melting against him, nearly unbalancing the swing again and Evan’s other hand came up to the back of her thigh to keep her from falling. She’d wrapped her arms around him and now she was just holding on, snuggling close, and when she caught her breath, she lifted her head a little and said, “You really don’t wanna do this, huh?”

He winced. “No, I do! It’s just--”

“Hey, it’s okay,” she said, smiling at him. “I think it’s sweet. I didn’t realize you’d never-- I’d be a little freaked out too.”

Completely embarrassed, he moaned, letting his head fall to her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

“Can I stay like this?” she asked, a little shy again. “I like being close to you.”

He moved his arms up so they rested around her waist, which was a little bit more comfortable for him, and held onto her tightly. Maybe he wasn’t so good at the making out part, but he was a champion snuggler. “Yeah,” he agreed, clearing his throat.

“And can we swing?” she asked, stroking his hair.

He hesitated. “Not too high,” he said finally, and she laughed breathlessly against the side of his neck as he started the swing moving, just a little.

*

The house wasn’t quite as dark as Evan would have liked it to be when Miriam dropped him off. Terrified his mother had waited up to quiz him on his date, he closed the door behind himself as quietly as possible before tiptoeing towards the stairs.

It would have worked had it actually been his mother. Connor, however, must have been more familiar with teenaged sneaking techniques, because the tv switched off suddenly and he appeared in the hall.

“Hey,” he said, leaning against the doorway to the living room. Evan froze guiltily on the stairs.

“Oh! Are you—hey,” he stammered, flushing clear down to his toes. “I thought you were mom, waiting up or something.”

“No, she fully intends to ply you with waffles in the morning before the interrogation starts.” He was grinning when Evan glanced over.

“Awesome,” he said, sighing, inching further up the stairs. Connor just followed, locking the front door (Evan always forgot) and turning off the lights.

Connor, in fact, followed Evan right into his room, leaning against that doorway too, all nonchalant and far, far too casual. It made Evan edgy, restless.

“So...” Connor said, and Evan did his best to ignore him, rummaging through his dresser for some clean pyjama pants. “She put out, huh?”

“What?” Evan squeaked, head jerking up to stare. “What do you mean?”

Connor should not have been close enough to touch him, but somehow he was, and his thumb brushed a spot on Evan’s neck, right where the skin was delicate and arched into his shoulder. Evan clapped a hand over it and spun to his mirror, moving his hand and wincing. Sara had left a particularly vivid hickey there.

“Oh,” he said faintly.

Over his shoulder in the mirror, Connor was grinning. “It’s kind of hot,” he said, and Evan’s eyes began to widen. “I mean, you kinda mark easily, don’t you? I’d have bruised you too, if it was me, and—” he seemed to realize what he was saying an instant too late and snapped his mouth shut, staring in shock and growing horror, his cheeks burning slowly.

Evan, for his part, could only stare at Connor, his own mouth parted a tiny bit in shock (and also because it was somehow harder to breathe, he was panting in a way that Sara’s body all over his hadn’t even managed to inspire, oh my god). There was a low, strangled sound that he realized distantly came from his own throat, and then Evan turned around, back to the mirror, still staring. He was still so close to Connor, who was holding himself really, really still, looking horrified.

“I mean,” Connor finally choked. “Hypothetically speaking—anyone would have—you’re so pale.” He reached out with shaking fingers, brushed them over the mark on Evan’s neck, and then shook his head hard, backing away. He glanced once more at Evan, completely panicked, and then turned and left the room without another word.

Evan swallowed hard and his shaking knees gave out, leaving him to sit heavily on the edge of his bed, gasping for breath.

He reached out blindly for a pillow, holding it over his lap (refusing to think about the fact that Sara had been on him and he’d barely reacted, but all it took was some dirty words and the faintest touch from Connor and Evan was growing hard—oh my god), and staring at the doorway like he was waiting for Connor to come back again.

Evan wasn’t sure if he was hoping for it or scared of it.

Either way, Connor didn’t come back and the entire house fell silent except for Evan’s ragged breathing.

*

Evan slept late, his lingering illness probably the only thing keeping him from another raging bout of insomnia. He also refused to leave his room until he was sure that Connor had left for work, and then, and only then, did he allow himself to make the short dash to the bathroom and then follow his hunger pangs to the kitchen.

His mother was waiting there, nursing a mug of coffee, and she brightened when she saw him, hopping up and pouring him a cup before he could beat a graceful retreat.

He tugged the hood of his hoodie up, pulling on the hood’s strings, and took the mug grudgingly. “Thanks,” he said, gulping down the hot liquid for courage as he took the seat she pulled out for him.

“I was worried you’d sleep all day,” she chirped. “Connor’s working and your dad’s out of town. Away game. Just me and you, I’m going to make some waffles—chocolate chip.”

“Excellent,” he sighed, knowing that he’d be the worst son in the universe if he escaped now, leaving his overly-helpful mother to rattle around the empty house all day.

She chattered on happily while she mixed up the waffle batter, so when the actual interrogation started, he had almost been lured into a false sense of security. “So, how was last night?”

“Good,” he said automatically.

She slid a plate of steaming waffles in front of him and a glass of orange juice, her hawk-like eyes peering at him. “Good? That’s it? Where did you go?”

“Dinner at JD’s,” he said with a shrug. “Then to the lake.”

“The lake?” she wiggled her eyebrows meaningfully and he wanted to die.

“Oh my god, mom,” he said.

“Did you kiss her?” Her eyes were bright with fiendish curiosity. He stared at her in horror and she said, “You did! Was it nice?”

“Mom!” Waffles weren’t worth this torture. “I didn’t, actually. She—she kissed me.” He slumped a little.

His mom looked smug, but all she said was, “And when do I get to meet the young lady?”

“Never,” he grumbled, but she just laughed.

*

Evan begged permission from his mother to spend the night at Trent’s. Since it took two hours to bike over there, Evan was generally disinclined to go if he had to bike back—the ride over nearly killed him as it was. His mom was in a good mood since her interrogation so she gave him permission and even went so far as to drive him over, his bike sticking out of the trunk of her car.

Trent was nearly as ruthless in his interrogation as Evan’s mother had been, but when Evan got too tired of it, he didn’t feel too badly about tackling him and elbowing him into submission, and girls and dating were forgotten

He biked home around noon the next day, leaving himself a few hours to finish up his homework before arranging to meet up with Trent again at the drive-in.

He dressed carefully—though making sure he didn’t look like he’d over dressed or taken much care with it. His best jeans—the ones with the glitter on the ass, as close to bedazzled as he ever got, and his favourite t-shirt, which was pale yellow and had a unicorn on it, yeah, but yellow looked good on him and unicorns were fucking awesome, okay?

He bounced down the stairs and into the kitchen where he found a couple of 12th grade girls raiding the fridge. Farther searching found his mother and father in the back yard, digging up a flower bed.

“Going out,” he announced. “Have you seen Connor?”

“Should be inside,” his father grunted, tugging on a dead petunia. He glanced up at Evan. “Hey, congrats on the date, by the way.”

“I’ve got some concealer you can use for that hickey,” his mom called.

“God,” Evan groaned, hurrying back inside. He looked out the front window and saw that Connor’s car was still there and, eyes narrowing suspiciously, he pounded back upstairs.

He knocked heavily on Connor’s door, hollering, “Connor Jackson, if you’re punking out on me, I will end—”

The door flew open and Connor stood there, eyes wide. “Holy shit, Evan,” he said, cheeks turning pink. “What?”

“What do you mean, what? It’s Sunday. Night of the Living Dead. You’re wearing that?” He glanced at Connor’s ratty Pink Floyd t-shirt and his threadbare pyjama pants.

“You’re wearing that?” Connor echoed with a pointed look at Evan’s shirt.

“Unicorns are awesome!”

“Besides, I, uhm, didn’t think, after Friday, that you’d want me to go.”

Evan stared at him blankly. Yeah, Friday had been weird, but it wasn’t Connor’s fault that Evan’s hormones were incredibly screwed up. Also, Evan had been looking forward to this all weekend, damn it.

“Of course I still want you to go,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I want you to go?”

“You’ve been avoiding me all weekend.”

“Incorrect. You’ve been working and I’ve been hanging out with Trent. Get changed. Besides, it’s late, I’ll never make it if you don’t give me a ride.” He flashed his most charming smile and Connor looked a little like he’d been hit by a bus, staring at Evan’s mouth.

Evan should have wanted to run and hide and panic quietly in his room but instead, he just stood there and kept smiling so widely his cheeks hurt. He bounced on his heels excitedly—he really had been looking forward to this all night—and said, “Please, Connor? I won’t be weird, I swear I won’t be weird.”

“You’re not—oh my god, Evan,” Connor groaned, closing his eyes. “You have no idea—okay, whatever, just... Give me five minutes.”

He closed the door and Evan let himself do a little bit of a victory shimmy. Everything was going to be perfect. He’d had an entire weekend with Trent to reassure himself that no, he was not unusually and tragically attracted to guys. Trent was a guy and Evan had known him his whole life and hadn’t had the single slightest urge to daydream about what it might feel like if Trent had decided to suck on his neck and climb him on a swing. So that meant that Friday night, after his date, that whole incident with Connor in his room, that had been an anomaly, brought on by too much adrenaline and exhaustion and probably his fever, too. And all of that hyper-awareness he’d felt in the days leading up to Friday, all of that weirdness had been the onset of his fever.

Evan was fine. Evan was a perfect example of a hormonal and heterosexual 16-year-old boy and Connor’s shaggy blonde hair, his wide blue eyes, and his crooked smile weren’t enough to lure him off the path of heterosexuality. Evan liked girls. He’d touched Sara’s breasts and kissed her. With tongue. He was dating a beautiful girl and he was straight and it felt amazing and he was so excited to prove it to the universe and to himself by going to the drive-in with Connor.

He skipped back downstairs, raided the fridge for snacks and drinks, and then waved jauntily to the girls hanging out in his kitchen.

Connor was a lot less excited but he came down the stairs, dressed and jingling his keys, so Evan took it as a win.

Connor’s car was old and had a lot of personality. Evan relaxed in the passenger seat, tipping his head back to stare up at the stars through the old sunroof, and without a word, Connor hit the button to open it for him.

Evan felt on top of the world. He was invincible and he could feel the adrenaline and excitement tingling in his fingers and toes. He couldn’t explain the source of the pure giddiness running through him—he didn’t much care for Night of the Living Dead, going to the drive-in in a car took some of the novelty away, but Connor’s stereo was playing the perfect song for his mood and when he reached a hand up out of the sunroof, the air rushing between his fingers made him feel like he was flying.

He let his hand drop and turned to Connor, feeling blissed out and hazy and not quite sure why.

“I don’t think your fever’s broken quite yet,” Connor said, husky, voice cracking a little, and Evan just smiled at him slowly, so much promise in his grin that Connor’s breath stammered and he had to look away. Probably for the best, while he’d been staring at Evan, the car had drifted into the other lane.

“I’m not sick,” Evan told him, stretching a bit. His shirt rode up a little over his stomach, exposing his hipbones, and he hissed, irritated, tugging it down, and when he looked over at Connor again, Connor’s hand was shaking on the gear shift and he was staring fixedly at the road. There was a high flush on his cheeks and something in Evan’s stomach tightened hungrily.

“Hey,” Evan said quietly, watching the way the street lights lit up Connor’s face for a second before slipping away again. “I wanted to ask you something.”

“Yeah?”

“Would you do it?” He swallowed. “I mean, hypothetically.”

“Do what?” Connor shot him a quick, nervous look.

“I mean...” He touched his throat, brushed the mark there, and said, low and soft, “Would you bruise me?”

“Jesus,” Connor hissed, running a hand through his hair, the other clutching the steering wheel. “I never should have said that, Evan. I wasn’t thinking, I was—I didn’t mean to.”

“Okay,” Evan said with a nod. “But I still want to know. Would you? Would you want to?”

“I don’t want to talk about this,” he said, desperation in his tone. He signalled and turned into the drive-in, paying at the booth before pulling up in the back. In the silence after he turned off the engine, he didn’t turn or look at Evan or even let go of the wheel.

The drive-in looked different, and not only because of the extra cars that had showed up for the zombie movie. It looked different from the passenger seat of a car and Evan wondered a little wistfully if it would look different still if he’d come here with Sara on a date.

He peeked back at Connor and found the other boy was finally looking at him, his eyes narrow and his lips dark like he’d just bitten them. “Evan,” he said helplessly, looking lost.

“Yeah,” Evan said, meaning it as a question but it came out more of an affirmation, some sort of acknowledgement. He licked his own lips self-consciously, eyes flickering down to Connor’s mouth. He let out a breath it felt like he’d been holding for years and confessed in a broken voice, “I want to know if it feels the same.”

“You don’t, not really,” Connor said quickly, and Evan shook his head.

“Just—can you just—” He reached up and touched Connor’s bottom lip with his thumb, biting his own, and Connor went very, very still, eyes wide and breath catching. Evan shifted, climbing up onto his knees and his own breathing was shallow and shaky.

The relief and adrenalin at reaffirming his heterosexuality that weekend was nothing, nothing to the anticipation of rising up on his knees and leaning up over the gearshift, his hand slipping from Connor’s mouth to his jaw, tracing it with his palm and his fingers to the back of Connor’s neck. His hair fell over the back of Evan’s hand, soft and light.

“Evan,” Connor said again, barely a whisper, and Evan felt it against his mouth with a jolt, his lips parting on a very faint gasp. His eyes slipped shut and he felt like he’d fly right out of his skin with the sparks that were shooting through his bloodstream, pooling in his fingertips.

“I’m just going to...” he said reassuringly, and then Connor closed the distance between them and kissed him, feather light and sweet and terrified.

It didn’t feel like kissing Sara had at all. There was no taste of cherry lipgloss, no rush of warmth, no secret terror that he was doing it wrong. There was static electricity in every place they touched and pure heat coiling low in his stomach.

They were barely touching, barely kissing, but Evan felt like he could taste Connor all the way to the back of his tongue and he let out a shuddering breath, fingers tightening in Connor’s hair. Before he could press closer or climb over the gearshift to fix the awkward angle and climb Connor like a tree, before he could do much more than whisper, “It’s okay, oh god,” to convince Connor to start breathing again, before Evan could make sure Connor could taste him just as well, the back door flew open.

“Dude, yes!” Trent crowed, throwing himself inside. “Car, nice! You totally just upped my quality of life by like, 70%, this is awesome!”

Evan scrambled away from Connor as far as he could with a strangled yelp, plastering himself to the passenger door and staring, his breathing picking up into a frantic, hiccupping beat that was rivalled only by his pounding heart. His eyes felt so wide that they started to sting.

Connor had turned away, pressing shaking hands to his mouth, and Evan could hear him cursing viciously under his breath.

Trent prattled on, unaware, and Evan felt like he might be sick.

When the movie started a few minutes later, it was Trent who realized that they hadn’t thought to grab a speaker box, and he hopped out. As soon as he was gone, Connor said quickly, “I am so, so sorry, that shouldn’t have happened, I’m sorry.”

Evan was a little startled (hadn’t he instigated that? Hadn’t he?) but he couldn’t help the rush of relief at being offered the opportunity to absolve himself of responsibility. Before he could reply, Trent was yanking his door open, nearly spilling him out onto the gravel parking lot, and cranking his window down.

“We’re missing the beginning,” he hissed, fixing the box to Evan’s window before closing the door again and climbing into the back. He stretched out with a blissful sigh and said, “Dude, it’s roomy back here, it must’ve rocked, living in your car.”

“Yeah,” Connor said, voice wrecked. At least he was making an effort to act normal. Evan was still desperately trying to catch his balance in a world that had been knocked completely off its axis.

And he could still taste Connor whenever he licked his lips.

“Bathroom,” he mumbled suddenly, crashing his way out of the car and staggering into the shadows, unconsciously imitating the creatures on the big screen. He felt kind of like a zombie—wrecked inside and out and rotted down to his very basic parts that weren’t really functioning the way they were supposed to.

There was a concession/bathroom on the left side of the lot and Evan made his way over there, kind of scared that Connor might follow, but he didn’t.

The bathroom was sketchy and a little dirty, but it was the perfect refuge, mostly because Connor wasn’t there. Evan leaned forward on the counter, stared at his sallow reflection in the harsh lighting, and squinted at himself. He looked just the same as he had after he’d gotten back from his date with Sara—maybe with a little more terror mixed in. His mouth even looked the same—a little swollen, a little wet from the way he couldn’t seem to stop sucking his bottom lip because it tasted like Connor...

His stomach lurched again and he was kidding himself if he thought it was nausea or disgust.

“Jerking off in the drive-in bathroom: bad idea,” he mumbled.

Jerking off while thinking of what could have happened if Trent hadn’t burst into the car? Worse idea.

*

When he climbed back into the car, he was holding the biggest tub of popcorn money could buy, and Connor searched his face closely in the darkness.

“You okay?” he asked, voice soft enough that Trent, who was trying to steal the tub of popcorn, didn’t notice.

Evan looked at him, took a deep breath, and wanted to grab Connor’s shirt and jerk him forward and lick his way into Connor’s mouth. He didn’t. Instead, he gritted his teeth, hissed faintly at the growing discomfort, and said, “Yeah.” His voice came out wrecked and rough and Connor’s eyes flew to his mouth before his cheeks flushed again and he jerked around to watch the movie.

Evan had no choice but to let Trent have the popcorn; the kid was like an octopus, too many arms to defend against, and when it was gone, he felt really exposed and sort of nervous, like Connor could look at him and tell, even in the dark. Maybe he should have taken care of it in the bathroom.

*

Evan fell asleep during the movie; it wasn’t his best moment, but there had been an intermission where Connor had left the car, coming back afterwards with blankets he’d gotten from the trunk, which he’d shoved at Evan like a peace offering. He’d given one to Trent, too, and Evan had curled up underneath his, pillowed his head on his arm, propped up against the window, and the exhaustion that was left after the adrenaline faded lulled him to sleep.

He hoped he hadn’t snored but he didn’t ask when he woke, which was just after Connor had pulled up outside their house.

“I took Trent home,” he said quietly when he realized that Evan was awake. He made no move to get out of the car and Evan was still trying to piece together how the movie could be over already.

“Oh,” he said. “Okay.” He undid his seatbelt, struggling with the blanket, and then opened his door. Connor still hadn’t moved, his hands still at ten and two on the wheel. Evan hesitated.

“Hey,” he said sleepily. “Coming?”

Connor turned to look at him, looking bleak. “What happened before—”

“Was it really that bad?” he asked. There were many reactions that Evan should be having—shock, terror, nervousness, denial. It was a product of having just woken that made him insecure and vulnerable rather than defensive. “I mean, I know—I know I’m not very good at it. I haven’t done it that often, and maybe I did it wrong. And you probably want to punch me in the face for doing it anyway because I guess it was kind of gay, but... But was it so bad that you don’t even want to come inside my house anymore?” His voice had cracked a little, not like he was going to cry, just like he was too tired and hurt to keep up the strength it took it keep his voice from breaking. Everything else was broken anyway. “I swear, I won’t do it again. I won’t touch you or look at you or think about you like that anymore. I didn’t mean to, it’s just I can’t get you out of my head, I guess, but I swear, I won’t do it again. I promise, just don’t go away.”

Connor let out a slow, tense breath, and then said, “We need to never talk about this again.”

Evan flinched. Yeah, he knew, theoretically, that there was a possibility that he’d been rejected that way. He wasn’t stupid. Maybe he was lucky he hadn’t gotten punched in the face for what he’d done, but he’d spent his entire life not being exactly what he was supposed to be. He had never been the son his father deserved, never really been good at following the line of normal, so when Connor had shown up, and Evan had gotten all... stupid about him, he hadn’t really panicked. Especially because he’d thought—he’d been pretty sure that Connor had flirted back, which had sort of implied that it was okay.

“It—it wasn’t okay,” Evan said, voice dull. He’d meant it to be a question.

Connor flinched, eyes squeezed shut, and he said, “You need—we both need to forget it happened. It was a mistake. It was wrong.”

Evan felt like he’d been punched in the face. His breathing hitched and his hands curled into helpless, defensive fists, like maybe he could fight back. Everything that had seemed to make some simple sort of sense had changed, been twisted into something ugly, just one more thing about Evan that made him different and wrong.

Evan didn’t know what to say. Connor was looking at him, eyes wide and pleading, and Evan just felt sick. Maybe that’s how he should have reacted from the beginning, the first time he’d stared at Connor’s mouth and wondered what it tasted like. He should have realized it was wrong, how could he have thought that was okay?

“Hey. Hey, Evan,” Connor started, reaching for him, concerned. “Wait.” Maybe he could see some of the twisted self-loathing on Evan’s face.

It didn’t matter. Evan scrambled out of the car before Connor could touch him.

He was out of the car and inside the house before Connor could follow, and Evan told himself, as he pounded up the stairs and into his bedroom, that he didn’t care if Connor came inside at all.

He was lying, and he curled up on the window sill, shaking and hugging his knees and watching until Connor got out of his dark car and made his way slowly up to the house, moving carefully, like he hurt all over. When Connor came inside, Evan squeezed his eyes shut as tightly as he could and listened to Connor’s familiar footsteps coming up the stairs, and he didn’t crawl into bed until he made sure Connor had gone into his bedroom.

Chapter Text

“I knew you were too sick to get out of bed.”

Evan groaned, opening his eyes just enough to see his mother standing over him, looking concerned, and he waved an arm at her weakly. “Not sick. Tired,” he mumbled before realizing that claiming he was sick meant he could miss another day of school.

“Hmm,” she said. “Well. You’re late for school, Connor went in early, and I’m going to drive you. You’ve got ten minutes. Up!”

“Not even enough time to straighten my hair,” he grumbled, flipping his blanket up over his head. He waited until she’d left before forcing himself to roll out of bed, staggering as he tugged off his pyjamas. It had been a long, restless night and his arms and legs didn’t feel properly attached anymore, jerking around like a malfunctioning robot.

He pondered the likelihood of actually being an android as he dressed, and by the time he tripped his way into the bathroom, he was functioning at about thirty percent. He squinted in the mirror, horrified at the cowlicks that had sprouted up overnight.

He wasted eight of his ten minutes trying to smooth down his hair, in the end settling for an ancient baseball cap pulled down low over his bloodshot eyes, and when he finally made it downstairs, frantically forcing his arms into his hoodie sleeves, his mom handed him a travel mug of coffee.

“Love you,” he said reverently, gulping the scalding liquid as she ushered him out to the car.

He’d missed most of first period but his mom had come in with him and signed a late slip, leaving him in the library to ‘study’.

It was only when she left and he was alone that his thoughts had time to catch up with him and he winced, ducking into his study booth in the back and hiding his face, muffling a groan into his arms. Still, it wasn’t like there were any other options other than pretending it had never happened. Evan wasn’t big into talking about his feelings (unless, apparently, he was half asleep), and as far as he was concerned, any remaining hurt from the day before was negated by sleep. Each day was a fresh slate. He’d be polite and distant and careful with Connor, he wouldn’t infect him with any lingering and unwelcome feelings, and he’d be fully engaged to making sure Sara Michaels wanted to go out with him again.

Evan was captain of his own destiny. He was making his own choices. He was fine. And any lingering, freshly bruised feelings deep inside were his imagination. It had been a mistake and an accident, that was all.

He went to his locker when the bell rang and on the way, Sara saw him, her face lighting up. “Evan!” she said, slowing her stride to walk beside him. She was clutching her books to her chest and smiling. “I thought you weren’t here today, I was worried.”

“Just late,” he said, quirking a half grin at her. He was so awesome at this.

She did a sneaky ninja move and somehow ended up standing in front of him, trapping him against the lockers and she smiled, evil and scheming. “So, hey, I was thinking,” she said, leaning against him. Her trig book dug into his ribs uncomfortably but he didn’t squirm away. “Are you busy after practice tonight?”

“Practice?” he echoed nervously.

She arched an eyebrow. “Cheer leading? 3:15? On the football field? Don’t tell me you forgot.”

“Oh!” he said. “Right, yeah, that practice. No, uh, not busy.”

She grinned, triumphant, and said, “Fabulous. Let’s go out for milkshakes, just me and you this time.”

He agreed, grimly pleased with himself and this physical proof that he was over the temporary insanity that had led him down the twisted, confusing path of kissing Connor. He had a date with Sara Michaels, he was over whatever craziness that had been, and everything was fine.
The tightness in his chest wasn’t hurt or anything, it was worry that Connor might tell someone, and indignant rage that Connor had been such a dick about it, that was all.

Evan had some ninja moves of his own, and he employed them for the rest of the day, ducking into washrooms and empty classrooms (and, on one notable occasion, a not-so-empty classroom, where sixteen juniors stared at him in shock as he interrupted their sexual education guest speaker, but he chose to ignore that) whenever he saw Connor coming.

Connor didn’t seem to get the point, though; instead, he seemed to be making a concerted effort to catch Evan, even going so far as to call his name as Evan retreated manfully down the hallway. Evan felt he was perfectly justified ignoring all that, however.

He was feeling pretty good about the world and his place in it as he made his way to geometry, his last class of the day. That was, until Trent pounced on him, shoved a duffle bag into his arms, and said, “Dude, I called your name six times and waved my hands in front of your face but your nose was stuck up so high that you didn’t even see me. What’s up?”

Evan blinked eloquently at him, glanced at the beat up duffle, and said, “Nothing, I was thinking. What is this?”

“Thinking? Thinking so hard that you never showed up at lunch?” Trent frowned suspiciously. “And that’s your cheer uniform, obviously. And your pompoms. The rest of the squad wants to see how it fits so we’ve got to wear them to practice.”

They ducked into geometry together, taking their seats at the back of the room. “That’s appalling,” Evan said, after peeking inside the bag. The school colours were royal purple and ivory and, while he had nothing against purple in principle, he sort of worried he’d look like a grape. A grape doing star kicks and cartwheels.

He wondered suddenly, with no small amount of panic, if his inability to do a cartwheel was something that ought to have come up in tryouts.

“Connor wants to talk to you,” Trent added, just as Mr. Fischer made his way to the front of the class.

“About what?” Evan asked, suddenly terrified that the two of them had bonded over lunch and Connor had confided in him and told Trent all about the unfortunate kissing incident.

“Didn’t say.” Trent shrugged, class began, and Evan fretted until it was over.

*

His cheer uniform consisted of a tight, long-sleeved shirt, most of it deep purple, but with ivory stripes down the sleeves and intersecting in a V on his chest, the letters KHS emblazoned there, outlined in thick black. The pants were purple as well, with ivory and black stripes down the leg, and the pompoms were a nightmare.

Evan may have stood in front of the mirror in the boys’ change room for a while, shaking them with morbid fascination, but he’d never confess to anybody who asked.

Trent had somehow gotten changed and out onto the field before Evan, super speedy, apparently, because Miriam was waiting, and Evan was the last to leave the dressing room. The last cheerleader, anyway. The football team was just on their way in, and Evan didn’t think anything of ducking out as they made their way in.

“Seriously?” Gabe Morris, one of the players, asked him, and Evan stopped, confused. Gabe grabbed a pompom, shook it viciously before throwing it back in Evan’s face, laughing. “Your dad must be so proud.”

It was harsh and unexpected, and Evan couldn’t help tossing a confused, almost hurt look over his shoulder as the door swung shut behind him. He scooped up his fallen pompom and trudged uncertainly onto the field.

In theory… yeah, okay, in theory, he kind of got it. It was ridiculous and humiliating, he was a fucking cheerleader. But it wasn’t like he didn’t know it was a complete travesty. Surely he should feel like he was in on the joke, because he knew it was a joke. But Gabe had sort of acted like Evan was the joke, and he wasn’t used to that at all.

Being invisible, yeah. He was used to that. Being a joke? Not so much.

“You look awesome,” Sara called, jogging over to him, taking his hand and smiling. “C’mon, let’s warm up together.”
She taught him stretches, didn’t mock him too badly when he proved how very uncoordinated he was, and then showed him the proper way to shake a pompom, and then practice began.

It was definitely harder and more athletic than he’d expected. Sure, he’d seen Bring it On, knew it was actually a sport, but still, he hadn’t expected so much moving. They were working on getting him stabilized so he could support the weight of one of the girls without his knees giving out and the work was exhausting.

When he was finally done, he turned to leave the field with Sara, and was more relieved than ever that he had a date with her, because Connor was waiting on the bleachers and it meant that Evan did not have to speak to him.

In fact, he managed to avoid him for most of the week.

He spent lunch time in the art room, telling Trent he was working on some massive project worth a huge chunk of his grade, when in fact, they were working on the still life unit, which meant that he spent most of his time drawing fruit. He didn’t like to let his assignments stifle his creativity, however, so he drew his fruit rotting, or transforming into monsters, or torn to shreds resembling bits of human anatomy.

He’d always had an active imagination. It often got him into trouble in art class, with Mr. Richler sending home concerned notes in his report card, requesting interviews with his parents, and saying god knew what to his dad in the staff room, but Evan refused to conform to his teacher’s opinion of art.

Fruit was boring; zombie fruit was awesome.

On Thursday, however, all his clever avoidance techniques failed him and Connor found him at lunch, alone, in the art room, which was the perfect place for whatever confrontation he wished to have.

When Evan glanced up from his canvas and saw Connor standing in the doorway, he silently cursed Trent, wished he’d told the truth (or some version of it at least) so that Trent had backed him up in his quest to avoid this very situation, and said, “I’m kind of busy.”

“I’ve been trying to talk to you all week,” Connor said. Now that he had the opportunity, he seemed unsure, hovering in the doorway.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” said Evan calmly, turning back to his canvas, frowning as he tried to mix the perfect shade of gray for his zombie orange’s oozing peel wound.

“Then why are you avoiding me?” Connor inched into the room, looking nervous. Evan didn’t care.

“I’m not avoiding you, I’m pretending you don’t exist. There is a small but important difference.”

Connor flinched; Evan saw it out of the corner of his eye. “Listen, about what I said—”

“You didn’t say anything.”

Connor fell silent for a moment and then said, “Evan. C’mon, you know what I’m talking about. On Sunday, when I said—”

Finally giving up on the orange, Evan slammed his brush down. “You didn’t say anything because nothing happened,” he snapped. “Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got a massive art project, and—”

“You kissed me and I said some shit I shouldn’t have said,” Connor told him. “Stop pretending it didn’t happen.”

“Okay,” Evan said, after a beat of silence. That was blunt. “It happened and it was a mistake and it was wrong like you said and now we’re pretending nothing happened, you told me to forget and I did, are you satisfied? What do you want from me?”

Connor was close now, though not close enough to touch, and he looked pleading, desperate, and very pale. “I need you to listen to me,” he said. “I need to explain.”

“You can’t have it both ways,” Evan told him, edging away. “Either I remember or I don’t, and I don’t want to.”

“Evan. You don’t understand. When I said it was wrong, I didn’t mean—”

It was the condescension in his tone that did it. Evan lost his temper, which rarely happened. He’d cultivated an image of being balanced, bitter and sarcastic but completely in control, and that control snapped with a violence he hadn’t anticipated. He kicked wildly at his easel, sending it skittering across the art room floor, tipping over and crashing to the floor, his project landing face down. The easel struck the modelling platform in the middle of the room, sending the ridiculous bowl of fruit to the floor as well, oranges and apples spilling and rolling under the desks.

“Don’t talk down to me,” he snarled. “Don’t talk to me at all. You don’t exist and I don’t want you to. You told me to forget and I did but you’re making it fucking difficult. What more do you want from me? I fucked up and you told me off for it and told me to forget and I did.”

“Evan. Evan, okay, I’m sorry, I just—”

He touched Evan’s arm and Evan flinched back violently, knocking into another easel, sending that one falling as well. “Don’t touch me, don’t—I don’t know what you want from me.” His voice cracked, the ball of hurt that had settled in his chest and made it impossible to forget aching with a hot, sharp twist of pain that made it hard to breathe. “I don’t want you to talk to me or touch me or live in my fucking house, I just want you to go away because I was fine before you came and now everything is messed up and it’s wrong, and it wasn’t until you said it was.”

“Evan.” His voice was quiet, gentle now. “That’s not what I meant, when I said it was wrong, what I meant was—”

Evan lashed out viciously at a fallen orange, and the fruit skidded across the floor, towards the door, and that’s when Mr. Richler stepped into the doorway.
He froze, eyes going wide when he saw the mess Evan had made, and Connor started stammering excuses but Evan didn’t even care, just kicked over another easel in a fit of petulant rage. His hands were shaking and he was terrified and couldn’t even tell why.
Which is why Connor ended up in detention and Evan ended up in the counsellor’s office.

Mrs. Owens was in her early thirties, pretty for an older woman, and completely fucking crazy.

She’d been trying to get her evil hands on Evan since he was a frosh, since the very first day Mr. Richler had glanced at his first art project and hadn’t understood that the point was in the symmetry and symbolism, the layering of mixed media, not in the actual depiction of a body in various stages of decomposition. It was an android squirrel, anyway, not an actual squirrel; Evan wasn’t one of those kids who tortured animals or had an obsession with death. He’d just found some old tubing from the dryer at home and thought it would make an awesome oesophagus for an android squirrel.

Mr. Richler and Mrs. Owens had disagreed and only his father’s arguments on his behalf, in defence of his overactive imagination, had saved him from their schemes.

They hadn’t even consulted his father this time. Apparently getting into a semi-violent confrontation that jeopardized a bowl of still life in the art room meant that his rights could be trampled all over. Straight to the counsellor’s office, no lawyer, no phone call, do not collect $200.

Mrs. Owens was studying his rotting fruit. He’d turned the banana into a zombie shark, which was pretty awesome, and he was quietly proud of it. When she set the piece aside, however, she looked less than impressed.

“Do you want to tell me what happened?” she asked sympathetically.

He crossed his arms over his chest and refused to answer.

“Mr. Richler says you destroyed school property in the art room, that you had an argument with Connor Jackson.” She consulted her notes and then said, “He’s been staying with you, hasn’t he?” When he still refused to answer, she said, “It must be stressful, trying to adjust to a new kid in the house. How do you two get along?”

“Perfectly,” he lied. “Can I go now?”

Mrs. Owens studied him for a moment and Evan squirmed, staring determinedly down at the carpet. Finally she sighed. “I want you to take these,” she said, sliding a stack of papers, pamphlets, and booklets over to him. Curious despite himself (and expecting something on eating disorders—he had a theory that all school counsellors were for is dealing with eating disorders and college applications), Evan glanced at the stack and then went very, very still.

Gay and Bisexual Youth: a Resource Guide. He shoved it off the stack and the next one read, PFLAG and Evan wasn’t stupid—he knew how to work Google. He knew all about PFLAG. Asking the Right Questions: Resources for gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning teens.

Evan stood up so quickly that his chair nearly tipped, backing towards the door. “I’m not,” he croaked. “What are you doing?” All his plans to remain distant and belligerent were gone beneath a wave of pure fear. Connor must have told.

Mrs. Owens was frowning, scrambling to her feet. “Evan,” she said, circling around her desk. He fumbled for the doorknob. “It’s alright, calm down, I was just—”

“I’m not gay,” he told her, shaking. She tried to touch his shoulder and he flinched. “I’m not, don’t touch me, why does everyone keep trying to touch me?”

“Did Connor try to touch you? Evan, I want to help you, I know it can be scary when you don’t understand, but—”

“I’m not gay,” he said desperately.

“It’s not contagious. Evan, you’re not going to catch it from him.”

He froze, one hand on the doorknob and then turned to look at her, eyes wide. “What?”

“Homosexuality is not contagious,” she said patiently. “Come sit down and we can talk about this.”

There were gears in Evan’s head that were turning, slowly at first, and then more quickly. “Connor’s...” he trailed off, licking his lips. The pain in his chest was lurching sickeningly, getting worse. “Connor likes guys.”

She hesitated, looking concerned, and said, “We’re here to talk about you, Evan. If that’s why you’re so angry, we need to talk about this, we need—”

“I’m not an idiot,” he snapped. “I know it’s not contagious.”

He jerked the door open and stormed out, slamming it behind him. Trent was waiting in the lobby of the guidance counsellor’s office and he hopped up off his chair. “Hey, I heard you—”

Evan didn’t even stop, just shoved his way by, leaving the office, making a sharp left, and ducking into the bathroom. He threw his backpack to the floor, leaned over the sink, and tried to breathe because he seemed to have forgotten how. Everything hurt and he wanted to be sick but he could barely move. His face looked pale and bruised in the mirror, like he was catching another cold.

Trent followed him in, hesitating in the doorway. “Dude,” he said. “Are you okay?”

Evan swallowed hard and shook his head, squeezing his eyes shut. “I’m going to puke,” he said, but he made no move towards the toilet.

“Eating disorders and college applications, I knew it,” Trent said, and Evan turned to him, laughing a little bit brokenly.

He pressed a hand to his mouth, trying to contain the hysterical giggles, and then he blurted, “Connor’s gay.”

Trent stepped into the bathroom, letting the door swing shut, cocking his head curiously. “Is that why you’re avoiding him?” he asked, instead of freaking out like Evan had sort of assumed he would.

“No,” Evan said honestly. That wasn’t the problem at all. The problem was that Evan had been working under the assumption that Connor was a homophobic prick who didn’t know a good thing when he had it—the good thing being kissing Evan, of course. Now, he had to re-evaluate, and the problem wasn’t that Evan was a guy. The problem was just... Evan in general.

And that hurt a whole lot more.

“Then why—”

Maybe Evan wasn’t as against talking about his feelings as he liked to pretend. Maybe there were just so many of them that they’d built up and came spilling out, like a dam breaking. “I kissed him and he told me it was wrong,” he said, words tripping over themselves.

Then he flinched, waiting for rejection or fury or something. Instead, Trent just stared, eyes wide, mouth open a tiny bit, hair a fantastic tangle around his face. His t-shirt read “I’m lost; please take me home with you” and Evan stared at the L in lost. He was feeling pretty lost himself.

Trent’s hands flew to his hips and he finally sputtered, “You fucking kissed him and didn’t tell me? Dude. I’ve known you forever!”

“That’s—I tell you I kissed a guy, and that’s what you focus on?”
“Well.” He looked a little deflated and very confused. “Well, I mean. I don’t know.”

They couldn’t seem to look at each other. Evan was trying to catch his balance on a ground that kept shifting out from under his feet, and maybe Trent was feeling the same.

Trent cleared his throat. “So. Uhm. Do you want to...” He trailed off and then added miserably, “Mrs. Owens wants me to bring you back to the office.”

Evan sucked in a noisy breath through his teeth and shook his head wildly. “I won’t go,” he said.

“Yeah, no, totally don’t blame you.” He hesitated and then said, “But there’s a show tonight, at the drive-in. You want to go? I’ve got my bike, we could get fries or something and you wouldn’t have to go home for a while? Your dad probably knows what happened. I mean.” His eyes widened almost comically. “Not like, a date! Just, like, I mean—”

Evan shook his head, smiling reluctantly. “Dude, I’m with Miriam on this one. Not dating you til you get a haircut,” he said, and Trent grinned at him, relaxing a little.

It was still really awkward, but an okay sort of awkward. Evan hadn’t realized how sure he’d be that Trent would flip out and hurt him or walk away or tell everyone until Trent hadn’t.

Before he’d kissed Connor, he’d never thought Trent capable of that sort of thing, but everything had shifted after that kiss, the world suddenly a lot more dangerous than he’d thought.

But Trent... Trent was good. Evan should have known. Kind of smelly and dirty, with a sick sense of humour, but solid.

Chapter Text

They skipped out on the rest of the school day and Evan didn’t feel guilty. He sat on the handlebars of Trent’s bike and let Trent do all the work, pedalling their way to the mall, the way he had since they’d become friends, back in first grade. For a while, things felt deliciously normal, laughing as they sped downhill, trying his best to keep his seat without using his hands, Trent huffing and puffing and cursing as they went.

They pooled their pocket change and managed to afford some fries and it was while sharing them in the food court that reality came intruding again.

“So,” said Trent, dragging a fry through a puddle of ketchup. Evan looked up and Trent pointed the fry at him and said, “Miriam’s brother’s gay.”

Evan looked at him blankly for a moment and then frowned. “The one in college?”

Trent nodded. “Yeah. Chris. Gay.”

“Oh.” Trent was still looking at him intently, as if that wasn’t the reaction he was looking for, so Evan added, “There sure are a lot of gay people out there, huh?”

“Shut up,” Trent said. “That’s not what I’m saying. I just mean...” He looked terribly uncomfortable all of a sudden and Evan couldn’t help being a tiny bit amused at that. “You could... you know...”

“Hook up with Chris.”

“No!” Trent grimaced. “Yes? Maybe? Or, like. He’d probably have better answers than Mrs. Owen. Like, maybe you’re just... Confused.”

Evan shrugged. “I’m not.”

“You’re just... gay.”

He frowned a little, rubbing at his stomach where a persistent squirmy and nervous sensation seemed to be trying to coax him into having a panic attack. “No,” he said. “Maybe.”

“That sounds confused,” Trent declared.

“No, it’s just, like. Why do I have to be gay?”

“Dude. You kissed a guy. And you liked it? I mean, I assumed you liked it.” He cocked his head like a confused puppy. “Did you?”

Evan shrugged again. “Yeah. But why does that mean – can’t I just... like a guy. Without. Being gay?”

“That’s sort of the definition,” Trent said. “I think.”

“What if I liked guys and girls, though,” Evan offered. “Can’t I do that? Isn’t that okay? Do you have to just pick one?”

“Picking both seems kinda greedy,” Trent said solemnly, and at Evan’s scowl, he snickered. “Dude, I’m kidding. Like I know the answers.”

“Maybe I am confused,” Evan said, shoulders slumping.

“That’s why you should talk to Chris,” Trent suggested. “He’s in college.” He waggled his eyebrows like that meant something, like Chris had graduated from their school and in the months since moving on to the esteemed institute of college, he’d somehow become a wise guru in the ways of homosexuality.

“Talk to him about what?” Miriam asked, dropping her massive purse on the table and dropping into the seat beside Trent. She stole a fry, shoved it in her mouth, and said, “About Evan suddenly being gay?”

“Miriam!” Trent yelped.

Evan just stared, feeling a little sick suddenly. It was one thing to confess to Trent, who knew pretty much every embarrassing secret Evan had ever had. But if Miriam knew already, what if the whole school found out by tomorrow?

What if his dad found out more than whatever messed up idea Mrs. Owens cooked up about the fight in the art room?

“You told her?” he asked, voice faint. He was feeling a little lightheaded.

“Texted me,” she said. “And I quote, ‘Evan’s having a Big Gay Freak Out. Skipping class to go to the mall.’ Only with less words, poor spelling, and barely any grammar. I came as soon as class let out, like I’d miss this. What are you doing messing around with Sara if you’ve got a hard-on for Connor?” She didn’t sound angry, just endlessly fascinated, and that was somehow worse. He was becoming a science experiment.

“I’m not. I mean, I didn’t mean to. I just...” He swallowed hard, eyes darting around wildly as he looked for a place to hide.

“Hey,” she said, frowning a little suddenly and grabbing his hand. “Evan. Breathe. It’s not that big a deal.”

“Being gay is the biggest deal!” Trent cried, too loudly. People were turning to look.

Evan moaned and buried his face in his hands. “Please,” he mumbled. “Please don’t tell anyone else about my Big Gay Freak Out, okay?”

“I’ll consider it,” Miriam said. “On one condition.”

“I refuse to continue dating you if you use his sexual preferences as blackmail material,” said Trent, and Evan relaxed a tiny bit more. If Trent was even willing to give that up to protect Evan, Evan had nothing to worry about.

“We’re not dating,” Miriam reminded him.

Trent puffed up self-righteously, pointing a French fry at her and declaring, “I refuse to continue trying to date you if you use his sexual preferences as blackmail material then!”

“Oh, calm down,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I just want to know how this happened. Last I heard, Sara was practically giddy about sharing a milkshake with you after practice the other day. Then you disappear at school and show up here, freaking out about liking guys. Sara’s going to freak when she finds out she turned you gay.”

“You can’t turn someone gay,” Evan said, scowling. “I googled it.”

She lifted one brow and popped a fry into her mouth before saying, “Did you hook up with Trent?”

Trent made wretching sounds, which Evan, in his newfound appreciation for the true value of their friendship, manfully ignored. “No, I did not hook up with Trent,” he said loftily. Then his shoulders slumped and he deflated a bit. “I just... I accidentally kissed Connor.”

Her eyes widened. “Connor Jackson?” she breathed. “Oh, wow. Okay. I think he could turn just about any guy gay.”

“Not me,” said Trent. “I like boobs.”

They both ignored him. “So, what happened?” she asked. “When did that happen? I’m going to seriously have to injure you if it happened while you and Sara—”

“After we all went out,” he said miserably. “Before the milkshakes.”

There was a pause in which Miriam studied him with a frightening look on her face and Evan felt like pretty much the most worthless guy who ever existed.

“I’ll make allowances given that you’re clearly having a sexual identity crisis,” she said coldly. “But you better stop messing around with her in the least painful way possible, Evan Lee, or we will have words.”

“But I like her,” Evan cried. “I swear I do. She’s pretty. And fun. And—”

“And until you sort this shit out, you don’t get to share milkshakes with Sara anymore,” Miriam declared. “Let it go. Now. I’ve got an awesome idea.” She hopped up, grabbing her purse. “Throw that stuff out and come with me.”

“Where are we going?” Trent asked, obediently packing up the empty fry plate.

“Trent and I are going to the drive-in,” Evan said, and Miriam smirked.

“You sure you guys aren’t dating?” she asked. “We’re going to a party. I’ll drive.”

Evan wasn’t really the partying type, though not because he didn’t like to party. The sad truth was, he’d never actually been invited to a party, though he didn’t really care as much as Trent did. Trent liked to moan about the sad, tragic lack of the traditional teenaged drunk fest at least once a month.

At the very idea of getting to go to a party, Trent’s eyes lit up and he turned to Evan pleadingly as they followed Miriam out of the mall.

Evan sighed and gave in gracefully, because if Trent was still willing to be his friend after today, Evan supposed he ought to make some sacrifices in the name of friendship.

The problem was, he didn’t realize the party was two and a half hours away.

*

The party was pretty much what Evan expected a party to be, given his vast experience watching movies where people actually went to parties. This one was being held in a row house a few towns away from Kennedy Heights, and was being attended by dozens of college kids who didn’t seem to care at all that they were supplying alcohol to minors rather gleefully.

It was loud and crowded and, if Miriam hadn’t latched onto his wrist with such a strong grip as she dragged him into the house, he’d have gotten lost in the crowd for sure. Or maybe fled and hid in the car.

He wasn’t sure how this was supposed to fix his problem, and Miriam had refused to explain for all two and a half hours they spent driving here.

“Miriam,” he called, as they took the stairs two at a time, into the basement of the house, which was darker but quieter. “What are we—”

She stopped suddenly and said, “Hey, Chris.”

Evan blinked at the boy sprawled on the couch with about six other college students, all holding solo cups and laughing about something. He vaguely recognized the guy, who’d been a few years ahead of him in school.

And apparently gay.

“What the fuck,” Chris said, voice flat.

“I texted you.” Miriam smiled, a bright, winning grin as she smoothed her hair. “You should check your phone. This is my sorta boyfriend’s friend. He’s gay.”

She shoved Evan towards Chris and he stumbled, caught his balance, and cried, “Hey, I’d say gay is a bit of an overstatement, wouldn’t you?” He narrowed his eyes and tried to stop himself from blushing too brightly.

Chris was just watching with his eyebrows raised, looking a little intoxicated and a lot unimpressed.

Miriam ignored it and said, “He’s Evan.” There was a pause, in which Chris looked expectantly pissed off and Evan inched towards the stairs. Chris’s friends were watching the whole thing with wide, fascinated eyes, and Evan had no idea where Trent had gone. Then Miriam added, “Mia’s brother.”

Something shifted then. Evan wasn’t sure if it was all internal, if it was just a sudden lurching sense of the ground shifting from under his feet, or something in the air, in Chris’s expression as his eyes snapped to Evan and stared. There was something dark on Chris’s face, around his mouth, something fragile and frightening and Evan didn’t want to know why his dead sister’s name would have such a reaction in Miriam’s older brother.

“Oh,” Chris said.

“I need to find Trent,” Evan said faintly. He was feeling a little sick. It was getting late, he was far from home, his parents were probably freaking out, he hadn’t called them and by now, they knew what had happened at school. He’d deliberately left his phone in Miriam’s car so he wouldn’t have to answer a series of increasingly frantic texts and voicemails.

“He’s fine,” Miriam said, more gently now. She nudged Evan towards Chris and said, “I’ll go find him.”

Then she was gone and it was just Evan, standing there, while Chris and his college friends stared at him like a science experiment.

Evan didn’t like to think about Mia. He didn’t like to talk about her. He had spent months wondering about the last weeks of her life, trying to piece together what had happened and how it had all gone so wrong, and when he realized he’d never know, he carefully packed up his memories of her, his thoughts of her, into little boxes in his mind that he never opened, except one day a year. Today was not supposed to be that day.

Evan didn’t even realize he was approaching a panic attack until Chris stood up, took him by the wrist, and said, “Breathe, kid. It’s fine.”

He hiccupped and swallowed, closing his eyes. He hadn’t had panic attacks this frequently in years.

“I’m okay,” he said faintly, and Chris just dragged him by the wrist up the stairs, leaving his friends behind.

“Is this a family thing?” Evan asked, tugging at his wrist, but Chris didn’t let him go.

They wound their way through the party, Chris grabbed another cup of beer on the way, and then they went upstairs, stepping around the people making out on the stairs and in the hallway.

Chris opened a room down the hall, blissfully empty of amorous co-eds, and kicked it shut, cutting off most of the noise.

It was dark, the only light coming from a lava lamp on the narrow computer desk near the window, and Chris flicked on a light before handing Evan the fresh cup of beer.

“Sit,” he said, jerking his head at the bed. Evan’s knees felt weak with anxiety, and he wanted nothing more than to collapse somewhere and find out just what the hell was going on. Still, he hesitated.

“I didn’t come to hook up with you because you’re the only other gay guy I know,” he said instead.

Chris rolled his eyes and shoved Evan’s shoulder. “Jailbait’s really not my thing,” he said.

“Good to know.”

There was an awkward pause. Chris handed over his beer and Evan took a cautious sip. He was more a wine cooler kind of guy, really.

“Why did you come here, then?” Chris asked finally, studying Evan in the light of his lava lamp.

“Against my will,” he said promptly. “Sorry. Existential crisis.”

Chris nodded like that made sense and maybe, to a college kid, it did.

“So...” Evan said, swinging his feet a little off the side of the bed, feeling like a child.

“She talked about you, the night she died,” Chris said suddenly, and Evan shrunk in on himself, tried to make himself as small as he could. He was already feeling pretty small.

“She did?”

“Yeah.” Chris nodded, looking thoughtful. “She was out of her mind, I don’t even know what she was on. But she was scared. Kept talking about you, how small you were, how scared you’d be. How someone had to look after you.” He paused. “Can’t remember, but I think I promised I’d do it. Guess I’m pretty shitty at keeping promises.”

“I don’t need looking after,” Evan said quietly. “She did. She was—the night she died, she was with you?”

He nodded and looked away, lighting up a cigarette with shaking hands. Evan wrinkled his nose at the smell. “She showed up at my place, out of her mind. I tried to talk to her. Nothing was making sense. She kept talking about things that didn’t make sense. I shouldn’t have let her drive away.”

Evan swallowed the sound that got caught in his throat but Chris must have heard some of it anyway. His eyes sharpened on Evan’s face.

“Guess we can make out,” he said abruptly. “I owe your sister that. That’s looking after you, right? Helping with your existential crisis?”

Evan laughed, though it was sharp with hysteria. “I think I’m good,” he said, suffering under the realization that Chris, who was older and put together and in college, was still just as incapable of dealing with emotion.

“Hmm,” Chris said, thinking for a moment. Evan sipped his beer and grimaced. “I can get you wasted and then make sure you don’t choke to death on vomit. That’ll be looking after you, right? Can’t let promises to ghosts go unfinished, dude.”

Evan laughed again, only this time it was more like a sob. “Yeah,” he agreed, because maybe it would help him forget. “I bet she’d like that.”

*

The sunlight was burning Evan’s eyes and even keeping his lids clenched shut against it wasn’t helping. Neither was the fact that he was curled up in the backseat of Miriam’s car, in the fetal position, clutching his head and wanting to die.

It also didn’t help that his eyes felt like sandpaper, which happened when he fell asleep with his contacts in and had to peel them off the next morning. Not only was he blind, now, but his eyes were burning and raw.

He didn’t go to many parties, that was true. But it wasn’t like Evan had never woken up on the wrong end of a few too many beers. Usually, however, Evan didn’t also have a healthy helping of guilt to go along with the hangover, and now, he was suffering both.

He hadn’t meant to drink. He hadn’t meant to pass out on Chris’s sofa. He definitely hadn’t meant to let Miriam kidnap him, drive him two and a half hours away from home, and not call to tell his parents where he was.

Now, his cell was dead, and even if it hadn’t been, he was too scared to even want to look at the dozens of messages his parents had probably left him.

All he could do now, however, was damage control. And try valiantly not to die and/or throw up in Miriam’s car.

Trent was passed out in the passenger seat and Miriam was driving the grim, silent drive of someone who’d rather be sleeping off whatever hangover she was feeling.

If Evan hadn’t jerked awake at dawn, panicking and suffocating on his guilt, they’d probably still be passed out among the co-eds who had fallen asleep willy-nilly on Chris’s floor.

They hit a pothole and Evan whined low in his throat, pressing his hoodie to his face and manfully ignoring the way it smelled of stale beer and unwashed teenager.

This had been the worst idea.

At least he hadn’t actually fallen into Miriam’s evil plot and tested out his new-found homosexuality on her gay brother. Not that there would be anything wrong with that, of course, but Evan was confident a night of beer pong and dancing on the coffee table was a far better choice, at this stage of his life.

Now, all he needed was to get home and hope to god his mother and father assumed he’d spent the night at Trent’s and not – well, disappeared the way he had. The way Mia had.

Only Evan was coming home.

It was a sliver of positivity to cling to in the face of an overwhelmingly shitty day.

And it only got worse when Miriam’s car made a sharp, cracking sound, quickly followed by the moan of a wounded sea mammal, and drifted off the highway and onto the shoulder.

She was cursing like a sailor, Trent was snorting as he jerked awake, and Evan was pretty sure he was caught in a terrible dream.

“Out of gas?” he asked hopefully, after he’d gotten his shit together sufficiently to crawl out of the back seat and join Miriam, who was peering angrily into the mass of hoses and metal bits that lived under the hood of her car.

“No,” she said shortly, poking at a hose, seemingly at random. “Something broke. There’s fluid all over the road. We’re fucked.”

Evan was quiet, because there weren’t words to express the nauseating sensation of being both hungover and likely to be killed by his parents if they found out where he was.

“Can we call your mom?” he asked her hopefully.

“Out of town,” she said, clipped and angry.

“My dad’s working,” Trent said as he gingerly made his way to join them. “Gotta call your parents, dude.”

Evan shook his head, slowly, his mouth tightening grimly. “No,” he said. “We can walk. How far is it?”

“Still an hour,” Miriam told him.

Evan was peering down the road, considering the likelihood of trudging down it for an hour, when she added, “By car.”

“Shit,” he said, toneless. He was so, so dead. “I can’t.” His voice cracked.

“We have to know someone else with a car,” Trent burst, eyes bloodshot, face gray. “This is fucking ridiculous.”

A few beats of silence passed and then Evan breathed deeply and held out his hand. “My phone’s dead. Can I borrow yours?”

Miriam passed him hers and it took him a few minutes to Google the number he needed.

He hit call and took a few steps away from them, turning his back like that meant privacy. The nausea in his stomach swirled, tighter and hotter, and he closed his eyes and sunk down to sit on the steep embankment that led to the ditch.

“White Rabbit Books, can I help you,” was the flat and uninterested answer, after half a dozen rings.

Evan flinched, let out a quiet breath, and said, “Connor?”

There was a pause, and then, “Evan, what the actual fuck.” He sounded a little shaken, which Evan appreciated, because he was feeling a little shaky too.

“I’m – hi,” he said lamely. He rubbed the heels of his free hand against his eye and huffed. “I mean, are you – Can you come get me?”

“Where are you?” Connor exploded. “Your dad and I were out all night looking for you and your mom is freaking the fuck out. You need to call them, you need—”

“Connor,” he said, small. “Please, I need you to come and get me.”

“No, you need to call your mom,” he snapped. “She was crying all night.”

Evan’s throat was tight, anxiety and guilt making it hard to breathe. He wasn’t going to cry, though. Not to Connor – not to anyone. But he couldn’t help that his breathing picked up, hiccupping as he desperately tried to get a hold of himself.

Connor must have heard it. He swore softly and then said, “Where are you?”

Evan told him, voice still small, and then he added, “Trent and Miriam are here too. The car broke down.”

“The car – of course it did,” Connor sighed. “Call a tow truck, I’ll find someone to take over here. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” He paused. “Call your mom.”

Evan couldn’t. He couldn’t sit on the side of the highway and listen to his mom sob over the phone, not today of all days. So instead, he carefully ended the call and stood up, trudging back to Miriam, who had closed the hood of the car and was sitting on it, snapping angrily at her gum while Trent played Tetris on his phone beside her.

“Connor’s coming,” Evan told them, handing Miriam her phone. “Call a tow truck.”

She was sputtering something about Connor and Trent was just staring, but Evan didn’t have the energy to care.

*

Evan crawled into the backseat of Miriam’s car and curled up under his hoodie again, breathing careful and measured breaths until, despite himself, he fell asleep. He woke up to the sound of a car door slamming, and as soon as his eyes opened, he winced and shut them with a groan. The sun burned.

He could hear Connor’s voice, soft around the edges and distant, as he talked to Miriam and Trent outside the car. Evan nestled farther into his hoodie and held his breath and pretended he was sleeping.

It took awhile. He heard the hood pop and knew Connor was checking the damage. He wondered if Connor knew anything about cars. He wondered what they were saying, words muffled and indistinct. He wondered when he’d get tired of hiding and pretending none of this was happening.

The car door opened and Trent said, “Hey. We’re leaving the keys here for the tow guy, Connor’s going to drive us back. You ready?”

No, Evan wanted to say. Instead, he crawled out of the car, clutching his hoodie, and blinked blearily in the bright light of the sun.

“Jesus,” Connor said, and Evan squinted at him, blurry and lurking near his car, parked in front of Miriam’s. “You’re so hungover.”

“Hi,” Evan said miserably, ducking his head and staring at the indistinct blur of his shoes. “Thanks for coming.”

“Did you call your mom?” Connor asked, stepping closer. His voice was loud – or rather, normal volume, but still, it caused Evan’s headache to ratchet up a notch, and he flinched.

“No,” he said.

Connor was quiet and then he swore, leading the way to his car. He jerked the backdoor open and Trent and Miriam tripped over each other to get in, which left Evan trudging miserably to the passenger seat and climbing in, dragging his hoodie behind him.

The car smelled of warm coffee and he inhaled deeply, slumping against the door. He didn’t want to be back in this car, the scene of his crime, and he felt the awkwardness crawling over his skin like fingernails.

“Here,” Connor said, gruff, pressing a paper cup of the glorious beverage into his hands. He passed two cups back to Miriam and Trent as well. “Figured you could use it.”

Evan didn’t know what to say to that. He shivered and huddled over the cup, breathing in the steam, eyes closed. “Thanks,” he croaked, after a long minute.

He could feel rather than see Connor’s awkward shrug, and then the car started. Before they pulled away, however, Connor leaned over and jerked Evan’s seatbelt over his shoulder, buckling him in.

The radio was playing softly and they drove in silence. Evan could feel Connor looking at him every now and again but he’d pulled his hoodie on, hood up, and hid in it as best he could, and didn’t bother to look back. All he’d see is a blur anyway, so he figured it wasn’t worth the effort.

He sipped the coffee, careful, measured tastes of warmth, and it soothed his headache enough that Evan fell asleep, curled up like he had at the movies.

*

When he woke up, Miriam and Trent were getting out of the car at Trent’s place and saying subdued goodbyes.

He’d kind of hoped he would sleep til they were at his place, but no such luck.

Evan stayed very still, pretending to sleep, and Connor was quiet for a moment before sighing. He didn’t even comment when Evan jerked, startled, after Connor dropped his heavy jacket over him.

The drive home was quiet and took much longer than Evan felt it should, but finally, they pulled into the driveway and the engine went silent.

He sat up, making a show of stretching and blinking.

“I wanted to talk to you about what happened,” said Connor quietly, sounding small. “Both at the school, and the movie, and... and before. But now probably isn’t the time.”

Evan’s breathing was doing that panicky hiccupping thing again, and he squinted desperately out the window, hoping for rescue.

“Could you—could you at least look at me?” Connor asked. His voice shook a little and Evan laughed, shrill and vaguely hysterical.

“I would,” he said. “I can’t! My contacts dried out and I can’t see three inches in front of me and it’s all just a blur—”

Connor touched his face, the barest brush of fingers under his chin, forcing his face up until Evan had to look at him, as best he could.

“Stop hiding,” Connor said and Evan swallowed hard.

Before he could think of something to say, the front door slammed open and he could hear his mother crying.

“Shit,” he whispered, closing his eyes.

Chapter Text

It was just as horrible as Evan had known it was going to be. His mother was hysterical, his father was cold and furious, and they lectured and shouted and pleaded with him for ages.

“You know better,” his father said again, for probably the hundredth time, and that was the thing. Evan did know better. He shouldn’t have gone. He should have called. He should have known his mom and dad would have flipped out.

But he didn’t say a word as they shouted, just sat, small and silent, on the couch, and stared at his feet. He wanted to cry but he didn’t, couldn’t; something was broken and dried up inside him. He wanted to sleep until he didn’t feel scraped raw inside, from everything he’d drank the night before, from the layers upon layers of anxiety and terror piled up on top of him.

“How could you do that?” his mom asked finally, after a break in the scolding, the shouting. Her eyes were wide and teary and her hands clasped together in her lap. “After Mia?”

Something shattered, somewhere deep in his chest, because they didn’t talk about Mia. She was always there, a shadowy figure, a cliché lesson on the hazards of bad parenting and desperate teenagers, of the dangers of drugs or alcohol or mental illness in today’s children. Evan didn’t know what afterschool special she was, only that he had played right into the story and he hated it.

He was supposed to be the well-adjusted kid. The one content to be invisible at school, content to make decent-enough grades, to deal well with the angst and uncertainty of being a teenager. The one with the perfectly healthy folder of porn hidden on his computer, who never went over the data plan on his phone, who wasn’t bullied and didn’t bully, who, apart from an aversion to team sports, was about as typical a teenaged boy as you could get.

And now here he was, hung over, possibly suspended from school for a combination of behavioural issues, making his mother cry.

He was such a piece of shit.

He didn’t even know what to say. He’d never been the one causing trouble before.

His mom was weeping again and it was making his father angry.

Evan opened his mouth and hoped the right words would come out. “I’m sorry?” he said, and the uncertainty wasn’t because he wasn’t sure if he was sorry at all. It was because he didn’t know if saying it would help or hurt his case.

“You’re grounded,” his father snapped. Evan stared, eyes wide. He’d never been grounded before. “From your phone, from the internet, from hanging out with Trent. Indefinitely.”

“I—Okay,” Evan said, fishing his phone out of his pocket. It was still dead, so at least his dad couldn’t snoop through his messages without charging it first.

“And when we get back this afternoon, we are going to talk, buddy,” his dad said grimly. “You’re going to tell me everything, including what happened at school.”

Evan nodded numbly, took a deep breath, and said, “Do I—Do I still get to come with you today?”

“Of course you do, baby,” his mom said, her voice cracking as she stared at him. “Of course you do.”

“I’m sorry,” he said quickly, words tripping over themselves, because he’d broken his mother’s heart and it didn’t matter how broken his own was. That was not okay. “Mom, mom, I’m so, so sorry.”

His voice was cracking now, and his eyes were burning, and he didn’t care. He was crying as he launched himself at his mom, wrapping his arms around her and clinging the way he hadn’t since he was a child, since they’d lost Mia.

“Don’t cry, I’m sorry, I love you. I’ll never do it again,” he swore, pressing his face to her shoulder.

“I know you do,” she told him, and he lifted his head as she forced a trembling smile, smoothing his hair out of his eyes. “We’ll talk later. Go get dressed, Evan. I picked something out for you, it’s on your bed.”

He nodded and swallowed thickly, resolving to be a better son, a better child. Better than he had been before, better than Mia had ever been.

He tripped up the stairs and froze when he saw Connor sitting on the top one, chin propped on his hands, elbows resting on his knees.

It was shadowy and quiet here, and Evan scrubbed at his face with his sleeve, trying to clear the cobwebs from his mind so he could focus on Connor and remember why he was supposed to be afraid. It didn’t seem to matter in light of what he’d done to his parents.
Evan knew from experience that every word said in the living room traveled to this particular spot on the stairs.

“What’s today?” Connor asked, after a quiet moment.

“It’s Mia’s birthday,” said Evan, and then he slipped past Connor and into his room.

His mother had picked out a blue button up shirt with an itchy collar and tight sleeves, and a navy pair of dress pants. Evan didn’t really care.

He showered, combed his hair out of his eyes so his mom wouldn’t be reminded of how much she hated how long it was, and dressed in the outfit she’d picked. He wore his beat up running shoes because they made him feel like his feet were planted more firmly on the ground and his glasses because he wanted something to hide behind.

*

The ride to the cemetery was quiet. The anger and disappointment seemed to have been filed away to be dealt with when they got back, and now it was just about the ritual, the routine of it. They’d been going out to visit Mia on her birthday every year since she’d died three years before. Evan’s mom liked to say that it was more important to recognize the day she was born than the day she’d died, though Evan knew his mom always came out on the anniversary of that day too.

He avoided it, though, on that day, and so did his dad.

There was a funeral going on across the cemetery and Evan watched it with detached interest. Most of the mourners were older, the way they were supposed to be at funerals. Mia’s funeral had been filled with teenagers. Evan remembered staring at them while the priest had been talking, thinking they all looked wide-eyed and shocked, like children despite too much eyeliner and lip gloss.

He’d kind of felt the same, at the time, though he had been little more than a child. Only 13 years old.

The path to Mia’s grave was familiar, winding in a way that was probably supposed to be soothing, like the wind through the trees, the carefully landscaped grounds, the wrought iron fences, the stone angels.

From here, he could only hear the odd voice from the funeral across the cemetery, and that was soothing too, familiar in the way funerals were.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and all that. Evan felt like ashes and dust today too.

Mia’s grave was simple, rose quartz that glittered even on rainy days.

“Ryan couldn’t come down this weekend,” Evan’s dad said quietly, as his mom knelt by the grave, carefully pulling up the weeds that had sprouted around the base of it. “Studying for exams.”

Evan was a little jealous of his brother, who got to escape this ritual, escape Mia’s ghost. He didn’t say that, though. Instead, he knelt beside his mother and helped, gently tugging dandelions from the patch of ground that was all that was left of his sister.

After they were done, his mom carefully slipped the bouquet of daffodils she’d brought into the little vase beside the grave, arranging the flowers for a few moments before finally going still, touching the grave with one hand, the other on her knee. Her shoulders raised a little and then fell and she said, “Happy birthday, baby,” and her voice broke.

Evan breathed carefully and closed his eyes. He could hear the wind, the funeral nearby, his mother’s breathing, the distant sound of birds. Somewhere, one of the cemetery attendants was using a weed whacker.

They stayed a while, his mom and dad talking quietly, sharing memories of Mia.

Evan didn’t join in because the only thing he could really remember about her without having to try too hard was how it felt when he woke up in the middle of the night because his dad was crying and his older sister was never coming home.

He knew there were other things he should be thinking about, like when Mia used to tutor him in math when they first started introducing fractions and he got confused. Like how she used to watch old Dawson’s Creek reruns and cry after her first boyfriend broke up with her. Like how she’d filled her room with cheesy romance novels and Twilight posters.

“Come on,” his dad said finally, touching his shoulder. Evan didn’t know how long had passed, only that he’d been kneeling here for a long while and his legs were cramping and so was his back. “We’ll get ice cream on the way back.”

Another tradition.

Then they’d get back to the house and his dad would switch back to angry mode, and Evan would have to tell him everything.

He shouldn’t think hanging out at his dead sister’s grave was preferable, but suddenly, Evan wanted to avoid that more than anything.

“Can I stay?” he asked suddenly. “For a little while?”

His mom was on her feet, brushing the grass from her skirt, and his dad hesitated. Evan guessed his dad was just as shitty at grounding people as Evan was at being grounded. Then again, where does celebrating your dead sister’s birthday fall on the scale of groundable activities?

“I’ll be back for you in an hour,” his dad said. “And then we’ll talk.”

“Yeah,” Evan said, swallowing hard. “Sure. Thanks.”

His mom soothed Evan’s hair back with a small smile and they walked away together, leaving Evan at the graveside.

Evan didn’t make a habit of talking to Mia. She was dead and if there was life after death, she was too busy living it to hover around waiting for him to speak to her.

He’d had to see a therapist for a few months after she died, and the therapist had told him sometimes speaking to your lost loved one was supposed to help.

But the quiet here was nice, and he shifted, sitting with his legs crossed, pulling blades of grass from the ground idly.

The funeral across the way was breaking up, and he watched as the crowd of mourners in black got into their cars, leaving behind the grave attendants who worked the pulleys that lowered the casket into the ground and then started shovelling dirt on top of it.

He was glad he couldn’t hear that part, he remembered the hollow sound of it from Mia’s funeral.

Soon after, the attendants were gone. The weed whacker had stopped. Evan was alone.

He closed his eyes again and breathed. He felt like he hadn’t been able to in days.

*

“You’re dad sent me to bring you home.”

Evan didn’t bother to open his eyes, hadn’t bothered to look when he’d heard Connor’s measured footsteps approaching.

After a moment, he felt Connor sit carefully beside him, their knees touching.

Connor didn’t speak for a while, and Evan could appreciate a person who knew when talking would ruin what was a pretty fragile feeling of peace.

Finally, quietly, Evan said, “Mia was 16.”

There was a beat of silence. “Okay,” said Connor.

“Same as me now. Three years ago. That’s why my parents freaked out. Because Mia used to go missing like that all the time, and show up back at home, hungover, angry, falling apart. Until the time she didn’t come back at all.”

“What happened?” Connor asked him, and Evan turned to look at him.

Connor looked stupidly relaxed, considering he was sitting cross-legged in a graveyard next to the grave of the sister of the boy who’d kissed him and then violently assaulted him at school a few days ago.

Connor wasn’t uncomfortable, he wasn’t anxious, he wasn’t unnerved by all the death all around them. He was just sitting there like it didn’t matter, watching Evan with a careful sort of patience, like he actually wanted to know, not because he was morbidly fascinated like some people were when they heard about it. Or like he was feeling some sort of pity. Or even that he cared about Mia.

He was sitting there with his legs crossed and the cool breeze ruffling his stupid hair, leaning back on both hands a little, dressed in old jeans and a stupid plaid shirt and watching Evan like it didn’t matter that they were in a graveyard on his dead sister’s birthday, because none of that mattered. Connor was watching him like he cared about Evan and maybe like he was worried that Evan wasn’t okay.

“That isn’t fair,” Evan said, still quiet.

Connor smiled, just a faint, confused quirk of his lips. “What isn’t?”

Evan didn’t bother to explain. Instead, he looked down at the blades of grass he was braiding and said, “Mia’s doctors said she was bipolar. She was on a lot of medication, since she was 13. It was getting worse. It was like she wasn’t herself anymore. She told me once it was like someone else, in her brain. Not like split personality, just like. Like she couldn’t control herself.” He paused, thinking, and then shrugged and said, “So she lost control, I guess. Started drinking, partying, doing drugs, probably. Stopped her medication and said it wasn’t working anyway. Mom and Dad were trying to help, but she wouldn’t talk.”

Connor was quiet, still stupidly patient.

Evan looked at him, helpless. “The weird part was, that last day, she was so happy. I guess that’s part of bipolar. But she was in this manic phase, where everything was perfect and beautiful, like, too beautiful. It was like she was a firework, twisting up so tight. She was going to burst, to crash. She was always like that. She’d get way up, too happy for one person, and then she’d just... crash. So she did. She went out and she got wasted and she got in a car and drove into a tree.” He let out a slow breath and then said, “The police said she didn’t even try to stop or swerve. Apparently it was suicide.”

There was a soft silence, then Connor asked, “Did she leave a note?”

Evan snorted, smiling at Connor, though it wasn’t a nice smile. “People don’t leave notes anymore,” he chided. “They leave voicemails.”

“Jesus,” said Connor, softly, like he hadn’t meant Evan to hear it.

“We weren’t close,” Evan said, standing up, brushing grass off his pants. “She and Ryan were close. They were only a year apart. I was just the kid brother. Time to go, come on. I can only put off talking to my dad for so long. Let’s go home.”

Connor got up, looking like he wanted to say something, to reach out and touch, but Evan shrugged him off. He didn’t need pity right now.

“Happy birthday, Mia,” he said quietly to the grave, and then turned to lead the way to Connor’s car.

Connor fell into step beside him and they walked together.

*

In the driveway, Connor turned off the ignition and hesitated. “What are you going to tell your dad?” he asked, nervous.

Evan snorted a little. “I won’t tell him I—about the drive in, if that’s what you mean.”

“You can,” Connor said earnestly. “Evan, listen. Your dad knows about me. Just, you can tell him it was me. Tell him I—that I kissed you, that you didn’t want it, that I was pushing you about it at school, that you got upset. It was my fault.”

Evan stared for a moment, stunned, before cracking up. It hurt a little, laughing, like it was breaking something open inside his chest, but it felt good too.

“You seriously think my dad would rather hear that I’m a homophobic asshole than that I kissed you, you didn’t want me, and I got my stupid heart broken and made a few bad life decisions? Holy shit, Connor, it’s like you don’t know my dad at all.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Connor said, frustrated. “We still need to talk, I need to tell you—I need to explain.”

Evan sighed. “You don’t need to. I get it. Trust me. It’s rejection, it’s not the first time. I thought—I thought it was that you were freaking out that I was a guy, that you were being a homophobic asshole, and... so I was having an existential crisis about it.” He shrugged, getting out of the car. “Then the counsellor accidentally told me you were gay, when she thought I was the one being a homophobic asshole. So. You don’t want me. I get it.” He forced a smile. It kind of hurt.

Connor was still sitting behind the wheel, and he slammed a fist against it, scowling. “That, right there, is something we have to talk about,” he snapped. “The fact that you think I don’t want you.”

Something twisted in Evan’s chest, a sharp feeling of uncertainty. Before he could ask, though, or comment on the fact that Connor suddenly seemed unwilling to look at him, his cheeks flushing, Evan’s dad stepped out of the house, waiting for Evan to come inside.

Clearly, he couldn’t avoid his parents forever, and Evan had already caused enough damage while trying to hide from this discussion.

He closed the car door gently and stared at the pavement as he made his way inside, and he heard Connor get out of the car as he ducked passed his dad and into the house.

*

His mom had made tea, blueberry herbal, bitter on the back of his tongue, but the heat was soothing, especially when Evan held the mug in his hands.

It was different this time than it had been before they had gone to see Mia. This time, his mother wasn’t there. She had pressed the warm mug into Evan’s hands and smiled shakily and left the kitchen. Now Evan sat at the small table across from his dad, staring at the steam that twisted up off the surface of his tea. His dad’s rage seemed to have dissolved, replaced by something sharper. More disappointment than fury.

Finally, his dad sighed, running a hand through his hair, and said, “I need to know what happened. From the beginning. Mrs. Owens said there was a fight in the art room, and then you left in the middle of her discussion with you. Then you disappeared until this morning, Evan. What happened? Did Connor do something?”

“No,” Evan said, startled.

“Did he—did he do something you didn’t want? Did you hear something, something about him, or his dad, or why his dad kicked him out? Did he hurt you?”

Evan grew sicker with every word, eyes wider, and he was shaking his head desperately before his dad even finished. He was watching Evan with a steady, measured gaze, and Evan opened his mouth but couldn’t find the words to explain.

He jerked, startled, when the backdoor opened and three of the guys from the football team staggered in, laughing about something. His dad shot him another look, stern, before getting up.

“I’ll be back,” he said to Evan, quietly. Then he greeted them, offered them a cold drink, invited them to the living room to play xBox or whatever it would take to distract them from their teenaged troubles. He ended up getting into a discussion with one of them about something Evan didn’t understand, even as he listened to their conversation, muffled, through the wall.

Nearly ten minutes later, his dad was still in there, laughing with them like nothing was wrong, and it made Evan want to scream or throw up.

Instead, he carefully stood up, picked up his mug, inhaled the steam, and made his way towards the stairs.

He didn’t get very far, his dad calling out as Evan ducked past the entry to the living room.

“I’m not done with you,” he said, measured and firm, like he’d been reading a book on parenting and was following whatever fucked up advice it had given.

Evan froze, one foot on the stairs, and said over his shoulder, carefully, “You seem pretty busy.”

The three football players were still, watching with wide and avid gazes, eagerly witnessing the unprecedented drama at Coach Lee’s house.

“I said I’d be back,” said his dad, who really had only been doing what he always did – making sure kids always felt at home here, welcome here. Their house had a fucking open door policy, after all.

Suddenly the fact that he was standing there, feeling small and bruised all over, unwelcome in his own home and his own life, while his father made sure three jerks from school knew they could have anything they wanted from the cupboards, or the leftovers in the fridge, made Evan so, so angry.

He tightened his grip on his mug and swallowed hard, determined not to lose his temper now. His head ached, he felt sick from drinking too much before, snappy the way he usually managed not to be, and losing his temper would do nothing but convince his dad that he was spiralling down the same path of self-hatred and depression as his sister had.

“You know where you can find me when you have a second,” Evan said, his voice cold.

He took the steps two at a time and was half way up when his father snapped, “You’ll get your ass back to the kitchen and wait for me, Evan, or I’ll do a lot worse than ground you.”

Evan stopped, rolled his eyes, unaccustomed to the rage tightening his stomach. “What are you going to do?” he sneered. “Kick me out?”

The football players were watching in silence and his dad said, “Of course not. I’d never force you out of your home.”

“This isn’t a home,” Evan snapped. “I shouldn’t have to lock my own fucking bedroom door, if this was actually my home. Every jerk from school is more welcome here than I am, I’m fucking invisible, at school, here, everywhere I go. I don’t belong here, I’ve never belonged here. You can’t honestly tell me—”

“Evan,” his dad said sharply. “Stop that, right now.”

“That I’m even the son you want!” Even kept going, hysteria making him shake. Tea sloshed over his hands, wetting the cuff of his shirt and it added to the fury. He didn’t even think, just hauled one hand back and threw the mug, shattering it against the wall. His dad was shouting but Evan didn’t hear it, just let out all the pent up rage he hadn’t known he was carrying.

“Mia died, but I was still here,” he snarled, throat aching with it. “I was still here, but that wasn’t enough. I wasn’t enough. I was fucking invisible so you had to go and adopt every fucking kid at school to fill the hole she left, but I’m still here.” His voice was trembling, cracking, and he finally tore his gaze away from the mess dripping down the wall and fixed it on his father, who had stopped shouting, who was staring at him, eyes wide and face pale.

“Why isn’t that enough for you?” Evan asked him, voice hoarse.

“It isn’t like that,” his dad said, after swallowing hard. He took an uncertain step closer, but Evan stumbled up another step, away from him, so he stopped. “Evan. They needed me. I didn’t want—I didn’t want this town to lose another kid.”

“And I didn’t need you?” Evan asked him, laughing. It wasn’t a pleasant sound. “I was just a kid.”

“But a good kid,” his dad said, coming closer again. Evan was nearly at the top of the stairs now, far enough away that he didn’t bother to go farther. “I never had to worry about you, Evan.”

“You don’t even know me,” Evan shouted, which probably wasn’t fair. “You’re so busy taking care of everyone else’s kid that you don’t even know me. It never even occurred to you that maybe things with Connor got so fucked up because of me, maybe it was me, maybe I did something he didn’t want—maybe he didn’t want me, maybe it was all me, maybe I’m the problem.”

“What are you saying?” his dad asked, voice strained.

“I never thought it was contagious, Dad, no matter what stupid ideas you and Mrs. Owens came up with. I’m not an idiot. It never even crossed your mind that maybe the problem was that I kissed him and he just didn’t want me.”

He was breathing heavily, so heavily that he nearly missed it, the soft, startled noise of one of the football players. He snapped his head around to stare, and yeah, they were still there – three of the popular, jerky guys he dealt with on a daily basis at school, the ones who liked to shove him into lockers, laugh at him for his life choices, mock him for somehow ending up on the cheerleading squad. He’d forgotten about them entirely, and, oh god, just confessed in front of them that maybe he was a little gay.

“Oh god,” he said, so softly. The room was spinning, the nausea he’d been fighting all day was suddenly so much worse. He was frozen, his breathing the loudest sound in the room.

“Boys,” his dad said, still shaken. “This is a bad time. You should go, come back later.” He was ushering them to the door, kicking them out, his dad was fucking kicking them out. It was unprecedented, but Evan couldn’t find the humour in it, because he couldn’t breathe.

Panic attacks were the worst, and Evan staggered up the remaining stairs and down the hall, careening into his room, slamming the door and locking it. He leaned against it, panting, for a moment, trying to calm down, but he couldn’t. His vision was blacking out, his throat burning as he struggled to breathe.

He didn’t even pause to think, just staggered to his bed, dropped to his knees, and pulled out his trusty rope ladder.

Sure, he was grounded, but if he had to stay here even a second longer, Evan was pretty sure he’d die of axphixiation, and that was something to be avoided.

He needed out. He needed space. His dad was knocking on his door, talking quietly, and Evan couldn’t understand the words because he could barely hear them over the pounding of his own heart.

He wasn’t going to cry. Evan didn’t cry.

Instead, he threw the ladder out the window with shaking fingers and climbed down it on shaking legs. Then he grabbed his bike, leapt onto it at a run, and pedalled away from home as fast he could go, lungs burning with panic and exertion.

He got to the drive-in at dusk, ducking through the loose board. His legs felt like jelly now, from more than just the bike ride over there, and Evan was staggering like a zombie as he ducked around the tree at the back where he and Trent always hid to watch the movies for free.

The old gnarled roots formed a chair at the base of the tree and Evan crawled into it, wrapping his arms around his knees and shaking.

He pressed his face against his knees and thought maybe if he cried here, it wouldn’t count, because no one would know.

Behind him, Casablanca was playing on the big screen.

Chapter Text

“I know we’re both new at this, Evan, but I think we need to review just what being grounded means.”

At least his dad sounded dryly amused this time, not swinging wildly between fury and disappointment, Evan thought, even as he froze guilty in the entry way. He was dripping wet, because it had started to rain on his way back from the drive-in, because that’s just how his life liked to play it these days. He hadn’t even bothered trying to climb back through his window. Evan wasn’t stupid, he knew his dad had realized he’d escaped by now.

He closed the door carefully before turning to face his dad, who was sitting in the living room, a book on his lap, lit by the lamp in the corner. He’d clearly been waiting up for Evan to get home.

“Sorry,” Evan croaked.

“For sneaking out?” his dad asked, rolling his eyes. He set the book aside. Maybe it was the late hour, or the darkness, or the exhaustion pulling at every cell in Evan’s body, but everything seemed more hesitant, like suddenly he and his dad had to be careful with each other.

“I’ve got to tell you,” his dad added. “I got rid of your ladder. Clever, but slightly terrifying.”

“No,” said Evan, feeling small. “Not that. Or, not only that. All of it. I—I was freaking out. I couldn’t breathe. I—” He was starting to hyperventilate again and before he could get too worked up, his dad was there, crushing Evan into a bear hug, the kind Evan remembered getting nearly every day when he was a kid.

“Hey,” his dad said, stern. “Stop that. Breathe, Evan.”

He pulled Evan into the living room, sat him on the couch, wrapped his mom’s ratty afghan around his shoulders, and then sat beside him, hand stroking up and down Evan’s back while Evan huddled over his knees and struggled to breathe.

Some time later, when Evan was much calmer, his dad said, “There is nothing, absolutely nothing you could do that would make me think we would be better off here without you.” Evan tensed but before he could argue, his dad continued. “I’m sorry if you ever felt unwelcome here, or invisible here. You were never invisible to me or to your mother. And maybe we should have paid more attention to you, asked more questions, worried more, but you always seemed so... so well-adjusted and happy and so much stronger than your sister ever did. It wasn’t until you were gone that we thought – that we realized we had spent so much time making sure everyone else was alright that we hadn’t been watching you.”

“I am alright,” Evan mumbled, voice muffled against his knees and the afghan.

“You’re better than alright,” his dad corrected quietly. “You’re strong and smart and funny and I love you.”

Evan winced. It was all ridiculously uncomfortable, his dad didn’t do this, Evan didn’t do this. They were fine and happy and never needed these after school special emotional confessions. He wanted to squirm away, to laugh it off, but couldn’t figure out how.

Instead, with a mortified moan, he fell sideways against his dad, who wrapped an arm around his shoulders.

“Where did you go yesterday?”

Evan was quiet for a moment and then confessed, “Trent’s sort-of girlfriend took me and him on a road trip to visit her brother who’s in college.” He hesitated and then added, “He’s gay, and Miriam thought maybe he could help me.”

His dad made a thoughtful noise. “Did he help you out?”

Evan laughed, muffling it against his father’s shoulder, and then said, “He offered to make out with me to help me figure out if I liked guys or not, but I turned him down.”

His dad’s soothing hand on Evan’s back had stilled at that, for only a moment, and then he resumed the calming stroking. “Why did you do that?” he asked, voice carefully even.

Evan pushed away from him so he could turn and look at his dad instead. He hugged the afghan tighter around his shoulders and pushed his glasses up his nose before saying, “Because I didn’t need his help figuring that part out. I figured that part out when I thought kissing Connor was an awesome and okay thing to do.”

He lost the ability to hold his father’s gaze, his own skittering nervously away as his cheeks burned. After a moment, his dad said quietly, “Okay. Evan. That’s okay.”

“I know it is,” Evan blurted, blinking back tears again. “Okay? I never freaked out about that. You think I could live in this house with all the tolerance and open-minded crap that goes on in here, all the “making good choices” and “being who you are” and stuff, and not know that it was okay? C’mon, dad. Seriously. It was—it was everyone else who wasn’t okay with it. Connor. Mrs. Owens. Guys at school. You.”

“I wasn’t okay with the fighting at school,” Coach Lee said quietly. “I wasn’t okay with the sneaking away for an entire night, or skipping school. I’m not okay with the idea that my son was having trouble and he didn’t talk to me about it, and I didn’t notice.”

“Normal teenaged angst, Dad,” Evan cried. “Perfectly normal. It’s a thing.”

“The kissing guys thing, that’s a thing?” He looked stern. “Is it a common thing? Is it a thing that happens often? Has there been more than kissing? Are you being careful? Do we need to talk about this?”

“Oh my god!” Evan moaned, ducking his head under the afghan. “No, Dad! No on all counts! God!”

He heard his dad laugh and it loosened a knot in his stomach Evan hadn’t realized was still there. Surely it wasn’t all bad if his dad could laugh at it.

He felt his dad’s hand land on his back, comforting. “You know I’m not going to let the two of you hang out in each other’s rooms now, right?” he asked. “At least, not with the door closed.

Evan moaned faintly and then pushed his face out of the afghan, shrugging. “It’s not gonna be an issue,” he said quietly. “I told you. He doesn’t like me.”

“I don’t know,” his dad said gently. “He was pretty upset when you were missing. Maybe you should ask him about it.”

Evan hid his head under the blanket again and mumbled, “Can we not talk about this? This is so awkward.”

His dad laughed again, standing up. “You’re still grounded,” he said. “And remember, doors stay open.” He heard his dad walking away and relaxed, thinking it was over. Then his dad spoke again, glee evident in his tone. “And when your mother gets home, I’m going to have her give you the sex talk. It’s only fair, since I had to do this one.”

Evan could still hear his father’s laughter over his wail of horror.

*

The sex talk was, predictably, traumatizing, especially since his mother had done a quick Google search to tailor it after Evan’s father had filled her in on what had happened with Connor.

Evan, of course, had already exhausted Google’s helpful links on gay sex of all varieties, but his mother ignored his protests and proceeded to explain the basics of condoms, lubricant, and everything in between.

Afterwards, Evan hid under his blankets, pretending none of it had happened.

The house was quiet, and Evan waited until he heard his parents go to bed before sneaking from his room. He hesitated outside Connor’s for a long moment, smoothing down his hair and straightening his pajama bottoms before he knocked.

There was no answer, so he knocked again, and then, carefully, pushed the door open.

Connor wasn’t in his bed, which was made perfectly, with military precision, and Evan stepped into the room and went to the window, staring down at the driveway. Connor’s car wasn’t there, and Evan wandered back to his room, wondering where Connor was and who he was with.

He finally fell asleep hours later, Fight Club still in his hand.

*

He slept late, waking up after noon. His dad was reading the newspaper at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of coffee, when Evan came downstairs, dressed in his favourite jeans, his bright red hoodie, and his glasses. He stood in the doorway for a moment, shifting restlessly and opening his mouth, trying to think of something to say.

“Are you having a problem?” His father asked mildly, glancing up. He studied Evan for a moment, from his carefully styled hair to his clean jeans, and said, “And are we going to have to review the terms of your grounding again? Where do you think you’re going?”

Evan hitched up his shoulders and said, “I was hoping we could renegotiate?”

“Evan,” he sighed. “We can’t just renegotiate because—”

“Connor’s gone,” Evan said. “His stuff is gone. He didn’t come home. He—he’s gone, dad, and I know—” his voice cracked and he cleared his throat. “He’ll be at the book store today,” he said miserably. “And this is my fault. I just wanted to go and talk to him... And get him to come home.”

His father looked speechless for a moment and then said, “Gone? Why would he...” Then he winced and swore, a word that Evan would have been in so much trouble for saying. “Of course he’s gone,” he said grimly. Then he looked at Evan for a moment before saying wearily, “It’s a temporary release of grounding conditions. You talk to him and you come home. I’ll drive you so you don’t wander off on the way, and you get him to drive you back. The mall closes in an hour anyway. If you haven’t convinced him to stay by then, I’ll talk to him. Understood?”

Maybe his dad recognized this for the compromise Evan meant it to be. After all, a few days ago, he would have sneaked out and not looked back.

He smiled a little and nodded, “Yeah, dad. Of course.”

*

The mall was busy, and it gave Evan the perfect opportunity to loiter in the crowds without looking like a creep. He swung by the Starbucks where Miriam worked, but she wasn’t there, and, figuring it was doing karmic harm to continue procrastinating after his father had so magnanimously relaxed the conditions of his grounding for this specific purpose, Evan took a deep breath, manned up, and took a few purposeful strides towards the White Rabbit.

“Evan?”

He froze like a mouse who’d just spotted a hawk and turned slowly on his heel, blinking. Sara stood there, clutching a frappicino and surrounded by a group of girls from the cheerleading squad. “You... you missed practice,” she said. “Yesterday. Remember? Saturday afternoons?”

Evan blinked again. He’d completely forgotten about all of it – cheerleading, Sara, what a terrible teenaged boy he was for forgetting the fact that he was kinda-sorta dating a girl.

“Shit,” he said. “I totally forgot. I’m sorry.”

“We were going to go to a movie after,” she said reproachfully. Her eyes were very wide.

He winced. “Yeah. I remember. I’m sorry.” He faltered for a second and then said, “My sister – it was my sister’s birthday.”

But that wasn’t the whole truth, was it? His stomach twisted up and Sara rushed at him, eyes even wider, shining now with tears.

“Oh god, Evan, I am so sorry, I had no idea,” she said, clutching at his hand with one of hers. It was damp and cold from holding her drink.

“No, wait,” he said, glancing from her to her knot of friends and back again, feeling a little desperate. “I’m sorry. Can we talk? Alone.”

She looked back at her friends and then shrugged, looking a little confused. “Sure, Evan. Whatever you need.”

They walked aimlessly for a little while, without touching, until they had come to one of the emptier parts of the mall, the one with the strange touristy shops and furniture stores.

“I need to tell you something,” Evan said nervously. He’d done so much thinking this weekend but none of it had extended to thinking about Sara. He was such an asshole.

“Miriam says you like someone else,” Sara said suddenly, biting her bottom lip.

Evan had never been more grateful for Miriam in his life, even if she hadn’t meant to toss him that life raft when she’d told Sara that. He closed his eyes and said, “I’m sorry. It kind of happened suddenly? I didn’t mean to lead you on, I’ve liked you forever, I had such a crush on you, back in junior high, and I just—”

“She said it was a guy.”

Evan’s mouth hung open, jaw like a broken hinge, and then he snapped it shut. She was watching him carefully, clutching her drink in front of her like a shield, and she licked her bottom lip when it started to tremble. Blinking did nothing to hide the tears welling up in her eyes, though,

“Evan,” she said shakily. “Did I turn you gay?” Her voice cracked.

He closed his eyes again. Something had to be done – seriously, something was seriously flawed with the sexual education curriculum at his school.

He cleared the panic from his throat and said, “That’s not how it works.” It came out weakly, however, so he tried again. “Sara. You had nothing to do with it, I swear. It isn’t caused by someone or contagious or anything. It just... is.”

“But how can you not be gay a few weeks ago and suddenly be gay?” Her eyes widened dramatically. “Oh god, is it because I got Miriam to force you to become a cheerleader?”

He couldn’t help snorting a little, grinning wryly. “No. I don’t think so. It didn’t change Trent, so...”

She was still staring at him like he was a particularly complex and heartbreaking science project, so Evan sighed and tried again. “I don’t know what I was a few weeks ago and why I feel different now. Maybe I never met the right guy? Maybe I was confused. Maybe I was so busy trying to be the way I thought I was supposed to be that I didn’t notice I was a little different. I don’t know. Maybe I’m not even gay! Maybe I’m bi. Or something else.” He shrugged helplessly. “All I know is that there’s this guy, and I really, really like him. And I didn’t mean to hurt you. And I’m sorry for that.”

She huffed out a tense breath and ducked her head. He could see her fingers shaking around her drink, but she rallied a moment later and looked at him again. “You should have told me,” she said, but she didn’t sound angry, just sad. She shrugged one shoulder. “But I hope it... works out for you. With him.” She frowned thoughtfully. “And that you keep coming to cheerleading practice. It’s almost homecoming. I’m gonna go, now. My friends are probably worried, and I don’t want to embarrass myself and cry all over the place.”

“Okay,” he said.

She hesitated, still looking torn, and then offered a shaky smile and hurried away.

Feeling a little shaken himself, Evan swore quietly, rubbed a hand through his hair, and squared his shoulders. Might as well get all of this over with.

White Rabbit happened to be in the quieter part of the mall, which was a relief. The store appeared not to have any customers as he eased up to the door, and he was relieved to see Connor there at the counter, knees propped up, a well-worn copy of Watership Down resting on them.

That’s when his courage deserted him entirely, however.

With a sickening mixture of nausea and fear of rejection swirling in his stomach, Evan stood there, petrified and staring, as Connor turned a page.

He looked a little rougher than Evan was used to, tired and pale, his hair a ruffled, shaggy mess around his face. There was a slump to his shoulders that it took Evan a moment to recognize as the same one he’d had the night he’d turned up at Evan’s house claiming the cops told him he couldn’t sleep in his car anymore.

Evan was so worried that he’d just make that worse.

Before he could turn and run, the White Rabbit phone rang and Connor tossed his book aside to answer. Evan shrank behind a mirrored pillar so he wouldn’t be seen and watched as Connor spoke for a few brief moments before putting the phone on hold and then getting up, ducking between the shelves to look for a book.

Sucking in a deep breath, Evan slipped into the store and down a parallel aisle, peering through the shelves at Connor and stalking him deeper into the little shop as he tried desperately to find something to say other than, “I’m so sorry, please come home.”

Maybe that would work, he thought desperately.

Connor was scanning the shelves of the reference section and Evan watched, feeling like a creep. After Connor had snatched up a faded copy of a guide to Windows 2000 and made his way back to the counter, Evan realized he’d left himself in a precarious position, trapped inside the store like a giant creep.

He glanced around for inspiration and then snorted softly. He was in the fiction aisle, all of Chuck Palianuk’s books meticulously shelved in front of him.

Evan made an executive decision, driven by desperation and the need to avoid confrontation. He grabbed a copy of Lullaby off the shelf and then slipped into the darkest corner of the shop and sat down in the corner to read, hoping to put off the inevitable awkward conversation until just before close, when, if it all went badly, he wouldn’t be forced to hang around begging a ride after being rejected.

Lullaby, it turned out, wasn’t half as interesting as Fight Club, and Evan ended up curled up in the corner, propped up against the Literature section, sleeping with the book cradled against his chest.

He didn’t sleep long, but it was long enough for his mind to launch a particularly confusing dream filled with white rabbits and gravestones, before Evan was abruptly woken by someone shaking his shoulder and calling his name.

He woke suddenly, head jerking back and slamming into the shelf behind him, which wobbled alarmingly.

It was Connor, of course, crouching in front of him and wearing a confusing expression that was equal parts fond, exasperated and wary.

“You nearly scared the shit out of me,” Connor said reproachfully, and Evan grimaced, rubbing the back of his head, smacking his lips, and trying to clear the sleep-induced cobwebs from his mind.

“What time is it?” he asked, voice a husky slur that was frankly embarrassing. He cleared his throat, glancing at Connor just quickly enough to notice his cheeks turning a little pink, and then making forceful eye contact with an anthology of Keats poems across the aisle.

“We closed five minutes ago,” Connor told him. “I found you like this when I did a check before closing the doors but let you sleep. Figured you needed it, if you went to all the trouble to sneak into the shop only to pass out on the floor.”

Evan grimaced, stretching his legs on either side of Connor to work out some awkward pins and needles. He wanted to play it casual, to make a joke, but another quick glance at Connor’s wary face made him hesitate before glancing down at the book he held. “Come home,” he blurted quickly.

“Evan,” said Connor, quiet. “I can’t—”

“I know that I made everything awkward, and hell, maybe you feel guilty about all that shit with my parents this weekend, but that wasn’t your fault. It was all me. They are so fucked up about my sister, and I don’t blame them, I really don’t. I should have thought about someone other than myself and my own selfish teenaged angst, but I didn’t, and I messed up, and I’m sorry. But that wasn’t your fault.”

“I’m fine,” Connor told him, brushing his fingertips along Evan’s knuckles where they had turned white as he clutched the book in his lap. “You and your parents have enough to worry about without me. I’ll be fine.”

“No,” Evan snapped, frustrated. “You’re making it sound like we’re better off without you and that’s not true. I swear, Connor, I won’t kiss you again. I won’t do anything. I get it, you don’t want me, and that’s your choice, but please, please don’t make me be the reason you sleep in your car again.”

For a moment, Connor didn’t look like he knew what to say. “Do you ever listen when I talk to you? I’ve told you that’s not it! I just—Evan. Listen to me. Your life, here, with your parents, is perfect. They love you and support you and they take care of you and I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize that. I’m a complication you don’t need.”

“It’s not me, it’s you, right?” Evan quoted sarcastically. “I get that.”

“You really don’t,” said Connor. “But it doesn’t matter. I can’t stay with your family, Evan. I’m not good for you. And you’re just confused.”

He got frustrated and slammed his head lightly back against the bookshelf behind him. It ached and he liked it, a little. “Are you seriously trying to pull some self-sacrificing bullshit with me right now?” Evan snapped. “Are you really that scared? I’m promising you, I swear, that I won’t do anything you don’t want me to do. You can pretend I don’t exist, you can ignore me entirely. I won’t push you, I won’t creepily stalk you at your place of employment or even on Facebook. I promise. Just come home.”

Connor had started shaking his head slowly, carefully, and Evan lost his temper. “Am I really that repulsive to you? I mean, I know it’s not the gay thing, because I know that you are. That you do, I mean. Like guys. Just not me. I’m not begging you to go steady, Connor, I just don’t want you out there sleeping in your car knowing that it’s because of me and my stupid crush! What if something happens to you?” He slammed his head back again, harder.

“Don’t,” said Connor. “You’ll hurt yourself.” He was watching Evan’s outburst with wide eyes.

Evan ignored him. “Do you really dislike me that badly?” he asked, the nerves and nausea in his stomach lurching with a fresh wave of despair. “You won’t even stay in the same house as me? I won’t, I swear I won’t touch you.”

Connor licked his lips nervously and then confessed in a quiet voice, “Evan, I never, ever said I didn’t like it when you touched me.”

“Then why won’t you come home?” Evan wailed, slamming his head back one last time for emphasis. It was a bad idea.

There was a crack and a brief flare of pain, sharper than the rest, and for a moment, Evan worried he’d cracked his head open. He hadn’t, however, he realized a moment later, as the shelves he was resting against shifted suddenly against his back, old wood splintering and collapsing behind him.

An avalanche of books toppled on top of him in a rush, heavy with the sound of hardcovers hitting the hardwood floor, old pages rustling. With the shelf shifting behind him, Evan fell backwards, yelping and trying to cover his head as books rained down on him, sharp corners and heavy covers leaving scrapes and bruises as they landed on his upturned face and arms.

It was over in seconds but it felt much longer, and in the ringing silence, Evan held very still, mentally cataloguing every place it hurt.

A second later, Connor was frantically calling his name and shoving books off him, and Evan opened his eyes, blinking up at him in shock.

He hurt, and he was embarrassed, his cheeks flushing. Connor looked wide eyed and panicked, crouching over him now, and old books lay all around them. It was going to take forever to clean up.

“You’re so ridiculous,” Connor breathed, relieved, apparently, to find Evan mostly unharmed.

“I really like you,” Evan said in a small voice. “A lot. And I think you should come home.”

There was something gentle and apologetic about the way Connor was looking at him now, even as he brushed pieces of classic literature off Evan’s body. “I’m trying to save you,” Connor told him quietly.

“Then why does it hurt so much?” Evan tried to make it a joke, tried to muster up a smile, but it felt frail and his voice cracked. It was too close to the truth to be funny.

Connor looked startled and stricken for a moment. “I don’t mean to.”

“Do you like me, even a little?” He was feeling pathetic but Evan was too far invested in this now to care.

“Of course I do,” Connor said, words bursting from him. Evan was still sprawled in the pile of books and Connor seemed to have forgotten about them, frozen above Evan where he’d crawled to dig him out. “That doesn’t matter.”

He felt the first stirrings of hope but refused to let himself get caught up in it. “Why?” he asked carefully instead.

“Because you’re ridiculous,” Connor told him, clearly growing frustrated. “You’re exasperating. You say inappropriate things all the time. You puff up like an angry kitten when your zombie art doesn’t receive the proper recognition. Sometimes when you’re painting, you get so into it that it takes you all class to notice you’ve got streaks of paint on your face. Your tongue pokes out when you’re painting something particularly gory. You look amazing in a cheerleader uniform. Your ass looks amazing in those jeans you’ve got, the ones with the sparkles on the pockets. You’re fiercely loyal to your friends. You’re not afraid to be seen with me even though the whole school thinks I’m an arsonist. You shared with me when you don’t share with anyone else. You’re so fucking brave, you didn’t even think about it, in my car, you just kissed me, like it was nothing, liking me was nothing to be scared of, or embarrassed about. Like it was normal.”

“I thought about it,” Evan interrupted quietly. “I thought about it a lot before it happened.”

Connor shook his head wildly. “That’s just it,” he said desperately. “You don’t think. You’re reckless and stupid and so brave, it makes me sick, and I’m not going to ruin that. I ruin everything. It all falls apart, and I don’t want to hurt you.”

Evan could recognize the signs of a panic attack, he’d had them often enough to know that Connor was heading in that direction, growing more hysterical, and he reached up without thinking and touched his neck, thumb running up along his pulse point before he slid his hand up to cradle Connor’s jaw.

“You’re not as scary as you think you are,” he said gently, and Connor’s eyes were very dark and lost as he stared down at Evan, almost like he didn’t know him at all.

Connor was very still for a moment, eyes searching Evan’s expression, and then he made a low, lost sound in the back of his throat. Some sort of resolve crumbled in his eyes and then Connor was giving in and kissing him.

It was with a hungry sort of desperation that Evan frankly wasn’t expecting but had been fantasizing about for quite some time, and he moaned breathlessly into Connor’s mouth as he kissed him back just as wildly.

Their mouths crashed together, their noses bumped, and it was hard and awkward and amazing. Evan was having trouble keeping up with the fast pace of the kiss, mostly because Connor had stretched out on top of him and Evan’s entire body was humming to a high pitched frequency that was overwhelming his senses. He wanted to stretched and rub himself upwards like a cat but could barely muster the coordination he needed to hold onto Connor’s shoulders and keep himself from launching into an ecstatic victory dance that would probably result in more injuries or fallen bookshelves.

Then Connor licked at Evan’s bottom lip and the tone of the kiss changed, turning tentative and careful as Evan opened to it with a soft sound that he refused to call a whimper, mostly because he needed to save himself a bit of dignity here.

He didn’t know how long they kissed. It was sort of distracting and engrossing the way Sara hadn’t been, and he didn’t have the time or space to catalogue his moves or try to figure out what he should be doing and where he should be putting his hands. They seemed fine twisted in the back of Connor’s shirt and clinging for dear life, keeping him grounded. As for the victory dance, he’d forgotten all about it in light of Connor’s tongue, and the fact that Connor was almost shyly licking his way into Evan’s mouth.

They were breathing together and it somehow felt natural. Evan distantly tried to decide if the feeling in his fingertips was more like shooting stars or fireworks or something else tingly and clichéd, but he was unwilling to commit to any particular analogy.

Then Connor shifted on top of him, pressing closer, and that was a game changer in a number of ways, the first being that it made everything so much more interesting and intense—especially in the region of his pants.

Evan giggled into Connor’s mouth but he’d deny that too, if anybody ever asked.

It would be just like him, however, to embarrass himself entirely during his very first make out session with another guy if he came in his pants during the first three minutes, while sprawled on a pile of classic literature.

He wondered, for a hysterical moment, what the authors would think of that, and then, unable to help it, he laughed again.

He was feeling lightheaded and giggly, but Connor didn’t get angry when Evan kept snickering into the kiss. He pulled back a little, but not too much, lightening the kiss until it was just gentle presses of his lips against Evan’s. Eventually, that moved to little, playful kisses on the corner of his mouth, and then his jaw and down to his throat, where Connor hid his face and just breathed for a moment.

His hair was tickling Evan’s jaw and his mouth was sucking lightly on Evan’s throat, but he didn’t mind, as long as Connor didn’t try to run away or make some sort of self-sacrificing speech about how he corrupted Evan into homosexuality.

Evan was pretty much okay with everything that had just happened.

In fact, he was pretty sure it should keep happening, as long as he wasn’t in danger of doing anything embarrassing in his pants.

There was a nagging sense of discomfort, though, and Evan prodded at it mentally like an aching tooth, trying to find the source,

He snorted faintly when he realized what it was and untangled his hand from Connor’s shirt before reaching underneath himself, wiggling a bit, and pulling out the book that had been digging so obnoxiously into his lower back.

Connor mumbled faintly in protest at Evan’s movements, but Evan just patted his shoulder and held the book up for inspection.

He was startled into a sudden bout of near-hysterical laughing and Connor lifted his head, looking adorably ruffled, his mouth swollen. He was scowling.

“What?” he said.

Evan waved the large, hardcover edition of Watership Down in front of him. “Irony,” he said.

“I really don’t know if that qualifies,” Connor told him.

Evan shrugged easily, feeling much more forgiving towards the book than he had before. The rest was just semantics.

“Will you drive me home?” he asked Connor, letting the book fall back to the floor.

“Yeah,” Connor agreed.

Evan swallowed. “And will you stay?”

There was a heartbeat of hesitation and then Connor smiled, small and shy. “Yeah,” he said thickly. “I will.”

Evan beamed his brightest, sunshiniest smile up at Connor, finally giving in and doing a little victory shimmy in the pile of books.

Connor just laughed and hid his face in Evan’s shoulder again.

*

They had to repair the shelf and shove the books back on it before they could go home, and Evan dutifully called his dad to report the delay. They worked quickly, and mostly in silence, as Evan mentally reviewed the kiss over and over again in his memory and hummed faintly under his breath.

“Are you sure?” Connor said suddenly, and Evan looked over at him, startled. They were kneeling together, shoving books on the shelf with a haphazard disregard for the alphabet.

“We already talked about this,” Evan pointed out.

“No, I mean. About the rest. It won’t be easy. Your dad—will your dad be angry? I can protect you, I can try, but if I get in trouble—”

“Whoa, hey,” Evan said, freezing and staring. “No one has ever, ever needed to protect me from my dad.”

“No, I know,” said Connor, sounding patient, gentle. “But things could change, when he knows. About this.”

“He does know,” Evan said, shifting a little closer, voice cracking with distress. “Connor. My dad would never do anything to me. Or to you. Is that why you left?”

Connor was looking a little panicky again, like he wanted to be anywhere but in that conversation, and Evan reached out and took his hand before he could run away.

“I thought, if I wasn’t there, he wouldn’t figure it out, and he wouldn’t hurt you,” Connor confessed finally, quietly. His breathing was picking up.

“Why would he have hurt me?” Evan asked carefully. The store was dark, long past closing, but he could still see the shadow of faded bruises on Connor’s face.

“Sometimes that’s just what dads do?” Connor asked uncertainly.

“Not mine,” Evan said, fierce, and moving closer, so their knees were pressed together. He gently touched the bruising on Connor’s face. “He won’t ever hurt me, or you. And if anyone else even tries, he’ll protect us both. That’s what dads do.”

He could feel Connor swallow and then he confessed in a small, soft voice, “I got in a lot of fights, at my last school. They weren’t okay with me being gay, even though I was, and I’ve got...” He smiled wryly, shrugging. “Anger issues? I got expelled for fighting, and mom was struggling with money and she was so stressed out, she sent me to live with my dad, here.” He hesitated and then said, “I thought he knew. About me. That she told him. But she hadn’t, and I had a guy over, we were just watching movies, when he came home.”

“And he hurt you,” Evan filled in, once Connor’s voice trailed off.

“I grabbed my stuff and left,” he agreed.

“And you didn’t tell your mom?”

“Promised her I wouldn’t make trouble,” Connor said softly.

“From what I know of parents, that’s the kind of trouble she’d rather you share than keep secret,” Evan said. “But you need to know, my dad would never, ever do that.” He grimaced. “Hell, he’s more likely to throw a box of condoms at you and lecture you on the intricacies of gay sex. Trust me. I got that lecture, just yesterday. And the condoms.”

Connor didn’t look certain, and Evan figured maybe that was something he’d have to be shown before he could trust it.

He figured dragging Connor home with him was a good place to start.

Chapter Text

Morning came the way morning always did.

Evan jerked awake when his alarm went off, fumbled frantically to shut it off, and then rubbed blearily at his eyes. He staggered to the bathroom, made use of the facilities, washed his hands, and jabbed at his eyes until his contacts stuck. He showered, finger-combed his hair, brushed his teeth, and wandered back to his bedroom feeling only slightly more alive.

He dressed in his jeans with the glitter on the ass, as well as a bright red t-shirt with an obnoxiously flipped collar he knew his mother would fuss over.

When he shuffled into the kitchen, his mother clucked her tongue and handed him a plate of pancakes.

That’s when things turned a little sideways, as he tripped his way over to the kitchen table, almost blindly. He collapsed in his usual seat, shoved a whole pancake into his mouth, and looked up just as Connor slid a mug of coffee over to him with a small, shy smile.

“Oh,” Evan said, mouth full. He’d almost forgotten about that. “Hey.” He tried for casual but his bright, pancakey grin probably ruined the effect.

His mom rolled her eyes and folded Evan’s collar down, smoothing it, before saying, “Family dinner tonight, don’t make plans.”

“Cheerleading practice,” Evan said automatically. “And dad’s got football, probably. Homecoming’s on Friday, you know, and—”

“And I’ll be there to watch, with a video camera,” she promised sweetly. Evan groaned but she just laughed, adding, “I promised your grandparents.”

“I can go to the library, after school,” Connor said quietly, ducking his head and picking at his pancakes. “For the family dinner. I can—”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, picking up her briefcase, checking her work phone for email on her way out the door. She absently ruffled Connor’s hair and his ears turned pink. “You’ll be here too. You’re family.”

“Yeah,” Evan said, wagging his eyebrows as lecherously as he could manage. “You’re family.”

It was only after his mother had closed the door behind her and Connor had shot him an incredulous, disturbed look that Evan realized how awkward and borderline incestuous that made the fact that he and Connor had stayed up late watching Fight Club on DVD and making out on Evan’s bed.

“Huh,” he said, blinking. “Awkward.”

Connor rolled his eyes but smiled a little, and Evan would take that as a win.

He climbed into the passenger seat of Connor’s car, clutching his backpack to his chest a few minutes later, as Connor backed out of the driveway and turned towards Trent’s house. Evan was humming under his breath, feeling pretty capable of taking on the world today, no matter what school had to offer. He was pretty sure he could survive all the shit and angst high school had to offer, especially after the confusing clusterfuck of last week.

“Hey,” he said happily, while they waited at a stop sign for approximately eight thousand school kids to cross the road. “Are we going steady now?”

“No one says that anymore,” Connor told him, hand flexing on the gear shift, eyes straight ahead. His cheeks were flushing again, though, and Evan couldn’t help but find it charming.

“Dating, then,” Evan offered. “Seeing each other? Boyfriends? Beaus? Friends-with-benefits?”

Connor grimaced and shifted into gear. “I don’t know?” he said. He glanced at Evan. “I like you.”

Evan squirmed, pleased. “Okay,” he said. “Going steady, then. My dad’s gonna love that. Just wait til he asks you your intentions, probably at dinner tonight. Oh man. It’s going to be so awesome not to be the target of his embarrassing questions, for once in my life.”

“You’re a terrible person,” Connor said, but he couldn’t seem to help but laugh.

“Yeah,” Evan agreed, grinning. “But you like me.”

Trent was waiting on the curb, bouncing on his heels. Today’s t-shirt read, “Taste the rainbow,” and Evan wondered if that was Trent being supportive. He’d take it, either way.

Trent was already talking a mile a minute when he climbed in the backseat, going on about homecoming and cheerleading and Miriam’s magical breasts, and it was all so familiar that Evan relaxed against his seat, the last bit of tension fading away.

It was just another day, like any other, and he was still the same as he’d been a week ago, a month ago. Maybe just a little older than he’d been a year ago.

Connor was watching him, head tipped like a curious dog, but that was okay. Mystery kept the relationship alive.

He grinned a wide, shit-eating grin just to keep Connor on his toes and Connor huffed in irritation, but Evan was pretty sure it was fake.

“Ready?” Connor asked, hand on the gear shift, Trent still chattering in the back.

“Ready,” Evan agreed.

Just another day.

And then Connor reached over and took his hand, cheeks pink and eyes trained straight ahead, and Evan ducked his head to hide his own blush.

Okay, he thought. Maybe a better day than the rest.