Always Somebody Better

by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/91692.html)

The first time he met Austin, River was sitting on the curb on 50th Street just past Radio City Music Hall, trying not to puke or have a freaking breakdown or whatever it was he was about to do. Which was embarrassing enough by itself.

He’d been there for two days. Mostly at the venue in general, but a fair amount of it on the curb, too: camping out by himself to get in, his head on his backpack and gnawing through two Robert Jordan novels and half a John Updike. And then, of course, he’d sat through the entire draft, which was probably the most boring thing ever created by the human mind even for people who cared about it, and sometime in the middle of the seventh round it had hit him, really finally hit him, full force in the brain. Not me, was what had been written on the brick that smashed in his mental window. Not, in a million years, River Lewis from White Spring Hills, Colorado, population fewer people than he now went to college with. He would not stand on that stage and hold up a jersey into the lights with a slightly lost grin on his face. It was never going to happen. Have all the fantasies you like, this unseen iceberg, this Titanic-wrecker said; go ahead and hear them say your name in your own head. Hell, be Mr. Irrelevant in your picture, if that gives it that little comforting ring of veritas. Just don’t make the mistake of getting any of that confused with the possible world. This is a game you are not even in.

Despair was a godawful, melodramatic word to assign to yourself in any circumstances, one he hated even in fiction. Certainly it wasn’t a feeling any person with half or greater of a brain had about the NFL Draft, for God’s sake. But he still felt like he knew what it meant now, in spite of his own scorn: like somebody with cold hands had closed their fist gently around you, and only just begun to squeeze.

“You okay?” somebody said, and he glanced up, blinking in streetlight glare, to see who they were talking to.

The somebody was a tall guy — young, probably only a couple years older than him — with an effortless tan on a broad, open, excessively handsome face, and long dark hair that committed the crime against nature of looking good in what could only be described as a mullet. He was broad-shouldered and wearing a suit, and squashed down on top of his ridiculous hair was a Jets cap, to which — in spite of the circumstances — River’s punch-drunk brain didn’t manage to assign the appropriate significance. Partly because it turned out he’d been talking to River, which was unexpected to say the least. The guy was standing half in the street next to him, separated from the tidal crowds washing past and away, one of his feet propped up on the curb beside where River was sitting. It was wearing what looked like a tooled cowboy boot, in spite or perhaps because of the suit, which didn’t make River so much instantly homesick as home-nauseated.

“Um,” River said, and scrubbed his hands over his face. Argh, stupid non-stereotypical New Yorkers. “Yeah. I’m, I’m cool.”

The guy shrugged, leaning on his knee. “All right. Just making sure. You looked a little…” He gestured meaninglessly at his face. When talking at greater length, he had a strong southern accent that River vaguely recognized as Texan, if only from obnoxious ski tourists, which if nothing else meant he was actually behaving well within stereotype. So that was something. River sighed.

“Yeah, I am a little,” he said. More kindly than he could have, though not by much. “But it’s nothing. …Thanks.”

De nada,” the guy said, or at least that was what River thought he said, considering it came out sounding more like day nodder. “You from around here?”

Great. Now not only was he actively despairing over the draft, he had a leech. A tourist leech. “Not to start with,” he admitted anyway, folding his arms on his knees. People were still streaming by behind them, in a roar of chatter, cars pulling by sometimes at a Manhattan-standard hostile crawl. “I’m from Colorado, but now I’m going to LIU. So, you know. Long Island. I just came over for the draft.”

“Ah, gotcha.” The guy glanced around, maybe looking for someone more interesting in the crowd to latch onto. One could hope. If so, he was apparently disappointed. “Pretty crazy, right? New York. I never been before.”

“Yeah,” River said. Trying not to sigh again. “I hadn’t either.” Finally, he conceded to the inevitable: “My name’s River, anyway.”

“Yeah?” The guy looked interested, which was depressing but at least better than laughing himself sick. “Like the, ahh, the actor guy?”

“Not particularly,” River said, which the guy didn’t appear to get. No big. “River Lewis.” He considered the circumstances, and then stuck out his hand anyway. What the heck.

“Austin Villarreal,” the guy said, again in the whitest way possible, and shook it, but by then River had completely frozen. River had permafrosted. There was a series of clicks going on in his brain, like when you get all the pieces in order in one of those sliding tile puzzles, and everything just falls into place.

He’d heard that name before, very recently. And very loudly.

“Just got drafted to the Jets,” Austin went on with a big dopey cheerful grin, as if that were just some piece of regular good news, tapping the bill of his cap for belated emphasis as he straightened back up. “So I guess I’m moving here, looks like, or at least close by.” He stood, fully, in the street, ignoring a taxi that honked at him. Still grinning: a gorgeous, ear-to-ear, bright-white-tooth grin. “Good to meetcha, man. Wanna go get a beer, on me? I gotta do something to celebrate, and I don’t know the neighborhood.”

River stared up at him for a minute, still paralyzed from neck up and neck down. What pick had Austin been? Near the top, he thought. Yesterday at least. God. God.

I hate you, was what River thought when at last he managed to think, with perfect, crystalline, wondering clarity; with the exquisite sweetness of sudden revelation. It burst onto his mind like a sunrise, all radiance and pleasant coral colors. I hate you. I hate you and I despise you. I hate you forever, with every fiber of my soul. No one has ever or will ever be hated like I am going to hate you, starting now.

So of course he ended up letting Austin buy three six-packs, and doing his best to help with them in Austin’s ridiculous hotel suite (Austin was probably old enough by a matter of no more than months, but River was too young to take into a bar), and ended up talking about crazy dumb crap with him until the hour got small, and ended up falling asleep on the couch in the suite’s sitting room, too drunk and too late for the LIRR and the bus back to school. And he ended up with Austin’s number in his new, extremely cheap cellphone, and somehow, around the middle of June, looked up out of whatever daze he’d been in to realize that for the first time in his entire life to date, he had a best friend.

Austin was like that.

Austin (he had discovered since) had grown up in Abilene, “right between nowhere and nowhere else.” He had tried out for the high school football team on a whim, after not much more than the occasional friendly pickup game before, and was discovered to have a just unreasonable knack for quarterback, not just playing but strategy too, just the right body and head — like some sort of spooky musical prodigy. Or idiot savant, River thought privately, although the mental abuse lost most of its venom almost immediately. Austin was like that, Austin was like that, it got old fast but even though tired it was true. In spite of his exhausting, frustrating perfection, you couldn’t hate Austin, even with the best intentions at heart. Not without some kind of medical condition: surgical removal of the puppy center, maybe, or like… soul cancer.

Anyway, Austin had been so good his coach had begged him to go to football camp, so he had, and sure enough a UT scout practically had a seizure over him as soon as he was old enough. He went to college in his eponymous city (a fact that Austin apparently never stopped finding hilarious) for no more than two years before a scout went crazy over him at a pro day, and so on and so forth. After signing with the Jets (second string, but maybe not for long, was the prevailing opinion), he dropped out of school to move up north, and who could blame him? The other half of college, or a salary in six digits? Gee, let’s think it over for a minute.

The thing about Austin was he was not real. He was humanly impossible. He was a fairy tale, a padded Cinderella. Nothing happened to anybody like what had happened to Austin. He didn’t even want it particularly; he was just along for the ride. In his head, they were still all pickup games. He just had a few more friends turning out for them than before. And you would think all of that would make it easier to stomach, but it didn’t, was the thing. Even if it never happened to anybody, you couldn’t help thinking: why couldn’t it happen to me?

If Austin weren’t Austin, River had thought at least six or eight thousand times by the end of the first year, he’d be dead.

“Never. Seriously?” Austin said, in the third or so of his first weeks as an actual resident of New York. He was perching on the ridiculous sofa he’d purchased to go with his ridiculous apartment; perching because the cushions were still wrapped in plastic, since apparently the pro life was way too busy and demanding for things like “unpacking” or “buying food” or “leaving clothes other places than the floor”. Mock as he might, River had to admit this had saved the brand-new leather at least two pizza spills already. He couldn’t see how Austin was supposed to survive in the wild. “You’ve lived here, what, a year, man? Never?

“No,” River said, to his summer course reading. The dorms didn’t have air-conditioning, of course, and you could only spend so much time at the library, and, well, Austin had said anytime. “That’s tourist stuff.”

Austin snorted. “What, and you’re Joe Manhattan? Come on, we gotta go.”

River rolled his eyes, and set the book down on his lap. Faulkner, with Flannery O’Connor still in his backpack. This was what he got for trying to be an English major: a month packed with drunk, miserable southerners. Then again, he guessed he couldn’t blame them. “What’s there to see? Giant green lady, miles of high school kids…”

“The giant green lady of, of, freedom and liberty, and — ”

“Freedom and liberty are the same thing.”

“Hot dogs!” Austin aimed an accusing finger at him. “Apple pie! Football!

“I wasn’t aware she played.” River sighed, and scrubbed his hands across his face. “Okay, okay, just stop pretending to be a gay Jeep commercial. When do you want to go?”

And Austin just grinned like this was the opening he’d been waiting for. “Let’s go now.”

River paused. “I beg your pardon?” he said.

So that was how he ended up taking a ferry from Battery Park in the middle of July, pouring sweat in the sun because Austin was utterly entranced by the filthy water and had to be right up to the rail, River’s finger still stuck in at his page in Light in August until well into Liberty Island. Austin’s haste meant they couldn’t get passes up into the statue proper, which Austin complained about with typical good humor, but they messed around at the pedestal and River actually sort of enjoyed the Ellis Island museum, a little. There was so much more history on this side of the country. It seemed like everything was old in New York, and it was kind of cool — even if that usually included your apartment building and the sandwich you got at the deli. He ended up stuffing his battered book in his back pocket, which he thought was a tremendous concession on his part, and later on a security guard recognized Austin and pretty much transformed from a gigantic guy with an earpiece into a shy, excited little girl on the spot. Which was hilarious if slightly disturbing. Austin chatted with him for a while about the upcoming season — holding up the entire line behind him — and then when River finally dragged him along, said goodbye to the guy by name. It was just on his ID, but Austin was… well, you know.

“You’re retarded,” he grumbled on the ferry back, wincing against the wind, but Austin just laughed.

“I bet kids up here just go to places all the time on field trips and stuff, right?” He shrugged, but Austin wasn’t looking, hanging on to the ferry railing. In profile he looked more serious, even smiling — more adult. It brought out the severe line from his brow to his mouth, and River had to stop himself lingering in a long, weird look and turn his gaze back out to the city. From out here Manhattan looked strange and towering, an alien future-city with Brooklyn huddling off to the side and looking nervous. “Back home it was the Alamo if you lucked out, and you know, that’s a day round trip. You say you’re going to the next state over, you’re gonna need a hotel room, and up here it’s like, what are you gonna do with the rest of the hour?”

River shrugged. “At least you had the Alamo. I think my nearest landmark growing up was that hotel The Shining was about.”

Austin, of course, perked. “Yeah? You ever been there?”

“No, that’s tourist stuff,” River said — but he was grinning, and when Austin started laughing, yeah, okay, he did too.

But he was faking it, a little, and it wore off quick, especially once he was on the train back to Brookville that evening, and alone with Faulkner and his own hamster-caged thoughts. It probably should have made him feel better to realize what he should have known all along: that Austin was homesick, that Austin was maybe as lonely as he was in this clogged and jostling city. It didn’t. Instead it just made him wonder if that was the only reason — and if it was, how long he had, before Austin settled in enough that River didn’t matter anymore. Got back on his feet in his new digs and kicked out the moody, sarcastic crutch he’d been walking on.

So he was the retarded one, probably. He didn’t get any more reading done all the way home.

C.W. Post was an okay school, on the whole. It didn’t seem like anything special, but he guessed he didn’t know what he was missing, either, so no harm done. He could have done better, he supposed. His grades in high school had been unimpeachable (it happened when you had nothing to do but study), and his SAT scores had ended up being the highest in about three graduating classes, or so he heard. Which River thought was embarrassing for his school, considering; they weren’t really all that great. Still, his mother had burst with pride so fierce it had seemed more like anger, it had alarmed him away from her for the month or so it was at its peak. She’d put up his printed scores on the fridge over his protests, but he kept half-expecting her to take them back and just carry them around with her, to shake in people’s faces around town or maybe slap them with. His school guidance counselor had been near tears, this close to begging him, when he flatly refused to apply to Amherst or Wesleyan or anywhere that wasn’t at least Division II. Football scholarships aren’t the only types of scholarships there are, she had said, through closed teeth possibly, but he knew, and he didn’t care. He knew what he wanted. He’d always known.

Well, that didn’t mean he got it, but at least he knew.

In White Spring Hills, he was an outstanding scat back; he’d wanted to play quarterback, of course, but by the time he was fifteen even River’d had to admit he’d need stilts and a muscle suit first. In White Spring Hills, he’d been good enough to make reluctant admirers out of an entire high school stadium’s worth of people who’d previously have chucked beer cans out their SUV windows at him if they passed him walking on the road; good enough to make Coach G, somewhere through his first two seasons, switch over grudgingly from calling him Twiggy to calling him Hey Kid to calling him Riv. Good enough to merit a few neutral mentions in the typo-riddled town rag, with which he also half-feared someday he’d catch his mom smothering someone. Playing for Andrew Jackson High hadn’t had him rolling in cheerleaders or swimming in friends, let us not speak of miracles, but it had still gotten him drunk on his own crazy, unexpected power, the magical possibility of being good, of being someone. He hadn’t even known what to do with the sudden bundle of hope in his arms. But at a summer football camp just outside Denver, no one had known his name at all, for better or worse; and before he knew it his heart had capsized, under the terrible weight of how everything was relative.

“You’re pretty good,” the scout from LIU had said before giving him his phone number, and warmly, sure, but god damn it all, it shot him down out of the sky. Because he was right; of course he was. That was exactly what River was, had been, and always would be. Put it under his yearbook photo. River Lewis. Running Back. Pretty Good.

C.W. Post had a good team, and he played well for them. They paid his tuition bills and he lived in Long Island, about as far away from Colorado as it was possible to be. What more could you want, right? Let us not speak of miracles. Or speak of them very softly, so low no one can ever hear and remind us later; whisper their names only enough to keep ourselves warm. Forget them the next day, and get up and go back to business as usual.

Hell.

His roommate was another guy on the team, a wide receiver with the unlikely name of Javier; he was from Elizabeth, and was staying over the summer too. His attitude toward River seemed to be one of benevolent puzzlement: he cracked a joke occasionally about all River’s books and sometimes asked for help looking over his essays for Composition, but by and large seemed to accept his roommate’s bizarre chimerical nature without comment. River didn’t mind any of it. At least it was better than home. Once or twice Javier had coaxed him out to be uncomfortable at one party or another for about half an hour before leaving, but after that they had both given up pretty quickly, and left things between them to a comfortable, tolerant complete lack of interest. Otherwise River hung around the library a lot, worked a boring job stocking shelves at the campus bookstore, didn’t do much of anything, didn’t make friends. Or at least, not until recently.

He mentioned Austin in his letters and calls to his mom, trying out of habit not to sound too impressed by him, or by anything where he was. He thought she was still upset that he’d decided to stay at school for the summer, and he didn’t want to make it worse: Hey, gosh, Mom! You’ll never guess how great it is without you! All the places in the world you’ve never been are my favorites! He’d gone home at Christmas, but she’d barely been able to coax him out of his room the whole time, let alone out of their little doublewide altogether. What if someone in town asked how things were going — maybe having somehow seen the contact information he’d been careful not to give Jackson’s tiny alumni office, maybe with a knowing, gleaming smirk behind his eyes? O Icarus, our schadenfreude rests on thee, etc. He never wanted to go back again if he could help it, although of course he couldn’t tell Mom that.

She seemed happy that he’d made a new friend, anyway, although not like she quite understood how weird it was. She sent him a card in June with an apparently clinically depressed black lab puppy on it, floating a bubble-font Thinking Of You… over its head. Inside, apart from the usual ballpoint sentiments, was a local paper clipping about the kickboxing studio some dreadlocked couple from Empire had opened in town. Sara was near the back left corner of the black-and-white photo, a group shot of a class practicing their forms. Her hair pulled back in a long, dark, shiny ponytail, fists up in front of her; her face, tiny and half-obscured, set in a frown of serious thought. He’d stared at it for nearly a full ten minutes, before sticking it, memorized, between two falling-out back pages of The Two Towers.

But if it was a lure to bring him home, it wouldn’t work. She was the last person he wanted to see.

In spite of his brain’s weird, acrobatic fears, he ended up at Austin’s apartment more and more near the end of the summer, and less and less bothering with heat or summer parties in the dorm as an excuse. Austin’s apartment was, Austin was happy to admit, more luxury than any human person could ever need, and at least for Manhattan, more space, too. Might as well mooch boldly, River figured. …Plus, he liked hanging out with Austin, which was so odd to him he couldn’t seem to stop listing it as an afterthought. They watched movies or played video games or drank beer or all of the above, or just… talked. He ended up telling Austin a lot, stuff he’d never imagined he’d have reason or desire to say out loud.

Somewhere along the line, unsurprisingly, Austin had ended up with a girlfriend, too, who was about as unlike what you would expect Austin to have for a girlfriend as River could imagine. Mandy was a year or two older than Austin, and she was short, pretty, pleasantly rounded, covered in tattoos, and constantly dressed in heavily scissored, earth-toned layers; she had two gold rings in her lower lip and a floating fountain of curly brown hair she often sat on by accident. She lived in Park Slope but worked at a florist’s in Chinatown, and zipped around the edges of sidewalks on a rusty pink scooter that ran with a sound like it was coughing, selling bouquets curbside sometimes out of the package carrier. Only later did River find out that was mostly a front, and that the tiny seventy-something Korean lady who owned the shop cheerfully let Mandy use her back garden to grow an astonishing quantity — and quality — of pot. Still, River was in deep, nearly superstitious awe of Mandy, utterly tongue-tied in her presence. He thought she was easily the coolest human being who had ever been troubled to notice his existence. And amazingly enough, she seemed to like him.

The fall semester kept him busy most of the time, with classes and practice, but on the weekends he pretty much crashed with Austin continually; with the second bed there, it seemed pointless to keep making the trek back and forth to Long Island. Javier started prodding him with some unsubtle hints about whether he’d gotten a girlfriend, which he found pretty funny but also disturbing, for reasons he couldn’t entirely explain. Well, and reasons he could. There wasn’t anything gay about his friendship with Austin, though, he insisted to himself more often than maybe he should have; it was just that it sort of came off that way.

Football season had gotten his blood way up once upon a time, made him crazy with excitement, but now even more than last year it seemed grueling, like a chore. He sleepwalked through practice, grumbled through games. Austin only made it to one or two, relatively unimportant home games, although he was always making noises about it; if River was busy, Austin was everywhere at once, he’d try to pull off his arms if it meant they could go do more stuff for him. He did get River and Mandy tickets to his home games, though, and they went, in spite of their respective reservations. The first one, Mandy insisted on sneaking in a bottle of Wild Turkey in her jacket, and River kept himself together by sharing it with her, and giving her increasingly hilarious and untruthful shouted explanations of what was going on on the field, until they were both dead drunk and weeping with laughter, nursing side stitches. Which at least gave him something to blame it on when later he had to sit down for a minute with his eyes closed, taking long, slow breaths, trying not to throw up. She stood next to him, rubbing his back, smelling like patchouli and cloves and whiskey, not asking, and he thought for no reason of his mom and bit his tongue against the burning in his eyes.

Then Austin took them out for a middle-of-the-night dinner, and told such stupid stories about his teammates and from his adolescence in Texas that River couldn’t help laughing along, in spite of the giant headache as he sobered up. And the next game, he wasn’t quite surprised to find, was easier.

When it came out in one conversation or another with Austin that he wasn’t planning on going home for winter break, he launched into the same musical number he’d given his mom: “Act II, Scene I: Airfares Are So High, Student Jobs Do Not Pay Much, It Breaks My Heart But I Fear I Must Remain, Etc. Etc.” Austin gave no indication of having bought it any more or less than River’s mom had, but then again, he was probably too busy to have given it a huge amount of thought.

“You should come home with me!” was more specifically what he was busy saying, stirring the pot of queso he had on the stove. This recipe, the jewel in the crown of Austin Le Chef, seemed in its entirety to demand a) having a block of Velveeta, b) having a can of Ro-tel, and c) making them somehow coexist in a state of hotness. River was horrified, but fascinated. The saucepan was maybe two months old and already permanently disgusting. “Don’t they, like, shut down the whole campus? You’ll be cold and in the dark. You can’t be cold and in the dark on Christmas, that is like the sad part of a Disney movie or something.”

“If I can’t afford to go to Colorado, I can’t afford to go to Texas,” River pointed out. Austin waved his hand, dismissing crazy River and his silly obsession with money.

“I gotcha. I’m going anyway, grabbing an extra ticket’s no prob.”

And River bit his tongue before he could snap at that, which was definitely not the right way to respond to someone being generous. He hated it when Austin did that, tried to throw a couple hundred dollars at him like it was a beer or a bag of chips, but he couldn’t think how to call him on it. “Your family won’t mind?” he said instead, trying to inject as much skepticism as possible without being rude. Austin just shrugged.

“They won’t notice, more like. We got so many people running around, this time of year, they’ll probably forget you’re not some kind of cousin.” He laughed at himself, prodding with his spoon. He had a new watch on that hand, a little too big for him so that it jangled when he did, but River thought it still looked good on him: drew attention to the thick rawboned wrists under his suntan. “C’mon, man, it’ll be a good time! Uh, if you don’t mind it’ll probably be like eighty degrees the whole time.”

“Kind of sounds nice right now, actually,” River forgot himself enough to say, and after that there was no possibility of escape.

So he flew into DFW with Austin, watched Austin rent some sort of Cadillac Mobile Mansion DX (he’d sold his inevitable pickup truck before moving to Manhattan, River’d long since learned), drove over three hours of flat brown nothing with Austin with the winter sun in their eyes and an epic game of Know How I Know You’re Gay? to keep them busy. He found himself a little sorry when Austin finally pulled into a driveway, and up to a spotless McMansion in the outer ring of Abilene. It had been a while since it had been just the two of them on their own for any length of time. As much as he adored Mandy, he hardly ever felt like anything but an awed, desperately unhip, trailer trash kid from the sticks in her presence, always just trying to keep up. Austin, though, was always telling him how smart he was, laughing at his jokes, not like he was trying to kiss up but just like it was by-the-wayside stuff River ought to know already: unbiased reporting on the facts. Being with Austin made him feel… cool. Special, even, if that wasn’t a little too on the hearts and sparkles side.

Austin’s mom was a teased, shellacked, dark-rooted blonde, sparkling with tennis bracelets and packed into underaged jeans, but she had a nice smile under her lipstick and hung onto River’s hand constantly, as if she’d already adopted him. Austin’s dad looked almost exactly like Austin, except squarer and short-haired, but the permanent grin that had creased Austin’s eyes was replaced in his by a harder, more watchful smile. In their vast granite-covered kitchen River accepted a Coke that was actually a Dr Pepper and listened dizzily to all the vowels drawling for three miles, and to at least eighteen y’alls without one hint of irony among them. He counted.

River!” Austin’s mom — Nancy, she’d said, although that was never happening — marveled, sounding like she was eating both Rs alive. “That is such a unique name! Were your mom and dad, ah, flower children?” She laughed, toothily but pleasantly, apparently delighted by the idea that something as exotic as non-Republicans might exist out in the world somewhere. River smiled, shaking his head.

No, my mom was just fifteen at the time, he thought, but didn’t say. No point in stopping the conversation before it even got started. “No, I think my mom just liked it.” Over her shoulder, he could vaguely hear Austin’s dad — Tommy, although that was happening even less — grilling him about the Jets’ so-so season and the lineup for next year, and he clawed for something else to talk about over it. She beat him to it, though, first glancing over her shoulder too at her husband and son, and then slipping her arm around him.

“You know, honey, I am really glad to see you here, and I hope you don’t mind me telling you this,” she said in a conspiratorial undertone, before he could react. Not that he knew how he would have reacted anyway. “But I was just so worried about Austin, moving to New York? He just seemed so down about it, and he wasn’t going to know anybody…” She pressed a hand to her chest, and smiled at him, and he could see a little more of the resemblance. “And now, it just does my heart so good. Just look at the two of you.”

Yeah, River thought, smiling uncertainly back at her, not sure whether to feel all warm and glowing inside or totally like crap. Just look at us.

Austin’s house was stupidly huge on about the same scale as his apartment, but River still ended up put on an inflatable mattress on the floor of Austin’s old bedroom. This was because Austin, it turned out, had exactly as many cousins as promised, if not more. The run-up to Christmas was a marathon obstacle course of people in various stages of being related to Austin appearing, drawling, and disappearing, sometimes with incidental cake. River ate some of the cake, and otherwise tried to stay out of the way. It didn’t help that he was almost certain Austin’s dad didn’t like him, in spite of the fact that they had maybe exchanged three full sentences in the whole week previous, and two and a half of them had concerned football.

What interested him more about the whole thing was the fact that Austin was obviously miserable. …Well, maybe obviously was too strong a word, but he could tell. He tried to act surprised when on the twenty-third Austin got him aside, in between Austin’s mom trying to organize a troupe of aunts, and said with a slightly pasted smile, “Hey. You want to grab the car, take a drive around for a little bit?”

River shrugged, setting his book aside. Only days of practice and mental training had convinced him it was okay to leave anything in the Villareals’ immaculate living room, but he was getting there. “Yeah, sure.”

“Oh, thank God,” Austin said immediately, and then laughed and dropped his eyes when River raised his eyebrows. “No, I mean… Nah. Come on, let’s get going before they ask us to lift something.”

Abilene wasn’t a whole lot of city, but it was some; it went out instead of up, like River was used to at home, not like back East. All giant parking lots and giant housing developments, sprawling amoeba malls, the greed for space its possibility instilled. A part of him felt like it could breathe again all of a sudden, but he was surprised to find that another part of him missed having the sky shut off, seemed to cramp up around the absence of crowds and graffiti and dirty, used air. Austin flirted with a disembodied female voice at the Sonic so egregiously that they got something like 15 extra mints with their Route 44 cherry limeades, and then just drove around drinking them, talking little, Austin pointing out occasional landmarks. River glanced at him from time to time, sidelong; his serious driving profile looked a lot sterner than Austin ever was. It took him a while to identify the discomfort in his chest as pity. He couldn’t even imagine, personally. If it hadn’t been for his own mom when he was a kid, getting his back against the whole world, he thought he’d be dead by now.

“Did you meet my cousin Randall?” Austin asked suddenly at a lull, and River glanced over at him, frowning. He’d been hit with so many names this week he’d sort of stopped recording, and it took him a couple minutes of mental scanning to hit the answer. Randall, yeah; nice kid, a little younger than River, who he remembered mostly because Randall also looked a lot like Austin. Not as tall, and kind of beefier, but with the same coloration and unneccessary handsomeness and guileless, affecting grin. They’d stood against a wall in the kitchen talking for a while before some dinner or another, Randall had just finished college apps and wanted to know what both the northeast and Colorado were like. River had liked him: he’d been funny and kind.

“Looking at CU-Boulder, looks a lot like you?” he guessed, just to make sure; Austin laughed at that last, but nodded. “Yeah, we talked for a while. Why?”

Austin shrugged. “Just thought you’d like him. He’s a great kid. I don’t get to see him enough, ‘cept for this time of year. Even before I moved away.”

River frowned at him again. “Where’s he live?”

“Huh? Just down the road a piece.” After a second, though, he seemed to get it, and shook his head. “Oh. No, that’s not why. He just doesn’t come over much. At all. If he can help it.” River kept looking at him after he lapsed into quiet again, waiting for him to pick up again, and eventually at a red light Austin glanced over at him and smiled. It wasn’t a very typical Austin smile; hard-lined, curved only at the ends. “My dad’s pretty much why he can’t come out.”

“What — ”

But the wheels turned while his mouth was making the word, and then they clicked into a row and River shut his mouth again on the rest. Oh. Right. Come out. He thought of Randall’s big grin again, his friendliness, his warm dark eyes, and sudden, unwanted, guilty panic squeezed at his lungs. Oh, jeez, do you think he thought I was — fought its way into his mouth next, and he bit that back, too, looking away and out the window. He didn’t know a lot about this stuff, but he knew that as a response deserved like an F-minus grade on the Sympathetic Friend test. And probably the Decent Human Being test, too. So he shut up his mouth — but that couldn’t stop his head racing over his conversation with Randall, how close Austin’s cousin had or hadn’t stood, what he’d said, the way he’d looked at River, how much he’d looked like Austin, what River might have said wrong or right. The thought kept drawing him back in a way that he told himself firmly was all horror, all the way down.

“Oh,” he said finally, lamely. The silence that followed was probably only awkward for him.

“It’s not a big deal, I guess,” Austin said after a while. They were traversing a dusty stretch of not much now, nearing the edge of town. “I mean, he’ll go off to college and work things out on his own, and his parents’d probably be all right if you could get ’em away from mine. But it’s like… Dad just kinda gets into everyone, you know? I remember when I could actually go to our church.” He shrugged, rolling his head around restlessly on his shoulders. “I dunno.”

“You guys don’t get along?” River said. Which made it sound like he hadn’t even been listening, but this was about the most uncomfortable he’d ever been and he figured just making an effort should count for something. Austin gave him that funny, not very Austin smile again.

“Nah, it’s not quite like that. I mean, we don’t not get along.” He shrugged again. “Mostly ’cause all we ever talk about is football. I think the football’s pretty much the only thing about me he wants to deal with anymore.” The hard smile blossomed into a hard little grin. It made Austin look more like his dad, which River was also prudent enough not to point out. “And even then, I’m playing for the Jets. When I was a Longhorn was about the only time he’d ever talk about me to other people.”

River let a long pause spool out, thinking. There was a lot of history lying in that unsaid — a lot of it in those cut little curves of Austin’s smile — but he guessed in the end unsaid was fine. He could see enough of it through the glass.

“So… you’re bringing Mandy out to meet them next year, right?” he said instead, finally, trying to grin. He was glad, too; Austin glanced over at him again, and laughed, and there was just enough more of himself around its edges again.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, grinning back, and tapped two fingers to the corners of his lower lips. “I figure once Mom sees her snakebites she’ll probably want her own, you know?”

“Maybe she can get little diamonds on hers,” River said, in a compressed sort of voice — not knowing if he should, not wanting to be mean — but Austin busted up laughing himself sick, so hard he had to pull off the road for a second, so he guessed it was probably okay.

When they’d both collected themselves a bit, Austin back on the road and making a vague loop back in the direction they’d come, River did add, sheepishly, “I don’t mean to… I mean. I like your mom.”

Austin smiled over at him, his gaze distant. “She likes you,” he said, with his eyes back on the road. “…I think my dad kinda hates your guts, but you gotta understand, there’s not much better anybody could say than that about your character.” River let out a little half-breath of uncertain laughter.

“Well, thanks, I guess.” He leaned back in the leather seat — this monster thing was so huge he could probably kick his feet up on the dash or something, but it was so clean and new-smelling he didn’t dare — and shrugged. “I’d say most people usually get to know me better before hating my guts, but that’s so not even true.”

That earned him another quick glance from Austin, between dusty stop signs. One of them, River had noticed, had had a tattered NO JESUS, NO PEACE / KNOW JESUS, KNOW PEACE bumper sticker plastered on it. How did someone decide to do that, anyway? Did you go out and buy a bumper sticker special for sticking to random road signs, or did you just want to get rid of an extra you had lying around? “Oh yeah?” Austin asked, after a minute, in that where is the land mine exactly here? tone of voice. River hesitated.

“Kinda,” he said at last, and looked out the window again. “…Nobody had much use for me or my mom back home.” He looked over at Austin after a few seconds’ pause, catching his uncertain gaze skittering around. “I sort of know where you’re coming from, is all.”

“Yeah,” Austin said, to nothing in particular, his eyes back on the road.

So it was about the last thing he was expecting a minute later, when Austin came out of absolutely nowhere with: “So do you have some kind of problem with gay guys?”

River stared at him, tried in his confusion to sigh and snort at the same time, ended up with some sort of angry buffalo noise. “What does that even have to do with anything?”

“Just now when I told you about Randall, you pretty much looked like you were about to bust a gasket.” River jumped — caught — but Austin was still looking out at the road, not at him. “And I swear to God, half the time, every other word out of your mouth is gay something or gay something else. This or that or the other thing’s gay.” He glanced at River, and then away again. “You sound like my dad.”

River kept staring at him, but it didn’t seem to be helping. “Well, I’m not,” he finally said. Austin just shook his head.

“Okay, fine, but that ain’t the problem. Why you got such a bug up your butt about it? If you’ll pardon the expression. I know a bunch of gay guys, not even just Randy. They’re great guys. I just don’t understand why you’re so freaked out.”

River struggled for anything to say. “I’m not — I’m not freaked out. I don’t care. I’m just — I don’t have a problem with them, I’m just not gay.”

Austin shrugged. “I didn’t say you were.”

“Okay. Well.” He fumbled for a minute longer. “I mean — I’m sorry if it came off that way. I didn’t mean to. I’m not, like… I don’t hate gay people or anything. Just… yeah. You know.”

“Okay,” Austin said, equably. River tried to think of something else to say, since that obviously wasn’t an ending, but couldn’t. Things lapsed into a long pause instead, and he let them, frowning out the window again.

“But you know — ” Austin said at last, and River’s stomach lurched up his throat just at something in the sound of his tone. “I mean — it’s cool, man. I just want to say, you don’t have to, like — prove anything to me. If you were — ”

“Oh my God.” River put both his hands over his face and groaned through them. “I’m not gay.”

“I’m not saying — ”

“You are! You totally are. You are trying to have a heart-to-heart with me about how you think I’m gay and, and hiding it from you, because you are insane and retarded and from outer space.” He dropped his hands back to his lap, and his head back against the leather headrest. “What do I have to say?”

“Okay!” Austin threw up his hands, but let them fall back back down on the wheel again with a slap before River could get nervous. “All right, you are heterosexual. Loud and clear, Captain, we read you, ten-four or something. All right, are you happy?”

“You think I’m gay,” River accused. Although he was alarmed to find his mouth twitching a little, as though this could possibly be funny. Austin, though, was way ahead of him; when he glanced over at River again, finally, he was back to his all-out grin.

“No,” he said. “No, I know you’re gay. And do you want to know how?”

“No,” River said, definitely not grinning back. Nope. Totally impossible.

“You own,” Austin intoned nonetheless, portentously, drawing out every word, “two… Vienna Teng albums.”

Screw you, she sings like an angel,” River said, and then they were both howling and Austin nearly killed yet another stop sign.

And five minutes later they were talking football again — who they thought was likely to get drafted this year — and later on they found a movie theater and spent the afternoon watching something stupid and explosion-filled, air-conditioned against the warmth of December. So that was all right.

Probably.

When River’s mom called him on Christmas, she asked — wistfully, although she tried to keep it out of her voice, which just ended up making him feel more guilty — what he was doing with himself for the holiday. Up in Austin’s room, he glanced at the door, where the family was rolling on at a high-drama roar just down the flight of stairs.

“Nothing much,” he said. “Just hanging out with a friend. How about you?”

He managed to avoid cousin Randall for the entire rest of the holiday, and was less sure than he would have liked to be that what he felt about that was relief.

It was in late January, when River was grumbling about how anemic-looking his schedule of classes for spring had ended up being, that Austin finally hit him with the unthinkable third option — the Get Out Of Jail Free card he’d hidden under the mattress, so as not to be tempted to use it unless absolutely necessary. The Final Solution. The T-bomb.

“Have you ever thought about transferring?” Austin asked, tossing him an easygoing pass over the back of the sofa. Tossing a ball back and forth while they were talking was a habit they’d gotten in recently, after Austin’s parents’ backyard had finally afforded them the opportunity to mess around with playing each other. River still felt a little condescended to about it, and wasn’t a hundred percent sure he thought it was a good idea, but hey, if Austin wasn’t worried about Austin’s giant TV then he wasn’t worried about Austin’s giant TV. Austin was just looking at him from the kitchen, clearly had no idea what taboos he was breaking open, but River went a little white-knuckled around the football anyway. “I mean, it doesn’t seem like you’re that crazy about it, and there’s lots of good schools around here. I bet you could get in anywhere easy.”

“Not anywhere,” River said shortly, and passed the football back. “I don’t know. Not really.”

Austin frowned, jogging the ball spinningly in one hand. “How come? Seriously. There’s, like, Columbia — ”

“I’d never get into Columbia.” Austin looked at him inquiringly, and he shrugged, looking away. “I wouldn’t. There’s no way.”

“Okay, whatever — Fordham? NYU? Barnard?” River snapped his head back up, glowering, and Austin grinned and aimed a finger at him. “Just making sure you were paying attention. I’m just saying — ”

“And I’d afford any of those how?” River cut across him — trying not to snap, to keep his tongue on a leash, but all the prickers seemed to be jabbing up at once out of his skin. Self-defense. “It’s not like I can pick up a football ride into Columbia, even if I could get in. Do you know how much schools like those cost?”

Austin shrugged. If he’d understood that low punch, he let it roll off him like water. Somehow it just made River madder that he could. “Not in figures, no. But you could get some kind of aid, right? And whatever’s left over — I’d cover you.”

“No you wouldn’t!”

He hadn’t meant for that to come out a yell, and it didn’t quite — but there was still enough of a whetted metal edge on every side of it that not even Austin could ignore it anymore. He was standing very still now, the football arrested in his hand, and River had to look down and away. Like always when he was really pissed, he forced his anger out in unsteady laughter, trying to make a joke of it. “Oh my God, what. What are you, my, my sugar daddy? No, okay? No.”

“I didn’t say I was,” Austin said, a little quiet, and River shook his head hard.

“Then don’t go around saying you’re going to pay, like, tens of thousands of dollars for me to go to school somewhere different. ‘Cause you feel like it — like you’re going to get dinner or something. It’s… dammit, do you have any idea how much that drives me crazy? I hate it when you do that.” What he could see of Austin’s expression out of the corner of his eye was hard to stand, but the cat was out of the bag now, he guessed. No reason to stop now that the door was open. “Okay, you have more money than you know what to do with, you can throw it around whenever you feel like it. Good for you, but it’s not really fun for me.”

The pause that followed that was a little longer. “I’m not trying to — ” Austin said again, even quieter, and suddenly River couldn’t stand to listen to him do it, couldn’t stand to not look at him anymore. He turned around on the couch to face Austin, flopping his hands down on his lap, trying to struggle himself calm.

“I know. It’s okay, I know. It just.” He sighed, and rubbed his forehead. “It really bugs me. Never mind.”

“I’m sorry,” Austin said, and River didn’t have much of anything to say after that.

He went home not much later, making up some excuse, and tried not to think anything of it, which worked about as well as it ever did. They ended up spending the next few weeks doing the Guy Argument thing, where they avoided direct contact but still had stilted awkward AIM conversations when River was in the computer lab, usually ending with somebody saying ‘brb’ and then never actually b’ing rb. The dance of how true manliness eschewed all possible feelings, and feelings were involved in having fights, so they couldn’t possibly be having a fight, so everything was fine, except it so laughably obviously wasn’t. This went on uninterrupted through the start of spring semester, and might have continued God knew how long, if one afternoon he hadn’t answered a knock on his dorm room door to find Mandy standing out in the hallway, a ratty backpack with weird band names pen-lettered on it dangling off one shoulder.

“Does your dorm have a laundry room?” she asked without preamble, and River, gaping, resisted the urge to poke her to see if she was actually happening. These were two worlds that were not meant to collide.

“Um. Yes?”

“Cool.” She shouldered past him into the room and dumped her backpack on his bed for a second, just long enough to free her hair from a peculiar tangle under it. “Can you show me? Be, like, my beard, I almost look like I could go here, right?”

He stared at her for a second, then shook his head a little and tried again. “…you came all the way out to Long Island to do laundry?”

Mandy turned, fixing him with a long patient look. “No,” she said. “I came out to Long Island to yell at you. I just realized I had some stuff on me I need to wash.”

“…Oh,” River said. Mostly he found himself disappointed, oddly enough.

It was early enough in the semester that the laundry room was pretty empty. Mandy had no trouble finding a machine, and then she sat on the table in the middle of the room with a bag of sunflower seeds, also from his dorm’s vending machine. At some point River had missed, she’d managed to lose her shoes; quite possibly they were in the wash. “Mostly I’m pissed because this whole thing is such utter bullshit,” she informed him with her mouth half-full, digging her hand into crinkling plastic. “You guys are fighting because, what, he offered you money and you wouldn’t take it? This is supposed to be an actual grownup problem?”

“We’re not fighting,” River said. Mandy tilted her head toward him, her chin down and eyes up, a sign for BITCH, ARE YOU FOR REAL so universal it might as well have been neon. He sighed. “So I don’t want to be his charity case. It seriously doesn’t bug you, when he pulls stuff like that?”

“No.” She scooped out another handful of seeds, dumping them into her mouth in a short shower. “I take it or I don’t. It doesn’t have to be a drama. And this isn’t about me.”

He didn’t say anything to that, and she finally sighed and kept going. “Look, it’s like you’re trying to kill yourself proving something, and half the time I can’t even figure out what it is. Nobody thinks you’re trying to freeload on Austin — if I thought you were we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Yeah, he’s got a buttload of money, but it’s not like he’s showing off about it, he doesn’t even realize he’s got it enough for that. You know that, right?”

Even back in Texas, Austin’s weird suburbia house was gigantic, his mom studded with diamonds, their garage overflowing with SUVs. River nodded, reluctantly. “Nice for him,” he muttered anyway, unable to help himself, and Mandy shrugged.

“Yeah, it is.” She looked at him, for a second, hard. “He loves you,” she said, finally. “Like way more than me, which I think is kind of hilarious. Except it bugs me a little too, because sometimes all I feel like I see you doing is acting like he’s out to fuck you and you’re damn well gonna be ready when the other shoe drops.”

It took him a minute to process that she didn’t mean that first part literally, which didn’t help him formulate a response any faster. But more than that he was just gobsmacked, gaping at her with everything smacked out of his head. “I don’t… do that,” he managed finally. His tongue stumbled around on the sentence, caught completely off-balance. “I mean… I don’t think that. About him.” Mandy looked back at the sunflower seeds, measuring her words.

“Even if you don’t, that’s how it comes off,” she said. “And I think you do a little.”

He struggled to unstick his tongue; it seemed like something he was doing a lot of lately. “Look,” he said, and groped briefly. “I’ve pretty much never actually had a friend before, okay? I mean, back home, we’re more or less talking my mom, the girl I had a crush on from the time I was like six who maybe twice or so noticed I was there, and maybe two guys on my high school team who were, like, at least partially cool with the fact that I existed. I don’t a hundred percent know what you do with one. So I’m sorry, but — ”

“Oh, sweetie,” Mandy said, sighing, and then abruptly reached up and cupped River’s chin in her hand, holding it steady. “I’m not saying you’re crap at friends. I’m just saying… you’re jumping at shadows that aren’t even there.” She tilted her head a little more, serious, meeting his eyes. “Austin’s not smart enough to break your heart. And I mean that in the nicest possible way, but it’s true.”

“I know,” River said. The phrasing didn’t exactly make him comfortable, but it was the truth, and anyway under the circumstances he didn’t think it would be prudent to object. If Austin had gotten annoyed with him for gay stuff making him nervous — Mandy looked at him and he looked away, letting out a breath, tipping down his head in her hand but not quite out of it. “No, I do know that. …In the nicest possible way.”

“But the other thing is,” she said — going on as if he hadn’t said anything, which he supposed meant she was satisfied — “you’re more than smart enough to break his.”

He didn’t have a lot of anything to say to that.

She sat back, finally, letting him go, if only to rub her hands at her face. “You are smart, Riv. You’re a really bright kid. You’re probably a good writer, I bet — you can tell just by the way you talk.” He looked away, still tongue-tied, and she leaned in a little closer. “You ought to take him up on it. LIU’s not a bad school, but you especially, there’s so much more you could be doing. There’s so much stuff I bet you want to do, if you weren’t working so hard on being miserable all the time.”

River shrugged, his stomach doing something small and weird and clenching. “…I don’t know. It’s kind of a big decision.”

“Why?” He looked up at her, but his small smile had to take the place of an answer. Once she realized that, she thought for a long moment, and then took a breath he could see. “You know, the other thing is… I know he’d never say it, but — Austin thinks you shouldn’t even be playing football anymore.”

“Fuck him,” River said. Immediately, and again a lot sharper on the edges than he’d really meant it to be.

At the sudden severity of the look she gave him, though, he faltered, and then finally quailed. “No, I mean…” he said, a lot quieter now, and rubbed his hand across his forehead. “That’s not what I mean. I mean, f– screw that.” He paced away a few steps before coming back, a little of the edge able to come back to his voice now that he wasn’t looking at her. “What, so I’m not as good as he is so I ought to just give up? Yeah, awesome. Or, or I’m never going to be pro, so I ought to take my ball and go home. I failed already, so I can’t even keep trying? Yeah, because that’s completely the mature and not pathetic thing to do.”

“Do you even think for a second that that’s what he thinks?” Mandy asked, quiet enough that it shut him up. “I swear to God, something is broken in your brains.”

He lifted his arms, flapped them back against his sides. “Then what?”

She leaned forward toward him, resting her elbows on her knees. “He thinks — and I think — you should stop because it’s not making you happy. Because you’re the only one who’s worried about whether you’re as good as him or not. And you’re the only one who thinks you’ve failed.” River stared at her, and she sighed again. “It’s not like you suck. You’re on a good team. Austin says you’re good, all the time. But — Jesus, River, what do you think you need to be? You’re so smart and it’s like you still can’t even think your way around it.”

She put her hands against her temples and then thrust them out, expressively, holding air between them. “It’s like, you’re so hung up on all this bullshit people have been saying to you all your life,” she said. “You’ve got yourself locked in this box where football is the only thing you can ever possibly do to be worth anything.” And she dropped her arms across her lap, at last, and looked at him. “Austin’s just trying to let you out.”

Hey, River typed into the text box on his web client, as soon as av_hookemhorns signed on. The sudden panic that Austin wouldn’t respond was beyond ridiculous — he had thus far, hadn’t he? — but inescapable. He still didn’t think he agreed with Mandy; he was more worried that he was going to be the one to screw everything up forever and ever.

The pause wasn’t long, but it felt like it. hey appeared on the screen, calm and ordinary. He shut his eyes for a second, then felt stupid — his Psych paper forgotten in the other window. sup

Just doing homework. Anything going on there?

mandys friends are over, came back a lot quicker this time. all goin on about pitchfork & drinking pabs blue ribbon. save meeeeee

River snorted in spite of himself, then glanced around guiltily with a hand half over his mouth. Oh crap, hipsters, ask the landlord for traps

i know rite

A pause.

Hey, so, he typed next, and then deleted a letter of it, and then put it back before he could get too far. The next sentence took about four rewrites before he was able to give up and sit staring at it, his pinky hovering over Enter. You still think you’d be up for helping me out, if I transferred?

Once he mustered himself up and hit the button, though, the response was so immediate he barely even had time to get nervous again. sure appeared at once under his damning question, somehow starker and surer for the customary lack of punctuation. if thats cool i mean

It’s cool, he wrote back, as quickly as possible, trying not to close his eyes again. Sorry I blew up at you.

Thanks.

Another brief, hovering pause. no prob Austin wrote; and he could breathe again.

And then, a second later: sooo does this mean i AM ur sugar daddy??

lol

River rolled his eyes, now completely oblivious to the fact that he was in the lab or anyone else who might be using it. You know how I know you’re gay?

how

Because you actually WANT to be my sugar daddy.

hahahahaha came back, and he just waited for it. know how i know ur gay

Oh, please, enlighten me.

well cause you just said that first of all Austin shot back, and he couldn’t help snorting again. no srsly, its just cause youre the one givin the sugar

baby

if u know what i mean

River signed off on him then; but he did it grinning.

So spring semester was a sort of frantic juggling act, papers and mid-terms going in one hand, transfer apps going in the other, trying to have friends or a social life mercifully not a concern. The only real ones both knew what was keeping him so busy, and took every chance to try to lighten the load; he caught Mandy filling out the transcript request forms he’d brought to Austin’s apartment one weekend he was staying over, and in spite of all protests, Austin kept slipping him boxes of cereal and packs of jerky after he mentioned he kept working through dinner.

The dust of the semester had just cleared when he got the acceptance letter from NYU. That had been Mandy’s top vote; it was where most of her friends in the Village had gone, and where she’d dropped out of when she’d gotten bored — by which fact, in an obscure guilty way, River was sort of extra awed. She’d taken him to look around, and he’d liked it — the way bits of it just sort of spread around lower Manhattan, weaving right in and out of the middle of things. He liked Washington Square Park. It had a really good Journalism program, which he was pretty interested in. And it had a fencing team of all things, but no football. Well, touch, maybe. Flag. But not… you know.

And he… could just go there. It was a weird feeling: a not quite pleasant freedom. A jailbreak falling asleep out under the stars, trying not to think, What now?

So he showed up at Austin’s apartment door with the letter in hand and a small smile he hoped was sufficiently ironic, and he really meant to sign up to live on campus, he did — except then Austin had already invited him to live with him for the summer and it just seemed like too much trouble to move even his duffel-bag-and-a-half’s worth of stuff again in the fall, so he just checked ‘Off-Campus’ and had done with it. It wasn’t like he didn’t kind of live with Austin anyway.

“I can’t afford half your rent,” he pointed out to Austin when the subject first came up, not with any particular hope. Austin actually snorted.

“Did anybody say anything about paying half my rent? No! I don’t believe I heard anybody say that!” He leaned back on the kitchen counter, flexing his hands on its lip to keep from overbalancing, the picture of serene Buddha-like contentment. “You can clean and we’ll call it even, how about that.” River shrugged, and Austin’s blissful smile grew. “I’m thinking we’ll get you a little feather duster, little apron, little French maid uniform…”

“Riv, please don’t kill my boyfriend, I need him,” Mandy called preemptively, from the couch, where she was playing Grand Theft Auto IV on Austin’s incomprehensible TV with a deep frown of concentration. River glanced at her in the midst of making a showy grab for the knife-block, Austin backing off and laughing like an idiot.

“For what?”

“For… tax reasons, I dunno.” Sirens started up onscreen, and she swore blisteringly. River accepted this explanation equably enough, though, coming over to lean on the back of the couch and look over her shoulder.

“Are you even allowed to play this game?” he asked momentarily, at least half-joking. “I mean… aren’t you a vegan? Don’t you have some kind of a, a code?”

“I’m not eating the cops after I kill them,” Mandy said, without looking up or changing expression. Which he supposed was also a fair point.

The upshot of all of which was that he moved into Austin’s second bedroom, shoved in among the rowing machine and the free weights. He guessed as part of his rent Austin could also bench-press him, if necessary. …He guessed Austin actually could bench-press him, if necessary, which was somehow a highly demeaning thought, and he tried to put it out of his mind immediately. He occupied the smaller bed, the smaller closet, set his own toothbrush in the bathroom, tried not to think about how deeply weird and morally questionable all of this was. He finally called his mom, maybe most important of all — and finally let out a breath he hadn’t even known he’d been holding, when she didn’t sound for a second anything less than delighted. He guessed maybe in the end Mandy had been right; that he was the only one who had cared, after all.

He still didn’t buy any plane tickets, though. But everything takes time.

The apartment door didn’t quite bang open, but it definitely gave anyone in the vicinity the impression that the people opening it were a few miles past the town of Caring About Scuffmarks On The Walls, population 0. “–sn’t have anything to do with it,” River was in the process of saying, several notches above decorous volume, while completely failing to balance on one foot long enough to work off one of his shoes. Austin caught him and pushed him upright when the situation got too dangerous, laughing. His arm on River’s waist was warm, even through his t-shirt and jacket, which River definitely did not notice. “I was assuming one-on-one combat, in which case sophisticated language offers absolutely no advantage whatsoever. I mean, what’s he going to do, get in a debate with the caveman? While he gets clubbed?”

“You said no weapons,” Austin accused, sounding sublimely contented but not nearly as drunk as he should have. Someday River was going to have to explain to him how completely not cool that was. He managed to kick the door shut in a kind of two-step pirouette, which if nothing else reminded River to stop leaning on him. “Astronauts don’t get their rayguns, cavemen don’t get their clubs. ‘Less you’re changing sides, which I couldn’t blame you for.”

“Okay, whatever. You can club someone with your fist, it’s not — like trademarked.”

“Well, astronauts’ve got fists too.” Austin yawned, stretching his arms into the air so that his own shirt rode up to unveil a stripe of muscular and slightly furred belly as he wandered deeper into the apartment. After a moment’s appropriately deep thought, he added, “And something else that cavemen don’t.” River managed to pull his drunk gaze back up to Austin’s face, and found him grinning. “Strategy.

River folded his arms, not to be swayed. “Cavemen can strategize. You don’t think you need a strategy to bring down a woolly mammoth? Or a, a sabre-tooth tiger? I’d like to see you try it.” Austin cracked up, but not for readily explicable reasons.

“Sure, where’s a mammoth? You got one in your pants, or somethin’?”

“Assume I turned that into some boasting pun about my virility, because I am dead serious about this.” River flopped onto the back of the couch without looking, which probably had no right to avoid complete disaster the way it did. “Cavemen would have had to hone their physical skills and their instincts to live off the land, and most astronauts these days are, like, good at math. If the cavemen and the astronauts were having a chess game, the astronaut would definitely win, but when we’re talking about a contest of physical force? Don’t kid yourself.” He paused. “…Why are we talking about this?”

“‘Cause you only got three cocktail wieners on the appetizer plate and you usually get five,” Austin said, immediately. River slapped the back of the couch triumphantly.

That’s right! And we started talking about cocktail wiener shortages, and then that song came on, and… right.” He frowned, distracted, and finally remembered to shrug out of his jacket, which found its way to a sad, crumpled temporary home on the seat of the sofa. “…I’m still right, is my point.”

“Bullshit.” Austin, apparently exhausted with the trials of verticality, bellyflopped onto the couch behind him, sending it scooting a couple inches and nearly losing River his balance on the back. He compromised by swinging around and bumping down onto the seat, whereupon Austin immediately lengthened his sprawl to include River’s knees. …Which, yes, gay, but whatever. Austin, meet knees. “Just ’cause you’ve got some kind of thing against human progress or something, I don’t know. We live in the future and you are trapped in the past. Et cetera.” On each point of emphasis he jabbed a finger up in the direction of River’s face, which at the end River at last gave up and snapped his teeth at.

“I’m not against human progress. I just think you’re an idiot.” He stopped to consider, during which period his own hand found its way somehow independently to scritching Austin’s extremely dumb hair. “I think I need a t-shirt that says that.”

“You think you need a t-shirt that says everything,” Austin mushed out with his chin on his sprawling arm, which, okay, was not unfair. River kept scritching by way of reward, which was really more than he deserved.

Tonight’s visit to the bar was, in fact, originally a tandem celebration of River’s completing his first successful week of NYU and having turned 21 a few weeks prior, although it had turned at an amazing speed into a celebration more of that most treasured of all college holidays, Random Drunkenness Day. It had been a good first week, though, actually; better than River had somehow managed to expect, in spite of all efforts by himself and others to the contrary. There were times in his first classes when he had felt like things were so much the same that there couldn’t have been any point in his transferring at all, and times when it was like he had moved into a completely different universe, and both, somehow, had been good feelings. The sense of being lost with the keys to the city — the what now? feeling — was dimming, and he guessed it would continue to do so. …And he found a part of him didn’t want to see it go, but hadn’t he sort of expected that? It was hard to reconsider things; crazy hard to jerk your head around and look from a whole different angle, especially after a lifetime of practice the other way. But maybe worth it? Who could say.

Austin yawned, having rolled on his back at some point, and then belched loud enough to nearly make the glassware in the cabinets rattle. “Beer,” he said, appreciatively. River rolled his eyes.

I’m going to have some water,” he said, prodding at Austin’s head, although Austin made absolutely no move to get up or release him. Jeez, it was like having a dog. …Sort of. “Why don’t you go use an actual pillow?”

“Pillows are boring.” Austin yawned again, then grinned with his eyes half-closed: glints of brown under his thick, dark lashes. His grin was softer this drunk, his mouth a little lax and lopsided. “And ’cause you whine.”

“I do not whine when you use pillows. That makes no sense. …Oh. Or did you mean I whine when you use me as a pillow? Because I don’t whine ever, I think is the point.” River poked Austin again. “Let me up. I can’t feel my feet and your hair gel’s probably making my pants all flammable.”

Austin frowned at River in apparent deep hurt, but relented enough to sit up. “Psh. Bring me a glass too.”

River scruffed Austin’s head again on his way up, and sauntered vaguely into the kitchen. He wasn’t thinking much while he filled the glasses, which was always one of his most cherished upsides of being drunk, but he was aware in a distant way of being sort of horny and that Austin was probably not going to go to bed and let him have any time to himself anytime soon. At least he was drunk enough that it wasn’t too hugely pressing a concern — just a needling restlessness at the back of his mind. It seemed like a problem he’d been having a lot this summer, more so even than when he’d lived in a dorm room, and sort of harder just to solve in the bathroom. But never mind that.

He drank his glass of water and brought back another for Austin, and got halfway to the couch before noticing that Austin had, for once, taken his advice and repaired to where his bed was. River followed him there, kicking a couple pairs of sweatpants out of the way on his way into the bigger bedroom; Austin had a sort of asteroid belt of clothes and junk that just spread out into the apartment from his epicenter, if left unchecked. Austin, for his part, had stretched out on the bed, still dressed except for shoes. He acknowledged River’s arrival with one eye cracked open and a weary little grin. “Man, I think we should celebrate your starting a new college every week.”

“I don’t think they accept transfers that often, sadly.” River handed him the glass and sat on the edge of the bed. Which he also might not have done under other circumstances, but standing up was just way, way too much trouble to be borne right now. “We could celebrate every week I don’t get kicked out. …Although that might backfire.”

“Yeah, well.” Austin downed the glass of water in a single row of gulps, not unlike the way he’d been drinking his beer earlier, which might have been the source of the problem, come to think of it. River caught his drunk gaze fixing this time on a little escaped trickle of water over one side of Austin’s lower lip: a little pearl catching the light. It was a bad place for it, and he made it go somewhere else, uneasily. As always oblivious, Austin set the glass down by the side of the bed, and let out a long breath. “…Aw, man, now I’m gonna have to pee in the middle of the night.”

River shrugged. “Make sure you get up first.”

“Yeah, that’s some good thinking right there.” Austin rolled his eyes and flailed out to punch River in the side — not remotely hard at all, but River still swatted at his hand on principle. “Too bad you’re not so smart about your cavemen. I mean, astronauts. …No, cavemen.” Austin frowned up at him. “Which one were you arguing?”

“I was cavemen, Mr. I Could Drink More Beer Than You When I Was Four.”

Austin looked indignant at this, or at least as indignant as one could while lying flat out with his arms folded under his head and a large swath of his belly exposed again. He was really going to have to do something about that problem. Maybe he needed longer shirts. “Hey. Do I make fun of you ’cause you’re a sissy girl-like sissy? No, Mr. I’m a … caveman-lover sissy beer boy with blond hair who goes to a fancy college now.”

River met this with the weary patience enough dealing with Austin would develop in anyone. Well, most anyone. “Oh, well played. How am I to compete with your superior wit?”

Austin poked a finger firmly into River’s chest, which was actually more uncomfortable than the punch earlier. Part of drunk Austin seemed to be excessive poking. “Yeah, well… I’m not the one who chose the Billy Joel song and forgot the words halfway through so I started humming and shit when I wasn’t fooling anybody, ’cause I wasn’t ’cause that was you.”

River grabbed Austin’s offending finger, leaning in in his wrestling for it. Austin didn’t fight long, though — too busy grinning. “I know you’re not mocking my karaoke skills. Because that is the kind of thing a man does not forgive.”

“‘She can hmm-hmm hmmmm, she can hmmm-hmmm hmm-hmmmm…'” Austin sang, in a slight nasal falsetto, very off-key and deformed by his persistent grin. “‘She can do something else and hmm-hmmm hmm-hmmm….'”

At which point River really had no choice but to grab one of the pillows and attempt to smother Austin with it. It was a matter of honor. Austin, however, only gave him the satisfaction of struggling feebly for a few seconds before going limp, at which point River lifted the pillow back up with a sigh.

“You did not even try,” he rebuked Austin, who was all wide-eyed innocence.

“I’m dead,” he replied. River raised an eyebrow.

“Oh really.”

“Yup.”

“I see.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I suppose I get your iPod, then.”

“You put all my stuff on a boat and you send it out to sea with me and you SET IT ALL ON FIRE.” Austin managed to sound very indignant for a dead person. “You are so bad at this.

River picked back up the pillow. “Hang on, I think I need to kill you again. It doesn’t sound like it took.”

Austin shrugged, and splayed out his arms in apparent submission. “Go to, young squire.”

…It was about the most stupid thing in the world, he figured, the most laughably, hilariously stupid thing ever to happen to anyone, that there was something about Austin lying all fake-dead with his arms flopped out and his eyes closed and his tongue just slightly poking out of his slightly uptilted lips that stopped River, stopped everything being funny and easy and normal right where it was, like in a bad horror movie or something where everyone on the street stops walking suddenly except for the one confused guy at the center. It was just Austin. He knew that. But just Austin seemed… not very simple at all, lately. Or maybe always, he wasn’t even sure. Was that really possible? It seemed to him both not just possible but plausible, and like it would be like he’d been living with a grizzly bear in his bathroom without noticing. Oh, says River when you finally ask him about it, I guess there is. I always just pushed past him to brush my teeth. Figured it was a really big brown towel.

He wasn’t gay, was the thing. He really wasn’t. A number of highly detailed guilty fantasies about Sara and the grainy newspaper photo he still had of her all still voted no. He was deeply and sincerely in favor of breasts, and he’d only loitered around the LGBTQ booth at the Student Groups Fair in faux-casual terrified fascination until a sweet-faced girl with a cowrie shell necklace had asked if he needed anything and he’d had to run for it. But Austin was very… Austin. It was occasionally sort of a problem, how Austin he was. And a part of River couldn’t help taking into account those extra letters on the sign, too. It was possible — alarmingly possible — that the answer didn’t have to be unequivocally yes, either.

But god, he didn’t even know what the hell anymore, and he was so too drunk or possibly not drunk enough for this, and they were still messing around and Austin was going to notice him hesitating, and was he actually leaning in toward Austin’s mouth? No. No. So much no. So incorrect.

So he did the only natural thing and smothered Austin with the pillow again. Just now it felt pretty therapeutic.

Austin’s death scene was slightly more convincing this time. River at least gave it improved marks on the choking noises. “That’s better,” he said. “See if you can stop talking this time. No one likes a chatty corpse.”

“Not my problem,” Austin said with renewed indignance, although it was hard to understand with his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. “Don’t all those crazy liberals teach you to respect other people at NYU? Like, dead people who just wanna talk some more? Is that so bad?”

“It is when they’re you.”

Austin considered this for a minute, then leaned over and bit River’s knee. River yelped unmanfully, mostly due to ticklishness although he wouldn’t have admitted it under torture, and whapped Austin with the pillow he was still holding. “Oh, great, now you’re a zombie? See, this is why my name should be on the lease agreement.”

“Your don’t pay rent,” Austin countered, tactfully. “Plus at least this way when they come to take you away to the sissy farm, I won’t have to do any paperwork.”

“Won’t help if you’re a zombie. Zombies are not allowed to rent or own property in the borough of Manhattan. There are zoning regulations.”

Austin rolled his eyes. “Just a beer zombie. I’ll be un-zombified by morning.” River snorted.

“Uh-huh. That’s what they all say.” He shoved at Austin’s head, in a reasonably affectionate manner. “You going to bed?” Oh, what a blessed miracle it would be if Austin were going to bed. Angels would sing and deeply confused college students would jerk off. Etc. etc.

Austin butted his head back into River’s hand, which as a punishment was sort of lacking. “Yeah, probably. How come?”

Good question. “Just curious.”

Austin yawned, and at some point in there his eyes slid shut, which River guessed was his answer. Somehow it was less joyous of an occasion than he’d been anticipating just a few seconds ago. “Mmkay. Just get the light on the way out.”

“All right, fine, just don’t be hung over or anything.” He pushed off the bed, took the second or two it demanded to get his balance right, and then… hesitated again. For somebody who ostensibly just wanted to be left alone to get off, he sure couldn’t seem to stop making conversation. Probably better not to examine that too closely — that or anything. “…Night.”

“Night,” Austin mushed. His accent got worse when he was drunk, and the word seemed to have about five extra syllables floating around inside it. River tried not to smile, and shut off the light on his way out.

Then he went into the bathroom and closed the door.

Then, some untraceable span of drunktime later, he came back out again, and turned off the light in there, too. And took a couple steps toward his room.

And then changed directions suddenly, and then all at once something had gone horribly wrong and in the dark of the bedroom Austin’s bed was giving a noisy exclamation of protest as River landed on Austin, with a knee on either side, and kissing his stupid grin-happy mouth so hard he forced air out of Austin’s lungs and out across his own lips.

The twitch and tiny grunting noise under him seemed to suggest Austin had really been asleep, but he was definitely awake now. His mouth sort of answered the kiss after a few seconds, actually, very dazedly but with a confidence River didn’t think he’d ever have in kissing as long as he lived. Apparently it was Austin’s personal philosophy to kiss first and ask questions later, which just figured. And at least he wasn’t throwing River across the room yet. Life felt giddy and lunatic, like River was suspended a long way over earth, hovering way high above himself, a pendulum on a very long rope.

Then a big warm hand had clomped onto the small of his back, and Austin’s tongue was forcing into his mouth, and okay, he was definitely back. His dick was especially back, and grinding into Austin’s thigh for that matter. Unsure when that had happened.

Austin was also way too good a kisser to be fair at all, which he made a vague mental note to take some sort of retribution for sometime later, when he wasn’t quite so preoccupied with the unthinkable fact that Austin was kissing back.

After a second Austin’s weight shifted around a little under him, and in the process his knee lifted, pushing against River’s hard-on. Hard to say if it was intentional or just a happy accident, but he’d damn well take it either way; he pushed into him, down onto him, letting his weight really settle and his mouth slip around wet on Austin’s. Austin tasted like beer and those godawful beer nut things and the huge hamburger loaded with everything except, like, baby seal that he’d had before the beer, and it was really just disgusting, and River was going to have to drag him to the bathroom and make him brush his teeth or something just as soon as he could stop kissing him. Which should be… in another eight years or so, barring complications, give or take. He barely noticed that he’d been gripping fistfuls of the front of Austin’s shirt in his hands, as though they were having a drunken brawl instead of a drunken — what? makeout session? were they making out yet, was Austin even awake? — and River were about to give Austin a piece of his mind. A piece of something else, maybe.

This went on for a good long while. Hard to be certain how long exactly, but at least about two and a half minutes, which was at least a full two minutes and twenty-eight seconds longer than River might have expected it to go on without Austin doing something. Like, say, pulling away from the kiss, or drawing his head back and away, like he did next. Caught off guard, River hovered above him, not sure where or how to move and for now just trying to breathe.

“Well, you got me,” was what Austin said into the darkness; barely more than a breath, close enough that River could feel it. “What’re you gonna do with me?”

“Um,” River said, and then winced at how dry and raspy his voice was. “I… actually hadn’t thought that far ahead.”

Austin was silent for a few more very awkward seconds — and then laughed, in full voice, startlingly loud in this dark quiet room. River could feel him relaxing underneath him, settling back on the bed, and his eyelids fluttered when that pressed Austin’s hip briefly into his groin. The big hand on the small of his back gave him a friendly little clap, made that much weirder for landing not far off from his butt. What the frigging hell, seriously. “You? Are a job of work. You know that, right?” River didn’t answer and fortunately he didn’t elaborate, just settled his hands more comfortably at River’s hips. Which also made him squirm a little bit, helplessly. God, it just figured, he was so hard he thought he was seriously about to die and Austin wanted to have a conversation about it.

“So how long’s this been going on?” Austin asked, in a slightly lower voice. River’s eyes had adjusted enough to the dark that he could just see Austin’s expression: smiling, but gentle, his eyes catching the most of the light.

“You know, I’m…” He ran out of air and paused, swallowing. “Would you believe I’m kind of not sure?” The first time didn’t seem to have taken, so he swallowed again. Being on top of Austin seemed suddenly like it had become horrendously awkward, but moving would probably just draw attention to it. Why did he do these things to himself? “I can, um… not?”

“Nah, it’s cool.” The casualness with which Austin said this was like the most infuriating thing in the world. River kind of wanted to throttle him, counterproductive as that would be. “I mean, unless you want to um not.”

“I hate you so much,” was River’s answer, really for no good reason. “Shut up. Keep kissing.”

Austin’s grin was as bad as ever in the dark: what little light there was flashed off teeth. “Yes, sir,” he said, in a doofy almost-purr, and then lifted his leg against River’s crotch again, which really wasn’t fair and not least because he then used his advantage to flip them both over. River landed flat on his back on the bed with Austin on top of him, huge and heavy and hot and his knee pushed in between River’s thighs and god dammit, and breath squeezed out of his own chest this time in a beery strangled whimper. So he did the only thing he could in this situation: scrambled his arms around Austin’s neck, yanking him back into the kiss, pulling him down into the writhing and panting mess Austin was a giant enough jerk to turn him into.

It wasn’t long of this before Austin’s big hand started yanking at the hem of River’s shirt, which… crap, he had not been counting on, but okay. It took both of them a second to work out untangling Austin’s body from his long enough to stretch the fabric up and back from his straining chest, more precious time wasted on getting it off over his head. They were such a mess right now, a hot confusion of hands and legs and bedsheets. After that it was only fair for River to go for Austin’s shirt too, and once he’d gotten it off Austin took it and threw it off the bed, to join the junk belt. Congratulations and welcome, UT t-shirt. River tried not to crack up just out of sheer nerves.

“You still all right down there?” Austin asked him. In the process he’d reared up to sit straight, pretty much astride River’s leg, and in the little bit of light he was all gleaming outlines of hair and muscles. God damn him anyway, stupid hot jerkwad.

“I’m fine,” was all River said, though, and without any sort of smart-assed response his voice came out sounding a little weak and shaky. He fumbled at Austin’s chest, before realizing that in the absence of breasts he didn’t really know what he was supposed to do with it. …Not that he’d have known all that well what to do with it in the presence of breasts, especially if they were still attached to Austin. Oh god why did he have to think such retarded things right now.

Apparently satisfied, Austin leaned back down to him, until their bare chests pressed together. “You just tell me if it’s too much,” he said in something he must have imagined to be a romantic sexy voice. Somehow River found the presence of mind to roll his eyes.

“You know, I know you’ve been confused about this, but I am actually not a woman.”

“Well, you know, you’re such a delicate little mountain flower that I just –” Fortunately River’s squeezing his thigh up into his crotch in the wrong way managed to make Austin shut up before he could finish that thought. He eased the pressure off almost immediately, though, although not all the way.

“Okay. Stop talking. Stop.” He grabbed his hands into Austin’s hair, pulling down on his head. It made a good handhold. “Shut up, get back here.”

“Aw, what?” There was still a damn grin in Austin’s voice, and about three extra syllables in there this time, but at least he did as he was told: he came back, not kissing but diverting at the last second, onto River’s neck. Which, okay, was fine, and River tilted his head up to offer some more neck to him, shutting his eyes and panting out a voiced breath. His hips kept jutting into Austin without permission, little jerky twitches he couldn’t quite control. Austin just licked at him for a few seconds, teasing along — and then suddenly sucked, hard, pulling skin against his teeth and making River make a little squawking sound that might have sounded like a bad noise but wasn’t at all. Then Austin was pulling back, up to examine his work in the dim light. “Huh. You mark up real good.”

He didn’t — he did. Of course he did. “You gave me a hickey?” River said, half in a gasp. “Okay, a) what are you, thirteen, b) I really hate you.” Austin snickered.

“That’s what keeps me warm at night.” And yes, all right, they were definitely making out now, except that it was also pretty much like a usual Saturday night. Only with making out. Which… was not bad, all things considered. “You’re gonna have a great time explaining that one.”

River actually blushed, which even in the dark made him grit his teeth. Jerkwad. “If anyone asks, I’ll say I had a leech. Or cancer. Or… leech cancer. Cancer by, or of, the leech.”

Austin paused. “…That’s, like, the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“The fact that you’re still talking is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” He groped around and seized belt loops on Austin’s jeans, mostly just because they were there, and pulled Austin’s hips back deeper in. Austin fell back onto him with a little oof, but it was a breathy little oof, and River decided to take that victory where he could get it.

“Oh yeah?” he said in River’s ear, which in spite of the general goofiness lost him a few victory points when he shivered. “You telling me you think I talk too much?”

“I… yes.” River struggled. “I do think that. I think you have someone in your bed who wants to have sex with you and you are still not shutting up, and it’s proving an earlier point I made, about you being an idiot.”

“If you wanna have sex with me then why are you still wearing pants?” Austin asked. River found himself caught with no real answer.

“…Oh, like that’s fair.” It sort of was, though, and he started fumbling to address it — getting rid of his socks first, because what was stupider than a man wearing underwear and socks? He got as far as undoing his fly before hesitating again, and he knew he was blushing again, and it was ridiculous. But still, well… he hadn’t really been counting on this, and Austin was just sitting there watching him. He cleared his throat when he had his jeans mostly off, trying to look anywhere but at Austin. “…Look, are you going to take off your pants or not?”

Austin just grinned, of course. “I dunno. Depending on how drunk you are, I figured I might could get you to do it for me.”

“Great, so you’re a lazy idiot,” River muttered, but at the same time pulled Austin back his direction, working open his jeans with both shaky hands. Shoving them away from Austin’s hips just made him shakier, and even more so when he hooked his thumbs into the waistband of Austin’s underwear and took that along too, just to keep Austin a step ahead of him because that seemed fair somehow. But this was okay. Extremely weird, and he’d been hard so long it felt like he was going to have to have surgery to be able to stop, but this was okay. Slightly more so for the fact that he found Austin hard, stripping him out of the rest of his clothes — and okay, slightly less so for how huge Austin’s dick was. Christ. Why was Austin even allowed to exist?

There was a kind of hellish moment after that where Austin was naked and River suddenly had absolutely no idea what to do about any of this, and staring at Austin’s dick was probably not the solution that he wanted, all things considered. And to make matters worse, he was hit with a momentary unreasoning certainty that Austin knew exactly what was on his mind, that Austin was obviously judging his lack of knowing what to do, and… and he took a deep breath, and let it out, and started over. Mandy was right; Austin wasn’t smart enough for that sort of crap. Austin was known to leave foul, sweaty, stench-ridden sweatpants hanging from the ceiling fan if not corrected. Austin judging him was not a significant threat.

…Oh, crap, Mandy. Why had he even thought about that?

Once he grappled back into control of his thoughts again, though, he supposed finishing the process was going to involve his being naked, too, logically speaking. He wriggled out of his own underwear, trying not to draw too much attention to how fiercely his own (and much more obvious) erection was trying to fight gravity. Austin reached out to brush his hip with the backs of his fingers, once it was bare, but it didn’t make him jump this time. At least, not so much as moan and lose most of his conscious thought processes.

“You know, you might’ve said something before this,” Austin pointed out, again in a slightly lower voice. All the obvious answers — how he never would have known Austin would be remotely interested, how he barely even knew himself there was anything to say before this — escaped River right now, and all he managed to do ultimately was shrug stupidly between heavy breaths, and pull Austin back in by his shoulders to kiss him again.

Things dissolved back into a slow grind, thighs interlocking, tongue against tongue. After a few seconds he caught Austin’s open lips curving up against his, and Austin’s fingers trailing over the little sore spot on his neck, which was probably going to be incredibly dark tomorrow, god damn his face. River tried to bite at him in retaliation, but honestly he wasn’t in any condition to aim with any part of his body right now, and he gave up fast. Especially once Austin curled his hands around River’s hips, just getting leverage to pull River in more firmly against his body — but he actually bit his own tongue a little in his mouth, and a little feeble sound croaked out of him as everything seemed to just snap.

“Oh my god, Jesus, please — ” came spilling out of his mouth all at once, in a long, ragged, whining gasp. “Come on, please, I’m like dying.”

Austin seemed to hesitate for a second, and then his tiny laugh was soft on River’s lips. “That’s pretty hot, actually,” he muttered — but before River could actually choke him to death, he also moved one of his hands in and down from River’s hip. Just cupping River’s cock first, making him groan through his teeth and clench his closed eyes, and then taking it fully into his palm. “You let me know if I’m doing this wrong, all right?”

You’re doing being alive wrong, River tried to say, or something equally nonsensically insulting, but all that would come out of his mouth was a compressed rush of air. It was probably just as well, under the circumstances. Austin’s hand was so not tight enough for a second or two, and then firmed up around him, and he yelped back in breath. “Ff–” He struggled, fighting his breath and the unaccustomed word. “F-fuck — ”

From there it took only an embarrassing brevity of seconds: Austin’s hand working him awkwardly, the sound of his own rattling breath filling his whole head. He clenched in on himself and then shuddered, his fingers dug into Austin’s back, trying to beg but unable to speak — and then it didn’t matter, because he was letting out a little shocked cry and coming in Austin’s hand, not knowing anything for a second but about his pulsing cock, and the thick sweaty heat wrapped around it.

For a while after that he could only pant, with his forehead pressed into the side of Austin’s neck, like every breath was the hardest thing he had ever done. Austin’s hand slackened around him after an amount of seconds or minutes he couldn’t really quantify, and after that it seemed like it went somewhere — probably to the box of tissues off to the side of the bed, but who knew. He eased up his grip on Austin’s shoulder muscles once he realized it, and made a feeble little noise into Austin’s slightly sticky skin, making Austin’s shoulders shake in a barely-there laugh.

“Okay?” Austin said, low. River swallowed, his eyes still closed.

“…Yeah.” His voice sounded crappy, but at least it was still there, creaking into Austin’s neck. He swallowed again; somehow the word took a lot out of him. “Yeah, um. Okay.”

Austin kissed him again after a second, still smiling, and sooner or later River managed to kiss back, meeting his tongue with sleepy clumsiness. Eventually he even managed to fumble his hand to Austin’s belly, and make its half-sheepish way to Austin’s cock, feeling it out and then wrapping it in careful fingers. Austin made a small rumbling sound, whether contented or annoyed it was hard to say, but — he didn’t think annoyed in a bad way, if so. So okay — okay, this was doable. Like himself, if, you know, he had a way bigger cock. Jesus. No, no, quit it. Concentrate.

“Good?” he managed, after a second. His breathing hadn’t slowed down very much; he hoped like hell still being a little drunk would keep him from somehow getting hard again here. Austin was quiet for a few seconds, his own breath a little heavy, and then he seemed to come back to himself and nodded. River bit his lip a little, stroking him, a little lost but thinking. “Okay… hang on a second — ”

And it took some work, pushing Austin’s hips around and flipping tangled limbs, but he managed to get himself at least halfway on top of him and shifted down a ways — at least enough that he could bend his back enough to bring his face closer to Austin’s cock. Which was sort of innately both hilarious and terrifying, and he didn’t linger very long before making an awkward little lunge to put his mouth on it, around its tip.

A little slapped breath came down from Austin, satisfying enough at least to make it all temporarily worth it. “Aw, shit,” he muttered, and he actually sounded a little unsteady himself now. River struggled not to give him his own grin right back; he didn’t think it’d work out very well right now.

He was sort of relieved to find Austin’s cock didn’t taste like much of anything, or at least not like much of anything he could identify. A little metallic, maybe, like drinking out of a can — or no, not like that, more like… tears, or sweat, or blood, something bodily and kind of salty. He couldn’t even really tell, his sense of taste still seemed a little messed up right now. And he guessed it wasn’t really the important part anyway — not after Austin seemed to finally let out a breath, and there was a long, soft groan on it, like everything was suddenly right after being wrong for a while. One of Austin’s big, rough hands settled on his hair, pushing on his head a little, and he resisted it as much as he could, just because. Going slow, just doing a little at a time. There was no way he was going to get more than even half of it, that was just not happening, but — he’d figure out something.

Something turned out to be his hand, working the base of Austin’s cock, which seemed like it was good enough for right now to him. Austin didn’t seem to have any problems either; his fingers were still knotted up just a little in River’s hair, pulling just little enough on a big enough area that it kind of felt good, kind of sexy. There was just a faint edge of voice on every other breath, and River kept his smirk inside his head. Funny how Austin shut up when he was the one turned on. He didn’t really have much sense of what he was doing, but he kept moving his mouth, and moving his tongue around when he could remember, and mostly Austin seemed like he was the one doing the work. Which was okay. Let him figure it out, if he was so smart about things.

He was only aware of Austin’s breath getting heavier at first, and then he realized his cock seemed to be sort of thickening in his mouth — which was sort of really hot, in a way, and in spite of his best hopes he was at least a little hard again now — and then Austin was clenching his fingers in the sheets and maybe trying to say something, and failing, but it didn’t really matter because he wouldn’t have stopped anyway. This… was a pretty good feeling, honestly. Making this happen, being good at this. Winning at something. He could probably get used to it.

And of course then Austin let out a funny little choked shout, jagged up his hips, and came in his mouth when he kind of still wasn’t ready, because Austin was never anything if not impossible. But whatever, he could deal.

He left Austin with an arm over his eyes, panting out the last of it, to get a tissue of his own and spit in it. After that, though, moving at all seemed to suddenly be the least worth it thing in the world. He fell back in a sprawl across Austin’s chest, his knee awkward across Austin’s thighs, and his head ended up on the side of Austin’s shoulder so River could hear his fast heartbeat through his skin. After a few minutes, sluggishly, Austin’s arm figured out there was somebody there, and curled up around him, holding him close. Holding him in like something that might even matter.

And that was okay.

And this was okay.

“I guess that was part of it, yeah,” River admitted later, when even after all that they’d both totally failed to get to sleep. Austin had declared himself hungry some fifteen minutes later, to great rolling of eyes and bitching of Rivers, but had somehow still managed to talk him into getting up and nuking them both a bag of popcorn. Munching it now River had to admit it seemed like a pretty good idea after all, although he was going to need another glass of water after this. They were both still sitting on Austin’s bed in mostly-dark, sharing from the bag, which was probably the only reason River felt okay talking about this. “And, you know… my dad.”

Austin made a small, knowing noise at that, tossing popcorn back way too showily for two in the morning. “Kinda like mine, huh?”

River glanced at him at that, surprised — and then snorted out a small laugh, looking down at the mess of the covers. “Ah, no. Not like that. No, I’m… pretty sure my dad was gay.”

The silence that followed that was awkward, if sort of appreciative. River finally pushed on in slight desperation. “I mean — I don’t know that for sure, I never even met him. But, you know, they were kids, and he left when he found out my mom was pregnant, and moved to San Francisco, and he died somehow she wouldn’t talk about when I was like five or so — I don’t know, but you know, I can do math.” He shrugged a little, playing with a twist of the way-too-big pajama pants he’d stolen off Austin’s floor. “…He really screwed us up, anyway. White Spring Hills, pretty serious Focus on the Family country, and even though probably everybody else Mom went to high school with slept with their boyfriends too, at least none of them ran off to be queer. Everyone acted like they wanted to help, but whenever she left the room — ” He bit his tongue, and stopped, and scrubbed his hands over his face, before dropping them back into his lap. “So yeah. I guess that’s… kind of what I always thought about it, you know? Once I sort of figured things out. We weren’t big church people, but — Guys who mess things up, is what it always just seemed like. …Guys who go away and leave everybody else to deal with their crap.”

“Do you wish he’d stayed?” Austin’s voice was quiet, almost unrecognizably serious, and River looked up at him with something biting already dying on his tongue. Austin just looked back at him. “You don’t think he would’ve just been miserable the whole time?”

We were miserable.” River sighed, and shrugged. “I don’t know. I think maybe I wish he’d tried, at least.”

“And you think you’re doing the same damn thing as he did,” Austin said. And suddenly River couldn’t look up.

Austin sighed, after a minute, and went back to digging around in the crumpling popcorn bag. “You’re not, you know. I don’t know how to tell you that so you’ll believe me, but you’re okay.”

“I just wanted to be different,” River said, and then held his breath for a second against the hitch in it, the sudden threat in his eyes. A choking second later he made himself laugh, although it didn’t sound like much. “Or maybe normal, I’m not even sure.”

“You’re okay,” Austin repeated, and put his big, chummy hand on River’s knee. He was still naked, and really, looking at Austin’s balls by accident was kind of the only thing that could make this conversation more awkward. “Look… I don’t know. I’m not good with talking and shit like Mandy or you are, I’m just a dumb guy who throws stuff.” River snorted a little helpless laugh of assent at this, which seemed to encourage him. “But… it sounds like he messed some stuff up, sure. And hell, maybe you did too.” River glanced up at him, weary-eyed, and found Austin just looking back at him with no real expression. “But that’s what happens, you know? You are who you are. You don’t have to let it make a mess of you.”

River couldn’t really think of much to say to that. He guessed he was going to have to think it over.

“Is Mandy going to be mad, you think?” he asked, managing a tone that was both more subdued and a little bit lighter. Austin looked at him for a second longer, and then snorted.

“Yeah, she’s going to be mad,” he said, which gave River’s stomach just long enough to knot up on itself before he finished. “She’s going to be mad I didn’t take pictures.”

River stared at him. “…What?”

“I mean, that was the agreement,” Austin said as though he hadn’t said anything, feigning blissful unawareness pretty well. “Nice portfolio, couple blow-ups…”

At last River was forced to grab the popcorn away from him to get his attention. “What in the hell are you talking about?”

Austin grinned at him, sitting back on his hands now that they were free. “We talked this over. What, are you kidding? She loves you. Sometimes I get scared you two are gonna run away together, except then I remember two ladies can’t get married in the state of New York. Which seems like a damn shame to me, mind you.”

This was so eerily identical to what Mandy had said that River was honestly too creeped out to be flattered. He just could not get used to the idea of people actually liking him. “…How did you talk this over? How do you — ” But that seemed obvious, and he stopped and just spluttered for a second. “When did this even happen?”

“Couple months ago.” Austin shrugged. “She said if something ever happened, it was fine, just be sure to take pictures. Her words.” He considered for a second. “She might have been kidding, but I don’t wanna risk it, you know? You seen my camera?”

River chose to ignore the implications of that, mostly by virtue of the fact that he was completely at sea. “…How did she know when I didn’t even know?” he somehow managed to struggle out, eventually. Austin gave him a long look that said River’s ignorance was a deep disappointment.

“She’s a girl,” he said. River opened his mouth to object, realized this was actually kind of a fair point, and shut it again. Austin took advantage of the situation to nab back the popcorn.

“I still hate you,” he finally grumbled by way of conclusion; but really, only on principle.

Still, the first sign that it was actually okay was only much later, when they were both sitting on the couch, playing Soul Calibur.

“You know how I know you’re gay?” Austin asked, mostly absently. River bit his lip a second, concentrating, before he answered.

“‘Cause I sucked your dick last night?”

There was a brief, considering pause.

“Hey, yeah,” Austin said at last. “You’re pretty good at this.”

When River had been a kid, their tiny TV had always been on Monday nights, and he was only allowed to stay up if the Broncos were playing. He got so used to those nights, sleepy but happy, a plastic cup of milk in his hands and his mom’s arm secure around his shoulders, watching John Elway score touchdowns against what always seemed like impossible odds. He had seemed like a hero, to a little kid who’d just lost a dad without ever knowing him: a confident male figure, stubborn and strong, always trying even when everything around him was a mess. When he finally took home the Super Bowl, when River was in high school, he’d actually put his head on his mom’s shoulder and cried a little. The world had seemed incredibly good that night, incredibly right. Every dream, he could still remember, had seemed possible.

He told Austin very little of this, in the end, in the kitchen one evening as Austin got dinner onto plates. (Cans of refried beans on tortillas made hot-ish; Austin Le Chef soldiered ever bravely on.) He thought, though, that Austin might have understood more than he was told. He looked at River for a minute — what seemed like a long minute, especially with his stupid oven mitts on.

“You know who I wanted to be when I grew up, when I was a kid?” he said, at last, returning his attention to the skillet. River half-smiled, a little wanly, and shook his head. Austin frowned at the browned tortilla, then glanced back at him. “No, go on, take a guess.”

River sighed, and lifted and dropped his shoulder. “Troy Aikman.”

“Nope.” Austin got the tortillas sorted at last, with some effort, and dumped off his mitts. “Willie Nelson.”

“…You what now?”

“I’m serious!” Austin leaned on the counter, lifting his hands. “I never gave a damn about football when I was a kid. Just wanted to impress a girl in high school and it got all out of hand. I wanted to sing, man. I got music in my soul.”

“You wanted to be Willie Nelson.” Austin narrowed his eyes slightly, which was not very threatening, but River still tried to give up most of the hilarity in his tone. “…Okay. You know, if you actually let your girlfriend toke you up, I think you’d be about halfway there.”

“You are not taking my dreams seriously,” Austin noted, companionably enough, turning to pick up the plates, “even though I take yours seriously, because I am a better person than you. I accept that.” And then he paused, a plate in each hand, looking at River.

“You’re not John Elway,” Austin said, finally, half a tiny smile on his face. River opened his mouth, but before he could even say anything, Austin interrupted him. “I’m not Willie Nelson, either. But you know… I think we’re doing okay. At being us, I mean.”

River didn’t really have anything to say to that. Finally Austin just smiled a little wider, and held out his plate, and he took it; and that seemed to be that.

And, on his way out of the kitchen, stopped cold with an expression of horror fortunately turned the wrong way, as he heard behind him, soft and mournful: “On the road again… just can’t wait to get on the road again…

He turned around, slowly. “Oh my god,” he managed to say with an almost straight face, at last. “Oh my god, I am so sorry, I didn’t know. At least I can play football.”

“You go to hell,” Austin said, cheerfully, without looking up. “The life I love is making music with my friends! JUST CAN’T WAIT TO GET ON THE ROAD AGAIN!

At which point River, still heading for the living room, at last gave up and collapsed onto the sofa, howling, so hard he very nearly dropped his plate.

Thanksgiving break came up somehow before he knew it. NYU was definitely a better school, and he could tell because it was a harder school; he was working all the time, it seemed like, trying to catch up on credits to do his Journalism/English double major. He also thought he’d never been happier at school, which was weird but pretty okay. His class on sports journalism was his favorite by far — maybe worth pursuing in an internship, even. If he could get one. He’d just have to see.

The other thing was that they were staying here this Christmas, not going to see Austin’s family… but on the other hand Austin, with only a minimum of drama involved, had managed to argue his way into buying River’s mom a plane ticket to LaGuardia. He’d been on the phone with her a lot more lately, talking about the visit, both of them just getting more and more stupidly excited about the trip. He kept thinking of more places he wanted to take her to eat, more silly spectacular things he wanted to show her. Tourist stuff. And if he was maybe hoping she’d like it here, maybe like it a lot… well, what about that? You could always dream, especially when your… roommate or boyfriend or best friend or something had more money than God.

Speaking of which, he guessed they were also going to have to have one hell of an awkward conversation. But it wasn’t like he wasn’t getting used to that sort of thing lately.

He brought his plate of turkey (very store-bought, requiring no more than heating up, thank god), over to sit next to Mandy on the couch. She’d brought over a Tofurkey for herself, about which he and Austin had snickered dutifully behind her back, but she didn’t seem to begrudge them either that or the bird, fortunately. “Who’s winning?” he asked, eyes on the TV at first; the game was on, of course, but so far he’d been managing not to pay any attention. Mandy glanced up at him, her cheek packed with tofu.

“Some of the little guys in pads,” she said mushily, pointing at the screen. He rolled his eyes, but grinned while he did it. It seemed like he was taking after Austin on that a little, these days.

“Gee thanks, Vin Scully.” She gave him the finger, chewing. “Oh, I’m sorry. Howard Cosell.” Which she clearly didn’t get, but that was okay. He settled in, turning his smirk down to his own plate. …And then stopped, when Mandy put her hand over it suddenly, interrupting his fork on the way down.

“Wait up,” she said, as primly as somebody could say that specifically. At least she’d swallowed. “First you’ve got to tell me what you’re thankful for.”

And he really thought about that for a minute, possibly to her surprise.

“Okay,” he said, finally, looking at the little guys in pads move around on the TV. Somehow a little smile had even found its way onto his face. “Actually, I think mostly I’m thankful we don’t get everything we want.” He glanced at her, still smiling. “Is that okay?”

“Works for me,” she said, already smiling back, and relinquished his plate. “You can eat your bird corpse.”

“Thank you.” He did so, and happily. It was fake gravy, sure, but pretty good fake gravy. Mandy leaned in against his shoulder, poking at her food, and he leaned companionably back on her; Austin was still clanking around the kitchen, humming something terribly to himself, and the combination of thoughts made him grin suddenly, sitting up a little so he could see her face again. “Did you know Austin used to want to be Willie Nelson when he grew up?” he asked. She stared at him.

“…What, are you serious?” He nodded, a grin starting to stretch out across his face, and she put both her hands over her mouth without quite covering the corners of her own. “…Oh my god, that is so sad!”

“I know!” he cried, still in undertone; and then that was it before neither of them could say anything for a minute, just leaning on each other, plates in their laps, tearing up a little, until finally Austin had to lean over the kitchen island and ask what the damn hell was so funny, which, of course, just made it worse.

Jets’ Villareal: rising star, not afraid of falling

BY R. LEWIS

STAFF WRITER

FLORHAM PARK, NJ – After four years with the Jets, Austin Villareal’s prime may still just be getting started.

“It took some settling in,” Villareal said Tuesday night, after the Jets’ first practice of the season. “There’s that stretch of time where everyone’s still getting used to each other. But they’re pretty used to me now. I think we’re going to see some serious changes this year.”

Villareal, a native of Abilene, Texas, has the kind of success story most college players see only in their dreams. Not even a player until he was seventeen, Villareal nonetheless vaulted into NFL history within his first year as Jets quarterback, already considered a rival for some older players in terms of his passing record — a fact which may have made it harder for some to get used to him than others. Although he recognized how much of his success has been luck, he also said he had no fear of letting down the team, should it ever run out.

“The way I see it, we get where we are for a reason,” Villareal said. “Even if it’s not where we expected to be, or we can’t see why at first. I’m going to give them the best I’ve got, and if I make some mistakes, then I’ve got that much more to learn from going forward.”

As the preseason continues, the Jets will face …

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