Little America

by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)
illustrated by safelybeds

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/146679.html)

Side A

The first time Nate met Jase was in ninth grade: the afternoon after his first day of high school, in fact. There was an independent record store near the university campus, on the basement level of another storefront, that he could get to by bus if he needed to, and he definitely needed to after all that cold sweat and tears of boredom. It was his favorite place in town; he’d found it in the yellow pages in a fit of desperation, when all his naive attempts to find The Feelies at the mall or the shopping center had been in vain. It was seedy and mildew-smelling, with only a hand-lettered sign on black posterboard out front to mark it, and all the walls and ceiling inside painted a glossy black — although you could barely see any of the walls because the whole twenty-foot-square space was floor-to-ceiling with racks of cassettes, sometimes at haphazard angles or looking like they were about to fall out onto the floor. The guy who perched at the jackleg counter was a pudgy 20-something with shaggy hair and horn-rim glasses, who wore long flannel shirts and always seemed to be reading books by Immanuel Kant. The one time Nate had made his mom bring him, she’d taken one look at the place and looked about to faint. It wasn’t a mistake he ever planned to make again.

He came down the steps that day from street-level, already relaxing back into his skin as he got out of the daylight and into the glow of the bare bulbs, and the first thing that met him was the back of a guy who was standing at one of the free-standing racks that crowded the middle of the store, flipping cassettes back one by one with little clack! sounds. Nate couldn’t see that much of him from the back, but the guy had on a dark blue cloth jacket with patches sewn onto the sleeves and tight acid-washed jeans over legs like toothpicks, which disappeared into heavy black boots. There was a stud in one of his ears — he could see the back of it — and his dark hair was buzzed close to his scalp all over except in the front, where there were a couple strands that had been left chin-length long and dyed blue. It was only seeing that hair, as Nate came around the rack and got a look at the guy from the front, that made the recognition finally click home.

“Hey, um — ” The sound of his voice made him wince, as well as making the guy standing at the rack look up in mild surprise and the guy sitting at the counter look up in annoyance. Nate hadn’t even really known he was going to say anything. But he made himself smile, hard as he could. “…You go to Warrington, right?” The guy raised his eyebrows a little further, then nodded. His face was thin, foxish, handsome in a noncommittal sort of way. Nate laughed, sheepishly. “I, ah, saw you at that totally lame assembly this morning. I’m a freshman.”

The guy just seemed to watch him for a minute longer, size him up, coolly amused. Finally he seemed to make up his mind, and smiled a little bit back. “Me too,” he said — blowing Nate’s mind a little right off the bat. “What, you mean you aren’t all gung-ho with school spirit now?”

Nate laughed again. “As if.” He got distracted, though, and tilted his head on one side, reading the labels near the guy’s hands. “…Oh — you like Sonic Youth?”

One of the guy’s eyebrows raised even further. “Do you?” he countered, with a note of skepticism Nate guessed he could understand. He brightened up in spite of himself, though, beaming and nodding.

“Yeah, sure! I mean, I’m kinda more into the Violent Femmes, R.E.M., you know, but they’re great. Kinda like Dinosaur Jr., I think?” To his pleasure, he saw the guy starting to look genuinely interested, turning his direction with a little more light coming on in his dark eyes.

“Yeah, sort of. Hey, did you ever listen to Dead Nails?” Nate shook his head, and the guy started flipping tapes again, a little further down in the rack. “They’re locals, from Chicago. They’re a little edgier, you know, a little more out there. You should give them a shot, especially if you ever listened to any Joy Division.” Nate was about to respond in the affirmative, enthusiastically and to a lot of different parts of all that, but before he could do more than get his mouth open the guy was looking up at him again, smiling and holding out a tape. “I’m Jason,” he said.

“I’m Nate,” Nate said; grinning like an idiot the whole time. “Nice to meet you.”

He’d only just taken the tape, though, when he became aware of more footsteps down the stairs, and a second later two girls popped in behind them. The one in the lead was small, thin, dark blonde, and very pretty; she had rings of dark makeup around her eyes and a ripped t-shirt hanging off her shoulders, showing tank-top straps. The girl behind her had long dark hair in a frizz of curls, was popping gum, and looked desperately bored and slightly ashamed to be there. Jason turned in their direction at the noise, and the blonde girl smiled at him brilliantly, weaving her way in. The guy at the counter furrowed his brow and dug his head down deeper into his book.

“Hi, Jase,” the blonde girl said, hands linked behind her back. He spared her a brief, distracted smile before turning his attention back to the tape-rack. “I figured you’d be in here. Are you busy?”

“Kinda, yeah.” He glanced between her and Nate, and then looked back at her with a thumb in Nate’s direction. “Nate and I were just talking. Nate, this is Amy.”

“Hi,” Amy said, turning a brilliant two-dimensional smile on Nate for maybe half a second. Then straight back to Jason, like a compass turning north. Nate barely had time to wave. “We were just wondering if you wanted to come to Tony’s with us, grab a pizza?”

The girl behind Amy looked like she had never wondered anything in her life. Nate tried to smile at her, and she turned her eyes away and sighed, audibly. Jason — Jase? — shrugged, looking at the tapes again.

“Nah, I’m kinda busy. Thanks, though.”

Amy smiled again, brightly as ever, which Nate thought was pretty impressive given how unhappy she obviously looked. “Okay, too bad. See you at school, then.”

“Yeah, see you.”

After they’d tromped their way back out, Nate glanced back up the stairs and sidled in closer to Jason. “Who is she?” he asked in an undertone, not sure why he was bothering but feeling like it was necessary somehow. Jason followed his eyes without much interest, then shrugged again.

“Amy Hamilton. We went to the same middle school. Had homeroom together last year.” He flipped through a few more racks, then shifted around to the other side, making Nate follow him. “She’s all right.”

“Man, she seems really into you,” Nate offered — giving this the same air of awestruck, won-the-lottery good news he’d hear in it if someone ever, his whole life, had occasion to say that to him. Jason glanced at him, then back down.

“Amy? Nah, I think she’s just like that.” He clacked through a few more times, then made a soft sound and held out another tape to Nate. “Oh, these guys, too. Especially if you get a chance to see them live.”

Everything Jase did became Nate’s goal in life over the next couple of years, although he hardly ever got to actually carry through. For all his dad might grunt from behind the newspaper that Nate should get a haircut, it seemed clear he didn’t mean one like Jase’s; Nate’s dad had a very different sort of buzzcut, and was on record as believing mohawks were direct indicators of criminal behavior. Nate’s dad managed a department store downtown, and thought that people who didn’t like the job President Reagan had done should move to Russia. When Nate mentioned hair dye to his mom, her lips disappeared, and the one time he gingerishly brought up the subject of getting his ear pierced she burst into tears and demanded to know if he was on drugs, was he a drug addict, with both of them working all the time had they somehow not noticed he’d turned into a drug addict. It had taken him the rest of the evening to calm her down out of it, and he’d definitely never tried again. So his hair stayed in the same long, soft, slightly girly waves, and by junior year the best he’d been able to manage was a jean jacket and some boots that made his dad’s lip curl. And the music, of course. Always the music.

Nate’s room wasn’t quite stacked with tapes the way Dooby’s Records was, but it put up a decent competition. His backpack was always crammed with them, his walkman always in one pocket of the jean jacket. Stuff he’d gotten at Dooby’s on his allowance, stuff he’d traded for with Jase or Rick or through Jase’s brother, and all the blank tapes he could get his hands on, always turning into mixtapes and compilations one after another. His prized, hard-won possession was his two-tape-player boombox, plus he dubbed stuff constantly off W.Z.R.T., the university station that had been like his religion ever since his older cousin had turned him on to it. He’d sit up in his bedroom windowsill nights when he was supposed to be asleep, the light off and his big studio headphones plugged in, listening with his finger hovering over the record button for the first telltale note of a song he liked. Feeling alive and on top of everything, for the only times ever, when the rest of the world was asleep.

It was good music, but it was more than that; it was powerful music, it was secret music. It made him think to himself, stupid or not, of codes and hidden clubhouses, secret knocks to get into speakeasies, passwords traded between spies. It was a world he didn’t have to share with the people at school who didn’t even notice him, no matter how nice he was to them or tried to be friendly, because they didn’t notice this, either. It passed under their feet, unknown to them, in a world they couldn’t even imagine. The guys who played it didn’t even look outlandish or super-cool; they just looked like guys, like regular guys, even more like him than like Jase or Amy, although that thought made him feel a little guilty. The music seemed to belong to him, to every kid who didn’t quite fit and wasn’t quite the same as everyone else. It was who he was. It was who they were: him and Jase.

“Hey, man,” Jase said, as Nate was setting his tray down on the table and sitting down. “Stu’s driving me out to Chicago next Saturday to see Hüsker Dü. You in?”

Nate hesitated in mid-sit, glancing around. Everyone else was looking at him, which made the odds of getting out of this clean a lot lower. “Um… to Chicago, wow. I guess we wouldn’t be, like, back the same night?” It wasn’t quite a question. Jase looked slightly incredulous, and Amy, who had latched herself in under his arm and already looked annoyed at losing his attention, snorted loudly.

“See, I told you,” she said in Jase’s ear, not in undertone at all. Jase appeared to ignore her.

“Yeah, probably,” he said, still mild. Nate paused a second longer and then forced out a half-hearted, wheezing laugh.

“Yeah, cool… it’s just, you know — ”

“Oh, come on, man,” Jase said, rolling his eyes slightly. Now his tone had gotten up to mild annoyance, and Nate’s palms broke out in sweat. “Don’t be a wuss about it.”

“Sorry — it’s just — ” Nate swallowed, trying to keep from crumbling. “You know, if, if I don’t go to church I’ll be in trouble, and — ”

“And Nate’s mommy would have a heart attack if he stayed out all night,” Amy cooed suddenly, and when he glanced back at her in alarm he found she’d finally turned her full attention on him, all glinting with sweet, smiling poison. He tried to fix his frozen smile on his lips, even as his stomach sank. “C’mon, Jase, forget it. He’d just make your brother pull over every five minutes so he could take a leak, anyway.”

Which made him wince, and Toby and Rick laugh, but at least it worked out sort of in his favor. Jase still looked irritated and a little disappointed, but in the end he just shrugged and said nothing, and Nate could finally look somewhere besides at his dark eyes. And then Nate was, blessedly, out of the center of attention completely, when Toby took his chance to seize the floor.

“Did you guys see the new kid?” he asked — gesturing with his head to the table where the new kid was sitting, eating by himself with a book in front of him. “I’m in homeroom with him. His name’s Eric… something weird. Huhsoo or something like that.” He pronounced this to rhyme with ‘kazoo,’ something that both didn’t seem correct to Nate and gave him absolutely no clue how the name might have been spelled. Amy leaned in with a new vicious spark of interest, though, which he had to admit was even more of a relief, just for its giving her a new focus.

“No, not ’til now. What’s he like?”

Toby shrugged, sipping at his straw again. “Beats me. Pretty dull, as far as I can tell, he’s just been reading all day.”

Nate frowned past Toby’s shoulder, leaning back a little to get a decent line of sight on the new kid. Looking at Eric However You Actually Said His Name gave him a little sting of pity; the guy was Oriental, which brought it up to a grand total of one in the whole school, and even in his neat, anonymous jeans and button-down shirt he stuck out even worse than Jase’s piercings and hair, and without even the balm of having done it on purpose. They weren’t the only ones staring, and that alone made Nate self-conscious enough to stop. Amy kept going as far as he knew, though, for a long moment before she finally snorted and made her pronouncement:

“Well, he looks like a total nerd. Maybe if he really lucks out, he can get that book to go with him to the prom.”

Even if he’d been thinking about trying to make friends with the new kid — maybe even trying to make a place for him in their own group — that assessment from Amy was pretty much the kiss of death right away. It would have been a bad idea, anyway, he told himself; you didn’t go crossing boundary lines, reaching out to someone outside your little circle. You hung out with your crowd and you didn’t bother anyone else, and they didn’t bother you, and that was how it worked. Eric might fall in with a group in time, but one member of a group didn’t reach outside of it to pull somebody in. That just wasn’t how it was done.

And maybe it was a good call in another way, because over the next few months it seemed to become clear that Eric wasn’t all that interested in falling in with a group, or even in making friends. Anytime he wasn’t in class, he was reading by himself, and although a few people did try to talk to him, he perplexed them all away with a polite, mature, total lack of engagement. He was clearly very smart, but not really even nerdy like Amy had said: at least nerds were social with each other. And he was athletic, although he didn’t go out for any sports — just did as effortlessly well in P.E. as he did in any other class. He was just quiet, and had a steady, aloof self-possession that made him seem more like a miniature adult than one of the rest of them. And after a while, everyone just left him alone, including Nate — especially Nate. If Eric wasn’t interested in being friends with anyone else, after all, he wasn’t about to be interested in it with Nate.

Nate had never really had friends before high school. He’d known people well enough to play with in kindergarten and the first couple years of elementary school, sure, but when people started forming into groups around third grade, it seemed like he’d been one of the only ones left without a chair when the music stopped. He’d spent most of those last three years practicing the piano or hanging out with his mom, at least before she finally went back to bookkeeping like she had before he was born. Then he spent most of junior high getting made fun of and/or the shit kicked out of him. Music had been the only comfort, the one thing he had to keep him company, even when nothing and no one else would. He was friendly, and he at least thought he was nice, but he had a sort of big mouth he couldn’t seem to learn to shut up, and people had always gotten tired of him pretty fast. Even after two years of hanging out with Jase and his friends, he still couldn’t ever shake the certainty that it was an incredibly delicate situation; at any moment they could lose patience, finally get too sick of him and hound him out. He had to be on his toes all the time at school or if they let him hang around afterward, pushing himself to smile all the time, laughing along at their jokes at his expense, on desperate eggshells to make it right every time he said something wrong or one of them found something about him to pick at. He couldn’t take anything for granted. If they’d all made one thing clear to him, it was that he’d been here all this time only on probation.

So he did what they wanted. Jase loved nothing better than to instruct and correct him on his musical taste, and Nate was only too happy to let him. He coveted Amy, helplessly — had guilty lurid fantasies where she somehow decided he was the one she’d always wanted and ended up on his bed naked except for her eye makeup, or daydreamed while he jerked off about her and Jase making out, Jase’s thin graceful hands spidering out over the cups of her bra, his skinny hips clasped between her thighs — but while both Jase and Amy almost definitely knew, they seemed to accept it with a certain satisfaction: as though that were only the natural order of things. He helped Toby manage his endless string of girlfriends, and dubbed copies of his rarest albums for Rick. He got his mom to drive places when Jase’s brother was back at school (she tolerated Jase only out of sheer relief that Nate finally had any friends at all, but they both always steered Jase well clear of Nate’s dad by mutual unspoken agreement). He worked hard, all the time, it seemed like. He kept up.

Or he always had, anyway.

The problem, in the end, was Jase. As he supposed he might sort of have expected.

They were watching slasher flicks on the couch in Jase’s den, which was in the bottom part of the split-level: next to the garage, and under Jase’s mom’s room and the one he’d used to share with his brother. His mom was upstairs, like she always seemed to be when Nate was over; on the few occasions Nate had met her, she had looked bleary and slept-on and had spoken little, and a vague liquory smell had clung around her like a fog. Jase had never mentioned where his dad was, and Nate had never asked. The house had a faint old-milk-smell funk to it, and there were always clothes on the floor and bits of cereal crushed into the carpet. The plus side of hanging out there, though, was that they could watch whatever they wanted — Nate’s mom was death on anything with even a hint of boobs — and that, more to the point, the fridge was always full of beer, and Jase waved off all Nate’s concerns about Jase’s mom catching them drinking. “Like she cares,” was all Jase had said, and somehow Nate had kept from questioning that, either.

So they each had bottles in front of them, and even though Nate didn’t really like beer or horror movies, he was at least trying to enjoy the forbidden fruit. Jase was tucked into the corner section of the sofa, his knees up by his chest and his beer balanced on them, drowsy-eyed and smiling a little to himself. Nate liked it when he smiled; it warmed up his eyes, softened his mouth.

“So hey,” Nate said, mostly just to have a reason to keep looking at Jase and not at the screen. Jase’s eyes flicked toward him for a second, and then back to the movie. “How was that thing at Amy’s last Friday?”

Jase shrugged, and took a swig of his beer before answering. The thing at Amy’s hadn’t been exactly a party — actual parties were way too basketball-team-and-their-girlfriends for Amy — but there’d been music and some people and some booze in a parents-free house. “It was pretty cool. Stu was around, he hooked up the stereo for us.” He was quiet a moment, watching the screen. “Why didn’t you come?”

Nate shifted in his seat, uncomfortably. “Well, you know.” Jase didn’t answer, though, and when Nate glanced up Jase was looking back at him with eyebrows raised, in a way that didn’t much say he did know. “…Amy doesn’t really like me.”

“She doesn’t not like you.” This wasn’t exactly an argument or exactly true, Nate thought, but he let it go. “You worry about her too much, man. She rags on everybody. It’s no big deal, she’s just like that.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Nate said, and made himself smile; and then lapsed into silence, picking up his beer again and staring into it as a girl screamed and ran onscreen. As with just about every time Jase said that, it seemed more out of lack of insight into Amy than the opposite, but he didn’t want to argue about it. Jase would get annoyed, and they were having a good time, sort of.

He knew Jase and Amy had done it; he’d asked about it often enough after they’d started going out, always equal parts eager and embarrassed, and Jase had answered with a kind of bemused, patient honesty. He had never seemed all that interested in the subject, actually — although Nate figured that was just Jase, always being so cool. When he was alone with Amy, he was probably different. Had to be. Put him between a girl’s thighs, and even a guy like Jase would have to warm up. But even still, even knowing that, he could never quite get how Jase could be so calm about Amy: like it didn’t even matter to him, like she could leave and he wouldn’t even care, might not even notice. When Nate tried to even talk to a girl he liked, let alone make a move on one, he kind of got an instant case of low-grade stomach flu.

What would Jase be like, alone with Amy? How would he change? How would he look? His mind was already fogged out from the beer, and it drifted without a hitch to the image of Jase wearing some more wholehearted version of that little smile, his lips curving like a cat’s mouth, with Amy’s hand wrapped up in his longer one. Jase laughing at the jokes he was being told, being impressed, being opened up enough to actually let something come out. And then — a little too quickly, from ease of practice – to Jase’s face, reddened, with sweat standing at the temples and his lips slightly apart. Jase’s eyes lightly closed and moving, the thin green strands of his hair at the front sticking to his cheek and his lips, while Amy was naked and grinding on top of him on this same couch. Her breasts resting in his long hands, the faint blue glow of the TV light sliding down the white curves of her skin and his, making dimpled shadows where he touched her and where her hair fell across his thin, bare chest.

Nate finally snapped back, blinking, to find that he’d actually spaced on that subject for a good long while; his eyes on the TV had gone comfortably out of focus, and his beer had both sweated long rivulets over his hand and somehow magically become mostly empty. Maybe just because his mouth had gone so dry. He shifted again in his seat, for a different reason this time. Why did he always have to think about stuff like that at just the wrong time?

When he glanced over at Jase, though, a huge warm wave splashed into his chest, of relief and something else mingled in — something heavy and tight and hard to name. Because he was safe: at some point in there, Jase had dozed off, with his bare feet tucked up on the couch cushion and his head lolling off to one side, against the back of the couch. His beer stayed snug between his knees, even while his hand had gone lax and loose around it; his mouth was a little parted, and the long strands of his hair tumbled over his cheek and stuck slightly to his lips, not unlike the way Nate had just found himself picturing. He was tall even though he was thin, much taller than Nate, but folded up like that he looked small. Unguarded, and easy to reach.

There was no conscious thought involved. Nate’s head was hot and seasick, his pulse seeming to bang through his chest like a drum; he wasn’t thinking anything that seemed to make sense. He just crawled his way along the couch, with extreme exaggerated care, quiet enough for the screams and sound effects and shrilling stings of the movie to cover. He hadn’t even put down his beer-bottle, which made it a good thing it was almost empty. The only light down here was the dim glow down the stairs from the kitchen and the flickering bluish TV light (also like he’d just been picturing, he was dimly aware and tried not to be), and in it Jase got closer, the space on the couch between them somehow seeming to shrink without his being involved at all. He couldn’t really feel his feet pushing him, couldn’t feel his hands padding along.

And then he was just there: his chest just shy of pressing into Jase’s knees, his hand planted on the seat of the couch next to Jase’s hip. Staring at that thin black crack of space between Jase’s parted lips.

Staring at it hard enough that it actually took him a second to notice when — just as he was in the middle of leaning in — Jase’s eyes opened.

Nate froze. Right on the spot, completely unable to move. Jase stared back at him, wide awake now but with his mouth still a little bit open. It was more of an actual expression than Nate had probably ever seen him make. With his normally sleepy eyes that wide open and round, he somehow looked smaller and more vulnerable than ever, like a kid.

“Hey, uh,” Jase said, after what seemed like forever. His voice sounded thick and naked. “…What are you doing?”

For a second or two, maybe, Nate couldn’t say anything — couldn’t even breathe, his lungs just felt pressed flat with nothing getting in or out. And then finally, somewhere, somehow, he found it in him to force out a weak laugh. “Nothing,” he got out next, and that broke through the ice somehow; he was able to push back, in a hurry, back into his own personal space on the couch. He couldn’t help noticing how wide-eyed Jase stayed, though. “Nothing, just — sorry! Sorry, didn’t mean to — ” No, no good, he was losing it, babbling, laughing now too much — “Just, you, you fell asleep, and you’ve still got — ” He gestured, helplessly, at the beer soaking a dark place on either inner knee of Jase’s jeans. “I was just gonna, you know. Put it down. Sorry I, like… woke you. Scared you. I guess.”

Jase just kept staring at him for a second, not moving; he hadn’t moved all this time, Nate was only vaguely aware. Finally, though, he picked up his hand, scrubbing once over his face with the tattered sleeve-cuff of his shirt. “Oh. …Yeah.” His gaze had gone inward and distracted, his voice soft. “Uh. Okay. Thanks.” He was still for another few seconds, in which Nate didn’t trust himself to say anything without babbling like an idiot again, and then finally unfolded his legs and sat forward, setting the bottle down on the coffee table. Maybe it was Nate’s imagination, though, or just the uncertain light of the TV, but he still thought he caught a bit of an mistrustful look out of the corners of Jase’s eyes as he did. Something curious and unsure and wondering.

He had to get the hell out of here.

“I, uh — ” He swallowed, scrambled to get his words into order. “Anyway, I-I should probably go home, anyway. It’s, um, it’s getting late and all.” He got up, kind of too fast, dropping his beer-bottle and having to dive for it and then nearly knocking into the table on his way back up. He set it down and then scrubbed his hands back into his hair, wheeling around unsteadily. “I’ll… go call my mom, okay?”

“Okay,” Jase said, in that same thick murmur; but by the time he did, Nate was already heading for the stairs.

Nate spent the rest of that night sleepless and sweating into his pillow, staring at the dark ceiling, his guts sloshing with alternating waves of cold relief and cold dread. For a while he’d be okay, he’d have himself convinced that if Jase had actually thought he was… doing something weird, he would have said something, not just asked; that Jase had been asleep and hadn’t seen anything really, just Nate leaning in, and Nate’d thought of a good explanation. He just had to never do anything like that again, that had been too close, but it would be fine now as long as he didn’t, it would be just fine. Then things would twist around on him the other way and he’d be suddenly sure of that look he’d thought he’d seen on Jase’s face, sure that that momentary awkwardness hadn’t just been Jase being sleepy and confused, that sure, Jase hadn’t said anything, but he must have known, how could he not have known, how could he not just see through Nate all the way down to the things Nate hadn’t even realized he had in himself. Nate didn’t even know what he’d been trying to do — he kept telling himself — but Jase would, Jase always seemed to know everything. …But then it would flip back again: how could Jase know if there was nothing to know, at least nothing Nate knew?

He guessed he grabbed maybe a few thin hours of sleep here and there, in between his brain chasing itself around, but finally rolled out of bed around six feeling puffy-eyed and dazed and like he might as well not have bothered to lie down at all. The pale grey sunlight that was starting to seep through the window by the time he got out of the bathroom, though, actually made things start to seem better, like daylight always seemed to. He’d go to school, and hang out with Jase, and things would be normal again. He wouldn’t try something that dumb again, never in a million years. He’d been right the first time; things were going to be fine.

And he kept believing that right up until he walked into homeroom and the first thing he saw was Amy leaning across her desk to whisper in Debbie Johnson’s ear, and just about everyone in the room all at once pretended not to be looking at him.

Sheer momentum carried him a couple more steps into the classroom, but they stuttered and died on him a little at a time, until he was just rooted. Amy’s eyes flicked unmistakably up at him, in the middle of whatever she was saying, and a smile formed on her mouth behind her cupped hand; Debbie’s eyes flicked up too, and something complicated happened with her eyes and at the corners of her mouth, a sort of grimacey, grinning twist. Some part of Nate, miles away, was able to note that he didn’t even think Amy and Debbie were friends. Off to his left, Dave Pearce had leaned over to murmur something to Joey Cumberland, who ducked down his head to hide some reaction. Nate could see meaningful looks out of the corner of his eye in another direction, had a vague sense of some other half-dozen whispered conversations going on around him, although the room seemed very quiet somehow — almost silent.

Someone bumped into him hard from behind, or maybe shoved him; it was hard to tell. He stumbled forward, and a guy from the swim team whose name he didn’t even know came forward past him, smirking. Nate had been standing rooted at the doorway for a long time: whole minutes, maybe. Somehow he finally forced his feet away from the floor then, got them moving. Got to his seat and sat down.

Someone snickered, loud and unmistakable. Mrs. Eddington looked up from her desk at the front, her wide mouth pursed in a frown, but that was all. No one said anything, not yet. No one had to.

Nate stared at his desk, and tried not to actually faint.

First through fourth periods were, basically, an eternity in hell. In all his classes, he was sure he could feel eyes on him, from every direction and every single second; in the hallways in between, even staring at the floor he couldn’t avoid the stares passing him, or the shoulders knocking into his, or hissed names under someone’s breath that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, behind or beside him and gone before he could look. At some point in Pre-calc someone stuck used gum to his backpack, and having to clean it off in the bathroom made him late for History. When he went to his locker before lunch, he found that someone had scrawled FAG across it in black magic marker, sometime since the first bell. For a second or two all he could do was stare at it, with his stomach knotted up in his throat — and then he launched himself at it and scrubbed it off in a wild blind panic with the sleeve of his flannel shirt, his eyes wide and lips stripping back unconsciously from his teeth.

He couldn’t think. Couldn’t function. His notebook lay blank and empty in front of him, while he closed his eyes and ducked his head down and prayed not to throw up. His palms sweated big dark patches on the thighs of his jeans. His head swam in endless circles of incoherent panic.

And in the two morning classes he and Jase had together, Jase kept his head bent down over his desk as Nate passed his seat, and wouldn’t even look at him.

The idea of eating was hysterically laughable even by noon, but he bought his lunch anyway out of numb blind routine — and even found himself walking toward his group’s lunchtable for the same reason. Every table he passed seemed to be smirking and glancing and muttering to each other as he went by, but at his own it was infinitely worse: as soon as he got close, Toby and Rick scooted ostentatiously away from the aisle, down the bench, and then laughed with each other over it; Amy looked up, straight into his eyes, and smirked at him, pure malicious pleasure in every line of her face; Jase sat with his arms folded — his own food, Nate barely noticed, was untouched — and again kept his eyes fixed on anything that wasn’t Nate. No one said anything, but again, no one had to. In the end Nate kept walking right past them, his face both frozen and burning, his hands cramped into claws on his tray.

He had no idea where he was going, if not there, but somehow his feet just led him on their own. And he ended up — not surprisingly, he guessed — standing and clutching his tray beside the last lunchtable in the row, where as always, Eric What’shisname sat alone, toying with some macaroni and bent over a book.

“Hey,” Nate heard himself say, and the sound of his own voice horrified him; it squeaked and groaned like something broken. Eric looked up at him, mild and surprised and polite, just as though he were anyone. “So, um… I was just wondering, if you maybe feel like committing total social suicide today, could I sit with you?”

Eric’s expression didn’t change, but he glanced around the cafeteria for a moment, as though only just noticing it was there. Nate wondered giddily for a moment if maybe he actually hadn’t heard. After a moment, though, Eric just let out a soft breath, that could have been amused or resigned or neither, and shrugged. “I think I’d have to have a social life to kill it,” he said. His voice was surprisingly deep and smooth, like a radio DJ’s, and he had no accent at all, although now Nate couldn’t imagine why he’d thought he might. Eric gestured at the bench across from him, with the hand not holding his place in the book. “Sit down.”

“Thanks,” Nate said — with a weakness in his voice that betrayed just how deep his gratitude actually was. He sank onto the bench like he was wilting, and his lunch tray rattled briefly against the tabletop as he set it down, with how badly his hands were shaking. As soon as they were free, if still trembly, he put them over his face instead. And then just sat like that for a minute, not even able to care who was looking and laughing now, just breathing in big, uneven gulps.

He hadn’t thought that Eric would actually bother to talk to him, even after letting him sit — had actually maybe even hoped he wouldn’t — but after another moment Eric’s voice spoke again, from somewhere out beyond his hands. “Are you all right?”

“Um,” Nate said, and then made a weak noise into his palms that wasn’t quite a laugh. “No?” He dropped his hands away, though, feeling self-conscious about trying to talk through them, and found that Eric was looking at him with a slight frown, his book lying open but forgotten on the table. For a second Eric seemed to be about to give up, to take a breath like he was about to exhale out all his interest in the subject and go back to his book… and then the breath caught again, and came out on words instead.

“Try to calm down.” His voice was lower now, and Nate wasn’t sure but he thought there was a thin thread of kindness working its way into it. Just hearing it made him feel horribly like crying. “The more you panic, the worse it’s going to get.”

“Easy for you to say,” Nate said — which not only came out strangly and cracked, but was about the most stupidly ungrateful thing he could have come out with in this situation, making him grimace as soon as he heard it out of his mouth. Before he could scramble to take it back, though, Eric shrugged again, a slight rueful smile twisting his mouth that made Nate feel worse than ever.

“Yeah, I guess it is.” He glanced around, and then leaned in a little over the table. He was good-looking, now that Nate finally had a good look at him; he had a sort of unfortunate businessman’s haircut, but his face was fine-boned and smooth, his almond-shaped eyes large and expressive. His shoulders and forearms and hands were all large and heavy-boned, a little too big for the lanky rest of him. “But if you let it get to you, you’re just giving them what they want. They don’t deserve — ”

“Hey, Flowers,” a sneering male voice said from above and to the side of them: interrupting Eric, and making Nate jump and whirl around like he’d been shot at. Steve and Doug, the couple of meathead jocks who were standing there, both cracked up, which maybe proved Eric’s point a little. Steve prodded a finger at Eric once he’d recovered himself, grinning. “This your new boyfriend?”

But while Nate was still struggling to say something, to have anything to say — maybe even to laugh shrilly along with their laughter, to try to soften them up, like always — Eric surprised him for maybe the fourth time today, by beating him to it.

“Why?” he asked, in that same mild, polite, interested tone, and without looking away from Nate until the last second. “Did you two want a double date?”

Steve and Doug glanced at each other for only a second before busting out laughing again, nastily; and Nate’s stomach shriveled back up inside him. Of course it was never that easy, they could never actually let you think you’d scored a hit off them. Steve started sauntering away, though, and Doug only paused on his way after to bend in too threateningly close on Eric now, and pull his eyelids out flat with his fingers in a crude parody, chirping a bunch of high-pitched “ching chong ching!” noises that Nate thought made him sound more like one of Alvin and the Chipmunks than anything else. Eric watched him with the dispassion of a biologist among the gorillas, at least until Doug had gotten out of his face again and started to turn away.

“Yeah, that’s really witty,” he said, actually raising his voice to be heard as Doug walked away; Nate couldn’t even imagine the nerve. “You’re like the next Oscar Wilde.” Doug ignored him, though, for a wonder, just kept walking; but Nate ended up with his hands pressed over his face again anyway, his breathing tight in his chest.

“Sorry,” he said, his voice muffled, choking on it. “Thanks. …Sorry. …Shit.”

“It’s okay.” Eric didn’t sound angry or upset, either; and when Nate actually dared to drop his hands away again and look up, Eric was looking at him again — and now with an actual, genuine, sympathetic little smile at the corners of his lips. “Can I ask you something, though?” He jerked his thumb behind him, in the direction Doug and Steve had gone. “Do you actually care what those assholes think about you?”

It took Nate a long moment’s work to be able to answer that, during which he dropped his hands back into his lap and stared down at his congealing food. “No,” he said, finally, half-swallowed, without looking up. “No… but — ”

“No, never mind,” Eric’s voice cut him off suddenly, and surprised him into raising his head. Eric wasn’t looking at him this time, and he wasn’t smiling anymore, but somehow his whole expression was even warmer now, for all of that. “No. I get it. It’s okay.”

They split up awkwardly for their classes after lunch, neither of them really saying much. For a while, the memory of how nice Eric had been about the whole thing helped buoy Nate along, at least a little — but it didn’t last. It only took one spitball stuck in his hair for the reality of his situation to crash in on him again, send him back to trying to cringe himself all the way down into his own shirt and just disappear.

By the end of the day he was a wreck: exhausted and still wired practically to the point of vibrating, jumping at shadows and tearing himself to shreds. He’d gnawed all the way through his lower lip and most of his fingernails, and spent at least half of one period just finally giving up and crying in the bathroom. He kept his red eyes down and away from the knowing smirks as he fumbled his way through the hallway, just trying not to see anything or be anywhere. When he got to his locker for the last blessed time, he found that someone had apparently figured out a way to poke the plastic straw of a water bottle or something through the vents and squirt it in; the whole top layer of his textbooks was soaked and swollen. Nate just stood there staring at them for a moment, hearing snickering again from around and behind him, and then just closed the door again and hoisted his backpack as it was, trying to swallow his stomach down out of his throat. He just wanted to get the hell out of here. He didn’t even know to where, he didn’t want to go home, but he just had to get anywhere, anywhere else. If he could just be not here this all might still turn out never to have happened.

And then, as he was turning away from his locker to make a half-blind dash for the door, he crashed into someone. He flinched away by protective reflex, miserably sure at once that now he was done for, here came the real violence like a period at the end of the sentence — but when he looked up, wild-eyed, it was just Eric. Standing there looking at him, holding onto the straps of his backpack, and with that odd regretful look back on his face: like he thought he might be making a mistake. …Not that Nate couldn’t understand why he might feel that way.

“Hi,” Eric said — as though no one were looking at them, as though Nate hadn’t just butted into him headfirst and knocked him back a step. “Are you doing anything today?”

Eric led him under the overpass, across Spring Street and into downtown — such as it was. The sleek, glass, new-looking high-rise building Eric led him into, though, did manage to impress Nate at least in context, even through his haze of panic and misery. He’d never actually known anyone personally who lived in an apartment before. An engraved nameplate on the mailbox Eric stopped to check in the lobby said HSU, which Nate guessed at least answered one question.

The apartment itself was near the top of the building, and it was much bigger than Nate might have pictured — probably the size of the downstairs floor of his house, at least — and so spotless and high-class that it looked like a hotel suite. The living room was done in muted salmon colors, with glass tables and a big TV, an endlessly huge window behind one sofa letting in desultory strands of light through the downturned blinds. Eric dumped his backpack on one of the immaculate chairs with a carelessness Nate could never in a million years have committed, although he did set his own down very carefully on the floor, when Eric gave him an expectant look.

“How are you holding up?” Eric said, after they’d been standing awkwardly like that for a minute. Nate just stared at the floor for a few more seconds, and then his shoulders shook with a little snuffling, laughlike sound.

“Um. Well. I’m… still here, I guess.”

Eric just nodded, as if that had made any sense. “That’s a start.” He gestured behind him, and they both made their way over onto one of the sofas, Nate scrubbing at his face with both palms again after he’d sat down. “Just calm down for a minute. Try to breathe deep, and just concentrate on your breathing.”

Nate tried, but couldn’t concentrate on anything for long. “I don’t know how I’m gonna go back there tomorrow.” His voice came out tiny and crushed, almost a whimper. He let his hands drop, and stared at them, trembling slightly between his knees. “…I don’t know how I got through today. What am I gonna do?”

“I know it seems bad right now. I’m sorry.” He couldn’t even look up at Eric; he was just a blur at the corner of Nate’s vision, with a reasonable, comforting voice attached. “But this’ll blow over.”

When?” It came out high-pitched, cracking in the middle. He couldn’t control it, his hands were still shaking, his eyes just kept getting wider and were going out of focus. “What if it gets worse? What if they come to my house?” His breath hitched. “Oh Jesus — what if my dad finds out?”

Eric didn’t say anything for a moment, letting Nate just fall back into silence, just him and his labored shaking breath. “Then tell him it’s just a rumor,” Eric said at last, and though his voice was still patient and kind, there was an edge of caution on it now that there hadn’t been before: of handling this with gloves on. “Something some people at school made up to pick on you.”

Nate made a strangling little sound, not really a laugh at all this time. “You don’t know my dad.”

“You think he won’t believe you?” Nate couldn’t quite bring himself to answer that, though — honestly, wasn’t even sure what exactly his answer would be if he did — and just waved it off, pressing his face back into his hand again. Eric was quiet for another long moment… and then, finally, even more carefully than ever, came the question Nate hadn’t even known he’d been dreading: “Is it just a rumor?”

If it had been any other time, and anyone else, anyone else in the entire world — Jase, Amy, Toby or Rick, his mom or dad, the school guidance counselor, the President — he never would have even thought twice. He would have laughed in their face, or exploded in outrage: of course it is, what are you, stupid; how dare you even act like it might not be? Anyone else, his whole life, he wouldn’t have even hesitated before giving them what he knew was the right answer. The only answer he could have imagined, up until now.

But somehow, today, after everything he had gone through, as tired and bewildered and crushed as he was by now, and with Eric… Eric, who didn’t seem to like anyone but who had been so nice to him when he didn’t have to, even when it just made things worse for himself… Eric who had sought him out and invited him home… Somehow, here, on this couch in Eric’s apartment with his face in his hands, he just couldn’t put up the defense. If nothing else, he guessed honesty was the least he owed the guy.

He dropped his hands away again, staring down at the floor, and let out a heavy breath. “I guess that… depends on what you’ve heard.”

With his face uncovered, he was aware now of Eric watching him: not in a judging way, he didn’t think (although he still couldn’t make himself look up), but just with the same uncertain caution as before. It took him another minute to answer. “Well… I heard you tried to kiss Jason Tanner, when you were over at his house.”

Nate closed his eyes for a minute. He just couldn’t help it. “Then…” He swallowed, covered his mouth for a second, then dropped his hands again. “Then, um. That’s — kind of true.”

Eric paused. “Kind of?”

“It…” Nate scrubbed his face again, and sighed, forgetting himself enough to flop back on the back of the couch. “…I don’t know. I don’t know what I was trying to do. Or if I’m… anything, I don’t know. I really don’t know. But…” He swallowed. “I guess — that’s what I was doing, though. I mean. It just sort of… happened. I don’t know what it meant.”

He still couldn’t quite bring himself to look at Eric, but he was aware at the corner of his eyes of Eric nodding, slowly. “All right,” he said. And sounding that way, too — not grossed out, or laughing, or fascinated like he was looking at some kind of sideshow freak. Just calm and mild, as though this were anything normal. “Just asking.”

Nate stared down at his hands; and after a moment, his face started to sag down again, into the same miserable crush as before. “What am I going to do?” he asked again — mostly just to himself. Eric hesitated for another moment, beside him… and then a warm, heavy hand touched Nate’s shoulder, patting it once through his jacket. It startled him so badly he forgot himself and finally looked up at Eric. It blew him away all over again, looking in his eyes: how nice he was.

“Just relax for right now,” Eric said, sounding kind and slightly awkward. He stood up then, with one last pat, and stood over where Nate still was on the sofa. “Do you want something to drink? We don’t have any soda or anything, but there’s… well, there’s water, and milk. And coffee. …And vodka.”

Nate tried to smile at that, although the last thing he wanted to think about ever again was getting drunk. “Water’s good. Um… thanks. Really, I — thanks.”

And Eric smiled at him one more time, before heading around the corner into the kitchen. That smile, Nate tried not to think even after he was gone, was the kind of thing you could get used to.

“I’m Eric, by the way,” Eric said, smiling again, when he sat back down and handed Nate his glass. “Eric Hsu.” The way he said it definitely didn’t rhyme with ‘kazoo’; it sounded more like shoe, but much softer on the first consonant. He hadn’t brought anything for himself, but before Nate could make some sort of awkward protest about that, he caught the rattly drip-drip-drip of a coffeemaker from the kitchen. Well, fair enough.

“I know.” Eric glanced at him, surprised, and Nate coughed another little laughing sound into the rim of his glass: still weak, but slightly realer. “There was, uh… people talked about you, too, when you transferred in.”

“Hm.” Eric smirked, looking down at his fingers laced between his knees. “Well, I’m sure all of that was totally reasonable and complimentary.” Nate bit his lip, digging his thumb into one of the crenelations in the glass — it was heavy, some kind of crystal maybe — and didn’t confirm or deny. After a moment Eric just smiled again, though, and ducked down his head to catch Nate’s eye. “And you’re Nate Flowers, apparently.”

Nate snorted under his breath, and met his gaze only skittishly, in quick flickering jumps. “Apparently. …Who told you?”

“No one. I overheard some people in the hallways this morning.” He shrugged it off quickly, though, moving on before Nate could even get all that miserable again. “I guess I haven’t really gone out of my way to make friends, either.”

“Yeah… sorry for barging in on you.” Eric waved this off, though, smiling, which oddly gave Nate a warm little glow of pleasure. “Where did you move from, anyway?”

Eric gave him a quick glance, looking surprised again, but Nate just dodged his eyes with a feeble little smile, saying nothing. It was better to be talking about something else, anything else. “Chicago, most recently,” Eric said after a moment, without other comment. “We move around a lot, though. We stayed the longest in New York, and that was when I was in grade school. I think I was born in San Francisco. Though now that I think of it I’m not completely sure.” He glanced over, caught Nate’s expression, and smiled. “It’s not as great as it sounds. I’m just lucky I do well in school to begin with.”

Nate couldn’t quite see how luck entered into that, but decided to leave it unquestioned. “Wow. That’s cool, though. …But if you’re normally in really big cities like that, how’d you end up… you know, here?”

That actually made Eric laugh, which Nate thought he could get even more used to, maybe. “My dad has some investment business in the area. That’s what he does — it’s why we travel so much. And my mom’s a psychologist; she got a job teaching at the university.” He shrugged again, sitting back. “We probably won’t be here long. We never are.”

That part sounds pretty great,” Nate muttered under his breath, prodding at the glass. He thought Eric smiled beside him, but didn’t say anything. “Did you have a lot of friends in Chicago you had to leave?”

When he turned back to look at Eric again, though, he caught a curious sort of smile on his lips: not quite that cynical smirk, but not that kinder, softer, sympathetic smile, either. Something inward and quiet, and hard to read. “No,” he said, without looking up — and surprising Nate in spite of everything. “I kind of… gave up on that, after a while.”

But just as Nate was opening his mouth to ask some other stupid question about that, Eric stood up suddenly; and it was only just as he did Nate realized the coffeemaker had gone quiet. “Excuse me a second,” Eric said, and disappeared back into the kitchen. Leaving Nate just sitting with his mouth a little open, probably looking like a dumb gaping fish.

When he came back, though, Eric didn’t seem upset or anything, just mild and quiet as always. The coffee was in a cup and saucer that looked pretty fancy too, and Nate guessed Eric’s dad being some sort of investment banker or something did give a little more context to this whole apartment in general. They sat quiet for a few moments, holding their drinks, before Eric finally glanced over at him and spoke again.

“Are you feeling any better?”

Nate didn’t move or say anything for a minute or two, and then rubbed his arm with one hand as he shrugged, the glass still dangling from the other. “A little, I guess? I’m kind of… just… trying not to think about it, right now.” Eric nodded, and then something finally occurred to Nate; he snapped his head up to look at Eric, alarmed wide-eyed. “Or — did you need me to get out of your way? Shit, sorry — I can — ”

“No, that’s not it,” Eric said — catching him before he could get too far into scrambling himself up off the couch and toward the door. When Nate looked at him he was almost smiling a little again, and in an amused patient way like Nate had just gotten some totally dumb idea into his head, instead of a pretty reasonable one. “You’re not in my way. I was just asking.” He seemed to hesitate for a moment, and then his smile turned rueful. “It’s actually… pretty nice, having someone over. …I mean, if you don’t have somewhere else to be.”

Nate shrugged, a half-smile turning into more of a grimace on his mouth. “Well, you know, I did have plans to hang out with everybody else in school today, but for some reason I’m feeling like that’s not gonna pan out.” The joke fell flatter than he’d meant it to, though, and he ended up just biting his lip, and trying to drown it in another fast swallow of water. “I mean… sorry. Not that I’m saying — ” He took a breath. “…You’ve been really nice about this. I… Thank you. I really mean it. I’m sorry I’m kind of, like… being completely crazy, and a giant jerk, and everything, I just — ”

“It’s okay,” Eric stopped him, as gently as he could. “I get it. And you’re not.” There was a pause where neither of them said anything, just sat with Eric looking at him and Nate looking down into his water, and then Eric broke it again. “I know you don’t want to think about it, but… do you think you are gay?” He must have seen Nate stiffen, though, because he went on quickly: “You don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to. And it won’t bother me one way or the other.”

“I…” Nate took a long breath, and it shook when he let it out. “I just — really don’t know. I mean… I haven’t really ever…” He lapsed into silence, then sat forward to just set the water-glass down on a coaster on the coffee table, and scrubbed both his hands over his face again. “I like girls. I do. A lot. It’s just… I don’t know. Sometimes I just… you know, think…”

He was pretty helplessly lost by that point, but Eric waited until it was definite that he was done speaking before responding. “Well, it doesn’t always have to be completely one or the other, you know.” Nate glanced up, frowning, and he shrugged with a tiny smile. “I mean, I’m attracted to guys too, sometimes. And girls. It’s never really been an issue, so I’ve never really tried to choose one or the other.”

…For a second or two, all Nate could do was stare. He tried to say You, or more likely some sentence that would just start with You, but it didn’t really come out as a word at all: more of just a whining, wheezing breath. He tried to catch some air back into his lungs to replace it, and found it surprisingly difficult. It seemed to take forever before he was ready to actually try talking.

“You…” Well, there it was. “…Really?”

It was a pretty lame performance, for all of that effort, but Eric just smiled at him again. “Yeah,” he said, and shrugged. “I don’t really advertise it or anything, but it’s true. …Not that I’ve ever dated a guy, or anything, so it’s mostly just in theory. But I’ve thought about it, sometimes.”

And there was an instant or two, somehow, where even in spite of everything Nate’s first impulse at that was to freak out and panic, or inch away down the couch, or something; but even now, even he had the presence of mind to realize how completely awful and stupid and ridiculous that would be. “I…” he started again, and then swallowed and had to do it over. “…Wow. Um.” Eric didn’t say anything to that, though, just kept smiling at Nate as though expecting something from him, and he had to struggle for a moment. “How… like…” He groped for purchase, and finally found it: “…How did you, you know — know?”

Eric blinked. Well, at least it had gotten rid of that patient smile for a minute. “What do you mean?”

“You know. That you were… or, I don’t know, that you just, did…” Nate trailed off, making some confused whirling gesture with his hands that even he couldn’t have interpreted. Eric seemed to understand, though; his expression had gone patient again, although the smile was still absent.

“I realized that I was attracted to some of the guys I knew,” he said, almost gently. “I mean, if you want to kiss somebody, then you do. It’s not really a complicated thing.”

“But — ” Nate struggled again; trying to pull it all into words, trying to make sense of some hundred scattered puzzle pieces that (he was beginning to realize) he’d deliberately kept from coming all together at once in his mind before, swept them into separate corners and into the dusty gaps under the furniture. “But, like — sometimes, you know, there’s just somebody who’s, who’s just kind of special, you know, kind of different, and… it’s not like, like that, exactly, like you want to… do anything, or anything, probably, it’s just that… he’s… when you’re around him, sometimes, you know, you think… I mean, maybe that’s just normal? Or it’s not…” His breath hitched in his chest, seeming to all go down in a bubble, choking him for a second. “I mean, not that it’s abnormal, or something, the other way, but… it’s not… Sometimes there’s just stuff like that, you know, where it gets really confusing and you’re not sure, and, and it’s just this one person — probably — mostly — and um, it’s close in some ways, but you know, how do you tell how close, like there’s some stuff that’s different and maybe — ”

“Nate,” Eric said, quietly, cutting him off; to be honest, through his red-faced stinging-eyed haze, Nate was sort of surprised he’d actually let him keep running on this long. And Eric’s warm hand fell on his shoulder again: a pressure that had become electric, with all of the rest of this in the back of his mind, made Nate have to shut his eyes against everything outside them. “It’s not really a complicated thing.”

And all Nate could do, for long moments, was just sit there with his eyes shut. His breath coming in deep fumbling trembles, and Eric’s hand rising and falling with each one.

They ended up watching TV for the rest of the afternoon, cartoons and kids’ shows mostly at this time of day. There just didn’t seem to be much more to say after that, or at least nothing that either of them wanted to. After a while, Nate dozed off — out of pretty much nowhere — curled up against the bare back of the couch with one of the spotless shell-pink cushions bunched up in his arms; and when he woke up, he was so embarrassed he ended up just mumbling excuses and staggering his way out to head home right away, even though Eric seemed to keep trying to tell him he didn’t mind.

Side B

The next few days were about as awful as Nate had expected — although maybe, at the end of the day, not quite as awful as he had feared. He slept horribly again that night, and the next morning lay awake and shuddery in bed before dawn, thinking seriously about trying to take advantage of his very real queasiness enough to fool his mom into thinking he was sick. At the last minute, though, he found himself changing his mind and getting up, although he could barely even have said why. Just something haunting him at the back of his mind, about the idea of Eric being disappointed in him for giving up so soon; of not seeing Eric again today, or maybe talking to him again. And when he got to school, he did regret the decision bitterly pretty much all morning — but then lunch rolled around, and Eric actually looked up and smiled at him when Nate stopped at his table, and it all faded into the background. …Sort of.

And after school, Eric invited him over again, and he went gladly. And once Nate had spent a while in Eric’s palatial bathroom, splashing water on his face and snuffling and blinking his eyes a lot, they talked for so much of the following afternoon and evening (his parents were out of town for the week, Eric said) about nothing that had anything to do with school or anything else that, the next morning, Nate was actually able to get up and do it all again.

He wasn’t exactly getting used to it, and the shock and the hurt of it were still deep under his skin, but he guessed after a couple days that he was going numb, at least a little. After all, it wasn’t hugely different from how things had been back in junior high, before his brief flirtation with actually having friends and being someone who fit in somewhere; just kind of more so. And that was junior high, and it had happened to a lot of people back then, but junior high was supposed to be over now, and it didn’t seem fair for the relative sanity and safety of high school to fall apart on just him… but on the other hand, when he actually went to school and got through the day, at the end of it Eric kept finding him and they kept hanging out, doing their homework together and talking about nothing. And somehow, in almost no time at all, that had become enough of a reward to look forward to that it could actually get him through being shoved against lockers and called names and laughed at.

…And maybe Eric was actually even sort of right about that stuff. Because within a couple weeks, he became very slowly aware, it did start to taper off: as though, as incredible as it seemed, everyone were starting to get bored with him. He was still getting a lot of attention he didn’t want, sure, but gradually it had started to be a little less every day, without his noticing; and when a new rumor started up about a girl on the cheerleading squad and a couple of college guys in the back of a truck, the heat pretty much went off him almost altogether. The huge explosive crisis he’d been afraid of, with his life being ruined and his parents being appalled and him being cast out of society completely, never really materialized. As the time passed, the whole thing just… dimmed.

And meanwhile, he was getting to know Eric: getting to really like Eric, in fact, even beyond just his dumb gratitude of that first day and Eric’s being a nice guy who didn’t judge anybody for having weird thoughts about guys (and apparently had had some weird thoughts of his own from time to time, come to that, although Nate found he just really wasn’t ready to even think about that yet). At least he had one point of weakly smug superiority over Amy, even without her knowing it: Eric was cool. Once you got past his polite “that’s nice, please get lost” shell that he put up for everybody else, Eric was incredibly smart, dryly funny, thoughtful and insightful, and apparently just good at every single thing he ever tried, without trying. He played the piano better than Nate ever had, and had never taken lessons, and he could speak like three languages and juggle and actually understand calculus. And even if he’d wanted to, Nate couldn’t much help the giddy thrill of just being his friend, that he was the one that shell had finally opened for in the first place. He’d been scared at first — for a long time at first — that he was just a charity case; that it was completely just that Eric had taken pity on the poor miserable kid everyone was picking on, and would be glad to see him get lost as soon as he could stand on his own two feet again. But the more time went on, the more it started to seem like Eric actually really did like having him around, at least as much as anyone else ever had and maybe even more so. He invited Nate out to do things just as often as Nate did him, and always seemed to be having a good time while they were going on, and to be honestly disappointed when one or the other of them had to leave.

And, well… he was nice to be around in other ways, too. As much as Nate told himself he wasn’t ready to think about it, that thing Eric had told him the first day they’d hung out had never really left the back of his mind, either. He’d find it springing back on him at odd moments, making him tense and his pulse race for no good reason he could think of before he could shove it back down and out of his head again. And as more time went by, he found himself letting it stay longer and longer; lingering a little more over the occasional odd thought about Eric’s strong hands or the shape of his lips. And hey, why the hell not, really? He didn’t know if Eric would mind, considering — didn’t think Eric would reciprocate by any stretch, but didn’t quite think he would mind, at least — and even if he would, it wasn’t like he would ever have to know about it. He wouldn’t make the same mistakes as with Jase, so what was the harm in letting himself finally think about it? As long as he was paying the price already for what he’d never actually done, he might as well… consider his options, or whatever.

Most of the time, though, he just talked to Eric a lot about music, which he actually seemed interested in, if not quite the same way Jase always had (although he definitely didn’t want to think about that, right now); even finally brought him down to Dooby’s after school one day, when he was sure enough that his so-called friends were going to be elsewhere. Eric couldn’t have looked more out of place, standing there politely puzzled in his button-down shirt and khakis in that black smelly basement full of tapes, but it made Nate stupidly happy for no good reason, and that seemed to be enough for Eric too. Nate flitted around the store, pointing out albums and talking excitedly about favorite songs and his wistful dreams of concerts, until the guy behind the counter finally started clearing his throat a little too loud and they took off, heading back to Nate’s to hang out.

“It sounds great,” Eric said, back sitting on the pilled blue carpet of Nate’s room, and shrugged and smiled when Nate gave him a look. “Really. I’ve just never listened to much besides… you know, Mozart and Rachmaninoff. My mom always heard classical music raised kids’ IQ.”

“I’ll make you a mix,” Nate promised. He was sitting in the windowsill again, and turned already to his boombox, tapping open the tape decks and checking what was in there. “It’s hard to get your hands on a lot of it, and some of the sound’s kinda junky, but it’s worth it, I swear. You just… you can’t go without this stuff, man. You just can’t.”

“I’d like it if you did,” Eric said. And when Nate turned back to his smile this time, somehow, he had to look away again almost right away.

And it was sometime in the third week that Nate turned around from his locker after the last bell, already feeling a little lighter-weight at the thought of going to meet up with Eric — and instead came face-to-face with Jase. Who’d apparently just been hovering by his shoulder, head ducked down, hands stuffed in the pockets of his jeans.

“Hey,” Jase said, once Nate’d had his tiny heart attack and gotten over it again. “Can we talk for a sec?”

Nate stared at him, his backpack dangling forgotten from one shoulder. It wasn’t exactly a friendly stare, and he could tell it was making Jase a little uncomfortable, but he couldn’t really bring himself to care. “…Why?”

Jase hesitated a minute, looking unsure of himself for probably one of the first times Nate had ever seen; and then looked straight into his eyes, finally. Somehow, like always, the sight of them couldn’t help but thaw Nate out a little.

“Can we just talk?” He glanced around the hallway for a second — which later Nate would realize he’d probably interpreted wrong, but right then it just gave him an ugly little twist in his chest, under his breastbone. Sure. Wouldn’t want anyone to see. “…Somewhere else?”

“I’m kinda busy,” Nate muttered, and put his backpack the rest of the way on, shouldering past. A part of him was practically screaming in horror inside at the fact that he was even doing this — this was Jase, what was his problem, didn’t he know he needed to fall all over himself to do everything right, to not disappoint him again? — but somehow, the thought of Eric waiting for him kept him steady. Jase caught him by the upper arm, though, before he could get too far; and making him flinch away a little by reflex, which was pretty uncomfortable for both of them.

“Come on, man. Please.” Jase hesitated again, and then sighed, ducking his head down again as Nate turned to look at him. “…I need to explain some stuff.”

And because those downturned eyes were somehow the last straw, that was how they ended up out behind the school, in the parking lot; up against the brick wall by the dumpsters, watching teachers trickle out of the building and out to their cars, one at a time. Nate sat on the curb while Jase stood, with his shoulders braced on the wall like his long skinny body was what was holding it up.

“Sorry,” was what Jase finally said, after long concentrated minutes of staring out over the tops of the cars at the track and the football field. “I didn’t think this would happen.”

Nate glanced up at him for a moment, then snorted. “Yeah? …So what, you meant to tell everyone in school I’m a faggot so they could throw me a party?”

Jase sighed through closed lips, turning his head away. “I didn’t. I…” He fell silent for a minute, then scrubbed two fingers at his eyes, his brow scrunched in a wince. “Look. When you… you know, whatever — ” Nate turned his head down fast, staring at the pavement — “I just… I kind of freaked out, is all. I mean… it surprised me. Obviously. And, like, after you left, I was kinda… I dunno, spazzing. So — I called Amy. I guess just to like… have somebody to talk to, you know?” He sighed again, and dug his hands back into his pockets. “…I didn’t think she’d do this.”

By the end of that Nate was staring at him again, and kept doing it for another few seconds. Finally he let out a harsh, cawing little breath of laughter. “Yeah, um. You have met Amy, right?”

Jase didn’t look at him, or say anything for a minute; just kept staring out along the bricks, his head turned on one side. He always looked good in profile: the stark close crop and bright colors in his hair, outlining his long bony nose and high cheekbones. Nate looked away again. “We kind of… broke up, sort of,” he said at last, as though Nate hadn’t said anything. Startling Nate more than a little, too. “I was really pissed at her. And she just…” He broke off, and sighed, his head drooping down a little. “I’m sorry I freaked out, anyway. I’m sorry about all of this. I wouldn’t do something like this on purpose.”

Nate shrugged, but couldn’t really think of anything to say back. He just hugged his arms around his knees instead, staring out at the cars parked in front of him. “Sorry I freaked you out,” he said, finally. Almost completely muffled in his knees. “I, you know… just. …Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” He didn’t dare look up at Jase, but after a second there were footsteps gritting on the sidewalk, and Jase came over and sat on the curb next to him. It surprised Nate enough to make him look up, but Jase wasn’t looking at him when he did: just out and away too, at nothing. “Like… I dunno. Even if you are a homo or whatever, you know, I’m fine with it. It’s not a big deal. It just… surprised me.”

It was hard to explain exactly why that just made him sink down deeper, into the circle of his arms and knees. “Okay,” Nate mumbled into them, and finally set his forehead down on his arm, so he couldn’t see anything but the blur of his own jeans. “Sure.”

They were quiet for a minute or two; not a comfortable quiet, but maybe not as bad as it could have been, either. Jase broke it, finally, making Nate lift his head back up by reflex. “…So do you maybe wanna hit Dooby’s today? I haven’t been in a while, and I wanted to — ”

“Sorry.” Lifting his head to cut Jase off before he could get any farther, and winning a startled glance for it. “But I was kinda planning on hanging out with Eric today.”

Jase blinked at him — and then the side of his mouth pulled in a small, unlovely twist. “…That Japanese kid?”

“He’s Chinese,” Nate said — actually snapped, before he could have stopped himself. “And he’s from California, which I think actually makes him American, okay?”

For a second or two Jase just sat there, looking stunned and even a little — Nate would have sworn to it — hurt. Then he dropped his eyes away, scowling down at his hands instead. “Okay. Fine. I’m sorry.” Which of course he didn’t sound like he was at all, and Nate bit his tongue to keep from picking an actual fight about it, just scowling down himself. After another tense moment or two, though, Jase said, a little softer: “Is it true that he’s, like… your boyfriend now?”

Nate’s spine stiffened all by itself before his brain had even had time to really process and understand the words, and he ended up sitting upright, ramrod-straight. Were people actually talking about that now? God, fuck this school. It took a lot of work to unclench his jaw enough to speak. “…If it was, how would that even be your business?”

“I’m just asking,” Jase said, low, and this time the edge of hurt in his voice was certain enough to give Nate a guilty little twinge. He’d expected Jase to get mad at that, or say something else about him being a homo, but that tone took him pretty off-guard. “You know, ’cause we’re supposed to be friends.”

Nate stared at him for a second or two, and then he made a little sound in his teeth, not really a laugh. “Yeah. …Supposed to be.” He looked back down again, stewing for long minutes before saying anything — before it came out in a burst. “You know, most of the time I think you don’t even like me?”

“Yeah, you either,” Jase said: immediately, when he’d been expecting only another stunned silence. At Nate’s surprised, incredulous look, though, Jase hitched his shoulders in an almost angry shrug, looking away again. “…What was I even supposed to do? You didn’t even give me time to think about it. You didn’t even talk to me.” And now he looked back up — and that wounded look was back in his eyes, instead of the anger; that startled hurt that was like no other expression he’d ever seen Jase make. “There was this whole thing going on with you, and — you didn’t even talk to me.”

There were a few more seconds where Nate could only stare. Finally he got a hold of himself, started struggling against his throat, trying to force something out, anything. “What was I supposed to say?” It came out nearly in a croak, but it was a start, at least. “What would you have said?”

“I dunno. It just would’ve been nice if you hadn’t decided on your own what I was gonna say.” Jase sighed, dropping his forehead down into his palms. His fingers dug up into the fuzz of his hair, long and spindly. “All you guys… I guess you think I’m cool, ’cause of how I dress, and my brother, and how I know about music and stuff. But, like… it doesn’t ever seem like you actually know what I’m like. Or want to know. Like, Amy doesn’t even get it, and she doesn’t even care, as long as she thinks I’m cool and I’m paying attention to her. And you…” He chewed his lip for a few seconds, then let out another breath and kept going. “You act like you’re just so busy trying to make me like you that I don’t know if you even like hanging out with me. …I wish you’d talked to me, just so I’d have known there was actually something you wanted.”

He stopped talking then, and turned his head all the way down toward the sidewalk, obscuring his eyes. And again, Nate could only stare at him, and not think of a single damn thing to say.

And when he finally made a last awkward goodbye and left Jase on the curb, and caught up with Eric, he couldn’t even think where to begin explaining what was wrong, even when Eric asked.

Nate wound up making plans with Eric to sleep over at Eric’s one night in early spring; his parents were in town this time, but that night they were out until the middle of the night at some sort of fundraiser thing. And stupid though it probably was, he couldn’t help being kind of excited about the whole thing — and a little nervous. He’d never actually stayed overnight at a friend’s before; things had never quite been that way between him and Jase, and definitely not with him and the other guys, and he’d sort of missed out on friendship at the prime times of life for that stuff. And of course, with all the stuff flying around the back of his head about Eric these days, usually seeming completely beyond his control, it was a little bit of a worrying proposition, too. But when Friday actually rolled around, and he walked home with Eric, he ended up distracted by how oddly subdued Eric was: smiling at the things Nate said, answering his tries at conversation with short distracted sentences, and mostly just walking along with his eyes down and pensive.

It wasn’t until they were finally in Eric’s giant bedroom (Nate had brought over a sleeping bag in advance, in spite of how enormous Eric’s bed was, and also in spite of the bed there was plenty of room on the floor to spread it out) that he finally mustered himself up to say something — worried, of course, that the real answer was that Eric didn’t really want him over, or for some reason was having second thoughts about the whole thing. He let Eric go in ahead of him and sit down on the bed, then went tentatively to sit next to him, leaving his backpack on the floor at the foot.

“Hey…” Eric glanced up at him, and Nate tried not to swallow. “Is something wrong?”

Eric actually looked startled for a second or two — not an expression Nate was used to, on him — and then smiled, looking back down at his hands. “No, not really.” Nate hesitated a moment, though, and Eric seemed to sense it. He put his hands behind him on the bed and leaned back on them, letting out a breath before going on. “Well… a little. But it’s not a big deal.”

Nate tilted his head, twisting around to look back at him. “What is it?”

Eric didn’t move or say anything for a second or two, just staring at the ceiling… and then, that little wry smile still at the edges of his lips, he leaned forward over the side of the bed again and dug into his backpack. He pulled out his binder (which from what Nate had seen was almost painfully organized) and opened it across his lap, pulled a stapled sheaf of papers out of it, and handed it wordlessly to Nate, who frowned at it. As far as he could tell, it was Eric’s chemistry midterm; completed and graded, with a red B circled at the top.

He finally opened his mouth to admit he didn’t understand what he was supposed to be looking at, but before he could, Eric looked back up at him with a tiny smile. “Like I said,” he said, sounding half-embarrassed and even a little amused. “It’s not a big deal. It’s just…” He folded his fingers in front of his mouth, the curve slowly going out of it behind them. “I know how this sounds, I really do. But… I’m a straight-A student. That’s… what I am. That’s what my parents say when they talk about me, to their business partners and their colleagues, and…” He seemed to lose his thread there, trailing off, and picked up again after a minute. “…I can’t honestly remember the last time this happened. I was probably in elementary school, I guess.”

“It’s just a B, man,” Nate said, when he finally found his voice — as gently as possible, being careful not to make it sound like he was making fun or disbelieving or anything. He… well, sort of was disbelieving, but only in terms of personal experience. He guessed he’d known there were people who got grades like that, he’d just never really expected to know one. Jase had slept through biology so routinely last year that, near the end of the year, Mr. Emery (who was pretty great, actually) had brought him in a pillow as a joke. “It’s not like you failed it or anything.”

“I know.” Eric passed a hand over his forehead, that little smile coming back with what seemed like an effort. “I know it’s stupid.”

Nate blinked, and frowned. “…I didn’t say it was stupid. Your folks are really hard on you, right?” That earned him a surprised glance, although he couldn’t have said why. Did Eric think he didn’t pay attention? “Everyone’s different about what counts as a bad grade.”‘

Eric was silent for a minute or two, and then made a little close-lipped sound in his throat, like a laugh. “I guess so.” He linked his hands between his knees, not-quite-smiling down at them. “Not having any friends just… made it a lot easier to be their perfect son.”

It took Nate a minute or two to process that — and then his throat was drying up again, his face stinging with a sort of weird dismayed embarrassment. “Oh… shit. I’m, I’m sorry — ” But Eric was already catching him there, waving his hand quickly and wincing.

“No, no — don’t. Really. It’s not like… well. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. As far as I’m concerned, it’s really worth the trade-off.” He hesitated a moment, and then made another of those stretching, uncomfortable-looking smiles. “That’s — sort of the problem, really. It’s hard to explain, but…” He went quiet for another moment, resting his chin on his curled hand and staring out at nothing, before letting his gaze flicker back to Nate. “It’s not just about my parents — my grades, I mean. It’s something that… with all of the moving around, and changing schools, and everything… It’s like — keeping my grades perfect, it’s the only thing I’ve had that made me feel like I ever was somewhere. You know? Like… if I made the top of the honor roll, and did well at all my classes, then that was proof that I’d actually been in all the places I had to leave, at least for a little while.” He paused for another few seconds, and then let out a long breath. “Right now being a little invisible sounds pretty good — I guess you know how that is — but it’s hard to want to be that way completely, all the time. And every other way of getting involved just seemed like… asking for trouble.”

And Nate just sat silent while he went through all this, not even able to keep himself from staring. It was the most, he suddenly realized, that Eric had ever probably talked to him about himself.

“And I guess that’s sort of the problem now,” Eric finished, with his smile turned almost all the way around to that slightly bitter smirk instead. His eyes flickering to Nate, and then dodging away again. “I stopped trying to make friends in the first place because I got tired of having people to leave behind. …And now I do again.”

Was there a word, Nate wondered numbly in the thundering silence that followed, for being so nervously, crazily flattered and so miserable at the same time that it made you kind of feel like you were going to throw up?

“Then I’m sorry for that,” he finally said, although it ended up coming out more of a croak. Eric shook his head; his expression had softened again, those hard lines going out of his mouth.

“You don’t have to be. It’s not your fault.” He sat up again, sighing slightly. “I just wish… well. A lot of things. But I guess I should be used to this by now.”

“How long do you think you’ll be here for?” Nate asked, carefully, after another long pause. Eric shrugged, although he was meeting Nate’s eyes more now.

“It’s hard to say. Maybe not past the end of this year.” His mouth twisted, wryly. “Mom keeps saying how much she hates it here.”

That didn’t exactly come as a surprise, knowing what he did of Eric’s mom, but something knotted up in the bottom of Nate’s stomach all the same. He hadn’t really thought about all this before: that Eric moving around all the time eventually meant Eric moving around from here. He stayed quiet for a minute, staring down unseeing at Eric’s marked exam on his knees, letting those unhappy ideas roll around in his head.

“Anyway, it’s just how it is, I guess,” Eric said, after a moment or two — sounding slightly apologetic. “You know how parents are.”

Nate nodded, worrying at his lip a little longer before thinking of anything else to say. “Well — hey, how about this. I’ll definitely make you that mix now, and… you know, you can listen to it, once you’ve moved away. To remind you, and stuff.” Eric glanced over at him again, eyebrows raised, and Nate dropped his eyes and let out a little self-conscious laugh. “I mean, and we can keep in touch, and everything. Right?”

“Right,” Eric said; and his voice came out so oddly soft that Nate risked looking up at him again — and had to look away almost immediately, stupidly flushed, at the look in his eyes. After a moment or two, though, Eric added off-handed: “Assuming my parents don’t send me away to reform school for making an academic disgrace of myself, that is.”

Nate laughed, and probably harder than it really warranted; it was just such an unexpected relief, for one of them to make a joke, and lighten the air after this unexpected and chest-tightening direction they’d wandered down. “Hey, man, you don’t need good grades anymore, remember? I’ll get you some tunes, and then you can settle into being a B-getting slob like the rest of us.” He grinned at Eric’s rueful smile, managing to make Eric laugh this time.

“Ah, my lifelong dream.” He was smirking as he said it, though, and in a much more pleasant way than that bitter little twist of his. Nate just shook his head, still grinning, and held up the exam with a flourishing little rattle.

“No, I’m serious. Your mom’s a psychologist, right, you should know about this stuff. You need to, like… embrace your inner B. It’ll be good for you.” Eric was eyeing him more skeptically than ever, although with the corners of his mouth twitching nonstop, and Nate thrust out the paper in his direction, on a roll now. “Make friends with the B! Tell the B you love it!”

“I don’t know if this is — ” Eric started, mild and eternally patient, but Nate wasn’t about to be swayed.

Tell the B you love it. Say, ‘B, I love you. I’m going to get lots more of you from now on and not even care.'”

“…Do I have to?”

Yeah.

Eric sighed, rolling his eyes, although his mouth was still curving on him and there was a telltale hitch in his breath. It was such a stupidly good feeling — just being able to make him laugh, someone laughing with him and not at him. “B,” he said, addressing himself now patiently to the exam Nate was still holding in his face, “I love you.”

Nate gave him the sternest look he could, which wasn’t saying much right now. “All of it.” Eric sighed harder than ever, although plainly just for show.

“I hope you realize I’d only do this for you.” …Which, said in that warm, amused voice, had several physical effects on Nate that made this a little harder to keep up with, but he just tried to swallow unobtrusively and push himself past. It was a good thing Eric was looking long-sufferingly at the exam again. “I’m going to get lots more of you from now on and not even care. …All right? Are we done now?”

“Now hug the B,” Nate demanded, ignoring him, and showing the exam forward almost straight into Eric’s chest. They were both barely keeping themselves under control now, but Eric still managed to level a pretty good ‘what the hell’ look at him that just made things worse.

“I don’t think I’m comfortable with this anymore.”

“Come on, man! Are we making a breakthrough here or not?” Nate jumped up, carrying the exam, the start of Eric’s helpless laughter just egging him on. “This is important! First you have to love the B, then hug the B — ” He demonstrated with gusto, crumpling the paper slightly against his chest. “Then kiss the B — ”

“Am I trying to get more laid-back, here, or get laid?” Eric asked, between hiccups of laughter, while Nate’s mouth was preoccupied with planting a loud smooch on the dry front page of Eric’s exam. That almost got him too bad to keep going, but he recovered himself enough to hold up a finger in a teacherly gesture, even while halfway to doubled over.

“I’m glad you asked that question, because actually — ” He dropped the finger and started fumbling with the fly of his jeans through both of their laughter, too giddy by now to even question whether this was really a good idea — “the next thing is, you have sex with the B — ”

“Are you actually — ” was as far as Eric got before completely losing it, as Nate got the button on his pants open and started stuffing the end of the exam down the front of them. He could only get through a couple of vaguely obscene (and probably more just vaguely monkeyish) hip movements before cracking up completely himself, staggering back into Eric’s dresser with the test still poking out of his jeans. And they just went on like that for a few whole minutes, like lunatics, before either of them could seem to do or say anything.

“All right,” Eric finally managed, still laughing almost too hard to be understood, and lurched up off the bed; “all right, seriously, get that out of your pants, you’re crumpling it up and I’m going to have to explain to my parents what — ”

But that was about as far as he got: with laughing, talking, or really doing anything at all. Because, of course, he did the obvious thing, grabbing the exam himself instead of letting Nate do it, and in the process hooked his fingers in the front of Nate’s jeans to pull the open waistband forward and free it. And the second he did, all the laughter and breath and everything dried in Nate’s throat all at once; and he totally froze on the spot, not even moving enough to blink.

And of course Eric noticed. And after a second’s faltering, froze too, with the start of a question and a laugh both dying still half-formed in his mouth. And then they were both just hovering there, for what seemed like about eleven million years, too close and staring at each other, and with Eric’s stupid, strong, graceful hand still holding the front of Nate’s jeans.

This was the point, Nate knew, where you said something, or did something. Made a joke, laughed it off, pulled away or pushed the hand aside, with a laugh to keep it from seeming mean or too serious. This was the moment — here but already rapidly slipping away, escaping into permanent awkwardness — where something could be done to pave this over and drive right by it, to pretend that the reaction Eric had already seen had actually been something else. …Maybe the moment where you claimed to have to call your mom, and go home; whatever the consequences, the next day.

When Nate found himself leaning slowly forward, though, eyes locked helplessly with Eric’s and feeling hypnotized, Eric met him halfway. And at least that was something.

He’d never kissed anyone before, and he didn’t really know what he’d been expecting, but it both was and wasn’t what he got. Eric’s lips were just smooth and dry on his at first, neither his mouth nor Nate’s really moving — and then Nate had to take a breath and Eric pressed in closer and something changed, the whole thing seemed to come open where Nate hadn’t completely realized it was closed, and turned wetter and warmer and sliding and weird. It seemed like another forever that he fumbled his way through it: trying to move his mouth when Eric’s moved, because it seemed wrong for it to just sit there, but never knowing if he was moving it the right way, afraid he was drooling or something, or just blobbing his lips against Eric’s like a fish on land.

On the other hand, though, he was kissing Eric. Which somehow actually seemed to make all the rest worth it.

At some point in there — Nate’d lost all track of time pretty much right away — Eric pulled him in a little, toward him, by his available handgrip on Nate’s jeans. Nate twitched in sudden alarm, about to try to pull back from that at least, but it was too late; Eric’s hand slid even deeper down his fly, as he firmed his grip, and his fingers slid even deeper, and — Nate jerked this time for a different reason, making a tiny, strangled, incredibly embarrassing noise against Eric’s mouth. Eric’s hand stopped where it was at once, which was both good and extremely bad. And then his mouth curled against Nate’s lips, right before he broke maybe half an inch back out of the kiss, and oh god, was it possible to actually die from humiliation?

“I didn’t know you had that much of a thing for Bs,” Eric murmured, his breath warm across Nate’s lips — his mouth still actually touching them, a little. Nate blushed, hard enough to hurt; but even though he could still feel the shape of a smile on Eric’s lips, and hear it in his breathing, he was realizing now that there was a lot of breathing, and that Eric’s face against his felt pretty warm too. That helped, more than a little. He swallowed, hard, trying to collect himself. It sure wasn’t easy with Eric’s hand down his pants, but he couldn’t really find it in him to complain.

“W-well, you know… I, uh, I take my demonstrations seriously?” Eric laughed, also against his lips, which made it so he could laugh, and that was even better. …It was Eric. It was okay. He took another breath and let it out, exquisitely aware of Eric’s knuckles almost brushing his erection again. “Um…”

Eric kissed him again, though, instead of letting him finish whatever the hell he would have said. It was briefer this time, but somehow even sexier, too: keeping the touches of his lips lighter and more teasing, and adding just a quick flick of his tongue at the end. By the time he pulled back Nate felt like he could barely see, let alone think. “Do you want to lie down?” Eric asked, after letting go again, still without going far. Nate hesitated, then burst out an airless, wheezy laugh.

“Oh god, yeah.”

With another faint laugh, Eric finally withdrew his hand from Nate’s jeans — which was about the worst thing in the world, actually, although for very different reasons he wasn’t about to complain about that either — and slid it around the small of Nate’s back instead, his other arm tucking around Nate’s waist. At some point that Nate hadn’t noticed, Eric must have set the midterm down on the dresser behind him; it was there when Eric tugged him away, tossed on a careless angle that was completely un-Eric-like, slightly battered from all Nate’s impromptu therapy. The two of them landed against the bed instead, and Nate flopped down unsteadily into the circle of Eric’s arms, both of them on their sides and face-to-face. He only had a second to swallow and close his eyes before Eric’s fingers brushed his cheek, making him open them again.

“Hey,” Eric said. He was so close, and looking into Nate’s eyes with a seriousness that made sweat prick out in sudden little drops from his skin. And still short of breath when he spoke. “…Is this okay? I mean… I know you haven’t been completely sure about things, and you were worried about it. And if it isn’t okay, I’d — rather you told me now.”

Nate wasn’t completely sure what he was going to say to that, even when he opened his mouth. It was true, there were a lot of reasons why he might not have been okay with this: a lot of questions he didn’t really know if he wanted answered, a lot of fears in the back of his mind, a lot of bad associations hovering and waiting to snap back on him if he ventured forward. He had been worried, hadn’t been ready to think about it. Hadn’t been ready to know.

“Not about this,” he said, though, when he could finally master his creaky voice enough to say anything at all; and found, to his surprise and even more surprising pleasure, that it actually seemed to be true. At least by now, here and now where he finally was. “I’m… actually pretty sure about this.”

Eric looked at him for a long moment, and a slight smile started to grow on his lips near the end of it. “So, this isn’t just some kind of — a test, or something?”

That caught Nate by surprise, and then he whispered out another weak little laugh, ducking his eyes down. “I… man, I hope not. I kind of — don’t test well, you know?”

Eric was surprised into laughing too, and leaned his forehead against Nate’s for a second in the process: filling him instantly with a weird, warm glowy sort of feeling he didn’t work too hard to explain. “Well, it could be a test for me.”

And at that Nate brought up his head, smirking, to look him in the eye. “Yeah, well, we all know how that’d turn out, B student.”

There was a second or two where Eric just looked so startled at that that Nate had a sudden burst of fear that that had been going too far, that Eric actually really was offended — and then he burst out laughing, hard. He cuffed at the side of Nate’s face with his nearby hand, and Nate ducked away, snickering. “Shut up — ” was as far as Eric got, before he’d leaned all the way in again and they were kissing again, which was a little harder than before at this angle and with both of them laughing but even better, way better.

Nate was still just starting to get used to dealing with Eric’s tongue in this whole equation (not to mention his own) when Eric’s hand at the small of his back skimmed back around his waist, and Eric slid back out of the kiss again. “Guess I better finish what I started,” he murmured into Nate’s mouth, his fingers tracing around Nate’s hip and then dipping under his waistband again. He sounded both amused and more than a little uncertain himself now, and if he’d had any presence of mind at all Nate might have been happy for the crack in Eric’s cool; at least he wasn’t the only one with no clue what he was doing. As it was, though, all he could do was squirm his hips forward, his face flushing again and eyes shutting tight, straining helplessly for contact right up until Eric’s palm finally pressed fully over the line of his cock, through his underwear.

“Oh — ” was the first thing that gasped itself out of Nate’s mouth, stupidly, and he swallowed and panted but didn’t open his eyes. There was no way he could look while this was going on, at himself or at Eric, he’d die or something if he did. Eric’s breath shivered a little, and his hand rubbed in a small circle for a moment, shifting the thin fabric over Nate’s dick, making a heat and friction that was almost hard to stand at this point. Nate was sure he was making a wet spot on his briefs and couldn’t even care beyond the obvious embarrassment, just clinging to Eric’s shoulders with both hands and breathing fast and hard through his teeth. Then Eric’s hand was moving away again, making him bite his lip to keep from whimpering, tugging the elastic of his waistband out of the way, reaching into his underwear. His fingertips grazed Nate’s cock first, way too soft and delicate and making him twitch everywhere, and then his whole hand wrapped around its length, slowly.

Nate let out an incredibly long, wobbling breath. “Okay,” he whispered, almost completely under his breath — just because he felt somehow like something needed to be said, but the way Eric’s hand tightened further at the sound of it made him gasp and then shudder out another hiss through his teeth. “…Okay…”

Eric was stroking him then, though, and anything else he might have felt compelled to say got lost in harsh breathing and shivering. It managed to feel both pretty much like jacking himself off, and absolutely nothing like that; if he ever started to relax into it so much that things blurred, all he had to do was notice the size and different calluses and warm strength of the hand around him to think Eric’s hand, and then go skidding a few more dizzy inches toward an orgasm that was already stupidly close. They kissed again early on, between one stroke and the next, but breathing was already such a huge problem for Nate that he broke out of it after only a few seconds, gasping, his head toppling sideways to rest heavily on the bed. Eric just brushed at the hair in Nate’s eyes with his free hand instead, his one on Nate’s cock (god, there it went again) never slowing down for a second.

“You have such a nice face,” Eric whispered back, sounding almost absent about it; but if he expected some kind of answer, Nate didn’t have it, and was spared from trying to find it anyway by having to gasp and then squeak out a faint cry when Eric’s thumb brushed across his head. God, fuck, he wasn’t going to make it, this was going to be over almost before it started and he wanted it to last forever —

He came only a couple seconds later, though, which just figured, considering his life. The pressure built up in his balls to a crisis that he couldn’t possibly have stood, and then broke over him: making his brain short out and his vision go white, a short breaking cry burst out of his throat, his hips buck into Eric’s hand and get come all over his knuckles and wrist and probably Nate’s own jeans, too, with his luck.

And then he had collapsed back on his side on the bed, panting now like a dog on a hot day, and Eric was still holding and lightly stroking his cock, coaxing a few last hisses and twitches out of him even now. Eric’s other hand was skimming his hair, his shoulder, then fingers across his lips, and he kissed them weakly as they went by, feeling awkward and embarrassed about it but wanting to too much to stop. Then Eric kissed him, still loosely cupping his softening dick, and they did that for a while. Now that he was a little more relaxed, Nate was able to think that it was about the nicest thing that had ever happened to him.

He managed to pull himself together a little eventually, though: at least enough to notice the heaviness of Eric’s breath still in his mouth, his slight restlessness against Nate’s chest and hands. He drew back out of the kiss, hesitating, and then took one hand from Eric’s shoulder, dropping it down instead to the waistband of Eric’s own jeans.

“Do… um, do you…” He couldn’t seem to get the rest out, though, and anyway the answer seemed obvious. Eric opened his eyes, after what seemed like a long time, and the dark, hazy look in them and his parted lips somehow sent a little flutter through Nate straight to his cock, even as exhausted as it was.

“You don’t have to,” he said, though, for all it came out fast and hot between his quick breaths. “If you don’t want to.”

That actually got a smile out of Nate, though, as breathless as he still was himself. “Don’t be stupid,” he muttered, and kissed Eric again. He had to give it back up pretty quickly, though, when he started tugging Eric’s shirt out of his jeans, and fumbling with the button and fly. Trying to do all three at once really wasn’t working out.

He ended up pushing Eric over onto his back; the angle was awkward like that, face-to-face, he couldn’t really even figure out how Eric had managed it. He sort of wanted Eric all the way on his other side, so Nate could do it from behind and it’d be more like jerking himself off, which would be easier, but it would be way obvious why he was doing it and that made him feel weird. He settled for lying on his side beside Eric on his back, got Eric’s pants and underwear out of the way, and then had an immediate struggle not to stay there for a minute and just stare at Eric’s dick. Or just all of him, really. Eric’s eyes were lightly closed and his mouth parted and his shirt rucked up around his surprisingly muscular stomach, and all told Eric was actually sort of beautiful, and although that seemed like something he should maybe tell Eric, the thought of actually doing it was so embarrassing that in the end Nate just couldn’t. He wrapped his hand around Eric’s cock, instead, and Eric first hitched in a breath and then let it out in a short trembly sigh. …Which, from the way it made him feel, was maybe just as good.

It wasn’t too difficult from there, surprisingly; just one stroke following another, curled around with his chest against Eric’s shoulder, his half-lidded eyes alternating between watching Eric’s expression and watching his own hand move. Eric’s eyes flickered behind his closed lids, he breathed through his slightly open lips and then occasionally closed them to swallow or make some soft sound through them. Mostly, though, he was quiet: just his breathing building up, getting steadily faster and more ragged, and his hand curling into a fist that gradually tightened around a bit of the bedspread (and the tail of Nate’s shirt). And finally it flexed, and then clamped tighter than ever, and his breath caught into a second’s silence and then burst into a long rattle of short gasps. And Eric’s hips lifted suddenly off the bed, a little glottal sound jerked out of his mouth, and Nate’s hand was suddenly slick, moving much more easily through the last few strokes that saw Eric flop back onto the mattress, trembling and with an arm slung over his eyes, panting his breath and twitching out the last of it in occasional jumps of his muscles.

…And by then Nate was hard again, which also just figured.

But for right then, they just lay together, side-by-side, both breathing hard and resting limp with their eyes closed. Eric’s hand pawed out, after a moment or two, and wrapped around Nate’s waist, and Nate went with it more than willingly, squirming in even tighter to Eric’s side. He set his cheek on the side of Eric’s chest and felt it rising and falling under him, slower and slower, listening to the huge, heavy rhythm of Eric’s heartbeat in his ear. It was even better to listen to than W.Z.R.T., he thought, dizzily. It was probably better than anything in the world.

They didn’t get much studying done that afternoon, either, as it turned out. And that night, Nate didn’t wind up using his sleeping bag at all.

Early in April, there was another not-quite-party Thing At Amy’s House, to which Jase (who Nate was finally speaking to again on a regular basis) went out of his way to specifically tell Nate he was invited. Nate was still pretty far down on the rungs at school these days, but his pariah status had been pretty much forgotten; he only really got trouble if he made the mistake of reminding people too much that he existed, which he guessed he could live with. He probably could have gone back to sitting with Jase and the rest of the gang at lunch, if he’d wanted to, although he found to his surprised relief that he didn’t. He was pretty sure Jase and Amy had gotten back together by then, too, although not a hundred percent. It was hard to tell, sometimes.

“I mean, you don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Jase said, shrugging, in that tone that said he actually did have to, but Jase wanted him to just know that without it having to be said. “Just, we’re gonna have some tunes and some beer and hang out, and I thought it’d be cool if you could show.”

“Can Eric come?” Nate said — almost immediately. They were out in the parking lot behind school again, Jase with a cigarette (he’d started smoking at some point, Nate didn’t know when; he thought Jase’s brother had gotten him started), the still-biting wind lifting the smoke away and rifling Nate’s hair. Jase looked startled by the question, and then looked a little mad — and then, just as quick, looked nothing in particular again.

“Sure, I guess,” he said, though, feigning indifference. Nate couldn’t help wondering if he would have known it was fake a year ago, or even six months. “If you really want.”

So he pleaded with Eric to go with him, late that evening after they’d been making out, and Eric agreed in a very polite sort of way that made him feel a little guilty. But he just couldn’t do it by himself — couldn’t walk into that lion’s den without Eric to stick to. Things were different now, but not that different.

The thing was mostly in Amy’s loud, dark, smoky rec room, which was also on the basement level, although her house was much bigger than Jase’s. Nate had only been there once, and only barely inside; he and Jase and Stu had been picking her up to go to the mall, and she hadn’t been ready yet. The stereo pounded against the walls, and the lights were all out except an old lava lamp and what trickled down from the first-floor hallway, and some couple dozen people Nate knew and half-knew and didn’t know at all drifted past him, yelling over the music and laughing and ignoring him and Eric. From what he could tell, Jase had spent like an hour now crouched down in front of the tape deck, fiddling with things, another cigarette burning in his hand. One or both of Amy’s parents must smoke too, from all the ashtrays around; at least they probably wouldn’t notice.

After about a beer or so, Nate excused himself to Eric (who had smiled and refused a beer of his own, making him feel awkward and dumb), and headed upstairs to take a leak. The first-floor powder room was occupied, so he snuck guiltily up the stairs to the second floor, where it was even darker but at least there was a bathroom free. He’d just come back out again, and was about to make his way back downstairs, when from behind him at the end of the hall came the last thing he’d wanted to hear: Amy’s voice.

“Nate!” Big and gushing and friendly, and he turned toward her with his stomach in his throat. She was leaning in the doorway of what had to be her bedroom, smiling at him brilliantly, wearing an off-the-shoulder sweater-dress and black leggings, her hair teased and her eye makeup in bigger dark rings than ever. “Hey! I’m so glad you could make it tonight. It seems like forever since I’ve seen you!”

“Yeah, I, uh, guess it does,” Nate managed, feebly, trying to smile back. It never even occurred to him to think she might not be trying to pull something. Still beaming at him, she stepped back out of the doorway, making space in it.

“Could you give me a hand with something in here?” All sweetness, gesturing into the room behind her. From where he stood, it looked more like a lion’s den than any of this so far. “It won’t take long.”

You’re crazy if you go in there, his brain informed him with perfect calm; but his mouth was saying “Sure,” and his feet carrying him in before it could apparently get in touch with him. Old habits, hard deaths, and all that shit, he guessed. Or maybe a part of him just hated the rest.

But whatever he’d been grimly expecting when he went inside, it definitely wasn’t for her to shut the door behind him, shove him back onto her bed, and climb on top of him and start kissing him.

His eyes went huge right away, although he couldn’t see much except the blurry edge of her hair. She was wearing lipstick, and it was sort of greasy and bitter-tasting, in a not-quite-unpleasant way. Her hips settled squarely over his, and he jerked a little in spite of himself, inhaling sharply through his nose. She was light and slim and soft, and under the hem of her dress (which had skidded up nearly to her hips), soft heat at the fork of her legs pressed into him through her leggings, making it much harder to think — not that he’d been able to think a whole lot to begin with, besides what?! He’d had at least sixteen separate fantasies along these exact lines, but somehow the real thing happening so suddenly was just confusing, and actually kind of a little scary.

He wasn’t exactly in any shape to go Hey, wait a minute yet, though; thus far he hadn’t even managed to move. She just kept at it, though, not much seeming to mind: driving at his mouth with her tongue, grabbing at his shirt, picking up his hands herself from where they’d tumbled on the bedspread and putting them on her, one on her butt under her skirt and the other squarely on her breast through the dress. Nate made a small, high-pitched hiccuping noise, and tried to pull back, but she just took the chance to wriggle and twist around on him, shimmying out of the dress and dragging it over her head, making a mess of her artfully messy hair, throwing the fabric off to the side —

But by the time she’d turned back to him and was bending down to him again, he thought — with his stomach sinking inside him — that he finally understood. And before she could get back to his mouth, he planted his hands against her shoulders, and held her back as gently and firmly as he could. And if there was actually a tiny twist of regret in his gut when her eyes reopened in surprise and dismayed confusion, well… no one would ever have to know that but him.

“You know,” Nate said, quietly, into the breath-filled silence between them, “I don’t think making him like me less is going to make him like you any more.”

Amy just stared at him for a second or two, her eyes huger and wider than ever. Even in spite of all the mascara, she looked very young.

And then she slapped him, full force, across the face.

…Which Nate really wasn’t prepared for, in terms of how much it hurt. The heroes in the movies always made it look like no big deal, ho hum, just a tap from a delicate little girl; they certainly never showed any sign of it feeling like someone had set off a firecracker in your cheek. He reeled back on the bed, his vision actually going wobbly for a second, and then had to prod testingly at his jaw with his fingertips. Meanwhile Amy was smacking at the one of his hands still on her shoulder until it went away, and then scrambling off him, ending in a heap at the side of the bed. She stayed there with her back to him for a few moments, hunched over in her strapless bra and leggings, breathing harshly.

“It’s your fault,” she said, without turning, just as he was sitting up and awkwardly about to try to say something. Her voice was low and hard and ugly, her hair screening her face away from him in a ragged blonde sheet. “He fucking dumped me over you. …You finally got your own boyfriend, and he still won’t come over unless you’ll be there.”

“Eric’s not my — ” Nate started, exasperated, and then suddenly realized that actually, by now, maybe Eric was. Was he? He had no real idea where the two of them stood status-wise, and had never thought to ask. …Maybe later. He swallowed, discomfited, and had to start over. “…I didn’t ask Jase to dump you.”

Amy snorted, but there was a slightly thick sound to it that made him immediately embarrassed and awkward all over again. “Whatever.” She scrubbed at her face, then dropped her hands into her lap. For a long time, neither of them said anything.

“You know the first time I was going to do it with him, we didn’t even make it that far?” she said suddenly, out of the silence: her voice so harsh now it was almost a caw. He was almost sure she was crying now, and his stomach twisted up worse than ever. Maybe he should get her her dress, and give it to her, or something. “We were making out on his bed, and everything, and we’d like gotten to third, and then… the garage door goes off. And Jase just says, ‘Oh,’ like — ” She sniffed, and scrubbed the back of one shaky hand across her nose. “…And I wait and wait, for like an hour, and — I finally put my clothes back on and go down, and — he’s been in the garage talking to his brother about the fucking tape deck in his new van. For like an hour, while I’m — ” She broke off there, though, and her head dropped even further down toward her lap. It took her a long time to say anything else. “…I had to call my mom to come get me. He didn’t even notice.”

…God, Nate wanted to be anywhere else but this room, anywhere else but this house. Why had he ever let himself be talked in here? Into any of it?

He hesitated a moment, though, and then said softly, to Amy’s back, “Did you ever think about maybe, like… going out with somebody who actually likes you?” Her back stiffened a little, and he sighed. “I mean, it’s not like… You’re really pretty, and you’re smart, and — ” He paused, and then let out a helpless little snort of his own. “…Well, I’m sure you’re nice to people you don’t hate.”

Amy didn’t say anything for a long time, though; so long he started to think she just wouldn’t. Finally, though, she just said in almost a whisper: “He likes me.”

And Nate hesitated at that, again… and then just let out his breath, long and quiet. “Okay,” he said, after another moment’s pause. “…I’m gonna go back downstairs, okay?” She didn’t say anything, although he guessed he hadn’t really thought she would. “I can, like… tell everybody you just got too drunk, and fell asleep up here. If you want.”

Amy sniffed again, and scrubbed at her face. For a second he could actually see it, and dropped his eyes automatically away. “Fuck off, Flowers,” she said, her voice thick again.

And Nate sighed, and nodded, and climbed off the bed. “…Okay.”

He shut the bedroom door again behind him, and made his way back down to the rec room in a daze, feeling punch-drunk and stupid. Jase had finally stopped messing with the stereo, and was just standing by the doorway up to the kitchen now, holding a beer and looking bored; he lit up a bit when Nate came down, though, and Nate gave him a weak smile.

“Hey,” he shouted to Jase when he got close, to be heard over the music. “…I think we’re gonna take off, okay? Kinda early morning tomorrow, you know.”

Jase looked surprised, then dismayed, then annoyed. “What, seriously?” he shouted back. “Come on, man, it’s like nine. Don’t be a total loser.”

Nate hesitated for only a second — then just smiled at him, trying unconsciously to imitate that kind, patient way Eric always did it. “Sorry, man,” he yelled back at Jase, keeping it on his lips all the while. “Don’t know how to be anything else.” He thought for a second, glancing automatically back up the stairs, and then turned back to Jase. “Oh, and — Amy told me to tell you she kinda had too many, and she was going to pass out upstairs for a while. You should probably leave her alone for a few, but then you might wanna go check on her.”

“Sure, whatever.” Jase barely even bothered to shout that time, though; and he was already looking moodily down at the fresh cigarette he was lighting, instead. Nate hovered for a second, on the verge, but then just decided he’d done all he could.

Eric was standing against another wall, off in the furthest corner from the speakers, looking uncomfortable and wincing a little. His relieved smile when he saw Nate lit up his whole face, though, and that one Nate was much happier to see.

“Hey,” Nate shouted to him this time, leaning in close. “You wanna get out of here?”

Eric drew back an inch or two, looking at him with an amusingly cautious expression. “…Do you?”

Nate nodded, smiling sheepishly at him. “Yeah. It’s getting a little old.”

“Then yes,” Eric said immediately, and then their eyes caught and they both laughed.

“Man, if you totally hated it, you could’ve just said something,” Nate yelled to him this time, but Eric only smiled and looked away. Nate just shook his head, still smiling, and patted Eric’s shoulder. “I just gotta call my dad, he’s working late and he said he’d pick us up. But we can go wait for him out on the corner.”

The night outside was cool and empty, refreshingly quiet. They walked down to the corner of Amy’s street in silence, and stopped, and then after a moment Nate sat down cross-legged in the grass at the edge of the street. His head was still whirling and smoky, his ears ringing and feeling stuffed with cotton.

“Are you okay?” Eric asked, after the silence had gone on for longer than usual. Nate didn’t respond for a long time, but only because he didn’t really feel like he knew the answer. …What were Rick and Toby hiding, then, that made them so incredibly miserable that hurting other people was the only thing that made them feel better? What about Debbie Johnson, or those assholes Steve and Doug? The whole world felt too big suddenly, infinite and way too full of people. He felt dizzy and small.

“I just…” Nate trailed off, and then ducked his head down, scruffing at his hair. “…God. I feel like I understand people so much better, all of a sudden.”

Eric was quiet for a moment. At the end of it, when he spoke, there was a faint smile Nate could hear in his voice. “How’s that working out for you?”

“It sucks,” Nate said, and then paused, and then burst into a short, harsh little laugh. “…Why does it suck?”

Eric took a step forward; now at the corner of his vision, Nate could see him shrug. “I think because people suck,” Eric said, after another pause. And then he took another, seeming to think about that for a while; and then, when Nate glanced up at him, he was smiling out at nothing, although it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “…But I guess if that’s true, at least it means we’re all in the same boat.”

…And yeah, Nate thought, as he turned slowly front again in the silence that followed. Yeah. That seemed to make sense.

And if he had to, he guessed he could live with it.

The wind soughed through the trees above them, making thick, mysterious whispering sounds, as he sat in the grass and Eric stood over him and they waited for his dad to come. It was still cold, but soon the weather would warm up; the days would get longer and longer, and it would really start to feel like spring.

art by safelybeds

(APPENDIX: NATE’S MIXTAPE)

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