Clay’d spent a life time being too scared of some nebulous sense of shame and loss to really let himself love anyone so he — knew. He noticed it, like he did sometimes with some things and some people — Sky and Tony, really — but he noticed. It was a start, he supposed. He owed at least a start to Hannah. He owed more, he knew, but maybe sometimes a start was all he could do.
He walked over to where Tony was standing by his car. “Hey, Tony. Aren’t you going to offer me a ride?” He asked. The smile felt a bit unfamiliar on his face.
Tony turn, his own face opening up in response. “Hey Clay. This is new.”
“I didn’t bring my bike today. Unless you're too busy for me?”
Tony shook his head. “Nah, man, never for you.” He sounded sure. Clay liked that. Tony always sounded so clear, so sure. Unlike Clay, but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. Hannah had liked that about him. It wasn't so hard to have those thoughts anymore.
“I know,” he told Tony. “Making a joke. I do that now.”
“Oh, really?” Tony asked him.
“Yeah,” he exhaled, putting a hand gently on Tony’s shoulder. “So, about that ride?”
“Sure, man.” They stood in the bright sunshine for a second, staring at each other before Clay bent down and swung into the passengers seat.
“No tapes?” He asked.
Tony paused before answering, hand guiding the car gently out of the parking lot. “I’m done with old things. For now.”
“You know,” Clay pointed out, “It’s kind of like a metaphor, you know. Learning from the past, from history. But not letting it dictate your life.”
“Clay,” Tony told him, “it’s a car radio.”
Clay felt himself starting to grin. “But -“
Tony groaned back into the headrest of the car. “You think I didn’t get enough of this shit with Ryan?”
“Yeah, why did you date him anyway?”
“My mom,” he said loftily, ignoring Tony’s scoffing, “said you should always marry your best friend.”
“Well, if your mom said it …” Tony trailed off. “Besides, we are in high school. Just wanted some fun. You know how it is. Or maybe you don’t.”
“Yeah,” Clay said, sky casting a shadow over his face. “I don’t think I do.”
Clay’s new to this watching people thing, but he isn’t new to watching Tony. Tony, he wondered, might be new to being watched though. He felt his throat closing up a bit, wishing more than ever that Jeff was here. Jeff would —
“I wish Jeff were here,” he blurted out because he could do better than just watching today because he owed Hannah courage, “sometimes more than Hannah. If that makes me the worst person on the planet. But Hannah was — someone I never really had, you know? But Jeff. Was. Someone I had. Does that make sense?”
Tony moved his hand off the gear shift and onto Clay’s shoulder and lets out something of a laugh. “Yeah, Harry Potter, I’d say that puts you on par as Satan himself.”
Clay shoved his shoulder into Tony’s. The wind rustled through the open window. He shivered.
It’s been a year.
See, the thing about rumors, or the thing about Clay and his gay rumors, more accurately, is that they tended to be a lie about a truth. Like something somewhere in them was true but they were somehow, never true.
And there’s something to be said about not having gay rumors spread about you that was just really nice. And anyway, Hannah showed up and Clay fell a little bit more in love every day and it didn’t seem — necessary — to explore any other ideas or concepts. He could just, you know, put it off. Didn’t really need to think about it.
And she didn’t really know about the rumors. So. His parents didn’t either. It wan’t any sort of real bullying. Just, kind of laughing in the halls and this weird sort of sense that everyone thought he was gay and he wasn’t entirely sure they weren’t wrong and —
And then he’d started tutoring Jeff at the start of his sophomore year. Jeff was a year above him and Clay was a loser in all those advanced classes, the kind that took basic courses over the summer so that they could take the harder ones in school.
Ms Marks put them together, mostly just for english tutoring but Clay didn’t mind helping Jeff study or anything else.
At maybe their third or fourth studying session, Jeff started telling him about his crush on this chick Sheri who was a cheerleader and always so nice and everything. “I’m probably going to ask her out after tomorrow’s game.”
“What, just like that?” Clay asked.
Jeff shrugged. “Yeah,” he said. “Just like that dude. She doesn’t feel it, I move on. Better like this. What about you? You got your eye on anyone?”
“No,” Clay lied firmly, looking at the table, face burning. “Not right now.”
“Nah, dude,” Jeff grinned at him. “You can tell me. I’m cool about that sort of thing.”
Clay was pretty sure he knew exactly what sort of thing Jeff was talking about and maybe that was why he said it. “Um, you know the new girl?”
“Alright,” Jeff nodded at him, smiling. A little begrudgingly, Clay felt himself smiling back. “So,” Jeff asked, “you’re not gay then?”
Clay choked. “No,” he eventually coughed out. “That’s — a stupid rumor.”
“This school can really suck sometimes,” Jeff told him with all the earnestness of a newborn puppy. "I'll tell people to drop it, I've got sway, you know. I think it's a jock thing," he confided.
Clay just shrugged, grinning into the table so that he didn't have to look up into Jeff's perfect face. “It’s alright.”
The rumors started to fade after that. Clay didn’t know if that was Jeff or just time or some other mysterious force but, especially now, he liked to think that was Jeff. Having his back, even then.
“Jeff,” Clay told Tony, laying back on the grass and blinking up into the sun. “Was a really good guy, you know? He was probably the one that stopped all those gay rumors about me. Back in freshman year. He really wanted me to get together with Hannah. Encouraged me all the time.”
Tony didn’t say he knew or anything like that and Clay was grateful for that.
He took a breath, wiping his sweaty palms on his shorts. “I sort of had a crush on him freshman year,” he admitted.
“Oh,” Tony said, trying to control his surprise. Clay let out a little huff of laughter.
“Yep,” he said, drawing out the ‘p’. “It’s kind of exactly what you think. Very, you know, early Luke / Leia vibe — who is this woman? She’s beautiful! But then they’re like, really siblings and have this great bond and everything? It was like that. Only we’re not related and we’re both dudes. But other than that. Well, we’re also not Jedi and — didn’t save anybody.”
Tony blinked. “I’m going to be honest with you, I’ve never seen the Star Wars movies, so that made about as much sense to me as you can imagine.”
“Dude, what? How have you not seen Star Wars? It’s seminal media!”
“Wow, dude, wow.” Tony replied. “I cannot believe you just said that."
Clay shoots him a look out of the side of his eyes. “Yeah, you can.”
“No,” Tony shrugged. “I give you more credit than that. Be better Clay,” he told Clay seriously.
“Asshole!” Clay laughed. “You asshole!”
They fell into a companionable sort of silence, watching the clouds move around the sun and breathing in the air.
It’s been a year, Clay thought. It’s been a long year. The grass was scratchy on his arms and legs uncovered by clothes and the sun was burning but he didn’t move. He didn’t move or close his eyes. He just laid there and breathed, arms thrown back over his head.
It’s been a year.
“My boyfriend isn’t going to like this,” Tony told him.
“Dump him,” Clay murmured back in a rare moment of something.
“What?” Tony asked, turning his face away from the sky to see Clay looking right at him. “What?”
“You heard me,” Clay said. Tony turned his face back up to the sky.
“Good one, man,” he said. Clay didn’t reply.
The thing about gay rumors, Tony thought, was that they made things simpler. He didn’t really need to have any sort of grand coming out. He just — started dating Ryan and let the school do it’s work. And no one really said much to him, but he didn’t spend much time with the sort of people who would.
And rumors being what they were and Tony being who he was, he kind of just assumed — well, everyone knew Ryan. And everyone knew Ryan was gay. And everyone knew he dated Ryan.
So he didn’t really need to come out.
That, more than anything else, might have been why he even dated Ryan in the first place, not that he would ever admit that to anybody. He didn’t want to hide who he was but he didn’t want to make it a big thing. And it was a weird thing to bring up casually. It would be, he thought once, so much easier if I just had a boyfriend. It’s a clear message. I don’t have to talk, to explain. Of course, Clay, much in the same way he usually did, ruined that plan.
Tony liked that he wouldn’t have to talk. When he wanted to help Clay, they didn’t talk. They climbed. You showed people yourself, you didn’t tell them.
Actions spoke louder than words, always.
Tony brought Ryan to dinner with his family and said, “Ryan, this is my family. Dad, mom, this is my boyfriend Ryan.” It was the only time he called Ryan his boyfriend. Ryan put an arm around his shoulder while his parents struggled to hide their shock.
In the morning, his dad woke him up at six in the morning to help him repair a new bike that didn’t need to be repaired for the next three days and he left for school smiling.
“Hey, babe,” Ryan greeted him, leaning forward to peck him on the lips. Tony pulled away quickly.
“What the hell?” Ryan asked, tilting his head to the side, that disdainful voice of his going.
“It’s school.” Tony shrugged. “I’m a private man.”
“Yeah, sure, it’s school. It’s got nothing to do with this weird sort of homophobia you’ve still got going on where you’re gay but you’ve got to be toned down enough that everyone’s okay with it — that you’re dad’s okay with it. I bet,” he said, so condescending even then, “I bet it’s that whole pseudo masculinity thing that you see so much of, especially in the families of minorities like yours. And Mexican culture is like, very patriarchal but —“
“We're Puerto Rican,” Tony pointed out.
“So?” Ryan looked, crossing his arms defensively. “It's pretty much the same thing. And it’s still clearly effecting you.” He went on to say other things because Ryan was always talking and using up words and Tony just tuned him out. He was fine with the gay thing. He was on board. His parents even knew.
In a family of five brothers in the bad part of town, there was a lot of shit you had to do to get through the day. You took a lot of shit. And sometimes when you screamed to be seen, the wrong sort of people saw. It’s hard to look for attention when you know it’s not all good. You don't want people really seeing you and you definitely don't want them seeing you hurting.
His sister learned that, or so Tony hoped. They, him and his brothers, they put a body on the guy and they’d do it again. He never told his sister he loved her but anyone hurts her? She knew he’d put a body on them. She knows he loves her. No way not to.
You don’t need to say that shit in his family. You show it.
The sun felt too warm on his cheeks, the breeze barely touching his nose. He turned, slowly, to look again at Clay. Clay was still staring back. Bizarrely, Tony’s eyes darted to Clay’s fringe, wild with the wind.
Without really thinking about it, he reached his hand out. Watched Clay open his mouth. Touched his hair. “You gotta gel it man,” his voice sounded raspy. He cleared his throat. “Get you some nice looking hair. Like me.”
“Nah,” Clay said, smiling.
Tony propped himself up on one elbow. “What, you dissing my look?”
“Actually,” Clay leaned in, “I kind of love it.”
Tony froze for a second but recovered quickly. “As you should,” he said. “Palawan,” he added, gently joking.
Clay’s delighted laugh seemed to surprise even him and he clamped a hand over his mouth. Some muffled sounds made it out.
“Come on,” Tony said, reaching his hand out to tug Clay’s hand away from his mouth, instantly regretting it. His hand felt cool against the heat and smooth. Clay stared at him transfixed.
“Tony -“ He began.
Tony sat up. “I’ve got to get going. I was supposed to meet Brad later. For coffee.”
Clay didn’t say anything to that but Tony could feel his eyes harsh against Tony’s back, hotter than the sun on his face, as he got dressed.
“I’ll see you later?” He asked.
This time, Clay did say something. “You’re seeing me now,” he said.
Slowly, Tony turned around to stare at him nonpulsed. “You know,” Clay began to explain, grin growing with his words, “like in the show, Queer as Folk — the UK one, obviously, because between the two one is good and nuanced and affecting and not exploitative or political and I think it’s clear which one that is. The UK version, by the way. The US did a remake too concerned with being easily digestible to middle class suburbia with a message and sexed it up which is, like, super ironic considering a huge component of the UK version is the fuck you to middle class society and society in general, so creating a remake to appeal and fit in with society just seems — well, fucked up, really, and it is.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Text Brad,” Clay said instead. “Tell him you’ll meet again tomorrow. The day’s too beautiful to waste inside a coffee house.”
“So?” Clay asked. He had to squint to look up at Tony. “Step closer. Block the sun so I can see you.”
Tony didn’t move. “I can’t cancel again. I’ve cancelled too many times already.”
“Maybe you’re avoiding him.”
Tony ignored that. “You can come with. Skye’s working today.”
“Fine, but you have to tell me why you’re avoiding Brad.”
“I didn’t say I -“
Clay rolled his eyes. “You didn’t have to, dude. Actions speak louder than words, remember? That’s what you’re always telling me. And you can tell yourself that you’re just busy or that things are just crazy right now but you’re avoiding him.” He paused, face still squinting up at Tony. “Is it Hannah? I know you don’t — I know you like to think about things and work them out yourself, you know, but. I can listen. I know it doesn’t seem like that, because I talk a lot and you usually listen, but it is within my many capabilities. I’m very capable, is what I’m saying.”
“It’s not Hannah,” Tony said.
“Are you going to break up with him?” Clay asked, sitting up faster than Tony honestly thought he could.
“No, dude, and try to sound less excited about that, will you?”
“Why?” Clay asked.
Tony opened his mouth and closed it. He put his hands on his hips. “Just get in the car, would you?” The car was a half a mile away. “You’re a menace,” he mumbled, turning down the path.
“The car’s half a mile away,” Clay pointed out.
“Shut up,” Tony advised him.
Annoying, Clay didn’t shut up. “You can’t keep ignoring this,” he said instead. Tony didn’t grit his teeth because Tony wasn’t the sort of person who grit his teeth.
“What’s this?” He gritted out, trying to ignore the tightening in his chest.
“You know.” Clay said.
“Really? Now you’re going wordless? This is where you shut up?” Tony demanded. “And clearly, no, I don’t know.”
Clay, like an asshole, smirked. “This feels a bit like roll reversal, doesn’t it?”
“Is there any way to stop this conversation and go the rest of the way to Monet’s in silence?” Tony asked the sky rhetorically.
“You could kiss me,” Clay said carefully. He took it back hastily, as Tony stopped walking and turned to face Clay. “I mean, that was out of line. You’re in a relationship. For now.”
“What the hell, Clay?”
“I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be awful, I just thought -“
“What?” Interrupted Tony, resuming walking. There was silence for the next few minutes while Clay gathered himself.
“I just thought. Today, you know, of all days. I should be …” he trailed off. Tony didn’t know if he wanted Clay to continue or not. He stood by helpless, feeling his control slipping just past his fingers. The wind felt raw against his flesh, the world wobbly and unsure, everything tensed. “I should be braver with my love,” he voice stumbling over this word, “my feelings,” he corrected.
“That’s good,” Tony told him in a controlled voice. “Are you going to ask out Skype?”
“What?” Clay snapped confused. “No, obviously I’m talking about —“ Clay seemed on the verge of saying something. He even started to move, forming words like “you and you’re important to me and you helped me and I -“ were coming out of his mouth and Tony felt some sort of panic rising up in his chest from somewhere deep inside of him. He couldn’t let Clay finish, he had to — “I know you’re with Brad but I just wanted you to — know. I like you.” Clay released a breath, and looked up from the ground to Tony who felt like the ground had now toppled completely, vanishing from between his feet.
He was already shaking his head, grabbing onto the only lifeline he could. “You’re right. I’m dating Brad. Come on, Clay, you don’t mean this.”
“No,” Clay insisted. “I do.” He reached for Tony’s hand but Tony pulled back and Clay let him. “I do mean it,” he insisted again, quieter. “I didn’t want to go without saying anything. This time.”
“You're not even gay," Tony protested weakly casting around.
"Well, I don't think I'm entirely straight either!"
“I -" Tony looked at the ground. "I have to go meet Brad,” he said. “Can we talk about this later?”
Clay forced his mouth into something resembling a smile. “Sure, sure. Call me. It’s probably better I don’t go with you guys to Monet’s, yeah?”
“That’s probably better.”
Tony reached his shaking hand into his pocket, unlocking the car. Clay, on his way home, turned and called back. “Hey, Tony, let’s talk over dinner,” he said. “I don't -- I still want to be friends. If just ... that. And a wise man once told me -“
“Before we do anything, we eat?” Tony finished for him.
“How’d you know?” Clay complained, but he was smiling again. Tony’s chest started to inflate a bit, seeing that smile. But as he got into that car, everything started to deflate back on him again.
It had been a year, but were things really better?