Tony curled his hand into a fist and swung it hard at the punching bag. When his knuckles connected with the bag, it swung, creating a blur of red through the air. He should have been wearing gloves but he didn’t want padding between his bones and skin and the impact. He wanted the sharp sting. Right there. Real. Where he couldn’t ignore it. So he could ignore everything else.
He wiped dripping sweat from his forehead as exhaustion crushed down his shoulders and pushed its way through the rest of his body. It had probably been an hour, two hours, since he’d started beating this bag with his bare fists. He couldn’t be certain until he looked at the clock on his phone and he didn’t want to look at his phone because he knew what waited for him. Text messages from Clay. Not a lot, just two the last he’d seen. And one missed call.
There would be no avoiding Clay forever. He didn’t want to avoid him forever anyway. Tony missed Clay, his absence like something sour and heavy twisted around his gut. He had to figure out how to set aside his feelings for Clay, make them friendship instead of this. But how could he do that? If being with someone as great as Brad couldn’t turn off that part of himself that screamed, “that’s him, right there. that’s my person” every time he looked at Clay, then what could?
Maybe Brad was right. Maybe Tony had to tell Clay. Maybe he needed to stand there, stand right goddamn there, in front of the boy he loved and listen to him say he could never return those feelings. That might be the only way for those feelings to stop and for maybe, someday, Tony to rebuild a friendship with Clay and maybe get to fall in love with a heart that could actually let him in.
Tony picked up his phone and sat down on the workout bench. Thank God his brothers were out on a job tonight so he had their whole makeshift basement gym to himself. He was not in the mood to plaster on a cocky grin and pretend everything was fine.
He read the two messages from Clay.
Clay: Hey man, haven’t seen you since the other night. You doin ok?
Clay: If this is about Brad or, you know, anything I’m here to talk.
Tony ran his thumb over the blue messages on his phone, like he could somehow feel a connection through just that. He sighed— it felt like nothing but the hot screen of his phone. Fuck, I miss him.
Tony: Not about Brad. Long story. Thanks for checking in.
After a few moments those three dots appeared to say Clay was responding and, very much against his will, Tony’s heart fluttered.
Clay: I’ve read the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy over four times. I don’t mind long stories.
Tony chuckled, a smile spreading across his face. He shouldn’t reply. He already let Clay know he was alive and still his friend and all that. Texting would just lead down a road he didn’t need right now. Not when he was still deciding between telling Clay the truth and burying that truth so far down it would suffocate. But, God, he just really wanted to talk to Clay.
Tony: Did you seriously just admit that?
Clay: Yes. No shame.
Clay: … a little shame.
Clay: So, seriously dude, story time.
Sighing, Tony shifted on the workout bench. A part of him just wanted to type the truth. To simply say: the story is I am in love with you and it all started back in fourth grade when you traded your pack of Oreos for one of the shitty bologna sandwiches I had to eat every single day. But you’re straight. You’ll never want me the way I want you and my heart is breaking.
Tony: It’s nothing. Just family shit.
Clay: It’s both nothing and a long story?
Tony: You’re insatiable, Clay. Like a dog with a bone.
Clay: More like a cat, a cat with…what do cats chew on?
Tony snorted, another smile finding its way out. This text banter could only lead one direction, and that was to veiled flirting on his end that would end in stupidly dissecting everything Clay said to make a feeble, ridiculous case that Clay might be interested. But, God help him, Tony couldn’t resist…
Tony: In what way are you like a cat?
Clay: A love of lasagna and a hatred of Mondays.
Tony: Why do I talk to you?
Because you make me happy. Because you make me better. Because I love you. God, I love you so much.
Clay: The witty banter.
Tony: That has to be it.
It had been hours since Tony had texted him. So why was he lying in bed, his phone’s light glowing in his face, re-reading the texts over and over? Tingling warmth bit at his cheeks and urged him to smile. He fought against it. Not that anyone would see. Not that anyone would know why he was smiling. I don’t even know.
Still, he re-read a few of the last texts for probably the tenth time.
Clay: One of these days you’re gonna let me drive that car.
Tony: Now why would I do that?
Clay: I’ll convince you. I can be very persuasive ;)
Winky face? Oh yeah. Super cool, Clay.
Tony: Prove it.
Clay: I will.
And that was it. Tony never texted him back after that. That was normal, right? It’s not like he asked him a question that remained unanswered. It’s not like their conversation was anything important or there was anything to add to it. Tony was probably busy and Clay had just been annoying him with—
Clay groaned and rolled over, tossing his phone onto the nightstand as he buried his face in his pillow. Why was he overanalyzing this? Clay was, of course, prone to over-analyzation but about texts? From Tony? What the fuck?
Their relationship had changed over the last year. Deepened in a way he couldn’t have predicted. Clay had never had a friendship like that, the kind that ran all the way down into a person’s bones. That’s why this was so jarring, right? Why every fourth thought became suddenly occupied with Tony? Because ever since Brad broke up with Tony, Tony had pulling away from Clay…
Had Clay said the wrong thing at some point? Done the wrong thing? After Hannah, it was hard not to worry that, despite careful efforts to do otherwise, he could still be cutting chinks in someone’s armor without ever realizing it.
It was too late to text, and if he sent this text, it would be stupid. He’d regret it the moment he pressed send. Clay grabbed his phone back off his nightstand.
Clay: I don’t know what’s going on. But I know something is going on. If I was somehow a jerk to you, please tell me. I’m sorry.
He pressed send, then started typing again.
Clay: Don’t push me away. God, Tony. I don't want to lose you.
Clay’s thumb hovered over ‘send’. He let out a sigh and backspaced until all the letters were gone.