Chad looked at his reflection in the window and fought the urge to bang his head against the glass. "How do people get these things to stay on?" he muttered, reaching up to adjust the mortar board for the hundredth time.
A blurry reflection joined his in the window. "Have you tried bobby pins?" When he turned his head, Gabriella was smiling up at him, her eyes friendly even though her mouth was mocking.
"Bobby pins? You know, I'm fresh out," Chad said, rolling his eyes.
"Lucky for you, I'm not." Gabriella unzipped her gown to reveal a tiny flat purse hanging over her white dress, the strap crossing her chest so that the purse could hang at her hip. She opened it and fished out a small handful of hair pins. "Hold still," she told him as she reached for his hat.
In the end, Chad had to bend his knees and neck, and Gabriella still had to stand on her tiptoes to fix his hair. When she was done, Gabriella gave the flat top of his cap a little pat.
"Thanks," Chad said, peering into the window and trying to see if she'd gotten it straight. "I don't know why they don't make these things to fit my hair."
"Probably because most of us don't have two cubic feet of hair." Gabriella giggled. "Though Mr. Jaramillo might wish he does." He pictured the short, bald Geometry teacher with Chad's curls, and he almost choked.
"Geez, Chad. You're so selfish," Gabriella said.
"Hey, Danforth!" Chad turned at Troy's voice, moving his head carefully. Bobby pins or no, he wasn't trusting this cap. Troy stepped around Chad to wrap an arm around Gabriella's shoulders. "You trying to steal my girl?" he asked with a smile.
The laughter dropped out of Gabriella's eyes so fast, Chad could practically hear it crash to the floor. She shrugged off Troy's arm and glared at him. "I am not a thing," she said clearly. "And therefore, I cannot be stolen." She flicked a glance at Chad and said, "I'll see you after the ceremony." She didn't stomp away, because the high heeled shoes she was wearing wouldn't allow it, but the set of her shoulders made it clear she wanted to.
"Dude," Chad said, shaking his head (carefully) at Troy. "Your mouth is a stupid place."
Troy looked bewildered. "It was just a joke."
"This time. But you weren't joking the three times you flipped out over her spending too much time with Ryan Evans, or when you thought she was cheating on you with Simon Schultz from the football team." Chad smacked Troy lightly on the shoulder. "If you're gonna be a jealous freak, you gotta pick your jokes a little more carefully."
"I guess I better apologize," Troy said, slumping unhappily. Chad gave him a sympathetic smile. Sometimes it seemed like Troy spent half his time apologizing.
Three sharp whistle-blasts rang through the air. Chad said, "Yeah, well you're gonna be a high school graduate when you do. Come on."
Troy slapped his cap on his head, where it fit smoothly and easily, and Chad fought down a tiny flare of envy. He resisted the urge to knock the hat off Troy's head and followed him to the cafeteria, where the seniors were lining up.
One thing their class was good at was moving together; it didn't take long to get them organized into lines and pacing solemnly out onto the football field, where row upon row of folding chairs awaited them. Chad filed down his assigned row and stood in front of his chair.
"Hey," Ryan said, just behind his left ear. Chad kept looking forward, unwilling to incur the wrath of Principal Matsui just because Ryan felt chatty. "You're coming to our party later, right?"
Chad didn't turn around, but he grinned. "I have to have dinner with my family," he said, still facing the back of Eddie Byers' head. "Let Mom cry and Dad tell me he's proud and Uncle Charles warn me not to waste my life on an art degree. Then I'm there."
"Cool. I'll save you some cake."
Pomp and Circumstance finally came to an end, and the class of 2008 sat in unison. Chad wanted to feel proud and excited, but what he mostly felt was afraid he would fall asleep before Taylor's valedictorian speech.
Cars lined both sides of the long driveway to the Evans' house. Chad had to park out on the street and walk up. Noise hit him like a wall the moment he opened the door, music and laughter and conversations held at mid-bellow. People called out greetings to him, adding his name to the general cacophony.
Chad didn't see Troy or Zeke or Jason, so he wandered from group to group, using pockets of conversation like stepping stones as he made his way through the house. Chad didn't think he had a goal until he found himself out on the crowded patio, where the music was throbbing and the people were dancing. He saw a red fedora bobbing and twirling, and he realized he'd been working his way here the whole time.
His lips curved into a smile as he watched Ryan spin between Martha's solid, graceful form and Kelsi's slight, flailing one. The song ended, and the three of them collapsed, panting against each other, showing no sign of leaving the dance floor. In fact, Shayla, a cheerleader who had spent most of the semester badgering Ryan to choreograph a routine for the squad, joined them, her blonde hair bouncing on her shoulders.
"Freaking fag." Chad flinched and looked up to find Simon Schultz lurking next to him, glowering at Ryan and the girls.
Chad took a deep breath before he even tried to answer. "Just because Evans wears pink and likes musicals doesn't mean he's gay," he said. He consciously mimicked the calm, superior tone of voice Taylor and Gabriella had used when they'd tag-teamed giving this lecture to the basketball team three months ago.
"Please," Simon said. His lip curled back from his teeth. "He's the biggest fag in school."
Chad's hands clenched into fists, but he kept his voice Taylor-mild as he asked, "Do you know guys who've been with him?"
Simon's whole face twisted into a grimace. "I don't hang with guys like that," he said. "But I bet he's sucked every dick in the drama club." His mouth settled into something disturbingly like a pout. "I don't know why he needs the girls, too."
"I tell you what," Chad said, carefully not sneering. "How about I go get him off the dance floor and leave the girls to you?"
"If you can convince them to dance with you."
"Thanks, man," Simon said, clapping Chad on the shoulder. "You're all right." Chad gave him a tight smile and memorized the way Simon's face looked, still flushed with anger but open with gratitude, and the way his hand felt, big and hot through Chad's t-shirt. He jerked his head in a sharp nod and shoved his way onto the dance floor.
Stepping between and around dancers, Chad let the pulse of the music pull him along. It was like a tide, he thought, and the impression was only intensified by the couples clinging together like barnacles or octopi. When he finally washed up against the knot of dancers he'd been aiming for, Chad let Martha pull him into the middle of the group.
"Chad!" Shayla greeted him with a smile far wider than he deserved, considering he set aside time in the halftime of every game to mock the cheerleaders' pompoms and ability to rhyme 'do' with 'two.' Chad gave her a little wave and let the motion of the dance spin him in a circle so he was facing Ryan instead.
"What the hell, man?" Chad said, nearly shouting to be heard. "You're supposed to be guarding my cake, and instead I find you building a harem."
Ryan grinned at him. "I hid a piece of cake in the pantry for you," he yelled. "Come on." He waved at Martha, Kelsi, and Shayla, who stepped closer together to fill the gap Ryan left as he led Chad off the dance floor.
"You really hid a piece of cake for me?" Chad asked, dodging around a knot of kids from the art club, who were swinging their arms in wide arcs as they danced.
"It was the only way to be sure it wouldn't get eaten," Ryan told him. "We put out trays of food, but people keep sneaking into the kitchen and raiding the refrigerator."
The thrumming music subsided do a dull thump as the kitchen door shut behind them, and the silence pressed in around them, making the spacious kitchen feel small and private. Chad cleared his throat and ran a hand over his hair.
"So," he said, sounding loud and awkward to his own ears. "Good turnout."
Ryan waved a hand dismissively and ducked into the pantry. "We always draw a crowd." he said over the muffled scrapes and thuds of cans and boxes moving. He emerged looking triumphant. "Here you go." He shoved a plate completely filled with cake into Chad's hands.
Chad stared at the slab of cake. "No wonder people are raiding the kitchen. You hid the whole damn cake."
Ryan rolled his eyes. He grabbed two forks from a drawer and hopped up to perch on the counter. "It's not all for you," he said. "I didn't get to eat any earlier."
Chad took a step back, clutching the cake close to his chest and bringing up his free arm to shield it. "Oh, I don't think so," he said.
"What?" Ryan glared at him. "That cake is bigger than your head. Well," he paused, "bigger than my head. There's no way you can eat it by yourself."
"I can try," Chad said with a smirk.
"I've got the forks," Ryan reminded him, holding them tauntingly out of reach.
Chad scoffed. "Oh, like I've never eaten cake with my hands before."
Ryan wielded a fork threateningly, then reconsidered and lowered his weapon with a devious smile. "I'll tell Sharpay you were the one who replaced her Evita-on-the-balcony costume with the Wildcat mascot costume during the spring musical revue."
Chad blinked. He handed Ryan the cake. "How did you know it was me?" he asked.
Ryan dug into the cake and passed Chad the second fork. "There was a cast party that night and Troy brought you, remember?" Chad nodded and took a bite. It was amazing, double chocolate with raspberry filling. No wonder Ryan had to hide it. Ryan continued, cutting into Chad's cake-induced euphoria. "You smelled like Sharpay's perfume all night. Either you'd been in her stuff, or you'd been making out with her."
Chad nearly choked on his cake. He swallowed and shuddered dramatically. "Dude."
Ryan nodded. "I know," he said around his fork. "That's why I was so sure you stole her costume. The other option ..."
"Dude," Chad repeated. "Don't say it a second time. Where is Sharpay, anyway? I expected to see her dancing with you."
Ryan suddenly became very interested in his fork. "Sharpay isn't talking to me."
"How'd you swing that?" Chad asked. His hip bumped the counter as he stepped closer.
"I want to go to a different college than her," Ryan said, slumping a little, still studying the fork in his hand. Maybe he was counting the tines.
"Yeah, but you sent in your applications months ago, right? You'd think she'd be over it by now."
Ryan winced. "I didn't exactly tell her. Until yesterday."
Chad stared at him. "You're a crazy person," he said. "I thought you were just a little weird, but no. You're completely insane."
Ryan bowed his head so that his face was completely hidden by the brim of his hat. At this angle, he couldn't possibly be looking at his fork, and Chad wondered what he'd picked to distract himself. Maybe his knees.
"I know," Ryan moaned. "I just kept putting it off."
Chad patted him on the shoulder. "Have some more cake. If Sharpay shows up, you'll need the sugar rush to help you run away."
Ryan looked up, and even though his eyes were serious, and small smile curved his lips. "That's the good part about living here," he said. "Lots of room to hide."
Chad bounced on the balls of his feet. He was a split second away from challenging Ryan to Evans' Mansion Hide and Seek when Troy walked in. He slouched across the kitchen toward them and stole the fork out of Chad's hand.
"What's up?" Chad asked, even though he knew. Only one thing had Troy looking so gloomy lately, and her name rhymed with Mabriella.
"Gabriella," Troy sighed. Chad pretended he didn't see Ryan mouthing the name as Troy said it, his eyes melodramatically wide and tragic in a decent imitation of Troy's own. If Chad had known that all of Ryan's theatre experience lent itself so well to sarcasm and mockery, he would have made friends with him years ago.
"I apologized for earlier, and we were good for about four hours. Then somebody started talking about scholarships," Troy explained. Chad nodded wisely and nudged the cake plate closer to Troy. Ryan shot him a wounded look.
"Don't worry about it," Chad said comfortingly. "It's a party. She'll start dancing and forget all about being in a huff."
"You think?" Troy asked hopefully. He had chocolate smeared on his chin and looked pretty much exactly like he had when they were seven and Chad had assured him that Santa Claus was real.
"I promise," Ryan said, sliding down from his perch on the counter. "A party at my house is guaranteed to make anyone forget about their problems."
Troy looked unconvinced, but he nodded. "So, what were you guys talking about in here? Big secrets?"
Chad snorted. If they had been, he'd never tell Troy. Troy didn't mean to, but anytime someone told him a secret, he let it slip. Chad hadn't told him a secret since the third grade, when Troy had accidentally let Mrs. Stahl know that Chad was the one who fed the class hamster Silly Putty.
Ryan shook his head at Troy. "We were just talking about Sharpay."
Chad had faked a shudder thinking about Sharpay earlier, but Troy's shiver was completely real (and pretty hilarious). Troy immediately shoved away from the counter and asked them if they wanted to head out and rejoin the party. Chad agreed, and filed Troy's reaction away for the next time he needed to change the subject in a hurry.
The rest of the party passed in a blur of laughter and music. Despite his insistence that he didn't dance, Chad found himself on the floor with practically every girl he knew, including one energetic hip hop number with Martha and an uncomfortable slow dance with Taylor. His favorite moments, though, were when all his friends were on the floor together, their faces flushed and their hair flying as they jostled against one another, singing along to the music in voices no one could hear.
Chad hadn't had any alcohol, but he felt drunk when he finally staggered out the door, wobbly-kneed and giddy, and a trifle overly affectionate. He loved his friends. He slung an arm around Jason's neck as they walked out to their cars.
"You guys," he said. "You guys saved my life, you know that? I never would have survived high school without the team."
By rights, Jason should have been as intoxicated by the party and graduation and freedom as Chad, but the look he turned on Chad was sharp and curious. "Why do you say that?" he asked. "What would have been so bad without the team?"
Chad shook his head. "It just would have been," he insisted. If he hadn't had that sense of belonging to cling to, he would have felt so lost and alone. Forget high school, he never would have survived middle school.
Chad pulled his arm away and patted Jason on the head. "I'm just glad you're my friend. Drive safe."
Jason stared at him as Chad walked toward his car, his brow furrowed in confusion just like it did when Jason didn't understand one of Coach's plays or one of Miss Elliot's sentence diagrams. "You drive safe, too," he called out. Chad waved at him and got in his car.
Chad did drive safely, taking extra care at every turn and intersection in an attempt to counteract the buzz of adrenaline still thrumming through him. His parents were still up when he got home, leaning against one another on the couch and watching some show about people who remodel houses. His mom sat up when she saw him and gave him a tired smile.
"Good party?" she asked. She'd taken off her makeup, but she hadn't changed into her pajamas. Chad wondered if she'd been expecting to have to come pick him up.
"Good party." Chad nodded and tried to look sober. It shouldn't have been hard, since he was, but he felt a little wired, and he didn't want his folks to get the wrong idea. It would suck to get the car taken away because he was high on chocolate cake and dancing.
Chad's father leaned forward so he could see around his mom and gave Chad an appraising look. "How does it feel to be a high school graduate?" he asked.
Chad shrugged. It was just like getting asked 'How does it feel to be a year older?' on his birthday. He didn't feel any different, other than relieved it was all over. He wondered if he was doing something wrong, if he was supposed to be transformed by a rolled up piece of paper that wasn't even a real diploma. "Feels fine," he said finally. "I'm gonna go to bed."
His parents looked at each other, and Chad didn't try to figure out what their psychic, parental thing was about. He just said, "'Night," as he headed up the stairs.
He looked at himself in the mirror while he was getting ready for bed. He looked the same as he always did. His eyes were a little brighter, and there was more color on his high cheekbones, but he looked just like Chad. He finished washing his face, brushed his teeth, and went to bed.
Chad could hear his parents coming up the stairs, and he waited to be sure they weren't going to check on him. When the door to their room clicked shut, Chad relaxed. He let ut a long, slow breath and slid his hands under the sheets. He shoved his t-shirt up and his boxers down and closed his eyes.
It was definitely going to be Simon Schultz tonight. Chad let his hands drift lazily over his skin as he pictured the football player, all blond hair and attitude, rippling with muscles and insecurity. He imagined them in the locker room, imagined Simon pressing against him, saying 'Please, please' and tugging at Chad's clothes. He saw himself putting a hand on Simon's shoulder and pressing down. In his head, Simon went to his knees willingly, wanting this, and it made Chad feel powerful.
Chad's right hand curled around his cock and stroked, slow and firm, as he imagined Simon's mouth, the way it would feel. It would be wet and hot. Maybe not perfect, because Simon didn't usually give blow jobs, but Chad wouldn't care. His left had had been running over his belly and chest, but he let it fall to the bed as he jerked his cock faster and harder with his right.
He thought about Simon groaning around his cock, pressing his big fingers into Chad's thighs. He pictured himself burying his hands in Simon's wavy hair, holding his head still as he slid his erection in and out of Simon's mouth. He imagined Simon looking up at him, desperate and grateful, and that's what did it. Chad dug his heels into the mattress as his cock pulsed in his grip, come spilling over his fingers.
Chad flopped back and let all his muscles go lax. It took him several minutes to gather the energy to clean up. Sighing, he hauled himself to his feet and found a sock in his dirty clothes hamper to wipe off with. There was a mirror on the closet door, just above the clothes hamper, but this time, he didn't look at himself at all.
Chad leaned his head out the window as Ryan hopped down his front steps and walked toward the car.
"You got shotgun," Chad told him.
Ryan changed his trajectory and opened the passenger door, sprawling down onto the seat and dropping his messenger bag onto the floor. "Why do I get shotgun? I thought Troy was coming."
Chad smirked and drove down the Evans' driveway, toward the street. "He is. But he and Gabriella are getting along this week," he said meaningfully, waggling his eyebrows.
Ryan didn't say anything, but Chad was pretty sure he was rolling his eyes under his big sunglasses. They drove to Troy's house through quiet, sunny streets. After a moment, Ryan asked, "Other Wildcats are going to be there?"
Chad glanced at him. From what Chad could see of his face, Ryan looked unconcerned, but there had been something tense in his voice. "Yeah," he said. Because he was watching, he saw Ryan's lips flatten in ... annoyance? Resignation? Insane Evans twin bitchery? ... just for a second. He kept talking as though they hadn't noticed. "Zeke has his mom's minivan, so he's bringing Jason and Kelsi and Taylor."
Ryan slid sunglasses down his nose to fix Chad with a skeptical look. Chad pulled his eyes back to the road. "You didn't want to drive Taylor?" he asked.
"No," Chad said, possibly more firmly than he'd intended. "I didn't want to drive Taylor." He was still looking at the road, but he could see Ryan's smile out of the corner of his eye.
"Okay," Ryan said. He licked his lips and opened his mouth, and for an instant, Chad thought he was going to say something important. Instead, he said, "So, if I'm riding shotgun, I get to pick the music, right?" He sat up and grabbed his bag off the floor. "Can I play Rufus Wainwright?"
Chad looked at him sideways. "Not the one where he's singing Judy Garland songs."
"Deal." Ryan rummaged in his bag for a moment and emerged with a CD. He fed it into Chad's CD player and sat back with a look of satisfaction on his face.
The music started playing just as they pulled up in front of Troy's house.
It was a good day to play Putt Putt. A light breeze lifted Chad's hair off his neck, the putter he'd been given when they checked in fit his hand well, and everyone was in a good mood for once. The only thing keeping it from being a great day to play Putt Putt was the fact that Ryan was definitely not the only one who thought Chad and Taylor belonged together.
"Well," Chad said, staring at the red plaster toadstools that decorated the third hole, where he and Taylor had somehow been left all alone. "This isn't awkward."
Taylor looked around at the complete lack of other Wildcats in their area. "Yeah. Gabriella is many things, but subtle isn't really one of them."
Chad twisted his putter in his hands. "It's no big deal," he said. "Not like we'll explode if we spend time alone."
Taylor gave him a sympathetic look, as though she suspected he might actually explode. "We'll be fine," she said kindly. "You want to play?"
Chad gave her a little bow. "Ladies first."
Taylor lined up her shot and carefully tapped the ball. She watched it roll along the fake grass and bounce off two of the toadstools. When it came to a stop, she looked up at Chad. "I'm trying to think of small talk," she said. "Any suggestions?"
Chad couldn't help smiling at that. "We could talk about college," he suggested. "It seems to be the main topic of conversation lately."
"I know," Taylor said, flipping her hair back over her shoulder and hitting the ball again. "Have you decided on a major?"
Chad watched the ball roll between the legs of the gnome that was guarding the hole. "I don't know," he said slowly. "I don't want to rush into it. I think ... I think I just want to take some time and figure out who I am, first." It was the thing about college he was most looking forward to, the chance to just be Chad, with no expectations.
Taylor gave him a long look. "Maybe that's a good idea." Chad looked away. He wondered how much Taylor had figured out about him during their aborted relationship, but he was afraid to ask.
Taylor's ball dropped into the hole after her third stroke, and she stepped aside so Chad could take his turn. She watched him quietly for a moment, then said, "Anyway, I'm thinking of going for chemical engineering."
"Yeah?" Chad looked up from his stroke. "I know you've got the brains for that, but wouldn't you rather do something fun?"
"Chemistry is fun," Taylor insisted. Chad snorted and she said, "It's fun for me, anyway." She came a few steps closer. "I was thinking of forensic science, but everyone who's ever seen an episode of CSI is going for that."
Chad putted his ball carefully through the gnome's legs and into the hole. "You're going to give up on a career goal just because you don't want to be one of the crowd?" he asked incredulously.
Taylor huffed out a breath. "Maybe I'll look into it," she conceded. "The first semester we won't be able to register for anything good, anyway."
"Look at it this way: If the department's full of TV-watching posers, the professors will be thrilled to get a certified brain like you." He stooped to retrieve their balls and shot Taylor a grin over his shoulder. She smiled back, and the sunlight made her hair glint like a fractured halo around her face. She was beautiful.
Chad really wished she made him feel something.
They caught up with the others two holes farther on, just in time to see Ryan's ball ricochet dramatically off the castle and zing back dangerously close to Troy's crotch.
"Whoa!" Zeke yelled as Troy stumbled backward.
Ryan turned bright red and tugged his hat lower on his head. "Sorry," he mumbled.
Kelsi giggled and said, "That's not the way to make sure he hits the high notes."
Ryan attempted to smile at her, but his shoulders were slumping under the attention. Troy must have noticed, too, because he stepped forward and patted Ryan on the back. "Your aim may be off, but you've got a heck of an arm," he said. Ryan looked at him uncertainly, but Troy just nodded encouragingly. "You want me to show you how to hold your club again?"
Ryan nodded and went to recover his ball from the walkway where it had landed. Chad caught Troy's eye and gave him a quick thumbs-up. Troy just waved dismissively and walked over to Ryan, demonstrating the proper way to hold a golf club for approximately the millionth time.
There were days when Troy was arrogant and selfish and thoughtless, and Chad wondered why they were even friends. But there were also days like today, and as Chad watched Troy patiently coaching a boy he didn't even especially like, making sure he didn't feel embarrassed or left out, Chad knew exactly why they were friends.
Kelsi wound up beating everyone else at mini-golf. She looked like a bespectacled pixie, but the girl had game. After they'd all congratulated her and turned in their putters, they headed for the mall. It was one of the few places in town where they could hang out in the air conditioning.
Gabriella stood in front of the map with her hands on her hips. "Are we going to stay together, or split up?" she asked. Her face was serious, like they were planning an invasion on a neighboring country instead of an afternoon at the mall. "Because I don't want to leave anyone behind. Again."
Troy, Zeke, Jason, and Chad all sighed in unison. They'd left Wendall behind on a basketball trip to Las Cruces once, and ever since, half the school had decided the team couldn't be trusted to keep track of one another. It had been old by mid-season, when Coach had assigned them all bus-buddies; by now, it was ancient and irritating.
"I vote we split up," Chad said, raising his hand. "Unless everyone wants to come to the comic book store with me."
Zeke shook his head. "No, thanks. I wanted to check out the stand mixers, though, if anyone's up for that."
Jason tilted his head. "If I look at mixers with you, will you demonstrate why they're important by making cookies later?"
"You're on," Zeke said. Luckily for the whole school, Zeke always took their greedy scrounging for baked goods as a compliment.
"I'll look at comic books with you," Ryan offered. He moved to Chad's side and said under his breath, "Kelsi keep trying to corner me into promising I'll sing showtunes at the nursing home. Help me escape."
Chad blinked once, then told the group. "We're gonna head off, then. Meet back here in two hours?" There were nods all around, and Chad and Ryan made their escape toward the north wing.
Once they were out of earshot, Ryan said, "Thank you," in heartfelt tones. "It's not that I mind doing good things," he explained, "but I've sung at the nursing home before, and it's awful. I couldn't get the smell of strained peas out of my hair for days. I'll send them some board games and a muffin basket instead. Old people would like that, right?"
Chad raised his eyebrows. "If it's a choice between you and muffins, I'd take muffins every time, and I'm not even old yet."
Ryan glared at him. "I am much better than muffins," he said loudly.
"If you say so, man."
They walked into the comic book store, and Chad was distracted from any more teasing by a display of new comics along one wall. He loved comic books stores. They were full of brightly colored, entertaining stories, and they always made him feel better about himself. No matter how big of a loser he was, there was always someone in the comic book store who was a bigger one.
Ryan wandered off toward the manga, so Chad searched through the new arrivals. There was a new Invincible that he wanted, and the Buffy comic was out. He made his selections and then let himself get lost in browsing, picking up books just because their covers looked cool or reading a few pages of comics if he recognized the name of the author or artist. He was in the middle of the DC graphic novels when he froze.
"Ryan," he called out, his hand hovering over a big, hardcover volume. "Check this out."
Ryan slipped up beside him and looked where Chad was pointing. "Runaways. I haven't read that one."
"Neither have I, but look at him." Chad pointed to the figure in the center of the cover, surrounded by other people.
"Oh, wow, Chad. He could be you," Ryan breathed. "That's so cool. We could get you some glasses and hair gel, and you can be him for Halloween."
Chad grinned excitedly down at him. "I could," he said. "I totally could." He flipped the book over and groaned at the price tag. "But I can't pay thirty-five bucks for a graphic novel. I really don't want to get a job this summer, and my allowance won't cover that."
"I'll pay for it," Ryan said immediately, reaching for the book.
Chad held onto it. "You can't just buy me stuff," he said.
"Why not?" Ryan looked truly baffled. "I have money. It's no big deal."
"You just can't," Chad said. "It would be weird."
Ryan bit his lip. "What if I made it your birthday present? Then it wouldn't be weird for me to buy you something."
One side of Chad's mouth curled up. "My birthday isn't until September," he said.
"I know," Ryan said brightly. "It'll be a little early."
This time when Ryan grabbed for the book, Chad let him have it. "Okay," he said. "But you better not buy me a birthday present when the time comes, or I'll be pissed."
Ryan gave him an amused look. "I solemnly swear not to buy you another birthday present."
They walked over to the cash register, where Chad paid for his comic books and Ryan paid for the big Runaways volume. The guy behind the register was a kid about their age, with dark hair that fell down in his eyes and gauged ears. He sneered at Chad's purchases and gave Ryan's hat a glare that made it clear he thought it should be burned. Chad paid special attention to the piercing in his lip and the way his long fingers brushed the hair off his face when he bagged their purchases.
Ryan pressed the bag holding the book into Chad's hands as they walked out into the mall. "Thank you," Chad said, peeking into the bag to see the cover again.
"If you really want to say thank you," Ryan said, looking up at Chad through his eyelashes. Chad's breath caught. "You could buy me an Orange Julius," Ryan finished.
Chad breathed again, and it came out in a whoosh. "I think I can manage that."
Troy almost never knocked, so Chad wasn't expecting to find him when he opened the door on a hot late June afternoon.
"What's up?" Chad asked. Troy looked up at him, and Chad didn't even need an answer. Maybe it was because is eyes were so pale against his dark hair and tanned skin, but Troy could look sadder and more pathetic than anyone else Chad knew.
"Hey, it's okay," Chad said. "Come on in."
Troy came inside and walked slowly into the living room. He collapsed onto the couch, like gravity was just too intense to keep him upright any longer. He gave Chad one more look from his wrecked blue eyes, then closed them and dropped his head back on the cushions.
"It's okay," Chad repeated. "It'll be fine. You'll just have to apologize a few extra times, but-"
"No," Troy interrupted him. "It's not like that this time. I broke up with her."
Chad had no idea what to say to that. He opened and closed his mouth twice. "You ... What happened?" he finally managed.
"The scholarship thing came up again, and Gabriella got mad about it." He picked up a cushion and held it to his stomach. "I get why it bothers her. I mean, we go to school for years and hear that grades matter more than sports, and then I get a full ride to college while she has to combine scholarships and grants and loans." He opened his eyes and gave Chad an earnest look. "I do get it. But today when we were talking about it, I realized she's not just annoyed. She really thinks she deserves it more than I do. I can't keep feeling guilty about something that's not my fault." He took a deep breath. "And I'm not going to stick around while she resents me."
Troy fell silent, and after a moment, Chad realized that was all he had to say on the subject. He sat uncomfortably on the couch next to Troy. "I'm sorry," he said simply.
Troy barked out a rough laugh. "Me, too."
Chad wanted to put an arm around him or get him a drink, or do something to make it better. He didn't do any of those things. He sat quietly on the couch, listening to Troy's wet breathing and pretending he didn't know his best friend was crying.
When he'd broken up with Taylor, Chad had felt like a failure. They'd had nothing in common and no chemistry, but he still felt like they should have managed some kind of connection. When the kids at school had treated him gingerly, Chad felt even worse, because he didn't need their sympathy and understanding. He simply didn't care that much, and that had felt like a failure, too.
Troy and Gabriella had had almost as little in common as Chad and Taylor, but they'd made it work for nearly a year and a half. Sitting in his darkening living room, Chad thought maybe he and Taylor had been the ones who'd gotten it right after all.
Chad finished reading Runaways two days later, and it put the cap on one of the worst weeks of his life. He told his mom he was getting the flu and just curled up on his bed all day. He didn't even turn over when he heard his door open just before dinner time.
"Chad?" Ryan asked. Chad rolled his head enough to see Ryan hovering uncertainly in the doorway. "Are you contagious? Because I think Sharpay might start talking to me again soon, but she'll never forgive me if I come home and make her puke."
Chad rolled flat on his back and stared up at his ceiling. "I'm not contagious," he said. His voice sounded hoarse, and he cleared his throat. "I'm fine."
"Yeah, you look fine," Ryan said with a smirk. But he came all the way into the room. "You wanna tell me what's wrong?"
"I can't just be mourning the loss of East High's golden couple?" Chad asked. He really and truly felt sorry for Troy, but he couldn't keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
"You could," Ryan said skeptically. He sat down on the edge of Chad's bed. It made the mattress dip enough to roll Chad toward him. "But I don't think you are."
"It's stupid," Chad said.
"Chad." Ryan said his name in such a serious tone that Chad looked right at him. "I held a funeral when Sharpay destroyed my favorite shirt experimenting with the laundry. Your problem cannot possibly be too stupid to tell me."
Chad sat up and grabbed the graphic novel, which lay across the foot of the bed where he'd thrown it. He dropped it into Ryan's lap and laid back down. "Alex was the traitor."
Ryan opened the book and flipped a few pages. "That sucks," he said.
"It's just a comic," Chad said sharply. "It doesn't matter."
"Maybe if it was Chase, it wouldn't matter," Ryan said, holding the book open to a picture of the blond Chase.
"It wasn't Chase, though. It was Alex." Chad stared at the ceiling again and blinked hard. It was so, so stupid to feel like this over a comic book character, but Chad couldn't help it. This was the first person he'd ever seen in a comic who'd looked like him. Alex had been smart and rebellious and into computer games, and he'd been a hero, even without powers. When Alex had turned on his team, Chad had felt like he'd been betrayed as much as the other Runaways.
"Maybe we could write our own comic," Ryan suggested.
"We could write our own comic. You can make a basketball-playing hero with crazy hair, and I can have a guy who dances and solves crime." He said it like it all made perfect sense.
"There are plenty of blond, blue-eyed guys in comic books," Chad said. He tried not to sound bitter.
"Yeah, but they tend to be big and muscular and ... straight."
Chad sat upright. People had been whispering about it for years, but he'd never heard Ryan even insinuate he was gay before. Ryan looked at Chad's shocked face and rolled his eyes. "Oh, like it's a surprise," he scoffed. "I'm neat, I have fabulous fashion sense, and I like musical theatre. I'm such a cliche."
"But you don't date guys," Chad said foolishly.
Ryan rolled his eyes even harder. "Have you met the guys at our school? I'd rather date a girl."
Chad's mouth twitched. He couldn't help it - Ryan sounded so disgusted at the idea of dating a girl. How he'd managed any closet at all was a mystery.
"What?" Ryan's face twisted into a disgruntled frown that made Chad burst out laughing.
"Fine." Ryan flopped down onto the bed, taking Chad's place on the pillow. "Be that way."
Chad struggled to control himself. "I'm sorry," he said, as sincerely as he could.
"You should be," Ryan told him. He sat back up. "Come on. Let's go to the comic book store. There have got to be better role models for us than Alex for you and Midnighter for me."
An hour later, they'd found The Young Avengers for Ryan, but they still hadn't found a new hero for Chad. He went home from the mall feeling less desolate, but still unhappy. The depression lasted until the next morning, when Ryan showed up before breakfast bearing a Static Shock DVD.
"His hair isn't quite right," Ryan said apologetically, "but it's still pretty wild, and he's a black teenager." He flipped the case over and pointed to another picture. "And check out his best friend." Static was standing next to a slim blond boy. Chad grinned at Ryan.
Ryan grinned up at him. "Say it again, only change the first word to 'Ryan,'" he instructed. His face was bright and happy, like he was the one who'd gotten the gift. Chad couldn't look away.
"You're perfect," he said.
Ryan beamed at him. "That's not quite what I said, but I'll accept it."
He pressed the box into Chad's hands, and for a moment that were so close together that they were nearly touching. And then they were touching, and Chad didn't know which one of them had moved. It must have been Ryan, though, because when their lips touched, Chad was frozen, and he was pretty sure he would have managed something if he'd been the one in charge.
Ryan pulled back. "Sorry," he said, his eyes flicking around the room. "I just ... I'd been wondering." He took a shaky breath. "I thought maybe you'd been wondering, too."
"No," Chad said. He was still frozen in place.
"I'm sorry," Ryan said again. He left the room, nearly running, leaving Chad staring dumbly after him, clutching his DVD in his hands.
When Chad was thirteen, he jerked off so much it probably counted as a hobby. While he just focused on the sensations, that was fine, but one day he'd thought about Luke Davies' smile while his hand was on his dick, and he'd come all over himself. The next day, he'd walked into class and seen Luke, and he'd felt simultaneously turned on and humiliated. He thought about how Luke would react if he knew, and he felt sick. He couldn't stand the thought of his friends feeling disgusted and betrayed by Chad's fantasies.
After that, Chad made a rule. He only ever fantasized about guys he disliked. His friends and teammates were completely off limits. It had worked fine up until now.
Sharpay opened the door at the Evans' house when Chad rang the bell. She gave him a look that could have frozen the entire desert.
"It's you," she announced. Chad couldn't argue with that, so he just nodded. "Are you the reason Ryan's been holed up in his room all day?"
Chad raised his eyebrows. "You've been paying attention to what he's doing? I thought you still had him under sibling-embargo."
Sharpay rolled her eyes. Chad didn't usually think the twins looked much alike, but her expression was so much like Ryan's that it hurt. "I'm not talking to him. That doesn't mean I'm oblivious."
Chad shrugged. "You should start talking to him again. You know, while you still can."
"Maybe it'll be easier in the fall if we're used to not talking," Sharpay said. Her voice was flippant, but Chad didn't buy it.
"Sounds dumb to me," Chad said. "But if you want to give up your brother before you have to, that's your business." Her expression crumpled for a second, and Chad knew he was right. "So, can I come in?" he asked.
"Are you going to make him stop pouting?"
"I'm going to let him know I'm not giving him up before I have to," Chad said. "We'll see if that helps."
Sharpay shook her head. "Boys are so stupid," she said. But she stood aside so that Chad could come in.
Chad tapped on Ryan's bedroom door, but he didn't wait for a response before opening it. Ryan was sitting on the floor beside his bed. Chad walked right in and flopped down next to him.
"I hadn't been wondering," Chad said baldly. "But that doesn't mean it's a bad idea."
Ryan tipped his head to the side and looked at him, his eyes hopeful. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. It just means I'm bad at planning."
This time, Chad knew he was the one who moved, because he could see Ryan sitting still, waiting for him. He tilted his head to fit their mouths together, and it was way better when he actually moved his lips. Ryan's mouth was warm and yielding, and when Chad touched him, his body was tense with suppressed energy.
Chad was glad he'd never wondered about this, because he wouldn't have been able to imagine it.
"So, this isn't just because we're leaving for college soon, and we'll never see each other again, right?" Ryan asked. His eyes were dark in the dim light.
A chill went through Chad at the thought. "No! And we'll be back at breaks, so that would be a stupid plan."
Ryan shoved at his shoulder. "You said you were bad at planning."
"Not that bad," Chad insisted. "Where are you going to college anyway?" He didn't know how he and Ryan had managed to go so long without talking about college. It seemed to be all he discussed with anyone else.
"The University of North Carolina," Ryan said. His face brightened. "They have a great drama program, and their Communication department has a Performance Studies program. I might minor."
If he hadn't been paralyzed, Chad might have mocked Ryan for wanting to major in performing and minor in Performance Studies. He didn't even know what the difference was. But he couldn't move, much less mock.
"Chad? What's wrong? Chad?" Ryan sounded like he was really worried, so Chad shook himself out of it.
"You're going to UNC? At Chapel Hill?" Ryan nodded cautiously. "I'm going to Duke," Chad told him.
"You got into Duke?" Ryan sounded impressed. Then the meaning of what Chad had said sunk in, and he gasped. "You're going to Duke? We'll be right next door."
"We will." Chad felt like he might vibrate right out of his skin. "You wanna piss off the Tarheels by having a rival for a boyfriend?" he asked.
And then he couldn't move again, but this time it was because Ryan was holding him down, kissing him all over his face.