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You've got your ball,
You've got your chain
Tied to me tight, tie me up again.
Who's got their claws
In you my friend?
Into your heart I'll beat again
Sweet like candy to my soul
Sweet you rock,
And sweet you roll

~Dave Mathews Band

MARSHALL

It kind of snuck up on him, like the ocean, because he sure as shit didn’t plan it. He didn’t know anyone who planned something like that. Especially not something like that.

The classical music freaked the crap out of him at first because no one was supposed to be at the rink at four thirty in the morning except him, and he’d broken in.

The same person who turned on the music turned on some spotlights, too. Not all of them, just enough to cast the rink in streaks of light. In and out of them floated the best-looking girl he’d ever seen: blond waves of hair caught the light and shone as she moved. She skated with her eyes closed, lashes against the cheeks of the pretty doll-face. He couldn’t see too much from where he crouched behind the bleachers, but he could see that. He forgot the pain in his cheek, his cold feet in their soaked sneakers and the fact that he hadn’t eaten dinner.

He just watched as she skated, arms out, tassels of a bright red scarf trailing her with each jump and spin, a bright splash of color next to the skin-tight black skating outfit.

It wasn’t like he hadn’t seen girls skate before, either. He saw them all the time; he had no choice. The hockey team and the skating club shared the rink. Some of the girls even talked to him.

He remembered thinking he hadn’t noticed her ass, which wasn’t like him. He hadn’t even thought of her ass, too caught up in how free she looked, too caught up in wondering how she got the balls to bust in here and skate an hour before the maintenance guy drove out the Zamboni.

Then she made a halo with her arms, fingers barely touching, and arched her back, swinging one leg behind her, blond hair waving in the breeze, eyes still closed.

His eyes traveled over the sleek line of the skating outfit, and grew wide. He might have gasped, or made some sound, and only the low music and the dark saved him. Turning away he sat on his heels against the back of the, breathing hard, a roar in his ears. His butt was wet from his sneakers but he barely noticed.

As soon as he could move he booked the hell out of there as fast and quiet as he could.

And all he’d been looking for was a place to crash.

*~*~*~*~*~

TAY

“Someone’s staring at you.”

“What?” Tay blinked out of his thoughts. His friend Johnny slid his eyes over to the side of the rink as they finished up the last of their compulsory practices. Their coach Priscilla was talking shop with some older pairs skater, so Tay turned to look. He collided with an intense pair of blue eyes. For a second, he almost lost his rhythm in the path of that strong, almost fierce stare, but he turned away and concentrated. He could feel it on him now though, constantly. It belonged to one of the hockey players that waited on the sidelines while the figure skaters cleared out. Tay didn’t look at them if he could help it. It was known to be detrimental to your health.

A few of them had cornered Johnny last year when his friend took too long to gather up his gear, and their coach had to intervene. It wasn’t exactly the first time. Johnny had this look to him that begged to either be fucked with or protected. He didn’t look his age at all despite the fact that they’d both grown some since last year. His large hazel eyes peered out of a delicate pixie face framed in dark brown curls. One time some hockey goons started to pick on him and Sasha, one of the skating girls, almost decked them, which didn’t help matters at all. They didn’t really hurt him, just a lot of trash talk and invasion of space, but Johnny hadn’t been himself for a long time after that. You didn’t get called a ‘fag pretty boy’ in front of the whole skating club and bounce right back.

Tay knew he should feel safer because Zac played hockey, but he didn’t. His younger brother barely acknowledged his presence at the rink as it was. He had no illusions of what Zac thought of him and the sport he participated in.

“You want to walk out together?” Johnny asked.

Tay risked another glance and the boy still had him eye-locked, from where he sat with a bunch of loud, raucous hockey players, Tay’s brother among them. The boy wore the uniform of a Trimbull Dragon; oddly slim neck jutting out of the wide collar flanked by the hulking shoulder pads, bulky leg protectors so he almost resembled a cartoon. His face was sharp but not: strange pointy nose and dimple on his chin paired with a pouty mouth and those unblinking eyes. His hair was marine short and he might have had a bruise on one cheek.

“Yeah,” Tay nodded as they concluded the exercises and skated over to where Priscilla stood, making notes on her clipboard. He listened closely to her suggestions and by the time he got home he’d forgotten all about it.

MARSHALL

Sometimes, he still felt like a fake.

When he walked in school to be greeted by the people in the popular clique. When girls who wouldn’t spit in his direction in middle school now gave him promising smiles and flipped their hair. All because on a fluke he realized he liked to hit a little piece of plastic across the ice and he was good at it. Sometimes, the voice in his head called them on it:

Who you waving at, homie? I live on 8 Mile and my brother and I got two different daddies. They ain’t around. My mom’s on welfare and her latest fucking boyfriend hit me last night when I told him he could fuck my mom but he couldn’t tell me what to do. All my fees for our camps are ‘donated’ and last month I didn’t eat one whole road trip to a game because I didn’t have any money. So who you waving at?

That’s why his best friends, the ones he hung with and really talked to, were still the posse from the Mile. Proof had gotten his back since they were both little kids, and Denaun, Rufus, and Von had always been around, even if only Marshall still lived at the trailer park. They all had grandmamma and cousins still there. The guys on the team were cool, but sometimes it was all Marshall could do to watch them in their perfect little lives with their perfect little families and not explode from-something; jealousy, sadness, embarrassment at the crappy reality show that was his own family.

Besides, he thought, watching Proof fool with his dreads in the small locker mirror, he wasn’t sure half the guys would even be in school if he hadn’t started playing hockey. They had all been making noises about quitting to find work being the next Lil' Wayne or T.I.

Proof still MC’d battles at the Shelter most nights making cash under the table since he was still underage. But Marshall had to stay in school to play, so it’s as if they all kind of went along. Most times they were the only black faces at the games.

“Happened with that?” Proof asked without looking at him and Marshall glanced over to see part of his face reflected in the tiny mirror, the yellow purple bruise on his cheek framed like a photograph. He stuck his head in his messy locker. Damn, it was a disaster. Maybe Jeanine’s stuff had been the only thing keeping it clean.

“Nothin’.”

Proof grunted but let it ride. It’s probably why they’d been friends this long; he knew when to leave something alone.

“Hey, Marshall.”

“Hi.” Two girls' voices made him turn around. They were standing in front of him smiling, books held up to boobs so their chest almost sat on them, and wafting body spray strong enough to peel paint

“’Sup.”

“Did you study for the quiz in Algebra?” Which had to be the lamest come on he’d ever heard. She took him in from head to toe, eyes bright. She was a cheerleader and hadn’t known he existed until he put on a hockey uniform.

“No,” he answered honestly and they seemed to think it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard.

“God! You’re so bad!” The other one exclaimed in delight.

“I’m bad, Proof,” Marshall said sarcastically to his friend who’d been busy enjoying the scenery even if they hadn’t even acknowledged he was there. Marshall hated that.

“You bad, Marshall,” he agreed. The girls laughed some more before finally walking away, butts swinging back and forth, and he turned back to his locker rolling his eyes.

“Word spreads fast, homie,” Proof observed.

Marshall had only broken up with Jeanine four days ago.

“Whatever,” he muttered, his mind going to the rink. The rink and the skater he couldn’t stop thinking about.

Not even when he'd realized it was a guy.

TAY

Tay went to school once.

It was a little after Ike and Zac had started getting really good at hockey. He’d walked into the room they shared one afternoon in late July and they both stopped talking and stood up, acting like they’d just been looking at porn or something. But the couple of magazines Ike had stashed weren’t anywhere and neither of them had the goofy, red faced look they got when Tay busted them. In fact, the serious look on Zac’s face was so out of place that Tay got scared for a second. His younger brother was the least serious person Tay knew.

“You guys are freaking me out.”

“We want to go to school.” Ike said calmly and Tay blinked at them. Ike had been fourteen then, the tallest and lankiest and already setting all kinds of records in Bantams. Ike had always been the calmest of them, at least then.

“We DO go to school.” Tay had answered, still not getting it. Not even suspecting it, really.

“No, like, to school,” Zac emphasized, arms gesturing like they did when he was excited or nervous or just about any strong emotion. Not a lot had changed.

“Why?” Tay asked plaintively because, honestly, he could think of nothing more horrible. He liked being here with everyone. He liked not needing to juggle all his skating time with school like other figure skaters and worry constantly about missing too many classes or being late on homework. Their mom taught all of them and they worked at their own pace. As long as they did the assignments by Friday the rest of the time belonged to them. Tay couldn’t imagine wanting to ride the loud, crowded yellow school bus or eat the cafeteria food that must be crap. What the hell?

“We just do. Shannon goes and so do all the guys on the team.”

“Like you aren’t going to dump her in a few weeks! Are you serious?” Tay’s chest felt tight and he couldn’t really breathe right. Ike didn’t even bother denying it.

They’d done everything together, everything, to the point their mom and dad wondered if it was ‘healthy.’ They didn’t make decisions without all three of them, they never had. Even when Tay told them he was quitting hockey, no great loss since he sucked something bad, and just focusing on figure skating they’d been okay. Not great, but he could tell everyone, except his dad, had breathed a sigh of relief. Tay had really sucked at hockey.

“Come on, Tay, let’s all go! It’ll be cool! Think of all the girls!” Zac tried to shadow box with him, buzzing and hopping in eleven-year old excitement and Tay shoved him off, the words out of his mouth before he'd even thought of it:

“I don’t care about the girls!”

A silence followed and they looked at each other, the sounds of the house in the background of the late July afternoon: Jessica and Avery’s laughter, their mother's soothing voice and the clink of pots and pans for dinner. How could they not want to be here? How….?

“Why do YOU want to go, anyway?” He demanded of his younger brother. “Did you start dating or something?”

“NO!” Zac exclaimed, blushing beneath the spill of dark blond hair. “Just want to try it. I bet it’ll be easy, I’ve seen the homework the other guys get, its nothing!”

Tay stared at them, willing them to take it back and knowing they wouldn’t.

“Why don’t you try it, too?” Ike asked quietly.

“It won’t be any fun without you,” Zac added, grasping his wrist and looking at him hopefully and if it had been Ike, Tay would have thought he was just saying it, which probably wouldn’t have been true. Ike had just always known what he wanted, more than any of them. And what he didn’t want.

He couldn’t remember when they hadn’t spent most of the day together. The pull on his chest intensified as he looked at them: Ike’s narrow face and dark eyes, ropy muscle visible beneath the faded t-shirt and Zac’s anxious, young face as he absently twisted a lock of hair. They had all had long hair then, to their shoulders and longer because their parents didn’t believe in telling them how to dress or look.

That’s how Tay knew their parents wouldn’t fight Ike and Zac on this. For a second he fiercely wished he had parent who weren’t so goddamned nurturing. Parents that TOLD them what to do instead of asking and had ‘It’s your decision, honey. You’re old enough to know the consequences” knit on a sampler.

Tay agreed.

He lasted a week.

He never went back. After Ike and Zac started at the elementary school and middle school that fall and had lots of fun without him, thanks a lot, lots of things never went back at all.

Tay’s life forever stayed divided to Before He Walked in the Room and After He Walked in the Room; he guessed it always would. Most days he told himself he didn’t miss it. On the good days he believed it.

Chapter Text

If you want me
You can find me
Left of center
Off of the strip

In the outskirts
In the fringes
In the corner
Out of the grip

I think that somehow
Somewhere inside of us
We must be similar
If not the same
So I continue
To be wanting you
Left of center
Against the grain

Left of Center
~Suzanne Vega

 

MARSHALL

He had to show up at the rink at the ass crack of dawn for two weeks before he got the schedule down.

The Skater would be there around three days out of the week, never on Saturdays, Fridays or Sundays. He would mostly skate around to the low classical music and practiced jumps and stopped around five a.m. He would then go in the locker room, change to street clothes, and leave after turning off the lights. He used a side door that had ‘No re-entry from street’ written on it, which was obviously a lie. He sometimes hummed when he got changed; Marshall could hear it in the ticking quiet from where he crouched just outside the locker room.

The schedule after the rink opened he had a harder time with.

He knew what family The Skater belonged to; it was a fuckin’ institution around here. The huge Hanson family and their tribe of super skaters. Marshall had done hockey camps and workshops with Ike and Zac before Ike got the scholarship to the University of Detroit; he knew them to say ‘Hey’ to. He and Zac were only a division apart because, even though Zac was only fourteen, he was that damn good. They had both attended some school a hell of a lot better than the ones around The Mile, but he heard some of the Hanson kids didn’t go to school at all; that their mom taught them at their house or some shit. He was pretty sure The Skater didn’t go. They had another brother coming up in Mites and two girls that also did figure skating at the rink, both pretty young.

He didn’t even know what he was gonna do with the info he had. He hadn’t thought most of this through at all, actually. Just knew he had to be there every morning to watch.

He kept waiting to get bored and it didn’t happen. He kept waiting to spazz out and that didn’t happen, either. He didn’t tell anyone because, what the fuck was he supposed to say? “Yo, Proof. I been watching this hot skater, man. Blond, fuckin’ amazing face. Oh, but it’s a guy.” Right.

So. He watched. Memorized The Skater’s expressions as they passed in and out of the darkness on the rink: serene most the time, the little line between his eyebrows, usually when he was concentrating on a jump, or some move with his arms he did over and over. He was amazed by how The Skater always practiced with his eyes closed when he was using the whole rink and never hit the sideboard, never lost his balance. How the blond hair floated around his face as he moved.

Marshall caught himself thinking of The Skater all the time: before practice as The Skater talked to The Skinny Kid, during school while he sat in class, and even when he hung out with Proof. The Skater wandered through his mind as Marshall lay in the cot in Nathan’s closet/bedroom, arms around his brother as the little boy drooled on his chest, fast asleep as his mother and her latest boyfriend shook the walls of the trailer with their shouting. The voices just droned out and he pictured the figure on the ice, trusting and free.

Marshall thought he might be a little bit obsessed.

He had no clue what he was doing or why.

The bitch of it was, when he sat in the dark, daring to move closer and closer each time, he didn’t really care.

TAY

“Mom, I’m home.” Tay called as he unwound the scarf from his neck, hanging it neatly on the coat rack in the hall.

He walked into the kitchen in time to see his little sister Zoe dump a bowl of pudding over the side of her high chair and onto their cat Gretsky who meowed in disgust. The brown substance caked the tray, his baby sister’s face, and her arms up the elbow. Tay’s mom had the phone tucked under her chin as she wrote notes and she gave him a welcoming smile before seeing the pudding disaster and shaking her head, agitated. He mouthed ‘I’ve got it,’ to her so she gave him a grateful grin before asking the person to repeat themselves. It sounded like final decisions about Jessica’s skating outfit.

Giving Zoe an exaggerated frown, he grabbed the bowl and a wet washcloth from the sink drainer before bending to clean up the mess on the floor so he wouldn’t slide flat on his ass. He could just see explaining that to Priscilla. A dollop of something cold and slimy hit his ear and he jumped up, growling at the baby. She just chortled. Yeah, SHE knew who was in charge all right.

Every weekday after his morning skating, Tay returned home where he helped clean up after the chaos that was the morning rush. He loaded the dishwasher, cleaned up the kitchen, wiped down the counters and checked to see what was on the menu for dinner so he could defrost stuff. His mom checked to see who’d made their bed (Ike always had, Zac usually ‘forgot’, the rest came and went), started another load of the never ending laundry cycles, vacuumed every other day and scrubbed the tubs on Tuesdays. Amongst all the housework she did legwork on things to do with the sports they played, like costumes for their skating performances and which restaurants in the towns the hockey team had away games would give groups discounts; she was secretary of the hockey parent’s organization. This was only a fraction of the chores she juggled as Tay started his schoolwork in the kitchen where they both kept an eye on Zoe. Sometimes even that wasn’t enough since every bit of mischief that didn’t go into the other six of them must have been waiting for his blond baby sister; she could wreak havoc in t-minus five seconds sitting in her high chair WITH both of them a few feet away. The pudding was a case in point.

“You are evil and must be destroyed,” he pointed at her sternly. She smiled showing all her three teeth and grabbed his index finger in her slimy little fist.

“Tay!” She exclaimed, kicking her feet, Zoe-speak for ‘Aren’t I cute? Pick me up!’ Tay returned the gummy grin in spite of himself. His name had been her first word.

“Uh, uh baby girl. Not right now. I need to clean up your mess and the kitchen. Maybe later. Here, play with Blue.” He placed the blue plastic beagle in front of her and she picked it up indifferently before giving a surprisingly imperious wave of her chubby arm. Another spray of more watery pudding hit his face.

“Zoe! Damn!” He reached for a paper towel sliding a little on the slick floor and his mother’s laughter made him look over with a scowl.

“I just turned my back for a second. No longer than that I swear. That girl is going to be the death of me.”

“You and me both.” Taylor said. They shared a wry smile and leaned on each other as the baby prattle at them, indignant that two perfectly able adults were near her chair and chosen not to pick her up.

He didn’t know how his mom did it but he knew they all felt the difference when Ike and Zac started going to school. Before, with all of them at home, they divided up everything so nothing seemed to take that long. With two of them gone for huge eight hour chunks of the day, and then hockey practice and games in the evenings, it was mostly Tay and his mom that kept the house going. Ike no longer lived at home but at the dorms at the college, and Zac’s duties were minimal during the day; though he had more in the weekends. Tay didn’t think he did those fast enough to make a difference, anyway. Tay had practice in the mornings and then again from two in the afternoon until six, but that left him enough time help between competitions.

“How’s the routine coming?” his mom asked as they got in motion, and Tay told her pretty good. They talked about the upcoming Ann Arbor Invitational and Tay’s chances. Of costumes and rankings and who was having health trouble.

He sat at the computer when the kitchen was clean to work on his homework projects including one about Alexander the Great and one on Shakespeare’s tragedies. Then lunch, more homework, some housework odds and ends and he left for more practice. He passed Zac as Tay rode to the rink on his bicycle. Zac smiled and waved and Tay pretended not to see him.

He felt kind of guilty afterwards. But not too much.

*~*~*~*~

“Your secret boyfriend is watching you,” Johnny singsonged as they finished up drills side by side on yet another day.

“Shut up,” Tay said with a smirk. “What about your secret boyfriend?” He tossed a nod towards the tall, dark skater commandeering a huge part of the ice today. Emanuel Sandhu came from France to train with Tarasova, one of the Russian expatriate coaches that had set up base in Detroit, and Johnny kept giving the guy cow eyes. Sandhu had a dramatic, sensuous face with curved cheekbones and an elegant nearly hooked nose, slanted dark eyes with long lashes and a stick up his butt. Tay hadn’t even seen him acknowledge anyone but Tarasova, including the older pairs skaters, and some of them had actually won national championships.

“Don’t do that! He’ll see,” Johnny hissed, giving Sandhu a covert glance.

“I don’t think he can see very well with his head up his ass like that,” Tay remarked casually and Johnny burst into laughter then clapped both hands over his mouth when Priscilla gave him a severe look.

“Johnny…” she warned in her loud, carrying voice.

“Sorry.” His friend called in apology and Tay lifted an eyebrow in triumph.

“Thanks a lot,” Johnny whispered as they moved on auto pilot- start, stop, arm arc, single, etc. Tay could do it in his sleep.

“I don’t know who you’re fooling. You never even talk to any of these people.” Tay replied.

“I talked to you.” Johnny gave him a knowing smile and Tay caught himself returning it.

“Yeah, and look how THAT turned out.”

Johnny regarded him with mock shock, mouth open as he tried not to smile. “Bitch! We weren’t that bad.”

No, they hadn’t been. Tay felt lucky they could go back to the friendship after being more, but sometimes, the line kind of blurred. He didn’t mind. He didn’t have a lot of people he was close to these days.

Priscilla motioned to them, cutting off whatever remark Tay was going to say back. They stopped their drills and skated over, Tay rubbing the muscles of his left arm with his right. That side always got tired faster.

“I know you both want to know about Ann Arbor.” Priscilla began without preamble and he and Johnny glanced at each other. Johnny started fooling with his clothes and Tay knew it was so they wouldn’t reach for each other’s hands. If they had been someplace private they would have, but Priscilla didn’t believe in ‘coddling them.’ She’d been a champion skater sometime in the seventies, though she'd never made it to the Olympics, and her perfectly styled blond hair and designer clothes hid a tough coach with a tougher personality.

“A lot of people are going but you know the club can only highlight three contenders in the printed program. At least one of these is already taken.” They nodded. Sasha was a foregone conclusion. The petite girl and Johnny’s sometime-savior was the fastest rising junior skater in the area and had plans to go senior next year. It would be stupid not to focus on someone who would do well for the club.

Priscilla’s sharp green eyes took them both in and Tay felt his nerves spike. Come on just SAY it he thought. Finally she spoke, “For the first time the decision has been made to highlight two male skaters along with Sasha.”

Tay was so nervous his first thought was ‘Who?’ then Johnny clapped his hands in delight and threw his arms around Tay, laughing. Oh, my god it’s us! Tay suddenly realized and he returned Johnny’s embrace, laughing as well.

“Now it’s a risky move and I expect both of you to make it worth the risk, clear?” They nodded and Priscilla gave them one of her rare smiles before chucking them both on the chin and returning to her clipboard. It was as close to affection as she got and translated into a great big bear hug.

“Did you hear? Did you hear?” Sasha asked as she sped over to them, the pretty face with its long lashes alight with excitement and the three of them linked arms as they talked excitedly. As they left, Tay caught a glimpse of the hockey table and realized some of them were sneering, but he was too high with happiness to care. The one that always stared at him wasn’t sneering though, but he did have a strange look on his face as he watched them skate off the ice; kind of unhappy or troubled.

And, for the first time, the hockey player didn’t quite seem to be staring at him but at Johnny.

MARSHALL

“Look at the little fags,” Shane Lemonious scowled and Marshall ignored him. Marshall was already looking at them and his stomach had given a weird dip when The Skater had returned The Skinny Kid’s hug.

Lemonious, whom Marshall had christened Lemon much to the hulking boy’s displeasure, didn’t know his ass from shit. He’d picked on The Skinny Kid once this year and had gotten them all a long lecture from coach about respecting other sportsmen and remembering that they needed smooth relations between the two sports since they both used the ice and no one had any other options on where to practice. Even Marshall had been hard put to call the wispy guys in the sparkling costumes 'sportsMEN'. He’d never had any problems with them, though. Bigger, meaner kids had teased Marshall when he was in grade school and he didn’t get behind anyone who was about bullying someone smaller than themself.

Lemon burped and rubbed his nose. “Think they’re queer for each other?”

Anthony Caspari gave Lemon an elbow and glared at the large boys belligerent pout.

“What’s your problem? You into that?”

“Its Hanson’s brother, asshole. Shut up.”

“Like I give a shit...”

“Got something to say about my brother, Shane?”

Their group got quiet and Marshall watched Zac Hanson’s determined face, hazel eyes hard even beneath the part of the ponytail. Zac was a division below but if there was one person everyone liked it was Zac. Usually the congenial fourteen-year-old acted as peacemaker among all of them, inserting himself in the middle of a bitch session and easing everyone down. Not now, though. Now Zac held Lemon’s stare with total resolve even if a patchy flush had come up on his normally friendly features. Lemon finally broke it, shifting uncomfortably with a muttered: “Just fucking kidding. Shit.”

“Let’s move it out, ladies! You waiting for an invitation?” Coach’s booming voice interrupted the tension and they clambered onto the ice grabbing equipment and jostling for space already.

Even if Lemon had been a dick, Zac didn’t play dirty during drills or so much as shoot him dirty looks. In fact Zac completely ignored the shithead, even when Lemon had maybe realized he didn’t want to make an enemy of one of the most popular players around and kept trying to talk to Zac. Stupid punk.

Marshall did accidentally slam into Lemon a few times, though, shrugging off the baleful pale blue stare and Coach’s warning, “I saw that! Watch yourself, Mathers!”

It was mostly by accident, anyway.

*~*~*~*~*~

“Yo, Marsh.” Proof said later that evening as they hung out at his place and farted around, the four of them listening to music and pigging out on junk food. Proof had gotten paid and about once a month, when Proof’s mama worked late at the clinic where she was a nurse, they all showed at Proof’s place and hung out. “You doing okay?”

Marshall nodded, intent on the video game. He tried to go up another level but knew Proof was watching him and he let the game win. Turning to his friend he passed on the superpad to Von and shrugged.

“I’m a'ight. Why?”

“I don’t know, man. You been kinda spaced. Not here even when you’re here. You know?”

Marshall shrugged again and stared fixedly at the game on the small television.

“Your mom’s new hook-up giving you grief?” Proof asked and Marshall sighed.

“Yeah,” he mumbled, even if that wasn’t even part of what was on his mind.

Too much shit on his mind, actually.

He’d be eighteen in a month, pretty much an adult, and he could move the fuck out of his mom’s home without being arrested as truant. Which would be cool if he a) had a job and b) didn’t think that would also affect him playing hockey. He kept thinking of Nate, too, and it complicated things.

He was flunking math like a motherfucker. He’d at least been able to pull C’s before and he kited off some girl that liked him for the tests so he pulled off the final exam okay, too. This time, though, the teacher actually gave a shit and he watched them like a hawk, changed seating charts every month, and didn’t care how many times Coach gave him the ‘For the good of the school give Marsh a break’ talk. Thing was, Mr. Lang wasn’t even a dick about it; it would be easier if he was. He was a young Black teacher with an earring and a shaved head and he’d had a ‘no bullshit’ stamp right on his forehead from the first day. Mr. Lang gave NO ONE a break. ‘You get the grade you earn.’ It was the ‘class motto’ and he’d had them all write it at the front of their notebooks when they first sat down. Mr. Lang didn’t have the tired, jaded look most of the other teachers had, when all they looked forward to was the summer and you could turn in a tic-tac-toe game as a daily assignment as long as you were quiet.

Marshall had a feeling he was gonna be in trouble from jump. He just couldn’t bring himself to seek out Mr. Lang for after school tutoring like he kept offering. It made Marshall feel stupid.

And his mom’s new hook up WAS a dick and barely five years older than Marshall. Fuckin’ pervert.

And he couldn’t stop thinking about The Skater. The GUY Skater. Getting up at four in the morning five days a week, even when the situation at the trailer wasn’t bad just to watch The Skater, was making him sleepy during the day, too. He’d passed smooth out in Social Studies during independent reading and would have started snoring if the girl behind him hadn’t poked at his back with her pencil. Luckily that was one of the tired teachers' classes.

“Just got shit on my mind.” Marshall said and Proof nodded, still evaluating him with ink-dark eyes.

“You know I got your back you wanna talk?”

“He been watching Oprah.” Rufus quipped from where he lay sprawled on the bed flipping through a VIBE magazine and they all laughed before Marshall could answer.

“Fuck all y’all, a’ight?” Proof waved them away and walked back up the stairs to the kitchen, probably for some more soda. After a second Marshall followed him.

“Yo,” he started when Proof bent into the refrigerator to pull off another Big Red. His best friend straightened and shut the door, popping the tab before leaning on the counter of the small but clean kitchen. He looked in Proof’s concerned eyes and wondered what the hell his homie would say if he knew Marshall was thinking of a guy 24/7.

“We’re down no matter what, right?” was what he said when he spoke.

Proof looked at him for a second before nodding emphatically. “You gotta ask, dog? We tight. You my boy. Blood promise, remember?”

“Shit.” Marshall broke into a grin and Proof laughed. Marshall had forgotten that.

They’d slit their palms when they were about nine after watching it on Gunsmoke and clasped their hands together promising to be ‘blood brothers forever.’ They’d held their palms together for five minutes, stares locked as they promised to The Great Father. Proof’s mom found them that way, blood all over their summer shorts and whupped both their asses before cleaning the cuts with antiseptic and putting a band-aid over them. She had been pretty pissed: “Blood brothers my behind, Deshaun, don’t you give me none of that Gunsmoke nonsense, do you KNOW how many germs are in someone else’s blood?”

“Yeah, I remember. Guess you’re stuck with me.”

“Same here. You in trouble, Marsh? Something happen with Jeanine or…”

“Nah, I’m good.” Marshall shook his head and Proof nodded, even if Marshall could tell he didn’t really believe it.

“’Cause, hey. We promised to the great father, right?” Proof held out his hand and Marshall clasped it, grinning.

“You know it.”

He squeezed his best friend’s hand and hoped it was true.

Chapter Text

Here’s where I stand
Here’s who I am
Love me
But don’t tell me who I have to be

Here’s who I am
I’m what you see

You said I had to change and I was trying
But my heart was lying
I’m not a child any longer
I am stronger

~From “Camp”
Motion Picture soundtrack

TAY

Tay rubbed at his eyes as he entered the rink, nodding to Sasha and Mathew, another singles skater with a different coach, and hoping he didn’t look as crappy as he felt.
His eyes had been bloodshot this morning and he’d used Visine, which burned but helped the little red lines in his stare. Too bad it didn’t do anything for the smudges he wore, too. He just knew he looked like he’d spent the night crying, even though he hadn’t.

He’d promised himself he wouldn’t and he hadn’t.

As he changed for practice and tried to concentrate on warming up, snippets of the conversation with his dad kept intruding.

*~*~*

“I’m going to be on the program dad! In Ann Arbor!”

“Are you serious?” “Oh, my god!” Jessica and Avery squealed excitedly and he was attacked by two rockets girls both hugging him and chattering at once. He squeezed and lifted them, laughing at their shrieks and then plopped them back down. Zac raced in from the kitchen, talking around an apple.

“What? What did I miss?”

“Tay is gonna be on the program in Ann Arbor, ohmigod, it is SUCH a huge deal!” Jessica babbled and their mother gave her a stern look softened by a smile.

“Why don’t you let him tell it, Jessie?”

“Oops! Sorry!” Jessica covered her mouth but Tay just ruffled her hair.

“Damn, really? That’s awesome!” Zac smiled, mouthful of apple, and moved forward, arms open. For a second Tay thought Zac was going to hug him but at the last minute his brother clasped his hand and did one of those man-bonding handshakes Tay could never get right. Zac giggled at his efforts and gave him a shove with his shoulder instead.

“Thanks.” Tay tucked his hair behind his ear, suddenly feeling awkward. This felt like Before He’d Walked Into The Room for a second, and Tay no longer knew how to react to that.

His mom stood at the door to the kitchen drying her hands on a dishtowel. The way her smile didn’t reach her eyes hadn’t made sense to him right then.

It did later.

Tay turned eagerly back to their dad who watched them all with a faint smile, the paper still opened in front of him. “The competition’s in two months but I think we can still get a cheap hotel rooms.”

“That’s wonderful, Tay. We’ll start looking at the schedule right now so your mother can be free to go.” His dad started to read.

“You aren’t going?” The minute he said it, Tay felt an ugly flash of humiliation. The second he said the words, he knew better.

“One of us has to stay with Josh and Zoë, kid,” his dad pointed out, laughing. “As much as we’d all like to go we’re just going to have trust your mom and the girls to give us all the highlights.”

But we have gone, Tay thought. When Ike made it to the Redwings Youth Team they had all crammed into the van and slept four to a bed in a Motel 6 eating sandwitches out of a cooler for three days. Zoe hadn’t been around then but Josh had been little and they'd carted him along just the same.

“We can take the video camera!” Avery piped up and immediately ran off to find it, followed by her sister.

“You’ve never seen me skate.” He should stop. Everything TOLD him to stop but the words just kept coming as he stood stiffly beside his dad’s easy chair, staring down at his father. Tay noticed the gray coming up in his dad’s temple and how it was more noticeable since his dad cut his hair a few years ago on the same day Ike and Tay cut theirs; a show of solidarity at the local Supercuts. He’d never noticed the lines around his dad’s eyes or the thickening of his middle or the way he couldn’t look at Tay when Tay talked about figure skating. He hadn’t noticed any of these things, but now he couldn’t stop seeing them.

“That isn’t true, Tay!” His dad did look at him then, face full of concern. “I’ve seen you lots of times.”

I was twelve, Tay thought.

“Dad, I could watch the kids,” Zac offered coming up next to Tay, close enough for their arms to brush and Tay stepped away. He felt raw and exposed, his skin hypersensitive to everything, and he didn’t want to be touched. It felt like something in his chest might explode if he was.

“That’s great of you to offer, Zac, but you can’t miss school all week.”

“Ike could do it! He could…”

“Dad’s right,” Tay interrupted him, because if he had to listen to his dad shoot down any more of Zac’s suggestions he was going to die. He couldn’t even look at his mom, still framed in the kitchen doorway, watching the exchange with uncharacteristic quiet. The girls prattling on about the video camera they’d found and whether the battery was charged and Josh’s plaintive cries to let him hold it, sounded in the background. “It’s too expensive. I just wasn’t thinking.”

The sympathy in his brother’s eyes was so huge that a flush rose on Tay’s face despite all his attempts to control it. At that second he hated Ike and Zac so much it almost made him sick. The ball of anger and embarrassment sat in his stomach all through dinner, all through the evening, until he was finally able to go upstairs, saying he was going to read.

He lay there after everyone had gone to bed, fists clenched, staring hotly at the ceiling, determined not to let the tears threatening beneath his lids overflow.

“Tay?” Zac’s whisper came to him in the dark over Joshua’s snoring and Tay turned to face the wall. “We can figure something out. Let me talk to Ike….”

God, shut up, Tay thought.

“Go to sleep.” He said over his shoulder and after a few seconds Zac sighed and there was rustling and eventually, the even breathing of his brother’s slumber.

*His practice had been off and he snarled at Johnny, who wouldn’t speak to him afterwards, and he’d fallen on two of his triples, but he’d been fine. He’d. Been. Fine.

He’d also missed his early morning skate, his first solitary skate before the rink opened, partly out of defiance and partly because he’d gotten maybe three hours sleep last night. But now he wished he had skated; he’d felt off all day and it didn’t get any better at the afternoon practice after the conversation he’d had at home with his mom. Or, rather, the one she’d tried to have with him.

*~*~*~

“Your father loves you, Tay.”

“I know,” he’d replied automatically from where he sat feeding Zoë banana and cereal.

He did know; he wasn’t blind. He saw the evidence of his friend’s broken family lives. Sasha and Johnny, both products of divorces, hardly saw their fathers. Tay watched the news and saw the statistics on the Internet and he knew how good they had it, all seven of them, with their parents. He knew.

It was probably selfish to feel this way.

“He’s still coming to terms with things. I think your father had this vision, when the three of you were born, one right after the other, of the Hanson hockey legacy.” She did air quotes with both hands. “He just needs time to get over that.”

I’ve been figure skating five years, Tay thought bitterly. What’s he waiting for? When I become eligible to vote? “Mom, I know. I really don’t want to talk about this.” He looked at her after scooping some banana from Zoë’s chin with the spoon. “Please?”

She smiled her tired, sweet smile and gave him a squeeze. “Okay, honey. You know,” she caught his eyes as he tried to look away, “we’re all very proud of you.”

He’d been fine then, too. He was pretty damned proud of himself.

*~*~*

Mind deep in thought and gaze on the ground, Tay didn’t see a figure cross his path and abruptly bounced off a very large, somewhat smelly body. His skating bag slid off his shoulder onto the wet, muddy ground of the parking lot black top along with his backpack. With a muttered curse he knelt to retrieve them.

A pair of enormous mud-caked trainers stood practically on top of his things and Tay stood up and back, stepping away from the glowering wall of boy that stood between him and his bicycle.

“You need to watch where you’re going,” the boy said down to him, beady little washed out blue eyes traveling over Tay’s wool scarf, jacket and jeans like one would look at an interesting, but distasteful, bug. For a second Tay was honestly clueless about what the boy wanted until he saw the smug, eager look. He knew that look, that cat-playing-with-a-mouse look that marked the faces of the hockey players that had trapped Johnny just outside the locker room.

Part of him knew he should just blow it off. It’s what he told Johnny: that most bullies lost interest if their prey didn’t take the bait, but his own advice felt a thousand miles away as he met the sneering face of this boy Tay had never spoken to, never even met.

“Sorry,” he said, voice flat.

“Where’s your little boyfriend?” the boy asked suggestively, as if Tay hadn’t said anything.

“Excuse me?”

“You know, your little boyfriend. Since you two are so cloooose.” A ham-sized fist flicked at where Tay’s hair grazed his shoulder and Tay elbowed it away as hard as he could, his breath starting to come in angry pants because man, this was not the day for this, any day but today because he HAD BEEN FINE, and this asshole was not letting him be that way.

“Get away from me!”

“Get away from me!” The boy repeated in a high falsetto before letting out a braying laugh.

Tay could see Sasha’s distinctive trim form among the spectators along with some of the other skaters and knew if he stalled long enough an adult would come out and break it up.
He decided that was just too long to wait.

Leaning close he said in a slow, clear voice. “Go. Fuck yourself.”

He enjoyed watching the boy's complexion go an interesting dusky brick color, then Tay’s arm was gripped in a hold so tight that the circulation cut off instantly, his fingers just numb, disembodied appendages at the end of his palm.

“What did you say?”

“I don’t know smaller words. Go have intercourse with yourself? Go copulate with a family member?”

“Fucker!” The boy jerked him forward to breathe on his face, rancid ketchup and sour soda, but Tay never dropped his eyes, his fists clenching, struggling, and the good, clean rage obliterating everything to dust.

Suddenly the moron stood straight up and let go Tay’s arm like he’d been burned. Tay stumbled back with the force of his own weight, still panting from adrenaline and tension and almost fell into the hockey player that always stared at him.

The slighter, shorter boy didn’t even look at Tay. The piercing blue eyes just remained fixated on Tay’s tormentor with an unblinking, even stare. It was possibly the scariest thing Tay had ever seen.

“Hey, Marsh,” The ungainly boy greeted casually, “Practice start yet?”

More silence dropped in the air between the three of them, the large, ugly boy and the hockey player, both partway suited up for practice with the oversized sleeves of their jerseys and the leg protectors, and Tay in his rumpled scarf.

The large boy finally caved, his voice high and false,“Lighten up, man! Just having some fun with Hanson’s little brother here.”

“I’m his older brother,” Tay corrected acidly.

“Well excuse the fuck out of me, faggot…,” the ugly boy spat back and the hocky player with the scary blue eyes took one step forward. Just one. Tay's tormentor immediately fell back, a muffled female giggle sounded from the crowd, and it was over in one flat drop of tension.

With a start Tay wondered why the hell he was still standing there and pushed quickly past the offending bulk of the boy to his bicycle.

“Stay out of my way,” the boy tried to warn.

Tay didn’t answer as he pedaled off at a dead heat, legs pumping, heart thudding to drown out the ugliness in his head. He didn’t look back.

*~*~*

“Tay!” Zac burst in the room, panting and Tay looked up from where he lay reading, or trying to read. As soon as the dishes were done, he’d escaped up here as soon as he could. Run away was all he seemed to do lately because he still couldn’t look at his father and not go crazy.

It was Zac’s night for a late practice and he’d thanked god for that, until now.

“Are you alright?”

“What do you mean? I’m fine.” Taylor rolled back on his stomach but the bed dipped when Zac sat down and Tay sat up, resigned.

“I heard what happened. Why didn’t you say anything? I was in practice, I didn’t know…” Zac’s hazel eyes were clouded with worry

“What did you want me to say? ‘One of your ignorant friends called me a faggot and tried to beat me up?’” He felt guilty at how his brother winced. Maybe he shouldn’t have sounded so angry at Zac; his brother hadn't done anything, but Tay seemed to feel this way all the time, now. No matter how much he tried to hold it in or squash it down, it leaked out.

“Shane’s not my friend, Tay. He’s not really anyone’s friend, he’s such a jerk most of the time…”

“It was no big deal.” Tay said offhandedly.

“If I’d known I would have…”

“What?” Tay looked up sharply and Zac faltered. Tay knew what he’d meant, as if what Tay needed was to be defended by his little brother in front of god and everyone. Zac ducked his head so the spill of honey blond hair fell forward like a curtain.

“Made sure you were okay.” His brother finished in a small voice.

“I’m fine.”

“I heard…” Zac looked up, face anxious again.

“Look can we just drop this?” Tay interrupted tiredly. Why did everyone want him to discuss things now, why? Couldn’t he just stay in denial like normal people?

“Okay. I’m glad you’re all right.”

Tay nodded and Zac left the room after looking at him for a second. With a sigh Tay flopped back on the bed and lay his book on top of his face. The phone rang somewhere in the house and his mother’s voice could be heard from downstairs:

“Tay! It’s Johnny!”

Tay wondered just what hewanted to talk about.

MARSHALL.

“Yo, man. Did you almost get beat today?” Proof’s voice brought him out of thought and Marshall blinked at him in the yellow convenience store light. He’d been pretending to read an XXL magazine and wondering why The Skater hadn’t shown up this morning and why the kid would take on Lemon’s gorilla ass when Lemon could stomp on him with one foot. It took him a minute to digest the question and he realized what Proof was asking. He made a conscious effort to look relaxed.

“No. Who’s sayin’ that?”

“Just the word on the street, bro. Some girls were talkin’ in study hall and Rufus heard. You know how it is."

Yeah, Marshall knew. He ducked his head back to the magazine and didn’t answer. He didn’t make any effort to keep his skating and his friends separate but they seemed to stay that way on their own. Proof and the guys only went to games, not practices, and Marshall only hung out with the team after games for a couple of hours. He didn’t think he’d have to explain something he didn’t understand himself because some loudmouth girls couldn’t keep their traps shut.

“So what happened?” Proof demanded, refusing to play it off and Marshall tucked the magazine under his arm, sighing as he looked out into the empty parking lot. His best friend had picked a hell of a time to abandon the don’t-ask-don’t-tell rule they’d established.

The Buy & Pay was dead on a Thursday night but they hung out here sometimes because the clerk was Von’s cousin and didn’t try to get them to leave every five minutes or call the cops ‘cause they were ‘loitering.’ It was the last resort when the grownups were all home and Proof didn’t have a DJ job that he could use to sneak them in.

“Nothin,’ a’aight? Just don’t like to see people fucked with for no reason.”

“Yeah, okay,” Proof agreed, “But you don’t gotta do it alone. I heard that was one Godzilla lookin’ motherfucker.”

“He’s a punk,” Marshall scoffed, “Fuckin’ coward backed off and I didn’t even have to do nothin’ but look at him.”

“For real?” Proof laughed and Marshall quirked a smile. He liked all his friends but he missed just hanging with Proof sometimes, like they used to do before hockey and before Proof started MCing. Of course they’d been in middle school then…

“Hey, Marsh.” They both turned at the voice and Marshall tensed, staring down at the upturned face of his ex-girlfriend.

For a second he couldn’t remember any of the reasons they’d been together.

He’d met her at The Shelter during one of Proof’s shows; she’d snuck in, too. He recognized her from the projects near the trailer park and when she asked if he was gonna dance with her or buy her a drink Marshall bought her one. He’d liked her long, baby fine brown hair and too-long bangs that fell in her eyes and he liked that she knew where he lived, knew the low down, and liked him anyway. She knew about no birthday presents and old furniture and paying with a WIC card at the grocery in front of a line of people who all had cash or credit. Her mom at least worked sometimes as a waitress and tried to stay off welfare to support Jeanine and her two brothers. They’d gone out a few times and they'd had sex on the fourth date. She'd had the condom. It seemed to be going okay until Marshall caught her making out with a member of the fuckin’ football team.

“What do you want?” He asked, not looking at her.

“Just to talk.”

“You can go talk to that guy you were fucking. Oh, wait, that’s real hard with his tongue in your mouth, huh?”

“We weren’t fucking!”

“Later, man,” Proof murmured ducking into the store. Not that Marshall blamed him. Marshall hated drama himself but she had some balls coming up to him like nothing.

“I don’t give a shit what you were doing. I ain’t got nothing to say to you.” He opened his magazine again and she flicked it from his hands, anger distorting her small, neat features.

“You act like it was all my fault, and it wasn’t, Marshall! Not all of it.”

“Oh, yeah? What the fuck did I do, huh? That wasn’t me makin’ out with someone else! That wasn’t me lying!” He grabbed the magazine back and opened it determinedly, only to have it snatched away again. It was looking pretty ragged, anyway.

“We always did what YOU wanted to do, okay? When you had time after your friends and your practice and the fucking games! I never got a say!”

“Well you don’t gotta worry about it now, huh?’

“Come on, Marsh.” She moved close to him and he backed up into the metal newspaper stand, blinking down at her gray eyes, outlined in black and looking huge. “That guy didn’t mean nothing. You and me really had something, you know?”

Her hand on his thigh felt heavy and hot and he realized how long it had been since he’d even jerked off. The last time had been in the shower and he couldn’t keep his thoughts on Pamela Anderson’s tits or Jennifer Lopez’s ass. No matter how close he got his arm felt like it was going to fall off. Finally he closed his eyes in frustration, the rapidly cooling water pruning his skin and out nowhere The Skater popped into his mind. The expression he wore when he was lost in the skating: eyes shut, mouth a little open, hair blowing across his face- he pumped twice and came so fast and he almost passed out. It scared him so bad he hadn’t tried it again for about two weeks.

“Lousy sex?” Marshall guessed and her face contorted in anger, followed by a quick strike of her hand like a snake bite he never saw coming.

“Fuckin’ bitch!” He grabbed for her arm as she danced back, laughing. Two strong arms suddenly gripped him around the waist and Proof’s voice murmured soothingly in his ear as Marshall struggled to get free.

“Let it go. Let it go, man, she ain’t worth it.”

“See? Why don’t you go out with Proof? You care more about him, anyway.”

“Go on.” Proof snapped at her, “Get the fuck out before I let him go and what he does ain’t my problem.”

“What he does is always your problem.” Jeanine said bitterly but she flounced away, hair swinging, the hips in the tight pants weaving back and forth.

Marshall touched his cheek and came away with a streak of blood. One of her rings must have caught him.

“Come on. You can’t stand there bleeding and shit.” They began walking to Proof’s house since they both knew Marshall’s mom wouldn’t have so much as a band-aid, and even if she did, she wouldn’t know where to find them.

“I never liked that crazy bee-yotch. Just saying.” Proof said under his breath.

“Yeah? ‘Cause she told me she loves you.” They glanced at each other and cracked up.

“Shut yo’ white ass up. Look like you got bitch-slapped.”

“I did get bitch-slapped.” Marshall muttered.

“Yeah, you can pick ‘em.”

His best friend had no idea how right THAT was.

Marshall was already planning on checking the rink tomorrow to see if The Skater would be there. He’d waited a half hour that morning, dozing on and off behind the bleachers swaying on his skates. He’d started wearing them when he realized how much easier it would be to bullshit his way out of being found if he at least looked like he was there to skate and not like some stalking nut job. Finally he’d crashed on the couch in the locker room to wake up to the sound of the Zamboni and a Spanish accented voice singing ‘Friends in Low Places’ at the top of it’s lungs. He’d almost been seen when he snuck out.

He really did hope The Skater would be there tomorrow. All Marshall had seen of him today was the fight with Lemon and his back as he'd ridden off. Considering the way not seeing him made The Skater take over Marshall’s thoughts even more, it was obvious those few times weren’t enough.

Chapter Text

That's a good question
Why am I standing out here alone?
I guess I don't know enough to come in from the rain
I was watching your window
From here below
I think I just might stay here all day
Cause I gotta do something

Watching You
~Melissa Etheridge

MARSHALL

When Marshall pushed open the fire exit door to the rink and saw bright lights, he jumped back out and shut the door too loud, heart pounding. He stood frozen for a few minutes expecting someone to pull it back open, yell at him and demand to know what was going on. However, after about five minutes of nothing, breath coming in nervous pants, Marshall took a chance and quietly pushed open the door. When nothing happened, he entered soundlessly.

The first thing he did was listen for the classical music. When he didn’t hear any he almost left again because too many things were wrong: the lights, so bright they might actually be seen from outside, the silence. Well, no. He could hear something, and as he listened he realized he knew the sound because he heard it every day: the sound of blades slicing through ice. Fast, hard, power skating. That didn’t sound right, either.

Changing quickly into his skates, he kept low as he headed for the bleachers, feeling exposed in the brightness. He hadn’t realized until now how much he counted on just the spotlights being on, how much he’d taken for granted the cover the darkness gave him.

Peering around the corner he saw The Skater and his stomach gave a little jump. The Skater wore blue today, with a line down each side that showed the slim hips and a white scarf with blue snowflakes on the ends. On anyone else the scarf would look dorky, but it fit The Skater. The blond hair shone even more in the bright lights, like it did during the regular practices, but the look on The Skater's face was all wrong. Instead of having that serene, happy expression Marshall could picture in his head the minute he closed his eyes The Skater looked determined, almost angry. And his eyes. They weren’t closed at all.

After a few minutes Marshall realized The Skater also wasn’t practicing any of the flowy, graceful movements he always did, either. He just kept skating as fast as he could around the rink and launching into the air doing this one jump and failing every time. Marshall watched as the boy picked up speed again, not even stopping to rest from the last time he stumbled. His arms out, mouth a thin line, he'd jump into the air, turn a bunch of times and land hard faltering before doing it again. That last time gouged out a hunk of ice as big as any Marshall ever had in practice.

The Skater took off again and Marshall tensed, knowing it wasn’t gonna work, not this time or any time, because nothing could work if the kid was skating that pissed off. The blond figure jumped in the air rotating fast but at a steep angle and landed short, actually falling on his butt on the ice. Marshall let out a breath but the kid jumped back up like a fuckin’ jack in the box to do it again and Marshall swore softly.

The kid’s arms had to be tired by now, his legs killing him, and Marshall could see a tremble around the elbows, even from this far away, but he kept going. For the first time since he started watching, Marshall felt like he was intruding on something private. Usually he could just sit and watch and get lost in The Skater’s expression, his movements; they made Marshall feel peaceful. This morning felt like the kid was trying to kill his damn self and Marshall could hardly stand just observing.

The Skater started another dead heat, legs moving fast, but Marshall could tell he was tired; the customary grace to the movements was completely gone. Don’t, damnit, don’t, he thought, but the blue clad form threw itself into the air hard and landed too soon. He bounced off the sideboard when he landed, rolling to the floor in a heap and lay there, blond hair fanned over the ice. Marshall started for the rink without even realizing, eyes glued to the still form, panic starting to flutter in his chest.

To his relief the The Skater moved, lifting slow and careful on his hands but Marshall had already stepped on the ice, gliding quickly over, one arm outstretched.

“Hey, you okay? You hurt?”

The Skater shot up so fast that Marshall skidded to a halt, marveling at the speed with which the kid got to his feet, especially after falling. It cost him, though, ‘cause he was breathing hard, blue eyes wild in the pretty face and looking all around like a scared deer, as if he expected people to come jumping out of the woodwork.

“Whoah, hey, relax, man. I’m alone. I ain’t hurting you.” Marshall laughed, holding out an arm to calm him but the kid just skated backwards really fast, and Marshall drew away.

“What are you doing here?” The voice sounded scared and still kind of angry but for a second the words went right past him because, oh fuck. Fuck.

If he thought The Skater was pretty from far away, up close he was damn beautiful. The clearest blue eyes he’d ever seen, perfect pink lips and cheeks flushed from the exercise and surprise. One cheek still had some melting flakes of ice stuck to it and looked red. Marshall wanted to brush them off. The waves of hair fell softly around The Skater’s face, stopping just at his shoulders, and in the blue skating outfit the body was all clean lines and gentle curves.

“What are you doing here?” The Skater repeated getting more agitated and Marshall tore his mind back from la la land. Shit, get it together! he thought severely. The kid’s freaking out and you’re going all Chester Molester on his ass.

“What am *I* doing here?” Marshall repeated to buy himself time. “What are *you* doing here, huh? We’re both trespassing.”

“Julio knows I’m here.” That threw him.

Julio was the beefy Latino maintenance guy that ran the Zamboni and opened up every morning. He had a goatee, wore his hair in braids with beads on the ends, and was so humungous he made Lemon look like a little dwarf.

“You paying him off or something?” Marshall asked, really wondering what the deal was now, and The Skater gave him a scornful glance.

“Are you?” The boy tried to skate away but stopped when Marshall fell into step next to him.

“Naw, I come in through the fire exit. It don’t work.”

“That’s comforting.”

“So how come he lets you skate early?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“Oh.” Marshall mumbled, dropping his gaze from The Skater’s face. He had to do that every few minutes or he’d just all out stare with his mouth open like an idiot.

He tried holding out his hand in introduction since they’d seemed to have jumped over that part. “I’m Marsh…”

“I know who you are.” The blue eyes that he decided were the exact color of the sky narrowed suspiciously. Marshall pulled his hand back quickly and felt stupid.

“Yeah, who am I?” he challenged, a flicker of defiance starting within him because all he’d tried to do was help and he’d gotten nothing but attitude.

“You’re a hockey player.” The Skater said the words flat and disgusted and Marshall felt himself flush at the tone.

“So? You’re a figure skater and that don’t tell me nothing."

“That’s because we have nothing to say to each other.” The Skater said coldly. Marshall felt his heart drop at the words and at the way The Skater looked at him, cold and disgusted, and fuck, he didn’t know what he’d expected but total hate hadn’t been it! He hadn’t even done anything!

“What the fuck’s up with you?” He finally exclaimed, as much from exasperation as from just not believing this was going this badly. “I didn’t do nothing to you except keep you from getting hit…”

“I can take care of myself.” The blond boy said heatedly and Marshall laughed at his vehemence; he couldn’t help it.

“Is that what you called it? You were about to get your scrawny white ass kicked all over the parking lot is what you were gonna do, a’aight?”

“No I wasn’t. You don’t know anything about me!”

“I know I fuckin’ helped you!” Marshall skated up close to him, glaring in indignation, “I *HELPED* you….!”

“I didn’t ask for your help!” The Skater said with so much viciousness any other words Marshall had dried up in is throat. “I didn’t want your help!”

Marshall stared into the sparking blue eyes, pissed off and at a complete loss. And even with that, even with how much of a jerk The Skater had been, Marshall’s pulse sped up at being this close to all the prettiness. Even with more disappointment than he had words for that this turned out this way, Marshall still noticed the long, silky lashes and smooth, creamy skin and necklaces that peeked out from under the scarf. It made no sense at all.

For long moments they stood, eyes caught in each other’s angry gaze, then Marshall thought he saw something shift in the sky blue and the eyes grew wider. It frightened the hell out of him.

“Fine.” Marshall spat, breaking the spell by skating backwards. “I’m sorry I fuckin’ bothered.” Heart pounding hard like it wanted to jump out of his chest, he turned and left as quick as he could.

The Skater didn’t stop him.

~*~*~*~*~

Marshall sat at the chipped Formica table, math book and loose leaf papers spread out before him and he didn’t understand a goddamn thing. All the letters and numbers ran together until they looked like a mush of gibberish, and it didn’t help that he wasn’t concentrating, neither.

Seeing the skater that afternoon had been hard, harder than he thought it would be. He'd worn the same blue outfit and had made up with The Skinny kid, who'd kept whispering and throwing Marshall questioning looks. Who knew what The Skater told him. That Marshall had been watching. That Marshall was a loser. Who knew. Even if he tried not to look at the kid, it had been like the figure on the ice was a magnet, drawing him back until just looking away took superhuman effort.

For a second he'd thought maybe The Skater was looking back and not with the disgusted look he’d had that morning, but he decided he was making that shit up. Wishful thinking. Pathetic wishful thinking.

Stretching out the kinks in his spine from the hard kitchen chair, he looked around himself.

The trailer was a disaster: toys, clothes, and some of his school books scattered on the stained carpet, the crappy couch with the stuffing coming out had burn holes on both arms from where his mom missed the ashtray, and look, the queen herself, yakking on the phone as she puffed, blond hair in spongy rollers, and one bare shoulder visible from where the cheap satin bathrobe had slipped off.

My life, thought Marshall, sucks.

“Marshy! Marshy!” the only part of his life that didn’t suck right now barreled out of the bedroom waving a plastic car with one wheel missing and hopped on his lap hard enough to have made Marshall talk like a choirboy if he hadn’t shifted just in time.

“Uh! Damn, Nate, you gonna kill me one of these days, dog.” He sat the little boy on the table on all his work and tweaked his nose, making him giggle. A huge, simple love for the little boy took him over like it sometimes did, so enormous Marshall thought it wouldn’t fit in his heart sometimes.

He was a goofy looking kid, with stick out ears and funny, big blue eyes, so he kind of resembled that little monster Gizmo from that lame movie he and Proof watched one Sunday afternoon. His nose always seemed to be runny and the grungy pajamas were getting too small already, a good two inches of wrist and ankle sticking out at both ends. But he looked at Marshall like Marshall hung the moon and he trusted Marshall with a blind faith that made him feel real good. They might only be half-brothers but he felt closer to the kid than to his own mom, most of the time.

“I’m hungry.” Nate said, running the broken car up Marshall’s arm over the sleeves of his hoodie, across his chest, and down his other arm, butt wiggling on the table like he was dancing.

“Okay. Just a second, a’aight?” Marshall scooted him back so he wouldn’t fall off the table, since he seemed to be accident prone, too, and gave his mom an irritated glance where she leaned on the counter still chatting with one of her dopey friends.

“There’s cookies in the cupboard,” she said, not missing a beat and Marshall rolled his eyes, reaching for the open package of cheap discount store macaroons.

Cookies for dinner. Nice. Marshall hated them himself but Nate stuffed three in his mouth and chewed, crumbs sprinkling on the front of his faded X-Men pajama top.

“You a mess, boy.”

Nate laughed and sprayed cookie all over him. Marshall laughed, too, trying to cover Nate’s mouth and getting crumb gunk on his palm. “Shit! Look at what you did!”

“Don’t curse in front of him, Marshall,” his mom called out from her perch at the counter and Marshall gave a disbelieving stare. As if she and the shithead didn’t curse blue streaks when they argued and Nate right in front of them or just in the next room.

“Whatever.”

“I’m going out tonight. You’ll be home to watch him, right?” she’d removed the phone surgically attached to her ear and leaned on the counter, her fingers nervously fiddling with each other. She should know his schedule by now; it was nine-thirty. If Marshall was in at this point he was staying in, at least ‘till four in the morning. He’d promised himself to at least look at his math work since Mr. Lang gave him another talk about his grades, but it didn’t’ do any fuckin’ good.

'I’m here. You going out with the dumb fuck?”

“I told you not to use that language in front of the baby, Marshall! And don’t call Darryl that!!” Her voice got that whiny tone he couldn’t stand and he tried to tune her out. “He can be good to us if you’d just watch your mouth around him.”

“As soon as he watches his mouth around me,” Marshall replied amicably and his mom gave a huff and walked to the bedroom already pulling the curls from her long, blond hair. She needed another dye job. She’d probably keep on ragging if she didn’t need him to watch Nate. She knew Marshall just took off when he got fed up and she was stuck trying to figure out what to do with Nate so she could go drink, or dance, or do whatever the hell they did.

“Did you eat dinner, yo?” he asked Nate who had turned the car into a plane.

“I had Ramen.” That had been hours ago. He had chocolate ringed around his mouth and Marshall rubbed at it with his thumb.

“Lessee what we got, okay?”

“Macaroni!” Nate crowed, and Marshall found a box way in back behind some creamed corn and a stack of ancient hot chocolate packets.

He just hoped the milk hadn’t gone over too bad.

TAY

Tay’s anger stayed with him for quite a while after the hockey player with the intense eyes disappeared from the building. He kept on skating but the frenzy that made him try to do a quad fifty times in a row had gone. He just felt tired and bruised from falling, his arms and legs stiff from the exertion. He just wanted to go home and go to bed and the rest of the day stretched in front of him like warm taffy.

Still by the time he’d been home, done homework, and come back for his afternoon session, the righteous rage that had caused him to shout at the boy like he’d done had pretty much gone despite his efforts to hold onto it. No matter how much he told himself that the way he reacted made sense, that he had a right to be suspicious about another hockey player approaching him, by the time afternoon practice rolled around he’d begun to suspect he was full of crap. And he’d been really nasty and rude to someone who’d approached him with a hand out to help and his mom would so lay into him if she knew that. They had all been raised better than that.

“Your boyfriend’s avoiding you.” Johnny whispered and Tay looked over automatically. The hockey player was talking to one of his team mates and not looking at Tay at all. “He’s really bad at it.”

“What does that mean?” Tay muttered clawing his way through the last of the drills. He could tell from the frown on Priscilla’s face that his exercises were less than stellar, that he wasn’t arching his fingers or watching his form. God, just get me through the next ten minutes, he prayed. I won’t ever take out my anger on innocent bystanders again. I’ll be nice to Zac. I won’t ignore Avery. I promise.

His shoulders hurt incredibly and the stitch on his side decided its mission in life was to kill him.

“Have you talked to him yet?” Johnny asked, just like he’d done their entire phone conversation last night where he grilled Tay on what happened as if the whole world hadn’t seen the testosterone contest outside the rink yesterday.

Johnny also insisted on talking while they moved when Tay barely had enough energy to propel forward.

“No. Why would I?” He lied, breathlessly.

“Because he saved your life!”

“Jesus, Johnny. Don’t tell me you’re reading teen romances again.” Tay moaned and Johnny scoffed in offense.

“ExCUSE me! Of course not.” Tay rolled his eyes. “J.D. Robb.”

"Please spare me,” he begged to absolutely no avail.

“No, really! I’ll bet he’s the biggest closet case.” Johnny surreptitiously looked over to where the hockey team sprawled all over the kiss and cry area.

“No, that would be YOUR secret boyfriend.” Tay couldn’t resist saying and Johnny actually stuck out his tongue.

Emanuel Sandhu had done a costume run through, and the flouncy pink and green get up looked like the Miami Sound Machine exploded all over him. Tay thought there was something inherently wrong with pink and green together, and certainly on a man in his mid-twenties

Thankfully, blessedly, practice ended and Tay started for exit when Priscilla crooked her finger at him, her expression knowing.

“I’ll wait for you.” Johnny laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder before skating off.

When Tay turned towards his coach he caught the boy looking at him again, but the boy turned away fast, and slouched in the seat, hiding beneath the hood of a sweatshirt.

“So,” Priscilla’s voice was cheerful and arch when he slowed in front of her, “Anything you want to tell me?”

“I was just a little off today. I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose, willing away the headache that wanted to start. He got them when he hadn’t had enough rest or had too much stress.

“Your sequences were off and your form sucked, Tay.”

“I know.” He met the shrewd look and tried not to squirm. Sometimes Priscilla was worse than his parents for the ESP. “It won’t happen again.”

“Don’t be silly, Tay. Of course it’ll happen again; everyone has a bad day. I just need to know if this is isolated or something we need to deal with. Ann Arbor is two months away and the last thing you need to do right now is lose focus.”

“I’m not. It’s isolated, totally. I’ll go to bed early.” He promised. She surveyed him for a few seconds before nodding and giving his butt a whack as he skated away.

“Do that. Come on; the Neanderthals are coming.” Tay nodded and skated faster hoping no one heard her. The hockey team had begun overflowing onto the rink noisily dragging the large goals and orange cones with them. He caught a flash of close cropped dark hair and turned but the hockey player skated past him like he was invisible.

For some reason, for just a second, he felt like he was.

Chapter Text

Here we are, we're at the beginning
We haven't fucked yet, but my head's spinning

Why Can't I
~Liz Phair

TAY

Zac was seated at the desk they shared when Tay walked in their room, the evidence of an essay spread out in front of him. Notecards in Zac’s large, looping script, highlighters in two different colors, loose leaf notebook paper, an encyclopedia and an open history book. He noticed how much his brother had grown just in the last few months. Zac’s biceps strained the sleeves of his Henley T and his knees tapped the bottom of the desk. Tay was actually taller but Zac looked like he had more substance to him, more density.

Tay guessed maybe someone would think he was Zac’s younger brother.

“Hey.” His brother looked up from his highlighting, and squinted at him. “You kinda look like shit. You okay?”

“Headache.” Tay rubbed his temple. He’d been trying to will it away all evening but he knew it wasn’t working when the kid’s prattling started to grate on his nerves. No one around here minded everyday chatter; it just hummed in the background constantly.

“Ibuprofen’s your friend,” Zac smiled in sympathy and Tay nodded, reaching for his bedside table where he kept his stash, then turned to Zac on impulse.

“Yesterday, the guy that. You know,” he started and Zac looked up once more, hazel eyes inquisitive as he nodded. “What’s his deal?”

Zac blew out a snort in disgust. “Hell if I know. It’s always ‘faggot’ this and ‘faggot’ that. It’s gotten pretty old for everyone. No one even really talks to him anymore. He needs therapy or something…”

“No,” Tay shook his head, “Not him, the other one. The one that,” he bit at his lip, “The one that stopped it.”

“Oh! Sorry. That’s Marshall. Center,” Zac added with no small admiration.

Tay had sucked at hockey, but he retained the information, like some long memorized prayer or nursery rhyme. He knew the Center position was not only the most coveted but arguably the most difficult. “So, he’s good?”

“He’s really good.” Zac corrected, “Just.” He paused, and screwed up his brow. Tay waited.

“He’s hard to figure out. He kind of has the mysterious keeping-it-real homeboy thing going on, but I don’t think it’s an act? I know he lives in a trailer park on 8 Mile Road and he sometimes won’t go to team stuff even though coach says it’s mandatory, but he never gets shit for it. I don’t think he can afford everything, you know?”

Tay nodded. The only reason they kept their head above water was that their dad owned the hardware store. Neither hockey nor figure skating were known as cheap sports to be in.

“That’s kind of all I know. He’s not in my division and he doesn’t talk a lot. At least not to guys on his team.”

Tay mulled over the information when Zac asked, “Were you gonna thank him for helping you out?”

Tay felt the flush rise in his face and averted his eyes, “No. I- not yet.”

Zac nodded thoughtfully and turned back to his work leaving Tay to fish out the Ibuprofen and extract two.

His headache didn’t go away, but it eventually felt better.

*~*~*~*~

Tay did go to his solitary morning skate and felt one hundred percent glad he did. He’d gone to bed early, as promised to Priscilla, and woke up at four a.m. on the dot, alert and itching to get on the ice. The smell of the rink, the crisp cool, was like balm and he’d been lost in the middle of his routine, not thinking of the upcoming triples, not planning, just feeling the music, when his eyes slipped open, like they sometimes did.

The hockey player stood at the side of the rink watching him, arms folded.

Tay faded out of his routine and stood momentarily frozen in the middle of the ice.

The dimpled chin was thrown back defiantly, head tilted so he looked almost challenging. The only reason Tay noticed him was the house lights were on instead of the spotlights. The realization that the boy had probably seen him skating in the dark and beams of light had embarrassed him beyond belief, like when someone walks in on you singing into a hairbrush pretending to be Lady Gaga.

After a few seconds Tay forced himself to skate slowly to where the boy stood. Easing to a stop Tay met the unblinking blue eyes and they looked at each other in silence for a bit, Tay’s heart racing, as if he’d been gearing up for a big jump.

He saw a boy about his height with shorn dark hair and sharp features in a face just a few steps from leaving childhood: electric blue eyes that looked like they’d seen too much, strange pointy nose and dimpled chin coupled with pouty, sensuous lips. He wore a plain white t-shirt, a loose hooded sweater, and loose track pants about three sizes too big. They didn’t look as strange as they should have with the bulky hockey skates. The boy finally dropped the gangster stance and spoke so suddenly Tay started at the low, defensive voice, thick with Detroit.

“I can come in here if I want. You don’t own the place.”

“No, I don’t- I mean, yeah, you can…come in here.” Tay stammered, feeling like a dork. He continued before he lost his nerve, “I want to apologize for yesterday when I…when…”

“When you acted like a fuckin’ punk?” The hockey player supplied helpfully. The heat rose on Tay’s face but he nodded, forcing himself not to drop the blade sharp blue eyes. It was difficult. The air around the boy seemed to crackle with intensity; it clung to his stance and the ghetto clothes and the uncompromising level stare.

“Yeah. When I acted like a fucking…punk.”

An amused twist of the boy’s pouty lips curved into a slow smile, banking the tension, and his gaze lowered, fringing long lashes against his cheek.

“Maybe I did kinda surprise you and shit.”

“You scared the hell out of me!” Tay breathed out in a relieved laugh, then sobered, “But you were right. You did help me. I would have gotten hurt. Thanks for that, too.”

The boy nodded bringing those killer eyes back up and Tay continued bravely. “You tried to introduce yourself yesterday and I didn’t let you. So, I’m Taylor.” He held out his hand and it was gripped firmly by rough palms with unlikely slim, clever fingers. A lot about the boy was unlikely, started with the fact that they were even standing here conversing.

“Marshall.”

“Everyone calls me Tay,” Taylor added and the boy nodded again, holding Tay’s stare.

“A’aight. Tay.”

“Um,” Tay began, weighing his next words, “Don’t take this wrong, but, what-are-you doing here?”

“Skating.”

“Skating?” Tay repeated skeptically and the boy, Marshall, ducked his head, lips in a half smile.

“Naw, not really. I stay here sometimes when things at home get on my nerves.”

“Oh.” Tay glanced at the boy’s cheek where the angry bruise had been that one time and Marshall caught him looking. Marshall looked away, hand scratching at his neck, and some of the ease that had begun, faded between them.

“I kind of need to go,” Tay said apologetically

Marshall stepped back and let Tay through to put on his blade protectors. Tay hooked his fingers on the small portable stereo and began walking to the locker room. Marshall walked beside him, hands in the pockets of his hooded sweatshirt. Tay wondered if he had anything else with him, because Detroit in November wasn’t exactly balmy.

“So how come you get to skate at 4 a.m.?” Marshall asked, eyes on the floor and only lifting to give Tay brief glances. It made the lashes lift and fall and Tay made himself not stare.

“I made a deal with Julio.”

“Yeah?” Marshall said non-comittaly and Tay thought for a moment he should have phrased that differently.

“I empty all the trash out of the bathrooms and the locker room and he lets me skate for an hour before he opens. He gets to sleep later and I get the whole rink for a while. It works out.”

“Your parents cool with that?”

“I didn’t ask them.” Tay admitted, voice even, and Marshall gave him one of his penetrating stares which he returned.

“So they don’t know you’re here?”

“Does your family know you’re here?” Tay parried. Marshall gave a short bark of laugh, bitter and scornful.

“My mom don’t give a fuck even if she did.”

Tay digested that and thought of the bruise.

“I get back and sleep for about an hour before everyone else wakes up,” he continued, skirting around the awkward silence that wanted to descend.

“Damn,” Marshall muttered. Tay couldn’t tell if it was a good ‘damn’ or a you’re- an-overachieving-freak ‘damn.’ He thought it was okay since Marshall didn’t look at him strange; at least not any stranger than he had been.

They reached the locker room and Tay paused, self conscious all of a sudden about changing in front of this boy he’d just met. He knew Zac and Ike had no such qualms, all demurity burned out of them by locker room roughhousing and joking. Tay always changed in and out of his skating outfits in a bathroom stall. He didn't know any skaters who didn't.

“I’ve got to change.” He explained when Marshall just stood there looking at him. Then a faint blush sprouted on the boy’s face and he nodded, looking away. He started to edge away, too.

“I gotta go anyway.”

“I won’t be long,” Tay said quickly, wondering where that came from. He added, “I mean, it’ll just be a few minutes.”

“A’ aight.” Marshall said with a shrug and leant against the wall to start untying his own skates.

“Okay,” Tay whispered to himself as he walked in the locker room and stood there for a second, digesting the entire previous fifteen minutes. This whole thing felt surreal as hell and Tay half expected Marshall to be gone by the time he exited. He forced himself to take his time changing into his jeans and heavy sweater and retied his scarf twice just to test the theory.

He wasn’t gone. Marshall’s skates hung over his shoulders by the laces and he bounced his head lightly against the wall as he waited. He wore scuffed Jordans, had his hands in his pockets again, and turned to Tay pinning him with that electric stare. Tay lowered his head and dug his hands in his pockets as they started walking to the back of the rink.

There was indeed a faulty fire door held open by a thin piece of plywood that didn’t give so much as a beep when Marshall pushed it.

The Detroit dusk still hadn’t given up the night and they stood there, Tay next to his bicycle, looking at each other in the dim glow of the street light. The icy wind blew around them and Tay tucked his scarf in his jacket. Marshall didn’t seem to notice though, even if the tip of his nose was getting red.

Tay needed to go home before he did something dumb like mention that.

“So you just ride home now?” Marshall nodded to the bicycle and Tay nodded.

“Usually, yeah.”

“You got some balls, yo. Some these hoods are hardcore.”

“My scrawny white ass can take care of itself, remember?” Tay said wryly, then had a belated moment of panic. However, Marshall just blinked at him for several seconds then an amused smiled overtook his face, transforming it so totally Tay didn’t think he’d really smiled until then.

“Oh, yeah, I forgot.”

“I’ll be okay,” Tay smiled in reassurance, “I do this three times a week.”

Marshall nodded, doing the small glances thing again. Eyelashes flicked at Tay. “Don’t run over nobody on that thing.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Tay threw a leg over the bike and adjusted his skating bag strap across his chest, then paused, looking at Marshall, who stood there watching in that pitiful excuse for warm weather clothing.

“What are you going to do?” He asked.

Marshall shrugged, looking around at the deserted parking lot. “I got a friend lives close by.”

“Be careful,” Tay said and Marshall gave another half-smile.

“Yeah. See ya.”

“See you later this afternoon.” Tay reminded him and Marshall nodded again. With a last smile Tay pushed off into the retreating dusk. When he risked a glance back Marshall lifted a hand in goodbye.

It wasn’t until he’d gotten home, climbed the trellis back to their room, changed into his t-shirt and sweats to sleep in, and was laying there going over what they’d said, how it had all happened, *if* it had all happened, if Marshall would actually acknowledge they’d talked when they saw each other at practice.

He fell asleep right away even while he was wondering.

*~*~*~*~*~*

All morning he’d felt like he had a secret. A really cool secret only he knew about. He kept replaying parts of their conversation in his head.

But by the time afternoon practice got closer Tay had convinced himself it had been a fluke or a one-time deal. Or a deep hallucination brought on by too many sit spins.
He’d read too much into their exchange, he must have. He hadn’t been around kids his own age in forever, which was probably it. Johnny, Sasha, and a few other skaters were the only people Tay even knew his own age, and he didn’t really hang out with any of them except Johnny. He talked on the phone with Johnny but Tay knew he was way low on the social norm scale. He spent more time talking to a ten-month old for Christ’s sake.

But then he’d think of how Marshall had waited for him, and that last, real smile, and, well maybe. Maybe…what? He kept going back and forth between apprehension and pleasure at their conversation, but more often than not he caught himself remembering their talk with a little thrill in his stomach.

Marshall seemed to still be staring at him….

“Tay. Tay!” Johnny said as they finished up their drills, and Tay shook his head out of his thoughts.

“What?”

“Did you get laid or something? Because you keep smiling.”

“What? No!” Tay laughed.

“You’d tell me right?”

“Oh, yeah. It’s right on my list: put on condom, have sex, call Johnny.”

“I’m only third on the list?”

“Shut up.” Tay laughed as they executed twin doubles. Priscilla watched from the sidelines and Tay could tell she was much happier today. She never got on them for talking because she said if the had enough breath to talk and skate their stamina was doing good. Only when they totally lost focus did she get bitchy.

They ended with a spin and Priscilla nodded her approval to them as they left the rink, sidestepping the encroaching hockey players.

Someone clipped Tay’s shoulder with theirs, just enough to twist him around, and he caught Marshall’s half-grin, his navy blue eyes mischievous. “’Sup?”

“Hi,” Tay breathed, unable to keep from smiling as he skated away. He’d gotten all the way to the edge of the rink before he noticed Johnny’s open-mouthed stare.

“No. WAY!” Johnny exclaimed in a stage whisper and Tay rolled his eyes. At this rate Tay's eyes were going to stay that way.

“Shut up. I just thanked him. You know, for that day.”

“So, like, you’re friends now?” Johnny said, voice incredulous. Tay glanced around at the other skaters as they entered the locker room but no one seemed to have looked up at Johnny’s comment. He guessed that by now most people were used to the Johnny’s occasional dramatics.

“I don’t know.” He shrugged, unsure.

“Well, you’d better be careful.”

Tay knit his brows at Johnny’s ominous tone and the sober look on his face as they entered the locker room, “What do you mean?”

“Tay, come on. He’s a hockey player. You really think he’s just decided to be your buddy for no reason?”

Yeah, actually, Tay did. Put that way, though, it seemed kind of naive. No, he thought firmly. He might not have as many friends as Ike and Zac but he trusted his instincts. This morning couldn’t have been faked, it just couldn’t have been. And, why?

“Oh, god, you do.” Johnny regarded him with dismay and Tay glared.

“Whatever happened to ‘Talk to him! He saved your life!’”

“Well, I didn’t think you’d actually do it!” Johnny replied, aghast and Tay walked away to change without answering. He swore sometimes Johnny could be the most frustrating person in the world. Tay couldn’t believe they’d been together as long as they had been without Tay strangling him.

When he emerged from the stalls Johnny stood propped against the lockers chewing on his nails. Tay sighed and walked over.

“Don’t be mad.” Johnny said through his fingers.

“I’m not, not really, it’s just. I talked to him, okay? I don’t think he’s jerking me around.”

“Why?” Johnny asked with such honest puzzlement Tay really thought about it.

“His eyes weren’t lying.”

‘His eyes are insane.”

“No they aren’t. You don’t even know him.” Okay, so they were a little insane, sometimes, Tay admitted to himself; like when he stopped that hulking boy from picking on him with one deadly, lethal look. But Johnny hadn’t met Marshall; he couldn’t say that.

“Know who?” Sasha popped over, and Tay gave Johnny a warning look. He couldn’t imagine Sasha giving a damn about his friends but he still didn’t want to discuss Marshall with anyone. Not before he held onto this morning and looked at it some more himself.

“No one,” he answered. “I’ll see you later.” He said good-bye to Sasha and moved to leave, sparing himself one more glance at the ice.

It looked like controlled chaos with half of the players skating drills, pushing the puck back and forth around a row of orange cones and the other half either trying to take slapshots past the goalie or doing defense exercises. He spied Zac’s honey blond ponytail against the red and black of his uniform, face intent and concentrated as he slid the puck over the slick surface of the ice. His eyes caught sight of Marshall as the boy practiced defense, a more severe form of the boy’s ‘intense look’ on his face. While Zac looked, even over the intensity, like he was having the time of his life, Marshall just looked dangerous.

Tay couldn’t shake that look the whole way home, or what Johnny had said.

But even so, as he lay in bed in the dark, listening to both his brother’s soft, even breathing, he realized he was looking forward to tomorrow morning anyway.

 

MARSHALL

It felt weird not to have to sneak around in the dark, not to have to crouch behind a seat to watch Tay skate. He walked in quietly, though, because the music was going and the figure on the ice had become lost in it; he could tell. Tay was gliding smoothly over the ice, eyes completely closed, a slim, graceful form in black today, gray scarf knotted around his neck. Marshall wasn’t sure he’d ever seen the boy’s neck. Settling into a seat he changed into his skates, just because. He didn’t know why, really, but he liked the idea that he could go on the ice any time he wanted. Once his skates were tied he settled back and just watched Tay.

Tay. Taylor. Marshall smiled to himself. He would so have kicked his mother’s ass if she gave him a wacked out girl’s name like that, but it fit Tay. He didn’t know how, but it did.

He couldn’t believe he was actually sitting here like this, out in the open, and it was okay. He almost hadn’t shown up the morning they'd spoken, had decided he was never showing up again, that was it, he’d had it. He’d gotten read by a fucking figure skater, and after helping him like a dumbfuck, too. Marshall could take a goddamn hint; he wasn’t a moron.

But his eyes had popped open at four on the dot, and he’d been dreaming about him, The Skater. He hadn’t called him Tay, refused to, even in his head even though he knew the name. As if that would make what Marshall was doing better, or make more sense, or some fucked up reasoning. Right.

He’d been dreaming about The Skater’s face, that beautiful, perfect doll face, how it looked when he skated, really skated, not the suicide jumps he’d been doing that morning. How his hair flowed in the air and his fingers moved and how he looked when he spun, a blur of blond hair and slim lines.

His cock had felt painfully hard already, from the dream, and Marshall had closed his eyes again, slipped his hand in his boxers under the blankets, one leg dangling off the couch that served as his bed, the other bent. He hadn’t let himself feel this, not since that scary time in the shower, but he let himself now, his body going on without him anyway, thrumming and hot despite the draftiness of the trailer. Swallowing a moan as his fingers fisted the pulsing erection he stroked three times, hard, and came, muffling his shout in the pillow. He lay there, trembling, skitters of aftershocks flashing up his spine, toes uncurling slowly from the rough scrape of the carpet, the knobby fabric of the sofa.

And, shit, he was awake then.

He’d planned to yell at the snobby little fucker, he’d been running it in his head: the hell did he think he was? Would he have dissed him if Marshall was rich? Or one of his wimpy little friends? What the hell was his beef with hockey players, anyhow? All his brothers played hockey, did he talk like that to them, too?

When the blond boy had skated right up to him and apologized, every single word pretty much evaporated. He couldn’t believe Tay had said he was sorry. If there was one thing Marshall had a hard time doing it was that.

Now here he sat, in a seat, watching him.

He was pretty glad he got up that morning, after all.

Tay finished with a spin, hands clasped behind his back, head bowed and Marshall wanted to clap but thought that might be stupid. When Tay looked up, their eyes met and a smile broke over the pink lips. He skated over to where Marshall sat, right beside the rink, and clicked off the little stereo.

“Hey,” he said, breathless, and Marshall wondered when else he sounded like that.

“'Sup,” Marshall answered, watching him prop against the rail and start untying his skates. “You don’t gotta stop if you ain’t through. I know you usually skate for longer.”

“I’m through,” Tay said, giving him a little glance. “How long I skate varies.” Which Marshall didn’t think was true, but he wasn’t about to argue with Tay if he wanted to talk instead. It gave him a pleased feeling, actually.

“So what was your friend sayin’ about me?” He asked, taking advantage of Tay’s attention to his skates to look at him. He wore plain white socks and his feet looked kind of defenseless without the skate’s blades and black leather. His blond hair fell forward as he bent and Marshall kept wondering what if would feel like in his hands.

“Who? Johnny?”

“Yeah. The skinny one.”

“Johnny.” Tay said definitively. “He thinks you’re plotting an evil scheme to do me harm.”

“I ain’t doing that!” Marshall exclaimed, offended, and Tay straightened, holding his skates by their laces, a thoughtful look on his face before he smiled. Marshall didn’t know when he’d get used to Tay looking right at him up close.

“I know. Johnny’s kind of paranoid ever since he got harassed last year- ,” Tay caught himself but didn’t take it back. “He’s just kind of suspicious now.”

“I ain’t like that.” Marshall leaned forward, elbows on his knees, unconsciously trying to catch Tay’s eyes from where they had glanced away. The amazing sky blue eyes met his and he got the strangest feeling, like he might fall in them and drown.

Tay shrugged, “He doesn’t know you.” He started walking to the locker room and Marshall got to his feet to walk with him. After a little while Tay gave a small shrug, “But *I* don’t know you, either, so it was kind of hard knowing what to say to him.”

Marshall nodded, eyes on the boy next to him. Marshall still wore his skates and they made him a little taller. He kind of liked it.

“So what do you wanna know?” He asked offhandedly and Tay gave a surprised laugh.

“Like, everything! How did you end up playing hockey when you obviously don’t buy into the whole ‘jock’ thing the other guys do? Why aren’t you friends with the other guys on the team? How is it you manage to ignore all the girls throwing themselves at you? Where did you learn that look that makes people think you’re going to murder them?”

“Hey, back up, a’aight!” Marshall stopped Tay before he got to Marshall’s blood type and underwear style. “That’s a lot of questions. Can I ask you stuff?”

“Yeah, go ahead.” Tay answered immediately, “After you answer one of mine.”

He lifted his chin at the boy, trying to tough his way out of it but Tay just lifted his chin back, the dimple deepening as he tried not to smile and Marshall lost the pose in his amusement, thumbing his nose as he looked away.

“A’aight. A’aight. Deal, but you gotta pick one of them questions or we’ll be here all morning.”

“How did you end up playing hockey?” Tay chose without even thinking, and Marshall thought five years back, to that fateful summer day, one of the hottest summers on record, and Proof, Rufus, Von, and himself had been sweating, broke, and bored out of their minds.

They reached the locker room and Tay leaned back on the wall, waiting, those fuckin’ incredible eyes fixed on him. Marshall looked away and began to talk.

“I don’t know. One summer when I was in middle school my boys and I heard about this hockey workshop the YMCA was doing. It was hot as fuck, none of our houses had AC, and they were giving out free hot dogs and soda, you know how they get that shit donated? Anyways we showed up for the food ‘cause only Proof and I even knew how to skate, and this guy tells me to hit this little black piece of plastic on the floor and I go, “OK, whatever,” and I hit it. Thing shoots twenty feet and hits some kid on the shin.”

Tay laughed and Marshall shook his head at the memory. “Hit him hard, too, fuckin’ wuss started cryin’ and I thought the guy was gonna get pissed off, but he just gives me another puck and says, “Try it again. Aim for the goal.” And I’m thinking, ‘At least he ain’t pissed.’ So I hit it again and it goes in the net. Then he has me skate around, hold a hockey stick and sets up some cones and shit, and I didn’t even know I’d been there two hours until Proof told me they were gonna take off. Rufus had eaten, like, six hot dogs and was gonna throw up. I told him, okay, ‘cause it was kinda fly, you know? Skating and hitting the fuck out of that thing. Turned out the guy was the coach of the Pirates and wanted me to play. I told him I couldn’t afford the uniform or nothing and he said they got those from a sponsor. The equipment, too, so I thought, 'Why the fuck not?' Just kept going.” Marshall stopped, startled that he’d talked for that long. He hadn’t talked about himself for that long since his …well, for a long time.

“Wow.” Tay exclaimed. “And it was okay with your friends?”

“That’s two questions.” He pointed out and Tay crossed his arms at him but Marshall was only messing with him.

“Yeah, they were down. Took ‘em a while to get used to it.” He wanted to fidget under the thoughtful way Tay kept looking at him, like he was trying to figure him out.

“My turn.”

“Shoot.” Tay nodded.

“What happened that morning you went off on me? Why were you skating that way?”

“Two questions.” Tay said, but he kind of mumbled it, the sky blue going clouded, the smile fading.

Marshall shook his head. “Same question.” Tay ducked his chin, dark blond hair tumbling forward, and the easy way he’d been lounging had gone all awkward and stiff.

“Just some stuff at home that made me mad. I apologized for yelling at you.” Marshall waited but Tay just kept staring at the floor, face hidden by his hair and after a few minutes of strained silence Marshall realized that was it, there was no more and glared at Tay, giving a scornful snort.

“Oh, *hell* no. I didn’t just go all ‘Oprah’ on your ass for you to punk out! That ain’t fair!”

“It was my dad, alright?” Tay burst out, looking up angrily, and Marshall was struck by the hurt in his eyes, “I did something and I thought he’d react one way and he didn’t and it…it…felt like shit, okay? It sucked and when I get pissed off I skate that way, to forget it or block it out, but I thought I was alone and…I felt really stupid.”

“It wasn’t stupid.”

“And I just yelled at you again.” Tay ran a hand through his hair and Marshall watched the strands fall and feather through his fingers.

“You don’t get pissed off a lot, huh?”

“I’m pissed off all the time.” Tay said, puzzled and Marshall shook his head.

“No, I ain’t talkin’ ‘Oh, darn, I didn’t help the little old lady cross the street and I’ll lose my Boy Scout badge’ pissed; I mean pissed *off*, yo. Yelling, throwing stuff, going off and beating the crap out of shit pissed off. That kind of pissed off.”

“Fuck you. I was never a boy scout.” Tay snapped and Marshall had to fight the bigass smile that wanted to bust out all over his face when Tay said ‘Fuck.’ Made him wonder just how often Tay did say it and he liked the contrast of that word coming out of that perfect mouth.

Marshall lifted his eyebrows and spread his arms in a sign of question.

“No,” Tay said, voice grudging, “I don’t get mad like that. I channel it in more productive areas.”

“You should try it. It feels good.”

“I guess you would know.”

“Yeah. I would.” They stood looking at each other and Marshall matched the sharp stare with his, holding it. The air seemed to get heavier between them somehow, almost thick enough to see, and Tay finally broke their gaze by lowering his lashes.

“I have to change.”

Marshall didn’t know when he’d stepped so close but he had to back up for Tay to go into the locker room. Before he disappeared Marshall called out. “Hey.” Tay turned.

“We down?”

Tay looked at him for a second before smiling slowly. “Yeah. We’re down. I just don’t really talk to a lot of people about personal stuff. I’m out of practice.”

“Me, too.” Marshall said. Tay nodded and Marshall watched him walk in the locker room, skates swinging.

He leaned against the wall for a little while. It felt like-something had happened, but all they’d done was talk. Still, he felt like he had a piece of something, a piece of Tay no one else had, knowing what he knew. He liked it.

He untied his skates, put on his Jordans and waited to walk Tay out.

Chapter Text

You may be right
I may be crazy
But it just might be a lunatic you're looking for

~Billy Joel

MARSHALL

The bell rang signaling the end of math class and Marshall stuffed his notes in this book and shut it, stuffing it in his backpack and getting up at the same time. If he could make it to the door without meeting Mr. Lang’s eyes he could say he hadn’t heard…

“Marshall? Can I see you for a minute?” He brought up short and turned in resignation. Mr. Lang leaned against the desk with his arms crossed, being careful not to brush his chalk-covered fingers on the gray turtleneck he wore. It was things like that which made him cool; not like old Mrs. Mintner who could erase a whole row of equations with her bosom while writing above eye level and not even notice. If Marshall looked that fly he sure as shit wouldn’t be wasting it trying to teach some mouthy kids in the ghetto Algebra.

“I have the quiz you took yesterday.” His teacher reached for a paper on the desk. Marshall could see the red ‘52’ from where he stood just fine. He was torn between wishing one of the guys would be waiting for him so he could claim that he had to go and being glad they weren’t in the class to see his grade. They all had Mrs. Mintner, who couldn’t see someone cheat if they fell on her lap while doing it, but Marshall had to have Math this period so he could have study hall at the end of the day. It made leaving early for games easier.

“Yeah.” Marshall said indifferently and Mr. Lang gave a sigh and placed the paper back on the desk.

“What am I going to do with you, Marshall? Do you want to tell me what I’m going to do with you?”

“Flunk me?” Marshall hazarded and Mr. Lang’s inky black eyes got a hard look.

“I don’t flunk you. You’re flunking yourself.”

“I don’t get it, a’aight? I tried and I don’t, so what the hell am I supposed to do?” He forgot to stop himself from cursing at a teacher but Mr. Lang didn’t even seem to notice.

“My offer of after-school tutoring still stands.”

“I got practice after school.”

“If your grades don’t get better you won’t be at practice for much longer.”

“I know.” Marshall spat, then calmed himself down, “I know.” He repeated, unable to look Mr. Lang in the eye. He knew Mr. Lang had tried to get ahold of his mom for a school conference and hadn’t been able to. Marshall’s mom had flaked both times; said she had some emergency one time and never got the message the next. Marshall hadn’t done a thing to sidetrack them, either. He didn’t know what the hell a meeting would have done, anyhow. All they did was embarrass him when his mom showed up late wearing clothes that were too tight.

“It doesn’t have to be me, Marshall. A relative? A friend?” Marshall shook his head, looking at the floor.

“It’s up to you. We aren’t at midterm yet so you still have part of the semester to bring up your average. You’re a smart kid, Marshall. You can do this if you apply yourself.”

“How the fuck would you know? I’m flunking your damn class.” Marshall didn’t care about cursing in front of Mr. Lang anymore. Mr. Lang didn’t seem to care and Marshall couldn’t remember when he'd felt more frustrated.

“Just a hunch.” Mr. Lang gave him a sympathetic smile and handed over the stupid quiz. Marshall crammed it in the pocket of his hoodie. Finally Proof showed up and stuck his head in the door, removing it just as fast when he saw Marshall talking to the teacher. Marshall began walking to the door and stopped when Mr. Lang called his name. He glanced over his shoulder.

“Think about it.” Mr. Lang said and why did grownups always say that like it was the most convincing thing in the world? Think about what? Go to him for ‘tutoring’? Fuck that. Miraculously get a brain transplant so he knew all that useless shit? Yeah, right. Marshall nodded anyway and went to find Proof.

His best friend was at their lockers waiting, and gave him questioning look. “Trouble with Lang?”

“Nah. Same shit, different day.” Marshall shoved the quiz deeper in his pockets, crinkling the paper tighter.

It wasn’t like Proof would say anything, but his friend did okay in math. Sure, they had the old lady for a teacher, and she was easier, but his friend pulled C’s with the occasional B in his work; Marshall had seen it. Von and Rufus just cheated on every single thing. Either way they were all passing and he wasn’t.

“Heads up.” Proof murmured and Marshall didn’t know what he meant until a waft of familiar perfume hit him He turned to see Jeanine leaning casually against the lockers, a posse of her friends milling in the background like there was gonna be a show.

“The fuck do you want?” He demanded and she smiled lazily at him. She wore glitter eye shadow, her eyes sparkled with it, and the cleavage she did have was puffed out of a tight blouse with a low front. Marshall forced himself to look at her face and saw her knowing grin.

“Hopie’s parents are out of town. Some people are coming over. You in?”

Marshall stared at her incredulously. Was she on crack? Sure, they used to show up at everyone’s parties when they didn’t conflict with his hockey schedule. That’s what it was, a party. A houseful of kids drinking, smoking, and fucking until the booze ran out or someone complained about the noise. They usually went to get dibs on a bedroom so they could fuck on an actual bed for once instead of his mom’s car or her mom’s apartment where her little brothers could walk in any minute.

“No, I ain’t in.”

“He laid you off, man,” Proof said, dark eyes looking her up and down with a disgusted look, “You need him to draw you a map?”

“Whatsammatter? Can’t you answer without clearing it with your boy?” Jeanine snapped, her ice colored eyes cutting to Proof angrily and Proof pushed himself off the lockers, stare murderous and looking like he really might belt her one. Marshall stood in front of him, felt the anger rise and fall off his friend’s chest at his back.

“You brain damaged or something? I told you we ain’t got nothing to say.”

“Who said we were gonna talk?” Jeanine moved in close, almost sandwiching him between Proof and her advancing body. He heard Proof mutter a curse and slip out of the way so the cold metal of the lockers hit Marshall’s back.

Jeanine’s small body pressed against his and the combination lock cut into his shoulder blade. Marshall kept his chin up in defiance but his eyes kept being drawn to the curves of her breasts. She was pressing so close the blouse had slid down in the front.

He was kind of hard.

Shit, he HAD to get laid or start jerking off more.

“Nine Friday night. If you can get rid of your babysitter, you know where I’ll be.” Her hand, hidden between the folds of her jacket and his loose jeans, suddenly gripped him tight and he jumped with surprise, banging his head on the locker.

Loud laughter sounded from the friggin’ peanut gallery she’d brought with her. Marshall shoved at her but she had already backed away laughing, a triumphant gleam in the ice gray eyes.

“Feels like you need it. See ya.” She turned away, swallowed by the crowds and the giggling girls.

Marshall hadn’t noticed he was having trouble breathing until Proof said, “Close your mouth, son, you catching flies.”

“Fuck.” He muttered, never so happy for dressing loose in his life. Turning to the lockers he tried to concentrate on his combination while calming down so he wouldn’t have to walk down the hall advertising how he felt. Finally getting the door open he leaned his head against the door and sighed.

“You going?” Proof demanded, dark eyes angry and suspicious like they always looked after a run-in with Jeanine. Marshall wondered how long he had been in denial that Proof hated his ex-girlfriend. He moved away from his locker because it smelled like old gym sneakers and needed some air freshener, and shot Proof a glare.

“No, I ain’t going.” He said with as much force as he could manage and Proof shrugged one shoulder, leaning against his locker. Marshall knew that look, that I-know-you're-full-of-shit look.

“Fuck’s a fuck.”

“I don’t eat sloppy seconds, yo.” Proof’s expression broke into a grin and he gave Marshall a push with his elbow.

“That shit be fuuuuunky.”

“And nasty, bro. That shit be nasty.” They cracked up as the last bell rang and were still ragging on Jeanine as they dodged the hall monitor on the way to the 7-11 to buy a hot dog for lunch.

Still, her tits and the way her hand felt on him kept sneaking around his thoughts all day and if it weren’t for how totally pissed Proof would be, he might have gone to the party. Might even teach the bitch a lesson, get a little revenge: fuck her and leave her. It wasn’t worth it, though, he thought. How Proof would look at him wouldn’t be worth it, and he knew the first thing Jeanine would do was run over and throw it in Proof’s face. He knew her well enough to know that. When they’d been together he’d liked that toughness, had been proud his girl wasn’t no wimpy little skank and could match anyone who tried to front on her. He just hadn’t thought of what that would be like turned around on him.

Eventually, though, the whole thing, Jeanine, the quiz, all faded to the back of his mind. It was actually easy once he figured out the trick. He just thought of Tay.

*~*~*~*~*~

“Nobody like me
Everybody hates me
Guess I’ll go out and eat worms!” Tay tapped Zoë’s feet together as she lay on the changing table, freshly powdered and smelling like toast and No More Tears shampoo. She squealed and laughed and tried to kick him in the face.

“Long fat slimy ones
Short fat juicy ones
Itsy bitsy fuzzy wuzzy worms!” He finished by wiggling her ankles so she chortled in delight and he blew air bubbles on her bare feet, tickling them. She waved her arms in delight and tried to get away. As he giggled with her, he spied his mom at the door drying her hands on her schlepping-at-home jeans, her smile tired and sweet. He was putting off starting his social studies homework and she knew it, but she also knew he’d buckle down once he sat at the computer table. This was his favorite time of the day, lunchtime just as Zoë was dozing off. Jessie, Avery, and Josh were at playgroup and the house stood peaceful with just the whir of the washing machine and his mom’s humming as she chopped stuff for dinner and murmured into the phone on one of her endless tasks.

Tay picked up Zoë, nestling her on the crook of his hip, her warm weight snuggling into him. Her small fist clutched a fistful of t-shirt and she laid her head on his chest, already fading. “It’s naptime pretty girl. Night night.” He whispered into her mussed sable brown hair. He could feel warmth on his chest as she drooled on him and he walked slowly over to the crib and lay her down. She fussed momentarily, chubby fists protesting the removal of his t-shirt, but he hummed the worm song, rubbing her round tummy in its onesie, handing her a small stuff animal to hold, and her eyes drooped. A thin line of saliva shone on her chin and Tay wiped it away with a finger.

“You’re so good with her, honey. I think she’s a Taylor’s Girl more than a Daddy’s Girl.” His mom slipped an arm around his waist and Tay propped his head on her shoulder, smiling down at the dozing baby that he’d changed and bathed himself.

“She’s my girl.” His mother agreed. Zoë was Tay's girl.

They walked quietly out of his parent’s room and headed downstairs to enjoy the brief respite from Queen Zoë and Tay slid into the swivel chair in front of the computer, clicking into his homework files. His mom’s hand on his shoulder made him turn to face her as she sat on the short ottoman that passed as a seat for anyone who wanted to share computer space. It discouraged hovering over the person on the computer and was probably one of the reasons none of them had ever gotten into computer games. Your ass would go numb and fall off after fifteen minutes on that thing.

“How’s the routine? Any headway on the quad?”

“Some.” Tay shrugged. “Priscilla says not to put too much focus on it since the only other person in the competition that can do one keeps getting low marks for artistry, but I’m trying.”

“Did you have a good day yesterday?” Her hands smoothed his hair out of his eyes and Tay looked at the screensaver of the 1985 Olympic Hockey Team at the moment when they all held up their medals. He and Zac shared screensavers since they were the only ones who had an opinion. Tay usually switched it to scenes from places he’d like to go: Machu Pichu, the Great Wall, a long white beach with a deep sea the color of Marshall’s eyes.

“Yeah. I’m okay, mom. Really.”

“Oh, sweetheart, I know. You are the most ‘okay’ child a parent could ever want to have. I just worry sometimes.” Tay met her eyes wondering if she could tell, if she had maybe always known. She seemed to know everything else with that scary mom-ESP that never quit.

“About what?” he asked lightly and she gave him another tired smile, the corner of her eyes crinkling. Her hair barely hit her shoulders; his was longer, but he remembered when hers fell down her back in a long thick dark blond braid and the honor of unraveling the soft, fragrant strands was something the three of them, as kids, vied for with passion. He missed it sometimes, her hair and the vying.

“Well, I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have made you try harder to stay in school with your brothers.”

“What? No!” Tay exclaimed, baffled and kind of indignant. “Why? I like being here, I work better here. I wouldn’t be this far ahead with skating otherwise.”

“I know all that, Taylor, and no one is prouder of you than me.” Well, *that* was certainly true, Tay thought sardonically. “You just seem so…alone sometimes. That’s all.” The hazel of her eyes surveyed him, a worry line between her brows.

“I’m not alone.” Tay said automatically, and it wasn’t a lie. He had all of them, except for Ike who only made appearances on holidays and some weekends. He had Johnny to talk to when he needed, and a few other people who related to how it was to make skating your world. He even knew a few people in town that he saw when Johnny convinced him to go to the city’s only decent all-ages gay bar, something he was so not sharing with his mom, much as he loved her. And Marshall, he thought. Do I have Marshall now? “I just don’t collect friends like Zac does. It’s not my thing, but I know people. My peer development is progressing normally.” He finished solemnly and was greeted with a wet finger in his ear by his gleefully grinning mother. He pulled away with a sound of distaste and his own laughing.

“Now *that* was just wiseassery, young man.”

“A little. I’m cool, mom.”

“Yes, honey. I know.”

“I can start dressing in black and playing depressing music if it’ll help.”

“Oh, go on with you.” His mom gave his head a playful shove and got up, the heavy conversation apparently banked.

He watched her go to the laundry room to start another load and wondered, like he always did at these times, if he'd just passed up the perfect chance. But then another one always came along, and Tay was pretty sure he had time. He knew he definitely needed it.

Leaning back in the chair, he began to read about the Ming Dynasty.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Tay performed in front of audiences all the time, so he guessed that’s why having Marshall watch him didn’t freak him out. It didn’t, however, explain the warm feeling in his stomach when he saw Marshall sit down, arms resting on the seat in front of him, chin propped on his forearms, clear navy eyes riveted.

Well, so what? So there were warm feelings. He didn’t know if he’d ever had a friend that had sought him out, him especially, to get to know, and it should feel good. If you believe that I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I wanna sell. the voice in his head that sounded so much like Johnny snarked and he ignored it. He had no illusions about how unlikely this new development was and he couldn’t help feeling protective of it, careful. He didn’t want to expose it to too much before the roots grew stronger.

Skating over after his sit spin, he hopped off the ice, smiling at Marshall, who flicked his head back in greeting.

“Hey.”

“Yo.” The electric eyes found his and Tay could only hold them for a second before bending down to untie his skates. He’d never met anyone with such an intense, unblinking stare. It still blindsided him sometimes, the strength in it.

However, when he’d untied both his skates and removed them and Marshall was still just sitting there, slumped in the chair staring at him, red worry flags went up. Was this delayed regret now that Marshall had had a chance to think about it? Was the total weirdness of showing up before dawn to watch some guy figure skater practice finally dawning on him? Tay realized Marshall may have been looking at him but he hadn’t been watching him for a while.

“Are you okay?” Tay asked and Marshall blinked as if coming back from somewhere in his mind.

“Yeah, yeah. Sorry.” Marshall shifted in the seat and ran a hand over his face like Tay’s dad did when an order of lumber was late, or when a hockey official had ruled against Zac’s team. “Stuff on my mind.”

“I’m a really good listener.” Oh, god, how After School Special of him. Tay winced inwardly, but Marshall just gave him a tired smile, a real one, not one of his sarcastic smirks. The one that transformed his whole face.

“Nah. Just the same old shit.” He leaned forward to balance his elbows on his knees and move that laser navy blue stare closer and Tay held it, ignoring the silly way his heart sped up a little.

“So, like, you drag your ass here every morning to practice for competitions, right?”

“Yeah,” Tay affirmed with an amused grin, “The same reason you practice.”

Marshall gave a small laugh. “Dog, there’s five other guys on the ice got my back.”

“I tried that.” Tay dropped his gaze to fiddle with the tassels on his scarf. “I don’t play well with others.”

“You played hockey?” Marshall sounded so surprised Tay lifted his head with a glare.

“Yeah, and?”

“Nothin’! Damn.” A silence inserted itself between them and Tay wondered why he always ended up shouting at Marshall and why Marshall never told him to go to hell about it. “You was all down on hockey players that one time is all.”

“It was a long time ago, anyway. I was really bad at it.” Tay squirmed at the memory, one he just didn’t take out all that often because those were some of the longest years of his life and he’d just been a little kid. He remembered wanting to like it, to be good at so badly so his dad would smile the same way he did at Zac and Ike. It never happened. He always hated it. Not at all like he felt when he saw the figure skaters at the rink while he waited for practice, how he knew instantly that he wanted to do exactly that.

“I can see how much you like this.” Marshall stated.

“I love this.” Tay answered and Marshall nodded, something like admiration on his face.

“No shit. You practice more than anyone I ever seen.”

“Well, I have a long way to go.”

“For what?”

“The Olympic games.” The words just came out without planning and Tay startled himself with them. He rarely talked about that ambition with anyone except Johnny, and then only once in awhile. As if to discuss it too much was a jinx, or lessened their resolve. He hadn’t really even talked about it to his mom even though she knew. One of the earliest essays he’d ever written for her was about his goal to skate in the Olympics.

“You’re going to the Olympics?” Marshall was looking at him like he’d grown another head and Tay nodded resolutely.

“Not tomorrow or anything, but yeah. Eventually. It’s what I want to do. Don’t you think about that, too? Winning the Stanley Cup or something?”

Marshall stared at him for so long Tay thought he might have, somehow, made a mistake in mentioning it, then Marshall shook his head with a grin. “Fuck, yo, I just wanna win the next game.”

Tay laughed at his astounded tone and shrugged, starting to walk to the locker room. Marshall got to his feet and fell into step next to him, hands in his pockets. “I’m just a freak.”

“That don’t make you a freak.” He said looking over at Tay with a level expression and Tay had to look away. “It makes you kinda nuts for skating that much, but it don’t make you a freak.”

“Thanks a lot.” Tay shoved at him like he did to Zac when they were sparring back and forth and Marshall held up his hands with a grin, smile mischievous as he wove out the way.

A crumpled paper fluttered to the floor out of Marshall pocket and Tay bent down to catch it before Marshall even noticed it had fallen out.

“You dropped this.” Tay started to hand it over then caught sight of red marks on the tattered page. He unraveled the wrinkles to see a math test bleeding corrections, the ‘52’ in a circle at the top with ‘See me for help’ written under it in large red letters. When he looked up at Marshall all the pleasure had gone out of his face to be replaced by a pinched, almost angry look.

“Are you flunking Math?”

“No.” A quick swipe snatched the paper out of Tay’s hands where it crumpled anew in Marshall’s slim fingers, the boy staring at Tay with a defiant set to his chin.

Tay ducked his head and continued walking to the locker room, unwilling to take on the defensiveness that radiated from Marshall’s every pore.

“Yeah.” The equally defiant word made him pause and turn. Anger fought with pained embarrassment on Marshall’s face, two spots of dusky pink high on the curves of his cheeks. He’s ashamed I saw, thought Tay as he walked slowly closer, and why Marshall would care was a question for another time.

“Stupid fuckin’ shit. I don’t need it to play hockey.” Marshall’s fist thrust the paper back in the hoodie’s pocket, out of sight.

“If you flunk you’re off the team aren’t you?” It was more statement than question and Marshall didn’t answer him.

The Navy blue eyes held his for a few seconds then looked down, fringed lashes thick against Marshall’s cheek and Tay almost reached out to him in sympathy because he looked so mortified under the thin toughness. He tightened his hold on his skates to keep from squeezing Marshall’s arm in comfort.

“Lots of people have a hard time with Math. It’s not that unusual.”

Heavy silence, thick with tension spread between them and Tay tried to catch Marshall’s eyes but they kept staring angrily at the floor.

“I’m pretty good at it. I could help you if you….”

“I ain’t stupid.” Marshall blurted, voice scornful but Tay wasn’t fooled. He stepped still closer so the lashes lifted, emotions warring for dominance in Marshall’s eyes. He could see the long lower lashes and the way Marshall’s lips were chapped.

“I know that. When Zac needs help with Algebra it doesn’t make him stupid. When I need help with science it doesn’t make me stupid. I help Zac all the time.”

“Why would you do that?” Some of the taut tension had seeped out of the air and Tay shrugged, puzzled.

“Because you need it? Because if you flunk you can’t play hockey?”

“What do you care if I play hockey?” Marshall muttered, eyes wandering downward again and Tay rolled his eyes, putting both hands on his hips and wishing he knew Marshall even a little better so he tell him to stop being such a drama diva.

“Do you want me to help you or are you just going to stand there being a pain in the ass?”

Marshall looked up at him, surprised, and Tay realized he really was standing WAY too close, so he kept talking through the butterflies in his stomach.

“I mean, I know it’s a big drag and it’s not like you haven’t got other things to do than sit somewhere with me going over equations once a week but it’s stupid not to accept someone’s help when you need it.”

“Yeah, ‘cause you’re great at that, right?” Marshall snarked with a smirk, then his expression shifted and he stared hard at Tay, making Tay want to squirm. “Once a week?”

“Well, yeah. At least, we’d have to, for it to make a difference. I don’t really know *when* but…”

“A’aight.”

“We’d have to figure out…alright?” Tay repeated and Marshall shrugged doing the little glances thing he did sometimes. Tay watched them lift and fall.

“Yeah.”

“Oh. Okay.” Tay happened to glance over at the clock and started at the time. “Oh, shit! I’m kind of late. I’ll be right out.” He ran in the locker room leaving Marshall staring after him and hoping he’d make it home before his mom tried to wake up an empty bed.

*~*~*~

When he emerged still tugging his scarf on, Marshall was pacing. They walked quickly to the emergency exit and outside where Julio, the maintenance worker had actually already pulled in the parking lot, his enormous truck blasting Garth Brooks.

As Tay dug into his backpack for a pencil and a piece of paper the large Latino man stepped out of the vehicle causing it to elevate by several inches. Tay smiled at him as his fingers finally found a stray not-too-sticky Post It Note in the front zipper of his backpack. Julio didn’t walk so much as glide, thick legs, clad in the gray maintenance uniform, moving him forward like some large, formidable ship.

“Yo, Tay.”

“Hi.” Tay greeted, scribbling his number on the paper. Julio paused, dark eyes sizing Marshall up and down.

“This is Marshall. He’s cool.”

Julio nodded once, the beads on his braids clinking softly in the stillness of the pre-dawn morning.

“Later, man.”

“Bye.” Tay said as Julio eased over to the back entrance. He noticed Marshall staring after the maintenance worker, eyes large.

“What?”

“That fucker’s so big he got his own zip code, yo.”

“I think it’s glandular.”

“What?”

“Nevermind. This is my number. Call me and we can set up a time to study. Okay?”

“A’aight.” Marshall looked down at the Post It Note and back up as Tay balanced on his bike and undid the kick stand.

“See you after practice!” He shoved off already calculating how close he’d be cutting it.

“You don’t got my number!” Marshall protested but Tay laughed as he rode away.

“I’ll get it when you call me!” He replied over his shoulder.

He made it home with barely fifteen minutes to spare.

The warm feeling in his chest stayed with him the whole way.

Chapter Text

He was no more than a baby then
Well he seemed broken hearted
Something within him
But the moment that I first laid
Eyes on him
All alone
On the edge of
Seventeen

Edge of Seventeen
~Stevie Nicks

MARSHALL

Tay’s number burned a hole in his pocket all day. Marshall kept checking to see if it was still there and finally copied it down inside his Algebra book, just as a back up. He’d be sitting in class and realize he’d been fiddling with the Post-It without even realizing.

He also kept second guessing himself about the tutoring thing all day, but he just hadn’t been able to help it. He wanted to spend more than a few minutes a day with Tay. Their fifteen minutes at the rink and a ‘Hi’ as Tay went home before Marshall’s practice were nothing. So all he’d seen when Tay offered was MORE TIME in bigass sparkly letters and he grabbed without thinking.

He was sure as shit thinking about it now, though, and thought he might have lost his damn mind. ‘Cause, yeah, he’d see Tay. He and Tay would be alone with a shitload of Algebra he didn’t understand. Tay would see all his failing grades and see how Marshall couldn’t understand none of that crap and know Marshall was stupid. He couldn’t handle that, man. He just didn’t want that.

In the middle of his thoughts that chased each around and around in his head like a goddamn hamster on a wheel he collided with Proof’s dubious stare and quickly took his hand out of his pocket. He realized since they were slouching back on the bleachers Marshall looked like he’d been playing with is goddamn self. Fan-fucking-tastic.

“You kite some a your mom’s pills again?” Proof asked.

“Word, can I have some?” Von piped up, leaning over eagerly so Marshall could smell the convenience store hot dog Von had just eaten.

“Yo, back the fuck up. Your breath stinks.” Everyone guffawed and pointed and while Von grabbed his crotch and said, “Yo, THIS, motherfuckers,” only causing more laughter. Marshall smirked until he saw Proof’s worried stare.

His best friend scooted over next to him while the others continued to talk back and forth. Sometimes the guys weren’t any better than Nathan for being distracted easily. He thought his brother might have a longer attention span.

“’Sup.” Proof butted their shoulders together and Marshall shrugged, glancing over past the dreads to his friend’s dark eyes. Proof had the blackest eyes Marshall had ever seen and spent a lot of time when they were kids trying to see the pupil in their inky depths. He never could find it.

“I’m a’aight.” He said. When his fingers closed around Tay’s number he realized his hand had found its way in his pocket again. “I’m pretty good right now.”

“Sketch,” Proof replied, but Marshall could see that he didn’t buy it. “I’m at The Shelter Friday, dawg. You there?”

Marshall nodded and they bumped knuckles in agreement.

Next to them the guys had begun to talk about foods that made your breath stink worse. Proof shook his head and Marshall laughed, even as he made his decision.

He had to talk to his Uncle Ronnie.

*~*~*~*~

The small brick house sat on an overgrown patch of weeds just past the point on Six Mile Road where the neighborhood got bad. A piece of corrugate aluminum on four sticks served as a place to park your car under and the backyard still had a bunch of crap from when Ronnie lived here: pieces of cars, a broken generator, an old electric swing his uncle was supposed to fix for Nate back in the day. It looked sad only because Marshall knew how different it felt when Ronnie was around. His Aunt Betty kept up the taxes and the water bill because Marshall knew she couldn’t bring herself to go to the office and officially cancel them. She’d gone to turn off the electric and couldn’t stop crying for three days. She never went in the house after the funeral.

She found him.

Marshall’s key still worked.

The inside of the house was even worse because Marshall had never seen a bunch of people clean out a place so fast before Ronnie was barely cold. Ronnie hadn’t had fancy shit, but the shit he had he kept up. He was only a couple years older than Marshall and they’d grown up together but his mom always called him ‘your Uncle’ even if he was a kid, so Marshall did, too. His couch had been second-hand but it had no burn holes and Aunt Betty had kept a colorful cover over it and a bunch of her crocheted pillows. Ronnie could barely make Hamburger Helper out of a box but the kitchen was always clean, the trash never overflowing like at Marshall place and, sometimes, fresh flowers would be in a coffee can on the table.

Ronnie never got his diploma but he studied for his GED and had an okay job at downtown packing company. They hired him even if he was just a kid because he got one of his GED teachers to write him a letter. Marshall had a place to run when Ronnie lived here, escaping when his mom went on a tear or one of her stupid boyfriends decided he could push Marshall around because he woke up at the trailer a few times a week. He’d show up whenever, use his key or knock in case Ronnie had company, but it didn’t matter. Ronnie always let Marshall in, asked him if he wanted a soda, and listened to what happened. Sometimes Marshall’s mom would call over all yelling and shit and her and Ronnie would get into it. He never made Marshall leave, though.

“I love my sister, dawg,” He’d say, shaking his head, a hand ruffling up his mouse brown hair, “But she got ass taste in men.”

His mom never forgave their Aunt for letting Ronnie live in the little house instead of her even though ‘I got kids, goddamnit!’ She never forgave Ronnie for not leaving it to her after he died or her sister for backing up what Ronnie wanted even if she didn’t have to. That was his mom: everybody got the blame but her. Marshall didn’t blame them; he figured they knew his mom couldn’t keep track of money for shit and the house might end up with one of her asshole fuckbuddies by accident.

Marshall only came here sometimes now, and he’d only been able to walk in the last six months or so. He hated the empty walls where the car and rap celebrity posters had been and he hated the kitchen thick with dust that would have driven Ronnie nuts. He hated the lonely mattress on the floor of Ronnie’s bedroom. It had been Marshall’s favorite place because Ronnie had a lava lamp that Marshall could watch for hours, a miniature TV he bought at Rite Aid on sale, and Ronnie’s big bed with Aunt Betty’s quilts on it.

Sighing, Marshall sank to the floor in the bedroom near the single mattress that lay in a crazy angle in the middle of the room; it used to be on Ronnie’s cot that his uncle kept in the closet. He took Tay’s number out and looked at the neatly written digits with ‘TAY’ on the top, the letters quick, hurried slashes. Squeezed the note between both his palms and thought of Tay’s smile.

“’Sup, Ronnie,” He whispered. He wasn’t like that kid on ‘The Sixth Sense’ he didn’t talk to dead people so they talked back. He wasn’t crazy. Marshall just came here when he couldn’t figure something out and pretended Ronnie was still there listening, his brown eyes kind and his body hunched closer and focused on Marshall like Marshall mattered.

“I got a situation, dawg.” That’s what Ronnie used to always say when shit got weird: “We got a situation.” And what the hell would his uncle say about this? Except Marshall knew no matter what, Ronnie always let him get out whatever was eating him before he said anything.

“I’m thinking about this person a lot, a’ight, only it aint…” Fuck, if he couldn’t even talk about it to his dead uncle he was in some shit. “He ain’t a girl. I thought he was a girl first time I saw him, but he wasn’t, and.” Marshall threaded his fingers like he was praying and brought them to his mouth, Tay’s number still nestled inside. “I don’t know. He’s not like no one I ever known. He’s smart, college smart. Says he’s going to the Olympics, and his family’s all ‘Brady Bunch’ and shit, but he’s fuckin’ beautiful…” Marshall paused, letting the words sink into the air. He’d never said that out loud before, either. Never admitted it like that, that he thought Tay was amazing looking. That he could look at Tay’s face all day long, that he could close his eyes and see the expression while Tay skated, and how it made his chest all tight but made him feel peaceful at the same time. “He’s fuckin’ beautiful.” Marshall repeated in a whisper.

“And I,” Marshall bit at his lip, his heart speeding up, because this wasn’t easy, talking about this. It was scarin’ him out of his mind, even if it was just to the ghost of his uncle. “I wanna see him all the time. I wanna be WITH him all the time. I wanna…I think about him when I jerk off.” Marshall felt his cheeks flush, could imagine his uncle laying a comforting hand on Marshall’s shoulder while Marshall turned red, like the time he asked Ronnie about going down on a girl and did he have to do it ‘cause Marshall kind of thought it was gross.

“I’m flunking Math like a retard, a’aight? Tay said he’d tutor me and I… I don’t want to look stupid. But I’m gonna be off the team if I don’t do something. Yo, I don’t wanna be another loser working at McDonald’s, living at home and blowing all my check at The Shelter every weekend. We were gonna go someplace, right?” He and Ronnie talked about it all the time, getting out of this city, getting somewhere different and exciting and fuckin’ warm. Ronnie wanted to be the first white Dr. Dre and he said Marshall could be the next Lemieux or Gretzky. “Hockey’s your ticket, bro. Don’t fuck it up for nothing.” Ronnie had been thinking Stanley cup before Marshall ever was. He said they weren’t settling for chump change or knocking up some bitch and bein’ trapped. He told Proof and the guys all the time too. Ronnie was almost fanatical about that; pressed condoms on Marshall when Marshall was twelve and told him what they were for and embarrassed the hell out of him.

“I don’t know what to do.” He finished finally. “The fuck you gotta be gone for? That ain’t helping me at all.” Still, if his uncle wasn’t gone Marshall didn’t know if he could actually say all this to him, if he could make the words come out.

Marshall closed his eyes and thought of Ronnie, how he looked when he was listening. He’d been tall and skinny, “Thin as a weed.” His Aunt Betty always called him; the trait that made his mom real slim when other mom’s got their mid-thirties spread made Ronnie kinda puny. His eyes were always laughing, a real warm brown, but they looked right at you when they listened; they really heard you. Tay’s eyes did that, too.

‘What do you wanna do?’ Ronnie would probably ask. He always cut past all the bullshit, what other people wanted, what Proof would think of him, what Ronnie himself thought. ‘Fuck all that’, Ronnie would say. ‘It’s your life, Marsh. What do you want?’

“I wanna see him.” Marshall said to the empty room.

‘So see him.’ He could almost hear Ronnie’s reasonable voice, as if that was the only answer in the world, of course. “A friend’s helping you with school. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.’

“Naw,” Marshall said to himself, even if he knew that wasn’t all there was.

‘You worried what the guys would say?’

“No!” he said forcefully then felt stupid all by himself shouting to an empty house. No, he repeated in his head. That wasn’t it. That wasn’t why he was struggling with this. But when he tried to picture Tay talking to Proof or Von the immediate discomfort said maybe he was lying to himself.

He tried to bring up all of them in his mind at one time: Tay and Proof and the boys, and the image reminded him of that song from Sesame street when they tried to get you to see which thing was different. ‘Three of these things belong together, Three of these things are kind of the same. Can you guess which one of these doesn't belong here? Now it’s time to play our game!” He used to sing along to that shit every time and think he was something because he always knew which thing didn’t belong.

Somewhere along the way Marshall either stopped being able to tell or stopped caring.

‘What do you want, Marsh?’

He knew what he wanted.

“Thanks, Ronnie. I let you know what happens.” He said to the ghost of his uncle.

He got to his feet and left the dusty, empty house, locking the door behind him.

Shit.

Now he had to call.

*~*~*~*~*~

He had to wait for his mom to quit yakking on the phone then wait for her to go to Bingo and it’s like she’d never fuckin’ leave. Finally she walked out the door in the too-high heels and the too-short skirt, makeup spackled on as if her dream husband was playing bingo down at the VFW drinking cheap beer and trying to win an n Avon gift basket. Marshall went once and almost died of boredom. Her hair was sprayed within an inch of its life and standing out a foot; his mom’s hairstyle was stuck in the eighties.

“Don’t let him eat too much candy before he goes to sleep and don’t give him soda after nine! He pisses on the bed.” Marshall just looked at her. He knew Nathan pissed the bed. It’s why Marshall slept on the sofa unless he was laying down getting Nate to fall asleep. The damn mattress smelled like ammonia.

“Bye, baby.” She bent down to kiss Nate where he sat watching Dog and Chicken in a dirty t-shirt. Marshall swore he could change him ten times a day and the kid would go roll in dirt.

“Bye momma!” Nate smiled up at her. “Bring me something!”

“Okay, honey.”

She never brought him anything.

She knew better than kiss Marshall goodbye.

As soon as the door shut Marshall dug in his pocket for Tay’s number and picked up the phone. The hard plastic slid in his hands and he realized they were sweating. The fuck! He talked to Proof all the time. And Von and Rufus.

He had to get a grip, yo.

After wiping his palms on his baggy jeans he punched in the number. Listened to it ring. Breathed.

After forever someone picked up and Marshall stood up straight as if the person on the other end could see him. “Hello. Hanson residence.” It sounded like a kid.

“Yeah, uh. Is Tay there?”

“Who’s speaking?” It was definitely a kid but it sounded like someone told her this is how you talked on the phone.

“This Marshall. I mean, Marshall.” He sounded like a punk.

“You don’t sound like Johnny.” A flash of something made his jaw clench. “Who are you?”

“Uh…” he faltered when a grownup’s voice sounded in the background.

“Avery! What did we say about answering the phone?”

“It’s for Tay.” He heard the little girl say. A woman’s frazzled voice came on the line.

“Johnny? Is that you, honey?”

“It’s Marshall.” He repeated, feeling like a broken goddamn record. How often did the Johnny kid call Tay, anyhow? “Is Tay there?”

“Oh!” her voice sounded so surprised it was funny, “I’m sorry. Yes, just a minute.”

“TAY!” he heard the piercing yell through the line and held it away from his ear.

“Avery! That is not an inside voice, young lady.”

“But you always yell.”

“That’s different. Taylor! There’s a phone call for you!”

Just when Marshall thought he was gonna grow old and die before Tay showed up a breathless voice hit his ear and Marshall pulse sped up. “Hello?”

“It’s Marshall.” The little girl’s voice said in the background and another voice said, “What?” Zac, maybe.

“’Sup.” He said trying not to laugh.

“Oh, you know, same old circus as always.” It sounded like he was moving and he sounded out of breath, little pants chuffing in Marshall’s ears every few seconds.
“You called.”

“Yeah. Said I would. You don’t trust me?”

“Yeah,” Tay’s voice didn’t sound that confident, “But you didn’t look all that sure this morning. We didn’t exactly get a chance to discuss it.”

“No shit.” Marshall muttered, peeling at the Formica counter top. “I’m sure.”

“Good. Okay.” The background noise suddenly dropped down after the sound of a door closing.

“Where you at?”

“Bathroom.”

“You takin’ a piss?” He asked, smiling and heard Tay’s smile in his voice.

“No! Wiseass. We don’t know each other that well.” For some reason Marshall’s throat got all dry. “It’s the only room in the house with a lock. I have fifteen minutes before someone needs it.” A satisfied little breath. “Okay. I had to get my planner.”

“You got a planner?”

“Are you mocking my organizational supplies?”

“Yeah.” He agreed his own smile answering the one he heard in Tay’s voice.

“Mock all you want. It works for me.”

“I got my planner in my head.”

“Isn’t it really dark in your boxers?”

It took a few seconds for Marshall to get it, silence crackling on both sides of the line, then he burst into laughter so loud Nathan looked over from his cartoons, smiling, too.

“Punk! Not that head.”

“Oh! Not that head, okay.” He could hear the relief in Tay’s voice and realized how much Tay still stepped careful around him. But it was getting better.

“You practice most evening’s right?” Tay asked.

“Not Wednesday.”

“I have stuff on some Wednesdays, at least until seven.” Tay murmured over the flicking of pages. “Monday?”

“Practice. I got regular practice and team practice on Mondays.”

It went on like that for a while. Their schedules were pretty tight but after a lot of discussion they realized the only time neither of them had to be at practice of some sort were Fridays evenings and Saturdays. Tay said Sunday was ‘Family Day’ and everyone had breakfast and dinner together unless Zac had a game. Right now the team was just practicing but when the season started Marshall would have games on Saturday nights, too.

“So it looks like Friday.” Tay said, with a sigh, “Sorry about that.”

“Why?”

“Well, I know it’s a big date night.” Tay said, then, under his breath but Marshall heard, “Or that’s what they tell me.”

“I ain’t datin’ nobody.”

“Oh?” his voice sounded interested, so Marshall went on.

“Naw. Broke up with my girlfriend about a week ago.”

“How long were you together?”

“Six months.”

“That’s a long time at our age.” Tay said as if they were ninety or something.

“She fucked around on me.” Marshall blurted for no reason, not knowing why he thought he had to show Tay he didn’t just dump Jeanine for nothing.

“Do you want me to beat her up?” his voice was so serious he surprised more laugher out of him.

“Shit, she could probably take you.”

“Hey!”

“No, dawg, she could probably take, me, a’aight?”

“She sounds lovely.”

“She ain’t. What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Aw, don’t start the….”

A knock interrupted, and he heard a wailing voice.

“Just a minute!” Tay shouted, but it sounded muffled, like he had his hand on the receiver.

“My fifteen minutes are up.” Tay sighed, as Marshall heard movement.

“You gotta go?” Marshall said, disappointed.

“No,” Tay admitted, “But I can’t stay here.”

“Got another bathroom?”

“Not really…”

“Gotta go number one, Tay-Tay!” a little boy’s high pitched whine cut through the line and Mashall snickered.

“All right! All right! God, Josh, I’m out.”

“Tay-Tay?” he teased.

“You shut up,” Tay said, with the smile in his voice again.

“Where you going?”

“Laundry room. Hopefully we’re between loads. Why is it so quiet there?”

“My bro’s watching TV and my moms is at bingo.” Nathan had lay down on his back to pretend his car was an airplane while watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Marshall didn’t like the funky ass turtles the first time around.

“Must be nice.” Tay sighed. The movement sounds had stopped and, while it wasn’t as quiet, the background noise was less.

“So, what about you?” Marshall picked up the thread from before.

“What about…” Tay sounded like he thought Marshall had forgotten.

“You datin’ somebody?”

“No.” Tay admitted. Marshall smiled to himself without even realizing it. “I was, but we broke up. They didn’t fuck around on me, though.”

“Naw? So, why’d you break up?”

“I don’t know.” He could almost see the shrug of Tay’s shoulders. “We were pretty young. Well, younger. We both realized we made better friends.”

“Whose idea?”

“Ours,” Tay said quickly, then, after a pause, “Mostly.”

“You stayed friends with your ex?”

“They’re my best friend.”

“That’s fresh.” Marshall said doubtfully, not even imagining that with Jeanine, or with any girl, really.

“Messy breakup?”

“Yeah, you could fuckin’ say that.”

“Why…” A click cut in, and then a series of beeps suddenly blasted him into next week. He held the phone away from his ear and swore.

“I’m on the phone!” Tay shouted into his ear but to someone else.

“You’ve been on forever, Tay! I’ve got to call Ashley!”

“Jessie, I’ll be off in a minute! Now put the phone down. Put it DOWN.”

“I’m checking back!” the girl voice threatened and a click sounded.

“I’m going to kill her.” Tay mumbled, then, “Sorry. Occupational hazard of big family. No one has their own phone line.”

“’S okay.” Marshall said.

“I should probably go.”

“A’aight.” He didn’t want him to, Marshall realized. He could talk to Tay all night and not even notice it.

“So, I’ll see you on Friday. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow morning, but on Friday to study.”

“Word.”

“Bring your book. And paper. And a pencil.”

“I know!” Marshall replied, trying for offended.

“Alright, just saying.” Tay was smiling again and Marshall felt himself smile back, even if it was only on the phone.

“I got it.”

“Cool. I’ll see you tomorrow!”

“Yeah, a’aight.”

“Bye!” Tay said before the dial tone hit Marshall’s ear.

“Later.” Marshall said to himself but it didn’t matter.

He clicked the cordless off and stood there a minute, replaying words and phrases. He hadn’t been nervous, not at all, and wondered why he thought he would be. He hadn’t talked to anyone on the phone that easy since Proof and Ronnie. He’d call Jeanine or she called him a bunch, but those were mostly her gabbing about parties or gossip or some damn thing while he watched TV and half listened.

“Why you smiling, Marshy?” Nathan asked, sitting up and stopping the car/plane from its air adventures.

“’Cause I’m happy, dawg.” He walked over to plop next to Nate on the floor and cuddled him to his lap. “Ain’t you happy?”

“Yeah.” Nate giggled, wiggling on him like a puppy.

“Naw, you don’t sound happy. I think you need some help.”

“No, I’m happy! I’m happy!” Nate shrieked, giggling like a loon, and then dissolved into laughter as Marshall tickled his sides and under his arms. They rolled around on the floor sounding crazy as fuck, and Marshall thought, in the middle of it all, that if someone would have told him he’d be this happy to go be fuckin’ tutored in Algebra he’d have told them they’d lost their mind.

Chapter Text

When's this fever gonna break ?
I think I've handled more than any man can take
I'm like a love-sick puppy chasing you around
And it's alright
Bouncin' round from cloud to cloud
I got the feeling like I'm never gonna come down
If I said I didn't like it then you know I'd lied

Why Don't You and I

~Santana featuring Chad Kroeger

 

TAY

“You’re going on a DATE with him???”

“It’s not a date.” Tay glanced around self consciously at Johnny’s high pitched question.

“Oh, really?” Johnny crossed his arms and lifted on eyebrow, something Tay would give anything to be able to do.

They were actually sitting in the seats waiting for Sasha to finish her session. They wanted to see about staying in the same hotel room in Ann Arbor. Tay wouldn’t have bothered if the whole family was going but with just his mom and the girls they could afford one of the higher end places. It made everything easier when they were all staying at the same place.

His stare found Marshall on the ice where the hockey team went through their drills and caught Marshall’s eyes for a second, a quick grin of recognition before the dark, shorn head bent to the ice once more. He turned back just in time to see Johnny roll his eyes.

“Just jump him and get it over with.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s not like that.” Tay bent down to poke unnecessarily in his skating bag so Johnny wouldn’t see the blush that threatened to creep on his face.

“Then how is it?”

“I’m going to tutor him.”

“Well it would be his first walk on the gay side.”

“In MATH. Are you going to give this a rest?” He turned to his friend tiredly. Johnny hadn’t let up with the bitchy snarking all day and it was driving Tay crazy. He didn’t know why he told Johnny anything sometimes. The superior knowing smirk on his pixie face made Tay want to bean him with his own damn skates.

“It’s just so obvious he has a thing for you.”

“He’s not….He’s just not, okay?” Tay’s stare wanted to turn back to where Marshall sped over the ice, intense look of concentration on his face. The thought of how it felt to have that look fixed on him made Tay’s stomach do weird things.

“How do you know?”

“He had a girlfriend.”

“So?” Johnny asked and Tay didn’t answer him even though he kind of agreed. Having a girlfriend didn’t make you straight and having sex with a guy didn’t make you gay. It was all more complex than that.

“He’s not even that cute. His ass is totally nothing to write home about.” Johnny continued, looking bored.

“You’ve looked at his ass?” Tay said, unable to keep from laughing and Johnny sniffed reflectively.

“Well, not really with all that loose stuff he wears.” Johnny stretched his arms and leaned back jiggling his leg.

“You’re insane.”

“And you are wishful crushing.”

Tay leaned forward because it was the only way he knew he wouldn’t yell in frustration. “I’m NOT crushing! He just needs help, that’s all.”

“Since when did you go all ‘Dangerous Minds’?” Johnny flicked at Tay’s lapel. “Lint.”

“Oh.” Tay brushed at his front. He hated lint but it sometimes fluffed off his woolen scarves and stuck to him, especially if he wore something dark. He replayed Johnny’s remark and turned to him in puzzlement. “What?”

“I beg you to watch a video once in a while, Tay. You’re going to lose all your gay cred.”

“I’ll live.” Tay dropped his gaze to his lap then lifted it. “He’s really quiet and funny. You’d have to get to know him.”

“I’ll bet.”

A touch on his shoulder made him glance over to see Johnny running fingers lightly over the seam Tay’s jacket. He turned toward his friend with narrowed eyes. “What are you doing?”

“Proving my point. Hi!” Johnny flashed a bright artificial smile upward and Tay turned to see Marshall almost looming over them with an unreadable look on his face. He held his hockey stick in one nimble hand and balanced on the blades of the scuffed skates.

“’Sup.”

“Hey.” Tay greeted, too thrown to even get up right away. Hadn’t Marshall just been practicing? And had he really just walked up to Tay and Johnny in front of god and the entire hockey team? Next to him Johnny made a show of unscrewing the top on his Evian. “Oh, um, this is Johnny.” Johnny didn’t smile so much as bare his small, even teeth.

“I’m Tay’s best friend,” Johnny said, still dripping saccharine which made Tay want to slug him. A second later the phrase echoed in his mind and Tay’s breath stopped altogether as Marshall glanced at him, a shifting of realization behind the navy blue eyes.

This was nice while it lasted, Tay thought numbly, all the muscles of his body tightening as if he could brace himself for the rejection. Marshall walking away, Marshall freaking out in the middle of everyone. Something.

All Marshall did was hunch down on the balls of his feet, hands dangling casually between his knees, hockey stick propped up in the crook of his elbow. “Yeah?”

“Mhm.” Johnny swung his leg and tipped his Evian water for a drink

Finally the vibrant blue eyes drifted over to where Tay still hadn’t remembered how to breathe. “We didn’t talk about where we’re gonna do it.”

Johnny snorted water through his nose and on the hair of the little girl sitting in the seat below them. She turned around with a horrified grimace and Tay felt laughter bubbling up from his diaphragm as Johnny covered his nose with both hands.

“Yo, I think you got snot on her.” Marshall deadpanned and the little girl’s face got positively grotesque.

“Mommy!” she cried as she ran.

“Eshcuse me.” Johnny muffled through his hands and jumped up, fleeing in the direction the men’s room.

Tay could feel himself grinning uncontrollably as Marshall quirked one of his lopsided smiles, navy blue eyes mischievous. “Come on.” He pulled at Marshall’s jersey unmindful of the curious stares, completely dodging Zac’s gaze, and they walked quickly outside between the building and the high fence that separated the property from the business complex next door. Marshall stopped just inside the door to put on his blade protectors then pulled Tay out and into the narrow space. They stared at each other for a second then both burst into laughter, uncontrollable, crazy laughter that felt like relief because Tay had been sure ten minutes ago Marshall would never speak to him again. He realized he’d never really heard Marshall laugh like this, free and young, the perpetual shadow in his eyes almost gone, the smile easy and playful. Just when he thought he had it under control Marshall laughed so hard he snorted and Tay lost it all over again.

“You! You…are evil…and should be destroyed!” Tay’s stomach had started to cramp and he still could barely suppress the giggles enough to speak. Marshall leaned against the wall still letting out bursts of laughter as he thumbed his nose.

“I just asked a question.”

“ ‘Where are we gonna do it?’” Tay repeated incredulously and Marshall shrugged, face an innocence he didn’t quite pull off.

“I meant studying. I forgot to ask you this morning.”

“Uh-huh.” Tay pushed back his hair and leaned against the opposite wall. “Aren’t you supposed to be practicing?”

“Yeah. Told coach you were tutoring me and I had to talk to you. He almost carried me over himself he was so damn happy. Anyways,” Marshall pushed himself off the brick wall and how narrow the space was became really apparent. “Why your boy got beef with me? I never even talked to him before.”

“He’s, um.” Tay swallowed under the weight of Marshall’s steady, electric stare and there wasn’t a foot between them in this space. The mirth dissipated and left only its echoes in the air. It was as if the energy got thick and heavy, somehow and it had to be Tay’s imagination. “Since what happened he, uh, hockey players make him bitchy.”

“No shit.” Marshall muttered, gaze looking away then back, and Tay felt the locking of their stares like puzzle pieces or a key against tumblers. A corner of the pouty pink mouth lifted and Tay watched it, how Marshall’s lips were always chapped and the dimple on his chin deepened when he really smiled.

“So where are we doing it, Tay?”

“Your house?” His voice sounded like it squeaked and the rolling energy pulled back like someone yanking on reins, the openness in his eyes shuttered.

“Naw, we can’t go there.”

“Okay.” Tay agreed amiably, trying to catch Marshall’s eyes from where they had looked at the ground. “We can’t go to my house either; you heard how loud that gets.” An awkward silence descended when just a second ago they’d been laughing and Tay thought he might get whiplash at this rate.

“That pretty much leaves the library.” Tay said finally and Marshall nodded after a second.

“A’aight.”

“The third floor is pretty deserted, especially on Fridays, so it should be a good place. Do you want to meet there?”

“I’ll pick you up. I got my mom’s car.”

“I take the bus all the time….”

“I ain’t going home on the bus after dark. I don’t got a death wish.” Tay almost said that he’d never gotten into trouble taking the bus after dark until he remembered how different Marshall’s neighborhood must be than his. Instead he nodded, eyes lowered.

“Right. Sorry.”

“You didn’t do nothing, dawg.” Marshall reached over to tug on his scarf and Tay looked up and smiled, flicking his hair out of his eyes. Their stares caught again and he felt this slipping, like sand under his feet at the beach.

Marshall was still holding one end of Tay’s scarf. His nimble fingers, which looked they should be playing guitar or drawing instead of gripping a hockey stick, fingered the wool between them and smoothed up then down, tugging again, just barely. Marshall’s eyes were on Tay’s scarf so Tay could see the fan of lashes on the pale cheeks. He took a hesitant step forward, heart thudding in his ears, willing Marshall to look up because he had to see, and then Marshall did, quick lift of his eyes and Tay forgot to breathe again at the look in them.

“Tay?” They both turned at the girl’s voice and Tay’s blue scarf with the red tassels slipped out of Marshall’s fingers.

Sasha stood there in her street clothes, skating gear over one shoulder, soda in one had, and her whole face was a question. The sharp dark eyes took them in adding up the signs to a conclusion Tay couldn’t even figure out himself.

“Do you know why Johnny won’t come out of the restroom?”

“Yeah,” Tay nodded, trying to gather his scattered senses that scattered more when Marshall ran a rough hand over Tay’s hair, ruffling it. Tay completely forgot he hated when people did that.

“I gotta go, dawg. The coach is gonna send a posse after my ass.”

“Oh. Okay.” Could he sound any more out of it? Shouldn’t he introduce Sasha? But Marshall gave his shoulder a light punch then slipped past the short girl. He had to turn sideways to do it, his gaze resting on her a second before hitting the sidewalk and heading for the doors.

Sasha’s raised her eyebrows. “I’m tutoring him.” Tay said.

“Whatever you say. Can you get Johnny out of the boy’s room?”

“Yeah,” he sighed following her back in.

*~*~*~*~*~

The boy’s room was pretty large with lots of stalls but all Tay had to do was look underneath the doors to find Johnny’s loafers. Approaching, he took a deep breath and knocked.

“Go away!”

“Johnny, come on.” Tay coaxed.

“Go laugh at me with your boyfriend!”

“He’s not my boyfriend.” Tay said, laying his head against the door. A young kid clad in hockey gear gave them a puzzled look as he washed his hands and Tay tried giving him a reassuring smile. All he needed was some mom to freak out because there were queers in the bathroom. It was a good thing most of the figure skaters had left and all the hockey players were on the ice.

“Go fraternize with the enemy!”

“He’s not the enemy, Johns.” Tay’s voice was quiet as he talked through the slit in the door. “Now open the damn door or I’m gonna have to crawl under and do you know what that’s going to look like if someone walks and sees my ass in the air?”

After a minute Johnny’s soft laugh sounded through the door and the latch finally slid open.

Blotches of red marred Johnny’s delicate features and his eyes were red-rimmed. He wouldn’t quite look at Tay and Tay felt the familiar protectiveness that still reared up around his best friend sometimes; that and a whole lot of guilt.

Johnny really didn’t have a lot of friends. If Johnny had gone to school he’d have ended up in the drama department or the art classes surrounded by other pretty, arty boys. But he was home schooled, too, though Johnny’s mom could afford private tutors instead of doing it herself. That left skating and it was a pretty cloistered group of people to try to connect with.

They walked to the sink and Tay finally caught his eyes in the wall mirror.

“My nose hurts.” Johnny touched his small, neat nose with one hand and Tay stepped closer to slip an arm around the tiny waist, chin resting on one shoulder.

“I’m sorry.”

“I look like Rudolph.”

“Only a little.”

“And don’t try the pretty eyes stunt with me Taylor Hanson. I’m pissed at you.”

“Why are you being like this?” Tay asked quietly. Johnny turned a little to look at him, flecks of gold in the hazel of his stare. For not the first time Tay wondered if Johnny could have ever been anything but a boy who liked boys. The halo of tousled dark curls, the heart shaped face with tiny nose and pink baby doll mouth wouldn’t exactly pack in the ladies at any point in his time. He couldn’t think of one girl who wanted a boyfriend prettier than her.

“I don’t see why he has to take my friends. I don’t go take his friends!”

“Just because I’m his friend doesn’t mean I can’t be yours,” Tay explained gently, “I can’t believe I have to tell you that.”

“Because it’s more than that and you’re lying if you say it isn’t.” Johnny replied in that scary way he had of stating something you weren’t even sure about like it was already fact, and then it was. “And you’re going to get hurt and don’t come bitching to me when you do because I’ll-I’ll-laugh at you! And say mean things and I won’t be supportive and…”

“But I’ll still love you,” Tay said, going for humor and Johnny snorted, crossing his arms. He wore a linen shirt under a cashmere sweater, an oversized Adirondack jacket, pressed jeans and loafers. He looked like an advertisement for the kid’s section of a Land’s End catalog.

Johnny gave him a sidelong glance.

“Promise?”

“Yes,” Tay said, “Promise.” He gathered Johnny to him, bony shoulders and vulnerable spine reminding him of before when, at fifteen, he thought he’d be protecting those shoulders forever. Johnny fit his head in the crook of Tay’s neck hands resting on Tay’s hips instead of hugging back, Johnny-speak that said he might still be mad but he was getting over it.

“Anyway, it’s not like that.” Tay insisted into Johnny’s dark curls for the hundredth time even if the words felt more and more like a lie each time he uttered them. Johnny’s silence hung in the air as an answer.

The door to the boy’s room swung open and a hockey player with long dark hair and a large nose clattered in then stopped at the sight of them.

Tay felt Johnny freeze in his arms, the breath against Tay’s neck actually stopping, as if he was a trapped animal going for camouflage: don’t move and the bad thing will go away. He tightened his hold meeting the boy’s incredulous stare with cold, steady eyes.

He braced them both for the remark, whatever it would be, splaying his hand on Johnny’s back almost defiantly, and the words were on the tip of the boy’s tongue; Tay could almost see them form in one of those cartoon bubbles like on a comic strip. Then, for no reason, the boy thought better. Averted his eyes with a smirk and walked past them to a stall.

Tay stood still for second then pulled back peering at Johnny’s red-eyed face.

“He didn’t say anything.” Johnny observed in shaky surprise.

“No.” Tay agreed.

“Maybe your boyfriend is good for something.”

It took Tay a minute to process that but he let it go. He felt all of a sudden tired and exhilarated at once.

“Sasha’s been waiting for an hour.”

“Oh, shit!” Johnny turned on the water and splashed some on his face so fast the edges f his sleeves got wet.

Sasha sat slumped on a seat watching practice, her legs jiggling to whatever blasted tinnily out of her earphones. When she saw them she warily sat up and crossed her arms.

“I’m sorry.” Johnny said, pleading, and Sasha’s annoyed glare softened. She was a tough cookie, ruthless competitor, and ice princess when up against an opponent, but Johnny cut through that without even trying. He always had with her.

“Yeah, yeah. Come on, we need to call my mom.”

Tay gave her a mute look of thanks for not bringing up Marshall. The one he got in return was unreadable and very Sasha. She would hold out her verdict until she got the full story and her look said she knew she didn’t have it now.

*~*~*~*~*~*

Tay heard a car pull up in front of the house at six-thirty sharp. He hooked his backpack over his shoulder, giving a glance to the late evening chaos.

His dad sat in the living room going over Josh’s schoolwork and watching the news at the same time, Jessica had holed up in the laundry room with the phone, her girlish giggles filtering through the television noise, Avery colored placidly on the living room coffee table and music could be heard from upstairs where Zac got ready for his own evening outing. His mom watched Zoë and cut vegetables for dinner as well for the week to come; she did preparations during the weekend for the weekday meals.

Any other night Tay would be helping her.

Still, she hadn’t batted an eyelash when he told her, just that morning, that he’d kind of promised someone to help them with their Math work.

“One of the skaters from the rink?” she’d asked eyes on Josh as his brother practiced his writing. Josh’s letter Os looked like deflated balloons.

“Yeah,” Tay had said, then, “Well, kind of. Zac knows him. Marshall.”

“The boy that called the other day?” His mom had smiled and Tay had to control the tug on the corners of his mouth at the memory. It wouldn’t do to act all goofy about a tutoring session.

“Yeah.”

“Well, honey. You have a lot on your plate right now with Ann Arbor coming up, but you’re the best judge of what you can handle. It’s your decision.” And that had been it. Tay had actually lined up convincing arguments about how he could do extra work around the house to make up for his time away, and point out how he was ahead of his curriculum on his school work, but he hadn’t needed any of it. When he, unable to just take the gift horse and run, apologized for cutting out on some of the house chores his mom had just hugged him with a funny sigh and laugh.

“Taylor, you hardly ever go out. It will be fine. It’s very nice of you to offer to help this boy.”

Tay had realized with a start his mom might be worrying about how little interaction he had outside the family, and felt kind of like he wanted to reassure her he wasn’t some weird hermit-in-training.

“Thanks, mom.” He’d hugged her back, almost skipping back to the computer, and here he stood, loaded for bear and second-guessing what he’d worn. He’d changed three times before Josh asked him why he kept putting on the same thing over and over. He almost told Josh it wasn’t like that before he could help himself.

He started to yell out that he was going when the door opened, stopping Tay in his tracks.

His older brother walked in loaded down with no less than three duffels of dirty laundry, a leather backpack, and his laptop. He’d been sporting a ‘faux hawk’ for the last couple of visits and had apparently discovered style at old U of D, clad in a leather suit jacket, faded jeans and Docs with wrinkled deep blue shirt and a loose tie of all things hanging a few inches below the soul patch on his chin. He looked even less like the boy Tay remembered laughing and playing with Before He Stepped Into the Room.

They looked at each other for few second before all hell broke loose.

“Ike’s home!!!” Avery shouted from the living room coffee table, hopping to her feet, scattering crayons everywhere and in no time the small foyer crowed with everyone exclaiming and talking. Ike smiled, gave their mother and dad a tight hug each then squeezed everyone including Zac who’d taken the steps barefoot, two at a time, honey blond hair flying.

“Hey, man!” Ike laughed.

“Dude!” Zac greeted, a smile so wide Tay thought it would split his face right in two. He watched them embrace with the usual detached feeling he always got when he saw them together; the easy cadence of their conversation and the way they existed in each other’s space, as natural as breathing. Ike lifted Zac off the ground a few inches with an exaggerated groan and everyone laughed.

“Man, are you still growing? You can stop anytime.”

“You’re just jealous ‘cause I am going to kick your butt any day now, Stringbean.”

“Bite me!” The girls laughed and Tay’s dad shook his head, smiling.

“Zac said ‘butt.” Josh giggled and their mom overrode any other discussion with.

“We all heard him, Joshua.”

Ike turned to him then, in the middle of the muddle and Tay had to snap back into the moment when he realized his older brother was talking to him.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“I said, ‘Hot date tonight?’”

Before Tay could answer Zac said, face dubious, “He’s tutoring Marshall in Math.”

“Marshall Mathers?” Ike replied like Zac said Tay was going to tutor the Dalai Lama. “He’s not in jail yet or something?”

“That’s a crappy thing to say.” Tay blurted bluntly, cutting through the level of animated conversation like a knife before everyone started talking at once and all Tay wanted to do was get out of there.

“Oh, honey, I’m sure Isaac didn’t mean…”

“Jeez, Tay! He didn’t mean…”

“Tay said ‘crappy’!’

“Joshua, hush.”

Who is this?” Tay heard his dad murmur to his mom and he looked out the window trying to quash the kernel of fear in his stomach that Marshall might blow him off. It was six forty-five. He didn’t look at Ike but could feel the dark eyes studying him with calm reserve. Ike did not, in fact, offer to clear up exactly what he had meant. Like Tay cared.

Jesus, it didn’t matter if Marshall didn’t show up. He’d go the library himself. He so had to get out of here before the Ike-worship gave him a fucking migraine.

As if on cue, like someone had heard his wish, an ancient gray Impala rumbled to a stop behind Ike’s dependable Toyota Camry and honked, a loud foghorn of a sound that once again quelled all conversation to a standstill.

“I’m going.” Tay said to no one in particular but his mom handed Zoë to Ike and walked over to give him a hug.

“Be careful.”

“I will.” He squeezed her back and gave everyone else a brief glance goodbye.

“Tay!” Zoë struggled in Ike’s grasp, reaching for him and he remembered how she hated to see him walk out the door without her and they usually took pains to move her somewhere else before he left. With the whole Ike-thing no one remembered.

“I’ll be back, baby.” He tried to soothe but Zoë was no fool and tried to grab at his hand with both fists, still fretting.

“I’ve got her.” His mom smiled and Tay finally walked out the door inhaling breaths of the crisp evening air.

If he didn’t think Marshall would take it wrong he’d kiss him with gratitude.

Tay took a deep breath.

Okay. Not the best thing to dwell on at a time like this.

Just a study session. Just a study session, he told himself like mantra, Ike’s arrival, the whole screwed up dynamics he didn’t even want to think about, all fading to gray as he approached the enormous boat of a car.

Marshall’s vibrant blue eyes looked at him from the idling cars driver’s seat and Tay’s stomach jumped. ‘

Just a study session! God. He smiled and opened the huge door slipping onto a cracked seat into air stale with old cigarette smoke.

“Hi.”

“’Sup.” Marshall’s navy blue gaze slid over Tay’s clothes and Tay thought he maybe should have stuck to his ordinary t-shirt instead of the chambray button down and the yellow cardigan. At least he’d worn his jeans and trainers.

Shifting gears Marshall eased the cumbersome tank of a car onto their tree-lined street and they took off.

Tay looked out onto the blur of passing houses and cars, all family drama gone, heart hammering, hands sweating, and fully experienced his first ride in car, alone, with a boy.

*~*~*~*~*~*

After a few blocks Tay realized something felt off.

Marshall hadn’t said one word staring unblinking at the street with a line between his eyebrows, and punching radio stations on the staticky stereo with the missing knob. He looked almost angry but he used that expression a lot as a defense mechanism, Tay had realized. However, when they almost ran over a pedestrian at a red light and Marshall swore Tay turned to him on the ridiculously roomy front bench seat.

“Look, if you really don’t want to do this…”

“Do you wanna do this?” Marshall asked, still not looking at him.

“I wouldn’t have offered if I didn’t.” Marshall seemed to press his lips together as if he was trying not to say something and Tay scooted a little closer resting his hand on Marshall’s hoodie-covered shoulder without even thinking.

“What’s wrong? I know you’re worried about catching up but it’ll be okay….”

Instead of answering Marshall interrupted with a gruff, “How’s your friend that don’t like me?”

“Johnny?” Tay remarked, puzzled.

“Why, you got other friends that don’t like me now?”

“No, just him,” Tay said studying Marshall’s profile trying to get some kind of clue while attempting, and failing, to ignore how much he liked looking at him. His nose had that funny tilt to the end and his hair was almost buzz cut but the lashes curled out for days and the lips pouted, full and chapped. They made Tay want to offer him some Blistex. “He’s okay. Why?”

“Nothin.’”

Tay looked away in frustration wondering why why something couldn’t be easy about today, just one thing. “You’re such a girl.”

Marshall turned to him incredulously. “I’m such a girl?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tay demanded hotly, the tension and general pissed-offness that always seemed to rise in him whenever Ike visited seeping out like steam from a badly covered pot.

Clenching his jaw Marshall swerved the car into a parking lot and yanked it into park so hard Tay thought he might have done some damage. Marshall sat there gripping the steering wheel in both hands, eyes on his lap until Tay risked speech.

“What’s wrong?”

“Saw you go in the restroom with your friend.”

“You saw me go….” Tay repeated slowly, feeling like a backwards fourth grader, then the phrase reached him and he sat back, momentarily numb. He didn’t even think about what he said next, it just appeared.

“You need to add more words to that sentence before I get out of the fucking car and start walking.”

Marshall’s head whipped towards him quickly and something must have been on Tay’s face because he’d never seen such a flash of panic completely overtake someone’s features. Marshall’s hand gripped the sleeve of his jacket like Tay had already started to leave but Tay wondered if Marshall had even realized he’d done it. “Fuck! No. Look, I - no, a’aight?”

Tay just stared at him the realization of what Marshall- Tay’s mind blanked - whatever the hell Marshall was implying in direct contrast to the deep, warm thrill of Marshall touching him. Not just touching him, holding on to his arm like Tay might escape.

Tay wondered idly if it was possible to overload from emotional adrenaline.

“One of the guys saw you in the restroom, a’aight?” Marshall spoke quickly, navy eyes boring into him, “He saw you and Johnny…he said…” The words faltered and the tips of Marshall’s ears turned so bright pink it would have been funny if what he’d tried to say, badly, didn’t piss Tay right off.

“What did he say? That I gave Johnny a hug? Because that’s what happened. What do you think happened?”

“I don’t think nothin’!” Marshall said quickly, the blue of his eyes so intense that it was all Tay could do not to look away. For long moments their eyes held and Tay watched regret and realization blunt the panic. “I don’t think nothin’.’” He repeated, holding Tay’s eyes a moment longer before lowering his gaze, fringe of lashes brushing pale skin.

Tay thought about getting out and walking anyway because he wanted out of this day and this planet and possibly the entire screwed up solar …..

Marshall began tracing the stitching on Tay’s jacket, nimble fingertips plucking and scraping at the thread on the puffy material where Marshall still held his arm and little shoots and tingles accompanied each touch. Trace, trace, scrape with one jagged fingernail because Marshall bit his nails and such a commonplace touch through Gortex and cotton shouldn’t affect him except- Marshall’s eyes followed his fingers as they traced the seam of Tay’s jacket all the way up to Tay’s shoulder where it ended right near Tay’s face. Then Marshall looked at him, navy blue stare very open in the apprehensive face.

Was he jealous? Tay thought, insomuch as he could think pinned with such an arresting laser stare, Marshall’s hand so close to Tay’s face he could turn and kiss it.

“Tay, yo, I shouldna…”

“Johnny thinks you’re going to really hurt me.” He interrupted quietly. Slowly, daringly, the fingers of his pinned arm began to play among the folds of Marshall’s oversized hoodie.

“What do you think?” Marshall asked, his entire hand curved around Tay’s upper arm high near his shoulder. Tay blinked at the sparkling stare then glanced away for a second.

 

“I think,” He began carefully, “Today notwithstanding, I think,” He took a breath. “I think I trust you.” He looked back to the blue almost blazing in the strange cute face. “Should I?” he hadn’t meant it to come out that way, unsure and kind of shaky. He’d been going for demanding and kind of arrogant, maybe. So much for that.

“Yeah,” Marshall nodded, voice fervent, eyes never dropping Tay’s gaze, “Yeah.” He repeated, squeezing Tay’s arm for emphasis and Tay smiled a little at the lovely, delicate bloom of hope that began in his chest.

It would take so little, so little to drop his chin, tilt his head, just a fraction, and rest his face slightly on Marshall’s hand. So little.

But the blossom in chest, it was so small, so shy yet. There was such a thing as greed and too much and right now, alone with Marshall in this ugly car watching the unreal color of his eyes and feeling the weight of his hand sure against his arm, all Tay wanted to do was keep the little bloom alive.

“Can we get to the library now?”

“Yeah,” Marshall blinked, as if coming out of a trance, then looked kind of embarrassed. Slowly they untangled their arms, but the brand of Marshall’s hand stayed there as Marshall shifted to drive, clever fingers hanging easy over the gear shift, as they found on-street parking because, duh, the library was only open two hours more on a Friday, as they walked out and ascended the steps, the look on Marshall’s face becoming more unsure with each moment.

When they walked through the turnstile and Tay nodded to the Circulation Staff Tay heard him mumble stubbornly: “I ain’t no girl.” and couldn’t help a secret grin down at his shoes.

He didn’t tell himself it wasn’t like that even once.

Chapter Text

I watched you suffer a dull aching pain
Now you decided to show me the same
No sweeping exits or off stage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind
Wild horses, couldn't drag me away
Wild, wild horses couldn't drag me away

Wild Horses
~Rolling Stones

MARSHALL

He had never seen so many books in one place in his entire damn life. He hadn’t been in the huge library downtown since he was a kid and the place felt like church; had the same quiet echoing vibe going, like secret things went on here. It even felt empty. Once in awhile he saw a person seated at a table or between some shelves looking for a book, but otherwise, it felt like only he and Tay were walking along shuffling sounds into the ticking quiet.

“It’s pretty empty on Fridays.” Tay said and Marshall wondered if he knew his voice had gone lower when he talked.

“Yeah. No shit.” They got on the elevator and at the last minute a little old lady joined them, tugging along one of those little trolleys like people use to carry their luggage. Hers was loaded with books.

They leaned against the back wall after Tay pushed the third floor button and after a few seconds he felt pressure at his shoulder. Turning his head he saw Tay had shifted closer right up next to him and they touched shoulder to elbow. The pressure felt good, like he was holding Tay up, and he stared at Tay’s profile: long lashes, the smooth line of his nose, the little snub, and pretty pink lips. Marshall let himself lean in a little, shifting his stare to the pattern of the old ladies bulky brown sweater, and when the elevator stopped the ride had been too short.

They got off at another floor empty as a ghost town except for the guy at the desk wearing a messy ponytail and glasses. He nodded to them then went back to staring at a computer screen. Marshall could have sworn he saw a video game when they walked by.

“You come here a lot?” Marshall asked looking around and pretending to chill. He was a’aight. The whole place felt like a goddamn morgue but it was a’aight.

“Sometimes,” Tay admitted, walking them to a big empty table in a corner surrounded by bookcases that looked twice their height. How the hell did people get shit from up there? “I come here to do research for homework sometimes, and we’d come here a lot when…before Ike and Zac started going to school.” The last part had what Marshall had started to call Tay’s ‘don’t-wanna-talk-about-it’ voice. The same voice Tay had used when Marshall asked whether he was seeing someone and why he’d gone off on Tay the first time they met.

Any other time he’d pursue it because every time he did he felt like he figured something out about Tay. Like just one more piece of info could tell Marshall why he had to be around this boy, why he had see him and talk to him and make him laugh. Why he agreed to be fuckin’ tutored when right now a fuckin’ beatin’ sounded easier to take.

His palms were sweating and his heart kept trying to speed up then slow down and he’d never been more nervous in his damn life. He did not want Tay to think he was stupid.

Tay had sat down after hanging his jacket neatly on the back of chair and was starting to take stuff out of his backpack, but Marshall stood there and shuffled around on his feet until Tay looked up at him. He caught himself watching the play of Tay’s throat under his scarf.

“I don’t have cooties.”

“I know.” Marshall said gruffly. “I wasn’t sure this was going down. I don’t got paper.”

Tay opened a folder, took out some loose-leaf pages, and set them down.

“I forgot my pencil.”

Tay unzipped the pocket at the front of his backpack, took out a yellow sharpened pencil that looked brand new, and set that down on top of the paper.

Tay’s stare got suspicious. “If you tell me you forgot your book I’m going to get pissed.”

“Naw, I got that.” Marshall smiled, pulling out the chair and easing down. Tay rolled his eyes and started to arrange his stuff in little piles: books, paper, pens. Marshall watched Tay’s movements and wondered if Tay knew how much he moved like he skated: graceful but with a purpose; nothing wasted at all.

“You’re on your own next time.” Tay remarked seriously, the dimple on his chin deepening and Marshall nodded, studying his face. He couldn’t believe he was this close. He could see tiny freckles near Tay’s ear and the way Tay’s dark blond hair touched his shoulders and the clean curve of his jaw.

“I know.”

“Let’s see what we’ve got okay?” Tay reached for Marshall’s algebra book and the crumpled sheet of his quiz and Marshall’s palms started sweating again.

After flipping through some chapters and frowning at the problems on the wrinkled page Tay pushed the book between them then wrote a problem on the paper.

“These are like a puzzle, okay? All you need to do to find the answer is isolate the variable by doing the opposite function.”

Marshall stared at the line of number and letters and felt his stomach drop out.

“What that means in English is that you have to find out what ‘x’ and ‘y’ are and once you have that you can plug in the answer and finish the equation. The way you do that is by doing the opposite of what they’ve done. Like, what’s the opposite of addition?”

“Take away.” Marshall answered after a second, glancing at Tay to see if that was the right answer. Tay smiled at him. Marshall glanced helplessly at the dimples on at the corners of his mouth then stared down at the problem written on the page.

Tay smelled like soap and lemony laundry detergent and something warm and kinda sweet.

“Right. What’s the opposite of multiplication?”

“Dividing- uh- division.” Marshall said, shifting up on the chair from where he’d been slouching.

“Yeah! That’s all you need.”

“That’s all I need,” Marshall repeated, voice skeptical and Tay nodded.

“Let’s try this one. I’ll help you through it.”

Marshall’s palms were so slick the wood of the pencil slid along his palm and he wiped them on his pants, hoping Tay didn’t notice. Tay was too busy shifting his chair closer so he could put an arm on the back of Marshall’s. For a second the only thing he registered was the warm press of Tay’s leg against his and he shifted, closer, too. They both looked at the paper between them.

He could feel his heart in his throat and wondered if this was what a goddamn panic attack felt like. //I’m stupid he’ll know I’m stupid now this was a fucked up idea goddamn he smells good//. Nothing in his head made any damn sense so he didn’t know how he was supposed to figure out how to isolate a fuckin’ variable.

The problem on the paper read: 3x = 2x + 1

Marshall blinked down at it for a second before saying, “I know how to do this one.” This was an easy one. He got all these right on the quiz.

“Okay. Show me.”

He did.

3x = 2x+1
-2x -2x
------------
x= 1

“Good.” Tay said and Marshall shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable under the beaming smile, like Marshall had mouthed off biochemistry or something. He knew those were nothing.

“That don’t count. Everyone can do those.”

“Okay, first of all?” Tay said, voice firm, “Everything counts. Secondly, you need to know how to do those to go any further. So they are important.” He wrote out a few more problems like the easy ones anyway and Marshall solved all of them.

After Marshall checked his work and Tay checked Marshall’s checking Tay said, “Let’s try some with two variables.”

He wrote: 3x + 2y = 3 if x = 3y – 10

Marshall bit his lip. “I can’t do those.”

“If you can do these.” Tay pointed to the simple ones, “Then you can do those.”

Marshall’s hands were sweating again. He kept his eyes on the long row of letters until he felt Tay’s hand rest lightly on his back just below his shoulder blades. Looking up he saw the encouraging sky blue eyes and for the first time since Ronnie he wanted to do something for someone, because someone believed he could. He wanted Tay to look at him like he had done something right for real, not those baby problems.

Marshall took a deep breath. “A’aight. Show me.”

Tay nodded and Marshall listened to how he had to replace the ‘x’ on the left side with the entire row of numbers on the right side, but Tay still had to explain it three times and stop doing his own work which included reading a huge book with tiny little writing. Marshall kept getting mixed up with all the different things he had to do. He also kept losing track of stuff in the brackets so a few answers were seriously jacked up. After he made a fuckin mess and had no idea how he ended up with an answer that wouldn’t check Marshall crumpled up the paper in frustration, knuckles white, feeling the redness come up on his face and not being able to do a damn thing about it.

“Hey.” The low, soothing sound of Tay’s voice made him jump and he chewed at his nails while Tay patiently opened the crumpled paper and looked at it. He pointed to a scribbled, smudged number, erased about ten times.

“Look, right here. You just…”

“This ain’t a good idea.” Marshall muttered even though it fuckin’ hurt to say that, yo, because he’d never spent this much time alone with Tay. He liked it something bad. He liked not having to rush the fuck off after a few minutes and he liked just having him close by, even if sometimes he had to remind himself he wasn’t supposed to be thinking of what it would be like to bury his face in Tay’s neck under his hair and breathe in.

“Why?” Tay asked pinning him with the sky blue of his eyes, and, fuck, that was not fair.

“Cause I feel stupid, a’aight?” He leaned back in the chair, slouching, trying to find the part of him that used to cut and run when he felt like this, “I don’t know why I thought I could do this shit…”

“Because you can.” Tay sounded so sure Marshall wanted to believe him. “Look, you don’t have to get every single thing right. All you need to do is know enough to pass the class. You can do that.”

What if I can’t? the voice in his head asked. Marshall’s knee had started to jiggle like it did when he was freaked out and he felt Tay’s leg brush his lightly, a slow, casual touch that could have just been Tay shifting his weight if he hadn’t been looking right at Tay. If he hadn’t seen the dimpled chin lower a little bit and the lashes flutter like bird’s wings.

“You can.” Tay repeated quietly, holding his eyes, leg pressing his, Marshall pressing back. Taking a breath Marshall nodded.

“Show me.”

They worked until the announcement that the library was closing came over the speakers and by that time Marshall wasn’t thinking about how Tay’s hair smelled even a little. His head felt stuffed full of lowest common denominators and opposite functions and canceling variables and all the other stuff Tay had explained and demonstrated and explained and then explained differently.

“You’re quiet.” Tay said in the car as Marshall drove him home and he threw over a half- smile.

“I got a math headache.”

“A Math headache!” Tay exclaimed laughing, “You’re such a lightweight! We still have fractions and theorems and geometry and…”

“Shit, are you trying to make me run like hell?” Marshall demanded but he smiled because Tay looked damn beautiful when he laughed.

“No,” Tay admitted, “But this is going to be work. You know that, right?”

“I know.” Marshall nodded, felt the weight of Tay’s hand on his shoulder and the warmth beneath through his hoodie and t-shirt and stared at the traffic as his heart sped up. They weren’t in the library here, where anyone could walk up, and he was aware of each line of Tay’s fingers, of the pad of his palm.
“I think you can do it.”

He glanced at Tay once, then again because he couldn’t look right at him when his heart was jittering like it was and his cock wanted to get hard and he had this driving thing he had to do, too, and not fuckin’ wreck. He nodded in agreement finally, and then they were at Tay’s house, and Tay took his hand away. Marshall hadn’t noticed until then it had been there the whole time. He could still feel it there.

“I’ll see you…?” Tay said as he made sure he had his backpack over one shoulder and suddenly Marshall wanted it to be next week at four a.m. so he wouldn’t have to wait the rest of the weekend to see Tay again.

“You wanna study again tomorrow?” He blurted and Tay paused and glanced at Marshall, hand on the door. “I mean, you said I needed work, so…” He explained, holding Tay’s eyes. They looked dark in the shadows of the car.

“I don’t know if I can,” Tay sounded like he really wanted to, “My parents…”

“’S okay, don’t worry…”

“I can ask.” Tay said hopefully. “I’ll call you tomorrow early and let you know.”

“Word.” Marshall nodded, butterflies fluttering all in his stomach.

“Yeah. Word,” Tay repeated, smiling kind of shy like he always did when he talked ghetto and it made Marshall wanna grin like even more of an idiot.

He stayed in the car and watched until Tay walked up the stairs and inside, a flood of warm light falling out when he opened the door. He sat in the car remembering how Tay’s hand felt on his shoulder, and how Tay’s leg felt pushing next to his until he realized if he didn’t book someone was gonna call the police because some punk was sitting in their Brady Bunch neighborhood in a beat-to-shit Impala probably playing with himself. Revving the engine he finally pulled away and even getting home to the drafty trailer with his mom bitching about staying out too late with the car, it wasn’t so bad. It really wasn’t that bad at all.

TAY

Tay walked in the house and up the stairs hoping the ridiculous grin on his face didn’t look as goofy as it felt.

They’d worked for two solid hours, Tay patiently explaining how to isolate variables and Marshall working slowly through the problems Tay wrote out. The ones in his book were too hard so Tay knocked them back a little and they started from the concepts on the crumpled quiz Marshall had failed. At first it was awkward; he could feel the tension in Marshall just sitting next to him, every muscle stretched taut and a grim, worried expression on the vibrant blue eyes. But Tay just kept talking calmly and clearly, placing a hand on Marshall’s shoulder when Marshall crumpled up a piece of paper in frustration, and by the end they’d gotten somewhere.

Not enough of somewhere, though. Tay honestly hadn’t known Marshall would be that far behind. Marshall was sharp, but he didn’t get concepts shoved at him too fast, and he processed by repetition. Every time Tay re-explained how to solve two-variable equations Marshall got a pained, embarrassed expression on his face until Tay finally said, “Hey,” and ducked his head to catch the storming navy blue gaze that stared at the table. Marshall looked at him miserably and Tay gripped his forearm as he spoke. “It took you three months to get to this point. It’s going to take you longer to catch up.”

“Still feel stupid.” The words were so low Tay had to bend close to hear them and got trapped in the electric vibrancy of Marshall's eyes. He rubbed Marshall’s arm a little in comfort and the pouty lips curved up the tiniest bit on one side, a faint smile.

“I know you’re not.” Tay said putting every ounce of confidence he had in the words. “Just give it some time. It’s the first time that we do this.”

“A’aight.” Marshall capitulated with a nod.

“Alright.” They played with each other’s stare for a few seconds before Tay moved his arm to the back of Marshall’s chair and leaned over to explain where Marshall had just added wrong and thrown off checking for the answer. When he looked up after explaining how tricky the changing of functions could be Marshall was staring intently at the paper, a fierce look of concentration drawing his brows together.

He’d done the next two problems correct then faltered again when division and multiplications are added to the problem.

Tay was wondering how his mom would react if he asked to study with Marshall tomorrow, too, when he paused right outside his room, hand on the knob.

Faint music could be heard from inside, The Ramone’s “Rock and Roll High School” because somewhere along the way his baby brother had developed the musical sensibilities of a nineteen seventies punk. Ike and Zac’s voices sounded low and clear beneath the pounding beat and Tay paused, listening.

“…don’t know when he became such a drama queen but it’s gotten a lot worse.”

“I know.” Zac’s voice, glum in agreement. “Mom’s always on his side, too.”

Tay felt a flush rise up on his cheeks and tightened his hold on the doorknob.

“But the thing with dad, Ike. I mean, you didn’t see….”

“I know about the thing with dad,” his older brother’s voice was flat and uncompromising, “There’s nothing we can do about that. Tay has to do it himself. Talk to dad, or something. Something besides acting like a big fucking drama queen because I’m over his.…”

Tay pushed the door open quickly and both boys jumped in surprise as he stood there, staring at them expressionless. If there’s one thing he learned from Johnny was how to make an entrance and how to use an entrance line. “The big fucking drama queen wants you to get your goddamn feet off his bed.”

Ike lowered his chin and gave him a wary look but removed the enormous Doc Marten’s from Tay’s bedspread, scooting up higher on the desk chair. Tay walked over and slipped his backpack off his shoulder, starting to remove his scarf with slow, casual movements. The silence settled around the chanting voice of Joey Ramone who wanted get some chicks and get his kicks until Zac piped into the tension, “How’d the tutoring go?”

“Good.” Tay said shortly, not looking at either of them. “We still have a long way to go if he wants to keep his eligibility.”

“Where do you know him from, anyhow?” Ike asked leaning forward in curiosity and Tay shot Zac what he hoped was a clandestine warning look.

“Around. We do practice at the same place remember?” If Zac told Ike about the whole Shane Lemonious incident Tay was going to strangle him. As if he wanted Ike to know he’d been humiliated in front of everyone but, he swore, sometimes Zac was like the mouth of the South. Even as a kid they’d called him ‘The Informer’ because he’d gone through a prolonged tattletale phase.

“Well, yeah, but don’t the hockey players basically rag on…”

“He doesn’t do that,” Tay snapped defensively, glaring at Ike’s infuriating calm dark stare. “You don’t know him. He’s not like that at all.”

“He’s not a lot of things.”

Tay narrowed his eyes at his brother, his heart trip-hammering in his chest.

“I’ll meet you downstairs.” Typically, his older brother chose that moment to leave, giving Zac’s nervous, unhappy form an eyebrow quirk and grabbing his leather coat from the back of the chair. Ike had always been a genius at throwing you a curve and exiting before you could think of how to throw it back.

“We’re going for ice cream.” Zac said for no reason Tay could figure out. He continued to change, slipping off his jeans, vest, and button down for a t-shirt and sweats and toeing off his sneakers. He replaced his vest in his bureau and threw the shirt in the dirty clothes hamper. “Want to come with?”

Tay turned to look at his younger brother like he’d lost his mind.

“Why would I want to do that?”

“Free ice cream?” Zac smiled gamely and for just a second Tay felt bad about snarking at him. When Zac flashed a full-on smile at you his eyes crinkled and the full lips stretched impossibly wide and he looked so fucking hopeful.

“I don’t eat ice cream when I’m training; you know that.” He plucked his copy of Giovanni’s Room from his bedside table and started to read.

“Come on Tay, they have yogurt…,” but he interrupted the limping optimism before it got any worse.

“Look we don’t get along. It happens. You’re the one he asked to go, anyway.”

“Why are you like this?” Zac exploded so suddenly that Tay was momentarily startled. The bookmark flipped out and he lost his place while staring at his brother’s cheerful features scrunched tight in frustration. The warm feeling he’d had from the tutoring session leeched out in the wake of the tension here, the accusing stare his brother leveled at him and the guilt that came with it.

“Like what?” he exploded back.

“The way you are!”

“Oh, eloquent, Zachary. Do you want to buy a vowel?”

“Whatever.” Zac walked in choppy, stiff steps to the closet where he yanked out a gray sweater and pulled it on, all elbows and arms, sending his ponytail into fuzzy disarray. Tay watched him and kept his agitation to the tight way he gripped the book in his hands. Before Zac left he turned hurt, golden brown eyes to Tay. “I don’t get you Tay and I’m getting really tired of trying.”

“You need to go.” Tay went back to his book, not even reading the words. He didn’t look up until the door slammed shut. Then he threw the book aside and drew his knees up to rest his head on them, arms holding them tight. The knot of regret and guilt settled in his stomach like a stone.

He shouldn’t have done that. Why did he do that? He didn’t even know sometimes except it always seemed to happen when Ike showed up and Tay had to see the close give-and-take of them and feel like an outsider.

He didn’t feel like an outsider with Marshall.

Tay curled up in bed, arms around his knees, and closed his eyes, and tried to remember the whole evening, images and thoughts. How Marshall touched him, he touched him in the car, and how he hadn’t pulled away once when Tay touched him; how he responded each time Tay did. The way he looked at Tay, the intensity in those blue, blue eyes. How he was so embarrassed at the library and looked like a little kid when they got there, eyes huge, staring around himself until Tay just wanted to hug him and tell him it was going to be okay.

I trust him, he thought, and smiled to himself as he lay there, thinking of the car, of everything. Of maybe seeing Marshall tomorrow if Tay’s mom didn’t balk at him cutting out of family bonding for two days in a row. I trust him.

He would apologize to Zac tomorrow for being so mean. Or, maybe after Ike left.

He didn’t let himself remember that he always thought that, yet he never did.

 

MARSHALL

“Where were you at Friday, dawg? We waited all night and didn’t see your ass.”

Marshall ducked his head dodging people as he and Proof made their way to the lockers. A few people called out to him as he walked by and he lifted his chin in return.

“Had to be somewhere.”

“Yeah? ‘Cause you weren’t at home neither. I checked.”

Marshall shrugged vaguely and caught the worried, puzzled look on Proof’s face before he nodded and looked away, a resigned, cool mask overtaking his features. Marshall sighed inwardly.

He couldn’t keep sidestepping this forever. He and Tay had gotten together to work some for a little while on Saturday afternoon, too, since Tay’s parents said he had to be back before six, and Marshall couldn’t keep lying if they kept studying that much. He didn’t really know why he was except some instinct told him he maybe should and he tended to trust those. Only Proof had that silent treatment going on and, fuck, Marshall didn’t really blame him. They told each other everything; always had. He’d feel like Proof was holding out on him too, in the same situation.

“I’m flunking Math, dawg.” Marshall said more to the inside of his open locker than his best friend. He didn’t want to see any sympathy if it was there, not even from Proof. For some reason he could take that look on Tays’ face but no one else’s. “I got a fuckin’ ‘F’ right now and if I don’t pass I can’t play.”

“Shit.” Proof said after a second and Marshall nodded, smirking.

“Yeah. Shit.”

“So- what? You end up going to Lang for help?”

“Naw.” Marshall finally looked in Proof’s dark eyes and saw no sympathy, thank god. Just concern and curiosity; the same old Proof, and he felt like a stupid fool for not trusting him before. “Someone else is helping me, though. See if I can bring up the grade and not get benched.”

“That’s good, right? Dawg, why you trippin?” His friend demanded an exasperated set to his features.

“I don’t know, man.” Marshall shrugged and looked away into the crowd of kids trying to get one last trip to the lockers in before the last bell. “You ain’t flunkin’. Rufus and Von ain’t flunking.”

“We ain’t got Lang, neither. That mofo don’t cut no one slack.”

Marshall scoffed. “You think?” He looked back at Proof. “I’m just gonna have to do that a lot, work on that shit. I don’t got a lot of time.”

“I gotcha, I know. Do what you gotta do.” They knocked knuckles to prove it and Proof cracked a grin at him.

“’Sides. You gotta keep on that ice or Ima lose my hootchie action. You know they go through me to get to you.”

“That ain’t fuckin’ true, dawg.” Marshall brushed him off with a smile, but he knew Proof was just messing with him. Even if sometimes that was true.

They both saw Jeanine at the same time, standing across the hall with her hands on her hips. Her thin lips were bright red and she had too much silver shadow on her eyes. For a second she reminded Marshall of a clown. A real angry-looking clown.

Tay’s eyes really were soft blue, like the sky, and even when he’d seen them angry he’d never seen them mean.

He and Proof shot a fed-up glance at each other and turned their backs on her at the same time. Marshall felt all the muscles of his neck tighten up but he played it off, switching out his books, zipping up his pack.

“Thought you’d tapped that ass when you didn’t show.” Proof said under his breath and Marshall gave him a sidelong glance.

“Told you I didn’t. She ain’t got nothing I want, yo.”

“I hear that.” Proof agreed whole-heartedly and they shut the locker doors as the bell sounded cutting through the noise in the hall. “I hear THAT, my brother.” When they turned she was gone and Marshall’s back untangled in relief.

Maybe today he’d understand what the hell Lang was talking about in class.

Chapter Text

I never would have opened up
But you seemed so real to me
After all the bullshit I've heard
It's refreshing not to see
I don't have to pretend
She doesn't expect it from me

Good Enough
~Sarah Mclachlan

MARSHALL

It shocked the hell out of him when it didn’t sound like Lang was talking a different language as he wrote shit on the board. When words like ‘denominator’ and ‘variable’ meant something instead of some confusing crap he tuned out while he drew in his notebook, like the noise Charlie Brown heard when grown-ups talked. He even wrote stuff down so maybe he could look like he understood Tay the next time they studied. For a second it all felt weird as fuck ‘cause the only classes he’d really paid attention to before were Art and Phys Ed. He guessed maybe that’s what those kids that didn’t make straight Cs felt like all the time.

The next week flew by so fast, before he knew it Friday had gotten there and he had another tutoring session with Tay. Cramming in the time to study had made his schedule even crazier but Marshall was too caught up to notice. When he wasn’t at practice he did Math shit. When he watched Nate he did Math shit. He cut his hangout time with Proof and the guys to only an hour or two every day so he could go home and do Math shit. By Friday he was so sick of numbers he wanted to go back in time and beat on the stupid motherfucker who started the whole thing.

And even with all that he knew he didn’t get some of the work. Wasn’t getting some of the work. He’d think he had it then turn the page and everything got harder and then he didn’t have it. He still wasn’t where he could go ask Lang a question, though. He saved those for when he saw Tay in the mornings, pulling out the folded pages with his homework so Tay could go over them real quick after he got off the ice.

Still, the look on Tay’s face when he got a problem right was worth everything. He thought he might give up four or five hours of hanging out and tons of trips to The Shelter if he could see that excited, happy look on Tay’s face when he said, “That’s perfect!” and squeezed Marshall’s shoulder.

They touched each other more, too, but they didn’t talk about it. Not like touching touching, like he grabbed Tay’s ass or anything, but little things. Like Tay squeezing his shoulder when he got something right, or him tousling Tay’s hair before they walked their separate ways. He didn’t think about it most of the time. Most of the time his hands just went on without him, knowing what they wanted; finding the bumps of Tay’s spine as they sat working at the table, looking for the answering push of Tay’s knee or the press of his shoulder. He couldn’t explain it even if he had thought about; just knew he’d got used to the feel of Tay close to him while he worked, like it was another part of memorizing formulas and remembering Math rules.

He’d been hitting everything so hard: practice, homework, watching Tay in the mornings and seeing Proof in the evenings, that he flat out flaked on the chapter quiz until he walked in and saw everyone passing the papers back and getting everything off their desk. For one wild minute he thought of booking far and fast, his breath coming in short pants because it was different now. He was supposed to know this shit now and what if he flunked anyway? What the fuck was he supposed to tell Tay then?

“Marshall. Good to see you.” Mr. Lang smiled at him from the desk where he was waiting for everyone to get a quiz paper. “Would you like to have a seat and join us?” On any other teacher it would have sounded sarcastic but on Mr. Lang it never did. You never got the feeling he was dissing you in front of everyone. People still turned to look at him and Marshall realized he’d frozen right in the door and anyone even later than him had to squeeze around him to rush to their seat.

Marshall forced himself to move and took his seat, this month somewhere near the front to the left.

Holding his pencil in fingers he couldn’t even feel, he closed his eyes for second trying to focus and calm down. All of a sudden it was like Tay was in his brain, talking him in the calm, soothing voice he used when Marshall took the tests in the book at the end of each chapter: “First of all, relax. Don’t force stuff or you’ll freeze up and not remember anything. Do what you know first then go to the stuff you have trouble with. Remember, you don’t have to get everything right every time. Let’s go for passing then build from there, okay?”

Only Tay could say shit like, “build from there” and not sound like a total geek. He’d gotten used to how Tay talked though, and he kind of liked it. No other kid he knew talked like a grown-up without sounding weird.

Marshall took the paper with a damp hand and cracked his neck as he started to look over the problems. He had to blink a few times before the numbers actually started to gel, to group into equations he remembered. He wrote his name at the top and got started.

When everyone started to hand theirs in he was still working and had to hurry up and finish and he knew he messed that last problem up.

All the rest of class he couldn’t concentrate, second-guessing his answers and remembering crap he did wrong. By the time the bell rang he’d decided he’d have no trouble at all waiting to know what he made. Possibly forever.

“Marshall.” Lang called out as he tried to slip out in the crowds and avoid eye contact. It didn’t work any better than the last time he tried it.

“I thought you might want to know your quiz grade.”

“Not really,” said Marshall, wanting to actually back the fuck up from the paper in Lang’s hands, already with red marks and a grade at the top. He probably graded them while they copied down their homework assignment.

“Are you sure?” Lang’s ink black eyes, so much like Proof’s, looked almost like he was playing and Marshall took a step forward.

“No?”

“Never frame an answer in the form of a question unless you mean it Marshall.” He held out the paper and Marshall looked at it, flapping in the wind before he reached out. His damp palms stuck to the paper and he used his other hand to hold it after pushing his backpack up his shoulder.

A red 72 stared at him from inside a circle. ‘Good effort!’ floated over the margin in Lang’s huge loopy writing.

“That’s a twenty point improvement from your last quiz, in case you were wondering.”

For a long minute Marshall just looked at it. There were corrections, yeah, but there were checkmarks, too. Enough checkmarks to matter.

“I fuckin’ passed.” He said more to himself than Lang but his teacher laughed and handed another stack of blank quizzes to the first person of each row. Oh, yeah, another class was in here.

“That you did. Most of the mistakes were careless ones but you’ll learn to catch them with time. Who’s helping you?”

“Uh, a friend,” Marshall mumbled, still staring at his grade, “From the rink.”

“That’s a good friend, then. Keep up the good work.” The bell for the next class surprised Marshall out from inside his head, “Of course now you’re late to your next class.”

“Yeah! Thanks, yo. I mean, you know,” he backed out of the room grinning like a fool and clutching his quiz.

“I’ll see you on Monday Marshall.” Lang smiled and Marshall turned away at the door to bump smack into Proof.

“Where you been, dawg?”

“I been passing my fucking quiz, bro.” Marshall gave him a push with his shoulder and Proof whooped when he saw the grade, pulling Marshall into a hug and then they were running to lunch, laughing and talking trash and Marshall couldn’t wait to show Tay.

*~*~*~*~

By afternoon he’d changed his mind.

‘Cause, what if this was a one time thing? The book got harder; that was the damn point. What if he bailed on the other quizzes and had to tell Tay, sorry, that first one didn’t count. He’d fuckin’ die if he had to do that.

So when he saw Tay at practice and his heart sped up at the thought of showing him the grade and seeing the unbelievable smile that turned Tay’s face into something that hurt Marshall’s chest, he pushed it back. He banked it until he had more ammunition, until he knew he had this down for real.

‘Cause any hockey player could tell you winning one game was easy. It was winning the next two or three in a row that was hard.

“’Sup?” he came up behind Tay and elbowed him as he talked to Johnny. The sky blue eyes found his, already smiling but ducking down a little so the soft wave of his hair fell in his face. Marshall knew they still didn’t talk all that much at the rink in front of people and they both seemed okay with keeping this thing between them on the down low. He just felt like talking to him at least a little right now.

By then he’d opened and folded the quiz tons of times and he rubbed the worn square of paper in his fingers inside his hoodie pocket.

“Hi.”

“I’ll see you out front.” Johnny gave Marshall a pissy up and down stare before stalking off, the pointy little chin almost in the air.

“He really don’t like me, yo.” Marshall observed, pretty damn pleased at the thought.

“No,” Tay said, voice apologetic but Marshall just crooked a smile at him and leaned against the wall they stood by, watching the highlights catch in the dark gold of Tay’s hair and noticing how he stood balanced easy on his feet, light, like he was still on the ice.

“Too bad. We on after practice, right?”

“Yeah,” Tay nodded, “Will you be able to drive us or…?”

“I got it.” His mom was getting kinda bitchy about him using the car that much but he pretty much ignored her. It’s not like she didn’t have the Dumbfuck and her dopey friends to take her places.

Zac walked by on the way to the ice and Marshall lifted his head in greeting.

“Hey, Marshall.” Zac looked at his brother but Tay just kind of nodded at him real fast and Zac took off without saying anything else. That’s when Marshall noticed the tops of Tay’s cheeks had flushed pink. That’s also when he noticed some other people looking at them crazy and he glared back until they looked away.

He turned back to see Tay giving him an amused smile.

“What?”

“You really don’t care what your team thinks do you?”

Marshall shrugged. “They ain’t who I’m down with. My crew got my back.”

“Oh, ‘your crew’ I see.” Tay asked teasing a little and Marshall nodded once.

Looking over his shoulder he saw he’d have to move if he didn’t want coach to start hollering at him. He pushed himself away from the wall, stepped close to Tay and leaning a little, whispered, “And you.” He tugged on Tay’s scarf and held the surprised look as he backed away. “Later.”

“Later.” Tay repeated so soft Marshall almost didn’t hear, but he did. Smiling he turned to run in the locker room just as coach shouted, “Where the hell is Mathers?”

 

TAY

“Oh, my god.” Johnny’s long suffering comment brought Tay out of the haze he walked in and he glanced at where his friend sat perched on the low wall dividing the lobby from the concession stand, waiting for his ride. He had almost walked right past him.

“Hi.” Tay walked over while Johnny scrutinized him from above his Ray Bans. “What?”

“What?” Johnny mimicked but not even that could stop the smile from tugging at the corner of Tay’s mouth until he just laughed and looked away while Johnny shook his head.

“You are so gone.”

“Maybe.” Tay fingered the edge of his knit striped scarf and thought of those two words, “And you,” said just for him. They warmed him like apple cider on a snowy day, starting at his chest and rolling towards his extremeties in a tingling, sweet wave.

“God, Tay, he’s….,” Johnny flapped his arms at a loss for words.

“I know.” Tay squinted at the glass doors of the entrance.

“Have you all done anything? Kissing? Hugging? Horizonting?”

“We touch, kind of.” He admitted and Johnny immediately scooted closer, expression avid.

“You do?”

“You know, not love festing or anything. I touch his shoulder and he puts his hand on my back….”

Johnny lifted a bored eyebrow at him, “You sound like lesbians.”

“Shut up! We do not. Lesbians fall into bed four hours after meeting and then bring a U-Haul to their second date.”

“The first part fits gay guys, too. Oh, I’m sorry, he’s not like that.” Johnny gave a slow roll to his eyes and pushed up his sunglasses with an index finger.

Tay studied the muliticolored tassels of his scarf. He hadn’t uttered that phrase for two weeks because not even he believed it anymore. Any of it: that Marshall wasn’t like that, that whatever had grown between them, watered by their tutoring sessions and brushing physical contact into a lush, flowering thing, wasn’t like that. He just didn’t know how much, if anything, Marshall was prepared to recognize or act on.

“Why don’t you just kiss him. Attack him, grab his ass. At least then you’d know.” Johnny encouraged, swinging his thin legs against the wall.

“Because,” Tay said, stubbornly, then looked up Johnny. “I don’t want to scare him. This is really important to me. I mean, if nothing ever happens I want to be able to still be friends.”

“Oh, Tay,” Johnny sighed, “Please. Are you really going to be satisfied with that? Because I know you and the answer is ‘NO.’”

“That’s not true.” Tay muttered even though it was true, mostly.

“Come on, Tay. You tell lies really well but you suck at living them. Just this thing with your dad is killing you.”

Tay wouldn’t look at him and it was really unfair sometimes that Johnny could still read him, could still know him this well after a year of being broken up. He felt Johnny’s soft, cold fingers on the nape of his neck, stroking his hair and he looked at his friend with a smirk.

“You coming on to me John Erick Wier the Third?”

“You wish,” Johnny replied archly, “I just came over heavy all of a sudden. Sorry.”

“It’s okay. It’s the truth,” he admitted with a sigh.

“Besides. I have been there,” Johnny snapped in a circle, “done that, and...”

“Have the t-shirt,” they both finished and laughed together just as black Lincoln Town Car pulled up in front of the rink.

“Call me!” Johnny waved as he rushed out the door, letting in a flurry of freezing air and wind in his wake. Tay waved back before zipping up his jacket and tucking his scarf in for the ride home. He was already late and he’d have to go right back out to the library with Marshall in a couple of hours.

*~*~*~*~*~*

“Mom! It’s me!” Tay called as he banged into the house, laying his backpack in the alcove near the door and hanging up is jacket and scarf. He wanted them to be ready when Marshall drove up so he could make a clean getaway. His mom had been giving gentle hints about ‘meeting’ the boy he spent so much time tutoring and Tay had no clue how to break that to Marshall.

He saw Joshua and Avery in the living room, both bent over their schoolwork but didn’t see Jessica.

“Tay!” Zoë’s baby voice called and she came around the corner hanging on to a chair then the coffee table, such grim determination on her round infant’s face as she negotiated her chubby feet in a not-quite controlled walk to get to him.

“Hey pretty girl!” He ran over and swept her unto his arms holding her high as she squealed in delight. “Did you get away? Did you escape from mommy? Huh?”

Zoë let loose a stream of Toddlerspeak that as Tay hoisted her onto his hip while heading for the kitchen. He often translated her chortles and gurgles in his head for his own amusement: “Why, yes, brother I simply could not abide any more Teletubbies and the strained peas are abysmal so I went to meet you when I heard your voice. How was your day?”

“My day was great! How about you?,” he answered looking down at her upturned face, one small fist clutched in his t-shirt, “Any interesting gossip from the Blues Clues camp? Is that guy ever coming out or what….”

His dad and the smell of cooking ground beef greeted him as he entered the kitchen and Tay paused, looking at his father with an apron around his waist poking at a smoking saucepan with a wooden spoon.

“Oh, it’s you, Tay! I wondered where she’d got to.” His father smiled, wiping his face with the back of one hand.

“Where’s mom?” Tay asked setting Zoë down despite her vocal protests. She hung onto his jeans and fussed.

“She and Jessica had to drive out to fit Jessie’s costume at the seamstress. I believe there was a sequins issue.” His father finished in mock seriousness and Tay smiled faintly before reaching down to tousle Zoë’s hair. The fussing was just optimistic. She knew he never walked around with her after she got home around dinner.

They were having Sloppy Joes for dinner because it was one of only three dishes his dad could make without disastrous results. The other two were tacos and spaghetti. Tay really didn’t like Sloppy Joes because they were fattening and had no vegetables and he couldn’t eat one without getting it all over his hands, hence the name. He used to use a knife and fork but Zac and Ike teased him so much he just went ahead and washed his hands right after dinner. The smell stayed on his fingers forever, though; Tay suspected the ingredients might be toxic. Lately, the few times his dad pulled out this particular culinary delicacy Tay had made himself a salad and a sandwich and called it a day.

It wasn’t exactly a gourmet dish but he’d always helped his dad get ready for it nonetheless because it’s what he did. Zac was at practice and Jessie, who might have helped, was with their mom. But that was before that night in the living room when Tay’s view of his dad turned inside out and backwards. Since then he’d taken pains not to be around his dad, not to talk to him if he could help it. His dad seemed to take the same pains.

But he was in the kitchen already and couldn’t figure how to not help without being obvious. Bracing himself mentally he moved to the freezer and took out the frozen fries they kept there for these occasions. Locating the old cookie sheet they used for them he sprayed it with cooking spray and emptied the contents of the bag, making sure they all lay flat. He had just taken out the hamburger buns, arranged them in a pyramid on a plate for easy access, and begun cutting up lettuce and tomatoes for his own dinner when his father spoke.

“How’s the skating?”

“Fine.” Tay said, pulling off lettuce leaves and piling them in a bowl to wash, his eyes on his hands.

“Zac says you’re tutoring one of the hockey players, is that right?”

“Yeah.” Tay ripped off a couple of paper towels to blot the moisture off the lettuce leaves.

“That’s awfully nice of you to do.”

Tay nodded, still not looking at his father. The back of his shoulders felt tight and tense and he wished he could just relax, but he couldn’t. He hadn’t been able to since that night. It was painful.

“You’re managing your time well. I see you’re ahead in the curriculum.”

“I know what I have to do.” The phrase sounded defensive even to his own ears and Tay bit his lip lowering his head to where he cut tomatoes on the chopping board.

“I know you do, son. You’ve always been good at that.”

/Well you know us faggy figure skaters, we’re ALL about the planning/ the thought popped in Tay’s mind and he smirked to himself, chopping efficiently. Oh, yeah, that would go over well.

He just wanted to get to the tutoring session and ride in the car next to Marshall watching him drive and sit next to Marshall and feel the answering warmth of his leg beneath the table. Mouthing off in that vein was not going to get him there this evening, so he said nothing like that.

“I’m leaving in an hour to go to the library with him.” He replied instead, mixing the lettuce and tomatoes together and opening the door to the fridge to take out the shredded cheese and low calorie Italian dressing.

“Spending a lot of time with him, aren’t you?” his dad’s words were noncommittal but Tay glanced at him anyhow. His dad seemed to just be standing there stirring the fragrant reddish mixture in the saucepan and not looking at him, but all Tay’s alarms went off. What did he mean by that?

“Well, he’s behind.” Again with the defensive and Tay realized he was speedmaking his ham sandwich and forced himself to slow down. “If he’s not passing by midterm he’s off the team.”

“He’s a good hockey player.”

“I guess.” Tay mumbled, cutting his sandwich into triangles.

“You two get along okay?” The doubt in his father’s voice was evident and Tay felt an irrational flare of anger. What did that mean, now? Like he couldn’t talk to real boys if they didn’t wear costumes and skated to music? Like- what? His father thought Tay would infect Marshall with Tay’s insane sports choice, like one got the measles?

“We get along great.” Tay kept his voice even and matched his dad’s casual tone. Two could play at that game. “He’s not like the other ignorant jerks on the team.” His dad stopped mid-stir and frowned at the stove. Too late, he realized what he’d said; Zac was on the team. His dad had been on a team. “I mean, most of them.” He looked away and arranged his dinner on a plate.

He wasn’t even hungry anymore.

“You know I can fix you a plate before you leave,” his father offered, doing the old don’t ask don’t tell two-step Tay had gotten familiar with, “This is done.”

“Oh, it’s okay, I’m kind of watching the calories.” Tay filled a glass with tap water and added ice; he was used to the taste and they had never been able to afford bottled.

“Son, you’re skin and bones. One Sloppy Joe won’t hurt you.”

He was too skinny? “Thanks, I’m fine. More for Zac. You know he can eat about four of those.” Not waiting for his father’s reply he walked to the dining area and sat at the table picking at his sandwich and finally taking a bite. It tasted cardboardy and dry, the wheat bread rough and the ham too cold and he only ate half, but all his salad before returning the dishes to the sink and rinsing them to put in the dishwasher. Thankfully his dad was in the middle of putting the fries in the stove and Tay left quickly to brush his teeth.

Afterwards he walked in the wonderfully quiet, empty room to change his clothes. He knew it was probably silly, that Marshall probably never noticed, but Tay did. He chose a black t-shirt and a burgundy button-down to go with his jeans. He pulled off the shirt he wore then paused in front of the mirror.

A blond boy looked back at him, hair longish and reaching his shoulders, eyes blue, jaw kind of square and a chin with a dimple. Johnny used to say Tay looked like Prince Valiant from the old comic strip, or Prince charming from the cartoon Shrek, which Tay had never seen. Considering that Johnny tended to impart these observations when they were naked in bed Tay didn’t set much by them. He thought he looked pretty okay. He rarely got zits or breakouts like Ike and Tay, probably because he wasn’t addicted to junk food. He didn’t have a unibrow; he didn’t have perpetually chapped lips like Marshall, though Tay kind of found that endearing. He’d never needed braces like Ike who only got his off last year and he only had a few freckles, light and near his hairline.

His body, which his dad found skinny, apparently, he wasn’t so sure about. His skin was winter pale and his clavicles stood out beneath his skin and, yes, maybe you could kind of count his ribs if he stretched like that. His arms looked the best, in his opinion, toned and from so much skating, and if he flexed, which felt silly doing, he kind of had muscles. Two lines flanked his flat abdomen and he could see the curve of hipbone above the waist of the jeans. Still, he needed to look this way. He’d like to see any of the big goons on the hockey teams jump in the air and rotate three times before landing.

Would Marshall like him this way?

The boy in the mirror rolled his eyes and snorted while turning away. Jumping the gun a little aren’t we, he chastised himself. A few touches and meaningful looks did not a gayboy make.

At least not yet.

He knew he liked Marshall’s body.

Well, what he could see of it. Come to think of it he’d never actually seen Marshall’s body since the boy did not own one article of clothing that wasn’t three sizes too big. He could sense it though, underneath the faded, baggy ghetto wear. You had to be in some kind of shape to play hockey after all, and Marshall moved on the ice like lethal, smooth satin.

Still, the only part of his body Tay knew well were Marshall’s hands. He could never get over how nimble and clever they looked for all the tough homeboy exterior. The nails were bitten cruelly short and the knuckles of his right hand looked almost scratched. Otherwise they could belong to a painter or a pianist.

Tay had developed a small infatuation with Marshall’s hands.

The door opened and Zac walked in smelling like soap and the rink, hair still damp from his shower after practice. Tay hurriedly pulled on his fresh clothes, still stepping careful after the exchange that day after the first tutoring session but Zac just smiled amiably at him before starting to change.

Once again Tay felt a pang of guilt for his short temper. Zac was physically incapable of holding a grudge or staying angry long. Not like Tay who hugged his rage to him like a precious alive thing and fed it and nurtured it until he was damn good and ready to set it free.

“Tutoring?”

“Yeah.” Tay tried a smile and felt good when it was returned.

“Have fun.”

Just as he walked down the stairs to the noise of the television and clatter of cutlery, the horn sounded outside and he broke into a trot.

“I’m leaving.” He called to no one in particular and received a chorus of goodbyes. Zipping up his jacket he grabbed his backpack and walked into the brisk November night.

He got the warm, excited feeling in his chest he always got when he saw Marshall and it was just the two of them. Opening the creaky door he saw Marshall’s answering smile, his wonderful hands hanging loosely on the wheel.

And I am not skinny Tay thought in irritation.

Tay’s good feeling ebbed a little with his annoyance that his father’s words still stuck with him.

As the car drove away Tay pulled his jacket tighter, just in case.

Chapter Text

Who's gonna tell you when
It's too late
Who's gonna tell you things
Aren't so great
You can't go on
Thinking nothing's wrong
Who's gonna drive you home tonight
Who's gonna pick you up
When you fall
Who's gonna hang it up
When you call
Who's gonna pay attention
To your dreams
Who's gonna plug their ears
When you scream
Who's gonna hold you down
When you shake
Who's gonna come around
When you break?

Drive
~The Cars

 

MARSHALL

As he drove Marshall glanced at Tay a few times but all he saw was blond hair as Tay looked quietly out the window. It wasn’t right since usually Tay talked to him about stuff, how Marshall understood that day’s math lesson, Tay’s practice, just talking. Not today.

“You a’aight?” he asked at a red light and Tay glanced back at him as if pulling out of thought.

“What? Yeah.” Tay fiddled with the zipper on his jacket and Marshall watched him so closely the car behind honked when he didn’t move fast enough after the light turned green. He looked in the rear view and shot them the finger and Tay smiled, shaking his head, but he looked back down. Like all the light had gone out of his eyes and, fuck, when did he start quoting Hallmark cards? Or sappy ass songs, one of the two.

Spying the same parking lot where they talked that time Tay almost walked out on him, Marshall swung in and turned off the car. Tay looked around in puzzlement then stilled when Marshall reached over and covered one shoulder with his hand. Tay’s bones felt real fragile under his palm. The sky blue eyes met his and Marshall’s heart gave a skip.

He could not believe on a daily basis how fuckin’ beautiful Tay was.

“You wanna try that again?”

“It’s nothing, it’s stupid, just…,” Tay shrugged and Marshall rubbed his shoulder, just a small opening and closing of his hand on the curve near Tay’s back. A grateful smile tugged at Tay’s lips. “Something my dad said, it’s nothing but…I just can’t talk to him at all! He doesn’t get anything about me. It’s like he doesn’t want to.” He sighed and leaned into Marshall’s touch more, eyes lowered. “I just wish he wanted to sometimes.”

“Yo, at least you got a dad.” Marshall pointed out. Tay glanced up at him and Marshall held the stare even though it was hard. He never talked about his old man splitting when Marshall was one and a half. He’d tried to find him a few times but that was something he couldn’t share with anyone yet, not even Tay.

“I know. I should probably stop bitching right?”

“This ain’t bitching, dog. I heard bitching and this ain’t it.” Marshall assured him and Tay smiled again, a wonderful, wide grin that showed all his dimples and Marshall felt a sliding, kind of a falling in his chest.

“But I get it. I mean, I don’t know what’s worse. Not having an old man or having an old man that makes you feel like shit.”

“He doesn’t mean to.” Tay mumbled, but Marshall knew all about that. It was the same voice he used to use when he told himself his mom didn’t mean to yell at them and didn’t mean to date all those assholes and didn’t mean to let the electric run out. He’d decided not too long ago he didn’t give a shit about what she didn’t ‘mean’ to do; he and Nate were still just as hurt and just as cold.

“No offense on your old man, but either way it still hurts your feelings, right?”

“Yeah.” Tay sighed, resigned, a sad smile on his face and Marshall tightened the hold on his shoulder.

“That ain’t okay.”

Marshall realized when the phrase hung in the air between them that he’d somehow said more than he should. They stared at each other the space between them getting slow and heavy and Tay’s eyes flickered down, a lowering of the long lashes so much darker than his hair. /He’s looking at my lips/ the thought appeared in Marshall’s conscience and brought with it something deep and lazy that rolled over in his chest waking up from sleep.

Slowly, Marshall ran his tongue over the soft-rough terrain of his bottom lip then caught the flesh in his teeth. Tay blinked still staring, pink sprouting on the apples of his cheeks, then Marshall saw him pull his gaze away, lower it, and duck down. A wave of gold hair spilled forward and hid his face.

“We need….”

“To get to the library. I know,” but Marshall’s voice teased so Tay ran a hand through his hair and gave him a smile. “I’m goin’. Just gotta stop for gas.”

“Sure.” Tay nodded but most of the sadness seemed gone from the sky blue eyes and Marshall felt good for that.

*~*~*~*~*

Marshall pulled into the first gas station he saw because the fuel light had gone bright red and he did not want to stall on empty.

“Fill it up about halfway, a’aight?” Marshall called over his shoulder, reaching into the pocket of his loose jeans for his wallet. He didn’t notice until he got outside that Tay had gotten out of the car and was just standing there with a weird look on his face.

“What?”

“I’ll pay.”

“I got it,” Marshall shook his head, “It ain’t that much.”

“I don’t mind.” Tay had already started walking up to the cashier sitting behind the thick plexiglass in her bullet proof cubicle when Marshall hooked his elbow with his hand and stood next to him trying to understand the tense look on Tay’s face.

“I fuckin’ mind. I said I got this.” Tay tried to pull away without meeting his eyes but Marshall slipped his hand around Tay’s arm, keeping him there. “What’s up with you?”

“What difference does it make if I pay this time?” Tay asked sounding frustrated and something else, the sky blue eyes dark and overcast.

And really, Marshall didn’t have an answer for that that made sense except he knew something else had gone down and he didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t about copping half a tank which he and Proof did all the time. It was about Tay not looking at him and still trying to pull out of his grasp.

“Pump the fuckin’ gas Taylor.” Marshall stared hard in his eyes before Tay twisted out of his grasp with a quick move that got past him.

“I can’t, okay? I don’t know how.”

The words didn’t register at first because- what the fuck? “The hell do you mean ‘You don’t know how?’”

“Which word didn’t you understand?” Tay’s arms had folded across his chest, head bowed and face hidden beneath the dark blond hair with its golden highlights.

“You can’t pump gas?” Marshall asked in disbelief.

“Lots of people can’t pump gas.” Tay said defensively, flicking hair out of his eyes with a quick angry toss of his head that, for some reason, Marshall wanted to see again.

“Yeah, my little brother can’t pump gas but he’s five. Can you drive?” The answer was Tay looking sullenly across the street at the boarded up buildings and a bum pushing a shopping cart down the sidewalk.

“Damn.” Marshall said more to himself than Tay but Tay pushed away from where he’d been leaning on the door and started walking to the pay window again.

“I’m so glad to be entertaining. Paying now.”

“Fuck you are. Hey,” Marshall blocked his way and watched Tay dig his fists in his pockets hair flying in his eyes from the breeze. “It ain’t a thing. So you can’t drive. I’ll teach you.”

Tay let out an incredulous laugh while shaking his head, “Oh, right. I don’t think so.”

“Why not?” Marshall stepped back glaring hard at him, “So it’s a’aight for you to teach me something I don’t know but I can’t teach you nothing? That’s fucked up. You just like being the one that knows everything all the time?”

“I don’t know anything,” Tay said, his eyes desperate, “It’s not that.”

“Then what is it, Tay? Pretend I’m stupid and tell me how it’s different.”

“Stop, no.” Tay stepped closer, holding onto Marshall’s sleeve down near his hand. Marshall thought for a second that it probably looked from far away like they were holding hands and he did not care because he liked Tay this close. “You don’t understand how embarrassing it is to not know something everyone else learned a long time ago.”

Marshall lifted both eyebrows and looked away. “Right, I don’t know that. I don’t know what it’s like to not know something when everyone around you can do it like nothing.”
He looked back at Tay and Tay bowed his head letting the hair fall forward again. He hid behind it a lot, Marshall noticed.

“Look at me,” he said softly and when Tay lifted his face Marshall checked right out for a little bit, just a few seconds, because he could never ever look in those eyes and not feel like he was gonna fall into them.

He spoke. “You trust me? You said you did.” Tay’s gaze didn’t just stay on his eyes. It traveled all over his face like he was looking for something.

“I do, but…”

“Prove it. Let me do this.”

“I’m not on your insurance,” Tay protested weakly but he was gonna give; Marshall could see it. “What if I did something to the car…?”

“Dog, look at this car.” They both turned to survey the big boat of an Impala waiting beside the gas pump.

It still had the dull gray primer Ronnie sprayed on over a year ago when he was gonna repaint and never got around to it. A row of little plastic squares lined the sides where some detailing had come off and there were no hubcaps. One of the small back windows was starred into pieces held in place by tape and the tint was peeling off the rear windshield. And that was just the outside. It wasn’t the most pathetic ride he’d ever seen; Von’s aunt had a beat to shit rust colored Chevy Nova that stalled at red lights and at least this one ran pretty stable. It still wasn’t what you’d call a great ride.

“True.” Tay said, put out, and Marshall grinned.

“’Sides, this is a 1978 Impala. Back in the day they used real metal not that fiberglass shit. Someone runs into you they’ll bounce right off like rubber,” Marshall gave the side of the car a good punch making Tay flinch, but there wasn’t even a tiny dent.

“I’m just afraid I can’t.” Tay said quietly and Marshall laughed, crossed his arms and leaned on the car looking at him.

“Lemme get this, a’aight? You’re going to make it to the fucking Olympics but you don’t think you can drive a car?”

“Yeah,” his expression said he knew how that sounded.

“That is jacked up, yo.”

“Okay. Okay, fine.” Tay hunched his shoulders and frowned at him from under his hair but it just showed off his dimples more and made Marshall smile wider.

“Dope. Ima pay and then you pumping some gas.”

“We’re never getting to the library.”

“Yeah, we are. We got tomorrow, too. But you got a driving lesson.” He left Tay glaring at him blue eyes like a rough sea but he kept grinning.

He grinned as he showed Tay how to choose the type of gas at the pump, unscrew the gas cap and press the lever down to trigger the flow once the nozzle went in. Two bright spots of pink never really left Tay’s cheeks high up near his ears, but he concentrated like Marshall was gonna quiz him later. When the nozzle was safely back on the pump Marshall said, “See? That ain’t hard.”

“I didn’t say it was hard. I said I didn’t know how.”

“Now you do.”

“Bitch, bitch, bitch.”

“Who you calling a bitch?” Marshall demanded and Tay rolled his eyes as he got back in the car.

*~*~*~*~*~

Their session was shorter by the time they got set up at what Marshall now called ‘their table’ but they’d fallen into a rhythm by now: Tay would explain how to do the problems and talk Marshall through a few, correcting as they went along. Then Marshall would do some until he got stuck and ask Tay a question, and they riffed off each other like that. The second Friday they tutored, Tay had shown up with different colored highlighters and a stack of index cards which filled Marshall with dread. Tay explained that if they color coded some stuff it might make it easier for Marshall to remember. The different colors really helped Marshall with the positive and negative integers once he got his head around the fact that you could subtract a bigger number from a smaller number.

It got to where he kind of enjoyed the first time they went over something new because Tay would start explaining looking right at Marshall, sky blue eyes intent and serious, and Marshall felt warm and good under that gaze; like he was a plant that finally got some sun. He liked the way Tay explained stuff, too. Lang was good, no doubt about it, but the class was only fifty minutes long and less than that after they did roll call and turned in homework. Lang explained the new stuff while they took notes did some problems and then took questions. Marshall listened to what the other kids asked but he never participated. Sometimes someone asked a question he had and he still didn’t get it, so he wrote it down for Tay, later.

He could finally totally listen without zoning out on Tay’s face, too.

“Positive integers are all the whole numbers greater than zero: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ...” Tay pointed to all the number to the right of zero on the number line written on the paper between them. “Negative integers are all the opposites of these numbers: -1, -2, -3, -4, -5…” His finger pointed to all the numbers on the left of zero which all had a little minus sign in front of them. “Zero isn’t positive or negative. Every positive number has a negative number called it’s ‘opposite.’ See? 1, -1.” He pointed to both digits on the line. “3, -3, 5, -5. The exception is when a number is in the middle of two vertical lines like this |-20|. Then it’s called the ‘absolute value’ and that number will always be positive no matter what it looks like. Okay?’”

“Yeah, okay.” Marshall nodded, thinking he had enough trouble with normal numbers and now they were throwing a whole other set of numbers at him.

“When a number is more than zero it’s called a positive number. When it’s less than zero it’s a negative number”

“’Cause it’s got the minus sign,” Marshall pointed out, “So negative’s like take away.” He wasn’t afraid to ask questions while Tay explained any more. Tay said he just ‘processed’ information out loud and a lot of people were like that.

“That’s good.” Tay nodded in encouragement, “Because that’s how these work. It’s like taking the difference of a number. For example, what’s the answer here,” Tay wrote

8+5=

“Thirteen.” Marshall answered. Even if that was the simplest problem in the world, Tay always worked up to the hard stuff with the easiest stuff first.

“Right because these numbers are both positive,” Tay’s finger pointed to the numbers to the right of the number line, “Not negative.”

“With the minus sign.” Marshall supplied and Tay nodded.

“But if the 8 was negative like this:

-8+5=

“Then the answer would the difference of the two and you take the sign of the largest one.”

Marshall looked at him.

“You go backwards, take five away from eight, and then use the sign of the biggest number.”

“Oh.” Marshall said. He wrote -3 next to the equal sign.

“Yes!” Tay raised both arms and Marshall slouched down in the seat, chin in his hand to hide the smile as he watched Tay beam at him.

“Freak.”

“Yes.” Tay agreed after pretending to think about it.

“That’s easy.” Marshall nodded to the problem on the paper.

“Subtracting gets trickier.” Tay said, and he wasn’t kidding. It got easier when they used the different colors of marker but Marshall could tell he needed to have this cold because he could see screwing up bigtime on a test because he forgot to cross out the goddamned negative sign.

They were bent over the fourth problem they’d done together and Marshall wasn’t wasn’t thinking of how good Tay smelled when he bent over to see Marshall’s work, when the fifteen minute announcement came over the loudspeaker.

He waited until they rode down on the elevator standing close to each other before saying, “Got a test next week over the whole unit.”

“We’ll need to review everything, but you know it already.”

“I think so.” Marshall said watching Tay’s earnest face, the way the dimple on his chin got stronger when he was serious. “And tomorrow, we drive.”

“Marshall….”

“Uh-uh, dog. Don’t even start. We doing this tomorrow.”

“Okay.” Tay breathed, the pretty face so worried Marshall wished he could just get him in a headlock and ruffle his hair to joke the worry away, like he did with Proof. He didn’t, though. He got hard just touching Tay’s arm sometimes; forget what might happen if he had Tay that close for longer than a second.

“I know you can do it,” he said instead, repeating what Tay always said every time Marshall got frustrated.

“How do you know?” Tay shot back, using one of Marshall’s own phrases and Marshall smiled.

“’Cause I do.” And he did.

 

TAY

The parking lot of the abandoned Kmart still had a rusting corral for collecting shopping carts, the dingy walls of the empty building decorated with graffiti of all styles and colors.

Tay sat on the cracked upholstery of the Impala on the driver’s side unable to make himself calm down. It did not help that Marshall had to lean over him to adjust the seat and Tay thought he might explode from embarrassment. After an eternity of poking around under Tay’s seat with his arm, Marshall’s face somewhere around Tay’s crotch, the seat jerked backwards throwing Marshall face first onto his lap.

Tay thought his ears were going to burn right off they felt so red. It was not fair that Marshall just gave him that infuriating half-smile of his and slouched back in the seat in insolent hood form, one arm propped on the car door like he was cruising with his homeboys, or whatever they called each other.

Once they got situated so Tay’s feet reached the pedals in the ridiculously ample front seat Marshall said, “That’s the wheel.”

“I know that, wiseass.” Tay snapped and mentally kicked himself. Marshall was helping him. It was ridiculous that Tay didn’t know, at seventeen, how to drive. He didn’t even know how he got to be in this position. Probably the same way he got to be sitting in a parking lot in one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Detroit being given a driving lesson while hookers watched them from down the street.

Marshall didn’t even snark back. “A’aight. What else do you know?”

“That’s the gas and that’s the break. This is the steering column. That’s the rear view mirror and somewhere around here are the lights.” Tay rattled off indicating each thing remembering the diagram in his driver’s manual. He’d memorized the blasted thing. He’d just never put any of it into practice.

Marshall nodded his head thoughtfully. “Put it in drive.”

Tay moved the gear shift form the ‘P’ to the ‘D’ and the car lurched forward so Tay almost whacked his head on windshield.

“Whoah!” Marshall exclaimed, laughing as he held onto the dashboard, “Put your foot on the break, put it in drive, and then press the gas.”

“Sorry.” Tay muttered, feeling his face flush again and he might as well stay this color at this rate. “I knew that.”

“Uh-huh” Marshall watched his chest still giving little shakes from controlling the giggles.

“You are laughing at me!”

“I ain’t!”

“You are so!”

“I feel ridiculous.” But the corners of his mouth had started to twitch at the whole bizarreness of the situation and at the bright happiness in Marshall navy blue eyes.

“Naw, you’re cute,” Tay glanced at him as soon as the words registered. A startled flash of realization sparked in Marshall face and he flushed pink.

“I mean, it’s… cute. That you don’t…Just put the fucking car in drive, Taylor.”

Tay blinked at him once but obeyed and coaxed the lumbering automobile forward.

He drove at a snails pace for half the circumference of the parking lot before Marshall said, “Give it a little gas. That’s why were here; cause you can’t hurt nothing. Figure out what it can do.”

Tay nodded at the gruff instructions; stared in front of him on the barren parking lot blacktop. He pressed his foot down by increments and the speedometer crept up to thirty-five.

“What you gotta remember is this an old car, and it’s big. Most cars ain’t gonna be this big so you’re not gonna need to corner that big. When you turn don’t put your arms over each other like that or they’ll take points off on the test.”

“So I just…?”

“Slide ‘em over then let the wheel slide back into place…yeah. Good.”

“Okay.” Tay smiled a little as he felt the car straighten out smoothly as opposed to the stuttering way it had been doing. He drove around and around the parking lot. He turned down the middle and backed up, something he hadn’t thought would be so difficult. For almost an hour he drove following Marshall’s instructions and suggestions. He guessed Ike’s little Camry would be a piece of cake after maneuvering this huge thing.

“See the parking spaces? Try to park in one.”

Tay surveyed the yellow slanted lines painted on the ground and chose a spot. Gritting his teeth he tried to maneuver the enormous vehicle between the two but he didn’t think he did a great job.

“I screwed that up.”

“We’ll practice. Open the door and see how over you are.” Tay clicked open the handle and had to push the cumbersome door out with both hands to lean over and look for the yellow stripe. It was almost directly under both left wheels.

“I went too far this way.” Tay observed heaving the door shut and turning to Marshall who was slouched down once again, loose clothes in studied disarray and arm propped on the door. His head tilted to rest on the palm of one hand.

“Why didn’t your old man ever teach you to drive?”

“I don’t know.” Tay leaned back, too, willing the walls not to come up even if they hovered there, anxious, fretting. He hadn’t told his secrets to anyone for a long time. Not since Johnny had conversations with anyone felt this intimate, this open. “My schedule was always so busy and there’s just not time…,” the words ran out of steam and he looked in Marshall’s eyes, deep, sharp blue, fixated on him like they always were. Honest and intent.

“I never asked him. I didn’t want him to.”

“Ike can drive. He never…”

“I didn’t want him to, either.” Tay interrupted unable to keep his eyes from lowering then, but bringing them back up.

“So you don’t need no one’s help, right?” Marshall surmised, voice low and almost languid. It was the most relaxed Tay had ever heard him here in this car by themselves once more with this presence between them growing stronger, getting bigger, gaining substance.

“I accepted yours.” Tay pointed out, leaning back, too, arm on the top of the seat, head wedged back into the space between the seat and the frame of the door.

“So we’re even now.”

“That’s not why.” Tay picked at the ancient seam of the car seat, faded from its original light blue to a washed out white-gray, watching his fingers worry the brittle material.

“Why?” he asked after so long Tay thought he wouldn’t say anything else. The single word seemed to echo in the closed space, their space.

“Because I wanted to.” He made himself hold the brilliant blue gaze and when Marshall’s leg moved slowly across the seat to bridge the space between them Tay hooked his ankle over Marshall’s, locking their legs together like one of Josh’s Legos.

What are we doing? Tay thought, holding the blue, blue stare. Does he know? Do I? He swam in the heady, thick air that always seemed to happen when they were alone together. It was getting stronger, deeper each time, so Tay felt like he was breathing it in. It called to him for contact practically by his own name, this electric current that connected them. He wondered how long he could do this, fight it; if either of them would ever get brave enough to risk it: electrocution or power?

“Who taught you to drive?” Tay asked because someone had to say something to bank the tension in the air before it exploded all over his skin in hazy lines of heat.

“My Uncle Ronnie.” Marshall said, starting to rub Tay’s ankle with his foot. It felt nice. “He died about a year ago.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.” Tay stopped his torture of the seat seam and reached across to rub at Marshall’s shoulder. A shadow had crossed over Marshall's features so the smile was dimmer, the eyes duller. He wouldn’t look at Tay.

“You sound like you miss him a lot.” Tay observed and Marshall blinked looking almost surprised.

“I do, a whole lot. Next to Proof he was it. I used to talk to him all the time. He taught me good, though.”

“Yeah, I know.” Tay smiled. Their stares held again, or still, and Tay could feel things shifting his chest, feel them. The tension unfolded again like mist rolling over water. “We should go.” He said faintly because he didn’t want to. He felt so content just sitting in this old car, connected at ankle and hand, wafting in the amazing energy they had.

“I know. We will.”

But they didn’t, not right away. For a while longer they stayed in the parking lot of the abandoned Kmart watching each other, and the hookers and the homeless people and buses that made up the tapestry of that stretch of street; talking about whatever and nothing. Hands never left shoulders and ankles never unhooked, and when they did Tay still felt their presence like a brand beneath his clothes.

Chapter Text

And I forget all my sorrow, I forget all my pain
I relinquish my doubts at the sound of your name
I can feel your desire when I walk through that door
I believe in the power that can even the score

I Need You
~Billy Squier

 

TAY

“He called you cute???” Johnny’s voice squeaked in his ear and Tay held the phone receiver away a little, grimacing.

“He didn’t realize what he said ‘til after. I think it just came out.”

“Much like yourself.”

“Oh, ha ha. I don’t know why I tell you anything.”

“Because I am your best friend and the only person that knows your deep, dark secret.” Johnny dropped his voice low in an attempt to sound ominous which failed miserably.

Tay laughed. “Oh, yeah. That’s why.”

“Actually, I’m jealous as hell.” Johnny’s voice lost all bitchiness and sarcasm and got wistful. Tay snorted.

“Why? We haven’t done anything. I’m not sure we’ll ever do anything at this rate.” Except that wasn’t really true. He didn’t know why the talks he and Marshall had and the times he and Marshall touched felt like they had done something. Something more but less than sex.

“It’s kind of romantic.” Johnny sighed and Tay remembered Johnny was the boy that cried every time he saw a John Hughes teen movie and the old Deborah Kerr/Cary Grant film ‘An Affair to Remember’ which Tay had sat through more times than he could count. Beneath Johnny’s sometimes bitchy exterior was someone that just wanted a boyfriend to send him flowers.

“You really think so?”

“Well, yeah,” Johnny agreed, “In a you’re-never-gonna-get-laid-kinda way.”

“Thanks.” Tay sighed, shifting deeper on the pile of laundry he sat on. He was kind of scared Johnny might be right. He’d be convinced if he wasn’t on the other end of all that electricity when he and Marshall got together.

“Maybe if I trip him he’ll fall on you.” Johnny remarked thoughtfully.

“But when would we put on the condom?”

“I’m thinking, I’m thinking. Do I have to think of everything? I don’t know why I’m doing this when I’m sitting over here completely deprived.”

“Matthew likes you.” Tay said.

Matthew, a tall slim skater with a mouthful of metal, blond Justin Timberlake ‘NSYNC curls, and soulful blue eyes had been looking at Johnny with cow eyes for weeks.

“Matthew is a bottom.”

“I don’t think he knows.” Tay hazarded, deciding this was not the time to tell Johnny about the one ill-fated assignation he’d had with the blond curled boy. He usually told Johnny everything but he’d kept that incident to himself.

I know,” Johnny returned sourly.

“And anyway, you aren’t a total…”

“Yes, I am.” Johnny corrected, voice calm. “I like it that way. I’m EMBRACING my big Nelly bottomness! I am OWNING my bottoming!”

“I don’t think that’s a word.” Tay said between laughter even as the flush sprouted on his face. Even after six years of knowing each other Johnny could still throw him sometimes.

“You’re crazy.”

“I’m a crazy bottom.”

“I get the picture.”

“Do you think he’s a top?”

“Marshall?” The flush, which had begun to abate, returned with a vengeance and Tay changed ears, as if to do so would sidetrack Johnny from this subject.

“No, the other jock hockey player you’re mooning over.” No such luck.

“I’m not mooning.”

“Whatever. Do you think he is?”

“I haven’t thought about it.”

“You haven’t thought about it.” Johnny repeated, skepticism evident in every tone.

Tay really hadn’t. Or he’d tried with a lot of diligence not to, anyway. Every time they touched it got more difficult to rein in those thoughts and not let them run amok. If he did, he didn’t know if he’d be satisfied with what they had, with letting whatever grew between them to develop without attacking Marshall and ruining it.

“Why not?” Johnny demanded.

“Because. Why obsess over something you might never have?”

“The great jerk-off potential?”

“Johnny!” Tay shouted, covering his eyes with his hand which did not stop the images now emerging thick and fast: Marshall’s nimble, wonderful hands on Tay, how those calluses might feel over the muscles of Tay’s thighs, what Marshall might look like under all those loose clothes.

“What? Like you don’t ever!”

“Hello? I sleep in a room with two other people and eight of us use two bathrooms. You do the math!”

“Well you’ve got to sometime!” Johnny sounded aghast, as if Tay had just said he’d been deprived of water.

“I do, sometimes. Just. Not a lot. Can we change the subject?” Tay brought his knees up and the large wicker laundry basket he sat on groaned under his weight. He was hard now, insistent and pulsing in the soft cotton of his briefs, the fuzzy surface of his old track pants suddenly sensual and excruciating. Goddammit!

“When did you go all Pollyanna on me? It’s not like I haven’t seen…”

“I’m not going Pollyanna.” Tay pressed the heel of his hand between his legs and shut his eyes at the skitters of pleasure that traveled from the touch.

“It’s not healthy for you to repress yourself that way.”

“I thought you only went blind if you did jerk off.” He pressed harder and bit his lip as sensation unfurled beneath his skin, eager and wanting.

“You lose brain cells if you don’t. All the unreleased energy explodes between your ears and POOF you’ve lost a math concept.”

“You are so full of crap.” Tay breathed, laughing tiredly. His hand moved over the hard knot between his legs; he had only a few minutes before his excitement showed up on his track pants. /Marshall’s lips Marshall’s eyes how would they look during? Did he close them when he came?/ “I have to go.”

“Oh. Okay. Me, too. Degrassi High is coming on.”

“Have fun.”

“Give my love to your not-gay boyf— “

“’Bye.” Tay clicked off and made sure his t-shirt covered the front of his pants. Taking a few breaths he heaved himself off the laundry pile and up from the small alcove between the washing machine and the wall.

Walking quickly and dodging everyone’s inquisitive looks he stalked upstairs to the bathroom /empty thank god/ and shut the door. Sometimes it paid off to be the moody one of the bunch. He had maybe fifteen minutes before someone needed in but he didn’t think he’d need anywhere close to that long.

He could strangle Johnny and all his talk about topping and bottoming and jerking off....

Leaning against the door because it was the only fool-proof way to catch anyone from busting in before they caught sight of him, Tay spread his legs and thrust his hand in his waistband, muffling a groan when his fist encircled the hot, sensitive skin. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done this; a week ago, maybe two, a hurried affair after Zac had finally gone to sleep, stifling his groans in to his pillow while he touched himself. Not like Zac who didn’t even try to be quiet, waking Tay up with his soft gasps and last whimper that always left Tay annoyed, awake, and turned on.

/Marshall’s lips on his. Could he taste how chapped they were? Could he feel how chapped everywhere, on his skin, on his cock if Marshall sucked him…/

“Yes...” Tay gritted, jacking himself light and fast, his hand becoming more and more wet from the moisture at the tip. He threw his head back against the door, bracing against it as his movements got faster, harder, one hand slipping under his t-shirt, scraping his blunt nails against the vulnerable flesh of his stomach, up higher to glance off the stiff peaks of his nipples and Tay spasmed into his hand.

/Marshall’s fingers with their jagged nails burying in his hair, scratching trails in Tay’s back as Tay tasted him, as Tay felt, made, watched him explode/

Tay hung there quivering, frantic and taut, track pants stretched tight around his thighs, t-shirt pushed up under his armpits and his fingers pulling at his nipples. He watched his hand move on his reddened cock, pretended it was someone else’s, Marshall’s, on him.

Turning his face against the onslaught of sensation Tay caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror. Hair mussed, eyes glazed with sex and mouth half open. Two hectic spots of color bloomed on both cheeks and sweat sheened his neck. /That’s what he’ll see when you come/

He fell off the precipice with a gasp and his orgasm sizzled through his senses, quivering, shaking mass of nerve endings, gripping himself as he pulsed warm liquid onto his hand. Sliding down to the floor on strengthless legs, Tay tried to catch his breath and reach for some tissue paper at the same time.

It took him two tries.

Miraculously no one had knocked on the door.

Tay pulled up his track pants after cleaning up and locked his arms around his legs, still sitting on the cold tile.

He’d discovered after breaking up with Johnny that jerking off when he had no one felt kind of lonely. It made him want things and think of doing things that weren’t a good idea, like making out with Johnny at their last movie night sleepover. Johnny was weird for a week. It was a dumb thing because then things just got to the point that he had to do something or go insane, and it snuck up on him about this fast. He’d been doing really well.

Stupid Johnny.

Stupid Marshall and his soft touches and his meaningful looks. Which Tay suspected he himself might have started, so….

A loud knock on the door made him jump, “Tay?” Avery called. “I need to go!”

“Okay, okay.” Tay muttered, getting to his feet and flushing the commode for effect. As he washed his hands he caught sight of himself in the mirror and stared for a minute at the boy staring back. He looked normal, no flush, no sweat. “What am I doing?” Tay whispered to his reflection.

“TAY!”

“I’m going!” He shut off the water. He ignored his sister’s annoyed glare.

He did homework the rest of the night and didn’t think of Marshall at all.

 

MARSHALL

“Okay.”

“A’aight.”

They stood outside the rink in the chill of the Friday morning, Tay next to his bicycle and Marshall in front of him, close enough so the puffs of their breath floated into each other in the dusk.

“I know you can do this, okay? You can.”

Marshall nodded even though the closer the test had gotten the more he had to fight the stupid voice in his head that said, no, he couldn’t. That said he was gonna go in there, sit at the desk and every formula, rule, and trick Tay had gone over with him would go out the window, blank, just like that. And he knew the shit! Knew it cold, but he’d never cared this damn much about how he did on a test. He hadn’t cared this much about not letting someone down in a long time, and even then, it wasn’t the same thing.

“You’ll be okay.” Tay said looking right in his eyes and making Marshall’s breath kind of go fast, his palms kind of sweat. Last couple of day he thought Tay had been acting kinda strange, not looking at him so much, not touching him as much. Marshall thought it might be his imagination because Tay looked at him now, sky blue eyes dark in the shadows of the yellow street light, hands gripping Marshall’s wrists on the cuffs of his hoodie. For the millionth time Marshall could not believe he was here like this, looking at the most beautiful face he’d ever seen, having it look at him like that. “Remember do the…”

“Easy ones first. Get those out of the way and then worry about the hard ones.” Marshall finished the same phrase Tay said every time Marshall got frustrated that he couldn’t get each and every answer perfect.

“Right. Don’t second guess yourself unless you are absolutely sure; a person’s first answer is usually the right one, and double check all the addition and subtraction just to be safe.”

“Gotcha. I know.”

“Right. Yeah. I’m just pushing too hard.” Tay shook his head but Marshall reached for the fuzzy fabric of Tay’s scarf, dark green with black tassels today and smoothed it between his thumb and forefinger, up and down.

“Naw, you ain’t.”

“You’ll be fine. I’ll see you this afternoon.”

“Yeah.” Marshall nodded taking a breath and drowning in those pretty eyes some more. “Yeah.” He repeated and reached out to ruffle Tay’s hair, the closest excuse he had to touching anywhere near Tay’s face. Somewhere along the way, though, his hand got a mind of its own and the ruffle became a slow groove, pushing Tay’s hair back from his face in a deliberate sweep so the cool, soft strands went up between Marshall’s fingers and rustled against his palm. The lids of Tay’s eyes closed a little then flew open, as if he realized what he’d done. Marshall flicked the ends of Tay’s hair against his chin a little and Tay smirked, smoothing his hand over messy strands but Marshall could see the faint pink blush and he liked it.

He watched Tay pedal away into the dark until the slim blond kid on the bike with the blond hair flowing in the breeze and the tails of scarf flying behind him turned the corner. Then he was left with all his nervousness, Math shit stuffed in his head, and the way Tay’s hair felt against the skin of his palm.

*~*~*~*~*~*

“Got that test today, right?” Proof said at the lockers and Marshall nodded, shuffling the note cards he’d taken to carting in his pocket. He’d been looking at them all morning even though he could see what each one said in his mind like it was on a blackboard. “You know the shit? You been studying enough. If I gotta barely see you your ass better pass this fuckin’ class.”

“I know it.” Marshall said, checking to make sure he had two sharpened pencils in his backpack and not even caring if he looked like a goddamn geek.

“You ace this, dog, and we are getting down tonight! I’m at the Shelter and all your drinks on me, you feeling that?”

“Word.” Marshall smiled at Proof’s ink dark eyes and they knocked knuckles to seal the deal.

He really hadn’t seen as much of Proof and the guys as he had before. Marshall hadn’t even realized how much time they spent just farting around until he’d had to make time to study. A few times he’d had to cut out of hanging out at Proof’s house, or not show up at the club he’d seen the looks on Von’s and Rufus’ faces and knew they noticed how many times he’d done that. Proof just shook it off, though. “Yo, you just trying to get on up outta here. Ain’t nobody gonna say nothin’ about that.”

“Ah, shit.” Proof suddenly muttered, his eyes somewhere over Marshall’s shoulder and before Marshall could turn around the strong scent of Jeanine’s perfume hit him. Slamming his locker and sliding his backpack up his arm he turned and met her gray eyes with as little expression as he could.

She wore tight jeans and another low cut shirt that tied in the front with a ribbon and he felt absolutely nothing when he looked at her.

“What?” he demanded and she dug her hands and their red nail in the pockets of her hoodie, her face pinched and unhappy. It didn’t go with the silver eye shadow and the bright red lipstick.

“I gotta talk to you. Alone.” She glared at Proof who threw an arm around Marshall’s shoulder and flipped her off.

“Go to hell, DeShaun, no one’s talking to you.”

“Fuck you, bitch….” Proof leaned over, spitting the word in her face and Jeanine’s long nails flashed at him, missing his cheek by inches when Marshall stepped in front of him. The tips of her fingers left rails on his front of his hoodie and burned his skin even through three layers of fabric.

“The hell’s wrong with you?” He demanded shielding Proof’s tense, angry body with his because he’d seen that look on Proof’s face before and he was gonna pop Jeanine one, school or no school, girl or not. People had started to stare, they were about five minutes from detention if the teacher monitoring the hall caught wind of this shit, and he could NOT get in trouble right now! Fuckin’ ‘As The World Turns At Lincoln High’.

“I just wanna talk to you alone for once.” Jeanine hissed, grey eyes staring daggers at Proof and Marshall shook his head at her.

“I told you we ain’t got nothing to say. The fuck you want from me?”

“You got someone else?” Jeanine then demanded, her small face suspicious and angry and Proof cackled some more behind Marshall before hanging on him, one arm over Marshall’s shoulder. He could feel the hard, thin chest of his best friend at his back and the comforting, sweet smell of the product he used to keep his dreads from looking ‘nappy’.

“Yeah, he do! And she’s fine and fresh and she ain’t you!”

Jeanine’s nostrils flared but Marshall just stared at her without saying anything. He could say he didn’t have anyone, but, for some reason, he didn’t. And anyways, it was none of her damn business.

“Who is it?” He looked in her hard gray eyes and thought of Tay’s soft, sky blue ones.

“Leave me the fuck alone, Jeanine.” He said flatly but she walked right into his space like she always did, not caring if you cared, and stood an inch away her face tight with anger and he stared silently down at her.

“You think I can’t find out? Watch me.”

“I’ll be back.” Marshall said over his shoulder and didn’t wait for Proof’s answer before he took Jeanine’s elbow and walked her down the hall to a space between the generator and the side of the stairs. People made out there sometimes and he saw the glances they were getting but that wasn’t his problem.

A crazy fuckin’ ex was his problem.

“The fuck are you doing?” He asked, taking a step back away from her arms when they reached to go around his neck.

“Come on, Marsh. Gimme another chance. I want you back.” She smiled at him in the way that used to mean she wanted to fuck but all he saw was the way she looked five minutes ago, snarling into his face.

“No.”

“Why not?” The pleading look on her face morphed into anger again, fierce and mean, and Marshall couldn’t even imagine this look in Tay’s eyes. “You got someone else? Who? If you think I can’t find the lame bitch you’re wrong.”

He stepped closer and the seductive look that began on her face turned to shock when he gripped her arm and jerked her close. He spoke inches from her face but he knew the look there froze any cute move she might have thought of. “Leave me alone Jeanine. It’s over. It’s been over. Move the fuck on.” Letting her go, he walked off just as the first bell clanged into the air.

“This isn’t over!” She yelled, the waver in her voice making it crack but he didn’t look back.

“Yeah, it is,” he muttered to himself as he crossed paths with Proof on his way back in.

“You a’aight?”

“Yeah.” Marshall rubbed his neck and cracked it, trying to get himself together, trying to find the exact tone of Tay’s soothing voice in his head before he went in the classroom.

“You on, my brother. Kick it.” They hugged before Proof clapped his face in affection, the broad, blinding white of his smile following Marshall down the hall.

“The Shelter, dog! Don’t you leave me hanging!”

Marshall lifted his arm in acknowledgement then broke and ran as the last bell sounded.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~

He barely remembered the test, taking it, handing it in. He hadn’t realized ‘til later that he’d been trying to get in a zone, like during a game when he was really on. He didn’t think about blocking, he just did. He didn’t think about stealing the puck or faking or scoring; he just did. He’d sat at his desk for a second, erased his mind of Jeanine and nerves and worry and then wrote his name on the paper and that had been it. When he got to something hard he came out of it a little, but not much. He’d been the last one to turn it in but he hadn’t had to hurry to finish.

He also hadn’t counted on Lang having a teacher’s meeting and how long it would take to ‘til Marshall could see what he got. He got to the rink late and Tay had left and then Proof and the guys had been waiting for him after and kidnapped him to the club. He knew better than to call a house with a baby after eleven at night. Next thing he knew it was the next morning, he hadn’t talked to Tay for almost a day and he was jonesin’, couldn’t believe it had been this long since he’d talked to Tay, the folded and refolded piece of test paper still creased in his pocket.

Now that he got here he hung back, though, just watching. He didn’t get to watch Tay skate that much anymore; not since they started hanging out in the mornings. Tay would skate until he got there then stop and go change and they’d go over Marshall’s homework or talk. He missed watching, sometimes.

Tay glided across the ice with his eyes closed, hair flying, blue scarf trailing as he bent at the waist lifting one leg and skated, arms wide, like when people pretended to be an airplane. Then he changed position and bent back at the waist one hand on his chest and the other in a graceful arc over his head.

Tay then picked up speed to do a triple jump then a double, what Tay called a ‘combination,’ before fading out of the routine and scanning the rink, the smooth brows knit in worry. He was looking for him and Marshall smiled, watching the sharp lines of Tay’s profile as he glanced at the door then the locker room.

Walking toward the rink he dropped his backpack on the nearest seat and stepped on the ice, careful to steer clear of the blur of movement as Tay did a spin, arms above his head, body a blur of blond hair, cream colored sweater and black skating pants. The sound of Marshall’s blades on the ice reached him though, and a sharp toe pick cut the rotation, opening his eyes as Marshall skated past him with a small glance.

“Hi.” Tay said, voice surprised because they hadn’t been on the ice together since the day they met.

“’Sup?”

“I missed you yesterday. I mean,” Tay corrected quickly, “ I didn’t see you.” Tay dropped his stare to the floor and Marshall wanted to reach out and lift his chin to see what the weather was like in the sky blue.

“Yeah, sorry, yo. I stayed after to get my test and then my boys picked me up. Stayed longer than I thought I would.”

“Oh, that’s okay.” They skated lazy circles around each other as Marshall clutched the paper in his hoodie’s pocket and tried not to smile.

“How did you do?”

“On the test?”

“No, on your flying lessons. Yes, on the test!”

“Oh, the test.” Marshall sounded like he just remembered and enjoyed the exasperated expression on Tay’s face. The dimple on his chin got deeper when he got frustrated or angry, and the sky blue turned darker, like that color in art class. Cerulean? Yeah.

“Did you pass?”

“Maybe.”

“You did?” Tay hadn’t even realized he was following Marshall all over the ice as Marshall skated backwards just to watch the rhythm of Tay’s legs and the easy way Tay flowed on the ice, arms swinging at his sides, hair bouncing softly. Marshall shrugged and power skated past him biting his lip to keep from laughing as Tay started to bitch.

“Marshall don’t be an asshole! What did you…?”

H pulled his test out and clapped it to Tay’s stomach as he sped by, tingles sparking over his skin as Tay’s warm hands closed over his to hold the paper.

They slowed and he watched the expressions on Tay’s face, long lashes flicking over the problems, noticing the grade, the slow curve of his lips as that smile began, amazing and beautiful. They had both stopped skating and stood close enough for Marshall to feel the little mist of warmth that always seemed to follow Tay around, as if he had the sun inside.

“You got an eighty-four?”

“I got an eight-four.”

Marshall let the goofy ass grin take over his face and Tay smiled so bright it hurt Marshall’s eyes.

“You got an eighty-four.” Tay repeated the excitement in his voice finally tearing loose the trembling in Marshall’s chest that until this moment, hadn’t really believe he’d pulled this off because it wasn’t real until Tay looked at him like that and sounded like that, joy shining in the blue, blue eyes.

“I. Got. An eighty-four dog!”

They fell into each other at the same time and warmsoftstrongjesussogood Tay’s arms came around Marshall’s neck, the test paper crinkled, his laugher echoed in Marshall’s ear, and the firm body pressed to him, up on him, from shoulder to knee. Marshall hugged him tight, eyes closed, breathing him in.

“Oh, my god that’s amazing! You did it!”

We did it.” Marshall said firmly. Tay let him go, but slow, the arms around his neck like they didn’t want to leave and Marshall didn’t want them to.

“Yeah. We did —OH MY GOD!” Tay shouted as Marshall dipped and hoisted the skinny body over his shoulder, skating in wide circles crowing like an idiot while Tay beat on Marshall’s back with his hands and wiggled and tried to protest as laughter bubbled over the words. The test paper fluttered to the ice and got instantly damp.

“You’re – crazy! Put me—down! Marshall—You’re insane!”

“I. Fucking. Passed!” Marshall tried to do one of Tay’s spins, got dizzy and held on tighter to /firm, warm thighs under his hands soft ass on his shoulder right near his…/ he unloaded Tay on the ice in a quick, clumsy move but Tay landed still laughing, light on his skates and not even a wobble until Marshall grabbed for his arms when the room started spinning.

“Shit!”

They steadied each other like drunks just out of a bar, Tay’s face kinda flushed and hair all messy and Marshall grabbed the steady forearms, hands closing near Tay’s elbows. Balance found them but instead of letting him go Marshall held tighter, glided a little closer, slid the delicate points of Tay’s elbows into his palms. Tay’s hands circled Marshall’s biceps fingers pulling on the material of his hoodie and the air between them suddenly got tight and low and…Marshall saw Tay’s lashes fall slowly to /my mouth/ a place near Marshall’s chin. Marshall tasted the chapped, dry surface of his bottom lip, bit a corner of his mouth and watched Tay’s lips part, the flush come back and something sparked in the sky blue.

/and nothing felt this way before not never, not with Jeanine or any of the girls he’d tapped. Not any of the ones he never had a chance with neither, not like this: pulling like a magnet in his chest and throat and everywhere, goosebumps all on his skin all the time, and he got hard all the time, he got hard just thinking of him and he wanted he wanted what did he want?/

Tay started to pull away, eyes lowered and Marshall blurted, “We gotta celebrate,” maybe to stop Tay from going away or maybe just so he wouldn’t go away like that, like he’d done something wrong, but mostly just to say something into the thick silence and loosen it up. Tay looked up in interest and it was okay again, Marshall could breathe again. He wasn’t gonna do something stupid; he wasn’t gonna stay staring at Tay open-mouthed like a goddamn fool.

“Celebrate?” Tay repeated, their arms slipping off each other without tension, just because they’d started skating around the rink again, easy and slow, and Marshall had to pick up his smudged test from the floor to put in his pocket again.

“Yeah, dog! We can do something tomorrow. I ain’t gonna flunk if we don’t study one Saturday, right?”

“No…” Tay admitted lifting an arm and doing a little jump. Marshall watched, fascinated at how Tay could just lift into the air like he weighed nothing and do that spin thing and land on one thin steel blade. Because he did weigh something. He still wasn’t really heavy but Marshall found out when he picked Tay up that Tay had some muscle to him, lean and strong.

“A’aight! I’ll pick you up from here and we can go.”

“With your friends?”

He looked over at the way Tay’s voice hesitated. Tay had done another jump, singles Marshall remembered, and skated slow now, eyes on the ice.

“You wanna meet my friends?”

“No,” Tay said quickly then looked worried as Marshall gave him a sharp glance. He enjoyed it when Tay got all flustered and shit ‘cause most of the time Tay tried to look like nothing got to him.

“I mean, not ‘No,’ but…they don’t… I don’t… know them.” He finished, voice getting lower with each word. Marshall stayed quiet to see what else he’d say. “I guess I could….”

“Naw,” Marshall smiled, running his hand over Tay’s hair as he skated by because he had to touch him when he looked like that, all tense and worried. “This our thing. We’ll go.”

“Okay.” All the worry disappeared from the pretty face, “I’m paying.”

“Fuck you are! I got money…”

“You passed the test so it’s MY treat. You can get the next one.”

Marshall wanted to believe that, that he could get the next one, but that stupid voice hadn’t quite bugged out. He’d locked it up and suffocated it and told it to fuck off but it still whispered, still kept at him. What if it was the only good grade he got? He had to make the best of it while he had it.

“I thought WE did it.”

“We did,” Tay agreed, “But you were in there by yourself. You did this on your own.” Marshall’s face got prickly with heat at the unblinking quiet praise in Tay’s eyes because he hadn’t gotten that in a long time, not since Ronnie. “Okay?”

“A’aight.” Marshall gave, mostly because he could only take so much of Tay looking at him with that way. It made his face red and it made his chest tight with something he couldn’t name. He could always change his mind on the day if he had to.

“Cool.” Tay flicked his hair out of his eyes, smiling and Marshall could watch him do that all day even if he hated it when girls did that. Girls didn’t have Tay’s dark gold spill of hair that caught the highlights when it moved. They didn’t have Tay’s smooth jaw and his cute nose and eyelashes that blinked the strands out his eyes.

And he had to get a grip, yo, ‘cause he was sounding some kinda gone….

“So what are we doing to celebrate?” Tay asked as he bent over to untie his skates and Marshall kept his eyes on his own laces because all of a sudden the only place his stare wanted to go was Tay’s ass and what the fuck was he doing???

“I dunno. A movie?”

“Really?” Tay looked up, “I haven’t been to a movie in a long time.”

“Yeah? What’s the last one you saw?” Marshall took out his beat up Jordans from his backpack and shoved his feet in them without tying the laces. They had a zipper, anyways.

Tay scrunched up his brow before he came up with, “Ice Age 2? Yeah, the cartoon. I took my brother and my little sister.”

Ice Age???” Marshall repeated, staring at him, “That was forever ago! You kidding me?” Marshall didn’t go to a lot of movies himself because he didn’t have a way to get a lot of money, but he made the big ones. He and the guys had gone to see The Avengers not too long ago.

“I don’t have time to go, usually. And Zac didn’t want to take them.” Tay shrugged, then, defensively, “It was a good movie!”

“Yo, whatever. We ain't watchin’ no cartoons about talking animals.”

“Fine.” Tay rolled his eyes as they walked to the locker room, but his dimples were showing and Marshall knew he was just playing around. “What are we watching?”

“A grownup movie. Like Alien vs. Predator.”

Tay gave him a look.

“What?”

He watched Tay walk into the locker room laughing.

“That’s a grownup movie, yo!”

Tay threw an amused glance over his shoulder but didn’t answer, still giggling.

“Punk.” Marshall muttered but he was smiling, too. His test made his pocket wet and he didn’t know how he’d feel letting Tay pay tomorrow but that all seemed real unimportant because he felt like he could walk on water or skate forever or fuckin’ fly right now.

He waited for Tay to come out so Marshall could walk him outside, watch him cycle away until he turned the corner, then fly his way home.

Chapter Text

You saw me through the keyhole of a door that I kept locked But I'd decorate the threshold just in case you knocked.

Linger

~Jonatha Brooke

 

 

TAY

He’d asked his mother if he could leave from practice that Saturday because Marshall had passed his test and they were going to a movie in honor of the occasion.

The kitchen felt warm and cozy in the light of the noonday sun and he could hear Joshua and Avery bickering goodnaturedly in the living room while they tried to work together to build a castle out of cubes of sugar for their homework lesson.

“That’s wonderful, sweetheart!” His mother had exclaimed as Tay flushed with pride for both of them, “I think the two of you deserve some celebrating.”

“I’m sorry about being out a lot.” Tay apologized, still guilty every time he came home and found her rushing around doing even more things at once than usual because one of them had been something he usually took care of. “I could fix stuff for dinner the night before, or…”

“It’s fine, honey. I’ll get Zac or Avery to pitch in, it won’t do them any harm at all. You go and have a good time.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absopositively.” She nodded, using one of the words they’d made up as kids when the three of them almost spoke their own language. He hugged her tight, inhaling the comforting mom-smell of her: Herbal Essence Shampoo, faint traces of Chloe, the perfume she sometimes used when she was going to a meeting or to the store, and talcum powder with eau de milk, courtesy of Zoë.

“So are we ever going to meet this mysterious friend?” hisHis mother joked and Tay tried not to blush because that would certainly send up a red flag about the ‘friend’ Tay had been tutoring.

“Yes,” He’d kept his eyes on the cutting board as he rhythmically chopped celery. They were having stew. “He’s just…”

“Shy?”

“Different.” Tay finished, wishing he knew how to describe Marshall that wouldn’t make him sound like Marshall needed Children’s Protective Services or like Tay had a giant-sized crush on him. And he was standing in the kitchen talking with his mom about boys.

He so needed more friends.

“Well, we don’t bite. Joshua’s completely out of that phase.” Her eyes twinkled with amusement and they smiled together.

“I know. He’s kind of a tough kid. Not,” Tay amended hastily, “criminal tough or anything, just.”

“Had a tough go of it so far?”

“Yeah, like that.” Tay nodded in relief. His mom nodded thoughtfully as her strong hands cut potatoes into halves then quarters then eighths to drop in the huge pot on the stove. Even filling the stainless steel vat the stew only lasted a couple of days; three at the most.

“So many children do these days.” His mom sighed. “It’s wonderful that he’s determined to make something of himself. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of that around these days, either.”

“He’s pretty amazing.” Tay smiled then concentrated fiercely on his chopping to ignore the pink that he felt heating his ears.

He heard the faucet rushing over the potatoes before they went in the stew and then his mom’s hand on his waist. He looked apprehensively up into her kind blue eyes, as if she could read how he felt about Marshall, how much the tutoring was as much to be near him as to help him pass his class, but the blue stare, so like his own, just crinkled at him in a smile.

“Bring him over one of these days. Your old mom promises not to embarrass you.”

“You’re not old,” he said automatically, “And it’s not you I’m worried about being embarrassing.” He’d never brought anyone but Johnny home to meet everyone, and that hardly counted since they’d known Johnny from the rink for years. Marshall was different. It felt all meet-the-parents-like and he had to stop thinking that way. “I will, though. Soon.”

“Okay.” She smiled and went back to chopping, carrots this time.

Tay breathed a little easier and thought of tomorrow and how it would go.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*

“What are you going to wear on your date?” Johnny asked that afternoon while they changed in the locker room

“Jeans and a sweater?” Tay gave him a puzzled glance as he pulled the laces of his skates tight. “It’s not a date. He passed his test and we’re celebrating.”

“Is it just the two of you?”

“Yeah, but…”

“Is one person paying?”

“Only because…”

“Do you want to jump his bones?

“Shut up.”

“Date.” Johnny surmised crisply, “That’s not a date like we’re not queer.”

“Why are you so interested, anyway? I thought you couldn’t stand him.”

“I can’t.” Johnny said matter-of-factly, “But someone has to help you with date wear. Prettiness only goes so far. And someone needs to be the voice of reason if you still think this little outing isn’t a date.”

Tay knit his brows as he tied his other skate and didn’t answer. He couldn’t deny that it felt like a date, like something special. He could make it sound like no big deal all day long but it still felt different inside his head and …other places.

“I have a black sweater that would go with your gray cargo pants that we got that time at that place? You’d look hot in it.” Johnny offered and for a second Tay thought about it. Part of him wanted to dress differently because it felt different. However, he’d also given a lot of thought to how exactly Marshall was rationalizing this to himself: the touches, the time spent together, the deep, locked looks they fell into. Tay didn’t want to push and upset whatever had Marshall opening up to him like that. He didn’t ever want that to stop.

“I don’t know.”

“What are you talking about? You TOTALLY look hot in black.”

“Not that. And thanks.”

“The correct answer is ‘Oh, thank you for the kind compliment but you look much hotter in black than I!’”

He glanced at Johnny who shrugged. “Well, I do. It brings out my skin.”

“You’re so gay.”

“I know.” Johnny preened and they Tay shook his head but couldn’t help smiling.

“Well, let me know. Rivas can drive us home and you can run in and get it.” Johnny called all the people that worked at the enormous house in Rochester Hills by their first names. He had grown up with most of them and Tay sometimes thought Johnny knew them better than his own mom.

“Maybe. I could wear it with jeans.”

“Ooooh! And your Sketchers and your black pea coat!”

“Too much.” Tay demurred.

“Not enough!” Johnny declared as they walked to the rink balancing on their blade covers. “You’ll have to break through the ‘guy’ hang-up or you’ll be having deep meaningful conversations with him when you’re thirty while he watches his two point five kids on the playground.”

“Johnny!” Tay exclaimed, the heat on his cheeks getting hotter, “Where do you get this stuff?”

“OUT Magazine. You should read it sometime.”

“No, thanks. I like my National Geographic.”

“Just for all the naked guys in it.”

“No, it’s NOT for all the naked…” Tay caught Johnny’s laughing eyes and scowled even as Johnny laughed at him.

“Bitch.”

“ You have NO idea.”

Then they were on the ice and Priscilla started them on drills and nothing entered his mind but the sound of his blade on the ice and movement of his body through the air.

*~*~*~*~*
SATURDAY

Tay took a deep breath and ran his fingers through his hair as he stared at himself in the locker room mirror. He wondered, for the fiftieth time, if he looked okay.

He’d opted for Johnny’s black sweater after all and the material clung to him softly stopping just below the waist of his newest jeans. He had worn his Sketchers after all because his trainers just didn’t look right, and now he thought he might have overdone it.

He liked the sweater, though, even if it was tighter than what Tay would have chosen himself; somewhere along the way he’d gone up a size while Johnny stayed the same. Then again, he thought, there’s no way he would have chosen to purchase a two hundred dollar cashmere anything, so that wasn’t saying much. The dark color seemed to bring out his skin and his hair, and the rounded collar dipped just under the hollow between his clavicles. He looked fine. He looked okay.

It was only a goddamn movie and he was primping like a girl, as if Marshall would notice what Tay was wearing. Because real guys didn’t primp.

And if he didn’t get out front Marshall was going to wonder if Tay stood him up.

Pulling on his jacket and his gray scarf he walked out of the locker room and out the door to see the faithful Impala idling by the sidewalk, blowing exhaust into the chilly air.

Unable to stop the smile that overtook his face he walked over to open the door.

 

*~*~*~*~*

Tay couldn’t help feeling like the inside of the crappy gray Impala was kind of like their own world. They had talked here, he’d started to learn to drive in this car, they could relax in here. Tay had grown fond of the huge, boxy sedan that rumbled along faithfully for all that it looked like it might not rumble for much longer.

Now Marshall gave him a half-smile as he settled in the seat, the electric blue eyes wandering a little over Tay’s clothes before drifting to the road again. Tay made himself not run his fingers through his hair again and watched the slope of Marshall’s nose and the perpetually chapped lips. /He looks good/ Tay quashed the impish voice that had lately started hounding his head. It was the same one that kept replaying how Marshall’s shoulders felt that day when Marshall picked him up like he weighed nothing: strong and firm. It was the voice that ultimately talked him into choosing the black sweater instead of his tried-and-true Target cable knits. The little voice was going to get him in trouble.

“So how was practice?” Marshall asked and Tay shrugged.

“Pretty good. The competition’s coming up fast so I’m not thinking about it.”

“Okay.” Marshall answered, sounding bemused.

“It’s just a pretty big deal. I really want to place in the top three.”

“You will.” Marshall said and Tay knew it meant nothing, that it was just politeness, but Marshall looked at him with no doubt at all, and the warmth spread all through him deeper than the car’s ineffectual heater. He only nodded.

“Is that Johnny kid gonna compete, too?”

“Yeah.” Tay nodded, “We usually compete at the same places because we have the same coach.”

“Ain’t that hard? I mean, since you’re friends and shit.”

“No.” Tay answered thoughtfully, then shrugged at Marshall’s doubtful glance. “We’ve been competing against each other forever. Even when we were…um…” His mind reined in the word, those telling words at the last minute and he was left with Marshall’s incisive stare regarding him at a red light. “We’ve always been cool with it.”

CHICKEN the little voice crowed and Tay was seriously going to kick it’s ass when he got home.

“That’s very mature, Taylor.” Marshall said in his fake grown-up voice and Tay looked away with a grin.

“It so isn’t. We’ve just been around each other too long to get all stupid about it.”

“Seriously, that’s the shit. I don’t know how I’d be if I had to play against Proof.”

“You’d handle it.”

“I guess so.”

He stole glances at Marshall at red lights while they talked about skating and school and their families. Marshall wore what he always did: oversized thick hoodie, loose jeans, and the scuffed Jordans. His head was bare, the skull vulnerable under the short dark hair, and Tay wondered how his ears didn’t freeze right off. Marshall didn’t seem to own a heavy coat and the weather was getting sincerely cold. Tay wondered how he could ask him about it without it being taken wrong.

They hadn’t been driving very much at all when Marshall swung into a parking lot on what looked like another dilapidated block. A building with a blue exterior and ‘Phoenix’ in neon over the entrance came into view behind a parking lot choked with cars.

“Ever been here?” Marshall asked, easing the car into a parking space on the outskirts of the lot. Tay shook his head looking out at the kids walking in the cinema, most in packs of four or more and not a lot of white faces.

“We went to the the Novi.” Tay recalled the brand new shiny Metroplex with its parking garage and giant marquees.

“This my hood. Let’s go.” Tay zipped up his jacket for the walk to the entrance and put his skating bag and backpack in the trunk so ‘no one decides to jack the ride.’

As they walked to the theatre side-by-side Tay realized he hadn’t been around this many kids his age in – ever. He had never been around this many kids his age and certainly not this many girls. They seemed to vastly outnumber boys and collected themselves in brightly colored gaggles, laughing and make-upping and calling to each other in loud, raucous voices. He thought a few had given him curious glances but it could just be him. A pungent odor of buttered popcorn, pickles, and various perfumes hung in the air. The din in the place was intense, coupled with the pinging music of an arcade to the right and the concession stand to the left.

“What are we watching?” He had to raise his voice above the racket so Marshall could hear.

“Resident Evil 2!” Marshall answered and Tay blinked. He had only the vaguest notion what that was about and only knew it was some kind of horror film and had the same girl from ‘The Fifth Element,’ It was one of Johnny’s favorite movies because of the clothes.

“Great,” he returned as they took their place in line and Marshall gave him another amused smile.

“It’s my day, right?”

“Right!” Tay nodded resolutely, “Whatever you want!”

A spark came up in the blue of Marshall’s eyes and he shuffled minutely closer as they moved ahead in the crowded line. Inches apart in this noisy, public place Marshall gave him a thoughtful grin, slow curving of his lips that made Tay’s stomach dip and his breath catch, “Whatever I want?”

His eyes wouldn’t let Tay’s go and Tay could only nod before his voice worked again even if all that came out was a breathy, “Yeah.”

“Dope.” Just one syllable, low and private, and why had he never realized Marshall could have porn voice? Tay stared transfixed as the blue eyes that had begun a lazy wandering over his face and, no, he couldn’t be imagining this, not this…

“Help you?” the cashier broke into their connection and Tay turned to her, startled.

“Two for Resident Evil.” Marshall said and Tay slapped a twenty on the counter before Marshall even had his hand in his pocket for his wallet.

“Hah.”

“Fuck.” Marshall muttered, but without rancor and Tay wondered if the eye seduction was an attempt to distract him from paying. He realized he didn’t care.

He was so gone.

“Fine, you get the popcorn.”

“Deal.” Marshall accepted and Tay sighed in good-natured exasperation when he peered at the time on the tickets.

“This is an hour and a half from now.”

“Yeah, let’s go in the arcade.”

Because Tay liked nothing better than to be around a lot of flashing, pinging machines sporting violent, misogynistic video games. “Great!”

“You suck at lying.” Marshall laughed at him and Tay bumped him with a shoulder to get an answering bump back. They staggered into the dark room filled with activity giggling and trying to out-bump each other.

“We don’t gotta be in here.”

“No, no, it’s fine.” Tay insisted over the obnoxious sound of a car race to their left and the cheering of a crowd around an electronic pinball machine to their right. “I live for,” he glanced at the nearest machine, “Lobster Robot.”

“Yeah, right. Come on.”

Tay flat out refused to play a game that ran down hookers for points so they blew up space invaders and played virtual dodge ball and raced each other at a Nascar rally and tried to sell their peanuts before the start of a pretend baseball game. The arcade also had non-electric games like skee ball and ring toss and that’s where they ended up since the crowds weren’t as thick there.

After a particularly satisfying bout of smashing chipmunks on the head as they popped out of holes, which had them laughing like idiots as they tried to bonk the rapidly popping plastic rodents, Marshall tugged him towards a corner with a, “I wanna try something.”

“We should probably go get in line..” Tay protested, still trying to stop giggling.

“It’s in the big theatre. Come on.”

What had Marshall so excited was one of those games with a mechanical claw where the person tried to pick up prizes from a pile and drop them in a chute.

“Are you serious? That is such a ripoff!” Tay couldn’t count the number of time Zac tried to grab something from this kind of machine when they were at the grocery store or a mall only to be out his money and all his patience.

“Naw, man, I’m good at this. I got all of Nate’s presents out of this thing one Christmas.”

Tay digested that for a second while Marshall fed quarters in the machine and began maneuvering the jerky metal claw with intense concentration.

“We’re going to be late.”

“No, we ain’t.” Sighing Tay crossed his arms and looked at Marshall focusing on the contraption like it was space shuttle dashboard. His eyes riveted to the shaking metal claw, his lips slightly parted and his hands, those incredible hands Tay kept having dreams about resting on the game, one to steady his aim and the other holding the handle moving the claw in a loose grasp. Tay had the strongest urge to touch his waist and break his concentration.

“Are you going for something specific?” he asked sardonically.

“Yeah.”

“Okay.” Tay looked at the prizes in the glass enclosure and saw a sea of stuffed animals, some cheap knickknacks like plastic handcuffs and sunglasses, and even cheaper looking fake gold jewelry.

The hovering claw suddenly descended, closing on a small plush toy and Marshall coaxed it gently back up and to the opening of the chute, lip caught in his teeth with focus. Incredibly, the toy slid obligingly down the chute opening and Tay laughed in disbelief.

“Wow!”

“I’m the man!” Marshall rose both arms in triumph before bending to retrieve his prize.

“You are.” Tay leaned over to see and raised both eyebrows when a black and white penguin with an orange beak, orange feet, and a red felt scarf emerged in Marshall hand. That’s what he thought he’d seen.

“That’s lovely.”

“It’s a Tay penguin.” Marshall said, holding up the stuffed animal.

“A what?” Tay squeaked, but he’d heard just fine.

“See? It’s dressed like you and shit.”

Tay stared at the bright red scarf around the penguins little neck and knew he should say some playful insult, something, anything, but his mind had gone to total mush and wasn’t doing the verbal thing right then.

Then Marshall smiled and shoved it in his pocket, tugging on Tay’s sleeve. “Come on, dog, we still gotta get popcorn!”

*~*~*~*

They walked into the dark theatre with a vat of buttered popcorn and drinks for them both; Marshall had a large Mountain Dew, this toxic looking neon yellow soft drink he said he was addicted to and Tay had a Dasani.

Even in the dark Tay could see, with the flashes of light from the previews that the only seats left were way in the front or totally in the back. Marshall indicated Tay follow him with a tilt of his head and headed for the mostly empty row of seats on the very last row. Tay never sat way in the back like this but didn’t mind if this was supposed to be a horror movie. He’d never been too fond of those. Of course, the other reason he never sat way in the back was he thought that’s where the couples sat to make-out. However, there were two couples on the same row, both cuddled into each other, hands held. No one seemed to be trying to find anyone’s tonsils with their tongue. Still, this was obviously the official ‘couples’ row and Tay felt the heat on his face, thankful for the dark of the theatre.

Marshall seemed oblivious to the couple presence, though, and plopped down on an empty seat, already wedging his fountain drink into the drink holder. Tay hesitated for just a second before sitting next to him, acutely aware that the seat divider was lifted and not down so the boundaries of their bodies relaxed against each other. For some reason he hadn’t thought this place would have that feature, but it did. Marshall made no move to pull the divider down to put anything between them. Tay tested the arrangement by wiggling out of his jacket and laying it on his lap but nothing changed and he tried not to think about the way their hips touched all along their side.

Tay had just twisted the top off his bottled water watching the previews for Mr.3000 and The Cookout when he felt Marshall go into what Tay thought of as his ‘homeboy slouch:’ low in the seat, legs splayed and arms propped up on the nearest surface. The nearest surface, though, was the top of Tay’s seat behind his shoulders and Tay glanced sideways as he felt the warm press Marshall’s arm through the thin sweater. Marshall’s profile kept looking ahead, though: ridiculously long lashes and the slope of his nose into that funny point, and pout of his chapped lips.

Marshall reached in for a handful of popcorn and popped some in his mouth, leaving his lips shining as he chewed. Tay looked back at the screen quickly because the last thing he needed was a hard on that wouldn’t go away; not unless he planned on holding his jacket in front of his crotch for the rest of the day.

During the part where the orange Cinemark cat started singing and dancing with a giant box of Goobers and a fountain drink Tay relaxed against Marshall’s arm, leaning his head back on it, and slowly moved his leg flush against Marshall’s. For a second Marshall stilled, like a held breathe, Tay felt it next to him, and Tay’s mind panicked /oh shit oh shit take it back you IDIOT fuck/ then: answering pressure against his knee, his calf, and one sneakered foot hooked around Tay’s ankle, locking them together like in the car. He felt Marshall turn to him but Tay kept his stare on the screen and reached in for a handful of popcorn. Casual, easy.

Which lasted until the first big zombie scene where a figure with a half-eaten face jumped out of the fog and Tay tensed almost tipping over the vat of popcorn.

“Sorry.” Tay mumbled, flushing, as the zombie-thing ran after a lady in a business suit and started snacking on her leg. He glanced at Marshall to see him staring sideways with a half-smile, but at least he didn’t laugh.

Zombie’s kept staging sneak attacks and ripping out people’s throats in a celebration of gore, and there were these truly frightening dogs that made him want to never look a Doberman in the eye again. Then this thing with no eyes started shooting lasers at people and seemed a match for the achingly beautiful super model with zombie strength.

Of course there was the dashing SWAT team member with flashing dark eyes and rugged good looks, which Tay thought, added a lot of depth to the film as a whole. Tay really hoped he didn’t get bit or eaten. He was the best-looking thing onscreen as far as Tay was concerned.

A horde of zombies overtook the helipad and the injured evil scientist and the sounds of flesh tearing made Tay turn his head so fast he sank his nose into Marshall’s shoulder. Glancing up in embarrassment he found Marshall’s face close to his in the shadows, heavy lidded stare and small half-smile on his lips. He felt, or thought he felt, a grazing of fingertips on his back.

“Sorry.” Tay apologized vaguely because Marshall kept staring low before lifting those ridiculous long lashes back up. All of a sudden Tay felt every inch of where their bodies connected, warm and seamless. Marshall’s stare wouldn’t release him and Tay parted his lips to talk but nothing came except some uneven breaths. It was like having an entire conversation with just their eyes, the expression they wore in the shadows of the dark, all these questions and answers flying back and forth and Tay wasn’t even sure what they were. He blinked at the pull in his chest, the one that made it impossible to look away.

“You okay?” Marshall finally whispered and Tay nodded. A wash of light lit up the room as the evil government scientists nuked the zombie city to smithereens and they glanced at the screen. But Tay couldn’t help looking back right away and he found Marshall already staring at him again.

He let his muscles relax into the press of Marshall’s body next to him instead of keeping them tightly in check; head tilted back, legs interlocked. Marshall’s lips curved faintly before they both turned back to the screen. Tay could have stayed in the dark theatre forever.

Chapter Text

Such a muddy line between The things you want
And the things you have to do.

Every Day Is A Winding Road
~Sheryl Crow

TAY

When the lights came up Tay squinted and stretched, the brightness jarring after the intimacy of the darkness they’d sat in. Only they and some movie geek looking boys in the very front row were left and the clean-up crew had already started sweeping up stray popcorn and napkins from the sticky floor. Marshall kept looking at him then away, like he did the times the energy between them got heavy and deep and Tay felt it too, like a shift of something had happened as they sat in the dark.

“That wasn’t so bad, right?” Marshall finally said and Tay shook his head, smiling.

“No, it wasn’t so bad. I get to pick the next one. Do you like foreign movies?” He cracked up at the absolute panic on Marshall’s face, touching his arm for reassurance. “I’m kidding! I’m kidding! I wouldn’t do that to you!”

“Better not.”

“Not right away.” Marshall’s shoulder bumped his and he bumped back and as they stumbled into the crush of people in the lobby, laughing, Tay was able to name the bright upsurge of emotion in his chest as joy and wondered if he’d ever really felt it like that, pure and heady, bubbling out of him, unable to stop.

Part of it was that he was actually out here, with kids, doing what kids did, and he didn’t feel like a freak. He didn’t feel out of place, like he’d wandered in on someone else’s movie script and didn’t know the lines. Walking next to Marshall, talking and joking felt easy as breathing, as skating, as drawing the first time he picked up a pencil. If they got a second look from the mounds of kids milling around the cinemas they didn’t get a third, and Marshall didn’t even seem to notice the first one.

However, neither of them wanted to play more video games and before Tay knew it they were out in the parking lot, back at the car. A spark of disappointment nudged him when he realized this was almost over and it was too soon. He wanted to keep on talking and finding reasons to touch Marshall and give Marshall reasons to touch him.

Except he had no idea how to say this without, well, saying it and they were suddenly in the moving car, a momentary silence settling between them as Marshall negotiated the busy intersection out of the parking lot. Even though all they were doing was sitting Tay felt the space get that heaviness to it that happened when they were alone and risked a glance at Marshall. He collided with Marshall’s eyes, electric blue and speculative, fleeting before the stare returned to the road and Tay’s stomach fluttered helplessly.

He wondered if Johnny was right and it was possible to explode from sexual tension.

“Look,” Marshall said into the stillness, “I don’t wanna take you back yet. You hungry?”

After a bottle of water and at least half a bucket of buttered popcorn? “A little.”

“Dope.” Tay spied the distinctive golden arches of a McDonald’s on their left a second before Marshall turned the wheel into the crowded parking lot.

*~*~*~

The inside of the restaurant sported long lines and a sea of kids spilling out of and into the covered playground while their parents parked themselves on the hard swivel benches amidst a sea of used wrappers and empty fries containers. A tired-looking Black girl with a long weave swept refuse listlessly into a dustpan with an extendable arm, the metallic opening and closing background to the Saturday din.

A lot of older kids were here too, and Tay saw the stares they garnered as he and Marshall stood in line. The space wasn’t like the insanity of the theatre; it was a lot smaller. He wondered if Marshall really didn’t notice or was just playing it off. He decided Marshall really must be oblivious when a large boy in a Piston’s cap gave Tay a pointed once-over and Marshall didn’t even look at him.

“I’m getting this so don’t even start.” Marshall said as absently, eyes on the menu on the wall and Tay decided not to.

In truth he didn’t go to McDonald’s all that often, though everyone else seemed to inhale the stuff. It used to be their place Before He Walked Into the Room. They’d clamor to be taken to trade Happy Meal prizes, steal each other’s fries, and see who could suck up their milkshake fastest without getting a brain freeze. That was before public school and hockey and before he began to watch his diet carefully.

“Where’d you go?” Marshall asked and Tay blinked back, shaking his head a little. Way to go, Tay, he chided himself. Zone out on him. Very smooth.

“Nowhere. I used to come here with Zac and Ike when we were little. Well, not here,” he amended, “The one closer to my house.”

“You talk like you don’t do it no more.”

“We don’t.” Tay shrugged and the cashier’s perky voice saved him from the puzzlement on Marshall’s face.

“Welcome to McDonald’s can I take your order?” She greeted in one whole sentence, the round dark moon of her face smiling brightly.

“Yeah, gimme a number five, super sized, with Mountain Dew, another Quarter Pounder, a chocolate Sunday and an apple pie.”

Tay would have fallen over at the amount of food except he’d seen the amount of damage Zac and Ike could do, and Josh wasn’t far behind. He’d seen his younger brother annihilate an entire large pizza and have dessert afterwards. It was kind of scary to watch.

“I’ll have a Dasani and a Premium Southwest Salad.”

“That’s it?” Marshall said in disbelief, “I got money.”

“We had all that popcorn.” Tay glanced away hoping he wouldn’t have to go into the whole diet schpiel because it made him feel like a girl even if other athletes watched their weight: wrestlers, football players, swimmers. Somehow if you figure skated it made you girly not committed.

But Marshall just shrugged and paid the girl who had already assembled their food, drawn Marshall’s fountain drink, and slapped another brown tray on the counter for the next customer. Tay didn’t think he could ever work someplace like that. He didn’t know how people got the smells out of their hair.

For a second Tay didn’t think they’d find a place to sit because every booth and table had families or groups of kids at it. Finally, though, a mom and three kids vacated a booth near the back amid much shouting and herding and Marshall sprinted over before the new influx of people entering could spy it.

“Nice moves.” Tay teased as the tired-looking lobby girl cleared the table of wrappers and empty drinks and ran a damp cloth quickly over the surface.

“Snooze you lose. It’s always this full on Saturdays.”

“They all are, I think.” Tay kept himself from waving at the lingering scent of ammonia from the girl’s washcloth but he did surreptitiously wipe the surface down with a napkin to dry it before place his plastic container of lettuce and bottle water on the table. He unzipped his jacket and shrugged it off, already kind of warm in the fuzzy cashmere and full restaurant. Marshall seemed comfortable in his hoodie.

Tay excused himself to go to the restroom which had definitely seen better days and sported no soap, little toilet paper, and a mysteriously sticky floor that Tay decided immediately not to think too much about. He guessed no one had quite gotten to it yet with the never-ending crowds. Someone had written ‘311! Peace out!’ in black marker on the mirror.

Tay walked back and met a few curious glances on the way, but nothing hostile or anything. It’s not like there were no white kids, there just weren’t many, and most of them were girls.

By the time he got back Marshall had already begun to eat, sipping at his soda and tearing open many packets of catsup to squirt on the mountain of fries. Tay carefully squeezed out his diet salad dressing and started to mix it in after taking a drink of his water. He glanced up to see Marshall eyeing his food with interest.

“I can’t believe that’s all you’re eating, man.”

Okay, so maybe they weren’t over the food subject. “I just don’t eat a lot. I have to stay at a certain weight for skating.” Tay speared some lettuce with his fork.

“You fuckin’ kidding? You’re all skinny and shit.”

“I’m not skinny.” Tay said with his mouth full, one hand already diving to the hem of the sweater to tug it lower over his waistband. He knit his brows at his cold container of lettuce and scoop of taco beef which looked even smaller next to everything Marshall had ordered. To prove how not-skinny he was he grabbed some of Marshall’s fries and plunked them on the cover of his salad, popping two in his mouth. “It’s just hard to jump in the air and do three rotations then land without looking crappy. I’d like to see you jump…” he looked up ready to make his point and saw Marshall’s electric blue eyes laughing at him as he sipped his drink.

“You’re fucking with me.”

“Yeah.”

“Jerk!” Tay kicked at him under the table and Marshall laughed, trying to dodge his feet without looking then grabbing Tay’s ankle fast between his feet no matter how much Tay struggled to get free. They smiled at each other like doofuses.

“Naw, you ain’t skinny. You look good.” Marshall said then got the same startled look as in the car when he called Tay ‘cute.’ Tay lowered his eyes and ate another fry then looked up again to see the pink on Marshall’s cheeks but the intense blue of his stare not shying away, not dropping.

Oooh, Tay thought, letting himself fall into the ocean depths of that stare, felt his heartbeat trip over itself and his palms sweat right here in the middle of all the noise and pandemonium and that annoying Ronald McDonald song filtering in from the playground. Don’t say anything, don’t, don’t – but he didn’t know how long he couldn’t because this, it was. He wanted to lean across the table and touch his face so badly when Marshall looked like at him like that, with this wonder and almost surprise.

He said the first safe thing he could think of. “Not as good as that girl in the movie. She was really skinny, but I think it looked better on her. She was pretty…” And bring on the babblefest.

Marshall shrugged, still holding his stare; took a languid sip of his drink and Tay could not, upon pain of death, stop from dropping his eyes to Marshall’s pouty, chapped lips closing around the straw. He felt the heat on his face and still couldn’t not look. “She’s a’aight.” Marshall allowed voice offhand, not-impressed. Not at all agreeing, and Tay did look down then, the smile curving the corners of his lips no matter what he did.

“That guy, that special forces guy in the movie; the only one that didn’t die. He looked good.” Marshall commented casually and Tay looked up to see the studied indifference as Marshall ate. Tay stole some more fries and made sure Marshall had met his stare before answering.

“He’s alright.”

They smiled at each other and Tay wondered at how they must look because he could feel this thing between them now, so strong, so really right, somehow, and the words, he didn’t even know what they were, hovered there, wanting to be said.

Tay leaned his elbows on the table, watching his finger trace the imitation wood grain of the veneer. “Marshall…”

“Yeah,” /porn voice/ and Tay took a breath, looked up and saw him leaning close, too, folding his arms and bracing forward. His eyes were so blue, intent and sharp.

Then they widened staring a point past Tay’s right shoulder. Knitting his brows Tay turned to follow Marshall’s surprised gaze when a group of boys invaded the space, large, laughing, shoving boys wearing ghetto gear and starter caps, calling Marshall by name and sliding curious, judging glances Tay’s way. The conclusion in the sea of dark eyes didn’t look good.

“Yo, Marsh!”

“Hey, dog, I thought you was studying!”

“I can get behind this kinda studying!” A huge boy that was squeezing Tay into the corner of the booth opined to be greeted by deafening laughter.

Tay tried to catch Marshall’s eyes, the mix of testosterone and tension so thick in the air it gathered behind Tay’s eyes in a dull pounding.

Then a lanky, dark boy with a fall of dreadlocks slipped next to Marshall and met Tay’s eyes with shrewd ink black eyes. Tay watched, helpless envy burning in his throat, as the boy threw an arm around Marshall’s shoulders, easy and intimate, the ease with which Marshall accepted the gesture stinging.

Tay was being squeezed into a corner by an enormous boy who kept staring at Tay’s chest for no reason, the rest of the boys eyed him with a mixture of curiosity and judgment and Marshall would not meet his eyes at all. The entire magic of their day had evaporated completely, like it had never existed at all, and Tay felt the familiar sinking dread at being studied closely by all these tough-looking friends of Marshall and so obviously found wanting.

“Who’s your friend?” The dreadlocked boy asked, his eyes still fathomless, his arm still slung around Marshall’s shoulders in the international possessive gesture that screamed /MINE/. Their eyes met across the table and Tay stared into the flat, confident dark pools.

And, then, Tay understood.

*~*~*~*~*

“You ain’t a girl.” The slow voice of the heavy boy next to him cut the chatter at the table to silence before they all burst into raucous guffaws of laughter. The flush burned furiously on Tay’s cheeks but Marshall wouldn’t give him anything but nervous, slight glances before his gaze slid away to the table or off to the side.

“Shut up, fool,” Marshall finally said, but the words sounded embarrassed not supportive. “This Taylor. He helps me with Math.”

“Damn! That’s a girl’s name, too.” One of the boy’s exclaimed and Taylor glared at them, wishing he hadn’t worn the sweater or that he wasn’t socially inept, or that they’d gone anywhere but here.

“It is not! Not all the time.” Tay defended, the muscles in his shoulders like rocks under the stupid, stupid sweater. His hands warred with each other on his lap and he made them stop.

“So you’re the tutor.” Proof nodded as if he’d figured something out. “I’m Proof.” As if Tay hadn’t figured that out. “This is Von, Denaun, and the whole lotta booty squashing your ass is Rufus.”

“Fuck you, dog. I’m large and in charge.” The enormous boy boasted and, to make his point, grabbed a fistful of Marshall’s cold fries and nonchalantly chomped on them.

“Well, you sure as shit are large.” Proof agreed, which Tay thought sounded mean, even if Rufus just flipped him off and proceeded to finish off Marshall’s meal without permission.

“You been holding out on us, yo. Weren’t you supposed to be studying?” Proof asked, sipping at Marshall’s Mountain Dew.

“Yeah, dog, what up with that?” Von or Denaun, Tay couldn’t remember which, piped up.

“We were studying.” Marshall mumbled, eyes downcast.

Tay finally felt he had something to contribute, “We’re celebrating because Marshall passed his test.” Marshall’s electric blue eyes met his, such a look of pure panic in them Tay lowered his gaze.

“Is that right? We already celebrated, ain’t that right, Marsh?” Proof kept meeting Tay’s eyes with that dull challenge and Tay tried to meet them but the way Marshall kept acting had thrown him seriously off balance. “Went to The Shelter. Club I DJ at. You been there?”

He knew the answer before he even asked and Tay knew it. “No. I don’t go out much.”

“What do you do?” For the first time Tay realized the other boys were watching the exchange with the back-and-forth concentration of a tennis match.

“I skate.”

“You a hockey player?” VonORDenaun said and the familiar resentment at the disbelief in his voice made Tay clench his jaw.

“Figure skater.” Tay corrected voice level. This he knew; he’d been defending his sport since he began partaking in it. “I figure skate. I met Marshall at the rink.”

“You mean like those cats that skate to music and shit?” Rufus questioned as if Tay had just said he participated in knitting circles or something.

“Yeah. That shit.” He took a sip of his water, catching the raised eyebrows the boys cast each other.

“Well, I been wondering something, you know, just curious. See if you can help me out.”

Tay said nothing, had fleeting glance from Marshall, and met Proof’s eyes head on.

“Whatcha wear under those costumes, huh?”

“Excuse me?”

A cacophony of disgusted sounds drowned out his remark and Marshall squirmed, but only his eyes betrayed how miserable he felt. The rest of his face was a smooth, expressionless mask.

“No, really, now, really. ‘Cause Marsh here, he wear a cup, right?”

“The fuck are you doin’?” Marshall muttered to his friend and Proof shrugged expansively.

“Just learning more about your friend here. That’s a’aight ain’t it?”

Tay narrowed his eyes.

“Is that what you wear, a cup?”

“No.” Tay said flatly.

“You don’t wear nothing?” DenaunORVon exclaimed, scandalized. “That shit gotta be swingin’ in the wind, man.” This brought forth laughter and some more disgusted sounds.

“You all fucked up…”

“It’s called a dance belt.” Tay interrupted Marshall’s embarrassed comment. “It does the same thing a cup does.”

“But it’s different, right?” Proof pressed.

“Yes.” Tay admitted, wishing he knew what the hell Proof was driving at. “The material’s thinner and there’s one section in the back instead of two.”

“So, basically,” Proof surmised, “You wear a thong. That’s fresh.”

“Not exactly.”

But Tay’s words were lost in the wave of laughter and joking from the other three boys and, even if he didn’t want it to, the heat on his cheeks surfaced again.

Then he glanced at Marshall, hating the look of pleading he could feel coming up on his face—and saw him laughing, too, a low, snicker under his ducked head. Tay hadn’t literally felt what people meant when they said, ‘My heart sank,’ but he knew then.

He had to get out of here. Right now.

“I need to go.” Though he’d meant the words to be normal, even, they came out in a whisper so he repeated them too loudly and everyone paused the laugh-fest to look at him. “I can get home on my own.”

Marshall met his eyes for longer than two seconds and for one moment, just one, Tay thought he saw regret and emotion in the electric blue. Thought he would say something, do something, to erase the ugly, defeated lump that had taken up residence in Tay’s chest. “Yeah, a’aight.” But he didn’t.

“I need the keys to the car. My stuff is still in the trunk.”

Marshall reached in the pockets of his loose jeans and Tay snatched the keys mumbling an ‘excuse me’ to Rufus who was already shuffling his considerable bulk sideways on the cramped seat.

Once he was free Tay couldn’t help risking one more glance at Marshall but Marshall’s eyes stayed averted. And Tay fled through the restaurant clutching his jacket.

The brisk cold outside took his breath away so he pulled the jacket on with trembling hands and figured out which key opened the trunk. He took out his backpack and his skating bag and locked the trunk again and it felt as if the cold not only numbed the tips of his fingers and his toes but everything. If he was numb he wouldn’t feel, wouldn’t hurt, wouldn’t cry. Most importantly wouldn’t cry because like hell was he going to do that in front of the people at the table.

Walking back in the noisy restaurant he paused behind the fake greenery of the booth taking a few deep breaths before approaching the table, and then heard the voices under the restaurant chatter.

“I thought he was a girl, dog! No lie!”

“That’s cause you’re a punk.” Marshall’s sullen voice.

“He that way, though, Marsh. I ain’t seen anyone dress like that wasn’t that way.”

“Uh-huh.” It sounded like Rufus’ voice.

“He’s a’aight.” Pitifully, pathetically Tay’s grasped at Marshall’s phrase. “I can’t pay him, you know? I owed him for my grade. It ain’t like I can take him to The Shelter and shit.”

“Shoot. You ain’t kidding!”

“He prolly get hit on!”

“You KNOW he get hit on! A brother be fucked up, think he’s a girl!”

The raucous laughter was back, broad and loud, and Tay saw his vision blur, felt a fist squeeze his chest hard. Viciously he controlled it. By the skin of his teeth he controlled it and won.

Taking the few steps to reach the table the laughter ceased as he approached and he thought Marshall might have blanched when he saw Tay move from behind the plant, but probably not.

Tossing the keys on the table Tay stared at Marshall for a few seconds. The beautiful eyes that had been so open now barely met his. When Marshall turned
his head again Tay walked away. He didn’t say anything.

Things were clear enough without words. They were clear as day.

Luckily, thankfully, the number 17 bus had just pulled up to the bus stop on the corner of the small parking lot and Tay waved it down just as the driver shifted gears. The driver stopped. Tay got on.

The cold of the seat sent a shiver through him, but he concentrated on not feeling, not thinking, not knowing. It felt best.

The bus held several elderly Black women, a mom and two small kids, and a group of teen-agers being loud in the back. Tay ignored them and they ignored him back.

His vision blurred again and would not be stopped, but only two tears escaped before he swiped angrily at them, and regained control. He didn’t even think anyone noticed.

He didn’t cry again, not another drop.

He was pretty proud of that.