College kids crowded the bar, their voices a second song on top of the shitty pop music playing over the speakers. It was a humming of exam nerves and awkward flirtation, occasionally punctuated by a crescendo of laughter or excited shouts. The dim room was over-warm with the heat of their bodies. Connor wondered if this was how Zoe's life always felt in this small college town. He wondered how he fit into it.
A worker dragged a microphone past the Murphys’ table, which was tucked up against the worn, wooden stage. Karaoke would be starting soon. Zoe suddenly ducked down in her seat. “Oh God. That’s Jared. He’s in my Bio class. Don’t look at the door! Look at me. Pretend we’re talking.”
Connor leaned toward her. “We are talking.”
“Pretend we’re talking about something other than—”
“Zoe!” a nasally voice cried. Jared weaved over to their table. He was short with hipster glasses, a graphic tee, the usual college dork bullshit. Trailing behind him was…Huh. That was interesting.
Zoe took a leisurely sip of her beer and coolly said, “Jared.”
“Let me guess”—Connor shifted a bit to try to get a look at the gorgeous guy hiding behind Jared—“he’s a one-night stand that you deeply regret?”
Zoe huffed. “No. We went on like one date.”
Jared crossed his arms and scowled. Did he really think that was intimidating? “Yeah, and I don’t think you’re gonna do any better, asshole.”
Zoe’s hand flew to her mouth, her short laugh half surprise, half horror. “Oh my God. He’s my brother.”
“Since when do you have a brother?!” Jared cried.
“Birth,” Connor said. “Possibly sooner, depending on your religion.”
“I’ve seen like six months of your Facebook history,” Jared continued. “There was no sign of a brother.”
Zoe glared up at him. Unfortunately, she too had the intimidation factor of a puffed-up kitten. “You were Facebook stalking me?”
“Everybody does it!” Jared flung up his arms, almost backhanding the guy hovering behind him. The brunette flinched back, and Connor caught a brief glimpse of brown eyes.
Zoe stood up, nose-to-nose with Jared, her eyes narrowed. “Not everybody admits to it!”
Connor dispassionately watched them. “Should I leave you two alone?”
Zoe, flushed, sank back into her seat. “Don’t you dare.”
Jared waved his hand at Connor. “Seriously, though, where did you come from?”
Connor stared at him, the creepy kind with eyes half-lidded to remove all shine. It gave people a vague sense that something was very wrong and had helped to spread the “Connor is a witch” rumors back in high school.
“They usually keep me in the attic,” Connor said, “but occasionally they take me out to get my shots.”
Sadly, Zoe had inherited their mom’s fun-ruiner tendencies.
“He’s a high school dropout who’s been off traveling the world to try and find himself”—she turned to him with a smile—“How’s that going, by the way?”
His voice was utterly dry. “Rumor has it I’m in Nicaragua.”
Connor finally, finally got a proper look at Jared’s friend. The guy was medium height, bulky in a solid sort of way, with dark hair and eyes squinted with laughter. Yeah, he was laughing at Connor’s joke. That about doubled Connor’s attraction to the guy.
Zoe gestured toward the hot guy with her half-empty beer. “Connor, meet Evan. He’s been part of my group in like three projects, and he’s never been a dick.”
Evan’s stutter took Connor by surprise. “I-is that so, um, so weird?”
“Yes,” the Murphy siblings answered in unison.
“He’s also currently running for the position of Zoe’s gay best friend,” Jared said.
“J-Jared!” Evan’s stutter was quickly becoming endearing.
Jared raised his hands in mock surrender, a shark’s smile on his lips. “I’m just trying to tell the truth.”
Connor turned to Zoe. “Should I be insulted that I wasn’t even considered for the position?”
Zoe grinned. “Half the position is listening to me bitch about my sex life.”
Connor nodded sagely. “And it’s my solemn duty as your brother to pretend you don’t have one of those.”
“Yep, which you’re doing a terrible job of, by the way.”
Jared pulled up a chair, sitting on it backwards so that his arms were slung across the headrest. “So, are you two going to sing some karaoke tonight?”
“No,” Connor said.
“Come on, why not? It’ll be fun, right Evan?”
“I…guess?” Evan still stood awkwardly by the side of the table, slightly slouched although he was no longer scrunching to hide behind someone who was 3 inches shorter. He was tugging at the hem of the unbuttoned blue polo shirt hanging over his navy T-shirt. Connor contemplated ripping them off him.
“I”—Jared placed a hand on his chest—“am trying to teach Evan”—Jared twisted to place a hand on Evan’s chest—“to loosen up.”
“I’m pl-plenty loose,” Evan muttered.
“Having a screw loose isn’t the same thing, buddy.” Jared patted Evan’s chest before drawing his hand away.
Evan stared at the table, not shooting an insult back or even defending himself. It was sad. Not sad as in pathetic, just sad.
“What’s your major, Evan?” Connor asked.
“Wha…? Oh, um, Ecology,” Evan said. “Ecology is my major.”
“Why ecology?” Connor said.
Evan met his eyes for a moment, then quickly turned his gaze to the table. “I l-like trees, and um, nature, and stuff.”
“You would like Costa Rica. Great rainforests.”
Zoe, who had been watching their exchange with her chin balanced on the palm of her hand, grabbed Connor’s wrist with her free hand. “Oh my God. Are you actually making small talk?”
Connor pulled his wrist free. “Shut up, Zoe.”
She gestured with her beer. “No, no, no. I’m super proud of you right now.”
“I’m a proud drunk.”
“You’re a moment-killer,” Connor grumbled.
Jared stood and grabbed Evan’s arm. “Speaking of moment-killers, it’s time to start karaoke night off right.”
“Jared, I can’t sing!” Evan cried as his friend cheerfully dragged him toward the stage.
Connor turned to Zoe, giving her his most intense look. “If you give me his number, I will give you my firstborn son.”
Zoe tilted her head quizzically. “Why would I want your firstborn son?”
“Is that a no?”
“I’m not gonna give away my classmate’s number just because you think he’s cute. Like, giving your number to somebody is an act of trust, and he’s a really good lab partner.”
“Fine, whatever.” Connor scowled, crossing his arms against the table and resting his head on them. He had thought that their relationship was getting better. They texted a lot. Last Christmas hadn’t been a total disaster. Hell, she had even invited him to stay at her apartment for a few days.
But of course she would still remember the screaming, the threats, the punched walls. Of fucking course she wouldn’t want to inflict her crazy brother on her friend.
Zoe tugged at his hair. It was a little more forceful than it probably needed to be, but Zoe basically lost all control of her motor functions after two beers, so he could forgive that. “Hey, no, don’t get pouty about it. I can totally keep dragging you two to the same movies and stuff until you’re ready to ask for his number yourself.”
Connor sat up, smiling slightly. “Thanks. And, uh, just wondering. Is he always that nervous, or—”
Zoe laughed. “Don’t flatter yourself. That’s just Evan.”
Evan and Jared stood on the stage. Jared seemed totally relaxed, standing in front of a microphone stand that was set up for someone with a foot on him. Evan looked ready to bolt.
Then, as the first notes began to play, Jared leapt off the stage.
Evan’s voice echoed across the room as he said, “Wh-what are you…?”
“Confidence, Evan!” Jared shouted.
Connor wasn’t sure why Evan didn’t bail. Confusion? Frozen in place by nerves?
Evan grabbed the microphone from the stand, practically strangling it. The bright lights leant a shine to his hair. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them, he looked a touch less panicked, and Connor felt a smile tugging at his lips.
Evan began to sing.
“Wow,” Zoe breathed. “He really can’t sing.”
“He did say that earlier,” Connor said lightly.
Zoe watched Evan with horrified fascination. “Yeah, I know. I just thought this was gonna be one of those believe-in-yourself, Susan Boyle moments.”
Evan’s voice cracked on the first high note, and his face looked increasingly miserable.
“Jared’s a dick,” Connor said.
“Jared’s a colossal dick,” Zoe agreed. “What do you think Evan’s gonna do when the duet part starts?”
“Nothing”—Connor stood—“I’ll sing it.”
“Connor, wait,” Zoe said as he moved toward the stage, “don’t leave me with—”
Jared slid into Connor’s now empty seat. “You think I’ll get to be the best man at their wedding?”
Zoe rolled her eyes. “I don’t even think you’ll get an invitation.”
Connor leapt onto the stage and snagged a microphone just in time to sing, “All those days, chasing down a daydream.”
Connor had always thought he would make a pretty fucking awesome Flynn Rider, and yeah, okay, he had gone through an embarrassingly intense Tangled phase. He had both parts of “I See the Light” pretty much memorized. He didn’t have to read the lyrics off the TV screen in the corner. He could watch Evan, startled then smiling. Evan was smiling at Connor.
Connor came closer, pushing emotion into his voice. “If he’s here, it’s crystal clear, I’m where I’m meant to go.”
The duet started, and Evan actually wasn’t so bad when he had someone to harmonize with. He glanced at the crowd every time his voice wavered, though.
Connor grabbed Evan’s hand, praying he would be cool with it.
Evan blushed and didn’t pull away so…Good. Cool. Fucking amazing.
“Don’t look at them,” Connor said. “Look at me.”
Of course, that meant that he wasn’t looking at the lyrics, either, and he kept messing them up. But Connor couldn’t have cared less. The last note rose around them, and Connor leaned forward to kiss Evan.
It was nice. Warm. Even the background music of whooing drunk girls and Jared’s sports-announcer-esque commentary really didn’t detract from it.
Connor, still holding Evan’s hand, tugged him off the stage and into a quiet corner.
Evan slowly emerged from his daze, mumbling, “You’re, um, really good.”
“At the kissing or the singing?”
“The singing! I mean, which isn’t, I don’t mean...Both.”
Connor laughed, his heart racing.
“D-did you kiss me for…?” Evan vaguely waved at the rest of the bar, the audience still loudly gossiping about the kiss.
“No,” Connor said firmly. “Not for them.”
“O-oh.” Evan blushed.
Connor kissed him again, partially to reassure Evan but mostly because he wanted to.
Evan pulled away with a darker blush. “But, um, I was…your singing is nice, too.”
“Three years of voice lessons will do that,” Connor said. “It was my parents’ compromise after I quit doing baseball.”
He hadn’t liked the voice lessons either, frankly. Connor had stopped them for good after he tried to punch his asshole teacher in the throat. That wasn’t something Connor planned to tell Evan on a first date.
Connor said, “This doesn’t strike me as your kind of place. So what is? Movie theater? Diner? 7/11?”
Evan’s brow scrunched slightly. “7/11?”
“I know a guy. I think he’s in prison now. He tried to bomb a school, and…That’s kind of morbid. Sorry.”
Evan smiled at him, he wasn’t protesting the date thing, and Connor almost started singing again to give a valve to all these fucking feelings.
“There’s, um, a park around here that I like to go to,” Evan said.
Connor squeezed Evan’s hand. He hadn’t let go and wasn’t planning to. Evan could have it back in the morning. “Right. You like trees.”
Connor started walking toward the door. “Let’s go.”
The Great Pain in the Ass Jared Kleinman pushed himself between them, dislodging their hands. “Where are we going?”
Zoe followed. “You are not ditching me.”
Connor slowly rearranged his brain. “Fine. Tonight we go to a diner and get milkshakes and probably piss off a waitress.”
“You are my favorite,” Zoe said, definitely tipsy.
Connor looked at Evan. “Does tomorrow sound good for a romantic park date?”
Evan nodded, and he leaned forward to grab Connor’s hand again.
Connor was starting to really like this town. Maybe he should visit his sister more often.