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1. turn around i know we're lost but soon we'll be found

Graduation. Graduates. The words are heavy on his tongue, heavy in his lungs, heavy in his gut. It feels so final; though it’s supposed to be the beginning. Shane still hasn’t talked to Ryan about college, and that’s heavy in his gut too. Too many words, too many ideas lobbying about. It’s like fear has become a great tangled mass in his throat, a nest of thoughts that flit and whirl around his head. He’s nervous, he guesses. He has concerns about it.

He guesses that he’s supposed to be excited, right? But all of it seems like falling asleep afraid; a nightmare you know is coming; giving in to the fear. He knows he must face it down anyway. Like he always does with fear. The way he just puts it in a little box and says, “okay,” and lets it be. It can exist; he can’t fight that, but he just allows it to exist quietly somewhere while he deals with the problem. Typically. This though, this conversation seems an herculean task. Ryan can tell something is bothering him, because of course he can, and Shane can tell that Ryan can tell. Still, though. The conversation has remained still. He feels afraid that if he shifts the balance in any direction it will all explode.

Damn. Fuck. Shit shit shit. He’s really stepped in it this time. Hell, stepped; he jumped headlong. Some stupid party and some stupid game and Ryan’s eyes on him. The heat, the heat, the ice in his glass; Ryan’s eyes on him. The cold air in the garage, Ryan’s fucking eyes on him. What was he supposed to do? Right! Nothing. Exactly what he did up until Ryan… pushed the balance. Spoke out loud. And then… the heat, the heat, the heat.

“You okay, man?” Ryan asks and his attention snaps up from where he’s been staring at his email. Ryan leans over, maybe to check what’s held him distracted for so long, maybe to kiss him; he snaps the laptop shut either way. It turns out it was to kiss him, just soft lips pressed against his cheek.

“Yeah, yeah. I was just thinking about like. We just graduated. We don’t ever have to go to high school again,” Shane says. Ryan laughs, just a small chuckle, says, “thank God for that, right?”

The two of them are spread out on Shane’s bed. Shane’s leaned up against the headboard and Ryan’s been watching some series on his TV for the past couple days, has hardly been home. He reaches over, threads his fingers between Shane's idly - unconsciously? - and it ripples through Shane like a shiver in his chest. “So like,” Ryan starts and he panics. Just like Ryan, to keep on pushing at things. “We haven't really talked about it, but we're together right? Like… boyfriends?”

It's been a week since they first hooked up. A week of them together and a week of kisses and a week of exploring. It's something Shane never thought he could have, never even thought to wish for, but it's all felt so natural that until now he hasn't really thought about it. “Is that what you want?” he asks, cautious. Ryan grins like the sunrise, slow and hopeful and gorgeous.

“Yeah. You?” he says. Shane smiles, leans in to press a kiss against his smile (his boyfriend's smile) and says, “yeah.”

They kiss, lazily, on his bed for a while until there's a knock on his bedroom door. “Shane?” his mother's voice asks. They pull apart and Ryan shifts away, returns his attention to the TV. She opens the door slowly. “I'm starting dinner, just wanted to know if Ryan was staying again.” Ryan turns to face her, smiles.

“Thanks so much, Mrs. Madej. I should probably head home tonight though, before my mom reports me missing,” he says. The way he talks to parents has always stood out to Shane; the balance between respect and casual conversation and humor honed over the years. Moms love him, in general. Shane thinks he understands why.

“Fair enough,” she says, “and please, you can call me Sharon. You boys are all grown up now.” There's a wink in her voice, a teasing kindness. They've been friends so long she considers him a son and once again Shane thinks about balance, about pushing and tilting without losing the razor edge. His mom closes the door and Ryan glances over at him, presses a finger against a hickey on his collarbone under his shirt, and laughs.

It's easy, the two of them. Natural even. They've just fallen in together like they've always been together. But then, haven't they? Best friends for six years. Lovers for a week. Boyfriends for a moment. It's been the two of them for a long time. Still, it feels too easy. Despite the ease, Shane can't stop worrying. That it's all a mistake or it's going to fall apart.

True to his word, Ryan leaves just before dinner, and Shane spends the whole meal hyper aware of the collar of his shirt, of the bruises hidden just below, and he thinks I am well and truly screwed while he eats.

*

“What’s with you, dude?” Sara asks from where she’s lounging in the sun. “You’ve been weird all week. Are you still mad because I made you strip at the party?” Shane doesn’t look up from the laptop resting on his knees, from the essay he's trying to finish up for his last college application.

“Of course not. Just working on something.” Shane says and Sara just rolls onto her back to tan her stomach. “I've been thinking a lot. About graduation and college and stuff,” he continues.

“That sounds boring. Shouldn't you enjoy the summer instead?” she says without looking over. They've been friends for years, just as long as him and Ryan in fact. Sara was actually the first person he met when his family moved here. He knows that she can tell when something is bothering him. He can read from her tone that she thinks there's something he isn't telling her. He feels guilty. “You planning on moving for school?” she asks, though she does so in a way which poses at least four other questions at the same time.

For a moment, Shane is stuck still. He has a hundred answers swirling through his brain. Sara must notice, because she finally looks over and lowers her sunglasses to eye him.

“I'm not sure,” he says, “haven't really decided.”

*

He gets two incredible weeks: Two weeks slow and long and syrupy; two weeks trading hidden kisses and feeling Ryan's nails digging into his back and feeling Ryan’s body pressed tightly against him; two weeks of pure and uninterrupted summer, languid and bathed in golden light like a nostalgic film, like curling up to read in a big bay window and falling asleep, like everything is a bright orchard and sweet and ripe. Then Ryan calls.

“Hey,” he says, as far from casual as can be, a panicked edge in his voice. “I don't want you to be mad, but there's something I need to tell you. Meet me at the park?”

Shane says something, maybe, something affirmative hopefully, as he's pulling on his shoes and grabbing a flannel; he can't hear over the sirens ringing in his ears, the pounding beat of his own blood. The park is only a few minutes from his place, right in the middle of the path between their houses. The walk takes years.

Ryan is already there, sat on a table like he's been in place for a while. He's silhouetted stark against the vivid setting sun. Shane walks over and sits on the bench, in between Ryan's open legs, and feels hands rest on his shoulders. One of his hands slides up to tangle loosely in his hair. Neither of them speaks for a moment, until Ryan opens his mouth and hesitates.

“So. My mom found out. About us. I wasn't thinking and pulled off my shirt at the beach and she acted like I just stabbed myself or something because she saw all the hickeys. I didn't… I couldn't lie, you know? Tell her you were some girl named Sheila or something.”

Shane leans back into his weight. “What did she say?” he asks. He doesn't want to know the answer.

“That I'm being stupid and impulsive. That I didn't think about how this could affect me, us, our friendship. That she loves me no matter what but she wishes I had thought things through more.”

“Christ, Ry. She's acting like we're pregnant and dropping out of high school. Did she forget that you had a 4.0 GPA?”

He can feel Ryan shrug by the way his hands move.

“Do you think she's gonna tell my mom?” Shane asks.

Ryan doesn't answer, and when he does it's with a question silent in his eyes and a kiss gentle on his lips, tipping Shane's head back and leaning down, quiet in the darkness of the sinking sun.

Shane gets home and decides to bite the bullet. His parents are in the living room, and when he walks in and just stands there they mute the tv and turn to him, waiting. “So.” Shane says. His fear is palpable. His hands are shaking in his pockets. “Uh, Ryan and I.” It's like he can only think in single syllables. He sighs. “Ryan and I are dating.”

No one says anything. His mom raises an eyebrow. They're clearly expecting him to elaborate.

“We have been for the last week,” he finishes and this gets a reaction.

“Were you not going to tell us?” his father asks. His mother holds up a hand, palm up, like Vanna White gesturing to his dad's question where it's hanging in the air.

“Obviously I was. I just. Needed to figure stuff out first.”

“Well have you ‘figured stuff out’ yet?” his mom asks and Shane just shrugs roughly. “I know how I feel about him,” he says.

His mom opens her arms and he falls into them, and his dad's hand is on his shoulder, and everything else stays buried deep inside himself. All those little boxes of fear, buried in the darkness.

*

Things are relatively normal until a few nights later, when Ryan comes to spend the night. He’s known that this would be something, now, that even though they’re both eighteen their parents would have Opinions about it. To their credit, they don’t say anything. They do usher him in the door while giving Shane looks that say a hundred different things, but they don’t say any of them out loud and they don’t insist he keep his door open so he figures he’s operating on some sort of silent Trust System at the moment.

They sit as far apart as his bed will allow, Ryan all the way against the wall and Shane nearly sliding off the edge. Shane can’t shake the feeling that everything around and between them has been shifting, slowly, along without him. Like things keep changing and he can’t keep up. There’s some movie on but he can’t focus at all on anything except the shape of Ryan in his peripheral vision. Ryan looks over, like he can tell Shane is watching, and the smile that grows on his face puts him at ease more than anything has managed this summer.

“This is a bit weird, right?” Ryan says. Shane laughs, leans over to pull Ryan closer. “Just like, now that they know you feel a bit awkward, right? It's not just me?”

“No, no. It's weird. But that's okay. It can be weird for a bit and then things will settle in,” he says. He feels dishonest, tempering Ryan when they're having the same fears and anxieties, but he knows this is normal. Their lives are changing, their relationship is changing. Everything, everything, changing around them. Maybe even they are changing; almost certainly they are. What is it about change that always becomes so unbearable? A cocoon outgrown, a bud become suffocating; the risk to bloom.

Ryan moves over, slides more fully under his arm, but he doesn't turn back to the movie. His eyes just track over Shane’s face, searching. Shane leans in, lets his eyes slip shut and presses their lips together softly. Ryan leans in, tilting his head and raising his hand to Shane’s cheek, cupped soft around his jaw. He pulls back, briefly. Just smiles, like it says everything. He leans back in and they kiss for hours. Slow and teasing and so so bright and new; Shane feeling like springtime the whole night.

The morning light streams in through his blinds. The morning is hot, the day will be hotter. Ryan is in his arms, stifling a yawn against his chest. He stretches out a bit, and Ryan leans up to yawn again. “Shane,” he says but then his phone rings.

“Yeah, yeah, I didn’t forget. I’m on my way right now. Yeah, almost home. Of course I’m not still- mom come on, I’m on my way. Okay. Okay. Yeah, see you in a few. Love you too.”

He got up about halfway into the call, dressing quickly, and once he hangs up he tosses his phone onto the bed near Shane’s foot and gathers up his stuff. “Sorry dude, I’ve got like. Family shit to deal with,” he says and Shane shrugs. He feels a thin strand of paranoia thread itself up his spine but ignores it; puts the fear in the box and tells himself it’s fine. He walks him to the door and Ryan makes it halfway out before he turns heel and presses a kiss to Shane’s lips. He smiles into it, bids him goodbye, and shuts the door. He turns back down the hall but stays there, leaning against the door, until his mom wolf whistles from the kitchen.

“Come on, mom,” he whines and she laughs while she pours a cup of coffee. She doesn’t give him a look, but he defends against one anyway when he says, “nothing uncouth happened. Promise.”

She laughs again on her way into the living room, but doesn’t say anything.

*

He’s sitting on a bench in a park, licking absently at an ice cream cone while Sara tells him all about the vacation she’s about to leave for. “Wow,” he says dully, “Cancun, huh?” She sighs, giving him a look, and he breaks into a laugh. “Sorry,” he adds.

“I know. It’s not fair. They’re going to be with me 24/7 so I can’t even like… I don’t know. Enjoy it. They might as well take me to a water park.”

“You could always fake sick and stay home,” he suggests. His tone says that he is far more interested in the ice cream than Sara’s holiday plans. “No way, I did that last year, remember? Ned and Eugene broke my parents bed by jumping on it and they lost their minds. I’ll just have to suffer through the beauty and fun, I suppose.”

They both laugh, then. “Okay wait, you need to spill because I’ve been hearing some rumors about you,” she says, suddenly serious. This overtakes the ice cream for his attention, finally, and Sara’s smile says that she knew it would do exactly that. “Oh?” he questions and her smile takes on its dangerous tint. The one she only gets when she’s devious.

“Shaney, have you been holding out on me? Have you maybe neglected to let me know something? Maybe something from Eugene’s party?” She hints at everything around Ryan, like shooting at his feet to make him dance. The tone puts him on the defensive but she’s pushing him faster than he can guard.

“Are you fucking Ryan?” she asks, finally, and Shane’s face must betray him. Her face immediately splits into a grin and she screams, laughing and pulling him in for a hug. “You have got to be kidding me!” she says into his ear, “you finally hooked up with your best friend and completely hid it from me?”

“It wasn’t like… purposeful deviousness,” he offers weakly and from behind her sunglasses he gets the impression that she glares at him. “Look it was just… it happened and then we just. I needed to figure shit out, because it’s not like. It’s not like that, right? Fucking.”

She’s quiet for a while. “Do you have a big gay crush on Ryan?” she asks finally.

Shane shoves her off the bench and she drops her ice cream, so she steals his and complains the whole time about vanilla being boring.

*

Shane spends a month in anxiety, and then the letters start coming. Somehow, seeing the first one sitting there on his bed when he gets home from Eugene’s manages to both twist up his gut further and sag through him like relief. He doesn’t open it. Doesn’t open the first three. He just throws them into a drawer in his desk and does his best to forget about them. Even though he applied well before he and Ryan got together he still feels regret like an emptiness in his stomach that they haven’t talked about their college plans. What if they don’t end up together? What if he doesn’t even get into college and Ryan goes somewhere far away and amazing like Yale and then he doesn’t have time for silly old small time Shane? He can’t fight this fear; this one won’t fit in a box and it just rattles around his brain all night like a ghost in the attic.

Neither of them bring it up, so he assumes this is just A Thing. Just one of those things that everyone involved in is aware of but make a group decision to ignore. The elephant in the room, he guesses. He feels the weight of it constantly, wears it like a heavy coat against the summer heat.

*

Eugene’s house is crowded and loud. There’s a cup in his hand. Ryan is a steady weight next to him. He tosses a ball across a table and it sinks into a cup part full of water. Ned and Keith groan, dropping their heads into their hands while Ryan jumps up, cheering.

“Three in a row! He’s on fire!” Ryan shouts and Shane laughs. Before their friends can even drink from Shane’s shot Ryan follows up with a smooth motion and a perfect shot of his own. He turns in celebration and throws his arms around Shane, and even though he slops some of his beer on Shane’s arm he wraps him up too and laughs with him.

The music is loud. His heartbeat is loud. Sara’s eyes are loud, across the room. Ned and Keith are drinking, close to defeat as they both miss and Ned collapses to the floor to sit morose. The music is loud, but he can still hear it when Ryan says, “fuck. I love you.” It chills him in the warmest way; like the chill that sticks to you when you make it inside from the cold, the chill you must shake off. He takes a big gulp of his drink, and he thinks well I am well and truly screwed. They win, of course. Leave the table and walk together toward the kitchen. Ryan hops up to sit on the counter while Shane digs through the fridge, coming up with two beers and grinning when he closes the door and sees Ryan.

Ryan takes his beer, but immediately sets it next to him and spreads his legs slightly. Shane steps forward, his beer joining Ryan’s on the counter while he crowds into his space. He hasn’t said anything yet, just smiled shy, and he ducks his head in to kiss him. Ryan wraps his arms around his back, tugging gently. He goes, leaning in easily, his hands spread across Ryan’s thighs and his lips on his lips and Ryan’s hands tightening around him.

He pulls away, Ryan’s hands moving loosely to rest on his shoulders. “I love you too,” he says. Ryan blushes, looks off to the side like he’d been hoping Shane hadn’t heard him. “You don’t have to-” he starts but Shane crowds back into his space, insistent. “I do have to, because it’s true. What else are we doing here, Ry? What are we doing if it isn’t falling for each other?”

Ryan meets his eyes, the dark brown lit up like scotch with a heat Shane doesn’t recognize, a heat he hasn’t met yet. “Follow me,” he says, and it’s so low and smoky that Shane doesn’t have a choice, just moves back and gives him the space to slide off the counter to his feet. Ryan grabs his hand and drags him away from the living room, through the other side of the kitchen towards the garage. He pulls him into the laundry room by the backdoor, locks it behind him, and pushes Shane back against the wall. “Jesus, Ryan,” Shane says, but it’s light and musical like he’s amused.

His lips are angled in a smirk when Ryan presses forward and kisses him again, firm and direct. A message. His hands are hot on his face, on his jaw, on his chest. Everywhere they land feels like he’s being branded, claimed. “I love you,” Ryan says again, as he pulls back to meet Shane’s gaze directly. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” he says.

“I love you too,” Shane replies. Then he grabs Ryan’s shirt and moves to spin him, pins him back against the door and drops to his knees. His hands make quick work of the fly, tugging his jeans just halfway down his thighs and tugging his boxers enough to get his dick out. It’s already hard in his hand and he grins. “I love you too,” he says again, and then leans forward and sucks him down.

Ryan’s hands fly backwards, smacking into the door. He can still hear the music. He can hear voices in the kitchen. He pulls back and slides back down along the thick length of him, teasing at his foreskin with his tongue when he pulls back and relishing the gasping moans when he sinks forward.

Eventually Ryan’s hands land on him, still hot, still fire. One is on his shoulder and the other is a steady weight on the crown of his head. Not guiding, just resting. Shane would smile, at the feeling of fingers tangling in his hair, if he weren’t so occupied. “Fucking. Shane. Holy fuck. Fuck,” Ryan mumbles.

Shane just moans around his dick and Ryan’s voice cuts out as he moves his lips helplessly. Someone knocks at the back door, tries the handle but it’s locked. Shane feels a thrill shivering up his back. This is a terrible idea. All their friends around. Shane’s dick rock hard in his pants. Ryan trembling against the door. Voices in the kitchen. This is a terrible idea, but Shane can’t help himself from sliding back down again, burying his face up against Ryan. “Fuck,” Ryan says, the first word in nearly five minutes. Then silence again, groans that he buries against his shoulder and whines that he fails to swallow.

If he’s honest, Shane wants to see how far he can push this. How long until someone tries the door they’re leaned against? Until Sara or Eugene notice they’ve disappeared?

He doesn’t care, as he keeps sucking and teasing, until Ryan’s hands tighten on him, in his hair, and he says, “I’m gonna fucking cum, dude. Right now.” He does, in fact, right then. Something about all of this has turned him on so much that he almost cums in his pants, untouched, and only barely avoids falling off that precipice. He stands up, leaning in and kissing Ryan again, and Ryan just sags against him while he puts himself away and does up his pants.

It turns out they’re already caught, though, because when they walk back into the kitchen hand in hand, Shane glances over just in time to see Sara snapping a picture. Her and Eugene look down at it and burst into hysterical laughter. He can only imagine how they look; his own lips red and flushed and obviously fucked, his hair wild; Ryan’s cheeks flushed and his lips raw where he’d bitten them, his shirt tucked in awkwardly to the front of his pants.

“Oh,” Sara says, staring at the picture, “oh yeah. I am so glad I came to this party instead of packing.” Eugene catches Ryan’s eye and winks, and his blush grows impossibly darker.

“Shut up,” Ryan says weakly, but then Sara turns the phone so he can see the picture and he chases her down trying to delete it for the rest of an hour, until they find themselves back in the garage, around the bong.

Ryan is right next to him, sitting so close he can feel the heat of him. He glances over to catch Shane’s eye and grins, winking. There’s a hickey on his neck.

Completely screwed, he thinks.

Chapter Text

2. don't turn away it's just there's nothing left here to say

He wakes up early; the sun is harsh through his window and in the night he kicked off his blanket. He’s flushed, sweating against the onslaught, panting from the leftover anxiety of his nightmare. He gets up, heads straight for the bathroom and jumps in a cool shower to fight off the stress and the heat. It helps, a bit. Sara left yesterday, two weeks in Cancun. Most of his friends have left for vacations, in fact, and it has him feeling a bit lonely. No more parties at Eugene’s. No more Ned calling him to rant about how dumb their friends are, no more Sara probing him for details about him and Ryan. And Ryan. Ryan. He’s supposed to do something with his family soon, camping maybe. Shane isn’t looking forward to it at all; keeps hoping that somehow the trip gets cancelled. He wants Ryan here, in his arms, whining about the heat so he can suggest they take a cold shower together or go swimming; he wants Ryan to catch his eye behind his parents’ backs and wink lasciviously. He wants, he wants, and even though he’s still here he wants and covets and misses desperately.

He can’t take the emptiness of his room, the absence around the house while his parents are out, so he pulls on some shorts and a tank and heads out into the summer; the heat bearing down on him, the breeze too light to do more than tease, and he heads down toward the preserve, toward the lake. He doesn’t even plan on swimming, just wants to get out of the house and sit somewhere in the shade where he can finally just allow himself to exhale, allow himself to think about all of this shit between them. The lake is abandoned, really more of a swimming hole than a proper lake, and sits about a mile into the preserve. The only sounds are birds singing, the clattering noise of grasshoppers, the trees swaying. He sits down on the shore, collapses down into a rough pile and lets his eyes slip shut. He hopes to find some center; some calm place inside himself around which all of the anxiety must orbit; somewhere that isn’t full up of all the things he hasn’t been saying out loud.

He has a pile of unopened letters in his desk drawer. He has no idea where Ryan applied to. He has no idea where he wants to go. Or what he wants to study. He’s afraid that this, this love between him and Ryan, will dry out like the grass under the harsh sun; that he has the wrong idea and this all-encompassing love he feels isn’t that at all. He’s afraid, wholly and completely, of being left behind. That’s the crux of it, he thinks. He’s always been afraid of being alone, in the way that he fears not fitting in and the way he fears being left behind and the way he fears that the people he loves will outgrow him. It’s all the same fear, in the end; it’s all the same big fear that’s too big to fit in a box and that rattles around all night and all day like a ghost in the attic. Like how Ryan thinks his house is haunted. Shane’s never believed in ghosts, but he believes that people can be haunted; that people are always haunted by regret and fear. Once, his dad told him that fear is the past tense of regret. Here, right now, regrets flooding him like rainfall in the pit in front of him, he has the hindsight to recognize all the fear that's been coalescing.

If he could bring himself to just push the balance, to speak out about what's bothering him, then he knows that they could figure it out. But knowing and doing are different verbs, different meanings, entirely different concepts.

He feels like he should have learned all these lessons by now, already eighteen and no less foolish. He should’ve learned that fighting himself only ever bruises himself. That trying to ignore or resist the bad stuff makes it stronger. He wishes he could just allow himself to be afraid, allow himself to feel it and then put it down. He always tries to put it down immediately, leaves it to fester before he deals with it. He knows what people think about him; that he’s emotionless or heartless. He knows it’s not true though. He just keeps it inside, mostly. How could he be heartless when he feels it all so deeply it scars him? When he feels anxiety like a jacket on his back; when he feels love like a star in his gut?

He’s considering going in the water when his phone rings, and he answers it automatically. “Hey,” Ryan says and even though Shane’s still sitting there in the woods with his eyes closed drowning in malaise he feels his lips twist into a smile.

“Hey,” he replies.

“You home? I was gonna swing by for a bit.”

“Nah. I’m at the lake.”

“Out in the preserve? I’ll be there in twenty.”

The water is lapping at his waist lightly, buffeted around only by their presence. Their clothes are abandoned on the shore, the two of them naked in the water, in the woods, feeling the sun and the shade and the light breeze. Ryan drifts over to him, grinning. They meet in a kiss, an embrace. Here in the water, with Ryan, Shane feels weightless. Every minute they spend together feels like it empties out all the heavy spaces inside him, fills him up with laughter and lulls the fears. When he first entered the lake he felt like a stone, but now he’s floating in Ryan’s arms and he feels hollow-boned like a bird; lighter, somehow, even with all of this heavy love in his chest. “When do you and your parents take off?” Shane asks, and Ryan pulls back enough to gaze at him, a smile on his lips.

“That’s actually why I called. I convinced them to let you come along. If you want, of course.”

Shane stops paddling under the surface and slips down, under the water like a spear. He’s stuck still there, suspended for a moment, before the warbling siren song of Ryan’s laughter pulls him up. “Of course I want to come,” he says when Ryan’s hand on his shoulder drags him above the surface. Ryan laughs and Shane realizes that he never wants to stop hearing that sound. He dives back under the water, dragging Ryan down with him, and defends against his spluttering onslaught when they surface again.

They get bored and tired, wade out of the water slowly to bask in the sun. “Good thing you brought towels,” Shane teases and Ryan laughs. Flips his towel open with a wink before wrapping it around his waist again and joining Shane where he’s laying back on the shore. “When are we leaving? Couple days, right?” Shane asks.

“Yeah,” Ryan answers, “Friday.”

*

“Okay,” his mom says, when he tells them. “A week, right?” she asks and he nods. “Well, have a seat. We want to talk to you about all this. Oh, don't make that face, it’ll be minimally embarrassing, I promise. But this is important.”

Shane finds himself in the chair, facing his parents on the couch. “Are you going to tell me I should be careful, or that I'm being impulsive?” Shane asks while he tries to keep the edge out of his voice.

“Of course not, Shane,” his dad answers. “Well, you should be careful. But we would say that no matter who you’re dating. Relationships are hard work, kid. The last thing we want is for either of you to get hurt.”

“Shane. You and Ryan have been friends for a long time. I can’t say we expected this, but it isn’t necessarily a huge surprise. The two of you, you’ve always been close. I’m just… we’re just worried that if things don’t work out it will have more of an impact than you may expect. Dating someone, loving someone, it’s hard work. There’s going to be a lot of bad times whether you love each other or not. It’s not always summertime romance and sneaking around.”

Shane nods. He has nothing to say, no defense for what they’re telling him. They’re right, and he knows it, but he can’t help but feel like him and Ryan could get through anything, could survive even the worst as long as they’re surviving together.

His mom opens her mouth again, but reconsiders. Instead his dad says, “don’t ever let an argument trick you into believing that boy doesn’t care about you.”

“I won’t,” Shane says. He hopes he means it. He can feel storm clouds brewing, moving up the coast like a fog bank. All of the things that they haven't been saying coiling tight like a snake.

“Why did you ask if we think you're being impulsive?” his mom asks.

“That’s,” he starts before stopping. He isn’t sure, necessarily, what made him ask. Because Ryan’s mom had said it, or because he thought it himself. “Ryan’s mom told him that. That we weren’t thinking things through, and being impulsive.”

“Well I don’t think anyone could accuse you of not thinking things through.”

*

He packs automatically. He feels like stone again, heavy and rough and weathered. Something in his gut is sinking and something in the back of his mind is screaming but he’s drowning all of it out with music while he tosses clothes into his bag. It’s late, too too late at night for him to have only just started, and they’re leaving in the morning. Ryan called him earlier, making sure he still wanted to go with them. And he does, of course he does. A week practically alone with Ryan; time to tease Jake; time to hike and swim. Mostly, he wants to get a week where he doesn’t have to look at his desk drawer every day, where he can forget about the letters still piling up, all of his follies, all of the unsaid things rising up mountainous.

Even though it’s late, his phone rings. He answers while folding up a pile of shorts and drops the pair in his hands to grin when Ryan’s voice greets him tinny through the phone.

“I just wanted to say I’m really glad you’re coming along. I think-- I think it’ll do a lot to make my parents calm down if they see us together, right? Like if they see that it’s still just us like normal,” Ryan says in a rush. “Plus Jake can’t wait to hang out with you,” he adds like an afterthought.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Shane says. Ryan’s quiet for a moment and Shane laughs, “what? Of course I’m excited to pitch a tent with you.” Ryan breaks, chuckles across the phone. “I’m excited, I can’t wait for tomorrow. I have to pack though,” he says and Ryan goes to scold him for not packing earlier but he barrels right along, “I love you, Ryan Bergara.”

And he does. He might not know what he wants to do, or where he wants to go to college, or anything about how to hold onto fear instead of dropping it when it burns, but he knows for a fact that he is in love and that he would do anything to keep it close.

“I love you too. Hurry up and finish packing. It’s late.”

*

The road is endless along in front of him. Huge trees on either side, out the windows. Ryan is pressed in tight next to him, leaning in with every curve and turn, while his brother sits staring out the window. It’s not even noon and the temperature is rocketing upwards; they’ve been on the road for two hours; the breeze is ruffling Shane’s hair lightly where his window is down a bit; there’s an old song playing that he thinks he recognizes but that he must have never paid enough attention to because now, in love, he thinks it’s amazing. The sun is kissing his shoulder. Ryan’s hand is sitting on his knee. Ryan’s mom is singing along in a pretty voice, quiet in the afternoon.

Shane has been in relationships before. Had girlfriends in high school. He’s never before felt anything like the weight of Ryan’s hand and the pressure of his body and the fire of his eyes. He’s never felt anything as big, as enormous, as love. Foolish, childish love? Of course. But this is something else entirely, some enormous beast that follows him everywhere.

They stop for gas and Shane is happy to stretch his legs, heads inside to grab a bottle of water. There’s the beginnings of a headache; just a whisper like when it could snow, but it might not. Shane hasn’t seen snow nearly as often since he moved to California. Not like Illinois, at least.

He feels a hand on his arm and Ryan is there, leaning in to kiss him while he holds the overpriced water awkwardly. “Am I that irresistible?” Shane jokes. Ryan smiles, doesn’t deny it, and he links their fingers together as they walk back to the car. The air is crisper, out here, away from the suburbs and surrounded by trees and the sky more huge here, somehow. Everything so much more open and alive. They climb in, back on that lone, long road. To nowhere.

The campsite is beautiful; split in half by the highway, one side has a river running across the far end and better hiking trails so they pick a spot there and they spend an hour setting up and then it’s nothing. Just wide open space and the enormous sky and all the air. Chairs set around, the river dancing jauntily along, singing out a rushing static. Nothing to do but explore, so Ryan and Shane head off down one of the trails.

In the trees the sun is dappled and hanging loosely in the air; the world around muffled and blanketed, and their hands are clasped together and this is exactly what Shane needed. To get away, and clear his mind, and allow himself to just be for a while. To be with Ryan but to think about the chipmunk on the branch and the way Ryan lights up when Shane points it out to him instead of the enormous and unfathomable idea of the future rushing towards him. They follow the trail for half an hour or so before Ryan tugs on his arm and maneuvers him just off of it and into some sparse trees, pushes him up against one and crashes into him. His lips are needy, insistent, like he’s got something to prove. Shane thinks, now hold on there buddy, I’m the one fucking up around here. He nearly laughs at the thought, but Ryan’s hands are tight on his sides and his thigh is tucked between Shane’s legs and he’s occupied by doing his best to give his boyfriend as good as he’s giving. It’s like they’re trying to outdo each other. From the trail, Jake says, “gross,” and Ryan flips him off but keeps kissing Shane.

“Can’t you guys keep it in your pants until I go to bed?” he asks and Shane pulls away, winks over Ryan’s shoulder and says, “nope.”

Ryan drops his head to his chest and laughs, and then Jake starts laughing, and then they continue to wander the woods, following the strange trails, and by the time they circle around back to camp the heat is leaving lazily and the sky is becoming impossibly violet and they sit down roughly to wait for dinner.

*

The tent isn’t huge, meant for a single person but more than enough room for a double air mattress and their backpacks. Nearly midnight, it seems enormous while they lay side-by-side and stare up into the darkness. There’s only the soft noise of the river for a long time before Ryan whispers a laugh. “Do you want to do something stupid?” he asks and Shane was expecting maybe any other sentence in the world but that one.

Shane whispers, “any time, baby.” Ryan growls.

“How quiet can you be?” he asks, voice dangerously low but quiet enough that Shane has to strain.

Shane becomes cast in stone; a marble carving; not even shivering against the feeling of Ryan’s hand sliding from his chest down to his crotch, pushing the blanket off as he goes. He tries to hold his breath but Ryan cupping him through his shorts startles a gasp from him. Ryan rolls onto his side and moves closer, presses his lips against Shane’s neck but he stays quiet. His lips trace delicately along, never leaving his skin but just barely grazing it; travel to his collarbone (a tease of teeth) and down to his hip bone while his hand works him until he’s straining at his shorts, but he stays quiet. A shiver wracks through him. Ryan moves to the front of him, straddling his shins and leaning in to tease along his length (a tease of teeth) through the fabric. Fingers curl in his waistband and pull his shorts off, and lips curl softly around his cock just as the cool night air hits it. He almost moans but stops himself. He stays quiet while Ryan’s tongue runs up the length of him and while Ryan’s lips slip over the head of it and even when Ryan’s fingers grip his hips tight enough to turn the skin bright white around them. Ryan slides down so slowly that by the end of it Shane’s thoughts are just a rhythmic chant: Ryan Ryan Ryan Ryan.

His mouth slides open but he swallows the noise, shuts it so hard his teeth click together and in the silence it sounds so sudden and absurd that Ryan twitches at the noise of it. He pulls back up quickly, a fierce suction that nearly breaks Shane, but he stays quiet. It’s torture, it’s inhumane, and he withstands it with a single-minded stubbornness. Ryan pulls off, and through the darkness Shane is sure he winks. It only makes the heat in his gut pool heavier; more desperate. The air cooler against him where he’s wet. One of Ryan’s hands disappears. The heat of his breath. A sudden and gentle touch with his tongue has Shane gripping the blanket and his hands shaking against the force. Then his mouth is back; the heat of it. It’s all too much.

Ryan is going faster now, getting desperate and competitive, trying everything he’s learned to try to get Shane to break and moan but he just swallows all of it while he shakes silent. Ryan’s pace changes, his angle changes, and Shane realizes that he’s close to cumming, that his hand disappeared to grab his own cock, and the realization surprises his orgasm from him. Ryan’s arm slows and he groans softly around Shane’s cock after he swallows.

Wordlessly he shucks his shorts, while Shane kicks his the rest of the way off. Ryan takes a moment, spends it cleaning off, and then the whole of him comes to rest against Shane, and against his neck he can feel a smile on Ryan’s face, a smirk. And he pulls the light blanket up higher around them, and turns onto his side to pull Ryan as close as he can.

*

He’s swimming with Jake in a spot where the already gentle river widens out and slows into a loose pool. Ryan is leaning back against a log, sitting in the sun, and every so often Shane splashes him on accident. “Seriously Ryan, how are you not swimming right now?” Jake asks and Ryan shrugs.

“That water is like, freezing,” he replies and Shane says, “yeah but it’s about a hundred degrees out there.” Ryan just shrugs again. This morning the mist rose dense from the ground; the woods more magical in the fog, but before ten it had already burned off and the sunlight was heavy in the sky. This morning Shane woke up with Ryan in his arms; feeling light and full-up and warm, feeling centered for the first time in nearly a year. When Ryan woke up he had just stayed there, holding him tight and pretending to sleep so that they wouldn’t have to get up and get dressed, so that he could enjoy the feeling as long as possible.

“So are you guys like, gay or whatever?” Jake asks and Ryan sputters from the shore. Shane pushes him under the water by his shoulders and he comes up laughing, “what? I don’t care, I was just wondering. I mean, you were making out literally yesterday.”

Shane says, “fair,” and Ryan shakes his head in disbelief. “I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m not really thinking about labels or whatever,” he continues. “I just know that I want to make out with him,” he teases and Jake gags.

“That’s sweet. I just wanna make out with you too, big guy.”

Shane splashes him again, now that he’s standing and closer to the water, and it draws him in to push and pull and douse them both; the three of them there in the water, in the woods, under the sun. It’s still early enough in the afternoon that the day still seems eternal; that hazy way that time crawls during the summer. They have the rest of the afternoon, the rest of the night, five days after that - the rest of the week - before they head back into town. Before they're back home in their beds and the future will be closer. For now, though, everything outside of the cold water is impossible and invisible and illuminated in the distance. Shimmering like a mirage, faint enough to ignore. Shane floats on his back, Ryan’s hand tethering him in place, while Jake leaves the water and walks back toward camp to change.

Shane feels a thumb trace gently across his knuckles and he looks over, at where Ryan is looking down at him like looking at the sunrise. “I love you,” Shane says, and Ryan grins.

“I know,” Ryan says and laughs at Shane's scandalized expression.

“Excuse me! I am not princess Leia. Don't Han me, dude!” Ryan laughs harder, even while he leans in and kisses Shane's cheek. He's never felt anything near as strong as the coursing surge of affection, stronger than the river, stronger than his fear. It feels like so much, too much, like something huge sitting just inside his skin and stretching at the seams of him. It feels like a star in his gut. Like the sun on his cheeks and the blanket on his bed; comforting and warm.

“I've been thinking,” Ryan starts, “about like, the future.” Shane freezes, loses his buoyancy and sinks a bit into the water. He leans up and stands on his tiptoes. “I mean, I don't want this summer to end, Shane. This is… the happiest I've ever been. Being with you is amazing. I don't want fall to come. So we should get a place, right? In it for the long haul?”

Shane thinks about balance. About scales tipping. He thinks about tides pulled back and forth, about the river carving through a valley. Mostly, he thinks about how not ready he is for this conversation. He evades.

“How can you think about the fall right now, dude? It's not even July. Just enjoy the sun for a while,” he says. Ryan's eyes are locked on his face.

“Do you not want to? Get a place, I mean? Too soon?”

Shane is out of his element. The water is suddenly too cold. He's out of his depth and over his head and things are going on here but he's not sure what. “Of course I do. I just think it's a bit early to think about it, right?” he hazards. “I think we should focus on how great this summer is and worry about everything else… later.” Ryan seems unsure, like he's picked up something that Shane didn't mean to drop.

Ryan looks like he's going to say something else, but he thinks again and reconsiders. They walk out of the water together, and Shane stares at the pebbles shifting under his feet, and he thinks about all of the little things shifting and changing around him.

*

Night is bigger in the woods. The darkness stretching every direction forever. Shane feels small, curled up in a chair around the fire; nothing exists outside of the flickering reach of the firelight. Ryan’s parents already went to bed, and the fire is slowly dying, and Jake looks like he’s going to fall asleep at any moment. Shane nudges his arm and he jerks upright, surprised, before he yawns wide and stretches out. He stands, momentarily unsteady, and bids them goodnight. Then it’s just the two of them, the two of them in a shrinking circle of light. They’re quiet. Ryan is staring at what’s left of the flames. Shane is staring at Ryan. They only have a couple days left, and ever since the river there has been something big and unsaid sitting in between them. Shane’s fingers are tapping absently on the flashlight in the pocket of his hoodie.

Ryan opens his mouth, but doesn’t say anything and just closes it again slowly. Finally, just as the last embers are sputtering, Shane says, “do you want to do something stupid?” Ryan’s attention startles up to him, and he smiles.

“Any time, baby,” Ryan replies, and it feels like old times. Like nothing has changed at all. He gets up and dumps water in the lightly smoking ash left of the fire. Shane grabs his hand and leads him down the trail they’d walked on their first day here, the flashlight the only light around. “Where are we going?” Ryan asks but Shane just leads him further along.

He stops at the tree where they’d made out, leads Ryan to a nearby log to sit. For a moment he doesn’t do anything, and Ryan says, “this is pretty stupid. I’ll give you that.” Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a plastic tube, something light like a cigarette rattling softly inside. “Did you bring a fucking joint camping with my parents?” Ryan asks, indignant.

“Should’ve held that sarcastic ‘pretty stupid’ line off a bit, huh?” Shane asks. Ryan just nods. Shane switches the flashlight off and the darkness is nearly complete, just the stars and the moon. “Well, you wanna do something stupid? It’s like, one in the morning. No one’s around. It’s the woods, who’s even gonna care?”

Ryan shrugs, like giving up, and Shane pumps his fist in victory. He pulls out a lighter and flips open the tube, sliding the joint into his waiting lips. “Done this before?” Ryan teases.

“We only ever smoke at parties, Ry. It’s not like it’s, a thing. Let’s just declare this a party.”

“In the woods?”

“Yeah! A woods party!”

Ryan doubles over, laughing hard enough that his voice goes raspy. Shane lights the joint and inhales, but he doesn't hand it over. He leans in and Ryan meets him, his mouth open for a kiss. He takes in the smoke and pulls back enough to let it slip past his lips before leaning back in to kiss Shane again, for real. He pulls back when he remembers the joint, a few minutes later, and they share a laugh while he relights it and hands it over.

They’re laughing, and laughing, quietly enough that they’re mostly just miming it. He can’t remember why. “Do you ever think like, stars.” Ryan says and Shane doubles over, laughing again. “No, no, man fuck you. Listen,” Ryan says. “There’s so fucking, there’s so many of them, right? And most of them have planets and stuff. So like, aliens, dude.”

Shane laughs. “If you mean like, life. In the simplest forms. Then yeah totally. If you’re trying to pitch little grey men from Mars to me you’ve lost it.” Ryan looks at him sharply, but his smile and the laugh that breezes from his lungs betrays him.

“Well if you think I didn’t notice you swerve me the other day when I brought up getting a place then you’ve lost it,” Ryan says, calm. Staggeringly calm. Shane feels the force of it like a punch; he’s suddenly sober. “Seriously, Shane. What was with that? You that scared of growing up?” he teases, but it’s a slap that Shane can hear echoing in his head; like having his ears boxed.

“Maybe. I just don’t want to be like, stressing out about shit this summer, to be honest. I don’t want to think about rent and bills and degrees and finals and college yet. Because you were absolutely right. I’ve never been as happy as I am with you, either. I just… want to hold on to this for a while.”

Ryan is quiet, says, “are you having second thoughts? About us?” barely above a whisper. It sounds eerily similar to an alarm, a siren. Maybe that’s just in Shane’s head. “No.” Shane says with a finality.

“It’s not too late. To back out,” Ryan says and Shane is struck by a series of epiphanies: he’s just as scared as I am; he thinks I want out; he might want out; this might be it; how did all of this come crashing down so suddenly; the sky is falling; this might be it; this might be it.

“Ryan what the fuck? Where is that coming from? I don’t want to-”

“Then what’s wrong?” Ryan asks. “You can’t tell me it’s just… that’s bullshit dude. You’ve been in your head this whole- fuck, this whole trip. You’ve been up there since graduation. You haven’t brought up college at all-”

“Neither have you.”

Ryan stops, sits up straight to stare out into the dark rather than leaning into Shane’s space. “You’re right. But obviously even if I would have tried you’d just… say it’s nothing. Put it off.”

The siren, the diving bell, the alarm; a song absurdly remembered too late. “Can we-”

“Fuck that, really? Shane. I’m sitting here calling you out for putting everything off and you wanna take a raincheck?”

A warning unheeded; the alarm too distant. He’s feeling overwhelmed, torched through with absolute terror. This might be it. “Sorry, I’m sorry. I know I should’ve… Ryan I’m fucking terrified.”

Ryan doesn’t say anything for a long time. Too long a time. “It’s funny. Normally I’m the one who’s afraid.” Shane knows fear. Shane recognizes the pitch of it in Ryan’s voice. Shane knows it. He recognizes it; fear, right here in his hands.

He puts it down.

Chapter Text

3. let's not fight i'm tired can't we just sleep tonight

Inside the tent it’s dead quiet. The river rushes on, undisturbed by the way that his entire life has just shifted drastically. He feels like he's drowning. He feels frigid like winter. He feels like giving up and that's what shocks him into speaking, disturbing the silence of the morning.

“Ry,” he says and it comes out broken. Ryan rolls to face him, his face a neutral mask. He realizes too late he doesn't know what to say. “Are we. Are you… are we going to be okay?” he asks.

“I dunno. I think that's up to you, Shane. I want to be.” Shane's eyes drift down, focusing on the grey fabric of the blanket. Focusing on nothing. “Can you just tell me what you're so afraid of?” Ryan asks. Shane doesn't say anything. What is there to say? Everything? Nothing? I'm afraid that you made a mistake and that now you've realised it? I'm so afraid to lose you that I'm pushing you away while trying to pull you close?

Ryan gets up, gets dressed in the half light, and packs up his stuff in silence. He steps out of the tent and leaves Shane lying there. Lying down, lying to; he feels like he's been laid out.

*

The drive home is twice as long. It seems to last forever while Shane sits awkwardly, near the window again but with Ryan a statue in the middle seat. Jake notices, gives Shane a look, but there’s nothing to say. It’s become a running theme, saying nothing. All of it heavy, the words, the lack of words, the noise of it. He feels hollowed out by the panic, now. His worst nightmare was that somehow he would screw this up and now look at him; well and truly screwed. He doesn’t know how to fix this. He doesn’t know what’s been frightening him so much about the whole thing so he has no answer to offer, but it seems like without one things will not improve.

He gets home, and he says all the normal stuff to his parents and answers their questions automatically. If they notice they only communicate it through glances at each other. He walks to his room and collapses to lie roughly on the bed. He can’t fight the feeling that it’s all fallen apart, that no matter what he does it’s already collapsed and nothing he can do can put it back together. Like a puzzle with missing pieces. “You’ve stepped in it again,” he says to himself, “you truly fucking screwed this one up.” Fear. That’s been the nexus the whole time; fear has been his cornerstone and it has been the fulcrum he’s been balancing on. Fear.

It’s sour, a shiver like biting into a lime; like unripe fruit, dry like white wine. It sits in his throat and it sleeps in his gut. He makes the decision to allow himself one good, full-on moping cry about it all, and he buries his face in his pillow. Then he falls asleep in the afternoon, and he sleeps through the night. In the morning, he hopes, he will be focused and galvanized and ready to fix this as much as he can.

*

His dreams don’t provide him with answers, but the bright sun in his window looks like hope and the light breeze ruffling his curtains sounds like opportunity.

He texts Ryan, just a simple, “good morning. I love you. I want to talk whenever you’re ready,” and then he sits at his desk, and he slides open the drawer stuffed full of envelopes, and he stares them down for a long time.

When Ryan shows up at his bedroom door a few hours later, he opens it to find Shane sitting in the middle of a sea of white paper and black ink. “Uh,” he says, still in the doorway. “What’s all this?” he asks.

Shane stands up, walks over to him and pulls him in to a long embrace. He doesn’t know if this will work, if this is what he’s supposed to do; he doesn’t know if this is the last time he’ll be able to pull Ryan close and feel his heartbeat so he tries to memorize every line and piece of him.

“I applied to every college I could think of because I didn’t know where you were going to go. I applied to literally every school because I was afraid we wouldn’t be together. Before we hooked up, before we started dating. I just wanted to be with you as long as possible.” Shane says.

Ryan’s eyes are on the papers littering the floor. He hasn’t stepped back, but he hasn’t said anything either. “Ry. You’re the most important thing in my life. I don’t even know if I want to go to college in the first place but I was willing to do anything to stay with you. Except, talk about it, apparently. I’m afraid. I’m afraid that you’re going to leave me behind, or that our parents were right and we were just being impulsive. But I love you.”

He leans in more heavily, resting his head on Ryan’s shoulder. He takes a deep breath, and lets it slip out shaky.

“Why didn’t you just ask me? Where I’m applying?” he says, finally. His eyes are still on the mess of paper.

“The honest answer is that I don’t know, and I’m sorry if that’s not the answer you need but it’s all I can give you right now.”

“So what do you want to do?”

“Whatever makes you look at me like we’re in love instead of strangers. Whatever can put things back.”

“I mean college. Where did you get in? Where are you thinking about going?”

Shane doesn’t answer. It doesn’t matter. Wherever is close. Wherever Ryan is. That’s where he’ll be. Ryan’s still there in his arms but his face isn’t the same yet, it still looks timid and quiet and like he’s filled with trepidation. “I don’t mean… I don’t mean, in regards to me. What do you want, Shane? For you?” Shane isn’t sure there’s a difference, or if there’s supposed to be. He says as much and Ryan pulls back enough to look at him, for his eyes to search his face. Shane feels like a butterfly pinned down, under glass.

“I think maybe you need some time,” Ryan says and Shane feels something inside him come loose. “I think you need to plan for your future instead of just... our future.”

“Where are you going?” Shane asks.

Ryan just closes his eyes, leans in to press a kiss against his lips. He doesn’t answer, and the silence after he leaves reminds Shane of the quiet of the woods at night; near complete and overwhelming.

*

He spends a week in melancholy. He’s in the kitchen when his mom walks in, and she doesn’t say anything at all but she pulls him close and holds him, and then she makes a cup of coffee and sits at the table. Shane joins her. “I want you to tell me that you did your best and gave it your all,” she says eventually. It surprises him. He was expecting a lecture or an opportunity to come clean and cry it out.

“I tried. I’m still trying. But I screwed up,” he says. She leans in and presses a kiss to his forehead. “Well then that’s okay,” she says, “we all screw up, Shane. Me and your dad and your aunts and uncles and every single person before and after us. But you tried, you want it to work. That’s what matters. Do you remember what your dad said before you left?”

Shane nods. It’s been playing in his head this whole time: Don’t ever let an argument trick you into believing that boy doesn’t care about you. “I know. I know he loves me and I know I love him, but is that enough?”

She just shrugs. “Who can say,” she says. “But it’s a hell of a lot better than nothing.”

*

Sara shows up at his front door with a tan and teal hair and a sharp look about her. “How goes the summer, Shaney?” she asks, and when he doesn’t protest at the nickname she slides her sunglasses down her nose to look at him. “You look like fuck. What the hell happened in the last two weeks?” she asks.

“I fucked up,” he answers and she laughs, shoving his shoulder. “You’re such an idiot. How could you possibly screw this up?” He takes her to his room and shows her the pile of letters on his desk. He tells her the whole story, all of his mistakes laid out in a list. “Holy shit you dumbass,” she says after a long pause. It startles a laugh from him, and she grins like that was her goal.

“Come with me,” she says, and he does.

They’re in the park. She’s sitting on the bench and he’s laid out with his head in her lap and her hands running through his hair. He’s due for a haircut. “I told my parents that I’m gay,” she says suddenly. Shane’s eyes startle open and he looks up at her. “My mom was like, why, and I just shrugged and said, ‘men.’ She took it well.

“See... Fear is like a fork in the road. A split in the river. A trail branching off. You can either give in to it or you can just keep going straight and take the chance. Either way, you gotta keep on moving. I was terrified of what they would say, but either way I was still gonna be me.

“So like, of course you’re afraid. You just came out and completely changed the dynamic of your closest relationship and you just graduated high school. That’s a lot of changes. That’s a lot of forks in the road. Change is always scary. You think caterpillars don’t have second thoughts just before they seal up the cocoon? So you’re afraid, keep fucking going dude. You can’t just sit down and wave the white flag. We don’t get to throw in the towel.”

Shane smiles, as her hand starts moving through his hair again and it feels like the world starts spinning and the breeze takes flight and the birds sing their songs. It feels like the dew rising up as mist, as fog, being burned away by the sun. “I know Ryan’s my best friend or whatever, but you’re right there with him,” he says and she laughs.

“Please tell me you don’t want to fuck me,” she says.

*

July. Two weeks of radio silence. Shane spends the time going through his options, going through the letters and tossing out the rejections and piling up all the acceptances and he starts looking into each school, really giving them each a shot to impress him. He looks at program after program and degree after degree and he really, seriously thinks about what he wants to do. He has ideas. He has something blooming inside his chest and it looks like a chance and it feels like springtime.

His phone rings, and he answers it while he shuts his laptop and circles another school on his list of possibilities. “What’s up, dick?” Ned asks and Shane laughs. “I don’t know what or how but you managed to throw our entire social circle into disarray when ninety percent of us weren’t even in the same state as you. Wanna come drink some beers and talk about it?”

He doesn’t, but he says okay and he gets dressed and he walks through the fading sunlight over to Ned’s and sits with him in the nice, renovated basement while he pulls a couple beers out of the fridge. They talk about Ned’s trip with his family, and how annoying Eugene was texting him every day, and a number of other things before Ned finally levels a look at him.

“So what happened, champ?” he asks and Shane shrugs.

“Me and Ryan started dating. I fucked up. Now we’re in a weird place,” he explains.

“How you could possibly mess up dating Ryan when he’s been in love with you for years I have no clue, but you better be figuring it out. He’s been moping with Zach and Keith for like, two days now.”

Years. Ned says it so casually, like a fact, but the word buries itself in his chest like a blade. Years. It’s a heavy thought. He feels the bright burning star of love. He feels the misty haze of fear. He drinks a few beers, and he laughs with Ned. And it’s springtime, it’s summer.

*

“I miss you,” he says. Over the static of the phone he can hear Ryan sigh. Relief or sorrow, he cannot tell. “I miss you too,” Ryan says.

It’s been too long since Shane looked at him, traced the lines of him into his memory, painted the ceiling of his room in the same dark shade as his eyes. Too long. “I’m not going to question your choice. I am going to say that I think not talking is a weird punishment for not talking. But I get it. I’m glad you answered the phone.”

“It’s been hard,” Ryan says after a long time. Shane is lying in bed, his phone pressed against his ear. From the shuffling sound he thinks Ryan’s in bed too. “It’s really sucked, not seeing you. Not having my best friend around. Not kissing you…” he drifts off.

“I wish you would come over. Climb into bed with me,” Shane says. There’s an edge to his voice that he didn’t intend; a heat that surprises him.

“Yeah, big guy? You want me there in bed? Kissing you? You want my lips on that big dick?” his volume progressively minimizes, until it’s barely above a whisper. “You want me to fuck you, Shane?” he asks and Shane’s hand surprises him when it grips the bulge in his shorts without him even moving it there. “What would you do?”

“I’d let you fuck me, for sure. Love to watch the look on your face when you put it in. Watch you pound me.”

Shane’s hand slides into his shorts, fists around his dick loosely. He strokes it teasing. “You want it hard, huh?” Ryan asks and Shane moans into the phone. “Want me to bury you in the mattress? Hope your parents are out because otherwise they’ll hear?”

“Fuck that, I want the neighbors to hear.”

“Fuck, Shane.” It’s becoming overwhelming, and he can tell that Ryan’s in the same state. That they’re touching themselves and the thought of it has Shane speeding up and tightening his grip.

“Fuck I need to get my mouth on you,” Ryan says and Shane huffs a strained laugh. “You like that? You like it when I mark you up?” he asks. Shane doesn’t know words anymore, he thinks, certainly can’t think of what to say. He moans instead and Ryan echoes him, quietly. “You imagining it? Me fucking you? Leaving marks all over your neck and chest? Rolling you over and taking you?”

Shane says, “I was thinking about it before I called.”

Ryan says, “you want me to cum inside you?”

Shane gasps, his orgasm hitting him suddenly. “Ryan,” he says, reverent, so quiet. Ryan groans on the other end, in his bed.

Shane starts laughing, because all of this is so confusing but in the midst of the storm he feels steady like a mountain. He feels like he’s counting the seconds between a flash of lightning and a roll of thunder. Is the storm growing closer or more distant?

Flash of lightning.

One. “I’ve been going through all the admissions stuff.”
Two. “I’ve narrowed it down to a few choices.”
Three. “I’d love to get your advice, see what you think.”
Four. “Where are you going?”
Five. “I love you too much not to see you anymore.”

Roll of thunder.

*

The two of them are spread out on Shane’s bed. Shane’s leaned up against the headboard and Ryan is tucked in against his side while a movie plays. It’s the fourth of July, and they’re supposed to watch the fireworks together before they sneak off to a party at Ned’s house. Shane has a hickey blooming bright on his neck. It won’t fade in time, but he’s proud to wear it.

“I love you,” he says.

“Love you too,” Ryan replies sleepily, leaning his head closer and resting it on his shoulder. Shane is still afraid. Afraid that he’s going to make the wrong decision; afraid that whatever he chooses doesn’t even matter because Ryan is leaving; that big old fear that he’ll be left behind. They’re all dangling from him, weighing him down. But he knows a lot of things.

He knows that he’s in love. He knows that he’s willing to fight for it, to push through the fear. He knows that he’s afraid. He knows that the summer isn’t forever. He knows the first frost is coming, one day. He knows that no matter what he’s going to have Ryan by his side.

They still have a few hours before the fireworks; the sun is heavy and low and fading into vibrant hues. The night is coming on slowly and every second of this sunset feels like it’s pushing the future back further and further. He feels like an orchard. Ryan kisses him, and he feels like ice in a glass and cold air in a garage and a summer spent together.

And fireworks.

*

“Did you ever think we’d all be here?” Sara asks, sitting next to Shane on the big blanket spread out across the grass. Ned looks over, his head in Eugene’s lap, and says, “what, at the park?”

“No, dude. That we’d all still be friends. Like, were you in middle school thinking we’d actually be friends for a long time, or what?”

“I did,” Ryan says. Sara looks over at him, smiles. “Of course you did, Ry.”

Shane never thought about it, back then. Never thought about how long he’d get to have this strange, strong girl and this beautiful boy and the quartet of rowdy, kind guys they’d been surrounded by for any length of time. He’d never let himself think about it because he’d always been certain that the answer was not long enough. Now though, he’s sure they’re in it for the long haul.

“I got into CalArts,” Sara says. Shane wraps his arm around her and pulls her in while their friends cheer. Ryan doesn’t say much, just leans against Shane’s side. He seems happy and relaxed, weightless even. There’s a big bowl of kettle corn on the blanket and Eugene is licking his fingers suggestively while Ned slaps his arm.

Ryan and Zach start arguing about sports and Shane tunes them out. The night is beautiful; warm, mild, the sky impossibly violet, the stars on display. Ryan is here and their friends are here and the night seems enormous.

And then the fireworks.

*

It’s just the seven of them, spread around Ned’s basement. Across the room, Ryan is talking to Keith and Zach excitedly, animated. Shane can’t take his eyes off of him, and Sara elbows his ribs to get his attention.

“What are you thinking about?” she asks, and Shane doesn’t know how to answer. Love? Fear? Are they the same thing after all? The weightless feeling he’s had all night? The way he just drops the feelings that are too much, that burn in his hands? The way he’s exhausted from all of the changes around him and how they’re only just beginning? All of it and none of it; the savage beauty of life, everything everything all at once.

“It’s been a real good night,” he says eventually. Sara grins, leaning into him on the couch. She threads their fingers together and her smile flattens out until she looks serious. “I’m gonna miss you, Shaney,” she says. There’s a sadness in her voice.

“CalArts isn’t that far away,” he says but she shrugs. “It’s different,” she says, and it’s all she says for a while. “It’s all going to be different,” she says again. And she’s right. It will be. And that’s a Big Thing, but the big things aren’t always scary. And even if they are, she had been the one to say that either way they had to keep on going. There’s no towel to throw in, there’s no white flag to wave.

“It already is different,” he says. She smiles, but it’s thin and a bit watery, so Shane pulls her into a tight hug and holds her there.

She goes to get more beer, and Ryan falls into the space she’d left behind. Stars, stars, the lot of them; orbiting around something Shane’s never seen. “You having fun?” Ryan asks and Shane nods, ducks his head in to kiss Ryan. “Of course,” he says.

“Truth or dare?” Ryan asks, and Shane grins. He remembers Eugene’s house, the party, the ice in his glass and Ryan’s eyes. “Truth,” he says.

“You never thought we’d be here,” Ryan says, quietly. “Together, I mean. You never thought it would happen.” Shane looks at him but can’t find any hints in his face.

“No. I never thought I would be so lucky.”

*

Shane goes to veer off, hugging Ryan, and turns toward his street, toward home. Ryan’s hand finds his arm and stops him. “Wait,” Ryan says. “My parents are out. Jake’s with some friends. Do you want to come over?”

Shane recognizes Ryan’s tone. “Any time, baby,” he says.

Ryan’s house is dark and quiet. Ryan’s eyes are dark and loud, speaking volumes, heat in the depth like scotch. His room is dark, too. Ryan pushes Shane back onto the bed. “Truth or dare?” Shane asks. Ryan stops still, thinking. Overthinking. “Dare,” he says.

“I dare you to fuck me,” Shane says in a voice he’s never heard from himself before. Heat coils tight in his gut as he watches Ryans face. He looks delighted, and he must have thought about their conversation a lot too because he leans right in and bites a bruise onto Shane’s neck. He makes quick work of his clothes and his dark eyes are darker somehow as they drag down his body like nails. “Fucking give it to me, Ry,” he says and that’s all the encouragement needed; it’s the starting pistol and Ryan moves into action automatically, muscle memory. He buffets a space between Shane’s thighs until he can lean in and start teasing his dick without warning. Shane gasps, sighs out a long moan. Ryan’s hand is splayed along his thigh. The other one mirrors it as he pushes his legs farther apart. Shane reaches over for the lube but Ryan leans over quick and grabs his wrists, pins them down above his head. He leaves his hands in place and Ryan goes back to sucking him off.

It’s so slow that it seems to last forever. Shane’s hips are bucking into Ryan’s mouth and he’s taking it until he pulls back sudden and leaves Shane to rut against the air just out of reach. “You really fucking want this,” Ryan says, and then licks a trail along the length of him. The precum flows out in a river, runs on his stomach. Ryan has the lube in hand and is reaching down to press a finger inside and Shane shouts, just a startled, “Fuck!” with no warning and no follow up. His hands are still in place.

Ryan teases him more, taking his damn time. Shane is a mess, a blathering fool, rocking his head side to side slowly until the fingers slide out and he mourns the loss. The fat length of Ryan’s cock follows suit and slides smoothly inside of him. “Oh,” he says, distantly. Ryan groans against his throat, shifts his angle to lean in and kiss him.

“You gonna take this?” Ryan asks and Shane can only nod. Ryan slams forward and Shane almost moves his hands to press them against his chest but it’s like he’s spellbound. “You like it when I talk like this?” he asks and Shane starts shaking. “Yes,” he chokes out. Ryan speeds up, his thrusts deep and hard and Shane bites his arm to muffle the noises pouring out of him. “Let me hear it. Let me hear what I’m doing to you,” Ryan says.

Shane comes undone, falls apart at the seams. He starts grunting and shouting and crying out. He lets go, unbridled, and feels the star in his gut become impossibly small and then burst out. Like fireworks. Like a damn supernova. He can’t take it; all he’s ever wanted is to endure it.

“Fuck.” Ryan says. “I’m close.”

“You want me to cum inside?” he asks and Shane chokes out a string of swears as his orgasm hits him. Ryan moves to slide back but Shane wraps his legs around and pulls him in tight against him. Ryan’s hips still, bottomed out, and he leans down to kiss him filthy.

*

August. Molasses slow and scorching hot. Meandering along. Shane has choices to make. The decisions are heavy in his gut. The trees of the preserve can hardly provide shade against the sun’s force. The heat is primal, ancient. The water is cold, ancient. Shane feels like a wooden doll sometimes against the whirl of his thoughts. But sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes Sara nudges their arms together and points out a girl in the crowd, winks at him so he’ll laugh. Sometimes Ryan catches his eye and smiles like the sunrise. Sometimes Shane feels like he can do it, like he knows what he wants.

Ryan’s sitting next to him but he doesn’t look away from the water when he speaks. “I’m gonna go to Berkeley,” he says. Shane’s eyes are on the water too, on the pieces of sunlight glimmering suspended on the surface. “They have a cool double major. Comparative Lit and Folklore.”

“That sounds right up your alley,” Shane says, “do aliens count as folklore?” Ryan turns to look at him, then, but turns back to the water before Shane continues. “Berkeley’s a great school, Ry. I’m proud of you.” He’s smiling. He feels like the summer; endless and bright and full. “And it’s only like, twenty minutes from San Fran,” he says. Ryan looks over then, the water forgotten. The dancing sunlight continuing along anyway.

“What are you gonna study?” he asks and Shane shrugs. “Film, maybe,” he says after a while.

*

September. Sara leaves and they throw a party. Keith leaves, party. Ned and Zach leave so they throw a party. Then Eugene leaves and there’s no one left to throw parties for, just the two of them watching as the sun slips down earlier and earlier. There’s a chill in the air, early this year. Shane thinks about timing, about being too late or too early; he thinks about blooming in spring time and lazing languid in summer time.

“Listen,” Ryan says, and Shane rolls his eyes but only because he knows he’ll get a reaction.

“It’s going to be fine,” Shane says. He means it. There’s weight there, in his words in the air. The way they hang there like an echo. “It’s only twenty minutes, Ry. I’m getting a car. I’ll see you all the time.” He knows a lot of things, and these are some of them. He knows he’s in love, and that he’s willing to do the work. He knows that no matter what, Ryan loves him too. He knows they’ll continue orbiting each other until the end. Until the fireworks.

It’s not a long drive from the suburbs to Berkeley. Ryan doesn’t have a lot to unpack but Shane helps him anyway. And then it’s just the two of them standing in a dorm room. Looking out the small window at the campus, at the sunshine. “This is a bit weird, right?” Ryan asks.

“Yeah, it's weird. But that's okay. It can be weird for a bit and then things will settle in,” he says. He knows it’s true, knows now from experience. Ryan sighs, grabs his hand and pulls him into a tight embrace. “You’ll see me all the time,” he says, and Ryan nods against his chest.

Shane’s classes don’t start for another week. He’s moving in a few days. He’s got about an hour drive back home. He stays way too late, kissing Ryan on his new bed in his new room, and then he lets Ryan walk him out to his car and kiss him against the door. “I’ll swing by on Thursday, on my way.” Ryan nods, kisses him again.

“Love you,” Ryan says.

Shane pulls his hand up, kisses his knuckles, and says, “I love you too.”

The road is long. The road is long and lonely ahead of him, everything concrete still a way off. The night is dark and the car is warm; and his boyfriend is safe in bed. He thinks about scales and balance; he thinks about the way a river is constantly changing but always moving toward a goal; he thinks about the way the sunlight danced on the water and hung in the air through the trees; about a fire in the night and about a fire in his hands. He thinks about Ryan’s hands, and his eyes. The night sky, the night sky.

He’s almost home. He’s almost somewhere new. He’s almost ready to go. Yeah. He’s afraid, of course he is. All those big fears rattling around. But they’re not rattling around anymore because they’re sat right next to him. That big ugly fear sitting still in the passenger seat. And he has his hand on it the whole time, gripping it tight, feeling every second of it.

He turns up the music and he rolls down his window and he screams along to every word of every song.