Chapter 1: we were painting by numbers, starting with the greens
Chapter Credits: David Levithan
Riley’s hair is three different shades of brown.
It’s a silly thing to notice, a small thing, really, but you’ve always been one to notice the little things. Like how Smackle taps out the same pattern on the side of her thigh whenever she’s nervous, a quick, nearly invisible thing that always seems to draw a bit of the tension from her shoulders. Like how Zay wrinkles his nose whenever he sees cilantro. Like how Farkle only eats spearmint gum if it’s Trident, and peppermint gum if it’s Orbit.
(Like how Maya’s eyes somehow manage to seem even bluer when she wears that red-orange sweater she likes so much. Like how Maya hums off-key when she’s in the Matthews’ apartment, but she’s always pitch perfect when it’s just the two of you. Like how her tongue peeks out through her lips when she squints to looks up at the sun. Like how she always steps in front of her mom, as if to keep her safe. Like how she always stands behind Shawn, as if to keep him from leaving. How her hands have these tiny calluses all over from hours of holding a colored pencil to get the angle just right.
Like how she looked that night, covered in violet paint. How her smile didn’t reach her eyes. How her words made your head spin.)
Riley’s asked you a question.
“What?” you blink, and Riley huffs at you, her eyes narrowing slightly.
“Lucas,” she sighs, twirling a lock of her hair around her pointer finger and her thumb, twisting. You can tell she’s a little annoyed, and you can’t blame her. You’ve been acting distracted with her ever since she took the purple jelly-bean. “I’ve asked you the same question twice now. What’s up with you?”
You shoot her your patented killer-watt smile, and Riley visibly melts, her doe eyes going all soft as she smiles back even wider, all straight white teeth. Riley is really pretty when she smiles, you remind yourself. You have a really pretty girlfriend.
“Was that the question?” you ask her, and your chest feels tighter even as she giggles a little, good-naturedly rolling her eyes. She takes hold of your hand across the table, then, and it’s a sweet gesture, really, but you have this strange urge to pull your hand back. To stuff it in your pockets. "What's up with me?"
“Lucas,” she shakes her head, somehow sensing that you're all bravado, and her eyes are brimming with concern. “Are you alright?”
There are a lot of answers to this question, of course, but very few of them would be smart ones when you’re sitting across from Riley in her mother’s cafe with a ton of people milling about. When Maya’s mom is working a shift and decidedly not serving your table. When Farkle is studiously pretending to read while lounging in the couch nearby.
“Yeah,” you tell her, pulling your hand out of hers to twine your finger in one of her curls. “Just––” you pause, pondering her hair, how it feels so soft against your palm. “Your hair is three different shades of brown, did you know that?”
You pull away and lean back (only to see her better, of course, the hand-holding has nothing to do with anything), and Riley is glowing.
“You were distracted by my hair?” she looks radiant, and while she’s clearly trying to play at still being annoyed and incredulous, the effect is rather spoiled by the way her voice is steadily getting higher and the bright pink staining her cheeks. “Really?”
“It’s pretty hair,” you tell her, grinning. You are inappropriately grateful for the reprieve. “Some might say the prettiest.”
Riley giggles again and ducks her head while she takes a sip of her iced chai. She gazes at you through her eyelashes happily. It makes you feel like a traitor.
“Your hair’s just as-- I mean,” she pauses, taking a quick breath as she struggles not to stumble over her reply. What used to be really cute (and flattering, you’ll readily admit) is now becoming a little annoying, if you're being brutally honest. Riley has always been too concerned about what you think of her, has always imagined that you like to dissect everything she says the second she leaves. But really, you don’t care how she says things, as long as things get said.
“Your hair’s not so bad either,” she states firmly, clearly decided that that reply is the suavest, coyest, best thing to say to her boyfriend-of-three-weeks.
Because Riley’s sweet and kind and an objectively good girlfriend, you pretend she’s just said something new and clever and cute. Because Riley listens to your stories and kisses you on the cheek in the cafeteria and texts you good morning, sleepyhead on Monday’s, you decide to grab her hand and let her hang onto it this time. Because Riley really likes her mom’s cafe, you’ll keep having all your dates where Katy can see them.
You walk Riley home from the cafe, listening intently to everything she tells you, interjecting at all the right times and nodding intermittently. Riley smiles sweetly as you drop her off at her apartment with a quick kiss.
Topanga calls you a gentleman when you thank Riley for joining you. Mr. Matthews grins at you as you say goodbye and head out. Auggie gives you a high five.
You close the door. Lean your forehead against it. Count to ten. Breathe.
You unlock your phone and send a text to Zay, for a second forgetting that he told you not to talk to him at all until you “remembered that your ass isn’t a hat, dickwad.”
We need to talk.
The fairytale prince who loves Riley, who just had a great date with Riley, who laughed for hours with Riley, and who walked Riley home and came in to say hello to her parents, calls it a night.
Lucas Friar (a sarcastic former cowboy with a bad temper and a thing for blondes) clocks in.
You idly wonder if it's normal to feel this tired. You take another breath and push off the wooden door. The sun is setting. It’s late.
You walk home.
Chapter 2: i’m trying to forgive my friend who arrives like a bleeder in an ambulance
Chapter Title: Leslie Williams
(This chapter comes off super anti-Riley and that's not my intention! Zay is just royally pissed.)
Zay doesn’t return your first text. Or your second text. Or the voicemail you left him at 3 a.m. when your room had started to feel too small again and your lungs had felt like small, broken things rattling inside a hollow chest. It makes you want to cry a little, and you hope that that doesn’t make you weak-- that Dad is wrong about more than just the fact that you and Mama are alright in New York without him.
You fall asleep with your ringer on, and when you wake up, there is a distinct iPhone shaped indent on your right cheek from where you slept on your phone, waiting for Zay to text, to call, to FaceTime.
But Zay didn’t do any of those things, so when you get to school, you’re already rehearsing ten thousand possible apologies for whatever you must have done in your head, the words tumbling around in your mind as you try to figure out what you’ve done wrong.
You are waiting for Riley (you are watching Maya) at your locker when you see him stroll up to the blonde like he owns the school, and that is when you finally figure it out, when you finally manage to put two and two together.
(Little known fact: Maya loves breakfast, but always forgets to eat it, and this morning is no exception.)
(Lesser known fact: Isaiah Babineaux is handing her a chocolate chip muffin and a cup of coffee with a smile that is just pure Southern hospitality.)
(Littlest known fact: Isaiah throws a dirty look over his shoulder when he spots you staring, and loudly reminds Maya to remember to take care of herself. She snarks back, as is her way, but her blue blue eyes are bright and grateful.)
You reach the conclusion quickly after that little display: Zay is angry because of something Maya related.
Well. That’s easy enough to fix, you think.
So later in P.E. you approach Zay, swallowing at the way his body language quickly goes from friendly to combative at the sight of you. You park yourself right in front of him, and his eyes flash, making your heart hurt. Back home, it was Lucas and Zay against the world. Here, in New York, you can’t help but feel like you left that friendship back in Austin, back in the moment when Joey called Zay the n-word and you saw red.
It used to be Lucas and Zay against the world. And now, it seems, it’s Zay against Lucas.
This can’t stand, you won’t let it stand.
“I know why you’re mad at me,” you tell him pleadingly. “And you’ve got it all wrong.”
Zay snorts derisively. “Really, Friar? Have I?”
“Yes!” You insist, grabbing his arm as he turns to walk away. He looks up at you, noticeably exasperated. “The triangle didn’t end the way you think it did, Zay. We all decided––”
“Maya decided,” Zay cuts you off, glaring at you with a kind of malice that he has never directed your way, not once, not even during the worst of your arguments.
“Maybe I got it wrong,” Zay comments lightly, false sweetness coating tempered steel. “Maybe it went like this: maybe you just liked two different girls. Maybe you just couldn’t decide between the two on your own and asked for their help. Maybe you and one of the girls, the pretty blonde one, had a long talk where both of you thought it was a good idea to pair her up with a college kid, because, hey, you know, why not add some pedophilia into the mix! Maybe everyone’s happy, and I'm totally and completely wring. But that’s not what happened, Friar, and you know it.”
“Hey, wait a second--”
“What happened was that you were flattered that two different girls liked you and led both of them on until everyone was tired," Zay hisses, leaning close so that your face is inches from his. "What happened was that you let the pretty blonde girl’s best friend convince her that she had some psychological problem because you made things difficult by dragging everything out. What happened is that the pretty blonde girl who you ‘didn’t want to hurt’ stabbed herself in the leg so that her bitchy best friend could get the boy of her dreams and you let her . You can sit next to Riley on your ceiling-scraping pedestal all you want, Lucas, but you can’t change the fact that no one except your little girlfriend got what they wanted. All they got was a world of hurt.”
He pauses a moment.
"And you want to know the worst thing?" Zay asks, his eyes brimming with equal amounts of disgust and pity. "The worst thing is that I think you're hurting, too."
“Zay,” you shake your head, reaching for your best friend even as he steps back. “I don’t understand.”
“I know you don’t,” he says quietly, looking a little sad, now, aching. “And that’s what guts me, man. The Old Lucas would have. Never thought I’d miss him this badly.”
Zay walks away, pairing up with Charlie and Ron for the warm-ups.
You watch him go, grimly realizing that, while he’s most assuredly wrong about a lot of things (he has to be, he just has to be), he’s not wrong about one, obvious, blindingly important thing, because the Old Lucas would never have let Zay leave without apologizing.
But the Old Lucas is back in Texas. The Lucas you are now lets him go, and shoots Riley a smile from across the gymnasium, all white teeth.