Isa blinked in the blistering sunlight. “You’re wearing a skirt.”
“Wow, nothing gets by you.” Lea waited for Isa to get in the truck, then put it in park when he stayed on the sidewalk, scrutinizing Lea through the open window.
“…why are you wearing a skirt?” Isa asked, assessing the pink-and-white item in question as if it were even close to the most ridiculous thing Lea had ever worn.
“Uh, because I look amazing?” Lea said, gesturing to himself as proof. “And it’s, like, a thousand degrees today. The better question is why you’re wearing sleeves.”
“It’s not that hot out,” Isa said, though he had clearly rolled his sleeves up as far as they would go. “Look, whatever. I still need to get my stuff. Crank the AC; I’ll be right back.”
“You know the AC’s busted in this thing, bless its big rusty heart,” Lea said, patting the dashboard fondly. “I’ll come in with you.”
“I’ll be two minutes.”
“C’mon, there’s no rush. The movie’s not even till nine. I figured we could hang out here in town until then. Get some ice cream, do some window shopping, make fun of tourists. Maybe swing by the Depths for a while?” he added enticingly. “Pretty sure I still owe you from last time.”
“Fine,” Isa said, sounding less enticed and more agitated than Lea would’ve hoped. “We’ll do whatever you want. Just let me get my stuff.”
“Seriously, can I come in? Like I said, the air conditioning’s toast. I could use a drink.”
“I’ll bring water bottles.”
“Isa, come on, I’m—”
“My dad’s home.”
Lea paused halfway out of the driver’s seat. He glanced at the garage, looking skeptically at the empty parking spot. “His car’s not here.”
“It’s at the shop. He’s inside watching TV right now. He can probably see us from the couch.”
Lea waved sarcastically at the living room window, and Isa swatted his hand down, causing his boyfriend to frown. “What’s the deal? I can’t even go in your house anymore?”
Isa took too long to answer, if he intended to at all, and Lea nodded bleakly, letting it sink in. “Right. Got it.”
“No, hey. Good to know where we stand, I guess,” Lea said, scratching the side of his head. “I can’t believe this is bothering you.”
“It’s not bothering me.”
“So, what? You’re embarrassed by me?”
“Well, yes, on a regular basis. But that’s not it. He’s just…” Isa had been leaning his weight to one leg, but he corrected himself now, standing up straight again. “He’s gonna be weird about it.”
“You’re being weird about it!” Lea said, but he lowered his voice when Isa’s gaze darted reflexively back toward the house. He waited until he had Isa’s attention again before he continued. “You know he’s running our lives, right? I can’t even go inside because—what, because I’m wearing a skirt? It goes past the knees, for fuck’s sake. Girls wear skirts shorter than this to school, and no one says anything. I mean, how much longer is this gonna go on? We’ve been officially together since last year, and you still haven’t told him.”
“I know he knows. That’s not what I’m saying.” Lea wrapped his hands around the steering wheel and took a deep breath. “It’s been years, Isa. I’m tired of this.”
“You think I’m not?” Isa snapped, his voice fierce but barely above a whisper. “Every night you get to go home and complain to your mom about your boyfriend’s shitty dad and how unfair everything is. You know what I get to complain about when I go home? Nothing. I just have to deal with it. And all I’m asking in return is for you to trust me on this.” When Lea simply sat there, staring at him, Isa said, “I’m not embarrassed by you. I’m trying to protect you. I don’t—” He looked down the street, trying to fight off his discomfort. “I don’t want you to hear the kinds of things he’s going to say.”
Lea slid his hands to the bottom of the steering wheel, picking at a loose thread. “I’ve already heard some of it, you know.”
Isa bit the inside of his cheek. Part of him had hoped that Lea would’ve somehow forgotten that overheard conversation between their parents, back when they were—twelve? Thirteen? It was only a few years ago, but Isa felt like he’d aged exponentially in that time. “I remember,” he said. “It sucked. But that was nothing. I just don’t want you to have to hear it, all right? I’ll run in and come right back out. Two minutes. I promise.” When Lea still hesitated, Isa looked him in the eye and added, “Please, Lea.”
Lea stared for a few more seconds, taking in Isa’s expression, wondering how his eyes could hold so much worry, how this was even a conversation they were seriously having. He glanced at the house that Brandt was sitting comfortably inside, the house Isa was hell-bent on keeping Lea out of, and the house Isa was about to walk right back into, alone. Lea gritted his teeth, but he saw the way Isa was watching him, like he might fall apart if Lea gave the wrong answer, so he said, “Okay.”
Isa kept waiting, and Lea started the truck back up and turned the fans on, settling into the driver’s seat. He raised his hands in surrender and said, once more, “Okay. I’ll wait here.”
“Thank you,” Isa said, audibly exhaling the words. He went back up the walkway and through the front door while Lea drummed his fingers on the steering wheel to burn off some energy, thinking that Brandt’s comments were far from “nothing” and wondering what else Isa must have dealt with to be able to brush them off as such.
On the drive downtown, Isa was characteristically quiet and hard to read, and Lea was uncharacteristically quiet and hard to read, putting both of them at a loss on how to proceed. They ended up going through their usual motions in an attempt to set the atmosphere back to normal: hanging out in Central Square and eating more ice cream than they probably should. Lea considered suggesting a visit to the Depths again, if only to give Isa the option to go somewhere secluded, not to mention cooler. But the cliffs on the edge of town hadn’t been a neutral spot for them for nearly a year, and Lea didn’t want to risk putting more pressure on Isa’s already tenuous mood.
Eventually, they ran out of things to do, and Isa’s tolerance for the heat reached its limit. He asked if they could go to Lea’s place for a while, and when Lea reminded him that they didn’t have central air at his house, Isa said, “I don’t even care. Just get me out of the sun.” So Lea drove them back, grateful to finally have some kind of direction, at least.
They kicked their shoes off in the front hall, and Lea said, “I’m just gonna grab some stuff from my room—be right back.” Isa nodded as Lea went up the stairs, taking them two at a time, and he dropped his bag on the floor just as Lea’s mom called from the kitchen.
“Lea? That you?”
“He just went upstairs. He should be back in a few minutes.”
“No worries, just wondering,” she said. “Come on in, Isa. How’ve you been?”
“Good, thanks,” he said, obediently making his way to the kitchen where Ms. Quinlan was sitting with a newspaper. “How are you?”
“Oh, you know. Melting. Sweating. Thinking about moving into the fridge.” Isa chuckled, and when she looked up at him, her gaze was drawn to his hair. “Ooh, I love that,” she said, using her pencil to point at what Isa had thought was a fairly mediocre bun.
“Oh. Uh, thanks,” he said, barely keeping it from sounding like a question. “It’s just because of the heat, really.”
“Tell me about it,” she said. “Well, it works for you. I’m a little jealous. Even when I had long hair, I could never get it to cooperate like that. I’d love to know which ancestor to blame for these spikes.”
“I think it’s a good look,” Isa said, feeling like he was straying dangerously close to confessing his attraction to her son out loud. He forced himself to remember that this was a house where it was okay to relax a little, where Lea was allowed to wear things like skirts and earrings and nail polish and eyeliner without having to explain why.
He took a seat at the table and continued to chat with Ms. Quinlan about hair and school and work. After a few minutes, she rose from her chair to grab an ice cube from the tray in the freezer, offering him one. He hesitated, about to turn down the offer out of reflex, but after a moment he took one and held it to the back of his neck, closing his eyes as it cooled him off.
They were still talking when Lea entered the kitchen, shoving his wallet into the back pocket of his jeans. Isa almost did a double-take, not expecting the change of clothes. The jeans had been cuffed a few times, not because they were too long, but rather to hide the fact that they were a little too short, Lea outgrowing his clothes faster than he could be bothered to replace them. He was wearing a plain white T-shirt, the sleeves shoved up onto his shoulders, and he’d managed to wrestle most of his hair back into a ponytail, though a few stray spikes still hung down by his ears and the nape of his neck.
Ms. Quinlan regarded his outfit skeptically. “Don’t tell me you were cold.”
“Nah,” he said, “we’re just about to head out for the night. Figured it’ll get cool later.” He got his own ice cube from the freezer and held it against his throat, seeking relief from the warmer outfit. Isa looked him over, then looked away, nagged by a regrettably familiar combination of attraction and guilt.
“Well, stay hydrated,” Ms. Quinlan said. “Those clothes don’t breathe in the heat. Where are you going, anyway?”
“Drive-in,” Lea said, and Ms. Quinlan gave him a confused look.
“When did those become a thing again?” she asked. “They were already on their way out when I was your age.”
“I dunno. They’re retro now.” Lea dropped the half-melted ice cube in the sink and rubbed his wet hands on the back of his neck. “I mean, the nearest one’s in Twilight Town, so it’s still a hike.”
“Huh. Learn something new every day.”
Isa didn’t realize he’d been braced for a passive-aggressive comment, or tongue-clucking about how a drive-in might not be the most appropriate venue, until Ms. Quinlan simply left it at that and moved on. “What are you guys seeing?”
“Some old sci-fi movie,” Isa said. “I forget the name. Pretty sure it bombed at the box-office. We just like to go and make fun of them.”
“Ah, a Mystery Science Theater duo. Now there’s something from my era. You guys are a regular Servo and Crow,” she said, getting a laugh from Isa and a faint smile from Lea. “Sounds like fun. Lea, do you have enough gas money to get there?”
“I can’t see the future, Ma,” Lea said, grabbing his jacket from the coat hook while Isa stood and pushed his chair in.
Ms. Quinlan sighed. “Well, you know the drill. Call if you get stranded. Otherwise, have a good time. Isa, it was nice to see you again. Don’t be a stranger.”
“Thanks,” he said, following Lea to the door. “Good to see you, too.”
It was still early when they arrived at the outdoor theater, dark enough for Lea to have gotten lost a few times on the way, but not dark enough to start the movie. He parked on the side of the lot, and the truck’s engine trickled out a metallic pink-pink-pink as it finally got a break from the heat. It wasn’t a great angle for seeing the screen, but it was the most secluded spot Lea could find, and he needed every advantage to keep Isa from stressing out and deciding they needed to leave halfway through the show.
He tried not to think about Isa’s initial reaction to seeing him that afternoon. But as much as Isa’s obvious discomfort with the skirt had stung, the sheer relief in his eyes at seeing Lea back in “normal” clothes was worse. Lea had forced the feeling aside as they left his house, thinking it was a small price to pay if it helped put Isa at ease.
The problem was that it hadn’t, at least not for long. They’d barely made it a mile out of Radiant Garden before the tension rose again, almost palpable this time around. Lea wanted to ask what exactly the issue was, but he didn’t want to have brought them to the Twilight Town drive-in just for a long, drawn-out discussion about their relationship problems.
On the other hand, they didn’t seem like they were about to make use of the setting any other way. It was normally a perfect arrangement. Lea’s truck was a hand-me-down from his mother with an old-fashioned front seat: essentially a broad, cushioned bench stretching from one door to the other.
And that front seat, which was usually so convenient, now emphasized how careful they were being not to touch each other. Isa sat firmly on the passenger side, legs crossed, hands folded on his lap, and Lea slouched behind the wheel with his ankle on his knee and his hands in his pockets, resigning himself to the fact that they had driven all the way out here and parked in the most secluded spot just to actually watch the movie.
It was too terrible to even enjoy making fun of, despite Lea’s most valiant efforts. After fifteen minutes of trying to force their usual dynamic, they both fell back into total silence, and after five more minutes, Lea couldn’t stand it any longer. He only meant to test the waters, reaching for Isa’s hand just to gauge his response. Part of him wondered if he was trying to provoke an argument, preferring to have Isa snap at him rather than keep enduring his silence. He moved his hand a few more cautious inches until it brushed against Isa’s fingers.
Isa’s response was immediate. He pulled his hand away as soon as Lea made contact, and Lea had exactly one second to feel disheartened before Isa reached up and grabbed his face with both hands, kissing him hard.
Lea had no choice but to follow Isa’s momentum, too caught off guard to do anything else. He leaned back, bumping his head against the car door. Isa stayed with him the entire way, almost pinning him down, and while Lea was surprised, confused, and a little sore on the back of his head, he wasn’t about to protest. He rested his hands on Isa’s waist, unsure whether he’d end up pulling him closer or pushing him away to ask what the hell was going on.
He was spared the decision when Isa accidentally leaned on the horn, startling them apart. Isa sat upright in an instant while Lea was a little slower, wincing as he eased himself off the armrest. For a moment, Isa looked like he wanted to reach out and help, but he scanned the parking lot instead, self-conscious or just plain fearful, checking to see how much attention he’d drawn. Lea rolled his shoulder, trying to laugh it off.
“If anyone asks,” he said, tapping the horn without sounding it, “we were just expressing our opinion of this shitty movie.”
Isa didn’t respond, but he didn’t move farther away, either. He even allowed Lea to close the distance between them again as he scooted over to Isa’s side. “Hey,” Lea said quietly, sliding his hand to Isa’s back. “We can leave if you want.”
Isa glanced at him. “You want to go home already?”
“No. I mean…we can go somewhere else. Somewhere more isolated. Just so you don’t have that frightened rabbit look on your face the whole time.”
Isa still looked uncomfortable, and Lea, having nothing else to work with until he spoke up, went on. “Seriously, I’ll take you wherever you want. Just name it.”
“I thought you were running low on gas money this week.”
“I’ll manage. To be perfectly honest, I’d sell a kidney for gas money at this point if it meant getting some time alone with you.”
He expected Isa to say something typically snarky, like, “Wow, nothing like a total nephrectomy to set the mood,” and then Lea would shove him with his shoulder, and Isa would shove him too, and that’s how they’d know things were going back to normal.
Instead, Isa said, “I’m sorry.”
“…all right, I’m getting whiplash here,” Lea said, giving up on trying to keep track of the sudden mood shifts. “Why are you sorry?”
Isa was looking at the floor again. “You’re too good.”
“What are you talking about?” Lea asked. “Too good for what? For you?”
Isa didn’t answer, and he didn’t have to. Lea moved his hand slowly up and down his back, and to his relief he felt Isa relax a bit. “Is this about earlier?” he asked. “I mean, yeah, I was a little mad at first, but I get it. You were just looking out for me. I appreciate it, honestly.”
“I was lying. I wasn’t worried about you.” Isa glanced at Lea and looked away again when he saw the bewildered expression on his face. “I mean, I would have been,” he went on, “if I thought he’d actually do anything. But he wouldn’t have said shit in front of you. He’s…better behaved around other people.”
Lea laughed a little in spite of the mood. “Damn,” he said in disbelief. “Even me?”
“Even you, believe it or not,” Isa replied. “You know how he never uses your name? He’s always calling you, like, ‘Catherine’s boy’ or ‘the Quinlan kid?’”
“Yeah?” Lea said, trying not to mention how much that annoyed him. Isa shrugged.
“That’s him on his best behavior.”
“…well, fuck,” Lea said, momentarily at a loss for words. “What an…outrageous dickhead.”
Isa almost laughed, and he looked like he wanted to be able to, but he was still hanging by a thread. He exhaled when Lea rubbed his back more firmly. “So, I wasn’t looking out for you,” he admitted, staring down at the floor mat. “I knew he’d have a lot to say, but he’d save it until you were gone. I just didn’t want to deal with that today. He’s been more stressed out than usual lately, and he’s already in a bad mood because of the car, and I just…didn’t want to add to it.”
“Does he hit you?”
“What?” Isa asked, looking up immediately. “No, he doesn’t hit me, Lea. Jesus.” He shook his head to himself, looking out the windshield while Lea sighed quietly. As bad as he felt for blindsiding Isa, the fact that he hadn’t even seen that question coming was a relief.
But Isa frowned. He made himself meet Lea’s gaze once more and said, “Listen, I know I made you feel like shit earlier, and I only did it so I’d have an easier time. I have no excuse. It was selfish. I’m sorry.”
He sat there, waiting for Lea to accept this self-condemnation, and Lea quietly said, “Isa,” as he reached out and pulled him closer.
“Um…what?” Isa said, less a response to his name than a response to the hug.
“You think that’s selfish?” Lea asked, and Isa said, “I don’t know,” sounding like he genuinely didn’t. He didn’t hug Lea back, partly because he was still confused, but mostly because Lea had him completely wrapped up, pinning Isa’s arms to his sides. But he did lean in, allowing Lea to hold him until he released Isa after a quick, final squeeze.
“All right,” Lea said decisively. “Screw this. We’re outta here.” He dug around in the cupholder for his keys. “Wanna hit the beach?”
“It’s after dark.”
Isa hesitated. “You don’t have to ditch our whole plan for the evening because of me.”
“What are you talking about? We never have plans.”
“I didn’t mean to ruin the movie.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Lea said, turning the keys in the ignition and glancing out the rear window. “I think you’re about fifty years too late for that.”
That finally got a laugh from Isa as Lea backed out of their parking spot, but as they neared the exit, Isa said, “Are you sure?”
Lea let the truck roll to a stop at the gate, gravel crunching gently under the tires. “Isa…if you want to stay, we can stay. But if you want to leave, we can leave. Just say the word.”
Isa didn’t say anything for a moment, not because he was hesitating this time, but because he was simply looking at Lea, literally and figuratively behind the wheel, taking control of the situation so Isa didn’t have to, but still ultimately leaving the choice up to him. Isa took a breath and exhaled calmly.
Lea brought them to a spot near the beach that was enclosed by a small grove of trees. It was quieter, darker, and emptier than the drive-in lot, and within minutes Isa was relaxed enough to pick up where they’d left off. They made out for a while, this time with Lea guiding Isa down to the seat cushions much more gently than Isa had pushed him. Isa slid his hands under Lea’s shirt and around to his back, pulling him closer and making him shudder at how cool Isa’s touch was, even in the middle of summer. But for all their eagerness to be alone with each other, there was still a limit to how far they were willing to go.
Luckily, they got frustrated long before that point. They used to dream about how much easier things would be once Lea got his license, but it turned out that being old enough to drive also meant they were too tall to utilize the truck comfortably. They were cramped in the front seat, Lea finding it difficult not to knock his elbow against something, and Isa finding that the armrest wasn’t a comfortable place to rest his head, especially with his hair tied back. The bed of the truck lay patiently behind them, an obvious solution to their problem, but as always, they ignored it. Neither one of them was willing to forfeit the shelter of the cab, even if it meant being able to stretch their legs.
Eventually, they opted to take a walk in the fresh air, which they needed after putting the brakes on everything anyway. Lea, who tended to run a few degrees warmer in general, shrugged out of his jacket, and Isa, who tended to run a few degrees cooler, held his hand out to take it. They crossed the dunes and headed for the ocean with the full moon lighting their way.
Something about nighttime seemed to soothe Isa, the darkness providing an extra bit of cover even as they walked beneath an open sky. They were safe indoors, but confined, choosing their words carefully because there was no getting away from them. Out here, even the horizon disappeared into darkness. Whatever they said would be carried out to sea, into the night, freeing them from the burden of it.
At least, that was Lea’s hope. He felt Isa had left some things unsaid back at the drive-in, but for now, he was content just to walk with him. They lingered at the water’s edge, Lea closing his eyes as the breeze rustled his hair while Isa overturned a few seashells with his foot. The silence was almost enjoyable this time—peaceful, even—until Isa spoke up once again to say, “I really am sorry, though.”
Lea opened his eyes and looked at Isa, standing a few feet further along the incline to the water. “Why?”
Isa kept gazing at the ground, ignoring the ocean and the moon and stars to focus instead on the sharp little shells and slabs of driftwood jutting out of the sand. “I know you’re tired of all this,” he began. “I know you don’t want to hide. And I don’t, either. I mean…I don’t mind it, if I have to. I’ve always had a tendency to do it. Or to try, anyway,” he conceded. “I guess I was never as stealthy as I convinced myself I was.”
Lea smiled a little, sympathetic but confused, unsure where he was going with this. “Seeing you feel like you need to hide, though…” Isa had an almost pained look on his face as he went on. “It’s the worst. I hate it. And it’s because of me.”
“Isa, it’s not,” Lea said gently, reassuringly. “You know it’s not.”
“I know it is,” Isa countered, and Lea shut his mouth. “You’ve been toning yourself down for my sake for years. That’s the last thing I ever wanted. I feel sick thinking about it.” He’d had his hands in his pockets, but he raised them now, rubbing his head. “This whole time—ever since we were kids. You made your mom take your nail polish off just because I couldn’t wear mine home. You put off getting your ears pierced because I backed out. You changed your clothes because I was uncomfortable and I made you feel like shit about it. It’s like…fuck. It’s like I’m doing his work for him.” His heart was racing, and he could hear the nervous edge in his voice, threatening to close up his throat. But Lea didn’t speak, only watched patiently, entirely focused on what he was saying. Isa forced himself to take a deep, steadying breath and keep going.
“I know it’s not easy to be with me,” he began. “I know I’ve been holding you back, and I know you’re tired of waiting for me. And you have every right to be. But if you—”
“Whoa, whoa, hold on,” Lea said, raising his hands to stop Isa, and then letting them drop again, staring at him. “Sorry. I don’t want to interrupt. But what are we talking about right now?” Isa didn’t reply, thrown off his train of thought, and Lea said, “I’m not tired of waiting for you, Isa. I’d wait forever for you.”
“That’s exactly what I don’t want you to have to do.”
“Why would you even…like, what made you think that?”
“When you picked me up. Back at the house. You said you were tired of all this.”
“…yeah, of this,” Lea said, gesturing vaguely around them at all of their problems, invisible but omnipresent. “Not of you. I’m just…” He considered his words carefully, trying to avoid another miscommunication. Isa looked anxious now that they were discussing what had been on his mind all day, but he stayed quiet while Lea put his thoughts together, extending the same courtesy that he’d given Isa earlier.
“I’m just tired of this being a big deal,” Lea finally said. “I know a few years ago this was all new and exciting. I mean, every time I even touched you, I thought you might have a panic attack or throw up on me or something.” Isa tried to keep his lips pressed together, but a small laugh escaped him, and Lea smiled before going on. “I’m glad we had that…y’know, discovery period, or whatever. But I just want to be with you now. I want to be able to be with you,” he corrected. “Sneaking around is fun and all, but not if you need to. I just want to have the option not to.”
“I know,” Isa said. “I do, too.”
They stood together in silence for a moment, and Lea felt satisfied about having expressed himself clearly instead of speaking off the cuff, until Isa asked, “How is that different from what I said, though? You’re tired of this being a big deal…meaning you’re tired of waiting for me to stop making it a big deal.”
“Okay,” Lea said, sensing that they needed a new approach. “Let’s say they do mean the same thing. Let’s say I am feeling tired of waiting around for you.” Isa looked uneasy to hear him admit it, even hypothetically, but Lea said, “What’s bothering you about that? What are you so afraid of?”
There was no sound but the water going in and out, shifting the sand, and Isa shrugged, pretending he didn’t know. Lea knew he did, or else he wouldn’t have been so dismissive of the question. “Come on. Just tell me. We’re not going anywhere until you do. I’m the one with the keys, remember?” he added jokingly.
But Isa didn’t laugh along, and Lea started to backtrack, rolling all their conversations over in his head, recalling Isa’s reluctance to even bring up the problem in the first place. Finally, and very slowly, he said, “Isa…are you afraid I’m gonna get tired of waiting and leave?”
Isa looked down at the wet sand, scuffing a pattern in it with his shoe, and Lea didn’t know how to react except by staring incredulously. “Hey,” he said, so quietly that Isa had to look up at him. “Isa…why would I leave you?”
“Because you’re tired of waiting,” Isa said, plainly annoyed at having to repeat this particular point over and over. “We’ve been through this.”
“Yeah, but…” Lea sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Listen. Just because I’m tired of it, doesn’t mean I can’t keep doing it. Or won’t. I was just venting, you know?”
Isa shrugged, and Lea recalled what he’d said earlier, about not even being able to complain in his own house. He relented and said, “C’mere,” pulling Isa into another hug. This time Isa hugged him back, wrapping his arms all the way around Lea’s skinny waist.
“I’m not leaving, all right? I want to be with you. That’s the whole point. That’s why this is so frustrating. If I didn’t love—you know, being with you and everything, then it wouldn’t even be an issue,” he said, catching himself just in time, though he felt Isa stop breathing for a few seconds there. He regretted losing his nerve, but he settled for kissing the top of Isa’s head and saying, “I’m not going anywhere. Got it?”
Isa nodded, and Lea said, “Good,” moving his hand up and down his back, enjoying how much Isa leaned against him in response. “And…not to steal the focus here, but I can’t watch what I say every waking moment, you know? Like, tell me if something’s bothering you, but remember that sometimes I just need to vent. I want to be able to tell you when something’s bothering me, too. Deal?”
“Deal,” Isa agreed. He rested against Lea for a few more minutes, wanting the support, but eventually they released each other and went back to walking along the shoreline. Lea let Isa go on in silence, watching him occasionally pick up a shell to inspect it before tossing it back in the water. But when Isa felt Lea’s gaze on him, he straightened back up and turned to face him. “What?”
Lea smiled a little, taking in the sight of him: wearing his jacket, expression open and neutral, cast in clear blue moonlight. “Nothing,” he said. “Just…out of curiosity, where did you think I’d even go?”
Isa shrugged, looking out at the ocean. “I don’t know. Somewhere better?”
Lea couldn’t help laughing at the vagueness of his answer, and he walked ahead to stand by Isa’s side. “Isa…if I had somewhere better to go, I’d take you with me.”
Isa smiled faintly, but it fell, and Lea bent down to catch his eye. “What is it?”
“I don’t know,” he said again. “Today’s just been a mess. And…I was embarrassed earlier. I mean, I wasn’t embarrassed about my father seeing you. I was embarrassed about you seeing him. You know, seeing what he’s like, what I have to deal with. And I know that doesn’t make sense,” he added, stealing Lea’s reply before he had a chance to say it himself. “But that’s how it is.”
Lea still wanted to say that it made no sense, and that Isa shouldn’t feel the way he felt. But he merely nodded, picking up some seashells of his own and flinging them into the ocean. “It’s all right,” he said. “I guess if he couldn’t handle earrings, a skirt might have given him an aneurysm or something.”
“Just a bit.”
“I mean, the style was fine, but it definitely clashed with my hair. Bet that’s the first thing he would’ve said.”
Isa snorted at the idea. “Yeah, no offense, but pink really isn’t your color.”
Lea gave him a good-natured shrug, not even playfully arguing back. But when the tide ebbed and offered them a moment of silence, Isa, still looking out at the water, hands still in the pockets of Lea’s jacket, quietly said, “You looked good.”
After a few seconds, he glanced at Lea, receiving only a soft look in response. Isa stepped forward, bringing one hand out of the jacket to reach for Lea’s face, but just as he leaned in, Lea tilted his chin up with a small smirk. It was a new favorite ploy of his, now that their days of being roughly the same height were gone. The best part was how annoyed Isa got, because Lea knew he wasn’t that much taller, and all Isa would have to do to reach him was stand on his toes. But he refused to compromise, preferring instead to drag Lea back down. Lea laughed and let him, bowing his head to make it easier.
This stretch of the beach never saw much traffic, even on its busiest days, and at night it was outright desolate. Still, Isa could only bring himself kiss Lea for a few seconds at a time before breaking away, unable to shake his worry of being seen. Lea managed to coax him into a couple minutes of this stop-start system, but as the breeze picked up, he felt Isa shiver, even with the added warmth of Lea’s arms and jacket. “All right,” he said reluctantly the next time Isa pulled away. “Guess we should start heading back. Movie’s probably over by now anyway. We still need to stop somewhere and fill up the truck, too.”
Isa nodded, giving Lea one more quick, impulsive kiss, and catching the grin on his face before he turned around. But as they made their way off the beach, Lea’s eyes shifted, tracing invisible lines, and Isa realized he was doing math in his head. He waited until they were within sight of the pickup to say, “I can cover it, if you want.”
“What? No. It’s not your truck.”
“So?” Isa said, already opening the passenger door. Lea stayed outside, as if following Isa’s lead and getting in the truck would be admitting defeat. “You said you had enough fuel to get us to the movie and back. The only reason you drove all the way out here is because of me.”
“All right, well, gimme another kiss and we’ll call it even.”
“Lea, it’s fine,” Isa said, refusing to let him deflect with humor or flirting. He shut the door and leaned out the window. “I mean it. This one’s on me.”
Lea wanted to keep protesting, but with Isa waiting expectantly, he finally nodded. “All right. Thanks.”
They found a small 24-hour gas station off the highway, and Lea filled up the truck while Isa went inside to pay. When he returned, Lea held his hand out for the receipt, to which Isa simply said, “No,” and handed him a Rocket Soda instead.
“Oh, come on,” Lea said, examining the bottle. “These things are like five bucks each.”
“Well, I was thirsty,” Isa said, taking the bottle back and opening it himself so Lea couldn’t object further. “And I would’ve looked like a douchebag if I didn’t get you one, too.”
“Man, you’re such a romantic,” Lea said, clinking his bottle against Isa’s in gratitude. They leaned back against the warm truck for a while, enjoying their drinks and listening to the lights buzz above the fuel pumps.
Finally, Isa said, “So, are we even?” Lea glanced at him and raised an eyebrow. “I mean, I messed up our date night. But I got you a full tank of gas and a soda. So…we’re good?”
Lea smiled and leaned over, kissing Isa’s cheek. He lingered a few seconds longer than usual, and when he moved back, he could tell that Isa’s heart rate was up. But this time it wasn’t the same trepidation that usually accompanied their PDA—just an elated, unexpected rush. Isa raised his hand to his cheek without thinking, then made a clumsy but admirable attempt to play it off like he was tucking a loose strand of hair behind his ear. He quickly glanced around the gas station, which Lea expected, even though they were the only ones there.
While Isa rubbed the back of his neck, Lea pushed off the truck, stretching his legs before the drive home. “To answer your question: no, we’re not even.” Isa gave him a puzzled look, wondering what else he was supposed to do, until Lea said, “I told you earlier. I still owe you from our last visit to the Depths.”
Isa laughed, a little abruptly. “Well, if you insist,” he said, trying to match Lea’s confidence, but clearly flustered. “No rush, though.”
They finished their sodas, giving Isa time to settle his nerves again. When they were ready to leave, Lea held the passenger door open, though he refrained from helping Isa up to his seat, knowing it would just make him roll his eyes. But when he climbed in and settled behind the wheel, Isa scooted over to him, fastening the middle seat belt so he could stay by Lea’s side, and Lea drove them all the way back to Radiant Garden with his arm snugly around Isa’s shoulders.