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Joaquin isn't Manolo; he doesn't like Maria. He just thinks she's hot. That's all.

"I just think she's hot, that's all," Joaquin says as they walk to history class together. Manolo has his books in his arms like a chump; Joaquin always brings his backpack to class, even though most of his shit's in his locker and all he really carries around is a notebook and pencil. He always has to share textbooks with Manolo, who complains whenever Joaquin hovers over his shoulder.

Manolo rolls his eyes. "Don't objectify her, she wouldn't like that," he says. He adjusts his books. "And you totally like her. Who doesn't?"

"Not you," Joaquin retorts. Manolo had told him about his silly crush on Maria ages ago. Joaquin had called it gay. Manolo had pointed out that his having a crush on Maria was the farthest thing from gay.

Not that Joaquin would've minded, if Manolo had a gay crush on anyone. Which he did, once, in middle school. Joaquin went with him to all the football games even though Manolo hadn't asked him to, and teased him relentlessly about it.

Manolo, now, sighs. "That's true," he says forlornly. Then he shoots Joaquin a look. "I know you're in denial about it, though. I've seen the way you look at her."

"What look? How do I look at her?"

"Like she's the sun and moon and stars all wrapped up in one person," says Manolo. He pauses. "Which she is."

Joaquin snorts.

They stop at Manolo's locker, where he puts his current books back and takes new ones out. As he does, Joaquin leans against the one next to Manolo's--his own, in fact. Even though Mondragon and Sanchez aren't anywhere near each other in the alphabet, the system had glitched and their lockers were next to each other. Though it wasn't their only convenience - they were next door neighbors, too.

Joaquin says, "I don't like her, I just think she got hot. That's all."

"There's so much I could say to that," Manolo mutters as he rifles through his textbooks.

"Yeah?" says Joaquin.

Manolo straightens up, holding a new book in his hands. "First of all," he says. "Maria did not 'get' hot." He actually makes quote marks in the air with his fingers. "She's always been hot. Second of all - "

"What, really, you think she was cute when we were seven and she was wrestling pigs in the mud?"

Manolo huffs. "Yes, in fact, I did," he says. "And you like her, I know you do, you like like her - "

"Maybe you're still seven years old," Joaquin muses.

Manolo shoves him. Mr. Sanchez makes Manolo work out at the gym every day after school - Joaquin knows, he's tagged along before (but not every day, because Mr. Sanchez is surely sadistic) - so he's kinda rough and Joaquin whines, "Ow."

"You deserved it," Manolo says, though he's smiling. He closes his locker.

They head down the hall; Joaquin doesn't know what Manolo has, but he has algebra II, which he's totally willing to skip.

Joaquin hitches the strap of his bag over his shoulder. "Are you trying to insist that I have a crush on your crush just so you have an excuse to hit me?"

"No, actually." Manolo looks thoughtful. "I just don't want you living in denial. I don't mind that you have a crush on Maria."

"You mean if," says Joaquin.

Manolo rolls his eyes again.

*

Maria Posada is almost untouchable - and both Joaquin and Manolo have the luck of being her best friends, because then at least they can face the brunt of her wrath when she gets angry or upset and needs someone to take it out on. It's really not that bad, even though Maria's even stronger than Manolo - she's been learning tae kwon do and how to fence all her life - but hey, at least a hot girl is touching Joaquin.

"Ow," he complains, when he slides into his seat next to her in history. "What was that for?"

"You weren't in math," she hisses.

Joaquin shrugs. "Manolo had gym. And Mr. Xibalba loves me, he let me join."

"You can't just skip class like--"

The bell rings, successfully cutting Maria off. Joaquin rolls his eyes and takes out his ratty notebook and single pencil from his backpack. Maria stares at him, and whacks him again.

Joaquin does his best not to cry out as their teacher begins talking.

He doesn't like Maria, really. Sure, she's hot, got these big eyes and started wearing makeup, though she looks just as good when she shows up at his front door in mornings complaining that she left her textbook at his house again. Sometimes he looks at her too long and gets these big funny swooping feelings in his chest, but that doesn't mean he likes her. Mostly because if he did, then--

Well, it wouldn't make much sense, that's all.

He doodles in his notebook, bored. He's working on an impressive illustration of a large demon when a wadded ball of paper hits the side of his head. It falls to the ground and lands near his feet. He picks it up.

In Maria's big loopy handwriting is, Pay attention, idiot!!

Joaquin frowns and glances to the side. Maria is staring stoutly at the teacher, though Joaquin knows that she totally knows that he's looking at her.

He writes back, I have a reputation to uphold and sends it back.

She looks at it and huffs, crinkling the paper again. Joaquin thinks that she's given up--then the teacher turns her back to write on the blackboard, and Maria chucks the ball of paper at the side of Joaquin's shoulder.

He winces and glares at her. She glares back.

"Manolo can have her," Joaquin mutters, though for some reason that doesn't feel right to say.

Afterward, once Maria's done quizzing him on what their teacher talked about, to which Joaquin had pointed out that it would be pointless when they both know that he didn't pay any attention at all, Joaquin says,

"So... What do you think of Manolo?"

Maria furrows her eyebrows. "What do I think of Manolo? What do you mean?"

"I mean." There's really no other way to put it. "What do you think of Manolo?"

Maria looks at him funny. "He's nice, kinda stupid. Not as stupid as you, though."

"Wow," says Joaquin. "I come to ask you a question and this is what I get instead."

Maria giggles. She has an admittedly cute giggle, hiding it behind her hand. She smiles with her full face - eyes, mouth, tinted color in the highs of her cheeks.

Joaquin blinks.

"Well, I answered your question," Maria says. "Why do you ask?"

"No reason. Hey, do you remember Jaime?"

"What, the kid Manolo liked in fifth grade?" says Maria. "You're all about nostalgia today aren't you?"

"If you're gonna tease me," says Joaquin, "then I'm not gonna finish my thought."

Maria pouts. "What? No, tell me."

"You teased me." Joaquin tries to look as stubborn as possible, though he's pushing back a grin. They've stopped in the middle of the hallway, and Joaquin is pretty sure he has art next. (Pretty sure.)

Maria tugs at his arm, more gentle than usual and a surprise like a hot spot against him. "I'm sorry," she says, pouting still and fluttering her eyelashes at him. "Please tell me?"

It takes Joaquin a second to remember what he was supposed to tell her. He clears his throat.

"Right," he says. "Well, Manolo tells me that he - well - I heard he has a crush on someone else now."

Maria gasps. She's a sucker for this kind of stuff, but Joaquin is, too - Manolo always tells them to shut up when they're gossiping in physics.

"He didn't tell me," Maria says, offended. "Do you know who it is? Is it another boy?"

Joaquin shrugs. "Can't say," he says, as they approach Manolo's locker.

And Manolo is there, as reliable as ever, sorting through his books. "Hey," he greets when he turns and sees them.

Maria goes over and punches him on the shoulder, almost knocking Manolo into his locker door. As Manolo whines, Maria says, "Joaquin told me you like someone! Why didn't you tell me?"

Manolo turns to shoot a glare at Joaquin, but Joaquin merely shrugs. He's doing the guy a favor; anyone in their right mind would fall for Manolo, probably. He's muscular for a guy and way too nice, too. Joaquin's pretty sure that if he'd made a move on Jaime-from-fifth-grade, Jaime would't returned the feelings.

Manolo says to Maria, "He did, didn't he?"

He glances at Joaquin again. "But what I bet he didn't tell you is that he likes someone, too."

"Hey!" Joaquin protests. "I do not!"

His words fall on deaf ears, as Manolo just smirks at him while Maria whips around to punch him, too. "You hypocrite!" she says, as Joaquin is trying to mentally take back all the nice things he's ever thought about Manolo. "You didn't tell me that, either!"

"I don't like anyone!" Joaquin squawks.

Manolo says, "You do."

"I do not!"

"You do!"

"You both betray me," Maria says dramatically. "Aren't you even going to tell me who you guys like?"

Joaquin sends Manolo a look that says, tell her. Manolo jerks his head back--I will if you will. Joaquin glares, because he doesn't like Maria, and doesn't care how delusional Manolo thinks because he doesn't. Manolo seems to get this, because he glares a little harder and looks pointedly at Maria, who is glowering more at Joaquin and honestly, why is Joaquin the one getting stared down by his two best friends?

"Why are you both looking at me?" he says. "I don't like anyone, I already told you."

"You're cute when you're in denial," says Maria sarcastically.

Manolo, the traitor, jumps in. "So cute," he says. "I bet he'd be even cuter if he admitted it."

"Why are you calling me cute?" asks Joaquin. He doesn't mind being cute, but now they're still--they're still looking at him like that! They're both traitors! "I don't owe you guys anything."

"But we're your best friends," says Maria, fluttering her eyelashes.

Joaquin slaps his hand over his face. "No. No, I am not falling for that again." He pivots on his heel. "I'm walking away now."

"You're still covering your eyes!" Maria calls.

"I'm a master of walking around sightless!" Joaquin says back. "See? I'm amazing at this. I'm--oof, that's a wall."

*

The only class the three of them share is physics, which they have together the next day. Manolo is slumped forward over his desk when Joaquin walks in. Manolo doesn't even greet him, and Joaquin has to snap his fingers in front of Manolo's eyes about five times before he reacts.

"Huh?" says Manolo.

Joaquin rolls his eyes. "Don't tell me," he says. "You actually stayed up doing homework."

Manolo peers at him. "And you didn't?"

Maria comes in then, bag slung over her shoulder. She takes one look at Manolo, before saying to Joaquin, "I blame you."

Joaquin puts an offended hand to his chest. "What did I do?"

"Well, for one," says Manolo. "You encouraged me to stay up to play League with you all night yesterday--"

"I did no such thing."

"And then Manolo remembered that he had homework to do," says Maria. "Of course. This is your fault Joaquin."

"It is not my fault Manolo has decided to be a nerd," Joaquin says emphatically.

"Hey," says Maria. "If Manolo's a nerd, then I'm a nerd too."

"You are," Joaquin and Manolo say simultaneously.

Maria sighs and sits down at her desk in front of Manolo's, diagonal from Joaquin's. "Have some coffee," she says to Manolo, spinning around and placing her coffee drink in front of him.

Manolo lifts his head, but waves his hand. "It's fine, Maria, really--"

"You look dead on your feet, Manolo, don't tell me you won't need any of this to help you get through the day." Maria shoves the coffee closer to him. "Here."

Manolo pauses for a second, before giving her a trying smile and lifting himself up fully. "Thanks," he says gratefully, taking a sip.

Joaquin's stomach does a warm thing, as Manolo drinks from Maria's coffee. It's kind of like drinking it too, except Joaquin isn't and he doesn't really like coffee that much anyway (it's for nerds like Maria and Manolo). He watches Manolo's lips on the spot of the rim where Maria had likely been sipping from, probably touching her saliva. Joaquin wonders if Maria would let him take a sip, too.

Manolo catches his eye, then, and Joaquin realizes he's been staring. Still, it's Manolo who does like Maria, giving her a dumb indirect kiss or something.

Joaquin throws a thumbs up at him anyway.

Maria's turned back around, so Manolo just rolls his eyes and ignores Joaquin. "Here," he says, nudging Maria's shoulder with the cup. "Thanks."

Maria beams at him. "No problem," she says.

Joaquin thinks about asking her for a turn, but then their teacher walks in and the room falls deadly silent.

La Muerte is nice but also kind of terrifying, mostly with the way she just looks at you like she can see into your soul. Joaquin's been a victim of it too many times before; it gives him the heebie jeebies, as he's told Manolo and Maria hundreds of times earlier this year. Her exams are also impossible, even for Joaquin who's not even a contender to qualify how difficult her tests are. Maria, of course, always aces them; but even Manolo gets less than a B.

Joaquin's past the point of caring. His grades in physics aren't a mark of his character.

"Good morning," La Muerte addresses them--it's the only thing anyone in the school ever calls her because of her teaching style, even if she is hot and smiles at everyone. "I hope you've all slept well and done your homework."

Joaquin sinks in his chair.

Beside him, so does Manolo.

They go over their homework for the first fifteen minutes of class; Maria raises her hand for almost every question, and Joaquin coughs, "Nerd," until La Muerte says, "Do you know the answer, Mr. Mondragon?"

"Um," says Joaquin, trying to meet her eyes and failing. "No."

La Muerte tsks before moving on.

She collects the homework afterward (or lack thereof), and Joaquin thinks about how much he'd rather be in gym. Mr. Xibalba likes him and he's actually good at that--plus, he once heard that Mr. Xibalba and La Muerte have some sort of feud going on. Mr. Xibalba would understand.

After she's collected their homework and done looking at Joaquin with such disappointment that he actually feels bad for something related to school, La Muerte returns to the front of the classroom and claps her hands.

"Now," she says. "Today you will be starting a new group project. You will be picking a physics theory, and will research it and present it to the class. You will be doing these presentations in groups of three, and will work outside of class before presenting next week. And don't go asking your friends to work with you now," she adds, as the classroom begins to bustle. "I've already assigned you to your partners."

Joaquin notices Manolo poke Maria on the shoulder. "I hope you're in my group," Manolo whispers to her.

"I'd want you in my group, too," Maria whispers back.

"I'm good with either of you, I just need to work with a nerd," says Joaquin.

They both turn to glare at him.

"Mr. Mondragon," La Muerte calls.

Joaquin nearly jerks out of his chair. "Present," he says, stupidly.

At least half the room giggles. Joaquin feels himself flushing as La Muerte's lips twitch into a smile, as she adds, "Miss Posada, Mr. Sanchez. The three of you are working together."

"Oh," says Manolo.

"Yes," Joaquin hisses, fist pumping. "It's Joaquin time!"

"Are you serious," mutters Maria.

Once La Muerte's done assigning everyone else, she hands them their rubric along with a list of suggestions before allowing them to break off and discuss. As soon as they're left to their own devices, Maria turns around and looks Joaquin square in the eye.

"For the record," she says. "I'm not letting you slack off on this."

"What? Me, slack off?" says Joaquin. "Never!"

"I'll make sure he doesn't," Manolo assures her.

Joaquin scoffs. "You're not my mom, Manolo."

"And I'm not either of your mothers, but if we don't put our heads together and ace this project, then I will tell the both of yours," Maria says sharply. "I've gotten all As in La Muerte's class this semester so far, and we are going to get another one, even if it is Joaquin's first."

"Hey," says Joaquin. "How do you know it won't be Manolo's first A too?"

"Because we studied for the last test together and looked at our grades afterward at lunch," Maria replies, because she and Manolo have lunch B together while Joaquin is stuck with lunch C in his lonesome (and with some guys from the wrestling and the cheerleading club, whatever.)

"Where was I?" Joaquin demands.

"We tried to invite you to study with us, man," says Manolo. "You wouldn't answer your phone."

"Oh." Joaquin does remember when he'd woken up one morning to twelve missed calls from Manolo. He'd passed out in his boxers in front of his Xbox that night.

"So," says Maria, looking between them. "Let's start this, boys."

*

"I can't believe she actually thought I paid attention in class at all," Joaquin's complaining on their way back from physics.

"She believed in you, man," says Manolo. He clings his books tighter to his chest.

"That was stupid," Joaquin says, rolling his eyes. "At least she's hot when she's angry."

"Stop saying that," Manolo says to him. "If you're going to continue to be in denial about liking her, then you should stop calling her hot, too."

"I can't deny the truths, man," says Joaquin.

"Evidently you can, if you still won't admit that you like her."

"I still don't get what makes you say that," Joaquin scoffs, sidestepping a couple making out in the middle of the hallway. Manolo joins him. "'The way I look at her' - what does that even mean? It's not even possible to - I don't even know what onomato-whatever you used last time."

"I think you mean simile, which is the whole point of--" Manolo sighs. "Whatever. How do you feel when you look at her?"

"When I look at her?" Joaquin shrugs. "I dunno, like--"

He doesn't really stop to think about this sort of thing, mostly because it's never really felt like it's changed his whole life. All three of them have known each other since Joaquin and Maria had moved next door to Manolo when they were about four years old. Maria's always been bold and flighty and Manolo is cautious but not shy. Both of them sort of feel like Joaquin can be a better person than he is, but not in a way that's ever made him feel bad.

There's never been a line of difference between Maria and Manolo for him, even though Maria had gotten curves and hot while Manolo... isn't bad looking either. It's more obvious when they're at the gym, though Joaquin only looks because muscles are cool and Manolo has them, that's all.

"--like you, I guess," Joaquin finishes, because there's nothing else to say.

Manolo sighs. "I guess if you want to live in a river forever," he says, moving on down the hall.

Joaquin stares at his retreating back, confused. "What are you talking about? You know I don't live in a river," he calls to him.

*

It's easier that Manolo likes Maria, anyway, since Manolo's likable and like, muscles and stuff, so there's actually a pretty high possibility that she likes him back. Well, there's no telling with Maria since she learned her lesson after the first time she told Joaquin and Manolo that she liked someone (a girl in their homeroom when they were twelve, and Manolo and Joaquin may have not so secretly nudged Maria every time she walked past.) But Joaquin figures that if Manolo liked a girl, or even a guy, well, they would probably like him back anyway, because Manolo is just that type of person.

He thinks about it for the rest of the day, even when Maria drags them to the library after school since Manolo doesn't have football and Joaquin doesn't have wrestling and Maria doesn't have fencing. Maria and Manolo fire ideas to each other back and forth, discussing whatever it is nerds discuss about their physics project. They would look good together, Joaquin muses. They'd probably look nice kissing, too.

The sudden thought startles him so badly that he nearly jumps out of his seat. Luckily, Maria goes, "Joaquin, what do you think?" and Joaquin uses that as an excuse to go, "What? Huh? Sorry, the sound of nerds talking almost made me fall asleep."

Maria rolls her eyes, and Manolo nudges him.

"Seriously, Joaquin," he says. "You don't want to fail this, do you?"

"Nah, of course I don't," says Joaquin, leaning forward. "Uh. What was our assignment again?"

At the end of it, Joaquin gets caught up to speed that they're apparently presenting Newton's third law of motion (which he totally missed in class earlier; he probably zoned out then too) though Maria and Manolo have declared him hopeless when it came to researching, because he got distracted by Wikipedia and then meme videos on Youtube. They don't actually seem pissed when the three of them walk home together, though, and Maria grins at him just as easily when she leaves to her house first on the street.

"That's the look," says Manolo, once Maria's out of earshot.

Joaquin blinks, turning from where Maria has left to her house, to Manolo. "What's the look?"

"The look I keep telling you about," says Manolo. "Seriously, Joaquin, do you not feel anything?"

"I told you, it's pretty much the--"

Well, if Joaquin admitted that the way Maria was hot and a friend the same way Manolo is, that might come off a little weird. "No," he says, instead.

Manolo looks exasperated, but fond. "I was hoping that if we both liked her, we could talk about how great she is together," he says, a smile at the corner of his lips. "See you tomorrow."

He turns and heads to his house; Joaquin can hear the tell-tale signs of his large family. Something inside him does the weird flipping thing as it does when Maria looks at him the same way, which means that he obviously does not like her, either.

*

But he spends the rest of the day, and the day after that, and, well, the weekend, thinking about Maria and Manolo together. How they'd look holding hands or kissing or something, being the third wheel to all of their--well, it's not like working on their project isn't giving him an idea of it already. Maria invites herself over to Joaquin's house at eleven in the morning on Saturday, barging into his room and waking him up.

"What the," Joaquin mumbles where he's lying facedown in his bed.

"Working at your house is the only way to get you to work," says Maria, ripping his blankets off of him. "Up and at 'em."

The presentation itself doesn't take that long for them to rehearse, and afterward, Joaquin's mother makes them elotes while Joaquin and Manolo deliberately backspace some letters in their presentation to make typos and Maria tries to yell at them, laughing the whole time. She is doused in sunlight in Joaquin's kitchen and her cheeks are rosy when she smiles and it's. Hot.

Maybe it's a little more than hot.

Manolo's father comes by around lunch time to take him to his work, which is apparently his idea of father-son bonding time. Joaquin is kind of disappointed, though that's remedied quickly when his own mother asks Maria if she wants to stay over for lunch, and Maria says, "Sure, my father will be glad that I'm not home with my head stuck in a book."

"Because your father knows what's up," says Joaquin, gesturing at her with his pencil he'd broken earlier. "He knows a nerd when he sees one."

"Oh shut up," Maria says good-naturedly. "He's worse than Manolo's; he doesn't want me to be smart."

"Too late for that."

"Was that supposed to be a compliment?"

"Definitely not," says Joaquin, and Maria laughs. They're sitting at his dining table, where they'd been practicing (and mostly dicking around) while his mother cooks lunch on the stove.

"You're worse than Manolo, too, at least he admits it when he compliments me," says Maria. "Which, speaking of. Who was he talking about you being in denial about liking?"

"No one," Joaquin says, almost immediately. "Because I don't like anyone."

Maria raises her eyebrows. "Really."

"Really!" Joaquin insists. "Besides, now that Manolo's gone, don't you want to ask me about who he likes? Because I actually have an answer for that one."

Not like he'll actually tell Maria; Manolo wouldn't talk to him for at least four weeks, which happened once when they were nine and Joaquin threw Manolo's favorite guitar over his fence and it cracked in half. Joaquin had apologized and begged Manolo to look at him again, and even after Manolo had gotten over it after four weeks, Joaquin had gotten him a new and shinier guitar for his birthday. Manolo had cried.

Maria rolls her eyes though and says, "No, I'm pretty sure whoever it is will come around and end up liking him back and ask him out first. Or he'll finally get the guts to ask them out," she adds thoughtfully. "And they'll say yes."

"Would you say yes if he asked you out?" Joaquin asks carefully.

Maria shrugs. "It's Manolo, who wouldn't?" she says. "Why, would you?"

"I--" Joaquin stumbles over his words. "I never thought about it before."

"Oh, come on." Maria leans her elbows on the table, smirking at him. "Don't tell me you haven't thought about Manolo like that at least once since he told us he likes boys too."

"I haven't!" Joaquin insists, because he hasn't. Definitely not.

"Not even at night?"

"Maria!" Joaquin says, scandalized, as Maria throws her head back and laughs. To his horror, his own mother laughs, too.

"I'm kidding," says Maria, coming down, her lips twitching. "Though, really, c'mon Joaquin. It's Manolo." She pauses for a second. "Don't tell me you would say no."

Joaquin says, "Then I won't," and Maria says, "You love him, admit it," and Joaquin is grateful when his mother makes them clean up the table then, because he's not sure what would happen if he said yes.

*

When the school week starts again, Joaquin is actually looking forward to Monday--even though he has physics, they don't have to present yet, and he has double gym after lunch. That means, of course, that Mr. Xibalba showers him with compliments and lets him captain one of their kickball teams. Joaquin also incidentally gets first pick at choosing teams.

Afterward, Joaquin stays afterward to help with putting stuff away, plus he has wrestling right after school and sucking up never hurts, either. His phone buzzes in his pocket as he's packing the mats up away. Joaquin takes out his phone and sighs.

"Something wrong?" asks Mr. Xibalba, piling in another mat next to his.

"Nah," says Joaquin. "My group partners just want me to practice our physics project again tonight, but we already did that over the weekend."

"Ah," says Mr. Xibalba. "Physics. I'm assuming you have La Muerte?"

"You call her that too?" Joaquin says, surprised.

Mr. Xibalba chuckles. "She's death in any form of interaction," he says. "Don't want to piss her off. Though, if you do want to get on her good side, you can make a bet with her."

"I'm pretty sure that would piss her off," Joaquin says skeptically.

Mr. Xibalba looks around, before placing a hand on Joaquin's shoulder. "Listen, Joaquin," he says in a low voice. "You know that feud everyone talks about us having? We make bets on couples we think will get together at the end of the semester."

Joaquin gapes at him. "You bet on students?"

"Shh!" Mr. Xibalba says hurriedly. "Don't tell anyone, but--yeah. Though last time I cheated and she got really pissed."

"I'd imagine," Joaquin says, his eyes widening. "Do you have money on me?"

Mr. Xibalba winks at him, letting him go. "I can't tell you that," he says. "She might find out and blow up at me again."

Joaquin wonders idly if he's betting on Manolo and Maria, or maybe himself and Maria. The second thought comes as a surprise, though Joaquin thinks about Manolo and Maria again, dark hair only a tinge shade different leaning against each other, curled up around each other, and--

Joaquin shakes his head. Why does he keep thinking about this?

He would just bet on Manolo and Maria if he would bet on anyone, is the point. He doesn't even know if Maria likes Manolo, though the way she'd talked about him over the weekend is kind of evidence enough.

The realization makes something funny lurch in his stomach. It can't be... But while he knows that if he was in some sort of life-or-death situation and had to pick between Manolo and Maria and couldn't pick (Maria would scold him if he saved her and let Manolo go; Manolo would be upset if he'd done the same to him), funny lurches always mean jealousy in some way. Joaquin remembers when Manolo had made friends with a new girl in school when they were seven, and Joaquin and Maria had spent all their time glaring at Manolo and New Girl across the playground in kindergarten.

(Maria had only lasted for a day, because she became friends with New Girl shortly after. Joaquin called her a traitor.)

So... That has to mean something. He probably likes Maria to some extent, and he's not going to tell Manolo because he doesn't want Manolo to know that he's right.

He should test the theory. Joaquin juggles this idea until wrestling practice, where he gets distracted and then gets home and plays video games and forgets till the next morning, when he sees Maria drive herself and Manolo into the school parking lot.

He gets the funny lurches again, and tries his best to ignore them. "Yo, what's new," he says as he walks past them, where Maria's car slows behind the rest of the line.

"Hi Joaquin," says Manolo from the passenger seat.

Joaquin glances at him. He could've given Manolo a ride instead--but Manolo's dad trusts Maria more (which, why, Joaquin will never know) so he's always with her.

He tries not to think about it too much.

Maria furrows her eyebrows at him, though, hands parked on the wheel. "What's new with you?" she says back.

Joaquin leans forward. Well he's not too bad looking or terrible, so Maria could probably fall for him as easily as she could for Manolo. "Nothin' much, baby," he says, propping his elbow up against the window.

Maria snorts. "Okay, pod-Joaquin," she says, before rolling the window up.

"Hey, hey!" says Joaquin, jolting away. The window is closed and Maria has her eyes focused in front of her. "Maria! What was that for?"

She ignores him.

Manolo is laughing at him from the passenger seat. Joaquin frowns at the both of them, sulking toward the school. He was so sure he'd gotten the smolder on point, too. Girls like that sort of thing, don't they?

On his way to his first class, his cellphone buzzes. I didn't know you're making the moves on Maria now, his text says.

I don't know what you're talking about, Joaquin sends back.

*

There's not much to go on for these weird feelings, though during physics Joaquin finds himself just watching the way they work together (again!) and thinking about what they must do at lunch. He must be jealous of Manolo, even though that's never happened before--they've always been too different in the past for him to be jealous.

But where Manolo might have a chance that Maria will like him, Joaquin might not. Or. He might. He's a pretty good-looking guy, right? And okay, he doesn't get as good of grades as Manolo does, but maybe that's not what Maria looks for in a guy. Maybe she would like dating a guy stupider than her.

The thought is reassuring.

The next day, Joaquin is walking to art and dreading it when he sees a snag of dark hair--two snags of dark hair, making their way around the corner. Something hot tugs in his stomach and he hates even more that he has art now--until he remembers that Manolo and Maria have lunch this period, too.

Jogging after them, he rounds the corner and keeps quiet as they make their way to the cafeteria, chatting. Maria smiles every time Manolo speaks, and Manolo lights up whenever Maria laughs or says something back. They do look good together. Joaquin wishes he could hate them for it.

He trails behind them all the way to the lunch line. As Manolo and Maria file themselves in, Joaquin pounces on Manolo's shoulders.

"Boo!" he says.

To his disappointment, Manolo doesn't even flinch. He rolls his eyes and says, "Hi Joaquin."

"What--"

"You think we didn't notice you following us this whole time?" Maria sounds amused. "What are you doing here?"

Joaquin shrugs, taking his hands off Manolo's shoulders. His palms feel kind of warm. "Skipping art to hang out with you guys, what does it look like I'm doing?"

"You shouldn't skip," Manolo advises.

Joaquin waves him off. "Yeah, yeah, buzzkill," he says. "What's for lunch today?"

Maria tries to ward him off as they make their way through the line, but Manolo shoves a fruit cup onto Joaquin's tray and then Maria gives him 2% milk and Joaquin says, "Wow, you guys are really taking this whole me-skipping-class thing in stride."

"We're making you regret it so you won't do it again," Maria says.

"Yeah," says Manolo. "This is punishment for hanging out with your friends."

It's not that bad, Joaquin thinks, though it's kind of weird when Manolo and Maria sit snugly next to each other on one end of the table so Joaquin is left alone on the other bench. He eyes them for a moment, before settling himself down.

"At least while you're here, we can talk about our project," says Maria, starting on her corn.

Joaquin groans. "Can't we talk about something not school related? For once?"

"We are presenting tomorrow morning," Manolo points out.

"Yeah, but you know what we're going to do before that?" Joaquin finger guns at him. "Play six hours of Halo. Tonight, my house. You're invited too," he says to Maria, because he always says that to her.

Maria rolls her eyes. "No thank you," she says.

"Oh, come on Maria," says Manolo. "We could practice our presentation more if you come."

"Yeah, we could," says Joaquin sarcastically.

He nudges his foot against Maria's under the table anyway. She kicks back, and looks up and gives him a look.

"If I come over, will you promise we will?" she says.

Joaquin is tempted to say no, because--well, really, homework. But he feels another kick against the side of his shoe, and yeah, he's not going to say no to more of her presence, and she's basically playing footsie with him under the table.

He tucks the tip of his shoe under the hem of her long skirt. Beside her, Manolo squeaks. Maria looks at Manolo oddly.

"Fine," says Joaquin. "We can work on our dumb project."

Maria smiles wide at him. "Good."

When the lunch period ends, Joaquin feels pleased with himself--maybe Maria doesn't like Manolo, and likes him instead. After all, she hadn't pulled away when he touched her ankle.

As she gets up to throw her trash away first, Joaquin leans across the table. "Dude," he hisses to Manolo. "I think she likes me."

"Who?" Manolo frowns. "Maria?"

Joaquin's chest tightens inexplicably at the expression on Manolo's face. He tries to ignore it. "Yeah, man! She--"

"I thought you didn't like her."

"That was before," says Joaquin. "But now I think she--"

Maria comes back then, and both Manolo and Joaquin pull themselves back. Maria glances between the two of them suspiciously.

"What are you two talking about?" she asks.

"Nothing," says Joaquin.

"How shiny your hair looks," Manolo says at the same time.

Joaquin scowls and kicks him under the table, though he's a little more to the left than Joaquin thought he would be. Dude, he tries to convey with his eyes, which Manolo ignores.

"O-kay," says Maria. "Weirdoes."

*

After school, Maria has fencing practice but promises she'll come by Joaquin's after, "to practice our physics presentation." Joaquin still thinks it's dumb because he practically has this shit memorized--well, not really, but they've got a powerpoint--but he doesn't try to discourage her.

He drives Manolo home, even though on these days Mr. Sanchez thinks that Manolo takes the bus. "So," says Joaquin, "back to what I was saying at lunch--"

"Your lunch or my lunch?" Manolo asks wryly.

"Very funny," says Joaquin; he'd spent his lunch shadowing Manolo in his own math class, since Manolo's in calculus, and his teacher has never seen Joaquin before, so Joaquin managed to persuade her that he was a foreign exchange student in order to sit in, despite Manolo's protests.

"Yeah," says Manolo. He adjusts his backpack on his lap. "What's this about you thinking Maria likes you? Because no offense man, but Maria's not very--"

"Yeah, I know," Joaquin cuts in. "She's... Maria. But she also totally played footsie with me under the table so what does that mean, huh?" He shoots Manolo a grin.

Manolo's frown deepens. "Wait, what?"

"Dude, I mean the whole," Joaquin gestures with one hand. "Foot rubbing, dumb kicking, there was even ankle action going on, man. She didn't pull away at all, and--"

"That was you?" Manolo exclaims.

Joaquin glances at him. "Wait," he says. "What are you talking about?"

"I thought that was--" Manolo's cheeks are darkening, a blush of dark pink. "I thought you were Maria."

"What are you--"

"You were playing footsie with me, Joaquin," says Manolo. "Oh god. I thought you were Maria, and you thought I was--"

"How the hell did you think that I was Maria?" Joaquin says incredulously. "You two were sitting side by--"

"I don't know, your feet felt like a girl's, I guess," Manolo replies. "I didn't--"

"Oh my god," says Joaquin.

"Yeah."

"Oh my god." He had touched Manolo's ankle with his foot. "I played footsie with you."

"I know," Manolo says ruefully.

Joaquin continues driving, though it feels like half his brain is on the road and the other half is back to when he thought he had done a pretty good job of seducing Maria, or whatever. Except he hadn't seduced Maria, he'd seduced Manolo, and there's either a possibility that Manolo is grossed out by him, or had actually been successfully seduced.

"We don't talk about this," he says to Manolo. He thinks about his foot at the hem of what now makes more sense as Manolo's trousers. His stomach tugs hotly.

"Don't talk about what?" says Manolo.

"Exactly," Joaquin murmurs.

So it's okay, when they get to Joaquin's house in mostly silence. There's not much to be mortified about--it was just a foot, on another foot, that's all. Never mind that the recipient of Joaquin's foot is about a meter away from Joaquin's as they settle down in front of the tv in his room and switch off on Halo. And maybe it's just Joaquin's imagination, but does Manolo sound less than enthusiastic?

Not that Joaquin can blame him: it's hard for him to focus, too, when Manolo is playing and right there and the space between their bodies feels like a weird trickle of heat.

It'll get better once Maria gets here, he tells himself. Maybe they can tell her about the footsie thing and they can all laugh it off. Except that would be a terrible idea, because then Joaquin would have to tell her that he'd been looking for her foot instead, and Manolo would have to say that he thought Joaquin was Maria, and--no, that would be a bad idea.

He stares at the screen but doesn't realize Manolo had died in the game until something bumps his shoulder, and it's Manolo and the game controller. Manolo is smiling, face half-lit by the screen of his tv.

Joaquin's insides jump.

"It's your turn," says Manolo.

Joaquin blinks. "Oh. Oh, right," he says, before taking the controller.

Halo gets boring after a while and Joaquin figures that maybe he and Manolo actually have to play against each other to make this weird--whatever--go away. "Mario Kart?" he offers, after Manolo dies for probably the twelfth time.

"Sure," Manolo says easily.

Joaquin switches the consoles, getting the proper controllers. His family's not that rich, but since his father died when he was younger, his mother always spoils him during the holidays. He never complains, though he always makes sure to help her around the house more in exchange for the ridiculous amounts of video games he's received over the years.

He hands a Wiimote to Manolo, who, as usual, picks Luigi. (Joaquin always picks Bowser, he'd be ashamed if he didn't.) They play and race and, like that, it's like the weird tension has dissipated as they shove back and forth against each other to screw the other up.

"Hey!" shouts Joaquin, as Luigi passes over the finish line. "You totally cheated!"

Manolo is laughing. "I totally did not," he says, grinning at Joaquin.

Joaquin bumps his shoulder into Manolo's. "You did," he says, grinning back.

"Did not," says Manolo.

"Another around, then." Joaquin quickly goes back to the circuit screen. "And this time I'm picking the course."

"You picked it last time," says Manolo.

Joaquin scoffs and goes to the one he knows he's the best at.

This race is close, though Joaquin wins by a margin, throwing his arms up in triumph. "Your champion!" he shouts. "Joaquin Mondragon!"

"Only 'cause you picked this one on purpose," Manolo says pointedly, though he doesn't look too upset.

Joaquin ignores him. "Aaaaaa," he says, mimicking a crowd. "I won, Manolo! Feast your eyes upon my victory!"

"They're feasting," says Manolo, rolling his eyes.

Joaquin shoves his side. "Sore loser," he teases.

"More like you're a sore winner," Manolo says lightly, shoving back.

"Yeah, but at least I won." Joaquin shoves him again. He thinks that maybe Maria is rubbing off on him.

"Congratulations," says Manolo, not sounding congratulatory at all. He pushes him once more.

He isn't so strong to push Joaquin fully over but Joaquin goes down anyway, crying out dramatically. "I'm being attacked for being awesome!" he says, falling backward onto the carpet. "Who will save me?"

He thinks, at this moment, would be the perfect time for Maria to come in. She would look at him and roll her eyes, and Joaquin will ask for her help and she'll step over him and say no.

But the door to his bedroom does not open. And it's Manolo who says, "Plot twist: I, your attacker, will save you," while offering his hand out to Joaquin.

Joaquin takes it--and then he yanks Manolo down with him. "Plot twist of the plot twist," he says, still dramatically. "I am the evil villain and you have been tricked by me."

Manolo laughs, lifting himself up from Joaquin's chest. "What is this?" he says to Joaquin. "Are we ten years old again?"

"If we were ten years old again, I don't think you would've had the strength to beat me up," Joaquin says seriously.

Manolo laughs again. He's warm on top of Joaquin's chest, and Joaquin suddenly remembers what it'd been like--earlier today at lunch, all those other times when they'd been paired and squeezed together, in backseats of cars when Manolo's dad drove them out to do Manly Things and one time when Joaquin had fallen off the jungle gym in the playground and cried. He'd been too embarrassed to go back inside, tearstained, and Manolo had found him and sat with him until Joaquin's face dried and Manolo had reassured him that he looked very cool with the scrape and bruise on his arm, even though their teacher had yelled at the both of them, later.

He realizes he's been staring at Manolo too long. Manolo is no longer laughing, and now he's just staring at Joaquin back. The weird air has returned.

Manolo makes a movement like he's about to get off.

"Wait," says Joaquin, tugging him back down.

And Manolo tilts forward and he is getting closer and closer and--Instinct takes over Joaquin as he pushes himself up by an inch and then their mouths are fitted together.

It's--weird, because he's thinking about Manolo kissing Maria, and the idea of himself kissing Maria has been happening ever since Maria got hot, but this is--unexpected, new, and--Manolo makes a surprised sound in his mouth, but he is warm and Joaquin goes with feeling and presses back a bit more.

Then Manolo is kissing him back, stupidly good and tasting a bit like sweat. Joaquin kind of wants to know what it'd be like if Manolo laughed into his mouth, but this is good too, losing themselves in the soft plush of their lips and the small whine Manolo makes when Joaquin cups Manolo's rough cheek into his palm.

Joaquin has never kissed a boy before and honestly he's not sure if Manolo has--though if he's liked boys then he might've, and why should Joaquin be wondering this when he's the guy who's kissing Manolo right now? Manolo licks at the seam of his lips, and it's dizzying and amazing and terrifying. Joaquin pushes Manolo off briefly.

Manolo's cheeks are dark and he's hovering over Joaquin. It's a distracting sight.

"I thought you liked Maria," is the only thing that he manages out.

Manolo is hazy-eyed, but blinks, smiles back. "I thought you liked her, too," he says.

Joaquin doesn't know what to say to this because he does, does like the way Maria giggles at his bad jokes and teases him. "Do you still?" he asks Manolo, because maybe he's the same. Because even though Manolo is kissing him right now--even though Joaquin is kissing Manolo--the idea of not liking Maria sounds ridiculous now.

So does the idea of not liking Manolo.

Manolo squints, thinking. "I... think so," he says. "You guys are different for me, but also the--it doesn't make much sense," he confesses.

"No, no," says Joaquin, sitting up. "I'm the same, I--"

Manolo cuts him off by kissing him again. Joaquin thinks that maybe they should articulate this better, but Manolo seems pretty into their kissing, and Joaquin, well--he's not particularly against it, either.

*

He doesn't know how long it takes, but at some point Joaquin's shirt had come off so now he's in his undershirt, and they're horizontal on the ground with Joaquin on top of Manolo, who is shifting himself comfortably while they make out.

Then there is the sound of someone opening the door.

"I tried calling for you guys, but you--oh," says Maria, as Joaquin springs back from Manolo, who looks (attractively) dazed for one second, and then horrified the next.

"Oh shit," says Joaquin, nearly tripping over his feet as he lands on the ground.

Manolo tries to cover himself up--the top two buttons of his shirt are undone. "Maria, this isn't what it looks like," he says feebly, bringing himself off the bed as well.

Maria raises her eyebrows, glancing between them. "What isn't what it looks like?"

"The--" Manolo looks at Joaquin for help.

Joaquin tries. "We were just," he starts, except there's not much to say--it's pretty much exactly what it looks like.

Maria stares.

And then she laughs.

"Oh, finally, you two idiots," she says. "I was waiting for this to happen. You two are so obvious, it's almost painful."

"Wait," says Joaquin, backtracking. "You knew we liked each other?"

"Of course." Maria snorts.

"But--" Manolo glances at Joaquin, though Joaquin shrugs--he has no idea what's going on, either. "Maria, we like you, too--"

"I knew that too, I'm not blind," says Maria, rolling her eyes. "But I wasn't going to say anything until you two said something to each other. Although evidently you've been doing more than talking." Her eyes following the dark wet trail down Manolo's neck.

Joaquin coughs. "Um," he says. "So, what--"

"Are you going to continue to deny that you like anyone anymore, Joaquin?" Maria teases. She grasps for one of his hands.

"Hey," Joaquin says indignantly. "That wasn't about Manolo, though, that was about you."

"Which was stupid," Manolo puts in. Maria grabs for one of his hands, too. "Anyone would be stupid not to like you."

To Joaquin's surprise, Maria actually blushes at this, cheeks a bit pink. Joaquin likes this, likes that Manolo can make her look like this. "Thanks," she says to Manolo. "Though I'm glad if it's just you two."

"I'm flattered," says Joaquin, and Maria laughs and punches him in the arm.

"So," says Manolo, winding his hand with Joaquin's. It's kind of embarrassing and cheesy, but it's also Manolo and Maria in the other and the best feeling in the world. "Physics?"

Both Joaquin and Maria blink at him, before they burst out into laughter.

"Physics can wait," says Maria, leaning up on her tiptoes.