Summary: Riley is the too shy, too smart 15 year old junior at Dalton High. Enter Austin, the older classmate who befriends him. Riley falls in love with Austin, and hope turns to ash. Part of the Second Star 'Verse.
Maybe the Sky Will
It wasn't hard for Riley to ignore Austin. School was out for the semester, and he cut the coffee shop out from his life. It was the only place that had sort of became their spot, and the only place where he would inevitably run into Austin. The doorbell continued to ring. He never answered it. Whenever Austin gave up Riley watched him walk away, a slump in his shoulders and his head hung low, and in that moment he felt ill for being cruel. Then he would think about Lee and Austin together, and his heart broke all over again.
Logically he knew he was being unfair about the entire thing. Austin and him had never been together. It wasn't Austin's fault that Riley had built up their relationship in his head to be this unbreakable connection. Now there was Lee between them, with his blond hair and California tanned skin. When Riley thought about Lee anger welled up from somewhere dark and deep, and he'd flash back to that day and Austin's hurt confusion again and again.
They did end up going back east for Christmas. His paternal grandmother lived in Long Island, and they spent a week at her house. The plane landed during a snow storm, and Riley shrugged on his black wool pea coat feeling like he'd come home. Riley and his dad rode in the cab in silence. He never knew what to say to his father. It wasn't a new situation.
Gran's age lined face lit up when she opened the door. “Look at you two!” she said, dragging them into the house. “Greg, where is your scarf?”
Riley's dad rolled his eyes. “Mom, I'm perfectly fine without one. It's not the Arctic. It's just Long Island.”
“Stop frowning so much, dear. You'll get wrinkles.” She patted his cheek and then pulled Riley in a tight hug. “Is that my grandson? Honey, you're getting so big!”
She was right. He was just an inch taller than her now. He returned the hug and if he clung longer than usual, Gran didn't comment. Riley was set up in his dad's old bedroom, and his dad was given the guest bedroom since the bed was a little bigger.
During the week, Riley spent a lot of time listening to his iPod. Sometimes his finger hovered over the Mumford and Sons album he'd imported into his iTunes, and then the old anger would boil up again and he would skip the listing. Gran seemed to pick up on his sadness and while she didn't pry, she was extra affectionate and kept trying to comfort him with homemade pies and cakes. Gran always cooked everything from scratch so her food was simply the best.
For New Years Eve they sat down in front of the television and watched the ball drop in Times Square. Instead of having champagne like the two adults, Riley had a little bottle of sparkling cider that tasted too sweet. As the clock chimed twelve, the camera veered to the party goers in New York and the fireworks bursting in midair. Greg stared at the television pensively. He sighed when Gran asked what was the matter. Without saying a word he got up and left the room. The sound of the backdoor closing was like a slap.
Gran shook her head, staring down at her wineglass with her mouth tilted in a sad frown. “That boy,” she sighed.
“Is he okay?” asked Riley.
“He will be,” she said, and then after a pause, “Your mother and him met at a New Years Eve party.”
Riley looked up, surprised. “I didn't know that.”
“I remember when I saw him the next day. He was already completely gone over Sharon.” Gran smiled fondly at the distant memory. “Your dad has always had a problem with letting things go. When your mom died... I worried about him, goodness knows I still do.”
“He's so sad – all the time,” said Riley, staring steadfast at the gathering condensation on his glass.
Gran dabbed at the corners of her eyes with a napkin. “Men in our family have always had a tendency to love hard. Your dad, your grandfather, his brothers.”
The words made him feel like she could see right through him. Riley stilled and his breath caught, eyes unintentionally filling with tears but he's not really crying, but the thought of it all slammed into him something fierce, because if this is what he had to go through when his heart's broken he didn't ever want to fall in love again. He closed his eyes to fight the tears. He didn't jump when her arm came over his shoulders, pulling him in closer to her side. He tucked his head under her chin.
“Riley James Wilkinson tell grandma what's the matter, honey.”
He shook his head. Pressing his face more into her shoulder, Riley mumbled, “It's stupid. I'm an idiot.”
Gran pushed him back and tilted his chin up to her face. He met her serious stare. “You're brilliant. Don't let yourself doubt that, ever. Who hurt you?”
Riley shook his head. “No one.”
That was the honest truth. Austin didn't do anything to Riley, but be his friend. No one told Riley to develop delusions of grandeur about the nature of their relationship. That was all him. Them being anything more was just foolish schoolboy fantasy. She kissed the hair above his ear.
“Okay, we don't have to talk about it,” she said. “But if you change your mind. I'm here, honey. And your father, bless him, is here too. Don't ever forget that.”
On the television Times Square was awash with revelers and the sounds of their cheers was a dim background noise in the living room. Riley wondered if his mother was looking down on them from heaven. She would find a husband who didn't know how to go on, and a pathetic son with a crumpled heart.
“I'm sorry,” said Riley, pulling away. He wiped his nose.
Gran tutted under her breath, wiping at his face with a napkin. “A little tears has never hurt anybody.” She smiled softly as she earnestly studied his face. “You're looking more and more like your father. You're turning into a handsome young man.”
He wondered what she saw on in his face that he didn't. When Riley looked in the mirror he saw a kid who was a bit uncomfortable in his skin. He always felt like he didn't know what to say, like he was some perpetual oddity who couldn't ever do the right thing, and people would stare at the twitchy and awkward kid and wonder what's with the boy robot. The things people his age were into he wasn't. Music, movies, hell sometimes he even spoke like he was three times older than his age. The therapist he used to see when his mother died called him an old soul. Riley thought it was a nice way of saying he was a freak.
Riley wanted to spill the whole story to her, but it felt like an epic secret. Saying it all out loud would cement how damn pitiful he was. He knew it wasn't anything but a heart's desire. Even though it left him with a terrible feeling of such awful despair, but it was his burden to bear and no one else.
“I'm going to go check on your dad,” she said, standing up and looking in the direction of the backdoor. “You go on up to your room, dear. I'll see you tomorrow. Goodnight.”
Riley hugged her again. “Night, Gran.”
In his dad's old bedroom he laid there on the twin bed wide awake with his earphones in. Riley's stare was fixed on the ceiling as music softly played from the small white buds. Moonlight streamed through the window and highlighted the display on the iPod just as Bob Dylan started to croon along to a guitar.
“But you and I, we've been through that. And this is not our fate. So let us talk softly now. The hour is getting late.”
The song pulled him into deep sleep with swift and forgettable dreams. When he felt a hand touch his forehead, he woke from a delirious half-sleep and a blurred figure stood over him. Riley caught a fleeting smell of aftershave before he was pulled back down into a gripping slumber. If he woke up with a slight smile he couldn't remember why.
The first week of January saw father and son back in California. Classes resumed in less than three weeks so Riley went back to avoiding Austin. That meant that he had to be out of the house a lot and find some place else to get coffee. Which wasn't that hard. All he had to do was go to the Starbucks two blocks over from his regular coffee shop.
It was there that he saw fliers for the community center. With his latte in hand Riley checked the place out on a whim during his walk to the bus stop. The community center was an old building with a gym and a fitness center attached. There was also an area for leisure like for reading or activities. There was a certain charm to the place, ignored but still proudly standing, and the staff seemed genuinely glad to see familiar guests and went out of their way to be nice to new people. That was how he met Dean.
Dean was part of the staff at the center. He handled the fitness classes, and he was a junior majoring in sports exercise at UCSF. Dean was twenty two and had mocha colored skin and clear hazel eyes. Riley thought he looked more like a model than any jock he'd ever seen. They met when Dean caught Riley reading in a corner. Only instead of reading he was staring thoughtfully at the machines in the weight room with a kind of open curiosity.
“Come on, just two more,” said Dean encouragingly, clapping his hands. “There you go. One more.”
Riley lifted the bar above his head, shaking. Sweat rolled down his temples as he holstered the weight bar feeling a surge of accomplishment as Dean dropped a towel on his chest.
“You're doing an awesome job,” said Dean. “You're going to break hearts left and right with those guns, man.”
A pleased smile stretched across his face and he dropped his head, embarrassed. Dean was so nice when he approached Riley about weight training, gently cajoling him into trying it out. It had been almost two weeks since their first training session, and Riley was loving it. Dean was patient and was the perfect trainer. He didn't make Riley feel weak and didn't scream at him, like he feared, but was encouraging and always quick with words of praise. It was kind of empowering.
Riley wiped sweat from across his brow. “Do you really think I'm making progress?”
“Dude, you've got heart,” said Dean, clapping his hand on Riley's shoulder. “Not everyone has that drive. That was your last set, so we're good for the day. Good job, man.”
“Thanks for – you know. Helping me like this,” said Riley.
Dean shook his head. “Don't even, bro. I always wished that I had someone show me the ropes when I was your age. I'm living my dream vicariously through you.”
Riley laughed. “That is one sad dream.”
Riley didn't make jokes often and every time he did Dean would do this laugh that makes his broad shoulders jerk comically. And seeing it would set Riley off. Then it was like a chain reaction as their laughter intensified into something that was almost absurd.
“So I'll see you next time?” said Dean as they walked through the center's hallway.
Nodding, Riley holstered his backpack. “Yeah, same time?”
“For sure,” said Dean, holding out his fist.
Riley stared at it.
“You're supposed to pound it, bro,” said Dean, shaking his fist a little.
Their knuckles touched as Riley cautiously carried out the gesture. Dean beamed like a proud parent or something. It made Riley feel kind of cool that someone older thought he was worth something. The sun was setting as Riley left the community center. The bus picked up right at the corner and ran every twenty minutes.
Riley dropped his bag on the bench and sat down. He leaned his head back feeling his muscles wince in mild protest. A car honked and he jerked up as a red Camaro pulled up to the curb. The passenger window rolled down and Dean waved at him from the driver's seat.
“Are you waiting for the bus? It's getting kind of dark, dude. I can give you a lift home,” he said, frowning at the setting sun.
“It's fine,” said Riley with a shrug. “My house is out of your way.”
Dean waved him off. “I'm actually on my way to my girlfriend's house, and she lives not too far from you I think. So hop in, bro. I wont take no for an answer.”
A half smile settled on his face. “Um, I guess I have to then.”
He picked up his bag and hopped into the car. Riley rattled off the directions to his house. Dean was right, his girlfriend actually rented a house with two other girls on the street over from Riley's. They drove with the windows rolled down and the speakers blaring some song with a heavy bass. Dean reached into the glove-box at a stop sign and withdrew a pair of blue wayfarers. He slipped them on Riley's face and beamed at the sight.
“There you go,” said Dean, putting on a pair of Ray Ban's. “We look hella cool now.”
Riley smiled at his reflection. There was always something vulnerable about his eyes. There was a softness there that he could never hide. The sunglasses didn't make him suddenly cool or anything, but they made him feel less self-conscious and weird. He already knew what that said about his self-esteem and he didn't want to examine it.
They turned onto Riley's street and Dean smoothly pulled the car up next to his house. Riley made to give the sunglasses back. Dean shook head shoving the sunglasses back into Riley's hand. He tried to protest but Dean wasn't hearing it.
“No, bro. Keep them,” he said, firmly. “You rock those better than I ever could.”
“I. I – um,” he trailed off, words getting caught in his throat. He took a deep breath and smiled into Dean's amused face. “Thank you.”
Dean laughed. “Yeah, yeah. Get a move on. I've got places to be, little man.”
Riley chuckled and got out of the Camaro. He waved as the car pulled away and disappeared down the street. Riley stopped short of his porch as movement caught his eye on the top step. He lifted the sunglasses up as Austin stepped out of the shadows and fully into the streetlight. Riley's heart sank into his stomach.
They stared at each other. Riley with startled and wide eyes. Austin with such somberness that it made his pulse race at the sight. Instead of Riley cutting his eyes away this time it was Austin. He stared at the crack in the walkway just left of Riley's sneaker.
“You haven't been around,” said Austin.
“I was on vacation,” said Riley shortly, feeling the rising scorn steel his nerves. He shouldered his backpack and stomped up the porch. He made his steps quieter immediately regretting it because he didn't want Austin to see him as some kid having a temper tantrum.
Austin narrowed his eyes. “That's it. You're going to act like – so what? I'm not your friend anymore or something.”
No, he wasn't Riley's or something and never would be. He was Lee's and Riley wasn't even a blip on his radar. He was just some kid who's heart he unknowingly broke into tiny pathetic pieces.
“I'm going inside,” said Riley, heading up the porch and brushing past Austin. “I'll see you at school, I guess.
A humorless laugh made him freeze. Austin smiled at him bitterly. “Nice car you got out of. You get new friends and suddenly your old ones don't matter?”
“Such a moron,” said Riley with a strangled tone that didn't manage to convey his true inflection.
Austin's face darkened, but of course he would be mad. He didn't get the real intent behind the words. He never did. He didn't understand that Riley thought it naively sweet of Austin to not realize that Riley's stupidly in love with him. How could he not see that Riley's burning antagonism was born out of jealousy. The crushing malice weighed him down like the heaviest gravity. He just wanted Austin to see, to feel how much he's hurt Riley. But he had no hope of saying any of this aloud, not with the maelstrom of feelings boiling through his veins and tightening his throat till he could barely breathe.
“Here's your Christmas present,” said Austin, voice shaky with resentment and anger and something else.
He shoved a package into Riley's hands and pushed past him. He jogged down the porch and to the walkway to the sidewalk. The effort of being harsh to Austin was too much and his emotionless shell completely broke apart leaving him with a heaving chest. Austin spun around right then with tears gathered in his red rimmed eyes.
“This fucking sucks,” Austin said, voice wavering with so much hurt. “I don't even know what I did to you. What did I do so wrong?”
Riley's so startled that he lost all ability to speak. He couldn't believe that Austin was crying because Riley had hurt him so deeply. It was unfathomable almost. Embarrassment made Austin go red in the face when Riley didn't reply. He let out a choked laugh that lacked mirth and stormed off across the lawn.
His chest hurt and all Riley can think was Austin shouldn't ever cry. It repeated in Riley's head and he took off after Austin without giving it thought. A surge of adrenaline made him cross the distance in less time than he imagined and he slammed into Austin's back. He didn't think. His arms automatically slipped around Austin's midsection, wrapping him up tight with his cheek pressing against Austin's back and he held him just like that.
What Riley wanted to say was don't go, I know you can't love me back, please don't hate me. “I'm sorry,” was what came out, whispered shakily with heartfelt feeling behind it.
Austin's rigid body gradually relaxed. Riley wished he could see his face. He needed to look into those brown eyes that broadcast Austin's every thought and feelings. He couldn't let go of him. If he did he feared Austin would vanish like some hallucination he dreamed up to soothe his crippling shyness.
“You can't just shut me out like this,” said Austin quietly. He sniffed once and said firmly, “I mean it, Riley.”
Riley nodded and he knew that while Austin couldn't see it, he could feel the motion against his back. Austin's hands came up to lay his palms flat against Riley's resting across his stomach. He squeezed them tightly.
“I'm so, so sorry,” Riley sighed against the back of his neck.
Austin hung his head and mumbled, “You better be.”
Riley's eyes went uncommonly soft, his chest tight with elation. And while he couldn't ignore the feelings he had for Austin or make them go away, Riley would do his best to never cause that expression of unbearable sadness to appear on Austin's face again.
They talked for quite a bit. Weeks of not seeing each other poured forth into endless topics of conversation. After the apology was had they didn't bring it back up. Riley wanted to, and at the same time dreaded it feeling incredibly fucking guilty. But Austin was firm with not rehashing it. He looked Riley in the eyes, I forgive you. I'm not going to bring it back up or hold it against you. That's what forgiveness means, letting go.
The sun went down an hour ago as they sat on the creaky porch swing. Riley personally didn't trust the thing not to buckle under their combined weight and go crashing through the porch taking them with it. Austin nodded at the Christmas present sitting on Riley's lap.
“Are you going to open it?”
Riley had kind of forgotten about the gift. He had become so immersed in the conversation it slipped his mind, even though it was sitting there on his lap. He tugged at his bottom lip with his teeth.
“I don't have a gift for you,” said Riley.
He had meant to get Austin one. In fact he was going to the mall the same day he found out about Lee, and then shit hit the fan and he wasn't in the right frame of mind to shop for a present for anyone after that bombshell. Austin smiled rakishly.
“There's nothing better than the gift of giving.”
Riley looked at him doubtfully.
“Okay, I didn't believe me either. Seriously though, it doesn't matter. It's not a big deal or anything.”
Austin leaned back heavily on purpose and the porch swing went into a sharp incline that sent them rocking back and forth with reckless abandon. Riley let out a startled peel of laughter as Austin cheered excitedly like he was on a ride at Disneyland. So nothing out of the ordinary then.
“Jackass,” Riley huffed out, once the swing had stopped trying to send them to their deaths.
Austin just hummed under his breath looking incredibly pleased with himself. Riley wiped his palms against his jeans hoping that Austin wouldn't notice the way his hands wouldn't keep steady. He tore into the wrapping. He stopped breathing, his blood running deliriously cold. He stared at Austin in wonder and the boy was practically glowing with excitement.
He tugged out a DVD copy of Wuthering Heights. Riley couldn't even form a coherent sentence right now. Austin clapped his hands happily, his smile wide with pure giddiness.
“Surprise, I guess,” said Austin, leaning back like he'd done a job well done. “Remember when you made a comment about the Wuthering Heights book and were all affronted when I hadn't read it?”
Riley nodded, dazed. He turned the case over in his hands staring at the font almost disbelievingly. His mouth moved soundlessly for moment until he swallowed and cleared his throat.
“Then – then, I said I hadn't seen the movie version. And...one day we should watch it together.” He shook his head. Riley traced the plastic covering the DVD box. “I can't believe you remembered that.”
It was just a passing comment he'd made that day. It hadn't been a deep or meaningful conversation. Austin remembered something trivial and did this.
Austin stared at him with his ridiculous smile and wide puppy dog eyes. “Did I do good, Ry?”
“But I didn't get you anything,” said Riley, dismayed.
Austin frowned, confused. “Yeah, I know. So?”
One thank you wasn't enough. Riley thanked him over and over from that moment until Austin had to jet home. Austin stepped off the porch and turned back. He stared up at Riley from the walkway.
“I just – I really missed you, Ry,” said Austin, his voice seeming louder in the quiet of the night.
“I missed you, too,” Riley blurted before he could chicken out.
Riley watched him walk away until he couldn't see him anymore. He didn't watch the movie that night. Riley stared at it like it was something holy and precious. Austin did nice things for him all the time, but this was so sentimental and the thought behind it could make him cry.
It was terrible as it was incredible, Austin giving him this gift. Riley hoped it was normal for indescribable joy to fill you when the person you had feelings for did something really wonderful for you. He felt like he could die happily from it. There was nothing he liked more than to believe this was Austin's way of saying my feelings are the same as yours, please be mine, i've been yours all this time. Riley knew, he knew really there was nothing more to the Christmas present than just Austin being his kind and good, so very good self. The gesture came from a place in his heart, but not his whole heart like Riley hoped or wanted.
January saw the return of classes as the spring semester began. It was nice seeing Katie and Marco again and having regular lunch with just the four of them. That all changed. When Riley met Lee it was a Tuesday. Austin brought him to their table in the courtyard for lunch. His blond hair was longish and he had those sidebangs skaters seem so ridiculously fond of and blue eyes. Lee was dressed like every hipster Riley had ever seen – plaid shirt, skinny jeans, TOMS, and a pair of glasses with black frames. Riley hated him on sight.
Things between Riley and Austin had gotten better, back to where they were before. So when Lee came to eat with them Riley plastered a fake smile on his face and tried not to let his jealously create another rift. He knew Lee hadn't done anything, but Riley can't help but feel that if Lee weren't in the picture then things wouldn't feel so unstable, like he'd broken something between them.
“You carried his tray?” said Marco, nodding at Lee's full arms. “Gay.”
Katie narrowed her eyes at him. “You're so immature.”
“What? It's not like I'm being mean,” protested Marco. “He likes dick, so he's gay, fact.”
Lee looked quite scandalized. Austin patted his shoulder and said through gritted teeth, glaring death at Marco, “Nice one, dick. Guys you all know Lee.”
“Sorry, dude. No harm meant,” said Marco, smiling sheepishly.
Katie smiled as Lee and Austin sat down together on the other side of the table. “He's really a loveable douche once you get to know him.”
“Thanks,” said Marco, giving her the side eye.
Lee didn't look like he had any hard feelings. He smiled back good naturally and when Austin introduced Riley as his best friend, he couldn't even take the moment to feel pleased, because Lee looked at him like he was someone completely fascinating.
“I was beginning to think this guy had made you up,” said Lee, all smile and easy laughter. “I've heard so much about you. I feel like we're friends already.”
A part of him wanted to storm off and another wanted to glare at Lee for taking something that didn't belong to him. He felt like the kid at daycare that was always reprimanded for not sharing well with others. He hoped the hate didn't show on his face, because Austin glanced at him nervously and Riley tried to make his smile genuine.
“It's nice too meet you,” he said.
Riley was going to be sick as the lunch progressed. Lee and Austin talked like they'd been together forever. It was almost surreal to watch. They liked all the same things, and when they switched to music Marco took to him like a fish to water. Riley was willing to bet that he'd read every John le Carre novel ever published and that his room's lined with Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield. He could feel his stomach turning at the mere thought of it.
“Oh, great. Here we go,” Katie moaned when the three boys got into an inevitable debate over music.
“Lucinda Williams shits on all your favorites,” said Marco, waving his arm around. “You should be blessed to even hear something so epic.”
“Amos Lee is an angel sent from heaven to show you what true music is,” protested Austin.
Lee nodded like he was hearing the gospel. “Every single one of his albums is awesome. Last Days at the Lodge is as flawless as his voice.”
Marco scoffed. “He sounds like every dude with a guitar and a smooth tenor in the world.”
“How dare you,” said Austin at the same time Lee exclaimed, “Bite your tongue.”
Katie bursts into laughter, nearly doubling over. “Oh my, God. You guys are too much.”
Austin and Lee shared a smile trading a look of besotted affection. The moment was so sweet that Marco even developed a soft smile at the sight. Riley felt his mouth go dry. He's smiling but it's frozen, and he was sure if anyone looked they would be able to tell that his body had gone kind of numb.
He nodded along dumbly whenever was appropriate, but for the most part Riley sat around like some kind of spare part. It reminded him of whenever he enrolled into high school, after completely skipping middle school and he first tried to make friends. No one got his sense of humor so he got quieter and just withdrew into his shell, staring out as life past him by and the chances of him fitting in grew remote.
Of course this was the reality of the situation. This is how the story really ended. The cool guy didn't end up with the dork. He dated people in his league. The visual proof in front of him was like a bucket of cold water that left him breathless and depressed as a hazy fog settled over his vision.
He didn't start avoiding his friends after that lunch, but he doesn't seek them out. The effort it took to be pleasant to Lee and Austin, while they stood there holding hands, laughing like the perfect fucking couple made him weep inside. He was happy for Austin, he really was. He just wished he could honestly mean it.
The sad part of all this was that it wasn't difficult to distance himself. After declining the offers of hanging out with them outside of school, Lee got tickets to see Sufjan Stevens, we're all going out tonight to see Lee's band play at BotB. Leeleeleeleelee – the invitations decreased and eventually tapered off altogether. If this made Austin sad he didn't show it.
At lunch Austin would look at him sometimes with an unreadable glint in his eyes. It was like he was studying Riley, like he wanted to make sure that he was still there. When Austin sent him those inscrutable looks Riley smiled bashfully, still unable to pretend that he doesn't enjoy having Austin's attention even if he doesn't know what it meant. One time, Austin's knees brushed his under the table, and Riley thought it seemed something like forgiveness.
The passing months with Lee's increased presence in Austin's life left Riley suddenly with plenty of free time. If Riley wasn't at home listening to Austin's CD mixes he was at the community center. Dean had become a friend. Riley thought Dean saw himself as Riley's sort of a defacto big brother. He smugly told the other trainers about Riley's progress in the three months he'd been coming there. Riley had gotten bigger. There was no denying it. Riley predicted it was a combination of teenage growth spurts and weight training.
Dean didn't trust the bus drivers not to crash the bus and send the passengers to their deaths. So more often than not he drove Riley home after a workout. He kept muttering Jesus, take the wheel every time they passed a bus. Riley had a feeling Dean was playing it up just so he could make sure Riley got home safe, but he never asked and didn't want to. He liked riding with Dean. He was a goofball, and his school stories made college seem like the Promise Land.
The Camaro came to a smooth stop next to his house and Dean held out his fist. Riley met him halfway out of instinct at this point, and they bumped knuckles together.
“Remember what I said about getting more protein,” said Dean.
Riley's lips twitched, and he barely stopped himself from laughing. “It's a necessity, like breathing.”
Dean flashed him a smile, all teeth. “There you go, boss.”
Riley jumped out of the car. When he walked into the house he was still chuckling. He dropped his duffel by the door and wandered into the kitchen. He almost missed his dad sitting at the kitchen table. It was such a rare sight, his dad being home that he was momentarily struck dumb by the utter normalcy of it.
“You're home,” he said blankly.
Greg nodded, looking up at him through his glasses. He looked unsure, nervous almost. Riley hadn't ever seen that expression. “I – yes. How was your day?”
“Fine,” said Riley, worrying his lower lip between his teeth.
“Good, good,” said Greg softly, he looked down at his hands laying on the table and then back up at Ryan. When he looked at him, really looked at him he appeared a touch startled. “You're growing up so fast.”
Riley's taken aback by the almost inaudible observation. “You haven't been around much,” he said snootily, immediately regretting how bratty he sounded like his dad didn't have enough on his plate to worry about without Riley being rebellious. “I'm sorry, Dad. I –”
Greg shook his head. “No, don't apologize. I haven't done right by you for a long time now.” His voice trembled with weary regret. It made Riley freeze in the spot. “Your grandmother wasn't proud. I've been feeling sorry for myself, just going through the motions... and all this time you needed me. You've always been so independent, so smart – I forget you're just a boy.”
“Dad -” Riley tried to get out, tears pricking behind his eyes.
“I just want you to know that I want to do better,” he said fervently. “I need – I want to be the father you can depend on.”
Riley looked down at the tiled floor. “I don't need this – protectiveness from you. I'm not a little kid anymore.”
“But you're not a man either,” said Greg.
Why are you doing this, he wanted to scream desperately. Why now. Where was all this concern during the times Riley really needed a father. When his mom died he didn't need a therapist. He needed a dad.
“What if I said it was too late,” said Riley, a tremendous lie. He wanted his dad to fight for him.
Greg smiled sadly. “I wouldn't stop trying. You're my son.”
“So I'm supposed to, what?” Riley scowled. “Let you ease your conscious by being the good dad now. You should feel guilty.”
He didn't notice the tears falling down his face until Greg let out a choked gasp. “Oh, Riley.”
“What, what about work?” asked Riley. There's silence after that. Greg opened his mouth and closed it a few times like he was psyching himself up for something.
“I've already started to restructure my schedule, and I hired another doctor and got some interns to pick up the slack.”
“You love your job,” said Riley, barely resisting the urge to bite at his thumbnail, anything to distract himself. It's not like he never thought about what it would be like to have a father who was always there. He just gave up on wanting such things a long time ago.
Greg shrugged. “Yeah, but I love you more.” All the air went out of the room.
Those words – he hadn't heard them in years. Riely doesn't know where this was coming from. He suspected his grandmother's influence. Something had settled in her eyes that New Years Eve that he couldn't place. He nodded not trusting himself to say anything. Greg's eyes shined. He got up from the table and he seemed hesitant.
“Can I hug you?” he asked, voice cracking slightly, and Riley's heart broke a little. “Please?”
Riley nodded mutely still reeling from the fact that this was his dad, and this was real and not some play fantasy. Greg gripped him by the arms and pulled him in carefully. There was a tense moment before Riley managed to bring his arms up to return the embrace. Something loosened in his chest, some long buried desire he didn't even know he felt.
Greg pulled away and looked at him. Riley looked at his face and he could barely believe it. Instantly his dad looked more alive, like an enormous weight had been lifted from his shoulders. His eyes were bright and he finally smiled, truly.
There you are, Riley thought, awed.
Spring was at its peak in April and the weather grew warmer everyday as summer loomed thankfully ahead. Riley's dad made good on his promise. He cut back on his hours at work so he was at home more. If Riley was in the living room watching television and instead of heading to his study, his dad would join him either to watch whatever he was watching or with a paperback book tucked under his arm. It was nice. They didn't start having heart to hearts, but the awful silence between them was gone and something better was growing in its place.
School was almost over with May just around the corner for the long awaited Summer Break. Riley's lunches with the others grew fewer as he returned to hiding away in the library. He didn't completely stop eating lunch with Austin and his friends. He put in a weekly appearance at the table in the courtyard. Riley hoped one day his feelings would lessen, but he was still horribly in love with Austin and felt miserable that time hadn't changed it.
Some days he was so violently mad with Austin that he fumed in the quiet of his room. Others he was so sad that it felt like a dark depression and he couldn't even muster the energy to speak. How did he continue to feel this way? All it would take was for Austin to smile at him across the table and Riley would imagine them sitting at the coffee shop with the setting sun behind them, words flowing between them, and then Austin would lean in and tenderly wipe away a bite of foam at the corner of Riley's lip using his thumb. Then Lee would say something getting Austin's attention, and Riley went back to last place. He would just sit there after feeling hollow.
There was a quiet knock at his bedroom door. Riley turned down the music on his laptop. He expected his dad so when he pulled open the door he let out a tiny gasp at Austin standing on the other side. He's wearing a pair of jorts and a yellow plaid shirt. It was an outfit Lee would pick out, and the sight only served to make Riley frown sadly.
“Hey,” said Austin. He shoved his hands into his pockets. “Your dad let me in.”
Riley nodded. “Um – come in.”
Austin stepped into the room immediately looking around. There were few pictures and no posters around the room, but there was shelves upon shelves of books. Riley felt splayed wide open and oddly vulnerable with Austin standing in his room, examining his possessions like they were pieces of a particularly interesting puzzle.
“Jeez, you have a lot of books,” said Austin. He picked up one of the Vonnegut paperbacks and leafed through it. “Vonnegut usually bores me to tears, but this one was really good.”
Riley shrugged. “You know I read a lot.”
“Remind me to skip going to the library in the future. I can just come here,” said Austin, plopping down on the bed. He jumped up and down a bit, and then winked. “So is this where the magic happens?”
“What? No,” said Riley, turning red.
Austin laughed. “Oh, man. You're so easy sometimes, Ry.”
“If by 'easy' you mean brilliant and superior,” said Riley taking a seat on the swivel computer chair. “So what's going on?”
Austin leaned forward and made his big cartoon eyes go stupid and round. He looked like freaking Bambi. Riley felt a smile break free when Austin added a pout to his exaggerated expression.
“I haven't hung out with my best friend in forever and ever.”
Riley arched an eyebrow. “I saw you at school this morning.”
Austin scoffed. “That's like inmates hanging out in the prison yard. Not the same.”
Riley couldn't stop his grin from stretching so wide that it hurt. This was how it was supposed to be. He missed having Austin to himself like this.
“Well I suppose you won't be too inadequate company,” said Riley, tongue firmly in cheek so he wouldn't ruin it by completely laughing. The way his eyes were shining he knew it was a lost cause.
A pillow flew across the room and smacked against his face. Riley let out an undignified squawk that made Austin burst into hysterical laughter. Riley snatched up the pillow and chucked it back. Austin batted it away and that's when he moved like he was a superhero, rolling off the bed neatly and tackling Riley. The additional weight tipped Riley off balance and they landed together on the bed in a mess of limbs. They wrestled for dominance and the room rang with laughter.
“You're an absolute barbarian,” said Riley, struggling against Austin's grip. “Jesus, are you a wrestler in your spare time.”
Austin got a good grip on Riley's wrists and pinned them against his stomach. “I made out with a wrestler once. Does that count?”
“You think you're so funny,” Riley replied, tugging insistently at the hold. Austin was freakishly strong. “You watch too much Logo.”
The joke was so random and completely unlike him that Austin threw back his head and cackled. He closed his eyes and laughed like he was dying, and Riley took the distraction to buck against him, hard. Austin's eyes widened and he slipped downward with his ass landing directly on Riley's crotch.
All activity stopped. It was like time came to a standstill, and there was nothing in the universe but the two of them.
Riley didn't move a muscle. His skin felt hypersensitive and he could feel the entire weight of Austin's body against him, and it was the most indescribable feeling, because damn he was going to faint. Austin wasn't moving either. They were staring into each others eyes. Riley was surprised at finding amber flecks swirled amidst the brown, they were always beautiful, but this close Austin's eyes were damn near heart-stopping. Some time during this, Riley had stopped resisting Austin's hands against his wrists. Somehow their fingers had become threaded together so they were holding hands.
They were locked together in a timeless moment, Austin looking down at him and Riley hadn't ever seen that expression on his face. It was completely unfamiliar. Riley held his breath. Something shifted in Austin's eyes.
Austin placed his palms against Riley's chest. And there was no getting around the fact that Austin was straddling him. Riley let out a soft exhale. His head lowered and Riley couldn't think, his brain felt like it was short circuiting, too many thoughts and none of them coherent. Austin's hands slipped lower and then curved suddenly at his armpits – Riley let out the loudest, most uncontrollable laugh ever struggling against Austin's fingers as the bastard mercilessly tickled his underarms.
“Aww, who knew you were this ticklish,” said Austin like the evil megalomaniac he really was.
Riley was laughing too hard to even fathom forming a witty reply. Whatever strength he'd gained in the few months of working out surged to life, and he was free of the hold after a vicious tug. Austin jumped up completely missing Riley's foot whipping out, aimed directly for his freaking kneecap.
“You are a plague on my life,” Riley said, struggling for breath.
Austin wiggled his eyebrows at his glare. “You're feisty. Like a kitten.”
“Did you just compare me to a baby cat,” said Riley, gaping. He pouted as Austin cackled again.
Austin went to the chair Riley vacated and sat down. He span around like he'd never seen in a swivel chair before and Riley stared at him, like really you're older than me. Austin made a funny face at his stare.
“Listen, I'm having a party Friday at my house,” said Austin.
Riley smiled. “Big seventeen.”
Austin puffed his chest out. “I'm turning this many.” He flashed his fingers in sequence like a five year old. “So cancel your fancy plans. I need you to be there. Please, please, please.”
“Hmm, I guess,” he said, coyly. Honestly, there was no other place he'd rather be. Even if the thought of seeing Lee and Austin locked in an embrace there surrounded by friends made him sick with rage.
Austin snorted indignantly. “I think you've confused 'I guess' with of course, Austin, I would be absolutely delighted to attend your goddamn party.”
“Semantics, really,” said Riley, grinning. And when Andrew laughed, he thought it was the best sound he ever heard.
The next few days pass in a haze of fretting over Austin's birthday present and anxiety. He masturbated to the feeling of Austin pushing inside him like he'd seen in online movies, and afterward he felt incredibly guilty for thinking of such dirty fantasies and refused to meet Austin's eyes over lunch otherwise he'd blush terribly.
The night of the party Riley dressed in a pair of black shorts and a gray shirt. He double checked that he had Austin's gift. Riley's dad hovered in the doorway to his bedroom.
“Please, be careful,” said Greg. “I know party's can get out of hand -”
Riley blinked. “You met Austin just the other day. Remember the boy you let up to my room.”
“He seemed like a good kid. I just know things can get unpredictable at these things.”
He gave his dad a half smile. “Well in any case I'll be in the neighborhood. If something nefarious happens I'll be close by.”
Greg hugged him on the way out and told him to be careful again like he was going to Woodstock and not up the street. He was secretly touched by the concern. With his dad carrying on like he had, Riley got to the party forty five minutes after he told Austin he'd show up. The moonlight highlighted the house that was already packed.
He spotted Lee's car as he made his way through the crowded front yard. He rolled his eyes at the sight, but refused to let it ruin his night. Austin wanted him here. It was Austin's birthday and he wasn't going to let him down. He pushed past the open door and the place was crawling with people. There's a makeshift stage set up in the huge living room. He could see Lee's band on stage fumbling with amplifiers and microphones and drunk as they may be, they're still good. Riley hoped Lee tripped on a cord and fell off the stage.
The house looked like the parties you see in movies. Or at least to Riley it did, as he had nothing else to compare it to. It was his first party after all. Funerals didn't count. Alcohol was flowing freely, people made out in secluded corners, and there's the distinct smell of weed in the air. He wrinkled his nose as he pushed past people dancing in inconvenient spots.
He found Austin in the kitchen. He was already taking a shot when Riley stepped into the room. There's not that many people in the kitchen and even so Austin found him easily like he'd been looking for him all along. He practically bounced over to Riley wrapping him up in a huge hug.
Austin buried his nose in Riley's hair and slurred over the music, “I've been looking for you, good sir.”
Riley let out a chuckle, feeling his heart pound, pound, pound between his ears. “Are you drunk?”
“Nope,” said Austin, all traces of a slur gone, popping the p with his dimples out and twinkling eyes. “I'm limiting myself to one drink and one shot. That's it. Somebody has to clean up the house.”
Riley stared at the absolute mess of a kitchen. “Where are your dads anyway?”
“They went with my uncle and his girlfriend to some wine tasting thing. They'll be back tomorrow night. Everything should be back in order by then,” said Austin, sounding supremely confident and definitely sober. “My dads said as long as nothing got broken – and I put up all the fragile things in their bedroom. So I think I'm good.”
Riley tugged the envelope out of his pocket before he could forget it. He thrusts it into Austin's hands. “Happy Birthday.”
Austin raised his eyebrows. “Did you...” He stared at the two tickets that fell out of the open envelope. “No. No. You –”
“They're playing live this summer not too far from here. I know you missed their last tour because you said you had the flu and –-”
Austin's staring at the tickets and then down at him with wonderment. “I can't believe – you, you got me tickets to Mumford and Sons.”
Riley blinked, biting down hard on his lip so he won't continue rambling. Austin shook his head and looked at him with a slow smile that grew until it was this bright and glowy thing that made Riley's stomach turn over and over.
“You like it?” asked Riley.
“I love it!” said Austin brightly. He stepped forward and hugged Riley again. It's not the big boisterous hug that he greeted Riley with. It's something tender and warm and the embrace made him cling that much tighter. He wanted to just lean in and press a tiny kiss against the skin right below his earlobe. “I can't even.” He looked Riley in the eyes, grinning kind of disbelievingly. “You know I adore you, right? This is like the best gift ever.”
Better than Lee's was what he wanted to ask, but it would be a petty and childish thing to say. He basked in the moment soaring high on Austin's freaking grin alone. He didn't notice Austin's hand holding his wrist, absently rubbing the patch of skin there, until it was gone as Lee came into the kitchen and Austin raced over to him.
“You wouldn't believe what Riley got me for my birthday,” said Austin, showcasing the tickets happily. He didn't wait for Lee to read the print. “Tickets to see Mumford and Sons!”
Lee barely caught him in time as Austin jumped into his arms for a hug. “That's awesome.”
Riley felt like was about to go out of his mind as Lee turned the tickets over to look at them closer. Austin brought Lee over to him much to Riley's silent dismay.
“Oh, man,” said Lee, grinning at Riley like they were old friends. “These tickets definitely beat my gift.”
“Hey, I will treasure that iPod like its my own child,” said Austin solemnly. “But you're right. These tickets are so awesome.”
Katie came in from the backdoor dragging a drunken Marco behind her. His face lit up when he saw Riley. “It's boy wonder! Katie, look Riley came!”
Her eye twitched. “I see that, Marco. Thank you for screaming in my ear, by the way.”
Riley gave her a sympathetic smile as she started to greet him, but got completely cut off by Austin loudly showing off the concert tickets. Marco went completely over the moon and kept calling Austin the king of the world like he was Dicaprio in Titanic or something. Katie looped her arm through his.
“Come dance with me,” she said.
Riley shook his head wildly. “I – I don't dance.”
She tapped his nose with her finger. “Trust me no one will judge if you suck, plus you're saving me from this spaz. Come on.”
Riley was dragged into the living room as Marco and Lee were pouring shots for the band that had all come into the kitchen. He was pulled through the crowd of people as 90's music blared from the speakers while the band went on break. People were dancing or what he thought was dancing, he couldn't really tell, there's a lot of shaking and hip grinding going on. But people look really into it even if he didn't find anything really sexy about any of it.
Katie flung her arms around his neck and stepped in. His hands automatically found her waist and he got a face full of blond hair when she leaned in close. He got a whiff of the shampoo she used in her hair. It smelled like pomegranates. He was stiff and awkward and his mind kept going back to the kitchen.
Katie leaned back, they were nearly the same height in heels. “Are you okay? I've been meaning to ask for awhile now. You seem --”
His face fell before he could properly erase the look in his eyes. Her brow furrowed as she looked at him and then back to the kitchen where his eyes momentarily darted. Something like understanding shone in her eyes. Panic buzzed loud in his ears and he tried to pull away, but Katie gripped his hand with a surprisingly strong grip.
“No way, buddy,” she said instantly, pulling him from the room.
For the second time he found himself lead down into the basement. She flipped on the light and it was thankfully empty. Riley sat down on the couch feeling nervous and partly sick like he was about to throw up.
“Riley,” she said, gentle and sweet, taking the seat next to him. “What's wrong?”
He shook his head. He couldn't even begin to tell her. Riley chanced a look at her and found her face was concerned, but there was an understanding look there. His heart stuttered. She knew.
“How long now?” she asked, taking his hand in hers. He looked into her sweet eyes.
The touch was comforting, and he let out a shaky exhale, “Since, I, I - it feels like forever.”
Katie hugged him. He let her wrap him up in her arms and his shoulders slumped. It was like a great burden was lifted from his shoulders. Finally, finally somebody but him knew about this. Its been in his heart for so long that he thought he would take the feelings to his grave.
“Do you think he feels – does he even know?” asked Riley, his voice coming out a little desperate.
“I'm sorry, but I really don't know,” replied Katie.
Riley sighed. He shouldn't have asked her in the first place. Katie had known Austin longer and her loyalties were to him first. He didn't want her to have to choose sides if it came to that. And why would she think the weirdo was good enough for her friend? He was no Lee Cohen.
There was a loud crash from upstairs. Katie rolled her eyes. “I swear if some assholes are fighting. We're going to talk later, mister,” She sighed, standing up and heading for the stairs. “Watch one of those assholes turn out be Marco.”
They jogged up the stairs. There was a scuffle in the living room that was already being broken up. Katie stormed in immediately starting to yell at the fighters to get the hell out of the house. Instantly a couple jock type boys came up behind her like two bodyguards and glared at anyone that dared give her lip.
He didn't know anyone at the party. There was some familiar faces from school, but it wasn't like he knew them well so he kind of wandered aimlessly around the party. He found Marco lining up shots on the island of the kitchen, and he hastily declined when Marco waved him over pleading that he was looking for the restroom. Which turned out to be a bad idea when Marco started to give him detailed directions to the restroom like he was a tourist trying to find the Mission. By the end of it all Riley ironically really did have to use the bathroom.
Austin had a bathroom in his room and he forbade everyone but Katie and Marco to use it. Everyone else was detoured to the guest half bath downstairs. The music wasn't as loud upstairs, but that wasn't saying much since the walls still shook slightly. He found Austin's room easily enough. It had one of those paper sign's on the door and Austin's Room was scribbled in familiar messy script.
Riley took a moment to look around the room. Posters covered every wall and there were even a couple on the ceiling. There was a shelf filled with books and knickknacks. Right below a flatscreen is another long shelf stretching from wall to wall brimming with CD's and DVD's right below them. The door to the bathroom was next to the bed and Austin went in quickly, so he could stop lingering in the middle of his friend's room like a big huge creep.
He did his business quickly and flicked off the light about to exit when voices came from behind the door. Riley stilled as the sound of stuff being moved around followed the voices.
“If it's not downstairs the CD is on that shelf,” said Austin, rummaging around.
“So organized,” said Lee with a laugh. “Hey, what are you doing?”
“I'm putting these tickets up,” said Austin with a tone that seemed to say, what else would I be doing.
“You know your little friend is totally crushing on you.”
“Stop. That's my best friend you're talking about,” replied Austin, his tone was dismissive and it stabbed Riley to the core to hear his feelings discussed like they were something petty and gossip-worthy.
Lee snorted. “He likes you. It's cute.”
“Whatever,” said Austin so quickly that it felt like he punched Riley directly in the gut.
The sound of them kissing followed and then the bedroom door closed as they deported back down to the party. Riley leaned with his back against the bathroom door feeling his chest ache as his heart squeezed and squeezed until it was going to explode like a dying star. He slunk to the ground and buried his head against his knees breathing with great gasps of breath.
Why couldn't he ever be happy? Was something conspiring against him to see that everything he believed in eventually turn to ruin. He couldn't even cry at this point. His body felt numb. He wasn't going to keep putting himself out like that for this fairytale fantasy bullshit. He didn't know how long he sat there pulling himself together, but when he walked downstairs there weren't that many people anymore. Maybe the cops came, but he didn't really give a shit. He just wanted to go home and go to bed. He slammed the door on his way out.
He could hear shouting behind him as he walked across the lawn. Riley made his way down the sidewalk with his head down fully intent on erasing this night from his mind, so he could pretend Monday at school that he was fine. Always fine.
“Jesus, Riley. Wait up,” Austin said, grabbing his shoulder and spinning him around. He was red in the face like he'd been running. “Didn't you hear me calling your name?”
“No.” Riley turned around fully. His arms were crossed and his expression was carefully blank.
“I've been looking for you forever,” said Austin. His words were hurried, fast, obviously the little alcohol he had was having an effect. “Where'd you go?”
“I was around. I'm going home now,” said Riley, evenly. His eyes were guarded and Austin stepped forward studying him, and he frowned heavily when Riley took a step back. It was more out of self-preservation than anything. He didn't want Austin so close to him right now.
A wrinkle appeared between his brow as Austin frowned. “I didn't mean to ditch you for my boyfriend. I invited you here and then I shit, shit, shit--”
“It's cool. It happened, but it's over.” Riley shrugged, face still blissfully free of an any expression. “I need to get home, so.”
“You don't say goodbye anymore,” said Austin, laughing a little. He seemed to realize that was the wrong thing to say because Riley's face closed off even more if that was possible. “Sorry, Ry. I feel like a fucking jerk. Can you stay over? I can kick everybody out and we can hang out?”
“Just me and you?”
“Marco's crashing on the couch. Lee's staying too. He's going to help me clean up in the morning.”
“My dad really wanted me home. Maybe some other time then,” said Riley, feeling his fingernails nails dig painfully into his palms.
Austin looked at him searching his face for something that he didn't know. He reached out to hug Riley, but he must had seen the subtle misery on Riley's face because his arms fell back to his sides mid-motion. Riley took a step back and the space between them felt all wrong.
“Promise you're not mad at me or anything,” said Austin, looking so heartrendingly confused that it almost tore at Riley's resolve.
Riley forced a small smile. “I promise.”
As it was it was himself that he was mad at. He really had to stop fucking doing this.
Riley turned and walked away and he was three steps away before Austin's softly uttered, “Okay” followed.
[end part ii]
This is a couple days late, but I hope you guys aren't too mad. I hope everyone enjoyed this chapter. There's two more parts left. I was so happy with the emails I got for the last chapter. You guys are awesome and whoever emailed me this chapter is for you. The next chapter should be out a week for now. So look out for it.
I appreciate any feedback or if you just want to drop a quick line, I will definitely email you back! You can do it here at Batmanhater@aol.com