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
Monday came faster than he would like. Riley didn't know how he made it through the weekend. He felt like absolute shit the morning after the party. He woke up groggy and disorientated and there was a heaviness in his heart, like he had a painful nightmare but he couldn't quite remember the details – it came to him like a slap in the face. Austin and Lee discussing Riley's feelings, Austin's dismissive whatever, and all it hurt again until he moaned throwing the blankets over his head, and he refused to move for the rest of the day. He felt if he curled into a tight enough ball he could just disappear into forever and away from these feelings that ate at his soul like some kind of parasite.
Everything was screaming at him to skip lunch today. It would spare him the sight of Austin's blissfully naive face, unaware that he's tormenting Riley by being so close, and ignorant of the truth that Riley knew Austin's thoughts about his childish crush. It would be the cowardly way out. His feelings had already come between them once, and Riley had promised to never let them ruin their friendship. However he wished otherwise, Austin wasn't his and didn't even entertain the thought of being anything more.
Austin waved at him from the table. He was alone. Riley was relieved at not seeing Lee, and nervous that the others weren't there to act as a buffer. He hadn't heard from Austin all weekend. They shared an uncomfortable grin when Riley sat down across the table.
“Hey,” said Austin, smiling nervously. “Um, Katie and Marco are doing interviews or something for Journalism.”
Austin frowned as if there was something unpleasant about the thought. “This is actually his free period, so he went with his friends to Jake's house to practice or smoke weed, or whatever.”
“Oh,” was all Riley could say, trying to keep the happy note from his tone.
Austin rolled his eyes. “Grad's coming up. He's getting senioritis like every other senior.”
“He's a senior?”
Austin tilted his head. “I've told you that before.”
He was probably right. Riley couldn't stop the vacuum of silence he drifted in when Lee spoke or the subject of his very existence was brought up. If he's gleeful over the consolation that Lee was graduating next month, and forever banished from the school, it was only tempered by the resolve that Lee still would have what Riley didn't.
They ate in silence for a few minutes. Austin looked like he was thinking too hard about something, and the uncertain tension lurked up again.
“I'm sorry about Friday,” Austin blurted out. For one heart-stopping second Riley thought Austin was talking about stomping on Riley's feelings and killing whatever hope he had with unknowing carelessness. “I invited you over and then spent the entire time with Lee.”
Of course. Riley stared off at the football field in the distance. “I told you it was fine, Austin.”
“Well, I,” he sighed, a frown tugged his lips down. “I feel really bad about it. And you seemed kind of --”
“What?” asked Riley, turning to him with curiosity stark on his face. He needed to know what Austin thought of it all with a certain kind of intense desperation.
“Distant, I guess,” said Austin, trailing off uncertainly.
Riley was the one frowning this time. This was why he had to get himself under control. He was going to destroy the first good thing in his life in a long time if he kept on. He needed Austin as a friend even if that was all they could ever be.
“I'm sorry,” said Riley.
Austin wrapped his fingers around Riley's wrist. The grip was gentle and Riley looked up into Austin's face, and he found himself momentarily transfixed by the shape of his lips. He flicked his eyes away.
“You're my best friend, and I don't want to be one of those guys who ditch their friends.”
“What, bros before hos,” said Riley awkwardly, trying to lighten the heavy moment with one of Dean's typical jokes. He didn't think he could take too much more of Austin's skin against his, hand lingering around his wrist like he could feel how fast Riley's heart was beating and was trying to calm its erratic racing with his touch.
Austin shook his head, smiling honestly. “No, funny guy. I just – you mean a lot to me.”
The tension that had been in the air evaporated. Damn, if the squeezing sensation in Riley's chest didn't immediately leave. He felt like he could breathe again as whatever felt broken between realigned with those words alone. He stared down at the table feeling a shy smile form on his face.
Riley swallowed still taken aback by just how wonderful Austin is, and like every time he was thrown by it. “Me too,” he said softly, meaning it with everything that he was.
“So you're going to the show with me, right?”
The question was so sudden that it took him a second to process it. “What?”
Austin was smiling that 500 square acre smile of his. “The concert tickets you got me? Mumford and Sons.”
Riley busied himself with slicing his meatloaf to hide the open surprise on his face. “You're not taking Lee?”
“Oh my, God. Are you serious?” said Austin, whacking him on the shoulder with his spoon. He pointed the utensil at Riley. “You got me the tickets, so you're damn straight I'm taking you. Plus, I always thought they were sort of like, um – our band. You put on their CD every time you ride in my truck.”
He secretly thought the same of the band, but to voice the thought out loud would've made it seem like just another fantasy he'd blown out of proportion.
“I suppose if I must.” A put upon looked formed on Riley's face, and Austin saw right through it. He threw a fry at Riley's head.
“Such a comedian,” said Austin. “Your standup must be legendary.”
Riley smiled. He felt like this was right, how things were supposed to be. “So glad you recognize talent when you see it.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, bow down. We have a regular Jimmy Fallon in our midst.
“I choose to take your sarcasm as the jealously that is expected.”
Austin poked him in the cheek with a fry. “You've become quite the mouthy little thing.”
Riley looked at him like, yeah and who's fault is that. “Just two months ago I remember you saying I needed to become more 'sassy'.”
“I find your perfect recall both alluring and abhorrent.”
“Abhorrent, really?” asked Riley, grinning uncontrollably. “Are you borrowing Marco's SAT word a day calender?”
“Don't hate on me because my alliteration makes English teachers cry.”
Riley snorted. “With pain maybe.”
Austin's shoulders slumped dramatically. He picked at his burger, sighing sadly, “I liked you better when you were sweet and shy.”
The way he was trying to hide his smile told differently. Riley could do this. He could control his feelings. There was no way he was willing to let this friendship wither away because he let fantasy intrude on life's harsh reality. Under the table Riley closed his fingers around the wrist Austin had held, feeling the lingering heat from the contact soar straight through his fingertips and under his skin until it tingled.
Friday during study hall the classroom opened and Katie sauntered in, skirt swishing about her thighs and heels clicking against the floor. She strolled right past Mr. Mason, who looked up with a bored expression. He was an assistant football coach and considered the period babysitting. Katie slid right into the empty chair next Riley like it had her name on it.
“Hey, Boo,” she said, all bubbly and bright.
Riley honestly didn't know where the nickname came from. It started a while ago, and when he stopped frowning at the usage she'd taken to calling Riley by it with frightening intensity.
“Hi, um, don't you have class?” asked Riley.
Katie rolled her eyes. “Home Economics. They had us sewing costumes for the mascot. Which is honestly one step away from child labor. Teressa Sanchez texted her mother, and she went ballistic. She stormed the school like it was a sweat shop, threatening to sue. It was great.” She pulled out some lip gloss and applied it without pausing. “So the whole class was told to either go to the computer lab or study hall. Everyone scattered to the lab, but I figured you could use the company.”
“As a heart attack,” she said, sliding the tube back into her purse. “So are you going to Lee's gig tonight at the Zone?”
“Why would I go?” he asked, staring at her with a blank expression.
Katie beamed at him. “Thought so. I'm bailing on it, too. His band is good, but I'm nobody's groupie. You want to catch a movie?”
Riley blinked. “You want to watch a movie together? Like just you and me?”
“We're friends aren't we?” she said, both eyebrows raised. She grinned as his cheeks colored slightly. “You're way too cute for your own good.”
The offer to hang out with the three friends was given often. Sometimes he took them up on it, mostly before Lee entered the picture. Marco or Katie had never asked him to hang out alone. Austin had always been the one to make sure Riley got invited places, and if one of the others asked Riley it was a given that Austin would be there.
“Well. What. Kind of movie do you want to see?” Surprise made his voice come out in a soft stutter. He ducked his head shyly, feeling kind of blown away that Katie was asking this of him. He thought she put up with him for Austin's sake, but maybe, maybe... she meant it – they were friends.
“How about a rom-com? I'm thinking something that will get you out of your funk. A movie about true love overcoming all obstacles.” She looked far too eager than the situation deserved.
Riley peered at her closely. “Are all Californians so, so –”
Katie flicked a piece of hair over her shoulder. “Hey, I'm not as bad as Austin.”
He chuckled. She had a point. “No one is that-”
Riley grinned. “Emotive.”
Katie patted his cheek. “Aww, you're sweet. I don't know how you put up with him glomping over you like some kind of mutant octopus.”
It really wasn't a terrible thing. Not in Riley's opinion. Feeling Austin's warmth pressed against him, whether when he slings an arm around Riley's shoulders when they're walking home, or when he buried his nose in Riley's hair as he's hugging him like he's about to disappear – made him just want to stay huddled up together like that forever. It was awful as it was wonderful. He tried to fight it but there was no defense against it, and he had come to make peace with that.
“You didn't tell him anything did you?” Riley hissed suddenly, feeling suddenly panicked at the mere thought. It made him lightheaded and sick and Katie touched his arm, bringing him back to earth.
“Hey, now,” she said, frowning at his queasy expression. “I'm really not going to get into it, but I do think you should tell him--”
Riley shook his head wildly. “No. No way.”
Katie looked around at the other students. No one was paying them any attention. A majority of the kids were in their own conversations or jamming out with their headphones on. She sighed quietly.
“What's wrong with telling him? Do you think he likes you?”
“No.” The word slipped from his lips, heavy, and he swallowed feeling like it took physical strength to get it out. Life had a way of throwing the occasional curve-ball, but he knew this with a surety. People like him didn't get happily ever after. They did get a ending, and rarely were they ever happy.
“Well, do you want me to ask him and find out?”
“Seriously, he really doesn't,” he muttered, attempting to sink further into the desk. He was trying really hard to put the party behind him.
“Just – don't. Okay?”
She nodded slowly. “If you're sure.”
“I. Just. I don't want to mess this whole thing up,” Riley told her, staring at the faded etches drawn on the desk's corner.
Katie nodded. “He's your best friend. You don't want to fuck it up. I get it. I promise I'll stay out of it. You're both my friends and I don't want to stick my nose into you guys business, I guess.”
“It's just a stupid crush,” he muttered.
Katie bit her lower lip and said hesitantly, “It's more than a crush right, though? I can see it now – the way you look at Lee sometimes... I always thought it was just your shyness, but you were jealous.”
Riley was blushing so hard that he could feel it travel from his neck to his face. He could practically hear the blood moving through his veins. It was like he was dealing with some psychic detective. So what if he wanted to punch Lee in his stupid mouth every time Austin touched him. She had no proof.
“You're in love with him,” she said, her tone high with surprise.
He winced. “N-no, that's silly. I'm not in love.”
Riley just wanted a black-hole to form under his chair and send him directly to some sub-dimension where feelings didn't exist and he could drift aimlessly in a void of nothingness.
“Oh, Riley,” Katie sighed, and then smiled gently. “It'll be okay if you are.”
There was no way he could bother denying it. “Promise you won't tell him,” he pleaded, looking at her imploringly, panic in his eyes.
He felt like there was this knife carving into his heart. It hurt. He didn't think he handle the thought of Austin knowing how stupidly in love with him Riley was. He might have suspicions thanks to Lee, but didn't know. He didn't realize how deep Riley's feelings ran. He didn't think he could stand Austin knowing, Austin looking at him differently, with pity, Austin acting weird around him. He wouldn't survive it.
Katie lips thinned. “I really think you should tell him, but - I swear, alright.”
“So. That movie.” He traced the number seven over and over on the cover of his binder. The blank ink stood out boldly against the blue and he was tempted to turn the number into a heart, but then he'd probably write something stupid inside it and he already felt sad enough without adding to his desolation.
“Alright,” she said, smoothing her palms down the skirt around her thighs. “Change of subject, noted.”
For the countless time Riley wished he could just make these feelings go away or something. Even as young as he was he knew that wasn't how it worked. Not feeling like this seemed so long ago that it was hard to imagine not ever being in love with Austin. On the bright side, miserable though he may be, at least he now had someone to confide in.
Riley spent the remainder of the semester studying for finals. He hung out with Katie sometimes after school, usually after working out with Dean, and Austin too, whenever he and Lee weren't on a date. The last day of the school year ended without a bang, and school was out for the summer. Walking home with Marco and Katie on one side, and Austin on his right felt like an accomplishment. He was proud to be walking between them. He was almost the same height as Austin now, and he felt included, and not so obviously out of place like he always used to be.
“I can't wait to hit the beach this summer,” said Marco. He smiled almost reverently. “I can see the waves now.”
Katie kicked a can down the sidewalk. She shot him a sidelong glance. “You say that like you didn't just go to the beach this past Spring Break. There are other things to do.”
“Buzzkill,” Marco hissed, staring at her as if lasers were going to shoot from his eyes.
Katie blew him a kiss. “Such a smooth talker.”
Austin looked at Riley with a sly grin. “See, Ry, this is what they call in the animal kingdom a 'mating dance'. Prime flirting, right there.”
The couple jerked away from each other immediately turning to look at Austin with open horror. Marco did a dramatic full body shudder. Katie looked at Austin like she didn't even know him anymore.
“You're dead to me,” she said, pointing her finger in his face like she was declaring war.
Austin nudged Riley. “How many?”
Riley closed his eyes. His ability to follow Austin's thought process sometimes was so acute that it boggled him that he couldn't always guess what Austin was thinking. Right now was one of those times where he could read him with a look.
“That would be the sixth time she's said that just this week,” Riley answered with a smirk at her glare.
Katie sent him a glowering look. “Traitor.”
Marco still looking a bit pale put considerable distance from Katie. He eased over near Riley and bumped their shoulders together. “I can't wait until I get back to the beach. Last summer was awesome. I met this cute little blonde thing. I think she was from New Zealand or Australia, or some shit. But man, let me tell you. She had the best tits. We must've made out under the docks for hours.” He got a dreamy smile on his face. “She had to leave so fast I couldn't get her number. But she promised to come back this summer.”
The three of them shared a look.
“Tell me more, tell me more, like did you have a car,” Katie deadpanned.
Riley stiffed a laugh. Austin didn't even bother. He laughed so hard he tripped over a crack in the sidewalk. Riley caught him before he face-planted and Austin leaned against him, still laughing with great jerks of his shoulders.
“Do you know you just described the plot of Grease?” Austin said, staring at him with a full blown smile. “And I'm the gay one. Whatever.”
Marco cocked his head. “I know witty responses come naturally to your people, so I don't know what you're talking about.”
“Ri-ight, you have fun on the beach this summer, Danny Zuko,” said Katie. She looked like she was enjoying this far too much. “Some of us have to get a job.”
Austin looked at her skeptically. “Really, you? This from the girl who tried to break the hall monitor's fingers in middle school for giving you a demerit slip.”
Katie rolled her eyes. “I was thirteen, thank you. Please, stop bringing that up.”
“I think Brian still calls her Crazy K,” Marco laughed.
Katie let out loud sigh and said, “Anyway, what are you guys doing?”
Riley fidgeted when all eyes turned to him. He did an awkward half shrug. “Nothing special. I think – my dad has something planned for July. I'm not sure.”
They waited at the intersection for the crosswalk light to flash. Austin wasn't quite glaring, but it was a decidedly unhappy expression he wore as he stared off. Katie tugged on the strap of his messenger bag with an inquiring look.
“Sorry, I was just thinking.” The walk sign turned and they crossed the street. Austin shook his head. “It's Lee, I guess. We were supposed to spend the summer together before he started at UCSF. Then he tells me yesterday that he's going to be in LA the whole summer with his band. Jake's uncle has a condo they're staying at while they play some gigs around town.”
“That sucks that you won't see each other,” said Katie.
Austin smiled weakly. “If the drive wasn't 6 hours my dads wouldn't have a problem with me road tripping there, but that's way outside their comfort zone.”
“They're trying to get signed to a label?” asked Marco, not looking up from texting.
“Basically,” replied Austin. “It's the only reason I'm not pissed. I'm trying to be excited for him.” The usual spot where they split up came and Austin shook off his frown, managing a cheery enough smile. “So we're hanging out at the park tomorrow, right?”
Marco narrowed his eyes. “I'm not flying kites.”
“It was only a suggestion,” Katie said, elbowing him in the ribs.
Riley chuckled. “I'll be there.”
Katie skipped over to Riley and wrapped him up in a hug that was all limbs. He let out a laugh because really, it was so unlike her, and he knew she was trying communicate through gesture how happy she was that Lee wouldn't be around to mess up their summer with his presence alone. She had become good at the silent support, and he was thankful for it all the same.
“See you tomorrow, Boo.”
Austin stared at them hugging with an expression that could be considered confused, as if he couldn't quite figure it out himself. Riley was about to ask him what's wrong, but Austin suddenly smiled to himself, rather sheepish, shaking his head as if he caught himself at something. The group split after confirming their plans for tomorrow. Austin and Riley walked their usual route alone now.
Riley wondered about the expression, but he felt the window to ask about the moment had closed. And really, he was tired of over analyzing things when it came to Austin. He knew he had Austin's love. It may not be all of it like Riley wanted, but it was something, and sometimes it felt nearly enough. So when Austin smiled over at him gesturing enthusiastically while he raved about the Decemberists, Riley let himself be content with just this, him and Austin walking together, and a warm glow in his stomach that he couldn't fight.
Austin's phone beeped and he pulled out his Blackberry. He read the message and let out a noise of irritation sliding the phone back in his pocket a little forcefully. Riley touched Austin's arm and he could feel the muscles underneath the skin coiled tight with tension.
Austin sighed in annoyance. “It's Lee. He does this thing where doesn't want to look like the bad guy. Ever. He always wants to come off as perfect, like I don't know better by now. Like of course it's not his fault he's spending the summer in LA, he had no say in it all, yeah right.” He puled the phone back out and read the text out loud, “'Tomorrow at graduation wear that red shirt I love so much, so I can look out into the stands and see you. I'm sorry you can't come to Jake's grad party. He says seniors only.'” He scoffed at the last line. “Seniors only? Yeah, fucking right. Like I don't know Jake's girlfriend's a junior. Tatiana already told me she's going. How lame of a lie is that shit?”
“Very lame,” Riley said dutifully, trying and failing to hide his smile. He looked down at his hands so he wouldn't give in to the impulse to just hug Austin right there and burrow into his arms.
Riley couldn't even pretend to hide his absolute joy, so he stared resolutely at the ground otherwise he's sure that Austin would take one look at him and know. Austin moved impossibly closer and he could feel his pulse pound between his ears when he caught a whiff of Austin's cologne. Riley didn't even tense up when Austin slung his arm around his shoulders, subconsciously prepared for it on some level.
“This is why you're my best friend,” said Austin, pulling Riley in close to his side so they're walking hip to hip, and he felt almost drunk. “You don't suck.
Riley bit his lip to his smoother his grin. “There's a joke in there somewhere.”
Austin's fingers squirmed uncomfortably close to his underarm and Riley let out a reflexive giggle. Austin grinned smugly at the scowl Riley aimed at him. “That's enough cheek out of you. We're going to have an awesome summer, Ry.”
“You sound like the Disney character you look like,” said Riley, chuckling a little as Austin stopped dead in his tracks. He continued walking leaving him behind, laughing silently.
If he was looking he would have seen Austin run up behind him. He wrenched Riley into a tight hug and before he could catch his breath, Austin's spinning him around and around like some parody of a human carousel. A high screech of laughter exploded from Riley's mouth before he could help it, and Austin's laughing, too, his eyes all scrunchy at the corners and dimples in his cheeks that only appeared when he was really, really happy. Riley dropped to his feet suddenly and he doubled over, dizzy, and out of breath.
“You're insane,” said Riley, blinking hard to reset his vision that wouldn't stop freaking spinning.
Austin faked a gasp, clutching at his chest. “But I thought I was a Disney character. And if you meant Bambi, I swear to you.”
“Clown,” Riley said, finally seeing the world straight on again.
It was so easy joking with Austin like this. He wasn't the shy, awkward kid just now figuring out how to become comfortable in his skin. He was accepted for all his oddness and wanted. This was why he continued to hang around Austin even if nothing was ever going to happen between them. Ever. No matter how painful the thought was it was tempered by the fact that Austin happy was a beautiful thing, and Austin made him happy, and those feelings allowed the little fantasy bubble where everything's okay all the time to keep from popping.
The following day at the park was filled with fun and games, and for Riley it was one of the best days of his life. And they did actually fly kites much to Marco's disgust, but gave in to his demand of a two-on-two game of football. They stayed there for hours and then retired to Marco's house and laid about his living room, eating chips and heated up frozen pizza with a marathon of Family Guy. Austin in a usual bout of Austin-ness had dragged his body lengthwise on the couch, and fell asleep with his head in Riley's lap and mouth pressed against the bit of thigh that was exposed from his shorts riding up. It sent a pang through his gut and his entire head filled up with white noise. Katie sent him a sympathic half smile, but he couldn't help but think the agony was worth it even when Austin woke up (“Mmm sorry, Ry. You make a damn good pillow. What time is – Shit, I have to go get ready for Lee's grad ceremony).
That first week they all got together often. Then the routine was over as quickly as it started as eventually Marco went off to his mom's house in Laguna Beach, and Katie got hired on a seasonal job working at Forever 21. Without different class schedules separating them, Austin and Riley were pretty much insuperable. They spent a lot of time at Austin's place. His crazy entertainment system was perfect for watching Lost, (“Seriously, you've never seen Lost?” “For the third time. No. Is that like a band? “For the love of – Not Penny's boat, Riley! Not Penny's boat!” “I don't understand. What's are you doing?”). So lazy afternoons they could be found wrapped up together under Austin's Aunt Miriam's hand-knitted quilt with pretzels and popcorn littering the coffee table in front of them. Austin's running commentary was like having a living Wikipedia, and when he wasn't explaining something to Riley he was watching his reactions closely. Riley was torn between hating Locke and praising his tenacity. Usually by the end of each disc Riley would have a lapful of Austin, whether it be feet or his head. Once he'd given into temptation and sank his fingers into Austin's hair. Austin's contended sigh warmed the skin of Riley's calf and caused his insides to vibrate with this sort of electric buzz. It was only broken by the epic Jake/Kate/Sawyer/Juliet debate that ended with Austin glowering at Riley from the opposite end of the couch. If Riley thought the pout was adorable, he kept it to himself.
At the end of the second week, of course things had to change. Everything had been going too perfectly. Riley put the dishes in the dishwasher while his dad placed the takeout in Tupperware. Neither had any real idea how to cook except for some basic pasta, so ordering out was typically the norm in their household.
“Jeez,” said Greg, staring at Riley kind of incredulously. “I swear sometimes it's like you're growing right before my eyes.”
Riley squirmed a bit under the stare. “Uh, is that – good?”
Greg shook his head, smiling. “It's wonderful. I may have did a shit job of raising you, but you're turning into a fine young man.”
“Dad,” said Riley embarrassed, blushing. “Come on.”
“Alright, alright,” said Greg chuckling. “Forgive my dad moment. I'm just really proud of you, okay?”
Ducking his head, Riley smiled down at his sock clad feet. “Thanks,” he replied softly.
The door bell rang then thankfully rescuing Riley from the random parental pride that both pleased and left him a blushing mess. His dad came back from answering the door with an amused smile. He jerked his thumb toward the hallway.
“Your witty friend's at the door. The one with the hair.”
Riley snorted. “His name's Austin, Dad. I know you're just doing that purposefully now.”
“You have no proof.”
Riley rolled his eyes and walked to the door. The front porch light was on highlighting Austin leaning against the railing. Riley closed the door behind him as he stepped out into the night.
“So – what do I owe the honor,” said Riley, tilting his head with a slight smile.
Austin smiled. It wasn't his bright smile that he usually greeted Riley with. This one was small and quiet. Though it lacked brightness its warmth still shined through. He crossed his arms, and for once he was the one who looked nervous. It wasn't an expression Austin wore often so Riley froze at the sight immediately fearing the worst.
“I have some not so great news. My uncle's girlfriend helps run this summer camp for children of gay couples. It's kind of cool. I used to go when I was younger, but anyway some of counselors canceled on her at the last minute. One or two are fine, but she can't run three short.” He sighed and Riley felt like he knew where this was going. “She begged me to help her out, so I said okay. Technically it's not allowed since I'm still a minor, but my dads signed a bunch of forms and stuff – sad news is I won't be around anymore until the beginning of August.”
Riley smiled, but it was weak and he can't stop his shoulders from slumping. “Do you. Give all your friends these dramatic goodbyes or am I special.”
Austin tapped Riley's nose with his finger. “You are the only exception.”
“Really, Paramore?” said Riley, his smile turning a bit more genuine as he let out a incredulous laugh. “Are you going to start quoting Arctic Monkeys lyrics at me next?”
Austin's face lit up and Riley hated to admit it, but he found himself charmed by the grin. He was a sucker for that smile. “Look at you. Two points on the name that band board. I'm so proud.”
“Stop it, you're going to make me regret coming out here.”
“Hush, we both know you can't resist a good mystery. I've seen your hidden collection of Hardy Boys. You would've scoured the globe when you didn't see me tomorrow.”
Riley cursed himself. He really had to hide those better. “Your lack of respect of privacy is scandalous.”
“Look at us with the word play,” said Austin, giving Riley a look that said I'm adorable aren't I. Riley refused to acknowledge it on principle. “I feel like we're in a Jane Eyre novel.”
Riley sighed. “I find you so exhausting at times.”
“Lying liar who lies,” said Austin, but his voice lacked insult, coming out too soft and too fond. He stepped forward and he was really close now. He tugged at the sleeves of Riley's shirt, not meanly, just something to do with his hands. “I already got off for the Mumford and Sons show. I wouldn't do it unless I could leave that day.”
“You didn't have to,” said Riley, feeling touched.
He shrugged. “Are you going to miss me?”
“Let's see, since the show is mid June – that means I'll see you in three weeks. However will I get by,” said Riley dryly. He ignored the way his voice sounded embarrassingly light and filled with something else. “You going to miss me?”
Austin stared at him and there was no mistaking the fondness on his face. “Like you wouldn't believe.”
He poked Riley in the stomach drawing a brief, involuntary giggle out of him. Riley kicked at him on reflex and Austin dodged, laughing. They hugged goodbye, and he could feel Austin's smile pressing into his shoulder. He watched him Austin walk away with his flip flops, neatly combed hair, and purple v-neck tight against his chest, and Riley's heart gave a sudden lurch. Only a minute had past, and already Riley was missing him. The summer now seemed a long stretch of eternity.
Three weeks later Austin returned like he promised. The Mumford and Sons show was Riley's first concert and the memory of Austin at his side, shoulders brushing his, as they swayed side to side singing to their hearts content, he would treasure forever. All too soon Austin had to go back, and he was alone. Riley continued his workouts with Dean at the community center, and he hung out with Katie all the time whenever she wasn't working. She'd become a really close friend as the months past, and soon summer came and went.
He walked past the Apple store with a pout that Katie ignored as she took them up an escalator. He needed new clothes for school next week, but he didn't think Katie would be a merciless tyrant. He was beginning to rethink asking her help with this. The mall had never seemed so endless before. Riley didn't think he was going to make it. They finally entered a clothing store that didn't have some annoying twee indie band blaring from its speakers.
“So what do you think about the color turquoise?” asked Katie, heading directly for the display of casual vests.
Riley stood off near a mannequin, really wanting to hide behind it more than anything. “I'm not really a fan,” he said hesitantly.
She just made a noise like mmhmm, and he didn't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Considering she only had one bag while he had accumulated three so far spoke of her dedication.
“You've gotten really buff there,” she said, eying his torso speculatively. “I see you all the time, so I haven't noticed that much. But comparing you now to last year – hold on, while I take a moment.” She fanned herself and Riley had to bite the inside of his cheek to not smile.
Riley scratched the back of his neck, uncomfortable. “I guess so.”
He didn't think he changed that much, but trying to fit into his clothes from a year ago had been impossible. Somewhere along the way he'd filled out with muscles and gained height, and he didn't look like a lost kid anymore. It didn't stop him from feeling like one though.
Katie held up a shirt in his general direction, squinting one eye like she was trying to solve an optical illusion. “Blue's so your color. This cardigan was just made for you, I swear.”
“I don't think cardigans – um, no thank you?” he trailed off at her vehement stare.
Without warning, the pile of clothes Katie had been carefully stacking off to the side was shoved into his arms. She manhandled him into a fitting room, and he stared at the mound of clothes piled on the little bench in horror. There was basic tops, knit tops, graphic tees, shirts, sweaters, hoodies, pants made of cloth, denim and in cuts that looked so very strange. Riley felt like he was having an out of body experience.
Riley tugged on the third consecutive pair of jeans he'd tried on in seven minutes. Jesus, who knew under all that awwshucks was an ass like that. Stop blushing. I'm not after your virtue. I didn't realize your body – aww come on, Riley. You're hot. He straightened out the creases in the gingham shirt's fabric. The jeans were unnecessarily too tight. They were those skinny jeans that looked painted on leaving him feeling exposed and awkward, like he should be standing on a street corner past two AM.
“Those jeans are definitely going in the buy stack,” said Katie, looking up from her phone to eye the clinging fabric in appreciation. She leaned back in her chair like she did job well done.
He looked at her skeptically feeling so far out of his comfort zone that he couldn't even see the line from here. Darkness eclipsed his vision and he stiffened when a pair of hands covered his eyes. Heat from the body behind him pressed against him, and Riley let out in a low inhale as a pair of lips hovered near his ear.
“Long no time no see.” He shuddered as the warm breath ghosted across his earlobe.
Riley felt the thing inside him pulse and smile and shatter once more. He jerked away letting out a surprised and happy laugh. Austin grinned like a Cheshire got'cha kind of way.
“What are you doing here?” demanded Riley, putting his hands on his hips. He couldn't stop smiling. “When did you get back?”
“Got back today actually. I wanted to surprise you.”
Katie laughed from where she was sitting. She looked way too smug. “I sent him a text.”
Austin reached down to grab Riley's hand that was holding his wrist. Riley didn't even remember putting it there. Austin smiled, bringing the hand up to his mouth to bite one of Riley's knuckles.
“Were you surprised?” he asked, trying for suave but coming across too eager. “Tell me I'm awesome.”
“No,” said Riley. “I mean, I wasn't surprised. And you're not awesome.”
Austin batted his eyes. “I get it. Surprise has made you cruel.”
Smiling, Riley shook his head really looking at Austin now. His skin was tanned almost golden brown from the summer sun. And his black hair was cut short, close to his head. Riley sucked in a breath. He wanted to reach out and touch it, but Riley stopped himself at the last minute. Austin followed his gaze, smiling sheepishly.
“I lost a bet with a 12 year old,” he explained, running a hand over his head. He rolled his bottom lip between his teeth, looking a bit self conscious. “Does it look bad?”
“It'll grow back,” Katie pointed out helpfully.
Riley nodded. “You look fine. It's just hair.” He didn't add that he thought Austin looked a bit rugged, and the way he was glowing from the inside out, apparently Riley appreciated the look more than he thought.
“Tell Riley he needs to buy those pants, Austin,” said Katie, like the imperial dictator she aspired to be.
Austin twirled Riley around so he faced the trio of mirrors against the walls. He stepped back and Riley watched Austin's reflection from the angled mirrors. The look he's giving Riley was hard to interpret. Austin stared at the jeans, and Riley shifted from foot to foot. He wanted to put his hands in his pockets, but they wouldn't fit. Were these made from denim or leather, because damn it this was borderline indecent.
“Buy the pants,” said Austin.
Riley looked away from Austin's imploring stare in the mirror. “I look ridiculous.”
“You look hot, Boo,” Katie proclaimed, moving to stand beside Austin. She sent the taller boy a smirk.
Austin ignored her. “Seriously buy those pants, Ry.”
“Okay,” said Riley, not taking his eyes from Austin's in the mirror. “Don't make fun when I do wear them.”
Austin let out a scoff of disbelief and Katie looked at him, hiding a smile behind her hand. He was going to buy them. But he refused to wear them out of the store. When Riley got to the checkout counter Austin bumped their shoulders together, smiling as to say did you miss me. Riley's returning smile was answer enough, and the weird heavy sensation that had been in his heart for the past two months immediately lifted.
They restarted their tradition from the beginning of summer break of becoming glued to the hip. The time gap they spent separated seemed like a thing of dreams. If Riley's dreams included a lot of pining and masturbation he kept that to himself. He could easily remember the slow burn when he pushed his fingers into his ass for the first time. It hurt more than he expected, but it was a good pain and he wanted to feel it again with the real thing, instead only with Austin's cock like he imagined. The memory makes his cheeks red, and he's surprised he could meet Austin's eyes without turning into a puddle of embarrassment, but he does and Riley held his stare these days, and Austin looked at him, searching.
The first two months of their senior year came and went without much happening. College loomed ahead like some long promised paradise, and everyday their teachers urged them to carefully consider their future. Riley had options aplenty. Everyday he received more offers from prospective universities than the last week. To hear Dean tell it he didn't have to bother with any other schools beside UCSF. His university was the only one that mattered according to him.
“Don't turn those green eyes on me. I mean it. You owe me four more crunches.”
“You're just saying that. Because. Ugh – I said your school was a backup.”
“Circumstantial evidence. Now come on, boss. Two more. There you go.”
Riley lifted his head to Dean kneeling next to him. “What, what happened – to the days of taking it easy on me?”
A snort immediately followed the question. “That was before you A: started benching more than you weigh, and B: when you started giving me all this lip. UCSF a backup? Shut the front door on that one.”
Riley looked over at Dean in his athletic blue shirts and black underarmor shirt. He might look all jock-ish, but there was no hiding his lighthearted personality. He was like a teddy bear. Even when he was trying to be serious Dean always managed to slip in a joke somewhere.
“And you're done, man,” said Dean, patting his shoulder when Riley sat up on the floor mat. “Good job. Abs of steel right there. You must be fighting back chicks at school.”
Riley looked at the ceiling feeling his neck start to turn red. He shook his head. “No.”
“Then the dudes then?”
Tightness pulled at his stomach and he looked carefully at Dean, trying not to let anything show on his face. “What makes you think that?”
“Bro, this is San Francisco. I don't judge,” said Dean in a tone that seemed to say he really wouldn't mind if he was right or not. Either way was fine with him. “Plus my brother's likewise inclined. You remind me of him sometimes. Am I right? Does this mean I have good – er, gaydar?”
“Yeah, you're right,” said Riley, half smiling at Dean's exaggerated knowing expression.
Dean nodded. “So you got a boy?”
Riley looked at the laces of his shoes. “No – I don't.”
“My brother's single,” said Dean, handing him a water bottle. “He's a freshmen at UCSF. I should hook you two up. Then we'd be like work-out partner in-laws.”
Riley stared as Dean awkwardly fumbled over the title. He blinked and then burst into hysterical laughter. Dean followed suit, laughing when he immediately realized what was so funny. Riley laughed until his sides hurt, and until he couldn't even see with tears blurring his sight. Yeah, Dean was a teddy bear.
It was late October when the leaves started to turn brown. Riley hopped off the BART and then maneuvered the coffee cup in his hand, so he could skip to the next track on his iPod. Immediately, Meaghan Smith sang in his ears about boxcars and waiting for your man. It was a sweet song. He took the alley that took cut through Marco's street and past the community swimming pool. Austin's house came up on the right, dead center in the row of homes. The streetlights illuminated a figure sitting on the street curb, head between his knees and arms wrapped around his legs.
The figure's features became clearer and Riley bent over to touch his shoulder. “Austin?” He took out his headphones and sat down on the curb. “Are you okay? What's wrong?”
Austin looked up and Riley sucked in a breath as he got a good look at his face. Austin wasn't outright crying but his eyes were teary and red, and he looked so lost. Without thinking, Riley slid his arm around Austin's shoulders. Austin scooted closer and rested his head against Riley's.
“Me and Lee broke up,” said Austin, his voice sounded hollow.
It repeated in his mind a half dozen times before it became clear. “But I thought – Why?” There was no glee. He wasn't even happy. He let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding.
Austin buried his face into the spot where Riley's shoulder and neck met. He let out a sigh. “We got into a really bad fight. We've been doing that. Arguing, I mean – a lot.”
“You seemed so happy,” Riley muttered, squeezing the shoulder his hand rested on.
Austin let out a humorless laugh. “I was – when I wasn't thinking about it.”
Riley lowered his head. Austin being single wasn't the coup he thought it would be. Austin was upset over Lee, and there was nothing Riley could do to erase the hold Lee still had, Austin's boyfriend now or not. Lee might as well still be here holding Austin's hand and smiling at Riley like they're childhood buddies.
“I'm sorry,” said Riley, meaning it because he hated seeing Austin upset.
“He's been so self-centered, like I don't even believe it sometimes. Things are going good for him, and it's going to his head, I guess,” said Austin, dejectedly. “Some of the arguments. They were my fault. I just kept picking fights – I'm not sure why... it was like. I can't even explain.”
That sounded so unlike Austin that Riley wouldn't have believed it if the information came from another source. Riley looked away, focusing his eyes to the barely there stars in the sky.
“I'm worried about you,” Riley said softly, unconsciously tightening his hold. “Are you going to be okay?”
Austin's lips thinned. “We said some ugly things to each other. In the end. I think. I think the breakups been coming for awhile. It... probably should have happened sooner.”
“How long have you been sitting out here?” asked Riley, looking at the Blackberry that lay next to Austin's feet. It looked completely dead.
Austin shrugged. “Awhile now, I guess.” He wiped his face and made a disgusted noise. “I must look completely nuts to you. You don't have to – I'm fine. I'm not going to jump in front of a car or anything. I'm just. I think I'm more upset over the way we ended. It sucks, you know?”
Riley honestly didn't know. He never had a boyfriend. The only boy he ever loved was in his arms now, and he was close and yet so very far away at the same time. Their ending happened long before they could have a beginning.
Music hovered in the background breaking the quiet of the night. Without words between them they could hear the music from Riley's headphones clearly now that had been playing this whole time. Riley made to turn it off, but Austin grabbed his fingers in a loose grip. He shook his head.
“Wait.” Austin picked up an ear-bud and held it up to his ear. He softly sang under his breath, “I found the answer lookin' in your eye, I go out walking all day long. Vagabond, kind of appropriate I guess.”
It was a song about innocence lost and breaking free. Riley tapped his fingers against his knee to the rhythm of the song, and Austin looked up at him with a grateful smile. Austin bounced his head to the beat, and Riley didn't know if Austin was going to be okay today. Eventually though – he would be just fine.
On Riley's birthday, he woke up to his alarm blaring the morning radio. The host's voice was annoyingly loud and after shutting it off he found he couldn't go back to sleep. It's Saturday and he doesn't have to be up, so he laid there for a few hours staring at the ceiling and thinking. He was sixteen now. There was no startling degree of awakening maturity within. He felt the same way he did at fifteen, but he wasn't the same kid at fourteen who felt disjointed and twitchy with awkwardness. In some ways he hadn't really changed. In others he had. He pillowed his hands behind his head and took a deep even breath. It felt something like progress.
He climbed into the shower, and he stood under the hot water for a long time until his mind wandered. The Austin in his imagination appeared through the cloud of steam, stepping into the shower behind him with a secret smile solely for him. Austin kissed his shoulders and then the back of his neck and whispered happy birthday, because this was what they both had been waiting for, Riley to come of age. Riley jacked himself off to Austin's cock sliding into him with slow, careful strokes and he came with a muffled whimper. The water washed away the evidence from the daydream, and Riley stayed there until the hot water ran out, and then until his skin turned cold.
When Riley went downstairs the empty kitchen had that feel like someone had been there recently. A wrapped box sat on the kitchen island. He picked up the note folded on top.
Happy birthday, Riley. See you tonight after work. -Dad
Riley tore off the wrapping around the box and found a brand new iPhone waiting. The phone number was scribbled on a post-it and stuck on the box. A ridiculous grin split across his face. He eagerly opened the box and powered up the phone. He never really had a desire to own a cell phone before until recently. When he perked up at the iPhone commercial, maybe his Dad had seen it because Riley had never once mentioned it. He was pleased with the phone, but more moved by his dad's silent declaration of love. It lightened his heart and was a lot like flying.
At noon he's distracted from iTunes by the doorbell ringing. He's not surprised to answer it to find Austin was on the other side. He's practically glowing with excitement.
“Happy birthday, Ry!” he said, bouncing on his toes.
“Thanks,” said Riley, opening the door wider. “Want to come in?”
Austin shook his head. “Nope.”
He popped the p in that way of his that he did when he was especially eager about something. Austin pointed to the curb. Katie sat in the driver's seat of a white Mustang with the top down, and Marco in the passenger seat. She honked the horn and Riley burst into a grin, waving back.
“We're going out to the lake, birthday boy,” said Austin, he reached over and lightly pulled on a bit of Riley's hair.
November in San Francisco was Riley's favorite time of year. Not because of his birthday. Fall was simply the best time of year for weather. The days were warm and sunny, and the nights were mild and clear. Lake Merced was absolutely beautiful. Children skateboarded in the parking lot, bikers and joggers crisscrossed on the paths, and people just walked along the trails taking in the scenic atmosphere.
They started with tossing the Frisbee around until Marco called them lame and magicked up a football from some secret location. So they indulged him in a game of two-on-two until Katie made a hidden gesture, and they all turned on Marco. The face he made when they ganged up on him was priceless, and the girly scream he let out when they tackled him sent them into hysterics.
When the sun was high in the sky, Katie got a blanket and an actual picnic basket from the backseat of her car. They spread the blanket on a flat area of grass in the shade of a tall tree. The food wasn't anything special, just homemade sandwiches and snacks and some juice. But for some reason they were best thing Riley had eaten all day. He couldn't stop smiling.
“Oh, look at the big man with his iPhone,” said Marco, nudging Riley who was downloading Apps. “Do you think you're so cool?”
Riley arched an eyebrow. “But you have an iPhone, too.”
“And look at how cool I am,” Marco replied, puffing out his chest.
Katie slapped his thigh. “No, but seriously. Why are we friends with you? I need these reasons.”
“Amount you say that, I might start to believe you're serious.”
Austin grinned and hummed under his breath, “Sha-la-la-la-la-la, don't stop now. Don't try to hide how, you wanna kiss the girl.”
Riley slapped both hands over his mouth to muffle his laughter. Katie let out an indignant cry even as Marco edged away from her. Then she buried her face in her hands.
“And now the Little Mermaid is forever tainted by this moment,” she said sadly, poking at her turkey sub.
They laugh with the sun shining down on them and it was a great moment. Austin leaned against Riley when he laughed, and their hands brushed against each other. The whole thing was such an enormous cliché that Riley hated himself for the way his chest went tight. The pang of hope made him nauseous now, because he knew that Austin didn't feel anything, and that he didn't see anything in a guy like Riley.
The sun was going down when they drove back. Katie dropped Riley at home first. Austin got out too, saying he wanted to walk home from here. Instead of taking off Austin walked Riley up to the front door. Riley's dad's car was in the driveway, and he felt a smile form. He really wanted to tell his dad how much he liked his phone.
“Today was great,” said Riley, pulling out his house key. He looked at Austin, smiling. “Thank you.”
Austin handed him a CD. “I didn't wrap it, because I figure you already knew what it was.”
It's just a jewel case with a white blank cover unlike the other CD mixes. Riley looked at Austin and there's a twinkle in his eye. He stared at him suspiciously, a nagging feeling telling him to open the case. Instead of a CD inside there's two folded tickets. He let out a gasp and stared at Austin, who's smirking like he's done something especially clever and couldn't hold it in anymore.
“These are tickets to the Rocky Horror Show live!” said Riley, breaking into an ecstatic grin. “This is – I've always wanted to see it. It's like this big interactive show and they give the audience these participation bags and - ” He stopped his epic ramble, blushing.
Austin's wore a small smile, amused and affectionately soft.
“Thank you,” said Riley, looking at him with his cheeks still dark red.
For one fleeting moment he thought about just stepping forward, gently cupping Austin's cheek and kissing him so very softly. Austin stood there, waiting with that too sweet look. Fear won out and instead of kissing him, Riley stepped forward and pulled him into a hug.
Austin smiled into his shoulder and said, muffled, “So you like it?”
Riley swallowed and said, “I love it,” and tried so hard to pretend he's only talking about the tickets.
Thanksgiving went by quickly, but this year Riley and his dad went to Long Island. They spent a few days there and Gran was in her element with the feast she prepared. She didn't comment about their improved relationship, but Riley caught her at times watching them with a soft, tearful expression. Austin texted him randomly all during the time, we have to go back, kate!, which made him snort, and my aunt miriam keeps asking about you. i think she wants to adopt you, and there was the drunk text that came in the middle of the night on Marco's birthday, what it is to burn. this teen heart compromised. Riley had no idea what the last one meant. It read like a song or poem lyric and hours googling it yielded no results.
Riley meant to ask him about it after break, but things got too chaotic. Those first weeks of December were some of the busiest of his life. Early admission applications for colleges were due, and studying for finals kept them all pretty busy. Then there was the upcoming Christmas holidays that loomed closer and the shopping time for gifts grew smaller and smaller.
The winter break couldn't have come at a better time. He doesn't know what it is – he guessed that maybe Austin wasn't over Lee as much as he appeared or school was stressing him out, because he's quieter these days. His hair had grown out past it's usual length, and it went curly at the ends since he didn't do much to it in the mornings, because he was always running late to school now. Austin was quick to reassure people he was fine, but the circles under his eyes made Riley think he wasn't getting much sleep at night. He appeared worn out even if he was still smiling and charming, it seemed like an act. Through it all Riley worried. It was a constant thing at the back of his mind centered on Austin, on his well-being, and it didn't go away. He just really wanted Austin to be okay.
They're both walking home after saying goodbye to Katie and Marco at their normal juncture. The weather was overcast and they walked in silence. It wasn't awkward like it would have been last year, when Riley would've struggled for something to say to fill that void. Now it was comfortable and nice, and they were at the point where they both didn't mind such moments. Riley's house came up, and they stopped by the mailbox.
“So I'll see you next week when I get back from my aunt's place,” said Austin. He tugged on Riley's ear in that habitual way of his. “Don't miss me too much.”
Riley tapped his chin, pretending to think. “I feel like we've had this conversation before.”
“Try not to get into trouble while I'm gone.”
“You say that like, like I'm Bilbo Baggins or something,” said Riley, laughing. “Like I go looking for trouble.”
Austin nodded, still smiling at him, warm and sure. He squeezed Riley's fingers once, briefly, and then turned away to cross the street. Once Riley's imagination would have ran wild with the gesture, over-analyzing and reading too much into it, but he got it now. That was as much as he was ever going to get. He was okay with that. His heart couldn't take anymore false hope.
[end part iii]
I got a lot of amazing responses from people for the last chapter. Thanks so much for the really nice emails. They keep me pumped and really anxious to get this out to you guys. I hope you enjoyed this chapter. The next part is the last one. It will be out next week so don't miss the conclusion!
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