The first sign Zack actually picked up on was the pamphlet that got stuck in his locker, with meeting dates circled in red ink and surrounded by badly-drawn hearts and smiley faces and exclamation marks, and the bit about membership being open to everyone with no judgement underlined twice.
In retrospect that wasn't the first sign and he should've picked up on it sooner. There was the way Johnny had snickered when Zack had complained about not being able to find a date to the winter dance. Or Annie's raised eyebrows when he begged off a French club meeting to help Will finish his Christmas shopping. Or his mom making a point of reminding him that Will was always welcome to family dinners. Or Jana's disproportionate embarassment at walking in on the two of them in the science lab after school. Or Grant's derisive snort over Zack announcing that he wasn't going to bother with the fall dance. Or . . .
Should've noticed sooner.
He checked in with Annie first, because he wanted to make sure he wasn't imagining things and because Annie couldn't keep a secret to save her life. As soon as she was asked a question she folded like a house of cards -- and anyway it was her handwriting on the pamphlet.
Sure enough she immediately confessed. "I just, I didn't mean to overstep or whatever, I know you're both trying to keep it on the DL, I just wanted you to know, you know, you have support?"
"Support for what?" Zack asked suspiciously.
"Oh, come on, I don't want to, like, put pressure on you guys to make it public if you don't want it to be public, but, I mean, everyone sees how you and Will look at each other. We're not blind."
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said, mostly truthfully, but she just rolled her eyes and walked away.
So the next person he talked to was Will. Because Will was involved in whatever this was, too. And because he talked to Will about everything. "Did you know people think we're a couple?"
"A couple of what?" Will answered, right on cue. They were hanging out in a back corner of the library during lunch period, where they usually hung out. The cafeteria got too loud.
"Like, dating. Each other," Zack added, just to be sure.
There was an awkward silence that lasted just a split second too long, and then Will looked down at his notebook and said, "Well, we're not. Right?"
"Right. So . . . "
"Yeah," Zack said, and the conversation shifted to a TV show they'd both watched the previous night, and that was the end of it.
That should've been the end of it.
Except now the idea was in Zack's head and he couldn't shake it. He couldn't stop noticing the ways that their friends treated them like a couple, dropping unsubtle hints that they'd be totally supportive if the relationship went public -- and then he started noticing all the things that had led to their friends think they were a couple. The way they stood just a little closer to each other than to anyone else. The way Zack laughed just a little louder and longer at Will's jokes than anyone else did. The way they both automatically turned to look when the other one came into the room . . .
And none of it meant anything. Of course it didn't. They'd been best friends since the second grade, practically their whole lives. That was just how you got with people you knew as well as you knew yourself.
And then Zack started to notice the way Will flushed whenever anyone commented on their closeness. And the way Will bit his lip and looked studiously away whenever anyone brought up the subject of relationships. And the unpleasant way his own stomach knotted up at the idea of Will dating someone. And the way his day brightened up -- a lot -- if Will laughed at one of his jokes. And the way he went out of his way to walk home with Will, every day. And . . .
It was just slightly possible that their friends had a point.
And now he couldn't stop thinking about it -- about Will's crooked smile and Will's long fingers and Will's ridiculously deadpan humor and the fact that everyone thought they were in love anyway -- and for possibly the first time since they'd met, age seven and bonding over Spider-Man book bags and chocolate pudding cups, he realized he had no idea what Will was feeling. He got awkward and nervous whenever anyone implied anything about their relationship, but was that because he was embarrassed people gossiped about them, or because he might feel about Zack the way that Zack was starting to realize he felt about Will?
If he could just stop obsessing about it maybe he could actually figure out what was going on.
But he couldn't stop. He woke up thinking about Will. He spent the day looking for excuses to drag out every conversation with Will. He went to bed at night over-analyzing everything Will had said that day. He dreamed about Will went he slept. It was all-consuming. He was going crazy.
And the spring formal was coming up.
Zack wanted nothing more than to at least float the idea of going together, but every time the subject of the dance came up at all, in any context, Will got flustered and came up with an excuse to leave or talk about something else. Because he didn't want people to get the wrong idea? Or because he didn't think Zack would want to go? All Zack had were questions -- and the lopsided hearts he scribbled on his homework when he wasn't paying attention.
When the formal was only a week away, he realized he couldn't put it off anymore. The longer it went unspoken, the more uncomfortable things got, and he hated being uncomfortable around Will. That was not the way things were supposed to be. So he steeled his resolve and waited outside the locker room until Will was done with track practice.
Will didn't seem surprised to see him there, but then, it wasn't exactly odd for Zack to hang out and wait for him so they could walk home together. It was just that the conversation he had in mind wasn't exactly normal walking-home conversation for them.
He let the conversation amble along normal lines for a while, schoolwork and music and sports, half-wishing that they could just go back to this, knowing there was so much more he wanted, and then at possibly the most inopportune moment he blurted out, "Do you want to go to the formal with me?", interrupting Will's complaint about his science teacher mid-word.
Will blinked at him and he realized just how badly he'd screwed that up. And then Will said, "As, like, a date?"
"As, like, a date."
"Yes," Will said. "I would like that, yes."
"Really?" It was the answer Zack had hoped for and now that he had it he almost couldn't believe it.
"Really," Will confirmed. "I was afraid you weren't going to ask, and I wasn't brave enough to do it myself."
"You know people will talk."
"They'll talk anyway." Will slipped his hand into Zack's and it was like it had always been meant to be there. "Let's give them something to talk about."
"You mean like this?" And Zack kissed him.
It was everything he'd hoped it would be.