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i won't ask you to wait (if you don't ask me to stay);

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It starts, as all great stories do, in an airport.

 

Actually, the airport comes up somewhere in the middle. There is always something in the  middle.

 

The actual beginning comes a little further back, in a farewell party. The Evans twins have rented a loft downtown for the night, which probably costs more than Chad’s parents’ six-month salaries combined, but on a night like this he is not one to complain. 

 

On a night like this, with a summer breeze running through his curls and the music blasting behind his back as he stands on the balcony, overlooking the entire city of Albuquerque, he is bound to just take another swig of his one-too-many-th beer and enjoy the moment. 

 

“Why aren’t you dancing, Wildcat?”

 

Ryan leans on the railing next to him, a half-empty glass bottle in his own hand and that glow of early drunkenness playing in his eyes. His outfit is immaculate as always, from his white slacks to the navy shirt, topped with a dash of pink glitter on his hat, saved for special occasions like this one. 

 

Chad smiles. “You know I don’t dance.” 

 

The boy next to him chuckles. And then he thinks about it for a second, that slow processing that comes with being tipsy, and bursts out laughing, and it seems to be contagious because a minute later they are both doubled over, holding on at the railing for support.

 

Chad is truly happy Ryan is here with him. On the balcony, at the party, in his life in general. Ever since that summer in Lava Springs, he has come to count on the boy as a constant, to search for that behatted blond head in a crowd, to save a spot for him at the table at the cafeteria. 

 

Ryan has offered life-saving dancing advice, and uncalled-for fashion advice, and much needed life advice. He brought him a basketball signed by Lebron as a birthday gift, made him the best chicken noodle soup of his life that week he was down with the flu, and helped him work through his sexuality crisis last Christmas. Bits and pieces of him that Chad could never let go of, memories he will hold closer to his heart than ever now that Ryan is leaving for New York and they will be separated by almost two thousand miles.

 

“I need to tell you something,” Ryan says, wiping a few laughter-induced tears from his cheeks with the back of his hand. “Just to get it out of my system before I leave.”

 

Chad waves him on, leaning with his back on the railing, wondering if his bladder can take another beer.

 

“I used to have a crush on you. A massive one, I have to admit. I’m pretty sure Shar wanted to slap some sense into me on more than one occasion.” 

 

That seems to be enough to sober him up, surprise, shock, disbelief, and bunch of other emotions running simultaneously across his mind- and most likely across his face as well, because Ryan takes a look at him and is quick to continue.

 

“Don’t- no need to freak out about it. I’m talking sophomore, junior year tops. It was a stupid childish thing, and besides you were straight, and then you weren’t, but I didn’t want it to seem like I was taking advantage of you coming to me for advice, and then I was over it-”

 

Ryan tends to ramble so much on two different occasions: when he is drunk and when he is embarrassed and Chad can’t help but wonder what part of each he is at the moment. He doesn’t dare touch his own thoughts and feelings, so he prefers to focus on making that drunken and/or self-conscious blush disappear from his friend’s face.

 

“Hey, man, we’re good now, right?” he cuts him off.

 

He stops and smiles, one of those bright and earnest smiles of relief. “Yeah, we’re good. I just owed fifteen-year-old Ryan his closure.” 

 

“What you owe fifteen-year-old Ryan is to have a go at all those talented Juilliard boys and forget this regular, albeit impressive jock.”

 

“Well, fuck you, Danforth. Keep using fancy words like that and I may fall in love with you.” He takes off his sparkly hat and places it on Chad’s head, careful not to push down on the curls too hard. Chad knows he looks ridiculous, but there’s a warmth running up his cheeks, which he is definitely going to blame on the alcohol. “See, you could almost pass for a Juilliard boy.”

 

They are interrupted by Sharpay running out to the balcony, a hurricane of pink and fur and sequins. She shoots a suspicious glance to Chad, but it’s gone as soon as her tiara is fixed. “Ry, we have to sing a duet!” and both of them know that you can’t say no to Sharpay, not even when she is sober, so Ryan gives an apologetic look and starts to follow her.

 

“Ryan, your hat,” Chad calls out after him, his voice nearly drowned in the music coming from the now open balcony door. 

 

“Keep it,” he shouts over his shoulder, “to remember me.”

 

As if I could ever forget. 

 

His thought catches him by surprise. Now alone on the balcony, he turns the accessory over and over in his fingers, his friend’s words replaying in his head.

 

A man having a crush on him would have been a flattering yet useless fact a year ago, an intriguing but terrifying one at the time of his coming out, and now? Now it is definitely still slightly terrifying, and certainly flattering, and something he hasn’t felt before, something that makes his heart jump a little, but for which he has no name.

 

Ryan is a good name. 

 

But he quickly pushes that thought over the edge of the balcony. Ryan is his friend- he taught him to braid his little sister’s hair and lets him have the olives of his pizza and never gets tired of narrating the parts of the movie he misses when he falls asleep. Ryan is a constant and constants aren’t supposed to change.

 

Kelsi and Gabriella drag him inside to take pictures before he can dive deeper into his thoughts. He spends the rest of the party laughing and drinking and singing without bothering to be on-key, and when Ryan hugs them all goodbye and gets in his ride to the airport, he holds on a little longer than usual, and little longer than he should have. 

 

He doesn’t sleep that night. 

 

---

 

And time passes.

 

The first semester goes by with Chad barely having time to process what is happening, time flying and slipping through his fingers and getting lost in the cracks between keeping up with assignments and being on time for basketball practice.

 

Ryan texts every day. A mirror selfie after ballet, a cool dog he passed by on the street, the view from the Empire State Building. He is two hours ahead now so when Chad can finally catch a breath, the other boy is usually already asleep. Still, Chad answers every single one of them individually and smiles to his screen a little wider than he would care to admit and somewhere between early morning messages and late night responses, they find a pace that is not ideal, but it works .

 

He doesn’t come home for Thanksgiving- his parents and Sharpay fly out to New York and the texts are fewer for that weekend, Sharpay’s Instagram page a little more active than usual now that she’s reunited with her most obedient photographer. Chad tells himself he doesn’t mind. 

 

Of all people, it’s Troy who calls him out on his shit. He is back in town, bearing that Californian vibe that makes him complain a little too frequently about the cold, but he is still undeniably his best friend, who refuses to hand him back the basketball one of those afternoons in Troy’s backyard until he tells him what’s wrong with him. 

 

“I don’t know what to tell you, man, I’m fine ,” Chad complains and rushes to take the basketball from his hands.

 

“You have the longest face I’ve seen on you since your cat ran away and you keep checking your phone every three minutes,” Troy comments, surprisingly observant- Gabi’s work on him is more evident than ever. He lets him have the ball, which he shoots with more exasperation than technique and misses tremendously. 

 

He drops to the ground and sighs, and in a matter of seconds Troy is sitting next to him, handing him a cold water bottle. It’s a small gesture, one they must have repeated thousands of times for each other, and Chad suddenly realizes that he wants to tell Troy what’s going on. Even if his advice is to throw hoops until he is too tired to think, it will still be something , something different than the unending spiral of thoughts and doubts currently flooding Chad’s brain.

 

“I just don’t know why I care so much,” he explains when he’s finished with the basics. “Like, he was in Fiji with his family without phone signal for a week last year, and I just wondered what souvenir he would bring me.”

 

Troy takes a long moment before answering, while the sun is setting and the breeze is starting to sting on their sweaty shirts. “You know I’m not the best at this, but the only person I care whether or not is gonna answer my text is Gabriella.” 

 

His words strike more than one cord, but then Mrs Bolton calls them inside for dinner and Coach Bolton (who will always be ‘Coach Bolton’) comes in and messes with his hair before sitting down, Chad thinks he might as well pretend things are normal.

 

---

 

Chad leaves practice with his hair still wet from the shower in order to be at the airport on time. Ryan is flying home for Christmas and something came up so his family has to be out of town, and Chad has always obviously been the next name on the list for emergency airport pick-ups (and ‘too drunk to drive’ rescue missions, and ‘I am craving chocolate chip ice cream at 3am’ expeditions). 

 

He waits at the arrivals section as he has done a few times before, but this time there is that strange feeling there with him, that feeling from the night on the balcony, the same one that takes over him every time a friend asks what was the deal with the pink glittery hat that hangs on the coat rack in his dorm.  

 

Ryan is one of the first to come out, in all his business class glory, looking somehow even more fashionable than usual. With his long designer coat and scarf and hat, there is a stark contrast to Chad’s winter jacket that is barely concealing the hoodie he managed to throw over his jersey before rushing to the airport. They look as if they come from two different worlds, and maybe they do, but that doesn’t affect the brightness of their grins or the tightness of their arms around each other as they hug and laugh and feel the weight of five months apart being lifted. 

 

Chad helps him with his luggage (just for two weeks, but more than he has ever owned) and they drive to the empty Evans residence without a single moment of silence. Texts and calls and the occasional FaceTime are valuable tools, but nothing can beat this- from afar, there is always a roommate interrupting or an errand to run or an alarm going off at an ungodly hour. Here they can talk and talk and talk, two weeks ahead of them to fill every gap they have left open since the summer.

 

And Chad forgets for a while. Every tormenting thought and doubt seems to disappear, because this is Ryan and they are seventeen again, splitting a pizza of dubious quality on the kitchen counter as they share stories and jokes and toppings, just without the curfew. 

 

But the stories are stories of different cities and different lives. There is something changed in both of them, not necessarily in a bad way- it’s that change college brings to people, that feeling of being able to do anything you put your mind to, even if you’ll have to squeeze it somewhere between pop quizzes and extracurriculars. That newfound sense of independence that makes you feel more alive than ever, while definitely not working wonders for your bank account.

 

Something else is different as well. Chad noticed it from the first moment he saw Ryan at the airport- he carried himself in a different way, and it was not just the confidence or the heavy clothes. Now, changed into a plain white t-shirt and grey sweatpants, as he stretches to the top shelf to get a glass, Chad can finally put a finger on it- he is fitter than ever before. He should have expected it- every second text he sent came from some kind of dance studio or fitness facility. Still, the lines of his muscles under the fabric manage to throw him off balance and he has only regained some of it when Ryan turns to face him again.

 

If he notices, he doesn’t say anything on the subject. “I got you a gift,” he says instead and walks to the door, where his suitcases are left untouched. He opens a pocket, tosses him a bag and leans against the couch back, waiting for his reaction.

 

It’s a Juilliard t-shirt. “Go on, try it on,” Ryan says, amidst the laughter. 

 

He pulls his jersey over his head and as he holds up his new possession, he catches Ryan staring somewhere that is definitely not his eyes.

 

“Well, damn, Danforth, you’ve been working out,” he comments, and Chad suddenly realizes that what he noticed on the other’s body earlier probably applies to his as well. He has been hitting the gym for double the time and training twice as hard, feeling as if his scholarship is on the line with every shot missed, every mile not run. “I mean, still pretty low by Juilliard standards, but you are getting there.”

 

So Chad does what any eighteen-year-old boy would do when the honor of his muscles is questioned like that- he charges at Ryan and throws him over his shoulder as if he weighs nothing. Which is a lie and he will have to find a good excuse for the pinching on his lower back tomorrow, but for now he is fueled solely by adrenaline and dumbness. 

 

Ryan does not even bother to writhe, a combination of jet lag and having been in the same positions numerous times in the past. He just laughs as Chad shakes and twists him, more fun than any dance class lift could ever provide. “Okay, you graceless jock, you’ve proven your point, now put me down.”

 

He obeys, but what neither of them have calculated is how close their bodies suddenly stand, as Ryan’s feet find solid ground again. Those muscles Chad previously admired from afar are now pressed against him, while his arms still linger around his back at the place where they held him up. 

 

All it takes is one look. Their laughter is cut short and the smiles left behind fade quickly, and neither of them will be able to say who made the first move, but they’re kissing. 

 

They’re kissing, and Chad’s brain short-circuits. Because he has thought about this moment more than once- he has thought about it after one of Ryan’s ‘morning vlogs’ that are filmed just for him, he has thought about it during dark stormy nights as he stared at his dorm room ceiling, hell, he thought about it that night on the balcony that now seems so far away.

 

He has thought about it, and still it’s better than anything he has imagined. It’s not perfect, technically speaking- Chad’s lips move with excitement and hunger, Ryan’s with experience and expertise, but just as they do with their out-of-sync everyday lives, they find a rhythm that works .

 

It’s a rhythm that has them pulling apart for breath soon enough and for a moment there’s an indecipherable look in Ryan’s eyes, loving, vulnerable, almost hurt. He raises his fingers to Chad’s face, captures a stray curl that’s resting on his cheek, and as soon as he’s placed it behind his ear, the look is gone.

 

“So,” he says, moving a few inches backwards, which Chad takes as a sign to take his hands away from him. “I have a feeling there’s a lot to unpack here, but I am also exhausted and you know I don’t trust myself to talk when I am sleep deprived.” 

 

“Okay,” is all Chad manages, fumbling with his shirt, tangling and untangling his fingers, trying to find something to do with hands that seemed to be ideally placed moments ago and now just felt empty. “Do you want me to go?”

 

“Well, I am going to bed. You can either go home or come with me.”

 

---

 

They have shared a bed before so many times- when they fell asleep watching movies, when the food coma came on too strong for either of them to move, when they went on school trips where only double beds were available and mixed gender rooms were prohibited.

 

But this is different. Chad has never been so aware of Ryan’s body next to his, the rise and fall of his chest, his steady breathing as he fell asleep within seconds. Sleep doesn’t come that easily for him, not in general, and especially not in situations like this, so he counts the ticks of the clock on the wall, he flips over his pillow, he tosses and turns and inevitably, he thinks

 

The evening still feels like a hallucination, a dream. His mind is flooded by the image of Ryan’s smile, the sound of his laughter, the feeling of his lips on his, and he can’t believe it happened. But there’s something else too- there’s that look on his face as he pulled away, the coldness in his ‘unpacking’ observation, the fact that he only spoke about New York and Juilliard and Christmas as they got ready for bed.

 

‘It was a stupid, childish thing.’ Ryan’s words from the balcony echo in his head and suddenly he can’t believe he is such an idiot, bringing stupid, childish things into their new, adult lives. For all he knows, Ryan has left this all in high school. For all he knows, he kissed him back because it felt like a fun thing to do, because that’s what he’s been doing when hot guys threw themselves at him back in New York. For all he knows, he is sleeping a dreamless sleep and his heart hasn’t skipped a beat the whole night.

 

So Chad makes a decision. 

 

“We don’t have to unpack anything,” he replies to Ryan’s groggy ‘good morning’, when the sun has already been out for hours and Chad has been awake for just as many.

 

He takes his time, blinks a few times, wipes his eyes. “You don’t have to help me, but I can’t live out of a suitcase, I need to put things in order.”

 

“That’s not what I meant,” he says and sits crossed-legged on the mattress, rotating enough to face him. “Yesterday, after- after everything, you said there’s a lot to unpack between us. You’re here for ten days. What if we just have our fun and live our lives and not make things more complicated than they should be?” 

 

Ryan mimics Chad’s pose, the bed large enough for both of them to take up space, without touching. He is fully awake now, taking everything in- he swallows hard and turns his head a little, as if examining Chad’s face. “Is that what you want?”

 

“Do you have someone back in New York?”

 

“No.”

 

“Do you want to forget last night ever happened and pretend everything is the same?”

 

“I… I don’t think that’s possible.”

 

“Do you think we won’t be friends any more if we do this?”

 

“It would take a lot to stop me from being friends with you-”

 

“Then what’s stopping us?” 

 

In Chad’s head, it’s simple. Or he has made it out to be, after he decided that this was the only possible solution, the only road at the end of which he hasn’t ruined one of the most important friendships in his life because he realized friendship is not enough a couple of years too late, a couple of years out of sync. 

 

People do flings, they do hookups, they become friends with benefits. Whatever label Ryan wants to put on this is fine by him, and he has ten days to get used to the idea, ten days before Ryan flies off again and he has to hear about the dudes that flirt with him at parties and pretend he doesn’t mind.

 

Ten days that will be filled with god knows what.

 

“Come on,” Ryan says, hopping off the bed with a newfound energy, “I’m buying you breakfast.” 

 

Breakfast sounds good.

 

---

 

For the most part, things are the same as always.

 

They still unashamedly steal pieces of each other’s pancakes and make fun of each other’s choice of drinks (Ryan’s matcha latte is ‘trying too hard’, Chad’s chocolate milkshake is a ‘basic bitch’). And when Chad has to pack some stuff from his dorm room in order to survive in his parents’ house on the other side of the city for two weeks, he drags Ryan along, even though he knows he will find all kinds of excuses in order not to do any of the heavy lifting.

 

The room is far from impressive, but it’s large enough and close to the basketball court and his . Well, technically it belongs to the University of Albuquerque, but it’s as close as he has ever gotten to having a place of his own, even if it’s just a desk covered in textbooks, a closet that would barely fit one twentieth of Ryan’s clothes and a neatly made single bed with the last team photo of the Wildcats hanging above it. 

 

All this comes into view as he absentmindedly flips on the switch next to the door, the blinds still closed from the last time he left a couple of days ago, and his eyes scan the space to locate everything he needs to take with him to avoid a second trip back to campus. 

 

“Okay, I think it’s mostly clothes,” he says, tossing his coat on his bed, “and one or two textbooks, and maybe I should take this chair too, it’s more comfortable than the one I have back home…” 

 

But Ryan doesn’t reply. He is still standing at the entrance, his own coat in his hands, his eyes fixed on the coat rack and the glittering pink accessory that’s hanging on top of it.

 

“You kept this,” Ryan states matter-of-factly, trading his coat for the hat and spinning it in his hands.

 

“You told me to keep it,” Chad replies, abandoning his scavenger hunt to approach him, “to remember you.”

 

He lets out a chuckle. “Did it work?”

 

“You could say so,” Chad shrugs and takes the hat in his own hands to examine it, although he has done this so many times before that he thinks he knows every stitch and sequin by heart by now. “I never forgot.” 

 

And just like that, Ryan’s hand finds the back of his neck, the hat is dropped to the floor, and their lips crash together. 

 

This one is different. This one easily overcomes the initial surprise and leaves plenty of space for hunger on both sides. It could even come across as desperate, the way they hang on each other, hands roaming backs and sides and hair, lips fighting for dominance.

 

But then it seems to dawn on them at the same time- there’s no reason to be desperate or hasty. They have all day ahead of them, they have a room with a bed and a door that locks, they have their agreement. 

 

So when Ryan is pushed against the wall and his back flicks the lights off, he doesn’t mind. When Chad’s warm palm finds the small of his back, he helps him pull his shirt up. And when a leg pushes its way in between his own, he lets himself groan as loudly as he wants. 

 

Later, as they’re lying in Chad’s now-far-from-made bed, practically on top of each other to fit, Ryan lazily reaches out and traces his fingers over the picture on the wall. “Never thought I’d be having sex under the watchful eye of the Wildcats.”

 

Chad lets out a small laugh, his hand moving up and down the length of Ryan’s back as the boy shifts on top of him. “Did you think you’d be having sex with a Wildcat?” 

 

“I plead the fifth.”

 

They stay there for a while, and Chad can’t help but notice that for the first time in this first year of college, this dorm finally truly feels like home. They talk and laugh and when Ryan falls asleep with his head on his chest, Chad decides that he is going to make this work. This plan that he brought onto the table himself, it will have to work because now that he’s had a taste of it, there is no going back. He is going to shove the voice in the back of his head under a carpet and he is going to make the most of these ten days, lock himself in this bubble of happiness and not think about the plane ticket that is waiting around the corner to burst it.

 

“Don’t think you’ll get out of packing duty just because you’re hot,” he tells Ryan as the other boy gets up and makes a show out of stretching, gathering his clothes from all around the floor.

 

“I think that’s exactly what I plan to do,” Ryan replies and sits on the edge of the bed, leaning down to press another kiss on Chad’s lips.

 

“Well… if you don’t help…” Chad mutters between kisses, “I may forget stuff… we may have to come back…” 

 

“What a tragedy that would be.”

 

---

 

They do go back to the dorm. In fact, they go to a lot of places.

 

They go to Taylor’s dinner party and enthusiastically talk about college life with their old classmates. The Wildcats talk shit about each other’s new basketball teams, Taylor and Gabi seem to have individually taken more extracurriculars than all the rest of them combined, Ryan and Kelsi have all but taken out pen and paper to calculate how many of their friends they can simultaneously host when they manage to visit New York. And as Ryan speaks, Chad’s hand runs up and down his inner thigh under the table, holding back his laughter as the boy tries to go on as if nothing is going on, although visibly flustered- Chad knows he is going to pay for this, and he doesn’t mind. 

 

They go to Sharpay’s sorority’s New Year’s Eve party, Ryan rightfully as her brother, and Chad just as rightfully as at least four of the sorority sisters have hit on him in various degrees of lack of shame throughout this past semester. He introduces Ryan to any of his teammates that drop by, but lets Sharpay drag him around for the rest of the night and boast about her twin going to Juilliard to a number of jealous faces. They meet again just before the clock strikes twelve on the floor that is supposed to be off limits, the countdown still audible from downstairs. Happy New Year, they say at the same time as they pull apart from the traditional good luck kiss, and it’s a happy one indeed.

 

They go to East High’s empty parking lot, somewhat illegally since the school is closed for the holidays, but the security guard remembers Chad’s part in winning that championship and Ryan’s part in that musical that made her cry, so she’s willing to turn a blind eye to two reminiscing alumni. They chase each other around and laugh and share memories of those four years in the walls in front of them that feel like eons ago. And then the first drops of rain come down upon them and it’s too cold to stay out, but too early to go home, so they get to test just how spacious Ryan’s backseat is, thankful for the foggy windows. 

 

But time passes too fast when you’re happy, and soon enough Chad is on the road to the airport again with Ryan in the passenger seat, but this time going the opposite way than ten days ago. It’s an early morning flight and his parents wouldn’t be able to make it to work on time if they drove him and for them it’s not goodbye anyway- they can afford to go visit him whenever they want. He could of course get an Uber (or a limo, for that matter), but when Chad offered to drive him, he didn’t even feign abnegation before accepting. 

 

The silence between them is comfortable as always, but there is a tension buzzing in the air as they pull up outside the airport, as Ryan checks in his bags, as they stand face to face before he goes through security and gets into that plane. A tension that did not exist less than twenty-four hours ago, when they were trying to breathe through their laughter as they watched an embarrassing amount of Vine compilations, tangled up in Chad’s dorm bed. 

 

That was their safe space. Albuquerque was their safe space. But airports possess that unique quality of not really belonging to one place or the other, that liminal feeling that can with the same ease be shaped into the warmth of coming home and the coldness of leaving it. And in that airport, the bubble bursts. 

 

“So. Have a safe flight?” Chad says, this newfound and sudden awkwardness raising his voice into a question he wasn’t aiming for.

 

“Thanks,” Ryan replies, his hands in his coat pockets, his whole body slowly rocking back and forth on his feet. “And thank you… you know, for all of this.”

 

Chad smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Text me when you land.”

 

“I will. See you in the summer, Danforth.” 

 

They hug quickly and clumsily, the ease of those ten days of bodies fitting perfectly left somewhere in a dorm room, a dark hallway, a car backseat. They pull away just as fast and Chad sees Ryan biting his lips.

 

He waits to see if he will kiss him.

 

He doesn’t. 

 

He turns, hands over his boarding pass, and is gone.

 

---

 

There’s a certain numbness the first few days, and Chad worries they have ruined everything.

 

But then he scores his career high on the first game of the year, fueled mostly by his desperation, and he wakes up from his exhausted but elated light coma the next morning to a screenshot of his university’s article about the game and a text that reads ‘lebron is QUAKING’. 

 

He knows an olive branch when he sees it and he replies as he would have a month ago and it’s so easy to fall back into conversation with Ryan that he feels his shoulders relax, his jaw unclench.

 

And just like that they’re Chad and Ryan again, and somewhere between old memes and photos of greasy food neither of them should be eating, they slip in sentences that can hopefully work as excuses for the lack of contact the past week.

 

‘It was a really important game, our coach had us going over our defense until we had nightmares about it.’

 

‘There was a mix-up with my class registration, I spent hours on the phone trying to be nice to a lady that very obviously did not want to help me.’

 

I was scared, Chad wants to say. Absolutely terrified that that morning on Ryan’s bed on his first morning home, they shouldn’t have been so certain that they couldn’t pretend the kiss of the night before never happened. Because if the kiss had never happened, he wouldn’t be afraid to text his best friend.

 

But at the same time, if the kiss had never happened, he wouldn’t have had the chance to whisper that same ‘good morning’ under the blanket and have Ryan bury his face in his chest in response. And no matter how he felt now, he isn’t sure there is something he would be willing to trade that warmth for. 

 

So he says something stupid and inconsequential instead, and prays to any deity that might be listening that it’s enough, that Ryan won’t pull away like he did from his hug at the airport. If this is enough for Ryan he will make it be enough for him as well, he will forget how much it hurt when he didn’t kiss him goodbye. Bubbles barely leave remnants when they burst, it should be easy enough to pretend it never existed.

 

(It isn’t.) 

 

But if the bubble is big enough, the water stays there even after the shape is gone, and Chad becomes painfully aware of that when he slips on it and lands on the hard ground head-first.

 

The push comes in form of an otherwise nonchalant text conversation about a month later, a Saturday night during which he is being  a disgrace to his youth and choosing to not pay enough attention to some Netflix movie instead of going out and seizing the night.

 

Remember that tall ginger dude from the dance class at the community center?

 

the one who couldn’t tell left and right apart?

 

Yes, Bennie.

 

what about him?

 

He asked me out.

 

That’s enough to get him to pause the movie, enough to make him sit up on his bed, enough to make him shiver despite the blasting heat in his dorm room. His hands are shaking as he tries to think of a good enough reply, but Ryan texts again, intensifying the feeling that he may be having a heart attack.

 

He said he had been thinking about it for a while, but waited until the program was over because it would be unprofessional, me being his teacher and all that. It was actually kinda cute.

 

It takes Chad a while to hit the right letters on his keyboard.

 

and what did you say?

 

Every second it takes Ryan to reply feels like a year, every bounce of the three grey ‘typing’ dots teasing Chad enough to make him get up and pace around the room with the phone trembling along with his hands.

 

I think it’s worth a shot.

 

He hears the notification sound, and he hears his heart break.

 

He can’t believe he never thought of that, he doesn’t know if he deliberately banished the possibility from his mind. He doesn’t know if it was denial or fear, naive certainty or excessive confidence, he can’t put a name on the feeling that is suddenly crushing his chest other than pure, tormenting jealousy

 

He has no right to feel this way and he knows it.

 

So when he hastily gets dressed and heads to town, he doesn’t do it to get back at Ryan. When he downs two shots for courage, when he finds himself in the bed of the first guy who buys him a drink, when he gathers his clothes and sneaks out at the crack of dawn, he is not even planning to tell him. 

 

He does it for himself. He does it to prove that there’s more to life than Ryan’s smile against his lips, that there are bodies to wake up next to just as warm as his, that it’s possible to go back to making fun of each other’s dating lives like they did in high school. He does it to feel something, something that is not this pain that is growing by the second instead of going away. 

 

He fails. 

 

With the early morning breeze blowing through his hair as he walks back to campus and the city slowly comes to life, he calls Troy, who sounds equal parts asleep and worried, but there and ready to listen from all those miles away. 

 

“I think I’m in love with Ryan,” Chad says, and he waits for the relief that should come with getting this off his chest, but he just wants to cry. 

 

“Yeah, I think you’re in love with Ryan too,” Troy replies. 

 

They talk until he is home and Chad tells him everything. Troy listens and comforts him without trying to offer advice, and Chad is not feeling better but he is feeling thankful.

 

He jumps in the shower to wash last night off and before he falls asleep with his head buzzing  and his body aching, he suddenly remembers he never answered Ryan’s text.

 

sorry, I fell asleep watching that stupid movie! i hope it goes great though! 

 

He puts his phone in airplane mode and drifts off immediately. 

 

---

 

To be fair, Ryan doesn’t mention Bennie that much.

 

And when he does, it’s always in passing. He talks about the ice cream shop they went to together and Chad should definitely visit when he manages to come to New York, about the movie they watched that Chad would hate, about the celebrity they came across as they were walking downtown.

 

Still, he is a constant presence, as constant as Chad’s need to punch a wall every time he pictures them together, hand in hand, happy . And then he wants to punch himself instead, because what selfish bastard doesn’t want the person they love to be happy? 

 

Months pass in this daily torment, until for once, Bennie is mentioned as the sole subject of the conversation and not just some scribbled note in the margin.

 

Bennie and I broke up. 

 

Chad’s heart skips and he tells himself he shouldn’t be happy.

 

are you okay?


He shouldn’t be happy, but he is. 

 

Yeah, it’s okay. It was a mutual thing. He is graduating and then leaving for grad school and both of us know we can’t do long-distance, so we thought we’d save us from the pain of trying.

 

Chad tells him he is sorry anyway, even though he isn’t. He tells him he is there to talk if he wants, even though every word would be like a tiny stab in the heart, and when it’s obvious that Ryan has nothing more to say on the matter, he changes the subject.

 

i’m thinking of throwing a party on my birthday

 

July 7th seems like the perfect day, warm and carefree and with all of his loved ones back from college in order to celebrate. All except one.

 

My flight home is booked for that night. 

 

He doesn’t tell him he should postpone it, Ryan would never demand something like that of him. He just lets his statement linger and Chad lets the realization settle in that there is nothing he can do about it. It’s a Saturday, it’s the only night his parents are willing to leave him the house all to himself, he has already told a number of people to clear out their schedules.

 

He obviously wants Ryan to be there. But there is also a small part of him that is relieved at the thought that he won’t be able to make it. Because his thoughts are a mess and his feelings an even bigger one and the prospect of spending a day of supposed happiness fixated on whether Ryan looked at him in a strange way or how he would react if he grabbed him and kissed him in front of everyone honestly sounds exhausting. 

 

you’re welcome to drop by if you’re not too tired from the flight

 

I’ll do my best, Danforth.

 

---

 

The night of the party arrives too quickly and as people start to gather on his lawn, Chad is happy.

 

He accepts gifts and hugs, hands people drinks and snacks and tells them where the bathroom is. He is the center of attention in every group he wanders into, and for a moment it’s easy to forget himself and his troubles, somewhere between dancing with Martha and beer pong with Troy, Zeke and Jason.

 

And if he checks his phone a little too frequently, he’s only human. 

 

He even strikes up a conversation with Sharpay, who is admittedly not half as bad as she used to be in high school, and he actually enjoys himself as they laugh about that professor who came to class in his pajamas and that flashmob proposal that happened on campus last semester. 

 

That is, until a notification goes off on her phone.

 

“Oh, I need to go pick up Ryan,” she says and shoots him a look that is missing the earlier joking mood and makes him wonder just how much she knows about their… situation. But before he can ask any further questions, she’s already rushing to her car and Chad is left standing there alone, with a heart that’s beating a little faster than it has the whole night. 

 

More than an hour has passed and he has gotten caught up in saying goodbye to those leaving, when Gabriella drags him down to the circle of people that has formed on the grass in an impromptu game of Truth or Dare. He looks around and it’s mostly just East High alumni who already know most of his dirty secrets and have lived his most embarrassing moments alongside him, so in a combination with the courage of all the already consumed alcohol, he thinks he has nothing to lose.

 

Just as things are starting to get spicier, as it tends to happen with this game, everyone gets suddenly distracted when the Evans twins step into the yard, a few people standing up to greet freshly-arrived Ryan, the rest just waving from where they are seated, too tired and drunk to put in any more effort. 

 

He came , is all Chad can think and he wonders how he could have been so stupid to believe this night would be better without him, when his face and his heart have both lit up in his presence- he smiles wide and looks at him from afar, and maybe it’s the fact that he hasn’t seen him in six months, but he somehow looks more beautiful than ever even after all those hours of traveling. He wants to stand up and go over to him, he wants to hug him and tell him he missed him, but before he can react, Ryan’s eyes find his from across the circle.

 

“Happy birthday, Danforth.”

 

“Thank you, Evans.”

 

And he is sure they could just stay there in that moment for hours, one seated and the other one standing, but with the same smile across their faces, those smiles that make each other’s heart race and the bubble slowly begin to form again.

 

But the moment is gone when the twins are dragged down to the circle and into the game, and Chad doesn’t mind, because Ryan is here and that’s all that matters for now.

 

“Chad, truth or dare?” Martha asks when everyone is settled in. 

 

“Dare.”

 

“I dare you to give a lap dance to… to whoever you want in this circle, I am feeling generous.” 

 

And Chad blushes because his eyes immediately dart to Ryan, as they simultaneously remember a slightly drunken night in Chad’s dorm, when Ryan got too cocky about his dancing and Chad got too cocky about his abs.

 

He shakes his head, as if that will send the memory away, and hope he isn’t blushing too much.

 

“So, can I have some music, or what?”

 

Everyone cheers as some sensual striptease song flows through the speakers and Chad goes with the obvious easy choice and gives Troy the lap dance of his life. 

 

“I give you a solid six out of ten, you have potential, but you’re not quite there yet.” 

 

“Fuck you, Bolton,” Chad shoots back with a laugh and sits back down in his spot, catching his breath. “Zeke, truth or dare?”

 

“I don’t trust any of you with my secrets, so dare.”

 

“I dare you to bake me two dozens of those chocolate chip cookies that are literally like crack and have them at my door tomorrow morning.”

 

“This is not how the game works!” he complains, but he knows he is doing Zeke a favor and he will gladly stay up late baking even if no one has dared him to do so. 

 

“Take it or leave it, Baylor.”

 

Zeke just laughs, surrendering. “Ryan, truth or dare?”

 

“Too tired for all your shit, so truth.”

 

“Who’s the best sex you’ve ever had?” he asks with a smirk and a couple of people wolf whistle because that’s what Truth or Dare is all about. 

 

Someone else might have gotten flustered, but Ryan just stretches backwards, resting on his open palms, the picture of nonchalance. “The captain of the NYU football team.”

 

And after a round of approving nods, the circle goes on.

 

---

 

No one gets too drunk and everyone seems happy as they walk to their cars and disappear into the warm summer night, leaving Troy, Gabriella, Taylor and Ryan behind to clean up.

 

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Chad says from the kitchen as Ryan and Taylor finish up the living room while the other two work on the yard, even though he is very thankful for the help.

 

“Nonsense, you know cleaning relaxes me,” says Taylor. 

 

“And I arrived late, so I need to somehow compensate,” adds Ryan, shooting him a smile.

 

Taylor is done first, as expected, and leaves with a kiss on Chad’s cheek and one last happy birthday, Wildcat.

 

“I lied before, you know,” Ryan catches him off guard when they are suddenly left alone, just the two of them, the mess in the kitchen, and the million unresolved feelings between them. 

 

“What do you mean?”

 

You are the best sex I’ve ever had.” 

 

Before Chad can react, reply, stutter, blush and make a fool of himself (not necessarily in that order), Troy and Gabriella walk into the house with a couple of overflowing trash bags to announce their own departure.

 

“Do you need a ride, Ry?” Gabi asks and Chad knows she’s doing this out of pure kindness and good will, but he really wishes she hadn’t, because Ryan can’t just leave , not after what he just said.

 

“No, no, it’s okay. Shar left with Zeke, so I’ve got the car to myself. Thanks guys,” Ryan replies just as nicely, while Troy is already all but pulling his girlfriend towards the exit, whispering something in her ear that puts a surprised but knowing look on her face. 

 

And they are alone again, this time for real. 

 

“Where were we?” Ryan asks, joining Chad in the kitchen, leaning against the counter opposite to where Chad is leaning against the sink.

 

“You were saying something about how I’m the best sex of your life. Do continue, it sounds like a great birthday present,” he says with a sly smile and god, he has missed him so much it almost hurts.

 

“Oh, that was not your birthday present. But this is.”

 

And just like that, he pins him against the counter and kisses him. 

 

Chad wants to kiss him back. And for a while he does, because for someone who spends the better part of his year on the other side of the country, he sure as hell feels like coming home, because it’s almost enough to make him forget the pain and doubt and jealousy of these past months, the sleepless nights in the dorm room they used to sleep less together, the hours on the phone with Troy that always ended with ‘You need to tell him, dude.’

 

Almost , but not quite enough. 

 

“Ryan,” he mumbles against his lips, and then again, with more certainty, “Ryan, we can’t.” 

 

The boy pulls away as if struck by lightning and bites his lip, unable to hide his embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” he says, his voice coming out weaker than he probably planned. “I’m sorry,” he says again, a little louder this time, clears his throat and walks back to the living room, frantically grabbing and moving trash bags towards the door. “I shouldn’t… I shouldn’t have made any assumptions.” 

 

“Ryan… Ryan, it’s okay, please stop…” Chad tries and fails to find the right words, and Ryan keeps moving, desperate to keep himself busy to avoid dealing with the rejection.

 

“No, no, you’re right, it’s been six months, I shouldn’t-” 

 

RYAN.” Chad snaps and that’s enough to have him stunned into place, right next to the front door. And Chad doesn’t know what he’s thinking, and he doesn’t know if it’s a good idea, and it might ruin everything, but for now he just needs this madness to stop, this weight to leave his shoulders, this pain to find some closure, one way or another. “We can’t keep doing this, because I’m in love with you.” 

 

And he’s right. Something tears inside him and he finally feels lighter, freer, unable to stop. “I’m in love with you and I can’t stand to have a couple of weeks of oblivious happiness just for you to go back to New York. I can’t bear the thought of hearing about another boyfriend, I can’t keep hating myself for not feeling happy for you, I can’t pretend to be your friend. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. ” 

 

He has walked to the other side of the counter as he talked, and they now stand on opposite sides of the living room, Chad looking in pain, Ryan looking like a deer caught in the headlights of his confession.

 

“You don’t have to say anything,” Chad whispers when the silence and his unmoving eyes on him get too much to bear, “but please, say something.” He knows he sounds desperate, but he is past the point of caring to keep up appearances. 

 

“I fell in love with you in sophomore year of high school,” Ryan says solemnly and his voice comes out hoarse.

 

“I know. A stupid, childish thing. I remember.”

 

He lets out a bitter laugh that catches Chad off guard. “A stupid, childish thing, that turned into a stupid, adult thing, that I’ve been carrying around every day, unable to shake it off, no matter how hard I try.” 

 

It’s Chad’s turn to be stunned and he stands there dumbfounded as Ryan’s body comes to life and the boy starts pacing around the living room.

 

“I tried so hard,” he says, and there is so much exasperation in his voice that Chad’s heart breaks a little more. “I moved to New York, I partied, I met people, I had sex, I wanted to be in love. And at the end of the day it was always Chad fucking Danforth!” he shouts, but his voice breaks at the end, and Chad realizes he is crying. And he hates more than anything to see him cry, he wants to reach out, he wants to hug him and wipe his tears away, but he can’t, he shouldn’t , not when he is the reason behind them. “You’re the one who said we shouldn’t unpack things,” Ryan adds and he is all but sobbing now, not moving any more, just standing there across him, crying and vulnerable and broken.

 

So Chad walks closer, slowly and hesitantly, as if approaching a scared and wounded animal. And when he is standing right next to him and Ryan does not dare meet his eyes, he reaches out and takes his hand, and he doesn’t pull away.

 

And for the first time since before they got into this mess, since they gazed at the city from that balcony waiting for their life to truly begin, a new sentiment dawns in his heart. The confusion, the pain, the desperation, the jealousy, the doubts, they’re all still there, but they are shoved to the side, forced to take up way less space than they used to, suddenly feeling insignificant in comparison- that’s what hope does to a person.

 

“So let’s unpack this. I think it’s time.” 

 

They sit on the floor because the couches are covered in cardboard boxes of garden decorations and they don’t have the energy to move anyway and Ryan looks at him again and they talk .

 

They talk in truths, in memories and feelings, they empty their souls and leave the content out in plain sight for the other to do what they want with it. 

 

Chad speaks of the farewell party and how Ryan’s lighthearted confession planted the seed in his head, although he suspects it had been there for a while and he just chose to ignore it up until that moment. He speaks of his cowardice when he proposed their first agreement, because he was sure Ryan had left his feelings in the past while his own were growing stronger in the present. He speaks of the night he fucked a stranger to convince himself he wasn’t in love with Ryan and how he only managed to prove the opposite. 

 

And Ryan tells him all about how he tried to forget him in the clean slate that was New York and about how no one ever measured up. He tells him about all the times he thought about talking to him but chose not to at the last moment, because simple friendship was better than the inevitable rejection, and how he agreed to their time together last Christmas even though it broke him that Chad was only looking for good old non-committal fun. He tells him how hard he wished to fall in love with Bennie, but looked for him in every smile, every kiss, every day. 

 

They talk, and cry, and don’t touch, and when they’ve wiped away their tears and steadied their voices, they manage to refer to the many elephants in the room.

 

“So we’re idiots,” Chad says.

 

“So we’re in love,” Ryan counters and there’s still so much to talk about, but it sounds so beautiful to finally hear it said out loud.

 

“What are we going to do about it?”

 

“Chad, I can’t do long distance. I just can’t.” 

 

“I know. Me neither.”

 

They stay silent for a moment and look at each other as if a solution will magically appear in the limited space between them.

 

“So we’ll do what everybody does,” Ryan starts, a new tone of surrender in his voice. “We’ll blame timing and distance and circumstances and we’re going to be miserable for a while, but then we’ll be fine. We’ll be fine, Chad,” he repeats, as if it’s going to make it sound more believable. 

 

“And then, maybe in three, five, ten years we meet again. With better timing and less distance and different circumstances and we give it a shot for real. If we still feel the same way,” Chad adds, as if there’s a future in which all it takes is time for their feelings to fade. 

 

And Chad holds out his hand on the floor between their crossed legs and Ryan slowly reaches out and takes it, and as they look at their intertwined fingers an idea takes shape in Ryan’s mind, and he knows it’s risky to voice it, but he can’t hold himself back.

 

“Or we could pretend,” he says.

 

“That we’re not in love?”

 

“That there’s nothing stopping us from being exactly that.”

 

Chad’s gaze moves from their hands to Ryan’s face, and there is a glow in his eyes that hasn’t been there before, the contrast with the drying tears on his cheeks making it shine even brighter.

 

“I have a month to stay. And it can be a month where we act as friends or strangers or whatever other half-assed solution we come up with, or we can just say ‘fuck it’. If we are signing up for a future without each other, for those miserable days before we’re fine again, the least we owe ourselves is a few final days of happiness, don’t you think?” 

 

And he is talking so fast, and he is sounding so scared and hopeful at the same time, and whatever self-control Chad possesses crumbles to the ground.

 

“I am going to kiss you now,” is all he says, and this one tastes like the disaster that’s waiting at the end of the road, but they can’t bring themselves to care. 

 

Because it’s a long road, and it’s a long summer, and they deserve to go out with a bang. 

 

---

 

They wake up in Chad’s bed a little before lunch time, with blurry minds and happy hearts and stay there until the afternoon heat becomes unbearable and their hunger can’t be ignored any more.

 

It takes them too long to shower, but at least they save some water by doing it together and when Ryan decides to make pancakes, Chad happily sits back and watches. This Ryan, shirtless and in borrowed basketball shorts, his hair messy and his eyes still puffy from slumber, is far from the usual impeccable image- still, as he moves around his kitchen, opening cupboards and stirring pans, he doesn’t feel an inch out of place.

 

“What are you looking at?” Ryan asks as he sets a stack of perfectly shaped pancakes in front of him on the counter.

 

And there’s no point in pretending any more. “I’m happy,” Chad replies and he can see the boy turn back to his cooking with a smile as wide as his, when a notification lights up his screen. 

 

“Troy’s friends from Berkeley are in town,” he speaks as he reads the text between bites, halfway through a mouthful that is mostly maple syrup. “He’s asking if we want to meet up at the court for some hoops later, maybe dinner after.”

 

“Hm,” Ryan just mumbles as he sits next to him and starts on his own late breakfast that is covered in too much fruit for Chad’s taste.

 

“The girls will be there too, your sister included. Wanna come?” he asks and that’s enough to gather some more of his attention.

 

“Are we going to tell them?” 

 

Chad puts his phone down and takes Ryan’s free hand in his own on the table. “ Fuck it , right?” he repeats, last night’s words feeling suddenly so far away in the past, a reminder of how fast the clock is ticking. 

 

So they walk into the open court holding hands and Chad would be lying if he said he isn’t nervous.

 

But then Troy spots them and his whole face lights up and as he calls them over and people’s attention shifts to the two of them, all he sees around is happiness and acceptance. Among all the greetings, Taylor winks at him, Zeke’s fist bump is way more enthusiastic than usual, Gabi jumps on Ryan for a piggyback ride, and even Sharpay’s serious nod is failing to conceal her lips tugging slightly upwards. It’s easy to forget what he was worried about. 

 

“Jon, Caleb, Tony, Nate,” Troy takes charge of the introductions, pointing to the new faces in their court, somewhat familiar for Chad from video calls and Instagram posts, “this is Chad and Ryan.”

 

And with the formalities out of the way, they get to work. 

 

They settle with mixed teams and Chad is sure that somewhere between Nate blocking his layup out of nowhere and Tony chest bumping him after a three-pointer, he has made some new friends.

 

The game is unyielding on both sides, everyone too stubborn to give up even as their legs start to ache and their sweaty shirts have long been discarded, until Jon stunningly dunks on a double team and they decide to call it a day. The sun has started to set and there is a light breeze that makes it so much easier to breathe in the July heat, so they order the food they were going to get and spread out on the concrete ground and the lower bleachers in exhausted but cheerful groups and enjoy their dinner under the orange sky.

 

“Chad, right?” he hears a voice behind him, as he puts on a clean t-shirt and takes a sip of water. He turns to see the boy he remembers as Caleb, the one who doesn’t play basketball and Chad noticed indulged in some enthusiastic conversation with Taylor on the bleachers while the rest played. “Your boyfriend told me you are the only man of taste who appreciates pineapple on pizza, wanna share?”

 

He is surprised at how easy the word comes out and how much he doesn’t mind. So he accepts Caleb’s offer and they sit down with their friends and adamantly defend their dinner choice when the rest make fun of them.

 

And Chad can’t help but smile and look around in bliss, because it’s summer and there are friends and food and basketball and sunsets. And Ryan catches his eye from where he is laughing with Jon and Gabriella over a portion of mozzarella sticks, and he smiles back.

 

He doesn’t want the summer to end. 

 

---

 

But the sun always sets, time always passes, and summers always end.

 

Ryan spends his last night home with his family and Chad’s mom makes him his favorite shrimp pasta in a futile attempt to cure his long face. She asks him about the upcoming basketball season, all too familiar with the sport after all the drives back and forth to practice, all the games she has sat at the front row cheering for him, all the missed heartbeats after ankle sprains and overzealous defenses.

 

And when he is out of food and out of rivals to bash, but still full of thoughts that seem to be crashing his chest, his mom does what she always did: she listens . Just like she did when he was a kid that came home crying from practice because he thought he wasn’t good enough, when he was a teenager that broke things in his room after a bad game, when he was almost an adult, sweaty and fidgety, trying to find the courage to come out. She lets him talk and vent, fill in the gaps of the story that she hasn’t figured out by herself. She lets him ramble and cry and when he looks like he is done, she doesn’t offer any advice- she knows from experience that this is not what it is about. 

 

She just stands up to take the dishes to the sink and gently kisses his hair on her way. “Love finds a way, baby.”

 

And Chad chuckles as he is wiping away his tears with a paper towel, the first happy sound to come out of him in hours. “Will you ever stop sounding like an inspirational throw pillow?”

 

“You just need to seize the day. Nothing is impossible. Live, laugh, love.” 

 

And he is laughing, and that’s enough.

 

---

 

They drive to the airport four hours early, as if that will make things last longer.

 

They get some coffee and sit behind one of those floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the runway, and as plane after plane takes off and lands, they talk about the summer as if it’s not the end.

 

They reminisce about sunsets on basketball courts and sunrises on that small hill just out of town, house parties with all their friends and hours in bed tracing hands over bodies that have become so familiar, mornings in that kitchen where if they tried hard enough, they could pretend they had all the time in the world.

 

They didn’t. They don’t.  

 

They lazily walk towards security hand in hand, trying to make each moment last a little longer, ignoring how every step brings them closer to the end. And when they are out of moments, Ryan pulls him into a hug that comes with the ease of all those mornings and nights spent in each other’s arms.

 

It’s a stark contrast to the last time they were in the same spot, in the same position, all gracelessly bumping limps and missing pieces. Now all the pieces are here and they fit together perfectly, only to realize that the puzzle was not meant to be built on this particular table and it has to be torn apart again. 

 

Even though he makes no sound, Chad knows Ryan is crying from the unsteady rise and fall of his chest against him, but he doesn’t dare pull away to test his hypothesis, cannot bear to have this be his last image of him. Still, this moment passes just like all the others before it and the man pulls back to face him, keeping his hands locked around his neck.

 

He is crying, yes, but he still manages a small honest smile. “I can’t ask you to wait,” he says. 

 

And Chad wants to cry too, he wants to sob and plead and beg him not to leave, but he shouldn’t. God knows how many nights he has thought about it as he watched Ryan sleep next to him, and he shouldn’t . “And I can’t ask you to stay,” he replies, the words scratching at his throat, making it burn.

 

“I’ll text you when I land,” Ryan adds, still not letting go, and they haven’t really put terms and conditions to their agreement, but whatever was unscathed in Chad breaks now too at the thought that it could be the last texts they exchange for a very long time.

 

So Chad kisses him, hard and desperate, and he hates that their last kiss tastes like tears, tears that are now pooling up in his eyes as well, stealing his voice, nurturing the knot at his throat that stops him from speaking. 

 

I love you, he wants to say, but nothing comes out. 

 

“See you around, Danforth,” is all that Ryan manages.

 

He wipes his tears, takes a deep breath, and walks away. 

 

---

 

They say it will get better, and it does, it really does.

 

Chad deletes their text thread right after the one reading ‘Just got home xx’ arrives (maybe a few minutes later- maybe it was an hour), because that’s what they agreed on. He takes the Juilliard t-shirt out of his training bag and shoves it in the far back of his closet, because that’s the right thing to do. He lets his friends know that it’s over and the only thing he needs is for them not to ask questions, and they oblige.

 

And soon enough, or maybe not that soon, he wakes up one day and doesn’t immediately look for a good morning text that won’t be there. He finds another t-shirt to wear after practice, one of his own university, in which his teammates can finally stop calling him a traitor. And the pity looks stop too, or people learn to hide them well enough.

 

But he keeps the hat. The pink sparkly thing sits as pretentiously as an inanimate object ever could on top of his coat rack, as if mocking him. He thinks he should throw it away, burn it, tear it to shreds, but he can’t. It somehow feels like the last thread tying him to Ryan, so this success will have to limit itself to not falling asleep cradling it (or at least having done that only once or twice, the first couple of days).

 

Preparation for the basketball season starts and Chad puts everything into it, tries to turn the sport into a personality trait, the way they thought was cool back in high school. He thrives in the gym and when the first game comes around he scores his career high and then some more.

 

He drowns the sorrow in sweat, the pain in the sound of cheers, the longing in ice baths after practice and he exhausts himself enough to drift into immediate and dreamless sleep each night. Almost two months have passed, and when people call him to hang out he says yes right away, doesn’t even triple-check to make sure the place they are inviting him to isn’t going to spark up any unwanted memories.

 

Ryan’s profile is more active than ever, a new post every day (he doesn’t check, of course, they just show up on his timeline)- wide grins and dance videos and mirror selfies and ice cream, a life lived to the fullest. And Chad gives out likes, because likes are for free and they don’t betray the fact that he is instinctively picturing himself next to him in every photo.

 

He only musters the courage for more when Ryan’s announcement post about his first role in New York inevitably finds its way on his front page and for once, instead of longing and nostalgia, he is filled with pride. He types and backspaces and types again, and settles for a simple ‘Congratulations!’ , fighting the urge to toss his phone away the moment he posts the comment. 

 

And when Ryan simply leaves a plain anonymous heart, just another good luck wish among the hundreds, something stings in the back of Chad’s head, that little voice he has successfully learned how to smother making itself known again.

 

That voice that tells him that maybe Ryan’s social media persona is not just a facade. That he went back to New York and went on with his life at once, no shackles to hold him back. That Chad is the only one who has been hurting all this time.

 

And what he hates the most is that he wishes Ryan hurt too. It’s sadistic and selfish, he knows, but he would be a liar if he said it wouldn’t make him feel better to know that Ryan’s thoughts have kept him awake at night too, that he has written him texts after every one of his games only to delete them before pressing ‘send’, that he has looked through their photos during breakfast, that he almost called him on a particularly bad night.

 

That Chad has left some kind of trace in his life, because Ryan is all over his.

 

---

 

It’s Kelsi who calls.

 

It’s Saturday night and Chad is getting ready to go to sleep to be well-rested for tomorrow’s game, but he is aware that most people his age would go out on a night like this, so when her name lights up the screen, he instinctively presumes it’s a butt-dial or drunken misclick. 

 

“I have a… situation in my hands,” Kelsi says, once she has made it clear that she’s not calling by mistake and they have gotten the introductory stuff out of the way. “I just put a very drunk and desperate Ryan to bed, because his premiere is in a week and he is completely freaking out and his imposter syndrome is kicking in and for some reason we keep way too much wine in this apartment. Or used to keep anyway, he made sure that won’t be a problem any more.”

 

It takes Chad a moment to reply, unsure of what the right thing to say is, worried and awkward at the same time. “Do you want me to talk to him?” is what he settles for, even though he is not sure what he would say to the man whose voice he hasn’t heard in months but definitely hasn’t forgotten.

 

“No, I think he fell asleep two seconds after touching the pillow. What I wanted to ask you is if you can come to the show.”

 

“Kelsi…”

 

“I know it’s last second, but we can split the ticket price and you can pay me back whenever-”

 

“It’s not about the money,” he cuts her off. “I just don’t know if that would be the best idea. We don’t even know if he wants me there.”

 

“Look, I bought him that disgusting matcha thing he loves, played him the whole Mamma Mia soundtrack on the piano and let him belt out even the songs that are not supposed to be belted out, watched Legally Blonde twice,” she explains in her fed up director voice. “I did everything in my power and he still looked like a hurt puppy -a drunk one, that is- and when I asked him what would make him feel better he said ‘I just wish Chad was here’ . And you know Ryan, he’s an honest drunk.”

 

He does know Ryan. So he says goodnight to Kelsi, hangs up, and with a shaky hand and an even shakier heart, he books a ticket to New York. 

 

---

 

He leaves on Friday right after class and the sun has already set when he lands in the Big Apple. 

 

He gives the address Kelsi has texted him to the taxi driver and as his eyes wander over the skyscrapers, his mind wanders to his next moves. He has a speech prepared in his mind- he is going to explain that he was worried about him, that he hoped his presence would help. That he doesn’t expect anything of Ryan, that he can sleep in a hotel and be on the first morning flight home if he doesn’t want him there. That he came a day earlier to offer him this choice and give him enough time before the show to yoga away the stress he caused him and not ruin his premiere.

 

That he would love to see the play, if he’ll have him.

 

He doesn’t manage to say any of that. Ryan opens the door unkempt and sporting the look of someone who hasn’t slept more than three consecutive hours in a week’s time. He freezes at the sight of him, but only for a second, before he starts crying.

 

“Chad,” he says and it’s not an exclamation- it’s a statement, high-pitched and desperate and relieved at the same time, as Ryan takes the step that separates them and buries his face in his chest. His arms circle around his waist and Chad gently caresses his back and lets him sob for however long he needs, until he finally pulls back to look at him with red puffy eyes. “You came.”

 

“Of course I did,” Chad says in his most comforting voice, the doubt that had been tormenting him for days, weeks, months, nowhere to be found. “You didn’t think I was going to miss your big show, did you?” he asks and gently wipes away the last few tears staining his cheeks.

 

Ryan invites him in and after a brief house tour, he gives him the time and space to clean up and wash the journey away, beaming as he hands him a clean towel and points to the bathroom. Chad lets the hot water run over him and the only thing that helps him battle the exhaustion and the temptation to fall asleep right there is the thought of what’s waiting outside the door.

 

But when he exits the shower and enters the living room, he catches Ryan mid-yawn on the couch, obviously putting extensive effort into keeping his eyes open.

 

“Go to sleep,” Chad demands from the hallway where he’s standing, catching him off guard and making him jump in place. “You have a big day tomorrow.”

 

Ryan nods with a weak smile and stands up, smoothing his pajama pants and stretching his neck, and Chad catches himself smiling as well. He doesn’t mind if the man just goes to sleep for ten hours without another word. All his worry has gone down the drain and he is filled with the warmth of their summer days together, with no rush, no expectations, only the certainty that they would both be there in the morning and that was enough.

 

“Hey, Chad?” Ryan asks, his voice raspy from the sleepiness, as he walks to the hallway and leans on his bedroom door, next to the bathroom one where Chad is drying his hair with a towel.

 

“Yeah?” he turns to face him, hanging the towel around his shoulders and leaning against the wall opposite to him.

 

“Can I kiss you?”

 

And Chad can’t believe he is asking that, not when he crossed the country to be with someone who could just as well have spent the past months not sparing him a second thought. But Ryan looks tired and vulnerable and hopeful, and he reminds him of another night, another place, a living room after a birthday party with so many feelings spoken, so many tears, so many things set in motion.

 

But this is not Albuquerque and these are not those overwhelmed boys in the summer heat. On this cold night in a sparkling city, so different and so similar at the same time, there is no need for more tears and there is no need for words. 

 

So Chad just holds out his hand and Ryan takes it.

 

---

 

The show is called ‘Hadestown’ and Chad doesn’t know much about musical theater or Greek mythology, but he can definitely remember Ryan belting out the whole soundtrack in the shower, a vague familiarity in the jazzy tunes.

 

But this is different. It’s a local production, with an obviously limited budget for props and costumes, but the company more than compensates with the cast’s talent, made up mostly of students. Chad’s eyes are fixed on Ryan throughout the show, his and Orpheus’ turbulent journey to the Underworld to save the woman he loves, and his failure to pay attention to Ryan’s hyper fixated one-man show with his hairbrush comes back to bite him, because he just can’t believe Orpheus turned around.

 

So it makes sense that he is crying by the end of it. Still, he joins the standing ovation and claps and whistles and hands Kelsi what’s left of his tissues, and when the roar of applause dies down, he moves with the flow of people exiting and waits outside the theater as Ryan’s earlier text asked of him.

 

Ryan comes out beaming , perfectly styled and poised as always, any sign of exhaustion concealed by the high of a successful opening night. And the moment he sees Chad, his smile somehow grows even wider, before planting a kiss on his lips and taking his hand in his. 

 

“So? Did you like it? Be honest,” he says excitedly as they walk away from the theater and through the streets of New York.

 

“It was… amazing. Magnificent. Glorious,” he lists, as Ryan laughs next to him. “Those Juilliard boys really are impressive after all.”

 

They buy what Ryan claims to be ‘the best Chinese take-out in all of Manhattan’, sit on the edge of a fountain and as he begins to explain all the hidden meanings and references and lore of the musical, Chad just sits back, slurps his noodles, and enjoys.

 

“I still can’t believe he looked back,” he comments at some point where Ryan seems to be in the middle of ideas.

 

But Ryan just laughs bitterly. “ I looked back,” he snaps, a serious look suddenly overtaking his eyes. “Every day since I left, I looked back.” 

 

And Chad hates seeing this pain in his eyes, this guilt and doubt that he knows had been present in his more often than not during those months as well. “Well, I’m here, aren’t I? I didn’t disappear.”

 

“You didn’t,” he agrees with a sad little smile playing on his lips. “Because at some point I realized that if I ever was as much of an idiot as Orpheus in this story, it was, ironically, when I didn’t ask you to wait.” 

 

At that, Chad freezes. “What are you saying?”

 

“I’m saying that the moment I ruined my happiness was the moment I let you let me go,” he replies, matter-of-factly. He leaves his noodle box next to him and fixes his eyes on the road ahead instead, crowded with passing cars and pedestrians. “ ‘I can’t do long distance’ ? How the fuck did I know that? It’s not like I’ve ever tried.” 

 

He stands up, exasperated, and as he starts pacing the small grass patch in front of them, Chad gives him the space to process all this, mostly because that’s what he needs as well.

 

“That’s the point of the show as well, you know?” he suddenly asks, coming to an abrupt stop in front of him and finally facing him again. “It’s not about some dude who got ruined by his self-doubt. It’s about trying , even if you fear that it’s going to end tragically. ‘ It’s a sad song, we’re gonna sing it anyway,’ you know?”

 

He looks like he just had a eureka moment, but Chad does not share the feeling. Because he has already had his own, back when Ryan intertwined their fingers and they set off for the city together. Somewhere under the tall glass buildings and ethnic restaurants and tiny little parks, he pictured himself here. Kind of like he did when he saw Ryan’s new photos, where he seemed to be living his best life and Chad felt like he was struggling to get through his own, but this time it was different. This time he fit right in.

 

Sure, Albuquerque was home. Albuquerque was their safe space. But he was so sick and tired of aiming for safe . Safe never got him on the starting team, never helped him stand out or be better. Safe had him fall asleep hugging a pink hat instead of going after the man that gave it to him and wake up in a cold bed with the distant hope that maybe one day someone would come close to bringing it the warmth he once offered.

 

Safe meant what if , and that was a question he was tired of asking.

 

“Or as we say back in the sacred lands of New Mexico,” he smiles, standing up to meet him and joining their hands once more, “ fuck it , right?”

 

---

 

They stand in JFK, and for once, they are smiling.

 

“Chad, are you listening to me?” Ryan says with a laugh, playfully pulling at the strap of his backpack as he gets ready to walk through security.

 

Chad snaps back to reality- he had let his eyes and mind wander through the bustling departures lounge, where families and friends and couples said goodbye, others in laughter, others in tears.

 

“I’m sorry, I got distracted. You were saying?”

 

Even the airport feels different in New York. There’s a distinct kind of energy, that feeling that the moment you set foot in this city, anything is possible.

 

“I said, text me when you land.”

 

And the feeling that when you leave this city, you can always find your way back. Or maybe that’s just Chad, who wants to find his way back. Who wants to get his degree and win a couple of championships and then saunter back here with a suitcase full of dreams and someone by his side to help him carry it.

 

“Of course,” he replies and gives him one final kiss, long and hard and with teeth grinding behind conspicuous smiles.

 

There will be other airports. There will be back-and-forths, Christmases in Albuquerque and New Years in New York, summers with house parties and friends, late night fights and early morning tears, texts and video calls and constant countdowns to the next booked ticket.

 

“I love you.”

 

“I love you.”

 

“Wait for me?”

 

“I will.”

 

But for now, it ends, as all great stories do, in an airport. And for once, there is nothing in the middle.