Disclaimer: All Newsies characters are the property of Disney; any others are of my own invention. This story contains slash. It also contains political and religious rhetoric, none of which reflects the views of Disney or FFnet or me, for that matter.

A/N: With much love -- and no little trepidation -- I give you the final chapter. Thank you clio21000. Thank you rustie73. Thank you readers. It's been a long and winding road; thank you for putting up with me along the way. :)

(And, you know, hooray! I'm done!)

Chapter 15 -- Coda

Jack's uniform had blood on it. David had noticed right before step-off and there wasn't time to ask if it was Jack's, if he was hurt, where he was hurt. Jack's uniform had blood on it, and Blink was seated in stands with an ice pack on his head, and Oscar had barely been allowed to pick up his instrument and rejoin the band, and Snyder was being carted off by campus security.

David's head was reeling, and he found himself extremely thankful Denton had so relentlessly drilled them on the pregame show all season because if he hadn't had the automatic pilot of muscle memory to rely on, he'd be lost by now. Adrenaline made the whole performance a blur, from troop-on to fight song and national anthem to troop-off. Only after it was over did his nerves stop jangling.

As he turned to take the stairs into the stands, David was yanked out of line and into a hug.

"Sarah --" he spluttered.

"Shut up, I'm proud of you." She squeezed him harder.

David eyes pricked. Not trusting his voice, he said nothing and let his sister hug him. By the time she did let go, he had it together. "Thanks," he said, surprised to see his sister looking stern, nearly glaring.

"Yeah, but I'm also pissed at you."

"What? You said the plan was okay! I didn't mean for anybody to get hur --"

Sarah waved her hand, dismissing his protest. "Not that, you idiot. First," she stabbed a finger into his chest, and it would've hurt if his uniform coat wasn't so thick, "I find out my little brother's gay. Then," she jabbed him again. "I find out my ex-boyfriend's gay. Then I find out they're gay together!" The third time it did hurt.

David massaged his sternum. "People aren't actually 'gay together,' Sarah."

"Shut up, you know what I mean."

Yeah, he knew. It was something he'd been avoiding thinking about, let alone talking about. He scanned the bleacher seats for Jack quickly, just checking he was still there. He was. "Okay, well we're not together, so lay off."

"Whatever. He kissed you."

The memory of that night -- of Jack's cola and cinnamon-gum kiss, of his hand tangled in Jack's shirt and pulling him closer before pushing him away -- swept over him. His face flushed hot. "How did you . . . ?" but then he remembered the other kiss, Jack's torturous excuse for a joke in front of the guys. "I'm going to kill Spot," David muttered, eyeing the stands for the sneaky little bastard. His quads were there but he wasn't. Figured.

He noted that Sarah didn't deny it was Spot who had told her. She just stared hard at him with pursed lips, waiting for an explanation.

"Yeah, he kissed me as some kind of 'proof' or something. I don't know, Sarah. He's . . . it's kind of a mess, okay? I don't really know what's going on." David rubbed at the back of his neck, only half meeting his sister's eye.

Her expression softened. "All right. I get it. It's weird, but I get it. Let me know if you do figure it out?" David sighed and nodded. Then Sarah's smile went a little wicked and she ribbed him with an elbow as they went up the stairs together. "At least I know your type now."

Denton's spectacular John Williams show felt oddly anticlimactic after the pre-pregame action. It amazed David that, despite the rift of hurt and confusion, the band came together as a whole to perform, near flawlessly. It was a testament to the band's affection and respect for Denton, he guessed, and he was pretty sure Medda would attribute it to the power of music itself. Whatever it was, David was thankful for it. The Harry Potter percussion feature drew cheers from the crowd of football fans. From attention position at his own mark, David saw Racetrack clap Dutchy on the back as they returned to their formation spots, in recognition of a job well done.

The football team lost the game, as per usual, but as David watched his band friends goof around and laugh as they got their uniform jackets and helmets on, readying for the march back to the band room, a sense of victory swelled in his chest.

David was fumbling with the hook-and-eye clasp on military-style collar of his uniform coat when he felt a tap at his shoulder. He turned to see Denton flanked from behind by two men with badges. "These fellas have a couple questions for you and the others, David," Denton said quietly. One of the officers was tall and thin and disheveled looking even in his police uniform. He introduced himself as Officer Sims with a vague smile on his face. The other man had a red complexion and gigantic mustache, and said only, "McSwain." Nerves knotted David's tongue and stomach, so he just nodded without saying anything. Denton cupped his shoulder in reassurance as he passed David by to fetch Mush and Blink, Lou, and Jack.

The five of them stayed behind in a little conference room beneath the stadium seating while the rest of the band marched back up to the band room. David wondered why they weren't being questioned individually, a la every cop show ever, but tried to take at it as good sign. If they wanted to fault them or catch them out on something, they would split up the group. Keeping them together might be a concession of emotional support. Or maybe they were just lazy and wanted to get this wrapped up quick.

Lou and David sat on one of the two conference tables in the room. She leaned into his shoulder, legs kicked out along the tabletop. At the other table, seated across from them, Blink fiddled with a mostly melted ice pack, Mush at his side. Jack slouched warily against the back wall, arms around his chest. With McSwain firing off gruff questions, they'd done the perfunctory stuff, gone over what happened, recounting events as precisely as they could. Blink's statement counted most on that part, and David winced as he'd listened, unable to shut off his guilt.

"You want to press assault charges?" was McSwain's final question.

Blink obviously wrestled with that one. He and Mush whispered with their heads together, and he even looked to David, but David could only offer sympathy. Ultimately, Blink asked, "Can I, um, get back to you on that?"

"Yeah, okay," McSwain flipped his notebook shut and looked ready to leave.

Sims didn't move, though, except to nod like he understood Blink's dilemma. "Just so we're clear, son, right now we've got this Snyder guy in our lock up. And if you're not going to press charges, we are not required to keep him. In fact, we can't. We'll probably keep him until he cools off and let him go because this is his first offense."

David felt Lou's sigh and saw his friends deflate. He wasn't sure now how they'd really expected this would end, but that was not exactly a triumphant conclusion. "What? What about harassment? What about libel?" he asked angrily.

McSwain nearly rolled his eyes, and David's temper flared as he was hit with a realization. "You're not asking us why," he accused. "You haven't asked us why he attacked us, or why we staged the prayer circle at all. Don't you want to know?"

Jack lifted his head, catching David's line of thinking. "Maybe they already know."

David tapped Lou to let him up and hopped to the floor. "Maybe they do. Maybe they already know Snyder blackmailed a student from a campus organization that he practically runs into printing an inflammatory article in the school newspaper. Maybe they already know he encourages his followers to harass people who don't agree with him, 'in the name of the Lord.'" He moved to stand by Jack, facing the cops squarely. "Or maybe they just don't care."

"Now hang on here, kid," Sims looked confused, but concerned. "You're saying you think Snyder was involved in that skirmish about the school paper?"

"I know he was." David's throat tightened, anger swelling inside him again. "He's practically admitted it three times! Go ask him about it right now. I bet he's still pissed off enough to end up incriminating himself."

McSwain growled something under his breath and Sims signaled for both him and David to settle. "All right, all right, but back up a second. Why do you think Snyder's involved in the paper business? And what's this about harassment?"

"It's baloney," McSwain rumbled. His face reddened further and he shifted uncomfortably. "We got enough, let's go."

Sims looked at his partner like he'd been body snatched and Jack tapped David with his elbow. McSwain stood at the door, and jerked his head for Sims to follow. "I said let's go."

The two officers locked in a battle-of-wills staring contest. David bit his lip.

With a glower and huff, McSwain exited the room. Sims sighed and turned wide-eyed back to David. "I apologize for that. I honestly don't know what that was about," he said, taking a seat.

Blink scoffed, "Bet I do."


"Snyder's probably got him in is pocket," Jack clarified.

"Or his congregation," Mush added quietly.

Lou shrugged. "Same thing."

Sims wagged his head. "What is going on here, guys? What did he do?" Five pairs of eyes went to David, who stood a little straighter with surprise and accidentally met Sims's gaze. The officer gestured to a chair across from him. "Will you tell me about it?"

David looked around for confirmation, and got it. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, okay."

Band members, though not always geeks, are totally creatures of habit. It was the first Thursday without band practice and instead of being out partying it up, Blink, Mush, and Race had congregated in the only place they regularly hung out other than the Fine Arts building: David's room.

David seemed okay with it, whenever he looked away from his laptop to notice they were there. He'd been twitchy and tense all week, for no reason Blink or Mush could identify. Actually, they'd barely seen him outside of band practice. Maybe it was the coming of finals, but that seemed extreme even for Dave.

Mush was sprawled on the extra bed with his head in Blink's lap. He claimed he was exhausted, having not gotten much sleep the night before -- for reasons he was choosing not to discuss in polite company, and probably that was a good thing. Blink understood not everyone needed to know the details of his super hot sex life with his super hot boyfriend, but sometimes he did want to shout about it from the roof of the dorm. Or, you know, just brag about it a little, like Race and Jack (well, like Jack used to). Blink was appreciating Mush's cuddliness and idly tossing a Nerf football back and forth with Race, who was, of course, talking about a girl.

"She's been my cymbal for, like, half the season, you know? I mean all along she was right there literally in front of me."

"Well, Anna is pretty short," Mush offered, drowsily fingering the seam of Blink's jeans at his knee.

"Shorter than you, even." Blink agreed with a grin. Race pelted him in the chest with the foam ball.

"See, you were just 'overlooking' her," Mush chuckled and Blink felt it against his thigh.

David jumped to his feet, mumbling to himself. But he only shuffled around in his backpack until he found a notebook and then reattached himself to his computer.

Race eyed him with a cross between confusion and annoyance. "Anyway, she was all about that set up on Saturday. All 'it was so cool you're helping your friends' and everything." Blink nodded. He had a vague memory of Race flirting with Anna on Saturday, before everything went down. "And this week at practice she's not my cymbal anymore, right? -- because we've switched to concert set up. But she was still hanging around me, all three days this week."

After the final game every season, the marching band converted itself back into a concert band and began practicing music to play at the university's December graduation ceremony. Blink was always sad to hang up his uniform for the season, but really by this time of year it was too cold, and usually too snowy, to want any more outdoor rehearsals.

"Dude, you play snare for, like, everything. And she's on bass drum, or something? Of course she's by you. You stand right next to each other for like half the songs."

"And don't you assign the parts, as section leader?" David asked, out of nowhere. Blink snickered.

Race scowled at David and readjusted his cap. "Whatever. She wants me. I can tell." He threw the ball to Blink.

Blink caught it and shook his head, "If you say so."

"I do. Here's the thing, though. I asked her to band banquet."

"Seriously?" Band banquet was the big year-end party paid for by the music department. No hikes or alcohol or freshmen pledges this time. More like dress shoes and ties at some fancy-schmancy restaurant. This was the first year Blink was bringing a date. He'd officially asked Mush just last night and he had said yes -- an enthusiastic yes that had kept them up pretty late. But Blink had to not think about that right now before he started poking Mush in the back of the head. He smiled down at his boyfriend, and gently twirled a finger in his tight curls.

"Yeah, and she said no."

David snorted. "Yup, she totally wants you."

Blink laughed and tossed the ball back to Race. "Why'd she turn your ass down?"

"She said someone else asked her first, that she already has a date. Didn't say who, though."

"Must be somebody hot, if she turned you down for him."

Race stuck out his hands, "Exactly. But who's hotter'n me?"

Mush made a hungry little purring noise like he'd thought of an answer, and Blink sincerely hoped no one else heard it. He willed himself not to blush.

David was pecking at his laptop again at a near-frantic pace with his eyebrows all squished together. He'd missed Race's punch line. Blink and Race shared a look, and Race just rolled his eyes. "Hey, brainiac! What's got you in such a bad mood?" he asked, scoring a hit on David's head with the Nerf ball.

David glowered deeper. "Nothing. I'm just making sure . . . It's stuff for the paper . . ." He trailed off with a wince like he'd revealed more than he'd meant to.

"Paper?" Mush asked, rolling his head David's direction. Blink ignored the pleasant friction that created -- mostly. "I thought Cougar News was still 'on hiatus' or whatever?"

"Uh, well, actually," David hesitated for a second, but then busted into a grin. "Actually, we kind of got started printing again."

Blink scratched at his eye beneath his patch. "But, that's impossible. I mean, you said they shut you guys down until they figured out who planted the story."

"And I thought you said there's no, whatchamacallit. Chief editor," Race added.

David blushed. "Yeah, about that, see they --"

"Hey, hey, hey!" Jack's voice boomed from the entryway, echoing off all the cinder block. He came into the room with his arms stretched above his head, crisp newspaper in his hands. "Look what I found." He smacked the newspaper on the bed next to Blink and Mush.

"Where did you--?" David jolted to his feet even before Blink got a chance to read the headline, and Jack shot him a smile and answer.

"Ran into a kid distributing those around campus. Some big surprise you whipped up, Dave."

The front page headline above the fold read "Campus pastor arrested for harassment, assault," accompanied by split-frame photos of Snyder -- one of him from Saturday with his bible raised as he launched toward Blink (although Blink was edited out of the shot), the other of him being escorted out of the rectory in handcuffs. Byline, Kristy Eliot.

Blink's mouth fell open. He looked up at David, eyes wide. "For real?"

David nodded, finally looking relaxed and relieved. "For real. Read all about it."

Mush extricated himself from Blink's lap. "What's it say? Oh, whoa."

Blink scanned the article hungrily, catching the words "police custody," "marching band," "intimidation."

"Hey, read it already," Race demanded.

"Okay, okay." He wet his lips, giving himself a second to beat back the butterflies fluttering up his throat, then began. "Wednesday afternoon Christian Community Club pastor James Snyder was taken into police custody on charges of libel, blackmail, harassment, and assault. Snyder is being held in connection to the false article planted in this paper during the week of November 10, as well as events surrounding the public assault of a student before last Saturday's football game." Relief spread through his chest as he realized his name would not be appearing in this article.

Kristy's exposé went on to detail that Snyder wrote the libelous article but coerced a student to plant it by threatening to take away his church-sponsored scholarship. The unnamed student would not be prosecuted. She gave an overview of the violence and harassment within the marching band, noting that it was exacerbated by anti-gay rhetoric found in Snyder's speeches within the campus organization, and reported there are unconfirmed accounts that Snyder had previously given personal direction to particular students to carry out more direct methods of intimidation.

At that point, Blink's voice and vision started to waver. Mush, who had been following along over his shoulder, rubbed circles on his back and took the paper from him. He took over the reading.

Continued on page 2, Kristy's article then described Saturday's prayer circle, the climax of events and the students' attempt at a nonviolent response to Snyder's persecution, conceived by David Jacobs, who was quoted as saying, "I figured the best way to fight fire and brimstone was with fire and brimstone. But the words had to come from the people who meant them, and were familiar with the pattern of extemporaneous prayer. I was shocked, but really heartened, by the number of CCC and band members who participated." Some of Snyder's angry comments were quoted, as well as bits of Lou's prayer. Band director Bryan Denton equated David with the hero who brought down Goliath, and praised all his students for their dedication to the band and each other, despite outside adversity.

The article ended with fair treatment of Snyder's congregation's outrage over his arrest, which was made by the city police after a thorough report from school officials and a preliminary investigation. Quotes from concerned students were given ample space, most of which attempted to counter the charges against Snyder with positive character testimony, and stated that they hoped to raise enough money to release him on bail. Snyder would, however, be required to stand trial and the university had banned him from campus and participation in student-run organizations.

Blink looked up at David. He wanted to ask how David knew this is what he needed, how David had made it happen. He wanted to say thank you. But he couldn't say any of it around the lump in his throat.

"There's more," Jack reported, voice somber but face plastered with smirk. "Check out Dave's column. Page four."

"Column?" Blink and Mush asked in tandem.

David's cheeks turned pink and he cleared his throat. "Yeah, see, Kristy offered it to me and at first I thought it was a set up, kind of, but then I realized I could use it to help. I didn't have the guts to really say everything I meant, before." He fidgeted a little and flicked a glance at Jack. "But I do now."

Blink smiled and poked Mush to flip to the Opinion page. Sure enough, there was a mug shot of David.

Mush giggled. "Heh, Dave you look like a gentleman or something."

Blink saw Jack josh David with poke to the ribs before he looked back to the paper. David had dubbed his column "Improving the Truth." This week's title was "Straight Talk" -- only Dave could get away with a pun like that. He only scanned the column, but got the gist that it was frankly discussing homosexuality and the kinds of damaging stuff people -- mainly people who don't understand, or don't want to -- say about it and the effects that kind of talk has. Something about the byline caught Blink's attention and he grabbed Mush's hand and shoved his face closer to the small print. "They made you editor in chief!"

Surprise and excitement and congratulations rounded the room and David accepted with sheepish thanks. Race shook David's hand and Blink watched David blush again as Jack ruffled his hair.

"I think it was Dean Seitz's decision to make me EIC, and I think he did it mostly out of spite for Snyder because of all the administrative hassle he's caused. I don't know. I really don't deserve it, but the rest of the staff agreed to it." David shrugged self-consciously.

"Knock, knock," a female voice from the entryway called. Blink turned to consult Mush but Mush just shook his head; he didn't recognize it either.

David's smile was immediate and he waved whoever it was in. "Hey, come in! What are you doing here?"

A girl with a long ponytail of dishwater blond hair strode into view, carrying a short stack of Cougar News copies. "Extry, extry. Special delivery. I thought you might like to see this for yourself." She wagged the papers with a smile, stopping short when she caught sight of Blink and Mush on the bed with their issue open in hand. "But I see you already found one. Well, here's more to send home to Mom." She flopped them onto the spare desk. "You having a party and didn't invite me, Jacobs?"

Somewhat to Blink's surprise, David didn't miss a beat. "The party never starts until you show up. I'm glad you came -- I'd like you to meet these guys, actually." He introduced Kristy Eliot to Jack and Race (Race actually kissed her hand, the showoff) then gestured to the bed where Blink and Mush sat in a tangle. Blink unwound himself from Mush and scooted to the edge of the bed, not managing to stand before Kristy was before him, hand held out. "You must be Ryan. And Michael. I've heard a lot of great things about you both. I'm very sorry about what happened at the paper."

Her smile was as firm as her handshake, but Blink saw some hurt in her green eyes. She knew just about everything he'd been through. She'd talked to David, done the interviews. Hell, she'd been there on Saturday, and he hadn't even known it. It felt weird to have someone outside their little circle know so much about him, but Kristy was all sincere confidence.

"Thanks for writing that story. I mean, for telling people what really happened. And for not using my name. It was bad enough I got my ass kicked by a preacher in public. Would've sucked more to be labeled a loser victim in the paper, too."

Kristy's smile sparked. "Company policy. It was an important story, and I owed you," she turned to catch Jack and David in her scope, "All of you. After what happened on my watch, I had to make it right. I gave the cops everything I had on Snyder and got Calvin to talk to them, too. It's his family and the school who are pressing charges, so far." She spun back to Blink. "And Snyder's the loser. Not you. You survived his bullshit. You win."

I win, Blink repeated to himself, trying the fit. He studied the newsprint pages beside him, letting the ink facts printed there sink in. It was over. Mush slipped a hand into Blink's and squeezed. As Blink looked back at his boyfriend, a grin broke onto his face. "Yeah, that's true. I win."

David arrived at the restaurant for band banquet awkwardly early. He didn't have much of a choice, since he'd caught a ride with Lou and she was on the organizing committee. But it meant a lot of standing around and trying not to drink all the punch while watching happy couples and groups of bandmates arrive. He wasn't Lou's official date -- that wouldn't fool anybody at this point -- but he'd purposefully made plans with her to avoid having to deal with figuring out what it would mean if he came with Jack, even as part of a group. He knew they'd have to talk about . . . stuff . . . eventually, but other than the buzz around campus his column had generated, David was hoping to significantly cut back on the gay drama.

Jack, Racetrack, and Spot arrived together. The three of them breezed into the dining room like some modern-day Rat Pack -- Racetrack sported a sleek black cap; Spot wore an actual, Tom Ford-style fitted grey suit; and Jack in a sports coat and red tie. David suddenly felt self-conscious and underdressed. He didn't own a jacket, so had settled for his best blue Oxford, dark brown chinos, and a tie. Jack spotted David first and trotted over.

"Hey," he greeted.

"Hey," David returned.

Silence followed.

David fidgeted with his empty plastic punch cup. Up close, Jack looked like some rakish English school boy. David took an interest in the carpet out of self-preservation.

"You look real nice, Dave," Jack said, startling David into staring at him.

He opened his mouth to deflect the compliment then closed it and started over. "Thanks. You do, too." It required conscious effort not to swoon when Jack smiled. David had forgotten, somehow, in the midst of all the drama, how likeable Jack was in a general sense and how much David liked him in a very particular sense. Because he did.

Now he just had to find a way to fess up about it.

Blink and Mush came in looking disheveled. Like they got dressed in a rush. Or, more likely, they got dressed, undressed, then redressed in a rush. Jack and David shared a look and a quiet laugh, both hitting on that same thought.

People started to choose tables, out of habit sorting by section, mixing in dates where necessary. Mush and Blink sat with Lou and other clarinets. Other trumpet players were congregating around the table Jack and David were nearest, so they sat. David plunked himself into a chair quickly before Jack could do anything gentlemanly and stupid like pull it out for him. He cringed for a split second when he realized that, in his haste, he'd seated himself directly next to Lexie. But, well, bygones.

Last Saturday's events had easily overwritten the memory of the photo incident, so Racetrack was done with keeping a restraining-order distance from Spot. In fact, their friendship appeared to have fully repaired itself. That was lucky because it meant Spot was on hand to keep Racetrack from causing a scene when Anna appeared -- a blond pixie in a snow-white strapless dress -- on Dutchy's arm. Racetrack's jaw dropped. Spot reached over and pushed it closed, and Racetrack batted his hand away in annoyance. David chuckled.

"She's with that bum?" Racetrack exclaimed. "That clumsy, lazy, scatterbrained . . ." He growled out a semester's worth of frustration with Dutchy in a string of unflattering adjectives. "And he is not hotter than I am," he finished firmly.

Spot flashed Racetrack look that clearly broadcast he thought Race was an idiot. "So she showed up to some lame-ass band function with him. It doesn't mean they're fucking." It was a good point, and David felt kind of embarrassed he'd fallen victim to similar logic about Jack.

Race nodded, taking this under serious advisement. "Right. You're right. Odds are good on that one. I'm going over there." He straightened his cap and crisped his collar. "Later, fellas," he said as he strode over to claim a seat by Anna at what was shaping up to be a percussion table.

Spot rolled his eyes and followed.

When Sarah strode through the door hand-in-hand with Skittery minutes later, David was just as shocked as everyone else. With the dinner buffet set, only a few people were still standing to mingle, and the dining room got decidedly quieter -- but not silent, all abuzz with interest. As Sarah paused to allow Skittery to take her coat, David realized that was his sister's exact intent. Show up fashionably late, make a splash, and avoid having to answer any of those whispered questions. He grudgingly admired her guts.

Jack leaned forward, forearms on the table, to watch Sarah and Skittery proceed to the table where Denton, Medda, and Weasel were already seated. "Well, that's interesting," he half-whispered to David.

On David's other side Lexie made a scoffing noise. "I can't believe he's got every girl in the band after his ass and he chose her." Half the trumpet section was seated around the table, and all of them stared at her in stunned silence. Lexie caught the disapproval drift, but wasn't too concerned by it. "What? Everyone's thinking it, I'm just saying it."

Baffled, David shifted against the back of his chair to better address her directly. "Lexie, Sarah's my sister," he reminded her, pointedly.

Lexie winced a little and patted his knee. "I know. But think of it this way, maybe you'll be getting a really hot brother-in-law," she leaned closer to him, adding in a conspiratorial tone, "and if she breaks up with him, maybe you can pick up her seconds, again." She smiled with mock sweetness and patted his knee again.

David was dumbfounded with instant anger. He turned to Jack. "I might kill her," he said seriously, eyes still wide. "I really might."

Jack laughed at him. "Welcome to Race's world."

There wasn't a lot of ceremony involved in the dinner. Denton got up to repeat his thanks and express his delight with their talent, adding a vague comment about their resilience as a group, before dinner got under way. Toward the end of the main meal, there was a presentation of award certificates Denton had mocked up on his computer and printed off. Some of them were serious honors (outstanding section went to percussion, most dedicated player to Blink), others were jokey (most promising freshman to David, "least maintenance" section to the clarinets), but everybody received one. After that there was dancing. David shouldn't have been surprised by that, but he was. He wasn't much of a dancer.

There was no live band, but the DJ wasn't horrible. He at least played things David recognized, and a lot of people did get up to dance, including Denton and Medda. In fact, they danced together, and not just to the first slow song. They stayed out there for a pop hit or two, mixing it up with the students -- Medda's oversized red curls bouncing and pink dress swishing while Denton was all elbows and knees. Blink and Mush were out there, too, with barely a sneer from either Delancey brother.

When Jack flicked a glance at David around about the second slow song, though, David stammered something about the men's room and too much punch and slid out of his chair -- and the dining room altogether.

Dinner had been good, great even. He and Jack had slipped into their friendly routine from the early months of the semester -- David supplying the words Jack was searching for, sometimes augmenting each other's jokes and cracking up the other members of their section. It was easy. And fun. And felt really good. Great, even. But now that David was sure that Jack liked him -- really liked him, liked-him-enough-to-kiss-him liked him -- David was starting to panic, just a little. What if he'd just been putting Jack on some pedestal? What if Jack had been doing the same to David? What did he really know about Jack, anyway? Easy and fun as it was to hang out together, they had a lot of serious ground to regain, not to mention trust.

He was outside and around the corner of the building before he noticed his breath appearing as puffs of white in the cold and the smell of cigarette smoke.

"Spot," David said, not so much in greeting as in surprise.

"Jacobs," Spot returned. His shoulders were hunched against the cold, one hand in his pants pocket, the other dangling his cigarette.

David was at a loss after that. It took a minute for his brain to switch gears and catch up to present. "Having fun?" he asked lamely.

"A ball," Spot said without inflection.

An idea clicked for David. "Seems kind of dull, if you ask me," he pattered. "Band meetings are usually so action packed and drama charged -- you know, like last Saturday." Spot's face remained blank, but his eyes sharpened. "Oh! That's right, I forgot. You weren't there, were you? Well, you were. I mean, you were at the game, I guess, but you missed all the good stuff. Like
that part where we all stood up for our friends and triumphed over evil. I guess that's not your thing." David shrugged with a casual glance down the alley.

Spot shook his head, mildly amused. "Your mouth might be smarter than you are, kid." He took a drag on his cigarette. "I didn't need to be part of your big gay pride parade. So shoot me."

"You could've been there just to support your friends. Nobody would've suspected anything if you had been, you know."

"Suspected what?"

David rolled his eyes and planted his hand on his hips. "Please."

One corner of Spot's mouth twisted up. "I don't do dark alleys."

David flushed when Spot's meaning hit him. He crossed his arms defensively. "You know exactly what I'm talking about it. Someday it's gonna bite you on the ass."

"You got a real kinky side, Dave. You talk this way to Jacky-boy?" Spot mocked. "Bet he loves it."

This time David let it roll off him. So Spot was determined to remain completely in the closet. Not his problem. He took the hint and changed focus. "All right, fine. Just answer me this -- how did you know about Jack?"

Spot blew out a lungful of smoke. "You being purposefully vague there?"

"You told me he was chickenshit. That means you knew something about what he was going through. Did he tell you he was gay?"

Spot pursed his lips and gave David a look like he was sizing up the situation, deciding whether he was going to bother with the truth. "Well, for what it's worth, I don't think Jack's straight up queer, if you'll excuse the pun. And, no, he never told me anything. Call it an educated
guess after weeks of watching him moon over you. He wouldn't shut his trap about you."

That surprised David, and he couldn't hide it. The warmth of certainty seeped into him in spite of the cold -- Spot's story matched Jack's. That one point of corroboration did a lot to solidify his faith in Jack.

Unfortunately, Spot picked up on his excitement. A mischievous, mean smile spread onto his face.

"It's a bitch you're Sarah's little brother, though. That's fuckin' weird, hey?" He tossed down his cigarette and stomped it out.

"I try not to think about it," David said honestly. "Oh, and thanks for telling her about Jack kissing me, though. I appreciate that, really." He started to move back inside.

Spot grinned. "He screwed her, you know. A lot."

"Spot. Seriously."

"And I hear she liked it. A lot."

"SPOT." David pushed the heels of his hands to his forehead, trying to rid himself of that mental image.

Spot held open the restaurant door, as gleeful as David had ever seen him.

"I'm just saying. Guy's obviously got talent. Good news for you, right?"

David wagged his head as he walked into the dining room, but couldn't help laughing. "I'm walking away now, Spot," he called over his shoulder.

He scanned the room for Jack and caught sight of him at an empty corner of the dance floor, talking to Sarah, of all people. David picked his way through the scattered tables and chairs and conversations. Just before he reached them, Sarah clamped Jack in a hug that Jack returned loosely, looking like he wasn't quite sure what to do with his hands.

"Sooo, what's up, guys?" David broke in.

Sarah half let go of Jack and swung her arm over David's shoulders, drawing the three of them together. "No worries, little bro. Just making sure Jack's intentions toward you are more honorable than they were toward me."

David's stomach dropped and his eyes widened. Sarah laughed and gave his cheek a cartoonish kiss as Skittery came to take her hand and lead her back onto the dance floor.

Stricken, David turned to Jack. "Tell me she wasn't serious."

Jack smiled and shrugged. "Think she mighta been. She threatened to cut off my balls if I ever hurt you. I'd say that's the equivalent of a blessing from her, considering . . ."

David was okay with Jack not finishing that sentence.

He shook it off. "Right, well, whatever. But I'm sorry. Just know that it wasn't me who told her."

Jack's smile got bigger and he cocked his head with a knowing curiosity. "Tell her what?"

And this was it. Right now, David could say it. Really say it, like he meant it. Say it the way he had been too angry to say it the night Jack finally had told him the truth. Planting his shoulders against the wall for support, he tried it out. "That -- that I -- I mean that you, you know . . . like
me." David gave himself a mental kick to ass.

"Yes," Jack affirmed, and even though his smile stiffened slightly with disappointment he moved closer, turning toward David and leaning against the wall with one shoulder, invading his personal space just a smidge. "I do like you, Dave."

Just for a second David closed his eyes and soaked up Jack's nearness, hoping it would magically give him courage. Then he looked out at the sea of band kids laughing and dancing to the music David could feel thudding in his chest, out of synch with his heart, but he could feel the whole of Jack's attention focused only on him. Jack -- who should be out there in the middle of the action, surrounded by pretty girls, and dancing until he dropped -- was instead playing wallflower with David. Like so much else about Jack, it mystified him.

"There's a lot I don't know about you," David said, apropos of nothing obvious and only then realizing he'd been scowling in thought.

Jack laughed brightly. "Yeah?" He tried to play it off, but David turned his scowl on him and Jack quickly capitulated. "Yeah, okay. That's true. So, ask me anything. What do you wanna know?"

There were three hundred things David had at some point thought to ask, but he couldn't remember any of them now. "Well, just, basic stuff. Like -- I don't know. Like, why'd you come here anyway? To this school?"

"Same reason as you, probably," Jack shrugged.

David snorted. "You mean your first boyfriend broke your heart by dumping you in front of the entire newspaper staff and you were too embarrassed to go back?"

"Well, I was gonna say cheap out-of-state tuition," Jack deadpanned and David expelled the breath he'd been holding in a sharp laugh. Jack smiled for a second before his expression eased into concern and he spoke lower. "You serious? That happened?"

David nodded. It was the first time he'd told anyone the truth about that -- and the irony of his carrying around that lie of omission while demanding honesty from everyone else was not lost on him. He bit his lip and studied the floor. Some shining example of humanity he was. Where did he get off telling people how to live their lives and incriminating public figures?

"You don't got anything to be embarrassed about here, Dave. You . . . you're good. You did everybody a lot of good." He toed the side of David's shoe with his own. "I'm sorry that happened, but I'm glad you came here."

David lifted his head. Jack's gaze was sincere and hopeful and warm enough to melt. David let that warmth settle and spread through him, relaxing his shoulders and chest and gut. He let his head loll back against the wall and small smile crept onto his face.

"We're not automatically dating, you know," he said, an edge of mock grudge in his voice.

It was a victory and Jack knew it. Grinning, he shifted his arm up the wall, leaning over David like some jock against a cheerleader's locker. "I know."

"It doesn't work that way," David stayed firm, but he was grinning now, too.

"I think it did for them," Jack pointed out, flicking a nod toward the dance floor where Blink and Mush were dancing, lost in each other's eyes and limbs.

David rolled his eyes. "Okay, it doesn't work that way for normal people." He crossed his arms and did his best to play hard-to-get. "And anyway, I may not even like you," he sniffed.

Jack's eyes narrowed and his smirk was as sexy as his voice when he said, "Oh, you like me, Dave."

"I do?" David teased.

Jack leaned in closer, one hand moving to David's hip while his mouth hovered above David's -- not touching, just taunting. David gasped. Left breathless, his lips parted in anticipation. Jack's chest expanded with a breath, and David's eyes slipped closed as he felt Jack ease incrementally closer just before he redirected this mouth to David's ear and whispered, "Yeah, you do."

David's eyes flew open. Jack stepped back, grinning and cocky as hell.

Angry and embarrassed, David shot him with a death glare. But when Jack just chuckled, David found himself laughing, too. After all, it was true.

He shook his head and sighed. "Yeah," he said, meeting Jack's eyes and kicking away from the wall to reach out for his hand. "Yeah, I do."