Note: A few people have recently taken a liking to my other minutemen story, which is why I got the itch to write it again. Thanks for taking the time, guys!
Virgil is wedged between Zeke and Jimmy Price and he's rambling, the worst Zeke's ever heard him, "Just back off, dude, just get out of his face before I let him hurt you and trust me, you don't want him to hurt you. You're not going to recover from that. I mean, as much as the thought of you hobbling to the nurse brings a smile to my face I wouldn't - "
"Right, right. Just get out of our face."
Jimmy Price snarls, but he steps back too, spits, "Freaks," and leaves.
When Virgil turns around to face Zeke, there's a stupid grin splashed across his face. Zeke yells, "What was that?" and it's gone.
"In some cultures they call that 'helping'."
Zeke hikes his backpack up onto his shoulder and starts walking, no direction. "I didn't need your help."
"Oh, sorry, Hulk Hogan," Virgil mocks, following. "Next time I'll throw you a chair."
"You should! Do you know what he said?"
Virgil cocks his head and scratches his chin. "Your Mom?"
"It was about you …" Zeke quietens. "And Stephanie."
"Oh. Okay. Well, people are talking. You can't go around hitting them all."
"You're just going to smile and wave and let them talk crap about you?"
Virgil shrugs. He flicks the hair out of his eyes. He's fine. "Sure, why not?"
"You - "
"Zeke, we tried to change the way people are. Hell, the way we are, remember?"
"That's not the same!"
"Yes it is." Virgil stops, curls his hands around Zeke's shoulders and looks at him, open, honest. "We're pariahs. Big, ugly, pariahs and nobody loves us. It's time we came to accept it."
Zeke has a hard time trying not to laugh. "Charlie's been teaching you big words?"
The first time he saw Virgil was a Tuesday.
It was after Shop, and before Math, and Virgil was talking to Stephanie down the hall. Zeke thought, good looking couple, a little bowled over, but it was Virgil who caught his eye. He was happy, to the tips of his toes.
Later, light-years and football games later, Zeke should have stopped to remember that guy; the person Virgil might have been, the one Zeke would probably never know.
He didn't, though; he wasn't strong enough.
There was a time machine, once, a black hole and NASA; and since then moments and space and breathing have become a little haywire.
When Virgil sits down beside Zeke at lunch, their knees and their trays connecting, he says, "Six weeks, dude," with a smile as big and bright as California. Zeke feels like he's floating into nothing again, and feels like he has to throw up.
"I can't wait to get out of here," Virgil prattles. "Just, get out, get away, become someone new."
"What's wrong with this version?"
Virgil balks, surprised by the sentiment. "Nothing. This version's awesome." Zeke snorts. "I just want something different. College, new classes …"
"New friends," Zeke mutters. Virgil has something to say to that, of course, his brow stitched up and his mouth gaping. Charlie slumps down at the table, though, and he's silenced.
"Who should I talk to about the guidance counsellor's … indiscretions?"
"Is this because she told you you'd make a good teacher?" Zeke says, ignoring the way Virgil's gaze has settled on him, questioning.
"A teacher! After everything I've accomplished she wants me to sit behind a desk and talk to a bunch of kids who will probably just put tacks on my chair and egg my car anyway. What a waste!"
Zeke laughs, short and muffled. "You ever think she means teacher in the big way? Like, standing in front of a room full of important science people and telling them how to do their jobs?"
Charlie sits back, folds his arms and basks in the idea, a small smile slowly creeping onto his face. Charlie is the logic, the tie that binds Virgil's free spirit and Zeke's perpetual doubt.
"Before you do that," Virgil snaps peevishly, standing up. The angry push and pull of his body next to Zeke makes Zeke's breath catch. "Start by teaching Zeke How Not to Be a Jackass."
Every time they had jumped into the Vortex, Zeke took Proof Of Life with him. The napkin Virgil had used to scribble down his cell number. The feather Jeanette had given him for good luck. The book Charlie 'accidentally' left at Zeke's place [after Zeke had told him he wanted to read it] and mysteriously never wanted back.
Zeke took mementos of his life – finally, a real life, with friends – and kept them in the breast pocket of his jacket. If they got stuck, or twisted around; if he lost himself in the dredge of the past, he'd have had that, at least.
When Virgil found them, he shook his head.
"I hate to break this to you, dude," he had said. "but you're stuck with us."
Zeke moved to protest but Virgil put his hands up, silence.
"Past, present, back to the future. You're stuck with us."
On the other side of town, the nice side, Heather Johnston throws a party. Zeke's playing with his collar, itching at his skin; it won't sit right, he doesn't fit here, with this crowd. Virgil asked him to go, anyway.
"Zeke." Stephanie finds him hanging out in a corner, sipping on a drink that tastes like shoes. She's wearing a red dress that's cut low and sits high; blonde and beautiful and friendly. Everything Zeke's not.
Stephanie's smile doesn't make it to her eyes. "It's good to see you. Is … Virgil?"
"He's around. He said something about an egg and spoon race."
"Oh. Right. Well, it's good to see you."
Zeke doesn't bite back with, you said that already, as much as he'd like to. He just nods indifferently and watches her walk away.
"Hey, was that Steph?" Virgil appears, munching on potato chips, a yellow cardboard medal around his neck that reads Weiner.
"I guess so."
"Well, what did she say?"
"I don't know."
Virgil folds his arms across his chest, scrunching up his nose. He says, "Zeke, what's going on with you?"
"Did I do something wrong?" There's a fear, almost desperation in his voice. The very thought makes Zeke's skin flush warm.
"Then why are you being such an ass - "
"Hey." Zeke's had enough. He's off like fireworks, big and loud and look at me. "Excuse me if I don't give a crap about the girl who hurt you, dude."
"Steph didn't - "
"You spent half your life trying to impress her only to be told you weren't good enough."
"You've got it –
"She thought being cool was better than being with you. This whole party thinks that. So don't look at me like I'm the bad guy."
Virgil just stands there, in front of him; hair in his face, and light pink in his cheeks. They exchange a look that says more than Zeke's willing to admit.
"I hate these people." Zeke starts to walk way, bumping shoulders with Virgil, then he stops, brings his mouth close to Virgil's ear and whispers, "She didn't deserve you. She never did."
Zeke was in love, once, or at least he came close. He was fourteen and mostly lonely, and she sat in front of him in English. April. Her name was April and she was quiet and shy and she never raised her hand even though she knew the answers. They were assigned as partners for Current Affairs and for four weeks they talked about the economy and politics and their mutual dislike for socialites. They were only ever classmates.
They didn't talk about music or movies and Zeke never told her she had nice eyes, and he never asked her to go and have ice-cream with him one night. When she told him she was moving to Illinois and when she said "I'll miss you," Zeke could only give her a quick, disappointed nod. He couldn't even say goodbye.
It's funny, he thinks, how he spent more than two years hoping, wishing for a second chance. A way to go back there, hold her, maybe even kiss her, show her, I'll miss you too. It's funny that Charlie and Virgil not only gave him the chance, but they also took away his desire to use it.
Zeke remembers sitting on Virgil's couch, playing video games, and Virgil said, "If we could go back to any place, or time, where would you go?"
It took Zeke by surprise, took him by the throat, and he found he could only joke, "Lunch, man, I'm friggin' starving."
He had no place to go [didn't want to].
Virgil doesn't talk to Zeke and Zeke doesn't talk to Virgil and ten days go by. On the eleventh, Zeke's boots are kicking dirt across the Fox's porch and he's knocking gently on their front door, reluctant. Amy answers. Her expression quickly changes from, 'please be someone attractive' to 'oh, it's Zeke'.
"Oh, it's you."
"Is Virgil here?"
Amy rolls her eyes, but opens the door until the handle thuds against the foyer wall. "Virgil!" she screeches. She disappears into the house but Zeke still hears her say, "The boy who doesn't shower is here!"
Zeke doesn't move. He's not sure he wants to be standing on the porch, let alone inside. Inside means staying and facing and dealing. Zeke doesn't even know what they're dealing with.
"Hi." Virgil stands on the other side of the doorway with his hands in his pockets.
"You're ignoring me."
"You're ignoring me."
They can't deny it.
"We're ignoring each other."
Virgil shuffles his bare feet. "You've been … different."
Zeke plays with the collar of his jacket, talking to his feet. "I don't … I guess because life's different. School's nearly over. I have to decide where I'm going to go. I'm …"
Zeke looks up. He says, "I never said that," but he doesn't say no.
"We're all scared."
"It's just … it's not just that."
Virgil doesn't pose the question, what? His eyes, the nervous swoop of his tongue across his bottom lip. These little things say he already knows the answer. Zeke's not going to insult his intelligence.
"I'm not scared about my life I'm …" and damn, this is hard, digging deep and finding this and bringing this to Virgil. After all this time. "I'm scared of leaving you."
"Me and Charlie?"
"No. I'll miss Charlie but that's different."
Zeke moves a little closer, just, and admits, "You're the best friend I ever had."
"I wouldn't let Charlie hear you say that."
"Charlie's my brother. It's not the same."
"I like you,Virg."
Virgil takes a breath and holds it. There's silence as they let that sink in. As it seeps into them and changes everything. There's no going back now, there's no buttons to press, no stupid snowsuits. They can see it and see each other just fine.
"I mean I really - "
They just stand there, Zeke on Virgil's porch and Virgil at the threshold. They just stand there and smile through the open doorway.