Note: I started writing this with the full knowledge that it wouldn't be 100% canon. But with the (relatively) happy ending to Now or Never, it's gone from slight-AU to full-blown AU status, since I've altered the universities and career aspirations of some of the graduating class, put prom before graduation, nixed all of that gun-at-the-dance ridiculousness, etc. Basically, if something happened in "Take a Bow" or "Dead and Gone", it probably isn't reflected here.
I guess this fic explores a scenario in which everything is less…immediately convenient, where Riley and Zane aren't going to the same school right off the bat and Mrs. Stavros takes longer to accept her son. Don't get me wrong, I'm so glad Riley and Zane got some kind of closure on the show. They're practically endgame, and that's a lot more than most Degrassi couples can say. So to that end, I'd like to write another Mama Stavros POV at some point, one that does fit in with canon.
But for now, here's this…thing. I don't normally do multi-chaptered fics, but this got way too long to make it a one-shot. It's another "Zane perspective", and while it's easier for me to write Riley (I can admit that), I wanted to give Zane more of a chance to develop. Lots of places in this are completely made up, but since Degrassi invents things like "Eastern" and "Facerange", I don't find that to be too problematic.
Zane sees him at the other end of the dance floor on prom night. Black tux, skinny tie. Lopsided smile. They haven't spoken since that night, and sometimes, Zane has watched Riley almost make an effort to start a conversation before walking away.
For his part, he hasn't bothered, partly out of anger and frustration, but mostly because…well…what good would it do? They'd still be arguing over the same things—everything just hurts—and he's trying to finish Grade 12 in a respectable mood. And at this point, the less he sees of Riley, the more he can pretend that everything is fine.
Anya usually tries to serve as the go-between, but really, all she does is talk to both of them and reveal absolutely nothing. Speaking of which…
"You should ask him to dance," she shouts over the blasting speakers, looking absolutely radiant in her pink dress. "He'd like that."
Zane shakes his head. "Not a chance. This is hard for both of us. But I can't…I can't afford to get close to him anymore. In any capacity besides our old one."
Anya tucks a pesky strand of hair behind her ear and smiles sadly. "So there's no possibility of you guys just being friends? Graduation's right around the corner; you'll be headed in different directions. This is kind of, well, it. You could at least try to leave on good terms."
Zane laughs, and it's nearly genuine. "I have a feeling you've said the exact same thing to Riley tonight."
Anya tries to look innocent as she disappears back into the crowd, where Owen is waiting. "You could always go over there and ask him, you know."
(He doesn't, of course.)
Graduation proves to be a bit of an emotional roller coaster. As expected.
After the ceremony, he walks over to his parents in his blue cap and gown, smiling widely and trying to push everything else far, far away.
It's almost over.
"We're so proud of you," his mother says, hands clasped over her heart.
"This is only the beginning," his father adds. "It's quite the journey from here, kiddo."
Zane looks around. He watches as Anya cries quietly with her parents, hugging them tightly, sees as Sav poses for a family photo that Alli takes. Holly J talks excitedly with Fiona, who will be back at Degrassi next year—a few credits short.
He keeps looking. And looking. The students become a forceful blue sea.
"Riley's not here," Chantay calls, walking past him to her own waiting family. "His parents dragged him off, like, right after."
Zane swallows. "How did you…"
She eyes him teasingly. "Please. I was the esteemed writer of the Anti-Grapevine. And you two and your moodiness were so not the best kept secret these last few months."
He nods weakly. So Riley's gone. Just like that. And now…
"Of course, you could probably still catch him, if you hurry. I saw him heading off towards the south parking lot…"
Chantay points a violet polished finger in the intended direction, and he manages a small smile of gratitude before taking off. It feels almost cliché to run—and in his graduation attire no less—but he's a little beyond caring. By the time he reaches the parking lot, Riley and his parents are very easy to spot. Nearly everyone else is still lingering around the school, delaying the inevitable.
But not them, he thinks. Not his parents.
Mr. and Mrs. Stavros are already in the car, buckled up, and Riley has a leg through the door, he's about to go, and—
"HEY!" Zane shouts, stopping about twenty feet from the vehicle, heart pounding and cheeks red. His hands ball into tight fists, slightly obscured by the long sleeves of his gown. And he's pretty sure his cap's not quite centered.
Riley turns around, bites his lip. Says something to his parents before walking over, hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his slacks.
He puts a safe distance between them.
(Or maybe a little bit more than safe.)
They stay silent for a while, eyes locked and searching. Hesitant. Regretful. Finally, Riley clears his throat. "You uh…you didn't change yet…"
"Well, I—you were about to leave, and—"
"I was going to say something, talk to you…I wanted to, but I thought things would go…you know, easier this way."
Zane looks down at their shoes, black and shiny against the pavement. "I seriously doubt that."
"Yeah. I mean…sorry. I mean—"
"So when do you leave for Eastern?"
"In two weeks."
"That's…kind of early."
"Well, with football and stuff, you know…"
Zane nods, looking up again to meet Riley's eyes. "Right. I'll be gone in a month and a half. For Capshaw."
Riley smiles ruefully. "So I've heard. We'll both be south of the border. Different states, though."
A car honks twice, and Riley shuts his eyes and sighs. Zane looks over his shoulder and sees Riley's father at the wheel, and his mother with her head turned back towards them.
"I should probably go," Riley says quietly.
There's a pause, and as the seconds pass, Zane starts to feel fuzzy and hollow. The air becomes tight. Everything seems to ache, and it's the feeling that he's been trying to avoid for weeks now, and this was such a mistake, such a terrible, horrible mistake, because—
"You're gonna be an awesome engineer someday," Riley grins, eyes filled with too many wistful things. "Capshaw's lucky to have you. And I want…just…be happy, okay?"
Zane hugs him.
With a shaky sigh, he buries his face into the crook of Riley's neck, breathing in strong soap and just a touch of spice. His hands grab vehemently at Riley's back, wrinkling his silver dress shirt as he pulls tight tight tight.
The car honks again, and Zane forces himself to lean back a little, rocking on his feet. He tries to keep his voice even. Eyes clear. "I'll uh, be looking for you on the TV. Considering that our schools are in the same conference and all."
Riley flushes. "Well, guess I can't afford to suck on the field, then…"
Zane shakes his head. "You won't."
Taking a deep breath, Riley steps fully out of his embrace. And this…this is the part where they're supposed to say goodbye, or see you around, or have a good life—but Zane doesn't want to say any of those things.
So he whispers "good luck", watches as Riley raises a hand and playfully fixes his cap before framing his face, feels as Riley brushes his lips softly over his forehead; breath warm and sweet like the peppermint gum he always chews.
Anything more, and they'd never get around to leaving.
(It's for the best. It has to be.)
So Zane looks on as Riley trudges back to his parents, hears the crinkling of gravel as the car speeds off, away and out of sight. The sunlight burns hot on his back. There's a ringing in his ears.
And above all, he tries to ignore the heavy weight settling deep into his chest.
His dorm at Capshaw University has six floors and unfortunately, he's assigned a room up at the top. So it takes over half a day's worth of effort to get everything situated, fighting for the elevator and taking long treks back to the nearby parking lot. But it's worth it once it's done.
His roommate Paul seems to be the solitary type, reclining comfortably on the bottom bunk with his earbuds and worn copy of The Arabian Nights, but Zane manages to coax the guy out to have lunch with his parents. Around them, people hug and snivel and quarrel, full of swirling, jittery emotions—new students and their parents, old friends reuniting, school spirit and class schedules and club signups and—
It's a new start. It's exciting.
His parents cry a little, wish him well, and as he waves goodbye, he knows that everything will work out.
It will be good for him here. A forward progression.
(A much needed one.)
Zane has an 8 a.m. biology class all the way on the other side of campus, but he likes the peaceful morning walk it allows for. The sky is so pale, a smudged gray, and the grounds are nearly barren of people, save for a scattered few rushing with their coffees and tightly clutched bags. The auditorium is one of Capshaw's largest, an old room with older desks and seats that squeak precariously.
On the third class day, a mousy-haired boy sits next to him, blue eyes keen and easygoing.
"I'm Brian," the young man introduces, tapping his pen and leaning over ever-so-slightly.
"Zane. Nice to meet you."
"Likewise. Is this your first semester?"
Zane raises an eyebrow. "Is it that obvious?"
"Not because of you, but the class," Brian explains, hair falling into his eyes. "It is general bio…"
Zane nods. "Makes sense. So are you a science major?"
"Nope. Math—this is just a core class for me."
"Well, are you good in science?"
Brian shrugs a shoulder. "I'm average in it, I suppose. And you?"
"I tend to be fairly capable. Not to sound big-headed, or anything."
"Ah," Brian grins, his smile so bright it does a funny thing to Zane's stomach, "then I might need to get to know you better."
Zane has always been astute, so he recognizes that the look Brian gives him is flirty one.
And he…this is how it's done, he thinks. This is how you start again, by taking chances and being open for the ride along the way, with all of its disappointments and triumphs.
It's time. He breathes deeply. It's really time.
"I'd like that," he finally answers back, giving Brian an overly-friendly look of his own.
When Brian kisses him in the lobby of a local movie theater on their second date, Zane is somewhat surprised at the gentleness of it. He's not expecting the way Brian presses a hand to his lower back, pulling him in to a point, and there's the barest hint of tongue, the taste of salted butter from the popcorn they shared. It's not anything like his other first kisses, like being nudged against the wall of an art studio, lips pressed chaste and thoughtful.
It's not like being yanked into something hard and hopeful either, next to a cab on a warm night. Still feeling flushed from dancing and having fun, and getting a bit lost in blue eyes that are a little unsure, a little hesitant, but undoubtedly kind. And then after, wide smiles that burn as bright as the streetlights, and riding home with a stupid, elated feeling, and no, no, no.
"So what took you so long?" Zane asks, scrunching his nose and shutting everything else out.
"Well, I was waiting to get you alone," Brian says, talking above the sound of boisterous moviegoers and squeezing the small of Zane's back tighter, "but you know, I don't really care who sees."
Zane takes a shaky breath, smiles tightly—because this is what he's always wanted, something completely assured, so why is this so different, what is this feeling—and grabs Brian's hand. Guides him out into the humid, afternoon air. Listens to the humming of the cicada chorus, high and scratchy.
Tries to forget everything else.
Zane can't get away from the college football season. He doesn't even try.
The media circus turns its wheels, picks up on Eastern University, runs with it, the hey, did you hear about that new gay quarterback, a true freshman starter, look right here, see how he's out and willing to show his face, oh what drama, how will the fans react, and it's almost a sick feeling to be so distant from it all. There's the news, the papers, the sniping blogs, but he's here and Riley's over there, hundreds of miles away. He thinks about calling him, dwells on it, wonders if his cell number's still the same. He nearly does, but then he catches this one interview, sees Riley's face for the first time in months, watches his mouth move, his steely gaze. Hears his voice.
And Riley is more collected, more measured than he's ever seen.
He's probably being coached somewhat, Zane realizes, but it's still Riley in there; it's not fake. It's just controlled. Even. Positive. And Zane can see his nervousness wedged deep down, the trace of fear, but Zane's never been more proud of him.
"What's with you?" Brian asks, as they sit together on his bed in his dorm room. "You're shaking."
Zane shrugs, rubs away the barest touch of wetness in his eye before Brian can catch it. "It's nothing. I'm okay."
So he doesn't call, figures Riley doesn't need the distraction—he seems to be doing just fine without him as it is.
Even so, Zane watches every one of Eastern's games that he can. Obsesses over the news feeds.
(He can't seem to help it.)
By now, he's made a multitude of friends, and most of them are avid sports fans, or at least watch for the social outlet. There are the heated rivalries, but Eastern isn't a main one for Capshaw, mostly because Eastern simply outperforms them athletically in nearly every sport.
So Zane goes to all of the home games, cheers on his team with the rest of his friends…and keeps checking the calendar. The Eastern game is the third to last of the regular season, and it's an away game.
(He doesn't know whether to be thankful or disappointed.)
It's the longest three and a half hours of his life, watching the game against Eastern live in the Wilson common room, surrounded by his friends. Sitting next to his boyfriend, who has a hand curled over his thigh.
"You're not hungry?" Brian questions, shaking the Doritos bowl in front of him.
"I just want to watch," he says softly, trying to appear relaxed when he is anything but. He's not used to watching Riley's games with so many people.
He keeps his eyes on the screen, follows the clusters of green and white jerseys, focuses on Eastern's number 17. Passes, rushes. Everything. The crowd cheers so loud it's deafening. They cheer. For him.
(He doesn't stop worrying.)
(He never does.)
Yet as it turns out, Eastern wins. Clobbers them—painfully so.
So by the end, he's the only one left smiling in the room, heart surging with too many emotions while everyone else groans and throws food and swears colorfully.
"That guy Stavros can really play, and he's only a damn freshman," Brian mutters, almost in reluctant amazement. "All that pressure. I can't even imagine what that's like."
"You can do almost anything for the things you love," Zane says, observing as Riley darts his eyes onscreen, microphones shoved in his face. He watches as Riley talks, sees his exhausted smile. "It's amazing, really. He's really…"
Brian pokes him. "Hey, don't start crushing. You've got me. And besides, a guy like that is definitely taken. And far away. And…I bet he wouldn't give either of us the time of day."
"Of course," Zane says, smiling mostly to himself.
A year and five months pass.
And they're absolute hell, mixed with a touch of discovery and a new direction. He moves into an apartment in his second year. Ends his first college relationship (Brian). Starts up a new one (Andy). Starts many new things.
So many he loses count.
(And it's a turning point. For everything.)
For a good five minutes after reading the acceptance letter, Zane sits at the foot of his bed, hands dangling over his knees. He shuts his eyes. Sighs. And reads it again. Just to be sure.
Dear Mr. Park:
Congratulations! You've been admitted to Eastern University. Along with President Richard H. Young, I invite you to become part of the Salamander family and…
It's real. And…he should be happy. Proud. The feeling of accomplishment should be sweeping through him.
And it does. But…
He'd applied back in the fall, coming into his second year at Capshaw University. And it wasn't like Capshaw was terrible or anything—quite the opposite really, considering the school's prestige and the many friends he'd made—but he'd finally found his career path.
And it wasn't engineering. Not anymore.
In his first year at school, he'd taken up a part-time veterinary assistant job, eager to boost his work experience. In a few weeks, he'd worked his way up to becoming a tech, gotten his certification, and loved every minute of interacting with the animals and their owners. Loved talking endlessly with the veterinarians. He'd wanted, with the utmost certainty, to become one. So he'd done the research, taken the appropriate classes, and found the best vet schools…in America, considering that he was here already and money (thankfully) wasn't an issue. It would be extremely difficult, with the residency favoritism and competitive pool, but things worth doing often were.
He was ready for the challenge.
So he'd applied to three universities, ones that had both veterinary and pharmacy programs; with pharmacy being his "plan b", as it were. Being admitted to any of them wouldn't increase his chances of getting into their vet schools, but he'd be physically closer. He could meet the faculty, get to know the campus…all while working to meet the requirements to pursue his dream.
And yet now…
Now he sits on his bed in late spring. The acceptance letter from Brine had come in last week. The one from Albright had arrived two days ago. Clicking his teeth, he runs his fingertips over the final letter, the one from Eastern.
It's the best school of the three. The one known to take in the most foreign students. And the one where Riley—
"Hey gorgeous. What's with the dreary face?"
Yanked out of his thoughts, Zane tries to smile up at the sandy-haired boy looming over him. "Andy. Glad to see you're making use of the key I gave you. How was class?"
Andy shrugs, his green eyes tired and sullen. "Oh, you know. Total yawn-fest. Managed to stay awake this time, though. I suppose that can be considered an accomplishment."
Zane laughs in earnest. "Well, you're just bored. Not everyone can understand the intricacies of o-chem like you…"
"Right, yeah. Pure monotony. But…you didn't answer my question."
Andy crosses his arms. "The reason for your tortured expression…"
Zane blinks. "I uh, I got into Eastern and—"
"So that makes you three out of three," Andy says, grinning wickedly and giving him a slow clap. "You silly goose. Why'd that make you warp into angst-central? I mean, it's good news, right? You can pick where to go now."
"Yeah, I can pick. It's just…it's a little complicated."
"Going to Eastern isn't complicated, babe."
Zane looks away. "Why would you assume I'd go there? Brine and Albright are—"
"Decent schools, but Eastern is…well, Eastern, tiny rivalry-bias and lame mascot aside. World-class institution, renowned vet program, stellar football team…"
The last part Andy narrows his eyes for.
Zane scratches his neck. Digs his feet into the carpet. Tries to appear neutral. "And what difference would the football team make on my decision?"
Andy lets out a disbelieving breath and pushes him down on the bed so he can straddle him. His voice is a teasing whisper. "I thought you liked that team. You never miss watching a game, you follow the news…"
Zane makes a face that he hopes passes for annoyance. And only that. "I like football, Andy, and—"
"You also like Riley Stavros," Andy says smugly, beaming down at him. "But don't we all. Openly gay, talented QB with a crazy-accurate arm…what's not to appreciate? A guy can always dream. I certainly do—even though he's probably as dumb as a box of rocks. You know how those jock-types tend to be. Body without the brain. Though that can be fun, in a way…"
The corner of Zane's mouth twitches. He stifles his annoyance at the jab, at who it's geared towards. "You don't…I kind of am one of those jock-types."
"And thus an exception to the general rule. Not that you aren't fun."
"Well, I still need to sleep on it."
"That's fair. Even if we both know where you'll end up going."
Zane crosses his arms behind his head. "Meanwhile, you don't even seem the least bit bothered by me leaving…"
"We've been over this," Andy says, kissing him tenderly. "You know I will. But this is what you want. You have to go for it. I'll—"
"—be on to the next guy soon enough," Zane mumbles, looking away. It's not like he's even mad, but…
"Would it help if I said I love you?"
Zane frowns uncomfortably. "I thought we agreed that this was a casual thing."
"Right," Andy huffs. "Because giving me a key to your apartment and letting me fuck you and dating for seven months is—"
"Look, I don't…after…"
"After Brian in freshman year, you closed yourself off. I know. But it's like you…it's like you keep a part of yourself away, something you don't share, and—"
"You've been talking to Brian. That sounds like Brian."
Andy shakes his head dismissively. "We run in the same circles. I talk to your ex sometimes. Big deal."
"It is to me. He and I…"
"Bad breakup, I know. But he said that you…"
Andy pauses like something has dawned on him. Slowly, he takes Zane's face in his hands. Looks at him delicately. "I love you."
Zane squirms. "Don't…"
"I love you, Zane."
They stay locked like that for a while, Zane pinned to the mattress and Andy holding him there with his eyes and hands. When he doesn't get an answer, Andy rolls off of him and stands. Gradually, Zane sits up, eyes trained on the navy comforter instead of his boyfriend.
"You can't say it back, can you?"
Zane doesn't look up. "It's not something I treat lightly."
"I get that," Andy drawls, more intrigued than anything else. Clinical. "So, have you ever said it to anyone?"
Zane swallows, but tries to meet Andy's eyes. "Yes, in high school. To a boy I used to play sports with."
(A flash of curly hair and a crooked smile leaves as soon as it comes.)
Andy smirks. Mumbles something about hot team romances and locker room showers. "So anyways, I uh, brought dinner. Chinese. You hungry?"
"Sure," he says quickly, hopping off the bed. "Let's celebrate."
He calls his mother right away to let her know about the acceptance letter, and it's nice to hear her soothing voice over the phone.
"Oh, your father will be so ecstatic when he hears!" she says cheerily. "I assume it will be Eastern, then? We have so many plans to make…"
"I'm not sure," he says, legs pulled up to his chest on the couch. On the TV, Midnight in Paris is playing, with the sound turned down low so he can hear his mother.
"Eastern's a wonderful university. Veterinary or pharmacy school, whatever you need, it's there for you."
"Albright and Brine have those options too. That's why I applied to all three."
"I just figured they were your backup choices, sweetheart," she says. There's a pause, a ticking silence, and then—"Isn't…Riley still at Eastern?"
Zane grimaces. "He is, but…"
Another pause. Longer. More pronounced. His mother sighs, the sound muffled through the receiver. "Oh honey, you—"
"Mom, he's not a factor in this," he cuts in, tone a little too sharp. "I'm going there because it's what I want."
"So you are going to Eastern then," she clarifies, a smidgen of amusement to her voice. "Your mind's made up?"
He breathes deeply. Sprawls out on the couch.
It's a ten hour drive from Capshaw to Eastern. His parents fly down, rent a van, and together they load all the furniture from his apartment.
Around noon, Andy shows up to help out and say goodbye. And even though it's the end of their relationship, Zane is glad they're parting on friendly terms. He appreciates that it's not the shouting, I-just-don't-matter-to-you-do-I breakup he had with Brian.
It's far more civilized.
"You know," Andy starts, sitting on the carpet surrounded by Zane's collection of books, "I'd say I hope everything works out for you, but I know it will. You're too…you to ever screw up. One of your many natural talents, I suppose."
Zane just smiles as he tapes up a box. "I will miss you."
"Yeah," Andy agrees, rooting around the remaining books. "But maybe over there you can find what it is that you're missing. For instance…"
Andy drops a copy of the 2011 Degrassi yearbook in his lap, and Zane blinks.
"Judging by page 32," Andy says casually, going back to gather more books, "it seems like you had a very fun senior year. Or Grade 12, as you call it."
Zane shifts his eyes, traces the book's binding. He knows what's on the page. To anyone less observant, it would seem harmless—a photo of the Panthers football team celebrating the last game of the season. But to Andy, it would be a picture of teenagers and their coach, with a now-famous boy standing in the center, a cheerleader in pigtails on his left and Zane Park on his right.
He wants to ask Andy things like how long have you known and why were you snooping, but it doesn't matter. It's not important.
"That year wasn't all fun," he says finally, biting the inside of his cheek. He can hear his parents talking with the movers in the other room. They'll be on the road soon.
Andy shrugs, stacks a box. "It meant enough for you to lug a stupid high school yearbook to college. So how did you two—"
"I'd rather not discuss it," he says quietly. Pleadingly.
Andy clucks his tongue, but drops the subject. And together, they finish packing the rest of the books…while talking about anything else.
It's astonishing to see Riley's jersey number being sold en masse in the bookstore. He fingers the fabric of one and can't help but smile. His new roommate Daniel walks up to him, bags in hand.
"Hey Zane! There you are. Got your books?"
"Uh…yeah," he says, stepping back a little to nudge the packages at his feet.
Daniel grins at him. "So I guess you're ready to cheer for the Salamanders? No hard feelings from being at Capshaw for two years?"
He shakes his head, picking up his books. "Eastern has the better team."
"And the better quarterback," Daniel adds, flicking his head in the direction of the jerseys. "You know, when he first came here, it was pretty crazy…the things people said…"
"I can only imagine," Zane says quietly.
Daniel folds his arms, bags swaying. "To be honest, I didn't think the guy would last. I mean, it's kind of ridiculous when you think about it: some gay, Canadian freshman nobody who manages to land starter. Then the first few games rolled around and he just completely…you should've seen it," Daniel reminiscences, while Zane tries to act like this is all news to him, all brand new information, even though he remembers it just as vividly, "he was on fire, and that shut everybody up. Or…well, you know what I mean. Now it's business as usual—most people are just glad to have a winning team."
Zane gives a blank nod. "So here's to another great season, then?"
"You're damn right," Daniel says, heartily slapping his back and whacking him with his books in the process. "Alright. Let's drop these off at Harvil so we can go get lunch. You haven't lived until you've eaten at Silver Dan's…"
It's quite a different experience to be standing in the stadium, listening to the crowd roar and the marching band play as the Eastern football team bounds onto the field, head coach Walter Gamby at the helm. Zane looks around at the audience that surrounds him—students with painted faces and kids clutching stuffed salamanders, couples pressed close and old people in green baseball caps—and it's a united mass of people rooting for their team.
Led by a quarterback who happens to be gay.
Daniel nudges him in the ribs and gives him one of those dude-isn't-this-awesome looks before wrapping an arm around his girlfriend's shoulders. It's a group of them all together, and on his right is a guy named Garrett who Daniel had insisted he sit by.
(Earlier, Daniel had introduced them by saying that Garrett was looking to get over his last boyfriend, hint hint, and pointedly ignored Garrett's exasperated face and eye roll.)
"I've been waiting for this all week," Garrett says to him. "It's supposed to be a great matchup tonight."
"Sure is," Zane agrees, without taking his eyes off the field, where it's the strangest thing to be so physically close—watching Riley talk with his teammates and the staff, witnessing the camaraderie—and to still be invisible and away from things, swallowed up inside the emerald crowd.
Garrett taps his shoulder, as if to get his full attention. "Daniel likes to think he's some great matchmaker for the ages, but you don't have to worry. I'm not looking to start dating again anytime soon."
Zane raises an eyebrow at him, a little thrown. "And how did you assume I wouldn't be interested?"
"Because you're too engrossed by the guys down there in uniform," Garrett says lightly, as if it amuses him. "I totally understand. Sometimes it's better to stick with fantasy. Relationships are just…such a hassle."
Zane cracks a smile. "Well, you have to work at them."
"And learn to move on," Garrett laughs, shaking his head slightly. "When it's time."
With great effort, Zane gives Garrett his politest nod before looking away.
He lets his eyes carry him where his heart wants to. And no one can tell him otherwise.
The crowd starts to bellow, a rumbling thing that sweeps through the stadium and brings everyone who isn't already standing to their feet. The game has started. He cheers with the rest, cheers for everyone.
But mostly for one.
The fall semester passes. He gets through his classes with top marks, continues to make friends—and doesn't pursue anyone.
He tells himself it's because he's busy—doing some work with the horses and cattle at a ranch near Eastern, volunteering at an animal shelter, studying constantly, getting to interact with his professors—but he knows better. Knows himself better.
He's still hurt. And mad. Very mad. Madly in lo—
It was almost easier at Capshaw, where he could feel a warm body, feel the beginnings of being cherished, and feel free enough to allow it to happen. To embrace the adventure.
He couldn't. He couldn't give all of himself to Brian, couldn't keep things from Andy. He…didn't want to. He knows that now.
He's in his dorm room at Harvil, talking with Daniel and packing for a plane trip home to Toronto to see his family for the winter holidays. Yet all the while, he can't help but wonder about Riley.
He won't seek him out. Riley was the one who ended it, after all, dropped an anvil and left him to storm out of the Dot, searching for a cab and feeling dazed and broken. Now that they've parted, Riley still probably thinks he's at Capshaw studying to be a chemical engineer, getting on with his life and certainly not being anchored to a high school romance, but it doesn't matter. It shouldn't. He figures that if anything has changed, if Riley wants him in his life, he'll call. Email him. Find him.
It's up to Riley. Who…must be doing well. Because nothing happens, and that's the way it stays.
(It's what's meant to be.)
Upon arriving home, his mother embraces him tightly and says how much she's missed him. His father is waiting with a broad smile that mirrors his own; the prideful look in his eyes is so clear. They ask about Eastern in general, how his flight was, how his finals went. They want to know about his friends (he has many) and relationships (he has none), information he presents willingly but quietly, knowing what's coming next.
Slightly dreading it.
His father mentions how Eastern has had its best football season in years, with only a single loss. How he's kept up with the American news reports. How his son is attending a university with one of the finest football programs in the nation. How it's been a recent resurgence to excellence, built upon the strength of a handful of players. Marcus Williams, Cal Smith…
His mother is more direct: "So did you get in touch with Riley again?"
He shakes his head, motions to his bags in a gee-I-better-take-care-of-these sort of way.
To which his mother responds with a knowing, if-you-ever-want-to-talk-about-it look, before letting him be and leading his father away, murmuring something in the older man's ear.
Zane stands in the living room with his things, feeling slightly childish because he's normally so open with his parents. About anything and everything.
But this is different. He's never wanted something so much—yearned and pined and spent too many nights thinking of him, the curve of his lips and the feel of his hands on his skin, his smile brightening up the room and making everything better—and done so little to try and go after it.
He watches Riley through a fishbowl, just like everyone else—observes what the public does, the Riley presented in the magazine articles and highlight reels. The Riley who's there for all to see, not the Riley who is ticklish behind his knees or the Riley who can easily fall back asleep brushing his teeth in the morning.
What's more, he can't seem to get out of his own fishbowl, either—can't take a leap and leave the safety and comfort of the glass behind. See where he lands. Flop around. Because then he'd have to push aside all of the baggage. Allow himself to be vulnerable again.
(And he doesn't think he can.)
So how is he supposed to explain that?
"So did I tell you I finally sold the Holden piece?" Thomas says, drumming his fingers rhythmically against the table.
Zane takes another bite of his chicken salad, chews quickly. The Dot is fairly bustling despite Christmas being only three days away. "Remind me which one that was again?"
Thomas frowns at him. "I believe your no-good, sorry-excuse-for-an-ex referred to it as a finger painting…"
"Oh," Zane says distantly, watching a gaggle of high school girls talking (flirting?) with Peter at the register. "That one. Well, that's a good thing, right? Selling it, after all these years?"
Thomas sighs. "Don't placate me. It's probably going to end up in the woman's bathroom. Something she'll look at while she empties her bowels. And that's a true travesty. People with good taste are so hard to come by these days."
"So why did you want to meet up here? The coffee is average at best, and I feel like an old bird surrounded by all of these high school brats."
Zane shrugs. "Nostalgia, I guess? This place is comfortable for me. It's been ages since I've been here."
"And I'm sure it holds such wonderful memories," Thomas mentions, the words snide as he takes a sip from his mug.
Zane looks away.
Over by the window is where he'd waited to meet up with Riley for the first time, before being whisked away to a construction site instead. In the back corner, he'd usually have study sessions with Anya, Riley, and a few others, or be planning the LGBT meetings. At his current table, Riley had dropped a stack of racy magazines, miffed that his mother was denying his sexuality. Closer to the door, he'd sat and listened as Riley talked about his pretty girlfriend on his 18th birthday, and refused to play along. And over at the bar was where Riley had…
"Hey," Thomas says quietly, touching his hand. "Sorry. I didn't mean to stir things up. You've been down enough as it is, lately."
"It's fine. It's practically a habit for you," Zane counters, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. He can never stay mad at Thomas for long. "But you know, I've been thinking about calling him."
Thomas scrunches up his face. "Oh my gracious, no. Don't you dare. That's a wretched idea."
Zane glares at him. "Look, I know you don't exactly like the guy—"
"Because he's a clueless, brainless, try-hard poseur—"
"—but I'm slowly going crazy over here," Zane finishes, voice rising about Thomas' insults. "I need to hear from him."
"And that will accomplish what, exactly?"
"What do you mean?"
Thomas gazes at him studiously. "Well, you just don't want to check-in. Please. And you wouldn't settle for just being friends. No, you'd be in it for the whole enchilada," he says, smiling shrewdly.
Zane pinches the bridge of his nose. "Thomas, I swear to you, if I have to hear one more of your perverted food analogies…"
"Okay spoilsport, but you know I'm right. If you were to call Riley up right now, what would you say? 'Oh hey, how's it going? I hope you're still available, and oh, by the way, I recently transferred to Eastern and didn't bother to tell you. Hope that's okay.' Yeah Zane, that doesn't sound like a recipe for disaster at all."
Zane stares down at his caramel mocha and shakes his head. "I need to try, Thomas."
"Yeah, well, you've had two-and-a-half years to try, and you haven't, so…don't you think that says something?"
Zane takes a napkin off the table and starts shredding it to pieces. "Never mind. Just forget it."
He should've expected Thomas not to understand.
"Come on, don't be cross. Look, I've got a story that'll cheer you up…"
Thomas proceeds to recount a recent experience at a showing—about some piece that was so scandalous that an old lady actually broke down in tears, weeping at the current state of humanity—but Zane barely registers any of it.
(Though he's careful to keep a smile on his face.)
After an incomprehensible amount of time passes, Thomas stops gabbing suddenly, noticing something by the door that Zane can't be bothered to turn around and see.
Clearing his throat, Thomas props up his chin on a hand. "So in other news, have you had any issues with blonde stalkers lately?"
Zane gives him a funny look, his mind steering out of its irritated fog. "Uh, what? No…have you? You know how I've told you to watch it when it comes to the guys at the clubs…"
Thomas laughs airily. "No, dearest, not me. Take a gander behind you. There's a young lady who keeps looking this—oh, well, here she comes now…"
Zane turns his head in time to see a bubbly girl ambling over, with blue eyes and swishing, bottle-blonde hair, slightly curled at the tips. A girl with an all-too-familiar smile.
His eyes widen. "A-Anya?"
"Zane," she practically shrieks, clasping her hands and high heels clicking against the floor, "oh my…you have no idea how ecstatic I am to see you. And here of all places!"
Anya twirls a lock of it and grins at him. "I wanted to try something new. How's it look?"
She pirouettes around once for him.
"Different," he says honestly, standing up to embrace her, "but the color looks wonderful on you. Really. Though I'm sure anything would suit you just fine."
"Oh, stop with the flattery," Anya chides with a smile, pulling back to look in his eyes. "But I must admit, I have missed your constant kindness."
She pulls him into another hug, and Zane can nearly feel her bouncing a little on her feet. "We have to catch up," she insists, the words muffled into his shoulder. "Immediately."
"Sure thing," Zane says, looking back at Thomas, who seems merely bemused by Anya's energy. "Why don't you sit with us? You remember Thomas, right? Thomas Faron?"
"The art show regular," Anya recalls, stepping to the side to get a better look at him. "And…your old flame..."
Her words almost seem accusing.
"Ancient flame, ancient history," Thomas says, folding his arms and leaning back in his chair. "It's all the same to me. As long as you aren't calling me old."
Zane feels Anya take his hand, and he turns to look at her again. "So will you sit?" he asks. "We can reminisce...get up to speed…"
Anya bites her lip, shakes her head. "Would you come with me?" she asks quietly, squeezing his hand tighter. "Back to my place? I know it's been a while, but…"
Thomas bursts into a fit of giggles, and then looks at them apologetically. "Sorry, I'm…it just sounded like such a proposition, and—you know what…just ignore me. Sorry again."
Zane makes a face at Thomas before looking back at Anya. "Is everything alright? Can you…can you not talk about it here?"
"I can leave," Thomas offers loudly, finishing his coffee and face contorting as he swallows. "This swill is providing little incentive for me to stick around."
"No," Anya says, addressing the both of them. "Zane, I just…I'd really like your company today." She chews at her lip, and Zane can see that she's slightly nervous, which strikes him as odd—she has no reason to be anxious around him. "I have so much to show you," she says quickly, firing on all cylinders. "I've…taken up photography…and you…I'd love your opinion on my work. If you could spare the time."
"Ah, a fellow artist," Thomas smiles, standing up. He pats Zane's back. "I'm all for it. Zane, go on—I'm tired of you moping around me. Maybe an old acquaintance is what you need to cheer you up."
"You're…moping?" Anya asks, expression unreadable. "Why?"
Zane runs a hand through his hair, gives Thomas an angry look as the older boy says his polite goodbyes and strolls out the door with a lazy wave. "I'm not really…"
He sighs. Manages a smile. Means it. "You know what? Let's go. I'll drive—my car's just two blocks away."
"Awesome," Anya beams, latching onto his arm and looking entirely too happy in a way that Zane can't quite place. "You won't regret it. Promise."
Anya's house is very much the way Zane remembered it last, from the lived-in furniture to the colorful wallpaper to the cluster of shoes and crooked coat rack by the door. He'd spent a considerable amount of time here in Grade 12; working on late-night projects for Perino or Dawes, or having Oscar movie marathons, just him, Anya…
And Riley. Always Riley.
He greets Anya's parents, Harold and Pam, with the utmost warmth. The two adults eye him in slight amazement, turning to their daughter as if to question her about something. But Anya just smiles at them, and gives them a look.
"I bumped into Zane at the Dot," she says, urging them to return to their spots on the couch. "He agreed to see my photography work. We'll just be…catching up."
"It was so nice to see you both again," Zane says, even as he feels that something is slightly off.
"This way," Anya calls, ushering him into a small, dim room upstairs and turning on the computer in the corner. "You're still at university, Zane?"
"Yeah," he says, thankful that she's not asking where he's going. It's not like Anya would have a reason to assume he'd transferred elsewhere (he'd stopped using Facerange ages ago), and if she were to ask, he wouldn't lie to her. But mentioning Eastern now would only make the wheels in Anya's head turn, and not in a good way—he knows it.
"Well, I am too," she announces.
Zane's eyes widen in disbelief. "But what about the army?"
Anya shrugs. "During the middle of basic training I realized it wasn't for me, after all. I was getting through everything just fine, I could handle it, but…I'd rushed into things. I'd been so desperate to find something that I could do after graduating, you know? And then when I dropped out…I was pretty bummed to be right back where I'd started. A mess, actually."
"Uh, when you say mess…"
"Not a coke head mess, just…a regular mess," she laughs, like she's really moved past it, which he's glad for. She takes a seat in front of the keyboard, and has him sit on the stool next to her. "With everyone off doing their own thing, I needed a distraction while I was trying to figure out what I'd do next. My dad had bought me a camera as a graduation gift, and I'm sure you remember all of the pictures I took that day…"
Zane nods with a smile, recalling how Anya had corralled people together in their graduation attire and hustled back and forth to "capture the perfect moment".
"This was most of my work from that day," Anya says, opening up a file to reveal over a hundred images. "After that, my hobby kind of took off. It cleared my head."
There are pictures of students making embarrassing faces, friends huddled close together, and high school sweethearts holding hands. He sees Chantay mugging for the camera, Holly J posing with Fiona and dragging a reluctant Sav into the frame. There's Ms. Oh primly reapplying her lipstick and Mr. Simpson openly yawning. He sees an image of Harold giving a geeky thumbs up, and one of Pam blowing a kiss to her daughter. And there are at least a dozen pictures of Riley—pictures of him grinning goofily or looking bored in a chair. One with him next to Coach Armstrong. One of him standing with his parents, who look…irritable. Tense.
There are pictures of Zane as well, and though it's been a while, nothing seems to be out of the ordinary, except…
(Except for all of the pictures that show him staring over at an oblivious Riley. And vice versa.)
"I guess we were slightly obvious," Zane murmurs, mostly to himself. Chantay had been right; they'd had moodiness in spades. The pictures made it clear.
"Well, you both sort of went on a nosedive, emotionally speaking," Anya remembers with a hollow laugh, turning to look at him. "But I'm glad you got to end on a good note, at least."
"Riley told you?"
"About the parking lot thing? Yeah."
"So…you still keep in touch with him?"
"You could say that," she answers, somewhat cryptically, as she turns her attention back to the computer and brings up a different file.
Zane rests a hand on her chair. "Anya…"
"Take a look at these," she says briskly, ignoring his imploring tone. "Now, I expect an honest opinion from you…don't hold back…"
Reluctantly, Zane lets the subject drop and eyes the screen. "These were taken at TU?"
"Yep," Anya says proudly, displaying a slideshow of pictures of campus architecture, student life, and the surrounding aspects of nature. "I transferred there after a year of college, and I'm majoring in psychology now. I love it so much, I really do, and someday I want to help with everyone else's drama."
"You found your path," Zane says, rubbing her shoulder. "Anya, these are incredible. The detail, the framing…just gorgeous…"
"You really mean that?"
He kisses her temple. Grins. "Sure do."
The slideshow continues, and he sees the passage of time—a pair of lovers sitting on a bench in winter's twilight, a beady-eyed professor chewing an apple in spring. A yellow butterfly flapping through the air at daybreak. The people are mostly unfamiliar to him, except for the occasional picture of Peter or Holly J or Fiona at what looks to be a party, until an image of Riley pops up on the screen.
"Pause it," he requests.
Anya stills the screen, and Zane can get a better look. He sighs. "You took that picture last year, didn't you?"
"How did you know that?" Anya asks, the shock evident in her voice.
"Riley's hair…he had it that short during the fall season, sophomore year," he says simply, looking away. On the walls, he can see more photographs, framed ones, and he pushes off the stool. Walking over to the light switch, he turns it on.
As the little room illuminates, he's surrounded by family photos; pictures of Anya with her parents, grandparents, her Great Aunt Tilly that he met at graduation. Pictures of her friends, new and old. And pictures of Riley—recent pictures that Zane is almost embarrassed to realize he can identify by season.
Anya stands up as well, folds her hands behind her back. Looks to the ground, and then slowly back up at him.
"I guess you dokeep in pretty good contact with him, huh?" he says quietly, voice wavering slightly as he gestures around the room.
"So how is he?" he says, hands fidgeting by his sides.
Her face softens. "You still care…"
"I…I'm curious," he tries to clarify, even as he knows that Anya's not quite buying it.
"No. First, tell me—how are you doing? What Thomas said…"
"Thomas is a drama queen," he mutters, wedging his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "I'm fine. More than fine. I've got lots of friends and—"
"Not at the moment…"
"Are you…looking…for a boyfriend?"
Zane gives her an odd look, opens his mouth to answer her, but then he hears the front door open and slam shut from downstairs and voices calling out—Pam and Harold greeting whoever walked in.
"You were expecting company?" he asks tensely.
Anya scratches at her hair, swearing under her breath as she takes his hand and shuts off the light. She pulls him out of the room and down the stairs, and Zane is mostly compliant until they're standing at the edge of the living room, and he sees Pam and Harold chatting with a young woman he instantly remembers being named Athena.
Behind her, someone is untying their shoes, and as the young man stands and shrugs out of his coat, Zane loses his breath for just a second.
Riley is different. Riley is the same. Riley's hair is just starting to curl again, and his muscles shift easily under the thin fabric of his shirt, he is so close, and he—
"Please," Anya begs, voice barely above a whisper as Riley hasn't seen them yet, "please don't leave."
"You really think I'd be that rude?" Zane questions through his teeth, not taking his eyes off of the scene unfolding before him. Riley ambles over to talk with Harold, and Athena is laughing at something Pam says. It's all very cozy. Familiar.
"No, not rude," Anya assures, "but I thought you'd be angry because I sort of…I may have…"
"Yeah," she admits. "Though I didn't think they'd get back so soon, because I wanted to—"
"Anya?" Riley calls, looking around the room before finally zeroing in on them. Zane feels a deep shudder run through him, feels his face burn red hot as Riley gazes directly at him, mouth slightly open and blue eyes softening by the second. Zane takes in a gulping breath, presses his lips together, and it's like everything shuts down around him—he barely registers Anya touching his elbow before backing away, or Athena bringing a hand up to her mouth, or Pam and Harold standing together, completely unsure of how to proceed.
Riley stays rooted to the spot. "Zane," he says, the word croaking out of his throat, "how did you…"
Zane tears his eyes away from him, looks to Anya instead. "You wanna explain this one?"
Anya puts on a defensive look as she snatches up her purse from the coffee table. "Athena, you and Riley bought the rest of the food?" she asks the other girl, who nods.
"Good," Anya says, rummaging through her purse until she pulls out a scrap of paper and a pen, and quickly scribbles something on it. "This is a list of the things we still need to cook for tonight," she says, handing the list to Zane, who takes it in confusion. "We're having a little celebration dinner, since Riley will have to fly out to Orlando on Christmas to get ready for his bowl game. You might have heard about it…the Capital One Bowl?"
"Yeah," Zane says quietly, slightly crumbling the paper between his fingers. "I'd heard."
"Anya," Riley cuts in, "what are you—"
"So Athena and I are leaving to do some last-minute shopping," Anya continues loudly, giving Riley a stubborn look, while Athena cocks her head, "and I'd like you boys to finish the cooking for us by the time we get back."
Zane raises an eyebrow at her.
Riley makes a face, while Harold walks over and puts a hand on Anya's shoulder. "Bumblebee, your mother and I are here too, you know, and I'm sure these guys have better things to do than toll away in the kitchen…"
Anya folds her arms carefully. "But weren't you taking Mom to that play this afternoon? You know the one. You wouldn't want to miss it. It's…it's very important that you go."
Pam rolls her eyes and looks at her daughter in amused disbelief.
Harold blinks, a smile slowly spreading across his face. "It seems…I'd forgotten about that. Yes. Silly me. I suppose your mother and I will have to be heading off, then."
"Yes, we wouldn't want to be late, dear," Pam agrees, taking her husband's arm with a chuckle. "The boys will just have to manage on their own, I think. Riley, I can leave you and Zane to it? We can count on you?"
Riley gives them all a maddened look like he knows he's being set up, and is very much not amused. "Well, I mean…if Zane doesn't mind, then I guess…"
Their eyes meet again, and Zane feels his stomach doing cartwheels. "No, I…I don't mind."
"Wonderful," Anya says mirthfully, slinging an arm around Athena and whispering something in her ear. "I'm sure you two will have lots to talk about while you cook. Since you're both single. As in, 100% totally-not-dating-other-people single, and all…"
(At that, Riley gives Anya his dirtiest look yet, and Zane silently marvels at Anya's ability to release choice information.)
"We'll be back in a few hours," Athena calls, as the four of them mischievously wave their goodbyes and walk out the door. "Be good, you two."
Riley sighs as the door shuts and wanders over to him. Zane can practically feel the heat radiating off Riley's body, and he becomes too warm in his own long-sleeved shirt. The scent of soap and spice returns, overwhelms him, and he needs to take a deep, quivering breath to steel himself.
"It's only a few things," Zane says, looking directly into Riley's eyes even though he'd feel more comfortable looking anywhere else. "But I guess we should get started."
"Yeah," Riley agrees, tongue darting out to lick at his lips, and Zane follows the movement, swallows, and finally looks away, cheeks a little too rosy.