7363 words. By far the longest thing I've written to date. Although FFNet claims it's 8,030 words...hmm.
I'd like to take a moment to thank my lovely amazing beta, Wes (aka leochris64 on tumblr—go follow him) for bearing with me through all the tiny details no one notices or cares about.
"Guess who's in the running for valedictorian?" Thad walked into the Senior Commons, a white printout in his hand. There were a few students (mostly Warblers) lounging about on the furniture, some doing homework, some napping. Thad stopped in front of Wes, who had a calculus book resting on his crossed legs. He set down the pencil and raised his head, locking gazes with Thad.
"Let me guess...you and me?"
Thad nodded, holding out the paper to Wes. Thad's name was at number one, although that was because his name was first alphabetically. Right below him was Wes, with the same grade percentage, and below his name was Trent, then David, then someone he didn't know.
"Congratulations," Wes said, handing the paper back. "And may the best man win."
So before we get to the next part there is something that should be made known. Thad had a terrible, terrible secret that he'd only ever told one person. And that had been his sophomore year, a year after he'd acquired this secret. And he'd kept it between himself and Benny, the tall beatboxing Warbler, during his entire career as a high school student.
And that secret was that he was madly in love with one Council member Wes.
If he were to be completely correct, he would say that he had been in love, in the past. Which...would have made complete sense, as those feelings had presumably faded his junior year. But then senior year was upon them, and they were getting close to the end, and all his feelings had rushed back, and it was not acceptable in the least. Well...in Thad's mind, it wasn't.
For goodness' sake, he was a council member with incredibly high grades who took shit from no one. He couldn't have feelings for Wes now, of all times! Not when he was so close to getting the title of valedictorian and Wes was his competitor for the position. His feelings could be the end of it all. And he could not have that.
"You two have been matched in grades since freshman year," Trent said a few days later. He'd already given up the valedictorian race, knowing he couldn't possibly catch up to Thad and Wes. They were once again in the Senior Commons studying (read: waiting for Blaine to make his entrance so they could perform a song) and Trent had finally decided to say something about this obvious problem. "One hundred point zero percent in everything. If one of you doesn't beat the other, the faculty will make you share the spot. You'll each give a speech."
"Trent is right, of course," Wes said thoughtfully. "I wouldn't want to share the title."
"I feel the same," Thad said, lounging in the couch opposite Wes, while Trent stared between them. In reality, he wouldn't mind sharing something with Wes. It would be completely—no, shut up, hormones. You are not the decision-makers here. "It looks like we'll have to figure out a way to compete for the spot, assuming neither of us gets it based on grades."
"Compete? With what, exactly? A chess tournament?"
"We could sing for it." Anything to hear your voice, Wes.
David sat up from his place on the floor between the two couches. "You could duet for it."
Thad was about to protest, and from the look on Wes' face, he was going to do the same. Except a sudden loud, singsong "OH YEAH!" echoed through the room, and the topic was momentarily forgotten in favor of performing a song.
"Not like a love song duet," David said, the moment the performance had ended and the applause had died down. It was as if they hadn't even been interrupted. "A head-to-head duet. You know, like Take Me or Leave Me, or...uh, remember that video Kurt showed us of Mercedes and the cheerleader girl singing The Boy Is Mine?"
"Santana," Thad filled in automatically. He looked at Wes, who was on David's other side, saw that he was actually taking to the idea. No. Please, no. "But—remember our last duet within the Warblers—remember how that turned out..."
David shrugged. "That was for an audience. This will be for a Warblers-explicit audience."
Wes raised an eyebrow, making eye contact with Thad. "I like the idea."
"Which means your vote means nothing, Thad; democracy rules and Wes and I both vote for it."
"Fine," Thad agreed begrudgingly. "Brainstorm some ideas and we'll try to set the performance for Friday." He turned down a hallway to get to his own dorm, while David and Wes kept walking straight. "I expect coffee every morning this week for agreeing to this," he called out to their retreating figures.
What had he gotten himself into?
David was handling the gavel for the day, as Thad and Wes were dueling (or singing, rather) for the title of valedictorian. Thad and Wes stood in front of the group of Warblers, waiting on everyone to settle in before beginning. They'd all been informed of the duet and the reasoning anyway; news traveled fast within the Warblers.
Thad started, and the Warblers joined in with their background music immediately.
"He's got looks that books take pages to tell
He's got a face to make you fall on your knees
He's got money in the bank to thank and I guess
You could think he's living at ease."
Wes joined in, and they turned to face each other for the next few lines, harmonizing perfectly.
"Like lovers on the open shore—what's the matter?
When you're sitting there with so much more—what's the matter?
While you're wondering what the hell to be
Are you wishing you were ugly like me?"
Thad turned back to face the Warblers. "Blame it on the girls who know what to do."
Wes copied the action, but not without sending a sly glance to Thad.
"Blame it on the boys who keep hitting on you."
Thad grinned unamusedly at Wes. "Blame it on your mother for the things she said."
"Blame it on your father but you know he's dead." Wes smiled right back; he was having way too much fun with this.
"Blame it on the girls," Thad sang.
"Blame it on the boys," Wes sang.
"Blame it on the girls
Blame it on the boys." They sang together.
Thad stared Wes down. "Life could be simple but you never fail
To complicate it every time."
"You could have children and a wife a perfect little life
But you blow it on a bottle of wine." Wes sang right back. He was barely paying attention to the Warblers anymore.
"Like a baby you're a stubborn child—what's the matter?
Always looking for an axe to grind—what's the matter?"
"While you're wondering what the hell to do," Thad joined in.
"We were wishing we were lucky like you."
"Blame it on the girls who know what to do
Blame it on the boys who keep hitting on you," Wes sang.
"Blame it on your mother for the things she said
Blame it on your father but you know he's dead," Thad sang.
"Blame it on the girls," Wes sang, staring at Thad.
"Blame it on the boys," Thad stared right back.
"Blame it on the girls," Wes sang, now advancing on Thad, staring him down. "Blame it on the boys." They were inches apart, and Thad took a step back every time Wes took a step forward, their feet moving to the beat.
"Blame it on the girls," Thad returned, and stopped where he was. Wes was incredibly close, staring down at him competitively. "Blame it on the boys."
He took a step forward, forcing Wes to step back, and they both sang: "Blame it on the girls."
The Warblers stopped singing, and the last line was sung in dead silence: "Blame it on the boys."
They were a mere foot apart, facing each other, breathing hard and tired out from the song. It was unclear to Wes who the winner was, and from the look on Thad's face he was miles away. Wes was going to ask the group what they thought when suddenly—
There were lips on his.
And hands on his face, thumbs pressing gently into his cheeks.
And for a moment he was paralyzed.
And for a moment he was kissing back.
And then his eyes snapped open and he lifted his hands to Thad's chest, pushing him away, gentle but firm. He stared at Thad, a mixture of confusion and now anger in his eyes. And Thad just stared wide-eyed back at Wes, like he couldn't quite believe—he turned, wide eyes sweeping over the rest of the room, full of silent boys, before turning completely and exiting the room faster than should even be possible.
"Thad!" Benny called, first to move as always. "Thad, wait!" He exited the room right behind Thad.
Wes barely noticed. Barely heard it when David banged the gavel lightly and dismissed the Warblers, barely noted when the boys started trickling out of the room. His ears were ringing; his mind was still stuck on what the hell just happened? And he sort of just stood there, staring at the spot Thad had been in. He only snapped out of it when David gently shook him by the shoulders.
"Wes! Are you alright?"
"Hmm? Yes. I...suppose I'm just in shock..."
"C'mon, someone needs a nap." David led him by the elbow out of Senior Commons and to their shared room.
Wes lay there in bed, just thinking, with his fingers to his lips.
Thad didn't know what he was thinking. Or if he even was. All he knew was that singing with Wes had caused his emotions to get out of control, and suddenly he had closed the distance between them, placed his hands on either side of Wes' face, and pressed their lips together.
Faster than it had begun it was over, Wes pushing him away firmly, and suddenly the realization of what he'd done crashed over him. He stared wide-eyed at Wes, taking a step back, and his gaze moved across the room, to the silent faces of his peers, and then he turned and ran. Ran faster than he'd ever run in his life, tearing down the pristine hallways of Dalton, ignoring the voices ringing in his ears, pushing through the crowds of uniformed people.
He ran out of the building, and across the campus, and broke through the boundary of the school, leaving the large gate open behind him. And he kept running. Kept running until his muscles felt stiff and his head felt light, until the streets turned into worn but little-traveled roads, until the beautiful houses turned into wide open fields, until he'd left Dalton and the Warblers and Wes far behind, and he could run no more.
He collapsed in a field of wheat, his arms and legs sprawled out around him, chest heaving and mouth drier than a desert. His throat and chest ached, his muscles burned, and he could feel himself practically melting into the ground. His fingers prickled with the blood racing through his veins, and the world spun above him, leaving him dizzy. Tears filled his eyes and spilled from the corners, dripping down into his hair, into the earth beneath him, bringing the drying sweat encompassing him with them, leaving trails of salt across his skin.
He lay there for hours, thinking about everything and nothing all at once. His eyes followed the path of the sun as it passed him and started sinking, causing the shadows of the wheat waving around him to lengthen by the minute. He lay there until his sweat and tears had dried, leaving the skin on his face and his fingers feeling taut and thin, and his clothes feeling itchy and uncomfortable. And his breathing finally slowed, and he could taste the dust on the wind, feel the wayward ant crawl across his wrist, smell the asphalt of the road and the seeds of the wheat everywhere. He lay there until he could not feel his body anymore, the ache of his muscles weaning with disuse, until his mind had cleared and the only things that moved were his eyes, watching clouds skating by on the ocean of blue above him, eyelashes brushing against his cheeks, and his chest rising and falling gently with every breath he took.
And he slept.
He vaguely noted that the air had grown cold around him, and barely stirred when a pair of strong arms picked him up, cradling him close to a firm, warm, comforting body. The sound of an engine purring, and the feeling of being rocked gently by the uneven roads beneath his seat lulled him back to sleep.
He woke immediately, blinking his tired eyes a few times. He did not move, but his eyes roved the setting quickly. He was in a car, laying down, and whoever had picked him up knew his name.
"Thad, get up."
He knew that voice. He sat up and turned to face the driver's seat, and he sat back immediately, the tension draining from him. "Benny. How'd you find me?"
"It wasn't easy, I'll tell you that. After like three hours I finally just tracked your phone because I was tired of looking."
"Where are we?" He crawled into the front seat of his friend's car, leaving a footprint on the fabric. They were in a parking lot, lit by streetlamps, facing a friendly-looking restaurant.
"Still in Westerville," Benny responded. "But I thought you could use something to eat, seeing as you ran six miles and I'm sure you haven't eaten since lunch."
"Maybe more. I wasn't exactly watching the mileage when I drove off to pick you up."
"Thank you," Thad said softly, staring down at his hands.
"It's no problem. What are friends for? Oh, and I also got you a change of clothes—they're at your feet."
"Thank you," he repeated, reaching down for his new set of clothing. The muscles in his back and arms stretched, sending a wave of pain through him, and he realized just how much he'd run. He knew he would feel that ache for days, although...it would be nothing in comparison to the ache of seeing Wes again.
Wes was pretending everything was normal.
If Thad hadn't been vying for that valedictorian spot, he might have skipped classes for the next week. He was aching and sore and afraid of Wes' reaction; but he wanted even less to lose that spot. Which was...perfectly fine, it turned out, because Wes was pretending everything was normal.
Wes was pretending everything was normal and it was pissing him off.
And by the time Warblers practice ended that day, Wes was calm and smiling and his usual self, and Thad was practically vibrating in his seat.
Thad turned to stare at Wes while all the boys left the Senior Commons. Wes caught his gaze and stared back calmly, folding his hands in his lap while the last boys exited the room.
"Why are you acting like everything's fine?" Thad blurted.
"Because I've plotted out all my decisions based on what we discuss today," Wes said, completely straightforward. "Shall we?"
"I—" Thad really didn't have an argument for that. "Fine."
And at this point Wes' calm demeanor cracked a bit, and he averted his gaze shyly to the floor, obviously uncomfortable with the subject.
"You have feelings for me, then?" He asked quietly.
"Yes," Thad responded, not even taking a moment's pause to think about his answer. He didn't need to. Wes was asking questions and he would give the truth. It was that simple.
"Were you...ever planning on telling me?"
Thad paused. "No," he said after a moment.
"I see," Wes replied, leaning back in his chair and making eye contact with Thad once again. "So you'd never seek out a relationship with me?"
"Well I haven't as of yet," Thad pointed out. "But no. I wouldn't, not unless you were to pursue me."
"You understand the possibility of that?"
"Next to none," Thad confirmed. "Which is why I never tried."
Wes chuckled softly. "I don't think you'd like me if you knew me better."
"Is that an invitation to get to know you better?" Thad immediately started mentally kicking himself. Why would he say that? Right when he was almost in the clear.
"Yes, I think," Wes answered, surprising Thad out of his head and back to the topic at hand. "But as a friend. Nothing more."
"Of course," Thad agreed. "And before I lose my chance, I'm sorry for...that. I don't really have an excuse."
Wes waved it off. "It's fine. You're forgiven."
"Thanks." He'd been doing a lot of thanking lately.
There was silence for a few moments.
"So...coffee? Tomorrow morning?"
Thad nodded. "Yeah. Sounds great."
And that's pretty much how they built a friendship after nearly four years of attending Dalton together.
Wes was incredibly appreciative of their friendship, probably enough to rival Thad's gratefulness. They spent a lot of time studying and doing homework, reviewing notes over coffee, reading in the library. Really nerdy things that only really nerdy people found entertaining. They did other things as well; they watched movies, played video games—but Wes had found that he quickly bonded with Thad over the academic things, the vocabulary no one used, the novels no one read but them. It was actually quite a surprise to him that they hadn't become close friends sooner, considering how well they got along, how many of their interests overlapped. Although that was probably because Thad was antisocial and Wes only befriended people who talked to him first.
They'd become good friends in an insanely short amount of time. After a week they were having coffee together every morning. By the end of two weeks they were debating the merits of being a Hufflepuff. And by the end of three, Wes was comfortable enough to hug Thad in greeting and farewell. It was quite a shock to Wes just how quickly it had happened. Not that he thought they would not become friends, but the rate at which they did...it was unprecedented.
And of course, it was always there at the back of his mind: Thad's feelings for him. Sometimes his gaze would linger a bit, or he'd accidentally make a flirty comment. But Wes overlooked this, graciously accepted it; sometimes he would laugh, sometimes he would play along. And from the smile on Thad's face, he appreciated it. But Wes could tell, Thad was doing whatever he could not to let his feelings get in the way of their budding friendship. And that knowledge was always there. But he kept it at the back of his mind, never let it stay at the forefront too long. The friendship they'd built, it was a good one. A great one, in fact. And he wasn't about to ruin that.
After school, on days they didn't have Warblers practice, they helped each other study. As it were, they were sitting across from each other on one of the large sofas, legs crossed Indian style, staring intently at each other. Thad had a pile of flashcards in his hands and Wes' eyebrows were furrowed in concentration. Wes spoke.
"I have...dinosaur...in my floor?"
The serious face Thad wore gave way to a huge amused smile, and laughter so forceful that he fell back on the couch. "What?" He continued laughing.
"Sh...shut up," Wes said, a small grin finding its way to his face. Thad, of course, did nothing of the sort. He gripped his sides and rolled around a bit, managing to overbalance and roll off of the couch. He landed on the floor with a loud thump and laughed even harder.
"How did..." Insert laughing fit here. "Where did dinosaur..." And more laughter. "Do you even speak French?"
The smile faded from Wes' face as a sudden realization came over him. He stared at Thad, sitting back up, hanging onto the edge of the cushions. He was still giggling and his face was pink and his hair was mussed from the fall and he was saying something, probably apologizing for his laughter, but Wes did not hear him. He continued to stare, eyes wide and unsuspecting.
It couldn't be.
"Wes?" Thad's voice broke through his thoughts. "Are you alright?"
"Um." He blinked a few times. "I'm fine. I just...I think I feel a headache coming on..." He put a hand lightly to his forehead to emphasize it, and to cover the lie written across his face, the truth splattered on top of that. He stood up and gathered his things. "Thanks for helping me study...but I think I need to have a nap." He left before Thad could give a response.
And collapsed on his bed.
He was in love with Thad.
A week came and went. A week that felt like a thousand years.
"You've been avoiding me," Thad said from the doorway of Wes' room. He was neither accusing nor questioning; merely stating the fact.
"Preposterous." Wes did not even flinch, did not even look up from the notebook he was writing in. "How did you get into my room?"
"I borrowed David's key," Thad said, taking a step into Wes' room. "Why have you been avoiding me?"
"I haven't." He kept his face hidden, kept staring down at his notebook, kept his hand moving even though he no longer had any idea what he was writing. Truthfully, he had been avoiding Thad. And he'd planned to until he graduated and left for college. He couldn't possibly face Thad, not now that he...reciprocated. He couldn't look at Thad, couldn't let him see the way he felt. He couldn't let Thad know, because there was no way they could be anything more than friends.
"I've just been working really hard," he continued.
He didn't look up; he could feel Thad's gaze on him, making his face go hot. He kept his hand moving, willed himself not to look up while Thad studied him, tried to decipher if he was lying or not.
"Take a break, Wes," Thad said finally, after what felt like ages, but what Wes knew was close to twenty seconds. "Let's watch a movie or something."
Wes closed his notebook and set it aside. "Fine. I suppose I owe you for being absent the past week."
They sat against the headboard of Wes' bed, watching some scary movie he hadn't bothered learning the title of. Not that he was really watching; he was paying more attention to Thad, who had his knees brought up to his chest, arms in tight, and he was biting his thumbnail in the most adorable wide-eyed way possible.
And it only got cuter when Thad screamed at a particularly scary part and threw himself under the covers, curling into a little ball. Wes laughed and slid under the covers as well, and pulled Thad close, arms going around his waist automatically.
"It's not real," he soothed, still laughing.
"Still scary," Thad responded, turning his face into Wes' neck so that he wouldn't have to look at the screen.
After about ten minutes Thad finally turned back to the screen, but he did not move away from Wes, and Wes did not let him go in the slightest. And neither of them moved for the remainder of the movie.
"See? That wasn't so bad," Wes said once the credits started rolling. He received no answer. "Thad?" He leaned forward to properly see Thad's face and realized he'd fallen asleep, probably quite a while ago. A laugh escaped him, and he shimmied down the bed until he was flat on his back, and Thad in his sleeping state followed, rested his head on Wes' chest, and wrapped his arms around his neck.
"Goodnight, Thad," Wes said softly. He pointed the remote at the television, turning it off, leaned over to turn off the lamp beside his bed, and laid a light kiss on Thad's forehead.
When Wes woke, he was alone.
He couldn't say he was surprised; after all, he had never made it clear to Thad that he was fine sharing his bed. But it still hurt. More than he was willing to admit. He sighed, stood up, stretched, and put the pain in the back of his mind, along with the knowledge that he could do nothing about his feelings for Thad.
It was, unfortunately, not so easy. Because now that he'd made the decision to stop avoiding Thad, Thad had made the exact opposite decision. He was avoiding Wes. In the classes they shared Thad did not so much as glance at him, and during Warblers practice that afternoon, he couldn't be bothered to say more than two words.
When he dismissed the Warblers, Thad was up and out of there in the blink of an eye. Wes glared after him, picked up his bookbag, and chased him down the hall (a difficult feat—Thad was like the roadrunner) and managed to catch him just as he slowed to turn a corner, by the wrist. Thad turned and faced Wes. "What?"
"What do you mean, what? You've been avoiding me all day."
"Like you haven't been doing that the past week?"
Wes huffed. "I already said, I was busy."
"You and I both know that's a lie. Not that it matters." He pulled his wrist from Wes' grip.
Wes narrowed his eyes. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means..." Thad took a step back, and looked at the floor. "It means we can't be friends anymore."
Wes felt his heart freeze at those words, felt the cold dead fear travel all the way to his fingers and his toes, making him immobile, cutting off his brain function and his ability to move his lips. "W...what?"
"You heard me." Thad's voice was tiny and full of regret.
"Just...I can't be your friend." Thad leaned against the wall, pressing his back against it, his hands at the small of his back, palms pressed to the wall. He did not look at Wes. "I have feelings for you. And it...it wasn't a problem at first. But each day we spend together, it just makes me like you more. And last night...made me realize. I can't be your friend when my feelings are so strong. There's no way I can be just your friend, when I know you'll never feel the same way about me." He sniffled, and Wes realized that Thad's eyes were filled with tears. "I can't stand to have my heart broken every day, Wes. I'm—I'm sorry." He turned and walked away.
"Thad, don't go!" Wes reached out for him, but his legs were rooted to the spot. "Thad!" But Thad was already gone. Wes collapsed right there in the hallway, falling to his knees. He suddenly didn't have the strength to hold in his feelings, pretend everything was okay until he made it to his room. He could not move—could not think. He just kneeled there beside the wall, shoulder pressing against it, until David was notified and dragged him to their room.
Thad sat on the roof of the large school building. He had his legs pulled into his chest, arms wrapped around them, and chin resting on his knees. He sat close to the edge of the building, providing him a perfect view of the school grounds, the trees beyond, and the canvas of light blue and cotton-candy pink stretching in every direction. He was a runner, in more ways than one. He always ran away from his problems, literally and figuratively. And this was his favorite place to hide.
He heard the roof door open and close behind him, and light steps across the loose gravel. He didn't move. He saw two regulation Dalton shoes stop beside him, and a moment later there was a warm body pressing into his side. Thad leaned into the touch, and let out a soft sigh. They sat there in silence for nearly ten minutes.
"Hot cocoa?" Benny shook a thermos that Thad had not noticed until that moment.
"Yeah, thanks." He sat there waiting as he listened to the sound of the thermos being opened, and liquid being poured into two cups. The smell of milk and chocolate filled the air. Benny pressed a mug into Thad's hands, which he was incredibly grateful for, as he'd started getting cold just sitting there. He watched the tendrils of steam escape the mug, vanishing into the cold evening sky. They sat there in silence for another few minutes, sipping at their drinks.
"You okay?" Benny asked after a long silence.
Thad took a moment to answer. "I will be."
Over the course of the next few weeks there was quite a bit of tension between them. And everyone noticed. Wes had been asked several times (several times too many) what had happened between them, to which he always replied: We tried being friends and it didn't work. Vaguest explanation ever, and all the Warblers knew that wasn't the full story. But no one asked, and so Wes said no more. He and Thad settled into a strained acquaintanceship, only speaking to each other when needed, and rarely making eye contact.
Things finally settled down, and Wes was content with that. Sure, it was not quite the same as before, but they were functional and that was the point. So what if he felt a pang in his heart every time Thad stared coldly at (or past) him, every time he refused to smile? Wes' feelings did not matter: all that mattered was graduating (perhaps as valedictorian), getting out of Westerville (or Ohio, rather; he did not live in Westerville), and starting off fresh in university. All that mattered was surviving the rest of the year.
Even if he'd changed his mind about Thad (which he had, but that was beside the point), he was certain Thad no longer wanted to be in a relationship—or even a friendship—with him. Even if Thad had an inkling of feelings for him, he was obviously trying to ignore them and push them away. And after what happened...well, it was unlikely they would be able to repair their relationship, much less repair it enough to even consider being more than friends.
So with that in mind, Wes kept his distance; he did nothing to reconcile with Thad. And that was just the way it would go.
They both focused on their studies; they were still in competition, even if they were not necessarily close. Thad spent his free time reading, and Wes did pretty much the same (he studied nonstop). In fact, Thad had a book in his lap more often than not, and Wes was almost certain that it was partially to aid him in ignoring Wes properly.
And that was why the next boring, nondescript Wednesday was a little bit shocking.
"I win," Thad said quietly, approaching Wes where he was studying on the couch, in much the same way he had been that one fateful day that felt like a lifetime ago.
"Win?" Wes asked, closing his book and looking up. He tried to keep calm under the gaze of Thad, the gaze he'd been missing for ages.
Thad held up a paper, and Wes realized what it was immediately. The word sprang from his lips without a moment's thought. "Valedictorian." He knew it the moment Thad walked in. Thad nodded in confirmation.
Wes stood up and took the paper from Thad's fingers, looking it over. "How?"
Thad shrugged, giving a small smile. Oh, how Wes missed that smile. "Honestly, I don't know. I'm thinking maybe they took extracurriculars and/or extra credit into account."
"Considering you were on the track team for quite a while, that would probably boost your points just enough..."
"Yeah. That's what I thought."
"Congratulations," Wes said. If they were still friends he would have hugged Thad. If they were still comfortable around each other he would have shook his hand. He did neither. He handed the paper back and gave a nod and a smile, more weary than he'd intended.
Thad returned the smile in full and more, causing Wes another awful pang in his heart.
"Thank you," Thad said. "I'll...see you later?"
Wes gave a short nod and with that, Thad left the same way he'd come.
Wes sighed and plopped heavily onto the couch, pressing at his eyes with the heels of his hands. He was hopeless. He was in second place, he was in love, and he was completely, absolutely, and utterly hopeless.
The rest of the school year passed in a blur (not that there had been much left) and before he knew it, Thad was sitting on the small stage with all the people that would give speeches during the graduation ceremony, with Wes beside him (as salutatorian) and two girls to their right, from Crawford. Before them was a sea of dark blue and deep ruby red gowns, boys and girls milling around and talking to their friends in wait of the ceremony to begin.
Thad sat nervously in his blue gown, Wes next to him, both of them wearing red honor stoles adorned in arrays of metals and honors. Wes looked as calm as ever, but if there was anything Thad had learned during their brief friendship, it was that Wes was excellent at putting up a facade. And to really get to the center of his emotions, one would have to look at his hands. Thad let his gaze wander down, saw that Wes' hands were clenched tight. He was anxious, extremely so. Possibly as much as Thad. If they were still friends, Thad would comfort him, seek comfort in him...but they were not friends. Not anymore. So instead of moving closer or starting up a conversation, Thad just sat there, worrying his lip with his teeth and picking at his already bitten nails.
And the ceremony took so long. An hour was spent on the faculty procession and many long-winded pointless speeches that no one cared about. Not that anyone would care about his speech...but he was still nervous. Everyone would be looking at him, and this was nothing like singing and dancing. When he sang he was smooth, in his element. When he spoke he was geeky and awkward. And everyone—the Dalton students, the Crawford students, all of their parents—would be listening. He suddenly regretted even trying for the title of valedictorian. He no longer wanted it. He wanted the opposite. He wanted to be one of the nobodies, talking with his small circle of friends, out in the crowd where he would blend in. He didn't want to be on a stage with three other students and a handful of "important adults."
"Wes, I don't want to do this," he squeaked, turning to Wes while the Dean of Dalton droned on about something he did not care to listen to.
"You'll do great," Wes said immediately, turning subtly towards Thad. "I know you will."
"How do you know?" He asked nervously.
Wes gave half a smile. "Because it's you. Because you're so awesome and amazing and way better at everything than you give yourself credit for. You'll nail that speech and the applause will be genuine."
Thad let out a quiet laugh. "Thank you."
When it was time for Thad to make his speech, Wes put a comforting hand on his shoulder. He stood up stiffly and Wes could tell he was still incredibly nervous, but he looked like he would be able to make it through.
Thad stepped up to the podium, and he looked out at the whole crowd, his head moving slowly from the right all the way to the left, presumably to see every face there.
"Good evening, senior class," Thad greeted, leaning into the microphone a bit. He paused, and the quiet chatter fell silent. He looked back at Wes, and Wes gave what he hoped was an encouraging smile.
Thad let out a soft sigh. "I, um...I have a speech written. It's on these tiny cue cards." He held up his right hand and a short stack of index cards. "I took a lot of time writing it, but...looking over them...this isn't what I want to say." He glanced down at the cards in his hands, back up at the audience, and tore the cards in half, letting the pieces float to the floor around his feet. There was a collective quiet gasp from the more dramatic people in the audience. "It was a stupid metaphor, anyway." Wes glanced at the adults. The Headmaster was fidgeting, obviously not pleased with this development. Meanwhile the Dean was talking quietly, probably talking him down from forcibly removing Thad from the podium.
Thad took another breath, let it out slowly, and placed his hands firmly on either side of the podium. "The world can change in the blink of an eye," he began, and Wes noted that Thad's voice sounded stronger than it had all day. "Everything looks the same, feels the same, seems exactly the same...but it's all different. Without precedent, the world can turn on its axis and you can be the only person in the universe who realizes it."
Wes furrowed his eyebrows, staring at Thad intently. What was he getting at exactly? "Life is not easy," he continued. "It's a struggle. No matter what your plans or expectations. Every day is a battle. Every day that passes gets harder and harder to bear. Some days it's a battle just to get up in the morning. You lay there and wonder to yourself, what's the point? What am I accomplishing?" He fell silent. Not even the rustle of fabric disturbed the dead silence of the crowd.
"Worse than that is the regrets. Things you did, things you didn't do, things you'll always wonder what could have happened. I...I'm full of them. From the first day I walked into Dalton I've been filled to the brim with regrets. I'm overflowing with them. I'd gladly do my life over if I could get rid of them. And all these medals, these honors..." he plucked at a medal around his neck. "What do they mean? What do they accomplish? Maybe they'll help me get into a good school. Maybe they'll help me find a suitable career."
By this time the Headmaster looked like he was about to explode, but he sat there watching. No one dared interrupt Thad.
"You know what these medals won't do? They won't help me become a good person. They won't teach me virtues and morals. They won't lead me to love." He glanced at Wes, who flushed bright red. "They won't teach me any of the important things I need to know, to survive in the real world. They're going to sit in a box in my basement with the Christmas decorations.
"I'm the only person who knows what I need, and I'm the only person who knows what I'm capable of. I won't say my years here have been wasted, because it's not true. These have been the best years of my life. What I will say is that, despite being educated here, I still have a lot to learn. And all of you...each and every one of you out there—students, parents, teachers, obscure family members—every one of you still has a lot to learn, too. And maybe I'm the one who needs to learn the most." He paused, staring down at the podium. "I'm—excuse me." He turned and exited the stage. Wes, without a thought, stood up and followed him.
It was dark backstage, and Thad almost blended into the black walls, with his dark gown and dark hair. His forearms, above his head, contrasted greatly with the walls, and Wes spotted him after a moment with his forehead against the wall.
"Hey," he said quietly. "Are you alright?"
" 'm fine," Thad said, and Wes knew it was a lie, just by the fact that Thad's voice was obviously thick with tears. Wes reached out and grasped Thad's shoulder, pulling him away from the wall and into his arms. Thad broke down completely; He buried his head in Wes' chest, gripped at his gown tightly, and let out a series of quiet sobs that echoed backstage but would surely never make it to the stage or the audience. Wes wrapped one arms around Thad's waist and his other hand ran gently through his hair.
"Shh, it's alright," he soothed, keeping Thad as close as possible. "It'll be fine." Thad continued to sob into his gown and Wes suddenly realized that he did not want to feel what Thad felt. Regret. He'd already felt the world change around him, the moment he realized he was in love with Thad. He did not want to have regrets, to always wonder what could have been. His hand stilled momentarily on Thad's head as he thought about this. There were suddenly two paths before him. He could possibly change the course he had set out for himself, or he could continue on the path he was. He had an hour, more or less, to think about it.
Thad's sobs turned into sniffles after a few minutes, and Wes heard both the Crawford girls give their speeches as they stood there backstage. Thad pulled away after another minute.
"Sorry, I got tears all over your—"
"It's fine," Wes interrupted. "It's dark blue. No one will be able to see. Are you alright?"
Thad nodded. "Thanks."
"It's no problem. What are friends for?"
"But—" He was interrupted by applause, something Wes was incredibly grateful for. He smiled at Thad, grabbed his hand tightly (as he was still looking a little bit like he could break at any moment), and led him back to their seats on the stage.
Thad did not let go of his hand until they had to separate to receive their diplomas.
Everyone threw their caps into the air at the end of the ceremony (alright, only half the people did so), and then family members broke through to congratulate their children on graduating. Wes looked around for Thad. He'd been at the back of the group, and Thad at the front—alphabetically as always—and he had to wade through the excited crowds to find him. He spotted Thad, finally, and rushed over to him (and Thad did the same, although Wes didn't know what his motive was).
Without a moment's pause, as soon as he was close enough, he put a hand to Thad's neck, the other at the small of his back, and pressed their lips together. Thad froze, but after a moment he was kissing back and Wes wondered if Thad even realized his lips were moving. He pulled away after a few moments.
"Is this a last-minute prank?" Thad asked, clearly unhappy. Wes shook his head.
"Goodbye gift?" Wes shook his head again.
"...graduation gift?" His voice was even quieter, and Wes shook his head once more.
"Then..." A faint glimmer of hope grew in Thad's eyes, and Wes gave a small smile.
"I'm an idiot," Wes said. "Like...the biggest idiot you could ever find. And I don't want to regret leaving Dalton without at least trying—"
Thad lunged forward, wrapping his arms around Wes' shoulders, and kissing him forcefully. Wes, in his surprise, almost fell back at the sudden onslaught, but he managed to right himself and wrap his arms around Thad's waist, returning the kiss gratefully. He didn't even care that they were in a crowd of people who probably would not care for this display; all he cared about was kissing Thad and making sure he never let him go again. He vaguely heard Benny catcalling and David wolf whistling, but at that moment it didn't matter. Nothing else mattered but Thad.
Thad broke the kiss after a lifetime.
Wes was the first to speak. "What are your plans for the summer?"
A huge grin broke across Thad's face. "Let me check my schedule."