Once, We Were.

Chapter Two.

I Keep Trying To Do The Math, Keep Getting You [And Me].

Stephanie was never Zeke's type.

He didn't see her like Virgil did. He didn't see the childhood dream; the fresh faced girl with pigtails and big plans. He saw a cheerleader who complained about popularity, but wouldn't give it up. He saw the one person who stood between Virgil and his self-esteem for the better part of three years. He didn't like her. He resented her.

And he'd always hate himself for kissing her.

.

This is Charlie Tuttle. I'm unavailable, but if you leave all the necessary information I will be with you at a more suitable time. Thanks!

/It's Zeke. Again. Would you stop screening my calls?/

This is Charlie Tuttle. I'm unavailable, but if you leave all the necessary information I will be with you at a more suitable time. Thanks!

/Charlie, come on. This isn't fair./

This is Charlie Tuttle. I'm unavailable, but if you leave all the necessary information I will be with you at a more suitable time. Thanks!

/You have to talk to me, I have to explain./

.

The Cold War carries on for the better part of two weeks. Zeke would usually be impressed with Charlie's willpower; he was always lousy at holding grudges. Even this past year, with Virgil out of the picture, Charlie was still sending e-mails and cards, and leaving messages when Zeke ignored his calls.

"Alright, I have a hypothetical for you," Zeke says, sitting at Paul's place playing Halo on his oversized and overpriced flat screen TV. Paul huffs out a laugh.

"Will it hurt?"

"I guess time'll tell."

"Shoot."

Zeke keeps his eyes trained on the game. He's known Paul for a while now, but they've never talked about anything that involved … emotions. "Just say you had this girlfriend. This girlfriend that you've wanted for a really long time, since you were a kid, even, and. You get this girlfriend. You're really happy with her, things are great, life is wonderful with your girlfriend."

"Okay, so remind me," Paul says passively, dropping the remote in defeat. "Did you say I have a girlfriend?"

"Anyway," Zeke says in a low tone, forcing back a smirk. "Anyway, you've also got a best friend. You've always been good to this friend. He probably owes you a lot. Except, one day, your girlfriend comes to you crying and she says, I'm sorry, your best friend kissed me and I kissed him back and I'm really sorry and can you ever forgive me and, so on and so on."

Paul's quiet from his place on the couch. Zeke gathers enough courage to look over and see that Paul's mouth has fallen open a little. "What?"

"Well, what do you do?"

"Zeke, what the hell?"

"I just – I don't know what I'd do and I thought -"

Paul clasps a worried hand around Zeke's shoulder and gives it a shake. "Is this about Rachel?"

"What? No. Rachel's not my girlfriend. It's hypothetical."

There's a muffled scoff. "That was as hypothetical as Monica Lewinski."

"Just tell me what you'd do!" There's quiet again, as Zeke's high, desperate voice bounces around the room. Suddenly, [and Paul must realise, surely] this isn't a time for their joking.

"I don't know," he answers slowly. "I'd probably find a new girlfriend."

Virgil had said goodbye to Stephanie, but whether he'd bothered to move on Zeke wasn't sure. It had been a long time since he was sure of anything.

"What about your friend? What would you do about him?"

Paul is still sceptical, by the look on his face, but he also remains serious. Honest. "I'd probably hate him forever."

.

On the weekend, with Paul's confession still ringing in his ears, Zeke buys a bottle of bourbon and gets drunk. There's no party, no friends, and Rachel's not coming over so it's probably one of his uglier, more pathetic displays. The only thing he takes any comfort in, is that he doesn't stumble over to Charlie's house that night.

He waits until he's hung over, with a ferocious, hurricane headache.

"Charlie!" It's not long after 8, on a Sunday morning, and Charlie still lives at home, but Zeke pounds on his door, anyway. By the time anybody answers it, Zeke's hand is red and sore and cramped up into a fist.

"You're insane," Charlie tells him logically, despite his E-MC² pajamas and bed hair. It's apparently too early to fight, because Charlie doesn't wait for Zeke to beg to come in, and leads him through to the kitchen.

"You're lucky my parents were away for the night," he groans, rifling through the fridge.

"I'm sorry, I just couldn't sit at home pressing 'redial' any more."

Charlie emerges with OJ and a twisted, angry brow. "Gee, Zeke, life must be so hard for you."

"Okay, so you're still pissed at me. I'm glad we got that cleared up."

"You're wasting your time." Virgil's voice shoots through from the hallway and Zeke spins, shoving his back against the wall. He must look like a cornered animal.

"I didn't know you'd be here."

"Well, I am, and Charlie knows the whole story so there's no point coming in here smelling like booze and trying to win the fight."

Zeke feels the blush in his cheeks. Virgil's on the other side of the room, and still he can smell him. Virgil's always known Zeke's penchant for alcohol, of course. He's always hated it. Zeke shouldn't have come, but he's here and he's not going to run and hide anymore. He spent a year too long doing that.

"If you're going to tell him the whole story, then tell the whole story," Zeke says quietly, throwing a glance to Charlie. He doesn't look angry any more. Just confused. Curious. "Not just the parts that suit you."

Virgil folds his arms. His lips and shoulders and chest visibly tighten as he says, "It's the parts that matter," in a clipped voice. The tension's suddenly so thick Zeke can hardly breathe. Here it comes, like a freight train: big, furious truths that Virgil managed to dodge last time.

Zeke will tie him to the track if he has to. He's going to say it.

"To you, maybe, but not to me."

Charlie obviously senses the shift, trying hard to keep his tone impartial. "Guys. What's going on?"

"About a month before the party - "

"You mean the night you kissed my girlfriend?" Virgil yells, panicky. "Is that the party you mean? I'm just not sure. There were so many parties I don't want to get them confused. It was the one where you kissed my girlfriend, right?"

"Virgil, please. Let Zeke finish."

If anyone other than Charlie had asked, Virgil would have kept on yelling. Instead he ducks his head, hiding his face in the morning shadow. Zeke looks away from him, hands shaking.

"I was at Virgil's house and I told him something that he didn't want to hear."

"What?" Charlie's voice is breathy and impatient. "What did you say?"

"I said …" 1, 2, 3, say it. "I told him I was in love with him."

There's a loud, crashing silence that seems to stretch on forever. Zeke can only look at his shoes and gnaw on his bottom lip and wait for something to happen. It does. Virgil swears under his breath and thunders out with a slam of the back door.

Zeke looks up at Charlie, to see that Charlie is staring at him like a new equation he has found. "You told him you loved him?" he says in a meek, little voice. It doesn't sound like he's upset, or disgusted. Surprised, definitely, and more than a little bewildered.

"Yeah. I told him, and I kissed him, and - "

"You kissed him?!" This time Charlie's voice is an octave higher, and he clamps a hand over his mouth to cage it in. Zeke nods, moving to rest his elbows on the bench, and bury his head in his hands. It's all coming back now, in waves, in ways that he wouldn't let it before.

"He said that he was flattered, but he wasn't interested and that was it."

"Well …" Charlie moves in close and lowers his voice again. "What's that got to do with kissing Stephanie?"

Zeke is running on empty now. He'd gotten this far, he'd push as far as he could go. "At first he was fine but then he started avoiding me," he explains to Charlie, who is wide eyed and attentive. Zeke wishes it was an hour after the kiss, a day or a week even. He wishes he'd trusted Charlie with it, had given Charlie the chance to help him through it. "He wouldn't look at me, and soon he wouldn't talk to me. I tried to get to him, to tell him not to worry; that I wouldn't tell any one or try anything but he just got worse. He started talking crap, and pushing me around, just to make me go away."

"Why didn't I see this?" Charlie sounds disappointed. The problem he knew was there, but couldn't see. It really was unfixable, just like Zeke had said.

"He didn't want you to see."

"So you kissed Stephanie, for what? Revenge?"

"No." Zeke looks up, meeting Charlie's sad gaze. "I kissed her because I knew he couldn't ignore it."

.

They had been out on the front porch, lounged in the swing, chatting, laughing, waiting for Virgil's mom to remind Zeke it was a school night and he should be getting home. Virgil was grinning about something- Zeke can't remember what, now – and it was so big and bright and disarming that Zeke said the words before he even had time to think them.

I love you. It was so incredibly stupid that he felt like he should clean up, rewind, but it just kept coming out, I'm sorry dude, it's true, I don't know what to do about it, and kept coming until the only thing he could think to do was stopper it by leaning in and pressing his mouth to Virgil's.

There were five slow, hesitant seconds where Zeke thought it was going to work. Virgil was going to open his mouth and let him.

That was all he'd been left with. Five seconds.

.

The only thing Zeke can think to do is become buried in his work. Every motorbike, bicycle, spare part and tyre that rattles through, Zeke has his hands on it before his dad can protest. He tells another lie – mounds and mounds of lies, no point stopping now – about saving, and travelling, and having a life plan. It's something every parent loves to hear.

Besides, it's not completely dishonest. Escaping would probably be the best thing for everyone.

"What's going on with you?" Rachel snaps one night, after coming over and finding Zeke's not in the mood for her – again. She's sprawled out on the bed, half naked, and he can't lie with her, be near her, be satisfied.

"I'm just, stressed, with work and stuff," he mumbles, walking aimlessly around, pretending to tidy. She pushes her body against him, slides her hands across him, presses her mouth to his skin, and he aches, and aches, and can't find the wound to heal it.

"You're the one who has taken on extra work, Zeke, you didn't have to."

"I didn't have to? Jesus, Rach, do you think I want to live here forever?"

Rachel gets up from the bed, and starts pulling on some pants. "I don't know, you never tell me anything."

"Well I don't," Zeke barks, dropping whatever he had picked up back onto the floor. "I don't want to be here and I don't want to feel like this and I don't know what else to do about it."

"Zeke."

"I'm in love, Rach. There's someone else, there's always been someone else." They'd had that talk, briefly, no details. "And up until now it's been cool, I've dealt with it, but I'm struggling right now, and you gotta let me struggle. I can't be your boyfriend. I can't be your responsibility."

"I know, I just - " her voice trails off but Zeke can hear what she meant to say. I hoped it would be different.

She goes to him, where he's slouched in an armchair, and crawls up onto his lap. Zeke closes his eyes, feeling the brush of her cheek on his neck. His hands claw at the sofa. "Have you had enough of me?" she asks quietly.

"No," he tells her, and doesn't add, I've had enough of me.

Instead, he takes her back to bed.

.

Charlie waits another week before calling, before coercing Zeke into coffee and pie. Back when things were normal, when they spent every other hour of the day together, they ate a lot of pie. Charlie went through a Scientific Chef phase, inventing so many recipes, so extreme, that they started to become inedible. Zeke could fill books upon books with all the stupid things they did, all the time they wasted, but he could never explain how good it was.

"You can talk to me about Virgil, you know," Charlie tells him, as their conversation hits a lull. "It doesn't bother me, that you're gay, I hope you didn't think - "

"I'm not gay," Zeke tells him, crossing his arms. "I'm in love with Virgil. It's not the same."

"You're still …?"

Zeke leans his elbows against the table, crowding in close, asking, quietly, "How is he? Is he okay?"

"Yeah, I guess," Charlie takes a long, noisy slurp of shake from his straw. He's still like an overgrown kid, so smart and yet so innocent. Big, hopeful eyes. Zeke shouldn't have brought him into this. It's not fair. "He's just … quiet."

"Quiet? Quiet how?"

"He keeps to himself mostly. He studies, plays some sport, stays over sometimes. His life is just … quiet."

"But he's happy?" Zeke asks, and he knows how it sounds, he knows Charlie can hear the desperation in his voice. If he can't have Virgil then maybe he can have that.

"Zeke, can you tell me," Charlie seems to squirm in his seat, like he has an upset stomach, or a burning in his chest. "Tell me why you had to kiss him?"

"Charlie,"

"No, really, I just mean. Everything was great, wasn't it? You were happy. What changed? What made you think, I have to kiss him, even though he has a girlfriend, even though the odds of him liking me back are so marginal, so - "

"We sparked, Charlie," Zeke cuts in, his head in a hand, the other rummaging in his coat pocket. "We had something, different, and I thought, I thought that he wanted it too."

From his pocket he pulls out the present that Virgil had given back, and passes it over.

"Would you give it to him?"

"You should - "

"Please, Charlie, I think I've done enough. Just give it to him and tell him it doesn't mean anything, that he can throw it out or give it away, it doesn't mean anything."

"It means everything," Charlie says in a sad voice, but he takes it, anyway, and he looks at Zeke like he's seeing him properly for the first time.

.

Virgil liked to stand on chairs and present people when they walked into a room. He liked to stick candy in soda and watch it explode and leave the mess for someone else to clean. When it was cold he walked around in a t-shirt to see the gooseflesh on his skin, and when it was hot he would sneak up behind Zeke and put ice under his collar.

Virgil talked too much when he was nervous, and talked too much when he wasn't. He listened to The Cure and Christina Aguilera and he bought pants too big so he could always wear a belt. He kissed Stephanie when he thought no-one was looking, because he hated seeing people in public and didn't want to be that kind of couple.

Virgil smelt like apples and Dr. Pepper and when his hair was wet he would slick it back and do an impression of Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone that made Zeke laugh every time. He was terrible at Math, had straight As in English, and liked to stick 2B pencils up his nose and make stupid noises to embarrass Zeke.

There were so many things that Zeke would never forget, so many things he didn't know, and none of it mattered.

It was never enough.