Castle Roland


by Cy-Kun


Chapter 9

Posted: N/A

Your entire life changes when you fall in love.

I'd heard that a lot in my life. From songs, books, romantic movies that even when I was at my most "love is fake bullshit-ey" I still devoured whenever I could be bothered to watch a movie and stories my parents forced me to listen to about when they fell in love with each other. Which are uncomfortable and gross. No one wants to hear how sexy their mom looked in her slinky dress at the cocktail bar. But I always either ignored it or thought it wasn't really literal. Like, it was just a change in how you looked at things or something. It wasn't though. At least not for me. When I fell in love with Owen, my entire life literally changed. And it happened pretty much overnight.

I didn't notice it at first. When I got home after our date all I could think about was trying to keep the lovestruck smile I'd had all the way home off my face. My mom actually helped with that without meaning to. I was in the house for maybe, I dunno, a second or two before she kinda jumped out from around a corner, scared the SHIT out of me and started asking me excited questions about my "new friend". I was a bit freaked out, but after a few minutes I just started getting insulted. Seriously, it's not like I cured cancer. I just made a friend. You don't need to act like it's the most impossible thing in the world mom.

I glared at her, but told her about my day. Well, a seriously edited day anyway. I left out anything that was even the littlest bit suggestive. Except for some reason the puppies. I left those in. Even the stuff with the girls, even though I could have KILLED myself for bringing that up since it was impossible to keep the jealousy out of my voice. I'm pretty sure my mom thought I was jealous because they were interested in Owen and not me. If she thought I was jealous of THEM because I wanted HIM I think I would have gotten something other than the badly hidden amused smirk that I got.

There was one disgusting, brain-short-circuiting moment when she asked me if Owen and Cheryl were dating and about a million unwanted images flashed through my head but my violent head shake and almost shouted "No!" just made my mom laugh. And, god, I hoped she didn't think I was jealous because I wanted CHERYL. Puke.

Apparently my story made Owen pass the pre-meeting mom test though because she didn't ask too many questions or give me any crap about hanging out with him. Parents do that right? I mean, I've seen it on TV but I never really had any reason for it to happen to me so that's an actual thing and not just some outdated TV plot right? Either way, I'm glad I didn't think about that before I started the story or I'd have freaked out about never seeing him again and added in something about Owen rescuing a baby from a dinosaur or some other shitty attempt to make him seem awesome. Of course if he was a GIRL I could have just told her how he -she, whatever- made me feel but, yeah, not going there.

After my mom was done with me I spent the rest of the day rereading the same three sentences in Sharpe's Waterloo and thinking about Owen. I replayed our kiss about a million and eight times in my head. The way his lips felt. The way his body felt pressed against mine. His smell, Head and Shoulders and clean shirt and some other smell that I can't even describe that had to be pure Owen. His wet, soft tongue.

And that was when I gave up pretending I was gonna get anywhere in the book.

It was also the first time I jerked off thinking about Owen since I knew what he looked like.

I blushed through the whole thing. I'm not usually embarrassed about jerking off. I'm not a teenage stereotype, spraying the world with my sperm every time I get a second alone, but I'm not a prude either. I jerk off. And I jerk off thinking about sex and Owen's role in that sex. But I'd never actually jerked off thinking about someone who actually EXISTED before. And definitely not someone I knew. And DEFINITELY not someone I was in love with. It was....intense. But also really, really embarrassing because I'm gonna have to SEE him again after doing THAT and I have no idea how I'm not gonna turn red and explode into mortified little chunks.

I'd never had a better orgasm though, and I fell asleep soon after, completely forgetting to call Cheryl. I dreamed about Owen. Not a sex dream. Just him smiling at me from across a crowded room and me smiling back and tender kisses and cuddling on a couch.

And then my dad woke me up to go golfing. I've never been more glad that I don't talk in my sleep when he offhandedly said "You looked really happy sleeping, must have been a good dream huh?" I think hearing that took three years off my life. Woke me up pretty fast though.

Golfing with my dad was -another word I've never used before- bittersweet.

It was so much like it used to be. He made me breakfast after I showered and talked to me the whole time. Like, really talked, where he'd ask my opinion about something and actually listen to what I said instead of just assuming I was an idiot because I wasn't in my thirties. If I made a good point he'd tell me and if I said something stupid he'd try to explain it better. He never yelled at me or talked down to me. It was nice, talking to an adult who wasn't a teacher always trying to catch you making a mistake so they could justify their employment. Even as good as my mom can be she still talks to me like I'm ten half the time. My dad always treated me like a person. By the time we ate and drove to the golf course I'd almost forgotten why I'd stopped doing things like this with him.

But then it was also nothing like it used to be. The whole time we were golfing I kept thinking about Owen. I couldn't help it. As happy as it made me actually being close to my dad again there was a much bigger part of my heart that was Owen's and I couldn't forget about him or push him to the side while I was with my dad. Especially after yesterday. By the time we were at the 5th hole my whole emotional center was pretty much fucked up. I loved spending time with my dad, but I loved Owen more. I got almost sick thinking about never being this close to my dad again after he finds out, but I actually GOT sick thinking about not having Owen. I wanted to enjoy today, but I couldn't knowing that this might be the last time it'd ever happen. But I needed to fake it. Enjoyment I mean. If my dad thought I wasn't having a good time, aside from probably hurting him because I'd always loved it when I was a kid and he was obviously going through some guilt about not being home as much, he'd pry and try to find out what was wrong and there was no way I could hide something this big. Not now. He'd have it out of me in ten minutes.

My dad ended up winning. I must have been doing a good job of the faking though because he just teased me about being rusty instead of thinking I was on drugs or something. Which might have been a real concern. My dad winning at golf was almost more rare than me calling someone I didn't know on the phone. But I must be secretly masochistic or something because I agreed to do it again the next time he got a weekend off.

I was home just in time to strip my just-spent-all-day-in-the-sun sweaty long sleeve off -sometimes I wish I owned at least ONE short sleeve shirt no matter how exposed it makes me feel- before my phone rang. I had time for just enough hope that it was Owen to spring up that I was disappointed when I saw it was Cheryl.

"Hey." I said, hoping none of it came through my voice.

"You didn't call me." she said matter of factly.

I sighed, then my mind slipped out of "golfing with dad" mode and I sighed again, but a lot happier. I was gonna get to talk about Owen! I'd been sorta unconsciously holding it in all day and I usually hate how nosey Cheryl is but right now all I really wanted to do was, fine, gush.

"Yeah, sorry." I said absently. I was busy thinking about where I wanted to start. "Hey, can you give me a second? I need to get a shirt on."

There was exactly one second of silence, and then, "Oh my god! You had sex with him!" she accused.

I choked on my own disbelieved choking. Trust me it's possible. "Wh-WHAT!? No!"

"Then why are you topless? Oh god, Andy, why are you topless?" she sounded seriously freaked out and argumentative at the same time. Like she really, really wanted to be wrong but she couldn't help proving herself right. Which is very Cheryl.

"I'm sweaty!" I yelled.

"From having so much sex!" she countered, sounding horrified and smug.

"From golfing all day with my dad, you idiot! My date was YESTERDAY. I didn't see Owen today."

"I know it was yesterday you-" she cut herself off, then paused. "You really went golfing?"


"Oh." she said meekly. "Um. Sorry." she added, embarrassed.

She wasn't the only one. My whole body felt like it was blushing. I looked down at myself and it wasn't thank god, but it still felt flushed and burny. "Do you really think I'd get naked in front of ANYONE the first time....ever?" I changed what I was gonna say at the last second to make it more realistic. Because seriously, me getting naked in front of actual people? Can't ever see that happening. Which would make sex really hard. Not that I'm thinking about it! And now my whole body IS kinda turning red. Great. I tried to push THOSE thoughts out of my head. Try to guess how successful I was. "I could barely get myself to hold his hand in a dark, mostly empty movie theater. S-sex would have been impossible." God right now I don't even wanna say the WORD.

Cheryl ignored most of what I said though, in that Cheryl way she has, and focused only on the important part. "You held his HAND?" she asked, astonished.

And just like that I went from oh-god-this-conversation-is-killing-me embarrassed to ohmigawd!-girlshriek!-I-wanna-talk-about-my-boyfriend giddy. "Yeah." I sighed dreamily. "And he kissed me."

"He KISSED YOU!?" she practically shrieked into the phone. It wasn't a girlshriek, just a normal one, but it was still way too loud. "You have to tell me everything. Now!" she ordered.

I moved the phone over to the ear that wasn't ringing and did just that. Unlike when I told my mom though, I didn't leave anything out. Even the stuff that was embarrassing like turning into a tween girl over the puppies (even though she'd seen that more than once) or the phone thing in his room or holding his hand in the middle of the restaurant without even realizing it. And I definitely didn't leave out the part about being in love with him.

"Andy...." she said softly when I was done. "I-wow. I never thought you'd ever actually say the 'L' word about anyone."

"I know." Another happy sigh. "But when he kissed me it was like I was a different person, looking back on things someone else thought and did and thinking, 'wow, that guy had NO idea'. I LIKE having an idea. I LIKE knowing exactly why my chest tightens up every time I see him or talk to him, why just thinking about him can make me feel better. I never wanna go back to being that way again."

"I..." I heard something that sounded suspiciously like a sniffle. "I'm really happy for you Andy." And she actually sounded happy. I half expected her to tease me about it or at least be smug about being right about how I felt but she wasn't. She was just happy. I had to blink away some wetness in my eyes that you'll never be able to prove were tears. It's times like this when I remember why Cheryl's my best friend, aside from the knowing each other since birth thing.

"Thank you." I said. And was there a hitch in my voice? Maybe, but I'm just gonna pretend there wasn't.

We sat in comfortable silence for a little bit. "God!" Cheryl broke it with a laughing yell that sounded a bit watery. "Ok, time to stop being weepy girls." Remember you can't prove anything! "Heh. I can't believe my Dandy Andy is all grown up and in love."

And it's times like THIS when I remember why I sometimes forget why she's my best friend.

"Don't even go there...." I paused dramatically. "Cher."

"Dammit!" she growled predictably. "You know, you're the gay one, YOU should really be Cher."

"No, I really shouldn't." And then something that had been in the back of my head for a while kinda popped up front. "And I never really got why Cher's one of things you're supposed to like if you're gay anyway. Is it because she looks like a guy in drag? And what's up with that Wizard of Oz chick anyway? And that Jewish singer lady? It's just so weird that gay guys are so obsessed with all these female actresses."

"Um." Cheryl paused. "Kay?"

"What?" I asked.

"Nothing." she said slowly. "Uh, so, tell me about golfing?"

I sensed a subject change but since I wasn't gonna get any insight on gay icons I figured I'd go along with it. Even though I wasn't really done talking about Owen yet I told her about golfing with dad. She laughed at me for a good ten minutes when I told her that he won, but she was sympathetic when I talked about how torn I felt. Unlike Owen though, she didn't just offer support, she told me what she thought I should do. Which she always does. But I wasn't ready to just tell my dad yet. I needed.....I dunno, more time to just enjoy being with Owen without worrying about my dad not letting me see him. I wanted to keep it a secret for as long as possible, even though part of me sort of agreed that getting it over with sooner might be better than constantly worrying about it.

It was a good enough segue into talking more about Owen though and the second the dad sort-of-argument turned into a stalemate -like it always did- I told her about our plans for tomorrow. It surprised her. Not the me cutting a class thing since I did that all the time, even if most of it was kinda approved by Nurse Amy, but the me letting her meet Owen thing. She thought I'd try to keep them apart as long as possible and, of course, the second she said it I kinda wished I'd thought of it when Owen brought it up. As happy as she is for me, there was no way she wouldn't either grill him about his "intentions" toward me or embarrass the hell out of me.

Probably both.

After that I might have got a little TOO gushy. I think it was somewhere between "You HAVE to see this picture I took of him laughing, he looks so perfect." and "I really need to find out what shampoo he uses, he smells amazing." where she started losing interest and her questions turned into grunts. I figured she was just so wrapped up in how wonderful Owen is that she couldn't even think of anything to ask, but when I was in the middle of recounting word for word what we talked about in Uno's she just yell-growled into the phone, told me she didn't care where he got his vintage Battlestar Galactica poster and said she had a garbage disposal to shove her head into before hanging up. I frowned at the phone for a few seconds, then huffed and plugged it in. That was rude. Whatever. I'll just get Owen to tell her about it tomorrow.

Evil grin.

And that was my Sunday. So maybe the bigger parts of my life changing didn't happen exactly overnight, but it was a start. Maybe life needs twenty four hours to completely shift itself on its ass after the falling in love part because the next day at school was definitely something new. Several somethings actually.

The first happened right after gym.

It was probably the best gym class I'd had all year since Coach Williams was absent. Our school is too small to have an assistant coach and the sub was ninety year old Mrs Franklin the librarian so instead of gym we got to spend a period quietly doing homework in the library. The "no talking or yelling or hitting allowed" library. No Coach Williams abuse. No hyena jocks laughing at me. No tying my hair back.

It was heaven.

It was also at the other end of the school from the gym so I had to go back to my locker before history in a completely different direction. Which you would think would make me more cautious since I didn't have a good idea of who I'd run into between class. You'd think that. But apparently first kisses mess up years of habit just as much as having the worst day of your life because I was freaking oblivious.

"Hey!" I barely registered the yelling voice. Definitely the opposite of when I'd walk the halls listening for Owen but, I didn't need to anymore. I smiled. I knew exactly where he was. Well, not EXACTLY. He was in the freshman hall somewhere. But I knew where he'd be sixth period. The same place I'd be. I grinned to myself and brushed some of my hair behind my left ear. I wonder what he's wearing? I bet he looks better than his friends who, strangely enough, I'm not freaking out about meeting yet- "Hey! Wait! Andy wait!" Huh, weird. That kid has a friend with the same name as me. I wonder if THAT Andy knows an Owen? Wouldn't that be- "Hey." the voice wasn't yelling anymore but I could hear it clearly because it was RIGHT behind me. A hand touched my arm and I tensed up, drawn totally out of my thoughts and thrown back into real life. I jerked my arm away and spun around to see Kevin standing less than two feet away from me.

"Hey." he said, his usually perfectly wavy hair was messed up a bit, probably from running down the hall. After me? He ran his fingers through it to fix it. "I'm glad I caught you. I've been looking for you since last week, I-"

I glared at him, the panic turning into anger before it really had a chance to even be panic. "I don't care." I snapped. Thinking about that "oh, it's HIM" look he had on his face after he helped me out of the locker STILL hurt. I didn't wanna hear anything he had to say that wasn't "I'm a horrible person and I feel terrible about how I made you feel. Please forgive me I'm the scum of the Earth!". I brushed the hair from behind my ear so it shielded the side of my face but didn't cover up my eyes. "Whatever you want I don't care. Just leave me-"

"No." he cut me off forcefully. "Just listen to me. I feel really bad about what happened last week-"

I snorted. "Yeah I could tell. You seemed so horrified that you let me out of that locker-"

"Dammit!" he growled. His eyes narrowed and all American gay boy or not I thought he was gonna hit me. I tensed but he never even moved towards me. He just ran his fingers through his hair in frustration, messing it up again. This time he didn't fix it. "I wasn't horrified that I let you out of the locker, ok? I just, didn't expect it to be YOU in there. Those things are so small I didn't think it was anybody I knew in there. I thought it was a small freshman or something. I was just surprised that it was you."

A freshman? Really? Now I felt insulted. "I'm not THAT sm-"

He cut me off. "Do you really think I'd be upset that you might tell someone I helped you out?" he looked me right in the eyes as he asked. He looked....pained. Like my opinion of him mattered. It made me hesitate with the "fuck yes!" I wanted to shout.

A bitter "Why would you be any different than anyone else?" is what ended up coming out.

"I AM different." his eyes never left mine and his look got more intense, like he was trying to shoot "please believe me" lasers from them. He seemed sincere and I started to think that maybe he might be telling the truth. Then I remembered getting my ass kicked by Jarred and him and his friends just walking right on by.

I glared back at him. "That's why you never stopped to say ANYTHING when Jarred was beating on me, right? Because you're so different."

He looked at me for a moment before his whole body seemed to deflate. He slumped in on himself so much I was shocked he was still standing. Actually I was more shocked that what I said seemed to have such a big impact. I expected anger or him trying to convince me of.....something. But he looked like I'd kicked him in the emotional balls.

"I......I wanted to." he whispered. His head was down, so I couldn't see his lips, and even though the hall crowd was thinning out it was still sort of noisy, so I have no idea how I heard him. But I did. And I was two seconds away from calling him out on his bullshit when he looked up at me. I don't think I'd ever seen anyone look at me with that much pain in their eyes before. Like he was being torn in half and only just realizing that he wasn't going to be able to glue himself back together. It stopped me. I was still angry, just, confused now too. When I mouth off to people who aren't Cheryl they don't look at me like that. They either beat me up or get some of their friends to help them beat me up. This was different. And different sometimes short circuits my brain. "I....." he trailed off and sighed. A deep, shuddering sigh that shook his whole body. "I wanted to so bad." he said, slightly louder this time, but I could still barely hear him. I was actually a bit surprised that no one was paying any attention to us, but I guess it was close enough to class time that no one felt like being late to make fun of me. Or maybe no one expects me to actually be talking to anyone so they just don't think it's me. Heh, maybe being social is better camouflage than long hair and dull shirts.

"But you didn't." I think I was going for accusing with that, but it ended up coming out almost like a question. Well, if I'm asking and not yelling I might as well just ask. I was getting curious despite myself anyway. "Why?"

He swallowed. Then blinked. For a second he seemed surprised at the question, like maybe he was expecting me to yell at him again or just not believe him -not that I DID, mind you. Curious remember-, but when he realized that I was actually asking he perked up just a little bit. Not much, but he didn't look as kicked and defeated as he did a second ago. But almost right after it happened he kinda cringed slightly, then slumped again. "It's a stupid reason." he mumbled. I let out an exasperated sigh and was about to tell him that there was no WAY I was gonna stand here and force it out of him when he started talking again. "Brandon...." he sighed, then just looked resigned. Like he knew it was pointless to go on but he couldn't stop. "Brandon didn't do anything. No one else did anything. So....I didn't do anything."

I blinked. THAT was his reason? "You're right." I said. "That's a stupid reason." I shook my head disgustedly and turned to walk away when he grabbed my arm.

"Wait." he said. "Please I'm-"

"Let go!" I snapped, hoping I didn't sound as scared as I was starting to get. Nothing good ever follows someone grabbing your arm and not letting go. Nothing.

But he did. He let me go like I was radioactive. I might have gotten offended if it wasn't exactly what I wanted. "Please. Let me-"

"What? Apologize?" I took a step back but didn't walk away. Yet. "Why? What's the point? Because you feel bad that you can't stick up for someone unless someone else does it?"

"Ye-no!" he shook his head. "That's not what-ok it is but that's not the whole reason!"

"Oh?" I said disbelievingly. "Then what is?"

"Because I'm scared! Ok?" he looked angry, but not at me. He swallowed. "I....I never had any friends before I met Brandon." he said, quieter this time. "I was kind of a loser in middle school. Not as bad as, um..." he trailed off and looked away, which was pretty much screamed that he was gonna say "not as bad as you" even louder than if he'd looked at me, but I didn't say anything. He was right. No one is as big a loser as me. Usually that would have bothered me but now, after Owen, after falling in love, it wasn't my defining trait anymore. The realization surprised me. And I suddenly wanted to hear where Kevin was going with this.

"Go on." I said.

He looked back at me and nodded, seeming to take that as an accepted apology even though he never apologized and I never accepted. "I didn't really have friends because I was bad at sports and had some pretty bad acne and I was kinda shy. On top of all that in seventh grade I figured out I was gay and I thought, this is it. I'm never gonna have friends. People are gonna make fun of me until I graduate. Everyone's gonna hate me. And then I met Brandon.

"Even back then he knew exactly who he was and never tried to hide it. I still remember everything that happened the first time I saw him. He transferred in about two months into seventh grade. I was in gym, sitting out because I'd broken my wrist falling off my roof -don't ask- and he stalks in five minutes late in this bright pink Hello Kitty shirt, blowing on his nails. Coach Francis saw him, thought he was a girl and politely told him that the girls gym class was outside doing field hockey that day, and he totally flipped out. He didn't even stop walking, just changed direction, walked right up to Coach Francis and started screaming about homophobia and gender stereotyping and all this other shit. It went on for like ten minutes with everyone in the gym just STARING at him open mouthed and then he said 'and don't you even THINK about making me play one of those stupid ball sports because I JUST painted my nails and I'm NOT messing them up for a pointless grade'." Kevin said in a really good imitation of Brandon's stereotypically gay voice. "He didn't even wait for the coach to answer, not that he would have figured out what to say if Brandon stood there all day, he just spun around and walked away. " he smiled slightly as he said that, like even now he couldn't believe it.

"Anyway, he walked away, stomped up the bleachers and plopped down right next to me. He looked at me for a second, then shoved his hand in my face and said 'are these too blue?'. I looked at his nails and they were painted the brightest blue I've ever seen. I was just so in awe of someone that could just say they were gay in front of a whole gym class like it was stupid to think he wasn't that I have no idea how I ever answered but I did, I said 'they're pretty blue'. He just smirked and said 'you think they're pretty?' and I blushed and he just laughed, but it wasn't a mean laugh, you know? It was kinda like he was sharing a joke with me."

Yeah, I knew EXACTLY how that felt.

"We didn't become instant friends or anything but over the next few months I saw him get shit from guys and stick up for himself every single time and eventually he made friends with Cam and Drew-" They were two of Brandon's gay posse. I was a year behind all them in school but even I knew that they were gay before they started hanging out with Brandon. Everyone did. And I STILL got called fag more than they did. "-and seeing them just hanging out and being normal gave me the courage to come out to my parents one weekend. I was stupid though and my brother overheard and freaked out and told everyone he knew. I was so terrified to go into school that Monday but Brandon just walked up to me and told me that it was way past time that I started sitting with him at lunch. So I did. And I got to be friends with him and Cam and Drew and eventually more gay kids joined and when we got to high school we all joined the GSA and I made MORE friends and it was.....nice. For the first time in my life I BELONGED somewhere."

He was looking at me really intently now. Like he was begging me to understand what he was trying to say. "I...I like it. Having friends. Being around people like me, who GET me and know what I'm going through. My brother's off in college pretending he doesn't have a fag in his family. My parents don't know how to talk to me. Brandon and the guys do. I CAN'T lose that. Even..." he sighed and looked away. "Even if sometimes I have to do things that I don't really want to." He looked back into my eyes. "Even if I feel really bad about it, and wish I wasn't too scared to tell Brandon that he isn't always right about everything." He swallowed, then sighed again. "I'm really, really sorry that I'm not Andy. And I'm sorry for making you think I regretted helping you. I didn't. Not at all. I just hope you can understand why I did."

And you know what? I actually did. It still bothered me that he just walked by without saying anything, but after hearing all that I did understand. He was part of a group. He was accepted. Everyone wants to be accepted. Even, especially, the kids who pretend they don't. Popular kids, goths, jocks, nerds, geeks, gays, whatever, they all just wanna feel like they belong somewhere. I got that better than most. I've never been accepted by anyone except Cheryl, and now Owen. I've always been on my own. But if I had a group of friends that made me feel normal instead of like I was on the outside of everyone else? I would have done anything to keep that. Just like I'd do anything to keep Owen. Even though I knew he wasn't the kind of person who'd throw someone aside just because they didn't agree with them or go along with them, like Brandon seems to be, part of me is still scared that I'll do something to make him leave. So, yeah, I definitely understood.

"I accept your apology." I said, and brushed my hair away from my face. "And....I understand."

He just stared at me blankly for a second, like he was trying to figure out a hard math problem or translate something from another language. I guess he wasn't expecting me just to give in that easily. Which actually made me like him a little bit. He didn't just assume that I'd be instantly swayed by his story and immediately forgive him just because he opened up a bit. He wasn't as arrogant as people in Brandon's group always seemed. It was a nice surprise.

When he got it though, a slow smile crept it's way across his face. It wasn't a bad smile and it lit up his all American boy looks perfectly. I'd seen it before and I always thought it was so unfair that he could look that good AND have a nice smile, but it had never been aimed at me before. Now that it was still nice. But that's all. I could appreciate it like a nice painting or a good song, but compared to Owen's smile? It was a stick figure, or a kid pounding his fist on his mom's out of tune piano. "Really?" he asked.

I nodded and tried a smile of my own, but it felt weird. I wasn't really pissed at him anymore and now that I didn't have that distracting me I started to feel awkward and shy. Kevin was basically a stranger, and we all know how well I deal with strangers. "Yeah." I said, keeping my voice steady even though I was starting to want to just be anywhere else. "Really."

His smile got brighter. "Thanks. And I'm sorry about chasing you down like that too. I just felt really bad and I hated that you thought I didn't wanna help you." His eyes never left mine and my uneasiness started to grow.

"Yeah." I said. "I mean I get it. Um, it's fine." I nodded again. Then I noticed the halls were pretty empty. Crap. Now I get to walk into class late and have everyone stare at me and snicker. I sighed. "I-I need to get to class." I turned to leave.

"Wait!" he called before I got three steps. Dammit, I didn't want to but I might as well hear everything he has to say. I didn't want the whole chasing me down thing to be a reoccurring event. So I stopped and turned around, but I let my hair fall in front of my face a bit. Maybe that'd keep me from getting to weirded out about talking to someone I didn't know.

"Um," he paused, like he was trying to figure out how to say something. "Would you wanna hang out sometime? Maybe go to a movie, or come over and play video games or, to eat?" he asked with a small, hopeful smile.

"Uh...." I started. What the hell do I say to that? Just because he's not the douchebag I thought he was doesn't mean I wanna spend any time with Brandon and his friends. No way in hell. "I-I don't think I'd fit in with your group."

"I don't mean with my friends." he said in a low, smooth voice. "I mean just you and me."




Is he asking me OUT?

I'm not the best puzzle solver in the world, but I can work backwards if you give me a peak at the answer. Things in the back of my brain started to slowly slide together. How upset Kevin was when I was pissed at him. His desperate need to explain himself to me. The way he just lit up when I said I understood. So many reactions that were way too extreme for someone who just felt bad that some kid thought he was a dick. He.....he likes me. He thought I hated him and he LIKES me.

I was slightly terrified.

And I didn't hide it well. The wide open eyes, the way my whole body went stiff and the little "eep" noise weren't exactly subtle. He picked up on it right away.

"Shit." he said, looking slightly panicked. "I'm sorry. You're not even gay, are you?" He let out a short, disgusted breath and ran his fingers through his hair. "Dammit I KNEW I shouldn't have believed the stupid rumors I should have just ASKED-" he snapped his mouth shut and took a breath before he looked back at me. "I'm sorry. I didn't-"

"I have a boyfriend!" I squeaked. Oh shit! I just said that! My eyes widened in horror and I could feel my whole face turning red. I frantically looked around but -thank fucking god- the halls were empty. Why the hell did I shout that out? Well, ok that pathetic little squeal wasn't exactly a SHOUT but, still. Anyone could have heard. It's just.....I dunno, when he was talking about "rumors" I knew EXACTLY what he meant and I SHOULD have been horribly embarrassed but then he went on about how I wasn't even gay and it was like if I didn't say anything I'd be denying Owen. And I couldn't do that. But still, shouting that out in school is just.....asking to get shoved face first into a wall.

I won't deny that saying the word "boyfriend" gave me a tiny little thrill though.

For a few moments Kevin didn't even move. It was like he was frozen in place exactly how he was when I interrupted him, mouth open mid word and one hand reaching up to run through his hair again. His eyes were the only thing that weren't still. I could practically see the thoughts rushing frantically through his head and I could tell the exact second when what I said fully registered. "Oh." he said and slowly lowered his hand, then changes his mind and ran it through his hair again. Other than that he was still. Not frozen still, he was shifting his weight slightly and chewing on the inside of his lip, but emotionally still. Like he was bracing himself for something unpleasant. "Um, have you been together long?"

I blushed horribly. God this is probably the most awkward thing that's ever happened to me. Not only am I in the middle of SCHOOL having a casual conversation about my BOYFRIEND -happy sigh- with someone I don't even know, but the guy I'm talking to LIKES me. How the hell am I supposed to deal with this? I wanted to run so badly but I couldn't force myself to move. It was like driving up on a highway accident with body parts and bloody person bits thrown all over and my mind was the wife that burst out crying and wanted to leave and my body was the douche bag husband that pulled over and got out to watch. "We-" I swallowed nervously and looked at his chin. It was a bit easier than looking at his eyes. "Not that long." I said. Technically the truest answer I can give. I have no idea how long we've been together. Since that first phone call? Saturday? Were we even together now? I know we kissed but is there some kind of claiming thing we have to do? Like a "seriously for reals committed boyfriend" proposal or something?

I shook my head slightly and tried to push those thoughts to the back of my head. Now it NOT the time to obsess about that.

"Is it serious?" Kevin asked. Even with my insanely limited social skills I could tell he was trying really hard to ask that casually. And kinda failing at it.

"Yes." I answered instantly. This one was a MUCH easier question.

"Oh." he sighed. He slumped again. Then his mouth curled into a tiny, somewhat bitter half smile. "Heh, I should have known. Guys as hot as you are never available."

I snorted. I couldn't help it. Me hot? Ha!

He frowned for a second, then his mouth dropped open a bit. "You....have no idea how good looking you are, do you?" Somehow, my face got even hotter. God why won't this conversation just END?! I let my hair fall completely in front of my face and turned my head away. Apparently that was a good enough answer. "Wow." he breathed sounding equal parts amazed and wistful. "Your boyfriend is a lucky guy."

I wanted to say something cliched and true like "no, I'm the lucky one" but all that came out was an incoherent mumble. Which is pretty normal awkward Andy social talk. I guess not everything's changed.

And then, like God exists and he was trying to prove that I'm his favoritest thing in the whole universe, the bell rang.

"Crap." Kevin muttered. "I should go." Out of the corner of my eye through my hair I saw him give me a small, sad smile. "See you around I guess." And with that he turned around and walked away. His shoulders were hunched dejectedly and I couldn't tell if he was walking fast to get to class or to get away from me.

I stood there for a bit, watching him leave. It's a strange feeling, disappointing someone you don't even know. A part of me felt bad, but a confused kind of bad where I didn't know if I felt better or worse because there was nothing I could have done to make that turn out different. The only thing that not knowing Owen would have changed would be me blurting out that I had a boyfriend. Kevin Kaplan is NOT the person I'm gonna confess my gayness to just because they ask me out. Another part of me felt annoyed that I felt bad. Like who the hell is he to put all that on me out of nowhere?

But mostly I couldn't wrap my head around anyone finding me attractive. All my non existent self esteem laughed at the thought. And for something that isn't there, it's pretty loud. But it happened. Twice. First with Owen and now with Kevin. The Owen one made me feel like I was made of light and happiness and ohmygod-he-likes-me. The Kevin one.....just made me paranoid. And I have no idea why.

I sighed and shook my head again, more forcefully this time since I was alone. Dammit, I'm so late. I'm gonna get an embarrassing "nice of you to join us Mr Baxter", I just know it. I shook my head again, trying to clear it, and walked quickly to class.

Despite lots -and lots- of head shaking, I couldn't quite push the Kevin thing out of my mind. It stayed with me through history and math and up to, and three steps past, the cafeteria doors. It might have been with me longer but on step number four I looked up to make sure I wasn't gonna walk into anyone and immediately spotted Owen. He was sitting at a table about fifteen feet in front of me, his head tilted back, drinking from a bottle of PowerAde. I could see his throat moving as he swallowed, which made me swallow and blush as I mentally thanked whatever god might be listening that I was wearing loose pants and tight underwear. Then someone must have said something funny because he laughed mid drink, choked a bit, then threw a rolled up napkin across the table. Probably at whoever made him laugh while he was still drinking. I smiled, and sighed.

Suddenly, strange encounters with people in hallways just weren't important anymore.

Somehow he was even sexier than he was Sunday. His hair was a little more curly than usual and sticking up in a few places. He was wearing a black Green Day t-shirt that fit him perfectly, molded to his shoulders and chest but kinda loose on the bottom, and a pair of black shorts covered in pockets that came down just below his knees. I could actually SEE a bit of his legs for the first time. I swallowed around the sudden lump in my throat. All in all he was looking kinda rocker boy today and it looked sooooo good on him.

Ok, time to stop drooling and start moving.

I started walking again, this time angling towards Owen's table. I got about five steps closer before I could clearly see the other people sitting at Owen's table. I stopped. Huh. Other people. That I've never met. My heart started speeding up.

Why did I think this was a good idea?

Then like he was sensing how close I was to total panic-run-away mode Owen turned his head and looked right at me. A big grin split his face and the panic died. I smiled back and love took over from the panic and made my heart beat even faster, but in a good way. I could do this. I could sit with Owen and talk to people I didn't know. I could. More than that, I was GOING to. Right now. Just as soon as the table gets closer.

Oh, I kinda need to walk for that to happen, don't I?

I mentally slapped myself. Ok Andy, now is not the time to be a total dork. Just walk, with one foot going in front of the other and everything. And I did. I got closer to Owen's table and even though I was still a little nervous I couldn't help grinning at him. At life, really. I KISSED this boy. We went on a date and we kissed and I was in freaking LOVE with him. And now I was seeing him again. It wasn't a dream or a mistake he made or a fantasy I had in a coma. It was real.

And the realness kept me going. Even when everyone else at the table noticed me and like a big, multi-headed, judgmental monster turned towards me at the same time with almost the exact same confused/expectant look.

"Hey." Owen said, still smiling wen I got to the table. I smiled back and gave him a small, hesitant wave.

"Hey." I said back. God his eyes were so hazel. And they were doing that shining from the inside thing again. I could just stare at them all da-

"Sit here." he said and pulled out the chair right next to him. I blinked rapidly a few times. Holy shit. Was I just swooning? In SCHOOL? In front of PEOPLE? And not just people but Owen's FRIENDS?


I blushed and let my hair fall in front of my face as I sat down. Oh god, oh crap, ok. I'm panicking now.

After I talked to Cheryl on Sunday I did call Owen up later on. We didn't talk long, but one thing I definitely remember is him saying that he wasn't out to his friends and we'd need to act like we weren't any more than that at lunch. I asked him why he wanted me to meet them if they didn't know and he said "It just feels right having everyone I know know that you're in my life."

I was smiling for almost a whole hour from that.

But here we were less than five seconds after his friends see me -we haven't even really MET yet!- and I'm smiling and getting all swoony like a twelve year old girl meeting a Jonas brother. God did I just OUT Owen to his friends? Or do they all think I'm just some fag perving on their friend? Is Owen mad at me now? I think I could deal with being the pervy fag if he wasn't mad. Fearing the worst, I glanced away from the edge of the table I was studying and towards Owen.

He was still smiling. Not as much as before, but it reached his eyes. There wasn't any madness there. Well, not MADNESS, I mean anger. There wasn't anger there. Madness would be crazy. Literally. Because that's the definition. Not anger and oh god I'm just gonna shut up now. I'm not making any sense. Even to myself.

"You ok?" Owen said softly. My heart ached -in a good way- at the quiet concern in that sexy voice.

I nodded. "Yeah. Sorry." I wanted to say more but what could I say in front of his friends? I'm nervous about meeting your friends and, oh, I think I might have just outed myself as a big sappy fag who kinda has a thing for you? Yeah, no.

"So, is this the guy you were talking about?" one of his friends asked.

I forced myself NOT to spin my head around in a panic. I'd probably have to explain why I'm so jittery and like I said before, yeah, no. Instead I slowly turned away from Owen and looked across the table at his three friends. I met each of their gazes, which is a HUGE deal for me -go Andy!- and relaxed a bit when I didn't see anything in their eyes but mild curiosity. Good. If they thought either of us was gay for each other there would probably be way more "must kill!" in there somewhere.

"Yep." Owen said happily. "Guys, this is Andy. Andy, these are my frie-other friends." He corrected quickly. Guess I'm not the only one having trouble sticking to the "just friends" thing. "Kenny, Juan and Chris." he introduced, pointing to them when he said their name.

Kenny was the one right in front of me. He was tall, tall enough that I could tell he was tall even though he was sitting down and kinda slouched. He had short, messy black hair that that spiked up in the front a bit and hazel eyes that weren't half as nice as Owen's. He was wearing a blank, green t-shirt over a dark blue long sleeve and a pair of thin glasses. He had a book on the table in front of him closed over one of his fingers so I'm guessing he'd been reading before I showed up. I took a quick look at the title. 'The Sword of Angels' by John Marco. I never heard of it but it had a picture of two knight looking guys on it swinging swords around so I guessed it was probably fantasy. At least the knights looked human so it probably wasn't one of those stupid ones with elves and stuff.

Juan was sitting next to him to my right on the opposite side of the table in front of Owen. He was more around my size, thin and......Asian? I furrowed my brow and leaned in a bit closer. Yep. Definitely Asian. Like, Japanese Asian. Weird. His hair was short too, but spiked up all over with the tips dyed blond. He was naturally tanned and had really pretty brown, oval shaped eyes. He had on a loose white long sleeve shirt with a thin hood on the back of it. And he looked really amused about something.

Chris was sitting next to Juan, in front of nobody. He was taller than everyone except Kenny, at least sitting down, and his hair was longer too. It came down almost to his chin and it was wavy and brown. His eyes were a bright, piercing blue that I was slightly jealous of. I'd always liked blue eyes. He was looking at me with his head slightly cocked, like he was trying to figure something out. He looked.....familiar. I tried to think if I'd ever seen him before but I had no idea and when would I ever see a freshman.....oh! Maybe he was the guy who was handing Owen back his notebook the first day I saw him? I dunno, it didn't seem to totally fit but what else could it be? I mentally shrugged. Not important. What was important was that these were Owen's friends and I had to somehow impress them. Or at least not seem like a total loser.

I'm so screwed.

"H-hi." I said quietly, then winced. Great first impression. God I needed to say something, anything else but I was frozen in total socially awkward Andyness.

"Hey." Kenny said softly, surprisingly softly for someone so big, and gave me a small smile. "Nice to meet you."

I swallowed and gave him a nervous smile of my own. "Th-thanks. Um, you too I mean!" I added hastily.

"Wow dude," Juan said. He was louder, more than making up for Kenny's quietness, and spoke without any accent, Spanish or Asian. "You weren't kidding about how shy he is." He laughed, not meanly but I still blushed.

"Juan, don't be a dick." Owen warned and raised a rolled up napkin threateningly. I took a wild guess at who'd made him choke on his drink before.

He held up his hands to shield his face and laughed. "I'm not being a dick, I think it's cool." he lowered his hands even though Owen didn't lower his napkin ball. "Now Kenny has someone to NOT talk with during lunch." he smirked at Kenny. Owen threw the napkin and it hit Juan on the nose. "Hey!" he flipped Owen off. Owen giggled.

Kenny just rolled his eyes and sighed the kind of long suffering sigh that I've heard come out of me when Cheryl's being particularly annoying. "If you ever said anything interesting I might talk more." He gave me another small smile, one that said, "you better get used to him, he's always like this" and I couldn't help smiling back. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be part of a group?

"Whatever dude." Juan said and stuck his tongue out at Kenny. Ok, maybe this is gonna sound kinda racist but I couldn't get over how weird it was thinking of an Asian guy named Juan. That HAS to be insanely rare. Right? I probably wasn't being too subtle about how confused I was though since after about two seconds of looking -ok, fine, staring- Juan gave me a knowing smirk and a good natured eye roll. "Ok." he said amused. "Let's get it out of the way. Yes, my parents are Spanish. Like, from Spain Spanish, not Mexican Spanish. They adopted me from Japan when I was a baby. No, I don't speak anything but English and I don't have a collection of Gundam figures OR a sombrero. Oh and my sister's from China and they named her Mariana. So it's not like I'm the only one."

My eyes widened and my heart skipped a panicked beat. Shit! Did I offend him? God I have no idea what's worse. Owen's friends thinking I'm a fag or a racist. "I-I didn't-! I mean I wasn't- I'm sorry!"

Juan was silent for a single, terrifying second, then he laughed. "Dude, it's fine. I get it all the time. I'm just glad I'm not Jewish too or I'd be a human 'walked into a bar' joke." He gave me a reassuring grin and popped a potato chip into his mouth. "Trust me, a little staring is nothing. Our Spanish teacher Mrs Cortez practically CRIED when I told her I didn't know any Spanish."

"It was hilarious." Owen giggled. "She still gets this dramatic, disappointed look when she calls on him and he can't pronounce anything right."

"Ugh." Juan groaned. "Don't even get me started on pronunciation. I'm still trying to figure out why the hell they say everything backwards. Whole countries of people talking like 'God my!' and 'Going to the store I am', it's like it was made up by Yoda."

Everyone chuckled a bit, and I joined in only slightly nervously. I haven't had much experience with people who aren't white but the few times I did they all seemed pretty easily offended about anything that could be even a little bit racist. It made me feel better than Juan wasn't like that. I was gonna be freaking out about everything I say around them already, I don't need to add "racism" to the filter of things I need to screen for.

Well, maybe not everyone was chuckling. Chris still hadn't said anything and he was still giving me that same look, but now he was frowning slightly. My nervousness came back. What's his problem? Did he maybe see the smiles I gave Owen? Does he suspect? Or is he just picking up on whatever loser vibe that makes people automatically hate me? So far this hadn't been going shockingly bad. Dammit I knew my luck couldn't hold out.

I couldn't tear my eyes away from him. I felt like if I did he'd immediately tell everyone exactly why I shouldn't be friends with them. So, of course, he did it while I was looking.

"Are you....Andy Baxter?" he asked warily.

My heart fell into a bottomless pit. Oh god. It's even worse than I thought. He KNOWS who I am! Not just a fag or a loser or a racist, but Andy fucking Baxter and everything that goes with it. I felt like crying. I didn't thank fucking god, but I had a feeling I would be in the next few minutes. Everyone was silent now, looking at me. Except Owen. He was glaring at Chris. I could practically FEEL the mental "be VERY careful about what you say" bolts Owen was shooting at him. But even knowing Owen was being protective didn't help this time. In fact, it made it worse. If I was the reason Owen started fighting with his friends I'd throw up and pass out. Hopefully in that order.

"Y-yeah." I said and it was so hard not to make it a whimper. I was so scared about what was gonna happen that I just wanted to get it over with.

Chris licked his lips nervously, then looked towards Owen. "Um, Owen, are you sure you wanna hang out with him? I mean, my brother's said some pretty bad things about him...." he trailed off awkwardly.

Silence. The worst kind of silence too. The kind where everyone KNOWS it's about to be broken and nothing good is gonna follow. It didn't take long either. But surprisingly it wasn't Owen who broke it, even though he looked like he wanted to punch Chris.

"Seriously?" Juan snorted in disbelief. "Since when the hell did you start listening to anything Jarred says?"


Oh my god. I looked at Chris, REALLY looked this time because, holy shit, THAT'S why he looks so familiar. Those eyes, that mouth, the jawline. I didn't recognize it right away because the eyes are usually glaring and the mouth is usually sneering and the jaw is usually clenched in anger but now? I can't unsee it. He's a young Jarred.

"J-Jarred?!" I yelped, cutting off whatever Chris was saying to Juan. "Jarred WALTERS? That's your brother!?" I gripped the edge of the table so hard my fingers started to ache.

Chris jumped in his seat a bit and I could FEEL Owen's eyes on me even though I couldn't tear my gaze away from Chris. I felt trapped, cornered. The enemy's family was in Owen's court! Infiltrator! Lock him in the Tower!

….maybe I shouldn't read historical fiction spy thrillers the day before shit like this happens anymore.

Chris nodded but it was Owen who spoke first. "You know Jarred?"

"Know him?!" I shouted, turning towards him. Owen didn't look mad anymore, just confused, and maybe a bit worried. "Of course I know him! HE'S the one who-" I broke off, some tiny little shred of my defenses kicking in and stopping me from saying something stupid about gayness and how it might apply to me. "He's the one I told you about. The guy that makes fun of me and beats me up."

"What?!" Owen yelled. He glared at Chris. "That was YOUR brother?"

Chris leaned back in surprise. I couldn't tell if it was surprise at hearing what Jarred did to me or at how pissed Owen was. A small part of me jumped with joy at Owen leaping to my defense, but the rest of me was crumbling at the thought of me being the thing that got Owen fighting with his friends after all. Even if Chris was my blood enemy.

God I REALLY need to stop reading those things.

"Look," Chris said hesitantly. "I don't know WHAT Jarred did to Andy but he talks about him a lot with his friends and some of the stuff they say-"

"You don't know what he does?" Owen cut him off harshly. "You don't know that he's been making Andy's life hell since middle school? You don't know that he gets his friends to jump him and make fun of him and rip up his schedule on the first week of school and wreck his books and shoves him in lockers?" I winced at that, well all of it really but the "being put in a locker" thing was still a sore point. I kinda wished Owen hadn't mentioned it. Not that I had any hope of not having everyone here hate me and think I'm a total loser anyway now. "You actually believe any of the crap he says about ANYONE?"

"Yeah man," Kenny spoke up, still quietly but somehow it drew attention as much as Owens yelling. "You didn't believe any of the stuff he was saying about me last year. You NEVER believe anything Jarred says. You know how much of a dick he is."

"Yeah but I KNEW you guys-"

"Oh please." Juan cut him off and rolled his eyes. "Jarred's an asshole. Yeah, we met Andy like five minutes ago but if Jarred hates him so much that he can't shut up about him at home then he has to be cool." He flashed me a quick grin. "What could possibly be so bad that you'd actually believe Jarred about it?"

My heart, which had been filling up with shocked joy at having people -people I didn't know!- defending me suddenly crashed down into my stomach. God, this is it. He's gonna say it any they're all gonna hate me. And probably guess about Owen. And hate him. And it'll be all my-

"He said...." He paused and looked at Owen, probably trying to guess if he was about to get punched for saying it. Either he sucks at reading people, or he saw something on Owen's face that I didn't because he kept going. "He said that Andy tried to molest him in the showers a few weeks ago. He said that he jumped on him and they got in a fight and-"

"That is such bullshit!" Owen shouted.

"That was YOU?" Juan asked at the same time, his eyes widening.

Oh shit. Oh shit. Ohshitohshitohshit. A minute ago I would have said Juan seemed like my biggest ally at the table, besides Owen. Now? Oh god he HEARD about it. It's way too much to hope he didn't hear the "tried to suck him off" rumor, isn't it? Oh Owen, I'm so sorry.

"Dude." Juan said wonderingly. He looked at me in surprise -and ....awe?- for a few seconds. Everyone else looked at him. Then Juan turned to Chris. "Dude," he said again, this time matter of factly. "My sister's boyfriend was THERE. He told her that Jarred just walked up to some kid and started flipping out before he punched him. Then the kid got up and decked Jarred right in the face and they fought until the gym teacher broke it up." He turned back to me. "That was you?" I was so surprised, at the defense, that someone actually saw what really happened and TOLD someone about it, at me not being shunned like I have the sweating sickness -ok, seriously those books are GONE-, that all I could do was nod. "You punched Jarred in the face?" I nodded again. "Dude," Juan said seriously. "You're my freaking HERO!" Then he let out a gleeful laugh and grinned at me.

My mouth dropped open and I blinked rapidly. I....I have no idea what's going on. I'm officially lost.

"Hey," Kenny said and I jumped. He ignored it. "You just made a friend for life. Jarred hates Juan. He treats him like crap and gets all his friends to make fun of him too. Mostly about being Japanese but also about his parents-" he broke off and hesitated, then seemed to change his mind about saying something. "Anyway, he really hates Jarred and you punching him is like seeing Jesus walk on water." He glanced over at Juan and I automatically followed with my eyes. He was still grinning like he just found out he was rich and I was the one giving him his money. We looked back at each other at the same time and he gave me a quick, small smile. "You'll never gonna get rid of him now." Kenny said wryly.

I tried for a smile in return but I couldn't quite do it. Not with Chris still sitting right there. I looked back at him. He was staring at the table with his head down so I couldn't see his expression but his shoulders were slumped. He looked....withdrawn, I guess.

"Apologize." Owen said, startling me, and I jumped again. I kicked myself, but only halfheartedly. If I ever had a reason to be a jumpy mess, this was it. "Chris. Apologize."

Chris sighed, his whole body lifting up then falling. Then he looked up at me. Now that I could see his eyes he looked, kinda terrified. "I'm sorry." he said softly, then he swallowed. "No, really, I'm really, really sorry." he said louder and forced himself to look in my eyes. "I.....fuck I don't know why I believed him. I KNOW how much of a douchebag he is it's just....he seemed REALLY upset know the whole thing, and I've never seen him get like that before so..." he shrugged. "I dunno. I was stupid. Owen wouldn't hang out with anyone that was a locker room perv anyway so I was more than stupid." He tried to smile but it came off more like a wince. "I'm sorry."

"Dude, Jarred was probably upset because the asshole got his ass KICKED!" Juan grinned and punched the air for emphasis. "Man, I would cut my nuts off to see that."

Chris laughed nervously, but he was the only one. Owen was still tense beside me, probably glaring. Kenny was just silently watching the whole thing, an unreadable look on his face. And I had no idea what to say. It hurt, hearing that thrown at me after lunch going surprisingly well until then. After Saturday with Owen. But, at the same time, half of me was deliriously happy. Two people who I'd never met before, people who only knew me for like ten minutes and only because I knew one of their friends, stuck up for me against someone they'd known a lot longer. I felt....included. For me, it was almost as good as being in love. So it soothed the hurt a little bit. Plus Chris looked legitimately sorry and part of me felt bad for him. No matter how bad Jarred is to me, I get to escape it at the end of the day. Chris lives with him. And something tells me that being Jarred's little brother is probably it's own special hell.

"It's ok." I said quietly. I forced myself to look him in the eyes even though all I wanted to do was hide behind my hair.

He looked back at me for a few seconds. "Really?" he swallowed nervously.

I nodded. "Really." I summoned up the half thimble full of social courage I had and gave him a small smile that I hoped was even a little reassuring.

He didn't say anything for ten insanely long seconds, then gave me a small smile in return. I let out a breath I didn't even know I'd been holding. Tension I didn't even know was there seemed to just drain away from the table.

"Good. So we all love each other again, right?" Juan said. "Cause for a minute there I thought Owen was gonna beat the crap out of Chris for insu-ow!" He glared at Kenny and rubbed something under the table, probably his leg.

Kenny just looked back at him. I couldn't read his expression, but Juan apparently could because he huffed and looked away. "Didn't need to kick me." he muttered.

"I ALWAYS need to kick you." Kenny said as he reached for his book. Juan snatched it up before he could and stuck out his tongue. "Give it back."

"Nope." Juan grinned. "Mine now."

Kenny grabbed for the book and they started fighting over it. A small touch to my leg distracted me from it and I looked over at Owen. He was looking at me, his hazel eyes filled with a question. They flickered over towards Chris and I knew he wanted to know if I was really ok. I didn't doubt for a second that if I wasn't he wouldn't be either, even though I knew from talking to him last night that he wanted me and his friends to get along. I nodded and smiled at him, a real smile, the kind that was so easy to give to Owen. He smiled back, not even bothering to ask if I was sure, and stealthily squeezed my leg under the table.

I bit my lip to keep from sighing.

After that things slowly started to get more normal. Or at least what I assume normal is in a group of friends. Kenny and Juan fought over the book on and off for the rest of the period. Juan seemed to love annoying Kenny and Kenny seemed to love pretending he was above it all until Juan went to far and he took a swipe at him. It kinda reminded me of Cheryl.

Eventually we started talking. Yes, even me, no need to act so shocked. After the whole almost fight thing and being stuck up for it wasn't that hard to force myself to say stuff. Some of it wasn't even mumbled. Chris seemed to have more trouble speaking up than me actually. But only for about ten minutes or so. I don't know why he was so quiet, whether he really felt that bad about what he said or if he was thinking about something else, but when he got over it and started talking he was actually kinda cool. He wasn't as jokey and spazzy as Juan or as quiet and reserved as Kenny. He was somewhere in the middle. With Owen strangely enough being the "leader" type, if there was one.

At one point the conversation turned to books and I mentioned that I liked to read. Kenny asked me what kind of books I liked and when I said historical fiction and sci-fi Kenny's eyes lit up. Juan laughed and made a joke about Owen finally finding someone that reads the same boring crap as him but Kenny ignored it and launched right into talking about his favorite sci-fi series. We actually read a lot of the same ones and ended up talking about the best and worst parts of The Lost Fleet series for most of lunch. Owen wasn't really into sci-fi so he didn't have much to say, but when the conversation stalled because we both remembered we had lunches he eat he made a joke about Kenny finding a new best friend. He laughed when he said it, but when no one was looking he dragged my chair closer to his and put a possessive hand on my thigh. My heart fluttered and I'm pretty sure everyone was wondering what the hell was in the sandwich I was eating that was putting such a giddy smile on my face.

Even though Chris started talking, he seemed a little awkward when he said anything to me. Not a mean awkward though, just a nervous one. I totally got it. I was the same way with him. I just couldn't get over that I was sitting like five feet way from Jarred freaking Walter's BROTHER. They had the same parents. They lived in the same house. They had the same BLOOD for fucks sake. It was something that I never thought would happen in a million years and I didn't really know how to act with him.

Juan was the total opposite though. Even though we had almost nothing in common, I think I felt the most comfortable around him. Except for Owen of course. He was loud and sometimes annoying and he didn't seem like he took anything seriously for more than five minutes, but he could be hilarious and it was impossible not to like him. You'd think it'd be really weird for me with all the "Damn I STILL can't believe you punched Jarred. You're awesome dude" and similar stuff he kept throwing into the conversation randomly but for some reason it wasn't. Maybe because he was the first person to know what really happened and say something about it in front of me. Maybe part of me liked someone looking up to me instead of down at me for once. I dunno. He was cool though and I wouldn't mind hanging out with him again.

All of them really. It hit me about halfway through lunch between a talk about how cool the realistic space battles in The Lost Fleet books were and Juan threatening to pour milk on Kenny's book. For the first time in my life I felt like I was part of a group. Like, REALLY a part. I didn't expect that. I thought they'd at best be nice to me because I was Owen's "friend" but they actually seemed to like me for ME. I felt like I belonged. Thankfully I was taking a huge drink of my Sunny D when I realized it and choked because I had an excuse for the happy tears in my eyes I couldn't quite hide. Then Owen rubbed my back while I was coughing and even though part of me wanted to freak out about anyone seeing it and "finding us out" most of me just enjoyed him touching me. It was a great moment, choking included.

Lunch passed faster than it ever had and pretty soon the bell rang. We all got up and threw our crap away, but Owen stayed behind with me after we said goodbye to Juan, Kenny and Chris.

"So," he said with a small grin when they left. "That wasn't so bad, right?"

I laughed. "No. I kinda like your friends." I had a sudden rush of courage and leaned in close. "Not as much as I like you though." I whispered in his ear.

I heard him inhale quickly in surprise and I pulled back to look at his face. His eyes were practically blazing with surprised happiness and I couldn't look away. God I wanted to kiss him so badly. He did too. I could see it. He actually started leaning in before I remembered that we were still in freaking SCHOOL and jerked back. He frowned for a second, then looked around, seeming just as surprised as I was at where we were. He coughed and licked his lips, then laughed nervously.

"Uh," he said with a sheepish grin. It faded a second later though. "I'm sorry about Chris." he winced slightly. "I never even thought, I mean, I KNOW you told me his name was Jarred and I should have known EXACTLY who you were talking about but I just never put it together." He shrugged. "I was kinda thinking about other things. Like how beautiful you look with your hair back."

I blushed horribly and looked around. No one was close enough to hear, thank god. "Shh!" I hissed, but I couldn't help smiling. God if Cheryl knew I was getting all happy at someone calling me beautiful she'd never let me hear the end of it. "It's ok though." I said a few seconds later. "It's not your fault. And he said he was sorry anyway." I frowned as I thought about what he just said. Does he know Jarred? "Did, ever have....problems with Jarred?" The thought of my amazing Owen having to deal with that piece of shit made me wanna throw up and/or hit something. Preferably Jarred's jaw again. But Owen just shook his head.

"No, I've never been over to Chris' house. But Juan and Kenny both had a lot of problems with him, especially last summer and this year. So I know how he is." he sighed. "I'm really sorry you have to know him. Just thinking about him touching you makes me wanna rip his head off." Owen growled. I grinned happily and Owen cocked his head. "What?"

"Nothing." I said, still smiling. " I just....I-I like it when you get all protective." I said nervously and, yep, there's the blush. "It makes me feel l-...liked." God, I almost said "loved". For some reason even though I knew without a doubt that I was completely in love with Owen, I was terrified to say the word. Was I scared that he wouldn't say it back? Or that he would but just so he wouldn't hurt my feelings? Or was I just a huge pussy that couldn't say the word? Whatever it was, in the middle of the school cafeteria was NOT the place I wanted to bring it up for the first time.

Owen didn't notice though. Or, maybe he did but just assumed I was being my normal awkward Andy self with the stuttering. He just smiled warmly. "You are. A lot. And..." he leaned in ans whispered. "I really wish we were anywhere else so I could kiss you and show you how much."

I moaned. Oh...oh dear sweet god I MOANED OUT LOUD! My whole face turned red and I really wished I had a hole to crawl into. Did Owen.....yep, yep he did, why else would he have that grin on his face? I let my hair fall in front of my face and groaned. "C-can we sit down?" I mumbled.

"Sure." Owen said easily and for the millionth time since I've known him I was so happy that he isn't the kind of person to tease me when I'm horribly embarrassed.

We sat down at our -me and Cheryl's- table. We both already ate so I didn't even have a lunch bag to fumble with until the awkwardness passed. But like he knows not to tease me when this stuff happens he also knows exactly how to keep a moment from getting too awkward. He smiled. His sexy, bright Owen smile lit up his face and the embarrassed clenching in my gut turned into a way better kind of tightness. I smiled back. Just happy to be close to him.

Today was probably one of the most surprising days in my life. But almost like the day wanted to spit in the face of almost a whole lifetime of experience, they were all mostly good surprises. I was....happy. At school. At SCHOOL! Who the hell even thought I could say that? Now all I need to do is get through a forty minute period where Cheryl is gonna be meeting my boyfriend for the first time ever.....after knowing that we kissed. And that I'm in love. And with her already having a nickname for him.


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