A/N: As of 2016, Chapter 1 of this story now contains the entire full text of the story with no author notes or review responses to get in the way (aside from this one). You see, it has come to my attention that people are somehow still reading this thing. I am deeply invested in maintaining the original version of this story in perfect time capsule form, with its super long review responses, excessive author notes, and painfully short chapters. However, I recognize that all makes it increasingly difficult to read as the story goes on (and as the word count of the review responses overtake the chapters themselves).

If for some reason you want to read it the other way, feel free to continue on to the next chapter and enjoy the writings of story and author simultaneously. This first chapter, my friends, is for people who just want to read a story.

Chapter 1: I Never Even Saw Him

No. No. This can't be happening. No, no, fuck, NO!

I immediately stop my car and jump out, running to the fallen body in the road. I have no fucking clue who he is, where he came from. He just fucking appeared, out of nowhere, right in front of me. I hit the breaks, I swerved, I tried, I didn't mean to hit him, this can NOT be happening!

"Are you okay?!" I cry out, falling to my knees next to him, desperately hoping he'll answer. I'm practically in tears. How could this have happened? How could this be happening? "Hello?" I say frantically, grabbing his shoulder, barely stopping myself from shaking him. He doesn't answer. Fuck. Surely, he's just unconscious. He's got to be.

It's dark out. The road I'm on isn't totally deserted, but it's not often used and not very well lit, and I can hardly see. So I can't tell the extent of his injuries, but I feel blood on my hand as I draw it away from his shoulder. And fuck, I realize suddenly that he can't be much older than me. I wonder if he's a student at my high school? Oh god. What if I know him? I don't want to know. I don't.

"Nononononono…" I hear, and I realize suddenly that it's my own voice. I've unconsciously started rocking back and forth, arms crossed over my chest. Please God, whatever divine forces exist in the universe. Don't let him be dead. Please don't let me have-

I suddenly remember my cell phone in my pocket, and I feel like such an idiot for not thinking of it earlier. What if he dies because I didn't remember I had a fucking cell phone? I'm practically sobbing into the phone as I call an ambulance, but I manage to explain what happened.

I hear the sirens minutes later, but it feels like it's been hours. At some point, I actually had the presence of mind to check his pulse and determine no, thank god, thank anything, he is not dead. Yet. But god, they took so long, and what if he dies before they can do anything? Some part of my mind knows I'm freaking out and being irrational, but it's just not strong enough to be acknowledged at the moment.

However, the paramedics do get there, and they push me out of the way, doing what they can for him before getting him on a stretcher and into the ambulance.

The police have arrived too, and they're all over me, asking what happened, and I'm still and tears. Over and over again, I repeat the phrase, "He came out of nowhere; I never saw him. I never saw him."

Chapter 2: My Mind is My Worst Enemy

The police do tests on me to make sure I'm not driving drunk, which of course I'm not. I think they're suspicious of the situation, but I don't know what to do. I just keep miserably answering their questions as best as I can. At least I managed to stop repeating myself. I think I've settled into a state of numb shock.

I tell them that my name is Jackson Martelli, that I'm seventeen, hand them my driver's license when they ask for it. One of them apparently looks up my phone number and calls my parents. I'm not sure if I'll get in trouble or not. It's late but I'm not driving past the curfew for underage drivers, and I wasn't speeding, either, thankfully. Still, if I really did kill him, then I think I deserve to be punished in some way. There had to have been something I could have done to avoid him.

The worst thing is not knowing if he died, if he's going to die. It feels like I'm struggling under some crushing weight. I ask the police officers if they know anything, but of course, they don't.

Finally, one of the officers assures me that I probably won't get in trouble for anything; it doesn't look like I've done anything wrong. They won't be arresting me, at least, but it's police procedure to investigate the case as potentially being vehicular homicide. All that really means for me right now is they they'll be impounding my car, so either one of my parents needs to come pick me up, or they'll drive me home in a squad car.

Thankfully, my father drives out to pick me up. My mother probably made him. I'm not sure if he would've decided to do so on his own, he doesn't really like me much. But I'm relieved; I didn't want to ride home in a police car. He looks livid, however, and I'm dreading the angry shouting that I'll probably get to look forward to later tonight. Thankfully, however, the police manage to calm him down a bit when they tell him it doesn't look like it was my fault. They do add that they're not sure, though, and will have to question the victim when he wakes up. "When" he wakes up. I take that as a positive sign; the police think he'll be okay, anyway.

I'm silent the entire car ride home, and my father is too. I stare blankly out the window, trying not to think. I know I'm obsessing over it, but if I find out that I killed someone, accident or no, I'm not sure I'll be able to handle it. When we get home, I go straight to bed. I think my dad might have decided to yell at me anyway, but my mom intervened. I love my mother.

I'm absolutely exhausted, but I can't fall asleep. I lie awake, sometimes tossing and turning, sometimes staring blankly into space. At least tomorrow's a Saturday, so I won't be dead at school. I can't go on like this for much longer. I decide that I'm going to visit the hospital tomorrow, and find out his fate one way or another.

With that thought running through my mind, I finally manage to fall asleep.

Chapter 3: Of All People

"So he's alive?" I repeat, knees going weak with relief. I can't even describe just how relieved that makes me feel. The huge, intangible weight I felt has suddenly almost completely vanished. I'm almost surprised that I manage to stay on my feet.

"Yes, would you like to visit him?" the kind faced receptionist lady asks me with a smile. "I don't know if he's awake yet, but-"

"Yes I would," I interrupt her, nodding emphatically. I believe her, I do, but I just have to see for myself. That and I'd kind of like to meet this guy. See if I do know him, though I don't know what I'd do about it either way. So she tells me the room number and directs me how to get there.

He's already been moved out of intensive care, which means his injuries can't have been too bad. Thank you god, thank you divine powers of the universe. Yes, if you're wondering, I have slight issues with religion. Leave me alone. I let out a breath I didn't realize I'd been holding, and push open the door…

…to find myself staring stupidly in shock, as I realize I most definitely do know the person I almost ran over.

His name is Taylor Kingsfield, and he's possibly the singularly most popular guy in our high school. And he didn't get that status just by being a jock, although he is captain of the basketball team and a star member of track. I mean, with that kind of qualification, he could be the most stuck up prig ever and half the school would still love him, but the thing is, he isn't. He's one of the friendliest, most outgoing guys you could ever meet, and everyone knows him as a fun-loving, easy going and genuinely nice guy. Plus, not only is he in sports, he seems to be involved in everything else, too; drama, band, student council, yearbook staff, and then some. Just to name a few. Oh, and National Honors Society, because on top of all that, he's ranked in the top ten of our senior class. And that's out of over a hundred other students. As a result of being so involved, he seems to have friends in every clique in our school. Plus, he's got a beautiful girlfriend who just happens to be the president and valedictorian of the senior class, Lauren Johnson. They're everyone's favorite couple.

And did I mention he's gorgeous? Because he is. Even now, with a livid purple bruise covering half his face and one arm in a sling. Huge, expressive, brilliant green eyes that you could absolutely drown in, fine, sculpted features, a mess of longish, sandy-blonde hair that seems to perfectly frame his face, and the cutest grin ever.

In short, he's perfect. In every way. Despite being taken, he's the secret crush of the vast majority of our school's female population.

Plus at least one gay boy.

That would be me.

And I almost killed him.


Chapter 4: Taylor Has Issues

At some point, I regain enough presence of mind to notice something. Namely, that Taylor is not only awake, but staring at me with eyes as comically wide as mine must be. Suddenly, I feel very awkward.

"Um, hi," I say, self consciously reaching a hand up and tugging on a curl of my semi-short black hair. It's a nervous thing I do sometimes.

"What are you doing here?" he demands, still looking shocked. My face falls before I can stop it from doing so. I suppose it makes sense he'd be confused. He's kind of casual friends with some of my casual friends, and we're in some of the same activities, but we don't really talk to each other much. Even so, that sounded a little harsh.

"I-um…I'm the person who almost…" I swallow, finding I have trouble voicing the words. "I was driving the car that… I'm the one who almost killed you," I finish quietly, looking down at my shoes. I'm startled into looking back up, however, when Taylor gives a short, bitter laugh.

"No," he corrects. "I'm the one who almost killed myself. You just happened to be unlucky enough to be driving the car I decided to throw myself in front of."

I stare at him in shock. He holds his good hand to his forehead as he continues, "It would have to be you. Of all people. God."

"...What?" I must say, shock is a mild way to describe what I'm feeling right now. And I have no idea what he's talking about. For one, why does it make a difference that it's me rather than someone else? For two… oh my god, what is he saying? As I said, I never talked to him much, but I sure as hell watched him quite often, and this is completely out of character for him. He… he always seems perfectly happy in school. To all appearances, he has a great life. I can't even imagine why he would actually, purposely, try to jump in front of an oncoming car.

He sighs and turns away from me, and suddenlyI wonder, maybe the reason that he's bothered that it was me is because he hates me? I know I'm insecure and sounding insecure, but really, it wouldn't be all that unusual. After all, I am gay, and I'm open about it at school, too. There are a lot of people at my school who are very accepting of it, thankfully, but there are quite a few who aren't. But Taylor never acted like he hated me before…

I'm so wrapped up in my own thoughts that I'm startled when Taylor speaks again.

"I'm sorry," he says at length, still not looking at me. "I'm sorry it was you."

Before I can ask him what he means, he continues on his own, "I told everyone else it was an accident. That I was trying to cross the road and just wasn't paying enough attention. That I didn't see the car."

Now, he finally does look at me again, and despite everything, I'm surprised to see his eyes bright with unshed tears. "But I'll tell you what really happened. Only you. Because you're the one that went through the most shit because of my selfishness, and…of all people, you're the only one I think I'd tell."

Chapter 5: Showing Real Emotions

"Basically," Taylor begins in a monotone voice, "This is all a result of me being a pathetic moron who can't deal with his own problems." He stares at some spot at the wall, not really looking at anything. I sit down in one of the visitor's chairs, not sure how long his story's going to be.

"I…have issues, sometimes. Everything starts to overwhelm me, and I'm just not strong enough to handle it." He sighs, pausing for a moment before continuing. "But I just…don't want anyone to know. People have such high expectations of me, and I just can't disappoint them."

He's talking almost to himself at this point, like he's forgotten I'm there. I feel something like pity for him. I can't even imagine what it's like trying to live up to expectations as high as everyone must have for him.

"I thought it might help to take a walk; like maybe it would help clear my head. It...wasn't really working," he states, almost bitterly. "The thought just kept running through my head, the pressure, the stress, feeling like I can never really relax. Never really be myself. I pretty much never feel free to just be me, who I am. Everyone would be so…disappointed. And it makes me feel so trapped, sometimes."

He takes a deep, shuddering breath, and I think he's going to stop there, but he goes on. "I-I heard a car coming and I don't…don't quite know what came over me. All of a sudden, it seemed like the perfect way to finally escape. I…I lost all rational thought for a moment, and just ran out into the road, hoping…" he shakes his head and covers his face with his good hand. "God, I was hoping that car would hit me. That it would all be over. What the hell is wrong with me?"

My heart clenches with pain when he finally does turn to look at me, silent tears making tracks down his face. In that moment, I wish more than anything that I could just take all his pain away, take him away… I never knew he was feeling so much pain. He never shows any signs of strain at school, ever. He's always, always cheerful, happy… I wonder how much of that has been just been a mask. How much of what I've, what everyone has known of him, has been a façade?

"I'm sorry it was you," he says again. "I'm sorry I put you through that."

I can't take it anymore. I stand and make towards him, arm stretched out, wanting desperately, more than anything, to comfort him.

I think this might have been the wrong thing for me to do. As soon as I start moving, he seems to completely shut himself up. It's almost like he's suddenly put up some wall, and hidden all of his emotions behind it. The pain seems to completely vanish from his eyes, and for just a moment, his face is absolutely dead of all emotion.

A moment later, he shakes his head as though to clear it, like nothing just happened. And now, suddenly, he really looks like nothing just happened; like everything that's happened since I got here was all in my head. His expression is casual, relaxed, though maybe a little tired. It's scary. I wonder just how much practice he's had, to be able to fake his expressions so well so quickly.

"God, I have no idea what just came over me," he says conversationally, with what I know is entirely false cheer. "Must be the pain meds or something. Just…ignore everything I said. I have no idea what I was talking about."

I see the flash in his eyes as he says that. The pain, the vulnerability, it's still there. His sudden mood change is so fake it's hardly funny. If I hadn't seen that vulnerability, that raw emotion, just moments ago, I don't know if I would've recognized it so easily. But his emotions, his attitude now absolutely pale in comparison.

And now that I know it's fake, I'm not going to let him get away with it if I can help it.

"Like hell," I snort, crossing my arms. "You are hurting. You know it, and now I know it too. You can't go on like this."

Almost immediately, I regret my words as his façade breaks down again and the most lost, frightened expression I've ever seen falls over his face.

"I shouldn't have told you any of that," he says, and he looks scared, too. "I shouldn't have told anyone." He begs me, "Please, Jackson. Please don't tell anyone else about this."

I hesitate; I think it's really important that I do tell someone, someone should know about this. It'll probably hurt him more in the end if I don't. But...

"Please?" he says again. He's looking up at me with a pleading expression, big green eyes wide, open, and so vulnerable... I just can't find enough strength to resist.

"Okay," I say reluctantly, regretting the word even as it leaves my mouth. Now that I've said it, though, I won't go back on it.

"Thank you," he says with real sincerity, breathing a relieved sigh. "And... I really am sorry."

He looks at me a moment longer, and this time his expression is unreadable. Finally, he leans back in the hospital bed and closes his eyes.

I take it as a dismissal, and quietly exit the room.

Chapter 6: Jackson Worries About Things

I feel unsettled for the rest of that day, and the feeling continues into Sunday. It doesn't even help much when I find out that the police have cleared me of any potential charges, though it is quite a relief. Apparently, they talked to Taylor, who assured them that it was a complete accident and completely his fault.

The problem is, I just can't stop worrying about Taylor. Obviously, he's having some serious problems. To the point he's trying to kill himself, whether he was 'thinking' or not when he ran in front of my car. Even though he didn't succeed, his problems are clearly not resolved, and judging from what he said and how he was acting, I think I might be the only person he's ever said a word about it to.

Perversely, that thought almost makes me feel happy. Like he trusted me enough to tell me. But then, I realize I probably just happened to catch him at a very vulnerable moment. Maybe he was thrown off by the fact he actually knew the person who'd been driving the car, and was feeling particularly guilty.

Either way, it still frightens me how easy it seemed to be for him to hide his feelings, like he had in the hospital. Really, that's one of the biggest reasons that I'm pretty sure that no one else knows about his problems. He seems so desperate that no one else ever does. I wonder just how long he's been bottling up his emotions like this. If he keeps doing it, I'm sure it'll all end up exploding on him again, like it apparently did the other night. I'm really terrified he'll try something like that again. And maybe this time, succeed.

One of the most infuriating things about the situation is that there just doesn't seem to be anything I can do about it. Normally, I'd probably tell someone who maybe could help him, but I'd all but promised Taylor that I wouldn't. I'm not about to go back on my word. I'd feel like I was betraying him. But I can't stand not doing anything.

Finally, I decide I'll talk to him on Monday. If nothing else, I'll let him know that if he ever just wants to talk to someone about…anything, he can come to me at any time.

Chapter 7: Taylor Has Injuries, Jackson Has Friends

"…Don't you think, Jackson?"

"Huh? What?" I say, blinking at my friend Rowen stupidly. I hadn't heard a word of whatever she might have said.

It'snow Monday, during lunch at school, and I'm sitting with my two closest friends, Rowen and Archer. The three of us always sit together at lunch.

The reason I hadn't been paying attention is because I'm watching Taylor. He's been released from the hospital, from what I understand, because he asked to be, so he wouldn't have to miss school. His injuries were light enough that they allowed it. He's currently surrounding by friends and sycophants who are fawning over his injuries, looking quite like he'd rather be anywhere else, but pretending otherwise.

From what I've heard, he's telling people the 'he hadn't been paying enough attention, and didn't notice the oncoming car' story. Thankfully, he hasn't mentioned my name once. I know he hasn't or I'd have people all over me, accusing me of not paying enough attention. Maybe he knows that, and that's why he hasn't? Either way, I appreciate it.

I still really want to talk to him, but I haven't gotten the opportunity or the courage to do so. I'm kind of afraid to approach him in school, and I won't do it while he's surrounded by people.

"You're staring at him again, aren't you?" Rowen teases me, snapping me back from my wandering thoughts once again. She has a huge grin on her face. Both she and Archer know about my crush on Taylor, and Rowen's rather weird in that she gets really excited about it. For some reason, she really likes gay boys. Actually, she has a lot of odd qualities. She could never fit any definition of the word 'normal', and she's quite proud of it. In fact, she'll be the first one to tell you how weird she is. Her clothing is eccentric too; she usually wears long flowing skirts, loose, embroidered shirts, and wears her long brown hair loose. Basically, she looks like a flower child. Also, she's in both drama and chorus, like me. Partly because of her weirdness, she's a lot of fun to hang out with.

"…yeah, kind of," I say, a little sheepishly. I haven't told either of them that Taylor's injuries are my fault. Yet. Mostly because I forgot to. I admit to watching him because I know it'll make Rowen happy.

Sure enough, she literally squeals with excitement and claps her hands, until Archer (who up until this point had been busy eating) smacks her upside the head. Not hard.

"You're such a whore," Archer says to her.

"Well you're a slut," Rowen returns, mock seriously, hitting him back.

"Oh you know it, baby," Archer promptly replies. Rowen smacks him again, and they're both laughing hysterically.

You get used to them, I swear. Besides, the two of them work wonders at putting me in a better mood. Of course, they aren't serious in the slightest; they've been friends for years, longer than I've known either of them, and there's no romantic attraction between them. I think they'd both be really weirded out by the thought.

"So, we were actually talking about your boy," Rowen tells me, when they finally stop laughing. "I'm surprised you didn't clue in."

"What?" I say. Finally, she has my full attention.

"Yeah. What do you think about how he got hurt? I wonder what really happened." Archer clarifies. "Do you think he really got hit by a car?"

"Yeah, I do," I say simply, with little or no emotion. Like it doesn't bother me. Right. "I'm the one who hit him."

If I didn't treat it casually, I'd be a mess. Can't afford that in the middle of the school day.

"What?!" The two of them say simultaneously, staring at me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice as Taylor suddenly stands up from where he'd been sitting, says something to the people surrounding him, and then walks out of the cafeteria.

"I'll see you guys later," I quickly excuse myself to my friends, and stand to follow.

Chapter 8: Talking Goes Surprisingly Well

"Hey," I say, catching up with Taylor in the hall. He looks startled when he turns and sees me, then distinctly uncomfortable. I can understand why, I suppose, after that incident in the hospital. Still, it kind of hurts.

He glances around, presumably to make sure that no one will overhear. "Look," he begins nervously, in a low voice, "I told you to forget about-"

"I need to talk to you," I interrupt him.

For a few moments, he says nothing, and I wonder if he's going to say no. But finally, he caves in.

"Alright," he says. "But…come this way." He grabs my wrist with his good hand and leads me down the hall. My skin tingles where he's touched it, and I'm forcibly reminded of the fact I still have a major crush on him. But that's not the important thing right now, and I try to push it out of my mind. 'Try' being the operative word.

He pulls me along down one hallway, then bites his lip and apparently changes his mind, turning around abruptly.

"Where are we going?" I ask him, getting the sneaking suspicion that he doesn't actually know.

Sure enough, he responds with, "Um…somewhere private. I don't really know."

I sigh, and (with some reluctance) pull my arm out of his grasp. He turns to face me, looking vaguely surprised.

"We really don't need to find somewhere private," I begin. Unconsciously, I cross my arms in a sort of self-conscious posture, then plunge ahead and say what I wanted to say. Stuttering like a moron, of course.

"I just wanted to…I just wanted to let you know that if you ever want to- just want someone to talk to, you're welcome to- you can come to me anytime."

Taylor blinks at me a few times as my words sink in. I start to feel uncomfortable. Maybe I shouldn't have bothered? Then, a dazzling smile breaks over his features. One that actually looks real, even.

"Thank you," he says finally. "Really, thank you. That means a lot to me."

I nod, extremely relieved and more than a little happy. I'm about to leave, but Taylor hesitates like he wants to say something else, so I wait. He looks kind of nervous; he shifts his weight slightly from foot to foot, then clears his throat. Eventually, he does finally speak.

"Um, do you wanna… hang out, or something, sometime?" he asks, trying to look nonchalant. "Like, outside of school?"

I stare at him stupidly, and I know I must look like a gaping idiot, but, well. I was not expecting that. He must read my expression as something else though, because he quickly amends, "Of course, you don't have to or anything-"

"No!" I interrupt, wincing as it comes out little louder than I meant it to. "No," I repeat, at a more normal volume. "I'd love to, actually. I was just… a little surprised.

"Oh, okay," he sounds relieved. "Then, uh, you want to meet me at that new café downtown? Carpe Diem?" He names a really nice café that just opened about a month ago; I went there once with Rowen and Archer, and it's got a really nice atmosphere. And they have good donuts.

"Say, around four?" he adds.

"Yeah, sure," I respond casually, though really, I'm barely resisting the urge to squeal like girl.

"Great, he says, grinning at me. "See you then."

I nod, and we part ways. The moment he can't see my face, I break out into an idiotic smile.

Okay, I know it's not a date or anything, but…

Leave me alone and let me enjoy my happy moment.

Chapter 9: French, Mocha Lattes and Blushing

"Je voudrais quelque personne avec qui je peux pratiquer parler en français," I say carefully, grinning when I'm finished.

I'm sitting across the table from Taylor, at the café Carpe Diem. It's a cozy atmosphere. We're sitting at a two-person table, in a somewhat more secluded area of the place. Taylor ordered a mocha latte; I've got chai tea and a donut. Because I love the donuts here. I devoured it within seconds. Neither of us is paying much attention to our drinks, though; we're quite engaged in conversation.

We've been here for almost an hour now, and we've been talking the entire time. Neither the topic of the, well, traffic incident nor that of Taylor's problems has come up; I'm guessing he didn't feel like talking about it, and I don't really want to bring it up unless he wants to. We've been having a great time, anyway. It's easy to see why people flock to Taylor; he's a lot of fun to be around.

Anyway, during our discussion, which has gone through an amazingly broad range of topics, we just discovered that we've both taken four years of French. Thinking back, I actually remember him being in my second year French class, but I think it was the year before I developed a crush on him, so I didn't really take much note of it.

Anyway, after that revelation, what I said (or tried to say, hopefully said correctly) in French was something along the lines of 'I'd like to have someone who I can practice speaking French with'.

"Si tu veux, tu peux practiquer avec moi," Taylor returns promptly, flashing me a grin of his own. 'If you want, you can practice with me.' His accent is better than mine, and I tell him so.

He laughs, telling me, "Well, my grandmother is full-blooded French. Maybe it's genetic."

"Lucky," I say, wrinkling my nose and sticking my tongue out at him. It makes him laugh even harder, and I'm absurdly pleased. I like making him laugh. Seeing him happy kind of makes me happy too.

"That makes you look adorable, Jackson," Taylor tells me, literally wiping away tears of laughter from his eyes.

"Oh, um… thank you?" I can't stop a -rather more than faint- blush from spreading over my cheeks. I hope he doesn't notice. Or doesn't think anything of it. Something. But his comment makes me feel really, really happy inside.

"You know, we should hang out more often," Taylor's saying, a jovial smile on his face, playing absentmindedly with the straw from his latte. The movement captivates my eyes. "You're a lot of fun to hang out with."

And I thought I was blushing before. Crap. My face must be so red now. "Uh, you are too," I say, more than a little flustered. "Yeah, hanging out more would be awesome."

I realize I'm grinning stupidly again. I just know I must look like an idiot.

"Damn, I've got to get to work!" Taylor exclaims suddenly, looking at his watch. "Sorry to leave so suddenly, but I've really got to go."

"No, it's fine," I assure him waving a hand dismissively. The abrupt change of topic, thankfully, has allowed me to regain the control of myself that I had temporarily lost. "Thanks for inviting me," I say normally. "I had a lot of fun.

"Not a problem," Taylor tells me, grinning, as he stands. "I did too. We have to do this again sometime." He grabs his coat. It's a cool day out, for mid-September. "Uh- see you in school tomorrow, I guess. Talk to you then."

"Yeah, see ya," I return, mentally wincing as it comes out sounding corny. He nods, and then hurries out.

I'm left alone at the table, watching his retreating figure. Happiness, or maybe something stronger, is bubbling up inside me with such force I think I might explode.

As I reflect on recent events, especially this afternoon, I come to a startling revelation.

It's become more than just a simple crush.

I think I've really fallen in love with Taylor.


Chapter 10: Is This Normal?

The next day in school, Taylor invites me out again, to which I readily accept.

Normally, I'd be thrilled at how well we seem to be getting along, and I am, but, well. I might be over-reacting, but it almost feels like we're getting along... too well. Taylor has a girlfriend. He's supposed to be straight. So, I feel a little awkward, and actually, a little guilty, about all of this.

Maybe I'm over-reacting. Actually, I probably am. I always do. I mean, just because we get along well, that doesn't necessarily mean any more than it does on the surface. So, maybe we'll end up becoming friends. I don't need to feel guilty, it's not like I'm going to steal him from his girlfriend just by hanging out with him. I mean, my feelings are just on my end, right? I should stop feeling weird about it and just enjoy the opportunity to be with him.

Still… I can't shake the feeling that Taylor was acting a little weird for a guy who's supposed to be straight. Not that I really know all to well what's normal for a straight guy, as I don't recall ever being one, but still. For one, he must know I'm gay; everyone does. Yet he's still inviting me to hang out with him one-on-one? Now, I suppose it could just be that he's an accepting person and not homophobic. But he also definitely called me 'adorable' last night. Do normal straight guys say that? To other guys?

I'm probably just over-analyzing this situation to an extreme degree, because I always do that, too. There's probably nothing for me to be so worried about. I should probably just go along with this and not think so much. But then, I suppose, I wouldn't really be me. Sigh.

I also find myself wondering if it was a good idea or in fact a very, very bad one to voice all of this to Rowen.

"All I can say is he better not be playing you," she growls threateningly, eyes narrowed. Funny, it's quite a turn-around from her reaction to what I was saying earlier in our conversation. Namely, when I told her all about going to the café with Taylor. That resulted in something more like an excited squeal.

Really, I've told her pretty much everything, now; except for the bit at the hospital. Where I first talked to Taylor. I said I wouldn't tell anyone; as much as I trust her, that includes Rowen.

"I really don't think he is," I assure her, (in all honesty somewhat concerned for Taylor's safety, because Rowen can be scary when she wants to be). "At least not intentionally. He really is a nice guy."

"Don't care if it's 'intentional' or not," Rowen mutters darkly, but she does seem mollified. Becoming serious again, she concludes with, "Listen, Jackson. If this keeps going on, and you still feel uncomfortable about the situation, you really should talk to him about it."

"Yeah," I answer, staring off at some point beyond her, lost in thought. Abruptly, I realize what I'm doing and force my focus back to her.

"Thanks Rowen. I mean it."

Chapter 11: A Late Phone Call

Despite my misgivings, Taylor and I end up going out several more times over the next couple of weeks, mostly to the same café. We've also begun talking more in school, which is nice. I always wanted to talk to him in school, but I was too afraid, before. Unfortunately, the only times we see each other at school are in the morning, the afternoon, and in the hallway between class. We have none of the same classes. Mostly because he takes all advanced courses, and while I'm not stupid, I'm just…not quite good enough for harder classes.

Also, Taylor has started sitting with me and my friends at lunch once in a while. Much to Rowen's delight, even though she knows there's nothing romantic between us. (I don't think.)It's not all that unusual for him to do so, anyway. After all, he will sit, and in fact has sat with just about every group in the cafeteria at some point or another.

Since we've started getting to know each other better, I've decided that Taylor is possibly one of the most interesting people I've ever met. And that's saying something, seeing as my closest friends are Rowen and Archer.

Taylor has some very interesting perspectives and opinions on a lot of things, and to be sure, we tend to talk about a lot of different things, from serious to frivolous. Think something along the lines of anything from politics to gossip. Definitely a broad range.

Sometimes, though, talking to him is very disorienting. There are times where he's very clearly into the topic and passionate about his opinions, but other times, sometimes within the same conversation, it feels like the things he's saying are rehearsed. He just lacks conviction, like he's not really speaking his own thoughts. It kind of concerns me. I'm not completely sure what it means.

Also, the one topic that just never seems to come up is Taylor's life; specifically, how he's coping with it and with the problems he revealed. He clearly doesn't want to talk about it, and I don't want to force it.

I get the feeling he's still bottling things up, trying to pretend everything's fine. Maybe hoping that if he pretends enough, then somehow everything will be. Of course, I have no evidence of any this. And to be honest, he's been looking a lot better lately. Some of the stress and tension that used to be evident under the surface seems to have drained away. Even so, I'm still worried.

As it turns out, I may have good reason to be. One night, maybe a few weeks since everything happened and Taylor and I started hanging out, I get a call on my cell phone. It's past ten, and I know neither Rowen nor Archer would call me this late on a school night. I look at the number on the screen, but I don't immediately recognize it.

"Hello?" I say, picking up anyway.

"Jackson?" questions the broken, slightly raspy voice on the other end of the line. With that,I know exactly who it is; I'd recognize Taylor's voice anywhere. I'd forgotten I gave him my number.

"Taylor? What's wrong?" From the tone of his voice, the time he's calling, and the fact he's calling at all, I've concluded quite definitely that something is very wrong.

"I'm sorry, I just- Well, you said I could talk to you, and- uh- I wanted to maybe- no, I just-"

He's all but babbling, and the continued rough edge to his voice makes him sound like he's either been crying, about to cry, or both. He stops for a moment, maybe trying to coalesce his thoughts, then tries again.

"I-I just feel like shit again, and I hate internalizing it all the time, but I always do, I have to, but maybe if- maybe if for once, I didn't…god," his voice catches on a sob. "I just wanted to hear your voice. Something."

"Well, um-" Fuck, what do I say to something like that? "You're talking to me now. I'll listen if you need me to."

I mentally curse myself for just how stupid and inadequate that sounds.

"God, I must sound like such a wimp," he says, with a sudden cutting, bitter laugh at himself. "I shouldn't have called."

"No you don't," I tell him firmly. I've finally found words that sound appropriate, and I grasp at them. "You don't sound like a wimp. It-it's not healthy to internalize things. I told you that you could talk to me, and I meant it. I won't judge you, and you have my complete confidence; I won't repeat a word of anything you say to me. Okay?"

"Thank you," Taylor half sobs into the phone, half with surprise, and half with such raw gratitude it's almost painful to hear. "Thank you so much, Jackson. I don't deserve it."

I'm about to interrupt him to tell him that he does, but there's a noise on his end of the line, and he swears under his breath.

"Damn it… Jackson, I've got to go. Thank you."

And just like that, he hangs up.

The next day at school, he pretends like nothing happened. Against my better judgment, I let him.

Chapter 12: Stupid Porcelain Mugs

"I've always wondered, how do you manage to keep up with everything in your life?"

It's mid-October, maybe a week after that phone call, about a month since everything started. Taylor and I are once again at the café we've begun to frequent, the Carpe Diem. We're sitting at a small, round table, with four chairs set up surrounding it. Instead of sitting across from each other, we opted for sitting in chairs next to one another, so we're facing each other at an angle.

Taylor hasn't called me since that one time, except once or twice to confirm times and places for hanging out. I can't decide if this is a good or bad sign. My question is actually a subtle attempt to determine how he's doing. That, and I've seriously always wondered how it's possible for someone to be as involved as Taylor is.

"I prioritize things, and do what I can for every group I'm involved in," Taylor responds nonchalantly. Almost automatically. "School work gets first priority, of course."

I nod, though inwardly I'm a little suspicious; his words definitely have the ring of 'rehearsed'.

Almost as an afterthought, he adds, "It's good I broke my arm in mid-September, and not any later. I'm going to miss a lot of practices and maybe the first game or two, but the doctors told me that I should be okay once the basketball season really gets into swing."

All the color immediately drains from my face. "Oh god... I'd completely forgotten," I say, horrified, as the revelation dawns on me. "Your arm…you're the captain of the basketball team, aren't you? And I- damn," I cover my face with my hands. How could I have forgotten something like that? And it's all my fault, damn it. I'm so stupid, and how could I have not even thought about something that important? Damn it, damn it, damn it. I really do cuss a lot when I'm upset, don't I? But fuck. "I'm so sorry, Taylor."

"Jackson…" Taylor lightly touches my arm. His tone is gentle. I ignore him.

"Look at me," he commands, trying one-handedly to pull my hands away from my face. I let him, partly because I feel guilty that he only has one hand to use."Listen, I told you, it's not your fault. Don't you dare blame yourself."

He's still holding one of my wrists, leaning in towards me. With the angle we're sitting at, the table isn't really in the way.

"My decision," he continues, "My stupidity, my fault. Got it?"

I nod vaguely, but despite how upset I was moments ago, I've suddenly become a bit distracted from what he's saying.

I sort of lost track somewhere along the line. Namely, when I suddenly noticed just how close his face had gotten to mine, and all coherent thought pretty much flew out the window.

His green eyes are boring into my wide blue ones. I'm very conscious of the fact his hand is still on my wrist. He doesn't pull back, and unavoidably, my eyes are drawn to his lips. His soft-looking, full, half-parted lips. I start to wonder how it would feel to kiss those lips…

It's then that I realize something else; Taylor also seems to have noticed how close we've gotten. My face burns red, and I expect him to pull away, but he doesn't. Instead, he starts moving closer. His warm breath whispers on my face, and I can't seem to pull my eyes away from his.

He tilts his head slightly, and the small part of my mind that has remained rational suddenly realizes what's happening. It starts screaming at me, oh-my-god-he's-about-to-, but I ignore it, ignore everything but his mouth, his lips that are inches away from mine, and how much I've wanted this-

All of a sudden, we're startled apart by a loud crash.

"Fuck!" I swear, at the same instant Taylor lets out a "God damnit!"

We'd managed to knock down the porcelain mug that Taylor had gotten his coffee in. It's lying in shattered pieces on the floor.

I swore because we'd been interrupted, to be honest, and because the loud noise had startled me. Unfortunately, Taylor had sounded much more like he was swearing because he's freaked out by what almost happened

"Damn it, damn it, damn it," Taylor continues swearing, kneeling down and trying to pick up the shards with one hand. He looks completely freaked out, and I really don't think it's just because of the broken mug.

"Stop it," I command, but my voice betrays a shakiness of its own.

One of the workers comes over then, to find out what the noise was. I explain quickly that we'd just accidentally knocked the mug over, my face burning with embarrassment. She says not to worry, that it happens all the time, and shoos Taylor out of the way for meso she can take care of it herself.

Taylor puts some money on the table to pay for the broken mug, then mutters some excuse and flees the building.

I'm left staring in his wake, as that little rational part of my mind catches up with the rest, and I really start to realize what just happened.

Taylor had been about to kiss me.

I had an awful, foreboding feeling that this was not going to turn out well.

Chapter 13: Taylor Acts Stupidly (and Jackson Gets Annoyed)

"Jackson? Hey, what's wrong?" Rowen asks as she sits down at our usual table during lunch the next day.

"Earth to Jackson?" Archer adds, taking his own seat. "Hate to break it to you, but as far as I know, the world hasn't ended. Though you wouldn't guess it, from your expression right now." It might sound like an insult to others, but he doesn't mean it that way, and I don't take it as one.

"Yes it has," I respond dully, burying my head in my arms on the table. I know I'm being over dramatic. I don't care. Okay, fine, that's a lie, I do.

"Sorry," I amend, looking up again. "I'm just having a sucky day."

"Wanna talk about it?" Rowen asks sympathetically. I shake my head negatively. I really don't.

Taylor's been completely avoiding me all day. To the point that when he saw me earlier in the hallway, his eyes went wide and he immediately turned and fled the opposite direction.

Of course, I had kind of figured that this wouldn't turn out well. I honestly think that, at some point, we'd both realized that there was something more to our recent friendship then what it appeared on the surface. Before, though, we could pretend there wasn't, that it was just a simple thing. Wait, no, let me rephrase, Taylor could pretend that's all it was.

I don't know, maybe I'm jumping to conclusions again, but this time I really don't think I am. Now, to his credit, Taylor's supposed to be straight, and if he is attracted to me, which feels weird to think about and probably makes my face red, then it might be a little awkward for him to say the least. Not to mention the fact that he does still have a girlfriend. Because In fact, because of that, I still do feel a little guilty about all of this.. Maybe I shouldn't have let it go on as long as it has? But…agh. The situation had already been complicated enough; maybe it would have been better if yesterday hadn't happened.

At the same time, though, I don't like what Taylor's doing. However good his reasons may be, I don't think he's justified in avoiding me. I wish he'd just…talk about it or something. Is that really expecting too much?

Well, I suppose he could have just pretended like it didn't happen. I can't even decide if that would be better or worse than what he's doing now. Obviously, he's not pretending it didn't happen. Equally as obvious, he freaked out about it. But… he still doesn't have to avoid me so obviously, like this. It just… doesn't seem fair. And it really hurts.

He continues completely ignoring me for the entire rest of the week. Not only that, but all of a sudden, he's been acting excessively affectionate towards his girlfriend. What's he's doing is so obvious, and it's begun to really piss me off. I wish he'd just talk to me about it, instead of being stupid. I tried to talk to him in school, but he wouldn't even give me a chance to. He's even ignoring my phone calls.

As a result of all this, I'm in a positively foul mood for the rest of the week. I still haven't told Rowen or Archer what's up, but I think Rowen pretty much figured it out on her own and told Archer. Quite intelligently, neither has tried bringing it up with me. I probably would have bitten their heads off.

By the time the weekend arrives, I'm finally fed up with being fed up, and convince Rowen and Archer to go to the mall with me. Shopping always makes me feel better, and I'm hoping it'll help me take my mind off of all this crap.

For a while, it works wonderfully. I hardly even think about Taylor at all. There's Halloween merchandise everywhere in the mall, as it's about a week away from the holiday. We have fun looking at all the weird stuff as Rowen tries to convince Archer and I that we should all go trick-or-treating. Okay, me more so than Archer, because he's already positively thrilled with the idea.

So, naturally, because it's just the way the universe seems to work, it happens during the one time I'm alone. There's one store that Archer and Rowen both love that I refuse to set foot in while with the two of them. (For good reason.) Instead, I'm waiting for them outside the store. And of course, of course.

Taylor just has to walk by with his fucking girlfriend hanging on his arm. They're giggling (both of them, yes, giggling) about something or another as they approach. Yeah, well, screw you too.

I glance around, considering which store is the best prospect to escape into, but Taylor spots me before I get the chance.

To my absolute surprise, he actually talks to me.

"Jackson, hey," he says casually. Just like everything's normal. Like he hasn't refused to so much as glance my direction for the better part of a week. Oh no fucking way.

"Oh, so one minute you're ignoring me, and now you're suddenly not?!" I snap at him angrily. "What the hell?"

A little too late, I think that maybe it's not such a great idea to make a scene in front of Taylor's girlfriend; I'm sure he doesn't need that on top of everything else. But I am so fucking pissed right now, and I can't stop myself.

"What's going on, hun?" Lauren asks, looking from me to Taylor with confusion on her pretty face. She's still clinging on to Taylor's arm.

Hell no. I'm not dealing with this. Forget what Taylor needs for just a moment, how about what I need? I certainly don't need this, to have to see Taylor be all sickeningly sweet with his girlfriend in some big fake display.

Before Taylor can say another word, I turn around and walk away.

"Jackson, wait!" Taylor calls out. He starts following me, and screw dignity, I start running.

I don't want him to see that I'm crying over something so fucking stupid.

Chapter 14: Downward Mental Spiral

I call Rowen on her cellphone to tell her that I'm leaving. Thankfully, I've long since gotten my car back and I had driven myself to the mall. I want to just flat out leave immediately, but Rowen would be upset with me if I just disappeared without telling her. At least Taylor didn't follow me so far as outside the mall. I don't want to face him right now. I don't think I can.

I expect Rowen to be mad at me, or argue about it, or something, but she doesn't. Maybe she can hear something else in my voice when I shortly tell her, "I'm going home now," with no explanation. Normally, she would be upset with me for being so curt with her, but this time, all she does is tell me to take care. Either way, I'm relieved; it's one thing that I don't have to deal with.

As soon as I get home, I lock myself in my room and put on a CD, cranking the volume up as loud as I think I can get away with. Then I flop backwards on my bed, and unfortunately, start thinking.

I'm still really upset over the whole situation. I'm starting to feel horrible for just walking out on Taylor, especially when he finally seemed willing to talk to me. But on the other hand, he did completely ignore me for the whole week… and damn it, I really didn't feel like watching his girlfriend hanging all over him.

It's not her I'm mad at her, though. I imagine she has no idea what's going on, and from everything I've seen Lauren is a perfectly nice girl. No, it's definitely Taylor I'm still pissed at.

Seriously, what the hell was up with him trying to talk to me all of a sudden, on the spot like that, when he's been ignoring me all fucking week. Is he trying to mess with my head?

Then I feel guilty for thinking that, because I'm sure he's not doing it on purpose. I just… I don't know. I guess I want him to stop being so confused.

Actually, I realize, that might just be exactly what the problem is. As far as I've ever known, he's supposed to be straight. And he has a girlfriend. Yet I've pretty much come to the definite conclusion that he must at least be attracted to me. Otherwise, why would he have kissed me? Lucky me. And if there were a few less issues with all this, I would really be saying that honestly, because damn it, I'm still in love with him.

I sigh audibly. On top of all this, I'm still in love with the moron. And I'm still convinced that he's slowly but surely building himself up to one hell of a serious mental breakdown. Maybe it was unfair of me to have gotten so upset. And now the guilt starts gnawing at me again as something else occurs to me. I told him before that he could always talk to me, but then today, I just totally blew him off.

Gah. I just can't let myself feel righteously angry for any amount of time, can I?

The longer I continue thinking about all of this, the worse I start feeling. It's like my emotions are suddenly in a downward spiral, and I just keep feeling increasingly miserable. I'm being stupid and over-emotional now, and I know it, but I can't stop it. Every thought is making me feel worse. I just don't want to deal with anyone or anything for the rest of the day. I'll come off as such a melodramatic wuss if I try, I know it. And that thought makes me feel worse again, and damn it, I wish my head would just shut up for once.

I almost started feeling, well, maybe not better, but less miserable anyway. Until that evening. When my mother calls me for supper, I'm really not hungry, so I tell my mother I don't want to eat. She's not too happy. So of course, like every little problem with my mother seems to, it becomes a shouting match with my father. Of all things, I really didn't want to have to deal with that today, too.

My father doesn't like the fact that I'm gay. I've told both my parents, and they both have pretty much accepted it, but my father doesn't like it. I guess he must feel it threatens his masculinity or something. Either way, I know that's the cause of most of our fights, whether the fight itself has anything to do with the topic or not.

So, if there was anything that could have possibly made me feel more miserable, it was that. As I result, I'm now locked in my room again, upset all over again, and pissed off on top of that. Now I'm really not in the mood to deal with the world tonight.

So when my phone rings, I really have no intention of answering it. But still, curiosity drives me to see who it is.

Of course, it's Taylor.

Chapter 15: Taylor Apologizes…and Makes a Revelation

I stare at my phone, Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" blaring at me as it continues to ring. I'm going through an internal debate over whether to answer or not. If I don't want to talk to anyone else, then I really don't want to talk to Taylor right now. But at the same time, maddeningly, I want to talk to him more than anything else.

Finally, I hit the button and answer the phone.


I'm hit quite forcibly with a sense of déjà vu. Once again, his voice sounds broken up, on the verge of tears. Only this time, somehow, I know it's because of me.

I feel horrible all over again, and all my anger seems to have vanished. "I'm sorry for running off like that," I say anxiously, " I was just…too upset to deal with it right then."

How pathetic can you get? I thought I was supposed to be angry with him.

"I'm the one who should be sorry, not you," Taylor corrects me heavily. "Nothing's ever been your fault. I was stupid. I was beyond stupid. I'm surprised you even answered the phone."

I can't think of anything to say to that. After all, I'm a little surprised I answered the phone, too. But… to say I'm relieved he's acknowledging and apologizing for his actions would be an understatement. A huge understatement.

"I'm so sorry for hurting you," Taylor continues in the same tired voice. "I was confused, and scared, and I didn't know what to do."

He sighs. "My bad handling of my problems always seems to end up hurting you."

"Apparently," I say shortly. I'm relieved that he's apologizing, certainly, but I'm still not sure what to make of it. I'm not sure if I should just… forgive him, so easily.

"I'm not sure what possessed me to try to talk to you today," Taylor goes on, apparently not done with his explanation. Admittedly, I am curious to hear this, so I let him continue. "And I'm sorry I did so while Lauren was with me-" The mere mention of her name makes my heart sink immediately, "-but when you ran away, I realized I didn't want things to be like this. You've done so much for me, and I don't want to lose you now. I'm sorry for being so unfair to you."

He pauses a moment, then sighs. "Look, Jackson. I really don't want to hurt you. I've made a lot of mistakes in the past, more than you probably know, but believe me when I say want to make it up to you."

Now it's my turn to sigh. He sounds sincere, and I want to forgive him, I really do, but I'm afraid to. I still don't think we can just go back to normal, and honestly, I can't stand hurting like this. I want to be there for him, but if he ever does something like this again- I don't know. I just don't know.

Finally, I speak. "Taylor… maybe we shouldn't hang out anymore." It hurts so much to say this, but I feel like I have to. "At least not…one on one, like we've been doing. Especially as long as you're still dating Lauren-"

"I broke up with her," Taylor interrupts suddenly.

There's a long moment of silence. It takes a moment for his words to really sink in.

"…what?" I finally squeak out.

"I broke up with Lauren," he reaffirms. "Today, after…" he pauses, then amends, "earlier today."

"Wh-why?" I stutter.

Not for the first time with Taylor, shock is just not an adequate word for what I'm feeling. Of all the things I expected to hear in this conversation…well, let's just say, that wasn't one of them.

"I'm sick of lying to her," Taylor says simply. " And I was lying to her. I'm sick of lying to everyone. For once, I wanted to do something for myself."

"But-but why," I repeat, completely dumbfounded. "What?"

I hear Taylor take a deep breath.

"I'm in love with you, Jackson. I think I have been for a long time."

Chapter 16: Jackson is Incredibly Happy

"…oh my god," is all I can manage.

I…I thought I was shocked before. Now…oh my god. I-I'm completely overwhelmed. Somehow, whatever I thought he might say, I never imagined- I put a hand to my mouth, and for once, the tears in my eyes aren't from sadness or anger. I sink to my bedroom floor, leaning against the side of my bad.

"Oh my god," I repeat, and I don't know if I'm laughing or crying.

"Jackson? Are you okay?" Taylor asks, sounding worried.

"Yes, of course, yes," I say hurriedly. "More than okay." I don't remember ever feeling more 'okay' then at this moment.

"So then, um…" Taylor says awkwardly. "I said I wanted to make it up to you. And that I wanted to do something for myself, for once. I meant it." He hesitates before finishing. "So, do you want to try it? Do you want to go out with me?"

I can almost hear the half grin in his voice as he adds, "I promise I'll try to stop acting so stupid about everything."

"Are you sure?" I ask him, although I want more than anything to say yes, absolutely YES. "This is really what you want?"

"Absolutely," Taylor responds without hesitation. "More than anything."

"Then yes. Definitely yes."

It's amazing to look at how many stages my emotions have gone through in such a short time. Depression, anger, guilt, reluctance, surprise, absolute shock, to what I'm feeling now; an absolutely insane sense of elation.

"Honestly, I've really liked you for a long time myself," I say, almost conversationally. I've successfully resisted the urge to start jumping around my room squealing with excitement. Barely. I'm such a freak. That's so something Archer would say. That's random. But I'm a happy freak. And since I'm trying not to ramble out loud from excitement, I'm doing it in my head. I have to admit; I never, ever, ever really thought that this would happen.

"God, I wish I could just go over there right now and hug you," Taylor says, sounding almost as happy as I'm feeling. "Or...something. I've been trying to ignore it and deny myself for way to long."

I must admit to finding myself slightly disappointed that it is a little too late at night for him to reasonably do just that. Because I wouldn't mind. Definitely not.

"You know what?" I say, sure that I'm grinning like a maniac.


"I love you."

"Good. I love you too."

Chapter 17: First Date

We arrange to meet up the next day, to go see a movie. Our first 'real' date. Actually, to tell the truth, it's my first official date ever. I am absolutely, ridiculously excited. Even so, I asked Taylor more than once if he's sure he doesn't mind going on real dates with me in public. He insisted that he doesn't care who knows about us, now that he finally admitted to it. . Truthfully, I'm really pleased.

He did specify, however, that he doesn't care who knows 'except for his parents'. When I asked, he wouldn't explain.

The next day when we meet up at the theater, he actually does run over and hug me. Naturally, it's the first time he has, and I find I really enjoy it. As corny as it sounds, being in his arms makes me feel… safe.

Then, to my absolute surprise, he leans down and kisses me full on the lips, too.

"You have no idea how long I've been wanting to do that," he says, grinning as my face turns beet red. I must admit, I had wondered a little about just how serious Taylor was about all of this, but he hasn't given me any room to doubt him so far.

"Fucking fags," someone mutters from behind us.

I look down at my feet, trying to ignore the hurtful feeling those words cause. Taylor, however, shoots back at them with a grin, "You're just jealous"

I look up at him and laugh, amazed that he actually just said that. He's acting so much more…freely than normal. It's a nice change.

I let Taylor pay for both our tickets, a little reluctantly, but admittedly, I don't have much money right now. Though I could have paid. Besides, Taylor really wanted to.

I really like the idea of being in an open relationship, but…

"Taylor?" I begin hesitantly, while we're in the theater waiting for the movie to start.

"Yeah?" He raises a questioning eyebrow towards me, waiting for me to speak.

"Um… I really don't mind letting people know about us, but…" I bite my lip, reluctant to continue.

"But?" Taylor prompts, looking confused.

"Maybe it would be a bad idea to let people know at school," I say finally. "At least, not right away."

"Why?" he asks, looking surprised and actually, a little hurt. "Our school is pretty tolerant, isn't it? We've had openly gay couples there before."

"I know, but, well…" I pause and think of how to phrase my thoughts. "Well, this is you we're talking about. Mr. Popular, so to speak." I give him a weak grin. "As far as everyone at school knows, you're straight and in a relationship. Hell, you and Lauren are-were- the favorite couple of the school. And I'm assuming that as of last Friday, no one knew there were any problems between you two. If we go to school tomorrow, and all of a sudden, you've broken up with her, and are dating me-" I look away, hesitating again, before finishing, "They're all going to think it's my fault. That I stole you from her, and-and converted you, or something."

I feel like such a horrible person, because Taylor's so excited about this, and I really would love to just let everybody know, too. And I feel guilty, too, because I feel like I'm just thinking about myself. But really, I don't know if I could face the hatred of the entire school, and that's what I'll probably get if we do things this way.

"I'm sorry," Taylor says, sounding subdued. "I never thought of it like that.

"By the way," I ask, quickly changing the subject because I hate seeing him feeling down. Especially since I'm the cause. "Just out of curiosity, what did you tell Lauren, when you broke up with her."

"The truth," Taylor responds, shrugging, accepting the change of topic. "Basically, I told her that I was gay, and that I was in love with someone else. I didn't say who, though. I apologized, and said that I would feel guilty continuing my relationship with her, because I didn't want to lead her on."

"How did she take it?" I ask, a little warily. Images flash through my mind of her screaming, crying, or otherwise making some big scene.

"Actually, she was surprisingly okay with it," Taylor answers, surprising me a little. "She wasn't really happy about it, but she accepted it." He sighs then, closing his eyes for a moment and massaging the bridge of his nose. "I think we'd only been going through the actions of being a couple for a while, anyway. I think the fact that I like boys came as more of a shock to her than the fact I was breaking up with her."

He pauses a moment then, and seems to be thinking. "What if we just let it spread around the school that I broke up with Lauren because I'm gay? Wait maybe a week or two for people to get used to the idea, you know our school, something like that will get around fast. Then, eventually, let people know we're together when it won't seem as weird."

"Yeah, that would probably work," I say, nodding, relieved to have a solution. It's a good idea. But I still feel the need to add one more thing. "As long as you're really sure you want to do this. Come out to the school I mean. Even if our school is pretty tolerant, you won't have an easy time of it."

"I'm okay with that," Taylor affirms. "I've decided to go for this. I'm not stopping halfway. If I ever want to live for myself, be honest with myself and others, then I've got to start somewhere. And this is where I want to start, because this is what I want the most." He grins at me, draping an arm around my shoulder. I can't help but smile back.

"This is part of who I am," he continues. "Whether people like it or not."

I'm genuinely impressed. "I'm really amazed you're doing this, honestly," I tell him. "Most people wouldn't have the courage to even start."

Taylor smiles at me again, but this time it's not an entirely happy smile. "I realized I had to do something" he says. "You know more than anyone that I've been having problems. I've always felt like I have to be on guard every second, always conscious of myself, what I'm doing, and how I appear to others. But more recently, I've found that I don't think I'll survive much longer, if I try to keep living like that. This, us, is a result of me giving myself a freedom."

Now he smiles with genuine feeling, as he continues, "Really, you were the catalyst for all this. You, and the feelings I realized I was developing for you." He reaches out and tugs on a curl of my hair. "I might not even have realized what I was doing to myself, if not for you."

I love him. I really do. Every second I'm with him, I feel like the feeling is increasing. And I love the fact that he's suddenly become so much more open with me. In fact, have the feeling that I'm the only person he ever talks to so openly. I can't describe how special that makes me feel.

"When-" I hesitate, not sure if this will be an awkward question or not, but I ask it anyway. "When did you first, um, start to like me?"

He stares at some unknown point in space, apparently thinking. "Since sometime last year, I think," he responds finally. "When I first noticed it, I tried to deny it, because, um, you're male, and at the time, I also hadn't admitted to myself that I prefer boys to girls." Then, an odd expression comes over his face; sort of half-worried, half-angry. "My parents won't be happy if they ever realize that. That their 'precious' only son is gay."

I'm surprised at this, because Taylor never seems to talk about his parents. I wonder at the bitterness I hear in the word 'precious.' Before I can ask him anything, however, the movie previews start and we stop talking.

As we're watching the previews, I casually lean into his arm. He lets me, and I find it's an incredibly comfortable position.

Afterwards, I don't remember much of the movie. I think I feel asleep at some point. Still, I feel like it's the best movie I've ever seen.

Chapter 18: Topic of the Week

As I had suspected, Taylor's coming out sparks a major controversy at our school. It's the big news; everywhere I walk in the halls, it seems to be the only thing people are talking about. By what I'm able to tell after the first day or so, roughly half the school is absolutely shocked and/or horrified. The other half is accepting, if most are rather shocked. Though surprisingly, some of this second group doesn't seem surprised at all. Rowen, for example; then again, I wouldn't expect her to be surprised. She seems to operate under the assumption that the majority of the male race is gay and/or bisexual; most of them are just in denial. As a result, she's never surprised when she finds out boys are gay, just happy.

Some of Taylor's groups and clubs are more supportive than others. Most are weirded out, though. Just a little. Like the basketball team, for example. But Taylor has their respect, so even if they're a little uncertain, they all support him and look forward to his return to the game in a few weeks. I'm glad to hear that. Then, there are some of his extracurricular groups that are perfectly okay with it. The Civil Rights Team, especially, seems absurdly proud. None of the people in drama really care; I guess it's not a terribly unusual thing to them.

And there are more examples, holding a varying range of opinions. Taylor is rattling all this off to me at some point half-way through the week, going through the full list of every club, activity and organization he's actually part of. My jaw drops as he does so. He's even an officer of more than one. I've always known he's extremely involved, obviously, but I don't think I ever fully appreciated just how much. Yet it never seems to affect his schoolwork. And I remember he has a job somewhere, too.

"How did you ever find time to hang out with me before?" I ask him incredulously, as he finally finishes. "Especially as often as you did? For that matter, how do you find time now?"

We're currently at lunch, at my regular table with Rowen and Archer (who are both gaping at him, as it's the first time either of them has heard the full list as well). It's the first time this week Taylor has chanced sitting with us, though it shouldn't be all that unusual to the eyes of other students, since he's done so before.

We've been trying not to hang out overly much in school, but we've gotten together every afternoon this week so far except one, and even then, Taylor called me. It seems so impossible to me, now that I actually think about it, that Taylor actually has time for anything. Much less spending time with me.

"I always made it a point to find time for you," Taylor tells me with the sweetest smile on his face. I want to…hug him, or something. But unfortunately, we're still in school. "I always do. Even if I have to go out of my way to make it."

"I love you guys!" Rowen squeals excitedly.

Archer rolls his eyes at the far-too-excited, bouncy girl, but grins as he does so. Rowen sticks her tongue out at him.

Taylor continues speaking, mostly ignoring Rowen, which is what we've taught him to do. "I told you before, I knew I liked you for a while before I admitted it to you. I wanted to be with you, so I found time to be with you."

I feel my face heat; it must be bright red right now. Rowen is apparently trying to stifle more excitement, but not succeeding very well. I love the girl dearly, I really do, she's like a sister to me, but she really is quite odd. Admittedly, I'm even more thrilled than she is, but I have to wonder why she's quite so happy about someone else's relationship. Sometimes I think she needs some new hobbies. But I can never really bring myself to be truly annoyed by her.

Suddenly, a thought occurs to me. "Is that why you seemed so upset that I was the person who-" I'm about to say 'ran their car into you', but Taylor doesn't like me blaming myself. "The person whose car you- " this time I almost say 'whose car you ran in front of', but I remember that Rowen and Archer don't know about that part. Finally, I finish lamely with "…you know what I mean."

"Oh." Taylor blinks. He looks surprised I brought it up. "Yeah, actually. It was."

"Well, that puts a different perspective on things," I comment bemusedly, partly to myself. It makes a lot more sense now. I wonder if that's why he decided to confide in me that day, as well. Wow, I just… never would have imagined.

"Hey are you guys coming to the Chamber Singers Halloween party?" Rowen asks suddenly.

All four of us are in Chamber Singers; it's our school's auditioned choir. It's a pretty awesome group of people; there are about fifteen people besides us, and we all get along fairly well. When we all get together, we make an…interesting group. Someone had the random idea to throw a Halloween party this Saturday for Chamber Singers only, even though a majority of us usually only hang out for and during Chamber Singers events. It should be…interesting.

"I am!" Archer says, raising a hand, voice partly muffled by the food in his mouth.

"I know you are, dummy," Rowen berates him, smacking the top of his head. "Don't eat with your mouth full."

With them, it's usually better not to ask.

"Wow, I'd completely forgotten about that," Taylor admits, his face a picture of startlement.

"I did too," I confess. Until the moment Rowen mentioned it, I hadn't even thought about it.

Rowen sighs exaggeratedly and rolls her eyes at us. "So, are you going or not?"

"Actually, I think I will," I say, shrugging. If nothing else, it's bound to be entertaining.

"Then I'll go too," Taylor says, smiling just for me. "And, you know," he looks thoughtful. "I can't imagine any one of them would have issues with our relationship. It's as good a place as any to start letting the school know, if you still want to." I nod, and he adds. "I hate having to pretend about this. I've done enough of that in my life."

"So it's a plan!" Rowen says excitedly. "See you all there!"

Chapter 19: Halloween

The party on Saturday, of course, is supposed to be a costume party.

"You look fine," Taylor insists from the driver's seat of the car. He's giving me a ride, not really because I need one, but because he wanted to.

He's rather excited also, that this is the first time he's gotten to drive with both hands in over a month. Luckily for him, he got his cast off two days ago. At least he doesn't have to worry about that, anymore; now he's making sure to keep to the strict regimen of arm exercises the doctors told him he needed to do, and if all goes well he'll be able to rejoin basketball practice in a couple weeks. I'm so happy for him, and he seems so much happier lately. As he said to me himself, it's like everything's finally going right in his life.

But right now, I find it difficult to think about much besides wondering why, exactly, I'm wearing the costume that I'm wearing. Despite what Taylor may think, I do not look 'fine', and I tell him so.

"Okay," Taylor agrees, grinning. "You don't look fine. You look hot."

I moan. "How did I ever, ever let you convince me to actually wear this?" I lean forward in my seat, head in my hands, face bright red.

"Because you love me," Taylor states. "And it goes with my costume. And it looks cute on you."

I make some random noise of frustration, but it's the truth. Well, I don't know if it looks cute on me, but everything else Taylor said was true.

The 'it' we are referring to is a dress. A dress. Somehow, someway, I actually let Taylor talk me into wearing a dress. And not just any dress, either. It's one of those fancy medieval dresses. For crying out loud, the thing has a corset! The dress is dark blue and trimmed with gold, and though I'll admit it goes with my eyes, and I suppose it makes a good Halloween costume, I still just can't believe I'm actually wearing it. To a party. And we'll ignore the fact that I kind of wanted to, I never actually would have. But Taylor can be…persuasive…when he wants to be. Damn it. Though I can't say I'm honestly disappointed with his method of persuasion, but we'll leave that for another time.

Meanwhile, Taylor is wearing the matching outfit; only he gets to be the guy. Of course. Okay, I can admit that I look better in the dress than he would, and vice versa. Not that he'd look that bad in a dress himself…anyway, moving on. What happened was that we went out shopping together, and Taylor found these matching costumes labeled 'Romeo' and 'Juliet,' and, well, the rest, as the cliché goes, is history

"You seem so eager to get me in a dress," I gripe. "Should I take that as a warning sign?"

"Of what?" Taylor seems amused.

"Would you rather I was a girl underneath this thing?" I meant it jokingly, but the moment I actually say it, I realize that it really is bothering me a little. I know he said that he's gay, not even bisexual, but I can't help feeling insecure. It's a concern I haven't given much thought to, but I still wonder if he's absolutely sure about this.

"No!" Taylor exclaims immediately. "Ugh! I don't want you to be a girl, and I told you, I don't even like girls. I never really did." He glances at me, and I think that somehow he's picked up on the seriousness underlying my words. "I like you because you're you, Jackson," he says seriously. "I love you."

Taylor always seems to know just what to say to make all my insecurities vanish. I realize every day, every second I'm with him, just how much I love him. He's not the only one whose life is going wonderfully. I feel like walking on air, sometimes. We both seem to have our own issues and insecurities, but somehow, it feels like we complete each other. Even when I liked Taylor before, before all this happened, I just never imagined I could ever feel like this.

To my dismay, everyone seems to converge on us the moment we arrive. There is much excitement and squealing (mostly from the girls) over my costume. Then, naturally, come the questions about us. By now, it's a safe bet that every single student in our school knows about Taylor's 'coming out', and I never kept my sexuality a secret. So our particular costumes, the fact we arrived together, and the fact Taylor has his arm wrapped possessively around me quickly gives rise to speculation.

"Oh my god, are you guys going out?" someone asks.

Like that.

I look to Taylor, feeling suddenly unsure and more than a little nervous at being the center of attention.

He holds me closer and announces clearly, "Yes. Yes we are."

The group of people here really is quite accepting and open-minded. Their reactions range from not really affected, being happy for us, to downright excitement in some cases. Apparently there are more people like Rowen than I thought.

Speaking of Rowen, I notice after people have moved off that she's not actually here yet. Neither is Archer. It seems like everyone else from Chamber Singers is, plus some significant others that got invited by default. I'm impressed that so many people came, considering it was just the idea of some people in the group, not actually related to the school. We're all over the house of Joanna, a soprano who is good friends with Rowen. She's also the secretary of our senior class and very involved in student government. I don't know her as well as Rowen does, but she's always seemed like a very nice girl. Actually, from what I hear, it's Jo, Rowen, Archer, and Jo's boyfriend Lee who planned this party in the first place. Of them all, Jo has the biggest house, hence the location of the party.

All things considered, it's quite unusual that Rowen and Archer wouldn't be here yet.

As if summoned by my thought, they choose that moment to walk through the door, and I see instantly why they're late. I know them well enough that I know they planned a dramatic entrance, and they certainly pull it off.

Rowen is dressed in a fashion that I recognize from pictures she's shown me as something she calls 'Gothic Lolita'. She looks kind of like a gothic mix of Victorian era doll, little girl, and French maid. Her knee-length dress is black with lace and ribbons all over, short, puffy sleeves, and a poofy skirt part. I know she's wearing a petticoat, but I couldn't tell you what part of the dress has that exact title because I don't know much about dresses. Her shoes look kind of like Mary Janes only with chunky platform heels, and she's wearing them over black fishnet stockings. She also has long, tapered gloves, and a frilly, maid-like headpiece. One hand is holding a black lace parasol. The other hand is holding a leash that connects to a collar that is fastened around Archer's neck.

Archer, well… the only words I can think of to describe his costume would be 'gothic man-whore'. There are copious amounts of black eyeliner around his eyes, with two streaks down his cheeks like tear lines; his lips are black as well, and he seems to have put on some sort of foundation that makes his face look paler than normal. All he's wearing on his upper body is a cut-off fishnet shirt. On his legs are tight-fitting black leather bondage pants, full of random zippers and complete with all manner of random chains and straps hanging off.

They make an… interesting pair. And amazingly enough, they pull off their respective looks surprisingly well.

They take a moment to make their entrance quite thoroughly dramatic. Until, of course, Rowen catches sight off me.

"Jackson!" she squeals, rushing over to hug me, almost forgetting about the leash she's holding Archer on and nearly choking the poor boy in the process. She backs up and takes in both my outfit and Taylor's. "I officially love you both!" She declares. "You have made my night!"

"Uh, you look very good too," I tell her, still trying to regain normal thought.

"You guys look awesome," Taylor interjects, grinning. "Great concept."

"Thank you!" Rowen says, curtsying a little.

"You whore!" Archer says, catching up with her, rubbing his neck.

"Nuh-uh, tonight that's your title!" Rowen grins, sticking out her tongue.

"Geez, are you trying to kill me?" he says, looking a little annoyed.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to," Rowen says contritely.

"Yes you did," Archer protests, but his expression says he's no longer serious.

"Come on, you know the difference between when I do something on purpose and when it's an accident," Rowen protests, smacking him. They're so abusive. It's rather amusing.

"Besides, come on, look what they're wearing!" Rowen adds, gesturing to Taylor and me, excited all over again. "You know me, I can't be held responsible for my actions when there are gay and/or cross-dressing boys involved!"

"True, true," Archer consents. Then he turns to us and seems to really look at our outfits for the first time. "Pretty sweet," he says, nodding his approval. "You guys seem to be pretty good for each other."

Frankly, I'm really pleased at his approval. I'm so glad my friends approve of my relationship; their opinions mean a lot to me. Even Rowen; if she thought I was dating a guy who was no good, she'd make her disapproval pretty clear.

"Jo!" Rowen squeals, bouncing off again as she spots our host. "Oh my god, you and Lee look great!"

I notice the costumes Joanna and her boyfriend Lee are wearing for the first time that night. They're dressed rather convincingly as Christine and Raoul from the Phantom of the Opera movie. Jo even has a wig over her short blonde hair that looks quite realistic, and her dress is absolutely gorgeous. Better than mine, I can't help but note. Lee, also, makes a great Raoul; his clothes actually look vintage, and I'm quite impressed.

"Elle est très étrange, n'est-ce pas?" Taylor comments, indicating Rowen. She's very strange, isn't she?

I smile; we do this every so often; have short conversations in French for no apparent reason besides practice, the fact it's fun, and the fact most people don't understand it. Of course, neither of us is fluent, so we're probably screwing it up quite a bit, but at least we can usually understand each other. "Oui," I answer, "Mais je l'aime. Elle est vraiment comme un soeur, pour moi." Yes, but I love her. She's really like a sister, for me. I'm not sure I said it quite right, but Taylor understands me anyway.

"Oui, je sais," Taylor responds. Yes, I know. "Je pense que c'est un très bon chose. Et elle est très gentile, aussi, si c'est juste a toi." I think that's a good thing. And she's very nice, also, if only to you.

"Oui, c'est vrai," I say. Yes, that's true. "Quelque fois." Sometimes. I grin at him. Honestly, I'm also quite glad Taylor likes my friends. And he does seem to get along with them pretty well.

The party itself is quite fun. With this group, 'party' does not mean alcohol, sex, and drugs. Far from it. One of the highlights of the evening is this weird game called 'Freeze and Justify.' Everyone sits in a circle or half-circle, and two people stand and act out some random improvised scene. At any point, someone from the audience can yell 'Freeze!' When someone does, the two people standing have to freeze in the exact positions they were in, and the person who called out replaces either one of them, getting into the same position as before, then continues with a different made up scene. It is one of the most awesome games I've ever played.

At some point later, a couple people start to sing some random song we're singing for Chamber Singers right now, called Prelude to Peace. It's the most beautiful song we sing, and everyone loves it, so soon pretty much everyone has joined in. From there we go off on an impromptu a capella chorus, continuing on with a number of other songs we all know.

Later that evening, someone comes up with the idea to have a costume contest. We all come up with categories, and then create makeshift ballots to vote with. Rowen and Archer win 'best concept', unsurprisingly. Archer wins 'best homemade costume', and I'm amazed to learn that he made the pants himself. To my surprise and great embarrassment, I win 'cutest costume'. Even more surprising to me, Taylor and I actually tie with Jo and Lee for 'best couple'. I end up losing track of all the categories we made up, but most everyone wins something, even Freeman, an interesting, loud, outgoing guy who is our resident clown. He came up with a hideous costume on purpose; he happily accepts the 'worst costume' award, announcing he's 'never been so happy in his life!'

At some point later in the party, everyone's broken off into their own random things. Rowen's off somewhere with Jo, and Archer is chatting with Lee, who he's recently starting hanging out with more often. Taylor and I have situated ourselves together on a smaller couch. I'm sitting mostly on his lap, head against his chest. He has one strong arm wrapped around me, and he's running the fingers of his other hand through my mess of curls. It's getting later, I'm comfortable, and quite frankly rather sleepy.

"Jackson, you have no idea how much you've done for me," Taylor whispers quietly into my hair, stilling his hand.

"Hmm?" I mumble, half asleep by now.

"If not for you, I never would have found the courage to do this," he continues softly. "I wouldn't have had a reason."

I mutter something unintelligible, and he kisses the top of my head. "Right now, you're the only thing that's keeping me going," he continues. "You're the only reason I feel like I can get out of bed in the morning and face another day."

"Tha's good," I murmur sleepily, unable to bring myself back to proper wakefulness. "I wanted t'help you…"

I'm only slightly aware of my surroundings, floating in the dreamlike state of partial awareness.

Taylor must have carried me out, because I don't wake up until later in his car, as he's bringing me home. He glances over when he hears me stirring and I smile brilliantly, still tired but somehow feeling incredibly rested. He smiles back, and we don't say a word for the entire car ride. We don't need to.

Chapter 20: Lauren Proves Her Mettle

After that party, Taylor and I allowed news of our relationship to spread to the school. It does work better than it probably would have if we hadn't waited for the school to get used to the idea of Taylor's sexuality first.

Of course, that doesn't mean everything worked out perfectly. Despite our efforts, there are still a number of people who blame me for turning Taylor gay and/or for causing him to break up with Lauren. I am now subject to the open despise of a large portion of the school's female population. Namely all of Taylor's former female groupies.

There are also a number of guys, mostly admirers of Lauren, that give me grief specifically for 'making Taylor break up with Lauren.' They harass Taylor, too. Our school is pretty strict, so at least they can't really get away with much along the lines of physical harassment, but the school just can't fully monitor all verbal abuse.

However, interestingly enough, it's Lauren who puts a stop to this. At some point later in the week, she happens to walk down a hallway at school just when a couple guys have caught me alone between classes, and are quite spitefully verbally harassing me.

At first when I see her, my heart sinks. I know that she's still friends with Taylor, Taylor told me so, but I'm afraid that she might resent me. After all, I am dating her ex-boyfriend. And technically, Taylor did leave her for me. Everyone else seems to think I seduced him, so I figure it's pretty likely that she does too.

"What's going on here?" She demands, eyes narrowed.

"We're just punishing this punk for you, Lauren," one of them sneers.

"Excuse me?" Lauren demands, hands on her hips. "When did I ever ask you to do that?"

"But he seduced your boyfriend," another one protests, incredulous that she's defending me. I must confess I feel similarly; I'm honestly surprised she's stopping them.

"He did nothing of the sort," Lauren retorts venomously, to the amazement of all those present. "And you will not speak to him in that way again. In fact," she raises her voice a notch, turning her words into a declaration. "I'm going to say this now, once and for all, so listen closely. I've been hearing stories of people harassing both Taylor and Jackson in a misguided attempt to 'defend my honor.' I'm telling you now, and you can make sure the rest of the school knows this as well, that I do not want to hear so much as another whisper that anyone has given them trouble on my account. They are both my friends, and I don't appreciate people hassling them for something that is no one's business but theirs and hardly even mine. If I do catch wind that anyone has continued giving them trouble, I will not hesitate to bring it to administration, and I will use my favorable position with them to ensure that the culprits are suspended, if not expelled from this school. Normally, I wouldn't abuse my potential influence on the faculty and staff of this school, but in this case I'll make an exception."

Her words are met with a shocked silence. The guys who'd been previously picking on me stared at her, speechless, for a long moment, before finally turning tail and fleeing.

I find it interesting to note that she called me a friend, although we hardly know each other. I wouldn't think she'd want to be friends with me.

"Sorry about them," Lauren apologizes, smiling at me. "Hopefully you won't have to deal with shit like that anymore." It seems unusual to hear her swear. "At least not as much," she amends.

Quite frankly, I'm still staring at her speechlessly as well. I am beyond astounded by her speech. I'm utterly floored. It takes me a bit to fully realize what she's just done for Taylor and me.

After a few more moments of silence, I tentatively offer, "Um, thank you."

She nods amicably, saying, "I really do hate to think that people are troubling either of you two on my account. I respect you both quite a bit for having the courage to come out to the school."

"You're not-you're not mad at me?" I ask her hesitantly, still not quite sure what to think about all this. "For-for causing Taylor to break up with you?"

"I had a long talk with Taylor after he broke up with me," Lauren says seriously. "You might have been a factor in his decision, but you're far from the whole cause. And we discussed the matter again, after you two started acknowledging your relationship at school. Taylor made sure I realized that his breaking up with me wasn't your fault, and I know it's not. We certainly had other problems as well." She smiles a little sadly, adding, "I think you're the best thing that's happened to Taylor in a long time, actually."

I stare at Lauren again, this time with a sort of wonder and definite newfound respect for Taylor's ex-girlfriend. "You're a good person," I tell her, wanting her to know how amazed I am by her and her strength. "Not many people would be so accepting of a situation like this. I'm not even sure I would be. And, um, well-" I grasp for more words to express what I'm trying to get across. "Thank you so much, for doing that. For saying that. For standing up for me." I smile tentatively at her. "I really appreciate it."

Lauren smiles back, and I start to think maybe we can be friends.

"Make sure you take good care of him, okay?" Lauren says. She smiles bravely, although I'm starting to see that as accepting as she may be, she's still a little hurt by all this. "He's been so much happier since he's been with you. I can't thank you enough for that."

News of Lauren's announcement also spreads around the school quickly, and both Taylor and I find that we receive much less grief over our relationship after it. I've decided that I am eternally grateful to Lauren.

I'm still amazed that Taylor did this, is doing this. Actually, amazed is an understatement. He's so concerned about appearances and the way people view him; still is, in fact, even after all of this, but he was willing to go through it all. For himself, and for us, and our relationship. He chose to. And that makes me so incredibly happy I can hardly describe it. I still can't fathom how all of this managed to somehow work out, but it has.

Also, pretty much right from the point he first asked me out, it's like he's opened some sort of internal floodgate. He's been holding almost nothing back with me. It also makes me really happy, that he trusts me so much now, and I think being able to unburden his emotions has been a big help for him.

However, there's apparently some truth to the statement "old habits die hard." He'll tell me when he's upset or just feeling off, but he still takes pains to hide it from everyone else. And he's still over-achieving and generally being over-involved. I've talked to him about it, when he seems like he's running himself ragged, but he doesn't feel that he can drop any of his clubs or extracurricular. He's been almost obsessively going through all the exercises that the doctors told him to do in order to regain strength in his left arm, so he can play basketball again. He's really anxious about it, now that the season is just about underway.

Whenever I bring up the subject of his demanding lifestyle, Taylor assures me he has it all under control. He says he's been doing this balancing act for a good portion of his life, and he'll be fine.

Sometimes, I really have to wonder what drives him to push himself so hard. I've asked him about that, too, but it's possibly the only thing he refuses to talk to me about. Every time the subject comes up, he immediately clams up and won't say a word about it, or claims that it's completely his own choice, which I get the feeling isn't the truth. If he doesn't succeed in changing the subject, that is.

Or distracting me. Depending on our surroundings, I think I prefer the distracting.

Chapter 21: Insanity, Movie Night and Bruises

Neither Taylor nor me have told our parents about our relationship. I know why I haven't; I'm afraid that my mother will make it her life's mission to embarrass me, and I'm afraid my father will be uncomfortable with it. More so than he is now. He's only tentatively accepted my sexuality, and up until now, I've never actually had a boyfriend before.

I'm not entirely sure why Taylor hasn't told his parents, but it's understandable; they probably don't even know he's gay, yet. Besides that, I've gotten the impression that Taylor doesn't get along particularly well with his parents, but that seems to be another topic that he prefers to avoid.

Probably as a direct result of this, neither of us goes to the other's house. We usually end up going to our usual café, hang out at Rowen or Archer's house, or find somewhere else. Actually, thinking up new places to go has become something of a game for us. So far, the list has included a park, a random patch of woods, the beach, a local arcade, and quite often, the mall.

The first time we went to the mall together, I couldn't help thinking about the last time we'd seen each other at the mall, when Taylor was still dating Lauren. Taylor might have been thinking about the same thing, I'm not sure. All I know is, while we're walking, he suddenly grabs my hand and entwines our fingers together. After that, I feel better.

Quite often, Rowen and Archer end up coming along when we go to the mall. Once, Jo and Lee decide to come too.

It's a Friday evening, and we're sitting around a table in the mall's food court. Taylor and I are sitting across from one another, at the end of the table that's blocked off by trashcans. Archer is to my left, Rowen next to him, and Jo is next to Taylor, with Lee to her right.

Archer, you should be a girl," Rowen comments suddenly.

"What the hell?" Archer stares at her like she's grown a third arm.

"You should be a girl and we should be a couple," Rowen goes on joking, in an excited voice. "Then we'd have one of every kind!"

"Two boys, two girls, and a girl and a boy," Jo grins, quickly picking up on Rowen's train of thought. They get along very well; their interests seem to align pretty closely. Of course, those interests extend to Rowen's strange fondness for gay boys. Jo has it too. I discovered this the hard way. Rather, the loud way.

"Man, that would be awesome," Lee agrees excitedly. That boy's a weird one too.

"Or better yet, Jo," Rowen modifies her previous idea, "You and I can be together and we'll stick Lee with Archer!"

"Hey, no!" Jo and Lee protest almost simultaneously.

"Then there wouldn't be a straight couple," Archer points out. Then, randomly, he adds, "Ha, I win!"

"Shut up!" Rowen protests, pretending to be angry but failing miserably.

Ah, my friends.

"You're all insane," Taylor states, but he's grinning despite himself.

"To be sane is incomplete," Lee quotes a phrase that he invented himself.

"Isn't that the truth?" I can't help but add, also grinning, finally giving input to the conversation. Often times when I'm with a group of people, especially these people, I find it more interesting to watch everyone else's interactions rather than participate much myself. "But come on, Taylor, you know you love them all because they're insane."

"I love you more," Taylor protests, smiling at me from across the table. He reaches over and enfolds one of my hands in his.

Ignoring Rowen and Jo's barely concealed squealing, I reply, "Are you insinuating that I'm not insane, then?"

"Hate to break it to you, Jackson," Archer says fake-consolingly, patting my shoulder. "Compared to us, you're sadly within the realm of normality."

"Hey," I pretend to pout, finding that I'm having quite a bit of fun with the banter. "I don't want to be normal. That would make me ordinary."

"You're anything but ordinary," Taylor smiles at me, pulling my hand to his lips and softly kissing it.

You know how people will say they're on cloud nine when they're really happy? Yeah. I'd say I'm somewhere around the vicinity of cloud seventeen right now. I love him so much.

"I love you so much," I beam, deciding to voice my thoughts aloud.

"I do too," Taylor grins, "But I think we're going to cause Rowen and Jo to asphyxiate if we keep this up." He's still holding my hand captive, and has unconsciously started massaging it with his thumb.

"Aw, you guys are so cute!" says a high-pitched falsetto voice. The whole table goes silent for a long moment as everyone turns to stare at Lee.

"What?" he protests, holding his hands up in the air as if to fend of our stares.

"Honey, sometimes you really worry," Jo says to him, only half jokingly.

"Hey, I promise, remember?" Lee protests in a way that sounds like they've had this conversation before, reaching a hand up and stroking Jo's back. "You know you have nothing to worry about."

"Aww, you guys are so cute too," Taylor jokingly mocks Lee.

"Ew, you two are so hetero," Archer adds.

"You slut," Rowen jokes, pretending to hit him.

"Ouch, my chandelier!" Archer exclaims, clutching his shirt.

They are so weird. Those two go beyond insanity.

"Chandelier?" Taylor asks, raising an eyebrow. "What?"

"Long story," Archer and Rowen say at almost the same instant, Archer adding, "You probably don't want to know."

The rest of us decide not to press the matter.

"So, are we all definitely going to Archer's house after this?" Rowen asks.

Everyone affirms that they are. We'd decided earlier, for no apparent reason, to have a movie night/sleepover at Archer's house. We've all called the appropriate parental units for permission, and Archer's parents okay-ed it, which was actually pretty lucky. It's pretty hit or miss with Archer's parents, usually; they're a little strange. Archer doesn't get along with them very well, they tend to go out drinking an awful lot, and there's a general consensus among most who know them, including adults, that they're parenting methods aren't the best. Half the time they ignore Archer's existence, and they always seem to be grounding him for some ridiculous reason or another. But at the very least, they usually leave him alone whenever he has friends over.

Later that night, we're all curled up on and around the two couches in Archer's living room, halfway through the movie Minority Report. It's one of Archer's favorites. Although it's a good movie, I've seen it before, multiple times, so admittedly I'm a little bored. I reposition myself a little on the couch, where I sit mostly draped over Taylor. We're all sprawled on and around the two couches in Archer's living room. Taylor and I are at the edge of one, Taylor leaning on the armrest and me leaning on him.

As I continue to shift around, I suddenly hear a sharp intake of breath coming from Taylor.

"Shit," he mutters under his breath, almost quietly enough that I missed it, but not quite.

"What's wrong?" I ask, immediately concerned. "Did I hurt you?"

"No, not exactly," he whispers back. Due to our positioning, his mouth is right next to my ear, and I suppress an urge to shiver as I feel his warm breath ghosting on my skin. "You just happened to press against a bruise."

"Another one?" I hiss at him, tilting my head backwards so I can look him in the eyes, "What the hell?" I quickly forget about the close proximity of his mouth as I feel annoyance settling over me. "This is the third time in less than two weeks! Where the hell are you getting all these bruises from?"

"I've told you where I got them," Taylor mutters, looking away. "Don't worry about it." He clearly wants me to drop the conversation before someone else overhears what we're saying.

I sigh audibly, rolling myself off the couch and pulling Taylor up with me. "We'll be right back," I announce, as everyone turns to look at us. Rowen and Joy exchange a quick, gleeful look. "It's not what I'm sure you're thinking," I tell them, resisting an urge to roll my eyes. "Don't get any ideas." I'm not sure why I bother, as I know they will no matter what I say.

"Shh, come on, watch the movie!" Archer exclaims, turning everyone's attention back to the TV screen as I drag Taylor off down the hallway.

I pull him into Archer's room, turning on the light and closing the door behind us.

"Show me," I demand of him, arms crossed over my chest.

Taylor sighs now, running a hand through his hair. "You're not going to let this go, are you?" he asks. I shake my head, still not uncrossing my arms. I'm worried about him, damn it. He'll just have to deal with that fact.

"Fine," Taylor says reluctantly. Slowly, he unbuttons the top few buttons of the long sleeved dress shirt he's wearing, and pulls the fabric aside. I barely stifle a gasp as it reveals a large, painful looking, black and red bruise high on his chest, nearly on his shoulder. It can't be more than a few hours old.

"What the hell?" I demand, trying to cover my fear with more annoyance. "What's going on, Taylor? Where are you really getting all these bruises?"

"I told you where I got the other ones," he says, once again refusing to meet my eyes.

"Right," I say skeptically. "The one on your hip the week before last was from running into a table. That I might believe, although you and I both know you're rarely that clumsy. And you got the one on the side of your face from basketball practice. Except that I asked one of your teammates, and he told me that it's not true. I don't like that you're lying to me, Taylor." My voice has been steadily rising in pitch, despite my best efforts to control it.

"It's nothing," Taylor insists. "I'm sorry I lied to you, but I didn't want to worry you."

"Worry me? What should I be worried about?" I'm still speaking a bit louder than strictly necessary, warring between being mad at Taylor and afraid for him.

"I told you, it's nothing," Taylor says, starting to get angry himself. "Just forget about it!"

He's still not meeting my eyes.

"The only time you refuse to look me in the eye is when you're trying to hide something!" I insist. Then, abruptly, I change tactics, dropping my pretense of anger. "Please, Taylor," I plead, finally uncrossing my arms and grasping his hands. "I love you. I care about your well-being. And quite frankly, all these mysterious bruises are rather upsetting." My voice catches a bit on my last sentence, and I realize that I'm almost to the verge of tears.

Taylor softens immediately, drawing his hands out of my grasp and pulling me into a tight embrace.

"I know you care, dearest-mine," he whispers softly. "I'm sorry, I really am. I just really don't want to talk about this. I promise you, I'll be fine. Okay?" He pulls apart a little, finally meeting my eyes, boring deeply into them.

I hesitate before answering.

"Please, Jackson?" he entreats me softly.

"Okay," I say at last, quietly, with no little reluctance. He pulls me close to him again, and I sigh inwardly, returning his embrace.

I just hope he'll be able to keep that promise.

Chapter 22: Meeting Jackson's Parents

Somehow, someway, it inadvertently slips to my mother that I have a boyfriend.

The moment she determines that yes, it 's true, she immediately flips into "nosy mother" mode. She insists that I invite him over for dinner. My mother is very accepting of my sexuality, which is a good thing, but she's also far too curious about my personal life.

I try to resist, but it's no use. My mother will not leave me alone.

Then, when I eventually mention it to Taylor, he's no help at all. He seems to be more than happy to meet my parents. Even after I warn him about my mother. Personally, I think he is insane. My mother is the "let's take out the baby pictures!" kind of mother.

But all my protests are to no avail. Both sides are insisting on it, and eventually, I crumble under the pressure.

And so it is that I'm sitting in my living room with Taylor and my mother, wishing the couch would swallow me whole as they "aww" over, you guessed it, my baby pictures. Unfortunately, there are plenty, as I am my parent's first and only child.

"..and here he is, trying to hide in the dryer," my mother points to a picture in the large photo album spread over hers and Taylor's laps. "Oh, and this one is from when he got caught in the swing set. The poor thing was wailing his head off, but doesn't he look so adorable with his face all scrunched up like that?"

"Aww, he does," Taylor enthused. "He was such an adorable baby!"

"…I can't believe you two," I say, attempting to hide my face behind my hands. "Mom, isn't it time to eat or something?" I ask with a pleading tone to my voice, glancing at her through my fingers.

"Oh that's right!" My mother exclaims, putting aside the photo album and rising to her feet. "Supper should be ready by now."

Thank god. Or divine powers. Or the pot roast. Whatever, as long as the baby pictures go away.

"Don't be so embarrassed," Taylor says to me, scooting closer as my mother leaves the room. He pulls my hands away from my face, and I'm met with the sight of his brilliant smile. "You were a cute baby."

"Then what am I now?" I shoot back, glaring daggers at him. He didn't have to help her embarrass me. The traitor.

"Still cute," he answers, his grin widening. He lets go of my wrists and wraps his arms loosely around me, leaning his face toward me and touching our noses together. "Cuter, actually." He tilts his head and presses his lips briefly to mine.

I suppose I might be able to find it within myself to forgive him.

I'm afraid things will be very awkward at the dinner table, with my father. As I've said before, he's not very happy about my sexuality.

Sure enough, despite my mother's valiant attempts at small talk, an awkward silence hangs over the table.

Finally, my dad speaks to Taylor. "So, um, I hear you're a basketball player?"

Taylor nods. "Captain of the team, actually. Although I broke my arm not too long ago, so I was only able to start playing again recently." He doesn't elaborate; my parents don't know that he's the person I hit with the car.

Taylor's played two games, actually, since his arm healed enough for him to rejoin the team. The lack of practice doesn't show. I went to both games, despite the fact I really don't care for basketball. I wanted to be there to support Taylor, and even if I don't like basketball, I enjoy watching him play.

"How do you think the teams chances look for this year?" my dad continues. Just like that, the silence is broken. Taylor and my dad get into some involved conversation about basketball that I, knowing next to nothing about the sport, can't even begin to follow. I think both my mother and I heave quiet sighs of relief. As the conversation goes on, it's clear that my father now likes Taylor.

I still think my father would be happier with the situation if I'd been born a girl, but hey. It's a start.

Chapter 23: Reflections and Discussions

As an odd habit of mine, every so often, I find myself sitting back and seriously reflecting on my life. In this case, I find myself doing so with a focus on my relationship with Taylor.

When I actually think about it, we haven't been together for all that long. Not even two months yet, barely a month and a half. Yet it feels like so much longer. Already, I can hardly remember what it was before Taylor and I got together. Somehow, we just slipped so easily into the patterns of being in a relationship. Like it was the natural order of things. I don't even want to think about how my life would be without him now.

Being with Taylor has been like… more than a dream come true. I can't accurately express it, even to myself. It's like he's everything I've ever needed, like he somehow completes me. Taylor is always telling me how much good I've done for him, and Lauren's said the same thing, but I wonder if anyone realizes how much he has done for me. So many of my doubts, my insecurities, my inner lack of confidence; somehow, when he's with me, Taylor always manages to silence it all. He always seems to know just what to say, just when to say it. He won't let me descend on some dark spiral of thought. I don't even know how he can tell; sometimes I wonder if he really can, or if he just has an innate sense of the right things to say.

Either way, examining my inner thought processes recently, I find that whatever Taylor's doing, it's working. The more he banishes my silly worries and fears, the less they seem to take control of me.

However, on the down side, the more he takes away my ridiculous worries and concerns, the more he seems to unintentionally give me serious things to worry about. He's pushing himself impossibly hard to achieve some insane goal of perfectionism. I still don't know the real cause of the mysterious bruises that have been appearing lately. And the worst part of it is, I can't talk to anyone about it. I want to talk to Taylor; I want to get through to him. But he won't let me.

My concern for him is eating me up inside. After being brushed aside so often on one matter and being directly asked not to talk about the other, I can only try not to focus too much on it and hope everything really will be okay. The result of this is that I'm driving myself nearly insane with worry and fear, because I really can't put it out of my mind.

Finally, after sitting and reflecting on this for an indeterminate period of time, I decide that I have to talk to someone. I can't just keep it inside. I don't believe in bottling emotions, anyway. At least I recognize that it's hurting me.

The obvious choice and the person I'd most like to talk to, is, of course, Taylor himself. But he just won't let me. Rowen is out of the question; she'd end up marching straight up to Taylor and demanding answers while berating him for being so reticent about it all. Archer, well, he'd listen to me if I asked him to, but he's really not good at these sorts of things, and I'd just end up making him feel uncomfortable. I don't really feel close enough to either Jo or Lee to be comfortable with confiding in them. And that pretty much exhausts my list of good friends, as well as people I'd trust enough to talk to.

Or so I thought, until I suddenly remember Lauren. Once I do, she seems like the perfect candidate; the more I think about it, the better the idea sounds. Normally, considering the fact she's Taylor's ex-girlfriend, I'd worry that it would be rather awkward to talk to her, especially if it's about Taylor. But somehow, with Lauren, I don't think it will be. Also, she's certainly proven herself to me. And I think she'd be willing to talk to me.

In fact, considering that she is Taylor's ex-girlfriend, there's even a good chance she'd be able to shed some light on the situation. I know Taylor hid a lot from her, but I also know that she's an intelligent person, and rather perceptive. She must have noticed something. And maybe she'll know something I don't. Even if not, well, I could probably sound ideas off of her

I make up my mind to approach her tomorrow. The worst she could do -or at least, the worst she'd be likely to do- is say no.

"Um, excuse me, Lauren?" I say as I catch up to her in a hallway at school. I would have talked to her that morning, but I'm always with Taylor in the morning. For some reason, I don't want him to know about this. I just get the feeling he'd be upset with me if he found out.

Lauren turns in surprise, her face breaking out into a warm smile when she sees that it's me.

"Hey, Jackson," she greets me congenially. "What can I do for you?"

"Umm, actually…" I hesitate nervously.

I'm really, really nervous about talking to her, I realize. I'm biting my lip a little and have been unconsciously fiddling with my shirt sleeve. Awkwardly, I try to express my desires. "I was wondering if you, um, if you ever have a chance, would you be willing to-to talk to me? Because I could really use someone to talk to. And I know we don't know each other all that well, but, um, I have good reasons, good reasons for myself at least, and, uh-"

"That would be fine." Lauren gently interrupts me before I can make any more of a fool of myself with my babbling. Grinning, she asks, "Need someone who you can talk to about Taylor?"

I blink in surprise. "Well, um, yeah, actually. How-how did you guess?"

Lauren frowns slightly, gaze unfocusing a little, apparently in thought. "Taylor has a chronic habit of hiding things, without really thinking about how it might affect the people around him."

She hesitates, focusing on me again. "I don't know how open he is with you, but I'm sure that hasn't completely changed."

I simply nod, grateful that I won't have to try to explain myself to her.

"I wouldn't mind hanging out with you sometime anyway," Lauren adds, smiling. "I'd love to get to know you better."

"Psycho-perfectionism?" Lauren looks surprised. It's now after school, and Lauren and I are sitting at a table in the same café that Taylor and I usually frequent, Carpe Diem. I almost feel guilty about this fact, but I'm not entirely sure why.

"Well, now that you mention it…"Lauren trails off, furrowing her eyebrows. She brushes back a strand of her long, honey colored hair and continues thoughtfully, "I know he pushes himself, but I guess I never thought much of it, since I do something similar myself."

She idly stirs her coffee, testing to see how hot it is. I lean back and look at her critically, reflecting for a moment on her words.

"Why?" I ask her finally. That's one of the questions that Taylor has never given me a good answer for; why he pushes himself. I wonder if Lauren's answer will some sort of insight into Taylor's reasoning.

"Why do I push myself?" she repeats. She takes a sip of her coffee, apparently judging it sufficiently cooled. Finally, she responds with, "I do it for myself, actually. I like to see how much I'm capable of. It gives me a sense of personal satisfaction."

Guessing the reason behind my question with eerie accuracy, she adds, "If you're hoping that my reasons for doing it are anything like Taylor's, I'll tell you now, I don't think they are. I don't think he's driving himself out of purely personal motivation."

She sighs a little, tapping her fingers on the table top. "Of course, that's just my opinion. I mean, as you may have guessed, I've never really thought about it much before now." A sudden thought seems to strike her, and she adds, "I wonder if it has anything with his parents?"

"His parents?" I'd been staring down, contemplating my untouched donut. At those words, my gaze snaps immediately back to Lauren's face. Taylor rarely ever talks about his parents.

"Yes, his parents," Lauren nods affirmatively. "I've met them several times. They liked me, so they were always nice when I was around, but they always struck me as being a little strict." She shrugged slightly, continuing, "Of course, he's mother is rarely at home. And his father, well," she shrugs again. "Taylor's father was nice to me and all, but I always felt a little uncomfortable around him."

She has my undivided attention as I absorb this new information. Maybe that's it. Maybe this is the answer. Maybe Taylor's parents are really strict; that would be hard on anyone, wouldn't it? And if his mother is never around, then maybe that means she neglects him or something? Maybe all of this is the source of Taylor's problems; that would make a lot of sense.

But there's still one more thing.

"When you were dating Taylor," I begin, very seriously, struggling to find a good way to phrase my question. "Did he ever have…random bruises? That he either wouldn't explain, or gave weak reasons for?"

"What? No, definitely not." Lauren appears startled at my words. "Why? Is something wrong? Has that been happening? Is he- is something going on?"

"I really don't know," I admit helplessly. I'm suddenly regretting having brought it up. I'm very reluctant to tell her more about this; if I thought Taylor wouldn't be happy that I was talking to Lauren about him at all, I know he'd be upset if he knew I told her about this. To him, it would be like I'm breaking his trust to tell anyone else about something so personal.

However, Lauren keeps at me, and I finally crumble and tell her everything I know. Quite frankly, I want to tell her about it; that was part of the whole reason I wanted to talk to her. I want to share my worry with someone. And by the end of it, she looks almost as worried as I feel.

"I don't like this," she says, tone and expression very serious. "I think we should tell someone about it."

"No," I say hastily. Taylor would never forgive me. "Not yet, at least. Not unless we're sure there's something going on." I attempt a weak smile. "I mean, who knows, maybe he really is telling the truth and he's just been really clumsy lately."

I think both of us know that this isn't the case.

Chapter 24: Annoyance and Frustration

"What do you still need to do?" I ask Taylor curiously, sitting on the edge of a table next to where he has various large textbooks and school-related papers strewn about. It's after school and we're in the cafeteria, pretty much the only area of the school where students are allowed to hang out and talk after school hours. Taylor's trying to get some of his school works done before a basketball practice he has at three-thirty, and I'm hanging out pretty much just to be with him.

"AP Calculus," he answers irritably. "And economics. And I have to read a chapter in the textbook for Anatomy and Physiology."

"Sounds like fun," I comment dryly, gripping the edges of the table and swinging my legs a little.

"Not really," Taylor snaps, glaring fiercely at his calculus homework.

"Sorry," I apologize, feeling guilty for interrupting him. I stop swinging my legs for fear of distracting him further.

He glares some more at the equations in front of him, and then begins a search for his calculator. I pull it out from under a sheaf of papers and hand it to him.

"Thanks," he mutters distractedly.

"No problem." I watch curiously, as Taylor works on a complicated looking equation that goes way over my head. Seeing it from upside down and sideways doesn't help much, of course, but I don't think it would help me much if I was looking at it right side up, either. Taylor seems to be having trouble with it; he keeps writing things out, frowning, erasing things with a frustrated expression, writing it out again, changing things, crossing things out-

Finally, he lets out a growl of annoyance, throwing his pencil and calculator down on the table and pushing his chair back. Leaning back and clenching his eyes shut, he throws his forearms over his face, hands curled into fists on top of his head. He looks the picture of frustrated annoyance.

I want to say something to help him calm down, but I don't know what to say. I'm afraid he'll just snap at me again if I try.

Eventually, he takes a long-suffering breath and forces his arms down to his sides. Cracking his eyes open, Taylor sends an apologetic glance my way.

"Sorry for being so on-edge, today," he apologizes at length, sounding genuinely contrite.

"It's okay," I assure him. "I can understand. I'd probably be touchy too, if I had to deal with-" I finish my sentence by gesturing towards his piles of school work, shrugging my shoulders.

I can't say I enjoy when he gets moody like this, but I understand that he's probably under a lot of stress (as usual), and don't take it personally.

Taylor sighs again, crossing his arms over his chest in an almost self-conscious gesture. "The schoolwork doesn't help, no. But it's not just that."

He stops speaking for a moment, staring into nothingness, but I'm used to him by now. I know he'll continue, so I just wait.

"My dad lost his job recently," Taylor explains finally. "It's been pretty…stressful at home for the past few weeks."

"I'm sorry," I say sympathetically. Jumping off the table at last, I pull up another chair and sit next to Taylor. Resting a hand lightly on his arm, I silently try to offer him what little comfort I can.

"Why are you sorry?" Taylor asks, looking at me bemusedly. "You didn't do anything."

"Yeah, but I feel bad anyway," I respond, shrugging.

I take my hand away as Taylor brings a hand up to his forehead, muttering resentfully, "Of course, my mother's no help as usual. She's using this as an excuse to go on even more business trips."

I nod, saying unthinkingly, "Yeah, Lauren mentioned that your mother's not around much."

"What?" Taylor looks at me sharply. Only then do I realize what I just said, and mentally curse myself for my stupidity. It's too late to take it back, though. I can only stare at him, probably looking like the proverbial deer in headlights.

"When did she say that?" he prompts me suspiciously.

"Well, um," I begin awkwardly, not happy with the sudden turn of this conversation. "We were talking about you, and-"

I realize almost immediately that this was the wrong thing to say. I falter as Taylor turns to face me directly, glaring at me angrily.

"Why were you talking about me with Lauren?" He demands accusingly, arms folded across his chest in a gesture of annoyance, now.

I'm honestly a little surprised at how angry he seems. I mean, I didn't think he'd like it, but I didn't think he'd get so angry with me. I realize that I'm growing annoyed myself. What right does he have to be so mad, anyway?

"Because I can never talk to you about you!" I retort, returning his glare. "You keep hiding things, and you never let me talk to you about it when I get worried!"

"Yes I do!" he protests, clearly fighting to keep from raising his own voice any further. "When do I ever not let you talk to me about something?"

I look at him incredulously. Does he actually believe what he's saying? "If you don't tell me directly to stop asking about it, which you have done, you just pretend that it's nothing and you're fine, even when I know you're not, and brush me aside. That's the same thing!"

My mixed anger and concern are finally bubbling over, and now that this argument has started, I can't make myself stop it.

"Like what?" Taylor demands in exasperation. "When have I ever brushed you aside?"

"Oh I don't know, I say sarcastically. "Only every time I bring up your obsessive need to be perfect, and how hard you're pushing yourself to do it!"

"I don't just pretend that it's nothing, it really is nothing!" Taylor insists heatedly. "I've told you I can handle it! Why can't you believe me?"

"Because you can't handle it!" I explode in frustration. "Why can't you see how much you're hurting yourself?"

"God, Jackson, I'm not-" he shakes his head, apparently unable to come up with words. "You keep blowing this way out of proportion, I-"

He cuts off again, anger seeming to drain away, replaced by fatigued irritation. He leans forward into his hands, massaging his temples. "You know what, I really don't want to deal with this right now," he says in frustration. "Just…go away, Jackson."

"What?" I look at him with surprise and no small amount of hurt, forgetting my anger abruptly.

"Please, just leave," he says, not even looking at me.

I feel tears sting at the edges of my eyes. Without another word, I stand up and leave.

Chapter 25: What We Call Having a Miserable Day

I feel slightly ill all afternoon. In the couple months that we've been dating, this was the first time that Taylor and I have had a full-fledged argument. I don't feel very good about it. I hate it, actually. I hate feeling like he's mad at me. I hate that he actually felt like he couldn't deal with me. I hate that I drove him to that point

I keep hoping he'll call me. Even if it's not specifically to apologize; if he calls me, if we talk about it, I know we can work this out. Hell, just hearing his voice would make me feel better, at this point. I start to think I should call him; but I'm afraid he still won't want to talk to me, and that would hurt worse. The hours wear on, though, and I still haven't heard from him.

Our argument didn't feel normal, either. Taylor wasn't acting like himself all day, and it just culminated with that argument. It was so unlike him, it was unnerving. He's been so touchy, these past couple weeks, and I haven't been able to figure out why. Today was just worse than normal.

I start seriously reflecting on Taylor's strange moodiness. Thinking back, it does seem to have begun a couple of weeks ago. He started getting irritable, blowing up at little things, ranting to me about things (though never about or at me before)… Then he'd apologize for getting so upset, and act normal again. I had been writing it off as isolated incidents, caused by him over-stressing himself; I hadn't noticed the pattern I'm starting to see now. I realize there must be something going on; then suddenly I recall that there is something, that Taylor told me what it was. His father lost his job, and it's been stressful at home for him lately.

With this confirmation, in my mind, at least, of the reasons behind Taylor's strange behavior, I start to feel horribly guilty. I should have noticed something was up sooner. I shouldn't have gotten so angry with him, pushed him to the point that he had to send me away. Maybe he was being unfair, but I should have realized, should have known that it wasn't him, that he was just stressed. He wouldn't have done it, wouldn't have just made me leave like that unless he was absolutely at his wit's end

As I think about it, I realize that the argument wasn't about me talking to Lauren, he wouldn't really have stayed mad at me for that. If I hadn't taken it further, it would have been done ten minutes later. Taylor would have apologized, I would have apologized, and we could have moved on with me trying to help him with his problems, rather than becoming one myself.

I toss and turn on my bed that night as these thoughts filter through my mind, unable to fall asleep. I keep going over our argument in my head; remembering Taylor's expressions, remembering the anger in my own voice, hearing his last words to me over and over again. There are so many things I could have said and done differently. I hate this; I want it all to go away, to never have happened. I want to be with Taylor right now, in his arms, not losing sleep over some stupid argument. Not that I realistically could be; it would be too late for him to be over here by now, since my parents don't like him sleeping over. But still… I wish he were here.

Ruefully, I decide that it's unlikely I'll get much of any sleep at all tonight.

Suddenly, however, I'm startled out of my thoughts by the ringing of my cell phone. I scramble for it, hoping against hope that it's Taylor. However, when I finally grab the phone and look at the screen, it's Rowen's number on the display.

I glance at the clock on my bedside table. It's already quarter of eleven. It's highly unusual for Rowen to ever call me this late; on a school night like tonight, it's unheard of.

"Rowen, what-" I begin, answering the phone.

"Jackson, thank god," Rowen says on the other end of the line, her voice sounding rushed and slightly desperate. "I don't suppose Archer's at your house?"

"Um, no, why?" I respond, puzzled. I'm confused. Why would Archer be at my house?

"Damn it," Rowen swears, and I realize she's crying.

"What is it? What's wrong?" I ask, immediately concerned. Rowen rarely gets this upset over anything.

"Archer's missing," she tells me, still upset. "He got in a really bad fight with his parents and ran off, and now we don't know where he is."

"Shit, what happened?" I ask, growing increasingly worried. It's not all that unusual for Archer to have gotten in a fight with his parents, but this is only the second or third time that it got bad enough for him to run off. And when he does, he usually goes to Rowen's house. So if she's calling to say he's missing…

"Well, I only know what I heard from Lee," Rowen sniffles, beginning her explanation. "He was there when it happened. Archer was supposed to be going to hang out with him. They were still at Archer's house, though, and Archer's parents came home, so he went to tell them where he was going. Lee says it seemed like they'd been drinking. Either way, Archer's mother started yelling at him, then he started yelling back, and I guess his mother started shoving him, so finally, he shoved her back, then his dad grabbed him, and Lee thinks there was hitting involved, but he'd moved away by that point and couldn't really tell… Then Archer ran off into the woods by his house." Rowen delivers this story in a surprisingly composed voice, almost managing to calm down, but loses it again as she adds, "They called the fucking police on him, Jackson. His mother is charging him with 'domestic violence.' Lee had to leave, because they threatened to call the cops on him, too. But he went back later to talk to the police, and he told them what really happened. They said they needed to talk to Archer, though, to get his side of the story. But we can't find him!" She emphasizes the last words especially, sounding on the verge of hysteria.

"Okay, calm down," I say. A pointless sentiment, since I'm rather upset myself by this point. "Where are you now? At your house?"

"Yeah," she says in a more subdued voice, her emotions apparently spent for now. "Lee's here too, and my mother's awake. She's really worried."

"I'm going to come over, okay?" I tell her. "We can all go look for him."

"Thank you," she says, sounding at least a little more relieved; then we hang up.

It really is important we find Archer, and not just because of the whole police involvement thing. It's almost the second week of December, which means it's pretty damn cold out in the northeastern US. If Archer didn't go to Rowen's house, I wouldn't put it past him to try to spend the night outside in the woods. And I'd bet money he ran out with out a coat. If he tries sleeping outside, he could die. The thought is terrifying.

I go wake my parents to tell them where I'm going. Once I explain the situation, they have no problems with me going, despite it being so late on a school night, and in fact are extremely worried themselves. They both know and like Archer, and they wish us luck on finding him.

This has just been a wonderful day. First the issues with Taylor, and now, when I'm already tired and feeling like crap, this. It upsets me that I still haven't resolved the problem with Taylor. But I suppose now that I'll have to wait on that. The situation with Archer is more immediately important.

As I race to grab my coat, suddenly, my cell phone rings again. I answer immediately, assuming it's Rowen calling back. I fervently hope that she's calling to say she somehow found Archer already, however unlikely a possibility it seems.

"Jackson?" the voice on the other end of the line questions.

I abruptly stop short, realizing that the voice on the other end of the line isn't Rowen, it's Taylor. I don't know whether to start feeling insanely relieved or even more worried.

"Yes?" I say, a little warily. I feel like I could literally weep with relief if he is calling to fix things. But his voice on the other end of the line is carefully controlled, and I don't know what to think. I just pray that whatever he says next won't be something to make things worse.

"Thank god you picked up," he breaths, sounding relieved, his careful composure almost slipping for an instant. Awkwardly, he continues, "I'm sorry for calling you so late, I wasn't sure if you'd answer… But I couldn't-" he swallows, pausing a moment. "Couldn't call earlier than this."

"That's okay," I say, still cautious. He's closing something off for some reason, I can tell, but he sounds like he might have called to apologize, so I'm still unsure of what to think. "I was awake anyway."

"Um, I really wanted to apologize for earlier," Taylor says finally, in that same, strangely controlled, yet still awkward-sounding tone of voice. "I have no idea what came over me. Honestly, I…" his voice breaks almost imperceptibly, and he goes on, "I'm so sorry; I-I can't apologize enough. I told you I've been having problems at home… but it's no excuse. I had no right to take it out on you. You didn't deserve that, Jackson. Especially not you."

By the end, his voice is even closer to breaking, and I realize finally that the reason his voice sounds so controlled is just because he's holding back emotion. I'm just so tired and so relieved that I almost do want to sit down and break out into tears. And once again, I want him here; I want to touch him, to hold him, to tell him that I'll forgive him for anything… I don't know if it's a healthy attitude, but I know in this instant that I really would forgive him for absolutely anything.

"Can you possibly forgive me?" He finally finishes desperately, after a pause during which I realize I've forgotten to say anything.

"Of course," I say, my own voice cracking slightly. "I'll always forgive you, Taylor." Tiredly, I add, "I'm sorry too. I was stupid, and had no real reason to blow up at you. You didn't need that from me. I wish I hadn't gotten angry at you about it. But you do need to understand that I worry about you."

"I do, Jackson, I know that," Taylor says sincerely. "I just…don't always remember very well, or something, I guess." He sounds ashamed of himself, going on. "God, I've been acting so horribly, lately, haven't I? I hadn't even realized it until I thought about my actions today. How can you put up with me? I don't deserve you Jackson. I don't think I ever have."

"Taylor, stop it, please," I say, not really up to another spat of his self-loathing. It pains me to hear him speak so lowly of himself. He does so all too often, especially recently. "You're worth so much more than you think. I wish you'd start realizing that."

"What's wrong?" he asks abruptly.

For a moment, I'm completely confused. "What? What do you mean?"

"Something's wrong," he clarifies, suddenly sounding concerned. "I should have noticed earlier. You sound upset. What's wrong?"

"Oh fuck," I swear, realizing I've forgotten all about the issue with Archer.

"What?" Now Taylor sounds really worried. Briefly, I outline what happened to Archer, and where I'm supposed to be going.

"Damn," Taylor says with feeling. "I'm coming too. Actually, I hardly live a mile away from you, how about I pick you up and bring you to Rowen's? Then we can go look for him together."

"That'd be great," I agree quickly, not even pausing to reflect on the news that he lives so close by. I had a vague idea of the fact, anyway. I'm just thankful that he'll be coming. If nothing else, his presence will make me feel better. And anyway, I'm not completely sure I trust myself to be driving right now.

I'm so glad Taylor called, however late. He always seems to know how to make everything better for me.

Unless, of course, it involves him.

Chapter 26: Car Rides, Bitter Success and Exhaustion

Once Taylor arrives, I want nothing more than to just fall into his arms and stay there for a good long while. Unfortunately, doing so would be difficult, considering that he's driving. I settle for leaning my head on his shoulder instead, which can't make it easy for him to drive, but he doesn't make me move. He's managing with one hand. I consider moving on my own, as I would feel rather guilty if we got in an accident because Taylor couldn't use both his arms to drive, but I have faith that he can manage. He's had to do it before anyway. I'm just so damn tired, and I want to be close to Taylor, need the physical contact.

"I'm sure we'll be able to find him, Jackson," Taylor says softly. I nod in acknowledgement, but don't say anything.

The situation is just so horrible; we'd all kind of thought Archer needed to get out of his house, but no one really thought it would get this bad. Most of my friends have pretty stable home lives, so I'm just not used to this sort of thing. Even if we do manage to find Archer, which I'm forcing myself to believe absolutely that we will, I have no idea what's going to happen.

Before I can get myself too worked up again, we arrive. Thankfully, Taylor already knew how to get to Rowen's house, having been there before for our random group gatherings. I wouldn't have done too well with giving directions.

"You going to be okay?" Taylor asks me very seriously as we get out of his car. I know what he means. He's not asking if I'm going to be perfectly fine, because the answer to that is obvious. He's asking if I'll make it through this without collapsing, mentally or physically, which I both can and will.

Mentally pulling myself together, I nod and even attempt a weak smile at him. Taylor smiles back at me, grabbing my hand and giving it a quick squeeze as we walk up to Rowen's door.

I'm grateful all over again that Taylor and I are back to normal, again. The quiet strength he's offering me is exactly and so much what I need right now. I could kiss him for it. In fact, I think I might have, had Rowen not opened the door so quickly.

"Taylor," she says in surprise, noticing him next to me immediately. "Thank you for coming, both of you. Come in, it's cold out."

Her family uses the side door of their house rather than the front, so we walk right into the kitchen, where Lee and Rowen's mother are sitting at the table. I glance at Rowen in the better lighting. Her eyes are red, and she looks exhausted.

"Seriously, thank you both for coming," she repeats in a voice that I notice now is still raspy from crying. With a half smile, she adds, "Seeing you both makes me feel better, ridiculously enough." Quickly, she hugs first me, then Taylor.

Theoretically, Taylor and I could have just directly gone out looking for Archer rather than meeting up with everyone at Rowen's house. Part of the reason for coming here was so we could all sit down together and come up with a plan, but I recognize that much more than that, the reason we came here, the reason I said to Rowen that I'd come over in the first place was really for the emotional support. Good thing, too, because she looks like she could really use it.

"Okay," Rowen says, addressing us all, posture becoming more confident, clearly getting to business. She always can take charge of situations with a natural ease. "I called everyone I can think of, and no one's seen Archer. We still have no idea where he is. He might have stayed in the woods, or he might not have." She pauses, apparently thinking something through. "We've got three cars and enough cell phones to go around. How about we split up? I'll check the woods, because I'm pretty familiar with the woods near Archer's house and where he might have gone in them. Someone can drive towards the next town; see if Archer decided to head towards any of his friend's houses down that way. Then, someone else can drive downtown here, and see if he went walking to someone else's house. My mom can stay here in case Archer decides to come here after all."

She looks around at all of us. "Sound good?"

There are nods all around.

"Then let's go."

Taylor and I end up being the ones to drive through our own town. I'm growing increasingly worried; it started to snow pretty soon after we'd all headed out, and we've been looking for almost twenty minutes since.

"Do you really think he'd have gone this way?" Taylor asks idly, eyes trained on the road in front of us. I shrug slightly, although he probably doesn't see it. I don't look away from scanning the street on my side, either.

"Honestly? Not really," I respond at length, a slight note of strain and desperation escaping through my tone. "But this is Archer we're talking about, so you never know."

Still without turning, Taylor reaches over and starts running his hand soothingly up and down my arm. I lean into his touch. Silence reigns for a little while, both of us primarily focused on watching the sides of the road. Just because I don't think Archer did go this way doesn't mean I'm going to slack in keeping my eyes open for him.

"Thank you for doing this," I say a little while later, after a stretch of comfortable silence, strained only by the stress of the situation.

"Doing what?" Taylor asks, sounding surprised. He turns suddenly down the road to Jo's house, and I inwardly praise his forethought of checking the side roads along our path.

"Helping look for Archer." I answer, shrugging again. Even if Taylor can't see it, he can probably feel it this time, given that his hand is still on my arm. He's gotten quite good at driving one-handed.

"Of course," Taylor said as though it were the most natural thing, sounding vaguely surprised I'd felt the need to say anything about it. "He's my friend too, by now. I'm just as concerned as all of you."

I reflect on that for a while, still keeping a careful eye out for Archer, but just as glad to have the mental distraction. Taylor really has become completely integrated into my group of friends. In fact, he hardly hangs out with any of the people that he used to before he started dating me at all. I hadn't really thought much of it, before. Sometimes I find myself forgetting how much he's changed in the past few months; for some reason, it's easy to forget the way he was before.

During my reflections, I'm struck once again by how absolutely natural it feels for Taylor and I to be together. I really can't imagine life any other way, anymore. Even if he's been acting sullen, moody, and temperamental off and on these past couple of weeks, we always go back to this comfortable feeling soon after. And then I'm struck again by the fact that I really, truly love him. Whatever's going on with him, I somehow know that we'll work through it, eventually.

I wonder sometimes if it's really possible to find love at seventeen, but I can't call this feeling anything else.

My cell phone rings suddenly, shattering my thoughts and the once again strained yet comfortable silence. I jump noticeably, and Taylor makes a soft noise of amusement at my expense.

"It's Rowen," I announce, pulling my phone out of my coat pocket. Obscurely, I start to feel guilty for being so focused on thoughts of Taylor and myself that I'd hardly been thinking about Archer at all. Not to say I'm not still insanely worried, just that now the thought is back to the forefront of my mind. I fervently hope Rowen's calling to tell us she found him. Of all of us, she was the most likely to succeed in our venture.

"Well, answer it, already," Taylor prompts me, gesturing at the phone in my hand, snapping me out of my reverie. I hurry to comply.

"I found him," are Rowen's first, breathless words as I answer. I feel an immense relief immediately wash over me.

"Before you ask, he's okay, for all intents and purposes. Here, talk to them," she says, the last part presumably directed at Archer. Quickly switch my phone to speaker mode, I nudge Taylor to convey that the message from Rowen is what we'd both hoped and expected, intrinsically knowing that Taylor will be able to pick up what I want to get across. Five seconds later, Archer's voice comes over the line.

"Sorry to have caused everyone so much trouble," he says in a sincere but practiced sounding, very drained voice. "And thank you very much. It means a lot to me that you guys all cared enough to go out looking for me."

"We're you friends, Archer," I say, trying not to let my exhaustion come through in my voice. He genuinely feels bad enough as it is, and I know he does. "Of course we care about you. You don't need to apologize."

"We're just glad to know that you're okay," Taylor adds, pulling into a parking lot and turning the car around. He's using both hands again, ever since I pulled my cell phone out.

There's a short, bitter laugh from the other end of the line. "Physically, maybe," Archer says sardonically. "Mentally and emotionally? Not so much."

"Well, hang in there, okay?" Taylor says a bit helplessly.

"Never forget that we do care," I add, unable to come up with anything more useful to say.

"Hey guys, I've got to call Lee now, okay?" Rowen's voice comes back over the line. She must have grabbed the phone back.

"Then I get to go to the police station, oh yoj," we hear Archer's voice in the background, filled with bitter, fake cheer.

"Thank you guys again," Rowen says. "You can go home now, there's not really anything else we can do now. Bye." With that, she abruptly hangs up.

I turn off my phone before putting it back in my pocket, in interest of saving the battery. Then, I exhale a long-suffering sigh.

"My sentiments exactly," Taylor says, finally starting to sound tired himself. "Or at least something pretty close to that."

"At least we found him," I say, honestly more to the air and in general than directly to Taylor.

"Yeah," Taylor says simply.

There's a bitter aftertaste to the evening's events that goes unspoken, but implicitly recognized by the both of us.

Kicking off my shoes, I curl my legs up to my stomach and press the side of my face into the back of the car seat. It probably would look like an incredibly uncomfortable position to anyone else, especially considering the fact that I'm still technically properly buckled, but it really isn't. And I'm still so tired. I scrunch my eyes shut, trying to bury my face further into the seat. Despite how tired I am, I really don't feel like going home. I want to stay with Taylor.

"Hey, umm..." Taylor begins, then pauses, glancing over at me. I crack one eye open, waiting for him to continue. "Do you, uh, do you want to come to my house?"

"What?" I open both my eyes now. Surprise would be an understatement. I've never been to Taylor's house, and he's never invited me before. I know there's probably a good reason behind that fact.

"My parents aren't home right now," Taylor explains. "Neither of them will be back until tomorrow at the earliest. And I think we could both use the quiet time, after today." He doesn't add "together", but it's there anyway.

"Okay," I say, gratefully. It's what I wanted, after all.

Never mind that it's almost midnight on a school night, and my parents won't know where I am.

Frankly, all the way there, going into his house, leaving my coat and shoes in his house's front entryway, as we lie down together on the couch in his living room, the thought doesn't even occur to me.

"I love you," I say to him sincerely, snuggling my head into his chest. Taylor languidly plays with my hair with one hand, the other firmly wrapped around my waist.

"I love you, too," he responds sleepily.

The moment doesn't feel at all clichéd or rehearsed. On the contrary, it feels very, very real.

Eventually, we end up falling asleep, still entwined together on his couch.

I think deep down, we both realize this is a bad idea.

But we both need it so much.

Chapter 27: Catalyst

"What the HELL is this?!" A male voice thunders, waking Taylor and I up the next morning. Blinking my eyes open, I quickly see the owner of the voice. He's a bear of a man who bears a slight resemblance to Taylor.

And he looks positively livid.

I have a feeling this is not going to go well.

The moment Taylor catches sight of the man, presumably his father, a look of absolute horror crosses his features. He half jumps and half shoves me away from him on the couch with a speed I wouldn't have thought possible.

"I understand that school was cancelled," the man seethes, causing me to blink in surprise and glance out the window. It looks like it's raining sleet out, I assume they must have called school off because the roads are icy. Just as well school was cancelled. Taylor and I definitely overslept. Which, I'm quickly realizing, is a very, very bad thing.

"However," the man continues, face growing redder by the minute, "I do NOT want to come home to my SON lying on the couch with another BOY!"

Taylor says nothing, just continues staring at his father with a look of mixed shock and terror. Finally, he licks dry lips and whispers, "I thought- I thought you weren't coming back until later."

"Have you been fucking sneaking behind my back, you little shit?" If possible, the man seems angrier. Apparently what Taylor said was very much the wrong thing to say. "Apparently it's a damn good thing I DID come home early! I don't want this sort of disgusting PERVERSION in my house!"

"I haven't been-" Taylor attempts weakly, but his father continues on heedless of him.

"I did NOT raise my son to be a fucking FAG! You are a fucking DISGRACE to this family!" He grabs Taylor by the collar of his shirt and roughly yanks him to his feet. I stay were I am, frozen in place, realizing that I'm watching the entire ordeal with a sort of odd detachment. It's like I shouldn't be here, shouldn't be witnessing this, so in a sense, I'm not here. And god, but I am trying to disappear.

Unfortunately I haven't succeeded.

"Is this little cocksucker the reason you broke up with Lauren?" He waves a hand at me. I don't move. "You stupid fuck!"

Suddenly, some of the fear drains out of Taylor's face, replaced by pure malice. "Don't you dare talk shit about him," he hisses.

"I'll say what EVER I damn well please!" the man roars. "And don't you dare speak back to you father, boy!"

Taylor stares at his father with a strange expression, then turns and looks at me for a long moment. I'm no help, I imagine; I'm still staring blankly, wide-eyed, afraid to move an inch. But somehow I don't think he's looking to me; more at me.

"No," Taylor says slowly, turning back to his father. "No, I never talk back to you, do I?"

"Damn right, you don't, you shitface," the man thunders, responding to the rhetorical question. "You're lucky I let you stay under this god damn roof at ALL!"

I see something dangerous flicker across Taylor's features. He's starting to look less and less frightened and more and more pissed. "Of course, it would have nothing to do with the fact I'm your son?" he can't hide the bitterness in his statement. I don't think he's trying to. "You know what? Maybe it's time I did start talking back. Maybe it's time I stopped sitting back and taking yourshit."

"Where the HELL is this coming from, you ungrateful wretch?" Taylor's father's eyes narrowed, and he turned his glare back on me. "It's because of this little catamite, isn't it?!" he spits.

"I told you already, don't you fucking talk about him like that!" Taylor responds violently, immediately. Now, I'm just as glad that Taylor is standing up for me, but I really, really don't like the volatile turn their argument is taking. I've pretty much gathered that Taylor has never retaliated before, and it doesn't seem like his father is pleased with the turn of events. My mind is still taking this all in with a strangely calm detachment that doesn't seem fitting with the surroundings

"Don't you order me around, you worthless piece of trash-" Taylor's father begins, but this time, Taylor cuts him off.

"What more do you WANT from me?" he screams at his father in desperation. I jump a little at the sudden outburst, and I sense immediately that this particular emotional eruption has been a long time in coming. Taylor gets into the man's face, continuing, "Nothing, NOTHING I do has EVER been good enough for you!"

Taylor's father looks startled by his son's outburst as well. And Taylor's not done, either.

You're always so quick to criticize me when I do something wrong," he goes on, still shouting. Now that he's started, it's like he can't stop. "But you NEVER say anything when I do things RIGHT! I'm a star athlete, I ace every class, I'm fucking third in my graduating class, I'm a model student, I'm the god damn captain of our school's basketball team, most fathers would be PROUD of things like that!" He pause a second to take a breath, and I notice there are tears in the corners of his eyes. "I'm practically KILLING myself to live up to your expectations! When will you EVER see that?" One angry tear manages to escape, making a silent track down the side of his face. "No, instead, you hate me for no apparent reason, repeatedly insist that I'm worth nothing, scream at me when I dare to do something for myself, and lately, get DRUNK and smack me around as YOUR FUCKING STRESS RELIEF!"

"How DARE you-" his father begins, turning nearly purple with fury. In lieu of words, almost as if to prove Taylor's words, he backhands his son nearly hard enough to knock him down.

I'm absolutely, utterly horrified as the explanation behind all the bruises becomes painfully, blindingly clear. So much makes sense now; not just the random bruises, but also Taylor's reluctance to talk about his home life, the strange mood swings recently, the strange, late-night phone calls from what feels like so long ago, and finally, ultimately, the true reason behind his drive to be perfect. I will forever curse myself for not having figured it out sooner, before I witnessed it.

"The ISSUE right now," his father continues, not lowering his volume in the slightest, "is that you were asleep on MY couch with some… some male SLUT!" He gestures again in my direction. For the record, I don't think I look even remotely like a slut. But I'm also still terrified and attempting to avoid all notice, so I'm certainly not about to say so.

"He is NOT a slut!" Taylor screams, appearing, if possible, to get even angrier. "Fuck this! You really want to know how far your son has fallen below your expectations? Well, for your information, I'm GAY and he's my BOYFRIEND!" He puts an extra emphasis on those to words, and surely enough, his dad flinches.

Then, to my absolute horror, the scary man turns on me.

"You stay AWAY from my son-" he begins, roughly grabbing me by the shoulder.

"Don't touch him."

Abruptly, Taylor's voice has gone low, icy, and absolutely deadly. His entire demeanor has gone through an instantaneous transformation; from angry and upset to cold and dangerous. It's more frightening than any of the yelling has been.

Evidently, Taylor's father agrees, as he promptly lets go of me.

"Jackson, get out of here," Taylor says in that same quietly frightening voice.

"But-" I protest, reluctant to just leave him alone with his father. Despite how completely unhelpful I know I have been and would be.

"Now." Taylor is frightening me almost as much as his father right now. I rush to comply, shoving my feet into my shoes, grabbing my coat, and flying out the door.

Once I'm outside, I start running, heedless of the rain and ice. I don't stop until I've reached my house.

As soon as I burst through the door, my mother calls my name, sounding distinctly annoyed. I ignore her and go directly to my bedroom.

Once I'm there, I fall on my bed and sob for all I'm worth.

Chapter 28: Aftermath

Of course, I couldn't escape my mother for long. Hardly at all, in fact. Less than a minute after I escape to my room, she walks in uninvited. I glance up at her face, blurry through my still tear-clouded eyes, and judging from the expression on her face, she's ready to give me a lecture.

However, what ever she might have said dies on her lips as soon as she sees my face.

"Oh honey, what's wrong? Is Archer okay? Did something worse happen?"

I can't deal with this, with her, right now. Her caring eyes, her inquisition; I want, need her to go away, I need to be alone right now.

"We found Archer, he's okay," I manage in a strangled voice. "Please just go away, mom, I don't want to talk right now!" By the end, my voice has started taking on a hysterical edge.

"Honey…" my mother says soothingly, with a deep underlying concern in her voice. I understand her concern, I'm sure I'm acting pretty badly upset. Because I am pretty badly upset. I don't know if my mother's ever seen me this upset, I'd have to think about it, and my mind can't focus enough to properly think about anything besides my desire for solitude so I can cry my eyes out. I don't want her concern right now, I don't want her soothing words, her sympathy, I only want- I don't even want to think about what I want, because that means I have to think about what just happened, and I don't want to think about that. I'm scared and upset and feeling sick and don't want to deal with tender concern directed at me, when I don't even know what's happening, what'sgoing to happen to Taylor.

My mother puts a hand on my shoulder in a gesture meant to be comforting, but it's not helping, it's just too much, this is just too much.

"Don't touch me!" I choke out, pushing her arm away. "Please!" I plead, growing slightly desperate, "please, just go away right now!"

"All right, sweetie," she says, the hurt and reluctance in her voice wrenches at my heart a little more. She leaves then, closing the door softly behind her.

Now I really feel like shit.

I decide a few minutes later that I really have to calm down. I force myself to sit up and take some deep breaths. I end up falling just short of hyperventilating, instead. Somehow, that makes me feel ridiculous, and thankfully, that thought gives me a focus, manages to cut through some of my panic.

I stare at the snow drifting outside my window, at the nearly deserted street below, trying not to think about anything.

Suddenly, I notice something out the window; a movement on the road. A dark spot among the snow. I stand and walk to my window, squinting down. It's a person. In fact- my eyes widen suddenly. Damn-

I burst out of my room with a speed I didn't know I possessed, racing to the front door, barely taking the time to shove boots on and grab two coats before practically flying out of the door.

The moment I'm outside, I race down the street to the figure I'd seen from my window.

"Taylor!" I scream out, rushing up to meet him. As I'd thought I'd seen, he's not wearing a coat. He looks absolutely freezing, if his violent shivering and blue-tinged lips are any indication. Quickly, I wrap the extra coat around his shoulders, then my arms around him. Silently, he returns my embrace, and I can feel that he's shivering even worse than I originally thought.

After a moment, I pull back to examine him. His eyes are red and he looks like a mess, but thankfully, he doesn't appear to have acquired any worse injuries, save a split lip from which a slow trickle of blood is escaping. Raising my hand up to his face, I gently swipe my thumb across the blood trail, wiping some of it away. "

"Are you okay?" I ask him in a voice tinged with desperation. "Did he do anything else to you? What happened after I left?"

Wordlessly, Taylor pulls me into another embrace.

"I'm sorry," he whispers brokenly into my ear.

"Why are you apologizing?" I ask in a slightly choked voice. "You're not at fault here. Come on." I pull away again, grabbing hold of his wrist and tugging lightly. "Let's go inside. It's cold out."

Taylor nods dully and allows me to lead him the rest of the way to my house.

As we walk up my driveway, I start to speak again. "We have to tell my parents. We should call the police, too-"

Suddenly, Taylor grabs my arm with a grasp so tight it's painful. "No!"

I turn and stare at him in surprise. There's an awful, haunted look in his eyes.

"Don't call the police," he pleads. "Don't tell your parents, either. Don't tell anyone."

"Why not?" I ask, confused and growing upset again. "Taylor, he's hurting you!"

"Please," he begs anxiously, eyes pleading with mine. "I'll…I'll explain later, I promise, just please, please don't tell!"

I meet his gaze for a long moment, and then finally, I crumble.

"Okay," I promise him, regretting the words the moment they leave my mouth. "I won't. But you owe me a damn good explanation."

Taylor looks so relieved, it's hard for me to truly feel upset about giving in to his pleas.

We continue on, but I pause again at my doorstep. My parents are probably standing just inside, waiting for an explanation behind my strange behavior. "So, what do I tell my parents?" I ask plaintively.

"Is it obvious, on my face?" Taylor asks me seriously, staring into my eyes. I look over him critically for a moment. The bruise that I imagine is eventually going to appear on his face hasn't formed yet. If the rest of the blood were wiped away from his lip, it would just look chapped and cracked from the cold.

I wipe the rest of the blood away myself, reluctantly admitting, "No, it's really not."

"Then we tell your parents that I got in a fight with my father, and left so both of us would have a chance to cool down," Taylor says with an air of decisiveness. "It's essentially the truth."

"I don't like this," I tell him honestly, looking directly back into his eyes.

"I know," he says simply, conveying his apology silently.

Finally, I open the door and usher Taylor inside.

I let him explain it to my parents.

Chapter 29: Explanations, Rationalization, and Above All, the Depth of Love

My parents agree, a little reluctantly, to let Taylor spend the night after hearing his story. His very altered, toned down version of events, that is. Their only condition is that Taylor sleep in our guest bedroom, which is downstairs, so we'll be on separate floors.

After the talk with my parents, I lead Taylor over to the couch in my living room and sit him down. He complies wordlessly, looking tired, beaten, and still very cold. I pull a blanket off a nearby arm chair and cover him with it before sitting down myself. After a moment, I pull him into another embrace. We stay like that for a long while, Taylor leaning into my arms, me simply holding him.

Maybe an hour later, Taylor and I are still on the couch. We have the TV on in the background, neither rof us really watching it. Actually, Taylor's asleep, his head resting on my leg, and I've basically just been watching his sleeping face, idly stroking my fingers through his hair. Meanwhile, I'm trying not to think too hard about anything.

Of course, being myself, not thinking proves to be a very difficult task.

There's a bluish-purple mark starting to form on the side of Taylor's face. I trail my hand down to lightly trace the outline of it with my fingertips. I'm still so worried about him. I'm concerned for his safety, now, and I really, really can't understand why he won't let me tell anybody what really happened. In truth, I feel increasingly like this may be the stupidest thing I've ever agreed to do for him. I bite my lip, mentally debating the matter. I really don't want to betray Taylor. But if I don't do something and the situation gets worse, then wouldn't that be betraying him in a different way?

Maybe he really will have a good explanation. I can't imagine how he could possibly explain something like this away, though. He's going to have to present one heck of an argument if he wants to convince me.

Eventually, Taylor stirs, blinking his eyes open. For a moment, he looks completely disoriented. Then he looks up and sees me, and a blinding smile splits over his features. At the sight of it, my heart melts for what feels like the thousandth time.

Sometimes, little moments like this are more meaningful than the most elaborate romantic gestures.

I return his smile with a soft one of my own. "Good morning," I tease him gently, trailing my hand through his hair again. "Feeling any better?"

"Much better than I was," Taylor responds sincerely. He sits up and stretches his arms, stifling a yawn.

Then, he turns to me with a very serious expression on his face. "Thank you, Jackson, so much."

I understand the layers of meaning behind those words.

"Always," I smile gently. Then, almost immediately afterwards, I sober myself again to add, "I think we need to talk now."

Taylor sighs in resignation, knowing he can't put it off any longer. He'd better not try to put it off.

"Can we go up to your room first?" Taylor asks plaintively, after a moment.

""We'll have to keep the door open," I remind him. It's my parent's rule.

"I know," he nods his head, brushing a loose strand of hair from his eyes. His hair's been getting a little long, lately. It makes him look kind of cute. "I remember. But it'll still be more private."

"I suppose it will," I shrug, standing up. "Come on, then."

Once in my room, I sit down cross-legged on my bed. Taylor claims my desk chair, turning it around so he can face me.

I've had time to calm down, to mentally remove myself a little from the situation. Having Taylor here with me, knowing he's okay, has helped a lot. That's not to say I'm not still upset, but I should be able to remain relatively calm throughout this conversation.

"Okay," I begin when Taylor looks unwilling to start on his own, crossing my arms and attempting to glare at him. "How are you possibly going to explain why you won't let me tell anyone about this and get you away from that man?" Honestly, I'd just as soon he didn't go home. But he certainly can't stay here indefinitely, so that's pretty unrealistic.

Taylor sighs heavily. "I don't know if you'll believe me," he begins finally, looking down at his splayed hands, "But he's not usually like that. That bad, anyway. I swear today is the worst I've ever seen him."

"It wouldn't take much of a stretch to be better than that," I return sardonically, crossing my arms as well.

Taylor sighs again, threading his fingers through his hair and slouching down in his seat. "He never used to be this bad," he repeats. "And I swear he never used to hit me, before."

"Well, he's hitting you now, isn't he?" I retort. "You can't tell me that none of those other mysterious bruises weren't caused by him. That's bad enough for me."

Taylor smiles weakly. "Remember the one that was on my side? It really was caused by me hitting a table."

"He pushed you, right?" I say bleakly, not really making it a question. Taylor simply nods. I close my eyes and rub at them with the palms of my hands, saying, "Taylor, if that was an attempt to lighten the mood, it failed miserably. And you're also failing to convince me that there's a good reason why I'm not on the phone to the police right now."

Taylor makes a frustrated noise. "I'm getting to that! Anyway, as I was saying, his being physically abusive is not a regular occurrence."

"It sure seems to be lately," I interject.

"Jackson, will you please just listen to me for a minute?" He stares pointedly at me. I pursue my lips, nodding tightly and crossing my arms again. He looks at me for another moment, then, apparently satisfied I'm going to be quiet, continues. "It started when he lost his job, a couple weks ago. I told you about that, right?" I nod, being good and staying silent. He goes on, "Well, a lot of things have been going badly for him lately; losing his job was just the finishing touch on a whole list of things I don't even know half of, I'm sure. He's been under an unbelievable amount of stress lately, and that's the only reason he's been lashing out at me."

"Being stressed out is no excuse for him to use you as a punching bag!" I explode, unable to stop myself. I find it hard to accept that as a legitimate reason for Taylor's father to have lain a hand on him.

"It's not like that!" Taylor protests. "And I asked you to just listen to me. Please?"

With a sigh, I acquiesce. Forcing myself to remain silent, I motion for him to continue.

"Really, it hasn't been nearly as bad as you're probably thinking," Taylor says, folding his arms across his chest. "The past couple times when he hit me, it was only because I'd done something incredibly stupid to provoke him."

I start to protest with how unlikely I find that statement to be, but I catch myself and cut my words short. He asked me to hear him out, so that's what I'll do.

"I'm serious," he insists, seeing that I'd been about to protest. "It's only been a couple of times when I've done really stupid crap. He's just been having trouble keeping his temper in check, because like I said, he's been insanely stressed."

"That doesn't really fix anything," I point out unhappily. "Great, he's got reasons, but that doesn't change the fact that it's happening."

"But the thing is, Jackson," he leans forward, almost earnestly. "This is only going to last as long as things are going so badly for him. He'll stop as soon as things get better; he'll go back to normal, I know he will. And he just got hired at a new job; he starts next weeks. Things will get better. This temper thing will end." Then, he changes tactics. "Please, Jackson," he says, turning pleading eyes to me now, clasping his hands together. "He's my father. I don't want to see anything happen to him, just because he made some mistakes during a rough point in his life."

I'm still wavering, still feeling incredibly doubtful of the situation. But Taylor seems so sure of himself, so earnest, it's hard not to believe him. However, I'm still not entirely satisfied.

"That might cover the physical abuse," I say these words with some reluctance; they essentially mean that I've accepted Taylor's explanation thus far. "But what about what he said to you? That's abuse, too."

He nods, almost seeming eager to explain this away as well. "I know that, but today was the worst he's ever been verbally, too, I promise. He's never that bad, normally. I think he was just in shock from, um, finding us, finding me. And, I mean, really, I should have known better; he probably came home early because of the weather. I should have anticipated that, he's always been quick to jump to conclusions… But anyway, it wouldn't have been so bad if he'd had time to adjust to the idea, instead of finding out so abruptly like that. I, uh-" Taylor ducks his head, looking a little ashamed. "I never told him, because I just couldn't bring myself to do it."

"Well, no wonder!" I exclaim, almost frustrated with the way Taylor continually seems to have some explanation or another to excuse his father's inexcusable behavior. "With a reaction likethat!"

"I told you, he wouldn't have reacted like that under normal circumstances," Taylor responds impatiently, waving my comment away.

"Still," I continue, adjusting my position on the bed. "He also called you 'trash,' "worthless,' and a 'disgrace.'" I tick the names off on my fingers. "You're not any of those things, Taylor, and I don't want anyone trying to convince you that you are. Also, you said it yourself, you're practically killing yourself to live up to his expectations."

Taylor actually flushes slightly. "Jackson, you have to remember, I was really upset at that point. Everyone exaggerates things when they're upset. My father too; he was angry, and I promise you, he was just saying things in the heat of the moment. He didn't mean any of it. He's always been kind of strict, yeah, but not nearly as bad as I made him sound when I was yelling at him. He's harsh sometimes, yeah, but he's never gone on telling me how awful I am before."

"You've called me in tears, before," I challenge. This is really my final argument, and I know it. Taylor seems to be wearing me down quite effectively, thus far. "Can you tell me that had nothing to do with him?"

Taylor dismisses that immediately. "All teenagers get into stupid fights with their parents. Those weren't anything more than typical teenager versus parent arguments. They weren't even close to being as volatile as the one today."

Finally, I sigh, raising my hands in defeat. I realize that I'm not going to win against Taylor's insistence and assurance. Honestly, I probably want to believe what he's saying. So, for now, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. If he can prove he's telling the truth, and things really do get better. If he can, and they do, then I'll concede to dropping the matter.

"If you come in with one more bruise, that's it," I warn him. Taylor smiles; he knows I'm essentially telling him that I've accepted his words.

"I promise you it won't happen again," Taylor assures me. "In fact, you know what? I'll go back tomorrow, and I'll sit down and talk to my father about this."

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" I ask, looking at him a little doubtfully. Despite my tentative acceptance of Taylor's explanations, I'm still not sure I trust the man to sit down and have a rational discussion with his son about an argument they'd just had the day before.

"Yeah, of course," Taylor says with surety. "By tomorrow, he'll have had plenty of time to cool down. It'll be fine." He looks at me pointedly once again. "Everything will be fine. Things will get better, you'll see."

"They'd better," I mutter, crossing my arms again.

I'm still not entirely comfortable with the situation, but in respect to Taylor, I guess I'll wait and see how things unfold.

Now that the conversation has ended, Taylor walks over to the bed and sits down next to me.

"I don't know if I've ever told you how much I really appreciate you," he says idly, leaning his head on my shoulder and entwining one of his hands with mine. "You do so much for me. I hope you realize I really do appreciate it. Everything."

I smile at him helplessly. "I'm in love with you Taylor," I say simply. "I don't know if there's anything that I wouldn't do for you."

Sometimes when I'm by myself, I wonder if it's a good or bad thing, the depth of my feelings for him. In fact, sometimes it scares me a little.

But right now, when my words bring such a wonderful light to his face, to his eyes, when he whispers, "I love you, too," into my ear, when he turns my face towards his to kiss me… I just can't think that anything about this could be bad.

Chapter 30: Doubts

The next day after school, Taylor goes back to his house. The worry is nearly eating me alive until that evening, when I get a phone call from Taylor assuring me that it went well and everything's fine now. He tells me that his father even apologized to him. I still don't like it, I'm still uneasy, but for now, I'll accept things as they are.

Over the next week, Taylor and I pretty much go back to normal. I can hardly believe it, but it seems like it's true; like he promised, everything seems to be fine.


It's probably just my imagination, but… over the course of the next week, ever since that incident with Taylor's father, I feel like there's been some small, underlying strain in our relationship. But Taylor's not acting any different from usual, and I'm not acting any different than usual, so I chalk it up to my paranoia, as usual.

The other thing I've noticed is that Taylor hasn't really been spending as much time with me as he used to. But that, I know is entirely unfair of me. Taylor has an extremely busy schedule. It seems just short of miraculous that he finds any time to spend with me at all. And anyway, I've always gotten the feeling that he skips things for me. And I definitely know it's not fair of me to expect him to keep that up.

As usual, I'm sure I'm being paranoid, worrying too much, and overthinking things. It seems to be what I do best.

For once, I do my utmost not to let on to anyone that there's anything bothering me. If Taylor were to find out, I know he'd get the whole story out of me with relatively little difficulty, and I think he'd be hurt if he knew I was even thinking like this.

Besides, I need to learn not to worry so much.

About a week later, I'm sitting at the lunch table with Taylor, Rowen and Archer, as well as Jo and Lee, who decided to start joining us almost a month ago. As a result, lunch has become rather interesting.

Right now, Rowen is involved in some in depth conversation with Archer and Jo about high powered lasers, the relative levelness of the table, and paradoxical reasoning for whether God does or does not exist, with the rest of us interjected at random intervals.

In other words, a typical day at lunch.

I'm not really involved in the conversation today, though. In fact, I'm hardly listening to it all. Instead, I'm looking around at the table. At this group of people, consisting of my boyfriend and my closest friends; some of the most important people in my life. Most of them, in fact.

I'm reflecting on things, on life; primarily on my friendship with Rowen and Archer. Of the whole group, they were and are my closest and dearest friends; but lately, I feel like we haven't been quite as close as we used to be. Really, I realize, Taylor has quickly become the focus of my personal world, of my life. I'm unbelievably attached to him, of course, and I honestly don't like it when he's not around. Consequentally, all of my free time seems to be spent with just him or him and the whole group at once.

The other thing I'm thinking about, something that's begun to bother me a little, actually, is the fact that neither Rowen nor Archer knows anything about what's been going on with Taylor. It feels so weird, because it used to be that I kept virtually no secrets from them. Now, it's like I have this whole parallel life I'm living in simultaneously with this one, and they know nothing about it.

There's really nothing I can do about it for now, though. I promised Taylor I wouldn't tell anyone. About so many things, now.

"So, what's everyone doing for Christmas? Rowen asks excitedly.

Next week is the beginning of Christmas vacation. Christmas itself is in almost two weeks. Everyone's excited; it's the time of year when no one is focused on school work in the slightest anymore, and vacation may as well have already started.

"Oh yeah," I say aloud in response, Rowen's question suddenly reminding me of something. "Taylor, my parents invited you to come over for Christmas, if you want."

"Oh, um-" Taylor leans on his elbow for a moment, hand covering his mouth, then shifts again and goes on. "Actually, um, I'm supposed to, ah, be doing something with my parents. With my family." He sits back and shrugs a bit helplessly.

"Okay," I shrug as well, fighting to keep the small note of hurt or disappointment from my voice. It's not as though family stuff is his fault. "Well, I'm sure we'll end up spending time together over vacation anyway, right?"

Stramgely, so fast I wonder if it's my imagination, a flash of some emotion flickers in Taylor's eyes for an instant. Then, "Yeah, of course," he says casually, and whatever was there is gone.

I don't like that I'm doing this. That I'm wondering at Taylor's motivation for things, feeling suspicious, questioning our relationship at all. It makes me feel horrible.

"I'm going to celebrate Kwaanikahmasule," Archer announce abruptly, effectively disrupting my thoughts.

"What?" Lee asks incredulously, raising his eyebrows. "What the heck is that supposed to be?"

"Kwaanza, Hannukah, Christmas, and…um, yule?" Rowen ventures, translating Archer-speak for us all.

"Yep!" Archer nods happily.

"Well, whatever," Rowen says. "We should all do something over vacation."

Aren't we already going to Jo's house for New Years?" I ask.

Jo's not planning a big party this time, just the six of us; she invited us all to sleep over at her house to celebrate the New Year. Otherwise known as having fun and staying up all or most of the night.

"Yeah, but we should do something else, too. Is everyone free on Wednesday?"

There's a general chorus of agreement from around the table, as apparently, everyone is.

"Wednesday it is, then!" Rowen declares triumphantly, looking generally quite pleased with herself. "Everyone to my house!"

I'm sure Rowen hasn't even cleared this with her parents. It's just so much like her. I smile; at least, it seems, some things never change.

Chapter 31: Things Just Fall Apart

Friday is our last day of school before vacation starts, and it's a half day. I arrive to school feeling decidedly unsettled. Taylor wasn't in school yesterday. I tried calling him at least five times last night, but he never answered and never called back. Usually he calls back, no matter how late, or he'll at least leave a message of some kind. I don't like that I still haven't heard from him, and I'm really worried about him.

Today, however, he does show up. As it so happens, we arrive at roughly the same time, and I see him in the parking lot.

"Taylor!" I call out, walking towards him. He pauses briefly, then strangely, keeps walking as though he didn't hear me. I know he did, though. I begin to get a very definite feeling that something's wrong.

I run to catch up with him, and when he still doesn't stop, I grab his arm . "Taylor, what the hell's wrong?" I ask him, already feeling myself growing upset. "Are you okay? Why didn't you answer my calls?"

For a long, awful moment, Taylor says nothing, does nothing, doesn't even turn to face me. My overwhelming sense that something is very wrong increases.

Finally, he does turn, but he won't meet my eyes. His face is carefully impassive, and his gaze is pointedly fixed at some point just beyond my head. Finally, after an awful silence, he sighs and turns his face away again. "Jackson... we need to talk."

My heart fills with sudden dread at his words. "A-about what?" I ask cautiously, stumbling only very slightly over the words.

He looks up suddenly, glancing around the parking lot, which is pretty much empty at the moment. Then he closes his eyes and takes in a deep breath, creating a smokey fog when he breaths out again. A corner of my mind notices that it's cold out, but most of my consciousness is focusing on Taylor and the sick feeling growing in the pit of my stomach. I'm upset and scared, terrified suddenly that maybe my paranoia was something more than just that.

Finally, he speaks the words I realize I've been dreading almost since the moment I saw him this morning. Maybe longer, even.

"Jackson, I don't... I don't think we should see each other anymore"

With that simple sentence, I feel my world crash around me.

"What?" I choke out, not willing, not wanting to actually believe it.

"You heard me," he says, voice flat, turning away from me again.

"We're...you're..." -I don't want to ask, don't want him to confirm it- "You're breaking up with me?"

"Yes." It's just the simple word; no embellishment of any kind.

I just can't accept this.

"What the hell?" I exclaim, feeling anger exploding suddenly inside me. "Why?"

I don't want to know that I've had grounds for worry, I don't want my fears justified, I don't want to have this conversation, I just want to rewind back in time, I don't even know how far.

"Jackson, please, don't make this a big deal." Taylor's speaking, I suddenly realize, responding to my exclamation. I can't believe what I'm hearing.

"Don't make this a big deal?"I repeat, gaping at him. "What the hell do you think it is?"

Taylor says nothing, so I keep going.

"Was our entire relationship 'not a big deal' to you, then?" I can't stop myself, and I hear my voice straining, on the verge of cracking, but I can't stop that either. "Because I was under the impression that it was and has been a very big deal! To both of us! Apparently I'm mistaken?" I make the last sentence a question.

Anger is good. Anger keeps me from breaking down and falling apart.

Still, Taylor remains silent.

"Fuck, say something!" I practically scream at him. I especially can't take his silence. By not denying a word I've said, it's like he's confirmed it all.

Taylor gives a half shrug at my command, face still impassive. "What do you want me to say?" he questions, voice and expression perfectly controlled.

I hate him right now, hate him for being so goddamn calm about this. If anything, it makes me even angrier.

"Well, what happened to all your crap about 'living for yourself' for once? About how this, us, was what you wanted? About not caring what people though? Was all of that a lie too!?"

A sudden thought occurs to me, and in a much less heated tone, I ask very seriously, "Are you doing this because of your father?"

"No, it has nothing to do with him," Taylor responds cooly. "This... it's better this way."

"Better for who?" I demand bitterly. Taylor gives no answer. Then again, I think I've already stopped expecting one.

I can't keep this up. I've run out of anger now; I have nothing left. No, there's still one thing. My final argument, final words to this argument. Really, the last thing I have left to say.

"I thought-" I choke on my own words, almost unable to finish. "I thought you loved me."

Without so much as a word, Taylor turns and walks away.

As I watch him go, I feel my heart shattering into a thousand pieces.

Chapter 32: Wondering What If Is the Worst Thing There Is

My thoughts feel like they're on permanent overdrive, and I can't bring myself to truly acknowledge anything around me. I hardly notice the time passing, going through the day on autopilot. I just… can't believe it. Can't bring myself to accept that this is true, this is for real. There has to be something, some sort of reason.

Maybe Taylor is just really stressed about something, and not thinking clearly. Maybe his father did say something, whether Taylor denied it or not. I mean, even if his father really has gotten better and stopped what he was doing to Taylor, people's attitudes don't change that quickly, and I can't imagine he would have magically approved of our relationship all of a sudden. I know, I realize now, that Taylor has always worked so hard for his father's approval; maybe he broke up with me for his father's sake.

And what did he mean by "It's better this way"? Maybe he really thinks that. Maybe he thinks it'll be better for me, not to have to deal with him? But that's ridiculous. Maybe he needed a break from me; maybe I was being too pushy or clingy, and stressing him out even more than he may or may not already have been. Maybe it's my fault.

Either way, no matter what the reason, I really don't believe it's just over. I can't. He'll realize…realize he's being ridiculous, or change his mind, or start to think rationally and realize what he's done, and then he'll come back and apologize. He'll apologize, explain whatever was going on, and we'll go back to normal. Back to being together.

Because whatever else, I don't believe he just doesn't care anymore, doesn't have any sort of feeling for me anymore. I don't care how he was acting, what it seemed like, I don't, can't, won't believe it. We fought too hard for this for him to just let it all go. Didn't we?

I go through that day and the next in a complete stupor. I try calling Taylor once, the next day, because I can't stop myself more than anything else. When he doesn't answer, I just stare disbelievingly at my phone for a long while.

There's a little charm on my cell phone. Taylor bought it for me, once when we went to the mall together, because I thought it was cute.

I play with it absently for the longest time, staring at nothing.

The day after that, two days into vacation, Rowen and Archer show up unannounced at my door. My parents must have invited them in; they all but ambush me in my bedroom.

"What are you guys doing here?" I ask, more surprised than anything by their sudden appearance at the doorway of my bedroom.

At first, neither of them answers me. They're both wearing fairly solemn expressions, and worse, I see sympathy in both their eyes. I don't want or need it. Rowen sits next to where I'm perched on my bed, and Archer takes the desk chair.

"I talked to Taylor," Rowen says simply.

"Oh." Is all I can think to say.

All of a sudden, I really, really don't want them here. I know why they've come; to be emotional support. But I don't need emotional support. If I did, then it would be real, and I'm still not ready to believe that it is.

"You know that we're here for you," Rowen says gently, putting a hand on my shoulder.

Archer nods his agreement, adding, "After all you've helped me, it's only fair to return the favor."

I wish violently that they didn't know, hadn't found out about this. I don't want their sympathy. I can't deal with it. It will force me to face something I'm not ready to face. No, I shouldn't have to face it. I won't need to.

"It'll probably be hard, I know," Rowen goes on, "but seriously, if you ever need to talk to someone, you can always come to one of us."

"You know, you guys are talking like this is really the end for Taylor and me," I say, trying to make the sentence light. "It might just be a phase or something. Something temporary. I mean, how do we know, he might just be having a hard time right now or something. He still might take it back and apologize."

"Jackson," Rowen begins placatingly, "I know it's probably going to be hard to accept, but-"

"I really don't want to talk about this anymore," I cut her off abruptly, standing and turning away from both of them. I know I'm going to get Rowen angry with me, being like this, but perversely, some part of me wants her to get angry. If she's angry with me, maybe she'll leave me alone. Maybe they'll both leave me alone. "You know, no one actually invited either of you to come here," I continue, crossing my arms, still not facing them. "Maybe you should just leave."

"We came because we care about you, Jackson," Rowen says, and despite the sentiment, she does sound like she's growing annoyed.

"And I appreciate it," I return evenly. "But it's not necessary."

"Jackson, you can't just deny this-"

"Yes I can!" I explode furiously, whirling back to face her. "Just shut the fuck up and get out of my house!"

"Look, she's just trying to help," Archer responds angrily, standing up himself. "We both are. But since you obviously don't want-"

"Don't need," I correct him immediately.

"Fine, then if you think you don't need our help," Archer returns mockingly, "Call us when you decide to handle this situation like a mature adult."

Then, he pulls Rowen up, mutters, "C'mon", and veritably storms away.

I see the look on Rowen's face as they walk out, and in that instant, I feel like the most horrible person alive.

I sink down onto my bed, curling into a ball. I want this to go away, I want to pretend that none of it's real. Maybe I'll wake up and this will all be a horrible dream. God, if only.

But this isn't a dream. It's my fucking life.

Chapter 33: Something to Prove

I start to hate him so much. I've become so angry at him, at everything. How could he do this to me? How could he just fucking… play with my emotions like this? Suddenly, it feels like he's done nothing but play me, all this time. Just like Rowen was afraid of, what feels like so long ago. We started dating when it suited him, and stopped when it apparently didn't suit him anymore.

What the hell happened to him "living for himself," anyway? Apparently, it wasn't important enough to him. Not as important as his precious fucking image, his precious fucking mockery of a life.

Fucking asshole. I don't know why I ever thought he was worth this kind of agony. Because he wasn't, and he's not.

Or so I keep telling myself. Maybe eventually I'll really believe it.

"Are you still coming tomorrow?" Rowen asks me over the phone. It's the day before we were all supposed to get together at her house, and I assume she's calling to remind people and see who's still coming.

This is the first time I've talked to her since the incident at my house, but she hasn't mentioned it, and I don't think she will unless I bring it up. I should apologize, I know I should, and I want to, but right now, it's all I can do not to blow up at her again. Not even because of anything she did, just because I'm feeling so unbelievable angry, not just at Taylor, at everything and everyone. I want to smash something. Or scream. But neither is a particularly viable option right now, since there's nothing to smash and I don't want people running to check up on me if I scream. Of course, that means I have no release for my frustration, which in turn causes it to increase.

"Honestly, I really don't feel up to it," I tell her, voice tight despite my efforts to control my tone. "I don't really think I'll be good company right now, and I do not fucking want to see Taylor."

"He cancelled," Rowen said immediately, her tone flat.

"What? Why?" I'm too surprised to come up with anything else at the moment. For some reason, the possibility hadn't even occurred to me.

"He didn't say," Rowen responds, too casually. "He kind of hung up after telling me, and didn't answer when I tried to call back." She's trying to be completely nonchalant, like it's no big deal to her, but I know her well enough to know that she's unhappy about it and a little hurt.

With that realization, my anger explodes again. "Fuck him!" I swear violently. What fucking right does he have to treat Rowen like that, anyway? And why the fuck did he cancel on them? Itbetter not have been because of me. Because, damn it, that's not fair to anyone else.

A thought suddenly occurs to me. "Has he been talking to anyone else, at all?" I ask Rowen, who's still on the phone.

"No." She answers simply, sounding somewhat annoyed herself. "Not to any of us, anyway."

"God DAMN it!" I swear again, and honestly, I'm not exactly sure why I'm so upset about that.

"So, will you come, at least?" Rowen asks hopefully, apparently choosing to ignore my outburst.

I shake my head, although she can't see me. "I'm sorry, I really can't. I wouldn't make it through. I just- I don't think I'm up to it."

"Okay," Rowen says, sighing a little. "Well, I'll talk to you later."

"Bye," I say.

"Yeah, bye," she responds, and then hangs up.

I can almost pretend I didn't hear the hurt in her voice.

Eventually, once I've calmed down a little bit, I decide I want to figure out what's going on with Taylor. Just because he's not talking to any of my friends doesn't mean he's not talking to anyone at all. I decide to call Lauren.

"What? Yeah, I was just talking to him earlier today," Lauren says in response, once I've asked the question. "Oh, by the way, I'm really sorry to hear you guys broke up," she adds with genuine sincerity. "You seemed like such a great couple."

"He broke up with me," I clarify through clenched teeth. I feel aggravation growing again, but I try to hold it back, stay calm.

"He did?" Lauren sounds surprised. "Oh. He didn't specify. Weird, though, because he didn't exactly make it sound it sound like his idea."

I'm really not sure what to make of that, to be honest, so I don't really respond to it. "Okay," I say instead, maintaining my effort to stay calm and succeeding fairly well thus far. "Well, thank you anyway. I guess I just wanted to make sure he was still talking to someone, anyone, and not secluding himself or anything."

"Oh, no, don't worry about that," Lauren assures me. "Actually, he's coming to a Christmas party with me and some of the other people he used to hang out with tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" I repeat numbly.

"Yeah, tomorrow," Lauren confirms.

He words make me feel vaguely like someone's just punched me. Tommorrow. He fucking bailed on Rowen with no explanation so he could go party with his other friends? Fuck, he could have at least told her!

"Fucking asshole," I explode loudly, unable to hold back anymore. I just- just can't believe him. That he'd do this. Maybe he's really not the person I thought he was. Maybe he never was. And it's surprising, how much that thought hurts.

"Jackson, what's wrong?" Lauren asks, sounding startled

"Fuck," I swear again. I have to get off the fucking phone, now, before I say something I'll really regret. "I've got to go," I say quickly, hanging up the phone.

I need to calm down. I can't stay in this constant state of irritation. I lie on my bed, play calm music, and start squeezing a balloon filled with flour as a makeshift stress ball. Trying not to think never works for me, so I try to distract my thoughts instead.

It's not working. None of it.

I start squeezing the stress balloon harder.

Suddenly it explodes, coating myself and everything around me in flour.

"FUCK!" I scream. This is absolutely not fucking helping.

I want to scream, really scream, as loud as I can, but I can't because my parents are home. I'm somewhat surprised they haven't already said something to me, actually, but I suppose they must have figured out I was angry and decided not to bother me. Smart of them.

I want to cry, but I just can't.

So, I settle for my third option. Look for something to break.

I notice something made of glass on my desk, and without thinking, I grab it and hurl it against the wall with as much force as I can muster.

Only after it shatters into pieces on my floor, glittering fragments gleaming up at me in the sunlight streaming through my window, do I regain my senses.

"Is everything okay in there?" I hear my mother's concerned voice call to me through my door.

"Yeah, fine," I answer automatically. "Don't worry about it."

"Okay," she says, and leaves me alone once again.

Finally, I blink a few times and stare at what I've thrown. It was a rose. A glass rose.

Taylor gave it to me, a while ago, maybe a month before.

I sit down and stare at the pieces, suddenly feeling as though I've done something irreversible.

Chapter 34: Down on Hands and Knees

After a long internal debate with myself, I decide I will go to Jo's New Year's party. It's the first time I've really gotten out of my house all vacation. I still won't be very good company, I'm sure, but I really do need to get out, do something, and maybe stop ignoring my friends while I'm at it. At least I don't feel like I'm going to flip out on anyone at a moment's notice, anymore.

Taylor doesn't show, of course. I assume that he's with Lauren and their other friends, but honestly, I think I'd rather not know.

I try to force the whole subject of Taylor out of my mind while I'm at Jo's, and actually succeed reasonably well. And, to their credit, my friends do a good job of pretending that we don't have the shadow of Taylor's conspicuous absence hanging over all of us. I even manage to have some fun despite myself, although admittedly, I'm really not being particularly good company at the moment. I keep leaving and hiding out in some empty room by myself, and I think they're all getting annoyed with me for it.

Eventually, we all end up downstairs, staring at the big screen television in Jo's basement. Jo's parents make boys and girls sleep separately, apparently disregarding sexual orientation. If they even know I'm gay; I'm not sure. So eventually, Jo and Rowen will head up to Jo's room, and the rest of us will stay down here.

Half-empty glasses of sparkling cider, brought over by Rowen, are perched on all manner of available surfaces. There's not even a minute left until the ball drops in Times Square. Everyone's got their noisemakers ready; Jo was insane enough to get them for everyone, including her younger brother and his girlfriend, who are also with us. I just know this is not going to end well.

"Five, four, three, two…" I join the chanting, but I'm not feeling particularly enthusiastic. No one seems to notice.

"ONE!" Everyone shouts out together, immediately starting with the noise makers.

And they keep going. And going. The headache-inducing noise doesn't stop until literally five minutes into the New Year. These people I call my friends.

Finally, the noise trails off. There's a chorus of "Happy New Year!"s, and Lee leans over to kiss Jo. Rowen giggles, and Archer shouts out "Ew, that's so hetero," his favorite phrase lately.

I, however, am mostly silent. I'm quietly reflecting, hoping no one will notice. Or at least, that they won't comment, since I've been like this all night anyway.

It's a new year, right? Time to start fresh, clean the slate and all, right? We've been out of school for a week and a half. There's been enough distance from the situation.

I decide to make a New Year's resolution; I'm going to try talking to Taylor when we all get back to school. There has to be a way to make everything work out between us again. There just has to be.

The day we get back to school, I find a time to pull Taylor aside and talk with him privately. I say pull quite literally, because he wouldn't go with me otherwise. I manage to succeed in dragging him to one of the individual music practice rooms; they're the most private place I can think of in this school.

"Jackson, please don't do this," Taylor says, not looking at me, once we've arrived at my destination.

"Come on," I begin, attempting to remain calm, to keep the desperation out of my voice. "Please. Let's talk about this."

"We have talked about it," Taylor says flatly. "It's over. We're over. That's not going to change."

"But...why?" I ask, and screw calm, now I'm just focusing on not crying. It's hard, this is so painfully hard, especially when he's acting like this. I hate it. I don't understand it. There has to be...there has to be something I can do, something I can say, something to make this different. "At least tell me why?"

Taylor shrugs. And he's still not looking at me.

"Look at me," I command, voice shaking ever so slightly.

"I..." to my surprise, Taylor looks helpless all of a sudden. I see suddenly that something in his expression, his demeanor, has cracked. "I can't."

"Why?" I demand, my voice suddenly stronger. There's something here, I'm realizing. Something more to this. I've found an unexpected hold, and I have every intention of taking advantage of it. "Why can't you look at me, Taylor? If you really want this to end, then why can't you look at me?"

"You're grasping at straws, Jackson," he says harshly. "You're just... seeing what you want to see."

"Like hell I am!" I exclaim, jumping to my feet. I'm definitely seeing something now that I didn't before. "You're wearing another fucking mask Taylor. I can tell." It's the truth. Once I stopped focusing on myself, I saw it almost immediately. "Unfortunately for you, I know you too well. There's something about this you're not telling me!"

I know he's hiding something, but I don't know what or why, and as strong as I'm being with my convictions, there's still that part of me that's afraid that I'm wrong, that Taylor's right, I'm just seeing what I want to see. This whole conversation is screwing with my head even worse than before.

"God, Jackson, what part of 'over' don't you understand?" Taylor demands angrily, standing up himself. "You're so fucking paranoid! The whole world isn't out to get you!"

I'm taken aback by Taylor's explosion. It feels so...alien. So unlike him.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe he's different. Maybe he's not who I thought he was.

He sighs, visibly claming himself down. "Can't you just accept that this relationship is over? Just... believe me that it's better this way."

Or maybe not, and I'm right. Or maybe I just don't care anymore, and am willing to do just about anything to try to fix this and get him back, including sacrificing dignity.

"Please," I beg him desperately. "Please, isn't there-isn't there anything I can do? Was it because of me? Did I do something wrong?"

"No," Taylor says, sounding slightly pained. He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his noise, head angled downward. "No, you didn't do anything wrong."

"Then why?" I repeat desperately. He still doesn't answer. "I'll-I'll do anything, I'll be a better person, just please-"

"Look, Jackson, you're just making this unbelievably harder than it needs to be," Taylor interrupts, angry once again. "We're over, okay? That's all there is to it. And this conversation isn't going to change anything."

He turns and storms away. Walking away from me for the second time.

"Why?" I call after him, repeating it one more time. "Please!"

He doesn't turn, doesn't even pause, just opens and shuts the door of the practice room without a backwards glance.

I take a long while to follow. I'm fighting a valiant battle against the tears welling in my eyes, and am currently failing miserably.

Almost as soon as I leave the practice room, I surprised to find Lee lying in wait, pity in his expression.

"You heard, didn't you?" I say dully. It's hardly a question. Lee nods.

"I'm really sorry," he says sympathetically, putting a hand on my shoulder. Everyone seems to do that.

"Don't be," I say shortly, brushing his hand away. "I don't need it."

"Hey, I know how hard it is for you," Lee continues in an understanding voice that I really can't stand all of a sudden. "I went through something similar. I had a really crappy relationship with this girl a year or two ago, and it ended really messily."

"Sorry to hear it," I shrug. I really don't see a whole lot of comparison. I understand that he's trying to help, but right now, I just feel… utterly defeated. And Lee's not helping. Nor, I realize, do I really want him too.

"Yeah, it took me a while to realize that she had basically just been playing with my feelings," he continues, half to himself.

I turn what must have been a rather haunted glare on him. That's the last thing I want to hear. That's the last thing I want to think. He couldn't have- no. Taylor…whatever else happened, is happening, I don't really want to believe anything truly bad of him. I can't. I won't.

"Oh man, I'm sorry, I didn't mean that your relationship with Taylor was anything like that, I just meant-" Apparently, Lee has realized exactly what he just said, and how it probably could be taken.

"Forget it, okay?" I cut him off, and simply walk away.

Chapter 35: Holding Onto the Memory of What Didn't Last

I lie awake in my bed, blankly staring at the ceiling, for a long time that night.

When I wake up the next morning, I don't want to. I just…don't want to get out of bed. Don't want to face the world. I want to lie here and go back to sleep. I can't bear the thought of seeing anybody, talking to anyone, having to do anything…. Having to make any kind of decision, even what clothes to wear. I feel…empty. Like there's nothing left within me.

I just want a day or two to myself, take a break from everything. I want everything to just disappear for a little bit; to give me the time I need to pull myself back together.

But I don't have that luxury. My parents wouldn't be too receptive to the idea of me skipping school without me being able to convincingly prove that I'm actually sick, which I'm not really. I don't feel up to acting, either.

So, with some difficulty, I finally drag myself up. My limbs feel heavy, and I still don't want to move. But I force myself, make myself go through my normal routines, and make it to school.

I feel no better once at school. I don't really want to talk to anyone, so I walk off to find some secluded place before the first bell rings. If I avoid everyone, I won't have to talk to them. At least in theory. Unfortunately, I happen to pass by Jo on my way.

"Oh, Jackson, there you are," she says, grabbing my arm to stop me. I simply let her. As much as I don't want to talk to people, it's just not worth the effort to resist.

I stare at her blandly once she has my attention. She returns my stare with an even gaze of her own.

Finally, after a brief moment of that, she abruptly pulls me into a hug. It's meant, I'm sure, to be comforting.

"I heard from Lee, about what happened yesterday." she says. "I'm so sorry, Jackson." She takes a deep breath, presumably preparing herself for her next words. "I've been there, you know. Where you are now. I know what depression over these things really feels like."

She's trying to tell me she understands my pain. That I'm not completely alone in this.

All of a sudden, something breaks through the haze over me, and I'm very much on the verge of completely breaking down and sobbing on her shoulder.

But I just can't. I don't want anyone to see this, see me lose control like this. So instead, I push her away, evading her embrace and her compassion.

"Thanks anyway," I say, shrugging. Then I quickly turn and leave her, before I really do have a breakdown.

But it seems I won't be able to stop it from happening anyway. Jo calls after me, and I almost completely lose it. I break into a run, tears blurring my vision, heading straight for the music practice rooms.

Once there, I shut myself in the most secluded one, lean my back against the closed door, and slowly sink down to a sitting position. I wrap my arms around my legs and press my face into my knees, and, unable to stop it anymore, I start sobbing. Deep, shuddering sobs rack my body, as I rock myself back and forth, hating myself for being so weak.

I can't do this. I don't want to go on without Taylor, not now that I've had him. I don't want us to just go back to the way we were before everything, barely acquaintances. I can't stand it. I know I'm being weak and pathetic. But… I still love him, love him so much it hurts. I've never lost so much before, and it fucking hurts more than anything I've ever felt.

A week goes by, and we have just gone back to the way we were before. I hardly ever see him at school anymore. He's gone back to eating lunch with Lauren and her friends, though he hasn't picked up his old habit of switching tables. For all the world, he really doesn't seem to care about me anymore. And that hurts. It hurts so much. Every time I look at him, I feel like something's been torn out of me and I'll never be completely whole again.

After a few days of trying to be normal, trying to continue sitting with my own friends at lunch, I find I just can't do it. These people are supposed to be my closest friends in the world, but instead, I've felt horribly distant from all of them. More and more so with every moment I spend with them. I think, actually, I might have been trying to push them away. It doesn't take long to realize I've succeeded.

I start spending less and less of our time for lunch actually in the cafeteria, until, after maybe a week, I stop going all together. No one says anything about it to me, for which I'm just as glad. I really haven't wanted to face anyone.

At home, I've been spending most of my time sitting alone in my room. After having done this for two and a half weeks or so, pretty much since Taylor broke up with me in the first place, I know my mother's getting worried about me. But she doesn't want to pressure me, I can tell, and I'm not feeling particularly forthcoming.

I curl up in my bed one night, in the midst of all this, reflecting on everything and feeling fairly miserable. Rolling over, I reach under my bed and retrieve an item I know is still there. A shirt Taylor left here once, weeks, almost a month ago.

I hold the shirt to my face and breath in the scent. It still smells like him.

I miss him, I miss him so much. I want him here to comfort me, want to hear his voice whispering soothing words, telling me that everything's okay. But everything's not okay, and the thought that I might never have that again, have him with me again, is almost more than I can stand.

I have no idea how much time passes before I finally fall asleep, still clutching his shirt, now stained with my tears.

I've truly never lost so much.

Chapter 36: So Dry Your Eyes Now It's Done

It still hurts, but after about a month, I'm finally feeling ready to accept that this is happening. I'm still not happy, but I'm finally feeling like I can move on with my life. I still don't know why or what happened, but I can make my assumptions, and I can't let this take over my life anymore. It'snot the end of my world or my life, as much as I seem to have felt it is.

A big reason why this has hurt me so much is because I really love him, something that still hasn't changed. Something I'm not sure ever will. But I've some to realize something else; another part of the reason is because I let Taylor, my relationship with him, become the focus of my life. I pretty much forgot about everything else, so that once I lost him, it felt like I had nothing left. But I've finally realized that really, that's not true. Maybe it hurts, maybe it will continue hurting for a long time, but even if this is it and we're really over, I need to remember to that I have so much more to my life than this.

I've taken everything in my room that had any connection with him and packed it away in a box in my closest, all but one or two small things that I'm not willing to put away. I was slightly surprised at how full the box was, even though we were only together for a few months.

Anyway, packing that box away helped a lot. I don't have to be reminded of him everywhere I turn in my room anymore.

Also, it's slowly becoming easier to see him around at school. Finally, I'm feeling like I can continue living my life, even without Taylor.

Once I've had time to become firm in this new resolution, I know that I need to do something about the way I've treated my friends.

Reflecting on what I've done, I think I really was trying to push them away. I was hurting inside, and I just didn't want to let anyone close. But that still doesn't excuse the shitty way I've treated them.

So, after maybe a week or more of skipping lunch, I gather up my courage and rejoin our table. It's the easiest way to talk to everyone at once.

I arrive a few minutes late, to make sure that everyone will already be sitting down when I get there.

I walk purposefully towards the table and sit down. Everyone sort of stares at me, various degrees of surprise written on their faces. I wait to see what they have to say before I speak.

"Nice of you to join us again," Archer comments lightly.

"Um… are you…okay now?" Rowen asks hesitatingly.

Lee just keeps staring, apparently unable to think of anything to say. Jo looks away, and I feel a pang of guilt.

I sigh, leaning forward and resting my head in my hands for a moment. Then, I pull back again, formulating what I'm going to say.

"I know I owe you all some major apologies," I begin my speech at length. "I know I've been acting pretty awful towards you all, and I don't really have a good excuse for it. Even if I was upset, I had no right to take it out on any of you. And I know I've done that, taken it out on all of you in turn. And…" I sigh. "I can't really say much else, other than I'm really, really sorry, and I hope you can all forgive me. I am going to stop being such a baby about all of this, and hopefully start treating my friends a bit better."

"Well, thank you for acting like a mature adult, finally," Archer says immediately. "I mean, we all understood that you were upset, but you could have taken a little more time to think about how you reacted." He pulls an exaggerated tone, borderline sarcastic, but I'm used to it. It's a very typically Archer way to talk, and somehow, the familiarity is a relief.

Rowen, who happens to be next to me, pulls her chair closer and hugs me. I know she likes hugs, so I return it. After a moment, she lets go and adds her verbal reaction. "Thank you for apologizing," she says sincerely. "We do forgive you. Well, I do. I imagine everyone else does."

Lee just shrugs. "Hey, no hard feelings."

Jo still looks a little upset, and I turn and speak directly to her. "Jo, I'm really sorry for how I acted the other day. I know you were trying to help, and I really do appreciate it. I want you to know that."

She sighs. "I really didn't appreciate the way you treated me, but…okay. I'll give you another chance. I do forgive you."

"Thank you," I breath, letting out a breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding. It really would have hurt if any of them were truly mad at me beyond repair. I'm really, really relieved they've all forgiven me. It's that much weight off my shoulders.

After that, everyone moves on; back to their lunch and normal conversations. I pick right up with all of them, and realize for the first time just how much I missed hanging out with them all.

I leave the cafeteria that day feeling incredibly lightened.

I feel like I should apologize to Lauren, too, so I find a time later that day to pull her aside.

"What's wrong, Jackson?" She asks, seeming surprised, but sounding concerned and caring as well. I really appreciateknowing that shestill cares somewhatabout me, even now that I'm not dating Taylor anymore.

"I…" I take a breath and let it out again, before going on. "I basically just wanted to apologize to you, for the way I spoke to you over the phone a few weeks ago."

"Is that all?" she smiles kindly. "Don't worry, you're long since forgiven. I understand. You were probably still upset over the breakup, right?"

I nod, eyes cast downwards, feeling slightly ashamed at my actions even so.

"Actually…" she bites the side of her lip, growing serious again. I look back up at her, curious. She sighs. "I don't know if it's my place to say, but to be honest, I'm a little concerned about Taylor."

A pang shoots through my chest. "Why?" I ask immediately, worried.

"Nothing major," she shakes her head dismissively, almost too herself. "He just seems a little more withdrawn than usual, this past week. Probably nothing to worry about. I'm thinking about talking to him, though, just in case."

I sigh a little. I want to be worried for Taylor, I am worried, and I wish there was something I could do something about it. But it's not really my place, not anymore.

"Yeah, you definitely should talk to him, just in case." I say. Itry to smile, but only half succeed. "I leave him in your hands, now," I add, trying to make it sound like a joke, but again, not entirely succeeding.

She nods, her own smile falling a little short as well. "I'll do my best. Take care of yourself, Jackson, okay?"

I nod, finally able to offer her a more genuine smile. "I'll do that."

I still find myself lying awake at night, just thinking. I don't think that's going to change or stop any time soon.

In general, after all of this, I feel…older, somehow. I don't think I feel more mature, necessarily, but more something. More world-weary? Tired? Cynical? Well, maybe not exactly cynical, but less naïve at least.

I'd like to say I feel more mature, but I don't know if that's true. Because, no matter what I say, think or do, I know some part of me is still waiting for Taylor. Waiting for things to go back the way they were, maybe a little different this time. Improved, having learned from our mistakes. But another part of me is afraid that this is just stupid, pointless optimism and blind idealism on my part.

And another part of me is worried.

I'm trying not to let my mind fall into that potential chasm of worry, but I can't seem to forget Lauren's words from earlier. I just can't help being concerned about Taylor. I'm still afraid something might be going on with him, something that's making him act this way. I wish I knew for sure, because until I do, it's going to remain constantly in the corner of my mind.

I do kind of feel like it's not my place to worry about him anymore, but it would be impossible for me not to. I guess I can only hope that Lauren will be able to help him with whatever it is, unless he turns to me of his own free will.

And, whatever the reason may be, it's looking like that probably won't happen again.

That Saturday, I get the house to myself for a while as my parents go out somewhere together. I'm sitting in my room, just listening to music, feeling relatively bored.

My cell phone rings suddenly, unexpectedly, from right next to me, making me jump.

I get a sudden, strange sense of foreboding. I can't think of any reason someone would be calling me right now; all my friends are supposed to be busy today.

I look at the caller id, and nearly drop my phone in shock.

It's Taylor.

Chapter 37: Don't Want This Anymore

"Hello?" I say cautiously, answering my phone, wondering if it's a mistake.

I'm hit by a wave of déjà vu as a strangled sob meets my ears.

Okay, maybe not a mistake.

"Jackson?" Taylor's voice chokes out. "Is that really you? I didn't… I didn't know if you'd actually answer, after the way I- after-" he breaks off, apparently unable to finish.

"Taylor, what the hell is wrong?" I ask tightly, fear and worry coloring my words.

I'm feeling literally sick with concern and fear. I have no idea what's going on, but Taylor sounds worse than I've ever heard him before, and that's pretty damn bad. He sounds really, truly broken. Did I mention I'm worried?

"God," he goes on, still sobbing, hardly seeming to have heard me. I wonder if he actually didn't. "I don't even deserve to talk to you anymore," he says with a viciousness directed entirely at himself. "I don't fucking deserve to-" he cuts off abruptly, and suddenly grows quiet. My anxiety is growing at an alarming rate.

"Taylor, please, you're scaring me, just tell me what's wrong," I repeat my earlier question, trying to fight against becoming too upset myself.

"I-I want to…" he's speaking in a ragged whisper, now. "I…I wasn't going to call you, but I just- I was going to do it, but I thought of you, and… I just couldn't. I can't- I can't do it, if it'll hurt you. If you still need me."

"Can't do what?" I ask, horror dawning as I start to fear I know the answer. I'm afraid of the answer, afraid of the way he's acting. He wouldn't-

He draws a deep, shuddering breath, still seeming not to hear me. "You're the only one, the only thing stopping me right now. The only thing that could stop me. I…I need you, Jackson, I need you so much. I was so… goddamn stupid. Stupid, and afraid."

I'm feeling absolutely torn. On one hand, my heart is leaping, I'm reeling in shock and wonder at his words, that he does still want me, that he's saying he still needs me, effectively taking back all the hurtful words he's said to me. On another hand, I'm hit with staggering confusion, wondering why he broke up with me if he still cared, if he didn't want to, wondering what the hellhappened to him to make him do that. Then, on top of and overshadowing it all, I feel the sick taste of bile and fear in the back of my throat, still terrified by his current state and the way he's talking.

"I don't- I don't even deserve to be with you again," Taylor starts again, and I realize that his voice is slowly moving from the broken, sobbing sound to a flat, dull monotone. It sends chills through me. "I treat you horribly, and I always hurt you," he continues, voice dead. "I always end up hurting you. It's… you're better without me. I could only drag you down. Everything's wrong, everything's so horribly wrong, and you're the only thing that's right… I'll only take that away from you. You're too good for me."

At the one moment I know I need to say something, I'm struck speechless.

"You know what?" Taylor says suddenly, voice completely empty and devoid of emotion. "Never mind. Just…never mind. Goodbye, Jackson."

There's a horrible, ringing finality to his words that shakes me to the core. I feel my blood rushing, pounding in my ears.

"Wait, wait the hell are you going to do?" I half-scream, in a sudden rush of terror-driven adrenaline.

"Kill myself," he says simply, without so much as a moment's hesitation.

Oh god.

Chapter 38: Broken, it's Like Saving a Drowning Victim

"No!" I cry out in a strangled voice. "You can't!"

No, no, no, how the fuck do I stop him?

I know, absolutely, that I wouldn't be able to handle Taylor's death. I could hardly handle losing our relationship. I wouldn't be able to get through losing him, I know I wouldn't. Especially not now, when I know he still loves me. Or, at least, said he needs me.

Wait. Needs me. Maybe...

"You said you wouldn't do it if I still needed you, right?" I say desperately. "Well, I still need you, Taylor. Don't you dare fucking do it. I'll never forgive you. Are you still there?"

I literally hold my breath, absolutely still, as he says nothing for what feels like a long, long time.

"…yeah," he says quietly, at last. "I'm still here."

I nearly cry from a sheer feeling of relief.

"Good," I say aloud, suddenly coming to a decision. "I'm coming over. But I'm keeping you on the line. Don't you dare do anything. Okay?"

I have a fleeting thought that it might be a bad idea to go to Taylor's house, but hell with that, I won't leave him there alone, not through this.

"Okay," Taylor answers dully. I presume that means it's safe for me to go over, anyway. Otherwise, Taylor would have said something.

Meanwhile, I practically fly out of my house, barely remembering to grab the car keys. I realize I'm going to have to make an enormous effort to keep myself from speeding.

"What happened, anyway?" I ask as I start the car, mostly to keep Taylor talking, but partly because I'm morbidly curious.

"What?" He says in a strange voice, sounding weirdly confused. "No." Like…he'd forgotten something, or didn't know what he was talking about. "No," he says again, firmer this time.

"Taylor, what-?" I ask, rather confused myself. Taylor doesn't seem to hear me.

Suddenly, he screams. I nearly run off the road.

"What-" I can hardly get even the single word out before Taylor's voice cuts me off.

"NO!" he screams it this time. "NO! I DON'T WANT TO FUCKING THINK ABOUT IT!"

"Taylor, calm down!" I yell back at him, trying to cut through his sudden panic, confused and upset myself. What the hell is upsetting him this badly?

"I don't want to remember," Taylor is sobbing again. "I didn't- I couldn't have- I didn't happen, this isn't happening…"

"It's okay," I try to calm him, try to sound soothing, despite my own terror both for him and at the way he's acting. "I'll be there soon. It's okay."

"No, it's not okay, Jackson," Taylor says bitterly. He's still crying, but at least he's sounding sane again. "It's not going to be okay," he continues. "I think my father's dead."


"What!?" I exclaim, nearly running into the car in front of me. I barely manage to restrain myself from letting out a stream of curses following this; it just doesn't seem like a good time for that.

"I think I killed him."

This… doesn't bode well.

I'm gathering that the situation may be even more serious than I thought.

Thankfully, I arrive at his house just then, preventing me from having to think any more about that matter for now.

"I'm pulling in your driveway now, okay?" I say. "I'll be there in a few seconds."

I bolt out of my car, almost forgetting to close the door, and rush into the house.

I find Taylor sitting on a couch in his living room. The same one, in fact, that his father found us on.

The sight of him literally causes me to drop my cell phone. Which, for some reason, I still had pressed to my ear.

The first thing I take in is his bruised, bloody form. He's very clearly been beaten badly by someone, and I have a feeling I know exactly who that someone was. One of his hands is still holding his own phone, which he also is holding still pressed to his ear.

His other hand is holding a gun. He's currently fixing it with a rather chilling blank stare.

A strange false calm comes over me.

The first thing I do is take the gun away from him, carefully, and set it down a good distance away. I shudder slightly, touching it. I hate guns.

Taylor looks up at me as I do this, seeming to really see me for the first time since I arrived. He slowly puts his phone down and fixes the same blank stare on me.

I want to know, need to find out what happened, but that can wait a moment. Quite frankly, right now, there's something more important to me.

I sit down next to Taylor and carefully wrap my arms around him.

That's all it takes. He melts into my embrace and starts sobbing again; broken, desperate, choking sobs that seem to overwhelm his entire being.

All I can do is hold him, as he clings to me the way a drowning man would cling to a floating piece of wood from a shipwreck.

Like I'm the only thing anchoring him.

Like he's afraid I'll disappear if he lets go.

Like he's drowning, and the world will disappear around him if he lets go.

He's been really close to this breaking point. Somehow, I know that. Really, I realize now that he's been close to his breaking point for a long time. Even since before that day, that day that feels like lifetimes ago, when he threw himself in front of an oncoming car. My car. What's happened now must have finally been enough to push him past that edge.

I can only pray I'll be able to bring him back.

Chapter 39: Things Coming Together

I wait for Taylor's sobs to subside a t least somewhat, before I speak.

"Taylor," I whisper softly to him, the words spoken almost directly into his ear, due to the current location of his head on my shoulder. "Taylor, you really need to tell me what happened."

I've realized that it's pretty important. I may be concerned first and foremost with Taylor, but well, if his father is actually dead, we have to do something. I only pray that whatever Taylor did was out of self-defense; I don't want him to be arrested or anything. Either way, though, we should call the police, and now that I think of it, I should have asked him earlier if he's sure his father's dead. We may need to call an ambulance.

Though, truthfully, I almost don't want to. I'd almost rather leave him to die.

I hope it doesn't make me too terrible of a person.

"Did…" I begin, biting my lip, a little reluctant to ask what I'm about to ask. "Did you shoot him, or something?"

He was holding a gun…

"No!" Taylor says vehemently, lifting his head up to shake it fervently. "No."

He takes a deep breath before speaking again, in halted, broken sentences. "We were arguing and he…he started hitting me again. He might have been…drunk, or something… I'm…I'm pretty sure he was. I was afraid he might actually…. kill me, or something… if I didn't do something. So…I…I pushed him away from me…and he…" Taylor clenches his eyes shut, gripping onto me so tightly it almost hurts. "I didn't mean to," he says in a small voice. "I swear I didn't mean to…he… we were at the top of the stairs, and he…he fell… and then he wasn't moving…"

"How long ago was this?" I ask immediately.

"Um… almost right before I called you," Taylor answers. "I…I was scared, and felt…felt horrible…and the things he was saying, right before…" Taylor shudders. "I didn't want to deal with it… I… I just ran away, like I always do, and… and I grabbed the gun, but… I thought of you, and couldn't do it, so I called you…and…you…you know the rest, I think."

"Are you sure he's dead?" I ask, very seriously.

Taylor looks at me with startled eyes.

"Um… I guess I...I assumed he was," Taylor admits, blinking a few times. "I didn't want to…to touch him."

Damn. I sigh, pressing one hand to my temple. I don't want to do this, but…

"We have to go check, I think," I say. Taylor looks as reluctant as I feel, but finally nods.

We get up, and he leads me over to the foot of the stairs. Surely enough, his father is sprawled on the floor, unmoving.

I feel ill.

I approach as slowly as possible. Taylor hangs back, but I can't blame him. I feel sick and full of apprehension; I'm torn between being terrified that he really is dead and I'm seeing a dead body, or he's not dead, he's just faking or something, and at any moment he'll jump up and…I don't know. It's a completely unrealistic fear.

I swallow hard, and slowly force myself to kneel down and reach towards his throat to feel for a pulse. It's the easiest spot I can think to check.

I can't decide if I'll be more disturbed if I feel no pulse, or if there is one.

Still feeling ill, I reluctantly press my fingers lightly over the man's throat.

I'm also torn between hatred and fear of this man, and would be reluctant to touch him under any circumstance.

I hold my breath.

I don't feel anything. He must be… should I breathe a sigh of relief? Or vomit because I might be touching a dead body?

Then… a weak thump.

My heart lurches.

Did I imagine it?

No. It comes again.

"Fuck," I swear, turning wide eyes to where Taylor's s hovering, closer than he was before but still a few feet away. "He's not dead. We have to call an ambulance."

I see a war on Taylor's face that looks similar to the one in my head. Be relieved because he's still alive, or upset because he's not dead?

I end up being the one to call, simply dialing 911 and giving a brief explanation. I hardly remember what I said. Within minutes, and ambulance is roaring away with sirens blaring, and police are inside asking the both of us questions. They take Taylor away, so they can question us separately. I understand why and all, but I don't have to like it much. I hate having him out of my sight, right now. But I can deal, as long as it doesn't take too long. I hope he can.

I tell the police everything that I know about the situation, about Taylor's relationship with his father, everything I can think of. Yes, Taylor's father has abused him before. I tell them about the bruises and the scene I witnessed between them before. I recount everything that Taylor told me about what happened today. No, Taylor has never shown violent tendencies before. No, I didn't actually witness what happened today, I arrived afterward.

More of the story comes out. Apparently Taylor's father has had some serious alcohol problems recently. Also, apparently he was abusive towards Taylor's mother as well. From what I understand, it started with issues between his parents, and Taylor actually was telling the truth when he said that his father didn't start on him until recently.

The police try to recreate the scene, exactly what happened between Taylor and his father today. From what I understand, the fight had something to do with Taylor's sexuality. Neighbors attest they heard screaming, and that it sounded like only Taylor's father. It also turns out that a child of one of the neighbors had been outside playing and actually witnessed some of what happened through a window. Everything backed up exactly what Taylor had already told the police. They say it's looking very likely that Taylor will be let off on self-defense. I'm immensely relieved; one less thing to worry about, at least.

At some point, Taylor's mother had been called; she was away on a business trip of some kind, but is on her way home now. Supposedly, she'll be home in a few hours. From what I gathered when I happened to hear half of the conversation, she was genuinely worried about Taylor. It didn't sound like she was quite so worried about her husband.

I don't know if I'll ever personally forgive her for running away on those business trips and leaving Taylor to deal with his father on his own so often, but at least maybe she's not too terrible.

Finally, after a few hours, the police leave. Apparently, they've decided the case is fairly clear-cut. They tell Taylor to remain available, though. (At least they didn't pull the cheesy tv cop line, "Don't leave town anytime soon" or whatever it is, but that was basically the message.)

At some point, I actually have the presence of mind to call my parents and tell them what's going on. After I explained what had happened and assured that I'm fine, and that it seems like everything is okay, now, I ask if it's okay if I stay. They readily agree, under the circumstances.

So now, I'm sitting at the kitchen table next to Taylor, holding his hand in mine, while he nurses a mug of coffee. There's a comfortable silence between us; neither of us really feels the need for words right now.

I do have a lot of questions I want to ask, but they can wait. I doubt Taylor's ready to answer any of them right now.

His mother is supposed to be arriving home any minute. She called from the airport about twenty minutes ago. I wonder what she'll think of me, and of my presence. I wonder if she knows who I am. I wonder if Taylor's told her anything. I wonder how she'll react. It's pretty definite that Taylor and I are back to being together; I wonder if his mother will be more accepting than his father. I hope she will be.

I also wonder what will happen to us if Taylor's father wakes up from the coma he's reportedly in. It's a horrible feeling, really, to actually find myself hoping that he won't. To actually be hope for someone's, anyone's death. I force these thoughts out of my head; there's no use in worrying about it one way or the other right now.

I'm so wrapped up in my thoughts that I almost don't notice the front door opening, until I hear a woman's voice call out, "Taylor? Where are you?"

"In the kitchen, mom!" he calls back.

I hear the sounds of someone putting things down, hanging up a coat, taking off shoes. Finally, the woman enters the kitchen.

She's quite pretty, actually; I can see immediately that Taylor inherited his fine features from her. His eyes, as well; the two have nearly identical, piercingly green eyes. Her hair is long and curly, a light brown, half of it pulled back into a style that actual looks quite professional, especially when coupled with the pale gray two-piece jacket and skirt suit she's wearing. I wonder idly exactly what her profession is.

The expression on her face is one of schooled calm, eerily similar to Taylor's own controlled features. I wonder if he inherited his impressive ability to control his visible emotions from her as well.

Taylor stands to meet her.

All in one instant, the controlled expression melts from her face to be replaced by one of concern, as she walks over and pulls her son into a warm embrace.

"Oh god," she breaths, "I'm so sorry, baby. I'm so sorry."

Taylor returns her embrace, and I can see he's quickly crumbling again. "I've missed you so much, mom,"he says, voice cracking slightly. "It's been so hard…"

I feel slightly awkward; this is a personal moment, and I feel very much like an outsider. It feels like I shouldn't be witnessing it.

At least my worries about Taylor's relationship with his mother are quickly dissolving.

"I'm so sorry, I never should have left you alone with that man," his mother continues,stroking her son's hair,a pained expression on her face. "I never knew… I never thought he'd start on you, too. I should have been here…"

"There was nothing you could have done," Taylor chokes out.

Finally, the time for words between them seems to have ended. He's started crying again, literally sobbing on his mother's shoulder. They stay that way for an indeterminate amount of time.

Meanwhile, I fidget anxiously, wondering if I should leave.

Taylor manages to quite his sobs to small hiccoughs, then takes a number of deep breaths, before finally pulling away from his mother. His eyes, now red and slightly puffy, seem to search hers for a moment. "Mom… do you know what the argument was about?"

"Between you and your father?" she questions, presumably for clarity, though I can't imagine what else he'd be talking about.

"Yeah." He nods, looking a (fairly adorable, from my perspective) mix of anxious and hopeful.

I pray that his mother really will be understanding. I don't really want to deal with the resulting pain of seeing that hope killed.

"Yes, I do," She says simply.

"What… what do you think about it?" Taylor asks at length, nervously clasping his hands together, twisting his fingers around one another in an unconscious gesture.

She lightly closes her eyes and breaths in a deep sigh.

I hold my breath, waiting anxiously for her response. Taylor looks like he might be doing the same.

"I don't…exactly approve of it," she begins finally, and my heart sinks.

Taylor looks like the world has crashed around him. Again.

However, she's not finished speaking.

She takes another deep breath, letting it out slowly. "Taylor… I just want you to be happy."

"Really?" Taylor questions, cautiously, as though afraid that she doesn't really mean it. As though he's afraid to let that hope return one more time.

She nods.

"Oh god, thank you," Taylor says with raw emotion, immediately hugging his mother once again. He pulls away much sooner, this time. "In that case…" He looks to me.

I'd wondered if either of them remembered that I was here. Or, for that matter, if Taylor's mother had even noticed.

I stand in response to the silent request in his eyes. Taylor walks over and puts his hand in mine once again, entwining our fingers.

He's pretending to be calm, but his grip on my hand at that moment is vice-like.

"Mother, I'd like you to meet Jackson. He's…" Taylor swallows, but plows on. "He's my boyfriend."

Well, on the plus side, any lingering doubts I might have had about the current state of our relationship are resolved. I feel almost as nervous as Taylor must be as we await his mother's response.

To my surprise, she actually smiles.

"Thank you for being here for my son," he says, and startles me even further by pulling me into an embrace. Unsure of how to react, I awkwardly return it, briefly letting go of Taylor's hand to do so. "Goodness knows I haven't done enough of that. I think it's about time I start. So…"

I still think it was very irresponsible of her to have run away from her problems and left Taylor alone to deal with his father so often, but… Maybe she's not such a bad person.

Actually, I think I rather like Taylor's mother. I hope she decides to stick around, this time.

Chapter 40: All the Reasons Why

School that week is rather hellish for me. Taylor, naturally, is absent the rest of the week. Somehow, the basic story has spread through the school like wildfire. By the Monday after, it seems as though everybody in the entire school knows the basic story of what's happened.

I've no idea how anyone at all found out, but I suppose that's the power of the rumor mills for you.

Now, the reason this is a problem for me, besides the obvious implications it could have for Taylor,is that, somehow, everyone also seems to know that I was involved in some way. And to my great discomfort and distress, it seems like every single student is determined to hear a firsthand account, directly from me.

Thus far, my response to every one has essentially been some variation or another of "I don't want to talk about it." Unfortunately, if anything, that seems to make the problem worse. It's like they all think that if they're persistent enough, I'll crack eventually.

And when people aren't practically harassing me, they're staring at me. I feel like I'm on display everywhere I go. I start to dread walking the hallways to classes and stop going to the cafeteria all together after one day of it, and it just doesn't stop.

I almost consider not going to school myself, but I'm afraid that, if I do, it'll just be worse whenever I go back. However, I'm having a lot of trouble handling it. Quite frankly, everything that happened, is still happening, has taken a toll on me, too. And not only do I have to deal with everything at school, but I've also been spending as much time as I can with Taylor, trying to help him through this, having to be strong for both of us. My nerves keep wearing thinner and thinner, to the point I'm afraid they'll snap.

I don't think I'd have made it through the week if not for my friends. After the first couple days of people acting this way, Rowen, Archer, Jo and Lee make it their personal mission to fend off as much of the student body as they can. When any of them are with me, no one can even get close. I also know that they've been giving stern lectures to anyone who'll listen about privacy rights and being overly nosey, as well as the right way to treat a person who's gone through a stressful experience. I don't think I've ever appreciated them more in my life. Once they really get into their assumed roles, I notice a drastic decrease in this behavior. Hopefully, by the time Taylor makes it back to school, people will gotten the message and actually stay away from him. Well, I can hope, anyway.

I really hate all of it. I hate that everyone is like this at all. It's none of their business. I have no intention of telling the story (which, to be honest, I technically only know parts of, anyway) to anyone I haven't already told. And that list consists of Rowen, Archer, a brief overview for Jo and Lee, and the same for Lauren, because when she asked me, I couldn't bring myself not to at least outline the situation for her. I felt she deserved that much.

Either way, I'll make it through, somehow. Even at the worst points, something in me knows that. Hopefully, the novelty of it all will wear off soon, and I can deal with it until it does.

Other than that, I've been putting all the effort I have into supporting Taylor. Naturally, the ordeal has been far more difficult for him. I'm immensely relieved that he hasn't been in school, actually, because I don't know that he would be able to handle that level of attention right now. Especially not when it's all to do with what's happened. And I know that, however bad they are with me, they would have been even worse with him.

Somehow, we all make it through to the end of the week.

It's Friday afternoon, and I'm at Taylor's house, as has been the usual for most of the week. We're sitting together on the couch in the living room. That couch has become almost symbolic for us.

We're basically leaning on one another, hands clasped, and entwined as much as we can be and somehow facing each other. We've been doing a lot of cuddling, basically; not that that's completely out of the ordinary from the way we were around each other before, but lately, Taylor's really seemed to need the physical contact.

It's a nice feeling to be quite unconcerned about the possibility of being caught like this, though. It's so nice to know that his mother won't make such a scene if she walks in on us.

Most of our time together has been spent in silence, casual conversation, or the occasional moments of Taylor trying to untangle some of his thoughts and feelings a loud. Usually, the last is done with vague, confusing words that I have trouble following. I haven't asked Taylor about the whole situation or anything else that happened, since the day everything actually occurred, because I didn't want to pressure him.

However, I know a lot of what's been happening. I find out a lot from things his mother has told me directly, or to both of us when I'm there and she needs to tell Taylor something. Some of it's also from information Taylor has volunteered freely.

The police have officially decided to write it off as self-defense on Taylor's part, and have recommended that Taylor and his mother press charges against his father for assault. Last I knew, they haven't decided on that yet. But I think Taylor's mother, at least, wants to. And Taylor's father, although still in the hospital, has woken up from the coma and is expected to make a full recovery. What I don't know is what they're going to do when the man is actually released from the hospital.

Finally, I decide the suspense is too much for me. So, I break my policy of not directing conversations.

"What's going to happen with your dad?" I ask Taylor, careful to keep my voice entirely neutral.

Taylor sighs deeply, and at first, doesn't answer. I start to wonder if I shouldn't have asked.

Finally, however, he does speak.

"We got a restraining order on him," he says, his voice giving away no emotion. "He can't come near me or my mother anymore."

"Are you kicking him out of the house, then?" I ask, because I'm honestly somewhat confused as to how that's going to work.

Taylor shrugs slightly. "Yeah, I guess. My mother's planning to divorce him, now, too. And, well, she pays most of the bills anyway." Taylor smiles a wry, humorless smile. "And somehow, I doubt my mother will have a problem getting official custody of me."

I squeeze his hand a little, trying to offer silent comfort. I have no idea what to say.

Eventually, I settle on, "No, I guess not."

Taylor closes his eyes and presses his face into my shoulder. He stays like that for a long while. I can feel his chest rise and fall in time with his breathing. Everything feels quiet, muted, in the presence of our silence. After a while, I start noticing the little background noises. The sound of a clock ticking quietly. The humming of the refrigerator in the kitchen. The brief noise of a car driving by outside.

Without raising his head, Taylor begins to speak again. "It's…it's hard, you know? He heaves a sigh. I feel it as much as hear it. "He used to be so different."

I stay silent; somehow, I feel like this is something he's been wanting to talk about for a long time.

"I'm not just saying that, either," Taylor continues. "He used to…he used to really be a good person. He's always been a little strict, but he used to be supportive; he used to encourage me. He used to be able to laugh, and actually have fun… he used to really act like he loved us." Taylor's voice is breaking slightly, despite the effort I can hear that he's putting into controlling it.

"Then, a while ago…god, years ago, wasn't it? I don't know what happened, exactly. A lot of stuff, I guess. All I know is that he… he started changing. He and my mother started getting into fights about everything, even the stupidest things. He started drinking. Things just…fell apart, from there. I… I didn't want to accept it. I didn't want to accept that he'd become a different person. That he wasn't the person I knew, and he wasn't going to be that person again. That sort of stuff… it's hard to accept, you know? That's when I first started trying so hard, pushing myself to be such a model of perfection. I thought- I thought if I did that, did everything he wanted me to do, became the perfect son, I thought maybe… maybe things would get better, go back to the way they used to be. Then, I guess, that need I felt to be perfect, it grew into something like an obsession."

I wisely resist the urge to snort at that. Just maybe, do you think? But I do realize that now is absolutely not the time for that.

No, now is the time for me to simply be quiet and listen. So, that's what I continue to do.

"It became nearly all I thought about," Taylor continues, becoming quite engrossed with his narrative. I find myself wondering if he isn't realizing some of this for the first time himself. "But… I never told anybody, never let anyone see what I was doing to myself, because that was part of it, you know? I had to present that perfect image to everyone. If I let anyone see beyond that, then I wouldn't be perfect anymore. And then… really, you were what messed it all up." He looks up at me and attempts a weak smile, I presume to let me know that he's not being completely serious. Even from that small gesture, I feel like melting on the spot.

"I guess… all of this is why I kept fighting you, so many steps along the way," he continues slowly, as though working it out for himself as he speaks. "The worst part was when I realized I was falling for you in the first place. I… At first, I just couldn't accept the fact that I might seriously be developing romantic feelings for another boy. I think it was something in my nature I'd always tried to deny; liking…well, liking the same gender. For one thing, that definitely went against the image of perfection I was cultivating. So, I decided I simply couldn't let myself feel that way, but… Well, I found out first hand that it's really, really hard to control your own feelings. I could control my grades, my sports, my social life; everything on the outside. But not the stuff on the inside. Everything I was doing to myself had been building up on me for years, but that was when it all started really overwhelming me. I felt like I was losing control, slowly falling apart on the inside. And on top of it all, my home life was only getting worse. And that's when…well, that's when I snuck out one night to go for a walk, and that's where it gets to the part you already know."

My emotions are torn, after hearing all of that. One part of me wants to feel giddy, that's he's basically confessing his love for me all over again, but the other part of me somehow feels utterly horrible, for even unknowingly and unintentionally being the cause of so much agony for him.

I think he somehow senses this, because he abruptly looks up, directly into my eyes, and says very seriously, "Don't you dare feel guilty for anything. You've been absolutely the best thing that could have happened in my life. You have nothing to be guilty for."

I blink a couple of times, surprised. It's such an abrupt change from the introspective mood of his monologue. But, after a moment, he continues as though he'd never stopped, a far away look developing in his face.

"Half the reason I was falling apart so badly, to the point I somehow ended up in front of your car, was my feelings for you. So maybe now, you can imagine how utterly shocked I was when you came to the hospital, when I found out it had been you, of all people. And I felt so guilty, that I'd unintentionally put you through that ordeal… And for the first time, I just broke down, and actually admitted to what was really going through my head. Well, part of it, anyway; obviously I skipped the bit about you. But then I regained some presence of mind and realized what I'd done. And I freaked out a little, because I still was afraid of letting anyone see; I didn't want anyone to realize how messed up I really was. That's why I made you keep it to yourself."

"But… I still wanted to be closer to you. I just…had no idea how to do so. So, I was really happy that you approached me. It was the perfect opportunity. And I thought that maybe if I could just get closer to you, as a friend, then I wouldn't… I don't know. That I would be able to control my feelings. That maybe being friends with you would be enough. Or," The corner of his mouth turns up slightly. "maybe I just wanted some way to be closer to you. And… for a while, it was great. Problem was, or, well, I guess it turned out not to be a problem in the end, but spending more time with you only caused me to fall more in love with you."

It's very strange for me right now, because it's like Taylor's speaking to me, yet he's not. It's almost strange, how he's speaking so casually about being so in love with me. Especially from my perspective. I mean, I know Taylor loves me, or, I guess I do. I feel strange stating it as a fact when it's not my own feelings that I'm talking about. But, naturally, I tend to focus more on my feelings for him. I don't always think about it the other way around. Hearing him state it as a fact, so casually really makes me look at it that way, from his eyes, from his perspective, more than I probably ever have before.

"Then…" he continues, still with the same faraway gaze. "When I realized just how close we were getting, or, I guess, when I completely forgot myself and almost kissed you, I freaked out. Again. And once again, I acted stupidly. But then… after I saw you in the mall that time, when I was with Lauren, when you ran off, I-" he swallows, pausing before going further. "I realized that I couldn't stand the thought of losing you. Of being without you. I think- I think that was when I first really accepted that I was in love with you."

"And either way, I knew I was being unfair to Lauren, so I decided to break up with her. I agonized over it for the rest of the day before actually calling you, though. I was so nervous, and I was scared you'd just reject me. All things considered, I wouldn't have blamed you."

"The only way I ever would have rejected you would be if you hadn't broken up with Lauren," I inform him, rather matter-of-factly.

Abruptly, his expression loses the faraway gaze, and he really looks at me again. I think a part of him keeps forgetting that I'm really here. But not in a bad way, just in the sense that he's so caught up in what he's saying. "Do you mind me doing this?" he asks, as though the thought has just occurred to him. "Going back through everything like this?"

I look at him with an expression that probably clearly says I think he's nuts for even suggesting that, which I do. "Absolutely not," I reply immediately, sincerely. "Actually, I really appreciate it. It's clearing up a lot."

It's also very, very interesting, enlightening, and at times heart-warming, for me. I like being able to hear his side of everything that's happened between us. I wonder if he'll go through our entire relationship. I hope he does. I think I'd like him to do so. "If you want to keep going, please do."

"Um, okay then." He furrows his eyebrows, once again staring off into nothingness. "Where was I? Um… After we started dating? Right." He breaths in, picking up from where he'd lost track. "I know I went on a lot about wanting to live for myself and all, when we started dating. I really meant it, at the time. Or at least, I wanted to mean it. And honestly, when we did start dating, I felt freer than I had for a long, long time. I realized that I really did want to live for myself, not just for other people- for my father and what I thought he wanted. The first month or so after we officially became a couple was, quite honestly, probably the happiest time in my entire life.

"And you have no idea how much I still appreciate that. How much I appreciate you, and everything you've done for me." He's gone back to speaking directly to me. "I don't know if I say this often enough, but I really do love you. That hasn't changed at all." He squeezes my hand, for a very different reason than I did his earlier.

Ridiculously, his statement makes me want to burst into tears. Out of happiness, I think, or love, or just the sheer beauty of it.

"I hope you realize just how much I love you, too," I whisper, not quite sure I trust my voice at the moment.

By some unspoken choreography, our lips meet at the same instant for a brief, yet sweet, lingering kiss.

Taylor smiles slightly again, with a very sweet feeling to it. But, after a moment, his face clouds over, and he continues speaking again, pensively, "I guess…I guess the problem at that point was that only one of my problems had really been solved. I was still overexerting myself. I think that, no matter how much I protested whenever you brought it up, I did still realize I was in over my head. It's just…I didn't see anything I could do about it. And then… it was true what I told you; my dad lost his job, and things at home got worse than ever. Also, my mother started signing up for more and more business trips, since almost right after my dad started…changing, I guess. It had finally gotten to the point that she hadn't been home for more than a day or two for months before that." I spare a thought to hope that Taylor's mother really does make good on her promise to be here for Taylor, and stops leaving so often. He's trying to mask it, but I can tell it really did hurt him, her never being home.

"So, then," Taylor continues, becoming slightly monotonous, in what I'm guessing is an attempt to distance himself from his own words, "When my father started growing increasingly violent… I was the only one around for him to take it out on. Plus, I probably made the problem worse, because I'd started talking back to him, rather than just quietly accepting everything he said, like I had before. I guess that was stupid of me, because usually it wasn't even anything important."

"It's not stupid to stand up for yourself," I say, somewhat quietly. Taylor doesn't respond; I don't know if it's because he didn't hear me, or is pretending he didn't because he doesn't know what to say. I'd guess the latter.

"Then, it all started building up on me again, and, well… I guess that's why I started getting so moody with you. I think I was unintentionally taking some of it out on you. And, as you know, that kind of…exploded. Then, all that stuff happened with Archer, and then afterwards, well, you know that part, too."

He shivers slightly, and pauses again before going on. "Even…even after that, I couldn't… it feels so stupid, because I can see it so plainly now; that he'd changed too completely, and he was never- is never- going to go back to the way he was before. But I still just wasn't ready to accept that. I was still clinging so desperately to my sliver of hope; that he'd magically become who he used to be again someday. That, and- well, he's still my father. That's why I made you promise not to tell anyone. I see now how stupid that was, of course." He adds bitterly. With a slight shake of his head, he goes on, "I should have done things differently, I guess. I should have done a lot of things differently. But…" he sighs slightly, then looks straight into my eyes. "Do you want to know something?"

"What?" I respond obligingly, once I realize he's waiting for an answer.

"Whatever's happened, whatever has happened… I am glad I didn't kill him." Taylor says this words with absolutely sincerity, and his eyes search mine for something. Acceptance of his words, maybe; acceptance of his feelings. I hope he finds it, because I know it's there.

"Well, he's still your father," I say, shrugging slightly. No matter how much of a bastard he is… Wisely, I don't say that part aloud. Instead, I rub my thumb gently over the outer ridge of his hand, still in mine, in a gesture once again meant to pass on what comfort I can.

"And then…" Taylor speaks, as though he's going to continue his narrative, but then trails off.

I expect him to continue, but he doesn't. After a while- I'm not sure how long, exactly, because I've completely lost my sense of time- I realize what the reason might be. I suck in a breath, and have to force myself to breath out. He's almost gotten up to- he's at the part that, if I had to say, I probably wanted the most to hear.

Because I still don't fully understand why he broke up with me.

"Then, you told me you'd talk to your father," I lead on, hoping against hope that he'll keep going, tell me why. "And then you said he'd gotten better, and then…" And then he broke up with me. Unconsciously, I do find myself holding my breath.

An expression of almost agony crosses his features.

Immediately, I feel guilty for trying to push him, trying to push the topic. Maybe he's not ready to talk about this yet. We're getting into things that happened more recently; he might not have much emotional distance from them yet. I'm not even sure I do, to be perfectly honest.

"I'm sorry," I say softly. "You don't have to go on if you don't want to."

"No," Taylor shakes his head slightly. "No, it's just…" He looks away. "I… I really don't like this part. Because I…" He hesitates, but keeps going. "Because I lied. For the first time, I think, since we started dating, I felt like I was lying to everyone, even you. It felt like I was painting an image on, the same as before. And I didn't like being there again. But I couldn't see a way out, either." He looks back at me, but all he gets from me is a confused expression, because I have no idea what he's talking about.

He sighs, and then starts his explanation. "I… Well, I did talk to my dad, but…everything was so chaotic, in my thoughts, in my head, and I knew I'd never get him to understand, he'd just keep hurting me, and you said you'd do something if he did, and I still didn't want anything to happen to him, so… the only thing I thought would work was if I convinced him… that it hadn't been true. That I wasn't really gay. Then, I really did think things would get better. Once he got the new job and everything. I think he did believe me, although, well, he told me never to speak to you again. And, actually, he did technically get better; he stopped attacking me, verbally or physically… but that might have been partly due to the fact he seemed to entirely stop acknowledging my presence." Taylor's voice is wavering slightly."He acted like I- like I didn't even exist. And that was hard, too."

It's painful for me, to hear him, to see him like this. It's so easy for me to just hate his father, but it's clear that Taylor can't. And it's also clear that this and everything else has –and still is- really hurting him, too. I just hope that I'll be able to help him get through it. He's come a long ways in just the past week, but I think he still has a long way to go.

I'm impressed, and relieved, that he's been able to pull himself together as well as he has. And I think he will make it through this. Despite everything, and despite the fact I know others in my position, hearing the same story, might disagree, I think Taylor is a strong person.

"Still," Taylor goes right on, "I was prepared to leave things as they were, because it seemed like everything was working out the way I wanted it too. My father had backed off, and I was still with you. I figured I could just keep hiding it from him. But… well, for one, I hated the feeling of lying to everyone. I was lying to you, too, by not telling the whole truth. I was afraid you'd be hurt if I told you. If you knew that I'd lied about it, about us; and I felt so horrible for lying to my father about it in the first place." He returns his focus to the present, and adds, "I'm sorry, though. I still feel horrible. I hate lying to you. Or, I guess, living a lie when I'm with you." He shakes his head, then, looking pained. "But really, I guess I've been doing that all along, because I never was totally honest about my father."

I shake my own head, stopping him before he can sink any further into his unnecessary guilt. "Taylor, it's okay. You don't need to feel so guilty about it, seriously. I'm not mad at you. It doesn't bother me, not now. You've got nothing to feel guilty about." Then, I smile a little, adding, "Besides, you're telling me now, right?"

He gives me a half smile in return, and nods slightly, before sighing deeply and dropping his head to my shoulder again.

We lapse into a comfortable silence for an indeterminate amount of time. I really have no idea how long. Time seems to be blurring together, to me.

"So…" I begin, after at least a little while. I bite my lip slightly, feeling reluctant to ask, but still really wanting to know. "Is that…is that why you broke up with me?"

"What? No," Taylor lifts his head up, looking startled. "Well, I guess that didn't help, since I really did reach the point where I thought you'd be better off without me-"

"I sincerely hope you don't still think that. Because I don't agree, and I wasn't particularly." I'm reluctant to interrupt, but I felt like I had to. I don't want him thinking that way. I want to make sure that he doesn't.

"I'm so sorry," Taylor says, voice laced with more hints of guilt and pain. "I really hated putting you through that. I didn't- I didn't want to break up with you. It hurt me, too, especially seeing you, and seeing how much I was hurting you. But-" He's become increasingly worked up throughout this, and almost completely loses his tight control over emotion. Again, I feel guilty. I didn't mean to upset him more than he already has been.

"Taylor, it's okay," I say, when he doesn't speak again. "I forgive you. I've told you that. I mean it. It doesn't matter. I was just curious. You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."

I might go crazy wondering about it, but I don't want to put him through any more pain right now, not if I can help it.

Taylor pulls back somewhat, to face me directly, and he faces me with a long, unreadable look. Gently, a strange expression coloring his features, he brings his free hand up to my face, trailing it slowly down to my cheek.

The gesture feels slightly odd in comparison with the moment, and I'm confused. But something about it, and the way he's looking at me makes me feel strangely… cherished, I think, would be the closest word I could use to describe it.

"He-" Taylor begins again, his words slightly disjointed, not moving his hand or his gaze. "My father- He found out somehow that I was…well, I don't know if he knew I was still dating you, but I'd told him I'd- that I'd stay away from you from then on, and- he found out I wasn't doing it. He- we had a fight. A really bad one. Almost as bad as the one today, but I ran and locked myself in my room before he could get too physical. Still, he was pounding on my door, yelling through it –I was almost afraid he'd break it down, and then I have no idea what might've happened – and then he… he threatened to hurt you, Jackson. To- to kill you. He made it sound like he knew how to get to you, and, well, especially with how bad he's been lately, I was absolutely terrified he'd find a way to actually do it, and I wouldn't be able to stop him." Finally, Taylor's control does crack, and tears well up in his eyes. "If he… if anything happened to you because of me, I just- wouldn't be able to handle it. I thought it would be safer if I completely distanced myself from you, so he wouldn't have a reason to try it. So I…"

I look at him, feeling absolutely horrified. I knew his father was a pretty horrible man, but… this, what Taylor's just told me, is downright frightening.

"Taylor…" I say, after a moment, having no other words. I try to convey all my feelings to him, my feelings about all of this, about everything, through that one simple word, his name.

"Ironic, isn't it?" he comments, a horrible, bitter edge to his words. "I hurt you, so you wouldn't be hurt."

Somehow, that seems really, really sweet of him. He- he did it to protect me. And suddenly, I feel like everything has taken on a sudden, pure clarity.

I turn around almost completely and find a way to snuggle even closer to him, in a more comfortable position. He allows me to do so, without comment. Finally resting my head on his chest, I grab his arm and snake it around me.

Then, I look up backwards at him, smiling up at his gorgeous green eyes.

"Thank you," I say simply.

He looks at me for a moment, in complete surprise. Then, after a moment, he smiles. Really, truly smiles, with the most happiness I've seen in him since… I don't know when.

"You're welcome."


"Fuck, Jackson, I don't think I can do this."

I blink a few times with surprise. For one, Taylor doesn't use the word 'fuck' very often. For another, well, I was a little surprised when the first thing he did after he walked into the lunch room was find me and all but collapse on me. I happened to be standing up, and he just sort of draped his arms over my shoulders and went limp against me.

"Our, um-" I try to think of a good way to phrase it- "overly persistent classmates?" I ask him sympathetically. It's the first day Taylor's been in school since the incident, and unfortunately, people really have been hounding him. They aren't quite as bad as they were with me, thankfully, but unfortunately that's not saying much. This time, I, with the help of Rowen and Archer, have been the one trying to fend them off, but ewe can only do so much, and of all of us, only Rowen has a class with him during the day. Thankfully, Lauren picked up on what we're doing, and has been telling people off for us, and apparently has been a big help to him thus far in his other classes.

It's so horrible we have to do this. I really wish people would just leave him alone. He's been doing a lot better, but still, he's definitely been through enough. I'm sure we'll be able to get them to back off, like with me. Hopefully within a couple days. But, right now, it's still day one.

"Well, yes," Taylor's answer is muffled into my shoulder. "But not just that…"

Some girl sneaks up from behind us without either of us noticing. I nearly jump out of my skin when I hear her annoyingly high-pitched voice, almost right next to my ear.

"Omigod, Taylor, what was it like? Is your father dead? Hey, are the two of you, like, a couple again? Uh, what's-your-name, Jack? I heard you were there too-"

This is exactly what I've been talking about.

Taylor groans.

"Please, not now," I finally cut her off, a slight pleading note in my voice.

"Oh, right, ohmigod, I'm so sorry, I wasn't thinking, you must still feel horrible-" She began prattling once again.

I sigh in exasperation. "Please, I don't want to be rude, but could you just…go away now?"

She looks like she's about to apologize again, and really, I don't like being rude, but under the circumstances… I cut her off again before she can say another word.


Finally, she nods contritely, and with one last, "Sorry," she finally walks off.

Yes, that was what I had to deal with all last week. And Taylor as well, all day today.

"Can we please go somewhere else?" Taylor asks plaintively. He still hasn't moved. "Somewhere I can actually talk to you, without-" He weakly lifts one arm in a vague gesture indicating the cafeteria.

"This way," I say immediately, making him let go of me, just so I can steer him out of the cafeteria. He does so reluctantly.

I stop briefly to tell Rowen where we're going; I figure she can let everyone else know. Then, I lead Taylor to one of the practice rooms in the hallway leading to the music room.

They're supposed to be for students who want to practice with instruments or singing individually, but they also work well for people looking for isolation. They have transparent glass windows, so it's not as though people can't see you, but generally, no one bothers you while you're in one. And generally, an added bonus, no one except chorus or maybe band students would think to look for someone in one of them. So, hopefully, we won't be disturbed.

"Okay, so what's up?" I ask, once I've closed the door behind us. I lean against the wall next to me. He takes a seat on the piano bench, sitting backwards from the piano to face me.

I don't feel the need to add "besides the obvious." Evidently, there's something else bothering him. I'd picked up that much back in the cafeteria.

Taylor sighs deeply and leans forward, clasping his hand between his knees. He doesn't speak immediately, but I'm long since used to that, and wait patiently for him to start.

"I don't think I can do this," he says again, finally. I'm not sure I follow, but I trust that he'll explain his statement. And surely enough, after a pause, he does. "By 'this'… I mean all of this. This life." He shakes his head, slowly. "I really don't think I can keep it up anymore."

I'm not entirely surrised by this statement. More relieved than anything, actually. I don't think anyone is capable of keeping up a lifestyle like Taylor's; not without hurting themselves. I'm just glad he's admitting to it. I've been waiting a long time for him to talk about this.

"Finally," I breathe, accidentally saying it out loud.

Taylor faces me with a puzzled frown. "Finally?" He repeats.


"Sorry!" I apologize quickly. "I didn't mean to sound- um- I-"

"Nevermind," Taylor cuts me off, a half-smile forming on his lips. "Actually, I think I have an idea of what you meant. And, well… you're right. You've been right. I just-" he exhales loudly, looking down at his hands. " I just don't see how I can alter this lifestyle, without breaking a lot of commitments, letting a lot of people down, and generally… making myself feel horrible."

I sigh now myself, searching for the words to say before I actually speak. "Honestly… I think most people will understand if you drop some of your extracurriculars. As for other things in your life, a lot of it is really up to you, anyway."

"But… where would I start?" Taylor asks, looking at me helplessly.

"Um…" I think on that. Where would I start, in his position? Where should he start? What could he do to make life easier for himself?

"Maybe… you should start by prioritizing things in your life," I say finally. "Like, what's absolutely most important to you?"

"You," he answers, without a moment's hesitation.

I try to push aside how ridiculously happy that statement makes me feel and focus on the task at hand. Not easy.

"Okay, well, you have me," I tell him, pleased to note that his outward reaction to my words looks a lot like mine probably did at his. "What else? Out of, say, your school activities?"

"Um…" he bites his lip slightly and stares at the ceiling, brows knit in concentration. "Basketball. That's important to me. Track, too, because I like being active. I could start competing less in track, though, or stop altogether, because that part's not important to me."

I nod. "Good start, I guess. What about clubs?"

He thinks for a moment. "Drama. I have fun with that. I definitely want to stick with that. Civil Rights, too, because it's important to me. And, well, I am supposed to be president."

"You don't have to be," I say abruptly. He looks at me, surprised.

"Seriously," I continue. "Think about it. You could step down as president and still be involved, and it would be that much more off your shoulders."

"Yeah, but-" Taylor protests, looking less sure of the idea than even I honestly am.

"Is there anyone who could take that over?" I ask. Taylor thinks a moment, but eventually, he nods.

"Then why not?" I continue. "Do you really need to be the president?"

"I- I guess not." Taylor still looks somewhat startled. "I guess I never thought of that. Um- okay."

"So, anything else?" I ask, continuing past that.

"Chamber Singers, although that's not really a club… and before you say anything, no, it's not just because of you, I really do enjoy singing."

I actually had been about to say something, just to make sure, but that shut me up.

"You know, I actually don't really like band," he continues on his own. "I think mayb I'll drop that. I don't think they'd really miss me; band isn't really my strongest suit anyway. Then I have, um… mock trial, key club, pep club, French club… I guess none of them are that important to me, but-"

"Then drop them," I interrupt. He again looks startled at my statement. "If they're not important, drop them," I insist. "I told you, if you explain it to people, I really am sure they'll understand. Everyone knows what you put yourself through. And, are any of your other clubs important to you? Other than the ones you've already said?"

Taylor thinks a moment. "No, not really. Maybe photography club…"

"Then drop everything else," I say simply.

"But-" Taylor protests. "I can't just-"

"Yes you can," I interrupt him. "And I think you need to."

I also think he probably knows a lot of what I'm telling him, but won't actually do it unless someone tells him too, which is why I'm being so insistent.

"All right," he says at length. "But I really don't think I can quit NHS."

"That I understand," I concede. Cult that the National Honors Society is. "Speaking of which… school work. I know you run yourself to the ground academically, too."

Taylor looks at me as though I've grown a third head. Clichéd expression, but believe me, right now, it applies. "…I thought the importance of schoolwork was a given?" he says, making it almost a question.

"Is it important to you?" I ask him seriously. Because I, personally, am of the opinion that his well-being is more important than his schoolwork.

"Actually, it is." Taylor responds, surprising me a little. "I really, truthfully like school. Academically speaking. I like learning things."

"Okay," I concede to that as well. I'm actually rather impressed. I mean, I don't get terrible grade, but I definitely couldn't say that I really enjoy school. "But you do take really advanced classes," I point out. "Next week's the end of the semester, so it'd be pretty easy to change your schedule. Are there any classes that you could drop to a lower level in? Or drop entirely? Like, classes that are hard for you, or give a lot of homework? Or electives that you don't really need, that you could switch to something easier?"

"Math," Taylor says instantly. "I could switch to an average level math class. That's actually a really good idea." He stares off a little, thinking it over. "I have a horrible time in that class. And, hmm…" he pauses, still looking thoughtful. "I don't really like economics, either, I just took it because it seemed like a more worthwhile class than, say, chorus. Or at least, other people seemed to think so. But really, I think I'd rather be in chorus."

"So switch, then," I say. Then, I smile as a thought occurs to me. "Besides, if you switched to chorus that block, we'd have a class together."

"Oh, you're right!" Taylor exclaims, grinning right back. "I forgot abut that. Well, I'll definitely have to switch that one, now!"

I love that's it's become easier for him to smile again, lately. He's been coping and recovering, physically, mentally and emotionally, quite well, from what I've seen. And I see him an awful lot.

Just then, the bell rings to signal the end of lunch, telling us we have five minutes to get to class.

"Thank you so much, Jackson," Taylor says, the smile remaining on his face. "I know I haven't actually done any of it yet, but- just thinking about it kind of makes me feel better. God, my life is going to be easier!" He leans back as much as he can without falling, hands interlocked behind his head.

"Good," I respond. "This is really what I thought you should have done long ago." I frown slightly at first, then quickly change my mind and match his smile. "We'd better get going now, though, or we'll be late."

"Yeah…" Taylor says, but he seems distracted all of a sudden. An odd expression has appeared on his face.

Before I can ask him about it, before I even have time to think, Taylor's mouth is suddenly meeting mine.

He takes my own slightly parted lips as an invitation, and slips his tongue in as well.

Not that I mind. Far from it.

I think I'm losing my mind as he steps forward, wrapping his arms around me and deepening the kiss. I respond eagerly, absolutely forgetting for the moment that we're currently in school.

Thankfully (I suppose), he apparently hasn't. He's the one to finally pull away, with no little reluctance on either of our parts, before we can go any further.

"See you later," He whispers in my ear, before we fully part contact. Then, with a contented smile, he slowly draws away from me and makes his exit.

I watch his retreating figure for a few moments, feeling glued to the spot. I swear if they could, my insides would be melting. I wonder if maybe they are anyway.

I love him. So much. (Not just because he's good at kissing. Though, for the record, he definitely is).

And as I stand there, watching him walk down the corridor, I feel that, for the first time, I really don't have any lingering doubts or worries.

For once, I really feel like everything's going to be okay.

Maybe not everything's perfect, but…

As long as we have each other, maybe it doesn't have to be.