Warning: Before you read any further, please note that this chapter contains a graphic depiction of non-consensual sex. If this offends or discomforts you, please do not read. If you can handle it, great, if not, than it's definitely in your best interest to stop reading here. I wouldn't want my story to cause any discomfort. Thanks, that's it!

A/N: Hey, guys! I'm pretty proud of this chapter - it's my longest installment to date. I have definitely overcome the writer's block, and updates will hopefully be more frequent. Sorry again for the epic failure of the last chapter. That was just, ugh - horrible. But hopefully it won't happen again. Anyways, you guys have been absolutely lovely in your reviews, and I want to personally thank you all again for being so supportive. It means the world to me. I hope you guys keep it up for this chapter, and maybe I'll see some new reviewers as well. I would mean a lot.

Review Replies:

big. break. and. laryngitis - Ah, yay! Another Adam lover! He is fucking sex on legs. And, continuing in my vein of shameless fangirlism, I totally wrote some Adam-inspired porn. It was just too tempting, I had to go there. Lol. Yay. And ugh yes there were a lot of mistakes. Thanks for pointing them out, I think I got them out. Thanks for reviewing!

Merks - Oh wow, thanks! If writer's block was anything tangible, it would be brutally murdered. It was so frustrating. I hated everything I wrote. But it's done, yay! Thanks again for reviewing, love.

Dramatizer - *giddy face* Thanks, dude! And yes, definitely an ass. But I think it's been effectively slaughtered, for now at least.

Cocaine Cowgirl - Hee, thanks, I thought so too. Thanks for reviewing!

Balliett - Hi! I am going to remind you that you are my favorite everytime I get the chance. So yeah, you're my favorite. *squeezes you* And your reviews always brighten my day too, so yay for that. Finals are a bitch, I'm sorry they were bringing you down! I still don't like that texting-bit. It just seems like filler space, y'know? I don't like it. Haha I shop at Hot Topic too! I actually applied for a job there. Apparently I don't look like I should work there (not emo enough? I dunno, it's totally lame and stereotypical) but I think it'll be fun. And YES, Barnes & Noble is the shiz. Ironically enough, I'm actually about to go there right now after I post this. :) Anywho, thank you as always for being epic amazing orgasmical reviewer. Love you!

I'm The Geek In The Pink - Hi there, new reviewer! *waves* I am thrilled to hear you like the story so far, and I hope this update is up to par. :) Thank you so much for reviewing!

13th Avenue - Another new reviewer! YES. Answers coming soon (-ish), love. And Ms. Greenbaum actually isn't based on a real person...I think she's more of an amalgam of people that I just sort of created unconsciously. She sort of reminds me of my old art teacher. Anyways, thanks so much for reviewing, and I hope you like the update. :)

cobraqueen17 - Most definitely. And this chapter only gets worse - worse as in more angst. But also some schmoopy fluffy stuff too. Thanks for reviewing!

Waxen bones, gossip lips, and a candled pose.

-- chapter nine --

"Spread your legs for me, baby, there we go, that's a good girl…"

Riley feels a drum beat pounding under his tongue. It begins in his heart as a meek thrum and festers to a blood-rippling pound, roaring in his ears. He can't see. There is a blurred edge to the black shape in front of him, like God took a giant eraser and smeared the edges. Pete is an etch-a-sketch. When Riley shakes his head real fast, he goes away, but he's back soon enough.

"Like a doll, Riley. So compliant. Watch, I can spread you like this—"

Pete takes Riley by his thighs and pushes, spreading his legs like a 'v', and then some. Riley arches against the metal caging his wrists behind his back, a low groan of effort in his throat, but the metal doesn't yield. His flesh slowly gives to a broken cobweb of mottled purple and thin red.

"Don't move."

Bruised knuckles collide with Riley's eye, and he flinches back into the wall, makes a sound in his throat like a kicked puppy that he hates but can't control. He clenches his jaw. His bottom lip looks like chipped red enamel from all the teeth. His vision falters and fluctuates, eyelashes clumped together by unconscious tears and the blood trickling from a cut along his hairline.

"Turn over."

Riley doesn't move. He is backhanded.

"You know I hate repeating myself."

Pete thinks Riley is so pretty like this. Naked and vulnerable and looking at him sometimes with the most tortured brown eyes, mouth like a bruised cherry, ribs pressing against thin white skin, slim thighs spread open, wrists crushed between his bony back and the wall. Pete drops to his knees and straddles Riley's lap. He strokes back a wispy lock of hair, mousy brown and fluid between his fingers. The action is a stark contrast to the pinch of fingers on his chin, and the words that filter through Riley's mind like spit and blood.

"Get on your fucking stomach, you little bitch, or I'll make sure your little boyfriend knows what a slut you really are."

Riley cringes at Pete's hot breath licking his cheek, but his eyes flash defiantly at the mention of Aaron, words like 'boyfriend' and 'slut' stringing together unpleasantly. He waits a second too long.

Pete flips him onto his stomach easily, arms twisted painfully behind him in an awkward angle, bones bent ways they don't belong.

"Now, I want you to beg for it."

Riley digs his forehead into the tiles, opening his eyes wide, letting water poison the whites of his eyes and burn them red. "No."

"I'll tell."

"What do you want me to say?" He hates the desperate note that lingers on the end, near hysterical, but always whispering.

"You know, Riley. Now say it."


Pete twists Riley's arm and Riley cries out in pain, unbidden tears flooding his eyes, pressure building from the cold tile imprinted in his cheek. He grinds his teeth and pulls at his joints, struggling, but Pete is strong and he is exhausted.

"I have photos you know," Pete whispers, naked chest stretched out heavy and languid and too comfortable on Riley's back, hot wet dirty whisper unfurling into Riley's ear like cigar smoke, licking at the shell like a flame. "Photos of you on your fucking back, legs stretched so wide I thought I might've split you in half, so open and wet and vulnerable for me. I've got ones of you on your knees, your bloody fucking knees with a dick shoved all the way down your pretty little throat. I have pictures of all your scars, baby."

That was the worst thing, Riley thought, the most degrading, when Pete used those pet names. It left something slick and invading in the pit of his stomach. Riley curls into the floor, angry desperate mean little sobs wracking his whole body. Pete can't see his face, but the tiny shivers and trembles erupting all over Riley's body, deep in bones and in shallow skin, are enough to elicit a wide, filthy smile. Pete leans back into his ear, combing back Riley's damp hair and biting his ear. "Now say it."

Pete can physically see Riley resigning himself, giving up, surrendering. "Pl-please fuck me." It is not a stable voice, it is one riding a delicate wave between here and gone.

Pete pushes bruises into Riley's hips and shoves himself inside. Blood is Riley's only preparation. Riley squeezes his eyes as tight as they'll go, but tears still manage to leak past his eyelashes, streaming down his face in pink rivers, whimpers hitching under his breath, struggling and struggling but it never does him any good at all.

James Lambert is many things. An athlete is not one of them. The only reason for him to even step foot in the gym would be to deliver paper work to a coach or occasionally to visit the Health department.

Coach DeValor is one of the political science teachers and the head swim coach, as well as the sponsor for the Young Democrats Club, one of James's many after-school programs, which he is also conveniently co-president of. Jack Van Herk is the other president, but he missed the day's meeting due to band practice. It's not that James dislikes Jack, he's just a bit scared of him. Not that Jack is scary. James is just scared of everyone, really. Jack is actually quite nice. Smart, definitely, one of those kids that never really has to try too hard, he just gets it. And he mostly lets James take the reins with the club. James secretly thinks it's because Jack feels bad for him, but he pretends that Jack is really just generous.

"Hey Lambert, I'm about to head out," DeValor mutters from her desk, voice muffled by the leaf of papers she has clutched between her teeth. She shuffles them carefully and looks up at James with a smile, who tugs at his hair nervously. "Would you mind taking these," she flips through a stack of yellow papers on a clipboard and removes three sheets, "to Coach McKinney for me? His office is in the boy's locker room. I would do it myself, but I hate going in there. The stench, you know." She nudges his arm with a laugh, and James offers a nervous smile and takes the papers.

"Yeah, absolutely," he says. "Um, see you tomorrow, I guess."

She grins at him as he passes through the door. "Stay out of trouble," she teases.

James blushes. She knows as well as he does that the most trouble he's ever gotten into was stealing a cup of coffee from the teacher's lounge. He was already in there filing scantrons for Ms. Greenbaum, and exhausted from an AP Bio test. It was just too tempting. A small part of him is proud of himself for his brief moment of rebellion.

Her room is located in the small cluster of classes beside the auxiliary gym, and Coach McKinney's office is with the Head of Athletics Department. He treads delicately down the stairs, hair hanging low, shadowing his face, and runs straight into a bulky figure as soon as he turns the corner. He stumbles back and catches himself before he can fall on his ass. The other guy is not so lucky, sprawled out on the landing between the two staircases.

James flips his hair back and his eyes widen when he sees who he's knocked into. Hunter McMillan. Hunter is actually only a few inches taller than James's already-impressive height, but he has the swagger to come across as confident and intimidating rather than gangly and awkward, as James tends to. Hunter wears his hear in a giant afro, and his style is an eclectic mix of skate hoodies and gold chains.

"I am so sorry," James practically gasps, offering his shaking hand. Hunter looks at it with eyebrows lost in his skull-print bandana, and James flinches, about to draw it back, before Hunter takes him by the forearm instead. James's bony wrist is swallowed by an enormous hand.

Hunter pulls himself up to his normal height, seemingly towering over James. James starts stuttering apologies, but Hunter just ignores him and bends to pick up the basketball he dropped. When he stands back up, he fixes James with a stare, and James can't decide if the stare is bored and hard or just lazy.

"Um, tryouts…?" He asks helplessly, gesturing at the basketball now tucked in the crook of Hunter's elbow.

Hunter doesn't answer. "You're James, right? Lambert or Lamb-boob or something, yeah?"

"Lambert," James affirms with trepidation, but Hunter ignores him again.

"Yeah man, your friends with Riley. He's my boy Aaron's pretty little thing, right? I know him. He's a shy little guy, but he's cool. He's a cool dude," Hunter grins, baring all his teeth, but there is something lazy in his eyes. James is not so well educated concerning drug knowledge, but he's pretty sure Hunter is high.

"I mean, like, Aaron, man, he be trippin', that boy's crazy ass is all over the place and he ain't even touch a joint and that's skill, man, I tell you right now, damn straight, and y'know what else, he pretty too, he's a pretty little thing, sexy ass gon' get raped one day and I might be one to do, you know what I'm sayin'? Hey, you pretty foxy too, James Lamb-boob, may I call you Jimmy? Nah, I don't like Jimmy, how about I call you Willy? Willy Wonka. I love that movie man, it's like a free acid trip, y'know? Yeah. Hey man, you lookin' a bit queasy, you gonna throw up on me? 'Cause these are new shoes."

James stares blankly, at a loss. He can't believe he thought Hunter McMillan was some sort of intimidating, scary enigma. He's just baked and too happy.

"I—I'm sorry, look, I have to go see Coach McKinney, but um, it was nice, uh, talking to you…"

He is poised to scuttle away when Hunter grabs his wrist, offering another wide, dopey grin. "Watch out for that McKinney though, Willy, or he'll grab your willy, ask you how much hair you got on your inch worm and then check for himself, 'm serious, man. Just watch your wiener. S'why I was always a little scared to try out for basketball 'cause I heard he'll just straight up grab your little willy if you don't protect it good. So protect your willy if you love it. Everyone should love their willy."

Hunter walks off, still talking to himself. James scrubs a hand over his face and blinks, dazed. He feels almost rebellious, as if talking to someone under the influence somehow reflects upon himself. Plus, Hunter is weirdly sexy, in a forbidden and secretive sort of way. If that makes sense. It doesn't. But James still smiles a little at the thought, and treads the rest of the steps to the boy's locker room.

The room is set up with rows and rows of lockers in cells, with the stretch of offices along the west side, and a little aisle as soon you turn in that leads to the bathroom stalls and shower blocks. Past the offices is another little block of showers that no one really uses. Too sketchy.

James knocks on McKinney's door and receives a gruff "Howdy." He steps inside, looking and feeling like some sort of nervous squirrel.

"Hello, Coach DeValor sent me with these," James offers, holding the papers for McKinney to take. Coach McKinney is too short and too white to be a basketball coach, but the team seems to adore him and his endless Southern charm.

"Thank you, sir. And son, would you mind turning on the lights to those showers behind there?" He points with a thick, silver-ringed finger. "It gets spooky-dark back there with the lights off. 'S creepy." McKinney gives a mock shudder for emphasis, and James laughs nervously, scratching the back of his neck.

"Yes, sir, sure."

"Thanks, son. Have a good night." He waves James out, and James obliges with a polite, "You too, sir."

James pushes open the swinging door. McKinney is right. It is spooky-dark. You have to pass under this dripping pipe over the door to even see the row of rusted sinks, and there's a single, gaping shower in the corner with a pole in the middle and shower heads rotated around the top. It's outdated, but that is not why most people avoid it. People have heard noises back here, a drip and hollowed scream. It smells dead. The light switch is inconveniently located after the wall of sinks by the second bathroom stall. James reaches for it and stifles a gasp.

There is a pair of legs sprawled beneath the crack of door.

He chokes on his own spit and breath, hacking coughs like he's trying to expel his own lungs, while staggering back from the body. His hand slaps to the wall, grabbing blindly for the light switch. The fluorescents crackle to life, silvery cobwebs fluttering from the spark of electricity. James strokes his neck, calming his breathing and reaches with a trembling hand for the latch on the door. It swings open slowly. He spies a figure slumped against the porcelain toilet, but the shape is too hidden in shadow to decipher. James scoots as close as his heart will allow.

It's Riley Harper.

"Gentlemen and lady, we have congregated in this here Denny's to discuss a matter requiring serious depth of thought and consideration."

"On with it, asshat."

"Asshat, what the fuck is that, who even says that?"

"Well obviously Spencer does, tweedle dum, or he wouldn't of said it."

"Spencer, Ty, Pixie Business, now is not the time for an altercation, my friends," The Ripper says calmly, hands clasped on the table between a stack of waffles and the Twizzlers that Jazz materialized from her magical purse of magic.

Pixie bounces in Jazz's lap, anxious, and The Ripper opens his mouth to continue, but Rusty interrupts.

"Is this about Riley?"

Everyone looks at him. Jazz raises an eyebrow and teases, "Woman's intuition?" This earns her a bite on the shoulder from Pixie.

"Yeah," The Ripper says, seriously, and Jazz shifts uncomfortably and asks, "What about him?"

"I'm just, I dunno, I'm worried, or something," The Ripper says, all silliness dissipated. Pixie slides off Jazz's lap and into the Ripper's, combing back his curls with small, careful fingers. The Ripper takes Pixie hands and squeezes.

"Yeah, man," Ty says, voice low like it gets when he's being serious for once. "Riley's all like, well y'know how he was, man, no need to say it, right, all shy and shit, always looking like the devil was on his ass, right, and then Aaron shows up like some sort of knight on a white horse and it's like boom, everything's good. 'S kinda sketch."

Pixie frowns. "So Aaron was actually nice to the poor kid – so what, what's wrong with that?"

The Ripper pulls Pixie's head onto his shoulder, but Pixie shoos him away, still frowning and continues, "I know Riley now, he's really sweet and innocent-like and he deserves Aaron, he deserves someone who'll take care of him and treat him right."

The Ripper studies Pixie with a fond little smile, and Rusty speaks up, "Besides, I'm sure Aaron has nothing but good intentions. He's a good kid."

Jazz remains mostly quiet as Spencer and Rusty bicker. Spencer voices that it's worth it to always be a little bit skeptical, just in case. It's not a matter of distrusting Aaron, it's just preparing for the worst. Rusty calls him pessimistic, and Spencer calls him impractical.

"You know, guys," Jazz says lowly, but in the way that everyone hushes so they can hear her. Her hair is tied in a messy, stringy red knot at the back of her head, and a pair of black-framed glasses sit perched on her nose. "I sort of knew Riley before Aaron even moved here. Not knew him, no one knew him, but I talked to him a few times." She looks up at the boys. Ty has his brow furrowed, Rusty is chewing on his bottom lip, Spencer still looks pissy, and Pixie has his head tucked in the shallow dip of the Ripper's collarbone.

"He had the saddest eyes I've ever seen," Jazz continues quietly. "I remember once, this one time in Chem, I just asked if he had an extra pen, I forgot mine, and he flinched when I reached for it." A muscle jumps in her jaw, and her knuckles whiten as she twists the handle on her coffee mug. "Like he thought…I don't know…" Her voice fades. "It was so sad. He just seemed real broken, y'know. And that sounds dumb or whatever, but you know what I mean," she says, and her fingers twist so hard that Rusty's afraid the handle might break.

"But guys, now, he's different. He smiles real smiles and looks you in the eye and accepts Aaron's hugs. I watch them sometimes, because I'm creepy like that, and they're really the cutest thing. Aaron's done him a world of good." Jazz cups her chin on her hand and smiles something private.

"But—" The Ripper can't help but add, helpless to his own worries. "I think something's hurting him. Riley, I mean. Something Aaron doesn't know about. He's still all bruised up all the time, y'know? And Spencer and Rusty, you said you found Riley in the locker room that one time, right, being beat up by Pete's little goons, right? They might still be doing that. Or worse." The Ripper swallows. "I'm just scared. Maybe it's stupid but I can't help but feel like there's still something we're missing."

"Well it's not Aaron whose hurting him," Pixie says confidently.

"Of course, Aaron would never do anything like that. Kid couldn't hurt a fly," Ty comments. "And I mean that in the best way possible, of course."

"No, our Aaron would never hurt Riley. Never."

"Oh my fucking god."

James is practically hyperventilating. He swallows giant gulps of air and his knees crumble and the blood drains from his cheeks like sand in an hourglass. He crawls forward as hesitantly as he dares, eyes unwillingly drinking in the sight of thin hips freckled with finger-shaped bruises and a skinny trickle of blood running jagged lines on the inside of Riley's thighs and scratches and teeth indentations of his chest, bruises like blueberry smears pushed between the spaces of Riley's ribs. There is a bracelet of welts and ripped flesh on his wrists, and bitemarks littering Riley's neck and collarbone like some sort of twisted, macabre necklace. Riley's face is a train wreck of crusted blood and violet. His eyes are shut, unconscious. James swallows hard and shuffles right up next to him on his knees, and carefully hooks an arm around Riley's chest, and his other arm beneath his knees, and tugs Riley out of the stall as gently as he can.

James leans on his heels and crawls backward, arms contorted uncomfortably in support of Riley's defunct body. He falls against the wall, arranging his limbs so that he can half-cradle Riley in his lap. He balances the boy's head on his thighs and gently uncurls his body, holding Riley by the small of his back.

He traces a finger along the seam of Riley's lips, which appear to be sewn together by threads of old blood. James rubs away the remnants and brushes sticky hair out off Riley's forehead, revealing a spiky gash, clotted with dark blood. James places two fingers beneath Riley's chin and searches for a pulse. His heart beats slowly, but it's there.

James chants Riley's name quietly, still stroking his hair. He thinks about leaving him here and finding help, but then remembers how Riley is so much like him, and would hate people finding him like this, vulnerable and beaten and filthy. James's blood churns just imagining the humiliation.

His eyes flit around the abandoned locker room, taking note of the lost messenger back pushed into the corner. Riley's. There is a scrap of black fabric lost beneath a sink, and a shoe. James looks back into Riley's face, taken aback when he sees a flutter of wet eyelashes and a bare, imperceptible movement of lips.

"Riley…Riley, can you hear me? Riley…"

His eyelashes flutter again. James trails a finger over the harsh cut of Riley's cheekbone. He is so frail. So disturbingly skinny.

James shifts his legs a bit, with hopes that the movement might provoke Riley into consciousness. It does. Riley's eyes flutter completely open. James is met with wet apathy and then nausea.

Riley turns weakly over, heaving himself from his stomach to his knees, and throws up.

It takes an hour to clean him up.

James wets a handful of paper towels and mops up the vomit (they would of left it for the janitors, but James has a feeling that even they refuse to come back here, which Riley confirms with a bitter, bitter nod.) Riley splashes water on his face from the only functioning sink, refusing to go to the nurse despite all of James's protests. There is blood everywhere, congealed in his hairline, in dried rivers on his thighs, crusted in the hollows of his face, his wrists, everywhere. Once most of the blood is gone, there is still scabs and bruises, evidence he can't wash away in a sink. But he doesn't cry anymore.

He has extra clothes in his bag (this isn't the first time, and he has learned.)

James drives him home, gnawing holes into his bottom lip and hastily wiping at his face, but Riley doesn't tell him anything. "Look, I'm sorry, is there anything—?

"No." And then he feels like an ungrateful brat, but he really, really just wants to be alone right now. Still, he adds, "Thanks, James. Seriously. I-I'll make it up to you, somehow, I promise."

James leaves and the walk to Riley's garage door feels long. He punches in the code to open the door, and limps his way inside, head on fire, bones and skin aching.

"Dad?" He calls out hesitantly after closing the door. The strap of his bag falls weakly through his fingers. "Dad…"

He is on the couch, sprawled out and asleep, re-runs of a baseball game on the television, and an empty brown bottle clutched in the crook of his arm.

Riley drags himself to his room, gathers his medical supplies in a hasty pile on his counter, and breaks another mirror.


"Aaron! And I told you not to call me that."

"Oh whatever, my fickle friend. It's a completely attractive nickname, girls dig it."

"I don't like girls."

"Oh yeah."

Aaron calls Patrick when he has a dilemma. Now he has a dilemma. Thus, the Patrick-calling.

"So what's wrong?"

Aaron sighs. "What do you mean, what's wrong, why would something be wrong?"

"Well I dunno, you only call me when something's wrong."

"That is so not true."


"Okay, so something is wrong."

"Alright, hold on, I have to get in my Dr. Phil pose. Or better yet, Oprah."

"You done yet?"

"It's a delicate process, hold on."

"What exactly does this process entail?"

"Shaving my head."


"Kidding, Ingleby, kidding. Now what is wrong."

Aaron huffs air out of his nose, eyeing the Riley scrapbook of stalk and doom. How do you tell your best friend that you've been offered three thousand dollars to break someone's heart? And that the someone is adorable and delicate and sweet and some other unknown force is already hurting him? How exactly does a person go about doing this? Because Aaron is clueless.

"My family needs money."

There is a long pause, and then Patrick says, "how much?"

"Patrick, I'm not asking you to give me money, you fuck. I already have a means to get the money, it's just – it's sort of immoral. And wrong. And sick. And—"

"Oh my god, are you a prostitute?"


"A drug dealer? A pimp? Dang, Aaron, what the fuck, why didn't you—"

"No, I am not a hooker or a drug dealer, Patrick—"

"So then you're a pimp?"

"No, I am not a pimp either. It's nothing like that, it's just. I don't know. I'm scared to say, you're gonna think I'm an evil sadistic freak, or spawn of the devil or something."

"Aaron, just tell me, you know I'd never think that."

Aaron feels an overwhelming wave of nostalgia for a moment. He watches Maddie playing in the yard on Aaron's creaky old scooter and hears Evan watching Scooby downstairs, and the sun is almost down so he knows his mom will be home soon with dinner, and he's surrounded by all these things and people that are precious and pure and good, and he's so dirty and bad and wrong. He can't see Jimmy's house from his position in the window though, and thank god.

"Patrick," he says, and feels a weird burning behind his eyes. "Patrick, it's bad."

Patrick is silent for a moment. "Is it – is it really serious?"

"Yeah," Aaron says sententiously, because he thinks if he says more he might choke.

"Aaron, c'mon, I've known you since you were a fat little kid, you can tell me anything—"


"Okay, okay fine, pleasantly doughy."

Aaron smiles and scrubs his fists into his eyes. "I was fucking adorable, and you know it."

He hears a laugh on the other end, and then a pause, and Patrick says, "So are you gonna tell me or not?"

Aaron chews the inside of his cheek. "Not, not now, okay? But I will. Just not right now. Is that okay?"

"Yeah of course, but you know you can—"

"I know, tell you anything, I was fat, blah blah, yeah."

"Okay, good. Because—"

A beep cuts him off for a second. Aaron pulls the phone away from his ear and eyes the screen, which flashes the message 'Call Waiting – Harper'. Riley!

"Hey, Patty, I gotta go, someone's on the other line, but I'll call you later, okay? Bye."

He presses 'flash'. "Riley?"

He hears a sniffle, and a watery "hey." Aaron's heart freezes.

"Riley, are you alright? What's wrong? Do you need me to come get you, where are you?"

"No, no, i-it's fine. I – um, it's just something happened, and I didn't really know who else to call, I'm sorry—"

"No, no, no, don't say sorry, this is good, this is progress, you should be able to trust me because we're friends now, right? Or hopefully more than friends, um, I mean I asked you to Homecoming and we had an adventure at the mall, so I'd say we are at least approaching more-than-friends territory, which is the goal. And now I'm babbling. And failing at subtlety, as usual. Wow, I'm just going to go die now, kay bye."

Riley is quiet for a while. "Are you done?"

"Very much so, my friend-approaching-more-than-friend."

Aaron can practically hear Riley's blush on the other end. It makes him smile. A giddy smile. A stupid, fat, giddy smile. "So what's up?"

"Oh, um. Nothing. It's probably not even a big deal, I really am not sure why I had to call you, so, um, I think I'll just go—"

"No, no, no, halt. Heel. You obviously had a reason for calling, so just tell me, please? My mom tells me I'm a good listener. I'll be good, I swear, just tell me."

"It's about my dad," Riley responds quietly after a few moments of quiet.

Aaron sits up straight in his bed. His dad? Riley never talks about his dad. Or his mom. Or family or self in general. It's always about Aaron, or those very safe topics. Music, pop culture, Harry Potter, those sorts of things. This is progress, and Aaron is excited, and also mildly terrified.

"Oh yeah? What about him?"

"Um, he's kind of an alcoholic."

And now Aaron's heart stops. Because the bruises? The sad-eyed lonely boy thing? That would all make so much more sense if Aaron's hopefully-wrong hunches were the truth. "Oh, fuck."

"No, it's not like – it's not bad, he's not bad, he's like my best friend in fact." And then there is a pause, an indrawn breath. Aaron thinks it's a little bit precious. "He just has a problem. But he's been getting help, y'know, going to AA meetings and doing the 12 steps and talking to his sponsor every day, and it's been really good." A hitch of breath, a hushed sigh.

"But wh-when I came home today, I saw him on the couch. Passed out. Clutching an empty bottle, and I just – I don't know, I'm being overdramatic as usual, but I just thought everything was going so well but now he's going backwards and it's just hard, I guess. I'm sorry, you don't care about any of this, I shouldn't of called, I'm going to go, okay—"

"No, no, Riley, please don't go. Stay, talk to me. Look, I'm really sorry, but maybe you just need to talk to him, y'know? It sounds to me like ya'll are pretty darn close…he's probably just under a lot of pressure or something. People can do some crazy shit when they're desperate." Aaron laughs nervously after he says this, bullet digging a deep hole into his chest cavity. That one hit a little too close to home.

"Yeah, I guess. Thank you. For um, listening. It was really sweet."

Aaron is glad they are on the phone, because he blushes at Riley's words and that's embarrassing. Aaron Ingleby does not blush, no sir.

"Yeah, it's no problem. You can always talk to me, y'know?"

"I know."


They sit in strangely comfortable silence for a moment, while Aaron works up the courage to ask what he will say next.

"Riley, I have a question. Or an offer, I guess. More like a favor, I don't know, but yeah Ty – you know Ty, right, freakish giraffe-tall, weird Jew-Hispanic mix, purple hoodie Ty – yeah, well he always has this huge Halloween party the night before Homecoming. It'll be next Friday, and I was wondering if you would like to come? With me. Like a date." He says this all in a jumbled rush, and then holds his breath.

"Oh, um, sure! I mean, yeah, that sounds really great, yeah." Aaron thinks he can hear that forced-casual note beneath Riley's voice, like he's trying to hide either embarrassing excitement or fear. Or both.

"Yay, really? I mean you don't have to if you don't want to, or we can always leave if it gets too crazy and you feel uncomfortable. Ty's parties are pretty much legendary, so I've heard, lots of illegal substances and sexual content to be had, and his house is fucking huge and he's got this butler called Mo and a pool and oh, Jack and Olive's new band are gonna play and they are fantastical and orgasmical, they're called Weeds. It's gonna be sick."

"Sounds fun," Riley laughs breathily, and Aaron bites down on his smile.

"Yay! Yay, okay. Yay. That makes me happy. Okay, well I have to go, I just heard the garage door open which means my mom is home which means food in my tummy. Do you need me to pick you up tomorrow?"

Riley says, "If it's not too much trouble." This is both absurd and strangely endearing.

"Of course it's not, silly goose."

"You are so queer."

"Queer I am."

"Bye, Aaron Ingleby."

"Bye, Riley Harper."

He clicks 'end call', and falls into his bed with a smile.

Riley lays back on his bed with the phone cradled by his head and watches the golden slip of sun melt beneath the horizon, leaving stars and violet in its wake. That 70's Show plays quietly in the background. Fez is hitting on Jackie again when Riley hears the quiet creak of a door opening. He turns. His father's silhouette stands hunched in the doorway.

"Hey, Ry." His father calls him this when he's nervous.

"Hi." Riley hates the tremor that tickles the greeting, and eyes the empty bottle still clutched protectively in his father's arm.

His dad obviously sees the glare, and sits carefully on the end of the bed, setting sun casting shadows on his face. He looks a lot like Riley now, with his lip drawn between his teeth, and his cheekbones hollow and doused in shadow. "I saw your mirror. It was um, old anyways. I'm having Dave come over tomorrow while you're at school to put up a new one."

Riley just stares, detached, eyes trained on Red and Kitty's argument but unfocused.

"It's root beer," Dad says quietly when the silence becomes too much for him to bear, handing Riley the bottle. Riley eyes it apathetically for a long moment before taking it, spinning it in his palm and reading the A&W label.

"I heard you on the phone," his dad continues. "I wasn't eavesdropping, I swear, just passing. Are you –" He coughs nervously. "Are you okay?"

Riley looks up at him, chin propped on his hand, and returns the bottle. He finally smiles into his palm. "Yeah, I'm fine. Thanks." He sighs with relief, closing his eyes. He knows he should of had more faith in his dad. He's stronger than he looks. "I'm sorry for overreacting."

Riley's dad kisses his head. "I'm sorry if I freaked you out. I'll buy the ones in the cans, next time, okay? Or maybe I'll just try to wane off soda all together."

Riley smiles again. "Goodnight, dad."

"Goodnight." He opens the door. "Oh and also, who were you talking to on the phone? A new friend?"

Riley's cheeks pink and he ducks his head, fingering his blue bedspread.

"A friend-approaching-more-than-friend." The sun lights his face at this angle, and he glows.