A/N: Got called in for work, so that's why the delay. Next in two weeks! Review replies: Fryvi: Yeah, I find Matt and his sister really cute together! Even when they're fighting :) You'll get your answer soon! rAywOLf sHibELt: Here it is! kyoselflove: Yes, Allen is a real sweetheart, and you'll see what happens... And thanks, I always mess that up! No problem! :) Guest: Thank you, that's very kind of you! I love hearing that people connect with the characters! 3

Trish focused, tongue in the corner of her mouth. I watched in horror as the scissors slid dangerously close, tilting away my head. "Please don't cut away my ear!"

"Have a little faith, will ya! I used to cut my brother's and Adam's hair like all the time, you haven't seen them walking about without ears have you?"

I hummed, squeezing my eyes shut as I felt the cool slip of the scissors again. Getting rid of my too-long hair was the finally step of what had turned into some kind of mini-makeover. I'd joined Trish on a last minute shopping trip to Glen, picking up a shirt for myself while she tried out sparkly eye shadow for her own New Year's Eve festivities or something. Her eyelids twinkling as she finally spun me around in her office chair, pulling strands of hair on either side of my head, making sure it was even. Declaring I was all done. "Well if you don't like it, at least now you can see your face."

I spun back with my eyes still shut. Slowly cracking an eye open to peek into the mirror. Looked pretty ok actually. My usual style only shorter. I removed the dry towel Trish had draped around my shoulders. Brushed away some stray clippings from the new dress shirt. Maybe I should've waited with putting it on. I scratched inside the itchy collar. Undid the top buttons. Dark green/almost black. And black jeans to go with it. My reflection in the mirror looked older. More like a college intern than a high school weirdo. I pulled the hair by my ears. Maybe it was a little short. I voiced my concern to Trish who shot me down immediately.

"It's not. When a guy can tuck his bangs behind his ear we're closing in on heavy metal territory, and let's face it, no hot guys ever emerged from there."

Well I could still almost tuck behind my ear so it wasn't that short, Trish was actually quite good at it. She drummed her fingers on my shoulders all excited. "When I'm done with you you'll look hot."

"I don't want 'hot', I just want to look nice." I mumbled, fidgeting with a tiny Ziploc bag I'd picked up at the mall. Trish looked at me knowingly. "She's getting to you isn't she?"

She got a small silver jar from her desk and opened it, scooping up a blob. Rubbing it between her palms. "And now some of this."

"Eeew, no" I tried to cover my hair with my hands. "No fucking styling products." I loaded the words with disdain.

"C'mon, just a little," Trish coaxed, prying away my hands. She combed her hands through my hair before smoothing it down. I patted my head suspiciously. Not that bad. My hair still felt dry, but it sort of stayed put. I wouldn't have to toss my bangs out of my eyes every five minutes.

"You do look hot though." Trish insisted as I returned to the tiny bag and changed the lip ring for a more discreet dark silver stud. Letting my sister dictate my life.

"You're not just saying that," I muttered.

"No, really you look like a rock star, like if I saw you at a party I'd be like 'who is this guy?'"

I smiled. "Didn't you say that's what you thought when we first met?"

She laughed. "Yeah, but it wore off pretty quickly." I made a face and Trish lit up.

"Pout a little for me and let me take a picture."

"Hell, no!" I ignored Trish's please, please, please this time. "I feel all objectified now."

"Sorry." She looked with me in the mirror. "I'm a fucking genius. Or actually just one thing."

She disappeared out of the room, returning with a blazer I assumed belonged to her older away-at-collage brother. "Perfect!" She exclaimed, as I obediently shrugged it on. "My work is done." I turned slowly in front of Trish floor-to-ceiling-length mirror, decorated with inspiring quotes and stickers. The blazer kinda loose around the shoulders, but then it was black, so no one would probably notice. Perfect? Not so sure. Definitely more like an intern. At like a creative advertising agency.

"You think she'll be pleased?" Trish asked, coming up behind me, arranging a tiara on her own head.

"Maybe." I pulled at my now significantly shorter bangs. Would take some time to get used to. "Maybe she won't notice."

Trish laughed. "Oh, she'll notice alright. Me thinks you're a little bit in love." I snorted.

"Yeah, you are. It's sneaking up on you, and bites you when you least expect it." She launched at me, jumping up to nibble at my neck, which considering her height was quite the feat. Girl gone vampire.

"Contain yourself please!" I tried swatting her away.

Trish just giggled, mushing her soft, round face against my back. Probably leaving glitter traces behind. Winding her arms around my waist. "Maybe I shouldn't have broken up with you." Warm muffled words between my shoulder blades.

"Now you're sorry." I laughed dryly, but turned around to return the hug still.

Lisa did look pleased as I got into the passenger seat. And she looked pretty nice herself. Pretty and nice. Her hair in shiny waves, her lips and cheeks rosy, a blue skirt peeking out from underneath her light-gray coat. I kissed her cheek quickly, eager to get going. She squeezed my hand before resuming her firm grip on the steering wheel speeding up. We were a little late. Houses flickering by outside the window as I listened with half-an-ear to her Christmas recap. Nothing out of the ordinary. My attention drifting away. To Allen. Always Allen. I traced the keypad of my phone in my pocket. I hadn't heard from him since Christmas Day. No talk. No text. Nothing. But now I was only a couple of minutes and I'd see him again. My stomach turning with anticipation and I forced a smile as Lisa looked over expectantly.

It turned out the Bradford's lived a couple of houses down the street from Allen. An imposing colonial style entrance. Lights in the garden. Not anything that could be thought of as tacky though, just bright white falling from the branches like droplets. As always on New Year's Eve it was freezing outside, Lisa's teeth started clattering just on the short walk from the car to the house. A cloud of warmth surrounding us as Will opened the door, a wall of chatter and music behind him.

"Welcome" he smiled. I imagined him opening a door to guests a New Year's Eve ten years ahead, smiling the same smile, looking exactly the same. Being exactly the same, because people didn't actually change much. They just grew older.

"Just leave your things in the hall closet," he said over his shoulder, disappearing into what I assumed to be the kitchen. "Almost everyone's already here." It was sure a big house, but not as big and open-plan as Allen's, and it seemed more of a home. A light yellow wall hanging. Little mementos on an ornate shelf. Everyday family pictures with the older brothers that had started the whole Bradford posse thing a couple of years ago. I unwrapped my scarf. Almost everyone. Did that mean Allen was already here? I eyed the jackets hanging neatly in a row. None of them his. But maybe he was wearing something else, it was cold. I shook my head, shook away my thoughts. Either he was here, or he wasn't. Nothing I could do about it.

"You're very pretty tonight," I told Lis waiting by my side. Words falling easily from my lips. She'd quickly shed her coat, revealing a dark blue dress and a tiny black fluffy cardigan over it.

"You look very nice too," she replied shyly. And we were still in the hidden in the hallway and it would've been the perfect time to do some pre-midnight kissing. Pretty clear Lis thought so, sneaking her hands underneath my blazer, but I felt too unfocused to do that kind of boyfriend duty. Instead I pecked her mouth quickly. Grabbed her hand in mine making my way. "Let's go join the others, right?"

"Of course," she said confused, almost tripping in her low heels trying to keep up.

Turned out my sister had been right. Dinner at the Bradford's was really teenagers playing adults. All the guys wore suits and shirts and all the girls were knee-length dresses and everyone laughed politely at each other's jokes. Laughter rising with ease like the bubbles in the champagne bottles waiting on the counter. They all seemed a bit more laid back than usual. Strange. Until I spotted two bowls of punch as well. With cutesy little signs. With and without alcohol of course. Hah. Too funny to imagine Will's uptight parents buying their teenage son champagne and rum or whatever . Maybe New Year's was like the one night it was ok to drink and be normal to them. I helped myself to a cup from the 'with' bowl. Gave Lis one of the 'without' ones. The punch sticky and sweet. Peach and passion fruit and way too little alcohol. Too little to have any calming effect.

I still thanked Julie in my mind for making me buy a shirt, making me cut my hair. I didn't feel that out of place among all the jackets and ties and hair gel. Or actually, I felt out of place but in a good way. I didn't want to feel in my place. Because this wasn't. And looking around, I quickly became clear that almost everyone didn't include Allen. Why wasn't he here? A knot quickly forming inside. Burning airplanes falling from the sky. I unnecessarily tossed my bangs. Tried to shake away the annoying thoughts again. Surveying the kitchen all warm oak and graphite surfaces. The adjoining dinner room had large arched windows overlooking a back garden decorated with even more lights. And a grand Christmas tree, looking like it had been kidnapped from Disneyland.

I fidgeted as Lis talked to Claire. Looking over at the hallway every other second. Stupid scenarios in my head. Like a plane would manage to get lost without anyone knowing these post 9/11 days. A shiver. I smiled distractedly as the others laughed. And it wasn't really planes missing I was worried about. Honestly. More the cold presence I had sensed behind Allen when I'd called. And the last days silence. And the fact that the collage applications were due tomorrow. It all added up in my head to greater cause for worry, even if that worry seemed set on manifesting itself as burning planes falling from the sky. I just wanted to see him. Know that he was ok. Still in one piece. Selfish. The word flickering past in my mind. Yeah, I was selfish. I wanted to see him also to get rid of my own phantom pains and pinches. Wanted to feel normal again.

I flinched as Lisa leaned in to whisper in my ear. So focused on any eventual movement in the hallway, I'd kinda forgotten she was still by my side. Her hand a foreign entity in mine. "You ok?"

"Sure," I nodded. My tongue strangely dry in my mouth. I looked over at the kitchen entrance again. I'd get a crick in my neck if I kept it up.

"Let's go sit down then," Lisa gently urged, and I noticed that people had started breaking up their mingling conversations, and were trickling into the living room and a grandly set table. When some said dinner I thought of like a meal. Here it apparently meant almost a buffet, bowls and pots and pans filled to the brim dotting the pristine white table cloth. No wonder Lisa had assured me I would find something to eat. Because this was a proper grown-up dinner, with candles and silver salt shakers and I didn't know shit about mortgages or insurance or college accommodation. The only reason I had come, hadn't even bothered showing up himself. Fuck. I swallowed to get rid of the sudden nausea. Followed Lis to one of the rounded corners of the table, sitting down next to her. Was it too late to decline the invitation?

I glanced over at Lis, placing a napkin in her lap with a fluid, self-assured motion. Feeling weirdly numb all of a sudden. Like I was looking at a complete stranger, a pretty girl who insisted on holding my hand in the hallway like she knew me. Like she cared. But if she actually knew, would she care? I shivered. Like it was her fault somehow. Her fault that she wasn't enough. That she wasn't the only reason. Because yeah, I really was such a perfect boyfriend myself. What did I know about her? What had I bothered finding out? Apart from that she was pretty in a nice way, kind in an often deliberate way, and that I liked running my hand through her shiny hair. Like she was one of my sister's dolls, and this was all a dress-up. Play pretend. Kids playing adults.

I grabbed the edge of the table, anxiety like waves crashing over me. 'It'll be fine', I repeated inwardly. Didn't really want to start breathing exercises in front of twenty or so people. I dug into the bowl of pasta salad and filled my plate. Passed on the bowl with shaking hands. Along with the bread basket. And a gold plate filled with actual prawns. And cheese and tomato sauce and stuffed olives and fucking sliced and marinated pears. Someone had been watching too many cooking shows. Or had parents with platinum cards and too many catering options. I wiped my hands on my jeans. Ok. Focus. I needed to 1. Get something more to drink. 2. Find out where the fuck Allen was. 3. Not freak out. Or maybe that was the main priority. Not freaking out.

"I'll just get something to drink," I mumbled to Lis as I got up, nodding to the lack of anything other than water bottles on the table. A flaw in Will's hosting skills.

"Great! Get me something too," Lis replied way too loudly, and twenty or so people looked up at me expectantly. "I'll just grab the whole thing," I motioned with my hands and thankfully some of the guys laughed. In a nice Bradford way of course. I purposefully rounded the table, making sure to pass Will on my way out.

"Hey, you heard anything from Allen?" I asked, all super casual. I he weren't going to show up, I'd just leave. Grab one of the champagne bottles and my jacket and just leave. Will chewed down his baguette.

"Uhm, yeah, his plane got delayed I think, snow storm or something like it." He smiled, tearing himself another piece of bread, "but he said he'd make it."

"When?" I prompted. Didn't want to sit in uncertainty any longer. I needed minutes to count. And not to the new year.

Will shrugged like it wasn't fucking vital and important information. "Ten maybe."

I nodded shortly, continuing my way to the kitchen. Ten maybe. Like two fucking hours. A fuckload of minutes. I glowered at the bowl. I'd need every drop of it. Or a bottle of whatever it was made with. I carefully, quietly opened the cupboards above. A bottle of peach liqeur staring back at me. Perfect.

I returned to the table with the 'with' and 'without' bowls, and the final time, with a glass of my own. With enough alcohol in it this time. I sat it down, sat myself down, feeling the corners of my mouth moving. Smiling at Lis. Serving her more of the punch. Nodding to some guy's remark about the snow. Smiling again as Lis replied. Chewed down pasta and tomato sauce. Stuffed equally stuffed olives into my mouth. Nodded. Words in line. Like soldiers. Unreflecting on command. Short and succinct. Yeah. Sure. True. That's interesting. Automatically entering the conversations at the right time. Along with another smile. The peach making everything pleasantly fuzzy. I'd gone into autopilot. Not even thinking. Numbers blinking by. My entire mind had turned into a clock counting down.

But the double zero on my internal display came and went without Allen himself actually arriving. And no one cared. No one else actually noticed. The plates was picked clean and then cleared away, replaced by an equally impressive selection of desserts. People circulating from the table to the couch to the kitchen and then back to the table again. Eating chocolate and snacks and dancing and throwing glitter at each other. Bland 70's music. I'd taken refuge beside one of the windows, looking out into the garden that mostly seemed to consist of trees you grew for their shape, not for their fruit. Would he even be here before midnight? Was there any point in coming after that? With my own countdown finished and failed, I tried to keep my eyes of the clock on the living room wall. Seven minutes past. Eleven minutes. Fifteen. I remembered now. I hated New Year's Eve. Everyone so excited about another year like any other. Another day like any other. That they all thought would be amazing. Sure. My tongue sticky with sugar and I tore myself away from my secluded corner. Deciding to risk social interaction for a glass of water.

Entering the kitchen I stopped dead in my tracks. Because there he was. I'd listened the entire evening for the sound of the door and I hadn't even heard it. Hadn't even noticed him arriving. Stupid. Like I had expected to feel it somehow. A shift in the energy. The pull. But there he was. Allen Allen Allen. Standing next to Will by the kitchen counter, animatedly describing something. Wearing a navy suit and a white shirt and like the fucking dork he was a dark gray bow tie. My fingers itching at the sight. Maybe it was all down to him being late, but he looked less put together than usual. His curls unruly, his fingers nervously drumming against his leg. His gaze flickering, his eyes seemingly darker as he looked up and noticed me. Half a smile, the dimple barely making an appearance, before it was gone, and he'd turned his attention back to Will again.

A blaze of heat inside me. Furious. No messages no calls nothing. And he knew. He knew uncertainty made me anxious and still. Hadn't been able to pick up his phone for five fucking minutes. Fucking infuriating. But I still wanted to talk to him. Would it be awkward? My feet had already started moving, making the decision for me. Awkward or not apparently I didn't care.

"So, then we make it over there just to be told we would have to wait another six hours, and getting the advice to find a hotel…" Allen shook his head, glancing over at me as I joined them. "Don't know what she told them to get us on board." Will of course laughed, but I kept my eyes fixated on the collar of his shirt, the stupid bow tie. Imagined for a second dipping my face into his neck and he'd smell nothing like cinnamon. But like freshly washed linen drying in the sun. Except I was furious and that was way too dangerous a thought to have in such a well-adjusted crowd.

Will beamed, sunny and oblivious. "Well, you're here now, I'll get you something to drink then! But not a drink right?"

"Right," Allen smiled, and Will laughed a little to heartily at his own joke, turning to the bottles and glasses on the counter.

"Hey," I pressed out through clenched teeth.

"Hey," He answered simply, holding my gaze for a second to long and it was all there to read on his open-wide face. Usually bright, the light was flickering, struggling. Barely there. He wasn't ok. He'd escaped all my what if's and plane crashes, he had returned, but still. He wasn't ok. I couldn't speak. No words. So many thoughts whirling by in my mind. But only things I couldn't say with people around. Or him around. Or myself around even. Thoughts belonging in dark corners and I really was pretty useless sometimes.

"You're late," I stated neutrally instead. The words sticking together. My mouth too dry and my palms too sweaty. Ironic. The fury quickly dissipating.

"Sorry 'bout that." Allen nodded, and I never wanted to hear him apologize for anything ever again.

"You're here now," I replied dryly, echoing Will's words instead. My own still lost.

"Yes he is," Will intervened, returning with a glass. He'd obviously been listening in on our forty-days-in-the-desert spars conversation. He handed the glass to Allen, eyeing me slightly concerned and felt grateful I hadn't let any words slip out. You sure you're not hungry? We still have…" Will started up again, and this was useless. I shoved my hands into my pockets and spun around. My chest so tightly pinched it felt like the room had no air. An unbreathable vacuum. Really fucking hard to breathe right now, and maybe this was the right time to leave? Maybe. But I could bring myself to.

Instead I found Lis beside a piano in what looked like another living room, or a music room, filled with stacks of notes and instrument boxes/bags. She and some other girls were enjoying themselves showing off. Exaggerated wailing to Whitney Houston songs. Or Maria Carey maybe. One of the guys plinking on the piano more enthusiastically that proficiently. Once again I thought of Carol singers. Or the end scene of a Christmas-themed made for TV movie. Spoiler: They all live happily ever after.

I sank down into a well-worn corduroy couch, and after the final 'baaaaby' Lis plonked down into my lap. "You wanna dance?" I stroked her shiny hair behind her ear pretending to be thinking about it. Correct answer: No, I'd rather dig my own grave in the frozen ground outside. With a fork. Made out of plastic. What I wanted to do was to leave, but I just couldn't. Not now when Allen was here. I thought longingly of the bottle in the cupboard. Should have drunk the lot when I had the chance. New Year's Resolution? Never attend another Bradford event. Ever.

"Not really," I finally answered. "Maybe you should go ask Claire for a dance?" Lisa asked somewhat slyly instead. What? Because yeah, if I didn't want to dance with my girlfriend, I'd sure love to with my arch nemesis. "Why should I do that?" I muttered. It was like she really wanted me to go find that plastic fork.

Lisa smiled like a kid caught with their hand in the cookie jar. "Because…because I want you to like each other, not like," here she giggled again, "like be friends. Sure she does too." I was pretty sure she didn't. I looked over to where Claire was standing, all smiles and sharp elbows. "Sure," I mumbled, "Just no dancing."

Lis giggled again leaning in. Her hair sweeping like a silk curtain over my shoulder.

"No dancing." She mimicked.

Her hand reaching out to touch my face, but I caught it mid-movement. Put it back onto her hip instead. Shifted so that she sat more on the couch than in my lap because it was uncomfortable and Claire was looking, people were looking and that was uncomfortable too. Embarrassing. Lis curled up against my side and I patted her arm absent-mindedly. Strange how you could be so surrounded by people, fucking wrapped up in them, and still be so completely alone. So completely out of my depth. Like an entirely different species, and I'd known that. And still I was here. Watching the over-the-top performances still going on. Feeling or maybe imagining feeling Allen moving around in kitchen. Nodding, smiling, listening. The slight shifts in energy. Knowing I should try and talk to him, but still opting for hiding. Turning on the autopilot again. Counting down another set of minutes. The minutes left to midnight this time.

Suddenly the piano playing stopped abruptly. Everybody on their feet and Lisa grabbed my hand excitedly pulling me with her.. A circle of friends forming on the floor. People grabbing their glasses or maybe just the glass that were closest Will clearing his throat. Starting up a speech of some kind. Something about how God was kind and they were all amazing and next year would be amazing or whatever. I didn't listen very carefully. Still searching searching. Getting up on my toes even. But still no Allen. Everyone raising their glasses for the countdown. "10, 9, 8," I looked around frantically. Lisa raising her glass obscuring my view. I realized my own hands were empty. "3, 2, 1. Happy New year!" The crowd shouting like one, clapping their hands and hooting and maybe I'd become deaf from the noise. Lis wrapping her arms around my neck, a damp glass against my cheek, murmuring 'Happy New Year' against my mouth and yeah, right. You were supposed to kiss at midnight.

I broke off, pulled her into a hug instead. Whispered 'happy new year' into her ear, just as the stereo started blaring the inescapable ABBA song. Scanned the toasting/twirling/cheek-kissing crowd over her shoulder. But no bright red hair. No one that counted. I let Lis slip away and twirl around herself. Toast and cheer with the other choir girls. Backing up against the wall to get out of everyone's way. Grabbing a glass of my own, downing it without thinking. Thoughts like bubbles. Didn't take the edge of how I was once again standing by myself. Not participating. Not socializing. Whatever. I needed some silence and fresh air. And a smoke. Soon Lis had was caught up in a glitter confetti fight with Courtney and I saw my chance. Yeah, I'd go smoke and that would be the last one. This year I would actually quit. I would quit smoking and start being nice to people who didn't really deserve it and actually grow up. I smiled to myself sneaking off, leaving the loud music and confetti clouds and gelled haircuts behind. Not bad for a New Year's resolution, and I was already on the way. Except for that socializing bit.

The hallway was thankfully quieter. Darker. I felt my way through the hall closet. My trusty lighter and a pack with three left the pocket of my jacket. Hmm. Three. I scowled at the thin white triplets. Would have preferred it to be one. Felt like such a waste throwing two away. Maybe I was three away from quitting then. One now and two for emergencies.

It was comparatively quiet outside. Distant fireworks illuminating the snowy roofs and treetops. Bursts of red and green and bright white. I opted out of just remaining on the front steps. Too conspicuous. Instead I trudge through the snow along the side of the house. Keeping close to the wall. Painted brick rough against my fingers. My footsteps not alone. A trail already curling into the back garden and I followed, rounding the corner. And there he was. Standing by himself, leaning against the wall, out of sight from the arched windows. Head low. Hands showed into pockets. No jacket. Maybe I should have been surprised. I wasn't. The pull. I had gone back into orbit.

He didn't seem very surprised either as I walked up to stand next to him. Leaned against the wall, flicking my lighter. A steady flame. Not a breeze disrupting the clear air. Thoughts rising like the string of bubbles in the champagne bottle. Questions. Why didn't I find you inside? What's the matter? Why haven't you called me?

"Well," I motioned to the cigarette in my hand, "What's your excuse then?"

Allen shrugged. "I tried to call my brother, but I guess everyone in the world's calling right now so…no reception." He smiled feebly, not taking his eyes off the ground.

"I'm gonna quit smoking seriously," I said, words like beads on a string, "Like a New Year's resolution, you know?"

"That's good," Allen nodded, almost solemnly. Fuck it.

"What's wrong?" I asked simply.

"Nothing's wrong," he even laughed a little as he said it.

"Allen." I said softly. Like all my previous questions were there in his name. His face crumbling, eyes squeezed shut and he pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. And if I'd been like him I would have said a thousand clever and caring things and made him feel a thousand times better, but I felt totally unable. Because I was. I couldn't take care of people, that was like a one-way street. People took care of me. Instead I just stood there, frozen to the spot, as Allen sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose and I already loathed that gesture.

"It's just-" Thank all the gods in all the heavens he was talking "It's just every New Year's Eve I think next year's going to be different. And then it's not."

"It will be this year," I said encouragingly, "I mean we'll graduate, you know, hopefully." I added, trying the joke route.

"Yeah, and then college, and it'll be exactly the same." Allen said, uncharacteristically morosely.

"Just tell them you don't want to go then." I said, giving the hard truths a go instead.

"It doesn't work that way," Allen smiled wryly, "You don't know how lucky you are with your mom… And I even if…I can't. I have to go do something. Become something. I can't be a failure at everything."

"You're not a failure." Allen shrugged again. Would he stop shrugging?

"You're not a failure!" I repeated more sternly. Like shouting sternly. "You'll do great, you just have two classes per day and you don't fucking need to graduate magna cum laude to get a job. And there's probably these varsity clubs or student organizations and you can like do art and photography or whatever you want in your free time and you'll move away from your parents so whatever, and you'll meet lots of interesting people." I thought of the imaginary ex-girlfriend again, but cooler. A collage version with sharp eyeliner and a band-shirt. "And you'll have this cute artsy girlfriend, and you'll go to the beach or whatever." I swallowed dryly, because I really didn't want to think about Allen sitting by the sea with someone else. Selfish. "And it'll be great."

"I don't want a girlfriend," Allen mumbled quietly, and I all but rolled my eyes. Fuck. This wasn't easy for me, cheering people up wasn't my forte, far from it. "Well you say that now, but-"

"No, Matthew." Allen interrupted, his voice suddenly loud and clear. "I don't ever want a girlfriend ever in my entire life. Don't you get it?" Pure desperation flashing by on his face, before he hid in his hands. "God." A dry sob. Because he'd cried about it so many times, there were no tears left. Just emptiness. And I got it. Finally. He didn't want a girlfriend. Didn't like girls. Like boys. Because he was gay. Moments blinking by in my mind. Him avoiding the girlfriend question. Him casually mentioning his lesbian friend with the cherry blossom tattoo. Him complementing Trish's outrageous hair accessories and bantering easily with Kat. Too easily. Because he gay. And girls didn't interest him at all.

And suddenly it was like I could feel the earth moving and I had to lean against the wall not to tumble over from the speed and the wind fresh on my face, But at the same time it was still quiet, the lights falling from the trees unswaying, the stars fixed on their places in the sky. Allen still silent next to me. And I had to say something.

"That's ok," I mumbled quietly. Allen just shook his head. "It's ok, it really is."

"It is what it is, it's not ok," Allen whispered, truly fucking hellbent on making me feel inadequate.

"To me it's ok," I tried again, "I don't fucking care, ok? Don't care at all."

"Thanks," Allen mumbled hoarsely, eyes still trained on the ground. Sure to me this time and age was all about being born that way and gay is okay or whatever, but seemed pretty clear it wasn't that way to him. And with that family. Yeah I got it. Being gay was probably a major failure all in itself. Wasn't sure what I could say that would help at all.

Of course I should have hugged him and laughed about how great it was that now I would have all the girls to myself and start questioning him about who the cutest guy in our year was. Or at least give him a platonic pat on the shoulder. But no. Still frozen. My hands trembling as I flicked of the cigarette now mostly a pillar of ashes. What did it mean? My thoughts tumbling around. What would it mean for us? Julie's smirk. A boy crush. Would we still be friends? Was it even possible? Or would it be too awkward? Not worth it? The feeling of balancing and this was the unknown and now I'd landed there whether I liked it or not. My insides pinching. I didn't like it. No, I did like it. Liked that he had told me. That I knew. And it would be ok. We would be. I shivered. No I didn't like it. Or whatever. I didn't fucking know. I was still stuck balancing on the fence.

But Allen pushed himself off the wall suddenly. Seemingly done with the sadness . Taking a deep breath he brushed away a stray tear from his cheek. "Can you tell?" He asked turning to me, circling his face. Maybe he looked a bit dewy, his eyelashes wet and dark, but nothing any of the Bradford would notice.

I shrugged. "No, you look normal."

A glint in Allen's eye and I realized what I'd said. "I mean…"

"No no, that's the look I'm going for so…" Allen smiled wryly and how could I not have known? He looking over to where our footprints rounded the corner. "Maybe we should get back inside…" He glanced over at me. "You…"

"I'll just finish," I said, even though there were basically nothing left of the cigarette I was smoking.

Allen nodded shortly. Turning around to walk away but stopping himself mid-movement. I didn't even have time to react. His hand warm cupping my face, his lips dry as he pressed a kiss to my temple.

"Happy New Year, Matthew," he mumbled against my cheek. One second he was there, and then he was gone. Just leaving me standing there. Still frozen. Pinching. Resisting. Watching him disappear around the corner. A burst of fireworks in the sky, closer this time. The garden flashing bright red and white. I let myself give in. Dropping the filter to the ground for Mrs. Bradford to find in the spring and sprinting after him, catching up. Latching on to him in a probably not very platonic way. Words tumbling out.

"You should've called me. You should've called me or texted me or something. Because you can tell me anything, I don't care." I gasped, out of breath even in such a short distance.

"I know, I wanted to," Allen stuttered, his words tumbling as well. "I just had to…I needed to keep it together, you know." He glanced over his shoulder, his hands forming a wall in front of him. And in that moment he did look weary-eyed and worn out. Like the wall was paper-thin and the struggle to keep it up was getting too much.

My hand remaining on his shoulder a couple of seconds before he opened the door and we stepped into a warm burst of confetti and music and laughter that had filled up the hallway again. My phone buzzing in my pocket as I was getting out of my jacket. I quickly pulled it out. Allen already ahead almost by the kitchen and I lunged forward, grabbing his wrist. Not caring about keeping things together if everything crashing and burning meant he stayed with me. "Don't go anywhere, I'll just…" I waved the phone close to my ear and Allen smiled. Not as bright as usual but still. "Ok."

I let his wrist slip from my fingers, and pressed to answer. Only crying at the other end. I checked the display. Julie.

"Hey, what's going on?" Another sob on the other end.

"Mischa," she sniveled. "Can you pick me up?"

"Where are you? What happened? You hurt?" I swiftly pulled my jacket from the hanger again, winding the scarf round my neck one-handed.

"No." Sniffle. "A little. I was just talking to Kyle and Stacie said I should leave and I forgot my mittens, the ones with the cherries on them, and I twisted my foot on the ledge and I just talked to him." She started crying again. I could basically smell the bear or whatever on her breath over the line. First time drunk. Guess she really was stepping it up. "I'm by Yorkshire Drive, like there's a sign right here. And my foot hurts." Her voice faltering, dissolving into tears.

"Don't go anywhere, I'll come get you." I tried assuring her. Except I didn't have a car and half a bottle of peach liqueur in me myself. Yeah, such a role model. "Ljuba, just stay there ok? Don't talk to anyone, don't get into any strange cars."

You think I'm five?" She sneered, still sobbing.

"Stay there." I ordered once more before hanging up. Yorkshire drive. A name I'd seen blurring by on a road sign. Wasn't that far from where Trish lived.

"What's happened? She ok?" Allen asked, interrupting the masked kidnappers already invading my mind. I pulled my hands through my hair.

"Yeah, no, sorry, I have to go pick up Julie, I'll ask-" I looked over to the living room and felt Allen's gaze following mine to where Lis was still busy scooping confetti down people's shirts. Looking like she had a perfectly good time without me. Great.

"I'll just have to go get her somehow." I repeated absent-mindedly. Trying to calculate how much water would be needed to water down my peach-fuzz y mind.

Allen pulled on his own coat, suddenly looking re-energized. A lot more like his usual self. "I'll drive you." I opened my mouth to protest, but didn't get the chance. "No, I'll drive you, I'm tired of this anyways." He nodded to the now dancing girls. "Go tell her. I'll get my car."

I nodded, like I wasn't unsure. Like my thoughts weren't running wild. But then, why would I act like I had to think it over? Of course I'd go with him. If it was awkward or weird, if I liked it or not, it never seemed to matter. Or maybe to me it mattered, but I still would end up acting like it didn't. I would still go with him.

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