Categories > TV > Degrassi > Fighting Fishbowls

Chapter 3

by dreamalittle 0 reviews

Category: Degrassi - Rating: G - Genres:  - Published: 2014-01-19 - 12527 words

Fighting Fishbowls by baylop
TV » Degrassi Rated: M, English, Romance & Family, Zane P., Riley S., Words: 38k+, Favs: 48, Follows: 7, Published: Oct 28, 2011 Updated: Nov 18, 2011 22 Chapter 3: The Rock and the Tide

Note: Here's the last part. I think this is the kind of fic that could just go on and on, but I felt like I needed to end it somewhere. I hope you enjoyed it!

To pass the time (and to fill up the deep silence of the living room), Aunt Margo turns on the TV, letting A Christmas Story run in the background.

"Knowing my sister, it'll be a while," she says, sighing good-naturedly.

"How did she get here?" Zane asks. "I didn't see her car…"

"She took the bus," Uncle Paul says. "Two buses, actually. I suppose she was worried about Riley high-tailing it out of here after seeing her car."

"Well, there's no chance of that now," Zane mumbles.

"It'll be fine, dear," Aunt Margo reassures, reclining on the couch. "This is something they both need."

Zane nods solemnly.

Bull struggles to his feet and pulls a rawhide bone out from under the ottoman, settling down again to gnaw on it. After a few minutes of the three of them watching the TV, Uncle Paul ropes Zane into a game of chess, and Zane suspects that it's supposed to serve as a distraction of some sort.

Because this whole scene would almost be peaceful without the knowledge of the strained relationship carrying on in the kitchen—of Riley and his mother talking about…whatever it was that they were talking about.

And Zane doesn't know what to think, what to even feel, so he just wills his imagination to stop filling his head with improbable scenarios.

Riley can handle himself.

"You know," Uncle Paul says, smiling as he moves a knight on the board, "when Riley was a boy, he only liked checkers—never chess. But he eventually learned, and I'll tell you: he's pretty good at it too."

"I taught him how to play," Zane says faintly, thumbing one of his pawns.

"Did you now? And do you usually win against him when the two of you play?"

"Yes," Zane answers. "But he always beats me at checkers. Or…he always beat me at checkers, I guess. It's been a while."

He frowns because he's reminded that he and Riley haven't played any type of board game since Grade 12. It seems that so many of their memories together fall into either the "when we first dated" or the "after we got back together" category. And now, new memories will go into the "hey, we're trying this again…third time's the charm, right?" file. It's something that can't exactly be helped, but it does give him pause.

One that's easily noticed by Uncle Paul. "You alright there, son?"

"Yeah," Zane says, finally moving his pawn. "I was just…reminiscing."

"About what?"

"Lost time, I guess," Zane admits.

(He has no idea why he's said it aloud, and to a man he barely knows, of all people. Perhaps the stress of waiting is getting to him.)

Uncle Paul chuckles. "Ah. The past is an interesting place to be. It's good to reflect, but it's easy to get lost in it, too—I've certainly been there. And if you're not careful, you can get possessed by the things you can't change. They take over your life, and you stop living. You always have to press forward."

Whether Riley's uncle is actively trying to instill wisdom or simply reciting fortune cookie quotes, Zane nods, feeling slightly embarrassed.

(He never likes sounding like he doesn't have it completely together all of the time.)

The minutes drag on, a paper chain sequence of events. Bull chews his bone down to the midpoint. The clock above the fireplace ticks relentlessly, and it's the kind of sound that once Zane focuses on it, he can't get it out of his head. Aunt Margo continues to watch the television absentmindedly, as Ralphie steps out in his pink bunny pajamas. And finally, finally—just as Zane is about to check Uncle Paul's king, despite his brain being a bowl of alphabet soup—the kitchen door opens.

Zane waits a few seconds before looking up from the chess board, not wanting to seem too anxious…and also to prepare himself a little. For anything. Everything. But apparently, he takes a bit too long, because Riley softly calls his name and Zane snaps his head up, only to see Riley standing right above him.


Slowly, Riley crouches beside him, resting a hand over his thigh. And it's probably a little higher up than what's entirely appropriate for being around three relatives, but Zane doesn't shrug him off.

"Did it go okay?" Zane whispers.

"Yeah," Riley says, smiling a little wider and looking almost…relieved. "Everything's great."

Zane bites back a relentless stream of questions, because he doesn't want to pry. Not at the moment, not here—Riley will tell him later. In private.

(It's just how they are.)

"Riley," Mrs. Stavros calls from the doorway. "Is he…?"

Zane raises an eyebrow at him. "Now what?"

"I told her that you have every right to say no," Riley prefaces, leaning in, "but she uh, wants to speak to you too. If you're cool with it."


There's a part of him that wants to laugh at how stupidly dramatic and secretive this whole thing is turning out to be. There's another part—a vindictive part, he supposes—that wants to flat-out say no. And yet…Riley is still smiling, like a tremendous burden has vanished, like life couldn't get any better, and…

"Alright," Zane says dully, licking his lips. "Okay."

He feels himself stand and shift on his feet, walking past Bull and Riley's aunt and uncle. Feels himself step in front of Mrs. Stavros, brown eyes sizing up her inscrutable blue.

He takes a deep breath and holds her gaze. Tries not to waver. Tries not to seem like a child.

"Shall we?" Mrs. Stavros says impassively, summoning him in. Riley moves to follow, but she shakes her head and blocks his path.

"I want this to be alone, as well," she says simply.

"Oh," Riley says, sounding a little let down. "Sure thing."

"And don't you go listening at the door," she warns, almost wryly.

Riley stuffs his hands into his pockets and nods. "I'll just be waiting out here, then."

"Away from the door," she repeats.

"Yes ma'am."

(And Zane swears that Riley winks at him before Mrs. Stavros shuts the door with an unavoidable, creaky thud.)

Wordlessly, the two of them shuffle across the room, moving to sit at the kitchen table next to the window—the one that, Zane realizes, Mrs. Stavros was watching them out of earlier—and the whole thing doesn't get any less silly. There are two mugs of tea already set, neither of them fresh. Zane can tell which one was Riley's, judging by the two spilled drops next to it.

"I could pour you a cup, if you'd like," Mrs. Stavros offers.

"That's alright, I'm fine," Zane answers. "But thank you," he adds quickly, toying with the handle of Riley's mug. "So…Riley's had some season this year, hasn't he?" Zane starts, not really sure what Mrs. Stavros could possibly want to say to him alone and choosing the safest-possible topic.

Or so he thinks.

"Has he?" she asks, genuinely curious.

Zane shakes his head. Did she and Riley really spend over an hour talking and not discuss football at all? It's incomprehensible. "You…didn't catch a game this year? I'm pretty sure at least one of them aired up here."

(He tries to say it as politely as he can.)

"I've never watched one. I…things have been difficult." She makes a sound that almost passes for a sigh, and Zane's eyebrows shoot up into his head.

"The news, then," he tries. "Or highlights off the web…"

"No, I…"

She doesn't finish, setting her jaw, and it's then that Zane seriously doubts why Riley is out in the living room smiling away.

"Well," Zane says, "Just so you know, Riley's team, they've had three straight winning seasons. They've been invited to bowl games every year. Eastern won the one last year…and Riley will be flying off soon to start practicing for the third."

"Yes, he mentioned that he leaves tomorrow," she says.

Zane swallows, feeling like he's about to make a sales pitch, or something. "Your son is…an incredible athlete, Mrs. Stavros. Everything you could ever want in a QB. He works incredibly hard, and he's one of the best in the States. All the experts say it's practically a given that he'll be drafted. And that's…considering everything he's gone through, that's beyond phenomenal. Historic, even."

She slowly nods. Processing. The first silence settles between them, and Zane decides that he won't be the one to break it. She needs to talk. Because right now, he's trying to pull back layers that seem super glued together. A minute passes. Then two. The refrigerator hums. He won't give in. He'll wait as long as it takes. She asked him here. She—

"You had a birthday recently," Mrs. Stavros murmurs.

"What?" He searches for the words to answer her out-of-the-blue question. "Uh, yeah. December 3rd."

She turns her attention away from him, towards the window. "Yes. I remember because Riley had made a big deal that one year about needing to buy the perfect gift for…someone special."

She frowns as she says it, and Zane wonders if she'd known, then. About them being together.

Probably not.

"That was some time ago," Zane says softly.

"Yes. It was."

Another pause. Another silence.

And it wasn't always like this—soundless and tense. There was a time, a brief, good time, when he used to be able to hold a conversation with this woman. To talk about gardening tips over a dinner she cooked, or discuss the latest book he'd read during halftime, with Riley looking amused on the couch. Back when she knew him as Riley's friend. Back when he could still walk into the Stavros household as a welcome guest, and not feel her eyes on him constantly, spitefully, like he'd betrayed her trust. Like he was a problem to be dealt with. Erased.

She brings her hands away from her lap and rests them on the table. Folds them warily. "Riley mentioned that you both just got back in touch. That you're together again."


"And before that, he said that you were…involved…with other people."

"Other men," Zane clarifies, testing the waters with her a little.

She opens her mouth. Clamps it shut. "Other…yes. But you aren't seeing them anymore?"

"Not in the slightest."

"And you…when you were involved with them…intimately…you…you took care not to…you didn't…"

(He can see that she's coming from a position of motherly concern, and he can't really blame her for that. Having this kind of conversation with her doesn't particularly bother him, but he wonders if she's already grilled Riley over the same things. He can certainly picture him squirming.)

"Mrs. Stavros," he says, looking her dead straight in the eye with a tight smile, figuring that should work best, "I don't sleep around, and I don't sleep with people who sleep around. I do relationships. Exclusive relationships."

Her hands tighten in discomfort, like she has to fight against herself to force out her words. She breaks away from his gaze, peers down into her mug. "So you're always…safe, then? I've read that—"

"All of my partners get tested and I always use protection."

"I see."

More silence. Giant, engulfing silence, like a beast that sits between them. Entirely unwelcome, entirely necessary.

Finally, she looks back up at him. "You love my son."

It's not really a statement, but not quite a question either.

"More than anything," he answers.

She nods rapidly, as if she expected him to say that—as if she's resigned herself to it. "I don't know how much Riley told you about what happened with his father and myself…"

"He told me everything."

"Right. Of course he did," she mutters. "Then…I'd like you to know that I'm trying…to be supportive. I'm not where I want to be just yet, but I am trying, now." She pauses momentarily, seems almost uncertain. "Your parents, did they ever…have difficulties?"

"No. My parents never thought there was something wrong with me. And their love never wavered."

Not the right thing to say.




It's too harsh, too assumptive. It's throwing his entitlement in her face. And he figures that he's blown it with her. He thinks of Riley's disappointment. He waits for her to tell him off.

But all she does is laugh, a dry, humorless sound that makes him stiffen in his seat. "How fortunate for you. As for me…for a long time, it was easier to believe that if I just shut my son out—stopped talking to him, pretended not to care—that he would change. That I could make him change. And for a while, I actually thought it was working."

He shakes out of his shock that she hasn't bitten his head off yet. That she's being honest with him. "Well Riley…he likes pleasing people."

She nods. "Up to a certain degree. He can also be very stubborn, and stick to his ways."


They're close to easing some of the friction between them—chipping down walls—but once again, she looks away.

"I never imagined it would be like this," she says distantly, watching a bird hop on a branch outside the window.

She doesn't expand on that, but Zane can see that it's a struggle just to keep all of her thoughts together. Just to keep talking.

"My husband," she says quietly, "has not chosen to ruminate on things as much as I have. His hostility is gone, but he isn't at the point where he can approach my son, or even hear his voice. But I'm not the person I was years ago."

"So does that mean," Zane says carefully, "that you aren't telling people that Riley's pretending to be gay for the media attention, anymore?"

She visibly flinches.

(It's another risk, another chance for her to shut him out, but he has to know.)

"That wasn't something I perpetuated. My husband—"

"Well do you still endorse it, then?"

"No," she says, eyes brimming with something close to ignominy. "In recent months, I've taken it upon myself to correct that lie. And ever since, most of our family has…stopped fighting the truth. They're coming to terms with it, I suppose."

"And have you?"

"I'm trying," she repeats, slightly harsher. "My son is gay. I accept that. And I accept that you and he are…" she motions hastily with a hand, pointedly avoiding his gaze, "…fully intimate. Like you were before. But above all else, I want to be a part of my son's life again. He is more important to me than his choices."

Before Zane can object to her phrasing, she shakes her head, as if correcting herself. "How he is, I mean. How he was born."

She shifts a little in her seat before continuing. "And as for you…Riley never told me who he was dating, back then. Not at the start. But I saw a change in him, and I knew that she had to be special. And back then I was…really hoping it was a she. But apparently, things can't be that simple."

She pauses again, takes a long, quivering sip of her tea, and it's Zane's turn to look away for once. He has to direct his frustration and pity away from her. Center himself.

"I blamed you, for a long time. For everything," she says, voice nearly inaudible. "Truth be told, I was happy when I realized Riley had put an end to things with you. I thought everything would turn around." She folds her hands again, wrinkled and worn from age and years of scrubbing, and Zane decides to focus on them instead of her, because his irritation is only rising. "And then I saw my son's face. He was miserable, he was a shell, and that only made me blame you further."

She moves to take another drink of tea, but decides against it, setting down the mug and pushing it away, as if she recognizes she's only using it to stall for time. Zane's prepared for another silence from her (and frankly, would welcome it right about now), but it doesn't come.

"But I've reflected on things a great deal since then. And I've come to realize that the person I should've been blaming…was myself. So much could've been avoided if I'd done better in terms of my actions and my understanding."

Slowly, Zane locks eyes with her again. "It wasn't just you," he allows. "Riley and I, we both had our issues to sort out. Things that went beyond your discomfort. We had problems."

She shakes her head. "That's kind of you. But we both know I didn't help things in the slightest."

She leans forward, and it's then that Zane can see just how much she's aged in three years. Weary lines etched into her face, bags under her eyes. Light makeup, little pampering. A woman scarred with deep regret, down to the bone.

"When I was talking with Riley just now, we covered so much," she says. "And yet, for some reason, our conversation always seemed to steer back to you." She laughs slightly, a way to expel emotion more than anything else. "And I wasn't expecting that when I arrived here today. I wasn't prepared for you. Riley is…living for himself, now. If I were to ask him to stop seeing you, he wouldn't. I'm sure of it. So as it stands, it seems that you and he are a package deal. And as I mentioned, I want my son back. No matter the obstacle."

She says it so abstractedly, like the idea of them is still so completely overwhelming. And while her words do sting—what will it ever take for this woman to be pleased with him?—he can't get in the way of mother and son. His 18-year-old self would've been all for abruptly inserting himself, would've demanded complete recognition, but…

He isn't that boy anymore. He can see beyond himself, now.

"Mrs. Stavros," he says squarely, "I think that getting back on good terms with your son overrides…you don't have to embrace me with open arms right now, I can—"

"You misunderstand me," she says, a peculiar warmth to her tone. "I'm glad Riley has someone like you, and I sincerely hope that you stick around. For him. And I know that your opinion of me must not be favorable, right now. Because I was unfair to you. To both of you. But while my husband isn't ready to move forward, I am. And that's why I asked you here alone, to sit with me—because part of going forward, in my eyes, means making amends. I love my son, so much, but I'm also aware that he loves you hopelessly. You are…so incredibly important to him, I saw that every day in my own house and I didn't…I am sorry, Zane."

Something inside of his chest seizes up. And it's not her words; not entirely.

It's just…it occurs to him that she's never spoken his name until now.


"I'm going to continue working to accept and adjust," she murmurs. "I can't promise everything all at once. I still need my own time to sort through things, and I hope that you can understand. Though Riley…he says that you are…a patient person."

Zane smiles, his first full, bright smile since stepping into the kitchen. "I tend to be."

It takes her a moment, but she manages to smile as well, a tight, stiff stretch of lips that betrays the true, honeyed emotion in her eyes. "Well," she says quickly, pushing away from the table, "I think I've wrung enough drama out of this whole affair. At least for one day."

She stands with her purse and hastily turns away, towards the door, but not before gently pressing a hand against his back in what seems to be a fleeting attempt at a shoulder pat.

(He'll take it.)

When they both walk out into the living room, Riley is literally pacing by the sliding glass door to the backyard, and Bull has whittled his bone down to a mushy stub. Riley's aunt and uncle are the first to spot them, but Riley's the one who makes a scene, clambering over furniture while nearly tripping over his own feet, and then not knowing what to say, mouth gaping like a fish on land.

Finally, Riley gives him a shy smile. "Everything go alright?"

"Of course," Zane says, smiling back.

(It's still cryptic between them, but again, they'll talk about it later. When they're alone.)

There's a chance for things to get awkward in the room, but Mrs. Stavros loudly clears her throat. Everyone turns to face her, as if pulled by invisible strings.

"I think I've stayed long enough," she announces, folding her arms in front of her with an air of finality. "Riley, I'll be calling you soon."

"Delia, I could certainly drive you home," Uncle Paul offers. "There's no need for you to take the bus back…"

"I'm fine, Paul. But thank you. The ride should do me some good."

She walks away without another word, and no one goes to stop her. It's clear she needs to be alone.

But just as her hand grazes the doorknob, Riley takes a deep breath. "Ma…"

She spins back around, already looking drained. Letting herself look drained. A peeled onion trying to flee. "Yes, son?"

"You know…on New Year's, the MacPhersons and a few others are gonna get together for my bowl game, like they do every year," Riley begins hesitantly. "Aunt Margo and Uncle Paul even went last time…"

"And we'll be going again, Sporto—I've already put in a call to Pam," Uncle Paul says, clapping Riley on the back.

Riley nods at him appreciatively before refocusing his energy on his mother, systematically clenching and unclenching his hands. Seemingly battling the last of his nerves with her. The final shred of uncertainty. "So I was wondering…I mean, if you're not too busy and you wanted to…I could check with Anya. See about making room for one more. If…if you want."

And despite Riley's nonchalant tone, Zane knows that there's probably nothing else in the world that Riley would want more. Stepping beside him, he silently takes Riley's hand in his own. Intertwines their fingers and squeezes tightly.

Mrs. Stavros looks down at their hands.

"I suppose," she says slowly, blinking back up at them, eyes clear and nearly serene, "that if it wouldn't be an inconvenience, then…tell Anya I'll be there. To see you play."

"…Thanks Ma."

And Zane doesn't need to turn his head—he can hear the profound smile in Riley's voice.


He drives Riley to the airport at 5 a.m. on Christmas Day, stops at the curb, kills the engine. Looks over. Riley is half-asleep next to him, head lulling forward and eyelids fluttering.

"Hey," Zane says softly, rubbing his shoulder, "we're here."

Riley groans weakly and blinks a few times, opens his eyes fully. "I hate morning flights."

"You hate mornings. But c'mon. You can always sleep on the plane." Zane reaches around his own neck and takes off the simple necklace he's worn for years. The one he bought at a craft sale weeks after Thomas had broken up with him ("You crazy kid, go mack on someone your own age…"). The one he bought days before watching Riley Stavros—star Panther—rush into yoga class two minutes late, forced to set his (brand new) mat up at the front, right next to him. "This is for you, since I can't tag along," he says, taking Riley's hand and pressing the cold metal of the necklace into his palm. "I know it's not the same as having me around, but…Merry Christmas."

Riley gives him a sleepy grin. "And here I thought you'd grown out of the whole vanity thing," he jokes, the words a little slurred and sluggish. "But…thank you. For your gift, I—"

"It's fine, Riley," Zane says with a laugh. "I don't need anything else from you. Really."

As if to prove his point, he leans over and takes Riley's face in his hands, tugs him in for what's supposed to be a quick kiss but quickly spirals into something more—sweet and burning and spirited—something he wouldn't mind carrying on endlessly. Riley smiles into his mouth, fully awake now, and pulls back just a fraction.

"I was going to say," Riley murmurs determinedly, their lips occasionally brushing because they're still so close, "that for your present, you'll have to wait. Until January 1st, that is."

Zane thinks for a moment, and then shoves Riley lightly. "I don't need for you to win a game for—"

Riley crushes their lips back together, before pulling away just as quickly. Presses a kiss to his forehead, his temple, the tip of his nose, the spot under his jawline that always makes him shudder. "Just watch the game, okay? And enjoy."

"You know I will. But…stay focused. Keep your head clear. I don't want to become a distraction for you. Eastern would kill me ten times over."

"You've never stopped being a distraction," Riley acknowledges, flushing slightly. "But now I've gotten, like, years of experience dealing with you being in my head. I can manage. Don't worry, no one at Eastern's gonna have a reason to hate you—I wouldn't let them."

Zane shakes his head, bites his cheek. He knows his face must be just as flushed as Riley's—and it's like they're teenagers again, emotions running rampant like wild wildebeests. "How is it possible for me to keep loving you more?"

Riley smirks. "Well, if it makes you feel better, I don't think I could ever love you enough, so…"

Zane rolls his eyes. "Okay Romeo, you really have to go. I don't want you to miss your flight. You know how bad the holiday crowds can be."

Riley sighs over-dramatically and nods. "Fine. Anyways, I think security's giving us the side-eye over there for parking too long. I swear, it's like they always have it in for us…"

Zane laughs quietly, kisses Riley's cheek. "Go have fun in Orlando."

"I'll call you tonight. And I'll remind you of your upcoming present every day."


"New Year's. Don't forget!" Riley says cheerily, giving him a teasing wink before unbuckling his seatbelt. He puts on the necklace, centering it carefully before getting out of the car. And pulling out his bags from the back, he loiters on the sidewalk, waving goodbye in the dorky way he always has.

Zane smiles and holds up a hand, and watches Riley until he can't anymore, as he disappears through the entrance doors. And even though it's only temporary, Zane has never been very good with goodbyes.


"…and after Anya talked my ear off for over an hour, we had a holiday dinner, just the team and the staff," Riley says to him over the phone. "It was a feast. Coach Newman almost choked on a turkey bone, and Coach Gamby was totally ready to do the Heimlich on him. You should've seen it."

"So what, they load you guys up with dinner rolls and mashed potatoes and then they expect you to haul up out of your beds at 6 tomorrow for football practice?"

"Nah. Practice is in the afternoon. We're doing a thing at DisneyQuest in the morning…playing arcade games with some disadvantaged kids from the area."

"That should be fun," Zane says, stretching out on his bed. "Giving back, and all."

"Yeah, I'm really looking forward to it. Community stuff like that is one of the perks of playing, you know? But anyways, I'm glad to be back with everyone. I've missed these guys."

Zane can hear several boisterous voices in the background; the sounds of people passing by. Riley's talking to him in the hallway oddly enough, because it's far quieter than back in his hotel room, where several of his teammates have the TV cranked up.

"And me?" Zane asks teasingly. "Don't I get to be missed too?"

"Well obviously," Riley says softly, and Zane can almost picture Riley's coy smile and fidgeting hands. "I could never…I wish you were here right now. You'd love the...oh great, so much for privacy…hang on…yeah, very funny, all of you. Hilarious."

"Riley, who are you talking to?"

Zane overhears off-key singing in the background—by Riley's teammates, he supposes—and it sounds like a Beyoncé pop ballad that he isn't quite familiar with. He hears Riley telling them to knock it off, and the singing dies down, only to be replaced with loud laugher and even louder, ribbing voices. And finally, someone insistently asking for Riley's phone.

Riley sighs, the sound crackling through the receiver. "Zane, I'm sorry, but he's not gonna stop being a damn asshole until he gets to talk to you."

"Huh? Who's not going to—"

"Yeah…hello? Is this Zane?" a crisp voice asks, infused with the kind of swagger that top athletes seem to share.

"Uh…yes. May I ask who I'm speaking to?"

There's a pause, followed by a long whistle. "Damn dude, you're like, totally proper. Whoa. This is Marcus Williams. I'm—"

"—one of Eastern's star wide receivers. And Riley's roommate of three years," Zane says in recognition.

"So Riley's told you about me, has he? Cause I've heard a lot about you. You're Riley's boy, huh?"

Zane laughs slightly. "Yes. I'm his boy."

"And you're treating him right? Not messing with his head?"

"I certainly don't think so…"

"Yeah, well, you better not. You go to Eastern now, don't you?"

"I transferred, yes."

"Good. So I can get a real good look at you next semester and see whether you're—"

"Sorry about that," Riley cuts in, slightly huffy. He mumbles something away from the phone, and Zane can hear Marcus cracking up in the background. "These guys, they're just…"

"They're looking out for you. It's cute, actually."


"I should let you go," he says, glancing at the clock on his bedside table. "I'm sure you have curfew soon?"

"Yeah," Riley says reluctantly. "So again, January 1st, TSN—"

"Holy cow Riley, I'm not going to be doing anything else that day besides hanging out at Anya's and watching you play. Trust me."

"I was just checking…"

Zane laughs. "This is really important to you, isn't it?"

He can hear Riley give a long-suffering sigh.

"Just watch till the end and you'll see why."


Zane sits in the MacPherson's living room on New Year's Day, sandwiched between Anya and Peter on the couch…with Owen sitting right next to Anya. Because Anya had invited him.

(Riley had asked Zane to discreetly observe whether Owen was trying to "put the moves" on her, and idly Zane wonders if draping an arm over her shoulders constitutes anything more than simple, friendly behavior.)

Meanwhile, Pam and Harold are curled together on the love seat, and Riley's aunt and uncle sit closest to the array of snacks that Zane won't touch. Can't touch.

(Riley's games will always make him too nervous to eat, apparently.)

Over by the window, Athena is perched next to Mrs. Stavros, who only looks marginally uncomfortable and out-of-place. Zane is glad for both of their presences—for Mrs. Stavros making the effort to support her son and for Athena just being around, murmuring excitedly to the older woman. Hailing from a traditional family herself, Athena seems to know just how to ease Mrs. Stavros into things. It will take time to reach anything approaching normalcy in the Stavros household, but it'll happen. Zane is sure of it. After all, he already considers it progress that Mrs. Stavros is here with the rest of them, ready to cheer Riley on.

It's a start, Zane thinks as the game begins. A good start.

Anya is loud as Eastern scores a touchdown early in the first quarter, and so are her parents, who holler and jump up as if they're in the stands of the Citrus Bowl stadium and not on a green leather couch in Toronto. At the half, Eastern is so far ahead and has already broken a record or two that Peter elbows him.

"So is Riley really dedicating this game to you, dude?"

"Who told you that?"

"I did," Anya admits. "It's like, all Riley's been talking about these last few days. And isn't it romantic Peter?"

"I…guess. At least it explains why he's playing so well," Peter says. He leans in and grins. "For a second there, I thought Riley was back on the 'roids again," he whispers.

Owen's eyes widen and Anya shoots Peter a nasty glare, hiking her foot over Zane to kick Peter's shin.

"Ouch, hey, it was a joke—"

"A bad one," Anya says through gritted teeth. "Riley stopped with that stuff after beating the snot out of Sav. You know that."

Peter sheepishly apologizes, Anya nods, and Zane shakes his head at the childlike behavior he's surrounded by.

In the third quarter, the announcers try to talk up the other team like they can still rally from behind ("They need to tighten that defense! Play smart. Stay collected!"), but it's really no use. Riley makes a clean pass to Marcus who zips down the field, and it's yet another touchdown for Eastern.

And by the fourth, the game's conclusion looks inevitable, especially after Riley throws for his fifth touchdown. So much so that Owen starts talking about the Rose Bowl coming up instead, and Peter wonders aloud the type of "bowl game swag" Riley will return with.

"A Best Buy gift card, I'm sure. Not like that's a bad thing," Athena says thoughtfully.

Zane turns his attention to Mrs. Stavros during a commercial break, because for the entire matchup, she hasn't said a word, hasn't really taken her eyes off the screen. Hasn't done more than nod as Athena's made observations next to her, or Riley's aunt and uncle have brought up how well Riley's doing.

He keeps eyeing her, taking in her stone-faced expression, and as if Mrs. Stavros feels the heat of his gaze, she turns to look at him suddenly. His cheeks burn, startled and embarrassed at being caught spying, and after a moment, she smiles at him, just barely. In amusement. In understanding. And he smiles back, until Owen accidentally steps on his foot after swiping a second helping of chicken wings from the kitchen, and then the moment's broken.

With only a few minutes left in the game, the on-air commentary switches into reflection mode, the announcers talking about what the win means for Eastern's future, singling out the key players, and when it comes to Riley, throwing out words like "exceptional" and "career-defining". Meanwhile in the living room, the conversation switches again—into a (loud) squabbling match between Anya, Peter, and Owen. About how Riley will, like, totally be named MVP, and how, yeah, Riley was awesome ("Playing for love!" Anya coos), but how he'll absolutely be returning for his senior year at Eastern, stupid, and not enter the draft early.

"Forgive him for wanting to get a degree," Anya says irritably, arms folded.

"Yeah, in freaking sociology," Peter dismisses. "Why bother when he can go into the draft now? We're talking potential millions here."

"Oh I'm sorry, I was under the impression that school was for getting an education, not a spring board for going pro early."

Owen rubs her shoulder. "Anya, baby, look, Peter's right, it's—"

"Baby? Baby? Excuse me, but I haven't been your baby in a long time."

"Okay, just…sorry," Owen backpedals, looking slightly wounded. "But hear me out. If Riley goes another year at Eastern, it's a big risk. He could get injured so bad it ends his season. Or he could completely bomb. And it'll drop his draft status, which means less money."

"Or no money, if he doesn't get drafted at all, and no one takes him as a free agent," Peter adds. "But then there's always the CFL, so..."

Owen makes a gagging sound.

Peter shoots him an angry look. "Dude, I'm all for speaking your mind, but this is where I draw the line. So don't even go there."

"Or," Anya challenges, trying to corral the guys back to the topic at hand, "Riley could take his last year and do even better, get ranked even higher…"

"But have you read the reports?" Peter asks.

Owen nods. "If he enters now, he's got a great shot at being an early round pick. Why screw that up?"

"Well gentlemen, I hate to burst both of your NFL bubbles, but Riley already told me he's staying for another year," Anya says triumphantly. "He's gonna make the media announcement in a few days with some of the other guys on the team. Right, Zane?"

Everyone, including the adults, whip their heads around to face him. "That's what he tells me," Zane says after a beat.

"Seriously?" Peter asks dubiously.

"That's stupid," Owen says.

Zane shrugs at them calmly. "I think it shows commitment. And it's Riley's decision."

"Yeah," Owen mutters, "to get another year to frolic with you in the fields at Eastern."

Anya narrows her eyes. "What was that?"

Owen looks back at her unapologetically, and Peter snickers while Zane sighs and smiles distantly. Anya opens her mouth again, ready to start another round of arguing, when Athena tells them all to hush, because it's over and Riley's been named as the player of the game.

It's a 40-15 win.

The teams walk across the field, sharing or accepting congratulations from each other. Coach Gamby talks with the opposing head coach, as the Eastern band plays proudly in the background. The camera zooms in on Riley, who gets a hearty slap on the back from Marcus and Cal. By now, Zane knows most of them—Mac jumping, fists pumped, Noah hollering, Tyson barreling into Elliot. There are the pranksters, the jokers, the diligent students and the party animals, the stoics and the mama's boys. The committed boyfriends and the skirt chasers.

Riley cheers with all of them, but quickly jogs over to Coach Gamby, who latches onto him and doesn't let go, even as the reporters start swarming in. Coach Gamby is asked to quickly say a little about Eastern's success, and the older man carries on in a thick Southern drawl for a few sentences before insisting that Riley talk. Riley seems to look around before zeroing in on a particular news reporter and camera—the one that Zane and the rest are watching from home. The camera focuses in on his face as he speaks, talking about his performance. And there's a point where Riley's expression shifts from tired pride to something softer—a tender smile, eyes twinkling—as he talks about the important people in his life that motivate him to work his hardest, to always strive to be better, the ones who never stop believing in him, and…

Zane's mouth drops. A warmth spreads over him.

It's like Riley's speaking directly to him, as ridiculous as that sounds. Except, it's not. Because Zane realizes that this was Riley's present all along—not winning the game, not a stellar performance, but a look on camera, one meant just for him. Their own little moment, miles apart, like a secret between them in the face of oblivious fans. Anya picks up on it too, nudges him knowingly, and he pulls his knees up to his chest, burying his head and his disbelieving smile. Mrs. Stavros gives them both a curious look across the room before turning back to the screen.

It's not some grand proclamation of undying love, or an announcement of their relationship—and Zane doesn't need that, doesn't want it—for a variety of reasons. There'll be time for Riley to be hounded by the press down the road, people will find out eventually, and it's just the price to pay for being in the spotlight. But for now, seeing Riley talk through to him, and knowing that he's doing it…it's everything.

It's a gift.


"So you really don't want to come, Zane?" his roommate Daniel asks, bundling up in a second coat. "It's gonna be me, Trisha, Alex, Paul, Steph…class starts in two days and—"

"I already have plans," Zane answers with a smile. "But go have fun."

Daniel chuckles a little. "You sure you're okay, dude? You've been acting kinda weird lately, taking off—what's with all the solitary gallivanting?"

Zane shifts in his chair. Scratches behind his ear. Barely hesitates. "I'm…actually dating someone. And we're gonna check out that new exhibit at Trillium Square."

"Really? So is this someone as crazy about art as you are?" Daniel tuts, slipping on his shoes.

Zane smiles, mostly to himself. "No. He uh, sort of tolerates it for my sake."

"Well, if he puts up with art, then he must be really into you. So why haven't I met him yet?"

There's a knock at the door, which is already open a crack. Daniel makes a face at him as if to ask, Is this the guy?, and Zane nods quickly. Prepares for the inevitable. Riley pokes his head in, and seems a little surprised to see Daniel, but brushes it off well enough.

Daniel, however, gasps audibly at the sight of him.

"Hey," Riley greets softly at the both of them, shuffling in and dusting the snowflakes out of his hair. "Some girl named Trisha in the lobby let me in."

"That's my girlfriend. You met my g-girlfriend," Daniel stammers, eyes wide and fixed on Riley.

"The weather's still that bad outside?" Zane asks, trying to ignore Daniel's spazzing.

"It's manageable. The roads are still decent, at least—we should be fine," Riley says. He looks over at Daniel. "So you're the roommate, right? Nice to meet you."

Daniel blinks at him. "Yeah, I'm Dan. And you're…uh…you're…"

"I'm Riley—"

"I know who you are," Daniel rushes. He glances back at Zane. "You're dating him? Him?"

"Yes," Zane says brightly.

"Holy shit," Daniel breathes, bringing a hand up to his forehead, "I gotta tell Trisha and Steph and—wait, is this supposed to be some big secret, or…"

Riley doesn't say anything, looks over at the wall, like Daniel's posters are somehow fascinating all of a sudden, so Zane answers. "It's not a secret," Zane says loudly, momentarily stifling his frustration at Riley's silence. "But anyways, you know how Trisha hates to be kept waiting, so…"

"Right," Daniel says. "Okay. So I'll uh…see you two later and uh," Daniel pauses, hanging in the doorway, "Riley, man, I just gotta say, it's awesome you're sticking with us for another year. We're gonna slaughter it in the fall. Beat the shit out of everybody."

Riley raises an eyebrow. "Uh…definitely."

Daniel smiles awkwardly at them before vanishing down the hallway, and Zane can already imagine how at least ten other people will know that they're dating before the end of the night.

Riley shuts the door and leans against it. "He seems nice enough."

"He's a good friend," Zane says edgily, getting up off of his chair and sitting cross-legged on his bed.

Riley frowns at him. "You ready to go?"

Zane shakes his head. "We've got some time. Could you come sit?"

"Yeah…sure thing."

Riley kicks off his shoes, stripping off his jacket and scarf before settling down next to him. It's quiet; a minute ticks by and neither of them says a word. Zane stares a little past Riley's left ear, willing his fortitude to serve him like it always has.

There's no need to panic just yet.

Finally, Riley clears his throat. "Did I do something wrong, or…?"

"You seem uncertain about this," Zane says quietly. It's always ups and downs with them. Push and pull, back and forth like the rolling tide. "About being public in terms of…us."

Riley tilts his head. "It's not that…"

"Really? Because I'm pretty sure you were just making the same face you did back when I said I'd wanted to join Degrassi's football team. And we both know how that turned out."

Riley reaches out to touch his knee. "I don't want to hide you. I've just been thinking lately and…"


"I get worried. If we do this, really do this, you could become a target. People might get up in your face, or they might try to hurt you or—"

"I'm willing to take that risk," Zane says, relieved that his own safety is all that's holding Riley back. "I can handle it."

Riley stares at him desperately. "But Zane, I don't know if I could…if something happened to you, I…"

He looks down. Clearly, this line of thinking has been gnawing at him for some time.

It's always something.

Gingerly, Zane brushes his fingertips over Riley's hand, and Riley squeezes his knee tighter, almost reflexively.

"You put yourself in harm's way every day, on and off the field," Zane says to him gently. "The death threats, every time you get sacked—"

"Hey, I don't get sacked all that much…"

"But when you do," Zane insists, smiling slightly at Riley's insulted glare, "don't you think I get worried too? But I let you do what you love, because I love you. So if we're going to be fair here, then…"

"I get it," Riley says with great reluctance. "I do. But I mean, just say—"

Zane kisses him, not really to silence him but to reassure him in a different way, because Riley always responds to physicality. Running his tongue across Riley's bottom lip, he crawls into Riley's lap, winds his arms around his neck. It's soft, so soft, from the way Riley hums against his mouth, to how he trails his fingers down his spine, tugging him in closer. And with a final, almost chaste kiss to the corner of his mouth, Riley pulls away, rests his forehead against Zane's shoulder.

"It'll be fine," Zane says breathlessly, combing a hand through Riley's hair, still damp from the snow. "You get so paranoid. Nothing that bad is gonna happen. A few unflattering blog entries, a dirty look or two, and that's it. I promise you."

"Why do you always have to be so optimistic?" Riley mumbles from somewhere against his chest.

"Well, why do you have to be so pessimistic?" Zane tosses back at him. "Surely that kind of attitude didn't get you through three amazing seasons at Eastern?"

"I can hide it well enough in front of the camera. Or…that's what the coaches tell me at least. But with you…"

"Different story?"

Riley laughs. "Always. And really, I'm so glad to have you here…but…you're sure you want to do this, even with the risks?" he asks, lifting his head and looking up, since Zane is positioned slightly above him. There's a tempered excitement in his eyes, a boyish expression. "Like, really sure?"

Zane nods, fingering his own necklace that's still hung around Riley's neck. "Absolutely. We're doing this."

"Okay then," Riley says with a grin. "We are."


Early in the semester, Zane meets several members of the Salamanders team—is fully scrutinized, looked over, and interrogated by them—and gets their stamp of approval, after dealing with questions like "I thought you'd be shorter" and "you smile all the time, damn" and "we were beginning to think Riley was celibate or asexual or something…with all the dudes he's turned down over the years".

After a dinner at Rico's with Marcus, Cal, Noah, and a few others, Riley walks back with him to their separate dorms—Harvil and Wishard—which are only a few buildings apart. It's late and only a Wednesday, so the campus is fairly clear and quiet, just the crunch of snow beneath their feet and the occasional, bitter wind rustling the trees.

"You're always such a charmer," Riley says to him after a few blocks, as they pass by the School of Business, taking the shortcut by the statue of Old Key Morris that gets horribly defaced every year.

Zane blinks at him in confusion. "To who? Straight guys?"

"To people. All people. Everyone loves you."

Zane shakes his head and shoves him. Or tries to, at least—Riley's just too strong to budge. "Now who's trying to be a charmer…"

Riley blushes. "Well, I'm just glad they were chill with you. Otherwise, I'd have to give them crap about it."

"Do you usually approve of their girlfriends?"

"Yeah. Everyone's just protective. I mean, these guys—they're like brothers to me," Riley says. "My sexuality doesn't bother them. We trust each other, we know how we play together and that's all that really matters…"

Zane smiles at him, face illuminated by the orange streetlights. "I feel like there's a 'but' in there somewhere."

Riley laughs. "Well, it's just that they're very blunt, and uh, shameless."


"Oh yeah. It's like, once they knew I was gay, I became the go-to source for every question about gay people they'd ever had. Nothing was off-limits. And you wouldn't believe some of the questions I got asked…"

"I think I might have an idea," Zane says lightly, the cold air stinging his insides. "But this was very tame then, tonight. It was fun."

"Marcus really likes you…"

"Yeah. So I guess he's okay with you living with me in the fall? Did you tell him already?"

"What, that I'd be ditching one of my best friends for my boyfriend? Of course. He says that when I leave he's gonna move in with his girlfriend. So it all works out."

"Lucky him," Zane says casually, observing a couple holding hands and giggling as they rush past them. Sloshing through the snow without a care in the world.

Riley lets out a half-laugh and pulls him in, presses a lingering kiss into his hair. "Lucky me," he murmurs.


Months pass, and for Zane it's a Ferris wheel of circulating highs and lows—securing a letter of recommendation from a highly esteemed animal science professor, vigorously studying his biochemistry notes until the words start to garble up in his head—though it's wonderful all the same. He's the vice president of Eastern's Pre-Veterinary Club, and spends his weekends volunteering at a local animal shelter. He has his friends, he has his goal, and he has Riley, who splits his time between spring practices and his course load.

So they're both impossibly busy. But they make it work.

On the rare occasions when they have matching free time, Zane steals Riley away to go see a movie, or they bike to Riley's favorite spot at Asher Lake, watching the sailboats weave across the water and ducks toddling in the grass. Taking breaks, however short, from the stresses of high-performance.

And ultimately, word gets out that they're dating.

Riley doesn't shout it from the rooftops. There isn't the rabid media attention because it's the off-season. But people find out just the same. He and Riley will have lunch in the Salamander Athletics Dining Hall, or hole away in one of Wishard's study rooms to sort through their notes. And all it takes is a few blurry cell phone pictures of them trekking across campus being uploaded to Facerange, and word spreads. Gets picked up by the gossip blogs. Catches on.

So when Riley's asked by a young, floppy-haired sportswriter in an interview if the rumors are true, Riley says yes, says that he's happy, and leaves it at that. Allows public speculation to become public knowledge.

(Thomas calls him not long after the first article circulates around, and chortles away in an amused tone. Says that Zane will be the Jessica Simpson to Riley's Tony Romo, and Zane groans and points out how dated and wrong that analogy is, on a variety of levels.)

Overall, there's a sense of indifference from the general public—the gay quarterback having a boyfriend isn't really any more scandalous than the gay quarterback himself—and Riley seems immensely grateful for that. For his part, Zane is too, because he's learned how much Riley has to tiptoe around people, including the fans; watching who he takes pictures with and if they're trying to do something crazy, being mindful of the stalkers, the haters, and the professional autograph seekers.

So it's nice to, at worst, be recorded on someone's phone or occasionally stared at. It's just another thing to love about Eastern's progressive campus—the active attempt to be treated like everyone else. He likes the low-key aspect, prefers it that way, and yet…curiosity sometimes gets the best of him.

"I Googled myself today," he tells Riley one evening in early April, as Riley tackles him to the bed and strips off their clothes, pressing their bodies flush against each other.

(They're in Riley's dorm room for once, because Marcus had been dragged downtown by his girlfriend to see some musical. Marcus had said he'd be back in a few hours, and—taking a long, knowing look at the both of them—loudly hollered to "clean up any damn spunk if y'all decide to fuck".)

So now, Riley grins at him teasingly. "I knew you would eventually. So what did you find out about yourself? Anything true?"

"Hardly," Zane snorts. "I'm actually surprised that there was stuff written about me. Though I mostly stuck to the images."


Zane laughs. "It's all weird pictures and bad Photoshop and—"

"Flattering, at least?" Riley asks, leisurely kissing his way across Zane's collarbone and down his chest. Hands going everywhere, roaming over his skin.

"You wanna look it up?" Zane gasps, biting his lip and arching forward as Riley nips over the sharp jut of his hipbone.

"Nah," Riley says, crawling back up to capture Zane's lips. "What's the point? It wouldn't compare to the real thing."

Zane smiles and looks away, feeling his face heat up, but Riley takes two fingers and tilts his chin. Kisses him again, tongue mapping the inside of his mouth. And everything else fades.

Because Riley's back to knowing his body a little too well, but Zane wouldn't have it any other way.


A few weeks later, Riley invites him to the Athletic Academic Achievement banquet as his guest. Formally dressed up like everyone else, they're surrounded by tables piled high with food and hundreds of athletes, their coaches, and as always, cameras. Most of the other student athletes bring their parents as guests, but of course, most of those parents don't live in Canada.

(Walking with Riley to their table and getting gawked at by a group of soccer players, Zane is briefly reminded that it's his first official event with Riley. As a couple. In public.)

They sit with most of the football team, or rather, the players on the football team that managed to keep at least a 3.0 GPA for the year. Marcus keeps getting admonished by his parents for his swearing, Cal laughs with his girlfriend, Noah pulls habitually at his tie—like he wishes he could just take the stupid thing off. Tyson shovels food into his mouth like it's an eating contest. And Riley brushes Zane's knee under the table.

"Thanks for coming tonight," Riley murmurs, leaning in close enough that Noah's father gives them an uncomfortable glance, but doesn't say a word. "It's nice to finally have someone to take to these things. And Ma thinks so too."

"She does, huh? Well, considering that your mother calls once a week, I guess you've had the time to—"

"It's actually daily. She calls daily," Riley mutters. "And it's…I turn 21 in like a month, and I tell her that I need a little space, but…you know how insistent she can be."

Zane snickers. "Yeah."

"I don't really mind it, though," Riley adds. "Compared to the way things were before, daily calls aren't so bad. And she's coming around to you, I think."

"She already has."

"Yeah, but I mean…I think she's actually fond of you, now. She's always asking me how you're doing, and stuff."

Zane laughs quietly. "Just as long as I don't get phone calls every day, I think we'll be good."

Throughout the dinner, he chats with Riley's various teammates, some of whom he actually considers friends of his own, now. He answers the questions of their parents as politely as he can, and for the most part, they're welcoming of him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he gets along best with Marcus' mom and dad, who appreciate good manners, clean language, and lively conversation above all else.

At some point, he gets up to get another glass of iced tea, and bumps into Matt Barnes at the lemon bowl. Chest hair as prominent as ever, the older man squints at him before a light bulb seems to go off in his head.

"You're Zane—Riley's boyfriend. I know that, but now that I'm getting a solid look at you…I've seen you before, haven't I?"

"I was at Degrassi with Riley," Zane says. "On the football team when you came to scout him."

"Ah yes, that's right. You were the kicker. Slightly above average. And…you were the boy in the foyer, weren't you? All those years ago?"

It takes Zane a moment to process the inquiry, but when it hits him, he blushes slightly. The boy in the foyer. The boy that Riley rushed out to see after committing to Eastern. The boy Riley kissed in the middle of the school day.

(Barnes had been behind the glass. Obviously he'd seen.)

"Yes, that was me," Zane admits.

"My goodness," Barnes says with a laugh, shaking Zane's hand in a real greeting. "And here you are now. I never would've guessed you'd be in it for the long haul. But good for you."

And walking back to his seat, if the conversation he shares with Barnes isn't marginally awkward, the one he shares with Coach Gamby certainly is ("So this is the illustrious boyfriend, Riley? Nice to see ya, son. You be sure to let Riley concentrate on the game, ya hear? Let's try to keep the tomfoolery to a minimum. We need our winning machine.").

But in time, Zane figures things will get easier. The round of explanations and justifications will cease.



After another twenty minutes, the dining winds down, and the guest speaker makes her way to the stage. She's an older woman, an Eastern alum and swimming star from years ago. She talks a little about her life and the value of hard work, as well as the importance of academic success, especially for athletes. And it's around then that Riley's phone vibrates.

He checks the caller ID and raises an eyebrow. Shakes his head.

"Everything okay?" Zane whispers.

"Yeah. Uh…yeah. I'll just be a sec. Text me if I don't make it back in time for the awards ceremony."

"Why wouldn't you—"

But Riley's already rushed off, discretely slipping past rows of tables towards the side door, phone glued to his ear. Zane sighs, and tries to focus back on the speaker.

Marcus has to punch Cal in the ribs for falling asleep. But all things considered, it's a touching speech, and everyone claps enthusiastically at the end. Soon after that, the awards presentation starts up. There's so many names to go through—so it's bound to take a while—but Zane keeps watching the exit, getting nervous as the minutes roll on.

He's about five seconds away from sending Riley a heated text when Riley swiftly reenters the banquet hall, looking slicker than Zane would've given him credit for. Riley doesn't even get a chance to sit back down before his name is called, smiling automatically and rushing to the stage as a certificate and a plaque for outstanding academic achievement are placed in his hands.

"Well?" Zane asks quietly, as Riley takes his seat again, looking dazed.

"That was my mom."

"Again? So now she's up to two calls a day? It's just my opinion, but you might want to consider drawing the line somewhere with her…"

Riley bites the inside of his cheek. "No uh…that was my mom…and my dad."

They're in public and not really supposed to be talking anyway, so Zane only lets out a slight laugh and beams at him incredulously. "He talked to you, for real? How was it?"

"It was good," Riley says, voice a little wobbly with emotion. "A good talk. Ma put him on the phone and he congratulated me about tonight and…he said that he missed me," Riley mumbles, ducking his head and tracing the edge of the table absentmindedly. "And he said that he'd be calling again soon. So…that's something, right?"

"Right," Zane repeats, ever-so-softly. "It's really something."

They continue to watch as the rest of the awards get handed out in comfortable silence. And after a while, Zane rests a hand on Riley's shoulder, squeezing lovingly and not giving a damn about whose delicate sensibilities he offends.


They apply to dorm together instead of renting an apartment.

Zane doesn't have a preference, but he knows how convenient it is for Riley to stay on campus (and the tremendous effort it takes for Riley to stumble out of bed in the morning), so it's a case where consistency works best. They end up getting assigned to Wishard Hall for fall and spring…which is where Riley was living the previous year.

(Technically, it's not surprising, since so many athletes are housed at Wishard anyway.)

In the meantime, they spend their summer at Eastern in other dorms, ones that aren't being renovated, both as occupied as ever. Zane takes a few summer classes and puts in some tech hours at a traveling vet clinic. Riley continues to train hard, determined to make the upcoming season his best ever.

And because Wishard has suite-style rooms, they make it a point to get in touch with the other two guys—Chase and Aaron—that they'll be sharing bathroom space with. Neither Aaron nor Chase turn out to be athletes, but they're childhood friends, both architecture majors in their senior years of undergraduate work.

"They're nice guys, but we won't get to see them much. Since they spend so many hours in the studio," Riley says to him at Silver Dan's, stirring his lime water and idly reading an email from Aaron on his phone.

Zane bites off half a curly fry and smirks. "You don't sound too beat up about that."

"Well," Riley says, practically leering at him, "it's not like privacy's a bad thing."

"Point taken."


In late July—right before two-a-day football practices start up again—Zane helps Riley move from his summer dorm into their new, shared room at Wishard. They cart Riley's furniture and boxes and bags of things, which isn't that much; the football players who live on campus are constantly relocating, so they tend to keep it light and manageable.

The early move-in is just for athletes starting up fall training, but they have enough time to sneak in Zane's things as well. Pictures of family and friends from back in Toronto. Zane's tall bookcase and overflowing sketchbooks. Riley's Hedley poster and DVD collection of classic movies. Two sets of everyday shoes left in a corner. Two alarm clocks and umbrellas. A flashlight. A printer. The stocked mini fridge. Twin beds pushed together and tightly secured. A soft green comforter.

It becomes a full room. Their full room.

Scuttling down the halls are the other athletes—freshmen and sophomores, mostly—and their parents, wide-eyed and analytical, inspecting everything from the vending machines to the common rooms to the carpet. Cal and Marcus stop by with a few of the new football recruits to say hello; the late arrivals that chose to opt out of staring class in the summer. Riley goes to greet them in the hallway like the team leader he's become, and Zane trails behind him, casually observing.

"Helping everyone get settled in?" Riley asks Marcus and Cal, eying their sweaty forms.

"We had the time," Marcus says with a shrug. "Team bonding, and all that jazz."

"Plus our apartment's pretty quiet right now," Cal adds, "since our girls are still out shopping in Haywood."

"You're both living at The Rio on 21st, right?" Zane confirms, and the men nod smugly. "I've heard it's a pretty sweet place."

"You'll have to stop by," Marcus grins. "I mean, it's no Wishard—the paint isn't peeling over there, and no one's running shitfaced down the halls at 2 a.m.—but, you know, it's nice enough…"

The four of them chuckle, and two of the new freshmen walk over to them, the shortest of the pair frowning slightly.

"So are you, like, on the team, too?" the shorter one asks Zane, pushing the hair out of his eyes to get a better look. "I didn't see your picture in our packet info, but…"

The taller boy shakes his head in second-hand embarrassment at his teammate. "Jonas, how do you not know about Zane Park? It's been all over the web since April…"

Before Zane can speak, Marcus steps forward, waving his hands. "Right, sorry, we were a little sloppy with the introductions there. Zane here…he's a special tutor. Right, Cal?"

"Yeah," Cal says with a huge grin. "But he's not your tutor, Jonas. He's Riley's private tutor, so you shouldn't bother him because he's busy instructing Riley on how to—"

Riley shoves Cal in exasperation. "Neither of you ever changes. Honestly, after all this time, you're still the most—"

"Three years!" Marcus calls, raising up his hands defensively as Riley goes to shove him too.

"Going on four," Cal says. "Ri, don't say you won't miss us when the draft hits and we all split up. We make your ass look damn good on the field, and now you get to come back to your little love nest here, and put that ass to work…"

Zane bites his lip to keep from smiling, watching as Riley chases Marcus and Cal down the hall, their combined laughter reverberating around the walls. "Hey Jonas?"


"I'm not on the team, and I'm not a tutor. I'm Riley's boyfriend."


"But if you ever have a science question, I could maybe take a look."

"O-okay," Jonas says, looking mortified. "I'll remember that."

"C'mon, bro," the other one says, dragging Jonas away. "Let's go. You can tell your mom that she doesn't have to worry about the quarterback hitting on you anymore."


It's a Sunday morning in late September, and Zane knows it's already well past 10 o'clock because of the relentless sunshine that fills up their dorm room. Riley's knee is digging into his side, but it's not in a painful way, so he doesn't push him off. Sundays are the off-days for the football team, which means Riley gets to sleep in as late as he wants…and catch up on a pile of studying when he wakes up.

And Zane is usually good about letting him rest, but only up to a point.

(It's ten in the morning, after all.)

He traces his index finger across Riley's skin, flush and warm against the Egyptian cotton. Over his chin, past his sternum, and down further, until he's drawing figure eights just under his navel. Riley huffs out a sleepy breath and tries to swat Zane's hand away.

"Already?" Riley murmurs.

"Good morning, all-star."

Riley grumbles into his pillow and flops over onto his stomach, stretches out against the mattress. With a sigh, Zane scoots onto his knees and leans over to run his hands down Riley's back. He can see the large bruise on Riley's hip fading, the edges of the damaged skin green and yellow like the grassy fields behind Wishard Hall.

He frowns slightly.

It always bothers him to see Riley hurt, even as much as he reminds himself that it comes with the territory. He hates it, really. But Riley loves football, and has such a natural talent and work-ethic for it. He's accomplished so much, and can do so much more. To ask him to stop would be to ask him to kill his dream…and Zane would never have that. And still…

"That bruise was never as bad as it looked," Riley assures, as if he knows where Zane is staring.

"Well, the game yesterday certainly didn't help it," he insists, massaging Riley's skin, starting at the neck.

"No. But we won, though."

"You always do."

Riley chuckles under his hands. "Dude, we're four games into the season. Anything can happen."

"That's right," Zane says, pressing against Riley's shoulders and making him groan in contentment, "anything can happen. You rack up those conference wins again and you'll get a crack at a BCS game. Or even a shot at the championship. Wouldn't that be something…" Zane kneads over a particularly sensitive spot on his back, and Riley undulates beneath him, fingers scrabbling for purchase in the bed sheets. "You're astoundingly capable, you know."

"You too," Riley mumbles against the bed. "And hey—your vet school applications…the deadlines…did you…"

"I turned my last one in on Friday," Zane says, trying to sound self-assured, even as a tiny bit of nervousness prickles over him. "So now I'm stuck waiting until winter to see if I get to interview. After that, final decisions will be made in the spring."

"You'll get into all of them," Riley says, and the genuineness of his tone combined with the absurdity of his statement makes Zane laugh. "Cause you're amazing."

Zane smiles and shakes his head, even though Riley can't see it. Thinks back to Grade 12 and Degrassi's date auction. "Since I'm the best person, like, ever. Right?"

Riley grunts. "Shut up. That wasn't my finest moment."

"But it's the most romantic thing anyone's ever said to me. The depth of your words…"

"Zane, I mean it. Shut up about it."

He bends down to Riley's ear, blows out a hot breath against the shell. "Or what?"

Riley rolls out from under him and leaps off the bed, drags a laughing Zane by his ankles until he can pick him up in his arms. Zane grins against Riley's neck, wrapping his legs around Riley's hips and fitting his arms around his shoulders.

"Really, it's like you bring up these embarrassing things because you like me going after you," Riley says astutely, fingers squeezing his thighs. "It's all about the chase."

"Well, yeah. And the prize," Zane adds, swiping his tongue across Riley's rapid-fire pulse point. "You might not believe me, but that really is the most romantic thing anyone's ever told me."

The corners of Riley's mouth turn up slightly. "Great. Then I have lots of room for improvement in that department. But technically, I said that to Anya, who repeated it to everyone in the cafeteria during the auction. Including you. So that's like, a second-hand complement, or something."

"But now you can say it to my face."

Riley lets out a disbelieving breath, lets their eyes lock. "Really? Really? It means that much to you?"

"I'll just be up here waiting…"

Riley tilts his head, his lips twitching as he gives in. "Fine. Ugh. You're the best person, like, ever. Okay? And…I love you. And you're going to get into every single vet school you applied to, because you have a crazy-ass GPA and all that work experience with cows and stuff, but you'll decide to go to Eastern because you love it here. And I might get drafted—"

"You will get drafted," Zane corrects sternly, "and then you'll go on to the NFL—"

"And we'll have to do the long-distance thing for a while, which will kind of suck—"

"—except for all the wonderful phone sex—"

"But we'll make it work, and everything's gonna be great. Or…awesome. Or whatever. And…even if none of that happens," Riley says slowly, carefully, brows furrowed together, "even if you end up as a pharmacist and I'm some health counselor…"

"It won't matter," Zane finishes, feeling the strangest kind of realization wash over him. Wash over them both. "Because we'll have each other."

"Yeah," Riley says softly, a wide smile spreading across his face, making his eyes crinkle. It's the brightest expression Zane's ever seen from him, something he'd bottle up and stash away if he could. Outside of their room, Zane can hear the cars circling the streets below, hear the students running down the hall, their voices muffled. The campus stirs all around them, surges and blossoms and teeters with life.

And all the while, in their tiny room, Zane smiles back at Riley, lets out a laugh that carries with it their scattered past and unknown future. He coils his limbs around Riley tighter, hugs him close, and Riley shifts a little on his feet; a sweet, easy sway that's almost like dancing without a tune.

(In five weeks, Anya and Athena will be flying down for a visit, having saved up enough and wanting to see the place they both call home.)

(In twelve weeks, it'll be winter break again, and he and Riley will both be managing their families in Toronto, who are set to finally meet each other. Mr. and Mrs. Park, Mr. and Mrs. Stavros, together under one roof, at the same table, eating dinner, talking—a wildcard event if there ever was one.)

(And in several months, they'll know more about where the rest of their lives are headed.)

Life is…

It just is.

Eventually, Zane sighs peacefully and hops down, taking Riley's hand in his own and leading him into the adjoining bathroom. They'll brush their teeth and shower—together, making out or possibly more, since Chase and Aaron are blessedly out of town for the weekend at some regional competition. They'll get dressed, and Zane will ensure that Riley doesn't accidently grab one of his shirts and stretch it out. They'll eat whatever's left in the mini-fridge for lunch, assuming that Riley hasn't already wolfed down all of the takeout. And they'll study, Riley keeping him sane through his physics and genetics homework and Zane making sure Riley doesn't procrastinate on his philosophy readings.

They'll do it all. They'll do it together.

(They'll do just fine.)


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