"—all right, and same to you, buddy!" Joey shoves his hat back on as he stomps away from the club. He flips the bird but carefully keeps his hand out of the bouncer's line of sight. "What an asshole. We didn't even get our money back!"

"I told you! I told you." Snake throws his hands up. "Who shares a Coke at a club?"

"When Cokes are four bucks each, who wouldn't?" Joey shrugs. "Whatever. We got to see Candi, right?" He deepens his voice. "The stunning, the luscious, Candi Cupcakes, one night only!"

"We were so far away, they could've sent that bouncer guy out on stage and I wouldn't have known the difference."

"Don't worry, we can always come back later. We know our fakes work now, right?"

"That's true. Maybe we can get into an R-rated movie."

"You wanna go see what's playing?" Joey pulls out the handful of change with a smirk. "We still have six bucks."

"Gimme that." Snake snatches it out of his hand. "That's Wheels' money."

"Hey, if he didn't want to play rock-paper-scissors, that's on him." Joey shuffles along, nonchalant as ever. As they round the corner, he adds, "Well, I guess you're right. He's been so weird lately, you know? He's so, like, touchy."

"He's always touchy."

"Yeah, but you know what I mean, right? Like the whole Heather thing, he's all weird about it." Joey kicks a piece of gravel. "Hey, Shane was weird about that, too, after he and Spike…"

"What, you think Wheels knocked her up?" Snake snorts.

Joey doesn't laugh. For a guy so obsessed with sex, his knowledge of reproduction is remedial at best. "I don't know, did he?"

"No, genius. They didn't even go all the way. They made out, he ditched her, that's it." Maybe if he keeps saying it, it'll become true.

"Then why's he gotta be so weird about it?"

Snake shrugs. He bites the inside of his cheek.

"Well, whatever. I guess we can talk to him about it."

Butt out, Joey.

The thought startles him.

He takes a breath and says instead, "It's already almost eight o' clock. They're probably having dinner."

"Yeah, you're right. We can catch him tomorrow."

They reach Joey's house and split up from there. As Snake stands there, he pats his pocket. He's still got the six bucks.

No matter what Joey seems to think, there's no we in any of this lately. It sucks, but it's true. Unless and until Wheels decides to spill to Joey and get him in the loop, he and he alone is the secret-keeper. In a twisted way, it's almost an honor— but in any case, it's a responsibility. He turns and heads to Wheels'.

Wheels' grandmother lets him in, and he heads upstairs as quietly as he can. The door is open a crack. From the hall, he can hear the muffled plucking of a bass, but he doesn't recognize the tune. He pushes the door open.

Wheels is sitting on his bed, back to the wall, bass in his lap. He pushes his palm against the bridge, cutting off the notes before they start. "Hey." He looks not quite at Snake but through him, like his face is made of glass.

"Hey." Snake lingers in the hallway, half-in half-out of Wheels' room. "I've got your money."

Wheels sits for a minute, as if he didn't hear, before tilting his head to get him to come in. Snake shuts the door and sits on the floor, resting his back against Wheels' bed frame. He sets the money on the corner of the bed.

"Thanks," Wheels says. He sets the bass down next to Snake. "I figured you spent it all."

"We got kicked out."

Wheels glances down at him over his glasses, impassive. The effect is bizarrely librarian-like. On another day, Snake could laugh.

"We were supposed to keep buying drinks but we were running out of money."

"That sucks." Wheels leans over and grabs the money, counting it. "You could've got another drink with this, probably."

It felt wrong spending that six bucks. In some tiny way, it would've made him a traitor. "Joey got us a table in the back. We could barely see anything anyway."

Wheels shrugs limply in reply. It's weird looking up at him for once, but Wheels isn't exactly reveling in the new height difference. He's barely moving. Snake slumps against the side of the bed.

He needs to cast out a line, some stupid small talk. Not about Joey or girls—something to bring Wheels out of this funk. "What were you playing when I came in?"

Wheels scoffs. "Look, what do you want?"

"Nothing! I just—"

What does he want?

"I just felt bad that you were left out," he tries. It sounds stupid before it even comes out of his mouth.

"I don't care," Wheels mumbles. "I wanted to go to the movies."

"That's not what I meant."

Silence. Wheels puts his feet up on the bed and lies back, so Snake can't see him anymore. He mumbles something.


"I said I wish I never told you."

Wheels says it quietly, but the anger reverberates through the sparse room. "What am I supposed to do?" he snaps. Then, softer: "I'm really asking here."

Wheels is silent. He doesn't sit back up.

"I'm trying to be your friend."

It's so quiet he can hear Wheels breathing for a minute. "It's weird."

"What's weird?"

"You knowing."

"I swore I wouldn't tell anybody, didn't I? I didn't even tell Joey." Snake stretches his legs. Sitting against the bed frame isn't comfortable, but the bed is the only real piece of furniture in here. "Is that better, keeping it a secret?"

"No." He sighs. "I miss not having a secret, you know? Like when we were kids."

"We didn't know each other when we were kids."

"You know what I mean." The frustration is creeping back into his voice, quiet but always present. "You're treating me different."

"If we were treating you different, we wouldn't have invited you out with us. We're treating you the same as—" He hesitates a little on the word, remembering Wheels' reaction, but plows ahead. "—as a straight guy."

Wheels is quiet for a minute. "I guess. I don't know. I keep thinking, like, you don't see me the same now." After a second, he adds, "It's like you don't really want to talk to me. We talk about music or whatever, but it's like something's gone."

He thinks of Wheels recoiling away from high-fives, flinching at nothing, unable to meet his eyes for the past who-knows-how-long, and says, "I think that's just you. You've been acting different this week. Like if I sit next to you, you act like I've got some disease."

The blankets crinkle as Wheels shifts on the bed. He still doesn't sit up. Very quietly, he says, "Don't treat me different."

"I wouldn't. You're my friend." Snake picks at a hangnail. "I shouldn't have made you say it."

The statement hangs there, suspended between them almost visibly like a breath on a cold day. It's almost an apology. But not quite.

"It's okay," Wheels says after an eternity. "I could've lied if I really wanted."

Snake's hangnail starts to bleed. He watches the little droplet slide down his finger as his thoughts slowly congeal.

"To tell you the truth," he says finally, "I didn't really want to go either. I mean I like girls and all, but I felt weird checking girls out with Joey right there."

"You were checking them out while I was right there."

Was it that obvious? "Well, they walked right past me; I wasn't going to not look. I mean, I'm still a guy—"

Shit. Wrong thing to say. He glances up at the bed, but Wheels hasn't moved. He's still lying back, his face impossible to read.

"I know you're a guy too," he stammers. "I wasn't trying to, like, imply anything about you not being a man or whatever—"

"Snake, just finish your thought," Wheels mutters.

"Well, you know, looking at hot girls is one thing. But Joey always wants to be, like, 'Oh, look at her ass, check out her legs,' whatever. And it's like, do we have to make a whole production out of it? Can't you just look at them and shut up about it?" He feels himself starting to blush. Open mouth, insert foot. "So I just didn't want to go with him, that's all."

"Yeah, he's always been like that." Finally, Wheels sits back up.

"How do you put up with it? Him being obsessed with girls and all— I can barely stand it."

"He's my best friend." There's no malice, no rush to justify himself. No hiding from the truth. It's a fact of life.

Still, it's hard to hear. It shouldn't be, but it is.

And then, to make things worse, a sick little thought grabs him. "How do you…" He stops himself.


"No, it's stupid."

Wheels shrugs. "I don't care."

"If you like guys…" His face gets hotter. "You don't… you're not into Joey, right? I mean, if you are, that's— that's your business, but…."

"What? Ew!" Wheels' laugh is unexpectedly bright— it's almost teasing. "Are you serious?"

"Well, I didn't know! I mean, you said he's your best friend and all…" Snake laughs too, more out of relief than anything else. The image of Wheels pining after Joey for years, knowing he could never reciprocate, is poignant, and he's glad it's not true.

"Yeah, friend. It's different."

"What's the difference?" The bright red line between best friend and crush has always been clear to Snake— at the highest heights of their relationship, Melanie only reached the point of "best girl friend"— but for a guy like Wheels, it seems like it could erode quickly and without warning. But then again, Dad's called Mom his best friend before, without qualification, so maybe something was just missing between him and Melanie in particular, and not him and girls in general. He can't imagine having a girl as his best friend.

"What do you mean, what's the difference?"

Snake shakes the questions out of his mind. "Nothing. Never mind."

"Look. Let me show you something." Wheels clambers off the bed and sprawls out next to Snake. He holds out his hand, open like he's expecting a present.

"What am I looking at?"

Wheels pushes his hand forward. There's a thin scar stretching horizontally across his palm, faded almost white with age. Tentatively, Snake grabs his hand and runs his thumb across the line— it's flat. Barely noticeable. "What happened?"

He traces the scar a little, absentmindedly.

"Huh?" Wheels glances up.

"How'd you get that?"

"Oh, yeah. It's kind of a dumb story, but…" Wheels jerks his hand back. "Joey and me are blood brothers."

Snake sits and waits for the rest of the story.

"We were… I think I'd just turned ten. And we were in Cub Scouts together that year, so my dad got me a scout knife for Christmas. And then when I was showing him, Joey got this bright idea."

He imagines it like a memory: Joey somehow even shorter and springier, Wheels with a real smile, the two of them snickering and passing the knife between them. "Let me guess: 'Come on, Wheels, trust me.'"

"Exactly. And I was just a dumb kid, so I was like, 'sure, all right.' So we kind of—" He traces his scar with his opposite index finger. "—and shook on it. My mom was pissed. Joey needed three stitches."


"Yeah." Wheels shifts a little, but he's not really moving away. He stares into the carpet. "So it's… it's not like that with Joey. We're brothers, kinda. And you're different— it's different with you."

Snake sits, his hands cold, and knows he doesn't understand. How could he? He was never there. A dull pain, like an old bruise being pressed, radiates from his stomach, as he thinks of Joey-and-Wheels as a duo, the inseparable two, the pair who could never manage to let him in. The secret club he could never quite join. But he nods anyway.

Snake's watch beeps. It's nine. Have they been talking for that long? "I should probably go home."

"You can sleep over if you want. Grandma won't care."

Finally, Wheels is looking at him straight-on, not avoiding eye contact. He's sitting half a foot away and teetering on the edge of a smile. If you don't want to treat me different, Snake imagines him saying, then put your money where your mouth is.

"Sure, if she says it's fine," Snake replies. "I just have to call my mom."

Wheels goes to open the door and shouts down the stairs, "Hey, Grandma, Snake's staying over tonight, okay?!"

"Derek, don't yell," she calls back faintly. Wheels rolls his eyes.

One quick phone call later ("Of course you can stay out, dear, and thank you for calling") and they're slumped on the couch, a bag of popcorn between them, with some trashy horror movie flickering on the TV. Friday the Thirteenth— the third or fourth one, he can't tell. Wheels is fun to watch horror movies with. He's a fan, but he always squirms at the goriest parts. It's hilarious seeing him so squeamish. Hard to imagine he could ever be half of some weird blood-brothers pact.

It's a marathon tonight, and they plan to watch the rest until the wee hours of the morning, but Wheels' grandma flips the light off around midnight. "Boys, it's getting quite late."

Wheels whines, "Aw, c'mon, Grandma, we've got it turned down."

"You can stay up if you want, but you'll have to go up to your room."

As they scurry back, he can understand why Wheels wouldn't want to hang out up here. The place is dungeon-esque. It's tiny, with barely anything in it besides Wheels' bed and a bunch of cardboard boxes. They're still labeled from when he moved in. Worst of all, the walls are bare.

"You should put some posters up," Snake says as Wheels digs under his bed. "It'd make it more like your room."

Wheels re-emerges from under the bed with a cigar box. "Grandma's worried I'll mess up the paint." He pulls out a deck of cards. "Do you know how to play Gin Rummy?"

"No," Snake says.

"All right, I'll teach you. I tried to show Joey once, but he didn't really get it."

Snake doesn't really get it either, though not for lack of trying. Wheels lies on his stomach opposite him, trying to teach him by throwing around words like Knock and Gin. Snake feels like he'd rather have some real gin.

After what feels like a hundred turns, Snake sighs and says, "I give up. You win."

Wheels doesn't reply.

"Wheels? Hey, I said you won." Snake looks up from his hand.

Wheels is asleep on the floor, his face pressed into the carpet. His glasses are halfway pushed off his face. Gently, carefully, Snake pulls them off, folds them and sets them next to his head. He must really be out of it— that didn't disturb him at all.

Snake stands up, cracks his back, and checks his watch. Somehow, it's past one-thirty. He grabs the blankets off the bed and spreads one over Wheels. Should he grab a pillow? No, that would wake him up.

He grabs the top sheet for himself and turns out the lights.

He's awoken all too soon by his morning watch alarm. His head is pounding and he's sweaty again. (Is this going to be a nightly thing? Knowing his luck, it's probably cancer or something.)

Wheels is still asleep across the room from him. He must have rolled over during the night, because now he's flopped over on his side. The sun isn't quite up yet, but through the sliver of Wheels' window he can see the sky getting lighter, so it's not totally pitch-black anymore.

He looks… peaceful. Relaxed. Of course he is, he's asleep, but it's still striking. He doesn't have his eyebrows knitted together and his scowl is gone— actually, he's almost smiling. And it's strange seeing him without his glasses. His hair is falling into his face in a way that Snake knows would annoy him if he were awake.

Snake sits there for a second, blinking a few times to get the sleep out of his eyes. His eyes are fixed, not on Wheels exactly, but on the top of his head, on the point where his hair flops over. When Wheels breathes, his hair rustles.

Why are you staring?

The thought crawls up his back slowly, like a spider, leaving him shivering in its wake. Why is he staring?

"I'm not staring," he says under his breath. Just to hear it.

He gets up and ducks into the bathroom, where he splashes his face with cold water. When he comes back, Wheels is still asleep. Does his grandma have to get him up herself every morning? Without quite looking at him, Snake grabs his shoulder and shakes him awake.

"Hey!" Wheels grumbles. His voice is froggy with sleep. "It's like the middle of the night, what are you doing?"

"It's seven."

"Seven o' clock?! Oh, my God, what's wrong with you?" Wheels rolls away from him. "Go back to bed, you lunatic."

"I can't now. My neck's all messed up from sleeping on the floor."

"Well, that was stupid. You could've had the bed."

Oh, right. He could have. Why didn't he think of that?

He doesn't have an answer, so he picks up the top sheet, folds it, and sets it on the bed. "I guess I'll go home."

"No, hang on." Wheels sits up, tangled in his blanket. "I'll walk you," he mumbles as he grabs around for his glasses.

His stomach twists a little at the thought. "Nah, you don't have to. Thanks though."

As he heads out, Snake realizes he can't go straight home. Coming home too early would prompt questions: were you really at Derek's last night? Was there alcohol? Were there girls there? He should be with Wheels right now, honestly, but he wasn't going to sit there and watch the guy sleep in.

Joey doesn't wake up until noon or so on the weekends, and he's not close enough with BLT or any of the other basketball guys to just show up at their door on a Saturday morning. And he's broke. Great.

He wanders a bit, idly. He's got his backpack, so he should probably head down to the library just to get a jump on things. And then he'll be able to answer Mom and Dad honestly, yeah, I was studying, I swear.

Mom and Dad are going to kill him.

You didn't do anything wrong, he tries to reassure himself. But Mom and Dad are going to kill him if they ever find out about this.

What "this"? There is no "this."

Wheels is really in deep shit if anybody finds out about him. Snake knew that, but he didn't really know it, did he? He never really thought about it. But there's no way that his grandmother would let him stay if she knew. Hell, Snake would probably be screwed too just for hanging out with him. Guilt by association.

But you didn't do anything. Did you?

The spider crawls up his back again.

Snake arrives at the library without really thinking about it. Archie Simpson, the wind-up tin soldier. Goes wherever you tell it to.

But when he gets there, he knows he can't work with his mind like this. And he can't go home, and he can't go to Joey's, and he can hardly even think about Wheels. (Or really, he can hardly stop thinking about Wheels, and that's so much worse.)

On the corner opposite the library, though, there's a pay phone.

Three minutes later he's finally put through. "Glen, hi!"

"Hey, Arch." Glen's voice crackles through the speaker. "Is everything okay? Why'd you call collect?"

"Oh, don't worry, I just spent all my money last night."

Glen laughs. "That's supposed to make me worry less?"

"I'm fine. Trust me."

Across the line he can hear Glen cranking a timer. Ten minutes a call, that was the rule. Like prison.

"Whatever you say," Glen says. "Hey! Did I tell you Greg and I are getting a dog? Remind me and I'll send you a photo."


For a minute there's nothing but dead air. "Are you sure you're not in trouble? You sound nervous."

"Yeah. Sorry, I just came from playing basketball. I'm kinda worn out."

"It's pretty early for basketball," Glen says. But he doesn't continue the thought. I'm not Mom; I don't pry, he said once, and he's stuck to that. "How's that going? When's your next game?"

"Next week Wednesday, I think. It'll be fine. What about you? Aren't you doing basketball stuff or something?"

"I'm too busy! I had to quit the club. School is eating up all my time."

"Oh, sorry."

"No, don't worry! I've always got time for my little brother." Glen laughs. "I'm being charged by the minute here. I wouldn't have picked up if I didn't want to talk to you."

Snake laughs along quietly while he tries to think of something safe to talk about. "Tell me more about this dog."

"Oh, she's great! She's a big yellow lab— Ginger. We picked her from this shelter downtown…"

As usual, Glen talks and Snake listens. The dog does sound pretty cute. Glen paints a vivid picture of her, friendly and fluffy and, apparently, the spitting image of Greg's old dog. Slowly, Snake returns to equilibrium.

Honestly, thinking about Glen living with his (friend? lover? partner?) boyfriend was weird back in March, when it was fresh and scary, but things have calmed down over the past few months. Greg seems like a nice enough guy. They talked on the phone once, and he was polite if a bit distant:

("Hi, Greg. So, what do you do?"

"I'm a line cook."

"Cool. I'm in grade ten.")

And Glen's just so happy— not in the mushy puppy-love kind of way, but calm. A zen kind of happiness. He doesn't gush, but he'll mention Greg offhand pretty often with comments like, oh, Greg made pizza tonight or I couldn't catch the game live, but Greg taped it for us. And every time, Snake can hear him smiling.

For a minute, Snake relaxes, imagining Glen visiting, dog in tow, and the two of them getting to hang out like they used to.

But then Glen asks, "So what were you doing out all night, buddy?" It's lighthearted. Snake can imagine the twinkle in his eye.

The words stick to his tongue and won't come out.

Glen chuckles. "Is this line tapped?"

Their joke from when they were kids. Normally he'd reply, yep, the Ruskies have me or agent, I'm being called back to base. It was always a dumb little game that broke the tension when one of them got tongue-tied.

But Snake can only say, "No, I'm just tired."

What else is he supposed to say? What can he ask? It's stupid, but saying anything about what Wheels is going through feels like a betrayal of his confidence, even if he'd never know about it. Not to mention that at any moment, some kid from homeroom could walk by and listen in.

All he can think to ask is: Why was I staring? But he can't say that. He can barely think about that.

"There's this kid in class—" he tries, but his mouth goes dry and he can't talk.

For a second there's only the ticking of the timer. "Is somebody beating you up at school?"

"No! No, it's nothing like that, don't worry."

"Okay," Glen says reluctantly. "Well, if you hear more from Headquarters, feel free to tell me."

"I will, Agent Simpson."

The timer rings, shattering their game.