It all started with a text message.
Dez: hey i kno this is out of nowhere but i have a crush on u. like a rlly big one. for a couple years now. Ur one of my best friends and meeting you was the best thing to ever happen to me. i dont expect you to return my feelings but I just want you to know
Austin read over the text once and then twice just to make sure he wasn't imagining it. The math homework he had been doing laid forgotten on his desk as his world narrowed down to the words glowing on his phone screen. But before he could even try to formulate any kind of response, his phone began to buzz again with a torrent of texts.
Dez: i didnt mean to send that
Dez: actually i didnt even type it
Dez: my cat did
Dez: i dont even own a phone
His thumbs hovered over the keyboard, but he couldn't think of anything to say. Should he even say something? Dez seemed kind of. . .uncomfortable, to say the least. Maybe he should wait until they could talk in person. But it was already Friday night and both of them had plans this weekend.
Monday, then. On Monday, they could talk about it.
On Monday, they didn't talk about it.
"Hey, Dez," Austin greeted as he approached the other's boy locker. Dez nodded in return, overly invested in rearranging the text books in his locker. Trish and Ally, whose lockers were only a few down from Dez's, shared a suspicious glance at the redhead's unusually subdued nature. "So, uh, how was your weekend?"
"It was cool," Dez answered without meeting Austin's eyes. "I saw two frogs in my neighbor's yard." His voice sounded dull and lifeless.
"Cool," Austin said quietly, awkwardly shifting his backpack straps. "So I was thinking after school, we could go to Mini's-"
"I can't," Dez interrupted. "I, uh. . .um. . .have to go shopping with. . .with my. . .sister."
"Oh." Dez usually hated going shopping with Didi. "Well, maybe after you're done with that?"
"Nah, it'll probably take all afternoon," Dez said. "You know how much Didi loves long shopping trips. Maybe you could take Trish or Ally or Ally's dad?"
"But won't you be shopping at the mall?"
"No, it's a. . .a different mall."
"Oh, okay." They lapsed into silence. Maybe he should bring it up now? It wasn't like this conversation could get any more awkward, right? "So about that text-"
"Sorry, I gotta head out!" Dez interrupted loudly and Austin jumped. Throughout the whole conversation, Dez had been speaking in this quiet, empty tone, so even just those five words said in his usual fervor was enough to surprise Austin. "Don't wanna be late for class, y'know?" With that, he hurried down the hallway even though the bell wouldn't ring for another fifteen minutes.
Awkwardness permeated the air after Dez's departure and Austin walked closer to Trish and Ally, who were pretending to not have been eavesdropping.
"Did Dez seem weird to you?" he asked, eyes trailing after the redhead as he disappeared around a corner.
"Dez is being weird?" Trish asked in mocking, over-exaggerated surprise.
"I didn't mean it like that. He seemed. . .upset," Austin said, struggling to explain the deep-seated feeling that something was wrong with his best friend.
"I know what you mean," Ally said, and Austin felt overjoyed; he wasn't being paranoid or oversensitive. "But maybe he's just in a bad mood or something. He's Dez, I'm sure he'll be fine in no time."
Austin nodded and hummed an absentminded agreement. It wasn't an unreasonable hypothesis. Dez, in general, did get upset easily and cried at things like vaguely sad commercials. But this was different from those other times. Dez had seemed. . .gloomy. Tired. He'd been Dez's best friend for almost a decade, he knew instinctively that this wasn't over something minor.
Was it really over that text message? If that was the reason, then why hadn't Dez brought it up and why had he shut Austin down when he tried to talk about it? Maybe Dez just wanted to pretend it never happened. If that was the case, then what exactly was Austin supposed to do? Was he supposed to act like he'd never read the message?
Actually, that wasn't the worst plan. It might even be a good plan. If Dez felt weird about his confession, then Austin would just wait for him to bring it up, and they could talk about it then. Boom, their friendship would be restored and everything would go back to normal.
So that's what he did. They skirted around the topic of romance and the text and everything. But, despite how good his plan seemed in theory, it seemed to be blowing up in his face. He thought Dez just wanted to ignore the text message, but he seemed intent on ignoring Austin entirely. Every offer to hang out was met with an obviously fake excuse and every conversation ended with Dez suddenly walking away.
Dez usually skipped his PE class to eat lunch with Trish and Austin, but for the rest of the week, he was suspiciously absent from their table.
"Will you relax?" Trish asked on Wednesday after watching Austin try to stare a hole through Dez's usual seat for twenty minutes. " Maybe he decided he didn't want to fail one of the easiest classes ever."
"Maybe," Austin agreed, still not ready to give up his brooding.
"Oh my god, if you're so worried just sit him down and make him talk to you," Trish said with an exasperated roll of her eyes.
The bell rang before Austin could answer, but he couldn't deny that Trish was right; maybe he was being stubborn and all this could be solved by talking to Dez.
So, on Friday, after several days of his increasing desperation and Dez's increasingly flimsy excuses, that's exactly what he did. Him and Ally set off to Dez's house with the intention to hash out exactly what was going on and why Dez was blocking them out. They would have brought Trish, but she had to watch her little brother immediately after school, and Austin didn't feel like wasting any more time.
He rang the doorbell and after the longest minute of his life, Didi opened the door.
"Hi, Didi," he greeted. "Is Dez here?"
"Yeah, he's in his room. He's been acting weird lately. I'll go get him." She disappeared into the house, and the open front door she left behind was all Austin needed as an invitation to come inside. Ally looked a little scandalized to be coming into someone's home without explicit permission, but followed him nonetheless.
Austin had always liked the Wade's house. With how much time he'd spent here over the years, it was practically his home away from home. The couch him and Ally sat down on was as familiar as his own and there was even a picture of him at Dez's 13th birthday party hanging on the wall. His fingers trailed anxiously along the couch cushion, absently tracing a scorch mark from one of Mr. Wade's failed inventions.
What would he say? What should he say? Should he be confrontational, demanding as explanation as to why Dez was avoiding him, or should he be more tactful? Should he bring up the text, or keep ignoring it? But before he could decide on a course of action, his frantic ramblings were interrupted by Didi entering the room, without Dez.
"He doesn't want to come down," Didi said with an apologetic shrug.
"Oh, so should we-" Austin started, already beginning to walk towards Dez's room.
"He doesn't want you to come up either," Didi said, shifting her body to block his path.
"That's bullcrap, we're best friends and I'm going to-"
"Austin!" This time he wasn't stopped by Didi, but rather by Ally holding him back by the arm. "I don't think we should force it. He might start shutting us out even more."
Austin deflated. He wished he had dumber friends so he could ignore their advice. "Yeah, you're right. Thanks anyway, Didi." He called back over his shoulder as they left.
"I thought you were just being a little dramatic, but I think you're right," Ally said once they were on the sidewalk outside the Wade residence. "It isn't like Dez to be this moody. Do you think something happened?"
Austin sighed. He'd wanted to believe Dez's recent mopiness was completely unrelated to that text, but it was getting harder and harder to deny the truth. "Yeah, and I think I know what happened too."
"Really?" Ally asked, her interest piqued.
"Yeah." So, as they walked towards the mall, Austin explained the message Dez had sent him (without showing it to her, of course, he wouldn't betray his best friend's privacy like that, but she needed to know the basics) and his response (or lack thereof).
"Maybe he thinks you rejected him?" Ally offered.
"But he wouldn't stop being friends with me just because I rejected him," Austin argued. "Besides, it's not like I told him no, I just. . .didn't say anything because I thought he would want to bring it up first."
"So what would you say to him if he brought it up?"
"I don't know. I guess I would. . ." Austin trailed off, unsure how to finish that sentence.
"I mean, do you like him? Romantically?" Ally asked, like it was question Austin should have an easy answer to.
"I don't know," he repeated. "I mean, Dez is one of my closest friends. I don't know what I would do without him. What if dating made things all complicated and confusing?"
"You know that doesn't answer my question, right?"
Austin, lost in his thoughts, didn't answer. It felt like a simple yes or no question, but it was so much more complicated than that.
Ally nudged his side with her elbow. "Maybe you should think about what you want before doing anything else."
From there, the conversation shifted to their upcoming English test to the songs they needed to write to whether or not Trish should book them a gig soon. The conversation abruptly ended when they reached the Sonic Boom since Ally had to rush off to give a kid a piano lesson, but her question still hung in the back of his mind.
What did he want?
"What do you think?" Austin asked the next day as he idly swung his legs against the counter at the Sonic Boom, his ass firmly planted on its surface. Trish was sitting on one of the plush couches in the corner with her nose buried in a fashion magazine. She wasn't directly connected to his relationship drama, but he knew she knew because it wouldn't be a secret if everyone in his friend group didn't know about it.
"Do you want my honest opinion on this whole Dez thing?" Trish asked as she set down her magazine to face him.
"Uh, yeah. That's why I asked 'what do you think?'"
"Really?" A surprised look crossed over Trish's face. "I wasn't listening."
"So how did you know I was even talking about Dez?"
"Because he's all you ever talk about now," Trish said with a roll of her eyes. Austin would have argued, but it was basically true. "But anyway, here's what I think: Dez is crazy for you. Like, head over heels, Jack and Rose crazy. He never shuts up about you."
"But he's my best friend!" Austin burst out. "Why didn't he just tell me instead of hiding it and then pretending he never sent that text?"
"Because you're his best friend." Austin gave her a confused look and Trish rolled her eyes again as she started to elaborate. "You were basically the first person outside of his family to really stick around. He's terrified that you'll stop being his friend, or replace him or something. He'd rather love you as a friend then tell you and ruin everything."
Austin blinked, somewhat stunned by the wealth of information he was being given. As well as its source. "How do you know so much about what Dez is feeling?"
Trish shrugged as she picked up her magazine again. "He talks a lot when we watch Desperate Housewives together. Not even I can tune all of it out."
That, too, seemed like a surprising reveal. He knew that, despite their mutual insistence that they hated each other, Dez and Trish were actually pretty good friends. But he hadn't realized that extended to talking about unrequited crushes and fears of being left behind.
"Soooo what should I do now?" he asked probingly, hoping she would be able to pull a solution from the depths of the glossy pictures in her magazine.
"I'm his friend, not a mind-reader," Trish said, giving him an annoyed look over the top of her magazine before looking somewhere between surprised and nauseated that she'd just referred to Dez as her friend. There was a pause as she flipped a page in her magazine. "If you've made up your mind on how you feel, though, you should try to do something big and obvious to tell him. He's too dumb to pick up on anything subtle."
"Hey!" Austin cried, unable to resist the urge to defend his best friend.
"What? I said I was his friend, not that I would be nice to him." There might have been something more to the conversation, but it was cut off by the loud ringing of an alarm on Trish's phone going off. "Ugh, me and Ally have a meeting with that guy about the concert venue. I gotta go."
With that, Trish departed, leaving Austin alone with her magazine and his thoughts.
Was Dez really that scared of losing Austin? He knew that Dez struggled with social cues and people were sometimes put off by the redhead's. . . eccentricity. But he was Dez. How could anyone ever want to leave him? He was energetic and compassionate and fun and gave surprisingly great advice and was so passionate about the things he loved and had the warmest smile, like it could melt away all your problems just by looking at it and. . .
Austin's face heated up as he realized his thoughts had taken a decidedly un-platonic route.
Maybe you should think about what you want, Ally had said.
So, what did he want? He'd thought about that question a lot, but he still couldn't find a good answer.
He wanted. . .he wanted Dez back by his side. He wanted for them to do their handshake and go out for pancakes together and build towers out of their food. He wanted to watch Dez when he did that thing where he'd fall in love with some movie or hobby and talk about for hours with his eyes practically glowing with excitement. He wanted to hold Dez's hand when they went to the movies together and kiss him during the boring parts. He wanted to do sappy, couple-y things like steal Dez's jackets and kiss in the rain.
He wanted, without a shadow of a doubt, Dez.
So he just. . .needed to tell Dez that. His thumb hovered over Dez's contact on his phone, but in the end, he scrolled up and tapped on another name instead.
Austin: okay so I definitely know what I want
Austin: meet me the sonic boom when u can?
Ally: Of course! What do you have in mind?
Austin: u'll see
This was the most nervous Austin had ever been before a performance. Him and Ally had worked well into the night writing the perfect song to tell Dez how he felt and Trish had promised she would get Dez to his impromptu performance by any means necessary.
He'd debated for a little bit on how and where to sing the song. On one hand, if he sang it to Dez in private, there would be less attention on him and his reaction. But on the other hand, he didn't want Dez to feel trapped, which wouldn't be a problem with a more public performance. In the end, he decided on a small, unpublicized concert in the center of the mall. The crowd would be smaller than usual, considering the fact that it was mostly a surprise performance, but still in a public enough space that Dez could easily leave if he felt uncomfortable.
Someone announced him and Austin found himself going through his "how's everyone doing tonight?" spiel on autopilot. It was a good thing he could rely on his muscle memory, because all of his brainpower was dedicated to finding Dez in the crowd. His eyes scanned over the sea of faces until he finally saw a flash of red hair and an obnoxiously bright shirt.
Later on, he couldn't remember anything about that performance. He vaguely recalled the lyrics coming out of his mouth and his body performing the dance moves, but the only thing he could truly remember was Dez's face in the crowd and the fact that it felt like the world had narrowed until they were the only two people left.
His song to Dez was an upbeat one all about love and best friends and growing up only to realize the greatest thing in the world was right next to you. The crowd roared after it was over, but Austin heard it from a million miles away. The only thing he could focus on was the fact that he could no longer see Dez. He walked offstage and the crowd started to disperse – he admitted that only one song was a lousy concert, but he had a burning need to find Dez right away. Instead, he found Trish and Ally waiting backstage.
"He said he was going to the Sonic Boom. Something about leaving his backpack there," Ally said without him even needing to ask, which was why she was the best friend ever. Trish shot him a thumbs up before he hurried off to find Dez.
The door to the Sonic Boom was unlocked despite the store being closed because the lock broke last week and Mr. Dawson refused to get a new one until he could find a good deal. Austin's footsteps echo in the eerie silence.
"Dez?" he called out to the seemingly empty store. No reply. He sighed. "Marco!"
"Polo!" A voice cried from the practice room and Austin smiled. Worked every time. When he entered the practice room, this was what he found: Dez, sitting on the piano bench, absentmindedly tracing circles on the floor with his foot. The evening light caught Dez's hair at just the right angle so that it looked like he was wreathed in fire. Austin settled himself next to Dez, their knees touching.
"Hey," he said. The casual greeting felt like a stark contrast to everything else that had happened, or was about to happen. Austin mentally prepared himself for Dez to run off like he had whenever he tried to talk to him lately, but to his surprise, the other boy stayed put.
"Hey," Dez said back, voice quiet. "I liked the song. Who was it about?"
Austin blinked. He knew picking up on signals wasn't Dez's strong suit, but wow. And he thought he was being so obvious!
"Am I supposed to guess?" Dez asked when Austin didn't respond. "First Trish and now you with all these guessing games. Is it Ally? Kira? That waitress who works at Denny's? Ooh, I know, it's that girl-"
"It was about you."
"Oh." Dez's eyes widened and his leg started to bounce anxiously. "It, uh, sounded sort of romantic, you know?"
"It was supposed to be. It was kind of a love song. For you." The words felt awkward and stilted and oh God he was messing this up so bad.
"Really?" At Austin's nod, Dez looked somewhere between confused and ecstatic, like he'd won a lottery he didn't remember entering. "Wow. I thought sending that text message would mess everything up."
"So why did you send it?"
Dez sighed, letting out a huge puff of air like he'd been saving the air in his lungs for this exact moment. "I didn't mean to. I write stuff like that every once in while just to get it out, but I always deleted them. Except this time, I hit the send button by mistake. It was an accident. I never thought you'd, like, write a song for me."
"Is that why you've been avoiding me? Because you thought I rejected you?" The words came out harsher and more accusatory than Austin meant for them to be and he felt bad, especially when Dez winced like he'd been doused with cold water.
"No. Well, yes, kind of? I thought that you would. . .never mind, it's stupid." Dez's eyes dropped to his lap and he started to pick incessantly at his nails.
"Hey." He bumped Dez with his shoulder, which was enough to startle the redhead into looking up. "If it was bad enough for you to ignore me all week, then I don't think it's stupid. Just tell me"
Dez smiled, but it was kind of watery. "Fine, but you're still gonna think it's stupid." He exhaled shakily and looked away from Austin again. "I thought that since I told you you'd. . .stop wanting to be friends. I mean, you've met me. There's nothing here to stay around for, especially after I basically just dropped this big emotional bomb on you out of the blue. Honestly, I'm kind of surprised you're here at all. And then when you kept asking to hang out, I figured it was out of pity, or because you were too nice to tell me to fuck off. So I thought it'd be easier if I just did it for you." Dez sniffed and then glanced at Austin for the briefest of moments before looking away. "I told you, it was just me being stupid like usual."
"Whoa, hey!" The loud and rather sudden exclamation made Dez jump. Austin pulled his legs onto the piano bench so that he was kneeling and grabbed Dez's shoulders so that they were face to face. Well, close enough anyway – Dez was still sitting, so Austin was a couple inches taller. "First of all, you're not stupid. I know me and Trish and Ally tell you that a lot, but we're wrong, okay? We're wrong, and we're jerks for saying it, especially if you believe us. You're really smart when it comes to relationships and making films and all kind of other stuff." Dez opened his mouth to disagree, but Austin blocked his argument with his palm. "And second of all, you thought I wouldn't want to be your friend? That's crazy! You're awesome! You're Dez freaking Wade. You're so passionate and kind and optimistic. This past week has been horrible because I haven't been able to see you. You're amazing, and that's why I want to be your boyfriend."
"So I'm not stupid, but I am crazy?" Dez asked after pushing away the hand covering his mouth.
"Shut up," Austin said, unable to stop a smile from stretching over his face.
He wasn't sure who started to lean in first, but the end result was still the same; his lips on Dez's while his hands traveled up the other boy's shoulders and neck to cup his face. People always used 'fireworks' when they talked about kissing, but that didn't seem accurate here. It felt like a thousand suns had gone supernova as they funneled all their buried feelings into that kiss. Realistically, it was only a few seconds, but it felt like it had lasted eons.
"So, uh, are we boyfriends now?" Dez asked after they broke apart.
"Can we still call each other 'dude' if we're dating?"
Austin pondered that for a moment. "I think it's still allowed."
"Nice." Dez paused for a moment, and then stood up. "Do you think we should go tell Trish and Ally?"
"Yeah, I guess." Austin slid off the piano bench and opened the door, only for the two girls in question to tumble into the room.
"We weren't eavesdropping!" Ally defended immediately, which basically confirmed that they were. Trish facepalmed.
"It's cool," Austin shrugged. "Now we don't have to actually tell you."
"In that case. . ." Ally threw herself at them, pulling the couple into a group hug and gesturing for Trish to join the embrace as well. "I'm so happy for you guys! I love love!"
"Yeah, and now you two can't mope around anymore," Trish joked.
"Oh my god!" Dez shouted suddenly, causing every head to whip towards him. "I totally have to brag to Chuck about how I have a hot superstar boyfriend!" He raced out of the room, his cellphone already in hand. Ally followed a second later, yelling about how he shouldn't use his relationship to one-up his weird rival.
"I'm glad you two dummies finally got over yourselves and started dating," Trish said. Despite the insults, there was a warmth in her tone and Austin knew she meant it.
"Whatever." She started to leave too but stopped in the doorway. "Listen, Dez might be a doof, but I'm the only one allowed to hurt him, okay? Don't mess this up."
Before Austin could really comprehend the fact that Trish of all people had given him the shovel talk, she was out the door and halfway down the stairs. Her voice only added to the cacophonous argument happening between Dez and Ally and despite the chaos, a sappy smile found its way onto Austin's face.
One week later, Austin found himself putting the finishing touches on him and Dez's first official date. He'd asked for advice from both Trish ("Just take him to the movies.") and Ally ("Take him anywhere but the movies.") before coming with an absolutely awesome date, if he did say so himself. His picnic with Kira had actually been fun and suitably romantic, until their food was taken and the sprinklers went off. So, he packed a basket full of him and Dez's favorite foods and stashed it in his fridge. The plan was too see the newest Zaliens movie at 11 o'clock and then have a picnic in the park afterwards for lunch.
It would have been the perfect date if it hadn't started pouring rain mere minutes after they arrived at the park.
With one rain-slicked hand in Dez's and the other gripping the picnic basket, Austin cursed everything as they ran to his house. He cursed the fact that today of all days, there had to be a rainstorm. He cursed the fact that they decided not to drive to theater or the park across the street since they were in walking distance from both of their houses. Most of all, he cursed himself for not checking the weather forecast this morning.
Austin slumped against the wall the minute they were inside, winded from all the running. Dez looked as tired as Austin felt and they were both dripping water on his mom's new rug. An apology for such an awful date quivered on the top of his tongue.
"That was awesome!" Dez cried suddenly, knocking any thought of apologizing out of Austin's head.
"You're not mad?" he couldn't help but ask.
"Uh, no? We just ran all the way to your house through a thunderstorm. Best. Date. Ever!" Dez cheered. Austin didn't understand his boyfriend's enthusiasm in the slightest, but that didn't stop a smile from slipping its way onto his face.
"C'mon, let's go put on some dry clothes. I think you left a pair of pants here last time you slept over."
Twenty minutes and a change of clothes later, Austin found himself curled into Dez's side on the couch, their hands intertwined. And as they ate soggy sandwiches and watched a rerun of Crime and Punishment, Austin found that there was no where he'd rather be.