Cyrus couldn’t deny it any longer. He liked Hayden. He liked the way his face lit up at Lee’s crappy jokes. He liked the way he would sing along to his favorite songs without shame. Cyrus liked how his stomach would knot up when his leg brushed Hayden’s on the piano bench, and the fire that seemed to ignite in his chest when Hayden grinned at him.
And at the same time he hated himself for it.
Cyrus knew this would happen. Well, he didn’t know that this exact situation would come about, per say, but he had known from the start that if he let himself get close to someone here, it would inevitably end in crushing pain. After all, that was why he had planned to not make friends that year - to avoid a situation like this, a situation where every possible outcome ended up with him getting hurt. Well, all but one, but the chances of that one possibility succeeding were so far out of reach that it was hardly worth considering. Cyrus considered it anyway.
All of a sudden, every one of Cyrus’s old insecurities came flooding back - the ones that had gone dormant since he had found his best friend. There was no way Hayden would like someone like him. He was weird. He was a nerd. He was scrawny and unremarkable. He was the one didn’t know how to have fun, the one who drew and listened to old music. Cyrus was only setting himself up for heartbreak by entertaining these thoughts, and he hated that he’d let it go this far. If only he had stuck to his guns and kept his distance, things wouldn’t have ended up this way.
He had to stop this before it got worse.
Cyrus buried his face in his pillow and groaned. He had made such a mess out of this year. Maybe he could just lay there for all eternity in embarrassment and shame. It wasn’t that the past two weeks of Christmas break hadn’t been fun - they had been amazing - but it was over now. Probably for the best. When it had come time for the rest of the students to return from break and Cyrus had felt an unshakable pit of dread in his stomach, he had known. He had known that he wasn’t dreading the start of classes, or dreading the return of any of the boys to the school. He was dreading having to share Hayden.
Stop, Cyrus told himself. Just stop. You’ll only get hurt. He hated it, but he knew it was true. Nobody wants you anyway. His mother didn’t want him. Marissa hadn’t wanted him, not really. All those people who had seemed to be his friend at every school along the way hadn’t wanted him. Why would Hayden be any different?
Because he’s Hayden, another voice said, this one more encouraging. He’s just… different.
Cyrus wanted to believe that, but he just couldn’t. It didn’t matter if Hayden was different; Cyrus was still the same.
“Hey, man. You okay?” Cyrus heard the familiar voice come from the doorway. He wanted to shout that no, he wasn’t okay. He wanted to tell Hayden everything and hope he would react favorably, but the logical half of his mind held him back. It was stupid, futile, and would ruin everything.
And so Cyrus did what he always did when he felt threatened. He withdrew into himself, repressed his feelings, and shut everyone else out. “I’m fine,” he replied with no inflection, lifting his head off the pillow only to speak.
“Are you sure?” Hayden asked. Cyrus still wasn’t looking at his face, the face outlined in charcoal on so many sketchbook pages, but he could hear the frown in his voice.
“I said I’m fine,” Cyrus snapped. He was fully aware of how his biting words were pushing Hayden away, but it was the only choice. He dug deeper. “Leave me alone.”
There was a weighted silence from the doorway. Cyrus didn’t turn towards it. After a moment, the tension lessened. Risking a glance, Cyrus found that Hayden had left. His stomach dropped before he could remind himself that such an effect had been the goal all along.
Cyrus lay there, face buried in his pillow, for a long time. He wanted to cry, but he wouldn’t. He wanted to go out and apologize to Hayden, but he didn’t. He wanted to sleep, but he couldn’t.
Somewhere before midnight, Cyrus heard Hayden come in and get into bed. He didn’t turn towards him; he didn’t mutter “goodnight” as had become their tradition. Instead, he stayed silent until Hayden stopped stirring. Cyrus’s heart ached. It was odd; he was less than ten feet away from someone for whom he cared deeply, but he had never felt more alone. For that, he had no one to blame but himself.
It’s better this way, Cyrus told himself. It won’t hurt as much later on. It’s better this way.
He pushed his feelings deep, deep down within himself, and built up hundreds of walls around them. At last, numb, Cyrus drifted off to sleep. It was no surprise that it was anything but peaceful.
Cyrus lasted for about two weeks. His plan actually seemed to be working somewhat. Hayden had picked up on the signals, and had distanced himself from Cyrus as well, making everything that much easier. While out at class or mealtimes, not much changed, other than the fact that Hayden and Cyrus said little to each other. They still hung out with the same group of people, and whether or not the others noticed anything amiss was unclear.
Within the dorm was a different story. After Cyrus had brushed him off the first few times, Hayden had stopped asking what was wrong. Now and then, Cyrus thought he caught a glimpse of resignation in those brown eyes, almost like he had seen this coming. The tension in the dorm had been almost unbearable until they had reached the silent agreement that Cyrus got the bedroom and Hayden the living room until it was time to sleep.
Upon return from dinner, Cyrus would shut himself in his room, reverting to his old introverted habits from years past. He would put on a classical record and pretend he was back in a time where he didn’t know Hayden, where he had never let one boy enter his life and completely flatten everything he knew.
Hayden would watch movies in the other room, but Cyrus rarely heard him listening to music. He didn’t ask why, nor did he think on it too hard. If at all possible, he avoided thinking about Hayden altogether. It was a vain effort. Even so, while avoiding as much direct contact with his roommate as possible, Cyrus was able to reduce how many times butterflies made unbidden appearances in his stomach, and that was an improvement. Or so he had convinced himself.
It all came crashing down one day near the end of January.
Cyrus had spent all afternoon in the art room finishing off one of his sketches for class. He had become so absorbed that he had missed dinner, and by the time he tiredly twisted the key in the locked door, it was nearing seven o’clock. When Cyrus stepped inside, he was surprised to find it quiet. He had expected Hayden to have been back by then, and he was never silent, even when studying. However, not so much as a nervous tap of a pencil came from the living room. Cyrus frowned, and that was when he heard it.
A stifled sob came from the other room, followed by a quick sniffle, then silence. Cyrus immediately forgot everything he had been drilling into his head for the past two weeks. In seconds, every defensive wall had come crumbling down, and he was rushing into the dorm. “Hayden?” he asked.
His roommate sat hunched on the couch, arms wrapped around his legs. All Cyrus could see was his unruly mop of blonde hair, for his face was buried in his knees. His shoulders were shaking in silent sobs.
“Hayden, what’s wrong?” Cyrus asked, his voice filled with concern.
“Nothing,” he mumbled.
Cyrus sat down next to him. “Don’t give me that. It is clearly not nothing.”
Hayden raised his head a fraction and glanced at him with red eyes. “You don’t have to… You don’t…” He wiped at his eyes and straightened in a valiant, but vain, attempt to seem even halfway okay.
To say Cyrus was unnerved was an understatement. Hayden was supposed to be the confident, cheery one. Seeing him cry made Cyrus all kinds of uncomfortable. All he wanted was to make him stop. But, further, he wanted to make the pain go away. “Just tell me.”
“They know,” Hayden admitted, sounding so dejected that it physically pained Cyrus. “Everybody knows.”
“That I’m a- a charity case. That I’m poor,” Hayden said. His voiced dropped to a whisper. “That I have no family.”
Cyrus stared at him for a long moment. “What?” was all he could manage.
“At dinner, they…” he shook his head, unable to continue. “And then you weren’t there. I looked, but you weren’t… you weren’t…”
For a moment, Cyrus forgot how to breathe. The guilt, the regret, threatened to overwhelm him. He ignored everything that his logic shouted at him and draped an arm around Hayden’s shoulder as if to say, I’m here now. “How did they find out?” he choked out eventually.
Under his arm, he felt Hayden shrug. “Dunno. Only two people know besides the teachers and staff.”
The implication was obvious. Cyrus and one other person knew. Cyrus felt a sudden panic that Hayden might think he did it. After all, he had been so mean to Hayden in the past weeks. God, he had been so terrible. Why did he ever think that would be a good idea? And now he hadn’t been there for Hayden when he needed it.
Cyrus rubbed Hayden’s shoulder in what he hoped could be interpreted as a platonic gesture of comfort. Hayden glanced up at him, his eyes guarded, then away. “It wasn’t me, I swear,” Cyrus assured him.
Hayden looked up at him again, face unreadable. “I know, Cy.” Despite his words, there was relief in his gaze.
“Who was the other person?”
Hayden just shook his head, ignoring the question. He sighed, a silent tear streaming down his cheek. “Everybody hates me now.”
“Not everybody,” Cyrus muttered. He closed his eyes for a moment. Opening them at last, he blurted, “I’m sorry. Sorry for the way I’ve been acting, I just… I have no excuse,” he admitted. “But I’m really sorry, and I’ll still be your friend, if you still want me to be.”
Hayden let out an empty, self-deprecating laugh. “It’s okay. I’d rather you stop being friends with me because you don’t like me or are tired of me or…whatever than because you found out that I don’t have any money.”
“It’s okay,” Hayden repeated.
It wasn’t okay. Not even a little. Cyrus’s voice dropped lower, to almost a growl, as his insisted, “No. I swear to you, that’s not why. It wasn’t about you. It was about me and how I’m an idiot. You didn’t do anything, and I’m not tired of you.” Quite the opposite, actually, but Cyrus wasn’t going to say that.
Hayden’s eyes flicked back and forth at Cyrus’s, trying to figure out if he was being sincere. He must have found that he was, for with a nod he dropped his head. “Well, that makes one.”
“I don’t think Lee would care. Or Tim or Parker,” Cyrus said.
“Lee, no. But everyone else… You’d be surprised,” Hayden said. His voice had taken on that note of resignation again. “They say they don’t but… it won’t take long.”
Hayden shifted to lean back and close his eyes. He was a little closer to Cyrus now, and Cyrus couldn’t bring himself to regret their proximity. He looked at Hayden there, looking so much older than he was, and so utterly rejected.
Cyrus swallowed past the lump in his throat and made a silent promise to himself that he would never abandon him like that again. After all, the point of distancing himself from Hayden was so that he would spare himself further pain, but he never realized what it would cost. It had been selfish of him, and unfair to Hayden. It was time Cyrus learned to endure the pain of his crush, for he wasn’t going anywhere. Not this time.