Chapter Ten: Ryan

So maybe I overreacted a little bit.

Still, who did Brody/Tristan/everyone else think they were, telling me who I could date and who I couldn't? Hell, I could date Lacey if I wanted—I met all the standards. Rich, easy on the eyes (not my personal opinion, necessarily—it was a proven fact), and not a total douche.

Emphasis on the "total" part.

I kind of felt bad for walking out on everyone, though. Especially Riley; he hadn't really done anything incriminating, and those puppydog eyes could make anyone feel guilty.

Enough about his eyes, though. I was straight as an arrow, and I refused to think about some guy's (albeit, my sort-of-friend's) eyes, because that was weird. And did I mention that I was definitely, completely straight?

Damn, though, he was kinda—

"You know what, I'm just going to stop right there," I said out loud to myself, staring up at the ceiling. It was way too white; I really should've taken a paintbrush to it when we were painting the walls green.

"Stop what?" came a blank, confused-sounding voice that sounded an awful lot like a girl's. I blinked in surprise; the only female in this building was Jane, our secretary. Or had Cracker not left yet?

Nope. It was Riley, as I found out when I turned around. My eyebrows raised; he'd sounded really girlish right there. "Riley?" I said skeptically, frowning.

"Don't kill me," he said, almost as if on instinct, and I couldn't help but laugh. "Sorry," he muttered, turning bright red. I just grinned at him, slightly reluctantly. How come he could put me in such a good mood? I wanted to be pissed off, damn it!

"It's okay," I muttered gruffly, shrugging. "What makes you think I'd want to kill you, anyway?" A hint of real curiousity crept into my voice, and I propped myself up with my elbows to look at him.

Riley rubbed the back of his head. "Um," he said awkwardly, "because Tristan and Brody are always sending me here, and you're probably sick of me, and you don't really like me all that much in the first place, since you were such an obnoxious A-hole during the auditions—" He cut himself off.

Rather than being offended, I was actually rather amused. "'A-hole'?" I quoted, smirking. "I thought we stopped using that in grade school, Riley." I paused thoughtfully. "Actually, I never really liked that word much; I figured that only chickens used it." Riley blinked. "Not that you're a chicken," I added swiftly, smiling.

"So you're not mad?" Riley asked me, obviously confused.

I opened my mouth to reply snappishly, then shut it in surprise. I really wasn'tmad; there had to be something about Riley that made me . . . un-pissed, I supposed. "I guess not," I said grudgingly. "You took my mind off it, kid."

The grin that spread across Riley's face kind of even made me want to convert into gay-ism, if that was even a word. But I quickly threw any similar thoughts out of my mind and pasted a wan smile on my face. "I suppose the others sent you to convince me out of dating Lacey."

Riley shrugged his shoulders, looking nonchalant. "Eh. I dunno, they just looked at me and I came running here. Messenger pigeon and all that." He looked distinctly grumpy and crossed his arms, pouting childishly.

I bit back a slight laugh; at that angle, he actually sort of looked like a little girl.

Wait, little girl? That couldn't be right . . . Nah. Little boy, I'd meant.

Leaning slightly to re-assess Riley, I narrowed my eyes slightly. Little boy? I supposed, but he actually really did look like a young girl. Funny, since he was a guy and all that.

"W-what are you doing?" Riley interrupted my thoughts, and I inwardly swore. Aw, great; now he thought that I was a total creeper or something of the sort. Which I wasn't; I was all suaveness when it came to the ladies.

Except . . . Riley was a guy, so I really wasn't supposed to be thinking about that.

"Nothing, why?" I asked, all innocence. I even tried out the big, brown, puppydog eyes look. Except, you know, I had hazel eyes and stuff. But that wasn't the point.

Riley bit his lip, then shrugged. "Okay. But Tristan and Brody really are worried for you, you know." His eyebrows scrunched together in a concerned line. "And I don't really like Lacey, either—don't bite my head off," he cautioned as my eyebrows raised. "I'm not going to argue with your decision, but . . ." Riley trailed off uncertainly, then went for it. "She's bad for you, Ryan. Just think about it." He quickly ducked out of the doorway, presumably to avoid getting his head bitten off.

Believe it or not, I actually considered Riley's words. If it had been Tristan or Brody, I probably would've just brushed them off, but Riley was different, I supposed. He was more understanding, even though Trist and Brody definitely held the 'best friend' spots. And, for some reason, he just seemed to make more sense than the others did.

"I am so screwed," I muttered to myself, pushing the heel of my palm against my forehead. "Awkward, semi-gay crushes and psychopathic gold-digger exes. Life is at its finest." I laughed humorlessly to myself, then got up to see if Riley was still in the hallway.

He wasn't.

I trekked out of the studio without passing any of my bandmates, so that was good. No arguments or pleas; thatI could work with.

Cracker, Riley's female friend, was waiting outside the studio doors, texting. Her light brown hair hung over her face as she typed on her phone, so I couldn't really see her face, but I noticed that her nose was scrunched up in annoyance as I neared.

"Hey," I greeted her simply.

She gave a squeak of fright, then quickly looked up at me in shock. Cracker swiftly tucked her phone into her pocket, then gave me a weak smile. "Hi. You—you're Ryan McKinley," she noted, looking slightly dazed. I chuckled.

"Yeah, I noticed," I told her, smiling. She was pretty, but not Lacey-standards pretty. However, I didn't need a girl as pretty as Lacey to ask out for coffee. "Want to grab a cup of coffee with me? I'm tired of sitting around in the studio."

Cracker's blue eyes were still huge with shock, but she managed a nod. "Yeah," she said quickly, "yeah, that sounds good." Then, in an undertone that I wasn't supposed to hear, she said, "Holy crapsicles, I'm getting coffee with Ryan freaking McKinley . . ."

I bit back a smile. Of course.

"You cool with Starbucks?" I asked her easily, already walking toward the parking lot. In my head, I did a quick debate between the studio Bentley and my silver Cadillac. Probably the Caddie; my sunglasses were in there.

Nodding at my question, Cracker said, "Yeah, Starbucks is cool," with wide eyes.

I decided to ignore her staring and unlocked the door to my Cadillac, snagging my red Ray Bans off of the driver's seat. Gesturing to the Caddie, I said to Cracker, "Get in. And if you spill coffee on my seats, you're paying." I crooked her a roguish smile and dropped into the driver's seat, slipping my Ray Bans on.

"Okay," Cracker said meekly, crossing over to the passenger's side and opening the door. She sat down, hesitated, then began talking. I supposed silence didn't come easily for her, but that was okay. I was in the mood to listen. "Riley's kind of scared of you."

Unable to stop myself, I let out a chuckle of amusement. I'd guessed as much, seeing Riley's twitchy behavior around me. "I noticed. He doesn't seem to have as big an ego as most of us. Guys, I mean," I elaborated when I saw Cracker frown. "That's a good thing, though. It's really annoying when you have to battle it out for the last pizza slice, and Riley doesn't partake in that."

A slightly reluctant smile came upon Cracker's lips, and she nodded. "Riley has selective eating habits. Half the time, she—I mean, he," she corrected, sounding slightly panicked. "I meant he."

One of my eyebrows went up out of habit—I'd long since stopped raising both eyebrows; it was always the left one. "Okay," I said uncertainly, peeling my eyes away from the road to look at Cracker. She was absentmindedly twiddling her thumbs, and I glanced away. Nope. No spark. "Go on."

Coughing, Cracker said, "Yeah, well, anyway, Riley has a weird habit of eating at inopportune times. He"—Cracker grimaced slightly—"he doesn't really eat much at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It's in between that you gotta worry about. This one time, we were watching a movie with our friends, and we ordered a pizza. Sh—he ate every last piece, I swear." Cracker made a face. "That's why we always order three whenever sh—he's around."

I spared her another curious glance. "It was a while ago, but I think that Riley said something about an inside joke a while ago, during the auditions. Something about you calling him 'she' all the time?"

Cracker looked noticeably relieved, and my left eyebrow twitched as it yearned to go upward. "Oh—oh, yeah, that's right. It's a bad habit, but you know how it is." She shrugged quickly. "Just like my nickname, Cracker. Guess the 'she' thing stuck."

"Hm." I kept my voice noncommital as I pulled into a parking spot next to Starbucks. Cracker had acted quite odd, and she'd jumped too soon at the chance of an explanation. Was I missing anything important here?

"Oh, look, we're here!" Cracker said with too much enthusiasm, smiling widely. "Cool, I was thinking about getting one of those caramel frappucinos. They're really good, have you ever had one?"

I bit back a smile at her perky attitude and nodded. "Yeah, it was cool. I'm paying, by the way," I threw over my shoulder as I pulled my hood over my head and adjusted my sunglasses. After all, I had dragged her here, and I was raised to be a gentleman.

"What?" Cracker sounded confused. "No, I can pay, it's fine."

I turned around to flash her a winning smile. "While that's all very nice, I'm the one who's a multimillionaire. I think I can spare three dollars to pay for your coffee, Cracker, if you catch my drift."

"Yeah, but Riley doesn't pay for me," she said unthinkingly, then blinked. "I mean, not that I mind. We've been best friends forever, so we just pay for our own stuff and pay each other back when we borrow . . ." She trailed off.

Smiling again, I said, "When I know you well enough, I'll make you pay for yourself. But now, I think I'll try and make a good impression on my bandmate's best friend, yeah?" Pushing my Ray Bans further up on my nose, I pushed the glass door open and got hit by a blast of warm air; San Francisco was at a whopping fifty degrees in the summer.

Grinning her thanks when I held the door for her, Cracker nodded at me. "Good impression made. Hey, since you're paying, can I order everything on the menu?"

My eyebrow crooked up. "Looks like Riley isn't the only one with a selective appetite," I noted mildly as the door swung shut behind us. She really was pretty, but I felt nothing for her that wasn't strictly platonic. Damn me for picking all the wrong people.

Turning around and smiling widely, Cracker pointed out, "Riley would probably want three of everything on the menu. She—he's weird like that. Loves eating at random times, plus he only likes eating certain foods. We have to literally force-feed her—um, him sometimes."

I nodded, wondering what Cracker was keeping from me. It seemed that her slip-ups were more than just part of an "inside joke"; if they were, then she wouldn't try so hard to correct her mistakes. "Hm. And no, you can't have one of everything on the menu; Parker would have a coronary."

Sighing, Cracker shrugged. "Worth a try. Okay, caramel frappucino it is. Can I have a vanilla bean scone with it, too?" she asked, pulling the puppydog eyes trick on me. I wondered if she'd learned it from Riley; he did it better, even though the female gender usually had a stronger effect on me.

Wait, what was I saying? Riley didn't have an effect on me. At all. Except for when he gave me that sad puppydog look and—

Okay, time to shut up.

"Sure," I replied to Cracker, not really listening. Money wasn't a problem. Hell, I probably would've gotten her one of everything if Parker didn't act like an asswipe every time I spent too much cash. I pulled my wallet and tossed it to her. "Don't use my credit card," I added on an afterthought. "Somebody might recognize me that way."

"Okay," Cracker said, peering into the wallet. Her eyes widened. "Damn, you keep this much paper on you? What happens if you get mugged?" She blinked at me, staring at the stack of money in my wallet.

I shrugged. "For one thing, I work out—you'd have to be very lucky to mug me, unless you had a knife or a gun. And for another thing, I've got more of the same, so it really doesn't matter." I frowned at the menu on the wall. "Any suggestions, by the way?"

Cracker tore her eyes off of the money in my wallet and shot a glance at the wall. "Java chip is okay, and the white mocha's good, too." She glanced at my driver's license. "Hm, your hair was green back then. Two years ago, right?"

I blinked at her in surprise. "Um, yeah. How'd you know that?"

Waving an absentminded hand, Cracker stuck the license back into my wallet. "Oh, I've been a fan since the first album. You had black hair on the album cover, but you switched to neon green two weeks after." She walked up to the counter, and I stared after her, bemused. Even I didn't remember when I'd dyed my hair green. That'd been freaking ages ago.

Tugging on my hood to make sure it covered my bright blue dye job completely and pulling off my sunglasses, I walked up to the counter and took my wallet from Cracker. "White mocha, please." I pulled a twenty out of my wallet and gave it to the pretty brunette cashier, winking. "Keep the change."

Giggling, the girl took the twenty and tucked it away. "Thanks. Can I get a name?"

"Troy," I lied smoothly, flashing a wide smile. I pulled at the edge of my hood a bit more. "Thanks." I grabbed Cracker's arm and walked her to the nearest empty table.

Frowning, Cracker said, "She was trying to make a move on you, and you just walked away," in an indignant voice. I bit back an exasperated sigh; here came another feminist bout. "That's not very nice of you."

I shrugged. "If she wanted 'nice,' she should've picked someone she actually knew to flirt with." Donning my Ray Bans again, I drummed my fingertips against the tabletop, glancing behind me out of habit. You never knew where a stray paparazzo could be hiding.

"You're really twitchy," Cracker noticed critically, looking at me and nodding thoughtfully. "Always fiddling with your fingers and looking around. D'you have—I dunno—ADHD or something?"

I cast an amused eye over her, even though she couldn't see; my shades were covering my eyes. "No. It's a bad habit of mine—one of many. You have to do something when you've gotta stay seated at some boring event like the Grammys."

Mouth nearly falling open, Cracker squeaked, "You think the Grammys are boring?"

Casting another quick look over my shoulder, I turned back to her. "They take forever. It's hours of pure boredom, and you have to stay seated the whole time. And if you have to go to the bathroom, Parker gives you this evil look." I shuddered, remembering. Then I glanced at Cracker. "You know who Parker is, right?"

She nodded. "Riley said that he was nice."

I nearly choked on air, then began coughing raucously. "What"—cough—"the hell? He's not nice, he's a freaking grandpa with a stick up his ass," I said indignantly. "Except, you know, he hasn't got any grandkids."

Cracker rolled her eyes. "So he's not a grandpa with a stick up his ass."

"Details, details," I said, waving a mock-condescending hand. I paused. "Hey, I think they just called your name for the coffee."

Shrugging, Cracker got up and walked over to the counter to collect her frappucino. Moments later, the name "Troy" (my Starbucks alias) was called, and I went up, adjusting my hood again.

"You know," I noted to Cracker thoughtfully once we were seated again, "you aren't half-bad." I jiggled my gold Supra-clad foot as I did another look-around, sipping my white mocha. "I can see why Riley likes you."

"Everyone likes me," Cracker stated, ever the modest one. I couldn't stop a snort from surfacing, and Cracker grinned. "Kidding. But almost everyone does."

"Of course," I noted dryly, tapping my index finger against the shining tabletop. At least they cleaned their tables; that was a good sign. Some cafés didn't even bother wiping their counters down. "Hey, Cracker," I said, frowning as something occurred to me, "can I ask you something?"

Instantly looking suspicious, Cracker asked cautiously, "Depends on what you're asking."

I chewed on my bottom lip, still tapping my fingers. "Um, well, this might sound kind of weird, but—is Riley gay?"

Cracker's wary expression dropped and turned into an incredulous one. She stared at me for several seconds, then began laughing. And not quiet, ladylike giggles. These were loud, raucous chortles. My cheeks flared red, and I turned my embarrassed stare to my golden shoes.

"You think—," Cracker choked out between laughs, "you think Riley's gay? Oh, god, that's priceless." She started rolling around in her seat again, clutching her stomach as she laughed. I pouted; I couldn't help it. "No, no, no, Riley's definitely not gay, Ryan."

"Yeah, well, he sorta acts like it sometimes," I defended myself mutinously, scowling. "He doesn't have any 'manly mojo,' as you girls like to call it. He's always running away, and he sorta acts like a girl sometimes. But don't tell him I said that," I added quickly.

Looking slightly troubled all of a sudden, Cracker asked, "You think Riley acts like a girl?" Her lips curved down into a frown.

"Well . . ." I rubbed the back of my head nervously, jostling my hood, "just a little bit. And it's not that—just don't tell him I said that, okay? I don't want to get him pissed off at me or anything." Although I really couldn't see Riley being pissed at anything.

"Oh," muttered Cracker, tugging at a strand of her brown hair. "Okay, then." She brightened. "If I don't tell h—him, will you buy me one of everything on the menu?"

I cast my eyes up to the ceiling and sighed loudly.

"So, how was your day?" asked Lacey, slinging a slim arm around me and flashing one of her toothpaste commercial-worthy smiles at me.

I shrugged. "It was alright. You?"

"Fine." We stayed in silence like that for a while, but Lacey spoke up again when I unlocked my Cadillac's door. "Hey, um, Ryan, I was wondering if you could—"

I silently handed her my wallet, ignoring the brief flash of pain as I remembered the reason why she was dating me in the first place. "There's cash in there. If you need more, just get it from me tomorrow," I said tiredly, rubbing the back of my head.

Lacey nodded and pulled the wad of bills out of my wallet. "Thanks. Love you." She pecked me on the cheek and flounced off to her BMW, not bothering to look back.

God, I had such shitty taste in women.

I caught Riley looking at me and frowning, crossing his arms over his chest. When he saw me looking, he quickly turned away and began walking over to a battered Honda Civic, where Cracker was already waiting. I sighed and remembered his earlier words:

"She's bad for you, Ryan. Just think about it."

I was already thinking about it.

AN: Um, Merry Late Christmas, and Happy Early New Year? Not that early, though. Anyway, listened to 1D the whole time I was writing this chapter. Be glad, because it probably would've taken ages longer if I hadn't.

IT'S FINALLY WINTER BREAK! I'm already a week into it, but I've still got one week left. How 'bout you guys? Are your breaks longer or shorter than two weeks?

Well, since it's break and I've got a bit of time left on my hands, that'll give me more time to write (*audience cheers inside my head*). Can't promise an update any earlier than a month, however, because even a week of free time isn't enough for me to update. I know, I'm a lazy ass.

It's quite sad, actually. I've become a master at procrastination—I usually do all of my projects the day before they're due, and I usually pull A's and A minuses, which isn't exactly good. I mean, it's good that I get A's, but the fact that I do just induces me to procrastinate even more. Unfortunately for me, three thousand words of story don't just pop up overnight.

Anyway, thanks to all of you for reading. I'd love it if you could take the time to review in the box below—late Christmas present?