by aohime (青姫)
Staring at his cell phone as he sat in a quiet corner of the apartment living room, Leif’s roommate took a measured breath and said, “I am going to kill a man.”
Leif didn’t even look up from his computer. “Who are you killing this time?”
“Ayrien,” Kai said, still for all appearances perfectly calm.
“Ah. Him again.” His eyes lifted from his screen to peer over the laptop balanced on his knees in Kai’s direction. “You know, you said that last week and the week before that and the week before that, yet he’s still breathing. I’m starting to think these threats of homicide aren’t even serious anymore.”
Kai gritted his teeth, still scrolling through his Twitter feed. “Oh, they’re serious. I’m just biding my time for the right moment, stockpiling all my anger and spite for one glorious moment.”
“Look at this.” Kai stomped over to the sofa and thrust his phone in front of the laptop screen. It had a picture of a scruffy blond haired white man with a lopsided ponytail eating an ice cream cone with the shop logo behind him. He’d captioned it: “Getting #CarmelMochaChip @ #Juliette’s #summersweets #best #icecream.” When Leif failed to look indignant, or at least understanding, Kai jiggled the phone under his nose. “Look! He found out my favorite ice cream place was and takes pics whenever he’s getting my favorite flavor there.” He pulled up two other pictures, both of them at the same shop with the same flavor. “He’s taunting me,” Kai said, glaring at the phone like he could send a modicum of his rage through its surface to the source.
“Or he just likes the same ice cream you do.” Leif pushed the phone out of his face.
“I should punch him,” Kai said.
Sometimes Kai’s jumps in what were appropriate reactions were alarming. “Wow, no. That is a fast track to an assault charge.”
“You weren’t protesting homicide a second ago.”
“You’re not going to kill him, but I know you. You’ve already punched this guy once. You’d totally punch him again.”
Kai huffed, giving Leif a look that said his patience with him was running thin too. He stuck his phone into his pocket instead of sending an angry tweet back in Ayrien’s direction at least.
Leif lounged back in the sofa and watched Kai all but vibrate in place with irritation that had no outlet. “You realize there’s a solution to all of this, right?”
“And what,” Kai snapped, “might that be, of fountain of wisdom?”
Leif raised an eyebrow and brought out the same logical solution he had the last time this came up. “How about you, oh, I don’t know, stop talking to him.”
“He talks to me.”
“We go to the same yoga studio.”
“Find a new yoga studio.”
“I’ve been going there longer than Ayrien has been,” Kai protested. “And he’s in the same painting class.” They had a stare down. Kai broke it first saying, “And if I ignore him or leave, then he’d win.” He said ‘win’ like a curse word, too filthy to be considered.
Leif gave him a look, and reminded himself that he was the patient one. “I’m pretty sure this rivalry is all in your head,” Leif said.
“Those pictures could just be him enjoying ice cream.”
Kai threw up his hands. “He purposely gets my name wrong every time we talk!”
“Maybe he’s bad with names.”
“How hard is it to remember a three letter name after three years of yoga together?”
Leif sighed. “Point.” Time for a distraction before Kai truly started into his tunnel vision. He clicked around on his laptop for a few seconds and waved his roommate over. Kai came, anger already becoming the familiar simmering frustration instead of hot-bright rage. “If you can pause in your hate for a moment, give me a hand and test this.” Leif swung the laptop around to present the latest version of the side-scrolling interactive game he was making. Kai took it.
Kai, Leif had found, was the perfect test person because if something could go wrong in a game, it inevitably did when he played it. It was either a gift or a curse. As Kai clicked and arrowed through the game world, Leif idly scrolled through Kai’s Twitter feed on his phone. If Kai hated Ayrien so much, it was kind of stupid to follow the guy on Twitter. Especially if he thought the guy had it out for him. But then Ayrien was following him back, and he never replied to any of Kai’s occasional passive aggressive messages from the look of it, so that had to mean something. Even Kai couldn’t invent an escalating harassment over the course of the last six months. To think that before Kai punched the guy in the face, Leif had only heard complaints about him a couple of times.
“…Okay, it glitched,” Kai said a lot sooner than Leif had hoped he would.
Leif looked over his shoulder to see a dialogue box opening and closing rapidly without any input from Kai at all. “Crap. Okay, I can fix that. Was that the first time you tried to have a dialogue with a NPC?”
“No there were a few others.” Kai handed the laptop back. “Oh, and are the doors supposed to vanish after you do everything in a building?”
“What? No!” Leif shut the game and brought up the work file. “Oh my god, how is that even possible? What did you do? It was working fine when I tried it ten minutes ago.” Yet again, Kai found some glitch that shouldn’t have been possible.
“Good luck fixing that,” Kai said without much real sympathy. He snatched up his phone. “I’m going to head out to yoga.”
“Have fun committing homicide,” Leif muttered, immersing himself in his codes again.
Kai laughed on the way out. At least one of them was in a better mood.
“You’re grinning,” Glen said. Ayrien had many grins, most of them fake, but the one he had now as they walked toward Ayrien’s first yoga class of the week was not only genuine, but fell into the classification of devious. Ayrien had three different devious smiles, each with varying amounts of sadistic glee directed at some misfortune of another human being. Often due to his actions.
Ayrien made no effort to look up from his phone as he walked, elbow to elbow with Glen. His grin was wide enough to see his molars. “I am,” he agreed. By some miracle or another he avoided tripping over the cracked sidewalk or the snarl of wire Glen stepped around.
“Whose life are you ruining today?”
“Moser. I posted that picture from yesterday.”
“The ice cream shop?” Ayrien had ordered a coffee ice cream mess and taken an unbearably smug selfie with it. It was the second time he’d done that with Glen present, and who knew how many times he’d done it when they were separate. Ayrien barely even liked coffee ice cream.
He preferred his coffee bitter and with just the smallest splash of milk.
“Yup.” He flipped the phone around to show the picture.
“Has he even seen it?”
“Dunno, but I’ll find out shortly.” He was almost skipping, giddy at the thought of pissing someone off. Well, at pissing off a very particular person.
“You know, one of these days he’s going to punch you again.” Glen hadn’t been there the day Kai Moser punched Ayrien six months ago, but he didn’t have to be to know that Ayrien had crossed a line somehow. It was one of his special talents, finding all the boundaries people had and testing them. Kai wasn’t the only person who’d punched Ayrien in the face.
How someone could sound happy about the prospect of being punched, Glen would never understand. But that was why Ayrien was Ayrien and Glen was Glen. Glen was far more likely to be someone doing the punching than getting punched. “Just curious,” Glen said, “but why Kai Moser?”
“Why not Kai Moser?” Ayrien said, one hand on his chest, gearing up for dramatics. “Why, clearly he’s one convenient person in a sea of many, all ticking time bombs of anger waiting to go off. Why not pester Cecilio or our instructor or the group of housewives with their sketchy swingers group in—ow.”
Glen removed his elbow from Ayrien’s side. “If you don’t want to answer, say so. Remember, no bullshit with me.”
“Right, right.” Ayrien rubbed his side, his performing face melting into one of mild irritation. It was one of the ground rules between them, one Glen insisted on. He’d take Ayrien being honest with him or he wouldn’t be around him at all. Ayrien was getting better at it, but he still slipped up into old habits at times. “I like his expression when he’s thinking about strangling me,” Ayrien said with complete, blunt honesty. “His face turns red and he grits his teeth and all I’d need to do is poke him for him to explode.”
“You find it funny sort of like, or find it hot?”
Yet another thing Glen couldn’t understand. Ayrien wasn’t interested in people who genuinely cared for him or would do anything for him. That had never captured and held his attention. Instead he found people he could bother and incite to anger a lot more fascinating, especially when they stuck around rather than just telling him to fuck off and shoving him out of their lives. Kai certainly fit the bill for what Ayrien would find worthy of his attention. “I’m changing my ringtone for you to be Florence and the Machine’s ‘Kiss with a Fist,’” Glen said.
Sometimes Glen wondered if Ayrien preferred making people angry because it was so much easier to do than getting them to like you. He had a whole range of theories, proven and otherwise, on what made Ayrien Gray tick. In the end, the only way to be his friend was to take no shit from him and to give no shits in regards to how Ayrien interacted with anyone else. Pity it took the better part of a decade to figure those things out.
“When he breaks your nose,” Glen said, “I’m going to laugh at you.”
“Wow, some friend you are,” Ayrien said, still laughing.
“Be glad I’m not the one punching.”
Ayrien snorted. His nose was still a little crooked from when Glen broke it in high school, Ayrien going that one step too far and neither of them experienced enough to know where to draw those lines or have a healthy friendship at all back then. “You wouldn’t aim for my face,” Ayrien said.
Glen wouldn’t because he’d break his hand again. Faces were mostly bone. “It’s a pity you can’t like people who don’t hate you.”
“It would be pretty boring though, you have to admit.” Ayrien slipped his phone away. “Now I have an hour of yoga to mess with Moser today, a painting class on Tuesday to mess with him then, Thursday to poke at Che-chi-lio in the other yoga session, and maybe Saturday I can drop in on Moser working the counter at the coffee shop he works at and pick the most complicated thing possible just for the hell of it.”
“Which you expect me to drink since it will be inedible for your taste buds.”
“Pretty much. Be my coffee date Saturday?”
Glen rolled his eyes. “If you’re using me to help piss off your weird hate-crush, I expect a muffin to go with that coffee.”
“Deal. You don’t have anything going Saturday anyway.”
“And if I wanted to sleep in?” Glen asked pointedly.
“…You could sleep in.”
There, boundary reinforced.
“Right.” Glen nodded before relenting. “But you’re right, I don’t have anything going on and don’t mind watching you be an ass to other people. Maybe that will be the day you get punched in the face and I’ll have a front row seat.”
It was Ayrien’s turn to elbow Glen, meaning he was being a bit too mean. Ah well. He’d back off then. He didn’t actually want Ayrien to be punched in the face. Even if it would be kind of funny.
As they neared the yoga studio, Ayrien’s giddiness rose, then settled out into a sort of calm. No doubt he was just as anticipatory under the smooth smirk now on his face, but for all appearances he was currently feeling above the world at large. There was just enough arrogant smugness in that smirk to give Glen a twinge of irritation even knowing it was an act at the moment. Mostly because a lot of the time it wasn’t an act, and having that smugness thrown in your face had the tendency to irritate even the most patient of souls.
“How do I look?” Ayrien asked. “In control?”
“You look like you’re about to say something rude.”
“So like usual?” Ayrien joked, for once putting himself at the butt of the joke.
“More or less. I like your real smile more though.”
That earned him that real smile, a brief flash, a bit less smug and just a bit more tilt of the lips and crinkle of his eyes. “Let me know what Moser’s expression is when I walk in. I’m going to pretend he doesn’t exist.”
“Can do.” It was amazing, Glen reflected, how much more fun it was being Ayrien’s friend once he stopped trying to be Ayrien’s social mediator. There were still times where he cringed internally and wanted to tell Ayrien he was crossing too many lines. Then there were times where it was actually funny. His mom would point out that this was probably Ayrien corrupting him. She wouldn’t be wrong, but he’d let himself be corrupted quite willingly with that one.
When they walked in, Glen casually took a moment to get a photo of Kai’s expression for Ayrien. It was his favorite death glare after all.
Irritation simmered along Kai’s nerves. Ayrien was ten feet away from him on a stupid foam mat, doing annoyingly smooth yoga moves along with the instructor and no matter how much Kai tried to put it out of his head and reach for that inner peace that yoga was supposed to give, his movements remained stiff and his mind refused to clear. Kai had anger issues. He knew this, had gained control of it for the most part in his life, and most people he could tune out these days. Leif trying to downplay his surety that Ayrien was mocking him? Ignorable since Leif wasn’t the one experiencing it. The car that stopped across the crosswalk at the red light on the way there? Forgivable because it took a half a second to walk around. Ayrien walks in with a smirk half an hour after posting a Tweet aimed at Kai? Insta-rage.
Ayrien was a big flashing neon spot in his visual field that burst through all the coping techniques Kai had learned and seared into Kai’s consciousness in a way that refused to settle comfortably. He prickled and itched along the edge of Kai’s consciousness no matter where in a room he was, and could get on Kai’s nerves in less than three words whenever he opened his mouth. He had a very punchable face, with a slightly crooked nose from a past break that invited breaking again. Or maybe that was just the anger in him talking. There had never been someone who filled Kai’s awareness quite so completely as Ayrien could just by walking in the room, and that annoyed him immensely.
It marred the peace of yoga. It marred the peace of the painting class he was taking—both things he’d chosen to help with the anger, both things he refused to give up even though Ayrien had showed up at them and kind of ruined their purpose by his mere existence. It marred his part-time job when Ayrien showed up and his waking moments when he stalked Ayrien’s social media. It was probably unhealthy but he hated Ayrien in a way that made him feel like he was burning alive. Except it didn’t hurt at all, just made everything sharper and brighter and fuller of emotional extremes that could be both exhilarating and exhausting.
Ayrien shifted from cobra position into a flawless bow pose, feet almost brushing the back of his head. How dare he be that flexible. Kai’s own muscles and ligaments protested as he moved along with the rest of the room, trembling as he held on to his ankles. It didn’t hurt, but burned in the way using muscles he ignored the rest of the time tended to burn. Kai closed his eyes so he wasn’t seeing Ayrien’s stupid blond ponytail swinging against his stupid eye-searing yellow tank top that showed too much stupid sun-tanned skin.
Ignore him, Leif had said. Well Kai was damn well trying.
Breath flowed rougher from his lungs than it was supposed to, not quite in pattern for what they were doing. Breathing right had always been the hardest part of yoga for him. His arms reached and stretched as they moved back to standing. Kai pretended he was trying to claw Ayrien’s face off.
Ayrien hadn’t looked his way once yet.
His friend Glen had been fiddling with his cell phone when they entered, but he’d sent Kai a half-apologetic, half-amused look when they entered, like he couldn’t help finding the whole situation they’d found themselves in a bit funny but was a bit guilty about it. Kai had nothing against Glen except that Glen had inexplicably chosen to be Ayrien’s friend for reasons beyond Kai’s understanding. If Ayrien was tired of their back and forth taunts or just one-upping the mind games, Glen would know.
Kai wasn’t going to ask. That, too, would be losing.
They came to rest, back with their hands to their heart, breath released. Another yoga class where he hadn’t been able to tear his mind away from Ayrien at all.
This was a pattern he was having trouble getting irritated about anymore. There were enough other things to be irritated about without adding to it.
Ayrien didn’t look his way when they cleaned and rolled the mats. He didn’t look at Kai as they got a drink of water. He didn’t look as he wiped sweat off his neck and chest. Kai’s fists clenched and unclenched. How dare Ayrien bait him with photos then ignore him. The ass.
When Ayrien put on his shoes and started heading toward the door, Kai snapped. “Oh no you don’t!” he growled under his breath. Arisa, who had only been in the yoga group for a month and didn’t know the history between Kai and Ayrien, almost got bowled over as Kai made a bee-line for the door. Those who had been attending for years were already giving him space before he even realized his feet were moving.
Dimly, Kai heard their instructor, Marie, ask them to not start things in the studio. He listened in as much as he pushed Ayrien fully out the front door before he turned on him. “You,” Kai said, voice as menacing as he could make it. “You.” Further words caught in his throat, choked around a lump of rage.
“Me,” Ayrien agreed with his usual smirk on his face. He was completely relaxed considering he had just been shoved against a brick wall.
Kai’s fingers twitched, whether from a desire to choke or scratch lines down the fucker’s face, he wasn’t sure. The worst part, a tiny, rational portion of him reflected, was that by poking Kai into a rage, Ayrien was always in control. He’d been in control the one time Kai decked him too, grinning through a bloody nose and eyes flashing with something dangerous that could have been baiting him to try something further or maybe even actually enjoying the whole thing. He hadn’t had a chance to find out because Marie had been between them and talking Kai down from murderous to his usual level of seething irritation. They had both almost got banned that day and Kai’d changed his yoga day because of it. A fat lot of good that had done.
Kai sucked a breath through clenched teeth, hand tangled around Ayrien’s shirt and fought for words. It wasn’t only Ayrien’s body language that was relaxed; nothing in his stupid gray-green eyes gave away anything more than confidence either. Confidence, control, certainty that he was above Kai in every way. Kai should punch him just for that. Instead he stomped on the part of him that wondered if Ayrien’s composure would break if he moved his free hand to his throat. He unclenched his fist from the front of Ayrien’s tank top, finger by finger. Then he poked Ayrien in the chest once, hard. “Stop,” he bit out.
Ayrien raised an eyebrow. It had to be plucked or something to have that kind of neat curve. He was all a mixture of artifice and false sincerity and obnoxiousness. “I’m not sure what you want me to stop. This time I didn’t do anything at all.” His smirk got just the slightest bit bigger. “I thought that was what you asked last time.”
Fuck him. Fuck him for turning Kai’s angry “Stop pulling all this bullshit!” from last time into a new taunt this time. “I hate you so much,” Kai hissed.
“Hmm.” Ayrien tilted his head and his hair caught against the brick, pulling strands free of his ponytail to float around his face like some stupid golden cloud. “You want me to stop bothering you and when I stop, you want attention. I could think you don’t really know what you want, Mouser.”
Surely it would be justifiable manslaughter rather than outright murder if he killed him. Surely it would be understandable to a jury. “Don’t call me that.”
“Would you prefer Kia?”
“Kai. It is three letters, why are you like this?”
Ayrien’s lips twitched and Kai knew he was going to do something like quote Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” or something equally grating.
He stepped back before he could and said, “Never mind!”
A throat cleared next to them, Glen, still fiddling with his phone. “If you two are finished?” he said. Kai couldn’t read Glen for shit half the time, so it was hard to tell if he was amused or annoyed. “Ayrien, you have lunch with your mother today, in case you’ve forgotten.” A crack in Ayrien’s mask, a brief purse of his lips like it was a reminder he could have done without. Glen looked up from his phone and met Kai’s eyes. He smiled, polite and impersonal as acquaintances were. “Thanks for not giving him a black eye.”
Sincere or more mind games? Any friend of Ayrien couldn’t be as sincere as he appeared. Kai scowled at them both and stepped away. “If he keeps pulling shit, I will next time.”
Ayrien brushed by him, amused and in control again. “You’ve said that four weeks in a row.”
“I meant that every time.”
“You’d get bored without me,” Ayrien said with full confidence that this was true.
The truly annoying part was that with how much Ayrien infiltrated his life these days, he probably wasn’t wrong. Kai rolled his eyes. “I’d get some peace for once.”
Ayrien flashed his teeth in a grin as he pulled out a pair of sunglasses that looked like they had to have cost a fortune. “See? Bored.”
All the comebacks to that tangled up on Kai’s tongue as Ayrien walked away with Glen like it wasn’t worth looking back.
“I’d find a hobby,” Kai finally said as Ayrien’s back rounded the corner. He stared after them for a moment, all the burning irritation fizzling into cinders. Usually there was a bit more back and forth than that. He almost was disappointed. It felt like he’d lost. Lost what exactly, he couldn’t say, but a loss nonetheless.
Ayrien Gray made it something of a habit to be as unpleasant as possible whenever it didn’t suit him to do otherwise. It had started with his parents—of course it had started with his parents; few deep-rooted emotional issues didn’t start with parents—who took one look at him after his older brother’s perfect records and life and had been disappointed before he could even try to prove not to be a disappointment. Naturally, if he couldn’t get their goodwill, he’d be as much of a pain as possible. It had snowballed from there. Between being ahead of most of his class, enjoying dancing around people until they lost themselves in anger, and bored by most of the world, he’d cultivated a very specific personality calculated to grate on as many nerves as possible. It was always so interesting to see how people would react when angry.
But part of cultivating that personality had been insuring he was about as far from his perfect brother meeting their parents’ expectations as was possible. They wanted him to be neat and groomed; Ayrien grew out his hair and wore high end distressed clothing. They wanted him to be polite; he pointed out the things polite society was supposed to overlook and played innocent as his target succumbed to embarrassment and anger. They wanted him to pursue a respectable career in law or business or politics like everyone else in the family; Ayrien had dropped out of college after taking nothing but criminology, psychology, and art classes, and started his own private investigating business while pursuing artistic goals on the side.
It didn’t really matter than he was horrible at art, or that he tended not to get many repeat customers despite always getting requested results for his investigative work. Ayrien knew his customer service was majorly lacking, he just didn’t care to fix it. (Truly he didn’t need to; despite being the family shame and failure, his parents had yet to cut him out of the family and supported him far more than they needed to in the mistaken assumption that he would otherwise waste away in poverty. He actually could survive well on what he made, but the financial help never hurt.)
No, Ayrien knew he was the last person anyone could get along with easily and he liked it that way. Anyone who actually stuck around in his life was someone who either took no crap or accepted his quirks (or both in Glen’s case, though that hadn’t always been the status quo between them). It was hard to be a disappointment when his worst was his normal; he liked to think that people knew exactly what they were getting into if they stayed.
The continuing art classes were more of a self-challenge than anything else. It was the one thing he proved to be bad at despite his efforts, so naturally he had to keep trying. It was fun to play with all the worst color combinations. Create enough bad works, after all, and maybe he would work around by some paradoxical means and come out semi-decent.
It was truly a coincidence that these classes ended up being the same place Kai Moser went.
Kai Moser, five foot seven, auburn hair, hermit-pale, and forever restless. He was serious and introverted, entirely unremarkable to Ayrien’s first notice until he was angry. And oh did he ever have a short temper. When he was angry, it was like all social filters ceased to exist and his every thought was plain as could be across his face. He also tended to tunnel vision and it was an addictive feeling to have someone’s complete focus that way. Ayrien didn’t need his psych classes to understand why it appealed; it also didn’t take much thought as to why it appealed in a less than platonic fashion either. What could he say? He liked what he liked.
Their shared art class was held on the second story of a building that was once a general store with apartments above it, the classroom itself in a modified living room. Ayrien gave a practiced smile to the woman who ran the class—fifty-two, married, teaching this class for supplemental income, nicknamed Ms. May for her preference for floral shirts—and she smiled back. He could be polite. He could be downright charming if he wanted to be, and in her case, he was because being polite to her meant she overlooked some of the times he poked at Kai.
Watercolors today, individual spots at the table set with cups of water and brushes and pieces of paper, individual sets of paints mixed alongside tubes for those who wanted to mix in one of the plastic paint reservoirs. The centerpiece was a vase with dried flowers and a draped cloth ready to be sketched and painted. Last week had been working with people and had involved a model standing in the middle of the room for an hour. Ayrien took his usual place at the back of the room where he could see the rest of the class easily. It was also the perfect vantage point to watch Kai as he was also someone that preferred the edges of a room and consistently sought out the corner across from the entrance, putting him as far away from Ayrien as possible without him sitting with his back to the door.
Kai was late. Other students were already filling the seats, but his remained empty. He seemed to either run early or late, but never on time in Ayrien’s experience. It was probably a day he worked, Kai’s job being far enough away from the studio that it would lead to him being late here on days he was scheduled to work. Contrary to Kai’s accusations, Ayrien had not memorized Kai’s work schedule; he only knew about a few of his regular work days from happening to go in for coffee.
Kai rushed in a few minutes after the start time, out of breath and irritated already. Ayrien gave him a cheery wave. He got a scowl back and a pointed cold shoulder.
Ah well. That was probably meant to be revenge for last time. It was more like a child pouting in effect though. Cute.
While the rest of the class got down to sketching or painting the still life, Ayrien played with his colors, mixing an orangey brown with a bit of burnt sienna undertones and made it flow around his page. He liked water colors; they could do things that were impossible with thicker paints. For the hell of it, he added chartreuse to one part and a swirl of bubblegum pink toward the bottom left arcing toward the green. It was hideous. He kind of liked how it all turned muddy where the colors ran together.
When the teacher passed by, he made a dutiful show of attempting the still life on a different paper. As usual, the shapes refused to be what he wanted them to be. It was funny how he could have an image so clearly in front of him or in his head, but be entirely incapable of translating it from brain to hand. His vase resembled a pool of water, his draped cloth a pile of sand. The flowers were so much bursts of color, amorphous and blurry.
Ayrien tilted the page. Now lines of watercolor ran down the page from the mess. It almost looked intentional. He was informed that he was using too much water and shown a method of shading. He copied it and managed to just get a diluted watery mess instead of a bright one. Across the room, Kai seemed utterly focused on his painting, each brush stroke deliberate and precise. His painting probably looked like a proper vase of flowers. His work tended to be rough but full of life where Ayrien’s just tended to be rough on a good day.
He tried to depict the vase in one color. It ended up a watery silhouette. He added more colors and made it look more like a firework melting into a blue and red chasm than a failed still life. He could almost say that this painting could be called aesthetically pleasing. There were more pointers before the class ended—take his time, try sketching, wash the brush thoroughly, use even less water than that, no that’s too little, try diluting the colors, no not that much, let sections dry and layer colors. He made mental notes to experiment with later.
At the end of class, Ayrien had five watery messes, only one of which really resembled the still life. Kai had one painting that Ayrien would never admit to his face that he found it pretty. Ayrien all but skipped after Kai as he left, still trying to pretend that Ayrien didn’t exist, which would have been more effective if the hunch of his shoulders didn’t say he was very aware of where Ayrien was the whole time.
“Hmm, Ms. May is right, a bit more shading would make the whole piece come together more,” Ayrien said, peeking at Kai’s painting.
Kai bodily blocked his view. He held onto the pretense of ignoring Ayrien for three more seconds before hissing out a breath. “The advice would mean more coming from someone whose art didn’t look like cat puke.”
Ouch. Granted some of the things he’d made did look like cat-sick. But ouch. “Ah, Mouser, you just don’t have the appreciation of my fine art. Abstract expression is so much deeper than a mere still life.”
Kai almost audibly rolled his eyes. “Moser.”
“I hate you.” The words were resigned, not sharp. Shoulders tense, but angled a bit toward Ayrien, so not actually closed off. A mix of aggressive and inviting. The tilt of his chin said prepared to confront, but his feet and hips said he was prepared to book it out of there if his anger started to get the better of him. Interesting, so very interesting and why it was so much fun to poke. And if Ayrien ever pushed past that line of what was safe to prod at and irritate Kai on into too far territory, he was certain he’d get decked. Since he didn’t actually want to push past those boundaries, he tended to flit around their edges. Getting punched once was enough. He hadn’t minded being punched—he was used to it really—but he hadn’t liked how Kai looked hurt in addition to his usual rage. Guilt was an uncomfortable emotion.
“You know you always say that,” Ayrien said, letting some of that fascination leak into his voice, “and yet here we are. You talking to me. Willingly. One would almost think you enjoy it.”
“Ha!” Kai spoke the word more than laughed it incredulously, taking a step back. Not running, not yet, more a step back to take in the full picture, distance, clear his head only it was Kai so the distance made no difference at all when it came to interacting with Ayrien. “Enjoy? What is there to enjoy about this?”
“The adrenaline rush,” Ayrien said. “That single-minded focus you can only get when you’re angry, and you feel conflicted about being angry. You like it but you hate it too and you like getting angry at me because I’m safe to be angry at—I give you plenty of reason to be angry.” Kai’s lips went white with pressure, hands fisting, body balanced at the edge of fight or flight. There was a familiar rush of knowing that he was dancing on the knife blade of Kai’s self-control. “It’s addictive, I know. I’m addicted to that rush too.”
For a second Ayrien thought Kai really would punch him because he just breached something that was mutually understood but unspoken and uncomfortable about both of their personalities. Instead Kai reigned it back and down. It was almost disappointing really. Ayrien could see him packing emotions into little boxes and shutting down all his impulses one by one in the way he shook, frozen for a few fleeting moments. How brightly would Kai burn if he didn’t reign it in? Fists relaxed. “It is really,” Kai said with clipped words, “annoying to hear you admit you’re doing this deliberately. Even more that you blame it on a sick addiction.”
Pot to kettle, Ayrien thought, but he kept his smile. “If I am an addict, what does that make you?” He leaned closer. Kai’s chest puffed out, ready to argue or act, ready for confrontation and all his attention so wonderfully focused on Ayrien and Ayrien only. “Is it hatred when you enjoy the game?”
“Is it a game?”
Neither of them blinked, smile versus glare, until the art teacher stepped out of the building and frowned at them.
“Is there a problem?” she asked.
“Not at all,” Ayrien said, not looking away from Kai. “Just discussing our differences like the mature individuals we are.”
Mature, Kai mouthed like it was a foreign concept.
“Of course,” their teacher said, not sounding like she bought a word from Ayrien’s mouth. Not when Kai was still glaring at any rate. “Perhaps take the discussion somewhere else, boys.”
“Can do, ma’am,” Ayrien said, all false smiles and false sincerity. Neither he nor Kai moved. Ms. May sighed and left anyway, not interested in getting into whatever argument they might or might not be having.
“I hate you most when you do that,” Kai said.
“All that,” Kai said, waving one hand in Ayrien’s direction, entirely disgruntled. “Pretending. Fake.”
It was so close to something Glen had said to him once that Ayrien had to stare a second. It brought emotions up in him besides his usual amusement and anticipation, a tangled mass that he set aside to analyze to death later when he could properly categorize all its nuances. Now, he pulled on a smirk that he didn’t feel as acutely as he ordinarily would and leaned into Kai’s bubble of personal space for the disgruntled look it would get him. “So you mean you hate me less when I’m being my asshole self.”
Kai’s lips twisted, face flushed, refusing to even admit out loud that Ayrien being himself was preferable to him being polite but fake. Ayrien would take this discovery and hold it close to his heart. And perhaps lord it over Kai for a long while to come because Kai’s current conflicted expression was especially entertaining.
“Well, I prefer being me too, so I suppose I’ll keep being me toward you.” Where the masks ended and Ayrien began were confusing and very thin lines at times, but it was interesting to note that Kai could tell the difference for some of them. Most people didn’t bother, either concluding he was all bullshit or always up to something if they bothered to notice at all. Ayrien generally was planning something but right now he wasn’t thinking beyond wondering if actually touching Kai in any way would be crossing the line too far. Kai had a smudge of watercolors along the corner of his jaw, left when he rubbed a hand against his face in class or some similar motion. His painting was between them like a wall while all of Ayrien’s paintings were stuffed in his bag, slowly bleeding dampness and pigment onto everything in there.
The air felt heavy like it often did these days, but there was a surprising lack of anger in it; the interruption had burst the worst of the animosity brewing in the air to leave a different tension.
Kai kept looking at him, had never looked away. Ayrien could read all the signs he wanted from his body language—mixed defensive and open in a strange mix, intent on face and eyes and lips, flushed face could be more than anger—but he couldn’t trust those signs because they weren’t read with the proper detachment, his own interests shading his interpretation of them.
He stepped back.
“Going to paint more cat puke paintings?” Kai asked as the distance grew. Disengage, walk away, do not take things further than is acceptable, push but no further than he could quantify within boundaries of ‘safe’. Safe wasn’t just Kai’s boundaries.
“Or something,” Ayrien said, voice sunny, agreeable, entirely fake. He heard a hiss of breath behind him.
“Do you hate me or something?” Kai called after him. Not the first time. He’d yelled that before, multiple times, yelled it after he gave him a bloody nose six months ago, with a bewildered sort of hurt and anger at why Ayrien would prod at what turned out to be a deep hurt. He’d said it a few other times in the last few months when Ayrien neared the line too closely, and maybe he was too close to an entirely different line right now.
“Or something,” Ayrien repeated. He sent a teasing smile over his shoulder and did not laugh a bit hysterically like he wanted to. He couldn’t resist still pushing even though he should stop for now.
There was raw frustration on Kai’s face and some confusion. Not worth filing away because that would lead to more emotions he would have to analyze and Ayrien knew himself well enough to know he wouldn’t be happy with his conclusions anyway. There was baiting Kai, Ayrien playing with himself at the same time, and then there was taking the game too far and letting it mean something. Glen would probably laugh in his face and point out it had meant something ever since he gravitated to Kai increasingly often even after getting punched.
Glen would know because he had punched Ayrien and walked away and walked back into his life and made himself someone Ayrien couldn’t ignore or walk over, made himself central and real in Ayrien’s life with that one action.
He was self-aware enough to know it didn’t say anything good about his psyche that being pushed back was what it took to start caring. He was self-aware enough to know why he had self-destructive tendencies too.
Ayrien walked away fast. It seemed he’d lost this encounter this time.
Working at the coffee shop wasn’t terrible. Kai had had worse jobs, lost to his temper, and better. It had an inevitable rush of people in mornings, afternoon, and around dinner as people needed their coffee fixes, but so long as he got the orders right and quickly, his customer service was less important than it had been at his job as a waiter or at the college help desk. He’d had the job a bit over half a year, the longest stint he’d held onto a job to date, and he was loath to lose a job that was so accommodating toward his school schedule and occasional personality quirks.
That was in part why he knew without a doubt that he had to be on his best behavior on the rare occasions Ayrien showed up.
Which thankfully—or not thankfully, Kai wasn’t sure—was not during the rush hours. No, there were only two or three people milling around trying to decide what they would order or if they wanted one of the giant muffins in the display case to distract Kai from Ayrien strolling through the front door like he owned the place. Glen was at his side which could be a good thing or a neutral thing, but probably not a bad thing since Glen occasionally stomped on Ayrien’s worst moments. Ayrien saw him at the counter and grinned. He gave a flippant wave as he stepped into line. This was not what he wanted from eight thirty on a Saturday morning.
Kai glanced over his shoulder at his coworker Alyssa. She looked back, neither accepting nor outright refusing his silent plea to swap places so she could deal with customers and let Kai make the coffee. She raised an eyebrow. He raised one back. She wasn’t going to trade, probably because he still owed her from a few weeks ago when Ayrien last showed up and Kai had managed to spill coffee all over the countertop. He turned back to the customers.
There was a mix of dread and anticipation as Kai made quick work of the other people in the line, their orders straightforward and taking only half his attention to plug into the register and ring up. He couldn’t quite raise his usual anger. Maybe because of the way they parted last time, or maybe because he was too busy wishing he could dive under the counter just to avoid it all. That only lasted until Ayrien leaned on the countertop though, irritation at the presumption flooding through him. The damnable smirk was at eye level when he leaned like that.
“What are you getting?” Kai asked, as close to neutral as he could get his voice to go.
“Hmm, that’s a good question,” Ayrien said. He leaned a bit more on the counter to crane his neck at the boards like he always did. As usual it made Kai’s eye twitch at the invasion of space and the show of it because Ayrien came here often enough that he had to know what was available by now. Kai breathed in through his nose, out through his mouth. Repeated it. It didn’t help much. If anything, he was now aware that Ayrien had a body wash that smelled like citrus.
Ayrien tapped a finger on his lips as he mouthed different order names. And now Kai was staring at that finger feeling his blood pressure rising because that simple action drew Kai’s attention to places he usually ignored. “Well?” Kai asked as the seconds ticked on and his irritation grew. Alyssa was watching like this was her weekend entertainment. Some friend she was.
“Eh, I’ll go with…” He trailed off. Kai’s finger hovered over the register. Just finish the damn order! “A double shot mocha with extra chocolate, milk, and whipped cream on top. Skim milk, not whole, and make it a frozen drink actually.” Kai opened his mouth to sarcastically ask if there was anything else he wanted with that, but Ayrien cut him off with, “Actually, add a shot of peppermint flavor to it.”
Kai scowled. Ayrien leaned just that bit more so he was directing that smirk up at Kai instead of down, eyes half lidded and so so smug. Kai stabbed buttons like they were Ayrien’s eyes. “Double shot mint mocha, extra chocolate and milk, skim milk, frozen with whipped cream,” Kai repeated. “Anything else.”
“A small black coffee and a cinnamon muffin,” Glen said. He was on his phone again today, not bothering to give either of them more attention than peripherally. Kai was so glad that he was bored by them. No, actually, it was better than Alyssa’s grin lurking behind the espresso machine as she got started on…Glen’s coffee. She was going to make him make Ayrien’s mess of a drink. Kai didn’t owe her anything after this.
He rang Ayrien up, scowling to himself, and all but tossed the change in Ayrien’s direction. Alyssa patted him on the shoulder as she passed with Glen’s coffee to get the muffin from the case. Ayrien’s eyes followed him through the steps of making that frozen coffee, from adding the espresso and flavorings to jabbing the blender button with extreme prejudice. The grating roar of ice being crushed into miniscule pieces wasn’t enough to block out the itchy feeling between his shoulders of being watched. Kai put the least amount of whipped cream he could get away with on top of everything and stomped back to the counter.
Ayrien took the coffee with a serene, overly done, pleased expression that couldn’t be more put on if he tried. He sipped it, staring Kai in the eyes. “Not bad. A bit too much mint.”
Instead of the fuck you and your stupid mint that Kai wanted to say, he just said, “You have whipped cream on your nose.” He didn’t; it was on the corners of his upper lip, but Kai took pleasure in how Ayrien immediately swiped a hand over his nose like the vain person he was. No one went to the trouble of buying high end distressed clothing and cultivating a purposely scruffy look the way Ayrien did if they weren’t vain.
“Next time I’ll have to get you to do latte art,” Ayrien said.
“Next time you’ll have to come up with a reasonable order,” Kai said before stalking away to clean up the blender. Was it rude? Yes. Was it worth the chance of getting reprimanded for? The flash of disgruntlement on Ayrien’s face ranked up there in things Kai’d risk a lecture for.
“Have a nice day!” Alyssa called, now playing up the customer service. That and she genuinely found it funny whenever Ayrien bothered Kai. The sadist.
It was surprising that they were leaving though. They normally hung around at least a little bit. Scrubbing at the inside of the blender pitcher, Kai craned his neck to watch them go. He looked just in time to see Ayrien swap cups with Glen and drink hot black coffee with no discernable distaste at all. The blender clattered into the bottom of the sink. That bastard. That bastard had been coming in for months, ordering up complicated, overly sweet monstrosities. And he liked freaking plain black coffee. What the actual fuck.
“You okay in there?” Alyssa asked, waving a hand in front of his eyes. “You have your murder face on again.”
“Next time he comes in I am spilling hot coffee all over him,” Kai said.
“Ah, just a delayed reaction today. Okay.”
He attacked the blender with new vigor. Come the next yoga class he was going to have Words with Ayrien. Perhaps something more physical than words. Replaying the memory of Ayrien going down from the last time Kai punched him gave him the energy to finish off his work shift. Kai all but sailed out of the coffee shop, plotting exactly what he’d say to Ayrien’s stupid face when they next were in a room together.
“I’m going to start charging you for therapy,” Leif said. He wished he had his computer as a distraction from this conversation. Instead he was crammed on the couch with his three sisters using him as a convenient foot and head rest as Kai paced on the other end of the room, muttering to himself.
“I have a therapist already,” Kai said, breaking off his rambling to answer.
“A therapist you stopped seeing two years ago.”
“I have the tools, I can use them.”
Leif rolled his eyes. He winced when Ember dug her elbow into his side. She made a sideways nod toward Kai. Kai was still steadily wearing down the floorboards in the corner. Leif raised an eyebrow back. He wasn’t getting paid for this. Gale was also looking at him. River was still on her cell phone at least or he’d have a foot to the gut to go with Ember’s elbow. He sighed.
“Let me guess, there was another chapter opened in your grand conspiracy of Ayrien being out to get you.”
“It’s not a conspiracy if it’s true!” Kai said.
“Mm.” He squirmed to dislodge his sisters and got that kick anyway. Ow. “Kai.”
“Kai.” Leif made him stop pacing. Kai was all but vibrating with energy and irritation. “What tools should you be using right now?”
He got an uncomprehending blink and scowl combo.
“Therapy, Kai. I was joking about being your therapist, but you’re tunnel-visioning again.”
A frown instead of a scowl and Kai shifted back and forth in place like he’d still be pacing if Leif didn’t have a hand on him. For a second it looked like the anger might turn target on Leif as the nearest person, but Kai took a breath and let it out slowly.
“Breathe, relax, restructure, take a break.” Kai breathed again. “Visualize humorous scenarios, communicate, change routines to reduce the issue if necessary.”
Leif nodded. “Good. You have a list. What have you tried?”
Kai’s lips pressed together. He looked to the side. “Restructuring. Communicating…ish. Technically relaxing, but he’s crashing my relaxing activities, so it’s not really relaxing anymore.”
“It might be time to change routines.” There was subtle and there was blunt, Leif knew, and Kai was not someone subtle worked with most of the time.
Instant backlash, protest clearly on the tip of Kai’s tongue as he looked up again. Leif waited for the protests, the rant about Ayrien winning. He got silence and a look of frustration instead.
“Okay,” he said. “You clearly don’t want to do that. It might be a good time to try and think through why. Write out a list or something. And it can’t just be gut reactions and that he’d ‘win’ this…whatever it is going on here.” He glanced at his sisters. Ember gave him a thumbs up. He grimaced in her direction.
A huff of breath informed him that Kai was less than pleased with him as well.
Leif held up both hands in mock surrender. “I’m not your therapist as you said, just saying that it’s been awhile since you were this…” Distracted? Upset? Neither quite fit what Leif was seeing. “…like this over anything. And the last time you were really mad at Ayrien ended with you punching him and changing your schedule around.”
“He’s been ordering the wrong coffee,” Kai said like an explanation and a plea. Maybe it was both considering he never said straight what had him mad this time.
“Is it worth losing sleep over?”
Kai sighed. Maybe, just maybe, this time he’d listen to Leif’s suggestions. Leif could only hope. “I’ll try to be less…” He waved a hand.
Leif patted his shoulder. “Great.”
“Hey Kai,” Ember called across the room. “If you’re feeling calmer, want to go out to dinner with us?”
“So we’ve decided on dinner?” Gale asked.
“I call sushi,” River said.
“You always call sushi.”
“Craving anything?” Leif asked Kai.
“Meat,” he said. “Something that isn’t noodles or instant meals.”
“So…the hibachi-sushi place,” River said.
“I wanted Mexican,” Ember said.
Not for the first time, Leif reminded himself that he was glad he’d gotten a different roommate rather than rooming with his sisters in a quad. He loved them dearly, but they’d have driven each other insane if they lived in each other’s pockets for four more years. He’d take Kai’s issues over the personality clashes his sisters had on the regular. Kai looked a bit more grounded in reality with them there though. It was only when Leif’s sisters were around that he remembered that Kai was the youngest of four kids as well.
Yoga came with the best intentions. Kai had journaled, meditated—well, tried to meditate. Meditation was a pain and he’d never really got the knack unlike the rest of his siblings—and reminded himself of all the things he was supposed to do to keep anger from getting the best of him. These things all worked with his day-to-day life. It kept the little irritations from spiraling into big ones and kept him from lashing out at loved ones or random bystanders. As Kai watched Ayrien arrive and felt the curl of indignation bubble up again, he was reminded that these techniques had never helped much when it came to Ayrien. He either burst through Kai’s calm, pulling it apart strand by strand, or Kai would let it drop willingly because Ayrien was someone that losing that control around wouldn’t scare him away. And perhaps Ayrien was right. Kai did like getting angry at him. It felt like righteous anger because Ayrien usually intentionally provoked it.
It was more than that, though, like Ayrien drew him in and repelled him with equal measure, a flip-flopping magnet aimed in Kai’s direction in the most aggravating way. It was so often Kai losing his control that it was tempting to turn the tables and have it go the other way. It was addictive to focus on someone so intently and have that focus turned back in return. And it was funny how he could hate someone and would miss him if he were to vanish. He was starting to wonder if he had been defining hate wrong all these years because surely it should mean he’d be glad if Ayrien got hit by a bus tomorrow. The thought made him want to punch a bus instead and that was a weird impulse even for him.
Normally Kai tried to stay far away from Ayrien or keep him behind him and out of sight during yoga. All the better to reach for that internal peace he was supposed to be working at. Instead he went with a mat a row back and two down, close enough that he could watch every move Ayrien made.
It was a stupid choice and he knew it. Kai did it anyway.
Who the hell even was Ayrien under all that posturing? Some rich wannabe who slummed it in cutoffs that probably cost more than Kai’s whole outfit put together, unironically perching sunglasses on his head to hold hair out of his eyes. Someone who almost never smiled and meant it, or when he did mean it, it was almost always mocking. Someone who probably had worse tunnel vision than Kai since he’d figured out Kai’s schedule and worked his way into it. Someone who took a punch to the face and smiled for real and got compliments and smiled falsely.
It added up to who the fuck knew. An even more tangled mess of impressions and contrariness that prickled the wrong way. As Ayrien twisted with yoga moves, catching Kai’s eye with a wink, only the most recent revelation stuck in his mind. Ayrien was a guy who’d buy expensive, complicated, sweet coffee just to annoy Kai but preferred black coffee.
And Kai couldn’t let that go unaddressed.
Class ended, and Kai acted. He was peripherally aware of their instructor watching and Glen off to the side. He let Ayrien take one long swallow from his water bottle before he grabbed his arm and dragged him out the door. Ayrien sputtered and spilled water down his front. Kai didn’t have a destination in mind, just somewhere away and private because he was trying not to cause a scene for once. The bathroom ended up being the closest choice and had a locking door.
The lock slid shut with a weight that Kai felt in his bones.
Ayrien didn’t seem to sense the same magnitude of the action because he pulled his arm free and capped his water. It was a bit late for that; more than half its contents were either spilled on Ayrien or the floor. “Wow, have you finally decided to murder me?” he joked.
Kai turned on him, eyes narrowed into slits. “You.”
The sheer nonchalance was insulting. As usual, Ayrien ignored all of Kai’s warning signs and all but waved a red flag in his direction. Kai took a breath. He was not going to punch Ayrien. He was going to make his point very clear. Kai advanced, and Ayrien actually retreated, backing step for step until he hit the wall. His eyes were wide though the smile hadn’t left his face, lit with something that still wasn’t panic despite the situation.
“You are an asshole. No, that’s too generous. You’re a shit stain on a square of toilet paper flushed down to the troll king’s sewers. Months. Months you come into my goddamn work and pull shit and you drink. Black. Coffee.” Kai punctuated the words with three sharp jabs of his finger to Ayrien’s sternum.
Ayrien laughed. “That’s what you’re angry about? The coffee?”
He wasn’t even trying to deny it. “Yes!” Kai growled. “No!” That was and wasn’t the issue. “I’m angry because you barge into every bit of my life outside my home. I hate how you act like you think you’re better than me just because you don’t get angry as fuck over anything I say. I hate how you wear fucking expensive shit and treat it like crap! I hate your stupid smirk and how you get away with shaving only once a week! I’m angry because this is all some sick game to you! I hate how there never seems to be consequences for your asshole ways!” Kai took a breath, aware on some level that he was shouting and up in Ayrien’s face, hands gripped tight in his shirt. “I hate how all you have to do is walk in a damn room and you’re all I fucking think about!”
“Just walk into a room?” Ayrien asked. He sounded out of breath, most likely from being shoved into the wall from the force of Kai’s grip. He was still smirking. “I’m not trying hard enough then.”
Words tripped on Kai’s tongue, trying to form as he saw red. “You—I could just! Fucking—!”He tried to break out of that headspace, breathe, focus on his senses instead of his emotions and thoughts. But the first thing he smelled was Ayrien’s citrus shampoo and sweat, the first thing he felt was the soft cotton shirt in his grip and the warmth of Ayrien’s body, the first things he heard were the rasps of their breaths mingling together, and he could only see gray-green eyes, a smirk, and dusty blond hair sticking to the side of Ayrien’s face. With all his other senses already full of Ayrien, it only made sense for taste to be as well. Words failing completely, Kai bit him. On the mouth.
Ayrien jerked beneath him, a small sound escaping him as Kai’s teeth sunk into his lip. It wasn’t a hard enough bite to bleed, not quite, but it couldn’t be comfortable. Ayrien tasted awful too, like stale breath and sweat from his upper lip. He tried to pull back, but Kai tightened his grip, a snarl of frustration rising from his throat with nowhere else for the emotions to go. Ayrien shuddered and didn’t fight back at all.
Kai pulled back and tried to breathe, but that was hard to do when Ayrien was finally shaken from his control. He was dazed and a bit disheveled and bracing his arms against the wall as if they and Kai’s grip on his shirt were all that was keeping him upright. It should have been validating or something, but Kai couldn’t feel like he’d finally won when this Ayrien had his attention just as acutely as smug Ayrien ever did. More so, even, as he couldn’t look away from the red tooth impressions on his lips or how Ayrien bracing himself only put him in fuller body contact with Kai. Or how he couldn’t tear his eyes away either.
“Fuck.” Kai wanted to laugh or cry or punch something, but he settled for biting Ayrien again, hard along his jaw. Ayrien’s breath hitched, his heart beating fast under Kai’s lips and fist. “Dammit,” Kai said like he’d dropped a plate rather than thrown his control and sanity out the window. His teeth scraped against Ayrien’s stubbly throat.
A sound vibrated against his lips, from Ayrien, not him, then, “Moser.”
“What?” His teeth never left the surface of Ayrien’s skin and he felt Ayrien swallow hard enough that his throat clicked.
“What. What is this exactly?”
Kai laughed, one sharp burst and hid his face in Ayrien’s collar bone. “I have no fucking idea.”
“Because where I’m standing it feels like you’re trying to eat my face off,” Ayrien said in a parody of his usual controlled voice, just a bit too breathy to be normal. “Newsflash, that’s not how you kiss.” The combined impulses to kick him and protest that it hadn’t been a kiss rose in Kai’s gut. “Or did no one tell you that you’re supposed to use your lips instead of teeth? Because that was one of the worst kisses I’ve ever—”
Fuck him, Kai thought. He’d damn well show Ayrien what the hell a proper kiss was. Ayrien’s words were swallowed, pursued by lips and tongue to their source, chasing them from every bit of Ayrien’s mouth that Kai could manage. Ayrien’s words lied but his body didn’t. His words threw criticism, but his body surrendered into it, meeting him and trying to keep up with the onslaught. Kai scraped teeth over bruised lips and felt Ayrien struggle for breath and composure. They pressed together, chest to toe, with Kai still pinning Ayrien willingly there. Fuck Ayrien. Kai would rip away every last shred of his goddamn control and finally wipe away that superior look in Ayrien’s eyes. He’d take Ayrien to pieces and leave him marked for every last time he’d sent Kai over the edge.
Kai released one fist from Ayrien’s shirt and thrust it down between them. Ayrien’s words lied, but his body didn’t. Kai had him literally by the balls at this second and Ayrien was hard as could be, straining away in his stupid overpriced cutoffs.
Ayrien’s eyes were huge, just black pupil ringed with a narrow band of color. He licked his lips. He was still thinking, still holding on to that stupid control and superiority complex and already reforming that smirk. “Too much for you or are you—ah!”
Kai squeezed and released. That…wasn’t pain on Ayrien’s face, or not much. It figured he was just as fucked up as Kai was, just in a different way than Kai’d figured. He undid the annoying European button fly and could swear that Ayrien almost looked relieved for a second there.
“Having second thoughts?” Ayrien asked when Kai let his hand linger for a moment without continuing.
Kai snorted and dropped to his knees. He yanked Ayrien’s pants down with him. The shock on Ayrien’s face was worth everything. He reached up and caught Ayrien by the balls again. An honest to god whimper came from his mouth. Kai smirked. He could see Ayrien trying to pull everything together, but he didn’t let him have the chance. One hand on Ayrien’s hip, the other still between his legs, Kai leaned forward until he took the tip of his dick in his mouth.
Salty from sweat, and really, sweat was mostly what he could smell too. Kai looked up through half lidded eyes as he slid his mouth forward, lips tight around Ayrien’s girth. Ayrien’s mouth was open like he went to speak and had forgotten hallway through. His legs shook against Kai’s forearms and his hands still clutched the wall for dear life. The sight felt like victory, heady and intoxicating to his eyes. He slid still further, then had to turn his attention away from the rapid rise and fall of Ayrien’s chest to the more intimate bits of him at hand. It had been a few years since he last did this. Thankfully it wasn’t hard to fall into again.
Kai alternated between suction and light licks to the head, taking pleasure in how he could feel Ayrien’s control breaking bit by bit with each rapid heartbeat or additional tremor to his legs. He was almost entirely silent, and that also felt like a victory. Words were Ayrien’s weapon and for once he’d finally shut up. His hand shifted its grip on Ayrien’s hip, digging hard into the flesh there to bruise, leaving crescent shapes of his fingernails in evenly spaced divots.
“This,” Ayrien said, tried to say, his voice wrecked like he’d been shouting instead of holding sound in. “This. You.”
Not good enough. He wanted Ayrien to forget his own name instead of always messing up Kai’s. He wanted him broken. Kai pulled back, teeth scraping against sensitive flesh. Ayrien choked on nothing, head thunking back against the wall. Kai left sharp, stinging bites—small red rings of tooth marks that would darken to bruises on the seam of his thigh and up along his hip. He gripped Ayrien by the balls and felt him shudder like he was falling apart and felt vicious satisfaction.
He dove back onto Ayrien’s dick, taking him in as deep as he dared and set a brutal pace, lips tight with suction. Above him Ayrien cried out, broken and stifled halfway through by one arm covering his face. His legs final gave out and Kai had to let go of Ayrien’s balls to slam his hips against the wall and slow his descent down.
It couldn’t be long now, not with the way Ayrien’s dick was twitching or the increase in bitterness in Kai’s mouth. Not with the way breaths came shaking from Ayrien’s chest. The hand not stifling Ayrien’s voice fumbled against Kai’s shoulder—to push or pull, it wasn’t clear, and moments later Ayrien was coming. He curled around Kai, clutching him like Kai was the anchor of the universe in that moment.
The nasty taste of Ayrien’s come filled his mouth. He almost pulled back, but he kept up his efforts until Ayrien choked on a sob, shaking hard and definitely pushing at Kai’s shoulder this time as the stimulation crested the point of pleasure to too much.
Kai pulled back, breathing almost as hard as Ayrien was breathing, to take in the moment. Sprawled against a tiny bathroom’s tile floor and painted wall, Ayrien couldn’t be further from his usual façade if he tried. His hair was wild around his head, half-pulled from the tail he usually kept it in from the slide down the wall. Kai’s bite marks covered his neck and jaw and hips and left Kai with a heady rush of dark pleasure as he palmed himself through his yoga pants, for once glad of their stretch. There were bite marks that didn’t belong to Kai on Ayrien’s right arm.
It only took three tight strokes from his own hand before he came all over the floor and a part of Ayrien’s bare leg. He contemplated the mess as he came down from his high. Kai’s body felt like it was buzzing, but the ache of his knees and jaw were starting to come through the high already. He tucked himself away and shifted off his knees.
When he lifted his gaze, Ayrien stared back, eyes unreadable. They both licked their lips. Kai fixated on the bruises left by that first biting kiss. Ayrien opened his mouth.
He was cut off by a firm knock on the door. “Okay, it’s been twenty minutes since you two locked yourselves in here. Ayrien, did he kill you or are you still breathing? I really don’t want to have to call the police for this.”
Glen. Kai looked at Ayrien. Ayrien looked back. All the pleased, angrily satisfied feelings in Kai’s gut dropped like a meteorite. His face must have reflected this because Ayrien’s expression shifted into concern, an emotion so foreign on him that Kai could think he was imagining it. The bruises forming on his knees said it was real. He almost ran his hands through his hair, remembering at last moment that one had a bit of semen on it. He wiped it on Ayrien’s cut offs where they were still tangled around one ankle.
The knock came again. “Guys? I was joking, but now I’m actually getting worried.”
Ayrien cleared his throat to get words out, still locked onto Kai with a frown. Kai didn’t give him a chance to come up with some excuse or another; he got to his feet and half ran for the door. He shoved past Glen, not sticking around to find out what sort of reaction he’d have. If he walked fast enough, maybe no one would notice what he’d just been doing.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuckity fuck. Angry Kai did not make rational decisions. Angry Kai was an idiot. Kai couldn’t even blame this on Ayrien as much as he wanted to. It wasn’t Ayrien that kissed (bit) first. It was Ayrien that goaded him to keep going. Nope. Nope, not thinking about that. Kai laughed hysterically to himself, walking as fast as he could down the street. He’d forgotten his water bottle and yoga mat. He was lucky he had his wallet and bus pass in his jacket.
His legs burned. His knees throbbed. Kai didn’t stop walking until he reached his apartment, even though it took twice as long to walk than take the bus.
It took three tries to open his eyes, two more seconds to focus on anything, and even then it was only to watch with dazed interest as Kai came all over his leg. Ayrien’s head was ringing, so tangled up with feeling he wasn’t sure where to start with it all. This had all been… unexpected. Caught him flat footed and unprepared and like something right out of one of his naughtier daydreams, like Kai had seen right into the worst bits of Ayrien’s imagination. Kai was flushed, breathing hard and hair a bit tousled, sweat clinging to his face and neck. Lips red. Ayrien licked his lips reflexively and saw Kai mirror him, eyes filling with something that made Ayrien shiver inside. Holy shit.
Ayrien opened his mouth to say that out loud because it was a sentiment worth speaking. Instead, Glen’s voice came through the door, words that filtered in one ear and out the other. The predatory, possessive look in Kai’s eyes was gone faster than Ayrien could blink. He went so pale he was almost green.
“Guys? I was joking but now I’m getting worried,” Glen said outside the door.
It was a struggle to try and pull words together, to try and form sentences when his brain still felt like mush. Ayrien frowned, trying anyway, as Kai looked briefly like he was going to faint dead away. Instead, before Ayrien could even get a word out, Kai slapped his hand against Ayrien’s shorts and bolted to his feet.
“What are you…?” Ayrien croaked, but the door to the bathroom was shoved open and Kai was running out of it. He glimpsed Glen’s shocked expression before the door swung back shut.
There was a distinct, distressed gut feeling that if Kai ran off now, Ayrien might never talk to him again.
Ayrien swore under his breath. His shorts caught around his knees as he tried to struggle back into them. The bathroom door opened again, then slammed.
“Jesus, fuck,” Glen muttered, presenting Ayrien with his back.
“Like this is the worst thing you’ve seen,” Ayrien shot back, mouth finally working. His shorts finally settled over his hips properly. They were stained and didn’t hide the rising bruises on his thighs very well.
“What the hell is going on?” Glen asked the wall.
“Exactly what it looks like.” A handful of paper towels and a bit of water and, hey, water stain was better than cum stain and would dry faster. “Shit.” Ayrien caught sight of himself in the mirror. There were tooth marks on his neck. Shit. There was no passing this off as anything other than what had happened. “What did Moser look like when he ran past?”
“Like he was on the edge of a panic attack,” Glen said. “Ayrien, what the hell?”
“I don’t know. He was fighting, and I goaded him, then he kissed me and… I kind of goaded him to keep going?”
“That’s one way of dealing with that tension you two always have,” Glen muttered. He turned around, judging it safe enough to look. “What are you doing?” he asked as Ayrien frantically tried to fix his hair into less of a mess.
“Trying to look less like I had had sex against a bathroom wall so I can go after him,” Ayrien shot back. “I can’t just leave things like that.” He caught Glen’s eye in the mirror, frowning.
“Huh. You actually have a crush. You legitimately like him.”
“Didn’t we go over this just the other day?” Ayrien scrubbed at his pants with a dry paper towel to absorb at least some of the wetness. “I know you think I’m not capable of that sort of thing but—”
“You’re twisting my words from back then. I said you were emotionally stunted, not that you can’t feel.”
The reminder of their argument a few years back hung unpleasantly between them, not quite as buried and forgotten as they liked to pretend it was. Ayrien did what he always did when he didn’t want to think about something and changed the subject. “On a scale of one to ten, how bad would it be to show up at his apartment?”
“Do you know his apartment?” Glen asked.
“No, but fifteen minutes of internet surfing and I could figure it out. Between him and his roommate, it’s not that hard to find.”
“I’d rate that a seven or eight. Even worse if you managed to get there before him.”
“Do you have any other ideas?” Ayrien snapped. “Because he has had a considerable amount of time to have a head start, and it’d be pretty pointless to go aimlessly running off down the road hoping to find him.”
Glen grimaced. “Phone call?”
“Yes, because that isn’t something that can be easily ignored until he works himself into a full panic and runs away forever,” Ayrien said, sarcasm sharp on his tongue. The situation was…frustrating. He’d been shoved into an endorphin high in a matter of minutes and left with an equally abrupt crash; it wasn’t Glen’s fault he knocked at a bad time, but Ayrien couldn’t help but feel irritated because of it. Ayrien balled up damp paper towels and tossed them in the trash. That was about the best he could do for his appearance. He flicked out his phone and typed in a name one-handed. “Moser has a minimal online presence, but his roommate is the exact opposite. They have a landline in their apartment for business reasons—Leif Chaudrhi uses it as his secondary phone line for the coding projects he runs. Now, if I look up that phone number and follow it back to the address it’s connected with…” He had accounts with places that sold personal information for his investigative work. He felt a tiny sliver of guilt in using those accounts for this, but there had been something in Kai’s expression… “And there you go. An address. And it took me more like five minutes, not fifteen.”
Glen gave him a pinched face look of resignation. He’d seen Ayrien’s determined face too many times to bother trying to argue him out of the plan.
Ayrien met the look unflinchingly. “I don’t want a few minutes messing around in a bathroom to ruin years of interactions.”
“Ayrien,” Glen said, “he hates you. I highly doubt having sex with him changed that.”
“Of course it didn’t.” Ayrien memorized the address, plotting a course for it in his mind as he tucked his phone away. “I would never expect it to.” It wasn’t just hate there though. It wasn’t just buried lust either. Ayrien had more than a bit of experience with both of those things being tossed in his direction, and whatever was going on with Kai, it wasn’t so simple. On either end. He frowned, mentally pushing away the mess of emotions. He didn’t like caring. Somehow he’d ended up caring anyway despite his initial intention to keep Kai as one more person he messed with and moved on.
“Don’t get hurt,” Glen said with a sigh. “Or arrested,” he added probably seeing this ending in a restraining order or something.
God, it had better not end like that. Ayrien waved a hand in Glen’s direction, refusing to acknowledge his concerns. It was nice to have someone that cared, but it was also a pain sometimes. “Take care of my yoga stuff, will you?” Ayrien tossed over his shoulder. He shoved the bathroom door open.
“I’m not your servant,” Glen said after him. He was resigned though, so it meant he’d do it and probably not hold it against Ayrien. Glen was always soft to emotion.
Ayrien set off from the yoga studio. If there were any stares at his damp pants or rising bruises on his thighs, he determinedly didn’t notice them at all.
Kai didn’t know if he was in a state of shock or a state of abject depression, sitting on the apartment couch staring at the ceiling and feeling hollow and blank at last rather than the tumult that had burned through him in his walk back. His thighs ached and his knees were bruising up, but the physical discomfort was as distant as the emotions at the moment. His old therapist would tell him that these things weren’t good things, but his old therapist had had a midlife crisis and left to find herself so Kai figured it wasn’t that bad so long as he wasn’t explosively unstable at the moment. He kind of liked the emptiness. It was like the eye of a hurricane. Unfortunately that meant it would pass and everything would rush back in again and he’d actually have to deal with the things he was feeling instead of existing apart from them for a bit.
Leif was out. One of Leif’s sisters had left a bunch of leftover Chinese carryout containers in the fridge that Kai was welcome to if he felt hungry. Kai didn’t think he’d be feeling much of anything for the rest of the night. He had homework he was supposed to be doing. His limbs might as well have been made of lead weights for all he could get them to move.
It took a while for the knock on the apartment door to register through the blank muteness of everything. When it did, Kai stared at the door for a solid thirty seconds, lacking comprehension.
The knock came again, maybe the second time, or maybe the fourth for all Kai knew. A sharp, staccato rapping for three or four beats.
He forced heavy limbs onto the floor and stood up. Everything protested. All the little aches and pains came rushing back and Kai groaned. “What?” he said flatly, pulling the door open an inch.
Ayrien was on the other side. Kai slammed the door, adrenaline spiking again and burning through the haze of emptiness with a sudden resurgence of panic.
“Wow, I didn’t even get a word in,” Ayrien’s muffled voice said on the other side of the door. “This is already going worse than expected.”
“How did you get here?” Kai asked.
An even more muffled, “I tracked your roommate’s landline,” came through. “Though I could have looked you up,” was almost unintelligible.
Kai’s heart beat like it would race through his chest and away from all his problems. Why, why did Ayrien have to follow? He was a good twenty minutes behind Kai too. What had he done in the meantime? Did he also walk here?
“We need to talk,” Ayrien said.
“No we don’t!”
“Really. We don’t need to address how you sucked me off in—”
Kai wrestled the door open, red faced, to get him to stop blurting out embarrassing things in a public hallway. Ayrien stopped talking the moment the door was open, revealing that he’d said it just to get a response. “Shut up, Ayrien,” Kai said through gritted teeth.
Ayrien was still in the clothes from earlier though he’d cleaned up some. It didn’t hide what had happened though. He had hands shoved in the pockets of his cutoffs, a would-be casual slouch that could have been real except that Kai could see his hands clenching and unclenching in those pockets. “Talk?” Ayrien said, an eyebrow raised pointedly.
Kai growled in the back of his throat and dragged Ayrien through the doorway. He slammed the door and locked it behind them for good measure. When he whirled to face Ayrien, he found Ayrien glancing around the apartment, lingering on little things littered around the space. It felt invasive and a little surreal. “Talk fast,” he said.
“Well,” Ayrien said, looking too calm and comfortable in Kai’s apartment, it wasn’t fair, “I wanted to ask if you’re ok first off. You kind of ran out looking like the world was ending.
“Do I look okay to you?”
Ayrien gave him a once over that was so obvious it was weird because usually Ayrien tried to be subtle with that kind of thing. “To be blunt, you look like shit and like you might have a meltdown at any moment.”
“Well what a coincidence, that’s about how I feel too.” Kai ran a hand through his hair. It was probably already a mess between his freak out and then laying on the couch. “I don’t do this sort of thing. I’m not someone who does bathroom hookups. I don’t do hate sex either, but here we are!”
“…So you’re upset it was out of character for how you see yourself?”
“And because it was you!” Kai threw his arms up and out like he was throwing all his problems into the mix. Ayrien was still too calm, standing with his arms crossed and stupid tooth marks still on his jaw and his hair all neat like usual just….! The worst part of it was that Kai still wanted to kiss him and it was all so confusing. He hid his face in his hands. If he couldn’t see Ayrien for a bit, maybe that would help. “Think of it from my perspective; all I ever want to do is smack you and suddenly I’m kissing you instead.”
“It was pretty nice kissing,” Ayrien said.
“I bit you in the fucking face.”
“Like I said, nice.”
There was something, Kai decided, extremely wrong with Ayrien.
“If it helps,” Ayrien said, “I wouldn’t have minded kissing you at any point in our acquaintanceship.”
“I’m not sure that that does help,” Kai said. He rubbed at his temple with one hand, feeling a headache coming on from all the emotional ups and downs and whatnot. He was tired. Very tired and would really rather go back to that not-feeling quiet state of emptiness. At least there the heaviness was already present instead of lingering at the edges and slowly dragging on his reserves. “It just makes me question every interaction and wonder how much all of this is just you being a schoolyard stereotype.”
“I don’t poke at you because I like you—well, I do a bit, but it’s mostly because it can be fun, not because it’s attractive. Although when you’re really annoyed it can be.”
“I don’t want to hear your kinks right now.”
“Maybe another time.”
It was so…presumptive that Kai couldn’t help feeling sheer disbelief at his gall. He stared Ayrien down and Ayrien shrugged, though he grimaced a bit like he really wasn’t as comfortable as he looked.
“I don’t have much to lose at the moment, might as well put it all out there. You’re troubled by us having sex. Okay. I can respect that even if it’s not something I share. I liked what happened. Kind of blew my mind because I was not expecting things to go there.” Ayrien shrugged again. “But.” He pursed his lips, eyes going far away for a moment for the first time clearly introspective rather than giving Kai all his attention. “But I don’t like that it upset you, because what the hell is the point of having sex if both people don’t have a good time before, during and after?”
“I kind of figured you’d be one of those people who were just glad to get off and think no further,” Kai mumbled.
“Oh, I like that kind of sex too. But if you’re going to have no-strings sex, for me at least it’d be with people I haven’t known for years and I don’t already have a complicated relationship with.” Ayrien leaned forward. “If you wanted no strings, I’d say ok in a heartbeat. But you just said that’s not your thing. Would you rather I just leave you alone and cut contact?”
“No!” Kai blurted before he could even finish the thought of Ayrien never being around again. Considering Kai had been planning to avoid Ayrien indefinitely on his way home, the idea of Ayrien removing himself from Kai’s life filled him with a lot more horror than it should. Ayrien sat presumptively on the couch looking pleased.
“Good, because I don’t really want that either.” Ayrien patted the couch next to him, inviting Kai to sit. Kai frowned. Ayrien waited, his smile and raised eyebrow a conscious challenge. Kai sat reluctantly, putting as much distance between them as the couch allowed. He didn’t trust his self control or impulses at the moment. “So. Since you don’t want casual and you don’t want to go our separate ways, that leaves the question of what do you want? The way I see it, we can pretend nothing happened and go on with life. Or… we hope we don’t kill each other and see where it takes us.”
“Where what takes us?” Kai asked.
“A relationship,” Ayrien said. “Specifically a romantic one. Ish. I’m not really a romantic person, I’ll admit.”
Kai stared. “Ayrien, you don’t do relationships. You barely even do friends. Or do you have any other friends besides Glen?”
“I don’t do them, no,” Ayrien said ignoring Kai’s jab, “but you do.” He pursed his lips and it struck Kai that Ayrien was trying to actually be sincere. Getting him to be straightforward was usually pulling teeth, but he wasn’t pulling out their usual banter, he was trying to actually make things right between them. It left Kai feeling off balance as Ayrien continued. “I don’t know how well it would work, and like I said, we could just bring the worst out of each other and end up pretty much killing each other. Hopefully not literally. But. Yeah. Willing to give it a shot if you are.”
It was ridiculous. Absurd. Kai should be laughing at the absurdity. Instead he looked Ayrien in his damnably bright gray-green eyes and felt his stomach twisting with something that might have been apprehension and might have been hope. He really couldn’t trust his impulses right now.
“It would be really stupid to say yes,” Kai said.
Ayrien winced. “Yeah, too much to hope that-”
“But.” Kai cut him off. “But…God, I know I’ll probably do something stupid like get angry and kiss you again anyway if we pretend nothing happened.” He hugged his legs. “I don’t…. I hate you but I don’t want you to leave me alone and it doesn’t really make much sense in my head. I really don’t like how you show up everywhere—really don’t like how you showed up here—too stalkerish and that’s not okay, not even remotely okay. Don’t ever do that again.”
Ayrien blinked slowly, like that made more sense to him than it did to Kai even though the words were coming out of Kai’s mouth. When Ayrien showed up like that or knew things he shouldn’t it reminded Kai of that guy that stalked his sister Wisteria, and that reminded him of other bad memories, and yeah, that put him on the defensive even before Ayrien opened his mouth.
“Oh,” Ayrien said. “I…is it better or worse that the only time I intentionally found any of that out was your address to talk now? I didn’t know what yoga class you switched to, I just switched to one that was open for my schedule. I didn’t know you would be taking the same art class, and I didn’t know you worked at the coffee shop when I first went in there. I’ll admit I went back hoping you’d be there a lot of times though. I’m actually not trying to be like that with you. Part of it is I just compile information on people unconsciously. Though I do stalk people professionally sometimes as it kind of comes with the whole private investigating business… Which I probably should mention is my job…”
“Just let me know if you’re going to be somewhere I’m at from now on,” Kai said. He didn’t know if it would be a problem or not. He’d find out, he supposed.
Ayrien nodded. “I’m…sorry for making you uncomfortable.” His face scrunched up like apologizing for anything was extremely uncomfortable for him.
Kai snorted. “Don’t hurt yourself.” He looked away for a moment and sighed. “I don’t think I am comfortable with dating you either though.”
He wasn’t imagining the flash of disappointment on Ayrien’s face. For someone who said he didn’t do relationships, that seemed to be the result he was most hoping for. It was almost funny in a stupid kind of way that after years of knowing him and months of being annoyed, this was the most open and laid bare he’d seen Ayrien ever be. He wasn’t hiding or putting on airs at all.
It took a moment, but Ayrien nodded with acceptance. “Okay. What do you want?”
Kai thought about it. A life without Ayrien would be going to school, yoga, work, painting, sitting in the living room with Leif or taking a weekend to visit Gramps and help him weed his garden. There wouldn’t be the worry of losing control in a public place on a regular basis. It’d also be boring as hell, and as much as he occasionally crashed from post-Ayrien outbursts, Kai was aware that all those little outbursts also acted as an outlet for all the little things that built up in his life. He hated that it was all on Ayrien’s terms, not necessarily the back and forth itself. Ayrien was an ass and like hell was Kai going to ignore that. He pushed back when someone pushed him. The few times Ayrien backed off because Kai made him retreat felt like winning an unspoken challenge. But as they were now, even attempting a romantic relationship would be like sitting on a bomb and pretending it wouldn’t go off. They didn’t have the foundation, the lack of animosity, to keep it from going off even if they did throw sex in to lessen the tension between them. And right now Kai’s emotions weren’t exactly romantic anyway.
“I wish life had a reset button,” Kai muttered, only half meaning it.
Ayrien sat straighter. “Huh.”
“I should have thought of that sooner.” Kai frowned at him. “Reset,” Ayrien said. “Everything’s a mess so…” He held out a hand. Kai looked from it back up at Ayrien’s serious expression. “Hi. I’m Ayrien Gray. I’m a private investigator and hobby artist. I like people watching and mystery novels.”
“You’re joking,” Kai said. Ayrien raised one eyebrow, hand still held out for a handshake. Kai took it and laughed disbelievingly. “Fine. Hi. I’m Kai Mosura. I’m a history major. I like reading about conspiracy theories and cryptids.” Ayrien’s eyes flicked around the room, probably piecing together Kai’s connections to posters and other belongings in the room. “This feels ridiculous.”
Ayrien shook his hand and let go. He’d kept an abnormally respectful observation of Kai’s personal space the whole time since he got there. One more thing Kai wasn’t sure how to take. “Well, the first step to starting over is a proper introduction, right?” Ayrien shrugged. “So, now we’ve introduced ourselves properly. Drawn up a blank slate, if you will.”
“To do what with?”
“To go wherever it goes from here,” Ayrien said.
Kai frowned at him skeptically. “Ayrien, if you’re just going to jump into annoying me again once you think I’m no longer freaking out, then this whole blank slate bullshit is pointless. We both know that pretending nothing happened isn’t going to work. Something needs to change, and that change needs to be you.”
Ayrien’s expression went unnervingly blank for a moment. Kai braced himself for Ayrien’s doubletalk and avoidance of the issue. Instead, Ayrien’s brow creased in frustration. “I’m aware. I’m not sure how.”
“Don’t do things expressly to annoy me all the time,” Kai said. “Talk to me less like I’m a puzzle to pull apart and more like I’m a person you want to know.”
“You make it sound easy,” Ayrien said.
Kai snorted. “Change? Isn’t easy. It’s hard as fuck but if you actually give two shits, you do it. You screw up, you apologize, you try again and you get better at it. I did it. But I didn’t do it until I fell out of touch with most of my family, got expelled, and got deep in debt for putting someone in the hospital. I’m still picking up the pieces. But if you really want to change, you shut up and do it.”
Ayrien looked at him with new understanding. It was uncomfortable, like he could see more than what Kai intended to share. He nodded slowly. “Okay. I’ll try. Just… give me hell if I relapse. That’s what Glen always does.”
“…I’m starting to get the impression that there’s a lot of unspoken issues between you two.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Ayrien said with a tiny, lopsided smile. It didn’t have a trace of smugness or mocking in the expression at all. Kai stared and had the realization that this was the longest they’d talked to each other without getting into a fight. Maybe there was something in starting over after all.
The silenced stretched on, an uncomfortable uncertainty of what to do next hanging over them.
“So,” Ayrien said, breaking it, “aliens?” He nodded to one of Kai’s posters.
Kai didn’t know what Ayrien did with his free time, but apparently whatever it was had left a giant X-Files shaped gap on his education. That, Kai supposed, was a good of a place as any to reset their interactions with.
When Leif returned a few hours later, he walked in on X-Files playing on Kai’s laptop and Kai half-heartedly trying to smother Ayrien with a pillow because it was just his luck that Ayrien was one of those people who couldn’t shut up and watch a TV show without commenting on everything. Kai had to defend his favorite show’s value. That night he learned Ayrien had a really ridiculous sounding laugh when he laughed for real.
Kai refused to let that revelation make him soft. Ayrien had a long way to go to convince him he was sincere.
Glen fiddled with an app on his phone, twirling a virtual pot of plants around and around in circles as he waited for Kai’s work shift to end. Ayrien didn’t know he was here. Ayrien would probably be annoyed when he found out, but likely not angry. For a man that loved to incite anger in others, he rarely seemed to reach it himself. Inside, Kai exchanged jokes with a female coworker. Glen had seen her before, but didn’t come often enough to have a name to go with her face. There was a coil of uneasiness in Glen’s stomach that indicated that this was overstepping, but he knew if he didn’t say something he’d regret it.
The phone’s screen went dark and vanished into Glen’s pocket as Kai headed for the door. There was a pause between one step and another when he caught sight of Glen, the smile on his face dimming.
“Hello,” Glen said.
“Hi.” Kai paused just outside the door. Glen jerked his head, indicating they could walk together. With some hesitation, Kai did. “I can honestly say I’ve never seen you without Ayrien,” Kai said as they fell in step together, Kai a step and a half behind Glen on his right. “You’re like his shadow.”
“Mm. Contrary to appearances, we both have our own lives. He is my oldest friend though.” Glen paused. “And I’m one of his only friends,” he added a few steps later.
“Okay?” Kai Moser had always reminded Glen a bit of a skittish cat. Around Ayrien, he was usually puffed up and ready to lash out, but now he was more like one of the strays Glen’s upstairs neighbor fed; wary but hopeful that there would be a good end to an interaction rather than a foot coming his way. “Is this some kind of intervention?”
“Not at all.” It was not surprising that’s where his mind jumped to though. They sidestepped a bicycle rider and a man leading a large, fluffy dog. “I thought I should check in to see that you know what you’re getting into.”
“Wow,” Kai said, sounding a bit irritated at Glen, though not anywhere near the level he showed Ayrien on a daily basis. “As usual, everyone doesn’t seem to think I can make my own decisions.”
Glen waited his irritation out, but Kai didn’t add more. “That isn’t what I meant. You know Ayrien by now, or at least how he can be toward you at his worst. If you think you can handle him like that, then that’s fine.” They were heading forward aimlessly, though it was the road Kai took when he came to and from work. It was a neighborhood Glen didn’t frequent and he trusted that Kai would lead if they went off track. Now, Kai was still that step behind with a small frown clouding his expression. Over a month since Ayrien declared they’d ‘started over’ and so far Ayrien’s behavior toward Kai had changed a lot. Kai’s had changed in response as well, and Glen wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all still.
“People think he’ll change for them,” Glen said, blunt. “Become a whole new person entirely. He won’t. How he is to individuals might change, but it’ll take more than me or you to ever get him to change toward the world at large. Even if you date him, he’ll still be an asshole. He’ll forget your birthday and pout like a toddler if you forget his. He’ll point out the flaws in things you create and pick apart things you enjoy. He’ll refuse to use your name and pick at your vulnerabilities because to some extent he can’t help it. He’ll always push you away while not letting go and every vulnerability you get from him will be like trying to tear teeth from a crocodile.” Glen had spent years to reach the equal footing and openness he had with Ayrien now. Ayrien might have found someone else he wanted to be open with, a bond he wanted to hold onto instead of break before it could form, but that didn’t make years of self-defensive and self-destructive habits go away.
“I don’t expect him to be a new person,” Kai muttered. “He’s still an asshole now, just… that’s not all he is anymore. He’s a whole person not just someone trying to get on my nerves.”
Good. Glen breathed a small sigh of relief.
“And what the heck,” Kai said, speeding up so he’s a step ahead of Glen and frowning back at him. “Are you guys even friends? What kind of friend says that?”
“Yes,” Glen said, “we are.” He smiled thinly. “Ayrien’s an ass, a bit of a sadist, manipulative, and about as open as a lockbox. But.” He had Kai’s full attention now. “He will also tear down people who try to break you, remember the oddest details about what you like at the oddest times, will never miss a meeting, and always keeps his promises. He doesn’t seem it, but he’s hard working and resilient and stubborn. I wouldn’t call him a good person, but I wouldn’t call him a bad one either.”
Kai narrowed his eyes, waiting for something to trip him up the way Ayrien laid traps in conversations, but Glen wasn’t Ayrien. Glen kept walking as Kai rubbed his forehead and sighed. “I really don’t get you two. Is he a friend or an enemy?” It seemed to be a rhetorical question since Kai followed with a much more serious, “Are you in love with him then? You’re weirdly defensive of him and he actually uses your first name.”
It was a question he’d heard a hundred times and no longer felt like a punch anymore. Glen could only laugh now. “Hell no, not romantically.” He shook his head. “Been there, done that, no way I’d walk down that road again. Loving Ayrien is an exercise in frustration and I get enough of that in my day to day life without it.”
Kai looked bemused. “He laughed when I asked him that too.”
“He would,” Glen said blandly. “He never thought about me that way.” It wouldn’t have been a healthy relationship anyway, and Glen knew that he wanted more from a relationship than Ayrien would have been able to give him. “Anyway, don’t hesitate to let him know when he’s pushing too hard. He never stops pressing some button, but he tends to respect when something’s a touchy subject.”
“He’s always been like that then?”
“Not always,” Glen said, a slow tilt to his head. They passed a woman playing a guitar on a street corner, his feet automatically falling in time with the song for as long as it is within earshot. “Not when he was younger and… He changed for me once and I changed too. I doubt it’s the kind of big change you’re thinking of though. He still can take my presence for granted or that I’ll agree to whatever he’s planning as a given. I call him out on it though and he actually listens if I don’t agree with his plans. He seeks me out instead of the other way around. It was a compromise.”
Kai hummed. He fell back a step again. It would be interesting to see if he and Ayrien actually managed a friendship–or a relationship. It was hardly love between them, but Ayrien wouldn’t have fallen for someone who looked at him tenderly either. Kai had stuck around this long. Either things would work out and he’d stay longer, or they’d explode and Glen would help Ayrien pick up the pieces. He’d just had to be sure that Kai wasn’t one of the people who thought a budding romantic feelings would wipe away Ayrien’s personality flaws. The real world didn’t work like a romance novel. Love didn’t make people change. Only the person themself could do that.
Glen hoped they’d find some kind of balance. There was less underlying tension between the two of them the last time he saw them together and Ayrien had been happier lately. That was about the best Glen could hope for.
“I think,” Glen said, “we’ll probably be seeing a lot more of each other from now on.”
“Most likely.” They stopped for traffic at a crosswalk, and this was as good a place to part as any.
Glen stuck out a hand. “I hope we can get along. Thank you for clearing up a few of my doubts.”
“Doubts?” Kai mouthed, bemused and a little annoyed all over again. He truly did get irritated easily. He shook Glen’s hand a bit too firmly. “…You know that I never was angry with you even if I was angry with Ayrien, right?”
Glen shrugged. “That’s good to know, though I wouldn’t have blamed you. Association is a powerful thing.”
“This is where we part,” Glen said, nodding at where the crosswalk had changed to walk. “Thanks for humoring me.”
“You’re welcome?” Kai hesitated a few seconds. “Goodbye?” he said like a question as he made to cross the street.
Glen waved him on, not moving. Kai went, glancing over his shoulder a few times. He was still heading toward his apartment so far as Glen could tell. Glen had a lot of backtracking to get back to his. He felt a bit more confident that Kai wasn’t going to hurt Ayrien and wouldn’t be hurt badly in return when expectations weren’t met. It seemed like Kai didn’t have much expectations going into this at all which was probably for the best.
He pulled out his phone again. There was a message from Ayrien on it, a picture of something that under closer examination was some kind of contraption that would cast strange looking shadows and sounds as soon as the light level was low enough. The caption attached to it said “someone thought they were being cute.” Out of habit, Glen filed away the details, discerning that Ayrien had been hired to figure out the cause of some strange noises and shadows and had come away with someone’s idea of a prank as a result. Glen didn’t keep Ayrien’s case files anymore, but old habits died hard even if he was only keeping mental files these days. The first message was quickly followed by one saying “you could have rigged something better.”
Glen smiled. “Let’s make a better one come Halloween,” he sent back.
He got a smile emoticon in return, as good as an agreement really.
The phone went back in his pocket and he crossed the road in a different direction than Kai had taken. There were other things to be done today that didn’t involve Ayrien’s presence in Glen’s life at all and now that that had been resolved, Glen was going to go do them.
If anyone told Kai a year ago that he’d end up on a date with the guy he punched in the face, Kai wouldn’t have gotten angry, just laughed himself silly at how stupid they sounded. But here he was, a year later, six months since the second Yoga Incident, with Ayrien.
For their first unsupervised (third-wheeled according to Glen) date, everything had gone remarkably well. They ate a meal without it degenerating into poking each other with forks or stealing food, conversation after had been engaging, and it had transitioned seamlessly into making out in Ayrien’s tiny, crappy apartment. It was probably the best mood Kai had ever been in when interacting with Ayrien, all the fluttery intense interested emotions and almost none of Kai’s flashbang anger rearing its head. He would never admit it, but he was feeling practically romantic as Ayrien made his way down his body.
He resisted the urge to fist a hand in Ayrien’s hair and help him along. It felt kind of nice like this, not rushed like the couple of other times they’d messed around. Ayrien’s hair fell loose in dirty-blond strands of gold across his abdomen, ticklish. In his tolerable moments, Ayrien could be called handsome with his hair framing his face and square jaw. Or perhaps pretty with his long eyelashes and kissed-red lips.
Ayrien slid hands up along the back of Kai’s thighs, holding, feeling, pulling down his underwear to bare him to Ayrien’s lips and teeth and tongue. He was half hard, already firming further with the damp warmth of Ayrien’s breath. Kai hissed breath out between his teeth as Ayrien took him just into his mouth, lips soft and slick around him. He couldn’t help but reach out to brush the curtain of hair away to better see, tucking it behind Ayrien’s ear. It was also apparently the last straw for Ayrien because he pulled back.
He pushed his hair out of his face and frowned up at Kai. “You know, I’m not going to break. I think we established that.”
Kai frowned back, reflexive. “I know you’re not, asshole.”
“Then why’re you treating me like glass?”
Kai mentally retraced their make-out session to now. Yes, he’d been gentler than normal. He’d slowed things down instead of going hard and fast, his good mood making him want to linger and savor. “I guess I’m not annoyed at you for once.” He was getting there though; he’d liked how things were flowing but apparently it wasn’t what Ayrien wanted.
“You only play rough when annoyed?”
“I haven’t really been rough with most people I’ve been with at all.”
Ayrien grabbed one of Kai’s hands and put it on his head. “Well you can be. Or do I need to annoy you?”
“I was having such a good night, too,” Kai sighed. Was this something Ayrien enjoyed or something he needed? Sometime—sometime when they weren’t in the middle of sex—he would need to clarify that.
“I could keep trying to find a good nickname for you,” Ayrien said, pressing a soft bite against the soft curve of Kai’s stomach. “Sparky.”
“Mm…” He nibbled lower. “Flame?” Another bite. “Or Flare?”
“Why is everything fire themed?” It was a never ending battle to get Ayrien to use his first name. Kai shifted his hips, hand tightening on Ayrien’s hair without much thought.
“For your lovely, fiery personality of course.” Ayrien paused and snorted, face all but in Kai’s groin. “Really? So banter’s your kink?”
“Shut up,” Kai groaned. Kai shoved Ayrien’s face where he’d been headed anyway. He was hard from being touched, not the…the teasing or anything like that! Ayrien laughed once more before fitting lips around him again, tighter than before as Kai was a lot harder than he’d been a few minutes ago. He bit his lip as he watched Ayrien dip lower. Felt the slide, the wet, warm softness of his mouth that made his hips twitch and his hand clench tight enough to pull Ayrien’s hair taut against his scalp. Ayrien made a tiny pleased sound around him that vibrated through Kai in the best sort of way. His hands were nothing compared to his mouth and he couldn’t say a damn word with his mouth full.
Kai tugged at Ayrien’s hair, saw his eyes flutter shut, going still to let Kai control this, the depth the speed. Use him, if he wanted. Kai shivered, caught off guard at how there was trust there that Kai wasn’t sure he deserved. It brought back a bit of the tingly warm feeling from earlier, the vague fondness that was overpowering the irritation more often when they interacted. Ayrien wanted rough and Kai was in the mood for intimate, so Ayrien would get both.
Both hands caught in Ayrien’s hair, tight with fingers scraping the curve of his skull to grip and pull, thumbs smoothing against Ayrien’s brows in a gentle dichotomy. Kai’s hips rolled up into the warmth, felt the drag of Ayrien’s tongue and the slick drip of saliva when Ayrien couldn’t swallow fast enough. Ayrien’s fingers dug into Kai’s thighs, bruising counterpoint to the pleasure; in that he could understand how there could be pleasure in pain.
He felt Ayrien choke, once, when he thrust deeper than before and hesitated. Ayrien moaned deep in his throat and Kai swore under his breath as it made his toes curl. He scowled at the face between his legs and Ayrien looked back, pupils blown wide but still so smugly amused that it ticked up Kai’s heart rate from more than arousal. “I swear,” he panted, hips moving shallower again, “if you fucking throw up on my dick, we are never doing this again.”
Ayrien choked again, and pulled back so he could burst into ugly laughter against Kai’s thighs. Kai kicked him in the hip and he still kept laughing. “God,” Ayrien giggled, “I promise I won’t, but you should have seen your face.”
“I hate you.”
“You always say that.” Ayrien licked a long stripe up the side of Kai’s dick. “I don’t think you mean it.” Kai’s dick jumped, not turned off in the least by Ayrien’s smug face. Traitor. Ayrien tilted his head back into Kai’s hands even though it had to be half ripping his hair out to do so. “Go ahead,” he said, voice husky. “Choke away.”
Fuck, that should not be as sexy as it was. Kai let his head thump back against the pillows and yanked Ayrien forward again. He stopped thinking and second guessing and chased how it felt, winding the arousal in him tighter and tighter. Ayrien choked again at some point, but Kai could feel him fight past it and swallow, and that—it—
He lost track of exact motions. He thrust, gripped at smooth, thick hair, reached for that place he was spiraling toward. Ayrien was hair under his fingers, sharp nails biting into Kai’s thighs, aborted sounds and rushed breaths, lips and tongue and throat around him. A low whine built in his chest, escaping out of him as he realized Ayrien was practically nose deep to his pubic hair.
He felt Ayrien swallow again, hard, and Kai broke. He forgot to be careful as his hips pushed up into that heat one last time. His breath felt punched out of him, heart beating wildly as his body shuddered with aftershocks.
Ayrien jerked back and away, losing strands of hair to Kai’s grip as he gasped for breath. Kai was dimly aware of his head resting on Kai’s belly as he curled in on himself, chasing his own completion. Two breaths, three, and Kai fumbled to drag Ayrien up for a kiss. Ayrien came from his own hand between them, lip trapped between Kai’s teeth.
There were tears at the corner of his eyes. Kai wiped them away with his thumbs as Ayrien shook and shivered against him, coming down from the high and reclaiming his breath. They collapsed into a pile together. The sheets tangled lumpily under Kai’s back; he couldn’t remember how they’d gotten rucked up in the first place.
“Okay?” Kai asked when his breath and heart were mostly back to normal.
“Mm…” Ayrien stirred. He stretched like a cat, lazy and satisfied against Kai’s shoulder. One hand lifted to rub at his neck. “My throat aches,” he said. He sounded rough, like he’d spent an evening shouting instead of getting his face fucked.
Kai frowned, shifting a bit away. “Shit.” He hadn’t meant to be that rough. “If it bothers you so much, stop me next time or something.”
Ayrien snorted and propped himself up on Kai’s chest. “Wow,” he rasped, “no, did it sound like a complaint? Because it wasn’t.” He smiled all smug and predatorily that Kai almost smacked him away on instinct at having that look directed his way. “I’ll be thinking about tonight every time I notice it.”
What was Kai supposed to say to that? A part of him liked the thought. That part of him liked how Ayrien’s lips were red and swollen and the bruises Ayrien’s fingers had left against his thighs too. That part of Kai’s brain was moronic and possessive and had the IQ of a cave dweller.
Ayrien stretched again, this time to reach for his discarded shirt to wipe them both clean. He was surprisingly gentle about it as he had been the few other times he had cleaned up. One more thing Kai didn’t know how to reconcile with or where to place it among his other observations.
There was no set routine from there though. Kai propped himself on his elbows as Ayrien tossed his shirt somewhere in the direction of his laundry hamper. Last time they did this Kai had been over during the day and they’d cleaned up, talked a bit, and he’d left. The time before that, he’d left almost as soon as the afterglow had gone, not wanting to push his luck on the off chance that sex would change their fragile new dynamic. The atmosphere was different this time though, and, well, Kai didn’t feel like moving.
Ayrien settled back against Kai’s side, head resting against Kai’s shoulder even though he was the taller of the two of them. It left his feet dangling off the edge of the bed like a dork. Ayrien shifted to get comfortable, glancing at Kai sidelong. “So…staying the night?”
Kai opened his mouth, closed it. He probably shouldn’t get too comfortable. But. Ayrien was warm and the bed was stupidly comfortable for a mess of a bed that Ayrien kept piled with too many blankets and pillows. And Ayrien had asked, more or less directly, when it was always pulling teeth with him. Kai thought that perhaps Ayrien wanted him to stay. All reservations crumbled at that possibility. “Sure,” Kai said.
Ayrien nodded, all casual like this wasn’t the first time Kai would be staying over. “Nice. In bed with me or would you rather the couch?”
Ayrien’s couch was an overstuffed giant thing that he swore was something his parents had planned to donate when they got a new one, something about being too worn. It was a bit worn, but Kai had a feeling it was since Ayrien got ahold of it, faint paint stains on the armrests and pizza grease in places. A couple of holes in a cushion from dropping an exacto knife on it. It also had a giant, hideous painting behind it that was supposed to be—according to Ayrien—a portrait of Glen. A joke gift that had been left behind when Glen got his real one.
Glen had to have the patience of a saint some days. If Ayrien had tried to give him that, Kai wouldn’t have been able to be polite about how much he didn’t want it.
“Bed,” Kai decided on finally. “So long as you don’t mind the possibility of being kicked out.” Kai was a restless sleeper at the best of times.
“I’m a blanket thief so it will all work out.”
This was probably the worst idea ever. They’d probably wake up in the middle of the night and end up arguing over who had more blankets. Still… Ayrien seemed almost giddy under his nonchalance. For someone who said he didn’t really do romance or intimacy, he seemed to be happy that Kai was choosing to stay. It was a bit cute. Sex did weird things to Kai’s brain if he was finding Ayrien of all people cute, but what the hell, here he was and he wasn’t moving. Might as well embrace one more insanity among all the others.
“I can’t sleep in too late tomorrow,” Kai murmured. Now that he’d decided to stay, it was surprisingly easy to feel sleepy and content.
“I have a morning appointment,” Ayrien said. “If you don’t wake when I do, I’ll kick you out of bed before I leave.” He paused. “Kitten.”
“Was that your new attempt at a nickname?”
“I’m running out of ideas, you’ve shot too many down. I’m moving on to animals.”
“You could just use my name.”
“I don’t use names casually,” Ayrien complained, “I told you that.”
“You use Glen’s name.”
“Glen is always the exception.”
Why Ayrien never dated Glen despite all the exceptions in his many rules for interacting with people was a mystery. Or maybe not a mystery if Glen had laughed the question on their relationship off.
“You use my last name, so is it that hard to use my first?”
“I’ll use it when I’m being serious or if we’re in bed,” Ayrien said a minute or so later. “Happy?”
“It’ll do.” Kai prodded him in the side. “We’re in bed now…”
“I mean during sex, nightingale.”
“Ugh. I think I prefer kitten.”
“My mouse, my seal, my cute caribou—oo!”
Kai kicked him off the bed. Ayrien laughed the obnoxious cackle he had when he was laughing for real instead of putting on a mask. Kai wrapped himself up in a few of the many blankets and put his back to Ayrien giggling on the floor. “I’m stealing the bed. You can have the couch.” Kai still wasn’t angry at him and only the slightest bit annoyed. He’d transcended to another plane of existence where Ayrien didn’t make him want to punch him for being a shit at all. Weird.
“Kai,” Ayrien complained. He used his name though. Kai hid a smile of his own in one of Ayrien’s obnoxious real-feather pillows. He didn’t kick Ayrien out again when he crawled under the blankets to join him.