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L For Lucky (M for Mine)

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Twenty nine days out of the month, Ray is thoughtful and nice.

He mans the counter at Pauly’s Music and Tech Supply Co., takes out the trash for Evelyn, his elderly neighbor, holds doors open for people; all that shit. He’s donated eight thousand dollars to the local animal shelter, bought them a completely new kennel, and he did it anonymously. There are four little girls, three floors below him, whose father died last year. In October, Ray stockpiled a whole closetful of gifts—dolls, skates, instruments, art sets, legos, laptops—and left it in the hall late on Christmas Eve, tapped on the door and ran, hid around the corner, waiting to make sure their mother found them. When she did, she cried. She bawled, and if Ray spent the rest of his night alone, sniffling into his Hungry Man dinner, then it wasn’t because he was sad. It was the best Christmas present ever, seeing that, and anyway, no one can prove it.

Ray’s kind of like that, kind of like Santa, and it’s awesome.

It’s not a chore. Ray’s a nice guy in general. He was just raised that way. If he sees someone struggling with too many shopping bags or someone too short to reach the cans of tomato sauce at the grocery store, Ray’s first in line to lend a hand. He doesn’t do it for any thanks. He just does it because he’s a good person.

In middle school, Ray was tormented by a girl named Julie Masters. She bullied him relentlessly in what he’d later realize was an attempt to impress her would-be jock boyfriend. One day at the bus stop, she beat Ray’s ass so entirely that he needed six stitches to his head. He had nightmares about Julie for so long that his mom once dyed her hair brunette to avoid inadvertently intensifying his night terrors when she came to wake him.

Ray hated that girl with a passion that was only ever matched by his love of music. But he never fought back, because even when he’s getting his head slammed into the asphalt by someone half his size, he’d never raise a hand to anyone. Ray’s not like his father, he’s not mean, he doesn’t enjoy having power over other people.

Ray enjoys making people happy.

Yes, twenty nine days out of the month, Ray Toro is a Really Great Guy™.

One day out of the month, though, Ray Toro is a World Class Creep™.

To say he hates it is an understatement of mammoth proportions. It eats at him those other twenty nine days. Usually the first of the month rolls around and Ray can’t sleep, he’s so busy beating himself up about it. Most months, he can’t even force food down until the third. For the first half of the month, Ray is not in an emotionally sound place. He has a hard time at work, finds it difficult to pay attention when people talk because he can’t, he can’t, he cannot ever look them in the eye.

He’s always full of shame for a long while. He’s pretty sure it’s given him a couple ulcers by now and he goes through bottles of Mylanta like you wouldn’t believe, but the thing is.

The thing is this:

Ray can’t stop.

*

He wakes up on the thirtieth positively thrumming. He doesn’t want to. He hates how excited it makes him. He’d rather be disgusted with himself truthfully, but that just doesn’t come until after and there’s no use in trying.

The sooner he gets it over with, the sooner he can hate himself again.

Ray Toro is a lot of things—Really Great Guy™ and World Class Creep™—but masochist isn’t one of them.

He gets on the train the way he does every month. He never takes it those other days. The good days. Those days, he wakes up two hours later and takes his shiny, lame sedan to Pauly’s. But on this day, Ray wakes up at six in the morning and hikes it all the way up to the Lafayette station.

No one knows him here.

The train isn’t crowded—never is this early. There are only a few people, folks who have to wake up at ass-o-clock and drag themselves to jobs that Ray figures they have to hate, given the necessity of waking up before the sun rises and all.

No, these people aren’t happy. They’re already ragged around the edges and sore in their souls. Ray’s been there, before Pauly’s, before he quit his accounting job in the city and decided that six figures a year plus benefits wasn’t worth much if he was always fucking miserable.

These people probably have obligations, like kids or sick parents or God only knows—they probably don’t have the luxury of that choice. Really, Ray thinks, the last thing anyone on this train needs is some World Class Creep™ jerking off in the back of the car.

He saves that—that knowledge—so he can beat himself up about it later, because this is the thirtieth and he might as well enjoy it while he can.

He gets settled into his seat and stares out the black window for a while. He eventually texts himself a few reminders about inventory, and then plays two games of Tetris. He doesn’t want to get started too soon, because then he’d be stuck on the train too long after.

There’s a woman in the seat directly in front of him. Ray can hear her moving around every now and again, just fabric shuffling over the seat, and sometimes a quiet sigh, or the sounds of her sipping from her coffee cup. There’s an older guy in the seat diagonal reading a book, and a college-aged-looking kid sleeping in the seat across from him, hood pulled over his head, slumped low and snoring with a backpack dumped into his lap. His glasses are a centimeter or so from slipping off his nose.

Ray’s so hard it hurts.

Two more games of Tetris and one belated game of Bejeweled, it’s finally time. He experiences a very familiar inner conflict about the kid waking up. He doesn’t want him to, he wants him to, please don’t wake up, please watch me. More of the usual.

The kid doesn’t wake up, but the woman’s still sipping her coffee and the old guy’s engrossed in his book. He turns a page and it makes a swish.

Ray’s hand very carefully inches to his lap. His fingers pinch his zipper and just. A little at a time. Pulling down, pausing, pulling down, pausing, pulling down, pausing, until his pants are completely open. He’s not wearing underwear. Ray can feel the air against his erection and forces down a shiver.

He doesn’t pull himself out right away, instead opening his phone to finish that game of Bejewelled. When he does, though, he inches to his lap again, slowly pushing a finger into the gap in his pants.

He stares at the top of the woman’s head. Her hair’s really shiny and dark. He inspects her fly-aways as he runs the tip of his finger up and down his shaft.

She takes another gulp of coffee.

Ray ducks his thumb into his pants alongside his finger and nestles it beneath his dick, just sort of massages himself like that for a while between his two fingertips, knowing this lady could turn her head any at any second and look him in the eye, and would never really know.

He doesn’t call out to her, but it’s a close thing.

When his thighs begin shaking, Ray inches the rest of his hand into his pants, and stills.

He plays another game of Tetris with his teeth sunk into his tongue.

The kid next to him stirs, insofar as he kicks out his foot and his shoe makes a squeaking sound against the bench anchor.

Ray tightens his fingers around himself.

His stomach already feels sticky from the precome.

There’s a moment of stillness that always presents itself in these situations for Ray. A moment where the man has just turned a page and the woman has just taken a drink of her coffee and the kid has just re-settled into slumber. It’s when Ray pulls himself from his pants.

He stares down at it, all red and flushed and wet at the top, and then at the back of the woman’s head again, and he can never be sure but he thinks sometimes the person in front of him has to be able to hear the way his breathing gets fast and stuttered and gritty and desperate.

He wraps his hand around his dick and just does it.

Ray jerks off quick—even though he doesn’t want to—even though he really wants to draw it out, hold off long enough that these people get off the train and new people get on.  His hand flies over his shaft, stops at the head to collect some of the thick wetness there and spread it around.

He knows there’s no way the woman can’t hear him now, with all his shifting fabric and quick breaths and wet fleshy sounds. She’s listening to him jerk off, Ray is positive, because she’s stopped drinking coffee and she isn’t moving around or sighing or doing anything, she’s just…

She’s totally rigid.

Ray’s balls draw up and he can feel the orgasm coming all the way in the back of his teeth and the core of his thighs, and he’s dripping all over the place, all over his fingers, and it’s coming any second, almost there—

The woman lurches from her seat and practically runs to the front of the train.

Ray freezes.

He sits there like that, holding his dick half-in and half-out of his pants, gasping air through his nose while his heart slams against his ribcage, just waiting for another one of those still moments where he can go again.

The man turns another page.

Ray looks at the kid, but he’s still sleeping, and Ray is bummed out. He’s disappointed that the woman left and now no one will hear him or see him being a World Class Creep™, and if he weren’t so close to coming already, his dick would be slowly deflating at the lost opportunity.

Ray is already disgusted with himself for what he did to that woman. He should be in jail, or worse. No one deserves that, Ray knows. He also knows he’ll go home tonight and pull his hair and slap his head, and he’ll cry. Ray cries. He’ll hate himself. He won’t sleep tonight and he won’t eat tomorrow.

He doesn’t want to do this—this thing where he grosses people out or scares them or pisses them off. That’s not where the appeal comes from. Ray’s never been able to explain it to his exes, and he’s tried, lots of times. They never understood why being watched and heard by them isn’t enough, and they’ve never understood that it’s not an insult. It’s just the way Ray’s wired—he can’t help it—and it takes a month, but eventually he just gets so fucking horny for it that all rational thought flies right out the window.

He’d think that was a copout if he weren’t living it.

The woman’s gone and the guy’s too far away to hear anything. The kid’s still sleeping and a big part of Ray wants desperately to leave him be, but the other part of him—the part that’s been building and growing and swelling for a whole month, the part of him that makes him kind of a monster—that part of him looks at the sleeping kid and coughs.

He stirs again, foot tapping against the floor of the train, hands shoved into his armpits. He grumbles and Ray resumes his rhythm, fisting his dick and staring straight ahead, looking for all the world as if this is completely normal.

He hears the kid shifting around and watches him straighten up in his seat and yawn from his periphery. The kid pushes his fists into the air when he stretches his arms above his head, arching his back. Ray thinks it would only take the slightest turn of his head to see Ray’s fist working furiously around himself.

This almost does it for him. Ray pushes his hips up and feels close enough that his calves are shaking from it, but then from the corner of his vision he sees the kid’s head turn.

He does an obvious double take, one of those things you’d see in a cartoon, all exaggerated and wide-eyed.

Ray can’t tell where he’s looking because he can’t physically bring himself to look the kid in the eye, but he knows he’s staring and Ray—

Ray comes so hard he can taste the coppery metallic flavor of blood from where his teeth are sinking into the edge of his tongue.

It’s a mess.

He’s usually a lot cleaner about it, keeps tissues in his pocket to spill into, but he’s being stared at—caught—and he just—

If Ray could, he’s pretty sure he’d come again.

As it is, he begins the awkward process of fumbling himself back into his jeans, getting the denim all wet and sticky, and not caring. He finally gets those tissues from his pockets to clean his hands because the kid is still staring.

Ray doesn’t know what to do.

Usually if people stay, Ray figures it’s because they’re scared of causing a scene or perhaps too embarrassed. He never knows what makes people stay when they clearly aren’t like him, aren’t enjoying it, but he gets that sometimes—people who know what’s going on and choose to ignore it.  No one ever just watches.

Eventually Ray works up the courage to look in the kid’s direction. His face feels hot and his hands are shaking, and when he locks eyes with the guy—can’t be over twenty, geez—Ray nearly chokes on the saliva that’s pooled in the back of his throat.

His face is completely void of emotion, yet his lips are pressed into this straining, thin line.

This guy looks fucking furious.

Ray chokes, “Sorry,” and jerks his gaze away because honestly, what else is he supposed to do here? He fists a handful of his jeans against a thigh and hopes his hair is hiding his face. He repeats, “Sorry.”

“I could report you.” Totally calm.

Ray’s spine is straight and rigid enough that when his knee begins a nervous bob, he imagines he can hear his bones creaking. “Sorry.”

“They’d arrest you,” he says. “You’d have to register as a sexual offender, you know.”

Ray knows that, of course Ray knows that. It’s one of the things that keep him up at night, working on those ulcers. But it’s never felt quite this tangible, knowing this guy probably has a phone and could call it in at any moment, knowing Ray would have to look his mother and friends and brothers in the eye, knowing they know what he does. The way they’d look at him; a sexual offender. His sister-in-law wouldn’t allow him around his six-year-old nephew. She already dislikes Ray in a vague, non-defined way. This is all it would take. He’d never speak to Simon again. Pauly’s gets tons of student customers needing instruments for band. Unable to work the counter, he’d be fired. He’d never tutor a kid in guitar, he’d never mentor his nephew, he’d never be able to show his face again.  

Ray would be finished.

He freaks out.

It’s silly, because some dark part of him accepted these possibilities and decided to do this anyway. It’s no one’s fault but his, and Ray’s the kind of guy who takes responsibility for his fuck-ups.

But it just hits him all at once—all that shame he’d be saving up for the beginning of next month, it slams him in the chest and stomps around inside of it. He can’t breathe. Ray pulls at the collar of his shirt and gasps, “Sorry, sorry,” and feels so dizzy his vision swims.

He really wants the train to stop now.

It doesn’t.

Ray’s first plan is to get up and leave, but he has nowhere to go, because the lady he’d basically assaulted is at the front of the train and she’s probably worked up lot of anger by that point. He doesn’t know what to do, searches frantically for a way out, a way to just end it.

He grabs the back of the seat in front of him, curls his fingers over the place the lady’s hair touched only minutes ago, sinks his fingertips in and thinks if he gets out of this, that’s just what Ray’s going to do.

He’s going to end it.

“Hey,” the kid says, and then closer, “Hey!”

Ray gives a full-body flinch when the guy awkwardly folds himself onto Ray’s bench seat.

He tells Ray in a monotone that’s just this side of annoyed, “Relax, I’m not going to report you.” Then he plucks Ray’s cell phone from the seat and taps at the keys. “I’m going to do the world a favor. And you, too, but I’m doing it more for the world, because I’m like, kind of pissed off at you.”

Ray chokes out, “Sorry.”

The guy’s phone rings in his pocket and he doesn’t answer. He gives Ray his phone back, sits perfectly still and waits until Ray’s shaking hand reaches out to take it. “Don’t come back here,” he orders. He punctuates this with a huff of air and when Ray looks, his eyes are narrowed through his glasses, sharp and penetrating. “No more trains. No buses, no public, none of it.”

Ray’s hair sways when he gives a frantic nod. “Sorry, sorry.”

The guy looks away with a roll of his eyes. “I’ll call you. On Wednesday. Can you wait for Wednesday? What’s your name?”

Ray would be a complete idiot to give this guy his name. “Sorry.”

“Sorry, can you wait for Wednesday?”

Ray has no idea what happens on Wednesday. He can barely parse what this guy is saying beyond the whole not-reporting-you thing. He just wants to get off this train and get back to his apartment, where he can think about what he’s going to do now that it’s over.

He’s never going to have an orgasm again.

“Sorry.”

The guy’s face scrunches up into what’s almost an entire expression. “You should be. The train’s about to stop. You’re getting off, right?” His face blanks again before the guy snorts out a quiet, surprised laugh. “Getting off,” he mutters, rolling his eyes.

The train starts screeching.

Ray kind of hurls himself into a rigid standing position, has to practically strangle the seat in front of him to stop his body from heaving forward or falling back.

The guy scrambles from his seat, all long limbs, elbows and knees. “Wednesday,” he tells Ray, thrusting a finger into his chest. “Lay low and don’t—” He pauses when Ray looks at him, that stiff expression softening up into a loose frown. “Hey, don’t do anything stupid. It’s not the end of the world.”

Ray’s running for the door before he even finishes his sentence.

*

It takes Ray a long time to talk himself into getting on another train back home. He spends most of it in the bathroom of that station, hunched over the toilet puking up last night’s dinner. His kingdom for a bottle of Mylanta, seriously. He rests against the stall and stares at the graffiti framing the toilet.

He very carefully doesn’t think.

When it starts to get busy, he finally lifts himself from the floor and washes his hands. There are still damp spots on his jeans from where he came. One rests just below his pocket and he stares at it in the mirror for a few minutes, fixated.

He thinks orgasms aren’t everything. They aren’t necessary. He can survive without coming his brains out once a month, right? So he’ll probably never get off again, at least not for the foreseeable future, and Ray thinks it could be worse. He could be in jail right now. He could be on the phone with his mother explaining why exactly that is. He could be kissing his career and nephew goodbye.

No, orgasms aren’t everything, and Ray’s done with them. Hates them, really. The way they rule his life and karma like this? It’s stupid. It’s not worth it, and this is it. He’s done. He’s finished.

He feels an acute sense of relief at this knowledge. A weird kind of freedom. He’ll never upset people again. He’ll never get home on the last day of the month feeling like that slime attached to the hair people pull out of shower drains. He’ll never have to jump out of his skin every time the phone rings thinking this is when the police call informing him they have a video of Ray on the last day of the month on so-and-so train.

Ray Toro will never come again.

And he’s okay.

He boards the train back to Jersey and it’s packed. It’s his wet dream, all these people crammed up next to him, and Ray isn’t even hard for it.

When he pulls out his phone to play a game of Tetris, he finds he’s received a text.

wednesday, it says. just wait.

*

Over the next two days, Ray gets all kinds of text from that guy.

me = Mikey.

u better not be on a train.

3 more days!

u okay?

dont freak out so much.

sorry? u there?

at least let me no ur still alive.

sorry?

He really wishes they’d stop, because all they do is remind Ray what a creep he’s been, and he’s done with that. He just wants to start over, but his phone keeps chirping at him, calling him Sorry and he keeps chugging Mylanta like the recommended dosage is nothing more than a joke at this point. Ray doesn’t really get why this Mikey guy would care if he’s okay or still alive, and he has no idea what happens on Wednesday, but Monday rolls around and he’s sitting behind the counter at Pauly’s, just really thankful that he still has this job and feeling…

Well, Ray is feeling okay.

He’s in a better place, he’s been sleeping a little more, and he can almost keep down a whole meal.

A student’s just walked out of the shop with a new tuba when Ray randomly gets out his phone and texts Mikey—just one word—just one swipe of eraser against his miserable fucking existence.

Ray, he tells him.

He’s done being Sorry all the time.

Mikey responds an hour later, 2 more days ray.

*

He’s not sure what he’s expecting, but when Ray’s phone rings on Wednesday, he knows it’s Mikey. Ray doesn’t answer, but only because he can’t. Like, physically, his body rejects the very idea of it.

Mikey texts him an address instead.

dress comfy, his next text says. and bring 25 dollars.

Ray doesn’t plan to go. For all he knows, it’s an undercover sting to lure in sicko perverts or something. He doesn’t know Mikey one bit. Hell, Mikey could be a worse sicko than Ray.

Ray tells himself all of these things as he makes the hour long commute to the address he was sent. He’s smarter than this—public indecent exposure aside—and he knows it’s stupid and dangerous to just follow some absolute stranger out to BFE, and yet…

Well, and yet, Mikey hadn’t seemed like a sicko. He seemed to be offended and disgusted by what Ray was doing, and that alluded to a solid moral compass at the very least. It’s more than Ray can say for himself.

And Mikey was worried about him.

Ray accepts how pathetic this is, but it’s been a real long time since anyone worried about him.

The place ends up being truly in the boonies. There’s a driveway like a mile long that doesn’t even show up on his phone’s GPS app and Ray would be lying if he said he wasn’t freaking out something fierce, but the closer he gets to his destination, the more he begins to see lights.

And not just lights, but activity. People, cars, noise. He’s overwhelmed with relief when he reaches the building, parking his car beneath a tree on the fringes of the commotion.

It’s like a party, he thinks at first, but not a huge one. There are maybe fifty people standing in the yard of what looks to be a two-story Victorian house, and Ray can do this. Ray can party.

He doesn’t even wonder at first why Mikey would invite him to a party. It doesn’t really hit him until Ray’s ambled up to the building and realizes it’s, like, closed.

So, a private party.

Ray gets a little nervous.

There’s a chick to his right in this really heavy jacket. Nothing weird there, but her legs stick out of the thing and she’s wearing fishnets and these ridiculously hot stiletto heels, and a little niggling settles into the back of Ray’s conscious.

Who comes to BFE in stilettos?

A lot of the girls look like this; really nice stockings or, in some cases, really tight pants, and in two cases, really tight leather pants. Though, to be fair, one of those might actually be a dude. And then all of these facts begin kind of slowly gravitating toward the other fact, which is that Mikey is a guy who caught Ray jerking off on the L, and this was apparently in answer to that.

Ray promptly turns on his heel and heads for the car.

“Ray!” someone calls, and he knows it’s Mikey, but he’s a little busy freaking out at the moment, thank you very much. “Hey, wait. Stop. Stop! Jesus ass-fucking Christ, your legs are like, freakishly fast, give me a break here.”

Mikey catches up to him and Ray says, “Um.”

Mikey crams his fists into the pockets of his black jacket, breathing hard. “Don’t make me run. Ugh. Gross.”

“Sorry.” Ray doesn’t know why he says this. He’s actually not for once.

“Yeah, look.” Mikey turns his head to peer at the crowd over his shoulder. “This is going to seem weird, but.” He stares behind him and seems, for a moment, at a loss for words. “Well, there’s no tasteful way to say it.” Mikey looks Ray in the eye and just shrugs. “This is a highly organized sexual gathering for very specifically kinky people.”

Ray feels a bit of spittle lodge in his throat and tries his best not to sputter when he disagrees, “That’s actually a pretty tasteful description of an orgy.”

“Hm.” Mikey looks down at his shoes, nudges a bit of gravel with his toes. “Kind of? Like, well. Only for exhibitionists and voyeurs.” And then, after a frustrated breath, “My brother is better at explaining this.”

Ray gawks at him. “You come to orgies with your brother?”

Mikey makes a harsh, disgusted noise in the back of his throat. “Not like that! But so what if I did? You’re pretty judgmental for a guy who gets off jerking it on public transportation.”

Ray tries to work up some indignation, but fails. “I’m not doing that anymore,” he says instead.

“We know you aren’t, because if Mikes was reading you right, you can get everything you need right here.” The guy who says this sidles up to Mikey and gives Ray a grin that’s just this side of maniacal. “Hi, I’m Gerard.”

Mikey tells Ray, “My brother,” and then turns a blank expression onto Gerard. “You’re late. You know I’m not cut out for all this sales pitch bullshit. I’m just here to get up on some dick.”

“We talked about this,” Gerard whines with these big betrayed eyes. “You’re supposed to exercise some discretion around me, motherfucker.”

“Whatever, not like it’s a secret.” Mikey gives Ray one more look and walks off before Ray can stop him or, like, make some kind of diversion and dive into his car.

Gerard doesn’t let him. “Oh, hey, let’s have a talk!” He loops an arm through Ray’s and walks him toward the house. Ray really can’t believe Mikey and this guy are related in any way, because Gerard is all huge eyes and crooked mouth and subtle curves… basically a total inversion of Mikey altogether. Gerard starts, “Ignoring for a second that you indecently exposed yourself to my baby brother—” Ray shrinks into his jacket. “—and probably countless other completely innocent individuals, I’m going to help you.” Gerard pauses and turns his big eyes on Ray, smile faltering. “Ask me how.”

Ray blurts, “How?”

Gerard’s smile springs back instantly. It’s kind of freaking Ray out. “This! Alphabet Manor!” He gestures widely to the house and the crowd. “Some of these people are like you. They got off on public exposure. Exhibitionism, you know? And others got off on peeping. Those are the voyeurs. And some of them would go around, kind of like you, and do some pretty shitty things to fulfill impulses they don’t really have much control over. If you think about it, we were the answers to each other’s problems all along. Don’t get me wrong, some of us are just casuals, looking for a good time, shaking things up, right? But a lot of us…” Gerard looks at Ray then, eyes vaguely questioning. “Sometimes people need it. Do you know what I mean, Ray?”

Ray gives one, hesitant nod.

Gerard explains. “There’s no reason why we can’t all get what we need. But safely, and consensually. Does that sound like something you’d be into?”

He answers honestly and uncomfortably, “I don’t know? Maybe?” Ray’s never had anyone talk about his… impulses… like they’re completely normal, like Gerard is convincing him to buy a certain model of sedan and not participate in a symbiotically kinky sex party. It’s a lot for Ray to take in without wanting to crawl into a hole and die. He sort of can’t get over the fact he’s surrounded by dozens of people who know about it—seeing that he’s here and all. It’s like he’s accidentally updated his facebook status to reflect his World Class Creep™ urges.

Ray Toro is in a relationship with sex, and it’s complicated.

“How about this.” Gerard brings Ray to a stop at the front of the house where, now that he looks, he notices a whole setup at the front door—a table and a bouncer-type person, processing the entrants, giving them wrist bands and taking money. “Why don’t you just take a look around, get a feel for the crowd, you know? You don’t have to do anything you don’t want. That’s what this is all about.”

“Um.”

“You can’t really do anything but watch anyway,” Gerard declares. “You have to bring proof of clean health before you qualify for the green bands. We have a designated clinic that gives our members STD testing at a bulk rate.”

He absently takes the business card Gerard offers him, but Ray doesn’t think STD testing is something one should get on discount. Instead of saying so, he wonders, “Green bands?”

Gerard’s eyes light up. “Oh yeah! This was my idea. Look!” He pulls Ray to the front of the line, off to the side, and begins gesturing at the little bucket of wrist bands set up there. “We give the blue to the people who watch—the voyeurs. Orange is for solo exhibitionists. Red are for the people who already have a partner. Green is for people who may or may not already have a partner, but are open to offers, either way. If you’re only into one gender, yellow for male, purple for female. We had a brown band once, but let’s not get into that.”

Gerard demonstrates how it works by giving the bouncer his money and a folded piece of photo-copied paper. The bouncer looks at the paper and nods, asks, “The usual?”

Gerard beams. “Yes please!”

A minute later, Gerard’s wrist looks like a rainbow.

Ray scratches his neck and observes, “You uh, took one of like, every color.”

Gerard gives him a stern look. “Don’t ask people about their bands, it’s awkward.”

“Oh.” Ray blinks. “Sorry, man.”

“No problem!” His smile bounces back. He gives Ray a soft clap on his shoulder. “What do you say? Feeling a little blue?”

The bouncer’s watching him, not necessarily hostile, just curious, and Ray wonders if he’s really going to do this.

He sighs, reaching for his wallet. “Twenty five, right?”

*

At first, it seems like the most unnecessarily complicated orgy in the history of sexual liberation. Orange, red, blue—all those color-coded preferences seem a bit much to keep track of. Not to mention that the name of the place, Alphabet Manor, probably has something to do with every room having a letter and very specific purpose.

Ray decides if he’s into this, he’s going to make a chart and get it laminated, keep it in his pocket or something.

There’s the B Room, which Gerard tells him is always dark because apparently hearing people having sex is a certain type of voyeurism, who knew? There’s the D Room, which is for “Dudes,” the S Room for, “Purely heterosexual happenings,” the L Room, “For the ladies,” and the A Room, where just about anything goes into anywhere.

It’s pretty crowded in there.

Gerard confides, “The ‘A’ is for ‘Awesome’.”

There’s an M Room, which is divided by a one-way mirror. Ray doesn’t see the appeal of being watched if you can’t watch the person watching you back, but he’s beginning to realize Mikey’s earlier advice about keeping an open mind is fairly important here.

Ray had no idea there were so many people like him.

He loses Gerard somewhere around the A Room. One second he’s waxing rhapsodic on the art of consent, and the next he’s beaming at something across the room, squeaking at Ray, “Gottagoseeya!”

Ray blinks and he’s gone.

He stands stunned in the hall for a moment, only mostly wishing the wall he’s leaning against would somehow absorb him via osmosis. The whole tone of the gathering is changing. People have removed their heavy coats. There’s more chatter. He observes a couple a few feet away lingering in the entryway to Room D. They start out talking but gradually gravitate closer. One guy begins softly caressing the knuckles of the other guy’s hand where it hangs loose at his thigh. They’re wearing these little flirtatious, impish grins.

Ray yanks his gaze away, feeling intrusive, only—

Well, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

It takes him a solid minute to remember that these people want to be watched. The guys are both wearing orange and green wrist bands, fingertips tangling, so Ray knows it’s okay to stand here and observe their flirting. Hell, if he comes around at the right time, Ray can watch them making out. Possibly doing more.

It’s just difficult to un-learn a lifetime of social mores.

Ray decides he clearly needs a little desensitization.

He all but sprints to the L Room.

*

The L Room turns out to be either a good idea or bad idea, depending on how Ray approaches it. On one hand, there’s a room full of women having sex, and hey, that’s never going to stop being awesome. Here he’s been psyching himself up for watching some really steamy makeout sessions when most of these people are naked within the first hour.

Ray spends most of his time in the L Room very quietly freaking out.

By ten, almost half of the women are already engaging in full-on, no-holds-barred cunnalingus, heads buried between thighs, moans floating all around him, fingers thrusting around tongues, breasts jiggling with shuddery gulps of air. He keeps half-expecting someone to jump out and punch him in the balls for being a creepy creeper who creeps.

There are a lot of creepers in the L Room, but they’re not creepy. Some of the guys even talk to the women in-between orgasms, casual conversations and deep laughter hinting at a deeper fondness. These people know each other. They talk about movie releases and meatball recipes and city ordinances; they don’t haul ass to the front of the train, grossed out or scared or violated.

It’s like a different planet, like Mikey and Gerard have shoved Ray into a parallel universe where people get to have this, and not only do they get to have it, but everyone gets to enjoy it.

And when the women start making out again, hands disappearing between legs, the men just whip it out and start jerking off to it.

It blows Ray’s mind and he gets it.

He totally gets what Gerard was saying before about consent, and it shouldn’t be such a revelation (you mean it’s better when the other people want it, get out!), but it’s not like Ray’s never tried that. He’s had girlfriends before, the occasional hookup in club bathrooms that were casual and semi-public and hot as fuck because no one cared and everyone was expecting it. But Ray could never successfully build a foundation of a relationship on that.

He’d go out with his girlfriends and have the time of his fucking life, and they’d all want to go home after, to the bedroom, to privacy and comfort, and he wanted to give that to them—he really did—but it just never worked out for Ray. He could barely keep it up long enough to get them off, let alone come himself.

Ray’s had six girlfriends and he’s never once been the one to end it.

And if he’s being honest, even Ray himself isn’t a fan of those clubs he liked fucking in so much. Sure, the public sex was mindblowing, but without a girlfriend to enjoy it with, it was always empty. He’d often leave the clubs feeling lonelier than when he arrived. It was sad.

Ray gave up because it was black and white; he could either have a committed private relationship void of pleasure, or physically satisfying yet empty, unfeeling hookups. The trains were his only glance of gray, only now Ray’s starting to realize that maybe he’s had it all wrong.

The L Room gives him a raging boner. He doesn’t do anything about it—he’s not sure if he’s allowed without proof of testing and he’d rather punch himself in the balls than actually ask someone the proper protocol for mid-orgy band-color-changes. When he leaves the room, he can already feel a dampness starting to form at a focused point in his briefs.

It’s weird for Ray—he’s never been much for the voyeurism thing, and yet one well-placed gust of wind against his dick would probably have him blowing his load all over the place.

The other rooms aren’t helping.

There are condoms and little packets of lube at every turn, pouring out of glass bowls and ceramic vases and, in more cases than Ray can count, decorative skull cookie jars.

Everywhere he goes, there are people getting off; guys getting blown in the M Room, heads thrown back, everything on display, women getting fucked in the A Room, forearms braced against the wall, bent at the waist as their eyes search out the spectators, making connections and keening in pleasure.

Ray walks past the D Room on a frantic mission to find a place that doesn’t have sex on display where he can calm the painful throbbing inside his jeans. He has absolutely no inclination to observe the Dude Room—it doesn’t gross him out, it’s just never really been Ray’s thing—but on his way past, he sees a flash of long, skinny pale limbs and stiff blonde hair, and briefly falters, eyes fixing on a couple in the middle of the room.

Mikey’s getting fucked and everyone’s watching.

He’s on his elbows and knees, head dropped between his shoulders, palms resting on the back of his neck. There’s a dark-haired guy behind him pistoning his hips with these short, wild motions that rock Mikey back and forth, making his arms flex  with every thrust. The guy almost looks mean, Ray thinks, all dark eyes and stony sneer as he fucks forward and snaps back.

But then he bends down to nose along Mikey’s spine, presses a sloppy kiss to Mikey’s knuckles where his hand curls around his own long neck. There’s a certain tenderness in how he cups the crown of Mikey’s head before grabbing a fistful of hair and springing back to continue smacking his hips into his ass.

He’s putting on a show, Ray realizes, showing off for the crowd in the room, bending back and—Ray can’t see the guy putting Mikey’s ass on display from his position outside the door, but the room makes a giant, collective moan, people angling for a better look.

Another guy close by presses a palm to Mikey’s ass cheek and pulls, spreads it even further to expose more.

Mikey goes rigid and gasps, shoves a hand down his body to fist himself. He throws his head back enough that Ray can just make out the wrinkles at the bridge of his scrunched-up nose when he comes, shuddering a groan through tightly clenched teeth, glasses knocked askew.

Ray books it out of there so fast he can almost ignore the warmth of the slowly spreading, sticky stain in his briefs.

He doesn’t think about it when he finally dives into his car—not about Mikey and the long straight lines of his body, and not about the way everyone in the room was watching him getting fucked. He doesn’t wonder why everyone stopped what they were doing to fix their eyes on him and the dark-haired guy. It’s pretty clear why.

When a star goes supernova like five feet away from you, you take the dick out of your mouth and pay attention. 

Ray drives and doesn’t think about it, and then he gets home and he doesn’t think about it some more, and when he gets into bed he keeps not thinking about it with such intensity that even his dreams are blank.

One sexual identity crisis at a time, he thinks.

*

He awakes to a text from Mikey the next morning.

have fun?

Ray doesn’t answer. ‘Fun’ isn’t really the word he’d use for it, and. He’s still in a bit of haze just processing it, these new possibilities, this chance he has at actually feeling pleasure again without negatively affecting other people.  He’s not sure exactly how to describe that the previous night has shifted his entire reality into something ten times bigger and more colorful than it was just twenty-four hours ago.

It just won’t fit into a text.

Mikey doesn’t seem to care.

He texts again: same time, same place, the 12th.

*

He goes to that clinic Gerard referred him to. Discount STD testing or no, Ray is showing up on the twelfth with that fucking paper if it kills him, and he’s not the kind of guy who turns his nose at a deal. His shitty insurance through Pauly’s doesn’t exactly cover ‘Expedited blood tests for the purpose of highly organized orgies’.

He recognizes someone in the waiting room. It’s one of the guys from the beginning of the night, flirting with the other guy in the doorway to the D Room.

Ray feels hardcore awkward.

Fortunately, the guy either doesn’t notice him or follows some unspoken etiquette that Ray hasn’t been informed of yet. He should probably see to that, he thinks, maybe try catching Gerard before the twelfth, because he feels like he’d be really enthusiastically forthcoming when not distracted with live sex happening mere feet away.

But maybe not contacting people is part of the etiquette, too. Maybe it’s like Fight Club.

The first rule of orgy club, etc.

His tests come back clean, but that’s no big surprise to Ray. He hasn’t had sex with anyone but himself in almost a year. Still, he understands the necessity of the practice and—well, Ray feels good about it—about the safety and precautionary measures being taken. It makes it feel less like an orgy. Like he’s doing it right, officially, responsibly. Like he’s been playing on one of those shitty First Act guitars from Toys-R-Us his whole life and has suddenly saved enough for a vintage electric Fender Stratocaster.

He feels inexplicably proud and just… fucking excited.

He can’t wait for the twelfth.

Ray flattens the paper over the passenger seat of his car and takes a picture of it with his phone, sends it to Mikey with a text.

I’ll be there.

Mikey responds first with:

fuckin a.

And then a moment later:

a is for awesome.

Ray snorts a laugh into the silence of his car.

*

At ten on the twelfth, Ray’s peering down at the bucket of green bands, wiping his sweaty palms against his thighs.

The guy manning the table at the entrance to Alphabet Manor is really patient with him. He says, “Take your time,” even though there are three people behind Ray waiting.

They don’t even sound grumpy about it. They’re laughing. Everyone here is so nice.

Maybe it’s that they’re all going to get laid tonight.

Ray… isn’t.

He points to an orange band that feels like a ten-ton weight on his wrist as he stumbles through the door, face hot.

He discovers a large refreshment table that he must have missed before, nestled into one corner of the front-most room. There’s Dr. Pepper and Sprite and Coke and Juice, and beneath the table, a cooler with more bottles of water than he can count, all crammed into ice.

“There isn’t any alcohol.”

He turns around and comes face to face with Mikey. He’s got his jacket slung over his arm and is wearing the tightest pants Ray thinks he’s ever seen. He’s also wearing makeup, eyes lined in black and softened with a dusting of dark eye shadow beneath his glasses, hair sticking out from beneath a beanie. His gaze feels painfully intense, even though he’s just wearing that same bored expression as always.

“Oh.” Ray’s instantly uncomfortable looking him in the eye. “I was just—I wasn’t looking for anything in particular.” He wonders if Mikey’s even old enough to drink yet.

“Yeah, just thought I’d let you know.” Mikey explains, “Alcohol equals drunk people, equals bad decision-making, equals fights. Gee put a ban on it last year. Kind of a bummer sometimes.”

Ray doesn’t miss the flick of Mikey’s eyes down to his wrist. He almost wants to make a comment about the distinct lack of green there, but he’s got nothing that isn’t the truth, which is that he’s a coward.

He just stands there tugging at it uncomfortably.

Mikey lifts an eyebrow. “The J Room.”

“Huh?”

“It’s masturbation only,” he says, shuffling around Ray to fix a cup of coffee. His eyes briefly slide to Ray. “Like, if that’s your thing. I know Gee probably didn’t get past A. Frank’s usually hunkered down in there unless it’s my turn.”

Ray’s head spins a bit. “Who’s Frank?” and then, “We take turns?”

Christ, now he’s going to need a date planner to go along with his laminated chart.

“Frank is Gee’s Red Band.” He waves this off as unimportant. “But nah, no one has to take turns, it’s just that watching Gee fuck people would be an epic boner-kill, so we have to like, you know, coordinate to avoid life-scarring events.” He shrugs. “We rotate D and A.”

“Ah,” Ray bobs his head. “Makes sense.” He wouldn’t watch his brother fucking anyone either. Jesus. Brain bleach.

When Mikey pops the top of his can, Ray notices his delicate wrist and the single red band there. He realizes now that the significance of the bands is dependent on any other bands they’re being worn with. Obviously Gerard has a red band—Frank, apparently, whoever that is—but he has a green band, too—and purple for female and yellow for male, so basically, Ray guesses, he can be propositioned, but the person doing so will know he already has a steady partner—it’s nothing serious.

Ray’s a bit overwhelmed at knowing this is all beginning to make perfect sense to him.

Mikey doesn’t have a green band, though. Just red. Just sitting there on his young, trendy, pale, nubile little wrist, screaming totally fucking unavailable to everyone and anyone.

Ray feels itchy and nervous just talking to him.

He briefly considers asking Mikey who his Red Band is—that guy with the dark hair and tattoos and showy demeanor, no doubt—but he remembers what Gerard told him his first night.

Awkward, indeed.

“Anyway,” Mikey says, already half-turned to walk away, “J’s on the second floor at the end of the hall. You’ll like it.”

Ray thanks him for the advice and watches him disappear. He yanks his eyes away when he realizes they’ve dropped to Mikey’s ass, two perfect curves hugged into denim, jean-wrinkles like slashes just below the arch of it.

*

The J Room is really swanky.

Ray gawks at all the heavy fabric draped over the windows, the large decorative pillows piled all over the floor, and shiny lamps with crystals that throw little glitters of light against dark red walls. He’s been getting off on grimy trains and, in between last-days-of-the-month, smelly public bathrooms.

This is basically The Waldorf Astoria of jerking off.

It hardly seems practical for a room that probably sees more semen than a naval base. It makes him nervous, standing in the corner and avoiding everyone’s eyes, wondering how he could possibly blow his load around all this nice stuff.

No one else seems to share his reservations.

There’s a guy by the door, leaned up against the wall, cock hanging out. He isn’t naked or anything, he’s just… he’s just jerking off. It’s really nice and slow, sort of sensual, like he’s putting on a show for all the Blue Bands in the room. There are five of those, three men, two women, and four Oranges. This room isn’t as crowded as the A Room or even the D Room, which turns out to be more pro than con.

It just begins feeling like a lot of pressure to masturbate in front of these people.

What if he comes too soon?

What if he can’t come at all?

What if he can’t keep it up?

What if they think his dick looks weird?

Everyone will see, which he knows is the point. It’s what he wants—has wanted his entire sexually-active life. It’s just that he’s used to going into these things wondering if someone might see, not having the guarantee they will.

Up until now, it’s just been, like, theoretical.

Some of the people in the room notice him, these quick little glances at his band, like they’re wondering what role he’s going to play tonight. His shoulders curl closer toward his ears when he lowers himself to the floor.

He thinks, maybe he just needs that moment. That moment of stillness where he knows he can just let go.

“Cool hair.”

Ray wills himself not to tense, to turn his head and look at the guy—late twenties, lots of tattoos—who’s slid along the wall to be within comfortable speaking distance. Ray touches his hair. He doesn’t know why. Just making sure it’s there, maybe.

“Thanks.” He only stutters a little.

“First time, right?” At Ray’s expression, he gives a little laugh. “It’s cool, we’ve all been there. It isn’t super obvious or anything.”

Ray’s hopeful, “Yeah?” gets another laugh from him.

“Hell no, you’re radiating that shit like nuclear fallout,” the guy admits. “But I didn’t want to give you a complex about it.”

Ray grimaces, muttering, “Too late for that.”

“That’s a good thing.” The guy slides close enough that Ray wouldn’t even have to extend his arm completely to touch him. “We all have complexes here. Nobody comes into Alphabet Manor perfectly calm their first couple of months. Social maladjustment is pretty much a requirement. It’s what makes it work. If you brought some normal motherfucker up in here, we’d all lock up.”

Ray feels weirdly defensive. “I don’t know. A lot of these people seem normal to me.”

The guy gives a dismissive gesture. “Yeah, when we’re around our own. I mean, you’ve probably met Gerard by now, so you’ve already heard the whole ‘conventional sex as artificial social constructs holding us down’ speech—” Ray hasn’t, but now he kind of wants to. “—but I’m a little more pragmatic.” He shrugs. “I get off on weird shit. It is what it is. I’m not ashamed of it, but I’m under no illusions here. I can’t be myself twenty-four-seven, three-sixty-five. Know what I mean?”

He doesn’t know if he totally agrees with most of what the guy’s saying, but Ray admits, “Yeah, actually. I know all about that.”

The guy grins. “I’m Brian, by the way.” He extends a hand and then looks at it, lifts a shoulder, “We should get the hand-shaking out of the way before Purell needs to be involved.”

Ray takes his hand with a nervous laugh, making note of Brian’s bands; blue, green, and purple. At least Ray knows he’s not being hit on, not that Brian isn’t attractive or anything, but Ray’s just not at that point in his sexual discovery quite yet, and he doesn’t want to ruin a possible friendship before it’s even begun.

He tells Brian, “It really is. My first time, I mean.” He yanks at his orange band a little, and then for some reason he won’t bring himself to regret later, Ray explains all the differences between the J Room and the train, and why exactly that’s freaking him out.

It’s nice to be able to talk about it. Not nearly as awkward as Ray would have thought.

“Like, what do I just… whip it out?”

Brian snorts. “Sometimes people do things to break the ice, I guess. Frank likes to bring a huge plate of brownies for the room. But honestly?” Brian looks at him and says, “I’m shit at baking, so I pretty much just whip it out.”

Ray laughs. They talk like that for a good hour, just bullshitting around about this and that. Ray discovers that Brian actually works at an independent recording studio, which monopolizes most of the conversation. By midnight, the J Room is beginning to get a little crowded. There’s a woman like five feet from Ray and Brian sprawled on her back, fingering herself.

Brian’s sentences grow shorter and shorter and his eyes keep drifting over to her, until eventually, his words cut off completely.

He breathes, “Goddamn.”

Ray agrees, “Yeah. Christ.”

She spreads her legs further apart. Her skin is so dark it’s almost an unreal shade of exotic taupe. It makes the orange band around her wrist seems as if it’s glowing.

Brian wasn’t lying before.

He whips it out.

Ray isn’t surprised or anything. There isn’t as much space as there was earlier. There’s another guy to his right and two women beside him, and the dark-skinned girl is surrounded by people.

Everyone’s got their hand between their legs, except Ray.

He spares a moment to appreciate the irony there before he decides, fuck it. It’s no moment of stillness, but he doesn’t need those anymore.

Ray unzips his pants and takes it out.

It’s thick and red and the air against his skin makes him shiver. He just holds it there for a little bit, enjoying the sensation, too nervous to really check if anyone’s looking but unable to miss it when the guy to his right turns his head and stares.

He mutters something under his breath that Ray doesn’t quite catch, and then, “Wow, you’re hung, man.”

It’s like a punch in the gut—if a punch in the gut also made someone crazy horny—which, Ray guesses, maybe for someone out there it does. He has to squeeze is dick at the base and squirm around for a second just to stop himself from blowing it right there. He has absolutely zero idea how to respond to this. “Thanks,” he decides, voice ragged.

Ray’s been sort of unconsciously watching this guy jack off from his periphery for the last five minutes or so, which is the only reason he notices that he’s going faster, stroking harder.

“Just, like…” His breath grows a little stuttered when Ray flexes his fist, hikes the tail of his shirt a little higher up his stomach to show him more. “Fuck. I think it’s most perfect dick I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of dick.” Some strained laughter.

Ray’s flattered, but between the awkwardness of a stranger complimenting his cock and the fact that he can’t even really stroke the thing or he’ll come, he doesn’t know how to express it.

Ray groans.

Hopefully, he’ll get it.

“Do you w—” His pause is abrupt, and then a hasty, “Never mind.” Ray looks just in time to see his eyes dart away from Ray’s solo orange band back to his cock.

He looks horny and breathless and vaguely disappointed.

It occurs to Ray that maybe—very possibly—this dude was about to make a pass at him.

It doesn’t even matter then whether or not Ray strokes his cock.

At least he misses the pillows.

*

“Oh, you’re in now.”

Ray pauses wringing out the bottom of his shirt, cold and wet since he just stuck it beneath the faucet.

Mikey doesn’t meet Ray’s confused reflection in the mirror as he washes his hands. He just uses wet fingertips to rub at his smudged eye makeup beneath his glasses, shadow smeared toward his temples and cheeks. He explains, “You’re not a true Alphabetonian until you’ve been half-naked in the bathroom at one in the morning, washing your favorite shirt with Dial.”

He’s a lot easier to look at without all the eye makeup. Ray smiles and admits, “To be fair, it’s not my favorite shirt.”

“Subconscious preparation.” He shakes the water from his hands, one corner of his mouth curved up. “You’re like, AP levels of jerking off.”

Ray is getting the weirdest compliments tonight. The weirdest, best compliments. “Too bad my high school didn’t offer that. I could have really excelled.”

“You and every other teenager.” Mikey grabs the edge of the counter and awkwardly climbs onto it. He unlatches the small window near his shoulder and pushes it open, lights a cigarette and tells Ray, “This isn’t officially allowed, but Gee makes the rules and he’s a giant fucking nicotine addict, so.”

Ray nods.

Mikey asks, “You like the J Room?” and there’s something in the voice he’s using that’s cautious—searching.

Ray shuffles back two steps to put his shoulders against the wall, struggling not to squirm. He answers honestly, “It was amazing.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, like…” Ray fidgets with smoothing out the wrinkles from the bottom of his damp shirt. “It was weird at first, I guess. But once I got over the… um, stage fright, yeah, it was fucking, like—” Ray scratches the back of his head, gives a frustrated laugh. “Sorry, I don’t know how to talk about this casually yet.”

Mikey’s eyebrows hike up his forehead. “No, that’s fine, it’s cool. I was just wondering because I had no way of knowing if you were an exhibitionist or just, like.”

Ray deflates and guesses, “A World Class Creep™?”

“Right.” Mikey exhales and his shoulders seem to loosen. “Some people get off on that, you know. The whole non-consent thing, grossing people out...”

Ray bursts, “I don’t, I swear! That part was...” He almost rushes out everything—all the sleepless nights and weight loss and those really bad nights, the ones with the crying and the hitting—but his stomach gives a violent lurch and, for a moment, he thinks if he opens his mouth, he’ll probably vomit.

“I believe you,” Mikey insists, eyes sort of soft at the corners. “You get that look on your face, you know. Like you’re about three seconds from throwing yourself off a bridge. Kind of freaked me out that day on the train.”

Ray feels himself flush, from the tips of his ears to the base of his neck. “Sorry.”

Mikey snorts a sudden laugh. “There was that, too. Haven’t heard that many ‘sorry’s since Frank spilled orange juice on Gee’s Spawn Issue Number One.”

“I am, though.” Ray looks Mikey in the eye and says earnestly, “I’m really sorry, and I’m really grateful you made me come here. You basically saved my life, dude.”

He knows it sounds a little melodramatic. It’s just an orgy and orgies aren’t life-saving—except for when they apparently are, because Mikey had this as an alternative when he easily could have reported him. Anyone else in his position might have, and they would have been right. Ray’s life would have been over. There’s no coming back from that—hiding, sure, but there’s no erasing it.

“That’s fuckin’ awesome,” he says, eyes alight. “Alphabet Manor saves lives. I’m going to make Gee put that on a t-shirt.” Mikey beams at him, this sudden toothy smile that pushes his cheeks toward his scrunchy eyes, and Ray—sexually repressed weirdo previously operating as a creepy straight dude who can’t keep a girlfriend to save his life, Ray—is totally fucking gone for this guy, just like that.

Ray breathes and thinks, Oh.

Oh, shit.

He’s still wading in this strange, sinking self-awareness when Mikey shakes his pack of cigarettes from a pocket, extending them to Ray with a nod. He hasn’t smoked in years, but he takes one and nestles himself up by the window, getting goosebumps up his arms from the chill of the breeze against his wet shirt, and maybe a little because of the way the cigarette tastes, bitter and rich in the back of his throat.

Maybe also a little because of the way Mikey’s lip purse when he exhales a lungful of smoke off to the side toward the window.

Jesus, he looks young.

They don’t talk about the J Room anymore—Mikey seems to get that Ray isn’t quite there yet—but they joke about putting slogans on shirts they’d all just end up ruining with jizz stains anyway, and they’re still laughing about it when other people come into the bathroom.

On their way out, Mikey ducks around him and gives a brief tug at the orange band on Ray’s wrist. He says, “Bet there were a lot of disappointed faces, huh?” He gives Ray a slanted look, lifting an eyebrow, but Ray can’t tell if it’s flirtatious or not.

He grimaces. “Not really.” He doesn’t push it when Mikey scoffs, because yeah actually. There had been one. But it was probably a fluke, or more likely, the guy just appreciated a big dick, which is about all Ray has to offer in aesthetics. He’s kind of like Brian in this department. He’s under no illusions here. He’s definitely a three in a house full of nines. Everyone here’s so far out of his league they’re basically in another galaxy.

When explosions happen in Mikey’s league, it takes people in Ray’s league three days to see it.

Because Mikey wears tight pants and eye makeup, and he has these tiny little wrists and slender sharp hips and this amazing perky ass, and when he smiles big—which is basically never—he exposes these two front teeth that slightly overlap, and even they look perfect and comfortable, because his eyes get all squinty and he has this vague suggestion of dimples, like they might appear if he’d just stop squeezing his lips together to stop his grin from spreading.

Ray thinks again, Oh.

Right, of course.

He’s never been into a guy before. Sure, he’s popped some wood and here and there, but it’s never been, like, a thing for Ray. And he doesn’t even know Mikey, who has to be at least eight years younger than him. They’ve barely spent any time together. He’s seen Mikey get fucked, and Mikey’s seen him jack off, but he doesn’t know what kind of music he likes, or if he’s still in school, or what he wants to do after, or if his Red Band is some super serious relationship or if he even wants Ray to know all those things.

Hell, Brian’s a more viable candidate at this point, and he’s not even chasing dick.

It’s not logical, Ray knows that. It’ll never happen. It’s kind of stupid. It doesn’t make sense and it makes him impossibly creepier.

It just is.

*

There’s a website for Alphabet Manor. It’s a private deal, members only need apply. Ray fills out the form the moment he gets home; normal stuff like a screenname, email address, whether or not he’d like to remain anonymous, and all that.

Once he’s approved, he finds the calendar Mikey told him about before they departed. It has all the dates for the next six months.

One lands on his second-cousin’s wedding.

He anticipates he’ll be pretty sick on August the tenth.

*

The back of Pauly’s is famously cluttered.

Sales haven’t been good enough to support the procurement of warehouse space, so every month they take in new shit that never goes out. And every month, they’ll sit around and throw tantrums about the absolute shit their absolutely shitty supplier has sent them.

It’s sort of a ritual.

“I told that motherfucker to get a fucking pen and write it the fuck down, and he still fucking fucked it up.” Ray watches Bob shove a finger at the box of Zildjian drum sticks, face twisted in indignation. “No one fucking wants these. I fucking told him. What the fuck am I supposed to do with this fucking shit?”

Ray shrugs and suggests, “Sell them and use the profits to buy a dictionary. Your vocabulary could use some variation, man.”

“Fuck you.” Bob, Ray’s boss and owner of Pauly’s, hates Zildjian drum sticks. Ray doesn’t think this opinion is sweepingly shared in the music community, but Bob’s a drummer, and if you can’t use your business to support your own artistic ideals, then really, when can you?

Ray turns the page of the Guitar World he’s reading. “Just send it back. No big deal.”

“The fuck’s with you?” Bob eyes him over the magazine, stomping closer. “You’re all fucking…” He makes a gesture that’s curt and indecipherable. “Fucking weird.”

Ray frowns. “I’m not weird.”

“You fucking are,” he insists. “You finished stocking an hour early and you haven’t even bitched about them sending the cheap nylon strings you hate.”

“They’ll sell.” Ray shrugs. “Students can afford to break them. Won’t take up any space.”

“This shit is fucking creepy. And it’s fucking with my happy bitching time, so knock it the fuck off.”

Ray sighs and lowers the magazine, looks toward the box of Zildjian drumsticks. He agrees, “It’s pretty shitty how they’re pushing those drumsticks when everyone just wants the cymbals. They really need to just accept it.”

“You got fucking laid.”

 Ray’s gaze snaps to Bob. He balks. “Did not!”

“Did fucking so.”

“Did fucking not.” At this point it occurs to Ray that not having sex doesn’t really earn him any cool points here. He sits a little straighter. “So yeah, I did.”

He could have probably.

“I fucking knew it, you fucker!” Bob scowls at Ray, and then the box of drumstick. He visibly deflates, grumbling, “Well it’s no fun if you fake it,” and stomps back to the front the best he can while weaving and squeezing himself between towers of boxes.

Ray shrugs and lifts his magazine, tries to look a little less fucking content.

It’s no dice.

*

One of these nights, Ray’s going to be standing at the entrance to Alphabet Manor with complete confidence. He’s going to know what color bands he’s getting, and he’s not going to have any problem requesting them.

Tonight is not that night.

“Take your time.”

Ray tugs on one of his curls hard enough to make his scalp sting. “Orange and green, yeah. And. Just. Just purple.”

One of these nights he’s going to walk into the manor without a vague sense of disappointment that could have easily been avoided, had he grown a pair and just gone for it.

Tonight though, he walks inside and tries to at least feel proud that he’s gotten the green band. That was a big step. Maybe next time, he thinks. Definitely next time, he’ll get the yellow. He’ll see what this whole dude thing is about.

Next time, definitely.

*

He finds Brian in the J Room again and makes a beeline to his corner. He’s afraid at first that it’s kind of like starting a new school, clinging to someone who’s just the approachable side of popular and praying like hell they won’t realize you don’t have anything in common until you’ve managed to find someone more compatible to latch onto.

Ray has nothing to worry about.

“Oh fuck, dude!” Brian curls his top lip into a disgusted curve. “Zildjian and those fucking drumsticks. When are they going to get it? Just make your fucking cymbals and shut up.”

Brian is cool.

They talk until the crowd starts picking up, and then the conversation wavers—doesn’t fade, necessarily. It’s like they both want to keep talking, but it’s just—

There are a lot of tits going on.

When they start jerking off, they both kind of edge away from each other. It isn’t awkward or weird, there’s just no physical attraction there. They both seem cool with that.

Ray manages to last a lot longer this time. His dick gets a few stares, but he tries not to notice them so raptly, like with the guy from before. His original plan is to jack off and come back and do it again, wash rinse repeat until everyone’s gravitated to the first floor, and noticing all those stares is going to speed this whole plan up way too fast.

Then a red-headed woman drops down at his side and says, “Hey, nice cock. Can I blow you?”

Her green eyes are very bright, sharp and flashing with humor. She’s not wearing a shirt.

Ray sputters, “Um.”

“You can say no,” she says. “I’m very good at taking rejection. Brian, tell him I’m good at taking rejection.”

Brian’s kind of busy. He licks his lip around a grunt and doesn’t look away from the threesome of women fingering themselves in the middle of the room.

Ray spares them all. “YEAH.”

Her smile widens around a laugh. “Rock on! A Room?” She nods at the door and braces her palms on the ground to stand.

Ray scrambles to his feet, hastily shoving his dick back into his pants so he can help her up.

He’s a fucking gentleman.

She laughs again and tugs him from the room. “You weren’t wearing the green band last time. It was a bummer!” Before he can stammer a reply to that, “And then when I saw you wearing it tonight, I was like, if he’s wearing a yellow band, I’m going to kick something. So many yellow bands around here, you know. Sometimes it feels like you need to have a cock to get one.”

Ray cringes thinking about the fact he really wanted a yellow band.

Like, kind of bad.

She continues, “Not that I don’t enjoy watching guys getting it on, because I really do. But it’s obvious, isn’t it? That we need a little more diversity?”

Ray nods absently when she glances at him over her shoulder. It’s an uncomfortable walk with his erection throbbing between his legs, and he’s painfully grateful when they make it to the A Room.

The A Room is clearly ‘the cool table’ of Alphabet Manor. The J Room doesn’t have any chairs, no beds, just pillows. The Manor is well kept, something Brian explained necessitated the door fee.  Ray doesn’t really have a problem with the pillow situation—he understands from a financial standpoint the funds Alphabet Manor receives must go to more important things, like for instance, bulk condoms and lube and disinfectant for said billion pillows.

However, the A Room (really less of a room and more of a ‘we knocked down a bunch of walls and this happened’ kind of thing) has all kinds of chairs. None of them match. Some are swanky like the J Room, some are plush and textile, like the B Room, and some are clean and white, like the M Room.

It’s obvious the people in the A Room just took all the chairs from the rest of the house.

There are also three beds, highly coveted if the impatient glances from the people directly surrounding them are any indication.

The A Room is sort of fucking elitist.

Ray feels offended on behalf of his poor little J Room.

The redhead pulls him far enough to catch sight of an empty chair (some of them aren’t even being used, the injustice!), in which she promptly pushes Ray into.

She doesn’t play around—just folds fluidly onto her knees and deftly undoes Ray’s fly. He’s lost most of his boner, what with all the outrage, but it bounces back quickly enough that he’s already straining against his boxers when her hand reaches inside.

She doesn’t ask him to use a condom, which is probably a good thing because Ray couldn’t squeeze his cock into one of the million types they’ve got lying around the manor if his life depended on it. The blowjob is nothing especially fancy.  Her teeth scrape his dick a couple of times, which is something Ray doesn’t care for at all, but she’s got enthusiasm and a few of the people around them are watching with lust-hooded eyes. One guy to his right is currently fucking into some other guy’s mouth.

There are other things happening; gay things, straight things, oral things, really weird things.

Ray tries not to really notice them, focusing instead on the hot wet mouth sinking down on his dick and the handful of eyes Ray can practically feel boring into them.

He comes fast enough that he feels his face flush in embarrassment.  

The redhead doesn’t mind. She wipes at her mouth and says, “Thanks,” and then, after a beat, “Maybe you could…I mean, if you wanted to…”

Ray starts. “Oh! Right, yeah! Yes, here.” He helps her from her knees into the chair, cursing himself for forgetting that he can make offers, too. He manages not to stutter through asking, “Can I eat you out?”

When she agrees, he peels her jeans from her legs. They’re tight and cling to her curves, and he tries not to imagine that it’d be like this with Mikey; pulling down the waist and folding it over the thighs, tugging it down the knees and grabbing the jeans at the ankles when he remembers to take off the shoes first.

It’s just that it’s really hard not to think about it when Ray realizes Mikey’s Red Band is, like, ten feet away from him, fucking some other guy. If he’s here, then Ray figures Mikey might be too, and holy fucking Christ, that does it for Ray.

That does it for him so much.

Ray buries his face between her legs and tries very hard not to hear the guy grunting (these vicious little uh uh uh’s), or how the other guy he’s screwing is crying out his name (Pete, Pete, Pete), or how everyone is rooting him on (Yeah Pete, fuck him, come on, faster).

Ray jacks off as he’s eating her out and ends up coming all over his fist, holding it out away from them as he fingers her with his other hand.

After, when she’s all limp limbs and Ray’s face is almost as much of a mess as his hand, he thanks her and excuses himself. He doesn’t quite know if that’s the right etiquette here, but she seems just fine, so he power-walks his way to the bathroom.

*

He goes back the A Room.

Ray doesn’t really have a reason to do this, since the redhead is gone. He’s more disappointed than he thought he’d be. She was really pretty and seemed nice enough. Maybe he was bad at eating her out, he worries. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to come in her mouth, or maybe he offended her because he didn’t offer to reciprocate fast enough.

Maybe the only part of Ray she was interested in was between his legs.

“Brenda had to take off.” Ray watches as Mikey kicks a chair a little closer to Ray’s, dropping into it with a roll of his shoulder. “Said to tell you ‘later’.”

“Oh.” Ray frowns, dries his palms on his knees and wishes he could have, like, walked her to her car or something. Mostly he’s wondering how long Mikey’s been in here and if he watched before, Ray getting blown, Ray licking Brenda sloppy, Ray jacking off. “Okay, thanks.”

Mikey doesn’t say anything else and Ray finds the Pete guy instantly, fucking a woman now, all sprawled out on one of the three beds as she rides him. He’s kind of disgusted by this guy’s stamina.  He can’t be much younger than Ray, maybe twenty five, twenty six.

Ray hates the hope that blossoms when he realizes this. Maybe Mikey’s into older guys?

Like Mikey and the guy he was fucking before, the girl is wearing a single red band and nothing else. Ray wonders about it more than he should. Like, how is it fair that Pete gets to fuck all these people, but Mikey and the guy and the girl all wear a red band for him?

He’d ask but he can’t, and anyway, Mikey makes this noise from beside him, a quiet sigh that makes Ray go rigid. He panics that he’s about to whip it out and start going to town, which Ray doesn’t necessarily mind or anything, but it’s not a Brian type of situation where there’s no attraction and it’s not weird to see his come face.

He frantically searches for something to talk about that isn’t sexual. “Neat shoes,” he blurts, sinking into his seat and trying not to roll his eyes at himself.

Real smooth.

Mikey blinks before lowering his eyes to said shoes—just a grungy pair of All Stars, toes both pointed slightly inward. He visibly wiggles them. “Cool, thanks.”

He tries coming up with something else, because it’s either that or try to build the entire foundation of a conversation on shoes, and Ray’s not really that well versed on the topic.

But then Mikey sighs again. “This place needs music.” He turns to Ray and asks, “Don’t you think we need some music?”

Ray nods, rubbing his palms on his knees again. “Music would be cool.”

“We almost got a whole sound system once,” he says, eyes wistful. “It was going to be my job, to like, pick the music.” His lips push to the side. “But we had to choose between that and the mirror in M.”

“That sucks.”

Mikey jerks a shoulder. “It’s a nice mirror anyway,” he says before straightening from his bored slouch in the chair. “Guess I’m finally up. Later.” He gives something resembling a wave and makes his way across the room to Pete.

Pete’s chugging from a bottle of water, his dick just swaying between his legs like he does this all the time. Ray supposes he probably does. Mikey just stands there by the bed, arms folded over his chest, toes still pointed inward. They talk, but they’re too far away for Ray to hear.

He could move closer like everyone else seems to, but that seems skeevey.

Maybe he’ll go jack off over in their general vicinity later.

When Pete wraps his hands around Mikey’s waist and tug-tug-tugs him closer to the bed, Mikey’s arms drop and he climbs into his lap, knees his way flush against Pete’s body, hips pushed forward into his chest.

Pete palms Mikey’s ass when they kiss, cupping it from below before sliding his hands down the backs of his thighs, then up again, kneading him through his tight jeans, pressing their crotches closer and closer.

Mikey lifts his shirt over his head, knocking his glass off in the process.

All around him, heads turn to watch.

Ray gets up and leaves.

*

He goes into the D Room only because he sees Gerard in there as he passes it, and he goes to see Gerard only because he isn’t fucking anyone and is fantastically clothed.

“Oh, Ray!” He gives a for real, genuine gasp, and turns to what Ray can only describe as his captive audience. “You guys, this is Ray. He’s cool, alright?”

Everyone gives solemn nods at Ray’s shy wave.

“Hey, here. Sit here, okay?” Gerard offers Ray his chair, because apparently the D Room is the A Room’s first in command or something and they’re allowed to keep their chairs.

There’s the most ridiculous shuffle of bodies Ray’s ever seen when he takes Gerard’s chair. This bulky guy offers Gerard his chair, and then some blond guy offers the bulky guy his chair, and then some guy in a lace teddy guy offers the blond his chair.

This goes on and on, until the last person in a chair looks at the last person to sacrifice his.

The little tattooed guy tips his chair back on two legs, grinning cheekily. “This is my chair, motherfucker.”

The guy scowls and folds himself onto the floor.

Ray almost offers his chair, but then realizes the wave of body-shuffling that’s sure to follow would just be too much to witness with a straight face.

Gerard looks at Ray and says, “I was just telling Colin over here, because he’s new right? I was just telling him that conventional sex is totally an artificial construct built to benefit the patriarchy.”

The little tattooed guy makes a fart sound with his mouth. “Which he already knows because he’s gay.”

“Well yeah, but.” Gerard twirls a lock of hair around his finger, frowning. He then drops his hair and beams. “But Ray’s not!” He grabs his wrist to illustrate this, holding it in the air like Ray’s some kind of prized fighter who just TKO’ed someone.

He points at the purple band there. “See?”

Ray mutters, “Um, well actually…,” and is about to embark on a particularly uncomfortable and windy explanation of his very likely bisexuality, but Gerard doesn’t let him get that far.

“You see, here’s the thing, Ray…”

Gerard holds Ray’s wrist for the entire ‘lecture’, at least until he pulls Ray’s hand into his lap and then holds that, occasionally looking at Ray with these big, earnest eyes, like he just really wants Ray to know Gerard’s super concerned about the overall sexual and emotional welfare of their contemporary society. The people within hearing distance all turn to him like flowers to the sun, like he’s their messiah and prophet and weed man, all rolled into one, and maybe in some ways—especially when Gerard looks at him with those eyes, Jesus Christ—Ray get’s it.

They look at Gerard like he’s their savior.

The tattooed guy is the only person in the whole huddle who doesn’t seem convinced Gerard is the second coming, but even he has hearts in his eyes. The only real difference is that the tattooed guy doesn’t look at Gerard like he has all the answers; he looks at him like Gerard is the answer. It’s clear as day this guy must be Frank, because Mikey’s little wave of dismissal from before makes perfect sense to Ray now.

Like, who else would be Gerard’s red band? Duh.

By the time Gerard’s metaphors finally taper off to more literal responses about an hour later, Ray’s feeling better.

He feels better about being in Alphabet Manor, about being an exhibitionist, about being Ray Toro.

He listens to Gerard and yeah, Ray get’s it.

*

Ray goes with Frank to smoke a cigarette in the bathroom. He’s still not really comfortable with doing it himself, like if tries it without someone with close ties to Gerard, he might find out it’s more not-allowed than everyone’s been telling him.

They run into Pete, who’s on his way out.

He latches onto Frank’s head with both arms. “My little Frankenstein!”

Frank makes a grumbling sound, shoving him off. “Who are you calling little, you fucking homunculus.”

Pete somehow manages to slither his way to Frank’s back and kick his legs around his hips. He settles there and looks at Ray. “Whoa, who’s the dude with the hair, Frankie?”

“That’s Ray,” he says, and then begins thrashing violently until Pete stumbles to the ground, leering at Ray.

“Fresh meat?”

Ray practically feels himself go pale.

“Not for you,” Frank says, “Unless you’ve grown a vagina since, like, two hours ago.”

Pete visibly brightens. “You were watching me! Who was I with? Ryan? Patrick? Mikeyway? Did I look good? What was your perspective, because my right profile is terrible.” He strikes a pose.

“You’re left profile isn’t much better.” Frank turns to Ray and assures, “He’s just hitting on you because he’s afraid the newest addition to his harem has exposed his latent heterosexual tendencies.”

Pete gasps, puts a hand to his chest. “Ashlee is manlier than both of us combined, I’ll have you know. She’ll peg your ass into next year.”

“The only thing she’s pegging is you as a straight fucker.”

Pete cries, “I’m gayer than you’ll ever be, Iero!” but it disappears behind them when Frank shuts the door in Pete’s face.

Ray mutters, “Weird,” and Frank says, “You mean the complete inversion of social norms in which it’s more of a stigma to be straight than gay?” He lights his cigarette, grinning. “Welcome to A.M. That shit’s cutting him pretty deep right now.”

“No, I meant it was weird there apparently isn’t a winning personality behind him getting four different people to fuck him exclusively, on a regular basis.” Ray doesn’t like how bitter he sounds, but there it is.

Frank only looks surprised at this for a flash of a second. Then he shrugs. “Pete knows how to throw the D.” And then, after a beat, “He’s not as bad as it looks.”

Ray lights a cigarette and lifts a shoulder. “None of my business, I guess.”

Frank doesn’t let it go. “No, it’s like. He doesn’t ask them to be exclusive. They’ve already done all this—” He gestures widely, to what guesses is to signify the entire manor. “The novelty of it wore off. They wanted something steady and reliable, and Pete’s like… he cares about them, you know? He’ll help Ryan make his rent, and he’ll sit in a fucking waiting room with Patrick for seven hours while his mom’s having chemo. He supported Mikey when he dropped out of school, and he beat the shit out of Ashlee’s ex when he tried to date rape her.”

It takes Ray longer than it should to realize Frank’s tugging on the red band around his wrist.

There are no other bands there.

“I know Gee’s spiels are like, forty percent reckless idealism and twenty percent outright bullshit, but. There’s some truth in there.” Frank takes a long inhale of his cigarette and tells Ray, “Unconventional sex doesn’t exclude us from conventional relationships.”

Ray winces. “I didn’t mean—”

“No, I get it, man. It looks bad, I know. And I’m not going to lie.” His smile goes crooked. “It’s not for everyone. Sometimes it fucking sucks.”

Ray guesses uncomfortably, “So you and Gerard…”

“It’s not really like Pete and The Harem,” Frank explains. “Pete’s exclusive to them, but it spreads his attentions a little thin. Gerard—” Here, Frank gives Ray a smile that’s just this side of blinding. “He might give his ass to a lot of people, but I’m the only one who gets the rest of it.”

“It seems like that’d be easier.” Ray can’t imagine either scenario, if he’s being honest. He doesn’t classify himself as a possessive douchebag or anything, but Ray is always ‘that guy’; the one who’s more invested, more attached, less secure. Watching his partner fuck other people would make Ray absolutely fucking miserable.

“Eh.” Frank shrugs, putting his cigarette out beneath a faucet. “Different strokes and all that. Pete tries the best he can, but even he can’t make it work indefinitely. I know at least one of them is getting fed up. He’s just…. Hm.” Frank fixes his hair in the mirror, lips pursed in thought. “Mikey has a hard time admitting he got himself into something that doesn’t really fit him anymore.”

Frank gives Ray a Very Significant Look.

Ray turns away to close the window, trying to calm the sudden stampede of his pulse. He offers a totally nonchalant, “Oh, hm. That’s gotta suck.”

“Shit. Ray. You’re about as subtle as a Goatwhore album.” Frank laughs at Ray’s expression, which is stuck somewhere between abject horror and carefully manufactured blasé. “Pete was right, I was totally watching in the A Room. And so were you, when it was Ryan and Ashlee. But when it was Mikey’s turn, you suddenly show up in D? Those two are practically a featured attraction here.”

Ray insists, “I don’t—”

“You do.” Frank rolls his eyes. “It’s fine, I see shit. I don’t want to get your hopes up or anything, because Pete’s like, kind of fucking committed to keeping him. I’m just saying it’s maybe not completely off the table, forever.”

Ray keeps his head down and doesn’t comment, but Frank, short little fucker he is, manages to catch Ray’s gaze before they leave the bathroom.

“You should maybe find out if you’re actually into guys first, though.” Frank smiles and gives Ray a friendly punch to his upper arm.

Ray waits until the door swings shut to clutch his bicep, cringing. “Ow.”

*

The thing about Ray’s family is that everyone is so unbelievably straight. He considers this at his mother’s birthday party, which—given her aptitude for guilt trips—is rather well attended.

Not one single person in his family is out as gay or bi.

This seems very odd to Ray, that there are so many people in one contained space who aren’t even a little bit homosexual. It just can’t be possible. And then he begins wondering who’s in the closet. His oldest brother used to have a particularly suspicious affection for glam metal, but Ray hears Gerard’s voice in his head admonishing him for using this as any indicator whatsoever.

Ray’s pretty sure someone must have experimented in college. His cousin Trisha was always a wild child; she had to have hooked up with a few chicks in her day.

Of course then Ray feels weird about looking for someone in the gathering who’s a little less than hetero, because duh, look in the mirror.

He doesn’t feel weird about being bisexual. Ray doesn’t think anyone who matters to him would really give a shit. His mom supported Ray when he was a big shot accountant, and then she supported him with just as much gusto when he told her he wanted to be a dirty underpaid guitarist, and then she supported him when Ray discovered the music industry wasn’t really that easy, and he had to work as a lousy retail manager instead.

She’ll be happy so long as he is, Ray knows that. She already has more grandchildren than she knows what to do with, so he doesn’t worry about destroying some idyllic vision that can never come to fruition.

His brothers will give him grief for a while, but he bets they’ll grow more aware of LGBT issues without even really meaning to and eventually do one-eighties that’ll amount to them pulling Ray aside and awkwardly apologizing in a roundabout sort of way for that one time they called him a faggot in eleventh grade, and that it had nothing to do with where he wanted to put his dick so much as preferring The Black Album over Kill ‘Em All being just plain faggoty, and when did Lars Ulrich turn into such a fucking—and then they’ll fidget through finding a word that will appropriately insult Lars’ drumming prowess without also being incredibly offensive to homosexuals and women, alike.

In fact, Ray doesn’t know what he’s waiting for.

That’ll be a great time.

But the next time he goes to Alphabet Manor, Ray doesn’t get a yellow band. He doesn’t get one the time after that, or the time after that.

He falls into an easy routine that consists mostly of work and Alphabet Manor’s J Room.

It’s just that Ray’s fucking bummed.

The Pete and Mikey situation was a whole lot better-looking when Ray thought Pete was a sleazy asshole, and now he just feels bad. Mikey helped Ray out big time. Mikey cared when anyone else would have thrown him to the wolves. Mikey is a good person, and he wants Pete. Probably the biggest problem in their relationship is that Mikey wants him too much.

Ray’s the sleazy asshole for hoping Mikey’s unhappy.

Not that Ray was ever on any kind of mission to get Mikey, because that was never the case, but he gives up on his attraction or fixation or whatever it is, because there are probably tons of awesome attainable people in Alphabet Manor.

Ray doesn’t get a yellow band because he guesses, deep down, he’d be wearing it for one specific person, and that’s not helping anything at all. He wishes there were another band, but can see the logistical problems inherent in finding a color to sum up ‘isn’t gay, but isn’t straight, is looking for something serious, but only from a specific and unavailable person already partnered with someone who’s partnered with other people, and is open to being distracted by similar possibilities’.

That seems like it’d be a brownish type color, and it’s like Gerard said about brown bands that first time months ago.

Ray won’t get into that.

*

Ray has some pretty terrible anal sex with a woman named Melanie.

He’s never had anal sex before and doesn’t know what to expect, but she takes him into the T Room—T for ‘toys’, T for ‘trembling’, T for ‘This goes where now?’—and asks Ray to fuck her with a dildo first.

She says, “You’re hung like a motherfucker,” before he can even get the head of his dick into her and he spends the whole time worrying that she’s in pain. He can barely enjoy it until he knows she’s come, the dildo pressed far enough inside her from the front that Ray can feel it vibrating alongside his dick.

She whimpers when he pulls out and presses three fingertips to her swollen hole, wincing, and Ray feels kind of awful for finishing like that—jacking off over the sight of her stretched and fluttering and maybe regretting ever asking him for it in the first place.

He does walk her to her car. She clutches his arm and limps the whole way, and when he says he’s really sorry about hurting her and wishes there was some way to make it better, she kisses him long and deep and says, “You’re too nice.”

Only she’s not gushing about Ray like, ‘you’re too nice, how sweet,” she’s saying it with a frown like, ‘you’re too nice to fuck me the way I want to be fucked’.

When Ray sees her the following week, she smiles and tells him she likes his shirt, but she doesn’t ask him if he wants to do anything, and Ray’s glad.

He just can’t be that guy.

*

Ray has sex with a Latino woman named Sasha.

They fuck in the B Room—B for ‘black’, B for ‘blind’, B for ‘better than invisible’—and Ray comes with the sound of a dozen people in his ears, all a little frantic and angry, big groans and throaty grunts and skin slapping.

She pants into Ray’s ear the entire time, any variation of, “Shit,” and, “Fuck,” and, “Huge,” and, “Fat,” and, “Cock.”

Sasha smokes a cigarette with him in the bathroom and talks about her four year old son. “Hats,” she laments, head tipped back against a mirror. “Loves hats so much he even sleeps in one. One of those stocking caps. I don’t know what it’s about. Maybe he has a complex about his head. What if he doesn’t grow out of it?”

She stares at the ember on the tip of her cigarette like it might give her an answer.

Ray tries not to think about the fact he just shoved his dick into a place a child came out of. “Hats are cool,” he says.

She gives him a look that stings, like she’s insulted or thinks he’s a complete fucking moron, before leaning across the counter and flicking her cigarette out of the window. “Well. Nice meeting you, Ray.”

He doesn’t bother offering to walk her to her car.

*

Ray has sex with a lot of people for a while. He meets women and they’re all great in their own way, but some of them are only here for fun, and some of them already have partners, and some of them are even married. He keeps going because he figures there has to be someone out there for Ray, and he’s already getting bored with casual sex.

This is why he stopped going to those ridiculous clubs.

He keeps doing it, though, until one night, Ray has sex with a curvy woman named Lisa. She seems sweet and unassuming in the J Room, smiles at Ray and kisses the corner of his mouth and tangles their fingers together when she leads him through the Manor.

Brian gives him a look that Ray doesn’t think much of, this curious, confused type of expression that doesn’t make sense until much later.

They choose the S Room—S for ‘straight’, S for ‘standard’, S for ‘Still works good enough’—and when she takes off his pants, Lisa pushes Ray onto his back and growls, “Your dick is gorgeous.”

He hears that plenty, so it’s not much of a surprise but it’s never an unflattering thing to hear. It’s just that when she rolls the condom onto Ray and straddles his hips, pushing down onto it, she fucks it like she hates it.

Lisa rides him violently, all teeth and nails and dark angry eyes. She fucks Ray like she wants to choke him, punch him in the face, string him up by balls before he can even come.

He withstands it pretty well he thinks, right up until she pulls a fist back and seems like she wants to snap it forward to hit him in the face. Her glare into Ray’s eyes just then is pure fucking hatred. He’s never seen anything like it before—never had that kind of disgust concentrated on him, and Ray spent eighth grade as Julie Master’s punching bag and eight months as a World Class Creep™, so maybe that’s saying something.

He thinks, she wants to snap my neck. It’s just there, in her eyes, that she wants to kill Ray more than she wants to fuck him. He wonders what he did wrong, what he said to make her so angry, and he can come up with nothing.

He’s too shocked to really feel anything but stunned. She never follows through with her punch, but Ray just lays there and takes it anyway, tense and confused as she shoves herself onto his cock over and over, teeth gnashed into a sneer.

She digs her nails into his chest and drags them down, leaves long scarlet slashes that burn so acutely, Ray almost bucks her off. Ray’s erection should have been long gone, but Lisa’s enthusiasm attracts a lot of attention. They get so many stares that Ray’s shaking, fucking battling not to come before she gets off, because god only knows what she’ll do to him if that happens.

It’s terrible in every sense of the word.

He thinks one of the people watching might say something when Lisa pulls his hair so hard that his neck strains, head tugged back into the pillows, tendons stretched so taut that he can barely breathe, let alone choke out any objection.

No one does.

She sinks her teeth into his bottom lip and he can almost cry out, struggles futilely to turn his face away, one hand clutching her wrist where it’s fisting his hair and the other on her shoulder, trying to push some space between their bodies.

Lisa finally lets go of his hair and Ray gasps, “Please...”

She comes with a shout and shoves his cheek into the floor with a wide open palm. Everyone’s watching with such wide rapt eyes that Ray instantly spills into the condom, lurching forward with a wave of shock and shame.

Ray’s still gawking blankly at the ceiling when Lisa rolls off of him to catch her breath. He feels used and sore and it’s way too early in the night for him to offer to walk her to her car, so he doesn’t ask.

It has nothing at all to do with the heavy thing in his chest that makes it hard to breathe and harder to move. It takes him so long to work up to twitching his fingertips that, for a second, Ray’s convinced he’s been paralyzed and he’ll be found here on the floor of the S Room, naked and bleeding and bruised all over.

*

Mikey’s in the bathroom when Ray ducks inside, shirt clutched to his stinging chest. Without even thinking about it, he turns around and latches the lock, checking it three times to make sure it holds.

Mikey takes one look at Ray and raises an eyebrow. “What—?” But then his eyes flick to Ray’s chest and he gives a knowing hum. “Lisa?”

Ray still can’t catch his breath, let alone formulate the necessary speech to explain that it wasn’t.  

It wasn’t like Mikey’s thinking. It wasn’t good.

Mikey’s nose scrunches up. “Pain not a kink for you, I take it?”

Ray gives an emphatic, “No,” and Mikey gives an aborted laugh, this high-pitched scratchy sounding thing.

His laughter vanishes quickly enough that it chokes him into a cough. Mikey jumps down from the counter, lips pressed into a tight, rigid line. “Didn’t she get some kind of consent for that?”

“She didn’t.” Ray feels stupid and weak for having this lump in his throat, for feeling silly and emasculated and embarrassed, for remembering Julie Masters kicking Ray’s ass and not doing anything to stop it even though he could have taken her.

Of course this must be karma for the train rides or something; non-consent for non-consent, an eye for an eye. Ray deserves it, he knows he does, but it doesn’t make him feel any better about it.

He’s shaking.

“What the fuck.” Mikey’s in front of him so suddenly that Ray flinches. “God, are you...? Sit down, okay? Here.” He gently steers Ray to the toilet, closes the lid and gives a gentle press to his shoulder until he drops down. Mikey pushes Ray’s hair from his face, tipping it up, but the shirt jostles and drops from his chest.

It’s streaked in red.

“Holy shit,” Mikey says. “Holy fuck. Just. Wait here. I’ll be right back, okay? I’ll lock the door behind me. Alright, Ray?”

He gives a weak nod, but by the time Mikey’s left the bathroom, locking the door behind him just as he said he would, Ray’s feeling numb, like he’s making a mountain out of a molehill. He never said no, never even tried to push her off. How was Lisa supposed to know Ray’s harboring a paralyzing, deep-seated fear of mean blond girls?

And still even, there’s a part of him that’s terrified of what she’ll do if Ray gets her in trouble with the Manor.

It takes so long for Mikey to come back that by the time he does, Ray’s convinced he’s just being a wimp. He’s a boring guy who has boring sex. He can’t even take a little rough fucking without crying about it, and now Mikey knows how much of a gutless invertebrate he is.

“I’m fine,” Ray says through the door, hurrying into his stained shirt.

Mikey’s voice orders, “Open the door now, okay?”

“Um.” Ray uses the bottom of his shirt to wipe his face because apparently, Ray is a literal cry baby.

God, he’s mortified.

“I have a key.”

Grimacing, Ray goes to the mirror to see just how red his eyes are. His bottom lip is split just left of center and its swollen, but at least the bleeding has stopped. His eyes are slightly puffy but it’s too late to do anything about it, so he pats his hair down, takes a hard breath, and shuffles to door.

Gerard is the first one through and his hands go immediately to Ray’s face. His voice is steady, low and calm, yet somehow dangerous. “Let me see.”

Ray tries to sink into his body, at no avail. “It’s nothing,” he swears, gently nudging Gerard’s hands away from his head. “It was just. A misunderstanding or—”

“Ray.” Mikey’s staring at him with these flared nostrils, eyebrows pulled together so tightly there are two deep grooves right in the middle of his forehead. He looks fucking furious. “You’re bleeding.”

Ray sighs and flips his palms up, hapless. “I don’t want to make a big deal out of nothing.”

Gerard looks almost as pissed as Mikey. “Whether it’s you making the big deal, or me, it doesn’t matter. This isn’t fucking okay. Alphabet Manor is mine. It’s fucking insulting that someone would do that shit here.”

Before Ray can even begin assuring either one of them, Mikey orders, “Take off your shirt.”

Gerard makes a sound in the back of his throat and shoulders Mikey out of the way. He asks Ray with these soft, round eyes, “Please, can you take off your shirt? You can say no, but we should probably clean the scratches.” Great, Ray thinks. Now he’s being treated like a victim, which just makes him feel even worse, because he doesn’t deserve it.

He isn’t a victim, he’s just a spineless coward.

But Gerard does have a point. The last thing Ray wants is eight infected wounds on his hands, so he lifts his shirt over his head, careful to keep the fabric away from the throbbing areas.

Mikey and Gerard give one long, unison hiss.

“Jesus.” Gerard’s hand flutters at his chest, like he’s feeling for some pearls to clutch.

Mikey doesn’t react beyond that, just opens the first aid kit Ray now notices he’s carrying and gestures for Ray to slide onto the counter.

Mikey’s hands on his chest are, at that moment, pretty much the most unsexy and disappointing thing ever. “Ow!” Ray jumps back enough that he bangs his head on the mirror.

Mikey’s lips twist in apology. “Alcohol swabs.”

Ray tries really hard to man up, but, “Goddamn.”

“I know, sorry. All we got.” Mikey reasons, “It’ll clean it good, though.”

“She didn’t even like… I don’t know.” Gerard watches with sympathetic winces as Ray grits his teeth through the alcohol Mikey’s dabbing onto the scratches. “Like even allude to…” He waves a hand at Ray’s chest.

“Nothing,” he grinds out. “But I didn’t. I didn’t stop her or say anything. It was. I know I should have said someth—son of a motherfuck!

Mikey peers up at him through his lashes. “Sorry. Stop saying that stuff, it’s making me all. Like. Stabby.”

Gerard rants, “Consent isn’t ever implied, Ray. Alphabet Manor doesn’t work like that, everyone knows. You wouldn’t just go shove your dick into someone’s mouth and wait for them to say yes or no, would you?”

Before Ray can answer, there’s another knock at the door, only it’s not locked so Frank pokes his head in before ducking inside and latching it behind him.

 “She’s gone.”

Ray drops to his feet, ignoring the cluck of Mikey’s tongue. “Please tell me you didn’t kick her out,” he begs. His stomach gives an angry, acidic churn.

“Obviously…” Frank’s eyes drop to Ray’s chest, growing wide.

“We have a no tolerance policy!” Gerard then amends, “Well. If we had a policy, it’d be no tolerance.”

“She was a real asshole about it, too.” Frank tells Gerard. “Made a total fucking scene. Had to call Ashlee out there in case shit got real.”

Ray’s ulcer has officially made a return. “Fuck.”

Mikey pushes him back to the counter, scowling. “Stay still, and stop worrying. The worst she can do is call the cops, but we have like, you know, procedure or whatever to clear out before they get here, and it’s not like you don’t have grounds to press charges—”

“Cops?!” Ray squawks, “I don’t want to press charges!”

“He’s just saying,” Gerard steps in, “she’ll be afraid you might. She won’t do anything.”

“Lisa’s always been kinda…” Frank makes some gesture that Ray can’t decipher.

Mikey finishes dabbing at Ray’s chest. “Remember what I was saying before? About some people getting off on the non-consent thing…?”

“Just so you know this isn’t some totally out of left field thing.” Gerard tugs on his hair and frowns. “I think we were all expecting her to do something like this eventually. Ugh.” Now he looks sick with himself.

“Hey, just a suggestion?” Frank raises his hand like he’s in the middle of Algebra class or something. “Maybe we could save all the blame for the person who actually fucking did it, and go get some goddamn breakfast because it’s like three in the morning and I’m starving. Cool with you two?” Frank looks at Ray, eyebrow raised expectantly. 

Mikey answers, “Cool with me,” and Gerard sighs, “Yeah, I know,” and Ray nods, some of the tension loosening from his shoulders when he slides back into his t-shirt. There are bruises already blossoming on his hips, and Ray thinks maybe they have a point.

Maybe Lisa is just a prick.

Because Ray’s had sex with at least a dozen women in Alphabet Manor so far and no one has ever initiated something that wasn’t agreed upon first. Ray’s turned things down before—he wasn’t particularly comfortable being fucked in the ass with a nine-inch dildo, and Melanie didn’t even mind. And God knows Ray’s been turned down plenty, but he’d rather be rejected than hurt someone.

He frowns as they file out of the bathroom, sort of absently patting the back of his head. “…pulled my hair out,” he pouts, and Mikey makes this tiny wounded sound from behind him and suddenly his hand is in Ray’s hair, massaging his scalp.

They pass the A Room and Gerard mentions, “Want to invite Pete?”

Mikey says, “Nah,” and his hand doesn’t leave Ray’s head until they’re separating for their cars.

*

Ray wakes with a start, a gasp lodged painfully in his chest. He hasn’t had one of those nightmares since high school and waking up to one is almost as disorienting as finding himself in a strange room. Ray’s stiff and shaky and aching all over, blearily confused.

Mikey’s fingers tap his shoulder. Ray turns his head and he’s in bed beside him, eyes only opened into thin slits straining against the light coming in from the window above the futon. “Y’kay?”

He remembers now, they left the diner because it was discovered that three out of the four of them play guitar and Frank demanded everyone go back to his apartment and jam.  Of course it was four in the morning and Frank only had one guitar, so they ended up drinking a case of Heineken and taking turns playing an un-amplified electric guitar named Pansy. Ray discovered that Mikey is twenty one, that he works two dead end jobs, that Frank dreams of owning his own record label someday, and that Gerard is an artist and recovering alcoholic—the real reason booze isn’t allowed in the manor.

The only thing that really stuck with him was the part where Mikey’s twenty one.

That’s not so young, Ray kept thinking, sneaking glances throughout the night, searching out little features the alluded to maturity. Like the way Mikey frowned—not pouty or anything, just a hard downturn of one corner of his lips, something jaded and aged. Or how he put down his beer and came back for it later, didn’t nurse it in his hand like it was a novelty, something special and new that made him look cool. Or how he smoked in much the same way. Or how he put his hands in his pockets when he crossed his legs.

Ray ignored all evidence to the contrary—how he kept checking his Facebook on his phone, his bad (terrible slouchy teenagery) posture, the way he deflected insults from Frank with flippant ‘your mom’s.

Whatever.

Eight years isn’t a horrible age difference.

It’s not a decade or anything.

Ray was buzzed enough that everyone made a fuss about him driving home, and Mikey was both too superior to sleep on the couch and too nice to make Ray do so either, so Ray slept here. In a closet disguised as a guest bedroom. On a smelly futon. Next to Mikey Way. Who stole every single pillow.

Ray nods, far too foggy to feel anything beyond a vague sense of embarrassment. “Time is it?” His mouth tastes horrible.

Mikey both shrugs and yanks the blanket up to his nose, completely uncovering Ray in the process. “Time for coffee,” he rasps. “You snore. I want a cigarette.”

“You hog the blankets,” Ray argues and after looking around adds, “And you steal the pillows.” There were at least four of them when Mikey and Ray stumbled in here.

Mikey hugs one to his chest, nuzzles into two beneath his face, and Ray feels more than sees him squeezing one between his knees. “Yeah,” he concedes, last night’s eyeliner all smudged beneath his eyes. He looks really weird without glasses.“Pillows are awesome.”

“The manor is making an abundance of sense right now.”

“Those were actually all Gee.” Mikey sniffs and his nose crinkles up cutely. “How’s your chest?”

Ray lifts his shirt and peers down at the scratches, all scabbing up now. “Fucking sore,” he frowns at them. The bruises on his hips are already a deep purple, worse on the left side than the right, and they don’t feel too amazing either.

Mikey shuffles closer, props himself on an elbow and blinks down at them. “Pretty aggro.” Ray could swear that he’s scratching his balls beneath the blanket. “Looks like you were attacked by a werewolf.”

“Feels like it too.”

Mikey’s eyes stray over Ray’s chest for a long, suspended moment. He looks at the scratches, and then the bruises, and then somewhere in the vicinity of Ray’s bellybutton and down a couple inches before tracing back up to his sternum and throat, over his mouth and landing on Ray’s eyes.

There’s a long stretch of silence before Ray leaps from the futon. “I’ll go see about the coffee thing.”

Mikey’s grumbled, “Mergh,” is lost behind him as he scurries into the bathroom and wills his erection down enough to piss.

It’s been a while since Ray pitched tent in an actual bed.

*

“So hey, something Mikey said last night,” Ray begins after everyone’s had coffee. He’s not a huge addict himself. All Ray really needed was three strong gulps of the Mylanta he bought on the way to Frank’s place from the diner. But the Way brothers could barely open their eyes all the way until they each had at least two cups, and Gerard’s demeanor was… prickly.

He seems perfectly chipper after his fourth cup. “What’s that?”

It’s been seriously bugging him. “About the um… protocol? For if police were called?”

Frank butts in, “We have a radio that’s locked onto the local frequency, so if The Man ever comes a’knockin, they won’t find… you know.”

Mikey snorts. “Alphabet Manor a’rockin.”

“They can’t come in without a warrant,” Gerard smugly adds. “And after the whole Phew incident—”

“Oh my God, Gee.” Frank rapidly taps his arm, urging, “You have to tell him about Phew, oh my God.”

Mikey folds his fists beneath his chin and solemnly agrees, “Proceed, dear brother, with the tale of Phew.”

Ray’s already laughing. “What’s that?”

“So last year we had this one person,” Gerard begins, all bright eyes and crooked smile. “Kai, beautiful Cantonese girl. Totally wild, so much fun.”

Frank offers, “Hardcore exhibitionist. Makes Pete look shy.”

Gerard is openly flailing now. “But her father is this real stern type, right. Very traditional guy, overbearing and all that.”

“Wouldn’t even let her wear pants.” Mikey rolls his eyes.

“And she’s like, what… nineteen, twenty? Rebellious as hell, desperate for some attention, you know how it is.” Gerard gives Ray a significant look until he nods. “Naturally, she’s at the manor every single time it’s open, so Phew—that’s her dad—he gets suspicious and fucking LoJacks her car.”

Frank jumps forward. “Fucker busts in, has a goddamn coronary. Tries to get all up in Gee’s face when Hippie Fucking Glitter Prince over here comes and like, wants to diffuse the situation with rainbows and REO Speedwagon.”

Mikey actually genuinely truly for-real laughs. It’d be an understatement to say he’s not the most expressive person ever—that hat goes to Gerard—so Ray kind of rears back and just watches it happen, trying to stop from laughing himself. It’s infectious and honk’y and painfully adorable.

Mikey wheezes, “Wasn’t even wearing pants.”

Ray’s smiling so hard his cheeks hurt. “He called the cops on you?”

“Oh no!” Gerard shakes his head. “We had to call the cops on him.”

“He was apeshit! Kept telling Gerard he was going to burn his house down, cut off his dick, fucking like… gouge out his eyes and skullfuck his corpse. And what does Gerard do? He fucking sings to this guy.”

Mikey bursts out laughing again, loud and braying, stopping long enough to belt out to Frank, “I just want to keep on loving Phew.”

I don’t want to sleep,” Frank sings, “I just want to keep on loving Phew.”

Gerard tells him earnestly, “I was shit-faced drunk, for sure.”

The smile Frank gives Gerard is suffocating. There’s no space for anything else, not even air, with that much intense affection filling everything up. “Fucker sang to Phew all night.”

“Man, he was pissed.” Gerard sighs, still beaming. “I still email him sometimes to hit on him, tell him how great his ass is. He calls me names in Cantonese, it’s wonderful. It’s a beautiful language, you know. Miss that crazy fuck.”

“You would.”

“When I said that I love Phew, I meant that I love Phew forever.”

“Anyway,” Mikey rolls his eyes, though his grin still shows through where he’s visibly trying to press it down. “He kept coming back and we eventually had to call the cops because he invested in an aluminum baseball bat. Kept fucking people’s cars up.”

“But I don’t get it,” Ray tries to get back on track. “Why would everyone need to hide from the cops?” They all stare at him, as if they’re waiting for something particularly obvious to dawn on him. He’s briefly nervous he’s having a dense moment, but eventually ventures, “No, really. What am I missing?”

“Um. For starters?” Mikey says. “Monetary transactions in exchange for sex.”

He argues, “You’re not charging for the sex, though. You’re charging for a place to have it.”

Gerard scoffs into his coffee, “Probably just as illegal,” and Ray’s stunned by the sudden realization that these guys are completely fucking clueless.

Ray puts his coffee down. He feels an intense need to gesture emphatically. “No it’s not! It’s—Gerard.” Ray grabs his arm this time, telling him earnestly. “Don’t freak out okay? But uh… Alphabet Manor? It’s not some groundbreaking original idea.”

Gerard’s head cocks to the side. He has some mean sex hair going on, too. “What do you mean?”

Now, with the emphatic gesturing. “On and off-premise lifestyle clubs are everywhere! They’re just—Jesus, you operate like one so exactly, I figured it was legit. Gerard, you’re running a sex club off the books? You could get fined by the IRS!”

Gerard’s mouth opens and closes like he wants to comment but can’t think of the words. He ultimately bursts, “Our initial worst case scenario was jail time, so that’s not so bad.”

Mikey flies over the table to cuff him on the shoulder. “We can go legit?!”

Gerard gawks at him with betrayed eyes. “Ow, I didn’t know!”

“I own half of that house, Gee. You could have done a little fucking research before making me an accomplice to like, tax evasion or whatever. Fucker.”

Frank wedges himself between them, planting a palm on their chests and shoving them back. “Girls girls, you’re both fucking criminals here.” He gives Ray a look. “So you’re like a lawyer?”

“CPA,” he corrects. “But I did minor in business law, for what it’s worth.”

Gerard’s tugging at his hair, but his eyes are wide and bright. “So you’re saying Alphabet Manor can, like, be official?”

“Totally!” Ray bounces in time with Frank, buzzing as he explains what the process would probably entail. He’s never used accounting for anything that wasn’t empty corporate soulfucking. “Zoning could be a major issue, but the manor is already so primed for it. It’s stupid not to. You could be making this shit into a real business!” 

Gerard scoffs, “I don’t care about making money,” but Frank covers his mouth with his hand.

“He cares about making some money.”

“Well he should! Think of what Alphabet Manor might look like with some actual profit margins. You could afford to open up more rooms.”

Mikey tells him, “We could afford to hire security.

Gerard already looks kind of sold, but Frank seals it. “You could advertise and reach more people. Think of all the sexual awakenings you’d be responsible for.”

“Oooo.” Gerard’s eyes sparkle. “Yeah maybe we should do that! Can we do that?”

“Tell you what,” Ray offers, “I know this attorney in the city who practically owes me his first born. I can call in a favor, get it all set up for you; find out what you need.”

It’s very brief, so quick a flash that Ray could have easily imagined it, but there for a moment Mikey looks at Ray like he’s surprised.

Mikey looks at him like he’s a big deal.

*

Ray can’t ever remember having more than two friends at a time. Granted, those two friends would be really close ones, and Ray doesn’t count casual acquaintances. He means the kind of friend who’d get out of bed at two in the morning to give you a ride. The kind of friend who gets you a Christmas present that isn’t worth shit to anyone else, but reminds you of something so funny you want to piss yourself with laughter. The kind of friend who ignores it when you piss yourself with said laughter. The kind of friend who just wants to see you happy, just because.

The kind of friend who stocks their un-licensed sex club with Magnum XL Large Size Lubricated Condoms because he knows you’re packing.

Ray flushes. “You… uh… didn’t have to do that.”

Gerard just smiles. “It was no problem!”

What it was, to be honest, was a total waste, as Ray entered the manor that night with one orange band and nothing else. The whole Lisa nightmare was just a sign. Ray’s not going to have sex with strangers anymore. He can get to know people, he decides, without sticking his dick into them. He’s doing it all ass backwards.

“Do you want to do all this before, during, or after?” Ray’s got a couple things to talk to Gerard and Mikey about, having met with the attorney during the week. Mikey and Gerard have been keeping in close touch with Ray via text and email, but those conversations quickly went the way of comics and zombie movies and lost all productivity pretty much the same evening they began.

“Hmm,” Gerard thinks, looking around. “Maybe after?”

“His conscious mind is already in the A Room.” Mikey appears, ambling up to grab some coffee from the refreshment table. “You’re talking to a shell.”

“Hey, I’m aware, motherfucker.”

“Only thing you’re aware of is Frank, ass-up on one of those beds.” Mikey tosses Ray a look, lips twitching, but for a long moment Ray is woefully incapable of speech.

Mikey’s wearing a blue band on his slender right wrist, not a flash of red to be seen anywhere.

Ray is freaking out. “Yeah,” he agrees dumbly. “We can um. Meet up. After.”

“Like last time, at the diner.”

Ray nods at Mikey. “Totally.” He stands in this stupor long enough that they both leave, torn somewhere between booking it to J or… Ray doesn’t even know. Something that involves this new development, like an impromptu guitar solo slash serenade, but no, that’s just ridiculous. Maybe he’ll just go for it, ask Mikey if he can… but no. Ray doesn’t know what any of that even entails yet. He needs to spend more time in D, fuck.

Of course by the time Ray gets to J, it dawns on him that just because Mikey isn’t wearing a red band doesn’t mean he’s available. There wasn’t a green band, only blue.

Blue.

And then Ray thinks, oh my God, because Mikey’s a voyeur?

Possibly his brain has broken.

“Your face is doing some seriously weird shit, Toro.” Brian lifts an eyebrow at Ray when he sits down.

He just lets it out. “Someone I’ve been interested in just walked in without their red band. I’m all—” Ray can appreciate that the gesture he makes is more flail than anything. “I don’t know, man.”

Brian hums thoughtfully. “Was she wearing green?”

“No.” He frowns, deciding not to correct him on the gender thing. “And what if their Red Band just like, couldn’t make it tonight, you know? And how am I supposed to know if we’re not allowed to ask about each other’s bands? And how does—”

“Toro, chill.” He doesn’t even realize he’s pulling on his hair until Brain smacks his wrist away, rolling his eyes. “You’re so high strung, man. Pete would sooner miss his mother’s funeral than a night here.”

Ray considers playing dumb, but then just huffs. “I’m not that obvious!”

“You’re not,” Brian assures, “But I know an ambiguous pronoun game when I see it, and come on, in this place? Pete and Mikey can’t sneeze without everyone gossiping about what caused it.”

“So they really did split?” Ray can’t nail down any one reaction. The closest he can get is wondering, “Is Mikey really upset?”

He gives a put-upon type of sigh and mutters, “The yellow bands take another,” before calling over a group of chatty J Room’ers. He asks them, “What were you saying about Pete and Mikey again?”

They all take deep breaths and start from the beginning.

*

By the time they get to the diner, Ray has resolved himself to waiting.

First he gives himself a month, but then that seems too soon if he’s to trust Katherine’s account of the Breakup of the Century, which included a lot of screaming and crying and possibly suicide attempts.

Mikey slides fluidly into the booth beside Ray and doesn’t look all that broken up. “I need a waffle like yesterday, ugh.”

But who knows, maybe he’s good at hiding it.

So two months. Definitely less than four. Probably three. Three months sound like a good medium, to Ray. Long enough that it’ll give Mikey and Pete enough time to get back together if it’s going that way, but not so long that Mikey could get deeply involved with someone else before Ray can, like, woo him.

“Hello, Mcfly!” Frank snaps his fingers at Ray. “You’re spacing out, man.”

“Bathrooms!” Ray bursts, and the three of them blink at him, puzzled. He should probably work on his smoothness before the whole wooing thing starts. “I mean, you’ll need to redo them. And you’ll need a parking lot, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but you’ll also need handicap accessibility.”

Everyone’s still blinking.

“To pass inspection,” Ray clarifies. “All premises need to meet like, basic accessibility and safety standards.” He gets the folder from his bag, only just barely registering their frowns. “Testing for mold, wiring and heating and air, structural stuff—the house is kind of old, you never know—plus plumbing. You’ll have to make members sign waivers, and you’re going to need a bitch of an insurance policy.”

Gerard and Mikey just gawk at him, one with a hand at his chest, the other eerily blank-faced.

Frank deadpans, “That sounds pricy as fuck.”

Ray recites from a sheet of paper, “forty two thousand, nine hundred and sixty eight dollars and ten cents.”

Gerard makes a wounded squawking sound, like Ray just stole his favorite action figure and snapped it in half, right in front of his face. It’s followed by about thirty seconds of total silence from everyone.

“What my brother means,” Mikey ultimately says, “is the only part of that sentence that made any sense was the thing about the ten cents. We have that.”

“Dude,” Frank exhales, “Gee’s still looking for an actual paying illustrating position. Mikey doesn’t even have his own place; he just goes between Gerard’s and their parents’. My radiator is held together almost entirely with electrical tape and I’ve been riding on a donut for two weeks.” He declares, “We’re dirt poor, man.”

Gerard still has that hurt expression. “Only dirt doesn’t have a mountain of student loan debt, so we’re actually like… what’s poorer than dirt?”

Mikey offers, “Aside from us?”

“Guys,” Ray interrupts, hand up. “It’s cool, I totally figured. You’ll just have to take on an investor. People do it all the time.”

“Who’s going to invest in us?” Mikey asks. He looks across to Gerard and Frank, as if he’s just assessing them from the outside—one guy tattooed all to hell, the other with hair that looks like it should have been washed a month ago, and one with more eye makeup than Tammy Faye.

“I know this guy,” Ray grins, “who’d probably be registered as a sexual offender if it weren’t for Alphabet Manor.”

Frank snorts, “That’s really not narrowing it down.”

After a long pause, “Holy shit.” Mikey’s staring owlishly at Ray. “Shut up.”

“Well yeah!” Ray nods, feeling his hair bob along with the motion. “Alphabet Manor is the only lifestyle club in the tri-county area. All my projections are through the roof, not to mention I have… um… personal interest. It’s a sound business investment.” He adds, “And also, I just want to.”

Truth is, it’s been an amazing week for Ray. He’s had all this knowledge that he’s just been ignoring, wasting, unwilling to do the corporate grind long enough to climb his way up that ladder, just praying there might be a day when he can do things his way. Having a project like this has been incredibly fulfilling.

It’s the first time accounting has actually been fun.

Frank sputters, “You have forty thousand dollars?” and Gerard says, “There are projections?”

Ray jerks a shoulder and feels weird about disclosing his financial situation, but they have every right to know. “I played the stock market for a while my senior year in college, and I have a lot saved up from my old job.” He admits, “I actually have a good enough portfolio that I can sell some stocks, invest the profit in Alphabet Manor, and still be up on what I originally put in.”

Apple turned out good like that.

Ray’s not rich or anything, but he could get there if he ever had a hunger for it. As it is, he makes sure his mom is comfortable and does his best to spoil his nieces and nephews. Ray has everything he needs. He’s never been a fan of excess.

Without someone to share it with, money loses its luster.

“You’d do that?”

He tells Gerard honestly, “Am doing it. I’m not going to let some other motherfucker waltz into the manor and try to take control of everything. They wouldn’t get it, not like we do, you know?” And then Ray realizes he should probably ask, “I mean. Well. If you’re interested in having me on board? I wouldn’t. Like. Make you do anything. Just, I’d probably like to have some control over the numbers, but not because I think you’d do it badly, just because I want to be useful beyond passively investing, and I know a lot about—”

Frank hisses, “Shut up, Ray,” and he instantly complies.

He thinks business deals would be so much less awkward if everyone just wore colored wrist bands.

Gerard makes this thin, squeaky laugh. “If we’re interested? Are you serious?”

From out of nowhere, an arm’s wrapped around his neck, yanking him to the side, and Mikey’s giving Ray a loud, smacking kiss right on his cheek. Ray stares at him dumbly as it tingles, the air in the room hitting the little damp spot Mikey’s mouth has made.

The same mouth that’s pulled into a wide grin. “Fuck yeah, we’re interested!”

Ray’s not imagining that exclamation point.

“You can have control of anything you want!” Gerard swears, snatching his hand from the table and professing, “We’ll rename it to Ray’s House of Hedonism, I don’t even fucking care.” And to give Gerard credit, he does make it ten seconds before flinging himself across the table at Ray.

He peers at Frank over Gerard’s shoulder, but then Mikey’s suddenly hugging Ray too, and that’s just… a lot of Way on Ray action.

Frank says with ample indignation, “Aw, fuck no, motherfuckers having a group hug without me, move your goddamn ass Gee.” He makes a straining sound and Ray feels more than sees him wiggling into the space between his legs, and then his head pops up from beneath the table and tackles his chest, and Jesus Christ.

It’s the most uncomfortable and awesome group hug Ray’s ever had.

He spits out a lock of Gerard’s greasy hair and ventures, “So. This is a yes, right?”

*

They get started right away.

Ray doesn’t want to close the manor at all, he explains to Frank, Gerard, and Mikey on their first sunny Saturday morning. They can just make the renovations in between open-nights, which also reminds Ray to ask Gerard how in the actual fuck he comes up with the schedule.

It has no rhyme or reason.

“Oh I just plan it around Frankie’s work schedule,” he explains.

“Hm,” Ray says, “no.” It takes the better part of the morning, but Ray eventually convinces Gerard that opening every weekend is just most practical for the patrons. And by that he means, it takes Ray the better part of the morning hem’ing and haw’ing and trying really hard not to over exert any of his weight or offend anyone in the process before Mikey walks by and tells Gerard, “Say you agree.”

Gerard agrees.

Since the bathrooms are the most labor intensive project that everyone can actually be pseudo involved in, they get started on it that very month. Frank does demolition, which Ray suspects he enjoys just a hair too much. Gerard picks out all the fixtures and tiles and cabinets, and basically anything that requires even an ounce of creativity.

Mikey handles the contractors. “Wow, so weird that there are going to be eight toilets,” he tells the foreman near the end of the project, “and seven stalls. I don’t know how that works, but I bet it’ll be cool, huh Ray? We can just, like, put the extra toilet we’re paying for right in the middle of the bathroom. It’ll be for all those uber-edgy voyeurs, huh?”

After Mikey’s two minute long, silent stare, the foreman pulls out his phone and curtly convinces the supplier to issue a refund, and then quickly escapes to oversee what he refers to as ‘a serious grout situation’.

Ray releases a long breath and thanks Mikey profusely. “I think I’m allergic to confrontation. Yelling gives me hives.” Ray envies his chill so acutely, it’s an ache. He’s watched Mikey plenty over the past few months, just trying to emulate that utter fucking zen. That blank face. That uncaring stare. That casual shrug. What he wouldn’t give for the ability to own every moment with apathy alone.

“That can be my thing then.” Mikey’s lips twitch.

There is a downside to Mikey’s chill, though.

After studying him, Ray’s beginning to realize that it’s not so much that Mikey never smiles, or that he’s not expressive or that he’s surly at all. It’s just that when he puts on that blank face—when he adopts his chill—he throws himself into it with such commitment that it takes herculean effort to coax him back into emoting.

Ray can’t perfect Mikey’s chill, but maybe he can perfect the art of bringing him out of it.

He tries, “It’d look great on a business card. Mikey Way, senior vice president of scary silent stares.”

Mikey looks thoughtful. “I think being explicit makes it less scary.”

“Good point,” Ray concedes. “What about, Mikey Way, Professional Motherfucker.

This actually gets a snort and an eye-roll, all in one. “I’ve never actually fucked a mother, what with the being gay and all.”

“I have.” Ray’s lips twist. “It’s kind of trippy. Very distracting.”

That one gets nothing, not even a twitch. “Hm.”

Ray pulls a business card from his pocket, one that he’d taken from the box that had only arrived that morning. Nervous, he hands it over to Mikey. “Or maybe just this, since it’s already printed.”

His eyebrows knit together as he reads, “Mikey Way, co-owner and director of entertainment.” His eyes lurch to Ray’s. “Director…?”

Ray bites his lip. “It’s really just a douchey way of saying you choose the music for this new sound system that no one will ever figure out how to work.”  He gestures to the truck with exactly one extra toilet and a pallet wedged all the way in the back. It’s a lot less dramatic than he’d envisioned, but it’s got ten thousand dollars worth of sound equipment stacked on it that everyone’s been avoiding.

Ray doesn’t like conflict, but he thinks it goes unsaid that if anyone touches the sound system, he will do everything in his power to end them.

“You got a sound system?” Mikey asks, eyebrows hiking up his forehead.

“Dude, I didn’t get a sound system, I got the sound system. My boss helped me pick it out, and he’s the pickiest fucker you’ll ever meet.” Unable to reign in his enthusiasm at this point, Ray jumps into the trailer and beckons Mikey to the back. “The people aren’t coming to install it until next week, and the speakers aren’t here yet, but. It’s going to like, be wired into every room, right? Because I figured, different tunes for different rooms—”

“Oh, my God.” When Ray looks, Mikey’s dropped to his knees before the pallet, gaping and groping the plastic wrapping out of the way. “You can’t be fucking serious.”

Ray only just barely restrains his hands from wringing. “Is it okay?”

Mikey’s gaze lifts to Ray’s, his mouth still a little slack. “This is better shit than half the clubs I go to.”

“I know Gerard’s working this whole… baroque gothy whatever-it-is theme, and we’re not doing lighting or anything clubby, I just—” Ray exhales and inhales. “It’d be cool, right? For atmospheric effect or whatever?”

“Cool,” Mikey deadpans. “Cool?”

And then Ray’s got a whole armful of Mikey, and he’s not getting tired of this whole hugging thing anytime soon.

Mikey smells like day-old deodorant and styling mousse and he downright gushes into Ray’s neck, “It’s going to be fucking amazing!” all hot breath and soft lips and sharp hipbones and knobby knees knocking into Ray’s. He pulls back to plant another one of those loud smacking kisses to Ray’s cheek.

He’s gone just as quickly as he came.

“I need to make playlists,” he declares, smoothing down his hair and bouncing on the balls of his feet. “And I should be here, when they install it. I need to do some Googling.”

Ray watches Mikey jump out of the trailer, but Ray sits on the edge of the bed, just letting his feet hang.

He sits there for a long time, just staring off into the distance, sort of dazed. Mikey’s kissed him twice. He has an awesome new project going on, business at Pauly’s has been so good that Bob’s almost gotten rid of the wretched Zildijan sticks, and Ray’s even dipping his feet into the stock market again.

“Break time,” Frank declares, popping up from out of nowhere. He’s covered from the crown of his head to the soles of his boots in sheetrock. “Demolition is funtimes,” he grins wolfishly, pulling himself up to sit next to Ray. “Think there’ll be more walls to tear down?”

Ray thinks. “We’ll have to take up the old driveway for the parking lot. Ever wanted to use a jackhammer?”

Frank lights a cigarette, squinting up at the sky. “Well fuck, I do now.” He shakes some sheetrock dust from his hair and turns to Ray, cigarette dangling from between his lips. “Hey, so now that I’ve got you alone, I wanted to say thanks a lot, man. I haven’t seen Gerard this excited in months. It’s impossible to find an illustrating job in this fucking recession. It’s really been bringing him down, you know? Mikey, too.”

Ray lifts a shoulder, feeling sheepish. “It’s a good project for me, too.”

“I just mean, we really appreciate all you’re doing.” Frank gives him a soft, sincere smile, bumping up against his shoulder. “So. Yeah. I’m going to do you a favor, okay? This thing you’re doing with Mikey? It’s not the way, dude.”

Ray shoves some hair behind his ear. “What do you mean?”

“Come on, Ray.” Frank exhales into Ray’s face. “How expensive is that sound system? And exactly how far over the forty thou budget have you gone?” He arches an eyebrow at Ray, who just looks away, frowning.  “It’s not really my business, you’re the numbers guy. I’m just saying, if you squint, it kind of looks like you’re… like, buying his affection.”

Ray balks, “I’m not—”

“I’m just saying, if you are, Mikey might be grateful and all? But money’s not going to impress him.”

“It’s not like that! That sound system is going to bring in a lot of business.” Ray works his jaw, trying to build up more indignation, but he’s just so distracted with wondering how right Frank might be. Ray deflates a bit, shyly confessing to Frank, “I just… I like seeing him smile. But I’m not expecting anything in return, Frank. You’re wrong about that.”

Frank holds up his hands, palms out. “I believe you. There are other ways to make him smile, though. You don’t have to spend all this money. I know you’re not super attached to it and you seem like the kind of guy who likes to make people happy, but seriously, just. Rein that in a little, okay? It’s not the way.”

Ray picks at a loose thread on the hem of his shirt, wrapping it around a finger until it goes white and tingly. “I don’t know how else to show—I mean, I’m trying to play it cool here. It’s not like I can just make a move.”

Frank exhales a lungful of smoke, frowning. “Why not?”

Ray slants him a look. “Dude, he only just became available like ten seconds ago.”

“So,” he scoffs. “He ended it with Pete because he wasn’t happy with the whole Harem arrangement. He obviously wants to find something better.” Frank gives Ray a look like, Be The Ball.

“Hmm.” Ray takes a moment to skeptically digest this and Frank lets him, just smokes his cigarette in silence, kicking his feet back and forth and sending little clouds of dust into the air when he pats down his shirt and jeans, scratches through the hair on his arms.

Could it be that easy?

No, nothing Ray wants ever is.

“For what it’s worth,” Frank says when he finally breaks the silence. “I really hope it works out.”

Ray doesn’t ask if Frank knows what Mikey thinks of him at all, if he even has a snowball’s chance in hell. Deep down, Ray already knows the answer to that, and he wishes Frank wouldn’t hope because it makes Ray hope, and that’s obviously no good. No way could he ever compare to someone like Pete. Someone outgoing and showy and slender and adventurous and hip and edgy and pretty. That’s Mikey’s type.

Ray’s no one’s type. He’s the guy people settle for.

He’s a profiteer of romantic disillusionment.

*

When the manor opens two nights later, the four of them go into the bathroom, lean against a wall and just… drink it in. Absorbing their work. It took almost the whole week to pull up the old copper plumbing and replace it with something new and cheaper to maintain, and they spent the last two days rushing to get everything else done in time.

Frank still has grout under his nails.

The stalls are all black stained wood—none of that shitty aluminum stuff—and have these ornate little handles and locks. It’s way better than the single toilet they had, even if people really didn’t make a fuss about privacy. It’s nice to have the option now.

There are three long mirrors, faux marble basins, brass fixtures, and more hand sanitizer than an Emergency Room. The tiles are black and the walls are red, and Ray is fucking impressed. Gerard knows his aesthetics and Frank has connections to a hardware retailer down south. T-Bone? Ham Hock? Ray doesn’t ask much beyond that, because even with expanding the bathroom into two pretty roomy walk-in closets that weren’t being used, he still only came four thousand above budget.

In renovation, that’s practically a miracle, especially considering the outcome.  

The lighting is gentle and ambient, nothing like the harsh glare of the usual fluorescents or awkward shadows made by oddly placed bulbs. Frank’s guy (Wishbone?) spent three days hunting down just the right kind of sconce for Gerard, which turned out to feature a little gargoyle on each, shouldering up miniature lamp shades.

It’s easily the most badass bathroom Ray has ever had the pleasure of pissing in.

“This bathroom is…” Gerard seems at a loss for words, which is saying a lot in and of itself.

“Better than my whole apartment,” Frank says. “Would it be weird if I moved in here?”

Gerard’s gaze slides to Frank, eyes flashing with hurt. “You were supposed to move in a year ago.”

Frank visibly winces. “No, I just meant…”

They fall into a familiar, hushed argument. Gerard lives in the attic of this big house all by his lonesome, unless Mikey’s having what they describe as ‘parental overstimulation’, and then he’ll come and stay for a day or three.

From what Ray’s caught from these quiet fights, Frank agreed forever ago to move in with Gerard if he got clean, which he did. Ray doesn’t know why Frank hasn’t made good on it—it’s none of his business—but he does know his patented ‘I like my apartment’ excuse is utter bullshit.

Ray’s seen that shithole.

Mikey rolls his eyes, a hint of a smile on his lips as he looks at Ray. “So, what do you think?” He tucks his arms behind his back and rolls his bottom lip between his teeth, nibbling. If Ray didn’t know any better, he’d think Mikey almost looked fidgety.

“It’s better than I expected,” he admits, knowing he made the right investment. These guys won’t just do the bare minimum to make it by. They want to be involved, want to make it theirs. Ray can’t help but snort a laugh. “I was just going to make it white and stainless steel, and honestly? It would have probably cost me more.” Ray’s just too impatient to make connections and too passive to haggle. There’s a reason Bob hasn’t let him be more involved in Pauly’s.

Gerard pauses long enough in his pouting to shoot Ray a fierce expression. “Speak no more of that.”

Frank takes the distraction. “There’s going to be some definite fucking in here tonight.”

Mikey’s eyebrow curves. “I think we should be offended if there isn’t.”

Ray’s delighted when the new bathroom gets its first entrant. It’s sort of unspoken that they’re all waiting around to see a few reactions before tiredly crawling to the nearest bed, chair, or in Ray’s case pillow. He’s fairly skeptical that anyone has the energy to fuck tonight, but who knows. Frank’s a pretty energetic dude.

Unfortunately, their first entrant arrives in the form of Pete.

He walks right past them, eyes fixed on the phone in his hand. Their gazes silently track him across the room, stopping when he reaches the spot the sinks used to be. Pete looks up, confused, before spinning in place.

He gawks at them. “… what?”

“What do you think?” Gerard presents one of the stalls with the flourish of a game show hostess, but Pete’s eyes are busy looking everywhere at once.

He blinks wildly. “I think I have the wrong den of iniquity?”

“We’re moving on up,” Frank explains.

“Evidently.” His eyes land on Mikey and soften. There’s a lot of affection in the way he looks at him, but also a lot of something else—sadness, disappointment maybe. “This why you haven’t been answering calls all week?”

“I’ve been answering calls,” Mikey answers, casually lifting a shoulder. “Just not yours.”

The atmospheric shift is so quick that Gerard and Frank’s ‘subtle’ attempt to angle themselves away from the exchange is done rigidly, shoes squeaking against the shiny floor. Ray finds his watch terribly interesting.

“Oh.” Pete’s voice has gone tight, slightly sharp. “Sorry. I didn’t realize we couldn’t be friends unless I was sticking my dick up your ass.”

Ray, Gerard, and Frank all flinch.

Mikey doesn’t. “Do we have to do this here?” The pause is so tense it’s almost a tangible thing, but Ray’s predictably awestruck at Mikey’s ability to be so fucking cool right now. Having some kind of semi-hostile encounter with an ex and not even a twitch?

This motherfucker is completely unflappable.

When Pete responds, the sharpness is all gone from his voice. He gives a quiet sigh that sounds more resigned than anything. “I don’t want to fight.”

“I don’t want to fuck. And I don’t want to have a heart to heart about it. I’m sorry that upsets you, it’s not like I mean to.” Mikey shrugs again. “It just is what it is, no use in dwelling.”

Ray does look up then, just long enough to see the flash of hurt on Pete’s face. “So what, we can’t even be friends now? After everything—”

“When you’ve accepted that’s all it is,” Mikey gives him a look, “and are a lot less likely to, say, cause giant fuckin’ scenes in front of my family and business partners on what’s supposed to be a pretty big night for us, I’d actually really like to be friends again. I’m just giving you time.”

Pete inhales loudly, forcing a rather vicious smile when he tells the others, “This bathroom looks great, guys. Congratulations! Sorry if the inconvenience of like, having feelings has caused a giant fucking scene on your big fucking night.”

Mikey rolls his eyes as the door swings shut. “Gross.”

Gerard turns to glare at him. “Do you have to be so fucking harsh, Mikes?”

“I was gentle the first five times!” Mikey insists, actually throwing his hands in the air. “You know how melodramatic he is. He’s dying to make this breakup into a huge fucking production. When he gets over himself, we’ll go see a show and laugh about it.”

“I still think you’re being kind of mean,” Gerard mutters.

“He has three other partners to help dull the pain,” Mikey deadpans. “He’s impulsive, okay. He’ll be easier to break up with a few weeks after I’ve already broken up with him.”

“And if not,” Frank interjects, “you at least have a nice bathroom to hide in.” And then thankfully, they’re back to admiring their work, and when Brian ambles in five minutes later, they get the kind of reaction they’d all been hoping for.

“You fuckers better hope there’s not a crowd in here tonight,” Brain says, gawking. “Because if there is, I’m totally jacking it next to one of those gargoyle motherfuckers.”

Ray doesn’t feel compelled to leave until thirty minutes later when Frank, Gerard, and Mikey all line up at the counter, pressed close to the mirrors, lining their eyes with makeup. Gerard and Mikey trade off eye shadow, but then trade back, deciding on some dual method of shading that Ray has no desire to decipher. Frank is fussing with his hair, settling a long section of his bang artfully against his temple, and Gerard is smudging eyeliner around the corners of his lids. Mikey is wearing a shirt that settles just far enough above his waist that his hipbones jut out from beneath it, sharp and pale.

He guesses this answers his question about anyone being up for fucking.

They all look ready to prowl.

Ray feels old and lame. He’s still wearing the Megadeth shirt he worked in earlier. There’s a rip in his jeans at the knee, but it doesn’t look cool—not like Frank’s—not like he’s edgy and boyish and wily. Just like he wasn’t paying attention when he passed the industrial tile cutter that morning and almost got his kneecap lopped the fuck off.

He’s pretty sure he still has grout in his hair.

It’s a sad day when Gerard is cleaner and more put together than you.

He doesn’t realize he’s been absently staring at two angular hipbones until Mikey’s eyes lock with his through the mirror’s reflection. His eyes are darker now, softer but just intense enough that Ray has to look away, a fluttering discomfort settled somewhere in his gut.

He hears Mikey shifting around, slipping his glasses onto the bridge of his nose, sees him turn to Ray in the edges of his periphery. “Hey, c’mere.”  Frank and Gerard glance over, but don’t pause.

“What’s up?”

“Come here,” he says again, rolling his eyes. “I want to try something.” He doesn’t really give Ray a chance to parse this before he’s bodily guiding him to the counter. His lips purse as he regard’s Ray’s reflection, and eugh. Ray standing next to Mikey in their contrasting states is a pretty fucking disenchanting image.

No chance.

None at all.

He tries to grimace away but Mikey clutches his shoulders. “Stoppit. I’m just going to—hm.” His hands pull back Ray’s unruly mop. His fingertips are soft at the edges, but rough at the points, and when they flutter through Ray’s hair, it tickles enough that he shivers.

Mikey’s lips twitch when the hair he just tucked behind Ray’s ear flops back into his face.

Ray hates his hair.

Gerard watches their reflection curiously. “I wonder how long it’d be straightened.”

Mikey clucks his tongue. “Shut up, don’t even. The body is what makes it so awesome.” He illustrates this by bunching either side of Ray’s hair in two fists, watching it spring back when he lets go. His nose wrinkles with a delighted grin when he repeats this process. “S’cool!”

Well.

Ray supposes his hair is okay.

“You need to change out of that shirt, though,” Frank declares. He rifles through Mikey’s backpack, which he always seems to have when he arrives anywhere. Ray guesses it’s a product of his varied living situation.

“Oh, get the Anthrax shirt,” Mikey instructs, hip-checking Frank aside. “It’s too big on me.”

“Megadeth to Anthrax.” Gerard grins into backpack they’re all huddled over. “Upgrade.”

Ray doesn’t like where this is going. “Guys, you don’t—”

“Got it.” Mikey fists the shirt in triumph, and they all turn their dark, lined eyes on Ray.

It’s a bit scary.

There’s an expectant pause, and then, “Well? Take it off.”

Too tired to even comprehend taking on all three of them at once, Ray obeys and puts on the Anthrax shirt. It’s tight in the shoulders and shorter than he’s used to, but Mikey makes this little pleased sound when they appraise him, nodding.

Then he brandishes an eyeliner pencil, eyes alight.

“Dude, seriously.”

“I’m always serious when it comes to eyeliner,” Mikey assures.

Ray tries to back away, but just ends up squishing himself against the counter. “But..! I’m just going to jerk off for five minutes and then go home and pass out. People don’t get all…” He flails a hand, unable to find a casual word for sexy. “…you know, for that.”

Frank laughs. “What kind of exhibitionist are you, Ray?”

Mikey agrees, “If you want people to look, you should give them something to look at.”

“Aside from your dick,” Gerard adds, smacking on a stick of gum. “Not that it isn’t a very nice dick. Because it is, I’ve seen it. Super impressive.”

“Girthy.” Frank nods. “Kind of intimidating, if I’m being honest.”

Mikey descends on a flustered Ray, uncapping the pencil with his teeth. “This won’t hurt,” he smirks around the cap. “Just stay really still.”

*

Ray’s initial plans to go jerk off in J are curtailed by the awkwardness he feels at being all… made up. The eyeliner doesn’t look bad or anything, it’s just…

Frank was right before—Ray is a terrible exhibitionist.

He wants people to watch him, but he hates being looked at. Measured up. Judged. Criticized. It’s easier when he’s got his dick out, because at least then, no one is looking at him. It’s an uncomfortable conflict, longing for attention while wanting to remain invisible. It’s totally irreconcilable. 

Unfortunately, Ray had pitched some inopportune tent at having Mikey so close. Those hands were all over Ray’s face, stretching his skin and smudging and dabbing, and all arousingly gentle. Not to even mention the wash of Mikey’s breath against Ray’s face, lips all screwed up in concentration like a ten-minute prelude to a soft, chaste kiss.

Ray adjusts his erection for the billionth time.

He’s about to suck it up and go face Brian and his inquisitive ‘what are you all gussied up for’ attitude when he has an idea.

He’s amazed at his own luck when he finds the visible half of the M Room vacant.

It’s nicer than J (there’s a bed), but not quite as accommodating as A (there are no chairs, though to be fair, Ray guesses most of them are on the other side of the mirror).

His eyes drift to his reflection a few times as he crosses the room, rubbing his palms on his thighs. The bed is a springy lumpy monstrosity covered in soft sheets—both of which are clear hand-me-downs. Ray takes a good look around before dropping onto it, rolling a kink out of his shoulder.

He stares at himself and wonders who’s behind the glass—if anyone’s there at all. M doesn’t seem very popular. He can’t see anyone, can’t hear anyone, and will have to jerk off silently staring at himself.

No wonder it’s vacant.

On the other hand, who knows, right? There could be like fifty people behind the mirror and Ray would never know. That’s enough to make him twitch in his jeans.

He thinks about what Mikey said before—about giving people something to look at if he wants to be watched—and looks himself in the eye when he presses a hand to his dick. After a moment of gathering some courage, he makes a show of it, pushing a palm behind him to lean on and spreading his legs a bit.

He drops his chin and stares at himself through his lashes, rubbing himself through the denim of his jeans.

Yeah.

He could get into this.

He pops the button on his jeans and pulls down his zipper, but he doesn’t just whip it out. Instead, he lifts Mikey’s Anthrax shirt over his head, getting a noseful of his scent as it passes, deodorant and hair gel and sweat and Goddamn.

Ray still has it in his hand when he pulls himself from his pants. He’s already pretty wet—wet enough that he can spread it around his head and make it shiny—but he leans across the bed to grab a packet of lube from a skull-dish anyway.

He gets himself sloppy slick, kicking his jeans down to his ankles and finally just falling back onto the bed. It’s not going to last long, especially since Ray turns his head and buries his nose into the shirt, pulling in a lungful of air before panting it back into the worn black fabric.

He massages his balls with one hand and jacks off with the other. Long strokes, from the bottom of the base to the top of the head—strokes so long that his dick drops from his grip every now and again, slapping lewdly against his belly.

Ray ‘s breathing in the shirt’s smell when the strokes grow shorter, more focused at the head, tighter, harder, faster, tighter harder faster, tighterharderfaster.

Ray’s thighs quiver.

He gnashes his teeth and comes with flexing, achy abs, body rigid and jerking with every ribbon that hits his chest. He makes a sound after that’s not very dignified—sort of like when his elevator’s down and he has to take the stairs after a long day—a deep, pitiful groan.

Here he was planning on giving (hopefully) someone a good show, and instead he just furiously masturbated to Mikey’s Anthrax shirt.

Christ.

He must set some kind of record for post-orgasm cleanup and getaway.

*

They don’t get much rest since they want to meet Ray’s goal of not closing. They all meet at the manor two days later, Gerard still in his pissy half-asleep phase, clutching a cup of coffee like he both loves it and wants to throw it in someone’s face.

Ray would feel worse about making everyone keep to such a rushed schedule, but he’s heard plenty of horror stories—renovations being dragged out more and more as time goes by—and Gerard is too flaky to manage that kind of delay. Not in a bad way or anything. He just gets creative ideas faster than he can complete them, has obvious difficulty seeing one thing through before he’s on to the next. He’s too impatient. Ray wants to tie him to the projects they’re already tackling, and he can’t do that if the contractors take advantage of a casual deadline.

Frank is completely on board with this.

There were phone meetings.

There’s also the fact that Mikey is the first to arrive, all bright eyed and glancing at the time on his phone, and then peering over his shoulder down the winding drive that connects to the main road.

The people are coming today to install the sound system.

Mikey’s excited about that—or about as excited as Ray thinks Mikey could seem about anything—and Frank is excited because they’ve rented two jackhammers for the whole week. Ray is excited because they’re excited, and Gerard isn’t excited about a fucking thing.

“You can’t do anything cool with a parking lot,” he grumbles.

Ray knows he’s been trying.

They get most of the old driveway up that first day, and it’s a pain in the ass. Ray and Frank do all of the work, while Gerard mostly just stands on the porch in an encouraging manner, raising his coffee cup every now and then. He finds that jackhammers aren’t nearly as awesome as Frank would lead him to believe.

It’s heavy and too short, and hunching over for five hours vibrating himself into oblivion is not really how he wanted to spend his Sunday.

Monday is even worse.

The purchase of the Manor’s new sound system was enough to convince a high quality supplier that Pauly’s could move some serious shit—no more piddly little Zildijan drumsticks and nylon strings—no, Pauly’s was ready for the big time. As a result, they now have access to fancy studio-grade sound equipment, which means bigger immediate net-profits, which means expansion, which means Bob is able to land some pretty sweet warehouse space just a few blocks away.

Unfortunately, this also means they can now move all the clutter out of Pauly’s retail space, and Pauly’s isn’t cluttered with drumsticks and strings, for the record. Ray moves ten drum kits, eleven amps, twenty two speakers, three PA Systems, more wind instruments than he cares to count, and seven heavy-duty shelving units.

He’s happy for Bob. Hell, it’s pretty much working out the way Ray himself had planned (though Ray still wishes Bob would let him do the books). It’s just a terrible week to pile more manual labor onto Ray’s plate, and he spends the entire drive to Alphabet Manor wishing like hell Frank had let him pay to get the driveway demo’ed.

Penny-pinching motherfucker.

When he pulls up, he sees a gigantic pile of concrete chunks waiting to be heaved into the nearby trailer. From beside it stands a stupidly grinning Frank, arms thrust out as if to say, Look what I made!

Ray beats his head against the steering wheel.

It’s going to be a long week.

*

This is it.

Ray is never moving again.

He listens to Mikey walking around him, shoes clunking noisily over the floor as he tracks back and forth, from the sound system’s console to the rooms on the first floor, testing to ensure the electrical issues that had delayed the install have indeed been smoothed out to his liking.

He’s getting ready for its debut tomorrow night.

Nothing left to do, Frank and Gerard are long gone—probably upstairs in Gerard’s living space, formerly known as the attic—probably fucking. He doesn’t know how Frank can possibly manage it, but then again, he didn’t have four whole days of moving inventory for Bob, so that might have something to do with it.

Mikey returns just then from a circuit to the A Room, steps over Ray’s prone form sprawled in the middle of the floor, and pauses. He looks down at Ray, feet on either side of his hips. “Y’kay?”

Ray honest-to-God whimpers.

He extends his hand like he wants to help Ray up, but since it’s already been established that Ray’s not going to do that whole ‘moving thing’ ever again, he just lays there pathetically. He thinks he’s been a real champ holding in his bitching and moaning until the work was all done, but now Ray just wants to curl into a ball and quietly die.

“Hm.” Ray almost has a fucking coronary when Mikey folds himself down into a hovering crouch, forearms resting on his knees. “According to Gee, I’m a fuckin’ master at massages. What hurts?”

Ray battles not to lower his eyes to the three-inches of space separating his crotch and Mikey’s ass, and then he tries not to go rigid when Mikey’s suggestion actually registers, because first… ouch, and second, being chill.

With some effort, Ray swallows. “Everything?”

Mikey lifts an eyebrow. “Like. Even your hair?”

Ray glances up toward his eyebrows, like he can see his ridiculous frizzy fro. “Well. All of my larger muscles.”

A lot of things happen at once: Ray realizes the words that just came out of his mouth, then his eyes involuntarily drop to the muscle he’s trying most to ignore, and finally, Ray feels his face color pretty impressively.

When he yanks his eyes away from those three inches of space between their groins, Mikey’s eyebrows are hiked all the way up his forehead.

There’s absolutely no mistaking what Ray was thinking about.

He tenses, sputtering through the aches it causes, “Oh God, I didn’t mean—not like—Just my arms! And my back.” Ray scrambles himself out from between Mikey’s legs. “I don’t know what that whole… thing was about. I’m just. Sleep. Lacks of it. Sorry.” He repeats, “Sorry,” and then again, “…sorry.”

He comes to rest about three feet from where Mikey’s still crouched, only now his eyebrows are drawn together and he’s watching him with a narrow, calculating stare. It sounds like he’s chewing his words when Mikey grits out, “Relax, Ray. No homo, I get it.”

“No, it’s—what? It’s not—!” He waves his hands around like he can physically stop Mikey from getting the wrong impression. “You know I’m not… not like that.”

“A fag? Yeah, everyone knows. You can dial down the douchey freakouts, I wasn’t going to do anything.” Still chewing.

“No, Mikey you’re not—” Ray deflates all at once, face and shoulders and spirit all falling, because he’s just painfully, miserably disappointed in this whole exchange—that he can’t ever be smooth, that he’s chronically incapable of expressing himself, that the more he tries to be careful with something, the more he inevitably ruins it.

Those are disappointments he can get past, even as bone-deep weary and aching as he is right that second.

Getting past the fact that Mikey could think so little of him isn’t quite as simple.

Ray doesn’t bothering answering when Mikey calls his name. He’s already crossing the fresh asphalt of the dark parking lot.

*

Frank texts him three hours later.

Wtf?

Omg you didn’t say that

Muscle lol

Oh jesus

You twoare so f’in dum

You owe me so big forfixing this

Come back

rayrayrayray

Ray’s already fallen asleep by then, in his empty bed in his empty apartment. He’s still wearing his clothes and the chalky flavor of Mylanta lingers on the back of his tongue, even in his dreams.

*

Friday night, Ray Toro is a man on a mission.

He shoves his sleeves up to his elbows, eyes set on Joe, the door guy, as he crosses the new and pleasantly full parking lot. His steps are steady, determined. He’s waited far too long to bite this bullet, and it’s stupid. Ray’s a major profit-holder of an on-premise sex club, for fuck’s sake.

So he waltzes right up to Joe and evenly requests, “Orange and yellow, please.”

Joe doesn’t blink at the request—just hands them over—but he does look confused when Ray tries to give him the door fee. “I thought we talked about this. You don’t pay, remember?”

Ray shoves the bills at him. “It’s a whole fucking… thing. Just take it, okay?”

It just seems more official this way, paying for the band he’s about to walk around the manor wearing like a beacon.

Ray Toro is in a relationship with sex, and it’s a little bit gay.

Big fucking deal.

Ray goes instantly for the refreshment table. Mikey always comes here first to get coffee, without fail, so Ray lingers there pretending to be utterly fascinated by the nutrition facts on a bottle of Sprite. He’s not looking for a reaction—at least not from anyone but Mikey—but it doesn’t take long to get one anyway.

His wrist gets snatched up so quick it almost twinges. “Oh my sweet cocksucking Christ.” Gerard is staring at his wrist, mouth ajar. “Ray. Fucking. Toro. Shut the fuck up.”

Ray yanks his wrist away, hissing, “How is it protocol not to mention anyone’s bands if I’m the only one following it?”

“I didn’t mention anything. And anyway, you’re my friend. Friends can ask friends about their bands when they reveal new and pretty vital information.”

“What’s vital information?” Mikey reaches around them to get to the coffee with a strategically placed elbow to Gerard’s ribs.

“This!” Gerard takes Ray’s wrist again, shaking it in front of Mikey’s face. Ray pulls his hand back with such force that it jolts both him and Gerard back a step. He was kind of hoping for a little more subtlety—something Gerard probably wouldn’t know if it was sucking him off.

Ray ducks his head and can only hope his hair hides the scarlet flush he feels spreading over his face. “It’s not a big deal, geez.”

“It’s not,” Gerard insists in his soothing sex-counselor voice. “It’s perfectly natural, even if you’re just curious. Homoeroticism has been—”

Ray stops him before he can really get going. “I’m not. I think I’m just—” Ray clears the croak in his throat and can’t help a nervous glance at Mikey.

He’s watching Ray, coffee cup suspended mid-way to his mouth. He lifts an eyebrow at the pause, waiting.

Ray settles on, “I’m an exhibitionist. You know? Like. Just an exhibitionist. Gender, gay, straight, whatever. It doesn’t really factor in. For me. I don’t care.”

Ray emphasizes to Mikey, “I don’t care.”  

His eyes are a little warmer when he finishes lifting his coffee to his mouth, giving Ray a single, firm nod before drinking. A silent understanding.

That’s that.

“So I guess you’re kind of pansexual, like me!” Gerard gushes. “Only it’s all wrapped up in exhibitionism, which is totally cool because—”

Ray bites down a weary sigh.

“Shut up, Gerard,” Mikey snaps, turning to scowl at his brother. “You don’t need to tack a label onto everybody’s sexuality. It’s fuckin’ rude. No wonder he hasn’t been wearing yellow all this time. You make everything into a subversive social statement.”

Gerard withers away, eyes wide. “I didn’t mean to be—”

“Well you were.”

“I’m sorry.” His shoulders curl up to where he’s tucking some hair behind his ear.  He tells Ray, “I just want to know you better.”

And oh God. How could Ray ever stay annoyed with that? “It’s cool,” he assures, giving Gerard an affectionate pat on the head. “When I have my sexuality figured out, you’ll be the first to know.” After a beat, “To be fair, maybe the second.”

This seems to perk Gerard up a bit. “Or third. Don’t rule out poly! It can be—”

“Come on,” Mikey wedges himself between them, tugging Ray’s sleeve. “I’ll show you this sweet playlist I made for J.”

Ray lets himself be dragged to Mikey’s sound console. “Thanks,” he sighs, pulling at his collar. Ray feels like the room lost two-thirds of its oxygen content over the course of that exchange.

“Professional Motherfucker, remember?” Mikey glances at Ray over his shoulder, mouth curling into a grin. “Gee doesn’t mean to pressure people, you know. He’s just had it figured out for so long that he forgets some of us are still, like, works in progress.”

It’s the exasperated air of someone who’s had to deal with this rather recently that causes Ray to wonder aloud, “You too?”

Mikey drops into a folding chair, lifting a shoulder. “Pretty much tried it all, I guess. You can go ahead and rule out poly, it’s not all that great. Check this out.” He thrusts an iPod at Ray.

“Yeah right, I can’t even get one person,” Ray mutters, absently scrolling through the playlist. “Multiple seems like a pretty ridiculous leap for—oh my God.” He gawks at Mikey. “The Stroke? Coin-Operated Boy? Longview? Doin’ Laundry, Blister in the motherfucking Sun? Mikey.”

They’re both laughing at this point—or in Mikey’s case, giggling adorably.

“You can’t play these, man! No one will be able to keep a straight face.”

Mikey eyes are all squinted with his snickering. “No, I know, I just wanted to see you laugh.” He grabs the iPod and shakes his head. “It’d be pretty funny, though.”

“Well yeah,” Ray agrees, surprised—pleased—at this confession. Mikey wants to see him laugh? “Obviously you need to sneak Blister in there, though.”

“You know that’s not technically about masturbation.”

“Anything you play in J is going to be about masturbation.” Ray rolls his eyes. “We’re kind of an imaginative group.”

“You’re in there a lot, huh?” He bends over to push the iPod into his backpack. His face is still hidden when he says, “I was… surprised last week when I saw you in M. I know it’s not your usual thing.”

Ray freezes. “What?”

When Mikey straightens again, he’s gnawing on his lip. “Last Saturday? You came into M. That’s where I usually—are you okay?”

He’s so far from ‘okay’, he’s pretty sure he has singlehandedly managed to propel ‘okay’ into an event horizon. Ray is currently inhabiting a plane of existence in which ‘okay’ is so unattainable, it’s become nothing more than a distant myth. He couldn’t be less ‘okay’ if his life depended on it—he’d just die, and even then, he’d still be more ‘okay’ than he is at this exact moment.

Ray’s exhale comes out more wheeze than anything. “I didn’t know you were in there.” He didn’t even think about it. It wasn’t even a remote possibility that Mikey could have been behind that glass. It should have, of course, where else would Mikey have gone? Into A to watch his brother? Or maybe D to watch his ex-boyfriend? 

Of course he goes to M.

Fucking voyeurs.

“I figured as much.” Mikey shrugs, fiddling with some dial on the console that Ray’s in no condition to inspect. “You were, uh—” Ray thinks, Getting off to your shirt and God please no stop don’t, and Mikey glances at him, a rapid-fire flick of his eyes. “You looked… good.”

“I—,” Ray stutters, feeling a bit whiplashed, “Um.”

“We don’t get a lot of traffic from that side, the bed’s pretty shit.” He glances up at Ray from beneath his lashes, curling the drawstring of his hoodie around a forefinger. “You should, like.  Come around more. If you wanted to, I mean.”

“You mean.” Ray works his tongue against the roof of his mouth, and goddamn it he’s trying so hard to be smooth right now, he just doesn’t know how to play it. He needs gallons of Mylanta for this. “Like, come to M… when. When you’re there? Or, like…?”

Mikey’s nose wrinkles with a deep grimace and Ray’s stomach drops. “Gross, this is all fuckin’ awkward now. It’s just that you’re not wearing green, so I’m trying to be delicate. Ugh, I suck at it.”

Ray admits, “I’m lost,” and Mikey rubs his face.

“You’re not wearing green,” he repeats, gesturing to Ray’s wrist. “No one’s supposed to proposition you, and me asking you to come to M is… it’s kind of like—”

Ray’s staring at the orange and yellow bands on his wrist like they’re completely alien. He interrupts, “I’ll be right back.”

He rushes away fast enough that he only catches a flash of Mikey’s blinking, confused expression. He eyes Gerard crossing the room to the hallway, where he’s probably about to hunker himself down in A, so Ray weaves past the handful of minglers at the refreshment table to catch him before that happens.

 “Eep!” Gerard flails, hands coming up to protect his head when Ray practically tackles him.

Ray clutches at his wrist. “Remember that time five minutes ago when you uncomfortably breached the topic of my sexuality, and then I felt all pressured and ashamed and wanted to die? Yeah, me too, so you kind of owe me a favor now, right? Cool.”

Ray’s almost got the green band off his wrist when Gerard registers what’s going down. “Hey!” He tries to tug away, but Ray clamps his arm beneath his armpit and wrestles.

He hisses, “You don’t need it, you have Frank.” With a firm pull, the green band pops from his fisted hand. Ray shoves it over his own in triumph. “Bonus advice: maybe he’d move in with you if you were a little less attached to this. Just saying, sex is an addiction too, open your eyes, man. Thanks, Gee, you’re the best!”

Leaving another confused Way in his wake, Ray does not sprint back to Mikey—but he will admit to walking in a very brisk fashion. 

Mikey’s still blinking when he slides back into his previous spot. “Uh.”

“Green.” Ray raises his wrist, trying to hide how hard he’s breathing as a result of the totally-not-sprinting. “So now you can. You know. Whatever you wanted.”

He knows he isn’t playing it very cool.

Fuck it.

“Oh-kay.” Mikey’s mouth curves into a slow, disbelieving smile. “You should come to M tonight after twelve.”

Ray instantly agrees, “Cool.”

Mikey looks away, biting on his lip again. “I’ll probably be there.”

“Good.”

After a brief pause, Mikey raises his eyes and tells Ray, “You should jack off.”

Ray is so hard right now. “I will.”

“Slower this time.”

So fucking hard. “Definitely.”

“Cool.”

“Cool.”

They share this gaze that’s all intense and awkward and wonderful, and Ray would stay to absorb more of it, but his dick is aching with how hard it is, and he knows talking is only going to get him into trouble.

He has to quit while he’s ahead. “I have to, uh...” Ray gestures vaguely to the stairs, but the way he twists draws Mikey’s attention the bulge at the front of his pants.

Mikey’s staring right at it when he says, “Sure, man. Later.” 

Ray jacks off furiously.

He jacks off so much, it almost hurts to touch it. He makes enough trips to the bathroom that he eventually just rips two entire handfuls of paper towels from the dispenser, takes them with him to J and shoves them under a thigh while he keeps going.

He has a bit of a problem with coming too quick, which isn’t something he’s ever minded, but God.

Mikey brought it up.

How fucking embarrassing.

He’s determined to last so long tonight in M, that Gerard will still be shooing motherfuckers out of the parking lot by the time he busts a nut.

*

Ray gets to the M Room—M for ‘mirror’, M for ‘mutual’, M for ‘Mikeyfuckingway’—at five past midnight. He peeks into the doorway and finds the bed unoccupied, just like last time.

Unlike last time, however, now there is music.

Ray gets there just as Persistence of Time by Anthrax starts playing.

He tells himself this is pure coincidence, nothing to do with the shirt, not at all, because minor meltdowns are not exactly conducive to masturbation.

M is actually two smaller rooms with a gaping square of space cut into the connecting wall for the mirror. Ray doesn’t hear anything from the other side—he guesses whoever installed the glass did good work. He gets a thrill just entering, thinking of Mikey behind the glass, but not being able to know for sure if he actually is.

He couldn’t pull off sexy to save his life, but Ray faces the bed, back to the mirror, and strips his shirt, shoving his hair behind his ears when it’s off. The bed is just as uncomfortable as he remembers it. He makes a note to add that particular issue to his growing list of manor upgrades.

When he’s all settled, Ray looks at himself in the mirror, heart racing.

He’s not wearing makeup this time, so he loses the fortunate sensation of staring back at a total stranger when he presses his hand to the front of his jeans. He’s jacked off four times in the last three hours, so it takes a little coaxing to get hard.

Ray doesn’t mind. He just leans back and lets his head fall to a shoulder, palming himself slow and firm until his muscles all feel pleasantly relaxed, legs falling apart. His eyes grow heavy and he tries to imagine Mikey behind the glass. Maybe he’s standing up, close to the mirror, fogging it up with his even breaths as he watches Ray thumb the button of his jeans. Or maybe there’s a bed in there, too. Maybe he’s lying down and sneaking a hand down his pants. Maybe he’s sitting in a chair, legs spread wide.

Ray imagines he can feel his eyes, watching, waiting.

After a while, he eases down his fly, the sounds of the zipper-teeth swallowed by the riffs of the music. He only dips a couple fingers inside, looking into his reflection as he touches himself with them in long, slow strokes, rough fingertips rasping over his sensitive skin.

He takes himself out of his pants in increments. First, just the head, dry but soft beneath the fingertip he circles it with. Then a couple inches of the shaft, just a tease, just enough to get his fingers around and squeeze. After a few minutes of watching his parted lips in the reflection, Ray pushes it forward, almost fully hard now just thinking of Mikey watching this, already close to panting, already close to writhing at the possibility of it.

He pushes his jeans down and it flops against his hip, settling in that crease where thigh turns into torso. He leaves it there, pushing the ball of his thumb along the length, dropping low to press between his balls, eyes sliding closed.

He plays with it like that for a long while, grips it with his thumb and forefinger all the way at the base, stands it up to showcase the length—he knows it’s impressive. This, he can flaunt.

And he does, favoring long strokes that seem to go on forever and end nestled into his pubes, or slipping over the head. He wonders what Mikey’s looks like—he never got a good look—and he’s never really thought about another guy’s dick before, but just the sudden flash of thought that maybe, possibly, Mikey could be matching Ray right now, stroke for stroke, has his balls pulling up tight.

He lets go of his dick before he comes, huffing hard down at it, watching it jump against his tight, coiled belly. 

He waits for it to pass, but it only takes a few more of those long, teasing strokes before he’s at the edge of orgasm yet again, fisting the sheet under his thigh and watching his dick beg with angry, rigid twitches. There’s a visible tremble in his thigh muscles every time he pushes on the balls of his toes to begin stroking again, fighting off the urge to hump into the tight hole of his fist.

By the time he decides he’s held off long enough, even his arms are shaking. The vision of himself in the mirror looks wrecked, eyebrows pushed together, teeth digging into a tender ridge on his bottom lip. He clutches his dick tight, all business, watches his hand fly over it through the reflection, knowing this is what Mikey’s seeing.

He’s panting like a fucking dog.

When his orgasm hits, it lifts his ass off the bed, hips shoving into his fist right as the first thick rope of come hits his stomach.

Ray makes a guttural, involuntary sound that could be, “Mikey,” but doesn’t actually have any vowels. He fucks into his palm wildly, milking it all out until concepts like embarrassment and dignity begin slowly becoming, like, actual things.

He collapses on the bed and gulps entire lungfuls of air, hand flung out to the side and come cooling against his skin, and yeah.

M for ‘motherfucking awesome’.

*

He leans over the sink in the bathroom to wash his hands. There were four other people in there when he came in—three waiting for the other to get done pissing—and Ray is so tired he can barely stand to remain upright. It’s not a bad-tired though, not like the night before.

He is good-tired, bone-deep from head to toe.

He wets a paper towel and is just rucking up his shirt to wipe at his stomach when the group leaves the bathroom.

Mikey walks in after them.

Ray falters for only a second, and then stares raptly at the line of hair below his bellybutton, swiping at it with the soggy wad of paper. Mikey’s washing his hands at the next basin over and Ray drops his shirt, tosses the towels into the bin.

Ray washes his hands.

Again.

It’s as he’s lathering them up that he catches Mikey’s eyes in the mirror. His cheeks are sporting these little spots of pink right in the middles, and one corner of his shirt is folded under, revealing a few more inches of one hip than the other. He’s watching Ray and his eyeliner’s smudged.

“Hey.” Bottom lip all red and shiny.

Ray looks down at his hands. “Hi.”

Mikey turns off the tap and shakes off his hands, leans closer to the mirror to swipe beneath his eyes with damp fingertips. He asks his reflection, “Good night?”

Ray dries his hands on his jeans, eyes fixed on Mikey’s exposed hip. “Maybe. You?”

Mikey nods. “Definitely. People really dig the music. Plus,” He glances at Ray, “I caught a pretty decent show.”

Be smooth, he thinks, swallowing down his instinctual response, which lands somewhere between pumping a fist and just, like, humping the nearest solid object.

“Oh?”

“Yeah.” Mikey straightens his shirt, once again covering the curve of his hip. “They were right, you know. About it being, like, intimidating.”

Ray swears his heart stops, right before it begins slamming itself wildly against his ribcage. Ray stammers, “Uh…”

“I bet that thing makes people scream,” Mikey says, eyes flashing.

Ray blinks at him, stomach all tied in knots. That’s not what he wants Mikey to think at all. That his dick is scary and hurts people, Jesus fucking Christ. “It’s not—I mean, it’s not all that big,” he mutters. “I’d never hurt anyone.”

The brightness fades from Mikey’s eyes a bit. “I know that. I just meant… like, it’d take a certain kind of person, I bet. Someone experienced?”

Ray frowns, thinking. “I guess. I’ve never really thought about it.” He doesn’t know why this is bothering him so much, Mikey thinking his dick is too much for some people to take. It just does. He adds, “I’m always really careful.”

“No, I know,” Mikey says, shifting his feet. “I was just. I mean, like me? I’ve taken things.” Mikey looks up Ray through his lashes, jerking a shoulder. “Like really big things—some people are really into that, you know?”

It’s unparseable, is what it is. Mikey likes taking ‘really big’ things? “Oh, uhh…” Ray’s tongue clicks in the back of his dry throat when he swallows, unable to shake a sudden mental image of himself, sinking his huge cock into Mikey’s asshole.

“Anyway,” Mikey says breezily, turning to throw his paper towel into the waste bin. “Maybe I’ll catch the show again some time.” Right before he leaves the bathroom, Mikey shoots Ray this dark, considering look, but Ray is too busy biting his lip as hard as he can stand to do much more than gawk into the sink.

*

That night, Ray tries.

He’s serious about it—the whole gay sex thing—so he doesn’t just watch random internet porn, because anyone can tell you that porn is a lot of things, but instructional is not one of them.

There are few options on his cable provider’s On-Demand network, but Ray goes ahead and orders something called Better Gay Sex. It’s obviously not a smart choice from the start, because the title implies that the viewer has been having a lot of simply mediocre gay sex, and Ray hasn’t even had that.

It’s also French.

It’s also got classical music.

And candlelight.

And moustaches.

Ray turns it off and goes to bed.

*

The weekend is good for Ray. Mikey was right, the music was a total hit at Alphabet Manor, not that Ray expected any less. It certainly helped that Mikey had the most varied and excellent collection of songs Ray’s ever heard.

It also helps that Ray spends two days wallowing in the stomach-fluttering excitement that Mikey (maybe?) was (sort of?) macking (possibly?) on Ray.

On Monday though, it’s right back to work. Their inspection is only a month away, and this necessitates a lot of hustle, difficult given that Ray still works at Pauly’s on weekdays. Frank has a full time job as well, and Mikey has two part time jobs, so they also have difficulty meeting at the manor.

Gerard is gloriously unemployed. “Do I have to?”

Ray’s just slipping into his shoes, hair still dripping wet from his shower. “Just show them to the basement. Point with a finger, write a fucking note, I don’t care. You have to do this.”

Gerard makes a gruff sound into the phone, confirming Ray’s suspicion that he’s still in bed. “D’wanna.”

“Gerard.” Ray huffs and searches three pairs of dirty jeans on his floor before he uncovers his wallet. “Go make some coffee, okay? I’m already late for work. This is your work. Go to work, Gerard. Bring home the facon for Frank.”

“Mrghmmph.” And then a whimpered, “Alright.”

He only means to dump one lousy day of responsibilities on Gerard—some specialists coming to take a look at the foundation and test for mold—but then Bob gets his first shipment of Fancy Equipment and Ray spends Tuesday picking up his slack with the customers. Then, on Wednesday after a brief but terrifying invoice nightmare, Bob actually lets Ray look at the books. Needless to say, Ray spends Wednesday hunting down the error, and Thursday actually remedying it.

By Friday, Gerard has left him six messages. They’re all something along the lines of this:

Um… hi. Ray? Yeah, you never came so. Um. Like, the people are here? About the… thing. To fix it. So uh. I think they want to get paid. I don’t know what— (there’s usually a pause here where Gerard sacks-up.) No, you know what? I can handle this. So. Yes. Okay then. Goodbye then. Hope you’re doing good. This is Gerard, by the way.

Ray feels bad about it.

Since he put in so much overtime pouring over invoices for Bob, he practically forces Ray to take Friday off, not that he really argues. Regardless, he still wakes up at eight, because Alphabet Manor is also his job now, even though all the work for the week has passed. He figures he can at least go and get an update, see if he’s needed.

He stops for donuts and coffee on the way, hoping Gerard will be distracted enough by the smell of it that he won’t hold too much of a grudge.

When he gets there, no one answers the door.

He looks behind him at the parking lot, where Frank’s shitty sedan is parked and frowns. He knocks some more, and then some more, and then finally pulls out his phone and texts Gerard and, when that gets him nowhere, Frank.

It’s only after he texts Mikey and sits down on the stoop with all the coffee and donuts that Ray hears movement on the other side of the door.

He scrambles to his feet.

When the door opens, Mikey’s on the other side of it, hair all flattened to one side, a long pillow-crease dividing his cheek and eyes smushed closed against the glare of the sun.

He grunts at Ray.

Ray starts, “Wh—,” but Mikey’s hand shoots out to clutch his shoulder.

Mikey scowls at Ray and gives a sharp, curt, “Shh.” When he’s sure Ray obeys this without question (of course he does), Mikey takes the coffees into the kitchen. Ray follows, unsure why he has to be quiet, but Mikey’s wearing only a thin t-shirt and grey boxer briefs.

Nothing has to make sense just then.

Ray enjoys the view.

He deposits the donuts on the table per Mikey’s request, which is nothing more than a slant of his eyes and a disgruntled breathing sound.

Mikey points to the stairs before he starts climbing them so Ray follows him once more.

This puts his ass directly in Ray’s field of vision.

The stairs are too short a thing.

They end up in the attic, which is completely dark, save for three scant rays of light peeking in through a tear in a curtain, and even the rays are subdued, grayed out by stagnant cigarette smoke and particles of floating dust.

It smells like Cheetos and reefer and armpit.

When Ray squints into the room, he can just barely make out Gerard and Frank in the bed at the far corner. One of them is softly snoring and a beam of smoky light cuts right through where they lay, illuminating Gerard’s elbow where his arm wraps around Frank.

Mikey grunts again. Ray turns to find him dropping onto a futon at the other corner of the room, and Ray frowns. This is not a scene conducive to entrepreneurial productivity. He opens his mouth to say so, but Mikey gives him another sharp, “Sh.”

Ray lowers his eyebrows in a scowl.

First there’s a ruffle of blankets, and then a pillow flies at Ray’s face from out of the darkness.

Mikey lifts a corner of the blanket and stares.

Ray shuffles his feet, pressing the pillow into his chest.

Mikey pats the vacant Ray-sized portion of the futon and stares some more.

Ray heaves a defeated sigh.

He wonders, as he’s taking off his shoes and climbing into the futon, how the hell Mikey just managed to boss him around with his eyes alone. It’s sort of disconcerting. Then Ray mostly boggles that they’ve managed to end up lying next to each other in a futon, again, and it’s not even the same one, and what the hell, that’s not a thing grown men do.

Grown men also don’t go back to sleep at nine in the morning on a weekday, which is an opinion he tries to convey to Mikey with what he hopes is an uncomfortable stare.

Mikey scoffs.

Ray guesses he’s not too good at the silent stare thing. “But—”

“Sh.” Mikey throws an arm across his torso, which is still something Ray’s in the process of digesting when he begins shouldering his way beneath Ray’s arm, pressing himself all along Ray’s side with warmth and bones and sinew and Eau De Dude, and Ray is being cool.

So cool.

Like a cucumber.

Like a rigid, phallic, chilled vegetable being cuddled to by a skinny white guy—that’s Ray.

Mikey settles with his head resting in the crook of Ray’s neck, tickling the sensitive skin there with a warm, damp sigh. “Sleep, m’kay.”

Mikey falls asleep within moments.

Ray stays awake long after, chasing particles of dust and the paths they make through the light, wondering what he should do with the hand attached to the arm Mikey’s lying on, hyper-focused on every breath Mikey makes against his neck, every sleep-twitch of his fingers, the wet heat of his mouth when his lips go slack and fall apart.

His hand remains suspended, hovering over Mikey until Ray’s muscles have gradually loosened, until his chin buries itself in Mikey’s hair, until his breathing evens out and he feels more un-fucking-believably comfortable than just awkwardly horny and confused, because okay.

Okay, this is happening.

No big deal.

Gift horses and mouths, and all that, right?

Ray lets his hand fall to Mikey’s shoulder right before he dozes off himself.

*

Mikey is a champion cuddler. He doesn’t move, not once, the entire time. Ray wakes up three times—once when Frank gets up, again when Gerard wakes up, and again for no discernible reason other than it being almost noon. Ray’s always been an incredibly light sleeper. Plus, Mikey doesn’t hog all the pillows this time, seeing as how he’s using Ray, which is just fine by him.

He knows it’s kind of creepy and putting all kinds of horses before a very iffy cart, but Ray can’t help but fantasize a little. Like,  what if this were a normal morning back at his place and they just wake up like this, and when he rubs his foot over Mikey’s ankle, maybe that could be just a thing he does. What if this was routine, that sort of thing.

Obviously, he’d wake Mikey up with a kiss. Probably, things would get heated, because when indulging in a fantasy relationship, why not go all the way? Maybe some lazy, slow, sleepy sex, but—

Well, Ray needs to research that a little more.

The fantasy goes kind of fuzzy on the specifics of the gay sex, which is probably dumb. Ray had anal sex that one time in T, so it’s not some major mystery anymore how that happens. Plus, he has a penis, so he knows all about how that works. He’s a master at jacking off. MasterBation, that’s Ray. It’ll probably be like playing the guitar from a new angle or something, which is to say with a little more effort and just as ultimately effective. Blow jobs seem stupidly easily. Ray thinks, put it in your mouth and suck the fucking thing. It’s not rocket science.

He ponders the mechanics of gay sex long enough that when Mikey begins stirring, Ray is, of course, rock hard.

“Hrmphg,” Mikey snorts into his neck before drawing in a long yawn. Ray remains frozen, grateful at least that no part of Mikey is currently making any contact with his groin area.

But then, because he is Ray and this is how shit works out for him, Mikey throws a thigh over him and nestles closer.

His leg is pressing right into Ray’s massive erection. “Time s’it?”

Ray pries his lip from between his teeth long enough to croak, “After noon.”

Mikey snuffles into his neck and does this thing—like, a shimmy—with his whole body. Ray’s muscles coil impossibly tighter.  “Me and Frank called in sick for work. S’ your excuse?”

“Bob…” he gulps. “… didn’t want to pay me overtime?” His face feels vaguely magenta. 

“Cool.” Ray wishes, among many many other things, that Mikey would stop talking into his neck now. “We got wicked stoned. You put Gee under way too much pressure, you know. You should have eased him into that.”

Mikey sounds admonishing enough that Ray momentarily forgets about his epic wood. “I didn’t mean to, I swear! I just—I was only going to make him deal with it for a day and then Bob needed—”

“He’s not good with people,” Mikey interrupts. “I know it seems like it when it’s an Alphabet night, but it’s different when it’s about sex. Easier, you know?”

Ray really doesn’t. “I’m sorry.”

“Call me next time.” Mikey puts his palm on Ray’s stomach. “I can blow off my day shifts at the Citgo every now and then.”

“I will,” he promises. “I’ll make it up to him, I’m really sorr—”

“Ugh, shut up.” Mikey shoves up onto the palm against Ray’s stomach to stare down at him. His hair’s still flat on one side, and there’s a crease from Ray’s collar pressed into the flesh stretched taut over his jaw. Something like anger flashes in his eyes. “You’re sorry, like aggressively fucking sorry, all the time. There’s a reason Gee didn’t say anything. It’s fucking impossible. It’s like punching a hamster.”

Ray winces and is about to say—

“If you’re sorry for being so sorry, I’m going to lose my shit.”

Ray frowns. “I was just going to say that I’d work on it.”

“Sure you were.” Mikey’s eyes narrow. “You know, you’ve got one hell of a raging erection right now.”

Ray chokes on his own tongue, body locking up, heart stuttering.

“I-uh…”

His thigh is still pressing into it. “Seriously, what were you, rubbing off on me while I was sleeping?”

“God,” Ray jerks away, “what? No! No, Mikey I—”

Mikey pushes him down with his hand. “What kind of fucking creep gets off on someone while they’re sleeping?”

A lump lodges itself into Ray’s throat, thick enough that, for a moment, he can’t talk around it, can’t control the sudden pressure in the pit of his chest that’s making his eyes swim. Creep. Mikey thinks Ray’s a fucking creep. He knew it was only a matter of time, that Mikey could never like someone like him, not after what he did. No matter what he does or how hard he tries, it’s always going to follow him, and he deserves it.

Ray’s trembling all over, and yet entirely incapable of moving. He can’t breathe. All he can do is croak out a wet, “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t—”

“Holy shit.” In the space of a blink, Mikey’s straddling Ray, hands holding his face. “Calm down, holy shit, Ray. God.” And then he’s pressing a kiss to Ray’s cheek, and then the other cheek, and then shushing into his ear. “I was just fucking with you, it’s fine. It’s cool. I was making a point, it was shitty of me, just breathe.”

“I’d never do something like that to you again.”

Mikey wedges his arms around Ray’s neck, hugs it tight and presses their chests together. “I know, I know, I just wanted to see you stick up for yourself, I’m sorry.”

He gasps, “Never, Mikey, I wouldn’t, I was thinking about you, but I didn’t, I wouldn’t,” and knows he’s babbling but he can’t stop. “I wouldn’t be a creep to you, I’m not like that anymore, I’d never do that again, I swear—”

“I know, Ray, it’s okay.”

“It’s not.” He exhales into Mikey’s hair, shaky and quiet, and what slips out with it is small and pained. “I’d be so good to you.”

Mikey makes this aborted, strangled sound that vibrates against Ray’s neck. “Ray.”

“If you let me, I’d worship you,” he rushes out, tongue tripping over itself, hands flexing where they’re fisted against Mikey’s warm, sharp hips. “I’d treat you so good, and I know I’m not pretty like Pete, but I’d make you happy, I’d be so careful—”

And then there’s footsteps on the stairs and Ray realizes, like a punch to the face, what he’s actually doing right now—the words that are coming out of his mouth—and Mikey’s laying on top of him and breathing hard into his neck, and they both go rigid.

Mikey lurches away the same second that Ray pushes him.

He vaguely registers Gerard coming into the room and beaming at them both, half a glazed donut pinched between thumb and forefinger. He presents it dramatically. “Ray brought donuts! Thanks, man!”

He ducks his head, feels pale and a little sick to his stomach. “It was no problem,” he mutters. “Sorry for dumping so much shit on you this week.”

Mikey makes a frustrated sound.

Gerard waves the donut. “Whatever, I can take care of business. I handled that shit, for sure.” After taking a bite of his donut, “What, are you leaving?”

“Ray. Don’t.”

He ignores Mikey mostly because he can’t look him in the eye. Ray’s already shoved his feet into his shoes, is patting his pockets for his keys. “Uh… yeah, just, I have to, like—” He figures if he runs away very quickly, this can be Schrodinger’s accidental come on.

He makes it to the second floor.

Mikey, who is somehow directly on his heels, bodily forces Ray into J, which is a problem in and of itself but the stormy look in Mikey’s eyes is even worse.

“What the fuck?” he hisses.

Ray stares at his shoes, one palm wrapped around the back of his neck like if he removes it, his head might just fall off. “Sorry,” he says, wincing immediately. “I’m so fucking dumb.”

“No, Ray—Jesus. Why do you do this? Gerard… he doesn’t fucking do anything. All day, he sits around and draws and twiddles his fucking thumbs. You have every right to ask him to pick up our slack. You sleep in a bed with a guy who’s all up on your junk, sometimes you get a boner. It’s not your fault. You deserve better than how you treat yourself.” He grabs Ray’s wrist, pries his hand from his neck. “If you have something to ask me, just say it.”

Ray closes his eyes. “I don’t want to be a creep.”

“You’re not a creep.” Mikey’s voice is pitched just the wrong side of a whine.

Ray shakes his head. “I’m not… like Pete.”

“So what? I don’t want Pete.” When his forehead falls to Ray’s shoulder, he pitches forward, heavy against his chest. His voice sounds wrecked. “Ask me.”

Ray swallows and touches Mikey’s waist, turning his face to catch the scent of his hair. He reaches deep down and just barely finds the courage to shakily whisper, “Wear green tonight.”

Mikey’s exhale hits him in a gust and he shakes his head, forehead rolling against his shoulder. “No.”

Ray’s stomach plummets to his toes.

He might vomit.

But then Mikey says, “I don’t want to wear green, Ray,” and presses their mouths together.

It’s paralyzing, confusing in its suddenness, but he grabs Mikey’s shoulders and kisses him, fits their lips together in a damp, hot lock he can feel in the very core of his groin. He makes a ‘mmph’ against Mikey’s mouth and he answers by grabbing Ray’s face with both hands, pulling away and then kissing him again.

They kiss like this—lip-locked soft and wet and sweet—long enough that the thought of pressing his tongue into the seam of Mikey’s mouth seems downright fucking perverse. Ray touches his face, a soft press of fingertips against Mikey’s jaw, and works Mikey’s lower lip between his own, just soft, sucking pinches of pillowy flesh.

Mikey rumbles a long, “Mmm,” against Ray’s mouth before pushing himself gently away, palms flat against Ray’s chest. “Okay?”

Ray nods, more disbelieving than not, and stares at Mikey’s mouth. “Okay.”

“Cool.”

“Yeah,” Ray breathes. “Cool.”

*

Ray’s so stupid with it that he doesn’t even realize until he’s halfway home that Mikey basically just asked him to be his Red Band. He has to pull into a gas station and sit in his car for a solid ten minutes to process this, which is precisely when Frank first texts him.

told you so

He’s just so surprised. His whole life has been a lesson in lowered expectations. You stick your neck out there, it’s going to get chopped off. Sure, he’s made passes at people before, but only in the sense that he waits it out, makes sure he won’t get rejected outright.

He continues his day in a lost, dopey daze, and Franks keeps sending texts. When Ray’s just made it home, his phone buzzes with another.

omg he almost blushed for a sec gag me

When Ray’s heating up his crappy Banquet frozen dinner, he’s still feeling floaty and light-chested, and Frank won’t shut the fuck up.

oohlala hes showering

a special nnight indeed

maybe hes born with it

maybe its maybelline

spoiler alert: def maybelline

dat ass

id hit it

with a buick

ow his nuckles are sharp like needles be careful

By nine, Ray’s snapping out of his daze and beginning to realize that he’s about to maybe probably hopefully perhaps have some manner of sexual congress with another man, which isn’t a big deal, except for how he has no experience and is in danger of making a complete fool out of himself to the only person who really matters.

He can’t fuck this up, he just can’t.

He watches the first thirty minutes of Better Gay Sex, because he’s already bought the fucking thing, and he figures if he can’t learn anything vital, he’ll at least have a fresh memory to help him stave off any inadvertently premature ejaculations.

He doesn’t want to leave too early, because that’s supposed to be a rule, right? About not seeming over-eager or something, Ray can’t remember, and two French guys with moustaches are giving each other artsy handjobs on his TV, and Frank is texting him about Mikey’s tight pants, and Ray doesn’t know, what if Mikey didn’t mean he wanted to be Ray’s Red Band and actually just meant that he’s happy how things are, watching Ray in M and having that wall between them, and by then it’s well after ten and Ray doesn’t know how early is too early anyway, and he’s going to fuck this up, he just knows it.

A French guy comes and Ray’s phone buzzes.

It’s a text from Mikey that just says ‘Got the Blister queued’, and there’s a picture attached of Mikey plugging his iPod into the sound system’s computer, which is funny for all of two seconds, because his wrist is filling up the left of the frame, all slender and pale, a single red band hanging from it, slightly askew.

Ray scrambles out the door.

*

Joe The Door Guy gives Ray a look. “Really?” He draws it out, eyebrows rising, but hands over the band without further comment. That’s just how it is at Alphabet Manor. No one bats an eyelash at weird kinky shit, but the second something conventional happens, it’s all scandal.

Ray fucking loves this place.

Since it’s already a bit later than he’d usually arrive, the front room is mostly empty, most having already found a partner or stolen away to their rooms of choice. Fortunately, this is where the sound console is, and behind it sits Mikey, clicking around on the laptop.

He looks up when Ray enters and visibly straightens. “Hey.”

Ray can’t smother his smile. He just blushes all over the place and tucks some hair behind his ear. “Hi.” Mikey’s eyes follow his wrist when it drops.

He smirks back at Ray. “This is like some One Tree Hill meets Real Sex shit, huh.”

Ray laughs and shuffles to the refreshments table. “We are totally X-Rated Degrassi. Do you have coffee?”Mikey raises a cup and Ray nods, incrementally disappointed.

He would have made the fuck out of his coffee.

Instead, he grabs a bottle of water and goes to stand next to Mikey to sip it. There’s a decidedly awkward silence wherein Ray stares at Mikey’s red band and curls his toes inside the warm confines of his boots.

“Hey,” Mikey says, and then rises to his feet, shuffles to the side and uses an urging hand on Ray’s shoulder to push him into the chair.

Ray frowns. “But wh—” Mikey drops into his lap and Ray’s mouth clicks shut. “Oh.”

“Cool?”

Ray nods rapidly, “Totally, yeah.”

“I like to chill here until midnight to make sure everything’s synched.”

Ray nods again. “That’s cool. Is there, like—” Mikey grabs his hands and guides them around his waist, and then Ray is sort of hugging him. He tightens his hold to make the hug a little less ‘sort of’ and admits, “—I don’t really know how this works.”

Mikey explains, “I have playlists for every room, over here, see?” He clicks around the screen. “The software basically does everything, but sometimes I like to take it off shuffle and play something specific. Like, for requests.”

Ray presses his chin into Mikey’s shoulder and doesn’t tell him he didn’t mean the sound system. “People make requests?”

“Yeah.” Mikey kind of wiggles back into Ray, toes hooking around his calves. “A lot, actually. Sometimes they want them played at a certain point in the night, so I try to time the songs accordingly.”

Ray melts into him and really hopes Mikey’s not offended by the erection that’s pushing into his ass. “Sounds like a lot of bullshit.”

He shrugs. “Not really. The Citgo plays shitty top forty stuff on a loop. At least here, I can tell people where to shove their Kesha.”

Ray makes an agreeing noise, but he’s got his nose pressed into Mikey’s neck and his thumb rubbing a circle on his hip, too distracted with the weight and warmth and scent of him to really give a flying fuck about music right now.

Mikey’s hand slips from the mouse and he tilts his head to the side, sighing.

Ray presses his lips to his neck, whispering, “You smell really good.”

Mikey heaves a breath and says, “You haven’t kissed me yet,” so Ray lifts a hand and touches his chin, turns his head to the side and captures his lips. It lingers, despite the awkward angle of it, and the thumb that was rubbing Mikey’s hip stutters to a stop, resting on the bit of skin exposed between shirt hem and waist band.

Mikey arches his back the merest bit and it presses his ass more firmly against Ray’s crotch. He makes a sound against Mikey’s mouth and follows the parting of his lips. The tips of their tongues touch, nothing but a tickle at first, but then a press, a strong lick, and then sweeping, looping, wet and warm tongues, faces angling to deepen the kiss until there isn’t even air between their mouths.

They break apart with a slow smack and do it again, and again, and again, until Ray’s panting through his nose and fisting the bottom of Mikey’s shirt. Mikey pries his fingers away from the fabric and pushes it down, lower and inward until Ray’s cupping the hard length of him in a shaky palm.

Ray groans.

Mikey’s head falls back on Ray’s shoulder, hips pushing into his hand. “Fuck, Ray. Can feel your dick.”

Ray kisses at his neck and massages him through the tight denim of his jeans, gasps into Mikey’s ear when he arches high against Ray, grinding his ass into his lap.

“Come to M with me,” Mikey breathes, turning his face to mouth at Ray’s jaw. “S’just—fuck, I wanna feel you.”

Ray presses the heel of his palm into Mikey’s erection, eyes rolling back when he nips at his earlobe. “The music…?”

Mikey tugs him up and says, “Fuck the music,” pulls Ray behind him, holding his hand, fingers interlocked. Ray stumbles along, tries adjusting himself but just ends up fondling the bulge in his pants as he hazily monitors the up and down of Mikey’s ass as he walks.

He pulls Ray into the voyeur room of M, which Ray’s never actually seen before. There are two other guys in there, chairs pushed close to the mirror and talking to each other in quiet, intense tones. They turn to look when they enter.

Mikey nods at them. “I’m about to blow this guy, just so you know.” And then he pushes Ray into a chair and asks, “Cool?”

Ray nods a lot. “Sub fucking zero, cool.”

The two guys are less interested in talking then. One glance at the mirror confirms there’s no one on the other side of it, so Ray isn’t super surprised when they turn and watch Mikey deftly undoing Ray’s fly.

He takes Ray out of his pants and sits back on his heels, holding it up with a hand curled at the base. Ray almost bites through his tongue.

“You’re cock is so fucking pretty, Ray. God, look at it.” Which Ray does, because Mikey immediately starts licking at the shaft, sucking sloppy kisses all along the sides, getting it all slick and shiny with his spit.

One of the guys puts his hand down his pants.

By the time Mikey gets his lips around the head, Ray is already shaking, gasping, biting his lip and fisting the shoulders of Mikey’s shirt, trying so hard not to blow his load.

Mikey pushes his mouth down the shaft, lips stretched around his dick, pink and glistening and swollen. He only gets it halfway in, but then he forces it an extra couple inches and slides back up, gasping up at Ray with wide, watering eyes.

He goes down and does it again, shoves Ray down his throat and sucks off long enough to meet his gaze, lick his lips and go down again.

On the fifth circuit of this, he’s just popped off and is looking at Ray when Ray grinds out, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, I’m going to—” But Mikey goes down again, a hand falling away to rub at Ray’s balls, and he drops his head back and comes his fucking brains out.

He only vaguely feels Mikey licking him clean, catching the cooling mixture of saliva and come as it drips down his shaft with a pink, curling tongue. He climbs up into Ray’s lap afterward, panting hot into his neck and pushing his fingers into his hair.

“I’ve wanted to do that forever.” Mikey’s hips start moving against Ray’s, rubbing himself against his stomach, and Ray grabs his waist.

“What do you—” Ray swallows. “What do I do, tell me.”

One of Mikey’s hands drop to unbutton his jeans. “Touch me, just… please, fuck.” Ray helps him get his jeans away and curls a hand around his dick, hard and straining up between them, sticky at the tip. Mikey’s all over the place, thrusting into the circle of his fist, gasping against his cheek, nose all screwed up and babbling, “Fuck, yeah, fuck me, fuck me,” and since Ray isn’t, and couldn’t, not yet, he makes what he hopes isn’t a grave misjudgment and pushes his other hand into the back of Mikey’s pants.

Mikey makes a pained sound into Ray’s neck, pressing so closely to him that he can barely move his arm. “Please, do it, finger me.”

Ray’s breath leaves his lungs all at once. He snatches his hand back, shoves two fingers into his mouth and gets them slick.

Somewhere in France, a mustached man is praising him.

He wiggles his hand back into Mikey’s pants, follows the crease of his ass to his hole and carefully pushes one finger into it. Mikey makes a guttural noise, goes rigid and still and comes over Ray’s fist in long, thick ribbons. His whole body jerks before going limp in Ray’s lap.

Ray’s already panting again. “Fuck, Mikey.”

He’s still shuddering a little, here and there, and Ray really wants to pet his hair or rub his back, but one hand’s covered in jizz, and the other in spit and ass.

He settles for nudging his way to Mikey’s cheek and pressing a kiss into it. “You have no idea how hot you are.”

Mikey gives a weak laugh. “I was just going to say the same to you. God, your fingers.” He gives another shudder and nestles close, arms tucked between them, eyelashes fluttering against Ray’s neck.

It feels kind of like he might fall asleep, so Ray tries to gently shoulder him away.

Mikey flies off his lap, tucking himself back into his pants and clearing his throat. His body is suddenly all coiled, like a tight knot. He looks away. “Sorry.”

Ray frowns. “Don’t be, I just…” He holds up his hands. “Soap and water. So I can, um. Touch you?”

Mikey’s shoulders seem to loosen. “Oh, right. Come on.” He shoots Ray a small, crooked smile when they leave. It could almost be categorized as sheepish.

“I’m kind of a cuddler.”

Ray’s heart sinks, knowing he’s obviously disappointed him already. “Me too,” he assures, frowning. “I guess I’m also kind of a neat freak too, though.”

Mikey turns to walk backward, grinning at Ray. “Well we’ll plan better next time.”

“Totally!” Ray smiles back. “Get some of those wet wipes or something.” 

Next time plays on repeat in his head.

There’s a moment after they’ve cleaned up where they both stand in the middle of the bathroom, shuffling their feet. It’s only just approaching midnight and Ray doesn’t know what happens now. Do they go again? Will it happen in M, or will they go to D, and what will they do once they get there?

It should be easy. He should have a best case scenario for this. He’s pseudo-pined for Mikey long enough that, realistically, he should have some ridiculously idealistic fantasy of what fucking happens after they get together, and he sort of did, as recently as that very morning. But he can’t even fantasize right, because Ray Toro has never had a fantasy about Mikey that involved red wrist bands and fucking in front of other people.

Not once.

This all occurs to him as he follows Mikey out of the bathroom. There’s a very creative threesome happening in the hallway that Mikey clucks his tongue at, guiding Ray around them, and there’s a topless woman spilling out of A, giggling and clutching her breasts. There are moans and grunts and huffs and music, and Mikey traversing it all with a blank face, hand clasped in Ray’s.

Suddenly, Alphabet Manor is the last place Ray wants to be with Mikey.

He tugs him back, speaking low and even into Mikey’s ear.

“Come home with me.”

*

“You’re a show’er too?” Mikey’s nose crinkles with his grin, hand fondling between Ray’s legs as he pushes the blanket up over his head, letting in the light. “I don’t know how you even walk with that thing.”

Ray is a mirror image, playing with Mikey’s junk beneath the blanket and peering down their bodies at it, fixated. They’d gotten into bed as soon as they got to his apartment—not rushed or urgent in any way, just a secret desire on Ray’s part to do something disgustingly domestic, like stripping down to their underwear and eating pepperoni pizza above the covers with an episode of The X Files playing in the background.

They eventually pushed the pizza box off to the floor. The X Files had been followed by Fear Factor, at which point they had a very involved conversation about which of the challenges they could and couldn’t do.

Mikey could do bugs, but he couldn’t eat weird shit.

Ray could eat weird shit, but he’s terrified of heights.

They shared a look at the end and, deciding they were never winning fifty thousand dollars from Joe Rogan, slipped out of their underwear and got beneath the blankets to, as Mikey had put it, “Get a proper lay of the lay.”

He’s been fondling Ray for the last ten minutes.

It’s not really sexual, so he’s mostly flaccid, just inspecting Mikey in a similar way—the freckle on his thigh, the scar on his knee (skateboarding, he said), the sharp angles of his hips, and the texture of his ball sack.

Ray thought it’d be weird, handling another guy’s junk, but it’s not. He’s a lot smaller than Ray, but Ray wouldn’t call him small. It’s slender and less pale than the rest of him, and gets hard a lot quicker than Ray’s does.

It isn’t until Mikey shimmies himself flush against Ray, mouthing hot at his neck, that Ray’s stomach turns in realization. Mikey’s hard and rutting against his thigh, hand insistent on his dick, licking over Ray’s pulse point when it starts to swell in his grip.

He knew this would come.

Ray sighs in defeat. “Look. Mikey...”

Mikey lifts his head, eyebrows hiked up, hand stilling. “That sounds ominous.”

“I can’t…” Ray stalls with a cringe. “Usually, I need… you know. To, like… you know.”

Mikey’s eyebrows lift higher. “I’m really going to need some more nouns. Maybe a verb.”

Ray looks away, tries to pull in a lungful of air that’s more stuttered than anything. Mikey’s still fisting him, trying to coax him to a full hard-on. Ray grimaces. “To be watched. To really… get into it. You know?” He immediately mutters, “Sorry,” even though he knows Mikey will hate it.

Mikey’s eyebrows drop in realization, hand pulling away. “Oh.”

Ray rushes to tell him, “It’s not you or anything, because you’re… Jesus, you are so fucking hot, and I really want to be that normal person who can just fuck in their own bed, and you deserve that, you really do, but I think... I think it’d be unfair to you, you know? To just, like, pretend, or give you the impression that could ever change. I’m just… probably never going to be able to give that to you, and you should know that,” he babbles. “Up front. So you can jump ship before it gets all—” Ray makes a wide, flail-like gesture and Mikey catches his hand.

He gives Ray a wide-eyed look. “Dude.”

Ray’s face falls and he looks away. “I know.”

Mikey snorts, hand grabbing his chin. “No, you really don’t.” And then he’s kissing Ray, soft and slow, throwing a leg over him to straddle Ray’s hips, and then throwing the other one over him and climbing off the bed. He breaks away with a wet sound, pinning Ray with a stare. “Stay here a sec, okay?”

Ray gnaws at a lip, nodding, even though Mikey’s already walking away, balls bouncing between his legs when he darts around their piles of clothes and leaves the room.

He comes back with Ray’s laptop and forces him over in the bed, drops to his belly and opens the lid. “There’s this site I go to sometimes when I’m jerking off,” he says, completely casual as he opens a browser. “Just to watch people. Cam stuff, you know. You have one on here, right?”

Ray shoulders in beside him, realizing where he’s going with this. “Yeah, it’s at the top.” Cam sites, of course. How did Ray not think of that sooner? Here he is going on trains and being a gigantic douchebag, when he could have been doing this in the (physical) privacy of his own goddamn bedroom. It kind of bums Ray out a little, knowing he’d been so ashamed and so in denial of his own preferences that he never even gave any thought to researching it.

He watches Mikey sign in and then glances at him out the corner of his eye. “You’d be okay with doing something like that?”

Mikey types in his password, shrugging. “Why not? It’s just like the manor.”

“Yeah, but.” Ray eyes the screen warily. “People could record you. Your face could be plastered everywhere, tomorrow, or maybe someone important could recognize you.”

Mikey lets out this little puff of laughter. “I’m not running for office here, Ray. Plus, it’s a good site. But—” His eyes drift around the room, eventually coming to rest on Ray’s dresser, set about seven feet from his bed. Mikey gets up and puts the laptop there, clicks around. “There,” he eventually says. Ray’s eyes jerk up from his bare ass to his face when Mikey turns around. “So long as we stay in this area—” He gestures to the space at the head of the bed, “—no one will be able to make out our faces. Deal?”

Ray nods eagerly. “Yeah, okay.”

Mikey’s grin is almost goofy, and Ray is sure his matches it, when he dives back onto the bed and hems Ray in, straddling his hips again and bracketing his head in with his arms. Ray kisses him back, making a sound when Mikey drops down, their ball sacks mashing together.

“I don’t have any subscribers,” Mikey says into his neck, sliding his body against Ray’s. “So it might take a few minutes.”

Ray nods, but is distracted by peering down between their bodies, the sight of them pressed together, Mikey mostly hard, and Ray half so. It’s very erotic, he thinks, the quiet of the room, hearing the wetness of Mikey’s mouth against his skin, the shift of his knees against the mattress, the way he sucks in a sharp breath when Ray palms his ass, kneading and tugging Mikey more firmly against him.

Mikey surfaces from Ray’s neck, face flushed, and looks toward the laptop, foggy eyes clearing as he squints to make out the screen. “We’ve got company,” he ultimately says.

Ding.

Ray almost jumps, the sound harsh in the intimate silence of the room.

Mikey looks at him and quirks an eyebrow. “Do you need to see what they’re saying?” he asks, completely neutral.

Ray shakes his head, even as the laptop ding’s with another chat message, takes Mikey’s face and kisses him deep, pushing his hips up into him.

Ding, Ding.

Ray groans into his mouth, hands going back to his ass, rubbing and spreading his cheeks. Mikey gives a gasp and pushes back against it, forcing him to spread him more.

Ding, Ding, DingDing.

Ray flips them over, his cock growing hard and heavy against Mikey’s as the laptop ding’s out its response. No, not a laptop, but people. People behind screens, he reminds himself, probably jerking off right now as they watch Ray rut into the vee of Mikey’s legs, bury his face below his chin and kiss at the flushed skin there.

They’re also watching him when his hands ventures to Mikey’s cock, stroking him and pushing back enough to fondle his balls, trail lower and deeper until his finger is resting on his dry, puckered hole.

Ray pauses and looks at Mikey, flushed redredred from his forehead to his chest, lids heavy and his lips all pink and swollen. “I’ve never actually fucked a guy before,” he admits.

There’s a beat where Mikey just blinks at him, and then there is an enthusiastic, rapid bout of ding’s.

Mikey makes this belly-deep, honking laugh at Ray’s expression. “Shit, dude, should I have turned the mic off?”

Ray buries his face into Mikey’s neck and laughs. “I’ll just remember not to call out my social security number when I come,” he says wryly.

“Good thinking.”

Ray gets lube from his nightstand, the ding of the chat an incessant reminder that they’re not alone, that people are watching him slick up his fingers and hesitantly sink one into Mikey’s ass. His eyes roll back and he sort of writhes into Ray, lifting his knees higher and higher, until his thighs are pressing into his stomach.

Mikey reaches up and grabs a fistful of pillow, gasping when he sinks another finger into him. “God, your fucking fingers…”

Ray watches his fingers avidly and he takes a lot in care in opening him up. Mikey isn’t like Melanie, who rushed him through two fingers. He lets Ray play with it, just spreads his legs when Ray scissors his fingers and wiggles them, watching the way the rim of muscle flutters around his knuckles, like it’s pushing him out, and then pulling him in.

His third finger is cramped alongside the other two, and Ray has to grab the base of his dick, just imagining what it’s going to be like buried in the tightness of it.

That gets a lot of ding’s.

He only just manages to get half of his pinky in and Mikey keens. “You’re going to make me—”

Ray pulls his fingers out and kisses the hiss from Mikey’s mouth, grabbing a condom and fumbling it on. When he settles in between Mikey’s thighs, forearms caging his head in as they kiss some more, wet and sloppy and a little shaky, Ray asks, “Tell me if I like, do it wrong, or hurt you or something?”

Mikey just stares at him. “I’m a total size queen, Ray. You’re not going to hurt me, just put it in.”

So Ray grabs his dick and presses it between Mikey’s cheeks, having to search for a moment before notching into him and pushing his hips, sinking the tip of his dick right into his hole.

Mikey’s eyes grow huge and he grabs Ray’s shoulders, panting. “Fuck fuck fuck. Keep going, keep—”

It slips out the next moment, but Ray is a determined man, so he just backs up a bit and starts over, keeps hold of himself and uses his hand more than the gravity of his weight to push it in.

Mikey lifts his knees higher, bearing down into it and gasping, pulling Ray in, rocking his body. “Yeah. God, fuck me.”

Ray’s hardly halfway in, but he does as asked and pulls back, thrusting in again, pistoning his hips, careful to keep shallow.

Mikey turns his head and catches Ray’s arm with his mouth, bites down, moaning, and the chat is going crazy and Ray is starting to sweat and his balls feel tense and full and Mikey is so hot and tight. He fucks him like that for a while, just halfway, and it’s more than enough for him, the way Mikey’s hole constricts and flutters around the swollen head of Ray’s fat cock, pushing it out and pulling it in.

He presses his forehead to Mikey’s temple and exhales, “Jesus.” He’s almost convinced he’s going to be able to get Mikey off before he blows his load, until Mikey suddenly wraps his ankles around Ray and, heels digging into Ray’s ass, shoves him the rest of the way in.

Mikey cries out, head flung back, eyes squinched closed, but he’s sobbing out, “Fuck me, fuck me,” and Ray’s so busy gasping, shaking at the feel of all of him, wrapped tight around his cock that it’s all he can do to cradle the back of Mikey’s head in a palm and force their mouths together. He pulls back gently at first, this long, dragging stroke that makes Mikey whimper and gnash his teeth, but he grabs Ray’s hips and pulls him right back in, harder, both of them grunting when Ray’s full seated once more.

He eventually takes Mikey’s cues, learns how he wants to be fucked, slow, but hard, full strokes that make Ray slip out every now and again, and whenever that happens, Mikey inches back into him, whining until Ray finds his hole again, sinking all the way back inside.

He’s beautiful like this—unbelievably expressive, mouth gaping, eyebrows knitted together, staring up at Ray with intense, pleading eyes. When his rhythm is a little more consistent, their skin begins clapping, Mikey’s soft cries and the tickle in the center of his groin driving Ray harder.

The laptop is exploding in ding’s.

Ray remembers too late to shove a hand between their bellies, wrapping it around Mikey’s hard cock and tugging, panting wildly against his lips.

Mikey grabs his face and says into his mouth, “Come on,” and then, “Come in my ass, come on.”

Ray lets Mikey go and slams into him, doing just that. He spends that ridiculous, sweet moment of orgasm pulled back on his haunches, eyes fixed to where he’s buried in Mikey’s ass, twitching inside the tight ring of muscle. He wraps his hands around his slender, bony hips and fucks Mikey onto and off of him, riding it out just like that.

“Holy shit,” Ray says, and he doesn’t just want to yank himself out of there, so he fists Mikey again, watches him plant his feet against the mattress and thrust up into the circle of it, and then drive back onto Ray’s mostly-still-hard cock with his jaw dropped wide, eyes glassy and intent.

He comes in one thick ribbon onto his stomach, and then another smaller one that just dribbles down Ray’s hand.

 They both let out weak, breathy laughs at the sounds of the chat going off like tittering satisfied bells.

The back of Mikey’s hand smacks Ray’s chest when he finally rolls off, sinking into the space beside him. “We’re going to read those later.”

Ray rolls back enough to pin Mikey with a lazy, sloppy kiss. “Definitely,” he grins, and then, remembering what Mikey said, quickly rids himself of the condom and pulls Mikey into his chest, one arm beneath his neck, the other wrapped around his slender waist.

Mikey nuzzles into him, throws a leg over Ray’s and settles like that, all cuddled up, fist nestled beneath his chin, occasionally pushing his softening, sticky cock into Ray’s thigh with a shiver.

The ding’s die off when Ray lights them both a cigarette and they’re just lying there, soft cocks still exposed to the camera, silently enjoying the afterglow of orgasm. Ray says, “Stay the night,” and Mikey looks up at him, pursed lips blowing a careless stream of smoke.

He gives Ray a tired scoff. “Duh.”

*

Alphabet Manor raised their membership fees, since they have a higher overhead now, but they did it in a smart way—charging monthly membership dues instead of just a door fee, so that every member has to pay monthly, even if they don’t come that often. This meant that some people ended up paying even less than they used to, and Ray also reasoned, it will deter gawkers—people who just come once to say they have, to stare at everyone in the exact wrong way. 

Ray’s had their checks for almost a whole week, but he was so busy with work, and then caught up in Mikey, that he just forgot.

He remembers at breakfast when he’s pulling out his wallet to pay and sees the corners of the checks sticking out of the billfold.

Mikey’s got his face buried in his coffee, still half asleep and if Ray’s being honest, a little grumpy. He had to wake up early for work and they’d been up all night, with the fondling and the cam sex and then the talking. They talked forever, eventually drifting off spooned together sometime around four, which meant Mikey’s only operating on two and a half hours of sleep. Ray gets it.

Mikey knuckles at an eye, face twisted up into a sour expression. “Eugh.”

Ray’s tired too, and he’s a little disappointed that they couldn’t lie in bed all morning and maybe do it again. He knows Mikey’s probably too sore anyway, but Ray has thought about blowing him, thinks maybe Mikey would be receptive, at least if he’s had a little more sleep than two and a half hours.

“Here,” he says, sliding Mikey his check, hoping it might perk him up a bit.

He’s wrong. “The fuck is this?” Mikey asks, frowning at the check.

Ray winces. “Wow, I picked a really shitty time to give that to you,” he realizes. “It’s just… I’ve had them on me for the last few days and kept forgetting, so.” At Mikey’s unchanging frown, Ray clarifies, “It’s the profit share. For the manor’s first month.”

Mikey’s eyes flicker to his. “This is almost a thousand dollars.”

Ray bobs his head, grinning. “Yeah.”

Mikey just stares down at it.

Ray’s smile slowly wilts. He sort of thought Mikey would be more happy about it. He hates his job at Citgo. He also works at an independent book store in the evenings, but he almost never complains about that. “Citgo isn’t paying you that much, right?” Ray gestures to the check, hesitant.

Mikey’s eyes narrow. “So.”

“So…” Ray trails off, fiddling with a packet of Sweet-N-Low. “I don’t know, I guess I thought if you wanted to quit, you probably could and not miss much.” Ray rushes to add, “I mean not that I’m saying you should, it’s totally up to you. Obviously. Just, it probably sucks working three jobs.”

“Give me the others.” Mikey presses the check into the table with a palm, sinking back into the booth. He pins Ray with a blank, closed-off stare and adds, “I’m going over later today. I can give them to them.”

Ray furrows his eyebrows, confused and… maybe a little hurt. They had such an awesome night, and Ray’s not just talking about the amazing sex. They woke up that morning curled together, Ray’s toes rubbing against the hair on Mikey’s ankle, just like he’s daydreamed about. At the time, he was convinced things were good, that maybe even Mikey and him were dating now, or something.

He’s just being so… different.

Deflated, Ray reaches into his billfold and takes out Frank and Gerard’s checks, sliding them across the table to Mikey. “Um, just… tell Gee I’ll be over Wednesday, I guess.”

Mikey snatches up the two checks are peers down at them, a severe, guarded look on his face that seems to smoothen a bit when he glances back to Ray. “We really made this much?” he asks skeptically.

Ray gnaws at a lip. “Well, yeah. Because of the monthly dues and stuff? We sort of restructured, and it’s… I mean, it’ll be better next month when we don’t have inspectors and stuff to pay.”

Mikey watches him, searching his face for a moment before putting down the checks. “I’m not looking for a sugar daddy,” he says.

Ray feels the blood drain from his face. “What? I know that, Mikey, this isn’t even—I mean, we all worked our asses off for that money.” He shakes his head, frustrated. “I should have just waited and given it to you during Alphabet business. I’m sorry.” But when he glances back up, Mikey’s staring at him in that way he does whenever Ray is being aggressively fucking sorry, and Ray feels his teeth grind a bit.

“Actually, no,” Ray realizes. “I’m not sorry. We’re business partners, and sometimes money’s going to exchange hands. And honestly? It’s a little insulting you think I’d dick Gee and Frank over like that.”

Mikey’s eyebrows hike up, one corner of his lips twitching. “I didn’t think you were dicking them over. Just giving me extra, or something.”

“I’m not,” Ray promises. “I meant what I said. We earned it.”

Mikey looks down at his coffee, nodding thoughtfully, and then looks up at Ray over his glasses. “You really think I could quit?”

Ray lifts a shoulder, some of the tension melting away. “Yeah.”

Mikey’s mouth finally curls into a little, impish grin. “You’re still paying for breakfast though, right?”

Ray leans back and sips at his coffee, scoffing. “Fuck no. You work more jobs than me. You can be my sugar daddy.”

Mikey’s eyes scrunch up when he laughs.

*

They pass inspection on the first of September. It marks the start of their second month under the new policies. It also marks a month since Mikey and Ray began entering Alphabet nights with red bands on their wrists, and six weeks since Ray stole a green band from Gerard’s that never got replaced.

For his part, Ray only participates on Fridays, and even then it’s never full-on sex with Mikey. He just doesn’t see why he should have to share that, wants one thing that’s just theirs.

(Well, and whoever is logged onto voyeurtastic.com when they leave the manor those nights, or wake up the next morning, or those three hours between Ray getting off at Pauly’s and Mikey going to work at the bookstore.)

No, that look Mikey gets when Ray’s just sunk into him—that desperate, wide-eyed, surprised look, like he just found out Ray is Santa Clause—that’s for his eyes only.

And so is the sight of Mikey on his couch in his briefs, flipping through cartoons and eating a bowl of cereal. And the way his hair looks when he wakes up. And the way he acts like he isn’t rushing to the bathroom to fix it and brush the staleness of morning breath from his mouth before he climbs back into bed and flops against Ray, demanding that he cuddle with an aggressive look.

When the inspectors leave, the four of them go up to the attic and celebrate with a joint and four pizzas, and then settle in for a marathon of shitty 90’s horror movies, Mikey sprawled between Ray’s knees and Gerard laying down, head in Frank’s lap.

Frank hasn’t moved in with Gerard yet, but Ray’s not dumb.  He watches them sometimes and knows Frank’s just waiting to see. To make sure Gerard actually can hack it without a vice.

Ray thinks it’s weird, how Alphabet Manor can be the best thing to ever happen to some people, and how it can draw others in a little too deeply. For him, it’s really neither. Alphabet Manor didn’t save his life—not really. It was mostly some college-aged-looking kid, asleep on the L train, which Ray finds funny sometimes, when he really stops to think about it. All these letters that led him here, to a couple of amazing friends and someone who makes Ray a better person, just by existing.

It’s the first of the month, and Ray slept fucking great last night.