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Years of Experience

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Barca learns to read when he's almost four years old. His parents, Mago and Elissa, take turns teaching him the minute he turns three. Barca doesn't remember learning to read, but he remembers kindergarten. There's a boy in class who likes to hit Barca because Barca always gets the answers right when the teacher asks about letters.

"Hit him back," Mago tells Barca. "You never hit first, but if they hit you and won't stop, you hit them back."

Barca nods and the next time the boy hits him, he hits back. The boy doesn’t hit him again and Barca learns that no one is ever allowed to hurt him.

-

"You're stupid," Barca's cousin says.

Barca is seven years old. They're playing in his backyard, at the end of the gate that's closest to the forest. Barca doesn't remember his cousin's name, and his aunt and uncle made it clear that they're not staying long. There's a lot of yelling coming from inside the house and Barca is afraid because his father only yells when he's angry.

"I am not," he tells his cousin.

The boy is almost twice as tall as Barca. He's a fourth grader from New York City and Barca is glad that he doesn't have to see this boy every day. His cousin has the family's dark skin, hair, and eyes, but he doesn't have Mago's wide grin.

"You think there are monster in the woods," the boy laughs. "That makes you very stupid."

Barca throws a nervous glance at the dark forest. There are too many trees and his mother's always said that bad things happen to boys who get lost in forests. He doesn't think there's anything stupid about that. Besides, his mother said and she knows everything.

"It's true," Barca tells his cousin.

"No it isn't. There are no monsters in the forest."

Barca tries to answer, but his cousin's parents come out of the house. They look angry, don't bother to say goodbye as they leave the house. Mago comes out after them, but he doesn't say goodbye to them either, just stands by the gate and watches as the black SUV drives away.

Barca doesn't ask about what his cousin said until he's in bed that night.

"Are monster real?" he asks his father.

"No," Mago answers.

"But mom said they were," Barca says.

Mago nods, "sometimes monsters are real. But not always."

"It's not stupid to think monsters are real?"

Mago frowns and Barca tugs the covers over his head.

"Who called you stupid?" Mago asks, tugging the covers back down. He's not frowning anymore. "Was it your cousin?"

Barca nods.

"You're my boy. You and your mother are my family and I love you. You always have to love family," Mago says, sitting on Barca's bed, and ruffling his hair. "But that doesn't mean that family can judge what you think. You're never stupid for the things you think, because nothing you can think, or feel, or believe is wrong. And no one can take those things away from you. Not even your mother or I, okay?"

Barca is seven. He nods and he remembers, but he doesn’t understand. Not yet.

-

Cyprian is the first boy Barca lets himself love. They grow up together, hiding out in the forest behind Barca's house. They collect frogs until one time Cyprian drops the box and the frogs get loose in Barca's house. His mother yells at them until Barca and Cyprian get them all out of the house.

They switch to bird watching after that.

Barca likes the shapes birds make against the blue sky, the shadow a wing span can cast on the ground when the sun is high. He likes lying on his back on the roof of Cyprian's house, the sun beating down on their faces, hands close enough to each other that Barca can feel the warmth from Cyprian's palm.

Barca doesn't tell Cyprian that when they turn ten, Barca starts to fall in love. It feels like everything starts moving faster after Barca admits it to himself. The walks to school happen in half the time. Barca starts noticing that they spend the better part of lunch waiting in line for too slow cafeteria ladies. Recess is annoying because other kids want to play, or talk, and Barca takes to scowling at anyone who gets too close. Cyprian just laughs and does the talking for Barca, until no one is afraid, and no one leaves them alone. Barca's ten, but he feels older, sadness weighing him down because Barca likes Cyprian, but that doesn't mean Cyprian likes him.

They turn eleven and Cyprian gets put into a different sixth grade class because he's smarter. Barca's dad, Mago, throws a fit when he finds out.

"You have one job, boy," Mago says, and even though he doesn't yell, the words hurt Barca's ears. "You don't work like I did at your age. You don't even help your mother around the house. There is no excuse for getting bad grades."

Elissa, Barca's mom, holds Barca's hand, but doesn't disagree.

"Yes, dad," Barca answers.

"You have to try harder," Elissa murmurs, her eyes flashing a warning when Mago tries to interrupt. "We want you to do well because it'll help you in the future."

"Yes, mom," Barca says even though he wishes they'd explain how.

"Go," Mago snaps.

Barca nods and goes to his room. It's a standard white walled space with a bed pushed up against one wall, a gray carpet, and a dresser. There are no posters because Barca's parents don't believe in buying unnecessary things. Barca doesn't have any money to buy them for himself either. He wouldn't even know he could put posters up on his walls if he'd never been to Cyprian's house.

Barca never tells Cyprian what happened, but he works harder, and asks Cyprian over more often. Barca thinks that maybe, having Cyprian over will help him. Maybe, he’ll be able to understand how Cyprian manages to get good grades without trying.

They spend most evenings in Barca's backyard, lying on the grass, and watching the pigeons, sometimes the geese. There's a red breasted bird that likes to sit on Barca's fence and sing to them. Cyprian suggests they leave food out for it and Barca loves him even more for it.

When they turn twelve Barca's caught up enough in school that he and Cyprian are in the same class again. He gets a 98 on his first math test, a happy face on the corner, and a pat on the back from the teacher.

"What'd you get?" he asks Cyprian on their walk home.

"Three points less than you," Cyprian says, and he grins when Barca stops walking.

"I got higher than you," Barca says.

"Yeah," Cyprian nods. "Now shut up."

Barca walks home with his heart thumping away in his chest. He can already see his mother and father's face when he shows them. He half runs home, with Cyprian yelling at him to slow down. Barca does for a bit, his hands crumpling the edges of his test paper with how hard he's holding it.

"I'll see you tomorrow," he tells Cyprian when they get to his house.

Cyprian laughs and walks next door to his place.

Mago is in the living room when Barca comes in and Barca can hear his mother in the kitchen. He stands at the doorway torn between wanting to show his mother first, but knowing that his dad is the one who wanted this the most. He chooses Mago first, hands over the test paper, and stands to the side of the couch.

His father glances at the number at the top, raises an eyebrow, and says, "that's all?"

Barca feels the bottom of his stomach drop out and he swallows against the lump in his throat. "I got higher than Cyprian," he whispers.

Mago nods. "Good," he says. "You could do better, but good."

"Yes, dad," Barca says.

He takes his test back and walks out of the room. He tells himself that his father is hard to please, and that Barca should have expected that from him. He takes a deep breath and goes to his mother next. She smiles when she sees him and Barca relaxes, smiles back as he hands her his test.

"So close," she says.

Barca exhales hard through his nose and nods. "I could do better," he tells her.

"No, no," his mother says. "You did so well."

But when Barca gets his exam paper back, he doesn't want to look at it anymore. He throws it away on his way to his bedroom and tries to forget how excited he was coming home. He tells himself it doesn’t matter, but he doesn't forget.

-

The second math quiz Barca gets back has 100 written across the top. His teacher grins and makes Barca write his name on the chalkboard where it stays next to Cyprian's. Barca feels sick every time he sees it and he erases it on the third day after class. He doesn't bother showing his parents the quiz, but he leaves it at the kitchen table just in case.

Mago is the first one to see it.

"That's my son," he laughs as he tapes the test to the refrigerator.

Barca gets five dollars from both his parents and Mago takes him out to eat. Barca is happy that entire week, until Cyprian comes over on Saturday. There's something off about Cyprian because he smiles, but he doesn't sit next to Barca. When they go outside, Cyprian stays by the door.

"What's wrong?" Barca asks.

"I have to tell you something," Cyprian says.

His eyes are wide as he looks at Barca, and Barca panics as he waits for Cyprian to say something. The only thing Barca can think of is that Cyprian knows that Barca likes him. He doesn't even remember that he's never told anyone and that there's no way Cyprian can possibly know.

"What is it?" Barca asks again, half of him hoping Cyprian does know just so that it's out there.

"I like you," Cyprian murmurs. "Like you like you."

They're both still and quiet for so long that Cyprian's face goes bright red. "Forget it," he says, but Barca doesn't let him finish.

"I like you too," he says.

Cyprian smiles and Barca thinks he's the luckiest boy alive. Neither of them tell anyone else, but they make sure to sit together in every class. Barca waits outside of Cyprian's gate every morning and the two of them walk to school holding hands. Barca learns that Cyprian's hands are softer than his, smaller.

The first time Cyprian kisses Barca they're at the pizza place across the school. Barca is paying and the guy behind the counter has his back turned. Cyprian is smiling one minute and the next his lips are on the side of Barca's face.

That's when Barca realizes he's the luckiest boy alive.

They're happy and it doesn’t even matter that Barca's next quiz is a 97 instead of 100. Cyprian kisses his cheek anyway and they walk home together. Barca leaves the quiz on the kitchen table and the dates for the parent-teacher conferences. Then, he and Cyprian spend the evening watching the clouds and listening to the little red breasted bird sing.

-

"You should be proud," his math teacher says when his parents go to the first parent-teacher conference. "Your son is doing remarkably well."

Mago and Elissa nod, but neither of them actually say they're proud. Instead, Barca gets an extra five dollars for that week's allowance. He uses it to buy Cyprian pizza after school.

Barca doesn't have any complaints because he has a boyfriend who smiles at him and holds his hand. They turn thirteen and someone finds out that he and Cyprian are dating and suddenly, Barca and Cyprian are popular. Barca has people asking him for advice on how to get the guy they like to like them back. When he tells Cyprian about it, Cyprian almost falls over he's laughing so hard.

"So they think you know anything about dating?" he says in between bouts of laughter. "You?"

"I told them to leave me alone," Barca tells him. "But they won't stop asking."

Cyprian grins, but he stops laughing long enough to kiss Barca on the cheek. "Don't worry," he says. "I'll get them to leave you alone."

Barca never asks how Cyprian does it, but the kids at school do stop asking him for advice.

They have high school applications after that, and Barca just applies to all the school Cyprian applies to. In February, they find out they got into all the same schools and everything is good. They graduate together and hold hands in the hallway outside of the auditorium until it's time to file in. Mago and Elissa clap with the rest of the parents and afterwards Barca takes pictures with all of his teachers. Cyprian ends up in most of them which just means that their respective parents have the same pictures on their cameras.

"Are they always together?" Barca's math teacher asks Elissa.

"Since they were old enough to walk," she nods.

"We’re going to the same high school," Barca says. "And college too."

Later, Barca will wish he had known better.

-

Barca is almost fourteen when Cyprian moves away. It's the summer before high school and Mago takes the family away on vacation. They go to Egypt and look at the pyramids. Elissa tells Barca stories about mummies and the three of them complain about the heat.

When they get back, Cyprian is just gone. The house next door has a for sale sign and no one's cut the grass in weeks. Barca stops by twice just to make sure that he isn't imagining things. He asks his mother about it, but she says she doesn’t know. The neighbors across the street don't know where Cyprian went either.

That's how Barca learns about heart break.

"You should be teaching him how to defend himself. Not how to cry," Mago says when he catches Barca crying into his mother's arms. "Crying doesn't fix anything, boy."

Barca feels his mother's fingers rubbing gentle circles in his hair and he cries harder. "Crying is a way of letting go," she whispers.

"The kid's gone and crying won't bring him back."

"Sometimes," Elissa says, "people cry because they're angry. But even if they didn't, you're the one who's always said that not even your family can tell you how to feel."

Barca understands what his mother is saying and he can be angry, because anger hurts less than sadness. He's already angry at Cyprian for leaving without bothering to tell Barca about it. He's angry at Cyprian's parents for not waiting until Cyprian and Barca were old enough to get their own place. He's angry at his father, because Barca does everything he can and it's never enough. He's angry because he's crying and he can't help it.

"People should fight if they're angry."

Barca understands that too, so he stops crying and learns to fight instead.

-

The year Cyprian moves away is the same year Barca stops cutting his hair. It works out fine, because Barca's grown up so fast over the summer that he's going to tower over everyone at his new school. He lets his hair grow and wears it loose until it gets too long. Then, he gets his mother to take him to get dreads the day before he's supposed to start school. It hurts like a bitch when the woman at the salon starts on his hair, but Barca likes the end result.

It's his parents' last present to Barca before they send him to the Alpine High Boarding School. There's a second when his parents drop him off where Barca can feel the lump in his throat. Tears prickle at the edge of his eyes, but one look at his dad and Barca feels sick. His lunch starts pushing its way up his throat, and Barca breathes as hard as he can out through his nose. His heart beats away loud in his chest until he pushes the tears back down. Only then, does Barca say goodbye.

-

None of the kids talks to him as they wait in the lobby for their dorm parents. Barca is glad that he doesn't have to make friends and he stands there, lets the anger he's felt since Cyprian left show on his face. He's intimidating, he guesses, because he rarely smiles and because he towers over most of the kids here. Barca is glad that he won't have to make friends because he doesn’t think he can stomach anyone at the moment.

Or, that's what he thinks until he meets Auctus.

-

Auctus is his roommate and he rolls his eyes when he sees Barca's unsmiling face.

"You need to relax," Auctus tells him. "Have some fun."

So they do, because Auctus is a sophomore and he knows all the ways to sneak out of school. Barca learns not to sneak out by the pathways because, even though the high school dorm doesn’t have a fence, there are guards by the main pathway exits.

They go to movies, and Auctus buys a hamster that they sneak back into the dorm. It runs around in its little plastic ball bumping into things until Barca takes pity on it and lets it out.

"I'm not going to dig him out from under the heater," Auctus says.

"Neither am I," Barca answers.

In the end, the hamster gets stuck in the space between the dresser and the wall. Barca can hear it squealing, but he doesn’t move. It takes Auctus three minutes to break.

"You are the worst human being I've ever met," Auctus says, pulling the hamster into his lap and brushing away the dust on its head.

Barca grins. "So?"

"Fuck me," Auctus says, shaking his head. "I like it."

-

They get a bird next and when Barca sees it, he almost sets it free. Auctus doesn't ask, but Barca knows he can tell that something's wrong. Auctus doesn't get rid of the bird though and Barca is grateful. He learns to like the cooing the dove makes when it's hungry. But more importantly, Barca learns that Auctus is actually kind, almost too gentle with small things.

It's a stark contrast from the way he is with the other students. Auctus likes to intimidate the rest of the kids, tells Barca it's good if some people are scared of you. And it's so easy to fall into it, because Auctus is the first friend Barca's had since Cyprian. Auctus is also the kind of friend Mago would approve of. He's loud, strong, independent.

"I think you have anger issues," Auctus tells Barca one day.

They're at the gym, Barca practicing his boxing. He found out that he's good at boxing because he likes hitting. It's relaxing, to just let out all the frustration from his classes, from his dad's constant demands for grade updates. It helps him relax before a test, helps him sleep when he starts thinking too much about Auctus.

"I don't," Barca answers, but he hits the punching bag hard enough that he feels it in his shoulder.

"Either that, or you're sexually frustrated," Auctus says.

"Fuck you."

"Maybe next year."

Barca laughs and stays an extra hour at the gym.

-

During the summer before Barca's sophomore year, he asks his mother about guys who like other guys.

"I don't know," she says. "It happens."

"But what happens if you know someone who does?" Barca asks.

His mother stares at him hard enough that Barca rolls his eyes. "Please," he tells her. "As if."

It makes him sick how easily she believes him.

"I don’t know," she says. "If I were their mom I would cry for days, but I'd accept it eventually."

Barca nods, says no to lunch when she offers, and goes to his room. He doesn’t touch his mom for three days and when she asks why he's so quiet, he tells her he's sick.

When Barca asks his dad, Mago just laughs. "Please," he says. "It doesn't apply to me or my kid so I don't care."

Barca gets a sick sort of satisfaction from that.

-

The thing that pisses him off the most is how conflicted he is. On one hand, his father and mother have always made it clear that whatever Barca thinks and believes, whatever the fuck he feels, is his, and no one can take that away from him. So he doesn't want to give a fuck. He doesn't want it to matter that he wants to do things with Auctus the way he didn't with Cyprian.

But on the other hand, he's scared because he doesn't want to disappoint his parents. He hates how they've shaped him to be obedient, to do everything he can to please them. He understands he shouldn't have to, but he can't change it because Barca doesn't know how to do anything else. No one has ever taught him how to be someone else. And these are his parents. They mean everything to him. Everything they've ever said, all the criticism has stayed with him. He still remembers the stupid 98 and the parent-teacher conferences.

Barca can't even cry about how fucked up his situation is, because whenever he gets close to doing it he hears his father's angry voice telling him to fight instead. The thing is, there's no one to fight, nothing to take his anger out on. It just sits there in the middle of Barca's throat until everything he breathes is tainted by it. He gets angry at everything all over again, at his parents for not fully opening the door for this conversation, at Cyprian for leaving, at Auctus for fucking existing, but especially at himself. Because if he were normal—and he hates the fucking word—then he wouldn't have to worry about this shit.

-

When Barca gets back to school that fall, the first thing he does is push Auctus against the wall of their room and suck him off. He's bad at it, goes down too far and chokes, but he doesn't stop. He lets Auctus pull at his hair because the pain drags the anger out until Barca is burning with it. He wraps that around him, lets it break him apart, and rebuild him.

He gets angry because that's what Mago wants. Mago wants a strong son who will fight for what he believes in, so long as it's also what Mago believes in. Barca wants to laugh at how wrong Mago is, at how different Barca is from him, at how badly Barca wants to be different from both his parents. But he's also glad that Mago taught him how to be angry, that Barca learned so well, because Barca believes in fucking boys, in wanting them, and not even Mago will change that.

"Nice to see you too," Auctus laughs afterwards. "How was your summer?"

Barca rolls his eyes and drops down on his bed. He tells Auctus about the trip to Italy and the shit his parents bought him.

"They sound cool," Auctus says. "My parents never buy me shit."

"Yeah," Barca says. "They're all right." Because after everything, Barca's parents are his, and no one else is allowed to hate them for him.

He and Auctus are a thing after that day, even if they don’t call it anything. They spend more time together, sneak out after classes, and go to the movies. Auctus is so fucking proud of everything Barca does, shows him off like Barca is worth everything. He makes a big deal out of the A's Barca pulls the first semester, buys himself and Barca matching leather bracelets.

"Really?" Barca asks when Auctus shows him the one he's wearing on his right wrist. "Matching bracelets?"

"What?" Auctus asks. "You don’t like it?"

"No," Barca says, but he wears his anyway.

What surprises Barca is how easy everyone accepts that he and Auctus are together. No one bats an eyelash, and Barca thinks it might have to do with the fact that Auctus would punch them in the face if they did. Barca understands also that he's intimidating enough to warrant respect. He feels safe behind his ever increasing height and glares. High school is good because Barca can hold Auctus's hands and no one bothers them.

It never occurs to him that no one says anything, because they just honestly don't care, because it's no big deal.

-

Some nights Barca can't sleep because he's thinking too much, working too hard. When that happens, Auctus pushes him down onto one of their beds and makes Barca fight for it. He feeds the anger in Barca, soothes it with fucks against a hard mattress and gentle hands. He's so good at calming Barca that it takes Barca almost an entire year before he thinks to question just how Auctus knows when Barca needs him.

Barca thinks it's because he wears his anger like a mask and Auctus can see when it gets too hard for Barca to hold it back. Barca doesn't even know what he's angry at anymore, just that there's always anger somewhere beneath his stoic face. Auctus never asks, but Barca can see the concern, so he makes an effort to be better about it. He feeds the doves Auctus snuck into their room, and the stupid hamster that looks like it's grown over the summer.

Barca learns that he likes leaning against Auctus's shoulder while they watch TV. He likes that Auctus is big enough to make Barca feel safe. But he likes it best that Auctus gives him space, doesn't ask Barca for anything. Auctus likes to give, Barca learns, and he does it so well, gives Barca everything he needs without ever asking what's wrong.

Barca never tells Auctus that he loves him, but he thinks Auctus knows anyway.

-

In junior year, Barca meets Crixus and the kid is angrier than anyone else Barca's ever met at the school. They get along great, because Crixus hates everyone almost as much as Barca hates things in general. It's nice having someone who understands that sometimes Barca just needs to hit shit.

At the end of the year, Barca breaks things off with Auctus because Auctus is going to college. Barca thinks it'll be easier the second time around because he's ready.

It isn't.

He spends the summer working to avoid his parents. When he isn't working, he's locked in his room trying to sort out colleges because he wants to get as far away from Mago as he can. He calculates how high his SAT score has to be for him to get a scholarship if his GPA is a 95. He thinks he's safe if he gets anywhere near a 2100.

When he takes the SAT over the summer, Barca gets a 2240.

He texts Auctus and gets a smilie face in return. That alone does so much more than hours at the gym ever did for Barca.

-

Going back to school is strange, because Barca knows there won't be anyone waiting to kiss him when he gets to his dorm room. Auctus had texted him the name of his new college and when Barca googled it, he found out it was in England. So, he doesn't expect there to be anyone waiting for him at the dorm lobby, because Auctus was the only one who ever did. But when Barca goes inside, Crixus is there with his new girlfriend, Naevia. Gannicus is there too and he punches Barca on the shoulder when they see each other.

"Just wait until you see who's sharing your room with you," Gannicus says.

"Is that supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing?" Barca asks.

Gannicus just grins and doesn't answer the question.

"We got a shit load of new students," Crixus says, rolling his eyes at Gannicus. "There's this guy named Castus and Agron just fucking hates him. It's getting on my fucking nerves."

"No one is saying you have to listen to him," Naevia says.

"He won't shut the fuck up about it," Crixus says. "And Spartacus just fucking encourages him. They're both such idiots."

Barca raises an eyebrow at Crixus.

"No," Crixus says. "I am not talking about it. Gannicus is prefect this year and everything is going to suck."

"This is going to be the best year of your fucking life," Gannicus grins. "Just you fucking wait."

Barca shakes his head, but he doesn't doubt it. Auctus liked Gannicus, but Barca got along better with him and Crixus because he was only two years older than them. He still found their jokes funny, didn't think they were annoying. Barca also liked their company, Crixus's more than anyone because they understood each other. Barca had been the first to know that Crixus liked Naevia. He'd gotten a text message over summer break asking Barca for advice on how to ask someone out. It had made Barca laugh.

"Spartacus is going to hate you," Crixus tells Gannicus. "Make sure you get yourself a room right below his and the music better be loud as shit."

"When the hell did we get so many new students?" Barca asks.

"Somewhere between last year and this year."

"Where the fuck was I and what the fuck was I doing?"

Crixus just raises an eyebrow and smirks.

-

Pietros catches Barca by surprise. He's three years younger than Barca, has wild brown curls, and big brown eyes. He ducks his head when Barca walks into their room, murmurs something under his breath, and Barca knows he's fucked. He can feel his heart beating away in his chest because Pietros reminds him of the doves Auctus had, pretty, fragile things in their cages. Barca remembers the way the doves used to respond to his touch, how they'd flutter their wings, but settle under his fingers. He wonders if Pietros would settle the same way.

"Hello," Pietros whispers.

The sound echoes in the room, soft in a way that lets Barca know that this is the kind of boy that people will take advantage of. Pietros is not small, but he has innocence written on the lines of his face, youth marking him as an easy target. Barca knows it would be so easy to take this boy and break him. He almost wants to. He wants to let his anger out on this boy, to touch him and ruin him, break him apart until he's nothing without Barca.

Pietros blushes under Barca's gaze. He kicks at his bag and tries for a smile.

"Hello," Barca says, and even he's surprised by how gentle he sounds.

-

"How's Auctus?" Crixus asks over dinner.

Barca doesn't even look away from Pietros when he answers. "Auctus is fine," he says. "He likes college."

"Are you going to go see him?"

"How?" Barca asks. "He flew to fucking England."

"Shit," Crixus says. "I didn't know. How?"

Barca looks away from the tiny gold hoop in Pietros's left ear. He gives Crixus a long hard look and shakes his head. Crixus frowns but his eyes trail across the table, land on Pietros.

"Really?" Crixus asks.

Barca grins.

-

Pietros is young. Barca knows Pietros is young, but he's surprised by how different that makes them, by how much Barca has to fight to keep them together. Pietros gives in easily, accepts that Barca likes him, lies across Barca's lap when they watch TV in their dorm. He's open, gives Barca everything, and it scares the shit out of Barca because this isn't how things work. People don't just say what they want or how they feel. So, it's mostly Barca fighting against the part of himself that wants to run away from this, because this is wrong, but at the same time, it isn't.

"Can you shut up for a second?" Barca says one night.

Pietros stops mid story and Barca knows he could have done that better.

"I'm taking you to a concert," Barca tells him. "I wanted to know what your favorite band was."

Pietros doesn't say anything. He fidgets with the edge of the comforter on Barca's bed. "I want to start a rock band," he says.

"Grow the fuck up," Barca answers, rolling his eyes at the ceiling.

The look on Pietros's face is enough for Barca to realize he messed up. This is one of the things they don't talk about, the fact that Pietros is three years younger than Barca. They'll be in separate schools next year. They have different friends, do different things. Pietros is focused on his high school career, on whether he's going to join the soccer team or not, on wild dreams about starting a rock band.

Barca needs to do well in his classes. He needs to figure out how he's going to squeeze work, tests, college, and Pietros together next year. That's without touching the time he's set aside for his parents. The things Barca has to worry about and the things Pietros worries about don't match, and Barca's not the only one who knows it.

"I'm sorry," Barca says. "I didn't mean it like that."

Pietros nods, but it isn't all right until Barca pulls them close together. He kisses the side of Pietros's face and wishes he knew how to make things easy.

-

College is a relief in ways Barca never expected. He meets new people who aren't afraid of him because everyone is older there, and everyone has experienced shit in some way or another. Barca's roommate doesn't blink twice the first time Pietros comes over and spends the night. There's an LGBT club and guys and girls holding hands without giving a fuck about who sees them.

No one says anything when Barca brings Pietros to a party the sigma omega phi frat is holding. It's obvious the Pietros isn't from the college because he keeps looking around, eyes wide, and body almost vibrating with excitement. There are two guys by the kitchen who eye Pietros when he and Barca walk by. It pisses Barca off, more because the guys won't stop looking at them.

"What's wrong?" Pietros asks.

"Nothing," Barca says.

He's in a bad mood and all that does is make Pietros quieter as they walk around the room. Barca tires to ignore them, but they only make it halfway around the room before Barca loses it.

"What the fuck do you want?" he asks the boy closest to the kitchen sink.

The guy frowns, eyes darting over to Pietros. "Nothing, man," he says. "I just wanted to know where your boyfriend got his shirt."

Barca doesn't know how to answer that, but Pietos rattles off some store name and smiles.

"They wanted to know where you got your shirt?" Barca asks later, once he's sure no one's looking at them.

Pietros shrugs. "Yeah."

Barca stares at Pietros's unconcerned face, at the smile when Pietros pulls Barca to dance. Barca feels eyes all over him, swears that the whispers are about him, and he looks at Pietros, unconcerned and laughing.

Barca's never felt more different.

-

It's Crixus's ideas, but Pietros is the reason Barca is even standing outside of the Alpine High Boarding School with a junior and a sophomore. Pietros doesn't count. They're supposed to be watching a movie and Barca knows there have to be more of them going because he isn't going on a double date.

"Where's Crixus?" he asks Pietros.

The tall guy with the leather jacket answers. "He's coming."

Barca thinks the guy's name is Agron. Either that or Nasir.

There's a shit load of them going to the movies in the end, but there are an odd number of them, so Barca can pretend it's just a bunch of friends going out. He throws his arm across Pietros's shoulders anyway, makes sure they walk with Crixus and Naevia. He doesn't like Agron or the way he keeps glaring at the other boy, Castus. Barca doesn't like Castus much either, but there's something more authentic about Castus. Like he's not trying too hard.

They watch some crappy action film and Barca falls asleep halfway through. He wakes up just as the villain is giving his monologue and spends the rest of the movie distracted by the expressions on Pietros's face. It's stupid, Barca knows, to care so much about one person, to want to protect Pietros this much. He's nineteen, and it terrifies him to know that he's going to go to every crappy movie Pietros asks him to go to. Barca is going to go on every double date. He's going to meet Pietros's fucking parents, because that's just the way things are with him and Pietros.

"Hurry the fuck up," Crixus yells once the movie is over. "I want to get back to the dorms and sleep."

Barca slows down, pulls Pietros closer to his side, and ducks his head into Pietros's hair.

"Barca," Crixus calls.

Barca doesn't bother looking up. He lifts one hand in Crixus's general direction and flips him off.

"You're the only one who can tell me what to do," Barca whispers into Pietro's hair.

Pietros ducks his pretty head and murmurs something under his breath. Barca wants to kiss him, to touch Pietros's cheek, and feel the heat beneath his fingers.

-

"You say things," Pietros gasps against Barca's mouth once they're back at Barca's dorm. "You say things and I don't know if you mean them because you never say them to me."

Barca doesn't know what else he's supposed to do, because he'd promise this boy the world if that's what Pietros wanted. He's working double shifts in between college classes to save up enough money to take Pietros on a trip around the world. He's learning how to play the drums because Pietros wants to start a fucking rock band.

"Not everyone needs to say shit out loud, Pietros," Barca says.

"It's nice to hear them though."

Barca wants to let Pietros know that he has a savings account with nearly two thousand dollars after only a year of work, because Barca stopped buying the three dollar protein bars he likes. He wishes he could tell Pietros about the car he's looking at buying when he has enough money. It might put them back a year or so, but Barca thinks they need to go cross-country before they go worldwide, and they need a car for that. He thinks maybe he'll tell Pietros about Cyprian one day too, about Auctus and how safe that had been, and about Barca's parents.

But not now, because Pietros is barely sixteen years old and he's too young to understand how fucked up the world can get. Pietros is clean and Barca is always afraid that he's going to dirty this boy, that if he presses too hard, he'll ruin him. So, Barca kisses Pietros instead, cups the sides of Pietro's delicate face in between his hands, and presses until the space between them is gone.

The thing is, Barca knows he can't keep his and Pietros's relationship going just on kisses and indirect declarations. He gets that Pietros can't possibly know how much Barca looks forward to them watching stupid reality shows, unless Barca actually tells him. Pietros can't know how fond Barca is of his wild brown curls, because Barca never says. But, just because Barca's never said it, doesn't mean that he isn't willing to do everything for this boy. Because Pietros is his and Barca is Pietros's.

They're young, Pietros a whole three years younger than Barca, and that's an entire world between them right now. They both need time to grow into this, to get to the point where Barca is okay with telling Pietros that he's it; they're endgame. Pietros needs to grow up and realize that the world isn't just them and a rock band traveling across the country.

The band thing probably won't work and Pietros needs to be ready for the disappointment. He needs to be okay with life not having happy endings, and then, Pietros needs to keep going for it anyway, like Barca's doing. Because Pietros is young and beautiful, and Barca never gets to keep those. But Barca tries, and he'll keep on trying until Pietros decides there's someone better out there for him--or until he decides there isn't--because this boy is worth the wait.