He asks for himself, because he's young, and stupid, and so in love his body feels like it's going to come apart at the seams every time he even thinks about looking at Steve. He knows nothing will come of it, knows he'd be better off just waiting to have his first kiss, saving it for when he's in college and can maybe meet a nice boy who will actually like him. But the thought of that fills him with so much dread it makes his stomach churn and roll, knocking over itself with a ferocity that has him nearly certain he's going to be sick. He thinks he could go to sleep and never wake up, and it would be better than suffering the embarrassment of being in college and never having kissed anyone (never having had someone willing to kiss him). He thinks he could die in a much more painful way, and it would be better than kissing someone else without first knowing what it's like to kiss Steve. He thinks, most secretly of all, that when he does kiss someone else, it will only be worth it if he has the data available to compare and remember how much better it was with Steve. He almost feels bad for his theoretical future boyfriend, but the selfishness of it is rooted so deep in his belly that whoever the boyfriend may be, he’ll have to cut Dustin open and dig through his organs to find the secret and know for sure that he’ll never measure up. Because Dustin knows, more absolutely than any of the many other things he knows, that no one will ever measure up.
So, he asks for himself. He goes into it with an explanation at the ready, almost plausible enough to ring true, because as much as the real reason will be obvious to both of them, he can’t just say it. He stumbles over his words, the entire prepared speech crowding into his mouth all at once, so the sentences crumple up into each other like cars crashing all in a line on the highway, and he barely has time to pull in his ragged, nervous breaths. He asks, and as he stands looking at Steve, he's almost certain the nerves are pointless except for the general anxiety associated with inexperience. Because, as much as he is asking for his own wants, he's asking for Steve's sake as well.
He asks for Steve's sake, because, as much as neither of them will ever say it out loud, Dustin knows how Steve feels about them. It's too ugly and unfair to actually put it into the world as sound and expression. To voice it out loud would feel like some sort of sacrilege, giving voice to the name of a demon and inviting it to prove its own realness to the world. And besides, if they did say it aloud, if they acknowledged it in any way other than significant looks and apologies with far too much weight behind them, they'd be forced to work it out, to break their relationship down to its component pieces and reassemble it without the broken parts. It's a task that would be arduous and ungratifying, and the result would be the loss of something Dustin finds precious, even in its invariable toxicity. It's clear and obvious between them that, as much as Steve doesn't want Dustin, he needs Dustin to want him. He needs Dustin to look at him and see someone worth pining for. He needs to know, when Dustin looks at him, that the world is turning on what he sees in Steve's face. He needs to know that, as much as Dustin may have other friends, and maybe even other people he admires, Steve is first for him. And in the face of all that, Dustin needs him to need it.
So, he doesn't think he's projecting when he assumes Steve would be ruined if Dustin gave someone else his first kiss. He's seen the way Steve flinches, the way his fingers clench into a fist so tight his knuckles go white, his jaw rigid to the point of fluttering muscles in his cheek whenever Dustin looks too long at a boy who could be considered pretty, or handsome, or anything worth seeing. He's seen the way Steve breathes heavy through his nose for a few breaths and then goes loose all at once, his smile coming brighter and harder than before, his tone gentle and encouraging, tongue balanced on a wire trying to avoid letting the jealousy seep in to color his supportive words.
Steve has always been a jealous person, quick to jump to conclusions, and pathetically sensitive to any possible indication that he might lose something he’s worked hard to build. Dustin can't really hold it against him, given the sheer weight of having been right on multiple occasions when he tried so hard to convince himself he was wrong and behave accordingly. In all honesty, Dustin doesn't want to hold it against him, doesn't want to give him any reason to think he's not allowed to be just who he is, good and bad, all rolled up into one endearingly wonderful pile of human wreckage. Too many people expect too many things from Steve, and, as much as it feels like acid in his veins, watching the way Steve punishes himself when he fucks up, Dustin never wants to see him worry that maybe this time he's gone too far. Dustin knows who Steve is, and he knows that Steve relies on knowing how much Dustin loves him just to get through the day sometimes. There is nothing he'd rather do than continue to give Steve what he needs, even if neither of them are able to acknowledge out loud what's happening, or that it's fucked up in a lot of ways.
Instead, Dustin swallows the knowledge down, holds it in his belly like a white hot coal, warm and painful, burning until his guts are shiny and scarred, and then burning still, because Dustin refuses to douse the flame. He asks for himself, because in all of his important places, he knows he'll regret it if his mouth touches someone else's first. He asks for Steve, because he knows in all of his important places that Steve will regret it, too, and he’ll mete the punishment on himself for the feeling, his pound of flesh carved and carved again, until there’s nothing left to take, and Dustin’s will be the hands that staunch the blood.
He asks to spare them both the pain.
Dustin is looking at Steve like the world is going to end no matter the answer he gives. His face is cracked wide open, expression so visceral, Steve feels it splatter through the room like gore, pretty red flush to match the feeling of blood painted on the walls, like maybe Dustin's taken a knife out of his own heart and tossed at Steve's feet. He's standing firm, feet planted shoulder width apart, arms intentionally at his sides, hands curled into soft fists, challenging, but without any threat, as if he's merely trying to goad the world and everyone in it (but actually just Steve) into believing a word of what he's said. It only makes sense, he'd stammered, only it had come out sounding a lot more like, Itnly makessenz , and Steve’d had to process for a moment and missed the next part. He'd dropped back in with, -know it won't mean anything, but I'd rather practice with someone safe.
He'd wanted to cut Dustin off, to answer before he'd even finished just to save them both the embarrassment. He knew Steve didn't feel that way about him, knew that he would have to say no and it would be weird, and uncomfortable, and all the other shitty things it’s not supposed to be between them. It's sort of baffling why he'd ask at all, except he was standing there explaining himself, and he looked so fucked up about it, Steve almost wanted to believe his excuses just to make him feel better. And then he'd said, I really want to kiss someone before college, and I can only trust you with this, and Steve had looked a lot harder at his face, suddenly and acutely aware of the sensation of being manipulated. But there had been nothing malicious there, nothing crude or aggressive, no edge for Steve to slide up close and open a vein on as recompense for being known, even at his worst.
Instead, all Steve sees is anxiety, and hope, and nervous, untamed energy, all swarming around Dustin's person, a slight sheen of sweat broken out over his temples and above his top lip, everything about his expression earnest, almost confused looking, even though Steve is sure he knows exactly what’s going on. It's so thoroughly familiar to him that he feels a little queasy at having thought ill of Dustin's motivations, despite knowing still that he's a wildly multifaceted boy, and it's likely the manipulation is just as potent as his genuine hope. Steve wants to scream, feels it building in his belly, roiling up into his chest, waiting to push its way into his throat for how fond he feels, for how catastrophically desperate he is to protect the broken, featherless, young wings of that hope. He's seen this anxiety in Dustin so many times in the past, and has always been powerless to any reaction but fierce, protective loyalty. It makes him feel bloated and dead inside to realize he was ever considering saying no, the rotting corpse of his decency split open and festering in his gut.
Dustin bites his lip as Steve stands there, watching and silent, trying to process all of his feelings quickly enough to give a timely answer. The challenge of Dustin’s stance falters, and the hope begins to seep out of him, his eyes cast away, roving for something to look at just to the right of Steve. He releases his lip from his teeth and it's shiny with spit. His mouth tilts from a neutral line into a twitchy, downward slant, as if he's not entirely sure he wants to frown, but the urge is growing stronger by the moment. Steve feels like he can't breathe anymore for how badly he wants to seal the edges of Dustin’s spirit and keep the hope from leaking away, for how much he wants to give Dustin everything he wants, just to make him feel better, because only Steve has the power to do it.
Then, sudden in the way that so many catastrophic accidents are, he is eviscerated by the urge to make sure no one else ever has the opportunity to give Dustin the hope that Steve could give him now. His bones itch with it, and the warmth of his desire to salt the earth of Dustin’s future prospects slides up into him, starting so low in his belly he'd have to call it his groin if only he could admit it, melting up through him, squeezing around his stomach and then his heart, nearly painful with urgency and starvation.
He waits for the heat to reach his head, lets it ooze into his skull and fill him up with all the horrible things he usually spends so much effort trying to ignore. He drinks deep and latches onto the feeling of Dustin wanting it to be him, the heady rush of validation and power making him dizzy as he looks. He watches as Dustin's hands uncurl and he brings his arms up to settle over his belly, protecting himself from the inevitable rejection he thinks is coming. There could be somebody else, someday, who will ease that anxiety out of him, who will kiss him and mean it in a way that Steve won't, even if he does this here and now. Steve hates it, feels a gnashing, vicious sense of aggression at the thought, and before he can consider it any further, he says, "Okay." His voice is soft, tone eased by the part of him that just wants to make Dustin happy, masking the writhing, feral urgency scrabbling away at his guts, making him feel like he should drop to all fours and skulk in the wilderness looking for corpses to devour.
Dustin's eyes snap over to him, wide and confused, mouth dropped open just enough that Steve can see the uneven lines of his teeth at the precipice of his lips. Steve sees him flinch, arms pulled in even tighter over his belly, like he doesn't believe it and wants to protect himself even harder from the cruelty of Steve’s false agreement. It hurts to look at, to see him and know that he'd be hurt no matter what answer Steve had given. It hurts even more to know this is probably the crueler thing, but he can't force himself to take it back, not with the way Dustin's voice cracks when he asks, "Really?" His hope is so apparent, it would feel like homicide to change his mind now.
So Steve swallows hard, tries to force the jealous, angry dog down into himself until he's only a friend who wants to give what's been asked for. "Yeah," he says, gentle and encouraging. "Just this once," more to remind himself than Dustin, because the way the teeth are gnashing under his ribs, he thinks he might actually do it again, just to be the only one who gets to, even though looking at Dustin, all he feels is a sense of warm affection and a desire to see him thrive.
Dustin nods, clears his throat, and says quietly, "Yeah, of course." He looks away again, and Steve knows the next part is a lie. "I just want to know what it's like before I meet someone in college."
Steve lies, too. "That’s smart. This is why you're gonna go to fancy college next year instead of dumbass school like the rest of us."
Dustin huffs out a laugh, and when he turns his gaze back, it feels like it's just them, same as always, and the animal in Steve is calm, distracted by the meal of knowing he's the only one Dustin has this with. He smiles back, as if this is any other conversation, pleased to see the tension roll out of Dustin's shoulders as he steps closer. Steve realizes as soon as he moves how awkward the distance between them had been and is relieved at the closure of the wound, even knowing he's about to rip open a new one. He nudges Dustin towards the couch and says as neutral as he can, "We should sit."
"Right," Dustin replies, and looks for all the world like he doesn't know how a couch is supposed to work. It takes him several tries to find a suitable position, and Steve feels fondness shrieking in him again, howling right next to the acrid delight of knowing he's the one to be trusted with this.
When Steve sits next to him, turned to the side so they're facing each other, knees nearly touching, Dustin sways into him, and then leans quickly back again, rigid and drenched in barely contained panic. Steve smiles at him, puts everything he has into making it look casual and soft, determined to make sure Dustin feels safe, given that was the entire reason he gave for this in the first place. "Hey," he says, fond and coaxing, resting his fingertips against the top of Dustin's knee as he does, tapping lightly in a rhythm. "It's just me, remember?"
Dustin gives a shaky smile, bumps his knee up against Steve's hand and says, "Stop that," with all the usual comfort of teasing. Steve does as he's told, when normally he might push back, not wanting to make Dustin any more uncomfortable than he might already be. There's a small moment of quiet then, Dustin breathing out slow and intentional, as if the exhalation will calm his rattled nerves, and Steve just looks at him and wonders what it would be like to give him back everything he needs. He thinks it would be a little bit wonderful, in the way two friends falling in love always looks in the movies. He thinks there'd be fireworks, and swelling romantic music, and life would be all sunshine and roses from then on out, because it would feel like the consummation of destiny, to be able to want his favorite person in the world. To be able to return those fragile, precious feelings he cherishes so much, and to do it before anyone else gets the chance to water them down.
Instead all he sees is someone who is obviously and desperately young, with too much wisdom and life experience all crammed into a body that's still growing, marked with all the signs that they really aren't yet in the same stages of life. He is, in all the ways that dictate Steve's ability to look at him, still a boy, and as much as there is a rabid, feral thing inside him that insists the boy and all the things the boy gives him should be his and only his, Steve knows there are feelings he can't return, no matter his instinctive, rash reactions any time his place is challenged. No matter that he's about to kiss him with intent to ruin any other kisses in the future. No matter that he'd just as soon protect Dustin from himself as much as anyone else, if only Dustin would let it happen (if only this wasteland between them had a name, and a voice, and were something either of them wished to till into fertility). But instead they lay poison into the ground, and build their hearts upon it as though it could sustain life, and in doing so, they thrive together, both aware of what they're doing and unwilling to change for anything, even if it would mean healing for the both of them. And it leads them to places like this, where Dustin's couch is an impasse, and the answer is to cross, hand in hand, a bridge going the absolute wrong direction.
Salt the earth, and no crops will grow. Steve's mouth on Dustin's with specific intent to ruin everything. Dustin's eyes so fucking blue Steve can feel the water in his lungs just looking at him, feels himself pushed under and drowning by the obvious bob of Dustin's throat, clicking over a dry and difficult swallow. Steve is going to kiss his mouth and show him what it means to kiss someone like they are the only one you will ever want to kiss, and it makes his skin crawl, because he would never, could never, should never, and he would devitalize any peer of his who dared lay hand, or eye, or mouth on his friend. And yet he's going to, because Dustin asked, full of hope and agony, and with absolute, unflinching knowledge of what Steve would feel about it. Steve swallows hard, too, and has to lick at his dry lips just to remind himself he's not dying. He runs a thumb after his tongue, drying the excess as Dustin's suffocating eyes track the movement.
"Can we just do it?" Dustin asks, and he sounds as afraid as Steve has ever heard him sound, even in the face of inevitable death.
"Yeah," Steve says, and leans in, hand going gently to Dustin's jaw, thumb landing on the soft jut of his lower lip, delicate as a butterfly, a kiss before the kiss with Steve's saliva still drying on the skin. "Just relax, Dusty," he says, and it's barely a whisper, full of reverence for the rarity of the pet name. "It's only me."
Dustin meets his eyes and Steve's thumb touches the wet inside of his lip when he says, "You know it's never only you, Steve."
The accusation digs under his skin and between his ribs, drawing blood enough to bloat Steve's belly with the tenderness of Dustin's tone. Steve kisses him because he has nothing to say in his own defense and isn't willing to insult Dustin with an attempt. He kisses him softly, mouth amiable the way a first kiss should be, pressure light and careful, fully aware of the braces ready to cut the inside of Dustin's mouth, always pulling his jaw until every day is full of aching, relentless pain, his reward for enduring the process of getting those teeth to come down at all. He slides his hand over that jaw, lets his thumb trace the path of the bone, and wishes the friction of their skin could ease the pain, even as he presses in, just gently enough to encourage a tilt of Dustin's head. He pulls back when Dustin moves for him, and kisses him again, slotting their mouths a little more firmly together, and Dustin's fingers are curled tight in the collar of Steve's tshirt, one knuckle pressed desperately into the bare skin of his neck like he’s afraid it’ll be too far if any more skin touches.
Steve moves against him slowly enough to let him learn the shape of it, to let him feel and understand what's happening as their lips brush against each other, close mouthed but not quite chaste, until he feels Dustin going loose, his shoulders dropping as he begins to actually believe Steve isn't going to punish him for this any more than saying yes at all is a punishment. Steve smiles, enough to make it awkward, but doesn't let space open between them because of it, just pulls back enough that Dustin chases him and attempts to mimic what he's learned.
It's sweet, and a bit clumsy, but Steve doesn't mind, feels a thrill ricochet through him when Dustin's hand uncurls and comes to rest against Steve's neck, thumb pressed delicately against his pulse, steady right up to the point of contact, and then tripping with the victory of it. Dustin is a fast learner, and if Steve hadn't known already, hadn't spent several minutes kissing him first, feeling him grow acclimated as he categorized the knowledge he was gaining and committed it to memory, he would never guess that this was Dustin's first kiss. It still reads young and sweet, but the natural flow of it is good, the pressure soft despite a current of eagerness running under it.
Steve remembers his first kiss and how he had pressed too hard, too eager and not yet acquainted with the delicate thrill of gentle friction and pressure between mouths. It hadn't been good at all, both of their lips coming away sore on the inside from the cut of teeth, his nose aching a little, too, from the press into her cheek. They'd gotten the hang of it eventually, but nowhere near as quickly as this, and he feels proud that Dustin is proving once again to be smarter and more capable than the average. It's probably the best first kiss Steve's ever given, and he's given quite a few. He could almost feel something more for it, could almost sink into the the shape of Dustin's mouth, and the way his hands are so big on him still, even after several growth spurts, his fingers splayed wide over Steve’s neck, covering more ground than any girl or woman ever could. It would be easy, he thinks, to kiss Dustin for real, if it was like this, and it makes him want to do it, if only to keep that first chance to himself as well.
Someday, Dustin will kiss someone else like this, and it will be real, and eventually he'll let them taste his mouth, and before Steve can really parse the thought, he's pushing forward again, leaning enough that he has to brace a hand on the cushion next to Dustin's hip, and the taste of Dustin's lip when he touches it with the tip of his tongue is nothing special, but it's just the sort of special he wouldn't want anyone else to know first. Dustin makes a sound, quiet enough that Steve might not have heard it, except that Steve always hears Dustin, is too paranoid about missing something important after everything they've been through to be anything other than vigilant, even at times like this. So, he hears it, and it almost makes him falter, almost clears his head enough for him to pull back and smile and tell him that's what a first kiss usually is and nothing more. Only, before any of that can happen, Dustin's hand moves from his neck to the back of his head, and the way he pulls Steve's hair more than almost makes it all feel real, and instead of pulling back, Steve pushes forward, taking advantage of Dustin's accommodatingly parted lips to slide his tongue into Dustin's waiting mouth.
And so Steve is kissing him for real, the way he kisses people he's planning to take to bed, hands still careful on the edge of his jaw, thumb moving in slow, gentle arcs across the warmest part of his cheek, tongue roving, gathering the taste of him and pushing just enough to be overwhelming without being unpleasant. Dustin's body unfurls a little, as if he wants to arch up into Steve, only he can't because the way they're sitting was designed for something simple and chaste. His hands are tight, the one in Steve's hair pulling with enough force that Steve would be getting hard with someone else, could probably get hard with Dustin if his judgement stayed this bad for enough time. Dustin’s hand on the couch, bracing his own weight, is resting close to Steve's, and the tips of his fingers have curled into the empty spaces where Steve's are splayed, almost holding hands, but not quite, only the faintest brush against the inside of each others’ fingers.
Then Dustin kisses him back, and there's a moment of awe like lightning searing through his spine, and he could be bitter about how fast Dustin picks up on things, if only Dustin weren't his favorite, and if only that weren't one of the things he's most proud of him for. It feels real, and it feels good, and it feels like they're going to fuck in a few minutes, and Steve feels a heinous thrill of victory rushing up through him, the jaws of it clamping excruciatingly over his heart until his throat feels full of blood and he's sure he could drown on it howling in his veins. He feels sick with it, feels feverish and nauseated, like the world is tilting on an edge and the sun is so close, he could break up into ash at any moment.
Dustin is trembling, despite the confidence of his movements, and clarity snaps at Steve until all the pieces of his covetous heart are torn away and the only thing left is his tongue in Dustin's mouth like it means more than they both agreed it would mean, and Dustin shaking just enough that it's noticeable to someone who is always going to notice when it comes to him. Steve pulls back. Not suddenly, the way he wants to, but slowly enough to pretend this is what he meant all along, to give Dustin some sense of closure on what Steve's just done to him, and allow him time to compose himself before they're able to look at each other again.
When it's over, Steve kisses him a final time, gentle and chaste, and it drops like rot into his belly, knowing that this is all that should've happened in the first place. He wants to look away, ashamed of what he's done and why he's done it, but he forces himself to meet Dustin's gaze, hoping to find an accusation there to match the magnitude of how fucked up he is. But Dustin only looks like himself, dazed and overwhelmed, but not surprised, not broken, or angry, or afraid, or any of the things Steve was expecting (hoping) to see.
Steve's heart stumbles so hard he nearly chokes on the sensation of it. "I'm sorry," he says, quiet and grievously honest, heavy with the feeling of ownership buzzing like electricity under his skin. He sits back, pulls his fingers away from Dustin's and tries not to lean into the trail of the hand falling away from his hair. "I'm sorry," he says again, and there's an edge of hysteria in it, because, as much as he knows he shouldn't have done it, he can't help but feast on the knowledge that no one else will ever see Dustin dazed from his first kiss again. No one else will ever be the first to know what his mouth tastes like, and anyone who kisses him from now on will be compared against Steve and likely found wanting.
Dustin smiles at him, tilts his head appraisingly, and with razor sharp pity that Steve is sure will leave a scar, if the cut ever even heals, he says, "It's okay, Steve. Thank you."
He could've said no, he thinks, and it would've been a mercy to them both.