Having sat next to Ryan at work for years meant that Shane barely even noticed the sudden word. Anyone else and he would have flinched, but Ryan could go on hour-long rambles about aliens at the drop of a hat. It didn’t even matter that they were both in his apartment and not sitting at the relative safety of their desks at BuzzFeed. It wasn’t like Ryan was going to find something incriminating in his apartment. So Shane ignored him and continued to read through his email.
Except there was suddenly a finger tapping his wrist and Ryan’s tablet held up in his line of sight. “I think we need to do an alien episode this season,” Ryan said, his expression focused and slightly excited.
Shane kind of hated that he had always found the obsessive look a little cute. “So I gathered,” he drawled, glancing down at the tablet and the article of UFO sightings that Ryan had brought up. “You’ve only been muttering about it for the past half hour.”
“We need a good one,” Ryan said, ignoring his teasing.
“Yeah, how are we going to top getting the ‘Aliens’ guy?”
Ryan frowned, cutting a glance at him. “Don’t make fun of Giorgio, I liked him.”
Shane held up his hand. “Hey, I think he was great. A lot more credible than half the people you drag onto the show.” At Ryan’s change of expression and the offended bite of pepper suddenly coating Shane’s tongue, he added, “And changing the subject. What do you have in mind? Crop circles?”
The pepper flavor lingered, but Ryan generally tried not to fall into arguments while he was working on something and not on camera. He shook his head at Shane, letting him know that he wasn’t forgiven, and then reached over to tap on different tabs. “The research team gave me basic info about Rendlesham Forest, the Hudson Valley sightings, and Travis Walton’s abduction.”
“You say this like you expect me to know what those are.”
Ryan sighed and elaborated, though he couldn’t hide his growing excitement in getting to share something he was so interested in. "UFO sighting in the UK, one in-"
Lips twitching in a grin he failed to hide, Ryan said over him, "-Hudson Valley, and a famous abduction in 1975."
"And I'm going to guess not a single one has actual evidence."
Judging by Ryan's expression, Shane suspected he had made a mistake.
To be fair, it was a mistake he had made intentionally. Listening to a riled up Ryan was both entertaining and familiar, like watching an episode of a favorite show for the fifth time.
Sure enough, Ryan was still talking about aliens five hours later, though he had switched from possible episode topics to the existence of extraterrestrials in general, so that nothing would be spoiled for Shane when they finally filmed it.
Shane took a sip from his beer, only half listening as Ryan said something to his amused audience about crop circles and… flaps? Everyone was on their way to drunk and happily indulging Ryan, since he had been the one to invite half their mutual friends to a nearby bar.
The atmosphere was warm and melted along his senses, reminding Shane of hot cocoa with marshmallows and a splash of bourbon, the flavor affecting him more than the alcohol in his beer did. He enjoyed being surrounded by people who were enjoying themselves and the human half of his DNA kept him from being overwhelmed by the ocean of emotions. Unlike his poor parents, who couldn’t be at parties of more than five or six people without getting absolutely wasted on the flavors of a good time.
“What about you?”
Katie's voice pulled him from the mellow mood he had fallen into and he glanced towards her. “What about me?”
She inclined her head towards Ryan, who was trying to explain something to Steven. “Do you believe in aliens?”
The question never failed to amuse him and he didn’t bother to hide his laugh. Everyone would assume it came from his general skepticism anyways. “Of course I do,” he said, tipping his bottle towards her. “I’ve answered this before, you should know that. It’s downright arrogant to think that Earth is the only-”
“Microorganisms," Ryan chimed in with a snort as he slid into the empty seat next to Shane, completely abandoning Steven. Though all Shane could pick up from that direction was the sweet and salty film of amusement. “He believes in microorganisms.” The man said it like it was an insult.
Ryan’s arm pressed warm into Shane’s and he allowed himself to enjoy the tantalizing flavor of emotions that was uniquely Ryan even as he rolled his eyes for Katie's benefit. “Add a lick of real science to something and he wants nothing to do with it,” he told her.
She laughed at them, her gaze dancing between the two of them before she fondly said, “You two are ridiculous.”
Shane lost the thread of the conversation for a few minutes, his brain cloudy with the gentle tug of alcohol and the intoxication of those around him. He was too busy contemplating the way Katie had said ‘you two’ and the pleasant daydream of being able to slip one of his fingers in between Ryan’s in a loose hold. Nothing huge. Nothing obvious. Just simple contact.
Ryan’s left hand was right there, occasionally raised in a gesture but more often than not laying on the table, inches away from his own hand.
Shane mentally rolled his eyes at himself and deliberately took another swig of beer, distracting himself from the crush that he felt too old to indulge in.
His phone buzzed in his pocket and he fished it out, using the excuse to lean closer to Ryan and bask in the warm emotions emanating from the man. He glanced at his phone screen, then dismissed the reminder that had popped up before Ryan could see it and ask him what he had to take medication for.
There was a chorus of snickering laughter around him and he realized he had missed some joke, but figured it didn’t matter. So he wasn’t prepared for the way Ryan leaned into him to say, with the kind of tone that was probably supposed to be sly, “You know… Aliens? Probing? They like butt stuff.”
It was such a well-worn joke that it didn’t garner much of a reaction from him anymore. Most of his mind was on the level of liquid in his bottle when Shane absently muttered amongst the continued laughter of their friends, “I mean, I don’t hate it.”
The meaning of his words dawned on him a moment later.
Shane’s entire body froze, his heart pounding so hard in his side that he could feel it slamming against his ribs. It took a great effort of will not to bolt or stutter out some frantic words that would just draw attention to what he had said.
“Maybe it’s not terrible,” Ryan continued in a low aside, completely oblivious to Shane’s inner turmoil. He angled an intoxicated, mischievous grin towards Shane, the exact same expression he used when he was trying to dare someone into something. The fizzing rush of bravery coated Shane’s throat. “I’d try it once. I’d try anything once.”
Was Ryan flirting with him?
The wild thought would have floored him if he hadn’t already felt like he was about to drown in Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere.
Between the gut-churning fear of his accidental admission and the mind-boggling timing of Ryan’s drunken words, Shane felt mired, frozen in shock. His words were quiet, easily confused for dismissive, when he eventually managed to say, “Who wouldn’t?” He dredged up a distant smile that felt wrong and added, “Variety is the spice of life, baby.”
Ryan’s face fell, his faint but real disappointment like bitter salt on Shane’s tongue that soon shifted and swirled back into the previous amalgamation of drunken burn and excited sweetness as Ryan was pulled back into the conversation.
Shane wanted to say something. A part of him urged him to apologize, to respond flirtatiously, to re-open the beginning dialogue of something they had been dancing around for years now. But he couldn’t force the words past the wall of fear or past lips that felt frozen. The pleasant haze of enjoyment he had been in was completely gone and not for the first time, he wished that alcohol affected him as much as it did humans.
Too much of his identity, his very existence, was tied up in remaining undiscovered. A literal decade had passed since he had last slipped up. Why now? What about the night had made him relax his guard to the point that he could so easily say something out loud?
It was lucky that it had been a rather innocent phrase. Easily misinterpreted. And Ryan hadn’t reacted to it, anyways. Maybe he hadn’t heard it.
Shane turned his attention back towards the rest of the group, pretending great interest in the new topic their boss had brought up of potentially taking over the karaoke machine in the corner. Eventually the pounding in his side returned to something healthier and he no longer felt like his heart was going to explode.
Ryan was animatedly discussing something sports-related to Steven, leaning across the table in his enthusiasm. Shane realized that it would have been easier for Ryan to have stayed where he had been sitting in the first place, but for some reason Ryan had chosen to sit next to him.
He had the feeling he knew what that reason was, and guilt hit him all over again.
Damn it, why did he have to slip up then of all times? He could have said something witty or flirtatious or straight up said ‘Yes, let’s try something new together,’ instead of practically shouting that he was an alien.
Okay, that was a little dramatic, even for him. A single statement no one had heard wasn't exactly shouting. It merely felt like it.
The back of Ryan’s hand knocked into his arm as the man gestured, grazing down his skin. The touch seemed to burn, though Shane knew for a fact that it was all in his head. It wasn’t like Ryan never touched him, but with his defenses worn down from the emotional intoxication and the sudden adrenaline from before, the accidental brush of knuckle to wrist seemed so much more important than it actually was.
Fuck’s sake, he really needed to get ahold of himself. It was just a little crush.
It’s not like I faint every time we touch, his mind continued the unintentional song lyric and Shane laughed at himself, trying to relax, trying to focus on music as a distraction.
It wasn't until Ryan said, "Man, I haven't heard that song in years," that Shane realized he was humming.
"Uh," he said, blinking and then laughing a little uncomfortably as he tried to act like he wasn’t affected by a simple touch. "Just thinking of what I might want to sing."
"Butcher, you mean," Ryan teased, grinning. It was a little mean, but his emotions were mostly the gentle bite of razzing a friend and the sweetness of enjoying himself, and Shane couldn't take offense. Not when he figured he owed Ryan for the way he had unintentionally shut down his flirting.
Besides, he knew he had a fairly good voice. "You're just jealous."
Ryan laughed and shook his head, his eyes bright in the lights of the bar. "I was wondering if you were going to do karaoke tonight. Usually you're all over the thing."
“I might not,” he said truthfully, because he didn’t like lying to his friends when he didn’t have to. Unless it was a bit for the camera, but he didn’t think that really counted. “I’m feeling a 90’s vibe and some of you youngsters might not fully appreciate class.”
“I’m nearly thirty, I’m as much of a geezer as you are,” Ryan said.
He was still smiling, but Shane could taste the hint of a negative emotion under all the burn of alcohol and that was what made him reach over and place his hand on Ryan’s shoulder. “You are baby,” he said solemnly.
The way Ryan’s eyes went wide and then narrowed as he burst into uncontrollable laughter, his grin wide and happy, was always going to be one of Shane’s favorite things. “Jesus Christ, no! No, you’re not starting this again, stop trying to be hip! You-” Ryan had to pause to catch his breath, he was laughing so hard. “I don’t even think you’re using that right.”
“We can settle this by going to knowyourmeme-”
“Yeah, because that really shows how up to date you are," Ryan interrupted, standing up and tugging at the edge of Shane's sleeve. “Come on, big guy, you’re going to go sing your stupid song and you’ll feel better.”
Shane stared at him in surprise, following along in something of a daze. He hadn’t thought he was being that obvious. But then, if anyone knew him nearly as well as his family did, it would be Ryan. And Ryan didn’t have the benefit of being able to taste his emotions.
Ryan dropped his wrist to pull out his phone, muttering to himself as he started to look something up. Shane ignored his juvenile disappointment in losing that touch by looking over Ryan’s shoulder. “I could have just told you it was Crush by Jennifer Paige,” he said, not hiding his quiet laughter as he spotted Ryan trying to type out half-remembered lyrics.
“Shut up, Shane,” Ryan responded predictably. “Why would I assume you’d know it?”
Because he had useless American trivia drilled into his head since before he had started living on the planet. Not that he was going to tell anyone that. So he shrugged and claimed the machine, amused despite himself at the situation he had found himself in.
It’s just a crush, indeed.
Actually singing the song went fine. He had fun hamming it up and crooning the longer notes like he was drunker than he actually was. It was more tempting than he really wanted to admit to sing some of the more poignant lyrics directly at Ryan, but he reined himself in and settled for doing an awkward little shimmy at the end that drew a laugh from his friends.
But when he passed the microphone to a giggling Devon, he was surprised to see that Ryan’s smile looked wooden. When he was close enough, he could taste a sour note that marred the previous drunken burn and sweet enjoyment.
“Ryan-” he tried to say, driven to ask what was wrong, but he was interrupted by everyone surrounding Ryan and pushing him towards the karaoke machine.
“We’ve got the perfect song for you!” someone shouted and the sourness disappeared. Ryan allowed himself to be jostled along, only looking back once. Shane relaxed, leaning against a wall as he watched their friends tease Ryan about something. He tried to tell himself that it hadn’t been the flavor of rejection twisting Ryan’s emotions, but he had the sinking suspicion that he had played the last hour a little too casually.
He was really going to have to corner Ryan when he was sober and just ask the man out. A nerve-wracking thought, but if Ryan could only make a move while drunk, Shane was just going to have to step up to bat.
It was clear that Ryan was being made to sing something stupid and Shane pushed his forming plans away, grinning as he thought about some of the more embarrassing numbers out there. He brought out his phone in order to record what was certainly going to be great blackmail material, only to slowly drop his hand back down to his side when the first notes started.
He knew that song. He even had to admit that it was catchy. And by all rights, watching Ryan try to match Katy Perry’s high notes should have been a comedy gold mine.
But why the hell did it have to be E.T?
Any other day and he would have been laughing along with everyone else, since it was a fitting song for an evening that had mostly consisted of Ryan talking about aliens. But this time, he couldn’t do it. Not now. Not so close after disappointing Ryan or the, admittedly much worse for his survival, inadvertent admission.
Shane crossed his arms and stared down at the floor, wondering if he could get away with hiding in the bathroom for the duration of the song. He knew that it would hurt Ryan’s feelings if he noticed, since Ryan got giddy and excited from being the center of attention when it was positive, but hearing ‘you’re from a whole nother world’ and ‘kiss me’ together in Ryan’s voice was too much.
He never thought he would curse Katy Perry, but there he was, being mad at someone for singing a catchy tune. It was ridiculous and he’d probably mock himself later.
Risking a quick glance up, he accidentally caught Ryan’s eye, right as the man sang, ‘boy, you’re an alien,’ and Shane started laughing. He couldn’t help it. The timing was just too perfect. He curled over and buried his face in his hands, trying to muffle the guffaws that were rattling his whole body. Every time he tried to calm down, he’d think of Ryan staring directly at him as he said ‘alien’ and he’d start laughing all over again.
Ryan would love the irony of this if he knew.
The thought, whimsical as it was, sobered him. Because Ryan would only find it funny if he both knew the truth and was okay with it. And Shane was far too conscious of the fact that he represented some of Ryan's biggest fears.
He was dimly aware of the song ending, and by the time familiar emotions entered his space and a hand touched his elbow, he was able to straighten up, wiping tears from his eyes.
“Was it really that bad?” Ryan asked, more confused than hurt or angry. Which was a good thing, because there was no way that Shane had the mental capacity to try and comfort Ryan right then if he had been truly upset.
“No, no, you did great,” he assured Ryan. "It’s a shame this version didn’t have Kanye’s bit, I wanted to laugh at you trying to imitate him.” There was half a breath, a pause that he could have let linger long enough for Ryan to respond, but his stomach twisted in nerves and bubbling courage and he suddenly blurted, “I just really fucking hate that song.”
Ryan drew his head back in surprise. “What? Are you drunk? I’ve never heard you actually hate a song.”
“Oh, it’s a bop,” Shane said, rambling in the release of tension that had been brought on by the bout of laughter. “But hearing you sing about wanting to get abducted was…” He couldn’t think of a word to end the sentence, but luckily Ryan was already scowling.
“Fuck you, you know how much that shit scares me.”
“Everything scares you.” It was a tired response, but better than ‘If only you knew how easy it would be.’
“Yeah,” Ryan admitted easily. “But aliens are the worst.”
And there it was.
All of the lingering delirious good humor and half-formed plans drained away and Shane straightened up, running his fingers through his hair and making a show of checking his watch. “Well I’d better be hittin’ the ol’ dusty trail.”
Ryan furrowed his eyebrows, staring at him in surprise. “But it’s only ten?”
Shane shrugged and didn't bother to give a response to that. Ryan could think whatever he wanted. "I'll see you on Monday."
Before he had gone more than a few steps, Ryan was saying, "Wait, let me just-"
Bemused, Shane paused next to the bar's entrance, watching as Ryan grabbed his jacket and said goodbye to the others. A weird mix of hope and dread froze him to the spot as he realized that Ryan meant to leave with him. The fact that Ryan was stubborn enough to want to continue to be around him was touching, but he really didn’t think he could handle his usual lies tonight. Something that should have been second nature, to the point that he sometimes forgot they were lies, suddenly looked like an impossible task.
That previous fizz of bravery coated Shane’s tongue when Ryan hurried towards him, his expression determined but his shoulders hunched. “I’ll come with you,” he said, his mouth set at an uncertain angle. “If, uh, that’s okay. We could hang.”
Shane took a moment to study Ryan, to decide if he was going to spend the night being miserable for the sake of his closest friend. He knew by human standards that Ryan was attractive, and that his eyes were beautiful by anyone’s standards, but he had always been drawn to the man’s emotions. They were so vibrant, standing out like a beacon in a sea of drab, mundane flavors. He felt like a glutton, but he could rarely say no to the tang of hope that lingered, smokey and effervescent, whenever Ryan asked something of him.
“Alright,” he said, dredging up a smile. “Can’t say I’ll be good company, but we can hang, broski.”
Ryan relaxed, his expression growing exasperated. “Cool thing, broseph.”
“Please, only my parents call me Broseph.”
The ensuing silly jokes and completely ridiculous banter saw them through the car ride that Ryan insisted on paying for, but Shane’s performance was forced at best, and he knew by the looks he was receiving that Ryan had caught on. The knowledge that this wasn’t like most nights where Ryan ended up at his place made it hard for Shane to relax. It wasn’t exactly rare for Ryan to invite himself over, but it was usually when they were both having too much fun elsewhere to let the festivities end, or it was something work-related and Ryan needed a change in location to get anything done. This was the first time Ryan was going out of his way to be near him when he was blatantly in a poor mood and that was a shift in their relationship. It felt more important than even a failed flirtation attempt.
“So what’s up?” Ryan asked when Shane had closed the door of his apartment behind both of them. He was blustering the question, but Shane could taste his apprehension. “Everything good?”
Shane side-eyed him as he threw his keys onto his kitchen table, giving him a sardonic smile. “Yup. Why wouldn’t it be?”
Ryan was clearly uncomfortable, the haze of intoxication around him having mostly given way to jittery nerves. He glanced down, tugging at his jacket sleeves like he needed something to do with his hands. “You were phoning it in for most of the evening. And I’ve seen you when you’re bored, so I know it wasn’t that.”
“I could just be tired,” Shane said, bracing both hands on the table, wondering just how far Ryan was going to take this conversation. His eyes were dry and itchy from having his contacts in for so long and he longed to blink his second eyelids, but his implant always got a little glitchy when he did.
Nodding slowly, Ryan allowed that with a quiet, “Maybe.” Then he straightened his back, flicking his gaze up once towards Shane’s face. “But I wanted to make sure it wasn’t because I-” He trailed off, swallowed, then huffed out a laugh that Shane would have bet was directed towards himself. “I hope I didn’t say anything you didn’t want to hear.”
Well, Shane hadn’t expected that Ryan would ever get so close to admitting that he had flirted with him. He tilted his head, watching Ryan and nearly giving in to the urge to stay silent, just to see how much Ryan would actually say. But that would be unfair when he could literally taste what Ryan was feeling.
He wondered how Ryan would react if he knew that his romantic interest in others tasted a little like jelly beans. Shane had laughed about that for weeks when he had figured it out.
Shane sighed, looking down at the table to gather his own courage. Maybe it would be easier for both of them if he just said it out loud to save them from miscommunication. They were both adults, supposedly. And he could taste the building crescendo of Ryan's frustration with himself. Probably at his struggle to say something out loud. The least Shane could do was to get the ball rolling. “You flirting with me with bad-”
“I’m sorry I said-”
They went quiet when they realized they were talking over one another, both of them laughing softly. They had been friends for so long that neither of them had to say anything for them to know that Ryan was waiting for Shane to say his piece first. “You flirting with me with bad alien probing pick up lines didn’t upset me,” Shane said again, the inherent humor in the situation making him choke back another laugh.
Saying it out loud before Ryan could seem to take the wind out of his sails. He slumped down, picking at the button on the bottom of his jacket sleeve, even as he held his chin stiffly high. There was belligerence in his attempt to appear unaffected. “Okay.” Embarrassment flavored the word. “So… I guess that’s a no.”
Shane sighed. This had been a long night and he still hadn’t gotten a chance to process how close he had been to blowing his cover. He felt bad, because by all rights this moment should have been filled with shy glances, goosebumps, and hopeful confessions. Instead, it was all just a mess. “A no to what, Ryan? You didn’t actually ask me anything.”
Ryan glanced up, his eyebrows furrowed. “What? Yeah, I did, I -” He paused, then slowly rubbed his hand over his face, shaking his head once and sighing a thin laugh. “I didn’t. You’re right.”
“Good Lord, you’re admitting I’m right? Can I get a recording of that?”
Glaring at him, Ryan snapped, “Fuck off, Shane,” and that was probably a fair reaction. Sometimes he forgot that his human friends couldn’t read his emotions.
Before Shane could try to apologize, Ryan took a step backwards toward the door. “I should go home before I say anything else stupid, right?” Anger born from embarrassment and the overwhelming bitterness of disappointment swamped the air around him. “I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Look, I’m glad that you’re not upset by me flirting with you and I guess it’s good that you don’t seem to be uncomfortable or anything, but I can tell when I’m being rejected.” Ryan coughed to clear his throat, his voice thick as he worked to keep his tone even. “Just gotta give me some time, man.”
Shane wasn’t sure if he wanted to go hit his head against the wall a few times in annoyance or go crawl under a rock for making the person he cared about most in the universe think he was being rejected. In favor of setting things straight, he did neither of those things.
He walked around the table, distantly surprised that his fingers were shaking from nerves, considering he’d been daydreaming about this for years, and gently sat his hand on Ryan’s shoulder to keep him in place.
“Shane-” Ryan started.
Shane interrupted him with a kiss that was barely more than a brush of his lips against the corner of Ryan’s mouth, but it worked to make the man go quiet. And there were few American human gestures that were so blatant in their meaning. From so close, Shane could smell the lingering traces of whatever aftershave Ryan had thrown on and he felt another stab of guilt for how he had mishandled everything. He knew Ryan only wore aftershave when he was going on a date. The idea that he had done so before coming over that morning for work, knowing that he would be close to Shane for most of the day, made it hard for Shane to breathe.
“You never asked me anything,” Shane repeated as he pulled back, hushed and dry. He had to swallow to continue. “I can’t say yes if you never ask.”
God, the burst of Ryan’s hope was more intoxicating than actual alcohol.
Ryan stared at him, his mouth slightly open.
“I should tell you something,” Shane made himself say, even more nervous than he had been. What he was about to tell Ryan wasn’t nearly as huge as admitting to being an alien would be, but it still made his palms clammy. It was annoying that sweat was one of the human characteristics he’d ended up with.
“Don’t tell me you’re straight right now, because I’ll probably go insane if you do,” Ryan blurted.
Shane let out a surprised laugh, his hold on Ryan’s shoulder tightening. “Not that you’re sane to begin with, but no.”
“The fans were right and you really are a demon?”
“Ryan,” Shane warned, exasperated. “I don’t do sex.”
Ryan looked like he hadn’t understood the sentence. “You what?”
“Sex. Not really my thing. Maybe once a year.” More precisely one month out of a sixteen month period, because even the human DNA in his body couldn’t change the timing of his species’ procreation cycle, but that wasn’t something that Ryan needed to know.
“Oh.” Ryan broke into a sudden, giddy grin after he processed that. “Well if that’s the only thing you were worried about, you wanna get dinner some time?”
Shane blinked slowly. “You… You don’t care?” He had been with too many humans over the years to think that Ryan was completely fine with it. Ryan especially seemed like the type that would be more about their partner’s pleasure than their own and that could lead to some arguments.
Ryan tilted his head and seemed to think about it before shrugging easily. “Maybe a little,” he said, raising his hand to pinch his fingers together. “Tiny bit. But once a year isn’t never. Is kissing still on the table? Handjobs? Blowjob-”
Laughing, Ryan’s giddiness finally affecting him, Shane interrupted, “Hold your horses, Casanova. You forgot something. ”
“Uh. Sex toys?”
Snickering and feeling lighter than he had in years, Shane kissed Ryan again. It was the cumulation of years of growing closer together and the kiss was weirdly great in a way it shouldn't have been, which characterized so much about the two of them. He particularly enjoyed the sweetness that flooded Ryan’s emotions when he pressed a little harder. Hard-shelled candy and a bite of hot spice. It was amusing that merely mentioning sex had turned Ryan on. That was going to be a problem later, but Shane was too selfish to care. “Yes, I’ll get dinner with you. “
Ryan smiled at him; happy and relieved and perfect. His hand curved around Shane’s side in a snug, secure grip.
Right where Shane’s heart beat.
Where no human’s heart would be.
He wondered if Ryan would ever notice.