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     Bew once told Stud that he needed to be better about repressing his true emotions. He never got a good vibe from her and so didn’t entertain her advice for even a second. His feelings in uni were justified because they didn’t stem only from jealousy, but from sincere concern over Boom’s heart being broken. He could’ve hidden it well otherwise; Bew didn’t know anything about him.

     It’s just when alcohol gets involved, Stud’s attention is more likely to linger where it shouldn’t, his eyes more likely to follow the movements of a person he knows he can’t have. That hasn’t changed in the past six years and, at this point, he’s given up on tamping it down. That’s why he doesn’t hold back from putting his weight on Earth on their trek back to their shared room, and why he shamelessly tugs at Earth’s hands and legs. He’s been so strange these days, in ways that speak of more than just his leftover grudge from the past. Stud can see that something is simmering beneath the surface of Earth’s every action; he just doesn’t know how to get him to talk about it.

     Like Earth himself said, he’s let Stud in again but some things aren’t going to be as they were, one of those being their old habit of hours-long conversation that delved into any and all topics. Earth is more closed off than he used to be, and Stud knows it’s his fault.

     “I’m so glad to be able to talk to you again,” he murmurs into Earth’s shoulder.

     Earth doesn’t seem particularly moved by the sentiment. “You’ve said so countless times,” he replies flatly.

     “But you know, I’ve never really said how good you are,” Stud adds. Earth looks away, lips pulled thin, and Stud is quick to go on. Clearly Earth doesn’t believe that Stud is being genuine… not that Stud can blame him. “You’re always making sure your friends and boyfriend are happy.” Earth still won’t return his gaze, so Stud takes Earth’s hand in his to be sure that he has his attention.

     “What’s with the sweet-talk?” Earth asks. “Do you want something?”

     Stud immediately shakes his head. He’s sort of lying, since what he’d like is for Earth to love him the way he used to. He just wants him to be the person Stud used to rely on, and who he’d do anything for in return. But that’s probably too much to ask for now.

     “You have no idea how much I want to be selfish like you are,” Earth claims, and Stud has to smile. As if Earth could ever be anything like him. “I envy your courage to be what you want to be. You never care what others think of you. Sometimes, I wonder—” He looks over at Stud, who’s not taken his eyes off Earth at all. What’s new? “—how fun it would be to be a bad guy.”

     “Try it,” Stud says. “Create a new character for yourself. You might like it.”

     He’s mostly messing around, but he’s taken aback when Earth adjusts on the floor so that they’re face to face.

     “Do you still have feelings for me?” he asks. He can’t be serious. What universe could exist in which Stud doesn’t love Earth? It’s downright embarrassing after so long but what he’d felt upon their first meeting hasn’t abated in the slightest.

     He says as much, though he softens it with, “Not as much as I used to. But I still do.”

     “You’re drunk and still trying to act cool.”

     Well, if he’d said the truth, that would’ve been disastrous. He can accept being assumed to be arrogant if the other option is Earth thinking he’s an irrevocable loser.

     With a slight edge to his words, he asks in return, “Why d’you ask? What’re you playing at?” He points a finger in Earth’s line of vision, purposely dramatic. “You’re not a good guy after all.”

     A look comes into Earth’s eyes then that Stud has never seen. “I never said I was a good guy.”

     Some part of Stud is aware that he’s so stunned that he hasn’t even dropped his hand from where it’s lagged to point at his friend’s chest, and the fact that he can’t seem to look away from that expression on Earth’s face, but before he can articulate any sort of response to either of these things, Earth’s mouth is on him.

     It’s probably pathetic that, on a subconscious level, every man Stud has ever slept with has been in lieu of the one he knew he could never have. Not that he’s thought of Earth every time he had sex; but often enough that he accepted it as a part of himself he wouldn’t ever be able to shed. Every pair of lips has been a nicotine patch to the drug that was their brief kiss back in uni; a diluted replacement that isn’t nearly as satisfying as the original that he craved. All those years ago Stud promised that he’d have Earth, but then came Boom, and then Sam, and the eventual acknowledgment that Earth just didn’t want him. Clearly, Stud had deluded himself into thinking that he’d felt at all what he felt that night.

     Until now, because here is the person he’s dreamt of all this time, seemingly prepared to do what Stud has wanted since the beginning. So why doesn’t it feel right? Why doesn’t it feel the way he thought it would?

     Earth rocks down on Stud’s lap and between one pull of their lips and the next, Stud is pushing Earth back over onto the carpet beneath them. He can’t quite catch his breath and he isn’t sure he ever will. Earth’s eyes are wild, almost unrecognisable to Stud to the extent that he has to look away to slow his beating heart.

     “You—” Stud gives a slow shake of his head. He’s feeling way too sober for this situation, missing the drunken lightness of only ten minutes prior. “Don’t start something you can’t finish.”

     “What, you don’t like me?”

     “It’s not about that,” Stud rejoins. He takes a breath, head leaned back on the couch cushion, before he turns to Earth. “What’s up with Sam?” Earth looks away with a roll of his eyes that hurts Stud to see. “I know you said you don’t wanna talk about some of that stuff with me, but there’s… You wouldn’t have kissed me if there wasn’t something going on.”

     “We agreed to find a house together,” Earth snaps. “I told him I want to start a real life with him. Happy?”

     Stud studies Earth’s angry expression, and behind it he can see how cornered Earth truly feels. “Are you?” he returns. Earth won’t look at him. “You aren’t the type to go around kissing random guys.”

     “You aren’t a random guy.”

     “You know what I mean.”

     “And I thought we established that I’m fucking sick of being the ‘type’ who does or doesn’t do certain things,” Earth says. Stud blinks, taken aback by Earth’s vehemence, but he doesn’t pause. “Do you have any idea how exhausting it is trying to be the friend you guys can turn to at all hours; the caring and forgiving boyfriend who’d do anything for his man?

     “What do I get, huh? What do I get for being that? A boyfriend who cheated on me with my best friend. You all get no-strings sex; I’m stuck with—” Earth stops then as he voice cracks. He drops his head and takes a shaky inhale. “I’m stuck with a guy I can’t leave cuz he’s all I know. He’s all I know and without him, I’m nothing.”

     “Earth, that’s not—” Stud reaches for Earth’s hand, but he yanks it back before they can meet. “That just isn’t true.”

     “You do whatever you want, no matter the cost. If I did that, I’d lose everything. You flirt recklessly; you make me crazy and you don’t even know because it’s just who you are. I’m so tired of b-being the pushover. I’m so tired of trying to make everyone else feel good while I only let myself have the bare fucking minimum.” Earth swipes furiously at his wet cheeks with the palms of his hands, like there’s a stain there he can’t get out, and inhales like he’s frustrated at having to breathe at all.

     Stud is teary too but he doesn’t pay himself any mind. “You don’t need to try to be anyone,” he manages to say. “All we want is you.”

    “Who even am I?” Earth demands. “I’ve been the same man for six years from the day I met P’Sam, to be what he needs. I’ve been the same kind of friend to you all for just as long. I don’t know how to ‘be’ if I’m not… if I’m not whoever that person is.” He shakes his head, sniffling. “I felt so bad for Bew not knowing herself but I’m not any better off.”

     “Be like me,” Stud says softly. “Just for a second. If there weren’t any consequences for what you choose, what would you do?”

    “I just tried to do it,” Earth says, sounding slightly amused. Stud tilts his head in confusion and Earth gives him a look. Stud swallows, turning red, and Earth shakes his head again. “Well, sort of. What I want is to… I don’t know. Not feel like I’m living with a hand tied behind my back. I’d… try to live without P’Sam to see if my love for him isn’t just based in all he’s been to me for so long.”

     “Sometimes that’s what I think about,” Stud murmurs. At Earth’s misunderstanding, he clarifies, “If my feelings for you are just because of how long we’ve known each other. Or if they’re, you know, ‘real.’”

     “Any verdict?”

     Fingers tapping a restless, slow beat on the floor, Stud makes himself meet Earth’s gaze. “I think you know,” he says.

     They look at each other for a moment longer before Earth looks at his hands in his lap. “With no consequences, I’d leave P’Sam,” he says again, “because he wants things with me that I’ve been forcing myself to agree with. I do want them, but not… not yet, and—not with him.” Stud nods, letting Earth take his time.

     He glances at Stud with shy eyes that are so opposite from only a few minutes ago that it’s like whiplash. “I’d let you kiss me in the way I’ve tried not to think about wanting since Year One,” he goes on. “Actually, I wouldn’t ignore my own thoughts at all anymore, for anyone’s benefit.”

     Stud does his best not to fixate on the idea of kissing Earth again and says, “Just live for you. Didn’t you say you wanna maybe get your Master’s?” Earth nods a little. “If that’s what you want, do it. If it’s not, move on to the next thing. I’ll support you in whatever; so will the girls. No question.” Earth plays with his hands some more, unable to look at Stud. “On the topic of honesty. Why… did you keep me around? Back then? We already know I’m a jerk; you don’t need me in your life fucking it up.”

     Earth takes a moment, then says, “When I punched you in the locker-room, because you confronted me about being gay… I did feel it that first night. But through all of it and after, once things blew up with Boom, P’Sam felt like a safe choice. I wanted him for real, and I did for a long time, but I think I knew that I wanted you as a friend too because I knew you were—devoted to me. It sounds so messed up to say it. No matter who you slept with, I knew there was something between us, even if I didn’t mention it. And it felt good.”

     “You liked the power of having someone apart from a boyfriend who’d do anything for you, without complaint,” Stud deduces. Earth turns red and Stud half-laughs. “Hey, you weren’t wrong. I’ve been fucking Sam’s ex to keep your relationship afloat; I’d say that exceeds the general duties of friendship.”

     “It’s manipulative.”

     “Earth, everyone likes to feel loved,” Stud says, firm. “Chasing that feeling doesn’t make you a piece of shit. You’d be an asshole if through all that you didn’t act as a friend to me, but you were always the one person I could count on. To me, that’s everything. The rest doesn’t matter.” He prods Earth’s foot with his own. “But you were into me, right? A little bit? Teensie bit?”

     “Would I have kissed you if I wasn’t?” Earth asks, exasperated in his embarrassment. “Think before you speak.”

     “Just checking!” Stud defends himself with a sly grin. He sombers when he says, “And with P’Sam…”

     “I need to talk to him,” Earth says tiredly. “I know I need to talk to him. I’m just…”

     “Hey. It’s not gonna be easy. But for your own sake, you have to do it.”

     “You’re sure you’re not saying that because you want me for yourself?”

     “Both can be true; I don’t know why you make them sound mutually exclusive.”

     Earth smiles despite himself and shakes his head. He looks at Stud, eyes soft, then asks, “Why did you sleep with him?”

     Stud’s grin slips as he looks away. “I told you already.”

     “Yeah, a bullshit answer. I want the truth.”

     Stud bites his lip between his teeth for a brief second before giving a shrug. “I… I don’t know why. I thought I wanted him, same as I said before. I was jealous but I didn’t know which of you I was jealous of. Or I knew, but I didn’t want to say. Like Boyo said, I can seduce anyone except you. So I seduced your boyfriend. Next best thing to having you, I guess.”

     “That’s fucked up.”

     Stud barks a laugh and grabs a pillow off the couch to whack at Earth. “No shit! I’ve been in love with you for six years; what would you have done?”

     Earth stops smiling. “Six years?”

     Stud sighs and shrugs again. “I mean, yeah. You aren’t the easiest guy to get over; even harder when we’re so close. And my way of dealing is slutting around and eventually sleeping with P’Sam. As you can see, I’ve handled my feelings with exceptional grace.”

     “Stud…”

     “It’s like you said,” Stud interjects. “Not all friends share everything.” He pushes to his feet off the floor. “I’m gonna go room with Boyo. You can have the bed to yourself.” In a turn of the night’s earlier events, Earth grabs Stud’s hand from his place on the carpet. Stud looks down at him, questioning.

     “You don’t have to go,” Earth tries.

     Stud smiles, a little bittersweet. “This is for your own good,” he says. “I can’t sleep next to you right now without—It’s okay. See you in the morning.”

     “Stud. Ai’Stud.”

     But Stud disappears out the door, leaving Earth alone. It’s likely that Stud isn’t as selfish as Earth has liked to say he is. Maybe not even close.

     On the other side of the door, Stud presses his back to the door and does his best to breathe. It’s likely that he’s a masochist, after all.