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     Stud has known that he was gay since he was eight. Well, he couldn’t articulate it in so many words. He just knew that when his friends giggled about their crushes on the girls, the only feeling he could muster up was annoyance. He didn’t see the appeal of the female portion of their class; they were sectioned into catty cliques and didn’t let Stud play with them because they claimed he was germy. (He would have bet that he was cleaner than any one of them on their best day, so that was just a total falsehood.) He hung around the boys because it was expected that, for the most part, the genders remain segregated in most activities, and he didn’t mind.

     The other boys did, though. They complained about not feeling free to talk to their crush of the month, or not having the same free-read times to whisper to each other when the teacher stepped out of the room. While his friends compared girls, Stud was content to kick the football around if it meant being able to spend his afternoons with Natee. He and Natee were similar in that Natee preferred to read quietly or toss a ball rather than engage in gossip about the girls. He was the only one in a class of nearly 30 kids with whom Stud felt a real friendship present, and he latched onto it with both hands. They had sleepovers every other weekend, going back and forth between one another’s house, and used paper triangles to kick off like footballs at the other’s back to exchange notes.

     The problem arose when a girl in the class down the hall announced through a friend that she liked Natee and wanted him to be her boyfriend. Stud didn’t think anything would come of it since Natee’s never engaged much with the girls before, but Pie was different. Within a day, he had a girlfriend, and Stud was astonished at how quickly their friendship changed; not because of Natee necessarily, but Stud’s attitude toward it all. Natee and Pie’s blossoming relationship stirred Stud in a way he initially blamed on regular jealousy that his friend was spending less time with him.

     But as a week turned over into another, he had to admit that the sight of the pair smiling together or walking around during recess made him feel something different. What happened to the Natee who didn’t care about girls? They were supposed to be the same; they were supposed to stick together. He wasn’t supposed to leave Stud behind. When Stud confronted Natee, he claimed that things change and he just likes Pie. Why’s it such a big deal if he likes a girl now? Stud, unable to explain his upset, could only escape to the bathroom in a sudden barrage of tears.

     Stud has known since he was a kid, and he’s pretty sure his mom knew too, not that her knowing changed anything. Throughout Stud’s circle becoming primarily girls (who didn’t find Stud ‘germy’); his interest in figure skating and dance; and dropping from the football team, neither of his parents said a word one way or the other. His dad had always been relatively distant from Stud, and once he was old enough Stud gave up trying to match his father’s interests. It became too tiring, not to mention plain boring, having to act like he enjoyed ‘manly’ things like golf or watching televised beauty pageants to judge women’s bodies. (If he watched, it was to see their outfits and critique their craftsmanship, a topic his dad most definitely didn’t find relevant.)

     Despite the lack of outright homophobia in his house, Stud didn’t plan to come out to his family, at least not until he was moved into his own place and risking a boot into the street. His mistake was having a boy over that he had a half-crush on to study for a grade-nine maths exam, thinking that his parents wouldn’t be home for the night. His mom was out with friends and, being a Thursday, his dad would be working an hour later than usual. Stud should’ve had free reign of the house; unfortunately, the music playing from Stud’s speakers covered the sound of his dad climbing the stairs up to the bedroom… and the rest isn’t a mystery. Stud finds it a miracle to this day that he and Connor had been only kissing, but that was the night he unintentionally came out to his dad.

     He never spoke of it but Stud wasn’t allowed to have boys over anymore unless the door was open and only when either parent was home. Stud was basically ignored, and sometimes he wished that they’d said something, even if it was to express disappointment. Just anything to show him that they ever had a thought to their son’s wellbeing. Without their attention, Stud did more and more to see what he could get away with before his parents had to snap, but it was only his mother who ever reprimanded Stud for his behaviour. He didn’t care so much about her complaints; what he wanted was for his dad to speak up.

     He never did, and within two years he’d left them for some other woman he’d had on the side for the past half decade. Stud figured that he was going off to create a new life with her to have a better son who wasn’t gay, raised by a mother who wasn’t terminally ill like Stud’s mom was. He sends cards for holidays and Stud’s birthday, but Stud doesn’t really give a damn anyway. He hasn’t tried to live his life according to anyone else’s expectations and no cheating asshole would suddenly inspire a change in that regard.

     He got into a bit of a habit of sleeping around, leftover from the time he’d spent trying to attract his dad’s attention, but now he just does it for fun. Or out of boredom. Either way, he’s having a good time. And what’s better than a life filled with fun and no expectations? This carries him into university where he’s freer than ever to find a lay-a-day, something he’s very much looking forward to.

     After so long of casual hookups, the last thing Stud expected was to meet someone who made him feel as inexperienced as Earth did. Instinct had Stud defending the freshman in the room, but he knew he was doing it mainly for the boy beside him who’d looked so petrified at being outed. He’s too frustrated to get his name so when he happens to spot him at the pool less than a week into classes, Stud knows he isn’t going to lose his shot. It’s botched rather quickly, though, because Earth is very much closeted and even when he admits to liking men, he claims that Stud doesn’t have a chance anyway. He begs then for the friendship, because he’d rather have Earth as a friend than nothing at all, and promises himself that he can live with that. He’s rarely vulnerable with anyone, even his closest friends, but he found that he was plenty willing to grovel if it’s to keep Earth. He tried not to think about what that means.

     It’s a tad easier when Dr. Sam sweeps Earth off his feet just because Earth is more open about himself and therefore less stingy toward Stud; however, even so, Stud is unhappy with their development. If it weren’t for his confronting Earth in the locker room and their consequent brawl, he’d never have gone to the hospital and have met P’Sam there. It’s Stud’s fault, basically, for depositing a perfect boyfriend into the doctor’s line of sight, and deep down Stud hates himself for it. The shitty part of him hopes that P’Sam will be a fling, an experimentation that Earth will try and get over.

     But a month becomes three, a year becomes two then four, while Stud can do nothing but watch Earth stay happily in love with someone Stud thinks is, frankly, overrated. He doesn’t get the appeal until he’s staying at their shared apartment and has a taste of the domesticity that dwells there. As much as Stud fucks around, he’d love to have a partner like this, a man to jump on the couch with for a movie or who will hold him when that occasional heaviness in his head won’t abate. In P’Sam he can sort of see what Earth sees, the doctor with a habit of adjusting his glasses when he’s unsure and a dopey smile that melts whoever it shines upon. He also can’t help but think of what it must be like to have someone who he would just know wants him, invariably; how P’Sam might give a single look and Earth would come running, ready with a kiss or whatever else. Stud wants that badly… he just can’t seem to figure out who he’s jealous of.

     He pushes the envelope with P’Sam, and it’s thrilling to feel what he is sure Earth must feel around the doctor. In a twisted way, the thought makes Stud feel closer to Earth, and he chases that. He can’t explain it, but he has to have P’Sam, despite the awareness that he’s being a terrible, totally shit friend to the one person he’s so desperate to keep close. Stud’s been running away from loneliness all his life, and Earth has made him feel significant in another’s life for the first time. Why is he so good at shooting himself in the foot?

     When his mom dies, Stud feels almost like it’s what he deserved. He was a rotten son, all things considered, and took out his father’s abandonment on a mother who had really just done what she could to keep Stud from free-falling. It’s karma from his wretched treatment of his friends, cheating with P’Sam, and hurting the one boy he’d truly loved. That doesn’t stop him from stumbling into a taxi for an apartment he hasn’t visited in two years, to see that very boy and hope that he’d hold him, no questions asked. He does, because it’s Earth and Earth is so good, and just like that, they’re sort of together again. It isn’t the same, likely never will be, but it’s something that Stud can cling to. For the first time in these two years, Stud feels a hope in his chest that better things are coming.

     Earth’s still got barriers up between himself and Stud, but at least there’s a chance. He’s softened, Stud thinks, because of Stud’s insistence that he’s a changed man. He’s even sleeping with P’Sam’s ex to ensure the certainty of Earth’s relationship, an idea just crazy enough to gain back Earth’s favour. He looks more annoyed than grateful, which isn’t quite the reaction Stud had been looking for, but if he ends up being a help to them, he knows Earth won’t have any choice but to be happy he’d forgiven Stud. That’s the goal.

     He feels comfortable enough to turn on the charm with Earth like the good old days, where Earth would roll his eyes and move on with a slight grin. He gets a bit more defensive these times around, which Stud can’t really understand, but he just blames it on Earth being stressed and tries harder to make him laugh and win him over. One round of baiting ends with Stud’s face pressed to the bottom of a pillow and Earth’s knees straddling either side of Stud’s waist, so he’d call that a win for sure.

     It’s different from their interactions from even before the Incident; Earth has always been sure to keep a reasonable distance between them. Stud never thought much of it because he knows Earth values his personal space, but because of these boundaries, this moment is all the more unique, and it has Stud frozen to the bed. His hands find their way to Earth’s hips almost on their own as he refuses to pull eye-contact. This is the longest Earth has met his gaze in ages; whatever spell this is, he isn’t going to be the one to break it. But Earth hauls off and escapes to the bathroom, leaving Stud flat on the mattress to stare at the ceiling. He writes it off as another one of Earth’s moods and makes a note to not tease Earth again for at least a day.

      He doesn’t think much about it for the rest of the day, if only because to think of it would make him go haywire. Even then he can’t stop his eyes from landing on Earth more than normal (which is already a lot) and trying to see any sort of exposure on his face, but Earth is as calm and collected as he always is. Once again, had he imagined the tension between them like Earth had claimed he’d done back in university? He’s liked to pretend that he knows him better than most, but that’s a lie. Earth is an enigma whose next moves Stud can hardly ever guess; it’s like having an unsolvable bomb on his neck at all times that he can’t help poking at, even though it could quite literally kill him.

     So he gets drunk, because that’s usually a solution when sex with a stranger isn’t on the table. It’s only past 11 but he’s staggering on his feet, making the girls laugh as Earth takes him by the arm to go. He knows Earth is putting that space between them that he’s cultivated over the months; because of the hiatus their friendship took that made Earth used to being cold, he’s less amused by Stud’s behaviour and right now he can guess that Earth is sober enough to be downright annoyed, but that doesn’t stop Stud from throwing an arm over Earth’s shoulders to yank him closer on the way up. His head hurts from the excessive moving but it dulls slightly when he’s deposited on the carpet of their room, a relief that has his eyes drooping. He’d likely fall asleep if it weren’t for Earth standing before him, a dour look on his face that Stud wants to alleviate. He misses his friend who would humour his antics and even smile at them; he knows it isn’t the same, but why can’t it be similar?

     He sees a glimpse of why it can’t be remotely the same when Earth trains a dark smirk on Stud that has him blanching. He has no idea where this is going, but he’s rooted to the spot. He’s not quite as cloudy-headed as he’d been a few minutes ago, just on the good side of tipsy now, and he’s quick on the uptake when Earth hitches up onto his lap. This isn’t his first rodeo by any means, though it sort of feels that way. He’s all of a sudden back in uni, but this time it’s Earth rather than Stud initiating contact, and they aren’t virtual strangers anymore. This is the man he’s wanted for nearly seven years with his hands in a vice grip on Stud’s collar; this is Earth, and Stud almost can’t believe this isn’t a dream (because he’s definitely been here before in his mind, to an embarrassing degree).

     The issue is he can’t understand why exactly Earth is doing this, out of the blue. He’d like to turn off his brain to let himself enjoy what is clearly a gift from the gods left quite literally in his lap, considering with his usual luck that he won’t get this chance again. But that annoying voice in Stud’s head reminds him that he’d told Earth he’s a changed man for the better, and this isn’t exemplary decent behaviour by any standard. Earth is first and foremost the person Stud loves and respects more than anyone; he needs to act like it when it counts. This isn’t happening tonight.

     Earth went to an all-boys’ school from the time he was in primary all the way until university. His parents were certain that he would thrive in an environment free of distractions (i.e. girls), much like his father before him, and Earth had no reason to disagree. He didn’t much care where he was as long as he could learn; what did it matter the gender of his peers?

     His dad wasn’t the kindest man, but it wasn’t anything Earth couldn’t deal with. He was an intense presence in the house from the time Earth was a child, and it became a necessity that Earth learned to differentiate between his parents’ footsteps ascending the staircase. One meant that he would have to turn off his light and pull his blanket up high to feign sleep and avoid being scolded, either with words or otherwise, for no real reason outside his dad’s foul moods. Earth learned to be quiet at home and speak rarely as to not attract his dad’s eye, and this habit translated to school where Earth kept to himself and had few friends. He didn’t like the idea of inviting someone over only for his father to become belligerent, and he preferred being out of the house at another’s anyway.

     Earth knew that he liked boys in a subconscious way, repressed so deeply that it wasn’t something he ever entertained as possible. He simply dodged romantic entanglements altogether, which wasn’t difficult to do when his parents pushed for him to focus on school. He was a star student, a kid with impeccable manners and a handsome face, and it worked wonders considering it was all just a hard-shelled barrier meant to protect him. He certainly didn’t feel like the perfect boy everyone assumed him to be, but there was no point saying anything to the opposite because he couldn’t foresee a day where he’d be given the chance to be anyone else.

     Earth became used to the feeling of suffocation as a permanent part of himself that he could ignore if he tried hard enough. There’s nothing wrong with being polite and kind, nothing at all wrong with being good. Perhaps he would have liked to have a glance at another option, at least, but it’s okay. He can make this work, for his own sake as well as his parents’. And what’s there to complain about when he’s gliding through life as the well-adjusted, well-mannered, well-intentioned young man everyone sees him as? The imposter-syndrome will wear off one day, surely. It has to. Act long enough and it will become real.

     By his first night of university orientation, Earth is still waiting. He’s being berated by the head hazers to out himself, along with anyone else in the group of young men who are queer, and he feels sick to his stomach. It’s like he’s back in the locker room of junior high when the boys would whip each other with towels, half-naked and hollering, while Earth dressed as quickly and quietly as he could to get away from their leers that dared him to say something. He almost wants to raise his hand, if only to see what it feels like to be honest for a change, but he knows this isn’t the crowd to be honest with.

     He can’t help flexing his fingers that itch to do something, anything, and he looks down to see a tentative hand on his knee. The boy to his left, his eyes dark and wide with something like understanding in them, a look that makes Earth’s chest pound as he shoves away his touch of comfort. They’re strangers, who does he think he is? But then that stranger is standing tall and about to get into a fist-fight with the seniors, and before Earth can even think he’s on his feet to drag them both from the room. The boy is unbothered by the violence but furious at the hazers’ audacity, with this righteous crease in his brows that has Earth unsteady. He storms out of the building, leaving Earth alone there, dumbstruck. Who even was that guy?

     It turns out ‘that guy’ is a massive whore, a huge liar, and a complete asshole. They became friends within an hour of knowing each other. That was quickly sullied by Stud’s hands in his hair and smirking mouth on his, and Earth is on the edge of being unable to ignore his truth any longer. He still tries with Boom, because part of him feels like he owes it to his parents and her to give it a shot, but he knows it’s of no use.

     He’s still annoyed with Stud when he comes across Dr. Sam, still a little annoyed with Stud when he thinks that he could see himself with Dr. Sam. P’Sam is intuitive, educated, and mature, all the things that Earth would like to be (and all the things that Stud is decidedly not, not that he’s important here). He devotes himself to fitting into that niche in P’Sam’s life however he can; he’s wasted so many years ignoring this part of his identity, and now that he’s got the chance to be happy, he isn’t going to screw it up.

     Earth is considerate, doting, affectionate, even when P’Sam isn’t available for days at a time because of his schedule. He plans their dates, trips, meals, or whatever else he can to take stress away from his boyfriend; doing all these while juggling classwork and the drama of his friends. He has no spare time to consider what-ifs and he doesn’t want to anyway. He’s content with P’Sam, the best partner anyone could ask for, and that’s more than enough. His parents have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy that Earth hadn’t expected from them, but it’s a relief. He doesn’t think that they’ll ever be the family that has holiday dinners together with his boyfriend (future husband), but seeing as Earth had assumed his dad would be furious, he’s fine without family meals.

     His friendship with Stud keeps Earth on his toes though. Stud will go from giving Earth a lascivious grin to leaving the same night with a stranger, and Earth can’t wrap his head around it. He’s never even kissed someone he doesn’t know fairly well, let alone had sex with them. Granted, his only kisses have been Boom, Stud, and P’Sam, and only two of them had been borne from any sort of genuine attraction. (Although he adamantly thinks of Stud as a lapse in judgment, not attraction.)

     He’s also asked why he’s friends with Stud at all, especially from P’Sam. He claims he doesn’t understand how someone as good as Earth could find common-ground with Stud’s type, and Earth doesn’t know how to explain it. Stud is… infuriating. But there’s something rather intoxicating about how much he adores Earth. It sounds horrible to say it, but it’s the truth. Earth treats Stud with a no-bullshit attitude, and in return Stud doesn’t lie to him and gives him sweetness tenfold. Earth has never felt like anyone’s most important person, but with Stud, he sort of feels it.

     Around him, parts of himself that Earth has always tried to cap slip through the cracks of the armour he wears around the others, even P’Sam. He calls Stud out on his idiocy, he laments about his study or P’Sam’s obsession with his job. With this, Stud never rails Earth for being childish or petty, as is Earth’s fear with P’Sam. He just lets Earth vent, and as the resident Bitcher even encourages Earth’s complaints because he thinks it’s vital to air those things out, and he’s more than happy to be that receptacle for Earth. He sees the side of Stud that Stud doesn’t often show, and he likes that Stud trusts him enough to be vulnerable like that. He loves him, and he’s sure Stud loves him too.

     So when Stud sleeps with P’Sam, Earth is stunned. He can’t explain it away and he doesn’t want to. Maybe Stud is as horrible a psychopath as everyone has always warned him and he should’ve done well to heed their advice long before now, when he’s been so betrayed. He knows that he should leave P’Sam, punish him for what he’s done. It’s easier to cut off a friend than it is to lose the man he’s devoted four years to, however, so Earth chooses to sever ties with Stud and pray that his erasure from their life will keep P’Sam from straying.

     But the loss of Stud does nothing to prevent Earth’s fears of P’Sam’s infidelity and even though he insists that they can make it work, their dynamic isn’t the same as it’d been before. He’s quicker to snap at P’Sam over things he would have normally let go, and some nights find Earth overwhelmed by such a feeling of repulsion and inner upset that he almost can’t bear to sleep in their shared bed.

     These emotions tend to fade by the time the sun has risen, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to keep those thoughts hidden in the dark. He’s always tried to be understanding, forgiving, but he can’t help being afraid that all his efforts are ultimately for nothing. He can’t force anyone to stay with him or to care for him, no matter how much time he puts into making it work; and the harder he tries, the worse he feels. All the while, his friends, even P’Sam’s friends, shower Earth with compliments that he’s the best man they know, one of the few who is so good-hearted and dedicated to those he loves, and Earth feels like he’s drowning.

     He’s lived all his life beneath the weight of expectations that he thought he’d become used to it, but P’Sam’s affair and Stud’s betrayal left Earth with a hole in the old armour that he can’t find a way to patch. He feels damaged with no fix in sight, and no one to speak to about it lest they realise just how little they truly know him. How little he knows himself. He’d been so sure years ago that he wanted the white picket fence with P’Sam, the kids and the pets, but all of a sudden the thought of actually being so close to having those things makes Earth want to tuck tail and run. He’s only 26; he’s still debating a Master’s degree and trying to convince himself that he’s a real adult. How can he possibly have a child of his own, or be expected to run a household? P’Sam will be the moneymaker and Earth will be locked away in the house, surely, the same as he’s been these past months, with his only free-time spent watering the plants or dusting the baseboards.

     The domestic dream has become Earth’s nightmare, but he doesn’t want to give up just yet. P’Sam is so hopeful, and he owes him his best effort, right? It’s been six years; throwing it away over a house would be insanity. But by the time they leave for the beach, Earth’s nerves are fraying closer and closer to the breaking point. As always, he’s doing what he can to keep himself together and focus on anything but himself.

     That’s sort of made easier by Stud’s incessant Studness. This normally consists of blathering on about the randomest of topics, but the tricky bit is when these are sprinkled with flirtatious innuendos that have Earth rolling his eyes to mask whatever else it is that he feels because of them. The girls had stuck him in a room with Stud, possibly in an attempt to bring them closer, but Earth isn’t at all happy about it. It doesn’t make sense to put them together; these days, he feels like a ticking bomb around Stud and having to share a room will probably end with Earth punching Stud square in the jaw for some stupid, off-hand comment.

     This is confirmed when, only five minutes into arriving, Earth has Stud pinned to the sheets of their bed, a pillow over his face to shut him the hell up. He pulls it down to reveal Stud’s dark eyes looking up at him, and Earth hates that all he can see in them is trust and something looser that he’d be damned if he admitted has to be attraction. He feels that familiar stirring in his gut and tears himself away from Stud, unable to look back as he goes. This isn’t university, and they aren’t who they used to be.

     He doesn’t have too many drinks and is only buzzed by the time he is forced to drag Stud back to their room. If he’d known Stud was going to be this much off his head, he would’ve had more to drink himself if just to deal with Stud’s obnoxiousness. Seeing as he’s his resident babysitter, though, Earth powers through and dumps Stud on the floor as soon as he can, asserting that he get on the bed to sleep rather than the carpet where his eyes have fallen closed.

     He ignores the feeling in his chest when Stud grabs for his leg, and feigns annoyance when he tugs Earth by the hand onto the floor next to him. Stud immediately latches onto Earth’s shoulder, their faces too close for comfort, and Earth is at a loss as soon as Stud begins to compliment him. They aren’t the kind, considerate words Stud likely thinks them to be; he knows it isn’t Stud’s fault, necessarily, because he hasn’t told anyone about his displeasure at being chronically known as the ‘nice guy.’ Despite that, Earth can’t meet Stud’s eyes, which are suddenly too awake and wide in their focus on Earth alone.

     Stud has been trying so hard these past weeks to prove something to Earth, that he’s changed or somehow gained critical thinking skills in his time away from Earth, not that Earth buys it. The familiar fondness he’s always had for Stud has been chipped away to reveal feelings he’d done everything in his power to push down; their renewed friendship and Stud’s devotion has reminded Earth of what he’s been missing in Stud, the one person who looked at Earth like he’s somehow the center of everything. It feels as good as it ever did, but Earth feels scraped raw too; he doesn’t like not knowing what he’s going to do next. All he can say is that he’s still waiting for the facade he’d donned years ago to become real and he can’t breathe.

     He kisses Stud because he wants to. He doesn’t want to think about the reasons that may exist outside that. It could be that the anger he’s felt all this time is finally burgeoning, and he knows the one way to control Stud is through sex. Maybe he knows too that Stud will feel guilty afterward and Earth wants him to hurt because it would mean he is punished further for a betrayal that had tossed Earth’s certainties into a furnace. Or it could be that he wants to even the score between himself and P’Sam; or he wants to prove that he can shatter expectations of his forgiving, good-boy nature. It’s probably all these things, on some level, but the latter especially.

     It’s ironic that Stud claimed they’re such perfect opposites, seeing as Earth has often thought that Stud is who he may have been if he hadn’t been so damn shackled. Perhaps that’s why he’s never been able to shake him completely; there’s too much of each other in their every move, in ways that Earth hasn’t wanted to admit, particularly recently. But Stud has never been vindictive and hardly makes personal attacks, whereas Earth takes odd pleasure in making his opponent crumple during the rare occasion he has cause. Is this manipulating Stud, by using his feelings for Earth against him? That very well might be, but Earth wants him truly, no matter what other motives linger there. And Stud is kissing him back like his life depends on it, so he must be on-board with the turn of events.

     He thinks so, at least, until Stud shoves him off. What in the hell?