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Is There Somewhere

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part one: the beginning

 

          Mickey Milkovich was born at 9:28 on a Saturday, and even at nine pounds flat, he was a pudgy little thing.

          Katrya Milkovich was thin, with hips too slim to comfortably birth a baby like Mickey, but she loved him unconditionally anyway (she admittedly loved him a little more after he was done screaming his way past her birth canal).

          Her three sons were huddled around the bed when Mickey was born, and Colin squeezed her hand while she screamed, and Tony, as the eldest and therefore the tallest, lifted Iggy up high enough so that his little hands could dab a cold towel (courtesy of the hospital staff) across her forehead.

          “He’s a tough little thing, isn’t he?” cooed one of her nurses, a petite blonde woman, when they brought him back all cleaned up and placed him in Katrya’s arms.

          The baby, momentarily placated, started to cry again; Colin leaned forward to tickle under his chin, and while his cries got a little quieter, his fists began to flail.

          “Fussy, isn’t he?” another nurse said with a small frown. Katrya, busy checking that her child was intact and unscathed, did not respond. The nurse reached as though to take him again, then, and Katrya finally deigned to look up at her, pulling her baby closer to her chest and narrowing her eyes.

          “Mikhailo,” she said fiercely, and in a voice just barely tinged with an accent she’d all but lost since she’d moved to America in her early childhood, “is just a lot to handle. But I’ve got him.”

          The nurse backed away with her hands up, so Katrya reigned in her ferocity a little as she returned to cradling her newborn son. Beside the bed, Iggy was pulling faces and kicking to get his brother to release him.

          “Mikhailo?” Tony asked once he’d put the toddler down. Iggy looked up and repeated the name, albeit butchering it wildly in his little kid’s tongue.

          Katrya nodded solemnly. “You can call him Mickey,” she assured her now second-youngest, and he beamed up at her.

          Iggy immediately started chanting, “Mickey, Mickey, Mickey,” and Mickey started crying again, and the nurses tried to begin a conversation that Katrya was too busy playing with her littlest son to hear.

          “Ma’am,” one of them said finally, louder than the others. “There’s a slight problem with the baby.”

          That finally had Katrya looking up sharply.

          “Problem?” she repeated severely. “What problem? He looks perfect to me.”

          The same nurse that had tried to take him before sighed and reached forward again. Katrya jerked him back against her slightly, and the nurse met her eyes and kept eye contact while she stretched towards Mickey, like Katrya was a rabid dog. Katrya watched distrustfully as the nurse pulled down the diaper they had given him, showing off a stretch a skin over his tiny hips—skin that should have been marked up black.

          Katrya looked down at her son and back up at the nurse. Without glancing at her other sons, she barked, “Children, out.”

          “What?”

          “But Mom—”

          “I wanna stay with Mickey!”

          “Wait in the hall!” Katrya shouted. The kids grumbled amongst themselves but obediently slunk outside. Katrya waited for the door to shut behind them before turning back to the trio of nurses around her bedside, all watching her with mixed degrees of fear and pity.

          “He has no Words?” Katrya whispered. “How is that possible?”

          The blonde nurse shrugged, and the third one of them, a stout, chubby man, said, “It’s rare, but possible. No one knows why.” He eyed her then, something like accusation in his eyes. “It can’t be genetic, can it?”

          Katrya glared at him and hiked up her hospital gown until her own hips were revealed. On the left side, exactly where Mickey’s words should have been on his own body, was the phrase who you looking for babyin neat little script.

          “My other children,” she cast a glance out towards the corridor outside her room, “were born with their own. My husband has his as well. Why does Mickey not have his own? He is supposed to have his soulmate’s first words to him!””

          She was shouting a little now, and the nurse who kept trying to touch Mickey raised placating hands. “Ma’am, please don’t—”

          “You don’t tell anyone about this,” Katrya warned, and then louder, before they could reply: “Kids!”

          Tony, Colin, and Iggy pushed open her hospital room door slightly and peered inside. She beckoned them closer and they gathered back around her bedside. Katrya shooed the nurses out, ignoring their protests, and settled Mickey (now sucking absently on his thumb) against her hip when she turned imperiously to her other sons. They had varying levels of horror written into their expressions as she explained the situation.

          “None of you are to tell your father about this,” she warned them fiercely. “You know how he feels about the unorthodox. Or what he feels is unorthodox.” She sighed, and swept a lock of hair out of her eyes. “He’ll only make things difficult, and god knows we don’t need things more difficult than they already are. We will pick up bandaids on our way home for our Mickey. You all help me make sure this is kept secret, you understand?”

          The boys all nodded, and Katrya sighed again before plastering a smile onto her face, dazzling and reassuring and false.

          “Now, who wants to hold their new brother first?”

 

- - -

 

          Mickey hated the first day of school. He’d hated it every year before now, and he especially hated it this year, because he was starting elementary school, and Iggy kept telling him horror stories about having to go to gym class and not having any nap time or long recesses anymore. The gym classes might have been the worst part.

          His mother stopped him in the entryway that morning after shooing his brothers and sister out the door. She knelt in front of him and started fussing immediately with his clothes—smoothing down the edges of his shirt, shifting his backpack up his shoulder.

          “Remember when you’re changing,” his mother warned him in a low voice, “to keep your bandaid tight. You change for gym classes this year, don’t you?”

          Mickey sighed, but his fingers automatically fluttered over the side of his midsection, over the patch of skin slightly paler than the rest of his stomach and constantly overlaid with a thin bandaid.

          “Yes, Ma.” He rolled his eyes. Then a thought occurred to him, and he bit his lip. His free hand clenched in the fabric of his mother’s sleeve. “What if the other kids notice?” he asked in a whisper. “Won’t the bandaid be weird?”

          His mother smiled sympathetically at him and smoothed a hand through his hair. “Dress code,” she said simply, tapping the end of his nose. He giggled and ducked away from her touch, and Katrya smiled. “Words with swears in them have to be covered up anyway. No one will notice. Dress code; you will be okay. Besides, who would dare mess with the big, bad, ferocious Mickey Milkovich?”

          Katrya raised her fists in front of her face, and Mickey copied the gesture. He threw a few punches at his mom’s forearms, and she made exaggerated explosion sounds with every hit he landed. Finally she put down her arms and grinned, reaching out to ruffle his hair.

          “You’ll be okay,” she repeated. “And if anyone tries to mess with you, you know how to fight for a reason, yes?”

          He absentmindedly rubbed at a bruise on his upper arm, but when he smiled it was wide enough that he could poke his tongue through his missing tooth hole and out between his lips.

          “Toughest man this side of the Chicago River!”

          His mother laughed, and then she said, “Alright, alright, stop stalling, Mikhailo. Time to get your tiny ass to school.”

          He pulled a face but made an about-face, and when she pushed him out the door he trotted down the front steps without too much complaint.

          Mickey didn’t bother catching up to his siblings, choosing instead to keep his backpack slung over one shoulder and his steps unnecessarily slow, and as such he was twelve minutes late to his first class and his teacher was not at all happy.

          “You’re eight years old now, Mickey,” she told him sternly when she pulled him out into the hallway. Mickey kept picking at his nails while she spoke to him, and she seemed to grow more frustrated the longer Mickey went without making eye contact. “Mickey Milkovich, are you listening to me? You’re old enough not to be pulling this kind of funny business anymore! You’re in elementary school now, and—”

          He effectively tuned out the rest of her lecture. At the end of it, she warned him to stay out in the hallway for a five minute timeout before he rejoined the class, and then she left. Mickey slid down to the floor the second she was gone, hands tight on his knees. His head was leaning back on the wall behind him, face tilted back toward the ceiling, so he did not initially notice the airborne object until it struck him in the arm, scraping at his skin.

          Mickey yelled out and clapped his hand over his arm, rubbing slightly; whatever it was clattered away from him, down the opposite direction from his attacker. His eyes were already narrowed into a glare when he whipped his head to peer down the corridor. A trio of boys were a little ways away, facing him with identical smirks and the same patted-down haircut. Mickey wanted to smack them all across their smug faces. He got to his feet.

          “You got a problem?” he spat, and crossed his arms defensively when one of the boys snickered.

          “Just wondering what the little kiddie scum is doing sitting in our hallway,” another boy said. He seemed to be sizing Mickey up, and Mickey’s lip curled in an instinctive snarl. “Don’t you know this hall is fifth grade territory?”

          “Don’t you know that I don’t care?”

          This time he had a chance to see the pencil before it struck him, point grazing his skin perfectly. The kid must have been practicing that move for forever just to get it right, but Mickey wasn’t in the mood to admire technique.

          “Knock it off before I kick your teeth in!” he shouted.

          The boy who kept throwing pencils scoffed, and his two friends snorted with laughter.

          “Oh yeah?” the boy with good aim taunted. “You gonna cry about it? Get mommy to put a bandaid on it?”

          Mickey puffed out his chest and settled his fists on his hips, knuckles digging into the bone. “Fuck you, I don’t wear bandaids,” he said in the toughest voice he possessed. That was a lie, though, because he put one on every morning and peeled one off every night, and he would be doing that slow cycle, that stick and unstick, that hide breathe hide, for the rest of his life.

          The boys just laughed, unaware of his chest panging. “Whatever, new kid. Stay out of our way and we won’t have a problem.”

          The boys moved to brush past him, but one of them caught Mickey on the shoulder when he walked by, and on instinct Mickey grabbed his arm and flung their bodies around until the boy was trapped against one of the lockers lining the hallway. He cried out, and his friends turned, and Mickey pressed his face harder into the metal. The other boys made a move towards him, but Mickey twisted the kid’s arm hard behind his back, and they stopped when he cried out.

          For a minute they were all at a standstill; Mickey watching the two boys and the two boys watching him, each sizing each other up, sneering and snarling and waiting for someone to break, and all the while the third boy whimpered meekly against the lockers. Finally, Mickey snorted and let the kid go, shoving him towards his friends. They looked ready to come at him, but then footsteps interrupted their battle in the form of high heels clicking on the floor, and everyone knew they were about to be intercepted by teachers. Mickey raised his eyebrows and smiled.

          “Maybe you stay out of my way if you wanna keep your noses clean and your ass foot-free,” Mickey tossed over his shoulder, and with a smirk he flipped them off and went into his classroom.

 

          Gym class was harder. Mickey tried to change where the lockers intersected in a corner, keeping his bandaged hip angled away from everyone else. None of the boys were really looking at each other, too afraid of what would be said of them if they made eye contact with a stranger for too long in here, so he managed to tug his clothes off and pull new ones on before anyone noticed anything off about his body.

          The change back was less pleasant. Sometime during the light warmup jog they’d done and the game of kickball, one of the boys had decided that they would be friends. He wasn’t the most annoying kid Mickey had ever met, and he was alright for casual gym class conversation, but when the kid insisted on leaning up near his locker and talking while they changed, Mickey’s nerves started to fray and turn inwards.

          “Look—” he began when the kid was still talking to him nonstop, his blond hair flopping in his face and even messier than Mickey’s own shaggy cut.

          The boy’s eyebrows turned down with his mouth, and he sounded a little more acidic than he had in his previous happy chatter as he supplied his name: “Simon Sullivan.”

          “Look, Sully,” Mickey forged on, “can you, like, turn around and mind your own business for a sec? I’m kinda trying to…”

          He trailed off but gestured down his body. Sully raised his eyebrows, mouth falling open, but he quickly collected himself and stepped back with a vigorous nod of his head. After a second, he blushed and turned around. Mickey muttered, “Christ, seriously,” and hastily pulled off his gym clothes and replaced them with his street ones. Sully turned back when Mickey shut his locker, and they ended up falling into step together as they exited the locker room and back into the main hall.

          “What class do you have next?” Sully asked, annoyance with Mickey’s memory lapse evidently soothed and forgotten.

          He poked his head over Mickey’s shoulder to peer at his schedule when he pulled it out, neither asking for nor receiving permission, but Mickey only pushed half-heartedly at his head and didn’t bother with a real reprimand when he continued perusing Mickey’s schedule.

          “Math,” Mickey answered, studying the paper as well. “Room 112.”

          “Me too!” Sully said, shooting Mickey a gummy smile. “Come on, let’s hurry up and get back row seats so we can play hangman without teach noticing.”

          Sully hurried his steps before he was done talking, not waiting for Mickey to join him as he sped off down the hall. Mickey found himself smiling as he continued his usual slouching pace, and he decided that the kid wasn’t so bad after all.

 

- - -

 

          Mickey wouldn’t have chosen to add Karen Jackson to his and Sully’s duo if he’d had the choice. She was loud, rude, unapologetic, and demanding—but then Sully decided that he wanted to date the pretty blonde who always laughed when he messed up in kickball, and after a few forced playdates with the pair of them, Mickey found that she was also sweet and uncertain and sarcastic and loyal, and he decided that he liked her too.

          Karen warmed to Mickey the more pleasant he was to her, and eventually they started hanging out on their own—mostly because she was in his social studies class right before the lunch period, so they usually walked down to the cafeteria together and joined the other sixth graders out by the picnic tables in the courtyard. They took an entire table to themselves, usually with Sully as well.

          Mickey was halfway through a turkey sandwich, not really listening to his friends’ conversation, when Karen suddenly asked, “Why do you wear a bandaid over your Words all the time?”

          Mickey’s head snapped up at the question, and glanced around to make sure nobody had heard her before he turned to glare.

          “How about you mind your own business?” he snapped.

          Karen’s lip curled, but before she could say anything, Sully jumped in.

          “Hey, I never noticed that.” He laughed, then threw another goldfish in his mouth and started chewing loudly, mouth still open. “What’s up with that?”

          “It’s none of your—”

          “Probably got something really sappy and embarrassing,” Sully said, grinning at Mickey, goldfish all mashed up orange in his teeth.

          He didn’t seem to notice that the other two weren’t smiling. Mickey was aggravated, but when he turned his attention to Karen to start chewing her out for her invasiveness, he was surprised that she, unlike Sully, looked mildly cowed, chewing on her lip like she wished she could take back the question now that she had seen Mickey’s face. Sully started to say something else, but Karen elbowed him hard.

          “Leave him alone,” she snapped, and Sully shut up immediately. His eyebrows pulled together, lips parted with a question on his tongue, but Karen flipped her hair over her shoulder, and without so much as glancing at Mickey’s expression of mingled surprise and relief, started talking loudly about a quiz they had had earlier in the week.

          Despite being Karen’s boyfriend, though, Sully didn’t always join them for lunch—he had other friends, which Mickey found stupid, but he didn’t altogether mind spending time with Karen alone.

          She was inquisitive, though, as well as bullheaded, which Mickey could have lived without. He expected her to drop the subject altogether after his reaction in front of Sully, but instead, she waited barely a month before bringing it up again.

          “So why do you wear a bandaid over your Words all the time?” she asked one day, when the rain was nearing torrential and all the other kids had chosen to eat lunch inside, but not the two of them. She at least had the courtesy to drop her voice to a whisper as an extra security measure, but she nevertheless posed the question as though this was a conversation they had frequently, or like the subject was one that Mickey was eager to speak on.

          Alone with her, Mickey didn’t mind the question as much for some reason, but he still didn’t answer right away. Instead he just shrugged, picking at a thread on his jeans to avoid looking her in the face. He jumped when her cold fingers pushed up the hem of his shirt.

          “Get off me!” he snapped, shoving her hand away. Karen backed up a little, startled. Mickey glared hard at her. “It’s none of your business what my Words say,” he snarled.

          She recovered quickly, regaining her usual air of indifferent superiority. “Jeez, lighten up, Milkovich. You don’t have to tell me.” She paused, glancing around the courtyard, and then added even lower: “But you should show Sully.”

          Mickey raised his eyebrows at that. “Thought we covered that Sully’s a fucking idiot that should never be shown anything, ever. Thanks for the ace advice though, dipshit.”

          Karen punched him hard on the arm. He gave a yelp that he was glad they both ignored and rubbed the spot hard.

          “What the hell was that?”

          Her eyes narrowed. He just stared at her, and after awhile her expression relaxed, though her tone was brisk when she asked, “Have you ever actually seen Sully’s Words?”

          “What? Why would I—”

          “Your best friend. You’ve never seen his Words?”

          Mickey’s brow furrowed. “I mean, I—”

          “Look at them.” Mickey was close to hitting her for continually interrupting him, but she hopped down off the table before he could, pushing her sopping hair out of her eyes. “Then show him yours; whatever’s up with yours, he could probably use the kindred spirit, don’t you think?”

          She turned and walked away before Mickey could even figure out which of his questions he wanted to sling at her first.

 

          He invited Sully out that weekend; whether he decided to show him or not, he felt safer deciding outside, away from his house where his father might see, or his mother might find out that he was considering letting an outsider in on their secret that she’d so painstakingly kept for eleven years. Instead, he led Sully away from it all, down to an abandoned parking lot where the only other living thing was a family of raccoons that dumpster dove on the other side of the lot.

          Mickey and Sully sat down in front of a wall of bricks—the side of a demolished building that was somehow still standing. Mickey didn’t look at him, tossing pebbles at the wall in front of him and refusing to so much as glance at where Sully was struggling to light them a pair of cigarettes.

          “That’s why you take the safety off your lighter,” Mickey drawled.

          The wind picked up, ruffling his hair, but he didn’t bother smoothing it back down. He had bigger worries—worries that had him chewing on the corner of his mouth as he tried to parse the best way to begin this conversation that he didn’t want to have. Just as he’d decided to change the subject and not have this conversation at all, Sully spoke before he could come up with a good distraction.

          “Karen told me you had something important to tell me.”

          He sounded offhand, but Mickey noticed him flick him a look before he returned to playing with his cigarette. He managed to light one, finally, and handed it off to Mickey before going back to toy with the other.

          “Yeah, well. Karen’s a bitch.” He tried to sound as nonchalant as possible.

          “Easy on my girlfriend,” Sully laughed. “I know you’ve got your undies all up in knots because you’ve never kissed a girl—”

          “Ay, fuck you,” Mickey said lightly. “I got bigger worries.”

          He realized too late that he’d given himself away. Sully just tucked his knees up to his chest, eyes wide and watchful—Mickey could feel them on his profile. He didn’t say anything, and Mickey sucked in hard on his cigarette, trying to suffocate himself in smoke before he had to go on. Finally, slowly, he raised his eyes to Sully’s and asked, “What do your Words say?”

          Sully’s head reared back a little, eyes widening. “I don’t—w-what?”

          Mickey stared at him steadily for a few seconds, then lowered his gaze to the blacktop. The next stream of smoke he blew out came accompanied with a few coughs that he tried to stifle. He could feel Sully’s panic coming off him in waves, his eyes fixed on Mickey’s profile, but Mickey didn’t turn, speaking instead to the knee he had propped up near his chin.

          “What do your Words say, Sully?” he asked again. “Because—I mean, Karen said you…had to tell me something about them.”

          He could tell Sully was shaking his head; his hair flopped all over his face, and Mickey could see it flying around in his periphery.

          “Karen wouldn’t,” he said, sounding stronger than warranted, like he needed to be brave for something.

          “She would if I had something to tell you back,” Mickey said quietly. Then he cleared his throat. “So come on. Show me.”

          Mickey looked up then, and Sully was watching him guardedly. Mickey couldn’t remember Sully ever watching him with so much distrust, not in any of the years since he’d first jogged up beside Mickey in gym class. They just looked at each other, and after a minute, Sully released a noisy breath and reached for the edge of his t-shirt. Mickey watched, wordless and vigilant, as Sully peeled his shirt over his head and laid back on the pavement so that his hips stretched out of his jeans and his skin smoothed out enough for Mickey to read the two little words usually hidden by his high-rises.

          you're bi

          Mickey just stared for awhile, soaking in the two little words on his friend’s hip. He released a shaky little breath. “Fuck,” he whispered eventually. “So…?”

          Sully’s lips were pressed together, his chin wobbling a little. His eyes were fixed on the sky when he said, shakily, “Yeah. Fuck right about sums it up. Don’t know if it’s a question or an accusation or what, but—I mean, I am. I think. So it’s the same either way, ain’t it?”

          Mickey flinched. His fingers twitched in his friend’s direction, but he kept them wrapped carefully around his cigarette instead of doing anything, instead of reaching out to trail his fingers over the black words on Sully’s skin—black words that made him wish he had any of his own etched into his skin, no matter what the cost. No matter how damning they were.

          They stayed like that for awhile, Sully on his back watching the clouds slink by, Mickey staring at the dilapidated wall in front of him and smoking his cigarette down to the end. No words were exchanged; Mickey couldn’t think of anything left to say, except one thing. He waited until his cigarette was just ash, stubbed it out, and flicked the end away from him.

          “You know why I wear a bandaid on mine?” he asked. His voice was too loud, startling Sully into propping himself up on his elbows, but he only turned a dead stare on his friend. “Come on, man, don’t play dumb—I know you’ve noticed.”

          Sully gave an awkward noise like he was halfway clearing his throat, and shrugged. Mickey rolled his eyes. He stole Sully’s mostly unsmoked cigarette and took another drag, steeling himself, before he passed it back to him.

          “Mine’s blank.”

          He said it in a loud gust, words rushing together, and Sully’s look of incomprehension turned horrified and curious piece by piece as Mickey’s words clicked together in his head; Mickey could see it all roiling in his expression. Sully slowly sat up, wide eyes flicking between Mickey’s face and the space over his hip, covered by bandaid and cloth. Mickey made no move to show him the strip of bare skin, to prove himself. He just watched Sully impassively while he struggled to string something intelligent together. After several attempts to speak, with Mickey making no move to assist or stop or encourage him, Sully managed,

          “Blank?”

          Mickey rolled his eyes. That was his first question, after what Mickey had just said—just a repetition of his admission.

          “Yes, blank,” he sighed irritably. “As in nothing. Nada. Nothing, no Words, not even a single Word. Blank.”

          Sully shook his head. “How is that…”

          Mickey threw his hands up; they slapped harshly against the pavement when he dropped them back down by his hips, his palms scraping roughly on the cement. “I don’t know! I guess I don’t have a soulmate, or whatever!” His tone and voice dropped, turning from irritable to worn. “Something’s fucked up about me, who could’ve guessed.”

          They lapsed back into silence. Mickey didn’t know what Sully was thinking, but a gnawing horror was growing in him. He had always known that he must not have a soulmate—known that that was the only real answer—but saying it aloud made it real. Before, he’d been open to other explanations. Now he realized that there was only ever this: Mickey Milkovich—empty, hidden, and broken.

 

          Sully had made it his new life mission to find out what went wrong with Mickey to leave him without Words. The worst part, for Mickey at least, was that he’d decided that the ideal person to team up with on this mission was Mandy.

          Mickey went home two Fridays later to find Sully in his living room, again, typing away on the family laptop with Mandy tight at his side, elbow on his shoulder as she too peered at the screen. Mickey threw his hands up in defeat.

          “Is Dad home?” he asked crossly. When met with no answer, he fished a dirty tissue off the floor and tossed it at his sister’s head. “Hey, fuckhead!”

          She looked up irritably. “What?”

          “Dad home?”

          “No, he left,” she said, already turning away from him again. “Mom’s in the kitchen, go bother her.”

          Mickey stood by the couch for another few seconds, waiting for some kind of reaction or acknowledgement or insult, but when nothing came, he made an irritated sound and pushed past them into the kitchen.

          His mom was leaning by the stove, flipping through a magazine and smoking a cigarette while the pot beside her boiled, steam bubbling near the brim. Every so often she leaned over to blow on it, make the steam simmer back down. Mickey went over to her and stood on his toes, fingers curling around the edge of the countertop for balance as he peered down at what she was making.

          “Spaghetti,” she said, smacking at his hand when he reached for the meatballs sitting on the other side of the stovetop. “Greedy hands don’t get dinner. Scoot. Isn’t your friend in the living room?”

          “Seems like he’s Mandy’s friend now, Ma,” said Mickey.

          He managed to swipe a pinch of meatball and sucked it off his fingers while looking innocently up at his mother. She rolled her eyes, shook her head, and went back to her magazine. Mickey wandered away from the stove, meandering over to the pantry and peering at their meager collection of snacks before opening the fridge and doing the same. Eventually he settled on a can of soda, and sipped at it while leaning against the counter. He was silent as he watched his mother, who was paying him no mind, and thus giving him plenty of opportunity to form his question four or five times before posing it.

          Finally he settled on, “You know what they’re doing in there?”

          He hadn’t meant to sound so solemn, and his mom looked up at his tone. She bit her lip watching him. The silence stretched on for long enough that Mickey realized he wouldn’t believe any denial she put forth, and eventually she sighed, “Yes,” like the admission pained her.

          “And you’re letting them do it?” Mickey pressed. She said nothing, and he slammed his soda down on the counter. “Goddamn it, Ma, they’re looking me up like a fucking homework problem!”

          She narrowed her eyes at him. “Well, it wasn’t me who told you to tell Sully about this, now was it?”

          Mickey groaned. “Don’t come at me with this.”

          “You get what you sow, or some shit that they say,” his mother said. She ashed her cigarette in the sink and then brandished it at him. “You don’t like it, you go fix it.” When he continued to just look at her, pained, her expression softened. She crossed the distance between them and ran the back of her hand over his temple, down his cheek, and turned it to cup his chin. “You are not broken, kokhaynna. You are difficult, and angry, and frustrated. Rightfully so—but despite this, you have me. You are a lot to handle; always have been, always will be. But I’ve got you. And through this, too.”

          He shrugged out her grip, looking down at the floor. Katrya moved back by the stove to blow on the steam again, and, with her pep talk finished, Mickey hastened out of the kitchen before she could say anything else heartfelt and uncomfortable.

          “Mickey!” his sister called excitedly as soon as he reentered the living room. “Look, we found a webpage about people without Words—”

          “—but they’re mostly single, older people,” Sully finished apologetically. “There’s no proof they don’t have soulmates, but they never found theirs. Most of them are drunks or drug addicts now—”

          Mandy kicked him hard, then looked back up at Mickey with wide, earnest eyes. “That doesn’t mean they don’t have soulmates, just that—”

          Sully interrupted her. “Not having one led them to drink, Mandy, don’t tell him that—”

          “Everyone drinks,” she snapped, “Mickey doesn’t—”

          “Mickey shouldn’t have hope if—”

          “Mickey shouldn’t be worrying yet, there’s tons of explanations—”

          The bickering got louder, and rowdier, as Mandy and Sully started yelling over each other about what they’d found out. Mickey quickly grew tired of listening to them debate about whether or not he was doomed to a life of loneliness, and he was just walking past them to slink away into his room when the front door opened and his dad and eldest two brothers came crashing into the house. Mickey turned around, wide-eyed, just as Sully slammed the laptop shut and kicked it under the couch.

          “—fucking ridiculous,” Terry was saying loudly. “Fucking weird, is what it is. Not normal at all, is it, boys?”

          Something in his brothers’ expressions looked uncomfortable, even upset. Mickey’s stomach sank.

          Tony said, “Yeah, Dad. Fucking weird.”

          “Damn right. And you know what we do with weirdos?” He paused dramatically, and when no one offered up anything more than a few weak smiles, he laughed and clapped Tony on the back. “Well, I fucking showed you, didn’t I?”

          Colin attempted a brave smile, which Mickey immediately saw through. “He deserved it, though. Gotta get me in on that sometime. Next time.”

          “Next time, yeah. Get all my boys in on it, right son?”

          This, Terry directed at Mickey. Without even knowing the topic, Mickey knew it was best to smile a grin that showed all his teeth and say, “Fucking right, Dad. Show ‘em all.”

          Terry seemed pleased; he shuffled off towards the kitchen a few moments later, asking loudly what was cooking. Colin and Tony ushered Mickey back into his room, and Mickey whistled for his cat, who was always best at comforting him; once the door was shut on them all, they each found seats around the room.

          “Dad found some guy whose Words were all scraped off. Rough-like, with a knife or something,” Colin whispered, leaning halfway off his chair so it would bring him a few inches closer to Mickey on his bed.

          “Figured it was a fag or something,” Tony added, and something else—something different than Mickey’s usual sense of dread—twisted hard in Mickey’s gut. Tony went on like he hadn’t noticed. “Why else would he do it, right? If it wasn’t some fag?”

          Mickey nodded, petting idly down his fat, ugly kitten’s back. Whatever Terry believed about soulmates, he only seemed to believe in platonic ones if the alternative didn’t leave room for straightness (although if a platonic soulmate really was same-sex, he would likely call them awful slurs anyway). Of course, that rule didn’t seem to apply between men and women. Mickey mostly kept his mouth shut when his dad went off about it; he didn’t need to give him more reasons to hate him.

          “Turns out he was just sad,” Colin said, scrunching up his nose. “His soulmate was his ex-wife—she died or something, post-divorce. Guy was real torn up about it, so he tried to get his Words removed. Well, you know how Dad feels about divorce, too—thinks it’s wrong, you know. Immoral. What’s the point of soulmates if you’re just gonna leave ‘em, right? Anyway, he started shouting all sorts of shit, about how it’s fucking weird not to want your Words, how the guy was being all unnatural. Upsetting the natural order.”

          “He beat the shit out him,” Tony said, voice hushed. He was nodding along with his own words. Mickey felt sick. He pet the cat a little more insistently, until the kitten whined in distress. “Said you should keep your Words. People without ‘em deserve to end up alone or dead.”

          A short silence fell.

          “We wanted to correct him, Mick,” Colin said earnestly, no doubt because of the look on Mickey’s face. “But, well. You know Dad—”

          “Who cares what he thinks,” Mickey interrupted. He tried to sneer, but was only moderately successful. “Shit, maybe he’s right. Maybe I’ll just fucking end up alone.”

          His brothers shared a glance. “Mickey—”

          “No, you know. That’s what I’m supposed to do, isn’t it?” He was getting louder, and he shouldn’t, not in this house, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Fucking die alone. That’s why this—that’s why I’m like this.”

          Tony and Colin seemed to have nothing to say.

          His brothers didn’t leave for over an hour after that, though they changed the subject as quickly as they could and avoided anything that might make Mickey’s chest start heaving again. The conversation turned casual, and after awhile they were just like normal brothers, lounging around and teasing each other and talking about nothing in particular. Only once they were gone did Mickey lay down on his bed and face the ceiling, and feel the ache course through him. His cat curled up on his chest, purring and nudging him in the chin until he started petting him, his heartbeat calming on its own the longer they lay there. By the time he fell into a short, fitful nap a little while later, he did know one thing: Whatever his existence was, it wasn’t going to be lonely, one way or another. He was going to do something about it. Whatever he deserved for being bad, or wrong, or abominable in his very existence—he didn’t intend to be alone.

 

 

 

 

part two: resurrection

 

          “Get the fuck up.”

          Mickey’s grunted command seemed to do nothing to rouse the man lying face-down on his bed, his head mashed into the pillows. He mumbled something in his sleep and turned the other way. Mickey threw a shoe at him. He finally startled awake, shaking his head and looking around blearily. When his gaze found Mickey’s narrowed one, Mickey set his hands on his hips and tried again:

          “Get the fuck up, dipshit. I’ve got work.”

          The man in his bed rolled over, shaggy blond hair—Jackson? Jason? Mickey had been calling him Shaggy all night in his head—working its way into his eyes at the same speed that his slow, easy smile spread across his cheeks. Mickey tapped his foot impatiently, waiting for him to acknowledge Mickey so he could continue yelling at him.

          “Hey, killer,” Shaggy finally mumbled. He sat up a little, rolling onto his back like him propped on his elbows with his legs obviously spread would be at all enticing. “Leaving already? Figured we could make out with round two…”

          “Jesus, fuck you and fuck your innuendos and fuck your kissing thing! No making out, no round two. I got work, so you gotta go.”

          The guy still didn’t move, just cocked his eyebrow at him. “After the shit you were saying last night, figured you’d be down…Come on, man, you know I’m the best you’ve ever had.”

          Mickey rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. “Holy fuck, you think you’re the first closeted asshole to waltz his way into my apartment? You’re not. Go back to your girlfriend or wife or what-the-fuck-ever and stop trying to get me to suck your dick one last time. It ain’t working. All it’s doing is pissing me off.”

          “Mikey—”

          Mickey didn’t bother correcting him, just interrupted to say, “Dude, lay in my bed one more second and I’ma start getting angry.”

          Shaggy just smirked at him like he didn’t believe him, so Mickey groped for the nearest thing on his dresser and whipped it at his head. Shaggy immediately shrieked and dove for cover while Mickey started yelling. “You don’t believe me? Fine! This is me pissed off, you dumb fuck! Get the fuck out of my apartment! You’re a bad lay, a stupid piece of shit, and a fucking asshole to boot! Get out!”

          “Jesus,” Shaggy stammered, as he finally found his way out of Mickey’s covers and into his shoes.

          Mickey hated when guys slept over. Shaggy kept casting half-lascivious and half-terrified looks over his shoulder as he hastily dressed, because some men never learned. Mickey got bored and went to get a cup of coffee while his guest got dressed more slowly than anyone in the world ever had, and didn’t bother offering him any, even though he kept creeping closer and casting longing looks at the counter where Mickey’s coffee pot was laying. Mickey just made a shooing gesture as he stirred in more sugar. Only when the door closed on Shaggy’s pouting face did Mickey get up and start to shower and dress for the day.

          His phone rang as he was stepping out the door, and he paused in locking his door to shove his cell phone up between his ear and shoulder.

          “So, tell me all about him,” his sister said as soon as he accepted her call.

          Mickey rolled his eyes and finished locking up. He didn’t answer her until he was starting off down the hall, and even then he just said, “When did we start talking about boys together, huh?”

          “Since you drunk dialed me at two a.m. saying you wanted to make bets on how bad the guy you were bringing home would be in the sack, dipshit.” Mandy laughed. “So, come on. Who’s paying up?”

          “What’d I bet?” Mickey asked, barreling down the stairs of his apartment complex. He really was running a little late.

          “Nuh-uh, I’m not telling until you rate him.”

          “If I rate him first you’ll just lie your way into the cash, bitch!”

          Mandy scoffed. “Ugh, fine. Don’t tell me. You definitely owe me twenty bucks, though.”

          “You wish.”

          Mickey shouldered his way out onto the street and Mandy cleared her throat, gearing up to harass Mickey about something else, no doubt. When she spoke, though, her voice was lower and harder than expected.

          “You’re coming over later for the wedding prep, right? I swear to god, if you leave me here alone with Sully and Aaron, I’m gonna blow my fucking brains out before I ever get to walk down the aisle.” He laughed, and she huffed out, “Mickey! You promise me right now!”

          “Alright, alright,” he said, rolling his eyes, “calm your surgically enhanced tits, bitch.”

          Mandy made an irritated noise. “Fuck you and your dick-taking ass, Mick. The only surgery I’ve had is for broken bones and shit. God, I hope your ass fucking aches, shitdick. I’ma make you stand and walk around all goddamned day.”

          “Aaron would never let that happen,” Mickey scoffed. “He wishes he could score the dick I do.”

          “God, you’re awful,” Mandy whined. “Don’t talk about my fiancé like that.”

          “Don’t get on me about the ass I get then!”

          Mandy made an irritated sound, but dropped the argument. “Jesus, just show up by four, okay? I know you don’t get off ‘til three so fucking hustle, you got me?”

          “Yeah, yeah. I hear you nagging me, Ma.”

          “I could never nag like Mom did,” Mandy said. “Just show by four. I’ll see you later?”

          “Yeah, you’ll see me later. Have fun doing your girly wedding shit.”

          “Have fun doing your weird post-sex waddle.”

          “Fuck you!” Mickey said, and hung up his phone. He refused to believe he waddled after sex, although the slight dip to his knees betrayed him as he set off in a fast walk to his work.

 

          Sully was waiting for him when he pulled up to his sister’s house that afternoon. He waved incessantly until Mickey parked, climbed out of his car, and waved back in acknowledgement, and even then Sully stood by until Mickey sauntered up to him. Mickey made small talk about Sully’s latest girlfriend as they made their way to Mandy’s front door. They were halfway up the front walk when the door opened.

          “Heya, boys,” Karen called, waggling her fingers and smiling dangerously at them. “Hey, Mickey. Heard you got some quality ass last night!”

          “Hey Karen,” he yelled back, “since you’ve already boned every guy in town, how about you just go fuck yourself?”

          Karen just laughed, turning around and falling into step with the two of them as they caught up to her. “Hilarious, coming from the city’s sluttiest power bottom. What was that, boy number fifty-seven this month?”

          “Boy number four, and it’s already almost August, for fuck’s sake,” Mickey said scathingly. “Don’t exaggerate, Jackson. Holier-than-thou ain’t a pretty color on you.”

          “Weird. Being a man-whore sure is a pretty color on you.” She dodged the punch he threw at her arm and laughed, turning to Sully instead. “Don’t you think he has that just-got-laid glow?”

          Sully laughed. “Oh, don’t piss him off, blondie. Heard he had to kick Dick Number Fifty-Seven out of his apartment this morning; prick practically tried to move in.”

          Mickey groaned as the two of them chortled and put their heads together, no doubt formulating more teases to direct at him.

          “God, I’m never telling either of you anything ever again.”

          They’d reached the front door; Karen stuck out her tongue and reached out to knock on Mandy’s door, and as they waited Sully said, “Don’t lie, Milkovich, and don’t treat us bad. Other than your sister, we’re all you’ve got.”

          Mandy opened the door at that moment. As she ushered them through into the house that her rich boyfriend was fully paying for, with no apparent cost to her conscious, she said, “They’re right, you know. You’ve got a stick up your ass and no amount of jamming certain other sticks up your ass will solve it.”

          Mickey pushed past all of them, heading straight for the kitchen to raid his sister’s fridge. “Only four this month!” he shouted, flipping them all off over his shoulder when they started to laugh. “You can all go fuck yourselves!”

 

          His sister’s wedding was tomorrow and he was in charge of a million things and instead of sleeping, or getting ready, or complaining to her for the hundredth time for making him in charge of her dress and shoes, Mickey went clubbing.

          “Why the fuck did you drag me with you?” Iggy asked when Mickey returned to their table with another round of tequila sunrises. “Mandy’s gonna cut both our dicks off if we’re not set for tomorrow, and I actually use mine!”

          Mickey swung around to throw a punch at his brother. Iggy dodged the brunt of it, but he still caught a decently hard suckerpunch to the stomach.

          “Fuck off, shithead. You’re helping your favorite brother get laid before his sister’s tied to her fucking soulmate for the rest of her life. Which, in case you’ve forgotten, I don’t actually have. So shut up, be a good wingman, and help remind me why I don’t want Words in the first place!”

          “So I’m helping you forget that you’re gonna die alone, got it,” Iggy said cheerfully. He dodged the second punch that Mickey threw at him and stuck out his tongue like a petulant toddler. “Don’t hate on me, brother! So Mandy’s marrying her soulmate and you’re still boning closeted strangers in a gay club. Don’t you think I’m the one suffering, being in a fucking gay club and all? You’re not even old enough to be in here!”

          “No, I don’t!” Mickey snapped. “Will you shut up and stop thinking with your dick long enough to help me? Jesus, you won’t find your soulmate in here, so shut the fuck up and be a decent brother for once!” Iggy muttered something obscene and started sipping on his drink, and Mickey added, “Christ, I knew I should have brought Colin. And my twenty-first is in eight months, so re-fucking-lax and be cool.”

          Iggy sat up straighter. “Hey!” he protested, apparently ignoring everything else Mickey had said. “I’m a good wingman!”

          He was wound up too tight to play nice. “Then prove it, shit for brains!”

          Iggy slouched low in his seat, still muttering profanities and insults, but his eyes were searching the club—presumably for suitable candidates—so Mickey was momentarily mollified enough to turn his attention away from his brother and out towards the dance floor. Iggy pointed out a guy here and there, but Mickey vetoed them all until eventually his eyes snagged on a suitable candidate.

          The guy was tall, not as slim as Mickey liked but close enough, with hair dark enough to flash all the colors of the club’s lights as the strobe lights pulsed in time with the music. Mickey watched him move alone to the fast pop beat until the man’s scanning eyes caught his. Mickey arched his eyebrow, the guy jerked his head, and the next minute Mickey was clapping his brother on the back, slapping another ten on the table for him to pick up the next round of drinks, and following the guy he’d seen out down the nearest hallway.

          The corridor was empty when Mickey ventured down it; he followed it all the way through—peeked into the bathroom it passed, to no avail—and out around a corner that was empty except for the occasional passing staff member and the guy Mickey had seen earlier.

          The man’s eyes lit up when he saw Mickey, as well as his smile. “Charles,” he said, eyes scanning obviously over Mickey’s body. “You in for what I think you’re in for?”

          Mickey resisted making fun of the guy—and he could think of about fifty different ways to do so—and instead pressed closer to him, crowding him back against the wall. “Mickey,” he introduced himself back. “How about we skip the small talk and do what we came for?”

 

          Charles was a fast fuck. He obviously hadn’t gotten laid in awhile, which explained the visit to a gay club on a Thursday night, and he was obviously closeted (most of Mickey’s fucks were) because he got way too into having a dick in his mouth when he went to his knees, the way guys who did it frequently never were. Mickey used his excitement to get them both off, then ignored Charles trying to discreetly hint at exchanging numbers and walked back out the way he came to have another round of drinks with his brother before they both went home to prepare for Mandy’s big day.

          Mickey made it halfway through the dance floor—trying to push his way through a bunch of drunk and high dancing clubgoers proved both difficult and monumentally irritating—and could spot glimpses of his and his brother’s table through the crowd. Seeing an end to this pressing, throbbing, loud mess of people, Mickey zeroed in on his destination instead of his surroundings as he continued to push forward. He made it another three steps before crashing hard into someone shoving their way in his direction.

          He was only saved from falling flat on his ass by the hand that shot out and wrapped around his wrist. Mickey grabbed automatically back and managed to get a fist wrapped hard in the guy’s t-shirt before he was hauled back to his feet.

          “Jeez!” Mickey yelled, pulling out of the stranger’s grip. He looked down and brushed himself off. “Fucking watch it, asshole!”

          He looked up when he received no response, half expecting the other guy to have gone already, but he was still there. His bright red head was cocked, examining Mickey as he shouted, but he didn’t say anything, nor did he seem embarrassed to be caught studying him. He didn’t seem scared either, just oddly curious. He was staring at Mickey in a mix of shock and disbelief and a strange partial smile. The silence stretched and the man (boy, really—Mickey didn’t think he could be more than eighteen) did not seem inclined to break it, even when Mickey’s glare broke and faded into question and confusion.

          “Uh, okay,” Mickey said, momentarily nonplussed with the lack of response but forging ahead anyway and trying to stay aggressive, even though he knew his tone lacked bite. “Well, if you wanna get the fuck out of my way, I need another drink, so…”

          The silence he was met with—again—was starting to annoy him, and the guy still wasn’t moving aside for him. He just ran his green eyes over Mickey’s face and said nothing, a tiny smile playing at his lips. After a few seconds, Mickey scoffed, bored with this, and made to shove past him, but before he could another man materialized by the first guy’s side, once more blocking Mickey’s exit.

          The new guy looked between Mickey and the red-haired boy and said, snidely, “He harassing you, Ian?”

          Without taking his eyes off of Mickey, the silent one slowly shook his head. Mickey’s eyebrows crept up towards his hair.

          The new boy seemed not to believe him, or else he just liked being a dick, because he turned to Mickey and said, “You harassing him, huh? Think that’s funny or something, you stupid dumb fuck?”

          Before Mickey could garner an appropriately irritated rejoinder, the redhead—Ian—put his hand on the pitbull-like one’s arm and shook his head with more purpose when he turned to look at him.

          “Ian—” he implored.

          Ian just shook his head harder.

          Mickey watched the exchange, and snorted. “Tell your boyfriend to use his fucking words, fuck. He simple or something?”

          “My brother,” the curly-haired asshole sneered, back on the defense as he whipped back around to look at Mickey—this time with his brother wearing a matching glare, “is perfectly fucking fine, fuck you very much. Mind your own fucking business. I’m taking him out for a good night and we don’t need shitheads like you fucking it up for him, got it? Not when he gets that every fucking day at work. So back the fuck off, meathead.”

          “Hey, keep that finger out of my face if you want to keep it. We ain’t got a problem here.” The brothers before him raised their eyebrows in unison, the talkative one crossing his arms as they regarded him with twin disbelief. Mickey threw up his hands and then shoved his way roughly in between the two. As he headed back to his table, he called over his shoulder, “Fine, what the fuck ever! And keep your prick brother on a leash, Red! Fuck!”

          Mickey didn’t glance back to see a reaction, but he distinctly heard the smug one snap, “Don’t laugh at his shitty comebacks!” and smirked as he made his way back to his table. Charles aside, Mickey felt better already.

 

          Mandy’s wedding was beautiful; she was beautiful.

          Mickey managed to stay awake through the two hour ceremony and ignore his hangover all the way to the reception, without even doing anything stupid, although after hugging his sister and congratulating her, he was given permission to get inappropriately shitfaced, and he did not pass up the opportunity. He set up camp near the bar and did not leave until Mandy waved at them all from out her window in the car, a JUST MARRIED sign affixed to the back that provided Mickey with a great parting view as he finished off the last of the champagne.

          “Alright, that’s enough for you, killer,” Tony laughed as he grabbed the nearly-empty bottle from out of Mickey’s hands. He finished off the bottle, ignoring Mickey’s protests entirely, and called their brothers over to help him hail a cab.

          “I hate weddings,” Mickey huffed as Iggy and Colin stuffed him into the backseat of the taxi. “Fucking…I…fucking hate weddings.”

          “We know you do, little bro,” said Iggy, far too cheerful as he handed the cabbie a wad of bills that would likely just cover his fare. “Puke it all up before you come for breakfast tomorrow, ‘kay?”

          “See ya, Mick,” Colin said, grinning at him through the window. As the cabbie peeled away from the curb, he called, “Best hangover cure is calling me to help polish off your weed!”

          The cabbie snorting alerted Mickey more fully to his presence. He looked around to take in the intersection at which they were stopped, then swayed forward towards the front seat.

          “Forget what those assholes told you,” he said severely. He rattled off a new address instead, ignored the raised eyebrows he got in return, and leaned back into his seat with a final, “I’ll buy you a drink if you make it there before I throw up.”

          The driver laughed. “I’ll charge you a drink if you throw up in my backseat, James Dean.”

 

          Mickey ended up buying the cabbie a drink and telling him to keep the extra fare, since he was a good sport and it was his brother’s money. He saluted Mickey before wandering off down the street—presumably to a club that was more his speed, since Mickey didn’t see him return to his cab.

          This club was different than the one he’d attended last night; the music was quieter, throbbing low instead instead of pulsing through his chest, and he could actually hear most of the chatter around him if he tuned through the general buzz for specifics. A few groups of men and boys were dancing a bit closer to the speakers, but Mickey stayed across the room at the bar, and though the music was loud in his ears, he could easily hear the bartender every time he leaned over to ask if Mickey wanted another.

          His phone was flashing 11:16 and three missed calls from Colin, presumably to find out if he’d passed out in a gutter on his way home, when he slammed his third club drink, now empty, down on the bartop. The bartender had just poured him another and turned away when he felt a warm body slide into the stool beside his. Mickey, still undecided about whether or not he wanted to take somebody home, raised his eyebrows in a semi-threatening manner and turned around.

          Even through his champagne and screwdriver haze, Mickey recognized him immediately.

          “Hey,” he said, eyes flicking between the boy’s round ones and his raised eyebrows, “you’re the kid from last night, aren’t you? Ian, right?”

          Ian smiled, apparently pleased that Mickey remembered him, and nodded vigorously. He didn’t say anything, though, but he did make a gesture at Mickey’s drink. Mickey was about to tell him to fuck off and buy his own when he heard the bartender say, “Sure thing, Ian. By the way, it’s good to see you again—been a few weeks. Busy with the new job?”

          Ian shrugged, and Mickey watched on silently, nursing his drink and completely lost on the conversation before him. The bartender smiled and poured them both a glass of vodka and orange juice, and said, “Well, keep your head up, Ian. First few weeks are bound to be hard. Hey, take it easy, okay?” When Ian nodded, the bartender flashed another smile and turned away to take care of another customer.

          Mickey smirked over at Ian once he had regained his attention.

          “You a drunk or just used to be a barkeep, huh?” he asked.

          Ian just blinked at him. Mickey waved a hand in front of his face.

          “Yo, Raggedy Ann. You too drunk to communicate already? Should I call you a cab?”

          Mickey’s voice was climbing higher as worry that he might have to nurse this potentially vomiting stranger back to health in the backseat of a cab—maybe even take him home, if Ian wasn’t coherent enough to spit out an address—when Ian suddenly rolled his eyes, a grin stretching his lips. Mickey raised his eyebrows, and Ian made a gesture like he was trying to silently get the bartender’s attention and, when that failed, he pulled a phone from his jacket pocket and started typing.

          Mickey, though not generally annoyed by strangers ignoring him, felt a little put off by Ian’s blatant disregard. He tapped Ian on the shoulder and was halfway through an angry, “Hey, who do you—” when Ian held up a finger directly in his face without looking up from his typing. Mickey huffed but sat back anyway, sipping at his drink and glaring over the counter at the rows of glasses stacked on the walls.

          He automatically looked up when he felt Ian’s finger tapping him on the back, even though he was still a little miffed. Ian brandished his phone at him, watching him with undisguised amusement when Mickey squinted at the screen, fingers tipping the back up towards his eyes without actually taking the phone out of Ian’s hand.

          The unaddressed text box that Ian had opened up said only three words:

          I’m mute. Dumbass.

          Mickey looked up into Ian’s face. When Ian took the phone away and tucked it back into his pocket, he was smiling. Mickey still hadn’t thought of anything to say when Ian turned back to look at him, expectation written all over his face.

          “So.” Mickey scrubbed a hand through his hair and breathed a tiny, self-conscious laugh. “Fuck, I feel like a fucking jackass. Mickey, by the way. Resident asshole.”

          Ian’s eyes scrunched up as his lips turned up and parted; Mickey thought, mostly because of the breathy exhale he gave, that Ian might have been laughing. Mickey had to laugh too. Eventually, they both calmed, and Ian gave him a thumbs up that Mickey assumed meant something along the lines of reassurance that his behavior wasn’t unforgivably terrible or rude.

          “Get that a lot, huh?” Mickey asked. Ian spread his hands and shrugged. “Yeah, probably hear worse shit from the assholes around here, huh? Entitled little pricks come into these clubs, think we’re all for sale and they can pick up who they want. Don’t like being rejected. Bet they like being ignored even less.”

          Ian grinned and nodded around a long gulp of his screwdriver.

          “Oh my god, you like it!” Mickey accused. Ian snorted and flipped him off. “You little shit. You love pissing them off, don’t you?”

          He gave a little crooked nod of his head. Can’t argue, Mickey assumed was the message.

          Mickey shook his head. “Guess I can’t blame you,” he admitted. “If I were you, I’d fuck ‘em all up if they tried to screw with me. Head games work just as well I guess.”

          Ian didn’t say anything, as though he’d never spoken, or maybe he just couldn’t be bothered to mime at Mickey anymore. After a beat Mickey fell silent, going back to taking scattered sips of his screwdriver, until he noticed Ian staring at him out of the corner of his eye. When he turned his head, Ian was watching him with his head tilted, lips a little parted—as though Mickey was a fascinating creature on display, like Ian was about to search for the little plaque that could explain everything about him.

          “What?”

          Ian shrugged again. Mickey shrugged back in response, and Ian’s eyes and lips and breath did that laughing thing again. Ian didn’t elaborate in any way, and Mickey wasn’t sure how to make him—it felt wrong to even try—so they fell back into companionable silence until the bartender came back over and offered them more vodka. Mickey shook his head. He pushed his finger around the rim of his glass, bit his lip, then made a decision and pushed his glass across the counter.

          “Can I get jack with that instead?”

          The bartender cast him a baffled and mildly repulsed look, but put his bottle down and picked up a different handle. “One Jack Daniels and orange juice, coming right up.”

 

          Mickey had gone to the bathroom shortly after that drink, only to return and find that Ian had disappeared somewhere. He hadn’t seen him since. He went out to a few different clubs in the ensuing week, spurred further into the club scene by his sister’s recent marriage than he generally was otherwise, and brought home a couple other guys. He didn’t really think about the quiet boy he’d met twice until he showed up at the same club a week later and there he was sitting at the bar.

          A different bartender was working, though Ian seemed to know her too. She was talking to him when she wasn’t serving customers and Ian was signing back, and she seemed to understand what he was saying because every time he did, she would either respond or throw her head back and laugh. Ian was mid-story when Mickey crossed the room and threw himself into the stool beside him.

          “Fancy seeing you here.”

          Ian looked annoyed at the interruption until he saw Mickey, and the irritation melted off into a wide, bright smile. Ian signed something else at the bartender and she poured another drink and pushed it across to Mickey. Mickey tipped the glass at Ian in thanks before throwing it back, and sliding it back for a refill.

          “So,” he said, nursing his second drink and sliding his eyes over Ian—he looked lightly sweaty, his hair pushed back and the color high in his cheeks. Mickey raised his eyebrows. “What’s got you all hot and bothered? Quick jerk in the bathroom?”

          Ian rolled his eyes and jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the dance floor. Mickey nodded thoughtfully.

          “Sounds fun,” he said as seriously as possible, but then he broke out laughing. “I’m fucking with you, God. Good to see you again. I forgot how fucking easy it is to rile you up.”

          Ian gave him a look like he wanted to stick his tongue out, but refrained and dug around in his pocket instead. Mickey waited until Ian was done typing up his message and was waving his phone at him before he looked back at him.

          You hate dancing?

          “All those old sweaty dudes trying to grind on me? Yeah, sounds real fun.”

          Ian tipped his head thoughtfully, watching him. Mickey gazed back steadily, and after a second Ian looked down at his phone again and showed him the message after a few seconds:

          YOU wanna dance with me?

          Mickey snorted and shoved Ian’s wrist, ignoring his smirk entirely. “I don’t dance.”

          Ian turned imploring eyes on him. He held the phone up again.

          “I don’t dance, Bambi. Shit, what about me made you take a look and think, ‘yeah, he gets down’?”

          Ian laughed his soundless, breathy laugh but did put down his phone on the sticky bartop this time. After a second, in which Mickey could see Ian casting glances out of the corner of his eye, Ian picked it up again, typed something out, and slid the phone over to Mickey. It was opened to a new contact screen, and under the lines for his name, Ian had written For convenience.

          Mickey snorted. “Convenience my ass,” he scoffed, but he picked up the phone anyway and typed out his number. At least Ian could text him now instead of opening up new note pages every time. He told him that, and a second later his phone buzzed.

          Whatever you say. Seen you three times in two weeks. I know you want up on this.

          Ian was grinning when Mickey looked up. Mickey gave him a thoughtful once-over, and when he got back to his face, Ian’s amusement had faded into something more focused and intense. Instead of saying anything to Ian, Mickey turned back the right way in his seat and called for the bartender.

          “One more drink for Ian here,” he said. He could feel Ian’s eyes on him again but didn’t turn until his drink had been poured and pushed in front of him, and when he was sure Ian was otherwise preoccupied with it, he turned to study him.

          He certainly looked good, face flushed from dancing and drinking, hair wild in an attractively careless way. The glass pushed on his bottom lip as he took a drink, and Mickey’s mind started to wander when he watched his throat work when he swallowed.

          Mickey immediately made up his mind about taking him home tonight. Maybe Ian had been joking, but Mickey wasn’t anymore.

          He licked his lips a little when Ian finished off his drink in one go, head thrown back as he chugged the last of it. He gave Mickey a goofy smile and scrubbed the back of his hand over his mouth to wipe away the stray drops on his chin. Now that he had decided to try and take Ian home, Mickey was more mesmerized by his newly reddened lips than he had been the other times he’d seen him. He shook himself out of it and forced his gaze back up to his eyes. God, he hadn’t even had that much to drink.

          His phone vibrated with another new text from Ian.

          So what’s got you going out to the clubs so much?

          Mickey shot Ian an unimpressed look as he set his phone down on his lap. “Could ask you the same question,” he said, elbowing Ian lightly in the arm. Ian swatted back at him. “Nah. My…well, I guess ‘cause my sister got married a couple weeks ago. Great, it’s good! I’m real happy for her, she’s…she deserves it. Just, you know…weddings.” He waved his hand around like the very air in the club encompassed the feeling of being a permanent bachelor. Maybe it did; Ian nodded like he understood. “My brother’s thinking about getting engaged soon too, and my other brother has a pregnant wife. Iggy’s still single, but it’s still…” He waved his hand again. He’s still gay. He’s still Wordsless. It’s still all fucked up. Ian, however, just nodded some more. “Anyway, the drinks are good, cheap—” he raked his eyes more obviously over Ian this time and added, “—and there are other perks…”

          Ian watched him for a moment, and Mickey bit his lip. Ian was either about to walk away or indulge him; he could really only wait.

          A second later Ian turned away and rapped his knuckles on the bar to get the bartender’s attention. Mickey hesitated, unsure whether he should leave or not, but then Ian was signing something at the bartender and the woman said, “Yeah, gimme a sec—” and returned less than a minute later. Ian handed over his credit card, but he was watching Mickey like he was studying him again, this time like he was trying to figure out how to break him open and inspect him himself, from the inside out.

          The bartender got his attention away from Ian when she said, wryly, “I assume you want to close your tab too?”

          Mickey flipped her off but handed over his card also. The bartender and Ian both laughed, but then Mickey had his credit card back and Ian was following him out of the club and he didn’t really care what some stranger thought about it, even if that stranger was tonight’s bedmate’s friend.

          Ian kept to himself while Mickey called for a cab. Mickey tried to keep conversation while they waited, telling him a story about when Colin’s pants got stolen in the locker room and all four of them accompanied their boxer-wearing brother around beating the shit out of kids until he got them back, but Ian obviously wasn’t contributing much other than nodding a lot and touching his arm every time he took a breath, and Mickey quickly ran out of things to say. Ian didn’t seem to mind the silence between them. He had managed to sidle up close enough that their arms were pressed together where they stood, and Mickey wasn’t stopping him.

          The cab finally pulled up. Ian climbed in first, and Mickey got another text when he sat down and closed the door behind them. He gave the cabbie his address as he pulled his phone out, then settled back into his seat for the drive.

          How far’s the place?

          He felt Ian’s hand slip over his thigh while he read his text, but ignored the slow slide of his hand up and down even after he looked up, as though he hadn’t even noticed.

          “Ten minutes, fifteen tops,” he said.

          Ian nodded; he too wasn’t acknowledging his hand on Mickey’s thigh, still inching up and up and up. Ian was barely doing anything, but his hand was creeping further up between his legs and Mickey was getting hotter, even when Ian turned his head away towards the window and seemed to be focused on watching the city crawl by.

          “You know,” Mickey breathed, harder than he wanted, when two of Ian’s fingers brushed so close to his zipper that Mickey fought to keep still in his seat, “I hate a lot of shit in this world, but I don’t hate anything as much as I hate being teased.”

          The smile Ian turned on him was blinding, and he recognized the now-familiar heavy breath indicative of Ian chuckling. Mickey raised an eyebrow meaningfully, and Ian pressed closer, their thighs aligning beside each other as his hand slipped up to cup him obviously through his jeans. He pressed lightly, rubbed a little—nothing that made Mickey do anything but want to shove Ian down in the backseat of their cab and grind down on him, tease him like he was teasing Mickey.

          A protest had formed on Mickey’s lips when Ian suddenly closed the distance between them, leaned in and bit at the edge of his jaw. His lips trailed down towards his neck, kissing lightly as his hand tightened on Mickey’s jeans. His mouth trailed back up, towards Mickey’s chin.

          “I don’t kiss,” Mickey said.

          Ian didn’t seem to hear him, but either way he stopped tracking kisses towards his mouth and started back down his throat, nipping and sucking lightly here and there, not hard enough to bruise or mark—and as Mickey tipped his head back to allow it, Ian started palming at him even more, a slow, even movement, a ghost of what he might be doing if his hands were actually in his pants. Mickey groaned low in his throat and canted his hips up a little, searching for something more. He could feel Ian’s head shaking, even tucked against his neck as it was. He didn’t stop, didn’t speed up, didn’t do anything.

          Frustrated now, Mickey pulled away from Ian entirely and pushed him backwards so he was trapped against the back of the seat, and Mickey slung a leg over his lap to straddle him. Ian stared up at him, eyes wide and hungry, fingers digging in hard to his hips when Mickey grabbed his shoulders and started to move, grinding down on him.

          Ian nodded his head past him towards the driver, question clear in his eyes, but Mickey just smirked and grinded harder against him. Ian jerked his thumb more insistently at the cabbie, who—despite the screen being rolled up between the seats—could likely still see them.

          “I’ll stop if you want me to,” Mickey said, right as he gave a particularly forceful roll of his hips that had Ian thrusting up hard against him. Mickey took that as clearance to continue, especially when Ian closed his eyes and tipped his head back, and dragged him even closer with one hand squeezing his ass and the other on his hip. His fingers wound through Mickey’s belt loops, effectively keeping him from going too far.

          Mickey took one of his hands off Ian’s shoulder so that he could run it over his chest, his arms, down towards his waist before sweeping back up again. Ian was watching him hungrily, and Mickey just smirked until Ian found his rhythm and matched it, started rutting up on him as Mickey ground down, and for awhile it was just them moving together and flushed skin and hot panting and groping everywhere they could reach.

          Mickey rolled off of him when the cab slowed to a stop outside of his apartment complex, and he crushed a handful of bills into the driver’s hand through the partition before climbing out of the cab, Ian close behind. Ian looked in a hurry, glancing over at Mickey every few seconds like he wasn’t moving quickly enough towards the building for his taste, and as soon as they were safely ensconced in an empty elevator Ian was on him again. Mickey shifted his knees apart when Ian pressed him up against the back wall, pulling him close between his legs and tipping his head back in a moan when Ian rolled his hips against Mickey’s insistently, teeth grazing along his collarbone.

          “Fuck,” Mickey sighed, right as the elevator chimed that they had hit his floor. He stumbled out into the hallway, Ian following behind. Ian pressed up against him as he struggled to unlock his door, breath hot on his neck where his mouth hovered, hands busy on the front of Mickey’s jeans again. Ian had barely gotten his zipper undone when Mickey finally unlocked the door and they fell through together.

          Ian pressed him up against the door as soon as it was shut, already tugging at his shirt, working again at his jeans while Mickey yanked his shirt up and over his head. Mickey worked Ian out of his shirt too, but it barely cleared his head before Ian was pressed up against him, chest to chest, fingers slipping beneath his waistband. Mickey choked off his own moan at the first brush of Ian’s fingers on him, but tugged him closer as Ian started to stroke him off. Mickey barely noticed Ian’s face in his neck, lips on his throat, the hickey he had better not be leaving if he knew what was good for him. None of it registered between Ian’s body heat against his and his hand on his dick.

          “Bedroom,” Mickey managed, even though he belied his own request by sliding his hands over Ian’s back, down to his ass, and squeezing. Ian’s free hand ran up his chest in response, thumb sliding over his nipple, drawing another tiny groan. He tried again, gasping “bedroom” so low he wasn’t entirely sure it would register.

          This time Ian pulled away from his neck, eyes intently studying his face. Then he abruptly pulled away. Mickey barely got out one word of protest before Ian was walking away, throwing him a look over his shoulder that had Mickey getting his head together long enough to push off the wall and follow after. He pulled ahead, leading the way to his bedroom.

          “Strip,” he demanded as soon as the door was shut behind them—a habit ingrained in him from childhood despite him not having roommates now.

          Ian complied, but not fast enough, and as soon as Mickey tossed off his jeans he crossed to where Ian was standing beside his bed and helped to divest him of the rest of his clothing. Ian was already bare-chested, so Mickey dropped to his knees to drag Ian’s jeans down to the floor, and once Ian stepped out of them, Mickey couldn’t resist—he leaned in, and Ian’s skin was hot where his lips met his inner thighs, mouthing up along them until he got to where his cock was obvious in his boxers. Ian was looking down at him with his mouth partially open, and Mickey licked his lips once before tugging his boxers down his thighs. He felt Ian’s fingers slip into his hair right before he took him into his mouth.

          Ian was loud in his sighs and his panting and the way he pulled Mickey’s hair, hard, the way he liked it. Mickey pressed his nails into the backs of Ian’s thighs, pulled him closer, sucked him in deeper. He didn’t stop until Ian was panting in shallow breaths, eyes closed, head tipped upwards, and when Mickey did pull off, Ian turned an irritated gaze down at him. His hands, still anchored hard in Mickey’s hair, didn’t let him go far.

          “Relax,” Mickey half-laughed, a little out of breath himself. He gently disentangled himself from Ian’s hold and got to his feet, pressing close enough that Ian wrapped his hands back in his hair and pressed his face into his neck. “Didn’t want you to come too early, wanna get to the good part first.”

          At that, Ian pulled back. The look he gave him was indiscernible, but Mickey thought that the tiny smile tugging at Ian’s lips probably meant that he was about to be in for a really good time.

          Ian twisted them around and shoved Mickey down on his bed. He let out a little breathless laugh when his back hit the mattress, and let Ian divest him of his boxers, and pulled him down to join him when he scooted back towards the headboard.

          “Come on, Ian,” he groaned, because Ian’s body was covering him again and it wasn’t enough, there wasn’t enough of Ian touching him or inside him and Mickey’s patience was wearing too thin.

          Ian was grinding down on his ass, and it was all new levels of amazing—Mickey’d had that cock in his mouth, he knew exactly what he was in for and he could feel his own heart thumping for it—but at his prompting, Ian sat up between his legs, cocked his head to the side. He made a gesture at Mickey’s ass that Mickey’s muddled head needed a moment to process, and even still, it should have been embarrassing but wasn’t, not when he was this riled up. Ian made the gesture again, more impatiently, and Mickey finally caught on and twisted around to grope around in his bedside table for lube and a condom.

          Mickey turned around while Ian fiddled with the lube cap, getting a good grip on the slats in his headboard. Ian’s hands were warm when they slid back over his skin after a moment’s pause, flat palms across his back and down his ass, palming him apart before sliding a slick finger inside him. Mickey’s back bowed automatically, fucking himself back, and a low groan tore slowly out of him, pure pleasure. He wanted to twist around and look at Ian while he stretched him, but as he was piecing the thought together in his head, Ian slid in a second finger and Mickey forgot everything but enjoying the pure desire shooting down his spine, because Ian’s fingers were long and practiced and Mickey was pretty sure he had just found heaven, in Ian’s practiced hands.

          Mickey was torn between letting Ian finger him forever and getting to the actual fucking; he decided to say nothing and let Ian do whatever made him happy, because Mickey was good either way. Ian, apparently under the impression that Mickey maybe didn’t get laid more often than any normal man with the safety of a soulmate would, kept at it for another couple of minutes before he finally pulled away. Mickey was already panting, and when he folded his arms beneath him and pressed his forehead to them, he felt the beginnings of sweat beading his hairline and didn’t care at all.

          He could hear the tearing of a condom packet and tried to stay patient, lifting his head and clenching his hands back around the headboard bars so tightly that his knuckles blanched paler. Ian didn’t make him wait very long; either sensing or sharing his impatience, Ian was back on him quickly, and Mickey only had to wait a few seconds of Ian’s hands on him before Ian was pushing inside him. He let out a long moan, rocking forward and back on him until he could feel Ian’s hips against his ass.

          Mickey managed only a mangled curse before Ian started moving, grinding against him, thrusting hard into him. Mickey didn’t care what the neighbors heard and Ian seemed to like it when he shouted out—every noise seemed to spur him on harder, faster. When he hit his prostate with a particularly good thrust, Mickey buried his face in the crook of his elbow and bit down hard on the skin beneath his teeth, definitely leaving marks. Suddenly Ian’s fingers were gripping hard into his bicep, easing his arm away his face. Mickey complied but ducked his head down towards his chest, away from Ian’s face. Ian seemed satisfied with the moans and sighs now falling freely from his lips, even if they couldn’t see each other’s faces; he wrapped his hands around Mickey’s hips and used the leverage to pull him back more forcefully on his cock than Mickey was already going, and Mickey bit his lip hard.

          “Ian,” he gasped.

          Nothing changed behind him; Ian pounded into him hard as ever, rhythm never stuttering or slowing. Mickey twisted his head halfway to the side, catching his eye as he repeated his name, still not as strongly as he wanted. This time, Ian’s nails dugs into his waist, and Mickey knew he had his attention.

          “Touch me,” he breathed.

          One of Ian’s hands disappeared from his hips and slid around his waist instead. Ian’s fingers, light and wandering, caught briefly on the bandaid over Mickey’s hip (constantly present, and always going to be, but Ian’s curiosity made him flare angry in ways he wasn’t about his situation, not anymore), and he could feel Ian pause behind him, his whole body going still. Not in the mood to answer to him, or to anyone, Mickey gripped the headboard tighter and thrust back with more force, close to the edge and trying to make up for the loss of most of Ian’s momentum. Ian got the hint and started thrusting hard into him again, and his—large, soft—hand wrapped around his cock, stroking firm and fast. Mickey grinded up into his hand and back on his cock, over and over, getting the rhythm on both even and enthusiastic as he teetered closer and closer to the finish. He worked his hips and ass as best as he knew how, wanting Ian to fall over with him or shortly thereafter—he already knew he was going to be exhausted when this was over.

          Ian stroked him hard, fast, tight, and all the while hit his prostate hard again and again. Mickey could tell he was being ridiculously loud but didn’t—couldn’t—care, and he came soon after Ian started touching him, crying out his name like it was torn from his chest. He managed to keep himself upright, but he was still panting heavily when the stutter and halt of Ian’s hips started, and Ian came as well.

          They fell together, Mickey having to elbow Ian roughly off of him when his crushing weight didn’t immediately abate. Ian huffed like he was winded when he flipped onto his back on the other half of Mickey’s double mattress. Mickey raised an eyebrow over at him but said nothing, preferring to let them both catch their breaths in peace. This—these precious moments right after semi-anonymous sex ended. These were the only moments Mickey felt like he could finally rest.

          His guard was back up as soon as his lungs were comfortable, and he propped himself up on his elbows to look down at Ian on the other half of his bed.

          “So, uh…” he started, just to trail off meaningfully.

          Ian wiped his hands over his face but nodded, pointing at his watch. Mickey had to glance over at the clock on his bedside table to read the time—it wasn’t too late, only half past ten—and Mickey assumed he wanted to stay until he had to catch a specific train or something, but then Ian was tapping out on his phone again and holding it up for Mickey to read the screen.

          Sister gets off work around the block in an hour. Mind if I stay while I wait?

          Mickey shrugged. He swiveled so he could sit on the edge of the bed and start pulling on a pair of sweatpants from off the floor as he said, without looking over his shoulder at his temporary guest, “Sure, whatever. Want coffee or something before you go?”

          He glanced back for an answer and caught Ian nodding. Mickey bounced off the bed to his feet, said, “Great, be ready in ten. You can wash up in there if you want,” and pointed out the door and down towards the bathroom at the end of the hallway.

          Ian didn’t immediately follow when Mickey headed for the kitchen, and he heard the sink faucet running after a minute, so he got the coffee pot brewing in silence and without having to worry about entertaining someone, which he neither excelled at nor enjoyed.

          Thankfully, Ian didn’t seem to expect much from him when he returned, now with the rest of his clothing back on him. He sat at the counter and looked around Mickey’s meager, undecorated kitchen corner, back to the other rest of the room, which was dominated by the living room. He tapped his fingers against Mickey’s counter and didn’t seem to want Mickey to say anything, but he did anyway.

          “You know, you keep staring like that and I’ma start thinking you have a problem with me,” Mickey said as he passed a mug of coffee across the counter. Ian just tilted his head slightly to the side, eyebrows furrowing. Mickey elaborated, mainly by waving his hand around towards Ian’s face. “That fucking face, what is that? Why you always look like you’re studying me or something?”

          To his slight annoyance, Ian’s expression cleared right up, clouds disappearing into a tiny smile like he was trying not to grin, or to laugh. Ultimately, Ian just shrugged and turned his eyes down, sipping his coffee like he couldn’t feel Mickey’s glare boring holes in his head.

          “That’s fucking infuriating,” Mickey muttered, turning away. “Sure, the mute kid can’t fucking explain why he’s being a weirdo all of a sudden.” He whipped around and pinned Ian with another glare, and this time Ian met his eyes, though he still looked amused. “You’re a fucking dick,” Mickey accused.

          Ian started laughing. Mickey wanted to smack him, but he settled on huffing irritably and turning his back on him again. He wanted to cross his arms, but that made it hard to sip his coffee, so he gripped the counter tight where it dug into the spot right where his lower back met his waist, and said nothing, and drank his coffee.

          Ian grabbed his wrist when they had both put their cups down and Mickey had thrown them in the sink to be dealt with later. Though dubious, Mickey’s brief irritation had dissipated, so he allowed Ian to lead him to his couch, where he proceeded to flip through pictures on his phone and show them to Mickey. They weren’t of people, but of objects, at which Mickey sometimes had to squint to recognize: Movie stubs with the edges curling from age; an arm that didn’t look like Ian’s, though similarly pale and freckled, with hypnotic taking over me scrawled up its entirety; unwrapped presents on a shabby floor; concert tickets from what seemed to be mediocre bands at lame lawn shows. It was nothing special, and Mickey barely understood what Ian was trying to tell him with it all, but he sat there the whole time anyway, until Ian looked up with a smile and closed his phone and sat staring expectantly at him until Mickey, mostly to fill the silence, started telling him a story about the scar he got on his shoulder from crashing a sled into a tree when he was eight.

          When Ian left at a quarter past eleven, with a wave and a small touch to Mickey’s arm, Mickey went to brush his teeth and collapsed immediately into his bed. He was tired and everything ached the way his muscles usually did after a workout, no matter what type; for some reason, though, he ended up staying up for awhile, closed eyes facing towards his dark ceiling and a strange song stuck in his head. He didn’t realize it was Hypnotic until he was almost asleep.

 

          Sometimes Mickey really hated his best friends. He had woken up to his still-buzzing phone, vibrating violently with text upon text in the group message chat he regretted daily that he had let Karen set up between him and Sully. They had plans to get breakfast together, had invited Mandy along, and were (according to Karen’s numerous and graphic death threats) not going to allow him to back out no matter how good an excuse he conjured. After a quick check of his clock to confirm that he only had forty-five minutes to meet them at their chosen diner, Mickey quietly admitted defeat and went to take a quick but thorough shower. God forbid he show up to meet his friends smelling of sex; they would never let him live down another one night stand, they spent too much time making fun of his taste in men (“Pickings are slim among the willing,” Mickey always snapped. “Stop choosing such grimy boys,” they always chorused.) to let him live this down peacefully.

          Of course, Mickey was halfway through shaving when he noticed a dark hickey on his neck and wanted to immediately throttle Ian dead. Twice.

          Instead of risking being later than he was already running, Mickey waited until he was dressed and out the door before pulling out his phone to send Ian angry texts about the state of his neck.

          Ian, the unsympathetic bastard, offered only cheery emojis in response to Mickey cursing him out, and Mickey felt no more mollified when he arrived at their usual breakfast nook than he had when he’d left his apartment. He spotted the trio awaiting him within a minute’s scan of the patio tables, and made his way over with his teeth clenched, prepared for the worst.

          Hailed by hellos and too-cheerful smiles, his friends didn’t immediately notice the darkened spot on his neck. Karen was halfway through a story about a threesome she’d had last week with a particularly adventurous pair of soulmates when Mickey sat down, and she continued like his arrival hadn’t interrupted her.

          “So he has her leg halfway up her chest and I’m just trying to figure out a way to get someone’s mouth on me, and—”

          “Karen, no offence,” Mandy interrupted impatiently, ignoring the lip that curled in her direction, “but didn’t you say you had news?”

          Her scowl immediately disappeared, and Karen actually blushed. Mickey, not yet caffeinated enough to communicate in more than curses and grunts at this point in the morning, raised his eyebrows at her. Sully was watching her with his mouth ajar, apparently also new to this development, but Mandy just waved her hand around and flipped her hair over her shoulder.

          “Come on!” Mandy prompted. “You can’t tell me this was your first threesome? That’s not news, that’s just surprising.”

          “No,” Karen snapped. Then she bit her lip. “I think…” She took a deep breath, and the rest came out in a rush: “I think they’re both my soulmates.”

          Mandy dropped the little spoon for her latte, Sully was full on gaping now, and Mickey managed to croak out, “What?

          “Is that even possible?” Sully asked, finding his voice with Mickey’s.

          Karen nodded vigorously. “I mean, it makes sense, right?”

          “No!” Sully said. “You only have one phrase, how can it be two people? Did they say it at the same time or something?”

          “No.” Karen’s voice dropped down to a hush, and she leaned forward like she was about to divulge a serious secret. Mickey rolled his eyes are her dramatics, but the others joined her eagerly. “They finished each other’s sentence. So like, they each said half. Tom was like, So you must be our— and Angela gave him this look and cuts him off, and goes, —beautiful angel that Natasha knows? Obnoxious, I know, but skip over that, we already knew it would be—anyway, I’m freaking out of course, so they ask if I’m cool and I say, How the absolute flying fuck is that possible? and they just share this super intense look, and then we’re all jumping and hugging—”

          “That’s fucking crazy,” Mandy said. She had picked up her spoon again and was stirring her latte lazily, wrapped up in Karen’s story. “I didn’t know that was even possible.”

          Karen shrugged. Sully, meanwhile, pouted, crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair.

          “That’s fucking cheating,” he corrected Mandy, tipping his head in her direction. “I’m bi too—where are my two hot soulmates?”

          Karen snorted. “They’re up your ass, Simon Sullivan.” He flipped her off, and she stuck out her tongue before turning back to Mandy. “But yeah, I didn’t know it was possible either! Turns out they have two sets of Words each, isn’t that weird? One for me and one for each other.”

          “Shit. Well, congrats,” said Mandy.

          “Yeah, fuck,” Mickey said, finally leaning forward a little to properly join the conversation. “Congratulations, Karen, seriously. That’s fucking…well, fantastic.”

          “It’s better than fantastic,” Sully said solemnly, clasping the hand Karen had on the table between his own. “This is really, really great, K.”

          Karen just nodded, apparently at a loss for words. Mickey smiled a little at her; she looked awed, and more happy than Mickey had ever seen her. She shined with it. Belonging was a powerful thing, he supposed.

          “It is, isn’t it?” she asked, bashful now. Then she pulled her hand free, clasping both on her lap and staring down at them. “But it’s still complicated…I don’t know. I mean, they’re together, you know? And we didn’t really…talk about it much. Just the crazy flex sex.”

          “So what are you guys gonna do?”

          Karen shrugged, but she looked less dejected and she spread her hands back over the table in front of her. “Keep messing around for a bit, I guess,” she said, mouth twisted to the side. “I mean, it was good, so why not? Then we gotta figure some stuff out eventually. But for now…” Her smile turned feral.

          “Flex sex?” Sully guessed, nose wrinkling a little.

          Karen smirked, and her answer was directed at them all: “Wouldn’t you?”

          Sully just shook his head exasperatedly; Mickey rolled his eyes. Mandy pressed her tongue to her cheek like she was thinking, but Mickey knew that look—knew she was just gearing up to be an asshole.

          “As the only one at this party with a standard set of Words, I really couldn’t say,” Mandy said, tone unwavering. Mickey waited for the punchline: “See, I’m normal.”

          “Hey!” the other three all shouted, and Mickey and Karen both punched her on the arm.

          Mandy was laughing. “All right, back down, you pit bulls. I’m just kid—holy fucking shit Mickey, is that a hickey?”

          The other two whipped around to stare at him, gazes zeroing in the spot on his neck right as he clapped a hand over the offending area.

          “Shut up!”

          Mandy and Karen were too busy laughing to say anything just yet, but Mickey was positive that their twin cruel heads were spinning. Sully found his voice first.

          “Shit, Mick, didn’t realize it was serious!”

          “Shut up,” he snapped again, this time directly at his best friend. “God, you’re all assholes.”

          “We’re just surprised!” Mandy choked out through her laughter. Karen, still in loudly vocal hysterics, just nodded vigorously. Mandy added, “You never let them leave marks!”

          Sully whistled. “You go big boy, brag about that dick!”

          Mickey was seething, face hot. Karen, not at all cowed, sobered enough to let out a cheer and shout, “Let everyone know you got some real quality ass, Mickey! Sully’s right—that shit’s a badge of honor!”

          “The fuck are you talking about?”

          “They were good enough you let them mark you up,” Mandy pointed out through her grin. “Aww, my big brother’s fallen in love. Did you let him kiss you?”

          Sully clasped his hands over his heart and swooned theatrically. The girls fell into yet another fit of laughter, and Mickey stood up abruptly from the table just as the waiter walked over.

          “You can all go fuck yourselves! I’m getting my coffee and croissant to go and you can foot the bill, you assholes.”

          Karen reached to snag his sleeve before he could storm off. “Aw, don’t go yet!” she said. Her wide, innocent, pleading eyes were offset by the wicked grin she was still sporting. “We’re just teasing you, god. You’re so fucking sensitive.”

          “Yeah, come on. Tell us all about it.” Sully patted the table in front of Mickey’s chair.

          Mickey glared at them all, turning to them one by one to make sure they were serious about being less unbearable about it. None of them had entirely ceased laughing, but they seemed prepared to swallow most of their teasing, so Mickey carefully sat back down. Nobody spoke for a beat.

          “So…” Mandy started. “How bad’s your ass hurt, big bro?”

          The table burst into laughter again. Mickey sat back, staring up at the umbrella shading their table and trying to tune them all out. He crossed his arms, making sure to tuck the right one close to his chest so they wouldn’t also discover the bite mark he had left on his own inner arm. God, he fucking hated his friends.

 

          Ian texted him two days later right as Mickey was getting off work. Just five words: Had fun. Wanna go again?

          Instead of taking his customary route home, Mickey asked for an address and set off down a different street than usual.

          He arrived a little over half an hour after Ian had texted him, but he didn’t seem to mind Mickey’s promptness, nor the fact that he was still wearing the black button down and dark jeans he had thrown on for work. Ian was all smiles when he let Mickey into his apartment, stepping back so he could enter. Mickey stepped around him, taking in the clustered living room before him, the doors leading off it, one of which had to house Ian’s bedroom. Ian must have noticed him searching for it, because he was grinning when he stepped in front of Mickey and gestured for him to follow.

          “I don’t usually make house calls,” Mickey drawled as he fell into step behind Ian. “But as long as you’re still bringing your A Game, I’ll roll with it.”

          Ian shook his head like Mickey was being ridiculous, which he was, but still; Ian didn’t know him. He pushed open one of the doors and Mickey stepped inside as well, shutting it behind him before taking a look around. His eyes alighted on something on the bedside table, and he raised an eyebrow over at Ian.

          “Do your worst, but you’re not using that,” he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. Ian leaned around him, spotted the Aloe Vera lotion he’d left out, and broke out in a grin. “I don’t even break out my handcuffs ‘til I’m comfy, man. You ain’t fucking spanking me, no fucking way.”

          Ian rolled his eyes and strolled over to the bed, picked up the offending bottle, and shoved it haphazardly into one of the drawers in his bedside table, which was piled high with textbooks. Mickey didn’t have much more chance to look around; and he couldn’t help but smile too when Ian gestured him over, and pulled him in by the hips as soon as he was close.

          Mickey usually invited boys back to his place or fucked them at whatever club or bar he’d decided to attend that day. Ian, though—his bed was comfy, his apartment was slightly bigger, and he seemed to have an endless supply of warming lube. Mickey didn’t mind being there with him.

 

          Ian got into a habit of texting Mickey. Mickey wasn’t sure exactly when they had become people who texted each other during daylight hours, but he was slightly mollified by the knowledge that they generally only messaged each other to confirm plans for later or inform one another that they’d left a jacket or a belt or a sock.

          Mickey was sitting outside on a lunch break one day, two of his coworkers a few feet away but talking amongst themselves instead of trying to rope him into a conversation for once, when his phone vibrated against his hip and he put his sandwich down to pull it out. He was surprised but not upset to see Ian’s name on the screen, and he swiped to read the message, sure that it was sex-related and prepared to make plans to meet up later. He was kind of craving a good night, and this was easy.

          He was therefore unprepared to see that the picture attached was of Ian and, in his arms, a fluffy puppy. The dog was licking his scrunched up face, and beneath it Ian had written, do i steal my sister-in-law’s dog or DO I STEAL MY SISTER-IN-LAW’S DOG??

          Mickey huffed a laugh despite himself. He quickly swiped his hands along his pants a few times, freeing them of crumbs, before picking his phone back up.

          i’m NOT bailing you out if u get arrested for dog theft

          Ian sent back another picture less than a minute later, this time with the puppy—which was mildly reminiscent of a miniature bear cub—scratching its ear while Ian’s face barely made it in frame to kiss the side of his fluffy head. With the picture he said, PLEASE!!

          Mickey rolled his eyes. leave the gd dog

          Ian’s message came in seconds later.

          :(( i and the puppy are both disappointed in u

          Mickey shook his head. He glanced at the clock, and saw that he only had another three minutes to finish his food and head back to work. After a second’s hesitation, Mickey wrote back, ok send me more dog pics and then switched off his ringer and shoved his phone back into his pocket to keep from getting distracted again. He finished off the rest of his sandwich and going back to work, and he didn’t even check his phone again until he was walking home later that afternoon. If he smiled a little at the text string while he did—and if it wasn’t entirely because of the dog—then he at least didn’t text Ian back about it.

 

          Mickey, for all his usual habits of one-night-stands, found that he didn’t entirely mind seeing Ian again and again, although they did mostly spend their face-to-face time together fucking in one way or another anyway.

          For his part, Ian developed a horrible pattern of sexting Mickey while he was at work. By now, one look at Ian’s name on his phone screen and Mickey immediately put it face down and went back to work, because there was no way he was getting through the day productively if he was busy thinking about Ian’s dick waiting for him later. Instead, he opened the text as soon as he got off the clock and immediately wanted to murder Ian anyway.

          Just two texts: the first, a message with a picture attached. A picture of his dick, actually, hard and in his hand, with the message underneath: come over soon or i’ll take care of this w/o you. The second sent an hour later, this time of Ian’s face. He was sucking cum off of one of his fingers, and the message beneath just read: got bored waiting.

          Mickey growled low in his throat and immediately texted back: gonna kick ur ass. i’ll be over in twenty, you’d better be ready still.

          He set off on a brisk walk down the road to Ian’s. His phone vibrated barely five minutes later, just a winky face emoji from Ian, and Mickey’s urge to throttle him intensified. He sped up.

          He got to Ian’s a few minutes earlier than usual and pressed inside as soon as Ian opened the door for him, pushing Ian back until he hit the couch and toppled over the back of it. He landed flatly on the cushions on the other side. Mickey walked around the armrest and slid on top of him before he could move, leaning forwards to pin his wrists.

          “You’re such an asshole, you know that?” he growled, their faces inches apart.

          Ian was still beaming at him. Mickey sat back a little, felt Ian’s cock slowly hardening on his ass, and smirked as he watched his smile falter. Mickey moved his hips a little, just enough to get Ian to lose his smug demeanor.

          “So fucking self-satisfied,” Mickey said lowly, and with that, he started to grind down on him a little rougher, and with a little more purpose. Ian had almost entirely stopped smiling now. “So fucking sure of yourself…and such a fucking tease…”

          Ian struggled to free one of his hands as Mickey rubbed back on him, rolling his hips back the way he would if he were slowly riding him, and Ian was fully hard in no time. Mickey chuckled darkly but finally allowed him to pull one of his hands out from under Mickey’s, keeping one wrist pinned but letting the other wander. Ian went immediately for his ass, squeezing at the same time as he pulled him down further on him, matching it to the upwards roll of his hips.

          Both of their breathing was getting shallower, and Mickey pushed his free hand up Ian’s shirt, thumbing at his nipples because he knew it made his back arch, and this time was no different; Ian’s lips parted, and his eyes fluttered shut until he regained control of himself and dropped back to the couch. He kept licking his lips looking up at him. Mickey didn’t want him to stop groping him, stop touching him, so he tore his own shirt off so Ian wouldn’t have to when he noticed him eying the buttons on his work shirt.

          “Rushed over from work for this,” Mickey said, and he meant it to sound irritated but it came out as more of a sigh. “Fucking ridiculous…because you have no fucking patience…just a lot of time between classes…”

          Ian huffed his laugh at that, even breathier than usual because he was busy feeling up his ass with one hand and clenching the other over and over where it was still trapped in Mickey’s grip. Mickey released that one too so he could properly map out Ian’s chest and abs with both hands, and Ian got a firmer grip on his ass, rutting up on him, squeezing hard enough to hurt if Mickey had room in his head at the moment for any concept except for Ian’s cock.

          Mickey needed two deep breaths before he convinced himself to get off of Ian, but he only managed one step off the couch before Ian grabbed his wrist and pulled him back down, managing to roll them in the tiny space so Ian was on top of him. The look in his eyes made it very clear that Mickey was not allowed to go anywhere.

          “Just wanted to get your clothes off,” Mickey panted, though now that Ian was on top of him he made no move to further that goal, just ran his hands up the sides of his thighs to grab his ass and stared undeviatingly at his hard-on, lined up right in Mickey’s line of vision.

          Ian shook his head, but Mickey didn’t possess the mental capacities to figure out what he meant at the moment—his head was too fogged up with Ian. He just nodded, ready to agree to literally anything at the moment, and reached to push down the sweats that Ian had on. Ian stood to take them off, and Mickey couldn’t even be upset that Ian had just gotten frustrated when he’d tried to do the same, because watching Ian strip was quickly becoming one of his favorite pastimes nowadays. Ian undid and pulled off Mickey’s jeans quickly, then clamored back on top of him as soon as they were both naked.

          Mickey paused, fingers trailing up Ian’s hipbones. His lips parted, and he stared after every inch of skin he touched until he got to the space on Ian’s hip, right over where Ian’s Words would be, but it was empty. Mickey touched it, light, curious—he was sure he had seen Ian’s Words before. He hadn’t read them then, had just noticed them in passing, how they were on Ian’s skin the way they weren’t on his. He traced his finger along his hip slowly and when he pulled his finger away, he noticed a sheen of pale over his index finger. Makeup.

          He didn’t know if Ian had a soulmate he was cheating on, or a soulmate he was waiting for. All he knew was that he was suddenly very aware that Ian had someone waiting for him, and it wasn’t him. Couldn’t be. The knowledge that this was just fucking between them recemented itself in Mickey’s head, firm and sure and suffocating.

          He recovered quickly; he’d known that, and it didn’t really matter. They weren’t anything. Sure, he was on Ian’s couch and naked beneath him and the only thing separating all their skin was a bandaid and poorly smeared cover up, but that meant nothing. This meant nothing.

          Mickey abruptly pulled his hand away and struggled to turn over in the confines of Ian’s legs. He managed it after a brief moment, pushing his ass up against him.

          “Come on,” he muttered. “You gonna fuck me or are we just gonna take a nap on this fucking couch?”

          Ian’s hands were hesitant where they touched his hips. Mickey didn’t have to turn around to know the expression on Ian’s face, and he had no interest in seeing it in person.

          Ian tried to fuck him slow, but Mickey made sure he took it hard. Rough. The way boys like him were meant to take it. He kept his face hidden the whole time and only stayed for one beer before he left to go home.

          Alone.

 

          The knowledge that Ian was only his for a few fleeting moments only hurt for about a day before Mickey went back to his usual routine. Go to work, have sex with Ian at one of their apartments, hang out for an hour before they parted ways.

          He had just finished riding Ian into his bed when he wandered out of his bedroom to get a beer from the fridge. He spotted a pack of cigarettes laying by the couch and abruptly changed his mind about going back into his room. Instead, he went over to his window and leaned out, lighting up with one of the lighters he always left on the sill to stop from smoking directly in the apartment, which inevitably led to a highly unpleasant conversation with his landlord and, once, an accidental triggering of the fire alarm.

          Mickey watched the smoke unfurl out into the air, obscuring the pavement for a second before it dissipated. He finished his whole cigarette like that, watching the people milling about below and thinking quietly. When he finally stubbed it out, he flicked the end out the window and turned around, only to find Ian sprawled out on his couch finishing off Mickey’s beer.

          “Shit, didn’t hear you come out,” Mickey said. He headed past him to get a new beer from the fridge, then thought better of it and grabbed two. He passed one to Ian when he sat down beside him, and they knocked the necks of them together before taking simultaneous large swigs.

          “You know, you’re not the worst to have over,” Mickey mused. Ian cocked an eyebrow at the unexpected comment but didn’t stop Mickey from elaborating. “No awkward conversation, no pretending I give a shit about your stupid fucking family vacation. Definitely not the worst fuckbuddy I’ve ever had.”

          For some ridiculous, inexplicable reason, Ian smiled. He smiled so wide Mickey seriously worried about the state of his cheeks when he was done.

          Mickey knocked his shoulder lightly to Ian’s, barely pushing him. “God, you’re so easy,” he said.

          Ian just shrugged and spread his free hand, agreeing.

          “Probably good you can’t talk,” he mused. “I’d fucking hate you. You seem like you’d never shut the fuck up.”

          Ian punched him hard on the arm, and Mickey laughed as he rubbed the spot. Ian didn’t look particularly offended when Mickey glanced at him, so he didn’t bother stifling his chuckles as he calmed down. Ian did flip him off though, and look away, out towards the window Mickey had been staring through.

          “Oh, don’t be such a baby.” Mickey rolled his eyes and leaned in, their arms and legs aligning. “I’m kidding. Just saying, you’re easy to hang out with.”

          Ian looked over at him with an odd twist to his mouth, apparently deliberating. After a few seconds of watching Mickey waggle his eyebrows in his best attempt at looking cute, Ian gave in, rolling his eyes and smiling. Satisfied, Mickey settled further back into the couch and took another few sips of his beer.

          He finished before Ian did, which he joked heavily about, and slammed Ian’s empty bottle down on his coffee table as soon he was done. They were both laughing when Mickey tackled him onto his back and started making his way down his body towards his dick for another round. After all, that’s what they were both there for.

 

          Mickey called up Karen one night—he planned on calling Sully before realizing with a thick surge of self-hatred that he needed boy advice, and she was the only other one of their group of friends to rival Mickey in terms of number of boys taken home.

          “Got your favorite maple swirl ice cream if it’s a good night,” Karen said in lieu of a greeting when she elbowed her way into his apartment later that evening, just over an hour from when he had called. She held up one of her arms, both of which had bags on them, then gestured with the other. “Chocolate ice cream if it’s a bad one. Pick your sweet tooth, Captain Tight Ass.”

          “Damn right, and that’s what they love me for.” They shared identical lewd smirks, and then Mickey added, “Choc in the freezer, I think. Should be okay. You brought caramel?”

          “Did I bring caramel syrup,” Karen snorted, kicking the door shut finally and shoving past him towards his kitchen counter. “I’m wounded. You’d think I didn’t know you.”

          She set her bags down and started preparing two bowls of ice cream, finishing them both off with heaps and heaps of syrup, until both their desserts were drowning in it. Mickey didn’t say much, picking fingerfuls of ice cream here and there until Karen wedged spoons into both bowls and passed him one, and they went to sit on the couch. Mickey sprawled out like he always did, legs spread wide and facing the television, but Karen cozied up with her legs crossed, facing him with her eyes trained on his face. She didn’t say anything as he gathered his thoughts to begin, her eyebrows raising steadily as the silence stretched on and on and Mickey continued to come up blank.

          “Don’t you want to talk about your love triangle or something?” he sighed eventually.

          “It’s polyamory, not a triangle, dickface. And no, I’ll keep you up all night with the details; this is about you. So, come on. Give it to me.”

          “Jeez, you sound like my ex.”

          “No, I sound like me. And you don’t have any exes. Fuckbuddies don’t count,” she said loudly before he could protest, “no matter how long you fucked them.”

          Mickey rolled his eyes but said nothing. He sank back further on the couch, eating ice cream and pondering, reaching for an explanation that would satisfy her for making the visit.

          “Alright,” Karen sighed finally when Mickey just kept continuing to struggle, “start from the beginning. What made you first decide to call me? No offense, but you rarely want ice cream nights, despite how fun they are.”

          Mickey rolled his head to the side to give her a disbelieving look, but she just sat up straighter and eyed him expectantly. Mickey blew out a noisy breath, and finally began.

          “Alright, so we’re in bed, right—”

          “Wait, you and Ian?”

          “No, me and the other guy I’ve been fucking on the reg. Yes, me and Ian.”

          “Alright, so you’re in bed. Whose bed?”

          “Jesus, does it really matter? Can I finish please?”

          “Alright, shit. Don’t get mad at me.”

          He narrowed his eyes at her again, but only for a second before he went on. “So anyway, we’re in bed. His bed, yes, shit, if you interrupt me again to ask I’ll kick your ass. Anyway, he spends like half an hour trying to mime at me that he wants a pizza or something, and it’s getting seriously pathetic, right? I don’t know why he doesn’t just write it down like usual, but he’s trying to mime for a pizza. What the fuck, right? Then he sees that I have no idea what the fuck he’s talking about, so he starts making these seriously messed up sex gestures.”

          Karen snorted, trying to reign her laughter in. “How the fuck do you make a messed up sex gesture?”

          Mickey threw his hands up. “I don’t know, that’s what I’m saying! All I know is that I’m like, ‘Dude, I can’t possibly bend that way.’ And he just starts fucking laughing, like—”

          “How does a mute person laugh?” Karen asked.

          Mickey shrugged and went on, glossing over the question instead of answering. Ian’s laugh was hard to explain.

          “So I’m like, bitch, you gotta write shit out. Or keep texting me like usual. I can’t do this weird mime shit—” he waved his hands around wildly, an exaggeration of Ian’s more controlled but still ridiculous movements, “—anymore, it’s so fucking confusing. And he gets frustrated? Like, I thought he was gonna kick me out. It was fucking weird.”

          Karen spooned a large bite of ice cream into her mouth, nodding thoughtfully. She swallowed hard before she said, “So what happened?”

          Mickey shrugged. “I grabbed his dick before it could get weird and started round three.”

          Karen just stared at him for a moment before she burst into laughter. She was wild, kicking her feet and throwing her head back and threatening to spill her ice cream all over Mickey’s rug every time she rocked sideways. Mickey rolled his eyes and aggressively shoveled ice cream into his mouth until she was done.

          “God, you care about him!” she accused, shouting it in her excitement.

          He shoved her hard in the shoulder. “Fuck off, I do not!”

          “You let him give you a hickey,” she reminded him. “You never let them mark you up. You’re so bad at being a slut it’s not even funny.”

          Mickey was halfway to seething. “So what do I do?” he said through his teeth, enunciating carefully in his anger.

          “Isn’t it obvious, you big dope?” she said, a little calmer, and leaned over to punch him in the arm. “He’s been working so hard to talk to you for what? Weeks now! Over a month of this kid, this poor kid who’s already so fucked being attracted to you and all, and he’s writing shit down and texting all the time!”

          Mickey waited for the punchline. “Okay,” he said, annoyed when she didn’t elaborate. “So what do I do?”

          Karen spread her arms, giving him a condescending look. Mickey felt irrationally stupid under that expression, and he immediately glowered at her, even as she said with that amazing mix of superiority and certainty that only Karen could ever achieve, “Duh, you idiot! You gotta communicate with him.”

          Mickey reared back. “Oh fuck me, that’s your big advice? I’ve been communicating with him, fuckface! It’s called talking! Shit, he’s mute—he’s not deaf!”

          “No, numbnuts, he’s not. But you’re a fucking imbecile if you think he’s not sick of making all the effort.”

          Mickey lowered his bowl into his lap, forgetting the ice cream completely as her peered over at her, sitting there like she had all the answers to the universe.

          “So what do I do?” he asked again.

          Karen shrugged. “Make the effort.”

 

          Mickey was rifling through Ian’s music collection when he heard a muffled noise coming from the other room, like someone slapping hard at a cushion. He recognized Ian’s version of calling for him and picked out something at random, clutching it and stalking out of the room.

          “Jesus, this is pathetic,” Mickey sighed, wandering back into Ian’s living room in only his boxers and brandishing a CD case at him. “The school pays for your fucking apartment because of disability benefits—ain’t shitty taste in a music count as a disability too? They should be stocking up your shelves with classic hits, man, not offering you an endless supply of hot water. This is…inhumane.”

          Ian snatched the CD out of his hand and glared at him from the couch. Mickey just smiled lazily and sprawled out next to him. He didn’t know sign language, but he understood the middle finger thrown his way loud and clear.

          Mickey had been coming to Ian’s more and more over the weeks since the first time—he lived closer to Mickey’s work, and it wasn’t hard to go over and get laid before heading back home for the night. Other than the shit music Ian always played, it wasn’t the worst place he’d ever been.

          “Fuck,” Mickey sighed. He stretched his arms over his head, back cracking pleasantly, and closed his eyes as he settled back into the couch. “I’m fucking beat, man. How have you not shown me that thing with your hips before?”

          He cracked one eye open to check for a reaction, and found that Ian was smirking now. He shrugged, though, like he didn’t know what Mickey was talking about. Mickey snorted. He closed his eyes again and resettled against the back of the couch.

          “You know, I was talking to my shit friend the other day—she thinks you should teach me sign language or something. Make shit easier, you know?” At the complete silence on Ian’s end, Mickey pressed his lips together before going on, making a joke out of it now. “That way you can still tell me you’re into it since I’ve yet to make you scream.”

          When Mickey chanced another glance at him, Ian was watching him with an eyebrow raised. He seemed to study him for a moment before snorting and turning his face away completely. Mickey frowned, but didn’t press the issue.

          “You got beer?” he asked, and before Ian could even look at him again he rocked up to his feet and went to go raid the fridge on the other side of the room.

          He came back with two bottles, uncapped them both with his back teeth, and passed one over to Ian. Ian was watching him—watching his mouth, more like, and smiling slightly. Mickey knew that always looked impressive; he preened a little at the blatant attraction in Ian’s gaze, and decided to change the subject before things could get awkward again.

          “So you—”

          Ian shoved a phone in his face before he could get any further. Mickey jerked back a little, startled, before automatically grasping the phone in front of him. He looked over at Ian and then back at the phone.

          I wanna teach you.

          “You for real?”

          Ian nodded, then gestured to Mickey, eyebrow raised. Asking the question back at him.

          Mickey nodded too. Ian’s face was splitting into a slow smile; Mickey couldn’t look away. After a few seconds he managed it, settling back on the couch and sipping his beer, the attempt awkward around his smile.

          “Hope you don’t got a teacher fetish or anything, Gallagher. I ain’t roleplaying that shit, no matter what kind of tie you wear.”

          He didn’t look over immediately to see if his joke had landed. He didn’t need to; he could hear Ian’s quiet but distinctive version of laughter, bubbling up steadily beside him.

          They went back to silence, and later went back to Ian’s bedroom. Mickey spent the whole time he was on top of him wondering what it would be like to finally give Ian some of the control.

 

          Ian didn’t bring up the sign language thing for weeks; if Mickey didn’t notice the little crease of annoyance in his brow that grew steadily deeper every time he had to text something instead of signing, he might have begun to wonder if Ian hadn’t forgotten it completely. Instead of talking about it, they met up, they fucked, they hung out for a bit, and then they went home. Mickey felt good—he felt better than he had in awhile. He felt comfortable.

 

          When Ian’s usual delivery place closed down, he didn’t seem to know what to do. The website kept bringing up error messages and he stubbornly held the phone out to Mickey until he called the place twice, trying to figure out what was going on. The only other fast food chain that delivered to Ian’s apartment was a Papa John’s, but Ian made a horribly disgusted face when Mickey suggested it, and he quickly backed out of that suggestion.

          “So what then?” he demanded. “I’m fucking starving, Ian. You promised me Chinese!”

          Ian rolled his eyes, turned around, and left the room. Mickey wasn’t sure if he was supposed to follow or not but before he came to a decision either way, Ian reappeared and thrust a brochure out at him. It was a menu for what seemed to be some obscure steakhouse Mickey had never heard of, probably some local business or other. Mickey scanned the whole menu before looking up at Ian, at a loss.

          “This place doesn’t deliver,” he said. He showed Ian the brochure and pointed at a line at the bottom that read Dine In Only.

          Ian gave him a look. He took the menu and then thrust it back at Mickey, obviously wanting him to look at it again.

          “What?” Mickey grumped. “This place doesn’t deliver! You want to—oh.”

          Ian rolled his eyes and settled his hands on his hips and pinned Mickey with another significant look.

          “Oh. Shit, okay. Let’s eat out.”

          Ian shook his head like Mickey was the simplest person alive and turned to walk away. Mickey followed him back to his bedroom and they dressed in relative silence before heading out together, Ian locking his apartment door securely behind them as they left.

          Mickey wasn’t sure what to do, hanging out with Ian outside the confines of their apartment or the bar, when they weren’t touching or immediately looking to get off. He therefore walked in complete silence for several blocks, staring straight ahead and fumbling for something to say. Quiet with Ian was mainly companionable, but Mickey felt somehow uncomfortable, though he wasn’t sure why.

          “So how far’s this place?” Mickey asked.

          Ian shrugged. Mickey jumped when the back of his hand brushed Ian’s, but then realized Ian was raising his to show him three fingers. One for each minute away they were, he assumed. Mickey nodded and, unsure how to continue the feeble attempt at conversation, lapsed back into silence.

          When they strolled up the restaurant a few minutes later, Ian strode forward to open the door, then stepped aside to let Mickey go in ahead of him. Mickey jerked his head at him in acknowledgement when he passed, and headed up to the podium situated a few feet away to give their names. He went to go wait with Ian after, sprawling out in the seat beside him where he’d settled by the maître d’s stand.

          “Five minute wait, tops,” he recited what the woman had told him.

          Ian nodded absently, staring down at his hands on his lap. Mickey just studied him for a moment before turning away, keeping his eyes on the door instead. He watched people come and go, counting down the families and the minutes until a table freed up. They were sitting for less than two minutes before Ian turned to him; Mickey could see it in his peripheral vision, how he swiveled in his seat, tucking one leg underneath himself so he could comfortably face Mickey. Mickey turned his head to meet his gaze, raising his eyebrows expectantly.

          Without warning, Ian reached forward for Mickey’s hand. Mickey pulled it back, casting Ian a horrified and confused expression, but Ian just rolled his eyes and held his hand out, palm up, and waited. Slowly, watching Ian carefully the entire time, Mickey laid his hand on Ian’s and waited for his next move.

          Ian turned Mickey’s hand over so they were palm to palm and then wrapped his own around Mickey’s, directing their hands to Mickey’s forehead. He touched the tip of Mickey’s fingers to his forehead, then moved his hand away, outward. Then he dropped his hand completely.

          Mickey blinked at him, blank and unsure. Ian smiled at his bemusement and leaned over to trace letters on the leg of Mickey’s jeans.

          H I

          Mickey looked from his lap to Ian and back. When he raised his eyes again, he managed to get out, “Did you just teach me sign language?”

          Ian rolled his eyes at the question. For this, he pulled his phone out, and Mickey suspected something snarky in the making. When his cell buzzed in his pocket, he shot Ian a suspicious glare while he pulled it out.

          yes. that’s the entirety of american s/L, congrats. you’re a master.

          Mickey flipped him off as he stuffed his phone away again. “Dicknose.”

          Ian made a disbelieving noise through his nose and raised his brow. Mickey could feel the judgement on his language choice and shot back, “What, you got something to say about it?”

          This time Ian was the one to flip him off, and they were both smiling when they settled back in their seats and waited for their server to call them over.

          They followed a pretty, short young girl to their booth table; she was wearing a tight black top that rode up high on her hips, high enough that her Words were shown off plainly, even in the dim lights of the steakhouse. Mickey felt that it was somehow indecent to show them to the world, even though he knew most people—aside from the occasional conservative father—wouldn’t care. Words weren’t private; they were supposed to be signs of love, a point of pride. Mickey’s eyes lingered on her guess you’re queen shitshow emblazoned over her hip for a little too long; Ian’s eyes were on him when Mickey tore his gaze away and cast it across the table instead. His expression was unreadable, carefully composed. Over what, Mickey couldn’t know.

          “Thanks,” he said, a little too loudly, as the waitress—her nametag read Aleysha where it dangled over the table when she filled their water glasses—gave them menus and promised to be back soon for their orders. He could feel the sudden tension at the table and smiled awkwardly at Aleysha until she walked away, preferring to watch her rather than look at Ian.

          Ian seemed fine though, when Mickey finally glanced at him. He was slumped back in his seat, finger tapping his lips as he perused his menu, brow furrowed in thought. Mickey had to remind himself to look away before Ian looked up, and he turned to study his own menu instead.

          Aleysha returned after a few minutes, smiling pleasantly and bouncing a little on her feet. “You guys decided what you want yet?” she asked. “How about drinks?”

          “Just a beer,” Mickey said, snapping his menu closed and shoving it at her. She blinked, looking a little startled, but quickly recovered and kept smiling as she collected it from him. Mickey added, “And a steak, thanks. Extra rare.”

          “What kind—”

          “Whatever you recommend,” he said, waving her off.

          She didn’t seem affronted; she just nodded, and spun on her heel to look at Ian. “And for you?”

          Ian shot Mickey a look, then glanced back at Aleysha. He didn’t look panicked, just bored, as he turned the menu around and pointed out two different items to Mickey.

          Mickey twisted his head and squinted at where Ian was pointing. “Uhh, a Blue Moon—what the fuck Ian, okay—and…porterhouse steak…uhm...yeah.”

          Aleysha looked between them, apparently unsure who to address. She glanced between them a few more times, finally settling on addressing them both when she asked, “Okay, and…how would you like that cooked, sir?”

          Ian shrugged and glanced at Mickey again. He raised his hand and rocked it back and forth in an indecisive motion. Mickey was still half looking at him when he said,

          “Uh…medium…rare? Medium rare.”

          Ian made a face and jerked his thumb towards the ceiling.

          “Medium well,” he amended, and Ian gave him a thumbs up this time. “Because he’s an idiot and obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or a good steak when he sees one.”

          Ian threw him an unimpressed look. Mickey smiled sunnily at Aleysha as he passed her Ian’s menu too. She seemed confused at their dynamic, but flipped her ponytail over her shoulder and gave them her best professional smile as she collected Ian’s menu and turned to fetch their beer with a promise to be back as soon as she put in their orders.

          Ian sipped at his water when she left, but Mickey just leaned back in his chair, grinning widely.

          “She thought we were fucking crazy,” Mickey said with a laugh. “Probably thought you were doing a Day of Silence thing to help with AIDs or something.”

          Ian squinted at him. Then slowly shook his head.

          Mickey grinned even wider. “Okay, so I don’t know what those silence days are for,” and this time Ian laughed at the admission.

          They didn’t converse much while they waited; they rarely did anyway, considering the barrier between them, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. Mickey liked silence, and they did the best with what they could. He didn’t mind weathering it with Ian. Every once in awhile Ian would swing his legs and catch Mickey’s shins between his own or knock him with his feet, and Mickey would kick him back harder in retaliation. Ian usually did the same until they were in a little war about it, and Mickey was sure that they’d both have bruises by the end of the night, but Ian was beaming and Mickey’s stomach felt light and he didn’t feel sorry at all.

          Their waitress returned after five minutes to give them their beers—despite the restaurant being slightly more high-scale than Mickey was used to, she didn’t card either of them—and then disappeared for another twenty minutes until their steaks were ready.

          “One extra rare steak,” she said when she returned, placing Mickey’s plate in front of him with a flourish, “and one extra medium well.” She flashed Ian a cheeky grin, which he returned. Aleysha went on, “So, you boys let me know if you want anything else. I’ll come back later to make sure everything’s okay, okay? Okay.”

          With that she spun around and walked off.

          Mickey just raised his eyebrows at Ian, who pressed his lips together and stared down at his plate. Mickey took that as his version of opting out of a snide comment, and smirked, imagining what was running through Ian’s head at the moment. Instead of pressing, he picked up his utensils and started cutting into his steak instead.

          “So…” Mickey started, eyes glued to what his hands were doing, but he glanced up to make sure Ian was paying attention. “How do you say all this shit in ASL or whatever?”

          Ian looked surprised, a piece of steak halfway chewed in his mouth, but he swallowed quickly and put down his fork and knife. He studied what was on the table, evidently deciding where to begin, and then reached out like he was going to pick up something, bringing his hand back to his mouth. Mickey raised his eyebrows.

          “What is that, eating?” Ian nodded. Mickey scoffed. “Shit, all you did was mime eating something! Is everything this easy? This is fucking ridiculous. I’m gonna be a fucking master at this in no time.”

          Ian rolled his eyes. He ignored Mickey’s confidence and showed him the words for food and drink, and a few other simple terms. Despite the brevity of the lesson, Mickey struggled to keep it all in his head when Ian decided they were done for the night and went back to his steak. Mickey returned to eating as well, trying to keep it all straight in his head. He could already feel some of the less basic words leaving his brain no matter how he struggled to hold them in.

          Mickey shook it off and changed the subject, and he was halfway through a story about how Sully hit him in the face with a baseball and gave him a scar on his cheek when they were kids, when Aleysha returned and interrupted them.

          “So, how are you boys enjoying your date?”

          In that second, everything snapped. Mickey turned to her, blatantly startled. He glanced at Ian to find his eyes even wider than Mickey’s, though he detected something like warning in Ian’s gaze, whereas his was pure panic. Unfiltered, lead-weight anxiety pooled low in his stomach as he turned back on his waitress.

          “We—What?”

          Her smile faltered a little. “Is everything good tonight?” she asked uncertainly.

          Mickey was nodding even as he struggled to free himself from the booth. Something animalistic was rising in his chest, born out of the great pit of nerves bubbling hotly in his stomach, and he didn’t know if it was his own well-worn hatred of anything as committed as a date or something deeper, darker. Something with his father’s name stamped in bright red letters across it, as deeply etched as it was on his tombstone even though he was nearly ten years dead.

          “Everything’s fine. Excuse me, I need a minute,” he muttered anyway, unsure why but his skin crawling relentlessly, and he shouldered Aleysha more roughly than intended as he scrambled to free himself. All he knew was that he needed air in his lungs, and maybe some smoke too. Everything, even the air in the restaurant, felt tight and restrictive.

          He half-ran to the front and stopped a few feet outside of the exit, and leaned against the brick wall of the restaurant, fumbling for a cigarette. He spat harshly on the ground after the first drag, not sure on whom he was envisioning spitting. God, nicotine always did that—cleared his head but clogged his throat, filled his mouth with too much saliva and made it hard to breathe. Maybe that wasn’t the nicotine. He couldn’t tell.

          He could feel his head spiraling but didn’t know how to stop it, so he leaned against the wall and smoked. He was halfway through his second cigarette when he felt a hand on his arm and jerked away immediately, the urge to fight rising high in his throat before he could stop it. He turned, fist raised, only to drop his guard immediately.

          “Shit, Ian.” Mickey scrubbed at his eyes. “I’m—fuck, what are you doing out here?”

          Ian gave him a tiny smile, like he was testing the waters, and held up his phone.

          i thought you left

          Mickey took a second to read the message, then looked away. He patted down his pockets, making sure he still had his lighter. He couldn’t stop fidgeting.

          “No,” he said, still not looking at Ian. “Just needed some fresh air.”

          Ian eyed his cigarette pointedly and looked back at him bemusedly. Mickey let out a reluctant chuckle when he met his eyes.

          They stood in silence for a minute, until Mickey finished his cigarette and dropped it to the cement, grinding it beneath his heel. When he looked up Ian was showing him his phone again.

          wanna go back inside?

          Mickey sighed. He readjusted his shoulders against the bricks at his back, then crossed his arms. He forced himself to look Ian square in the eye when he asked, “Is this a date?”

          Ian sighed too, looking away. He fiddled nervously with his phone for a second before turning it to type.

          not if you don’t want it to be.

          Mickey looked away. He wasn’t sure which was worse: the thought that he was on a date or the thought that he wasn’t. He crossed and uncrossed his arms a few times before settling on crossed, and he started chewing on his lip so his next words came out in a mumble.

          “Never been on a date that lasted through drinks,” he admitted, and when Ian cocked his head, Mickey added, “You know. Because we usually left to go fuck somewhere out back.”

          Ian smiled at that, looking down at his hands. When he didn’t look up again, Mickey nudged him with his shoulder, and Ian glanced over at him. Mickey tried to smile as softly as he knew how.

          “Never been out with someone just because I wanted to be,” he admitted.

          This time when Ian’s chin tilted towards his chest, Mickey could see him smiling himself silly. Almost as big as Mickey’s own grin. After a second, Ian started typing something else out on his cell.

          don't let her freak you out. This, shown to Mickey and accompanied with wide, earnest eyes. His smile faded slightly.

          “She didn’t freak me out,” he lied insistently.

          Ian tilted his head and gave him a look like he could see right through Mickey’s bullshit.

          “Whatever,” Mickey scoffed. “God, you’re such a fucking nuisance. Why the fuck am I on a date with you?”

          Mickey didn’t think he would get tired of Ian smiling at him like that, because of him, and so beautiful his chest constricted. He hid it with a snort and knocked Ian’s shoulder with his own when he pushed off the wall with his foot and pressed past him, back towards the restaurant.

          “Come on,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. “No use going back alone, right?”

          He made sure not to turn around as he led the way back to their table so Ian wouldn’t see him smiling.

          “Probably thought we were gonna dine and dash,” Mickey said as they slid back into their booth and dug back into their dinner. “God, remember when you used to do that as a kid? Good fucking times. Three star meals for the price of nothing.”

          Ian was looking at him with raised eyebrows. Mickey met his gaze, unimpressed.

          “Oh, don’t pretend you never did that. No one comes out of the slums like we did with a lily white ass. No matter what slums you come from.”

          Ian shrugged one shoulder at that, one corner of his lips turning up. Mickey smiled knowingly, eyebrows jumping.

          “Huh? Huh? I knew it. Prince fucking Charming over here wants me to think he’s a saint, that’s so sweet. You’re lucky I like ‘em sweet, because that was awful.”

          Ian tossed a piece of complimentary bread at his head. When Mickey only barked a laugh, Ian kicked him under the table. Still chortling, Mickey gave in, his hands up in surrender.

          They finished soon after, and Aleysha was all apologetic smiles when she dropped off the check. Mickey gave her a twenty percent tip for managing to keep the bubbly attitude when he was in a grouchy mood and Ian waved pleasantly at her as they left.

          Ian started to head down the way to his apartment, but Mickey stopped him, jerking his head in the other direction. When Ian tilted his head curiously, Mickey said,

          “Isn’t it customary to walk me to my door after a first date?”

          His tone was wry, but Ian bit his lip as he followed Mickey down the street to his apartment. Mickey kept bumping his shoulder because he wasn’t sure what else to do, but they were amicably quiet as they walked the streets to his building, and then up the elevator to his door. Mickey stopped in the middle of the hallway, turning to Ian instead of opening his apartment.

          He was blushing. He knew he was blushing, and the thought made him blush harder, but he was determined as he brought his hand up, touched it to his chin, and extended it back towards Ian. A silent thank you.

          He wasn’t sure he had gotten the motion right, because at first Ian just looked at him, blinking uncertainly. Just as Mickey was starting to fidget, shifting his weight between his feet and feeling like an ass, Ian broke into a wide smile and jumped at him. Mickey had the feeling he knew what Ian wanted, but he was relieved he had refrained and settled on a hug instead, if only because Mickey hated having his own boundaries crossed once he’d laid them out. Mickey patted Ian’s back, admittedly a little awkward, and Ian squeezed him restrictively tight and didn’t pull away for a good ten minutes.

          When they were standing across from each other then, Ian ecstatic and pleased, Mickey uncomfortable, he found himself momentarily at a loss for anything to say to fill the silence. After all, he wasn’t exactly well-versed in traditional first date specifics.

          Finally, he sighed.

          “Look,” he said, biting his lip, “not that I’m not the type to invite guys back to my place on the first date, but I have work early in the morning. So…not tonight.”

          Ian still looked ludicrously happy, and he nodded without fight or disappointment. He afforded Mickey a half salute, half wave and turned down the hallway. Mickey smiled to himself, watching him go until he made it to the elevators and the doors closed on his beaming face and ridiculously (possibly theatrically) enthusiastic wave. Something was aching in his chest—he was wanting for something and he knew it—but in this one moment, he was too happy to feel anything else just yet.

 

          Mickey hated sign language lessons. Hated them. They weren’t lessons so much as him and Ian sitting on the couch with beers while Ian tried to make Mickey understand how to communicate using only his hands, with which Mickey had never been especially well-versed in any language but anxiety buffers and sex. The alphabet and simple, everyday nouns weren’t that bad, but Mickey could not for the life of him understand grammar. Once they moved on to full sentences, he was convinced that he had dug himself into a endlessly deep hole for no real reason other than the stupid one beating in his chest.

          “This is like grade school,” he complained, after Ian prompted him for the eighth time to try and say Hi, my name is Mickey and I’ve been arrested twice. “Except the sample sentences are fucking cruel. My criminal record? Really? I don’t know why I ever told you about that.”

          Ian shrugged, splaying his hands out, then cast Mickey a goofy look. Mickey rolled his eyes.

          “Okay, one more time and then I’m quitting,” he said.

          Ian rolled his eyes but put his hands up too. He repeated the sentence, moving his hands slowly so Mickey could mirror the movements in time with him. When they’d both completed their sluggish rendition, Ian dropped his hands into his lap and nodded at Mickey to try again, this time by himself.

          Mickey played back what they had just done as he moved his hands, trying to connect his movements with the sentence fragments in his head. He was just about to give up, halfway through a frustrated groan and his hands halfway to his hair, when Ian reached forward and grabbed his hands, stilling him.

          Let me help, Ian signed at him when he released him.

          Mickey was better at understanding than doing, but only if Ian kept it short. He sighed.

          “It’s pointless. Can I give up yet?”

          Ian pressed his lips together and shook his head. Let me help, he signed again. If you do well—instead of completing the sentence, he mimed pulling his shirt over his head. Mickey raised his brows.

          “You’re gonna play strip sign language with me? Really?”

          Ian shrugged. No? he asked, expression disbelieving. Mickey hadn’t turned down sex in the entirety of the time that they had known each other.

          “No,” he fumbled, “that’s…Okay.”

          Ian seemed pleased with his concurrence with the plan, settling forward a little more and resting his hands on his knees. Mickey bit his lip, but straightened as well, leaning towards Ian slightly.

          “Okay. Give it to me.”

          Ian quirked an eyebrow at his word choice but otherwise didn’t comment, reaching instead for the phone in the space between his crossed legs. He flipped through his notes for a moment, looking for a prompt, then held the screen up so Mickey could read it.

          “Hello, don’t talk to me, goodbye,” Mickey muttered as he read the sentence off. He raised his eyes to Ian’s, and spoke a little louder to complain, “You know, I hate how personalized you’ve made these.”

          Ian just smirked and dropped his phone back into his lap. Mickey sighed, trying to remember the appropriate signs for all the pieces of the sentence, and the order it should all go in. His gestures were sloppy, disjointed, and rough, but he nevertheless managed to get through the sentence after a stumbling minute. When he was done he looked to Ian for approval, and Ian smiled encouragingly, giving him two thumbs up.

          “Shirt off,” Mickey reminded him, flicking his eyes to the hem of his t-shirt, still irritatingly by his waist.

          Ian rolled his eyes but pulled the shirt up over his head. Mickey allowed himself a once-over before he returned his gaze to Ian’s and asked for another sentence prompt.

          He got Ian down to his boxers and one sock before he got stuck; despite having gone over this at least ten times yesterday, the difference between most verb and noun forms were entirely escaping him. He was pretty sure he had just asked Ian to seat on his face, and he knew before he even finished that he hadn’t gotten that one right. To his exasperation, Ian was shaking his head before Mickey could correct his own mistake.

          “Shit, fuck,” he hissed, slapping at the back of the couch. “I fucking hate this!”

          Ian’s mouth twisted, and Mickey reached for his arm when he turned away.

          “Wait, okay. I’m just pissed.” Ian was watching him tentatively, so Mickey exhaled heavily and scrubbed a hand through his hair before saying, “Alright, fuck. Let’s keep going. What’s next?”

          Ian stared at him for a little while longer, and Mickey made sure to keep his expression as earnest as possible. Finally Ian’s face cleared for the most part, and he rocked up to his hands and knees, reaching out. Mickey wasn’t sure what he was after until Ian tugged insistently on the bottom of his shirt.

          “You want me to strip?” His eyes widened when Ian nodded. “That wasn’t part of the deal!”

          Ian sat back down and crossed his arms. He had an admittedly impressive glare, his chin his most prominent feature as he stared him down. After a second Mickey sighed and tugged his shirt off, throwing it to the floor beside the couch on top of the small pile of Ian’s clothes that was already resting there. Whereas Mickey had only looked, Ian reached for him. He was close enough that his hand could flatten on Mickey’s chest before he ran his fingertips over his torso, tracing lightly over his midsection and ribs. He had barely brushed the edges of Mickey’s bandaid when Mickey jerked away, knocking Ian’s hand to the side. He could feel Ian’s eyes on him and looked anywhere else, taking in his own apartment like he didn’t already know the place at all. After a second, his eyes glued to one corner of the coffee table, he cleared his throat and asked, “So what’s next?”

          Ian didn’t answer for a second. Mickey kept glaring in the opposite direction until he heard Ian snapping for his attention, and he turned to face him again, eyes narrowing to take in the text on the phone screen being waved in front of his face.

          They kept playing. Mickey forgot another word soon after and reluctantly pulled off a sock, then promptly lost his jeans, but he had Ian in just his boxers the round after. Mickey took a second to deliberately eye him and lick his lips before returning his attention to signing Go fuck yourself.

          “Can all tutoring sessions be this fun?” Mickey asked as Ian lifted his hips up and shimmied out of his boxers, leaving him sitting naked on the couch. “I like this better than the five hours you spent last week trying to get me to understand pronouns and grammar.”

          Ian rolled his eyes as he settled back down into the corner of the couch, flinging one arm over the back and the other across the arm rest. Mickey thought he spread his legs a little wider than necessary, and he hated the smirk on his face when Ian caught him looking.

          “Is the game over?” Mickey asked, trailing his eyes slowly over Ian. “You’ve got nothing left to lose, man.”

          Ian shook his head and gave him another sentence to repeat. Mickey sighed and tightened his fists on his thighs to stop from reaching out for Ian, who was still just sitting there like he wasn’t fully aware that Mickey wanted to ravage his naked body (other than the smug air of superiority that clung to him almost palpably). Mickey tried to keep his eyes trained on Ian’s face to stop from getting distracted, but he wound up messing up the next sentence too, and, a little aggravated now, tore off his other sock.

          “So if I lose this round I lose my underwear…what happens if I ace it?”

          Ian shrugged. You’ll see, was all he signed. Mickey sighed; him not understanding sign language very well was detrimental to both of them. For one, it allowed Ian to be far more cryptic than Mickey would like since he couldn’t understand complicated sentences anyway.

          He reluctantly raised his hands and prepared for the next prompt.

          Ian picked a fairly simple one: Where’s the nearest bathroom?

          Mickey squinted at Ian’s phone screen for a minute like it would magically rearrange the sentence to help him determine how to make that in signs. Ian sat patiently holding the phone up, allowing Mickey all the time he wanted to stall, and only lowered it when Mickey looked up into his face and raised his hands.

          He was slow making the gestures, careful to get it just right. He knew he had passed, because as soon as he was done, Ian threw him a brilliant smile. Mickey grinned back.

          He started to ask, “So what do—” but Ian raised onto his knees and pushed Mickey over before he had a chance to finish his sentence. He didn’t bother trying to continue speaking, though, because Ian crawled closer up between his legs and Mickey certainly didn’t have a problem with this being the end of the lesson if that’s where Ian’s mind was going. When Ian started to tug down his boxers, though, Mickey said slyly,

          “Thought I didn’t have to strip, since I got it right and all.”

          Ian raised an eyebrow and stared him straight in the eye as he reached down and started palming at him, barely stroking, just starting to get him hard while his other hand wrestled Mickey’s boxers off the rest of the way and threw them on the floor with all of their other clothes. The arch of his brow very clearly asked Mickey if he had a problem. Mickey thought that leaning back down and crossing his arms behind his head was answer enough, and a minute later Ian ducked down out of his immediate field of vision. Mickey’s gaze flicked down to the top of his head just as he felt Ian’s warm mouth close over him.

          Mickey groaned at the feel of it, despite having already had this so many times before. His fingertips trailed over the top of Ian’s hair for a second before he tangled them in it, and Ian sucked him down harder when he did, starting up a steady rhythm that had Mickey crossing his legs over Ian’s back, trying to draw him in even more. Ian had his hands steady on his hips, but Mickey was trying hard not to buck up into his mouth; he liked the way Ian was brushing his fingers across his hipbones, sometimes pausing to dig his nails in when he did something special with his tongue or his throat, and Mickey didn’t want him to have to stop and hold him down so he tried to restrain himself without assistance.

          By the time he started panting, he was clenching his fist by his waist, trying not to twist too hard in Ian’s hair or thrust too far into his mouth. As though noticing what his distress meant, Ian glided his hand up his stomach, wasting no time before he was rolling and pinching and playing with one of his nipples, and that was enough: Mickey let out a choked gasped as he came, finally rolling his hips up into Ian’s mouth as he spilled down his throat. Ian kept going, swallowing it all until Mickey collapsed back onto the couch, breathing hard.

          Ian sat up between his legs, grinning widely and scrubbing the back of his hand over his mouth. Mickey stretched his arms out above his head, not acknowledging him for a second besides the lazy, sated grin he cast in his direction. Ian laid down the other way, propping his elbows up on the armrest behind him and watching Mickey recover. Mickey knew he looked flushed and freshly fucked; Ian seemed to be enjoying the view, because he kept sweeping his eyes over his body and then smiling soft and satisfied when he got to his face.

          Mickey waited to catch his breath, hands folded on his chest and his pleased, languid gaze watching Ian the whole time. When he had his energy regained, he breathed in sharply and rocked up and forward until he was on top of Ian, and smiling playfully down at him.

          “I like tutoring,” Mickey said decisively as he reached down between them and started stripping Ian’s cock, quick and hard without any warning or buildup.

          Ian’s lips parted and he exhaled breathily, his eyes slipping closed and his head tipping further back into his armrest. Mickey grinned and ducked his head down into Ian’s neck, grazing his teeth along the skin there and nibbling certain spots he knew to be sensitive. His hand jerked Ian faster, and he timed the twists of his wrist to increasingly sharp bites on his neck until Ian was gasping and panting hard, his fingers scratching deep at Mickey’s back.

          “Gonna fucking mark me,” Mickey growled, leaning up to nibble on and breathe into Ian’s ear, and though he meant it to be a reprimand he wasn’t sure it was one once it had fallen out of his mouth. “Gonna fucking mark me…mark you…”

          He dipped back down and starting to suck hard on the soft spot beneath his ear.

          Ian’s nails were digging even more insistently into his back, and Mickey knew he was going to leave scratches for at least a full day, but he didn’t care. He mumbled Ian’s name into his neck as he jacked him faster, urging him to come until he finally let out a final gasp and came all over Mickey’s hand.

          Ian looked dazed when Mickey finally eased off of him, sitting back up between Ian’s legs and slicking his clean hand through his hair.

          “Eh?” Mickey asked, throwing Ian a smug grin.

          Ian rolled his eyes and sat up, shoving Mickey’s shoulder. Asshole, he signed.

          Mickey punched him back, not too hard, on his arm.

          “Fuck you for teaching me the curse words first,” he said. “Before I could just pretend you were praising my almighty cock or something. Now I know when you’re being a dick.”

          Ian shook his head. Your cock? he signed, smirking now. I like your ass more.

          As soon as he was done signing it, he leaned forward and looped his arm around Mickey, grabbing a handful of his ass and squeezing. Mickey laughed breathlessly, stretching up a little more on his knees and leaning into Ian’s chest.

          “It is a pretty magnificent ass,” he said, and Ian shoved him away so he fell hard on his back, laughing.

          They got up to get coffee and start on the more serious, less sexually-charged portion of Mickey’s lesson, but wound up watching a movie and falling asleep together on the couch instead. Mickey had to admit, sign language lessons weren’t the worst thing he’d ever been forced to endure. Maybe it was just because of Ian.

 

          Ian insisted that Mickey take him out on a date one weekend, since he had already taken Mickey out to dinner for their first. After several long and disjointed hours of badgering paired with a few cajoling blowjobs, Mickey relented.

          “Seriously though, a fucking date,” Mickey sighed into the phone pressed up to his ear so his hands were free to button up his shirt. “I don’t fucking date. You know a guy three months and he wants to date you? What is that?”

          “Oh no, the boy you’ve been sleeping with regularly wants to have dinner with you,” Mandy drawled through the other end in complete monotone. “Whatever will you do? Talk to him?” She faked a loud gasp. “What if he wants you to…hold his hand?”

          “What if I brought home a few dozen breadsticks and shoved them up your ass,” Mickey snapped.

          “Ooh, could you bring me back breadsticks?”

          “Fuck off, we’re not even going to dinner.”

          Mandy snickered. “Fucking hell, Mickey. Just be a person for once instead of a repressed asshole. He wants this? Too bad, you’ve known him too long and you’ve seen his dick too many times to say no. Suck it up, buy him some cheap seafood, and hope he’s thankful enough to make the neighbors bitch tomorrow.”

          “Let’s be clear, the only one bitching if I buy cheap seafood will be the two of us when we’re puking our guts out in my toilet all night.”

          “I’m just saying, you do your thing,” said Mandy. Then she sighed, loud and exasperated. “God, Mickey, you’re such a guy.”

          “The fuck does that mean?” Mickey asked, so affronted that he momentarily paused in tucking in his shirt.

          “It means you’re a stupid fucking meathead,” Mandy snapped. “Just buy him something nice and act like you’re happy to be there, shit! One date’s not gonna kill you.”         

          “Bitch, you’re married now. Happily. No need to bring your shit dating history into my shit dating history,” Mickey muttered.

          He heard his sister sigh loudly over the line. “Fuck, you’re right. Sorry.” She took a deep breath before continuing, “Still, me notwithstanding, your dating history is nonexistent. So mine’s all you got. Maybe don’t fuck this up, okay?”

          Mickey sighed, gave himself one last once-over in the mirror, and went for the front door. “Yeah, yeah,” he said as he pulled on the least-scuffed pair of shoes he owned and headed out into the hallway, “I’ll try.”

          A brief pause followed as Mickey headed down the stairs. He had just pushed out onto the street when Mandy said, “Alright, shit, guess I’ll let you go. Lemme know how it goes, okay? Try not to be too much of an asshole.”

          She seemed to be kidding that time, so Mickey just said, “Yeah, okay, Ma. See ya.”

          “Bye.”

          She hung up before Mickey could. Mickey stared grumpily at his blank phone screen for a second before shoving it back into his jacket and zipping the pocket closed. Mandy was right; Ian deserved his undivided attention tonight.

          He had to be buzzed up to Ian’s floor, but he looked delighted to see him anyway when Mickey knocked on his door. He didn’t fully understand proper date protocol—the steak dinner had been a rush job and they had already had sex and were hanging out before Ian had realized he wanted to go out—but he was pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to tool around Ian’s apartment first, so he stood in the doorway with his hands in his jeans’ pockets until Ian was ready. Finally, he stepped out into the hallway beside him, shut and locked and his door, and looked over at Mickey expectantly. Mickey jerked his head and they started down and out of Ian’s building.

          After a few minutes of walking, Ian tapped Mickey’s shoulder to get his attention.

          Where are we going? he signed at him.

          Mickey smiled and leaned close like he had a secret. When his lips were by Ian’s ear, he whispered, “Mind your fucking business.”

          Ian made a huffy sound of annoyance and shoved Mickey away from him, and he stumbled a little before falling back into step with him, laughing. When he was close enough again, Ian looped an arm around his shoulders. The gesture seemed casual, but Mickey could feel the tense set of Ian’s arm. Probably waiting for him to shove him off. Mickey glanced to catch his eye, and smiled a little once he had it. The full-on grin that bloomed over Ian’s features made something in his lower stomach flip, but Mickey ignored it as Ian turned away again.

          “Gotta warn you,” Mickey blurted, and the quick stutter of his voice betrayed him for babbling, “this ain’t some expensive dinner date.” He took a deep breath. It wasn’t, but he didn’t know why he was telling him that. “I mean, it’s not even—it’s not even dinner.”

          Ian raised his eyebrows. Then why do you look…? He waved his hands at Mickey instead of finishing the question, probably asking after his formalwear—or as formal as Mickey got, which was a nice shirt rolled up to his elbows and a pair of dark, unripped jeans.

          So where are we going? Ian asked again.

          Mickey pinched his arm. “You’re real bad with the surprises, you know that?”

          Ian grinned and knocked him with his elbow, but quickly melted into a rapturous, excited look when they turned the corner and the next street swung into view.

          Mickey walked a few steps ahead so he could turn around, hands shoved nervously in his pockets as he studied Ian’s reaction. His mouth was hanging open a little, but mostly his expression had given way to an open kind of childlike eagerness that had Mickey biting his lip. Maybe he had done a little too well.

          Without saying anything, Ian grabbed his hand and dragged him forward into the street fair.

          They had barely passed the first booth when Ian seemed to realize what he had done. He glance down at their clumsily joined hands, then up at Mickey’s face. His face was pinched in nervousness and hope, and Mickey tried to smile encouragingly as he shifted to let their fingers weave together more naturally, squeezing tight when he had. Ian was fully beaming at him now, but Mickey looked away, a faint blush coloring his cheeks and Ian’s hand warm in his. Looking for any possible source of distraction, Mickey dragged him over to the first tent he saw, which happened to be hanging with all different kinds of wigs. Ian wanted to stay and try them on, but Mickey shook his head solemnly and they moved on to the next booth fairly quickly.

          “Picture of you and your date?”

          The question had Mickey spinning around so fast that Ian stumbled when the movement tugged on their clasped hands.

          “Uh—what?”

          The man who had spoken waved a pencil around in the air. “Caricature of you and him?” he asked, smiling mostly at Ian because Mickey’s eyebrows were raising more and more dangerously towards his hairline.

          His free hand curled into a fist by his side. The one in Ian’s started to sweat. But Ian turned big eyes on him, and Mickey’s gaze only had to cut to his for a second before he stuttered out, “Uhm…okay.”

          The man bustled around, directing them into seats and trying to get them to sit closer and closer or do this and that, until Mickey snapped at him to get a move on with it and that they were just fine. Ian looked amused more than anything, and the artist, a little startled, shut his mouth and went to sit back behind his easel.

          Ian had slung an arm around his shoulder, looking perfectly relaxed and at ease as he smiled at the artist and Mickey in turns, but Mickey couldn’t have been more rigid in his seat. He looked over at Ian for confirmation that he should see this through for him, and Ian smiled softly back, apparently not getting the message but nevertheless managing to ease Mickey’s nerves.

          They only had to wait about ten minutes before the artist smiled and brandished their photo at them. It was a ridiculous picture of the two of them—Ian with hair colored fire engine red nearly as tall as his body, Mickey with overly prominent eyebrows downturned and angry—making awkward kissing faces at each other and meeting in the middle. Mickey felt mildly sick. Even Ian snorted in what Mickey took to be derisive amusement, but they looked at each other and Ian signed, I think you have to buy it.

          Mickey raised his eyebrows. “Why the fuck would I do that? You can if you want.”

          Ian sighed. Mickey, pay the man.

          “Ian, don’t boss me around,” Mickey said in contorted voice that was supposed to be making fun of Ian’s tone, except he hadn’t used one.

          Ian made a face and insisted, Buy it!

          Grumbling, and with his sister’s words about playing nice ringing through his head, Mickey scrounged up the necessary dollars and exchanged them for the picture. The man was all smiles and tipping hats as they walked off, and they at least waited until they were out of earshot before Ian snorted a laugh and elbowed Mickey in the side. One look to the side and Mickey joined in, covering his mouth with his hand and trying not to lose it completely.

          “Stop it,” Mickey hissed, while Ian practically fell in on himself laughing. “Stop it, god! You’re making a scene!”

          Ian was still grinning widely when he managed to straighten. A few people were looking at them, but Ian seemed unbothered, too busy unrolling the picture to look at it again and fall into another laughing fit. Mickey had to wait five minutes for him to get over it and finally stuff the drawing away into his pocket, and by then he had managed to steer a distracted Ian into line for on-the-go pizza.

          Mickey bought them each slices of pepperoni and they set off again as they ate, occasionally pointing out other booths and dragging each other to look at craft jewelry or abstract paintings or naked sculptures (Mickey bought two to give to his middle brothers on their next birthdays).

          They found a cotton candy booth that Ian wanted for dessert, and Mickey bought him that and a can of soda for himself, and they went to find a vacant bench to sit on and enjoy their food and drink for a couple of minutes. They shoved their bags of purchases under their feet and leaned back on the wall behind the bench. When Mickey cracked open his soda can, he lifted it to Ian in a silent toast, who did the same with a piece of cotton candy he’d torn off.

          Ian’s knee bumped his a few times while they sat. Mickey thought it was by accident until he looked over after the fourth time and saw Ian smiling and watching him. He rolled his eyes and reached to smack him on the shoulder, but Ian caught his hand and, after a second, entwined their fingers again. The move was more deliberate than when Mickey had done it, their eyes trained on each other, and Mickey wanted to look away almost as much as he wanted to never stop staring at Ian, ever. Ian dropped their hands back to the bench between their legs, his gaze soft and warm on Mickey’s face, and Mickey couldn’t even muster up the will to blush. Instead he met Ian’s eyes and smiled gently back.

          By some unspoken agreement, they got up and continued walking a minute later, throwing their discarded can and cotton candy stick in a bin as they passed. Mickey kept a tight grip on his hand as they pressed out, through the smiling vendors trying to sell to them and the jostling crowds nearly splitting them up. They strolled for another twenty or so tents before Ian paused, dragging Mickey to a halt as well. He pointed excitedly at what was beneath it.

          Mickey turned to look a little closer. The booth was run by a gnarled old woman, smiling serenely at them and not saying anything at all—not advertising for herself or trying to give them deals or anything. Around her were carefully done charcoal drawings that Mickey took a second to study before his eyes landed back on her.

          “You don’t need to stay long,” the woman said when Mickey looked at her. “Strike a pose for a minute and I’ll be able to draw it in twenty. You boys want to give it a try?”

          Ian was already nodding before the woman was done. Mickey looked over at him, then down at the crudely drawn picture sticking out of his pocket, and turned back to the woman.

          “How much?” he said, resigned.

          She had them sit on the bench across from her but didn’t try to arrange them like the caricature man had done. Instead she just said, “Pick a pose and hold it until I say stop. Does that sound alright?” and they looked at each other, deliberating. Ian’s eyes darted all over his face for a second before he held his hand out: an offering. Mickey could easily take it and let that be that.

          Mandy’s voice was in his head again. Just be a person for once instead of a repressed asshole, she snapped. And then, He wants this.

          Mickey withheld a sigh. Carefully, he put his hand over Ian’s, in Ian’s, cupping their hands together. His pinkie slotted between Ian’s index and middle finger by accident, but he couldn’t care enough to correct himself. Instead he took a deep breath, allowed himself to relax a little at the sight of Ian’s soft smile, and leaned forward to press a kiss to his cheek.

          Ian stiffened immediately, that much he could tell. He forced himself to hold still anyway, trying not to give in to the overwhelming desire to shrink in on himself, start a few fights, and fade listlessly away from this entire fair. After a second Ian’s hand constricted around his briefly and he relaxed, and Mickey felt a little better, though still awkward as he held his position until the woman told him that he could stop.

          “You can talk amongst yourselves if you want,” she said, waving a hand at them. Most of her attention was already turned on her canvas.

          Mickey slouched over as soon as he was able, playing mindlessly with Ian’s fingers for a few minutes until he extricated his hand. Mickey looked up, worried that Ian was getting bored or didn’t want to hold his hand anymore, but he started asking Mickey questions after a second and he realized that he just needed his hands to speak. Mickey relaxed again, mumbling answers and asking questions back.

          They talked amongst themselves for the full twenty minutes. Occasionally the woman would lean over and ask them to make the same position they had earlier again, just for a second so she could presumably get an angle or a shadow right, but she seemed content to work off of memory as her primary resource. Mickey, not one to sit still for extended amounts of time, made use of his freedom to move, bouncing his knees and knocking Ian’s shoulder with his own while they talked.

          After about twenty-five minutes, the woman cleared her throat and they both looked up. Smiling now, she turned her easel around so they could see the canvas.

          “How do you like it?” she asked.

          The painting was admittedly beautiful; even Mickey could tell that, and it looked startlingly like them—their shadows at least, sketched out rough but true on the paper. Mickey only had to take one look at Ian to tell that he was even more enthralled by it, glancing between Mickey and the drawing with his lips parted.

          Mickey didn’t even ask Ian. He just reached for his wallet and handed a wad of bills over to the woman, who was smiling kindly and looking just the slightest bit pleased without being overly self-satisfied. Mickey managed to give her a partial smile back, which he hoped looked thankful, as he collected the picture and turned back to Ian. Ian had already gotten to his feet and was holding out the caricature with a smirk on his face.

          Mickey stared at him. “Seriously? You wanna trade and give me that pile of shit for this?”

          The faintest laughter creased Ian’s eyes. He nodded.

          Mickey snorted. “You’re a piece of work, man,” he said as they exchanged pictures. They waved their goodbyes to the woman and set off again.

          Ian led the way down the street fair now, back the way they had come. He looked like he had a destination in mind, so Mickey fell into step with him and didn’t bother trying to pull ahead to lead.

          They walked all the way nearly back to the entrance without Ian saying anything, and Mickey, counting on his purposeful walk to lead them somewhere, didn’t ask. Ian didn’t stop until they were at the very first booth on the street, which Mickey had largely ignored, inundated by the chaos of the fair when he’d first come upon it. Ian stepped up to the vendor, leaving Mickey a few steps behind and giving him a chance to look around.

          The three tables beneath the tent were covered in straps. Leather, woolen, string and twine—straps covered the table, and it took Mickey a second to realize they were supposed to be bracelets, with little ties at the end so they could be wrapped around an arm. They all looked handmade and fashioned together from scratch, but Mickey had to admit the craftsmanship was good.

          Ian was typing up something long on his phone to show to the vendor, and when he had, the woman got up and seemed to deliberate for a second before picking one of the leather bands and bringing it back for Ian’s consideration. Mickey watched as he took it in his hands to study it, and then as he looked up and smiled widely at the woman, nodding. She smiled back and said something that sounded vaguely like pricing from where Mickey was standing a few steps into the road, and Ian dug around in his pocket before exchanging the cash for the bracelet and stepping back with a little appreciative salute. The woman waved back, and Ian turned to Mickey, still grinning.

          “What was that?” Mickey asked.

          Ian just shrugged and shoved the bracelet into his pocket, and Mickey looked away. He pushed his hands back into his jeans.

          “Ready to go, then?” he asked instead. Ian flipped him a thumbs up, so Mickey jerked his head and they started off down the street, away from the fair and back towards regular civilization.

          Ian seemed more animated than before as they walked along, a little bounce to every other step, his hands moving wildly as he told Mickey about how he’d never been to a street fair, but he had taken his little brother to a carnival a few times. He was getting into the time they had both thrown up on the tilt-a-whirl, and Mickey watched him steadily as he went on, barely keeping an eye on where he was walking. He was missing some of the finer parts of the story—Ian had to mime “tilt-a-whirl” because Mickey wasn’t familiar with anything but the basic signs—but he nodded along, liking to watch Ian’s hands move and his face light up as he went into detail about it.

          They only stopped for a second outside of Ian’s apartment building before he waved Mickey inside, and Mickey didn’t think twice before following him up the stairs. Ian opted to walk instead of taking the elevator, and Mickey was too caught up in his stupid story to argue about it. He was huffing a little by the time they got to Ian's floor. Ian looked back at him over his shoulder, shooting him a smirk, and didn’t wait for him to catch up as he headed for his apartment.

          He at least waited outside the door, although that didn’t stop Mickey from cursing at him when he walked up.

          “Fuck you, you fucking walking powerhouse.” Ian just kept smiling at him, and Mickey flipped him off. “Well, what’re you waiting for? We just gonna stand outside all afternoon?”

          Now he looked more nervous than before, his eyes glued to the shitty carpeting, his cheeks tinted pink. Mickey raised his eyebrows at him, and when Ian glanced up, he looked sheepish. Mickey thought there was something awfully endearing about how stupid he looked, blushing and fidgeting with one hand in his pocket. Mickey prompted him with another look, and finally Ian bit his lip and pulled his hand out, offering it to Mickey.

          In his palm was the little leather bracelet he had bought earlier. Now that Mickey could see it properly, he noticed the little shapes carved out of it, a pattern of triangles and lines and circles, ringing the entirety of it. He looked up into Ian’s face. The question in his eyes was clear, even if his hands weren’t free to ask it.

          Slowly, Mickey raised his arm. Offered his wrist out to Ian.

          He blinked a few times before he moved, like he hadn’t expected Mickey to accept. The thought made him shift uncomfortably between the soles of his feet, but then Ian was lifting the bracelet up and tying it tightly around his wrist, enough so it could slip a few inches in either direction but wouldn’t fall off. Mickey examined it for a few seconds against his skin, on his body, and decided he liked it.

          Ian still looked nervous when Mickey looked up. Instead of reassuring him, Mickey asked, “The hell’s this for?”

          Ian gave a jerky shrug. Thanks for today, he signed, which Mickey figured was an answer in itself.

          “I was taking you out,” Mickey said. “You didn’t have to…you know.” He scratched the side of his nose and looked at a spot over Ian’s shoulder. “You know. Thank me.”

          He didn’t look back at him until he felt Ian’s touch, gentle, on his wrist, just beneath the leather band. Ian’s smile was soft but brooked no further argument nor dismissal of his gift. Mickey coughed a little.

          I had fun, Ian signed instead of pushing the matter. Today was fun.

          Mickey managed to lift the corner of his mouth, just a little. “Me too,” he said.

          He didn’t know why he felt so strange. Not awkward, exactly, but like something was different. He stood here all the time, talked to Ian all the time, was around him all the time. Something about standing here now though, outside his apartment after taking him out, left a strange, foreign feeling tingling under his skin. It burned in his gut and in his throat, unorthodox and strong. Mickey’s eyes flicked down to Ian’s mouth for a fraction of a second.

          Ian wasn’t inviting him inside. He was shifting closer—his fingers were back on Mickey’s wrist, his touch light, falling almost to the joint of his thumb. Mickey swallowed. He was shifting closer too, but he wasn’t making the decision to. He wasn’t thinking clearly—Ian’s scent was muddling his head, his wide eyes giving him tunnel vision, his soft smile melting Mickey’s resolve. Something in the back of his head was screaming at him to stop, but Ian was in front of him, turning the volume down to white noise.

          “I had fun,” Mickey whispered. He didn’t know why.

          Ian nodded. He was close, so close. Mickey could count the freckles on his nose or splattered across his cheeks. He didn’t. He couldn’t take his eyes off of Ian’s, and he could see the colors in them, the browns and blues and greens that made his eye color shift with the light. Ian’s smile was small and unassuming.

          Ian’s fingers drifted up his arm, and Mickey inhaled slightly, and that was all it took—he didn’t think, couldn’t stop, just grabbed the sides of his face and pulled him down into a sharp, swift kiss.

          Ian’s gasp was lost in Mickey’s mouth, but he felt it anyway, and let out a little noise himself from the back of his throat. Even though Ian didn’t seem to have caught up mentally yet, his hands were sure where they slid into Mickey’s hair, and they shifted or fell, Mickey didn’t know but then he was being pressed up against the wall, the frame of Ian’s door digging uncomfortably into the side of his back. He paused to breathe but Ian didn’t let him, and as soon as he gave him room to, Ian kissed him harder, slotted their mouths together more precisely. His hands dug too hard into Mickey’s hair and his teeth were too harsh on his lip and the doorframe was still cutting too deep into his back, but Mickey sighed, gripped Ian tighter against him, and let him in.

          Mickey pulled away first, shoving Ian away from him so he could get his breath back. Ian didn’t go far, just enough that he had to untwist his hands from Mickey’s hair. They weren’t looking at each other, and then they were, and then Ian was on him again, and Mickey tilted his head up to meet his mouth again. He felt like he wasn’t breathing properly before, like only now, with Ian’s mouth covering his and Ian’s tongue stealing his air, was he getting the oxygen he needed. He fisted his hands in Ian’s shirt to keep him close, even when Ian pulled back to gasp air for half a second before he ducked back down for more.

          Finally, the kiss slowed, turned into shorter, sweeter ones, and then Ian rested his forehead against Mickey’s and closed his eyes.

          Mickey laughed a shaky breath against Ian’s cheek.

          “Guess I pulled through on the date night, huh?” he said, and felt his chest constrict then lighten when the corners of Ian’s lips turned up. Lips that had been on his not a minute ago.

          Ian’s hands were still on him, making leisurely lines up and down his sides. Mickey was torn between letting him stand half on top of him and touch like this for another good hour or so, and getting out of the hallway into his apartment.

          “Uh,” Mickey started after another second, “Do you think we could maybe…you know…” Ian raised an eyebrow at him, and Mickey finished, “…go somewhere where there isn’t a big piece of wood jamming into my back? Ignore the innuendo there and I’ll probably let you kiss me again.”

          Ian smirked, and Mickey rolled his eyes as he shoved Ian off of him. He thought he saw him laughing as he dutifully went to unlock his door, but he didn’t comment, so Mickey followed him inside without fanfare or aggression.

          They dumped their bags of purchases on Ian’s kitchen counter and split off, Ian for a beer, Mickey for a cigarette by his window. Ian had at some point put an ashtray on the sill, presumably because Mickey spent so much time smoking over there. Ian smoked, but usually not in his apartment, and nowhere near as much as Mickey did. Normally the small gesture wouldn’t have affected him, but he found himself flushing a little as he ashed the tip of his cigarette into the tray and brought it back to his lips.

          Ian joined him after a second, standing on the other side of the window and leaning his hip and his head against the wall. Mickey offered him a faint smile but didn’t say anything—he wasn’t sure they had anything left to say just now. Ian, evidently, disagreed.

          He put his beer down on the windowsill to free his hands. Okay? he asked.

          Mickey didn’t know exactly what he was asking about. Was the kiss okay? The fact that they had kissed, was he okay with that? With today? Was he, right at this moment, alright? Was he feeling as good as Ian? He doubted that—he doubted Ian felt anywhere near as light as he did right in this moment. Light and free and like he could do anything he wanted, as long as he did it right now.

          His eyes flicked back down to Ian’s mouth. There was really only one thing he wanted, right at this very moment.

          “Yeah,” he said, gaze never wavering. “Yeah, I’m okay.”

          Ian’s smile was shyer now, and he seemed to take forever to cross the single step to stand in front of Mickey. He was gentle where he took his face in his hands, and Mickey swept down his sides to touch his hips. He squeezed a little, smiling, and sighed when Ian’s lips met his.

          God, the world had never felt more conquerable. He had never felt more right.

 

          Mickey still felt good when he rolled over the next morning and stretched out in the empty queen-sized bed. He often stayed at Ian’s overnight, but today felt different somehow. He didn’t kid himself about why. The sheets and the pillow and the entire room smelled like Ian, and he smiled to himself as he rolled out of bed and tugged on the first pair of sweatpants he nabbed off the floor. As soon as he walked two steps he realized just who the sweatpants belonged to, but he didn’t mind that he was half tripping over the bottoms and he pushed his way out into the hallway and down to Ian’s bathroom without bothering to change.

          He immediately discovered Ian’s whereabouts; he could hear him in the next room over through the wall by the mirror, and as he splashed some water on his face and stole a swig of mouthwash, he realized was hearing someone talking and someone else shuffling around.

          He unconsciously paused, quietening the swish of mouthwash that was making it harder to hear. He could smell bacon, too; Ian had to be cooking, but he didn’t know who else might be with him. He knew he’d woken up fairly late, but not so much so that Ian should reasonably have company already.

          The voice interrupted his confused musings.

          “...I mean, why wouldn’t you be with him?”

          For a second Mickey thought they must be talking about him, but then after a pause in which Ian must have been signing something, the first guy said, “Which is all well and good. I get it! But he’s your soulmate, and you know it—and you’re still just fucking around—”

          Mickey’s heart sank. Whomever was in there sounded young, around Mickey’s age, and despite the arrogance in his tone he sounded genuine. He obviously cared about Ian, and that in itself gave Mickey pause. Something in the guy’s voice made him hope he didn’t have too much sway over Ian, because he didn’t think he liked where this was going.

          “That’s so fucking stupid, Ian,” the guy sighed. “No offense! But that’s completely fucking stupid. It’s actually the dumbest thing I’ve heard in awhile.” Another pause, and then—“Ha ha, you got me. Dumbest thing I’ve seen in awhile. God, seriously though Ian, are you even listening to me? Hey, look at me.”

          More shuffling from the other room. Mickey spat out his mouthwash and turned the faucet on, bending to scoop water into his mouth, and as he swished it around, the conversation outside started back up.

          “Look, I’m just looking out for you, you know? I know you don’t need it! But you’re my brother, kid, like it or not.” He made an irritated noise, and Mickey suddenly knew who it was—that obnoxious boy who’d been with Ian way back when they’d first met, when they’d first bumped into each other at that club. Defensive, obnoxious, protective, arrogant—Mickey couldn’t remember his name.

          “I know you think you’re being smart about how you’re playing this, but listen—you’re playing him. Him, in there. I know you don’t mean to, and you think you’ve got this under control, but it’s not gonna end pretty.”

          For some reason, even with the harsh mint of the wash flushed from his mouth, Mickey’s throat was burning dully when he spit out the water and turned the sink back on to watch it swirl down the drain. He couldn’t look up into the mirror over the sink. He just watched the water coil away, his head pounding dully like a hangover.

          You’re playing him. Him, in there. Ian’s brother’s voice was spiraling through his head, and his grip on the faucet handle tightened harshly. He’s your soulmate, and you know it—and you’re still fucking around. Mickey breathed in sharply, painfully. Ian had a soulmate. He’s your soulmate, and you’re still fucking around. With Mickey. Mickey was keeping someone else from a soulmate, but that wasn’t new—what was new was that Ian was choosing him. Not secretly, not behind anyone’s back. Ian was taking him out to dinner and letting him spend the night and telling his family about him. And kissing him. The last part made his chest constrict like it had yesterday afternoon, but the butterflies that had come with it were gone. The fucked up part was that Mickey didn’t care about whoever Ian was supposed to be with. He didn’t care that Ian wasn’t with someone else, because he liked it.

          The worst part was that one day Ian would stop fucking around, and Mickey didn’t want him to. Really, actively, hoped he wouldn’t. He wanted him to stay.

          Shit.

          He finished what he was doing in the bathroom and went back to Ian’s room to grab his phone. He didn’t bother to keep it down or pretend he wasn’t awake, and he didn’t bother to listen to the rest of the conversation in the kitchen. He didn’t care what they were saying anymore. He pulled on his t-shirt and his jeans and sent Sully a quick text to let him know he was coming over in thirty, and then he headed down the hall and into the kitchen.

          As soon as he walked in, Mickey recognized him as indeed the boy from the club a few months back. His lips thinned where he pressed them together, and Mickey made no attempt at a smile as he turned instead to Ian.

          “Gotta go,” he said, though the urgency he’d meant to inject was offset by the way he rocked back on his heels. He half hoped Ian told him not to go, and was instantly afraid that he would.

          Ian’s brow pulled together and he dropped his hands where he had been midway through an introduction of Mickey and his brother—Lip, Ian’s hands were telling him, Lip—and he came towards him. Ian reached to put his hands on his shoulders, but Mickey flinched away from the touch. A mixture of shock and hurt crossed his features before Ian schooled his expression back to concerned.

          Are you okay? he signed, brow still drawn and furrowed. I made breakfast. He jerked his thumb back towards the stove, where the bacon Mickey had smelled earlier was sizzling. He hesitated.

          Mickey’s head was aching dully again. “I can’t,” he forced himself to say. “I’ve got to go. I’ve got…I have to go.”

          Ian’s face crumpled, but he still looked more confused than anything. He reached out again and Mickey backed away.

          “I have to go,” he said again. He didn’t know why he was repeating himself so much. Everything felt suddenly numb. “I’ll pick up my stuff later. Don’t—I’ll call you.”

          Now Ian looked more hurt than before, but Mickey turned around anyway—still completely ignoring Lip—and left the apartment. He slammed the door louder than necessary behind him.

          Sully lived three blocks past Mickey’s own apartment, but the walk seemed fast anyway, his head still all filled up with Lip’s words. Ian might not be listening to him yet, but he would eventually. Soon after that Mickey would be nothing but a memory, and he did not intend to go on anyone’s terms but his. The way he always walked out of some fuckbuddy’s life.

          That’s all Ian was. That’s all he was supposed to be. That’s all he’d started out as.

          Mickey shook his head. He’d always been so careful. He didn’t know what had changed.

          When he got to Sully’s building, he pressed the buzzer too many times and far too hard, and stormed his way towards the elevator once he’d been buzzed inside. The elevators in this place were even more likely to break down than the ones in Mickey’s apartment complex, but he was not in any kind of mood to face the six flights of stairs and so entered the creaking contraption anyway, thumbing hard at the button for his floor and tapping his foot impatiently while it lumbered its way up. Some preteen girls got on a few flights up, all giggling, but one look at Mickey and he snapped, “What?” and they turned in immediately and started up a whispered conversation that buzzed and grated on Mickey’s ears. He slipped off as quickly as possible once the doors opened on his floor, throwing a glare over his shoulder and stomping down the hall until he reached Sully’s apartment. He knocked angry and loud on the door.

          Sully was brushing his teeth when he pulled it open. He looked Mickey up and down, cocked an eyebrow, and said, “Dude, what twisted its way into your ass this early in the morning?”

          Mickey glared, and Sully shrugged, rolled his eyes, and started brushing again as he stepped back. He mumbled something through a mouthful of spit and toothpaste, which Mickey ignored in favor of stomping over to his refrigerator and rifling through it for something to eat.

          “Shit.” He ran his hand through his hair. He wanted Ian’s fucking breakfast.

          Grumbling now, he pulled bacon out of Sully’s freezer and set about readying the stove. He could hear his friend moving around the bathroom and took the alone time to stab the bacon way too aggressively as he flipped it over and over in the pan too many times.

          “Jesus, kill the pig twice, why don’t you.”

          Mickey glanced up and noticed Sully leaning against the counter behind him, now wearing a shirt and a smirk to match.

          “Asshole.”

          “Sounds like we’re getting closer,” Sully said, pushing off the counter and going to his pantry. He pulled out a box of cereal and situated himself beside the stove, watching Mickey with one eye and shoveling handfuls of Lucky Charms into his mouth with the other. “What’s got you up so early, huh? And so pissed? You sounded like you were getting railed to nirvana in the pocket dial you left me last night.”

          “Stop picking those up,” Mickey snapped. “God, nothing happened! I overheard some shit. Shit. Nothing happened.”

          Sully snorted. “Overheard some shit?” he repeated. “I thought your boyfriend was mute.”

          “He is mute,” Mickey said, resisting the urge to brandish the spatula at him because he’d probably flick burning grease if he did, and though tempting, he made it a point not to really injure his only friends. He thought over what Sully had just said and hastily added, “And he’s not my boyfriend!”

          Sully snickered, dodged the punch Mickey threw at him, and laughed some more.

          “Shut the fuck up!”

          “Chill the fuck out,” Sully said, throwing a handful of cereal at his head. A few pieces fell into the pan, and Mickey fished them out with the spatula. Sully swallowed more cereal and asked, “So what happened with him then?”

          Mickey’s lip curled at the memory as he went over it, trying to figure out how best to retell it to Sully. In retrospect, it wasn’t that bad, but the overhead conversation still left a spoiled feeling in his stomach. He chose the most logical way to phrase it and said lowly, “Overhead his asshole brother saying he knew who his soulmate was, and that he was just killing time fucking around with me.”

          Sully sucked air in loudly through his teeth. “Fuck,” he muttered. “Fuck, shit, that’s bad.”

          That wasn’t exactly the reaction Mickey had been hoping for. If anything, he’d wanted him to downplay the situation, not confirm his fears.

          “No shit,” Mickey said, but more wearily than anything else. “I know it’s fucking bad.” He breathed tightly through his clenched jaw. “Fuck.”

          “He break up with you?”

          Mickey threw him a look for his word choice but otherwise did not address it. “No,” he said truthfully. “Don’t know what he was saying, but he sounded adamant about the fuckbuddy thing being, you know. A thing.”

          “So what’s the problem?”

          Mickey ran a hand through his hair again, messing it up beyond bedhead. He flipped the stove off and went to find a plate for his breakfast as he contemplated what to tell him.

          “The problem,” Mickey began, slowly, “is that Ian’s the kind of guy who wants to hold hands and make out in movies theatres like he’s eight-fucking-teen. Which, you know, he is. But still!”

          Sully looked lost. “But still what?” he said blankly.

          Mickey chewed on the end of one piece of bacon, scrunching his nose up at the still-burning food and the question at hand.

          “But I’m not,” he said finally, “that kind of guy.”

          “But you want to be,” Sully pointed out.

          Mickey straightened at that. He dropped the strip of bacon he’d been nibbling at back on the plate and raised his eyebrows.

          “Where the fuck do you get that idea?”

          Sully, having never been intimidated by a Milkovich in his life and definitely not starting now, laughed. He waved his hands around, sending Lucky Charms flying everywhere.

          “Look at you, man!” he said, still grinning obscenely. “You’re pining and shit, got your dick all up in knots because he might want to be with his soulmate and like, do all that romantic shit with someone else!”

          “So?”

          “So you want it to be you!” Sully shouted, with a look like he couldn’t believe he had to spell this out.

          Mickey was shaking his head before Sully even finished.

          “No way. When Ian gets serious—when he wants more than just a good romp and wants to, like, settle down and shit—he’s gonna choose his soulmate. End of story. He’s the romantic, cookie-cutter fairytale bullshit type of guy. Of course he’s gonna want to be with his fucking soulmate!”

          Sully pressed his lips together. He shook his head a little, and his eyes were sympathetic when he looked at Mickey. “You want it to be with you,” he said again, but gentler this time, and turned up like half a question.

          Mickey set his plate down fully and ran his hand over his face, thumbed at his lower lip. “We’re not together,” he said eventually, glancing back up at Sully.

          “Dude, you’re practically living together with how much time you spend at each other’s. Oh, don’t make that face.” Sully waved him off, then reached out to snag a piece of bacon. He secured one, and though Mickey got in a stinging slap to his wrist, Sully smirked. “Seriously though,” he said around his next mouthful, “not that I’m, like, a relationship expert—” Mickey snorted at the understatement and Sully thwacked him upside the head, “—but shouldn’t you, you know, talk to him maybe? Find out what he wants?”

          Mickey turned the idea over as he chewed on more bacon. “No,” he said finally with a sigh. “I can’t bring that shit up to him, I won’t let him fucking walk out on me like that. I gotta—I gotta do it, you know? Not for him, for me. I gotta end it.”

          “A preemptive breakup?” Sully sounded unimpressed. “Those never work out.”

          “This is different,” Mickey snapped. “Ian has a soulmate, I don’t! And he fucking thinks he can act like he wants this shit with me when he’s gonna turn around and fuck me over as soon as he gets bored? No fucking way. No fucking way. He’s fucking playing me. He’s fucking playing me.” Mickey’s voice was starting to shake. He shook his head furiously, hands curling into fists. His nails dug painfully into his palms. “He’s fucking—I’m not gonna let him. Fucking fuck him. Fuck him! I’m not gonna fucking let him.”

          Sully was watching him when he looked up, his mouth twisted, his eyes gentle. Mickey pulled away from his sympathy with a scoff, grabbing his plate and heading for the living room instead. Only when he was sitting on the couch, and when he was sure that he had his wavering voice under control, did he call back to Sully. He sounded rougher than intended and hoped for his friend’s sake that Sully ignored it.

          “Hey, shithead, you coming? Where’s your fucking remote, the game’s on.”

          Sully joined him after a moment. He was silent, watchful, as he sprawled out on his own couch and dug the remote out from between the cushions to hand to Mickey. They barely spoke to each other all morning, and when Mickey left, Sully pulled him into a rough, rare hug that Mickey returned for half a second before slamming the door behind him.

          He spent the day drinking too much beer and quietly playing video games with Colin and Tony, who, mercifully, where mostly silent creatures. When his brothers left, Mickey just switched to single player and kept going. He didn’t know how or when but he blamed Sully for the girls coming over in the evening, sitting on opposite sides on him on the couch, and joining his quest to kill every zombie on screen without a word.

          “So what happened?” Karen asked eventually, as they booted up round two. Mickey glanced at her but her eyes were fixed on the screen, so he chanced an answer.

          “Fucking kissed him,” he said shortly. He felt two sets of eyes on him, and didn’t even breathe again until the screen showed that they had turned their attentions back to zombie slaughter.

          “How was it?” Mandy asked, twisting her controller needlessly to help her hack at one of the stronger zombies and bumping into Mickey’s arm as she did it.

          He shoved her back into her own space. “Like most kisses, I don’t know,” he lied, because kissing Ian wasn’t like the (admittedly few) others he had experienced. Granted, those had been back when he had just started hooking up regularly, before he decided he didn’t like it because he didn’t like them, the guys, and before he decided that he wouldn’t kiss anyone he didn’t want more than physically ever again. Kisses were romantic, and intimate, and personal, and Mickey didn’t like them.

          But Mickey liked kissing Ian.

          He cursed under his breath, but the girls either didn’t hear it or ignored it or assumed he was talking to the game.

          “Then why the angry visit to Sully and the day spent sulking and murdering zombies?” Karen asked.

          “Fucking Sully,” Mickey muttered. “Fucking knew it.”

          Karen nudged him with her shoulder without taking her eyes off the video game. “Answer me or I start on friendly fire,” she warned.

          Mickey picked up a new gun and opened fire on a hallway full of zombies. As he advanced on the next room, he gritted his teeth and said, “His brother dropped by this morning.”

          The girls were quiet for a few minutes. Mickey hoped—but knew better than to bet on—that the conversation was over. Not until they cleared another room did Mandy speak up.

          “So what? Did he try to warn you off his precious fragile baby brother?”

          Mickey cut his eyes to her to find her watching him with a sly grin, and they both snorted at the thought of Mickey backing off just because some asshole underestimated Ian’s judgement or disrespected his right to autonomy.

          “Nah,” Mickey said, turning back to the game. He opened fire for a second on a group of zombies, momentarily distracted by the onslaught. When things died down, he remembered to elaborate. “Bastard basically told Ian he should stop fucking around with me and go be with his real soulmate. Which, you know, he apparently has.”

          “What do you mean?” Karen asked.

          Mickey ran a hair through his hair, then cursed and dropped it back to his controller to fight the enemy that had attacked him in his lapse of concentration. “Like he knows him,” he gritted out as he hacked the zombie to bits. “He knows his soulmate and he’s busy fucking around with me, apparently. His brother thinks he’s wasting his fucking time.”

          He could feel their eyes on him again and steadily ignored them. Finally Mandy asked the inevitable question.

          “What does Ian think?”

          Mickey shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. Kid’s right. One day Ian’ll see it too.”

          He could feel them looking at him, but it was different than before. Even without looking he could tell that Mandy had her eyebrows raised and Karen was curling her lip at him, because he had spent a long time being judged by these two.

          “So you’re just giving up?” Mandy said finally, sounding disgusted. “God, you fucking pussy.”

          “Who gives a shit what some shithead thinks?” Karen added.

          “No, I’m not giving up!” Mickey snapped. “I’m getting out before he fucks with me! Jesus, he’s already been fucking with me. I’m just not letting him screw me up even more.”

          They were silent. Mickey’s words hung heavy in the air. He wanted to grab them back, make the girls forget he’d said them. He didn’t turn to see their pity or disdain. He just kept shooting round after round at the zombies onscreen.

          “Jesus, Mickey,” Mandy said finally. She didn’t sound angry anymore. Mickey didn’t look at her.

          “I kissed him,” he repeated firmly, because he might as well get it all out now and avoid ever having a conversation like this again. “As in I did it.”

          He didn’t expect the slap to his head that came a second later, or the glare Karen leveled at him.

          “What the fuck?” Mickey shouted. “Bitch!”

          Karen sneered. “I’ve been waiting for this for months and you lay it on me now? Fuck you, Mickey!”

          “Sorry I didn’t kiss him at a more opportune time!” he snarled. “Get the fuck out of my apartment!”

          Karen rolled her eyes, settling obviously into her seat. She picked up her controller again. “You’re such a dipshit,” she said idly, starting back in on the zombie slaughter. Mandy nodded wisely from his other side.

          “I fucking hate you two,” he groused. “Why the fuck do I let you come over?”

          “Who else would give you the sage advice we do?” Karen said absently.

          “If you’re too fucking dumb to talk to him, we need to slap some fucking sense into you,” Mandy agreed.

          Mickey sneered. “Sully beat you to the advice and the insults, thanks.”

          “Well, I can see why you ignored him,” Karen said. “But now it’s us, and we’re actually smart. Don’t make that face, asshole. We’re the only two in stable relationships these days, so wise the fuck up and go talk to your boytoy. He doesn’t need to know you’ve had a goddamn breakdown all day, he’ll probably take you back.”

          “We didn’t break up!” Mickey snapped. “Fuck, I mean we’re not together!”

          Mandy snorted derisively. “Whatever you say, you sad sack. You fucking kissed him.”

          “You’ve kissed everyone in town, that doesn’t mean you’re together!”

          Karen slapped him hard on the arm. “What the fuck have I said about slut shaming in my house?”

          “This is my house and I’m just stating fact!”

          Karen bared her teeth. “Watch your fucking tone then.”

          Mickey contemplated strangling her. Before he could, Mandy said, “Jesus, get it the fuck together. I can’t believe we’re related,” and then he didn’t know on which of them to turn his irritation. He settled for muttering darkly and going back to his game, and thankfully, they followed suit. Neither of them mentioned the sad state of his life again, instead jumping into a conversation about how Karen wanted matching tattoos with her boyfriend and girlfriend, with Mandy enthusiastically inputting suggestions and Mickey mostly tuning them out, only occasionally jumping in to veto stupid ideas and insult his sister. He felt a little better by the time they left, each granting him tight hugs goodbye and tighter voices warning him to wise the fuck up.

          He had two texts from Ian when he checked his phone that night. He ignored them both and went to find a beer and something mindless on TV.

 

          Mickey didn’t text him back. He ignored his messages and deleted the voicemails from unknown numbers, which turned out to be Lip warning him off for apparently hurting Ian. As much as he didn’t like to think about how running off would look to him, he couldn’t help but imagine Ian, waiting for him to reach out and getting less hopeful as the days passed.

          Mickey didn’t let himself wallow. He went to work and came home late and made sure his fridge was stocked with beer. His TV was almost always on, but the noise didn’t help filter out the emptiness of his apartment. His friends came over most days too, but nothing seemed to fill the space; his place felt very large all of a sudden.

          A week passed. He ate, and slept, and went about his business, just like he had before he met Ian. The drone of daily life hadn’t seemed grey before, but it all did now. He thought maybe he was imagining it until one of his coworkers mentioned that he seemed, if possible, more alternatingly apathetic and hotheaded than usual, and Mickey had to warn him off with his long-ago perfected sneer. He didn’t know if he meant in relation to how he had been before Ian or if the change was only visible because Ian had livened the grey briefly, turned it technicolor. Either way he made sure to double down on his scowling to prevent any more unsolicited comments on his attitude.

          His friends tried in turn to cheer him up, then encourage him, and then resumed telling him that this was his mess to clean up, before ultimately resigning themselves to sympathy and distraction. He waved them off at every step. He didn’t need anyone’s pity, no matter what form it took.  Fighting through dark moods wasn’t something he usually took on as a group effort—Mickey, after all, was very used to being alone.

          On day six, he went to a bar with Sully and got so drunk they went out into the alley and ruffled some guys up enough to pay for their next three rounds. He thought, dimly, that the world had once again righted itself—this was where he was meant to be, what he was meant to be doing. Fighting in the dirt, getting filthy from the effort, all coated in grime.

          On day seven he woke up to a hangover that thoroughly convinced him that he should never set foot outside his apartment again. Bed was where he was meant to be, the curtains pulled tightly shut on the window, his pillow blocking all noise and light. He consumed three cups of coffee before eleven and thought that he was made to have his heart pounding and his covers pulled up above his head.

          Eight days after he kissed Ian, he woke up to someone pounding viciously on his door. He didn’t work weekends and fully intended on sleeping in until at least noon, one o’clock if he could swing it, but one glance at his alarm clock indicated that it was only half past nine. He grumbled and turned over, pulling the sheet up over his head as he curled up, and he hoped that whomever it was would go away.

          They didn’t. The knocking persisted, and finally Mickey threw the sheets off of himself and rolled to his feet. He hissed threats under his breath as he stumbled for the door, and he was still blinking sleep and sunlight from his eyes when he pulled it open. He didn’t move for a second as his vision adjusted to the light, but then he blinked his way to fuller consciousness and his stomach dropped to the floor.

          Ian looked frazzled and annoyed and concerned when he shoved past Mickey and into his apartment without waiting for an invitation. Mickey muttered some more but stepped aside for him, and shut the door hard behind him.

          “Can I help you?” he griped, already shuffling towards the kitchen and the coffee pot.

          Ian was sneering when he turned around, back pressed close to the counter.

          Thought you were sick, Ian signed, still with an ugly look on his face. Or dead.

          Mickey shrugged one shoulder and avoided his eyes. He took a sip of his coffee. “Told you I’d call you first,” he muttered. “Did you hear your fucking phone ring?”

          What the fuck? Ian demanded. Did we fight?

          Mickey glanced up at his face, confused. “What do you mean, did we fight? You having memory loss or something?”

          His glare softened, but Mickey wished it hadn’t. Underneath he just looked upset and unhappy. Despite himself, something still coiled discontentedly in his chest when Ian’s face crumpled like that.

          What happened?

          Mickey scoffed and pushed away from the counter, away from him. He held his coffee closer to his chest to keep it from spilling as he moved into his living room, leaning against the back of the couch instead. Ian’s arm was raised when he turned like he’d intended to grab his shoulder, but he dropped it when Mickey faced him. The pleading look didn’t leave his face, though.

          Mickey, and he looked desperate when he signed it, what happened?

          Mickey looked down at his coffee, then back at his face, then down again. He almost decided to say nothing, but then he muttered, “Ain’t gonna let you play me.”

          Confusion bloomed over Ian’s features, and he seemed to struggle for a second before he settled on, What?

          Anger shot down Mickey’s spine. “What do you mean, what?” he snapped. “I fucking heard you and your shit brother talking, okay? Fuck right off with your ‘what’ bullshit.”

          Ian seemed to still be struggling with that he was talking about, which only made him angrier. He felt sharp around his already rough edges, desperate to lash out.

          “Fuck you, okay?” Heat was building in him, but it wasn’t the usual kind that lived inside him whenever Ian was around. This was barbed wire. Mickey felt made of acid. “Fuck you and your fucking—whatever the fuck this is!” He waved his free hand at Ian as though to encompass his entire being, and he pushed away from the couch, standing straighter. Ian fell back a step. “Fucking—fuck you! You think you can come in here…come to me with all this shit…You think I’m gonna let you fuck with me like this?”

          Ian grabbed his wrist from where his hand was flailing in the air, but Mickey ripped his arm away.

          What are you talking about? Ian signed. His confusion hadn’t faded entirely, but part of it seemed to have given over to resolve. He, Mickey knew too well, had plenty of fight in him too.

          “Goddamn it, I heard you!” He was shouting now, but he didn’t care. Ian’s gaze was hard, harder than any stare he’d ever directed at him before. Mickey’s spine snapped straighter. “I heard you and your fucking brother, fucking talking about how you were just screwing with me! What’d you think? You could come in here and use me as your fucking plaything? That a goddamn Milkovich was gonna let you throw him out when you got bored of your sidepiece and wanted to settle down real nice? Well fuck you!”

          Ian’s eyes were wide, his stance defenseless. He just stood there, hair mussed like he’d rolled out of bed and come straight here, face wide and open like it always was in the morning. He looked absolutely beautiful, and absolutely exposed. Mickey fucking hated him.

          Ian reached forward again as though to lay his hand on Mickey’s arm, but Mickey jerked away.

          “Go fuck yourself,” he spat. “Go be with your fucking soulmate if you want to fuck someone up so bad.”

          Ian’s brow furrowed. Who?

          Mickey raised his eyebrows. “Who the fuck do you think?”

          Ian’s expression had cleared to something more urgent, so much so that Mickey didn’t entirely notice when he stepped forward again, and didn’t push him off when he touched his fingers lightly to his elbow. Who do you think he is? he asked, hands jerkier than usual in his desperation, or his agitation—Mickey couldn’t tell which.

          “I don’t know,” Mickey said. He was so surprised at Ian’s sudden change in demeanor that he forgot to be angry for a second. He just sounded nonplussed. “Whoever your—your brother mentioned him. I don’t know.”

          Something in Ian’s jaw softened, like he had unclenched his whereas Mickey had started gritting his teeth. Mickey could see his face relax. God, just the mention of him had Ian melting. Mickey wanted to punch someone. He wasn’t sure who—this mystery soulmate, Ian, Lip. Himself, maybe.

          Mickey jerked his arm away from Ian. “Don’t touch me,” he spat, head clearing and tone still fiery, but not as fiery as he wanted. “Get the fuck out.”

          Ian ignored him, though he did back up a couple of steps, his hands in the air like a peace offering. Mickey’s lip was curling, and Ian was slow when he lowered his arms, like he was afraid Mickey might attack if he moved too quickly. He was seriously considering it—at the moment, he felt rabid.

          “You fucking stupid? I told you to get out!”

          Ian’s fingers had found the bottom of his shirt; despite himself, Mickey watched what he was doing, as he slowly lifted the hem of it up to expose the bottom half of his abdomen. Mickey’s eyes dragged over his toned stomach up to his face, and he took a few steps closer when their eyes met.

          “The fuck do you think this is?” Mickey asked, voice now low and dangerous. “I don’t know what fucking conversation you’re having, but it don’t end with you taking your goddamn shirt off.”

          Ian’s eyes were wide, his expression blank, but something in it made Mickey think he was fighting a smile. The thought had him boiling again—no one laughed at his anger, ever. Ian had no right.

          Instead of refuting him, Ian lowered his eyes. They passed slowly over Mickey’s face, his neck, his chest, and all the way down his body until they skipped to Ian’s own frame. To the little black words inked over his hipbone. Something in Ian’s gaze had Mickey following it down to his tattoo, and he stepped closer unconsciously.

          “So what?” Mickey said, eyes darting back up to Ian’s face, and at his voice, Ian’s attention jumped to him. “You have Words. I already knew that, even if you never let me see them.”

          Ian pressed his lips together and looked back down, as deliberately as before, the act itself a gesture. Unwillingly, Mickey peered down at the script on his skin until he could make out the letters, stark black against Ian’s pale skin:

          jeez fucking watch it asshole

          Mickey read the words once, then again, then one more time before looking back up into Ian’s face. Ian looked hopeful and happy and a million other good things that Mickey didn’t understand.

          He shifted his weight, uncomfortable and prickling with irritation and something that he refused to define as jealousy. “So what?” he said, expression pinching. “Your guy sounds like a real piece of work, but…” He shrugged instead of finishing the sentence.

          Ian’s lips were twitching. He let his shirt fall back into place so he could sign, He is, and he rolled his eyes while he did it.

          Mickey licked his lips, his focus darting around the room. Despite trying not to look at Ian, he found himself glancing at him every couple of seconds anyway. Ian’s gaze was steady, unwavering and focused directly on him. He managed to muster up a dirty look to throw at him.

          “What?” he snapped. “What are you hoping? You want me to talk you out of it or something? Say you’re better with me? You want me to chase after you like some bitch?” His volume was getting louder and louder, and his hands were starting to shake; he curled them into fists so tight that his palms stung where his nails were digging in.

          Ian’s eyes widened; his expression was slipping off his face, amusement and affection quickly giving way to alarm at the ugly look on Mickey’s face.

          “I’m not your goddamn plaything!” Mickey shouted. He slammed his fist down on the back of the couch, and though he didn’t make a noise, Ian jumped like he’d slammed the door. Mickey kept shouting: “I’m not yours to fuck around with when you feel like an easy lay! We’re not dating and we’re not together and we are certainly not fucking soulmates! So get the fuck out of my apartment!”

          Ian’s eyebrows drew together, but he looked steadfast. His resolve to fight back only strengthened Mickey’s frustration, but Ian signed before he could speak.

          Who is he, then? he demanded. Not me?

          Without even knowing why Ian would be asking such a ridiculous question—soulmates were meant for each other, after all, no one had one who was supposed to be with somebody else—Mickey spat his answer.

          “Fucking nobody,” he snarled. “Yeah, that make you happy, Ian? I’ve never had one and I never will, so back the fuck up with this bullshit, you get me? I don’t give a shit about that, but I sure as fuck don’t need you rubbing it in my goddamn face. You don’t get to say that shit.” He was breathing hard without realizing it, and even once he did recognize his harsh breathing, he couldn’t think of why it was happening. “You don’t get to say it.”

          Ian’s hands stuttered in the air for a second. He looked the way he sometimes did when he knew what he wanted to say but he wasn’t sure how to simplify the words so that Mickey could understand.

          Mickey scoffed and yanked up the bottom of his t-shirt, then tore off the bandaid underneath it. “You happy now?” he sneered. Ian was just staring at the blank space over his hip. Where there should have been Words, but where there was nothing. “You feel better now, knowing it’s not you?”

          Ian didn’t do anything for a second. Mickey scoffed and let his shirt fall back into place, and he rolled his eyes.

          “It’s not you,” he repeated. His voice came out dull this time, emotionless. Mickey was used to being alone.

          Ian found the sense to move again, and Mickey unwillingly tracked his hands when he lowered them, now shaking minutely, down to his shirt again. He flashed Mickey his Words again, and Mickey frowned when he looked back up into his face.

          It’s...you, Ian signed slowly, looking frustrated at the lack of words available to him. It’s you.

          The set of his mouth deepening, Mickey arched a brow and asked, “What’s me?”

          Ian sighed. It’s you, he signed again. Shit, Mickey…it’s you.

          Something warm and light was fluttering in his chest, and his throat shrunk as he tried to tamp it down. Ian didn’t mean what he thought he meant. He couldn’t.

          In an irrepressibly shaky voice, he asked again, quiet now, “What’s me?”

          Ian sucked his lip into his mouth, looking almost shy when he glanced up at Mickey with his head ducked down. Do you remember what you said when you met me?

          Mickey didn’t remember. He thought back to that first time anyway, though, when he had crashed into Ian in that club, when he had almost been knocked flat on his ass only for Ian to pull him back up. He had said something…something rude, probably. In all honesty, Mickey had no idea what he had said to him exactly, but he knew himself well enough to know what he was likely to say: something crass, full of curses, probably snapping at him to stay out of his way or to pull his head out of his ass, something about paying attention. Something about watching where he was going…

          Mickey looked up at Ian too. Where their gazes met, they held. Then Mickey lowered them back to where Ian’s skin was hidden beneath his clothes, that space over his hip tattooed but hidden from him. He swore and turned away, pacing around to the other side of the couch so he could put his coffee down on the table and run his hands through his hair, but he felt Ian following him, and when he turned he was right there, so close—too close. The space where Mickey knew his Words to be was drawing his eyes, demanding his attention. Mickey froze; Ian watched him carefully. Slowly, his hands trembling slightly, Mickey reached across the distance between them. He took a step closer and pushed up the fabric of Ian’s t-shirt one more time, breathing shallowly and reading the words imprinted on Ian’s waist.

          jeez fucking watch it asshole

          He studied the tiny sentence once, twice, again—again and again until they were the only thing resounding through his head, over and over and over again.

          He lifted his eyes to Ian’s. “What did I say?” he said softly, insistently. Assuming wasn’t enough, never had been—he’d been assuming all his life. But now he knew Ian, and he needed to know. “What did I say when you ran into me?”

          Ian’s lips tugged up at the corner. Mickey’s fingers slipped over his Words again, tracing more than just the outlines. He ran his fingers over every inch of them, across the smooth letters that felt no different from skin, and he didn’t for a second look away from Ian’s face.

          Fucking watch it, Ian signed, hands so close to Mickey’s face that he went slightly cross-eyed to look at them. Ian’s smile grew, going full-blown like an expanding sun, and he added, Asshole.

          “Cheeky asshole,” Mickey corrected, but his words came out as more of a gasp as he lifted his hands to Ian’s face and pulled him down to him, and their lips met messily, artlessly, desperately.

          Ian managed to keep kissing him as he sat down, pulling Mickey half on top of him when they fell together onto the couch. Mickey spread his hands over his shoulders instead, keeping their chests close as he turned to kiss Ian from a different angle, one that gave Mickey more of his mouth to devour. After a second, Ian pushed him away to tug his shirt up and off, and in the space that Ian gave him, Mickey remembered something else fueling the low rumble of anger that had not completely dissipated from his stomach. Ian tried to pull him back into him, but Mickey knocked his hands away, shifting a little bit further from him on the couch and looking up at him with his teeth worrying his bottom lip.

          What’s wrong? Ian asked. His breaths came in pants, and his hands curled into fists on his thighs. His expression was open, clear, curious, and wanting, so Mickey suspected the gesture was restraint at grabbing for him again rather than frustration.

          “Why didn’t you tell me?” he demanded finally. “Why the fuck would you keep that to yourself?”

          Ian, at the very least, looked moderately ashamed; he stared at his own hands, twisting and untwisting on his lap. Bare-chested and now clad only in his sweatpants—he looked remarkably like he had rushed over here before doing anything else that morning—he painted a fairly ridiculous picture, bashful and blushing and avoiding Mickey’s gaze.

          He seemed to struggle with an answer for awhile; Mickey suspected this was more due to an unwillingness to admit his motivation rather than not remembering or not knowing his own reason.

          I was scared, he signed finally, heaving a great sigh as he did. You know what you’re like.

          A laugh bubbled out of Mickey before he could stop it, and he slapped at Ian’s bare shoulder. Ian cracked a reluctant smile.

          “No, I do not know what I’m like!” he half-shouted, trying not to laugh too hard so that he could keep teasing. “What the fuck, Ian?”

          Ian let out a little laugh too. You know, he insisted, poking at Mickey’s ribs. Mickey shouted out, twisting away from him. You know! You’re… He clearly struggled for a proper insult that Mickey would be able to understand before settling on, You’re a dick! What did you want me to do? Tell a guy I didn’t know we should be with each other? Say we were soulmates? When?

          “Whenever!” Mickey yelled, slapping at him again, but Ian batted his hands away. “When’s a bad time to stop me thinking I was dying alone?!”

          Ian pressed his lips together, but his eyes crinkled in a familiar expression somewhere between guilt and the usual look of pity Mickey got when he mentioned not having a soulmate. Or thinking he didn’t have one. Fuck. He scrubbed a hand over his face.

          I didn’t know, Ian signed. You had a bandaid over it, I didn’t know. I thought maybe… He paused, and an expression crossed over his face that was so familiar that Mickey reached out to squeeze his thigh reassuringly.

          “You thought you weren’t mine?” he guessed. “That I was hiding my Words like taking off a wedding band?” Only worse; marriages between non-soulmates didn’t mean as much. Mickey hiding his Words would have been worse than pretending he didn’t have a husband.

          Ian nodded. Then he paused, cut himself off, and looked almost nervous when he added, Or that you didn’t want me like…this.

          Mickey needed a second to comprehend what he was saying, before he realized what Ian was talking about.

          “That doesn’t happen,” Mickey pointed out. Then, as the knowledge of Ian’s own self-pity rushed through him, he loudly added, “And that wouldn’t happen!”

          Ian shrugged. That doesn’t happen either, he signed, pointing at Mickey’s shirt where, beneath, his skin lay bare.

          This time, the thought of his empty hip just made him quirk a smile.

          “This does happen,” he said, without heat or even any real inflection. Just a fact. “There’s been documented cases of this happening.”

          Ian spread his hands. Why would I know that? he asked, rhetorically.

          Mickey tipped his head in acknowledgement. He worried at his bottom lip, wondering where to go from here, and wondering what else he could ask from Ian that would ease the remainder of the shallow burning in his gut and finally leave them on even ground.

          He glanced up at Ian, face lowered. “You should have told me,” he murmured. “All those months, and I…” He spread his hands hopelessly.

          Except, not everything was hopeless anymore.

          Ian tipped forward to grab for him, his hands landing halfway on Mickey’s wrists. He slid his grip over the leather band Mickey hadn’t taken off his wrist until he was grasping at his hands instead, curling his freckled ones around Mickey’s rougher, smaller ones. Ian squeezed them between his once and then pulled them away.

          I should’ve told you, he agreed, expression drawn with sincerity. Sorry.

          Mickey glanced at him again, then away. He could feel Ian’s gaze steady on his profile, and his cheeks warmed with the attention the longer they stayed as they were. When he next glanced at Ian, his lips were turning up, gently, at the corners. Mickey looked away again.

          He was better in silence, he thought. They both were; after a second he felt Ian’s touch on his shoulder, and then his hand flattened there, holding him firmly for a second before slipping around the back of his neck to keep him grounded, steady. It was a starkly Mickey gesture, and Mickey glanced up in surprise.

          He shouldn’t have; when he looked up, Ian was still watching him with a small smile on his face, this one more teasing than before. Mickey rolled his eyes and knocked Ian’s hands away, but one of them found its way back over his thigh anyway, reassuring and strong.

          Mickey glanced at his hand and then back up at his face. “So…” he murmured.

          Ian tilted his head. So, he echoed.

          A smile fractured its way onto Mickey’s face, as naturally and as radiantly as the dawn breaking. He was smiling wide enough to hurt, and certainly enough to distort his words slightly when he finished, “So, you’re my soulmate.”

          Something swelled magnificently in his chest as he said it, something bright and vast and lightening. Something massive was crashing down behind him, tearing down the big, ugly dreams of his past, the nightmares that he wasn’t good enough and that he was going to, was destined to, end up alone. In their place stood Ian, dimply and freckled and slayer of his fears.

          I’m your soulmate, Ian agreed, again. He had to take his hand off of Mickey’s thigh to do it, and he found that he wished he hadn’t. Does that mean you’re...

          Ian seemed to struggle with words for a second, not afraid of Mickey’s reaction or searching for a phrase he would understand, but like he wanted to sign something that felt right for the both of them. Mickey was starting to understand that. Usually he took what he could and rolled with whatever he could scrounge or steal, but that feeling of rightness was upon him, settling into his bones—he was no longer sure he could live without it. He waited, then, for Ian to find what he wanted to say.

          Does that mean we’re okay? he signed finally, looking up at Mickey from beneath a furrowed brow. We’re good? We’re…free?

          Mickey wasn’t sure exactly what he meant—free of the confusion, and the doubt, and the hurt? Because of him, because of what they had realized?—but he grinned back at him. Then he bit his lip to get a slight hold on himself. Ian was still watching him anxiously, and Mickey leaned closer, almost knocking their foreheads together so that Ian went slightly crosseyed to look at him. Mickey’s smile softened.

          “Ian.” He said his name slowly, reverently. “What you and I have makes me free.”

          Ian was a beautiful boy. The only times Mickey had seen him more luminous than when he was smiling was when he was smiling because of him, because he had lit something in this hypnotic boy’s chest, something that echoed it back to Mickey tenfold and swelled his heart to sizes he didn’t want to think about. The slow, incredible smile that overtook him now was possibly the brightest, most magnetic version of Ian that Mickey had ever seen.

          They each leaned forward and their lips met in the middle, the kiss slower and more precise than before, but more intense, too. Mickey pressed in as close as possible, catching Ian’s lips over and over and over no matter how he turned his head or stopped to take a breath; after awhile Ian’s hands slipped from his thighs and pressed, nearly worshipful, up his chest. Mickey drew him in by the waist as Ian led him onto his back on the couch. They had to work to get the position comfortable, but when Ian was settled between his knees, one of Mickey’s legs around Ian’s so his foot dragged mindlessly on his calves, Ian settled his hands on either side of Mickey’s face, and Mickey gasped a little when Ian pressed his thumb down on his chin, pulling his mouth open wider so he could finally pull him into deeper, more fervent kiss. Mickey sighed and pulled him down further.

          They kissed for hours, days, years—Mickey lost track of it all, of everything but the way Ian felt pressing his soft yet sturdy weight down onto him, of all but how his mouth fit perfectly against his own.

          He dizzily thought the sun must be nearing noon by the time Ian abandoned his mouth to kiss a firm path down his throat, and Mickey tipped his head back to gaze unseeingly at the ceiling, all thoughts narrowed down to the pulse beneath Ian’s teeth where he was nipping on his neck. He started sucking on the same patch of skin a second later, and Mickey closed his eyes, twisting his hand into Ian’s hair in wordless encouragement while he deliberately marked his skin.

          “C’mon,” Mickey whispered, not too pushy, when Ian trailed kisses across his throat and started mouthing beneath his other ear. Mickey slipped the flat of his palm over Ian’s well-muscled back, just tracing the taut slopes, before settling his hand over Ian’s ass and squeezing lightly, enough to get Ian to properly slot their hips together. The bulge of Ian’s cock was heavy through his sweatpants, swelling as Mickey spread his legs further for him. Mickey groaned lowly as he rolled his hips into Ian’s more calculatingly, and he turned to graze his lips over Ian’s ear. He murmured, “That’s it, baby. Come on. Fucking…fuck yourself on me.”

          A breathy noise seeped from between Ian’s lips, something that Mickey thought might be throatier if Ian could produce a sound like that. Mickey grinded up on him again, slow, allowing them both to feel every single second of it.

          Ian’s lips found his again, and Mickey stretched to make it last when Ian sat up a minute later. Mickey didn’t move, grip tight on his hips, unsure what Ian wanted. He was just watching him, stare hungry as he looked over every bit of Mickey he could see from where he was sat between his legs. Mickey tipped his head back, rumbling low and pleased in his throat when Ian slid up and straddled his waist instead, and his hands ran flat over his chest for a moment before he slipped them back upwards, dragging Mickey’s shirt with them and exposing more and more of his middle. Mickey raised his arms above his head, and Ian captured his lips again when he leaned to tug it off, sucking on Mickey’s bottom lip in such a way that Mickey sat up when he was free of his t-shirt. He wrapped his arms around Ian’s waist, keeping the kiss deep and slightly filthy while he pulled Ian back down to him, and they laid back down together, lips never leaving each other’s.

          He felt Ian’s hands slip down to grasp at his waist, touch tight but fleeting before he feathered his fingers across his abdomen instead, smoothing his hands over Mickey’s waistband. Mickey lifted his hips up automatically, pushing into Ian’s touch, before flattening himself back on the couch so Ian had room to tear off his sweatpants.

          Mickey reached for him, but Ian ignored his outstretched arms and leaned down to spread his legs open instead. Mickey inhaled sharply when Ian’s mouth first found the sensitive skin of his inner thighs, and he let his arms fall back to the couch as he rocked up against Ian’s face. Ian, busy licking along his thighs until he paused to suck a deeply bruised mark into his skin, appeared not to notice.

          Mickey squeezed his eyes shut, little gasps falling from his lips as Ian continued biting and sucking along his thighs with apparently no regard for—or maybe exclusively because of—Mickey’s increasingly whiney moans.

          “Ian, please.” He twisted one hand into Ian’s cropped hair, but even when he tugged insistently, Ian only turned to his other leg and started to give it the same attention. Mickey tried to clear his throat. “Ian,” he repeated, still sounding stressed even to his own ears.

          Ian paused to look up at him, hands still tight around either thigh and nails biting into his skin as he kept his legs open for him. He wore the innocent look quite well for someone sucking hickeys into Mickey’s thighs, for someone whose red, spit-slick lips promised that they would be stretched around his cock at some point soon.

          Ian just looked at him. Mickey stared back.

          And then, because he wanted to but also because he hoped it would incite a similar response as before, Mickey gently pushed Ian’s hair back and exaggeratedly moaned, “Fuck me, baby.”

          Ian watched him for a second, eyes wide and pleased and dark. He turned his head, using the pressure of Mickey’s hand against his cheek to press a firm kiss to his palm. Mickey dropped his hands down, releasing him to grasp fruitlessly at the couch cushions as Ian kissed a slow, hot path up the side of his stomach, over his ribs, across his chest and back to his lips. His hips fell down to slot with Mickey’s, cock thick and demanding against his ass, hot even beneath his sweatpants. Mickey wanted him. He tried to whine his name again but it was lost between their mouths as Ian kissed him.

          When Ian pulled away to peer intently down at him for a moment, Mickey didn’t think he was asking for permission. The look of him, the fire burning dully behind his eyes and between their skin, promised Mickey more than it begged off of him. Ian looked at him like he had stars embedded between each layer of his skin; like his tongue traced constellations over Ian’s jaw and lips and neck; like they would lay together like this, two gods in the burning rubble, and be swallowed by the fire.

          He looked like he was promising Mickey the world, or as much as he could steal him.

          Ian’s hands were back on his waist, searing hot over his skin, and he slipped them down further to take his thighs in hand again. Mickey sighed as Ian spread his legs even further, giving him more room as his hips began to rock down slowly, gaining speed until he was moving in short, staccato strokes against Mickey. Mickey inhaled sharply, his head lolling back. He dug his fingernails into Ian’s back when Ian lowered his mouth to Mickey’s neck, sinking barely-there bites and mouthing leisurely but deliberately at his throat. Mickey was just starting to tire for something more when Ian’s hand slipped off his chest, down between his legs. He rubbed teasingly, lightly, over the cleft of Mickey’s ass.

          Mickey pulled Ian up sharply to bury his gasp in his throat, and he felt Ian grinning against his jaw. He continued his slow, light trailing of his finger until Mickey pushed him roughly away, only to sit up and drag him into another devouring kiss.

          “My bedroom,” he mumbled, head dizzy, mind blank, his body singing out for Ian’s. “My…”

          Ian was nodding frantically, and he pulled Mickey back for another kiss, and then another, and then he was slowly guiding him to his feet, barely breaking the connection of their lips as they started backing towards his room. Ian had one hand curled around Mickey’s arm, the other feeling backwards for walls he might bump into, but Mickey, more familiar with the terrain, kept his hands low on Ian’s hips, pushing him backwards until they stumbled through his door and dragged each other onto the bed, hands everywhere, mouths hungry and searching. Ian pulled him on top of him, but Mickey rolled and dragged him down, right before Ian got Mickey in between his legs again. They couldn’t seem to settle on the best way to touch each other; Mickey wasn’t sure he had traced enough of Ian’s skin to be satisfied, or that he might at some point feel sated with what he had consumed.

          Mickey settled himself on top of Ian properly, deciding absently to be content with however Ian wanted him if it meant he could still be touching him, still kissing him, still feeling his hands scratch his back and pull his hair and grab his ass when they rolled their hips into each other’s, gasping and kissing and seeking more.

          After a few minutes of desperate kissing, Mickey pulled away, slipping his hands down to Ian’s thighs and keeping him in place so that he could slide his knees over Ian’s hips, straddling him properly. Ian made another of his breathy not-groans, fingers pulling on Mickey’s jaw until he acquiesced to another kiss, and another, and before long he lost track of his goal as Ian kissed him breathless.

          Ian, however, seemed to still possess some of his cognitive faculties, and he turned them back over, flattening Mickey on his back and caging him in with his hands on either side of his head on the mattress. Mickey grinned up at him, kiss-dazed and lazy, and stretched to toe down the band of Ian’s sweats. Ian rolled his eyes but helped Mickey rid him of the last vestiges of clothing, and they fell together, skin fully on skin, and laughed against each other’s lips before quietening again at the feel of every inch of them against the other.

          Mickey flung an arm out to grope around through his bedside table until he came up with his half-gone bottle of lube, which he threw down on the mattress, but he paused when his fingers skimmed over one of the loose condoms in his drawer.

          Ian evidently felt him freeze, because he pulled away from mouth at his chest to peer worriedly at him.

          He sat back on his knees and signed, What’s wrong?

          Mickey paused, biting his lip. Without saying anything, he held up the condom for Ian’s inspection.

          Ian, too, hesitated. He looked between Mickey and the packet for a long moment. I’m clean, he signed finally. I haven’t been with anyone else in months…I’m good.

          Mickey worried his lip harder than before. Something sharp and unpleasant shot through his stomach at the thought of neither him nor Ian being with someone else—they were together, he thought, but maybe longer than he’d known—and he sighed as he looked away from him, but he nevertheless admitted, “Me neither.”

          Ian didn’t move. They looked at each other. After a long beat, Ian shrugged, slowly. Mickey glanced away, at anywhere else, before he turned back to him. He shrugged too.

          Ian’s kiss was slower this time when it came, an obvious distraction. He slipped his palm over Mickey’s throat, down his chest, across his shoulder, and pinned his wrist down on the mattress. His fingers met Mickey’s palm, but Mickey was too busy reciprocating the movement of his lips to protest or worry when Ian gently freed the packet from his grasp and tossed it back into the bedside drawer before slamming it shut.

          Ian was kissing down his chest again, and Mickey pressed his head back into the bed, focusing on his every movement, on every point of contact between them, and between him and Ian’s mouth. He finally settled in between his legs, and Mickey pressed himself down further into the mattress, wanting it just like this, their eyes on each other the entire time.

          A second passed where Ian coated his hand in lube, but then his finger slipped between his cheeks, circling gently before pressing past his rim. At nearly the same time, he closed his lips over Mickey’s cock and began sucking him off.

          Mickey groaned low, arching up into his mouth and then back down on his finger, rocking his hips as much as he could laying down spread open like this. He didn’t have to ask for more; Ian pushed a second finger into him shortly thereafter, and the noise that tore from Mickey’s throat then was in no way quiet. He looked down only to see Ian glancing up at him, which would have been hot if not for the way Ian arched an eyebrow teasingly at him. Mickey pressed a hand down on the back of his head, pushing him deeper onto his cock and effectively shutting him up while Ian focused on relaxing his throat.

          By the time Ian worked a third long finger into him, Mickey was moaning unabashedly, his eyes squeezing shut repeatedly despite how he tried to keep them open, so that he could watch the display down the bed. Ian must have been holding off, because he knew Mickey’s body too well by now, but when he finally crooked a finger against Mickey’s prostate, Mickey groaned, “Ian, Ian, stop,” and pulled viciously at his hair. He collapsed back panting while Ian pulled away completely, his hips jerking up and chasing the sensation of his mouth and hand, entirely independent of the rest of his body.

          “C’mere,” Mickey breathed, and he stretched his arms out for Ian, who obligingly laid over him again so that Mickey could capture him in another kiss. This time, when Ian licked his way into Mickey’s mouth, he could taste himself, his own precum, on Ian’s tongue.

          Ian restricted him to kissing deep for a minute, until Mickey wrapped his legs loosely around Ian’s hips and rocked up to find friction. Ian’s cock, hanging heavy and thick between his thighs, dragged against Mickey’s ass, and he breathed harder against Ian’s mouth. He didn’t bother to control himself; between them, right here, it didn’t matter.

          Ian thrust down between his legs a few more times, a little more consciously and intensely. He plunged his hips against Mickey’s ass again and again, pulling more groans from him, and their cheeks brushed on each downstroke as they caught their breaths from kissing, their breathing hot against each other’s jaws. Mickey scratched at the back of Ian’s neck, fingernails scrabbling at the top knob of his spine, rumbling noises low in his throat as Ian rocked down and down on him.

          “Ian,” Mickey said again. He couldn’t seem to remember much more of his own vocabulary at the moment, try as he might to think.

          Fortunately, however, Ian seemed to get the message. He stopped the desperate driving of his hips to grab the lube and slick up his cock. Mickey spread his thighs wider, needy, and Ian hauled Mickey’s legs higher around him to give himself a better angle as he lined up against him. Mickey leaned up to taste his lips again, and he groaned softly into Ian’s mouth as he slowly, finally, pushed his cock inside him.

          Mickey made a rough noise when Ian was fully seated within him, rocking his hips up to drag Ian in closer, into him at a better angle so he could hit deep. Ian fell forward more heavily onto his hands like his elbows had given out, and his body formed a cage around Mickey’s, trapping him against the mattress with little room to move. He fucked his hips up again, desperate, but Ian was panting hard by his cheek and he didn’t seem coherent enough himself to move.

          Mickey paused, settled. With his breathing a little labored, he peered up at Ian above him. As gently as he knew how, he reached to push a strand of sweaty hair out of Ian’s face. It fell immediately back to his forehead, pieces of it falling down and sticking to his skin, but the gesture seemed to ground Ian, and he blinked at Mickey like he was waking up.

          “Hey,” Mickey whispered, pressing up to kiss him softly. “You okay?”

          Ian blinked slowly at him, but then, finally, he nodded. Before Mickey could say anything more, he pressed down to cover his mouth in a rough kiss. Mickey had barely reciprocated when Ian rolled his hips out and back into him, sharp and precise, and Mickey gasped a heavy breath, pulling less air than necessary when Ian used his open mouth to bite harshly at his bottom lip before licking along the wound and then up against his tongue. Mickey halted his own moan to suck on Ian’s tongue, and when it made his hips drive harder into him. Mickey hitched his legs up higher, scrabbling for purchase along his back when he hooked his ankles over his waist.

          Ian’s hands were hot on him, sliding over his sides and arms and neck. He thrust into him relentlessly, finding a fast, steady rhythm, and when Mickey threw his head back, Ian leaned to press open-mouthed kisses across his throat; Mickey felt like his lips and tongue were everywhere, on every inch of his skin. He arched his neck further, craving more.

          After a minute he anchored Ian’s chin to get his mouth back sliding over his, and he sucked hungrily on his lip, then pressed forward for more. Nothing seemed like enough, not even when he had kissed him so much that Ian had to tuck his face into Mickey’s neck, panting, nor when Ian rolled his hips in hard and grazed Mickey’s prostate so he arched off the bed with a ragged moan, before latching onto a spot below Ian’s ear and sucking hard.

          When he fell back to the bed, he slid his hand low, gripping himself a handful of Ian’s ass to keep him close so he could fuck into him more shallowly now, grinding hard on that same spot and making Mickey choke on a low cry. He bit down on the firm muscle beside Ian’s shoulder, squeezing his ass hard. For awhile he stayed like that, keeping Ian as close as he could, his hand tightening on him with every thrust, his legs tense and locked around his waist. He was panting hard, and he felt half out of his mind when Ian didn’t let up on him, still driving relentlessly into that same spot.

          “Keep doing that,” Mickey gasped. He let go of him to grab the bedsheets hard, rucking them up into a twisted mess in his fist, and with his other he scratched deep down Ian’s back. “God, fuck. Don’t stop, don’t stop.”

          Ian pressed a kiss to the knob of his jaw, then his cheek, and clumsily to his mouth, missing his lips halfway. His labored breathing was getting Mickey even hotter, and he dropped his legs to dig the heel of his foot into Ian’s calf for leverage as he rolled his hips up, craving more.

          “Ian,” he breathed, husky. Ian pressed another kiss to his throat, chaste in comparison to the others: a reassurance. He did it again anyway, he couldn’t help himself; fingers scratching another set of lines into Ian’s back, he whined, “Ian, please.”

          Ian’s hands dropped down and he dug his nails into Mickey’s sides, the way he often did. Mickey couldn’t tell if he meant it in comfort or desperation, so he did it again anyway, groaning breathily and kissing up the side of his neck to bite messily at his jaw. Ian found an even rougher pace, drawing out more and slamming into him now, bringing ragged moans to Mickey’s lips every time. Mickey spread his legs wider, wanting, so that his knees fell to the bed on either side of their bodies. Ian had shifted off his prostate, giving him something of a reprieve while he moaned incessantly with the driving force of Ian’s new pace.

          “God, shit, Ian, Ian,” he gasped, and then again, until he was just repeating his name like it was the only mantra he knew anymore, the only thing that mattered, the entire world narrowing down to Ian above him, and hot and throbbing inside him.

          He barely noticed Ian’s hands leave his skin until he felt fingers prying his own away from Ian’s side, back around his ribs. He sank them in deeper for a second before allowing Ian’s gentle, coaxing touch to unlatch his grip and guide his hand down to the sheets by his shoulder, then to tangle their fingers together. He released the covers with his other hand and slapped down—too hard, too loud—to get a grip on Ian’s ass again so he could help control how hard he moved his hips into him, encouraging rough downstrokes with more pressure. He was sure Ian’s ass was red by now; would probably have finger-shaped bruises sunk into it by morning to complement the severe lines Mickey had scratched into his back.

          He was breathing harshly into Ian’s ear, mixed with a litany choir of his name, and Ian fucked him hard and deep and rough, with Mickey’s zealous encouragement. With only one hand to support himself anymore, Ian’s body was covering his own almost completely, and Mickey’s cock dragged between their stomachs every time Ian moved his hips. Mickey thrust up, aching and desperate to get off, and Ian found his other hand to pin down by his other side so that Mickey only had the brush of their bodies to use to bring himself off. Ian laughed, his breath hot on Mickey’s cheek, like he knew exactly what he was doing. Mickey tilted his chin up to capture Ian’s lips again, stealing his laughter and stifling his groan.

          Ian chased his mouth when Mickey pulled away, blindly seeking, and Mickey smirked up at him while he pulled his hands free from Ian’s, gripping his hips to still him somewhat so he could roll them roughly over. Ian’s lips parted as Mickey lowered himself fully back onto Ian’s cock, his eyes lidding, his breathing coming shorter. Mickey reigned in his smugness somewhat and leaned down to kiss him gently while his hands roamed his taut stomach and his hips, slowly, began to move.

          He had just set up a good rhythm, one that had Ian panting and that was driving him closer and closer to leaving marks all across Ian’s chest, when he glanced down and his attention snagged on Ian’s tattoo.

          No, his Words. Mickey’s words, the ones he had said to him the first time they met, the words that made him Mickey’s. He almost paused; he slowed until he was barely rolling his hips, taking Ian in deep and staying settled, grinding down minutely on him. Ian seemed not to notice his distraction, because when Mickey glanced up, he saw that Ian’s eyes were closed and he was grabbing at Mickey’s waist, thumbing over his hipbones and making the breathy moans that he did when he was losing his mind. Satisfaction glowed within him, and Mickey lowered his gaze again and traced his index finger over the letters on Ian’s hip.

          He did it again. He didn’t notice Ian was watching him until he felt his fingers on his chin, then his jaw, feathering across his cheek and cradling his face gently. Mickey flattened his hand, his palm covering Ian’s Words and his fingers digging in to his side, and leaned to catch Ian’s lips with his own. God, now that he’d had it, kissing Ian would never get old.

          The kiss heated and intensified, until Mickey was rolling his hips back hard again, dragging Ian’s cock across his prostate again, deep and slow and intense. He moaned helplessly, his free hand coming up to tighten in Ian’s hair. He rocked down again, and again, needing to come, unable to stop kissing and holding Ian long enough to help himself.

          Ian did it for him. He eased Mickey back enough to lick firmly across his own palm, and Mickey watched, enraptured with the way his tongue moved. When he was done Ian pulled him roughly back down to him, licking fast past his lips so his tongue curled against Mickey’s, rolling in a thrilling new manner. When Ian started jacking him off, tight and fast, Mickey tugged hard on his hair, pulling his head to the side. Evidently encouraged, Ian released the grip he had on Mickey’s jaw and grabbed tightly at his ass, still jerking him off while he squeezed and palmed his ass. Mickey moaned, sucked on Ian’s tongue, felt him shudder and thrust up hard between his legs. He did it again, driving his hips down at the same time so he met him perfectly in the middle.

          Ian’s hand worked him faster, and Mickey fucked back on his dick instead of into his hand, satisfied that Ian would take care of him. Ian pulled back, nipped his lip, turned his head and went back in to kiss him deeply, and with another quick, tight jerk of his cock, he moaned—loud, despite being partially muffled by Ian’s mouth—and rocked back and forth so that Ian’s cock rubbed relentlessly over his prostate as he came hard between them, over Ian’s hand.

          His body swayed and jerked with it until he was finished, never relenting on that spot inside him while Ian kept jacking his cock. Afterwards, Ian released him—his ass ached dully where his hand had been, the blood all coming back in a rush—and gently rolled him over. Mickey went where guided, feeling loose and pliant, and he wrapped his arms around Ian while he continued to rock into him from a different angle and breathe messily against the crook of his neck.

          “Come on,” Mickey encouraged, tightening his legs around Ian’s hips again. He flicked his tongue against his earlobe before catching it with his teeth, sucking lightly and releasing it. “Almost there…come on, Ian…Come for me…”

          With a few more thrusts, Ian’s hips rocked jerkily, and he bit down low on Mickey’s neck. Mickey felt him exhaling hard around his teeth, and he stroked his hands down his sides and over his back, swaying his hips up to help work Ian’s cock until he was through, settling fully over Mickey and still breathing unevenly. Mickey traced his finger down Ian’s spine, letting him catch his breath back and waiting. He felt dreamy and loose, comfortable and fearless…with a startling jolt, he realized that he felt happy.

          Instead of flustering at the thought, something warm curled inside him, and he wound his arms back around Ian and nuzzled his face against his shoulder. After a minute he felt Ian’s hand in his hair, stroking light and soothing.

          They laid there for awhile, long after their breathing evened. Ian eventually shifted first, pressing a chaste kiss to the bone of Mickey’s cheek before sitting up. When he pulled out, he swept a soothing hand down Mickey’s side as he winced, and Mickey relaxed again automatically. Then Ian curled up against Mickey’s side.

          At some point they remembered to get dressed, and at another point they remembered to order dinner. They went back to Mickey’s bed to eat through their containers of Chinese food, laughing and talking and eating an exorbitant amount of noodles.

          The sun began to set, leaving the sky a streaky red and orange. Mickey stopped laughing at the food Ian had spilled on his face and settled, smiling more gently across at him. He looked so beautiful in the dying light, his hair vibrant and fiery, freckles clear and alight on his cheeks.

          Ian must have been thinking something similar, because he trailed his hand almost absently down Mickey’s bare thigh, and Mickey flushed under the untainted affection.

          Mickey cleared their containers aside and shifted up onto his knees so he could lean across and press a soft kiss to Ian’s parted lips. He sat back before Ian could even really respond. Ian tilted his head at him, a question clear across his face.

          Mickey smiled and reached to run the pads of his fingers over Ian’s jaw, tracing the smattering of freckles that glowed in the dusky light.

          “I’m happy,” Mickey explained softly, watching the trail of his fingers down Ian’s cheek, watching Ian’s skin heat along the path he traced in response. “You make me happy.”

          The blush that rose up his neck made him grow even more luminous, and Mickey reached up with his other hand to cradle Ian’s face when he leaned forwards across the distance between them to cover Mickey’s lips with his own.

          Their knees knocked together. Ian’s hands were greasy from picking up spilled noodles with his hands. Their kiss broke a thousand times so they could laugh breathlessly against each other’s lips. Mickey’s heart screamed out in his chest for Ian, but he felt warm, and full, and deliriously happy, knowing that Ian’s was pounding for him right back.

 

 

 

 

part three: equilibrium

 

          “Hey fuckface, could you please take the goddamn juice out the fridge when it’s empty? I’m sick of thinking I can have my goddamn juice when you drank all the goddamn juice!”

          Mickey turned angrily, juddering the empty jug purposefully, to glare at his empty kitchen. Ian appeared in the doorway a second later, his arms crossed and his eyebrow raised. Mickey quickly assessed that he was shaking with his brand of silent laughter, and he resisted the urge to throw the juice container at his head.

          “I’m serious, Ian!” he snapped. “I need my fucking OJ in the morning!”

          Ian had schooled his expression into something more serious, and he nodded solemnly, but Mickey easily detected the mockery underneath.

          “God, you’re such a shithead,” he muttered, turning away. He slammed the jug down on the counter for Ian to recycle later and yanked open the fridge again to rifle through for something else to help wash down the pancakes he was making.

          A second later he felt Ian’s arms slide around his waist, and he leaned back without thinking, instantly dizzy with the warmth of Ian curled around him and his scent filling his head. Ian pressed a little kiss beneath his ear, and Mickey sighed and relaxed further, reaching back to scratch encouragingly at his hair.

          “I’m mad at you,” he reminded him, firmly.

          Ian nodded, face still tucked into his neck, and pressed another kiss beside the first.

          “Ian,” Mickey said forcefully, while his boyfriend continued laying kisses all across his neck. “I’m mad at you. And you need to go to the store and get me more juice.”

          Ian pressed his lips to the hinge of his jaw and started peppering them as far down his cheek as he could reach. Mickey tugged minutely on his hair, annoyed at how not annoyed he was.

          “Ian,” he repeated, but it came out as more of a resigned sigh this time, and he let Ian turn him around and press the refrigerator door shut with his body. He framed Ian’s face with his hands to haul him down into a proper kiss. Ian’s body molded to his like always, and he didn’t immediately open his eyes when Ian pulled away a second later.

          He looked smug, delighted with Mickey’s irritated eye roll as he elbowed Ian out of the way a second later and went to check on the pancakes.

          “You’re such a bastard,” Mickey muttered, poking the spatula into the bubbling batter on the stove. When he glanced over his shoulder, it was to see Ian rolling his eyes and heading back out of the kitchen to finish his morning routine before breakfast. Mickey went back to grumbling about him in peace and listened instinctively to the sounds of him moving around, unable to block them out, automatically tracking his progress around the apartment. Ian had managed to transcend sensory blocking. He could clearly hear him turn on the faucet, putter around in their bedroom, go back into the bathroom for something.

          As it turned out, living with Ian was loud. Ian was loud. He was loud in ways Mickey had never noticed before. He banged every pot when he cooked and tapped out drumbeats on his jeans and danced in the shower; he never stopped moving, never stopped thinking, never stopped paying attention, he never stopped; and his smile—oh god, his smile was the loudest thing Mickey had ever seen. Ian was loud in ways Mickey had never known.

          He was humming some tune when he wandered back into the kitchen ten minutes later, clad in a pair of Mickey’s sweatpants, a little too tight around his thighs and a little too loose around his ass, hanging just barely on his ankles. Just faintly malfitting all over, a relic of his habit of grabbing whatever clothes he saw first off the floor mixed with Mickey’s tendency to throw all his clothes on the ground, dirty or not.

          Mickey was well aware that he was not at all subtle when he checked Ian out, dragging his eyes over the cut of his hips and up his toned stomach and chest, glancing at his strong arms, before reaching the soft curls of his bedhead and the lax, easy smile he wore as he slouched up beside Mickey to lean on the counter.

          Mickey reached up to lay a palm on his cheek, reaching up sideways as he pulled him down for a soft kiss.

          “Morning,” he said, thrilled with Ian’s dazed expression when he stood back on the flats of his feet and went back to cooking, as though their earlier tiff hadn’t happened and this was the first time he was seeing him this morning.

          Ian’s movements were sloppier than usual, sleep loosening his movements, as he signed back, Morning, and went to have a seat on the couch. Mickey followed a few minutes later, shoving one of Ian’s legs off onto the floor and flopping back on top of him, ignoring the oomph of discomfort he let out as he settled his back against his chest and handed Ian a fork, setting the single plate on his lap, stacked with pancakes and a puddle of syrup.

          He felt Ian wind an arm around his waist and shifted closer, getting comfortable with a low warning that Ian had better not drip syrup in his hair. Despite a low noise of derision from Mickey, Ian made a show of nearly dripping all over him before finally taking a bite, a shit-eating grin on his face when Mickey twisted around to glare.

          They ate in relative silence, Mickey making a comment here or there, while Ian traced patterns across his opposite thigh with the hand he had around him. Mickey felt lulled and content, and he was considering going back to sleep when Ian pushed the empty plate onto the coffee table, dropped their forks on top of it, and pulled Mickey tighter against him as he shifted down the couch a little so that they were laying more than sitting now. Mickey dropped his head back onto Ian’s shoulder, contemplating having a nap for real.

          Ian moved on to drawing shapes on the arm Mickey had slung over his stomach, covering the one Ian had on his waist and squeezing his hand beneath his own. Mickey smiled lazily up at him, enjoying the feel of him beneath him as well as the solid weight of his arm slung over his hips, the light brush of his fingers across his forearm. When Ian glanced down at him, his answering smile was warm and easy.

          “Hey,” Mickey mumbled, reaching his free hand up to tease his fingers along Ian’s jaw.

          Ian bent obediently kiss him, soft and sweet. Mickey dug his nails in a little when Ian went to pull away, not enough to hurt, just enough to keep him from going too far while Mickey leaned to kiss him again. He pressed up until Ian’s lips parted and he could slot them more smoothly together, and then kissed him until he himself was satisfied.

          When Mickey finally laid down again, he looked up at Ian, who was staring unfocused, his lips red and his expression distant and dazed. Mickey grinned goofily and scratched lightly at where his fingers were still laid on Ian’s jaw. Ian blinked a few times before he seemed to focus, eyes finding Mickey’s, brows still drawn. Mickey shifted up to press one more kiss to the edge of his mouth, and when he settled back against his chest, Ian’s concern had melted away, and he looked as gratified and peaceful as Mickey felt.

          Ian tightened his arm around him, shifting further onto his back and spreading his legs more so Mickey could still rest comfortably on him as they slumped even further into the couch. As his mind settled and cleared, he slowly became aware that Ian’s hand, the one by his hip, was lazily tracing over the bone, on the skin bared by Mickey’s rucked-up t-shirt, right where his Words should have been.

          “What are you doing?” he mumbled, halfway back to sleep. His hand had fallen from Ian’s cheek to his neck, and his scrabbled his fingers lightly to snare his attention.

          Ian drew his design one more time before relenting. Mickey reluctantly lifted his arms to free Ian’s, and he lifted them into the air and signed,

          I don’t think we should stay in all day.

          Mickey turned his head to raise his eyebrows at him. “What? Why? We ain’t working, I thought we were gonna lay in bed all day.”

          Ian grinned at him. I think it’s time you got your Words, Mickey.

 

          “Are you sure this is a good idea?” Mickey asked, shifting his weight between his feet. He glanced up at the sign hanging out front of the tattoo parlor downtown, and his hand came up automatically to rub at the back of his neck.

          Ian squeezed his hand, then released him to sign, If you want to. But…

          He shrugged. Mickey raised his eyebrows.

          “But you’re sure?” he prompted.

          Ian sighed. I’m sure. If I could say anything to you…I’d want this to be the first thing.

          Mickey relaxed, exhaling deeply and reaching again for Ian’s hand. “Then I’m sure,” he said.

          A bell rang over their heads as they stepped into the shop, hands entwined and heads craned to glance around. Less than a minute after they stepped up to the register, a woman came in the back room. She was bony, with a bright smile and a tattoo sleeve and a piercing through her bottom lip.

          “How can I help you boys?”

          Mickey felt Ian’s hand tightening around his as he explained what he wanted, squeezing when nervousness or agitation slipped into his tone and relaxing in between, but never letting go. The woman nodded while he talked and finally instructed them to wait in the chairs by the door, and Ian pulled him to a pair of seats directly in the middle so they had full view of the shop while they waited.

          Ian was perusing a book of tattoos and snickering at some of the more ridiculous or over-the-top designs while Mickey stared intently at the sparse wall decorations, occasionally looking over so Ian could point out a picture here or there that he found particularly amusing. He wasn’t nervous about the tattoo itself, exactly, but still—there was something definitive and unchangeable about this. More than his skin, deeper than the ink. He had always been Mickey Milkovich, the empty boy—Mickey Milkovich, the broken boy—Mickey Milkovich, who deserved to, and inevitably would, be alone.

          Now he wasn’t. Would never be, had never meant to be. Despite literally everything from his father to his own skin telling him otherwise, he had gone out, and made something for himself, and reclaimed the world as his own. And he had found Ian.

          Ian, who squeezed his hand when the artist called them back up to the counter to make sure all his forms were read, signed, and in order before calling him into the back. He didn’t glance back to make sure Ian was following him; he didn’t have to.

          He sat down in the large, comfy chair she directed him to—it was the first time he had been remotely comfortable while getting tattooed, though admittedly also the first time he had gotten a tattoo somewhere legitimate—and Ian dragged a stool over to the side the artist hadn’t occupied.

          Are you ready? Ian asked, while the woman prepared her tools on the other side.

          Ian looked absolutely thrilled at the prospect of Mickey doing this, his face alight, his smile wide and luminous. Mickey rolled his eyes at his unfiltered enthusiasm, his last vestiges of unease creeping away.

          “I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t sure, dickhead,” he said, poking out at Ian’s torso. Ian flinched and laughed a little as Mickey’s finger tickled beneath his ribs. Mickey grinned as he watched him curl in on himself.

          Ian stuck his tongue out at him. Mickey laughed and reached for him, and although he made a face, Ian leaned over him to afford a short, sweet press of his lips against Mickey’s. Mickey looked up at him when he pulled back a little, gaze sweeping over his entire face.

          “I’m sure,” Mickey breathed again, laughter forgotten in the face of Ian’s soft but steady gaze. “Shit, you’re a lot to handle. But I’ve got you. I want to.”

          This time he curled his hand around the back of Ian’s neck when he pulled him down, keeping him anchored for a few extra seconds while Mickey kissed him eagerly.

          When Ian pulled away again, he didn’t go far, instead knocking their foreheads together and smiling gently at him. Mickey’s hand tightened around his neck, and the corners of his lips pulled up without any conscious consideration. Mickey thought, absently, that he and Ian had been staring at each other for a few beats too long when the sound of gloves snapping intruded in on him, and the artist announced beside them,

          “Okay, boys. Shirt off.”

          Ian disentangled himself so Mickey could tug off his t-shirt, and he caught Ian watching him, half-teasing, half-enthralled, while he yanked his loose jeans down a few inches to expose the bone of his hip. He threw Ian a smirk before turning a raised eyebrow on the woman.

          “Alright, let’s get this show on the road, huh?”

          She smiled, said, “Yeah, let’s go. You ready?” and at Mickey’s swift nod, she set to work.

          Ian reached for his hand despite Mickey making no indication that he needed it, but he admittedly did not mind the pressure while Ian squeezed his hand and sucked air in sharply through his teeth in sympathy while the woman worked.

          Mickey was a bleeder, but a thick-skinned one nevertheless. He gritted his teeth here and there but stayed unflinching and calm as she worked, trying not to tense his muscles too hard because she stopped each time to tell him to relax, and getting back to it hurt worse than when she just continued. At some point Ian leaned his head against Mickey’s shoulder, but when Mickey glanced down, his eyes were still trained on the needle, only looking up to offer a quick smile before returning his attention to the work. Mickey wanted to join him, but his attention was snared and held by Ian’s soft, freckled face, wincing in sympathy and sighing reassuringly every now and again with seemingly no trigger.

          Two hours after they walked into the parlor, they walked out again. Mickey winced on every other step when his leg made the skin over his hip bunch up and he tried to walk both intimidatingly and gingerly at the same time. Ian half-jokingly offered him a piggyback ride twice, but Mickey told him that he would rather get throat-punched five times in a row by Karen than be caught dead riding someone’s back, and Ian backed off for the most part except for the raised eyebrows he threw his way at least once a block, as though Mickey was being ridiculous for declining such a sensible and dignified offer.

          They stopped out for a late lunch, took a short walk around the neighborhood (which Mickey strongly suspected was suggested entirely because he kept insisting he was fine, and in a battle of wills, he intended to win no matter the cost) and his hip was burning dully but nevertheless in good shape by the time he got home that afternoon and carefully peeled the bandage off in the bathroom mirror to check on it.

          He was poking experimentally at a spot near one of the letters when he felt hands slapping him away, and then Ian’s arms were slipping around his stomach, higher than usual. He was presumably being mindful of the new ink, which Mickey at least appreciated.

          Mickey smoothed his hands over Ian’s wrists and then the backs of his hands, keeping his hold tight as he leaned back into the cradle of his arms. He stretched in his hold, lazy and tired and smiling a little when Ian bit down playfully on one of the tendons in his neck that stood out when he arched.

          “How’s it look?” Mickey asked, his eyes finding Ian’s in the mirror before they both dropped their gazes to his hip, where his pseudo-Words stood out, stark and thick against his pale skin. They looked exactly like every other set of them that Mickey had ever seen. A perfect copy. A special version, just for him, just for them.

          Ian grinned and hid his face in Mickey shoulder, then turned to nuzzle into his neck.

          I like it, Ian signed blindly, now pressing kisses against his throat. I love it.

          Mickey smiled, softened, melted further into Ian’s body behind him. He could feel Ian smiling too and turned his gaze back to the mirror, studying the pair of them standing there, intertwined and warm where they held each other in their own apartment, the home that they had, together. Ian pressed a light kiss to his skin, and Mickey squeezed down where his hands had found their way back to Ian’s arms around him.

          Without thinking, he said, “I love you.”

          He felt Ian’s arms tighten briefly around him, that smile back against his throat. They both relaxed after a moment, and Mickey’s eyes traced the words on his waist while Ian mouthed them into the side of his neck:

          i love you