He drummed and he drummed until his hands burned with blisters and the sticks were slippery between his fingers from the blood. He drummed until all he knew was mindless white noise pain, the sweat on his face and the back of his throat sore from panting. He drummed until he couldn’t stand any more of it.
Then he drummed some more.
He fucked up, put his fist through the snare, one, twice, three times until the skin broke and his fist pushed through. He was yelling, some intelligible nonsense, and all he could smell was blood and salt.
The repair cost him £100. The guy at the shop had to ask him twice for his money before Eren could hear him through the tinny drumming in his ears.
Eren met Jean in a dingy back alley behind a local jazz club. No, actually, rewind. The first time Eren saw Jean he was ripping out a good steady beat, tempo just quick enough to get him sweating. The back of his shirt was sticking to his shoulder blades, and the next thing Eren knew he was being yanked off his stool backwards by some unseen force. His sticks clattered to the floor, and Eren leapt up with his fists at the ready.
The guy who had pulled him off his stool was already halfway to the door. Something about the way he held himself, all straight, squared shoulders and long strides, made Eren instantly interested. The stick up this guy’s ass was probably fatal, but Eren liked challenges.
“You got something to say to me?” He threw at the guy’s back, blood boiling when he paused to shoot a glare over his shoulder.
“Maybe stop with your incessant banging when people are in the room next door trying to work?” He suggested snidely, and goddamn if Eren wasn’t grinning and angry now. His face was long and angular, handsome in a sharp way.
“It’s a fucking music school, asshole!” He called after him, just as the door closed. “What else am I supposed to do!”
Fast forward two months, and Eren was stepping out of the fire exit of the 606, a seedy jazz club which Eren frequented from time to time. He had an unlit cigarette dangling between his lips, and his wrists ached even though he’d wrapped them as tight as he could handle. He was struggling with his lighter, fingers slow and clumsy from the pain of his blisters. Eren cursed, shook the damn thing, finally got his smoke to light.
Only when he took the time to look up, puffing smoke happily out of the corner of his mouth as he surveyed the alley, did he notice two things. First, there was definitely a small fight happening that his nicotine-controlled brain hadn’t let him notice until he got his smoke lit. And second, the guy who’d just landed a good square hit on the other dude’s nose, sending him down in a spray of blood, was only his handsome pal from the music rooms. Eren grinned around his cigarette.
He seemed to notice that he wasn’t alone in the alley after a few seconds of trying to unsuccessfully shake the blood off his knuckles. He turned, furrowed those perfectly plucked brows, pointed.
“Hey, you’re the drumming guy.” He said, like he hadn’t just beat a guy down so hard his blood was sprayed rather attractively across the front of his dorky white button down. Eren just smiled lazily and nodded.
“The man, the myth, the legend.” God, how had this anal little prick who constantly told Eren off for his drumming gotten into an honest-to-god fight? And won? Eren was a sucker for those buttoned up psychos. “What’d he do?”
The guy looked down at the man on the ground as if he was only just seeing him. “Called me a faggot for playing the violin.”
Eren flicked ash on the ground, grinned out smoke. “So you broke his nose?”
He shrugged and straightened out his shirt a little, rolled up the sleeves to show attractively lean forearms. His eyes were distant, like he wasn’t really there. Too bright and glazed. “I’ve done worse for less.” He said lightly, and Eren scoffed at the boast in his voice.
“Sorry, Mister Hard Man, didn’t mean to offend you.” He shook his head and looked down at his feet, grinning as he took a drag off his smoke. The stranger just snorted, and when Eren looked up he was gone, the fire exit door banging shut behind him. Eren looked at the guy on the ground, who seemed to be coming to, groaning and shifting. “I feel that, buddy.” Eren quipped, the ache of his wrists bone deep and exhausting. The guy spit blood onto the floor, and Eren snorted before dropping his smoke and grinding it out under the heel of his shoe.
Eren scanned the club for him once he was back inside, the warmth of so many bodies in such a small space making his wrists ache less. He rubbed them absently, trying to spot that stupid Cali skater boy haircut, the bloody white shirt. There was something magnetic about him, something that Eren found himself drawn to. He wasn’t sure if it was attraction, or dislike, or anything. He couldn’t describe it, could only crane his neck in search of a familiar sharp face.
He plays the violin, Eren thought to himself, a burst of feedback from the stage distracting him momentarily. Maybe he gets it.
What ‘it’ was, Eren didn’t know. But maybe the guy would.
Fast forward three months, and Eren was in pain every day and going through bandages and the skin on his hands like it was going out of fashion. He could barely eat his meals with a knife and fork, but he was playing in a band that had a steady spot on the 606’s lineup. They were shit, and the saxophone player didn’t show up for rehearsal, but all experience was good experience in Eren’s mind.
He hadn’t seen mystery violinist/secret thug in a long time. Not to speak to anyway. The guy was first chair violin, and Eren got kicked out of the band after the incident with a cymbal and that clarinet player. He didn’t expect to see him again, but the feeling of connection still thrummed through his veins. He thought about him on the tube home, his head and his wrists throbbing in tandem.
Eren lived on the fourth floor of a decrepit block of flats in the bad part of town. The fire escape creaked when it was windy, the corridors smelled of piss and weed and various cooking food, there was thudding music at all hours of the night and day. Eren hadn’t had a full night sleep since he moved in. Sometimes he was one of the few up at 4am making noise. Sometimes his head was under his pillow and he was so angry he could cry because it was too loud to think, let alone sleep.
Anger flowed through him like another bloodstream. He tried to hammer it out into the drums, but he never bled what he wanted to. It coiled under his skin like something insidious. It reminded him of his father, and he drummed until he couldn’t hear that thought any longer.
Sleeplessness made him glazed, spaced out. He didn’t have many friends in his classes, they didn’t like him, found him too intense or angry or absent. He sat at the kit and drummed away, body moving on autopilot as his mind switched off. It was lonely, he supposed, that he existed in a separate sphere to everyone else. They carried on their lives outside of his little bubble, and he watched them like he wasn’t even there. Some days he wondered if he was even real, and called up his sister to reassure himself. She visited him in his shitty little flat, watched his band play, gave him a long hug at the door and told him not to be a stranger.
Eren tried, but everything was getting harder and harder, these days.
The band broke up a month later. A week after that, Eren marched straight into the off-limits music room and pointed at the handsome button up guy.
“What’s your name.” He asked, and the entire band was looking at him like he had grown another head. The conductor, a tiny little hardass named Levi, half-rose with a warning look in his flint grey eyes. Eren ignored him. Button up guy looked around him, lowered his violin and gave him a curious look.
“Jean.” He said, “Kirschtein.”
“Jean.” Eren repeated, rolling the syllables around in his mouth, trying it on for size. Then he nodded, turned on his heel, and left the room with a slam.
Levi chewed him out for it later, but Eren knew the violinist’s name and for once his head felt clear as day. He whistled on the ride home, bounded up the steps to his flat two at a time. Spent the rest of the night hunched over his kit, tuning it properly and resting his wrists. He looked Jean up on Facebook, laughed at his profile pictures for a bit before snapping his laptop shut and tugging a hoodie on.
There seemed to be a flat party on his corridor, and he stepped over two drunken girls on his way to the stairs. The smell of weed was so strong Eren was surprised he didn’t get a contact high off of it. He was pulling out his phone as he jogged down the steps, the buzz of energy under his skin impossible to bear any longer. He’d been rattling around his flat all evening, but he felt like he was about to go mad if he had to stare at the same white walls any longer.
Armin picked up on the sixth ring. His voice was soft, sleepy, and Eren felt something in his chest swell. There was noise in the background, muffled, the TV or the radio, maybe. Knowing Armin he’d fallen asleep in his homework, something on in the background for company. Eren tried not to sound manic.
“I need to see you.” He murmured, skirting a pile of rubbish and almost running headfirst into a huge man. “Sorry.” He said quickly, holding a hand out, and Armin made a worried noise.
“What’s wrong?” He asked, and Eren could almost picture him. Soft and pink cheeked, hair slipping from its bun. His heart beat double time, thumping like a kick drum. His free hand twitched for his sticks, and he huffed out a laugh as he skidded round a corner, head full of music.
“Cooped up.” Eren said, “Got a lot of stuff to say. Too loud in my complex.”
“You wanna stay over?” Armin asked, and Eren could hear the creak of his desk chair, the sound of a pen rolling across a desk. He nodded, then realised Armin couldn’t see him.
“Please.” He murmured, feet moving on autopilot. “I met a boy.”
“Tell me about it when you get here.” Armin said with a laugh, and Eren hung up with a hasty goodbye as he stepped onto Armin’s street.
He’d known Armin since forever. Their parents had lived in the same complex when they were kids, just down the hall from each other. Armin had been small and quiet and smart even back then, and Eren took on the role of his protector and had never grown out of it. Armin had been Eren’s first crush, and vice versa, and they’d never really grown out of that either.
Armin lived in a student flat with a couple of guys who rarely left their rooms. Eren felt a little guilty for knocking so loud on the front door, but less so when Armin opened it in a fluffy pink bathrobe with an amused expression on his face.
“Keep it down.” He murmured, and Eren rocked back on the balls of his feet, crossed his heart.
“I’ll be as quiet as the grave.” He whispered back, and Armin hid a laugh behind his hand before letting Eren past.
“You want something to eat?” Armin asked, stopping in the hall and casting a critical look over Eren. “You look like you haven’t eaten anything proper for weeks.”
“You’d be right.” Eren said with a grin, which he reigned in under Armin’s worried glance. “Anything’ll be fine.”
Armin made him a sandwich, let him bring it up to Armin’s room and eat it on his bed, curled up in sheets that smelt like home. It was dead quiet in Armin’s house, so quiet that Eren’s ears rang. He shook his head to try and clear it, made puppy eyes at Armin until he sighed and put some music on.
“I’ll never understand your aversion to silence.” Armin murmured, curling up next to Eren on the bed, knees to his chest. Eren shrugged.
“Takes your mind off stuff.” He said through a mouthful of food. “Can’t think if there’s noise.”
Armin gave him the look that Eren had come to dislike intensely. All scrunched up and sad and worried.
“You made any friends yet?” Armin asked, playing with a loose thread on his pyjamas. “In the band?”
“I was kicked off the band a while ago.” Eren muttered, then made a face. “Banned. Indefinitely. I might’ve lost my temper with someone.”
“Oh, Eren.” Armin murmured, sounding so sad and defeated that Eren shoved his plate to the side and scooped him into his lap.
“Armin, it’s fine.” He said, putting his face into Armin’s hair and humming. “I just frisbee’d a cymbal at this guy. It’s no biggie.”
“That’s pretty big!” Armin shot back, wiggling back a little to frown at Eren. “You’re gonna get yourself put on academic probation at this rate.”
“I’m getting all my work done on time.” Eren shrugged. “Spending overtime practising. It’s fine. I mean, I wanna make the uni jazz band anyways. Everything else is boring.”
Armin shook his head in defeat, but let himself be pulled back against Eren’s chest. “So who’s the guy you met?” He asked, tipping his head back against Eren’s shoulder and smiling after Eren gave him a quick kiss.
“His name is Jean, and he pulled me off my drum stool and yelled at me the first time we met. Then I ran into him in the middle of him beating some guy up in an alley.” He grinned at Armin’s disapproving look. “He’s hot.”
Armin narrowed his eyes. “He doesn’t seem nice.”
“Yeah but like!” Eren shook his head, trying to gather his thoughts. “I think he gets it, you know?”
“No, I don’t.” Armin said slowly, gripping Eren’s bigger hands in his. He looked down at them, making a sad noise. “Eren, you’ve gotta take better care of your hands.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Eren mumbled, shaking his hands from Armin’s grasp so he could tug his hair out from its bun. It fell to his shoulders, soft and blond and pretty. “I missed you.” He said quietly, brushing Armin’s hair over his shoulder to press a kiss to the nape of his neck. “I don’t wanna talk about heavy stuff. Let’s just cuddle and catch up. Tell me how your classes are going, tell me everything I’ve missed.”
They talked for a long time; Armin curled against his chest, Eren’s arms wrapped protectively around him, his face in Armin’s hair. It was easier to be himself like this, wrapped up in the dark and the quiet with someone who loved him, who understood him. If he cried a little bit, Armin didn’t mention it, just pressed a kiss to his chest and stroked his back.
Eventually they fell asleep, Eren feeling better than he had in a long time, wrapped up close with someone he loved and trusted. The quiet of the house rang in his ears, but for once he wasn’t bothered by it. He drifted into a shallow sleep with his lips pressed to Armin’s forehead, heart heavy in his chest.