Actions

Work Header

No One's Favorite

Chapter Text

Declan Lynch was the first-born son of Niall and Aurora Lynch, brother to Ronan and Matthew. Being the first-born should have meant something or, at least, it should have been an automatic win. It was not. Declan watched, with a heavy heart, as his father favored Ronan and his mother favored Matthew, like calling to like. When it came to their family the supposed truth about opposites attracting was a myth. Perhaps it was melodramatic to think of himself as the black sheep of the family, though certainly that was how he felt as a child, when he went above and beyond to be good, just so that his parents would never find a reason not to love him. Goodness, for Declan, meant straight As, perfect attendance, being involved in school activities that would help him get into the best colleges and internships, and cultivating friendships with the boys who were going places.

It irked Declan to no end that he had failed to form a relationship with Richard Campbell Gansey III, the golden boy of Aglionby Academy. It infuriated him that Gansey preferred Ronan, that the two of them had become so inseparable that, after Niall’s death, Ronan went to live Gansey. Declan wasn’t the type to be petty, but he couldn’t help but pull his asshole card whenever he had to interact with either Ronan or Gansey, who he liked to call Dick because he knew it annoyed him.

What it all came down to was this: Declan was no one’s favorite. Among his classmates he had associates and allies but no true friends. This was partly from necessity, as keeping the sort of secrets that Declan was bound to keep did not allow for open and easy relationships. The girls that Declan dated were also kept at arm’s length. Yes, he might go to bed with them but usually never more than once. At the rate he was going, Declan was running out of young, intelligent blondes. Being at an all boys school had that inescapable disadvantage: no girls. So Declan had to poach them from the Aglionby staff, visitors, and dating apps. Really, he wasn’t behaving any differently than the majority of his classmates, though Ronan always gave him dirty looks and had something to say whenever he spotted Declan with a new girl. Just because Ronan wasn’t getting any…

Ronan was the reason that Declan found himself at one of Joseph Kavinsky’s infamous substance parties. Declan had never been to one, preferring to spend his free evenings with a more reputable crowd. But one of Declan’s acquaintances had texted him thirty minutes ago to say the Ronan was at the party, drunk, and he still had his car keys. So Declan had come.

The party was every bit as chaotic as Declan had expected: cars parked everywhere, a huge bonfire roaring, music blaring, students from Aglionby and the public schools and even some college kids drinking and dancing and generally being stupid and fun and happy. Declan felt a million years old as he wandered through the crowd, craning his neck to see if he could spot Ronan or the BMW. Someone was yelling his name and Declan turned to find one of the recent Aglionby alumni waving at him, his face flushed with alcohol and the heat from the fire.

“God damn! I told you all he would come! DECLAN LYNCH! Get your ass over here, man!”

Declan scowled but obeyed, joining the group of college guys that were crowded around the beer keg. He recognized all of them, newly graduated Aglionby boys pretending to have authority now that they were out in the “real world.” Someone passes him a red Solo cup brimming with something that was not beer. Declan sipped at it; it had been well made, the alcohol mixed so that he could scarcely taste it. Mixed drinks were his kryptonite and he tried not to gulp it down even though he wanted to.

“I take it Ronan isn’t here,” Declan said. He gave the former Aglionby boys an icy glare.

One of them clapped him on the shoulder. “Relax, D-man. Word is you’ve been all serious this year, working too hard and shit.”

Declan sighed and swallowed more of his drink. “I have two brothers to look after and colleges to apply for.” The guys made booing noises and yelled out stupid stuff like “BORING” and “get a life, man.” So immature. “Look, just because I’m being responsible doesn’t mean that I’m not having fun when I can.” Declan let his gaze land purposefully on the blonde girl perched on the tailgate of a ridiculously large and shiny pickup truck.

“Oh! That’s right, that’s right!” the guys yelled. “I forgot that Declan’s a player. Real lady’s man. Alright tiger, I bet you can’t get that girl’s number.”

Declan scoffed. “Really? That’s supposed to be a challenge?” He finished off his drink and tossed the cup on the ground with the rest of the litter. “I’ll definitely get more than her number.”

It was stupid trying to impress the guys but they were eating it up, laughing, slapping his back, and shouting out lurid suggestions and tips. Declan didn’t need any of that. He knew exactly how to charm women. He knew how to get what he wanted and leave with both parties being totally satisfied. This was a piece of cake.

The blonde, whose name was Sarah, was every bit as cute up close as she was from far away. There was one problem, though: she was taken and her boyfriend, a large football player from Mountain High, did not like Declan chatting up his girl. Declan was somehow able to apologize and get away before the footballer player felt compelled to defend his girlfriend’s honor. The guys had been watching the entire situation unfold and they were beside themselves, laughing up a storm. Declan had been setup.

Feeling furious but too tipsy to drive, Declan found his Volvo and lay down on the hood. He couldn’t wait to graduate, to get as far from Aglionby and Henrietta as possible. There was nothing for him here and no one who he would miss, or who would miss him for that matter. Nothing…

The Volvo dipped down as someone climbed up on the hood next to Declan. If they so much as scratched the paint…

“Hey!” Declan snapped, sitting up and confronting the interloper.

“Hey yourself, Declan,” Jiang said.

“Jiang?” Declan blinked twice because this person sounded like Jiang, and they looked like Jiang but…wow. Holy Mary Mother of God.

“Yes?” Jiang flicked his hair over his shoulder and Declan noticed that he had earrings in, small diamond studs that flashed in the firelight. That wasn’t all that was flashy: Jiang’s lips were shimmery with gloss, his eyes lined with black kohl and gold powder. His hair was loose, hanging down past his shoulders, with small braids of colored hair peeking out.

Declan was staring. He knew he was staring and he should stop but Jiang was blowing his mind. Literally. It felt like a circuit had fried as his brain tried to sort out how Jiang, the quiet, polite, honor student had transformed into…into…just wow.

“You look different,” Declan blurted out. Jiang frowned, eyebrow arched. “I mean, you look good!” Now Jiang was smiling which was an improvement but… “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you out of uniform.” Declan was struggling.

Jiang shrugged. “I’m on the swim team. You’ve never been to any of our races?”

Declan shook his head.

“Pity,” Jiang replied, tipping his can of Dr. Pepper back and swallowing down the last of the soda. Declan was staring again. “If you came to our races you could see me out of uniform.”

Was Jiang flirting with him?

“Oh? Uh, yeah, I guess.” Declan looked down at his hands like he could suddenly find something interesting to say. Instead he asked, “What color nail polish are you wearing?”

Jiang looked, like he had forgotten that he was wearing nail polish. “Hmm. I think it’s galaxy something or starry something? My sister has a fashion blog so she likes to send me samples to try out. She’s all about breaking down gender roles, you know?”

Declan wasn’t sure if he did know, but the polish looked nice, just as the makeup and earrings looked nice.

“Anyways,” Jiang said, “I thought I would come over here and check on you. Hall buddies gotta stick together.”

“Right,” Declan muttered. Jiang and Prokopenko roomed several doors down from Declan in Diligence. By some quirk of irony Declan was living in Effervescence. His roommate had conveniently come down with mono and had to withdraw for the semester, which meant Declan could enjoy a dorm all to himself.

Jiang gracefully slid down the front of the car. He fastidiously swiped dust from the back of his pants and straightened his shirt. The outfit was far too stylish for a substance party, more like something one would wear on a runway or an art gallery opening. Declan couldn’t help but give Jiang more than one once over, wondering at his transformation. Jiang caught him looking and winked.

“You take care, Mr. Lynch,” Jiang said. And then, impulsively, he grabbed Declan’s hand and scrawled a phone number across his palm. Declan didn’t know where or why he had been carrying around a Sharpie. “Text me when you get back, okay? As the designated sober person on site I like to make sure that anyone driving is actually good to drive and that they make it home. Alright?”

Declan stared at the number and then closed his hand into a fist. “Yeah, alright. I’ll text you.” Jiang nodded once and turned to leave. “Wait! Jiang…”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks. For checking on me. This isn’t really my scene.”

Jiang smiled. “I know. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to make sure K isn’t about to immolate some poor soul.”

Declan watched Jiang go. He felt mostly sober but he stayed rooted to the hood of the car, playing back their conversation. How had he never noticed that Jiang was so cool and confident? Declan didn’t know any guys who would wear makeup and not only wear it, but rock the look. He had to admit: Jiang was pretty damn sexy when he wasn’t hiding behind his uniform. It made him wonder…

Declan’s buzz gradually dissipated, leaving him clear headed but tired. He took his time driving back to Aglionby, going just at the speed limit and scanning the sides of the road for deer and other nocturnal animals. By the time he got back to his dorm room it was very late. Declan stripped out of his clothes, grabbed his phone, and crawled into bed. He was about to fall asleep when he remembered that Jiang’s number was on his palm. Using the light from his phone screen Delcan added the number to his contacts and sent Jiang a brief text letting him know that he had made it back safe and sound.

Jiang immediately responded: good to know. sweet dreams declan ;)

Declan stared at the text, puzzling over the winking emoji. Jiang wasflirting with him. Declan didn’t know what to think about that so he sent back a basic reply: night.

Declan buried his face in his pillow and slept, the scent of smoke and the flash of dark, gold rimmed eyes haunting his dreams.

Chapter Text

It was a Tuesday night. Declan was lounging on the empty bed that would have belonged to his roommate, Terrance, if Terrance hadn’t snogged the wrong person and got a nasty case of mono. Now Terrance was back home in France or wherever the hell his mother lived and Declan was sitting on his bed, plucking out a song on Niall Lynch’s acoustic guitar. His daily obligations were taken care of, his homework was done, and here he was, alone in his echoing dorm room, thinking about his father.

His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. Actually it was a series of knocks, forming a bright pattern: knock tap-tap-tap-tap knock. Clearly it wasn’t Matthew, who usually went straight for the doorknob even though he knew that Declan kept his room locked at all times. And really, at this time of night, most of his “friends” would rather text than bother walking to his room. Aglionby boys didn’t waste effort if they didn’t have to.

Declan held the guitar by the neck and hopped off the bed. His eyes felt scratchy from lack of sleep and his chin was scruffy. He twisted the lock down and undid the chain he had added when he moved in.

Jiang was standing right outside his door, his toes touching the threshold. Declan grabbed onto the doorframe for support becausegood Lord he was not prepared for this, his eyes darting from Jiang’s elaborately braided hair to his dark eyes to his arms, which were on full display, Jiang’s shirt being a thin sort of tank top with metal loops at the shoulders, connecting the front of the shirt to the back. And then there were the loose yet clingy black pants (Declan didn’t know if they were pants) and his pale bare feet.

“Uh…” Declan had never been so ineloquent. “Hi, Jiang. Did you…” Declan had to clear his throat, “did you need something?”

Jiang smiled, his head tipped back a little as he met Declan’s eyes. “Yeah, could I come study in here? K made a house call and it’s, ah, kind of noisy in my room right now.”

Declan tilted his head to the side and caught the raucous sounds of Slavic hip-hop and peals of laughter. No one would ever submit a noise complaint if Kavinsky was involved.

“Sure, come on in,” Declan said, standing back to let Jiang in. He closed the door and locked it out of habit. Jiang gave him a puzzled, almost uneasy look. “Sorry,” Declan explained. “I have this thing about security.” He took a deep breath and looked down at the old guitar, a relic of Niall’s formative years in Ireland. “Ever since my dad…died…I feel like I have to keep my doors locked. But if you’re uncomfortable I don’t have to.” He moved his hand back to the lock but Jiang beat him to it, his slim fingers closing over Declan’s rough ones.

“Hey, it’s cool,” Jiang said. He gave Declan’s hand a quick squeeze before letting go and drifting further into the room. He put his hands on his narrow hips and leaned his head back to take in all the LPs that were stored on special shelves reaching up to the ceiling. “Hmmm. I did not peg you for the vinyl type.”

“Oh?” Declan asked. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his sweatpants and leaned against the door. It was weird having someone in his room. It was bizarre to have Jiang in his room.

“Yep. Also this is some really sad shit, Declan. The Smiths? Nick Drake? And I don’t know who these other white guys are but they look depressed as fuck.”

Declan laughed. “Okay, okay, you’ve made your point. I like sad music. I just sit here in the dark and listen to Bon Iver on repeat. Or, at least until I have to get up and move the needle back.”

Jiang moved to Declan’s desk and started poking around. “I know you’re not totally serious right now but please stop worrying me. Otherwise I’ll be in here every night just to make sure you’re not doing anything drastic.”

“I would never,” Declan said, so quietly that he didn’t know if Jiang heard him.

“Uh-huh. What were you playing before I knocked? I could hear it through the door. It sounded nice.” Jiang was opening the desk drawers and Declan watched in amazement. Who was this guy?

“I’ll play it for you but it’s not the same on acoustic.” Declan perched on his bed and started playing, his fingers automatically moving from one chord to the next as he strummed. He played it at a slower tempo than the original, taking it from a rock song to something soft and sad. Before he knew it he was softly singing the lyrics. “Hello I’ve waited here for you, Everlong, tonight I throw myself into…and out the red, out of her head, she sang…” Jiang stopped his exploration, leaning against Declan’s desk as he played the entire song. He clapped appreciatively when it was over and Declan blushed, setting the guitar down on his mattress. “Thanks,” he muttered.

“Foo Fighters, Declan? I’m surprised. That’s rock n roll, man, not sad, solitary, and…damn…what’s another s-word?”

“Soulful?”

“No! Please. Sad, solitary…”

“Sincere.”

“If I say ‘sucky’ you’ll hate me, right?”

“Probably.”

Jiang grinned, swinging his arms out and clapping his hands in front of him. He did this several times while he thought.

Sensitive.” Declan gave Jiang a dirty look but Jiang just winked. “You know you can’t deny it.”

“Sure, sure. So…you said you were here to study…? But I don’t see any books.”

Jiang pushed himself up on his arms and sat on the desk. He rummaged through Declan’s cup of pens. It was like having a cat mucking about. Except this cat was 5’7” and built like a…like a…Declan wasn’t sure. A dancer?

“That was a ruse,” Jiang said. He picked up the snow globe Niall had brought home from Edinburgh. He shook it and admired the white flakes and the miniature city trapped within. “Truth is I was curious to see your room.” Jiang’s smile was open and daring.

Declan snorted. “Well. This is me.”

“I see that. Hey, is that a motorcycle helmet?!” Jiang jumped off the desk and pushed Declan’s closet fully open and dragged out the helmet. It was new. About the same time that Ronan had purchased his extravagant tattoo Declan had bought his bike. “Holy shit! Not even K has a bike! Do you have pictures? You have to show me!” Jiang clutched the helmet to his chest.

Declan got off the bed and retrieved the phone that had been charging on top of his dresser. He was surprised that Jiang hadn’t tried to mess with it. He keyed in the passcode and opened up his gallery of images. The pictures of his bike were kept in a locked folder. It was probably overkill but he wasn’t supposed to have the bike and he had been keeping it a secret, stored at a facility on the outskirts of town. He passed the phone to Jiang who openly ogled the bike, flipping through the pictures.

“Fuuuuck, man,” Jiang hissed. “This is sick! What the hell, Declan? You listen to fucking Nick Drake and then tear around on a…I don’t even know what the hell this is??”

“It’s a EBR 1190RX.” Declan shrugged. They were standing so close that his bicep rubbed against Jiang’s shoulder. So close that he could finally study the complex braids that wound around Jiang’s head like a crown.

“You, my friend,” Jiang stated, “are a mystery.”

“I am what I am,” Declan sighed. It was wearying to keep up his stellar image 24/7, to be the responsible brother, the head of the Lynch family, now sadly reduced to three feuding brothers. Taking a break from it all by speeding off on the bike was one of his few outlets. In some ways he and Ronan weren’t so different.

“Dude, there’s no room on this bike for a date,” Jiang pointed out, his tone whiny with complaint.

“Oh, were you expecting me to take you on a joyride?” Declan asked, amused and a little flustered by the thought of Jiang crammed on the bike with him. Jiang was small enough that they might fit, not that Declan would ever take that risk.

“Pfft!” Jiang nudged Declan’s ribs with his bony elbow. “Yes! Obviously.”

“I can teach you…how to ride, if you want,” Declan offered. Jiang looked up at him in surprise and Declan almost flinched. Their faces were too close. How did that happen? Declan took a step back, pretending to get something off his desk. He shuffled with his notes.

“Of course I want,” Jiang replied. He sighed and kept looking at the pictures. “You’re lucky, you know.”

Declan’s laugh was brittle. “Jiang, my father is dead, my mother is essentially a human vegetable, Ronan hates me, and Matthew worships Ronan. I may have resources, opportunities, the whole goddamn American dream, but you know what? It’s nothing without my family.” He exhaled hard; his hands had bunched into boxer fists without him noticing. He felt embarrassed for saying so much and to Jiang, who was essentially a stranger, some pretty boy who had decided to poke about in his room while his roommate was otherwise engaged. He shouldn’t have said anything. “I’m…I know I’m lucky,” Declan muttered. “I didn’t mean to unload all that on you.”

Jiang set the phone down. His expression was pensive. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I only meant, you’re lucky because youseem so confident. It’s like you’re already a man, like you skipped over adolescence and got your shit figured out early.”

“I don’t think that’s lucky,” Declan argued. “After my dad died I had to grow up fast. Things…aren’t quite as they appear.” He was saying too much. Declan was aware of the gun in his desk drawer, the one that Jiang had surely seen but not commented on. Secrets. “Anyways, getting the bike was my form of teenage rebellion.”

Jiang smirked. “Or your early midlife crisis.”

“That too.”

Jiang fiddled with his braids. Declan noticed that his underarms were smooth, hairless. In fact, so was his face and chest. Jiang’s shirt shifted, the wide armholes gaping to reveal a tattoo on his chest, over his heart. Declan couldn’t be sure of what it was.

“How did you get your hair like that?” Declan asked, mostly to distract himself from the way he was appreciating the curve of Jiang’s neck.

“It was on my sister’s latest video,” Jiang explained. “Want to watch it with me?”

“Oh, uh, sure,” Declan stammered.

Jiang climbed up onto the unclaimed mattress and patted the spot next to him. Declan sat near him, their knees brushing, their arms pressed together. Jiang held his phone in front of them, his hair tickling Declan’s shoulder. Declan found that he couldn’t breath, that he didn’t know where to put his hands. He could barely focus on the video.

“That’s my sister, El,” Jiang said, his voice quiet. “She’s four years older than me.”

“She looks a lot like you,” Declan replied, biting off the rest of his thoughts, which were she’s very pretty.

“Thanks,” Jiang smiled up at him and Declan’s heart did some curious gymnastics. He focused on the video like his life depended on it and yet, at the end, he couldn’t remember a thing that El had done or said.

“She’s a genius,” Jiang sighed once the video was over. “I wish I could be like her.”

“Hey,” Declan knocked his knee against Jiang’s, “you seem to be really good at doing the hair and makeup and clothes and…stuff.”

“I’m good at imitation, you mean,” Jiang rolled his eyes.

“Well…whatever. What are you wearing?” Declan asked, pinching the fabric of Jiang’s pants between his fingers.

Jiang actually blushed. “Harem pants. They’re way more comfortable than sweats and they’re stylish. Soon everyone will be wearing them.”

Declan laughed. “I think they’d look silly on me.”

Jiang grinned. “Ain’t nothing wrong with being silly.”

—–

Jiang stayed for about an hour until Prokopenko texted him an all clear. After he left Declan lay down on his bed and stared at the ceiling, not knowing what to think. When he woke up the next morning he discovered that Jiang had sent him a playlist: Songs for Sad White Boys. There wasn’t a single Bon Iver or Nick Drake track on it. Declan listened to it at the gym, a secret smile on his lips.

Chapter Text

Declan’s week passed without any more interruptions or visits. He saw Jiang on campus, often in the company of Kavinsky and his entourage. Jiang would spot him, catch his eye, and throw up a peace sign, an infectious grin prompting Declan to smile back and nod before hurrying off to his next class. Now that he had seen Jiang “out of uniform” he couldn’t see the uniform as anything other than a façade. It wasn’t Jiang at all: the uniformity, the tie and blazer and shoes and creased pants, his long hair pulled back in a low ponytail, his piercings removed. It was just wrong and it made Declan feel oddly depressed every time he saw Jiang’s perfect conformance to the dress code, knowing how much Jiang probably hated being stifled like that. Not that Declan was doing anything different it was just…he didn’t like it.

Friday came and the campus descended into its usual revelry, boys running off for weekend adventures and parties. The introverts retreating to their rooms or solitary road trips or whatever they did. Declan was, at least according to all of Aglionby, an extrovert. He stopped and talked to various acquaintances, made plans, laughed, texted, made calls, but under it all he just wanted time to himself, to be quietly miserable. And yet he also desperately needed all this distraction, the extra credit, the internship, the girls, and the parties, to keep functioning. It was a conundrum.

Jiang texted him to see if he was coming to Kavinsky’s party but Declan declined. He had plans to see a girl, not that he told Jiang that. The girl was lovely. Laura. She had a sweet southern accent and a drive to create social change. They met through his internship and she had been impressed with his work (and his straight teeth and dashing smile and smooth talking). He spent the night at her apartment before returning to Aglionby early Saturday morning.

Declan had finally settled in for a morning nap when someone knocked on his door. He recognized the pattern: knock tap-tap-tap-tap knock. With a quiet moan Declan rolled out of bed, self-consciously trying to tame his bed head before he realized he was essentially primping to see Jiang.

Jiang looked like he had been out all night. He smelled like smoke of various kinds and his eyeliner was smudged, his eyes bloodshot. There was a dark purple bruise at the base of his neck that Declan tried very hard to ignore but his eyes kept coming back to it, filled with questions like who had been sucking on Jiang’s neck? and did Jiang like it?

“Declan,” Jiang leaned in and sniffed before looking up at him with narrowed eyes. “Why do you smell like watermelon?”

Declan flushed and scrubbed at his jaw; he needed to shave. “Why do you have a hickey on your neck?”

Jiang touched the bruise, a wry smile on his lips. “Fair,” he conceded. “I guess we both had busy nights.”

Declan shrugged, uncomfortable with the implications.

“Well this is awkward,” Jiang muttered. He bit his lower lip, eyebrows scrunched together, hands shoved into his pockets.Awkward.

“Oh, fuck it,” Declan sighed. “Come in.” He held the door open wide and Jiang ducked under his arm, brushing against his side. Declan sat on the edge of his bed, conscious of the rucked up sheets, the clothes on the floor, and the empty bottle on the desk. Jiang kicked off his boots and hopped up on the empty bed and folded his legs until he was sitting cross-legged, his elbows resting on his knees. His overly large shirt gaped, giving Declan a full view of his chest, which, for some reason, made Declan blush. He focused on Jiang’s face, the shadows under his eyes, and the silver bar piercing his left eyebrow.

“It was boring without you,” Jiang said without preamble. “Everyone got drunk and high and then got stupid.” He picked at his chipped nail polish. “It’s hard to talk to someone when they keep forgetting what you just said because they’re too wasted to think.”

Declan grinned. “Only you would try to have a conversation at a substance party.”

Jiang huffed out a tired laugh. “Well, I thought about calling you. Glad I didn’t.”

“I…,” Declan stopped. He didn’t owe Jiang an explanation. So he got lonely. So he needed touch, warm arms around him and the press of lips on his. It wasn’t really about sex, though that was great, it was about staving off the goddamn emptiness and hurt. It was about finding a handful of hours to spend with someone who wanted him, who would whisper bye in the morning and not demand anything else.

Jiang was still staring. No, he was looking. Declan ducked his head and brushed out the wrinkled sheets.

“Motorcycle lessons,” Jiang prompted. His voice sounded a little hoarse. “Still happening?”

“What?” Declan blinked, his brain sleep addled before he remembered their conversation earlier that week. “Oh…umm, yes. Yeah. Yeah, we can do that. Today?”

Jiang nodded. “I got plans for later tonight but what about after lunch?”

Declan did some mental calculations. He had homework, papers to write, internship work and that list of college essays. Tomorrow would be Mass with his brothers and lunch with Matthew and maybe Ronan, if they didn’t fight. He glanced at Jiang, who was now sitting back against the wall with his legs sticking straight out while he plaited his hair. Declan felt an itch in his fingers.

“Yes.” Jiang perked up, beaming. “Meet me here after lunch and we’ll go. Wear your boots and a leather jacket if you have one. If not you can wear mine.”

“Awesome!” Jiang dropped the braid he was working on, clapped his hands and stretched his arms up over his head. Declan saw a flash of his stomach.

Declan shifted on his bed and pulled his pillow onto his lap, hugging it to his chest. Jiang needed to leave. Now.

“So, uh, I’m going to get some more sleep,” Declan said, stumbling over his words.

Jiang nodded like that was totally reasonable but made no move to leave. Declan exhaled slowly; something was tearing him up inside and he wanted to be alone.

“Jiang.” Declan stared at him and then looked significantly at the door.

“Oh!” Jiang hopped off the bed, landing softly. He stooped to pick up his boots and moved towards the door. He made sure to pass right by Declan, brushing the tips of his fingers over Declan’s knees. The touch was feather-light but it still made Declan shiver and clutch the pillow tighter. Jiang slipped through the door, a cat-like smile on his lips as he murmured, “See you later, Declan. Sweet dreams.”

As soon as Jiang was gone Declan locked the door and collapsed on his bed, his face buried in the pillow. He swore that Jiang’s smoky scent lingered on and it bugged him, probably for the same reasons that the smell of Laura’s watermelon body wash bothered Jiang. When did that happen? When did he start caring about what Jiang thought of him? When did he start being resentful of who Jiang spent his time with?

With a frustrated huff Declan put his earbuds in and cued up a sleep playlist. He double-checked his alarm to make sure he would wake up for lunch and tried to sleep.

—–

At exactly 12:30 Jiang returned. He was wearing black skinny jeans, combat boots, and a sheer black shirt with three upside down crosses on the front. His hair was in a messy bun but he had taken the time to redo his eyeliner and nail polish. Declan was pretty sure the extra effort was for his benefit. Not that he wasn’t guilty of doing the same, standing in front of his closet for a full five minutes agonizing over what shirt to wear and whether or not he should also shave and put on some cologne. In the end he had skipped shaving, used the cologne, and selected a Dropkick Murphys’ T-shirt that Niall had bought him the year he had… the year he had died. He had taken his sons to a Dropkick Murphys’ St. Patrick’s Day concert in Boston. It was one of Declan’s favorite memories of his father, of his brothers, too.

Jiang was bouncing up and down, grinning manically.

“Declan! Dude, I am so pumped for this! Look. Look at my hands. They’re shaking, I’m that excited.”

Declan reached for Jiang’s hands, holding his palms below Jiang’s, feeling the shivers that were making him shake. His hands looked large and ungraceful compared to Jiang’s slim hands and fingers.

“I like the gloves,” Declan said. Jiang pulled his hands back and flexed his fingers into fists, the tight fingerless gloves creaking a bit.

“Yeah? They’re a gift from El, of course. As is the rest of the wardrobe.” Jiang did a quick spin offering Declan a full view. “Perks of having a sister in the fashion industry.”

Declan locked his room and they headed down the hall. It felt like a bold move. It wasn’t that Jiang was an outcast or anything; it was just that no one would expect the two of them to hang out. It put Declan too close to Kavinsky’s camp and that didn’t mesh with his stellar, All-American image. Declan kept his head down, the motorcycle helmet tucked under his arm, and listened to Jiang chatter about his sister and a modeling gig that he might do over their next break.

“She lives in New York and oh my god Declan her apartment is amazing. I stay with her whenever I can. Like I really want to live with her during the summer but that’s when she usually travels.” He sighed and put on his aviators now that they were outdoors.

“You don’t stay with your parents?” Declan asked.

“Nope. I mean, I could? But they’re, uh, really not the greatest. I guess they love me? But every time they see me it’s clear that they think I’m a disappointment. Which, shit man, I’m only sixteen! I got some time to improve, right?”

Declan unlocked the Volvo and Jiang slumped in the passenger seat. He didn’t know what to say.

“I think,” Declan started, “I think you’re, umm, you’re brilliant. For what it’s worth.” He put the Volvo in gear and focused on driving, too nervous to check for Jiang’s reaction.

“Wow,” Jiang’s voice was quiet. “That’s nice, man. Declan. But I’m not, I mean, you don’t even know me.”

“Well.” Declan shrugged, one hand lazily steering while the other managed the gears. It was easier to talk to Jiang like this while he was driving. “I’d like to.”

Jiang was silent for several moments and Declan had to struggle to not say something.

“Are you fucking with me?” Jiang finally asked.

“Pardon?”

“Are. You. Fucking. With. Me.” Each word was ground out with precision.

“Uh, no. Shit. Sorry. No. I… I just thought…”

“What?”

Declan sighed. “I thought we were becoming friends or something. Not that I would know. None of the people I hang around with knock on my door in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning. None of them…make the effort to get to know me and I don’t feel motivated to know them.” He was saying too much. Dammit.

“What makes me different?” Jiang had turned in the seat, his legs pulled up to his chest, his back leaning against the door. Declan made himself turn away and concentrate on the road.

“You made the effort. You could have ignored me at the party. You didn’t need to check on me after. So I guess I could ask you the same thing: why are hanging out with me?”

“Heh,” Jiang laughed softly and the tension in the car disappeared. “That’s a secret.”

“Oh, for—,” Declan swallowed the swearwords. He glanced at Jiang who winked at him. Winked! Of all things… “How is that fair?” Declan demanded.

“I never said it was fair!” Jiang laughed again. “It’s just the way it is, Declan. Declan, Declan, Declan Lynch.” He sang out the syllables of Declan’s name like they were a nursery rhyme.

“Jiang, I have Elliot Smith in the stereo and I am not afraid to use him if you keep that up,” Declan warned, but he smiling.

“Oh god save me from the sad white boy music!” Jiang cried before howling in laughter. He fumbled with the controls and rolled down the windows, letting his hair out of its bun and sending it streaming around him. Declan laughed and lowered his foot on the gas pedal, accelerating smoothly and feeling, for the first time in months, free.

Chapter Text

The storage facility where Declan kept his bike was thirty minutes away in a town even smaller than Henrietta. It was probably his paranoia that made Declan resort to such extreme secrecy, hiding his hobby and his outlet far from his home and his school, never letting anyone know. And yet here he was, pulling into the parking lot with Jiang in tow, walking down the row of the unit until he got to #37. He thumbed through his keys until he found the one he needed and bent down to unlock the padlock. Jiang stood over him, hands in his back pockets, looking entirely too cool and out of place. Declan heaved the sliding metal door up, revealing a small square room with nothing in it but—

Fuck me,” Jiang whispered. Declan felt his pulse jump as he watched his friend saunter over and start touching his bike.

The bike was painted black and it looked sleek and fast and irresistible. Declan remembered what it felt like, the first time he saw it, when he realized that this was his bike. Ronan might be in love with their dad’s old BMW but Declan was in love with this motorcycle.

Jiang was busy skimming his fingers over everything: along the handlebars, down the seat, over the smooth metal. The bike was pristine because Declan always washed it before returning it to the storage unit. Jiang got one boot on the foot peg and hopped onto the seat, leaning forward to grasp the handlebars. He was smiling so big, his hair falling forward into his face, his body hugging the bike. Declan swallowed thickly, totally unprepared for this.

“I like this,” Jiang said, his hands squeezing the handles experimentally. “You know, this might sound kind of weird but like this bike—the lines and curves and the gleam of the paint, the cold metal—kinda makes me want to put my mouth all over it.”

Declan about passed out. He could feel a blush rising fast and hot, his ears burning. He didn’t know what expression was on his face because Christ if that wasn’t a major turn on… He had no idea what to say in response.

“You look like a tomato,” Jiang laughed, throwing his head back. “Okay, okay, I see now that that might have sounded… bad.” He shook his head in disbelief. “You got a dirty mind, Declan Lynch.”

“I do not!” Declan argued. “Anyone would think that sounded kinky as fuck!”

Jiang cocked his head to the side, thinking about it. “Well, I guess this would be a bad time to say that I really like putting things in my mouth…”

Declan groaned and went over to bang his head against the metal wall. The impact did little to help his situation.

“I promise it’s not a sex thing!” Jiang was explaining. “Like as a kid I really liked to put marbles in my mouth. If you gave me a strand of pearls right now I would probably start sucking on them, not gonna lie.”

“Okay, you have to stop,” Declan pleaded, turning around and facing Jiang, his hands folded in front of him in supplication. “Topic change. Please.”

Jiang leaned back on the bike, hands gripping the seat. The change of position was not helping. It allowed Declan to admire Jiang’s slender body, the black pants that clung tight to his legs and thighs… Declan took a deep breath. This was getting ridiculous. He didn’t know if he was feeling so attracted to Jiang because it was Jiang or because Jiang was straddling his bike. Did he have a thingfor bikes? God.

“So, how does this work?” Jiang asked, gesturing to the bike.

“I’ll show you,” Declan replied, voice hoarse. “Get off, I gotta wheel her outside.”

Her?”

“Um, yeah? You know how ships are referred to as she or her? That’s kinda how I feel about my bike.”

“How heteronormative of you,” Jiang muttered. He slid off the bike and Declan wheeled her out, admiring the way the sun glinted off the paint. Okay, maybe he could understand Jiang’s oral fixation with the bike. Not that he was going to do anything like that. Nope.

“Alright, I’ll demonstrate and then you’ll get on and try it out, okay?” Jiang nodded. Declan went over the basics, making sure that Jiang understood each thing before moving on. He remembered when he first learned to ride, the mortification of teaching himself, the small injuries incurred because he would rather hurt himself than mess up the bike. Jiang dropped his playful banter and focused, nodding along and asking questions.

Finally Declan started up the bike and did a quick lap around the parking lot, demonstrating how to accelerate, lean into curves, slow down, stop. Then it was Jiang’s turn. Declan insisted he put on his helmet, even though he wasn’t going fast and there was little chance of getting hurt. Jiang pulled his hair back into a low ponytail and Declan lowered the helmet on his head. His fingers brushed the side of Jiang’s neck and Declan had to stop himself from jerking his hand back, surprised by the contact and the way it made him feel so unsteady. Instead he patted the side of the helmet and gave him a thumbs up.

Jiang revved the engine and accelerated smoothly. His first turn was a little shaky and Declan held his breath, hands clenched as he watched. He told himself he was worried about the bike. By the fourth turn Jiang had it under control. He started going faster, leaning in farther, whooping in delight. Declan grinned. Keeping the bike a secret had been empowering but sharing it with Jiang felt like he had transcended to… something, he wasn’t sure what. It was just so damn fun.

Declan motioned for Jiang to stop, which Jiang did with finesse. He was a natural. Jiang pulled off the helmet, shaking his hair out and smiling wide enough that Declan could count all of his teeth if he wanted.

“Declan,” Jiang’s voice was breathy and low. “Holy fucking shit. I want one. I need one. That was…” he paused and waved his hands around, “amazing! How can you stand to park this beauty here?”

This was exactly what Declan had been longing to hear. He leaned against the bike, his leg brushing against Jiang’s. A small breeze blew through the lot, fanning Jiang’s long hair towards Declan. He could smell the lingering scent of wood smoke and something light and sweet, maybe peaches? This close and he could see how dark Jiang’s eyes were, how they sparkled with excitement. His lips were slightly parted and Declan wanted. There was something pulling inside him, a yanking sensation below his ribs, in his gut. He wanted to feel Jiang’s hair running through his fingers, to taste his lips, to hear his breath catch…

“I don’t know,” Declan mumbled. He couldn’t remember what Jiang had asked. He literally did not know. About anything. He took a couple steps back and moved to stand in front of the bike. Everything in him felt charged and he was worried that if he touched Jiang again he would do something he might regret. Or Jiang might regret.

“Okay, Declan,” Jiang passed the helmet to him, “show me what you got.”

Declan grabbed the helmet and put it on, inhaling Jiang’s scent. Definitely peaches. He climbed on the bike and tried not to think about how hot the seat was. He was so on edge that he threw caution to the winds, accelerating hard and fast, the engine roaring as he tore out of the lot and down the road. A quick glance in his mirror showed Jiang racing out to the road to watch him. Declan pulled a few tricks he had taught himself from binge watching YouTube videos. Now that he was on the open road he wanted to keep going, to keep driving until the sun went down or the tank ran out of gas. He reached the outskirts of town, the mountains looming, their peaks and curvy roads a siren song. It took all of his self-control to turn the bike around and race back.

Jiang was sitting on the hood of Declan’s Volvo, sucking on a lollipop. He waved at Declan and then flipped him off.

“I thought you were gonna abandon me here,” Jiang shouted. He prowled over and placed a hand on the seat behind Declan. “You know, I think there’s room for me back here.”

Declan peeked over his shoulder, examining the seat then staring at Jiang’s tight, trim body. Maybe… the adrenaline rushing through him said fuck it, drowning out his usual impulse-killing logic.

“Hop on,” Declan said, “we’ll see.”

Jiang placed one hand on Declan’s shoulder and pulled himself onto the seat, scooting forward until he was pressed against Declan’s back.

“Yep, I fit!” Jiang sang out.

“Oh good…” Declan mumbled. He took off his helmet and insisted that Jiang wear it. His heart was pounding like crazy. “Hold onto me, we’re not going to do anything crazy but I want you to be safe, okay?”

“Fuck yeah!” Jiang complied and put his arms around Declan’s waist, squeezing a bit more than was necessary. Declan tried to suppress the shudder that ran through him. He couldn’t process the way it felt to have Jiang wrapped around him; it was too overwhelming. He made himself start slow, to not go over the speed limit, to stay in control. His heart felt like a shooting star, soaring and falling and burning. He had never felt like this before.

Chapter Text

Declan didn’t sleep well that week. He wanted to blame it on the workload from his classes and internship. He wanted to blame it on stress caused by Ronan and his inability to attend classes or do his homework. But the true source of his troubled nights lived two doors down. Night after night Declan woke up with a start, heart pounding, sweat soaking his T-shirt, and an ache inside that could never be satisfied. Instead of dreaming of Lauren or Ashley or Sarah or any number of blond girls that he had been with he was dreaming about Jiang.

Which made it painfully awkward whenever he saw his friend on campus. Declan couldn’t ignore Jiang but he didn’t feel like he could look him in the eye after dreaming about THAT. He didn’t know what it meant. In the light of day his fevered dreams felt like bizarre witchery. Here was Jiang in the flesh, smiling at him, quizzing him on French and asking for tips on what bike to purchase. It was clear that Jiang wasn’t feeling whatever Declan was and that… well it was probably for the best.

By the time Friday arrived Declan was ready to take a page from his brother’s book and curl up with a six-pack and forget everything. He didn’t make plans with any girls. He left his notebooks in his leather satchel and his textbooks in a pile on the empty bed. At the depressingly early time of 10pm he crawled into bed, headphones on, and cued up the playlist Jiang had made him. It was pathetic and probably a bad idea but he was four beers in and he did not care.

At a quarter to midnight someone knocked on the door. Declan had passed out, headphones hanging off his neck, an empty bottle cradled in his arm. He jerked awake, confused by the lights that were on and the weird taste in his mouth. He blinked and tried to remember what he had been dreaming about…

The knock came again, that familiar pattern. Jiang. Declan tried to get his heart to calm down because god damn it Jiang was a friend. Just a friend. No one was supposed to get this… agitated… for a friend. Declan got up and stumbled to the door, fumbling with the lock.

Jiang was leaning against the doorjamb, a wide smile on his glittery lips—silver glitter to match his eye shadow and the bar in his brow.

“Declan!” Jiang beamed. “What are you wearing?!”

Declan looked down. “Umm. Sweatpants? And a T-shirt?” He didn’t understand why Jiang was so shocked by his clothes when Jiang was the one wearing a shirt that looked like it was made of woven strips of black silk, paired with shimmering skull leggings and his alarmingly studded combat boots.

“Well, you have to change. We’re going out.”

Declan slumped against the door. “Really? I’m half drunk and I don’t wanna get changed. Or go out. Or do anything ever.” He mumbled the last bit and turned back and collapsed on his bed.

Jiang followed him into the room and perched on the side of his bed. Declan could smell the sweet fragrance that Jiang sometimes wore, peaches and honeysuckle and sunshine. He didn’t think he could handle it.

“Hey.” Jiang’s voice was quiet, hesitant. “What’s going on?”

Declan felt a hand on his back, Jiang’s hand, moving over his shoulders, fingertips trailing along the nape of his neck. He bit down on his pillow, face averted. It felt really nice.

“I’m just tired,” Declan admitted. And I keep thinking about you, dreaming about you he didn’t say.

“Hmm.” Jiang’s fingers followed the bumps of his spine, the arcs of his ribs, the contours of his muscles. Declan shivered. “I should probably go, then. Let you get some sleep.” Jiang pulled away, stood to leave, but Declan grabbed his wrist, strangely pleased by how easily his fingers wrapped around Jiang’s slender arm.

“Wait.” He could hate himself later. “Please, stay.”

Jiang’s face was the picture of surprise, soon eclipsed with quiet delight. “Okay.”

Declan sat up and rubbed at his tired eyes. There was no way he could get back to sleep now. “Where did you want to go?”

“Wal-Mart.” The look in Jiang’s eyes was pure electric mischief.

“Do you always dress up to go to Wal-Mart?” Declan asked. The closest Wal-Mart was thirty minutes away in a town that was just as backwoods as Henrietta, probably more so since it didn’t have the gentrification factor that came with Aglionby.

“Of course,” Jiang preened. “I’m stuck in a uniform five days a week, I’ll take any and every opportunity to let my light shine.”

“Well it’s shining alright.” Declan stood and stretched, his shirt pulling up over his sweats. He could have sworn that Jiang was staring so he tightened up his abs because… well they did look good. “Do I really need to change?”

Jiang gave him a slow once over. “I suppose not. We’ll look like the odd couple but let’s be honest, I’m gonna look better than you no matter what you wear.”

Declan laughed, bending over at the waist, clutching his stomach. “Oh god. Okay, Mr. Confident.” He snickered once more. “You’re probably right, though.”

“Of course I am.”

Declan pulled on a pair of Vans that Matthew had given him. The black shoes were decorated with white koi fish. They didn’t fit his typical aesthetic but he loved them. Jiang nodded appreciatively and tossed Declan a hoodie from his closet. It was a soft, light blue zip up, perfect for cool Henrietta nights.

After locking up Declan followed Jiang down the mostly deserted hall. Everyone was either gone for the weekend or out partying.

“Doesn’t Kavinsky have a party tonight?” Declan asked. “Or illicit street racing?”

Jiang nodded, skipping ahead and then racing back to Declan. “Yes to the party. I told him I had plans and since I don’t really participate in the party I don’t think they’ll miss me too much. Plus, I heard a rumor that your brother is planning to attend.”

Declan groaned. “Jesus…”

Jiang looped his arm through Declan’s and pulled him out of the building and to the nearly empty parking lot.

“Don’t worry, he’ll be fine. I tipped off Gansey so he can go wrangle him before he does anything too crazy.”

Declan stopped, jerking Jiang to a stop as well. In the yellow glow of the parking lot lights Jiang looked more wild and ethereal than usual, his face tipped back, staring up at Declan with those deep, liquid eyes. Fuck.

“Thank you.” Declan’s voice was hoarse. “I… I should be the one but…”

Jiang smiled and grabbed Declan’s hands, pumping them up and down. “You do enough. Now c’mon. We have a Wal-Mart to terrorize.”

Declan smiled fondly and followed Jiang to his shiny Supra, running his hand over its glossy paint.

This was a different kind of intoxication: the two of them alone in the dark, Jiang driving, Declan leaning back in passenger seat, watching the way the neon lights from the dash illuminated Jiang’s face. Upbeat pop remixes, windows down, Jiang’s hair swirling like a dark cloud, the shining path of the reflective markers on the asphalt, shivering from the cool air and nerves and pure happiness. Declan couldn’t take his eyes off Jiang, especially when Jiang passed him a Tootsie Pop and winked at him, “Unwrap this for me, yeah?” Declan did. And he stared as Jiang happily licked and sucked on the lollipop. Declan held the one Jiang had offered him in his hands, utterly forgotten.

Wal-Mart felt like a surrealist dream. The parking lot was crowded with trucks and Jeeps and beat up compact cars, high school kids loitering, eating McDonalds and passing around paper bags and cigarettes. Declan trailed behind Jiang, feeling massively out of place. But Jiang didn’t break his stride as he marched into a store where he was far and away the minority. He grabbed a blue shopping basket in one hand and the front of Declan’s hoodie in the other. He yanked Declan forward until Declan’s face was dangerously close to those silver, glittery lips.

“Snacks,” Jiang breathed. He smelled sweet like grape, Declan saw a brief flash of his tongue and it was purple from the Tootsie Pop. He felt a surge of desire so strong that he had to grab the basket from Jiang and position it… strategically.

“Lead the way,” Declan managed to say, though it came out half strangled.

Jiang kept a hold of Declan’s hoodie and pulled him along, skipping towards the aisle with the candy and chips. He drew so many looks and second, lingering looks that Declan was nearly beside himself, trying not to stare down everyone in Wal-Mart. Jiang paraded down the aisle, tossing snacks into the basket: Reese’s Pieces, Hot Tamales, salt and vinegar chips, Pringles, Starbursts, and of course, more Tootsie Pops. Declan added some cashews and, on an impulse, sour cream and cheddar Ruffles.

Next they hit up the ice cream. Jiang picked ice cream sandwiches and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food. Declan grabbed vanilla.

“Are you fucking serious, Declan?” Jiang demanded, hands on his hips. He looked ridiculously glamorous, posing beneath the harsh fluorescent lights, surrounded by glass cases full of frozen food.

“It’s… I like to add stuff to it, okay? Like cinnamon. That’s my favorite. My mom used to,” he cleared his throat, “she would make us cinnamon ice cream.”

Jiang’s expression softened. “Oh.” He took the ice cream and placed it in the basket. “That’s really nice, Declan.”

“It was.”

They were headed for the registers when Jiang got sidetracked by the clothes.

“Oh my god! Declaaaaannn! Look. At. This. Shirt.” Jiang held up a flimsy black top, the front decorated by a print of a cow’s skull and full moons, the white images accented with shiny golds and silvers. Jiang twirled the shirt around revealing a back held together by soft twisted ropes of fabric. “I am totally buying this! It’s awesome. El is gonna have a fucking conniption when she sees it.”

Declan didn’t comment on the fact that it was a girl’s shirt, that they were standing in the junior’s section and a couple ladies were giving Jiang the side-eye; Declan glared right back until they looked away.

At the register Declan insisted on paying, “Since you drove us all the way here.” Jiang let him and it felt pleasantly like a date.

The parking lot smelled like pennies and chewing tobacco and cigarette smoke but Declan hardly noticed. He was too busy laughing at Jiang who was doing cartwheels and handsprings, looking as graceful and deadly as a throwing star. Someone wolf whistled at Jiang and Jiang whistled back. They piled into the car and Jiang broke out the ice cream sandwiches, unwrapping one and taking a bite, making obnoxiously loud sounds of pleasure. He passed the sandwich to Declan and they shared it, passing it back and forth before it melted.

Aglionby was a ghost town when they returned, quiet and sleepy. They snuck in and tip-toed to Declan’s room, even though Jiang’s giggling completely subverted their sneakiness.

“What now?” Declan asked. He felt strangely breathless. A giddy thrum was running through his limbs and he felt he would explode out of his skin.

“Movie time!” Jiang announced.

“But it’s so late,” Declan whined.

Jiang crawled onto Declan’s bed, situating himself amongst the pillows. The look on his face was something.

“Like you’d be able to go to sleep right now.”

Chapter Text

Declan would be lying if he said he didn’t love the sight of Jiang in his bed, lying if he said his heart didn’t skip a beat when Jiang patted the mattress and smiled at him like this was no big deal. It was a big deal. No one had ever climbed into his bed, barely anyone made it into his room and yet here they were. 

Saying a silent prayer that he didn’t die of a heart attack, Declan retrieved his laptop and hopped onto the bed. He passed Jiang the bag of snacks, already worried about crumbs and ice cream.

“We didn’t get anything to drink,” Jiang remarked as he dug through the bag, setting out chips and candy in the narrow space between them.

“I think I have some waters in my mini-fridge,” Declan said. “Also some beer. Wait, you don’t drink, right?”

Jiang shook his head ruefully. “Too many bad experiences. Not that I don’t think drinking with you would be fun.” The flash of a smile. “Maybe some other time.”

Declan slid off the bed and grabbed waters and some plastic spoons, taking a moment to switch off the overhead lights. “Can I ask…?”

“I kind of go crazy when I drink,” Jiang answered. And for the first time tonight he didn’t sound like his usual, confident self. Declan settled down next to him, scooting closer than necessary. “I always think I can keep up with the other guys but I can’t. I shouldn’t drink anyway with my meds but…” his voice tapered off. “I always felt so left out. I already feel like, well, I am different because I don’t, I’m not—” Jiang looked up at Declan, and his expression so conflicted that it made Declan’s heart hurt.

“Hey, I’m sorry for prying.” Declan placed his hand over Jiang’s, an impulsive gesture that he immediately second-guessed—until Jiang responded by lacing their fingers together.

“Don’t be sorry,” Jiang murmured. “It’s not like it’s a big deal. I mean, it shouldn’t be but, um, I don’t usually talk about it. The guys get it, not at first but they do now.” The guys. Declan knew Jiang meant Kavinsky’s crew: Prokopenko, Skov, and Swan. How Jiang fit in with them he couldn’t imagine. “So, what I’m trying to tell you is, I already felt weird and left out because I don’t have sex.” Jiang’s fingers tightened around Declan’s, as if he could gauge his reaction from their shared point of contact.

“Really?” Declan flashed back to the embarrassing dreams he had had about Jiang, in which they were both really into it, Jiang knowing exactly what Declan wanted. Dreams are not reality he reminded himself. “Never?”

Jiang let go of Declan’s hand and dug his spoon into the half-melted ice cream “Nope.” He ate some ice cream, sucking on the spoon absent-mindedly. Declan felt the universe readjusting, little comments clicking into place. “It’s more than that, really,” Jiang continued. “I don’t even want to have sex. Like I see someone and I might think ‘they’re hot’ or I could get a crush but it doesn’t, uh, lead to any sexual impulses.”

Declan stared, the pint of ice cream in his hands getting more goopy by the second. He had never met anyone like Jiang, didn’t even know that people could not have those impulses. “Wow.” The word came out a little breathless. “But would you like, still want to date people?” He bit the inside of his cheek anxiously because… because… what if Jiang said no?

Jiang nodded, that damn plastic spoon still sticking out of his mouth. “Yeah. It’s just more difficult for me to feel confident about asking someone out since, you know, sex is pretty much off the menu.” Jiang glanced at Declan and there was this look in his eyes, this silent question. Declan swallowed hard, not sure what expression he had on his face, worried that he was going to mess this up. But he couldn’t stop his relieved smile, he tried to bite it back, bottom lip caught between his teeth. Jiang returned his smile, blushing, and Declan could have sworn that he heard Jiang huff out a relieved sigh before he ducked his head and concentrated on stirring up his soupy ice cream.

“So yeah,” Jiang continued, “being this way—being ace, asexual—it makes me the odd man out. Especially at the parties because it’s like everyone’s hooking up, or trying to. Everyone’s drinking and shit. And drinking brings out this side of me that I don’t like. Plus I get sick so…” Jiang shrugged. “It’s a cluster.”

“If you don’t like the parties and stuff why chose Kavinsky? He seems like the worst person for you to hang around with.” Declan had been wondering this for a while. Sure Jiang had a wild, freewheeling vibe but he didn’t have that ruthless, hectic, brutal energy that surrounded Kavinsky and his pack.

“They get me,” Jiang explained, as if it was as simple as that. “Kavinsky found me, recruited me. Fast, shiny cars are one of his weaknesses.”

“And the boys who drive them,” Declan muttered, thinking of Ronan.

“Right. So yeah, car bonding. Male bonding. Whatever. We all click somehow. It works. Can you really see me hanging out with guys like Tad? Or, fucking hell, Gansey?”

They shared a laugh and Declan slumped down, until his face was level with Jiang’s. “I still don’t get why you like hanging out with me,” he confessed. “Aren’t I like Gansey?”

Jiang turned to face him and his gaze was so intense it made Declan’s heart trip, it tugged at him and made him ache, like his chest was being crushed.

“You’re one of a kind,” Jiang murmured. His fingers brushed against Declan’s arm, raising goose bumps on his skin. “You’ve got secrets and danger and… you’re kinder than you appear.”

“Kinder?”

“Mmhmm.” Jiang’s fingers were playing along his knuckles. He wasn’t looking at Declan and his hair had fallen around his face, shielding his expression. It made Declan want to pull his hair back, to feel if it was as silky as it looked. “You came to that party to find your brother. You didn’t delete my number. You let me in and kept your promises. You taught me to ride a motorcycle and you bought me snacks. What else would you call it?”

Kind wasn’t the word he would have chosen, though he wasn’t prepared to admit what the right word was.

They ate their ice cream in silence for a few minutes, both of them processing. And Declan found himself wondering things that he had previously been unwilling to consider. Jiang’s foot accidentally bumped into his leg and Declan jerked, flustered by the contact, then embarrassed by his overreaction. Calm down, calm down.

“Movie time?” Jiang asked.  Declan nodded and grabbed his laptop, handing it to Jiang who logged into his Netflix account. Declan peered over his shoulder, curious about what Jiang typically watched. The “Watch Again” was mostly anime and independent films. Jiang scrolled down, past action flicks, Korean dramas, more anime, documentaries, science fiction, LGBT films, police dramas, and 80s classics. Declan didn’t have a Netflix account, or any video streaming account. Between class and the internship and his extracurricular activities he didn’t have the time. There was never enough time.

After several minutes of careful consideration Jiang finally decided on a movie. The film poster was totally creepy: a black background with what looked like a fucked up rabbit skull in an eerie shade of blue. Declan clutched at the blankets, nervous sweat slicking his palms as the movie loaded. Jiang tossed the snacks out of the way and curled up right next to Declan, the laptop balanced precariously on Declan’s thighs.

“Is this a scary movie?” Declan asked, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.

Jiang shrugged, his arm moving against Declan’s. “I dunno. I mean it’s not a horror movie or anything. I guess it’s more like a psychological thriller. You’re not scared, are you?” Jiang peeked up at Declan, a smile tugging at his lips.

“What? No, of course not,” Declan replied. But the truth was he couldn’t abide scary movies or horror. He had seen things, more horrible than he liked to remember, things that left him feeling afraid of what lurked in the dark. He didn’t need to add to his mental inventory of terrors.

“You can hold my hand if you get scared,” Jiang whispered as the movie started.

The movie was scary. Maybe it wouldn’t be for most people, but Declan had lived with dreamers and the terrifying things that Donnie Darko saw, well, they looked too real for Declan. Why are you wearing that man suit? His skin crawled. And it wasn’t just the rabbit, it was everything: Donnie’s psychological crisis, the Catholic dogma, the family drama. Declan cringed. It was hitting too close to home but he couldn’t tell Jiang that, he couldn’t tell him how deeply disturbed he felt. There was no way he would be able to sleep tonight.

The only consolation was that Jiang had slouched down until he was practically vertical on the bed, his head leaning against Declan’s hip. And that was its own brand of disturbing. Every time Declan flinched or jumped Jiang would squeeze or pat his knee in what was supposed to be a reassuring manner but only succeeded in making Declan even more on edge. It wasn’t bad but it was frustrating as hell.

The credits rolled and Declan shifted, stretching his arms over his head, jostling Jiang. “Whadja think?” Jiang mumbled sleepily. He yawned widely, triggering Declan’s own yawn reflex even though he wasn’t remotely tired.

“Umm, it was interesting,” Declan replied. It was the most diplomatic response he could come up with.

Jiang laughed quietly and poked Declan’s leg. “You hated it, didn’t you?”

“No, no,” Declan hedged. “It was good! Really good. I didn’t expect it to be so… dark.”

“Hmmm.” Jiang turned and laid down on his stomach like was going to stay there all night. “Want to watch something less dark? Because… I have this really great queue of anime…” Jiang’s expression was so hopeful that Declan agreed to it

After a brief bathroom break they dived back into Netflix. Declan had never watched anime and Jiang was practically beside himself trying to pick something for them to watch. He waffled back and forth between slice of life, comedy, and sports anime. In the end, after much debate, he decided they would watch a sports anime because it was, in his words, “light and fluffy and hilarious.” Declan watched with interest as Jiang logged into yet another streaming site.

“How many accounts do you have?!” Declan asked.

Jiang pulled up the Crunchyroll page and scrolled through the anime. “Umm… all of the them?” Declan shook his head in a mixture of exasperation and admiration. How did Jiang have time to watch all of this and maintain the grades needed to stay at Aglionby? Jiang queued up the first episode and snuggled against Declan again, warm and soft and smelling so fucking good…

Declan wasn’t expecting ice skaters. He didn’t anticipate getting so fucking invested in Yuri Katsuki’s bid for the gold and the love of his stunningly attractive coach. Before he knew it they were four episodes in, half the snacks consumed, and Jiang sound asleep with his head resting on Declan’s shoulder. It was nearly five in the morning, too late or early to make Jiang get up and honestly Declan liked the company. Especially after that movie. So maybe it would be okay if Jiang stayed...

Declan woke up later that morning with Jiang curled up against his chest and a very embarrassing hard on straining against his sweatpants. Sometime during the night (or morning) they had burrowed under the blankets, legs tangling, Declan’s arm draped over Jiang’s waist. Declan was relieved that he had kept his clothes on. Well, most of them. He had apparently stripped off his hoodie and T-shirt but he still felt overly warm. He thought about crawling out of bed, he needed to take care of things before Jiang woke up, at least, but he was so comfortable and Jiang looked really soft and cute sleeping next to him.

Just as Declan was about to fall back asleep there was a quiet scratching at his door, so unobtrusive that, if he had been asleep, he never would have heard it. Matthew. Declan tried to get out of bed without waking Jiang but the mattress groaned and Jiang made a low mmmm noise which was really not helping settle things. Declan grabbed the towel hanging from his closet door and hastily positioned it to look all casual like “don’t mind me, just heading out for a quick morning shower!”

The scratching at the door was slightly louder; Matthew must have heard him moving around. Declan waved good morning to Jiang who was blinking sleepily and yawning. So cute.

Declan unlocked the door and opened it wide enough that Matthew could see him but not see into the room.

Matthew was his usual, radiant self, smiling and being too perky for whatever time it was.

“Declan!” Matthew beamed. “Want to go get breakfast? I’m starving and Lee says he’s not waking up for another hundred years, at least.”

Declan yawned, tears springing to the corners of his tired eyes. Before he had time to answer, Jiang was there at this shoulder, peeking around to see Matthew.

“I would love to get breakfast!” Jiang chimed in, grinning at Matthew.

Matthew looked from Jiang to Declan and back again, his eyes wide.

“Umm… Declan, do you have something you need to tell me?”

Chapter Text

Declan stood in the shower, Matthew’s question looping through his mind: do you have something you need to tell me? Did he? He scrubbed at his short hair feeling regretful that already he was washing off Jiang’s scent. Fucking Christ. If he was feeling that, if he couldn’t stop remembering how good it had been to wake up next to Jiang, how fun he was and sexy and… Declan turned the water to cold and gripped his arms, shivering and suffering. He had it bad. So, so bad.

After dressing in a casual outfit (worn jeans, Flogging Molly t-shirt, and scuffed biker boots) he went to retrieve Matthew and Jiang. He got Jiang first, tapping quietly at his door; the plaque read Mercy, Declan’s room had been christened with the more difficult concept of Effervescent, it was an attribute that Declan felt would apply to Jiang, not him.

The door swung open and a very hung over Prokopenko glared up at him, or maybe he was only squinting. He looked like he might pitch over at any moment. Declan could see all the way into the room and he caught a brief glimpse of Jiang’s bare back before he pulled on the shirt they had bought the night before. The straps exposed most of Jiang’s upper back and his gracefully sloping shoulders. Declan forced himself to look away which was when he noticed the body sprawled on one of the beds—pale, bony limbs painted with tattoos and a shock of dark hair sticking up in all directions. It was Kavinsky, Declan could tell even though the other boy was face planted in the sheets, the bedcover only just hiding his ass from view. Declan eyed Prokopenko who had picked his way through the absolute mess of a room to return to bed, he looked just as wrecked as Kavinsky. He muttered something to Jiang and then fumbled his way over Kavinsky to curl up with his back to the wall, arms and legs overlapping with Kavinsky’s.

Jiang turned and saw Declan waiting for him and his smile was like a hit of vodka: brilliant, intense, provoking a burn that mellowed to lingering warmth. Or it was like a waking up on Christmas morning knowing that good things were waiting downstairs. Fuck that, it wasbetter than Christmas. Declan was so stuck in Jiang’s smile that he didn’t process that Jiang was moving towards him until he was there, head tilted back, dark eyes dancing (and lined with gold).

“Hey sunshine,” Jiang chirped. He was standing too close and yet…not close enough.

“Hey.” It came out gruffer than he meant it to but Jiang must have seen something on his face to reassure him because he just grinned and tipped his head to the side. A few loose strands of hair drifted over his face and Declan brushed them behind Jiang’s ear without thinking about it. But he did think about it as he skimmed his fingers down Jiang’s neck to his shoulder, plucking at the strap of his shirt. It had a low neckline that showed off Jiang’s sharp collarbones. “This suits you,” Declan murmured and was delighted as Jiang blushed at the compliment.

“Yeah? Well your shirt… suits you.” Jiang was staring at him now and Declan felt absurdly pleased. “Like I feel you’re about to bust out of this shirt like a superhero.” Jiang reached up and plucked at the sleeve that was practically molded to Declan’s bicep. “Good god… do you think my hands could even fit around your arm?”

Declan chuckled softly. “Let’s see.”

Jiang squeezed both hands around Declan’s upper arm, just managing to get his fingertips to touch. “God damn,” Jiang breathed. “You’re like a tree. I mean, I kind of noticed before but,” he shook his head. His hands were still wrapped around Declan’s arm, his body leaning into Declan’s. “Is it weird that I kind of want to climb all over you?”

“Uh—” Declan had no idea what was appropriate to say becausefuckkkkk.

He was saved by Prokopenko drunkenly yelling from the bed, “For the love of god, quit jerking each other off in the fucking doorway! Fuck off!”

“Sorry, sorry! We’re leaving!” Jiang ducked out of the room, pulling the door closed behind him. He was blushing so hard that even his ears were red. “They are so embarrassing,” Jiang groaned, his hands covering his face. Declan couldn’t help but laugh and he wrapped his arm around Jiang’s shoulders, hugging him close as they went to Matthew’s room.

“It’s fine,” Declan assured him. “Ronan is just as bad.”

Thinking about Ronan, specifically what Ronan would make of this, was souring his mood. He rapped on Matthew’s door and his youngest brother answered right away. He was all smiles and he greeted Declan affectionately and bumped fists with Jiang.

“This is great!” Matthew effused as they walked to the dining hall. “Declan’s usually too busy for Saturday breakfast or he’s not even here, like off with some college girl.” Declan blanched and glanced over at Jiang who took the comment in stride. They were walking side by side, close but not touching. Declan wasn’t sure what to do. He wanted to take Jiang’s hand but he didn’t know if Jiang would want that. He didn’t know if he was ready for the entire school to know that he, Declan Lynch, was interested in a boy and not just any boy, but one of Kavinsky’s boys. What would Kavinsky think? Was this allowed? He was pretty sure that Jiang liked him but…

“I’m not one for Saturday breakfast either,” Jiang replied. “I usually sleep half the day and get up in time for dinner. But since someone woke me up this morning…” He canted his head to the side, smiling mysteriously at Declan. It made Declan’s heart seize.

“Apologies,” Declan made a small bow. “Next time I’ll pretend to sleep until Matthew goes away.”

“Next time?” The question came from both Jiang and Matthew, one asking coyly, the other asking with confused surprise.

“Yes,” Declan said simply. What he wanted to do was take Jiang aside and tell him exactly what he was thinking, tell him how last night had been the best night he had had in ages, how he wanted more nights like that, more time with Jiang. But he kept walking, through the entrance to the dining hall, sparing a polite smile for the dining room attendant as he swiped his student card. Matthew and Jiang followed him, the air practically vibrating with unspoken questions.

The three of them split up to assemble meals from the nearly endless options. Declan joined the short queue for the omelet station and got the extra cheese omelet with a side of bacon. Most mornings he went for healthier options: hard-boiled eggs, fruit, oatmeal, smoothies. But Saturdays were for lazy indulgence. Besides, he needed the extra fat and protein for training. He had worked very hard for his amazing arms and solid, built body, complete with the requisite washboard abs that had made the girls he had entertained practically swoon.

Declan was wondering if Jiang would have the same swoon reaction to his abs as he set his tray down at an empty table by the windows. It was still somewhat early and the dining hall was largely vacant, the other students either sleeping or away from campus for the weekend. Matthew found Declan and trotted over. His tray was a smorgasbord of sugars: a bowl of Fruit Loops, cream cheese Danish, and strawberries sprinkled with powdered sugar decorated a stack of pancakes that oozed butter and syrup.

“Matthew,” Declan groaned. “What have I told you about eating better?”

“It’s Saturday!” Matthew sang out. “Saturday is cheat day, everyone knows that.” He dug into the pancakes, rolling his eyes with pleasure as he chewed. “Mmmmm. You don’t know what you’re missing!”

“I do, actually,” Declan remarked. “And don’t talk with food in your mouth.”

Matthew mumbled something that sounded like “yes, dad,” but Declan let it slide. He scanned the room for Jiang and saw him standing next to another table in conversation with one of the boys. Matthew followed Declan’s gaze and he made a soft inquisitive sound.

“So, what’s going on with you and Jiang?” There was a sly knowing lilt to his voice that rankled Declan.

“We’re friends,” Declan said shortly, picking up his mug of coffee and sipping at it.

“Friends usually don’t sleep together, you know,” Matthew observed.

Declan nearly choked on his coffee. “We’re not sleeping together!”

“He was in your room this morning. You were shirtless, his hair was all messy…”

“Fine.” Declan set down his mug and leaned across the table towards Matthew. “He stayed over because we fell asleep watching anime. That’s all that happened.” Jiang was still chatting but he looked about ready to come over. “We’re friends.”

“Since when do you watch anime?”

“Oh my God, since when were you the Spanish Inquisition?”

“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Jiang yelled, popping up so suddenly next to their table that Declan jumped and Matthew laughed delightedly. He looked smug as he sat down next to Declan. His tray was mostly composed of different mugs and cups—coffee, green tea, water, and orange juice—shared space with avocado toast and a bowl of strawberries. Jiang picked up a strawberry and bit it in half, red juice coating his lips, and that did things to Declan. He was reminded of Jiang’s strange obsession with putting things in his mouth and had to drink half of his coffee to distract himself. “Did I interrupt something?” Jiang asked as Matthew stared and Declan tried not to.

“We were talking about anime,” Declan managed to say.

“Oh?” Jiang glanced back and forth between Declan and Matthew. “You weren’t interrogating your brother over his choice of bedfellows? I am so disappointed.”

“Fuck,” Declan muttered, burying his face in his hands.

Matthew’s laugh was bright and surprised. “I did! He said you were friends.”

“Ah.” Jiang sipped his tea. “Well, that’s true. We are friends. Is that okay with you?”

“Oh sure,” Matthew said with good humor. “Ronan won’t like it.”

“Ronan doesn’t like anything I do,” Declan griped. “He thinks I live to make his life hell.” Matthew shrugged and finished off his pancakes.

Jiang leaned over Declan and stole a bite of his omelet. He gave Declan a cheerful thumbs up and offered him a strawberry. Declan opened his mouth and let Jiang feed him. Matthew coughed something like “friends” but kept his remarks to himself.

Altogether breakfast was surprisingly pleasant. Jiang and Matthew chatted easily about random topics. At one point Matthew dragged his chair to their side of the table and the three of them squeezed together to watch videos of baby animals and unlikely animal friends (including a video of a bear and a cat to which Matthew ecstatically proclaimed “Look! It’s you two!”).

Eventually more people trickled in and Matthew left to join some of his sophomore buddies. Declan felt relaxed, his shoulder pressed against Jiang’s as they took their time drinking their various beverages.

“Why did you get so many?” Declan asked, poking at Jiang’s glass of orange juice.

“To share with you, duh,” Jiang replied. Declan shrugged and drank some juice, wrinkling his nose at the combination of orange juice and coffee tastes. “What are you doing today?”

Declan yawned sleepily. “Homework. Might take a ride later.”

“Want some company?” It was broached all casual but Declan could hear the faint strain of hope underneath.

And he couldn’t help himself. Declan bent down, lips brushing the shell of Jiang’s ear and whispered, “Definitely.”

Chapter Text

The pew groaned as Declan took a seat. He slid down to leave room for Matthew, who was eating doughnuts in the church’s greeting area, and Ronan, who would undoubtedly be late. They were early enough that most of the pews were empty, a few parishioners kneeled or sat, quietly thinking or praying or surreptitiously scrolling on their phones. Declan leaned forward, elbows on knees, and rested his head in his hands. He was tired and had a slight headache and he was hungry, all of which was Jiang’s fault.

They had spent most of Saturday evening together, driving the twisty roads to the mountains until they found a pull off on the shoulder of the road. Declan parked the bike and they had waited for the sun to set, swapping stories and sharing a warm bag of gummi worms. Jiang carved their initials on the wooden sign posted at the overlook, as well as the year, and then he scrawled Kavinsky’s number in pen along with the message “for blowjobs call.”

“Won’t he get mad at you?” Declan had asked.

Jiang shrugged. “It’s a running prank for all of us. Anyways, K changes numbers like I change shirts.”

“So all the time,” Declan teased.

“Pretty much!” Jiang answered. He climbed onto the wooden safety railing and, to Declan’s horror, proceeded to do a series of back handsprings along the railing.

Declan had jumped to his feet but, wary of disturbing Jiang’s concentration, had stayed in place, frozen and ill, until Jiang had landed. It looked like Jiang was about to go for a repeat performance but Declan rushed forward and grabbed him around the waist, pulling him into a tight hug. His heart had been pounding so hard that he thought he was going to die.

Jiang braced his hands on Declan’s shoulders, squeezing. His dark eyes were wide. “What?” Jiang gasped. “What’s wrong?”

Declan set Jiang down, only to pull him into a proper hug, cradling the back of his head. “You could have fucking died that’s what!” Declan wanted to yell; he didn’t. “That’s a fucking cliff, Jiang! If you messed up even a little bit…” Declan swallowed hard. He was thinking about his father, he was thinking about Jiang plummeting to his death and he would be helpless all over again, unable to assist,too late.

Jiang’s arms wrapped around him, holding on just as tightly. It had taken Declan longer than he wanted to admit to calm down, for the adrenaline dump to fade. Eventually he dropped his arms and Jiang took an unsteady step back. He was shaking.

“Jiang…” Declan’s voice was pleading. “Shit, did I mess up? I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have grabbed you like that.”

Jiang shook his head and brought his hands up, fiddling with his hair. Dusk was closing in, early stars popping out in the heavens.

“You didn’t mess up,” Jiang had said, voice low. “I was surprised… Iam surprised that you, umm, care so much. The other guys would have just laughed or made bets, dared me to do something even crazier.”

Declan sat down on his bike, hands gripping the seat and handlebars. He felt lightheaded.

“I’m a risk taker,” Jiang had said, “I like the thrills of pushing my limits, driving fast, finding out what lies past the boundary of safe. That’s why I fit in with Kavinsky and his crew. I’m reckless.”

Declan had watched him and felt his heart twinge painfully. It was a new sensation. Was this how it felt to truly like someone? Because ithurt almost as much as it sang, it burned and melted and worked, turning him inside out, remaking him.

And that’s why Declan had hardly been able to sleep that night. Despite the scare he had on the mountain, he and Jiang had smoothed it over and raced back to Henrietta, Jiang screaming in his ear as they took turns going too fast. Reckless. Declan hoped that whatever he and Jiang were doing wasn’t just a new risk that Jiang was experimenting with; he didn’t want to be Jiang’s latest thrill.

The massive irony of that sentiment was not lost on Declan who had been called a manwhore on many occasions, mostly by Ronan. Not that there was anything wrong with casual sex in Declan’s opinion, but the way he was feeling about Jiang was far from casual. And sex was off the table. That was fine. Declan had spent most of the night thinking about things: Jiang being ace, what it would be like to date someone for real, what it would be like to have feelings for the person he was dating, what not having sex would be like… Declan dug a knuckle into his eye, scraping out lingering sleep. He had had a great life before sex he could do it again. Really the sleeping around had only started after Niall’s death; Ronan used alcohol to numb the hurt in his heart, Declan used sex to gloss over the years-old ache of feeling unloved and unwanted.

Declan heard Matthew’s cheery voice, louder than was appropriate. He was being praised by a host of church ladies, for what Declan had no idea. Matthew was the type of boy who instantly drew smiles from curmudgeonly people, compliments and gifts from the stingiest. At church Matthew was warmly welcomed, his presence treated as a blessing more than capable of canceling out the blight of Ronan and, Declan had to admit, his own dubious character.

Matthew sat down next to Ronan. He smelled like laundry detergent and sunshine. Declan brushed some powered sugar off Matthew’s face and jacket. Matthew took the mothering with a good-natured smile and told Declan about how good the jelly doughnuts were and how he hoped that they could get subs for lunch.

The service was just about to start when Ronan finally showed up. He crashed into the pew, sitting down as hard as possible, making the ancient wooden pew squeal in protest. He tugged at his tie and glared at Declan. His look said I’m here so shut up. Declan hadn’t said a word. Declan had more on his mind, for once, than what Ronan was up to so he kept his lips pinched together, only opening his mouth to sing or respond were appropriate.

Halfway through the service Matthew nodded off, his curly head nestled against Ronan’s shoulder. Ronan wrapped his arm around Matthew and Declan had to look away. Sometimes, seeing the bond between his two younger brothers, felt like an ice pick to his sternum, a relentless chipping away that would only stop when his heart was finally punctured. Knowing the truth of Matthew’s origin, that he was a product of Ronan’s heart and dreams, was both wonderful and defeating. Declan clenched his hand around his paper sermon outline. Not enough, never enough. He wasn’t enough for his father, his mother, his brother, and maybe that was why he had never moved beyond casual, because to be dumped would have been the final nail in the coffin.

Declan’s thoughts went full circle, back to Jiang. He needed to do something. Their secret, fun-filled weekends were becoming more…intense. He couldn’t say, with any honesty, that what he felt for Jiang was “just friends.” It hadn’t been true when he told Matthew that only the day before. It hadn’t been true since the moment he had decided to show Jiang his bike.

The service ended and Ronan was the first out of the church, followed closely by Matthew and Declan. Ronan was already halfway to their father’s BMW when Declan called after him.

“Ronan! Hold up for a moment.” Ronan, of course, kept walking, stripping off his jacket and tie as he went. Declan jogged to catch up to him.

“Ronan,” he started again. “I need you to take Matthew for lunch today.” Matthew slowly ambled over, looking up at the clouds and (badly) whistling Joy to the World.

“Why?” Ronan snarled. He gave Declan his filthiest, most disdainful look. “You too busy screwing half of Virginia?”

Declan took a deep breath and held it, counting back from ten to keep from slapping his brother in the parking lot of St. Agnes. “I have a lunch date.”

“Ohhhhhh,” Ronan cooed with an exaggerated high-pitched voice. “I see how it is. Ditching you brother for a lunch date. Way to make the kid feel special, Declan.”

Declan felt his pulse speeding up. He leaned in so he could whisper in Ronan’s ear, hoping that Matthew wouldn’t hear. “You’re making a scene. Who is this helping, Ronan?” He said the name exactly how their father would have. Ronan went still. “Don’t put Matthew in the middle of our dysfunction. Now. I had breakfast with Matthew yesterday; I spend more time with him during the week than you ever do. All I need right now is for you to go buy him a god damned lunch.”

Ronan’s glare could have stripped paint from walls, corroded metal. But the years had blunted its effect and Declan stared back, cool and distant.

Fuck you,” Ronan spat. To Matthew he said, “C’mon, let’s go get tuna.” Matthew smiled gleefully and piled into the passenger seat of the BMW. Ronan peeled out of the parking lot as loudly as possible, making the other churchgoers shake their heads in disapproval, and then Declan was alone. Again.

—–

Declan stood outside Jiang’s door, fist poised to knock, but muscles unwilling to commit to the action. He kept over thinking it: what he would say, what Jiang might say, what he would say in response, and on and on and on. His palms were sweaty and he was nervous, for fuck’s sake. He should have changed. He could still change. It wasn’t too late—

“Declan?” Jiang. “Hey, whatcha doing?”

Jiang sidled up next to him, grinning mischievously and Declan had a small heart attack because Jiang was only wearing a towel.

All his mental functions went on a brief holiday because: Jiang. Towel.

“Hello??? Jiang to Lynch, do you read me, copy?”

“Uhh, hi,” Declan managed. He was trying to look anywhere but at Jiang. “Did you just get out of the shower?”

Jiang laughed. “As a matter of fact I did! So clever of you, Mr. Lynch. Did you just get back from church?”

“I… ah, yeah. Yes. And I wanted to see if you were free this afternoon?” He finally allowed himself to look at Jiang, now that he was braced for seeing so much skin.

“I would like to play hard to get, after all you had my morning and evening and half the night yesterday but…” Jiang bit his lower lip, eyes sparkling, “I just can’t say no when you’re wearing your good church clothes.”

“Oh.” Declan leaned against the wall, arm braced over his head. He knew he was blushing but he didn’t mind. Flirting. Jiang was flirting with him! “Well then I’m glad I didn’t change.”

“Same,” Jiang winked. “What’s on the agenda for the afternoon?”

“Lunch, if you haven’t eaten yet.” Jiang shook his head. “And, the rest is a surprise.”

“I love surprises!” Jiang beamed. “Give me thirty minutes and I’ll be good to go. Probably. Maybe.”

Declan chuckled, relieved. “Okay. Awesome. Cool, I’m just gonna go…”

“Smooth,” Jiang teased, “see you in thirty!”

Declan felt like he floated back to his room rather than walked. He peeled off his suit, letting the clothes fall on the floor. He stared into his closet, his mind blank. Dressing himself had never been so difficult. In the end he opted for comfort, pulling on a soft dark grey shirt and khaki cargo pants. He fussed with his hair but it was already pretty close to perfect. He still had ten minutes to kill so he double checked the supplies, reexamined his plan.

Jiang showed up early, knocking on the door while Declan was still giving himself a motivational pep talk in the mirror.

“Just a sec!” Declan yelled. He shrugged on his heavy backpack, grabbed his keys, and opened the door.

“Hey there, sailor!” Jiang greeted him. He was wearing a long silk shirt that came down past his thighs, vibrantly patterned with dragons and flaming birds; black mid-calf leggings; black slip on shoes that tied in ribbons around his ankles. His hair was pulled up in a messy bun and his eyes, already stunning, were accented with smoky makeup. “Oh, looks like I may have overdressed again.” He brushed out imaginary wrinkles from his shirt.

“You look great,” Declan said, not bothering to hide his appreciation. He locked his door, pocketed the keys, and then held out his hand. Jiang took it without hesitation and Declan felt a jolt of happiness rush through him.

“So where are we going?” Jiang asked as they strolled across campus. Some students were playing Frisbee on the lawn, others were attempting to tan and study at the same time. A few called out to Declan and he waved but didn’t stop to talk.

“Boating,” Declan replied. “I know of this really nice beach area down the river, I thought we could have a picnic. What do you think?”

Jiang gripped his hand and swung their arms back and forth. “Sounds like the perfect Sunday afternoon.”

Declan breathed a sigh of relief. “Excellent!”

The boathouse wasn’t particularly busy. Some of the boys had taken out canoes and kayaks for the day, others had commandeered tubes to float down the river. Declan selected a canoe and Jiang helped him carry it to the water. Jiang offered to help paddle but Declan declined; he wasn’t ready to test the power dynamics that came into play when it came to canoeing.

Jiang spent the majority of their short journey taking pictures, including a million selfies with Declan. He also narrated the entire plot of the movie he and Prokopenko had watched the night before.

“And then he dies anyway!” Jiang was practically shouting. “How fucked up is that? I swear, the British cannot have a happy ending. It’s like, I did not sign up for a Shakespearean tragedy, thank you very much.”

“Did you cry?” Declan asked.

“Yes, I fucking cried! Proko cried. It was tears and snot all around.”

Declan laughed. “Sounds cathartic.”

“Ugh, I suppose.” Jiang leaned over and trailed his fingers through the water. They rounded the bend of the river and there, under the trailing branches of an old willow, was a narrow, sandy beach. Declan steered the canoe and paddled forward.

“Could you jump out and pull us up?” Declan asked. Jiang nodded and landed smoothly on the beach. Jiang secured the boat and Declan grabbed his bag. While Jiang explored he set out a blanket, containers of food, and a couple bottles of sweet tea.

“Dude!” Jiang came crashing from the trees and stilled. “What in the—” He took in the spread of food and then looked at Declan, his expression torn. “What’s all this?”

“Picnic,” Declan said, voice soft. “I, uh, I wasn’t sure of the best way to do this and I did some research. So, picnics are, umm, supposed to be…” he took a deep breath, this was it, oh God, “romantic.”

Jiang was staring. Declan wanted to do something, keep talking, run for the hills, plunge into the river. Because Jiang might say no and then it might be awkward and they were out here, far from campus and it would be so weird and what if he had messed this up?

“Jiang?”

Jiang opened his mouth, closed it. He wasn’t running. He hadn’t said no. Yet.

“This is really nice,” Jiang murmured. He stepped closer to Declan, closing the distance between them. “It is romantic, if a little rustic.”

Declan smiled. “Yeah.” He reached for Jiang and was relieved when Jiang took his hand. “I’ve never really done this.” His thumb traveled over the familiar shape of Jiang’s knuckles. Time was slowing down, speeding up, he felt caught in the moment. Every heartbeat felt everlasting. “Do you want to go out with me?”

Jiang’s breath caught audibly, his mouth hanging slightly open, eyes shimmering. He laced his fingers through Declan’s and squeezed. Declan had never felt quite so exposed and it was terrifying, exhilarating.

“Yes.”

Jiang’s brilliant smile was infectious. Declan couldn’t stop grinning. He pulled Jiang into a hug, sweeping him off his feet and spinning him around until they were both dizzy and laughing.

“Don’t step in the potato salad!” Jiang yelled as Declan stumbled in the sand.

Today was the best day.

Chapter Text

If the weekend was a dream then Monday morning was reality. Declan’s alarm went off at 6am and he swiped blearily at his phone before pulling the cover back over his face. His head felt like it weighed a million pounds, his eyelids were impossibly heavy. It seemed like he had only slept for a few seconds but it had actually been three hours. Declan moaned. Three hours. How was he supposed to make it through today? He had his usual morning run, classes, internship, gym, homework; he would be lucky if he got to bed by midnight.

He had spent most of last night cramming for class today. Jiang had joined him and had been a continual if welcome distraction. Their study time was frequently interrupted by Jiang showing Declan a new gif or video he had found, which led to them sitting too close, cuddling, and talking. They had the infamous DTR, trying to figure out how dating each other was going to work. Declan had always thought that people who got completely absorbed in a romantic relationship were delusional or codependent but sitting next to Jiang, spending time with him, he got it. This was the happiest he’d ever been. Jiang made him happy so why wouldn’t he want to spend all his time with him?

Of course that wasn’t possible. Declan’s schedule kept him ridiculously busy and Jiang had his own life and friends to keep him occupied. That was something else they had discussed. How should they act around Kavinsky and Prokopenko, Swan and Skov? Since Declan was dating Jiang did that mean that he was a de facto member of Kavinsky’s Pack? Jiang didn’t think so. For the most part Kavinsky and his crew didn’t “date”; they messed around with each other or had occasional flings with people outside of the group but never anything like what Jiang was doing with Declan. And Declan wasn’t willing to share Jiang with them, not like that.

“It’s not like I ever slept with any of them,” Jiang explained. They had been taking a break on Declan’s bed; Jiang sprawled comfortably on top of Declan, his chin resting on Declan’s breastbone. Declan had taken Jiang’s hair down and was playing with it while Jiang closed his eyes and basked in the attention. “They get tipsy and handsy and it’s not like I hate it. So there were drunken makeout sessions, sober makeout sessions, things like that. Meaningless, fun.” Jiang rubbed his cheek against Declan’s chest. “I like being close to people. I really, really like this.”

“Yeah?” Declan had asked. He continued playing with Jiang’s hair and ran his other hand over Jiang’s back. It was nice, taking it easy like this, soaking in the comfort of having another body pressed against his. Jiang leaned forward and kissed him on the chin, wrinkling his nose a bit.

“You have scruff,” Jiang had commented. Declan let himself be sidetracked from their original topic – Kavinsky – to Declan’s amazing ability to grow facial hair and even gasp chest hair, though he preferred to shave it.

Declan’s alarm went off again and he leveraged himself out of bed. If he started giving himself breaks, like skipping today’s run, it was likely that he’d give himself a break the next day and then the day after that. Declan was only able to maintain his packed schedule by being relentlessly strict with himself. After all, he had to uphold his perfect academic standards, perform admirably at his internship, keep his brothers in line, and monitor the trade of Niall’s dream objects. He couldn’t do all that if he wasn’t perfectly healthy in mind and body, if he wasn’t perfectly focused.

The run was good. Declan took the path from the dorm along the edge of the campus to the river where it joined up with some wooded trails. He ran for about two miles before turning around and heading back. The early morning fog was mostly gone by that point, the sun illuminating the picturesque grounds and buildings. Declan had been given brochures for colleges in the UK, famous and old institutions like Cambridge and Oxford; Aglionby had been modeled after those schools but its character and student body were very different. Declan had glimpsed Aglionby’s dark corners and he couldn’t help but feel a chill of foreboding as the morning bells pealed out the hour. Maybe he was projecting; it felt like he had been living in a happy bubble with Jiang and now that they had become something, a visible couple, he was worried that their easy days were over.

Declan passed the crew team and other dedicated athletes on his way to the showers. Rutherford tried to get his attention but Declan acted like he hadn’t heard him. He only had a small window of time to clean up and get dressed before collecting Jiang and getting breakfast. Breakfast was Jiang’s idea but Declan wasn’t sure if Jiang would actually be able to wake up in time. Declan hurried through his shower, muscles aching but not unpleasantly. He plunged his head beneath the spray of water, tilting his face up, letting the water rinse his face and hair and chest. He used the sandalwood body wash that had been a gift from Ronan back before, when he and Ronan had talked instead of fought. For some reason he was feeling nostalgic, missing his brother. Maybe he was just regretting that Ronan always assumed the worst about him. Or it could be that he wished they were closer so he could tell Ronan about Jiang, about how exciting and fun and strange it all was, falling for someone.

Last night Jiang had Skyped with his sister and he had introduced her to Declan. The three of them had talked for longer than they should have. Elle was every bit as cool and smart and hilarious as Jiang had described her. She had invited the two of them to come stay with her anytime. Since she had a gorgeous studio apartment in Manhattan Declan was absolutely on board with visiting as soon as possible, maybe over the next break. Of course that would mean leaving Matthew and Declan unsupervised for a week but he would cross that bridge when he came to it.

Declan shaved quickly, nicking the side of his neck in the process, but he still managed to finish up, fix his hair, and get his uniform on before it was time to get Jiang. He shifted his messenger bag, tugged his tie into place, took a deep breath, and knocked on Jiang’s door. There was a muffled crash from inside, followed by grumbles and expletives and a high-pitched yelp. It was too many sounds and voices for just Jiang and Prokopenko. Declan heard footsteps approaching and took a step back as the door swung open.

“Declan.” Kavinsky stood in the doorway, his shirt unbuttoned and open, revealing his concave chest, stick-like ribs, and black tattoos. He looked, as always, like death warmed over. “Hey, man,” Kavinsky yawned. “How’s tricks?”

“Joseph.” Declan answered, his tone even.

“Man, I told you not to call me that. What the fuck is your problem?” Despite his defensive words Kavinsky was grinning, his posture relaxed. Declan grinned back and held his fist out for Kavinsky to bump. Kavinsky placed his palm over Declan’s fist and squeezed. “Paper beats rock, motherfucker!” He laughed and tripped back into the room. “Yo! Jiang! Your boyfriend is here!”

“Yes, I know, thanks so much, K,” Jiang answered with a huff. He came to the door looking more disheveled than Declan had ever seen him. His tie was still undone and he had bags under his eyes but he smiled widely when he saw Declan. “Morning, sir,” Jiang murmured. He went up on his toes and kissed the side of Declan’s neck where he had a Band-Aid covering his shaving-induced cut.

“Ugh! GROSS!” Kavinsky shouted. Declan peeked over Jiang’s shoulder and saw that Kavinsky was sitting on top of Prokopenko’s chest, apparently trying to bully him out of bed.

“Hey!” Jiang yelled back. “I’m the one that accidentally walked in on you two last night so shut the fuck up.” He made a rude hand gesture, grabbed his book bag, and slammed the door behind him.

Declan reached for Jiang’s other hand, enjoying the way Jiang’s slim fingers slid between his own. He leaned down and kissed the top of Jiang’s head.

“I like your hair,” Declan whispered.

Jiang laughed lightly. “Yes, I know.”

“I mean, I like the bun.” Declan poked at the messy bun. Loose strands of hair fell around Jiang’s face and Declan thought he looked lovely. “You should wear glasses sometime.”

“Oh? Is that a turn on for you, Mr. Lynch?”

Declan flushed, his ears turning pink. “Maybe,” he muttered.

“I’ll get Elle to hook me up. She has like a million pairs.”

“Hmm.” They were almost out of the building; Declan paused, pulling Jiang close. “Here, let me fix your tie for you.”

“I hate ties,” Jiang pouted but he stood still and let Declan tie it for him.

Declan was reminded of his father for just a moment, of Niall doing his tie for him before church. Declan shook off the memory. He gave the tie a final tug and smoothed it beneath Jiang’s sweater.

“Hey,” Jiang whispered. “You okay?”

“What?” Declan blinked. “Yeah. Fine.” He smiled and brushed his palms across Jiang’s shoulders and up to cradle his neck, the back of his head. His heart was racing and he could feel the rapid beat of Jiang’s pulse, could smell the honeysuckle and peaches scent that Jiang wore.

Jiang wrapped his arms around Declan’s waist and stared up into his face. “You don’t look fine.”

“I’m…” Declan paused to consider. “I’m so happy. I’m so happy that I’m scared.”

“Declan…” Jiang squeezed him tighter. “God, sometimes you break my heart.”

“Sorry.” Declan rested his forehead against Jiang’s, enjoying the closeness. How had he lived before this? Without having someone who saw him and wanted to know him? It was unprecedented.

“You will be sorry if we miss breakfast. C’mon Sulk Lord,” Jiang grabbed both of Declan’s hands and led him out of the building and into the bright sunshine.

“Did you just call me Sulk Lord?!” Declan laughed incredulously.

“Uh, yes. Yes, I did. Because you are the Lord of Sulk, a vast county in the Kingdom of Melancholy, where all the residents listen to sad white boy music and pretend to smile while they are crying on the inside.” Jiang kissed Declan’s knuckles and grinned to show he didn’t mean it.

“What does that make you? Emperor of Euphoria?”

“Oh! I like that! Good use of alliteration, Lynch. Sounds like a Scissor Sister album or maybe Panic! At the Disco. Wait. Do you know who I’m talking about?”

“They were on your playlist so yes. Unfortunately.”

“Shut up!” Jiang shoved Declan and skipped ahead to the dining hall. He started singing “Tits on the Radio” a bit too loudly. Declan chased after him and grabbed him, muffling his mouth while Jiang still attempted to sing.

“You’re going to get in trouble,” Declan laughed in Jiang’s ear. Sure enough one of the teachers passed by and told them to knock it off and shape up.

“Yeah, Declan, shape up,” Jiang muttered. Declan tugged on Jiang’s ear.

The dining hall was only half full. Aglionby boys were often prone to skipping the first meal of the day in favor of thirty more minutes of sleep, often snacking between classes. Jiang swiped his student card and Declan scanned the tables for an empty one.

“Oh, hey, look who got out of bed today,” Jiang said, pointing across the room to one of the window tables. Skov and Swan were sitting side by side, Swan reading a textbook, Skov looking half asleep on his shoulder. “Want to sit with them?”

Declan didn’t really want to sit with them, preferring to have Jiang all to himself, but it was about time he got to know Jiang’s friends better. “Sure,” he replied, putting on his best smile.

“Liar,” Jiang teased. “It’s cool, they know you from the parties, right?”

Declan nodded. He hadn’t been to many of Kavinsky’s substance parties, just enough to be on speaking terms with Kavinsky’s crew. He had stopped going for his own amusement about the same time that Ronan had started crashing them. Declan followed Jiang through the maze of tables, their clasped hands rapidly gaining attention from their fellow students.

“Hey! Lynch!” Someone yelled. Declan recognized Tate, another senior. “Is it true? Are you and Jiang…” Tate didn’t finish his question, clearly at a loss for the proper word.

“I think the word you’re looking for is boyfriends,” Declan answered calmly. Jiang’s hand was tightening around his like a vice. Everyone was staring. Everyone. Declan had expected some sort of scene at some point, but not this soon, not this public. He glanced at Jiang, worried, but Jiang had the most epic “piss off and don’t even look at me” expression on his face that Declan almost laughed. He was so used to Jiang being soft around him that he forgot that Jiang had his own reputation as one of Kavinsky’s, a daredevil who drove fast and took risks, always ready to up the ante.

Jiang wrapped his arm around Declan’s waist and gave Tate a cool smile. He stared down the entire dining hall looking so intimidating that Declan felt ridiculously turned on.

“Mine,” Jiang said, loud enough that everyone could hear him. Declan nearly choked. After making sure that his message had been received and understood Jiang continued on his way to Skov and Swan, Declan in tow behind him.

Skov was wide awake now and clapping. Swan was just shaking his head, a bemused grin on his face.

“Badass,” Skov said, yanking Jiang to him for a rough bro hug. “What the fuck was that, man? Mine. Shit, I’m like totally hard right now.” He grabbed Swan’s hand, bringing it toward his crotch. “Here, you can check.”

Swan twisted his hand out of Skov’s grasp and smacked his thigh. “Dude, behave. It’s too early for that nonsense.”

Skov rolled his eyes. “Says you.” He smiled at Declan, his eyes glinting. “What’s up, Declan? Didn’t know you were into guys.”

Jiang and Declan sighed at the exact same moment and glanced at each other before laughing.

“Swan, dude, they’re already in synch!” Skov hissed.

“Spooky,” Swan commented, going back to his textbook.

“We’re gonna go get some food, okay?” Jiang said. Declan went off to get his usual heart-healthy fare but he heard Jiang’s final instructions that Skov “be cool.” Declan almost snorted but then caught himself. It was one thing to let his guard down when he was around Jiang, but he couldn’t afford to be so easy around everyone else. As he stepped into the buffet line he schooled his features into careful stoicism. He nodded to acquaintances, traded brief greetings. He kept catching the other guys giving him sneaky side glances, heard the muted whispers. It was only a matter of time before the entire campus knew that he and Jiang were together. That wasn’t really a problem but Declan was dreading the moment when Ronan would find out.

But that was for later. Declan rejoined Jiang and they ate and joked around with Skov and Swan. Skov was nearly as crude as Kavinsky while Swan was more subdued, his humor subtle and wry. They invited Declan to the next party, Skov pestering him until Declan conceded to a “maybe.” The five-minute warning tone went off in the dining area and they hurried to take back trays and leave for class. Declan and Jiang parted outside of the humanities building, Jiang pulling Declan down by the tie and giving him a brief kiss on the cheek. It was enough to make Declan feel like he was floating. He was so in his own world that he nearly collided with the guy rushing up the steps.

“Oh, sorry,” Declan apologized, stepping out of the way. The other guy didn’t move. Instead he grabbed Declan’s shoulder, squeezing so hard that it hurt. “The fuck are you—” Declan swallowed the rest of his words as he finally realized who was grabbing him.

His brother stood in front of him, blocking his way, his entire being radiating anger and aggression.

“No, Declan,” Ronan snarled. “The question is: what the fuck are you doing?”

Chapter Text

“Christ,” Declan muttered. “Ronan, do we have to do this right now? Class is—”

“Fuck class!” Ronan shouted. He grabbed the collar of Declan’s freshly ironed shirt and pulled, hauling Declan down the stairs towards the side of the building. Declan was too aware of their setting to put up a fight though inwardly he was seething. With a rough shove Ronan slammed Declan against the stone wall, the back of his skull thudding painfully on impact. Declan pushed Ronan back, panting from their short, yet furious scuffle. Ronan made another grab for his collar but Declan smacked his hands away.

“Stop it,” Declan snapped, voice pitched low and cold. “Do not touch me again. Use your words, Ronan, or is that asking too much?”

Ronan glared, hands bunched into fists at his sides. Declan hadn’t seen his brother this angry in… okay, it had only been a few weeks.

“I asked you,” Ronan began again, “what the fuck are you doing?

“Could you be more specific?” Declan asked. He dropped his bag on the ground and leaned against the wall, slouching into a more comfortable position. If Ronan started a fight he would be better able to go in low for a tackle.

“Stop trying to be such a smartass,” Ronan griped. “I’m talking about Jiang. What the fuck are you doing with Jiang?”

Declan took a deep breath, held it, and exhaled slowly. That fleeting nostalgia he had felt this morning, that brief wish to be able to tell Ronan all about Jiang, had been thoroughly buffeted away by Ronan’s attack. Right now all he wanted to do was yell at Ronan that it wasn’t any of his damn business and then hit him a few times for making him late to class and for wrinkling and scuffing his uniform. But he couldn’t afford to fight on campus. Neither of them could.

“I’m dating Jiang,” Declan said, as calmly as possible. “That’s what’s happening. All right?”

Ronan just stared.

“Oh, close your mouth, Ronan. You look stupid with it hanging open like that,” Declan huffed.

“You can’t be,” Ronan mumbled. “Why would you— you don’t even— shit.”

Declan checked his watch. They were late, getting later by the second. “Hurry it up, little brother. Say what you need to and let me get the fuck on with my life. It’s not like you care what I do, as you’ve told me, many, many times.”

Ronan scoffed at the little brother. “I don’t care. I’m just… why Jiang? You like women. You’ve slept with like every girl in town, I mean…” Ronan threw his hands up, his face red. “Is that what this is? You’ve exhausted your supply of females so you’re gonna start sampling all the guys, too?”

“No—” Declan protested but Ronan cut him off.

“Why do you have to be such a slut? Don’t you think dad would hate it? Or mom? What about mom? She’s up there – in our home, all by herself – and you’re just screwing around like there’s no tomorrow.”

“Ronan—” Declan held his hands up, palms out like he could somehow push the words back into Ronan’s mouth, like he could freeze the moment and rewind. He stared at Ronan’s face, tried to figure out where the anger was coming from. “Stop. Just stop.” Miraculously, Ronan did. “You probably aren’t going to like this, or get it, hell I’m still figuring it out but what you need to know is that Icare about Jiang, okay? He’s not a one night stand, a fuck buddy, anything like that. He’s,” Declan almost couldn’t say it, because it felt like something Ronan would dismiss or laugh at, but he had to, he had to get it out there. “He’s my boyfriend.”

Ronan did laugh, a strangled incredulous sound. “Yeah, okay,” he snickered. “Let’s see how long that lasts.”

“Damn it, Ronan!” Declan punched his fist against the wall. “Quit being such an asshole. I thought… well, I knew you would be upset but I thought you could at least be a little happy for me.”

“Happy for you? What? Is this supposed to be the warm and fuzzy coming out story? Because, surprise, we both know you’re not gay.”

Declan felt like Ronan had punched him in the stomach. He felt hollow and aching and strangely disconnected from the moment. It was like he was suddenly observing instead of participating. He had no idea what would happen next. Someone had taken his script and he was floundering in a situation he would never have predicted, one that he couldn’t have seen coming. He had expected this sort of bullshit from his classmates but not his brother. Not Ronan. Because Ronan was… he knew what Ronan was. Had known since before Niall died.

Feeling returned slowly, first in his fingertips and palms, which prickled and stung, then his lungs, which burned, and his eyes, which did all three.

“Wow,” Declan intoned, voice empty. “Just… wow. You know what, Ronan, fuck you. If you’re just going to shit on me for who I choose to love then stay the fuck away from me. And Jiang. Because he needs this even less than I do.”

Declan picked up his bag and walked away, his stride lengthening with each step. To his dismay he heard Ronan jogging after him.

Love?” Ronan shouted, probably loud enough to be heard across the campus. “What do you know about love? How many girls did you love for one night and then never talked to again? Huh?”

“You idiot!” Declan hurled his bag at Ronan’s face. “That wasn’t love! That was sex! And yeah, I know, you think I’m scum because I can sleep with someone I don’t have feelings for. I don’t care. I don’t care about that. But I fucking well care when you try to tell me that I don’t love Jiang just because, according to you, I’m not gay!”

Declan was distantly aware that he was yelling. That Ronan had gone pale and was scanning the campus green, his eyes wide and watchful. But he was past caring about what anyone would think because if he couldn’t get Ronan to understand then it was all pointless anyway. Deep down inside Declan wanted Ronan’s approval, just as he had always wanted Niall’s love and respect. Why was it so difficult for anyone in his family to love him? Why was he always the one rejected?

“Well, are you?” Ronan asked. He was standing several feet away, circling Declan like they were about to box. “Are you gay?”

“I don’t know!” Declan felt the last of his composure rip away. “And I don’t care about labels, unlike you. I like Jiang. He makes me happy in a way no one else has. And I want to be with him, it doesn’t matter that he’s a guy. I don’t know what that makes me. And before you get your fucking feelings in a twist I’m not interested in Gansey or Adam or any of your friends. I’m not going to be ‘sampling’ all of Aglionby as you so tactfully phrased it.”

“Declan—”

“Shut up! I’m not finished. All my life I’ve been looking for someone who would love me for me, who could honestly say that I was their favorite. I’m not saying that Jiang is The One. But he could be and I want to find out. I don’t need you coming in and making a mess of it, like you always do. So: if you can’t be civil then stay out of it. I don’t mess with your love life, you could at least return the favor.”

Ronan kicked at Declan’s bag, the textbooks and pens spilling over the ground. Declan gritted his teeth to keep from yelling again. His throat was starting to hurt and he could feel a headache coming on. The worst of it was that he knew he would end up missing class and he couldn’t afford that. He needed perfection in order to maintain his position. The Lynch Brothers were perpetually on thin ice and he was the only one keeping them afloat.

“I don’t have a love life,” Ronan scowled. Declan might have been projecting but he thought he could detect sadness in Ronan’s eyes. It was no secret to Declan that his brother was in a state of unending pining but who the lucky (or unlucky) guy was Declan didn’t know. There were several possibilities, the first being Gansey, Ronan’s guardian angel; the second was the newbie, Adam Parrish. Declan didn’t want to think about the third.

“Whatever,” Declan shrugged. “Now, if you’re done I’d like to go salvage the rest of my morning. Go to class, Ronan.”

Ronan stomped on one of Declan’s pens, sending blue ink splattering across the walkway and Declan’s books. Declan pinched the bridge of his nose and attempted to steady his breathing. He would not fight his brother on campus. He would not.

“God, you’re such a prick,” Ronan spat. “Go to class, Ronan. Like you have any real authority over me or Matthew. Good luck with Jiang, let’s see how long he can stomach you. And when you break his heart – not if, but when – I’m gonna look forward to Kavinsky beating your ass.”

Declan bit his cheek and sighed. The fight had gone out of him. It felt like Ronan had scooped out all his vital organs and stomped on them, just like he had done to the pen. He could almost picture his heart and lungs on the pavement, crushed to a bloody pulp. That must be why he couldn’t feel anything. Distantly he remembered the late night conversation he and Jiang had had with El, the way her laugh sounded, so bright and happy, the pet names she called Jiang, their easy affection and inside jokes. Siblings. El and Jiang were so perfectly in tune, so happy to talk and spend time with each other and him. A little feeling returned, a pain below his ribs.

“I wish I had a sister,” Declan murmured, more to himself than to Ronan.

Ronan’s face was a portrait of surprise but it quickly reformed into disdain. “Right. Because you haven’t fucked up me and Matthew enough, you need to be the world’s worst older brother to some poor little girl.”

Declan didn’t answer. He walked forward and bent to pick up his dirty textbooks and ink-splattered bag. The ink felt tacky on his fingers and he knew it would stain for several days. This wouldn’t help his image as a competent, mature worker at his internship. His phone screen was cracked, the case also liberally covered in ink. Declan shoved it into the bag with the rest of the mess. Ronan stood over him watching with his arms crossed over his chest. Declan briefly contemplated taking him down and applying some blunt force trauma to his skull but that would only be further proof that he was the worst brother ever and deserved nothing but hate.

Without another word Declan stood and walked off. He listened for Ronan’s footfalls but heard nothing except the usual in-class silence and the whir of cars driving along the road the bordered the campus. Attending class was a lost cause so Declan headed for the library. He could clean up a little in the bathroom and then decompress in the stacks, poring over his favorite M. C. Escher artbook until his next class.

The library was almost entirely empty except for the few students who had independent study and the librarian. Declan nodded to them when he came in, carefully hiding his ink-smeared hands. The librarian, who went by the last name of Delphi, nodded back and gave Declan a small smile. Declan tried to smile back but the expression felt wrong. He hurried by the desk and headed upstairs for the isolated single stall bathroom.

Declan had just finished scrubbing his hands raw when the bathroom door opened. Jiang poked his head around the door and when he saw Declan his face lit up with the most beautiful smile; it made Declan feel a little weak in the knees.

“I found you,” Jiang whispered. He shut the door as quietly as possible and made his way to Declan. His smile dimmed as he surveyed the pile of inky paper towels and Declan’s bright pink hands. He reached out and cupped Declan’s chin in his hand, brushing his thumb over his mouth. “Tell me.”

“Ronan and I fought.” Declan hopped up on the counter; it was either that or sitting on the floor and the counter seemed cleaner. “I don’t want to talk about it right now.”

“Okay,” Jiang nodded. He moved to stand between Declan’s legs, his hands resting on Declan’s thighs, rubbing in a way that was very distracting.

“How did you know I was here?” Declan asked, unsuccessfully swallowing the hitch in his voice.

“K’s nosy,” Jiang answered. “He may have been following your brother and he may have heard the entire thing.”

“Christ.” Declan buried his face in his hands. “How much did he tell you?”

“A lot,” Jiang whispered. His hands snaked around Declan’s waist, up his back. “I know you’re hurting but it made me happy to know that you care about me enough to fight Ronan like that.”

Declan dropped his hands in his lap and looked down at Jiang’s upturned face. His chest felt tight and his face felt hot, all early warning signs that he was about to cry. Jiang held him tightly and Declan collapsed into the hug, his forehead coming to rest on Jiang’s shoulder.

Minutes passed by and they remained like that, Declan breathing in Jiang’s scent, his body slowing relaxing beneath Jiang’s hands.

“You’re too good for me,” Declan whispered.

“Hmm, debatable,” Jiang whispered back. “We all have our pros and cons. Do you know what one of your good points is?”

Declan sat up and shook his head. Jiang’s hair had come loose so he played with it while Jiang answered.

“You care. Intensely. You care so much about Ronan, about Matthew, about the wellbeing of your family that you are tearing yourself up inside.” Declan shook his head. “No, it’s true. I don’t know what happened to you all, I don’t know the full story. But I know you’re shouldering a lot of guilt and responsibility, so much that you can’t rest at night if you sleep alone.” Jiang rubbed Declan’s shoulders, touched his neck and jaw and temples. “You care, Declan Lynch. And that’s a beautiful thing.”

It happened as slow and quiet as snowmelt, Jiang’s lips on his cheek, then the corner of his mouth. A gentle breath mingling with his own and the soft press of Jiang’s lips on his. Declan was afraid to move and he waited, eyes half-closed, for Jiang to lead them. Two more kisses, Jiang’s fingers in his hair.

“You can kiss me back, if you want,” Jiang murmured. So Declan did.

By the time they left the restroom both of them looked a mess: hair pulled, lips red, Declan’s eyes pink from tears he refused to shed. They shuffled past Delphi’s desk, hands entwined, and Delphi rolled their eyes but didn’t comment.

“I’ve never made out in a library,” Declan confessed as they walked down the steps and onto the sidewalk leading to the academic buildings.

“I have,” Jiang smirked. Declan cocked an inquisitive eyebrow and Jiang squeezed his hand. “Don’t worry, it wasn’t nearly as nice as that. After all, you’re my favorite.”

Chapter Text

2:05

Declan rubbed his eyes and stared in frustration at his phone. He had been trying to fall asleep for over an hour but so far he had had no luck. His mind kept replaying his fight with Ronan and the ominous message he had received from one of his father’s buyers:Keep your head down, kid. There are sharks on the hunt. Rumor is they’re heading for Virginia. Declan had deleted the message from the account he had set up years ago to keep track of Niall’s business associates. Sharks and hunters were a fact of life when you traded things that shouldn’t exist but the cold-blooded denizens of the dream trade had never been this close to home. Except for that one night.

He hadn’t seen it happen. He had been knocked out, tied up but… but he remembered the sounds his father had made when he tried to shield him, when the attacker’s heavy blows rained down on his head and back while he cowered on the ground, incapacitated. His father’s blood sprayed across his cheek and then—darkness.

Declan kicked off the covers and sat on the edge of his bed, fingers digging into his scalp, wishing he could pull out those memories by the roots. It didn’t matter if they were the last memories he had of Niall; he didn’t want them. He was tired of being haunted by his failure.

With trembling steps Declan made his way to his desk and pulled open the drawer that contained one of his guns and several prescription bottles. He grabbed the one that contained sleep meds and shook it. The silence that followed left him feeling cold and hollow. How was it already empty? He just had it filled; Declan checked the date and saw that it was for a little over a month ago, not that the date meant anything considering the source. Declan tossed the empty bottle into the drawer and grabbed his phone. He hated doing this. He hated being dependent on drugs to sleep; he hated being dependent on his supplier.

His message was terse bordering on rude: I’m empty. Do you have my refill?

While he waited for a reply Declan checked the contents of the other bottles and found them to be sufficient. He usually didn’t need uppers to stay alert and focused, and thankfully he’d never felt low enough to use the other pills. The gun shone in the soft glow of his desk lamp, looking more inviting than a metallic killing tool ever should. Declan retrieved it and, out of the need to do something methodical and soothing, ejected the chambered bullet and the clip, and started disassembling it. This was a skill he had perfected after Niall’s death. For reasons that Declan would never understand his father had not thought it necessary to teach him how to shoot. He never had a gun on any of their shady outings. If he had had a gun that last night…

The phone chimed quietly and Declan entered his lock code and read the message: so demanding tonight. Of course there wasn’t more than that; never a straight answer with this guy.

Declan swiftly typed his reply: I would like to get some sleep tonight

The answer came back instantly: wouldn’t we all. u can sleep when yr dead

Declan took a breath and tried to remind himself that he needed this, desperately. Over the counter sleeping pills were no good, they made him sleep too soundly and left him groggy and hung over the next day. These pills, well, they were magic. He could fall asleep within seconds after swallowing them but his sleep was light enough that he would wake up if there were a disturbance, like if someone broke into his room. Somehow the pills canceled out dreams, provided genuine rest, and had him clear-headed and alert when he woke. Magic. He chose to ignore the fact that they were possibly addictive.

Declan scowled and played the only bargaining chip that he had. I guess you don’t want that item I procured for you

The text he got back was annoyingly typical. fuck you, declan lynch There was a string of emojis, some of which Declan had never seen, but all of them conveyed a rather vulgar tone. He sighed and waited.

Ten minutes crawled by while Declan cleaned the already pristine gun and put it back together. He messed around with a couple apps, looked at the pictures that Jiang had taken on their picnic date. That brought a tired smile to his face and a pang of longing that was so insistent he was on the verge of texting Jiang to see if he wanted to sleep over when he got a new message.

out in the parking lot. bring it

Declan retrieved the package from his closet and shoved his bare feet into a pair of worn sneakers. He pocketed his phone, grabbed his room keys and keycard, and left the room. He closed the door as silently as he could, quickly locking it, and made his way down the hall. Not everyone was asleep, of course. There was noise in the bathroom, a shower running, but other than that the hall was still. Aglionby was oddly strict about enforcing quiet hours, but if you were quiet you could get away with a multitude of things.

The front door creaked open and Declan stepped out into the cool night air. It was early October and the turn from summer to autumn had begun, signaled by the chilly nights. Fog crept across the grounds, seeping up from the river. Declan rubbed at his arms and hurried towards the halogen lit parking lot. The car he was looking for was parked in the shadows, its familiar shape and the memories associated with it made the hairs on the back of Declan’s neck prickle.

The driver was sprawled across the front seat, head lolled back on headrest, his legs spread wide, stretched out of the car door, boots lazily resting on asphalt.

“Hey, man,” Kavinsky purred. His heavy lidded eyes seemed to devour Declan and Declan shivered again. “Dude your tits are looking perky. Want me to give ‘em a lick? You know what works as good as pills for sleeping? Sex, man.” Kavinsky pulled a bottle of pills from his jacket pocket and shook them, laughing that low, sloppy, drunk laugh he had whenever he was buzzed or high.

Declan didn’t say anything in reply. It was best not to play along with Kavinsky. In some ways – a lot of ways – dealing with Kavinsky was like dealing with Ronan. Except he wouldn’t feel guilty about beating Kavinsky up. Usually he could overlook the banter and come-ons but he was too keyed up from the day, his body and mind longing for the pills in Kavinsky’s hand. It made him sharper and meaner and desperate. He was very glad that Jiang didn’t know about any of this.

The music from Kavinsky’s stereo leeched into the night air, electronic with muzzy vocals and an insidious beat. It was something that Ronan would listen to and like. Declan tried not to think about that; if he closed his eyes to the potential carnage that would arise from the two local dreamers hooking up then maybe it would never happen. Wishful thinking.

“Here.” Declan handed the package to Kavinsky. Kavinsky took it and tossed the pills at Declan’s face; he caught them neatly and pushed them into the pocket of his sweatpants.

Kavinsky’s fingers scrambled at the tape sealing the box and Declan felt his stomach twist. He didn’t like the eager look in Kavinsky’s eyes. He didn’t like any part of this transaction.

At last Kavinsky pulled the box open and took out the item, unwrapping the layers of bubble wrap. To the causal observer the object would appear to be a tacky souvenir, a metal alien spacecraft – a stereotypical flying saucer – with the words We Come in Peace painted on the bottom and I Heart Area 51 painted on the top, along with two ridiculous green aliens. Kavinsky held it reverently, like it was the Holy Grail. He made a complicated whistling sound and the spaceship lit up with hidden lights and levitated out of his hands. Kavinsky laughed, high and delighted, as the ship hovered in front of his face. His expression was one of pure joy and Declan had to turn away; that look didn’t sit right on Kavinsky’s face, not the Kavinsky he knew.

The whistling resumed and Kavinsky sent the spaceship zooming around the parking lot. Declan didn’t know whether he was more impressed with the dream object or with Kavinsky’s surprising talent. The spaceship came to rest on Kavinsky’s lap, the lights blinking out one by one. Kavinsky ran his fingers over the ship with a care he never showed any of the other objects – or people – in his life.

“I remember when he dreamt this,” Kavinsky said, his voice soft. Declan’s nails dug into the skin of his upper arms.

“I don’t need the story,” Declan said, cutting him off. “I got the pills, you got what you wanted. Have a good fucking night.” He walked away as quickly as possible, still hearing Kavinsky’s haunting whistle.

The problem was he did want to hear the story. He, like Ronan, longed for any new story about his father. But knowing that Niall, busy, distracted, frequently absent Niall, had taken the time to move Kavinsky from New Jersey to their backyard and then train him was too much. It was too much when Ronan remained so ignorant of his full potential, when Declan had begged Niall for more guidance and had not received it. He wondered, bitterly, how much of Niall’s time Kavinsky had stole from them. And he wondered, heartsick, if Niall had also preferred Kavinsky to him. This was the reason he hated these transactions: it was an ugly reminder that Kavinsky had known his father in ways Declan never would.

Back in his room Declan popped open the bottle and shook out one pill. It was oval, pale blue, and he knew from experience that it would taste like blue raspberry. A small sliver of a moon was printed on one side; the other had the words night night.

Declan switched off his lamp, kicked out of his clothes, and climbed into bed. He let the darkness and the weight of the blankets cocoon him before sliding the pill onto his tongue. In a matter of moments the stress of the day, his persistent worries, and his lingering bitterness melted away into unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

“I was thinking,” Declan’s voice was lazy, sleepy. It had been a hell of a week and all he wanted was to see Henrietta in his rearview mirror as he drove off to D.C., to civilization. After everything with Ronan – and then having to go to Kavinsky again for help – he was fresh out of fucks. “What if we got out of town this weekend?”

“Color me intrigued,” Jiang purred. There was the sound of him shifting on his bed, the mattress springs groaning, sheets being pushed aside or pulled up. “Where did you have in mind?”

“D.C.” Declan turned on his side so he was facing the door. When was the last time that he had felt safe sleeping without his back pressed to the wall?

“Yeah? Why D.C. exactly?”

Declan sighed and kicked at his blankets. He was restless and hearing Jiang’s voice in his ear but not being able to see or touch him was not helping matters.

“It’s a mixture of business and pleasure,” Declan explained. “I need to take care of a few things relating to my father’s estate. But I thought, if you wanted, we could go shopping for your bike, too?”

Jiang’s gasp was a definite yes and Declan grinned hugely, pressing his face into his pillow. “Are you fucking serious?! Declan Lynch, of course I want to go shopping for a bike! OH MY GOD!!!” In the background Declan could hear Proko cursing at Jiang to shut up already. Jiang responded with a litany of swears that were as impressive as they were amusing; Ronan would approve. Declan pushed that thought away. Ronan still wasn’t talking to him. “Fuck fuck fuck,” Jiang swore happily. “I can’t believe this. Can we ride your bike to D.C.?”

“No.”

“But…” Jiang’s voice definitely had a whine to it. “Why not? It’s sexy as hell, Declan.”

Declan blushed but remained firm. “It’s supposed to be a secret, Jiang. Plus, there’s no way in hell that I would take both of us on that bike on the interstate. I’m not putting you in danger like that.”

Jiang scoffed. “Danger is my middle name.”

“Hmm, really?” Declan asked. “That reminds me, what’s your first name?”

That’s a secret,” Jiang said, he voice losing its playful banter.

“C’mon, I’m your boyfriend. Don’t you think I should know?” Declan prodded. Even though he was only teasing and trying to get Jiang off the topic of them riding his bike to the city he was still curious. He had even considered breaking into the registrar’s office and searching for Jiang’s file but his better nature knew that that would be a breach of Jiang’s trust, an invasion.

“Please. You can make up pet names or some shit,” Jiang responded. “Believe me, it’s not worth the speculation.”

“Hmm,” Declan pushed his fingers through his hair and stared at the ceiling. “Maybe someday you’ll like me enough to tell me.” He was halfway joking but on the other hand he was a little hurt. His father and his brother kept secrets from him, it felt like it was his lot in life to never get close enough to be entrusted with his loved ones truths.

“God, don’t be such a manipulative asshole,” Jiang snapped. “Liking you has nothing to do with it. Have you ever considered that I hate my name? Like really, really hate it?”

“I—” Declan swallowed. How the fuck did they end up fighting? He really was shit at this. “No,” he answered, blinking away the sting in his eyes, “I didn’t think of that. Forget I asked.”

“Yeah, okay, whatever.” Jiang’s voice was low and surly and it hurt. Declan wasn’t used to Jiang being mad at him. He was used to fighting with Ronan, fights that took and took and took. He was used to bearing the brunt of the Aglionby administration’s displeasure with Ronan and taking abuse from people involved in Niall’s business and the asshats at his internship. At this point he had armored himself against those attacks; only Ronan and Kavinsky had the ability to pierce that armor and harm him where he was most vulnerable. Somehow, without realizing it, he had opened himself up to Jiang and he had no defenses to shield him from Jiang’s anger.

“Hey,” Declan whispered, keeping his voice quiet so it wouldn’t break. “Don’t shut me out, okay? I’m sorry for pushing. You’re right, I was being manipulative, a jerk.” Jiang was silent on the other end but at least he hadn’t hung up. “Jiang.” Declan put as much emotion into his boyfriend’s name as he could, trying to convey how much it meant to have Jiang by his side. “Jiang.”

Jiang let out a soft sigh. “Say it again.”

Declan curled his toes in the sheets and closed his eyes. All he was doing was saying his boyfriend’s name but it felt more intimate – more real – than so many empty, erotic moments spend in bed with casual lovers.

Jiang… Jiang… Jia—”

“Okay, Jesus, enough,” Jiang groaned. He actually groaned! Declan was beside himself. “Unlock your door, pretty boy,” Jiang groused, “I’m coming over.”

The call disconnected before Declan could think of something to say but really what was there left to say? He hopped out of bed and unlocked the door, opening it when he heard Jiang’s fingers scraping against it.

Jiang stood in his doorway; head tilted back, his hair loose and spilling down his back and over his shoulders. Declan’s heart surged. He held his arms out and Jiang stepped into his embrace and kicked the door shut behind them.

They stood in the semi-dark of Declan’s door, arms wrapped around each other. Declan pressed his nose into Jiang’s hair, breathing his sweet scent and feeling grounded. Jiang scratched his nails up and down Declan’s bare back, and Declan felt himself melting.

“I’m really sorry,” Declan breathed into Jiang’s ear. “Forgive me?”

Jiang butted his forehead against Declan’s. “No need,” he replied, lips hovering close to Declan’s. “Idiot.”

Declan smiled and stroked gentle fingers through Jiang’s hair. “Okay.” Jiang nestled in closer, face pressed into the crook of Declan’s neck. “Jiang,” Declan whispered, tracing the curve of Jiang’s ear, “Jiang.”

Jiang’s fingernails dug into Declan’s skin, his mouth opening against Declan’s throat, teeth biting at his tendon. “Not fair,” he mumbled, tongue licking up in harsh strokes.

“Oh fuck,” Declan hissed as Jiang’s teeth latched down and he started sucking. “You’re going to leave a mark…”

Jiang’s teeth worried at his skin and Declan considered telling him to stop but Christ. Declan’s breath came in gasps and he tried not to press against Jiang because he was 100% turned on.

Jiang!” Declan yelped as his skin tore.

Jiang pulled away and there was blood on his bottom lip. Declan could not believe how incredibly hot that was. He knotted his hand in Jiang’s hair and pulled him in for a kiss… a kiss that ended up being rougher than he intended, leaving both of them disheveled and panting.

“What the fuck was that?” Declan asked, taking a step back.

Jiang wiped his mouth with the back of his arm, his pale face flushed. “A reminder,” Jiang said with a smirk. “I’m not your pretty, pretty princess, Declan Lynch. I’ve got teeth and claws and I know how to use them.”

Declan pressed his fingers to the shallow wound on his neck, feeling blood trickle down to his collarbone. “No shit. But the sexy… ah, umm… sexy bit?”

“I’m ace but that doesn’t mean I don’t have any desires at all. For example, I like making my boyfriend a complete mess when he has the audacity to use that deep, bone-melting tone with me.”

“Well. God damn.” Declan’s usual way with words was wrecked, just like the rest of him. He went over to his desk and pulled out a well-stocked First Aid kit and got the antiseptic wipes and a bandage. Jiang frowned a little. “No offense,” Declan explained, “but I don’t want to bleed all over my sheets and mouths are, uh, not the most sterile.”

Jiang shrugged. “K and his boys do this shit all the time. And worse stuff, too. None of them bother playing nurse and they’re still alive.”

“Well, the day I go to Kavinsky for healthcare advice will be the day,” Declan mumbled as he opened the wipe.

“Here, let me.” Jiang took the wipe and carefully dabbed at Declan’s neck. He looked calmer already but Declan felt like his skin was going to ignite each time that Jiang touched him. “You okay?”

Declan swallowed and nodded, his eyes tracing the line of Jiang’s lips. All he wanted to do was kiss Jiang again and keep kissing him until he forgot everything.

Jiang applied the bandage and patted Declan’s shoulder, his fingers straying down over Declan’s bicep, tickling the smooth skin of his inner elbow, gliding along his forearm to his wrist and back up. The tenderness was such a drastic change from their frenzied kissing; it made Declan’s head spin. Jiang was utterly unpredictable, so unlike anyone Declan had ever met.

“Okay, champ,” Jiang said, all casual, “bedtime.” He tugged at Declan’s fingers, leading him to the small dorm bed.

Under normal circumstances Declan would be more than happy to curl up beside Jiang and drift off to sleep but he too keyed up and turned on.

Declan’s laugh was choked. “Yeah… I need a personal moment. Be right back.” He ducked out of the room and hurried to the restroom, thankful that the bathroom was deserted. He locked himself in one of the stalls, feeling strangely embarrassed as he jerked off. This wasn’t what he was used to. It wasn’t bad but he had grown accustomed to his usual sexual habits: bedding some attractive girl, having her get him off with hands or mouth or making love. He honestly didn’t mind that Jiang wasn’t interested in sex but it did make him feel so alone, dealing with his body and his needs in a stall. If he was in his room it wouldn’t be so weird because he could relax, take his time, and at least be comfortable…

The turn in Declan’s thought wasn’t conducive to achieving any sort of pleasurable response. He leaned against the stall door and pressed two fingers to the bite mark on his neck, increasing the pressure and rubbing over the bandage until he felt blood seeping through. It was enough to remind his body of Jiang’s mouth on him and from there it wasn’t long until he was able to reach his release. He bit down on his forearm to keep from groaning; the bathroom might be empty but he didn’t want to risk exposure.

Once he was cleaned up and calmed down he returned to his room. Jiang was already in his bed, the blankets pulled up over his chest and one arm folded under his head. He didn’t look remotely sleepy as he shifted forward to give Declan room to slide in behind him.

Spooning against Jiang’s back was some sweet blessing that Declan wasn’t sure he deserved. He tucked his cold feet against Jiang’s warm legs and got an elbow in his stomach in return.

“Bastard,” Jiang hissed. He rolled over so that he and Declan were face to face.

“What?” Declan teased. “Weren’t you warming up the bed for me?”

“For you, yes. Not for the ice cubes you just accosted me with.”

Declan laughed quietly and tucked Jiang’s hair back behind his ear.God. He couldn’t stop touching him.

“Hey,” Jiang said, pushing Declan’s hand away, “why the fuck are you bleeding again?”

“Uhh.” Declan couldn’t think of an honest answer that wasn’t mortifyingly needy.

“Declan.” Jiang employed his first-rate staring skills and Declan folded. He was way too easy when it came to Jiang.

“I needed to get off so…” He waved a hand about like that would explain anything.

“So?” Jiang prompted.

“I liked it,” Declan admitted, blushing all the way down his chest. “I liked when you bit me. No one’s ever done that to me… it was just… so damn sexy. I wanted to relive it, I guess.”

Jiang grinned, his dark eyes blinking slowly. “Did you get off?”

“Yes.” Declan held Jiang’s gaze. Just looking at him, talking to him like this, it made him feel things all over again. Talking. When had that ever been a turn on for him?

“You know, you don’t have to leave,” Jiang said quietly. “When you get off, I mean.”

“I—,” Declan had to look away. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“Oh, babe,” Jiang wrapped his arms around Declan’s neck and pulled him in until their foreheads touched. “No. No. Look, I don’t want sex but I’m not repulsed by your desire for it. I mean, this is sort of new territory for me – having a boyfriend – but I think we can make this work, yeah?”

“So you would be fine with, uh, being present when I’m umm…”

“Touching yourself?” Jiang suggested with an amused glint in his eyes.

“Right,” Declan muttered against Jiang’s shoulder.

“I think so. It’s something we could try?”

“Okay,” Declan nodded. “Okay, but I don’t think I’m there quite yet.” It felt awkward trying to explain his hesitation but he tried. “I’ve never done that in front of someone. I don’t know, it seems exhibitionistic and like being really vulnerable…”

Jiang brushed his fingers through Declan’s hair, rubbing his thumbs against his temples. He expression was intense and so open that it made Declan’s heart hurt.

“I get that,” he said. “And I don’t want to make you uncomfortable but I also don’t want you to feel like you have to go it alone.” He kissed Declan’s brow and moved closer until their bodies were pressed together beneath the blankets. “I like all of you, Declan Lynch. I like that you think I’m sexy.” His voice got quieter, confessional. “I like that when you get off you’re thinking about me. Is that selfish?”

Declan couldn’t breathe. He wrapped one arm around Jiang, rubbed his hand over his flimsy, strappy shirt, fingers seeking out warm skin. What was this feeling? Warmth, security, acceptance?

“You’re not selfish,” he whispered. It felt like his heart was going to burst. “I’m just so grateful.” He sucked in a shuddering lungful of air and held Jiang tighter. “Thank you for taking a chance on me, for letting me get this close to you. I… I’m a mess and you’re—”

“A mess, like you,” Jiang interrupted. “We’re a mess. The best kind.”

Jiang’s lips found his and they kissed, slow and easy and it was so good, so effortlessly good. Light touches, arms holding, legs entwining, breath shared until they were one sleepy, tangled knot, folding together and sliding quietly into sleep.

Declan dreamed of peaches and sunshine and a dark eyed boy who drove like the devil and kissed like an angel.

Chapter Text

Like clockwork Declan woke up at 5am, his eyes snapping open and his brain commanding that he move. It didn’t matter that it was Saturday and he had been up late or that Jiang’s back was curved and fitted to his chest—there was no way he could fall back to sleep. He retrieved his phone from beneath the pillow and scrolled through notifications and messages. Nothing remarkable stood out. He had a reminder from his internship about a fundraising event that would be happening in a couple of weeks. Declan was expected to bring a date and several young ladies had been lobbying for a place at his side. He would need to turn them down, again. He was hoping to ask Jiang to go with him and the prospect – Jiang at a political gala – was both amusing and daunting.

Currently Jiang was very soundly asleep. The dim light from Declan’s phone was enough to illuminate Jiang’s features. He looked relaxed in his sleep, all of his inner fire banked until he opened his eyes, prepared to take on the world. His shirt was tangled and rucked up, exposing most of his back and right side. Declan reached over to pull it down – worried that Jiang might be cold – and got a good view of the tattoos that graced Jiang’s torso. He had seen flashes of them before, peeking through the holes or sheer fabric of Jiang’s clothing, but he had never been able to determine what the tattoos were.

The designs were varied: a skull and flowers stretched over Jiang’s ribs, a Chinese dragon curled from his left side over his lower back, a star rested below his right shoulder blade, and between his shoulders were several Chinese characters. Each tattoo was vibrantly colored and lavishly detailed, with the exception of the Chinese characters, those tattoos were deep black and looked like they had been brushed on rather than painstakingly stabbed into his skin. Declan resisted the urge to touch the tattoos and try to guess their meanings. Instead he covered Jiang up and settled back on the bed.

Seeing Jiang’s tattoos reminded him of Ronan’s monstrous back piece, not that Ronan had ever let him see the entire tattoo. Declan didn’t know if he would ever get over the shock of it, of Ronan making this enormous, irreversible change, of him doing it when he was so young, barely old enough to drive their father’s BMW. Declan had to bite his tongue every time he saw the edges of Ronan’s tattoo peaking out of his shirt collar when he bent his head in prayer at St. Agnes, to keep himself from adding more fuel to the animosity that crackled between them. He couldn’t say what he wanted to – that he thought the tattoo was awesome, a work of art. No, he had to say what a parent would. His upbringing had failed to give him a good idea of what this might be so he had lapsed into clichéd recriminations that sounded hollow and false as soon as he uttered them. No one respectable will hire you. You’ll regret it when you’re older. I can’t believe you spent that much on a tattoo. Even now he had to shut his eyes and pinch the bridge of his nose, inwardly recoiling as he remembered how badly that conversation went. It ended with Ronan yelling, “Fuck you!” and slamming the door in his face, with Gansey tacitly letting Declan know he wasn’t welcome at Monmouth if he was only going to antagonize Ronan.

To his eternal regret Declan had been unable to patch things up with Ronan after their first major fight following the death and burial of their father. Now, no matter what he did or said, Ronan reacted in the worst way possible, which made Declan so frustrated and angry that these encounters often ended with both of them bruised and bloody. He hated it and he was powerless to fix it. Now he was dating Jiang and Ronan was shutting him out more than ever. Declan lowered his forehead to rest between Jiang’s shoulders, his nose brushing Jiang’s shirt. Maybe it would be better if he just left things as they were. Ronan believed that he was a liar anyway, so maybe Declan could lie to himself and say that it didn’t matter.

—–

Even though he didn’t think he could sleep Declan must have nodded off because when he woke up again Jiang had moved and now they were pressed together chest to chest, arms wrapped around torsos and hips, legs overlapping, Jiang’s face burrowed into the side of his neck. It was extremely hot, temperature wise, and Declan could feel the prickle of sweat on his skin, the dampness of Jiang’s shirt against his bare chest. When Declan tried to extricate himself Jiang tightened his hold and made soft mumbling noises that were so endearing that Declan gave up. It was only seven. They had time.

A surprising quirk of Jiang’s was that he sometimes talked in his sleep, both in English and in what Declan assumed was Cantonese. They weren’t complete sentences, just random words and phrases.  Declan was still trying to puzzle out what “gypsy danger” meant when Jiang’s eyes slid open and he blinked up at him. Declan wanted a video of this: sleepy Jiang, complacent and lazy as a cat, sliding his legs against Declan’s. Then his body went taut as he stretched and the soft grunt he made after almost undid Declan.

“Pancakes,” Jiang muttered, nuzzling against Declan’s chin which was rough with stubble. Declan rolled onto his back and pulled Jiang on top of him, his fingers pushing up under Jiang’s shirt and tracing lazy patterns over his warm skin. Jiang hummed, the vibrations buzzing against Declan’s chest. He dug his fingers into Declan’s messy bed head, alternating between stroking and tugging. “Pancakes,” Jiang repeated, his voice soft and dreamy, “with lots of butter and syrup.” He dropped his head and butted his forehead against Declan’s. “Hot coffee with cream and sugar.”

Declan tried to stifle a laugh, Jiang’s long hair was falling around his face and tickling his neck. Jiang bumped their noses together and grinned. Looking at him made Declan’s heart melt and hurt at the same time.

“You are like a cat,” Declan said without thinking. Jiang pulled back, sitting on Declan with an affronted look. “I mean! First thing you do is wake up and start talking about food and trying to get me to go bring you food…. like a cat…?”

Jiang huffed and pulled his hair back, knotting it at the base of his neck. “Meow,” he said, voice heavy with sarcasm. “If I knew catboys were a kink of yours I would have brought my ears and fake tail.”

“Uhhh.” Declan’s face flushed bright red. “I never said—”

“Uh-huh, not listening,” Jiang sang out, dropping off the bed and stretching again, lean muscles pulled tight. Just now he looked like a dancer but Declan was afraid to voice any more comparisons. He got out of bed and searched around for his T-shirt and towel.

“I’m gonna take a quick shower,” Declan said, heading for the door. “Can you wait or are you going to go ahead and eat?”

Jiang pressed his hands to his flat stomach and thought about it. “If you’re not back before I get changed then I’m leaving your ass.” He grinned to show he was teasing and Declan pinched his side.

“Deal.”

In the dining hall Declan brought Jiang a tray with a mountain of pancakes and plenty of butter and syrup, plus a large mug of coffee with just the right amount of sugar and cream. Jiang kissed Declan’s jaw and dug in. For a time they were quiet, eating contentedly, shoulders brushing, thighs crushed together. It was incredibly cozy.

Jiang was wearing distressed black jeans, an ultra baggy black T-shirt with FUQBOI written in large white letters, and Declan’s charcoal grey leather jacket. His hair was done up in a messy bun and his nails were painted shiny black. Declan couldn’t take his eyes off him. He was continually astonished and knocked off balance by the Real Jiang, the out-of-uniform Jiang. Uniforms, by their very nature, fostered conformity, discouraged individuality. That was why, he reasoned, he had never noticed Jiang until their paths crossed at Kavinsky’s party, until Jiang had taken an interest in him and made it his mission to get to know the unknowable Declan Lynch. Now here they were: boyfriends, infamous and unlikely boyfriends.

“What?” Jiang asked when he noticed Declan staring.

“Nothing.”

“Bullshit,” Jiang replied, polishing off the last few bites of his pancakes.

Declan swirled his coffee, a slow grin spreading over his face as he admitted, “You look good.”

“Damn right,” Jiang winked.

“And so modest,” Declan teased.

“Hey man, it takes a lot of work to look like this,” Jiang said. “Or to look like you.”

“Me?”

“C’mon, Declan, stop fishing. You know you’re gorgeous.”

Declan blushed and grabbed Jiang’s hand, twisting their fingers together. “Tell me anyway. I want to hear how you see me.”

Jiang pretended to glare and turned so that he was facing Declan. His expression was difficult to read, balanced between cool assessment and warm regard. The moment grew long, the quiet between them making Declan’s chest feel tight. Was it so difficult for Jiang to say what he looked like? Or was it that he was only conventionally good looking? Something shallow that required no deep reflection and Jiang was stalling to avoid admitting the truth.

Finally Jiang reached forward and touched Declan’s face, fingers skimming across his forehead to the corners of his eyes.

“It’s all in your eyes,” Jiang said. “I’ve always known you were attractive but when I saw you at the party, it was our eyes that drew me in. You were alone, drinking on the hood of your car, and in that moment when you thought you were unobserved I got a look behind this pretty mask you wear wherever you go. I saw a hint of the real you and I knew I wouldn’t be content until I got to know all of you. You’re too interesting.”

“Hmm.” Declan pressed his hand over Jiang’s, holding it to his face. “So my looks do nothing for you?”

Jiang laughed. “Isn’t that something?” Declan grinned back. “I mean, you’re very nice to look at. I like your height and build and strength. Your hair’s not bad, either. Very fun to play with. Umm… your mouth, very kissable. I’m a fan of unkempt Declan, shirtless and scruffy Declan with wild bedhead and shadows under your eyes.” He gave Declan a slow, syrupy sweet kiss. “Big fan.”

“I wore plaid today just for you,” Declan pointed out. “Very rustic, right?”

“Yes, just so everyone knows that I’m the city boy and you’re the rural one.”

“About that,” Declan checked his watch, “we need to leave soon. Picking your bike and doing all the paperwork is going to take forever.”

Jiang stood up and grabbed their trays. “Please. I’ve already got my bike picked out.”

“Oh?” Declan had spent a long time researching and test-driving bikes on his secret side trips to D.C. He found it hard to imagine that Jiang had managed to find his bike in less than a month.

“Yeah, a Kawasaki Ninja. I got the model details on my phone… hold on, hold on.” Jiang swiped a couple times and showed Declan the bike he wanted. It was sleek and black with green slashes running over the body. It looked fucking hot and fast as hell.

“Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R,” Declan read aloud.

“Yep,” Jiang said. “It’s one of the fastest bikes out there, 186 miles per hour. That’s why I picked it, of course. And for the looks. But I want my bike to have gold details, not green. It’s gonna look fucking badass…”

Jiang rambled on excitedly about different features of the bike but Declan’s brain was stuck on 186 mph. He felt sick thinking about Jiang flying down the dangerous Virginia roads at those speeds. But surely he would save that for the track? Still… so much could go wrong and Jiang was just a fragile human…

“Hey Declan? You okay? You’re really pale and sweaty.”

“I’m praying,” Declan wheezed.

“Ah.” Jiang patted his back. “Declan, didn’t you know? Jesus is my homeboy!” He grabbed Declan’s shoulders and hopped on his back. “Onward!”

Declan laughed off his surprise and hooked his hands under Jiang’s thighs and took off across the green, dodging around their wide-eyed schoolmates. Just another day in the life with Jiang.

Chapter Text

“Okay, just take one more picture, Declan. C’mon this is a once in a lifetime moment, we gotta document the fuck out of it!”

Jiang was posing on the bike, straddling it and leaning forward like he was going for a centerfold spread, all he was missing was one of his token lollipops. Declan flushed and snapped some more pics with Jiang’s phone. He couldn’t stop grinning; Jiang’s happiness and enthusiasm was catching.

“Oh god it’s so perfect!” Jiang gripped the handles and closed his eyes in what Declan assumed was rapture or ecstasy or something that looked too sexy to be allowed. When he opened his eyes and caught Declan staring his smile was sharp and knowing. “Why don’t you take a picture?” he teased. “It’ll last longer.”

“Well, since you suggested it.” Declan pulled out his phone and took a picture of Jiang sitting on the bike, his arms stretched out behind him, hands gripping the seat. His hair was down, falling around his shoulders. Declan stared at the image probably longer than he should have; it was the only one he had of Jiang. Almost all of the photos saved on his phone predated his exile from the Barns. Ever since then he hadn’t felt like getting attached to anyone or anything, hadn’t felt the need to capture any new moments. But with Jiang… he couldn’t help himself. Jiang had walked right through his barriers like they weren’t there at all, had gotten under his skin, and inhabited his dreams. Declan saved the picture and tucked his phone into his back pocket.

The salesperson wandered over, a clipboard tucked under their arm. They had introduced themselves as Chase and they were immediately taken with Jiang. Declan imagined that most people had never met someone like Jiang and today, when he was soaring, he had so much charisma that he was irresistible.

“That bike suits you,” Chase said, giving Jiang an appreciative look.

“Right?” Jiang preened. He slid off the bike and went to Declan, collecting his phone and smoothly wrapping his arm around Declan’s hips. Declan’s heart warmed at the gesture. “It’ll be even better once I get the paint job customized.” Jiang pressed into Declan’s side, hooking his fingers in the belt loop of Declan’s jeans.

“Oh yeah?” Chase asked. “Where were you thinking of getting the work done?”

“There’s a shop in the city that I found,” Jiang tapped at his phone and brought up the page, “Sleipnir.”

Chase’s expression instantly went from polite to keen. “Excellent! They’re the best in the city and in the state, if you want my opinion. I’m friends with Tori, she works there and she’s a genius.” Chase had their phone out and was flicking through photos on their Insta, showing Jiang. Jiang moved away from Declan to get a closer look and soon he and Chase were geeking out over paint jobs and details. Declan tamped down on the discomfort he felt watching them bond. It was fine. This was fine.

Declan’s other phone vibrated in his jacket pocket, a reminder that he had his meeting with the buyer in thirty minutes. Which was perfect. He could leave Jiang here to finish up paperwork and arrange for transportation of the bike to the paint shop, go to the meeting, and be back in time to take Jiang to dinner or directly to the apartment.

“Hey babe?” Declan touched Jiang’s elbow to get his attention. Jiang looked over and gave him an expectant look.

“Yes dear?” Jiang asked cheekily.

Declan rolled his eyes. “I have a thing I have to get you, that business meeting I mentioned?” Jiang narrowed his eyes. Declan had only brought it up in passing the night before when he had asked Jiang to go to D.C. with him; they had been too busy with other things after that for Declan to remind him. “I’m not sure how long it will take but maybe a couple hours…”

“A couple hours?!” Jiang looked more than a little irritated.

“Well, I figured you would have a lot of paperwork and insurance stuff to do…”

“Actually he’s right,” Chase cut in. They tapped a pen on their clipboard. “We need to go over all of this and get your insurance and payment info. Plus we’ll review the features of your bike and you might even get to take a test ride. Have you already purchased riding gear? Because I have recommendations, if you’re interested.”

“Really?” Jiang perked up, turning his back on Declan and giving Chase his full attention. “That would be awesome. I’ve got some stuff on order but I’m open to suggestions.”

“Oh good!” Chase smiled and Declan wanted to glare at them and say something about Jiang being a minor for God’s sake. Except Jiang had a fake ID that said he was 18, not 17. The ID, more importantly, included motorcycle class. When Declan had asked about Jiang’s ID on the ride up Jiang had explained that it was a gift from Kavinsky, one of his famous forgeries. According to the fake ID Jiang was an adult; he had the funds and met all the requirements to purchase a motorcycle that went nearly two hundred miles per hour. Declan’s still felt queasy when he remembered that last detail.

“Then I’ll see you in a bit,” Declan said, squeezing Jiang’s elbow again. “Have fun.”

Jiang caught Declan’s hand and tugged him close and pressed a quick kiss to his jaw. “Hurry back,” Jiang whisper-growled.

“Aye-aye,” Declan replied, brushing his knuckles along Jiang’s face before pulling away.

It took a good bit of self-restraint for Declan not to swagger as he walked out of the dealership, tossing his keys and grinning. His heart was tripping along, racing like his fight or flight instincts had been triggered. Maybe because Jiang had kissed him in public? Or because he had flirted with Jiang in public? They were out at Aglionby, at least to their classmates, but D.C. was new territory. It was a different environment than Henrietta and yet… beneath the giddiness Declan knew he couldn’t relax.

In the car Declan put his other phone on the seat beside him and put the car in drive. As he pulled out of the lot he started packing away all of his complex feelings about Jiang and what they were doing. He couldn’t be distracted at the meeting. Dealing with dream objects had always been a dangerous business but after Niall’s murder Declan was acutely aware that each prearranged buy could be his last. He remembered when the men had come to the Barns, invaded his home, looking for his father’s horde. Declan had already hidden most of the dream artifacts, leaving a handful on the property for the treasure hunters to find and take. In the end he had been able to establish himself as a reliable source for the items that Niall Lynch had once been able to procure and sell. It was risky but necessary, especially when the buyers whispered the word greywaren, their agents always seeking for the last elusive artifact promised by Niall.

Today Declan was selling a piece of religious paraphernalia. The object was not one that Niall would have sold, it was probably something he had never intended to bring back, but it belonged to Declan now and Declan knew the value of a relic. Niall would have deplored the sale as being blasphemous. Declan knew his tattered soul wouldn’t take too much damage from trading a bloody, weeping crucifix for cash. He even had an eerie and poetic story to wrap around the cross. The middleman he was meeting today wouldn’t care about the story but the buyer… he would eat it up.

All too soon Declan was approaching his destination. Before he reached the sketchy parking garage where the exchange would happen he pulled in behind a strip of shops and parked the Volvo. Declan scanned the alley for cameras before getting out of the car to retrieve the package from the trunk where it had been buried beneath a picnic blanket. The package wasn’t large; the crucifix was about the length and width of a sheet of legal sized paper, made out of carved wood. The box was plastic to keep the tears and blood from seeping out. It was a messy thing and Declan was glad to be rid of it. He set the box on the passenger seat next to his phone.

Declan stripped off the flannel shirt he had worn for Jiang’s benefit and put on a crisp black button-up before donning his shoulder holster and leather jacket. Once he was back in the driver’s seat he reached beneath it and pulled out the handgun he had received from Kavinsky, one gun in exchange for one of Niall’s watches. Declan hated for Kavinsky to have anything that Niall had once owned and worn but he certainly didn’t want it. Or at least he told himself he didn’t want it. Declan checked the gun once more and tucked it into the holster. He patted his jacket pocket where he also kept mace and a knife, just in case.

Satisfied that everything was as it should be Declan got back on the road. His heart was beating steadily and he kept tight control on his breath. Remaining calm and cold during these meetings had been his saving grace over the years. He had learned how to present himself as rational, mature, adult. No one looking at him ever thought of Declan Lynch as a kid. He had left his childhood behind years ago.

The parking garage had a deserted, anonymous look. Declan was certain that if there were cameras here they had probably been tampered with; it was difficult to find unwatched places in the city but if one had enough money then one could procure secrecy. Declan received his parking ticket from the machine and entered the garage once the gate was raised. He followed the arrows to the lowest level. The white panel van was parked near the corner and, per the buyer’s instructions, Declan parked in the space between the wall and the van, effectively blocking his car from view. His phone buzzed and the message instructed him to get out of car and bring the package to the van. The windows of the van were tinted so Declan couldn’t see the driver but he knew the driver could see him. Keeping his expression blank, Declan shoved his phone in his pocket and carefully picked up the box. He could hear liquid sloshing around inside and wondered, idly, if tests were run on the blood and tears, would the results reveal a human origin or something else?

The door to the van slid open and Declan climbed in. Immediately the door closed and the locks clicked as they were engaged. Declan sat behind the passenger seat so the driver could see him. He kept the package balanced on his knees, his hands resting at his sides in full view of the man who was staring at him.

“Christ,” the man muttered, his accent was British. “You look just like your bastard father.”

Declan had heard that before, just never from Niall. Perhaps his father didn’t like seeing his face reflected back at him.

“I am his son,” Declan replied simply. “To business?”

“Don’t get cocky,” the man growled. “My boss wants me to inspect the object first.” The man snapped his fingers impatiently and Declan passed him the box. This was the tricky part, ensuring that once he gave over the item he would still be able to leave with both his payment and his life.

The man unwrapped the package and unsnapped the fasteners on the box, opening it up. The van filled with the unpleasant, briny smell of tears mixed with metallic blood. Declan breathed through his mouth and kept his eyes fixed on the man, tracking his moves.

“Fucking hell,” the man swore before crossing himself. He hurriedly closed the box and wrapped it up again, setting it reverently on the seat next to him. “Where the fuck did you get that?” he asked.

“Ah yes,” Declan said, as if it had just occurred to him, “I have the history of this particular piece saved to a USB. If you’ll allow me,” he gestured to his pocket and the man nodded. Declan reached in and retrieved the silver thumbdrive and handed it over. “The short version is that my father brought it back from an abandoned monastery in Arizona.” This was utter bullshit but Declan had grown up hearing Niall’s tall tales so he knew well enough how to mimic them. He also knew how to make sure that it was entirely impossible for buyers to either confirm or deny the veracity of his stories. “The monastery was soon after destroyed in a freak lightning strike.”

“Christ,” the man said again.

Declan nodded seriously. “Now, as for my payment.”

The man glowered at him and picked up a thick envelope. He smacked it against his palm a few times, the sound loud in the confines of the van.

“Let’s talk about it,” the man said. His expression was far from friendly. “I was told that you have been unwilling to share certain information with my boss. I was told to exert some pressure to get you to yield.” Declan’s face didn’t betray any emotion but he subtly shifted his weight forward, ready to move. “The question is, will you walk out of here with the cash and your pretty face intact… or not?”

Not for the first time since his father’s death did Declan curse the name Niall Lynch.

“What information does your boss require?” Declan asked, his voice hard and cold as ice.

“Don’t play stupid,” the man snarled. “Where’s the fucking greywaren?”

The fucking Greywaren was probably well on the way to wasted or racing his father’s BMW with Kavinsky, or both.

“I don’t know,” Declan said. “My father never told me anything about it.”

“I don’t believe you,” the man said. He moved from his seat to the one next to Declan. He was larger than Declan, both in height and build. If it came to a fight to the death Declan was hopeful that he could hold his own but for now, if it was just intimidation, his best bet was to endure it.

Quicker than he should be, the man lunged over and grabbed Declan by the throat and slammed him back into the seat. Reflex prompted Declan to gouge his nails into the man’s wrist, but he barely made a scratch against the man’s tough skin. The man laughed and squeezed, closing off Declan’s windpipe, making his vision dance with black spots.

“Where’s the greywaren?” the man asked again, loosening his hold.

Declan coughed and gagged, gulping down oxygen as fast as he could. “Don’t. Know,” he gasped.

The man backhanded him, hard enough that his ring cut Declan’s cheek and Declan’s teeth sliced against the inside of his mouth, drawing blood. The man grabbed Declan’s neck and pulled his face close.

“C’mon, Declan boy, don’t be an idiot. Just tell me what I need to know and you can get your money and go.”

Endure. Endure. Endure.

“I don’t know,” Declan said, holding the man’s stare even though his eyes were stinging with unshed tears.

There was no warning. The man pulled a gun and even as Declan scrambled to get away the man brought the butt of the gun down on Declan’s knee, the impact jarring and so painful that Declan yelled. The man struck him again.

“ARGHHH.” Declan bent over his injured knee, trying not to throw up. “FUCK!” He slipped his hand inside his jacket and grasped his gun, drawing it from the holster and flicking off the safety and cocking the trigger, his moans covering the small, metallic click. He cradled the gun against his stomach and waited.

The man dug his fingers into Declan’s hair and yanked him up. “Shut up—” the man stopped talking abruptly. Declan had moved quickly and now his gun was jammed under the man’s jaw and he had his knife angled against the man’s groin.

“Drop your gun,” Declan ordered. The man did. Declan kicked the gun under the seat. “Grab the handle over the door.” The man complied. Declan withdrew the gun but kept it aimed at the man. “I’m going to take the money and leave. If you move I will shoot you. Do you understand?” The words felt slurry in Declan’s mouth and he had to keep swallowing down the blood that was oozing from his torn cheek.

“I understand,” the man said. He sounded furious. Not as furious as his boss would be when he learned of this failure.

“Good.” Declan moved towards the front of the van, disengaged the lock, and lifted the envelope of money. He wanted to count it but there was no way he could do that now. “Tell your boss if he hopes to do business with me again he will cease these theatrics. I don’t know anything about the greywaren.”

The man said nothing. “Get down on the floor,” Declan commanded. “Stay down until I’ve driven away. I’ll leave the van doors open and if I see you get up I’ll shoot you and shoot out the tires. Don’t try to follow me.”

“Paranoid little bastard,” the man spat as he lowered himself to the floor. Declan jammed the barrel of his gun against the man’s spine as a reminder while he maneuvered out of the van. His knee ached terribly and his cheek felt like it was on fire. It’s not paranoia if you’re right Declan thought.

Declan told himself not to panic as he moved to his car and got in. He kept his gaze fixed on the man, regretting that he hadn’t thought to remove the bullets from the man’s gun. Rookie mistake and he wasn’t a rookie. Thankfully the man didn’t try to go for his gun, he didn’t move while Declan reversed out of the parking space and sped out of the garage. At the exit he was so flustered he almost forgot to pay. He wanted to ram the gate and peel out, putting as many miles as he could between himself and his assailant.

Once he was out of the garage he didn’t stop. He drove and drove, losing himself in the city. After nearly twenty minutes of wandering he parked in another alley and pulled the First Aid kit from the glove box and examined the damage. The cut on his cheek wasn’t too deep and wouldn’t need stitches. It was about an inch long and stung like a son of a bitch when Declan rubbed it clean with antiseptic wipes. He applied a couple butterfly bandages to keep it closed. The skin was darkening around the wound and it wasn’t pretty. He rinsed his mouth out with water, swallowing a mixture of blood and water, mostly blood. His throat hurt and he checked the bruising in the mirror. The cut on his face he could have explained away as an accident but there weren’t any easy excuses for strangulation marks. Declan popped open the bottle of painkillers and swallowed down several. His knee was throbbing and when he pressed his hand to it he could feel that it had swollen.

After Declan had tended to his wounds he examined the contents of the envelope. The cash was all there. Declan was so disgusted he wanted to burn it. He didn’t need the money. He didn’t need any of this and right then, sitting alone in his car with blood on his hands and in his mouth, he had never hated or missed his father more. This wasn’t the first time he had bled for Niall Lynch’s legacy and, God help him, it wouldn’t be the last but he wished – he fucking wished – that he could just walk away. But how could he walk away from this fragile charade? This business was a smokescreen hiding what everyone wanted: the greywaren, also known as Declan’s little brother, Ronan Lynch.

Declan hissed out a stream of curses as he stashed the First Aid kit and hid the gun, knife, mace, and money. He changed back into the flannel shirt and pulled out his personal phone and scrolled through the texts from Jiang. The last one was from a few minutes earlier. Apparently Chase was getting off work early so they could go with Jiang to the paint shop and introduce him to the crew over there. Declan texted him back letting him know that he could be there in about twenty-five minutes. He gave himself a few more minutes to sit in the car, staring dazedly out the window. His face hurt, his head was pounding, his knee felt like a pulsing grapefruit of agony. He thought about his plans to spend a fun night out with Jiang and how that was impossible now, thanks to his injuries. He worried about what lies he would have to spin to cover his double life. Jiang ran with Kavinsky so he was no stranger to violence and yet… Declan was afraid, afraid of rejection and the truth catching up to him. When would he ever stop feeling afraid?

Chapter Text

When Declan arrived at Sleipnir he found Jiang in the back of the shop, straddling a shop chair, cackling at some joke. His hair was up, his jacket off, and by the looks of it everyone was entirely enamored with him. The vibe was more party-like than place of business and Declan hung back for a moment, taking it all in. Well, mostly studying Jiang in this new place.

Jiang held a half empty bottle of Coke in one hand and was gesturing as he told a story about some crazy night with Kavinsky’s crew. The group of adults listened with amused expressions, chiming in about their own glory days or more recent exploits. Counting Chase, there were three other adults present, all of them kitted out in leather and denim and more tattoos than Declan would have thought possible. Definitely a Jiang crowd.

One of the adults got up to grab a fresh beer and startled when she saw Declan.

“Holy shit!” the woman gasped, alerting the rest of the group to his presence. “Where the fuck did you come from?”

“The sign says you’re open,” Declan answered. He waved at Jiang. “And I’m here to collect my boyfriend.”

“Oh!” One of the men snorted. “Looks like you’re out of luck, Chase, this one is taken!”

“All the good ones are,” Chase muttered. “But I already knew that,” he said, looking to Declan, “I wasn’t trying to make a move or anything.”

Jiang blew Chase an air kiss and stood up. “I know a guy who would be interested, if you ever feel like taking a trip outside the city.” Declan wasn’t sure which guy Jiang meant, hopefully not Kavinsky.

The group’s attention diverted to Chase and their love life, for which Declan was grateful; he wanted to leave as soon as possible. Jiang made his way over and Declan tugged at the neck of his shirt, hoping that it was hiding the worst of the bruising. There was nothing to be done about the cut cheek, which Jiang noticed instantly.

“Declan, what the fuck?” Jiang hissed. He brought his hand up and Declan flinched away before he could stop himself. Jiang’s eyes widen and he took a step back. Declan caught his hand and held it carefully between his own, choosing to stare at it rather than to make eye contact.

“Sorry,” Declan said quietly. He studied Jiang’s perfectly painted nails, his smooth wrist. He swallowed even though it made his throat ache. “Sorry, I ran into some trouble and I guess—” He exhaled hard. “I guess I’m still a little rattled.” He chanced a look at Jiang’s face and saw not judgment, but worry.

“Baby,” Jiang said and that was it, Declan felt himself crumbling. Jiang moved closer, wrapping Declan up in a tight hug that Declan gladly returned. He let himself fall a little, trusting Jiang to hold him up. Jiang’s fingers tightened in his shirt before he pressed up on his tiptoes and kissed Declan, right in front of everyone.

The kiss hurt but Declan didn’t stop him, didn’t stop himself from kissing Jiang back just as urgently. Distantly he was aware that the adults were laughing or cheering, but it didn’t matter. He shoved his fingers into Jiang’s hair, sending it tumbling out of its loose bun. Jiang’s honeysuckle scent enveloped him and he was gone…

“Baby.” Jiang’s husky voice at his ear brought him back and he pulled away, feeling drunk. Jiang stared up at him with the same hungry, possessive expression he had worn the night before after they had fought and made up. “Be cool,” Jiang whispered. Declan didn’t think he could be cool, not with Jiang looking like that, flushed and wild.

“Right,” Declan murmured. He cleared his throat and backed up, out of Jiang’s embrace. “I got a little carried away.”

Jiang smirked. “Just a little. I would ask, is that a knife in your pocket but knowing you that might actually be a knife.”

Declan laughed and felt his neck go hot. “Ha… not a knife, babe, not a knife.”

Jiang rolled his eyes. “In all seriousness, though, we need to talk about why you have blood in your mouth and a busted cheek and bruises – yes, I can see them – on your throat.”

“I’m having an affair,” Declan said, trying to ease the moment with humor but Jiang didn’t laugh.

“Nice try,” Jiang said, pointing at Declan, “but no. Discussion tabled for later.” Before Declan could reply Jiang twirled around and pulled him towards the group of adults.

“Everyone,” Jiang announced, “meet the boyfriend. Boyfriend, meet everyone. Please excuse his appearance. He’s in a fight club for the insanely rich and desperately bored.”

Everyone laughed and Declan laughed, too. It felt like a scene from a movie, one that he was both watching and acting in. For a brief pocket of time he pretended that this was his life: jokes, warm beer, cigarettes, motorcycles, and insta-friends. He sat on the chair Jiang had been occupying and Jiang sat on his knee, his arm wrapped around Declan’s shoulders. One story turned into three, each person trying to one up the others. Declan found himself telling a story about Niall, one that was actually true. He found himself laughing about it, this memory that had been forgotten for so long, buried under trauma and anger and hurt. Jiang leaned on him after he finished telling it and kissed his forehead; Declan put his arm around Jiang’s waist and squeezed as Jiang nicely dovetailed off his story with an anecdote about an escapade with his sister in Manhattan.

Somehow they ended up spending hours at the paint shop, so long that Tori ordered them pizzas and they all ate and drank and smoked until it was late. Declan stopped after two beers and then spent the rest of the time guzzling water and coffee to flush the alcohol before he had to drive. Jiang had offered to drive them back but Declan said he could do it. He didn’t want to be drunk on his first night with Jiang at the apartment, and he wasn’t comfortable letting himself go in the presence of strangers; he had already said more than he should.

The apartment was a thirty-minute drive across town, located in a respectable but not too exclusive area. The building had been chosen because it allowed Niall – and later Declan – to come and go unremarked. Their apartment was on the seventh floor because seven was lucky; so far the luck had held and none of Niall’s enemies had discovered it.

He and Jiang had been quiet on the ride over, both of them talked out. Jiang picked the music, scanning through stations before plugging in his phone and playing a series of songs Declan had never heard. Jiang stared out the window at the city lights and Declan felt a strong sense of poignancy. It was like someone was tugging at his heart, making him feel so good and complete that it hurt. It was strange, with anyone else the quiet would have eaten him up, he would have had to fill it, or keep the other person talking, but with Jiang the silence didn’t feel awkward or empty.

They were quiet now as they entered the apartment, Declan flicking on the lights and kicking his shoes off at the door. He bent down and unlaced Jiang’s boots, kissing his knee before standing and giving Jiang a tour of the apartment.

It was a modestly sized place with a basic layout, kitchen to the left, living area to the right. The bedroom and bathroom were at the back and that’s where Jiang headed, dropping his overnight bag on the floor before collapsing onto the queen-size bed. He patted the mattress and Declan limped over to join him; his knee had stiffened up during the evening and he moved gingerly as he lay back on the duvet.

Jiang rolled on top of him and kissed him with feeling, his hands framing Declan’s battered face, his hair falling around them. Declan smoothed his hands over Jiang’s back, tilting his head so Jiang could kiss him deeper. The arousal he had been fighting off all evening returned but if Jiang noticed he didn’t comment on it and he didn’t move away. Jiang undid the top buttons of Declan’s shirt, exposing his neck, and gingerly kissed the bruises left by the man’s attack. Declan shuddered and pressed his nose into Jiang’s hair, breathing deep and willing away the delayed terror of the assault. His fingers clutched at Jiang’s jacket and he tried to steady himself.

“Are you okay?” Jiang asked. He pulled back, sitting up with his weight balanced on his knees and not on Declan.

“What?” Declan gasped.

“You started shaking,” Jiang murmured, “when I kissed here.” His fingers lightly traced the bruises and Declan tried not to tremble.

“Because it felt good,” he replied. It wasn’t a lie even if it wasn’t the whole truth. “I like having you on top of me.” Declan grabbed Jiang’s hand and kissed his fingertips.

Jiang blushed and smiled so big that Declan had to smile back, it was contagious. “I like making you feel good,” Jiang said. His expression softened and he continued. “It makes me feel good, too. Before, messing around with the guys, it didn’t feel the same. It was like… like driving too fast or pulling a stupid stunt. With you it means something.”

Declan placed his hands on top of Jiang’s thighs, slowly dragging his palms down and pushing them up, again and again. Jiang’s breathing hitched and went a little deeper and when he swallowed it made his Adam’s apple bob so enticingly that Declan wanted to sit up and kiss it, kiss him until they were both out of breath.

“I’m not messing around,” Declan said. His voice sounded deeper, more serious than he had intended. He stared up at Jiang feeling like his heart was in his throat.

Jiang leaned down and pressed their foreheads together. “I know, Declan.” Declan kissed him as sweetly as he knew how, slow and soft and achingly gentle. “I won’t break your heart,” Jiang promised.

—–

When Declan excused himself to take a shower Jiang tried to convince him that they should shower together but Declan declined. Yes, he would love to see Jiang naked but he didn’t feel ready. Pretty much the only times he had got naked with someone was if he was having sex and even then he didn’t always take off all his clothes. And he had never showered with the women he had slept with. As he stood beneath the spray of hot water he wondered if he was actually shy, and how ironic that was since Jiang clearly had zero issues with nudity.

His shyness was put to the test when he realized that in his hurry to take a shower – and to take care of his other needs – he had forgotten to bring his sleep clothes with him. He dried off and wrapped one of the large towels around his waist and reentered the bedroom. Jiang was lying on his stomach, playing a game on his phone, which he promptly dropped as soon as he saw Declan.

“Holy shit, Declan,” Jiang exclaimed, “you have a six pack!”

“Oh, umm, yeah,” Declan muttered, touching his stomach and feeling ridiculously exposed.

Jiang hopped off the bed and stood entirely too close for comfort. “I knew you were ripped, but seeing proof is… wow,” Jiang continued. “Can I touch them? For science?”

Declan flushed and nodded. Jiang’s hands on his body felt extremely nice. A bit too nice. He was about to tell Jiang to cease and desist in an effort to keep from getting completely hard again, when Jiang’s attention strayed down and he noticed Declan’s bruised and swollen knee.

“Oh my God, did this happened today, too?!” Jiang asked. He looked horrified.

Declan shifted his weight to his right leg and nodded.

“Okay, sit,” Jiang commanded. Declan sat. “Now explain.”

“I think this would be easier if I was dressed first,” Declan said quietly. Even though it was Jiang he still felt exposed and uncomfortable in his towel. It was easier to think about and talk about what had happened when he was clothed and safe.

“Right,” Jiang agreed. “I’ll go shower while you get dressed. But then we’ll talk.” He leveled a look that said he wasn’t taking no for an answer.

Declan nodded. “Yeah. Absolutely.”

—–

While Jiang showered Declan put on the soft sweatpants and worn T-shirt he preferred to sleep in. He wandered barefoot through the apartment, seeing everything again with fresh eyes. The apartment was the antithesis of the Barns: it was transient where the Barns was permanent, it was a place to crash and nothing more. There was the barely stocked kitchen with an assortment of mugs and cups but lacking other basics like cooking supplies. The living area was barely furnished: a sofa, a table, a lamp. Declan sat on the coach, remembering the nights he had stayed here while his father had dreamed in the bedroom. He hadn’t slept much, too worried about what might emerge from Niall’s nightmares or dreams. Paperbacks littered the table, all of them Declan’s. Most of them were thrillers and mysteries, nothing outstanding but entertaining enough when insomnia kept him from rest.

The shower cut off and Declan went back to the bedroom, climbing onto the bed and settling with his back resting against the headboard. He had never slept in this bed, even after Niall’s murder, and being in it now felt weird. The sheets had, of course, been laundered since then. Declan had taken care of that - had taken care of everything - crying bitterly as he struggled to move on and shape himself into the person who could protect what remained of his family. He had boxed up Niall’s other belongings, mostly clothes, and kept them in a corner of his rented storage unit. This apartment was just a place, purely functional. Declan pulled his knees up to his chest and hugged them, wincing at the pain that shot through his left knee; he immediately stretched his legs out again, groaning softly.

Jiang entered the room, followed by a puff a steam. He had on another extra large black T-shirt that hung past his thighs. The word CUTE was printed in all caps white text and had a line through it. Declan smiled.

“That shirt is a lie,” he told Jiang.

“Bitch, please,” Jiang snorted, “I am not cute.” He pulled the covers back and got into bed, fluffing the pillows and piling them behind him.

“Hmm, you’re right,” Declan mused. “Throwing stars aren’t cute. How about dangerously elegant? Beautifully sharp? Gorgeous—”

Jiang hit him with a pillow. “I was not fishing for compliments, Declan Lynch,” Jiang said. “Now stop trying to distract me. You were going to tell me why you showed up all beat to hell with some bullshit excuse of I ran into some trouble.”

Declan wrested the pillow out of Jiang’s grasp and held it to his chest. “Fine,” he conceded. He plucked at the covers and tried to find the right words to say. “Do you want the official story or the truth? Because the truth comes with a ton of baggage and possibly some risks.” He held Jiang’s gaze. “We can keep going like we have been and you’ll never have to know or worry about all this. If I do my job right it should never blow back on you, or anyone.”

Jiang frowned. “So you’ll just keep on doing whatever it is you do but that’s okay because you’re the only one getting hurt?”

Declan shrugged.

“Martyrdom is so Dark Ages, Declan. I want to know the truth, not the party line. And it should go without saying, but just to be clear, I won’t tell anyone what you choose to share with me. Okay?”

“Yeah, okay.” Declan turned, moving around so he was facing Jiang. All the stress of the day was hitting him and he just wanted to go to sleep. But he had to get through this first. He stared into Jiang’s eyes and asked, “What do you know about Kavinsky?”

“The myth, the legend, or the truth?” Jiang asked. “Because, as you know, I’m usually the only sober person at those parties and I notice shit. Like not-of-this-world impossible magical mindfuck shit.”

“Sounds about right,” Declan agreed. “Let’s just say, anything Kavinsky can do, my dad did better. And he got paid for it.”

Jiang’s jaw dropped. “No. Fucking. Way.” He sat up straighter, looking around the room like he expected something crazy to happen. “Your dad was magic?” he whispered.

Declan laughed. “Not exactly. But what Kavinsky is, my dad was. Before he was murdered.” Jiang absorbed that information and Declan continued. “My job, what I’m doing here, is continuing the business my father started. I sell what he made and it keeps the dangerous people preoccupied, keeps them away from my family and out of Henrietta.”

Jiang pondered that and Declan watched as things clicked into place. “K knew your dad,” Jiang said. “He still talks about him sometimes.” Declan clenched his hands into fists. “Not about this, the magic whatever,” Jiang clarified. “Like he had a major man crush on your dad. Which, obviously, has now transferred to your brother.” Declan frowned so hard he could feel a headache coming on.

“Does anyone know what you’re doing?” Jiang asked. “Ronan? K?”

“No.” Declan could hear the emptiness in his voice and he sighed at his melodrama. “It’s fine.”

“Like hell it is!” Jiang reached out to cup Declan’s bruised cheek. “You shouldn’t have to do this, especially not alone.”

“Thanks for the sentiment,” Declan replied dryly, “but I’m not looking for someone to fix this for me. You asked what happened and I’m telling you. I sell things to dangerous people and sometimes I get hurt, but that’s rare. Really, most of the time it’s fine.”

Jiang pulled Declan closer and pressed their faces together. “It is not okay. It is not fine.” He was almost yelling. “Stop lying to yourself.”

“Jiang.” Declan breathed out a warning. His heart was pounding so hard he could almost hear it.

“What?!”

Declan kissed him. Which was cheating but it worked. They kissed until Jiang forgot they were fighting, until Declan forgot how much Jiang’s words stung. He knew his life was a barely controlled mess waiting to happen but if there was one thing he had learned from his father it was to fake it until you made it. So he kissed his boyfriend in his father’s bed and he ignored the pain in his body and the pain in his soul. He shelved all his burdens for one night, his consciousness strung out from one kiss to the next, to the feel of Jiang’s hands on him, the taste of Jiang’s skin, and the quiet noises they made as they wound together. It wasn’t sex, but Declan liked it better. And for the first time in years he slept through the night, curled up around Jiang in this temporary haven.

Chapter Text

At first he dreamed he was running for his life, pursued by a man with a gun. He was stumbling down narrow alleys then a forest then the hallways of his family home. The man chasing him was persistent, never tiring. Declan burst into his bedroom, scrambling to lock the door. He pressed his back to the door, heart hammering, and there was Jiang.

Jiang was sitting on his bed looking like he’d always been there waiting for Declan to return and find him.

The dream shifted, his terror replaced by need so sharp that it made him ache. His heart was still pounding. Jiang stood up and walked towards him, his expression bemused, like he couldn’t understand why Declan was so bothered. Declan was bothered. Here was Jiang in a place that not even he was allowed to trespass anymore. Jiang was in his room and the door was locked and they were alone and he couldn’t think…

Declan pulled Jiang to him, his fingers hooking in the belt loops of Jiang’s pants. Jiang laughed and pushed his hands into the back pockets of Declan’s jeans, drawing him closer until their bodies were snugged together.

When they kissed it felt perfect, slow and easy, one kiss melting into another. Declan sucked on Jiang’s lower lip, biting down just enough to make Jiang gasp. Their bodies jostled together as Declan guided them towards his bed. The need to be closer and closer was rising in him, driving away his worries and doubts. He lowered Jiang onto the bed, settling between his legs. Their hands clasped together, fingers braided with fingers. Jiang’s chest rose and fell with rapid breaths, his face flushed.

“Declan—” Jiang gazed up at him, eyes dark and dangerous and so god damn beautiful. “Kiss me.”

Declan kissed him and kissed him. He pushed Jiang’s shirt up, exposing his chest and stomach. His fingers scraped down along Jiang’s ribs to his hips. Jiang touched his shoulders, his back, down and down, slipping his long fingers into the waistband of Declan’s too tight jeans. Declan’s entire body was trembling and he had to close his eyes against the feelings assaulting him. Jiang’s tongue probed against the bite mark on Declan’s neck and Declan groaned, his head dropping forward and his hips grinding down against Jiang, all reflexive responses to the signals of pain and pleasure.

“J-Jiang,” Declan stuttered. He couldn’t form the words that should come next. Stop? Don’t stop? He didn’t know.

Jiang pulled away, giving Declan a moment of relief, before kissing the tight skin over Declan’s collarbone. Soft kisses that quickly became more, became Jiang leisurely sucking at Declan’s skin, one hand squeezing Declan’s ass and the other pulling his hair. Declan gasped and twisted, his heart beating so hard that he was certain Jiang could feel it. Thoughts scattered, he could only moan out quiet pleas as Jiang made him fall apart.

Jiang pressed against him, body arching up so there was no space left between them. Declan groaned into his mouth, his hips jerking forward and it felt so good. Jiang tugged on his hair and murmured something too low for Declan to hear. Their bodies moved together and Declan bit his lip so hard he tasted blood—

One moment Declan was asleep and the next he was awake, wide-awake with one hand between his legs and the taste of blood in his mouth. Declan tongued the cut inside his cheek, wincing; he must have bit it during his dream and reopened the wound. His heart was still pounding and he was clammy with sweat. His sleep pants were wet and his hand was wet. Declan grimaced as the facts came together. He had had a wet dream about Jiang. Fuck.

Right on cue Jiang mumbled something in his sleep, turning over and wrapping an arm around Declan’s bare chest. The covers had slipped down during the night so Declan had a perfect view of Jiang’s back and his stupidly cute sleep shorts. Declan sighed and shifted out of Jiang’s grasp. There was no way he was going back to sleep in this state and he didn’t want Jiang waking up and finding him like this.

Declan tiptoed into the bathroom and stripped off his sweatpants, balling them up and tossing them into the corner. He turned on the shower, holding his palm under the spray until it warmed up enough for him to get in. He still shivered at the first pass of water over his sensitive skin. Last night replayed in his mind: making out with Jiang, kissing until he felt dizzy. His body burned as he recalled how Jiang had yanked his shirt off and proceeded to touch and stroke and pinch him like he’s never encountered a shirtless guy before. Jiang had kissed each bruise on his body and Declan had to stop him from licking at his cut cheek and the bite mark on his shoulder. Then it had been his turn to peel off Jiang’s shirt, to run his hands over Jiang’s tight body, to trace the elegant lines of Jiang’s tattoos with his tongue.

They hadn’t talked other than to say each other’s names and bite out short words of praise and need. Declan had forgotten how much his knee hurt and how his mouth stung and his head throbbed with a persistent headache. He had lain on his back and let Jiang take over. It had been one of the best nights of his life.

Declan leaned against the shower wall and touched himself, taking it slow, remembering the sensations and the way Jiang had looked at him and said his name. Somewhere in the back of his mind there was an insidious thought of what Ronan would say if he knew how shamelessly he was behaving, bringing Jiang to the apartment, messing around in Niall’s bed. He willed that thought away.

By the time his shower was finished Declan was hungry and craving a cup of coffee. He returned to the bedroom and quietly dressed in pair of boxers and an old T-shirt. Jiang was curled up around his pillow, his hair falling over his face. Declan found his phone and took a picture, reminding himself to ask Jiang if that was okay. He still wasn’t sure of all of their boundaries but he knew Jiang had about a million pictures of him on his phone while Declan only had a few of Jiang. He would need to change that.

Declan limped out to the kitchen and got a pot of coffee started. He checked the fridge and cabinets but only came up with a box of s’mores Pop-Tarts for breakfast. While he waited for the coffee he checked both of his phones for messages. There was nothing from Greenmantle and Declan couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Greenmantle had paid a man to interrogate him and abuse him. Greenmantle knew about the Greywaren. The implications of that rocked Declan all over again. The defenses he built around Ronan, Matthew, and the Barns were beginning to fray. He couldn’t say no to Greenmantle, he couldn’t refuse to take his jobs; Niall had proved how dangerous it was to cross that psychopath. At some point, Declan conceded, he might have to ask for help. Except, he had no idea who he would turn to for help. He didn’t trust any of Niall’s associates and it wasn’t like he could put in a Help Wanted ad. Declan sighed and downed half a mug of coffee.

With trembling hands Declan scrolled through his personal phone and sent a brief message to Matthew, asking him to check in. Matthew’s reply was prompt and emoji filled. Declan breathed a sigh of relief. His relief was short lived. Matthew sent a follow-up message: ronan wants to know why the fuck your not @ church. his words. Declan’s heart stuttered as he checked the date and time on his phone. He had totally forgotten about church, about going to mass with his brothers. He typed a hasty apology explaining that he had to go to D.C. for business and ended up staying the night. Matthew didn’t respond right away and Declan fretted. He got up and poured a cup of coffee, drinking it black since there wasn’t any sugar or milk. His phone lit up with a new text from Matthew. ronan is super pissed fyi but i lov u!! Matthew included lots of heart emojis. Declan managed a weak smile. He was going to catch hell when he saw Ronan – if Ronan deigned to talk to him – but he didn’t regret staying with Jiang.

He was still looking at his phone when Jiang sauntered out of the bedroom. He was wearing his CUTE shirt again, his disheveled hair hanging in his face. Declan whistled softly and made a show of checking him out. Jiang rolled his eyes and walked over to give Declan a peck on the cheek.

“Did I wake you up?” Declan asked. He wrapped Jiang in a hug, enjoying this pliable, sleepy, sweet version of him.

“Yeah.” Jiang yawned. “But s’okay. I can sleep through a lot of noise but once I smell coffee I’m up. So weird, right?”

“Totally weird,” Declan agreed. “Did you sleep okay?”

“Uh-huh.” Jiang rubbed his face against Declan’s chest. “I can confirm I sleep better when I have a big cuddly boyfriend to spoon.” He squeezed his arms around Declan. “How about you?”

“I definitely sleep better when my small clingy boyfriend spoons me.”

Jiang pinched his side. “I’m not small!” He looked up at Declan, giving him his best pouty face.

“Smaller than me,” Declan said with a laugh. “But that’s okay you can be the big spoon. I like it.”

“Damn right you do,” Jiang muttered. He pulled out of Declan’s arms and grabbed the box of Pop-Tarts. “Did you eat already? When did you get up?”

“I haven’t eaten,” Declan said. He watched as Jiang opened the foil packet and loaded the toaster. “I’ve only been up half an hour.”

“Long enough to take a shower, I see.” Jiang eyed him closely. “Didn’t you take one last night?” Declan nodded. “Hmm. Any particular reason why you felt dirty enough for a morning wash-up?” Jiang’s voice was laced with innuendo and Declan blushed, pulling at the hem of his thin boxers.

“I may have had a very vivid dream featuring you and me,” Declan admitted.

“Ah.” Jiang’s smile was knowing. “Good to know that I can get you hot and bothered even while you’re asleep.”

Declan choked on his coffee, coughing a few times until he could breathe again. “Yeah, yeah, you’re the guy of my dreams,” Declan teased. Jiang tipped his head back and laughed and fuck he was gorgeous. Jiang was sharp and smart and dangerous and pretty and provoking and Declan wanted to kiss him again.

Declan moved closer and pressed Jiang against the counter. He tilted Jiang’s chin up and felt a melting surge of pleasure as Jiang stood on his tiptoes to close the gap between them. Jiang wrapped his arms around his neck, his fingers brushing against Declan’s nape, tickling behind his ear. Declan grinned and kissed Jiang’s nose.

“You taste like coffee,” Jiang murmured.

“You taste like toothpaste,” Declan replied.

Jiang hummed happily and butted his head against Declan’s. The toaster popped but Jiang ignored it. He pulled Declan down for another kiss and another until Declan’s neck ached. Declan grabbed the back of Jiang’s thighs and hoisted him unto the counter, making Jiang laugh in surprise and clutch his shoulders for support. The angle was much better for kissing and Declan liked having Jiang’s legs around him. His hands wandered up Jiang’s smooth thighs, inching underneath the hem of his shirt. Part of him was lost in the remembered sensations from his dream; the rest of him was anchored in the way Jiang tugged his hair and the hoarse sound of his breathing while Declan slowly sucked on the side of his neck.

“Holy shit, Declan,” Jiang panted. His grip on Declan’s hair was painful and wonderful. “What’s gotten into you?”

Declan didn’t say that he’d always fantasized about making out with someone like this. His mind was filled with ideas and while he and Jiang weren’t going to be fucking on the kitchen counter he was more than happy with a heated morning makeout session.

“I was just thinking,” Declan nipped Jiang’s lower lip, “that you’re amazing and being around you makes me crazy.”

Jiang grinned mischievously and glanced down. “I can see that.”

“Shut up!” Declan groaned. He dropped his forehead onto Jiang’s shoulder, tilting his head so that his face was pressed against Jiang’s neck. “I can’t help it,” he muttered.

“Did you hear me complaining?” Jiang leaned back, forcing Declan to look up. “We’re all good, Declan.”

Declan wasn’t sure if he believed him but he nodded anyway. He moved out of Jiang’s way and helped him off the counter. They each grabbed a Pop-Tart and more coffee and sat on the couch in the living room. Eating Pop-Tarts without making a mess was impossible so Declan got up for napkins, too. Thanks to their prolonged kissing the Pop-Tarts had cooled to the perfect temperature and were no longer scalding.

“Hmm, so good!” Jiang was already done and getting up to put another set in the toaster. “It’s been forever since I’ve had real s’mores but I’m for sure bringing them back to the bonfire scene. Are you coming on Friday?”

Declan hadn’t been back to Kavinsky’s party circuit since the night when he and Jiang had talked for the first time. It wasn’t his scene and he was worried about running into Ronan there. He was also concerned about what Kavinsky would do. So far he’d been cool with Declan and Jiang’s relationship but who knew when that would change.

“Please?” Jiang leaned over the back of the couch and batted his eyes. “I might have my bike by then and it would be the perfect debut, don’t you think?”

Declan chewed on his lip. Thinking about Jiang riding that wickedly fast bike would make him old – older – before his time. “I… yes?” Jiang frowned and Declan backpedaled. “I mean, I can make it but I can’t bring my bike. It’s still a secret, remember?”

“Yeah, of course.” Jiang looked so pleased that Declan decided to go for two for two. He turned around so that he was kneeling on the couch cushions, his elbows propped on the back. Jiang leaned into him and smiled.

“So…” Declan began, his heart tripping but his tone level. “I have an internship party to attend the weekend after next and I need a date. Would like to go with me? It’ll be boring but the food is great and you’ll get to see me in my fancy suit.” He gave Jiang a hopeful look.

Jiang stared back and his smiled slipped. “Do I have to wear a fancy suit?”

Declan shrugged. His supervisor would probably kill him if Jiang showed up wearing anything other than a suit. “I can find out? I mean, it’s just one night and I really don’t want to take some random girl from the office.” Jiang scowled and Declan hoped it was jealousy but feared that it was something else. “But it’s totally fine if you don’t want to! Maybe I can go stag or bring someone from my political science class—”

“I’ll do it.” Jiang cut him off. “I really am not a fan of politics but for you?” Jiang’s voice softened. “I’ll go.”

“Oh God, thank you.” Declan took Jiang’s hand in his and squeezed. “I owe you.”

Jiang pulled Declan into a headlock and kissed the top of his head. “All I’m saying is that you better look handsome as fuck in your suit, mister. And they had better have chocolate or the deal is off.”

“There will be chocolate if I have to smuggle it in myself,” Declan promised.

“Good.” Jiang kissed him again before releasing him. “Oh look, the Pop-Tarts are done.”

Jiang skipped back to the kitchen and Declan collapsed on the couch. He was weak with relief. One substance party and one political party: what could go wrong?