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The Comfort of your Canvas

Chapter Text

Vlad laid his jacket down on the soft earth before plopping down onto it. He skimmed through the photos he had tucked in his pocket, seeing if there was anything good enough to use for the assignment. Pictures of wildlife mixed in with pictures of downtown, tall buildings that people hang their laundry from, and pictures of flower buds just beginning to sprout from the earth. It was early March, one of the best times of the year, if you asked him. Holidays are past us, school is close to getting out, flowers are blooming… normally, this time of year was best for his photography. Pictures of nature right as the sun rises? A+, anytime. But he had to get out of his photography rut. He had been taking photos of flowers blooming and people hanging laundry out to dry ever since he had gotten his camera. But now he had been accepted into an art college - and the time to do something new with that camera was running out. He left in September. He couldn’t wander into that school with these basic photos. He needed something new. He needed something special. He wouldn’t make it any farther as a photographer if his portfolio was always just…. Flowers and laundry.

At least, that’s what he had been told. They had accepted him into the college, by some miracle, and accepted his scholarship. It was a chance set from heaven that these two things aligned. Vladimir would have never been able to pay tuition on his own, and neither would his family. It had taken him months to save up to buy this camera. At that rate? College would be a century away.

They browsed through his portfolio, flipped through pages of pages of 35mm film. The occasional comment about how “the lighting perfectly reflects the mood” or how “the composition- this boy knows his photography”. His ego was so big it might have popped right there, until…

“As much as I do love your work here, Vladimir, I think you could use a change of subjects.”

“A change of subjects?” Sweat drenched his hands, he hoped they didn’t ask for another handshake. What could that mean?

“Well, you capture the essence of day to day life in a special way. You photograph the average, the ordinary, and make it special. It’s wonderful. But… it becomes repetitive.” The professor continued “I would like to see your potential used outside of images of day to day life. The flowers, the growth, the city imagery, it’s nice. But I want to see you take more personal images. Maybe street photography?”

Vladimir couldn’t argue with that. You could only attach so much personal meaning behind a picture of poppy flowers.

So here he was, wandering deeper into the wooded area on the outskirts of their town. Something had to be personal here. Maybe he’d find trees with teenagers names carved into them, or flowers placed on graves of family pets. People leave their personal thing in this area all the time. Some people even take their life here. He was hoping it wouldn’t get that personal.

It wasn’t long before he started to stumble upon things, on a makeshift trail. What looked like heavy muddy footprints had been marching through this area a lot. There were even faint tire marks. Among the footprints, he could see discarded booze bottles and cans and other various litter.

This seemed about as personal as a trash can, but nonetheless he carried onwards.

The small wooden cabin this trash-trail lead to, however, did seem personal. From the outside, it seemed abandoned and worn down. A pile of chopped wood leaned against the cabin. Everything was covered in cobwebs. Yea, this house was definitely abandoned. Hoping he could get some good shots, he walked inside. The door was unlocked, luckily.

He stepped inside, surprised at what he saw. He was expecting rotting floors and no furniture. Instead he found what seemed to be a cozy, but empty living space. It was three rooms-the first one had a mattress on the floor covered with a single sheet and a couple of cardboard boxes acting like desks. A small kitchen stood in the corner- just a sink and a stovetop, and a minicoler under the sink. Someone had been here recently. Even though there was a thick layer of dust covering everything, it couldn’t have been that long ago. I mean, there was a bed here. Was this someone’s house?

Vlad ignored the feeling that he was intruding. This was probably some teenagers party house that they snuck off too when their parents weren’t looking. That would certainly explain the abundance of garbage and beer cans skewed everywhere.

The second room was obviously a bathroom, with the door mostly closed. Vladimir figured there was nothing picture-worthy in there, anyways.

He walked down a short, narrow hallway into what appeared to be the last room. It was almost entirely empty, and smelled a little differently than the rest of the house. Something like faint flowers and smoke. He was about to turn around and leave, until a couple of picture framed propped up against the wall caught his eye. Turns out this room wasn’t completely empty, although who would leave their photographs here was a mystery to him.

Vladimir bent down to examine the photos. The glass was broken in one of the frames, the others covered in a layer of dust. Each one had a different image in it. One contained a picture of a young boy with pale skin and messy black hair, in front of a birthday cake. The other had the same black haired boy, this time a couple years older, standing next to a taller, blonde boy. Each was wearing a dirt covered smock and holding a basket of tulip flowers. The other photos had similar themes, each containing an older version of that boy, hanging out with what appeared to be friends.

There were only a couple other things in the room besides the pictures. A shoebox that had been duct-taped closed in the corner, and two things on the window seal. A half-melted candle, and a Smirnoff bottle that had been emptied and filled with flowers. The flowers were now brown and droopy. This room had been used recently, but not well cared for.

Vladimir felt emotions he never felt before. This room, as empty and cold as it seemed, carried a weight to it. Maybe it was the sunset pouring in from the window. Maybe it was the dead flowers. Maybe the pictures of a boy Vladimir would never know. Probably the pictures.

Or maybe it was that Vlad had avoided letting his photography become emotional until this point, and now it was all hitting him. Someone lived in this house. It wasn’t just the teenager party spot he had thought of- someone lived here. He felt like he was trespassing. He was viewing something not meant for his eyes. The emotional depth of poppy flowers could never compare to this.

Even though his gut feeling soared with guilt, Vladimir pulled his camera back out and began taking photos. The dim golden light mixing with the dust made for a perfect shot. He snapped photos of the broken picture frames, and of the rotting flowers. He wanted to get out of here as soon as possible. Take pictures and leave. That was his plan.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

The sudden voice behind him made him scream and jump like a 10 year old on Halloween. He spun around, only to find himself mere inches away from another man’s face. Fuck.

“I- Uh, I was- I’m just- Uh… I’m-” Suddenly words became a pain. The man staring him down simply stood there and waited for an explanation. He didn’t seem particularly angry at the younger boy for trespassing on his property. Curious, more than anything.

There was a prolonged, uncomfortable silence in which the two stared each other in the face. Vladimir suddenly felt self conscious. His messy, untrimmed, strawberry blonde hair and matching red jacket covered in dust and dirt, he wasn’t exactly nice looking. The man staring him down, however, scary he was, wasn’t half bad. I mean, if you mind the deep set eyebags and equally messy hair.

Before the other man could speak, Vladimir connected the dots.

“You’re the boy in those pictures.” He said, gesturing behind him. It was true. The same grey eyes and black hair. He was much taller now, however. And a bit more gruff looking.

The man simply raised an eyebrow at this remark. He seemed amused - I mean, it’s not everyday some high schooler walks into your house to look at your baby pictures.

Vlad finally realized that he had yet to explain himself or even introduce himself. God, what was he doing? He had just been caught taking pictures of a strangers house, on top of trespassing and going through personal items.

 

“I am so sorry, sir.. You see, I’m a photography student and I was trying to take photographs of the woods, and I saw this house and totally thought it was abandoned and so I came here to take photos, but I didn’t know you lived here, I can totally leave and delete the photos if you want, sir, I really am so sorry, I swear I didn’t know you lived here, sir.” Vlad rambled on, until the man cut him off.

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Vladimir Popescu, sir.”
The older man rolled his eyes. “Sir? Really? Trust me, I’m not as old as you think I am. It’s Dmitri.”

Vladimir was shocked. He was breaking into this dude’s house, and the first thing he’s told is to not call him “sir”?

Dmitri ignored the surprised expression on Vlad’s face, and simply walked past him to the window. He grabbed the Smirnoff bottle and carefully removed the dead flowers, before replacing them with new, fresh ones. He hadn’t even noticed Dmitri had been carrying flowers. The were red and yellow tulips, looking beautiful in the sunset.

“So.” Dmitri broke the silence. “Photography student, yea? Never knew photographers took photos of junky houses before. Is this some alternative assignment or somethin’?”

Vlad was beginning to relax. “No, I was told by a professor that I needed to broaden my horizons. Take pictures of stuff I don’t normally take pictures of. And I don’t think this house is really ‘junky’.”

“You thought it was abandoned.” Dmitri said, not looking up from the tulips.

“Well… yes, kinda. But it’s a nice house. Just a little empty. Which is fine, you know!” His nerves had returned to him. What if he offended this man? Dmitri was almost half a foot taller than him, and quite a bit bulkier. Not the kind of person he’d want to piss off.

Dmitri finally looked back at Vladimir. There returned the tense silence that was before. They made eye contact. Vlad could see now that he was quite attractive. A strong jawline and large nose were two of the traits Vladimir found attractive in men. Just his luck. His grey eyes didn’t seem so harsh anymore. There was a softness to him. The setting sun reflected perfectly on his pale skin. The fresh tulips brought color to the scene. It was beautiful.

“Ok, this is going to sound crazy, but… do you mind if I take a picture of you?”

Dmitri raised his eyebrow again. “Me? Why would you want a picture of me? There’s nothing special or photogenic about me.”

Vlad already had his camera out. “Just… you. Leaning against the window, looking out into the sunset, the tulips. It would make a nice picture.”

Dmitri didn’t question his reasoning anymore. He leaned forward into the window, resting his chin on his hand. He gave an absent minded expression, as if he was unaware that his photo was being taken. Vlad got his camera in focus before snapping the shot. This would be a roll of film he couldn’t wait to get developed.

“Well” Vlad began, “Thanks for letting me take photos of you and your house. Erm, sorry for intruding. Won’t happen again.”

Dmitri laughed. “Well, it’s not everyday you get your picture taken, huh? Felt like I was in a photoshoot for a second.” Vladimir felt his stomach tighten.

He didn’t want to leave, not just yet. His mind fumbled over something to say, something to do. He had a glimpse of a total strangers life for about 30 minutes. He didn’t want to be just strangers. Finally, he gripped his camera again.

“Do you want to see the photos?”

“Don’t you need to get them developed, first?”

He shifted. “Well, yes. But since you were kind enough to let me take photos of you, it’s the least I could do. I’ll have it developed tomorrow. I could, um, call you.”

Dmitri didn’t say anything. He just took a pen out of his pocket and scribbled a phone number onto Vladimir’s hand.

“I’ll call you.” He nodded, looking down at the number. “I’ll call you when it’s developed.”

“I’ll await you.”

And with that, Vladimir felt content leaving the house. They were no longer strangers. They were a photographer and his subject.

Vladimir was always known for his beautiful photos. His secret? It’s easy to take beautiful photos when you have a beautiful subject.

Chapter Text

The dim red light of the dark room was just enough to see what he was doing. Film developing was tough work, even with his years of practice, Vlad was worried he might make a mistake. His hands were still shaking from his encounter yesterday with Dmitri. It was such an odd thing, not only was he completely forgiven from breaking into his cabin, he was encouraged to keep in touch. God, if he didn’t get a grip on himself soon, he’s bound to ruin these photos.

He finished up quickly, excited to see his work. He wasn’t the only one excited. Vlad couldn’t keep yesterday to himself, and had rushed to tell one of his only friends what had happened - Elizaveta.

“You met him yesterday. He wrote his phone number on your hand. Not classy enough for paper?” She scoffed. “I’m surprised it didn’t rub off on the way home, considering how gross and sweaty your hands are.”

‘Friend’ was a loose term for Vlad. Him and Elizaveta were either at each others necks, or had one another’s back. Besides, he couldn’t tell any other of his friends. Elizaveta was the queen of relationship advice. He had friends who were dating, but dating wasn’t enough. Eliza was a matchmaker. A matchmaker who hadn’t yet realized Vlad was serious about calling Dmitri.

“Shh. Kids who aren’t in photography aren’t even allowed in the dark room. If you keep talking, people will notice. And we’ll get kicked out before we even finish these photos.”

Eliza just rolled her eyes and kept looking around the dark room at other photographs. Finally, Vlad started wrapping up. He was thankful Eliza was here in this moment, even if she was nagging him. She wasn’t a photographer herself, but she was one of the few people who could really appreciate every aspect of Vlad’s photography. She would love his photos when they were finished, even if she didn’t care much for the subject. And Vlad could use the ego boost of reassurance that his photos were, in fact, good.

-

Vladimir just stared down at the now finished photos. He was outside, in his normal picture taking spot in the wooded area. Just 24 hours ago, he was coming face to face with Dmitri. Now he had been staring at his photo, unmoving. He didn’t know what to focus on in the picture itself. Was it the light coming in through the window, hitting Dmitri’s face perfectly? Was it the flowers, off in the distance enough to not mess with the subject, but still noticeable. Was it The focus of the picture? The colors?
Or was it the fact that Dmitri was blushing?

He hadn’t noticed until Elizaveta pointed it out to him. And sure enough, in the light of the sunset, you could see a faint blush on his pale skin. For the past 30 minutes, he had been trying to think of any other reasons that Dmitri had pink cheeks and pink ears. It hadn’t been cold at all when they had meet, surely not enough to make pink cheeks. He thought of the excuse that Dmitri was pale, and pigments showed up on easily on his skin. Maybe it was an early sunburn. Or eczema.

Or maybe Dmitri was blushing. Vlad didn’t know what to think. He had meet this man yesterday. And he had so many secrets, so many strange things about him, it spun his head in circles. He really didn’t know what to think of Dmitri. Maybe he had a crush on him. But they had met yesterday. You couldn’t fall in love with someone just by breaking into their house.

He looked back on the photo, and then into his phone contacts. His number was there, he made a promise that he would call Dmitri when the photo was finished. And it was finished. He swallowed any anxiety he had and pressed call. The phone rang 5 times before a familiar gruff voice answered.

“Hello?”

“Um, hi, is this Dmitri?”

“Oh. You’re the kid with the camera. From yesterday. Vladimir, right?”

Words got caught in Vlad’s throat. He remembered him. He had been expecting him to call.

“So, you’d said you’d call me when the picture was done. If that’s why you’re calling me, I assume, then I’ve gotta say that was pretty fast for developing photos. I’d always thought that took a while.”

“They are finished, and-” he hesitated, “And it really only takes that much if you’re new to it. I’ve been doing it for a while. It’s second nature.”

“So only the rookies have to take your time. The masters, like you, can breeze through it?” Dmitri laughed to himself.

“Well, it’s good how they take their time, I have- I’ve been doing it for a while, I had to start slow too. Super slow.”

“Humble bragging, are we?” Dmitri laughed again. Vlad felt embarrassed. He wasn’t bragging, he wouldn’t do that. He felt an urge to explain himself. Before he could, Dmitri spoke again.
“I wanna see that picture. When can you come to my shack again?”

Shack? Yes, it was a ratty, old, crumbling house. But wasn’t shack a bit harsh? Dmitri had no confidence in his living situation.

“Um, actually… I can head over now. I always hang out in these woods, I’m sure I’m not too far. I think I remember how to get there, too.” Vladimir was excited. The tone of Dmitri’s voice made it seem like he wanted to see his photo, and Vlad wanted to show it to him. “I think you’ll like it. Not in the humble-bragging way.”

“I bet it is good. Follow the path you followed yesterday. I’ll see you soon. Oh, and be careful. It’s getting dark.”

With that, he hung up. Vladimir took off on the same path he walked on yesterday. The sun was almost completely set, and he wasn’t in the mood to walk around the woods in the dark. It was warm this time of year in the sun, but the temperature could drop so quickly after the sun went down. The thing that was keeping him warm wasn’t his jacket, but the feeling in his chest.

-
“Coffee? Tea? Just kidding. I don’t have any tea. But there is some coffee.” Dmitri motioned towards the coffee machine resting on the ground, in this little makeshift… kitchen-area. “I think I also have some crackers, if you’re hungry.”

Vladimir denied both offers. He felt flattered nonetheless. Dmitri was a bit kinder than he had realized. Vlad still couldn’t get over the fact that he had broken in yesterday, and now they were talking coffee and crackers and other casual small talk. Dmitri opened up to him like an acquaintance. Despite everything about him still being shrouded in mystery, Vlad felt like he was looking at someone he knew. Someone he thought he knew.

There was a moment of silence between the two, just looking at each other, before Dmitri broke the silence.

“Pictures?”

“Oh. Uh, yes. It’s right here.” He felt embarrassed as he fished around his bag for the photos he wanted to show Dmitri. Had he really forgotten what he came here for? It was just to show him the photos.

He pulled out a ziploc bag with a couple of developed photos in it. He stood there and watched as Dmitri pulled them out and began shuffling through them. It wasn’t just the photo of Dmitri leaning out the window, Vlad felt as if it was unfair of him to photograph his house and not show him. It was his house, he had a right to see. Once again, the feeling of overstepping his boundaries came back to him. Did Dmitri want to really see pictures some random kid took of his house? Was he uncomfortable? He nervously watched as Dmitri suddenly stopped shuffling photos and stared back at the one in his hand. A small curl was showing up on his lips.

“You have a real talent, Vladimir. These are breathtaking.”

Dmitri stared down at the picture of himself. He hadn’t seen himself in that way, in that lighting, ever. He felt emotional. Vladimir’s photos were just as beautiful as he had imagined. He looked up at the younger kid to see a bashful smile.

“Really, thank you. I was hoping you would like them.” followed by a nervous laugh, “Especially that one. I don’t photograph people that often. I was kinda worried my film wouldn’t capture skin colors well, or that I wasn’t gonna get a good angle on you. Or that it wouldn’t even develop correctly. So- so many things go wrong with photos, you know?” He rambled on.

‘But it turned out great, and I’m so glad you like it, and… I want you to keep it. You deserve it.”

Dmitri was shocked. “You want me to keep this? Don’t you need photos for your portfolio?”

He shrugged. “I put it on my digital portfolio, already scanned it. It looks great. But you’re the subject of the photo, you’re the star of it, you know?”

Dmitri glanced down at the photo. He hadn’t received a gift in years. But a gift like this… it was thoughtful. He did love this photo. He loved the lighting, the grain in the film, and he actually looked okay in it.

“I will repay you.” He announced.

“No, no no. It’s a gift! And besides, it’s not like it cost a ton of money or anything.” Vlad laughed.

“Maybe not repay you now, but later, I’ll repay you.” He continued. “I love the photo. Thank you, Vlad. But I’m gonna repay you. I have to.”

“And how are you going to repay me?”

Dmitri tapped his chin in a fake deep-thought kind of pose. Vlad laughed again. How would he repay this man? He was shit at art, couldn’t take a photo to save his life, can’t cook, and he’d invite him out for a drink but he wasn’t ready for Vlad to see him drunk, and he was also pretty sure he was too young to drink anyways.

“I’m going to take you to a record store. It has a little cafe in it. Besides, you seem artsy, you’ll like it.” He pointed at Vlad. “You’re the type of person to appreciate a good record shop. Am I right?”

“You’re right. I’m a record store kinda guy. And if you really want to take me there, I’ll let you. On one condition.”

One condition? Dmitri thought this was his way of saying thank you. What conditions are there on thank you’s?

“And what's’ that?”

Vlad smiled. “That you’ll let me take more photos with you as the subject. If you really think that photo is as good as you say, then you’ll let me get a little more for my portfolio?”

Dmitri suddenly felt a little surge of excitement inside of him, something he hadn’t felt in years. Like suddenly a broken wall outlet sparking with electricity. He wanted to be Vladimir’s model, his canvas. The words left his mouth without him even thinking.

“Of course.”

Chapter Text

“Tuesday is kinda a weird day to meet.”

“How is Tuesday weird? It’s a perfectly normal day.”

Dmitri rolled his eyes. “No, like, it’s a weird day to have off. From school. What kind of school do you even go to anyways, some magical school where kids just get random days off in the middle of the week?”

Now it was Vlad’s turn to roll his eyes. “No. It’s just one of those art schools. A lot of kids there don’t have rigid schedules. Our classes aren’t an everyday thing, and we just choose the classes that relate to our arts, so we might have days free. Like how I have Tuesday free. No photography classes on Tuesday.”

“Do you only take photography classes?” Dmitri leaned forward a bit. “‘Cause if you do, that’s awesome. What a life, man. Only taking pictures.”

“I wish. We have a mandatory english class, and some literature. I also have a beginners painting, but I’m not very good at it. Oh, and an Earth Science class.”

Dmitri seemed satisfied with these answers, as if he didn’t want Vlad to just be doing photography all day. A comfortable silence fell over the two. It allowed Vlad time to get a much better look at the older man in the lighting of the music-cafe they were in. He really was intimidating looking, even when he was in a relaxed mood like this. He had a very gruff appearance, despite being 20. It made Vladimir wonder what shit he had seen in his life to get him that look as young as 20. Dmitri made Vladimir wonder a lot of things. He had a large scar across his right hand, coming down from the thumb, although he figured it wasn’t the time to ask about that. He wanted to know more about Dmitri’s life, but didn’t know if he should really be asking those questions now. Besides, he didn’t come here for those questions, even if they wouldn’t go away.

“Hey.” He interrupted the silence, pulling his camera out of his bag. “Picture time.”

Dmitri raised his eyebrows slightly. “Really, already? I know you said you were going to use me as your photography subject, but I didn’t think you’d start so early. You must be eager.”

“I am. The lighting in here is really good with the type of film I’m using - Kodak Porta 400. And I still need to get a little experimental with my photos, so I hope you don’t mind me using you as my test subject.”

“Am I your little photography guinea pig?”

“I don’t hear a disagreement.”

Even though Vlad was deep in photographer-mode, the conversation didn’t die down.

“So, Tuesday. God, I just can’t get over that.” Dmitri laughed a little while Vladimir used the natural smile on his face to take his picture. With a grin like that, Vlad could almost forgive him for bringing up Tuesdays again. Almost

“You also have the weekend off, right? Like, Saturday and Sunday?” Dmitri asked.

“Of course.”

“So you have three whole days off. And probably a little less schoolwork. Although your schoolwork seems pretty cool, just taking photos. Do you have homework besides photography? Like, tests and stuff?”

Vladimir looked up from his camera and shrugged. “I guess so. It’s usually English or that one Earth Science class. We used to have a lot of actual tests and assignments in my Photography classes, but they were all to make sure we knew the basics. We’re three years into that class right now, so they assume we know the basics.”

“So it sounds like a free for all class right now. Do they give you photo assignments?”

“Yea. Like, assignments about what perspectives you can use and stuff. A lot of preparations for college and refining your portfolio. Speaking of portfolio, I need some pictures from a different angle.”

Dmitri must have forgotten Vlad had his camera out and had taken a couple of photos of him. He wasn’t used to having his photo taken, and admittedly felt a little self conscious. Either Vladimir didn’t notice or didn’t care, because he certainly didn’t slow down with that camera.

“I’m going to try to take an above shot of you, like looking down. So that way it’ll get that cake in the same shot, as well as some of your face and your body language.” Vladimir explained.

“Okay, but how are you going to get an above shot of me? I’m way taller than you.” asked Dmitri.

Vladimir climbed on top of his side of the cafe booth, trying to find a spot that would allow him to get his dream shot without falling on top of the table. Dmitri pushed down a laugh. This kid was ridiculous, climbing on top of the cafe booth in public. The people staring didn’t seem to have an affect on him. As endearing as he found it, he had to wonder if all teenage photographers were this ballsy. Did Vlad have no shame?

Then again, this kid had broken into his house and asked him if he could take pictures of him.

“Okay. You see that book on the edge of the table? Grab that, seem interested in it. And, uh, move the coffee a little closer to your cake. It’s a beautiful cake, too. Oh, lean back a little. There! Just like that.”

Dmitri felt like posing for a photo should have been easier than that, but he had already agreed to be Vlad’s guinea pig.

“Ok, I’ve done a good job at being your test subject. Can I ask you a question?” Dmitri’s curiosity overpowered him.

Vladimir stared at him for a second, like he was really thinking about what he was going to say next.

“Yes, but I’m still going to take some more photos of you. And after you ask me a questions, I wanna ask you a question. Is that okay?” Vlad had an expecting look in his eyes, eagerly awaiting his answer.

“Sure, why not?” Dmitri responded. “My question is, do you plan on being a photographer as a professional career?”

Vlad shuffled his feet. “I mean, yea. It’s why I’m going to that really good film collage. I got the financial aid all figured out and everything. It’s hard, making it as a photographer. I’m going to at least try.”

“I bet you could do it. You seem good.”

“You’ve only seen a couple of my photos.”

“You climbed on top of our booth to get a photo, and I feel as if that’s not the craziest thing you’ve done for a photo. You’re still on top of the booth, too.”

“I like the feeling of being taller than you.”

Dmitri leaned back a little farther. “Okay, I like that answer. You said you had a questions for me to answer?”

Vladimir suddenly regretting asking about a question. He was unsure if it was the right time, or if his questions was too personal. Dmitri looked at him impatentiently. His words were caught in his throat.

“It doesn’t matter, actually. Nevermind.”

“What? No. I want to hear your question. Now you’ve got me hooked.” Dmitri demanded.

Vlad looked even more uncomfortable, and slumped down off the booth and back into his seat. “It might be personal.”

“And?”

“How did you get the scar on your hand?”

Now it was Dmitri’s turn to feel uncomfortable. He had almost forgotten about it, the thick white scar that ran from the pit of his thumb across his hand in a curve. His muscles feel stiff, remembering how he got it. If he told Vlad how he got it, he would also have to tell him the full story. He didn’t want to change Vladimir’s view of him. He didn’t want to ruin his chance at the only friendship he’s had in years.

“I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer that.”

“Don’t apologize, it’s just-” Dmitri sighed. “It’s just a bottle. I had a glass bottle in my hand, and I got angry, and smashed it, and the glass went everywhere. Cut my hand up pretty bad.”

Vlad’s uncomfort melted away into worry. Strange, normally admitting to people that you’re the type of person to smash bottles when angry caused a different reaction in people. He was attentive enough to even notice the scar on his hand. And he cared enough to ask.

“I don’t have anger issues or anything. Really, I’m not an aggressive person.” Dmitri was stumbling over words at this point. “And there’s more to it. Really.”

“There’s more to it?” Vladimir asked. There was pity in his eyes. Dmitri would normally have hated his pity, but there was a softness to it. Vladimir was genuine in his worry. Did he give his empathy to every stranger he met? They were strangers. They had just met, and hardly knew anything about each other. To Dmitri, Vlad was a cute photographer who had Tuesdays off and was curious about everything. To Vlad, Dmitri was a mysterious loner who slept in a shack and was nicer than he looked. That’s all they knew about one another.

“There’s more to everything. You know there’s more to me living out in the woods, and I know there has to be more to you wanting to be a photographer so bad, and there’s so much more to the scar on my hand, and it’s all complicated. I’ll spare you that.”

Vlad sucked his cheeks in and looked down. “You’re very smart, Dmitri.”

“What?”

“Smart. Well, mainly intuitive. You’re right. Of course there’s more to us. I think that’s interesting. Right now, we’re two strangers sitting in a cafe. And we’re probably gonna remain strangers unless we let each other into our lives. You interest me, Dmitri. I don’t break into people’s houses everyday. I’m glad I broke into yours.”

The breath momentarily left Dmitri’s body for a second. Here they were, two strangers in a cafe. They were a gossamer thread away from being friends.

And he wanted to be Vlad’s friend so, so badly. It had been so long since he had a friend, much less a friend that actively sought him out and cared about him. The last person who cared about him was his sister, and her memory was painfully fresh in his mind. He tried not the think of her. He was thinking about Vlad. Vlad.

“Poetic.” Dmitri muttered under his breath. “But how do we stop being strangers, exactly? Do I have to tell you my whole life story to be your friend?”

“Do you want to be my friend?”

“Yes.”

Another moment of silence, before Vladimir spoke.

“You don’t have to tell me your life story. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to tell me. But you have to let me care about you. I care about the scar on your hand and how you got it. I care about you living in the woods. Don’t tell me, I’ll be fine, but I’ll care. That’s what friends do.”

The tense atmosphere that once existed in their booth melted away. They were no longer two strangers in a cafe.

“I promise, I’ll tell you more about me soon, then. Because if you care, you deserve to know. Not everyone cares.” Dmitri looked down at his half-eaten cake. “But I also want to know more about you. Because I think I care about you, too.”

Vladimir’s smile couldn’t have gotten wider. He had wanted to be Dmitri’s friend even more than Dmitri wanted to be his friend.

“Do you want to know why I like photography so much?”

Dmitri smiled. “Is it because that camera fell out of a tree and hit you upside the head?”

“Very funny. Come with me, I’ll walk you to the dark room at my school. It’s still open, and I can develop these photos. And I’ll tell you why I like photography.” He looked at Dmitri. “If you wanna know, that is.”

“Hell yes I wanna know. Biggest secret of the century, why does Vlad like photography so much?” Dmitri laughed under his breath. “Alright. Let’s go.”

It was that perfect time of the year in which things finally started budding, and within weeks flowers would be blooming. The brick path that lead away from the cafe and into the streets had small dandelions poking out between concrete. It felt like the first true day of spring. Yea, he was glad he had Tuesday off.

“So.” Dmitri began, “Tell me about this photography. Why’d you choose it?”

“You see how today is? How beautiful it is? The flowers are budding, just enough sun to make it warm, blue skies, green grass? We can see it with our own eyes, and we can capture it on our phone camera, but nothing compares to a day like this captured in film. It makes a beautiful day like this even more beautiful.”

“Well, I just can’t argue with that. I mean, even in the photo you showed me of myself, I felt like I looked better in that than I’ve ever looked in some measly phone selfie.”

Vladimir laughed. “You don’t seem like the type to take phone selfies, Dmitri.”

“Yea, I’m not. Especially not now, after I’ve seen myself on film. What film did you say you used?” He asked.

“Well, today it’s Kodak Porta 400, it’s one of the better films out there, really amazing. But back when I took those photos of you at your house, it was Lomography 100 film. Not bad, but I feel like the photos today are gonna turn out even better. There’s no many types of 35mm film, and they all look so different- sorry, am I rambling again?”

He smiled at him. “Nah, don’t worry about it. Never knew there was so much going on in that camera anyways, Always thought that all you needed to do was just point and click and aim it correctly. You seem like a master. You think you could teach me some day?”

Vlad’s eyes widened. “Really? You’d want me to teach you how to take pictures? Cause I’d totally do that, you know.”

“If you love it so much, it must be great. Although, I’m guessing you don’t just love it because it looks beautiful, right?”

“Well, yea. What I told you wasn’t the only reason I love it so much. Like you said, there’s more to everything.” Vladimir swallowed hard and continued, “I’ve been doing it since I was really little, because my mom did it, too. She was a wedding photographer. She mostly did digital stuff, and rarely did film photography. But it was her favorite, film photography. She said there was something so genuine about it. No editing, no taking a million photos, just taking one or two and hoping it turned out ok. She loved that. She taught me how to do it when I was young. And she was right, film photography is liberating. It’s the best thing I’ve ever started doing. You’ll love it, when I teach you.”

“Your mom… she sounds lovely. And a wedding photographer? That’s probably one of the coolest jobs out there. You’re getting people in their happiest moments, with the loves of their lives, on their happiest day!”

Vladimir sighed. “Oh, she would have loved you. You get it. You understand what’s so emotional about photography. She would have loved you. Ironic, though, how a wedding ruined her life.”

Dmitri stayed silent. He should have realized something happened with Vladimir’s mom. He had only used past tense when referring to her.

She… met this dude. Thought he was really nice. And he was, for the first few years. They got married, and he stopped being nice. He treated her horribly. Hit her all the time. Hit me sometimes, too. It was funny, how a guy who seemed so sweet at first could change so suddenly. He belittled her every day. Her only escape was photography, and she shared it with me. It was her only joy in life, taking pictures. We were both trapped and miserable. Without her cameras, she wouldn’t have made it as long as she did.”

Vladimir’s face looked heavy, like he had aged five years. Who knew a kid so friendly and warm went through such abuse? Dmitri felt sympathy for him.

“Did she pass away?”

Vlad sighed. “Yea, when I was 14. She had put up with him for five whole years. I guess she couldn’t handle it anymore. She couldn’t even find joy in photography anymore, so she killed herself. I ended up living with my grandmother, and that scumbag just moved on like nothing ever happened. Like he didn’t push my mother to suicide.”

He lifted up the camera in his hands, the one he carried around with him everywhere. “This was her favorite camera. I still have some of the photos she took with it. I remembered all her favorite types of film, too. I use them a lot. Now that I think of it, the one I’m using now was her go-to. Everytime I took photos, I think of her and how happy she was behind a camera. I want to never forget that, the times when she was happy.”

Dmitri’s heart felt heavy. He knew all too well the feeling, of wanting to remember someone even when their memory was painful. He tried to say something that would comfort him.

“Your mom would be proud of you now. The photos you take are amazing.”

His smile returned, even if it wasn’t as big as before. “Really?”

He nodded. “Oh, yea. And I think, as long as you’re happy taking pictures, she would be proud. The same way you want to remember her in her happiest, she wants you to be happy.”

“Thank you, Dmitri.”

They kept walking, this time in a comfortable silence. They stopped because Vlad had found something cool he wanted to photograph- a small rowboat filled with flowers, parked near a small stream. He used this time to open up a little.

“I know what it’s like. Losing someone close to you.”

This seemed to get Vladimir’s attention.

“It was suicide, too. I guess we’re not so different after all. It was my sister, Vivia. She was a ball of sunshine, but struggled with depression. She died a couple years ago.”

“I’m so sorry, man. Do you wanna talk about it?” There was the same concerned look on his face that Dmitri was growing to like. It was almost motherly.

“Nah. I’m good. Just wanted to let you know that I know how it feels.”

Vlad nodded and they continued on their way. Dmitri never knew how liberating it felt, to just release a small load of baggage like that He thought about maybe telling Vlad a bit more about himself, or if he trusted him enough to do that yet. Either way, the small step forward one day into this friendship was enough.

As they headed towards the school where they could develop these photos, Dmitri couldn’t take his mind off how new all of this was. Last week at this time, he would have come home from his job and immediately found solace in the bottom of a bottle full of rajika. And he would have repeated that cycle, too, had it not been for a strawberry blonde intruder breaking into his shabby house with a camera. God bless not having a home security system.

He was just hoping this newly born friendship would last longer than the last one.

Chapter Text

“Well, I see you’ve taken the advice given to you to heart. Well done, Mr. Popescu.” His teacher, Mr. Vash, commented.

He was the only teacher in the entire school who you could call by their first name, solely because his last name could be a bit of a challenge. Some kids still tried to call him Mr. Zwingli, but he usually went by Mr. Vash. He was the advanced photography teacher, and most people saw him as no-nonsense and intimidating. Vlad was lucky. Mr. Vash liked him as a student. If you turned in your work on time and put forth a little extra effort, you’d have no problems with him. Vlad had been anxiously awaiting this portfolio discussion ever since the last one, when he told Mr. Vash that he needed to photograph new subjects.

“You’re going a bit out of your comfort zone. Different lighting, different angles, using people as subject… and they have emotion to them. Especially this one, I like.” He pointed to the picture of Dmitri in the cafe, laughing and smiling. “I think the college will love this. Just remember what we’ve talked about.”

Vlad nodded. “Yea, adjust your shutter speeds.”

“Correct.”

Mr. Vash turned around to get something out of his binder, most likely a grading rubric. While his back was turned, Roderich gave Vlad a “thumbs-up” from the back of the room where he was grading assignments. Vladimir gave the “ok” sign back. Roderich was the Teacher’s Assistant for this class. He usually just sat in the back and graded papers or fixed random stuff, but he and Vlad knew each other kinda well. Roderich was dating Elizaveta, one of Vlad’s only friends, so they had no choice to know each other well. He could be kind of a snob, but then again, it was art school. Everyone’s a snob.

“Along with your progress in photography, I see you’ve made a new friend.”

Vlad blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”

Mr. Vash pointed at Dmitri in one of his photos. “Your friend. He seems to be a recurring subject in your photos. I take it he’s interested in photography too?”

“Uh… well, not really. But kinda. He’s new to photography. I’m gonna teach him how to take pictures. So I guess he is interested, he wants to learn. But right now he’s just letting me take pictures of him.”

Mr. Vash never smiled, but he did sometimes get a look in his eye like he was smiling a little bit. A twinkle, letting someone know that he knew more than they did. It was a strange look for someone so stoic, but he was doing it now. Giving a little smile with his eyes.

“And does he have a name, or is he just photography subject number 47?”

Roderich snickered from the back of the room. Great, now he was never gonna stop hearing about it from him and Elizaveta. His cheeks burned.

“His name is Dmitri.” Vlad said.

There was a brief silence in between the teacher and the student, the only noise in the room being Roderich shuffling papers and the hum of an electric fan. Mr. Vash went back to his usual, serious self. He finished writing down a couple notes on his grading card, and shut the portfolio binder closed.

Mr. Vash glanced down at his watch. “I think we’ve finished up here nicely, Mr. Popescu. I will see you next Monday in class. Please prepare for another portfolio examination three weeks from now. If you’ll excuse me-” he got up and grabbed his bag. “I have another meeting to attend. Mr. Edelstein, once you’re finished organizing those, you may leave.”

With that, Mr. Vash left the classroom. Vladimir sighed and began packing his things back into his bag. As happy he was that his portfolio had improved, he still felt like there was something missing. He had the lighting down, the emotion, the framing, the angle, everything. But something was missing. There had to be just something that he could get that would be the ribbon on top. It was a gut feeling.

“Didn’t know you were gay, Vlad.”

“Don’t you have a girlfriend to go snog, Roddy?”

He watched Roderich’s eyebrow twitch. The only person who got away with calling him embarrassing nicknames was Elizaveta, and even then he hated it. Sure, they were friends. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t use an opportunity to get under his skin.

“Snog?” he scoffed. “So you’re gay and British.”

Vladimir shoved his portfolio back in his bag. “I’m assuming Elizaveta told you about my cabin in the woods encounter, then?” He kept his head down looking into his backpack. He was hoping Roderich wouldn’t notice him blushing.

“Of course she told me. You’re quite interesting, making friends directly after breaking and entering. I wasn’t aware you had made him a full time subject for your portfolio.” Roderich said.

The two began walking out of the classroom, turning off the lights, and heading up to the music portion of the building. Both Roderich and Elizaveta were music students at the school. They had been dating for almost a year now, and spent most their time together. They, luckily, weren’t very big on PDA. Vladimir ended up spending most his time with them, and preferred that they weren’t down each other’s throats when they were together. As much as both of them got on his nerves, they were some of his only friends at this school. Well, that wasn’t true. All his other friends were currently working their asses off to get accepted into colleges or perfect their skills. Roderich and Elizaveta were talented enough in music that they could have time to mess around after class.
Roderich began blathering on about something-something that Elizaveta said earlier. Vlad wasn’t really listening. His mind was on a different subject. He kept thinking about Dmitri, and the Elizaveta, and everyone else he knew that was going trying to achieve something in life. Finally, he interrupted.

“Wait. What are you doing after school?” He asked Roderich.

Roderich cocked an eyebrow. “You interrupted me. Isn’t it obvious? I’m talking to you right now, after school.”

Vlad shook his head. “No, no, no. I mean, after school. After school gets out in June. And then there’s no more high school. Weren’t you looking at a music job in Europe?”

Roderich held his head high. “Well, yes. Conductor jobs don’t really require a bachelor's in music when you’ve been to a high school like this. It’s all about skill. I, of course, have mountains of that. I plan on going to Austria and working with some concert companies.”

“And you,” Roderich began, “you got accepted into that pretty neat film academy, right? On scholarship?”

Vladimir nodded. “Yea. They accepted me, but said I still needed to work on my portfolio. You heard Mr. Vash.”

“Lucky for you, seems like someone else is helping you. Isn’t that such an unintenional declaration of love? Before me and Elizaveta started dating, she constantly helped me. Truly improved my work. I should have known right then and right there we were meant to be.”

“Me and Dmitri are not dating. We are friends. You know who else helped you on your music? Toris Laurinaitis. Did you think he was also in love with you?”

“I would hope not, considering he’s already head over heels for that Feliks kid. And besides, he couldn’t help me in that way. He’s neck deep in literature and translation.”

Vlad wouldn’t admit it, but Roderich had a point. Someone being so eager to help someone else could hint at something more. He and Elizaveta were really so happy together. But that didn’t matter; he and Dmitri were friends. He wasn’t in love with him. He was just going to teach him photography and develop a friendship.

And then he was going to leave to go to a college on the other side of the country in September and probably never see Dmitri again.

He tried to not let that thought bother him.

They met up with Elizaveta in the music hall. The walls of the school echoed every sound, so this time of year all you could hear was kids practicing their instruments for their end of year examinations. Elizaveta was among them, hunched over a piano. She turned and greeted them both, and began talking to Roderich.

Roderich and Elizaveta found themselves deep in a conversation, talking about things he didn’t understand about music making. Vlad wondered if this is how people felt when he rambled on about which type of film is better. He took this as an opportunity to excuse himself.

He walked down the hallways of his school. His school. The one that he had gone to for the past 4 years. He had gotten to know this school incredibly well. He may not have had many friends here, but the ones he did make… were all leaving. Roderich and Elizaveta would end up somewhere in Europe, following their dreams of string instruments and sheet music. Toris was going to a top University to study to be a translator. Feliks…. Had no clue where even he was going. He would either follow Toris somewhere or screw around for a couple years. He was quite the wild card. And himself, he was going to attend a film school in Brooklyn. As much as he wanted to be excited for himself and all his school friends, he couldn’t be. It had just now hit him that they probably weren’t going to be seeing each other. Sure, they’d talk and follow each other on social media, but they were all about to end up in opposite corners of the globe. He would only have one friend left here in his hometown. Dmitri.

He felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He looked at who was calling and flinched. Speak of the devil.

“Hey, kid. Are you free right now?”

Vlad swallowed. “Uhm, yea. What’s up?”

Dmitri cleared his throat. “Well, I got off work a couple hours ago and am nursing a hangover. In my drunken state of last night, the ghost of you possessed me to impulse buy a film camera. Want to come teach me the ropes?”

“Ah. You’re an intoxicated shopper. Do you have any film to go with the camera?”

“I dunno.”

Vladimir felt a smile creep onto his lips. “Don’t worry about it. You want me to meet you at your place?”

“Nope, actually. You know, one of the best cures for a hangover is Middle Eastern food.”

“I thought it was Gatorade and a nap?”

“For a lightweight. There’s a Middle Eastern buffet downtown, off 8th street and main. On the second floor of that one… green building. So fucking good, man. Meet me there. I’ll pay this time.”

The click on the end of the line left Vladimir wondering what exactly Dmitri had drunk. He had a bit of a hazy tone to his voice. The thought of meeting him again excited him, though. For a moment, he had forgotten about his troubles and the fact that he had to leave this city one day. He slung his backpack over his shoulder and headed for this hangover-curing Middle East bistro.

Chapter Text

Sadik eyed both men sitting at his booth. Vladimir stared back. Dmitri tried and failed to read the mood. How did these two know each other?

“Good evening.” Sadik finally said, breaking the awkward silence that had grown. His had a strangely serious vibe to him that clashed with the vibrant and lively background of the restaurant that he owned. “How can I help you two?”

Vladimir cleared his throat. “Um, well, Dmitri, this is Sadik. He owns the place.” Sadik glared in Dmitri’s direction. Suddenly he didn’t feel like the ‘bigger guy’.

“Nice to meet you, sir.” Sir? They were at a Turkish bistro meeting the server, not Vlad’s fucking dad. Dmitri made a mental note to bash his head into a window when he got home.

Sadik continued looking at them harshly for a minute, before his mouth broke into a big grin.

“Vlad, ya didn’t tell me ya had a boyfriend.”

Dmitri felt the water in his throat turn into air, leaving his mouth so dry he couldn’t speak. He could barely meet eyes with Vlad, who was burning up. He knew Sadik was obviously teasing the two, but it still made him feel… things. Things that he had suppressed. Boyfriend? He had always wanted to be someone’s boyfriend.

“Sadik! Me and Dmitri are not dating.” Vlad looked extremely embarrassed. And a little cute, but Dmitri pretended the voice in the back of his head didn’t say that.

“Aww”. Sadik put on a fake pouty face. “That means I’m not invited to the wedding.”

“Not yet. Haven’t even proposed yet.” Dmitir got the courage to make a joke, resulting in Sadik laughing loudly and slapping him on the back. Vladimir looked like he wanted the earth to consume him, but still had the guts to mutter something under his breath.

“We haven’t even kissed yet.”

Dmitri pretended not to hear, but he did, and it made the corners of his mouth twist up. He knew Vlad was joking, but he would remember that.

The rest of the meal had a bit of an awkward setting, but it didn’t make it any less enjoyable. Vlad shyly explained a couple of things about his camera he didn’t really understand. They got the film loaded up and ready to shoot. Flicking through the users manual and chewing on a piece of spicy chicken, Dmitri didn’t notice Sadik eyeing the two in between serving. He chuckled to himself everytime Vlad stared at Dmitri for a little too long.

“I think, I might have got this.” Dmitri announced.

Vladimir laughed. “Might have? I think you’re a little hungover still. You’re shaking a bit.”

“I’ll let my hand shakiness do it’s work. And besides-” Dmitri leaned in close to Vlad. “-I’m not going to the world’s best freakin’ photography college in the country soon. It won’t hurt my portfolio.” He finished with a wink. That charming bastard.

Vladimir swallowed the lump in his throat. He forgot he was going to college, somehow. I guess in the flurry of wanting to spend time with Dmitri he hadn’t focused on it. He felt nervous just thinking about it.

Without warning, Dmitri took a photo of Vlad. It startled him a bit.

“Can’t wait to get that one devloped.”

“The flash is only used for spaces that, you know, need flash.” He gestured around the brightly lit restaurant “A pro tip.”

“I’m learning more every day.”

-

The two stepped outside of the restaurant, ignoring Sadik and his staff’s whistling and prodding.

“Sorry about them. I’ve known Sadik for a while, he was a senior at my school when I was a freshman. He always teased everybody.”

 

“Not a problem. I assume that’s not the first time you’ve gone out to lunch with someone only to have him embarrass you?” Dmitri asked, absentmindedly taking photos of the road and sunset.

“Every person I’ve ever been within 10 feet of, more like.” Vlad laughed. “He usually can’t do it so easily any more, ‘cause all the people I hang out with still are in relationships now.”

“I’m not in a relationship.” Dmitri said.

“Yea, you’ll probably be his newest victim. Sorry in advance.”

“I don’t mind.”

There was another silence between them. It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence however; he didn’t feel uncomfortable around Dmitri. The silnces weren’t bad. They were normal. He couldn’t help but remember how quiet Dmitri was when they first started talking. He really opened up to him.

“It’s getting dark. Lemme walk you home.” Dmitri said. Vlad knew it was useless to protest this, so he agreed.

“I live pretty close to here, too.” Vlad said, as the two set off towards downtown.

After 10 minutes of walking, 3 flights of stairs, and any random small talk they could come up with, Vlad reached his apartment, and fished out his keyring from his pocket.

“Well, thanks for reaching out to me and letting me show you how to use your camera.”

“No problem. Thanks for the meal. And all the shenanigans that went with it.” Dmitri responded.
“Oh, gosh. Yea, don’t mind Sadik. He’s always got his mind on relationships for some reason.” Vladimir tried to brush it off. “Looks like you two have a similar sense of humor, though. You haven’t proposed yet, huh?”

“Soon!” Dmitri laughed. “Tell him it won’t be long before he gets that long awaited wedding invite in the mail.”

As Vladimir laughed, Dmitri thought back to what Vlad had said under his breath during the meal. It brought a smile to his face.

“And besides, you said it yourself.” Dmitri reminded him. Vlad looked confused.

“What did I say?”

“We haven’t even kissed yet.”

Vladimir felt his face heat up again. How could he have heard him say that. Why would he even say that? He felt so embarrassed, now was looking like a good time to quickly disappear into his apartment. But Dmitri was looking at him in some sort of way. Not like what he said under his breath was weird or embarrassing. He was waiting for a response.

“Well, yea” Vlad said. “We haven’t kissed yet.”

There was another silence. This one was one of the uncomfortable ones. His throat felt dry. Dmitri looked like he was thinking, contemplating something. Vlad was secretly hoping Dmitri would finish up the thought he was so deep in.

Finally, Dmitri leaned in and kissed Vladimir.

Neither knew what was happening at the moment, but they both allowed themselves to melt into the kiss. It was awkward and a little fumbly, but it was a kiss. A kiss that neither knew they wanted until that moment. It broke apart all too soon.

They stared at each other, faces inches away from another, until Dmitri broke the silence.

“I’ll- uh- I’ll call you when I finish this roll of film. And you can help me develop it. That ok?”

“You can call me anytime before the roll of film is finished, too.” Vlad said a little too excitedly, still breathless from the kiss. “We can hang out anytime.”

“Sounds like a plan to me.” Dmitri finally pulled his face away. He began walking back towards the stairwell, that same grin still stuck on his face. Just as Vlad was about to step into his apartment and Dmitri was about to disappear into the stairs, he turned one last time to look at Vlad before saying,

“See you soon.”

Vlad just smiled and nodded at him. Please, god- let it be soon.

Chapter Text

To be fair, Dmitri had had one too many good days in a row. This was bound to happen at one point or another.

He lurched forward into the bathroom once more, feeling vomit coming up. He had been puking all afternoon, and it was his own fault. He woke up late, after a dream about… them. Everyone he had left behind. Everyone who left him behind. And he could hardly bear to think about what a failure he was, about how many people thought he was better off dead. At least, not sober. He threw himself back into alcohol.

He collapsed on a tile floor after puking again. Tears began rolling off his face. Where did this begin? What happened to the bright-eyed young teenager and his curly haired sister? So full of life, and hope for the future? Where did they disappear too?

He managed to pry himself off the bathroom floor, and found just enough strength to carry himself to the corner of his room. The little makeshift vase out of a bottle had dead flowers in it. It made him cry even harder. He grabbed the little box next to it, staring at it. This was all of his past he had left. All he had of his life, the life he had before it became a cycle of remembering, crying, drinking, forgetting.

His life was more than that, of course. Drunk Dmitri wasn’t smart enough to remember anything good that had happened in the past couple days. He had fallen into a pit.

Dmitri began flicking through the photos hidden in that little box. Every single photo seems blurry or unfocused. The pictures of his sister, Vivia, had begun to fade. He felt as if he was forgetting what her face felt like. He felt ashamed. The photos hardly burned anymore, not like going through this box used to. It wasn’t until a familiar blond head popped up that he felt the hole in his heart tear itself open.

They couldn’t have been older than 13, although Abel was always older than him. He looked up to him. Abel was his role model for everything in life. The two sat side by side in the garden, each holding a dirt-filled pot with little tulip blossoms in it. Dmitri had a big smile plastered on his face. Abel didn’t, but he never really smiled. It didn’t mean he wasn’t happy. Dmitri always knew how to make him happy.

He used to know how to make him happy. He used to go out of his way to make Abel happy. Now Abel probably didn’t even know he was alive. He probably didn’t care.

That photo burned a hole in him. So many memories had he shared with him. Able teaching him how to garden, the two sitting together at every lunch period, Abel leaving little doodles on Dmitri’s homework when they would do it together, and Abel letting Dmitri cry on his shoulder whenever he needed it. It was gone now. Abel was probably successful somewhere, living his life without the burden of an alcoholic friend leaning on him.

Dmitri just closed the box and cried harder. He leaned against the corner and buried himself in his own, liquour-y tears. He sobbed until no more tears came out, and he drifted off into a miserable sleep.

In his eyes, he was nothing. He had one friend that probably didn’t even care about him, and a part time job at the liquor store that only deepened his problems. He would never amount to anything other than an alcoholic that’ll probably die before he turns 25.

-

Vladimir’s grandmother just had to leave town at the worst time, didn’t she?

He had called everyone in town that he had the number of, which wasn’t much, but no one answered. He had spent way too much time messing around at the store and took his sweet time getting home. Now it was so late that nearly everyone was asleep. Elizaveta nor Feliks had answered, and Sadik was on a *date night* that Vlad was eager to NOT interrupt. He had one more contact on his phone he could call, but he hesitated.

How, on the one night his grandmother wasn’t home, did he lose his keys? He had kept track of them for his entire life. How now?

He felt a little flutter in his stomach. He would love to call Dmitri and explain his locked-out situation, and let Dmitri come to his rescue in letting him stay in his little shack. But a part of him was still nervous. They had kissed. What if Dmitri didn’t actually want to kiss him, but just felt sorry for him? What if their friendship was never the same? Maybe Dmitri didn’t want to see him. He shouldn’t call.

What the fuck was he saying? He didn’t want to sleep outside, and Dmitri was his last chance. He was calling him and asking him to stay.

-

Dmitri woke up to the sound of his phone buzzing from across the room. He could hardly stand up, and he was still wiping dried tears off his face. He was planning on hitting “decline” and resuming his traumatized nap until he saw who was calling. The one person he would never decline.

He conjured up his best I’m-not-drunk-and-I-haven’t-been-crying voice, took a deep breath, and answered the phone.

“Dmitri, hey! Gosh, I’m so sorry for calling this late. I didn’t wake you up, did I? Are you there?”

There? Physically, sure he was ‘there’ but emotionally he was still practicing sounding sober and fine. “Um, yea. Hey kid. W-whats up? Everything okay?”

“No, not really. It’s really late and I have kinda of an.. Emergency.”

Dmitri felt way more awake and sober now. He sat down on the bed to stabalize himself so his legs wouldn’t fall out from underneath him. He cleared his throat. ‘“Are you ok? Tell me what happened.”

Vladimir explained his situation. Locked out, at nearly 11 pm, with no place to go. Storm clouds brewing, getting colder by the minute, only had a spare T shirt in his bag and some basic groceries. Phone on 23%. Panic in his voice. Dmitri felt really sorry for the kid. Looks like neither of them were having a good night.

“H-hey. It’s ok, just calm down. You can stay at my place. I’ll clean up uh- clean up a bit. Just, um, one thing.”

“Oh thank you so much Dmitri! I don’t know what I would have done without you. And what is it?”

“I’ve just had.. A drink or two. I’ll probably pass out after you get here. Sorry, it’s bad timing. You should start making your way over here.”

“That’s fine! I just need someplace to sleep for the night. I’ll be over soon!”

With that, the line ended with a click. Strange, Vlad didn’t seem too wary of the fact that he had admitted to drinking. Then again, Vlad didn’t think of Dmitri as a raging alcoholic, so it probably didn’t mean much to him. Dmitri stumbled around his room for a second, picking up a couple of discarded pieces of trash and the rest of the photos. He didn’t want to look like a complete freak. He wanted Vladimir to feel safe around him.

Which is something he hadn’t wanted in a long time.

He didn’t know why he had said yes when the alcohol was still in his system. This wasn’t a good idea. But he just couldn’t leave Vlad out in the cold.

It was only about 15 minutes until he heard light knocking on his door, followed by a soft voice.

“Dmitri? Are you awake? It’s Vlad.”

He shakily opened the door, hoping he looked less hungover than he was feeling. “Hey. Are you okay?”

“Yes.” Vlad hugged Dmitri. Dmitri wasn’t expecting the sudden affection, bit hugged back nonetheless. Vladimir felt alarmingly cold. Dmitri rushed him inside, quick.

“Here, set your stuff.. Mm.. here. Sorry it’s messy.” Dmitri rubbed the back of his neck. “Are you tired?”

“Um, a little. You must be. It sounds like I woke you up, sorry.” Vladimir looked a little guilty. “And if you’ve had a drink, you probably want to sleep pretty soon. Thank you again, so much, for letting me sleep here for the night.”

“You’re welcome here anytime.” Dmitri already felt like his mood was a bit better. Vladimir could do that to people. “I don’t have an extra bed, just a couch, but you can-”

“I’ll take the couch.”

“You’ll take the bed.” Dmitri cut him off. ‘You’re technically my guest.

“No, really, it’s fine! I can-”

Dmitri put his finger to Vlad’s lips. “Shhh. Bed.” Vladimir giggled. “Because I said so. Now follow me back.”

They both sat on Dmitri’s bed for a moment. Dmitri caught himself staring at Vlad.

“Sorry about that.” he mumbled.

Vladimir laughed. “It’s fine. I guess you are a bit drunk, right?”

“I think I’m to the hungover stage now. I’m dead tired.” he leaned back for moment, closing his eyes. Vladimir admired him like this, eyelids fluttering closed. He looked so peaceful, so cute. Vladimir laid down next to him, reaching his hands over too brush Dmitri’s hair out of his face.

“Sorry. I should move.”

“You shouldn’t. You can sleep here, too. I won’t mind.”

“Are you sure? Sometimes I have nightmares. I might wake up screaming and crying. You wanna deal with that?” Dmitri responded snarkily.

“I’d deal with your nightmares anyday, Dmitri.”

Dmitri was silent about that. He thought about what Vlad had just said. Did he really mean that? If he knew what Dmitri was actually hiding, he wouldn’t want to deal with that. No one would. He couldn’t scare away his only friend. He didn’t want to ruin their chances of being… more than friends.

He felt the tears coming like they had been all day and all night. He tried to stop them, he didn’t want to cry in front of Vladimir. But it was too late. They began to pour slowly out of his eyes, wetting his cheeks and falling to the mattress below.

“Dmitri? Are you okay?” He felt Vladimir touch his face, wiping his tears away. “What’s wrong? Tell me.”

He shook his head no. God, he felt pathetic. Like a child crying over something silly. If you considered his life falling apart to be silly. He didn’t want to b crying right now. He didn’t want Vladimir to see him so weak. He didn’t want to be drunk, or hungover, or anything. He didn’t want to exist. He felt Vlad take his face in his hands and wipe away more of his tears.

“Dmitri, please. Tell me what’s wrong. Let me help you.” Vladimir said, his voice full of softness.

Dmitri grabbed onto Vladimir, hugging him tight as he cried into his chest. Vladimir let him, smoothing his hair as he sobbed.

“Everyone leaves me.” Was all Dmitri was able to muster out before crying even harder than before.

“It’s okay, Dmitri. I won’t leave you.” Vladimir comforted him.

It sounded so genuine to Dmitri. “I won’t leave you.”. But Abel had promised him that too. And so had Vivia. So had all the friends and family he loves so dearly. And Where were they? Gone. How was Vladimir going to be any different? It didn’t matter. He was already sobbing in the arms of him, so he might as well just let him hear it.

“E-everyone I’ve ever loved, T-t-they’re gone. They’ve all left me. Because of-f who I am. And what I do.” He said in between tears. “My sister died, and n-nobody could replace her, s-so I just.. Couldn’t take it. And I-I started to drink. And I drank more. And then Abel left me, and then I drank more, a-and then here I am, living like a nobody. They don’t even know I’m alive anymore. A-and they don’t care. I dropped out when I was 17. I just-”

He was cut off by another wave of his own tears. Pathetic. He couldn’t even tell his tragic backstory without crying. Vladimir stayed silent and just pat his head and hugged him harder. He hated this. He wanted to die. He didn’t want to lose the one friend he had finally made.

Vladimir leaned in very close to his head, and whispered so Dmitri could barely hear, “It’s ok. I will never leave you. I’m so sorry, Dmitri.”

It was just enough to wake Dmitri up enough to look up. “You won’t leave?”

“Why would I? Just because you have a couple problems? Dmitri, I don’t care, I’ll be with you until the end. I promise.”

Dmitri sat up all the way, looking Vladimir in his eyes. He wasn’t expecting this. He wasn’t expecting a promise. Vladimir wasn’t looking at him with fear, or like he was a lowlife. He looked at him with so much care and compassion in his eyes. Vladimir leaned forward and wiped a tear off his cheek.

“I’ve tried.” Dmitri said shakily. “To stop, but I c-can never.”

“It’s okay. I can help you. Even if I just stay with you. Or bring you sodas. I’ll never let you go through this alone, okay?”

Dmitri felt a lot less pathetic.

“Oh, thank you. I was so afraid to tell you, I thought you’d never wanna see me again..”

Vladimir said nothing, just leaned forward and hugged him tight. His tears had dried up. They held onto each other for a long time, not letting go or speaking.

“I don’t want to leave you.” Vladimir pulled his face away to look at Dmitri. “Not even for college. I want to go, just not if it involves leaving you. I’ll have to find a way, some way.”

“It’s ok. We’ll find a way.”

And he was right; they would find a way.

Dmitri collapsed back onto the mattress. Vladimir laid back next to him. They just laid with one another in peaceful silence. They had a newfound bond between the two, making this moment so tender. Dmitri no longer felt like he had anything to hide, or anything to be ashamed of. Vladimir had melted away all his worries. For a moment, he was not an alcoholic.. He was just a 20 year old with a couple of problems that could be fixed. And he was safe.

Vladimir grabbed onto him, drifting off into sleep. They were exhausted. Dmitri could feel his eyelids getting heavier, too. There was a warmth in his chest he didn’t know how to describe when he looked at Vladimir sleeping next to him. But he would find those words very soon. Much sooner than he expected.

And Dmitri fell asleep for the second time that day. Without tears or booze, instead calmly, with Vlad in his arms.

-

Dmitri woke up first, eyelids lazily open. He had to recall all the events of last night, and it all came back blurred. Vladimir called him and asked for a place to stay after he got drunk, and then he told him he was drunk, but Vlad didn’t seem to care. And they talked about things that he couldn’t remember and was kinda glad about. Speaking of Vladimir, he was laying next to him, sound asleep.

Dmitri looked at the messy strawberry-headed boy, fast asleep under the covers. The sunrise peeking through the window make his skin look golden. God, he was the cutest thing.

He wondered if he had school today. It was a little after 7, meaning if he did, he had better hurry. He didn’t want to be the one to wake him, but…

“Vladimir.” He reached over and poked his side. Vlad moved, but didn’t wake up. Ok. Challenge accepted.

“Vlaaaaadimiiir!” Dmitri said in a sing-song voice, crawling over the younger man. Vladimir murmured something under his breath akin to “go away” and curled away from him. Dmitri put his face closer to Vlad’s.

“Heyy. Do you have school today? Shouldn’t you be getting up?”

Vlad’s eyelids fluttered open. He surveyed his surroundings and Dmitri a bit, before stretching. “Dunno, what day is it?”

“Friday, genius.”

“My first class it at 9:30. I’m going back to bed.”

“That is not a very responsible thing to say. How long does it take for you to get ready?”

“God, please let me sleep.”

Dmitri smiled. “No. get up, get that education. I’m the older one, therefore, I am the boss right now.”

Vladimir finally yanked the blankets off himself. “Oh, whatever! You’re barely 2 years older than me. You are not the boss because your age.” He slumped back into bed.

“Really? Are you daring me to use my elder authority, Vlad?”

“I dare you.”

Dmitri just smiled like an idiot staring down at Vlad. A dare’s a dare, right?

He pounced on Vlad, straddling his at the waist and wiggling his fingers under the T shirt he let him borrow. Vlad immediately jumped and try to get out of reach, but it was too late. Dmitri began tickling him all over his stomach, anywhere his fingers could reach.

“Stohohohop thahahtt!!” Vlad squealed in between laughter.

Dmitri kept tickling him. “I told you, if you’re not getting out of bed, I’ll get you out myself!”

Vladimir kept laughing, trying to wiggle away from Dmitri, but it was no use. He moved down to his hips, giving them a couple of good squeezes. Vlad nearly jumped out of his skin, howling. God forbid anyone walk by Dmitri’s cabin at this time, they’d think someone was being murdered.

‘“DMITRIHIHIII!!!! PLEEEASE NOHOHO MOHOHOHORE!! I’LL GEHET UP!”

Dmitri seemed partially satisfied with this reaction, but kept his fingers lighting tracing up and down Vlad’s stomach. The younger boy lay, slightly squirming still, trying to catch his breath. His hair was even messier than before, and little tears pricked at the corners of his eyes. Geez, this kid was really ticklish.

Vlad grabbed the pillow from behind him and hit Dmitri in the face with it, knocking him off his waist. Dmitri just laughed and tossed the pillow back at him.

“That was so mean! What did I do to deserve that?”

“What did you do? I told you you should get up, and you dared me to make you get up.” Dmitri shrugged. “So I got you up. See? You’re wide awake now. You’re welcome.”

Vladimir blushed and turned his head away, trying to hide the little smile on his face. Dmitri saw it anyways. He caught a glimpse of the clock (7:47 am) and as much as he hated to admit it, Dmitri was right. He needed to get up pretty soon. He turned back to Dmitri, still sitting there with a goofy smile on his face staring at Vlad.

“Well, thanks.” Vlad rolled his eyes and got up off the bed, headed towards the bathroom to change and get ready.

“Don’t you lie, I saw you smiling!” Dmitri yelled back from the bed, chuckling. Vlad just looked at him playfully and closed the door, leaving Dmitri to think.

To think about how, less than 24 hours ago, he was a drunken mess, wanting to die, thinking that nobody loved him. And now he was slightly hungover, happy, and had just tickled the cutest boy he’d ever seen out of bed. All because Vlad misplaced a set of keys.

He had never known what to actually think of Vlad. His closest friends had all left him when finding out his deep problems, but Vlad stood there with him at one of his worst moments and comforted him. He didn’t leave. He didn’t even seem freaked out. In fact, he trusted him. It was something Dmitri hadn’t felt in a very long time. Something burning in his chest. A burning that was very.. different feeling. It was full of comfort, full of warmth. He hoped it never went away. He hoped Vladimir got locked out of his apartment a lot more.

Vlad came out, dressed in a printed T shirt he had in his bag and yesterday’s jeans. His hair was still sticking out in odd places, but he had washed his face. Dmitri jumped out of bed to grab some of his clothes.

“What’s up?” Vlad asked. “I thought you didn’t have work today.

“Well, I wanted to walk you to school. That’s okay, right?”

Ok? That was way more than okay. Vladimir didn’t even want to leave Dmitri’s house. Had Dmitri not offered to walk him, he would have considered skipping altogether.

“Yes.” Vlad smiled. “I mean, if you want to.”

Dmitri buckled his pants up and threw on a light jacket. He brushed his fingers through his hair a couple of times.

“Are you sure you’re not too hungover to do this?”

“Please. There’s no better hangover cure than a walk.” Dmitri said. “Better yet, a walk with someone like you.”

Dmitri was lying about the whole hangover cure being a walk, but he wanted to walk Vlad. And the last comment made Vlad smile a little wider and look away, so it was worth it. The little burning sensation in his chest seemed to get hotter every second he was with him.

When they left, the air was still brisk. The sun now fully shining over the hills, but not enough to heat up the earth. Vlad’s jacket was barely enough to keep him warm, but he didn’t care. This was an opportunity to talk to Dmitri, especially after everything that had happened last night.

“Dmitri?”

“Yea?”

“Can I ask you something?”

Dmitri looked nervous, but nodded anyways. “Yea, sure.”

“So.. You seem to trust me a lot. Do you trust me?”

“Yes, I do. Probably more than I’ve trusted anyone in my life.”

“Well, good. Because I trust you. More than I trust anyone in my life, too. I think.” He finished with a nervous laugh, trying to avoid the question that needed to be answered.

“Um, i was just wondering- well…” Vlad’s voice trailed off.

“It’s ok.” Dmitri reasuured. “I won’t bite.”

“Two nights ago, after we came back from the restaurant. I had a really great time.” Vlad sighed. “In fact, every time we hang out I have a better time than the last. I feel like I could spend all my time with you and not regret it. But two nights ago, you...”

“I kissed you.” Dmitri finished for him. “Is that what you’re referring too?”

Vlad’s voice was barely above a whisper. “Yea. You kissed me.”

There was a touchy silence between them for a second as they kept walking. Vlad mustered up the courage to speak up.

“I’ve been thinking about that moment a lot. And about, uh, you. And me. I’ve been thinking about us a lot.”

“And” Dmitri looked at Vlad. “What have you really thought about?”

Another silence. Vladimir took a deep breath.

“I think I might be in love with you, Dmitri.”

The two had stopped walking now. They were pretty close to school, they could see the steps leading up to it about a hundred yards away now. They stood and looked at each other for a moment, lost in each other’s eyes. Vlad held his breath, waiting for a response.

“I’m glad you’re in love with me, then.” Dmitri said. “Because that makes it a lot easier for me to admit I’m in love with you too. At least, I think.”

Vlad couldn’t be happier. He jumped into Dmitri’s arms, hugging him tight. He had just taken a weight off his shoulders he hadn’t realized existed. He could just melt.

Dmitri laughed. “Man, you would not even realize how badly I needed to say that.”

“Me too.” Vlad said. Dmitri set him down and grabbed his hand.

“Now that the elephant is out of the room, should we start walking again? Or do you wanna keep hugging on the side of the road?”

Vladimir squeezed his hand. “Fine, we can keep walking. But you’re holding my hand the entire way.”

Dmitri didn’t protest. They walked towards the school. He still felt butterflies in his stomach from what had just happened. Did they love each other? Did it matter? It just felt nice to finally hold his hand. Just like how it felt so nice to kiss him, and how it felt nice to tickle him and see him laugh. How it felt so heavenly to even be near him, the person who was kindest to him and trusted him. They had known each other for a little over a month, and it had been the best month of his life. And staring at Vladimir, who was still smiling wide and holding onto him, he had a feeling it could only get better.

“This was way too short.” Vlad sighed as they reached the school, watching other kids pour through the doors extra early. He didn’t want to leave quite yet.

Dmitri smiled at him. “Well, it’s not like I won’t get to see you more. I’m taking some more photos. We’ll develop that film together, remember?”

“Yea.” Vlad nodded.

Dmitri leaned in a little closer to Vlad. “One more thing before you go, actually. You got to ask me a question. I get to ask you one.”

Vlad giggled. “Yea, what is it?”

“You’re my boyfriend, right?”

Vlad paused. Was he? Maybe. Would he like to be? More than anything. Did he qualify as a ‘boyfriend’? They had kissed, and kinda confessed their love to each other. And they had cried on each other’s shoulders. Yea, Vlad could get used to being his boyfriend.

“Yes.”

Dmitri didn’t wait any longer. He pushed his lips onto Vlad’s, putting his arms around his waist and pulling him closer. People were staring, but neither cared. It was a less fumbly, awkward version of their first kiss, and they were both enjoying it. Dmitri still tasted like alcohol and Vladimir’s lips were chapped, but neither of those things mattered. After all they’ve gone through, they deserve a moment to melt into each other. Vlad only pulled away for a breath of air, and the kiss was over.

They looked into each other’s eyes again, and Dmitri pecked Vlad on the lips again before stepping back.

“See you soon?”

“Finish that roll of film.”

“Yes, sir!” Dmitri saluted and laughed, walking away.

Vlad stared off at him for a moment, his smile so wide it could have broken off his face. He tried to shake off the butterflies and turn around to walk into the school building.

And he turned right into Elizaveta, who was standing there staring at him.