Three, gallant heroes tear through pooling crimson light that smears streaky black shadows across the desolate chapel. The light shimmers in droplets pouring down the paladin’s armour and dances along the blade of their sword. She walks down the nave, licking her lips and thirsting for a good fight. The echo of her steady footsteps is overpowered by the pitter-patter of a halfling scurrying between pews as she scours for something lost. Her glasses repeatedly slide down her nose and drop to the floor, clinking against the tiles, as she gropes beneath the dust sheathed benches. Inbetween the ecstatic steps of the artificer, and the cautious ones of the paladin, a bard lazily strums his heart-shaped lyre, tossing his golden curls over his head as he fills the air with a cherishable tune. He stretches his limbs as he takes a seat on the altar, smiling out onto the almost empty church.
Then, a door on the left-hand side swings open, the rotting wood nearly shatters as it smacks against the stone wall. A figure shrouded in a wispy, black cloak, steps into the crimson light, commanding the shadows to his bidding. From beneath his hood comes a booming voice. “WHO DARE TREAD SACRILEGE THROUGH MY HALLS?” The chapel quivers at the sound of his voice. Stone crumbles from the high walls, and the heroes turn their attention to gargoyles as they wrench themselves free from their pedestals, batting their stoney wings at the stale air. The bard’s strumming halts, the artificer ducks beneath a pew, and the paladin raises her sword...
“...And with that, roll for initiative.” Arnold whips up a spare sheet of paper and pulls his pencil from behind his ear. “Con, do you need help with that?”
Two brown eyes peer over a cardboard wall at Connor, and while he can’t see his mouth, he knows that the biggest and most dimply grin is spread across his face. Connor turns to the character sheet in front of him, pouring his gaze over the symbols and scribbled words before him.
“I think I got it, so I roll the D20 and…” he flings a pink and sparkling dice across the table. “...then I add the number that’s in the big square next to... dexterity, right?”
Arnold nods, disappearing behind his board.
The apartment is small, and could barely squeeze in three people, let alone four. A Mormon upbringing has lead Connor to be accustomed to close quarters, and it would be weird if he wasn’t bumping elbows at a dinner table. The light hangs low over the table, as they sit beneath it like mafia men pulling cards from their sleeves, four players are squashed into the corner of the dimly lit kitchen, where walls collide and spiders sling their homes. Chairs have left their mark in the walls, tearing through the paint. It’s stuffy, they’re breathing in each other’s stale sweat, but it’s what he calls home.
It’s nice to feel included. It’s nice to be welcomed at a table too small for a family. And though it’s nice, he feels like a freak. Connor looks down at his legs and finds his gangly limbs leering beneath the table, space is a commodity, it is rare and so hard to come by and he invades his flatmate’s. He tries to scuttle out of the way, and in avoiding kicking Naba, he kicks Arnold. Deciding instead to lift his legs free from the table snare, his knees punch against the wood, upsetting whatever adorns that table in that instance. His elbows are tucked in, his hands tapered to his chest. He should be accustomed to this style of living, but he feels like a giant, venturing into the land of humans. A freak of nature, who’s skin is too loose for bones that never ceased growing. But when his space is invaded by the sharp Kevin Price, he feels reduced to a tiny spectacle squinting under torchlight.
“Let’s see…” Kevin mutters, swiping Connor’s character sheet from him. “So you rolled, an 11, not too bad, not too bad… and you’ve got a plus 3 to dexterity, so-”
“14, yes Kevin I can do maths too.” He laughs, taking his sheet back. A breath that he hadn’t known he was holding escapes him, as he sinks back into his seat. His arms fall to the table, his legs crossed beneath.
“I mean, a plus 3 is good and all but Theia the Orc’s got nothing on Sir Wilde’s plus 5.”
He stretches, mockingly flexing at Connor. As he swings back in his chair he planks one muscular arm around the back of Connor’s, and had this been 5 years ago he might have combusted on the spot. But he rolls his eyes, and the pair share a grin, and Connor thanks the heavens he’s got a friend like Kevin Price.
“Woah, hang on a minute.” Naba pipes up, a smirk tugging at her lips. “Not us ‘treading sacrilege’ through this chapel.” Leaning over the table, she gestures at the trio, beckoning them to laugh. “Hello? It is us! Sacrilege is what we (well, mostly you) are known for! This cult guy is obviously Russel Nelson in a dress.” She crumbles into a pile of laughter, as she tosses her green speckled dice across the table, it bumps into some escaped popcorn kernels along the way.
Arnold flicks through his notes, then stares up at his wife, terror dripping down his face. “Oh no.”
Kevin shakes his head at his flatmates, chuckling as Arnold blabbers on about how it was an accident and how the bad guy’s magic focus definitely isn’t a sacred book. A delicate smile fixes on his lips, bringing his dimples out to shine. Connor pokes at his ribs and pulls him in to whisper.
“Hey, when you invited me to DND night I kind of thought it was going to be more of an escape from reality.” the sarcasm floats through his whisper and surmounts into a chuckle.
“That’s how they get you,” Kevin cranes his neck down, and his breath is warm and smells of buttered popcorn as he returns a whisper into Connor’s ear. “But actually, the magic of DND is getting to use it as therapy for your trauma, especially if it’s catholic guilt.” He rears back, sharing a chesty laugh before tossing his dice across the crowded table. It’s white, imbued with gold stars, and lands beside Connor’s.
Defeated by Naba’s affectionately mocking laughs, he turns to speak to the group as a whole. “Please, just tell me your initiatives and we can move past goth Russel Nelson-” Naba bursts out laughing again. Arnold sighs, hanging his head.
The next morning, Connor finds himself cleaning up the remains of last night’s venture. Sutton Foster’s voice sparks from his phone as he twirls around, picking up rubbish and sorting it into their respective bins like a trash fairy.
“Someone’s a morning person,” Kevin grins, wagging finger guns as he strides into the kitchen.
Connor pauses, aghast. “Nice reference, Kevin!” He flourishes his hand to his chest. “You’re a fast learner.”
“Huh?” Kevin shoots Connor a bewildered look, as he pours the remnants of his coffee into the sink. The cold, syrupy remains splash out onto the counter, and Connor knows he’ll be the one to clean it up. “So I’ve been meaning to ask, how are you settling in? I know it’s been a month since you joined us in our little abode.” He breaks into a yawn as he starts to brew some more coffee. “But well, it was a big change for you.”
He nods, discarding the bag of trash into the bin. Already he flutters towards the kitchen sink, wiping the coffee before it stains the counter. He can feel the world shift as Kevin rolls his eyes with such ferocity. Truth be told, beneath all the smiles and the fun of reuniting with his old friends, it’s been a difficult change to digest. One minute your boyfriend of 3 years is slapping a ring on your finger and the next you’re couch surfing because the apartment was under his name and not yours. “It’s been good,” he says because it has been. It’s been hard, and good, and he’s not going to allow Kevin to watch him be consumed by his mistakes. The past is bitter, but what aspect of Connor’s isn’t?
His friends know parts of his story, mainly the easy to swallow bits, but there are still facts that feel like gristle between Connor’s teeth that he won’t divulge them in.
“Good, just if you need anything say the word and I’m there.” The tension eases a little, and the show goes on.
“Kev,” he begins, finally meeting his gaze. “You’ve already done so much for me, I don’t know how I’ll ever repay you.”
“I think your cooking suffices.” He nudges Connor. “Seriously though, if you need anything just give me a shout.”
Blue eyes meet brown, and they nod at each other. The tension slides between them, but it’s not fearsome, rather it squeezes them, pushing them together and pushing the air from their lungs. It’s a warm kind of tension, that still sends goosebumps down your arms. One day they’ll understand what it means. So much is conveyed through that shared gesture, but neither boy can catch the other’s meaning. Connor wants to capture his hand in his, and squeeze it for all the change and love Kevin has brought into his life. Who knows where Connor would be without him, married off to a poor woman who is either a church fanatic or as lost as he is, or out on the streets because he couldn’t handle the commitment of a life-long bond to a man he was supposed to love? Kevin’s look says something else, something he cannot gleam, but the sentiment is exact.
“I’m making pancakes! Move out the way!” Arnold parades into the kitchen, intersecting their sight and he begins yanking out his ingredients. His bright roar finally dissolves that tension, and they return to their respective roles’; Kevin pouring a fresh cup of coffee, and Connor cleaning what is already spotless.
“That sounds lovely, Arn.” Connor busies himself with washing his hands, turning his back to Kevin who’s reaching over for the sugar pot. “But if you destroy the kitchen that’s on you.”
“Blame Naba.” He hangs his hands in defence. After her character Pip nearly got nerfed by goth Russel Nelson she’s a bit upset.” He pulls an apron over his head and comes to a standstill. “Actually I think she’s guilt-tripping me into making pancakes, but I really want some and she said she’d cook dinner tonight.” That familiar smile that radiates warmth appears on his face as he barks a laugh and turns to his culinary endeavour.
Metal clinks against ceramic, as Kevin twirls his spoon inside his Lion-King themed coffee mug. He taps it twice, then leaves it on the counter, much to Connor’s dismay. “What’s she making? I hope it’s that moussaka recipe from Pinterest, that was divine .” He drags out the divine, flourishing his head back as he lets the soft sounds squeeze through pursed lips.
Before Connor can even condemn him, Kevin’s swiping his teaspoon into the sink, meeting his freckly scowl with a smirk. He ignores it, and takes a seat at the now sparkling table.
“Ah shoot, I’ve got that audition tonight, if she’s making moussaka tell her to keep some for me.”
“We can wait up for you, Con, it’s no biggie.” Says Arnold, now covered in flour.
“It’s on the other side of town, I won’t be back until late. Besides, Poptarts lives that side of town and it’s been a hot minute since I’ve seen them, I might stay with them if James lets me.”
Arnold fumbles in cracking an egg, and Connor dies a little inside. “They’re still living together, that’s sweet!”
“Yeah, they’ve got a cat now too- her name’s Elphie. She’s a little black kitten with the biggest eyes.”
Arnold bursts into a series of coos as Connor dives into the photos he snapped of Elphie on his phone. Behind their titters, silence swells into the empty space, and Kevin stands in the centre of the kitchen furrowing his brows. He looks up from his coffee and flashes Connor a look.
“Wait, James as in James Church?”
“That’s the one.”
“And Poptarts as in-”
“Kev, who else named Poptarts do you know?”
“And they’re together? Like, 'dating' together?”
Arnold turns away from his burning pancakes and stares down at Kevin. “Buddy, how did you not know about this? It’s all over their Instagram.”
“I don’t use Instagram.” He snaps, then breathes. “I’m just surprised, that’s all. I mean that’s like, what? Four people from District 9 that turned out to be gay? There must’ve been something in that water.” He laughs into his cup, and Arnold makes a joke about gay frogs that goes way over Connor’s head, who’s sat biting his lip.
“Three of us. Me, Poptarts and James.”
Kevin stops, peering down at something in his coffee that seems to be taking up all of his attention. Connor can see the cogs turning in his brain from where he’s sat, trying to form a single thought. He laughs at that, the presence of a stumped Kevin who for once, isn’t sharp enough to think of a comeback.
“Are you sure? I thought I caught Michaels looking at me a few times.” He chuckles, but there’s an underlying sense of nervousness that Connor can’t quite comprehend.
“Kevin, we were all looking at you. Back me up, Arnold.”
“Oh, a hundred per cent. Remember that guy back at the training centre? You’re a gay guy’s worst nightmare.”
“Or best,” Connor interjects, his tongue poking out from his teeth in a teasing grin.
Sheepishly, Kevin shrugs, shooting his friends a wink as he takes a seat across from Connor. They laugh and Arnold turns to flipping pancakes and Connor scrolling through his phone. Every once in a while, there’ll be this look smudged across Kevin’s face; Naba’s taken to calling it his puppy-dog face, while Connor wastes his time trying to read into it. He hangs his mouth open, ever so slightly, so that his lips aren’t pursed but they are round and soft, and the spit clinging to the cracks catches the morning light. Somehow, he brings his cheeks up, squinting through his eyes are whole, bulbous brown eyes gazing around him in lost bewilderment. Finally, he knits his brows together to form that doe-eyed look that screams ‘I could shatter at any moment.’
“What’s up?” Connor asks.
“Nothing. I’m just thinking.” He traces his finger around the rim of his mug, then gazes at Connor. “Actually, do you have plans today? Before your audition, I mean.”
The phone is put to sleep and rests on the table. “No, why? You wanna do something?”
“I need to pick up a few things today, mainly clothes.” He brings the coffee to his lip to drink and turns away, as though he’s in a dank bar and just slid over some incriminating photos. In the rear of Connor's mind, seedy jazz plays and he tips the brim of his hat down to block out Kevin's silhouette on the monochrome screen. “You dress well, so I thought that maybe- but only if you have time.”
“Of course, Kev.”
It’s no secret that Kevin Price was knocked down a few pegs after what happened in Uganda. His air of confidence was tainted by rotting reality. Still, he was always charismatic. That was in his nature. Despite the past he always knew that whatever room he walked into, or whatever crowd of people he stood before, he’d be in command. So it’s worrying Connor to see him act self-conscious in this way, but we all have our insecurities he supposes.
“And we could grab lunch and… what’s that tea you drink? With the little balls in that? I’ve been meaning to try that.” He’s smiling now, less fragile and more like himself.
“You mean to say you want to employ me as your GBF for the day?”
“Well I just thought you might be nervous before your audition, and It’d be nice to make a day out of it. Besides, the two of us haven’t hung out together in a while.” He shrugs tapping the ceramic cup.
“Right.” He grins.
“What? You’ve got a look on your face and I don’t like it.”
“I don’t have a look on my face, I’m just excited.”
“To hang out?”
“To be your GBF.” He laughs, as Arnold places a burnt pancake before him.
Kevin sighs and grimaces at the charred crepe before him, thankfully Arnold’s already left to wake up Naba. “I never said you’d be my GBF, don’t make me sound homophobic.” But he bursts into a chuckle, that joins his, into a joyous chorus.
Yet, something creeps up Connor's spine. That tension, that feeling is back. The thought of spending the day alone with Kevin; not even in Uganda did they have the space to do that. Something in his gut is tugging at his spine, yet he can't put his finger on what it is. But Kevin is laughing, and so is he, so he shrugs it off. It'll be fine, it always is.