A/N: So I decided to take another stab at a one-shot, because last time felt mildly disappointing. This one is a big…longer, for one thing, and better, I think. I guess that's really up to the reader. Anyway, this is just one of those things that I write for relaxation, but ends up driving me crazy with the work I put into it. So, onwards!
PS. The Metric song mentioned is Police and the Private. I encourage people to listen. Also, Cheap Trick and The Cranberries are mentioned. I don't own them, obviously. Just sayin'.
PPS. Unbeta'd! Sorry!
Five Moderately Easy Steps to Having a Life
1. Meet New People
Liam pushed his thick glasses high on his nose and contemplated the canvas propped in front of him. The background was still blank, but the face of the old man was almost done.
There were half empty tubes of oil paints scattered around him, and a handful of brushes sitting in a can of cleaning solution.
His fingers were stained and looked bruised from the darker pigments, and there were globs of skin colored paint under his fingernails. It almost looked like he had been finger painting.
Liam pulled the brush in a low arch under the man's eye, where his skin had looked purple and heavy. Nothing had been outstanding about him, which was what struck Liam when he had seen the man crossing the street.
Ironically, it was usually the mundane that Liam found most aesthetic. And New York City was the perfect place to find the mundane.
He pulled the brush around the eyes again, sighing as a few strands of orange hair fell into his own eyes. His agent had been trying to talk him into getting both contacts and a haircut, and he was starting to see her point.
There were two rubber bands on his wrist, and he used them to pull his bangs back into two small pigtails. He felt ridiculous, but it wasn't like he was going to see anyone.
As soon as the thought occurred to him, he heard footsteps outside his door. Usually he didn't pay attention to people in the hallway, but then, they never stopped outside of his apartment.
Liam watched the door, waiting for a knock, and was surprised when several envelopes were pushed under the door instead. He frowned, put down his brush, and approached the door.
The papers by the door looked strangely like the bills he hadn't been getting for the last couple of weeks.
He opened the door wide enough to poke his head into the hall. There was a guy walking towards the elevators and staircase, shoulders hunched and hands shoved into his jacket pockets. His jeans were ripped, and he had a hood pulled up over his head.
"Hey!" Liam pulled his head back just a little in case the guy had a gun, or throwing knives, or something equally deadly.
The guy turned around, but his face was mostly shaded by the hood. Even from a distance, he looked extremely tall. "Yeah?"
"Um. What were you doing?"
There were three studded belts hanging around the guy's waist, and he had half-tied combat boots pulled up over his dark, skintight jeans. He looked like the kind of guy that would beat up Liam for lunch money. Or even just for the hell of it.
Liam tried not to flinch as the guy began to walk back towards him, belts shaking with every step. When he got close enough, the guy pulled back his hood, giving Liam an expectant stare.
His eyes were a nice olive green—one of Liam's favorite colors to mix—and he had short, messy purple hair that curled around his ears. His mouth, which looked like it was made to pout, was set in a hard, straight line.
After a moment, he offered an easy smile. "Sorry, man. I didn't want to bother you or anything. I keep getting your mail. Not all of it. I mean, just bills."
Something in Liam's stomach loosened in a not-going-to-die way. "That's all there is."
"Oh." The guy didn't seem to know how to respond to that. "Well, then all of your mail has been coming to my apartment. I live right below you."
"Oh." Liam suddenly remembered why he didn't interact with other people. He sucked at it. "Neat?"
The guy just laughed. "Sure, man. I'm Graham, by the way. And you…"
"You, Liam, have something on your nose."
Liam ran a finger along his nose, and when he pulled it away, the tip was a dark shade of violet. Then he remembered his make-shift pigtails and felt his face go hot. "I'm painting."
Graham rocked back on his heels. "Sweet. Can I see?"
The only person who had been in Liam's apartment to date was his agent, who only stopped by every month or so with a commission and makeover tips. "Um."
Graham's smile faded, and he stepped back. "I didn't realize how creepy that sounded until it was out of my mouth. Sorry."
"It wasn't creepy," Liam told him, even though it kind of was. "It's just a mess right now. Maybe you could come over another time?"
He really hoped Graham would say no.
"Sure, man." He rubbed at the back of his head. "I'll just, you know, drop by sometime, okay?"
"Okay." He had gone his whole life with only a handful of friends over the years, and didn't feel a need to start adding on now. A life of seclusion wasn't all that bad anyway.
After pulling his hood back over his head, Graham spun around and sauntered down the hall. "See ya," he called.
Liam doubted it.
2. Make Conversation
Two weeks later, Graham actually knocked. He had green hair and an eyebrow ring, and Liam did a double take through the peep hole just to make sure it really was his neighbor.
The eyes were the same, though, and the square jaw, so Liam opened the door for him.
Instead of a greeting, Graham thrust a handful of mail at Liam. "You got a magazine this time."
"Oh." It was some dinky art magazine. He wasn't surprised. "These are never very good."
When Graham shrugged, his shoulders almost rose higher than the top of Liam's head. "I don't know too much about art."
Liam didn't know what to say. "Do you…want to come in?"
Graham smiled, wide and slow, and said, "I thought you'd never ask."
"It's not that great," he babbled, feeling inordinately nervous. "I mean, it's a place to live."
"Take a breath, man." Graham was laughing. "I have the same apartment, remember?"
Liam had actually forgotten. He ran a hand through his hair, and told himself to calm down. He moved so Graham could pass him, and watched him cross the room to look at his mostly finished painting. He had his hands in his jacket pockets, and looked completely at home.
Liam wished he could feel half as comfortable as Graham looked.
"Man, this is amazing. You could do this for a living."
He almost smiled, but ended up adjusting his glasses instead. For someone who didn't deal with much art, Graham was giving the piece a lot of attention. "I do."
Graham looked at him, confused. "Do what?"
"I paint portraits. Professionally." He left Graham's side and went to sit on the couch.
As if he didn't get it, Graham looked back and forth between Liam and the painting. "You get paid to paint?"
"Yes. But not him. I just saw him one day and wanted to paint him."
"No shit? You painted a man after seeing him once?"
"Yes." He didn't see what the big deal was. "I mean, I looked at him a few times, but I didn't take a picture or anything."
"That's amazing, man!" Graham threw his arms in the air. "You must be a prodigy or something."
"Not really." Liam had never really thought about it. If he was a prodigy, no one had ever told him. "I just like to paint."
"Very cool." Graham reached a hand out like he was going to touch the painting, but pulled it back at the last second. Liam caught a glimpse of his smile before he turned his head. "Is it safe to keep the cereal next to the paint thinner like that?"
Liam shrugged. "It hasn't hurt me yet."
"So I guess I can't smoke in here?"
"It's a bad habit anyway." Having Graham in the middle of the room was making him more and more nervous. "Do you want something to drink? I have water and milk. And orange juice."
Graham seemed to take the hint and strode towards the couch. He was wearing several belts again, over black jeans. He had traded the boots in for a pair of old sneakers. If he weren't so interesting to look at, Liam would have wanted to paint him.
As soon as Graham fell back into the cushions in a relaxed slouch, Liam jumped up. Graham just smiled, like Liam had told a joke.
"You don't have any beer?"
"I don't drink."
"Orange juice it is, then."
That was Liam's choice too, but he managed not to say that out loud. He didn't want to feel like any more of an antisocial loser. "Okay. Well." He'd thrown the mail on the coffee table. "I have a magazine if you want to read it."
Graham's laughter followed him into the kitchen.
He fumbled his way through the cabinets to grab some glasses, and quickly filled them almost to the brim. He had no idea what to say. When he brought them out, Graham was flipping through the magazine and humming a little.
Liam set the drinks down on the table—without coasters, because he didn't want to come off as a neat freak— and Graham looked up and grinned. "You're so much better than the people in here."
"I'm not that great." He hated talking about himself. "What do you do?"
"I own a record store a few blocks from here. Shoddy Records…you should drop by sometime."
"I've seen that before! It's over by the art supply store."
"Yeah." Graham seemed surprised that he knew. "Man, you really do have a good memory. I have regulars calling me up for directions sometimes."
"Why is it called Shoddy Records?"
Graham sighed. "I guess you had to find out sooner or later. My last name is Shoddy."
"Oh." Liam tried to think of something polite to say. "That's…"
"Yeah. I know. High school was nickname hell for me. Plus, punks aren't very widely accepted. So usually people made fun of my—"
"Shoddy taste in music?" Liam guessed.
"You got it. So, when my parents forced me into college, which was more traumatic than high school, I decided to major in business. And all of that high school bullshit finally came in handy."
Graham took a sip of his drink, and ended up with a wet smear across his upper lip. "Yeah, man. I know records are kind of a dying breed, but I get a lot of DJs and I sell all types of music. And I have CDs and cassettes available. It's great. Seriously, come by sometime, I'll find you some tunes. On the house."
"I don't listen to a lot of music." He didn't listen to any music, but didn't see any point in admitting that.
"Oh come on, you have to like something."
"I work better with silence."
"In this city? No such thing."
He had a point. Liam considered it as he sipped at his drink. He also hoped he didn't end up with an orange mustache like Graham had. "Back in art school, my roommate listened to the Cranberries a lot. I liked it."
"Not bad, man, who else?"
"I guess I liked Cheap Trick."
Graham laughed again, in a way that suggested he wasn't laughing at Liam. "Man, into the classics. How old are you?"
"Twenty-four. How old are you?"
"Twenty-eight. It took me a few years to get a good apartment like this. I used to sell mixed tapes to high school kids and DJ lame parties just to make ends meet." He let out a short laugh. "I guess you could say I was a starving artist."
That was an alien concept to Liam. "I don't know what I would do if I had to just…sell paintings to make ends meet."
Graham snorted. "Are you serious? I bet someone would pay thousands for that painting over there."
"That piece doesn't really have a monetary value, especially because—" Graham stopped him with a hand on his arm.
"That was a compliment." He didn't move his hand.
Graham tried for an encouraging smile, but it looked out of place on his face. "You say thanks, I say you're welcome, I ask meaningless questions about your family—you don't do this too often, do you?"
Yeah, right. "Not really, no. Thank you for the compliment."
"You're welcome. And don't worry; I'm kind of socially inept too."
"Well that a relief," Liam said dryly.
Finally moving his hand, Graham threw himself back into the couch cousins. "So you don't smoke, you don't drink…how do you feel about vandalism?"
"Are you joking? Why would I vandalize anything?" Maybe his neighbor really was crazy, and was planning on tearing apart Liam's apartment and leaving him for dead.
But Graham just shrugged. "People do crazy things, man." He looked around, and his gaze stopped at the clock hanging on the wall. His eyes widened. "Shit, man. I have to go. I promised this guy I would help him make a play list for a party tonight."
Liam told himself he wasn't disappointed. "Okay."
Graham grinned as he got to his feet. "But hey, I can stop by sometime—I mean, this was cool, right?"
"Yeah." Liam stood up as well, eye level with Graham's hunched shoulders. He wouldn't know cool if it bit him in the ass. But he was surprised to find he had enjoyed having someone else around. "It was nice."
The two of them stood awkwardly for a minute. Liam wanted to point out that Graham hadn't finished his orange juice—the guy looked like he didn't get enough vitamin C—but didn't want to seem too anal. So instead, he started for the door.
Out of the corner of his eye, Liam caught Graham glancing at him repeatedly as they crossed the room.
When he opened the door, Graham hesitated. "I guess I'll see you around, man." Then he pulled his hood over his head, which didn't make any sense to Liam, and waved.
Liam was caught between relief and disappointment as he shut the door. All he knew was, tomorrow he was buying a book on how to be social.
3. Be Confident
Instead of waiting for Graham to come to him, Liam went to Graham, two days later, mostly because he needed some new red pigments anyway.
And maybe he had used more red paint necessary in his last painting just for an excuse to pass the record store, but he wasn't about to admit that.
He was wearing a second hand three piece suit he'd picked up in a thrift store once. For the first three blocks of his walk from the apartment building he had tried to convince himself that he didn't look stupid. It was tweed, of all things, but in the mid-spring weather it was the perfect warmth. He really hoped he didn't look stupid.
He'd never really given thought to his wardrobe before; he had a few nice suits for rare gallery openings and shows, but most of his clothes were old and paint spattered. It was a cliché, but one he didn't mind.
For some reason—that he refused to admit he actually knew—he wanted to impress Graham. And the best way to do that was show his cool side, if he actually had one. Telling himself to stop fussing over it, he looked up at the street sign and frowned. It sounded right, so he took a deep breath and rounded the corner.
He didn't remember exactly where the store was, but Graham made it easy. He was leaning against the wall outside, sucking lazily on a lollipop. He looked bored. His hair looked longer, almost long enough to touch his eyebrows, but it was almost defying gravity in its messy arrangement.
When Liam was close enough, he cleared his throat.
Graham almost hit his head on the wall, it snapped up so fast. "Liam! Hey."
There was a dark purple bruise around one of his eyes, and it was swollen half-shut. The eyebrow ring was gone. Without thinking, Liam reached out to touch Graham's cheek. "What happened to your eye?" he demanded.
The one good eye rolled. "Nothing, man. Some kids tried to mug me the other night. I broke someone's arm," he said proudly.
"But you're okay?"
"Yeah, yeah. I promise those shit heads look worse. Fucking hoodlums." He shook his head. "Anyway, I'm glad you came by. I wish you could have come when I actually had customers, but this is cool too."
Liam looked up at the sign above the door. It was a lot more noticeable than he had given it credit for. There were old posters covering the windows, making it impossible to see inside. "This is cool."
Graham nodded. "Thanks, thanks."
"Can we go inside?"
"Oh! Yeah, man, sure." Graham popped the sucker into his mouth and rubbed his hands on his thighs. Then he grabbed Liam's wrist and tugged him inside.
There were records lining the walls, and just imaging how many there were made Liam dizzy. In the middle of the space there were racks filled with CDs, and in one corner there were a few boxes of cassette tapes. It was just like Graham had described, but nothing like Liam had imagined.
"Wow," he heard himself say.
Graham pulled his shoulders up into a shrug, but he looked pleased. "It's small, I know, but I have big plans." His voice was muffled around the sucker. "Sorry. I fucking hate hard candy, but it's the only thing that helps when I'm jonesing for a cigarette." At Liam's blank stare, he added, "I'm trying to quit smoking."
It had been a long time since Liam had actually smiled, but he could feel one spreading across his face. "That's great!"
Graham looked away, two red spots appearing high on his cheeks. "Shit, man, it's not a big deal."
Liam's eyebrows pulled up in surprise. "It is so," he insisted.
"Yeah, whatever. It's lame, because I'm really just doing it to impress someone."
Liam felt a small flare of jealousy, but pushed it away quickly. "Oh," he said weakly. "Well it's good either way!"
"Yeah, yeah. So I'd give you a tour, but this is pretty much it. Unless you want to see the break room where I eat my lunch."
As he shrugged, Liam took another look around the store. He hadn't even known that much music existed.
"Or," Graham said, drawing Liam out of his daze. "You could sample some music." Before Liam could answer he added, "My choice."
With a disbelieving stare, Liam gestured at the albums surrounding them. "You're just going to pick something, out of all of this?"
"Maybe if I smoked some pot first," Graham joked. He twirled the lollipop between his lips, and then pulled the empty stick out of his mouth. He chewed for a second, and Liam imagined his tongue changing colors like his hair. "Nah, I've actually got this one album I think you'll like. Of course, you didn't hear it from me."
"Sweet. You're like a musical guinea pig." He apparently kept a CD player on hand, since it only took a few seconds of fishing behind the counter for Graham to hold one up. Liam watched as he slid the disc in and untangled a pair of huge headphones.
Liam met Graham halfway, so they could stand by the counter. It was also covered in stickers, and there were stacks of flyers along the edge.
"I put them out for customers," Graham said, when he saw what Liam was looking at. "I do promo for other people, they bring me more business." He pushed a few buttons on the player.
Then he pulled the headphones down over Liam's ears, and sound immediately flooded them. It was a woman's voice, soft and melodic. Graham kept his hands over Liam's ears, staring into his eyes. His hair was only a few shades lighter than his eyes, and up close, Liam could see darker roots. The bruise around his eye looked new, like it had only happened the day before.
He knew it wasn't his business, not really, but he couldn't understand why someone would try to attack a guy like Graham. His height alone would give Liam an excuse to avoid him on the street.
Without thinking, Liam shut his eyes and put his hands over Graham's. He couldn't say for sure what the song was about, but he tapped his fingers along with the beat. And he was almost certain Graham couldn't hear the music, but he began to beat his fingers along with Liam's.
He closed his eyes, falling into the rhythm of the song. It was almost fast, in some way Liam couldn't put a finger on. He hadn't been lying about not being into much music. He probably couldn't point out a picture of Britney Spears if he had to.
He cracked his open when Graham tugged at one of his fingers. The song wasn't over, but Liam let Graham slide the headphones down around his neck. Then he handed the attached CD player to Liam.
"You eyes are this crazy shade of blue," Graham told him.
He didn't even think they were visible under the thick lens of his glasses. "What do you mean?"
"I wish I knew colors better, so I could explain. It's like, kind of light blue, but with some green mixed in, or something."
Like most other aspects of his life, Liam hadn't given it much thought. He thought of most things in tints and shades, but he never considered himself.
"Well, I'm sure you've done a self-portrait. So what color are they?"
"I don't know. I've never painted myself."
"Are you kidding? Why not?"
"Who would want to look at that?" A too thin art geek with too thick glasses and shaggy orange hair—not something people would want to see in a gallery.
Graham rolled his eyes. "You have more self esteem issues than a teenage girl."
"Excuse me," someone said.
Graham and Liam both turned to look at whoever had addressed them. There was a girl standing by the door, looking annoyed, and chewing on one of her dreadlocks. "Do you have any Grateful Dead?"
"Yeah, it's under 'D', for deadheads," Graham joked. "If you need any other help, just let me know."
The girl didn't look impressed, and sneered as she turned towards the big white plastic marker with a 'D' on it. How anyone could alphabetize so many albums was a mystery.
Graham rolled his eyes, and leaned close in Liam's personal space. "I get a lot of those," he whispered. "They never seem to like me."
Liam smiled again. "I like you," he said, barely managing not to blush.
Graham just grinned. "Yeah? Well, I guess that fixes my self esteem. Now we need to work on yours."
"There's nothing to work on."
"Okay. I meant to tell you the other day, those are cool glasses."
That was an awful lie. Liam snorted and reached up to adjust them. "They make me look like a nerd."
"Ha! Tricked you—you do have self esteem problems!"
"I do not." He was beginning to feel insecure, and felt the need to play with his glasses again. "I'm changing the subject now," he warned. His ears were hot. "What was I listening to?"
"Okay, don't tell anyone," which was a stupid thing to say, because who would Liam tell, "but it was Metric. One of my customers hooked me up. They're pretty good. Again, don't tell anyone I said that. It would ruin my reputation."
They turned to the girl with dreadlocks. She waved a record at them, looking bored. "I want to buy this."
"Okay," Graham said brightly.
It was weird watching him in customer mode, because his rough exterior did not give the impression that Graham had ever heard of politeness. Liam watched Graham openly as he smiled and made small talk with the girl.
"So you're into the Grateful Dead, huh?"
"It's for my boyfriend; his birthday is coming up."
"Music is always a nice choice," Graham said, and winked at Liam with his good eye. "Thanks, man, have a great day."
As soon as the girl was out of the store, Graham shot from behind the register. "Shit, I meant to give her a complimentary sticker. Can you hold the fort for me, man?"
Liam didn't get a chance to answer. Graham practically sprinted out the store and into the street. That was when the phone started ring. The first time, Liam jumped. By the fourth ring, he resigned himself to answering it.
He took a deep breath and picked up the phone. "Uh, Shoddy Records. How may I help you?"
There was a woman on the other line. "Who is this?"
Liam blinked. "Liam."
"Is there a reason why you answered the phone in my son's store, Liam?"
"He's…busy." He began to fidget. It was like the woman was standing right in front of him. Liam could imagine her stern glare. For some reason, he could also picture her in combat boots.
"All right," Graham's mom said. "Well, how do you know my son? He hasn't mentioned you. Are you a drug dealer?"
There were beads of nervous sweat gathering on his forehead. "No. I'm a painter. Graham and I live in the same apartment building. He gets my mail."
"He gets your mail," she repeated.
She sighed. "And what kind of painting do you do that you can afford to live in that building?"
"I paint freelance portraits."
As if she didn't believe him—and how suspicious could one woman be, he wondered—she asked, "And how much money is a portrait?"
He wasn't sure where she was going with her questions, and reached up to adjust his glasses again. It really was like she was in the room with him. "Three to five thousand, depending on the size and subject."
"So you're not using my son for money?"
"Of course not," he said, just a little too loudly. "We're friends."
When she spoke again, her tone had brightened. "Well, dear, you tell him his mother called. You'll make sure he calls back, won't you?"
"All right dear. Maybe when we come up in a few months you can join us for lunch."
"Okay." He never, ever wanted to meet Graham's mom in person.
"Bye, dear," she said, and hung up.
Liam stared at the phone in his hand, feeling slightly traumatized. For some reason, he hadn't even considered that Graham would have parents, which was ridiculous, because everyone had parents.
Graham came back in out of breath just as Liam hung up the phone. "What's up man," he asked, out of breath. "Were you calling someone?"
"Your…mom just called."
"Oh, shit. I am so, so sorry. Did she threaten you?"
No, but she almost made me pee my pants, he tried to say. "Not exactly."
"She can be intimidating."
That was an understatement. While Graham continued to apologize, Liam sighed. He should have waited another few days to finish the red paint.
Common Sense Insert: Be Honest
After almost an entire month, Graham had taken to visiting his apartment almost every day. Most times he had stories about customers, or other tenants in the building, but some days they just sat around with orange juice talking about nothing.
So it was weird when for the first time, Liam had told Graham not to stop by because he would be busy. And as he adjusted the lapels of his tuxedo, he felt a small stab of guilt for not telling him why.
For the first time in almost a year he was going to be showing in an exhibition, which his agent hadn't even told him about until she had thought it absolutely necessary. He was definitely considering firing her.
He wasn't completely sure why he had kept it a secret from Graham. For one thing, the idea of Graham seeing him walking around with a glass of champagne as an accessory, looking like some art snob, made him feel like a complete loser.
And Graham would never fit in.
Liam wasn't sure if Graham even owned a suit, and had briefly considered inviting him until he imagined Graham's response, somewhere along the lines of, "Thanks man, but that's just not my scene."
The studio hosting the artwork was one Liam had been too more than enough, so it was easy to map out a plan of escape.
He went over it in his head as he walked up the steps to the entrance. He would mingle for about fifteen minutes, give a dark brooding look, then declare that he absolutely needed to paint.
It worked almost every time.
His agent, Sarah, was standing just in the doorway. If he hadn't known her, he would be able to spot her type A personality just by the way she presented herself. She always had her dark hair tied back in a perfect bun, and wore the most expensive suits with very pointy heels. She also had a permanent semi-scowl.
There was also the tongue-clicking thing she did when she didn't like what she saw. That applied to art, people, and the world in general.
As soon as she saw him, he could hear the soft clicking noise and sighed. "Liam! You're fifteen minutes late!"
Liam frowned, trying to think of an excuse, but he could only come up with, "There was traffic."
Sarah's pretty brown eyes narrowed. "You walk."
"Yeah, but traffic was really bad, so I had to wait a long time at the crosswalks." Liam knew that she considered him borderline mentally challenged, but never really tried to give her any other impression. After all, they helped each other make money.
"You are so full of shit sometimes. Anyway, people always show up to openings fashionably late." He managed to say it without irony, despite the full room of people. Most of them weren't even looking at his art anyway.
He was definitely going to fire her. Bitch, he thought, bitch, bitch, bitch. Then he felt mildly guilty for his thoughts and went to get her a glass of champagne in apology.
The only good part of gallery showings was that no one really knew what Liam looked like. Even though he'd met almost everyone in the room, he prided himself on being completely forgettable at functions like that.
Most of the pieces of his that he passed were older works that he did not intend to sell. He wasn't even sure why he was showing. He wasn't up and coming and he wasn't famous.
As usual, he was just there.
He took a glass of champagne from the buffet table, thanked the waiter, and turned around.
And almost dropped the glass, because Graham was in the middle of the room, shiny and smiling in a tuxedo.
Liam thought about giving him a running jump hug. Instead he more or less stomped over the where the tall man was standing and hissed, "What are you doing here?"
"I thought you didn't drink." He'd lost the eyebrow ring, but his was still a faded shade of green, which wasn't that out of place in the art world, so no one was really paying attention to him.
Liam stabbed a finger in Sarah's direction. "This," he shook the glass, almost spilling the bubbly liquid, "is for her."
"Oh." Graham's face fell for just one second, and then he was smiling again. "Your girlfriend looks more in to this than you do."
It took a second to sink in. "She is." Then it sank in all over again. Graham thought he was dating his harpy of an agent. "But she's not—"
Sarah glided by, suddenly, glaring. She was shorter than Liam, but it didn't make her any less intimidating. "Is that for me?" Without waiting for an answer, she snatched the glass and took two long sips. Then she glared. "Why aren't you mingling?"
"I'm pretty sure he was," Graham said, and when Liam looked up at him, he was frowning.
It looked like a cat fight was about to go down. Liam couldn't wait.
Instead of snapping back, though, Sarah smiled charmingly and held out her hand. "I wasn't aware. I'm Liam's agent, Sarah Fox. Are you an artist as well?"
"No," Graham said shortly, and turned back to Liam with a grin. "So hey, how long do you have to be here?"
Liam tried not to be too charmed. It was hard, especially considered how good Graham looked in a tuxedo. "A long, boring while. You didn't tell me why you're here."
Sarah, never one to be ignored, shoved the champagne flute back at Liam. "Don't forget to mingle."
They both stared after her. Graham was the first to speak. "She's…nice?"
Liam shrugged. "She's a good agent, which is why I keep here around. So why are you here?"
"I'm getting the impression that you don't want me to be here." He didn't sound that upset, but he wasn't smiling, and Liam felt guilty all over again. Unfortunately, Graham didn't seem like the champagne type.
Around them, people broke into small groups to discuss different pieces.
Liam would have killed for some privacy. "I do. I'm just surprised. I thought if I asked you, you would laugh or something."
Graham grinned, and gestured at one of Liam's paintings. "It's your life, man, why would I laugh? Now, I'm not saying a room full of pretentious art penguins isn't funny…"
Liam laughed. "You're wearing a tuxedo too. How did you know about the dress code?"
"I still get your mail, man." He laughed when Liam blushed in embarrassment. "I saw the invitation and the plus one note at the bottom. I guess it was stupid, but I thought you'd invite me. So I dug out this old tux from when I was best man at my brother's wedding. So I figured, even if you didn't invite me, it's more or less open to the public, and here I am."
It was the nicest thing anyone had ever done, but all he could say was, "Isn't it a federal offense to read someone else's mail?"
Graham shook his head and scowled at the floor. "Shit, this was weird, wasn't it? I should have asked. I'm gonna bust, man."
He turned to leave, but Liam grabbed his arm. "Don't leave," he said just a little too loudly. People began to look. Across the room, Liam saw Sarah put her hand over her face. "Sorry." His face heated up immediately.
But Graham was ignoring everyone else. "Stay?"
"Yes." If he tried hard enough, he could ignore everyone else too. And to think he'd considered himself invisible. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you."
A smile spread on Graham's lips. "You said that already. Nothing to forgive. I haven't invited you to any punk shows with me." He nudged Liam's shoulder until he turned around, and then pushed him forward. "So this is an art show; show me some art."
"Okay," he said. "We can start over there." He nodded towards another artist's exhibit, and started to walk that way, but Graham took him by the shoulder.
"I was thinking more along the lines of your artwork."
Liam ducked his head, but smiled. He swatted at the hand on his shoulder. "Okay."
Step Four: Try New Things
The knocking woke him up, but the yelling got him out of bed.
He knew it was Graham. After two months of seeing each other daily, he had grown familiar with both Graham's voice and his total lack of tact. Especially at three in the morning.
Liam groped for his glasses on the bedside table, and decided against putting on a shirt. He was wearing pajama pants, and felt decent enough. Two months ago, he would have balked at the idea of someone seeing him half naked.
He blamed his total comfort with himself on Graham.
Graham was holding an almost empty bottle of what had to be the biggest beer Liam had ever seen. Graham tried to smirk, but it was more of a ridiculous lopsided leer. "Guess you've never had a forty, huh? No drinking," he said wistfully. "This is my third one."
It looked like a lot of beer.
Graham let himself in, shoving his way past Liam and almost taking them both down when he tripped over his own feet.
"Are you okay?" He didn't even finish locking the door when Graham pulled him into his arms so they were flat against each other.
Liam was close enough to count his eyelashes. Graham ran a careful finger over one of Liam's eyebrows, and ended up pushing down his glasses. "Do you know how fucking hot you are?"
He pushed them back up and looked away. "You're really drunk."
"Yeah, but I think it every time I see you."
"You shouldn't drink so much," Liam said, going for a stern tone. He sounded weak even to himself.
"I'll stop if it will make you happy."
That was all Graham said before he bent down and licked his way into Liam's mouth.
Liam swallowed his surprised gasp, and almost ended up swallowing Graham's tongue with it. Graham grabbed at Liam's arms, and tried to step forward, but ended up tripping both of them, and sent them tumbling backwards.
Liam's head hit the wall with a dull thud, but his pained whine was lost in the kiss. Graham braced one hand above Liam's shoulder for balance, and used the other to stroke Liam's cheekbone.
Liam felt like his jaw would come unhinged, his mouth was open so wide. Not surprisingly, Graham was taking the lead, his tongue bitter against Liam's, but also warm and wet and other nice things—and it was only a vaguely bad taste.
This was the moment he had been waiting for, what everything had been building up to, without even knowing it. No one had ever told him if he was a good kisser, and it had never mattered until now, when his whole life felt like it could end at any moment.
Graham pulled back, their mouths making and obscenely wet sound. "I have an idea," he said against Liam's lips. His eyes were half open, and for a single moment, he looked completely sober.
Then he was sucking the skin just above Liam's collarbone. Liam jerked forward, making an embarrassingly loud noise. Graham didn't seem to mind, he just kept sucking, until finally, he looked up with a wicked grin.
His hand trailed down Liam's stomach, resting on his zipper. Liam was afraid his heart was going to explode.
"How about you grab me a glass of water, then we can rendezvous on the couch."
Liam didn't have to ask what kind of rendezvous Graham had in mind, because as the other man began walking backwards towards the couch, he pulled his shirt up and over his head.
Liam waited until Graham had safely made it to the couch and started unzipping his pants, then ran. He'd never gotten a glass of water so quickly, but he'd never really had a reason.
He almost spilled it everywhere in his rush to get back out to the couch, and again when he saw Graham stretched out on the couch, the light from the bedroom falling across his body.
After pillowing his head on his hands, Graham offered another drunken smile. "Hey."
As carefully as possible, Liam set the water down on the table. Part of him was hesitant to go any further, to save awkwardness. After all, they had only know each other for a little over two months, and Liam still felt weird just sharing casual touches.
Graham didn't give him much of a choice, though, and pulled him down with one sharp tug. Liam had barely gotten his breath back when Graham's mouth was on his again, his hands sneaking down into Liam's back pockets.
Graham caught Liam's lower lip between his teeth and pulled at it softly with a quiet growl, and raised one knee between Liam's thighs. Liam's breath was coming in harsh pants.
Making out was the best thing ever.
When Liam finally got the courage to touch, his hands only shook slightly on the elastic band of Graham's boxers. The other man's head fell back against the arm of the couch, and it took Liam a few seconds to realize he had passed out.
Liam looked down at his tented pajama pants and sighed. It just figured. He patted Graham's cheek. "Graham, you need to wake up."
"Come on." Liam tugged at Graham's arm, and managed to get him into a sitting position.
Graham did not look happy. His eyes were closed, and there was a deep line between them, and his lips were pulling down at the corners. "'M comfortable here," he mumbled.
"I know. But you'll be better in the bed. Come on."
It took a few minutes to get Graham back on his feet, and he had to support the taller man, but he managed to get them into the bedroom. It was almost bare, like the rest of his apartment, except for the queen size bed in the middle of the room and some sparse furniture.
Liam dropped Graham into the bed, and after a moment of debating with himself, he tugged Graham's pants off and pulled the covers over him.
He thought about taking the couch, but rationalized that if Graham's tongue had been in his mouth, it was okay to share a bed.
He still stayed as close to the edge as possible, until Graham reached out and pulled him in close under the warmth of the covers.
"You should try drinking sometime," Graham muttered into his hair.
Liam snorted softly. "I don't think so."
Graham rocked his hips slowly, lazily, and said, "Try new things."
He fell asleep in a warm tangle of limbs, horny and confused.
He woke up to the sound of retching.
It was still dark, but the bathroom light was on, and the door was cracked open. It took him a second to remember Graham showing up drunk and passing out. His whole body felt hot.
The retching grew louder, so Liam grabbed his glasses and slowly padded towards the bathroom.
"Oh, God. Seriously, don't come in. This is so embarrassing."
Liam ignored him. "I'm coming in."
Graham was leaning against the toilet in his boxers, long legs stretched out in front of him. One arm was strewn across the toilet bowl, and the other was wrapped around his stomach.
"Do you need some water?" He looked like a needed to be hosed down.
"No. I didn't even throw up. Just this god damn dry heaving, because I am a dumb fuck and I drink too much, and god, there are strangers in my apartment."
Liam found a washcloth and ran it under some cold water. He dropped to his knees in front of Graham and silently ran the washcloth across Graham's forehead.
Graham leaned into it and sighed heavily. He managed a shaky smile. "So did I make a huge ass of myself last night?"
"You don't remember?" Liam tried not to let his disappointment show.
Graham's watery olive eyes didn't even waver as he said, "No. Well, I remember telling all of those fuckheads to get out of my apartment. It was all bullshit and drama. No one would leave, so I did. People are probably selling my shit on EBay right now."
"I'm sure your friends wouldn't do that."
"You're right." Graham leaned into the washcloth, mouth falling open. "They probably just stole it for themselves."
"You're being cynical."
His shoulder raised into a shrug. "I'm just being honest with myself. Except for you, all of my friends are assholes. I just don't make good friends."
Liam found that hard to believe. "You have a bleak outlook on life," he said, trying not to grin.
"You don't have room to talk." Graham's smile faded into a more serious look, and he put his hand over Liam's to hold the cloth in place over his cheek. "Hey. Nothing happened last night, right?"
Blushing, Liam tried to pull his hand back, but Graham wouldn't let go. He settled for looking up at the ceiling. "What do you mean?"
"I mean I'm a drunken whore, and when I woke up we were spooning in our boxers. I just." He reached out and poked the hickey he'd left the night before. "I just don't want to know I took advantage of you."
Liam squeaked a little a jerked back, putting a hand over his collar bone. "You didn't do anything," he said quickly.
"Yeah?" There were two small creases that appeared whenever Graham frowned. His eyes narrowed, and he held Liam's gaze firmly.
"Yes," Liam said firmly. He hated lying. "Nothing happened."
"Would you tell me if I did?"
Liam lied through his teeth. "Yes."
"So that's not a hickey on your neck?" Graham closed his eyes, but he was still smiling. "You trip and fall onto a door or something?"
Fighting his own smile, Liam said, "The door was feeling frisky, I think. Anyway, I'm going to go get you some water. And…" he tried not to wrinkle his nose too much. "You can use my toothbrush."
"Now that is friendship. But I don't mind going back to my place." The toilet flushed, and it sounded like he tried to stand up. Liam could hear his pitiful moan all the way in the kitchen.
"On second thought," Graham yelled, "I think I'll use the toothbrush."
It didn't surprise him when Graham came out minutes later, dressed only in pants. "I am gross, man. And hey, where's my forty?"
"By the door," Liam answered absently. "Where you left it."
"Why would I leave it there?"
Liam remembered the hands hot on his face, and the tongue sliding into his mouth. "I don't know. You were just being drunk, I guess."
Graham laughed, and then groaned. "Oh, laughing is a bad idea. But seriously, 'just being drunk?'"
"Well, I don't know what else to call it. I don't drink."
"I know, I know." He peered over Liam's shoulder and took a deep breath. "What are you cooking?"
Liam gave him a flat look. "What does it look like?"
"Obviously it's pancakes. Duh. But man, there are things in it."
"Those are peaches."
Graham moved away and started going through the fridge. He'd done it before, so Liam didn't really mind. "Who the fuck puts peaches in their pancakes?"
Liam frowned, embarrassed. "I do. What else would I put in them?"
"Chocolate chips, blueberries…you know, the standard pancakes accessories?"
He was going to set aside the two smallest pancakes for Graham. "Well, it sounds weird for someone to put chocolate chips into pancakes."
After settling on a can of coke, which Liam did not comment on, he reached over Liam's shoulder to open the cabinet. As he pulled out a cup, he muttered, "Man, you need to try new things."
The pan almost went flying. "What?"
"New things," Graham repeated. He leaned in close to Liam's ear. "You should try them."
"Maybe next time." Liam hoped his voice didn't shake too much. And that Graham didn't notice he was a little bit turned on.
When he turned to look, Graham was smiling absently at the ceiling, holding the coke against his stomach. "I'm holding you to that."
Step Five: Be Yourself
A week later Graham showed up with less than an inch of black hair, wearing an argyle sweater. "My parents were in town," was all he said as he handed over Liam's mail. Without his shock of messy colored hair, his face looked squarer, and his eyes were more vibrant. He looked like one of those models Liam always saw on billboards.
"You look nice." He even had loose pants on.
Graham smiled, and Liam could see a new tongue ring when he said, "That's what my mom said." He held up a large brown paper bag. "I come bearing gifts."
"What is it?"
"Duh." Graham poked Liam in the forehead. "That would spoil the surprise."
Liam rolled his eyes. While physical contact wasn't the problem it had been before, Graham really knew how to annoy him—like, say, a poke to the face. "Well, then, give it to me."
That got him a leer. "Oh, I'll give it to you all right."
A blush rose on Liam's cheeks before he could even blink in embarrassment. He turned around to hide his face, but Graham just grabbed his hips and pulled him back. "Ah, making it easy for me."
While he put a good few feet between them, Graham doubled over in laughter. "God, you're easy sometimes. Here, here, take the present."
Liam snatched the bag without getting to close, and tried not to look too excited about opening it. Inside were several records and oddly, a few pairs of socks. At his confused glance, Graham laughed awkwardly.
"Okay, my mom insisted she buy you something…it was better than the boxer briefs she wanted to get you."
Liam blushed all over again. "Much better."
"Anyway, keep going! There's more."
Beneath the socks was a CD case, and inside was a plain silver disc that said 'PLAY ME' on it. And beneath that was the Discman CD player. Liam looked up at Graham with wide eyes, but Graham just made a 'continue' motion with his hands. There wasn't much room left in the bag, but when Liam pulled everything else out, there was a piece of paper at the bottom of the bag.
It was a flyer for some record store Liam had never heard of. Of course, Graham's store was the only one he actually knew.
Graham's smile threatened to take over his face. "Okay, so, I have some news."
"I didn't even tell my parents yet, man. I wanted you to be the first one to know."
Liam bit his lip to hide his pleased smile.
"So—I'm opening a new store. It's almost like, a chain or something. And I know, I know, sellout city, but I don't mind being a sell—"
"That's great, Graham," Liam said quietly, before Graham could go into one of his rants about staying true to music. "Really. Congratulations."
Graham rubbed his palms along his thighs, looking more nervous than Liam had ever seen him look. "Seriously? You think it's good?"
"This shit is seriously hardcore, dude," Liam said, deadpan. He'd been practicing his punk lingo for days.
Apparently it worked. "That is so punk rock," Graham said, laughing. "Okay, okay, that just—you deserve one more present."
He looked down at his belts, and touched each one. Wordlessly, he loosened one of them and pulled it off quickly. "Come here," he said. When Liam stepped forward, he threw the belt loosely around his hips, sliding it through only one belt loop so it hung at an angle.
"You are now officially a punk rocker."
Liam grinned as he fingered the belt. It was worn black leather lined with metal studs. "I feel cooler already."
"Aw, man, you were always cool. Well, except for these paint stains all over your face."
With a groan, Liam reached up to touch his cheeks. "I'm working on a new commission piece."
Graham shuffled back, jostling the empty bag with his boots. "Shit, did I interrupt?"
He had, but wasn't about to tell Graham that. "No."
"Of course." He reached down and grabbed the CD. "So what is this?"
"A mix. For when you paint."
As a rule, Liam generally tried for complete silence while he worked. Noise was always a distraction, even if it was just a stray pigeon on the windowsill. Graham knew all of that. "What's on it?"
"Christ, man, if you were a cat, curiosity would have killed you already. Just listen to it. When I'm not around," he added quickly. He looked embarrassed.
Liam narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Why not?"
"I'm going to listen to it now."
Graham grabbed the CD before he could and held it above his head where Liam couldn't reach. "Are you deaf or something? I said I couldn't be here."
Liam bit his lip in concentration and jumped for the Discman. He still couldn't get it. He would never get used to the height difference, or Graham's weirdly long arms. "I don't see what the big deal is."
"Well, maybe there isn't. Maybe I just like having an air of mystery."
He decided to try a different approach. "I like your hair like this."
When Graham said, "Yeah, I decided to go all natural this week," and rubbed his head, Liam snatched the disc away.
Liam clutched the disc to his chest, jumping away every time Graham grabbed at it. "I just want to hear the first song," he tried to reason.
Graham seemed puzzled by his playful attitude, and if Liam thought about it, it was completely out of character for him. At the same time, it felt good to relax and just have fun.
"I really do like your hair," he said, half in apology.
"Yeah, yeah. I look all clean cut and shit."
Only he didn't, because no one could look clean cut in combat boots. "It's a nice look on you."
"Maybe if I were some preppy ass motherfucker."
"You could definitely pass for one."
Graham scowled, and ran his fingers over his head again. "Now I'm going to think of that everywhere I go."
Liam rolled his eyes. "I'm sure you'll survive. No one will think that. You're too…you have this presence."
Graham smirked. "Go on."
Heat was filling his cheeks. "You look almost dangerous or something."
Graham chuckled. "Like I'm carrying brass knuckles in my pocket?"
"Yes," Liam blurted, a little too quickly.
"Well, fuck that. I mean, good, I don't look like a prep, but I'm not one of those asshole punks who likes to pick fights for no reason. I'm all about the peace."
Liam nodded. "I'm all about the peace too."
"You are, man. You could totally pass as a peace punk."
"With paint stains and coke bottle glasses?"
Graham gently pulled the glasses off. Once they were gone, he turned into a giant blur. "I wouldn't call this coke bottles. Oh." He noticed Liam squinting. "Can you seriously not see without them?"
"I'm not blind," he said carefully, "but I definitely can't see."
"Well, what's wrong with your eyes?"
Liam closed his eyes before he could get a headache. "It's like I live in a Monet painting. Everything is vague."
"That works in my favor," Graham said in a very vague way.
Liam literally didn't seem him coming, but he felt the hand curl around the back of his neck. Then lips were pressed against his. Compared to their first kiss, it was completely tame, but it wasn't any less perfect.
He figured Graham was waiting for his go-ahead, so he took a step closer and tilted his face up. It was almost like kissing a different person when Graham licked tentatively at his bottom lip.
Graham pulled away and slid the glasses back over Liam's eyes. Then he took a step back and cleared his throat. "So…"
Liam blinked as the room came back into focus. Graham looked back at him, perfectly calm. "You kiss a lot differently when you're sober," he tried to say casually.
Those were the magic words. A wide smile spread across his face. "I was hoping you'd notice."
That meant he remembered his short-lived make out session with Liam. "You remember!"
"Ow!" Graham rubbed at his chest where Liam had hit him. "I was trying to give you an out."
"I almost stuck my hand down your pants," Liam hissed. "And you remembered."
Graham scowled. "Yeah, I also remember passing out two seconds later. Thanks."
"I can't believe you didn't tell me."
"Forgive me," he drawled, "for thinking you wouldn't think I was all that sexy dry heaving into your toilet and reminiscing about shoving my tongue down your throat."
There obviously wasn't enough communication in their relationship. Liam heaved a sigh, and looked up at Graham with wide eyes. "I thought it was just you being drunk."
Graham snorted and rolled his eyes. He stepped back into Liam's personal space. "I hate to sound like some sappy fuck, but nothing with you is 'just' anything."
A warm feeling settled low in Liam's stomach. "You do sound like a sappy fuck."
"Sure, mock the guy who's pouring out his heart."
Feeling suddenly shy, Liam fidgeted his way into Graham's personal space. And maybe a little bit further. "Um." And he wasn't sure why he was whispering, but it didn't stop him. "You're too tall for me to make the second move."
Green eyes considered him carefully. It was like the first time they'd met, and just as Liam guessed, a huge smile broke out on Graham's face. He still didn't move, though, just looked down his nose at Liam.
"Oh, you're creative." He waved a hand at Liam's painting without looking."You'll think of something."
So Liam did. He wrapped his arms around Graham's neck and pushed up on his toes at the same moment he pulled Graham down. As their lips met in a kiss, Liam decided that tomorrow, he was going to toss out that book.
After all, he didn't need it anymore.
A/N: So anyway, there it is. A long, pointless tale of love. I'm thinking about a sequel, with actual plot. Okay, so please let me know what you thought!