A/N: I now have a Patreon, where a bulk of my new writing get uploaded first, including the continuation of this story. If you like this story, or any of my stories, please check it out! The link is on my profile here on fictionpress, since I can't put a link into a story.

[ XII ]

Someone was saying my name, or maybe yelling it, over and over. It made my head throb, and I just wanted them to stop, to shut up. Everything still wobbled and twinkled in front of my eyes. I couldn't tell if I didn't have enough air, or if I had too much. Then there were hands on me, grabbing me, pulling me up. Was I on the ground? I didn't know, I couldn't even see. I wasn't sure where my body was, where I started or ended.

I reached out blindly, grabbing onto something hard and metal and something else soft and thick.

Hands pressed against the sides of my face, cupped around the back of my head. I forced my eyes open. Keyd swam into focus in my blurry, sparkling vision.

"Oh, hey," I said. Or tried to. My voice sounded wrecked. "It's you."

He was kind of doubled up, two layers that didn't match, so his edges were all fuzzy and strange. I blinked hard at him, over and over, but he was a smudged blob no matter what. My own unfocused hands were gripping his hair and a piece of his shoulder armor.

"Oh. Here." Keyd reached to the side, then something poked against my temples, cool and plastic and thin. My glasses. I reached up, helped him fumble them onto my face, startled that he'd even remembered those were something I needed. How fucking sweet of him. Now his face was in focus, hovering above me, all concerned and sweaty and dirt-streaked. A cut across his forehead was bleeding and clotting with flaky, black blood.

"Thanks," I croaked out in my ruin of a voice. I tried to struggle to sit myself up, and his arm slid around my back and helped me. Even moving that much winded me, and I got lightheaded and dizzy again. I couldn't support my own weight and ended up sinking back on Keyd, my shoulder pressing into his chest. His armor wasn't comfortable to be wedged up against; hard metal and sharp corners everywhere. Keyd's fingers touched down in my hair, moving around like they were feeling for something, right on the part of my head that hurt worst. He muttered a word I couldn't understand, but it sure sounded like swearing from the way he said it.

"No, I'm okay," I assured him hazily. "Real okay. You? You okay?"

"Fine," Keyd said. He sounded curt, all business, but the hand on my shoulder was digging in so hard it was starting to hurt.

"Keyd, buddy, he threw you into a tree." And it'd nearly knocked him out.

"I'm fine."

"You're gonna hafta tell me how you keep surviving that. Someday," I said, and closed my eyes and rolled my face against his shoulder. I was so tired. It felt good to rest here, and even though his armor Keyd felt so warm.

"Alan, no." Keyd pinched me, and I groaned and said something rude. "Don't sleep."

"Fuuuck, why not?"

"Because you're bleeding, and you could be hurt more than that."

"Don't feel so bad. Jus' kinda dizzy. I swear I'm okay." My voice kept breaking because of how torn up my throat was. I must've been screaming, or something. I didn't really remember. Everything was so foggy and jumbled.

Keyd patted my cheek a few times like he was trying to jar me alert. "You need to stay awake."

"For how long?"

He shifted against me, and when I peeked up at him he was staring off in another direction and frowning. That other direction was where Rysa had been.

I pawed at him. "Hey, Rysa, Rysa, is she okay?"

"I think so. But I need to go to her," Keyd said. He looked back down at me. "I'm going to leave you here for a moment. Don't sleep."

"Oh, yeah. That's a good...good idea. I'm gonna be good too, right here, on the ground."

Keyd ran his hand over my hair and caged his fingers at the back of my head. "Stay awake. Promise me," he said, tilting me up so I had to look him right in the eyes. In the low light and shadows of the trees, his looked black.



"Sure, yes, okay! I promise."

Keyd managed to lower me down and slide himself out from under me at the same time, so I was suddenly stretched out on my back on the damp earth. Then he spent a couple seconds arranging me, clearly trying to make me comfortable, even though I was numb and tingling all over and couldn't feel a damn thing. God, he was such a sweet guy. And I'd taken such fucking advantage of that before, pawing at him when he'd been too nice to directly tell me to fuck off.

This also seemed like the most important thing that I needed to deal with right now. It was absolutely crucial that I tell him I was sorry, that I'd been totally out of line and knew it. Keyd's hand was still on my arm and so I grabbed at him before he could let go, got my fingers in a clumsy hold around his wrist.

"I'm really...about what I did earlier," I said, tugging insistently at him like it'd make my apology more sincere or something. "The ki—you know what I mean. I shouldn't've. It wasn't a good idea."

There was a long, strange pause. Then Keyd rested his other hand lightly on the side of my face. His thumb pressed against my cheek, and heat built up in the hollow of space between his skin and mine.

"It's all right," he said. "I didn't mind."

What does that mean?I tried to ask him, but in the time it took to come up with all those words in the right order, Keyd was already gone. Really gone, taking the warmth and the hum of his energy with him. I was lying on the lumpy damp ground all by myself, listening to the rustle of the wind through trees and staring at a shadowy gravestone near my head. I turned my face against the mossy dirt and closed my eyes. For a minute, just for a minute. I wasn't going to go sleep because I'd promised.

Real distantly, I thought I could hear voices talking; Keyd and Rysa maybe. Then she really was okay. Good, that was good. I wanted everyone to be okay. Maybe not Ahieel. Him not being okay wouldn't be so bad. Fuck that guy.

I bunched up one hand in the fabric of my sweatshirt, squeezed at it hard; just something to focus on. Keep myself awake. I'd promised. It'd been important to somebody. But everything in my head was sliding around, wobbling, fuck. There was a big white blob at the edge of my vision, like part of the world had just been erased in a sharp jagged shape against the ground. I saw some pale gold hair spread out over the dirt. But my eyelids ached, weighed themselves down, and it hurt to look at anything for too long. Too many colors swirled behind my eyelids when I closed them. Pointless hot tears slid out of the corners of my eyes, and one went into my ear. Sounds muted and sludged.

I just couldn't do it.

"Sorry," I whispered to no one, and let everything fade out.


I wasn't dead, because I was in too much goddamn pain to be dead.

The back of my head throbbed and burned deep into my skull, and the rest of me was a big hazy cloud of raw nerves, screaming and aching and throbbing. Even my teeth and my fingernails and my hair hurt. I was half-aware of heavy ragged breathing somewhere close by, and then I realized that was me. I was doing that, and it sounded awful.

Someone's hand slipped into mine, and I clutched at it hard just because it was there. Words wouldn't form in my mouth, or even in my head, and when I tried to talk anyway all that came out were gasping, whimpery noises. What was wrong with me?

"You'll be all right," said a voice immediately. "Just relax. You'll be all right."

Relax? Were they fucking crazy? Then another hand slid gently under my head, and a cool tingly feeling seeped into my skull right where it hurt the worst. Some of the pain faded, down to a manageable aching pulse. Another hand pressed to my chest, right below my throat, and that burned much hotter and less comforting. I was still holding on to somebody's fingers. This was too many hands, more than one person was touching me.

"We'll take care of you," said a voice, maybe the same voice, maybe a different one. But I believed it. So I nodded, or tried to. A fourth hand came down to touch my face, brushing light fingers that felt more like blunt knives over my burning skin. Fuck, why did so much hurt? I'd been okay before...sort of.

"Alan, stop." Whoever was talking sounded concerned but stern, and I realized I was trying to flinch and twist away from all the hands except the one I was squeezing to death in my own. But even that touch hurt, like holding on to a chunk of metal that was burning slowly hotter. It was just starting to get unbearable when the hand gently pried itself out of mine and put itself on my cheek instead, in a new scorching patch across my skin. I think might have yelled something.

"Sulha?" asked a voice, somewhere far away above my head while I squirmed and sweated and swore, and another one said, "kahle dava."

A hand pressed down on my forehead and that was the last thing I remembered.


I flailed awake when something touched my face, striking out blind and panicked. Burning hot fingers slapped around my wrist, jerked it back, another scorching hand catching my other shoulder and pinning it down to the—bed?

Yeah, a bed. It was my bed, in my own apartment, and Rysa was leaning over me and holding me down by the arms, her hands burning like hot metal against my skin. I had no idea how I'd gotten back here, but I had a couple guesses and most of them included flying.

"Sorry, Rysa. Shit," I breathed, my heart still hammering away against my chest. Everything still hurt like fuck. A blanket was over me, and even just the barely-there feel of it was like being smothered under a burning awful weight. Shit. I tried to breathe easy, stay calm, and not move.

"I didn't mean to startle you," Rysa said, slowly easing up her grip on me. That took some of the pain away—where she'd been touching me still left burning aftershocks that faded very slowly. "I thought you were still asleep."

"So did I." My voice sounded terrible, and my throat felt like sandpaper and grit. Talking at a regular volume was like gargling rock salt. "Fuck, what even happened out there?" I whispered. "What did I do?"

"I'm not sure what to tell you," Rysa said slowly. "Keyd and I saw very little. When you and Ahieel fought, there was a barrier around you. We couldn't see or get through it. It only disappeared at the end."

Oh. That explained why they hadn't helped out. I kinda figured it'd been something like that, since I knew they would've done something if they could. They had every other time.

Is Ahieel dead, was the question I didn't want to ask. Because if he was, that'd mean that I'd…

No, no, no, think about something else.

"I, uh...feel really weird." Sort of floaty and light headed, and whenever I moved even a little it was like jagged splinters of electricity shooting through my veins. "Am I...okay?"

"You have a cut at the back of your head," Rysa said. "I've done what I can, and it will likely heal on its own, but perhaps you should visit some type of healer here to have it looked at as well."

"Naw, I'll be okay with that." I really didn't want to make a trip to the ER or Urgent Care to get some expensive treatment. Especially if Rysa'd said it'd be all right, I believed her, and my head was the part of me that hurt the least. And I was in no condition to drive. Plus, where the hell was my car right now? I definitely hadn't driven it back here. It was probably still back at the cemetery.

Rysa made a funny little noise, part irritation and part amusement. "You and Keyd," she said, and for a second I had a seize of panic about what she meant and did she know, and then she added, "refusing to be looked after."

"Hey, doctors aren't cheap," I said, and Rysa stared at me like I'd said something totally off-the-wall insane. "I'm not all that worried about my head." At least I knew how that'd happened; when Ahieel'd slammed me into the ground. The other stuff was more important, and probably no doctor on this planet could help me out with it. "Everything else hurts worse. I mean everything."

"How so?"

"I don't...know. It's really hard to describe. Like...there's lightning inside me. All the time, everywhere. Worse when I move." Even when I talked, but if I mentioned that Rysa might suggest I not talk, and there was too much to fucking talk about right now.

"Do you remember anything of what happened?" Rysa asked. "I assume whatever you're experiencing must be a side effect of what happened when you fought with Ahieel. We did sense a very large amount of energy being used behind the barrier."

Remembering what happened was like asking me to swim through pudding. Thick and sludgy and took slow, dragging, endless effort. "I know that I...pushed Keyd off Ahieel. He just had this big mass of energy he was gonna do something with—" —and it'd reminded me of what Ahieel had done to Keyd at the Crystal Cathedral. I hadn't consciously thought about that in the moment, but it made sense now. Why I'd just run in like that. "And I just thought I could stop it. I think Ahieel maybe...tried to shove it into me instead, and it was way too much to handle. And maybe I pushed it back into him? Jesus, it's hard to think. Probably wasn't the best plan, though."

Rysa made a soft, slightly disapproving noise. "This is not a good habit of yours," she said, but she didn't sound completely was some light teasing in there.

"What, jumping in with no real fucking clue what I'm doing?" I said, and Rysa laughed softly.

"Yes, that."

"Yeah, I know. But I—" I hesitated. I wasn't sure if I really wanted to share what I felt about Keyd with her, and why I kept making these stupid risky decisions to protect him. What would she even think? They were totally cool with being naked everywhere in front of anybody and showering with your friends, so I had to guess they'd be okay with like...gay stuff. But I hadn't really considered it. Different culture, different rules. There was no way to know what either of them would really think.

Keyd hadn't seemed to mind me kissing him. And he'd even done it first. But actual feelings...that was something different.

Better to just keep my mouth shut about Keyd, let Rysa think I was just an inexperienced idiot instead of a smitten idiot. I really didn't want to be that guy who got led around by their dick, even if I probably would've done all the same things either way. Both Keyd and Rysa were my friends, and Ahieel had fucked with my life too, and I hadn't gotten this involved because I thought it'd get me laid. That was pretty much the last thing I figured would happen.

Rysa was waiting for me to say something, head tilted and attention focused on me. She was probably being extra patient with the guy who had a head injury.

"I'll try to do less stupid stuff," I said. "I mean, I can't promise I won't, but I'll try."

"What you've done isn't stupid," she said. "Just...unwise."

"Isn't that basically the same thing?" Maybe we were having a translation error. It was so easy to forget they didn't actually speak English, and I barely noticed the mismatched mouth thing anymore.

"You achieved what you meant to do, even if was dangerous and reckless," Rysa said. "And clearly it was within your ability, like breaking through Ahieel's trap was. So nothing you did was unfounded or without reason. Still, it was not particularly advisable."

"Right, I think I get what you mean." What I'd done wasn't entirely stupid, because I had reason to think I could. But it was still a dumbass move. Ahieel could've killed me, and probably'd gotten real close to actually doing it. There was a reason I was in so much fucking pain right now. "I'd still do it again. You guys actually needed me."

I swear Rysa rolled her eyes. "You know that reflects very poorly on us, as soldiers," she said, but I think she was teasing me again. "We're supposed to look out for you."

"Believe me, you guys have done great at that. You need me to like, rate your performance to somebody? You get all the gold stars. Two thumbs up. Ten out of ten."

Rysa smiled, but she obviously didn't really get what I meant even if she knew I was joking around. She took my hand, and it was like I'd grabbed a fork and jammed it right in a electrical socket.

"Ow, fuck!" I ripped my hand away in pure reflex. "Shit, fuck, don't do that."

"I'm sorry," Rysa said, startled, gripping her own hand against her chest like she was afraid it'd jump out and poke me on its own.

I could practically feel little tingly worms of electricity burrowing around in my chest, zinging up and down my arm like the worst pins and needles ever. "It hurt when you were touching me before, too. But not like that."

"You took an extreme amount of energy into your body from Ahieel's trap alone," Rysa said, carefully lowering her hands to her lap. "And if what you remember is what actually happened, even more from Ahieel himself."

"Yeah, but...I think I got rid of it all again." Directly back into Ahieel. I did remember that, and not being able to stop once I'd started.

"Likely you did, or Keyd and I would not be able to touch you at all," she said. "But you do seem very sensitive at the moment, and you say you're in constant pain. That amount of energy even just passing through you could have...damaged you."

"Damaged me?"

Rysa looked uncomfortable. "I'm not a healer, and I know little of something like this. Keyd knows even less. If I were able, I'd take you to one of our healers to have them examine you."

"But what would damage mean?" Had I fried all my nerve endings or something? Was I gonna feel like this forever? Jesus, I could barely move.

"I don't know. I expect you'll learn in time, what the permanent effects are," Rysa said. She did sound sympathetic, but obviously there was nothing either of us could do about it, and I appreciated that she wasn't really coddling me over it. I'd done this to myself, after all, and had to take the responsibility for it. All of it, which might even mean that I'd...done something to Ahieel that might mean he wasn't very alive anymore.

Nausea rolled over in my stomach, slow and gooey. That image of Ahieel, crumpled and still in his blinding white armor, clawed sickly back into my mind. Fuck, okay, still not ready to think about that.

"Can I just...get a second?" I asked. "I'm...my head hurts thinking about this, I just need a minute. Okay?"

"Of course," Rysa said, standing up. She'd been sitting in my desk chair, pulled up to the side of my bed. The shirt I'd been wearing yesterday was folded over the back of it. There were holes in it; huge burned ragged gaps like someone'd taken a lighter to it, or thrown it on a barbeque grill. Then I realized I wasn't really wearing clothes at all, under the blankets.

Fuck, my head hurt too much to really think about that. I closed my eyes as Rysa padded quietly across the room and went out the door. I didn't hear it click shut again, but that was okay. If they wanted to keep some kind of watch on me, that was fine. I didn't mind. It was nice having someone want to look out for me.


I couldn't sleep, since every tiny move I made sent pain splintering through my whole body. I'd sure as hell tried, lying there for what felt like days with my eyes clamped shut, but it wasn't any good. The best I'd managed was a kind of uncomfortable daydreaming, but it wasn't sleeping.

So I definitely heard it when my door creaked a little and real quiet voices murmured out in the hall. Then a tall shadow moved into the room and came across to the bed. It was too dark to see much but the vague shape of a person, but it felt like Keyd. Somehow. The way it moved, or something in the air, or just…I had no fucking idea. I just knew it was him. And I felt myself smiling helplessly, that he was here, and that he was okay. I knew he'd been all right after the fight, since he'd been the one taking care ofme, but it was still good to know for sure.

All Keyd did was stand there, for about five seconds. I don't think he had any idea I was awake. I heard him let out a little breath in the dark, and then he turned around, headed back to the door. Really? That was it?

"Hey," I croaked out after him, and he jumped. At least, his shadowy head whipped towards me extra fast.

"Alan," he said, and was back over by the bed in about a millisecond, down on a knee and leaning in. I could still barely see him even this close, but I felt the mattress dip as his hands pressed into the edge of it. "How are you?"

"Can't sleep," I said. "Where were you goin'?"

"I was only checking on you," he said. A pause, and then; "but I could stay."

I liked the sound of that so fucking much. "Yeah. Stay." I managed to bite back and swallow down the words, I like it when you're here. Way too strong.

Keyd did stay, right where he was by the side of the bed. His hand was still on the edge of the mattress. Just right there. Could've touched it, if I wanted. I did want to. But I'd already been a jerk about doing things to Keyd he hadn't asked for. I kept my hands to myself.

"Can you talk to me?" I said instead.

Keyd tilted his head, just a real vague shift of shadows. "About what?"

"Anything. Distract me. I can't sleep and I'm bored and everything fucking hurts." The last part was supposed to be a joke, but didn't come out sounding like one. Keyd probably though I was the biggest baby in the world.

He was quiet for a couple of long seconds. Then something brushed against my temple, fingers pushing my hair back out of my face. It felt like a trail of static shocks against my skin, and bright spots burst in my eyes and throbbed deep in my skull.

"Ow," I said through my teeth.

Keyd's hand yanked away. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah, maybe don't do that." Which sucked. I really didn't mind him touching me.

There was a long heavy pause that I knew was just gonna end with an unavoidable question. Keyd couldn't've missed the fact that I'd literally shoved myself between him and Ahieel, and taken the hit meant for him. I was just waiting for Keyd to say it. And finally—

"Why did you do it?"

Even though I'd been expecting it, I still didn't have a good answer. "I don't—I have no idea. I thought I could, so I did."

"That's a terrible reason," Keyd said, and his voice sounded so weird that I had to open my eyes. Looking at him, I honestly couldn't tell what he was thinking.

"Then would you believe me if I said I wanted to protect you?" I said.

Keyd snorted. "I would believe you, but it still wouldn't make what you did rational."

"God, you're so fucking literal," I said, and laughed because I couldn't help it. Every single stupid dorky thing about this guy just made me like him more. Of course, laughing hurt, and I had to make myself quit pretty fast. My ribs punished me for it anyway, throbbing and aching and running a burning line down my left side. And Keyd picked up on it, made a concerned sound, moved even closer but still managed not to touch me.

Christ, I liked him. It seemed so simple right now, so easy and straightforward. I just liked him. That was all. It wasn't so fucking dramatic and insane like I'd been making it out to be. I just liked him like any person liked any other person, and I wanted to be around him and get to know him like anybody who liked someone else would. That was all.

And I didn't even care if he knew, if I threw really obvious feelings everywhere. I'd already kissed the guy with no damn excuse for it, so he had to be partly clued in. Wasn't like it would hurt anything if he knew. He could probably use some positive feelings coming his way, no matter what they were or who they were from. He hadn't been having the easiest time in the last two weeks.

I thought I still knew where his hand was, and in the dark it seemed a little safer. I reached out, and my fingers bumped into his wrist. It hurt, just like when he'd touched my face; like constantly getting bone-deep static shocks. I started to close my hand around the top of his, just kind of a comforting thing, but Keyd turned his palm right over to fit against mine.

The static shock thing was still happening—little crackles and painful electric spikes jumping between our hands. Keyd didn't seem to be feeling it, but even if he was, he clearly didn't care. Neither of us let go. And holding on to him like this, I got an even stronger sense of that weird electric tinge that'd been hanging around in the air since the second he'd shown up.

Shit. That's what it was. It was his energy, the same way it felt whenever he'd used it. But now it was just all around him constantly, like an aura or some kind of electrical field. That must've been how I'd even known it was him in the dark; it really hadfelt like him, and I'd recognized that. But I'd never been able to sense it like that before; I'd only felt his and Rysa's energy when they were actually using it, or when I was touching the marks on their skin. This was new. But maybe I was just over sensitive right now from sucking up one point twenty-one gigawatts of Ahieel's energy into me.

"You are not a soldier," Keyd said suddenly, which was really unnecessary to point out. Of course I wasn't. "But you acted like one. Rysa and I...we likely owe you a great deal for what you did. Perhaps it wasn't wise, but…" His fingers tightened on mine. "Thank you."

"Any time," I said, and meant it. I'd help them out whenever they needed it, if I could. Ahieel wasn't high on the list of people I ever wanted to see or deal with again, but if he was still a problem…

"I hope that won't be necessary." Keyd glanced away, looking back towards the doorway, like he expected somebody to walk through. Then he turned back to me. "It isn't your responsibility to protect us."

"Yeah, but...we're friends." I fucking hoped we were at least that. "So, yeah, it is. If I can."

That obviously threw him. I was getting better at picking up on a few of Keyd's expressions by now—when he was confused or unsure, one eye would squint up just slightly and a tiny wrinkle would push up between his eyebrows. It was subtle, but I was learning.

"What?" I said, and my throat prickled. "We are friends, right?"

"...yes," Keyd replied, slowly, like he couldn't actually believe it. As if it was a totally weird idea to have a friend. Maybe he'd just never had an alien friend before. Since that's what I was to him, technically, the same way he was to me. Still, I was real damn glad to hear him agree, and I couldn't help tightening my grip on his hand. It was getting easier to ignore how much it actually hurt to hold on to him.

"Good to know," I said, and Keyd actually smiled. It was slow and uneven and not very big, but it sure looked genuine and almost hopeful. This had to be confusing him, pushing this friendship agenda when I'd just kissed him a couple hours ago. I should probably quit throwing mixed signals all over the place, but I wasn't sure how to. I didn't know how he was translating any of this.

"Hey. Question," I said instead. "How come you don't die when you get thrown into shit?" Like a car, and a tree. Those things were a lot more solid than even his big fit amor-covered body. "I mean, you should. Or all your bones should break. Something. This isn't a movie."

Keyd actually laughed. It was a quiet noise deep in his throat, and I liked that a lot too.

"The entities protect us," he said. "We don't even control it. They can strengthen our bodies where we would otherwise be hurt, take the impact for us. To an extent."

"You know, I shoulda figured that was the answer. S'always magic with you guys."

Keyd made that sound again, the low-in-the-throat chuckle. I wanted to hear that more. I wanted more of that part of him that could laugh and make sly little jokes and was so awkward and strange under that serious face he had on all the time and I just wanted him, everything about him. I liked him and I wanted him. Why'd it taken so long to figure this out? It was so simple.

But I still shouldn't've kissed him. He hadn't brought it up yet, and it didn't seem to have changed anything between us, and that was pretty fucking disappointing. But it did tell me where he stood on the whole thing. Hewasn't into it, it didn't mean a damn thing to we just had this strange friendship we'd patched together, and I could live with that. It was better than nothing.

"Keyd," I said, and his head tilted questioningly in the dark. "I really am sorry about kissing you."

He pulled back. Not just physically, but…something about him just went distant and withdrawn. His expression fell flat and unreadable. "Please don't say that."

"Why? It was a dick thing to do. Just a really stupid mistake. I shouldn't have done it." Or I should have asked.

I heard Keyd take a breath, and not let it out again. My blood slugged thickly in my ears as one of those complete shifts happened between us, where I suddenly had no idea where he was coming from or what he was thinking; couldn't even guess. But I'd obviously fucked something up, said the wrong thing.

"Please, don't take it from me," he said quietly. "If you regret it, I don't want to know."

"I don't—hey, whoa, wait, where're you going?"

Because Keyd had gotten up on his feet, his hand sliding out of mine, backing away from the bed.

"Wait," I said again, but I couldn't do anything to stop him. "Goddammit, wait—"

But he was already gone; walking away and slipping out the door without even hesitating or looking back.

"Keyd!" I shouted after him, but it was useless. And it made my throat burn and my head throb and I flopped back to my pillow, groaning through my teeth. Ow. Right. Still not doing so good. I rolled over to face the wall, burrowing under the blankets.

"I'm sorry?" I said, to nobody. I'd messed up again by doing the right thing. He deserved an apology, but now he didn't want it? Goddammit, what the hell was I supposed to do? I didn't even understand what he meant—not to take it from him? It was already done. I couldn't take it back. That was the whole fucking problem.

Despite being completely wrung out and exhausted, I still couldn't fall back to sleep. The pain was right on the edge of being too bad to ignore, and now my head was churning rabid circles about why I'd screwed up and how, and what to do to fix it, and why it was that every time I thought I'd got Keyd sort of figured out, he had to go and prove me super fucking wrong. He was like trying to keep a grip on one of those goddamn water wigglies, the frustrating goddamn toy water tubes that you couldn't hold onto unless you barely touched them.

And now I wondered if I needed to apologize for apologizing.


When I woke up again, I didn't feel so much like death. I still hurt, but more like I had done a lot of exercising the day before and my muscles were sore and strained. It wasn't so bad that I couldn't move. So I did, dragging myself up to a sit and hauling my legs off the side of the bed. It almost winded me, and spots prickled around in front of my eyes, so I rested my elbows on my knees and breathed for a few minutes.

Light was coming in around the edges of the closed blinds. My bedside clock told me that it was nearly noon. I had no idea how long I'd been stuck in bed. Could have been a few hours, or a few days. Or longer. I could have been out for a damn month for all I knew. That wasn't real likely, but it sure felt like I'd been in this bed for way too long.

The back of my head gave a soft slow throb. I touched careful fingers back there and found something that felt like a half-healed scar, rough and tender and raw, but way more closed up than I'd expected. It stung to touch, and I jerked my hand away. Well, Iseemed okay otherwise. Might as try to get out of this damn bed. I threw back the blankets and froze.

Oh my god, I was so naked. Like, totally, everywhere, naked. Someone'd undressed me, and I knew neither Rysa or Keyd thought that was a big deal but it was weird, thinking about either one of them doing that to me. But I could still see my ruined shirt over the back of the chair, and there was no sign of my jeans anywhere. Maybe they hadn't undressed me; maybe my clothes had just mostly disintegrated with what Ahieel'd done to me.. Wouldn't be the weirdest thing that'd happened recently.

I dug new clothes out of my closet, struggled into them in the way you do when your limbs are asleep and useless like dead chunks of heavy meat swinging off your body. Jeans were impossible, so sweatpants it was. And a shirt that didn't smell that clean, but fuck it. I had to take another breather against the closet door when I was done, but it didn't take as long to recover this time. I was determined to get out of this fucking room.

First, quick detour to the bathroom. I managed it, even if I had to brace a hand on the wall to stay steady enough and all the bright lights in the tiny cramped room seemed searing and over-bright. Then I crept a careful and stubborn path out into the quiet hallway, with one hand still trailing against the wall just in case. Things seemed to be going okay; the dizziness was there, but mild and mostly when I moved my head around too fast. I was a little shaky and weak on my feet, and hungry—Jesus, was I hungry. Kitchen. New goal.

But I only got as far as the couch before all the pain started creeping back, and my whole body started wobbling like jello. I managed to grab onto the back of the couch and sway there unsteadily for a second, little sparkles crowding in on my vision and a ringing pitching up in my ears. Shit, this'd been a stupid idea.

I probably wasn't gonna make it back to my room, so in a really uncoordinated move I pitched myself over the back of the couch, managing to half-slide and half-roll down to the cushions. After a minute of lying there, heaving like a beached whale, I started feeling better and less lightheaded. The swarming twinkles in my eyes faded away eventually. But I'd definitely overtaxed myself walking thirty damn feet and was stuck here for a while. So walking around was out, but lying down like a useless lump was fine. Great. This was definitely the way to really impress the warrior alien I had a huge crush on.

A sudden beep above my head startled the shit out of me. I twisted, sending the room sliding and wavering sickly around me. Wasn't sure where it'd come from, but in another couple seconds the beep happened again. I heaved myself up on my elbow enough to spot my phone on the rickety little table that sat in the junction of the couches. Oh yeah, I'd plugged it into the charger at some point, that's why it was out here. There weren't enough free sockets in my room for it.

I pawed at the phone and scooped it into my lap. The thing was beeping at me because I had another handful of calls from Law,again. Well, from DOUCHEBAG. That'd really been so fucking mature of me. The calls were all from Thursday afternoon, around the time I'd been in the dark room—probably why I hadn't heard them. Not that I'd've answered. I skimmed through them all so my phone'd stop shrieking at me, and then after a couple seconds of hesitation, dialed another number. I should have done this a long time ago, before I'd walked right in to nearly getting myself killed, but better late than never. After about four rings, the line clicked and picked up.

"Yullo," said a woman's voice on the other end. The only way I could ever tell the difference between my mom and my oldest sister on the phone was from the way they answered. This was Ashley, and it was kind of amazing—if unexpected— to hear her voice.

"What are you doing at home?" I said. Ashley'd decided to start at the community college out in Riverside this year before picking a college, but she still lived in an apartment with a couple of her friends.

"Oh, don't even say hi or anything," Ashley said, clearly realizing it was me. "And what, you don't wanna hear from me? I feel so loved."

"Hi," I said pointedly. "You wonderful human being, you. Stupid light of my life. What are you doing at home?"

"Visiting," Ashley said. "You know, like a good child does. Mom says you haven't been home one weekend this semester."

"It's my senior year, I'm busy!" With nearly getting killed, and getting involved in alien wars, and getting huge crushes on aliens. Not the kind of busy I could explain.

"Wah wah, boo boo," Ashley said cheerfully. "Tiny violin. Anyway, bro, what's up?"

"Oh. You know. Same stuff." It wasn't that I wanted to lie, but she'd never believe me about what'd been happening unless I shoved actual proof right in front of her. I might, eventually, not over the phone, talk to her about the gay...stuff. She'd probably be better at understanding it all than I was, and I'd trust her to take it seriously. Despite what we sounded like talking to each other right now.

"Sounds exciting," Ashley said. "And you were so convinced I'd miss out on so much if I went to boring old RCC. Where's all this so much that you're doing?"

"Sometimes people do schoolwork at school," I said, despite that I hadn't been. At all. For like the past two weeks.

"And now mom is staring at me like she's knows it's you," Ashley said, and then, sounding slightly further away, "yeah, mom, it's Alan! He feels really guilty about never coming home. Or calling. Or emailing."

"Oh my god, shut up and let me talk to her," I said, making a grabbing motion like Ashley could actually see me.

She laughed. "Okay, okay, here. You big whiny baby."

"Love you, jerk," I told her.

"Love youuuu, buttface," Ashley caroled, and then there was a scramble and muffled rubbing sounds as she handed the phone over.

"Alan, honey, how are you?" said my mom's voice, and she wasn't nearly as reproachful as Ashley'd been making it sound like.

"Hey, mom," I said, and startled at the sudden tightness in my throat. "I'm...okay. Doing okay. I really just wanted to say hi. I know it's been a while."

"Oh, honey, it's all right," she said. "You should be busy. Even if it's not all with school work. But I hope most of it is."

"Heh," I said. Guilt, guilt, guilt. "Yeah, I—I've had a lot on my plate."

I really hated lying. Stretching the truth was about the best I could do without feeling like a total asshole, especially to my family. I was the oldest kid, I had that responsibility factor drilled into me. Be a good example, look out for your sisters and brothers, and never get away with anything at all. Including lying. So I wasn't even any good at it—for example, when I'd somehow managed to make Chelsea think I had a crush on my male cousin when I'd tried to lie about why we shouldn't go on a date.

"When are you driving out?" My mom was saying in the meanwhile, and I froze up a little.

"Uh, when?" For what? Had we talked about this? Had she sent an e-mail? Shit, I was so out of touch.

"For Thanksgiving?" She prompted. "In two weeks?"

Oh, fuck, Thanksgiving. I'd forgotten that was a thing that actually happened this month, or at all. And that I'd have time off from school for it.

"I'll be there," I stuttered out. Would I? I couldn't really take my alien friends home with me, and I sure as hell wasn't gonna lead Ahieel right to where my family lived if he was still a problem. "I don't know if I'll have class on Tuesday yet, so uh, maybe on Wednesday."

"Sounds great," my mom said. "You know we miss having you around here."

Home was only a forty minute drive down the freeway, if there wasn't any traffic, and I had used to make it a lot more often. "I—"guilt guilt guilt guilt—"I know. I'm sorry. I've been...kind of overwhelmed, here. Just a lot of things happening."

Like Ahieel, Jesus, I really needed to get the fuck over it and ask what had happened to him. How alive he was still was. How much of a problem he'd be. If I could go home without putting my family in danger. If...my life was going to go back to normal. If I had to start thinking about all the normal problems I'd used to have, like homework and photography projects and passing math and graduating on time. My stupid, tiny problems.

"Well, don't work too hard," my mom teased.

"Heh, yeah. I won't," I said. "I, uh—I'll see all you guys soon. Say hi to dad and everyone else for me." Everyone else being my other sister and two brothers. I kinda had a lot of family.

"Sure will," my mom said brightly. "Love you, and see you soon!"

"Love you too."

I lowered the phone to my lap when the line went dead, sighing. It'd been good to talk to my mom, and Ashley, but it'd really reminded me of how not-normal everything still was. That I didn't know about Ahieel, that I still had aliens living in my apartment, that I had major unresolved feelings for one of those aliens and no real idea how to deal with it—or how to deal with it right, since I'd been kind of fucking it up so far. At the very least, I wanted to set things right between me and Keyd and fix that weird last conversation we'd had.

And, Jesus, speaking of Keyd. When I glanced up from my phone, he was right here in the room, not that far from the door like he'd just walked inside.

"Shit," I said, startled. How long'd he fucking been there?

"I wasn't listening," Keyd said at once, and tapped his fingers to his temple. Which I had to guess meant that he'd switched out of the frequency thing that let us understand each other. "It sounded...personal."

"Oh. Thanks," I said. So Keyd was more perceptive than I'd thought. Or he just wasn't nosy. Did he even understand I'd been talking to someone else? They probably didn't have cell phones on his planet. "It wasn't really, but thanks."

Keyd gave me a nod, and I looked down at my phone and flipped it open and closed a few times pointlessly because I couldn't think of anything to say to him and I could still feel that stupid argument we'd had hanging between us. Where I'd apologized and that'd made him...mad? Upset?

But hell. We were both right here already, and Rysa wasn't around. Maybe it was a good time to try and talk with him about it. About everything, all of it. The kissing and the liking him and the stuff about Ahieel that neither of them had been telling me, that Keyd'd hinted at right before the fight. Ahieel, in general, was a thing that needed to be talked about.

I looked up, breathing in, all ready to ask these goddamn questions, and...Keyd was gone. Shit, I knew he was good at sneaking around, but where the fuck? I hadn't seen him go past me. Then I heard the sound of the fridge door opening, and realized he'd just walked into the kitchen instead.

I got up off the couch, took a second to make sure I could handle it—but I seemed okay now, if still kinda sore and strained—and followed him in there. Keyd was fishing around in the fridge, and I wondered how much of the food I'd bought for them was left. That'd been days ago now. I really was the worst at having guests. Then again, I'd kind of been busy trying to stay alive.

"Hey, man, can we talk?" I said, and Keyd turned to me with a huge mouthful of apple stuffed in his cheek. While I tried not to laugh at how cute and dumb he looked, he quickly chewed it up and swallowed.

"It's good to see you walking around," he said, which was real nice and sincere of him, but also a total diversion. I wasn't gonna bite.

"Yeah, thanks. Look, about...you know, what happened the other day. We shou—"

"Please, don't." Keyd raised his hands up near his head, almost like he was going to jam them over his ears so he literally couldn't hear me. "It would be better if we didn't discuss it."


Keyd shook his head, shutting the fridge door as he did. Then he rested one hand against it, still holding the apple in his other. "I don't want to hear you apologize again."

"I won't! I swear I fucking won't, but I want to know why that's a problem! Is it that hard to have a goddamn conversation about this? We're both adults here." Not that I felt like one at all. "We just kissed, and it's not like we haven't done it before! It's not that big a deal."

That was the wrong fucking thing to say. Keyd's whole expression slammed shut, his shoulders going rigid and everything about him closing off. Sometimes it was hard to tell how involved in a conversation Keyd was until he yanked himself out of it like this. I could see a muscle tick in his jaw, and so much tension locked into every inch of him that I figured I'd made him furious. That was the kind of angry body language that looked like a couple of swings were coming next.

But when Keyd pushed away from the fridge and moved forward, he avoided me completely—trying to slide right past me in the not-so-wide space between the counters. Without thinking, I stepped right in his way. He clipped into my shoulder and knocked me back a step, and I was already unsteady enough. I lost my balance completely and probably would've slammed into the stove, but a couple of big firm hands reached out and steadied me, catching my elbow and my side. I heard a solid thump of the apple falling to the linoleum. Somehow I ended up ridiculously close to Keyd, and it definitely wasn't my fault. My nose was practically mashed into his collarbone, and his chest swelled into mine when he breathed.

"Sorry," Keyd said, clipped and flat above my head, as all the air around me filled up with the soft hum of his energy. God, he was so warm, and all that earthy leather smell was strong around him, and now that I had him here I couldn't let him run.

So I got a firm hold on his arms, but leaned back to a less stupidly close distance and tried not to focus on his hand still resting right above my hip or all the heat that blazed off his body. Touching him didn't hurt anymore, but there was a real strong and harsh vibration anywhere we were in contact. "Look, man, I'm gonna keep saying the wrong things if you don't help me out here," I said. "I know you're not big on talking, but I'll listen to anything you have to say. And I only said I was sorry about the kiss because I thought it was what you wanted to hear."

That...seemed to do something. Keyd finally looked down at me, and there was that puzzled wrinkle between his eyebrows, the little squint to one eye. "That's why you apologized?"

"Yeah? Yeah. Yes. That's wh—I'm actually not sorry, but it just seemed like something I should say. I mean, it was a really bad time, and I didn't even like...ask you if it was okay. That's why I was sorry. Not for the part where it happened."

"Oh." The word was a quiet startled sound, and I honestly couldn't tell if Keyd liked that answer or not. At least it was the real one this time, which was the best I could give him. And Keyd wasn't trying to leave anymore—he seemed resigned to being stuck here talking to me, and he seemed less uncomfortable than before. He was even still looking me in the eyes, and anything that had seemed like anger was gone.

"So is that better?" I asked. "I mean, can we talk about it now?" Something bold and unexpectedly confident was building up in me, probably because Keyd and I were already right on top of each other and he'd calmed down about everything and thinking about anything other than kissing him was getting really challenging. It made me brave enough to ask, "or should I prove I'm not sorry?"

I moved my hand carefully up his arm, skimming over his shoulder and around the to back of his neck, getting a handful of warm skin and muscle under thick hair, that buzz of energy strong between us. If it wasn't clear what I was planning, then Keyd was even worse picking up signals than I was. And he didn't push me away, and didn't look like this was something he didn't want. His eyes were locked on mine, just the smallest rings of blue around his pupils. His breathing got faster as I guided him easily down, his fingers dug into my hip and I swear he pulled me forward, swaying us closer together.

"Can I—" I started, trying to fucking ask first this time, but it was too late because it was already happening. I was pretty sure it wasn't entirely me who'd done it. Keyd's mouth fit hot and firm right against mine, a lot less gentle and soft than our last kiss.

This was a real fucking kiss. Both of us were part of it, involved, wanting it. Keyd's hands touched my face, and then grabbed my face, thumbs digging in against my jaw and fingers pressing heated stripes against my skin. They were sticky from the apple, and I didn't fucking care. I clutched back at him, no hesitating, no second thoughts, no thinking. All I could hear was our breathing, heavy needy gasps of air, and the throbbing of blood in my ears. Fuck, this felt so good. It didn't even matter that Keyd wasn't the greatest kisser, that there was too much teeth clacking around and no rhythm to it at all and that he was holding me too hard or that once and a while a little static shock snapped between us; none of it mattered because it was happening, hot and messy and desperate, and it was fucking perfect.

But, shit, he was really just a little too tall. I had to work more than he did; nearly on my toes to reach him, my whole arm cinched around his neck, stretching every muscle in my body to keep us matched up. But there was a counter right behind us. What if he just like...lifted me right up there. It'd be perfect; put me at just the right height to seriously get into this. And even just imagining Keyd hoisting me up on the counter was so fucking hot that I swear my brain shorted out and just fuzzed with white noise for a few seconds.

I managed to unlatch myself from Keyd and take a step back, trying to pull him along with me towards the counter. I couldn't quitsmiling at him, like a big dopey idiot. But Keyd didn't move, and I wasn't strong enough to make him.

"Hey, what?" I said breathlessly, tugging uselessly at him in hopes he'd catch on. But it was like pulling on a brick wall, and Keyd looked like he was in a complete daze—but not a good one. A deep wrinkle jagged between his eyebrows and his hands had dropped off me and clenched into fists at his sides, his eyes unfocused somewhere past my shoulder and a blotchy flush all over his face and neck.

"I," Keyd said, and then moved his mouth without making any sounds. His pupils were blown out huge and dark, his breathing unsteady, and then he put one hand on my shoulder and held me back. Didn't shove me away, just kept me from getting closer. And I realized the look on him was something different from what I'd thought it was. He wasn't just turned on, he was scared.

"Keyd," I said, kinda stunned because that was the last thing I'd expected to see out of him. "Did I—seriously, what's going on? Are you okay?"

"It's nothing you did," Keyd said quietly, and turned away from me. Bullshit. That was a damn lie. Of course it was something I'd done. Or that we'd done together.

"Man, talk to me," I said, ducking around his side and trying to get him to face me again. He was doing his best to keep that from happening, kept on swiveling away so we were doing a stupid little spinning dance in the middle of the kitchen. "This doesn't work if you don't say something, and I hate making you freak out like this! I really fucking hate it when you're upset."

Okay, that'd come out a little strong, but it was true. Keyd had such a huge defensive wall built around him that it was almost terrifying to see it crumble apart. Especially that he was so obviously freaked out, because I was so used to scouring every tiny movement in his face and his words for what was going on in his head.

"I told you I didn't want to talk about this," Keyd muttered.

"That wasn't talking," I pointed out, stupidly.

"I know!" It wasn't a yell, but it was as close to one as I'd ever heard out of him, except whenever he'd been in a fight and screaming things at Ahieel from a distance. And Keyd immediately looked like he hadn't meant to do it, that it'd startled him. The guy looked like he was just falling apart in a serious panic, and had no idea what he was doing or what he should do. And I was no fucking help. I still didn't know what the problem was. Because he wouldn't fucking tell me.

"Why did you kiss me?" This time Keyd's voice was real, real quiet. "Not just now, but before."

"You kissed me first," was my automatic and dumb response. That wasn't the reason at all. But it'd definitely helped open my eyes, and given me the courage to follow up on it, find out how real it was.

"I…did not," Keyd said. "It wasn't meant like that, it was about the spell."

"It was a fucking kiss, man. No matter how you meant it. And I liked it. That's why I, you know, keep doing it."

Whatever Keyd had been about to say, that stopped it. Because he snapped his mouth shut and just stared at me like he'd never seen me before in his life.

"Then it's something you...want," he said, but he sounded more suspicious than anything. Suspicious, and almost upset.

"Yeah, dude, that's kind of the whole fucking point." How goddamn dense was this guy? Did everyone where he came from go around kissing each other for no actual reason? Well, they were pretty cool with getting naked in front of other people they barely even knew...maybe that did happen. "I said that before!" Hadn't I? Fuck, at this point I couldn't remember. Maybe I'd just thought about it a lot.

Keyd was shaking his head, had been since I'd started talking. "I don't understand why."

"Because I like you?" How the hell did this stuff work on his planet? Did everybody have to like, spell it out in big bold capital letters on their foreheads? "Kinda thought it was mutual. Maybe I just got it really goddamn wrong."

For what seemed like the longest fucking few seconds I'd ever lived through, Keyd just started at me. Then, slowly, and like it almost hurthim to do, he nodded. Just once.

"Okay." God, the sudden weight in my stomach was like everything in me had turned into bitter lead. The last thing I wanted to hear. But it made the most sense. We didn't know each other that well, and maybe he was okay with the kissing but not with thefeelings. "I'm—" sorry, almost said, then remembered how bad Keyd had taken my last apology. "I won't bother you anymore about this. Don't worry about it."

"No—no." Keyd reached out after me as I started to turn away, almost grabbed my arm but held back at the last second. "I meant...I meant you didn't misunderstand."

I stamped the huge swell of eagerness in my chest right the hell down. I wasn't gonna let myself hope too hard, not yet."Then...what's the problem?" I said. "Can't we just, you know, make out a couple times and enjoy ourselves here?" I wasn't gonna kid myself about anything more. He was an alien, from somewhere far far fucking away, and he'd be leaving. I was already way too invested for my own good, but I could try to pretend I wasn't.

But Keyd looked so miserable I was sorry I'd suggested that. Keeping this light and casual seemed to be the one of the worst mistakes I was making, so...I needed a different approach.

"Hey, look," I said instead. "I meant it about talking. Seriously. Without you running away this time."

Keyd winced. "I apologize for doing that. It was childish." He took a second, pulling in a couple slow breaths, collecting himself. Then, "perhaps it will make sense if I explain some things about...where I come from."

I bet it fucking would. "I want to hear anything you have to say. I'm serious about that."

He went quiet for a while, but I could practically hear his thoughts grinding around in his head. "You do deserve to know," he said at last. "But you need to understand that I've never spoken about this. Not to anyone. Just doing that goes against everything I—how I've made myself behave for my entire life."

This sounded a lot heavier than I'd bargained for. But I couldn't back out now. That'd just make me an asshole. "You can trust me, you know."

Keyd looked me for another one of those long, long moments. His focus on me was so quietly intense, like I was the only person in the entire world, like we were cut out of everything around us and none of it mattered anymore. "I know."

That shouldn't've turned me on as much as it did, right? But it was like a big smack of heat deep in my gut; Keyd looking at me like this and saying that he wanted to tell me things that he'd never told anybody, that he trusted me. Jesus, this guy. Whatever it was about him, there was almost nothing he did or said that wasn't attractive. He could probably read the dictionary out loud and I'd think it was hot.

The way we were having this conversation was getting pretty intense and claustrophobic, too—all pressed up against each other in a tiny corner of the kitchen. I nudged my hands against Keyd's hips and he stepped back easy enough, and then moved a little too far away. I caught his hand, tugged him back. "Hey, wait, don't leave, just..." I glanced around, decided the couches were better than the kitchen table for this. "Just, come on. Over here."

He followed me, surprisingly. Just came along right after me into the living room, even though I'd let go of his hand because it seemed like too much. I dropped down on the nearest couch and Keyd, to my surprise, sat down carefully next to me. I could feel the warmth of his body against me, just a long hot line along my whole side. Yeah, this was better. Could actually breathe a little and get my bearings. Keyd was kind of overwhelming, even if this whole thing was new to him.

And new to me, too. I'd thought about it, obviously, in kind of an abstract way—Keyd and I had been having all those charged moments that really couldn't have been anything else—but to actually know it for sure was a whole different thing. The whole thing seemed so middle-school, but there really was that part of me that was going he likes me back! like an excited twelve year old. If there was ever a time to get a real ego boost, it was that a powerful magical hot warrior alien had a crush on you.

And at the same time, it was seriously intimidating. Almost terrifying. I really had no idea how to fucking start this conversation with him, but surprisingly Keyd did it for me.

"It's all right in your culture to do this sort of thing, when we're both...men." Keyd sounded like he'd had to beat the last word out of himself, that he almost couldn't manage to spit it out.

"Uh, well, it's kind of okay." I honestly didn't pay attention to that kind of thing much, except when there were big news stories about it. I didn't even know anybody who was gay. It just...hadn't ever mattered. "It's different everywhere. California's kind of liberal, so, like, it's probably better than other places."

"Better...how?" Keyd asked hesitantly. His eyes kept darting around, like he expected somebody to jump out of nowhere and catch us talking about this. "Are those discovered only jailed, or...or receive a more lenient punishment?"

"Jailed? Jesus, no, that's—" Puzzle pieces slammed so hard into place that whatever I was saying just stuttered out into dumb silence. For a couple seconds I couldn't actually talk, as every single weird goddamn thing Keyd had done around me recently twisted into a whole new light.

"That kind of thing happens where you're from." I didn't even bother to make it a question.

Keyd nodded, his mouth a thin white line and his eyes focused somewhere far away.

"Shit, dude, I'm sorry. I could've like...guessed, or something. Fuck. I'm such an asshole."

"How could you guess?" Keyd's voice was so quiet. "I never...did anything that would suggest that."

...no, he hadn't. He'd kissed me too, even if he was pretending that wasn't what it was, and hadn't made a big deal out of it. And he'd let me kiss him more than once, and had only started getting weird about it now. But mostly he'd been acting like it didn't mean anything. But that should have told me that it did, because this was Keyd, and that's how he was.

"Where I'm from...it's unacceptable. The repercussions are not simply jail, but...punishable to the highest degree. I—" Keyd clenched his hands against his legs, and I realized he was shaking. Fucking shaking. I was the biggest asshole. "I should not have behaved as I did with you. I apologize for that, for...saying nothing, never explaining myself. When you kissed me, I didn't expect...anything further. But I wanted to keep that experience, and to remember it as something…good. Not as something either of us regretted."

So that's why he'd hated my apology. Okay, wow, that made a lot more sense.

I almost reached out to touch him, then held back. "Keyd, it's all right. Okay, sure, you've been really confusing about all this, but hey—we're talking now, we're figuring it out. It's gonna be okay."

Keyd shook his head, not looking at me. "Why is this easy for you? Have you...you've…with other men?"

"Hell no," I said, and then realized how bad that sounded. "This is new for me. Really really new."

"Then why?" Keyd said, and the question was so flatly honest that I knew he wasn't fishing for a compliment about how he was the one person out of everyone else.

It was a good question. Somewhere at the edges of my mind I'd been working at that same question, chewing at it and mulling over it and cycling thoughts around over and over, while everything else was happening—the actual dangerous life-threatening things—and little shreds of ideas had been knitting themselves together, giving me an outline of an answer about how I'd been acting my whole life, what I'd trained myself to do because it was what everybody else did, and the things I'd been ignoring.

I always noticed when guys were good-looking and that'd never seemed like a bad or unusual thing. Just something I always noticed. Hair and bodies and smiles and eyes and freckles, on everybody, because freckles were cute. But I'd never considered guys as an actual legitimate option. I did like women, as friends and as classmates and as people, but I'd spent so much effort trying to turn that sexy or romantic because that was how it was supposed to work. I'd figured the way I thought about women had to be attraction and the way I thought about guys wasn't...but it'd probably always been the exact fucking opposite. And that really would make a lot of my life make a hell of a lot more sense.

It wasn't that I hated my dating experiences, but it was...all kind of like a step-by-step program. Like I did things because I saw my friends doing them and everybody on TV and movies doing them and I was just trying to do everything the right way in right order and eventually it'd feel right. I dated a lot of girls that my friends suggested or aimed me at, a lot of situations I just kind of fell into more than I actually tried to end up in. No big shocker I hadn't had any long relationships. Girls could probably tell that I wasn't interested in them right way, even if I'd liked all of them as, you know, actual people.

And I'd definitely never chased anybody like I had been with Keyd; never been this focused and intent on someone.

"Alan…" Keyd said questioningly, and I realized it'd been a while since I'd said anything. Well, I'd give him the best honest answer I had right now.

"You're really not like anybody I've ever met," I told him. "And right from the start I thought about you different from anyone else...I mean, I had to. Because you are. And that's...I guess it's made me realize some things. Things that I think I've been hiding from for a really long time. The way I think about people and...act around them. Because it was like, bam, there you were, and nothing was the same, and I couldn't deal with you the same, and…" I waved my hands around in the air pointlessly, because words weren't good enough at explaining this. "I guess it just finally hit me that I could like other guys."

Keyd had been sitting real still through my rush of stupid babble, and now he took a single breath, soft and slow. "I'm sorry for doing that to you."

"Dude, you didn't do anything to me. I'm pretty fucking sure you didn't change anything about me, just—you know, helped me realize it. It's good, is what I mean. I'd much rather know then just, be fucking confused and lost for the rest of my life."

Finally, Keyd turned and looked at me. "You...have a very different outlook on this," he said, that little puzzled crease back between his eyebrows. "Not what I expected, at all."

"I told you, it's not that bad here. We could walk around together holding hands and nobody would say a damn thing." Especially not to an intense-looking six and a half foot tall athletic guy with a face tattoo, but I didn't have to mention that part. "Some people might not like it, but you can't get arrested. You can't get put in jail. You can even get married some places."

"I—" Keyd said, his eyes going wide and then narrowing immediately. He studied me hard for a moment, almost suspicious. Then, "you aren't joking."

"No, man, I'm not. So don't worry about me. I'm actually...really fine with this."

That wasn't a lie. There was even something really goddamn freeing about it. Something I wouldn't want to trade for anything. Even if it made me look like an unaware idiot for basically all of my life, and might make the rest of it kind of...different, and maybe not as simple or easy, having things finally slide into place and explain so much was worth how long it'd taken to realize this. Still didn't know if I was full-on gay or something else, but that seemed less important right now than just knowing that what I felt was real and a part of me.

Keyd clearly didn't feel the same way. But maybe things would get better for him someday. I hoped they would, because I wouldn't be around to see it. Christ, I had to stop thinking about that. He was here now, and I wanted to appreciate that as much as I could.

I leaned slightly into him, shoulder to shoulder. That was it. Keyd did it back. Lightly, but enough to feel it. Heat from him soaked into my arm, and I could feel him breathing. His whole body moved each time, his shoulder lifting and falling against mine. The comfort of this was fucking overwhelming, and I had to fight to keep my hands from just...wandering over and touching him. Not anything crazy, just to know he was there and solid and real.

"We don't have to talk about this anymore," I said, closing my fingers around the hem of my T-shirt. "If it bothers you."

"No," Keyd said. "It's good to. It's...relieving."

I guess if he hadn't ever talked about it before, it would be nice to get that kind of thing off your chest. "Okay."

But Keyd didn't say anything for a while. The silence between us wasn't even weird. It was just there, patient and easy. I liked it this way for now. I just wanted to sit next to this guy and soak up his presence and remember this time for when all of this was over, for when he was gone.

"I'm sorry I've made this difficult and unpleasant," Keyd said, after at least a few minutes. "I doubt you wanted it to be this way."

I knocked my knee into his. "Hey, now you're apologizing too much."

Keyd made a sound that was almost a laugh, and laced his fingers together. "I suppose I am."

I tapped my hands against my legs, letting out a long breath, and then I made a decision. "Look, Keyd. If this isn't something you can handle, then...I'd understand." I wouldn't like it, but I'd understand. The last thing I wanted to do was get Keyd this upset and terrified about something. "If you want to stop. Or...not start. You know what I mean. We can just be...friends." The worst offer. But I had to make it.

Keyd pressed his knotted hands to his mouth. "I wanted to think of you as a friend," he said. "I don't...have many. Rysa may have told you."

"She was pretty eager for me to hang out with you," I admitted. "But that's not why I did."

Keyd was quiet for a while, taking slow breaths against his hands and staring forward at nothing. I let him, just waiting. None of this needed to be rushed.

"It would be difficult to think of you as only a friend," Keyd said at last, real carefully. "Especially after..." He didn't finish, but I got it. He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, like he was gauging how I was gonna take that.

I took it fine. "Yeah. Same here, really. I've pretty much wanted to kiss you this entire fucking time we've been sitting here and I don't think that's gonna stop."

Keyd gave me a startled little twitch of a smile, but it faded quick. "Alan, I can't… promise you much. Even just wanting this,thinking of it, is dangerous. For any of us, but especially for me...I haven't ever allowed myself to even consider something like this. It was survival. But being here and away from everything, and with you…especially with you. It seems safer, even though I know it isn't."

Keyd needed to stop saying this shit, because all it was doing was making me want to shove him down on the couch and make out with him until we couldn't think anymore. He trusted me with things he'd never told anybody, felt safe with me? I mean, Jesus, nobody'd ever said anything like that to me before in my entire life, even outside of dating. I either had to get turned on or start having a personal crisis about not being closer with people. And I'd already had enough of that watching Keyd and Rysa with each other.

Speaking of her. "Rysa," I said, and Keyd jumped like I'd slapped him. "You've talked to her about this, right?" Keyd had saidnobody knew, but I kind of figured Rysa was...not included as part of everyone else. They had a magic mind-link after all, how much could they hide from each other?

But Keyd shook his head so hard it was almost violent. "I can't. She doesn't know anything of it."

"You're fucking kidding me; why?"

"She—I can't. I couldn't. I—" Keyd was starting to sound like he was about to have a panic attack; fast breathing and wild eyes and hands splayed and clutched into his thighs.

"Whoa, hey, hey! Keyd, man, it's okay." I touched his back, which seemed like only half a good idea, patting at his shoulder. He let me do it. "Sorry, I'm sorry. Forget it, never mind."

"She's all I have," Keyd said faintly, sounding only sorta calmer. I kept my hand on his shoulder. "I couldn't risk...I just can't."

"You have me, too." For as long as they were here. And I seriously didn't think Rysa would dump Keyd like that either way. She just couldn't be that kind of person, especially with how close she and Keyd were. Hell, even if he said he'd never told her, that didn't mean she didn't know.

Keyd looked at me then, and there was something in his eyes that made me feel like I'd made a mistake, I'd said something that was too much.

But then he said, "you mean that." And I realized I was saying things to him that meant just as much as what he was saying to me.

"Yeah. Yeah, shit, of course. I'm—" I already had my hand on him, so I gave his shoulder a squeeze. "I want to help with this, I want…" I didn't know how he'd take this, but what the fuck, here it went, "I want to make sure you're okay."

Keyd twisted on the couch so that he was facing a lot more towards me, knees pointing my direction and gaze locked on me. I stayed right where I was, heart pounding, sweating, partially terrified that I'd gone too far again and said way too much. My hand'd dropped off him. I wasn't good at this, I'd never been good at this, even with girlfriends I'd always been digging myself into emotional conversation holes at every possible opportunity, so naturally I wasn't any better at it with a guy. Especially an alien guy.

But the longer Keyd looked at me, the more I thought I hadn't done something stupid.

"You've said that often," he said, and maybe I had. I couldn't remember. "It's...not something I hear much."

"Well. It's true," I said. "It's not a problem, is it?"

"I'm getting used to it." Keyd sent me a little sideways look, and I thought he might actually have been making a joke. But the next thing he said was a lot more serious. "And you know I want to do the same for you. More than as simply my job, as a soldier."

Oh god, he was doing it again, the completely sincere and meaningful thing that shouldn't have been such a goddamn turn-on. I swallowed, thick heat in my throat. "Yeah. I definitely got that."

I realized Keyd was reaching out towards me, but hesitant, holding himself back the same way I'd been before. When he saw I'd noticed, he took in a little breath, met my eyes. "May I—"

"Yeah. Yes. Sure," I said, probably too fast. But I wanted to know where he'd touch me if he could, if I let him do anything he wanted. I wanted to know so fucking bad.

It wasn't what I expected. Keyd just took my hand. I might have been shaking a little as he threaded our fingers together, carefully, like an experiment, seeing how well we fit together.

Fuck, I loved his hands. Big, warm, strong, and gentle. I wanted them everywhere on me, but this was good too. One of his hands tangled with my fingers and the other moved all around my palm and wrist, pressing against where my pulse thudded through my veins. Then, slowly, the touches moved up from my wrists, along my arms, soft brushes of fingertips along the ticklish skin at the bend of my elbows, and even that was fucking hot. I couldn't take my eyes off Keyd's face, so I had no idea where he was gonna go next.

All I could think was, don't touch him back, don't touch him back, you'll fucking scare him. I'd done enough of the aggressive moves already; it was his turn. If he wanted. I mentally sat on my hands, made sure they stayed right where I'd put them when Keyd'd moved on from them, safely clenched around my knees.

Keyd's own hands finally got all the way up my arms, over my T-shirt, and carefully splayed over my shoulders at the base of my neck, pushing lightly into the muscle, almost kneading at me like a cat. My pulse throbbed hard under my skin, and I pressed into the touch. I couldn't breathe fast enough to get any air in, and I finally let myself touch him back, just barely; hands light on his hips. I had to.

"Keyd—" I said, and it sounded so desperate, so pleading, that I couldn't believe it'd fucking come out of me. His throat rolled and that inky darkness of his pupils seemed to deepen. He moved closer, pushing his weight against me, getting so close that it seemed so obvious what he was gonna do next, and I wanted it so bad.

But he didn't kiss me. He just rolled us back onto the couch, slow and graceful. My neck lined up right with the couch arm and Keyd just kept on touching me like before, careful, exploring. Warm fingers over the base of my throat, just barely slipping under the edge of my shirt collar, brushing up to the edge of my jaw. It was insanely hot and complete torture, because there wasn't enough of it.

His energy was strong and vibrant between us, a force in the air that I'd felt this entire time but was only getting stronger the more of this we did. And now that we were touching almost everywhere...shit, that energy was all over the place, sinking into my skin wherever we touched, even where we weren't touching, but stronger and way obvious where we did. Like I was some kind of weird sponge, with no control over it. That was new, the same way feeling his and Rysa's energy even when they weren't using it was new—I wasn't trying to absorb any of this from him, it was just happening.

I almost said something about it, stopped him. And then Keyd fucking kissed me, and I didn't care about anything else but that.

His hands cupped around the sides of my head and his mouth came down on mine and that was it, that was where anything that mattered started and ended. My hands found his hair, gripped and tugged at it, pulled him into just a better angle so that our faces weren't mashed all weird together, and some sort of needy whimper came out of me. Keyd's reaction to that was to grab at me harder, his hands completely cupping the entire back of my head and holding me right in place against him.

Keyd hadn't been putting all his weight on me before but suddenly he was, or at least more of it, molding me down against the couch cushions. Mm, god, that was just...nhhhg. All Keyd's weight just stretched over me like the best blanket ever, heavy and solid and warm, and I just wanted to spread out under him and let him pin me here forever. I kissed sloppily at his mouth, kneading at his hair and trying so hard not to pop a boner because that seemed a little too fast and inappropriate especially since Keyd was so clueless and innocent when it came to this stuff, and maybe he was even a virgin, hell, I didn't know, but he'd definitely never made out with a guy before. Neither had I. But I was in a better place about all this than he was. I didn't want to scare him off by being a literal aggressive dick.

But it was happening anyway, because when did that thing ever behave when you wanted it to. I tried to squirm my hips down in between the couch cushions to keep away from him, keep it more...innocent, I guess. Less about a reaction I couldn't control and more about what I could, something that wasn't just about fucking. Right now I wanted this rated PG, for the both of us.

"Keyd—" I said, maybe to slow him down him, maybe to ask him if it was okay that he was doing this to me, I wasn't even sure what I would have said, because I didn't get the chance to.

Because Keyd froze, snapped his head up like a dog on full alert. "Rysa's returning," he said hoarsely, and climbed off of me as fast as possible. He was over on the other side of the couch before I could finish processing what he'd said, leaving me dazed and panting and aggressively turned on.

I slowly pulled myself back upright, my heart slowly pounding down to normal. I didn't like this. I didn't like hiding from Rysa, it didn't seem fair and it made me feel shady as fuck. But this mattered to Keyd and I'd let him call the shots on it, because he really did seem to think it'd ruin his life if she found out. I straightened my shirt out, tugged it back down from where it'd gotten all rumpled up around my ribs, tried to comb my hair into place with my fingers.

And about five seconds before the front door opened, I felt it too. Rysa's energy, the same way I could feel Keyd's all around him and recognize him from its specific pattern. It got stronger as she got closer. Fuck, this really was new. It had to be part of what'd happened with Ahieel, that huge hit of energy I'd taken. Then Rysa came in, hair tossed all over by the wind, fully dressed in her armor. It probably looked weirder that Keyd and I were on complete opposite ends of the couch than if we'd been on top of each other, but—whatever. His choice.

And Keyd got up immediately anyway, went straight to her. I followed, slower, unsure, still half-hard and trying to will that fucker away. They were already in the middle of a conversation when I got over to them, my hands stuffed in my pockets to try to make myself less obvious.

"Ahieel isn't there," Rysa was saying. "I couldn't find any trace of him in the area, or where he might have gone."

What the hell was she doing out there all alone? But then what she'd said hit me, and—

"So...so he's not dead." Relief bowled over me in a rush, leaving me reeling and lightheaded. I hadn't wanted that on my hands; I'd tried to push it out my head so far that I'd almost forgot about it. Keyd's hand dropped on my shoulder and held, keeping me steady and grounded. It seemed surprising he'd do that, after what'd happened just thirty seconds ago and how far away from me he'd wanted to get.

"Not necessarily," Rysa said, and like she didn't even notice Keyd touching me. "He may have been able to leave, but there's no way of knowing what his condition is now."

"...oh," I said, and I could feel Keyd's eyes on me. A sick lump wedged itself in my throat. Instant goddamn boner killer. "Okay."

"But it doesn't matter," Rysa said, and fixed Keyd with a pointed look. "Because we need to contact our army. There are things that they need to know, and that we need to know. It's already been too long."

"You're right," Keyd said, but I heard the reluctance in his voice, felt the way his fingertips twitched against the back of my shoulder. "Of course, it's time."

"So is this...it?" I said, fighting the urge to just...grab them both so they couldn't just leave, couldn't disappear from my life like none of this had ever fucking happened. "This is all over, just like that? I don't—" —want you to go.

But I couldn't say that. Of course they had to. I'd been trying to prepare for it by constantly thinking about it, reminding myself Keyd was temporary even if we were both into it, that both he and Rysa would be leaving eventually….but it hadn't done a damn thing. This was still hitting me like a huge crushing weight right in the chest, and I had no idea how to deal with it.

"No," Rysa said. She was still looking at Keyd, but now she turned to me. "I think this is only a beginning. We still don't know if Ahieel was here on his own or on orders, if there's any further threat to your world. We'll still need you, Alan. If you're willing."

When I glanced at Keyd, he was looking right back. I wanted to touch him, just to reassure him that I wasn't gonna ditch him—either of them . Except Rysa was right here watching us. But hell, these guys weren't that shy about being touchy between friends. I reached out to Rysa first, and she took my hand and gripped it hard, like a promise. So it wasn't weird when I did the same to Keyd. He put his hand in mine, carefully, held on lightly with his fingers. Even if he hadn't, my answer would've been the same.

"Count me in," I said.

This story is now complete, and the rewrites for Chiaroscuro have begun - right now you can read the first two chapters available here on my FP account. The rest of the story will continue to update only on my Patreon, while I figure out if/how I am going to publish this series in some way. Currently, Nocturne and Skiagraphia (the 3rd and $th books in the series) are still available to read, also here on my FP account.. However, there IS a way to read the full draft of Chiaroscuro as it was originally on fictionpress; you can see the details in a link to Patreon on my fictionpress profile.