Steady As He Goes
Kiernan's vest erupted in a vibrating mess of lights and beeping, completely shocking him out of the kissed-by-Mercer-Oakley-paralysis he was in. "Gotcha!" some kid yelled before darting away, and Kiernan blinked stupidly after him.
Looking up, Kiernan licked his lips. He had almost, almost forgotten that Mercer Oakley was right there, pressed up against him in their small enclave. Merc looked annoyed, his eyes darting up and down the the row of pillars LazerMaze had set up for people to dodge around. Finally, he appeared satisfied, his lip curling, and his eyes met Kiernan's. "I would have taken that hit for you."
"Oh, yeah?" Kiernan replied lightly, turning his head to hide a happy grin. "Maybe I took it for you."
Merc grunted, wrapping his arm around Kiernan's shoulder, covering him more with his body. "You don't need to do that, Kierry," he said, "I told you I would protect you."
So, he really was doing the 'Kierry' thing. Ok...
Pushing away, Kiernan let out a chuckle. "That's alright, I'm actually pretty good at first person shooters, you know. This might be something I can handle."
"You like video games?"
Kiernan swallowed at Merc's tone. Was liking video games bad? Too nerdy? He panicked for a moment, wondering if he should make a quick denial, but he quickly rallied himself. "Yeah," he said with a shrug, "I love video games."
Merc nodded. "Oh."
"Yeah..." Kiernan replied. He looked away from Merc awkwardly, and saw Ander over Merc's shoulder, pointing a laser with a wicked grin on his face. Reacting immediately, Kiernan shouted "Watch out!", and shoved Merc behind one of the pillars. Surprised hands pushed him away, and his thudded against the opposite pillar.
"Oh," he said, his eyes wide. Merc was staring at him, frowning. "Sorry..."
Glancing away, Merc looked out beyond the pillar, lifted his laser, and shot. Kiernan heard Ander curse loudly, and then run away, his feet echoing in the silent game chamber. Kiernan opened his mouth to say something when Merc suddenly swung around at him, and Kiernan closed his eyes, scrunching his face. There was another laser sound, and then one of the girls screamed with frustration.
She must have been right about to get Kiernan. He smiled thankfully at Merc, and lifted his laser. "I'll get the next one— " he said, but stopped when he saw Merc flash him another frown.
He was about ask was Merc's problem was when the loudspeaker crackled to life, and the bored voice of a LazerMaze employee announced that they had entered the sudden death round. Crashing, alarming music started blasting, and Kiernan winced. He saw Merc saying something, but the words were drowned out in all the noise.
What had he done in the past five minutes to make Merc so angry? Kiernan felt discouraged, the high of being kissed fading fast. His eyes fell to the ground, and he turned to step away from the pillar, only to be jerked back, thudding directly against Merc's chest. Merc wrapped his arms around Kiernan, spinning him around so his back was pressed against the pillar.
Merc's vest went off, buzzing against Kiernan. It flashed a skull and crossbones on the front, and then turned off. Kiernan stared at the LED screen for a moment, and then looked up at Merc.
He was smiling at Kiernan. "Saved you."
Wind whipped Kiernan's hair, and he sank lower in his seat. The girls were all talking excitedly about the laser game, and about Mercer.
"It was so cute," Kelly drawled, talking loudly over the roar of the freeway. "I mean, I was about to shoot— no offense, Kiernan —and Mercer like grabbed him and covered him with his body! It was like watching an action movie, you know?" Giggling, she looked at Kiernan through the rearview mirror. "Didn't you feel like a princess?"
Kiernan stared at her. "Are you serious?"
"Well," she said, gliding over Kiernan's question, "the best part was how he had Kiernan in his arms, he was so cool."
"But you killed Oakley," another girl said to Kelly, "I've never seen someone get a shot at him!"
"Hmm," Kelly replied, "I guess, but that's not the point!"
She kept on talking, describing how Mercer Oakley had so heroically saved Kiernan, and with each word, Kiernan grew more irritated. The rest of the girls were giggling and shrieking along with her, and they all looked so happy. Kiernan wondered if he was the odd one for finding it all so strange.
The girl sitting next to him elbowed him in the side. "He's so hot, right?"
"...Yeah," Kiernan replied, his eyebrows pinching together.
"He's never wanted to date anyone before," she continued. "We figured it was because he grew up in a really conserv— um, traditional household."
Kiernan nodded silently.
"His mom is so nice..." the girl trailed off. "Bakes cookies for everyone."
There was a sharp gasp from the front of the car. "Oh my god, Kiernan," Kelly said, her eyes glinting in the mirror. She looked over her shoulder at him, and Kiernan vaguely wondered if he would survive the entire ride home. "You should bake him something."
"What?" Kiernan replied.
"Yeah, like a good luck cake or something, he has a game tomorrow!"
Kiernan instinctively dropped his forehead on his palm. "I don't bake," he muttered. He wanted to say only girls baked, but that didn't seem right either. He glanced up, and heaved a sigh of relief when he saw that they were turning onto his street.
Pulling up to the house, Kelly put the car in park, and turned around in her seat. "Well, maybe make him something nice," she said, "He would really like that, Kiernan. He really likes you!"
Kiernan's face went slack, and he blushed. He hadn't expected the out and out declaration, even if it wasn't from Merc himself. He rubbed the back of his neck, chuckling with embarrassment, and reached for the door handle. "Ok," he said, "I'll think about it." He saw Kelly shoot him a pleased grin.
"By the way, Kiernan," she said, watching him clamber out of the car, "You should come to my house before the game."
"I wasn't planning on going to the ga—"
Kiernan shut his mouth at the look Kelly shot him. "The girlfriends always go," she said, a slight edge to her voice, "So we can support them." Her expression turned more sly, "And so we can keep those Northridge bitches off our men, right?"
There was a round of hissing, and Kiernan shifted uncomfortably. Then the image of some twink from Northridge pawing at Merc flashed in his mind, and he snorted. "Yeah," he said, "Ok."
Kelly nodded, and then with a flip of her golden tresses, she took the car off park, and floored it, zooming away from Kiernan's house. He watched the car disappear around the corner, and then sighed, resting his hands on the top of his head. Whatever he had imagined that night to be, it certainly hadn't involved all the things that happened.
He trudged up to his doorway, and heard the warm laughter of his mother, which was odd since they didn't live with anyone. Pushing the door open, he was immediately hit with the mouth-watering scent of chocolate chip cookies. He took in the scene in front of him, and shook his head.
"Hey, Shin," he said, kicking his shoes off by the door.
"Hey bitch," Shin said, bouncing up to him. "Try this!" He shoved a cookie in Kiernan's face, and stared at him with an expectant grin.
"Why are you in my house," Kiernan replied, taking the cookie. "...and what are you wearing?"
Shin huffed, and then did a small twirl. "Isn't it hot?" he asked, his lips turning up coyly as he fingered the ruffly pink apron he was sporting. "I got it at the thrift store. The lady said it fit my personality." Shin let out a pointed chuckle. "Bitch."
"Then why did you buy it?" Kiernan asked, pushing past him and stuffing the cookie in his mouth.
"I like it."
Kiernan glanced over his shoulder and gave Shin a dubious look. Shin just smiled back with a shrug, and skipped back to the row of baking sheets he had set up on the counter. With nimble movements, he rolled spoonfuls of dough into little balls, and placed them on the sheets. "Your mom said I could keep it here."
"Ok," Kiernan replied, pinching a bit of dough out of the bowl, and dropping in his mouth. Shin scrunched his face at him, and Kiernan laughed, shoving Shin in the shoulder.
"Abuse!" Shin shrieked, "Domestic abuse!"
"Shut up," Kiernan snorted, grabbing Shin, and pressing his hand against Shin's mouth. He stared down at the pink apron, and was suddenly confused by how troubled he felt. "Do you really want this?" he asked Shin, "It's so fucking girly."
There was a moment of silence, and then Shin shoved him away. Kiernan stumbled back, eyes wide. They stared at each other.
"Kiernan, you're home?" Glancing over, Kiernan saw his mom enter the kitchen. She was carrying a large rubbermaid box, and set it down on the table. "Here you go, Shin," she said, smiling. She ruffled Shin's hair, completely oblivious to the tension, and turned to smile at Kiernan. "Did you have fun?"
Kiernan nodded silently, his mouth in a tight line. "O..k..." his mom said slowly, sounding amused, "Don't want to talk about it with the mother, I understand. I'll leave it to you boys." She left the room, and Kiernan glanced up at Shin. Their eyes met, and Shin quickly looked away.
Shin stalked to the rubbermaid box, and lifted the lid. Inside was his collection of nail polish, lip gloss and other assorted things his parents would never allow inside their house. He untied the bow of his apron, lifted the apron off, and folded it neatly. Watching him set it down in the pile of glittery pink, Kiernan sighed. It fit right it in.
"I just mean..." Kiernan said slowly, "People know you're gay. Why do you have to be so blatant about everything?"
"You mean why do I flaunt it?" Shin hissed back, whirling around to glare at Kiernan.
Kiernan held his hands up. "No—no!"
"What's your problem?" Shin replied, "This is such bullshit. You were the one who said I should leave my stuff here in the first place, remember?"
"I know!" Kiernan said, unsure why he was shouting. Shin shot him a disappointed frown, but seemed to be calming down just as Kiernan was getting more riled. Shin turned back to continue putting dough on the cookie sheets, and Kiernan stared at his back, feeling like an asshole.
"Hey..." he said, keeping his voice low, "Want me to tell you how my date with Mercer Oakley went?"
Shin froze for only a moment, and then continued laying cookies. "If you must," he said with a heavy sigh. Kiernan smiled, and joined him at the counter.
"We made out."
"Shut up!" Shin exclaimed, dropping the dough in his hand. He squealed, and launched himself at Kiernan, wrapping his slender arms around Kiernan's neck. "What was it like? Was he grossed out? You're telling me he's actually gay?"
"I don't know," Kiernan replied with feigned nonchalance. "Maybe I have the power to turn straight guys with my seductive charm."
"Yeah right," Shin snorted in reply, dislodging himself from Kiernan. He daintily fixed his hair with the tips of his fingers. "I can't believe it. Mercer Oakley. This is like the dream, Kiernan. Every gay kid's dream."
"That's not—" Kiernan replied, but Shin cut him off with his palm.
"Don't act all cool now. You get to have a boyfriend in high school. Not to mention, he's a basketball player, and hot. He's really hot, Kiernan."
"He is," Kiernan murmured in agreement. He could still feel Merc's lips on his neck. But also the frown on Merc's face when Kiernan saved him from getting shot during laser tag. "There is one thing," Kiernan said slowly, "I'm not sure how big it is..."
"He's like really... " Kiernan trailed off, and Shin glanced at him. With a sigh, Kiernan raised his arms and did an exaggerated version of flexing his biceps. Shin's eyebrows rose.
"No..." Kiernan replied. "I mean, yes, but that's not what I mean." He frowned down at the cookies. "Nevermind. Any chance I could have like a dozen of these?"
Kiernan approached Kelly Teeger's mansion of a house with cautious steps. Clutched in his hand was a wad of tin foil wrapped around a dozen of Shin's cookies. When he had told Shin was they were for, Shin had started giggling uncontrollably, and Kiernan fought the urge to stuff those cookies down his throat.
Now he was facing Kelly's front door, and he shifted on his feet before reaching out to tap the doorbell. It chimed happily, and Kiernan bit his lip, waiting for someone to come. He heard the thud of feet, drew in a long breath. The door opened.
"Hey, Kierry," Kelly said to him. She was wearing her cheer uniform, her hair tied up in a jaunty ponytail. She beckoned him inside with wave of her sparkly nails and he followed her down the hallway to the kitchen where the rest of the girls were convened around the island counter. They all glanced at him when he walked in. These were girls who barely gave him the time of day, normally, but now they were all smiling happily.
"So," Kelly said, latching onto his arm, and pulling him closer. "I figured you wouldn't—" Pausing, she gave him an obvious once over, "—be ready. So we're here to help you, Kierry."
"Help me?" he replied, "Ready?"
She ignored him, and instead grabbed the tin foil wrapped cookies out of his hand. "What is this?"
"Oh," Kiernan said, "That, uh, well you said to bring to baked stuff."
"Did you bake this?"
He shrugged. "Shin did."
The look that passed over Kelly's face was interesting mix of complete horror and disgust. She waved the package of cookies in front of his face, and then stomped over to the trashcan, dropping the cookies dramatically, and then wiped her hands with a flourish. Kiernan watched all of this, completely at a loss for words.
"You need to think about these things, Kierry," Kelly said, "How would Oakley feel if you gave him cookies made by another—" Rolling her eyes, she sent the rest of the girls a look. "—guy."
They all giggled.
"Uh," Kiernan replied, "I don't know. They tasted really good?"
Huffing with annoyance, Kelly grabbed his arm again, and dragged him to an empty stool at the island. He clambered on, and rested forward on his elbows. "The whole point, Kiernan, is that you made them. Because you care."
Kiernan nodded, eyeing the contents spread out on the counter. Normally, he wouldn't take much heed of the rows of mascara, lip gloss, and face bronzer... but somehow, just somehow, he had the growing suspicion that—
"Anyway," Kelly said, smiling at him, obviously aware of what he was staring at. "Where do you want to start?"
"Start?" Kiernan replied, keeping his voice absurdly innocent. He already knew what she meant, but, maybe if he could draw it out...
Kelly smiled at him, and then rested one manicured finger on the row of mascara. "Eyes," she said delicately, "Or lips?" She rolled one of the tubes of mascara towards the edge of the counter. "I prefer to start with eyes— oh, do you just do eyeliner?"
"I don't do anything," Kiernan said quickly. "I don't wear a makeup. I am a guy." As he said this, he made sure make eye contact with every girl sitting at the counter.
"Yeah, but you're dating Oakley," Kelly replied, her eyes still glued to the rows of makeup.
Kiernan stared at her with raised eyebrows, watching as she continued to cull different items from the stockpile... cherry lip gloss, bronzer, and even a bottle of neon green nail polish. Another girl slid a choker necklace forward, her eyes lit with excitement.
"Don't forget the clothes, Kelly," she said breathlessly.
Kelly shot her a dark look. "I won't, Sarah."
"Now," she continued, moving her single-minded gaze back to Kiernan. "Hold out your hand."
Kiernan stared at himself in Kelly's full length mirror. It wasn't so much the eyeliner, and his now plumped, glossy lips that got to him, nor the specks of glitter dotting the corner of his eyes. It wasn't even the skin-tight jeans and the band t-shirt with the cut-off sleeves hugging his chest.
No. Actually, it was. All of it got to him. Those girls had even messed with his hair, gelling it to a finely shellacked, rockhard helmet.
The girl, Sarah, shifted behind him. She was the only other one in the room, because the others had to get ready to cheer. "Don't cry," she said quietly.
Kiernan's lined eyes narrowed. "I am not going to cry."
"You just looked like you wanted to—"
Reeling around, Kiernan glared at her. "I said I'm not going to cry."
"It's just we all really love Oakley, you know? He's a really great guy. When we found out he liked you... " Pausing, she shrugged with a small smile. "Anyway, Kelly really wanted you to look pretty for him. He's really going to like it, Kierry!"
The earnestness in her voice almost had Kiernan wavering, but then he looked back at himself in the mirror. He looked ridiculous. "This isn't really me..." he said slowly, pulling at a loose thread on the shirt.
Kiernan looked sharply at Sarah. "So you think so too."
Her eyes widened, embarrassed blush blooming on her cheeks. "He's really going to like it, Kierry," she repeated weakly. Kiernan stared at her for another moment, and then turned back to the mirror, frowning.
He could feel eyes following him as he walked along the front of the bleachers with Sarah. People were still screaming and paying attention to the game, but he caught more than one gaggle of freshmen pointing at him.
Leading him directly to where the popular kids amassed in a giant cluster of school colors and posters, Sarah took Kiernan's hand and pulled him up to a cleared spot. Several people said "Hey, Kiernan!" just a little too knowingly, and it put Kiernan on edge. He sat down next to Sarah, awkwardly folding his arms around himself. He felt a tap on his shoulder, and looked around.
"You look so cute, Kiernan," the girl above him said. He recognized her as one of the seniors who held court in the cafeteria. She had said her compliment in a droll tone, her lip curling. Well, at least it beat the hyper-excitement of Kelly's group. He opened his mouth to say thanks when she continued, "Doesn't he look cute?" with an elbow to the boy, who Kiernan vaguely recalled as her boyfriend, sitting next to her.
The boy cleared his throat, more intent on the game. "Yeah, sure, he's cute."
Kiernan gawked. And he almost fell backwards when, after a disapproving sigh from the girl, the guy actually glanced at Kiernan. "Look," he groused to the girl, "What do you want me to say? Merc wouldn't want some uggo, so obviously he's cute."
She seemed appeased with this, nodding. "I like what Kelly did with the glitter," she said thoughtfully.
Blinking, Kiernan felt his face heat. He had forgotten about the damn glitter. The girl, who Kiernan finally remembered as Dana, smiled at him. "You're coming to the party, right?"
"He is!" Sarah interjected. Dana nodded approvingly.
"Everyone loves Oakley," she said apropos of nothing, and a little unnecessarily, in Kiernan's opinion. He had already gotten the clear picture. Someone scored, and the gym erupted in excited screams. Kiernan was thankful for the sudden reprieve. He turned back around, watching as the players ran down the court.
"Maybe softer colors would have been better, though."
He felt Sarah stiffen next to him. She craned her neck around, and smiled at Dana. "He didn't want to," she said flatly. After that, there seemed to be some unspoken exchange between the two of them, and the Sarah looked at Kiernan. "For the dance, you should wear softer colors."
"I don't want to," he replied, flashing back to the white tunic-y thing they had tried to force on him, and grimaced.
"Oakley is going to ask you to the dance, you know," Dana said from behind him. He looked around again. "He'll probably be wearing a dress shirt with a tie." She had said this as if it conveyed some meaning that Kiernan was immediately supposed to pick up on.
She tilted her head, her the corner of her lip curling. "So, you'll be wearing..."
"He didn't like the clothes, ok?" Sarah cut in, still looking out at the game.
Kiernan watched Dana's expression harden, and choked out a laugh. "It's ok," he said quickly, "I'll try them out." There was a flicker in Dana's gaze, and he really hoped that she wasn't completely pissed off. But then a buzzer sounded, and her eyes moved away.
Slowly turning back around, Kiernan sat straight with his hands on his knees, suddenly feeling very, very out of his league. Something gently elbowed him, and he glanced over to see Sarah giving him a small smile. And then something caught her eye, and she pointed.
Out on the court, it was halftime, the team gathering around the coach.
When Kiernan looked over, he saw Oakley standing with the rest, a towel around his neck, wiping the sweat from his face. He was focused on what the coach was saying, but then his gaze suddenly moved to the stands.
Their eyes met. And then Oakley grinned at Kiernan.
"He's so gentlemanly, you know?" Dana said idly behind him. And then Kiernan heard her draw in a quick breath. "Oh my god, Sarah, wouldn't they be the cutest prom king and queen next year?"
Kiernan's eyebrows pinched, and he turned his head slightly to say—
"Totally," Sarah replied, but Kiernan could feel her hesitant gaze on him.
"I mean, Oakley was already destined for prom king, so whoever he's dating would definitely be queen."
Kiernan didn't say anything. He kept his eyes glued on the game, even as his mouth tightened in a thin line. Prom queen? Was she serious? This all had to be a bad joke, had to be some kind of prank—the make-up, the clothes, everything, it was...
Oakley was looking at him again, down on the court. Kiernan nearly jumped when their eyes met. This time, Oakley waved, and then brought his fingers to his lips. He blew Kiernan a kiss.
"Aw," Dana said wryly behind him, "You guys are so cute."