He loved him so much he thought his heart would burst from it. At first it had just been a whisper, the barest hint of an ache inside his ribs that left him breathless when the other boy smiled. Now it was a great roaring fire that ate it's way through his body, all the way up his throat. As if he were a dragon that spit fire with every word he said, every syllable underlain by molten love.
Theo had a boyfriend, because of course he did. He'd been very up front about that right from the beginning, right from the moment Matt started to act like he wanted to be more than friends. He accepted it, backed off. They were good friends now and he was happy to just share his friend's company. The fact that he longed to kiss him deeply, feel the sweet ache of their teeth knocking together as they came up for air, wasn't mentioned again.
Most of the time he did the talking when they hung out. Theo was quiet, but attentive- he chose his words carefully, and never said more than he needed to. But Matt could always feel his eyes on him as he talked, about his day, about the world, about anything that he could. Anything, to get those eyes on him for just a little longer.
Because of the other's silence, he knew remarkably little about the man he was in love with. Theo had a twin brother and lived with him in an apartment. He had a boyfriend and so did his brother- by coincidence, they were also dating a pair of twins. He liked to read and he liked drinking coffee. He was never allowed to drink it in their apartment, because his brother swore up and down that he was allergic to it, so Theo always smiled when Matt brought him to a café. Whenever he talked about his brother, he rolled his eyes in a way that said he loved him more than anything else in the world.
Matt didn't get to see him as often as he would have liked. He attended the local university, studied to be a doctor. Still in his first year of class, the grind hadn't hit him as hard as it would later on, but he still found himself stuck in his dorm studying far more than he was out in the sun.
Once Theo had come over to his dorm to return a book he'd borrowed, and Matt had decided that seeing the other boy among his things, slightly smiling with thanks on his lips, was the most beautiful thing in the world.
Everything about Theo was always the most beautiful thing in the world. From the rich brown of his skin to the dark brown of his eyes to the patches of white skin that dotted his face and arms. He said it was called vitiligo, a skin disease that broke down the melanin cells in his skin. Matt adored them.
He'd never been in love like this before. It seemed to be just as it was in books and movies though- all passion and heat and pining. If he harbored a secret belief that Theo would eventually come around, break up with his boyfriend and welcome Matt into his star-speckled arms, he never acknowledged it.
The cold air was brisk against his skin and he pulled his coat tighter around himself as he walked through the neighborhood. Uneasy glances at the mailboxes told him he was almost at the apartment building, watching the numbers tick down until he hit building 4203. Apartment number 314, on the third floor.
It wasn't what he'd been expecting. Matt had never been to this part of town before, where buildings were stained brown and dirty, where ivy grew over multicolored graffiti to make new works of art. It wasn't as though he'd specifically been warned away from it- it was just somewhere that You Didn't Go.
But here he was, in the pursuit of love.
Or rather, in the pursuit of dyed hair. But that wasn't as romantic.
He'd mentioned to Theo that he wanted to dye his hair as they sat reading together in a corner of the library. It had somehow turned into an invitation to the other's apartment and a promise that his brother Henry would help him. Theo said Henry had differently colored hair every month and could show Matt how to do it. He'd jumped at the chance of seeing where his friend lived and finally meeting the twin he'd heard about.
There wasn't enough apprehension in the world to chase off the butterflies in his stomach or the burst of color behind his eyes when Theo's disembodied voice greeted him through the intercom and buzzed open the front door to the building. Instead of peeling paint and stained carpets, Matt could only think of beautiful dark skin and a smile that appeared so infrequently, he hadn't yet had a chance to memorize it. Sometimes it stretched all the way to Theo's eyes, when he dreamed about him. Other times it was just a little movement of the mouth, so faint that you could hardly see it unless you knew what to look for.
He'd fallen in love with all of the other's smiles. Just had to draw more out of him, so he knew which one to paint on the inside of his eyelids at night.
Tarnished silver letters marked the door as apartment 314, and he knocked on it once. From inside, something crashed, and then running feet pounded across the floor. Someone smacked into the door before Matt heard a lock slide back and saw a widely grinning Theo standing in front of him. There was a note of warm familiarity in the back of his mind, the feeling of a warm bed after a long day or the softest of a pillow. He almost yawned in his face.
It wasn't actually Theo- after a second, the neon green of the boy's hair registered, as did a shining stud in his nose. Theo's eyes were brown, but the person staring at him had wide green eyes, offset by the brightness of his hair so that they seemed to almost glow in the shadow of the hallway. Henry also did not have the patches of vitiligo that his brother had; his skin was smooth, uninterrupted brown.
Matt started backwards as those green eyes were suddenly very close to him. Henry leaned close, inspecting every inch of their guest. A 3DS stylus hung out of one corner of his mouth and Matt recognized Mario's theme song coming from the handheld on the couch cushions. Theo, the one with black hair and brown eyes, was seated on the other end of the couch, a book in hand. He'd looked up when the door was opened and now seemed to be watching Henry with amusement as his brother finally backed away from his inspection.
"Hi! Want a beer?" Henry chirped, and the stylus clattered to the floor. He bent to pick it up and tossed it somewhere in the vicinity of the couch before he bounded across the room without waiting for Matt to answer.
The apartment itself was fairly neat, a contrast from the rest of building he'd seen. The couch squatted low over the floor, a dark green color that almost certainly wasn't the shade it'd originally been. There was no coffee table, but a plastic crate on it's side that served to hold a few books and magazines. On the other side of the room, a small kitchen area held a refrigerator, a stove, and a microwave. Theo was curled underneath a blanket on the couch, seemingly disinclined to move. Matt was suddenly nervous, too nervous to follow the impulse to sit down next to him.
There was a door open to the bathroom and another closed one that he could only assume was a bedroom. Henry came bounding back and shoved a beer in his hand, the icy touch startling him out of his inspection.
"Matt, right? So nice to finally meet one of Theo's friends! I was beginning to think he didn't have any."
A book sailed through the air and landed squarely between Henry's shoulder blades. He giggled and began to push Matt towards the bathroom with surprising strength. Theo shifted on the couch and stood up, following them into the small space.
Matt sat on the edge of the bathtub while Henry fussed around the bathroom, pulling things from cabinets and setting them on the counters. A few bottles were tossed his way and he looked over the available colors, ranging from the neon green of Henry's hair to a dark red. Theo perched on the toilet, watching the whirlwind with an amused smile. He immediately tried to commit it to memory, the way the patch of white on the other's face warped and twisted with his expressions.
In fact, the way it was now, with patches of brown ringing his eyes and nose, it almost looked-
Henry moved into his line of sight and Matt fumbled, dropping one of the bottles of dye on the tie. It erupted in a bright splatter of blue and he scrambled away from the fallout, Henry and Theo diving for the opposite wall. Without much space to escape to, Matt was splattered in the worst of it, t-shirt and shorts dripping with blue pigment. He sputtered and cursed, reaching a hand up to wipe the blue dots away from his eyelashes. Henry giggled at him, ignoring his own polka dotted state to grab a dark towel from the wall and throw it to Matt. Theo seemed to have gotten off the easiest, but he frowned down at the new pattern on his shirt before snorting a little with laughter.
It was hard to remember what he'd just been thinking about, laughing in the bathroom like that. He didn't think he'd ever heard Theo snort.
Henry started to strip in the middle of the room, dropping his already ruined clothes on the puddle of blue dye. He eyed Matt critically for a moment before ordering him to take off his shirt.
Theo blushed at the notion. He was sure of it.
Matt handed his shirt to Henry and Theo bent down to grab his brother's clothes, taking the offered shirt with him and whisking the clothes out of the bathroom. He sat down awkwardly on the edge of the tub again, unsure of what to do now that his friend was gone, but Henry was already laying a bathmat over the blue puddle. He stared at the solution for a moment before deciding that it was good enough.
"I was gonna ask you to take your shirt off anyway so I didn't get bleach on it. Hopefully that wasn't the color you wanted."
As though the last few minutes had never happened, the other boy started mixing together the bleach in a small cup, whipping the toner liquid through it in fast, practiced motions.
"I think red, for my first color." Matt said, a bit of a nervous laugh in his voice. Henry nodded and grabbed that bottle from the rest, setting it in the place of honor at the edge of the shelf. In what felt like no time at all, he was standing in the bathtub behind Matt and starting to card through his hair with a brush. He found himself scanning the doorway, looking for any sign of Theo's return.
"So how'd you meet my brother, hm?"
"Oh, we were in the library. He uses the library at my school sometimes and we ran into each other there a lot. I offered to buy him coffee."
"Cute!" The first touch of the bleach made him shiver. "Not the coffee part. That part's gross. But the other part. I always worry about him, he's so bad at making friends. I'm surprised he went with you."
Matt shrugged, trying not to wiggle underneath the other's hands. The bleach burned and itched at his scalp.
"Do me a favor and don't ruin this for him, okay?"
Henry's tone stayed light, but he stiffened anyway, trying to catch the other in the corner of his eye so he could figure out what he meant.
Was he that fucking obvious, that this guy figured out his crush within an hour of meeting him?
"You're cute and he likes you. Just keep it that way, 'stead of scrounging around for more, kay?"
The other stepped out of the bathtub and went to wash the brush he'd been using, casting a sunny smile in Matt's way. He was again struck by that feeling of familiarity with that smile, those eyes- but instead of his warm bed, he suddenly recalled a camping trip he'd been on, with the most uncomfortable sleeping bag and his dad's loud snoring next to him. He hadn't slept a wink.
Theo returned then, to an atmosphere that wasn't quite as bright as it had been when he left. He was holding a new pair of pants for Henry and had changed his own clothes, donning a bright purple shirt that was probably the loudest color he'd ever worn.
"I'm soaking your shirt to get the color out of it." He said to Matt, retaking his seat on the toilet. Henry grinned at him as he pulled on the clothes, before he turned to start mixing the red into another dye bowl. Matt looked over at Theo and smiled. The color looked incredible against his skin.
The burning and itching was really starting to get to him though, interrupting what was going to be a sweet moment. After fighting the urge to scratch and failing, he shifted so that he was sitting directly on his hands. The beer Henry had given him sat untouched at his side, abandoned in favor of the colors and forgotten in the ensuing aftermath of the accident. A large spot of blue on the top of the can showed that it hadn't escaped the splatter zone, and was probably undrinkable. A real pity. Matt felt like he needed a beer.
Sitting here, looking at Theo without a book or a coffee set between them, felt strange. He'd never realized how much he relied on those crutches- how much he used their surroundings for conversational material, how much more comfortable with him he was when they were sitting amid a crowd. Here, the other's gaze was unobstructed and all the more terrible for it. Like there was a weight settling on his chest and squeezing him, pinching him in as Theo looked.
The feeling didn't go away when Henry started chattering at the both of them, flopping down to the floor once he'd gotten everything mixed and ready. Matt mostly tuned him out, staring at Theo, trying to understand what was so different about him in this room.
He wasn't acting strangely. He seemed to be his usual quiet self, speaking occasionally to give Henry whatever reply he was looking for. There was a look in his eyes that Matt recognized, the one he sometimes got when watching crowds of people walk past the coffee shop window. Like he'd rather be anywhere else but in that room at that moment. Like Matt being here, in their apartment, was too crowded for him.
The thought sunk his heart and he quickly tuned back in to what Henry was saying, trying not to dissect that feeling further. There must have been some show of distress on his face because Theo was looking at him strangely. He offered up a thin smile.
When the time came to wash the bleach out of his hair, Henry had him sit on the tile beside the bathtub and lean his head back over the edge. The shower head came to life and warm water rinsed through his hair, fingers encased in cheap plastic gloves carding through the strands to get every last bit of it out.
Matt sat up and brushed the wet hair out of his eyes. Theo stifled a small giggle and he frowned, turning to look at himself in the mirror.
Platinum yellow was not the best look for him.
Henry didn't seem concerned with the color his hair had turned though, and so he tried to make himself relax, pulling a face at Theo. The other simply smiled, lounging back on the toilet seat as though it were a throne, with his arm thrown against the lid of the water tank. Matt suddenly loved him again, so hard that it made his heart ache. The sudden turn of emotions made him slightly dizzy.
It took Henry a while to run the brush through his hair again, coating the newly bleached strands in deep red color. Matt was thankful he'd already taken off his shirt- he could feel drops of the dye dripping down his back and onto the bottom of the bathtub. It seemed a miracle that it wasn't already covered in multicolored dots, from what he'd heard about Henry's love for coloring his hair.
There was a knock on the door as he poked at Matt's roots with the brush, and both of the brothers seemed to go on high alert. Henry squealed and the brush clattered to the bottom of the tub, before he was out the door faster than Matt had thought was humanly possible. Theo was staring after him, wide eyed, and he craned his neck to see the front door, as the latch was unbolted.
Two of the largest guys he'd ever seen in his life stood in the doorway, blocking all sight of the hallway beyond them. Henry had climbed about halfway up one of them, arms wrapped around his neck and legs stuck fast around his waist. He didn't seem too put out by this, judging from the easy way he walked into the room and closed the door as the smaller man clung to him. As if the guy hanging off him weighed nothing. He had a brilliantly colored mohawk, coincidentally colored the same shade of blue as the dye in the bottle that Matt had dropped. That sinking feeling returned.
"You haven't been home in forever! We thought you died!"
Theo rose from the toilet seat with a snort and trotted out into the living room, leaving Matt forgotten in the bathtub. He debated following him for a moment, already pretty sure he knew who these guys were and uneager to have his heart dashed against the rocks. But the choice was made for him when Henry called out his name, inviting him into the room.
Awkwardly he rose to stand in the doorway, shirtless, with half his hair slathered in red dye.
"Guys, this is Matt. He's a friend of Theo's." A lot of emphasis on Theo's name. Matt felt like a bug under a microscope.
They both turned their attention on him, and there was suddenly nothing more that he wanted to do than run out of the apartment. There was something about looking these two in the eyes, something about having both of them stare that told him he needed to flee immediately. Unconsciously, he took a few steps towards room's only window and the fire escape that lay beyond.
These two were going to tear him apart if he didn't do something, didn't get out of there fast. Bloody fingers pushed themselves into his eye sockets, popping out eyeballs and ripping through connecting chords. Huge teeth dripping from their mouths, fangs dyed black with disease and rot. The walls were closing in around him and that clenching feeling was back, pushing at his chest, squeezing the air from his lungs. In their eyes, he saw himself crushed, bloody, broken. He was going to die.
Theo appeared in his frame of vision and snapped his fingers a few times. Matt blinked as his heart raced, refocusing on his friend's face. Funny- he'd never noticed how much the vitiligo markings on his face looked like a skull. How had he never seen that, with all the time he spent staring at him?
"Are you okay?" There was concern in the other's voice and he forced himself to concentrate on his words, feeling like he was relearning how to breathe. The man with the mohawk snickered and Theo shot him an icy glare, one that somehow sent a shiver up Matt's spine despite it being aimed away from him.
"F-Fine." He stammered out and gave a little wave to the two in the doorway. Henry dropped off his perch and landed on his feet with a small 'oof.'
"This is Damien-" He indicated the one without the mohawk, "And Pax."
Theo burst out in a sharp bark of laughter before he clapped his hands over his mouth, cheeks immediately darkening with a blush. Pax looked strangely at Henry before he shrugged and grinned, somehow showing his full array of teeth with the expression.
"Nice to meet you," Pax said, and Matt gave him a weak smile. Damien only nodded in his direction, turning away from the bathroom to Theo, who still had his face in his hands. After casting a furtive glance in Matt's direction, still covered in the flush, he stood on tip-toe to press a kiss against Damien's lips.
It only lasted a second before the brothers pulled away. Pax made straight for the bedroom, pulling a stained leather jacket off his shoulders. Matt caught a glimpse of the largest bed he'd ever seen before the door swung shut behind him. Appearing caught between two worlds, Henry stared at the closed door before he sighed and turned back to Matt. Obviously his second choice.
"C'mon, let's get your hair done. It's gonna be a bitch to wash out now, we'll have to do each half at different times."
Feeling like the fifth wheel, he followed Henry back into the bathroom. Damien passed into the view of the bathroom door, heading for the kitchen, and Theo returned to his perch on the toilet seat, one eye on his boyfriend. The guy hadn't even said anything to him, but already Matt didn't like him.
A bit more courageous now that he was out of the newcomers' direct line of sight, he puffed his chest out and sat up a little bit straighter on the edge of the tub. It had been a while since he'd been to the gym, but the remnants of his days there could still be seen on his arms and chest. Theo glanced at him and raised an eyebrow when he saw the pose, but Matt couldn't tell anything about his feelings from his expression.
"Do you guys all live together?" He asked, when he could stand it no longer. The apartment seemed small for four people, with only one bedroom and bathroom.
"Sometimes! Dami and Pax travel a lot so they're not always home."
"That must suck." He directed his statement towards Theo who shrugged and nodded before answering.
"It is what it is. We're always glad when they spend time with us."
It didn't sit well with Matt, the image of Theo alone in the apartment, reading a book or cooking, waiting for Damien to come home. He didn't like to think of the other being lonely.
Henry began to card the brush through the uncolored half of his hair, not even bothering to put on gloves this time. Matt finally reached for his can of beer and took a sip, ignoring the chemical taste of the dye that stained his lips and unwilling to take his eyes off Theo. There was something about him that seemed different, something that he could not place entirely. Something about the vitiligo on his face that had taken on a different tone. The shapes reminded him of something, but for the life of him he couldn't figure out what.
Damien reappeared in the doorway of the bathroom, holding a sandwich in one hand. He was, quite conveniently, not wearing a shirt anymore. He looked at Matt as Henry picked through the strands, trying to make sure he'd gotten every inch of them coated in dye. Theo had turned quite red again. Matt wanted the power to turn him that shade.
"What are you doing?" Theo hissed between his fingers and Damien shrugged, taking a bite of his sandwich and looking directly at Matt. Henry made a noise of delight, dissolving into giggles as his fingers finally left Matt's hair. He walked over to the sink, breaking the oddest staring contest in the world, to wash as much of the red off his hands as he could.
"Wait like twenty minutes and then wash it out, okay? Theo can do that for you. Hope it turns out good! Send Theo a pic to show me!"
Before Matt could get a word in edgewise, he'd practically blurred out of the bathroom, stopping only to peck Damien's cheek before the bedroom door opened and slammed shut. Theo groaned.
In the ensuing silence, Matt floundered desperately for something to say. His back was beginning to hurt from his upright, chest-out position, but fuck if he was going to be the one to back down first. It looked like Damien spent all his fucking time in the gym, so he needed all the edge he could get.
"So, uh… Damien's a cool name. So's Pax. Where'd your parents come up with those?"
"Pax means peace in Latin."
He had a deep voice. Deeper than the fucking pit Matt's heart was trying to climb it's way out of.
"Oh, cool. And Damien?"
"Tame. From ancient Greek."
Parents didn't always get name meanings right, he supposed.
"Nice. I got stuck with Matthew." Obviously. Inwardly he was hitting himself, but their names were all he knew about them. He had nothing else to talk about.
Damien blinked first, shifting his attention to Theo. A wordless conversation seemed to pass between the two of them for a moment, and Matt almost felt like he needed to avert his eyes. He grumbled to himself instead, visions of star-studded arms and a gently smiling Theo rapidly fading with each passing second.
When the larger man moved away from the bathroom door, his friend turned to him with a sigh, rubbing at the bridge of his nose.
"Sorry. I didn't know they were coming home today."
"It's okay dude. I'm glad to finally meet the guys I've heard about."
Even he could hear how false that sounded. Theo sighed again.
"It was awkward, you don't have to pretend."
Matt glanced at him and found the other was looking steadfastly away, gaze focused on the rack of towels. There was no sign of Damien in the living room despite the small size of the apartment, so he assumed the guy had vanished into the bedroom to interrupt whatever homecoming fun Henry and Pax were having.
"…It was a little awkward." He conceded, looking down at his own hands. There were spots of blue on the skin, and a quick glance in the mirror showed that he was wearing blue dye smeared across his lips like chap stick. The thought occurred to him that he was going to pay for that later, even as he took another swig of beer.
Theo went silent for a time and when Matt looked up again, those brown eyes were on him. He stared back, unsure of what to do. His hair could probably get rinsed out now, but moving felt like a crime. Like it would break something between them that had formed in the silent air. Something he'd never get back once it was gone.
"You're… Nice. Um. I do, appreciate the, uh… Coffee. And Conversation. And things. It's. Nice."
"If it's hard for you, to... Be my friend and be around me… That's okay. I understand. But uh, I would be. I mean, I would feel-" Theo cut himself off.
"I would miss you. If you left."
Disappointment surprised him- he'd thought he was doing an excellent job in preparing himself for exactly this scenario. A second later he acknowledged to himself that was a fucking lie. His friend sat on the edge of the toilet seat, watching him, seemingly ready to vacate the room at any moment. Talking wasn't something Theo did a lot of. Matt had never heard him talk about feelings of any sort, except for love for his brother. The weight of what he'd said seemed to weigh down Theo's shoulders and his head was bowed, perhaps waiting for Matt to walk out of the apartment or get angry with him.
"Look, you're my friend." He started with at last, watching the other for any sign of a reaction. "Can't say I'm not disappointed. But you made it clear from the start that you weren't interested and I got to respect that. Damien's lucky."
Theo turned scarlet, once again. Matt was starting to wonder if that color was just his perpetual shade when his boyfriend came home.
"I still want to hang out with you, if you, ah. Still want to hang out with me."
He received a wordless nod, all that Theo seemed to be capable of saying in that moment. It was sort of cute, how speaking about this stuff seemed to tie his usually intelligent and sharp tongue. Matt loved him all the more for it.
As soon as he realized that, he mentally slapped himself.
"Cool, cool…" He said to mask his unease, and brought a hand up to run through his hair. It came away dark red and he started before he remembered that he still had dye in his hair.
"Can you help me wash this off?" Matt asked, cringing inside. Theo nodded and stood up, pulling three pairs of gloves on before he went over to stand in the tub. Frowning, Matt wondered what that was all about. He scooted himself onto the floor and leaned his head back, like he'd done for Henry. This was the closest he and Theo had ever been, and he wasn't sure how to feel about it.
The water was warm, but his friend's hands were icy cold against his scalp. Theo was far gentler than Henry was, running his fingers loosely through the strands and letting the water do most of the work. His fingers never lingered near Matt's skin longer than they needed to, and he found himself grateful for that- the other's hands were practically radiating cold, despite the water.
Matt was pronounced done and Theo tossed him a towel that came away stained with smears of pink and red. He stared at his wet hair in the mirror, the unfamiliar color a shock against his skin. It would take some getting used to, and he wasn't entirely sure he actually liked it. But he was glad he'd done it.
"Thanks man. Thank Henry for me too, and stuff."
Theo held up his finger and disappeared from the bathroom. Matt heard the bedroom door open and the room was suddenly filled with the sound of moans and thumping.
"Stop fucking for one second, I swear to fuck…" Theo's voice mumbled. He turned a brilliant red himself as he wiped at the water on his neck and chest, finally letting himself relax with his friend gone. Somehow, he felt like he'd aged a few years since walking through the door.
The noises ceased and Theo returned, unable to look him in the eye as he offered Matt the shirt he'd worn there. Miraculously, it was dry and stain free. He frowned as he inspected it, looking up at his friend with a raised eyebrow.
"That's a fucking miracle, dude. Thanks!"
Damien was sitting out in the living room, lounging on the couch in a position that suggested he'd been there the whole time. Seeing him wrapped in Theo's fluffy purple blanket was almost absurd but Matt still stiffened with the thought that he'd heard everything they'd said.
Something in the back of his brain told him he'd narrowly escaped this encounter with his life.
Theo walked him to the door, which wasn't too far, and offered a tiny smile as the most recent blush began to fade from his cheeks. Matt could feel eyes on his back as he waved to his friend before stepping out into the corridor that felt like an entirely different world.
Theo's vilitigo, the patterns… They reminded him of something. He just couldn't quite put his finger on what.