There was no clear-cut explanation for how Ian had ended up in a corner of a dark closet, fervently kissing a person who had once been a statue—or for why Victor was kissing back. Weren’t they supposed to come at each other’s necks?
It had all started several months before, when Hayden, Ian’s best friend since before they could read or write, moved into a new student dorm and invited Ian for a visit.
“Do I have to go?” Ian asked Hayden while they were talking on the phone.
“No, but I’d like it if you did.”
Hayden received a familiar grunt in return. That was how Ian usually relayed he’d do what Hayden asked him to, despite hating the idea.
There was nothing bad about going to see Hayden and his new dorm. It was having to meet Hayden’s new roommate that had made Ian avoid the visit for as long as possible. Going to the dentist was an easier experience for Ian than meeting new people.
Both of them had been living in Thornburg for over two years. It was a city that attracted people from all over the country, even from abroad, with its array of educational and professional opportunities, its growing social diversity and its vibrant cultural and entertainment scenes—not to mention its colorful palette of bars.
Thornburg’s vibe and offer had also attracted Ian to it, but college had been a short-lived initiative for him. His passion for photography had grown years before any facial hair had and Ian had been cultivating his skills in taking pictures for over half a decade at that point. As such, photography courses that treated their students as beginners had underwhelmed him greatly. He’d dropped out of college after the first year and applied to paid photography gigs with his extensive portfolio and a half-decent attempt at being friendly. Luckily, the portfolio had done its job.
Hayden was on the opposite end of the spectrum, both in terms of college and his capabilities in being friendly. If he still liked Ian after so many years of Ian being Ian, he could probably be friends with an anthropomorphized lemon. Hayden was in his third year at the veterinary medicine college and, as the extroverted person he was, he’d always chosen to live in the student dorms since coming to Thornburg.
When he’d first announced his plan to become a veterinarian, he’d said, “I already have experience in dealing with all sorts of animals, especially a chihuahua.”
His family had many pets, but that bunch hadn’t included a chihuahua. It was a reference to Ian. Hayden often compared his best friend to the small, mouthy dog that thinks of itself as a big beast and sometimes gets itself in trouble by aggressively challenging an actual large one. Ian’s only counterargument had been that, as opposed to him, dogs didn’t like being left alone.
To this, Hayden had replied, “If that really were the case, then why do you always come when I call you over?”
Admitting that he liked being around Hayden was too melodramatic for Ian, so he’d answered with a simple and dry ‘whoof’.
Thus, when Hayden had called Ian over to show him his new dorm room and introduce him to Danny, his new roommate, Ian had gone, despite his DNA constantly reminding him how hardwired he was to dislike meeting new people.
Danny was a year younger than Hayden, they’d hit it off from the get-go, they attended the same college and were equally as balanced in handling their studies and social lives.
If this Danny guy’s anything like Hayden, it probably won’t be so bad… Fuck, who am I kidding? It’s guaranteed to be bad.
Ian sighed before entering the dorm room. He relaxed his throat in preparation of swallowing many words he shouldn’t say but would probably end up voicing anyway. Taking in air, he opened the door and was instantly ambushed by something bright.
It might’ve been the warm rays piercing through the window, it might’ve been Hayden’s flower-power T-shirt but it was most likely Danny.
Danny was dazzling. All his features were soft and curvy, all his gestures smooth and inviting. His voice sounded like windchimes, his skin looked like fruity yogurt and his presence was as welcoming as one’s bed after a hard day at work. Ian barely remembered the correct sequence of the two syllables in his name when Danny smiled and initiated their introductory handshake. Whenever Hayden didn’t elbow him, Ian also barely remembered that he was a fully-fledged, functional homo sapiens specimen who should be able to hold a conversation.
But Ian was also a drawn-to-visuals person, and everything about Danny’s appearance gave off early summer day, with wildflowers swaying in the pleasant breeze and birds chirping in the trees. So, despite it being late October, Ian’s mind packed up and went on vacation, leaving him to be about as articulate as the chair he sat on.
By the time Danny had offered him the umpteenth solar-like smile and his second beer, Ian’s synapses were finally back to their usual productivity level. But there was a glitch in that system of synapses, and Ian let out, “You’re so sweet.”
Hayden choked on his beer. “You’re complimenting someone during your first meeting with them? I see… We should get our textbooks updated because flying pigs are definitely coming.”
“They’ve been around since the invention of the airplane,” Ian replied, referring to any human in the air.
“Okay, now, that’s the usual you. You had me worried for a sec.”
There was no need for Hayden to be concerned. Ian hadn’t been replaced by an alien lookalike. He was just smitten. In fact, he was so much so that he’d almost brought flowers on his next visit to that dorm room.
Becoming attracted to someone based on looks wasn’t unusual for Ian. But being smitten had been a rare experience, so it wasn’t just Danny’s looks that were working their magic on him. Despite being more apprehensive than the average person when meeting new people, Ian had started floating in a pool of serenity right after stepping into the range of Danny’s sunray-shaped aura. Danny often smiled—always with sincerity—acted in caring ways and looked at people as if he were hugging them with his gaze. Ian knew he was smitten when the thought of actually hugging Danny one day made something explode within his chest.
He continued visiting Hayden and Danny in that dorm room for the following two months and always tried having many pleasant interactions with Danny. It was easier than Ian-ly possible, because Ian wasn’t his usual self around him.
Hayden asked him about the reason behind his change in behavior, but Ian just said, “I have more vitamin D in my system now,” because ‘D’ stood for ‘Danny’, who was like sunlight in Ian’s mind, and sunlight was a known source of vitamin D.
Normally, Ian would’ve told Hayden the truth. But Danny was Hayden’s roommate, and Ian didn’t want to make things awkward by revealing his feelings. Hayden knew Ian was into guys just like Hayden was into girls, so there was no problem there. However, Ian didn’t know Danny’s preferences and he didn’t want to open Schrödinger’s cat’s box by asking either Danny or Hayden about that. If he discovered the cat dead, he’d also have to kill his current crush. If the cat were alive, he’d have to—God forbid—put himself out there and lay his feelings on the table for someone else to shuffle at will.
Both options came with downsides, so Ian just maintained a quiet crush on Danny. At least, that had been his intention…
* * * *
“Of all the places to get a beer, do we really have to go to a recycle bin?” Ian asked, half-rhetorically. He and Hayden were heading to a bar called Craft to meet up with Danny and a friend of his. Craft might as well be called a recycle bin.
It was a cold day in December, so Hayden warmed up his hands with his breath. “Well, Danny likes these quirky places, and you didn’t oppose him when he suggested going to Craft.”
Oppose Danny on something he wants? Ha! I’d rather attempt going to Mars before doing that—and going to Craft is cheaper than going to Mars.
Just like every other bar or coffeeshop in Thornburg, Craft was unique. Most such establishments prided themselves with innovative concepts in interior design and with student prices to attract the artsy, intellectual and non-conformist people of that city who would fill these spaces at any hour, chatting with friends over drinks, bringing their laptops to work and even holding business meetings there.
Ian was a fan of the student prices but not of the practical implications of those innovative concepts. Going to Craft meant he’d have to sit on cubes made from dozens of cardboard layers pressed together at a table consisting mainly of a spray-painted door. The whole interior design was as ‘crafty’ as it could get, but that didn’t mean it was comfortable.
Ian also wasn’t a fan of meeting new people. He walked slower now, compared to any other occasion when a meeting with Danny awaited him—and it wasn’t because of the snow that was covering the asphalt.
“Who’s this friend of Danny’s that I have to use the lie ‘Nice to meet you’ on?”
“Victor Kross. Ever heard that name before?”
Why’s Hayden making it sound like this Victor Kross is a celebrity?
Hayden shrugged. “Just thought there was a possibility.”
“What kinda person is this guy?”
“The Great Dane kind.”
Whenever Hayden compared a person to an animal, especially a dog breed, that was usually a sign of Hayden being fond of that person. When Hayden had compared Danny to a Golden Retriever, Ian had wholeheartedly agreed. However, all he knew about Great Danes was that such dogs had a good chance of stepping on Ian or propelling him across the room with a sneeze, so Ian didn’t really learn anything from that comparison.
“Let me phrase it differently. How likely is it for me to end up remodeling this guy’s jaw with my fist?”
“Don’t go by your overly-accepting standards. Think about what I’d do.”
“Still not likely, because you know I’d be upset with you if you don’t at least try to be peaceful.”
Ian grunted. “Fine. As long as this guy isn’t too aggravating, I’ll try to behave.”
“Good. Hopefully, you’ll get along, ’cause you’ll be meeting a lot in the future.”
“Wait, what? Why?”
“He’s Danny’s closest friend, he often drops by our room and I like hanging out with him.”
“If that’s the case, how come we haven’t crossed paths before?”
Hayden shrugged. “Bad timing?”
“I’d say there’s nothing bad about it.”
“Just keep in mind that not everyone’s trying to harass you or has something against you. Don’t quickly assume someone’s being aggressive then get that way yourself. Remember that you’re safer than you think you are. Okay? Think back on how reticent you were to meet Danny. And that turned out better than expected, right?”
Ian grunted, then nodded, despite not being able to fully believe Hayden’s words. People were scarier than Hayden’s positive mindset allowed him to see. One vital reason meeting Danny had turned out well and why Ian had instantly developed a crush was the pure, friendly and harmless vibe Danny radiated. Not many people could effortlessly give others such a strong feeling of safety and comfort.
Hayden’s phone rang and he pulled it out. “Danny texted me that he and Vic secured us a table. Should I tell him to order?”
“Cheapest beer for me and two shots of their strongest shit.”
“You wanna start off the evening like that?”
“You want me to be peaceful, right?”
When they arrived at Craft, Hayden went straight to the indicated table in the back of the bar while Ian made a stop at the bathroom near the entrance.
There were only three urinals, so he stood in front of the one farthest from the tall guy on the right, like etiquette in a men’s bathroom demanded. The tall guy, who wore a slim-fit suit of all things, didn’t seem to care about said etiquette, as he turned his head toward Ian and blatantly stared at him for three whole seconds.
What the fuck’s this overdressed giraffe looking at?
Standing at 1.68 meters—or just over five and a half feet—Ian wasn’t exactly short, but that depended on who was looking. Some bastards, especially stork-legged ones like the guy on the right, would see him as a shrimp. With a summit of a head’s height higher than Ian’s, the vertically favored guy most likely saw him as a bug to step on.
When the guy turned his gaze back to the wall in front of him, he let out a short laugh, which convinced Ian that the stranger was mentally ridiculing his stature, and it flipped Ian’s switch.
“You got a problem, jackass?”
“Don’t we all?”
“Not everyone has a problem with being stared at, but I do. And not everyone’s highly attached to their eyes, but if you are, keep them in front if you don’t wanna get them poked out.”
“Wow, what a firecracker personality… And your fuse’s just as short as—”
“Finish that sentence and we’re taking this outside, asshole.”
“I’ll pass.” The guy zipped up his dress pants and went to wash his hands. “Maybe some other time when I won’t be in clothes I don’t wanna ruin.”
“Trust me that the designer knockoff’s the last thing about you I’ll try to ruin.”
“How observant,” the guy mumbled with a grin. Then, he turned toward Ian and, before exiting the bathroom, said, “See ya around, Ian.”
Did he hear wrong? No, the beanstalk bastard had definitely said his name. Did they know each other? Did they have a prior beef? Ian’s nasty mouth had made him start countless brawls, despite the rest of Ian’s body being useless in a physical confrontation. He didn’t remember everyone who’d punched his lights out, and he certainly didn’t remember everyone he’d clashed with. But he would’ve remembered meeting someone with a jawline sharp enough to use as a weapon, so Ian was fairly sure he’d never met the suit-covered streetlight before.
Do I have a stalker? Nah… But why does he know me? Could…? Never mind. Fuck it. It’s time for a chill evening with Hayden and Danny, and I won’t let that pissing totem pole spoil it.
After washing his hands, Ian left the bathroom and headed toward the back of the crowded bar. Navigating through the tables was about as easy as moving a truck through a traffic jam, and he identified his destination only when Hayden stood, waving to him. Danny turned toward him, smiled and also waved. That smile managed to resurrect Ian’s cheerfulness.
Next to Danny, there was another guy who Ian assumed to be Victor. For a while, he had conveniently forgotten he was supposed to meet a stranger that night. Supposed-Victor sat with his back toward Ian, the bar was packed and Ian mostly focused on advancing toward his destination. So, he’d only noticed a head full of light brown hair and a back covered in a mustard-colored shirt before he reached the table.
Supposed-Victor got up to greet Ian, but stopped right before opening his mouth with shock coating his face. Ian couldn’t believe his bad luck had made him meet the overdressed giraffe from the bathroom again so soon.
Danny gestured toward Ian. “Vic, this is Ian. Ian, this is my best friend, Victor.”
You’ve gotta be kidding me. This jackass is who I’ll have to deal with without kicking him in the gut? And why is he taken aback? Isn’t this why he knew my name?
Victor cracked a smile and extended his hand toward Ian. “Hi. Nice to meet you.”
Ian stared at Victor’s hand and lied. “I didn’t wash my hands at the bathroom.”
Hayden’s face fell. “Dude! What the hell?”
“I’ll shake your hand some other time, Victor.”
After a brief pause, Victor flashed another smile that involved only the lower part of his face and said, “Sure. No problem.”
He sat and Ian attempted doing the same, but Hayden scolded him for his lack of proper hygiene and ordered him to go wash his hands. When he returned from the bathroom, he joined the conversation going on at the table while avoiding directly interacting with Victor. Luckily, it didn’t seem like Victor was eager to engage with him either.
The suit jacket Victor had worn in the bathroom was now on a clothes hanger that was hanging on the wall—because why wouldn’t a bar like that have clothes hangers randomly hanging on the walls for customers to use?
With his light brown hair, cappuccino skin tone and mustard-colored shirt, Victor was an alluring gradient that kept pulling Ian’s eyes toward him against their will. Sometimes, being a drawn-to-visuals person was a great disadvantage.
When interacting with Hayden and Danny, Victor smiled in any given minute more than Ian did in any given month. His large grin revealed perfect teeth and hid his eyes whenever it was flashed. He joked around and often laughed with such volume that a microphone next to his mouth could’ve caused an earthquake. His laughter sounded so stupid with his deep voice that Ian repeatedly snorted.
However, when he remained still, silent and serious, Victor did not look human. He looked like someone had sculpted his facial features with precise movements, meticulously chiseling every part and allowing no flaw whatsoever. That skillful sculpting resulted in a mind-blowing combination of angular features and smooth textures.
This guy… He’s a statue. If he doesn’t move, he’s legit a statue… No fucking way a normal human can look this crafted and sublime. It’s like he’s mocking Mother Nature herself with those looks.
The only element of Victor’s visuals that didn’t match the statue simile was that pair of vibrant eyes. The problem with those eyes was that they’d unexpectedly settle on Ian, giving him the impression that a supernatural being was spying into his soul.
At one point, Victor held perfectly still with a blank expression, not blinking for a few seconds and not breathing in a visible way. Ian stared like he was trying to determine if the mannequin in a horror-house would jump at him or not. Then, Victor suddenly threw his gaze toward Ian and Ian jumped back, almost yelping.
Fuck! Can’t you look and act more like a regular human? What’s with—? Wait a minute. Could this guy have some kinda paranormal powers, like mind reading? Is that why he knew my name before knowing I’m the fourth person who was supposed to come here tonight?
For a while, the whole table was engaged in forming a plan for how Hayden and Danny could get a certain stray cat into their room and raise it there without the dorm staff noticing the breach in regulations.
After that topic ended, Hayden turned to Ian. “So, what’s up?”
“Fire-hazard chandeliers,” Ian said, looking up at the cardboard-covered sources of light.
“Cute. I meant how come you’ve been slightly more cheerful than usual lately. Did something good happen work-wise?”
“It’s not a big deal.”
Victor intervened. “I’d say signing with a major fashion magazine is a pretty big deal.”
Wait, what? How the fuck did he know that? Is this jackass really psychic? Does—?
Hayden’s enthusiasm interrupted Ian’s thoughts. “You got a callback on that? Dude! Congrats!” He shook his friend’s shoulder, shaking nearly all of Ian in the process. “I thought you wanted out of the fashion industry, though… Well, anyway, I’m proud of you. Good going!”
“Whoof,” Ian said, dryly, not letting it show that he was happy about Hayden’s reaction.
“But why didn’t you say anything sooner?” Hayden asked.
“I didn’t want to spread the news before I was sure I could last there more than a month—or if I even liked it enough to stay for more than a month.”
Danny chimed in. “Congrats, Ian! That’s really cool.”
Ian raised his head toward the source of the lovely sound, like a dog hearing the front door opening. He smiled and rubbed the back of his head. “Thanks. But it’s really not that important.”
Victor’s opposite-of-lovely voice drilled through the air again. “There was an interview about it, so someone thought it was important.”
With a forced smile and narrowed brows, Ian leaned toward Victor, who sat across from him. “You read fashion magazines, Victor?”
“Not just fashion magazines, Ian—photography ones, too. You really have a thing for morbidity.”
“I do. And I’d really like to shoot a dead giraffe next.”
Danny stopped the exchange. “Wait. There was an interview about you, and your work is featured in photography magazines? I didn’t know you were that famous.”
“I’m not. Seriously,” Ian denied, a smile still making its way onto his expression.
“He’s just the youngest to have his work on the cover of such national magazines.”
Victor showcasing his apparently extensive knowledge on Ian was making it strenuous for the latter to not unleash the side of himself he’d displayed earlier in the bathroom. Still, he controlled his impulses and phrased things in a way that wouldn’t allow his growing irritation to be downright blatant. “You sure seem to know a lot about me, Victor. And I know for sure there isn’t a Wikipedia page about me yet or a paparazzi following me.”
“I read up on what’s happening in various art-related industries. I read your interview just yesterday. Imagine my surprise when I suddenly saw you in the bathroom, then my surprise at learning that you’re the Ian who is Hayden’s friend. The world’s a small place, huh?”
Aha… So, that’s how he knew—
Danny interrupted Ian’s thoughts. “This is awesome! Now I have two friends who are stars.”
“Stars?” Ian asked.
Hayden clarified things for him. “Vic’s an actor—and a model, if you couldn’t tell just by looking.”
“Or by the dress pants, dress shirt and shit-loads of hair product in a cheap bar,” Danny added, tugging at all the items he mentioned.
“I’m just studying acting and I’m still a noob at modeling, but I appreciate the hyping up.” Victor then addressed Danny, “Also, I would’ve changed, but you told me to hurry.”
“But still, look at this.” Danny laughed and messed with Victor’s hair. “I can model it like it’s clay.”
Victor shoved Danny’s hand away with minimum force, so Danny continued messing with his hair and Victor continued pushing him away until they enacted a battle scene from an old cartoon. Hayden joined in on the skit and it went on for a while, with all three participants laughing at the end. Victor then turned toward Ian and his cheerfulness faded into a glare. Ian almost recommenced their conversation from the bathroom but held it in to not ruin the evening for Hayden and Danny.
They talked more about Ian’s newest job and about many other things, the evening progressing in a fun way, aside for one major thorn in Ian’s side.
Every time Ian locked eyes with Victor—especially after Ian talked to Danny—he’d find Victor staring at him with that unnatural intensity. Sometimes he raised an eyebrow at Ian, sometimes he showed him a smirk and sometimes he frowned. Ian didn’t know what Victor’s problem was, but he was more than tempted to rip the cardboard decorating the walls and shove it down Victor’s throat. At times, he had to scratch the door-table to not do something that’d get him kicked out of the bar.
Unfortunately, he came to learn that Victor was to Danny pretty much what Hayden was to Ian—which meant that the four of them would meet in the future more frequently than Ian’s stomach cared for.