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The Stinger

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Third takes a class on consent in movies. It's an elective more than anything, something he's not particularly interested in but caters to his tastes enough to catch his attention. Halfway through the first week, he watches the director's commentary of a scene where a woman is harassed on a train. The director says "She put herself in the situation. She should have been more careful."

Third blinks, because the words are familiar. He has to pause the scene, feeling slimy already, to think about why those words echo in his brain. It takes him filling a glass of water and sipping half of it while he casually follows the train of thought until he hears Khai's voice in his head.

Why didn't you tell me?

You wouldn't have believed me anyway, and I don't blame you. It was me that put myself in that situation. I should have been more careful.

Oh.

Third contemplates his glass of water and then carefully pours it out. What he’s already drunk feels heavy in his belly.

-

Third finishes his homework but he's distracted. He's been replaying his memories of The ChingChing Incident, as he calls it in his brain. Though it's been well over six months since he and Khai agreed to be together for real and it's been as close to perfect as he's always imagined it would be, he still remembers those painful weeks between listening in on Khai and Bone in the restroom and finally hugging Khai under the spotlight.

He wishes he didn't sometimes, but he also wouldn't trade that time for the world because it's part of his and Khai's love story. The painful rising action before the climax, necessary to now have everything he's ever wanted. He thinks if he had to do it again, he would.

But some moments hurt worse than others in those memories. Somehow, realizing that Khai had been at the train station all day, listening to him apologize to Third, knowing that he'd hurt, misunderstood, blamed Khai, was one of those worse moments.

He's always understood who Khai was, felt like he knew Khai better than he knew himself sometimes. But, looking back on it, Third felt...bad. For both how he'd handled his aggression that first night at the bar and, now, for how he hadn't spoken up when Khai had blamed himself. There was a lot of bullshit that Khai had put him through, a lot of unintentional - and intentional - cruelty he could blame on Khai's sheer dumbassery - but Third wouldn't blame him for someone else's bad actions. It was easy to see that Khai kissing him in the bathroom had been fucked up, and Khai had apologized in a lot of ways for that, and for all the other times he’d hurt Third. Third had forgiven him and they’d worked a lot on boundaries and communication and lots of other things that sucked in the moment but made things better in the long run.

But, listening to the commentary, thinking about what had happened, what they’d talked about and worked out, Third realized that Khai being kissed had never been part of the discussion.

And Third had to wonder.

-

He makes dinner as usual. Khai has a late class tonight, so he texts Bone in between stirring sauce and boiling noodles. He and Aun talk about a new script they've been working on for half an hour while he finishes cleaning up the kitchen.

He hears the door swing open and then the familiar "Thirrrrd" that has become his boyfriend's customary greeting when not met at the door just as he's finishing setting the table.

"You're back." He says blandly. His heart has already started beating a little faster. If he didn't love Khai's face so much, he would smash it in for being so handsome even after a long day of lectures.

"Did you miss me?" Khai flounces over to drape himself across Third's shoulders and kiss his cheek. Third lets him, not bothering to hold back his eye roll.

"I saw you this morning."

"I'll take that as a yes." Khai declares and kisses his cheek again before moving away to toss his things on the couch.

"I made dinner. Come eat."

Khai grins at him and the smile is bright enough to blind. Third can't help but bask in the warmth for a long few seconds while Khai chatters away about his day. This is everything to Third, now. Their apartment and dinners together while Khai prattles on about nothing and Third sits and listens and occasionally interrupts for a kiss when the mood strikes. They eat opposite each other and their feet intertwine for most of the meal. Khai feeds Third a bite directly from his chopsticks and Third refills Khai's water glass without being asked. It's domestic and sweet. It would be a part of a montage were they a movie, possibly a silent scene as the credits roll overtop so the audience could see their happiness. Third would happily watch that credit reel for the rest of his life, and even the life after that. The best part, though, is that they aren’t a movie. This is his real life.

Afterward, Khai cleans up while Third goes to shower. By the time he's out, Khai's finished cleaning and is ready for his turn so Third sets up a movie they've watched together a thousand times and dries his hair while he waits.

It isn't until Khai is on the floor between Third's knees so Third can dry his hair for him while they talk about useless things while 50 First Dates plays silently in the background that Third decides now is the time to talk about it.

"Khai." He starts, slowing his vigorous rubbing to a stop and then removing the towel so he can tangle his fingers in Khai's long hair and comb it out of his face.

Khai hums in answer, leaning his head back with his eyes closed so Third can more easily continue his combing.

"I wanna talk about something. It's probably gonna suck."

Khai cracks an eye open, a faint frown tugging his lips. "Do we have to? Right now?"

"I think so. I think we left it long enough already. No, no, stay here." Third coaxes with his softest voice until he's got Khai back between his legs with his head tilted back. He doesn’t sound soft often. Only this man, this one, can pull it from him. "I just want you like this."

"How am I supposed to talk like this?" The frown is replaced by a smile, still only vaguely in place, but the furrowed brow doesn't relax until Third deliberately smooths it out with his thumbs.

"Your mouth is free." Third teases and leans down to peck Khai's lips. It's meant to reassure and it seems to work because he feels Khai relaxing slowly back into place. When Khai puckers his lips in an exaggerated kiss, Third allows for another kiss and then three or four more, until he has Khai giggling and flushed. This is one of his favorite Khais, pink-cheeked and smiling.

"It isn't if you keep kissing me. Not that I'm complaining." Khai wiggles his eyebrows under Third's thumbs and Third can't withhold a smile.

"Okay. I want you to stay relaxed like this. I wanna talk about it but I want us to be calm. Okay?"

"You're freaking me out," Khai says honestly and gets another kiss in response.

"I wanna talk about ChingChing." Third says and has to scramble to hold Khai in place when he tries to snap straight back up.

"I don't want to." Khair starts and Third feels awful all over again. Still, he shushes and soothes until he's returned Khai's head to his lap. He can see the nerves on Khai's face, the unhappy frown lines he can't smooth away all at once. His eyes are cracked open and stare up at Third.

"We aren't going to get upset, remember?" Third cards one hand through Khai's hair and uses the other to stroke along his forehead and cheek. "We're just talking. We can talk about anything, right?"

There's a short silence that involves mostly Third gentling Khai until Khai finally offers a quiet "I don't want to make you mad at me."

"I'm not mad at you. I won't get mad at you."

"Then why are we talking about it? I thought we were putting it behind us?"

Third can feel Khai working himself up. It reminds Third of the first few weeks after they became official, where Khai was worried about every step he took or word he said, like he didn't want to make Third regret his decision. But Third loves all of those idiot things about Khai, even the ones that annoy him. He didn't and doesn't want Khai to be someone he's not.

"We did." He pulls Khai's hands up from the floor and weaves them around his own neck, leans down until their noses are touching and he's nearly cross-eyed trying to keep his eyes on Khai's eyes. "Trust me, okay? We're revisiting, not arguing. I just wanna talk about it. Can we try?"

Reluctantly, and only after running the tips of his fingers through the hair at the base of Third's neck a few times, does Khai nod.

“What do you want to talk about?”

“Well…” Third stops and tries to think about how he wants to come around to the point. On one hand, he just wants to go back in time and make himself speak up, make himself calm down so he can see the devastation in Khai’s face properly. On the other hand, up to that point, the entirety of their relationship had consisted of Third putting aside his own feelings and emotions to appease Khai, and even now he doesn’t regret prioritizing his anger at that moment. He’d been drunk and so in love and so in pain that night, he’d needed to prioritize himself for once. Needed to not be analyzing Khai for any hint that if he just held on, if he just kept going, maybe they’d fall in love.

But it came at the cost of that look on Khai’s face after being abandoned for nearly twenty-four hours, which has been haunting Third for the past few nights (months, if he's honest). He thought about it while making dinner, while texting Bone, and talking to Aum. He thought about it last night when he’d traced his fingers over Khai’s sleeping face and that morning when Khai’d smiled at him around his toothbrush.

He doesn’t want to ever see it again, the guilt and hopelessness.

The thing is, Khai’s hotheaded and honestly kind of dumb outside of his very specific fields of interest. He has the emotional intelligence of a goldfish and is more high maintenance than most people Third has ever met. He doesn’t think anything (most things, Third corrects himself) through, and usually ends up dragging Third into suffering the consequences of his actions alongside him even when Third had nothing to do with it in the first place. He can be selfish and mean and downright cruel.

But there is a reason so many people fall so hard for him. It’s not just his stupidly handsome face - Khai is funny. He has a way of looking at the person he’s talking to like they’re the only one in the whole world, let alone the room. Khai remembers weird things, like a favorite color or a food allergy and he incorporates it when he needs or wants to. He makes Third, and all of those other girls, feel known in an addictive way. Most of all, Khai bounces back from things so fast it almost gives Third whiplash.

Khai is a genuinely loveable person as much as he is someone easy to hate. He made Third fall in love with him at first sight, just sitting in the grass in a stupid headband, looking vaguely confused and nervous. Until that night, Third had never seen him look so lost. Like there was nothing he could do except sit and have glass still working it’s way out of his foot and remember beer staining his skin and Third’s tears and snot all over his shirt from their fight and say you wouldn’t have believed me.

The worst part is that Third wouldn’t have believed him. Third didn’t even believe him when Two had relayed the Sound department gossip. He’d been so ready to believe that Khai had betrayed him. He’d been so ready to look at the progress they’d made and say that it was fake. He’d been scared that those things were true and he’d already been hurt too much to keep holding on with that risk looming over him.

And Khai had known that, and it had been painted in his eyes, on his face. He’d known that, and he’d known that it had been his fault and he took the blame as his due.

“Actually, I want to say sorry.” Third says after some thought. Because that’s true, isn’t it? He’s not sorry he was angry, or that he lashed out. But he’s sorry he let Khai take that blame and live with it for so long, for not bringing it up or even realizing it.

“What?” He can’t soothe Khai back down this time and Khai turns around so he’s on his knees, sitting between Third’s legs with his elbows resting on Third’s thighs and a serious look on his face. Third loves his serious face, too, unfortunately.

“I want to say sorry.” Third says again, “For blaming you for the kiss.”

Khai frowns harder. “Third, don’t apologize for that. It was my fault. I’m sorry.”

Third’s heart constricts. He’s weak. He’s weak for this man and his awful personality and childish outlook and stupid, handsome face. He can’t even find the strength to wish he wasn’t.

“She kissed you, Khai.” Third says firmly. “You didn’t ask for it or lead her on. She kissed you. And I’m sorry I blamed you for it. I’m sorry you were hurt.”

“I don’t want you to apologize to me about anything, ever.” Khai leans up and puts his hands on Third’s shoulders, “Please stop apologizing. You’re breaking my heart.”

“Don’t be dramatic.” Third rolls his eyes and if it’s only to reduce the sting he feels in them, that’s his business. If it’s only so he doesn’t have to look at Khai’s wet lashes, that’s his business.

“I’m not being dramatic.” Khai argues, “Really. Can’t you feel it? My heart breaks when you make this face!” He pulls Third’s hand to his chest, presses it down so Third can feel his heart beating fast and strong.

“It feels healthy.”

“No, it’s breaking. Feel more.” Khai warbles and his heart doesn’t hitch but his voice does. “None of that was your fault, Third. It was all mine. I didn’t ask for her to kiss me but karma came for me and I deserved it.”

“Don’t say that.” Third shoves at his chest, not hard but enough to make a point, “That’s stupid. That isn’t how it works. You didn’t deserve for someone to push themselves on you.”

“Neither did you. But I did that to you, didn’t I? It’s a taste of my own medicine, and I almost lost you for it. I’m not upset that you were mad at me.”

Third takes a deep breath because this isn’t going how he wants it to go. Talking very rarely does with Khai. He takes a second to regroup, feels Khai’s heartbeat under his palm, and the warmth of his fingers wrapped around Third’s hand.

He thinks of how he wants to say what he wants to say, about reframing. They never went to therapy together, but Khai had come in with two textbooks once and spent his time talking about nothing else for the next month and Third remembers that vocabulary word now.

“Let me say this without interrupting, okay?”

Khai, reluctantly, nods.

“I’m not sorry I was angry or that we took a break. I am sorry that you were touched without permission and I’m sorry I blamed you for what someone else did to you.”

Khai opens his mouth but Third covers it with his other palm before he can talk and feels Khai’s lips close against his skin.

“We talked a lot about you kissing me that time in the bathroom, but we never talked about ChingChing kissing you and that I hurt you because of it or blamed you for what she did. I’m sorry I threw a bottle at you that night. And I want you to know ChingChing kissing you wasn’t your fault.”

Slowly, Third lets his hand fall from Khai’s face. He lets it rest on Khai’s shoulder instead.

Khai blinks rapidly and then thunks his face into Third’s shoulder so hard that Third nearly flops backward. It’s only Khai throwing his arms around Third that stops him and keeps them close.

“I love you.” Khai declares, muffled. “Third, I really love you.”

“What are you doing?” Third sighs, but he’s hugging Khai back before he even thinks about it. He looks up at the ceiling so Khai’s hair doesn’t suffocate him and finds himself petting fingers through the short strands at the base of Khai’s skull.

“Hugging my perfect boyfriend?” Khai squeezes him lightly. “Can’t I appreciate you? Can’t I tell you how much I love you?”

“No.” Third rejects.

“I will anyway. I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you -”

“Okay, okay, I get it! Shut up now.”

“I can’t.” Khai sits back enough to look him in the eye and he’s smiling again, less giggling and more happy. “I try to be quiet and then I see your face and my whole chest goes warm.”

“We were having a serious discussion.” Third says because it’s that or I love you, too.

“We still are. My feelings are serious, Third.”

“Nothing about you is serious. You’re a walking joke.”

“Your favorite joke.” Khai grins and Third doesn’t smile back but his cheeks heat. Khai’s right, and it’s irritating.

Khai finally sits back, settles back down on his knees only after a few more seconds of pinching Third’s cheeks and kissing his face while Third smacks at him. His cheeks are flushed and his hair is floppy and his eyes are happy when he looks at Third now, the nerves of before gone. Third doesn’t know how he’s lasted so long when he has the chance to have that look directed at him so often now. It was hard enough just being a friend - now, Khai looks at him like he’s the center of the world and it’s so much more than he ever imagined it would be.

“Thank you.” Khai wraps his hands around Third’s, thumbs pressed to his knuckles. “Thank you for always thinking about my feelings, even after everything I did.”

Third swallows the immediate response that wanted to pop out as a defense. They’re working on that - on Khai being more thoughtful and on Third not rejecting his thoughtfulness as a defense mechanism.

“That time was hard.” Khai continues, looking at their hands, still smiling, “But we’re here now. I don’t want to forget that time, because it’s what brought us to now. I don’t blame you for being angry at me or throwing anything at me. You could have thrown the whole room at me and I would have deserved it. I’m just glad that you kept loving me and let me learn how to love you, too.”

“But -”

“It’s my turn.” Khai interrupts, smiling wider when Third closes his mouth. “If you need to be forgiven, then know that there was never anything to forgive you for, for me. I’m okay now, with you. And I hope you’re okay now, with me.”

“I am.” Third says despite himself.

“Then...can we let all those feelings go? ChingChing and that night and the train? I want those memories but I don’t want us to be hurt by them anymore.”

Third thinks about it and finds that he does feel better. It isn’t what he wants, exactly. Khai hasn’t admitted that it wasn’t his fault, hasn’t gotten upset or angry with Third for how he behaved, how he physically hurt him. Has, in fact, apologized to Third again. But he thinks that it’s progress anyway, that they talked about a painful memory for them and it didn’t end in tears.

Instead, it ended up with him and Khai closer, with their feelings known to each other.

Carefully, he pulls Khai up for a kiss. Khai lets it stay light, hums happiness into the press of their lips. Third smiles without meaning to and knows Khai feels it.

50 First Dates still plays, and Khai’s hair is still slightly damp and their apartment is still dyed orange with the sunset seeping through the slitted blinds. It still smells like dinner, and their bed is still unmade from this morning. Khai is still warm and happy and his in his arms.

Third kisses him again and doesn’t know when he’ll be willing to stop. He'd bet on never.