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Casual

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Peter looked at his watch as he stumbled out of the bathtub. “Holy, balls, Balth, it’s 4 a.m.” Balthazar laughed a bit and began collecting the random assortment of musical instruments they had collected over the last seven hours.

“I don’t envy Ben having to edit that. I don’t think even he could have anticipated, like, seven hours of material,” Balthazar commented, searching his pockets to see where he stuffed the kazoo. He didn’t want to lose that thing. Useful little tool. Not finding it there, he began looking under the pillows in the bathtub, while Peter stretched and shook out his legs. Balthazar very pointedly did not stare at Peter as he stretched to his toes, causing his shirt to lift a bit. “Aha,” he muttered, having discovered the kazoo hiding behind Fred’s shampoo bottle that was left discarded at the side of the bath.

“I told you. I said I’d do it.” Peter said, winking at Balthazar. Balthazar merely blushed a little and raised an eyebrow. “I will,” Peter whined.

“Okay, Pete,” Balthazar held up his hands defensively. “You’ll do it. I have to say, not sure I’d mind if it never aired at all. I honestly can’t remember half of what we just said and did.”

“It was fun though, yeah?” The look on Peter’s face was suddenly of an intense variety that always made Balthazar come over confused suddenly. He stared at his hands and pulled on his sleeves a bit. A nervous habit he never could really break, especially when things were stressful or intense or confusing. Three things he often associated with Pedro – no, no, Peter – these days. Or really, all days, since way back to Year 9.

“I always have fun with you, Balthy,” said Peter, stepping a little closer. “I missed seeing you as much when you were busy over break. Why didn’t we see each other as much?”

Now Balthazar really was blushing. He wanted out of this really very small bathroom, away from the look Peter was giving him, away from this conversation about things that were better left unsaid.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” he mumbled, breaking eye contact and trying to busy himself with cleaning up the bathroom.

The truth was Balthazar really didn’t know. He had thought things were progressing well between him and Peter at the end of the last school year. He knew there was something there – something that suddenly became palpable at the night of the Dukes’ party. But then Beatrice had interrupted him and Peter from having any kind of talk. Balthazar had spent the rest of that evening summoning up his courage – he thought perhaps he and Peter could talk after his gig the next morning. In fact, he psyched himself up – he thought he could actually do it. Send some pointed looks at Peter during songs with meaning. Find a place to chat later and maybe – maybe even be a little brave and bring up what had happened the evening before. But then Peter hadn’t shown – no one had except for Ursula. They were all recovering from a long night at the Dukes undoubtedly. Balthazar wasn’t angry – it took a lot for him to become truly pissed. He was mostly disappointed, because he knew he’d never again find the courage again to raise the issue.

Then he thought – perhaps Peter would bring it up. Perhaps Ben would continue to badger Peter until he did something. Maybe Balthazar just had to be available for Peter to make his move. But it never happened. They went back to school – the last week before exams – and Peter was as he ever was. Joking around, mildly flirting with everyone around him, as he seemed to do as instinctively as he breathed.  He occasionally lapsed into a brooding mood, but the end of school stress and busyness of tests and the excitement of leaving seemed to have snapped him out of the deep spiral he had been in after the events of the last few months. But he never broached the topic of dating with Balthazar again.

In fact, if anything he seemed to pull away from Balthazar a bit. Not in any real tangible way – it was little things – fewer late night text messages, sitting next to others at lunch rather than taking the place at Balthazar’s side as he used to do instinctively, perhaps asking fewer questions about Balthazar’s latest songs. They were still friends – still went to the same places with the group, still chatted over social media, still traded occasional texts. But there was a distance that hadn’t been there before and Balthazar just figured – they missed their moment. Or maybe Peter had thought better of starting something in the cold light of day, without Ben and John’s machinations to affect him. And Peter hadn’t been in love with Balthazar for five years, as Balthazar had been with him. Easier to shrug off a night’s attraction, Balthazar supposed, than a five year infatuation. It hurt. Of course it hurt. But Balthazar wasn’t the type to push things on others or to raise a fuss. If Peter had decided to back down, that was his call and Balthazar would just have to deal.

So as exams came to an end and they all prepared for leaving and the ceremony and parties that went with it, Balthazar found himself throwing himself back into his music. Anything for a good distraction. He spent much less time with Claudio, Ben, Peter, and their assorted group. He had tea quite a lot with Ursula, who urged him to start thinking about the future. That made Balthazar anxious, though, and he instead found himself falling back into a relationship with his ex Damian. He liked Damian. They had a nice relationship – it was comfortable and easy. A nice and fairly innocent high school relationship. There wasn’t angst or longing or pining or drama. It was pretty much everything Balthazar should have wanted. He hated conflict and drama – found it beyond exhausting really and it brought on the migraines he was prone to get – and he’d certainly had his fill of it from Year 13. It was easy to let the weeks pass by with Damian, drifting along, quietly watching movies together, playing duets on their guitars, seeing a few concerts, grabbing dinner. Not really thinking about anything too much.

He and Peter still saw each other, somewhat sporadically. They’d met up for lunch once or twice. Balthazar had dropped by the Donaldson’s one afternoon when Peter wasn’t home and ended up chatting with John for a few hours, until Peter returned home, at which point they had fun playing some video games for another hour or two before Balthazar left. When Peter had walked him to the door, he’d asked Balthazar how things were going with Damian. Balthazar had swallowed heavily. They’d somehow ended up close together. Too close. Peter was holding the door open with one arm and Balthazar had frozen underneath his arm.

“Good, good,” Balthazar had mumbled, ducking out from under Peter’s arm. He turned on the stoop.

Peter quickly looked annoyed, but then said, “Great, glad to hear it, bro.”

Then right before Balthazar left for his family reunion, Peter asked him to film a holiday song for the Youtube channel Ben had set up for Peter a few months previously. Balthazar agreed easily enough and they had fun filming for a few hours, getting the song right, the angle right, and uploading it. Finally things felt more natural between them again and Balthazar left for the reunion with his heart a bit lighter.

But then the reunion. Seeing all his family – all of them asking about what he was going to do now that he had left school. He didn’t really know what to say – he’d always assumed he’d continue schooling at some point, perhaps after a gap year for work. But they all reminded him how smart he was – how they expected great things of him. He woke up one night in a panic and began filling out the forms required for university in Wellington. It was the first place he thought of to apply – perhaps it was already in the back of his mind since Peter and Ben were both set to attend there. He got his application in just before the deadline and was relieved to be accepted and have a plan.

The other thing he discovered during his time at the reunion – he didn’t really miss Damian. He left his phone behind when he knew Damian was planning to call and avoided Skype sessions. He felt badly about it, but looking around him at the happy couples in his family, he knew that the relationship wasn’t going to work. Certainly not as a long distance relationship. He liked Damian. They were similar in nature, in outlook. They enjoyed the same things. They had the same favorite bands. But Balthazar wasn’t in love with Damian. Not like Bea was in love with Ben. Not like Jojo was in love with her partner. Not like Hero’s mums were in love. Not like he was in love with – no, but that wasn’t why he was breaking up with Damian. It wasn’t. It was that relationship like theirs couldn’t survive ten months of distance.

Balthazar didn’t really announce his breakup with Damian. Ben had found out from Bea through Ursula and had seemed annoyingly giddy about the whole thing, while throwing his arm around Balthazar and promising they’d find him someone, somewhere, he couldn’t really imagine who, but oh, they’d figure it out. Balthazar had not been nearly as amused. Peter had never mentioned the breakup to him – Balthazar figured he knew – had to really, since the entire group did – but hadn’t apparently found it noteworthy enough to mention. It was about that time that Peter announced he wanted to be called “Peter” and that if any of them insisted on still calling him Pedro, they would pay for it. Balthazar shrugged and took up the new name relatively easily, even as the others took time to adjust and still regularly forgot.

About that time, Ben floated the idea to him of coming flatting with Ben, his new friend in Wellington Fred, and Peter. Balthazar was fine with the idea. He had missed his close friendship with Peter and thought perhaps this would be a good way to find their way back to it. He found Ben amusing, if somewhat over the top and nosey – he didn’t really understand Ben, but he liked him, which he thought was the most important thing. He figured Freddie sounded nice enough in his brief conversation with her about the idea over Skype and thought having a second year there might give them some help into navigating the new world of university. Ben had asked him if it would be okay because of “the – um – Pedro thing”, but Balthazar had merely shook a finger at him, corrected him in the name, and told Ben that there was no “Pedro Thing”. Perhaps a bit of self-deceit there, but a few months distance from the situation had put Balthazar in a place where he figured those feelings had begun to die a little. They may not have disappeared, but they were tucked away safely inside and far enough down that he decided it wouldn’t be an issue.

The first week in the flat was a bit awkward – everyone acting a little tentatively, trying to be on their best behavior. Things began to mellow soon enough. Freddie got comfortable enough to rant at them for leaving their jackets on the couch in the front room. Ben ran around shoving his computer in their faces so they could say hi to Beatrice nightly. He and Peter had even begun hanging out again regularly – filming a song that Balthazar had written in one night, staying up late, a bit giddy at their new start – a new place, a new adventure, new friends. It felt like they were well back on their way to their friendship.

But now here they were – only in the flat for a week, in a bathroom of all places, because obviously, of course – and all of those feelings just came rushing back in like they’d never ebbed in the first place.

“I wish we hadn’t…” Peter trailed off, not completing his thought. He stepped toward Balthazar. The bathroom was small. Had it always been this small?

“Hadn’t what?” asked Balthazar, stumbling forward a bit and looking up at Peter.

“I don’t know,” Peter said. They locked eyes. A beat. Two beats. “Fuck it.”

Peter grabbed Balthazar by the back of his head and kissed him, deeply. Passionately. Hungrily. As if he’d been waiting to do it for months. Balthazar’s head rushed. He felt a weakness travel down his spine and into his legs. Five years of imagining and he never could have predicted it would feel like – this. Warm and full of passion and well, just… right. Everything about it felt right. They pulled back after a minute. Peter’s hands remained behind Balthazar’s head and he smiled down at him. Balthazar smiled a little back and Peter went in to kiss him again. Balthazar knew he could get lost in these kisses and a warning bell went off in his head. He gently put his hands against Peter’s chest and pushed a little.

Peter pulled back, a look of confusion on his face. “What… what’s wrong?”

Balthazar smiled at him warmly and grabbed his hand and linked their fingers. “Nothing is wrong. Just… needed a moment.”

Peter raised his eyebrow a bit, but then said, “Oh, right then,” and stooped once more to try to kiss Balthazar again. This kiss lasted only a moment before Balthazar again pulled back.

“No, Pete. No, wait. We should – we need to talk about this.” Now Peter pulled back, staring at Balthazar as if he’d just spoken in Latin. Their fingers remained linked, but Balthazar felt Peter’s grip slacken a bit.

“Talk about what, Balth? We don’t need to make this some big – thing. We aren’t Bea and Ben. We don’t need, like, a million words to say what we’re thinking.”

Balthazar’s eyebrows crinkled a bit and he rubbed his free index finger against his eyebrow. “I’m not suggesting we, like, make a vlog of it,” he said. “Obviously. Or even discuss this for hours. I’m just – we were almost here before, and if we’re going to start something, I guess I feel like we should just – talk,” he finished, a bit lamely.

Peter looked down at their linked hands and Balthazar felt Peter’s hand slowly begin to retreat from his. Peter pulled his hand away and began to rub it across the right side of chest. Then his face shut down. Balthazar hated it when Peter’s face did that. It was like a shutter coming down over a window. He became completely unreadable. Moments passed with no speech. The bathroom suddenly seemed colder and the tension grew.

Finally Peter spoke. “What do you think we’re starting here, Balthazar?”

Balthazar looked at anything but Peter. The sink. The washing machine. The mirror. “I don’t know,” he mumbled. “Just obviously… you know, something. If we’re kissing in a bathroom after spending seven hours in a bath together.”

“God, you manage to make that sound dirty.” Flirty Peter reemerged briefly. It would have been so easy to let it go. To lean in again and get lost in kisses and … but no.  They needed to be clear.

“It just… I know you haven’t been with many men before. At least, I don’t think you have. And after what happened before leaving last year, I feel like if we’re going to start something, it needs to be … defined. Or, not defined, but you know… what is happening between us.” Balthazar knew he was being incoherent. He knew what he meant. He didn’t want to be a safe way for Peter to explore his newly openly admitted attraction to men. He didn’t want to be a casual hook-up. He was far too in love for that – he wasn’t sure he could survive that type of relationship with Peter – and he was pretty damn sure their friendship wouldn’t survive it.

“God, Balthazar. You really know how to kill a mood, don’t you?” Peter rolled his eyes and leaned up against the sink. Balthazar retreated back against the bathroom door and let it hold him up. “Why does it have to be anything defined? No, I haven’t been with a lot of men before. Only one, actually. Over the holidays when you were away. Doesn’t mean I can’t want to be with you now. I’m good with my sexuality. It’s not an experiment – it just is – if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“No, that’s not – that’s not the issue.” Balthazar felt himself become frustrated. He couldn’t communicate his concerns properly and it was all coming out wrong. “I just – I don’t want this if it’s casual.” He looked down. He couldn’t make eye contact. “You know how I feel about you, Peter. I know you know. And if this is just a quick fumble and move on, or even a friends with benefits thing – I just can’t.” His voice broke. “I just can’t. I’m not built that way in general. And with you, it’s not even a possibility.”

He glanced up quickly to try to read Peter’s face. Nothing. There was just nothing there to see. He had to make him understand – surely he understood, didn’t he? “Because I’m –“ Bathazar cut himself off as Peter began shaking his head vigorously.

“I don’t know why we have to talk about this,” Peter’s hands fisted. His voice was frustrated. “I don’t want to talk anymore, Balthazar.”

“But you have to know, Peter. How I feel about you. And I thought – maybe you feel that way too… or could feel that way? Before we do anything, I just need to know if it’s even a possibility, down the line that you could….” He stopped and waited. He caught a glimpse of something behind Peter’s eyes. Regret? Sadness? Desperation? He wasn’t sure.

“Genuine as always, Balthazar,” said Peter softly. He grimaced a little. “I’m sorry. I just don’t – I’m not there. I’m not sure if I will ever be there. It’s university. I just – I want fun. I want to explore. Try out new things. New people. I don’t want to be in a relationship with anyone right now. I don’t think I’d be any good in a relationship right now. And I can’t – I can’t tell you what I know you want to hear from me.”

A long awkward pause this time. Balthazar felt himself begin to break down slightly inside. Dear God, the mortification. The embarrassment. Being let down gently – or as gently as Peter got – by his friend, after keeping these thoughts to himself for five humiliatingly long years. And now it was all out there. He loved Peter. Peter hadn’t let him get the actual words out, but surely that was entirely clear. Peter didn’t feel the same. Balthazar wanted to crawl in a hole. Time slowed down. He could hear the seconds ticking away on Peter’s wristwatch.

“Right, okay.” Balthazar fumbled at the doorknob, desperate to escape.

“Balthazar, wait –“

“No, Pete. It’s okay, really. I just need…” He couldn’t finish the sentence. He finally managed to maneuver the doorknob to let himself out and fled to the safety of his bedroom.

He could literally feel the burning on his cheeks as he flung himself down on the bed. He could feel himself begin to panic. How would he ever face Peter again? How would he ever manage to get out of this bed again? The tears came slowly. The anxiety flowed freely though. As his thoughts tumbled all over themselves and came at a rapid pace, he did the only thing he knew to try to calm it. The only thing that had ever worked really. Lyrics. Turn it all into lyrics, he thought. Lyrics provided order, and were a way to compartmentalize the anxiety. Still sniffing away a stray tear or two, Balthazar huddled under his covers and began to hum some words.

The next morning, Balthazar woke up early. He’d only had a few hours of sleep, but there was too much running through his head to stay in bed. He went to make himself tea. Maybe then he’d begin with his classwork. Peter had already gotten started on his with Ben. That would be a good distraction and a more productive use of his day than moping. Besides, it would be an excellent excuse to lock himself and his mortification and devastation away in his bedroom for the day.

When he opened the door to his bedroom, he found all of his instruments that he had left in the bathroom the night before in a neat pile on the little table that sat right next to his door.