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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.

Chapter Text

So he did manage to face Peter again. Life continued along in the flat. All four of them began classes and were suddenly swamped with work. Ben, in particular, seemed completely overwhelmed with what appeared to Balthazar to be a completely unrealistic course load. At least it kept him from raising the question of vlogging again.

Freddie spent a lot of time at the library or in study groups, although she and Ben could often be found on weekends making up ridiculous games, cooking elaborate dinners, debating the inherent hotness of celebrities, and dancing around the flat. They often tried to drag Peter into their fun, but Peter had found a job at a bar and seemed to be taking his stated desire to have another type of fun at university to extremes. He often wasn’t home until early in the morning, when he bothered to come home at all. Balthazar worried about how Peter was doing in his classes – it seemed like he missed a lot of classes. But he and Peter’s relationship had been – strained – since February and he lost track of a lot of what Peter was doing. Anyway, Peter developed the habit of making a snide comment of some kind when Freddie or Ben approached him and that usually made them back off.

Balthazar used a different strategy – he threw himself into his schoolwork wholeheartedly. He focused like mad – made study guides and charts for every class, re-read his assignments several times, spent hours on every paper he was given to write. He didn’t much like the library – too quiet and too many stressed out people in one place. He spent most of his time in his bedroom working. Occasionally Freddie and Ben would burst in out of nowhere and try to drag him into their amusements, but the door lock was functional and he could always pretend he didn’t hear them knocking over his headphones. The added benefit was, of course, that it reduced his chances of seeing Peter on any kind of regular basis. When they did see each other, it was invariably awkward and difficult for both of them.

They tended to pass like ships in the night – or in the day. Balthazar would make his cereal in the morning, and if Peter happened to be home and awake that particular morning, he’d make his coffee next to Balth, usually silently. On the rare occasion that all four of them sat down to dinner together, Balthazar would look at his plate the entire time and Peter would focus on his phone. Sometimes they’d be so bold as to ask the other to pass the salt or pepper. Occasionally they’d end up in a room together with Freddie and/or Ben, and it would be fine. They’d chat a little, mostly to the others, but sometimes to each other as part of the greater conversation. It’s not that they weren’t speaking – it’s just that they had very little, apparently, to say to one another.

One time, it seemed like Peter tried to open up some form of real communication. Freddie and Ben had both been out and Balthazar had taken the opportunity to escape the confinement of his room for the flat’s living room and strum a bit on his ukulele. His music had stopped flowing so easily in the past month – he was having trouble composing anything, and lyrics were out of the question. He figured that the change in location might help. Peter had entered, stopped when he saw Balth in the front room, and looked confused. Then he’d simply walked into his bedroom and closed the door. Balthazar had shrugged. So what else was new?

But then Peter had re-emerged wearing a different shirt and with his hair fixed and gone to the kitchen for something to drink. Once he had a lemonade, he’d moved over to the other couch and began fiddling on his phone while drinking. Balthazar immediately felt uncomfortable – it was the first time they’d truly been alone since the incident in February and his instinct was to flee the room. But then he steeled himself. He’d been here first. Peter could leave if it was awkward. But it seemed Peter intended to do no such thing. So Balthazar decided to put his head down and focus on his instrument. Eventually though, he looked up and caught Peter staring at him. He wasn’t just looking at Balth – no, he was quite literally staring.

“What?” Balthazar asked uncomfortably.

“Nothing. Just forget sometimes.”

“Forget what?”

“How good you are.” Peter indicated toward the ukulele.

“Oh. Thanks, I guess. I’m -“ Balthazar broke off. He had been about to spill things – his frustration with his inability to compose or write anything at the moment, the feeling of being blocked, the fact that he was beginning to question whether he had any music left in him. But then he remembered – this was Peter. He didn’t want to have that conversation with Peter. It was sad – there was a time he’d have only wanted to have this conversation with Peter. But, well – they weren’t there anymore, were they? He didn’t feel like he could be vulnerable in front of Peter anymore – in any way.

“What is it?” Peter asked. Balthazar looked at him questioningly. “I mean – what are you working on?”

“Oh, um. Nothing, really. Just strumming.” Balth kept it deliberately vague. He really wasn’t working on anything. He didn’t want to admit just how much it was nothing.

“But, like. Is it a new song? Are you planning to film it? Or … I don’t know. I heard there’s a bunch of open mic nights around town. My co-worker Jaquie dragged me to one another night. It was alright. I mean, like, no one as good as you, but…” Peter gave Balth one of his most engaging smiles. Balthazar looked away.

“Yeah, nah, I don’t think so.”

“Okay.” Peter sighed. They were quiet for a few minutes, before Peter stood up and walked toward the door. Balthazar looked down at his ukulele and tried to refocus.

Peter turned around. “Balth –“ He broke off and shook his head. He stood there for a few moments.

“See ya later, Pete.” Balthazar closed down the conversation.

“Yeah. Right.” Peter’s face shut down again, as it had so often the past few months, and he walked out the door.

As soon as the door slammed shut, Balthazar set aside his instrument and put his head in his hands. He sighed deeply and tried to control his breathing. He should really talk to someone about this, shouldn’t he? It seemed like everything was getting away from him – school, music, his friendships – life in general. But he couldn’t think of who to talk to about it all. It used to be Peter who he went to with stuff like this, but obviously that was out. He knew he could call Bea or Hero and they’d be a sympathetic ear, but he didn’t really want to involve them in all this – Peter stuff. It was too incestuous and they’d feel like they had to take a side and it would be weird. Actually, telling anyone from Auckland seemed liked a bad idea – Ben, Meg, Bea, Hero – they would all be put in an awkward place and it seemed liked a decent possibility it might get back to Peter somehow. And there was really no one in Wellington. Freddie and Balth weren’t close and Balthazar hadn’t really gotten to know anyone new. It wasn’t in his nature to make easy friends, particularly friends he felt like he could be open with.

He loved Peter, yes. Had done so for a long time. But the door closing on a possible relationship wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was losing his best friend, the one person he felt he could trust with all his personal secrets and who trusted him with the same. He missed the guy he used to watch movies with all night, the person who had beat boxed some ridiculous rap to cheer Balth up the day he and Damien broke up for the first time, the endless string of text messages back and forth throughout the day gently mocking their friends and sending each other observations of the world around them, the debating over which of the Chris’s was the most attractive. He wanted that back, if nothing else. That would really help him right now. But if wishes were horses and all that… It was all too far gone for that now.

****

It was a few days later when it happened again. Balthazar figured neither of them meant for it to happen – it just did. But he also knew this time it was his own fault.

Balthazar was working in his room late into the night – or early morning, he supposed. He had just glanced at the clock and realized it was 3 a.m. He’d been up for nineteen hours and he still felt overwhelmed. There was a music composition assignment that just refused to happen, a paper due in two days, and a test two days after that. He felt like there was no way he’d ever manage to get it all done. Especially the music composition – it just wouldn’t happen. Whatever it was inside him that used to allow music to flow out as easily as breathing appeared to just be gone.

He began pacing the room. Maybe, if he went to sleep right now, he could get in five hours before he had to be up for class. Then he could maybe sneak in some school work between classes during his shift at the front desk of the library, and then be home by 5, and that would give him another few hours to work on his paper, and then he could start studying for the test, and maybe if he got done early enough with that, he could do the music composition between midnight and 5 a.m. and then he’d definitely get at least three hours of sleep and that was doable right? It wasn’t like he’d fail out of school if he got a lower grade on this paper, or this test. But what if he couldn’t get the music composition to fall into place? What if it just didn’t happen? He would fail the class then, right. And then what was even the point of uni, if he couldn’t pass a first year composition class? His whole life was music – it’s all he’d ever wanted to do.

His pacing got more frantic and he began to mumble to himself, trying to figure out how to stretch more time into four days, or at least how to suddenly become musical again overnight. In a burst of frustration, he threw his pencil across the room and sat down in front of his bed. He felt a few tears threatening to come out and his leg began to shake. That had been happening a lot lately – out of nowhere, one of his limbs would begin to twitch, and then he’d feel like he couldn’t breathe, and then usually the tears would start, and more often than not, he’d end up trying to go back to work through a migraine. And, oh shit, he was losing his mind, wasn’t he?

All of a sudden he heard a short knock at the door and Peter poked his head in. “Balth? What are you still doing up…?” He trailed off.

Shit. Balthazar thought he had locked the door. He was really certain he had done so. Although maybe that was earlier, before he emerged to grab some coffee? Balthazar quickly wiped at his eyes with his shirtsleeve and pressed his other hand against his leg, trying to stop the twitching. The last person in the world he wanted to find him this way was Peter. He had absolutely vowed that Peter would never again see him in a vulnerable state. It was important to him. He wanted to seem like he had his shit together, that he wasn’t pining or miserable or lonely. That he was just as happy at university as Peter clearly was.

Apparently he hadn’t moved quickly enough. Peter took in the room around him –a mess of paperwork, coffee cups, textbooks and composition pads – and then his eyes swiftly moved to Balthazar, on the ground, his eyes red-rimmed from exhaustion and tears and his face full of stress and sadness.

“Balth – what’s going on?” Peter quickly walked into the room and shut the door behind him. He made a step forward as if to move to reach out to Balthazar, but then appeared to check himself.

“N – nothing.” Balthazar sniffed and tried to compose himself. He stood up and walked over to his desk, shuffling around the paperwork.

“Balthazar.” Peter didn’t sound like he believed him.

“I said, nothing. It’s nothing. Just homesick or something. Overworked.” Well, there. That was true. Partly, anyway.

“Oh, fuck off, Balth. C’mon. I can tell something is wrong.”

“I just told you, Pete. Now, it’s late. Can you please get out of my room so I can go to bed?”

Peter walked over to the desk and stood behind Balthazar’ shoulder, his eyes scanning the papers on the desk.

“Are you really going to go to bed?”

“Yes, Peter.” Balthazar turned around and was surprised to find himself only inches away from Peter, who had his arms folded and an eyebrow raised. He swallowed hard. “It’s like 3 a.m. I’m going to bed. Why are you even in here anyway?”

“I don’t – I don’t know. I saw your light on. I just thought … it seemed late for you.”

Balthazar was regularly up until 3 or 4 each morning working. Perhaps Peter was simply sober enough to notice tonight. Wonderful timing. Great, just great. The one time Peter decided to come home sober and Balthazar was having a meltdown. The universe clearly had it out for him.

“Yeah, well. Lots to do. So if you could just –“ Balthazar indicated the bedroom door.

“Balthazar, you need to go to sleep. This stuff will keep.”

“Yeah, well. I’m sorry if some of us take ‘this stuff’ seriously.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What do you think it means? Not all of us can go out every night, sleep through class, and still pull down an average that won’t get us kicked out of school. Some of us actually have to work at this stuff, Peter.”

Now Peter looked annoyed. “I work.”

“Yeah, when? I literally never see you working at all, unless you’re doing it secretly at the bar during your shifts.”

“You don’t know everything about me – you don’t know everything I do!”

Balthazar sighed and rubbed a hand across his eye. “I can’t – I just can’t do this right now, Pete. You’re right. I have no idea what you do. And maybe that’s for the best. Can you please just – can you leave?”

Peter stared down at him. A beat. Two beats. “No. I’m worried about you.”

Balthazar laughed, but with no mirth. “I’m fine.”

“You’re really not though.” Peter moved forward so that they were even closer, running a finger across Balthazar’s eyebrow line. “When you get stressed, there’s this… thing that happens to your eyebrows. I can see it now.”

Balthazar closed his eyes and willed himself not to fall into … this. Whatever this was. It was the last thing he needed right now. But… he couldn’t help himself. He leaned into Peter’s touch. He shuddered. “I don’t know – I’m just stressed. I can’t – I can’t seem to do anything right.”

Peter laughed a little. “You do everything right, Balthy.”

Balthazar shrugged a little. “Not everything,” he muttered.

“What can I do to help?” Peter whispered, moving his hand from Balthazar’s face and putting it on his shoulder. “Anything you need, Balth. Like, whatever. Just say the word.”

“Nothing. There’s nothing you can do, Peter. I’m a shit student. Shit musician. Shit … everything. There’s no helping that.”

Peter stared at him, looking helpless. Suddenly the room was uncomfortable. Balthazar went to turn his back again back to the desk. Peter gripped his shoulder and turned Balth back around.

“I don’t think you’re shit at anything,” Peter said. “Balth, you’re like the best person I know. You’re so, like, talented and have your shit together. You’re a good student. A great musician. And you’re, like, the best friend I’ve ever had. What’s going on with you? Please. Just talk to me about it.”

Balthazar wanted to – he really did. He wanted to let it all pour out to Peter. His fear, his insecurities, his anxiety, his loneliness, his just general unhappiness. But with that, he feared that his feelings for Peter would pour out as well – and, he was just tired of being the weak one, the one who everyone looked at like he was about to crack, the one who everyone felt sorry for. But this feeling of closeness with Peter – he missed that so much. It made everything seem right, at least in one sense of the word – it made the world seem more manageable. But he couldn’t talk – so he did the next best thing.

 Balthazar leaned in, pulling Peter closer, and kissing him. For a moment, Peter tensed and Balthazar figured he had read the signals wrong. He was preparing himself to pull away when suddenly he felt Peter give into the kiss. He didn’t know what he was doing – this clearly had disaster written all over it. He thought about stopping it – telling Peter that this thing – whatever it was – had already ruined too much and that Balthazar just couldn’t take any more of things being ruined. But he was lonely. God, he was so damned lonely. And it was distracting. And the closest he had felt to Peter in a long time. And it felt good. He knew it wasn’t actually good – wasn’t healthy – wouldn’t end well. But he couldn’t bring himself to stop what he had begun.

Peter was hesitant at first – running his hands lightly up Balthazar’s arms and over his shoulders, kissing Balth with a timidity that hadn’t been present in their first kiss last month. But then Balthazar took the lead for a moment. He put his hands up to Peter’s head and ran them through his hair, biting at Peter’s lip and then soothing it with his tongue. He drifted one hand lower to the small of Peter’s back and pushed himself up against him. Peter pushed back, suddenly moving his lips down Balthazar’s neck and sucking and biting at a spot partway down. Then Peter pulled back slightly, eyeing Balthazar, clearly telling him it was his move. Fuck it. In for a penny and whatnot. Balth pulled his t-shirt over his head and tossed it across the room. Peter shrugged out of his own shirt and then pulled Balthazar back in for another kiss, running his hands over Balth’s chest, while Balthazar ran his own hands over Peter’s shoulders, leaning desperately into the kiss and trying to forget everything else. He felt Peter begin to maneuver him over to the bed and, even knowing that that way led madness, he easily followed Peter’s lead.

****

When Balthazar woke up the next morning, Peter was next to him, face down on a pillow. They weren’t touching, but he was close. Balthazar picked up his hand to… well, he wasn’t sure. Maybe to touch Peter, or maybe to shake him awake, or maybe… maybe, nothing. Last night seemed a blur, a hodgepodge of lips and hands and chests and arms and kissing and touching and feeling. His neck stung – he pushed against the spot that hurt and was fairly certain he had a hickey. Great, a turtleneck it would be then.

He glanced at the clock. 8 a.m. Time to get up and face the day and try to… well, compartmentalize this. Try not to think about what it meant or didn’t mean and just… get on with life. He smiled a little though. It really had been a great distraction. And maybe … maybe there was hope for him and Peter. He’d come in here last night, hadn’t he? He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to check on Balthazar and ask about what was going on with him. Peter didn’t have to kiss him back. Maybe Peter had blown off whatever steam he’d needed to at the beginning of the semester and maybe this was now… possible. Balthazar was still glad he hadn’t let it get too far – there had been a moment last night when he was ready to say fuck it and go wherever Peter wanted to lead them. But when their hands had instinctively moved to each other’s jeans, he’d pulled away and said it was too much. Peter had immediately stopped and simply put his arm around Balth, nuzzling his hair and telling him to sleep and to not worry about anything else. That tomorrow was another day and he was sure Balth would survive it. It had been immensely comforting.

Balthazar got up and changed into a fresh t-shirt and threw his only turtleneck on over it. No need for Freddie or Ben to see the mark on his neck. He grabbed his papers and bag and turned back to look at Peter. It seemed wrong to just – leave. But he didn’t figure Peter would appreciate being woken up this early. He paused by his desk and scratched out a quick note, leaving it beside Peter on the bed. It was brief, but heartfelt. “Pete – Thanks for being there for me last night. It was … fun. ;) If you want to talk, I’ll be back by 5 tonight. Maybe I can take a study break and we can meet up and get coffee or something like that? Text me. – Balth”

****

He didn’t hear from Peter all day. He figured maybe he got busy with class, or slept late or whatever. Still, it was a good day. He’d finished his paper in the library during his shift. He’d spoken in class without stammering or mumbling too much, or seeming like a complete idiot, he thought. The day had flown by and he got back to the flat, trying to not seem to overeager to see Peter again. He’d paused before going in and fixed his hair. When he finally got inside, he looked around. Freddie was at the table with a book open in front of her, clearly outlining from it. He heard noise in the kitchen, but upon peeking his head in, he saw that it was Ben making himself a sandwich. He shrugged and went into his room to set down his bag and books.

He wandered back out and noticed that Freddie and Ben, who were by now both sitting at the table, looked surprised to see him re-emerge from his room after entering it. He wandered by and grabbed an apple from the kitchen and then sat down with them. They looked at each other, raising their eyebrows. Was he really that absent from the flat that it was such a surprise to see him sitting down with them? Apparently so.

He chatted with them briefly, answering a few questions about his day and being teased by Ben for his turtleneck “artsy hipster getup”, before he leaned back and let their conversation just wash over him. He pulled out his music composition book and began focusing on it, but it was still hard to get something down on paper. He struggled for a while, getting frustrated, before he noticed it was getting on 8. He was surprised Peter wasn’t home yet – according to the calendar, it wasn’t one of his nights at the bar. Oh, well. Perhaps he’d been called in for a shift. Balthazar ate dinner with Freddie and Ben – or at least ate the rice and vegetables, since they’d made chicken for the main course. Freddie apologized profusely and explained they hadn’t expected he’d join them. Balthazar had shrugged it off and told her not to worry – maybe he really did need to start spending more time with his flat mates. Eventually, after helping Ben wash the dishes, Balthazar did retreat back to his room to start studying for his test.

About 2 a.m., he heard the door open and someone shushing someone else. He stood up and opened his door to see Peter escorting a stranger through the front room. The man appeared to be relatively sober, while Peter had obviously been drinking. Peter shushed the man again, who had been saying nothing, and then began to laugh hysterically. Balthazar blinked. The man glanced over at Balth’s door and saw him in the doorway. He straightened up and put his arm on Peter’s shoulder, and muttered something to Peter, nodding his head toward Balthazar’s door.

“No, no, don’t worry. That’s just my flat mate. He’s cool.” Peter said, leaning over to grab the strange man’s hand. “C’mon… over here.” Peter led the man by the hand to Peter’s bedroom. As the bedroom door opened and they stepped inside, Balthazar could see Peter put his arms around the man and begin kissing him. Peter’s door slammed shut and Balthazar shut his own quietly. He shook his head. Nope. He wasn’t even going to begin trying to process that. He sat at his desk for the next hour, headphones firmly in place, tapping his pencil against his desk. When he looked down an hour later, several pages of his composition book had been filled, as if by magic. Well. At least his lyrics were back.

Chapter Text

It was never going to happen again. It was absolutely, positively, without question never going to happen again. The message Peter had sent him had been received loudly and clearly and Balthazar wasn’t going to pretend he misunderstood it. So it was done. He and Peter were done.

Actually, it was somehow easier to put up a front now. He still spent a lot of time in his room. He still studied constantly, and worried and fretted over the smallest issues with school, but he was getting better at pretending it wasn’t happening. He spent more time out of his room. He pushed himself to spend at least one evening a week with Freddie and Ben, watching movies, or playing board games, or simply laughing as the two of them invented new hand signals. He ate dinner with them at least two or three times a week. He began venturing into town occasionally for open mic nights, or to get coffee or food at the vegan place he’d discovered. Freddie and Ben both smiled at him a lot more now, rather than just looking worried. He’d discovered that if he worked late into the night with a lamp on, rather than his overhead, his flat mates were less likely to talk to him about pacing himself, or proper rest, or to enquire as to his well-being. A few hours a week of engaging with Freddie and Ben seemed enough to keep them off his back, for them to ignore the dark circles under his eyes, for them to stop questioning why he never brought friends around, or asking about his love life. It was a relief and well worth the time out of his room.

He and Peter never spoke about the night back in March. If anything, though, they were friendlier now than they had been the month before. Balthazar would ask him about his job at the bar and Peter would tell stories about their worst customers. Peter would ask Balthazar about classes and Balthazar would nod and tell him things were going well. They were polite to each other. Sometimes one of them made the other a cup of coffee in the mornings. Occasionally they shared the table together, Balthazar usually studying and Peter usually nursing a hangover. Once they even watched a movie together in the front room while Ben and Freddie were studying in their own rooms. They sat on separate couches, but they talked a bit throughout and passed a bowl of popcorn back and forth.

But they were basically strangers. They didn’t discuss Balthazar’s music. They didn’t discuss Peter’s love life. They didn’t talk about friends or the flat. Peter didn’t throw bad puns Balthazar’s way. Balthazar didn’t show Peter the music he was working on. They didn’t talk about their families. Rosa was returning to town soon and Balthazar was excited to see her again – it had been forever. But he didn’t bother to tell Peter. Peter didn’t talk about John, or his parents. Balthazar didn’t share the cute snapchats the twins had sent him. Sometimes Balthazar felt like he knew Peter better from his Facebook posts than from anything else. They were two perfectly polite, perfectly accommodating, friendly strangers sharing a flat together.

It was awful. But it was also the only way to exist at this point. Sometimes Balthazar caught himself looking at flat listings online. He wouldn’t actually move – he didn’t think. He had a responsibility to his flat mates. But sometimes – the idea of being alone in a small flat, able to simply study and work on his music and not feel this constant awkwardness that made him want to claw at his skin – to be able to simply disappear and only interact with life when he absolutely had to – well, it was tempting. Unbelievably tempting. But it wasn’t just his responsibility to Freddie and the lease and his share of the rent. It was also Peter. As much as they were strangers, Balth couldn’t help but hope that at some point they’d revert back to the people they were at Messina and suddenly be best friends again. He couldn’t help himself from wanting his best friend back. And he wasn’t – well, he wasn’t willing to leave Peter to Freddie and Ben’s hands when Peter was so clearly struggling. Who would make sure he got home safely at night? Who would wait up to be sure he didn’t fall over when he came in? Who would make sure he had water, and a bowl, and aspirin on the worst nights? Who would water down the booze Peter kept bringing home from the bar and storing in the kitchen?

It wasn’t healthy. He knew it wasn’t healthy – none of it. But it was Peter. He couldn’t just resign himself to losing him forever. But it was still never, ever happening again. Until, of course, it did.

There was nothing dramatic that precipitated it this time. Balthazar almost wished there were. It was easier to explain these … lapses… when something happened. When they spent too much time in close proximity, or when Balth was feeling particularly stressed or lonely. That was understandable. But there was nothing like that this time. Instead, he and Peter merely found themselves alone in the flat. Ben had flown to Auckland for a long weekend to see Beatrice and to celebrate his parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. Freddie was spending the weekend at her friend Cathy’s house working on a group project for class. And Peter wasn’t scheduled to work that weekend and Balthazar – well, Balth never really had anywhere to be on the weekends, unless he happened to have a shift at the library.

Friday night was fine. He and Peter each made their separate dinners and Balth ate at the table, while Peter ate on the couches in front of his laptop. By eight, Balth had smiled and said goodnight and retreated to his bedroom. Peter looked like he wanted to say something, but no words came out and he simply gave a small smile and salute. Balthazar almost asked if Peter was going out, but changed his mind and simply shut his door. Soon after, he heard Peter’s door shut. It seemed they were both in for the night. The evening passed quietly and Balthazar managed to turn off his light and go to sleep by 2 a.m., relatively early for him.

The next morning, Balthazar was up by 9, making coffee and settling in on the couch to read. Peter emerged about noon, rubbing at his eyes and taking the leftover coffee back into his room, managing a small wave and mumble at Balth. The afternoon was more of the same – Balthazar quietly made them both sandwiches for lunch and set Peter’s down in front of him where he was sitting on the red couch. Balthazar took his back to his room, but he left the door open for once. Everything was very quiet. Peter appeared to actually be studying, and Balthazar worked sans headphones.

By six, even Balthazar had to give up working for the weekend. He rubbed his eyes tiredly and came out of the room. Peter looked up from his notes. “Pizza?”

Balthazar nodded. Within half an hour, he and Peter were sharing a pizza on the couches, with an episode of Parks and Recreation playing in the background. Peter laughed hysterically at something Ben Wyatt was doing onscreen and Balthazar laughed at Peter.

“What?” Peter asked, looking over at Balth.

“Nothing, nothing,” Balthazar shook his head. “It’s just –“ he indicated Peter’s face.

What?

Balthazar couldn’t stop laughing, holding his sides. “Nothing. Sorry, man. It’s just – your chin.”

Peter reached up to swipe at his chin and came away with a mess of tomato sauce. He glared playfully at Balthazar. “It’s not nice to make fun of people for things they can’t help.”

“Oh, that’s good coming from you. And things you can’t help? I think you can help shoving pizza in your face like a caveman.”

“I am deeply offended, Balthazar. Do I have to remind you of the milk incident of 2013?”

Oh, that was a low blow. It wasn’t Balthazar’s fault that Ben had started making weird bird noises at lunch just as Balth was taking a sip of milk. It coming out of his nose had been unanticipated and unpleasant. Balthazar threw the dog pillow at Peter, which ended up knocking his pizza out of his hand and onto the floor.

“Oh, you are going to be in so much trouble with Fred when she gets home!” Peter crowed, jumping up on top of the couch.

“Nah, I’ll just tell her you did it. She’ll believe me too.” Balthazar grinned at Peter and Peter grinned back.

“Okay, that’s just, like, not cool. You asked for it.” Peter jumped over to the couch where Balthazar was sitting and playfully pulled him into a headlock and began rubbing his knuckles over Balth’s scalp.

“Not the hair, man! Not the hair! Okay, okay! I give, I give. I’ll take full responsibility!”

Peter pulled back and let Balthazar go. Balthazar stood up. “Aha. Your hair. Your one weakness. Promise to tell Fred the truth?”

“Yeah, nah, I lied.” Peter made to go after him, but Balthazar jumped away and ran to the closest room he saw – which was Peter’s bedroom. He grabbed a manga collection off the bedside table and held it up to fend off Peter, who scrambled into the room.

“Don’t hide behind the manga, Balth! That’s just sad.”

Balthazar held up the book in front of his face. “I could just drop it out the window.” He teased.

“You wouldn’t!” The clear affront in Peter’s voice made Balthazar start laughing hysterically all over again.

“Wanna bet?” Balthazar moved over the window and cranked it open, teasingly holding the collection by the opening.

“No, you don’t!” Peter ran over and grabbed Balth, maneuvering him onto the bed and falling on top of him. They both laughed. A feeling of familiarity and warmth ran through Balthazar – this was what having Peter as a friend was like. Tussling, and playing, and laughing. God, how he missed it as an everyday thing in his life.

Suddenly though, they both stopped. Peter was lying on top of Balthazar, his hands propping himself up above him. Balthazar swallowed hard. Peter studied Balth’s eyes, looking for… something. Apparently he saw whatever he was looking for, because he moved in for a kiss. And Balthazar didn’t stop him.  

****

Later, Peter flopped onto his back and threw an arm over his eyes. Balthazar stared at the ceiling, his mind mostly blank. Peter reached out his other arm to Balth, trying to draw him in closer, but Balthazar inched away. Peter took his arm away from his eyes and turned his head to look at Balth.

“What?” he asked.

“Nothing.” Balthazar shook his head. “Nothing.”

An uncomfortable silence descended over them. Why hadn’t he stopped this, Balthazar wondered. Was he really that weak? That smitten? That in love? Willing to take whatever scraps Peter would give him? Or was it just the familiarity, the comfort? The sense of well-being and happiness and even giddiness that spending time with Peter – the Peter he remembered from before February – brought to him? It was a mistake, though. It was always a mistake. Except this time perhaps more than any other. There was no excuse this time. And he hadn’t been tired enough, or present of mind enough, or perhaps strong enough, to keep it from going too far this time. This would be harder to walk back than the other times. This probably couldn’t be walked back. Because sometimes friends had too much to drink and kissed. Or sometimes friends got bored or lonely or sad or whatever and hooked up. But when friends had sex – well, that was a whole other type of mess, even when one of them wasn’t clearly in love with the other.

Balthazar sighed. He felt kind of sick all of a sudden. The worst part was – he knew this was partly his own fault. He had told Peter he didn’t want this kind of relationship with him, yes. But on the other hand, he had initiated it last month, knowing full well that Peter had told him that he didn’t want any kind of commitment. It was little wonder that Peter had felt like this was on the table, especially since it turned out it was. Balth could have stopped it at any time – he just… didn’t. Balthazar sat up and pulled the blanket around him a little more tightly, reaching for his clothes on the floor.

“Where are you going?” Peter asked, sitting up himself.

“I – I don’t know. Somewhere. Somewhere else, I guess.”

Balthazar began to get dressed, paying close attention to his clothes so that he didn’t feel tempted to look over at Peter.

“Well, don’t. Stay. We have the whole place to ourselves tonight. C’mon, Balth.”

Balthazar finally turned and looked at him. “Yeah, I don’t think so.”

“Why?” Peter whined a little. “Where else are you going to go? Out? Town? The bar?” He snorted. “C’mon, Balthy. You’re just going to go lock yourself in your room and study. Stay here with me. Much more fun. Much less stressful.”

This time Balthazar snorted. “Yeah, right,” he mumbled, reaching for his shirt.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’m sorry, you think this isn’t stressful? This is basically – everything stressful.”

Peter flopped back down onto the bed. “I don’t understand why you’re, like, freaking out on me, bro. This was fun. I wouldn’t mind doing it a few more times before Her Ladyship returns to yell at me some more about cleaning the shower.”

Balthazar was beginning to feel sicker by the moment. Bro? Fun? A few more times? Enough was enough.

“You know, we used to be friends,” he said, standing up.

Peter looked at Balthazar like he had lost his mind and sat up again. “Used to be? We’re still friends, Balth. You’re my best friend.”

Balthazar looked away and rubbed his forehead. “Yeah, okay. So what’s this, then? I’m guessing this is just something you do with all your best friends now.”

“No, that’s not-“

“You know what, Pete? Just forget it.”

Balthazar walked out of the room and into his own. But he couldn’t settle. He didn’t feel well. He had never – this was the level of fuck up he rarely made. His skin began to feel itchy. He couldn’t sit here for another minute, just… thinking about it. He felt dirty and used and the worst part is he knew he’d feel this way. He had every other time – why should this time be any different? Except it was. It was worse. It wasn’t even Peter’s fault – not really. It wasn’t anything he had said or done. It was just that Balth didn’t do casual relationships. He certainly didn’t do casual sex. It made him uncomfortable and unhappy. He knew this about himself – and yet he still let it happen. Because it was Peter and because he was in love and because these – incidents – were the only times he felt close to his best friend anymore, and because he was stupid. So, so stupid. He was angry at himself. He was angry at Peter. He was confused about who or what to blame, but he wanted to blame someone or something so badly.

He got up and grabbed a towel, making his way into the bathroom. He turned on the shower and let it get as hot as the water in their flat ever got. He stepped into the mist and let it run down over him, leaning his head against the cool ceramic of the shower. He had been in there for a while when he heard the knocking start. He could just barely hear Peter yelling his name over the water, but he ignored him. The last thing he needed was another conversation with Peter right now.

Eventually the water began to run cold and Balthazar realized he’d been in the shower for a really unreasonable length of time. But he felt marginally better. When he got out, he got dressed in his pajamas and peered out into the flat. He didn’t see Peter and his bedroom door was shut. It seemed safe to go make himself some tea. After grabbing the steaming cup and letting it warm him, Balthazar carried it back into his bedroom. When he flipped on the light, he was startled to see Peter sitting on the chair beside the bed.

“Shit!” Balthazar startled, knocking some of the hot tea onto his fingers. Now he was annoyed. “Get out, Peter.”

“No. We need to talk.”

Balthazar rolled his eyes and climbed onto his bed, pulling down the covers and getting beneath them. He sat up against the wall and blew on his burned fingers.

“No, you need to leave.”

“Balthy,” Peter started, standing up and moving toward the bed.

“Yeah, no. Don’t come over here. Seriously. Get out.”

Peter shook his head. “What’s wrong? Did – did I do something wrong? Did I hurt you – or…?”

Balthazar snorted. How was that even an answerable question, really? He just shook his head. Peter hadn’t hurt him – unless you counted emotional torture. And really, Balthazar figured he himself was at least half to blame for that.

Peter scratched his head. “I just – I don’t what that means. Balthy, I don’t want to hurt you. That’s, like, the worst thing in the world I could imagine.”

“Then maybe you should stop doing it.” Balthazar sipped his tea and sighed. “I’m sorry. That’s not – that’s not fair. Maybe we should both stop hurting each other.” He set the tea down by on his nightstand, lying down and turning away from Peter.

“I don’t –“

“Peter, we’ve already had this conversation once. In the bathroom. Nothing’s changed for me. And I know that you know that. You have to know that. And I don’t want to do this anymore. And I don’t want to relive that conversation. This was a mistake. A series of mistakes. And it needs to stop.”

“Balthazar –“ Peter started, but Balthazar just shook his head and cut him off.

“It’s not your fault. Well, it’s not all your fault. I could have said no. I should have said no this time. I should have done what I did in February and walked away. And last time’s on me. I initiated it, even knowing that you had been, well, very clear about what you wanted – and what you didn’t want.”

“Balthazar, I swear to God. You’re my friend. I – I care about you so much. I just… I can’t deal with the thought that I hurt you. Or that you hate me.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t change anything, does it? You don’t want to be with me. Or at least, you don’t want to be with me in any way that doesn’t involve fooling around or sex.” Balthazar turned over and looked at Peter. “Right?”

“Balth – I can’t. I just can’t. I’m sorry. Please don’t hate me.”

Balthazar sighed and turned back over to face the wall. “I don’t hate you, Pete. I could never. Sometimes I wish I could.” He laughed a little, but it was a laugh full of misery. “I just can’t do this anymore. It has to stop – we both just have to stop. Or we really won’t be friends anymore.”

Peter ran his hands through his hair. “Yeah, okay. Okay. Got it. But we are, right? Friends?”

Balthazar shrugged a little and shut his eyes. “Sure.” He knew this conversation was miserable for Peter. It was miserable for him too. If it helped to pretend for the moment that they were still friends – the kind of friends who could share secrets, and tell stories, and laugh and just enjoy life together – then he could do that for Peter.

“Okay, well. Then, goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Pete.”

Balthazar heard the door close. But he didn’t sleep for a very long time after that.

Chapter Text

Well, after that, everything basically became terrible. Balthazar and Peter didn’t even pretend to be on friendly terms anymore. Peter started going out nightly and was rarely home before 3 or 4 in the morning. He’d stay in bed until everyone else was gone for the day. Balthazar retreated entirely into his room and his own head, rarely spending time with Freddie or Ben, only willing to come out of his room if he was absolutely sure he wouldn’t run into Peter. On the rare occasions that Peter and Balth did run into each other, they’d simply ignore one another – pretend like the other wasn’t even in the room. It was incredibly uncomfortable for everyone.

Ben had tried to broach the subject with Balthazar at one point, but Balth had simply blown Ben off as nicely as possible. After that, Ben stopped trying, although he’d often hint that he was there if Balthazar needed someone to talk to. Balth had walked in one afternoon to see Ben and Peter in a heated conversation and, judging by the looks on their faces and the immediate quiet that descended over them, it was clear that Balth had been the subject. Balthazar figured that Ben hadn’t gotten any further with Peter than he had with Balthazar. Balth did hear Ben discussing what he had come to call The Situation with Bea sometimes – the walls between their rooms really weren’t that thick – but it was clear that neither Ben nor Bea had any real sense of what could have happened to make things fall apart so drastically and so quickly, and Balth had no intention of telling them. The last thing he needed was their pity, or their remonstration, or whatever he’d get from them.

Balthazar tried to tell himself everything was fine. This is what he wanted, wasn’t it? No, well, that wasn’t strictly true. What he wanted was for everything to magically return to how it had been in February when they first moved in. But given that wasn’t a possibility, and given the awkwardness and the sadness, this was better than any other option, wasn’t it? And things were going okay. All of the alone time meant he was getting a ton of studying in and his grades were high enough to be acceptable even for his own standards. He was playing music again – it seemed to flow freely through him and wasn’t that just a huge relief? He was alone a lot, sure, but he tried to tell himself that he wasn’t lonely – that the two words didn’t have to mean the same thing. He had even begun to average five or six hours of sleep at night and things became slightly clearer and more focused and easier to handle when he was sleeping regularly.

He worried about Peter, obviously. Nothing would change that – not even the past few months. But Peter was easier to take care of from a distance. When he was passed out on the couch, Balthazar could show him the friendship he so desperately wanted to have with Peter by covering him with a blanket, and leaving water by his side. When Peter stumbled home drunk at 4 a.m., Balthazar could meet him in the front room and help him to bed, and it seemed that Peter wouldn’t even remember it in the morning. Balth could mediate arguments between Peter and Freddie or Peter and Ben without Peter needing to be present – talk Freddie off the ledge, do the chores Peter had forgotten, or buy the missing household staples that Peter’s friends used when they came home with him some nights. He could care for Peter, without having to engage with Peter. And if that was a lonely way to have a friendship, well, at least it was a way to have a friendship without worrying about other things happening.

Something odd did happen in May, however. Suddenly Ben seemed to be everywhere. Every time Balthazar turned around, Ben appeared, as if out of thin air. If Balth was at Boyet’s working on a paper for a few hours, Ben would inevitably show up at some point, despite not particularly liking the food or coffee.  He’d sit down with Balthazar and distract him from his work for an hour or two before Balth could extricate himself to go work elsewhere. Other times, Ben would show up in Balth’s bedroom at midnight and start yammering at him about random things – sometimes birds, sometimes television shows, sometimes pop culture, sometimes, oddly, more serious things like politics or current events. By the end of the conversation, Balthazar’s work would lay forgotten and he’d be so tired from his interaction with Ben that he would invariably go to sleep earlier than he had planned. Also, Ben took to grocery shopping with Balth. It used to be that Balthazar would do his own shopping out of the flat’s budget so that there would be vegetarian options. Sometimes he’d forget, and then he’d be stuck living off of tea, rice, vegetables, and bagels for a few days, although that never bothered him much. But suddenly Ben decided that shopping should be a group adventure and he and Balth found a regular day each week to go together, spending the flat’s collective grocery money on a mix of vegetarian-friendly options and things for the other three flat mates. Balthazar realized he was eating better – healthier – and was happy to have more options for lunch and dinner every day. And then there were the phone calls and emails.

Balthazar kept in touch with people from Auckland fairly regularly – they were Facebook friends, he’d Skype with Ursula and Hero some days when they were all studying, and he was part of a group text that Ben had set up that included himself, Bea, Balth, Peter, Hero, Meg and Ursula, although Balth rarely contributed to the conversation aside from emoticons and Peter hadn’t said anything in over a month. But in May, Balth’s phone began to ring regularly. One day it would be Hero asking for vegan baking recipes, so she could try out something new. The next day it would be Ursula needing input on a score for a short film she was working on. Later in the week, it might be Bea ranting about a recent law passed or complaining about customers at work. And the next time, it might be Meg, talking about her new piece in the magazine she was working for, which Balthazar had invariably already read and was happy to praise her for. He didn’t entirely understand what brought on the influx of calls, but it wasn’t too terrible really. It was nice remembering he had good friends, even if they were far away. He liked feeling included in their lives, even if he didn’t have much to add to the conversations himself.

The other thing that happened in May was that Ben convinced him to go out with himself and Freddie one weekend. Balth hadn’t really gone “out” since February. He’d go to town occasionally for coffee, or a solitary dinner, or whatever, but the last time he’d been inside a bar or club was a few months back. It just wasn’t really his scene. But Balthazar figured he owed Ben – his friend had been making an awkwardly charming effort to reach out to Balth for some reason, and if Ben really wanted his company so badly, well, one night out in town wouldn’t kill him. But it turned out he had let his guard down too quickly, because when he emerged from his room on the appointed Friday in late May, he found Freddie, Ben and Peter all gathering their things to go out. It was clear from the look on Peter’s face that he had been just as unaware that Balth was coming as Balth had been unaware that Peter was coming.

For the first time in a long while, Peter and Balthazar caught each other’s eyes. They communicated wordlessly, as they used to be able to do so easily and regularly. Balthazar could see that Peter saw the problem the same way he did. The problem being, of course, that there was absolutely no way for either of them to back out without making it a whole thing and confirming for Ben that there actually was a Situation. Both of them were dressed up and ready to go at the appointed time – it didn’t seem possible for either of them to claim sudden illness. Peter lifted an eyebrow and Balthazar shrugged. Okay, fine, they seemed to agree. It was one night. It wouldn’t kill either of them. It wasn’t like they had to talk. Peter stepped out of the flat first, and Balth hung back to bring up the rear.

****

Balthazar and Peter were doing an excellent job of avoiding each other, despite there only being four people in their group. When they sat down in a booth at the club, each of them took an opposite end. When they got up to dance as a group, Balth always made sure that Freddie and Ben were between them. When Peter got up to get them drinks, he didn’t bother to ask what Balthazar wanted and simply brought him back what Balth always drank when he bothered to drink at all – a nice mid-level microbrew. And oddly, nothing about any of it seemed awkward – they had been doing this particular avoidance dance for so long by now that it seemed natural. After a few drinks, Balthazar felt a pleasant buzz, but wasn’t anywhere near drunk – yet, it allowed him to relax into the evening. Peter seemed to be determined, for his part, to not go over the top tonight and had limited himself to a few vodka tonics. If anything, Ben and Freddie seemed far drunker than either of the other two. They kept up a loud and ridiculous conversation throughout the night that allowed Balth to fade into the background and that let Peter make wry jokes at their expense every so often. Everything seemed surprisingly okay.

Well, it seemed okay until Freddie and Ben disappeared. Balthazar had no idea what happened. One moment, he had gotten up to use the bathroom and left Freddie, Ben and Peter sitting in the booth happily trading jibes at one another, and the next, when he returned, he found Peter sitting alone, texting on his phone and nursing a drink slowly. Balthazar froze. He didn’t think he and Peter had been alone in weeks. He tapped his fingers on the table and remained standing, looking about nervously. Where had Freddie and Ben gone? He didn’t see them on the dance floor, which wasn’t particularly packed. Ben hadn’t been in the restroom with him. Had they stepped outside? If so, why? And should he go try to find them?

Peter snorted. “Yeah, no idea, bro.” He answered the question that Balthazar hadn’t bothered to ask. “Freddie pulled Ben up and said that he had to see something and they took off. By the time I bothered to, like, process what was happening, they were gone. No clue where they went.”

“Hmm,” Balthazar hummed. Well, this wasn’t something he had planned for. “I could go look for them.”

“Yeah, good luck with that. There’s only all of Wellington to look around.”

“Yeah.” Balthazar nodded and swallowed. “Yeah.” He continued to tap nervously at the table, beating out a familiar tune. “Did you text them?”

Peter held up his phone. “Only, like, a dozen times. Neither of them are answering.”

Balthazar rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, man. I know. I’m beginning to feel we’ve been set up too,” Peter said, picking up the remainder of his drink and finishing it off. “Let’s get out of here.”

“What?” Balthazar stumbled over his words a bit. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I really don’t want to sit here and not drink and not talk. And since the drinking makes you uncomfortable, I can’t do that. And since the talking makes you uncomfortable, we can’t do that either. So let’s just… go.”

“I never said the drinking made me uncomfortable. It’s your life. Drink whatever you want.”

“Well, it obviously does. And it is my life. And I will drink what I want and when I want. I just don’t want to right now.”

“Okay, fine.”

“Fine.”

“But you can still, like, stay. I can get myself home perfectly well without you. I don’t need a babysitter and I’m not drunk.”

“Yeah, well neither do I and neither am I, but I’m still not going to sit here by myself while you walk home alone.”

“I’m sure you could find some company.”

Peter sighed heavily. “Balth, don’t. Just … just, don’t. Let’s just go. I promise, we don’t have to talk.”

Balthazar rubbed his eye. “Okay. Fine.”

The two made their way awkwardly out of the bar and set off for the train station that would take them back to the flat. Balthazar made sure to keep a few feet between him and Peter at all times and Peter kept his phone out, tapping at the screen and looking busy. Balthazar paused a few times to enjoy the scenery around him and he noticed that Peter always stopped and waited, looking annoyed, but not angry. They didn’t speak.

When they got back to the flat, it was clear that Freddie and Ben hadn’t headed home when they ditched them at the club. The house was empty and dark. Peter flipped on the lights and threw his jacket down on the couch. Balthazar made to head for his room. “Okay, night.” He said simply, starting to walk away.

“Wait, Balth…”

“What, Pete?” Balthazar turned around. “What do you want?”

“You. I just want – you. I mean… not, like.” He sighed. “I just want us to be friends again. I hate this.”

“Hate what?”

This!” Peter pointed between the two of them. “I hate how things are with us right now. I hate not talking to you. I hate all of it.”

“So why are you doing it?” Balthazar asked, running his hand through his hair. “You were the one who was so insistent that we should stay friends. But you were also the one who woke up the next day and didn’t say a word to me. You looked through me like I wasn’t even there. So I just – I followed your lead, you know?”

“Yeah, but I – I didn’t want that, Balth. I never wanted that.”

“Then why did you do it!? I was willing to try, you know. To try to just – get back to where we were. To try to stay friends, or at least friendly, or whatever. But you were the one who made it clear that was off the table, after begging me to keep our friendship going the last time we – well, whatever.”

“I don’t know, okay!? I just – I woke up the next morning and it was like – I knew it would happen again. I knew it. Because no matter how bad of an idea it is – no matter how much it hurts you – we just kept falling into it. And you could say it wouldn’t happen again, or I could say it wouldn’t happen again, but then it would and then you’d be hurt and I just… I never wanted to see that look on your face again, Balth.”

“What look?”

“That look. That look like – I don’t know. Like, I’d let you down. Over and over again.”

Balthazar sighed and rubbed at his eyebrow. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

“You never want to talk about anything!” Peter yelled. “You don’t want to talk, you don’t want to do anything besides study, you don’t want to deal with the world at all!”

“You’re one to talk about dealing with the world!”

“Yeah, well, at least I get out in it! At least I make friends, and interact with people around me. At least I have a life!”

“Yeah, you have a life! Drinking, and sex with strangers, and nursing hangovers when you’re supposed to be in class. What a great fucking life!”

Suddenly they both stopped and stared at each other quietly.

“What are we doing, Peter?” Balthazar sighed. “We’re friends. We’ve been friends for years. We trusted each other. We – took care of each other. And look at us now.” Balthazar sat down on the couch, putting his head in his hands.

“I don’t know, Balth.” Peter sat down on the couch beside him. “I just – I don’t want this to be us anymore. I hate it.”

“I hate it too.”

They looked at each other.

 “So what do we do?” Balthazar asked.

“I have no idea. I don’t know how to fix this. I don’t – I can’t fix anything, and certainly not this.” Peter sighed heavily. “We tried being friends. That didn’t work. We tried being sort of half-friends. That didn’t work either. Now we’ve tried not being friends at all and that’s been the worst of all three, even if it does seem to stop – the other stuff.”

Balthazar pondered that. Had that really been the worst of all three? On the one hand, he wasn’t left feeling kind of used and scuzzy after hooking up with Peter outside of a relationship. On the other hand, he was still miserable. It didn’t make it easier to see Peter bring different people home. It didn’t make him less worried to see Peter hung over every morning. It didn’t make him less lonely or less sad. What it did mean was that he didn’t have Peter at all –as a friend or anything else. And maybe Peter was right – what Balthazar really wanted was a relationship with Peter, but Peter couldn’t or wouldn’t do that, for whatever reason. What Balthazar would have happily – or at least reasonably happily – have settled for was their old friendship, but it didn’t appear that was possible either – not when they ended up in bed together every time they spent time alone, for whatever reason.

And sure, they could say they’d be friends and keep their hands off each other, but every time they’d tried that thus far it had ended in some sort of disaster – either them having sex and it leaving both of them confused and hurt, or them not speaking at all. It wasn’t clear to Balth that what either of them actually wanted was to be friends with benefits, or whatever you wanted to call it – it just seemed like that was the only option on the table for some reason. He had no idea how they’d gotten here – to this weird limbo place where there was no moving backwards and no moving forwards. All he knew was that he couldn’t do another eight months of this… nothing place. And yeah, this had been the worst of all three.

“Okay, so fuck it. We’re friends.” He said finally, looking over at Peter.

“Yeah, but Balth…” Peter trailed off. Balthazar knew what his concern was – they both knew where ‘friends’ led them.

“We’re friends who occasionally have sex.”

“What?” Peter turned his head slowly to meet Balthazar’s eyes.

“I don’t know. What else is left for us? It seems like we basically have two choices at this point. One of us can move out and we can agree we’re just – done. Like, if we see each other at an event or something, we can be polite and then just move on. But I hate that idea.”

“I hate that idea too,” Peter said, closing his eyes and rubbing his forehead.

“Or – it’s like you said. We can be friends. And probably things will keep happening, because it seems like neither of us can make it stop. So we’ll just – be friends. Who sometimes sleep together.”

“Yeah, but Balthazar. I don’t – I can’t do something that hurts you.”

“Yeah, well, this whole last month has hurt me. So whatever. If it’s going to hurt either way, I’d rather it hurt with us being friends, rather than it hurting alone.”

“We could – we could just try to – you know… not.”

“Pete.” Balthazar raised an eyebrow and Peter opened his eyes to look at him. “That particular genie appears to have flown out of the bottle. You know that won’t happen. You just said it won’t happen.”

“Yeah, but we could try.”

“We could. But then we’d just be lying to each other and unprepared for when it inevitably does.”

“Okay, but like – should we talk about this? I mean, if we’re going to – ‘be friends’ or whatever. Should we – I don’t know – set some rules or something?”

“Yeah, I have no idea.” Balthazar looked down. “I think you know this isn’t something I do regularly. You’d know better than me.”

“Well, I don’t fucking know, okay? I have sex with people I meet at the bar, or who I know through friends, or who are casual friends. I don’t – I’m not usually doing this with my flat mate and best friend.”

“Sorry. I’m not trying to… I don’t know. It was your idea. What kind of rules?”

“Uh,” Peter squinted. “I don’t know. Maybe we should agree not to tell anyone? Would you be cool with that?”

Balthazar nodded. “Yeah, I’d be very cool with that.”

“And maybe – I don’t know. Would it be easier for you if it were like – separate from everything else? Like, last time – when I tried to touch you afterwards… that seemed to upset you more than anything else.”

Balthazar nodded again and looked away. “Yeah. Yeah, I’d really prefer if it were like – I don’t know. This is a thing we do. And then we stop. And then we’re friends again. I don’t want – I don’t want it to seem like something it isn’t. Even just – well, yeah.”

Peter groaned. “This is so fucked up.”

“Yeah, it really is.”

“This might be a monumental mistake.”

“Probably.”

“But I don’t want to go back to doing what we have been doing.”

“Neither do I.”

“So… we’ll just – do this?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Okay, then.”

“Okay.”

They sat there silently and awkwardly for a few minutes, until Balthazar announced he was getting up for some tea. While he was busying himself in the kitchen and steeping the teabag, he didn’t notice Peter come up behind him. Suddenly, he felt an arm wrap around his waist and he turned around quickly to find his face only inches from Peter’s.

“Are you drunk?” Peter asked, a bit breathlessly.

“No,” Balthazar swallowed heavily. “Not even really tipsy anymore. Pretty sober, actually.”

“Good. Me too.” And then Peter leaned in to kiss him and Balthazar forgot any idea of tea.

****

Peter snuck out of Balthazar’s room around 3 a.m., having heard Freddie and Ben stumble in, making loud jokes at each other’s expense and then hearing their respective bedroom doors shut. The whole thing had been weird, but somehow – doable. They’d had sex, they’d gotten dressed, and then they’d played a stupid card game that they loved from childhood. They’d laughed and joked around and it had been – fun. Easy. Weirdly, weirdly easy. Honestly, it made Balthazar nervous how easy it was. He expected more awkwardness, more regrets, more recriminations. And maybe that would come eventually. But it was honestly the most fun Balthazar had had since February and he had given up trying to figure this whole thing out. He was tired of being lonely. He was tired of missing Peter, even when Peter was right in front of him. He was tired of fighting – this – thing – whatever it was. So they’d do this for a while. He was relatively sure that at some point it would blow up in their faces spectacularly, but at least until then, he’d have his friend back. He slept relatively well that night.

The next morning, Balthazar stumbled out of bed at 11 a.m. – way later than usual for him. He didn’t bother to get dressed, but simply threw on a robe over his pajamas to keep himself warm once he was out from under the covers. He opened his door, rubbing his eyes and yawning. Freddie and Ben were somehow already awake, though both of them were still in their pajamas as well. They were arguing over the last pancake on the table, both of them trying to stab at it with their forks, until it ripped in half and each took their own side, with Ben grumbling that Freddie had somehow ended up with the bigger half. Balthazar merely laughed a little and shook his head.

Peter’s door opened a few moments later and he stumbled out blinking heavily.

“What is wrong with you two? It’s Saturday morning. I shouldn’t be awake from hearing you argue over breakfast foods at 11 a.m. on a Saturday.” Peter grumbled, making his way toward the kitchen.

“Aw, Pete. Don’t be mad. There’s more batter in the kitchen.” Ben said, grinning at him.

“I don’t want your stupid pancake batter,” Peter muttered.

“C’mon, Pete.” Balthazar smiled at him. “I’ll make them for us both.”

“What about your vegan thing?”

“Eh, it’s off and on. It seems like a good morning for pancakes.”

“Yeah, alright.” Peter smiled back. “If you promise not to give any to those two.”

Balthazar solemnly made the sign of the cross. Peter laughed.

“Fine, go make us pancakes. I’ll make the damn coffee.”

Balthazar pretended not to notice the less than subtle fist bump Freddie and Ben gave each other, or their wide smiles.

Chapter Text

So, here was the thing about having sex with Peter. It was fun. Once Balthazar managed to get past the, well, weirdness of the whole arrangement, he found that the sex was really, really fun. Not just physically enjoyable – it was that too - but actual fun. Balthazar had only really slept with one other person before – Damien. He wasn’t totally inexperienced – he had dated a few different guys in Year 10, and actually his usual distaste for casual flings came from an experience at a party in Year 12, where he’d hooked up with a casual acquaintance and found himself unhappy about it in the morning, having felt a strange combination of embarrassment, loneliness, and lack of control. But his actual experience with sex was limited to Damien – and sex with Damien hadn’t been bad, exactly. Bad was definitely the wrong word – it had been enjoyable in a physical sense, and Balth had always felt it strengthened their emotional connection, but it hadn’t ever really been fun, in any sense of the word. It had always seemed like Serious Business between the two of them, which was fine at the time, since Balth in general took the decision to be physical with someone rather seriously.

But discovering that sex could be more playful, more humorous and just generally more light-hearted was a bit of a revelation. Maybe it was just easier to have sex with someone you were in love with who didn’t love you back when you weren’t taking it all so seriously, but part of it was Peter himself. He made jokes – sometimes really funny ones, and sometimes awful ones, and sometimes puns that were so bad that Balthazar actually had to stop what he was doing at the moment to glare at him. Peter teased him a lot, gently and with good humor, with no actual bite behind it. Balthazar found himself being tickled more often than he would have contemplated enjoying before this. Sometimes they started laughing so hard that they had to take a break. And with Peter’s attitude, Balth found himself able to relax, to enjoy himself, to become more at ease and more playful in his own way. And honestly – it made sex so much better. Because sex could be awkward or uncomfortable or strange in its own way, with lots of worrying about how something sounded or looked or felt, even under the best of circumstances – which this clearly wasn’t - and laughing through all of that was so much easier than worrying about it the whole time.

So – anyway – that was a thing they did sometimes. Definitely not all the time. It wasn’t like they snuck into each other’s rooms every night, or took every opportunity they were alone in the flat to start making out on the couch. No, it was just a thing that – happened. Sometimes. When Freddie and Ben were out with friends for a night. When Peter got home from a shift at the bar and came looking for company and Balth decided he’d allow himself to quit studying for the evening to keep him company. A couple of times when Balthazar was feeling overwhelmed by the world around him and needed a distraction from it all. And occasionally when they just felt like it.

And it didn’t always progress very far. One memorable evening Freddie had gone – somewhere – she was being oddly secretive lately – and Ben had been in the shower, while Balth and Peter were watching an episode of Arrow on the television in the front room. They had just been chatting idly when Ben walked by.

“This has got to be one of the worst shows you’ve ever made me watch,” Balthazar commented.

“What!? I’m offended, Balthy. This show is great. Action. Romance. Adventure. Superheroes! And hot actresses. For that matter, hot actors. It’s the whole package.” Balthazar had simply shook his head. “What? Get your head out of the gutter! That’s not the type of package I’m referring to.” Balthazar had just smirked.

“And here I thought you enjoyed it for its scintillating wit and lack of plot holes.”

“Shut up, Balth. I’ve seen your Netflix queue. I know you’ve seen The Vampire Diaries.”

Balthazar threw a pillow at Peter. “It was like one episode with Meg two years ago. And what are you doing in my Netflix queue?”

“Not my fault you pick terrible and obvious passwords. Although I suppose “fifeandthedrums1” is still better than Ben’s amazing “flamingobeatrice” password.”

“I resent that, Peter. I really do,” Ben commented, walking past in his robe with a towel. “Also, I’m fairly sure it’s some sort of felony to break into all of our accounts like that.”

“Whatever, man. Your robe should be a felony.”

Ben playfully stuck his nose in the air, and waved Peter off in a haughty manner as he headed into the bathroom.  Balthazar heard the water start up and refocused on the television.

After a few moments he said, “I’m changing my password, you know. To one you’ll never guess.”

“What? “MumfordandSons”? No, I know! “MumfordandSons2”!”

“You know, Peter. You’re really the only person who finds you funny. And I’m trying to watch Arrow here.”

“You hate Arrow.”

“Not as much as I hate your jokes.”

Peter sidled over to Balthazar, running his hand through Balth’s hair and nudging at his shoulder with his nose. “I find it very attractive when you get snarky.”

Balthazar looked at him with wide eyes. “What? Here? Jesus, Pete – Ben’s in the shower, right there.”

“Yes. In the very loud shower, where he can’t hear or see anything. C’mon, Balthy,” Peter said. “You look so irritated and scandalized right now and it’s killing me.” Peter kissed Balthazar’s shoulder and began to move his way up Balth’s neck.

“Yeah, but like…” Balthazar got distracted for a second. “No, but like… he could come out any second!”

Peter briefly removed his lips from Balthazar’s jawline. “I know. And we’ll have plenty of warning because that god awful noise he makes that he thinks is singing will stop.”

Balthazar gave an involuntary laugh. “Fine. But as soon as that shower stops –“

“Yes, absolutely,” Peter breathed, capturing Balthazar’s lips with his own.

And so sometimes it was just that – making out on the couch right under Ben’s nose, and somehow finding the whole thing terribly amusing and almost a little rebellious. Not that they weren’t allowed to make out with whomever they wanted, wherever they wanted – but the little thrill of getting caught by Ben sometimes made it seem more exciting than it should, no matter how relatively tame the activity.

But often it wasn’t anything physical at all. Somehow, miraculously, giving into their attraction to each other and giving up fighting a physical relationship made their friendship fall back into order as if it had never been troubled in the first place. Balthazar had absolutely no explanation for why it worked – it just did. All of a sudden, the text messages started again. He couldn’t even recall who started it, but now he and Peter would text throughout the day, quoting song lyrics at each other, regaling the other one with stories of Ben falling asleep in lecture, or Freddie throwing a fit over the cost of the cheese someone brought home, or a lecturer throwing an orange at the wall when he found something a student said particularly egregiously stupid. Peter was coming home more often at night, and he and Balth would often watch TV or movies, or sit companionably while Balthazar studied and Peter played on his phone.

Some days Balth was even able to drag Peter into a study session, although that could be irritating, since he often found that Peter – despite his massive lack of studying – understood the material better than he did. It made Peter a good study partner though, because he could talk Balthazar through the points that he found difficult to grasp.

They tended to stay away from more serious topics. They seemed to have an unspoken agreement not to discuss Peter’s drinking or Balthazar’s anxiety. They never talked about other people Peter was – well, seeing, for lack of a better term. Unlike in Year 12, it would never have occurred to Balthazar to bring up that the guy in front of him in Music Composition was really attractive and that staring at him made for an amusing way to get through particularly dull lectures. Balthazar didn’t ask – though he really, really wanted to – why Peter seemed so unhappy sometimes and what had changed in him so much in the past six months. Some things were just off the table.

But lots of other things weren’t anymore. He told Peter that Rosa was going to be in Wellington next month and they discussed meeting her for dinner when she got back. Peter told him that he and John had weekly Skype sessions and that, although things still weren’t perfect with that relationship, they were getting better. Peter said John’s relationship with his dad was more strained, but only because a lot of old resentments had arisen last year, but that things seemed to be improving. Apparently Ann and John were getting along better than they ever had. Balthazar brought Peter up to date with what their friends in Auckland were doing, as he seemed to have fallen as out of touch with them as he had with Balthazar for a while. And it was good. Balthazar really was happier – less lonely, somewhat less stressed. Peter seemed happier too – at least while he was with Balthazar. He could still get incredibly broody and was as likely to snap at Freddie and Ben as he was to affably joke with them, but when he and Balthazar were hanging out, broody and contrary and snappish Peter came out a lot less often than joking and friendly Peter.

Navigating their new – whatever – could get complicated at times and messy. They’d had to add a few rules. One was obvious and they both readily agreed to, which was to always practice safe sex. The second had been born of a slightly more argumentative conversation.  Peter had come home from the bar one night relatively drunk.  He wasn’t stumbling around or falling over things, or making loud noises, but it was 3 a.m. and he had obviously been drinking. Balthazar’s light had still been on – he’d been working on lyrics for a new song – and Peter had knocked on the door lightly and quickly opened and shut it behind him. Balthazar had looked up worriedly, but this was, “Slightly Drunk, A Little Silly, Affable Pete”, not “Stone Cold Drunk, Angry, Brooding, Sometimes Say Mean Things Peter”, so he just smiled a little as Peter groaned and squinted at the bright light and then fell face forward onto Balthazar’s bed.

“You alright there, Pete?”

“Make the light stop,” Peter had moaned, pulling out the pillow from beneath him and putting it over his head instead.

Balthazar rolled his eyes, but he switched on his desk lamp instead and turned off the overhead.

“Better?”

“Yes, lots. Now can you just turn off all the lights?” Peter had mumbled from beneath the pillow.

“No. I’m still working on something. If you want to live in a cave, you can go back to your own room.”

“But, Baaaalth. I want to be in here with you.” Peter thought it was cute when he whined. Balthazar tended to agree, although he tried not to show it, because that would only encourage him.

“Then keep that pillow over your head.” Balthazar said from his desk chair. Then, presumably because Balthazar had just told him to do the opposite, Peter pulled the pillow off and sat up.

“C’mere,” Peter said.

“What?”

“Just… c’mere.”

Balthazar cautiously moved over to the bed and sat down. “What?”

“I just – I like you. You’re cute.” Peter tapped Balthazar on the nose.

“Oh, my god. You’re so drunk right now. Stop talking.”

“No. I won’t. I’m just going to keep babbling about how cute you are.”

“Gross.” Balthazar hit him with the abandoned pillow and Peter fell back over.

“Hey! No fair attacking while my guard is down!”

“I’m sure you’ll live.” Balthazar made to stand up again, but Peter grabbed his arm.

“No, I won’t. I’m dying. I need you. Save me.” Peter pulled Balthazar down and began to kiss him. He pulled away for a moment and smiled. “Yes, just like that.” He made as if to pull Balthazar back in for another kiss, but this time, Balthazar put his hands on Peter’s chest and gently pushed him backwards.

“Nope.”

“What? Nope?” Peter looked confused. In general, it was rare for either of them to refuse such a blatant come-on by the other, and neither of them was particularly shy by this point about asking to fool around when one of them decided he wanted to.

“Yeah, nah. Not while you’re drunk.”

“Wait. What?”

“I’m not going to have sex with you – or do anything else with you – while you’re drunk.”

Peter looked annoyed. “Balthazar, you can’t, like, punish me for drinking.”

Balthazar snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s not a punishment. I’m not mad. I told you – it’s your life. Drink if you want to. Drink however much you want to. If you ever want to talk about why –“ Peter cut him off with a glare. Right. They didn’t talk about that. “Anyway, yeah. I don’t care – it’s whatever. I mean, I care, but you make your own choices.”

“Balthazar, is it possible you could just get to the point?”

“Sorry, yeah. Um. It’s like a consent thing? Like, I don’t know how drunk you are, or how drunk you have to be to be able to really understand whether you want to have sex or not, so like – no? Not when you’ve been drinking.”

“Ugh.” Peter pulled the pillow back up over his head for a moment, before shifting it behind him. “Can’t I like – consent for all time when I’m sober?”

Balthazar stared at him. “You know that’s not how it works.”

“But like, I always want to have sex with you. Drunk. Sober. Doesn’t matter. It’s pretty much an all day, every day thing, so like… can I just write it down or something?”

Balthazar was fairly certain Peter was joking, but he answered seriously anyway. “No. Would you have sex with me if I asked if you knew I’d been drinking heavily?”

“Well, no. But you’re a lightweight.”

“I’m serious, Peter.”

“So am I.”

“Okay, fine, if you’re not going to talk about this like an adult-“

“Sorry, sorry!” Peter held up his hands. “You’re right. I know you’re right. It’s fair. We’ll make it a rule.”

“Good.” Balthazar smiled a little and turned back to his composition book.

“But – can I like, sleep in here tonight, Balthy? I really don’t feel like going back to my room alone.”

Balthazar was torn. On one hand, that was another rule – don’t mix the physical stuff with the friendship stuff. They didn’t sleep in the same bed, they didn’t really cuddle afterwards, and they kept all types of touching that either one of them wouldn’t do with someone like Ben to just their physical encounters and didn’t let it seep out into daily life. On the other hand, if they weren’t going to fool around, would it really be that bad to let Peter stay in here, when he was so clearly reaching out for company and so obviously didn’t want to return to his kind of depressing and dark and small and lonely room?

“I dunno, Pete. We have that rule…”

“No, but like – this is part of the friendship side of things. C’mon, we used to share a bed all the time in high school.” Yeah, yeah that was actually true. They did. And nothing had happened, much as Balthazar might have wished otherwise at the time. “Just put it over on the friendship line. Please, Balth?”

Balthazar laughed a little. “Well, you are kinda cute when you get all sad and begging. Fine.”

“Nice.” Peter climbed under the covers. “See? I’m all dressed and everything.”

“Good. Now go to sleep.”

“I can’t. You still have that awful light on. I guess I’m just going to have to talk until you’re ready to come to bed too.”

Balthazar sighed. He knew when he was beat. He leaned over and turned off the lamp and they both went to bed – each on their own sides. No touching allowed.

Chapter Text

Toward the end of the first semester of university, the flat had settled into a rhythm. Ben and Freddie continued to spend a lot of time together, making jokes and playing games only they truly understood. Balthazar would occasionally join them, sometimes out of obligation, sometimes out of true desire. Peter rarely joined in on any time spent with all of his other flat mates, although occasionally if Balthazar badgered him enough, Peter would spend a night at home doing something with the other three. Freddie and Ben bickered a lot, but usually in a friendly way and over silly things – which board game to play, what movie to watch, what Ben was allowed to cook for dinner, whether Ben should be allowed to film in the flat for the vlogs he was now posting occasionally. Balthazar stayed out of those fights entirely and let Ben and Freddie do what Ben and Freddie were going to do.

Freddie and Peter fought a lot – about bills, about chores, about whether or not to leave the front room light on if everyone was going to be out for the evening, about groceries – basically anything and everything practical minded. Balthazar usually stayed out of those fights, but would occasionally quietly mediate them by shooting Peter a look, or speaking to Freddie individually later in her room, or sometimes just by doing whatever it was that Freddie wanted Peter to do, usually with the hope that neither Freddie or Peter would figure out he had done it.

That seemed to work pretty well generally – Freddie would give an approving nod that Peter had finally cleaned out the refrigerator like she asked, taking it as her due that he would eventually comply, and Peter would assume Freddie had given up nagging him and decided to do it herself. Balthazar only got caught once or twice – once, Freddie had walked in on him cleaning the shower, and started screaming at Peter about Balth doing his job, at which point Peter had walked into the bathroom and started yelling at Balthazar about fighting his battles for him, and Balthazar had in turn simply walked away and locked his bedroom door and put in headphones, while Freddie and Peter’s battle waged on in the front room. Later, Freddie had knocked on the door with tea and a cookie as a peace offering and apologized for dragging him into the fight, when he had just been trying to help. She told him, however, that it was about Peter taking responsibility for his part in the flat, and being considerate of those around him, and it was also about Balthazar not taking responsibility for everything Peter did or didn’t do. Balthazar had merely shrugged, accepted her hug, and returned to his schoolwork. Peter had come in a few hours later and also apologized for yelling at Balth, explaining that he didn’t want Balthazar to feel responsible for him and his choices, and that it was up to Peter to deal with Freddie. Balthazar had simply shrugged again and offered to exchange chores with him, after which Peter seemed to deflate and simply hugged Balthazar and took him up on his offer. Balthazar was a lot more careful after that incident to make sure his silent and secret ‘mediations’ weren’t caught.

Ben and Peter didn’t fight per say – well, at least they didn’t have the kinds of screaming matches Freddie and Peter could get into. Instead, Ben just seemed to agitate Peter, no matter what Ben said or did. He’d ask Peter to be in a vlog and Peter would shoot him a look that could chill the desert on a hot sunny day. Ben would ask Peter what time he planned to be home one night, and Peter would walk away as if he hadn’t heard. Ben would sometimes make pointed comments about Peter’s drinking, and Peter would walk around slamming cabinets for a good twenty minutes afterward.  It wasn’t as loudly hostile as Freddie and Peter’s relationship, but there was a simmering tension underneath almost every interaction Ben and Peter had. One time when Ben asked Peter to be in his vlog entitled, “BENADDICKT STARS: WHERE ARE THEY NOW?”, Peter had thrown a bit of a fit and the two hadn’t spoken for several days, but generally they seemed to try to ignore the underlying problems in their relationship.

Balthazar didn’t fight with anyone. He took Freddie’s decrees in relatively good humor, since most of the time they weren’t too absurd. Every once in a while, he’d simply ignore her when she told him to do or not do something when it crossed the line, but so much of her energy seemed taken up with fighting Peter or struggling with Ben that she never seemed to notice when Balthazar simply outright defied her requests – or at least she didn’t say anything about it. Ben and Balthazar continued to enjoy a relatively simple and somewhat close relationship – he had joined Ben in one or two vlogs about silly things and provided some simple music for some others. They continued to grocery shop together, and every once in a while, Ben would still show up in Balth’s room late in the evening to talk, or appear at the coffee shop to distract him from his work for a while.

Their only tension was when Ben would sometimes try to bring up Peter, or Peter and Balth’s relationship. Ben asked a lot of questions about Peter and what was going on with him, and Balthazar would get frustrated because he didn’t know. He could guess, sure. But there was nothing Peter had really told him. Sometimes, something would slip – a comment about liking how being drunk could make him forget things or feel numb; a stray word about missing discussing a TV show with Beatrice; an agitated question about why Balthazar had to wear his leaver’s jacket so damn often while Peter was slipping it off of him in the middle of a make-out session. But Balthazar wasn’t going to discuss these things with Ben. He kept hoping that if he and Peter continued to hang out, it would register for Peter that there was an open and available ear from someone who would never judge him. And discussing these things with Ben seemed a poor way to prove his trustworthiness. And Balthazar did not plan to ever discuss his and Peter’s relationship with Ben – that way lay madness and trouble and was not going to happen. If Balthazar had his way, his friends could talk and gossip and speculate amongst themselves until the end of time, but he and Peter would never, ever add to it, confirm or deny. Thankfully, Peter seemed to be absolutely on the same page about that one.

Peter and Balth rarely fought, except for that one incident with Freddie. For one thing, when Peter was at his most agitated and irritable, Balthazar usually found a way to either distract him or to quietly remove himself from Peter’s vicinity. For another, Peter was different when he was alone with Balthazar – less angry, less agitated, less likely to go off for no reason. Also – and Balthazar wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or not – Balth had at some point just decided to accept Peter for what he was. So if he didn’t come home some nights, Balthazar didn’t ask where he was. Or if he came in drunk, Balthazar would either ignore it or, if it was really bad, simply help him to bed. He was concerned, obviously. He didn’t think Peter was happy. If he had been happy and doing these things, it really wouldn’t have mattered. But anyone could see Peter was unhappy in general. But it didn’t seem like confronting the issue head on was getting Ben anywhere, so Balthazar just decided to keep quiet about it and let Peter come to him when he was ready. Besides, in the last few months, things did seem to be getting better. Peter was coming home drunk a lot less often. He went out, but he often came home sober, or at least only slightly tipsy. He stayed home a lot more than he used to as well. He wasn’t bringing home people to have sex with – Balth didn’t know if that was out of consideration for Balthazar himself or for other reasons – and he only stayed out overnight occasionally now. Peter also seemed to be attending class more regularly and sometimes when he would discuss the material with Balthazar, his eyes would light up and he would seem engaged with it in a way that was rare earlier in the semester.

In general, things were working okay. Balthazar’s stress about school picked up again with final papers and tests at the end of the semester, but Peter studied with him every night for a week – not once going out – and that helped a lot. Peter was also incredibly vocal about his confidence in Balth’s abilities, and that didn’t hurt either. The end of term was a bad few weeks, but Balthazar was well aware it would have been a lot worse had it come several months ago. He even got talked into taking a break to help host a movie night at the flat.

The flat had invited an assortment of people. Balthazar hadn’t invited anyone. He had resolved to do better at reaching out and making friends, but hadn’t really gotten around to it yet with the end of term stress and busyness. He was going to try to do better second semester. Jaquie, Peter’s friend from work, came over and Balthazar found her terribly amusing. Intimidating, but amusing. She seemed to find everyone around her hilarious in their idiosyncrasies. He liked that about her. He was like that too, just quieter about it. Ben had invited a few people from one of his classes, and they were cool too – Balth even discovered that he knew two of them – Paige Moth and Chelsey Long – from a few of the local open mic nights he had started attending last month. They weren’t close, but Balthazar liked Paige a lot and enjoyed her music. She was one of the few people he had contemplated trying to get closer to before end of term schoolwork took over all of his attention. Paige’s girlfriend Chelsey was a little – odd – but Balthazar found their relationship endearing, and Chelsey was different in a way that Balthazar was used to, having been friends with Ben for several years. But most of all, Balthazar found himself enjoying the company of Freddie’s guest, Kit. Kit was funny, charming, self-deprecating, and incredibly relaxed. He was the type of guy who felt completely at peace with who he was and his place in the world. Balthazar had laughed hysterically at his story of failing to apply for university.

Peter hadn’t taken to Kit so much. Balthazar heard him mutter under his breath after Kit finished his university story.

“What?” Balth had muttered to Pete.

“Nothing.” Peter had looked away.

But Balthazar was certain he had heard Peter mutter about people being idiots for laughing at being regaled with tales of irresponsibility. It was a little too much hypocrisy – or perhaps pettiness – or perhaps just simple lack of self-awareness – for Balthazar to take when he was trying to relax and distract himself from schoolwork, so Balthazar had moved over to the other couch to sit next to Kit and Freddie, instead of next to Peter and Jaquie. At first, Peter had looked sullen and almost sulking. Eventually, Balthazar noticed that Peter seemed to relax and had thrown an arm around Jaquie and was quietly talking with her throughout the movie. Balthazar also noticed that Peter took every opportunity possible to touch Jaquie – he took a little too long throwing a blanket over both of them, let their hands meet for an extended period to pass the bowl of popcorn, and patted her knee and poked her side a few too many times to be just friendly. Whatever. Balthazar rolled his eyes. He was determined to enjoy himself and if Peter wanted to sleep with Jaquie, more power to him. Jaquie seemed cool and if Peter was determined to not be in a monogamous relationship, Balth would far prefer he hooked up with people like Jaquie over some of the others who had graced their flat in previous months.

After the movie night ended, Balthazar half expected Jaquie to stay over, or for Peter to leave with her. But he had simply kissed her goodbye on the cheek and said goodnight. Jaquie hadn’t seemed surprised by that, so Balthazar had simply mentally shrugged. Maybe he read that one wrong. Balthazar had promised Paige he’d be at the next open mic night at Boyet’s when they returned from semester break and had been somewhat taken aback by the fierce hug that Paige had given him upon extracting that promise. He looked forward to seeing her and Chelsey more when school resumed. Everyone else eventually trickled out of the flat, Ben went to Skype Beatrice, and Freddie walked Kit out, saying she was going to walk with him until she hit the dairy to get some milk. Balthazar smiled. He was pretty sure there was already a half full jug of milk in the refrigerator.

Balthazar took it upon himself to begin restoring the front room to order. He picked up blankets, bowls, mugs and glasses and began general tidying. Surprisingly, Peter hung around to help. They folded blankets in an amicable silence, but before Balth could retreat to the kitchen with the dishes, Peter began a conversation.

“So. How was your night?”

Balthazar looked puzzled. “You were right there. You saw my night. It was fine.”

“Yeah, but did you have fun?”

“Yeah?”

“And what did you think of all our guests?”

“They were cool, I guess. I kinda know Paige and Chelsey from music stuff. I like Jaquie, by the way.”

“Yeah, Jaquie’s cool. And Ben’s friend, George?”

“I dunno. He was quiet.”

“Yeah, gotta watch out for those quiet ones.”

Balthazar rolled his eyes and made for the kitchen. But even over the clanking of his stacking dishes, he heard Peter call out to him. “What about Kit?”

Balthazar came back into the front room and began stacking the extra blankets, while Peter had given up any pretense of actually helping. “He’s cool.”

“Really? You think? Huh.” Peter paused, adopting a considering look. “I don’t like him. He’s too… chill and relaxed. And way too nice and likes people too much. No one is actually that chill and relaxed and nice. And no one actually likes people that much. He gives me bad vibes. He’s probably a secret axe murderer.”

“Really, Pete?” Balthazar raised an eyebrow. “An axe murder?”

Peter just shrugged. “Or something.”

“Well, then you better hope I make it back alive after he and I have coffee on Friday.”

“What do you mean coffee on Friday?” Peter asked, looking – well, looking something. Balthazar couldn’t really tell if it was a look of anger, or shock, or irritation – or what.

 “We’re having coffee. At Boyet’s. On Friday. After finals are over.”

“Why? You never go out.”

“That’s just not true.”

“I mean with people.”

“Also, not true.”

“Well, I don’t trust him.” Peter said stubbornly.

“Well, luckily you don’t have to, since I’m the one getting coffee with him. But, I’ll report back on any axe murderer tendencies.”

They were quiet after that, and by unspoken agreement, they retired together back to Balthazar’s room for a few hours. By the time Peter had left, Balthazar was exhausted and more than ready for bed and he fell into a deep sleep without much further thought. It was rather an unpleasant surprise to wake up in the morning and discover that Peter had left no fewer than four separate hickeys on him, all in places that were easily visible, and some almost impossible to cover - including somehow – and Balthazar really couldn’t remember how this happened – on his wrist.

****

On Friday night, Peter appeared in Balthazar’s room only moments after Balth heard him shut the front door and come in from his shift at the bar. Peter shut the bedroom door and Balthazar put down his book. 

“So?” Peter asked.

“So… what?”

“So, how was your coffee… thingy? With the axe murderer?”

“Oh!” Balthazar laughed. He had forgotten that rather odd and tense conversation from a few nights back. “So, he’s… really chill and relaxed. And he’s nice. And he likes people.”

“I don’t like him.” Peter said, sitting down on the bed with a glare at Balth.

“I know. I have no idea why. But I know.” Balthazar paused. “But I do. And I think he’ll be good for Freddie.”

“What do you mean, good for Freddie?” Peter asked, his glare turning into puzzlement.

Balthazar looked at Peter like he was crazy. “You know, ‘cause they’re dating?”

“What do you mean, they’re dating?”

“Pete, why do you think she brought him over here?”

“I don’t know – I guess I thought maybe –“ Peter shook his head. “Nothing.”

Balth shrugged, frankly bewildered by Peter’s attitude. “No, they’re definitely dating. I mean, he didn’t say so outright – but they are. I don’t think it’s, like, a secret.”

“Yeah, but Freddie?”

“Pete, how much time do you actually spend with Freddie?”

“More than I’d like.”

Peter.”

“As little as possible.”

Balth sighed. “They actually have a lot in common – similar sense of humor, both a little off the beaten path. She’s really uptight, I know, but I think he’ll be a good balance for her in that area.”

“Oh.” Peter paused.  “Are you sure?”

“Sure of what?”

“That they’re dating. Uh, or that like, he’ll be good for her.”

 “Um, yeah.”

“Okay.”

“Why does this matter so much to you?” Balthazar asked, trying to get some sense of what was happening in Peter’s head.

“Just want to make sure our Fred’s happy.”

Balth raised an eyebrow and gave Peter a pointed look.

“What? I don’t want Freddie to be miserable. Besides. You’re right. He’s a cool dude.” Peter said, flopping back against the bed and beginning to examine Balthazar’s discarded novel.

Balthazar had no idea of what to make of it. Even for Peter, he of the most mercurial moods known to mankind, this was a quick about-face. But then Balthazar decided not to over think it for once. He liked Kit. Freddie was dating Kit. So it would be nice if Peter could be friendly to Kit. Better not to disturb the now calm waters.

“Why are you reading, anyway? We literally just finished the semester. Let’s go bug Ben and make him play video games.” Peter said, standing up and reaching out a hand to help Balthazar up as well. Balthazar had kind of been looking forward to a quiet night with some tea and a book – but… it was only 9, and Peter was suggesting spending time as a group, so instead he smiled and let Peter help him out of bed. It ended up being a really fun night with all three of them eating junk food and playing video games. For a moment, the flat almost felt like home.

****

After the semester ended, most people at university went home for a few weeks.  Balthazar, Ben and Peter had all agreed to drive back to Auckland together. Balthazar had been looking forward to it for months now, it seemed. He was ready to see his mum and his dad, and sleep in his old bedroom, and spend time with Bea, and Hero, and Ursula and Meg. He was thrilled to be making at least a brief return to his comfort zone. Ben was bouncing off the walls at the idea of getting to spend two weeks with Beatrice. 

Peter seemed unhappier about the whole idea – seemed to have no desire to return to Auckland at all. Balthazar had tentatively suggested that Peter could stay in Wellington with Freddie in the flat, and that he and Ben could fly home or rent a car or something instead of road tripping back in Peter’s car, but Peter had flatly told Balthazar that he had no intention of staying in the flat alone for two weeks with Her Ladyship, and that he had promised his parents and John he’d be home besides. But Peter’s mood definitely took a turn for the more sour the closer they got to Auckland. It probably hadn’t helped that Balthazar had fallen asleep in the backseat during the middle of the trip and Ben and Peter had been left to themselves in conversation. By the time Balthazar woke up, they were two hours from Auckland, and Ben had pulled over to let Peter drive. Peter was insisting that Balthazar move up front before he strangled Ben, and all conversation between Ben and Peter appeared to have come to a complete halt. Ben literally asked Balthazar to ask Peter to pass back Ben’s thermos as the car started up again, with Peter at the wheel now.

Balthazar couldn’t imagine what had happened – he had only been napping for an hour or so, and while Ben and Peter often had a – fraught – relationship these days, it rarely devolved to the point where they had to use intermediaries for simple requests. Eventually, Ben put in his headphones, covered his eyes with a flamingo-patterned sleep mask, and passed out in the backseat. Balthazar waited a few minutes and then said Ben’s name loudly. Getting no response, Balthazar figured he was safe to talk to Peter.

“What the hell happened while I was sleeping?”

Peter gripped the steering wheel hard, his knuckles going red and then white, and stared determinedly ahead of him at the road.

“Nothing.”

Balthazar snorted. “C’mon.”

“Listen, Balthazar, I mean this in the nicest way, but fuck off, okay?”

“Oh, well. As long as you mean it in the nicest way. Can’t imagine why Ben isn’t speaking to you.”

Peter just gripped the steering wheel harder. Balthazar turned on the radio and stared out the passenger window. About ten minutes later, he heard Peter heave a deep sigh.

“Balthy. I’m sorry.”

Balthazar continued to stare out the window, ignoring Peter.

“C’mon, Balth. I mean it. I’m really sorry, okay?” Peter paused. “Going home – it’s… I really don’t want to. I have to, and I know that. But I really, really don’t want to, alright? And Ben just kept insisting on talking about stuff from high school. Kept going on and on about things we all used to do together, and should we call up Claudio and invite him over for a guys’ night and whether I was going to have a party while we were home, and if I wasn’t, maybe he should and… I don’t know. Stuff about going to watch football practice and going out with Bea and Meg and everyone and I just… I asked him to stop. Repeatedly. And he wouldn’t.”

Balthazar turned to look at Peter now. He was hard to read, with his sunglasses covering a decent portion of his face. But he was clearly stressed out and really unhappy about heading home. A lot of the things that had been puzzling Balthazar about Peter’s behavior over the first semester became clearer. But he wasn’t going to bring it up – not now, anyway. Maybe not at all. Maybe it really was best to let Peter come to him with this – when he was ready.

Peter’s left hand was now hanging down by his side, while he steered with the right. Balthazar could see him clenching and unclenching it, probably unconsciously. He didn’t know what possessed him in that moment, but he reached over for Peter’s hand and took it in his own, giving it a small, firm squeeze and then letting their hands simply lie in each other’s. He didn’t know if it was a good idea – it was certainly breaking one of their rules. They definitely never held hands in high school when they were just friends. Although Balthazar didn’t think of this as something romantic – he just wanted to give Peter comfort in some way, and the words weren’t coming. It just seemed like the right thing to do in the moment, and Balthazar could only hold his breath and hope it wouldn’t set Peter off further. He was relieved when the only reaction from Peter was to squeeze back a little.

They held hands for a while, until Ben began to stir, at which point Peter pulled his hand back like it had touched a fire poker and Balthazar quickly pulled his sleeve down to cover his own hand.

****

They had been home a week the night Balthazar headed over to Peter’s house. He hadn’t seen Peter since he had dropped Balth off at his home the day they returned to Auckland. Balthazar knew Peter had been invited to several group get-togethers since then. At Hero’s request, Balth himself had invited Peter to the evening at Bea and Hero’s house. It had been fun. Bea and Hero had hosted with wine and soft drinks, pizza, and a group baking activity that had ended in a messy kitchen and delicious cookies. Balthazar had felt very at home and relaxed with Bea, Hero, Ben, Meg, and Ursula around, laughing and doing a project together. Ben had taken a group picture with them all covered in flour, grinning like loons. Balth had seen it on his Instagram feed. Ben had taken the trouble to reach out to Peter in it, tagging Peter and saying, “P. Donaldson, where are you? We miss you!” Peter hadn’t responded, although Balth knew that he did regularly check his Instagram and Facebook mentions. Balth was disappointed when Peter texted Bea to say he couldn’t make it. He thought it would have been good for Peter, and nice for the whole group to have him there.

Ben had also hosted a get-together – a little bigger this time, and including a wider group of people, like friends from the football team – Year 13s and people who had graduated with them - Claudio and his new girlfriend, some neighborhood friends, and other assorted former classmates. Peter hadn’t shown up for that one either. Balthazar had enjoyed that one less – he’d spent much of the night with Ursula off to the side of things, talking quietly and sipping at a beer. He’d only stayed for about an hour, before he and Ursula decided to walk home together. Balthazar did enjoy spending some extra time with Ursula – she was a wonderfully patient friend, and she never really teased him or asked probing questions. She simply let him be, and he let her be, and it was always companionable and warm. He told her a little about his adjustment period in Wellington and the music he was working on. She mentioned a film project and being ready to be done with Year 13. And it was nice.

But Balthazar found himself missing Peter. And home wasn’t as peaceful as he had anticipated. Jojo was visiting with her daughter, and although Balthazar loved them both, it made for a very full house. It was wonderful to spend time with his family, but with all seven them – only Rosa was missing – he sometimes found himself searching for just one quiet moment alone, especially since, oddly enough, his family was comprised of talkers. Maybe that was why he had ended up so quiet.

So on the night after Ben’s party, Balthazar found himself walking out of the house about 10 p.m. in a desperate escape for some solitude. He left his parents a note saying he was going to stay with a friend and texted Meg, asking if he could crash at her flat for the night. Meg wasn’t exactly quiet, but Balthazar enjoyed her company and she only had one roommate and had a comfortable pullout couch in her living room. He wandered around the neighborhood for a while, smiling to himself and basking in the sense of familiarity while he waited for her to answer. Eventually, his phone buzzed and he saw a text saying, “Mi casa es su casa” and he smiled. Then he realized that he had inadvertently walked over to Peter’s house. He hesitated for a moment – he knew he should probably just leave and head over to Meg’s. Peter’s texts with him for the last week had been short – brusque even – and Peter hadn’t called him or anything. It would probably just be imposing if Balthazar knocked on the door. But – but he really did miss Peter. Maybe if he just stopped in shortly to say hi and then headed over to Meg’s flat.

But then, almost as if driven by a sense of history, Balthazar avoided the front door and went and knocked on Peter’s window. He had no idea what made him do it – he had no sense of whether Peter was home, or even awake, or perhaps in an entirely different part of the house. Maybe he liked the whimsical sense of fate – if Peter opened the window, then it was meant to be. If not, Meg would be waiting for him.

The window did open and Peter leaned out. He clearly hadn’t been sleeping, but he was still dressed for bed. It was early for him these days, but maybe habits reverted at home.

“Balth?” Peter squinted at him. “Is that you?” He asked into the darkness.

“Yeah, yeah. It’s me. Can I – um – come in?”

“Yeah. Yeah! Of course.” Peter drew back to allow Balthazar to climb in the window and tumble onto the bed next to it. They must have done this at least 20 or 30 times in high school – on nights when Balth went for a walk and didn’t want to go home, or stayed late enough that he didn’t want to wake Peter’s parents or John by leaving. It felt familiar. It felt like home. Except weird too. It was dim in the room, the only light cast by a small reading lamp over in the corner.

Balth laughed a little nervously. “Sorry. This is kind of weird, isn’t it? It’s just – I was out walking, and I don’t know. I needed to get away from the house for a night. I meant to go to Meg’s actually – she said I could spend the night. I just… somehow ended up here instead. I think it’s like an instinct when I’m in Auckland. Feel awkward. Go to Pete’s.” Balthazar laughed again. “Sorry. I should just go. That’s weird. That was weird thing to say.” He started to turn around to climb back out the window, feeling a red blush steal over his cheeks.

“No, Balth, wait! Don’t go.” Peter said, grabbing his arm.

“Um…” Balthazar turned back around and Peter patted the spot on the bed next to where he was sitting.

“No, seriously. Stay. I’m – I like it that you come here instinctively.”

“Oh, uh. Yeah. Good. Cool.” Balthazar mumbled nervously, going to sit beside Peter. How was it possible all of this seemed so much easier in Wellington, where so much had gone wrong between them earlier in the year, and so much more difficult at home, where things had always seemed so … right?

“So, uh,” Peter cleared his throat. “Home a little much?”

“Oh, uh. Yeah. A little. I mean, Jojo is home and she brought Ella with her. And the twins are just all over the place. And mum has this new art project she has going and dad is planning some photography trip to Iceland and, well, you know how it is.”

Peter smiled. “I love your house. So full of life.”

“Yeah, well. I like yours. I always have. It’s nice and quiet, and your parents are so calm.”

Peter clenched is jaw a little. “Yeah, well. Grass is greener and all that.”

They sat silently for a few minutes.

“How – how is it going?” Balthazar asked. “Back here, I mean?”

Peter shook his head. “It’s okay, I guess. John and I have been hanging out a little. It’s not exactly easy, but… I think we’re getting better. With each other. To each other. Mum’s wonderful, as always. Dad and I – it’s…” Peter sighed. “It’s alright, for the most part. Just some stuff we’re all working through with him. Well, me and John, at least. Stuff we probably should have talked about five years ago.”

“Your dad is a good guy, Pete. I know he made some huge mistakes, but he’s always been a good dad to you. To John. And it seems like your mum really loves him.”

Peter rubbed his forehead. “Yeah. He is a good dad. And I think he’s a good husband? I don’t know. I hope he’s a good husband. He seems like a good husband. But – you never really know, right?”

Balthazar rubbed Peter’s shoulder. “That’s a lot for you to… well, it’s a lot, isn’t it?”

Peter smiled a little. “Yeah. It can be a lot.” He brought his hand up over Balthazar’s hand.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not really.”

“Okay.” Balthazar drew his hand back.

“I didn’t say you had to stop. If you want to keep rubbing my shoulders, who am I to complain?” Now Peter was grinning.

“Shut up.” Balth smacked him on the shoulder, slightly. “I was trying to be supportive.”

“No, I’m serious. I was out with John earlier kicking around the football and now I’m, like, in massive amounts of pain. I don’t know how I let myself get so out of shape.”

“John was playing football?” Balthazar asked, returning to rubbing Peter’s shoulders, but now with more intent.

“Yeah, I know. Well, not playing football, so much. But kicking the ball around with me, anyway. It was… I don’t know. It was fun.”

“That’s really nice.”

“Yeah, well, tomorrow morning I have to go see some weird German film with him, so it wasn’t entirely altruistic on his part.”

“Still.”

“Yeah.”

They sat quietly for a while, Balthazar rubbing Peter’s shoulders and upper back. Eventually, Peter reached his hand back and began to stroke Balthazar’s leg gently, turning a little so that they were face to face. Balthazar let go of Peter’s shoulders as Peter’s hand came up to his face and cupped it, smoothing this thumb over Balth’s cheekbone.

“This isn’t why I came, you know.” Balthazar said quietly.

“Sorry.” Peter immediately moved his hands back. “Didn’t mean to... presume.”

“Nah.” Balthazar said. “I’m not saying I don’t want to. I just feel like – I just came because I missed you. Wanted to make sure you were okay, I don’t know – check in. Like I said, it was almost instinctive.”

“I missed you too. It’s weird not seeing you every day.”

“Yeah.” Balthazar ducked his head a little. “It’s strange… you know. Living with you and then just – not.”

“Yeah. Are you doing okay?”

“I’m fine. Like I said, just needed a bit of a breather. Everything’s good. I’m really – I like being home.”

Peter looked at him seriously. “You know Wellington is home now too, right?”

Balthazar shrugged. “I guess. I never seemed to, well, fit in as easily as you guys there. You’re all so… integrated into life there. I guess sometimes Wellington still feels like a long trip away for me, and Auckland is home.”

Peter reached out a hand and straightened a bit of Balth’s hair. “We’re going to need to work on that next semester.”

Balthazar quirked an eyebrow. “We are?”

“Yeah,” said Peter. “If that’s what it takes.”

Suddenly the conversation felt heavy. Balthazar tried to ignore it. It was a nice evening. He was where he wanted to be. He didn’t want … feelings, or anything, to start coloring it. He just wanted to exist here, in this moment.

“Why didn’t you come to Bea’s dinner? Or Ben’s party?”

Peter looked away. “Just didn’t feel up to it.”

Balthazar sighed. “Peter, if you …” Peter looked at him. “Okay, never mind. I just … everyone missed you.”

“I doubt that,” Peter snorted.

“They did. I did.”

“You, I believe.” Peter said quietly. Balthazar gave it up as a bad job. Whatever was going on – and now his suspicions were really starting to become more of a certainty – Peter wasn’t ready to talk yet. And Balthazar wasn’t going to push. Instead, he leaned forward and kissed Peter, pushing his hands up into his hair. Peter’s hands automatically went to Balthazar’s sides, before he pulled away a little.

“Thought you didn’t come here for this? And isn’t Meg waiting for you?”

“Eh. I didn’t. But… you know. Moonlight, mood lighting. Seems like it might not be the worst spontaneous idea.”

“And Meg?”

“Oh, look.” Balthazar pulled out his phone and sent Meg a quick text. “Oops. My mom called and asked me to come home and bring some juice for Ella.”

Peter laughed. “No one ever believes me when I tell them you’re a good liar.”

“Who have you been telling my secrets to?” Balthazar asked, mock offended.

“No one, Balth. No one. Ever.”

Balthazar leaned in and kissed him again.

****

Balthazar woke up the next morning with Peter’s arm wrapped around him and his head snuggled in between Peter’s shoulder and chin. Well, shit. This was bad. This was very, very bad and very, very against the rules. The problem was that last night neither of them had really thought about where Balthazar would go after they were done. He couldn’t really go home – it was after 1 a.m. and he didn’t want to wake his entire household after leaving a note saying he was staying with a friend. And Peter was adamant that he wasn’t going to let Balth walk home alone that late anyway – even though Balthazar had done it plenty of times before and their sleepy Auckland neighborhood wasn’t exactly a hotbed of crime and intrigue. Balthazar had mentioned the guest room, but Peter had argued that it would just be too weird relegating Balth to the guest room after that, especially since Balthazar had literally never slept there before when he stayed over. Balthazar had trouble arguing, especially when Peter kept distracting him by lazily rubbing circles over his stomach with his fingertip. After going back and forth for a while, they both gave up arguing with the other and simply fell asleep. However. When they had fallen asleep, they’d been as far apart as possible. Peter’s bed was relatively small, so they’d been touching, but they definitely weren’t – this. Now Balthazar had to figure out how to extricate himself, get dressed, and get out of Peter’s house without waking him up. Because he definitely did not want to talk about this, this – cuddling… thing, and he would really prefer it if Peter was never aware of it in the first place.

All of a sudden the door banged open, and Balthazar’s head snapped up. John was standing in the doorway and looking down at his watch. “Peter, if we’re going to make the movie, you really need to get up now. And we are going to this movie. You’re not getting out of this. I’ve been knocking for five minutes.”

Well, double shit. That was what had woken Balthazar up. All of a sudden, several things happened at once. John looked up, registered what he was seeing with a look of shock, and then immediately turned his back. Peter flew up in bed, running his hand through his hair with one hand, and pulling the comforter up to cover himself better. Balthazar turned the shade of a tomato and retreated as far underneath the comforter as possible, so that it was covering his entire body and head. He felt himself begin to panic. He definitely was not wearing any clothes. He needed his clothes. He shut his eyes tightly, and willed himself to not freak out. He felt Peter get out of the bed and heard him grab something from beside it, presumably some clothing. Then he heard the bedroom door slam. He waited a minute, before chancing a peek out from under the comforter. Sure enough, the door was closed and neither Peter nor John were anywhere to be seen. Thank God.

He grabbed for his clothes and began dressing as if he were in a race. Once he had his boxers, jeans, t-shirt, jumper, socks, and shoes back on, he felt better – as if he had put on at least enough armor to see him through this. There was nothing worse than being literally naked in front of your best friend-slash-casual lover’s little brother. At least he was pretty sure there was nothing worse.

He stepped over to the door, unsure of what to do. It felt weird to just hightail it out the window without saying anything. On the other hand, he didn’t want to interrupt whatever Peter was saying to John. He didn’t mean to eavesdrop, really. It’s just that by the door, he could hear every word of John and Peter’s conversation, even though they were clearly trying to be quiet.

“What do you mean you’re not dating? I’m not blind, Peter. I know what I just saw. Do me the courtesy of not just lying to my face.”

“I mean…” Balthazar could hear Peter blow out a breath in frustration. “I mean just what I said. We’re not dating. We’re not exclusive. We’re not boyfriends. We don’t date, okay? I don’t date. We’re just… you wouldn’t get it.”

“Again, if you could just do me the courtesy of not condescending to me.”

“I’m not condescending to you, okay? I’m just saying – you wouldn’t get it. Because you wouldn’t do it. But we just… we have sex, okay? Sometimes we hook up. And we’re friends. And that’s it. We’re absolutely not dating. We’re not going to date. Like, ever. So just let it go. And do not tell anyone about this, John. I’m serious. No one. I promised Balthazar that no one would ever know.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I told you that you wouldn’t.”

“No. I mean, I understand the concept of friends with benefits, thank you. I’m sixteen, not six. I just – why wouldn’t you date Balthazar? You’re obviously attracted to him, and he’s obviously attracted to you. He’s nice, and kind, and thoughtful. He’s always been nice to me – even when your other friends didn’t notice I existed. He’s talented, responsible. Funny. I don’t get it. He’s perfect for you. And he’s been in love with you forever, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“I… shit. I noticed, John, yes, thank you for bringing that up. I really needed that right now.”

“So why aren’t you just together?”

“Because no one is perfect for me, John. Don’t you get that? I’d think you of all people would get that.”

“Well, I don’t.” John’s voice took on a stubborn note. “And I think what you’re doing to him is really shitty and unfair. If you’re not in love with him, you need to stop.”

“I’m not doing anything to him, John, okay? This is between me and Balthazar and we’ve talked about it… and it’s working, okay, so just lay off, would you?” Peter’s voice was strained. “I know you’re my brother and I know you like Balthazar and I know you, like… care… but just. Stop. It’s working this way. This is how it works.”

There was a pause. Balthazar thought about moving away, but he felt frozen to the spot.

“I guess if you know what you’re doing…” John said doubtfully.

“I think it’s pretty obvious I have no fucking clue what I’m doing, don’t you? But can you just… let it go anyway? Please?”

“Okay. Yeah, okay, I guess. But you know this can’t continue forever, right, Ped –“ he paused and corrected himself. “Can’t continue forever, right, Peter? At some point…” He trailed off.

“Yeah, I know. It can’t last forever. But just. For now.”

Balthazar really did back away then. He felt bad about eavesdropping. He felt bad about what he heard. He felt bad in general. He sat on the bed, steadying himself. He only meant to stay a minute and then head out the window – goodbyes be damned – but he must have been lost in thought for longer than he realized, because suddenly the door swung open again and Peter and John were standing in the doorway.

“Oh, uh. Hey, John.” Balthazar stood up. He could feel himself turning red again. It was really inconvenient to have that obvious of a tell.

“Hey, Balthazar. We’re going to go to a movie. You want to join?” John asked, looking at him concernedly. Balthazar really couldn’t take that look from Peter’s little brother’s eyes – a mixture of sadness, worry, and … pity. Ugh. The pity was always the worst one. So, maybe there was something worse than being literally naked in front of John – perhaps being figuratively naked was actually somehow more awful.

“Yeah, nah. Thanks, though. Pete said it was weird and German.”

Peter was looking at the floor. He hadn’t met Balthazar’s eyes once since he re-entered the room.

“It is that.” John said. “But it’s supposed to be really good.”

“Nah, nah. I’m just gonna –“ Balthazar indicated the window with his head.

“No, at least come say hi to Ann. She’ll be furious if she realizes you were here and we didn’t make you come see her.”

“Yeah, nah, it’s kinda weird, right? We probably shouldn’t be sneaking into each other’s windows, now that we’re like – adults, or whatever. I wouldn’t know how to … Anyway, I promise I’ll come say hi before we go back.”

“Alright, if you’re sure. Please do. Ann adores you. Talks about you all the time. How happy she is you and Peter are flatting together.”

“Right.” Balthazar nodded. “Yeah, absolutely. Before we head back. So, I’m just gonna… bye, John. Bye, Pete.”

 Balthazar made his way over the window and climbed outside, dropping to the ground easily and taking off for his house. As he ambled home, trying to process the whole chain of events since the night before, he realized something - Peter had never looked up at all after he came back into the room, not even when Balthazar was leaving.

Chapter Text

So… that was a thing that happened. Balthazar spent much of his last week at home trying to process the conversation he had overheard between Peter and John. Although he had intellectually understood what Peter had told him countless times before – that he didn’t want to be someone’s boyfriend, that he wasn’t ready for a relationship, that he didn’t want to hurt Balthazar by pretending something could come of their friendship and physical interactions when it absolutely would not – it was somehow harder to hear him say it to another person. Made it somehow more real. More… final. And John’s words rang in Balthazar’s head too. It couldn’t last forever, could it? At some point, one of them would want it to stop… to move on.

Maybe Peter would meet someone who was perfect for him. Maybe Balthazar would get tired of all physical intimacy and no emotional intimacy or romance. Maybe Balth would meet someone – although that was hard for Balthazar to picture at this point, it wasn’t impossible. Or they’d stop living together and drift apart. Who knew? But obviously, they couldn’t just stay friends who had sex forever – obviously, right? Right. That wasn’t a long term option – so what was their long term option? Balthazar didn’t want to lose Peter as a friend. Having lost him once, it would be all the more impossible to survive a second time. But how could they ever go back to just friends after this? They couldn’t. So, where did that leave them? Well, the answer was obvious, at least to Balthazar. It left them well and truly fucked, still living in a weird state of limbo – no way forward, no way backward, no real long term hope. It was depressing as hell.

But, school was going to start again and they had to continue on with life. So they did. Peter picked up Balthazar and Ben at Balth’s house the morning they were set to go back to Wellington. Balth never did make it over to see Ann, which he felt bad about – he just… couldn’t. Peter never did make to any of their friend’s get-togethers the two weeks they were home. Balthazar didn’t know if Peter felt bad about that. And Balthazar and Peter never once mentioned the morning John walked in on them to each other. Because that’s the kind of healthy relationship they had, Balthazar thought somewhat scornfully. Never talking about the real stuff.

Once they were back in Wellington, everything seemed to get busy at once. Classes resumed and everyone had to get used to a new schedule. Freddie had a never-ending list of tasks for them to complete to get the flat “in shape” before schoolwork took over their lives. Balthazar found himself spending a decent amount of time vacuuming, cleaning out cupboards, and scrubbing walls. He didn’t mind. It kept him busy. Kit was over at the flat more often now – he and Freddie had obviously taken the opportunity while the other three flat mates were away to spend a lot of time together and they seemed to have become more serious. Balthazar was happy for her – and happy for the way she seemed to mellow when Kit was around. Balthazar was also happy to find himself becoming real friends with Kit – it was easier to join in for flat activities when Kit was around to provide a relief from Freddie and Ben’s bickering, to make Freddie chill out a little more, and to provide a fourth person to distract Balthazar from the fact that Peter had been spending a lot more time out of the flat since they returned from Auckland. It wasn’t as bad as it had been in March, but it was certainly a noticeable change.

Balthazar pushed himself to try to integrate into Wellington better. Making friends with Kit was the first step. Spending more time with Freddie and Ben was another. As the next step, he forced himself to go out more. He went to the open mic night he promised Paige he’d attend and although he steadfastly refused her pleas to perform, he found himself having a good time with Paige and Chelsey, laughing and talking and just generally passing the time. He started to occasionally go over to their flat for tea and chats, or to work on songs. Paige even wrote him a song, which he was touched by – he was so used to writing songs for others, it was a real treat to have one written for him, even if it did make him feel like Paige could see inside his soul to an alarming degree. So that was better. He didn’t exactly have a full and rounded social life, but he had three people in Wellington he could count as friends who weren’t his flat mates and he was doing something outside of the flat or school at least once a week or so. He tried not to remember Peter’s promise to help him with this – it was better that he did it for himself, anyway.

It wasn’t that he and Peter never saw each other – they did. They still hung out, still watched movies and stuff, still talked – they just did it a lot less than they had been in the previous few months. And their conversations felt less full somehow – more distant. Even their physical encounters somehow seemed less intimate than they had previously. Or maybe just less light-hearted and fun.

Peter did tell him that he’d joined a play, which Balthazar thought was a hopeful sign. It turned out that Jaquie, Paige and Chelsey had also been cast in the same play, and he thought that would be good for Peter too. He really liked all three of those women and he knew that not one of them would let Peter get away with any shit. Which was great, because Balthazar also knew he let Peter get away with way too much shit. It was a bit of an odd turnaround, but as far as Balth could figure it, Peter couldn’t keep drinking the way he had been and manage to stay in school. So perhaps he was just looking for another outlet – another reason to be out of the flat. Balth didn’t know, so he just encouraged Peter as best he could.

Toward the middle of August, Balthazar helped Ben put together video cuts of the flat mates talking about Hero for her birthday. He also recorded some music for the video. He noticed Peter’s video cut off in an odd place and that Peter spent a surprisingly long time apologizing in the initial cut before Ben edited it, but when he tried to ask Ben about it, Ben had simply said that everything was fine and he’d just had to pause the recording. Balthazar didn’t believe him – Ben was honestly a shit liar – but he didn’t push. They all had their secrets to keep, he supposed. But he was happy to be doing something nice for Hero. No one wanted to say it outright – well, no one but Peter, apparently  - but all of them were well aware that Hero’s birthday carried with it some seriously negative baggage. He was surprised, but pleased, when Peter had suggested the two of them go in on a joint gift for Hero. Peter had even suggested the voucher to Vintage Heroes, remembering that Hero really loved their clothing, and reminding Balth of the time they had all gone there as a group. Balthazar had arranged to get the voucher and picked up a card, and had written Hero a nice note reminding her of the story as well. Peter had barely looked at it and simply scrawled his name.

Around the same time, Peter entirely disappeared. At first, Balth thought it had something to do with the play, but then he remembered that Peter mentioned that rehearsals weren’t really starting until the end of the month.  Besides, Balthazar couldn’t imagine what kind of rehearsals would make Peter keep the kind of hours he was. Over the period of a week, Peter only came home two nights. And both nights, he came in well after 4 a.m. – Balthazar knew this, because he’d managed to keep himself awake at least that long listening for the door – and locked his bedroom door so that none of them could talk to him in the morning. No amount of knocking would raise him. Balthazar had no idea when Peter would get up and leave, but it was always while the other three were out of the flat. He had an uncanny knack of knowing when it was safe to emerge. Balthazar considered skipping class just to catch him, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. He also considered simply climbing in Peter’s window and demanding to know what was going on, but he could never quite bring himself to do that either. So he simply worried.

One night, Balthazar and Ben were on Skype together in the front room. Beatrice and Hero were on the other side. Hero was thanking them for her birthday video and the gifts they had sent, and telling them about her plans for her birthday the next day. Out of nowhere, the front door opened with a bang and Peter came in, kissing a woman Balthazar had never seen before. Balthazar blinked. Ben blinked. Hero and Bea looked confused, trying to see what was happening. It shouldn’t have been surprising – Peter used to do this all the time at the beginning of the year. But it had been so long now. It must have been at least four months since Peter had brought someone home so openly, and probably at least three since he had brought anyone home at all.

“Peter! Peter! Go away! There are young ladies here!” Ben yelled.

“Shut up, Ben. That’s so patronizing. What’s going on!? I can’t see, dammit!” Beatrice yelled from over the Skype connection. Hero had a shocked look on her face and was covering her eyes.

Peter ignored them all, pushing the woman gently up against the wall and kissing her with a fierce abandon that she seemed to meet eagerly.

“Peter!” yelled Balthazar, standing up. That made Peter turn around.

“What?” Peter asked, challengingly. He looked like he was geared up for a fight with the first person he could find that would pick it with him.

“Take it in your room, yeah? We’re trying to Skype, here. In a shared room.”

Peter just blinked. That clearly hadn’t been what he had been expecting. He paused and then said, “Yeah. Right. Of course.” He grabbed the woman by the hand and began leading her to his room.

“Uh… hi,” she waved at them awkwardly. “Sorry. Didn’t even notice you there.”

“It’s not a problem,” said Balthazar. She followed Peter’s tugging hand and waved one more time before his door slammed shut.

Balthazar settled himself back down in front of the computer. “Sorry about that, guys. Where were we?”

Ben was staring at him. Bea was staring at him. Even Hero was staring at him. It made him feel itchy around his collar.

“What?” He asked. They were all silent. “What?

“Nothing,” said Ben. “Nothing! It’s just… that was kind of amazing, is all. You yelled.”

“I am capable of it, Ben. You know that.”

Ben shrugged. “And Ped – Peter listened.”

Balthazar rolled his eyes.

“Oh, Balth. Are you okay?” Hero asked, her voice full with sympathy and compassion, which was one thing Balthazar really couldn’t deal with right now.

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”

Beatrice and Hero looked at each other. Beatrice opened her mouth, but Hero cut her off. “No reason. None at all.”

“Right. So, you were telling us about your dinner plans for tomorrow? Is Meg going?” And, just like that, the conversation reverted to Hero’s birthday, as they all tried to ignore the muffled noises coming from Peter’s room.

****

Balthazar didn’t see Peter again that night, obviously. He didn’t know how he felt about the whole thing. He was well aware that Peter had probably continued to sleep with other people since May, but at least he’d had the courtesy to keep it out of the flat. Well, Balthazar had assumed it was a courtesy. Perhaps he’d had another reason for the break. Or maybe he was trying to send Balthazar a message, although what kind of sick, silent message that was, Balthazar didn’t know. Balth hadn’t done anything. He hadn’t pushed Peter for more than he was willing, or capable, of giving. He hadn’t brought up a relationship. He hadn’t discussed the morning in Auckland. He hadn’t pushed at all, he was pretty sure. So, unless this was just a reminder by Peter that Balth wasn’t special just because Peter Donaldson deigned to have sex with him, he couldn’t figure out what the message was.

The whole thing made him feel vaguely ill. He’d slipped into a place where he felt okay with his and Peter’s relationship, and their weird new dynamics and he’d allowed himself to get complacent about his feelings. The morning in Auckland and tonight had been harsh reminders, bringing back a lot of ugly feelings that Balthazar had kept stored away for months – feelings of inadequacy, of shame, of sadness, of lack of control. He tried to push them away. He was an adult. There was nothing shameful about sex, as long as both parties consented and enjoyed it, whether they were dating or not. He was perfectly in control. This lasted as long as he chose for it too and no longer. And he wasn’t inadequate – he didn’t think. Plenty of other people not named Peter Donaldson found him perfectly adequate. The sadness – well, maybe that was a valid feeling. But it wasn’t going to consume him. He swore it wasn’t going to take over again like it had last semester. But it all still felt ugly – he had this growing nagging feeling that Peter was trying to send him a message, and if that was true, well, then he didn’t much like his friend at the moment.

The next morning, Balthazar ran into Peter in the kitchen. Peter came in to get some water while Balthazar was percolating some coffee. Balthazar refused to run from this situation. It was his kitchen. He would get his coffee.

“Balth!” Peter said. “About last night –“

“I don’t really want to hear about last night, thanks. Heard enough through the walls.” Balthazar cringed at his own tone. He wasn’t supposed to be judging here. And he wasn’t. He just wasn’t happy.

Peter had the good grace to look away. “Listen, I’m sorry. That really wasn’t cool – I just… I wasn’t thinking.”

“Peter, none of us care who you sleep with. Seriously. Just don’t come bursting in the front door into a common area like that. It’s really uncomfortable for everyone.”

Peter shook his head. “Yeah, I know. But, listen, Balth… I feel like I should tell you, or explain, or…”

“Peter.” Balthazar finished stirring his coffee and put his spoon in the sink, preparing to go back to his room to get ready for the day. “One of the benefits of an arrangement like ours is that you don’t have to explain anything to me. It’s not part of the deal.” He walked out of the kitchen, feeling rather proud of himself. But, of course, Peter couldn’t let it go. He followed behind Balthazar, clutching his water glass.

“Right, but I just … I shouldn’t have… here. We’re still friends, first, right? And that’s not… I don’t know. I –“

Balthazar cut him off. “I really can’t do this right now, Pete. I have class in, like, half an hour. If you want to talk about this later, I’ll be around.” And with that, Balthazar retreated to his room to get dressed and ready for the day. When he emerged fifteen minutes later, Peter was nowhere to be seen.

Balthazar came home about five and dropped his bag off in his room. He sort of vaguely looked around to see if Peter had come home to take him up on his offer to talk. But, no. No, of course he hadn’t. Balthazar shrugged. There were only so many times he could reach out and be swatted away before he gave up. He felt like Peter was swiftly running out of opportunities. Balthazar did some work, put away some dishes, and then started making dinner for Freddie and Ben and himself. He made a little extra in case Kit showed up, which turned out to be fortunate when he walked in with Freddie half an hour later. Ben and Freddie kept up a stream of banter throughout dinner, while Balthazar ate silently and Kit added a few wry comments here and there. Eventually, Balthazar began to pick up everyone’s plates to take them back to the kitchen.

“Stan, you don’t have to clear!” said Freddie. “You cooked. It’s not even your night. It’s that guy’s.”

“You mean Peter?” asked Kit.

“Ugh, don’t say his name.” Balthazar and Kit both rolled their eyes. “What? He’s late with rent, again,” said Freddie.

“I’ll talk to him,” said Ben, puffing out his chest.

“No, I’ll talk to him,” said Balthazar. Anything to avoid a Peter and Ben spat or a Freddie and Peter knockdown drag-out brawl at the moment.

“Yes, good. Stanley, you talk to him. He always sees reason when you do it.” Freddie stood up and dragged Ben to his feet, indicating he should help her carry the dishes into the kitchen. They took off and didn’t hear Balthazar mumble under his breath, “Not always.”

Kit, however, did hear. “You alright, man?” He asked, training his eyes on Balthazar’s face.

“Yeah, fine.” Balthazar mumbled.

“Okay.” Kit looked at him hard. “But you know if you’re ever – you know, not alright, you can talk to me, right? In confidence. I won’t tell anyone anything you say.”

Balthazar smiled then. “Thanks, Kit. I appreciate it. But there’s really nothing to tell.”

Kit looked like he didn’t believe him, but didn’t press the issue. Eventually, Balthazar retreated to his room and readied himself for bed. He pulled down the covers just after 10 p.m. and told himself sternly that he was going to bed. No more waiting up for Peter. Peter would do as he liked, and it wasn’t Balthazar’s job to monitor him. He’d come home or he wouldn’t. He’d be drunk or he wouldn’t. Nothing Balth did would change that. He finally nodded off around eleven.

Something startled him awake. He had been in a deep sleep, the kind you don’t wake from unless something interrupts it. Balthazar looked around a little wildly, his hand over his beating chest. His alarm clock flashed 2:30 a.m. He didn’t see anything immediately, or hear anything, even though he couldn’t stop himself from thinking of an intruder. But then he looked over to his desk chair. Oh, so it was an intruder. Just not the kind he’d been thinking of.

“Shit, Peter! What the fuck are you doing!? You scared the shit out of me!”

Peter was sitting at Balthazar’s desk, staring out of the window into the dark night. Balthazar could just barely make out his profile and could see his hands grasped and clenched tightly together. He didn’t say anything.

“Peter! Peter, what the fuck? You can’t just come into my room and sit in the dark. That’s not okay! You’re being extremely creepy right now.” Balthazar pushed the covers down. “In fact, can you please get out? I’m trying to sleep here. I have class in the morning and…” He trailed off. Peter wasn’t responding at all. He wasn’t arguing, or moving, or acknowledging that Balthazar was even speaking. What the fuck was going on? What was wrong with him? All of a sudden, Balthazar was even more terrified than he’d been at the thought of a stranger entering the flat.

“Pete…? Pete, what’s going on? Talk to me.” Still, the silence. Balthazar didn’t know what to do. Should he get up and go over there? Was Peter sick? Drunk? Stoned? He was sitting up, so he had to be at least semi-conscious. “Pete, please. You’re scaring me.”

All of a sudden, the desk chair swung around and Balthazar could see Peter’s face. The tear tracks stood out, even with only the moon and the stars as illumination. He had obviously been crying for a while. He seemed like he was probably drunk too, but it was the tears that were scary. Balthazar wasn’t sure he’d ever seen Peter cry. Not when he got hit in the nose with a Frisbee, not when John had gone missing, not when he’d been sick or tired or scared, not even when his beloved dog had died in Year 12.

Out of nowhere, Pete flung himself onto Balthazar’s bed, grasping at him, shoving his arms around Balthazar and gripping him tightly.

“Please don’t leave me,” he said, and Balthazar could hear that he was still crying. Peter rested his head against Balthazar’s shoulder.

“What in the – what are you talking about? I’m not going anywhere, Peter. Calm down.” As confused and annoyed as Balthazar was, he ran his hands up and down Peter’s arms. He wasn’t going to deny Peter comfort if he was this upset. Although he still had no idea what was going on.

“It wasn’t about you, Balth. I swear to God, it wasn’t about you,” Peter babbled. “I was just hurting and I didn’t know what to do and I got confused and there was no one to talk about it with. I couldn’t talk to you – it would just remind you. Of how shit I am. And I just needed- I needed to escape it. Just for a while. But it wasn’t about you.”

Balthazar had no idea what Peter was talking about. He was clearly drunk and emotional and nothing he was saying made any sense.

“Peter, you need to calm down. Seriously. I’m right here. What is going on?”

“I told you!” Peter’s voice was almost shrill. “I told you. I just couldn’t talk to you about it. I tried and I couldn’t figure out how. And Ben kept telling me to shut up about it, to let it go, but I can’t. Why can’t anyone understand that? And then you were so mad and hurt and you were trying to pretend you weren’t, but I could see it. That you thought I did it to hurt you, and I didn’t, Balth. I swear I didn’t.”

Balthazar was at a complete loss. Peter was obviously jumping around different topics, and in his current state, he couldn’t form a coherent explanation.

“Are you talking about last night?” Balthazar hazarded a guess. It was as good as any.

“Yes,” mumbled Peter. “Well, partly, I guess. I swear, Balthy. I swear.”

“Okay, okay. You swear. You swear what?”

“That I didn’t do it to hurt you!”

“Okay, Pete. Good.” Balthazar ran a hand through Peter’s hair. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“I know you think I did!”

Balthazar continued to stroke Peter’s hair, as comfortingly as he could. “I mean… kind of? I thought maybe… well, maybe it was meant to be some sort of signal. Of something,” he finished, lamely.

“Well, it wasn’t.” Peter sniffled. Balthazar could feel a growing wet patch on his shoulder from Peter’s tears.

“Okay. I believe you.”

“Promise?”

“Yes, Peter. If I say I believe you, I mean it.”

“Thank God,” Peter said, pushing himself further into the crook of Balthazar’s neck.

“Do you want to tell me what it was about? Because it was clearly about something. Just like tonight is clearly about something.” Balthazar was careful in how much he pushed. It didn’t feel right to…well, take advantage, or whatever, of Peter’s emotional and drunken state to get the answers he so desperately wanted.

“Do I have to?”

Balthazar paused. There could only be one answer to that. “No. No, Pete. You don’t have to.”

“Can I still stay if I don’t?”

“Of course you can.”

“Thank you, Balthy.”

Balthazar laid them back down on the bed, continuing to stroke Peter’s hair as his crying died down. Peter fell asleep soon after, with Balthazar’s arms wrapped around him. Balthazar stared at him for a while after that, unable to sleep. He finally dozed off around five and the next morning was the first time he missed a class since he started university.

Chapter Text

Things between Peter and Balthazar got back to relatively normal after that. Well, as normal as things ever were between them these days. They didn’t talk about what happened the night Peter appeared in Balthazar’s room. Of course they didn’t – because they never talked about those kinds of things. But whatever that – episode – was, it seemed to clear the air or something, because they returned to how they’d been before they went to Auckland. They spent a lot of time together, just hanging out, and then they spent a decent amount of time together fooling around. Balthazar, for one, was just relieved that their sex had returned to the happy, playful kind of interaction, rather than the more dour, distant kind they’d had those few weeks post-Auckland. And honestly, they were having sex a lot more often. What had been a couple of times a week pre-break, and had turned into once-a week-maybe post-break, was now at least three or four times a week, and basically whenever they had the opportunity. As soon as Freddie and Ben left – for any reason, for any length of time – Peter and Balthazar were all over each other. Balthazar wasn’t even sure why this suddenly happened – he just knew they couldn’t seem to keep their hands off each other as soon as they could safely do so. Maybe it was an addiction of some kind? Yeah, that seemed about right.

In early September, Peter and Balthazar finally made plans to meet Rosa for dinner. She’d been home for a few weeks already, but it had been hard to coordinate all three of their schedules, especially now that Peter’s rehearsals for Faustus were picking up. When they finally met at a small Italian place in town, Rosa had teasingly reached out and ruffled Peter’s hair first thing when she saw him.

“Nice hair, Pedro,” she smirked. “A big improvement on the mullet look.”

“Rosa.” Balthazar sighed. “Knock it off. And I told you – it’s Peter now.”

Peter had laughed and surprised Balthazar by saying, “She can call me whatever she wants.”

Balthazar had raised an eyebrow at that, but merely sat down next to Peter, with Rosa across from them. He’d been so insistent with everyone else… wait. Was Peter flirting with his sister? Oh my god, he totally was. He watched Peter throughout their ordering drinks and appetizers and he saw how he cocked his head a little, looked for excuses to touch Rosa’s hand lightly, and winked at her when he made a joke. He was totally, 100% flirting with Rosa. In front of Balthazar. At dinner. With all three of them. At a dimly lit Italian restaurant.

Eventually, Rosa excused herself to go to the bathroom, and Peter turned to look at Balthazar, smiling broadly.

“It’s great to see her again. I’m glad she’s back.”

“Yeah, me too,” Balthazar muttered, stabbing at his salad.

“Well, that sounds very enthusiastic.”

“I think you’re enthusiastic enough for both of us.”

Peter looked at Balthazar like he’d gone mad. “What’s crawled up your ass?”

“Nothing.” Balthazar muttered, taking a swig of his wine.

“Bullshit. What’s the problem?”

“You’re flirting with my sister,” Balthazar said. Well, he wasn’t sure where that had come from. He hadn’t actually meant to say that. Oh, well. It was true.

“What? No, I’m not!”

“Oh, my god, yes you are, Pete! The hand touches. The winking. The weird jokes. For God’s sake, you got up and pulled back her chair for her!” Balthazar took another swig of wine. He was beginning to understand why Peter sometimes liked to drink enough to escape, because more than anything, he wanted to escape this restaurant right now, and the wine was looking like the only way out.

“Balthy, stop it.” Peter put his hand over Balthazar’s wineglass, just as Balth was trying to bring it to his lips again. “You’re going to get smashed.”

“You’re one to talk!”

“Balth, I don’t want to fight.”

“Neither do I! So, stop flirting with my sister!”

“Okay! I didn’t even – I had no idea I was doing it. I swear! I’m not into Rosa like that.”

“I mean, you pretty obviously are.”

“No! I mean, yeah, she’s pretty, and she’s funny and interesting, and yeah, I thought she was pretty hot when I was 14 and I’d come over to your house and she’d be in a swimsuit, or whatever…”

“Oh, my god. Don’t you have any filter, like, at all?”

“No, I’m just saying! I don’t feel that way about her. I mean… it’s involuntary. I promise.”

Balthazar sat back and thought about it. Yeah, he believed Peter. He was a flirt. He was a terrible flirt, but he was a committed one, nonetheless. It probably was involuntary. And maybe Balthazar had overreacted a little. But still – he was sitting right there.

“C’mon, Balthy. You know you’re the only Jones for me.”

“Oh, no. No, stop. That’s awful.”

Peter pulled Balthazar to his side and threw an arm around him. “But it’s true.”

“Yeah, but now every time we make out, I’m going to picture you picturing my sister.”

“Oh, wow. That’s the weirdest, most awful thing I’ve ever heard you say.”

“Imagine how it feels in my head!”

“Do you want me to just go?” Peter turned serious all of a sudden. “I can fake a stomachache or something.”

Balthazar paused. He shouldn’t be making such a big deal of this, should he? It was harmless. “Don’t be dumb. I don’t want you to go. I just want you to stop being… flirty.”

“Okay, got it.” Peter straightened up and fixed an invisible tie. “I will be the consummate gentleman.”

Balthazar groaned. “No, that’s worse!”

“What are you talking about?”

“When you try to be Consummate Gentleman Peter, you get even worse. You keep flirting, but like… more stiffly.”

Peter apparently couldn’t take it anymore because he broke into loud laughter, resting his head against Balthazar’s shoulder. “I love you, Balthy. I don’t think anyone else can insult me with such a vengeance and make me laugh so hard.”

Balthazar patted Peter’s head. He had the strangest sense of what was funny.

Rosa suddenly reappeared and set her purse back on the table.

“Aw, look at you two. You’re such cute little ikklekins. I told mum you’d make a great couple one day.”

Peter abruptly removed his head from Balthazar’s shoulder and he and Balth involuntarily both scooted their chairs several inches further from one another.

“We’re not a couple, Rosie,” muttered Balthazar, picking up his wine again.

“What are you talking about, Balth? Look at you two!” Rosa pulled out her phone. “I want a picture.”

“I told you I wasn’t flirting with her,” Peter hissed at Balthazar under his breath, as Rosa was distracted with her phone.

Balthazar spoke in a whisper through gritted teeth. “Just because she thinks we’re together, doesn’t mean you weren’t flirting. Most normal humans wouldn’t recognize what you do as flirting. But believe me, I know when you’re flirting. Even when you don’t.”

Peter shot him a look of confusion, and Balthazar looked away. He wasn’t going to bring up that high school shit again. He hadn’t meant to say that. Maybe he did need to slow down on the wine.

“Okay, you two! Pose for mum. And Facebook.”

“Really, Rosie. I’m serious. We’re not dating.”

Rosa looked disappointed and a little confused. “Are you sure, Balth? Because if you just want to keep it quiet, I don’t have to tell mum. Or Facebook either, I guess.”

“Yeah, sorry, Jones,” said Peter. “Hate to burst your bubble, but we’re just friends. Best friends. But not dating friends.”

“Huh.” Rosa looked at Peter, and then at Balthazar, and then at Peter again, and shrugged. “Okay. If you say so. Sorry, made that kind of awkward, didn’t I?”

Balthazar said nothing and tried to shovel lettuce into his mouth to keep from having to talk.

Peter smiled his most winning grin and said, “Nah. I’d be lucky to have your brother. But I think everyone knows I’m not good enough for him.”

“Well, that’s true,” Rosa agreed. “But only because no one is. You might come close. I’d consider it – now that the mullet’s gone, anyway.”

****

“Well, that was terrible.” Balthazar said, pulling off his blazer in his room.

“What? No, it wasn’t.” Peter shook his head. “It was great to see Rosa again. We had a nice dinner, some not-totally-terrible wine and we got to hang out and get out of the flat.” Peter pulled off his own jacket.

“It really was though. Peter. C’mon. That was incredibly awkward. On, like, every level a human interaction can be awkward.”

Peter shrugged. “I didn’t think it was awkward. I had fun.”

Balthazar shook his head. “Well, you often think uncomfortable things are fun.”

Peter raised his eyebrows and snorted.

“Oh, my god, Peter! No. Not like that. What’s wrong with you?”

“You said it, not me.”

“I meant you often seem to think it’s amusing when people are uncomfortable.”

“Not really. Just when Her Ladyship is. Sometimes when Ben is. Or, you know, occasionally Bea. Sometimes Meg. Hm. Maybe I just don’t find it amusing when you’re uncomfortable.”

Balthazar averted his eyes. “Yeah, well. At least it’s over.”

“Hmm.” Peter moved forward and kissed Balthazar on the forehead. “I’m sorry I made it awkward.”

“You didn’t, really. Sometimes things just… are. Awkward, I mean. It’s whatever.”

“Well, goodnight.”

“Wait. Where are you going? I thought we would. You know.” Balthazar indicated the bed.

“Nah. You’ve been drinking.”

“Like two glasses of wine! With dinner.”

“You made the rule, Balthy. Not me.” Peter winked and picked up his coat, sauntering out the bedroom door.

“Stupid rules,” Balthazar muttered, turning to get his pajamas out of the dresser.

****

One day, Balthazar was studying at the table in the front room when he noticed Freddie was staring at him. They were alone in the room – Peter was at rehearsal and Ben was out with a friend. He could feel her eyes on him and he tried to ignore it for as long as he could, but eventually he gave up and set down his pen.

“Yes, Freds?”

“Hmm? Oh, what. Nothing.” Freddie immediately returned to looking down at her notebook.

“You sure?”

“What? Oh. Yep.” She steadfastly remained focused on her work.

“Okay, then.” Balthazar picked up his pen again and returned to scratching out notes on his history text. He was going to have to get Peter’s help with some of this – it was hard for him to keep certain dates straight and Peter could always explain it in a way that made it a lot easier to recall the information from memory.

Twenty minutes later, he threw down his pen again in exasperation.

What, Freddie?” She had been doing it again. Staring at him. For at least the last five minutes. He could see her out of his peripheral vision. She was examining him like some kind of lab animal.

Freddie jumped, surprised somehow at being caught again. “What? No. Nothing. Just thinking.”

“Fred, if there’s something you want to ask me, just ask.”

“Nope. Nothing I want to ask.”

“Then can you please stop staring at me? It’s really distracting and I’m trying to study here.”

“Right. Sorry. Yes. Good.” Freddie returned to her book and they continued to study in peace until Peter came home from rehearsal, at which point he and Balthazar retreated to Balth’s room to work on their history revising together. Balthazar could literally feel Freddie’s eyes boring into his back as he and Peter walked away.

“So weird,” Balthazar muttered.

“Hmm?” Said Peter, as he closed the door.

“Nothing.”

****

A few days later, Freddie, Peter and Balthazar were all eating dinner together. Ben was out again at a study group. Peter would have usually declined to sit at a table with just Freddie, but Balthazar knew he was in a particularly good mood from their – activities - this afternoon when Freddie and Ben had both been absent for a few hours, so when Balth asked Peter to join them for dinner, he agreed. Now Balthazar was beginning to regret it, because Freddie’s eyes were darting wildly back and forth between them. Balthazar ran his hand over his hair nervously. What was her deal, lately?

“Peter,” Freddie said abruptly. “What’s with your hair?”

“What do you mean?” Peter asked. “My hair is fine. My hair is always great.”

“It’s… wet.”

Peter looked at her as one might look at a cockroach one stepped on with a shoe. “Yeah. I took a shower. People do that sometimes. And who are you to talk about hair? Your hair-“

Balthazar cut him off. “Pete, pass the salt, would you?”

Peter smiled and handed over the shaker, distracted from whatever insult he had been about to throw Freddie’s way. The table was silent for a few more minutes, until Freddie spoke again.

“And what about you, Balth?”

“Hmm? What about me?”

“Your hair looks weird too.”

“Hey!” Interjected Peter. “Not cool dragging civilians into the enemy combatant field.”

Freddie looked confused for a moment, but then plowed forward. “Did you shower too, Stan?”

Balthazar was puzzled. “Uh, yeah?”

“And why were you both showering in the evening? Before dinner?”

“Is there some sort of flat rule now about when we can shower?” Peter asked.

“No. Just curious. Were you guys at the gym or something?”

Balthazar and Peter looked at each other and laughed.

“Sorry, Freddie. Does it look like I spend a lot of time at the gym?” Balthazar asked.

She blushed a little, but kept going. “I’m just wondering. Why shower now? Why not later? Or in the morning?”

“Is there some sort of hot water issue I’m unaware of?” Peter asked.

“No. It’s just strange, that’s all.”

“Okay, well, I’m done with this conversation,” said Peter, picking up his plate. “Balth?”

“Uh, yeah. I think I’m done too.” Peter picked up Balthazar’s plate as well and headed to the kitchen with them.

Balthazar went to head back to his room, but then stopped. “Are you okay, Freds?” He asked.

“Yeah. Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I don’t know. You just seem a little… off. Everything okay with Kit?”

My relationship is just fine, Stanley. Just… fine.” She drew the words out.

“Oookay,” said Balth. “Glad to hear it.” He shrugged and went into his room. Who knew what was up with Freddie – she could be a hard one to figure out. He wouldn’t worry about it.

****

But then Ben started acting weird too. Balthazar couldn’t put his finger on it, exactly, but he knew something wasn’t quite right. All of a sudden, Ben popped up at unexpected times. It wasn’t like before, when he’d show up at Boyet’s or want a long talk in Balth’s room about everything or nothing. No – these were more like… ambushes. Yeah, ambush was the only real word for it. Balthazar would come out of Advanced Music Composition and find Ben waiting for him outside. He’d leave Paige and Chelsey’s and swear he saw Ben darting through the bushes across the street. Once he left the library and walked directly up to Ben, who was sitting on a bench across from the front doors, holding a newspaper in front of his head, with a newsboy cap on and sunglasses.

“Ben?” Balthazar had asked. The newspaper didn’t come down.

“No.” Came a voice from behind the newspaper.

“Ben. I know it’s you.”

“Who is Ben?”

“Ben. Seriously. Why?”

The newspaper came down and Ben pulled off his sunglasses. “Just, uh, testing your sleuthing skills, Balthy.”

Balthazar shook his head. “Is this some sort of vlogging thing?” He didn’t see a camera, but he couldn’t figure out any other explanation.

Ben nodded vigorously. “You got me, Balth! Yes, it’s… guerilla vlogging!”

“Okay, Ben. Well, that’s cool, but maybe you could stop, like, following me everywhere? It’s kinda weird. My friends are getting worried.”

“Right, sure. Absolutely. No problem, Balth.”

Peter and Balthazar had laughed about it together later, lying in bed and holding their sides.

“He showed up at play practice today, you know. It’s not just you,” said Peter. “Costa accused him of being a spy for Big Hollywood. He thought Ben was trying to steal his ideas for a movie studio.”

“You’re kidding!” Balthazar gasped. “That’s… I don’t even know what that is. Which of them is worse?”

“I don’t know. Ben’s weird, but Costa takes it to a new level. I have to say, as someone who has never acted before, it’s kind of a relief to be the lead in a play where absolutely nothing I can do will make it any worse or crazier.”

Balthazar kissed Peter’s nose and stood up to get dressed. “I think you’ll be amazing. You can only make it better.”

“Wait, where are you going? Come back! I wasn’t done with you.”

“I’m meeting Kit for a movie in an hour. I need to get ready.”

“But, Balth…” Peter whined.

“No. Absolutely not. I’m not cancelling again. You did this last time and I told you it wasn’t happening again.”

“Fine,” Peter pouted a little. “But you’ll be back in a few hours, right?”

Balthazar rolled his eyes. “Yes, Pete.”

“And we can ‘hang out’ some more?”

“Is that what we’re calling it now?”

“Yeah. If Ben is going to Spy Game us, we probably need a code word.”

“He’s not actually spying, I don’t think? He said something about vlogging.”

“Really? He told me it was a sociology project.”

“Who knows what’s happening on that hamster wheel in his head.”

All of a sudden, they heard a pounding from across the flat. “What the fuck is that?” Asked Peter, jumping up to get dressed.

“No idea.” Balthazar shook his head.

“Peter! PEEEETER! OPEN YOUR DOOR. I NEED TO TALK TO YOU ABOUT SOMETHING.”

“Shit,” said Peter. “He’s going to come here next. What do we do?”

“Uh…” Balthazar looked around frantically. “Under the bed.”

“What?”

“Get under the bed!”

“I’m not getting under the bed. You get under the bed!”

“That makes no sense! This is my room!”

“Oh. Right.” Peter hastily scrambled under the bed, as Balthazar’s door handle began turning.

“Balthy!?” Yelled Ben. “Balthy, why is this locked!?”

Balthazar glanced behind him to ensure Peter wasn’t visible. His foot was sticking out and Balthazar quickly kicked at it until Peter retracted it fully underneath the mattress.  Balth then made his way to open the door.

“Yes, Ben?” He asked. Ben had his camera in hand.

“Uh. I need some help. With a vlog thing. Why was your door locked?”

“Because I wanted privacy?”

“For what?” Ben glanced past Balthazar’s shoulder into the seemingly empty room. He looked confused.

“Just… because?” Balthazar shot Ben his best innocent look.

“Oh, right.”

“C’mon. I’ve got a few minutes before I need to leave to meet Kit. What do you want my help with?”

“Oh, yeah. Just this editing thing.” They headed off to Ben’s room, and Balthazar shut the door behind them, hoping it would give Peter enough opportunity to escape.

****

A few days later, Freddie and Ben were out of the flat for the afternoon again. Freddie was at Kit’s flat and Ben was in class. Peter and Balthazar had a busy few days previously – Balthazar had been working on a few new songs for an open mic night that Peter had talked him into participating in, Peter was busy with rehearsal, and they both had schoolwork coming out of their ears. Plus, Freddie and Ben had been sticking close to home for a couple of days. It seemed every time they turned around, there was Ben with his camera, or Freddie eyeing them oddly. It probably should have seemed weirder to Balthazar, but he was used to living in what was a bit of a madhouse. It did seem like both of them had gotten worse over the past few weeks though.

Peter and Balthazar had taken the opportunity of an empty flat to amuse themselves outside of Balthazar’s room for once. They were lazily kissing on the couch, Peter lying on top of Balthazar and Balth’s arms hooked around his neck, languidly running his hands through Peter’s hair and up and down his back underneath his shirt. Suddenly, Balthazar heard… something. He wasn’t sure what. It sounded like some sort of clicking. He broke away for a moment and looked to his left. There. Over on the shelf. He could have sworn – wait, what was that? Was that… was it a camera? It was. And it was on.

“Pete. Pete, stop.” Balthazar slapped at his shoulder. Peter rolled off of him.

“What? What’s wrong?” He asked breathlessly.

“There’s a camera. And it’s recording.”

Peter looked around wildly, finally seeing where Balthazar was pointing.

“What the fuck?” Peter asked.

“I have no idea.” Balthazar shook his head. “But we need to do something about that.”

“You better believe I’m going to do something about it. And it’s going to end with our bird brained friend locked in the hot water closet.”

“No, Pete. We need to do something with the footage.”

“Oh, right.” Peter cracked his neck. “I’m going to kill him.”

“Okay, that’s fine. You can kill him. But first – we need to do something.”

“Well, what do we do? If we just get rid of it, he’ll know we saw it.”

“Who the fuck cares if he knows we saw it? Just tell him we destroyed the footage. It’s like, invasion of privacy or something. Maybe he’ll think it’s weird, but it’s certainly less suspicious than seeing us fucking make out for half an hour!” Balthazar was in a panic. He did not want Ben to see that footage. He wanted Ben to have control over what happened with that footage even less.

“Right. No. But that will seem weird. We need to replace it.”

“How? How do we do that?”

“We edit it. Just… sit there. Let it record you reading for a while. I can put it on a loop. Just try not to move too much.”

“Wait. What?”

“Just… trust me, Balth. Please? I don’t want him to have that footage either.”

“Yeah, okay.”

And it seemed to work out. Ben never mentioned the footage after Peter had gotten done fiddling with it, and Balth was relieved that at least Peter had been paying attention every time Beatrice had started talking about editing last year. For a while though, they were both very cautious about checking every room they went into for cameras. And they always, always waited to start touching each other until they were safely locked behind a bedroom door.

***

The next week, Kit called Balthazar and asked to meet at Boyet’s for coffee. Balthazar was happy to meet him – he’d been a bit all-consumed in Peter lately and it was good to see other people. Balthazar smiled when he arrived, seeing Kit already at a table with a drink and waiting for him. Kit smiled back, but his expression looked a little forced.

“Hey, what’s up, man?” Balthazar asked, sitting down with his coffee after he made it through the line of customers queuing up for a vegan dessert or coffee or tea.

“Hey, Balth. Uh. So this is kind of awkward. I sort of need to talk to you about something.

Balthazar took a sip of his coffee. “Yeah? Sure. What’s going on?”

Kit cleared his throat. “I don’t really know how to say this.” Kit took a sip of his own drink and looked to be steeling himself for something. “Are you and Peter… you know…?”

“Are me and Peter… what?” Balthazar asked, pulling his most innocent expression. His heart was beating wildly. Where was this coming from?

“Look, Balthazar, man. I don’t care about your sex life, right? I mean, it’s your life and you can do whatever you want. I wouldn’t pry, but…”

“Kit, what are you trying to ask me?”

“Are you and Peter dating?”

Balthazar blew out a breath and laughed a little. “Yeah, nah. We’re definitely not dating.”

“Okay.” Kit shrugged a little and Balthazar smiled, a bit relieved at not having to lie. “So, are you just hooking up then, or…?”

Balthazar sat back in his chair. Okay, so lying it was then, unless he could simply evade. “Where is this coming from, Kit?”

“Look, it’s like I said. It’s your life. I’m really not into the gossip thing and if you’re happy, I’m cool. Are you happy?”

Balthazar looked around, not able to rest his eyes anywhere for longer than a moment. “Uh, I’m fine.”

Kit stared at him. “Well, look. I just thought you should know. Freddie got it into her head that you and Peter are having sex and she told Ben. And they have both been running around trying to prove it for a few weeks.”

What?” Actually, that made sense. All of a sudden, a lot of things made much more sense.

“And, I think they’re both convinced now that Freddie was wrong. I mean, she’s my girlfriend and I love her, but it takes a lot to convince her she’s wrong. But they had this whole spy network thing they were doing and…” Kit shook his head. “I don’t know. She just came up to me the other night and said, and I quote, ‘Not to worry, Kit. I’m pretty sure I was wrong about Mr. Peter and Little Stanley.’”

“Wait. What?”

“Oh, yeah. That’s what she calls you when you’re not around.”

Balthazar wasn’t sure what he was taken aback by more – how Freddie clearly saw him and Peter as evidenced by her nicknames for them, or her having stumbled onto their sexual relationship.

“That’s. Um. That’s weird.”

“Yeah. I kinda get it though.” Kit looked at him shrewdly. “Maybe you do too.”

Balthazar looked away.

“Look, Balth. I just thought you deserved to know. I’d never break a real confidence from Fred, but I’m not wild about her involving herself in your life like this. If she asked – that would be one thing. But the cameras, the spying – it’s just weird. She and Ben feed into each other in a very strange way. Anyway.” Kit shrugged. “Now you know.”

“Yeah. Thanks, Kit. Now I know.”

“Are you going to tell Peter?”

Balthazar shrugged. “What’s the point if they’re off it now? It will just freak him out.”

“I don’t know. Maybe you guys can talk about it. And some other stuff. Talking is good.”

“Talking is okay. Sometimes not talking is better. For both people.”

Kit cocked his head. “I haven’t found that to be true.”

“Yeah, well. It’s complicated.”

“Isn’t it always? Balthazar – I’ve told you this before, but if you ever need someone to talk to – no judgment, totally in confidence – you can come to me, you know that, right?”

“Yeah… I. Yes. Thanks, Kit.”

“No problem. I hope you will one day.”

“Yeah. Maybe one day.”

Chapter Text

Balthazar began trying to make a conscious effort to not allow himself to get so wrapped up in Peter that he lost sight of other things. After all, Peter wasn’t going to always be there, would he? Eventually, this thing they had would end, and they’d be back to just being friends. If they were lucky. So he needed prioritize things that would stick around. He started going out more – spending more time with Paige and Chelsey at their flat, catching a movie or going to readings with Kit, joining a study group for his Classics lecture – things like that. He and Peter definitely still spent time together, but Balth was very careful to not allow it to get away from him as he had the previous month. Sometimes Peter would shoot him a wounded look when Balthazar would shrug off an offer to hang out in favor of previous plans, and occasionally Peter looked like he wanted to say something about it, but he never did. Besides, they spent a lot of time together regardless – they lived together, for heaven’s sake. Peter was in Balthazar’s room almost every night.

Balthazar also tried to get better about following their previously established rules – he tried to keep himself from kissing Peter unless they were actively engaged in making out, tried to keep brushes of hands and arms to a minimum, and started to get more vigilant about trying to get Peter out of his room after they finished having sex, because there had been quite a few recent lapses where they had ended up sleeping together afterwards – literally, just sleeping. If anything, this was where Peter seemed to really push back. He fought to stay in the room after sex – he had a million excuses. Ben and Freddie were around and might see him sneaking back to his room at an odd hour, he was really exhausted and couldn’t imagine getting up, even just to walk across the flat, it was warmer in Balthazar’s room than his – blatantly untrue – and sometimes he would simply just ask, without an excuse. Balthazar found it hard to fight back, simply because the truth was he really didn’t want Peter to leave. It was hard to fight against an instinctive response and his instinct was always to want Peter around, to want to cuddle with him, and protect him, and love him. But that was the problem – Peter didn’t want Balthazar to love him. That’s why Balthazar had insisted on this rule in the first place – he didn’t want a mockery or a facsimile of a relationship with Peter. And it was too easy to forget they weren’t actually dating when Peter was spooning him, or running a fingertip across his face, or tucking Balthazar’s head into his chest.

Peter pushed back in other ways too – because of course he did. He was Peter. Sometimes he’d grab Balthazar’s hand while they were studying and Balth would have to try to find a way to extricate himself. Other times, he’d kiss Balth when he was leaving a room, or going off to class or rehearsal. And he flirted like crazy. It was all getting to be such a mess – the lines they’d drawn had blurred so badly that it was hard for Balthazar to even see them anymore.

It was made all the more awkward by the fact that sometimes people had started inviting them to things together. Balthazar didn’t think people viewed them as a couple – they’d started being careful, so incredibly careful, about keeping what they were doing a secret after the camera incident. No, it was more an assumption that where Balthazar went, so would go Peter and vice versa. Paige would text Balthazar about a get together at her place and just assume Peter would come along – that she didn’t have to invite him separately. Chelsey would offer to make dinner for them at a rehearsal, and simply send Peter home with the message Balthazar was invited. Even Ben and Freddie would invite one of them to do things, and just assume the other would come along as part of the package. It all felt out of control.

But one of the really nice things about being so close to Peter again was that he was pushing Balthazar to do things that Balthazar wouldn’t necessarily push himself to do, such as performing at the upcoming open mic night at Boyet’s. Balthazar had been regularly attending the open mic nights for a few months, but no one had been able to convince him to perform. Ben, Paige, Chelsey, Kit – they’d all tried. Hell, he’d tried to convince himself – after all, this was part of the reason he’d come to Wellington in the first place – to be part of the music scene. But it was absolutely terrifying – almost paralyzing – the idea of playing in front of that many people. He knew logically that more people had heard him sing on Youtube than would be at Boyet’s, but that was a little different – he couldn’t see or hear those people’s reactions. Live feedback was not something Balthazar was sure he wanted.

But Peter finally just put his foot down in September – he’d told Balthazar that he was going to perform at the open mic night in October and he refused to back down. Balthazar had tried a million excuses – he didn’t have any good new songs, he was rusty from lack of practice performing, he was busy with school. None worked. Peter gently, but firmly, reminded Balthazar that he used to say that music was his life, and it was important to share your life with others. He told Balthazar how proud Peter was of his music – his talent, and that it needed to be shared with the world. He boosted his confidence so high that in a fit of delirium, Balthazar had signed up to perform. Peter had been so proud of him when Balthazar told him what he’d done. Balthazar had felt ill. Now he had to actually follow through.

So, in mid-October, Balthazar dragged himself to Boyet’s to perform live for an audience for the first time since December. Everyone showed up – and they even all sat together. Ben, Freddie, Peter, Chelsey, Kit, and Paige were all there.  Even Jaquie had come along. It made for an odd assortment of people, but they all seemed to be united in one thing – supporting Balthazar. That was kind of a nice feeling. It was a little embarrassing when they started hooting and hollering as soon as Balth was called to the microphone, but at least it was supportive – if overwhelming. And Peter was the absolute loudest, which – well, that wasn’t terribly surprising, he supposed.

Balthazar played a short mix of new original songs – one he called New Beginning, which he wrote all the way back in January and seemed almost quaint now – and one he called Running Mad that he wrote a few weeks after moving to Wellington. He played a newer song as well – Stay. And then he covered Sigh No More by Mumford and Sons – simply because it was a song he knew so well that playing it felt like coming home. He figured it would be a good way to end – an easy way, in case the original songs didn’t go over so well. But the audience actually seemed to like his stuff, and he thought he’d gotten at least as much positive response as most of the other singers. It felt good. It felt – well, a little brave.

After he stepped away from the microphone, Peter ran up to him.

“Balth! That was amazing! Just – there aren’t any words. You’re incredible!” Peter’s eyes were lit up and dancing with excitement. He threw his arms around Balthazar and squeezed him tightly. “I’m so, so proud of you,” he whispered.

Balthazar swallowed hard and squeezed back. “Thanks, Pete. And thanks for making me do this.”

“I didn’t make you do this. You did this yourself.”

“Yeah, but… I wouldn’t have. If you hadn’t pushed.”

Peter shrugged. “That’s what friends are for.”

“Yeah,” said Balth, pulling back from the hug. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Anyway, c’mon. We’re going for celebratory drinks!” Peter said excitedly.

“Oh, uh – I don’t know.”

“Yeah, we are. Everyone’s going. Come on, Balth!”

“Yeah, okay.”

****

At the bar, everyone toasted Balthazar together with a shot and then wandered off into smaller groups. Paige and Chelsey were sitting with Kit and Freddie in a corner, all of them talking animatedly. Puzzlingly, Ben and Jaquie were playing darts together. Jaquie was beating Ben handily and Ben kept calling for just one more game, which Jaquie seemed to find hilarious. Balth and Peter were left alone at the counter together. They continued to drink and made idle conversation. Peter wasn’t getting rip-roaringly drunk, but he was doing the occasional shot with his beer. Balthazar, riding the adrenaline of his performance, was drinking perhaps a bit more heavily and steadily than he usually would.

“I don’t know, man. Your original stuff – it’s just so… I don’t know. It’s so good. It speaks to me.”

Balthazar snorted. “Yeah, okay, Pete.”

“Seriously! I don’t know how you do it – words make me all…. Bluergh. I could never express myself like that.”

“I’m sure you could if you tried,” Balthazar said, tipping back another drink. He wished Peter would try.

“Nah. It’s a talent. You either have it or you don’t. You do. I don’t.”

“Well, I guess it’s lucky I can put it into songs. I’m terrible at talking.” Well, shit. That was a more loaded statement than he meant to make.

Peter looked at him. “I think you’re pretty good at talking. When you want to.”

Balthazar looked back. “Yeah? I think you are too. When you want to.”

There was an awkward pause, and both men reached for their drinks again.

Eventually, Peter picked up a new thread of conversation. “Your original stuff is my favorite. But I have to say, it was really good to hear you play that Mumford and Sons song again. I know how much you love it – and I hadn’t heard that one in a long time.”

“Yeah.” Balthazar gulped at his beer. “Guess it had been a while.”

“What’s that one part? The one you love so much? How does it go? Love won’t – what is it? Enslave you?”

Balthazar blinked and then said slowly, “Love, it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you, it will set you free.”

“Yeah, that one! Such a good line.”

“You think?”

Peter looked Balthazar in the eyes. “Yeah. Isn’t that, like, your favorite quote of all time?”

Balthazar shrugged. “I guess it was. Once.”

Peter looked confused. “Not anymore?”

Balthazar shook his head a little and looked away. “I dunno. You’re right. It’s a great line. I’m just not sure…” He paused. The alcohol loosened his tongue. “I guess I don’t really believe it anymore. And it’s better when songs are accurate. You know, about life. Love. Whatever.”

Peter paused and then simply said, “Huh.”

Balthazar shrugged again. “It’s still a great song.”

“Yeah… yeah, absolutely! Cheers to that,” Peter raised his glass and Balthazar clinked it with his own.

They all woke up the next morning with hangovers, and Freddie declared it a “quiet day” for the flat, glaring at anyone who so much as dared to speak above a whisper.

****

In late October, Bea and Meg came to visit the flat. It made the flat seem a little overstuffed with people – Balthazar had to get used to seeing Meg on the couch every morning, and stepping over various people’s hairdryers and towels and stuff in the bathroom, and Peter complained constantly about how hard it was to sneak in and out of Balth’s room when Meg was right there on the couch – but it was good to see them. Ben, in particular, seemed much happier with Bea there, and Meg just seemed excited to be out of Auckland. It brought a refreshed spirit to the whole flat. Even Freddie and Peter seemed to be getting along better with more buffers between them. Although, Peter seemed to retreat a little – if he wasn’t in Balth’s room, he was usually in his own room – and he often resisted the group activities that Ben tried to coordinate. Balthazar was well aware that Peter and Bea’s relationship wasn’t what it once was and he knew that was painful for Peter, even if he refused to talk about it. Still, it was nice to have some familiar faces around and it was cool to hang out as a group again, and do things around Wellington together.

Peter was right about one thing though – it made it harder for Balth and Peter to sneak around. They had to be more careful than ever. The flat was almost never totally empty these days, so their trysts tended to be in the middle of the night. Peter would wait for the entire house to go to sleep – or at least wait until Meg was in the bathroom, Freddie was in her room, and Bea and Ben were holed up in Ben’s room – and then make his way carefully over to Balth’s door and slip in. And on the nights when Balthazar found the strength to make Peter leave before morning, Peter had to tiptoe out of the room, closing and opening doors as softly as possible. It became yet another reason Peter could give to spend the night – but, of course, that created its own problems, because then he’d have to try to avoid getting caught when other people were up and about, or have a ready excuse at hand for leaving Balth’s room at 8 a.m. in the morning. Peter had taken to carrying a book with him every time he left the room, just so there was some sort of plausible reason for him to be there. They reminded each other constantly to lock the door just in case, and they had to be a lot more cautious about making any kind of noise. They played soft music a lot, just to drown out what they could. Luckily, Meg often slept with headphones in, just so those going to class early in the morning wouldn’t wake her on the couch. But it was stressful. The sneaking around became less amusing and had less of a sense of rebelliousness, and became more of an annoyance. Sometimes Balthazar contemplated if they should just stop. Sometimes he wondered if they should just tell everyone. But he could never bring himself to broach either possibility with Peter.

Peter told Balth one night at the end of October that he was sure that Meg had been awake when he snuck out the night before. Her eyes had been closed, but he could have sworn that he saw her sit up as he was closing the door on his own bedroom. Balthazar told Peter not to be paranoid, but if anything, Balth was far more freaked out by the entire thing than Peter was. He listened constantly for any kind of noise outside the bedroom to indicate someone was awake. He moved Peter in and out of the bedroom as quickly as possible, so the door wouldn’t be open any longer than necessary – once he had actually closed the door so quickly that Peter’s shirt got caught, which ended with them making far more noise than they would have otherwise. He began insisting on leaving the light off at all times, just in case someone could see it was on at odd hours underneath the door crack. Peter rolled his eyes a lot, but just went along with it. Balthazar wasn’t sure what Peter’s thoughts were on the whole thing – but he generally just seemed less concerned that someone would figure it out. Balthazar wasn’t sure Peter had any real sense of exactly how disastrous it would be if one of their friends knew. Because if one knew, they would all know. And if they all knew… it didn’t bear thinking about.

Chapter Text

Balthazar knew his friends thought they were being sly. They weren’t. Bea started dropping hints first. They were at the breakfast table, just the two of them, one morning when she started in on him.

“Hey, um, Balthy. Where did you disappear to the other day?”

“Hmm?” Balthazar looked up from his cereal in confusion. It was too early for a conversation with Bea, he felt.

“You know? Yesterday. You and Pete went somewhere while we were making dinner?”

“Oh, yeah.” They had gone down to the park just to have some time alone without the stress of worrying about someone knocking on the door or catching them. “Nowhere. We went to grab some food.”

“Yeah, but why? We were making dinner.”

“I dunno. Just wanted to get out for a while.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t invite any of us.”

Balthazar shrugged. “Sorry.”

“No, I’m not upset. Just… curious.”

“Well, curiosity solved. We wanted dinner. Not in the flat. Didn’t occur to us to ask anyone else, since you were all already making dinner.”

“Huh.” Bea said. “So, it wasn’t like a date?”

“No, Bea.” Balthazar stood up, grabbing his cereal bowl. “It wasn’t like a date at all.” He moved into the kitchen and put his bowl in the sink. As he ran water over it, he braced himself against the counter and took a few deep breaths.

****

Meg was next, but she went after Peter.

“So, Meg was talking to me today.” Peter said, lounging against the wall on Balthazar’s bed.

“Oh, yeah?” Balthazar was tidying up his desk and trying to find a page from his notes for history at the same time, not really paying much attention to what Peter was saying.

“She asked how serious we are.”

Balthazar whipped around. “I’m sorry. What?”

“I don’t know. I think it was, like, an ambush question or something. We were talking about something totally different, and she just kind of slipped it in there. ‘Oh, Peter. How’s your play going? Good, glad to hear it. How’s school? By the way, how serious are you and Balthazar?’”

“Jesus,” Balthazar breathed.

“Don’t worry. I denied anything and distracted her by asking about her love life. But this is getting really out of control, Balthazar.”

“Yeah, no shit.”

“They think we’re dating and just not telling them.”

Balthazar rolled his eyes. “Gee, you think, Pete?”

“I think we should call them on it. Have a, like, flat meeting or something. And just tell them to lay off.”

“No.” Balthazar turned back to the desk.

“What do you mean, no?”

“I mean no. That won’t end well, Pete. Just let it go. They can’t, like, prove anything. All they can do is drop hints and ask questions.”

“Yeah, but…”

“I said no.” Balthazar said firmly.

“Balthazar. There’s too many of them. And if Bea and Meg know, then Ben knows, and if Ben knows, Freddie knows… and…”

“Yeah, but they don’t know anything. Not for sure.”

“Right, which is why I think we should just do a blanket denial. To the group. It will make it hard for them to keep up with it if they face a united front denial.”

“No, it will just let them shoot questions at us while we’re backed into a corner. We need to just – control the situation. Deny everything. To everyone. Bea and Meg are leaving in a few weeks and we won’t have to deal with it anymore.”

“You think it will just stop because they leave?”

“Yeah, I think they’re the instigators.” They had to be. Kit had told him that Freddie and Ben had decided they were wrong about their suspicions – not that Balthazar had told Peter about that. That wasn’t an explosion he felt any particular need to witness.

Peter shrugged. “Okay. I think it’s a bad idea, but okay.”

Balthazar thought it was all a bad idea. Clearly, what they should do is just stop. At least until their houseguests left. But he wasn’t ready to give up Peter yet. And, somehow, he felt, if they stopped for a few weeks, they wouldn’t come back. He just – he just wanted a little more time.

****

They didn’t really let up. Every time Peter and Balthazar would leave a room together or go out together, someone would pipe up with a suggestive comment. Bea would ask Balthazar for good ‘date spot’ suggestions for her and Ben. Meg would talk loudly about how great it was that all her friends were pairing off and finding their soul mates. Ben would constantly maneuver to pair Peter and Balthazar up during flat game nights. Even Freddie, who seemed much less interested than the others, asked if they wanted to double date with her and Kit. It was intolerable and ignoring it was the worst possible solution, except for all the other possible solutions.

The situation was rapidly devolving out of control and Balthazar’s anxiety was back in full force – he had begun again retreating to his room as soon as he got home every night. Not to mention that Peter was starting to get angry. It’s not that the jibes and the insinuations about he and Balth dating seemed to enrage him – it was more that as he saw Balthazar getting more and more anxious, and more and more withdrawn, his fury seemed to rise in direct proportion. He kept telling Balth to not let it get to him. He offered more than once to put an end to all the speculation publicly. He kept trying to talk Balthazar into the public denial idea, although Balth kept shooting that one down. He was pretty sure Peter had forgotten the kind of scene their friends could make when they were all united in one purpose. He held Balthazar a lot at night, running his hands up and down Balth’s back, and kissing him gently on the nose, the forehead, the cheeks and his chin. Balthazar knew Peter was worried about him, and knew that he was doing all he could think of to comfort him, but the problem was that there was no comfort. Their friends thought they were dating. Balthazar wanted to be dating. But they weren’t dating. And they never could, or would, be dating. And it was being thrown in his face constantly now that that wasn’t something he was going to have.

Eventually, they reached a breaking point. In retrospect, Balthazar guessed it was inevitable that this would happen. He’d just been in denial about it, he supposed. Ben had insisted on a movie night, and despite their protestations, neither Balth nor Peter could think of a good way to get out of it. They invited people over again – Paige, Chelsey, Jaquie and Kit – their regular crew – and everyone sat on the couches and floor, huddled together, ready for Ben to turn on the movie on his laptop. Peter, in one of his more defiant and obstreperous fits, refused Balthazar’s whispered suggestion that he go sit next to Jaquie, and instead sat directly next to Balthazar – really almost on top of him – and flung an arm around the back of the couch behind Balthazar.

“Aw.” Ben looked over at them with razor sharp eyes. “Look how cute. You guys are snuggling.”

Balthazar closed his eyes and brought up a hand to the bridge of his nose. He felt another migraine coming on.

“Ben. Stop. I’ve told you. Balth has told you. We’ve told you all. We’re not dating.” Peter said, flinging his arms about for emphasis. Bea rolled her eyes. Meg winked at Peter. Jaquie covered her mouth with her hand, obviously trying to hide a smile. Paige and Chelsey looked at each other. Balthazar groaned a little. He knew he wouldn’t be able to keep a lid on Peter forever and Ben had provided the perfect opportunity for Peter to make his public statement. This wasn’t going to go anywhere good. Balth just knew it.

“You know, Pete? I was going to let this go, but since you’ve made such a public and loud statement and since you’re lying to your nearest and dearest, I don’t think I am.”

“Fuck off, Benedick.” Peter responded. Balthazar kept his eyes closed. Whatever was going to happen, he didn’t want to have to see it.

“No. No, I don’t think I will. I do think I’ll put on a movie.”

“Good. Great. Do that.” Peter said petulantly.

“I will.” Ben went and hit a button on his computer and all of a sudden, a picture of the flat appeared. Everyone started to murmur a little and Balth opened his eyes to see what was happening. Onscreen, he watched Peter sneak into Balthazar’s room. The footage then sped up, and he watched Peter then sneak out of Balthazar’s room. The video went on for a few more minutes, showing this happening multiple times, until it cut to a picture of he and Peter in the park. There was no audio – all that could be heard was the wind in the background of the scene – but then Peter leaned over to kiss Balthazar onscreen. Balthazar put his head in his hands. Well, this was so much worse than he could have anticipated.

Ben then appeared onscreen, obviously in narration mode. “What you see here, my friends, is a collection of evidence that our friends – our good friends – one Peter Adrian “Pedro” Donaldson and one Stanley Balthazar Jones – have been having a secret relationship for an extended period of time now. How long? Who can truly know? But we have the evidence of one Margaret “Meg” Winter, that she was repeatedly woken up, time and again, by Peter sneaking out of Balthazar’s room at times of the night that are not made for playing Boggle. You have video evidence of a kiss. And that’s not all, friends – oh, no, there’s more –”

Peter apparently broke out of whatever stupor he had been in and snapped. He lunged for Ben, who jumped back. Peter whipped around quickly and slammed the laptop lid down, so that the video would stop. He turned around back to Ben and jumped on him, throwing an arm around his chest and pushing him toward the wall.

“What. The. Fuck. Do. You. Think. You. Are. Doing. You. Stupid. Little. Boy.” Peter’s face was inches from Ben’s, who was looking truly terrified, huddled up against the wall.

Bea jumped up and tried to intervene, pulling on Peter’s shoulder. Peter merely held out a hand to keep her at bay. Bea tried to swat his hand away, but Peter was far bigger and far more determined and managed to keep her from interfering.

“Seriously, you dick. What are you doing? What the fuck would ever, in a million years, make you think this was an okay thing to do?”

“Peter, calm down!” Bea yelled. “I’m sorry, okay? Obviously we crossed a line, but we were just happy for you! We’ve been waiting for you guys to get together since that party last year and… we were so excited that we just wanted to share it with you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ben said. “I’m sorry, Pete. Maybe that was a bad idea – it’s just – we didn’t understand why you didn’t want to tell us, and we thought maybe you were just having a joke over on us and… look, I’ll erase the video. It’s just we’re all so happy you guys are dating.”

“We’re not fucking dating!” Peter yelled.

“Peter, come on,” said Bea. “I’m sorry we invaded your privacy, but that footage – I mean, obviously, you’re dating.”

“No, we’re fucking not, Beatrice! You’re not always fucking right, you know? Sometimes you both get things wrong. And let me tell you, you certainly got the wrong end of the stick here, because Balthazar and I are not dating. I’m not his boyfriend, okay? We’re having sex – fucking – whatever you want to call it, yeah. Hoo-fucking-ray, you fucking caught us having sex. Good for fucking you!”

Beatrice and Ben looked gobsmacked, trading looks with one another. Balthazar was staring straight ahead, looking at nothing. He could see that Freddie, Kit, Jaquie, Paige and Chelsey hadn’t moved throughout the entire confrontation – they seemed frozen in place, although all seemed to have matching looks of shock and horror, except for Kit, who just looked sad.

“What – what do you mean, you’re just having sex? That’s – Balthy wouldn’t do that. I know him – he hates that kind of thing.” Bea said, looking confused and upset.

“Right. Which is exactly the kind of shit he didn’t want to have to hear from you idiots, which is why I promised him I’d keep it a secret! And I did. For fucking months, until you and Meg had to show up here and make everything awful. Do you have any idea how hard this has been for him? What you’ve done to him these last few weeks?”

“What I’ve done to him!?” Yelled Beatrice. “What we’ve done? Are you kidding me with this shit, Pedro? What about what you’ve done? Months? This has been going on for months?”

Peter looked around, a little wild-eyed. He had obviously said more than he meant to in his anger.

“Balthy?” Asked Ben. “Balth? Do you want to – do you have anything you want to contribute here?”

Balthazar rubbed his eye and stood up. “Yeah. I’m not doing this.”

He turned and walked to his bedroom door. Kit got up quickly and was right at his heels. Balthazar didn’t feel like another argument, so he simply let Kit walk into the bedroom ahead of him. As he went to shut the door, he saw Peter storm out of the front door and heard Jaquie call to him to wait up, that she was going with him. Then he shut the bedroom door firmly. When he turned around, Kit had his arms open and Balthazar walked into them. That’s when the tears started.

****

“Okay, you’re just going to sit down over here, okay, Balthazar? Just… sit. And breathe.” Kit steered Balth over to the bed, and firmly pushed down on his shoulders. Balthazar complied easily. He really just wanted someone else to take over for a while – to make the decisions, to decide what was right and what was wrong, to just tell him what to do, how to handle this, how to make any of it okay again. He could feel his breathing begin to speed up into short gasps and he put his head down by his knees to try to get it under control.

“Balth, man. You need to calm down. Everything is going to be okay. Just keep breathing.”

But he couldn’t. He was trying, he really was. But the whole disaster of a few minutes before kept playing back through his mind – it had all slipped away from him. Right there. It was like a slow motion picture – Peter’s fury, Bea’s disgust, Ben’s horror. He could hear Kit, but it was like he was speaking from a faraway place.

There was a knock at the door. “Go away!” He yelled.

“Balthy?” He could hear Meg’s voice through the door. He shook his head.

“Go away, Meg!” The knocking continued.

“Balthazar, I’m not leaving until you let me in. At least to check on you.”

Balthazar raised his head and Kit quirked an eyebrow. Balthazar shrugged and nodded, returning to trying to control his breathing. Kit opened the door and Meg slipped in, holding a glass of water. Kit quickly locked the door behind her.

“Oh, Balth…” Meg walked over to him and went to her knees in front of him, setting the glass of water next to her. “Balth, I’m so sorry,” she said, rubbing a hand up and down his arm. “I didn’t – none of us thought that things were so complicated. We thought it was, like a joke, you know? Like the Love Gods stuff. It seemed so obvious the two of you were together – we thought you weren’t even really trying to hide it and you know us. We just wanted to out-clever you guys.”

Balthazar shrugged a little and wiped at his face with his sleeve. “Yeah, but we’re not together,” he said hoarsely. He hung his head again.

“Hey,” Meg whispered, putting a hand underneath his chin. She tilted his head up and looked him in the eyes. “Hey. Don’t you dare let anyone – anyone – make you feel bad about who you choose to sleep with or how or when. That’s your choice, Balthy.”

He shook his head. “I shouldn’t have done it.”

Meg stared at him. “We all do things we shouldn’t sometimes, Balthazar. Because we’re young and stupid and in love. You know that I know that better than anyone.”

Balthazar could see Kit looked puzzled, but he wasn’t asking any questions and had retreated to the chair by the desk.

“Now, I have no idea if hooking up with Peter was good for you or bad for you. I’d guess a little of both, if I had to, based on what I’ve heard. But you are absolutely not going to let anyone – even our beloved Beatrice – make you feel bad about that decision. Because it’s your life. And there’s nothing wrong with a bit of sex, or some physical comfort from someone you care about, or even just someone you enjoy having sex with.”

Balthazar nodded hesitantly. Meg was right. It had been his choice. He had walked into the relationship knowing what it was and made the decision to engage in it with open eyes. Because he wanted to. Because he enjoyed it. Because it was the closest to Peter that Peter allowed him to get. And yeah, fuck Bea, basically. He was allowed to change his mind about things. He was allowed to make different decisions as he got older. And fuck her trying to put all this on Peter, as if Balthazar was some sort of victim who things happened to. He made a choice – his own choice – because he was an adult. Maybe it was easier for Bea to see Peter as the “bad guy” and Balthazar as the innocent angel, but that was nothing like the truth – the truth was so much more messy, and complicated, and fluid.

He felt his breathing begin to calm a little and Meg picked up the water glass, sitting next to him on the bed. “Here, Balthy. Drink.” He complied, sipping at the water for a while in the silence, Meg rubbing his shoulder.

“It was, you know.”

“It was what, Balthy?” Meg asked.

“My choice. Peter didn’t, like, force me into anything. I set the rules. Well some of them, anyway. Hell, now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure it was my idea in the first place. Well, kind of.”

Meg nodded. “I’m sure it was… complicated.”

“Yeah.” Balthazar set the water down.

“Wait.” Meg paused. “Rules? What rules?”

Balthazar hemmed, running his hands up and down his legs. “Just… rules we followed. You know. No romance, keep the friendship separate from the sex, don’t tell anyone, no sex while drunk.”

Meg burst into laughter. “You had rules? Seriously?”

Balthazar looked at her, puzzled. “Yeah? Is that not… don’t most people in this type of situation have that kind of thing?”

Meg put her palm against her forehead. “No, not in my experience. And I’m sorry, but you set the rule of no romance?”

“Well, no. I guess not. That was Peter’s rule. Or, more a condition, I guess. He was very clear that we weren’t going to date. Ever. And then he suggested keeping it quiet, and I liked that idea. Although, at some point, he didn’t seem to care as much anymore, but I really wanted that – because, well… you saw. And I thought the physical stuff should be separate, you know? Different from the friendship. So that nothing got confused.”

Meg shook her head. “You guys are… something. I don’t know what. But definitely something.”

“Yeah, well. I don’t know. It worked. Or it did for a while, I guess. But now it’s done, so…” Balthazar lifted his shoulder listlessly.

“Who says it’s done?” Meg asked.

“I don’t know. You saw Peter out there. This is the kind of thing he didn’t want – the drama, the obligations, the responsibility. He just wanted to have fun. And clearly this isn’t fun anymore.”

“Balthazar.” Kit cleared his throat. “Listen, I don’t know a lot of the history here, so I’m not really in a place to tell you your business. But if Peter just wanted fun, don’t you think there were easier ways for him to get that?”

Balthazar shook his head. “No, you don’t get it – this was like. It was the only way our friendship worked after a while. So we did it, so we could be friends. But no, he doesn’t want the obligations.”

Kit and Meg both looked confused. “What do you mean, you did it, so you could be friends?” Meg asked.

Balthazar threw his hands up in the air. “There’s absolutely no way for me to explain in any way you could possibly understand. Just… trust me.”

“Well, look. I have no idea what you mean by that, but I know this – Peter cares about you. A lot. I don’t know how exactly, but he goes out of his way for you. You yourself have told me that.” Kit said.

Balthazar looked at him like he was crazy. “When did I ever say anything like that?”

“Not in those words, Balthazar. But you told me all the time – in how he pushed you to perform at that open mic night. In how he studied with you for weeks before finals. You told me it when you’d talk about how he’d spend hours distracting you from work and from worry. You told me it when you mentioned that he’d been spending every night in your room and that he constantly asked to make sure you were coming to opening night of the play. And that he’d slowed down on the drinking. And that he’d stopped bringing other people over. That he changed his behavior.”

“I don’t think he did that for me.”

“Maybe not. But I think he changed, at least in part, because of you.”

“I don’t know. I think you’re seeing things that aren’t there.”

“Balth,” Meg broke in. “Don’t you think it’s a little odd that literally every person who knows either of you at all well just assumed you were dating?”

“Yeah, but… you only assumed that because we were sleeping together.”

“No. We assumed that because we saw how you look at each other. How you talk to each other. How you care for each other. We assumed it because you spent every waking hour together, and because Peter walked you down to the park just to have a free unobserved moment to kiss you. You didn’t have sex in the park, Balth. Believe me, I would have heard if you did.” Meg said.

Balthazar was confused. Everything they were saying made so much sense and yet – Peter had been so clear. He didn’t want to date. He didn’t want a relationship. It was all jumbled in his head.

“Look, Balth. All I know is this. It takes two, right? This isn’t over until both of you say it’s over. And I don’t think you should just – let it go. I think it’s time to say something.”

“Yeah.” Kit agreed with Meg. “You need to talk to Peter. For real. About the two of you. Don’t just let this one go, Balthazar. If you want him, fight for your relationship.”

“I keep telling you. It’s not a relationship.”

“Well,” Meg smoothed down her shirt. “It’s not not a relationship. And, I, for one, agree with Mr. Harper.”

Balthazar rubbed his forehead. He had no idea what to do.

****

Once Meg and Kit were sure Balthazar would be okay, they eventually left. Balthazar had asked for some space and they had complied willingly enough. Meg assured him she’d be right in the next room if he needed anything at all and Balth had been grateful, but what he really needed was some room to sort his thoughts out. He hadn’t done much – mostly just wandered around the room, plucking at an instrument here or there, lying down for a while, staring out into the night. He thought and thought. He went over moments in his head, and then the bigger pattern. He tried to examine things from the perspective of an outsider. It was hard, and it was emotional, and it gave him a headache, but eventually some things began to fall into place in his head. He was just sitting down to try to write some stuff out when another knock came at the door. He glanced at the clock. It was after 11. He sighed and called out for whoever it was to enter.

Ben and Beatrice entered the room, looking sheepish.

“Balth,” Bea said, as she closed the door. “We need to talk.”

“Eh. I’m cool with not talking to either of you for a while.”

“Okay, deserved,” Ben said, sitting on the bed. Bea sat next to him. Balthazar sighed. He guessed they were doing this then. He swiveled to face them and leaned back in the chair.

“Fine. You go first.”

“Look, we just want to say we’re really sorry,” said Ben. “Really. We had no idea. Somehow we got it into our heads that it was, like, a game or something and…” he trailed off.

Balthazar nodded. “Yeah. Meg mentioned.”

“Well, listen. We shouldn’t have invaded your privacy, even if you guys were dating. We just got caught up in being clever and the intrigue of it all and – I don’t know. It was a mistake. A stupid mistake. And we’re very sorry.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

“No, really, Balth-“

“I said, okay.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Look.” Balthazar threw his pen down. “Do I wish you hadn’t done it? Yeah. Was it really uncool? Yeah. It was humiliating and embarrassing, and oh yeah, it was in front of every single person we are friends with in Wellington. I’m pissed off you did it and I probably will be for a while. But I’m not going to stop speaking to you over it. We’ll work it out. And, besides. You probably ended up doing me a favor.”

“What do you mean?” Ben asked.

“I don’t know – this all had to be dealt with at some point, I guess. Better now than six months from now.”

Bea and Ben looked like they didn’t quite understand, but they let it go. There was a pause, before Beatrice began speaking.

“Listen, I’m also sorry for what I said out there. I wasn’t judging you, Balth. I love you. I just want you to be happy. And I couldn’t see how this –“ she waved her arms wildly, “This – whatever – could possibly do that. But I know you’re a grown up and make your own decisions. I shouldn’t have said it. If this is what you want, then I’ll support you. For whatever that’s worth.”

Balth smiled a little. Bea was the worst at apologies, but he knew what she was trying to say. “It’s okay, Beatrice. I know you just want to look out for me. But you’ve got to stop treating Peter like he’s the big bad wolf and everyone in his path is an innocent child.”

Beatrice looked down at the floor. “Yeah. I suppose so.”

“Anyway, Balthy. That’s what we came to say and we hope you’ll be able to forgive us one day.” Ben stood up and grabbed Bea’s hand, dragging her to her feet as well.

“Shut up, Ben. I told you. I’m pissed. I’ll get over it. What is that you always used to say? Forget it? Move on? It’s all a bunch of fuss about nothing? Well, I think that’s probably where I’ll be in a few days.”

That seemed to ping something in Ben’s head. “Wait, Balth.”

“Hmm?”

“There’s something I feel like you should know.”

“Okay?”

“Back in May? Do you remember May?”

“Yes, Ben.” Balthazar nodded his head. “I do remember May.”

“No – that’s not… I mean, do you remember how I kind of just started showing up places? Like Boyet’s when you were studying. Or we started doing the flat shopping together?”

“Yeeeah…” Balthazar trailed off in a question mark.

“That was Peter.”

“What was Peter?”

“I mean.” Ben shook his head. “Sorry. Peter asked me to do that.”

Balthazar was confused. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. We were talking about you one day – actually, I think you walked in at the end of our conversation. Anyway, I was just asking about what was going on with you – trying to figure out why things had gotten so bad between you and Peter at the time. He wouldn’t talk to me about it and actually we almost ended in a bit of a shouting match. But then, I don’t know – he got really calm. It was kind of scary, honestly, from Peter at the time. Back then, I almost felt more comfortable when he was yelling. And then he said he had a favor to ask. He said you were working yourself too hard and were getting all caught up in school. I felt bad that I hadn’t noticed, but he definitely had. He asked me to distract you – just enough to make sure you didn’t overwork yourself. And then he mentioned that if I could get you to go sleep sometimes at a reasonable hour, or make sure you were actually eating enough, that would be cool too. And… well, you know me. I made it into a game. How to get you to eat better – joint shopping expeditions! How to get you to sleep – talk you to death in the evenings. How to distract you – show up and bug you while you were trying to do one of your marathon studying sessions. And then, I don’t know – by end of first semester, it seemed like you didn’t need it anymore, so I backed off. But… yeah, well, that’s it really. I just thought you should know.”

Balthazar tried to take all that in. It was a lot really, but… Peter had been looking out for him. The same way Balth had been trying to look out for Peter at the time. But neither of them felt like they could approach it directly, so they’d danced around each other, using intermediaries, only approaching directly when it seemed absolutely safe. Well, that certainly fit into the picture Balthazar was rapidly developing in his mind.

“Okay.” Balthazar nodded. “Thanks, Ben.”

“Do you – what are you going to do, Balth?”

Balthazar shrugged. “I guess we’ll see.”

****

Balthazar was still in his room getting dressed the next morning when Peter came home. He heard the front door slam and then he heard Freddie’s voice.

“Where were you?”

“None of your business. Get out of my way.”

“It’s my business when you’re slamming around my flat!”

“Oh, shove off, Freddie! It’s not just your flat. Jesus!”

Balthazar squeezed his eyes shut. Not what he needed when he was running on four hours of sleep and hadn’t had any coffee yet. Silence reigned for a bit and Balthazar buttoned up his shirt, girding himself for what he was about to do. But then Peter beat him to the punch – Balthazar’s door slammed open and Peter stood there. He had changed from the night before, so obviously the bit of silence had been when he detoured to his bedroom. Balthazar raised himself on to his toes and looked behind Peter – Freddie was standing behind him with her arms crossed. Balthazar raised his eyebrows at Pete, and Peter rolled his eyes and closed the door behind him.

“We need to talk,” Peter said, standing in the middle of the room. Balthazar moved to his dresser to grab socks.

“Yeah? Seems to be a lot of that going around these days.”

“What?” Peter looked confused for a moment, and then shook his head. “Never mind. Listen, Balth – we’re done. This thing we’ve been doing? It has to stop. So… that’s it. Done. Over.”

Balthazar walked over to his bed and sat down to put his socks on. “Yeah?”

“I mean… wait, is that all you’re going to say? I mean. No. Yeah, good. So. Then, that’s it. We’re done. Okay.” Peter turned around and headed toward the door.

“I didn’t agree.”

“What?” Peter turned around and stared at Balthazar.

“I didn’t say I agreed.” Balthazar stood up and walked over to Peter. “You said we were done. I didn’t.”

“Well…” Peter looked baffled. “Well, that doesn’t matter, okay? Because I say we are!”

“You’re not the only one who gets a say in this, Peter.”

“I mean, I kind of am. One of us wants to stop, we stop. So… we’re stopping.”

“Okay… so we stop. You’re right. If you really don’t want to be with me anymore, I can’t make you. I wouldn’t want to. So… now what?”

“Now… nothing, Balth! Just… nothing.”

Balthazar nodded his head. “Right. Nothing. So I guess that’s it, then? You go your way? I go mine?”

Peter looked down at the floor. “Yeah, I guess.” He mumbled. “See you later, Balth.” He opened the door.

Balthazar took a deep breath. It was now or never. If this mattered to him – really mattered – he had to do this. It was time to talk – to speak up – to fight for what he wanted.

“Wait. Stop. You don’t get to walk away from me, Peter. I may not have the final say over whether this thing is over, but I do get a say in when you get to walk away. And it’s not now.” Balthazar said firmly. “You’re going to listen to me. And then you can walk away, if you want to.”

Peter snorted and walked out of the room. Balthazar followed him into the front room and Peter looked at him in surprise.

“What? You think I won’t do this just because other people might hear? Because let me tell you, I will. There’s really not anything that can happen that’s more humiliating than what happened last night – so I really don’t care anymore.” Balthazar looked at Peter. Peter had that shut down look again – the one Balthazar hated so much from the beginning of the year.

“Just… stop it, Balth. Let it go. Move on.”

“No! I won’t be ordered to move on. I’ll move on when I’m ready. You can move on, if you want. But I’ll do it when I decide.”

“What the fuck, Balthazar!? Can’t you see I’m trying to do this for your own good?” Balthazar noticed that people had moved into the room. Freddie and Kit were standing by the hallway by Freddie’s bedroom door. Bea and Ben had emerged from Ben’s room in their pajamas. Meg was standing in the bathroom doorway, with a toothbrush hanging out of her mouth. They all had varying looks of concern, amazement, shock, and some of them looked almost amused – or perhaps just taken aback by what was happening in front of their eyes.

“I’m so sick and fucking tired of people saying that to me – treating me like I’m made of glass. I’m a fucking adult and I don’t want people doing things for me for my own good. I make my own choices – good ones or shitty ones. And no one – not even you, Peter Donaldson – is going to take that away from me anymore.”

“Whatever,” Peter muttered, biting at his thumbnail. “Can we not do this here?” He looked around at the people surrounding them.

“No! I tried to do this privately. You walked out. And I’m not letting you escape this conversation. So we’ll do it here.”

Balthazar knew Peter wanted to walk out. He also knew Peter wouldn’t – his sense of guilt, or obligation, or whatever, toward Balthazar wouldn’t let him. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Balthazar was determined to have this out – here and now – and if Peter walked out, Balth would simply follow.

“Why are you trying to end this?” He asked.

“Jesus, Balthazar! Why do you think? For the same reason I didn’t want to start it in the first place! I’m so fucking sick of hurting you. All I fucking do is hurt you.”

“That’s not true! Yeah, you hurt me sometimes. And other times you take care of me. And sometimes I hurt you. And other times I take care of you. Welcome to how a relationship works.”

“You just don’t get it, do you? I fucking broke you – I forced us into this weird thing, I refused to acknowledge how you felt about me, I refused to just let you go and let you be happy – and now you’re just… fucking… broken.”

“Don’t call me broken! What the fuck does that even mean? I’m not broken!

“Yeah. Yeah, you are! You’re so broken, you don’t even realize how broken you are. All that shit about love – about how love wouldn’t hurt you, about how it would make you better – and what has love ever gotten you? Nothing. Love didn’t give you shit – it just gave you me. And all that got you was hurt, over and over again. It didn’t make you better. It didn’t make you happier. It just made you miserable.”

“Stop telling me how I feel!”

“Okay, well then how do you feel!? You tell me! Since you’re so talkative all of a sudden!”

“Yeah, I am talkative all of a sudden. I wish I had been more talkative months ago – maybe this wouldn’t have gone on so long!”

“That’s what I keep telling you – it shouldn’t have!”

“That’s not what I fucking mean! Listen, Peter. I’m in love with you. You know that. The whole –“ Balthazar took a deep breath and indicated to all the people standing around them. “The whole fucking world knows that.” Peter shook his head, looking terrified. “You’ve never actually let me say it, but you know it. You’ve known it forever. And yeah, loving you has hurt me. Of course it has. But it hasn’t broken me. It’s just made me grow up and figure out what I actually want. It’s made me look at things differently. When we were younger, I just thought – I don’t know. I thought we could fall in love, and hold hands, and be happy together. I thought it would be easy. But it’s not easy – I don’t think it’s ever easy. I don’t think we know anyone who finds love easy. And sometimes it just sucks. When the person you love doesn’t love you back and you have to live with that. But I think it can be easier. When the person you love will just admit they do love you back and get over themselves.”

Peter mumbled something.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.”

“I said, I’m not fucking in love with you, okay!?”

“I don’t believe you.”

Peter walked up to Balthazar and looked him right in the face. “I’m not in love with you.”

Balthazar stepped even closer, so their noses were almost touching. “I. Don’t. Believe. You.”

Peter groaned in frustration and pulled back. “What do you want from me, Balthazar?”

“I want the truth. For once in our lives, I want you to just say what you’re actually thinking!”

“Alright, okay, fine!” Peter shrugged. “You want the truth? Fine! I’m in love with you. Of course I fucking am! Who could manage to not fall in love with you? But that doesn’t change anything. I can’t be with you! I can’t – take care of you, or be responsible for you, or … give you what you need. So it doesn’t really fucking matter, does it? At the end of the day, what does it matter if I love you, if I can’t be with you?”

Balthazar breathed in once or twice. The room was entirely silent. “Why do you think you need to take care of me? Be responsible for me? You’re not my parent. You’re my… well, I’d like you to be my partner. I’d like for us to take care of each other when we need it, but it’s not up to you to, like, fix me. Or take on all of my worries. It’s just up to you to share them.”

“I can’t… I just… can’t. Balth. Please don’t make me do this.”

“I’m not making you do anything, except have a conversation. I should have made us do this months ago, when I began to realize what was going on with you. It might have saved us both a lot of hurt.”

“And what exactly do you think is going on with me?” Peter had a dangerous look on his face.

“I think you’ve been angry and hurt for so long that you’ve forgotten how to be happy. How to enjoy being happy. How to let yourself feel happy. How to even recognize when you are happy. I think you’re angry at your dad, for what he did all those years ago and you’re just starting to really process and recognize that now. I think you’re terrified that you’ll make his mistakes and repeat the past. I think you’re hurt that Beatrice never really forgave you for what happened last year – and you really need to let that one go, Pete. Because Bea can hold a grudge for ages, but I think she knows something now about making mistakes and how to forgive the people you love for them.”

Balthazar shot a meaningful glance at Beatrice, who had the good grace to look away. “I think you feel guilty about what you did last year – to Hero, to Beatrice, to Ben. And you should let that go, because it’s really past time. I think we can all agree that we all fuck up on occasion, even when the fuck up is truly monumental.  I think it made you question who you are – what you’re capable of – and I think you never really let that go. I think you think you’re not capable of being a good friend or a good boyfriend, which is ridiculous, by the way. I think you think that the only affect you have on the world is a negative one, and so you just try to draw away from it altogether. I think you’re hurt, and lonely, and scared, and confused, and you’re still trying to figure everything out, but every time you get close, you run away from the answer, scared of what you’ll discover when you get it. And I think you’ve somehow convinced yourself – just like I somehow convinced myself – that we haven’t been in a relationship for months now. But we have. And you’ve been a great boyfriend.”

“How can you even say that, Balthazar?” Peter looked at him. Balthazar wanted to reach out and touch him – he looked so lost. But he didn’t feel like he could – not yet, anyway. “All I’ve done is hurt you – this whole time.”

“Peter. Our relationship didn’t hurt me. Pretending like we weren’t having one hurt me.”

“But –“

Balthazar held up a hand. “Do you think it hurt me when you spent all that time walking me through our history lecture? Or when we went out to dinner and talked for hours? Or when you came to support me at my gig? Or when we laughed at stupid jokes, or played video games, or hugged, or spent hours watching terrible television? Do you think it hurt me when we got tipsy and silly, or walked home together at night, or when we ran lines for your play together? None of that hurt me, Peter. Pretending like it wasn’t something it so clearly was… that was a problem. Being happy together – loving each other? That was never a problem. I don’t know if I would have been happy just having casual sex with you for months. Maybe. Maybe not. I was willing to try. But it turns out, that’s never really what we did in the first place. And I can tell you I was perfectly happy having sex with you in a happy relationship. And now I’m saying it, okay? I love you. I want to be with you. I like what we’ve had, and I want it. So, you know, call it off, don’t call it off, but don’t think you can just run away and magically never hurt me. You’re in too deep for that, okay? Losing you is going to hurt me. You’re part of my life. You matter to me. Fucking act like it.”

Peter spent what felt like a very long time doing nothing. He was staring in Balthazar’s direction, but whatever he was seeing, it seemed to be inside his own head. And then, abruptly, his whole stance changed. He stood up straighter. His eyes cleared up.

“Okay,” he said.

“Okay?”

“Yeah. Okay.”

“Okay, what?”

“Okay. Let’s do this.”

Balthazar smiled and let out a breath. Peter smiled back, a little tremulously, but still – it was clearly a smile.

“Cool.”

“Cool.”

“Want to shake hands on it?” Balth asked. Peter, Ben, Meg and Beatrice burst into laughter, while Kit and Freddie looked confused, but giggled a little, perhaps simply contagiously. Balthazar would let Ben tell that particular story.

“No.” Peter smiled. Instead, he stepped forward and grabbed Balthazar by his upper arms. “Let’s do this instead.” He dipped his head down just a little, and kissed Balthazar. Balth melted into the kiss, deciding to totally ignore the hooting and catcalls from his friends.

Chapter Text

Peter handed a box over to Balthazar, who read the label on it and put it on the kitchen counter.

“That’s the last one,” Peter said.

“Thank God.” Balthazar dropped into a nearby chair. “I’m exhausted.”

“Yeah, me too. Now that you mention it.” Peter simply dropped to the floor. Balthazar gave him a look. “What?”

“You’re sitting on the floor that I haven’t even cleaned yet.”

“Oh, great. One day in our new flat and you already sound like Her Ladyship.”

“I’m just saying –we don’t know who lived here before. Or what they did on that floor.”

“Ooo, Balthy. Do you have some interesting ideas about what could be done on this floor?” Peter waggled his eyebrows.

Balthazar rolled his eyes. “I can’t with you right now. I’m way too tired. And hungry.”

“Curry?” Peter asked. Balthazar nodded and slumped against the chair, shutting his eyes. “Cool. Be right back.” Balthazar heard Peter grab the car keys from the counter and close the front door. Balth contemplated whether he felt like moving. On the one hand, no. He definitely did not. On the other hand, plates would probably be helpful in the near future.

Balthazar sighed and hauled himself up from the chair, moving to the kitchen to unpack the box labelled “Dishware” in Ann’s loopy cursive. He smiled to himself a little as he lifted the dishes out of the box. They were the ones from Peter’s house. When he and Peter had gone home last month during break and announced that they planned to move into a new flat together – as a couple – Ann had been overjoyed. She had pressed the dishes on them, and when Balth had objected that they couldn’t take her kitchen items, Ann had breezed past that, explaining she needed an excuse to get rid of the chipped old stuff anyway. It made Balthazar incredibly happy –not only that Ann was so happy for them, but also that they’d get to eat off the dishes that he remembered so fondly from childhood dinners at the Donaldson house.

As he washed off the dishes and some glasses and cutlery, Balth looked around the new flat. It was nice. Definitely smaller than their previous flat, but it had potential. A few plants, a couple of framed posters – yeah, it would be good. And they’d be mercifully alone. In November, Freddie, Ben, Peter and Balthazar had a joint meeting and they agreed to part ways as flat mates amicably. Peter and Freddie had made some amends, but both agreed it was probably better they not live together. Peter had joked that they might get along better with a few miles between them. Freddie had gasped and said, “Horrors, Peter. We might actually end up friends. Think how terrifying that would be.”

Freddie had kept the lease on the old place, and Kit had moved in. Ben had stayed. As wild as he and Freddie could make each other, they were actually a pretty good pair when they had some balance. Kit would probably provide that. Beatrice had decided to move up from Auckland and enroll in university. She was planning to go overseas at some point, but after lots of discussion with her parents, she decided to put that off until she had at least a few semesters in university completed. Since Bea and Ben had agreed to share a room, Meg was prevailed upon to move up with Bea, since she could write from anywhere. She had taken Balthazar’s previous room and said with some distaste that it could do with some reinvention. Balthazar didn’t even want to know what that room looked like by now. And Hero had decided to join Beatrice at school, which was even better. She was living in the halls, but the flat mates at the old place were thrilled to be able to turn Peter’s room into a guest room for her use if they had evening get-togethers that ran long, or if she wanted to be able to stay in Wellington over the holidays. It was a nice arrangement, all around. Balthazar certainly thought the dynamics of the flat would be a lot better compared to last year.

Peter and Balthazar had talked a lot after that day in October and their relationship had only improved. By December, they both decided they wanted to try living together. Balthazar remembered how unhappy he’d been at home in Wellington over the July break when they weren’t living together, and Peter confessed he’d been pretty miserable about it too. They decided to just go for it – you were only young once, and they figured they might as well try it. Plus, they’d already lived together once under much unhappier circumstances and they had found their own kind of secret happiness at the time. Balthazar was fairly certain this was going to work out just fine; after all, they were in love, they were learning to communicate better, and they made each other extremely, ridiculously happy. And Balthazar would never ask Peter to clean the showers.

All in all, things were good. At Balthazar’s urging, Peter had seen a therapist for a few months and it had helped him a lot in processing some of his lingering issues with his dad and some other – well – fraught issues from last year. Peter had spent a lot of time with John when they were home in Wellington last month, and Balthazar had joined them sometimes – and he was thrilled to see how well that relationship was going. He’d been startled beyond belief – as had Peter, if the look on his face was anything to go by – when John had hugged both Peter and Balthazar goodbye before they returned to Wellington.

Beatrice and Peter had a few long talks before she returned to Auckland, and then a few more when Peter was back in Auckland, and they seemed to be in a much better place now. Balthazar was really looking forward to having her and Hero in Wellington, and Meg too. If only they could coerce Ursula back from the states, where she had enrolled in a university in New York.

Peter was working on another play that began rehearsals in March, and was already making plans for secret rehearsals at his and Balth’s flat for himself, Jaquie, who was playing the lead this time, and a few other new cast members. Peter told Balth that he didn’t trust Costa to actually let them block anything at the real rehearsals. Balthazar had laughed, but he was pretty sure Peter had been deadly serious. Balthazar’s music was coming along well – it seemed he had a million songs inside of him these days, just waiting to pour out onto the page – and he had already signed up for the March open mic night at Boyet’s, and was contemplating doing another at a neighboring coffee house in April. He was looking forward to hosting Peter’s rehearsals, and having Paige and Chelsey over for dinner soon – he hadn’t seen them since December and it felt like it had been ages. The world seemed good – or at least their world did.

Soon enough, Peter came back with curry and rice and he and Balthazar took their plates to the sofa and ate on it in companionable silence, watching an old episode of Community. When they were done, Balthazar snuggled into Peter’s shoulder and Peter put his arm around him until the episode finished.

“Bed?” Balthazar asked when the credits rolled.

“Bed.” Peter nodded. “So, so ready for bed.”

Balthazar grabbed Peter’s hand and they walked back to their bedroom. Balthazar changed while Peter walked into the adjoining bathroom to brush his teeth, and then they switched. Balthazar crawled underneath the covers and flipped off the bedside lamp when Peter joined him. Balthazar sighed contentedly. Peter turned over to face him and propped his head up in his hand.

“Happy?” He asked.

Balthazar turned as well, so that their faces were almost touching. “Very.” He responded.

“Me too,” Peter whispered.

“Good.” Balthazar leaned over and kissed Peter’s nose, then moved down to his lips, and then down to his jaw, and then down his neck.

“Balthy… I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I’m so tired.”

“Oh, no, you don’t, Donaldson. I have some first-day-of-class hickeys to give you.” Balthazar smiled a little wickedly. “Consider it payback.”

Peter looked confused. “What?”

“For that time I was having coffee with Kit and you got absurdly and cutely jealous, and I had to try to cover up a little love bite on my wrist fifteen minutes before I was due in Music Comp last year. I had to steal Freddie’s concealer.”

“Freddie owns concealer?”

Balthazar rolled his eyes. “Peter. Stop. You guys called a ceasefire remember?”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Old habits and whatnot.”

“Oh, by the way. I told Freds we would go to dinner and game night at the flat this weekend.”

“Balth, no. Please…anything but that.”

“Sorry.” Balthazar simply shrugged a little. “Now, stop whining. I would really like to make love, in my new bed, with my boyfriend.”

And so they did.