Cal was terrified of the golden god next door.
After 2 years of worshipping, following, writing about and dreaming about the online celebrity Lee Wakeham, Cal never once thought he would be one thin wall away from the guy he adored. This knowledge was fucking exhausting.
That morning was a perfect illustration of the problem. As Cal was locking his door, Lee was coming out of his at the same time. It took every bit of strength that Cal had to not hurriedly unlock his door again, fling himself inside and slam the door behind him. This overtly dramatic act would bring even more attention to himself; the worst possible outcome. Instead he mumbled something that may have been vaguely like a good morning, sort of generally looked at Lee’s startled expression, and rushed towards the stairwell. Kicking away the piece of paper that had been lodged in to keep the door propped open so the fob-operated-lock wouldn’t trigger - what jerk was doing that lately? It was annoyingly unsafe - he flung himself down the flights.
Sure, this was not exactly efficient, as they lived on the 22nd floor, but it was better than another torturous painful clammy elevator ride with one of the world’s most beloved fashion vloggers and YouTube celebrities. A Youtube celebrity who Cal knew an embarrassing amount about.
Even the wee glance Cal took was painful. That soft gleaming hair that was perfectly styled into natural honey waves, undulating above the perfectly shaved sides and sideburns, and a long-sleeved shirt stretched over his lean and lovely form was so carefully yet carelessly balanced the man could have stepped out of an advertisement for any number of men’s clothing products.
As Cal made his way to the hazy San Francisco morning to the bus that would take him to the Art Institute, he pondered what his fellow fanatics on the Lee Wakeham forums would say if they knew that one of their moderators was so close to the hero that they spent so much time watching, obsessing over, and discussing. There had been times that Cal had considered talking to about the situation but honestly the whole thing made him uncomfortable, and he wasn't sure he could explain very clearly why so. No, that wasn't so, he was lying - Cal knew exactly why he didn't want to explain to the other forum members why he was so uncomfortable living next to Lee: the fact that youTube Star was a master of fashion commentary, fashion design and humorous but gentle takedowns of the clothing choices and mistakes of famous people had nothing to do - or at least very little to do - with why Cal liked him so much. The sad truth was that Cal had a massive crush on Lee that was personal and physical in nature. And yes, his online compatriots knew that about him - one of the things they bonded over was how very attractive Lee was.
But that shared interest was hypothetical, mythical, illusionary. It was online, and thus less than real. And when they became neighbors, Lee transitioned from unreal ideal to stunning reality.
So now, when Cal viewed stepped into the Lee Wakeham channel to watch the latest videos, there was a strange feeling he was doing something invasive. And after the harrowing experience Lee had been through with PrincessAbby21, Cal was pretty certain an overly-attached fan was the last thing the celebrity wanted anywhere near him.
The best thing to do, obviously, was to stop watching the videos all together. But, god, did he have the strength to do it? So far, not so much.
As Cal was considering whether he was strong enough to give up his ‘addiction’, a man in the seat next to him flung his legs out wide, forcing Cal and the elderly woman on the other side of the jerk to make themselves more compact. While this was uncomfortable and annoying, Cal was not one to fight back in any significant way. Something about being such a big, tall guy made others want to push his boundaries. He come to peace with this years ago, especially when he reached the point where he had the means to defend himself and the understanding it usually wasn’t worth the trouble to do so. Still, San Francisco tested his patience a lot, and sent him running to the kicking bag more often than before. With an indrawn breath Cal centered himself, pulled his bag in tighter, and buried himself deeper inside until he felt there was nothing left but air.
He spent the bulk of the day in a fog that made Cal pretty close to useless.
“Are you alright, Cal?” His good friend, Mason, asked. “Have you been getting enough sleep lately?”
“Have any of us been getting enough sleep lately?” Elsie was on the other side of him in the computer work room, her laptop screen showing some anime girl with her legs wide and her face red; this was definitely not part of the project they were supposed to be working on. “These end-of-the-year projects are, as usual, a total pain in my ass.”
Mason flung a gummy bear at Elsie. “There’s no way that’s your problem, since you don’t seem to actually be working on it. And Cal…” He turned to Cal, tilted his half-shaved head and smiled. “If I know him he's already finished all of the projects and it is waiting to turn them in so he doesn't look too eager.”
Cal faked taking offense. “Weren’t you the one who told me to slow my roll so I stopped making everyone else look bad?”
“You still do so regardless, mate.” Elsie kicked back and almost fell over, saving herself at the last minute and righting herself as if nothing happened, patting her tousled hair to make sure it was still in place. “Not that us comfortably mediocre types need your help.”
“Speak for yourself,” Mason sounded actually offended. “Some of us do try.”
“Oh, I only meant myself, believe me.”
Mason rolled his eyes back towards Cal. “Is Senor Spectral back?”
“Oh, I like that name, but I’m not sure it’s nice to call him that,” Elsie smiled her sharp smile, “especially since they could get back together again any day now.”
Cal opened his mouth to defend himself, and then closed it. Letting Joseph back into his life was indefensible, and of course the outcome had been the same: as soon as they started to get serious Joseph had transformed into a vague haze where a caring, solid man had been, and then disappeared altogether.
“No no. Not Joseph. Just… feeling lonely, honestly. And there’s someone… in my building I think is really attractive, and it won’t go anywhere.” It was too embarrassing for him to admit to them who that attractive person was, as they knew about his love of “that YouTube fashion guy”, and he’d already gone far too long without telling his closest friends about it without having to throw that into the explanation. His silence had become a trap of his own making. So he edited the story. “He is out of my league to an extent which is ridiculous. He’s upper echelon smooth and successful, and really stylish. San Francisco attractive.”
Mason nodded in understanding; he was bi and currently dating a woman, but Cal and him often discussed how San Francisco’s dating scene could intimidate anyone, regardless of one’s target gender. “Huh, well, sounds like you need distracting. I think that guy from your Muay Thai club is a great catch, honestly, and he seemed super into you when he came out for drinks that one time. Ask for his number, man. No one is going to be as fabulous as your Youtube baes, but we need to get you away from The Ghoster before he comes back in and messes with your head again. I am more than tired of that guy’s flippant disregard for your feelings.”
“Maybe, but Antonio isn’t my type, honest; he’s too much a computer guy, too much like me. And I think I need to stay single for a while.” Also, he thought Antonio was out of his league as well, but wasn’t feeling up for the round of well-meaning support that’d get him. “But I think I have to deal with this issue first. I’m starting to fantasize about my poor damn neighbor, and it’s embarrassing and ridiculous. He doesn’t deserve that sort of ridiculousness.” Lee had enough issues stemming from being a celebrity; the guy didn’t need to feel stalked close to home.
Elsie leaned forwarded. “Are you sure you couldn’t talk to him? It wouldn’t hurt to get to know him as a person, would it?”
“No, he doesn’t need to know me as a person.” He made it sound absolute. “I am not his type, trust me, and I’ve seen his friends. My love life is perfectly completely nonexistent right now, and that’s exactly how I like it. Obviously, I can’t be trusted to find someone that’s not a jackass.”
Mason and Elsie both stared at him, looked at each other with a loaded look that confirmed they had both spoken to Cal about his passivity with men and gotten nowhere, shrugged, and looked back at their laptops.
There were several minutes of silence before Mason, known for his inability to hold his tongue, spoke up. “You might try to stay out of the dating game, Cal, but you know your hormones will lead you back, like they always do. Antonio might not be your type, but he’s hot, and he wants you as more than a sparring partner. You don't’ like sleeping with more than one person at a time. He could be a good distraction.”
“Maybe. I’ll think about it.” There was some huffing, and then a general quiet as they all concentrated on their screens. Cal started to review his finished, edited piece, just to make sure it was too his liking, chin landed on his shoulder, and he started. “So I know,” Else said, “You’re done with your project. Can you take a look at mine?”
Cal tried to look annoyed, but in truth he was pleased. Just like Elsie to know he was a sucker for assisting others with their designs; sometimes he think he liked it more than actual creation. “Give it here.”
“With pleasure.” Mason shot her a glare, and Elsie amended a “thank you!” and a big grin as she slid her MacBook over. Cal was already ignoring them both, as more than happy to distract himself by poking at Elsie’s tangle of code and design decisions that need a wee nip and a bit of a tuck to run smoothly. This was exactly what he needed to keep his mind off his nearly perfect neighbor.
If only he didn’t have to eventually go home.
As he entered the lobby of his building, Cal was startled to see a slouched-over figure in the corner in a chair, just out of the line of sight of front desk and taking advantage of the warm and ‘cozy’ decor and lighting the building boosted but that could also create some long and dark shadows. This was most likely a homeless person coming in from the persistent rain, looking for a warm and safe spot. It was a quirk of San Francisco.
Cal almost said something to the attendant, and then his guilt stopped him - who was he to keep a harmless someone from looking for a bit of sanctuary? While he appreciated his grandma paying for his tuition and insisting he live in a luxury building, he also was well aware it was new buildings such as his that added to how San Francisco was pricing out its own residents, and adding to the perception that it was no longer a city welcoming to the poor and the freaky in the way that it used to be. The majority of the city’s homeless population were of no threat to him or the others in his building. Feeling thoroughly okay with this decision, Cal got on the elevator, went to the 22nd floor, and exited towards his apartment with an idea of finally eating something for the first time in hours, and perhaps some light web searching.
He stopped when he saw that two people were talking right near his door, placed in such a way that he couldn’t ignore them or get to his door without interaction. One was Aureola Glam, a burlesque dancer and local celebrity who lived on the same floor, and the other was Lee Wakeham. Lee was wearing damn sexy jeans, a button up shirt in goldenrod and an impossibly fashionable white jacket for a vision of stylish perfection. It was too too much.
Scenarios started to run through Cal’s head. Dive past them, unlock the door, and slam it closed without acknowledging either? Impossible, he knew Aureola personally and she’d be deeply offended if he didn’t at least say hi. Same plan of diving and slamming but with a grunted greeting somewhere? Still rude and offensive, but he could apologize the next time he saw her and make some excuse about lack of sleep or how bad a day he’d had. This would, however, still generate guilt. Turn around, hang out in the bar on the corner and come back in thirty minutes? Stupid and avoidant but possibly the best option. This idea occurred to him too late, however: He’d been spotted.
“Cal, oh, Cal!” her voice trilled merrily down the hall, and he winced then suppressed it with a plastered smile. “I’m so glad you’re home, Lee and I were just talking about you!”
Every blood vessel in Cal’s body turned to ice at that, making his legs feel like stiff logs culled from ancient trees. Somehow he gave a small wave back and continued forward. Make small talk and you can leave, make small talk and you can leave, he kept telling himself, and desperately hoped Lee would mostly ignore him. Hadn’t he been rude enough to the man to make it obvious that Cal didn’t want to talk to him? Perhaps the Youtube star would be so offended he’d barely acknowledge Cal’s existence.
Of course, that’d make Cal feel like shit as well. The ridiculous irony of it all.
“I was just talking about you!” One of Aureola’s hands had landed on Cal’s arm, and the lightness of her tone belayed the iron nature of her grip. Cal knew too well that Aureola’s ditzy dame persona was a bit of a mask, that she had read his discomfort, and was ensuring he didn’t flee. “He’s the one I was just telling you about, you know, the brilliant social media designer who did all my sites for a song?”
Lee’s hand came out, and a warm smile spread across his face that damn near made Cal weep. “Hi, Cal - I’m Lee, your next door neighbor? Nice to meet you.” There was a bemused question there, one that amped up Cal’s guilt at his recent rudeness.
Cal spoke to his arm and made it move forward, as if talking to a cyber creature that existed outside his body. A hand so well-wrought it might have been Michaelangelo-formed engulfed his own and applied just the right amount of pressure before lingering for a moment before release. Wait, did Lee’s hand linger for a moment in his own? No, surely not; all such things were just another byproduct of his ever-overactive imagination. He hoped his own shake wasn’t as dead-fishy as it felt.
“Nice to meet you,” Cal mumbled, and smiled distantly. He turned to Aureola, using her heart-shaped face as distraction. “Is everything okay still? Do you need anything adjusted?”
“Oh no no, it’s just as perfect as ever, thank you so much.” She patted his arm. “That’s actually just what I was telling Lee - that you’re an absolute genius, easy to work with, with incredibly reasonable rates. Isn’t that true?”
“That’s great!” Lee said, and smiled up at him, his flushed lips and lean, mobile face moving into that inviting expression that pulled people in from across the globe. Cal almost fainted.
“Yay, I’m so glad I was able to introduce you!” Aureola clapped her hands in delight. “I have to go, boys, but have fun!” With a wave she disappeared into her apartment.
Lee turned back to Cal. “So you are taking new clients right now? I desperately need an overhaul of my marketing collateral, and I’d be lying if I said I was happy with my last designer, as nice as he was. My manager’s company found him, and I really think I should have had a more hands-on approach to creating everything.” Cal marked that his voice in real life was different than his video voice, measured and calm and lacking the hook of the rise and fall cadences of Youtube. He prefered this one.
“I…” Cal’s mind screamed at him to say no. It told him that saying yes was a massive mistake that would perhaps haunt him for the rest of his life.
The instinctual part of him that lived to help others looked at his idol and smashed all that under massive boots, as well as forced his head into a nodding motion. The internal conflict made his face grimace, which caused more guilt. He forced all that down. “Sure. I can do that. But I’m still just a student, so I don’t know how good it’ll be.” He kept his voice monotone so his excitement didn’t show.
Lee’s smile wavered a little, but re-appeared quickly, that engaging twinkle in his eye that was so charming and magnetic on screen. “Great! Do you have time tonight or tomorrow to talk about it? I’m free right now, but I can also do tomorrow afternoon, or Thursday morning.”
“Tonight?” Cal said, a bit blinkered by how quickly everything was happening. It was already almost 8 pm. “Do you mean now?”
“Yes, but I completely understand if that’s way too last minute. We can definitely schedule some time next week, if you’d prefer. I’m just impatient to get started because I hate my current design.” Lee gave an apologetic smile.
“Tonight’s fine.” It wasn’t fine, honestly, because Cal was freaking out, and he wanted to be alone so he could pull himself together. But at the same time moving so quickly would keep him from stewing too much on what was happening, and because he’d already said yes it was too late to go back now. “Where?”
“How’s down the street, at Richie’s - we can sit outside. I’ll bring my computer so you can see what I have so far, and you can tell me your thoughts. Want to leave in about 30, since you just got home?”
“Okay. I’ll meet you there - I have to run an errand.” Cal did not have to run an errand, but pretending he did was better than actually walking next to Lee Wakeham.
“Oh, sure.” Lee looked surprised, understandably, and Cal felt that stab of guilt for being such a damn liar. “Okay, then, I’ll see you there.”
Cal nodded, and was relieved to finally slip into his apartment, take a very fast shower and rush out the door, heading to the bookstore around the corner to complete that ‘errand’ that didn’t exist.
He showed up at Richie’s 15 minutes later with a design book under his arm, one he hadn’t been planning on buying but felt he needed to to complete the charade. When he got there Lee was already waiting, sitting outside at the edge of the section with his computer out and open. Cal took a moment to stare at his idol. Everything about him was so tidy and well-planned, all colors appealing, all colors straight, his hair flawless and the long top falling just the right amount to the sides of his face. He was wearing brown-rimmed glasses that brought out his eyes and sectioned his soft, lovely lips off to be highlighted at the bottom of his face. Cal thought he looked perfect, and that made him feel horrible about himself. He made himself approach the table.
“Hey,” he said, and sat down.
“Hi!” Lee smiled, his mobile face showing genuine pleasure, which made Cal’s knee start bouncing. He squished down the desire to twitch. “Do you want something to drink?” he motioned for the water. “I’m having wine, but you can order anything. Have you had dinner? I hadn’t, so was thinking of ordering food.”
“I hadn’t eaten. I’ll have a beer.”
“Great!” They ordered, and Lee tried to start some small talk, forcing Cal to shyly answer some questions about school, where he was, and what he wanted to do when he graduated in the Spring. He was relieved when Lee seemed to give up turning it into a conversation, and started to tell him about who he was and what his needs were. Cal did his best to look like he had no idea who he was before that. They briefly discussed rates, and Lee was shocked at how reasonable Cal’s costs were.
“So, yeah, I need something that is fashionable, but not going to be dated in 6 months. I like it clean, and simple, but still easy to access all my links and update.” Lee had gotten a wrap with two sides, and Cal watched, a bit fascinated, as the man continued to talk while very carefully removing certain items off his sandwich, insuring the quinoa didn’t touch the greens, and the greens didn’t touch anything. He caught Cal looking, and gave a rueful, embarrassed smile. “Sorry, this is weird, isn’t it? I can be a little OCD, and hate it when my food touches.” He laughed. “I’m kinda that way about everything - has to be spotless, has to be orderly, needs to all be in the right place. It’s my biggest flaw as a designer and clotheshorse - I don’t know when to let it go and let loose.” He saw the look on Cal’s face, and his smile fell. “Sorry, yes, back to work.”
The truth was, the expression Cal was wearing was due to the fact he was trying really hard to not tell Lee how cute he was. Being also a visual perfectionist who liked things just so, the cleanliness and order of Lee’s aesthetic was one of the many reasons he admired the man, and while he wasn’t personally OCD it’d never bothered him in others, especially not others that he really liked. But he couldn’t say that, so he stayed as blank as possible. They finished eating, and Lee put his computer on the table after the plates were cleared so they could both see the screen clearly.
“See the forum?” Lee pointed. Cal tried to look like he was seeing something new, and not a page he refreshed countless times a day. “I’d really like to choose a different format, because I think this one sucks, and is really needlessly complicated. There are a whole bunch of sub-categories that no one has used in more than a year, and I’d like to just focus it down to the main topics that everyone gathers under. And I’d love to make it easier for the moderators, and they’ve told me this setup makes deleting posts too time consuming, since we get lots of trolls.” He smiled, the warmth suffusing his face. “I have great volunteer mods. One of them, PersonaNon, is so good I should pay her. She’s always on top of everything, and is fantastic at helping the other members, especially when it’s technical or personal. I wish I knew where she lived, so I could pull her into a meetup when I travel. Anyways, sorry. That’s off topic.”
That last bit was probably because Cal had pulled back and taken a hasty slug of his beer; this was in order to cover the blush he felt explode on his cheeks. PersonaNon was him, and he’d subtly but effectively hidden his gender online, to the point where everyone presumed he was a woman. While he’d exchanged brief messages with Lee as well as agents of his paid PR firm online several times, they were pretty business-like, and he’d been too nervous to let it get personal. He didn’t know he’d been noticed to that extent, and it was both touching and upsetting. What had he gotten himself into? Maybe he should just tell Lee he wasn’t interested in working with him, stand up, and go home. Unfortunately, home was the same place where Lee would end up, and he was pretty the guilt for being that rude would kill him.
So instead he leaned forward again, and pointed at the forum. “I think, as I mentioned, I’d really like to create a more unified look for all of it, like so-” he went into a rough idea he had in his head, and Lee started nodding excitedly.
“Yes! That would be great. So you’re thinking of putting the images here?” He put his finger on the screen, near the top.
“No, I was thinking more here -” Cal reached over, and found his hand brushing Lee’s, the side of their palms rubbing and their faces, since they were both leaning in, awfully close together. He pulled back, and coughed. “Yeah. Somewhere in that area.”
Lee looked puzzled, but nodded. “Okay, that makes sense.”
They continued for a while, and it took everything in Cal to stay on his guard, and not talk to Lee like he was one of his friends. This was very difficult, as he not only knew him very well from watching all his videos, he found himself genuinely liking him in much as person as online.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, he thought angrily. What have you gotten yourself into?
He was very relieved when Lee finally closed his computer, put it away, and called for the check. Cal reached for his card, but Lee waved it away and smiled. “The least I can do is feed you at this point.” There was some uncomfortable silence. “So what’s the next step?”
“Since we only did your website, you also need to talk to me about your social media collateral. Then you can give me some time for some designs, which I’ll get to you by the end of next week. After that -” he went through the process mechanically, which killed enough time for the check to arrive.
They stood up, and went through the restaurant and out the front door to the sidewalk. Lee put his bag over his shoulder so it hung on his lower right side, and smiled up at Cal. “Thanks for this, Cal, I really appreciate. Your ideas sound great, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with. So tomorrow afternoon for the social media part?”
Cal turned his head so he didn’t have to look straight at the blinding handsomeness next to him, feeling stupidly embarrassed that Lee was grateful, and that he had let him pay for Cal’s meal. Sure, maybe that was normal, but what right did he have to be around someone this wonderful and generous, especially with all the time Cal had spent obsessing about him, and, worse than obsessing, had -
Before Cal could complete the thought, he saw movement out of the corner of his eye and heard voices yelling ‘hey!’. There was a dark shape moving rapidly towards them, something swinging in its hand in a way that Cal’s instincts told him were unnatural.
Without thinking he turned his body and flung his arms around Lee, hunching himself over as the smaller man said “What-” just as the sound of plastic rustling and he felt the thudding sensation of multiple hard things hit his shoulders, neck and head, he winced and tightened his grip around Lee and then whipped his eyes up to see the figure fling itself around the corner as people shrieked and someone yelled “Fuck, man, you okay?”
“Cal!” He looked down, finding himself met with two huge, grey eyes and the pale, distressed face of Lee, whom he happened to still be holding. Three thoughts bombarded Cal at once. One was that he was in quite a lot of aching pain, although nothing felt seriously damaged. Two was that the plastic store bag full of apples next to them must have been the weapon.
Three was that the man in his arms, the one pressed against his body and clinging on to his waist and forearm as if for dear life, was Lee Wakeham. He felt the delicate shoulders underneath a layer of muscle, and smelled Lee’s subtle, spicy cologne and a sexy musky floral that came from his hair. The man was so lean and fine-boned, and Cal was very glad he’d protected him, because he was 100% sure the apples were meant for Lee’s face. “Are you okay?” He said, and his own voice sounded hoarse. Not being able to stop himself he brought his hand up to Lee’s jaw, feeling the soft skin and bone underneath, and the smaller man flushed, but somehow his hand went from his arm to Cal’s chest, where his touch burned like lava.
“I’m fine because of you, but Cal, are you hurt? We should go to the hospital!” His hand tightened.
“I’ll be okay.” Not even hearing the last statement clearly, Cal processed that Lee was fine and his mind switched out of instinct mode. Suddenly his heart was in his throat and he felt himself stir in his jeans and wanted to kiss Lee desperately, in a passionate way that the man couldn’t possibly mistake. And knowing that this was very, incredibly wrong, only a bit more wrong than daring to embrace Lee and touch his face in such a way, Cal released him very suddenly, so suddenly that if he hadn’t kept one steadying hand on Lee’s upper arm the man would have likely stumbled. And once Lee had straightened, his whole body language startled, Cal stepped several steps back.
“I….” Lee started and stopped, his expression worried and confused. “Are you sure we shouldn’t -”
He was cut off as a police cruiser pulled up next to the restaurant. They went inside to give statements, and were allowed to leave after an hour. Cal didn’t touch Lee again, although it was hard - Lee’s face was drawn and tired, and he kept rubbing his arms like he was cold, although it wasn’t chilly. Cal wanted to put his arms around him again or at least a hand on his shoulder, and tell him it would be alright, and that he’d protect him.
But he didn’t, because he didn’t have the right to touch or protect him aside from that one weird incident. But he did stand behind Lee the whole time they were there, and got him a drink to sip to calm his nerves. Lee kept trying to apologize, but he ignored it, as the gratitude gave him a rush of pleasure that was ridiculous. It wasn’t about him. The restaurant manager had given him four Advil, and the ache around his shoulders and head was now just a dull, throbbing pain. He was pretty sure he wasn’t concussed, and he didn’t want to leave Lee alone to go to the hospital or a clinic.
“I’m hoping it was just a random crazy person,” the detective said, closing her small computer where she’d taken notes and slipping a card across the table. “As it looks like the perpetrator of your past attacks is still in treatment, although this has a similar MO, such as going for your face. And the figure was small, and could very well be another woman. Please call me if you think of anything at all, or there’s even the slightest incident. Maybe scour your recent site and media traffic to see if there’s anything that stands out to you, like a new superfan who wants to follow the past one’s lead. And maybe keep this tall guy around,” she nodded at me, and I shifted, unhappy to be the focus of attention again. “Seems like he has good instincts.”
Lee turned back at Cal and smiled, something unforced and brilliant and bright, and it made something in Cal’s chest hurt to the point he had to shift his gaze away. “I know, right? I can’t tell you how grateful I am that he was there.”
Cal wanted to turn into a little ball and roll away.
Finally they were allowed to leave and they walked back to their apartment building, all of Cal’s instincts alight. He was carrying Lee’s bag despite Lee insisting he didn’t need to. Lee was silent at first, but then began to talk, quietly.
“God, I hope it isn’t another stalker,” he said, and sighed. His soft auburn hair had fallen in his face, and his forehead was creased in worry. “I almost quit social media and gave it all up after the first one, she was so crazy. And I hate that you were pulled into this, fuck!” It was the first time Cal had heard Lee swear, and it sent a shiver up his spine for all the wrong reasons.
“Don’t worry about it,” Cal said, making himself shrug. He wished he could talk to Lee about the fact he knew all about Abby, had talked to her online and even been the moderator who had kicked her out of the forums and blocked her from the fan Tumblr multiple times. “I hope it’s not a stalker as well.” He used the flat voice again, the one that he hoped didn’t show how deeply he wanted that to be true.
“Thanks,” Lee said with a distressed but genuine smile.
They got to their floor, and Cal couldn’t help himself from walking Lee to his door, his worry flaring up again when he saw Lee’s hands shake to the point when his keys came out of his pocket and fell to the floor. Cal reached down swiftly before Lee could, picked them up, and opened the door for him.
“Thank you,” Lee said, stepping in and then looking up at a Cal; a redness around his eyes said to Cal that he was trying not to cry. “I’m so sorry again about all this. Thank you for protecting me. I understand if you don’t want to work with me any longer, after all this. I wouldn’t blame you.” He looked down at his feet.
“No. I’ll still do your site. We can still meet tomorrow. But you need to rest.”
He handed Lee his messenger bag. There was so much more Cal wanted to say, such as that actually, more than doing the site, he wanted to keep an eye on Lee, and make sure something like that day’s attack didn’t happen again. That he wanted to be around, just like the cop had suggested, and do what he had to do to keep the man safe. But that instinct wasn’t fair, because Lee obviously had more than enough experience with strangers who wanted too much from him, and Cal refused to be another fan with barrier issues.
“Thank you,” Lee said with a sniffle, and then laughed. “God, I’m so pathetic. But I really appreciate it.” He paused, and looked up at Cal, a question in his distressed face.
In that moment Cal knew that Lee was considering asking him into his apartment. His body and brain crackled with the possibilities. He knew that if he did go through that door, if he spent any more of that night with an upset and fragile Lee, that the desire to pull him into his arms again would become near impossible to resist. Maybe they would sit on the couch together and he could pull Lee towards him, bury his face in that soft hair and feel those narrow hips shift next to him. Lee could cry, he probably should cry, and Cal would tell him it would be alright, that he was there, as many times as necessary. Maybe he’d kiss him, but that was secondary, and wasn’t even fair to consider - Lee had gone through trauma before and it was happening again. What the man needed was comfort, and Cal burned to give it to him.
He grimaced at himself as the desire fought with reality, and he was almost relieved when something in Lee’s face shifted, and the distress on his face turned into a wane but genuine smile. “I’m sorry again. Please get some ice on your back and head, okay? I’ll see you tomorrow.” Cal nodded, and Lee gently closed the door.
Cal stumbled in a daze to his apartment, and when the door closed behind him he couldn’t even make it past the entryway. He pressed his back to the door and slide down, feeling the pain simmering underneath the drugs and the desire and regret coursing through his body. Why hadn’t he told Lee that he was a fan, or that he moderated his fansites online? Why hadn’t he been honest, so he could talk to him openly, and tell him he knew about everything and how sorry he was that Lee had to deal with this? He knew he’d done it to avoid making Lee uncomfortable in the beginning, but now the situation was about ten times worse. Now this vulnerable man trusted someone who was just like his attackers, another online fan and stranger who got overly obsessed with a guy who just wanted to share his love of fashion with the world.
“I’m such a goddamned loser,” Cal groaned, and buried his face in his knees.
Lee shut the door behind him gently and let his bag thud to the floor next to him, not caring if he was being rough with his laptop. He kicked his shoes to the side, not bothering to place them carefully like he usually did. He stumbled to the kitchen, uncorked a half-empty bottle of wine, and resisted the urge to drink it straight from the bottle. As he poured it carefully, his hand still shaking, his ragdoll cat Theodosia sauntered into the kitchen, stretching a paw towards him with a yawn before bumping her head against his leg in greeting.
“Oh, Theo,” he said, and sat down on the floor with a thud, one hand around his glass and the other buried in her long black fur. She followed his lead, thudding down in her boneless way and pressing her weight against his thigh with a chirp. He laughed, and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “What the fuck was that?” ‘That’ covered a lot of aspects of his night.
His phone on the counter rang, and he reached up to grab it. He was relieved to see it was his best friend. “Hey, Christiana. No, I haven’t been crying. Thanks for calling. Don’t apologize - I knew you had that gallery opening tonight, and figured you might not see my text for a while. I’ll live, it was just another bizarre attack.” She started to freak out, which he let her do for a bit before telling her the details and reassuring her the cops were on it, as well as that it couldn’t be Abby.
“Yeah, if it wasn’t for Cal, they would have gotten me straight in the face. I feel so horrible, Chris - he looked like he was in lots of pain, but refused to have it looked at it.” He sighed as she responded. “Yes, this is the that tall adorable neighbor, and I strong-armed him into doing my web stuff, and yes, he’s even cuter close up. He smells amazing. No, I’m still pretty sure he can’t stand me, despite being the politest and kindest person ever. He insisted on carrying my bag, for fuck’s sake, but also refused to walk too close to me.” He laughed. “I know, I know, I’m a glutton for punishment. But he really is an amazing developer and designer, and I won’t get my hopes up for anything else. No, don’t come over, although I appreciate it; you’ve got too much going on, and I’d be in bed by the time you got here. Thanks, beautiful. I’ll call you tomorrow. Ciao.”
He let his phone drop and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, knowing it was disgusting but feeling too drained to get a tissue or paper towel. He rubbed Theo’s head, letting his own loll back so he could stare at the ceiling, thinking about how deeply he had just lied to Christiana about not getting his hopes up. That would have been easier a few hours earlier when it had just been a bemused attraction, but now?
Now all he could think about was that moment when Cal’s eyes had narrowed and his strong, muscular arms had engulfed him, cradling him against his chest. His first surprised thought had been about how good Cal smelled, all masculinity and soap and something naturally, sexily woodsy underneath. He’d felt Cal’s tense muscles, the distinct impression of chest hair underneath the cotton T-shirt, and the flinching of Cal’s body and the tightening of his grip as the impact of the apples shot through them. He’d grabbed Cal’s forearm and was comforted by their solidity, and how they felt powerful and warm.
He’d not wanted to leave that grip, and for a brief, fantastic moment when Cal had touched his face he thought the younger man was about to kiss him. He would have sworn that’s what he saw there, that concern and a hunger that looked an awful lot like lust. Despite the danger of the moment, or maybe because of it, Lee had felt a powerful frisson of desire between the two of them.
“But obviously, I’m delusional,” he said to no one, thudding his head lightly against the cabinets and causing Theo to lift her head in annoyance. Cal must have sensed that Lee was heating up and had thus been impatient to get away from him, practically pushing him away and keeping himself at a safe distance the rest of the night.
And yet, despite the fact Cal clearly didn’t want to get too close to Lee, he had also been painfully thoughtful. “But you need to rest.” Getting him water, and a drink when the cops started talking to him. Holding his bag, standing ready behind him like some sort of personal guard. He must have been an incredibly nice guy to take such good care of someone he couldn’t stand. And Lee was sure Cal couldn’t stand him, because there was no other reason for the avoidance, or for the way the man’s face often scrunched up as if he had eaten something sour while Lee was talking.
And all that sucked, because in one swift moment of heroism Cal had gone from the shy, towering cutie next door to someone Lee wanted to see and know more of, somewhat desperately. Was it weird that after being attacked - albeit not for the first time - he was just as turned on as he was freaked out? And not only that, he was turned on by a guy who seemed to find him downright repugnant. He’d wanted so desperately to invite Cal in for a glass of wine, maybe get those arms around him again, and then that look on Cal’s face had stopped him short, the one that said he knew what Lee was about to ask and he fervently wished he wouldn’t. Hell, knowing Lee’s track record, the kid wasn’t even gay. Aureolia had she was pretty sure he was, but how would she know?
Why did he have such horrific luck in love? It was a comedy by this point. “I’m such a fucking dork,” Lee said, and wiped his eyes again before finishing his wine in one angry, desperate gulp.
To Be Continued!