Set You Apart
Stein’s house was a masterpiece of ill omens. Stein opening the door to his home standing on his two feet was an ill omen in and of itself, but all Spirit felt at the sight was griping excitement, regardless of the fact that it must mean Stein had been watching him hover there for minutes without daring to ring. Stein’s hand never let go of its loose hold on the handle of the door as he looked Spirit from head to toe, slowly, perhaps not as meaningfully as Spirit had hoped.
This is a bad idea, he thought again.
“Senpai,” Stein said pleasantly. “This is a surprise.”
Spirit had to detach his tongue from his palate with conscious effort to answer. “Is it?” he joked weakly.
He had never been able to smile without nerve around Stein. Not while they were alone. Stein’s lips quirked at the corners, and Spirit suffered rush of warmth at the sight, unsettling despite its now day-old familiarity.
“Aren’t you going to invite me in?” he asked. He lifted the bottle he was holding for good measure, but Stein barely glanced at it.
“Sure. Make yourself at home.”
The words were mocking—there was no making oneself at home in Stein’s house, not with the barren rooms and corridors, not with the stitch-like engravings on the walls which Stein probably thought to be hilarious. All they reminded Spirit of were the times he had woken up in his youth to find them on his body, all the times he had stilled in his bed with panic until Stein laughed loftily and made the scars disappear.
He swallowed. He unstuck his feet from the bleak concrete outside. This side of town seemed ever-fogged, never touched by daylight; the hallway stretching behind Stein was dark enough that Spirit could barely discern where walls ended and floor began, but he put down all sign of distress and made himself step past him anyway.
He tensed when he heard Stein move behind him. “Sorry,” he heard, and then the wall lamps lit up.
Spirit couldn’t stop his shoulders from dropping slightly out of tension.
“I always forget to turn them on,” Stein said, stepping ahead of him.
“I forget all the time too,” Spirit replied defensively. “It’s no big deal.”
The smile he was given was knowing.
“I’ll go fetch some glasses,” Stein mused. He gestured to the third door down. “Don’t worry, senpai, I cleaned up the living-room today. You won’t find any body parts there.”
“Very funny,” Spirit muttered.
“I thought so, yeah.”
This was okay. This was usual. Spirit cleared his throat and walked, and Stein had not been lying; what he called a living-room was drearily dark and bare, but it was clean. Entirely dustless. The TV was unlit.
Spirit took a seat on the only couch and grabbed the remote immediately, just to give himself something to do. He was never one for sitting still, especially when his thoughts were in such agitation that they had led his body to the one place on Earth he avoided like the plague. He didn’t watch any of the pictures unfolding on the screen as he zapped through the channels, didn’t hear any of the words, the volume was so low; he kept his hand on the neck of the wine bottle the whole time, trying not to think and failing spectacularly.
He hadn’t been able to sleep since coming back from Italy. That insomnia had been the kind spent at the edge of a window, smoking cigarette after cigarette into the cold night air. Now, almost twenty-four hours past his bedtime, he felt as though his skin would jump off of him at a touch.
It felt a little like how shifting into his weapon form did. Changing and changing and never settling down, freer and more tightly bound at once, his chest pulsing with warmth from another person’s soul. Spirit wasn’t often wielded anymore, and each fight left him a little more holed, a little more brittle. He was out of shape. Out of training.
He had filled the gap of being let go of with smoke until he couldn’t tell this ache from the other.
He heard the sound of Stein’s steps long before he entered the room. Spirit rubbed a hand over his face quickly and muted the TV, twisting sideways to look at the door. Stein came in with two glasses in one hand and his phone in the other.
“So what’s the occasion?” he asked, dropping into the couch next to Spirit. The cushions dipped toward him—he was always heavier than Spirit, taller and fuller, something Spirit had found patently unjust growing up. “It can’t be that you want to celebrate working together again.”
“Why can’t it?” Spirit asked. “It’s been a while.”
“We spent all day together yesterday. I thought you’d want to avoid me for a whole year after that.”
“You wound me, Stein—of course I want to check up on my kouhai.”
“Of course,” Stein murmured.
He quirked a smile at the way Spirit’s fingers retreated from the bottle when he grabbed it; Spirit watched, throat caught with sudden ache, as he uncorked it deftly. He spent a second looking at the label before pouring it, and Spirit felt his mouth dry a little, his face flush warmly, as he remembered just how long he had spent at the store picking the bottle.
“Humor me,” he muttered, pushing his glass closer to Stein. He didn’t move it back until it was fuller than necessary. “Let’s have a drink together for old time’s sake.”
“How much did you drink before coming here?”
It gave Spirit pause. He found Stein looking at the bottle when he looked up, his face entirely blank.
“One glass,” he said. Well—one and a half, but the second one hardly counted. He had eaten with it. “Why?”
There was never no reason for Stein to ask something. Spirit let it slide, though, too restless to want to know more.
Their glasses clicked together with the kind of clarity that only crystal produced. Spirit’s was at his lips immediately, his eyes drawn away from Stein’s the second they could afford to, and the Côte-Rôtie was a welcome taste in his mouth, burned and floral. Stein only took one sip before placing his glass down again. He was watching him.
“So,” Spirit tried, breaking through the thick silence. “How’s school treating you?”
Stein let some time unfold before answering. “Surprisingly well,” he said. “Some of those kids are definitely worth looking after. Very promising.”
“It sounds creepy when you say it. You’re not planning anything with them, are you?”
“I never said a thing. Though, now that you mention it—”
“Argh, shut up,” Spirit grunted into his glass, drinking a third of it down. “I regret asking.”
He wiped his lips with the back of his hand; Stein followed the motion with his eyes, with avidity, and Spirit felt flushed now for reasons he knew had little to do with alcohol. His arm felt boneless against the pull of gravity. He let it slump back down onto his lap.
“Then why did you ask?” Stein said lowly.
“I don’t know. I’m just making small talk.”
“You’re not here for small talk.”
Spirit’s nape was tense under the line of his collar. He rubbed his hand there, next, under the shortest of his hair. “Why are you trying so hard to find hidden motives?” asked. “I already told you, I’m just here to see how you’re doing.”
“I’m always doing well.”
He almost snorted at that. He had never known Stein to be doing well, not a day in their shared lives. Stein had been a miserable and twisted teenager, and if Spirit had no idea if he was miserable now, he still knew Stein was twisted. He still knew how Stein felt when—
His lips shivered at the memory. He grabbed the foot of his glass, found himself thwarted when Stein’s hand came to rest palm-first atop the rim.
“You never come here, senpai,” Stein said. His tone was conversational. He pulled Spirit’s glass toward himself—Spirit hadn’t realized how little wine was actually left in it. “Not of your own volition, not if you can avoid it. Either you want to talk about what happened with Maka and Soul two days ago, or you’re a lot drunker than you look.”
“I’m not drunk,” Spirit replied through his teeth.
He really wasn’t. He wasn’t even buzzed.
“That’s good,” Stein continued, uncaring. “Maka and Soul, then.”
Spirit’s hand clenched on nothing. He forced it to relax, forced himself to breathe in.
“I’m not here for Maka and Soul either,” he said. “You’ve already told me Soul will make a full recovery. And Maka, well, she’s not forthcoming—with me—but—” He swallowed. His next words came out rougher, a little shaved at the edges. “She’ll be fine. She’s her parents’ daughter.”
“Takes after her mother, no doubt,” Stein said mildly.
It was nothing but the truth, and yet it sounded like insult. This was the part where Spirit ought to get angry or defensive, to cry out for the woman he had lost or ask him what he meant. Stein’s face was nothing but the usual under the dim light of his home, his eyes sunken in and his smile an offense. He looked ill.
Spirit didn’t need to ask him what he meant.
“Anyway,” he went on, raspy. “I’m not drunk. And I don’t wanna talk to you about Maka and Soul.”
“I took the liberty of ordering food,” Stein replied, and for a second the change in topic threw Spirit off-balance, made him blink slowly and dazedly. Stein corked the bottle back up. He didn’t take another sip of his wine. “Hope you don’t mind Italian.”
“I never said I was staying for dinner,” Spirit replied.
Stein shrugged. “Do you want to be here or not? You’re acting rather out of character, senpai. All twitchy. Makes me want to thoroughly check if—”
“Okay, okay, dinner’s fine,” Spirit cut in, waving a hand at him. “Damn you.”
Stein laughed and stood up, taking the bottle with him. Spirit quieted his mind in the lapse of time it took for him to place it away—and he should have insisted on keeping it, Stein never drank alcohol that he knew of, not outside of social drinking. And Stein never engaged in social drinking. It was a waste of perfectly good wine.
It also begged the question of why Stein had let him in in the first place. Spirit hadn’t gone far enough in his sleepless musings to consider what he should do once he actually was in the man’s presence.
“So,” Stein said, in obvious imitation of Spirit’s earlier attempt. Once more, the couch dipped toward him as he sat down, making Spirit’s backside slide an inch to the left. “Why are you really here?”
“No reason,” Spirit replied. It sounded as empty as when Stein himself had said it.
“Maybe you just missed me.”
Spirit could feel him looking at the side of his face. He could almost fool himself into thinking he felt the air move as Stein spoke.
“Maybe you’ve been lonely after all this time,” Stein continued, still in that same habitual voice, that same edge of knowing the one you addressed was subpar. Lacking.
Spirit had long stopped being hurt by it. What he felt now, hearing it, likened itself to pity.
Stein had barely been able to reign in his excitement while they had fought. Spirit hadn’t been able to either, not after so long left unhandled, but Stein had felt more than just that, more than simple eagerness to fight. And it was hard to put into words the level at which meister and weapon connected during combat, hard to define where one person ended and the other began, sometimes; but Spirit knew that the bright, aching longing hadn’t been his.
He hadn’t been the one feeling alive for the first time in years. He hadn’t been the one pouring so much warmth through their reopened bond.
“You’ve always had a tendency to cling, after all—”
“Stein,” Spirit said tiredly.
Stein’s eyes glinted now, eerily, in the best approximation of how he expressed excitement. Stein was an acquired taste, Spirit knew. He was someone who caused others to back away first and hopefully forever. Stein let others come to him if they ever dared to, and Spirit had tried, not enough and not long enough, but he had tried.
There was a reason he had come here.
He gnawed at his bottom lip until pain flared there briefly. “Stein,” he said again, shoulders tense and gaze unmoving, “were you ever going to tell me that you love me?”
There was no other explanation for how the soul resonance had felt, no closer feeling to the giddiness that had sang through Stein’s veins at the time, in that fraction of a minute during which it was impossible to tell them apart. Spirit had felt giddy all the same, had continued to feel Stein’s calm and relief in himself for hours, to expect him to take him in hand, take him where the fight led.
He remembered looking at Stein’s collected appearance after the fight, as he took care of Soul’s wounds and made sure Maka’s worry didn’t eat her alive; he remembered realizing, He’s in love with me.
It all made terrible sense.
“Were you?” Spirit pressed. “Or were you just going to pretend that nothing’s going on for—for however long you’ve felt that way?”
It hurt something in him that he had no name for to see Stein’s expression retreat very far away from humor, no matter that he had expected it. For a moment Stein looked very close to the child he had once been, suspended between hope and shame, between anger and anxiety. He leaned back into the couch and looked at the ceiling—not slowly enough, not nonchalantly enough to pretend that he wasn’t doing to avoid looking at Spirit instead—and he replied, “No.”
Spirit’s breathing felt shaky now, haggard in his own lungs in the face of this admission.
Why him? Why not?
“How would you have reacted?” Stein cut in, irritated now. His shoulders were a straight line against the back of the couch. His neck, when he swallowed, moved up and down starkly. “You didn’t want me,” he continued. “You’ve never wanted me, not even just as a meister. You were always flirting around, only with women, and then you got married to a better partner and had a daughter. Why the hell would you want to know about some ugly kid’s crush on you?”
“You’re not ugly,” Spirit replied faintly.
It was all he could think of saying. Stein snorted, smirking at nothing, eyes closed now. He looked very vulnerable with his throat bare to the empty room.
“I had a feeling you’d figure it out,” he muttered, “but I didn’t think you’d have the courage to confront me about it. I liked that scenario better.”
“I wasn’t just going to ignore it.”
“You were, if I didn’t push your buttons earlier.”
Spirit clenched his teeth. He wished the wine was still on the table beside them; he longed for its sweet headiness, now more than ever. “I don’t get you,” he accused, grabbing Stein’s collar in one hand. Stein looked at him fleetingly. He didn’t bother to raise his head from its slump over the back of his seat. “Did you want me to ignore it or not? I’m surprised, yeah, I wasn’t expecting it, but I think we’re both adult enough to talk about it and—”
“Now,” Stein said, “you’re just lying to yourself.”
Spirit’s fingers tightened into his clothes. He ended up pulling him further in, and Stein did nothing at all to resist it.
“You’re scared of me,” he said, looking Spirit in the eye. “You’ve always been. You can barely stand to be alone in a room with me.”
“I can stand it,” Spirit replied tightly.
Stein laughed, mirthless. “You’re scared now, senpai.”
Spirit’s chest flared with something like pain, twisting and turning in his guts brightly, running up his throat and settling on his tongue; but it wasn’t fear. Not now. Not when all he could think of was the boy he had once grabbed by the shoulder and led around, out of a sense of responsibility that all children thought a couple years of age granted.
He had cared about Stein then, when he was nothing more than a horrid child, a bully to his classmates, a genius meister whom every weapon was too wary of to pair with. He still cared about Stein now. If that hadn’t changed after everything Stein had once done to scare him away, it wasn’t going to change after Stein admitted to loving him.
It wasn’t going to change when Spirit himself had thought of nothing but him since separating again.
Spirit kneeled upon the cushions. Stein watched him do it with a lapse of lateness to his understanding, and by the time Spirit had leaned down toward him and tugged him up by the collar, he didn’t have time to look either surprised or fearful.
Spirit hadn’t kissed anyone in a long time, for all that he spent night upon night in the company of women whose attention he paid for. He found the corner of Stein’s open lips rather than the full of them; he had to breathe, shakily, before trailing down and to the side. Stein was still as stone under him. Spirit could only find life when his hand opened to fit against the side of his neck—at it was trembling too, this movement, up and down with every breath. As though his very skin was trying to slip away from him.
Stein opened his mouth and said, “Spirit.”
“Shush,” Spirit replied.
He didn’t open his eyes. He didn’t move away. He dipped his tongue into the part of Stein’s lips, feeling them shake under his, smiling when Stein’s hand came up to grab his hip. Stein’s hair was surprisingly fine under his fingers, and Stein seemed to like that he was touching it. His head bowed backward to follow the press of his palm. Spirit crushed their lips together, working Stein’s mouth open until he could taste him again. He only paused once to take Stein’s glasses off, and only so he could tilt his face closer.
He felt nothing like kissing his ex-wife. It felt nothing like kissing anyone, the way every kiss Spirit had known had been unique in its own way. Stein bent sweetly into the couch when Spirit pressed him into it. He moaned when Spirit straddled him, and that was enough to quiet another of the fears that Spirit had carried in him for days.
He hadn’t known what it would feel like to be the one straddling someone like this. He hadn’t known what it would be like to kiss another man.
Stein’s hands were firm by his sides, but they were not confident. “Senpai,” he said, pulling back a little.
Spirit stopped himself from leaning in to follow him. Even while sitting above his thighs, Stein was of a height with him. He barely needed to bend the neck.
“Why are you…”
Seeing Stein speechless was a near unprecedented sight, and Spirit couldn’t help but grin a little despite the bruising heartbeat at his throat, the nervous energy locking his limbs in place. “I wanted to,” he replied. “I, ah, I’ve been thinking about doing this since we fought that kid.”
Stein stared at him, wide open and yearning, wanting to believe him and wanting not to.
“You always did get horny in inappropriate situations,” he said eventually.
“Shut up,” Spirit replied, tugging on his hair. The smile that stretched Stein’s lips then was the usual sort of sardonic, and the sight of it settled warmly in Spirit’s chest, loosening tensions he hadn’t even known were there. “There’s no way for you to know that—you’re just bluffing.”
“Am I? I did get the chance to live through many of your romances.”
It halted Spirit’s mind midway through finding a way to object.
“Were you, um.” He glanced away, at the still-lit TV playing silently to their side and the glasses sitting on the coffee table. He cleared his throat. “Did you already like me back then?” he asked.
He knew. Of course he knew, now, with the perspective. Spirit hadn’t been foolish enough, even back then, not to notice that Stein never spent time with anyone but him.
“Yes,” Stein answered.
Spirit nodded wordlessly.
He turned back to him, then, with a question he didn’t know how to voice. Stein saved him the trouble by being the one to pull him in this time.
This kiss was less tentative than the first. Spirit had carried heat inside his veins from the moment Stein had stepped out of his front door; now it uncoiled through him, languid beat after languid beat, until having his thighs spread above Stein’s became more of an issue than not. He dragged his hands down from Stein’s neck and to the hem of his sweater, surprising himself with how much he felt just as the touch of fingers to warm skin. Stein drew in a breath when the full of Spirit’s hand made contact with his belly. Spirit made his ascension as slow as a lifetime.
Knuckle by knuckle, line by line. Stein looked surprisingly human now, with his mouth wet with spit and his skin red with arousal. Just as messy as anyone. He was built stockier than Spirit ever would be, and Spirit felt up the swell of each muscle with his palm, followed the trail of each scar with his nails. “Can I,” he said, and at Stein’s nod, he let go of him to pull up the cloth altogether.
It caught momentarily at Stein’s ear, forcing him to take the matter into his own hands, but it wasn’t ten seconds until he was laid bare for Spirit’s eyes to consume. Scarred and charred and tough-skinned. Stein leaned back into the couch, his eyes never looking away from Spirit’s face.
Spirit wasn’t looking at him, though. He was trailing his hand up once more, from hip to breast to collarbone, feeling each bump and ridge of the way shiver into his palm. Stein didn’t move away when he lingered on the faded lines under his nipples. They were the only ones he hadn’t embellished and made a sordid show of; they were almost invisible, and Spirit wouldn’t have known to look for them if he hadn’t known they would be there.
“You’re not ugly,” he said again, breathing onto Stein’s mouth. “You—you look good.”
He didn’t know how else to describe the way Stein’s body made him feel.
Stein made a noise, incredibly faint, that traveled up Spirit’s spine sharp and electric. He leaned in to kiss again with a moan stuck in his throat and his cock flushed hard in his pants, pressing into his inseam; it was all he could do not to grind into the lowest of Stein’s bare belly, and instead he touched Stein’s shoulders, trailed down the thick of his arms.
“Fuck,” he breathed, pulling away. “Fuck.”
“You really want this,” Stein said, bewildered.
It made Spirit laugh. “Yeah,” he replied pathetically. “Yeah, I—God, I want you.”
He leaned his head down into Stein’s shoulder, breathing in deeply. He wasn’t unused to Stein’s clean scent being overwhelmed with more humanly odors, like sweat or blood; now he felt as thought he had never really taken it in or appreciated it. Stein’s neck curved when he kissed it, and his hand slipped from Spirit’s hip to his back, under jacket and shirt, directly onto skin.
“Why now?” he mumbled. “You always… I always thought you’d never want that. With me. With men.”
“Does it matter?”
Stein didn’t answer.
Spirit rocked into him, delighted at the hitch in his breathing, at every little way he could break through Stein’s walls and make him run with sheer honesty. He dragged his fingers through the hair on Stein’s belly in wonder, and his own heart beat straight through the back of his ribs, the inside of his spine.
He felt flayed open. Dug through. Holed and gaping. When Stein’s hand pressed between his legs, he moaned like a teenager, incapable of thought and incapable of speech, thrusting into the offered pressure with abandon. His lips found Stein’s as if magnetized to them, and he allowed Stein to lick into his mouth this time, in careful flicks of the tongue, as he ground himself closer to release.
“Stein,” he groaned, gleeful at the breathless, “Yeah,” that Stein gave back—and then he touched the opening of Stein’s pants with blunt fingers, and Stein’s inhale stilled in his throat.
It was enough to clear his head—it felt like a blow across the face.
Spirit let his hands fall back to Stein’s sides. He stopped rocking into Stein’s hand, stopped kissing his open mouth.
“Sorry,” he said. “Ah, I just realized I’m acting like a jerk.”
Stein looked like he didn’t understand. It only made the guilt in him swell and spread farther.
“It matters,” he made himself say. “What you asked earlier. It does matter.”
“I don’t really care if you don’t want to talk about it,” Stein replied.
He still looked flustered—red in the face, quick-breathed, damp and human. Spirit wanted to burn the sight of him into his eyelids, so he would remember it every single time he blinked. Instead he threw his leg back over Stein’s and sat where he had sat earlier, separate from him. The cold was bright after so much heat. His skin ran with shivers.
“You’re a virgin, aren’t you,” he said.
He didn’t need to look to see the way Stein tensed.
“You shouldn’t… you shouldn’t have your first time like this. You’re right, I drank before coming, and I didn’t even answer your feelings properly, and we should really talk about all this before—”
“Senpai,” Stein cut in. “You’re even more stupid than I thought if you think for one second that I don’t want to have sex with you.”
It was almost enough to make Spirit moan again, almost enough to push him back into Stein’s space and divest him of all remaining clothes, until he could put his mouth on him from head to toe.
“Still,” he said, ignoring his aching arousal. “If, if you really want it, then I want to make it good for you. I don’t want to do it when I’m so messed up in the head and risk making it a… a less than agreeable experience.”
He expected Stein to make fun of him. He was readying himself for it—he knew he was right, despite how much he wanted him and how much he wanted him now. He didn’t want Stein’s first time to go like this, on the couch of his barren living-room, with the TV playing on mute, Spirit drowned in his own arousal.
He had no idea how to pleasure someone like Stein either. He didn’t know which way Stein would want it to go, or if there were things he would need outside of the obvious. He didn’t even know if Stein had the obvious, considering he had never slept with someone before.
Spirit swallowed. “Eventually,” he said. “We’ll need to talk about this. Later.”
Stein didn’t get the chance to laugh at him, because the doorbell rang.
For a second neither of them moved, caught in a hazy sort of space and time, bodies still heated with want. Stein was the one who broke out of it. He stood from the couch on sure enough legs and pulled his sweater back over himself. He plucked his glasses from where they had fallen and put them back on his nose.
“Our food’s here,” he declared.
Spirit’s mouth was dry at the sight of him alone. “Yeah.”
They looked at each other.
Stein’s lips quirked into the rarest of his smiles, one that softened every line of his face, that erased all trace of aging from his skin. The scar running around his eye and cheek vanished, the bruises under his eyes eased. Spirit felt no fear at all when his hand moved up to touch him; and if Stein hesitated, level with his cheek, he didn’t back down. He just ran his fingers through Spirit’s hair instead.
The pull sent tingles down Spirit’s nape. He turned worry to drowsiness.
“I guess,” Stein started. “I guess we could start with dinner.”
It was backwards enough to be perfect, somehow.
“We could,” Spirit replied, smiling.