Lucas was only meant to be visiting when the lockdowns hit. He hadn’t seen Liam in a year, longer than they’d ever gone. Missing his friend, he was honestly going crazy at home with his parents. His sister was always on the phone, frenziedly arranging and rearranging her upcoming wedding. He’d been at Liam’s apartment for two days, trying not to feel like a stranger and trying to work out if Liam’s girlfriend hated him or was just a tease.
Maria was dangerous like that. A beautiful woman, headstrong and comic-villain-smart, she was studying law at the nearby university and had Latin tattooed on her inner arm – audi alteram partem. On his first night here, Lucas had asked her what it meant.
“That I’m not saying shit,” she answered with a devilish smile.
“And that she likes to gossip,” Liam added.
Maria lounged back into her chair, legs curled under her, still smiling as she watched her boyfriend through her thick, dark lashes. There were promises in that look, as mysterious and dark as the winter night outside, and Lucas looked away, blushing.
They fit together well, Liam and Maria. In the kitchen they moved in unison, dancing past each other with lingering touches, a pinch here or a stroke there, only just in Lucas’ sight. Lucas couldn’t blame them; they were happy together and not even the lockdowns could shake them. More than that, they looked good together. They had the same dry, slow smile, though Liam’s was always kinder, a little more sincere. The same humour and interests. And, if Lucas was being honest (though he’d been beating this out of himself for the ten years he'd known Liam), Liam was every bit as gorgeous as Maria.
Tall and dark-haired, he wore black like it had been made for him and had ink spreading over his arms and a great dragon that curled from one shoulder and clawed its way down his back. He did Maria’s tattoo on their first anniversary, something Lucas had cautioned him against. At the time, Liam had only fixed his glasses, offered that old, charming smile that no one had ever resisted, and said he’d never regret Maria.
Liam had always been like that. Even when they were teenagers, he had an unwavering certainty that drew Lucas in. It was a quality Maria seemed to share.
When the lockdown news arrived – another one, for who knew how long – neither would hear of Lucas leaving.
“You’re not any trouble,” Liam said entirely unprompted as they re-pumped the air mattress in the study.
“It’s good for me and Maria to talk to someone besides ourselves. I’ll warn her about storming in here after midnight for a new book though.”
“I don’t want to make her uncomfortable.”
“You couldn’t,” Liam snorted. “And if you did, she’d tell you how to fix it. Will you relax if I promise to kick you out if you annoy us?”
“I mean… I guess?”
“Alright, consider it promised. You up for Minecraft?”
Really, what choice did Lucas have? He couldn’t bear another week locked down with his parents, and Liam knew it. So he settled in, pitched in, and hoped to hell he wouldn’t piss them off.
Maria and Liam were fighting. Lucas heard their whispered arguments through the bedroom wall, the heated tones and angry silences. Maria’s touch lessened with the end of winter, Liam went out less and less, and Lucas was losing his mind.
At this point, he’d practically become family. With the tattoo parlour closed, Liam had taken Lucas for a model, spending hours stooped over his bare back, hands and ink moving with steady precision. It was nothing permanent, but something he could post online. Something that wasn’t going to get filthy comments or intermingle with Liam’s own tattoos. It was one of the few times he went into their bedroom – to spread out on their king-size.
The whole room was just so them. A little messy. Black shirts entangled with blue bras. Blinds pulled back to let in the blinding sun. A painting hung opposite the bed, a mess of colour that looked like the sea, cut through with strands of silver, matching their silver bed sheets and black covers. It smelt like them too, perfumed in sweat and sweet and rosy like their body wash. The familiarity curled up through Lucas’s nose and tightened around his lungs, threading through his ribs.
Those peaceful afternoons were like a bubble around them, and Lucas waited impatiently for each one. Liam’s voice was always soft, his touch always so gentle, so firmly there, that Lucas could’ve been hallucinating. It might’ve been the isolation, the lack of physical touch between any but the three of them. It could’ve been that Lucas really was hallucinating, but a tiny part of himself, one that he was still squashing down, knew that wasn’t it.
It wasn’t COVID, or lockdowns, or the rising numbers of cases, deaths, and ICU patients displayed on the news like an endless loop, day to night to day. It was Liam, as it always had been. Liam in tight, short-sleeved shirts; that black ink etched into his dark skin. Liam, as familiar to Lucas as himself; dependable and endlessly certain. Sweet voiced and quiet-natured and a hard, warm presence beside him.
It was Maria, too, who had warmed up to him but never quite lost her bite. Who wore red lipstick to Zoom calls and watched him through those dark, knowing eyes. Who stretched and showed off her stomach or curled with skirt-bared thighs. Who reached for the highest shelf, her back arched like she knew exactly the effect it could have.
The effect it did have.
She watched Lucas play games, Liam’s rig hooked up for full access to his Steam library. She shoved him into the kitchen with Liam, too impatient to teach him herself but determined Lucas learn how to not burn a steak. They went on walks, arm in arm, and spoke quietly of the people they saw, the maskless and the old and the couples on the verge of cracking. It was a game: baby or divorce, and Lucas was a little ashamed of how much he enjoyed it.
Lucas hated living there. Every tortuous second of it. But if he had the want to leave he didn’t have the will. He hated how they fought, and he hated how his dreams played on painful what-if’s.
Maria caught COVID. The vaccines they were meant to have gotten had been given to seventeen-year-olds instead; the government determined to not let the disease impact their HSCs or the university’s funding. Maria had raged about it worse than anyone, but ultimately it was she who caught the virus. She holed up in her and Liam’s bedroom, texting away requests: books, when she had the energy, tissues when she ran out. Liam was glued to his phone, attentive to the last, worrying holes into the carpet every second of the day.
Lucas streamed his games to keep her busy, grew used to the sound of laboured breaths on the other end of Discord, and didn’t sleep a wink.
Liam crashed with Lucas, having a history of sharing beds, the mattress big enough for two. Camps, motels, tents – COVID was an easy add. But Liam slept close, drawn to Lucas’ body heat, his dragon bare in the moonlight. Lucas kept his back to him, terrified that his dreams would wake his arms, and he’d entangle with his friend in ways only Maria should. How Liam would only want Maria to.
But the mattress was only a double, and the lack of space was almost a luxury.
They weren’t fighting anymore. Lucas was glad for them but he hated it too. More often than not, he’d settle down for bed only to hear bedsprings creak from the other room, the soft thumps against their shared wall. For a while, he blocked it out with earphones, only taking them out when he was certain that they had stopped.
At some point, he just couldn’t bear it and slipped from his mattress to press an ear to the wall. Squeaks, thumps, and Maria; breathless, muffled, uncontrolled. Lucas’ knees all but buckled; he sunk to the floor and screwed his eyes shut. It was hopeless though, unbidden the images came, the thought of her pillow-messed hair and gorgeous skirt hiked over her thighs. Lucas knew he shouldn’t, knew Liam would skin him for it – hell, Maria would skin him worse – he hooked onto that thought to drag his mind away.
But it fell straight to Liam. It wasn’t even the idea of Maria and Liam, though that did play in the background of it all. It was just Liam. The strong biceps, the dark hair against his chest, a handful of curls in Lucas’ hand. He’d pierced his nipples a few years ago when he first left school. Lucas could all but feel them on his tongue. He flexed his hands and felt Liam’s belt buckle, the honey-sweet anticipation of seeing if he’d ever gone through with the other piercings…
He couldn’t help but watch Liam’s hands the next morning, curling around the handle of an egg flip. He couldn’t help but picture – for just a moment, a fleeting instance – those hands caught around something else. Then he looked away, and Maria was stretching up into the pantry, a telltale black peeking from the green folds of her skirt, and wished he could catch her too, press her into the countertop and fold them together.
Liam reached over her with one arm around her waist, and they were so beautiful together, so perfectly happy, that bile rose in his throat and Lucas slunk away.
The real estate agencies re-opened, a thousand homes were tentatively booked for display, and Lucas went to as many as he could. Maria insisted on coming, and she had Opinions On Everything. That wasn’t the worst part though – she insisted on playing his girlfriend, and she played it shrewdly, sharp-eyed and sharper-tongued. Even if Lucas wanted to rent one of the places, the agents probably would’ve refused him anyway.
Liam was no help.
“She said that mouldy curtains meant it’d flood and I’d drown,” Lucas had complained over a frying pan.
“And that the windows didn’t provide a good enough escape.”
“Well - no. But that’s not the point.”
“Sounds like it’s Maria’s,” Liam said, grinning infuriatingly.
“She can be a real piece of work,” Lucas complained, knowing a lost cause when he saw one.
Liam knocked their shoulders together.
“That’s why we love her. You know you don’t have to rush it? We’re not trying to shove you out.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Lucas murmured, dropping his eyes to the onion. “It’ll be good to get my own place.
My own damn bed. It’s been great staying here, but I swear if I ever sleep on another air mattress…”
“As long as you’re sure,” Liam replied just as quietly. His brow pinched, his glasses fogged up over the steam. “But you haven’t bothered us. We’ve both – well, we’ve enjoyed having you here.”
“Thanks for letting me stay,” Lucas said, turning to the recipe in Liam’s hands. “Is it paprika next?”
They were squeezed into the couch, as they often were these days, tangled up together as though they’d never done anything differently. Lucas sat in the middle, his controller precarious with Maria’s legs draped over his lap. It was warm and comfortable, and the night had grown too late to be worked up, the touch too common for worry. Liam’s head was on Maria’s leg, her hand in his hair.
“So Liam messed it up earlier,” Maria started, her eyes on the screen. “When you guys were talking about moving out.”
Lucas felt his heart quicken; tighten. He paused the game, flexed his fingers, and Maria caught them between her own. Liam rolled to face him, his lips pursed and looking, for the first time in his life, uncertain.
“What was he meant to say?” Lucas managed to ask.
“That you should stay,” Maria answered. “We’ve talked it over. If you want to, you can. We’ll miss you and…it won’t feel like home without you.”
Lucas stared at their hands, at Liam watching him, earnest and open.
“It feels like home to me too,” he admitted. Blame it on the late night or on the ending restrictions, but Lucas couldn’t pretend he didn’t want to stay. He couldn’t pretend he didn’t love every tortuous, treacherous thought he had for them.
“So stay,” Liam murmured, pressing both Maria’s fingers to his lips - Lucas’ fingers to his lips.
“But I want my bookshelves back,” Maria warned.
She reached forward and kissed Lucas, kissed him like a fire kisses a forest, and when she pulled back, Liam’s lips were there as well, and they tasted as good as Lucas had always known they would.
The lockdowns officially ended and Lucas moved out of the study into Maria and Liam’s king-sized bed. Somehow, there was enough space for all of them.