Thankfully, it was cold. Dakota liked the cold, ironically, considering the suffocating rays they were born and raised in. They learned to walk on steaming hot soil. They learned to talk through the stifling barriers of humidity. Their skin turned red from the unwanted embrace of the blazing sun, leaving minuscule coffee stains all over their arms, shoulders, and face. But in the cold of the moon, they were safe. Dakota was miles away from the moon, their pale baby hands growing into slender fingers as they reached up to the silvery celestial body. Tablespoon hips on a 5ft 6in figure were hidden under the boy jeans and extra-large hoodies. As much as they wanted the moon to shine on their pale skin, they were hidden under the shadow of insecurity.
When Dakota gazed at the moon, they thought about him. The silver glow made them feel like they weren’t so far apart, the shining light reflected from the sun bouncing from Dakota’s apartment to his. The moon is something everyone looks at during some point in the night. Even if Angel wasn’t looking at it, Dakota was, and longing for him.
It was almost his birthday. He was turning 20, a year and a few months younger than Dakota. He was overexcited, he couldn’t even hold Dakota’s hand without swinging their arms back and forth. He told Dakota that 20 was like the Thursday of young adulthood. It’s not hard work and at the same time is no fun. Naturally, he wanted to do something fun, that was him. Fun. Bursting at the seams with so many options and none at all.
Even though he was brimming with uncertainty, there was one thing he was positive about. “I get to spend it with you!”
Dakota’s head was pressed against his screaming heartbeat, his chest was the perfect size to rest on, like how Dakota’s hips were just the right place for his hands to rest upon naturally. When he held their hips, they weren’t disgusted with what Mama gave them. Dakota hated their spoon head hips before they saw the confidence Ari exuded with their own body. Dakota’s closest friend was happy with it on their own body. Even Kenji didn’t mind his lower half all that much. And Angel didn’t seem to think Dakota was any different with the curves, in fact, he appreciated it. Why couldn’t Dakota?
Their cheek squished against his chest, their arms wrapping tightly around his waist. “Yeah. You do.”
The night the two of them departed for the Badlands, he was wearing a cream-coloured beanie, that jean jacket with the fluffy hood, a deep green hoodie underneath and grey-washed jeans. On his knees, zipping and unzipping his plethora of pockets on his luggage, he made sure he had everything and did the same with Dakota’s single backpack. He threw an extra water bottle in there, just in case.
Dakota leaned against the wall, arms crossed, slowly blinking so their tired eyes could see Angel double and triple-check the bags. Summer was his season. Dakota saw the way his melanin appreciated every ray of sunlight when he picked them up for their lunch break. Even when it was 30℉ with a cruel wind chill, Angel was still beaming in the autumn overcast. When Dakota’s nose and hands turned red from the cold, Angel would stop at a pharmacy and get hand-warmers to put in his pockets so he could give his gloves to them. Sometimes, Dakota’s teeth ached from how sweet he was.
“Washington, Idaho, Montana—” He sang as he put the luggage in the trunk. “Are you excited to spend 19 straight hours with me?”
“I’m surprised I can stand 19 minutes with you.” Their voice was monotone but they were clearly teasing him.
He stuck his tongue out. “Yeah, you’re one of a kind. Are you sure you’re from this planet?” He leaned over, his forefinger pointed between their eyes then down to the tip of their nose. “E.T.—”
Dakota rolled their eyes. He laughed at his stupid joke. They prayed that he didn’t say that on stage. Or anywhere else ever again. They shook their head at him. He was annoying, intolerable sometimes, but for some reason, he was Dakota’s.
He smelled sweet, like the syrup on the waffles that he made this morning, the scent led Dakota to follow him to the car. He checked the tires on his early birthday present one last time before opening the passenger door for Dakota with a dumb grin on his face, bowing like the spoiled prince he was.
“Your chariot awaits, my lovely—”
“Shut up.” Dakota slipped into the car, sitting on the squeaking polyester. They shifted their weight, unhappy with how stiff it still was. He could’ve at least broke in the new car with the team before deciding to take a 19-hour trip to the Badlands with his partner.
Their eyes widened. Partner. It was almost March again, the month the two had met, nearly an entire year of Angel dealing with Dakota. It had already taken four months for them to find the chaotic urge to kiss him and make out in the laundry room. Dakota was pretty sure they were possessed for a few minutes until he pulled away. Then they got irritated.
They smelled him before he closed the door, officially confining Dakota to their 19-hour isolation cell. They started to wonder, their stomach-churning into solid knots as Angel started the car.
“You wanna do that for your birthday?” Orion had asked when Angel told him a week ago. “Drive all the way to the Badlands just to look at the damn sky?”
“Yeah, that’s what I just said.”
Orion shook his head. “You’re not taking my car.”
And that conversation rapidly morphed into Angel pouting like a child, Orion ignoring him until he started whining. Orion would curse in Spanish, but that would only make Angel more petulant even if he didn’t fully understand what his dad was saying. Dakota was close to wrapping his mouth shut with his own scarf, annoyed at his behaviour but the next thing they knew, they found themselves standing in a chrome auto-shop. He was such a brat.
Dakota buckled their seat, ready to fall asleep to Angel’s rambling. When they were in the car with him, he would divulge every detail of the day with pride and excitement or ridiculously pouty rage. It was hard to tell when one or the other was coming, mostly because he kept a small smile painted on his face for as long as they’ve known him.
“I haven’t been out there in a while, not since like two summers ago. That was when Papa got his degree and his mum wanted to see him, so we all packed up in Dad’s van and drove all the way out there. Can you imagine? 19-hours with me, my dad, Papa, and my brother and sister?”
Dakota shook their head.
“Well, you don’t have to! You’re at least dealing with 1/4th of the Young family chaos!”
Dakota felt themselves frown. They were okay with self-deprecating jokes when it was to make their friends laugh or for a bit he was working on for the next open mic. But the two of them were completely alone. Dakota really didn’t like that he said they were ‘dealing’ with him. It put a rough, nasty feeling in their chest.
They shifted their weight uncomfortably. Do I really make you feel like that?
Fox Feet: Maybe he’s gonna be the one that has to deal with you. Sometimes I wonder how he can even handle being insulted all the time.
Carolina: He already deals with it enough with his friends…why do we have to make fun of him too? He never makes fun of us…
Dakota: That’s not true. He teases us sometimes.
Fox Feet: It doesn’t even come close to the number of times you say “I hate you” or “You’re stupid” or “Idiot” – he has to break at some point.
Carolina: “What if he already has?”
Dakota swallowed hard, wrapping their arms around their binder restricted chest. They thought that if Angel was bothered by Dakota’s teasing then he would tell them, wouldn’t he? He was used to being the backboard of jokes and pranks, he was working to become a comedian, he made fun of himself the same way he made fun of his friends. Dakota shifted their weight again, crossing and uncrossing their legs in the seat, cracking the bones in their fingers until they couldn’t anymore.
Carolina: He probably thinks you like it when he’s insecure…you already don’t think he’s funny. Do you think it’s a power thing? That you wanna make sure he knows you’re the one in charge?
Fox Feet: That’s fucked up, Dakota. He is more than a million times better than you. The world would actually miss him. No one would miss you. He’d probably even be relieved if you left. So he doesn’t feel like shit all the time—
“Kota,” he spoke their name, “are you okay?”
Dakota simply nodded. They didn’t want him to worry or feel like shit, it was his birthday, they couldn’t ruin his birthday, how fucked up would that be? He was kind, patient and innocent; what did he see in Dakota? Why did he wanna ride in the car with them for 19-hours across three states and then to the middle of nowhere where no one would hear Dakota berate him for being an idiot? Who would come to his rescue if Dakota had lost their temper and decided to say something that would hurt him? No, they would never hurt him on purpose, never. But does he think that? Dakota swallowed hard and cleared their throat.
Angel reached for the seat behind him, unzipping one of his luggage’s many compartments and handed them a granola bar. Dakota took it hesitantly, examining it like a weary animal. Dakota’s eyes trailed up to Angel, who was leaning nonchalantly against the wheel. Dakota raised an eyebrow. He gave them a big dumb grin.
Dakota inhaled delicately, slowly opening the snack without saying a word as the car started moving again. They weren’t really hungry but they rolled their shoulders and tried to relax.
Carolina swayed back and forth in Dakota’s mind, making their pretty green eyes look at him while he was focusing on the road. “That was real sweet…” She smiled and Dakota did too.
It took about five hours for Dakota to knock out, their sleepy eyes slapped open at the heinous blare of a car horn. In the blurry midst of dreamland and reality, they heard Angel growl in annoyance.
They wiped their eyes. “What…happened?”
Angel softened, noticing how delicate and sleepy Dakota’s voice was. After just waking up, they don’t usually put in the effort to hide their voice. It was still in its natural state, a bit crackly from sleep, the curious murmur exposing the voice they had always hid away.
“Nothin, lovely.” He exhaled, putting his hand on Dakota’s. “Just classic Seattle assholes.”
Dakota rolled their eyes. “You could say that about the whole city…”
Angel smiled. “Lovely, could you grab my phone and press record for me?”
Dakota did so with complaint, sighing and unlocking his phone with the simple passcode “42069”. It felt like he was 12. When he had ideas for a bit, they would come in sudden streams so he wanted to catch his colourful thoughts in the net of his phone as quickly as he could so he could write it down later.
Dakota scanned his home screen for a moment, noticing that his background changed to Izuko Midoriya, painted in shadow with green lightning around him. Boku no Hero Academia had been Angel’s favourite anime for years and it hadn’t really changed.
Dakota stared at the wallpaper for a moment, a sick feeling in their chest. The last time they had opened his phone, only a few days ago to text back Toby, his wallpaper was a picture of Dakota in profile, staring at the city night lights. He had managed to capture the exact moment when Dakota’s mind had opened to welcome his city, their eyes wide with wonder as they gazed at the closest thing to stars on Earth. Angel said it was one of the best photos he’s ever taken. He says that about all of the photos he takes of Dakota.
Why’d he change it? Dakota swallowed, fighting the lump in their throat. Maybe they actually did something wrong. Maybe he actually was upset with them. They couldn’t tell, they wish they could, they so desperately wish that they could read into that mind of his and be able to reassure themselves that it wasn’t them; maybe he just liked the art, maybe he just missed watching the anime, maybe he preferred the bright colours – it was not because he didn’t want Dakota’s face to be the first thing he sees when he opens his phone.
The phone was taken out of their hands, startling them again.
“Sorry, lovely, I know you’re still sleepy.” He sounded disappointed. He pressed record himself and started rambling. “There are assholes in every city right? But like…different brands of assholes. Like me, for one, I’m an asshole but I’m not a native Seattle asshole. I’m from Portland! So, I’m a privileged hipster fuck who smokes weed and has gay dads. But at least I don’t piss on people’s cars. On purpose.”
Jesus Christ… Dakota shook their head.
Angel rambled until he physically couldn’t anymore. He’d parked the car at a rest stop in Idaho, taking Dakota with him and making that stupid joke that everyone saw on the internet when they were nine years old.
“Idaho? No, you da hoe.” It made him snicker every time.
Dakota didn’t hold his hand on the way in, shoving their hands in their hoodie pockets to keep them warm. They didn’t wanna bother him right now, he was really out of it. Maybe his Adderall was wearing off.
The lights were unnaturally bright in the gas station, the LED lights causing both Angel and Dakota to flinch like bats once the door had rung open. Angel ran a tired hand down his face and yawned, his legs leading him straight to the bags of air that had the occasional corn chip.
Dakota sighed out the last of their yawn, running a hand through faded navy blue hair. The place was like any other gas station, rows of candy bars lined up at the front where the 46-year-old cashier was playing on his phone, using his beer-gut as a table. The bright lights reflected aggressively against the white floor, causing Dakota to move towards the back where the drinks chilled and one of the harsh lights was out. This was the perfect place to steal shit. A good distance from the cashier’s line of sight and behind the mirrors that reflected most of the store. All that was needed was weaving through the pathetic liquor aisle, stopping at the ice container then slipping out the door when another customer was coming in.
The cashier looked up from his phone and watched Dakota walk to the back, beady eyes scanning them up and down. Dakota glared at him. They really didn’t want to deal with this right now. But Dakota’s poison ivy eyes didn’t dampen his revolting spirit. He smiled a half-toothless smile at them. They felt stomach acid in their throat.
Dakota’s legs slowly walked to where Angel was. They were uneasy but were also making sure he didn’t waste his money on anything useless or that would make them have to stop at the very next rest stop because of unholy bowel movements. Some kind of distraction.
“Hey, lovely!” Hearing his voice made Dakota’s shoulders drop. He handed them a bottle filled with golden liquid, a bright green leaf cascading over the white label.
Angel’s head perked up. “What’s wrong?”
They didn’t want to bother him, he probably wouldn’t understand but at the same time, they knew they would have to interact with that cashier. Instead of speaking, Dakota simply stepped forward, two steps towards their partner and hiding in his open jean jacket. They felt their throat start to close up.
“What happened?” Angel’s voice dropped with concern. He put a gentle hand on their head, slowly running his fingers through Dakota’s hair.
“The cashier is a creep…” they mumbled, placing a hand on his warm chest. They felt the muscles in his torso tighten, a protective arm wrapping around them.
“What did he say?”
“He just…looked at me weird.”
Angel nodded. “Okay. C’mon, then. We can go now.” His hand slid down Dakota’s back and into their right hand, giving them some slack so they would stay behind him.
Fox Feet, the harsh voice of anger and doubt, hissed in the back of Dakota’s head. “We don’t need his protection. He’s three feet shorter than the guy anyway, what the hell is he gonna do? Punch him? Then we’d have to deal with assault charges and the fucking cops and the-”
“Just this,” Angel held his hand out for Dakota to give him the beverage. “And a lighter.”
A lighter? Dakota gave him a strange look.
The cashier didn’t speak. Angel put his card in the machine and the cashier gave him the receipt to sign. While Angel was signing, Dakota saw the cashier lock eyes with them again. They squeezed Angel’s hand tight. He signed the receipt the same way a doctor signs a prescription note and handed it to the cashier.
“You’ve got a fine one right there, boy.” The cashier nodded at Dakota.
Angel tightened. “They have a name.”
“Dudn’t matter. She’s yours.”
“This isn’t 1865, I don’t own anyone.”
“I’m just sayin’…”
Angel stood up straight, his 5’9 frame looking surprisingly intimidating from Dakota’s angle. “And I’m just sayin’ you’ve been divorced three times, probably lost custody of the kids if your wife even wanted to fuck you for longer than three minutes. Which is probably how long you last.”
“What’d you say, boy?!”
Angel shrugged. “Have a nice day.”
Dakota was pulled by the hand outside, the bell of the door ringing as fresh air slipped into their lungs. Angel was speed-walking to the car with Dakota behind him, his heart still beating hard with adrenaline. That was probably going to be a problem on their way back home.
Dakota yanked their hand away from him when they were close enough to the car. “Why’d you do that?!”
“To make him feel the way he made you feel.” He slid into the car, Dakota getting into the passenger seat. “Like shit.”
“Angel, he could’ve shot you or somethin’ we’re in—”
“Potato Land U.S.A. I’m petrified.” He gave them a shit-eating grin.
Dakota crossed their arms, frowning. “Why’d you get a lighter?”
“To set the place on fire if things got too, heh, heated.”
Dakota knew he was kidding. He wouldn’t commit arson. Maybe. He probably would. No, he wouldn’t. He’d be arrested for that. Dakota couldn’t tell if he cared or not. Did he care about getting in trouble? Did he even know the meaning of consequences?
He started the car. “Onward!”
Dakota wanted to pout for the remaining 13-and -a-half hours but it was a lot more difficult than it seemed. Angel was a pain in the ass, revelling in the glory of his successful roasting of that creepy cashier, drumming on the steering wheel and singing along to the songs on his special road trip playlist. During long red lights, he would lean his head towards Dakota and sing the words of the song playing.
“I really really wanna take the time now and I really really wanna change your mind now. So don’t worry I won’t mess with your heart. I’ll be your neon light in the dark on nights when the cloud cover the stars. I won’t mess with your heart.” His voice was just enough to fill the car, smooth and strong with passionate intention. Dakota could tell that he meant the words that the songwriter had written, he just twisted them and made sure Dakota understood that he was singing it to them and them only. Carolina made Dakota’s hand move forward to hold his. Angel was warm. He was always warm.
Dakota was surprised at the amount of energy Angel had on only three hours of sleep. When they were stuck in the morning traffic, Angel decided to stop at McDonald’s for a quick greasy breakfast. Dakota sighed, sipping their orange juice across from him as he snarfed down two sausage McMuffins as if his life depended on it. They snorted and shook their head when they saw him hack up a piece of English muffin.
Angel hit his chest, coughing up the last of the deadly sandwich. “Oh god…god fuck oh god…”
“It’s my turn to drive.”
“What? Why? Are you sure you’re not tired?”
Dakota narrowed their eyes. “I just watched you lose a fight to bread.”
He pointed a finger. “I didn’t lose! If I lost, I would be dead.”
“I’d be giving you the Heimlich.”
“Fair…” He sipped his coffee for a while before placing it down. “That’s really hot!”
Dakota shook their head. “Get some sleep. I’ll drive.”
Angel hesitated, sceptically shifting in his chair. “But I’m fine…”
Dakota stood, their orange juice in hand, giving Angel a glare that he couldn’t say no to. He got up, whiny, and followed them outside. His instincts told him to get into the driver’s seat but Dakota pulled him back by his hoodie like a dog on a leash.
“Fiiiiine…” he whined. He opened the passenger door and plopped down in the seat.
Most of the road was straight, not much traffic anymore because of their quick breakfast stop. But in a few hours, it would be the lunch rush and Dakota would be annoyed and hungry. Especially if Angel was hungry. It’d be like trying to calm a toddler with a granola bar when you pass a Wendy’s. It was a good thing he knocked out cold as soon as the first hour passed, leaning back in his chair and feeling the smooth asphalt under the tires definitely helped lull him to sleep.
Dakota kept their eyes on the road, listening to Angel’s gentle breathing as they passed fields and small houses, the sky brightening with the autumn sun. Dakota felt the sudden tension of nerves, their mind wandering to doubts about doing this with him. Alone. In the middle of nowhere. They already despised being on the road for longer than necessary, they had enough of that before they’d met Angel, highways and the road was anything but calming to them.
But the sound of Angel’s steady breathing was soothing, one arm across his stomach and the other lingering in the cupholder, he was completely at peace. His face wasn’t tense, his eyebrows were lowered in relaxation, his head falling to where the window was. Dakota wondered how he slept in bed.
They made themselves blush. They shouldn’t be thinking about him in bed. Now that they thought about it, he didn’t really tell Dakota what the sleeping arrangements for the hotel were. They didn’t know if the two of them were going to sleep in the same bed or separate beds or one on the couch and the other in the bed and Angel would never make Dakota sleep on the couch, he’d let them sleep on the bed like he did when he found them bleeding that night.
Dakota shook their head hard. Relax. Their hair fell perfectly on their head as steadily as Angel’s sleeping breath. They inhaled. They exhaled. They looked at their sleeping Angel. He was okay. So they would be okay. They locked their eyes back on the road.
The flat land would drive anyone insane. It’s where you’re alone with your thoughts, Dakota knows that better than anyone. Arguably, River would know it too but he had Joshi. Dakota had no one. They were nothing on the road, just another car, another license plate for cops to write down if they were going too fast. They didn’t have enough food for themselves because they hadn’t overpacked like Angel. And they went beyond just three states. Halfway across the country was too long to survive on dried fruit and granola. Dakota was nobody to anyone and barely someone to themselves.
Angel shifted, mumbling under his breath. “Kota…”
Dakota gripped the steering wheel. They slowly turned their head to face him, their heart sinking to their converse covered feet. Angel was still fast asleep, his weight shifted to one side so he was facing the driver’s seat, closer to Dakota. They didn’t think he would be one to talk in his sleep but then again, he was Angel. He was predictably unpredictable and wore the jester’s hat when he wanted to.
Slowly and steadily, Dakota pressed down on the break. Red light. They looked back over at Angel, who’s hand was cradling his cheek. Dakota’s eyes darted at the cars around them, making sure no one was looking. They leaned towards him, placing one hand on his in the cupholder and gently kissing his cheek. Angel shifted and smiled. They felt joy buzz from their heart to their whole body, warming their tense limbs. It was ridiculous how he made them feel, how he managed to make them enjoy nearly every moment in his presence.
The same way they were surprised with his energy, they were surprised at how long he could sleep and what he could sleep through. Dakota wasn’t the best driver, especially for long trips. And the sun was going down. There were multiple times when a car horn blared next to them, in back of or in front of them but none of the noise woke Angel. He slept as soundly as a tired-out puppy, curling up more and more as the drive got longer. Dakota dreaded to know what it would take to wake him up.
Then they found out. Much like the ball of energy he was, his slumber was similar, the only thing managing to get a rise out of him was stopping the car. As soon as Dakota pulled up to the hotel, the sun was gone and Angel’s eyes snapped open.
“Yeah,” Dakota unbuckled their seat belt. “We’re here.”
“Damn.” He yawned and stretched, his belly button poking out from under his shirt. “I gotta up my game then. That’s impressive, Kota.”
Dakota shrugged. “I have insomnia.” They opened the driver’s door and stepped out to the backseat to grab their backpack. The distraction of their own mind and wondering about Angel made them hyper-focused on getting to the hotel and getting some decent food and sleep. That’s all they really wanted. Food and sleep.
Angel spent a little more time in the car, getting his bearings and stretching his muscles before getting his own luggage. Dakota threw their backpack over their shoulder and crossed their arms, signalling him to hurry up.
“If you think I’m about to sleep after that nap,” Angel yanked the luggage out of the back. “You are sorely mistaken.”
Dakota turned towards the hotel door, the lights shining delicately, not blaring like the ones in literally every rest stop gas station. “That’s fine. Just know you’ll sleep in the tub if you wake me up.”
Angel pursed his lips and snapped a finger gun at them. “Sleep it is then!”
Stepping into the lounge, Dakota was assaulted by what could only be described as Christmas in October. The entire foyer was carpeted in red, the countertops and tables white marble, shining and reflecting the golden lights from crystal chandeliers. The chairs by the bar were a shiny, emerald green, the barstool a solid and polished wood. The front desk was diagonal from the front door, decorated with white roses, red ribbons guarding either side of it. In front of it was a wide staircase with the same red carpeting as the floor, the railings golden and shining in the chandelier’s lights.
Angel took an awed step forward. “Whoa. So this is The Montegeau…”
“The Montegeau! Dad helped me pay for it so we have a room to ourselves. He said that the band used to stay here all the time, but I didn’t know it was this bougie!”
Dakota sighed. Spoiled…
Angel sauntered up to the front desk, Dakota following slowly, their eyes skimming over the whole of the foyer, the stairs, the bar and the back where the elevators should be. They wanted to hate this place, hate how fancy it looked, but then they remembered it was all for Angel. It was his birthday so he could stay wherever he wanted with whoever he wanted.
“Angel Young,” Dakota heard him say. “Room for two.”
“Oh, just two?” A lilted voice responded.
Dakota’s shoulders tensed. Their eyes darted to a big breasted bitch with dark black hair tied in a tight ponytail and blue eyes, leaning over the desk like she was somethin’ to look at. Her uniform was a black blazer with a white shirt, unbuttoned just enough to see her collarbone. She was probably wearing a skirt and tights under the desk, basic dress code for the ones who work for people with money. Dakota felt Fox Feet hiss in the back of their mind, their fists clenching and teeth gritted as they took deliberate steps forward.
“I thought the Young family would have a big party to celebrate your birthday—”
Angel chuckled. “Nah. It’s more like I do what I want when I want.”
The glorified secretary pulled her ponytail over her shoulder, fiddling with it as Angel shrugged and talked. Dakota’s teeth felt like they were about to shatter. They gripped the straps on their backpack and stepped up to him.
Angel beamed when he saw them. “Oh, hey, lovely!”
Dakota locked eyes on the woman and spoke flatly: “Hi.”
“This is Tessa, she’s gonna help us this week!” He gestured towards her.
She scanned Dakota up and down with icy blue eyes. “Pleasure…”
You fucking bitch, Fox Feet hissed.
Tessa leaned against the desk again and dangled the keys in front of Angel. “Here’s your room keys. Don’t lose ‘em or I might just have to call your daddy—”
Dakota verbally scoffed. Tessa looked at them with unamused eyes.
“Yeah, ah-ha, don’t say that. Uh, see ya!” Angel stepped closer to Dakota, his hand slipping under their backpack and resting on the small of their back.
Dakota softened. Good…
“Don’t worry about her,” Angel leaned down and whispered to them. “She does that with every pretty rich boy that walks in here.”
“What makes you think I’m worried?” Dakota spoke through gritted teeth.
Angel snorted, biting his lip to hide a laugh. It didn’t work. He giggled to himself until they got into the elevator, Dakota’s thumb turning white with how hard they pressed number nine. As the doors sluggishly closed, Angel’s mouth opened, letting out a squeaky, hardly restrained laugh.
“What made me—!” He laughed again. “Lovely. Your face when you looked at her! It was deadlier than the fucking Chernobyl accident!” He laughed some more. “You’re not as emotionless as you make yourself out to be…”
Dakota rolled their eyes and crossed their arms, petulant. They gritted their teeth hard, digging their nails into their jacket. They hated when he joked around like this, when he made fun of them for having a normal reaction to an abnormal interaction between some stranger and their boyfriend.
“Aw c’mon!” He slid his hand into theirs, a big grin still on his face. “Don’t be like that…”
“Would you be laughing if I hadn’t reacted at all?”
He shrugged. “Nah. I just think it’s funny ‘cause you act like you wouldn’t react. But you do. ‘Cause you like me—!”
He got into their face. “Even after spending over ten hours in the car, you still like me!”
Dakota felt their chilly nose and cheeks heat up from embarrassment, hiding their eyes under navy blue hair. They tightened their grip on his hand, unconsciously wanting to clench their fists but he was in the way. He cooed about how much Dakota liked him until the elevator doors slid open. They snatched their hand from his and walked slowly behind him so they could slam the door once they got into the room.
“You like me—” he whispered a little louder than Dakota preferred. “You soooo like me—”
Shut your fucking mouth, I swear to God. Dakota inhaled, annoyed.
Angel opened the door with the keycard, letting Dakota in first. They kneed him in the pit of his own knee, sending him forward. He laughed awkwardly as he stumbled into the hotel room, hanging onto the door handle for balance.
“Okay, first of all, very rude of you,” he said as he bounced back onto his feet.
Dakota didn’t respond, their eyes too distracted by the room, the straps of their backpack slowly falling from their shoulders. It was silver and gold, the moon and the sun littering the wallpaper in such a symmetrical pattern, Dakota couldn’t help but stare, trying to find any error in the pattern . The two of them were standing in what was the designated kitchen area, navy blue and black appliances mimicking a night sky with hints of subtle glitter inside the polished material.
When the black tile ended, you couldn’t tell because it was followed by a similarly dark carpet, flecks of silver making it look like someone had thrown a classic New Year’s party in here and the hotel staff didn’t have the time to clean up every little piece.
Angel kicked off his sneakers near the door, opening the closet door next to the only non-emergency exit. He walked in like he owned it, which, knowing his dads, he had the right to. He slung his jean jacket over the sleek black dining chair and stretched, his shirt pulling up a bit to reveal his happy trail. Dakota blushed and turned away, eyes focusing on the wallpaper again.
“Looks pretty bourgeois, don’t it?” He chuckled. “Dad hasn’t been here since before they took in my brother.”
“It’s really…” Dakota stepped back too far, not realizing Angel had gotten closer. They jumped when their back hit his chest, his warm hands grabbing onto their shoulders as he let out a laugh that reminded them of coffee creamer.
“You’re really mesmerised, huh?” He slid his hand down their arms, taking the backpack to the carpet that was ten times the price of a thrift store purchase. His hands slipped into Dakota’s and he spun them around, intertwining their fingers together. Dakota’s pale skin against his blond coffee melanin stood out as much as the moon did next to the sun on the room’s wallpaper.
“Why don’t I distract you a little bit?” he spoke delicately, as if his words would break their bones. Dakota couldn’t stop their heart from dancing when Angel’s big grin focused on them, his soft raven hair gently pressed against their forehead.
Dakota felt their shoulders relax, their eyelids and mouth falling into their default resting bitch face. The only thing that gave away their feelings was the hot red on their cheeks and the tips of their ears as Angel leaned in closer.
They allowed their eyes to close as his breath tickled their lips, inhaling the sweet kiss that melted the stress away. Angel liked to hold their kisses for a few extra seconds, just to make sure that Dakota knew that he wanted them to savour every moment with their first partner. When he started to gently pull away, softening his grip on Dakota’s hands, they pulled themselves closer to him. They stood on their toes and wrapped their arms around his neck, pulling him close. He placed his hands on their back and smiled, pulling away from the kiss for a moment.
“I’m guessing you’re happy?”
Dakota glared at him like it was a stupid question. “No shit,” They kissed him again, quick and matter-of-fact.
Angel laughed the way he does, his head thrown back as he scooped Dakota off their feet and leaned them down in a dramatic display of affection, rubbing his nose in their neck and making them fight back laughter. They didn’t know it until they started allowing Angel to touch them affectionately but they were dangerously ticklish. They kicked their legs out, shoes still on as he blew gross wet raspberries in their neck.
“Angel—!” They barked, making him put them down. He laughed and kissed their cheek when he set them right side up again.
“I’m just foolin’ around, lovely!”
This trip was going to be a fiasco, whether Dakota liked it or not. But at this point, they were sure that they liked it.
Zoe Elerby is a 21-year-old Junior at Columbia College Chicago, majoring in Creative Writing. Since getting her first publication with Nervous Ghost Press, she has been published five more times by several different literary magazines, and anthologies. She has been working on multiple works since the beginning of her college career, including full novels of the excerpts and short stories she has published.
*Image by Vincentiu Solomon on Unsplash