The repetitive 'thud, thud' noise was audible from quite some distance down the street, but it wasn't until he was almost home that Rafariel realised it was coming from the direction of their house.
He slowed warily, and put one hand up to shield his eyes from the golden glow of the setting sun, squinting towards the house.
On the front porch, he could see a solitary figure, although from this distance and with their back to him he could not make out who it was. Whoever it was, they seemed to be weaving around on the spot, and the 'thud, thud' sounds echoed in time to their movements.
Rafariel remembered, then, the ruckus on the weekend; remembered Gavrael and Kashael trying to commandeer everyone who so much as wandered past or came out to see what the fuss was about to help them set up their punching bag on the front porch.
He hadn't been even remotely interested -- as far as he was concerned, boxing was a sport relegated to thugs who hadn't the grace or wit to learn anything better -- so he'd sat in the study and scowled to himself about the constant intrusions of their exclamations, swearing, and raucous laughter. But he'd thought that the annoyance was over when the punching bag was at last installed and they'd trundled out back to drink to their success.
Apparently he'd been wrong. He scowled again, and trudged his way towards the house and the noise, glaring down at the pavement beneath his feet.
When he reached the front steps of the house, he looked up again, and it was then that he finally saw who the boxer was who was creating all the noise.
It was Kashael.
Rafariel stared, his foot hovering above the first step for a long moment, until his balance faltered and he put it down in a hurry.
Kashael's back was still to him, apparently completely unaware of his presence. He bounced lightly on his feet, moving back, then forward, left, then right, and in time with his movements, his arms swung forward in strong, tempered blows, beating against the punching bag with a resounding 'thud' each time. There was something incredibly graceful about the way he moved; more like a dancer than a thug.
But what really captured Rafariel's eyes, what made it almost impossible to look away, was the fact that he was completely shirtless. His body was lean, impeccably taut, with not a spare ounce of fat, and the well-developed muscles in his back and arms rippled as he moved. His long hair was twisted up against the back of his head and held in place with a hair clip, leaving bare the elegant curve of his neck and shoulders, down which rivers of sweat streamed.
Rafariel swallowed heavily, and realised belatedly that he was gawking shamelessly. He pressed his lips together, looked down at his feet again, and determinedly mounted the stairs.
But when he reached the top, he stopped again, and his eyes were drawn helplessly to Kashael, still dancing back and forth in front of the punching bag.
Abruptly, the dancing stopped, and Kashael turned around to face him. He was panting heavily, and hair half-obscured his face, damp and heavy with sweat. Sweat streamed down his bare chest as well, but Rafariel dared not look at that for more than a moment, so he looked at his face.
Kashael reached up, flipping the wet hair out of his eyes with a hand bound in sweat-soaked hand wraps, and met Rafariel's gaze. His lips twisted up into a grin.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi," Rafariel replied. And then he waited for Kael, Hanael, or maybe even Raziel, to come along and whisk him or Kashael away.
It always happened, after all. He was never able to be alone with Kashael for more than two seconds without one of them intruding and coming up with a reason why one or the other of them should be somewhere else. Hanael's reasons were always fairly sound, while Kael's were usually lacking, but the end result was always the same: nobody would let him and Kashael be alone together. In all the time that Kashael had been there, they'd barely spoken more than a dozen words directly to each other.
And it drove him crazy. It wasn't like it was a big deal; he just wanted to be able to talk to him, to get to know him! After all, this was Hanael's big brother... and he seemed so similar and yet so incredibly different to him at the same time. Rafariel wanted at least some chance to find out what he was like.
Seconds passed, and they stared at each other. But the front door didn't open, and nobody came bolting up the front stairs, either. Rafariel waited, wondering if this was perhaps the longest time they'd been alone together. He wondered if he ought to just dive in and say something.
Kashael grinned suddenly, and there was something mischievous about it.
"It looks like your knights in shining armour are on a coffee break."
Rafariel blinked at him in surprise, and he felt his cheeks grow hot. It stood to reason that Hanael and Kael's behaviour would have been obvious to Kashael as well as to him, but he still hadn't expected to hear it stated so bluntly.
He lowered his gaze, found himself staring at Kashael's bare chest, and looked to one side.
"...I don't know why they do that anyway," he muttered, feeling oddly rebellious.
"I do." Kashael replied, and Rafariel looked back up at him in startlement. Kashael was still grinning, that mischievous grin that was somehow almost indecent. He was very pretty -- almost too pretty -- when he smiled, and yet it was in a way that made you feel a bit unsafe.
"They're scared that I'll take advantage of you."
Rafariel stared at him. Despite the grin on his face, his words seemed entirely serious. And when Rafariel viewed Kael's -- and Hanael's -- actions in that light, they seemed to make a little more sense. Kael's motivations he'd tried to write off as a mix of jealousy and vanity; Kael was overly jealous when it came to him being around, well, anyone else, and in addition, he became ridiculously competitive when faced up against other men who matched him in looks. But Hanael's motivations had been completely unfathomable.
Still... was that really what it was all about? Did they think Kashael was that kind of person? Wait.. was Kashael that kind of person?
"Would you?" he asked, without even really thinking about it.
Kashael blinked at him, and then his grin widened. He placed his hands on his hips and leaned forward, bringing their faces a little closer. His eyes were hooded, intense.
"Is that an invitation?" he asked, his voice syrupy sweet.
Rafariel nearly choked on his own breath. He hadn't even thought about what he'd asked -- he'd just been curious to know the answer. He could feel his cheeks flaming red hot, and he took a stumbling step backwards, just in case.
"I didn't mean --" he stammered out, and then he realised that Kashael was laughing softly. He was being teased.
He blushed even harder, staring down at his feet. He'd never even encountered the concept of 'friendly teasing' until he'd met Raziel, and though he'd come to understand it as a sign of affection and friendship and accept it as that, he still wasn't used to it, not really. Not even from Raziel, whom he trusted more than just about anyone except Hanael. And to be teased by Kashael, whom he barely knew...
"I'm sorry," said Kashael, and Rafariel looked up again, surprised. Kashael was smiling at him, but it was more gentle now, more relaxed and less, well, naughty than it had been before.
"You just... it was just so unassuming. I couldn't let it go." He raked his fingers through his hair, brushing it back from his face again.
"I... it's okay," Rafariel said, though he was sure that his cheeks were still bright red.
"Have you ever boxed before?" Kashael asked, and Rafariel blinked at the unexpected change of topic.
"Huh? Ahh... no..." He muttered out his response, somehow not feeling capable of voicing his opinion on boxing directly to Kashael's face. Especially not after having seen the grace of his movements just minutes ago.
"It's very fun, you know. And a wonderful way to keep in shape." Kashael patted his abs cheerfully, and Rafariel found his eyes drawn helplessly to Kashael's bare torso again. He really had a beautiful figure to look at.
Rafariel had never been one for exercise or any kind of fitness activities; in fact, he'd been downright horrified that he'd been forced to participate in it at school, and had done everything possible to get out of as many PE lessons as he could. And yet... when he looked at Kashael's firm muscles and lean torso, he started to wonder if maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to try a bit of exercise now and again. He wondered if he might be able to get a figure like that if he worked out. And then he wondered if Kael might be able to get a figure like that if he worked out. He'd always thought Kael had a nice body, but now he wondered if it wouldn't be even nicer if he just did a bit of regular exercise.
"You can take a picture if you like," said Kashael, his tone teasing, and Rafariel realised he'd been staring at Kashael's torso the whole time he was thinking. His cheeks burned again and dropped his head.
He heard the sound of Kashael's soft laughter again, and then footsteps. Wait, footsteps?
A large but surprisingly gentle hand touched his head, ruffling his hair gently.
"I hope you'll forgive me for being a dreadful tease." Kashael's hand remained on his head, but the weight was somehow comforting.
"...it's okay." Rafariel didn't know what else to say. It wasn't the teasing he minded so much; it was the looking like an idiot in front of somebody that he'd wanted to impress that bothered him.
"You're very cute, you know that?"
Rafariel's head jerked up in surprise, and Kashael's hand fell away, dropping down to land on Rafariel's shoulder instead. His gaze met Kashael's; the older man's stare was light-hearted and yet intense all at once.
"You make me want to tease you just to see you blush."
Rafariel bit his lip, sure that his cheeks were turning red again just from those words. He wished he wasn't so prone to overreacting to what people said. He hated that his blush always gave him away, and yet he could never control it.
"But I can see why Hanael is so protective of you." Kashael's hand moved from his shoulder to brush against his cheek lightly, and he froze. Kashael's gaze was pure intensity now, no longer light-hearted, and Rafariel found that he couldn't tear his eyes away. He wondered suddenly if this was exactly what Hanael and Kael had been afraid of.
Kashael's fingers moved along his cheek towards his lips, and the older man leaned a little closer. Those long, graceful fingers cupped his chin, thumb touching lightly against his lower lip, and Rafariel realised that his lips had parted, almost unconsciously. He felt light-headed, confused, and unable to do anything but stare into Kashael's deep blue-green eyes.
Without warning, Kashael turned away, and both his gaze and his caress were gone. Rafariel almost stumbled, so intense was the feeling of them being jerked away from him like that. He stared at Kashael's bare back, so suddenly presented to him, and wondered what had happened.
"Would you like to try a bit of boxing?" Kashael's voice was light again, cheerful and unassuming, and Rafariel had a sudden urge to shake him and demand What the hell was all that?
But that seemed too dangerous an option, so instead he simply shrugged.
Kashael looked back over his shoulder and grinned at him.
"Put down that bag, then, and come here."
Rafariel did as he was told, even as he wondered what the hell he was doing. He hated boxing. And yet... he couldn't forget the beautiful way in which Kashael had moved in front of the punching bag.
Kashael lined him up front of the bag, telling him how to stand, where to place his feet, how to hold his body, and where to put his fists. His voice was light and buoyant, and at times gently teasing, but that intensity from earlier was gone. His hands gently repositioned Rafariel's shoulders, or twisted his hips a little, or cupped his hands into shape, but his fingers no longer caressed as they had before. Even his gaze was distant friendliness and nothing more. And Rafariel wondered again what had happened in those few moments.
"Now, you swing your arm forward like this." Kashael demonstrated, driving a heavy punch into the punching bag. "Put your strength behind it. I like to imagine that I'm smacking my fist into the head of someone I really hate."
Rafariel blinked at that, and Kashael grinned at him.
"Come on, don't tell me there aren't a few people you wish you could smack the hell out of sometimes?"
Rafariel bit his lip. He had to admit that he'd sometimes fantasized about beating the hell out of a few of the nastier bullies at school. But since he'd never been a fighter, they were pure fantasies.
Still, that was the point here too, right?
He looked at the punching bag, and imagined the faces of his worst tormenters. And then he threw a punch at the bag, and felt it hit hard, felt the bag shudder under his fist, and felt the force of the blow shake back up his arm as well.
"Oh, very nice, very nice!" Kashael was all praise, and Rafariel found himself blushing again at the words.
He pulled his fist away from the punching bag and stared at it. It was funny, how good it had felt to imagine himself hitting those boys, and then to feel the force of the blow itself. He hadn't expected it to be so satisfying. He wondered, then, if this was why people fought so much.
"Well?" Kashael was leaning over him, smirking. And Rafariel smiled up in response without even thinking about it.
"I like it," he said.
Kashael beamed at him.
"If you want, I can teach you more."
"I'd like that too." Then he hesitated, realising that he was ingratiating himself on someone he barely knew. "I mean... if you don't mind --"
"Don't be silly." Kashael cut off his stammering. "We're all friends here, right?"
"I guess we are." Rafariel relaxed a little. It was, in all honesty, something he loved more than anything else about this house, and about living with all of them. They all looked out for each other, be it for little things or big things. And although he sometimes felt like he spent a lot more time being looked out for than he did looking out for anyone else... he still felt so grateful to live in a place where everyone cared so much about everyone else. It was such a reverse from what he'd grown up with.
"Good. Then you come bug me anytime, and we'll train." Kashael beamed at him again. "Now, I want you to try a couple of punches this time..." Those strong hands fell on his shoulders again, adjusting his stance.
Rafariel moved as he was guided, bringing his fists up in front of him.
"Yep, like that." Kashael leaned closer. "Hold your fists at about --"
The sound of the front door opening interrupted his words. Rafariel turned his head towards the door, but his mind was still on the punching bag and where he was meant to have his fists.
Kael stepped out through the front door and their gazes met instantly. Kael seemed to freeze in position as his eyes moved to take in the whole scene, and then his gaze moved back to meet Rafariel's again, his eyes narrowing. His face seemed to go flat and expressionless, but it was an expression -- a lack of expression? -- that Rafariel knew well. It was one that meant he'd better do as he told if he didn't want to face the full brunt of Kael's anger.
He realised, then, just how near Kashael was to him, how firmly his hands were placed on his shoulders, and how close their heads were. He bit his lip. And yet... they hadn't been doing anything wrong. Kashael had just been teaching him how to box. If he quietly ignored that moment at the start, when Kashael's fingers had been caressing his face... well, they hadn't done anything they shouldn't. Even then, nothing had actually happened. And he was enjoying the boxing. He didn't want to stop just because Kael was ridiculously jealous.
Before either he or Kael could say anything, Kashael's hands vanished from his shoulders, and the older man took a step back from him.
"I believe today's boxing lesson is over," he said, and Rafariel could clearly hear the wry tone in his voice.
Kael's eyes narrowed even further, if that was possible, but his gaze never wavered from Rafariel's.
"Rafariel..." he said, and his voice was commanding. Rafariel wanted to protest, but he knew from experience with Kael that picking a fight in front of others was about the worst possible way to handle things. Kael might relent when it was just the two of them, might back down or show his more tender side... but never in front of anyone else. And any attempts to make him try would just ignite his anger even further.
Rafariel moved towards him, pausing to pick up his bag off the ground. And then, because it felt impossibly rude to just walk away from Kashael like that, he turned back around.
"Thank you for the lesson," he said, and Kashael grinned at him, and then winked.
"Anytime, cutie," he said, and that made Rafariel blush again. He turned away hurriedly and moved towards Kael, before Kashael said anything else that pissed him off. He could tell from Kael's expression that Kashael had already done more than enough.
Kael grabbed his arm as soon as he was within range, and dragged him inside the house, slamming the door behind them. He'd dragged him halfway across the hallway before Rafariel realised that he was angry enough himself to shake off Kael's grip.
Kael swung around, and Rafariel saw the anger burning in his eyes. But he was ready to match it.
"Rafariel --" Kael began, and Rafariel shook his head.
"No," he replied firmly, and Kael blinked at him. "We're having this discussion upstairs."
He mounted the stairs and was already a third of the way up before Kael replied.
"Why?!" Kael sounded more than a little confused. But Rafariel was still steaming.
"Because I'm going to yell at you!" he said over his shoulder, and continued charging up the stairs.
Kael's legs were longer, and he caught him at the top stair, grabbing his arm again, his grip tighter then before.
"And why, pray tell, are you going to be yelling at me?" His voice was cold.
"Because you're an idiot!" Rafariel tried to shake off his grip, and failed. He did not want to have this conversation in the stairwell, echoing up and down for the whole household to hear. But he wasn't about to shut his mouth, either; he was too incensed at Kael.
"I'm an idiot?" Kael looked even angrier. "I'm an idiot for being upset about that sex maniac having his sticky fingers all over you?"
"He was teaching me boxing!" Rafariel yelled at him, wishing right about then that he'd learnt more than just how to swing a punch.
"And since when have you ever been interested in wanting to box?" Kael's voice was dripping with ironic disbelief, and the fact that his words were true just made Rafariel angrier.
"Since I want to pound your head in when you're being this stupid!" he shot back, anger giving his voice real volume. Kael blinked at him, and they stared at each other in silence for a moment.
Then he heard the soft snick of a door opening -- or closing, perhaps -- further up the hall, and he felt blood rush to his face at the realization that everyone could hear them and the sheer idiocy of their fight.
With a firm yank, he pulled his arm free of Kael's grip and stalked down the hall to their bedroom, slamming the door open and then slamming it shut again behind him. His momentum carried him as far as the middle of the room and no further. He stopped, wrapping his arms around himself, and realised he was shaking.
He didn't know how long he stood there, caught up in his anger and confusion, before he heard the sound of the door opening behind him. He tensed at once. There was the quiet sound of footsteps, and then the door shutting again.
"Rafariel..." Kael said nothing but his name, yet his voice was quieter now, and seemed at least a little more reasonable. Rafariel swallowed, and tried to calm his anger. But he kept his back to Kael for now. He was worried that Kael's expression might set him off again.
"He was teaching me boxing," he said again, but quieter this time. "That's all. I never wanted to try it before, but... I liked it. It was fun. And... he was nice. Friendly. He didn't do anything." Well, he reasoned to himself, Kashael hadn't really done anything, when all was said and done.
He heard Kael's footsteps coming towards him.
"That doesn't mean --" There was a slightly strident tone to his voice.
"Kael." Rafariel glanced back over his shoulder just slightly. Kael stopped in his tracks, still several metres shy of him. He'd been reaching his arms out, as if entreating, but now they fell to his sides.
"Can you have some damn faith in me that I won't go gallivanting off with every pretty guy who smiles at me?"
Even from here he could hear Kael swallow loudly.
"...it's not you that I don't have faith in," he said after a long moment.
"Well then, can you have some faith in me that if he tries anything, I'll politely decline?"
Silence met his question, and he sighed and lowered his head, his shoulders slumping as well. He knew that Kael's jealousy was and always had been entirely irrational, but usually reasoning with him helped at least somewhat. Maybe this one was just too close to home.
Arms wrapped around his middle, and he jumped. He hadn't heard Kael crossing the final short space that separated them.
"Would you really pound my head in?" Kael murmured in his ear, and Rafariel could hear the teasing tone in his voice. All the anger and frustration seemed to drop out of him in that instant, and he sank back into Kael's grasp.
"Sometimes I want to, when you're being that stupid," he replied, keeping his own tone light as well.
"Maybe I shouldn't let you learn after all then," Kael mused, and Rafariel hesitated, hoping against hope that he was reading that sentence the right way.
"...I'd like to learn," he said softly, and then he turned himself around in Kael's arms, looking up at his face. Kael's expression was still somewhat stiff, but his eyes were amused. Rafariel took that as a good sign.
"Please," he added.
Kael sighed, and then smirked at him, his expression relaxing as well.
"The problem with you is, you're so damned pretty that you can talk me into anything."
Rafariel blushed. He'd long ago given up refuting Kael every time he referred to him as 'pretty' or 'beautiful', but he didn't think he'd ever get used to it.
"But then..." Kael nuzzled against his neck, and Rafariel jumped at the sudden warm breath on his bare skin. "...everyone else gets dazzled by your beauty as well, and that's when I get stupid."
Rafariel sighed, and then he smiled and wrapped his arms around Kael's neck. He didn't think he was dazzling anyone with anything; Kael was just an idiot. But somehow because Kael was an idiot for him, that made it a little easier to forgive. He loved that Kael thought he was beautiful, even if he thought it was irrationality on Kael's part. And even though it drove him nuts half the time, he secretly liked that Kael was impassioned enough to get so jealous over him.
"You're an idiot," he mumbled affectionately in Kael's ear. "But you're my idiot." Kael wasn't the only one who was possessive.
And when Kael dragged him over to the bed, raining kisses down on his neck and shoulders, he didn't protest at all.