New York is not a safe place to live in 1985. The days are long and the crime is rampant and the summer sun is sticky, clinging to Oliver like a second skin. He’s not sure what he’s doing here — is he sure of anything these days? — but the universe must be more sure than he is, because he is wandering out of Chinatown and into Little Italy when an all too familiar mop of brown curls interrupts his line of sight.
Oliver watches him without consciously deciding to; at the way two years have passed, but so little time at all. He is still the lanky, coltish boy he was two summers ago, still walking with that same kind of lazy purpose, still scrutinizing his surroundings with a careful eye. He masterfully weaves in and out of the crowd without disrupting it, closer and closer, approaching too fast.
He doesn’t see Oliver at all, so thoroughly distracted by whatever is on his mind that as he starts to pass Oliver feels less than solid, like some kind of a ghost. It’s a feeling he isn’t used to, existing in this body as long as he has.
Oliver thinks he’s just going to let him go, but then Elio takes two steps further away and it’s like he has Oliver’s heart beating in his hands, like it’s still connected to his chest and every step Elio takes pulls it further and further beyond its ability to reach. He’s jutting out an arm and wrapping it around Elio’s before he can think, warm skin on warm fingers, a flutter of familiarity and ache already halfway up his throat when, abruptly, Elio flinches with his entire small frame and drops the cloth bag of groceries in his hands.
Elio’s body is stunned but his face is beatific, splitting into a grin so wide that it somehow parts the crowd faster than the spoils of his groceries on the ground.
“I can’t believe I’m seeing you,” says Oliver, the words coming out of him a lot more composed than they are in his head — breathless, stunned, so all at once pulled back into the magnetism of this orbit that it’s laughable, that he let himself think it would fade with time.
“Yeah — yeah, wow,” says Elio, blinking behind those thick lashes, behind that —
“What happened to your eye?”
Elio smirks and juts out his chin. “Street fight.”
He’s expecting Elio to tell him the actual reason for the now yellowing shiner on his left eye, but then someone interrupts them by leaning down to help pick up the groceries that Elio dropped on the sidewalk.
“A little jumpy there, huh?” says Oliver, when Elio straightens back up.
Elio lets out a short laugh. “Shut up.”
Oliver moves to put a hand on his shoulder, but then thinks the better of it. “Your parents around?”
“Huh? No. No, I’m — I go to school here.”
Elio nods. “Yeah, yeah. Are you … ? I thought you moved to Connecticut.”
“I moved back.”
“Oh.” Elio’s eyes lift comically in surprise. “Did you just …”
God, it’s weird. Acting like it’s not weird, that is. Pretending that neither one of them has felt the pain of the last year and a half of silence when Oliver feels it so acutely both in his own body and reflected back in Elio’s eyes that it seems too large for a city street to contain.
“A few months ago, yeah.”
Elio’s eyes flit to his ring finger. It reminds him of how the kid was that entire summer — secretive, but never subtle. Guarded, but painfully easy to read.
Oliver isn’t, but his bare finger is plenty answer enough.
They make plans to see a movie that weekend, in a little theater a few blocks from Union Square. The Breakfast Club. Oliver doesn’t really watch, and neither, he suspects, does Elio. Their knees brush exactly one time. Elio is the one who pulls his away. The gesture wraps like a coil around Oliver's brain and pulls, tight.
Afterward they wander out in the overly bright sun, squinting in surprise at the brightness. Oliver felt like he’d lost all sense of time, like they were going to emerge out into darkness and stars.
Elio’s quiet. Shifty. Oliver figures he’s going to ask questions, but instead he gets in line for a soft pretzel.
“Are you okay?” Elio asks. His hands are in his pockets, but his shoulders shrug at Oliver anyway, like he’s not sure if he’s allowed to ask.
Oliver stares at him for a beat. “I am.”
Elio looks uncertain, and then almost disappointed, his eyes hitting the concrete before bouncing back up to look at Oliver.
“I am,” says Oliver, in a conciliatory way: I’m sorry. I can’t talk about this right now.
Elio nods. Looks at his pretzel like he’s going to take a bite, and then thinks the better of it. Offers it to Oliver.
Oliver takes it and takes a hearty, ridiculous bite of it, and Elio laughs soundlessly and shakes his head. Oliver wonders what the hell they’re doing, walking down these crowded streets like this isn’t the twilight zone, like the universe didn’t just spend the two years chewing them and then spat them out of all places, right here to next to each other again.
He wants to grab him by his skinny shoulders and kiss him senseless. He wants to cross the street right now and pretend this never happened. He wants to pin him against the wall, remembering the way his heart used to thud the word mine, mine, mine. He wants to go back to four days ago and stop himself from ever running into Elio, from ever waking up this need in him, from reminding him of it was like to feel whole but know that he’ll never truly be again.
Elio surges ahead to avoid a cluster of girls walking five abreast. The two of them are out of sync. Out of rhythm. Like the beat that used to play underneath them is too muffled for them to get back on track.
“C’mon,” says Oliver, “there’s some place I want to — ”
Elio hisses when Oliver wraps a hand around his wrist. At first the hurt is so fresh that there isn’t a way for Oliver not to take it personally. It seems like far too much of an overreaction — this is New York, for god’s sake, and it’s not like Oliver was about to intertwine their fingers and scream their sins from the rooftop.
He’s already scowling when he sees it, just before Elio can shove the long sleeve of his shirt back over it — the mottled, ugly bruise around his wrist, glaring and purple and large enough that Oliver can’t even see the full extent of it.
“Oh my god.”
Elio won’t meet his eye. “Sorry,” he says, presumably about flinching away, but Oliver’s miles past that now.
“Elio. What the hell is that?”
He grabs for Elio’s arm again, but Elio dodges it, weaving past him so efficiently that Oliver ends up reaching for air.
Oliver stops in his tracks, his voice firm and unyielding: “Elio.”
Elio stops too, but doesn’t come any closer. “I was — walking against the light. A car was coming. So my boyfriend grabbed me to yank me back.”
At first all Oliver can do is blink. “Your boyfriend?”
Elio’s voice is quiet. Almost miserable. “Yeah.”
Oliver blows out a breath. “Your boyfriend.”
Elio looks up at him then, his expression an almost indecipherable mingling of apology and defiance. He shifts his weight between his feet, his mouth opening and then closing, looking like a fish out of water. Oliver supposes they both are.
“It’s different here,” says Elio.
He’s damn right it is. And Oliver suddenly hates it with every fiber of his being.
“You didn’t tell me.”
“I never thought I’d have to.”
Oliver swallows down the hurt and offers Elio a tight smile.
“You’re mad,” says Elio anyway.
“No. No. I’m happy for you.”
Elio tilts his head at Oliver, inspecting him. Oliver stares back down at Elio’s wrist, covered up by his sleeve, trying to find the root of his sudden unease.
“What are you even doing here?”
Oliver runs a hand through his hair. “Teaching,” he says. He feels numb. Outside of his body. It’s brutally hot outside, but he has to tense his entire body from stopping a chill from running up his spine. “I got an assistant professor position. At Columbia.”
“Congratulations,” says Elio, the word hollow.
Oliver reaches his hand out, looking back at Elio’s wrist. “Can I look at it?”
Elio hesitates. “It’s fine.”
It is and it isn’t but Oliver can’t split his focus right now, the word boyfriend expanding like a balloon in his brain, leaving no room for anything else. It’s selfish. It’s stupid. But he just never imagined a version of Elio with somebody else.
“Do you still want to … ?”
Elio doesn’t finish the sentence, but he doesn’t have to. He can see it watering in Elio’s eyes, quivering in his lips.
“Of course,” says Oliver. “Yeah. Let’s — I’ll give you my new number.”
Elio nods vigorously, but doesn’t offer his own. Oliver realizes with another unexpectedly possessive lurch that Elio must live with this boyfriend of his. That someone else is waking up next to Elio and running his hands through Elio’s curls and rolling his eyes at Elio’s antics.
He can’t give this man a face or a name or even a shadow. Even in the brutal space of his own mind, there is nobody Oliver can see Elio with but him.
Elio doesn’t call Oliver for three weeks. Oliver starts to think he’ll never call at all.
It drives him crazy, that Elio has all the power here. That Oliver can’t do anything. He feels like an idiot, using his spare time to wander around the NYU campus, to linger in Washington Square Park, to peer into too many coffee shops, flinching at every curly mop of hair that passes by. He is better than this. He is smarter than this. But it feels like there is some invisible tether between him and Elio, pulling him closer, closer, closer, until —
Until finally, Elio calls.
“Do you want to grab some food tonight?” he asks, as if he hasn’t been radio silent for nearly a month. As if he hasn’t been driving Oliver up the goddamn wall. As if this is normal, just casually asking each other to dinner, when of all the things they are and have ever been is anything but normal.
“Yeah,” says Oliver. So much for keeping up his guard. "You got somewhere in mind?”
He can almost hear Elio’s relieved smile through the phone. “Yeah, but I can be talked out of it.”
“Good. Because I have just the place.”
He tells him to meet him at Kosar’s on the Lower East Side. Oliver buys a bag of bialys and some babka and coffee for them to share and they saunter over to Roosevelt Park, all awkwardness and careful glances that he can’t quite reconcile with the steady ease they still have with each other.
“Eat,” says Oliver, giving Elio a critical look after they find a place to plant themselves. “You look like you haven’t had a meal since the last time I saw you.”
Elio sighs. “You sound like the girls in my music theory class.”
They talk about Elio’s internship with a production company, scoring music for student films. They talk about Oliver’s summer classes, the flirty undergraduates and the dusty classrooms. They talk about New York in the summer, the rampant crime and the smell of hot garbage and the places they haunt, for better or for worse.
They talk about things that don’t matter and hedge around everything that does.
Then they walk — aimlessly west and aimlessly north until they’re back at NYU, back on Elio’s new stomping grounds, wandering around the same park that Oliver’s been visiting now for days with a keen eye on skinny frames and sheepish smiles that are no match for the actual thing, sweet and solid and whole at his side.
Oliver insists on walking Elio home. He says it’s because it’s a nice night. But they both know that the city is anything but safe after dark, and the memory of that black eye on Elio’s face when they first ran into each other is all too fresh in his mind.
Elio abruptly stops at a walkup on top of a coffee shop. The whole thing is so Elio that it kind of hurts.
“It was good to see you,” he says.
Oliver doesn’t nod. Doesn’t move. “Don’t be a stranger.”
Elio glances toward the ground and nods at the concrete, one of those nods that’s less head and more body. “Uh huh.”
And then they’re hugging, and at first it’s so painfully stiff that Oliver wishes they hadn’t, wishes this hug wasn’t about to taint the memory of any other time they touched and cast that whole summer in newer, more sinister colors.
And then they’re hugging, the way they once did, and Elio still has that same smell of pine and sweetness and sunshine, is still warm and pliable in his arms, fitting so neatly into him that it stuns him that he ever thought this was something he could live without — that in a few moments he’ll just go on living without it all over again.
The front door opens with a crack. Elio pulls away so fast that it feels like it rips something in the universe.
“Adam,” says Elio. His smile is wobbly and too wide. “This is Oliver.”
Oliver blinks into the eyes of a man he instantly hates, and not for any particular reason other than he knows that territorial look in his eyes — knows it so well that he’s not sure who he hates more, this Adam or himself. Adam takes a step forward, further into the light, and Oliver sees that he has at least a decade on Elio. He’s handsome, too. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, with a fair amount of scruff. Oliver wonders how they met.
Oliver unconsciously straightens out. At the very least, he has a few inches on the guy. He isn’t sure why it matters, but of course it does.
“How do you and … Oliver know each other?”
“He was a graduate student of my father’s,” says Elio smoothly. There is no affect in any of the words. As if the whole thing were as simple as telling someone the time.
Oliver extends out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Adam doesn’t take it for a moment, and that’s the moment that Oliver’s irrational hatred hardens into actual dislike. Then Adam takes it and shakes, a little too hard to be polite.
“Thought you’d be home by now,” says Adam, addressing Elio but still staring at Oliver.
“We grabbed dinner. Thought you had a shift?”
“Canceled. Ariel needed the hours. Thought we could spend some time together tonight, but evidently …”
“Sorry,” says Elio, with a contriteness that Oliver isn’t used to. It doesn’t suit him. “I’ll see you around, Oliver?”
Adam’s hand reaches out, presumably to grab Elio’s hand. But it doesn’t. It wraps around his skinny wrist, his fingers reaching all the way around and squeezing.
Oliver tears his eyes away, his heart in his throat.
“Later,” says Oliver lowly.
Elio doesn’t laugh. Doesn’t meet his eye. The word seems to have punctured some part of him that Oliver didn’t think he could still reach. He regrets it immediately, watching as Adam pulls Elio in by the arm, a little too sharp, a little too fast. Elio smiles a tight smile back at him, like he knows how it must look, but it doesn’t do anything to stop it from looking that way.
Elio and Adam disappear, swallowed up by the stairs in the apartment building, and Oliver stands uselessly on the stoop for too long to justify himself. He shuffles down the steps and looks either way down the street. He knows how to get home, could close his eyes and walk uptown if it came to it.
But he doesn’t want to leave. Can’t, just yet. Because he knows what Elio might not understand just yet, knows it so certainly that it feels like he closed his eyes and opened them into a funeral — this is the last time he’ll ever see Elio. At least, the last time he sees him on purpose. There is no room for Oliver in Elio’s life now, not as a friend, not as a brother, not as any of the infinite things they were or are or could have been in some other world. The metaphorical door closed before the real one did; this relationship, whatever it is, can only bring the both of them pain.
It should be easier to let this go the second time around, but somehow it is much worse — because he knows, now, the exactness of the hurt. How long it will last. How all-encompassing it will be. He is suddenly so exhausted at the thought of it that he stumbles into the little coffee shop under Elio’s apartment, orders himself a coffee and perches on a stool in the window, existing in some between world — the purgatory of before and after the goodbye.
It isn’t over until he leaves. It isn’t over until he turns the lock in his own apartment door. It isn’t over until …
He runs a hand through his hair. It’s been over since the moment Elio shook his hand. It will never end.
He’s about to walk his empty cup back over to the barista when he sees a fast-moving figure cut past the light of the street lamp just outside the shop — Oliver recognizes Adam so immediately that it feels like he has spent far longer than half an hour hating him. The man’s face is hard, his steps purposeful, the anger so present in him that Oliver can practically feel its heat from behind the window. He disappears from view so quickly that Oliver might have conjured him, if the look on the other man’s face weren’t seared into his head.
Oliver freezes in his seat, watching for Elio, but Elio doesn’t follow. Somehow he knew he wouldn’t. And somehow he understands something that is conscious mind wasn’t willing to — that for Elio, the trouble didn’t begin when he ran into Oliver on the street last month. For Elio, the trouble sleeps in the same bed.
He rises, then, and leaves the coffee shop, hovering outside the buzzer in Elio’s building. He doesn’t know the apartment number. He considers just buzzing all of them until someone lets him in, but that’s — that’s crazy, isn’t it? And Elio will figure out what he did, and then the line he’s been toeing will officially have been crossed, and really, he’s probably built this all up in his head to be something it’s not. He worries. He’s a worrier. And yes, this Adam may have been upset to see Oliver, but yes, he might have picked a bone with Elio over it, but he probably just walked out to blow off some steam and Oliver should just go back to minding his own goddamn business before he makes it any worse.
Right. Right. Oliver turns around, and starts walking back toward the 1 train. Considers, even, hailing a cab. Or maybe just walking around aimlessly until he’s lost.
He closes his eyes. There’s no way he could lose himself here, the grid of the city scored on his heart, the water closing him in on all sides. Elio wasn’t a coincidence. He was an inevitability. And now that Oliver has established that, he doesn’t know what on earth to do about it.
He’s still walking away when he hears the creak of the door open; sees the slender, hooded figure slink out, walk down the stairs, and head in the opposite direction. It’s Elio, but it isn’t. It’s Elio’s pants hanging on lanky limbs, it’s Elio’s curls poking out from the hood, but it isn’t Elio in the posture or the gait. It’s too slow. Too … resigned. Too …
Oliver turns to follow. He opens his mouth to say Elio’s name, but the air blows out of him. Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong .
He follows him down one block, and then another, and then he gets too close and the length of his shadow hits the sidewalk, right in Elio’s line of view. Elio stops dead, inhaling so sharply that he almost chokes on it, and whips around.
“Jesus Christ,” Oliver breathes.
Elio blinks at him. Turns back around. But it’s too late — Oliver has already seen the thick stream of blood running down his forehead, the already bruising cheek, the red-rimmed eyes behind wet lashes.
Elio keeps walking forward, faster now.
“Elio. Elio, stop.”
And he doesn’t, and Oliver has to run to catch up with him, and the moment he does Elio turns back around like he can avoid him, like he can will himself out of Oliver’s sight.
“Don’t,” says Elio, taking a step back. He pulls the hood over his head with shaking hands, so unsteady on his feet that he almost trips right there on the pavement. “It’s not — I’m not — ”
“Elio,” says Oliver, with so much weight, so much grief, that Elio can’t help but stop in his tracks. He leans away then, like he’s going to keep trying to avoid him; then Oliver reaches out and murmurs his name one more time and Elio pitches forward, right into his chest, his bloody face pressed against his shirt and his skinny frame quivering in Oliver’s arms.
“I’ve got you,” says Oliver. “I’ve got you. It’s okay.”
Elio doesn’t protest, just sucks in a breath that turns into a soundless, painful sob, shuddering against him so powerfully that it feels like the earth is quaking under them. Oliver holds him, holds him and thinks he won’t ever let him go, can’t ever let him go, except that Elio’s bleeding and he’s hurt and he needs to figure out how badly, needs to understand what happened and take control of this situation and decide what happens next, needs to murder the man who did this — did this to sweet, gentle, innocent Elio, whose hands barely even know how to make a fist, let alone throw a punch —
“I’m sorry,” Elio gasps, half-pulling away and half-not, like his entire body is at odds with itself. “I’m so sorry, I …”
Oliver hushes him, guiding him over to the mercifully empty bench on this mercifully empty street. Elio is senseless and trusting as ever, letting Oliver set him down, letting out a hiss of pain as he sits and touching his ribs.
Jesus fucking Christ. For a minute the rage is so white hot that it almost consumes him, almost burns him alive. But Elio doesn’t need more violence. Elio needs … Oliver doesn’t even know yet.
He reaches a cautious, probing hand to the side of Elio’s face that isn’t stained with blood, his fingers fanning out over Elio’s cheek, his thumb catching the fresh tears.
“Where are you hurt?” he asks first, because it seems like the sensible thing to ask, because he doesn’t trust himself to say anything else just yet.
But Elio just shakes his head and won’t stop shaking it, leaning into Oliver’s hand and then falling back into him, his head on Oliver’s shoulder.
“I’m so stupid,” he whispers into Oliver’s shirt.
Oliver stiffens. “No. You’re not.” I’ll kill him, he thinks again, but this is not the time. He pulls Elio in closer, trying to be mindful of his injuries even though he wants to pull him in so close that he consumes him, that nobody else can get near him again. “Elio, you’re — fuck.” The realization slams into him all at once, painful and unyielding. “This was because of me, wasn’t it?”
Elio doesn’t answer.
“He did this to you because of me,” says Oliver.
And then, the worst words that Oliver has possibly ever heard: “It wasn’t you,” says Elio. “It just … happens sometimes.”
Oliver wants to cry. Wants to pinch his eyes shut and let loose right here. But he can’t be the weak one right now. Elio needs him.
“This kind of thing doesn’t just happen,” he says. “Not ever. And never again.”
Elio swipes a wrist at his eyes, catching his tears. It comes back smeared with his blood.
“We need to get you to a hospital.”
“N-no. No, we don’t. It’s — it’ll be okay. I’ve …”
Had worse , he is going to say, but evidently thinks the better of it. It’s too late. Oliver hears it in the silence. It takes shape in the air and crystallizes in the darkness, hurts Oliver more than a person ever physically could.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” says Oliver. His hands are in Elio’s hair, stroking it at the nape of his neck, a careful eye on the street to make sure nobody can see. “We’re going to hail a cab. You’re going to stay with me until we figure out what to do. You’re never going to see him again.”
Elio’s lips press together. “I can’t just …”
“I don’t care if you love him. This is unforgivable. Inexcusable. Do you hear me?”
Elio’s voice is small. Mournful, almost. “I don’t love him.”
Oliver should be relieved. He is anything but. He hasn’t let himself imagine Elio in any way, has cut himself off at the train platform before he let himself get any further, but god, there was no part of him that ever thought of Elio like this. No part of him that thought a world could be this cruel to someone so innocent, so unsuspecting of it.
He has a thousand questions. They all have to wait.
His eyes dart up and down the street. Still alone. He presses a kiss to Elio’s hairline, and the effect is almost heartbreakingly instantaneous; the way Elio’s body stops shaking, the way he leans into Oliver’s lips, the way his eyes half-close like a part of him is still here but the rest of him is still there, in those sun-dappled sheets, between those old, sturdy walls.
“Can you stand?”
“Yeah. Yeah,” says Elio, the second yeah a little stronger than the first one. “I’m — Oliver, I can’t just come with you.”
“It’s not up for discussion,” he says, taking Elio’s hand and hoisting him to his feet. He pulls the hood back over Elio’s head. He’d keep his hand in Elio’s to lead him out to street, but there’s too much of a risk, here in this city where there are eyes even where eyes can’t be seen. Instead he puts a hand on his shoulder, gently first to make sure there isn’t some new bruise he is pressing against, then firmly when Elio submits to the pressure and follows his lead.
He hails a taxi. Gives the driver the cross streets to his apartment, on the border of the Upper West Side and Harlem. Doesn’t say a word as the taxi sails through the night, except to shake Elio’s shoulder and tell him to stay awake, because he doesn’t know if he’s concussed or not and the idea of Elio passing out at all scares the hell out of him.
Elio is quieter than a ghost as they make their way up the stairs in Oliver’s third floor walkup, only pausing on the landing of the second floor for a moment to wince.
“Your ribs. You’re sure they’re not …”
“It’s fine,” says Elio, his voice tight.
Oliver watches him like a hawk as he helps him up the stairs, as he unlocks the door to his crammed little studio apartment and ushers Elio inside. Elio blinks at it for a moment — at the bursting bookshelves and the papers scattered on his desk, at the unmade bed by the window, at the prints Oliver hung on the walls.
“C’mere,” says Oliver. “Sit.”
Elio does, in a daze, while Oliver digs up the first aid kit and ice, and wets some paper towels in the kitchen. He starts by washing the now dried blood on Elio’s face, and Elio closes his eyes, another silent tear coursing down his cheek, and lets Oliver scrub at it. He gets close enough to the source that Elio winces, but thankfully it doesn’t look bad enough that it needs stitches; he disinfects it, and tries not to let his heart seizes at Elio’s inadvertent hiss of pain.
“I’m sorry,” Elio blurts again, when the bandage is secure. “This isn’t — I didn’t want you in the middle of this.”
“How long has this been happening, Elio?”
His eyes hit the floor. “It wasn’t like this at first. He was … nice.” Elio swallows hard enough that Oliver can hear it in his throat. “And he wanted to — to live together, and I … I thought …”
Elio’s voice is clogged, fresh with tears. “Since January?” he says, like it’s a question. Like he doesn’t want to believe it, either.
“Elio,” says Oliver lowly, pulling him in again.
“Please don’t tell my parents,” says Elio into the crook of his neck. “Please don’t.”
Of course Oliver is going to tell his parents, but there’s no use in working him up right now. “Why did you stay?” he asks instead, before he can stop himself.
Elio sucks in a shuddering breath, then promptly uses it to break Oliver’s heart. “Who else would have me?”
Oliver doesn’t sleep that night. He puts Elio in a pair of his sweatpants and an old shirt that he swims in. He presses a cautious hand to the bruises forming on Elio’s ribs, and makes him promise to tell him if he’s having trouble breathing. He sits on the couch with him until his eyes start to droop, then hooks one arm under his knees and the other under his shoulders and carries him to the bed, where he lets out a little sigh and curls into himself in this protective way that he didn’t before.
At some point in the middle of the night, Elio’s eyes flutter open and he immediately cringes — then he sees Oliver and remembers himself, and tries to pretend he didn’t.
Oliver reaches out and thumbs Elio’s eyelids, gently closing them again. Elio lets out one of those mewling protests he remembers, but his eyes stay closed just the same. He looks impossibly young, here in Oliver’s bed, in this overcrowded city, in new colors cast by the dim apartment light. Not just delicate, but fragile. Not just beautiful, but breakable.
“Oliver,” says Elio, his voice rough. “Where is your wife?”
Oliver licks his lower lip and lies. “She called off the wedding.”
He hopes Elio doesn’t say he’s sorry and make liars out of both of them. “But why?” Elio asks, like he can’t imagine it. Like he can’t imagine that there’s a person who wouldn’t want to be with Oliver if Oliver wanted to be with them.
Oliver runs a hand through Elio’s hair. “Go back to sleep.”
For once, Elio obeys, out so instantly that Oliver wonders if he’ll even remember it when he wakes.
Morning eventually comes, but clarity doesn’t. Oliver still has no idea what to do. The solution seems simple: Keep Elio with him forever. Don’t ever let Elio out of his sight.
But of course, he can’t do a fraction of that. The reality is and has always been that he has to keep Elio at arm’s reach — for both of their sakes. Otherwise he wouldn’t have lied. Otherwise he would have told Elio that his fiancée didn’t call off the wedding; that Oliver did. That Oliver knew he could never be with Elio, but couldn’t put the final nail in the coffin just yet, no matter how painful it was to pull it back out.
He can’t tell Elio that, though. He doesn’t want Elio to hold out hope. There is nothing more painful than that.
Oliver makes them cereal in the morning, because that is something he can do. Food. Clothes. First aid. The bare needs can be taken care of, even if the rest of this is a mess that will follow Elio for the rest of his life.
“Do you think this guy would come after you?” asks Oliver.
Elio swirls his spoon around the bowl, not actually eating any of it. “I left once. A few months ago. He found me.”
Oliver holds his breath, waiting for Elio to elaborate. He doesn’t. Oliver closes his eyes, wishing he couldn’t imagine what happened next.
“Okay,” he says. “The first thing we do is get a restraining order.”
“What? No,” says Elio, dropping the spoon into the bowl, his eyes wild. “We can’t do that. We They’ll — they’ll know, and he’ll get fired, and he’ll — ”
“Fired from what? I thought he was some kind of bartender.”
“In the summer. He’s a — he’s a teacher.”
Oliver grits his teeth. “Your teacher.”
Elio hangs his head. “I told you I was stupid.”
“No. Elio. You’re …” Oliver reaches his hand, skimming the pale skin of Elio’s cheek, drawing his head up to look at him. “Trusting. Kind,” he says, because if he says naive then Elio might take it the wrong way. “This isn’t your fault.”
Elio shakes his head. “I wish …”
And then, for a moment, the Italian sun is warm on Oliver’s face. Elio’s skin is humming under his touch, and there is a sweet aftertaste in his mouth, slick in his throat. It smells like damp grass and ripe fruit and clean sheets, like nothing bad has ever happened to either of them, like nothing ever could.
He was so scared, then, that he might break Elio. That he would scar him in some way, leave him with more of a burden than he could bear. To him, Elio was perfect — and he would rather keep him that way forever than even lay a finger on him, if he thought it might hurt him.
And now someone has. It didn’t matter how careful Oliver was, how cautious. Elio went out into the world and the world reared its ugly head just the same.
Oliver lowers his eyes, blinking back the sudden sting. “Yeah. Me too.”
Elio gives Oliver the key to his apartment, and Oliver takes a few friends over when Adam is on shift at the bar to collect the things Elio needs — his passport, his clothes, his books, his Walkman. Among them are the shirt that Oliver left him, with a folded note in its pocket; Oliver ruefully recognizes his own handwriting: Grow up.
Elio is listless when Oliver returns, like he’s been standing at the door waiting for him since he left. He doesn’t ask about Adam. Doesn’t ask if Oliver found all of his things. Just wraps his arms around Oliver’s back and leans into him.
Minutes pass before he pulls away. Oliver starts making them sandwiches, tells Elio to start going through his things, but Elio just takes one of the bags Oliver uses for recycling and starts putting everything in it.
“What are you doing?”
“I’ve got to get out of your hair,” says Elio, “I’ve already — ”
“Whoa. Hold on a sec. Elio — ”
“There’s a hostel downtown, I’ve got enough money to stay for a week or so, that’s plenty of time to — ”
“Elio. Stop. Stop,” he says, putting a hand on Elio’s arm before he can reach for something else to put in the bag. “You’re not going to a damn hostel. There’s plenty of room for you here.”
Not to mention that between his baby face and the bruises on it Elio looks like a goddamn fifteen-year-old runaway and whoever was running that racket would have Child Protective Services swarming the place in an instant — and even if they didn’t, Elio was practically a neon light for thieves in a place like that.
Elio shakes his head. “I’m a mess, Oliver. Me. Not you. This is my fault, and I can’t — ”
“We’ll figure it out — ”
“No, Oliver, I can’t — I can’t let you do this. I know you — I know you don’t want me in your life, not like this, and I — ”
Elio flinches and Oliver immediately regrets raising his voice. He crosses the distance between them, bracing Elio by the shoulders, holding him there.
“How could you think that?" he breathes. He tries to find his voice again, some common ground between too loud and too quiet, but he doesn't know how the world is supposed to sound in this vacuum of shock. "How could you think that for even a second after everything we’ve been through?”
Elio’s cheeks are soaked. “How could I not?” he says. “You — you never called again, you didn’t write, and you — you didn’t marry her, and you never told me, and I …”
“Shit,” Oliver mutters to himself. He wants to pull Elio in again, but he needs to make him understand. Needs to find words to explain this thing that he has never let himself acknowledge out loud. “Elio. No. It’s not like that. It’s …”
“It is,” says Elio, “and that’s — that’s okay, I don’t mean to … you don’t have to feel bad about it. I don’t want you to. You — you were good to me, too good, and even now — ”
“Because I care about you. Because I did then and I do now and me not saying anything about it has nothing to do with how I feel about you and everything to do with me trying to keep you safe .” His blood is hot in his veins, moving too fast, boiling him alive. He was never going to say these things — not just for his own sake, but for Elio’s — but now they are slipping out of him too fast to reel back in. “I would spend every minute with you if I could. Every hour of every day. Build a life with you. Grow old. But …”
Elio’s eyes meet his. But what? he seems to ask. And how can Oliver answer that, if he doesn’t already know?
“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to hurt you.” And then, because he can’t help but be honest, like there is a wedge in him that needs to be pulled out: “And I didn’t think … I didn’t know if you thought of that summer the way that I did.”
“What do you mean?” Elio asks quietly.
It somehow doesn’t get any easier, exposing himself like this. It’s been 26 years of big words and bravado and broad smiles, an empire he’s built himself on that crumbles at his feet every time Elio is in the room. “You’re so young.”
Elio shakes his head. “We were never just fun for me. We were never a game.”
It’s been so long since Oliver said those words to him that yet again he finds himself blurring past and present, like everything that has happened in the past two years is inconsequential, some kind of fever dream he’s only just woken up from.
“And that’s why I have to leave,” says Elio. “I have to — not see you anymore. Because the longer I’m around you, the more I … the more I know I’ll never be okay again. I’ll never even be able to pretend.”
Oliver doesn’t know what to say, so he doesn’t. He puts a hand under Elio’s chin, lifting his face up to look at him. Elio’s eyes are wet with unshed tears and uncertainty, with Oliver’s own pain reflected back at him. He doesn’t have to tell Elio that he feels it, too. Doesn’t have to tell Elio about the sleepless nights or the unsent letters he burned, about the calls he imagined making but never did, about the torturous dreams or the way the wind will hit in a certain way at a certain time of year and take him back to Italy like a punch in the gut.
He closes his eyes and presses his lips to Elio’s. For a moment neither of them moves, just standing there, chaste and sweet and almost beyond belief, like they ripped their way back into a sealed off world.
And then Elio’s lips part and he presses his body into Oliver’s, backing Oliver into the door, and Oliver’s hands are in Elio’s hair and skimming down his back and over his shorts and he’s still here, all of him, all of his certainty and uncertainty, his hope and his fear, his heart beating like a bird’s against Oliver’s chest.
It isn’t Italy. It’s scarier and sweeter and more real ; the stakes aren’t somewhere far beyond them, but breathing behind walls, in the space between their limbs. But somehow it does nothing to dampen the crush of want, the heat of his desire, the distant hum in his head that is now roaring in the air around them, silencing every doubt, every reservation, every part of him that ever thought that the road would never lead him right back to here.
Elio pulls away, his bruised face like a fallen angel, staring at Oliver. Oliver presses a kiss to his nose, his forehead, to the ring of purple on his cheek.
“From now on we … we stay in touch,” says Oliver. “We call. We see each other when we can.”
Something sinks in Elio’s gaze. “I want more,” he says, his hands bunching the fabric of Oliver’s shirt. “I can’t have a little bit. I have to have the whole thing or nothing at all.”
Oliver was afraid of just that. Afraid on all sides — that Elio wants too little, or wants too much. That the two of them will never know what they are and aren’t allowed to be to each other, that they’ll always press every bend in their story so far that it breaks.
Like here. Like now. When he understands that avoiding Elio these past two years did anything but keep him safe; it pushed Elio into the arms of the kind of man who hurts people. It pushed Elio into some belief that he could settle for it, like it was some kind of penance he had to pay to be loved.
And who could he have told? Who could he have trusted, if not Oliver, who had built a wall between them too high to fathom the other side?
“I know,” says Oliver. “I know.”
And this much, he does: that he will never let this happen again. That he will always be there for Elio, even when he can’t be here for him. That this — whatever they are and whatever they will be — is their heaviest burden and their greatest gift. That nobody will ever hurt him like Elio will. That nobody will ever love him like Elio will. That he will spend just as many moments cursing this as he will cherishing it, and that it will be worth it all the same — because this something beyond measure, beyond scorekeeping, beyond good and bad.
But right now there is good. Right now there is Elio, in his arms and in his bed, warm and safe and right.
Oliver presses a finger to Elio's chest. "Oliver," he says, lightly scratching the fabric of his shirt. "Oliver, Oliver, Oliver."
Elio lets out a pained breath of a laugh. At first he doesn't say anything; just takes the hand that Oliver has poised on his chest and wraps his fingers around it, pressing the ball of their hands back into Oliver's chest.
"Elio," he says, after a few moments. Oliver almost sags in relief at the sound of it. "Elio."
It isn't a promise; it's the closest thing to one that they'll ever be able to make.
“Elio. Elio,” says a voice, interrupting him as he sits on a bench transcribing in Tompkins Square Park. It’s Rebecca, the wild-haired girl in his French lit class. “Where have you been?”
His classmate is wide-eyed, incredulous. Elio blinks at her. Pulls his headphones off of his head. Tries not to wince when even that small movement reminds him of the ache in his ribs.
“Um — around,” Elio mutters. But he gets the sense from the urgency in her voice that she isn’t asking in that way that classmates ask each other after they’ve been apart for a few months. She’s asking with a purpose, a purpose that suddenly sends a chill up Elio’s spine.
“Did you hear what happened to Adam?”
The name alone paralyzes him. He can feel the blood physically draining from his face. “No.”
“He was arrested. Andrea heard he went to see an ex-boyfriend and beat the crap out of him, almost killed him. I thought … Jesus, Elio, I thought …”
Elio doesn’t breathe. “Thought what?”
“Well,” she says, her voice lowering, her eyes softening. “I thought it might be you.”
This is how Elio learns that he and Adam were not as secret as he believed them to be. He wonders who found out, what betrayed them; then it occurs to him that it’s not really a question. If word got out that they were living together it could only have come from Adam himself. Just one of a whole host of things Elio should have understood about him, in a time he was too blinded by Adam’s acceptance of him to see anything else.
“So you and Adam …”
Elio ducks his head down. Oliver loaned him a hat, and most of the residual bruising is up past his hairline, so at least she hasn’t seen.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says flatly, leaving no room for discussion.
Rebecca opens her mouth again and sucks in a breath, then evidently changes her mind. He’s not looking at her, but he can still feel her pity, warm and suffocating like a coil around his neck. He has to blink himself out of it — it’s infuriating, how stupid his brain is, how quickly and unforgivingly it will take him from a park bench in the sun to the black, guttural horror of Adam’s hands reaching for his collar, the pushing, the squeezing, the gasping for air —
“Please be careful, Elio,” says Rebecca.
He mouths the words to himself after she turns around and leaves him there. Please be careful. Please be careful. He was, once. All tip toes and doorway lurking, daydreams and ghost touches, all the weeks he spent hovering on the outside of Oliver’s world without daring to get too close.
It’s too late for careful. He crashed into Oliver’s world and broke his own heart. He let Adam crash into his and he broke everything else.
He wonders about the practical things on the subway ride back up to Oliver’s. If Adam will be fired (please, God, let him be). If Adam will expect Elio to front the rent while he’s gone (Elio suspects the things Oliver and his friends didn’t take were destroyed). If he’ll be able to find a new place to stay before the semester, or preferably before the end of the week, so he can get out of Oliver’s hair (he has never been and hopes he never will be more humiliated than he is right now, and each second of staying with Oliver is somehow more excruciating than the last).
Oliver had a second key made the day after he found Elio on the street. Elio tried to give it back, multiple times in fact, but it’s been three days and Oliver isn’t having it. He thumbs it now between two fingers, cool metal and jagged edges, yet another souvenir he’ll take with him when he and Oliver spiral back out of each other’s lives for good.
In the meantime, Elio makes himself scarce. Leaves before Oliver gets up for class. Comes back after dinnertime. Spends most of his time either at his internship or wandering through Central Park and the neighborhoods of the Upper West Side he’s never spent much time in before, feeling like he’s on another planet instead of a few miles north of where he usually lives.
He walks up the stairs to Oliver’s around nine o’clock that night — late enough not to be a bother, but not so late that Oliver will worry. He’s trying to decide whether to knock or use the key (he has a feeling Oliver will be upset if he does the former, but how can he justify the latter?) when, halfway up the stairs, he is suddenly so lightheaded that he has to grab the railing to stop himself to pitching forward.
Shit. Shit. His breath snakes up his throat and then stops there. He can’t see the stairwell anymore. Everything is gray and whirring and eating at the edges of his eyes.
He’s going to pass out. He blinks. Swallows hard. Waits for it to pass.
“Hey … ”
Someone’s hand is on his elbow. He’d flinch away but he’s not quite right yet.
“Just sit for a sec, okay?”
It’s one of Oliver’s neighbors, the nice older lady with the dogs.
“Sorry,” Elio blurts, “sorry. I’m fine.”
She hums at him in that motherly, disbelieving way, and Elio suddenly misses his parents so much that it hurts. So much that he wants to walk down to a payphone and use whatever little money he has left to his name to call them and cry until it’s all cried out of him.
Then the world comes back into focus, and the childish impulse with it.
“Just take it easy,” says the woman.
Elio hears a door creak open and knows it’s Oliver the same way he knows whenever Oliver has moved the air in a space, that same thrill accompanied by that same dread, that same uncrushable hope against his very crushable ego.
“Elio? What’s wrong?”
Elio finds his voice just in time to say, “My, uh, shoelace. It was untied.”
He hears the soft huff of breath from the woman next to him, but she doesn’t rat him out. He supposes there’s no need. She reaches up and strokes his shoulder and he manages not to wince, so absurdly and fleetingly grateful for the gesture that he almost forgets to hate himself for it.
He gets back up to his feet easily enough, but somehow Oliver is already there — Oliver. Solid, beautiful, ridiculous Oliver, his brows knotted in concern, his eyes searching Elio in a way they never have — like he doesn’t fully know him anymore. Like he isn’t sure what he’s looking for the way he used to be. Like this Elio is an alien to him, some imposter that swallowed the version he once knew and loved.
No. No. It isn’t like that and Elio knows it, but he feels it. Feels like he scrubbed his old self off until he was raw and gutless and stupid, until he became the shape of someone he didn’t recognize anymore, someone who stayed and stayed and stayed because he didn’t know where else to go.
Then Oliver’s hand is on his cheek. It’s so cold that Elio startles, and then just like that Oliver’s hand is gone, and Elio is somehow — impossibly, wholeheartedly — more miserable than he was before.
“When’s the last time you ate?” Oliver asks.
Elio raises his eyebrows at him. “When’s the last time you slept?”
Oliver’s eyes widen a bit in surprise.
“What do you ... “
“La muvi star has bags under his eyes,” says Elio, allowing himself a ghost of a smile. It reminds him of that night Oliver stayed up playing poker and sloughed into the house so late that he might have been a ghost. He adds quietly, “Anytime I wake up in the night, you’re already awake.”
“I’ve never slept much.”
“In Italy you slept like the dead.”
“In Italy ... “
Oliver licks his lower lip, and just like that, they’ve ventured somewhere they don’t belong. Elio is different from the boy he was then — this time, when Oliver holds him at arm’s length, Elio is all too ready to let him. If Elio isn’t mistaken, maybe he is more to blame for the distance than Oliver.
And why shouldn’t he? Keep his distance, that is. Elio has done nothing if not proven that he has no idea what he’s doing. That he didn’t deserve what he and Oliver had, if he was so willing to sully the memory of it with everything that he has let happen to him since. The boy in his freshman dorm who spent one night with him and never spoke to him again. The man who stuck his tongue so far down Elio’s throat he choked on tears. The nights out in the city — the crush of bodies that growled obscene things in his ear, that ran their fingers through his curls, that only saw him as something pure for the sake of ruining it.
He follows Oliver into the apartment, where Oliver wordlessly puts down a plate and then puts two slices of cold pizza on it. Elio stares at it, wondering how he can be so hungry that his stomach feels concave, but so nauseous at the idea of food that looking at it feels like an assault to all of his senses.
“If you don’t eat that pizza, I’ll chug three cups of coffee and stay up ‘til dawn.”
Elio surprises himself by laughing. “I wonder which one of us is more stubborn.”
“Depends on the day.”
Elio forces himself to take a bite of the pizza, hoping that will distract Oliver enough that he doesn’t have to have anymore of it. Already he feels his gut starting to churn. He’s not exactly sure when it started, only that he’s not sure when it will stop — Oliver was right, when they’d gotten dinner the other night. It was the first actual meal Elio had had in a long time.
It started when Adam proposed pooling their money for expenses — a fine idea at the beginning, one that worked out well for those first two months when living with Adam was easy and good, like fog rolling toward him in a dream. Elio isn’t even sure when it started to spiral — when suddenly Adam was so strict with their budget that he needed to know where everything went and why, and Elio couldn’t even go out and get drinks with friends without Adam noticing money missing and firing off an inquisition.
It was one of those nights that Adam first clocked him.
Elio was certain it was an isolated incident. Apologized, even, for riling Adam up enough to do it. But then it happened again, and again — maybe, Elio thought at first, it was just like this between two men. Men hit each other sometimes. How many scuffles had he seen out in the schoolyard, out on the streets?
By the time he realized how wrong it was, there was already a pattern it was too late to break. Then Elio started dodging Adam as often as he could, staying out of the apartment so often that he missed meals.
Then he just stopped eating on purpose. He couldn’t go anywhere. Adam had his money, his body, his threats. It was the closest he could get to letting himself disappear.
Elio startles at the suddenness of Oliver’s hand, cool on his forehead, pushing back his hair.
“Are you sick?”
Elio shudders. “No.”
“You’re worrying me.”
“Sorry,” says Elio, and it’s not sorry for worrying him, or not being able to eat his pizza, or even for crashing on his couch, it’s sorry for everything else. Sorry I’m not what you used to want. Sorry I’m making an even bigger mess out of this mess. Sorry that you’ll never be able to think of me again without thinking of this, right here, right now, casting ugly colors on the memories that used to be like some kind of an oasis, a place Elio could go when the world was bleak, a place he hoped Oliver went sometimes too, now tainted by everything that’s happened since.
“Listen,” says Oliver. “My lease finishes up at the end of the month, and — ”
“I can be out by tomorrow,” says Elio quickly, his face reddening. “I went to the student union today, I’m meeting up with a few people with open rooms — “
“No. No, I meant — well, maybe I shouldn’t be asking this.”
“I want to get a two bedroom. I’m looking for a roommate — a permanent one, but I haven’t had any time to do interviews. If I get the apartment, you could sublet the room until I find someone.” Oliver won’t quite look at him. “You know, if you don’t mind.”
Elio sees right through this. Not the bit about the apartment — he could tell from the moment he walked into this crammed studio that Oliver didn’t belong in it. The two of them both seem unsettled here, like actors that walked into the wrong set.
The interviews, though, Elio knows are a lie. Oliver's charm has a pull to it, like a magnet, or a sun. He could walk onto the street right now and find a roommate in five minutes. He could convince a married woman with four kids to do it in ten.
He understands, then, that he was meant to see through it. Oliver knows better than to posture in front of him, knows better than to do it sincerely. It’s his way of saying he wants to keep Elio around without outright saying something that has too much weight in it; or maybe it’s his way of babying Elio and trying to spare him a shred of his pride. Elio can’t quite decide which would be worse, but he doesn’t have to. It’s all going to end the same way regardless.
“Yeah. That’d be — if you’re sure.”
There’s that wryness back in Oliver’s voice. It doesn’t grate at Elio like it used to, when he thought it put them on some uneven playing field. He’s old enough now not to feel that same insecurity — or maybe just not so tied up in what Oliver thinks of him. It’s comforting, almost, to have this part of Oliver back, because all the other parts of Oliver he has back are a little too much for him to bear.
The smell of him is maybe the worst of it. All over this apartment, dampened by the musty old walls but not near enough to drown it out of Elio’s nostrils, to stop it from aching in his chest. It smells like hope. It smells like greed. It smells like two years ago and two hundred at the same time.
They talk for a bit, then, about their days. It’s somehow a relief, even if the words are heavy with the unsaid ones — with the truth Elio knows Oliver is holding back about his engagement. With the truths Elio is holding back, too. With the crushing silence between the two of them for a year and a half now, and the lingering betrayal — why didn’t you tell me? Didn’t you still want me? Why didn’t you even call?
It’s a bitter, unfair thought to have — but if Oliver had, Elio might not have so much has glanced Adam’s way.
At least it clears up the air now. Puts them on firm footing, a solid understanding: Oliver doesn’t want Elio. Didn’t want Elio. Already made up his mind about it before he saw what a shit show Elio’s life had become. Oliver isn’t rejecting him now; Oliver rejected him as he was.
Small comforts. But Elio’s had much smaller.
Elio waits to change into a loose shirt to sleep in until Oliver is in the shower, the same way he has the past few nights since he got here. But Oliver walks out of the bathroom to grab a new bar of soap and catches him right in the middle of it.
“That’s not …”
Elio yanks the shirt over his head.
“It’s over,” he says, too lightly. Like a leaf about to blow away from a branch.
Oliver just stands there. Doesn’t cross the room to him. Looks about as helpless as Elio felt when the same marks he’s looking at happened to him.
“He burned you with a cigarette?”
Elio knows he’s not the one Oliver’s mad at, but it feels like it. No — it’s worse. Oliver’s mad at Adam. He disappointed in Elio. Disgusted, even.
How can he explain? How can he explain to Oliver when he doesn’t even know how to explain it to himself?
It turns out he doesn’t have to. Oliver walks back into the bathroom, shuts the water off, and comes back out pulling his shirt back on, his expression harder and more unreadable than Elio has ever seen it.
“Where are you going?”
“You know where I’m going.”
“Oliver, you can’t.”
Oliver turns around, his eyes red-rimmed, blazing. “Like hell I can’t.”
“No, I mean — you can’t, because Adam’s in jail.”
Elio lowers his voice, hoping that Oliver will follow his cue and do the same — Elio’s neighbors might have been willing to ignore the thuds and raised voices, and Oliver’s seem keen to report on anything out of the ordinary.
“A classmate told me. He … I guess he went to an ex’s place. Got in a fight with him that ended pretty badly.”
Oliver’s fists are curled at his sides. “Jesus Christ,” he mutters, and then Elio sees that he’s shaking, like there is some kind of darkness in him now that Elio woke, that Oliver doesn’t know how to hold inside of him. He turns then, too abruptly, into the kitchen; into the only corner of the studio aside from the bathroom where Elio can’t see him. Elio doesn’t follow, standing dumbly, until Oliver comes back out at once and places his hands so firmly and unexpectedly on Elio’s face that for one stupid, fleeting moment, he thinks Oliver is going to kiss him.
No. It’s much worse than that.
“What the hell did he do to you?” Oliver breathes.
Elio closes his eyes. “Um,” he starts, without meaning to. He opens them again, feeling dizzy, leaning into Oliver’s hands like they are the last tether to the earth. And god, it would be so easy — to keep leaning. To fall into him. To be Elio and Oliver, ElioandOliver, elioandoliv —
A fat tear rolls down Elio’s cheek, interrupted by Oliver’s thumb.
“I mean it, Elio. Tell me the whole thing. All of it.”
“I have to know.”
“It won’t change it. It’s over.”
“No,” says Oliver. His eyes flit over to the uneaten pizza, then back to Elio. “It’s not.”
Elio lets out a breath he’d been half-holding since Oliver exited the bathroom. “You’ll tell me about your fiancée?”
“I don’t see why that’s …”
Elio stares him down, feeling braver than he has in months. Braver than he has since Oliver’s train pulled him away.
Oliver dips his head for a moment. “Fine.”
Elio somehow manages to convince Oliver to walk in Central Park to talk — partially because he needs the excuse to not look Oliver in the eye, but mostly because Oliver is so keyed up that Elio doesn’t think the apartment can contain him.
“I don’t really know where to start.”
Oliver’s voice is lower, calmer. Almost apologetic. Elio wonders if Oliver thinks he scared him back there; he didn’t. Oliver could never scare him. Elio might have misjudged a lot of things, but Oliver will never be one of them.
Elio still doesn’t quite know what to say; the park is humming with crickets, lit up with fireflies, so beautiful in the waning summer heat that he doesn’t want to taint it.
“He was your teacher,” Oliver prompts.
Elio nods. “Yeah. First semester. It was a — class on recording music.” He wishes it were winter, and that he had the mercy of a coat he could shove his hands into the pockets of, a coat to swallow him up and put another degree of separation between him and the skin that still burns for Oliver. “He was out. Everybody knew. I went to his office hours a few times because I was doing badly on exams, and — ”
Elio stops mid-sentence and laughs out loud.
“What?” asks Oliver, warily.
“I was doing badly on my exams,” he repeats, laughing harder. “Oh my god.”
He can’t stop laughing. It hurts, but in a way that Elio doesn’t mind. He could laugh about this forever, maybe, and not mind.
“You were doing just fine in the class,” says Oliver grimly. “He was failing you to get you to come to office hours.”
“It didn’t even occur to me until just now. What an idiot I was.”
“Elio — ”
“No, no, really,” says Elio, the laughter still tapering. There’s a beat, then, when he is almost dizzy again, and has to stop, afraid that the incident on the stairwell is going to have a sequel. Oliver stops too, already registering alarm, but Elio deflects quickly and says, “Okay, now you.”
Elio gnaws on the inside of his cheek and stares Oliver down, refusing to yield. Oliver sighs.
“There are some things that …” Oliver nudges at a rock with his foot, sending it sprawling. They both pause for a moment, watching it stumble down the path. “I wasn’t entirely honest with you about.”
Elio is too tired to be upset by this. Bone-tired. Life-tired. He doesn’t think he has it in him to be angry anymore, to be surprised by anything.
“That’s okay,” he says softly.
“You might not think that when I tell you.”
“Oliver.” It comes out too quiet, too stilted — Elio always gives too much of himself away, even when he’s trying to do anything but. And just like all the other times, the meaning is all too clear — I already forgive you. There’s nothing you could say or do or ask from me that wouldn’t be forgiven. I am, and have been, and always will be yours.
God, he wishes it weren’t true.
“She didn’t call it off.” Oliver stops fully then, turning to look at Elio. His face is cast in yellow, harsh in the glare of the streetlight, but somehow more beautiful to Elio than ever. “I did.”
Elio blinks, trying to process this information. “When?”
“About two weeks after I spoke with you on the phone.”
Elio forgets how to breathe, but somehow doesn’t forget how to speak. “That was … that was a year and a half ago.”
“I told you you’d be upset.”
“Upset?” Elio echoes. No, he’s not upset, he’s — confused. Devastated. Reeling. Translucent, like he’s not even here.
“I … I couldn’t do it. I heard your voice, and something in me just snapped, and I couldn’t do it — not to her, not to me, not to …”
“No. No, Elio, you don’t.”
Elio’s eyes are stinging. He didn’t think he had enough energy left in him to cry, but here he is, Oliver’s form blurring in front of him, all darkness and yellow light.
“You don’t have to explain,” he says, the words coming out too fast. “In fact, just — don’t. I get it. I really do. You don’t — we don’t owe each other anything, after that summer, after what we … “ It’s coming out all wrong. “It’s okay. You not wanting to be with me, I mean. You don’t have to be sorry.”
“I am sorry,” says Oliver — “but not for that.”
Elio sucks in a breath to ask what the hell that means, but he can’t. He’s a coward. Through and through.
And if he asks, that leaves room for something more painful than Adam’s assaults, more painful than autumn breezes, more painful than the Laters that still echo in his head to a broken, boneless beat: hope.
Elio shakes his head. Oliver loops his arm through Elio’s, the crooks of their elbows connected, their shoulders touching, and leads him toward a bench. Elio follows, wishing his body wouldn’t lean into Oliver’s so easily, but doing nothing to stop it, either.
“The exams,” Oliver prompts him.
Elio stares down at their feet, Oliver in his old espadrilles, Elio in a pair of dirty sandals. He wishes Oliver would slide them off and rest his foot on Elio’s again. Wishes for a time so simple that a mere gesture like that could determine the state of his entire world.
“We went out for coffee. Then dinner. Then ... “ Elio’s face flushes. It feels strange, like a confession, almost, to say this in front of Oliver. Early in the relationship, he used to get some satisfaction out of the idea of it — See, Oliver? I’m just fine without you. I found someone who loves me, someone who stays, someone solid and permanent and unashamed — but now he wishes he could go back to that past Elio and shake the thought right out of him.
“We moved in together. The first month or so was fine.” He doesn’t go into detail, because in some ways, those weeks when Adam was kind hurt more to remember than the ones when Adam was cruel. “But he’d get upset — if I stayed out too long with friends. Or if one of his friends liked me too much. He was paranoid that I didn’t want him, that I was trying to leave him, and then …”
“He started hurting you.”
“It wasn’t like he just — turned into a monster overnight, or something,” says Elio.
“Don’t defend him.”
“I’m not — I’m — ” Defending myself, Elio almost says, because he is, isn’t he? He’s trying to explain why he stayed when anyone in their right goddamn mind would leave, go find another place to live, call the police, call their parents, who would be in the city within the night if he summoned them.
Oliver nods; he understands. Elio clears his throat.
“He was so sorry. So upset with himself. He didn’t even hit me that hard, that first time, and he seemed so shocked at himself, like he couldn’t believe it, so I thought … well.”
Oliver pulls him in, then, and holds him there; Oliver’s arm around his shoulder, the top of Elio’s head is in the crook of his neck, and it would be so easy to pull his head up just a few inches and press his face into it, his lips against the heat of Oliver’s skin, so seamless and natural that he can almost taste it as if he has.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Elio asks. He is braver saying it to Oliver’s shirt than his face.
Oliver’s fingers are in his hair, aimless and comforting. “I was trying to get out from under my family’s thumb. I didn’t know if it would last, and if it didn’t … I couldn’t put you through it again.”
“Did it last?”
Oliver doesn’t answer.
“It did,” says Elio, for him.
“I never know for sure if it does.”
‘It’s not your family, then,” says Elio, his voice unexpectedly hard. “Maybe it’s just you.”
Oliver’s body gives under Elio’s tense muscles, the words sad, laced with apology and regret: “Maybe it is.”
Elio sucks in a breath to challenge him, but Oliver beats him to it. “I’d give anything to go back in time. To stop you from being hurt.”
The anger leaves Elio like air leaking out of a balloon. “That was my fault, not yours.”
Oliver shakes his head. “I wish I’d been there.”
Elio’s throat is too thick to answer. He wished it, too. Every time Adam’s face changed, every time that glint wormed its way back into his eyes, he’d wished — irrationally, ridiculously — for Oliver. Oliver, who would stop this. Oliver, whose presence alone would have prevented him from ever being here in the first place. Oliver, Oliver, Oliver, the only person who knew him soul deep, who he trusted with every piece of it.
“So he hit you,” Oliver prompts him.
Elio hadn’t realized they weren’t done yet. He wants to be, but then it’s spilling out of him, the darkness of months out into the darkness of the park, the only place left that can contain it: “Mostly, yeah. Once he kicked me. A few times he — when I didn’t want to do something, he’d — do it anyway.” God, is he ashamed about that. The way he would just lay there, and clamp his eyes shut, and try not to cry. His breath hitches thinking of it, and before he means to, he says, “One time he put his hands around my throat and pinned me to the wall until I passed out, and — and that really scared him, he thought I was dead, so he didn’t lay a hand on me for a month — Oliver. Oliver?”
Oliver’s shaking — no, Oliver’s crying. At first it doesn’t register, almost like Elio is the one crying, like Oliver is some accidental extension of himself and the tears somehow leaked out of the wrong person.
It’s more of an angry kind of crying, the truly tortured kind, not the kind Elio is familiar with — he’s a pitiful, quiet kind of crier. It’s over and it’s done. But this looks like something that threatens to rot in Oliver’s bones.
Elio thumbs his tears away, not even realizing he’s put his hands on Oliver’s face. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I …”
“No. Jesus. Stop apologizing.”
“I didn’t mean to — ”
Oliver catches Elio’s wrists, impossibly gentle, but firm. “I’m going to kill him.”
Elio almost laughs at the dissonance of it — the harsh words against his soft touch. But a tear streaks down Oliver’s cheek and he lets out this frustrated, furious huff of a breath, either mad at the situation or mad at himself for crying or mad at everything.
“Your family,” Elio says quietly. “Do you miss them?”
Oliver shuts his eyes. Doesn’t answer for a long time. “I shouldn’t.”
And just like that, Elio’s heart is bursting — too large for his chest, snaking its way up his throat. Not bursting, maybe, but breaking, this time not because of Oliver, but for him. He wants to murmur things in his ear — Have my family. Have my mom and my dad and my dozens of cousins, have my Italy and my America and my secret, stolen places, have my heart and my body and let it be enough.
He doesn’t have to say it. Oliver can feel it, he knows. In the palms of his hands still pressed to Oliver’s face, the pads of his fingers still catching his tears.
“Come here,” says Oliver after a while, pulling Elio into him again. Elio lets him. Even closes his eyes, and forgets they are in a park, that it may be dark out but they may be spotted by strangers at any moment; for once, Oliver doesn’t care, and neither does he. They are just two people, two bodies on a bench, two hearts that don’t know how to unbreak themselves and scattered their pieces together.
The next day is a Saturday. They take the train to Elio’s old apartment, the two of them this time, planning to collect what’s left of Elio’s belongings.
Elio turns his key in the familiar lock at the front steps, but nothing about the place feels familiar from that point on. He wishes, dumbly, that Oliver weren’t with him, that Oliver didn’t have to see the evidence of this second life Elio lived in all of its shame — but Oliver was here earlier in the week already. It’s too late for that.
He doesn’t recognize the voice, but he does recognize the face. A neighbor of theirs. Older. He came around a few times, when Adam was looking for outlets stronger than weed; Elio mostly ignored his comings and goings. Didn’t even realize the man knew his name.
The neighbor’s lips thin, and he shifts his weight onto his other foot, looking at Elio’s apartment door. “The police came. Looking for you.”
“In connection to a murder. Apparently your boyfriend killed a man.”
That’s all Elio hears, over and over and over. That, and Rebecca’s warnings — Did you hear what happened to Adam? she said. Almost killed him, she said. Please be careful, Elio. Please be careful, please be careful please be —
“He’s dead? ”
The neighbor only shrugs. Smirks a little, even. Looks at Elio, then at Oliver, and disappears into his own apartment, leaving them in the hallway to contend with the bomb he just dropped, obliterating Elio’s world.
Oliver has the presence of mind to unlock the apartment door, to usher Elio inside.
“It’s my fault,” Elio is already blubbering, senseless, horrified, stunned in his core. “It’s my fault, oh my god, it’s my fault. He was mad at me and went back to his ex and fucking killed him, it’s all my — ”
“Elio. Elio, breathe.”
Elio’s eyes are wild, unable to latch onto any one thing, let alone Oliver’s face. He is breathing too much, or too little, the air is at odds with him and he can’t seem to do anything to fix it.
“This is not your fault,” says Oliver steadily. His hands are on Elio’s shoulders, his fingers squeezing tight. “This is not your fault.”
Elio can’t even hear him anymore, untethered, spinning, spiraling, your fault, your fault, your fault. He’s not in this room anymore, with its deceptively sunny windows streaming in light, with the wreck of things still on the floor from where Adam threw them during their fight, with its walls that only seemed to get tighter and tighter around him as the months went by and now seem so impossibly stifling that Elio might suffocate between them.
He stumbles to the bathroom, Oliver in tow, and immediately starts heaving, but there’s nothing in him. His body just wracks with agony and no way to empty itself, already hollow in its core, poisoned within. He can’t even cry. There’s nothing left.
Oliver’s kneeling beside him on the tiles, a hand rubbing circles into his back.
“Elio,” he murmurs — Come back, he seems to be saying.
But Elio is too far gone, to a place even Oliver can’t reach.
They stay too long. The neighbor must have called the cops. Elio’s brought into the station for questioning, shaking like he’ll never be warm again; they don’t let Oliver ride in the car with them, but the woman takes one look at the bruise around the cut still purpling on Elio’s hairline and the worried expression on Oliver’s face and gives him details about the station so he can follow.
They keep Elio for an hour, and question him for another. Elio’s not even sure what they ask. He answers it all honestly. He doesn’t have anything to fear anymore. Adam’s locked up, and the worst case scenario has already happened: someone else was hurt.
No — someone else was killed.
Elio is a curse. He’s always suspected it, maybe since childhood, since his first conscious, intelligent thoughts. He ruins things. People. He was safer in his books, or bent over a piano, or plucking strings — places to channel it that never had any risk of catching another person in the crossfire. He was safe in that corner. Unhappy, maybe, but safe — and so was everyone else.
When they finally release him Elio sees Oliver in the lobby, his back turned, the payphone pressed to his ear. He’s calling my parents, Elio realizes. He knew they were going to find out, but it’s too much, too overwhelming to bear. He’s already crashed into Oliver’s life and mucked it up, and now he’s about to muck up theirs.
Please be careful, please be careful, please be careful …
Elio’s steps aren’t rushed, but resigned. He walks out of the door of the police station, slips into the August heat, and makes himself disappear.
I had ZERO intentions of continuing this, but god dammit, I can't leave these two alone. I can't decide if it's going to continue from here, but paranoid!Elio just clawed his way out of my brain and, well, you see what happened.
Thank you guys so much for your kind and lovely words. This fandom is v small but v v v supportive and somehow because of that feels ten times bigger than it is :). If anyone wants to hit me up on Tumblr, my side blog is callmemaybebyyourname.
It’s his name, but it isn’t. Oh-lee-vair, melodic and tentative and low in the throat.
“It’s Marzia,” she supplies, before he has to guess.
Oliver blinks into the space of his apartment, holding the phone to his ear as if he has forgotten what it’s for.
“A friend of Eli — ”
“No, no, I know. Of course. Marzia.” His heart is beating all over his body. He has never reacted to the sound of another person’s voice with such mutual relief and horror. “How — how are you?”
“I am well, only … the Perlmans told me to call you.”
This is it, then: Elio is dead. It’s been eight months since he disappeared from that police station. Eight months since he received a letter in the mail, almost identical to the one Elio sent his parents: I’m safe. Please don’t worry. I’m so sorry for everything. Eight months and every single day Oliver has woken with Elio as his first thought, gone to sleep with Elio the last — waiting, waiting, waiting for the other shoe to drop. The world doesn’t just nearly swallow up a person like Elio; it eats him alive.
He takes an unsteady step, backing himself into the kitchen counter.
“A childhood friend of ours was in San Francisco last week. She does not know Elio well, but she insists that she saw him there. He pretended not to recognize her, but she still thinks it was him, and I believe her.”
The relief is so palpable that it dizzies him, makes every joint in his body weak.
“I called the Perlmans this morning to let them know,” Marzia continues. “They discussed it and called me back; they were wondering if …”
“If I would go find him.”
“They are worried.” Another beat. “We all are.”
Why me? Oliver wants to ask. Oliver is the one who lost Elio. Oliver is the one who both figuratively and literally turned his back; the former when he left Elio to his own devices after their summer together, the latter when he didn’t see Elio slip out of that police station and into a blackhole. If anything, the Perlmans should not trust him with this; should not trust him with anything at all.
“They would have called you themselves, but I have Sofia here — she is the one who ran into him, who has details. I’m going to hand her the phone now, if that is alright?”
Oliver appreciates that Marzia never questions whether or not he is going to do it; even in his own mind he is on the tarmac in San Francisco, tearing through the city to find him.
“Yes. Please. Thank you, Marzia.”
Her voice is tight when she speaks again. “When you find him — tell him we just want him to come home.”
Oliver’s knowledge of San Francisco is limited, but this much he knows: the same disease that has been picking off gay men by the hundreds in New York City is picking them off by the thousands there. It is impossible to ignore the headlines. They’ve been mounting for years, in the periphery of everything Oliver does, every intention he does and doesn’t follow through with. He is not a part of any social circles that it affects — he has been careful, even in the wake of his family’s disownment, not to associate himself with anyone outside of his immediate professional circle — but he feels the crush of it nonetheless, like some impending shadow, like a reaper that follows them all.
He has worried, of course. Not for himself, but for the community he has avoided; for the colleagues who are more open about their personal lives than he is; and now, after hearing Sofia’s words on the other end of the phone, for Elio, too.
“He does not look well,” said Sofia, when they spoke on the phone.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll see when you see.”
It’s unclear exactly when that will be, though. Sofia didn’t know much beyond the place where she spotted him — on Market Street, on the fringes of the Castro (the gay district, he knows; he’s seen the words written in print so many times they feel like they’re burned into the insides of his eyelids). She told Oliver she followed him to an cross street not far from there, before she lost him. He wrote it down just the same, where it sits folded in his pocket, words scribbled down that he hopes to God a taxi driver has the presence of mind to find for him.
He spends the plane ride making bargains with unmoved gods: Let Elio be okay, and I’ll never let him out of my sight again. Let Elio be okay, and I’ll tell him everything. Let Elio be okay, and let the universe do whatever it wants with me in exchange.
The cab driver gives him a pointed look in the rearview mirror when Oliver gives him the cross streets to Castro and Market. It’s a look that Oliver has spent a lifetime avoiding; a look he wants so desperately for Elio to never be on the receiving end of. He supposes it’s too late for that.
San Francisco whips by, the fog rolling into the bay, blanketing an unfamiliar skyline. Oliver registers it somewhere beneath the constant hum of panic under his skin, but only just barely. Just enough to be aware when they finally roll into the Castro. The streets are at odds with themselves — some businesses very much awake and thriving, but surrounded by shuttered windows, like teeth missing from a smile. The sidewalks are less crowded here. People walk faster. Before the taxi rolls to a stop, Oliver can already feel the heaviness of a strange grief in the air, like a coat someone put around his shoulders in the dead of summer.
Oliver doesn’t know what to do when he gets there, except find a café on Castro, sit at the window, and wait.
It isn’t like before, the way it was in New York — when Oliver would scan a city street and his heart would skip a beat every other block at the sight of a dark curl or an elbow on a pale frame, convinced of Elio in everyone and everything. But there is none of that here; the people are all are Elio or Not Elio, and Oliver can’t see much past that.
He feels uneasy, here. Guilty, almost. There are indications all over this area of what’s been happening, and Oliver feels strangely like a hypocrite, sitting here in his health and his carefully cultivated lies.
He wanders the area, lingering in parks, peering into shop windows. He should stay put, maybe — he’s convinced that every step he takes he accidentally gets further from Elio than he was before — but he’s restless. Agitated. Can’t stand the looks he’s getting from men on the street, both terrified that they’ll look at him and know, and rueful that they might not.
Everything was simpler away from these cites, away from people and noise and politics. It is selfish, Oliver knows, how much he misses those days. He never earned them, certainly didn’t deserve them. They were stolen from the start. And now he wants them back.
The first day is a bust. Oliver surrenders and heads to his hotel a good mile away around midnight, sleeping fitfully until six in the morning, when he gets up and returns right back to where he started. This time, though, when he walks into the café, he heads straight over to the owner.
“I’m looking for someone,” he says. “His name is Elio. He’s — skinny and pale and has dark hair, and — ” It feels odd to break Elio down in this way, so calculated, so efficient, when he is so much more to Oliver than he could ever express. “He’s twenty. A student.”
“Elio,” the owner repeats. Oliver already sees the recognition in his eyes, and then: “L’angelo della morte.”
Oliver stares at him, stunned. “Excuse me — what?”
The owner lowers his eyes. “Angel of — ”
“I know what it means,” says Oliver tightly. “But why?”
The owner has the audacity to look surprised. “I assumed you knew, if you’re looking for him.”
“Do you know where I can find him or not?”
The man gives Oliver a once-over, like he’s trying to determine whether or not he’s a threat.
“Please,” says Oliver, lowering his voice. “It’s important.”
After a moment of consideration, the man nods. “You’ll probably find him at the hospice, at this time of day.”
The man says it plainly, without pity — not the way a person would say it if Elio’s reasons for being at a hospice were so dire. But it doesn’t stop the ugly clench in his gut, the one that won’t go away until his eyes finally have Elio in their line of sight.
“Can you tell me how to get there?”
It’s a few blocks away. Oliver walks them like he’s being moved by some otherworldly force, like his feet are gliding there. Angel of death. The words rattle between his ears, but they don’t stick anywhere, don’t take on any kind of logical meaning.
And then, like a ghost — like Oliver conjured him out of the fog — is Elio.
At least, the back of him. He is using a payphone, his shoulders hunched over, his voice so low that Oliver can barely hear it from the few feet away where he stops to stare. The pieces of him register in beats, one after the other: his hair is longer, his dark curls spilling into his face, obscuring half of a pale ear. He is slighter than Oliver remembers him ever being, painfully skinny, skinnier than the summer he and Oliver met. He’s wearing clothes that Oliver doesn’t recognize — a gray sweater that swallows him, a pair of black pants that are fraying at the seams.
“I know. I know,” says Elio lowly, pressing the phone to his chin. “But he’s been asking for you.”
It’s Elio’s voice, but it isn’t. There is an urgency in it, a resignation, an empathy. Like there is something richer and more complex to it than there was before; like he has aged eight years instead of the eight months since Oliver saw him last.
“I wouldn’t call, except — he doesn’t have a lot of time left. I’ve seen this before, and … A few days, maybe. I’m really sorry.”
Oliver can’t remember how to breathe. It’s like Elio is breathing for him; like he ceases to exist independently the moment Elio is within reach.
“I don’t — I don’t know you. Or your family,” says Elio. “And I don’t mean to overstep. But I think if you don’t come to see him, you’ll regret it. A lot of people have.” He rocks a bit on his heels. “No, I’m a — I’m a friend. Only a friend. If you have to come by yourself, I can help.”
Elio nods. Tucks his fist under his chin and rests it there, in a gesture so Elio that Oliver feels like something has punctured in his gut.
“Give me an address. I’ll borrow a car and pick you up. Y-yeah, I can — now is okay. Give me half an hour. I’ll get there. You’re doing the right thing.”
Elio hangs the phone back up in its cradle, then leans forward, resting his forehead against it. He blows out a breath that seems to rattle in his ribcage. Then he shifts his weight, righting himself again, and turns —
Straight into Oliver’s waiting gaze.
Oliver watches the heat rise in Elio’s cheeks, the stark flush against pale skin. Watches his lips part and his mouth fall open. Watches his eyes grow wide, and wider still, a flicker of something almost recognizable in them for just a moment before he retreats back into this shell that used to be his Elio, that used to laugh and tease and torture him, that seems so far away that Oliver wonders if he really found Elio at all.
“Shit,” Elio breathes.
And just like that, Oliver is furious with him. An inhuman, all-consuming kind of fury, white hot and blinding, shrieking in his ears, corroding his bones — How the fuck could you do this to me? Don’t you know how scared I’ve been? he wants to scream. I thought you were dead.
He sucks in a breath, not even sure what he’ll say first. Maybe he’ll just scream. Maybe he’ll just scream and scream and never stop.
Elio beats him to it. He looks down at the pavement, at his torn up, nearly wrecked shoes, and then back up at Oliver. His voice is more fragile than glass.
“Do you … do you want to go for a drive?”
Oliver’s hallucinating. He is sitting in the passenger seat of a tiny purple Volkswagen beetle, with Elio at the wheel, hallucinating.
“How did you get here?” Oliver asks.
Elio eases on the brakes for a stop sign. He is a surprisingly good driver, calm and in control; surprising only because he looks like a wreck. Like he hasn’t slept or eaten a proper meal in weeks. Oliver is honestly surprised they haven’t been pulled over by a cop at a traffic light yet, because anyone who didn’t know Elio would take one look at him and assume he was a junkie.
“Across the whole country?”
Elio nods. Swallows hard. Maybe not so calm after all; Oliver can see his hands twitching on the steering wheel.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Oliver demands. “You had — you had no money. No identification. No — ”
“I have — there’s something I need to do today. And then we can talk.”
Oliver is poised to protest, but Elio’s eyes are already red-rimmed, so focused on the road that it betrays him. Neither of them speaks for a moment — Oliver’s not even sure what he can say — when Elio sucks in a ragged breath and says, “I’m sorry.” A tear rolls down his cheek and he blinks it away with almost brutal efficiency, like he won’t allow it. “I know you can’t forgive me. But I need you to know that anyway.”
And just like that, the anger is gone. Oliver doesn’t even know where it began in the first place. Or maybe he does — fear. It’s always the root of it, with Elio. Afraid that he’s going to hurt him, afraid that he’s going to lose him, two fears that seem to be constantly at odds with each other no matter how he proceeds.
Elio stops the car, then, in front of a nice house on a nice street, the kind that reminds Oliver a little bit of home — not because of the houses themselves, but the orderliness of them. The way everything is just-so. The way he can tell, without looking into any of the windows, exactly the type of cookie cutter families live inside them, with their matching kitchens and their working fireplaces and their degrees framed over their desks.
Oliver aches in some distant place he wishes he didn’t.
“I’ll be right back,” says Elio.
He knocks on the door of a little house with flowers spilling out of the windows, looking so out of place that it would be funny, if it weren’t so sad. Within a few seconds the door opens to a teenage girl with frizzy hair and braces and a backpack. She looks at Elio, and then at the ridiculous purple car, her eyes watery and wary.
Elio says something that must soothe her, because she follows him down the front steps.
She slides into the backseat, cutting a nervous glance at Oliver, who is so out of his depth that for once he has nothing to say.
“This is Oliver,” says Elio. “Oliver, this is Annabelle.”
Annabelle’s eyes narrow at Oliver. “Does he know Benny?”
“No,” says Elio, waiting as Annabelle puts her seatbelt on. “Oliver’s a friend of mine.”
The girl chews on the inside of her cheek, her eyes flitting back to the house as Elio starts the car and checks the street for traffic. She fidgets with the straps of her backpack, opening her mouth twice to say something before, on the third try, it gets out of her.
“You’re not sick too, are you?”
“No,” says Elio quickly.
She doesn’t seem satisfied by this answer, squirming in her seat. “And you … you’re sure you can’t catch it?”
Elio nods. “You can talk to him. Hold his hand. It’ll be okay.”
“Are you sure he’s gonna die?”
For a moment, Elio’s eyes are steel. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “I’m really sorry.”
She nods, her eyes filling with tears. “Mom and Dad won’t see him.”
“He’s going to be so happy to see you,” says Elio.
The conversation goes on, but Oliver feels like he’s in a plane where someone just opened a door and sucked him out into the freezing cold sky. The conversation he overheard on the phone earlier snaps into place, and the word that Oliver didn’t realize he’s been toeing around since the moment he got on the plane — no, for far longer than that — is the same one threatening to swallow up everyone in the car. This Benny, whoever he is, is dying of AIDS.
Oliver glances at Elio, his eyes on the road with the determination of someone who has done this more than a few times before.
L’angelo della morte.
Elio talks to Annabelle for the short drive back to the Castro. Tells her she looks like Benny. Asks her about violin lessons. Seems to know a whole lot more about her than she knows about him — “Benny’s so proud of you,” says Elio encouragingly, glancing at her in the rearview. Her cheeks pink.
Oliver doesn’t speak for the entire car ride.
Elio parks the car in front of the hospice and nods at Oliver to follow. Oliver is ashamed at his own hesitancy — he doesn’t want to be in a place like this. The culmination of all of his nightmares. Another sick argument in his parents’ never-ending arsenal, that this disease is no mere coincidence, but a punishment a man must bear for straying from a certain path.
Oliver can wash them off his skin, but they’ll always leave a stain.
“You can wait here, if you want,” says Elio. There’s an uncertainty in his eyes — he thinks Oliver is going to leave. Or maybe he thinks that he should.
Doesn’t Elio understand? Oliver may never let him out of his sight again.
Except for this moment, now, when he senses that whatever Elio and Annabelle have to do doesn’t include him.
So Oliver nods. Takes a seat on one of the rickety chairs. Watches Elio disappear with the frizzy-haired girl down the hall.
“You must be Oliver.”
He blinks, up into the eyes of a woman, maybe in her forties. She isn’t dressed like a doctor or a nurse, but she carries herself with the authority of one. Even just holding her gaze for a moment, Oliver is reminded of Mafalda, all no-nonsense on the surface and soft-hearted just beneath.
Her smile is weary but her eyes have a gleam in them. “Janet,” she says. She cocks her head down the hall. “He talks about you.”
“When someone gets a drink in him, yeah.”
Oliver’s expression must crack, then, because the woman abruptly stands from her perch behind the desk and walks over to sit next to him. He doesn’t know what it is — relief, maybe, all of it too much and too fast, hitting him all at once. That Elio’s alive. That’s Elio’s here. That Elio still thinks of him at all.
“Sorry,” says Oliver, shaking his head. She has bigger problems than him. Evidently everyone here does.
“It’s okay, kid.”
Kid. Oliver almost laughs. He feels a thousand years old.
“Do you know … did he tell you what happened?” Oliver asks.
Janet shakes her head. “No, but I’ve gathered enough.”
“I’ve been looking for him for eight months,” says Oliver. It’s not just a fact, but a plea — Tell me what’s been going on. Tell me what the hell he’s doing here. Tell me if there’s any hope in the world that we can get him back.
Janet doesn’t hesitate, but she does cast a careful look down the hall. “He isn’t much of a talker,” she tells him. “At first he’d just come here a lot — sit with people. Read to them or play piano. Didn’t know anyone, never seemed to have anywhere else he’d rather be. One day Benny followed him — he was living out of a backpack in the park, I guess. Benny and his roommates took him in, converted a closet for him to sleep in.”
Oliver tries to imagine it, but he’s still stuck on He isn’t much of a talker. He’s back in Italy, for a moment, Elio blurting things at the dinner table, the words tumbling out of him so fast that Oliver wondered if someone was timing him. All that ridiculous, unbridled enthusiasm for everything he told Oliver when they were on decent terms with each other, and the things he talked about nonstop after they slept together. It’s hard to think of him any other way.
“He told Benny what happened at some point. Benny told me.” Janet’s expression seems far from hm in that moment, and she looks away from Oliver. “Only after he got sick. He thought someone should know.”
“Thank you for looking out for him,” says Oliver. The words come out automatically. Oliver is too separate from this, too distanced from it — he has to be. If he truly lets her words sink in right now, they won’t just sink in; they’ll drown him.
“Yeah, well. It’s the least we can do.”
Oliver runs a hand through his hair, and finds that it’s shaking.
“Why do they call him …”
He can’t say it.
Janet’s smile is a grim line. “He stays with people ‘til the end. Especially the ones without families. Tries to get them to come, if he can, but with things the way they are …” Her eyes drift down the hall, where Elio and Annabelle disappeared behind a door. When she speaks again, her voice is almost too soft to hear. “He also seems to have an uncanny knack for knowing when people are about to go. He sits with them when nobody else will.”
Oliver’s world feels tilted, uneven. Like he thought that finding Elio would tip some balance back into place and finally right him, but instead it only rocked him further, at an angle he doesn’t know how to exist in. He doesn’t belong here. Elio shouldn’t, either.
“Don’t you want to know what he said about you?”
Yes. No. Oliver is dying to hear it; he might die if he does.
The door creaks open at the end of the hall, and there is Elio again. Elio, with his hollow cheeks and his too full eyes, carefully turning the doorknob behind him and staring at Oliver as if he is somewhere far away, some kind of apparition that he can’t actually speak to or touch.
“You two. There’s a deli across the street,” Janet orders them. “I’ll come get you when the girl needs a ride back.” She narrows her eyes at Elio. “And eat a damn sandwich, would you?”
Oliver doesn’t know where to start. Elio is sitting across from him, the menu unopened, two untouched cups of coffee steaming in between the two of them.
“Do you have any idea how terrified I’ve been?” Oliver asks.
There is no satisfaction in seeing the misery on Elio’s face.
“I kept — imagining you on the side of the highway, or some floating in some river, dead.”
“I’m sorry,” says Elio.
“Are you?” Oliver asks. His voice is low, trying not to draw attention to them, but at the same time he can’t help the ridiculous need to get some kind of reaction out of Elio. To rile him. To see something in him that Oliver recognizes — a scoff, an eye-roll, even. Anything other than this. “Were you ever even going to come back? Let anyone know where you were?”
One thing, at least, has not changed: Elio is every bit as painfully easy to read as ever. Oliver sees the truth in his eyes before he says it. It still isn’t enough to prepare him for how much it hurts.
“I wish you hadn’t found me.”
“What the …”
Some baser, lesser part of him wants to get up right now and storm out. Make Elio hurt the way those words just hurt him. He swallows down the urge, but before he can rid himself of it completely, Elio reaches his hand forward and touches Oliver’s, rests it there on the table.
“We both know your life is better without me in it.”
Oliver stares at him, stunned. He tries to look at this person and see the same skittish, overeager boy who pressed every button, who cut every corner, who pushed and pushed and pushed his way into Oliver’s orbit until they weren’t just connected, but inevitable.
Yes, Oliver had kept him at arm’s length. Had been borderline cruel their first summer; had been resolute with him the winter after; had been wary in that week he took Elio in, trying to navigate exactly what should and shouldn’t happen next.
But he never imagined it would manifest like this. That Elio would truly believe the words that just came out of his mouth, that are still glistening in his eyes as he stares Oliver down from across the table. That he is — as Oliver feared most — not hiding for his own sake. He’s hiding for Oliver’s, and everyone else’s.
“Where the hell did you get that idea?”
Elio just shakes his head. Pulls his hand off of Oliver’s, and stares into his coffee.
“You know you’re more important to me than anything in the world, right?” Elio asks, with a frankness so unexpected that Oliver doesn’t know how to cushion the blow of it.
He leans forward, thinking that maybe he has managed to reach him. That this is something he can latch onto and pull. “Then please,” he says. “Come home.”
“It wasn’t your fault, what happened. You know that. You know that, don’t you? Nothing you did — ’
“Stop.” Elio breathes the word, and when he looks up, his eyes have flooded so quickly that Oliver is stunned into silence. He blinks it back before any tears actually fall, with an almost heartbreaking speed. “I’m — there’s just trouble, wherever I go.” He bites his lower lip hesitantly, like he doesn’t want to say it, but doesn’t have a choice: “I’m — I think I’m cursed.”
Oliver wants to laugh. The words are ridiculous. But nothing in Elio’s expression is.
“How can you — ”
“A man died because of me. You fucked up your whole life because of me. If it weren’t for me, you’d — probably be married, with a dog, and some kid on the way — ”
“You didn’t fuck up my life, Elio. You saved it.”
Elio’s cheeks are flaming again, almost unnaturally red against the paleness of his skin, blotchy and concerning. “By leaving you alone.”
The words come too fast, too fast for him to think of their aftermath: “By giving me a reason to make it worth living.”
Elio ducks his head down, then, quickly. His chin tucks into his chest and he doesn’t look back up.
“Why don’t you hate me?” he asks. Begs, almost. Like he wishes Oliver would.
Oliver murmurs the words like a buoy in a storm: “Cor cordium.”
Elio shoulders jerk forward, just once, before he promptly bursts into tears.
Janet comes not to long after that to tell Elio that Annabelle needs a ride back. They drive in silence interrupted by Annabelle’s snuffling, all of them in their own detached worlds, like Oliver could watch them from above and see them in separate planes of time. They are here, but Annabelle is with her brother; Oliver is at the police station, his back turned to the entrance; Elio is god only knows where.
Elio walks her back to the door and she throws her arms around him and starts to sob. Elio holds her and says things to her that Oliver can’t hear, until several long minutes pass, and finally the front door opens and her mother all but yanks her inside.
Oliver’s throat is so tight that he can’t breathe.
Elio gets back in the car without a word. He’s on the verge of tears again, Oliver can tell, but none of them fall this time.
“He deserves better,” says Elio quietly. “They all did.”
Oliver is out of his depth. He doesn’t know these people, or their grief. He doesn’t know the root of their hurt, how deep it goes, how tangled Elio is in it.
“Do you … know where you’re staying tonight?”
“I have a hotel.”
Elio nods. Licks his lips. Doesn’t take his eyes off the road, but still manages to penetrate Oliver like he’s looking right at him when he says, “Do you maybe want to — stay with me instead?”
Oliver isn’t sure what’s worse; how clearly difficult it is for Elio to ask, or how relieved Oliver is that he did.
“Yes. Of course.”
Elio lets Oliver in to a modest-sized apartment about a block away from the hospice, with two connecting bedrooms. All of them are empty, save for the living area, where there’s a couch with two boxes full of things — clothes, sports trophies, picture frames. They’re labeled with handwriting that Oliver recognizes as Elio’s — one for “Sam” and one for “André”.
Elio notices him staring. “I thought maybe their families might want their things at some point,” he explains. And then, realizing Oliver does not have any context: “Benny and some guys took me in when I first got here. They lived here, too.”
“And then they …” Moved away, Oliver was going to ask, but he catches himself just in time.
There’s only one reason why there’d be a box for their families to pick up. His eyes sweep to Elio’s the moment he understands.
“Yeah,” says Elio, staring at the boxes, blinking rapidly. “It, uh … happened pretty fast. Sam, and then Charlie, and then André, and now …” He shrugs, glancing toward the empty room Benny must have slept in. No, not empty — there are things folded in a neat pile. Probably by Elio, probably waiting for another box just like these.
“Elio,” Oliver breathes.
Elio can’t look at him. Won’t. “Um, there’s — a pizza place downstairs," he says, his voice cracking. He tries, and fails, to get some control over it. "And a deli around the corner.”
“And I — I think there are probably still some blankets in the closet you could — “
Elio tries to swallow and ends up letting out a noise that sounds almost wounded. “I’m sorry,” he says, for about the hundredth time today. “I know — I know this is the last place you want to — ”
Oliver wraps his arms around Elio then, and Elio, too stunned to move, lets him. His body shudders for a moment — there’s so much less of him than Oliver remembers, sharp and shaking, more bone than skin — but then his shoulders sag and his body goes with them and he leans into Oliver, crushes his hands into the fabric of his sweater, buries his face in his chest.
Oliver doesn’t know how long they stand there, his hands running through Elio’s mop of hair, Elio’s unsteady breaths against his steady ones. Long enough for Oliver to look around this apartment and see the shadows of ghosts that Elio must see. Long enough to imagine Elio stumbling his way here across thousands of miles, broken and afraid, camping in the park; to imagine Elio finally letting people back in, only to watch them all start to fade away; to imagine how Elio must really and truly believe in the curse he spoke of so vehemently in the cafe.
Elio pulls back with a sharp breath, like he’s just realized he has stepped over some line. Oliver holds him by the shoulders, holds his wary, searching gaze.
“Will you hate me very much if I call your parents and let them know you’re in one piece?”
The blood immediately drains from Elio’s face. For a few beats he says nothing. “I’ll call them.”
Elio nods, his eyes far away. “Are they …”
“They’re not angry. They just want to know you’re okay.”
He isn’t, of course, but the Perlmans won’t need to see him to know that.
“I have to use the phone in the lobby,” he says.
Oliver nods. “I’ll wait for you up here.”
Elio leaves, and Oliver stands in the apartment, staring at the scuffs on the walls and the stains on the linoleum counter and the faint mildew smell its previous occupants left behind. It occurs to him that Elio could easily just leave a second time; slip out of the lobby, into the fog, only to reappear again in some other city in a few months, a few years, another life. But there is a calm now, something close to an understanding — Oliver knows that even if Elio is ready to run, he isn’t ready to leave this place just yet.
It turns out Janet was not exaggerating about the closet. Oliver pokes into a space that just barely fits a twin size mattress on its floor, with a tiny, naked lightbulb overhead. He flicks it on, illuminating the cramped space — the three shirts and a pair of pants that hang over the bed. The papers with Elio’s scribbles scattered on the mattress. A neat pile of newspaper clippings on top of a notebook.
No — not newspaper clippings. Obituaries.
Oliver crouches down and sits on the mattress, touching them with careful hands. Smiling men, eyes lit up and staring into camera lenses, searing Oliver in a place he didn’t think could be so suddenly reached. They are all close to his age, close to Elio’s; young and carefree and immortal in two dimensions, with a few lines next to their names to mark their time on earth.
Elio’s friends. Elio’s ghosts.
He doesn’t know why, but he thumbs the notebook. He expects more transcriptions. He would never have intentionally pried. But he opens the first page and sees the words Dear Oliver, and his eyes latch to the page with a compulsion beyond self-control.
Dear Oliver, it starts, and in the margins, a date: September 5, 1985. Oliver reads on:
Last night I dreamed I went back in time. I stopped myself from meeting Adam. I never ran into you downtown that day. And then when we were both much older, I saw you on the street, with your pretty wife and your two children, looking so happy that I did not dare say hello, just watched you walk away with a smile on your face and your laugh on the breeze.
I miss you so much that it feels like someone has carved you out of me. I have a quarter I keep refusing to spend, and a thousand times a day I feel it in my pocket, and want to call you. To hear your voice one more time. To tell you how sorry I am and always will be.
But I want that future for you. It wasn’t a dream, maybe, but a premonition. I haven’t slept since I left New York, have doubted what I did for every moment, but I woke from that dream with such heartbreaking clarity that I knew it must be true: I was meant to leave you alone. Meant to be alone.
I hope you won’t mind, Oliver, but I am still selfish in the privacy of my imagination. It’s scary sometimes, being here alone. Sometimes I imagine you’re here, too. But not the real you. Some version of you that I can never hurt.
The entry ends there, and is followed up by dozens more. A chronicle of the last eight months — dear Oliver, dear Oliver, dear Oliver — telling him about San Francisco, about the Castro, about his time at the piano in the hospice, about the friends he’s made. His wonder at the openness of the men here, his horror at how indifferent the world is to their suffering. And over and over and over again, the same apology Elio made to him in the car, in the café, in the apartment, the apology that has been on the tip of Elio’s tongue since the moment their fingers first touched.
He doesn’t hear Elio come in, only sees his shadow in the closet door. He looks up from the notebook into Elio’s wide eyes.
Oliver should apologize, but he doesn’t.
“Come here,” says Oliver.
Elio doesn’t, paralyzed, looking at the notebook and then back at Oliver like someone just peeled back a layer of his skin and exposed his beating heart.
“You’ve just seen why I can’t,” says Elio.
Oliver shakes his head, and says — gently, firmly — "Come here.”
Elio moves like he is in some kind of trance, kneeling on the mattress, watching Oliver like he might disappear — like he needs some kind of cue to move, has forgotten what to do on his own.
So Oliver pulls him in. Lays him down on the thin, threadbare mattress, and lays down beside him, knee to knee, nose to nose, so close that he can feel Elio’s breath on his face. Elio stares at him with those wide, haunted eyes, so trusting even after everything that has happened that Oliver almost hesitates, forgetting the enormity of it; the strange responsibility of this kind of mutual, soul-deep faith.
“What do you want?” Oliver asks.
Elio stares back at him, uncomprehending.
“In your best life. Where everything is perfect.”
For a moment, Oliver sees it reflected back in his eyes — Italy. Musty walls and fresh sheets and sharp, overripe fruit. Their own little heaven.
“I want you to be happy,” says Elio. There is no hesitation in the words, no doubt. As if this thought is always so present in him that he carries it like a flame, shields it against the wind.
Oliver brushes his curls out of his face, gratified when Elio doesn’t flinch away. “You are my happiness.”
“I am your curse.”
Oliver leans forward and presses a kiss to Elio’s brow.
“Then I am yours.”
Elio closes his eyes then, almost imperceptibly leaning, letting himself go slack against Oliver. Oliver doesn’t close his eyes for a long time, watching Elio, some quiet calm he’d forgotten finally easing back into bones. After awhile Elio’s breathing evens out, and in his sleep he reaches out for Oliver, a hand on his shoulder, another on his waist. Oliver pulls him in as carefully as he can, his own eyes sliding shut, breathing Elio in — pine and sweetness and promises — and for the first time in months, for the first time in years, he falls asleep so completely that he doesn’t even dream.
Oliver wakes as if from a coma — aware of where he is, but even more acutely aware of the passing of time. The closet door is ajar and leaking in light. The cramped bed is empty beside him, but he knew that before he opened his eyes.
There is no note, because he doesn’t need one. Oliver already knows there is only one place Elio could be.
He rises at once, with no transition between being asleep and awake; he is awake as he has ever been or will ever be. A few hours ago he might have waffled, might have hesitated on his way out of the apartment — What if he’s wrong? What if Elio doesn’t want him there? Does he even know these streets well enough to go where he needs to be? — but there is nothing to stop him, like a tether is already pulling him to Elio, a heart connected to another heart by something too fragile and too precious to be seen.
The hospice is nearly empty when he arrives. Someone is waiting at the desk; Janet, or whoever is manning it, must be taking care of something. There is nobody to question Oliver when he walks down the hall, to the door Elio and Annabelle disappeared behind the day before.
All of the beds are empty, save one. Oliver almost reels at the sight of the man — his chalky face, his impossibly wasted limbs, the eerie stillness of him. He lays on his back, unmoving, suspended in time.
And beside him, laying on his side and fast asleep, is Elio, his fingers curled around a dead man’s hand.
The light streams in on both of them, and for a moment, Oliver is beyond breath. He is somewhere in that tenuous line between life and death, in the stark contrast of dark curls on white sheets, the impossible marriage of hope and despair.
L’angelo della morte.
Elio’s eyes flutter open, finding Oliver’s in an instant. Then he sucks in a breath, seems to remember where he is all at once. He turns to Benny, but isn’t surprised by what he sees — as if he expected it. As if he came here to ensure it happened quietly, happened peacefully, happened as well as it could.
He waits for a beat, and then curls his other hand into Benny’s lifeless one, pressing both of his hands and holding them there for a moment. A quiet goodbye. A thank you. A whole host of words between them that Oliver can’t hear.
Then he lets him go.
Oliver offers his own hand, and Elio takes it. After a beat he lets Oliver pull him up, steady him on his feet.
He knows nothing about this will be easy. The next day will likely be a mess of sorting out Benny’s affairs, and then so many days of untangling Elio’s. There is the real world to think about — the life Elio abandoned, his school, his parents, his friends. So many chasms between him and Elio that are left to cross.
But all of the impossibilities mount and add up to something so simple, something in the core of him; something he has carried with him all his life that awakened the day he and Elio met, and aches for him whenever he is out of sight.
Let’s go home, Oliver wants to tell him, still holding his hand, staring into his eyes. But home isn’t a place. Home isn’t Italy, or New York, or San Francisco. Home isn’t a laugh at the kitchen table, or a song they once danced to, or a space between the sheets.
Home is this. Home is here. And Oliver will be damned if he ever lets him go.
OKAY, I'm really, truly, for honest this time done with this fic. Bless the fuck out of all of you for your comments and kudos. I cannot thank you enough.