When Calix Lehrer dresses in the morning, it is methodical and quiet.
He selects his clothes the evening before and drapes them over an armchair in his bedroom. Starched shirt, often some shade of ivory; neat slacks, freshly pressed. Gleaming wingtip shoes in a shade of nut-brown. A jacket with buttons and cufflinks to complement.
And lastly, always, a tie. Sometimes striped, sometimes dotted. Sometimes woven through with colorful accent threads.
When Noam Alvarez dresses in the morning, it is purposeful and angry.
He chooses his clothes thoughtlessly in the early morning, after his nightmares jolt him awake. A uniform shirt tugged off a hanger, standard-issue pants to match. Boots that lace up and hug his calves. His ID card to prove he belongs, since even now he seems to stick out like a sore thumb.
And lastly, by order of Lehrer, a tie. Charcoal gray and silk-slippery, always cold to the touch.
When Calix Lehrer ties his tie, his eyes never leave his own face. His fingers are busy elsewhere, adjusting his sleeves as the tie loops and pulls and knots itself. His telekinesis is strong; he is strong. When he looks in the mirror, it is this that he sees. Strength - power. And a perfect Windsor knot.
When Noam Alvarez ties his tie, he avoids his own gaze. His fingers fumble as he tucks and tugs, brow furrowing and lips tensing as he does his best to remember what his father had taught him. It’s because of his father that he can’t quite meet his own eye; because of his father, and his mother. Because of Dara. Because of Lehrer. When he looks in the mirror, is is these that he sees. Death, loss. And the low-simmering thirst for vengeance.
They both turn away the same - to the right, attention focused on their respective doors. And when they twist the doorknobs open, it’s without touch. Both fever kings who had survived the worst of the feverwake, and both fallen princes who want to destroy their shadows.
But Noam’s anger is different. It is new, and whetted, and lives in every line of his body. It is regret and heartbreak and need.
“Concentrate, Noam. Your mind is loose - you aren’t focused.”
Lehrer recrosses his legs as he speaks, left ankle resting on right knee. He isn’t looking at Noam; instead he’s sifting through a sheaf of papers on his desk, a pinch of concentration interrupting his bottom lip. This is how their lessons go these days: Noam a footnote in Lehrer’s afternoons, an interruption to his higher purpose.
Noam grits his back teeth and refocuses on the ancient motherboard before him.
He’s meant to be picking it apart, sprinting through the wiring to burrow into its brain. ‘There’s old data on there written in old code,’ Lehrer had said. ‘Translate it for me.’
So far all Noam’s succeeded in doing is scowling at it, edging through its particolored veining to sift through useless programs and layers of viruses. He’s beginning to think it’s busywork, and his irritation is showing. Not that Lehrer’s affected - even if he’d noticed, Noam doubts he’d care. He doesn’t care for much these days but ‘rebuilding and reunifying.’
And normally, Noam would be grateful. That’s his goal too, after all; giving Atlantians refuge, making Carolinia a safe place regardless of papers or surname or parentage. He should be pleased Lehrer’s so consumed by it, grateful that, for now, their goals are converging. Except… Fuck.
It had been weeks since Noam had put him in that black sedan, since he’d last seen the flash of anguish and horror in his eyes. Since Lehrer had promised not to go after him, and Noam had been left with no choice but to believe him.
But it was one thing for Lehrer to promise to give Dara freedom, and another thing altogether for Lehrer to just… forget about him. And that’s what it seemed had happened. It wasn’t as though Noam had been expecting Lehrer to mourn the loss of his ward, not outwardly. But he had slipped back into the distant, untouchable suit from before, albeit more distracted and unreachable than ever. It was as though Dara had never existed.
Some nights Noam lay awake going crazy with the isolation of his bone-deep ardency, wishing there was someone who could help carry this pain. And the only person who might have been able to was sitting mere feet away from him, impenetrable as a gilt fortress, unaffected by their shared loss.
Noam startles at the sound of his name, wincing slightly at the rebuke. He glances up from the dusty hardware, surprised to find Lehrer staring right at him, brow creased in an expression of mild reprimand.
“This is a waste of both our time if you won’t even make an attempt at what I’m asking of you. You’re sloppy and distracted - tighten up.”
The motherboard nudges itself closer to Noam, Lehrer’s invisible fingers all over it. Noam swallows down a retort, heart suddenly tight with a familiar, unidentifiable wave of something ugly. Like nausea, or heartsickness; resentment and fetid hatred. Feelings toward Lehrer that make no sense but live in his subconscious like a cancer. He had worried about them at first, but now they feel as much a part of him as the rest of his demons.
“I’m sorry,” is all he manages in a mumble. He drops his focus once more to the outdated computer part. That’ll be the end of it, he knows; he might be Lehrer’s only protege now that Dara is gone, but Lehrer is hardly one to show leniency. He’d never given it to Dara, and Noam was only a shadow of what Dara had meant to him.
It’s with this cocktail of envy and guilt living in his thoughts that Noam chances another glance upward, only to find with a frisson of shock Lehrer staring at him. His expression is shuttered and dark, jaw working as though he’s chewing on his cheek. As though Noam is perplexing to him.
Noam, against his better judgment, stares back.
The inexplicable hatred within him coils and uncoils, slithering its thick body around his chest. A muscle in his jaw jumps. Lehrer’s jaw works. The space between them suddenly feels dense and tangible, a buffer. Noam’s throat tightens around his swallowed emotion. He sees the terror in Dara’s eyes again, the pale of his palms against the car window. And he sees Lehrer now, as he is, uncrossing his legs and leaning very slightly forward, attention - finally - on Noam.
“You’re angry with me,” Lehrer states, voice even and pragmatic as ever. Noam keeps his mouth shut. There’s no answer to that that makes any sense, no way he could untangle his emotions for Lehrer when he understands them so little himself.
“I know you are. I don’t have to be a telepath for that, Noam - it’s the way you look at me. The way your work here is suffering even while your marks in the rest of your classes climb.”
He adjusts his cuffs as he speaks, relaxing back into himself. Always so effortless. Always so superior. Noam feels the mad urge to rake his fingernails across Lehrer’s perfectly shaven cheek, coupled with the wild need to cry. He doesn’t understand why; he does neither.
Lehrer’s eyes are light and focused as they once again find his own, and Noam swallows again. Lehrer is an ally, he reminds himself mechanically. For now, he is all there is. He is all we have.
“Do you trust me?”
“Yes,” Noam answers immediately, so quickly it’s almost reflexive. It doesn’t matter if it’s true; it’s the only answer he can give. Lehrer’s answering smile, thin and and almost piteous, tells Noam he understands as much.
“Noam, at the very least, you and I do not lie to each other. Not in this room. So, I ask you again… Do you trust me?”
A pause. Noam can hear the distant hum of a hundred computers beyond these walls, the persistent whispers of data and communication from the phone in Lehrer’s pocket. The metal of the buttons of his jacket, the weight of the watch braceleting his wrist. But his own mind is blank - he doesn’t know. Everything feels distorted and strange, even his own emotions.
“... I think so,” Noam finally answers, his words barely more than a whisper. Dara’s hands on the glass. Dara’s terrified eyes. Lehrer’s hand between his shoulder blades. Sacha’s body. The Faraday holding cell. Dara, trembling with feverwake, smudge-eyed and thin. … Brennan dead, his skull split open. Lehrer’s design.
Noam squeezes his eyes shut for a split second, exhaling shortly through his nose. When he opens them, Lehrer is watching him with unmasked concern.
“Noam…” Lehrer asks slowly, unfolding his impossibly tall frame from his chair and taking two careful strides toward Noam. “... Do you trust yourself?”
The words are like acupuncture, little pricks at pressure points. Noam’s eyes are dry but his sinuses feel thick with unshed tears, his head tight and tense with unresolved emotion. He feels crazy; his mind feels jumbled, as though someone has cracked open his skull and stirred up his brain. There are thoughts without roots, feelings without foundation. And Lehrer - somehow, it’s Lehrer at the heart of every one.
Noam’s knuckles pale as he grips the armrests of his chair, unable to meet Lehrer’s eye as he says in an uneven breath, “No. … I don’t know. Everything should be perfect, but nothing feels right - I don’t feel right. And you - it’s like you don’t even care about - about -“
He doesn’t finish the sentence; he doesn’t need to. He can tell from the way Lehrer’s hands tighten momentarily that he hears the unspoken accusation, Dara’s presence in between them like a specter. He swallows down the clot of aching confusion at the base of his throat and lifts his chin to meet Lehrer’s gaze, expecting reproach but finding him once again shuttered - inscrutable, but thoughtful. Jaw working, eyes deep and focused. But with concern, not irritation. As if he cares, really cares, about the state of Noam’s mental health… for more than just his powers.
And then, shock of all shocks, Lehrer takes another step closer and sinks down onto one knee, bringing himself eye level with Noam. Noam stares.
He’s never been this close to Lehrer before, and the sudden proximity feels almost intimate - he thinks of the last time he’d been this close to someone, thinks of Dara’s full mouth and mournful eyes. The thick, dark sweep of his eyelashes. The intensity of his promises. Lehrer is nothing like him and for this, Noam is shamefully grateful.
“Listen to me carefully, Noam,” Lehrer says, voice low and confessional, eyes very bright as he holds Noam’s gaze. “I care. I care so deeply about him - of course I care. It is only on your request that I haven’t deployed every soldier in this army to bring him back, to bring him back where he belongs. Because you said to me he wanted freedom. And I confess I have learned over the last several decades that dwelling on my pain is… dangerous.”
Noam looks chastened at this, opening his mouth to interrupt with a defensive counterpoint. Before he can, Lehrer holds up a hand and pushes forward.
“But he is gone from me, and now, Noam, all I have -” Here Lehrer falters, mouth working for a split second as though weighing the words on his tongue before saying them. “- All I have is you.”
There is a surge of twisted feeling low in Noam’s belly: shock tinged with an embarrassing amount of desperation, the need for validation, the need to be someone’s something, to belong. And beneath it, shimmering like diamond dust, a whispering ugliness that says it is wrong. That he, Noam, should not be feeling this way; that Lehrer is not a home but a hell. That loving him as he does - like a father, like a mentor, like a something else - is sick, and dangerous, and while he cannot understand it, his instincts are telling him no.
“But -” he tries, and his voice is thick with confused emotion. Lehrer shakes his head, expression grave.
“I understand there’s conflict within you, and I won’t stoke it. I’m your teacher, and your mentor. But know this, Noam - you’re not alone. I’m your advocate. I’ll give you what you need, whatever you need. I can’t replace a father, or a lost friend, but I can be here. I can take care of you.”
There is a stretch of silence where they do nothing but stare at one another, Noam holding Lehrer’s earnest gaze, hardly daring to read into what he’s just said. I’ll give you what you need, whatever you need. I can take care of you. And Noam thinks of Lehrer’s powers, his persuasion, but there had been no command in those sentences, only promises; he is staring at Noam like he is precious, like he is more than a means to an end. Like he is valuable, a Something More to Lehrer. Like he is… Like he might be…
“Dara,” Noam finally whispers, hoarse and choked. “I feel so many things - about you, about him - they’re all conflicting, and confusing -”
Lehrer’s mouth is a grim line of understanding as he nods.
“I know these feelings. And no one can replace what Dara was to you, but your feelings - the ones you’re having, they make sense. Love is a complex creature, and desire is… even moreso.”
The word lances through Noam like an arrow, a burst of surprise and shame coloring his neck and cheeks. He wants to say no, that Lehrer has it wrong; that it isn’t desire he feels for Lehrer, except what else could it be? It makes sense, if only barely; the fanged thoughts, the constant ache. The burning need to sink his teeth into Lehrer’s throat, to tear him apart with bare hands… He had thought it fury, but what if Lehrer was right? What if it was just… perversion? Lust?
“Sometimes I want to hurt you,” Noam confesses in a bold rush, unable to look away from Lehrer’s piercing gaze. “I think about it - I dream about it - always with my bare hands, with my - my mouth…”
Lehrer’s expression remains stoic but there is a live blaze ringing his pupils, living in his irises. He nods, encouraging. Indicating Noam should continue.
“It just - it happened, after Dara left. Suddenly you were - you were all I could think of, tearing into you. Us, alone. But - But I loved Dara. I mean -” Stricken, Noam corrects himself, “I love him. What’s wrong with me? Why do I - why do I want these things?”
Lehrer is still on one knee, one elbow resting casually on his thigh. He considers the question for only a moment before answering.
“Your desire for physicality doesn’t mean you care any less for him. And I’m your only real link to him. It’s understandable, Noam, that you feel this way.”
Noam feels real tears threatening at the backs of his eyes now, he’s so pathetically relieved to hear someone tell him he’s normal. And Lehrer, of all people; Lehrer, who’s lived a dozen lives, who’s seen love and loss and experienced it all. He should know, Noam thinks. He has the answers.
“I wouldn’t do it,” he says as an afterthought, voice miserable as he ducks his head to feign scratching his eye. His knuckle comes away wet with tears, but he feels strangely better. Decompressed. “Just… So you know.”
When he looks up again Lehrer’s expression is soft, gentled even further by the faint suggestion of a smile around his eyes. He looks for a moment like he might reach out and touch Noam but seems to think better of it, and the loss of the suggested contact aches in Noam’s chest like a bruise.
“I can think of far worse things than having your mouth on me, Noam Alvarez,” Lehrer quips dryly, and Noam isn’t sure whether he wants to laugh or cry. Instead he stares at Lehrer as if on pause, reminding himself of his otherworldly beauty - different than Dara’s, nothing like Dara’s. And that’s good. Right now, that’s good.
Because when Noam kisses Calix Lahrer, his mouth feels nothing like Dara’s and everything like repentance.
The kiss is static at first, until the surprise gives way to the careful, tentative shift of a first kiss. It is Noam doing the kissing; Lehrer is allowing him the privilege, parting his lips obediently against Noam’s, holding still as Noam steals the lingering tastes of whiskey and tobacco.
And then, too soon and too suddenly, Noam is jerking backwards, eyes very wide with shock at his own transgression as he stares at Lehrer - Lehrer, who is still kneeling before him, his bottom lip wet with Noam’s kiss.
“I’m -” Noam gasps coarsely, the ‘sorry’ readied at the tip of his tongue. But for the second time Lehrer holds up his hand, interrupting Noam with a blazing expression, and shakes his head.
“No. I said it, Noam, and I meant it - I’ll give you whatever you need. In this office, I’m here to help you exorcise your demons… In any way you wish.”
The implicit offer sends a shiver down Noam’s spine, and for the first time in weeks, the persistent doubt and niggling unease fade away into quiet. Instead his mind is clouded with Lehrer, with the fantasies he’d had before - violence, gunplay, sadism, suffering - all morphing into something… different.
He drops his hands into his lap, attempting to inconspicuously cover the proof of his interest. Lehrer’s gaze doesn’t drop, but a twitch at the corner of his mouth that tells Noam he’d noticed.
“But I don’t think what you want is control, Noam. I think what you need is the opposite - no more decisions. Just the quiet of obedience, with the implied violence of physical play.”
“Yes,” Noam says automatically, his mind still quiet, all of him focused on the deliberate shapes Lehrer’s mouth makes around words. But at his next words, Noam’s hope punctures.
“... I can’t be that for you. I’m in a position of power, it would be unethical. I don’t want to do that to you, Noam. I don’t want you to ever feel I’ve taken advantage of you. Especially now, when you need someone you can trust -”
“No, please,” Noam interrupts sharply, expression twisted into sudden desperation. Lehrer had dangled it and is now backtracking; it had sounded so good, blissful, to turn his mind off and give in to these strange, ugly thoughts that lived in his head without repercussion or judgment. To hear Lehrer say that - whatever you need. He needs this, suddenly. More than he can remember needing anything since… since Dara.
This is a betrayal, surely. Dara hates Lehrer; but Dara had loved Lehrer, too. Dara had loved others. He would understand, if anyone would. He loves Noam. And Noam loves him. … But he needs this, so acutely it feels difficult to breathe around it. Dara will understand.
“Please. You said whatever I needed, and I need this - please.”
Lehrer’s face is unreadable as he considers the request, his jaw working again. Noam holds his breath, cheeks burning; he isn't sure what he's asking for, not entirely, but he knows he wants it. He wants to tear and touch and taste and devour; he wants to destroy Lehrer and burn up in his atmosphere, to sink claws and fangs into the yield of his flesh and dismantle him. What else can it be but lust?
“Whatever you need,” Lehrer finally answers, voice soft and indulgent as he reaches out to run absent fingers through Noam’s hair just as he’d done before. But this time it feels different; this time Noam’s entire body reacts to it, eyes falling shut as he exhales his held breath. “We’ll start tomorrow.”
Noam nods, eyes still closed, oblivious to the hard, self-satisfied triumph that flashes like swordsteel behind Lehrer’s eyes.