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After Brushstrokes: An Intimate Interview with the Author

If you've stepped inside a bookstore, an airport kiosk, or even just on the subway in the last five years, you've probably seen Brushstrokes in the hands of a stranger. The cover, striking in its stark contrast to the contents of the novel, is hard to miss, yet simple: all black with the canary yellow title in cursive in the middle, with a blood red stripe of paint right through it. It draws the eye; begs the casual shopper to pick it up. Theo (he's asked me to call him Theo, never Theodore) smiles wryly down at the copy I've brought with me. 

"Dog eared and everything," he says, thumbing through the worn pages. 

We're sitting on an outdoor patio in Malibu, watching the ocean crash into the shore. There's a nice breeze for September, and Theo's dressed for it, sporting dark corduroys and a white t-shirt with a black, zip up hoodie sitting on the empty chair next to him in case the winds pick up. 

“I like the ocean,” Theo says, still absentmindedly flipping through his book in his hands. “I almost ran away to California when I was young. It would have been a disaster, but I almost did.”

Not a lot is known about Theodore Decker’s life before Brushstrokes catapulted him into the spotlight. The little that is known makes for a sad tale, and it's no wonder, having led the life he has, he was able to write such a haunting, sometimes jarring, novel. 

When I ask about his childhood, he looks out at the sea. “My mother died when I was thirteen in the ‘03 museum bombing. I made it out, but for a long time it felt like I was still there, reliving the blast over and over again. My father died shortly after, and I was on my own, for the most part. My guardian tried; taught me everything he knew about antiques and restoration, and that saved my life for awhile. But, I became an addict, and things were really messy after that.”

He doesn’t expand on his addiction, but that part of his life is probably the most well known, since it was in a rehab facility in upstate New York where Brushstrokes was written. Or, at least partially. Decker admits it took him four years to complete, and that he hadn’t thought anything would come from it, until multiple publishing companies were contacting him. St. Martin’s press won out, with an advance of $20,000. 

“If I had known where it would go—how far—I may have asked for a bit more,” Theo says, dragging a hand through his hair. 

Decker’s rise to fame wasn’t typical, to say the least, especially in the digital age where physical book sales have plummeted thanks to the rise in popularity of eBooks, easily downloaded and shareable between apps like Kindle and iBooks, over the last decade. That being said, the popularity of his best selling novel may have changed the game.

In Brushstrokes, a sweeping novel spanning nearly three decades, the reclusive author tells the tale of two boys, bound by desperate circumstances, and separated by even worse, who are reunited in adulthood and forced to face their demons during an art heist gone wrong. St. Martin’s Press went ahead with publication in 2021. It was a limited release, with only 30,000 copies in circulation at the time. It soon became a cult hit, but still below the radar, even after Decker was awarded the highly sought after Man Booker award. That was until renowned and prolific author, Haruki Murakami tweeted about his obsession with the story, igniting literary Twitter and the public alike, to seek out the novel.

In the midst of success (and controversy) surrounding Brushtrokes, the author has remained intensely private, refusing interviews and, more often than not, flipping off any photographers that have dared try and intrude on his personal life. It’s rare for an author to gain such notoriety from a first novel, without a single book tour or signing to his name, but Decker remains elusive, and seems to shy away from the attention of his adoring readers.

It makes sense when you consider the rumours that have been circulating in the years since, and the author’s refusal, until now, to comment on any of them. 

“Would you mind if I dive right in?” I ask, peering at Theo over my drink.

The roar of the sea is almost deafening, but I hear him reply over it. “Sure, sure.”

Brushstrokes has received international acclaim and recognition, which is rare for the first novel of a previously unheard of author. How has that success affected you?

Massively, honestly. I didn’t realize how much would change. Michael Cunningham came up to me at a gala once and said he’d enjoyed the book immensely. I couldn’t leave my apartment for a week after. I don’t know many other writers, and I feel completely out of place around academic types. Fuck, I didn’t even finish college. It’s just—strange, I guess—to suddenly find myself in a world I never knew existed.

You rarely give interviews. Does your past addiction and stint in rehab have anything to do with that?

Yeah. Well… it did. But, I think, maybe talking about it now will help other people finding themselves in the situation that I was in. I was hopeless, and lashing out at the people in my life who cared about my well-being, and I think going to rehab was the turning point. Brushtrokes getting published, and doing as well as it has, is almost just a happy coincidence. 

You mean to say you didn’t actively want the novel published?

[Laughter] Nope! I wrote it as a way to process my feelings about adolescence, and the things that are sometimes taken away from us at a young age. I never thought anyone would want to read it. Honestly, I’d sent the manuscript out to a few places expecting only rejection letters. I definitely never thought it would be on top of the New York Times Bestseller’s list for nearly a year. 

Ah, Rowling’s Harry Potter re-release kicked it off for awhile, right?

Yeah, which is fine. Like I said, I never expected any of this.

There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the book. Do you have any thoughts on why that is?

You’ll have to be a little more specific. 

Well, quite a few readers are convinced many parts of the story, specifically the unrequited love story between Henry and Bahar, which is the heart of the book, are semi-autobiographical. Is that true?

Well, I think if I’d been involved in an art heist which ended in murder, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you, would I?

Well, no. But, that’s not really the question I asked, is it?

[Theo clears his throat] I would never want to take away from my readers whatever it is they’ve found in the book, but this love story angle—well. To be quite honest that’s not the story I set out to write. My main focus was friendship, and how it is possible to build your own family. I certainly never saw the relationship between Henry and Bahar as anything other than that—a friendship, and a wrought one at that.

Would you mind if I read you an excerpt that seems to fly in the face of what you’ve just said? I’m sure you know which one I’m speaking of...

Go ahead.

I pull a highlighted sheet from my bag. Decker stretches his long legs out beneath the table and eyes me warily. We are at an impasse, it seems. 

In the pink light of dawn, Henry allowed himself to watch Bahar. Silver rings lined his fingers where his arm dangled off the edge of the couch, and Henry counted them as a way to even out his breathing. 

He recalled easily Bahar as a gangly fifteen year old with pouty lips and wild, black hair that always fell into his eyes, especially when he was straddling Henry's thighs and pinning his hands over his head in a confusing and, he could admit it now, with all these years between, arousing and never ending game of chicken. Who would look away first? Who would arch their back? Who would sink down against the other's hips?

There seems to be such a sense of longing emanating off of Henry throughout the novel, and although it isn't explicit, it's heavily hinted at that he and Bahar were intimate as teenagers. Do you still stand by your previous comment regarding their relationship being strictly platonic?

I do. I think when we are young, we intensify our friendships because we don’t know what love is, and we do things without understanding what they mean. Yes, the lines blur sometimes, but at the end of the day, Henry and Bahar both only have relationships with women as adults.

Alright. It’s an interesting concept, though, isn’t it, to have Henry leave his wife to run off to London with Bahar in the final chapters?

Yes, maybe, unless you consider the underlying violence of their interactions during their time in London. There’s no love lost between the two men. All they can seem to do at that point is hurt one another.

But, [spoilers for those who have not read the book] Henry kills for Bahar, finishing everything left unfinished throughout their journey together, and thus breaking the cycle of violence that has led to that moment. Bahar never goes back to his old ways and Henry finally realizes he doesn’t have to keep lying to himself about what he wants from life. That’s a sort of love, isn’t it?

Yes, I suppose it is, although I wouldn’t go as far as describing it as romantic.

This has been very illuminating, Mr. Decker. Would you care to walk down to the beach and discuss a bit more?

Okay, yeah.

We make our way down to the sand, toeing off our shoes and laughing as the water surges up to meet our feet. 

Did you write about two orphans because of the loss of both your parents at a young age?

I did. I was lucky, though. My guardian was a kind man who gave me every opportunity and bit of love I ever could have asked for, even when I didn’t always deserve it. My addiction was really hard for him, and I think even now that he’s gone, I’m still trying to make penance. 

Yes, that seems to be a huge aspect of Brushstrokes—grief and violence and redemption all rolled into one. Was it cathartic to delve into Henry’s grief after the loss of his parents in an accident which he survived?

Incredibly so. I’m very interested in the ways we cope, and the lies we tell ourselves. Henry coped by disappearing into his art. I wasn’t so lucky as to have something I was good at, so I disappeared into people, and when they eventually didn’t meet the unattainable expectations I’d set for them, I disappeared into pills.

And now?

Now I guess I disappear into my writing.

Does that mean what I think it means? Are you working on a second novel?

I would use the word “working” very loosely. I’ve got some ideas, but I’m not sure which way I’d like to go with them.

Any chance it might be a sequel to Brushstrokes? The ending was very ambiguous.

You’ll just have to wait and see.

We meander up and down the beach from there, chatting politely about the nice weather and whether or not we should wait out the day to catch the sunrise, but it seems I won’t get that lucky. An hour later Decker’s phone rings in his pocket, and then he’s ducking away and sliding his shoes on. He apologizes profusely and tells me to print whatever I want to, and that he’s glad we were able to at least get coffee in. 

The whole thing feels surreal, and Theodore Decker is every bit the enigmatic whirlwind he's been described as throughout the years, although a lot more closed off than I'd expected. As I write this piece, I can't help but wish him the best, and I look forward to whatever he puts out next, sequel or not. He may be a bit hard to read, and cagey when it comes to discussing his private life, but his writing is stunningly breathtaking, and speaks for itself. We'll see if 2027 is the year of his comeback, or more aptly, the continuation of his meteoric rise.

Chapter Text

You grew up, you were struck by lightning. When you opened your eyes, you were wired forever to your true love. It only happened once.

— Louise Glück, “Prism”

 

I want to stay on the back porch while the world tilts toward sleep, until what I love misses me, and calls me in.

— Dorianne Laux, “On the Back Porch”

 

Three thousand days of Kansas sun, and it comes on again...

— Bruce Cutler, from Sun City

*

Theo drags a shaky hand through his hair as he climbs into the backseat of the town car that's been idling in front of his rented bungalow in Laurel Canyon for the last thirty minutes. 

He clutches the copy of Vanity Fair with him on the cover and cringes down at himself after he's settled in and asked the driver to take him to LAX. He looks like a complete douche, shirtless and bent over an old typewriter in his apartment in Brooklyn, a pen stuck behind his ear and his bare feet pressed into the hardwood. It's not like he could have said no to Annie Liebovitz as she’d told him her ideas for the cover shoot all those months ago. Still, it grates at him. He doesn't even own a fucking typewriter. 

Inside there are three more photos, each more embarrassing than the last. Theo, naked and sitting on the edge of his bed with a copy of The Idiot held between his legs. A long splash of red paint begins on his left knee, crosses over the front of the book in his hands, and crawls up his chest, ending at his right shoulder. Theo, standing in the center of Penn Station, swarms of people frozen around him, with a black eye and messy hair, glasses askew, smiling into the camera with blood in his teeth. Theo, alone at The Met, staring up at Henry Scott Tuke’s The Critic, with a single tear sliding down his cheek. 

The photos aren’t even the worst of it. The article itself is what has Theo desperately reaching into his pockets in search of little blue pills, only to realize the only thing he's going to find is his wallet and maybe half a Xanax. He's been so good, and for so long, only to have a hack journalist portray him as some kind of oblivious idiot. God, he comes off like an absolute tool. 

He’d known the moment she pulled out the highlighted passage of his book that he’d made a mistake by agreeing to the interview. It's not that Theo hadn't known about the rumors. He knew people were digging into his life. He'd just never expected the book he'd written in rehab as a coping mechanism after almost killing himself a second time, one year after returning home from Amsterdam and remaining relatively clean to spawn such an intense public interest in his personal life. 

It was the nightmares, which he soothed with Oxys, and then, later Fentanyl patches stuck to his wrists and covered by jackets and sweaters. Every night had been a never ending slideshow of what had been and what could have been: Boris bleeding out in the snow. Boris with a giant gaping hole in his skull. Boris, and a gunshot, ringing out in Theo’s ears over and over again. After months of sleepless nights, he’d begun panicking during his waking hours as well. While walking Popchik, a garbage truck had slammed a dumpster down with such force that Theo had stumbled back against a stranger’s brownstone, slamming his head against the brick siding and falling to the ground where all he could do was stare at the feet of passers by who, in typical New York fashion, pretended he wasn’t there, shaking and gasping for air. Hobie had found him only a few minutes later, returning from the cafe around the corner with two coffees clutched in his hands, only to drop them at his feet at the sight of Theo, curled around himself on the dirty ground while Popchik yapped incessantly at him. The coffee had pooled, seeping into cracks in the sidewalk, but Theo, in his drug fueled psychosis, had only seen blood. 

That night, after Hobie’s worried pacing outside his bedroom door had ceased, Theo drank half a bottle of vodka and topped it off with an entire bottle of sleeping pills, only to wake under fluorescent lights to a tube being shoved down his throat. 

He hadn't wanted to die, per se. He'd wanted to make it stop; that endless clicking of a barrel without any rounds left. He'd wanted to sleep just for a little while. 

“Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he mutters, flipping through the pages of the magazine as they pass through West Hollywood. He reads the passage from Brushstrokes once, then again, and his breathing slows. Semi-autobiographical… Ha! As if it had ever come close to the things he’d written about Henry and Bahar. As if he and Boris had ever touched each other with anything other than rough hands.

He pulls his wallet from his pocket and slides the postcard out. It’s worn and faded from years of folding and unfolding it, but the cover, a sea of sunflowers with their stalks bent toward the sun, remains the same. GREETINGS FROM KANSAS is splashed over them in big, red cursive. He turns it over in his hands and exhales.

potter,

interesting story… call me.

Boris had scribbled a number down at the bottom in his garish scrawl. Theo had read and re-read the thing so many times over the years, but never called. The only time he'd come close was when Popchik died, but even then he'd just sent a text that was never responded to. It was cruel, but he honestly didn’t know what to say. Hey Boris, remember when I killed for you? I wake up at night drenched in sweat, even now. Hey Boris, why the fuck are you sending me postcards from Kansas? Hey Boris, are you clean? Do you ever think of me? Hey Boris, I’m sorry I claimed our story as my own. I’m sorry I made it sweeter than it ever was. Would you have been that soft with me if I’d only asked? Hey Boris, I’m sorry all I ever do is lie.

He dials the number before he can change his mind and lets it ring three times before hanging up. It’s cowardice—he knows this, but maybe he’ll try again when he’s back on the east coast. It’s the best he can do at this point. 

He slips the postcard into the Vanity Fair and rolls it up, then shoves it into his bag. The rest of the trip is spent with his head against the window, sun darting through the tint. When they arrive at the airport Theo tips the driver generously and makes his way toward security. His head is pounding and he can’t seem to stop the constant worries flitting in and out of his subconscious. 

He’d kill for a Vicodin. 

*

Back in New York, he opts for the subway, slinging his bag over his shoulder and shoving through a crowd of teenagers lingering on the platform. Once on the A train he settles into a seat in the back, only to notice the woman across from him is staring down at a copy of Vanity Fair, then up at him in recognition. She watches him the entire ride, through eight stops, and at one point angles her phone in such a way that he's sure she's taking a photo. He grimaces, then gets off at the next stop, even though he's still far from his place. He'd rather take a rideshare then deal with whatever that was.  

He knows he should be used to it by now. But, his fame wasn't on purpose, and most of the time he wants a way out of it; can't stand the way people treat him like he's from another planet when they find out he’s the author of Brushstrokes. 

Fucking Brushstrokes. His accidental masterpiece. Like tripping into a puddle of pure gold; he hadn't been watching where he was going, then suddenly everything was different. He couldn’t go to his favorite cafe without people whispering about him; couldn’t even walk the streets without seeing his book clutched in stranger's hands, forcing him to duck his head or change direction midstep. 

By the time he makes it to his apartment in Brooklyn, he feels the anxiety of the day seeping out of his pores, and it's all he can do to even kick off his shoes and hang his jacket. 

He runs a bath in his clawfoot tub and pours himself a stiff drink. As the water rushes out, he leans against the sink and drinks. Boris had given him so much shit about his love for baths, all those years ago, when Theo had drunkenly pulled him to Xandra and his dad’s master bedroom with the huge jet tub.

“Is a bit girly, yes?” Boris had said, staring down at the tub thoughtfully, lined with Xandra’s various pink and purple shampoos and soaps. The whole room smelled like lavender. 

“It’s just a bathtub. It has jets. Like a jacuzzi.” 

“Oh, is okay then. We will keep drinking in jacuzzi.” And they had. They’d drank and shared cigarette after cigarette, the jets pressing hot streams of vibrating water against their backs, and Theo had been so careful not to think too much about how their legs were basically tangled together, and how any movement at all only pressed them closer together, until he woke the next morning, naked and shivering from the AC, curled around Boris on the large bath mat next to the tub, one hand wrapped greedily around his waist.

He undresses in the dark, in front of the mirror, his body a confusing blur in the steam. It confuses him even in the light—lines on his face where the skin had once been drawn tight. He’s in good shape, he knows, but the gray hair at his temples is a gentle reminder that time, as always, moves forward without his permission. 

Just as he settles down into the still streaming water, his phone buzzes from the little wooden table he keeps next to the tub. The number is familiar. The number is—

“Hello?” he says, after fumbling to answer it with soapy hands.

“Ah, shit. Potter, is it really you?”

Boris’ voice is steady, but there's an edge to it which Theo can't decipher. 

“Yeah. Yeah, it's me.”

“Wow, it's been a very long time, yes?”

Theo sits up in the tub, sloshing water over the sides. 

“Yeah, it has.” 

“Christ,” Boris says. And then, “You have been very busy.” 

Theo doesn’t say anything. He grips the edge of the tub with his free hand and waits. Boris sighs, and it tells Theo everything he needs to know. Boris is upset with him. Boris, mostly a stranger now, still sees through Theo in a way no one else has ever been able to do. Theo wonders if he’s read the article, but can’t imagine Boris goes around reading Vanity Fair, of all things, and ignores the steam roller making a home in his chest.

“Listen, Boris—“ Theo tries, but doesn’t know how to say what he needs to. 

“Your mother would be proud, I think,” Boris interrupts.

“I—What?” 

“Your book, Potter. She would be proud.”

Theo swallows roughly, remembering his dedication page. To Audrey. Only you know. 

“Well, I—thanks, Boris.”

Boris hums. “I have to go. The back fence needs mending. Not much sunlight left.”

Theo has no idea what he’s talking about. “Oh, okay,” he says with a shrug.

Boris doesn’t say goodbye, and the line disconnects a few seconds later. Theo wonders if it’s possible to drown himself in two feet of bathwater.

*

The nights get shorter, months passing as the weather turns and a cold front hits the city with enough force to dampen whatever good spirits Theo finds himself in. No one wants to go outside. Water freezes in dog dishes on front stoops and Theo can’t seem to ever fully get warm.

He reads The Idiot, in Russian, finally (language apps are a godsend and although he can’t speak it, Theo can understand some Russian in conversation, and can read it without too much trouble) and lounges about his apartment. He eyes the few pieces he kept from Hobart and Blackwell’s: a Soviet era submarine wall clock hangs in the kitchen; an English giltwood side table stands in the entryway; and one of Hobie’s beloved pieces—Mané-Katz’s Portrait of Sally Ryan hangs above his bed. The rest had been auctioned after Hobie’s death, except for whatever Pippa wanted and carted off to London to gather dust in her and Everett’s flat. He imagines their children leaving sticky fingerprints on priceless pieces and wants to slam his fist into the nearest wall.

By December he’s restless, and angry. No more calls from Boris, and he feels fourteen again, waiting for him to return from Kotku’s, anxious and full of energy he can only let out upon his return. He knows he’ll never learn, always waiting like a mut at Boris’ feet, itching for a response, even if it’s just a rolled up newspaper to the face. 

“You’re alone on Christmas Eve?” Pippa asks, sighing into the phone.

Theo straightens the living room rug with his toe. “Well, it does sound depressing when you say it like that.”

“My invitation wasn’t just a gesture, Theo. You’re always welcome here. You’re family,” she says, and there's a sadness in her voice. At one time Theo would have delighted at the words. Now he just wants to get off the phone with her.

“Pip—“

“Okay, I know. But, do you think Hobie would want you always alone… always tinkering with chairs and tables, or staring at your laptop like your next book is going to write itself.”

It’s a low blow. Theo runs a hand through his hair. “I think Hobie would see a bit of himself in that aspect of my life—“ A soft tone interrupts him. Call waiting. He pulls the phone away from his ear and looks down at it. He recognizes the number immediately. “Can I call you tomorrow? I’ve got another call coming in.”

She sighs again, softer this time. “Merry Christmas, Theo. Please be good.” It’s something they often say to each other, both having (mostly) kicked their most insistent vices.  

“I’ll try. You too.” And then she’s gone. The call switches over to the incoming one, and Theo holds his breath for a moment, unsure of how to answer.

“Theo Decker,” he says simply. 

“Potter.”

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s me.”

“You are a bastard,” Boris breathes, but there’s no heat behind it.

“Um, okay. I know.” Theo mutes the television where Friends reruns are playing with the volume on low.

“Your Bahar is a bit of a maniac.”

Theo laughs, surprised. “Well, so are you.”

“Ah, so it is true,” Boris says, and Theo wishes he could see his face. He never wanted to have this conversation over the phone.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He doesn’t want to play this game, but they’re already picking their characters.

“Oh, I forget you are so good at pretending,” Boris says, voice low. 

“Listen,” Theo says carefully. “Nevermind about all that.”

“No nevermind.”

“Okay…” He leans over the coffee table for the glass of scotch he’d abandoned when Pippa called. “You have to understand, Boris. It’s not like I ever thought—“

“All you had to do was ask,” Boris says evenly. Theo isn't sure if he's talking about Brushstrokes and what it implied about his feelings toward him, or the reality of their youth, and all the things left unsaid. Theo knows the statement isn't true, either way. They never asked—only took what they could, almost greedily, from one another. 

“What are you doing anyways, Potter?” Boris continues. “Answering strange numbers on Christmas Eve. Where’s your redhead—“ and then, as if catching himself,”—shouldn’t you be with family?” It stings, mostly because Boris has to know Theo has no family left. He wants to retaliate; to hurt Boris in the same way. He also wants to be wherever he is. 

“Shouldn’t you?” Theo asks, and the silence after tells him all he needs to know. 

“You are so mean in your old age,” Boris says finally. “You were never this mean when we were young.”

Theo thinks of chlorine and bruises; of the fear on Boris’ face after Theo had knocked him down on the side of the pool, just hours after his father had given him a vicious smack to the face with his cane. You always hurt the ones you love…

“I don’t want to do this right now.” 

Boris laughs, low in his throat. “Okay, okay. Just fucking with you, Potter. You are very easy to fuck with. I have always known this.” Theo can’t help but smile. “I’m sorry about your poofter,” Boris continues, and then, suddenly, miraculously, it’s like there’s no rushed scripts they’re meant to be following. No years, either. No stolen birds and no blonde wives. Only Boris drunkenly rambling on about a movie he’s recently seen, or a song he heard that Theo might like (“Is not like this mainstream bullshit, you know?”), and Theo fills him in on all of the boring, not at all interesting, aspects of his life after sudden fame.

They talk for hours, until the scotch is gone and Theo can barely stand to make his way to bed, so he falls asleep where he is, phone pressed uncomfortably between his head and the arm of the sofa.  

When he wakes at three in the morning Boris is snoring softly on the other end.  

Theo takes Wellbutrin in the morning and Seroquel at night. He chases the Seroquel with Cutty Sark and sometimes barely makes it to his bed. He wanders around Bed Stuy in an oversized coat and large black sunglasses. He considers writing; always considers, but never does. Sometimes he’s not even sure how he managed to write Brushstrokes. When he thinks of that period of his life it’s mostly a blur; all white blankets folded just so into his thin mattress. Pills in the morning for the shakes and pills in the evening to sleep. Group meetings and doctors with their judgemental eyes. The only shining point was his therapist, staring over her notepad at him as he dropped all of his journals down onto the table between them, and then, much later, her voice soft and concerned as she asked Have you ever considered writing your way out of sadness? 

He thinks of Boris in Kansas, and he doesn’t know what to do with that. He’d tried, halfheartedly, just before the book was published, to reach out to him, but the voice on the other end said The number you have reached has been disconnected, and he’d pushed the guilt nagging away at him to the back of his mind, until a year later when the postcard arrived, stuck between a letter informing him of a meeting he’d already missed and the electricity bill. 

*

bahenry:

guys i’m crying!!!! i just reread brushstrokes and it’s SO OBVIOUS how much henry WANTS bahar………… like chapter 14 isn’t even subtext……….. he carries his photo in his wallet and when they see each other again on that street in nyc it’s all henry can do not to “press his face into bahar’s shoulder and weep” WTF

#dunno what to think about that vanity fair article tho #mr decker i just want to TALK

Theo slams his laptop shut. He knows scouring the Brushstrokes tag on Tumblr is always a mistake, but the artwork is gorgeous, and most of the time it’s just people posting artistic photos of the book next to coffee cups and vases of flowers, but since his interview things have snowballed, and the internet is buzzing with articles and posts about his apparent homophobia.

Which was not good, to say the least. It eats at him constantly; the thought that the public thinks he would harbor such a hateful ideology. The only thing he hates is himself. 

He was practically raised by a gay man, for fuck’s sake. It was only after Theo had let Hobie read the manuscript had Hobie told him the full story about him and Welty, and Theo had felt shame rush through him. He’d stood on Hobie’s doorway, all those years ago, so wrapped up in his own grief that he hadn’t seen just how much Hobie had lost in the explosion. Theo’s mother had died, yes, but he had Hobie to smooth over the jagged bits of him that were left, and Hobie had no one, not really, having lost the only man he’d ever loved. 

“You know,” Hobie had said, placing a hand lightly on Theo’s shoulder, his eyes bright with tears, “I have lost more than most, but then again, so have you. There is something to be said of how you still try.”

*

It’s an unusually cold night in March when Theo’s phone buzzes on the pillow next to his head, but he has the window open, allowing noises from the street below to wash over him in the dark. Before the buzzing he had been trying to stave off the spins after drinking an entire bottle of wine to himself while attempting to write. Wasn't that how Hemingway had said to do it? The ceiling fan rattles above him as he reaches for his phone instinctively, accepting the call with a quick drag of his finger over the screen.

“We are the same,” Boris says, before Theo can get out a breathless Hello? “We are both the great pretenders.”

“Boris, it’s late. Is everything okay?” Theo asks, staring up at the slowly spinning ceiling fan above him. He can’t sleep without the continuous white noise it provides. 

“No. Fuck. No, okay?” 

“Okay.” Theo has no idea what’s happening. He reaches for his glasses on the nightstand next to him. 

“What are you doing?” Boris asks finally after a few beats of silence. 

A pair of headlights momentarily light up the room as a car passes outside. “I was sleeping. Like a normal person,” he lies. 

“No good to sleep too much. There are studies.”

Theo thinks whatever studies Boris reads are dubious at best. “Well, I'm awake now,” he replies, scratching at his bare chest. 

“Alone?” Boris asks, tentatively. 

He wants to say Yes, always. I'm always fucking alone. “Yeah. Of course,” he says instead. 

“Do you prefer it? Just you? Sometimes I think about you when I am alone—” Theo's breath catches. “Sometimes it is so easy to imagine I am young again and we're fucking around on your bedroom floor.”

Theo's heart tries its best to rip itself from his chest. “Boris—” he wants to interject but Boris presses on. 

“All alone in your posh apartment in the city. Bet you have a big fancy bed and you sleep right in the middle of it all by yourself. What good is that? What good is any of this?” Theo doesn’t know. He often wonders the same thing.

“I don't fucking know,” he whispers. He can hear movement on the other end, like blankets shifting. 

“Tell me one thing, Potter. The truth. When you are alone do you touch yourself?” His voice is muffled. Theo slides his hand down his chest and rests two fingers beneath the waistband of his boxers. 

“Yeah,” he breathes.

“And you think about what?” Boris’ voice is strained. There’s a soft, slick sound coming from his end, and Theo realizes with a start what he’s doing. 

“Are you—” he begins to ask, but Boris cut him off with a low moan.

“I wonder why we never used our mouths,” he muses, and suddenly the earth tilts, and everything is changed. Theo’s mouth is dry as he swallows and tries to think of something to say to that. His cock strains against his boxers and he finally gives in, wrapping his fist around it and stroking firmly. Boris seems more than happy to continue his onslaught without any input from Theo. “Always liked your mouth. Couldn't let you leave without kissing it, just once, could I?"

“Jesus, Boris,” Theo gasps. He’s so turned on his legs have begun to shake from it, muscles clenching and relaxing as he moves his fist. Out of his control, always out of his control. “This isn't funny.”

“Do you hear me laughing?” Boris asks. All Theo can hear is the sound of his hand on his cock. “This is quite the serious situation, no? Although, ah—” he moans directly into Theo’s ear from 1,500 miles away. “A little laughter never hurt. I'm sure you remember. Bahar and Henry laughed for 700 pages, did they not?”

Theo finds himself beginning to hate the city he’d once loved. He flinches when strangers on the subway accidentally bump into him while he stands, fingers wrapped around the metal support bar, staring down at his feet. Sometimes he has a destination; usually his publisher’s office in Manhattan, which he almost always dreads. He’s signed a three book deal with Penguin Random House, but he’s beginning to think he might not have any more novels in him. Maybe Brushtrokes really was a fluke. Other times he wanders the five boroughs aimlessly, stomping across Central Park in the middle of the night, or pushing his way through tourists in Times Square. Even running, which he enjoys even at his most depressed, has lost its appeal. There’s no satisfaction where there used to be plenty. 

Spring in New York City was once magical, but Theo has lost his sense of it. The crowds overwhelm him. He has panic attacks in public, so he stops going out altogether. The dreams start up again with the cold feel of his finger on the trigger of a gun; of pale skin and blood

He wants out. 

Boris writes him quick emails, hinting at a life Theo can’t imagine—one he can’t even begin to picture Boris living. He writes of horses and wheatfields on fire. Sometimes he calls, but most of the time he doesn’t, and Theo won’t let himself reach out. It’s a constant battle with himself for Theo to not beg Boris to come visit, or to get him to tell him where he is, precisely, so Theo can, at the very least, imagine himself there too.

The phonecalls Theo does get are never the same as the one they’d shared that had ended with mutual orgasms, and then later, quick laughs as they both hung up. There’s no more talk of mouths and no more slick hands on cocks, but there is a sort of heat that burns evenly throughout every conversation they have, and although he never brings it up, Theo knows something has changed, irrevocably, and he’s surprisingly okay with it. 

Why does Henry rub Bahar’s feet when they are in London? After they get back to that awful hotel? Is this sexual?”

“What, you’ve never had someone rub your feet after a long day?” Theo asks, cringing down at the half eaten carton of Pad Thai in his lap. He thinks of Boris with his long legs strewn across someone’s lap. 

“Nope. Is this something you like?” The question feels heavy. Theo lets it linger there for a moment. He used to rub Kitsey’s feet after she would kick off her Manolo Blahnik’s and then fall into his lap on the couch in her apartment after long days of wedding planning errands. The way she’d sighed and groaned as he’d pressed his thumb against the tender spots made him think it had probably felt really fucking good.

“I don’t know. I guess I would like it. I used to rub Kitsey’s feet.”

“This is not surprising. You are such a sucker, Potter. Next girl you get—have her rub yours,” Boris demands over the speaker. So they’re still doing this . It isn’t surprising. They’ve been doing it for years—never quite saying what they want to. Never admitting to the meaning behind what they’ve done. Never, ever, telling the truth. Theo stretches, his back aching and popping from spending the day hunched over his laptop, trying to write anything at all. He’d give anything for a foot rub. Or a back rub. Or, pathetically, an affectionate hand on him in any way at all. 

“I’m not really at that stage with anyone,” he says, then stands to carry his discarded dinner into the kitchen. He tosses it in the trash then goes to his bedroom where he collapses against his pillows.

“That is a shame. The more I think of it, the more I think it is a sign of respect. Like Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Jesus. You do this for those you care deeply for. Is there no one you care deeply for?”

Theo presses his face into his pillow. He wants to scream. “Like I said… not currently. Or, not within reach.”

“Another shame.” Boris sounds genuinely sad for him. “Speaking of this within reach. How long has it been since we have seen each other again?”

Theo’s mind goes to shining Christmas lights hung all around Antwerp. To the smell of fried fish and dark, thick beer. To a needle sliding smoothly into the crook of Boris’ arm. “Ten years.”

“We must fix this, Potter. We must.”

They must, Theo agrees. There are things he wants to say. Things he wants to know. He tries to imagine what a decade has done with Boris. Will he smile and make light of their late night conversations? Will he still look the same? For some reason he can’t imagine a Boris nearing his forties. Who is he now? Who will he be this time? 

“When?” he asks.

“This is up to you,” Boris replies, and that’s all it takes.

Theo sets up a generic response on his emails for two weeks and books a flight the next day.  

*

When he steps off the plane in Wichita he’s immediately hit with a wall of humidity. The airport is large, but a lot less crowded than Atlanta had been. It’s late, and the woman at the rental car kiosk looks like she might scream if he asks her even one simple question, so he switches tactics and calls for a car. He heads out into the night to try and calm his nerves. It’s a clear night with only a few clouds in the sky, and he can’t help wondering if Boris is pacing the floors of his house; if he’s as anxious as Theo feels. Twenty minutes pass before a black town car pulls up and the driver exits to help Theo load his bag into the trunk. Once inside he immediately rolls down the back windows and settles in for the hour and a half drive to a place called Kiowa near Medicine River. 

He’s anxious and unsure of himself as they go. All of the radio stations fade in and out of static as the driver fiddles with them, before settling on no radio at all, and Theo doesn’t like being left alone with his thoughts again after the hours he’d had while on the plane. He can’t gather them together; they drift of their own accord from glowing pools in the middle of the night to Boris moaning in his ear. From the feel of the pillowcase he’d hidden The Goldfinch in to the look on Boris’ face after he’d kissed him the night he’d left Vegas; a mix of surprise and, oddly enough, smugness. 

They drive on, passing grain silos and pumpjacks. Theo can see every star in the sky, and he's reminded of his long bus ride with Popchik. Occasionally he sticks his hand out the window and is amazed each time at how when he brings it back in it’s damp. With only minutes left until he reaches his destination, he starts tucking both hands under his thighs to keep them from shaking. He stares down at the address Boris had texted him. They’re so close. He tries, and fails, to relax into the night breeze. His thoughts are as thick as the air around him.

The road twists and then turns into a dirt and gravel path. They pass a sign that reads Kiowa Bucks on the Medicine and Theo says Here! loud enough that the driver brakes hard and he nearly smacks his face against the seat in front of him. Boris had told him to turn right at said sign, so the driver backs up, gravel crunching under the sedan’s tires, and continues into the dark.

There are no houses around—haven’t been any for miles and miles. The emptiness is alarming and more than a little bit creepy. Tall, thin trees line the dirt road and the headlights light them up eerily. Finally, they cross over the Medicine River and Theo sees, about a hundred yards ahead of him, a sprawling ranch style house with large windows lining the font of it. They pull onto a cement driveway (finally) and Theo clutches the backpack he’d brought into the backseat with him with shaking hands. 

He can’t move. Absolutely can’t get himself to cross the dirt and rocks that lead to the front door. There’s no car in the driveway. Could Boris still not drive? The thought brings a smile to his lips. 

Finally, after a few minutes of berating himself for being a coward, the driver clears his throat and Theo finally climbs out of the car and grabs his other bag from the trunk. The driver accepts his tip with a quick nod and Theo somehow wills himself to walk up the pathway that winds up to the house and ring the doorbell. His bag is heavy in his hand but he doesn’t want to set it down. Not until the door opens. But, he wonders, what if it never does? What if—

The driver peels out of the drive, leaving Theo alone on a dark front step. He counts to ten, and then to twenty. He knocks lightly, and then there’s a click, followed by the sound of a heavy deadbolt being slid from its place, and suddenly a light turns on, illuminating the walkway. Long, pale arms shoot out from the doorway to pull him inside and into a tight hug. Theo nearly collapses against Boris in relief, and fuck, has he always smelled this good? Something citrus and light, mixed with smoke. It’s intoxicating—so, yes, he probably always has.

And then he’s being shoved away, but not far enough to not be touching, and Boris holds him out in front of him with two large hands on Theo’s shoulders. 

“It is you,” he says, grinning. It’s devastating. “Potter, this is amazing. This is spectacular! You are here!” Same perfect, white veneers. That irresistible smile. Theo grins back. The decade between them has been kind to Boris. Gone are the drugged, heavy lidded eyes he’d had in Europe. Now they are shining and bright, and his hair. Christ, his hair. He’s let it grow out and has it pulled back into a messy bun, but strands stick out here and there and fall over his eyes as he watches Theo take him in. A couple gray streaks mixed with the black. He looks good—slim as ever in dark blue jeans that hang low on his hips and a black t-shirt with a small pocket over his chest. His feet are bare; long and bony just like Theo remembers. He looks beautiful, and new, like someone Theo has never met before. It’s a little shocking to see him so alive, instead of strung out and moody. Although, Theo’s sure, the moodiness he knows well could show itself eventually. “You are just in time,” he continues, this time with a wink, and pulls a cigarette from a pack in his back pocket. “Come. Sit with me.” 

“Some things never change,” Theo laughs, and pulls a lighter from his pocket.

He came prepared. 

“Of course they do,” Boris replies, bending to the flame Theo holds out, and pressing his shoulder into him. “Sometimes, if we are very lucky, they get better.”

Chapter Text

“You like the digs?” Boris asks, leaning against the long, marble counter that closes the kitchen off from the living room. The place is huge, and open, with dark wood floors and bookshelves everywhere. Theo struggles to take it all in, so far removed from the shabby flat in Antwerp with it's bare cement walls and the mattress Boris had shoved in the corner. 

“It's amazing,” Theo says. “Is it really just you out here? How did you find this place? And, why Kansas?” He has so many questions; he can barely contain them all. 

“Well,” Boris smiles, then shrugs. “Land is so fucking cheap out here, and after I returned your painting, along with some other dealings… I will just say I have more money than I know what to do with. The rest is very long story. If you can be patient, Potter, which I am guessing you can't—” This time a bigger grin. “I will show you tomorrow. For now, let us celebrate our reunion.” He walks over to the freezer of a large stainless steel refrigerator and pulls out a bottle of Stoli. After pouring two shots out for them, he carries them over to where Theo is sitting on the arm of the couch and stands over him. Theo takes his glass and looks anywhere but at the parts of Boris’ body he’s eye level with. Eventually he stands to even things out. “To your success,” Boris says, holding out his glass.

Theo winces when their glasses collide. He thinks Boris definitely hit his harder than necessary. 

They're careful not to touch as they move around each other, settling into the large couch in the living room. It's uncomfortable at first, with Boris shooting sidelong glances his way, and Theo knows what he wants to talk about, but he's hoping they can avoid it this first night. It's selfish, he knows, but all he wants to do is pretend there are not so many years and betrayals between them. 

Shots are poured and glasses filled over and over until Theo can hardly stand. They stumble from room to room; Boris having decided to give him a drunken grand tour. The place isn't messy, per se, but it feels very lived in. There are lots of rugs on the floors and framed photos hung on every wall. Theo can’t name a single person in them other than Boris. He makes a mental note to look at them again with sober eyes. 

When they get to the master bedroom Boris grins and plops down on the bed. It’s a king, and looks extremely comfortable. There’s an assortment of different quilts that look handmade and a sturdy feather down comforter pushed down to the foot of it. Two nightstands stand on each side of the bed, although only one looks used, and upon it is an array of mugs and books stacked high. 

Theo leans drunkenly against the doorframe. “‘s nice,” he murmurs.

Boris turns so he’s on his back, propped up on his elbows. “Shit, Potter. Still a lightweight.”

Theo slumps down against the wall a bit. He wants to jump onto the bed next to Boris and hit him in the face with a pillow, or maybe kiss him. Just a little. One or the other would be fine.

Suddenly Boris has one of his arms slung beneath Theo's shoulder and is leading him down the dark hall and into the spare bedroom closest to his room. 

“But—” Theo begins to protest. He wants—he wants to stay in Boris’ big room; wants to sleep pressed against him in the middle of his big bed. 

“Shhhh,” Boris whispers, laying him down on top of the comforter. He removes Theo’s glasses and folds them gently, before setting them on the nightstand. “This would be easier if—” a grunt and his shoes are pulled from his feet. Then comes his socks and, as the room spins around him, Boris undoes Theo's belt, so swiftly his breath stutters. Everything is so shockingly familiar it makes him want to cry. 

“Up,” Boris demands, lips pursed. Theo raises his hips up off the bed and his pants are removed, followed by his shirt. He feels childish—it’s how his mother had undressed him as a little boy, petulant and angry at having to go to bed before the sun was down in the summer. 

“Why are you here, Boris?” he asks, letting his head fall back against the pillows. And then, “Why am I here?”

“Hush,” Boris says, going to the bathroom which connects the two rooms. He returns with a glass of water from the faucet. “Tomorrow.”

Before Theo can respond he disappears back through the bathroom and into his own room, shutting Theo's door with a click. 

He lays awake for awhile and listens for any movement in the other room. There is none. It seems Boris is nearly as hammered as he is and has probably collapsed into his own bed.

The only sounds are cicadas rubbing their wings together in the dark. Theo finds, in his drunken exhaustion that he prefers it over the constant car horns and drunken brawls in the street that he's used to. 

*

When Theo wakes, sweaty and sticking to the sheets, it's to the smell of bacon frying. He stumbles into the bathroom, thoroughly disgusted with the state of himself, and immediately throws up. This is not how he’d planned to begin his visit, or maybe it was. Everything that ever happens with Boris seems inevitable.

He considers showering, but needs food and coffee first, even though the shower looks incredibly inviting. It’s large and open; the kind you can walk right into it as there’s no tub connected, just a curtain strung up that divides it from the rest of the bathroom, with two large shower heads on either end. 

As he makes his way to the kitchen he peeks into Boris’ empty bedroom. The blankets are scattered about the bed and, he notes with interest, a well worn copy of Brushstrokes is lying face down on the nightstand. He wonders what part Boris had been reading, and it takes everything in him not to go and pick it up to see. 

Soft music filters down the hallway as he gets closer to the kitchen. He rounds the corner and stops, unsure of how to process the scene before him. Boris is standing over the stove, in only tight black sweats, and an apron that says Kiss The Cook! on the front. From the bits of skin he can see outside of the apron he knows Boris has a lot more tattoos than he did the last time they saw each other. 

He hums along to the music, which seems to be coming from a record player in the living room, moving his hips side to side as he pushes sizzling bacon around in the skillet. 

Theo clears his throat. 

“Ah!” Boris smiles at him. “Did you sleep well?”

“I wouldn't say well,” Theo replies, stomach churning and unable to stop staring.

“What is the saying?” Boris asks with a smirk. “Take a picture—it could last longer?”

“Fuck you,” Theo grunts. He pulls out a bar stool at the counter. “Jesus, I feel like shit.”

“Food will help. Long day ahead of us.” Boris throws a piece of crisp bacon to him. “Coffee?

“Yes, please. What do you mean a long day?” He’s going to need some aspirin. 

Boris turns back to the stove and reaches up into the cupboard above it. As he stretches onto his toes, the muscles in his back pull taut, and Theo can do nothing but take in the sight before him. Dark ink is everywhere his eyes land; a large black spider crawls from a web etched on his shoulder, down toward the dimples that rest on his lower back. 

When he turns and throws a bottle of Ibuprofen at Theo, undoing the apron right after, he lets it hit him in the chest, too distracted by the trail of hair that travels up from the line of Boris’ pajama bottoms to his belly button. There’s also hair on his chest, dark black speckled with a bit of gray, and suddenly Theo is too stunned to even pretend to not be looking , because there, on his left pec, right over his heart, is a tattoo of a goldfinch. Or, to be specific, The Goldfinch, and it’s the only bit of color on his entire body. 

He holds in all of the questions he has and swallows the Ibuprofen down without water; a disgusting pill popping habit leftover from his addiction. They slide down easily. Boris watches him for a few moments and then turns without saying a word to pour him a cup of coffee. When he pushes it across the counter and passes it from his hand to Theo’s their fingers slide over each other briefly, and Theo pulls back, a reflex he can't help. You can only go so long without being touched before any slight contact sends up alarms. 

“Sorry, just—“ he starts.

Boris waves a hand, dismissing his explanation. Once the food is finished, he sets a plate down in front of Theo and eats his standing over the counter. “So,” he says, folding a piece of bacon in two and sticking it in his mouth. “You have questions.”

Theo nods. 

Boris watches him carefully. “I have questions as well, if you want to know. But, I will explain myself first. 

Theo nods again, heart thumping wildly in his chest. 

“After our little adventure in Amsterdam, I got into a particularly sticky situation in Russia. Related to some art forgeries. Some thefts in Moscow. You know, a little bit of black market fuckery. At that point I was heavily using. Not keeping up with my duties, as they say. Everything was pinned on me, and Putin’s cunts gave me five years in Black Dolphin, which, well—“ he shifts from one foot to another. “Let us just say it is not a place for petty criminals such as me. If it weren’t for overcrowding at the other penitentiaries I never would have been sent there, but my luck was down. I mean, really fucking down. You cannot imagine the fear I had in me on the bus ride there—middle of winter with shabby clothes worn by previous inmates—and no idea what was ahead of me. Well, some ideas. Bad, bad ideas.”

Theo puts his fork down. He suddenly isn't hungry anymore, and feels a lot like he might throw up again. “You went to prison for five years?” is all he can manage to say. 

When he'd called Boris’ old number, and the line had been disconnected… All those years he'd thought Boris was just keeping a safe distance, and then after Brushstrokes, he'd been sure Boris was pissed at him for the things he'd written. Never in a million years had he thought—

“Yes, yes. While you were writing your book and becoming big celebrity, I was cleaning stables in Sol-Iletsk. Please, Potter. Do not give me that look. It was hell, yes, but I am alive. Standing here in front of you, gorgeous as ever.”

Theo knows he's trying to protect him from the truth of it by joking around, but he can see a darkness in his eyes as he urges Theo to just go along with it. “You should shower. We can continue this later. The kids will be here soon.”

“Kids?” Theo realizes he’s been digging his nails into his thighs. “Your children are here?”

“My what?” Boris asks, looking as confused as Theo feels, and then he barks out a laugh. “Oh, god, Potter. I don’t have children. That photo—fuck. Listen, I wanted to impress you. Do you really think I—Shit, I’m sorry,” he says, obviously concerned at the look on Theo’s face.

“I think I’ll take that shower you mentioned,” Theo says, harshly, although he feels something like relief as he makes his way back to his room, ignoring Boris’ continued attempts at apologizing.

After he showers he stands naked in front of the strange bed he’d slept in and stares at the room around him. He has no idea what to make of Boris’ life, or his place in it. There is something endearing about Boris trying to impress him all those years ago, but still Theo's upset, although he knows he really has no right to be when it comes down to it. Boris lied, yes, but that is in both of their natures. Sometimes, Theo knows, to lie is the only way to survive.

But now, this prison bombshell—Theo can't fathom Boris spending five years in a Russian prison. It makes him feel disconnected from reality, even trying to form the image of Boris doing hard labor; of Boris alone and frightened on the trip there, strung out and withdrawing. Something animalistic and protective begins to rise within Theo. He knows, or sort of knows from documentaries he’d watched late at night while Dualidid or Morphine had him nodding off in the blue light of the television he’d had in his bedroom at Hobie’s, the kinds of things that went on in prisons in America. What had a Russian prison done to Boris for him to end up in, of all places, Kansas?

Three timid knocks at the door pull him from his thoughts. “Potter, c’mon,” Boris pleads on the other side. He sounds defeated, which goes against everything Theo wants, and he instantly deflates, pulling on a pair of boxers and then striding over to the door.

“Just let me finish getting dressed,” he says, cracking the door open just as Boris pushes in fully. Now dressed in black Wranglers and a white t-shirt, he only nods and sits on the edge of Theo’s bed, hands splayed over his thighs. Theo can feel his eyes on him as he turns and grabs a pair of jeans and a Flaming Lips t-shirt out of his bag. A flush rises from his chest to his cheeks as he turns back to face Boris, who is pointedly looking away, and pulls the jeans up over his hips. 

“It is unfair of you to be so upset with me,” Boris says, still not looking at Theo. “If we are keeping score.”

“Are we?” Theo asks. “Are we keeping score?”

Boris just sighs and studies his fingernails. When he's fully dressed, Boris nods toward the hallway, and they go, their bare feet padding on the hardwood, to the front door. 

“Do you have boots?” 

“Er, no.”

“Is fine,” Boris replies, and throws him a pair of socks. “We are same size.” And then he disappears into his room and returns with a pair of Timberlands, which fit Theo unsurprisingly perfectly. 

Boris slips into a pair of black cowboy boots and winks. They look good on him, and Theo can't help but imagine removing them after a long day; to pull Boris’ feet into his lap and press the heel of his palm into the soft, pale skin of them, just to see what sounds he'd make. 

“Yeehaw!” Boris exclaims in his best American accent as he pulls Theo out the front door.

*

In the bright light of day, Theo realizes Boris’ property is beautiful; to the west is a large field of corn stalks swaying slightly, and to the east a heavy thicket of the thin, long limbed trees he’d seen in the night. Behind the house runs, literally, the Medicine River, and beside it rests a long row of stables and a corral. There’s also a large deck connected to the house, with a handful of chairs and a table littered with ashtrays and, somehow, more books. 

“Not much to do in prison but read,” Boris says, running his hand over a copy of Brideshead Revisited. “Imagine my surprise when my cellmate shoved your book into my bunk. Said it was contraband due to the nature of the story. Gomosek contraband at that. Cover ripped off and everything. Had to hide it behind encyclopedias when the guards came by.”

Gomosek. Fuck. “Shit, Boris. I don’t—I don’t know what to say. I never meant to use you—to use our story to gain notoriety.”

“It’s not exactly our story, is it?” Boris raises an eyebrow at him. “Many things, Potter, I did not know were happening. Many things left out that had.”

“Well, I—it’s purely subtextual.”

Boris watches him, but doesn’t comment as his hand glides over the sturdy fencing that lines the main part of the property. “How long have you been out here?”

“Four years,” Boris replies, grinning. “Built that myself. Well, with help from some locals, who actually are now friends. You will meet them. But, I should tell you about the kids.”

Theo’s ears perk up. He can’t even hide how insanely curious he is, but as he follows Boris into the stables, the subject changes immediately to the four horses held inside.

“My babies,” Boris croons, walking over to a pure white mare in the first stall. “This is Alchuk,” he says, running a hand over her mane. She presses her face up against his touch. “And this—,” he says, turning to the next stall where a brown and white spotted mare stares lazily at them both, “—this is Nikonova.”

Theo holds his hand out, but Nikonova is uninterested and turns to feed on the hay in the corner. 

Across from Nikonova is a smaller mare, probably only a year or two old, who whinnies at the sight of them. Boris presses a kiss to her jowl. “This one is a real baby. She is Dushkova.” 

Theo smiles. He’s never seen Boris look so in his element, while he feels completely out of his.

The horse next to Dushkova neighs angrily and stomps its front hooves onto the dirt. Boris eyes him nervously. “The only stallion,” he offers, and holds his hand out for the animal to sniff. It does, and then turns abruptly away from him. The stallion is pure black, and much larger than the other horses. It seems restless and uneasy. “We are still getting used to each other. This process goes both ways. I must trust him as he must trust me.”

Theo can understand that. The way he and Boris move around each other feels similar. “What’s his name?” he asks, eyeing the animal. 

“Nietzsche,” Boris says. “Like I said—nothing to do but read while I was locked up.”

Theo laughs. “Fitting.”

Boris leads Theo back inside. “So, that is it,” he says with a shrug as they fall down onto the couch together, side by side, the fabric of their jeans touching. Theo can feel his heartbeat throughout his entire body. Neither of them say anything, and neither of them move, until Boris spreads his hand out over his own thigh and begins tapping a beat and humming under his breath. The thing between them stretches out and makes itself comfortable, filling the room with unspoken thoughts and energy. Why can’t he just name it? Why can’t he just act on it?

Gomosek contraband...

Theo had tried not to think too hard about why he couldn't let himself go. It’s not like he’s a prude; his sexual history proves otherwise. It was just that he’s never, since Boris, felt much of anything during his encounters. Even during his most desperate fantasies about Pippa he’d always been halfway there, until suddenly his hand was her hand and her hand became familiar; a hand that could only belong to an infuriating and far too thin boy he’d once loved. 

His therapist never let him dwell on it. Phrases such as “puppy love” and “confusion masquerading as attraction” were thrown about in many sessions, but Theo knows, deep down in the tiniest corners of his mind where he allows himself to really consider the past and, well, the pending, that he’s afraid of crossing that final line into something more. He’d begged Boris to follow him to New York, or to runaway to California with him, even if it meant being homeless and broke, but Boris had stayed, and there was an ache to that fact that never fully subsided. Who was to say if they, now as adults, got around to what they both seemed to want, it wouldn’t turn out similarly? He was fine alone, without having lost anything. He doesn’t know if he could get what he wanted and then not have it anymore. 

His mother was the first and last person he loved, truly, to leave him in such a manner, and that loss had fractured every relationship in his life since. 

“You know,” Boris says, stretching his pointer finger out to press it into Theo’s thigh. “I’ve thought about you being here so often it does not feel real that you actually are.”

Theo wants to turn and meet his eyes, but if he does, the whole thing will fall apart, won’t it? “I’m sure if I had known you were here I would have thought about it, too.” He stares down at Boris’ finger on him, which suddenly becomes two fingers, moving impossibly slow up and down the outer seam of his jeans. They’ve touched so many times over the years, in so many situations and in various states of inebriation and sobriety, but never like this. 

Never tenderly.

“Is that true?” Boris asks, also not looking at Theo. Warm, bright light shines in from all of the windows, and Theo’s skin tingles from the heat. 

“Mostly,” Theo replies. He has a feeling he would have tried to find Boris again somehow. There was something fateful about them, from their never ending conversation at Boris’ empty house in the desert, to Boris calling out his name on the street in New York. 

Boris pulls a cigarette from behind his ear and kicks his legs up onto the coffee table, bringing their bodies even closer together on the worn brown leather. Theo slides his hand into his pocket for the lighter he knows is in there and holds it out to Boris. As he bends his head their eyes finally met, and there is recognition, like a mirror held up between them. 

Boris smirks and slides his hand fully onto Theo's knee. He presses into the tendon below his kneecap and Theo squirms. 

“This girl I knew in Ukraine, real spitfire; she told me if you are sensitive here—” he presses the spot again, causing Theo to gasp uncomfortably, “—you are boy crazy. What do you think of that, Potter?”

“God, fuck off,” he mumbles in return, trying to pull his leg away, but Boris holds on, sliding his hand further up until it rests completely on Theo's upper thigh. His fingers are so long, and much cleaner then they'd ever been when they were young; nails always covered in black sharpie or caked with blood. 

Boris takes a drag and blows the smoke out of the side of his mouth. “In prison, my cellmate, the only one I had before I was moved to the stables—he was gay,” he says casually. 

Theo stiffens slightly, unsure of where the conversation is going, but unwilling to move at all in case Boris removes his hand from where it’s now sliding up and down his thigh. “Yeah?”

“He was called Luka. Nice man. Just a boy, really, but good artist. Did these,” Boris gestures down at his chest, where beneath his shirt are the countless tattoos Theo had seen at breakfast. “Can you believe he was there just for that? I guess better than the concentration camps, but still. Broke my fucking heart to hear his stories. He and his boyfriend were jumped on a train—both of them nearly killed, and instead of helping them, the militsiya, those pigs, put them both away.”

Theo bites his lip. He can’t imagine; doesn’t want to imagine.

“He was my only friend there. Really opened my eyes to a lot of things they were shut on before.”

“Like?” Theo asks tentatively. 

“You know—” he takes a long drag from the cigarette and then passes it to Theo, “I was carrying around all these thoughts about homosexuality. I was stupid. Or maybe just naive. You know this.”

How had Welty and Hobie been so brave? How had they seen something in each other and how had they overcome the obstacles of the times they lived in to overlook their fear and love each other so completely when the world, sometimes so awful Theo can barely stand to be alive in it, was against them? 

How can he not even put his hand over Boris’ hand to show him he understands?

“What kind of trouble gets you put in the stables?” Theo asks, imagining Boris in the middle of winter, shivering and cold, as he'd spent a lot of his childhood before Vegas. It disturbs him; makes him angry. He takes a long drag from the cigarette, which is nearing its end. 

Boris stills his hand and shakes his head, as if trying to shake the memories away. “Oh, well. Just some incidents with some other inmates.” Theo can tell he doesn’t want to elaborate so he nods. “They kept putting me in solitary but it did not give them as much pleasure as putting me with the horses. Little did they know the horses and I would become fast friends.” He laughs, jostling Theo with it. “To the point the horses would not listen to the guards that rode them—only to me.” 

Theo moves to put the cigarette out in the ashtray just as Boris reaches out with the hand that had been on his thigh, instead resting it on his wrist. 

“I think they healed me,” Boris says, eyes shining like he might cry. “Do you understand what I mean? They gave me something to look forward to in that shithole. Little bit of hope can go a long way, and it was much safer out in the cold with them than inside with the other inmates. My god, Potter, they had me in with murderers. With rapists and pedophiles. With the scum.” And then his hand is gone, and the front door swings open.

Theo stands quickly, finally smashing the cigarette out into the ashtray. Three disgruntled looking teens walk in. The only girl kicks the door shut behind them. 

“Mija!” Boris exclaims, holding an arm out to the girl and wrapping her up into a quick hug. She’s tall, with dark skin and long black hair that swings in a braid down her back. She has on black jeans with black combat boots and a t-shirt of a metal band Theo’s never heard of. It’s the type of outfit Boris would have worn at fourteen, no question. 

“Mija?” Theo mouths, and Boris just shrugs and smiles.

“Borya,” she grins, then turns to the two boys she’d entered with. “Nietzsche’s mine today.” Then, turning back to Boris, she frowns.

“Que pasa?” he asks. He looks worried. 

She lifts her shoulders, then lets them sag, and unleashes a long rant in spanish.

Boris nods, then frowns. “I see. Well, give me some time to think on that.” He looks over at Theo and then seems to straighten, plastering a small smile on his face. “Today, let us just worry about here and now. I will talk to that bastard Rich the next time I am up there, yes?”

“You understand spanish?” Theo asks, interrupting the conversation. Everyone turns to stare at him, but Boris winks.

“Un poquito.”

“Dunno why you bother with Rich,” says the shorter of the two boys, shrugging off his jacket, clearly not caring about the stranger in Boris’ house. He looks straight out of California in the 90’s with blonde, almost white hair pulled into a ponytail. The look is completed with a hemp ankle bracelet and slip on Vans. “He hates you.”

“Fuck off, Jamie. He hates everyone,” the girl says, coolly.

“Eh?” Boris raises a pointed eyebrow at them. “Lydia, you will brush Nietzsche today, but remember what I have told you about his hind legs. Would be very bad for you to be on the wrong end of a swift kick.”

The girl, Lydia, only shrugs and then heads out the back door, not even acknowledging Theo's presence. He meets Boris’ eyes over Jamie's shoulder. Boris gives him a look that says later .

The third of the trio, a black boy with large eyes and a frown, moodily presses his bright yellow Converse into the door jam and watches Theo uncomfortably. He doesn’t acknowledge any of them; just follows Lydia out the door. 

“Don't mind River,” Jamie says, holding his hand out to Theo. A long, fresh but mostly healed scar runs up his wrist. “He had a bad panic attack this morning and hasn't really recovered. I'm Jamie.”

His grin is infectious, but the scar makes Theo think of pills spilled out on a hotel nightstand. Of too much wine and visions of his mother. He knows a suicide attempt when he sees one, and these kids can’t be more than fifteen years old. Something cracks open on his heart. 

Still, he smiles and shakes Jamie's hand. “Theo. I'm an old friend of Boris’.”

“I know. The author. Boris never shuts up about you. Nice photos in Vanity Fair, by the way,” Jamie says, then turns to Boris. “I thought you said no more strays.”

Boris chuckles, and Theo’s cheeks warm. “When it comes to this one,” he turns to look at Theo, “I am the stray.”

Jamie stares between them. “Whatever you say.”

*

When they find them, the trio are all standing around Nietszche. He eyes them warily, but is allowing Lydia to brush him. She whispers to him as she moves the brush up down his thick mane. 

Boris digs his elbow into Theo’s side. “Likes her more than me. Not that I don’t get it.”

“You’re likeable,” Theo says, feeling like a child. “Most of the time.”

“Even when I almost get you killed?”

Theo bristles. “Not then, no.” He wonders if Boris has any scars from the gunshot he’d taken to the arm. He hasn’t looked, and now he has a jacket on. Theo suddenly desperately needs to know. “Aren’t you hot in that?” he asks, tugging at the sleeve of the jacket.

Boris smirks. “Trying to get me undressed? In front of the children? You have changed.”

Theo laughs. “Jesus, Boris. I was just thinking about your arm. From the—“

“Oh, that. It was nothing. Just a little scar. Non-issue.”

Theo can tell he wants to change the subject, but doesn’t know where to take it from there, so they stand in silence, watching the three teens.

“How did you find them?” Theo asks.

“Trauma counseling.”

Theo nods, unsure of how far to press the subject, but Boris continues. “When I got out of prison I was in bad shape. Really fucking bad. I came here first thing, because I’d read about the big open midwest. Maybe I was a little obsessed with having a lot of space for myself. With getting my own horses. Still, I wasn't okay. There were these, well Potter, I might as well be as clear as I can—The doctor says it is post traumatic stress disorder. From certain events. Little things still set me off sometimes. I don’t always know what it will be.”

He looks at Theo nervously, and Theo knows how hard these things are to talk about. He also knows there's bravery in this honesty. He still wakes up in a cold sweat most nights; still jumps at anything that sounds remotely close to a gunshot. He places a hand on Boris’ arm and hopes it's somehow comforting. 

Boris continues. “There were these group meetings. Some for adults, some for teenagers, and some for children. I never thought it would help, really. Shit, I don’t even really know how it began, but slowly things got a little better. After a while my counselor thought some of the more—“ He does finger quotes, “—troubled teens might benefit from animal therapy, or some variation of it. What I do with them is just a little grooming here, some riding occasionally. Things like that. They seem to enjoy it. Now, you need licenses and things, which I did not have. But, I did have a connection to, um—“ He mimics typing on a computer quickly, “—you know. A hacker? From prison. I was trying to stay out of trouble, but this felt important, so a couple weeks later, any record of my stay in Black Dolphin suddenly disappeared, and I had a couple fancy papers saying I was safe to work with children. C’mon, don’t look at me like that. You know I would never let anything happen to them. They are innocent, and like family now. I’m trying to make them family, actually.”

Theo can’t help but wonder what had happened to him in prison. He wonders if part of his PTSD is related to the events in Amsterdam as well. His mind supplies many answers, each one darker than the one before it, and none of them provide any comfort at all. 

“You want them to be yours permanently?”

“Yes, well—” Boris holds hands out in front of him. “I want them. I love them. I want to keep them safe. I know what it feels like to float from one house to another, never knowing where you'll end up. I am working on petition for adoption, because I know what it is to be unwanted. My father tried, sometimes, but he was shit. I can do better."

Theo wants to say I wanted you! He wants to say I should have said so. Instead he remains silent and doesn’t ask anymore questions. They spend the rest of the afternoon out in the corral, taking turns leading the horses in circles, until finally River is laughing and talking with the rest of them, and Theo thinks he could get used to this.

*

sunsets and coffee @heyya

wild that @realtheodecker claims brushstrokes isn’t even REMOTELY autobiographical when my mom went to school with them and one of her friends supposedly dated the boy bahar is based on in high school and apparently theo was literally obsessed with him

4,639 Retweets 13.5 likes

*

The next morning Theo wakes before dawn, unable to go back to sleep. His thoughts immediately drift to Boris who’s asleep in the next room. He feels so full of pent up wanting , but doesn’t know what to do with that wanting. He’s a grown man, a long way and a lot of years away from Las Vegas, but still, the frightened child he was lingers, unable to move or decide or process anything that’s happening.

After an hour of trying to think about anything else, he stumbles out into the hallway in the dark and sticks his head into Boris’ room. From the little bit of light seeping in from a nightlight in the hall, he can see that Boris is still asleep, legs and arms spread out in the middle of his bed, just like he’s always slept, and Theo can’t look at him for too long or he’ll go crazy. Boris has on just a pair of tight gray boxer briefs that cling to him in a very, well, interesting way. Theo can just make out the shape of his cock beneath the fabric, and his own twitches at the sight. He presses a palm down against it. What is happening to him? Is it really just a side effect of their close proximity? Is it his body’s reaction to actually wanting someone he cares for? He feels like a lovesick teenager, and it's not ideal.

He also notices something he’s never seen before on Boris’ body. A large scar runs down his right thigh, ending just below his kneecap. It’s crooked and ugly, like something had slashed him in a hurry. He allows himself another minute to stare, then distractedly continues on to the kitchen, which turns out to be a disaster, because he can’t find anything he actually wants to eat. He fumbles around in the dark, holding his phone out as a source of light. He isn’t surprised at the large peanut butter jar he finds in the pantry, and settles on smearing it over buttered toast. Boris would like that. As he searches for a butter knife, he finds a small tin next to the forks, and peeks inside.

“Oh, fuck yes,” he murmers to himself, pulling a neatly wrapped joint out of the tin. He quickly finds a lighter and settles himself on the countertop. The first hit is divine, and he’s forgotten how much he loves to be stoned. He knows Boris does, too—all those sweaty afternoons out by the pool, passing spliffs back and forth until everything had a tangerine glow to it, and the dumbest things were funny, like Boris’ many impressions of Xandra, or Theo’s own impressions of all the kids they hated at school. 

When Boris finally enters the kitchen, yawning and dragging a ringed hand through his hair, Theo is thoroughly high, and Boris has apparently just showered. His hair hangs down in damp waves, dragging over his bare shoulders. 

“Oh shit,” Boris says, eyeing him. “Turn a light on you freak.” And then, “Oh, you’re high as fuck!”

“Mhmmm.” Theo holds the little bit of the joint that’s left out to him. “Join me?”

“Can’t think of a better way to start my day,” Boris says, smiling and taking a long drag. He blows the smoke out of his nose and slides onto the counter next to Theo, pressing his shoulder into his. Theo stares at his thighs; eyes glued to the scar, and then the black hair on his legs. He likes it. He also likes how his muscles move beneath his skin while he kicks his legs out against Theo’s. There are still drops of water from his shower on his knees. 

When he looks back up, Boris is watching him. Their faces are so close together, as they’ve been a thousand times; heads bent and whispering when they were young or shoulders bumping as they ran down the street, away from the bodies in Amsterdam. Boris licks his lips and Theo’s mouth goes dry.

“Have you ever?” Boris asks, his eyes tracing over Theo’s mouth. Theo isn’t sure what he's asking so he just shrugs. His head feels foggy and his heartbeat, somehow slow, is keeping time with his breaths. The sun is rising, casting a light pink glow over everything. Boris takes another drag and wraps one of his hands around the back of Theo’s neck, pulling him forward until their foreheads are pressed together. Theo can smell him, that same citrus scent mixed with soap, and it’s all he can do to keep breathing regularly when Boris presses his mouth against his. 

He lets out a surprised Oh just as the smoke leaves Boris’ mouth and enters his. He wonders if his lips are chapped, and what Boris is thinking as he holds him there, fingers gently gripping his neck. As his thumb begins dragging lightly at Theo’s nape in small circles, he finally inhales roughly and then immediately begins to cough.

“Sorry, sorry—“ he sputters, and Boris just slaps him hard on the back.

“You are gonna be fucked up now.”

Theo grins weakly. “Yeah, thanks for that.”

Boris hops down from the counter, leaving the moment behind. It clings to Theo, overtaking his every thought. Boris’ lips were surprisingly soft, and in another universe Boris was forever pressing his mouth against his. 

Boris opens the fridge and immediately shuts it again. “Do you want to go for a ride?”

“Now?” Theo asks. He knows, in theory, how to ride a horse. Probably. But his stoned mind is making everything seem impossible.

“Yes, after we dress.”

“Um, okay, yeah.”

He follows Boris down the hall and they go their separate ways into their rooms. Once inside his, Theo pulls on jeans and a t-shirt he’d found in Kitsey’s old apartment. He knows now it was probably one of Cable’s, which somehow made his theft of it all the more sweeter. He hopes it was an item of clothing he wore often and definitely misses. It doesn’t matter how many years pass—Theo still dislikes him.

“C’mon pretty boy,’” Boris says from the hallway.

Theo scoffs and meets him in the kitchen. “You lead the way.”

*

It turns out Boris had not meant a ride on the horses. Instead of the stables, he takes Theo to a shed in the back of the house where he keeps his motorcycle. 

“You have a motorcycle?” Theo asks, dragging a finger over the leather seat. It’s all black, and clean, like it’s been lovingly taken care of. 

“I built her,” Boris says as he nudges the kickstand up with his boot. “Took me almost a year.”

“Wow,” Theo breathes. He knows how intense Boris can get about things. Like reading The Idiot over and over to try and come to terms with what being good will actually get you. Like trying to fuck Kotku all summer to prove—to prove whatever was happening with Theo wasn’t what they both knew it was.

Boris climbs on and pats the little bit of seat left for Theo. He’s never been on a motorcycle, and Boris’ driving skills were never anything to write home about, so he’s hesitant, to say the least. 

“You’re not too high?” Theo still feels like he’s floating; can still feel the ghost of Boris’ fingertips pressing into his skin.

“Never too high,” Boris says seriously, then holds his hand out. “C’mon Potter. Do not be scared.”

It’s enough. Theo takes his hand and climbs onto the bike behind him, wrapping his arms around Boris’ waist.

“Yes, good,” Boris says, starting the engine. “Hold on like that!” he shouts over the roar of it.

Theo can’t imagine letting go. Boris is solid and warm beneath his hands. It’s a balmy day that has them both sweating, and as they leave the shed and make their way across the flat land and into the thicket, Theo tries to take it all in, but can hardly focus on anything besides the heat of Boris’ skin beneath his thin t-shirt. 

They go over a few bumpy areas, following the river through the trees and along a dirt trail, and Theo thinks it’s like being in a Birger Sandzen painting, all golds and greens and blues. The longer they drive, the more calming Theo finds it all, and he understands easily why Boris has chosen this place to be his home. 

The path widens and they enter a large clearing where the river dissects to the south and feeds into a small lake. By the time they stop, Boris’ shirt has ridden up and Theo’s hands are gripping his bare stomach. He can feel his happy trail beneath his fingers. Part of him is fascinated by all of the changes in Boris’ body since they were young. In Amsterdam, and Antwerp too, they’d been almost shy around each other; covered in layers of jackets and scarves and gloves. Boris had changed in the bathroom of his flat, and the only bit of skin Theo saw was his arm as he shot up. 

He wonders what Boris thinks of him now; no longer the scrawny kid drinking too much vodka and wanting to die, and far from the elitist asshole he’d presented himself as ten years ago. Theo found, as he got older, that he didn’t care so much about how he presented himself in social circles. He didn’t fit in with writer types, and usually found himself in the corner at evens, nursing his drink and trying to come up with an excuse to leave early. At home he mostly lounged about in his boxers and old t-shirts from the year he’d spent in college before dropping out to work for Hobie full time. He’s slim, as he’s always been, with sinewy muscles from running, which he does mostly to keep from wandering the city in search of Fentanyl patches. He wonders if Boris likes that in men—if he likes men, in general, or just Theo.

He removes his hands from Boris’ waist and clumsily climbs off the bike. His thoughts shift rapidly, still high even after the long ride, to Boris in prison, and his cellmate turned tattoo artist who had been his only friend. It had to have been intimate, all those long nights in the cold, with nothing to talk about but the past, and with no one to touch, no one to love—

Boris pulls off his shirt and walks toward the lake, kicking off his boots. “This land is a bit holy, you know? The Kiowa tribe thought so. Thought they were born from the trees. Their God taught them to hunt bison. To live from it, and they fucking thrived out here, at least until the settlers came and killed the bison, not even bothering to use every part of them like they should have. Starved the Kiowa right out of the territory, or murdered them outright. Bleeding Kansas is accurate; was long before the Civil War.” He bends down and removes his socks. His pale feet slide in the mud of the bank. Theo wants to place a hand down against the soil; wonders if he might be able to feel the past’s turmoil with his fingers shoved far enough in the dirt. “Lydia is big history buff. Loves the shit. Loves to talk about it. Now I have enough history books lying around to stock a whole library wall.” He shakes his head and laughs fondly. 

“My mother was from here, or not too far from here. She was half Cherokee.”

Boris squints at him. “You lie.”

“No really. Other half Irish. And, you knew my dad, so that's why I'm—”

“So pale?”

“You're one to talk. I bet you'll have third degree burns by the end of the summer.”

“Nyah,” Boris huffs. “Only a farmer’s tan. Now, come,” he beckons with a crooked finger. “This is best time of year.”

“What? You’re going in there?” Theo has never been in a river, or a lake, or any body of water other than the pool at his dad and Xandra’s and the one at Redhook Park Recreation Center where he’d spent an entire summer swimming laps after developing shin splints a couple years ago. 

Boris laughs some more. “Yes, yes! C’mon, Potter. Water is nice.” He’s stripped off his jeans and thrown them in the grass near Theo’s feet. “I bring the horses down here. They love to get in. Come.” Boris wades out further until he’s fully treading water. 

It’s not as if Theo has ever been good at saying no to Boris. He pulls his shirt over his head and steps out of his jeans. “I don’t know—is it cold?”

“Not at all.” 

Theo makes his way down the bank. “It is better to do all at once. Just get in and get used to it,” Boris informs him. Theo can see goosebumps lining his chest and shoulders. His nipples are hard just above the water that laps around him. 

“Okay,” Theo says, taking a large step into the water, and moving until he finds Boris’ outstretched hand. “Jesus fucking—fuck! It’s freezing!” He feels like he’s just stepped into an ice bath.

Boris cackles loudly. “Shhh, come now. Is not bad.”

“Unlike you, I’ve never spent my winters in Siberia.”

“Not Siberia, but close,” Boris laughs some more, and then pulls Theo until they’re chest to chest, both shivering and breathing fast, knees knocking together as they kick their feet. Boris goes under for a moment, and when he comes up for air, his hair is drenched and water drips down over his eyelashes. “This is good way to not be stoned anymore.”

“I’m sure there are better ways,” Theo bites out, but Boris only smiles, and shakes his head like Popchik used to shake his body after escaping the bath, splashing Theo with water from his wet hair.

Theo shoves at his chest and turns to make his way back to dry land, but Boris catches hold of his wrist and pulls him back, close again. So close their thighs and chests are meeting again, and Theo can feel the outline of Boris’ cock against his own beneath their boxers. Theo’s entire body is wracked by a shiver, and Boris slides his hands up and down his sides in an effort to still him. 

“See, not so bad,” Boris says, and then kisses him, finishing what he’d left unfinished so long ago. It isn’t the quick and chaste press of lips they’d shared in Vegas. It isn’t the urgent, lust filled kiss of the beginning of a one night stand Theo’s so familiar with. It’s curious, yet needy, and Theo gasps as he opens his mouth to let Boris’ tongue slide in, prodding and exploring all it can. Their hands, however, have the same awkwardness of their youth, moving over each other in a rush. Boris’ hands slide down from his sides and grip his ass, pulling him somehow closer, even though there’s nowhere else for Theo to go. He moves his thigh forward, pressing it between Boris’ legs and he groans, eyes popping open to ask, without saying anything at all, You want this, yes? Theo smirks against his mouth, because Yes! Because Finally!

Theo slides a wet hand up Boris’ neck and into his hair. He groans again, then begins moving his hips against Theo’s thigh, and that’s—fuck, it’s so good. He surges forward and begins to kiss up and down the pale skin of Boris’ collarbone. He wants so much he doesn’t know where to begin, but he likes the sounds Boris makes as he tugs at his hair again.

“You keep doing that and I cannot be held responsible—“ Boris goes silent and stills beneath Theo’s hands. “Ah, shit. Hold on.”

Theo cranes his neck to look behind them at where Boris is staring. Lydia, Jamie, and River are atop their chosen horses a few yards from where the river meets the lake, staring at them curiously. 

Theo lets his hands fall away and Boris pulls back a couple of inches, dragging a hand through his hair where Theo’s had just been. “Shit,” he murmurs, blinking up at the sun. “Potter, do you know the time?”

Theo has no idea. He’d given up on time the moment Boris kissed him. “Um, no.”

“Shit, shit, shit,” Boris continues to mutter as he swims around Theo, then makes his way out of the water to the muddy embankment. 

Theo presses a palm against himself beneath the water and wills his erection to go away. After a minute or so he follows Boris to where his clothes are scattered. They dress quickly, not saying anything as the teens continue to stare.

“You know you shouldn’t be riding without me,” Boris says evenly as he approaches them. Theo stands just behind him and stares pointedly at his feet. 

“You weren’t there so we thought we should, um, look for you?” River says, shrugging. 

“Yeah,” Lydia agrees. “We thought maybe something had happened to you. You’re always there.”

Theo’s heart feels heavy as Boris’ words come back to him. Bet you have a big fancy bed and you sleep right in the middle of it all by yourself. What good is that? Boris with his books and his gigantic kitchen just for him and his bike he’d built from scratch and his stray teenagers who he let take care of his horses to help with their trauma. What about his trauma? Who took care of him?

Boris holds a hand out to rub against Dushkova’s cheek. “Yes, well, I have a guest, as you know, and I wanted to show him the land.” 

“Seems like you wanted to show him something else,” Jamie quips, shaking away blonde strands of hair that have fallen over his eyes, a movement so reminiscent of teenaged Boris that Theo almost laughs. 

River reaches out to punch his arm and Jamie just shrugs. 

“Both of you shut the fuck up,” Lydia chimes in. Theo realizes with a start that she’s beaming between him and Boris. 

“Well, I—” Boris starts, but Lydia just waves his words away. 

“Can we keep riding?”

“Yes, fine. We’ll follow you back to the stables.”

As they get back on the bike, Theo wills his hands to stay still around Boris’ waist, but they shake as he shivers against the wind on the ride back, their wet clothes clinging to them both.

“Those fucking kids are gonna kill me, Potter,” Boris says as he closes and locks the shed on their return. He doesn’t look upset, though. If anything, he watches them bicker in the corral with complete and utter endearment on his face. 

It’s a good look on him. There are a lot of things, Theo knows, that look good on Boris, especially the pink flush that had risen up his chest as he’d rocked against Theo’s thigh. It was familiar and brand new all at once and Theo wants to know what else he’ll discover if they ever manage to get past the walls they put up so long ago; the walls they both seem to be still cowering behind. 

Theo feels something desperate envelop him. He remembers wanting so badly to tell Boris it wasn’t anything when they were young, but now he wants the complete opposite. He wants to pull him back, flush against him, and tell him it means everything. 

But, even if he did, would it matter? Kansas is a long way from his apartment in Brooklyn, and he’d never ask Boris to leave the life he’s worked so hard to maintain, free from hunger and the lack of love that defined his childhood. In reality, what changes could Theo realistically make to fit himself into Boris’ world? Does he even want him there longer than the two weeks they’d planned for?

He bites his lip and watches as Boris helps Lydia down from Alchuk. She saunters over to the fence and leans against, fiddling on her phone while Boris leads the mare back to the stables and returns with Nietzsche. The stallion pulls and bucks against the line as Boris brings him out, only calming after the other horses are returned and Boris holds out a handful of sugarcubes to him. 

Theo enters the corral, unsure of himself, and leans against the fence next to where Jamie and River have joined Lydia, all three of them preoccupied with their phones until he comes up. He shoves his hands in his pockets and watches Boris. He’d left his phone inside that morning, his stoned mind forgetful as always. 

“Is it true you and Boris used to live in Las Vegas?” Jamie asks, peering up at him.

Theo smiles, thinking of Boris snapping a black umbrella open over their heads beneath the desert heat. “Yeah, I met him when I was thirteen and he was fourteen. He was pretty much my only friend the entire time I lived there, even though he was completely insane.”

River smiles at that. “Is it true you guys used to steal shit?”

Theo frowns. “He told you about that?”

“After I got arrested for shoplifting, yeah,” Jamie admits. “It’s also in your book.”

Christ. 

“Oh, well—yeah. We were what you’d call latchkey kids. Our home lives weren’t the best and we didn’t really know how to take care of ourselves so we stole candy bars and soda most of the time.” He leaves out how Boris had sometimes gone days on nothing but vodka and sugar bread. All bones and shadows beneath his eyes.

“He said that, too. That’s why he gave me such a hard time for stealing a video game. ‘What do you need that for? Not as if you will die without it. Piss poor thinking on your part if you ask me!’” Jamie says, doing an almost perfect mimic of Boris’ accent.

Lydia grins down at her phone. “Your accents are shit.”

“Are not.”

River stares at Theo. “Why have you never visited until now? Boris said you haven't seen each other in over a decade.”

Theo drags a hand through his hair. “I didn’t know where he was, exactly, to be honest.”

“You must not be that good of friends then.”

It stings, but Theo just shrugs it off. Friends had never been the right word to describe what they were. “The last time we saw each other was—” he tries to think of the right way to describe Amsterdam without giving away any of the gory details. “—It was intense, and I think we both needed some time to ourselves.”

Besides, Boris had gone to prison, just as Theo had let his loneliness build a cell around him. 

River still eyes him suspiciously. “He's never had anyone visit until you.”

Really? No one? Theo wonders about Mr. Pavlikovsky and realizes he doesn’t even know if he’s still alive or not. 

“I'm honored.”

“You should be,” Lydia cuts in. “He's legitimately the coolest adult we know.”

Theo has a feeling that isn’t saying much but he lets her have it. “You should have seen him at your age. He wore leather bracelets and called our classmates twats.”

The three teens stare at him in unison, mouths slightly open.

“To their faces?” River asks.

“Mhmm. That’s how we became friends. Nothing brings people together more than joint hatred.”

Lydia nods, laughing. “That’s pretty true.”

“Yeah,” River agrees. “That’s why we’re friends. We all hate Rich.”

“Who’s Rich?” Theo asks, recalling the name from their first meeting, and Boris’ frown at whatever Lydia had told him. He looks between them.

“He’s the program director where we live.”

“He’s a douche.”

“He picks on Lydia,” Jamie says, with a sigh of resignation. “He takes her things and hides them whenever she talks back, which isn’t even that often. He once wouldn’t even give her tampons when—“

Lydia slaps a hand over his mouth. “Stop. Please, just—“

Anger rips through Theo’s body. Who the fuck does this guy think he is? How can he mistreat the children he’s meant to be protecting? He clenches and unclenches his fists at his sides. If he was this upset, having only known Lydia, Jamie, and River for less than a week, he can’t imagine where Boris stands on the subject.

“That’s not okay,” he says finally. “He should be fired.”

“We agree,” River mumbles.

“There’s not much we can do about it,” Jamie adds. “Other than make his life hell. Which we’re getting pretty good at.”

Theo smiles at that, but still feels completely unsettled. 

Just then Boris leads Nietzsche over and quirks an eyebrow up at them. 

“Potter, would you like to try?” he asks as he holds out the reins.

Nietzsche stares at Theo, unblinking. A sharp zing of panic shoots through him. He’s terrified of the animal, but Boris looks at him expectantly, and all he can do is reach for the reins.

“We’ll go slow,” Boris says, placing a hand against the small of his back to push him forward, leading the stallion as they go. They make a couple of rounds around the corral with the three teens offering words of encouragement every time they pass them. Theo tries to focus on what he’s doing, but Boris’ hand remains on him, comforting and distracting all at once. 

“Seems like he likes you more than me,” Boris huffs in feigned jealousy when Nietzsche nudges Theo’s shoulder at one point after he stops to wave goodbye to the kids, as Boris keeps affectionately calling them, when a white van pulls up and honks, causing them to all shout their goodbyes and run over to it, trying to trip each other and throwing lackluster punches to rib cages as they go. 

“I’m sure,” Theo says, still uneasy with the whole situation. His knowledge of animals is minimal to say the least. Popchik was the only creature he’d ever really been in close proximity with, and he was nothing compared to the stubborn animal he’s now mere inches away from.

“No, really! Took me weeks to get him to even let me do what you are doing now.”

Theo stares after the van as it leaves a trail of dust in its wake and drives off the property. “So they all live together?”

“Yeah. Group home in Wichita. That’s where my trauma counseling was. Still go there if I start feeling really bad. Big ugly building in the city. No joy in that place, at least not like here.”

Theo swallows down the lump in his throat, remembering viscerally his fear after his father died of ending up in a place like that. How he’d been insistent upon leaving, begging Boris to come with him, and eventually leaving him alone with nothing but his father’s rage and Xandra’s pity and a newfound taste for cocaine.

He’s wondered often over the years what would have happened if he’d stayed. Maybe Xandra’s pity would have extended to him and the little bit of Larry that made him. Maybe they’d have had more summers together, tucked beneath black umbrellas in the sun or dirty blankets in the harsh cold from the forever on air conditioner. Maybe they would have moved on from drunken fumblings to something more, although his brain stumbles over what that more could have been, almost always short circuiting at the thought.

“That Rich guy sounds like a real piece of shit,” Theo says, trying to get a grip on how Boris feels about the whole thing.

“Fucking sadist,” he says, spitting in the dirt in disgust, his eyes flashing with anger. “I’ve been trying to get them out of there, but it’s a lot harder than I thought. Paperwork and meetings drive me crazy. It is never ending, but they are worth it.”

Of course Boris wants to save them. Of course he’s trying to get them out. Theo had wanted to do the same for him, after he’d seen the true horror he’d been subjected to at his father’s hands. “I’m glad they can get a reprieve here,” he says quietly, still violently aware of Boris’ hand, never wavering from it’s spot on the small of his back.

Boris hums in agreement. “Yes, is good for me as well.”

They walk in silence after that, circling the corral until the sun begins to set, casting golden light over them both.

*

They start drinking as soon as they finish dinner, which consists of hastily thrown together grilled cheese sandwiches since they’re both starving and each unwilling to put any real effort into the meal; their awareness of each other and what had conspired earlier in the day seemingly weighing on them both.

Boris falls into an armchair in the living room after placing the Stoli and two shot glasses on the coffee table. He pulls it forward, heels sliding against the hardwood, until he’s close enough to lean down and pour them shots that are messy and overflowing.

Theo takes his gratefully, hitting his glass against Boris’, the vodka spilling onto both of their hands as he does so and they smile at each other in the dim light of a lamp in the corner.

After the bottle is half gone and they’re both happily buzzed, he leans back against the couch with a content sigh. He watches Boris hum to himself from where he’s sprawled back in the armchair, one leg crossed over the other, relaxed and flushed from the booze. He’s just wrapped up a lengthy rant about global warming (“If I were you, Potter, I'd get the hell out of the city. The rising water on the coast will get to you sooner or later.”), and moves his foot back and forth to the song he hums. Theo stares at his ankle, pale and slipping out from beneath his dark jeans.

“Milen'kiy ty moy,” Boris starts singing as he reaches for more vodka. “Voz'mi menya s soboy! Tam v krayu dalekom. Budu tebe chuzhoy.”

“What’s that?” Theo asks, peering at him from the couch. He can make out something about a faraway land and a stranger.

“Russian drinking song. One of my dad’s favorites,” Boris explains. “Oh, my darling, take me with you! There in a different country you’ll be but a stranger.” He continues on in Russian. “Milaya moya, vzyal by ya tebya. No tam, v krayu dalekom, chuzhaya ty mne ne nuzhna.” Then for Theo’s benefit, “Oh, my darling, I’d take you! But, there in a different country, I don’t need a stranger.” He laughs then takes another shot. 

“I like it.”

“Of course you do. You love all of that sappy bullshit.”

Theo wants to remind Boris that his favorite song when they were young was Dear Prudence, but decides against it.

“Yeah, guess I do.”

“Potter?” Boris asks suddenly, the song apparently over. “Can I tell you a secret?

“Yeah, of course.”

Boris leans forward, intensely serious. “That night when I called you, and we—I wasn’t sober.”

Theo doesn’t know what he was expecting, but this is far from whatever it was.

A laugh bursts out of him. “Neither was I.”

Boris seems to relax at that. “Well, the thing is—“

“Yeah?”

“Fuck, let me just say this. Jesus, Potter. You are such an impatient fucker.”

Theo just laughs some more. He likes to wind Boris up. There’s always been an innate pleasure in making Boris get so heated he flies off the handle.

“As I was saying,” he goes on, swirling the vodka in his glass. “The thing is, well, that night, on the phone, I'd had many drinks and was staring at the photo of you in that magazine.” Theo’s face immediately heats. “The one of you naked with The fucking Idiot, of all things, between your legs," Boris admits, and drags a hand over his face with a look close to despair. "Christ, were you trying to get to me? If so, it worked. I thought, wow, Potter must really have my number. I thought, my god, I know what is beneath that book. I've touched what he is hiding. The first hands to ever, as a matter of fact, and I was so hard. Never been that hard in my life, I will admit, and I have had many lovers, but my mind always goes to you. Is that pathetic? Maybe so, but I did not care. Why should I care?”

“What?” Theo sputters. He never thought—he never imagined, all those months ago when he’d moodily gone through the motions of the photoshoot, that it would lead him to this moment, suspended in time, with his mouth open slightly at Boris’ words, and Boris staring at him from where he’s somehow slouched down even further into his armchair. 

“You write this beautiful fucking book and yet you are still so stupid. Jesus, Potter. Open your fucking eyes. Did you really think I wouldn’t catch on? That I am so naive to never realize what that book was?”

“What was it?” Theo asks, not really wanting to know the answer.

“A love letter,” Boris says simply. 

Theo cringes inwardly as he remembers the months of Boris and Kotku, riding the CAT bus in the middle of the night, high on too many Xanax and trying not to think of the nights when he and Boris would pass out together, spines touching. How he’d written Henry doing the same thing after Bahar had gotten his first girlfriend. How he’d poured everything he’d never said to Boris into that stupid fucking book, and then it’d been published, and had made his life a living hell since. But this. This is a different kind of hell. 

He thinks of Pippa, and how obsessed he’d been, but it was nothing like this. It was made up; a fairytale he’d tried to will to be true, and failed spectacularly. 

He thinks of Boris, coked up out of his mind, kissing him quickly because he was leaving in a rush, all the while hiding The Goldfinch in his locker at school. He doesn’t know how to define love, really. Was it meeting and meeting and meeting again? Was it bloodied lips pressed against the bloodied knuckles that made them that way and easy forgiveness? Did it span state lines, or bounce from continent to continent on red eye flights? Was there love in a phone charger tightened hastily around a wounded arm in the dark? Theo has no idea.

“What do you want me to say?” Theo asks, suddenly embarrassed. He stares over at Boris who stares right back at him. 

“Theo,” he whispers as he slides down from the armchair to the floor in one liquid movement. Theo’s breath catches at the sound of his name, instead of the usual Potter, and his mouth falls open even more when Boris begins to crawl across the floor to him. He arrives at his knees and presses his face against one, nudging them apart so he can slot himself easily between them. 

“You are still so sad. Lonely, even here with me,” he murmurs, looking up at Theo through his dark eyelashes.

“Aren’t you lonely, too?”

“I am. But, unlike you, I know there are ways around this loneliness.”

He sounds so sure of himself, even on his knees. Theo reaches out to cup his cheek, dragging his thumb over Boris’ bottom lip. He pushes into the touch immediately, like an overly friendly cat, and it’s all too much. They don’t do this. Do they?

“Show me then,” Theo urges. He’s half hard already.

That’s all it takes for Boris to part his lips and suck Theo’s thumb into his mouth. Theo gasps and stares down at him. His hair has fallen over his eyes, and he shakes it out of the way, blinking up at Theo. 

Theo nods, then pulls his hand away only so he can run it through Boris’ hair, which causes him to let out a soft sigh. 

They look at each other in silent agreement of what they both want, and Boris straightens up, just enough to reach up and undo the button of Theo's jeans. The drag of his zipper seems to fill the whole room, and then Boris pulls at his jeans until they’re sliding down over his thighs. He presses his cheek against the fabric of his boxers. 

Theo runs a hand nervously through Boris’ hair, gripping it loosely in his fist. Boris grins up at him sheepishly, and Theo's heart flutters in his chest. He looks so young, and Theo is sure he's seen that look before—the first time they'd ever fooled around, wasted and wrestling on his bedroom floor. Boris had been on top of him, chest heaving and smirking at the fact that he had Theo's arms pinned above his head. Theo had surged up, pissed that he was about to probably get a knee to the crotch or a fist to the stomach, but the room had been spinning, and in lifting his hips he'd pressed against Boris’ bony ones, and a hardness there had met his own. 

In what seems like lifetimes away from that moment, Boris groans as Theo tightens his grip on his hair and gives it a sharp tug. Something in him is still waiting for a slap or a kick. He’s not sure if they'll ever be able to really touch each other without anticipating violence. 

But, there’s no going back when Boris drags his hand over Theo's cock, squeezing it through the fabric. Theo lifts his hips so Boris can pull his jeans and boxers off in one go, nails scratching lightly at his skin as he does so. 

“Just don’t hold my head down,” Boris says, and then without preamble or grace, before Theo can analyze the words too deeply, Boris takes his cock into his mouth, and Theo’s head falls back against the couch with a soft thud. 

Time stills and quickens, depending on what Boris does with his mouth, and Theo finds himself seeking out an anchor, anything to latch onto, as he comes undone. He focuses on Boris’ hands first, until he catches that while one is still gripping Theo's thigh, the other has slipped into his jeans and is moving in rhythm with his mouth. His eyes dart, landing on the glow of fireflies outside as they bounce between the trees in the dark. 

Theo throws an arm over his eyes and moans. It’s too much all at once; so different than anything he's ever done, and the air leaves the room every time he bucks his hips up to meet Boris’ mouth. 

“Boris,” he groans, and Boris hums around him. “Boris—Boris, fuck. Come up here.” He pulls his hair hard until finally his mouth pops off of Theo's cock obscenely.

Boris licks his lips. He look debauched with his wild hair and pupils blown wide in the low light. “Better than I imagined,” he says with a devilish grin, and then they both begin to laugh.

“Yeah?” Theo’s insanely curious about what it’s like to suck another man off. He figures he’ll probably find out soon enough. 

“Yes, well—“ Boris stands and pulls his shirt off, tossing it across the room, then slips his jeans down over his thighs and steps out of them. The scar stands out against his pale skin; a red, angry thing. They’d each taken a shower before dinner, and apparently he hadn’t bothered with underwear, Theo notices with interest as Boris stands there naked as the day he was born, with one eyebrow raised at Theo, almost in defiance. Theo sees through it immediately in the way his lips are pursed, and how he seems to be trying not to breathe as hard as he wants to, and suddenly he’s filled with urgent, hot shame for how he’s behaved for so many years. He’d always been terrified at the big ugly truth about himself, and maybe Boris had seen that every time they’d rolled over to face each other in the morning light, both knowing what they’d done under cover of darkness, but unwilling to say it out loud. Maybe he'd seen it in his misguided obsession with Pippa, and his failed engagement to Kitsey. It was definitely clear in the scrape of Theo's chair at that club in Queens as he’d tried to leave when Boris had brought it up after eight years apart. 

Theo knows he’d been a coward in those pivotal moments, especially when Boris had said you are the only boy I have ever been in bed with… 

He’d refused to see it for what it really was: an olive branch. He could be brave now, he told himself. Because, while he was terrified of what it meant that they always came back to this; to each other in whatever messy and fucked up ways they could, it was also the simplest thing he’s ever done. The truth was that Boris was easy to touch. Easy to love, even. He always had been. 

Theo sits up and drags his eyes over Boris’ body in what he hopes Boris will recognize as complete and utter approval. And want. And need.

“Fuck, Boris. Look at you... I really want to touch you. Can you just come here already?”

Boris nods. “Okay,” he says, taking three steps toward him. He climbs over Theo until he’s straddling him, each thigh bracketing Theo’s own. Theo runs his hands over them, his thumb grazing over the gnarled flesh of the scar. Boris lowers his head so his lips are touching the shell of Theo’s ear. “But, if you do not mind,” he whispers, breath hot, “I’d like to see you come. For old times’ sake.”

Theo’s mouth twists into a smile and he lets out a shaky breath. “God, okay.” 

They both reach for each other at the same time, hands knocking together as they do so, and when Boris smiles at that, Theo loses all sensible thought he has left. It isn't as strange as he thought it would be to reach down and take Boris’ cock in his hand. It isn't strange at all to feel the smooth skin of him—to spit into his own hand and wrap it around him and move it up and down, the way he likes to do to himself when he’s alone. And by the sounds Boris makes, he seems to be doing something right. It isn't strange to grip Boris’ ass and pull him impossibly close as he rocks forward, thighs quivering around Theo’s. It isn't anything at all but everything in the entire world. There’s nothing else but Boris’ mouth on him, tongue licking over his own. They kiss like wild things; a gnashing almost, until they’re finally just panting into each other’s mouths. Boris can't seem to make up his mind; pulling back for a second to grin, then pressing his mouth against Theo’s jugular, a little bit of teeth just there, and that’s definitely good. 

Boris’ hand quickens its pace, and Theo can only stare, slack jawed and in awe, at him. Boris never looks away. Neither of them seem to want to miss a single second of what’s happening, and when Boris comes, shuddering and gripping the back of Theo’s neck tightly with his other hand, Theo is looking into his eyes. Boris never slows the hand that’s pulling Theo closer and closer to the edge, except to smear it with his own come, then continue his efforts. It's filthy, and sends Theo over with a gasp and a muffled fuck as he presses his face into Boris’ sweat sheened shoulder. 

They disentangle, only for a moment, until Boris stands and starts walking towards his bedroom. Theo watches him go, staring openly at the lean lines of his back; at his ass, which he thinks is quite nice, if he's being honest. Without turning around, Boris calls, “C'mon, Potter. I'm fucking wrecked.”

And so he goes, following Boris into his bedroom. Boris enters the bathroom and returns with a wet washcloth which he drags over his stomach and now soft cock, and then without hesitation, does the same to Theo with a gentleness Theo hadn't expected. He smiles at him as he cleans him off, and this is a new smile; an intimate smile filled with meaning. The copy of Brushstrokes is now on the nightstand, Theo notices, as they climb into bed, elbows and knees knocking as they turn to face each other. 

Boris notices him looking at it and shoves him in the shoulder. “They never did what we just did,” he says, looking smug. 

“Like I said, it’s all purely subtextual.”

“Bullshit.” And then, “Not anymore.”

Theo feels lighter than he’s felt in years. “No, I guess not anymore.”

They fall into a comfortable silence as Boris turns to dig through his nightstand drawer and then returns to lie on his back while lighting a cigarette. The orange glow from the cherry lights his face in the dark. 

“You're different,” Theo says, reaching out to drag his hand over Boris’ ribs. His thumb slides over a dark nipple and Boris shivers.

“I am not so young, Potter, if you are thinking of going again.”

Theo laughs and continues touching him. He has no intentions of another round; just likes the feel of Boris beneath his hand. His tattoos are a blurry mess in the dark; an inky Rorschach of all the years they've been apart. 

They pass the cigarette between them, neither of them saying much of anything as they do so. Theo thinks there probably isn’t much to say, until Boris breaks the silence with a whispered, “Maybe I am different. Or, maybe, you have never let yourself really see me as I have always been.”

Theo plucks the cigarette from his fingers and takes a final drag before reaching over him to stub it out into a tin ashtray on the nightstand. Before he can fall back onto the bed next to Boris, he stops to bury his head into the crook of his neck, breathing in his scent, now mostly just cigarettes and sweat. He likes it; likes that it’s so distinctly Boris. He thinks of some of his past, distracted and hurried fumblings with women; how he’d always hated the smell and taste of perfume on their necks; how he’d never stayed long enough to lay next to them in their beds, opting instead to duck out right after coming to go straight home and sleep alone.

“You’re probably right,” he says, lips against Boris’ ear. 

They fall asleep soon after, and when Theo wakes in the middle of the night, Boris is curled around him, forming a half moon in the middle of the bed.

Chapter Text

“Henry watched as Bahar slid against the wall of the gallery, blood smearing over Monet’s water lilies as he went. He flinched at the sight, and then, not really realizing what he was doing, surged forward on his knees to pull the gun from the thick necked mobster’s hand as he stood over Bahar. He thought of nothing as he aimed the thing, which he had no idea how to handle, at the man’s head, and then pulled the trigger. The shock of it sent Henry reeling backwards as the man fell forward, his head, or what was left of it, falling into Bahar’s lap. 

Bahar looked down at him with wide eyes, then quickly shoved him away and scrambled to his feet.

When he reached Henry, all he could do was pull him violently to his feet, and they staggered to the hallway and out the back door, judgemental eyes of the paintings that lined the walls seeming to follow them until the door slammed behind them.”

“Bit on the nose,” Boris says, plopping the book down on his lap.

“Not if you really took care of everything like you said you did,” Theo says, raising his eyes from the article he’d been reading on his phone. 

Boris scoffs. “You know I did.”

“Yeah, while leaving me in the dark for days.”

“Oh, I am so sorry you had to lounge about your hotel while I fixed the entire mess.”

“Who’s mess was that again?” Theo asks with a frown, then stares back down at his phone, but he’s lost his place.

“Jesus fucking christ,” Boris mumbles. “Get over here.”

Theo looks up in surprise. “Why?”

“Are you always so difficult?”

“You tell me,” he says, but he stands from the chair he’d been sitting in at the table and joins Boris on the couch. 

Boris studies his face, then brings a hand up to grip Theo’s chin. He kisses him roughly, and Theo leans into it. He genuinely can’t believe there was a time when they didn’t do this, since now it’s all he can think about. They’ve spent the last three days shoving each other into corners and against counters and tables to press their bodies together and kiss until their lips are raw.

“I have to go to Wichita today,” Boris says as his mouth moves down Theo’s jaw. “Come with me?”

“What for?” Theo gasps as Boris nips at his neck.

“I have a meeting. For the adoption.”

“Oh, yeah. Okay then,” Theo says, but his mind is elsewhere as Boris’ hand creeps up his shirt.

*

The ride is nice enough, and Theo likes the way they whip past old farms and fields of corn on Boris’ motorcycle. He goes fast, but he’s not reckless, and Theo can only hold onto his waist tightly as until they reach an old, worn down brick building on the outskirts of the city.

“Hate this place,” Boris says as he removes his helmet. Theo can understand why. It looks soulless, and he hates the thought of Jamie, River, and Lydia spending their days here instead of with Boris and his horses. 

They sign in at a shabby front desk. The woman behind it, her name tag reads Paula, flirts unashamedly with Boris as he waits, leaning against the desk.

“Lydia and the boys haven’t shut up about your guest since Monday,” she says, eyeing Theo with disdain. “Old friend?”

Her Aquanet infused hair seems to wilt when Boris slides an arm around Theo’s waist. Theo tries to hide his shock at the easy display of affection

“From my childhood,” he says, staring at the door behind her. “Can I go in now?”

She nods curtly and presses a button beneath the desk. Boris smiles at her, but it’s all teeth, and she busies herself with a stack of paper. He gives Theo a wink, then says, “Shouldn’t be long, Potter. Go sit.”

Theo waits in an uncomfortable plastic chair for two hours. Outside the weather has turned for the worst, and he’s not sure how they’re going to make it back to the house once large bits of hail start hammering the building. Theo stares out the window, then at Paula, then back out the window.

“Um,” he says, trying to get her attention. “Do you think it’s safe for us to get back to Kiowa in this?”

She stares at him. “It’s tornado season. You can always tell when the sky goes from blue to green like that.” 

She softens at the look of terror on his face. “I’m sure you could make it to the Hyatt without too much trouble.”

Theo thanks her and tries to calm his nerves. He wonders what’s taking so long. Boris had said it was just a quick meeting to go over some paperwork, but every minute that goes by without him walking back through the door behind Paula’s desk has Theo more and more on edge.

Another twenty minutes pass, and then there’s a commotion behind the door, and it swings open. Boris rushes out, trailed by a skeezy looking man in khakis and a polo. Boris, in a fury, yells to Theo, “Let’s fucking go!” and Theo stands immediately and heads for the door. The khaki’d man reaches for Boris’ arm to stop him from leaving, and Boris whips around and presses a hand firmly against his chest.

“Do not ever touch me,” he says through gritted teeth, and the man holds his hands up.

“This is why you won’t get them,” the man says, but he’s smiling as he says it.

“That is not for you to decide, Rich,” Boris answers, and Theo can see that he’s visibly shaking.

“Maybe not,” the man, Rich, answers as he pries Boris’ hand off of him. “But, Lydia’s grandparents aren’t going to sign her over to you, and there’s nothing you can do about that.”

Boris’ clenched hand falls to his side in defeat, and Theo rushes to him and tugs at the back of his faded jean jacket. “Boris, c’mon,” he says, urging him to leave with him.

Boris reaches behind him to grab Theo’s hand, but doesn’t swat him away. “Fine,” he says, but the word is watery and awful and Theo doesn’t know what else to do but pull him toward the door.

“If I find she has not been allowed showers because of this—“ Boris threatens as they step outside and into the storm, “—I’ll fucking kill you!”

Theo hopes Rich hasn’t heard him over the winds that are now roaring around them. The door slams with a satisfying thud, and Boris pulls out of Theo’s grip and goes to the motorcycle immediately, pulling their helmets from the back satchel and slamming his down on his head.

Theo doesn’t say anything, except that there’s apparently a Hyatt nearby, and they somehow manage to traverse the slick roads, against the wind and hail, to find it.

Boris shakes the entire way, and only nods and grunts at the concierge as they check in. When they get to their room he’s shaking so bad he can’t get the keycard in the slot, so Theo takes it from him gently, then follows him into the room. He hadn’t thought, when they’d been kissing like teenagers on the couch that morning, that this was how the day would end up.

“What the fuck happened in there?” Theo asks, slumping to sit on the edge of the bed. 

Boris stares at the wall behind Theo’s head. “Lydia’s grandmother. She does not want her, but she does not want me to have her, either.”

Theo nods. “Okay. You can fight that, right?”

Boris shakes his head, seeming to deflate. “It is not so easy. There are things from my past that make it hard. Things that could not be erased. But, she is no angel herself.”

“Well, that’s something, isn’t it?” Theo pats the space next to him on the bed. Boris sits, then stands immediately.

“It is all bullshit,” he says, pacing the room. “I can give them a good home. I can provide. I can love them. It is not good enough, though. Why is it not good enough?”

Theo doesn’t know. “I don’t know, but I think you need to get a lawyer to help you with this. Let me find one for you. I can help.”

Boris sneers at him. “I don’t need your fucking help. I haven’t needed anything from you since Amsterdam.”

Theo flinches at the words and the anger behind them. He knows Boris has done everything for himself since getting out of prison, but he’d thought—he doesn’t know what he’d thought. He only has another week with him and then he’s going to go back to Brooklyn and this will all just be some fever dream of a trip. He’ll write another book and Boris will be here, alone, but hopefully, eventually with the kids. What help can Theo really give, when it comes down to it?

“Look—“ he starts, but Boris goes into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him. The shower turns on soon after, and Theo waits. After a few minutes, however, he can’t stand it, and he pushes open the door. 

The whole room is filled with steam, and Boris’ wet clothes are in a pile in the corner. From behind the almost translucent curtain, Theo can make out the shape of Boris, facing the wall of the shower, head bent and back heaving with sobs. Theo pulls his soaked shirt and jeans off and slides the shower curtain over just enough to step in behind Boris. He goes to wrap his hands around Boris’ waist, not expecting Boris to jump at the touch. He turns so quickly Theo nearly slips, catching himself on the shower rod which slides dangerously a couple of inches from where it had been. He knows instantly he's made a mistake. Boris’ eyes are blank as he swings wildly, fist connecting with Theo’s nose with a sickening crack. Theo stumbles back, this time actually slipping against the slick porcelain, and falls against the shower wall. He grunts, reaching up to touch his nose, and comes away with bloody fingers. 

There’s that violence he’d been waiting for. It’s not as exhilarating as it was when they were young, constantly throwing punches at the mildest of remarks. It feels awful after knowing how soft Boris’ hands can be when he wants them to. 

“Oh fuck,” Boris says, recoiling at the sight of Theo slouched down against the tile with blood streaming down his face. “Oh fuck. Theo, oh shit.” He drops to his knees, reaching out to examine the damage he’s done. “Jesus, I did not mean to—I thought you were—“ he begins to sob, and Theo reaches a hand out to pull him down against him. 

“It’s okay,” he says as hot water sprays his face. It almost feels good against what he knows is his now broken nose. This is the second broken nose he’s had, and it’s almost funny to him that both were done by Boris. The first had been an accidental elbow during a particularly spirited bit of rough housing after they’d sniffed glue for an entire afternoon. Xandra had been pissed, and hadn’t let Boris into the house for a whole week after.

Boris’ sobs continue, and Theo hates it. The last time he’d seen him cry was in that hotel room in Amsterdam where Theo had tried to kill himself. It’s not a memory he likes to think about often. 

“Boris, please. It’s okay. I’m okay.”

Boris looks at him in agony. “I—I don’t know what happened. I never heard you come in, and I—“

Theo stands and pulls Boris up with him. There’s water pooling at the bottom of the tub, and it’s tinged pink from Theo’s blood. He reaches behind Boris and turns off the faucet, then grabs a washcloth from the towel stand just outside and holds it to his nose. Boris lets him wrap a towel around both of their waists and lead him back to the bed. 

By the time the bleeding has stopped, Boris is shaking again, but this time it’s from the AC blasting them both with ice cold air. The sheets are cool as Theo pulls them from where they’re tucked beneath the mattress, and they slide under them; Boris casting concerned looks at Theo as he settles into the bed.

“Potter, I have to tell you—“

Theo cuts him off. “I shouldn’t have crept up on you like that.”

“No, this is important,” Boris says with earnest. “This you should know.” Boris presses two fingers against the tender skin of Theo's nose. He pulls the washcloth, now drenched with blood, away and tosses it on the floor. The flow of blood has stopped, but Theo knows they'll have to apologize for the sheets. He couldn't care less.

“Okay,” he says, placing his hand over Boris’. “Tell me.”

“This is not easy,” Boris begins. He takes a deep breath and stares at the ceiling. “When I say I was in prison with monsters, I really mean the worst of the worst. And, they had it out for Luka, my cellmate which I told you about. They knew what he was in for, and that made him a target.” Theo stares at the goldfinch over Boris’ heart that was put there by Luka. Boris clears his throat, clearly struggling to continue. “I could not always protect him. I—I could not always be where he was.”

“Boris, I—”

Boris inhales deeply. “When they became tired of him, they came for me.”

Something coils, angry and frustrated, deep in Theo's chest.

“For a very long time I was able to fend them off,” Boris continues. Hail slams against the glass as the storm rages on outside their window, the sky a mottled purple. “But, they—fuck, Potter. They found me alone in the showers. Came up behind me and one put his arms around my waist, like—” Theo nods as understanding washes over him. “Three nazi cunts, much bigger than me, and I did not think I could fight them off, because one, the biggest and ugliest of them, had fashioned himself a shiv out of a sharpened toothbrush, and he had it against my back as they shoved me to my knees. Jesus, Theo. Please don't look like that. I cannot tell you when you look like that.”

Theo swallows down the bile that has been slowly rising in his throat and tries to maintain his composure. 

Boris stares back up at the ceiling as he continues. “There is nothing kind about what they tried to do to me, but what kills me is they had already done much worse to Luka, so part of me thought, well, if I can be their victim this time, at least it is not him. But, I was also not willing to not give them fucking hell, and so although they had me there, with my head held down ready to—” he pauses and gives Theo a meaningful look. “Well, I decided I would have to go a little crazy on them. The one holding me down kept slamming my head against the wall, and I was close to passing out, but when he got his pants off, that was the only moment I knew I would get, so I bit into his thigh as hard as I could and ripped as much of his flesh away as I could manage with my teeth. Fucking disgusting. I can still taste it sometimes. You cannot imagine the blood, and his screams. I must have looked like an animal as I knelt there with his blood all over my face. Then when I was trying to stand to get away, one of them jammed the makeshift knife into my thigh and just pulled it up, and fuck, the pain of it—I thought I was done for after that. I thought, well—That is why I have this,” he finishes, lifting his leg beneath the sheets to show Theo the ugly scar. Theo drags his hand over it. He wants to lean down and kiss it, as if that would take away the moment of terror that brought it into existence. 

Boris watches as his hand moves over the gnarled flesh. “Not a clean cut as you can see. Lucky for me that a guard heard the commotion and separated us. Then came the solitary, and after that, the stables.”

“Why would they put you in solitary? You were the one attacked,” Theo cries, moving to pull Boris against him. 

“That is just the way it is,” he says, warm and alive and safe against Theo's chest. 

“I didn't know,” Theo whispers. “I wish I had known you were there.”

“This would not have changed anything,” Boris says, and Theo knows it's true. Still, he wishes. ”What would you have done? Killed them?“ 

“Yes.”

“Jesus, Theo,” Boris says, shaking his head. “You know, I should probably believe you since you have killed for me before.”

Theo would have. He would have done ungodly things to them, given the chance. He knows he should probably be worried about how easily he would throw everything away for Boris, but there's no going around it. He would lie, kill, and die for him without hesitation. He still dreams about getting his hands on Mr. Pavlikovsky’s cane sometimes, in his darkest moments; the thought of bashing it against his skull a disturbingly comforting image.

“Besides,” Boris says, turning to switch off the light on the nightstand, “You were doing important work. Getting clean. Writing your masterpiece.”

Theo wants to find and burn every copy of his book in existence. “Oh god, shut up.”

“This is very rude thing to say after I have just bared my soul to you,” Boris says, and Theo can tell he's trying not to laugh. 

“I hate you so much.”

“We both know that is far from the truth.”

*

Theo wakes to sunlight streaming through the curtains, and the heavy weight of Boris’ thigh and arms thrown over him. He immediately begins to panic, knowing he only has five days left with him. He considers, just for a moment, because it’s all his heart will allow, staying.

He thinks of his lonely place in Brooklyn, with Hobie’s antiques littered throughout it, and his bed, where he will have to sleep alone. He hates the thought. How can he return to his solitary life now that he knows this exists? Boris’ life is all encompassing; filled with light and laughter and so much love Theo thinks he could drown in it, and he wouldn’t mind at all.

He likes the kids, too. Sure, they’re moody and anxious and full of sarcastic remarks and personal questions, but they’re good. He wants to see Boris get custody of them. He wants to be a part of that. He wants to keep learning more about the horses; wants to ride Nietzsche with confidence.

“Shhh,” Boris says from where his face is smashed into the pillow.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You are thinking so loud.”

“We need to find you a lawyer,” Theo says, turning just as Boris lifts his head to stare sleepily at him.

“It is too early for your scheming,” Boris says, wrapping his arms around Theo fully. Theo presses his body happily against him. God, they’ve wasted so many years pretending it wasn’t always going to lead to this. They could have had so much more time, and now their time is running out. 

“Ugh, you got blood on me in your sleep,” Boris says, but there's no actual disgust on his face as he leans over and kisses him, softly and slowly, as if they have all the time in the world. Theo lets him, morning breath and all. 

“You need a breath mint,” Theo says after a few minutes, pulling away.

“Speak for yourself,” Boris replies, shoving at this chest, but Theo leans back in to press his mouth along his jawline. He never liked kissing much; always preferring to get right down to it with past lovers, but with Boris he likes everything.

Boris seems to share the sentiment. “Fuck, Potter,” he groans, “I hate to admit just how much I like the way you kiss,” he says, turning his head to give Theo better access to his neck. 

They stay, wrapped around each other, rutting against each other until they both come, eyes rolling back with each other’s name on their lips. Maybe I’m different now, too, Theo thinks as he falls back against the damp sheets. Or, maybe, like Boris, he’s always been this way; always wanted this. 

*

They get breakfast at a small cafe downtown, and Theo doesn’t have to worry about any photographers hiding around the corner, waiting to get a photo of him looking disheveled and out of it. He’s wearing Boris’ shirt from the day before, and Boris is wearing his. Boris steals all of Theo’s bacon as Theo tells him about how he got so drunk before accepting his Man Booker that they almost didn’t let him onstage.

“Durachit’,” Boris says, his mouth full of toast. 

“Goluboi,” Theo retaliates, sipping his coffee.

Boris only smirks. “Could say the same for you, Potter.”

Theo just smiles down at himself. “Yeah, you could.”

Boris presses the toe of his boot against Theo’s shin beneath the table. They grin at each other, and nothing else is said as they pay and leave.

*

They find a lawyer by mid afternoon who will take the case. She's a stoic woman with kind eyes. “Julia,” she says, shaking their hands and ushering them into her tidy office. Theo sits, fiddling with a loose piece of fabric on his jeans as Boris explains the situation with the kids. Jamie's dad is in prison and his mother is dead. River's grandparents were friendly with Boris, and while they wanted to, they didn't have the means to care for River, and were happy to sign over custody. And then there was Lydia's grandmother, who had no intention of ever bringing her into her home, yet didn't want her to live with Boris, either, preferring to let her stay in the group home. Boris tells Julia about Rich, and all the ways he's been tormenting Lydia, and Theo takes comfort in the flash of anger and disgust that crosses her face. 

“You'll both need to provide the last two years of your tax returns, bank statements, and any record of criminal history in the last ten years,” Julia says, peering between them. 

“Oh! No, I’m not—” Theo says, shaking his head. 

Boris squeezes his thigh with ringed fingers. “It is just me. And there is no criminal history, but,” he looks anxiously at Theo, then down at his knees, “I have been receiving treatment for post traumatic stress disorder.”

Theo presses his fingers against the still tender skin of his nose, then places a hand over where Boris’ hand is still gripping his thigh.

Julia waves her hand as if it shouldn’t be an issue. “Many people with mental illness and other afflictions adopt. As long as you’ve been stable and can get a letter from your doctor or psychiatrist stating so, you won’t need to worry. The main concerns in any adoption are: Can you provide for the children? Can you realistically provide a safe and loving home life? Are you able to handle any issues that may arise due to their mental health, given you have your own? And, are they better off with you then they would be in the group home or with other caregivers, and, specifically, would Lydia thrive in your home, or would it be best for her to stay where she is?

Boris doesn’t hesitate. “She belongs with me. The conditions which she is being made to live are—“ he looks around, desperate to find the right word, “—it’s fucking disgusting the things they deny her. I do not know if it is a grudge from before I knew her, because she has had some issues with authority and discipline, but when she is with me—when she’s with my horses—she feels safe. I know she feels safe and loved. I cannot stand to know she is being mistreated. It is unbearable to wait. The only comfort is knowing River and Jamie are there to keep an eye out.”

“Alright,” Julia says, placing her hands flat on her desk. “I’m going to help you get them. I would also suggest pressing charges against the group home director. These allegations are quite serious.”

Boris shakes his head. “I can’t put them through that. At least not until I have them with me.”

Julia lets out a little sigh of understanding and nods, handing Boris a stack of paperwork. “Get these back to me as soon as possible. You can leave them with my assistant out front if I’m not here. It was a pleasure meeting you both,” she smiles between them, then places a hand on Boris’ shoulder. “I’ll do my best to make sure this doesn’t drag out. I can tell you have nothing but the best of intentions, which is sometimes rare in my line of work.”

Theo follows Boris out through the lobby and into the bright midday sun, an idea forming and twisting in his mind as they head south on US 400, crossing over the Ninnescah River in no time.

It’s a bad idea; a truly awful idea, but he already knows he’s going to do it, no matter all the ways it could go wrong. 

*

“So, you’re in Kansas?” Pippa says, sounding astonished. 

“Yeah, Pip. It’s actually beautiful here. I can see why he chose it.” Theo can hear Pippa inhale; knows she’s sneaking a cigarette in her back garden while Everett makes breakfast. 

“And Boris… how is he?”

“He’s beautiful, too,” Theo says, smiling to himself.

“Oh, really? Because, I must say, I’ve had my suspicions.”

“Was it the incredibly obvious book I wrote?”

“That played a part, yes,” Pippa laughs. “But, he said something to me at your engagement party. It struck me then that maybe there was something more going on.”

“Oh?” Theo kicks his feet up onto the chair next to him from where he’s sitting on the back deck. He scans the horizon for Boris and catches brief glimpse of him and Dushkova in the distance, darting past. As soon as they’d returned, Boris had led her out of the stables and dashed off, his long hair whipping around his face as they went.

“At first I thought he was hitting on me. Kept touching my waist and staring strangely at me, like he was trying to make sense of me. Then it was almost like an interrogation about you; about us, but none of my answers seemed to satisfy him. Finally, he pulled me close, so close I could feel his lips on my ear, and said, ‘Was a time I had him at his best and at his worst and, so, if you think about it, rightfully, that means he is actually mine, more than he’s even his own.’”

Theo feels a strange tug in his stomach. “He didn’t…”

“He did. He’s very intense. But, then he started to laugh, so I laughed with him, and then, well—“

“We left together.”

“Yes, it was all very cinematic and disturbing,” Pippa laughs, and Theo joins her. It really was, wasn’t it?

*

Brushstrokes & The Unspoken: 5 Similarly Devastating Books to Read This Summer

Many novels throughout the years have centered around things left unsaid. Think Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, or even Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. It is such a human emotion to want. It also seems to be a human downfall to never say so. Many authors have wrestled with this subject, creating many lonesome tales throughout the years, that readers have found themselves in, but few have done so in the way Theodore Decker was able to in his first, and so far only, novel, Brushstrokes.

So, if you can’t get enough of the heartsick, or you can't seem to stop thinking about Henry and Bahar’s final, bloody farewell, below are five books that will get you through the hot months of Summer, or until Decker releases a sequel (in our dreams).

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Who can forget Tomas and Tereza, the sometimes frustrating tale of a casanova type, who suddenly finds himself falling in love with his casual hookup? A must read for those of us who have found ourselves, admittedly caught off guard, by unwanted feelings for a friend with benefits, set in late 1960’s Prague. 

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

The OG text on unrequited love. Brontë knew what she was doing when she penned this tale, filled with angst and revenge. Read it for the melodrama, but stay for the bitter ending. We all think we want our Heathcliff, but maybe, we really don’t.

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

Set in 1911, Ella and John meet only once a week, while dancing in a ballroom in the asylum they’re both committed to. If you enjoyed the underlying violence of Brushstrokes, you’re bound to be pulled into this heartbreaking tale about the human condition, and just what we’re all capable of when love isn’t quite enough.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Marketed as a Young Adult novel, this book was an instant classic after it’s release in 1975 and can be enjoyed at any age. An interesting take on unrequited love, the story revolves around an eternal spring, and the two people it impacts most: Winnie Foster and Jesse Tuck. If you’re looking for a quick read, this one’s your best bet, and will leave you wondering, for a long time after you finish, what would you do if you could live forever?

Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

We’ve all seen the movie. If you’re me, you’ve seen it enough times to annoy others you’re watching with by shouting, “I wish I knew how to quit you!” along with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist. This story is less a tale of unrequited love than it is a tale of what we choose to do with the love we’re given, and hurts as much, if not more, than the other books on this list. Enjoy the pain. 

*

Theo’s final week in Kiowa goes by in a blur of stolen kisses and whispers in the dark; of River’s laughter and Jamie’s shouts during countless games of Uno that end in cards thrown in the air and Lydia dissolved into fits of laughter on the living room floor; of sunset rides on Nietzsche, who’s come around to Theo so easily Boris can only laugh as he leads them from where he sits on one of his mares; of peanut butter sandwiches and vodka at three in the morning; of paperwork and stressed out arguments over nothing; and of course, of laughter; always laughter.

“What’s with Jamie’s scars?” Theo asks on his final night, watching as Boris grabs them each a beer from the fridge. 

“He wanted to die,” Boris says, setting the beers down on the coffee table and settling onto the couch. Theo pulls his feet onto his lap and begins knead them with his fingers. They’re cold to the touch and Boris tries to pull them away with claims of ticklishness. 

“I gathered that much,” Theo says, pressing the heel of his palm against the arch of Boris’ left foot. “But, why? Why did he want to die?”

Boris studies his face. “Why does anyone want to die, Potter? Sometimes life, even in all it’s fucked up glory, can become too much, no?”

Theo considers this. His own reasons for his multiple attempts at taking his own life were confusing and muddled. He missed his mother. He hated the person he’d become. He’d murdered; he’d gotten away with it. The list was endless, and the multitude of reasons were unbearable. Maybe there didn’t need to be something specific. Maybe there was only so much people could hold within themselves.

“I tried to,” Theo admits, digging his thumb into the soft skin below Boris’ ankle, making him groan. “In Amsterdam. Then again at Hobie’s about a year later.” He waits for Boris to say something, anything, but he doesn’t. He just stares at Theo for a moment and then takes a long drink from his beer.

“Well,” he says, finally, clearing his throat. “I am glad you did not die. I do not think I am meant to be alive without you.”

It’s as close to an I love you as they’ve ever been, and Theo knows not to push it. He’s still leaving. He doesn’t want to, but what else can he do? Boris hasn’t asked him to stay, and even if he did, could Theo really make the little house in the middle of nowhere his home, too? What about his book deal? What about easy access to his publisher? What about his dreary apartment and his dreary life in New York City?

“You fucking sap,” Theo says, but he pushes Boris’ legs from his lap and climbs over him, savoring the warmth that has exploded in his chest at his words, and kisses him until they’re both breathless.

*

Boris,

Remember the night we spent grappling in the pool, after your father had just beaten you so severely you were bleeding nonstop? I still see that night—his cane slamming against your face—in my dreams quite often. I think I loved you then, in whatever still grief stricken and childish way I could manage. That terrifying feeling in your stomach that teenagers write bad poetry about. We were so young then. What were we doing? How lucky was I to find you then when I needed you most? I didn’t realize at the time what you really meant to me, and how hard it would be to not have you around anymore.

A lot of people have asked me over the years why my book didn’t have a happy ending. I like to feign ignorance (I’ve had a lot of practice in that area) but, the truth is, I didn’t know how to give them something I’ve never had myself. Something we never got to…

You deserve, more than anyone I’ve ever known, to be happy. You might think I’m still some traumatized little boy in a lot of ways, but I think I can finally see the way things should be, and I hope in doing what I’m about to do, I can help you. Your life now is so wonderful; the kids are brilliant! I’m glad you have them and they have you. Once it’s permanent I know you’ll be ecstatic, and I wish I could see the look on your face when that happens.

Helene Cixous wrote: You horrify me. But at the same time, I horrify myself. We are horrible.

I think that’s romantic in a way, and it’s how I see us. We are horrible, but in that horribleness, we are lovely. It’s ridiculous to ever think otherwise. But, we’d ruin each other, wouldn’t we? 

We both know now, and we both knew then, all those years ago, wasting away in the desert, that I love you. You said after you kissed me in front of that taxi that you would not forget me. I hope that’s still true.

Yours,

Theo

Theo tucks the letter into the copy of Brushstrokes still face down on Boris’ nightstand. His hands are shaking, but he knows it’s for the best to just go. Boris’ chest rises and falls evenly with every breath he takes, and Theo watches him for a few moments, as if he can tuck the sight away to come back to when he’s alone, missing him; wanting him. He goes to his long abandoned guest bedroom and packs his bag quickly, then heads to the kitchen to rummage around the junk drawer until he finds a small pocket knife which he shoves into his front pocket.

The car he’d ordered the night before arrives just before sunrise. The driver is stern faced and balding, but gives Theo a small smile and nods at him in the rearview mirror when he asks to be taken to Wichita. The drive isn’t as nerve wracking as it had been when he’d made it weeks ago, nor is it as fun as it had been on the back of Boris’ motorcycle days before, but Theo feels calm, like the eye of a storm, as they finally pull into the group home parking lot. 

He hadn’t seen any cameras on their previous visit, and that relaxes him even more. He’s never felt as calm as he does as he walks in the front door, pushing past Paula as she yells that he’s not allowed to just go in the back area, and finds the door labeled Rich Keener. He shoves it open and locks it behind him.

Rich flinches at the sight of him, but doesn’t seem scared that he’s there. Theo plops down into the seat in front of his desk and smiles. The air in the room is stale, and there are no photos lining the walls. It’s devoid of joy, just as Boris had said. 

“Who are you?” Rich asks, studying his face. “What are you doing in here?” Paula has begun banging on the door and Theo looks at Rich, then at the door, then back at Rich. “Paula, it’s fine,” Rich hollers over the noise, and the thudding stops.

“I could have ended up in a place like this,” Theo says, still grinning, but he’s showing too much teeth. “Thank god I didn’t. I was a sensitive boy—very cautious by nature. Don’t know if I would have survived it.” Rich just stares at him, so Theo continues. “Boris, on the other hand, would have thrived. He lived so many places as a child that a group home, even one run by a slimy piece of shit such as yourself, would have been like heaven in comparison. His father was not a good man, you see. Very violent temper and the ability to drink enough vodka that would kill an otherwise healthy man. Still, he didn’t end up like his father, which he could have. No one would have been surprised if he did, but he went the other way.”

“Is there a point to this story?” Rich asks, looking bored.

“There is, and I will get to it, but first—“ Theo pulls the Vanity Fair magazine from his bag and slides it across the desk. “That’s me,” he says, tapping the cover. “I’m a writer. In my line of work I have a lot of down time. Sometimes, between novels—” Ha! “I like to delve into a bit of investigative journalism.” He doesn’t. “And I’ve written quite a few exposes for the New York Times.” He hasn’t.

“Okay, I—“ Rich stumbles over his words.

“You know what I think?” Theo continues, palming over the pocket knife in his pocket, in case things take a turn. “I think only small, sad excuses for men hurt children.” He thinks of his father, with his hands around his throat, and swallows. “I think you’re pathetic, and I think Boris is, despite everything he’s gone through, a hundred times the man you’ll ever be. I think, if you don’t have a little chat with Lydia’s grandmother, urging her to go forward with signing over custody, I will ruin your life. I would love nothing more than to bring down the ugly facade you’ve built for yourself until you’re an outcast. I can make you a leper to society. I mean. Jesus, what kind of man gets pleasure out of tormenting a child? And, she can’t be the only one, so no, don’t even think about doing that—“ he reaches to slam the phone on the desk down into its cradle from where Rich had lifted it while he spoke.

“You’re insane. You can’t just—“

“I can, and I will,” Theo says coolly, pulling the pocket knife from his pocket and twirling it between his fingers. “I don’t really have anything to lose here. Boris does, and I don’t want to see that happen.”

Rich eyes the pocket knife and Theo flips it open, raising an eyebrow at the man. He stands, leaning over the desk until Rich scoots his chair back a couple of inches. There’s fear in his eyes, and Theo likes that. He thinks Rich should be afraid until the day he dies. 

“I don’t think this is the right job for you,” Theo says softly, then stabs the knife down into the wood of the desk. “Do you?”

“N-o. No—“ There’s a thin layer of sweat shining on Rich’s forehead.

Theo rolls up the magazine and tosses it into his bag. “Think long and hard about your next steps,” he says, and then he leaves, chest heaving with adrenaline as he shoves past Paula who’s standing just outside the door with a worried look on her face.

“Can you take me to the airport?” Theo asks as he climbs into the backseat of the car. The driver doesn’t answer—just puts the car into drive and takes off. Theo puts his head in his hands and laughs, but the laughter turns to tears quickly, and he can’t believe what he’s just done.

He hopes he was right about Rich. Men like that value their public image above all else, and he hopes the mere thought of Theo destroying it will have sparked a sudden change in career. If not that, then he hopes, at the very least, that Rich will heed his warnings, and let Lydia go.

It’s enough, he thinks. If Boris gets the kids, it’s enough.

*

Johnny Sachs @johnny95

just sat next to @realtheodecker on a flight from wichita to nyc….... nice enough guy but my dude had 5 gin and tonics by the time we stopped for our layover in chicago. yikes!

23 Retweets 762 likes

Chapter Text

Theo returns to his empty apartment just as the sun has begun to set, casting shadows over all the empty spaces. 

He picks up Thai from the place across the street and eats it standing up over the kitchen sink. He checks his phone and there's nothing. No new messages or missed calls. He knows Boris has to have found the letter. He knows his silence is purposeful. 

He climbs into his bed and curls into himself, right in the middle, and hopes sleep will come quickly. It does, but when he wakes, wailing and thrashing against the sheets, he realizes he's made a huge mistake. 

*

A month passes, and then another, and Theo slips into a depression so deep and unyielding that it begins to scares him. He starts seeing his therapist twice a week, but he can’t stand the way she looks at him, eyes full of pity and her lips stretched into a thin smile as he talks. They switch his antidepressants and up his anxiety medications until he's drifting through the days in a heavy fog, unaware of his surroundings most of the time. 

He tries to write something. Anything would do, but it all comes back to burning wheat fields and the sound of hooves on damp dirt and the feel, god, the feel of strong, knowing hands on his body. 

“How’s it going?” his publisher asks, settling into the leather chair behind her desk. Theo likes her well enough, but she’s not entirely personable, and he knows she’s pissed off at him for not keeping in touch.

“It’s going,” he says, staring out the window behind her. All he can see are the other skyscrapers that surround them, and an overcast sky. 

“We have to have something by Christmas,” she says, folding her hands on her desk. “There’s not really any way around it. Unless you’d like to give your advance back.”

Theo considers this. “I’m sorry. I’ve got some ideas. I might be able to scrape something together—“

She scoffs. “Scrape something together? After Brushstrokes? That’s not good enough. We need something good; something better. You need to try harder.”

He leaves her office feeling defeated, and spends the rest of the day drinking Stoli on his living room floor; his mind an endless reel of Boris laughing against his neck and of Lydia plating dinner for them and making sure Jamie and River get extra garlic bread with their pasta and of Nietzsche nuzzling his large head into Theo’s hands, urging him to hold out another sugarcube. 

He dials Boris’ number, but isn’t surprised when it goes straight to voicemail.

*

Theo folds and unfolds the old postcard from Boris. GREETINGS FROM KANSAS! it reads, same as it always has, but now it just feels like a taunt. 

*

Theo wakes with a start, heart beating wildly in his chest as he reaches for his phone to check the time. It’s one in the morning, and the thudding on his front door has reached a crescendo. 

“Fuck,” he mutters, pulling on a pair of sweats. He stumbles out into the living room and yanks open the door. He’s immediately caught off guard by who’s standing in the hallway. He’d thought, even foolishly hoped, it was Boris causing such a racket. Instead he’s confronted with Lydia, her long hair drenched and dripping onto the floor, standing with her fist raised as if she were about to continue her assault on the door.

“What the fuck?” Theo says, wiping the sleep out of his eyes.

“Nice to see you, too,” she responds, clipped and angry. She pushes past him into the living room and perches on the arm of the couch. He stands in the doorway and tries to process her presence. 

“What are you doing here?” he asks, finally shutting the door and following her into the living room. 

She stares at him, then seems to take in the state of his apartment. There’s empty wine bottles on the coffee table and newspapers scattered on the floor, half read and abandoned. 

“You live like this?” she asks with a frown.

“No, I’ve—I’ve been busy. Wait, no,” he stops himself. He doesn’t need to explain anything to her. “You need to tell me what you’re doing here.”

She sighs. “God, you really are so fucking stupid. Both of you.”

“What do you mean by that?” Theo asks, grumpily.

“You and Borya. You’re idiots. I can’t believe you left without saying goodbye. I understand not saying goodbye to us, but to leave him?”

“I—“ Theo’s shoulders slump. It’s too late, or early, for this conversation. “He knew I was leaving. We both knew.”

Lydia stands and looks him up and down, then takes a couple of steps forward and wraps him in a tight hug. “Thank you,” she whispers against his chest. “Thank you for getting me out of there. I’m still mad at you for the rest of it, though. He’s been unbearable since you left.”

Theo squeezes her back, and then holds her out by the shoulders in front of him to study her face. “Your grandmother signed over custody?”

“Yes,” she says, finally grinning up at him. “And Rich, according to Paula, broke his lease and left town in the middle of the night. What exactly did you do?”

Theo is overjoyed. He can’t hide the look of satisfaction that comes over his face. “What makes you think I did anything?”

“Duh. Boris said so.” Theo knows she takes everything Boris says as fact, and in this case, she isn’t wrong. 

“Okay, okay. It really doesn’t matter how. I’m just glad it worked. And River and Jamie—are they with you?” He considers peeking back out into the hallway to check.

“No. Boris doesn’t know I’m here, either.” Theo’s heart drops in his chest. Boris will be furious when he finds out. He’s probably frantic with worry. “Stop freaking out,” she continues. “I told him I was spending the week with my abuela.”

“Okay, still. How did you even get here?”

“I flew. Never been on a plane before. You owe me like… six hundred dollars, by the way.”

Theo laughs, then pulls her back into another hug. She reminds him so much of Boris as a teenager, it’s uncanny. 

He makes them both tea as she sits on his kitchen counter and tells him about the day he’d left; how Boris had been inconsolable in his anger. “You should have seen him,” she says, eyes shining. “Him and Nietzsche disappeared for hours, and when he came back he was ranting in Polish. On and on and on. River kept trying to get him to go to sleep, but he wouldn’t. He just kept pacing and shouting. It’s funny now, but we were all pretty worried.”

“I’m sorry. I—I shouldn’t have left the way I did, but he knew I was going, and he didn’t ask me to stay.” How could he explain that in leaving, he’d surrendered to Boris? He’d waved his white flag. He’d torn down every wall and stumbled over the wreckage screaming You win! You always win when it comes to me!

“So?” Lydia says, sipping her tea. “Do you always need to be told what to do?”

Theo shrugs. Most of the time he did.

*

They ride the subway to fifth avenue. Lydia clings to the bar, her bag clutched close to her chest with her other arm. It’s busy up on the street, but they push through crowds of tourists and Theo buys them each a day pass to The Met. There’s a Klimt exhibit, and Theo smiles as he explains various paintings to Lydia, pointing out restoration marks as she snaps photos with her phone. “River and Jamie are going to be so jealous,” she gushes as they make their way through the Art of Native America wing.

By evening, they’re both exhausted, and Theo sits across from her on the train home. She types away on her phone, probably bragging about her trip, and Theo wonders how long it will take for one of the boys to crack and tell Boris where she really is. He knows he should call him and let him know she’s safe, but he’s not sure he can handle the conversation that would come after.

Back at his apartment, he makes her macaroni and cheese that he picked up from the bodega on the corner, and she eats two bowls full, barely leaving him the scrapings. He doesn’t mind. It’s nice having her there, even though half the time he doesn’t know what to say to her. 

She’s made herself at home by the third day, Theo realizes as he trips over a pile of her clothes in the hallways. He bunches them up and throws them in his laundry bin, making a mental note to take them to the cleaners before she leaves. 

The thing is, he doesn’t want her to go. He likes having her around, eating all of his food and hogging the remote. He likes the way she makes coffee for them in the morning and how she calls him out on his bullshit, constantly muttering at him in spanish under her breath when he does or says something stupid. He likes how she goes through every book on his shelves, reading the inside covers, then scoffing, as if he has horrible taste in literature. 

“I can’t believe you actually wrote a book about you and Boris,” she says one morning over the pancakes Theo had ordered her. They’re in a small cafe in Midtown.

Theo chokes on his forkful of eggs. “Did not.”

“Did too,” she counters.

Theo shrugs. He knows he’s lost. “He was a big part of my childhood.”

“He still could be—“ she says, squinting at him against the sunlight that’s dancing over their table. “He still could be a big part of your life. He wants to be. I know it.”

“How do you know?”

“Because!” she exclaims, tossing her fork down. “He was alone before you showed up. He was lonely. He had the horses, yeah, but he didn’t have you, and now he doesn’t have you again and he’s miserable, even with us there. Why are you so stupid?”

Theo grimaces. “It’s not that easy.”

“It is. Your life here is so sad, no matter how you try to make it seem like it’s not. And, I hear you at night. Groaning and moaning and knocking things over in your room. What’s that all about?”

Theo’s face heats. The dreams are back; have been back since he returned. “I don’t have to tell you everything about me,” he stammers, setting his fork down. “Some things have nothing to do with you, or Boris. Some things are personal.”

“Yeah, sure. Like writing a book about your first love without talking to him first, and then denying it had any truth to it. Real personal.”

They don’t talk for the rest of the meal, and Lydia stands on the opposite end of the railcar on their way back to Brooklyn.

*

When they get back to the apartment, Boris is slumped down against the door. He looks up at them as they exit the elevator, and a flash of anger mixed with relief crosses his face. He doesn’t say anything, just stands and pulls Lydia against him, burying his face in her hair. Theo is frozen in place, unable to move or say anything, as Boris’ eyes lock on him. He’s furious, but Theo can’t help the way his eyes drag over Boris, taking in his tight Levi’s and worn Velvet Underground t-shirt.

“Lydia, go inside,” he says coolly, and waits as Theo fumbles with his keys to unlock the door. Once it's shut behind her, he pulls his worn copy of Brushstrokes with the letter tucked inside out of his pocket and throws it at Theo’s chest. 

“Fuck you, Potter,” he says through gritted teeth. He grabs Theo by the shirt and shoves him up against the door. “What the fuck is wrong with you? You think it is a kindness to write a letter like that, but it is not. It is cruel! And, to not tell me she is here with you. To let me find out from her grandmother that she never arrived. To search her computer and find a boarding pass to New York fucking City almost a week ago. I do not have the words for how angry I am. You are so selfish. I can’t believe I—“ he stops himself, shoulders shaking and hands clenching and unclenching against Theo’s chest. 

They’re both breathing heavily, and Theo can see Boris’ pulse hammering in his neck; can feel his warm breath on his face every time he opens his mouth. He doesn’t know what to say; has no words for how terrified and elated he is just at the sight of him. It doesn’t matter that he’s screaming at him. It doesn’t matter that he probably hates him. Theo expects a fist to the face, or a punch to the gut, but Boris collapses against him, hands moving to his hair where he tugs sharply until Theo’s head hits the door with a thud.

“Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?” he asks. Theo’s scalp stings and his eyes begin to water, but he nods. He knows. 

“I’m sorry,” he gets out, and Boris winces at his words. “I didn’t know she was coming here. She just showed up and—“

“This is not good enough,” Boris hisses, but his hands loosen in Theo’s hair and one falls to hold his hips firmly in place. “We can’t keep—“ and then, to Theo’s surprise, he kisses him, mean and rough. Their teeth smack against each other and Boris bites hard on Theo’s bottom lip as he sucks it into his mouth. There’s nothing nice about it, but Theo’s heart still soars at the contact. 

It doesn’t last long, however, and Boris pulls away with a grunt, shoving Theo back against the door. “We’re leaving in the morning,” he says, looking away. He reaches behind Theo and pushes the door open, leaving him standing, dumbstruck, in the hallway. 

He takes a few deep breaths, bends to pick up the book in the middle of the hall, and follows him inside. 

*

Lydia casts knowing looks at Theo all through dinner, even going so far as to kick him under the table when Boris asks her how her little getaway has been. He chokes on the mouthful of potatoes he’d been trying to chew and dares a glance over at Boris, who is, fortunately or unfortunately (he’s really not sure) staring at him with one eyebrow raised and his mouth in a long, thin line.

“I took her to The Met. She seemed to really like Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s Still Life with Lilac.”

Boris shoves some asparagus around on his plate, the fork scraping against it sharply, which sets Theo’s teeth on edge. He doesn’t acknowledge what Theo has just said, opting instead to grin widely at Lydia, then continues eating.

After dinner Theo scrubs the dishes with his hands and a washcloth full of soap, eager to do something productive with them, instead of using them to pull Boris up and out of his chair and ask him to kiss him again or forgive him at least or to just fucking realize Theo only left because he hadn’t known he was supposed to stay. So, he scrubs, and strains to hear Boris and Lydia’s conversation over the running tap water from where they’re huddled together over the coffee table in the living room.

When the dishes are done and drying on the rack because even though he has a dishwasher he rarely ever uses it, he ventures out into the hallway and leans against the wall.

“It’s not like he’s got anything keeping him here,” Lydia says, and Theo can picture the look on her face, pleading and charming all at once, so easily.

“No.”

“But—“

“Mija, please. You do not understand.” Boris’ words are firm, but there’s a note of resignation in his voice, and Theo’s heart is a runaway train in his chest.

The conversation stops there, and then the television is turned on, and Theo thinks about the days ahead of him, empty and uninteresting, after they leave.

*

Theo wakes to the feeling of his mattress shifting beneath him. He reaches for his glasses and shoves them awkwardly on, eyes adjusting slowly in the dim light from the streetlamps outside, only to find Boris seated on the edge of his bed, back to him and his hands planted on either side of his hips, fingers splayed out on top of the blankets. 

“You have done many stupid things, Potter,” he says into the night. “What were you thinking? I have to wonder if all those pills you take have made you actually crazy.”

“You went through my medicine cabinet?” Theo asks, anger rising up in him.

“Had to piss and the mirror was swung wide open,” Boris shrugs. “Besides, you went through my life and my heart and turned it into a best selling storybook.”

Theo’s anger dissipates, but embarrassment and the need to explain take over. “What can I say to make any of this better?”

Boris’ fingers clench in the sheets. “Haven’t we said all we have to say?” He doesn’t turn to face Theo and it's a small grace because Theo doesn’t know if he could stand it.

“There are still things we could say—things we—things I should have said a long time ago.”

Boris’ shoulders fall just a little bit. The ceiling fan whirs above them and someone hollers out on the street. “What would those things be?” he asks, dragging a hand stiffly over the blankets beneath it. “You can write them in your book and your letter on the way out, but you cannot even say them to me, can you? All of your pretty words and you can’t even—you know what I think? I think you are a coward.”

Theo can hear his mother, as if she were standing next to him, unblemished and beautiful and so painfully alive: People die, sure. But it’s so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure carelessness. Fires, wars. The Parthenon, used as a munitions storehouse. I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.

From pure carelessness, she’d said, all those years ago. Before the bomb and before the Barbours. Before Larry and Xandra had whisked him away to the desert and before Boris had smiled at him from his desk in that tiny, teenage hormone filled English classroom.

He thinks of Boris, peering down over his shoulder at the letter Hobie had written, and how he’d assumed, correctly, that Hobie was gay. None of us ever find enough kindness in the world, do we? he’d asked, so much wiser than both of their years combined. 

Theo squares his shoulders. He will not be careless. He will not be unkind. He will, he knows as he crawls across the bed and pulls Boris back against his chest, finally stop lying about what he wants. Boris flinches at his touch, then inhales sharply and lets his head fall back against Theo’s chest.

“Things like—like the fact that I’m stupidly—no, ridiculously, in love with you and haven’t had the guts to say so for the last twenty something years. Things like—god, Boris, you don't really make it easy sometimes. I shouldn't have left that letter. I know it was cruel. I know Brushstrokes was cruel, too, but just—things like I’m an idiot, but so are you if we’re still keeping score. Things like I've never been more sorry than I am right now.” His chest is going to crack open, he thinks. His heart is going to break out from beneath his ribs and fling itself out the fire escape.

Boris lets out a shaky breath against him. “Those are definitely things,” he says, and then he laughs, and it’s one of the most beautiful things Theo has ever heard. Boris laughs and Theo thinks of the small, malnourished boy he once was, learning English from strangers and staring his father down with a smirk before his cane slashed through the thick desert air to strike him down. Boris laughs and it’s like a trapdoor opens beneath them and all of the resentments and things left unsaid fall through, leaving them pressed together on the edge of Theo’s bed.

“You could have said,” Boris says, finally turning to climb up onto the bed beside Theo. “You should have.”

“What would you have done?”

“Asked you to stay. I wanted you to stay. Idiot.”

“I wasn’t sure—“

“You can write your pretty words from Kiowa, no?”

Theo grins. “I could.”

“Well then.” Boris grins back. His veneers are bright white in the dark. 

“God,” Theo groans, half amused and half elated. 

“So fucking stupid,” Boris says, and then he kisses him, and it’s softer than any kiss they’ve shared over the last two weeks. So soft that Theo sighs against his mouth and every bone in his body turns quickly to liquid when Boris pulls away to tug his shirt up over his head. 

“Eh?” he says, eyebrows wagging.

“I take it all back,” Theo murmurs, but he pulls his own shirt off and lets Boris press him back down against the sheets.

“You still kiss like you are fifteen,” Boris counters, his long, ringless fingers spread out over Theo’s chest as he climbs over him to straddle his hips.

Theo scoffs. “And you’re just as eloquent as you were back then.”

Boris shuts him up with three fingers pressed against his lips. “Well then we do not need to talk anymore. What do you think?”

Theo nods quickly, and the fingers vanish only to be replaced by Boris’ mouth once again, hot and wet against his. They fumble around for a bit, a throwback to their adolescent rough housing, until Boris finally pins Theo’s hands above his head with one hand and pushes his other beneath Theo’s pajama bottoms in one quick movement.

Theo sucks in a breath at the contact. Boris’ hand is tight where it holds his wrists, and he can’t help but squirm, arching his hips up as he palms at him until finally managing to get beneath his boxers. He slides his fingers up and down over Theo’s cock; tangles them in the hair at the base, and then lower until Theo gasps. Boris grins above him and nudges his legs apart until Theo understands his meaning fully.

“Yes,” Theo gasps. “But, I think you need to not be wearing jeans to accomplish what you’re trying to do.” He can’t even let himself think about what exactly that is or he’ll come in Boris’ hand immediately without ever getting to the act itself. 

Boris releases his hold on him immediately, shimmying clumsily out of his jeans and then returning, knees bent beneath him, to the warm place he’d just been between Theo’s legs. Theo surges up to kiss him again, desperate to touch him; to lay his hands on all of the places he’s been missing over the last few months, and it’s good, better even, then he remembered. Boris’ skin is smooth in some places and rough in others and he’s got scars and tattoos that Theo doesn’t know the meaning behind, and some that he does, but all he can do is keep kissing; keep reaching out.

Boris leans back, knees still pulled up beneath him as Theo ducks down to press his face against his stomach. He smells like cigarettes and that stale air that seems to linger in airplanes. Theo licks up the trail of hair that rises from his cock to his belly button, hands gripping Boris’ waist as he does so. Boris’ cock knocks against his chin and he thinks here we finally are as he wraps his mouth around the tip.

“Fuck,” Boris groans, head lolling back as his hands slide over Theo’s shoulders and up his neck and over his ears into his hair, which is damp with sweat and clinging to his forehead. “Prosić, Theo. Christ—who taught you—“ He slips into a long string of Polish, with a few Russian swear words thrown in for good measure, and they're the best ones—the really good ones that had bite when they had spit them out at each other between thrown elbows or after particularly bad jokes as teens—as Theo ducks to take him even further into his mouth.

The whole room burns, hot heat rising straight from the floorboards as Boris’ hands tighten in his hair, this time out of pleasure instead of anger as they had when he’d first arrived, and Theo would do anything to keep them there; to keep Boris babbling complete nonsense above him as he thrusts into Theo’s mouth.

When Theo finally pulls away, spit dripping down his chin, Boris collapses down against him, their cocks sliding together as he settles himself over Theo with one arm propped up on his elbow, his other hand still tangled in Theo’s hair. He removes it only to pluck Theo’s glasses from his face and set them down somewhere on the bed next to his head.

“Okay?” he asks, nudging Theo’s thighs apart again with his own.

“More than,” Theo says, although he has to turn and search his nightstand blindly for the little unused bottle of lube he knows is there. He finally finds it, along with a strip of condoms which he tosses against Boris’ chest. He thinks they might be from 2023 but he doesn’t care. 

“Do you know—“ Boris starts to ask, tearing a condom open with his teeth and sliding it onto himself, fingers slipping against it in his haste.

“I’ve never—“

“I haven’t either—just women,” Boris admits, pursing his lips, and they both stare at each other for a moment before laughing again, and that’s all it takes for all of the tension to seep out of the room. “Maybe is like riding a horse?”

Theo groans into his hands. “ Alright, cowboy. Please shut up or I'll throw you off.”

“I’d love to see you try,” Boris grunts, and then his fingers slip over Theo’s cock once again, and then down further, wet from the lube, and Theo doesn’t say much after that. It’s awkward at first with Boris mumbling to himself and Theo shifting his hips this way and that to accommodate the movement of Boris’ wrist, until finally, breathlessly, Boris removes his slick fingers and presses into him.

“Christ,” he pants, and Theo agrees as he gets used to the feeling of having Boris inside of him. It’s unrelenting and strange, yet agonizingly good as Boris leans down, changing the angle completely, to press his forehead against Theo’s. He doesn’t move—just holds himself there with his mouth hovering above Theo’s, swallowing every breath Theo emits.

“You can move,” Theo says, pressing the heel of his foot against the back of Boris’ thigh and gripping his ass. “I think it's okay. God, just—“

And, Boris does. He fucks into him slowly, then pulls back until Theo feels almost empty, before slamming back into him, and it’s nothing like Theo thought it would be, all those nights he’d ever let himself even consider it. It’s like rearranging the landscape of every place he’s ever been; the vast emptiness of Nevada becoming the rolling plains every time Boris shifts against him.

Laughter bubbles between them as they try to figure things out. They press their mouths against tender bits of skin and lick. They bite down on each other's shoulders. Theo takes Boris’ fingers between his lips and sucks on them, all salt and flesh. He arches up against him when they finally seem to find a rhythm, and Boris licks at one of Theo's nipples while Theo grips his shoulder, fingers over the spiderweb tattoo that continues onto his back. 

“Theo,” Boris whispers against his neck, and Theo lifts his hips up to meet him at every turn, wanting so much he doesn’t think he can put it into words, even though words are literally all he has to his name anymore. Boris begins to mouth over his neck, and then his collarbones. “Theo, fuck. I love you. Jesus,” he moans, canting his hips. “I really fucking love you. Stupid bastard. I can’t believe—“

“I know, Boris—ah—that’s—so good.” We should’ve been doing this all along, he thinks as he pulls Boris down until their chests are pressed together, slick with sweat, ribs dragging over ribs like laundry over a washboard every time his hips stutter.

When Theo begins to shake from Boris’ hand wrapped around him, Boris’ eyes widen with surprise, his long black hair falling down around Theo’s face, as if he can’t believe what he’s done; what he’s still doing.

“Are you—fuck, are you—“ he asks through gritted teeth, and Theo nods his head vigorously, throwing an arm over his mouth, but Boris pushes it away and says, “Let me see.” He watches as Theo’s mouth falls open and his entire body tenses around him, spilling over Boris’ clever fingers. Boris’ movements become erratic, and he comes in quick succession, hips snapping wildly as he stares down at the mess on his hand and Theo’s stomach. 

“Well, that was—“

“Yeah, it was” Boris says, pushing his hair out of his eyes, but Theo can tell he’s unsure of himself as he pulls out slowly, so slowly, and collapses next to Theo into the now damp sheets. A deep red flush has risen across his chest. Theo presses his palm against the goldfinch tattooed over his heart with its beak barely touching the spiderweb.

“I understand this,” Theo says, pressing his fingers into Boris’ Chest, and then up against his shoulder over the web. “But, what’s with this one?”

“It means I once was a thief, but I will never steal again.”

Theo gives him a small smile. “Does that extend to stealing my clothes?”

Boris just smirks.

“I didn't know it could be like that,” Theo admits, turning fully to throw his arm over Boris’ chest. “That thing you did there in the middle—with the—“

“Shh, Potter. I will never give away my secrets.”

“I liked it.”

Boris chuckles. “Yes, I could tell.”

“Shut up.”

*

After an hour or so of drowsy kisses and fingers trailing over shoulders and across chests, Boris pulls on Theo’s boxers and Theo slides his pajama bottoms back up over his hips. They creep out into the hall and past the living room where Lydia’s curled up on the couch with her phone clutched in one hand a blanket held furled beneath her chin in the other.

“You don’t think she heard anything, do you?” Theo asks, bumping into Boris’ back as they slip out the front door and climb the stairway to the roof after Boris snatches his pack of cigarettes off Hobie’s English giltwood side table.

“Girl can sleep through anything. One upside of living in a group home.”

“Yeah, I guess you’d have to, huh?”

“Mmm,” Boris hums. He pulls a cigarette from the half empty pack and lights it, ducking out of the breeze as the flame falters. “Got my pocket knife back eventually, you lunatic.”

Theo stills. He hadn’t been sure how much Boris actually knew about what he’d said and done in Rich’s office.

“Well, that’s good.”

“It is. It belonged to my father, may his soul rest.”

“Shit, Boris. I didn’t know. When did—”

“While I was in prison,” Boris says, smoke drifting out of his mouth as he speaks. “Three years in.”

“I'm sorry,” Theo whispers, placing a hand tentatively on Boris’ shoulder. 

“You know,” Boris says, handing the cigarette over, “I lied. I let him back in.”

“What?”

“When I locked him out. When I wanted to kill him. I lied when I told you someone picked him up. I made it an hour before I let him back in.”

“Oh, wow. That's a good thing, though, right?” Theo stares at the red of the cherry as it turns to ash on his inhale.

“I suppose,” Boris replies, and then turns and flicks him right between the eyes. “You cannot do those things anymore. No threats. Not to say I am not grateful, but—it’s not just you anymore. You get that, yes?”

“Yeah, I get it.” 

Theo feels thoroughly like a dog being swatted with a rolled up newspaper until Boris takes another long drag from his cigarette and stares out over the blinking city lights and asks, “You really want to come home with us?”

Home. God, it’s all he wants. The thought of staying in the city with his empty apartment and nothing but takeout containers and pills to get him through the day makes his stomach twist uncomfortably.

“Only since you asked so nicely,” he says, plucking the cigarette from Boris’ fingers to place it between his own lips. “I'll do a lot of things if you keep asking the way you did tonight.”

*

“Oh my god. Are you two just going to sleep all day? Ew, Theo, I can see your entire ass,” comes an annoyed voice from the doorway. Theo scrambles up, pulling the blankets up and over himself and Boris, who’s still snoring next to him, flat on his stomach and his long hair spread out over both of their pillows.

Theo holds a finger up over his lips, hoping—

“Borya!” Lydia shouts, and Boris startles hard enough that he almost falls off the bed. He turns wildly toward the sound, eyes wide and a spot of drool dried next to his mouth. Theo wouldn’t mind kissing him, still.

“Yes, my very soft spoken child?” Boris asks roughly.

“I asked if you were just going to sleep all day.” She smirks at them. Smirks. “I thought I heard noises last night…”

“How about breakfast?” Theo manages to cut her off, reaching very carefully to pull the pajama bottoms he’d tossed aside when they’d returned to his bedroom at dawn, eager to find out what other sounds he could get Boris to make if he tried hard enough.

“Oh, River and Jamie are going to love this,” she says, nearly skipping back out of the doorway, down the hall, and into the kitchen. He waits until he can hear the noise of coffee being made and mugs being pulled down from the cupboard before turning to face Boris.

Boris, who’s smiling mischievously at him. Boris, who had once been a child praying to Mecca five times a day, nicknamed Badr, after the moon, because his light was bright enough to shine everywhere.

Boris, disheveled and grinning with sleep in his eyes, he knows with sudden clarity, is more like the sun: he burns every bit of Theo right up. 

Chapter Text

Three Years Later

*

Theo shuffles from one foot to another, too nervous to do anything but pinch himself between his thumb and forefinger. It's okay. This is a good thing. It's all okay now. Just breathe for fuck’s sake. 

He stares into the large mirror that hangs above the sinks and runs his hands down his Edward Sexton suit jacket and waistcoat. After a few deep breaths he steps out from the men's room and into one of the main hallways, desperately scanning the room for the one familiar face; the one familiar body he wants to sidle up next to. 

His tie is much too tight so he loosens it as he continues his search, pushing past small groups of people standing in circles, champagne glasses in hand as they discuss the book. His second; his best, really, in all the ways that matter. Written in a frenzied state over two years after first moving to Kiowa, and Theo loves it most for it's slow sweetness. So does the rest of the world, apparently.

He grabs a flute of champagne for himself and takes two large gulps while still flitting his eyes over shoulders and heads, seeking and wanting—

“Here you are,” comes a voice from behind him, right next to his ear. A possessive hand wraps around his hip, and Theo thinks, strangely, of the Fugees. My girl pinched my hips to see if I still exist… River and Jamie have been on a bit of a 90’s hip hop kick lately. “There was a hold up at the bungalow, and I couldn't find my—what are these things called again?”

Theo whips around, Boris’ hand sliding smoothly over his belly as he does, then falls to rest on his other hip. He grins, and Theo wants to drag him into some dark corner, but he can't, because they're in The fucking Getty, and they're there for Theo's book release, instead of at home, or even at the bugnalow they’ve rented in Malibu where Lydia, Jamie, and River are no doubt causing trouble, or in the very least getting stoned together out on the back deck. 

“They're called cufflinks,” Theo replies, distractedly, because Boris looks stunning in his bespoke Vivienne Westwood suit, complete with a bolo tie. He hadn't been lying when he'd said he had more money than he knew what to do with, and the book release party had been just the occasion he’d needed to splurge. “What was the holdup?” he asks, fingers sliding over Boris’, now fumbling with the cufflinks.

“River got an email from the school,” Boris’ grin is wide and his eyes are shining as he meets Theo’s. “Howard. He got in.”

Theo’s grin is just as big as he pulls Boris in for a tight hug. “Thank fuck. He’s been driving me insane all summer.”

“You are not the only one.”

“So Lydia will be off to KU, and River to Howard, which leaves us with—“

Boris’ smile falters. “You know he’s not going to college. I will not force him, either, so we don’t need to get into this tonight.”

Theo holds his hands up in surrender. Jamie had made some small rumblings about travelling in the upcoming year, and Theo doesn’t have a problem with that. He just doesn’t want any of them to end up like he had, addicted to opioids and miserable all throughout his twenties, but he knows the likelihood of that is slim, especially since they have Boris. Still, he worries. And, worse than that, still he sometimes dreams of the fucked up fugue that comes along with a couple Oxys cut up into perfect little lines. 

They mingle for awhile; Theo downing champagne and staring at his watch as inconspicuously as he can manage while making small talk with authors who make him wonder how the hell he’s counted amongst their ranks, which is exhausting on many levels, while Boris stays relatively sober since he has the keys to the rental, and Theo had made him promise. 

Finally, after two hours of this, he feels his phone vibrate in his pocket and pulls it out when Boris’ back is turned.

Here is the only word in the text, but Theo’s heart feels like it’s in a vice grip as he pulls Boris over to a mostly empty table and shoves him down into a chair facing away from the door. Theo stares at it from over his shoulder as Boris eyes him suspiciously. 

“What’s going on?” he asks, crossing his legs so that the tip of his shoe presses against Theo’s knee. 

“Nothing. Just need a breather,” Theo replies, eyes darting back to the door. He starts to look back down at Boris when a man walks in, hands shoved into the pockets of his suit jacket, and eyes dashing madly around the room. They catch Theo’s from across the room and widen at the sight of Boris seated in front of him. 

“Are you alright?” Boris asks, worry taking over his face.

“Nothing a couple Klonopin won’t even out,” Theo murmurs as the man begins to take long strides toward them.

“Look Boris, don’t freak out, okay?”

Boris begins to turn. “Why would I freak—oh my god—it cannot be!” He stands, knocking his chair over as he does. “Luka?” 

Luka takes two final steps toward them and holds his arms out. “Boris! God, you are a sight for sore eyes.” His blonde hair is wild and he looks like he might vomit right onto the marble floor, but he’s smiling through it. 

Boris looks like he might pass out so Theo places a hand against the small of his back and presses him forward. They embrace for a long time, laughing and grinning into each other’s necks. Boris grips Luka’s face in his hands and smacks a loud kiss on his left cheek, and then his right, before turning back to Theo in astonishment.

“You did this?”

Both Theo and Luka nod. He’d spent months trying to find Luka; had even had to speak with other inmates that had been locked up with them both to do so, until finally he’d been given a number based out of Quebec. They’d had a few late night conversations while Boris slept and had exchanged texts until finally Theo had mentioned his launch party and wired money to Luka to help with purchasing a plane ticket.

Luka was quiet; the kind of man who chose his words carefully and doled them out with restraint. Theo wondered if he’d been that way before being sent to prison as a young man. Theo found he liked him and was forever grateful that he’d been in Boris’ life during those dark years when they’d both found themselves somewhere neither had ever planned to be.

They spend the rest of the night catching up and Boris learns that Luka had finally been released only to find that his boyfriend had died in one of the camps. After that nothing really tied him to the old country, so he’d managed to escape into Spain where he’d been given refugee status due to persecution and had bought a one way ticket to Canada. Since then he’d been studying at McGill and had a podcast about Russian folklore and was working on an art history book about Russian prison tattoos.

Boris keeps shooting glances at Theo between sentences; glances that say Thank you for doing this I can’t believe he’s here who are you and what have you done with that shithead Potter I can’t believe this I can’t believe—

“So,” Luka says after a lull in the conversation, “you weren't lying when you said Brushstrokes was about you.”

Theo’s face heats, and Boris lets out a loud laugh.

“I told you it was. No reason to lie.”

Theo leaves them to talk alone and meanders from one group to another, shaking hands and making polite conversation. When he finds himself glancing over at them throughout the night he wonders if he should be jealous at the way the clutch at each other’s hands and cup each other’s cheeks while leaning forward in whispered conversation, but it never comes. All he can see are two men who walked into hell and somehow managed to crawl back out—their closeness a testament to survival. After a while he sees Luka stand and pull Boris into another hug so he heads back to their table.

“I’m sorry I cannot stay longer,” Luka says, smiling between them. “This has been wonderful. I never thought I would see you again. Promise you’ll stay in touch?”

Boris nods. “I will. I promise.” Theo can see tears shining brightly in his eyes as he says so. He holds a hand out to Luka but Luka shoves it aside and pulls him in for a hug just as tight as the one he’d given Boris.

“Thank you, Theo. Thank you for this,” he whispers against his shoulder. “You are so good for him. The way he talks about you…” His words drift, and Theo knows he has to be thinking about the lover he lost. “Jesus, I think I will need a few more cocktails on my flight home.”

Theo smiles weakly and pats him on the back, and wishes him luck on the research project that has him leaving so soon, and then he leaves them there, shoulder to shoulder, and walks back out the door he’d come through.

Boris takes a step in front of Theo and holds him out before him with both hands on his shoulders, just as he had done that first night Theo arrived in Kiowa. Tears have begun sliding freely down his face and he makes no move to wipe them away. Theo considers kissing them right off, but Boris beats him to the kiss part, pulling him forward and pressing their lips together. “You mad bastard,” he says against Theo’s mouth. A camera flashes from somewhere to their left and they both groan. 

Boris tilts his head towards an exit that leads to a garden path that winds out to the parking lot.  “Look—I am so incredibly proud of you and Masterclass is fucking brilliant. You know this. And, god, how can I think you for what you have done? I will think of something if you just give me time. But, can we be done schmoozing soon? Did you not promise me the ocean?”

He had, and the get together has slowly turned into a cliquish orgy of oversized egos and drunken bragging. It’s too similar to his disastrous engagement party, although he does want to leave with Boris, just as he had back then. 

They leave through the side door, shoving at each other and laughing, because history repeats itself over and over and over again.

*

brushstroked:

just finished masterclass and i’m just sitting here with my jaw on the floor……… theodore decker really no homo’d himself for an entire book and then wrote a followup with one of the most tender coming out stories i’ve ever read and LISTEN i know we’re all categorically Not Freaking Out about the photos of him and that very pretty guy in what looks like a very romantic embrace at his book release that have been circulating all week on twitter but holy shit

#i honestly feel kind of bad for him i mean we all know the closet exists but #his closet seems to have been more a house of mirrors #or maybe just made of fucking steel with various locks of different strengths on the door #anyways mysterious pretty man are you who i think you are

*

“Shove over,” Boris barks, falling down onto the beach next to Theo. His outrageously expensive shoes have been tossed aside in favor of digging his toes in the sand. “Look what Jamie gave me,” he continues, holding out a joint. Theo snatches it quickly from him and rolls it between his fingers. 

“I guess he can stay.”

Boris scoffs. “Of course he can. For as long as he wants if he keeps giving such amazing gifts.”

They pass the joint back and forth while they stare up at the stars. Theo finds Aquila with its wings outspread, and then Lyra with Vega shining brightly at its tip. He points them out, his mind fuzzy from the weed and the feel of Boris’ warm shoulder pressed up against his. He removes his jacket and lays it out on the sand behind them so they can fall back onto it, and Theo tries not to think about the price tag it came with. 

He settles back against the fabric and watches waves crash against the shore. “Did you ever think we’d be here?” he asks as Boris’ hand finds his and intertwines their fingers.

“Feeling sentimental?”

“Maybe.”

“Are you going to write a book about this, too? I think it could be quite good.”

“God, you’re such a twat sometimes.”

Boris laughs into his shoulder at that. “I had hoped. Sometimes in Black Dolphin I would let myself consider it. I remember when you first left Vegas and all I could do was wonder why I did not go with you. Why I did not say yes and let you drag me to California so we could live in the gutter and steal from rich people. I thought about camping on the beach and how it would be so nice to sleep next to you again, even though you are a miserable fuck on your best days.”

Theo had thought the same things for so many years; had wondered about all of the ways they could’ve stayed together, each variation like a vein, branching out this way and that after popping a few Klonopin up in his old room at Hobie’s. Sometimes he’d imagine them, homeless and begging for change with dirt in their hair, but smiles still plastered on their faces. Other times he pictured them somewhere in the midwest making a go of hard labor. We’ll be eating breakfast over cornfields when the sun comes up. It had been laughable at the time, but now that he’s seen Boris lug bales of hay from the back of his pickup to the stables too many times to count, the thought seems to be the most likely to have been fleshed out had they gone through with it. Maybe they would have found odd jobs while crossing the country, never settling down; never breaking under the weight of not belonging to anyone or anything, except for sometimes, late at night, when they’d let themselves belong to each other. 

“You love me.”

Boris turns just as the moon peeks out from behind a cluster of clouds, casting an eerie white light over them both, and slaps his hand down onto Theo’s cheek. “Unfortunately, yes,” he says with a pretend grimace. “Do not know why. It’s not like you actually do anything worthwhile now that I am basically your kept man.”

“I think I more than make up for never leaving the house and having you at my beck and call in ways that no one else would ever even—“

Boris cuts him off by climbing over him and flicking sand in his face. “Beck and call, eh?”

“Kept man?” Theo counters. “As if anyone could ever—as if you could ever be kept. I can barely get you to bring me coffee on the weekends.”

“You have hands.”

Theo smirks and slides said hands up Boris’ thighs. “I do have hands. What else do I have?”

Boris catches on quickly. “Well, you have a mouth,” he says slyly. “Also, once upon a time, before your editor pretty much started sleeping between us, I seem to recall you having a cock, and if I was very lucky you would let me—“

Theo tugs him down until their noses bump. “Let’s start with my mouth,” he says, and their conversation fades after that, until all that’s left is the sound of the waves rushing up to meet their tangled legs.

*

Masterclass and the Subtle Art of a Well Deserved Happy Ending

It’s the most talked about book of the summer, if not the year, but does Theodore Decker’s sophomore novel, Masterclass, hold up against its highly acclaimed predecessor?

“Have you finished Masterclass?” might just be this decade’s “Did you watch Game of Thrones last night?” The long awaited followup and sequel to the oft quoted and well loved bestseller, Brushstrokes, hit the shelves in May and there’s already talk of a Pulitzer, along with the long rumored whispers of a movie adaptation of Brushstrokes itself.

While Brushstrokes was a lesson in longing, Masterclass is, well, a masterclass in redemption. While Brushstrokes waxed poetic about lost love, Masterclass has captured reader’s attention worldwide with it’s slowly unfolding arc on forgiveness, and what it really means to face your trauma head on without letting it consume you. 

When I meet up with Mr. Decker, or Theo as he prefers, which I remember from our last encounter nearly four years ago, he’s sitting on top of a large black stallion named Nietzsche.

His partner, who will only introduce himself as Boris, and shrugs when I ask for a last name, had led me out to a large field on their property where Theo has been riding for the last few hours. “He’s in a mood,” Boris says when I ask what he’s doing. No other explanation given. Not that one is needed. Much has been said about Theo Decker’s reclusivity over the years; some of it by me, in fact. 

When Theo finally leaves the saddle he’s got dirt on his face and beginnings of a sunburn spreading over his nose and cheeks. His smile comes a lot easier than it had the last time we met, and I can’t help but notice a lot of things about him are different. When I say this he shares a look with Boris and seats himself heavily down on a patio chair across from me.

“I’m old now,” he says with a shrug. “Maybe it's made me finally content.”

“Over the hill,” Boris adds, sliding a mug of tea across the patio table to me. We chat for awhile about the weather, and my flight, and then I reach into my bag for a pen and Theo stiffens.

“You don’t have a highlighted excerpt in there, do you?”

I laugh at this, and so does Boris. “Not this time, no.”

“Okay then. Go ahead.”

Masterclass seems to be reaching the same levels of popularity as Brushstrokes. How does that feel?

Amazing, honestly. I’m very happy with how it all turned out. I never thought I’d write a sequel to Brushstrokes, even though I had hinted at it the last time we spoke. At the time I was stalling—I hadn’t written a word.

Well, I’m glad inspiration hit! Can you tell me and your readers a little about what inspired you to go ahead and write a sequel instead of another original novel?

I wanted to give them a happy ending. 

Very courageous of you in this literary landscape. What do you think about critics who say Masterclass is unrealistic and a slap in the face to true adult literature?

Before Theo can answer Boris scoffs, “Who’s saying that?” but Theo just laughs it off. I mean, of course they can say and think whatever they want about my writing, but the truth is a happy ending is something most writers would never dare to do these days. As you sort of mentioned, the literary landscape right now leaves a lot to be desired. Is there not bravery in finding happiness? Is there not joy in giving and receiving love when the world right now is ready to tear itself to pieces? There are curently concentration camps housing thousands of gay men in Chechnya and throughout other parts of Russia. Writing about two men finally admitting their love for one another in the face of that shouldn’t be a “slap in the face” to adult literature. It should be an awakening.

In Masterclass you delve into forgiveness as a never ending pursuit. Bahar and Henry have aged and found themselves thrown together once again in a way they’re not familiar with all while dealing with their past mistakes and transgressions against each other. You’ve previously stated your work is not even remotely semi-autobiographical. Do you still stand firm on that?

You’re relentless, you know that? But, well, I guess I can admit now that there are bits of me in both books, and bits of the people I love, because while I know it’s cliché, I can’t help writing what I know. 

So, Boris here—

Meet Bahar.

Nice to meet you, finally. How do you feel about having yourself turned into a fictional character?

Bahar is not nearly as handsome. I wonder who will play me in the films…

I’m pretty sure this is going to break the internet.

[Laughter erupts at this] 

Theo, thank you for inviting me to your home. In Masterclass, Henry and Bahar find each other again in rural Oregon where Bahar is working as a ranch hand in Clackamas county. I can’t help but wonder if that is loosely based on your current living situation?

Clackamas county is a long way away from Kiowa, but yes. I was struggling to write even a sentence before I moved here, but circumstances changed, and something about this big open country helped inspire me to begin Masterclass. I would go out early in the morning some days and just stand in the middle of that wheat field over there with the stalks twisting and curving around me in the breeze and suddenly I’d have a thousand new ideas rushing around in my brain. This place is a little magical like that.

Well, I am definitely glad it inspired you to write. Readers everywhere have been waiting with baited breath for a followup to Brushstrokes, and it does seem you have not disappointed.

Fuck, I hope not, although even if Masterclass wasn’t doing as well as it is I would be pleased. Writing has never been about acclaim to me. It’s more cathartic—almost an exorcism of sorts. Writing was all I had after my mother died and in the years after when I was struggling with my addiction and making some very questionable decisions. Even now, with my life coming together in ways I’d never have imagined, it’s still there brewing just underneath my skin—words always begging to come out.

Are you working on anything else at the moment?

Not really. For now I think I will just try and soak things in as much as I can, and maybe stand in a few more fields with the breeze.

*

“I still can’t believe you and Annie still exchange emails,” Theo says, staring down at the newest edition of Vanity Fair with him and Boris on the cover. They’re standing on the edge of their property with the sun setting before them, backs to the camera, and Boris has a hand tucked neatly into the back pocket of Theo’s jeans. Inside is the second interview he’s ever done, which has received much more positive reactions than his first had. There are also a few more photos: Lydia, James, and River atop their chosen horses while standing in the middle of US 400 with cars streaming past them; Boris shirtless and seated on the edge their bed with his hair wet and sticking to his face as Theo holds out a strand with one hand and snips at it with a large pair of scissors in his other; Theo almost a blur as he and Nietzsche streak past the camera at dusk; and Theo’s favorite—him and Boris at Spencer Museum, shoulder to shoulder and staring up at John Steuart Curry’s Tragic Prelude, with John Brown’s arms spread out wide over their heads.

“Liebovitz has a little crush I think,” Boris comments, leaning over Theo’s shoulder. 

“You after Sontag? I highly doubt it.”

“She said I was disarming.”

“I think the word was disturbing.”

Boris laughs and his warm breath ghosts over Theo’s ear. “I might have misheard. Are you coming to bed? We’ve got to drive Lydia up to Lawrence in the morning in case you’ve forgotten.”

Theo shoves the magazine aside and stands, his back cracking as he stretches. “Yeah, I’m coming.”

Boris holds a hand out and Theo takes it. He lets himself be led to the bed and lets Boris tug his clothes off with impatient, yet gentle, hands. He lets Boris kiss him into a mindless stupor and after Boris falls asleep, right there in the middle of the bed with a thigh thrown over Theo’s knees and his head on his chest, Theo starts to drift off himself, knowing wherever Boris goes he will undoubtedly follow.