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The first thing Nathan noticed, as he laid face-down on the cold floor of the dark room, was that he couldn’t move.

He had been in that exact spot countless times before. Whenever Mark became restless about not having enough models to capture, he became angry, and Nathan hated it when he was angry. The way his fury shook the room made Nathan want to disappear. He could count the times on his fingers when his mentor had beaten him within an inch of his life, reminding him how they could accomplish so much together, but only if Nathan complied with his wishes.

In the end, he always did. Anything for his teacher, right? Mark had been there for him when no one else had. He owed him this. He owed him everything.

His head falling slack on the bunker floor, Nathan tried to struggle against his restraints, but the duct tape around his hands and feet stopped him from getting far. He was too drugged-out to speak coherently, just barely conscious. Whatever Mark had given him, he hadn’t injected enough to knock him out. He only sedated his models completely when he was planning to kill them. Nathan should’ve considered himself lucky. A lot of the girls that Mark had smuggled back here had had it worse. Kate, Megan, Lynn, Kelly. Rachel. The list went on and on.

The bright lights in the studio made his eyes water, and Nathan looked down at himself, the shock finally catching up with him. He tried to stay calm through shallow breaths, to remind himself to be as still as possible. Nathan wanted nothing more than to be a good muse. All he could hope for was that this would be over soon.

The clicks and flashes from the camera were far too loud for comfort, and he flinched backwards, only to hear Mark groan in irritation.

“You’re ruining my shots, Nate. As an aspiring photographer, you should know better,” he said coolly, and Nathan swallowed hard to rid the lump in his throat. He had always hated that nickname, but to hear Mark use it made him sick. He could already taste the bile rising in his stomach. “Now, stay still. You don’t want me to mess up these photos, do you?”

Nathan squirmed, the duct tape chafing painfully at his wrists. It would be so much easier to die than to go through with this. He wanted to beg for Mark to put a bullet in his head or up the dosage a bit. He didn’t care if his body was thrown in the junkyard like Rachel’s, or tossed into the ocean, or left to rot in some forest. It wasn’t like his family would care. Blackwell wouldn’t bat an eye. He’d just be another one of Arcadia Bay’s missing kids that vanished into thin air.

While his vision was blurry, he could faintly see Mark approaching him, kneeling down for closeups, no doubt.

“So honest. So beautiful,” he murmured. The steeliness in his voice made Nathan’s chest tighten. His camera flashed again, but Nathan didn’t dare to move this time, afraid of what would happen if he did. “If I had known that the young male body possessed such exquisite features, I would have started doing this a long time ago.”

When one of Mark’s hands grabbed a hold of the back of his neck, Nathan stifled a scream. There were hands everywhere. Touching his bare chest, his hips, his face. Nathan choked out a sob, burying his face in his neck in a feeble attempt to hide. “Please. Please. Don’t...” he whispered, shivering violently when Mark caressed his face. “No, no...”

“No!”

Nathan awoke with a start, his heart drumming so fast, he was sure it would leap out of his ribs at any moment. His first instinct was to defend himself, and he immediately broke into panic, kicking and throwing his arms. He fought with every ounce of ferocity he had left. If he didn’t, Mark was going to get him, and he wasn’t going to roll over and let that happen. His thrashing limbs and shouts calmed, however, when he realized that he was clawing at darkness. Mark Jefferson wasn’t in front of him. In fact, he wasn’t in the dark room at all.

He was in bed, in his dorm, surrounded by his high-tech amenities and not the cold, gray walls that he saw in his vivid nightmares. His limbs weren’t bound. There were no cameras. He wasn’t drugged.

Putting a hand over his mouth, Nathan looked down at himself, clammy and shaking. Mark had haunted his dreams for the hundredth time. He reached up to feel at his neck, just to make sure that there was no bruising. Mark may not have been able to hurt him in his night-terrors, but he had left bruises there before. It was only a matter of time until he was nearly strangled again for fucking something up. 

The last time he had gotten high on the job, he had gone back to campus with a black eye. It was an act of kindness, considering what Mark had done to him in the past.

Sitting up slowly, Nathan hugged himself, rubbing furiously at the tears that brimmed in his eyes. He glanced over at the clock on his nightstand, the bright red numbers making his head throb. Maybe some of his anxiety meds would help drift him back to sleep, he wondered. If anything, they’d at least be able to calm his stress-induced shaking. He was on the precipice of a complete and utter breakdown. At times like this, Diazepam was a saving grace.

Nathan tumbled out of bed and stumbled over to his desk, making a grab for one of the many orange bottles of pills in his collection. He shakily tugged at the top of it, waiting to hear the satisfying pop that let him know he was halfway to sanity again.

 “Fucking childproof caps…open up already,” he muttered, twisting desperately at the lid. It flew off with a sharp snap after a minute of tugging, but as he reached in to grab one of the pills, it dawned on him that he had used up the last of them several days ago. He had forgotten to drop them off for a refill.

The realization set in as denial at first, because Nathan was positive that they couldn’t be gone. They couldn’t be. He needed his Diazepam. If he didn’t get it, he couldn’t get back to sleep, and then he’d be alone with his thoughts, and as far as he was concerned, his mind was the one thing he feared most.

His heart started racing once more, and that familiar sinking feeling began to settle in the pit of his stomach. If only it was as easy to stop an anxiety attack as it was to start one, he thought. Was there a switch that he needed to flick? A wire that had to be cut? Anything to rid the panic that itched and scratched beneath his skin.

Nathan put a hand over his mouth to muffle his hyperventilating. Deep breaths. That’s what his therapist had told him. Any attempt to calm himself seemed futile, through. He wanted to ram his head into the wall to order himself to stop crying, but the idea of it only made him sob harder. He was a Prescott. Prescott men didn’t cry. “You fucking idiot. You’re such a fucking screw-up,” he seethed at himself, digging his nails into his skin. “This is why dad doesn’t love you. You can’t do shit.”

He caught a glimpse at himself in the mirror that hung over his couch, and he hardly recognized the person who stared back at him. Tousled hair, bloodshot eyes. He was disgusted. If only he could crawl out of the husk that was his body, to escape the parts of himself that Mark had tainted. The memories of them in the dark room had ruined him. Spoiled him.

Dropping the empty pill bottle at his feet, he fell to his knees, punching the floor in a fit of anguish until his knuckles were raw. He had nothing. No real friends, no supportive family, no social life. Just when he thought he still had his dignity, Mark had stolen that from him as well. 

From across the room, Nathan heard his phone go off, and he shakily crawled over to retrieve it. He rarely got texts unless they were from Victoria, his father, or Frank when he needed supplies for a party. To his surprise, the text he had just received hadn’t been from either of them.

[ Unknown number, 4:48 AM. ]

Hey, is everything ok? I heard loud noises coming from your room, and they weren’t the sexy kind.

Nathan wiped the tears and snot from his face with the back of his arm and squinted down at the text before hastily typing back a reply.

[ You, 4:49 AM. ]

Who the fuck are U? And how did U get my number?

 

[ Unknown number, 4:49 AM. ]

It’s Warren. I saved your contact from when we were partners on that project.

He blinked, partially in disbelief and and partially to adjust his eyes to the bright screen. That project had been weeks ago. Ms. Grant had paired them together for a presentation on some chemistry topic that he had forgotten before they had even started working. Of course, he had refused to participate, so Warren had taken over and done the entire thing. Not before asking for his number in case he had questions, though. Nathan handed it over in exchange for him to shut up with all the science bullshit. He hadn’t expected Warren to save it.

[ You, 4:50 AM. ]

The fuck do U want, Gayram?

 

[ Unknown number, 4:51 AM. ]

I just wanted to check up on you. I’ll leave you alone.

Nathan bit down hard on his bottom lip. It genuinely seemed like Warren was worried. Not that he cared about how he felt, or anything. He was just some insignificant loser that he ended up getting stuck with for a presentation. 

The truth, as much as he hated to admit it, was that nothing was alright. He needed someone. They didn’t have to council him, or pretend they cared— he already paid his shrink to do that. All he needed was for someone to sit and listen. Warren was the last person he wanted to ask for help. He was a nerdy, scrawny, nobody.

So why did Nathan’s face get all flushed whenever he was near him?

[ You, 4:53 AM. ]

Can U come over?

Nathan waited several minutes before he received a reply. The tiny dots in the corner of the screen disappeared and reappeared every few seconds as Warren typed, and he could imagine him trying to come up with some sort of witty response. He probably thought that the message had been sent to him by mistake.

[ Unknown number, 4:58 AM. ]

Sure, but if you want me to do your homework for you, can it wait a few hours? It’s so early. ):

 

[ You, 4:58 AM. ]

Not about HW. Get ur ass in here before I change my mind.

Nathan turned his phone off before he had a chance to overthink his texts. He felt ashamed for reaching out to someone, especially after the years of teaching that his father had drilled into his mind. Openly showing emotion always earned a red mark in his book.

Hearing a knock at the door, Nathan stood up, rubbing at his rug-burned hands. His entire body ached, and in his tired, post-meltdown stupor, he yearned to lay back down and catch a few more hours of sleep. He slowly opened the door, cracking it so that he could see through before letting his visitor in.

Warren stood outside, his hands clasped behind his back. His pajamas were printed with tiny blue and yellow atoms, and if Nathan hadn’t been distracted by his own problems, he would’ve made fun of them. “Inside. Hurry,” he mumbled, opening the door just wide enough for him to slip in. He couldn’t let anyone else see him like this. His reputation depended on it.

“What, I don’t even get a ‘hello’?’” Warren chuckled nervously, shuffling in and letting the door close behind him.

“I don’t owe you anything,” Nathan said, crossing his arms. Glancing up through his eyelashes, he could see Warren looking him up and down, and it became apparent that he was staring at his shirt. It was blotted with teardrops. His own sadness had given him away.

Warren’s brow furrowed. “Jeez. Were you...crying? And your hands...” He said quietly, looking down at Nathan’s bloody knuckles. “What happened?”

Nathan tottered backwards and sat down on his disheveled bedsheets, cringing at the sight of his gashed fingers. The burning feeling in his chest made him want to reach out and smack Warren for being so stupid. He was in fight or flight mode still, and his instincts yelled at him to protect himself from everyone and everything.

 “A lot. Don’t even try to understand,” he said bitterly, tracing his fingers over the cuts. “You won’t get it.”

A tinge of regret washed over him, and he found himself wondering why he had invited Warren over in the first place. It wasn’t like he could do anything to help him. Even if Warren could help him, there was no reason why he should want to. 

Nathan had thrown him under the bus multiple times, from dealing with that science project to forcing him to do his homework. He had even fought him in the courtyard once after hearing that Warren had talked about him behind his back. Nathan could distinctly remember the satisfaction of punching him, but not feeling any better than he did before once the fight was over. Warren had paraded around with that bruise for at least a couple weeks before it fully faded away.

“Well, I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s up,” he said with a frown, looking around the room with awe. Legend had it that no one had ever stepped inside Nathan Prescott’s dorm and lived to tell the tale. Hesitantly, he sat down next to him, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “Talk to me.”

Nathan inhaled sharply through his teeth. “Why are you being so nice to me? I don’t get it. I’ve treated you like shit,” he snapped, whipping to face him. He was irritated at how calm Warren seemed to be. Why couldn’t he get a reaction out of him? He was hungry for a fight.

He studied Warren’s face for a moment, but if he was angry, it was unclear. “I’m being nice because I don’t think you’re the asshole that everyone says you are,” he said plainly. Nathan protested his remark with an indignant huff, but shouldered off the comment nonetheless.

“I’ve beaten you up. You should hate me.”

Nathan had been dead serious, but Warren cracked an awkward smile. “I mean, sure. But I threw a couple punches at you, too. You’re not the only guilty one here.”

Warren reached over to put a hand on Nathan’s shoulder, and his first urge was to flinch away. Having anyone else’s hands on him made him feel dirty and used. At the same time, though, he wanted to melt into his touch. Warren wasn’t Mark, and this dorm wasn’t the dark room.

Biting the inside of his cheek, Nathan fell silent. Even after Warren had pulled his hand away, he could still feel its warmth on his skin. His touch seemed to burn right through his shirt. “I had a nightmare,” he said suddenly, absentmindedly picking at his cuticles. “It was bad. I woke up...crying.”

Warren frowned, but Nathan could see the relief behind his eyes. Nathan had given in to telling him. He had broken down the walls. “Yeah? Want to talk about it?” he asked, scooting closer. Their thighs touched at this point, and Nathan sucked in another breath, unsure of whether he should hate or love the feeling of intimacy. “I had a bad nightmare a few days ago, too. Zombie apocalypse. Probably because I binged a bunch of horror flicks with Max and Chloe,” he laughed gently.

He liked horror movies too? Maybe he wasn’t as much of a nerd as he thought.

Nathan shook his head. “Mine wasn’t like that. It...involved someone. Jefferson was there.” Even saying his name felt poisonous, like he had swallowed something he wasn’t supposed to. He forced himself not to gag.

“As in, Mark Jefferson?”

Nathan rolled his eyes and sniffed. “No, just some random dude with the same name,” he responded sarcastically, which caused Warren to raise an eyebrow. “Of course it’s him, dumbass. Who else would I be talking about?”

Warren threw his hands up in surrender. “Hey, I dunno! I’m just trying to understand all of this,” he objected with a shrug. “Okay, so, Jefferson was there. What happened after that?”

Nathan watched as a drop of blood from his knuckles trickled off his hand, hitting the floor. “He did horrible things. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me,” Warren dared, his goofy grin now replaced by a concerned frown. “Just remember that it’s over now, alright? Just a nightmare. Whatever he did was all in your head.”

Except it wasn’t. It wasn’t all in his head. Nathan had been living a nightmare for months now, and it wasn’t the kind that he could wake up from. He ran his hands through his hair, his bottom lip quivering.

 “It’s not, though. He’s a fucking psychopath. He’s done bad things to me, and other people, and it’s ruined me. All these dreams that I have are about him and what he did, and I…” His sentence trailed off, and he could feel tears stinging his eyes again. “He’s not the man everyone makes him out to be.”

He put his face in his hands again, allowing himself to cry with racking sobs, his whole body shuddering. He had already made a fool of himself. He didn’t have anything else to lose now. When Warren’s arms wrapped around his body, though, he didn’t protest like he normally would. He fell into his grasp, hugging him tightly. He barely knew him, but he had craved to be held like this, to be told that everything would be okay. Nathan knew he wasn’t a coward, but at the same time, it felt so good to be reassured. Being starved of intimacy like this had left him a disaster.

Warren seemed like he was in a state of shock. After all, he was cradling the heir to the Prescott fortune. Nathan assumed that this wasn’t what he had in mind when he had been invited over. “Hey, hey. Everything’s going to be fine. It’s okay to cry,” he whispered, and Nathan nodded meekly, burying his face into his neck. 

He needed to remind himself to tell Warren ‘no homo’ when they were done here. Although, he did smell nice. And his hair was super soft. Not to mention that his heartbeat made Nathan’s pulse quicken.

“What...what did he do? If you don’t want to talk about it, then that’s more than alright. I just wanna make sure you’re--” Warren began, but Nathan cut him off mid-sentence.

“No. I want to talk about it,” he said through hiccups and gritted teeth. He knew he’d need to censor some parts of the story for his own safety. He may have been able to tell Warren about some of the events that transpired, but some were better left unsaid.

He started to talk about how everything had first unraveled. How Jefferson had taken him under his wing, how he acted as a mentor, how he had taken the place of Nathan’s real father who had little interest in his son. 

He explained in detail how he had been told to stay off his meds, how he had been physically abused, and how he was being used as a pawn for an agenda. He strayed from the topic of the dark room, knowing that he couldn’t let that out just yet. When he was done, he let his hands fall to his lap in defeat, still held tight in Warren’s arms. He was happy that he hadn’t let go of him.

As his last few words reverberated around the room, Warren loosened his grip just slightly so he could look at Nathan. He was devastated. Shocked. A kicked puppy.

“Oh my god…”

“I know. He vi…” He hated the word. Just saying it made it the situation painfully real. “He violated me. I’m a victim.”

Warren took Nathan’s face in his hands, and Nathan felt like putty in his fingers. Even amidst everything tragic that had happened, Warren was a reminder that there were good things in the world. He was the light at the end of the tunnel. “I need you to believe me when I say that you are so, so much more than a victim,” he said sternly. "None of this defines you. You're the bravest person I know."

Nathan believed him more than anything.